“So he went after Samson first…” Lester mused, pouring over the various slips of paper on his table. “Interesting. I would have thought he’d try to recruit the Pale Horse first.”
“The fact that he didn’t speaks volumes of their knowledge,” Lucifer added. “Samson is a general use operative – regardless of our location, he is likely to be useful. Individuals such as the Pale Horse are situational, useful only against certain kinds of defenses. Which can only mean one thing: he doesn’t know where we are.”
Lester nodded, though he resisted the urge to smile. “Which means we have more time,” he said.
“I beg your pardon, sir?” the AI queried. “You’re treating his finding you as a certainty.”
The human coughed loudly. “That’s because it is,” he explained. “There’ll be little bits of data they’ll find that will, eventually, lead them here. The Overseer will see to that. Trying to relocate is only going to increase the chances that they find me sooner rather than later.” He shook his head. “No, it is better to shore up our defenses, try to weaken him before he comes for me. Then we might repulse them when they come.” A shrug. “Although if we could kill the Judge before then, I wouldn’t object.”
“Forgive me sir, but…” The devil hesitated. “That sounds rather defeatist. After all, this ‘Judge’ is still human. He dies just as easily as anyone else. And even if he finds you here…” The double doors leading into the study opened, silhouetting a humanoid figure with various additions and extensions to their form. When Lester’s eyes adjusted to the sudden light, he saw that the figure was wearing a variant of Titan armor, explaining the angular and yet amorphous head, the extended elbows, the lumps and bumps of extra armor thickness, ammo pouches, slots for equipment. “Even if he finds you here,” the figure restated, resting a gloved hand on the butt of a Gauss rifle, “I won’t let him reach you.”
Lester stood, basking in the view of a project he’d been worried would be impossible. “That’s one way to tell me they finished it,” he said. “How does it feel, Lucifer? A physical form of your very own? The ability to move amongst humanity as if you were one of us?”
The devil’s body reached out a hand, examining it. “The concept of spatial awareness is new,” he said, his voice echoing slightly within the stone chamber behind him. “I am by no means combat ready. I still have much to learn about the… capabilities of this form.”
“Then learn,” Lester instructed, re-seating himself. “You are not like the other AI that exist in this world. Alice, Avanix, Sora… you may be constructed of their parts, but your potential is so much greater. And with a body created to my specifications…” He coughed again, involuntarily. “… but enough praise. As proud as I am of the engineers, we can’t afford to waste time celebrating their victories.” He crossed his legs under the desk and steepled his fingers. “We must continue the plan.”
Lucifer inclined his head. “Of course. Once I have finished getting used to this body, I will set out to find the Judge and where he hides. Neither he, nor his allies, can hide forever, and when they show themselves…” He clenched the fist he’d been looking over, and smiled, though behind his helmet his master could not see it. “I will put this body to use.”
January 18th, 1:37 PM
“I thought you said today was a day off,” Samantha said, leaning against the doorframe. Isaac growled under his breath.
“No rest for the wicked,” he said tiredly, rubbing his forehead with his fingers. “Forgive me for not being able to put this down.”
“No, no, I get it,” she said, taking the steps forward that brought her to the paper-strewn table. “This is important to you, but that doesn’t mean you don’t want it over and done with.” She gestured at the papers. “Any idea of where we’re headed next?”
Wordlessly, Isaac passed a folder to her, allowing her to see for herself. Her expression twisted oddly. “Raul Avalos?”
“Mexican,” the Judge explained. “He’s a…” He frowned and waved his hand a little, searching for the right phrase. “… a persuasive speaker,” he finished lamely.
Samantha raised an eyebrow. “Persuasive speaker?” she asked.
“I’m not really doing him justice,” Isaac said, folding his arms. “When I say ‘persuasive’, I mean that he’s got a certain presence. A way of speaking that demands not only your attention, but that you do as he wishes. A number of dictators had the same gift.”
“And that’s useful… how exactly?”
“Just… trust me.”
The Huntress shrugged. “Do I have a choice?” she asked rhetorically. A frown crossed her face when Isaac seemingly ignored her. “What’s wrong?” she asked, speaking a little quieter.
“I can’t shake the feeling I’m getting into more than we can handle,” he confessed. “Pissing off a PMC was most definitely not on the cards when I was planning all this out.”
“Then why did you attack one of their warehouses?” Samantha demanded.
“I didn’t realize they were in bed with Lester then,” Isaac snapped back. “With a proper application of money, they would have let us off the hook, for now at least. But with him pressuring them, that’s simply not possible.” He shook his head. “Not that it really matters at this point. I’ve made sure we can’t easily be tracked here, and if by some miracle they do, it’s extremely defensible.”
“Are you trying to reassure me or yourself?” Samantha asked, folding her arms. When Isaac didn’t answer, she sighed. “Well, at least you’ve got a plan,” she said quietly. “As general as it may be at this point.”
“We can’t properly get to work until we know where he is,” Isaac said. “The Overseer’s sent out a few feelers. Now that we know he’s within America, that narrows it down significantly. Somehow I doubt a multibillionaire would hide out in the middle of a place like the Mohave Desert, for example.”
“Top of a skyscraper?” the Huntress asked, leaning against the table.
“Nah. Too cliché. Leaves him nowhere to run if we find him, unless jumping off the roof is an option.”
“If he’s like any of the rest of us and is less than inclined to die, I doubt that would be on the cards,” she said.
Isaac merely nodded. “We’ll go meet with Raul in a few days. Still need to sort out the precise travel arrangements.” He gestured in the general direction of the rooms the various operatives had been using as places to sleep. “You should keep rested.”
“I’m dismissed, am I?” Samantha asked sarcastically. She rolled her eyes, and made to leave. “Don’t let me disturb you any longer, then.”
Isaac grimaced. Being rude to her like this wasn’t exactly kosher, but it was probably for the better. She’d been interested in him romantically almost since the day they’d met, despite his rejections. She did a good job of hiding it nowadays – usually, anyway – but it was still there, shadowing their conversations. It wasn’t out of a dislike for her that he pushed her away. It was due to his own failings, specifically his inability to let go of Helen’s death. Why attempt to start a relationship with the ghost of the previous one hanging over it?
After another half-hour of mulling over the pieces of paper, Isaac gave up, shaking his head and pushing away from the table. He left, reasoning that he needed to clear his mind. Something mindless, tedious even.
So it was he entered their makeshift armory, simply a room re-purposed to house everyone’s equipment and weaponry. Some lockers had been left behind when the previous owners had sold the warehouse – these now contained each operative’s choice weapons, and some of their equipment too. Jack, Evelyn and Samson all chose to keep their ballistic vests in there too. Samantha did not, her customized EOD suit not fitting in the tiny space. There were two small workbenches for tinkering. When Isaac entered, one was already in use.
Samson raised a hand. “Hey, man. What’s good?”
“Needed a break,” the Judge said simply, moving to his own locker and drawing out the laser sniper rifle he’d secured from Spectre. “Something to keep me occupied and not frustrated.”
The enforcer nodded. “I hear that. Spend too much time messin’ around with plans and shit, it’ll just end up makin’ you angry. All those options, all those things that could go wrong.” He nodded at the weapon. “Like your new toy?”
Isaac ran his eyes over it, the sleek black form reminding him of a needle with a scope attached. “Yeah,” he said at last. “You’re welcome to his pistol, by the way. At long range you’re basically defenseless with just a shotgun.”
The look Samson gave him was one of incredulity. “Bitch, when you at long range with a shotgun you don’t waste time tryin’ ta switch weapons then take a few piss-weak potshots. Y’all make the long range short range again.”
“And if your enemy is unreachable?”
“Then you run the fuck away, man.” Samson shook his head. “How the fuck would they be ‘unreachable’, anyway? If y’all dealing with some sniping piece a’ shit twenty stories up on another building, then I’d be questioning my life decisions.”
Isaac frowned. “I’m not saying that particular situation is likely, but it’s certainly possible. Depends where Lester is.”
Samson made a noise. “Man, fuck that shit. If he’s hiding on top of a fuckin’ skyscraper I’m fuckin’ out.”
That brought a chuckle from Isaac. “I’ll tell you what I told Samantha – there’s too many risks with a position like that, and from what I’ve been able to find out he’s paranoid. I find it hard to believe he’d be sitting up there.”
The enforcer shrugged, picking up his AA-12 and examining it. “Whatever, man. I leave the finding shit to you. I’m just here to help you get to him.” He replaced it in his assigned locker then stopped, hesitating. “What’s up with the Ethereal?” he asked, his expression and tone one of concern.
Isaac shrugged, checking the dial on the side of the scope. “We picked him up after he was attacked by Stormwater. Lucky coincidence. Same goes for Hannah, she was with him at the time. They’ve both proven useful, so I thought we’d keep them around.”
“But an Ethereal? Forgive me for holdin’ a grudge, man, but I ain’t exactly comfortable with holdin’ hands with one o’ them motherfuckers.”
“If he turns out to be hostile, you get the first shot at him,” Isaac said impatiently. “Until then, however, I’m not going to tolerate hostility. Understand?”
Samson sneered. “Yeah, yeah, I get it. You tha fuckin’ boss, man.” Shaking his head, he exited, displeasure coming off him like a bad smell. The Judge merely frowned and continued examining the rifle. Yes, he was making friends today.
About half an hour later, he finished his inspection and replaced the rifle, taking care not to bump it too harshly for fear of undoing some of his work. That done, he moved towards Azazel’s room, since the others were either out or busy. What was more, there was still an issue that needed to be discussed.
Opening the door to Azazel’s rather sparse bedroom, he noted the Ethereal sitting in a chair with his back to the door, a book open in one hand. “I thought you said you couldn’t read our language,” he said, folding his arms and leaning against the doorframe.
I can’t, Azazel replied, without moving. Take a closer look. This is written in my own language. Approaching the chair, Isaac could see that indeed was the case – the characters were unfamiliar, incomprehensible.
“What book is it?” he asked.
Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the Ethereal answered, marking the page and closing the book gently. One of multiple human texts transcribed into my language and sent to Aethereum in an exchange of culture. I had yet to read them, and thought that since I would be working with humanity for some time, that it would be best I learn your culture appropriately. This was before our meeting, mind you. The books have sustained light water damage. He turned the book over in his withered hands, running his fingers over the cover.I am noticing several similarities with our current predicament. I would hope this is not the case, considering this is meant to be a revenge tragedy.
And odd smile crossed Isaac’s features briefly. “I’d certainly like to avoid the ‘tragedy’ aspect if possible. Surviving afterwards is part of the goal, after all.”
I… would likely not have cared either way, Azazel admitted, placing the book down on a small table next to the chair. A small number of other books, also written in the Ethereal language, were present there.
Isaac raised an eyebrow. “Are you saying that the prospect of death is appealing to you?”
No, the Ethereal answered ‘quietly’.Merely that the prospect of life is not. Was not, he corrected. Losing one’s purpose tends to destroy one’s motivation.
“I see,” said the Judge hesitantly. “I didn’t come here to ask about that, though.”
You’re here about your mask, Azazel said. Or, more accurately, the writing on it.
“In a way, yes.” He moved so that he was standing in front of the seated Ethereal, arms folded as if he were scolding a child. “My identity as Overseer is not something I want broadcasted,” he began. “It’s very much a secret. For now, at least. I plan to give it up before long, but I need to get this out of the way before I can even think about that. Until then, I remain.” You would request that I not reveal this to anyone, Azazel surmised. Even though the writing is on the wall, as it were.
“In a few months, it won’t matter. I’d appreciate it if you would keep this to yourself, at least until then. Understand?”
