A lethargy overtook Amanda as she stepped off the plane. The journey, the flight was a long blur in her mind. She couldn't sleep, couldn't eat and threw up far too many times. She was so ravenously hungry, she could have bitten and gnawed off the head of the man in front of her if she wasn't so goddamn tired.
"Amanda?" she heard Han say, "Are you alright?"
Amanda didn't look at him, growled under her breath and said, "Oh yeah," she gagged on the bitter taste of her own saliva, "Just... you know, dying."
A hand gripped her shoulder and an arm cradled her head. She didn't know whose it was, but she was too exhausted and drained to protest. Amanda rested and let the person drag her along, shutting her eyes and trying to dampen her headache.
"Lisa," Han said, "Why don't you and Ari see if you can get the bags? Amanda and I will get some food."
"Hold up, Romeo," Miller spoke, "I didn't come here to pull around your luggage," Amanda felt her weight shift to a lower height, less built frame, "I'll find food, stuff Mandy's gut and get her to quit whining. She's been a prick the whole plane ride."
Han paused, clearly, and then said, "If you're sure."
Miller dragged Amanda along. Amanda used her sense of smell to judge the distance left to food. She felt her mouth congeal with saliva, and found herself becoming strengthened by her hunger. Her steps became stronger and she could see clearer.
"Pathetic," she heard Miller mutter, "Couldn't just watch a fucking movie like everyone else, could you?"
Amanda pushed her away in a drunken fashion and walked in her own uncoordinated way, "You don't know how I suffer," she slurred.
Miller walked by her, watching the woman trudge towards a seat and take it, "Oh, boo-hoo," Miller said, "You're the only poor sod suffering in this world."
Amanda gave her look, "Fffffffuck you, Miller," she draped an arm over the backrest of her seat and waited for the waitress to come around. When the lady appeared beside Amanda, Amanda didn't wait for the fake plastic smile and welcome. She said, "Look, love, I don't have time for the pleasantries. If you don't get me food right now, then I will literally..." Amanda gestured to Miller, "eat her. Undercut hairstyle and all. Maybe spit out the piercings. Give me everything on the breakfast menu."
The waitress stood open mouthed for a moment before she said, "Um... miss, it's 9pm."
"Ah..." Amanda smiled, "Then everything on the dinner menu. And don't skimp out on the sides or the sauces or the cheese. Fucking, cover the whole flit-dicking lot in cheese."
The waitress looked over at Miller, to check if the woman was being serious.
"She's nuts," Miller sneered at the waitress, "My cousin, from Chelsea. Got kicked in the head by a nanny goat when she was a kid, never been the same - the poor girl. Just get her a Greek salad."
Amanda sat up and banged her fist down on the table, "I swear to God, Miller, I will chew your nose off if this woman shows up with just a Greek salad," she threatened.
Miller rolled her eyes, and then addressed the very confused and rather petrified waitress, "Alright, get her some decent food. Don't really care what," she leaned back, "And some sides. And some fucking cheese."
Amanda shut her eyes and dangled her head over the back of her chair. She groaned.
"More moaning," Miller muttered, "Just what I need."
Amanda scoffed, "I did not ask to be here," she told Miller, "You want to blame someone, blame Han."
"Nah," Miller said, "Wonderboy couldn't've dragged you into this."
Amanda adjusted herself and propped her head in her hands, elbows resting on the table, "Well, he did."
"Han Schmitz dragged Amanda H. Cross into a mission?" Miller said.
"Yup," Amanda said.
"Shame on you," Miller said, and in that moment she was about to slap Amanda's face for good measure. But Amanda caught her hand in her own and squeezed it so that Miller's knuckles moved from their position in Amanda's grasp. Miller pulled her hand away, gasping and scowling at Amanda.
"Shame on me, why?" Amanda asked, completely ignoring the event that had just passed.
"That's why," Miller remarked, shaking the pain out of her hand, "They say you can't be made to do anything you don't bloody-well please. Why are you doing this?"
Amanda smiled, shutting her eyes, "Who are 'they'?"
"Business partners," Miller clarified, shrugging her coat off and letting it hang on her seat. Her bare arms were mesmerizing with their swirling tattooed patterns, "Don't avoid the question."
