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fic: Project Nexus (Chapter 5, Part 1)
zeshaika
Title: Project Nexus
Chapter: Chapter 5: Shadow of a Doubt
Rating: PG-13 / T
Characters: Critic, Chick, Linkara, Spoony, MarzGurl, Doctor Insano, Doctor Tease, Professor Celluloid, Nurse, SOI, Burton, Nimue, OCs. (Brief appearance of The Other Guy and Miles)
Pairings: None (At the moment)
Warnings: AU-ish, Violence, Mild Language a few OC villians. ((This chapter: Character Death (As part of an illusion), scary imagery.))

Disclaimer: All characters/borrowed concepts are property of their respective owners. Therefore I do not claim to own them, nor do I mean any disrespect toward either characters and concepts, or their owners.

Author's Note; Big thanks to EsaEnai of Fanfiction.net for helping co-write a few scenes in this chapter!


Chapter 5: Shadow of a Doubt

An arctic fog cut through Spoony’s thin t-shirt, filling his lungs with burning shards of frost as he blindly stumbled through the blackness that surrounded him. This was obviously wrong, every synapse in his brain screamed at him. It hadn’t been this cold, or this dark outside the building.

In fact, he had been pretty sure that it had like any other morning. Well, except for the fact that it seemed like almost half the state was convinced that he was the most dangerous wanted criminal in Arizona for reasons that he couldn’t quite explain.  Later, he would learn that most of the people who were chasing him were actually disguised Synthspectors. Those that weren’t, he guessed had probably been manipulated into believing the lie, through some means or another.

He remembered feeling his heart beating in his chest as he and Burton hid. Police sirens wailed over the muffled thunder of booted footsteps, their owners yelling muffled commands to one another as they stormed past.

It was only a small comfort to him, he sighed as he looked up to the sky that they hadn’t yet called in helicopters. But, he knew that it would only be a matter of time before someone ordered before this place started looking like the set of a summer blockbuster or a disaster film.

Burton blipped quietly as data flashed across his sensors swept across the area, mapping out the quickest and possibly safest escape routes he could. Suddenly, his cyclops eye lit up as something unusual appeared on his radar.

 “What is it?” Spoony asked, sneaking a peek around the corner of the alley they had ducked into to avoid being caught, “Pretty sure you’re not going to be telling me that these guys all suddenly realized that this was just bullshit, and decided to go home.”

I picked up an unusual energy distortion coming from nearby,” the blue robot replied.

And,” the gamer asked, “You’re guessing that this distortion is that wormhole thing that Insano’s message was going on about, right?

 “I’m not sure.” Burton said, “It’s not my fault that Insano forgot to download any sort of coordinates into my memory banks. And it’s certainly not my fault that a certain someone failed to take into the account the usefulness of me being able to differentiate various types of energy distortions.”

Well,” Spoony rolled his eyes, “it’s not like we’ve ever needed something like that. This whole ‘energy distortion and wormhole’ stuff’s more of Linkara and Pollo’s thing—not ours. Ours is mad scientists, crazed ex-wrestlers, the undead, and Hell’s janitorial services. But, whatever—where’s this distortion coming from?

 “That construction site downtown,” Burton said, “the strongest point seems to be coming from near the of the building.

 “Great,” Spoony sighed, “That’s totally one of the things I wanted to do today; wake up, eat breakfast, and climb a freaking tower.”

 “Something doesn’t seem right about this,” the blue robot said, “I’m not sure that it’s safe.”

 “I don’t like it either,” the gamer replied, “but we don’t have a choice.

Giving only a robotic, mechanical sigh in response, Burton followed his master and friend down the street towards the construction site.

Thinking back on it, Spoony realized he should have listened to him. Sure, he would gladly admit that he would have rather have dealt with stumbling through the void contained within the building than run the chance of a potentially messy end at the hands of a firing squad.

But, at the same time, everything here made his skin crawl. The coldness seemed to intensify with each step he took; biting at him until it almost felt as if it had become heat again, burning at his skin as its invisible talons raked across his skin.  Not helping this intense burning feeling was the scent of burning leaves that filled his nostrils with their earthy, smoking scent.

Sounds, like the chirping of a bird and the rush of wings, bounced off the distant walls, it’s sound magnified by the echo, caused the hairs on his neck to stand on end as he constantly looked over his shoulder, only to find himself staring into even deeper darkness.

That sound—it felt as if came from everywhere, making it almost impossible for him to know which way was which. As far as he was concerned, the room could have been constantly shifting and he would have never known unless he ran face first into a wall.

Another sound, this one the sound of distant footsteps, echoed from behind him, causing him to stand still, his muscles tensed as his ears latched onto the sound like a drowning swimmer to the side of a capsized boat.

Spoony’s heart pounded louder in his ears as the footsteps grew louder. Sweat beaded on his skin, somehow managing to not immediately freeze into ice crystals as he steeled himself, slowly turning around to face the unknown visitor, praying that whoever they were that they were friendly.