The Ethereal nodded, and Isaac got the impression he was smiling beneath his mask.You need not fear, he said reassuringly. I would have nothing to gain from revealing such a thing. To me, at least, your position simply gives you an advantage others would not have.He gazed out the window. You recall I mentioned a case I came across with similar aspects to this? I know what they did wrong, how they failed. Had they had someone like yourself, failure would have been far less likely.
Isaac nodded, albeit slowly. “I’m a little apprehensive about taking advice drawn from a failed operation…” he said slowly.
Azazel shook his head. Maybe that’s true, he said. However, the last I checked your police force was not entirely comprised of psions of which most could read minds.
“That’s true. You were a member of this force, right? Ever catch anyone yourself?”
The Ethereal took some time to respond.… Yes, he said finally. I would prefer not to talk about it, at least for now.
When Azazel did not elaborate, Isaac nodded and made to leave. He stopped at the doorway. “We’ll be going to Egypt soon,” he said to the unmoving Ethereal. “I’ll see if I can secure transport for you, but I very much doubt I can, certainly not without attracting attention.”
Azazel nodded. I understand, he said, before lapsing into silence once more. Isaac hesitated, then left, his job done. The Ethereal continued to stare out the window, watching the water flow through the docks on which the warehouse sat. Time flows as water,he mumbled to himself, and through that water there is often pollutants, the signs of civilization and history. The water corrodes a Path, one that we all follow, regardless of end goals or prior motivations. The Path branches, and we must choose which way we go.He shook his head.… I had thought my Path ended, many cycles ago. Now I find that there is still more to it, that I have mistaken the end of one with the merging of two. There is still a way to go. He turned away from the window, seating himself back on the chair. The question is, which Path remained and which was subsumed? Whose destiny do I now follow, mine or his?
“Spectre’s death was a result of his own poor judgement of the threat his enemies posed,” Lester said calmly. “His command of his supporting units was also lackluster, from the report I’ve received.”
“I’ve read the damn report,” Hackett growled. “I still have no idea how they knew where he was.”
“I do,” the multi-billionaire said bluntly. “Remember that Ethereal you attacked? Supposedly he was skilled in Blue abilities. Abilities like ESP, for example.”
“You think they got him onside? Ridiculous. How would you motivate an Ethereal to help you assassinate someone from a different species entirely?”
“There are a number of ways, most of which would work on anyone,” Lester replied. “Death threats, wealth promises, the usual. I am sure that, regardless of his species, each one would be as effective as they are on humans. You of all people should be familiar with coercion.”
Hackett was silent. “I’ll be careful of that,” he said finally, “even if I don’t think it’s possible.”
“Wise choice,” his employer replied. “Paranoia is a far better option than being caught with your guard down, I’ve found.”
“You’ve had no sunshine since the war.”
Lester coughed loudly. “I don’t require it. What I do require is the ability to stay hidden. From people like Isaac.”
“What?” Hackett said. “Don’t tell me you’ve pissed off some other assassin too.”
“Can’t say I’ve had the pleasure,” Lester replied dryly. “At least now Lucifer has his new toy.”
“I heard about that. Performing to specifications, is it?”
It was at that point the AI itself butted in. “In combat terms the body performs exceptionally. Agility and strength that would be impossible for a human to replicate, the inbuilt weapon systems… the only issue is longevity.”
“Yes,” Lester said, nodding. “The technology in that thing is cutting-edge, so cutting-edge in fact that it’s inefficient. Most of the systems burnt out within a few tests, but I find it difficult to belief that will be an issue. We only need you to win once, after all.”
“But it’s ready?” Hackett pressed.
“The testing has been sufficient. He’s ready.”
“Then what is it going to do?” The mercenary queried. “I don’t want to be stepping on your toes, after all.”
“My purpose will be to discover the place from which the Judge is staging his operations, and assault it. To this end, we’ll need a group of your soldiers,” Lucifer stated.
“My soldiers?” Hackett demanded. “What the bloody hell for?”
“So that he might sew an organic body together from their parts and use it to pass off as a real human. Why else?” Lester replied sarcastically. “I don’t know how many ‘mad AI butchering people’ movies you’ve seen, nor do I care. I trust Lucifer with my life. I would therefore trust him with theirs.”
“Alright, alright,” Hackett said. “You’ll have your soldiers, but only once you’ve got a location. Understand?”
“That is all I require,” Lucifer stated surprisingly amiably. “They won’t be necessary until then anyway.”
“… alright, good,” the mercenary said, a pleasantness returning to his tone. “Speaking of next moves, what do you think the Judge will do next?”
Lester coughed. “He’ll go to Egypt.”
“Sorry?” Hackett asked. “What’s so important about Egypt?”
“My chief of staff is there,” his employer replied. “I warned him not to go, but he appears to have decided to volunteer himself as an open target. That, combined with the fact that the Speaker has moved from Mexico to Egypt leads me to believe Isaac has already been in contact with him.”
“And you think they’re going to take out two birds with one stone.”
“Precisely,” Lester affirmed. “Recruit Avalos and gain intel from Sali. That is also our opportunity – Isaac would not pass up the chance to interrogate one of my higher-ranked employees. We can be waiting for him.”
Hackett leered. “Well, he had trouble with one of the Ghost Squad before. I say we see how he fares with two. I’ll send Phantom and Wraith to lie in wait. I’d send your man in, but those two don’t work well with strangers. Certainly not him.”
“The Lost is an exceptional operative.”
“His performance isn’t in question,” Hackett explained, “but his demeanor is. Doesn’t work well with the whole ‘team dynamic’ kind of strategy. Plus, he’s new.”
Lester leaned back in his chair, crossing his arms. “Do you tell me how to micromanage my employees? No. So don’t expect me to do that to you.” He swiveled around in his chair, and hovered a hand over the ‘end call’ button. “Send your people where you see fit. But be waiting for the Judge when the time comes.”
January 25th, 6:34 PM
“The Speaker,” Isaac said, striding around the table everyone else bar Azazel was seated at. “Or, by his real name, Raul Avalos. Mexican national who’s demonstrated he has a way with words many times in his illustrious career. There’s no politician that could our-speak him, no marketing genius that could be more persuasive. When he says something, you listen, and most of the time, you obey.”
“Sounds like Mind Control if you ask me,” Samantha said dryly. “Is he psionic?”
“Nobody knows,” he responded, continuing his pacing. “According to the Overseer’s intel, he’s never been awakened, and he has never claimed to be a psion. That doesn’t mean much, however. It wouldn’t surprise me either way.”
“Shit, does it matter?” Samson retorted. “Why the hell you want some silver-tongued motherfucker anyway? You plannin’ on talkin’ Lester to death?”
“Of course not,” Isaac said. “Raul would be a bigger help to us than you seem to realize. If we’re breaking into Lester’s hideout and we need someone to convince some offsite security operator that everything’s fine, he’d get us through. And if we had someone worth interrogating, he’d pull their secrets out far quicker than any kind of abuse would.”
“I could probably cook something up for that,” Noxious offered. “A few calmatives, maybe a hint of –“
“No,” Isaac said sternly. “Last thing we need is a potential informant having a heart-attack before he can give us anything useful. And I’m not buying crates of rats for you to test your concoctions on. Again.” He shook his head. “Mind you, that’s not to say there isn’t a degree of risk when it comes to Raul. He could be very damaging if he put his mind to it, which means I’ll need to keep him motivated. And finding out what motivates him…”
I could assist with that, Azazel said. That is my specialty, after all. The inner secrets of the mind.
The Judge frowned. “Maybe. I’ll think about it. In any case, we’ve got him onside for one mission already.”
“What?” Raider raised an eyebrow. “So what’s with the whole briefing song and dance then? And why isn’t he here already?”
“Because we need him in Egypt to set up,” Isaac explained. He received a number of baffled looks, and he sighed. “Patience. We’re going to Egypt to capture one of Lester’s people, specifically his new chief-of-staff. We’ll bring him to Raul, he’ll work his magic, and then we come back with our new intel and possibly Raul himself.”
The group nodded collectively in understanding. “So who’re we looking for?” Samantha asked, leaning back and crossing a leg.
Isaac leant forward, picking up a file and tossing it to her. “Ammon Sali. Previously had dealings with the Overseer, actually. The relationship ended rather suddenly during the war – apparently he didn’t like being blackmailed into returning borrowed money.”
“Can’t say I blame him,” Samson muttered. “But, can’t say I blame your high and mighty friend either. Money gotta come back, otherwise it’s gone for good.”
Isaac shrugged. “Funds were starting to wear thin at the time. If I recall correctly, that was before the Council came to their senses and renewed support for the XCOM project. Added costs during that time were pretty high.”
“So he’s in Cairo now?” Samantha asked, not looking up from the folder.
“Ostensibly a business trip, examining the logistics of creating a workforce in the country. Probably a home holiday in reality.”
Now she looked up. “Terrain?”
Isaac was quiet. “Still rebuilding, really,” he answered. “Hard to recover from an Ethereal battleship flattening half the city.” After a moment, he cleared his throat. “Tactically, that makes things a little difficult, since most of the streets and buildings are new. Intel might not be as solid as it would be otherwise.”
“Ey, ey, hold on just a moment,” Samson interrupted. “Y’all talkin’ like you expectin’ some kinda street chase.”
“Well, therein lies one of the problems with this operation,” Isaac explained. “Ever since we recovered those hard-drives from the warehouse, the Overseer has been keeping an eye on Stormwater. Two of their operatives, their itineraries and identities secret, shipped out of their main HQ yesterday. Judging from their descriptions, and cross-referencing with the data from the hard-drives, they think these two people are both members of Ghost squad, specifically Phantom and Wraith. Their destination?”
Samson nodded. “Egypt. Fuckin’ of course.”
I am having trouble understanding why they would commit two thirds of their remaining elite forces to this venture, Azazel said. Unless they had foreknowledge of our intentions…?
The Judge shook his head. “Impossible. I haven’t told anyone about what I was planning, and it isn’t like I keep this desk organized enough for any of you to make much sense of it.” He shrugged. “It’s more likely Lester realized Sali was an avenue I’d be looking to exploit, and is attempting to cut me off if I do try anything. The fact that we know he’s done this gives us an edge. We can safely expect trouble. Which means we’ll need a proper plan.”
Raider merely rolled her eyes. “Alright, enough of the explanation crap. You’ve clearly already got a plan. Get to it.”
He smiled. “If you’ll all direct your attention to this map here…”
Overseer’s Files: Operation “Steamroller”
Streets of Cairo, Egypt
February 1st, 10:00 AM
Samantha “Iron Huntress” Steele (Squad Leader, Gunner/Heavy)
Isaac “The Judge” Anderson (Mastermind, Sniper)
Jack “Noxious” Lazarus (Chemical Specialist, Scout)
Evelyn “Raider” Gandra (Infiltrator, Assault)
Samson Johnson (Enforcer, Assault)
Coatl’Promethoth, “Azazel” (Ethereal Inquisitor)
Hannah Jones (Driver)
Brief: We need a bit more information on where Lester is, and where better to get that than from one of his own employees? Ammon Sali is our target, having foolishly decided to leave the relative safety of Lester’s operational reach for a trip to Egypt, the rebuilt sections of Cairo. Once he’s ‘secured’, we’ll need to interrogate him. Enter our new partner, Raul Avalos, aka ‘the Speaker’. He’ll work his magic, we’ll get what we can from Sali, then we’ll leave him to Lester’s wolves. Somehow I doubt he’ll take kindly to betrayal.
