January’s theme was Time Loop.
When a terrorist takes a group of people hostage, the Admiral enlists the help of Max, a skilled soldier with a penchant for comic books. To aid in the rescue, Max is given a time travel suit. But the suit is a big responsibility and The Admiral begins to questions if Max can handle it.
By Ian Williams
The automatic doors to the meeting room swished open in front of Maximillian Maximus Maxwell the second he approached them. He took large, confident strides into the room and stopped a few feet in front of the conference table, sliding a hand through his luxurious and heavily greased hair as he waited.
He stood to attention in front of a line of uniformed individuals, all dutifully awaiting the arrival of the Admiral. Until everyone was there the meeting was on hold, something that irked Max greatly. He was used to being the one who got to meetings fashionably late, and the one to whom the eyes normally turned upon his entrance.
These people had barely noticed him standing there. He had thought his reputation alone would have guaranteed he was treated like royalty. After all, he had been called in to deal with their current situation because of his almost flawless track-record.
He dropped his respectful stance and leant on the table, his massive hands spread out in a dominant and overly confident way. “When’s the Admiral expected to arrive?” he asked.
The man directly opposite raised his eyes from his handheld tablet and studied Max’s overbearing form. The others continued to work. “The Admiral will be here shortly. His plane just landed.”
“Good to know. I was eager to get started as soon as I arrived. I’m a very busy man.”
“Aren’t we all?”
The reply annoyed Max even more than being forced to wait. “Well, I’m busier than most.”
“I hear that. I’m barely allowed the time to think clearly these days.”
“No, I mean, I’m really busy… like, extra, extra busy.” He stood up straight, sticking out his chest with pride. “No doubt, you’ve seen my file.”
The man fiddled with his handheld computer again. “Nope. Can’t say I have, sorry. What are you, some kind of technician?”
“Technician… Listen, buddy. I’m the best infiltrator in the sector, with a long list of successes to my name. I’ve fought in more battles than you’ve had hot dinners!”
“Oh, don’t get me started on that,” the man said, his eyes rolling as he considered how hard his own life was. “I can’t remember the last time I enjoyed a hot meal.”
“Enough!” Max snapped. “I’m the busiest of us, I’m the one that’s more impressive and I’m the one that needs hot food the most. You’re just a desk…”
A stern voice interrupted Max’s rant, luckily before he had completely lost his temper. “Mr. Maxwell?”
Max stood to attention. He made sure to make a note of the other man’s name, for when he wrote his final report of the day. No one was ever allowed to argue with him like that. “Admiral. Good to see you, sir.”
“Kiss arse,” the other man whispered.
Max silently mouthed his reply.
“Thank you for coming so soon, Max.” The Admiral stepped around the table and took the centre seat. He sat slightly higher than the others, a sign of his higher stature–both in rank and physicality. After removing his green beret and placing it gently on the table, he then asked, “Have you been briefed on our current predicament?”
Pulling out his seat, Max went to sit when he noticed how low his own chair was in comparison to the Admiral’s. The idea that he would be sat so much closer to the ground made him change his mind and remain standing instead. His ego could never allow such a difference in seated heights, just in case it made him seem weak.
While his attention gravitated toward a large painting on the side wall, of the Admiral in the exact same seated position, he replied. “I read the report on my way here, sir. You’ve got a few hostages held up in an underground science lab and zombies have broken out, and begun killing them. You want me to go in there and remove the zombies.”
The Admiral looked around to his companions with wide-eyed shock. Confusion was then the next emotion to appear across their faces. “Er, no, that’s not right at all, Max,” the Admiral said. “Did you read the whole report? Or did you read something else?”
Max felt his body become flush with heat. He realised his mistake in confusing fiction for fact, something he was sure he would never have done if not for the length of the report in question. He tried his best to cover the error. “I may have been reading another document at the same time, sir. My time is often spread out thinly.”
“Sounds very much like this month’s Zombie General comic to me. My nephew reads it. Issue number 436 is the latest, if I remember correctly. Were you reading that?”
“Me? Absolutely not. I’m far too busy.”
“May we see your copy of the report then?” The Admiral’s left eyebrow arched up.
The report was tucked away in Max’s back pocket, where he usually kept his paperwork. But so too was another important document. To save face, he slid the rolled up report out of his pocket and separated it from his own copy of Zombie General behind his back. He placed the report–marred with dried coffee rings–down on the table and the comic back into his pocket.
“Right, well,” the Admiral said, with a roll of his eyes. “Less than a mile from this complex there are twelve people being held hostage by a terrorist group hellbent on merging humans with machines.”
“Like a cyborg? That’s amazing,” Max interrupted.
The Admiral paused for a second, sighed and then went on. “They have taken over a small lab and are threatening to kill the hostages if their demands are not met. We want to send you in there to stop them.”
“Consider it done, sir.” Max went to leave when the Admiral called him back.
“Will you please let me finish, this is important. Here is an image of your main target; his name is Clancy Gibson.” On the wall behind the Admiral’s table appeared a blurry picture of a man with metal plating across his torso and head. The photo had been taken from a great distance. “He’s an extremely dangerous individual. Your job is to take him out and free the hostages.”
“You can count on me, sir.” Again, Max went to leave.
“Do not move from that damn spot until I tell you. Understood?”
“Good. Now, we’ve sent in others already and every single one of them has failed. So, this time, we are going to try something a little different.” The Admiral stood and patted his uniform down, a motion that appeared to calm him ever so slightly. “To end this, we have called in some extra help, from the scientific community.”
“Urgh, I hate nerds,” Max said. The stern face flashed his way silenced him instantly.
“You are severely trying my patience.” The Admiral waved his folded beret at Max as he spoke. “Never mind. Just follow me.”
A door to their left opened. It led directly into a large hanger bay full of army equipment and vehicles, all arranged in rows and gleaming in the bright light. The sight of so much metal and armour made Max almost salivate uncontrollably. He could not wait to get his hands on the most powerful pieces of tech and let rip with it. The terrorists would never know what hit them.
“Oh momma!” Max said, his excited thoughts unable to be contained. “Please tell me I get to choose what I use.”
The Admiral laughed. “Certainly not. We’ve got something a bit more experimental in mind for you. I think you’ll be just as happy, though. After all, you are an infiltrator, not a soldier. We’ve got a piece of technology that will suit your skills perfectly.”
