Midgame: Part 2
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They were trying their best, they really were, but after a few sips of the drink, Alyk had to give up and lay it on the bedside table. Instant coffee may have been rare in the Backrooms, but it still tasted like dirty water. They'd never been picky eaters, but bad coffee was one of the things they could not stand, and this was a downright insult to the drink as a whole.

After who knows how many days in that hospital room, if it could even be called that, boredom was killing them more than their wounds could ever do. For obvious reasons, the room had no TVs or anything to watch or entertain themself with, except for one magazine dated November 1989 which Alyk had already read so many times that they were convinced they could recite it by heart if needed.

Time felt immobile in that cramped room. At least, they didn't put them in the older sections of Base Gamma. The rickety walls in those parts were almost painful to look at, knowing how frequently the Base was attacked by entities. Not that the scrap metal walls that surrounded them were that much sturdier anyway.

The lightbulb hanging from the ceiling by a piece of salvaged wire could only dimly illuminate the room. Alyk was pretty sure they lost some diopters reading in that light. They sat up on the bed and tried reaching for the crutches leaning against the opposite wall from their bed. The room was cramped, sure, but not that much. Before they could start yelling all the swears they could think of, a knock on the door brought them back to their senses.

"Who the fuck is it this time?" they asked, but the slurping sound from the other side of the door already made it clear.

"It's me, Soul! I brought you a visitor!"

"A visitor?"

"Yeah, she's a doctor, a very good one! She says she can cure your knee and put you back on your feet within the end of the week!"

That was bullshit. Not even the Lord himself could completely heal a knee fracture that fast. But, after all, it's not like they had much to lose.

"Alright, come on in. And for the love of god, stop using straws to drink coffee. What are you, six?"

He laughed.

"Oh, if only. We're coming in!"

The door creaked as it opened, the hinges clearly struggling to rotate due to the abundant rust.
Alyk's cheerful companion waltzed in, coffee in hand, still audibly drinking from a straw. Alongside him was a humanoid figure with half its face looking like magenta-colored plastic and the other half missing all features, save for one eye. Alyk's hands clutched the mattress.

"What the fu-"

Soul stared at them, bewildered, while the creature simply examined them with its one eye, unaffected by Alyk's look of fear. Soul, clearly embarrassed by their behavior, frantically turned to it.

"They didn't mean it, Ginger, I swear. It must be the shock or-" he said in the most apologetic tone he could, before being cut off by her.

"Do not worry, Soul. If it is their first time seeing a polygonal Faceling, this is a normal reaction. Besides, emotional reactions like taking offense for other people's behavior are not something I experience very often, as you know."

She spoke without a tinge of emotion in her voice. No accents, no dialectal terms, or anything that didn't sound like it was taken straight out of a formal document. It was almost identical to vocal synthesizer softwares that existed back in the Frontrooms, but with all the indescribable tells that distinguished an artificial voice from the real thing. A soft crackling sound, similar to radio static, accompanied her speech. Alyk had never seen a Faceling like that before, that's for sure.

They simultaneously felt puzzled and ashamed, but one thing was clear: this creature- no, this girl, wasn't just some entity trying to harm her. They fucked up.

"I'm… I'm sorry, I didn't mean to…"

"It is quite alright. My name is Ginger. I am here to examine your injury. May I?" she said while gesturing at Alyk's knee, stiff on the bed.

It was still very swollen and only kept in place by a rudimentary splint that the Base Gamma doctors made on the spot. The Faceling moved the bang that descended from the non-polygonal side of her head behind her one ear and crouched, observing the knee intently. She nodded and turned to face Alyk again.

"May I touch it?"

A grimace of fear betrayed Alyk's apprehension.

"Is it… necessary?"

"Unfortunately yes, but I will be as delicate as I possibly can."

Alyk reluctantly nodded. "Go ahead…"

She touched their knee with her magenta-colored hand. It felt hard like plastic on their skin, but somehow it retained the warmth and delicacy of a human's hand. After a few light touches that caused Alyk to whimper in pain, Ginger stood back up.

"It is a simple fracture, I believe I can treat this. I should have the ingredients here with me."