Noah?” a familiar deep voice asked hesitantly behind him, “Hello? Is anyone in here?”

Immediately, Spoony allowed himself to relax a little as he and Burton turned toward the source of the voice.  The light from Burton’s eye fell upon the figure of man, roughly around the same height as Spoony himself, with short dark hair.

Miles,” Spoony asked, halfway between surprised and relieved, “What are you doing here, man?

Well,” Miles explained, “You try waking up and finding your brother missing and the only thing he’s left was a note that doesn’t explain anything, and then hearing all this stuff about how he’s some dangerous, wanted criminal. Yeah, you’d probably want a few answers too.”

 “Believe me,” the gamer replied defensively, “If I even knew what was going on or why the hell half the state wants me dead, then you’d be the first person to know. Right now, I need to figure out where Insano’s gone off to, and if he knows anything about what the flying hell is going on here, and both of us need to be trying not to get caught by the crazy mob outside.”

A wolfish smirk twitched at the corners of Miles’ lips, made all the more sinister by the deep shadows falling across his face. Every warning signal in the gamer’s brain that was capable of going off at that point should have been flashing with panic at that moment.

Spoony, unfortunately, didn’t seem to notice this.

Oh, don’t worry about them,” Miles replied, “Let’s just say that they won’t be following us for a while.”

“Dude,” Spoony smirked, “I’m not even sure I want to ask you what you did. But, thanks anyways. Now if we could just figure out how to stop running around here completely blind and get up to the roof…”

The two fell silent as they looked around them, straining to see past the night-like emptiness that surrounded them. No clues on just how deep into this void they were existed. All that they were sure of was that they were not walking on the ceiling, as that the ground below them carried the distinct texture of tiled floor, and that above them they could still hear the faint maddening bird-song echoing around them.

The younger man’s eyes seemed to focus upon something, as if he noticed something that Spoony had not.

“This way,” he said in flat montone as he began walking off, leaving the gamer to blink confusedly as he tried to catch up.

Whoa, hang on there,” Spoony said as he caught up with his younger brother, “What makes you so damn sure that that’s the right way?”

Miles glared at him, with a look that simply suggested that questioning him at that moment would have ranked up there with sticking a fork in an electrical socket or taunting a grizzly bear in terms of things that would be very dangerous to do at moment.  However, before either of them could say more, a distant rumbling of footstep and distant shouts echoed from somewhere behind them, rapidly growing louder and more thunderous by the second.

With a hesitant nod, Spoony followed the younger man, reasoning that while he still had his doubts, it was probably better than risking certain death at the hands of an armed mob.

The rest of the trip, the gamer noted, was fairly easier, but none the less nerve wracking. While they had been lucky enough to find the stairs, the blindness, disorientation and coldness that Spoony only gradually lightened with each new floor they advanced to.

Perhaps it was the near sensory deprivation levels of blindness that were causing him to hallucinate, but he swore that he could always see something moving out of the corner of his eye. But, no sooner would he turn his head to look, it’d disappear into the ether as if it had never existed.

Not helping matters in the least was the sounds. Faint echoes of voices he could have sworn he recognized, sounded all around him, mocking him with their impish laughter. What they were laughing at, Spoony wondered, feeling his cheeks involuntarily grow hotter with rage to the point he could almost swear that he could see steam around him.

Even that bird, its chirping call ever present amongst the laughter, seemed to be delighting in his confusion and anger as he wandered about blindly.

What, he wondered, did these voices know something that he didn’t? Or did the sight of a grown man stumbling around in complete darkness seem to amuse them to no end? He shouldn’t have let it bother him he tried to tell himself as he breathed deeply. It wasn’t real—they were just figments of his imagination.

Nothing to worry about.

What felt like hours later, the two had finally climbed their way to the roof of the building. The gamer squinted as sunlight suddenly hit his eyes like a punch being thrown at his face by a professional boxer. Although he had often complained in his past about the unbearable heat in Arizona, he couldn’t help but feel just a bit relieved to feel a warm wind kiss his cheek as his lungs took in a deep breath of fresh air as it were the first breath he’d taken in years.

And yet, he couldn’t help but notice that the air here felt strange against his skin. He couldn’t place what it was, as that it felt as if it was constantly shifting in density, but he assumed that they must have been close to whatever wormhole or distortion that Insano had been talking about.

No sooner had he thought this, did he see a flash of light from just below the edge of the building’s flat roof. Without a thought, the he and Burton ran towards the source of the light, stopping as they peered over the ledge at the swirling portal that danced before them.

So Burton,” Spoony asked, “You think that you can get a more accurate read on this, now that you see it?

Burton, his voice now seeming to work again, began to speak, when a bleeping alarm emitted from him, drowning out any words. Spoony’s eyebrows almost disappeared into his hairline as they raised themselves in a look of concern and surprise.