That had Max’s mind running off into an imagined realm of super weapons and invisibility shields. He saw himself bringing down enemies with a swipe of his arms, or tossing vehicles aside like they were toys made of plastic. He usually made do with basic body armour and a silenced pistol. This mission was beginning to look like his most exciting yet.
Leading the way, the Admiral took Max through the swarms of uniformed people racing about the open space. At the far end of the hanger the immense steel doors were opening, allowing in a view of the snow-topped mountains in the distance. A gust of cold air flowed through the gap, bringing with it flakes of snow and frost.
The hostage situation had everyone on high alert, but not one of them failed to salute their superior along the way. Although Max had assumed they were saluting him and had returned each one, to a look of complete and utter astonishment. His ego never let him down.
They stopped by a two-metre-high partition, which cordoned off one corner of the hanger, and waited as a woman in a white coat wheeled out a smouldering hunk of metal. The thought of whatever had caused the piece of steel to melt had Max’s imagination again venturing off on its own. He was soon lost to his own daydream.
A few moments later, Max realised he was on his own and staring at a blank wall. The Admiral soon poked his head around the partition wall to find where his master infiltrator had gone.
“Well, Max? Are you coming?”
“Of course, sir. I was just admiring the…” There was nothing for Max to blame, so he gave up mid-sentence.
Around the other side of the wall there were computer screens everywhere, surrounding a raised platform. The raised area had been set up to allow access to a human-sized container standing on its end and venting gas from the door-seal. Where the head would be, there was a small window of strengthened glass, which looked in to yet more energetic gas.
Max’s eyes were drawn straight to the odd box. It hissed and sighed, like a semi-dormant python lived within. He could almost believe it was full of snakes, all piled up and writhing over each other. A thought that made him shiver. Most of the activity concentrated on the computer systems around it. No one paid any attention to the weird noises that had Max worried.
“My God,” he said, approaching the box with caution. “What kind of crazy stuff are you eggheads up to here? No doubt some diabolical scheme to transform me into a killing machine, or a mindless drone of immense power and strength, or possibly make me immortal even. I’ve got it! You’re going to turn me into a superhero.”
The lead scientist, a woman with long, flowing blonde hair and green eyes, took one look at Max and chuckled. “Wasn’t that part of the story in issue eighty-six of Zombie General in Space?”
Max spun on the spot at hearing the woman speak. He was surprised to see her there. “Well, hello there. Nobody ever told me a nerd could look so fine.”
“I beg your pardon?” she replied.
“What’s your name?”
“Oh, playing hard to get, are we?”
The Admiral interrupted before things could get worse. “No, Max. Her name is Chantelle, Chantelle Chambers. She’s in charge of this project.”
“Right, sorry.” Max chose to move past the awkwardness by changing the subject. “So, you read Zombie General? I like a woman who reads.”
Chantelle smiled, but her eyes suggested confusion rather than happiness. “I don’t really consider that reading. I much prefer the Classics.”
“Ah yes, issue 279; Zombie General enters the 12th Dimension. Excellent issue.”
“No, I mean…”
“Can we get this over with, please,” the Admiral said. He pinched the bridge of his nose in frustration before continuing. “We need to get Max acquainted with the new equipment.”
“Certainly, Admiral.” Chantelle waved Max ahead, toward the raised area. He took position to the right of the large box, while Chantelle operated the controls. “What is contained inside here is a one-of-a-kind. Nowhere else in the world has anyone managed to achieve what we have.” She flicked a switch on the control box and the door creaked open, the interior at first hidden by the escaping gas. “Allow me to introduce you to the TDS, or Temporal Displacement Suit, to give it its full title.”
Leaning closer, Max peered through the clearing fog, eagerly anticipating another amazing-looking piece of tech. What he eventually saw was a little disappointing. “You don’t seriously think I’m going to wear that, do you?” he said.
Once the gas had dissipated it revealed a five-piece suit of body armour. What upset Max the most was its colour; a dull shade of orange.
“What’s wrong with it?” the Admiral asked.
“Well, it’s a little too … colourful, for my taste. Can’t we make it more bluish, or gold even?”
“Max, this is the most advanced suit in the world, the colour is irrelevant. Now, Professor Chambers, perhaps you’d care to explain what it does while Max puts it on?”
After carefully retrieving the first piece of armour–the torso segment–Chantelle offered it to Max. “It will feel a little cold. We have to maintain a low temperature while it’s not in use.”
Max reluctantly worked the armour into place. He was still unhappy about the colour and made his feelings clear by adopting a face of thunder, like a toddler angry at being forced to tidy their room. The latest news blast he imagined would follow, of him wearing an orange-peel coloured suit, made him grind his teeth.
Each part of the suit went on easily, until he was fully dressed and waiting for the last piece; the helmet. Chantelle kept that piece with her as she explained the suit’s true talent.
“So,” she began, rolling the helmet over in her hands a few times. “This suit is incredibly powerful. It is capable of manipulating the flow of time, in essence giving the wearer the temporary ability to control the passing or reversing of time.”
“Woah, woah, Doc, in English please,” Max replied.
Chantelle looked to the Admiral, who was now a few shades redder in the face. He eventually nodded. “Okay,” she said. “Well, Max, this suit will let you reverse time back to the moment it was activated, or the Anchor Point. By creating a time-loop, we are giving you multiple chances to save the hostages.”
Max shook his head in reply. “Nope. Just explain it like you would to any normal person. Remember, I’m not a psychic like you.”
“You mean Physicist.”
“No, I’m pretty sure the word is psychic. So, the suit does what, exactly?”
A loud sigh escaped Chantelle’s semi-clasped lips. “It lets you rewind time.”
“Can you use diagrams perhaps?”
“For God’s sake, Max. I couldn’t explain it any simpler than that.”
“Allow me,” the Admiral said, stepping over to a nearby table. He picked up a rubber band and held it out in front of Max. He demonstrated the idea as though speaking to a three-year-old child. “Look at this. Fun, isn’t it? Imagine that this rubber band represents time.”
“Take it slow, Admiral,” Max replied.
“Well, time always flows forward.” The Admiral stretched the rubber band. “What this suit does is reset time to when the device was activated. Now see what happens.” He let the band snap back to its original size. “See, it goes back to how it was before.”
“Oh … my … goodness. You mean, time travel?”
