Prologue (Operation: Butternut)
The atmosphere was heavy on December 31st, 2099. When the day of a scale-tipping operation that was doomed to fail finally rolled around, and when the world was watching with contempt in its eye, and when no amount of reassurance and preparation could prevent death, destruction, and a hellish descent to insanity, it was safe to say that all was not well.
Lord Snail and Cal sat silently in the break room. Cal’s eyes darted around the room, fixating on no point in particular. He slipped his hand into his pocket and pulled out his watch, fumbling with it before checking the hour. “Er, Snail, I think it’s time.”
They got up and walked down the hallway to the main gathering room, tension filling the entire building with every step like an old-fashioned blood pressure meter.
“I’ve reviewed the plan again and again. Everything seems to be in order, but...what if it all goes wrong? The Independents are counting on us, we can’t fail again,” said Cal, rubbing his forehead.
“Everything is on the line this time. Our plan is more impactful but far more risky than four years ago. But I know we can pull it off. We have to.” Lord Snail glanced at Cal. He was visibly shaking like a bean inside of a maraca, and his lips were trembling. His gloved hands clenched a crumpled slip of paper. Lord Snail never tried to interfere with Cal’s personal matters, but she knew what the note was about.
Cal and his boyfriend Awesome MacCheese had been separated for over four months by countless missions. The note was the last thing Cal had from him. Seeing that note reminded Lord Snail of...King Thunder. What a remarkable woman. Lord Snail privately thought there was no time for relationships in the midst of a revolution, but she wasn’t immune to them herself. She refused to admit it, but she missed the mystical gaze of Thunder’s silvery eyes and those smooth hands tenderly running through her hair.
Cal and Lord Snail arrived at the gathering room, where the other participants of the operation were already waiting for them. Lord Snail stepped up to the front of the room to give a speech and review the plan one final time. She never had a problem with public speaking, but she couldn’t help feeling anxious with all the somber yet optimistic faces present before her and the room dead silent, as if it was filled with suffocating barnacles.
“Greeting, fellow Independents. We have been devising the plan for Operation: Butternut ever since the last Republican convention, and the stakes are higher than ever. But I have faith in all of us. We can pull through and secure a victory for our movement if we follow the plan without fail. With that being said, let us review the plan one last time.
“First, Tech Squad will hack the security cameras, which they already know the procedure for. Next, they will send in the holograms to the entrance. The bouncers will be distracted, allowing Infiltration Squad to sneak in. We don’t have to worry about too many guards, because the Republicans have fairly lax security. During this segment, Tech Squad will shut off the ventilation system so that Infiltration Squad can enter it and follow the predetermined passages to the central meeting room, with myself in the lead. I have assigned Cal as my second-in-command and scout, so he will report any circumstances that can disrupt the operation. Now, our end goal is to capture their chief planner, Pimple Blackhead. He should be giving his portion of the speech at approximately 15:43, and by then we need to be securely in the vents with other portions of the plan accounted for. I will use this throwing knife that never misses to temporarily incapacitate him. It’s been infused with a stunning agent.” Lord Snail grimaced as she said this. She pulled out her knife, the blade gleaming wickedly as if it had a hunger for blood. “That should send the Republicans into more disarray than they’re in already, but they thrive in that sort of environment. That’s why Tech Squad is going to project a gargantuan hologram of another chief Republican planner and make him say that he is taking control. That’s sure to freak them out. Meanwhile, Capture Squad, disguised as medics, will enter and take Pimple Blackhead back here. After he is captured and the Republican Convention is hacked, we are free to regroup back here. Any questions?”
Asking for questions was Lord Snail’s type of irony. Nobody ever had any questions. After all, they had reviewed this plan countless times, with every detail and possible fluke accounted for.
Cal fidgeted with his infiltration suit, standing by himself in a corner. He glanced up at Lord Snail with a look of slight contempt on his face. They were best friends, but this plan was a sore spot in their relationship. Lord Snail was willing to do whatever it took to win, including killing people. “You can’t fight people who want to kill you by asking them nicely. A rebel has to do what needs to be done in order to win,” she always said. When they were originally drafting the plan, Lord Snail insisted on assassinating Pimple Blackhead. Cal implored her to consider otherwise, that murdering the planner was going too far and that they should capture him instead. She reluctantly agreed to infuse the knife with stunning fluid instead of poison.
“Attention, everyone!” she shouted so the whole room could hear. “It’s time! Tech Squad, into positions! Infiltration Squad, follow me to the assigned entrance point! And...I believe in all of us. We can do this. Let’s go!”