What’s going on?” he started to ask, “What---?”

Another cold, mocking laugh, this one clearer and louder than the ghostly echoes from the abyss, rang in his ears, sending an uncomfortable chill crawling down his spine, like ice water being poured down his back.

“I can’t believe it,” he heard his younger brother’s voice laugh, “I can’t believe that it’s really that easy to fool you.

Slowly, Spoony turned around. His eyes had to be playing tricks on him, he thought, as he caught a flash of sliver in his vision.

Miles leaned against the doorframe, grinning slyly as if he imagined the gamer to be a rat trapped within the clutches of a hungry lion, as he aimed a pistol at the gamer’s head. This wasn’t possible, Spoony thought shaking his head furiously; there was no way that his own brother had turned against him.

No,” Spoony stammered “It—it can’t be! But, you—?”

“—Tried to help you?” Miles finished for him, “For a guy who spends too much of his time nitpicking video games and movies, you sure don’t seem to notice the obvious don’t you?”

So,” Spoony frowned, “You’re telling me that this was a setup, huh? You sent those guys on a wild goose chase so that you could finish me off yourself.”

Exactly,” the younger man replied, “And you want to know why? It’s because you’re a dirty coward. You’re so desperate to escape one mess that you blindly stumbled right into another.

It was as if the gamer’s shoes had melded into the concrete as he clenched his fists in rage. Part of him wished that the firey rage within him burned bright enough to blind him. At least that way, he could act foolishly without a care. But, alas, he seemed to have no such luck, as he reminded himself that this was not any random person on the street, or even any of the anonymous trolls on the internet—this was his brother; the same guy that he’d known his entire life, and who he thought was the one guy in the world he could trust not to turn against him.

Face it,” Miles laughed, “you’re no better off than the rest of the so-called ‘bad guys’.”

The words felt like repeated punches to the gut for the gamer, as he continued to stand there, his face steadily growing redder and redder with suppressed rage, until one was sure that, much like boiling water, it would bubble over and spill everywhere.

Meanwhile, Burton, not affected in the least by the younger human’s taunts, scanned the situation with a critical eye. Something wasn’t right about this, his sensors indicated. On one hand, while his visual and auditory sensors were telling him that he was indeed looking at and hearing something, every other sensor in his robotic body was strongly telling him that Spoony was being threatened by nothing more than a shadow.

“Let him shoot you,” Burton whispered to the gamer.

At this, Spoony’s eyes flew open as he gaped at the blue robot in disbelief. Seriously, he wondered, was Burton now turning against him as well? Was there anyone here that didn’t want him to see his brains splattered against the walls like chunky salsa?

What?!” he practically shouted, “Don’t tell me you’re going to pull the same shit Brutus did on Caesar. Because seriously, there are, like hundreds of Shakespeare plays that are way better to be ripping off than that one. ”

No,” the blue robot assured him, “I’m just testing a theory. If I’m correct, you won’t be hurt at all.”

Spoony, although skeptical, nodded as he tried to face his younger with a mask of calmness that he wasn’t sure he had the energy to make at that moment. This was stupid, his shaking hands tried to tell him; everyone knew what was inevitably going to happen. He was going to feel the piercing ache of at least six bullets tearing through his skin, snapping his bones like brittle candy, as the force of the shots propelled him backwards far enough to knock him off the building, where gravity would take it’s turn with him, shattering the rest of his bones as his lifeless body was propelled into the concrete below.

G-go ahead,” he tried to say calmly but found the words feeling like sandpaper against his throat, “S-shoot me.”

As Miles’ fingers curled around the trigger, Spoony’s eyes squeezed shut, anticipating the high-pitched whine of the bullets as they streaked through the few feet of air between them. While he did hear a very loud bang, as if the gun was fired, the bullets never seemed to reach him.

Instead, a loud rush of noise, and a heavy, cold wind filled his ears. Cautiously, the gamer opened one eye, daring to look at why he was not yet dead.

Within seconds, the other eye was open as he gaped at the spot Miles had been standing. Only, this time, his younger brother was no longer there; and neither was the seemingly endless void of shadows that filled the inside of the open door behind him.

What the--?” Spoony started to speak, but quickly found the words lost as something hit him hard in the back of his shoulder blade, sending him crashing into the concrete roof below him. Stars danced in his vision as he slowly picked himself up of the ground, wincing as he accidentally agitated the newly forming bruise on his back.

Hmph,” A voice—much higher and far too girlish and chirpy to have been his brother’s, huffed angrily as the gamer stood, “I should have known that your little toy would have picked up on simple illusion techniques like that.”

His first impression of the owner of this voice was that he’d finally snapped and was officially hallucinating. He always knew that that one time in his past when he wrote a fanfic was going to come back and bite him some day. But, what he couldn’t figure out was why exactly his hallucination would take the form of a ninja-girl, when he was pretty sure that logic would have suggested that it would have been more Highlander based.