“Finally,” Chantelle said, dropping her arms to her side in exasperation. She then waved Max ahead of her, toward a three-metre-wide view screen beside the raised area. In front of the screen was a row of chairs. She showed Max to the front. “Take a seat, Mr. Maxwell.”
“No thanks, I have enough of them already.” Max’s joke garnered a strained look from the Admiral.
Chantelle ignored it entirely and began her quick demonstration. On the screen behind her appeared an image of the suit, one that was broken down into its main components. She produced a laser pointer from her lab coat pocket and drew her audience’s attention to the glowing button built into the chest piece.
“That is the activation switch,” she said, after noticing how Max was investigating his chest-plate. “Currently, your suit is inactive and, therefore, the button is unlit. Before we can send you out in the suit, we need to calibrate its systems. If you press the button now it will take you forward in time. For this mission, we need to reverse it… Are you listening, Max?”
“Absolutely, hit the button to do time travel stuff.”
“Good enough. Now, to use this suit effectively you must first understand some of the science behind this technology. So, to begin with, I will give you a quick explanation of the physics that make this all possible…”
Max had heard enough already, so he hit the button in the centre of his chest and watched as Professor Chantelle Chambers’ explanation flashed by in an instant. He kept quiet as she finished her demonstration, just to hide his impatience.
“…and that is how time travel works,” she said.
“Fascinating stuff, Doc.” Max stood and flexed his arm muscles. “I’m ready to go when you are.”
“Not yet. Just hold still while we complete the set-up process.”
A smile found its way onto Max’s face at the thought he had avoided a long and boring demonstration. He hated sitting around and doing nothing. His preference was to throw himself into his work headfirst, even if that meant he sometimes got it wrong.
Chantelle prised open an access panel on the back of Max’s suit and tinkered with the internal electronics. Once she had finished, she slapped it shut. “There you go, all ready.” She turned to the Admiral. “He’s all yours, sir.”
“Excellent,” the Admiral replied. “Now, Max, we have a helicopter waiting for you outside. It will take you straight to where the hostages are being held. We’ll be in permanent communication from here using these…”
Max took the small earpiece from the Admiral and looked it over. “Nice!” He licked his finger, wiped the tiny device clean and then blew it dry. Unfortunately, what he had failed to realise was that the Admiral already had his own earpiece in his ear.
“Dear God man,” the Admiral shouted as he tried to quickly remove the device before the noise deafened him.
“Right, let’s go,” Max said, taking the helmet from Chantelle and tucking it under his arm. He walked away in slow-motion and exaggerating his leg movements like he had entered an action movie unexpectedly. As he walked away, Chantelle did her best to keep the Admiral from punching Max in the back of the head.
Upon exiting the hanger and venturing out into the icy-cold daylight, Max found the helicopter already preparing to lift off. He drew in a large breath, savouring the quiet before the storm, and then boarded. As soon as the door was shut he was whisked away, climbing steeply into the sky and leaving the Admiral and Chantelle far behind–to their joint relief.
The rotors roared as the craft sped through the air and on toward a remote area in the middle of a small mountain range. Staying close to the ground allowed for a more stealthy approach, exactly as Max preferred. But the second they reached the mountains they were forced up and into the line of fire.
“Mr. Maxwell,” the pilot called through the radio system. “The enemy may spot us once we reach altitude, so it could get a little bumpy.”
“Thanks for the warning.” Max saluted to confirm his preparedness. He then began to speak softly, narrating events to himself alone. “So, Clancy Gibson, you really believe you’re safe, hiding amid these treacherous cliffs? I’m coming for you. I’ll teach you and your lackeys a lesson for what you’ve done here today.”
Max felt his confidence surge at the thought of a heroic entrance, one in the face of overwhelming odds. It was promising to be as exciting as he had imagined. Missiles would lock on, the pilot would be forced to evade and Maximilian Maximus Maxwell–or Triple Max, as he liked to be known–would have to make a death-defying landing…
“Oh, that was easy,” the pilot said as the helicopter touched down safely. “They didn’t see us coming.”
“What? Where’s the enemy fighters, the automated missile systems, or the laser-shield?”
“I guess they haven’t got that kind of thing, sir.”
“Well, that’s just great.” Max kicked his shiny metal boot against the door. Not even the thrill of having been raced to the scene could stop him from feeling disappointed. “I suppose I should be thankful.”
“Are you ready to go, sir?”
“Good luck. We’re all counting on you.”
Max laughed arrogantly. “I don’t need luck. All I need are my two hands, my trusty pistol and my dashing looks to get me through the day. I’ve trained for worse situations than this, dealt with harder criminals than these. Hell, I dare say these people will simply surrender after hearing my name.”
He pulled open the door and felt the wind slapping against his body. It buffeted his steel suit, but he would dominate even nature itself. With his helmet snuggly slid into place, he ventured out into the mountainous air, to where only the foolish awaited his arrival.
The pilot’s voice popped through the static. “Are you okay, sir?”
“Erm, yeah. I’ve hit a little problem. Did anyone back at base know about the minefield? I’ve kinda put my foot in it.”
The sound of ticking told Max just how badly he had screwed up. Lucky for him the suit was ready to go. He thought about the only part of the briefing he had listened to and acted accordingly, by slapping the chest plate and activating the suit.
Around him, the world changed in a burst of activity. It may have only reversed time a few seconds, but it was enough to impress him still. In the blink of an eye, he was back inside the helicopter and watching as the pilot again found a place to land.
“Say,” Max said. “Any chance we could land a little further away from the entrance?”
“Affirmative, sir. Why?”
“I just think it would be safer.”
After the helicopter touched down a couple of meters away from the previous spot, Max leapt out and quickly knelt as it lifted off again. He kept his ride in view as it dipped into a nearby valley, all while it kept low enough to the ground to avoid detection. When it was gone, he took a moment to survey the area.
Annoyingly, to his immediate right was a wooden sign. Written clearly in bright white paint, it said, ‘Beware Minefield’.
“Good to know,” Max said to the sign, as though it could understand him somehow. He then put his hand to his earpiece and called home. “Admiral, come in.”
“I’m here, Max. Professor Chambers is with me too. What’s your progress?”
“Well, we’ve landed without incident.” He decided not to tell them he had messed up within only seconds of stepping foot on the mountain. “The entrance is littered with mines, sir. I’m going to find a way through them.”
“Ah yes, the minefield. Just follow the route we showed you during the briefing and you’ll get through them quickly.”