The teams scrambled into their positions. Lord Snail headed up the stairs to the entrance point with the rest of the Infiltration Squad. “Make sure your headsets are on, and don’t go in until Tech Squad gives the signal.”
They waited an agonizing 14 minutes and 27 seconds, but it felt like a thousand times longer. Everyone could feel the tension growing at an exponential rate. If the tension was high while Lord Snail was giving the speech, it was bursting out of the roof by then. She examined the group while waiting. Other than herself, there were four more members standing before her. Of course there was Cal, who looked nervous but determined. His eyebrows were knit together like grandma’s socks. There was also Chefling, an interesting little person who slapped people far too often, but their skills with rocket launchers were admirable. Next to them was Cousin Poopsie, who wasn’t actually anyone’s cousin, but everyone called him that. His bright pink hair probably would have blinded the Republicans, but it was hidden under a hood to maintain relative stealth. Last was someone who Lord Snail didn’t recognize, nor could she discern many of their features. They were wearing all black like the rest of them, but with a ninja-like mask. She assumed it was Cereal because of the ninja’s twinkling brown eyes, but she wasn’t certain.
“Cereal? Why are you wearing a ninja mask? That wasn’t part of the plan.”
“To be stealthier.”
His voice sounded a little hoarse like a singing pony.
“Do you have a cold?”
Although Cereal was always a little awkward, this was unusual. Just as Lord Snail was getting suspicious, Tech Squad sent their signal.
“We’re on. Go!” she commanded. All five of them went out the secret trapdoor situated right beside the entrance to the convention. Just as planned, the bouncers were nowhere to be seen. The team went through the front entrance and emerged in the lobby, where the gaping hole of the vents was located on their right. One by one, they went in, with Lord Snail in the lead, followed by Cal, then Chefling, and Cousin Poopsie. Cereal the ninja seemed to be straggling behind about a meter, examining the segments of the vents for some reason.
They traveled for about nine minutes through the maze of channels, but they knew the route by heart from all the times they reviewed it. When they finally reached the central meeting room, it was 15:33.
“Alright, we’re right on schedule. In ten minutes, Pimple Blackhead will be speaking on stage, and that’s when I’ll strike.” Lord Snail peeked out the grille in the vents and surveyed her surroundings. The vast room contained a stage that spanned over seven meters on its own, where a large gathering of people stood. People were watching in the audience, of course. They all wore fancy suits in different shades of grey and tan. The scene reminded Lord Snail of those horrible mountains in the desert where some scouts had mysteriously disappeared last year. Everyone was standing in sporadic clusters instead of sitting in chairs. One man was standing at a table covered with cakes. He shouted “A gourmet Bundt cake is never the wrong thing to bring!” every few minutes. Since there were hundreds, maybe thousands of people who were to give speeches, the convention must last hours. It looked insufferably boring.
The vents themselves were exposed, nestled bare in the corner between the wall and ceiling. If the vent the group was sitting in broke, they would plummet 15 meters down and break like glowsticks filled with blood.
Once again, the team sat and waited. Although she didn’t enjoy waiting, Lord Snail had learned long ago that she had to be patient during operations. She kept a watchful eye on the speakers like a creepy elf doll.
Meanwhile, Cal examined his teammates, just as Lord Snail had done before. They were all peering through the vents too, with the exception of Cereal. He seemed to be fiddling with the grooves in between each segment of vents. “Cereal, what are you doing?” he asked.
Cereal gave no reply. He just continued doing whatever he was doing with the vents.
Lord Snail’s watch beeped. “It’s 15:43. Pimple Blackhead should be going on stage now.” She watched a stout little man wearing a horrendous outfit made of plaid flannel pants and a jean jacket walk on stage. He looked like a reverse lumberjack. “That’s him. I’m going to throw the knife in -”
“MOVE! QUICK!” Cal shouted to the group. They were so startled that they didn’t question him. They scurried over to the left as the entire segment of the vent they were sitting in not even five seconds ago collapsed. The piece tumbled to the ground and made a crashing noise louder than the pincers of 100,001 crabs.
Every single pair of eyes in the building turned towards the crash. People started gathering at the scene, and Pimple Blackhead struggled to maintain their attention. “There is no need to panic. It appears the structural integrity of the vents has failed, but rest assured that we will get it fixed soon.” His reassurance failed miserably. It seemed that everyone at the convention was gathered below the vents.
“How did the vents break? Was our combined weight too heavy for the vents?” Cousin Poopsie asked. “And how did you know?”
“This was no accident,” Cal replied. He touched the groove where the segment detached. “This seam is clean as ever. No evidence of it breaking. And look -” he pointed to some metal tidbits laying on the inside of the vent. “- nuts and bolts, carefully removed from the seam. This was sabotage. I saw Cereal messing with the seams multiple times. I didn’t think much of it, until I felt the vents creak and groan louder than before. I caught a glimpse of the nuts and bolts, then Cereal holding a wrench.”