The woman appeared to be considerably young, perhaps not far outside of her late teen years. Short, feather-like strands of pinkish-gray hair poked out from underneath the dark hood atop her head, framing her pointed, bird-like face. Or rather, he guessed her facial features were bird-like, as that the lower half of her face was covered by a dark, cloth face-covering.

Strangest of all, was probably the two small, brownish-grey bird wings that seemed to be quickly disappearing into her back as she landed before him, her booted feet tapping gently against the concrete.

So, let me guess” Spoony said, “You’re a cosplaying as someone’s lame Naruto Mary Sue?”

Uh, excuse me?” The bird girl replied haughtily, “But who was it that had you wandering around in total darkness for like hours? And who had you convinced that your brother had betrayed you? Um, pretty sure that was me. Name’s Retsukagi, for your information.

Yeah,” Spoony smirked, “Sorry, but I’m not going to bother remembering your name. I’ve got to see a doctor about some dreams I’ve been having. So, if you could just kindly just piss off and never bother me aga—

Faster than he could comprehend, the woman teleported out of sight, only to reappear closer to him, knocking him down again with several quick attacks, before teleporting back to her original place.

He coughed, his eyes widening in alarm as he felt warm blood trickle from the corners of his mouth, as he struggled to stand as his muscles lit themselves on fire in protest.

You’re lucky that I only wounded you,” Retsukagi said, “I like making little worms like you squirm before I kill them.

Before Spoony could even have a chance to respond, the bird girl teleported again, hitting him with another bout of swift jabs. She must have been part humming-bird, he thought as he tried to swing at her. She flittered about him, appearing one moment, only to disappear seconds later.

But, her laugh—high pitched and mocking—always hovered about the air like the fog that rolled across the floors within her illusion.

Burton, having now remembered the fact that Spoony had installed a death-laser on him, began firing toward the constantly moving bird woman, just barely missing her before she teleported out again. However, much to the relief of both of them, he did finally manage to land a decent shot upon her.

With a startled screech, the girl toppled to the ground, clutching her side as she glared at the two of them with sharp, golden eyes.

F-fine,” she huffed, clutching at her chest, “Go ahead and try to escape. But, even if you do make it out of here, what about your friends? It’s not like your any use to them. I’ve been watching you for a while, and  if there’s two things I know  you’re good at, it’s screwing things up, and letting people down. Why do you think that Insano abandoned you?

Spoony tried to open his mouth to speak, but found himself unable to, as if some invisible, gremlin was clamping his throat shut with its strong, clawed hands. Why had Insano just left him here, he wondered, when he could have at the very least told him where he was? But, if what this Retsukagi woman was saying was even half-true, why was he bothering rescuing him now? Was it just for the mad-scientist’s sick amusement?

 Yeah, he almost laughed bitterly, that sounded like something Insano would do.

 “What about the others?” Retsukagi hissed, “They might like you now, but trust me—sooner or later you’re going to screw it up and they’ll turn on you faster than you can blink. Well, given that you don’t accidentally get them killed.”

Spoony,” Burton said, “Let’s go. The portal could close at any minute. We’re wasting our time with this ninja-wannabe.”

Although his thoughts still buzzed as scattered, vaguely interconnected thoughts latched onto one another like mountain climbers in a blizzard, Spoony nodded, turning away from the fallen ninja.

 “Yeah,” Spoony agreed distractedly, “a wannabe…right.”

However, he should have realized that this was a bad move, for no sooner had he turned his back, had the bird-girl managed to clamber to her feet.

A wannabe?!” the bird girl shrieked, “Argh! How dare you!”

What happened next had happened far too fast for him to have comprehended. A gale of cold wind hit him hard in the back. A gurgled gasp escaped his throat as he felt something, like several blades, piercing into his back. His vision darkened and the scent of blood filled his nose as he fell forward, toppling off of the concrete ledge.

He wasn’t going to make it, he thought as the light of the slowly shrinking portal filled his dimming vision.

And then, with a gasp, Spoony woke up.

Cold sweat dripped down his face as he sat up. He gritted his teeth a little as a small, but brief pang shot through his chest, leaving a dull aching soreness in its wake. Cautiously, he looked down at his chest. Most of the bandages that had been wound so tightly around him in an effort to keep his fractured bones together had been removed, and now only a faint bruises and pinkish scars remained.

“Good morning, Spoony!” Nurse’s voice chirruped sweetly as she materialized across the room from him, “I see that you’re capable of movement. That’s a good sign.”

Spoony blinked at her through his slowly focusing vision. For a moment, he was unsure if the woman that was talking to him was the same holographic humanoid that called herself Nurse. Today, where long flowing light-brown hair cascaded down her back, shorter blonde locks framed her face. She also seemed a bit taller, and just a bit curvier than the petite young woman she had been when they’d met. However, the outfit she wore remained much the same.