Amanda blinked and a tear ran down her cheek. She giggled, "Tired. So tired," she furrowed her brows as if something didn't make sense to her, "And... sick. Tired and sick. Sick and tired," Amanda laughed, "Who are 'they'?"
Miller bit her lip, sneering at Amanda, "None of your fucking business, Mandy."
"They're talking about me," Amanda pointed out, "How is it not my fucking business?"
Miller was about to retort, when the waitress passed by and dropped off Amanda's food.
"You serve any drinks?" Amanda asked the waitress.
"Of course," the waitress replied, "What can I get you?"
"Pour me a beer," Amanda replied, and then gestured to Miller, "Get one for my... cousin, as well. Iced."
The waitress smiled, "Would you like cheese on those too?"
Amanda didn't smile back, "Hold the cheese," she said, flatly.
The waitress corrected herself and moved out of Amanda's gaze for fear it might burn through her. Amanda stuffed her face in an instant, not pausing for a second, not bothering to savor the flavor of the delicious food. She ate, Miller noticed, like an animal. Miller began to wonder whether Amanda really would have chewed her nose off. Amanda's phone rang and Miller heard her growl. She proceeded to pull the machine out of her pocket and tear the battery out so that it would stop ringing. Miller's phone rang next and Amanda stared up at her, like a deer caught in headlights. A murderous deer with food all over her face.
Miller picked up her phone, "Yeah?" she said.
"Where are you?" Han's voice asked her.
"Watching a nature show. Live," Miller replied, not daring to take her eyes off Amanda.
"You got the bags?" she asked.
"Uh... yeah," Han replied.
"Wait outside. Give us a few minutes. We'll see you soon," she didn't wait for a reply, Miller simply shut off her phone and watched Amanda devour her meal, fascinated.
Their drinks arrived and Miller didn't notice until Amanda downed her lot and asked her, "You gonna drink that?"
Miller picked it up and drank the beer. Amanda shrugged and sat back.
"Happy?" Miller asker her.
"So happy," Amanda replied, panting, "I'll go inside and pay. Use the bathroom, clean up. Then we can meet up with the others."
* * * * *
Amanda took little heed of the cab ride to the London compound. It was, again, a blur in Amanda's mind. All the she remembered, distinctly, was Miller trading a few words with the taxi driver, knocking on the roof of the vehicle and sending them off. Before she was even aware that they had arrived, a man was opening the cab door and putting a hand out for Amanda to grasp. Amanda regarded the hand and then took it, helping herself out of the cab and shutting the door behind her. Han and Lisa exited from the other side. The three of them looked up at a building that resembled a typical, nondescript block of flats. There was a smell in the air - a stale, polluted stink that Amanda knew too well. She put up the hood of her coat and trotted forward with her hands in her pockets, grasping her wallet and phone. Han and Lisa followed her without question, the escort hurrying after Amanda himself. He eventually overtook her and tapped a button on a silver intercom stuck to the crumbling walls next to glass double doors that needed a serious cleaning. Amanda tapped her foot, impatient to get inside.
"You seem jumpy," Han said to her.
Amanda looked at him, and scoffed, "You ought to be."
A buzz sounded. The escort held the door open and Amanda swept passed him. Han heard her sigh when she'd stepped in, as if relieved she was no longer outside. He found it strange, but decided not to question it. Then he realized there was a series of steps to climb and grunted in his irritation. Lisa was just as flustered by the mountain of stairs.
"Are there no elevators in this building?" she asked.
Amanda climbed ahead of them, "Yes, but it probably stinks of sex and putrefaction."
"Are they faster than climbing all this?" Han inquired.
"Take the elevator if you want," Amanda offered, "Just don't expect me to be dragging your dead bodies out of there, though."
"Always with the melodrama," Han rolled his eyes and beckoned Lisa to follow up Amanda. The escort stayed behind them.
Amanda laughed, "Always with the complaints," she retorted, "Don't forget that there aren't elevators in Purgatory, Han," she turned a corner and continued on up, "How much farther, mate?" she asked the escort.
"Top floor, miss," was his reply, "Door at the furthest end."
Han followed Amanda through the building, climbing up the different levels, noticing the molding edges and the damp corners - a strong musty smell hanging in the air, so dense you could feel it like it was a tangible thing you could slice with a knife. He saw mysterious people, hiding in the dark shadows or under blinking lights that needed changing - hoods covering their heads, silent as they did whatever it was they were doing. He felt the need to look over his shoulder and hold onto his belongings. He could see that Lisa was just as agitated. It felt like a frightening age, this stair-climbing.