Soul's face lightened up slightly more than usual. "Oh, that's great! I knew I could count on you, buddy!"

"So… no surgery required?"

"There is no need for surgery. A simple herbal ointment will suffice."

Alyk sighed, disappointed. She was a fraud, after all.

"Not trying to call you a liar, but there's no way a herbal ointment is going to fix a broken bone, Doc."

Ginger was once again unaffected by Alyk's condescendence. "Not under normal circumstances, but my medication is produced in a peculiar way that grants it effectiveness and speed that are unheard of, even for industrially manufactured drugs. Soul can testify to it."

Soul, who, meanwhile, had already finished his cup of instant coffee, nodded. "True, my left elbow was bent the wrong way after an encounter with some B.N.T.G. mercs, but Doctor Ginger here fixed me right up. You gotta try it to believe it!"

Of course the nutcase would support alternative medicine. Maybe he even believed in healing crystals, who knows. Alyk certainly wouldn't have put it past him. The weeks they spent with him did teach them to trust him to a degree, but they certainly didn't help in making him look like less of a lunatic. Plus, the rare items he kept bringing in Alyk's room were clear proof of the fact that he had to have shady connections.

"I am flattered, but I must reiterate that I do not find the act of calling me a doctor appropriate, as I am not in possession of a medical license."

"You… got your medical license revoked?"

Soul chuckled at them. "No, she simply never got one, peep. How are you supposed to get a medical license in the Backrooms? Don't worry, though, she's more skilled than any doctor you'll ever meet, she just likes to be… precise on stuff like this."

"It is as he says."

Great. Just awesome. If she wasn't a doctor then what was she? A faith healer? They were gonna get scammed, they just knew it… but after all, Ginger hadn't asked for any money in return and it was just an ointment, right? Not some kind of invasive therapy that could have ruined their leg.

Alyk sighed, knowing they were going to regret this. "Fine. 's not like I have anything to lose anyway. You're not charging for this, right?"

"Me and Soul are old acquaintances. I could never request a payment from one of his friends."

Alyk wasn't sure how they felt about being called Soul's friend.

"In any case, I will prepare the ointment at once."

Ginger reached into the black and green satchel she wore around her shoulder and pulled out a large, ancient looking book. The cover recited "Herbaria Externi Planorum". From what little Latin Alyk taught themself as a teen, it meant something along the lines of "Botany of the External Planes".

She began to quickly skim through the book. Once she reached the page that she was interested in, she once again rummaged in her satchel and pulled out some herbs Alyk had never seen before: a flower with a bright yellow corolla resembling an impossible triangle, plants that looked like ivy but had hand-shaped leaves with wiggling "fingers", a bundle of grass blades wrapped in cloth that rapidly changed colors in mesmerizing patterns, and an orange, pear-shaped fruit that made the air around it ondulate as if it was emanating heat.

"Taraxacum penrosensis, Hedera prehensilis, Agrostis hypnotica, Pyrus concalfactorius… Yes, I believe these are all of the ingredients."

She then opened the book and positioned the "ingredients" one by one on the tome's pages.

Alyk couldn't help but furrow their brow while observing her. She did have the look of a professional, but you could say the same of lots of con artists and, even then, what she was doing looked completely nonsensical. With a loud thump, she slammed the book shut, with all the herbs and fruits still inbetween the pages. Great way to ruin an ancient book!

To Alyk's surprise, though, when she opened the tome again the pages were completely clean. What instead appeared out of thin air when she flipped to the same page she was at before was a translucent orange cream that glistened with colors they had never seen before, neatly packaged in a small glass bottle with a golden ribbon around its neck and sealed by a cork. It looked like something straight out of a medieval doctor's laboratory.

"I am sorry, but the application process will require touching the knee and will be somewhat painful. I hope you understand."

"That's, uh, fine. I can take it."

Ginger's touch was as delicate as possible, but the knee pain was still almost unbearable. Clenching their jaw, they tried to focus on something other than the pain. The ointment felt warm on their skin, like it was emanating heat, probably as a result of the use of the bizarre pear-like fruit. Despite the warmth, the cream was still leaving a minty sensation on their skin that was beginning to numb the pain more and more.