Of course, he reminded himself, Nurse was technically a computer construct. Her appearance was nothing more than a series of code projected into a semi-corporeal form, so it wasn’t exactly beyond her capabilities to change her appearance on a whim.

“We managed to speed up you and Marz’s recovery over the night,” Nurse continued as she walked around him, giving him a quick examination with her hollow blue eyes, “But you still might not want to try not straining yourself too extensively. At least not for another 3.8 minutes.”

Spoony sighed as he slowly swung his legs over the cot. He noticed that Nurse still watched him as he moved, but the furrow in her eyebrows did not seem to be out of concern for his physical condition so much as something else.

“What?” he joked, flashing a mock grin, as he ran his hand through his hair “Not used to seeing an attractive guy like me in a place like this?”

“No,” Nurse replied bluntly, “Given that currently four other males reside within this dimension, each of which could be considered ‘attractive’ according to any individual’s subjective standards and definitions of the term. And given that you, and the others, have visited the infirmary before, I assure you that I am quite accustomed to having visitors. My concern is in regards to the confrontation between you and Linkara last night.”

At the mention of the fight, the gamer’s face fell. He sighed as he looked down at his hands, which were now absently playing with the edge of the cot.

“Oh,” Spoony said, his voice low “You heard all that?”

“Even my diminished operating capacity during sleep mode,” Nurse explained, “my auditory receptors were still able to pick up some of the conversation. Rest assured, however, that any eavesdropping on my part was not done intentionally.”

Spoony said nothing as he sheepishly tried to avoid eye contact with her. His stomach squirmed uncomfortably as he remembered the argument between him and Linkara. Perhaps he should apologize, he thought. After all, he felt terrible for snapping at his friend, and he felt even worse for having to burden him with his self-pity.

On the other hand, the left over anger reminded him; Linkara had called him a coward. And, while perhaps there was a little bit of him that felt that perhaps the comic reviewer was right to some degree, he still felt a bit irritated by it.

“It’s not true,” Nurse said quietly, “What you said about you planning on quitting and abandoning the team?”

Abandoning—the word felt like sour taste in Spoony’s mouth, like biting into a grapefruit or a lemon, but without the sweeter aftertaste, as he mouthed the word to himself. That wasn’t what he was thinking about doing was it? It wasn’t like they actually needed him or anything. It was more like how when a plane starts to go down over the ocean, people tried to remove the excess dead weight in order to keep it from sinking.

So why did he feel so horrible about it?

And why, he wondered, did Nurse actually sound slightly upset by the thought of him leaving? He had to have been imagining it, he thought. After all, she herself had told him that she was incapable of feeling or expressing emotions that were unnecessary to her duties.

“Perhaps,” Nurse speculated, “This relates to these feelings of ‘fear’ and ‘loneliness’ that you discussed with me the other day?”

“Maybe,” he sighed, leaning back as he stretched his arms, “Or it could have more to do with the fact that getting our assess handed to us tends to put me in a bit of a pissy mood.”

 “I see.” Nurse replied, “While psychological examination may not be one of my primary functions, I suggest possibly consulting with Doctor Tease regarding that. Also, I might suggest that you could talk with Linkara again, possibly explaining the reason for your thoughts. I could have Nimue locate him for you. But, I believe that you can find him in the library, as that he appears to recently be spending most of his time there.”

“Resarching, I’m betting.” Spoony replied

“Would you like for me to contact him?” Nurse asked

 “No,” the gamer sighed, “I’m pretty sure that I’m the last person he’d want to see right now.”

 “Understood,” Nurse replied, “I won’t relay a message to Nimue, then.”

At that moment, a flashing light and a loud, wailing siren filled the room. Every time Spoony had heard that siren; he couldn’t help but feel his skin crawl with dread. Like the others, he knew that that sound would never herald anything less than some trek into some strange and unknown universe that would inevitably try to screw them over in the most dangerous and humiliating ways possible.

But now, that shrill, shrieking sound felt as if it carried deeper, more ominous warning this time around. They knew that he—the dark, armored figure that had so easily done what his two allies had failed to accomplish—would probably be out there, waiting for them. What if this time, he didn’t hesitate to kill them?

And what about Retsukagi? He wondered. She worked for Malachite, didn’t she? Where had she gone after she attacked him on the rooftop so long ago? Had Malachite, or someone else destroyed her? Was she still out there, traveling from world to world, collecting and eliminating his missing colleagues before he and the others could find them? Or had she always been following him, hidden out of sight, waiting for him to slowly drive himself insane as she plotted her next move?

“I have a message from Doctor Insano,” A second voice, this one belonging to Nimue rather than Nurse spoke, bringing the gamer back to reality “He says, and I quote ‘Spoony, you dribbling pile of rat-filth, quit wasting your time and get to the Command Center, or so help me, I will fry your lazy ass with my death ray.’”

“You’d better go,” Nurse replied, tossing him a shirt, “I must go make preparations for the inevitable damage repair that will be necessary after you and the others return. I hope that this time, I might be have the burden of accommodating for running diagnostic scans on any additional persons you might aquire.”

