By the time they exited the room, countless squid filled it, darting around the room. They flew faster than the creatures Jose had seen in aquariums or when scuba diving near his hometown in Spain. Larger specimens darted through connecting hallways further down the corridor. However, their immediate vicinity was clear.
“What were those things?!” Jose demanded.
“Cerebropods,” Power Merchant answered, taking off his belt. He winced, looping it over his shoulder and under his arm before tightening it. “We used them during the last generation of power injectors. One of the Freaks took to it well… I don’t remember which.”
“Not important,” Jose said. “We need to move. Stay close.”
They sprinted down the hallway, but before they could turn a corner, a giant cerebropod emerged through a window. It didn’t break through the glass, but grew out of its rippling surface. Jose's shoulder charged the beast, crushing it against the wall. Most of its body slid back into the mirrored world on the other side of the glass.
“Go!” He yelled, holding the creature back as its tentacles wrapped around him.
Power Merchant didn’t need to be told twice. He turned right at the junction, running down the grey corridor. The older man’s breathing was already ragged. Poor cardio got the best of him before he reached the exit at the end. Power Merchant leaned on the wall, the arm connected to the injured arm, hanging limp against his side.
A painting hanging behind Power Merchant vibrated. The glass on the frame rippled and the man with the liquid metal head grew out of the surface. He held a pronged baton in his left hand. Before Jose could shout a warning, the cereopod got a tentacle free of his grip and smacked Jose in the face with it. As the appendage wrapped around his head, he bit down on it. An acrid smell filled the air, and he tasted spoiled dairy.
Suddenly, the cerebropod’s body swelled and firmed. It went from struggling against him to having the upper hand. It pushed itself all the way out of the window. The newly freed tentacles coiled around Jose and squeezed. Refusing to go down without a fight, he willed more armoured scales to sprout from his back, and channelled them to his arms, shoulders, hips, and legs. They swelled all at once, multiplying all at once, loosening the cerebropodd’s grip. Its mouth was awfully close to Jose’s face now, and a glowing tongue of pink and purple light lashed at him.
Jose pushed off the ground with all of his might. Bashing himself and the monster against the ceiling. He adjusted his angle on the way down, bringing his entire weight down on the cerebropod’s mouth and torso. He felt a sting, then heard the hissing of escaping air. The creature went limp and released him.
Ahead, he spotted Power Merchant lying flat on the floor wrestling the liquid-metal-faced man. A cerebropod the size of his fist squirmed in the infiltrator’s hand, while Power Merchant struggled to keep it away.
Jose didn’t hesitate. He ripped the door off the nearby broom cupboard and threw it with all his might. It struck the stranger, knocking him off Power Merchant. The door crashed into the wall at the end of the corridor, but the man was already gone. Instead of looking for him, Jose rushed to his employer’s aid. However, as he moved the hallway shrank. The walls appeared to close in on him. The ceiling continued lowering itself even after his head grazed the ceiling.
It wasn't long before he had no choice but to walk with his knees bent and shoulders hunched. His already racing heart picked up its pace. After Power Merchant awakened his meta gene, Jose hadn't sweat. Yet he felt cold and clammy. Nightmares filled with enclosing walls and closed places plagued Jose's nights. Now, they dominated reality and he had no chocie but to fall into a crouch. Then his shoulders got too wide, focing him to move with his shoulder pointed forwards.
"No. No. No." Jose's breathing got erratic as his fear and hatred of closed places consumed everything else.
Before he knew it, Jose was on his side, dragging himself forwards. It was his scales and armour plates. With every passing second, he felt new segments growing out of his back and the rate of their growth continued to increase. They rushed to the already reinforced parts of his body, making them bigger and heavier. Suddenly, his strength proved insufficient to keep moving forward, too. Jose's heart pounded so fast in his chest, he worried it would break through his rib cage and escape or explode altogether.
It's too early for me to die.
“Help!” He yelled, but Power Merchant struggled to rise. Blood poured from his shoulder, and the grey-brown pool under him continued to grow. “Breathe,” he told himself, closing his eyes. Danny had taught him to stay calm when fights got desperate. However, inhaling proved difficult as the walls kept his ribcage from expanding. “Just breathe.”
When Jose opened his eyes again, they burned as bright white lights assaulted them. Next, his spinning vision stabilised, and he retched, painting the tiled floor with his lunch and stomach acids. His hands frantically patted his shoulders and thighs. They felt normal and showed no signs of having grown. The horror had ended just as suddenly as it began.
“You’re alright, Jose,” Power Merchant said, placing a hand on his shoulder. The man appeared to have teleported from where he lay to Jose’s side. The pool of blood had disappeared, too. There were no cerebropods around and all nearby reflective surfaces appeared warped.
He wasn’t too big to move anymore. As Jose stood up, he studied his limbs. They were the same size as when he defeated the giant cereprod. A burning sensation drew his fingers to his neck. He felt a puncture. Red blood painted the pale scales, covering his palms and the insides of his finger.
“My head feels all wrong,” Jose whispered. “What happened?”