A cough broke the awkward silence between the two. Soul was leaning on the wall, arms crossed and drumming his fingers insistently. Despite his jovial smile, his piercing amber eyes were making a show of his boredom and impatience.

"So… is there any reason for me to stay here? I kinda have some errands to run around here."

Ginger didn't even turn around to reply to him, as concentrated as she was in applying the ointment. "There is none. You are free to go."

"Sweet! See you later, peep! I'll leave you to the care of Doctor Ale!"

Ginger let out a crackling sigh.
"Again, I am not in possession of a medical license."

Soul, though, had already rushed out of the room to go run his "errands". Alyk could only imagine what kind of questionable affairs he'd be involved in. Just as they started thinking about it, a sudden thought hit them. Hold on, Ginger's full name was Ginger Ale?!

—-

Soul stretched his arms and back. He hated how cramped the buildings in Base Gamma were. Anyway, he had no time to complain. He only had a couple of minutes before his rendezvous in Central Plaza. Still, running was definitely not something he intended on doing. He hated sweating. Doing your laundry in the Backrooms is one of the most annoying things he could think of, unless he used Almond Water to do it, which, aside from being extremely expensive, left an unpleasant sweetish smell on his clothes. If he wanted to wash his clothes with real water, he'd have to go all the way to Level 11, and that was out of the question.

He simply walked at a leisurely pace through the narrow streets of the Base. Sure, Base Gamma was built in the largest, most open space of Level 3, but one look at the claustrophobic corridors in certain parts of the base was enough to tell that they still had space problems. Two people holding hands hand could have just barely squeezed between the sheet metal walls that delimited the buildings. After five minutes of walking, Soul finally got to his destination.

A vast and far more open square laid in front of him. The voices that echoed in the whole Base, canalized by the narrow and empty streets, all came from there. The screams of the merchants, so eager to sell their goods, the heated arguments that customers started when they demanded a discount from the wrong shopkeeper, the incessant creaking from the wheels of the shaky wheelbarrows people used to carry their goods, keeping a vigilant eye to catch anyone trying to sneak on them and steal their stuff. They all reminded him of a life he had no memory of anymore. As he stared at the Safehouse, the first building ever constructed in Base Gamma, this uncanny nostalgia dulled his smile for a moment.

"Getting sentimental, are we?"

Taken by surprise by the familiar voice coming from behind him, Soul had to hastily put the fragments of his grin back together.

"Who, me? C'mon, Lorenz, you know me better than that!"

Lorenz chuckled.

"You're late, you know?"

"Aw, shut up. I'm not taking anyone who dresses like you seriously, so you're lucky I even showed up."

"Are we really having this argument again?"

Lorenz frowned, adjusting his tie. His neat black suit and neat black hairdo definitely felt out of place compared to the more… functional attire everyone else wore in the Backrooms. If it wasn't for Lorenz, Soul's black Ouroboros hoodie would have been the most stylish piece of clothing in the entire base.

"Argument? What argument? I'm not arguing with someone who looks like a 1950s salesman," Soul said before letting out one of his signature laughs.

A sigh that could have probably been heard even from another level was the only response he got.
"You got the stuff?"

"You can bet your cheap hair gel I do! Follow me."

—-

Many bad things could have been said about how cramped everything outside of the central plaza was, but one thing was certain: the secrecy they offered to someone selling smuggled goods was unparalleled. This spot near the outer walls of the base, though, was probably the best hidden place in all the M.E.G. bases Soul had ever been in. As he rummaged through his backpack looking for the goods, a loud screech from the distance resonated through the sheet metal, quickly followed by men shouting orders.

"Ah, fuck. Another attack. Make it quick, Soul, those goons are going to come searching for me anytime now. 'Cause , apparently, they need to hear the opinion of the Superintendent about every single thing that happens around here. What do they think I'm gonna tell them other than 'defend the goddamn base'?"

"Oh, poor you! I wouldn't want to be in your fancy designer shoes!"

"I know you're making fun of me, but you'd cave under the pressure in one day."

Soul finally pulled out two packets out of the backpack. "Yeah, I'm sure you're right. Anyway, I've got your cigarettes. Menthol, your favorite!"