“So,” Spoony said as he hastily pulled the shirt on over his head, “In English; you hope we succeed, and bring back another reviewer?”

“Was there a malfunction in my vocal transmitters?” Nurse asked, the faint, almost unheard traces of a laugh echoing faintly in her words, “I thought I was clear.”

Spoony smirked a little, despite himself as he left, sprinting down the hallway as fast as his feet could carry him. However, his smile did not seem to make it past the door of the infirmary, before once again the ever hungry gremlins of doubt and despair began to gnaw at his consciousness like a dogs chewing on a bone.

Everything he knew about the universe and himself, they reminded him, told him that the chances of things going smoothly were always incredibly slim. He just hoped that, maybe he’d get lucky and this mission would be among the very miniscule percentage where things went alright.
-------------------------

Whoever said that the deserts were the hottest places on Earth had clearly never been in the jungle before.

Thick, invisible clouds of hot damp air clung to her skin, weighing her down as if a pile of wet wool blankets had been thrown on top of her, slowly suffocating her as her lungs struggled to process the heavy air. Her movements felt labored and sluggish as her aching muscles struggled to maneuver the untamed and overgrown terrain.

Her heart pounded heavily in her chest, working double-time to pump blood and oxygen through her body under these new restrictions, making her feel as if she were going to faint with each step she took.

What was worse, MarzGurl couldn’t quite shake the feeling that there were eyes hiding in the thick canopy of trees, watching their every move. She couldn’t help but fear that the General had followed them here, and was now waiting for the moment to attack.

About the only small relief that she was glad of, was that this dimension happened to be a prehistoric-esque one, which meant that her disguise only required the bare minimum of clothing to pass as a native here , while still keeping her from running around embarrassingly nude. So, at least she didn’t have to deal with that unpleasant feeling of her damp denim jacket and her t-shirt clinging to her.
.
Still, she thought as she looked down at the outfit her morpher had chosen for her, she kind of wished that they would have had something a little more complex than the crude cloth and animal skin dress she wore. A pair of pants would have probably been a little nicer.

Well, it wasn’t like she could complain, she thought as she glanced behind her toward Spoony and Linkara, at least it was a little more than the meager, but still modesty preserving, coverings that the two of them currently wore.

She noticed that the two were unusually quiet, even to the point of refusing to even look at one another. Whether it was their own paranoia acting up, or something else, she couldn’t be certain of.

Quite frankly, she added, it wasn’t something she was dying to ask. She feared that, judging by the fact that the two of them looked even surlier than if they had been deprived of sleep for three days and forced to marathon through the worst and most soul-destroyingly offensive works ever committed to any form of media, that asking them the simple question of “what’s wrong” would probably result in snapping what little sanity they may have been using to hold themselves together at the moment.

And given that every sound that echoed through the exotic flower scented labyrinth made her feel like her skeleton was trying to leap out of her body, she probably would have felt like snapping as well.

She tried to keep herself calm as she thought back on the mission at hand. The base’s computers’ had picked up a reading from this dimension. An additional scan had identified the source of the signal to have been Paw. While they were thankful that this dimension would be scarcely populated, thus making it easier to pick him out in the crowd, the fact that the reading had been very unspecific about where he was.

Actually, she thought, that was something that always bugged her about the scanners at the base. They could always pinpoint who or what was creating the distortion, but they could never pinpoint a location that wasn’t at least a two or three mile wide radius.

Either way, they had decided that it would be better for them to split up, and cover more ground. As such, Chick and Critic had taken one half of the area, leaving Spoony, Linkara and herself with the rest.  Eventually, they would meet in the middle of the area.

She just hoped, she thought as she tapped her morpher, bringing up a map of the area, that they were having better luck at finding anything in this overgrown tangle of leaves and vines.

“Any readings on the tracker?” Linkara asked as he pushed another thick, rope-like vine out of the way.

“Yeah,” she replied, smiling as she pointed ahead of them, “Just ahead and moving. Keep your eyes open, though. I’m willing to bet that he’s not alone.”

 “Any sign of Devafen, Tegon or the General hanging around?” Linkara asked, looking straight ahead, as if he were expecting them to be hiding in the trees.

“None,” the Blue Ranger shook her head, “Either their still disguised, or we might have actually gotten lucky enough to have beaten them to the punch. Spoony—contact Critic and Chick and let them know what’s going on. Linkara and I will try to make sure Paw doesn’t manage to slip out of our sight before they can catch up to us.”

The Yellow Ranger’s eyes narrowed as a chirping bird call echoed through the tree tops around them, causing him to jolt as he looked around him with sudden alertness. However, he sighed and summoned his morpher and contacted the other two.

The conversations was relatively short, as that Critic and Chick had also gotten a lock on Paw’s location, and were already heading in that direction. In fact, the two of them were probably a lot closer to the musical reviewer’s location than they were.