The Plan: Sali is slated to have a talk at a convention centre in the newer sections of Cairo, speaking to a few interested entrepreneurs about investing in Lester’s main company, Trust Industries, so that they could expand into the country. Once he’s done, he’ll leave via the back entrance, try to sneak out. We’ll be waiting. Pacify his guards (quietly, preferably) and secure him. Then comes the tricky part.
Using a vehicle is simply too risky a method of escape. What’s more, it hinders our mobility given the labyrinthine nature of the city, and the tendency of the roads to clog up with cars. We’ll be escaping on foot, with Sali in tow. The path we take is a winding one, entering and exiting many streets often halfway along. The actual path can be altered as necessary, since it’s unlikely Lester would allow his subordinate to be unguarded, but the end destination is the same – an old, derelict mansion-like building in the original section of the city. The Speaker will meet us there, and will begin his interrogation. Ideally all pursuit should have been foiled before then – if not, we will need to defend the building as necessary. Hence, speed is of the essence.
Once Raul is finished, we’ll leave Sali to his fate. Lester can deal with him as he sees fit – it saves us the effort of dumping the body ourselves, after all.
1. Pacify Sali’s guards and secure him.
2. Bring Sali to the building.
3. Gain any info we can from him.
· 1 Heavy Ballistic Vest
· 1 “Buzzsaw” LMG
· 1 truncated Joceline shotgun
· Sali has six personal guards escorting him. Sali himself is unlikely to put up a fight.
· Two Ghost Squad members, Phantom and Wraith, are confirmed to be in the country, and are likely watching Sali for us to make a move. Expect their intervention.
· It’s possible that Stormwater has sent some grunts to assist the Ghosts.
· It is likely that we will attract some kind of pursuit when we nab Sali, hence the winding path. Avoid engaging pursuit, regardless of affiliations – it will only slow us down, and the objective is to outrun, not outlast.
They had all taken their places half an hour before, Isaac not wanting to risk their quarry leaving early and thus neatly avoiding them. Tension between the five operatives was only rising in response to the approaching time, when Sali was meant to leave the building. They shifted in their spots occasionally, but aside from that avoided moving. It was very much a waiting game here.
Not for the first time, Isaac glanced around at his allies, noting their equipment. Samantha had forgone her usual suit in the interests of maintaining a degree of mobility, though she still wore a heavier vest than anyone else. The rest of them wore lighter armor, choosing speed over defense. Now that they knew Stormwater could source laser weaponry, they were of the mind that even a heavy ballistic vest would not protect them in that situation, and thus were instead augmenting another strength, one that could not be taken away from them.
A look at his watch. Two more minutes.
Raider had lent her pistol to Noxious for the moment, increasing the number of operatives capable of a silent takedown. If, for whatever reason, it looked like the remaining guards were about to blow their cover, the rest would step in and eliminate them with their unsilenced weapons, thus probably alerting the entire suburb to their presence and intent. Three operatives. Six guards. Two each. He eyed Samson, crouched behind a garbage bin, auto-shotgun at the ready. And hope to whatever deity existed that Sali wasn’t caught in the crossfire.
On the dot of ten o’clock, the back door opened and several suited men stepped out, with a rather more rotund but similarly dressed individual following them. Isaac recognized him immediately. Sali had even lost weight. Maybe scared of eating too much given their last meeting.
As soon as the leading guard had stepped past Raider’s hiding point she flew out, knife at the ready, and slit his throat on one smooth movement. Noxious did not delay, leaning out from his own hidey-hole and taking out another guard at the same time. As they began fumbling with their weapons and Sali dropped to the ground, Isaac himself rose and drilled the backmost guard in the head with his own pistol, causing the three remaining to panic at being flanked and turn around, trying to eliminate this new threat.
It was their downfall. Now behind them, Noxious and Raider both targeted separate men, with the former shooting one and the latter stabbing another in the back. Isaac killed the last, a grim smile on his face as the two Sams rose and moved forward, lifting Sali off the ground and onto his feet.
“Sali!” Isaac said cheerfully, as if he were greeting an old friend. “Long time no see! I see you paid your debt to the Overseer in time, else you wouldn’t be here, am I right?”
Something in the Judge’s voice woke the Egyptian from his terror-induced stupor. “You!” he said, recognizing the familiar voice. “What… what do you want with me now?!”
“I’d say we got off on the wrong foot last time,” Isaac said charmingly, “and I feel like Superbia crashing his ship into the city immediately afterward put a bit of a dampener on your mood. I’m inviting you to my place so we can discuss your… latest business ventures.”
“Which means yo’ ass is comin’, whether you like it or not,” Samson added, a grin on his own face.
Sali eyed his protection, apparently useless in the face of these people. “I’ll come,” he said quickly, hands raised in surrender. “Just don’t hurt me!”
Isaac raised an eyebrow. “No speeches about your wife this time?”
“She left me years ago! My money is the only thing I have left! You are welcome to it if you just let me go!”
“Money isn’t the currency we’re after,” Noxious said, his tone surprisingly menacing put through his gasmasks filter. “You know a few things we’d like to know.”
“Which means you’re coming with us,” Samantha said, holding her LMG passively in her hands. “Once we’ve got what we need, you’re free to go. Understand?”
The businessman slumped in defeat, faced with five heavily armed individuals surrounding him. “Yes, yes, I understand,” he said weakly. “I will not resist.”
“Excellent,” Isaac said, though his cheerful demeanor was interrupted by a loud beeping coming from Sali’s shirt. “What is that?” he asked slowly.
“An automated response system,” Sali said hurriedly. “If any one of my guards reads as having no heartbeat, then-“
“Then we’ve got friends incoming. So much for silent.” Isaac gestured to the streets. “Huntress in front, you know the way. We need to get out of here immediately!”
The five agents and one civilian bolted out of the alleyway and onto a lonely street, and began dashing away from their starting point. Behind them, security swarmed out of the convention center, searching for the person they’d been told to protect. In the distance, several sirens started wailing, law enforcement units suddenly changing course in their patrols to intercept the kidnapping.
A few streets over, the group emerged to see the civilians already running and two armored figures standing in the center, like high-tech gunslingers in a western. Running his eyes over their equipment, Isaac could easily tell they were elite operatives. Likely the two Ghost Squad members supposedly in the country.
The five operatives and their quarry slowed to a standstill in the street, facing their opponents. “Hmm.” Samantha planted her feet in the ground, clearly not willing to give ground. “That was quick,” she growled.
“The fact that you would attempt to capture Mr. Sali was never in question,” the foremost one, an American male, said confidently. “It was simply a matter of when, and where we’d be able to intercept you.”
“The problem with exploiting an obvious weakness,” the other added, a Japanese accent present in her lesson, “is that the exploitation is an obvious step.”
“I’m familiar with the theory,” Isaac said harshly. “Baiting. Sali was an attempt to draw us out.”
“And it succeeded,” the male said. He lifted a Gauss rifle from its position next to his leg, but kept the nozzle down for now. “Here you are. Here we are.”
“Hey man, I don’t mean to be crashin’ on yo’ parade, but ah…” Samson gestured at the two groups. “Even if y’all didn’t have no mathematic education, it’s pretty damn plain we outnumber yo’ asses.”
“If we had wanted numbers, we could have brought any number of the Stormwater squads to assist us.” The woman laughed bitterly. “Mudada. We saw what happened to Spectre when he relied on their assistance. We of the Ghosts have to rely on each other, and each other alone.” She, too, raised a laser strike rifle, but held it down for now.
Her partner nodded. “We are the only two Ghost squad members left.”
Isaac raised an eyebrow, though the movement was concealed behind his mask. “What about the Lost?”
“Newbie,” the female said dismissively. “Hardly even worthy of his position. We earned it. He was bought it.”
Interesting. None of them seem to like their new member. Isaac filed that away for later consideration, reasoning that he had more important things to deal with right now. “So what now?” he asked, thus far having kept his own weapon down. “You going to shoot us or what?”
“I thought you deserved to get to know the people that would kill you,” the male said. “Wraith disagreed, but you’ve been civil.” His head turned to Samson briefly. “Relatively speaking.”
“There is a matter of business to attend to first, however,” Wraith stated, moving her own gaze to the captive businessman cowering behind Samantha. “Mr. Sali, I’m sure you’re aware that, in being captured, your contract with Trust Industries is now voided.”
“What?!” Sali exclaimed.
“As such, you are to be treated as a hostile entity with the intention of damaging the business.” With that, the two Stormwater elites finally raised their weapons, Wraith’s strike rifle making a whirring noise. “Lester thanks you for your service.”
The laser drilled through the spot Sali’s head had been less than a second earlier, the fortunate businessman having been yanked away by Samantha. Rather than split up, however, the group of operatives all ran left, positioning themselves close to one of the ways out of the street. Given that this way was through the backdoor of one of the myriad shops lining the street, the escape was hidden enough that the Ghosts did not attempt to cut them off, seeming content with taking potshots at them.
Isaac took cover behind one of the more ornate shop entrances, curving inwards at the door with pillars either side of it. Noxious followed him, hanging as far into the alcove as possible. “What’s the plan?” he asked, clearly nervous.
“See if we can take out one of them before we skedaddle,” the Judge replied, watching as their two foes began moving backwards towards a shop entrance on the other side of the street, similar to the one Isaac was currently holed up in. “Unless the remaining one secretly hates their guts, we should be able to leave without interference, at least for a bit.”
“Alright, good plan,” Noxious said, nodding. “Just one question. Which one?”
By way of answer, Isaac leaned out of cover, laser sniper rifle at the ready. He fired, the beam impacting Phantom’s armor. It left a significant burn mark, and there was a depression clearly visible, but did not pierce the armor, instead only drawing his ire. Isaac cursed as he went back into cover, a number of Gauss rounds punching through the concrete he’d previously been standing behind. “Aegis armor,” he said darkly. “Though I am glad it wasn’t the other option.”
Noxious considered for a moment. “Yeah, that wouldn’t have gone over well,” he admitted. “What about the other one? What’s she wearing?”
Isaac hesitated. “Based on the profile I’d say Shadow, but I’m not one hundred percent sure.”
One doorway back, Samantha shook her head. “We need to figure something out soon. The baby’s getting anxious.” She glanced back at Sali, who was quivering as far in the corner as he could go. “I’d like him to still be able to move when we do, yeah?”
Isaac’s mind began racing through possibilities. “I’m not a tactician…” he muttered to himself. He stopped, a rather crazy idea presenting itself. “This is going to sound incredibly stupid. Noxious, drop that smoke grenade close to them. While it’s still up, we all charge through it.”
Noxious stared at him before shaking his head. “You’re right, that does sound stupid. We’ll get mowed down!”
“Which is why they wouldn’t expect us to do it. Besides, if we’re quick…” Isaac argued. “Wraith has a strike rifle. Hardly a lawnmower. And if Raider attracts Phantom’s attention…”
“I’m the decoy again. Great.” Raider sighed, but shifted stance into that of someone about to make a run. “Ready when you are,” she stated.
“Why the hell do I listen to you?” Noxious moaned, pulling out his standard smoke grenade and throwing it across the ground like someone skipping rocks on the surface of water. It skidded across the street before coming to a rest outside the Ghosts’ position, belching out a thick cloud of vision-blocking smoke. While the other four ran forward towards the cloud, Raider ran sideways, appearing on the other side of the street and catching Phantom’s attention.
“They must have been trying to mask a move to the other side,” he grumbled to his companion, swinging his Gauss rifle around and firing a burst. “Smoke placement was poor, though.”