“You got stung,” Power Merchant said. He pointed at the blue botch under his chin. A baby-pea-sized hole sat in the middle of it. “I got stung, too.”
“Are we in danger?”
“I don’t think so. The cerebropods I dealt with before stole memories or jumbled them. They’re swarm creatures and not from our Universe. It shouldn’t be possible for any Master-type super to control them.” Power Merchant looked around. “We’ve been out for quite a while.”
Jose’s head brushed the ceiling when he stood up. His legs wobbled under him and he had to grab a wall for support. His fingers sank into the concrete, leaving cracks in the surrounding plaster.
“You’re too strong. And big. Pull back.”
“Sorry, boss,” Jose said groggily. He willed the armour plating to his back and tried to reabsorb them. The process took longer than he hoped. Producing them consumed calories, and he’d burned through too many of them.
Once he’d recovered, they walked together through the facility. Boudica met them before the pair reached the infirmary. Blood poured from her right arm and she walked with a limp. When her eyes met theirs, Boudica picked up speed but ended up falling on her face.
“Help her, Jose.” Power Merchant said, and the pair rushed to her aid. He waited until Jose helped her up before continuing. “Give me an update, love.”
“The generators malfunctioned. I suspect foul play.”
“Could it have been Malfunction?” Jose asked. “The Freaks have been trying to get in—”
“This was too smooth,” Power Merchant replied, interrupting him. “The Freaks are children with sledgehammers. They have no finesse. They’d destroy half the facility on their way in and leave electric fires everywhere. Do you remember seeing anyone, Jose?”
“I did…” Jose remembered a humanoid shape, but when he tried to think of the details, his head throbbed harder. “No,” he said after several seconds of sifting through blurry memories. “I remember the running, the terror, and little else.”
“I checked on the server room.” Boudica said.
“It’s gone. There was a dragon in there.”
“A dragon?” Jose asked, eyes widening.
Boudica nodded. “It was like a dinosaur and the forelimbs were winged.”
“That’s a wyvern,” Power Merchant told her. “Please tell me we backed up the hard drives in the last twenty-four hours.”
“No, boss,” Boudica said, looking embarrassed. “It was three days ago. We lost little, though. It was just the client database updates and payroll. We can just redo it, though.”
“So all surveillance and notes from the past three days are gone.” Power Merchant paused. He looked up at Jose. “What did you eat this morning, Jose? What did you eat last night?”
“I don’t remember, boss,” Jose replied, after pausing for a moment.
“What about the fight last night? Do you remember who we fought?”
“Druid and Dryad, wasn’t it?”
“I don’t remember, boss.”
“Do you remember fighting Druid and Dryad, or us talking about fighting them?”
Jose paused. “I don’t remember.”
Power Merchant returned his attention to Boudica. “Go down to containment. Prepare the subjects for transportation. Execute anyone that’s not well enough to move.”
“Not the time for one of your moral quandaries. I don’t think it was the Freaks, but I remember experimenting with cerebropod energy. If they gained Master powers over time, we’re in trouble.”
“Moving day?” Boudica asked.
“Moving day.” Power Merchant nodded, and she sprinted away.
Jose escorted his employer to the infirmary. Doctor had suffered several stings and countless shallow scratches covered her forearms. She kneeled over Batface’s shivering form.
“Casualty report, love.”
“Only Batface is down for the count, boss,” the doctor replied. She leapt away from the unconscious super and rushed to work on power Merchant’s shoulder straight away. “Everyone else has suffered a few stings and shallow scratches, but nothing major.”
“Strange,” Power Merchant whispered. “Any equipment missing?”
“I’ve had my people check everywhere but containment,” the doctor replied, shaking her head. “The systems are down, though. Can’t be sure.”
“Whoever they were, the bastards destroyed the server room. We’ll get someone to pick up an off-site backup once we’ve moved.”
Doctor nodded, focusing on the wound. They continued to talk, and Jose took the opportunity to step away. He couldn’t tell why, but something drew him to the infirmary’s oversized mirror. The lights came on as he stared into it, still unsure about what he was looking for. He remembered feeling hurt and confused not long ago, but struggled to recall why. It was the first time someone had messed with his head, and the uncertainty terrified Jose. The forgotten experience made him want to quit his job. If working for a villain meant dealing with cerebropods and mysterious Masters that commanded them, Jose didn’t want to be a henchman anymore.
“Danny was right,” Jose whispered. “This isn’t the path I want to take.”
“By the way, Jose,” Power Merchant said, snapping him back to reality. “Tell your friend that we’ll have to delay our next meeting. What was his name? Dane? Dan?”
“Daniel Das, sir.”
“Yes. Tell Daniel Das that I’m putting off taking on new clients. I can’t afford to work with strangers until we solve this security breach.”
“He’s not a stranger, though, sir,” Jose said. “I’ve known him for years.”
“I barely know you myself, Jose. You’re barely more than a stranger. If you want to help your friend, help with the move and solve this breach first. We need to identify the attacker and put them down. Once that’s done, I’ll let you take advantage of the referral scheme.”