“I suspected something was up with him, but I didn’t question it either,” muttered Lord Snail, “but why would he betray us? And where is he, anyway?”
Everyone scoured the vents. Sure enough, Cereal was nowhere to be found.
“Guys, look!” Chefling pointed to the opposing section of vents. Cereal was standing on top of it, except he wasn’t Cereal anymore. The ninja had taken his mask off, revealing short, spiky black hair. The real Cereal had pure white hair. His eyes were no longer brown, either. Now they glowed yellow like undercooked yolks with honey.
“He must have been impersonating Cereal so that we’d trust him. But who is this guy, and where’s the real Cereal?” asked Lord Snail to nobody in particular.
“Who are you? Did you destroy our vents?” bellowed Pimple Blackhead, exploding with fury like a fire extinguisher with too much pressure applied to it.
“My name is Benedict Eggs. I have come to inform you that some traitors have snuck into your vent system and have been watching your every move. They are also planning to capture you, Pimple Blackhead. I would advise you to leave immediately.”
“You have to throw the knife! NOW!” Cal told Lord Snail. She reached into her knife holster. The knife was gone. She froze, then turned around to face Cal with her eyes wider than a dishwasher.
“Cal...the knife...it’s gone! I have spare knives, but none of them are infused with po-, er, stunning fluid.”
“We’re going to have to bail out on this if we want to get out in one piece. Clearly, we won’t be able to capture Pimple Blackhead now.”
“But...what if I threw one of my normal knives and pierced him in the heart?”
“No, that’s out of the question! We can’t kill him!”
Lord Snail punched the side of the vent in exasperation. “Then what? This whole operation would be for nothing! We planned for months, we risked our lives, and we can’t let all that go to waste!”
During this exchange, Pimple Blackhead stood on the stage, frozen in fear and shock. “What do you mean, traitors are planning to capture me? Surely I would have been informed of this!”
“You idiot! It was a secret mission! Now, if you don’t want to be captured, leave!” Eggs screamed at him.
With a determined glare in her eyes, Lord Snail decided that she knew best. Just as Pimple Blackhead was finally exiting the building, she threw her knife, aiming directly at his heart. Her expert marksmanship paid off, and just one second later, Pimple Blackhead was dying on the floor with a knife in his heart.
She turned around, about to direct her team out of the complex. She didn’t expect Cal to look too happy, but she definitely didn’t expect to see his glassy eyes staring back at her, full of shock and horror. The color was draining from his face at a startling speed, and his pale lips, hardly moving at all, uttered the words “Snail...what have you done…” A single tear rolled down his cheek. Lord Snail’s eyes moved from Cal’s pallid face to his right arm. Her knife, the one that had mysteriously disappeared, was embedded in his arm.
“That Eggs guy, he was the one who stole your knife,” said Chefling, “He threw it at Cal when you were...doing your thing, and then he escaped through the vents. I think he was aiming for his heart, but missed and hit his arm instead. But it’s just stunning fluid, so he’ll be fine in a few hours, right?”
“No…” Lord Snail gasped. Her face lost all its color, turning paler and paler like plastic in the sun. “No…”
Cousin Poopsie looked her in the eyes. “What do you mean, no?”
She couldn’t reply. All she did was let out a scream of despair, awful enough to drive anyone to insanity.
Cousin Poopsie wrenched the knife out of Cal’s limp arm. He sniffed it, then examined the area around the wound, which had taken on a sickly greenish tinge. “Poison.”
He and Chefling stared at Lord Snail. “You...poisoned the knife? But why?” asked Chefling, though they already knew the answer.
“My plan...I’m so sorry Cal…” she sobbed. “What have I done?”
She couldn’t utter any more words. Her body was shaking worse than before the operation, and she was screaming and crying all at the same time. Through her tears, she stared down at the knife, which was still stained with Cal’s blood. Almost unconsciously, her hand gripped the knife. She brought it to her chest in an instant, but stopped just before it pierced her heart. When she caught a glimpse of the silvery vents, she stood up and cast the knife away, down into the crowd below. Trembling and still sobbing, she jumped across to the other segment of the vent, and flung herself through the channels, her wails echoing like the cries of a seal stranded in a dry valley.
“We...we should head back…” said Cousin Poopsie, still in shock from seeing Lord Snail’s ordeal.
He and Chefling stood up, picking up Cal’s body. His fist opened, and out fell that old crumpled note from Awesome, stained with the tears of 3000 hours of pain.