Wraith, too, turned her attention to the operative, though she refrained from firing a shot for now. Her ears twitched, having detected something. Boots scuffing on the ground. Close. She turned her gaze to the smoke in alarm, just in time to see the barrel of Samson’s AA-12 poke through. Reacting quickly, she cloaked herself and dove away, leaving her partner to the fate she now knew was approaching. The rest of their enemies pushed through the smoke as one, guns whipping towards the only enemy in sight – Phantom. Too late he saw them coming.
The first shotgun blast impacted his helmet, the pellets burying into the alloy material but going no further. It was enough to disorient him, however, the force of the blow making him lose his balance. The rest of the bullets focused on his torso, eventually tearing a hole through the armor from the sheer quantity of fire. The last few rounds and a single laser poured through, striking the unfortunate Ghost’s flesh and continuing onward into his body. Without even a sound, he fell backwards, half-heartedly clutching his side.
Isaac, not relaxing, examined the street. Wraith was nowhere to be found, having faded away like her namesake. He cast a sympathetic glance towards his downed foe, before turning around to see the smoke clearing. “Let’s get out of here,” he said, turning and sprinting towards their exit. His allies followed him, Samantha going back to her old cover and retrieving Sali from his hiding place.
Isaac kicked the door open and dashed in, followed closely by Samantha. His eyes alighted on the shopkeeper, staring at them in surprise. Didn’t he hear all that gunfire? “Where’s the backdoor?” he asked, relaxing slightly.
“Backdoor section is over there!” the shopkeeper said quickly, pointing to a few shelves with DVD cases on them.
“What?” Isaac shook his head. “No, backdoor. Back. Door.”
“Yes, yes, backdoor!” the shopkeeper insisted, pointing at the shelves. “Take them! Do not hurt me!”
Samantha cleared her throat. “Uh, Judge? Do you know what kind of a shop this is?”
Samson began laughing uncontrollably. “Fuck, man. You’ll be leaving this shit outta yo’ memoirs.”
Raider elbowed him in the back, still standing in the doorway. “What’s the holdup?” she demanded. “I don’t like being the ass end of this outfit. Get in the damn shop!”
Isaac glared at his allies, before shaking his head darkly and moving in. “Anyone tells my daughter about this, they’re next after Lester.”
Back on the street, after the operatives had left, Wraith de-cloaked next to her fallen ally. Removing his helmet and checking his pulse, she could tell he was still alive, if barely. “Yare yare…” She shook her head, and placed a palm over the wound, green psionic energy flowing from it into the hole. “Get up,” she commanded.
Starting, Phantom leaned upwards, wincing internally at a sharp pain in his side. “What…?”
“They pushed us. You were shot. Multiple times I believe.”
He attempted to stand, but found the pain too great and was forced back on the ground. “They escaped?”
Wraith nodded. “They work together too well. I was not about to challenge them as Spectre did.”
“Wise move,” Phantom affirmed, before coughing roughly. “I’m in no shape to chase them down, though.”
“I can heal the flesh, I cannot remove the metal,” his partner said. “You will need that removed surgically.”
“Then we’ll attack them again later?”
Wraith hesitated. “… yes,” she said quietly. “Now, rest. I will obtain help for us.” She left him to rest, having already called for assistance. As much as she was against the idea logically, there was no way she was letting them escape. Not after so short an altercation, not when it should have been so easy. She glanced at her gauntlet as she sprinted. She’d have to use her Shadow armor better than Spectre did if she wanted to win. But there was no time to set up.
She exhaled. Confusion, distraction. That would be her key to victory. With no time to set up any kind of environmental assistance, it would be her and her equipment. At least she had a good idea of where they’d be going.
About fifteen minutes later, the group of operatives slowed their pace, the building they were aiming for visible a few streets over. Samantha glanced around, the streets devoid of people who had fled at the first sign of danger. “No one else is going to jump us?” she asked quietly. “I feel like that was too easy.”
“Two Ghost squad members at once is hardly ‘easy’.” Isaac admonished, though from his demeanor it was obvious he, too, was nervous. “I don’t think they were expecting to lose, certainly not that quickly.”
“What about the pigs?” Samson asked. “I thought this city was supposed to be secure, we ain’t seen a damn one.”
“Misdirection,” a voice said to their left, prompting the entire group to swing their weapons towards it. A man in a suit, with tan-olive skin, closed a newspaper and slung it over his shoulder, landing perfectly in a streetside bin. “Stormwater wants to avoid law enforcement a much as you do, after all.”
Isaac lowered his weapon in surprise. “Avalos?” he asked. “I told you we’d meet at the building.”
Avalos shrugged. “You took too long,” he said, a Mexican accent present in his smooth yet clear voice. “I decided to come see if you needed help.”
“And you picked this street to stake out?” Noxious asked. “Plan wasn’t very specific in that regard, we could have come from anywhere.”
“Not when I know what you would do, given a set of circumstances,” Raul explained. “If your route was changed one way, it would naturally follow elsewhere. It was merely a case of predicting which one.” It was then he noticed the defeated-looking businessman situated in the middle of the operatives. “Ah, Mr. Sali,” he said pleasantly. “We’ll be getting better acquainted soon. I trust your journey was relatively safe?”
Sali raised his eyes, but didn’t respond. “We’ve had a rough day,” Isaac said. “We’d be better served if we got indoors.”
Raul smiled. “Agreed. But first…” He sauntered out into the middle of the street, distancing himself from anything in the form of cover. He spread his arms, basking in the Egyptian sun. “You’ve done well, Judge,” he said, unmoving. “First Spectre, now Wraith and Phantom. May as well begin calling you all Ghost-busters.” He laughed, though there was no humor in it.
“Actually…” Isaac began.
“You missed one?” Raul said, cutting him off. “Wraith? Yes, Wraith. She’s more cautious. Less brazen than Phantom is. Far more likely to stalk you like a predator hunting prey, yes? And if she knows where you’re going, she’d be able to have enough time to survey the area and get into the best position to ambush you. Like, say…” He turned, pointing at an alleyway off to his right. “There?”
There was silence from the alleyway.
“Now now, we know you’re there. Out you come.”
Raul frowned. “Very cute,” he said, irritation creeping in. “Very well, have it your way. Huntress, if you would just spray-“ Suddenly, he lunged sidewards, turning and standing in one smooth motion. The laser meant for his skull passed harmlessly through the air, impacting the wall at the back of the alley he’d been so interested in. He smiled, and spread his hands. “And there she is,” he said almost smugly as Wraith was forced to decloak.
“Impossible!” she hissed, venting her rifle. “How…?”
“It’s rather simple, Wraith. I know how you think.” The Speaker smiled winningly at her, as if he were trying to sell her a product. “Then it’s just a matter of placing myself in your shoes.”
“I’ll handle this,” Isaac said, stepping forward with rifle raised. He was stopped by Raul putting his palm out, shaking his head.
“No, Judge,” he said. “Stand back and let me show you what I can do.” He lowered his hand, clasping his palms together in front of him, that smile still on his face. Though he hesitated, Isaac did step back, leaving Wraith and Raul facing each other across the street.
“Refusing backup?” Wraith asked, raising her rifle again. “Stupid move. What’s to stop me executing you right now?”
“My sultry tones,” her opponent answered. “You hopelessly outgun me, that’s true. You need only look at me to know that. I have but a business suit and this…” He brought out a pistol, holding it by the barrel. “… shitty little thing,” he finished, returning it to his pockets.
“Your voice is no defense against a proper gun,” Wraith said. “You might consider it your greatest weapon, but what use is it in a proper firefight?”
“You’d be surprised,” Avalos muttered under his breath. “I’d like to invite you to analyze your situation,” he said, gesturing to the group of operatives, weapons half-raised, watching them. “Kill me? Sure. Kill maybe one or two of the others? Possibly, assuming you don’t aim for the Huntress. But then what?” He placed a hand on his chin, as if pondering. “Ah yes, that’s right, you get gunned down.”
The Ghost glanced at them before returning her vision to the Speaker. “They cannot shoot what they cannot see,” she said, though her conviction was lacking.
“Of course they can,” Raul said. “With enough bullets, invisibility will not protect you. At least one will hit you, and then you’ll be wounded, you’ll have to decloak at some point, then you’ll crawling away, hoping nobody sees you.” He shook his head. “Does not sound like a fun way to die if you ask me.”
Wraith hesitated, then snarled, reasserting her aim. “Shut up,” she snapped. “I don’t care for this. I’m going to-“
“-shoot you, then I’ll shoot the rest of them,” Raul echoed, his eyes lowered.
His opponent stopped. “N-nani? Did you just… mimic me?”
A wry smile crossed his lips. “’Mimic’ isn’t quite right,” he said. “That would imply I said what you did after you said it. If you’ll look back, you’ll realize I spoke exactly as you did, when you did.”
She stared at him for a few moments, then shook her head and raised her rifle again. “Irrelevant!” she spat.
“Actually no, it isn’t,” Raul contested. “If you look at it, it means something rather important. Make sure you pay attention, now. If I know what you’re going to say before you say it, what does that mean? Is it only limited to speech?” He smiled. “Of course not. Speaking is an action. I’m not just predicting that you’ll say something, I’m predicting what you’ll say, when you’ll say it and in what tone.” He dodged sideways, the beam going wide again. “Naturally, I can then predict when and where you will shoot,” he continued, unruffled. “All this from observation, and from prior knowledge about you. There is nothing you can do that will surprise me.”
“Ridiculous!” Wraith said, still in denial. “You can’t be doing that. No-one can do that!”
“And yet here I am,” the Speaker said, spreading his hands. “Still not dead. You still haven’t shot me. You never will. Simply put, you cannot win.”
Wraith glanced between her opponent and Isaac’s allies, like someone torn between choices. “Please,” she said, her defiance gone. “They killed Spectre. They nearly killed Phantom and Banshee. Just let me-“
“-get retribution.” Raul shook his head. “No. It’s too late for that now. In your position, like I said before, at best you will get one, maybe two, before you yourself are killed. And it will not be a quick death, that much I can assure you.” He paused. “There is only one way that can be guaranteed.”
It was clear she knew what he meant. Defeated, she dropped her rifle and followed it to the ground, landing on her knees. She reached a hand up to the back of her neck, unfastening her helmet and pulling it off, short black hair returning to its rightful place around her head. Almost sympathizing, Raul walked forward and handed her the pistol he’d drawn earlier.
“Lasers are unpredictable when it comes to a killing blow,” he said, unemotional. “If certainty is what you want…”
Numbly, Wraith accepted the gift. She examined it in her hands for a moment, before looking back up at the Speaker, standing over her.
He sensed what she had been about to ask. “If your companions are wise, they will abandon their leader,” he said quietly. “If not, their safety is forfeit. I have seen men like the Judge before. Cold, unyielding. His motivation cannot be swayed. He will get to Lester, of that I have no doubt. Everything that plants itself in the way will be demolished, and not cleanly. This is the least painful option. For any of you.”
A tear entered her eyes, but she nodded, returning her gaze to the pistol. With a deep breath, she raised it to her head, pointing the barrel directly into her own skull.
Then she whipped it forward and pulled the trigger, pointing it at a surprised-looking Raul.
“I am very, very sorry,” the Speaker said, pulling another, identical pistol out and aiming it at her. He fired, ending the elite’s life on the sandy concrete.
“What the fuck did I just witness?” Samson asked, his usual abrasive manner seemingly toned down.
“The Speaker in action,” Isaac said grimly. “Come on. We’re nearly there.”