By now Max was mentally kicking himself for having avoided the briefing. “The route, yes, right,” he said. “Any chance you could remind me of that?”
Chantelle answered. “I’m sending the route to your HUD now.”
“Your HUD, Max; Heads-Up-Display. Did you listen at all during the briefing? Never mind. Here it comes…”
Through the golden visor of Max’s helmet came the information he needed in one unbroken line of colour. It showed a path through the frost covered minefield as a zig-zag route. He set off the instant he could see the way ahead, avoiding the places now highlighted in red.
“This thing is awesome, Doc.”
“Glad you like it, Max. Now, get inside that building.”
“You got it.”
He made it past the minefield finally, and without stepping on a single mine this time. The time-loop was already his best friend. He could see himself getting used to reversing time quite easily. He would never get it wrong ever again. Not that he normally did. It was just the unusual circumstances getting to him. He usually worked alone anyway, without the pressure of an Admiral watching everything he did.
His next obstacle was the entrance, which he was disappointed to see was nothing more than a concrete shed with an electronic lock on a metal door. It was hardly the unbreakable door to the villain’s lair that he was looking forward to cracking. Even worse, the door was already busted open, probably by a previous infiltrator before him.
“Is there anything here that’s new to you guys?” he asked into his radio.
The Admiral answered. “What do you mean?”
“Well, so far you’ve known about every obstacle. How many people have tried to get in here before me?” He pulled the door open and peered down the dark stairwell beyond. He only hoped the rest of the complex was more interesting, it was underground at least.
“You’re the fifth person we’ve sent. All the others perished. With that suit, you shouldn’t be the next to join them. Just concentrate on what’s ahead of you,” the Admiral said.
Max took gentle steps down the steep, steel staircase, his footsteps lost amid the sound of the flowing air inside the tunnel. It led into the depths of the mountain, to where he expected to find a plethora of enemies to knock about. This was what he was good at.
At the bottom of the stairs Max could hear talking. The voices were dulled by the concrete walls around him, but they were loud enough to pick up. He slowed his pace and kept his ears tuned to them. If they were getting louder too quickly, then he would have to hide.
He stopped at the edge of the wall and sneaked a peek around the corner of the corridor. Only a few feet away he caught sight of two armed men standing outside a door. Just what he was looking for; two unsuspecting guards to ambush and takedown without alerting the others. Or practice, as he liked to call it.
All he needed was a way to sneak up on them without being seen.
“Admiral,” he whispered. “I’m going to use the air system to get the drop on the enemy.”
“Are you sure that’s wise, Max?”
“Absolutely, sir. Zombie General did the same thing in issue sixty.”
The Admiral sighed. “Are all of your tactics taken from that godawful comic?”
Max ignored the comment as much as he could, but in truth he was furious.
The air system ran along the ceiling of the tunnels. By using them he planned on getting right up close to the guards and then launch his silent attack from above. He quietly opened one of the air vents above him and pulled himself up. It was a tight fit, but he managed to get his body into position eventually.
Sliding slowly through the tiny tunnel, Max made his way around the corner and toward the two guards. He kept his body as rigid as possible so the thin metal would not give his presence away with a badly timed creak or rattle. A few minutes later and he was directly above the guards and able to listen in on their conversation, without them knowing he was ever there.
“So, if I fill out form 21b, I can claim all of my expenses back?” one of the guards said.
The other man checked his assault rifle over as he answered. “Yep. I’ve been doing it for years. You can claim all sorts of things back too; ammo, armour, grenades, even the boots we wear. Just because we work for a super-villain doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be correctly reimbursed.”
“I guess you’re right. We should have the same rights as anyone else, even people who don’t work for criminals.”
Max listened in intently, mainly because he had never heard of such a scheme. He was one of the good guys and even he had to pay for his own equipment. Part of him wanted to jump out of the air vent and see if he could get in on the action too. He quickly remembered his mission, though, and was again focusing of his plan of attack.
But first he wanted to let the others know what was going on. “I’m hiding just above two of the guards, Admiral. I’m about to take them out.”
“Wait,” Chantelle cut in with. “The suit can tap into the security feeds wirelessly. I’ll activate the stealth systems from here, hang on a sec. Try that…”
Again, Max was amazed by the suit’s cool abilities. In the corner of his visor, a small screen popped open automatically, which gave him access to the nearby security camera. He could now spy on the guards from the camera at the other end of the corridor. Using this one suit, he imagined becoming the best infiltrator in history. He could scarcely believe he had gone so long without such a thing at his disposal.
“Freaky,” he said.
“What do you see?”
“I can see that both guards are heavily armed and wearing protective armour too. They’re chatting about their work. One mentioned they work for a super-villain.” Max paused when he noticed one of the men was looking directly above his head at something. “Wait, something’s going on. They’ve stopped talking. Now they’re both looking up.”
“What are they looking for?” Chantelle asked.
“I’ve no idea. Wait a minute, now they’re aiming their guns at something. They’re poking the air vent above them.”
“Not now, Doc. Now they’re reaching up to the grate. They’re opening it.”
“Oh my God, someone’s hiding inside the air vent. The idiot hasn’t got a clue they’ve found him.”
“For crying out loud, Max. It’s you they’re looking at.” The Admiral could be heard saying something away from the microphone afterwards, something Max was pretty sure he understood without hearing.
“Hey, you,” one of the guards below Max said. “You do realise we can see you, don’t you?”
Max looked away from security feed in the corner of his eye and down to the two rifles aimed at his face. He rolled his eyes.
“I think you might want to…,” Chantelle went to say.
“I know, I know, Doc. Time to start again.”
One slap of the chest plate and Max was once again whisked a short distance away, and back in time. Everything rewound before his eyes until he was sitting inside the helicopter once more, and looking down upon the sharp edges of the mountain range.
This time he knew what to do. “Drop me off a few feet from the edge of the minefield,” he told the pilot.
“You got it, sir.”
The helicopter landed and Max disembarked. He made his way through the minefield without bothering with the directions he had used before; he could remember it easily enough now. To those watching back at base, he was beginning to look a lot more professional. Of course, they had no idea how many times he had tried so far.
Through the entrance and down the stairs, and Max was back to the same place, just by the two guards. This time he remained quiet as he entered the air vent and slid into position. Again, he listened to them speaking, until he was happy he had heard everything important.