"Thank God. I would've gone insane by now if it wasn't for these. Where do you even find them?"

"Oh, you know. The Completionists are amazing scavengers!"

Soul handed them over to Lorenz, who desperately tried to hide how much he had been craving the cigarettes. As he lit one with a zippo he kept in his pocket, Soul insistently stared at him. "You didn't really think those were free, right?"

"Of course not. Speak up, what do you want?"

"At the risk of sounding cliché, information. I heard Quinn's lackeys are here in Base Gamma, which means he's somewhere in Level 3. Have you seen them?"

"Quinn… huh… I can't be sure they were his lackeys, but I did see a couple of freaks walking around Central Plaza carrying a TV. One of them was a lanky guy in a button up shirt, the other was some redhead girl. Actually, they show up every 24 hours at around this time. You might still be in time to find them there."

Soul's eyes lightened up. "Pleasure doin' business with you, old man!" he yelled as he grabbed his backpack and rushed back to Central Plaza.

Lorenz exhaled the smoke of his cigarette, offended, as Soul ran off into the distance. "Old man?! I'm 37!"

—-

With sweat starting to bead on his forehead, Soul finally reached Central Plaza again. His eyes darted back and forth looking for people that matched Lorenz's description. The marketplace was full of lanky guys, so obviously it would've been easier to look for the redheaded girl.

Thing is, no matter how hard he looked for one, he couldn't seem to find her in the crowd. A distant thud attracted his attention. That was it! Some lanky guy carrying an old CRT TV banged his head against the roof of a stall and was now blankly staring at the vendor as he tried to make him believe he had damaged his goods.

Soul walked over to the shopkeeper and put a hand on his shoulder. The short, fat man recoiled from his touch, startled. With all his experience as a fixer, Soul could immediately tell this guy was just a pushover trying to appear bigger than he actually was. "Hey, asshole, are you trying to scam my friends?"

"Scam?! This idiot ran into my stall like it wasn't even there!" The two carrying the TV just stood there without uttering a word, like they had no mind to do so.

"Yeah, no shit he did! Tall guy here is blind!" he said, boldly lying to his face.

"See if I care! He shouldn't go around carrying that heap of trash, then! He hit the stall so hard that all my wares in the back fell from the shelves! If he ain't paying, someone is. And that someone may as well be you, since you're friends."

Words just weren't getting through. Whoever this guy was, he must've had this exact argument numerous times. It was probably a set up to squeeze some money out of the poor fools that fell for it. Soul reached for the handle of the bat sticking out of his backpack.

"Right. You know who else I'm friends with? Superintendent Lorenz. If one day I decided I wanted to make someone… disappear. He'd have no problem covering it up for me. Just saying."

The vendor's boldness suddenly disappeared. "Come on, I'm sure it doesn't have to come to that."

Soul's smile returned, now brighter than ever. It wasn't easy to appear threatnening when he was still drenched in sweat from running all the way there, but pulling it off anyway was a big boost to his self esteem. "I agree! So, my friends and I will be on our way now!"

"But-"

"But what?"

The vendor sighed. "Nothing."

As Soul cheekily waved at the vendor walking back into his stall, he saw the two suspects move out of the corner of his eye. Before the two could pick their TV back up and walk away, Soul grabbed the girl's arm. "Oh, not so quick. You two owe me a favor."

The girl reached for the knife sheath on her belt. "Calm down, I just wanna talk to Quinn."

She kept her hand on the knife. Her glassy blue eyes were seriously unnerving to Soul, but he knew he had to stand his ground. In a monotonous tone, she finally spoke.

"I don't know who this 'Quinn' is."

"Oh, don't give me this shit. Who other than his lackeys would walk around with a TV? Just let me have a word with him and then we both go our respective ways."

After approximately five seconds of blank stares and complete silence from the girl, she gave an answer. "Fine."

The lanky man picked up the TV from the ground and lifted it to the height of Soul's eyes. Despite it being unplugged, the TV started displaying static. In a few seconds, the static took the shape of a shadowy figure, looking directly at the camera. Sound poured out of the appliance: a voice, muffled to the point of being barely intelligible due to the low quality of the speakers.

"You again?"

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