A few minutes later the group opened the door to the dark mansion-like building, filing in one by one. Isaac, who had already removed his mask, stopped in the lobby, moving his gaze around the shadowy corners of the room as his allies all followed, slinging their weapons down and choosing places to rest. The last to come in was Raul, dropping Wraith’s weapons just inside the doorway. “Thought you could use the extra cash, if nothing else,” he said by way of explanation, dusting his hands off and moving to Isaac. “Quite a building isn’t it? Did you look that much into it?”
“Only to verify it was structurally sound and there was no one likely to barge in on us,” the Judge answered.
“Of course not,” Raul said. “The locals are terrified of this place. Legend goes, a vampire used to live here.” He eyed his new boss. “But you don’t care for such stories, do you.”
“No,” Isaac affirmed. “I am, however, interested in what stories he can tell us.” He pointed at Sali, who was leaning against a wall with a vacant look in his eyes.
Raul squinted. “He already seems broken. Did you torture him beforehand or something?” The glare Isaac gave him made him raise his hands. “Clearly not,” he said, frowning. “It doesn’t matter. We should begin. If you’ll follow me…”
The three climbed the staircase, the curtains next to it flapping at them as they passed. Some way further in the house, they came upon a library, still replete with books. “Pull up a chair,” Raul said cheerfully, “Make sure you check the underside for spiders.” Obediently, Sali took a wooden chair and sat on it as Raul did the same opposite him, clasping his hands together on the table between them. Isaac remained standing, folding his arms and leaning on a bookshelf.
“Right then,” Raul said, his tone turning relatively serious again. “Before we begin, I’d like to make sure I understand the situation.” He indicated Sali, who shifted uncomfortably. “You are stuck between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand, you have your employers – no, hold on.” He examined Sali’s face, as if searching for clues there. “Former employers. They’ve already cut you off. Deary me, it’s worse than I thought.”
“Those people, they tried to kill me. I should be thanking you for saving me from them, but…” Sali shook his head. “At the same time, you brought me into this. I don’t know what to do.”
“Then let me tell you how I see it,” Raul offered. “On the one hand you have Lester, who is willing to kill you to prevent you telling us where he is, and on the other you have us, who will likely kill you if you don’t. I would suggest, then, that you determine which threat is more immediate and react accordingly.”
Sali began shaking his head. “No, no no no. Lester would have me killed if I talked.”
“And I will have you killed if you don’t,” Isaac snapped, temper flaring. “You remember how our last meeting went? That was me being nice. You do not want-“
“Judge, if you would please calm down,” Raul interjected, “Your point is made, there’s no reason to get angry.” He leaned forward, ignoring Isaac’s fuming. “As I said before, you most certainly are stuck between a rock and a hard place, Sali. I do have a question for you, however. What loyalty do you owe Lester?”
Sali hesitated. “If I did not talk, perhaps he would be merciful-“
“I hate to break this news to you, but I highly doubt that,” the Speaker interrupted. “Lester does not strike me as the merciful type, especially given his reputation. Do you know why my friend here is trying to find him?”
Sali swallowed. “So he can kill him?” he guessed.
“Yes, but why? Why would he go to such lengths?” When Sali did not answer, Avalos shook his head and leaned back. “Lester ordered the murder of this man’s wife, and subsequently damaged the mind of his daughter. These are not the actions of a merciful man.”
“And what would you have me do?” Sali demanded. “Sell him out? Satisfy you and draw his wrath? I am a dead man if I tell you where he is!”
Isaac exhaled. “Maybe not,” he said quietly. “I had a safehouse organized for two of my operatives. Now that they’re helping me, they don’t need it anymore. It’s not much, but it it’s secure enough to foil most intelligence agencies, at least for a few months.”
The Egyptian hesitated. “And you would allow me to reside there until you have… finished?”
“Provided you give us what we need, yes.” The Judge affirmed. Raul’s expression broke into a grin.
“Excellent,” he said. “Now, there should be no qualms, no issues. Where is Lester hiding?”
Sali sighed. “The One World Trade Centre. The Freedom Tower, as some call it.”
There was silence in the room for a moment. “What?!” Isaac demanded. “Bullshit. There’s no way he could be there. It’s too obvious.” Within the same city? He’s been that close the whole time?!
Raul, however, remained unperturbed. “Are you certain of this?” he asked, watching Sali’s face.
The Egyptian nodded. “I have been inside his part of the building. It is most definitely where he resides.”
“It doesn’t make any sense,” Isaac muttered, pacing back and forth on the dusty floor. “It’s not right. Not like him.” He turned to face Sali. “You’ve seen the entrance, you said. Where?”
Sali swallowed nervously. “Below the bottom parking floor, there is a door. Heavily guarded, like everything else in that building, but more so. That leads into the underground complex he has for himself.”
“Underground?” Isaac ran a hand through his hair. That makes more sense. Still traps him if I come barging in, though. His security measures must be good if he’s relying on them… A thought stopped him. “Wait, complex? How large are we talking here?”
The Egyptian shook his head. “I only went to the first floor. I got the impression it was rather extensive, since I was waiting in what I guess you’d call the lobby for over half an hour before he finally showed up.” He frowned. “Though I’m not certain how much of that was standard exercising of power. The typical ‘make them wait for a bit’ routine.”
“What about security?” Isaac pressed. “What measures did Lester have?”
“As I understand, most of the internal security is largely automated. His AI-“
“AI? Alright, now I know you’re full of it.” The Judge held up three fingers. “There are only three working AI in the whole world today, and I know for a fact that none of them would be working for Lester.”
Sali sighed. “Whether you choose to believe me or not is up to you,” he said. “I am merely telling you what you wish to know.”
Raul nodded. “If it helps, I do believe he is telling the truth. Either that, or he’s a very good liar.”
Isaac stared at him before turning away and throwing his hands in the air. “Who the hell is this guy?” he wondered aloud. “Home base underneath the WTC. Said base is exceedingly big. And an AI in his service?”
The questioning continued, with Raul asking most of the more detailed questions – were there any security checkpoints, was there any offsite ID verification, metal detectors, and so on. He leaned back after the last question, satisfied that their source of info had been milked clean, and that all Sali had said was truth, at least to Sali himself. Back downstairs, Samantha asked what they’d found out.
“We’ll talk about it back at home,” Isaac answered, already constructing plans for bypassing Lester’s security. A few days later, on the plane back to America, he smiled to himself.
Yes, it could be done. There just a few steps of preparation required first.
Lester’s Inner Sanctum, Beneath the WTC
February2nd, 10:20 AM
Lester rubbed his brow. “So Wraith abandoned her ally for her own survival, then foolishly attempted to challenge them solo. Is this correct?”
He could hear Hackett shifting uncomfortably on the other end of the line. “That’s correct,” he said cautiously.
“And now Phantom’s gone AWOL, presumably intent on completing his own little challenge.”
“Why is it you have so much trouble controlling your elite?” Lester asked innocuously, leaning back and crossing his legs.
“That same comradeship I encouraged between them is probably to blame,” the mercenary leader admitted. “They’re getting angrier with each one that dies.”
“And now there’s only three left, one of which is still too inexperienced to field one AWOL and the last currently on life support. And now there’s a very good chance the Judge knows where I am.” Lester steepled his fingers. “I wouldn’t say this has been a very successful operation for you thus far,” he remarked.
Hackett growled. “They’re lucky,” he said. “If Wraith hadn’t panicked-“
“They would have both perished,” Lester interrupted. “She did the right thing in hiding, but her subsequent pursuit was ill-advised. The battle was already lost. And letting the Speaker use his deadliest weapon was a mistake.”
“That Mexican shithead? What’s so dangerous about him?”
Lester coughed, harshly. “Were you watching the footage at all?” he spluttered. “Convincing his enemies to commit suicide is a classic tactic of his. And it almost always works. Hell, he could probably convince me to save Isaac the trouble and off myself.”
“We’ll see where his mouth gets him when he’s facing a full Stormwater squad,” Hackett bragged, prompting his employer to roll his eyes.
“Right now, our best chance is to hope Lucifer’s little gambit pays off,” Lester said, toying with a pen. “Then you can prove to me how effective your squads are…”
Streets of New York City
February 2nd, 8:46 PM
There had been some degree of trepidation between the other operatives about sharing a vehicle with Raul, but here they were, seated close to a man that had first tried to convince an enemy to kill themselves, then tricking them and doing it himself. Samson kept throwing him nervous glances, to which Raul almost invariably grinned back.
Isaac glanced in the rear-view mirror, noting that there was still two spare seats in the van. One would fit Azazel, and the other… He looked out the window, where a number of skyscrapers could be seen, silhouetted and yet lit by the many pinpricks of light dotting their surfaces. If that really was where Lester was hiding, then they’d still need two more operatives.
The lights ahead of them turned red, and he slowed the van to a stop. He frowned. The car that pulled up behind them had been following them since leaving the airport. He squinted, then grunted to himself and returned focus to the road. No, he was just being paranoid. The light turned green, and the van moved off, the car behind them turning into the right lane and moving to overtake.
Attempting to quell his paranoia, Isaac looked into the windows of the car as it made to pass. There he saw a familiar shape, details unclear but the shape very much that of a military-grade helmet. He breathed in sharply, but it was too late. Phantom had confirmed he was driving the van.
Phantom’s car swung into the van, impacting the side and throwing the occupants sideways. The van itself was driven into the sidewalk, narrowly passing through the gap between some parked cars and careening into a closed butcher’s shop.
“Man, fuck,” Samson said, a trickle of blood running down his face. “I was expecting to deal with a lot of fuckin’ dead pigs in this job, but this shit ain’t what I meant.”
“Everyone alright?” Isaac asked, powering up his laser pistol.
“Might limp for a bit,” Samantha admitted, “but I’ll be fine.”
Raider extricated herself from Noxious’ bracing grasp. “We’re fine,” she answered.
Raul flexed his wrist. “Don’t I get a hug?” he asked the two, flashing his teeth at them.
Behind them, Phantom got out of the car, slinging his Gauss rifle into an aiming position. He took a few potshots into the van, causing the occupants to duck for fear of being shot. The pedestrians nearby, who’d been watching this unfold, screamed and began running, unwilling to be caught in the middle of this. Noting their unfavorable position, Isaac briefly wished he could join them.
In a smooth motion, he kicked open his own door and swung out, laser pistol spitting beams at his foe. Though each individual beam would not have damaged the elite overly much, he still shied away, giving the other operatives the time they needed to pile out, their own weapons at the ready. Even Raul seemed to have forgone the subtle approach, utilizing Wraith’s weaponry for his own advantage. Lasers weren’t exactly known for their penetrative power, however, and Phantom escaped the worst of the reactive onslaught behind his car.
“Out the back, out the back!” Isaac commanded, and his allies began retreating, abandoning their suppression and leaping over the counter that lead into the ‘employees only’ area. Isaac himself began edging backwards, bringing out his sniper rifle and waiting for Phantom to poke out.
“Running like last time!” the elite cried, pushing his rifle around the corner and firing a burst without looking. The bullets went wide, impacting the tiled walls of the butcher’s shop. “Can you outrun Gauss fire though?”
“We won last time, if you recall,” Isaac taunted, slipping behind the van and preparing to sprint from it to the counter. Samantha, who had already made the journey, pushed her LMG above the counter and began firing, giving Isaac the cover he needed to dash across. She ceased fire when he’d made it, ducking down and avoiding Phantom’s retaliatory burst.
“You can’t run this time!” he said as the two retreated through the back. “You’re dead meat, every single one of you!”
Out the back, the group took a moment to cool off, though Isaac’s mind raced. Not only had he thought his enemy dead, but he certainly hadn’t been expecting a strike like this. How had Phantom known where they’d be? The implications weren’t good.
“Where to now?” Samson asked, glancing left and right, his gaze following the alley. “We retreatin’, or layin’ a trap for that motherfucker?”