“So, I need forms 21B, TX72, all of my tax returns for the past year and…” The guard speaking was interrupted by a loud creaking noise.
When the grate above their heads burst open, Max jumped out and landed on top of them, his armoured body bringing them to the ground with a thump. Then a quick chop of his palm at the base of the skull and he had them incapacitated. He waited for any sign that the others he suspected were nearby had heard the disturbance. Thankfully, they hadn’t heard a thing.
“Excellent work, Max,” the Admiral said through the radio. “How did you know they were there?”
“Intuition, I suppose, sir.”
“Bullcrap! He must have used the suit already,” Chantelle could be heard to say in the background.
Max let the Admiral and the Professor argue that one between them.
He explored the next few corridors, making a note of where the guards were posted and plotting a route accordingly. Most of them were less than observant, meaning he could often just sneak past them. So far he was finding the whole rescue attempt a little lacking. Not like the type of situation the Zombie General faced each week.
It was the same all the way through the tunnel network, until he reached the centre of the complex. This was where the hostages were being held. He took a look through the double doors, pushing them open just enough to see inside. The way was clear of enemies.
After heading through the doors, Max was led onto a metal gangway that ran tens of metres above the ground. Beneath him were four small rooms situated in each corner of a much larger, open space. He could count at least twenty terrorists walking around below him, each with a curious amount of metal attachments on their bodies.
On the gangway, he was safe from being spotted, at least from the ground. Large lights hung from the ceiling that stopped just below the height of the metal walkway. They kept him hidden in the shadows. Max sneaked along, keeping his feet from making any sound, with the intention of eavesdropping once again.
When a guard exited one of the small rooms, he spoke to another just outside. “Keep the hostages quiet while Clancy gives his speech to the men.”
The other man nodded and then returned to staring ahead.
“Admiral, I’ve found the hostages,” Max said, a finger to his earpiece to block out external noise. “They’re being held in a small room below me.”
“Good work, Max. Now, try to get eyes on the leader of the terrorists.”
“Shouldn’t be too hard, he’s about to give a speech. This should be interesting.”
Chantelle then added, “Remember, Max, that suit gives you the chance to try the rescue a few times, so make good use of it. See if you can find a weakness somewhere, maybe a way to take them by surprise…”
“I’ve got a better idea.” Max decided his best chance of success was to launch his attack before their leader arrived. As usual, he thought his idea was best. “I’m going in.”
He swung himself over the railings and landed on the roof of the small room directly below him. His plan was to take out the nearest group of terrorists with a well-timed use of his favourite ninja-stars, bringing them to their knees with precision and speed. Then, when the way was clear, he would be free to break out the hostages and race them straight up the metal stairs, and on to freedom.
What actually happened was quite different.
The moment Max’s feet touched the soft foam material that made up the roof, he knew his plan would have to change. Instead of going straight into his attack, he went straight through the roof and fell face-first onto the hostages. Some of them shouted, some of them kicked him, one of them even decided Max was the enemy and insisted on wrestling him to the ground.
The scuffle that ensued guaranteed Max’s rescue attempt ended before he could do anything about it. He achieved the complete opposite, in fact. The noise he made called to every single guard in the area, telling them that someone had arrived unexpectedly. By the time he had fought off the hostages, the enemy had him surrounded, and they appeared quite amused by his failed incursion.
Up close, Max could now see the terrorists were different to the guards from earlier. These were the people closest to the leader and were the most loyal. They were covered in electronic devices, some of which had been fitted surgically to their skin. Now, finally, Max could see something worthy of his talents, an enemy he could really go up against.
“And who exactly are you?” the nearest man said.
The Admiral interrupted, in Max’s ear. “Try it again.”
“Yes, sir,” Max replied.
After his first real glimpse of the enemy had wetted his appetite, Max went through the next rerun almost perfectly. He dodged every bullet shot at him, incapacitated all the guards wandering the concrete corridors and even made it past the metal gangway without alerting the enemy. He was able to sneak down the stairs and find a good hiding place behind a row of boxes stacked up between two of the small rooms.
“Keep the hostages quiet while Clancy gives his speech to the men,” the same guard as before said to the other, who nodded in agreement.
Max let things go on without interruption this time round. Peeking over the top of the boxes, he watched in silence. He wanted to see the leader before he tried anything again. Partly because he was curious about this group and partly because he was afraid of messing things up like the last time.
“What’s going on?” the Admiral asked.
“I’m waiting for my chance. When this Clancy guy turns up, I’ll know what to do; shoot first and ask questions later.”
“Just be sure he doesn’t have the place booby-trapped.”
Max sniggered. “Booby…”
It was only a short wait for Max until his man arrived. Clancy stepped into the large space and everyone paused instantly to see. He had a presence about him that brought forth feelings Max struggled to understand at first. Was he in awe or just a little jealous of how amazingly futuristic Clancy looked?
As with the others there, Clancy had augmented his body with electronic adaptations. But he had gone much further than most. His arms were entirely robotic, his left leg too. Where his right eye should have been, there was now a metal plate with a red light glowing in the centre. With his armour a deep black and full of gadgets, it all added up to the most amazing enemy Max could have dreamed of.
When Clancy began to speak, everyone listened, including Max. “Listen up. Today we have sent a clear message to those who stand in our way.” Clancy waved a shiny titanium finger above him as though telling off the rest of the world. “We will drag the rest of humanity along with us, kicking and screaming if we have to. It is no longer good enough to be ordinary or normal. Each and every one of them must become extraordinary, just like us.”
To demonstrate how much better he believed his cyborg army were in comparison to normal humans, Clancy turned around and smashed one of the boxes behind him to pieces. The attack sent bits of wood and metal in all directions. A cheer erupted as he then did the same to another box. They clapped joyfully too, until they saw who was watching from behind the boxes.
Max smiled and waved politely before he was set upon by the nearest three men. “Hey, take it easy. I was only there for a little while,” he protested.
“Oh, for goodness sake.” The Admiral began to rant in the background. “My eighty-year-old mother could hide better than that!”
With one intimidating look from his glowing red eye, Clancy silenced his new prisoner. He pulled Max up, removed the time suit’s helmet with a sudden swipe of his right arm and then gripped Max’s exposed face. The strength Clancy had demonstrated made Max weak at the knees. “Let me guess, you’re here to rescue the hostages? What’s your name, son?”
Trying to speak while his face was being squeezed proved too difficult for Max. His words became only squeaks and murmurs; hardly a confident start.