Until Amanda looked over at them and asked the escort, "Do I knock or just let myself in?"
The escort shrugged.
"You better get going then," Amanda told him, "Clearly not business you know too much about." He was about to step forward, when Amanda pulled out a gun from her coat and pointed it at him, "We don't want your drugs, we don't want your shite, we don't want trouble. Leave. You've played your part, now get moving."
The escort raised his hands, his nonchalance and unsurprised behavior shocking both Han and Lisa, and backed away.
Amanda lowered her firearm and said, "Oh, and you touch our cab and I'll be sure to break your arm," she kicked the door with the tip of her foot, instead of knocking on it, "But I've left your tip on the doorstep of this building. If you're lucky, it's still there."
The door swung open as the escort zoomed down the stairs, his dangerous rush down the stairs sounding like he was falling rather than running. Amanda put away the gun.
"Amanda Cross!" smirked the man behind the door, "How long has it been?"
Amanda let herself in, "The company running out of money, Jeb?" she asked him, "Hiring petty thugs and smugglers."
Jeb laughed, his dark skin shining in the bad lighting of the building, "The company can afford to hire petty thugs and smugglers. I thought that might mean they were doing well, their own little army."
Amanda turned up her nose, deciding not to sit anywhere, "I wouldn't put any money on it. Not on the wealth of the company, not on your loyalty to them."
Jeb fixed his shirt and fell into a squeaking couch, putting an arm upon the backrest, "Urgh, so serious. Come on, Mandy! Grab a beer, sit down!"
"Wanker..." Amanda scoffed, giving Jeb a firm handshake, "Haven't changed a wink, have you?"
"Can't say the same for you," he pointed at her, up and down, "Look at you, all Americanized!" he snorted, "And who are these delightful people?"
Amanda gestured to Han and Lisa, "My partner, Han Schmitz and my friend, Andy."
"Which one is Han?" Jeb asked, smiling at Lisa, "The pretty blonde? Don't look the agent type."
"She isn't. Andy's here more for observation."
"Ah," Jeb said, his smile waning a little as he approached Han, "Apologies, Agent Schmitz."
Han shook Jeb's hand cautiously, "You're... working with us?" he asked, clearly disapproving of the idea.
"Ah, no," Jeb scoffed, a silver tooth in his mouth glinting for half a second, "I'm just being paid to sit here and wait for you louts. A receptionist, of sorts."
"Is he being serious?" Han asked Amanda, "I can't tell."
"Knowing Jeb, he probably works more with Miller than our lot," Amanda said to Han, "Where do we check in, Jeb?"
Jeb gestured to a door that looked like it led to a dirty bathroom, "Nice seeing you again, Mandy."
"Yeah," Amanda said, taking his hand, "Sure this won't be the last I see of you."
"Well, that I'd put money on," Jeb said as Amanda headed to the door.
Amanda smiled at Jeb and left to walk through the door, talking no notice of the disorganization of the room. Han, on the other hand, felt the need to cover his nose and kick things lying on the floor out of his path. Amanda opened the door and Han groaned at the sight of more steps. Amanda pulled a chain on the inside, the click resounded - echoed - and a series of single, naked lightbulbs hanging on old wires, set at a regular interval on the diagonal ceiling, flickered and blinked on. Amanda grasped the banister with one hand and descended into the depths. Han and Lisa couldn't help but look around.
"This is what it must feel like in Amanda's mind," Lisa muttered to Han. The emptiness made her louder than she meant to be. Han laughed anyway.
"Joke's on you, Andy," Amanda laughed as well, "My mind has leprechauns sliding down tangible rainbows into mountains of dwarvish gold hoarded by dragons and guarded by beautiful damsels in distress - fought over by saints and sinners alike for centuries that I've completely made up," she smiled, "My mind is anything but dark. But, then, I suppose that's all a matter of perspective."
"Wait, really?" Lisa asked, "No wonder you love doing nothing."
"You think you've seen it all, Andy," Amanda laughed, "Yet you couldn't dream the things I've seen."