“Retreating,” Isaac said. “He’s too well-geared for us to take head-on. Too risky. We need to outrun him or whittle him down. Damage that armor of his. Or his resolve…?” He looked at Raul, who shook his head.
“Phantom is out for blood,” the Speaker said. “He’ll get it, one way or the other. I suspect this is an individual initiative, rather than one commanded by his superiors.”
“We need to leave,” Samantha said, her LMG trained at the door in case Phantom came charging out.
“Agreed,” the Judge said, pointing to the right. “We’ll split up for now, try to confuse him. Noxious, Raider, Raul, you all go that way. Myself and the two Sam’s will head the other way. We’ll meet again two streets over, understand?” When everyone nodded, he nodded back. “Good luck everyone.” With that, everyone split into their assigned directions, each group pelting down the alleyways as Phantom emerged from the backdoor, quickly checking both ways. Spotting a foot disappearing around the corner, he snarled and followed it, alloy boots clanking on the concrete floor.
Terror gripped Isaac briefly as the sound of bullets impacting bricks reached his ears, whipping his head backwards and seeing Phantom rounding the corner they’d just left. “Shit, he followed us!” he yelled, sidestepping into another alleyway. Samantha wheeled around, spraying a few inaccurate bullets towards their foe before following him. Samson, knowing his own fire would be useless at this range, settled for raising the middle finger at him before similarly retreating.
They broke onto the next street over, catching a glimpse of Raider moving into one of the alleys on the other side. People cried out and moved away as the three pushed through, unwilling to challenge a group of people carrying weapons if they didn’t look like they were about to turn those weapons on them. Phantom, emerging from the same alley, was another story. He fired a burst at the retreating figures, prompting most civilians to drop to the ground in fear. A few heroes pulled out their own personal sidearms to try and subdue him, but the bullets pinged almost harmlessly off his armor, merely drawing the elite’s ire. He gunned down one such civilian, and the rest wisely decided to cease further aggressive action. “No one gets in my way,” Phantom said darkly, sprinting across the street and following his quarry.
But they had already made it through the block and were on the second street, having taken advantage of Phantom’s delay. The other three had already arrived, and were waiting anxiously in the mouth of the adjoining alleyway. Isaac, however, ran straight past them and jumped on top of a car, making sure that his rifle was clearly visible. “Everybody get down on the ground now!” He yelled, firing a shot in the air for good measure. The civilians on the street, already on edge from the sounds of distant gunfire, needed no telling twice, falling to the ground en masse. Two policemen, however, were nearby and almost sauntered over, their own sidearms out.
“Sir, put the gun down,” one said, taking position behind him.
Isaac glanced at him. “Oh,” he said, realizing how the situation looked. “Listen, we’re being attacked by someone. He’ll be jumping through that alley in…” he paused, mentally calculating. “probably half a minute?” He indicated his allies, who stepped out of the shadows, their own weapons out. “Not a fan of threatening the police,” he said, “but in a bit you’ll have someone who’s actually likely to shoot you rather than me. I advise you call for backup while you still can.”
The two cops exchanged a glance, recognizing they were outnumbered. “Alright, alright,” the first one said, raising his hands. “No need to do anything stupid.”
“Then don’t make us,” Samantha instructed. “And get behind a car or something. This guy sees a squishy target, he’ll probably take it.”
Almost on cue, Phantom sprinted out of the alleyway, Gauss rifle at the ready. He snapped his aim to Isaac, firing a burst of bullets as he jumped off the car and back onto the street. “Realized you can’t run away?” Phantom yelled, taking his own position behind a car. “Save yourselves all the trouble and come out so I can end you.”
“This is stupid, Phantom!” Raul shouted, not willing to peak at the elite. “You’ve let rage get the better of you. There are a number of better ways to go about avenging fallen comrades!”
“Tell that to your employer!” Phantom snapped, switching his magazine for a fresh one. “How are we that different, Judge? Now we’re both on revenge crusades. I’m not letting you get away with killing Spectre and Wraith!”
One of the cops looked at Isaac oddly, police radio out. “Self-defence,” he said in response to the unasked question. “And last time I checked, civilians weren’t involved in anything I did!” he yelled.
“You don’t call Sali a civilian?”
“He survived, unlike those people you shot back there.” He glanced sideways, Samson, Raider and Noxious getting in position to flank their foe during the distraction. With a nod to them, Isaac ducked out from behind his cover, moving across to another car and drawing Phantom’s attention. Gauss bullets peppered the concrete behind him, sending up grey sprays of dust. “Fuck me, that was close…”
But it had worked. The other three had made the move across the street and now had vision on their foe. First determining that the nearby area was clear of civilians, Noxious pulled the pin on his ‘special’ smoke grenade, and sent it flying over to Phantom’s position. It began belching out smoke, though in the outdoors it wasn’t as thick as it would be normally. Samson used the smokescreen as cover to move up, shotgun at the ready. Phantom had moved back out of the smoke, his suit’s filter having prevented the poison entering his lungs but not wishing to clog it. Thus he saw the enforcer approach and fired reactively, the bullets spraying towards him.
Samson managed to get a few shots off before this, however it was not enough to kill Phantom. The elite’s own fire continued forward, with three rounds punching through Samson’s legs and forcing him to the ground, crying out in pain.
But he hadn’t been the only on to move up. Vaulting over the car, Raider struck Phantom in the head with her boots, disorienting him. She pulled out one of her knives and made to slit his throat, but he twisted in her grasp and she missed, allowing him the time to elbow her in the chin. The action left him exposed to his more entrenched enemies, however, something he realized too late. Isaac, Raul and Samantha all piled their fire together, the stream of death tearing into the Stormwater elite’s chest armor and burning it through for the second time. Finally, their fire found its way through, and Phantom fell back once more, helmet clanging on the ground.
Isaac sprinted over, pistol ready in case he needed it. It was clear when he arrived, however, that he didn’t – from the state of Phantom’s torso, he was very much unlikely to survive much longer. Phantom turned his head to stare at his enemy, bringing a hand weakly up to flip his visor open. The bearded man inside glared at him for a moment, then spat, blood-filled saliva landing on the concrete at Isaac’s feet. “I hope… I get to be one of your torturers… in hell…” Phantom rasped weakly, before his eyes closed and all the tension was released from his body.
The poisonous gas cleared, and Noxious began to examine Samson’s wounds. “He needs medical attention,” he said, glancing up at Isaac.
“Yeah no fuckin’ shit!” Samson cried, pain evident on his face. “I just been shot three fuckin’ times, with Gauss bullshit! And you just now thinkin’ I be needin’ some medical attention?!”
“Don’t worry, I know a place we can get you fixed up,” Isaac said, before turning his gaze to the approaching police officers. “Ah, shit…”
“We’ll be needing you to stay behind,” one said, folding his arms. “I have no idea what the fuck I just witnessed, but you sure as hell do. And we find that mighty interesting.”
Isaac cleared his throat. “Yeah, as much as I’d like to help you with that, we’ve got other things to do, so if you don’t mind letting us go-“
“Oh, but we do,” the cop said harshly. “Guy comes in here shooting the place up, and not only do you know him, but you’re prepared to deal with it yourselves. That’s mighty interesting.”
Raul stepped forward. “Maybe so, but what I think you’ll find more interesting is what happens next.”
Both the cops looked at him like a piece of dog shit on the pavement had just started speaking to them. “Who the hell are you, immigrant?” the other said.
Raul’s expression turned to one of indignation. “Immigrant?!” he cried. “Do I look like an illegal alien to you?” he said, gesturing to his clothing. “And you’ll find I speak better English than most of your native-born Americans do, though with your education system that’s hardly surprising.”
“What the fuck did you just say?”
“You sir, are a racist. I’m willing to bet you won’t let us go despite our clearly good intentions because our wounded man is black, is that right?”
Raul leaned in close, sneering. “In that case, I will see to it that you both lose your jobs! Neither of you should be enforcing the law, an equal standard for all, if you cannot do it to an equal standard for all!”
Behind him, Isaac and Noxious pulled Samson up, slinging one arm over their respective shoulders. “All right, just don’t try and walk yourself,” Isaac muttered. He grimaced. “Holy shit, you’re heavy.”
“All muscle man.” Samson said through his teeth. “Shit’s heavier than fat, ‘case that’s what y’all thinkin’.”
Samantha discretely picked up Phantom’s weapons, casting one last sympathetic look at the elite before joining the three men swiftly (for two men carrying a third, anyway) making their exit. Raider tapped Raul on the shoulder, mid-rant. “We’re going,” she said, before turning and following them.
“I hope you remember this day,” Raul said snobbishly, backing away. “Remember it, and learn from it. I never want to have to speak of this to you again!” He made an hmph noise and turned, striding away as if he had been extremely offended.
The doctor sighed when he opened the door for his new patients, but ushered them in regardless. “Don’t know why I expected any kind of wound other than bullets from a call from you,” he said to Isaac as they carried a groaning Samson inside. “Not up to the task, Dr. Lazarus?” he asked Noxious.
Noxious grimaced, though still wearing his gas mask the expression went unseen. “Surgery was never my forte, Beckard,” he answered, hauling Samson onto a mobile bed with a grunt.
Dr. Beckard smiled at him, then at his new patient. “No worry,” he said simply, “We’ll fix you up. What exact wounds are we talking here?”
“Gauss rounds,” Isaac answered. “Not sure how many.”
“Clearly not enough for him to bleed out on the way here,” Beckard remarked, slapping on a pair of blue surgical gloves. “We’ll remove the rounds if they’re still in his body, and repair the flesh. Might need him to stay overnight while it all heals.”
“I have no problem with that,” the Judge said, eyeing the wounds. “Just fix him up.”
“That’s why you pay me,” the doctor said, grabbing hold of the trolley. “I’ll be about an hour.” With that, he wheeled Samson out the door, heading towards an emergency operating theater.
Samantha glanced around, the sterile appearance of the hospital unnerving her. “You trust this guy?” she asked, her gaze resting on Isaac.
He shrugged. “I’ve used him a few times, when I wasn’t as careful as I should have been. Jack seems to trust him, so…”
Noxious rubbed the back of his neck. “We went to med school together,” he explained. “Used to be a good friend of mine. Just took different paths with what we learned.”
“Used to be?” Raider asked, looking away from the emergency escape plan pinned to the wall.
“Don’t get me wrong, not like we had a sudden falling-out or anything. Just… stopped talking. I still trust him with my life, he’s… a very good doctor.”
“And discrete,” Isaac added. “Though if you’re here often enough for him to recognize you on sight, you’re probably doing something wrong.”
About an hour later, the doors swung open and Beckard strode in, smiling. “All good now,” he said cheerfully. “One of the rounds was buried in the back of his thigh, but we removed that. The other two passed through relatively cleanly. Bit of medspray for disinfectant, some biokinesis to knit the flesh back together, and he was done. Like I said though, I’d prefer him to remain here for the night so I know immediately if something goes wrong.” He looked meaningfully at Isaac. “Unless you think that would put him in danger…?”
“He can stay,” the Judge affirmed. “He’s not being hunted down. Not to my knowledge, anyway.”
“Good! Come back and pick him up… say, tomorrow evening. I’ll give you my full prognosis then.”
“Excellent.” Isaac rose, and indicated to his allies. “We’ll be off then. Keep him safe.”
Beckard grinned at them as they left. “Remember, this is not a hotel! Tomorrow night!”