“What?” Clancy said, drawing Max even closer and peering deep into his eyes.
“Mwy mname ish Mwax.”
“Interesting. And what is all this?” A tap of Max’s chest armour released a ding sound in return. While studying the suit’s helmet, Clancy then said, “I’ve never seen this kind of thing before. Tell me, Mwax.” He mocked Max’s squished face, before releasing him entirely. “What does this armour of yours do?”
Max rubbed his aching jaw. “Nothing special. It just lights up.”
“You might want to hit that reset button now.” The Admiral spoke softly through the radio.
“No, no, no,” Clancy continued to say. “This does much more than simply light up. This gives you something extra, some type of special power, doesn’t it?”
“Max, don’t tell him anything,” Chantelle said.
Turning away, Clancy gave Max a sideways glance. He was clearly planning something diabolical. “So, let me get this straight. To stop me bringing my enhancements to the rest of humanity, they send in someone who has been enhanced himself. Tell me, does that not sound a little hypocritical to you?”
The others watching all nodded in response to the question. Even Max was nodding. He could see the problem too. He began to think, perhaps Clancy was right. It was a little strange to use an advanced suit to stop someone else making a similar thing. He could even go so far as to say that building the enhancements directly into a person was probably a better idea too.
Max had to ask a question he had held in since being given the assignment. The technology these terrorists had was more impressive than anything he had seen before. “Does it hurt?”
“Does what hurt?” Clancy replied, suddenly thrown by the unplanned deviation.
“Having your arms replaced with robot ones.”
“What, these little things?” Clancy flexed his robotic muscles to show off. “Oh, that was nothing. The surgeons we use are very gentle. I didn’t really feel a thing.”
“Really? That’s awesome…”
“What are you doing?” Chantelle said through the radio.
“…So, what can you do with them, besides destroy a few boxes?” Max laughed awkwardly. He looked about him, but no one else was laughing.
“Why do you ask?” Clancy gave Max a quick look over, obviously trying to decide what to make of him.
“Well, I could be even better at my job if I had something like that. Is there any way I could try something out, maybe a robot finger; you know, something small at first?”
“Certainly. In fact, we have a starter kit we like to offer first-time customers.”
“And how much would that cost?”
The Admiral was now shouting through the earpiece in Max’s ear. “This isn’t a bloody salesman you’re talking to, Max. This is the man who is currently threatening to kill innocent people if we don’t give in to his demands.”
Max turned to the side and whispered his response. “I know that. I’m just trying to talk to him before I…”
“Before you what?” Clancy said.
“Well, thank you very much, Admiral. Now he’s heard me talking to you.”
“I swear,” the Admiral went on, “if you don’t shoot Clancy now, I’m going to storm in there and shoot you instead. Don’t talk to him, just do it!”
“Okay, okay, sheesh.” Max reached for his holster. Unfortunately, it was empty.
“You didn’t notice we took your gun? Oh dear. Well, this has been fun and all, but now it’s time to get back to business. Kill him,” Clancy ordered.
The nearest man raised his gun and squeezed the trigger, releasing a hot flash into Max’s face. But the bullet was never given the chance to touch its target. Instead it was frozen in the air, hovering in place like a deadly wasp. The second he hit the reset button, time had stopped, just as the shot had been fired, and before Max could crap his underpants.
“Right, back we go again,” Max said, just as the world flipped into reverse and sped back to the starting point.
Everything that came before his meeting with Clancy had become routine by now, something he could do while thinking about other things. As he dodged punches from the guards, leapt through the air to miss bullets and kicked his enemies out the way, he imagined himself becoming almost entirely robotic. Not even the Zombie General himself would be able to defeat Maximillian Maximus Maxwell the cyborg.
Back at the metal gangway, he was ready to concentrate again. He put his fantasy of becoming part metal-man to one side and focused on getting the job done finally. This time he would do as the Admiral said and kill Clancy the second he arrived.
Events played out as before–which made Max impatient. He kept an eye on the hostages, picking out the one who had fought back after he’d landed on them. That guy would be getting a telling off, even though he would have no idea why. Time may have been changed, but Max still had a bruise and was eager to repay the favour.
“Listen up,” Clancy shouted, bringing Max’s attention back to the current present. “Today we have sent a clear message to those who stand in our way. We will drag the rest of humanity along with us, kicking and screaming if we have to. It is no longer good enough to be ordinary or normal. Each and every one of them must become extraordinary, just like us.”
That was Max’s cue. He threw himself over the gangway’s railing and plummeted to the ground. He landed with a crunch, cracking the concrete beneath his metal boots. Before any of them could react, he grabbed Clancy and held him at gunpoint.
“Upgrade this!” Max called out to a collection of bemused faces.
With a gun pressing against his temple, Clancy began to laugh, his voice full of power and unnaturally loud. “You idiot! That makes no sense. I didn’t even set you up for that.”
“What are you talking about?” Max spoke to the guards that were quickly surrounding him. His epic moment of triumph had been ruined. A surprise entrance always warranted a smart comment, and he was devastated to find his had failed. “You all got what I was going for, didn’t you?”
“I kinda liked it,” one of them replied.
Another answered, “I dunno, it didn’t really work for me. Maybe you should’ve said something a little more threatening instead.”
“Really, more threatening?” Max took a few seconds to think it over again, until a line came to him suddenly. “Oh, okay. What about this: ‘Normal just kicked your arse?’”
The guards looked to each other, before giving their approval with nods and thumbs up gestures.
Even Clancy liked it. “Yeah, that would have worked better, I think. ‘Upgrade this’ seems a bit too simple.”
“Great,” Max said. “Good chat, thanks.” He then pressed the reset button and raced through the route all over again, all the while making absolutely sure he had his big entrance clearly set out in his mind. A short while later and he was back to the same point, waiting for his cue once more.
“It is no longer good enough to be ordinary or normal. Each and every one of them must become extraordinary, just like us…” Clancy said.
Max then leapt down from the gangway and grabbed his target. “Normal just kicked your arse!” he shouted proudly, his gun to Clancy’s head.
“Yessss,” the Admiral yelled through the radio.
The guards froze in fear, their shocked faces showing just how impressed they were with Max’s awesome entrance. In the bright light of the surrounding labs their electronic adaptations glimmered, but their assured demeanour had changed now. They had been taken by complete surprise and not even the coolest looking tech could help them.