In a matter of minutes the group had gotten close enough to have caught sight of Paw and his companions. It was almost amusing, she thought, as she and the others hid behind a thick cluster of nearby bushes, seeing the very lanky and lean figured Paw hunting along side the large and brutish cavemen as if it were nothing out of the ordinary for him.

Moving quietly, as not to attract unwanted attention by rustling leaves, the Blue Ranger pressed a button on her morpher, aiming it toward the cavemen figures. The air rippled as an invisible shockwave shot from the device and passed through the group. Insantly, flecks of orange flickered on the bodies of the five larger hunters, before vanishing, while a few spots of magenta hovered above Paw’s skin. In the distance, also obscured by a few bushes, she caught a brief, firefly like glimmer of pink and red, meaning that Chick and Critic had already arrived.

Once more her attention went back to the orange-marked hunters. Although she knew that they were disguised Synthspectors, she was still surprised how few there actually were around Paw. At the very least, the five of them alone could easily take out the group, provided they separated them.

She exchanged a quick look with Linkara and Spoony. The comic reviewer returned her look with a knowing nod before looking back toward the group. The gamer did not make eye contact with her, but the subtle shift in his posture indicated that he had heard her. Immediately, she started rustling a few of the leaves in front of her, trying to simulate the appearance of a small animal scurrying about in the bushes.  Apparently it worked, as one the brutish cavemen Synthspectors nudged his other companion, pointing and grunting under his breath toward where she was hiding.

She held her breath as the two Synthspectors drew closer, their spears drawn. On one hand, she knew that one of them at least would be caught off guard when she managed to attack him, and that the other would probably be easily knocked out by either Spoony or Linkara. On the other hand, that still left three to deal with. And while it was probably considerably easier for all five to deal with, the few remaining ones were more than likely going to have their guard up.  Plus, it was always likely that the two knocked out Synthspectors wouldn’t remain so for long.

Before she could change her mind, she leapt out of the bushes, tackling the armed hunter as she rolled forward. Nearby she heard another thud as the second one was stunned and Spoony and Linkara emerged into the clearing.  Following shortly behind them, Critic and Chick emerged from the clearing.

The remaining three, sensing that this was probably more than just a typical ambush by a rival group of hunters, drew their weapons, forming a circle around Paw, who looked on slightly confused.

However, before any of them could react, the air suddenly became deathly still, causing all parties within the clearing to look toward the sky. It felt as if night were rapidly approaching as the shadows within the already dimly lit jungle rapidly grew heavier and thicker, shrouding the small clearing under its veil.

The last thing the reviewers caught sight of before being plunged into the void, was the group of Synthspectors reeling backwards and collapsing onto the ground as if they’d been hit on the back of the head with a blunt object.  Immediately, their disguises faded, briefly revealing the creatures’ true forms, before those two were whisked away in a swirl of fog and dust.

The five Rangers blindly pushed through the darkness as they grouped around where they believed Paw was. Of course, given that they were staring at pitch blackness, it was difficult to tell exactly how close to him they were, had it not been for them being able to hear the sounds of Paw’s voice.

“What the heck?” Paw asked, “It’s way too soon to already be nightfall!”

“Gee,” Chick muttered under her breath, “whatever led you to that brilliant observation?”

Nearby, Critic let out a frustrated growl, swearing to himself as a faint, faltering bleep and a static met their ears.  It must have meant that, once more, an error was messing with their communications, leaving them temporarily stranded.

Figures. MarzGurl rolled her eyes. If she didn’t know any different, she would have sworn that it seemed like the base’s monitoring systems malfunctioned in the middle of a crisis on purpose, as if Insano and the others were intentionally leaving them there to fend for themselves. Of course, she tried to tell herself that was stupid—the only thing that could be blamed for everything going wrong at once was Murphy’s Law deciding that it had to take affect.

“Well damn,” Chick said, “Just when we think everything couldn’t suck worse. Seriously, screw this mess, you guys. We’ve got Paw, and those Synthspector freaks are gone. I don’t see a reason to still be hanging around here.”

“I agree with Chick,” Linkara said, “Chances are that whatever spell they’ve cast over this place is interfering with our communicators. We’ll probably have a better chance once were out of whatever spell was cast over this place.”

“Excuse me,” Paw said, “As fascinating as I find this discussion to be, I think I’m more curious about who you are and how you seem to know my name when I obviously don’t know any of you.”

“We’ll explain later,” Critic said, following the musical reviewer’s voice until he was sure that he was close enough to him to take him by the arm, “Right now we gotta focus on trying to keep our heads on our shoulders.”

Critic thought he sensed a faint movement, indicating that Paw agreed with him.  However, they had not managed to get even a few yards before they found themselves being swept off their feet as a tornado-like blast of wind rolled through the area with the swiftness and force of a raging river.