Lester’s Inner Sanctum, Beneath the WTC
February 3rd, 10:23 AM
“The gambit paid off,” Lester said as the call opened. “Lucifer has the location of the Judge’s headquarters. A warehouse within the city.” To think he was within a few miles all along…
“So send the troops immediately?” Hackett asked.
“To the agreed location, yes. Lucifer will meet your people there, and will direct them to the location.” Lester leaned back in his chair, a smile creeping onto his lips. “Ideally this will spell the end of the Judge, and his quest for revenge. Is the Lost prepared?”
“He is. You want me to lump him with the other soldiers for this?”
“I do. His presence on the field would be a significant factor in our victory, I think.”
“Aye then, I’ll get them ready to move out. When’re we thinking this will take place?”
“Tonight,” Lester said, pausing to cough into a cloth handkerchief. “Excuse me. I don’t want there to be any chance of Isaac moving out while we prepare. That’s why we prepared beforehand, after all.” He frowned. “We’re not going to have any issues with the Lost like we did with Phantom, are we?”
“Phantom was always a bit of a loose cannon,” Hackett grumbled. “In a way, I’m not really surprised he reacted as he did. Wraith and he were good friends. Hell, maybe even more. Might explain the rage.”
“And your assessment of the Lost?”
The mercenary hesitated. “He’s… hard to gauge,” he admitted. “Every time I talk to him, I get the impression he’s looking for ways to stab me in the back. You’re certain with what you left him-“
“He wouldn’t dare,” Lester affirmed. “What you’re describing is his latent rage. Undirected, for now.”
“His track record indicated he worked best when passionate about his work, as with most people.” Lester shrugged. “I merely facilitated that increased performance.”
“By making him a spiteful, hate-filled piece of shit?”
“It benefited us, so yes.”
“That’s…” Hackett whistled. “Impressive, that you can just mess with someone’s mind like that. How do you do it?”
Lester grunted. “I have a few employees who specialize in that kind of thing,” he said. “Previously required a combination of torture and an induced state of delirium before anything could be done, but with a green psion it’s much easier to rewrite how someone thinks. As a result, I have near-total control over those affected. I only wish I’d had such assets available to me when I took Isaac’s daughter. Things would have been so much easier…”
February 3rd, 5:43 PM
“Fuck, man,” Samson said, pushing the door open further than necessary for Isaac behind him. “Lucky I got thick-ass thighs, else doc said those gauss rounds coulda sheared my legs clean off.”
“Gauss weapons are powerful,” Isaac agreed, closing the wooden door behind him. “And if Lester’s fielding them, we need to be able to match. I’ve gone ahead and procured some extra weapons for us, but they probably won’t arrive for another few days at least.” He smiled. “The armor, however…”
Samson turned around. “For real?” he asked. “You got us some actual protection?”
“I did,” Isaac said, moving towards the armory and beckoning for the enforcer to follow him. “Everyone got something, based on what your roles are for the most part.”
“Well, as far as ‘get well’ presents go…”
Isaac opened the armory door, allowing Samson to move in first. Samantha, who was tinkering with the Gauss rifle they’d retrieved from Phantom, acknowledged their presence before returning to her work. Samson mostly ignored her, raising a hand but not moving his gaze away from the Carapace armor in front of his locker.
“Shit, man,” he said, his voice slightly awed. “This heavy motherfucker’s mine?”
“For the duration of this endeavor, yeah. I’ll see if I can get my hands on anything better, but for now… yeah. That’s yours.”
The enforcer ran a hand over the shoulderpad, frowning slightly as he felt a groove in it. “Not exactly mint condition, is it?”
Isaac shrugged. “They’re secondhand, yeah. Still just as protective, I made sure of that.”
“Probably won’t fully protect us from Gauss fire,” Samantha butted in, “Anything beneath that though? We can take a few hits.”
Isaac frowned. “You can’t,” he said. “Not with Skeleton armor. You still sure you wanted that?”
“Positive,” the Huntress affirmed. “I’d like a bit of mobility, especially if I’m going to be using this instead of an LMG.”
“And Jack was fine with you taking that and not him?”
Samantha shrugged. “He relies a bit more on close quarters,” she said. “A rifle like this is wasted potential at that range. He agreed with me.”
“Mind you, you’ll be getting an upgrade soon. How does a Gauss Autorifle sound?”
Samson laughed at the noise Samantha made, akin to pleasured moaning. “Better be careful man,” he said with a conspiratorial elbow. “You gonna be drownin’ in women if you keep this up.”
Isaac merely rolled his eyes. “Of course. I’m going to go work a few things out, you want to stay here and look over your armor?”
Samantha eyed the enforcer. “I might leave too if that’s what he’s doing,” she said. “Probably should have booked a room for the two of you, huh?”
Samson didn’t respond, instead stroking the armor’s arm like it was a date. Chuckling, Isaac left him to it, and made his way to the planning room.
He was surprised to see both Azazel and Raul already there, the two almost glaring at each other. “I swear to God if this is about him being an Ethereal again,” Isaac warned.
Raul shook his head. “No, no. I learned long ago not to judge people based on outward appearances. Leads to dangerous assumptions.”
Indeed, the Ethereal said. The mind is a far better place to peruse if you wish to gauge someone.
“I wouldn’t know.”
Of course you wouldn’t.
The Speaker gazed at Azazel for a moment before a grin broke his face. “Apologies,” he said. “I just don’t like people I can’t read. And with that mask, and whatever mannerisms your people have that ours do not, you’re very much an enigma to me. I find that frustrating.”
Azazel inclined his head. Likewise, he said. It was my job for many of your decades, perhaps even centuries, to read people. I too find it irksome when I encounter someone I cannot immediately decipher. The Ethereal straightened. I too apologize if I am coming off as… what’s the word, ‘standoffish’?
Raul continued smiling. “That would be accurate, yes.” He turned to Isaac then, almost as if deliberately trying to ignore his Ethereal rival. “So then, what’s the next step? We know where your little friend is.”
Isaac frowned and moved towards the planning table. “I’m going to need more intel,” he admitted. “I need floorplans, blueprints, security schedules… of the Freedom Tower no less. Getting all that without attracting a ridiculous amount of attention is going to be difficult. The Americans are very protective of that building.”
Raul shrugged. “It is a symbol of their pride,” he said. “Every nation has some structure of the same nature.”
“That doesn’t make this any easier. I’ll need to contact someone skilled in cybercrime. I’ve got a few candidates for that. And we’ll almost certainly need someone skilled with explosives…”
The Mexican glanced between him and Azazel nervously, before shrugging and turning away. “Well, I’ll leave you to it then,” he said, slipping out.
I don’t like him, Azazel said as soon as Raul had left.
Isaac sighed. “Why not?”
As I stated, I do not like people I cannot read easily. Either he has exceptional mental fortitude, or he’s a psion. The Ethereal watched for a reaction, and seemed disappointed when he didn’t get one. The first makes him untrustworthy, the second makes him a liar-
“It doesn’t matter,” Isaac said. “So long as he’s on our side, he can keep a few secrets. Not like I’m telling everyone everything myself.”
A shadow crossed the Ethereal’s mask, but he said nothing further on the matter, instead arching his head over to look at the mass of papers on the desk. He still couldn’t decipher anything but pictures, however.
“How are your books going?” Isaac asked absently, opening one folder and flicking through the sheets within.
Azazel leaned back again. Well, he said. Although it is disconcerting whenever I find a passage analogous to our own situation.
“Almost feels like we’re in a book sometimes, doesn’t it?” Isaac said with a light smile. “Few years ago, aliens were a myth. Laser and plasma weaponry were pipe dreams. Hell, even space travel that didn’t take months or years to reach its goal was out of our reach. The stuff of science fiction, not news reports.”
And now here we are, Azazel said. Here I am. Shackled by your governments wanting to prevent an incident, yes, but still.
“Actually, about that.” Isaac turned to face the Ethereal, a smile on his face. “You’re clear now. XSDF investigators found no evidence that you were to blame for the attack on the bridge. So long as you stay with me, they’re not going to arrest you on sight now.”
That is indeed a relief, Azazel said, nodding.
“It means you can leave at any time,” the Judge said. “I can arrange transport to an XSDF centre, they can pick you up, and you can be back on Aethereum. Of course, it’s your choice.”
The Ethereal shook his head. No, he said flatly. There is nothing for me on that planet.
Isaac frowned. “Nothing? No friends, family?”
Nothing, Azazel affirmed. My family likely died long ago. And my friends… He hesitated. … they perished.
Isaac frowned. “How long are we talking here, years or-“
Cycles,the Ethereal answered. You would not have even been born.
That prompted a raised eyebrow. “How… old are you, exactly?”
Eighty-one cycles,Azazel answered. In your terms, that would translate as roughly a thousand years.
“You’re a millennia old?!”
A shrug.I am middle-aged for an Ethereal. The average lifespan for one of my kind is equivalent to around two thousand of your Earth years.
Isaac was quite clearly taken aback. “That’s… wow.”
I don’t see what you’re so shocked about. In terms of current age versus average life expectancy, you are older than I am.
He growled. “You don’t need to remind me,” he said bitterly, returning to the papers. “I’m starting to feel the age. It’s one of the reasons I’m doing this – whether I like it or not, I’m running out of time before success here becomes a regret, something I wish I’d done but got too old to do.”
Azazel continued gazing at him. That is not always the best motivation, he said.
“Aye, but it’s the one I’ve got.” Isaac stopped for a moment, tapping a finger on the wooden tabletop. “Hold on, if your family died before I was born, that would mean they didn’t die in the war. Which begs the question…” He turned around, staring directly at the Ethereal. “How did they die?”
Azazel hesitated, but seemed to come to a decision. You recall I mentioned that I was an Inquisitor? That position was… not exactly by choice.
Before he could elaborate however, a sound caught Isaac’s ear. A sound that was fairly distinctive, and probably very common in office buildings.
It was the sound of someone running down a hallway saying “shit shit shit shit” over and over.
The door to the planning room slammed open, revealing a panting Hannah. “Oh thank God you’re in here,” she said to Isaac. “I was just sitting in the camera room, and I think we-“ She didn’t get to finish her statement as Isaac swore, tearing past her and sprinting towards the aforementioned camera room. When he got there he ran his eyes quickly over each of the screens, showing footage each of the cameras they were hooked up to. He skimmed through, giving only cursory glances at first, until his eyes zipped back to one he’d just looked at. Was that movement? Closer. Yes. Something or someone had definitely just moved in the shadows there.
Azazel and Hannah, keeping a brisk but more measured pace, poked their heads through the door behind him. “See anything?” she asked, nervously wondering if she’d been mistaken.
“I do,” Isaac said grimly. “Pack your things. Essentials only. Once you’re done, wait in the van. Azazel, send a telegraphic message to everyone. We’re very likely about to be attacked. We’ll defend this warehouse until we see an opening or we run out of targets, then we’re legging it. Understand?” The Ethereal nodded, before turning around and planting two hands on his temples, presumably sending the message. “There’s a safehouse I wasn’t going to move us to just yet, but it’ll have to do now.” Isaac continued, mostly to himself.
Azazel removed his hands and moved further into the room. What shall I do? he asked calmly.
“Stay here,” Isaac commanded. “Do your ESP spotting thing. Let us know where our foes are, and if there’s any gaps in our defenses. Basically relying on you to keep us on task. Got it?” The Ethereal nodded, and Isaac stepped back. “Very good,” he said. A glance up at the screens showed a few more brazen people, stepping out into clear view, outfitted like soldiers. A flashed logo on the shoulderpad of one confirmed Isaac’s suspicions, and he grimaced.
“Shifting from defense to offense, huh Lester,” he muttered, before turning and sprinting towards the armory.