They had no idea Max had attempted this same moment multiple times already and was using time against them. If they had, then he would have looked a lot more unprofessional. That usually only happened when he tried to talk to people–which he had never been good at.
“Everybody take it easy. Don’t mess with this guy, he’s clearly a professional.” Clancy held his hands up to keep his people away as he spoke. “So, Mr. Hero, what do you have planned now? You’re surrounded, by the way.”
With a quick flash of a look behind him, Max saw the small room where the hostages were held. “You’re going to let the prisoners go and then, maybe, I’ll take you in alive.”
He heard Chantelle calling to him through his earpiece a moment later. “You did it, Max. Well done. Just keep them busy and the Admiral will send you reinforcements to help out.”
“You’ll never survive this,” Clancy continued. “I’ll make sure my men kill you last, after they’ve killed all of your friends.”
“Ha, the jokes on you, I have no friends.” The reply sounded better in his head. “Shut up and open the door to the room.” Max slowly dragged Clancy along with him as he ventured toward the hostages.
“I’ll never give you the code to that room, never.”
“Fine, then I don’t need you alive anymore.” Max pulled the trigger, shooting Clancy instantly. He let the body fall to the ground and grabbed another guard to hold hostage. “Now, who can give me the code to this door?”
“Max, what happened?” the Admiral asked.
“Don’t worry, sir. I’ve killed Clancy. It’s okay. I’m trying to get the access code. Once I have it I’ll reset and try again.” Max returned to speaking with the guards. “So, the code?”
The man to Max’s right answered. “We don’t have it.”
“Then who does?”
All eyes fell on Clancy’s body.
“He’s the only one that knew it? Oh great, that’s just bloody great. I go through all this trouble of looking amazing, like the greatest ever man to live, and you tell me that. Do you know how hard it is to do this job? Nope, nein, nyet!” Max slapped his chest plate hard with the palm of his hand. “Unbelievable.”
Time flowed backwards yet again, all the way to the beginning. By now, Max was beginning to get a little fed up with repeating himself. He had tried over and over again, and each time he had been foiled by a simple mistake. In the past, he would have stormed into the building and fought the enemies off in one run through. Something about having the option to start over had dulled his reflexes, almost as though he’d lost his edge a little.
As the helicopter landed, he decided to tell the Admiral his finally agreed plan of attack. He had run the events through enough times now to have found a way that should work first time. All that was left for him to do was follow his own plan until the hostages were free. It may have become slightly boring for him, but he knew he still had a job to do.
“Go ahead,” the Admiral replied. “Let’s hear this plan of yours, and it better be good.”
Max explained it all in fine detail, including a description of each failed attempt. The Admiral remained quiet after he had heard it all. It was possible he was less than pleased with how it had gone so far, although Max had failed to realise.
Chantelle, on the other hand, was much more vocal. “Max, how many times have you used the suit so far?”
“Oh, let me just think about that… I’d guess about six or seven times.”
“Hang on for a second or two. I just need to speak with the Admiral.”
The helicopter lifted off behind Max, sending a strong gust of air down upon him. He waited for it to pass before pressing on toward the minefield. The positions of each hidden explosive had become so hard-wired into his brain now that he was sure he could dance the tango directly through the middle of them. The mental image it brought up made him smile while he waited.
Everything seemed to be set at his end, ready for him to head into battle for what he hoped would be the last time. But then he heard a sound that removed his smile instantly. A loud groan came from his earpiece, a sound that told him to expect something terrible.
A frustrated stream of words quickly followed, flowing through Max’s earpiece as a torrent of abuse he struggled to decipher as much more than just noise. The Admiral was moaning and grunting in anger, like a constipated elephant. He was clearly holding back his attack, one that would rival anything the likes of Clancy could ever muster.
Eventually the Admiral found the right words. “You absolute, immense, catastrophic muppet!” he shrieked.
“What did I do?” Max tried to answer.
“Shut up, just shut the…” another strange noise followed. “What’s the point in giving you a briefing if you refuse to listen to it? Professor Chambers told you everything you needed to know, and more. We specifically told you the suit could only manage seven resets before the power-cell would burn out. You are a buffoon, a buffoon I tell you.”
Max did his best to calm the Admiral down, but his chosen sentence failed to work. “I’m sorry. I got bored during the briefing, so I used the suit to move ahead of it,” he said, positive he had done all he could to defend himself. In his head, admitting that he had skipped past the briefing seemed like a good excuse. It was not.
For a few seconds, there was no answer. Then something began to breath heavily through the radio. An evil and enraged presence had formed on the other end that threatened to throttle anything in its wake. “You did what?” the beast snarled, spitting furiously through the mic, so much so that Max swore his ear felt a little damp from it.
Something crashed, then stomping footsteps echoed away in the background.
Chantelle stepped in to take over as the beast-like Admiral stormed away. Her voice was much calmer, although somewhat sterner than earlier. “How much power does the suit still have?”
Max checked the power readings on the small screen attached to his arm. The battery symbol was flashing rapidly. “So that’s what that means. I guess I’d better be careful this time around. But then, like the Zombie General always says…”
Someone shouted in the background, interrupting Max’s impromptu speech.
“Now, Admiral, that’s not very nice.” Chantelle was speaking away from the microphone. It was just about loud enough for Max to hear. “Perhaps you should sit down, you look a little redder than usual, sir. No, I’m sure Max wasn’t dropped on his head as a child. Yes, I agree, he’s a very bad man.” She was doing a stellar job at holding the Admiral at bay. She then spoke to Max, her voice barely a whisper. “How many resets do you have left, Max?”
“Well, if I’m reading this thing on my arm correctly, then … I’ve got ten left.”
“No, that can’t be right.”
“Oh wait, my bad.” Max chuckled to himself. “I had my finger on the screen, thought it was a one… Oh bugger, I’ve got no resets left.”
The Admiral reacted badly at hearing that. “Aaaaaaaaaaargh, let me at him, just let me at him!”
“Hey, chill, chill. Can’t we recharge the suit, or something?”
“Right, that’s enough,” Chantelle ordered. “I’ve had quite enough of this nonsense. And I most certainly will not say that, Admiral. Do you kiss your family with that mouth? Don’t you stick your tongue out at me.” She sighed. “Now, Max, can you get those hostages out of there or not?”