A musical, almost mocking bird call, echoed hauntingly through the air as yet another gale cut at them with its blade-like sharpness. The next few moments moved far too quickly for them to get a clear grasp on what happened. All they could know for certain was that they could hear the shouts of their formerly missing co-worker as something, or someone appeared within the darkness.

Faster than they could snap their fingers, Paw’s screams were muffled, before fading into silence as both he and the figure disappeared.  It was probably only a small relief that not soon after that had happened the darkness was lifted, allowing them to see again.

“Everyone alright?” MarzGurl asked as she helped Chick get back on her feet.

Only annoyed groans and grunts were given in response, as if to silently say: No, we’re not okay! Paw just got kidnapped while we just sat around chatting like idiots!

Although at first glance it seemed that everyone was equally roughed up, judging by the dirt and scratches that covered their faces and bodies, this might not have been the case. While all of them were a bit shaken up, none seemed more so than Spoony. The Yellow Ranger’s face was abnormally pale as his body trembled, just barely able to keep itself from collapsing into a ball. His lips moved, but only the sounds of heavy breathing and a few barely audible, mouse-like squeaks escaped.

However, none of them noticed this as a more immediate concern brought itself to their attention at that moment. The thick, nearly impenetrable jungle of vines and trees had given way to a more open and rockier plane.  It was strange and a little unsettling, they thought, that none of them could recall running far enough to actually have even escaped the small clearing they had been in. So how, they wondered, could they now be so far outside of it?

A screeching roar echoed through the air, freezing the reviewer’s blood as cold terror crept down their spines. Slowly, they turned their heads to catch a glimpse of the creature that had had created such a horrible sound. And, almost immediately, they wished that they hadn’t.

Two rows of pointed teeth glistened high above them in the morning light. Attached to that razor-sharp maw was the leathery, reptilian face of a giant Tyrannosaurus Rex. Had any of them not felt their minds being clouded with the sudden urge to run, they would have pointed out how cliché the entire idea of having a deadly encounter with a T-Rex would have seemed in one of these “heroes get sent back to prehistoric times” scenarios.

“I don’t want to state the obvious,” Linkara said, “But I think it might be mad at us for trespassing into its territory.”

“Oh really,” Critic managed to snark, “Are you sure that it wasn’t just having a bad day?”

The towering dinosaur roared again and stalked a few feet forward, causing Critic to grab Chick behind the shoulders as he ducked behind her in an effort to put whatever he could between him and the fifteen foot tall carnivore staring at him with it’s beady orange colored eyes.

The Pink Ranger’s body went rigid with fear as she felt the creature’s hot breath bear upon her as its deafening roar filled her ears. Thankfully, as it stomped closer, the ‘Fight or Flight’ instincts in her brain had kicked in, and she and Critic scrambled out of the way just seconds before the beast’s feet could trample either one of them.

“Oh that is it,” Chick said as he prepared to morph, “I’ve had enough of Barney the Dinosaur over here. It’s time to morph!”

“No,” Linkara said, “Our Ranger powers were designed to fight Malachite and other magical bad guys. We shouldn’t be just wasting them on anything.”

“Um Linkara,” Chick said as she rolled out the way just as the dinosaur’s tail swiped across the field, “I get the point you’re trying to make, and I agree with it—I really do. But, just for the record, I’d like to point out that being chased down by a raging T-Rex does not qualify as ‘just anything’.”

“Well maybe not in normal circumstances,” Linkara corrected her, “But, compared to what we’ve been up against lately, this actually is relatively tame.”

“Less talking. More getting the hell out of here!” Critic said as he started running as far away from the rampaging creature chased after them again.

“Right,” the Pink Ranger replied as she tapped her morpher, making another attempt at trying to contact the mad scientists. This time, fortunately, the call connected properly, and soon she could hear Insano’s voice echoing from the device.

Although the reviewer expected the mad scientist be screeching at her upon hearing that the mission had failed, again. However, only an agitated huff, as if he were trying to keep himself from exploding, was heard. Followed by that was a very loud clacking of keys, as if he were practically slamming his fist down upon each individual key.

Nearby, Linkara had noticed that Spoony still stood there, lost somewhere in a daze. However, it seemed that this daze was only somewhat lifted long enough for him to look up to see the towering carnivorous dinosaur rushing at him, its jaw open and ready to rip him apart with it’s teeth.

“Damn it,” the comic reviewer swore as he began running toward his paralyzed friend as fast as his feet and panic could carry him.

 It felt as if time had slowed dramatically as the reptile’s massive face leaned forward, less than a foot away from Spoony’s body.  With a shout, the comic reviewer leapt the remaining distance between himself and the gamer, catching him by the waist as he rolled out of the way of the ancient lizard just seconds before it could ensnare either of them within its razor-sharp jaws.

Before either of them could see the giant dinosaur storm past them, a flash of light filled their vision just as they were whisked away from that dimension and everything that happened in it.
Or at least, that’s what Linkara wished that it could have done.

(Next)

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