Han said nothing as Amanda and Lisa spoke. He focused on the task ahead. He wondered what information the English Division had to offer about the situation in Bradley. He knew from Xavi that Alpha Team didn't have as strong a position here as Beta Team. The frequency of finding artefacts in British Isles was high, compared to other places. There was something haunting about this place and the relics left behind in it. And it certainly wasn't the first time that someone was sent to the UK to subdue NihilCorp activity. As they descended down the steady staircase (which Han found arbitrary to the extreme), Han noticed that the walls became more uniform in structure and color. It went from dark and untouched by paper or paint, to tiled in a series of black, white and red ceramics. Everything began to look more polished and sophisticated. He was bemused, but tried not to show it too much. They reached the bottom and Han rushed to the door ahead of Amanda. He touched the round, brass door-knob - polished for their arrival - and turned it to crack open the door. It was locked.
"Knocking is polite," Amanda reminded him.
Han grimaced back at her, "I was eager to see something normal in this alien place."
"You brought me here," Amanda reminded him, kicking the door lightly with the tip her foot and keeping her hands in her pockets, "Don't forget that."
"Why kick the door, Amanda?" Han asked, "Why kick, when knocking is just so much more common?"
"Why, out of the literal billions of people in the world living today and out of the literal hundred million billions that are no longer living, have I ended up with you?" she asked him, "Why not Dann? We got on so much better."
"How is that relevant?" Han asked.
"Oh, I thought we were taking turns in asking pointless questions," Amanda replied.
"Why, Amanda?" Han pressed.
"Well, same thing God might say:" Amanda shrugged and looked over at Han, "Why not?"
"Oh, God-talk again?" Han slapped his forehead.
"You brought me here," Amanda said again, "Don't forget that."
The door swung open and a short, fat man in a waistcoat and white gloves hurried away as soon as he had opened it.
"Follow me," he said, checking his pocket-watch, "Quickly, quickly, don't want to be late! We've been expecting you for hours!"
Han tilted his head to a side, "What a funny little man..." he muttered.
Amanda led them through the beautifully-lit room, with rich red walls and shining wooden panels, sparkling chandeliers hanging from the ceiling. There were paintings hanging on the walls, portraits of people that looked unearthly and gorgeous - but somehow overwhelming and terrible.
"Props to the people who painted these," Lisa mumbled, "These are... extraordinary," she brushed a finger over the lines of dried paint.
"Looked at the signed name," Amanda pointed out.
Lisa squinted to see the name of the extraordinary artist, "Subject 840?" she said, "Is that a fancy pseudonym?"
Amanda walked off to follow the strange man in the waistcoat.
Lisa looked at the other signed names.
Subject 961, Subject 453, Subject 238...
Maybe it was members of the same painting group? Lisa didn't know but she hurried to follow Amanda and Han, feeling a strange watched feeling on the back of her neck. She looked over her shoulder at the unearthly paintings. They made her shudder. Lisa caught up to Amanda and tried to keep apace.
"Subject?" Lisa asked her.
"Experiments," Amanda told her, "Experiments with-"
"Mental cases," Han cut in, "Beta Team has a stronger presence here, so the work in focused on the surreal."
Amanda said nothing.
"So, you must have a number, right?" Lisa asked Amanda, "Subject, something?"
"I was a Subject," Amanda conceded, "But I'm not any more. I didn't lose my mind after their experiments. I'm a Conduit."
"Oh..." Lisa said, "So, you're like the only one?"
"No, I'm Conduit 0006. They expected there to be more of us."
"So, you must know the other Conduits?"
"Dann was Conduit 0004," Amanda said, "The rest I've only read about. Conduit 0005 disappeared completely."
"Mm," Han growled.
"Alpha Team believes 0005 works with NihilCorp. Else they wouldn't be such a threat," Amanda explained, "Though, Alpha never questions too much as to why a Conduit in the possession of nihilists would be dangerous."
"Years of scientific research!" Han exclaimed.
"The seed of your ignorance," Amanda whispered, "is buried in the soil of your incapability to see past what you accept as reality."
"What?" Amanda asked.
"Do you have a tattoo or barcode or something to show scientists that you're... a test?" Lisa asked. Then she paused, "Sorry, that sounded, um, less offensive in my head."
"Yes," Amanda scoffed, "We have scars."
"Ask Han. He's seen them," was her reply.