Thinking over his plan, Max became certain he had it covered. He had seen every outcome, mainly due to his own mistakes, and could predict them well enough in advance to deal with any changes. “I can do it, Doc,” he said. “Clancy won’t have a clue what’s about to hit him.”
“Fine, then get to work. I’ll deal with the aftermath here.” There was a sudden pause, then Chantelle again spoke away from the radio mic. “Will someone stop the Admiral please? I know he’s frustrated, but he doesn’t have to take it out on… Hey, hey, put that chair down. Don’t you dare throw that at me. I’m warning you. Right, that’s it … one, two, three…”
The radio call ended there.
“Hello? Doc, are you there?” Max asked. He looked ahead to the concrete entrance to Clancy’s lair as he waited for a response. His link to HQ had been severed, leaving him alone and facing a great enemy; or issue 279 of Zombie General, as he knew the situation as. “So, the time has finally come, Clancy.” He was talking to himself now. “Somehow, you’ve blocked my connection to command, no doubt to give you the upper hand. Well, you can forget about it … I’m coming for you.”
After a couple of hard slaps against his arms, legs and chest to psych himself up, he was ready for action. He let out a loud grunt before setting off at speed across the minefield. His body had been prepared correctly and was now at peak fitness. This had always been his preferred routine before a battle. Sitting in front of a screen and listening to briefings never worked. They only dulled his responses.
Now came the time for him to truly prove his worth as a soldier and an infiltrator. He may have been the bane of the Admiral’s and the Professor’s existence, for the short time they had known him at least, but they had never seen him do things his own way. He was someone that worked best by himself.
He bounded through the minefield, avoiding every explosion he set off like a chaotic ninja leaping across the ground on springs. His reflexes were quick enough to keep him ahead of the blasts and flashes of heat. The suit he wore was now nothing more than armour, the real power coming instead from his own experiences.
Once he was beyond the mines he bolted through the solid door, slamming it hard against the concrete wall. His speed and force carried him forward and down the staircase in only three huge leaps. He landed at the bottom and rolled, just to keep the flow going.
The two guards around the first corner barely saw him coming before he had them unconscious on the floor. He treated them both to a knock on the head from his thick fists, their bodies landing in a slumped heap. While they lay sleeping he continued on, determined to get the job done quickly and efficiently.
On his way to the final room, Max took out thirteen more men with a similar lack of fuss. He was on autopilot now. Before anyone had any clue why they were staring at a cold floor, he had vanished into the shadows. Not one of them could even fire off a shot in his direction. The suit had given him the chance to test their weaknesses over and over again.
With the entire floor cleared of guards, he went on to the last area. This part of his plan relied much more on his training than any other. He had yet to make it past this part. Clancy had proven to be a worthy opponent, one he knew would require brute force to beat. There was no outsmarting him.
He waited for Clancy to arrive and address his men first, that way he had his enemies all in one place. They had been taken by surprise easily the first few times, but he had always gotten stuck after that. Not this time. This time he had a way to get through it and save the hostages.
Clancy finished his speech and Max went for it. He jumped over the railings, fell to the ground and landed directly behind his target. With his gun pressed up against Clancy’s head, Max had him trapped.
“Everybody take it easy. Don’t mess with this guy, he’s clearly a professional,” Clancy ordered of his men. “So, Mr. Hero, what do you have planned now? You’re surrounded, by the way.”
Max chose not to talk and instead allowed his body to act automatically, as it usually did when he relied on instinct alone. He clouted Clancy on the back of the head, spun his body and dragged him along backwards. As he neared the room holding the hostages, he fired a shot behind him and removed the door latch.
The guards watched in amazement as Max then sealed the room with himself, the hostages and his prisoner, Clancy, inside. They had no idea what to do next. Not one of them had considered this as an option for a possible rescue attempt.
“What the hell do you think you are doing?” Clancy asked as Max leant him against a wall. “There’s no way out of this place.”
Wide eyed and on full alert–like he was wired to explode from within–Max gave his answer. “That’s exactly what the swamp people said, when the Zombie General was trapped inside their swamp palace. He saw no way out either. But he always has something up his sleeve, a plan his enemies never think of.”
Clancy stared at Max, utterly perplexed and unsure what to do. “The who in the what? Are you completely mad? How does this help you?” The hostages slowly swarmed around him, like circling vultures searching for leftovers. When a few of them stepped closer, with the clear intent to cause him bodily harm, he reacted. “Hey, stay back. I’m warning you all.”
“Time to call in the cavalry,” Max said, his face beaming with pride. “Come in, Admiral.”
“What is it now, Max?” Chantelle answered instead. “I’m still trying to calm things down back here.”
“I have the hostages. I’m locked inside a room with them, and the terrorist leader, Clancy. The upper floors are clear of enemies too. The Admiral can send in his men. They’ll find only a handful of terrorists left behind.”
The line remained silent for a second or two, then it popped back to life. “Well, that’s great, Max. Although, I don’t think the Admiral will be back for a little while. The last I saw, the medical team were sedating him.”
“It certainly has been a stressful day.”
“Yes, stressful indeed.”
“And don’t blame yourself, Doc. I’m sure the Admiral will be fine.”
“Blame myself? But … you were … it was … Oh, never mind. You said you’ve taken Clancy Gibson prisoner?”
“Absolutely.” Max gestured to Clancy to speak.
“Bog off,” was all he said in response.
“Your suit kicks arse, by the way, Doc,” Max added. “In fact, I’d love to use it again some time.”
Chantelle released a single sound, like a wheezing breath caught between her teeth. The pressure valve had been undone it seemed, allowing all of her frustration, anger and disbelief to float away like a balloon. She eventually said, “Good work, Max. I’ll send in a team right away.”
A hand fell on Max’s shoulder unexpectedly. He turned to see a row of worried looking faces looking back, as he confirmed Chantelle’s message. The hostages were still a little confused by it all. A woman behind him had her hand on his armour, as though checking he was really there. “Don’t worry, you’re all safe now,” he said, waving his gun around without thinking. The hostages leapt to the floor to avoid his aim. “Oh, crap, sorry.”
Clancy laughed with a bellowing and riotous outpouring of noise. “You really are a moron; do you know that? I could make this world a billion times more powerful, create entire armies of metal soldiers even, and you choose to prevent me. You can’t stop this, no one can. I’ll soon escape and start all over again. Not even time can stand in my way…”
“Not even time?” Max said. “You have no idea, buddy. No idea.”