That moment was interrupted by a tall, dark man dressed in a dapper suit. He had a thin moustache and his teeth were exceedingly white. He smiled at them, but Amanda especially.
"Agent Amanda H. Cross," he said, giving her a warm handshake, using both hands and leaning forward, "what a pleasure to meet you at last," the man let the moment linger, before he looked over at Han and - clearly less enthusiastic - shook his hand, "and Agent Schmitz."
"How's it feel?" Amanda asked Han, "Because I love this already."
Han rolled his eyes and said nothing.
"I'm told you're a man that doesn't waste time," Amanda said to the stranger, "Who are you and what have you got to tell us?"
"I am Dr. Enjolras de La-Verandre," said the man.
Amanda stared at him with her mouth open, "I'm just going to refer to you as Andre," she decided.
The man gave a hearty laugh and said, "That's fine with me," he said, "As to what I have to tell you," he turned to lead them through a white-tiled room with that typical sterile smell. People in clinical white suits were milling around from room to room, "just let me inform you that I'm loathe to recall the aid of Alpha Team once again. We would rather not have violence, but an inspection of some sort is clearly needed. I'm sure you're aware of the murders in Bradley."
"Yes," Han answered him, "After some discussion, we've been informed of these serial killings."
"And I'm sure you've been told of the condition of the victims?" Andre asked.
Amanda waited for Han to answer. When he said nothing, she chimed in, "I've seen some pictures and read some reports. Shocking, isn't it?"
"Yes, indeed," Andre turned, walking backwards and asked, "Would you like to see one of the bodies up close, in case you notice something we haven't?" It was clear that he was asking Amanda and only Amanda.
Enjoying the attention, Amanda nodded and Andre led them off into a room that resembled a hospital ward.
The cadaver was covered by a thin white sheet and a scientist was sorting through the different vials containing various bodily fluids. She looked up and fumbled.
"Oh," she said, "Sir. Who are these people?"
"The agents sent by the Philadelphia Division," Andre said, taking notice of Lisa and adding, "and, I'm assuming, a protégée."
The scientist walked up to Amanda and stared at her, "Conduit 6... Oh, my, never thought I'd meet one of you."
"Uh-ha..." Amanda said, amused by the woman's awestruck face, "Can you show us the body?"
"Oh! Oh, of course," she said, rushing back - hitting her leg on the corner of a table, ignoring it - and then pulling back the sheet.
Amanda walked up beside the dead body, narrowing her eyes.
Andre leaned against the open door, arms folded, "No signs of struggle, no noticeable cause of death, no poison, no signs of shock or cardiac arrest or stroke. Simple death."
Amanda didn't remove her gaze, "Male or female?" she asked.
"This victim is female," Andre replied, "but there are plenty that are male. There's no discrimination-"
"Between gender, age, race... No preference at all," Amanda finished. She touched the cold face of the cadaver and said, "What happened to all her hair? The pigment in her lips? She's as white as a sheet..."
"A phenomenon that all the victims undergo a few days after death," Andre said, coming up beside Amanda, "Side by side, they look like clones. Albino, hairless, androgynous. Another thing - this body is nearly two months old."
Amanda gave him a look, "That's impossible..." she muttered.
"The bodies don't decompose," Andre said, "Don't go through rigor mortis."
Amanda shook her head, unbelieving, astounded.
"Agent Cross..." Andre said, "What's happening to these people?"
Amanda put a hand to her head and felt the need to sit down. She slowly sat on the cold floor, "I don't know..." she breathed, feeling light-headed, "What... What are you up to?" she murmured.
Han came forward and crouched beside her, "I think you need a drink."
Amanda looked at him and nodded quickly. She let him help her up.
Andre stood before the two of them and addressed Han, "The only reason I've sanctioned your involvement here-"
"Is because I've been known to work with Agent Cross," Han interrupted him.
"Is because of these murders. We're all counting on you to come to a conclusion. If it's NihilCorp, we expect that you will obliterate their presence. Or to consider them irrelevant, if it isn't," Andre held Han's gaze for a moment before he dismissed them with a slight nod of his head.
Amanda looked at Han when they got out of the building (all of that descending and ascending making them all very aggravated indeed), "Jealous much?" she asked.
"Shut up, Amanda," Han muttered, rushing ahead to get back into the taxi.
"You brought me here!" Amanda called after him, taking her time, "Don't forget that!"