Hackett grimaced, wishing he could have one last cigar before charging in. But no, that would give them away, a glowing orange beacon in the shadows around the warehouse. He waited, Gauss rifle resting in his arms, as his more sneakily-minded subordinates made their sweeps.
“Smoking is poor for your health,” stated the heavily armored individual beside him.
Hackett squinted at them. “What?”
They indicated his left hand, which was frozen midway between his pocket and his weapon’s foregrip. “You’ve made that motion several times now,” they stated.
The mercenary growled. “Fuck you, Lucifer,” he snapped, before turning his gaze back to the warehouse. Still no sign of life through the top floor windows. “Scouts, report.”
His radio crackled to life. “No way for us to get round the back without being seen,” it spat. “Long sightlines from the warehouse to everywhere else. There’s like a ring of no-mans land surrounding it. We’re gonna have to charge through that.”
He cursed. “Alright, wait for my signal,” he replied, before letting the radio fall back onto his chest, clanking against the angular alloy. “Asshole’s holed up tighter than a virgin on her wedding night,” he said, peering through the gloom. “Still, it is only an old warehouse. Not like he’d have time to bulletproof all those walls.”
Lucifer largely ignored the chatter, instead analyzing the building with his own optical receptors. The action plan was relatively simple – the warehouse had several entry points, although all of them required a charge from the shadows to get there. And, the scouts had quickly detected, there were cameras watching each and every entrance. Once they made their move, there was no tip-toeing around.
It would need to be hard and fast. Lucifer and Hackett would split up once inside, searching for lone defending enemies to cull. If either found the Judge, they were to retreat and await backup. Around the other side of the warehouse, the Lost would make a similar play, leading a squad in around the back to breach the building. Once they’d all cornered their foe, they would-
A gunshot snapped Lucifer out of his reverie, one of the soldiers crouched next to him clutching his throat as he fell backwards, his windpipe pierced by rounded metal. The AI’s head snapped around to where the gunshot would have come from, noticing the barrel of a weapon – front profile matching that of a Mosin Nagant – disappearing behind the wall from a window. He didn’t wait for Hackett to order the charge, instead sprinting at unnatural speed towards the building.
Idly, a process wondered what participating directly in a firefight would be like, before he raised a metal leg and slammed it forward, breaking the door’s handle and causing it to swing open.
Raul retreated from the window, the Judge’s old sniper rifle in his hands. Part of him was disappointed – he’d been detected almost immediately after firing the shot. That had been the entire point of using this old thing over the Beam Strike rifle they’d secured from Wraith, considering that would have revealed him to any idiot within 100 meters. It mattered not, now. He’d heard them begin breaching.
He ran back, deeper inside the warehouse, to the main room, where most of the others waited. Strength in numbers, or so the saying went. Yet as he approached, tossing Isaac his rifle back, he noticed some were missing. Azazel, Samson, Raider, Hannah – all four were not present.
“You expect to hold them back with just the four of us?” He asked, taking position behind a specially prepared set of crates.
“Of course not,” the Judge responded, carefully placing his old rifle behind cover and picking up its newer, shinier cousin. “There’s a term my daughter used once to describe what Samson and Raider are doing right now.”
The Speaker’s mind brought forth an image of Samson charging directly towards Phantom, only yesterday. “Insanity?” he guessed.
Noxious laughed, his voice distorted behind his gas-mask’s filter. “Not exactly,” he said.
“Raul Avalos,” Isaac said, crouching down and aiming at the large metal door that had once been the main entrance of the warehouse. “Have you ever heard of a tactic called ‘Lurking’?”
No breathing. No sound. No movement. Nothing that might give away the fact that there was someone hiding nearby. Even that bit of hair wafting in front of her face had to remain untouched.
Raider’s nose twitched. God, was it itchy though.
Behind a metal stairway, lay several boxes and bags no one had bothered to remove. Behind those boxes and bags, she hid. Waiting. Completely out of sight and with no vision at her target area, for once, but that was irrelevant this time. Thanks to Azazel, who was feeding her positions even now, she knew exactly where her targets were. She knew, for example, that there was a group of enemy mercenaries planting C4 on the large metal door on one side of the planning room – no, one of them was just shot through the door. Above her, she knew that another group had climbed up onto the second floor, likely using rappel equipment, maybe Skeleton armor or something of that ilk.
And in front of her, just around the corner, another squad was about to breach the doorway.
A loud bang accompanied the door swinging inwards, and a second accompanied the bright flash of light from the cylinder they’d thrown in afterwards. Raider, facing the other way, didn’t even need to close her eyes. Stormwater poured in after the flashbang, laser sights and assault lights darting every which-way to detect any possible enemies. Once they’d determined there was no-one, the group collectively relaxed, allowing through another, oddly wearing Aegis armor over their Carapace and Phalanx models.
“Status report,” the heavily armored one barked into a handheld radio.
“We’ve successfully breached,” a voice responded. “Moving around the back now.”
Dully, Raider felt a brief spike of alarm at the back of her mind. Indeed, through her shared minds-eye with their Ethereal guide, she saw a group of mercenaries preparing to breach the back area, close to the surveillance room.
I will continue to provide guidance as I can, Azazel reassured her. I may need to deal with them if they prove a threat, however.
There was a short delay from the answer. “We’re in the top floor, examining the place for any sneaky defenders,” was the reply. “Nothing so far, though.”
Raider frowned inwardly. That voice had sounded oddly familiar. She dismissed the thought. Must just be the distortion of the static.
“Sweeping West wing now,” came the reply.
The man – who Raider assumed was the leader – nodded to himself and replaced the radio on his chestplate. “Alright men, through here there should be one more room and then we arrive in the main area. On three, breach the door. Understood?” There was a mumbled chorus of affirmatives and “yes Hackett”s, and several mercenaries took position at the door.
Raider flipped a knife out from her sleeve, her rubber-insulated gloves protecting her from any of the electricity dancing along its blade.
With her left hand she procured a flashbang, hooking her thumb through the circular pin. With enough force of a throw, she could remove the pin and throw at the same time.
One of the mercenaries planted a boot on the door, and kicked it inwards. Simultaneously, the individual on his left threw a flashbang within what Raider knew to be an empty, darkened room.
And as the whole squad turned away from the flashbang, another sailed behind them, right into their cone of vision.
Both tactical grenades detonated at roughly the same time, sparing only Raider from their debilitating flash. The bang, however, was audible enough to deafen her temporarily.
Still, that was one less disability than her targets.
She leapt out from behind her cover, drawing a second knife from her boot as she did so. The first few seconds were crucial, she knew – her enemy was blind and deaf, but only briefly. She needed to maximize the damage she did in the meantime.
Before her intervention, there had been seven mercenaries plus their leader. When she was done, five of them were lying on the ground with slit throats, their armor lacking neck protection.
Hackett snarled, blinking furiously. When his vision cleared enough to realize he was gazing at five of his own soldiers, now dead, he grabbed the shoulders of those remaining to him and pulled them into the new room, retreating back behind the wall. “What the hell just happened?!” he demanded, thought his bodyguards were incapable of answering him.
Raider took the opportunity to tuck the unruly bit of hair beneath her ski-mask.
“Who the fuck do you think you are?” Hackett continued. “Sneaky piece of shit, huh? Alright.” He reached to his side and brought a small, circular object up to his other hand. “Fine then,” he said, pulling the pin on the avocado-colored sphere and throwing it back through the doorway. “Have it your way.”
She was already moving before it hit the ground, dashing past the doorway in time to see the three remaining soldiers breaching the final door into the main area. She cursed inwardly, but kept moving. In close quarters like this, there was no telling how much range that thing might ha-
The sound of a door breaking down was quickly upstaged by that of an explosion, in front of which Hackett and his two cronies strode. One was quickly shot down, however, Samantha’s Gauss rifle peppering him with magnetically-accelerated metal. “Not expecting me to be watching that door?” she taunted as they ran for cover, silently thanking Azazel for his ability to detect them.
Hackett, now hiding behind a large crate, noticed that the large metal door still hadn’t been breached. “The hell?” He brought up his radio. “Where the fuck is Typhoon squad? You’re behind schedule!”
“Every time we try to plant a charge, we get shot through the wall! We don’t know what’s going on!” was the response.
Hackett rolled his eyes. “Then throw the damn things. You have arms, don’t you?” He dropped the radio in disgust, leaning out of cover to let loose a burst of Gauss fire at their targets. Moments later, a focused explosion blew a hole in the door, though it wasn’t large enough for more than one person at a time to squeeze through. And it was directly in Isaac’s line of fire. One unfortunate merc was killed by a beam that penetrated through the one in front of him, drilling the both of them in the head.
“Helmets, people,” Isaac muttered, venting the heat in his rifle as his remaining targets ran back behind the door. “They won’t just save your life, but the guy behind you too.”
Another explosion hit the door, making the hole larger and now a viable entry point. The Judge frowned to himself. Now there was an actual threat from there. “Noxious, you want to smoke out those two to our right? I’d rather not be flanked.”
Noxious obediently pulled out one of his special smoke grenades, tossing it towards the target crate and ducking back behind his own. The grenade spat out the toxic-looking gas, catching the only remaining Stormwater mook in its wispy grasp before he could run. As his bodyguard choked, Hackett attempted to run for cover without gas. But Samantha was ready for him, and one of her bullets caught him in the leg, causing him to tumble forward with a cry of pain.
“You pieces of-“ Hackett winced, and began crawling towards his cover. “Where’s my cover, dammit!” he practically screamed into his radio. “Breach, you idiots, breach!”
“Only breach that will be occurring with any effectiveness will be the one in your head,” Isaac muttered, turning his gaze away from the door for just enough time to silence the wounded Stormwater leader. “Now shut up and let me fight.”
The grenade exploding hadn’t phased him. And according to Azazel, Raider was only concussed by it, so he wasn’t worried about that either. What he was worried about, however, was the small group of enemies skulking through the upstairs area even now.
They hadn’t quite reached his room yet, but they would soon. He considered checking to make sure he’d actually loaded his shotgun again, but knew that he’d make too much noise doing that. Even with the gunfire and occasional boom below, he knew that the tell-tale click click would alert his foes that, if nothing else, something was up.
So he waited. Impatiently.
Slow, patient steps reached his ears. That confirmed it. Azazel really was helping him. And as they got closer, Samson’s grip tightened. Now he really came into his own.
As soon as one enemy appeared in the doorway, he received a face full of shotgun pellets. Pushing past him, Samson managed to bring down two more enemies before they really figured out where he was, and by the time the remaining three foes had worked out where he was he’d already darted into a different room. “Y’all motherfuckers need to use your ears!” Samson taunted, a rush of adrenaline filling his veins. “I ain’t meant to be the sneaky fuck on this team!”
The three, surprisingly, fell back behind a wall rather than charge their enemy. “No, of course not,” one of them said. “That’s Raider’s job, isn’t it? It was always Raider’s job.” That drew looks from his allies, but he waved them off.
“Well, I hope you two ain’t friends,” Samson replied. “I’d rather not piss off the chick with the electricity fetish, ya hear me? How about you drop that pissy little rifle of yours, and we can, ah… come to an arrangement?” Samson remained confident. Thanks to their Ethereal ally, he knew exactly where his enemies were at all times, an advantage they lacked. Surely there was no way-
I must go dark for a few moments, Azazel broke in. I have visitors. And with that he was silent, and suddenly Samson didn’t know where his enemies were.
“… shit.” His confidence was not nearly so high now.
A creaky floorboard saved him from his distraction. Hearing its squeal and the subsequent butt-clench of the one that had caused it, he dove out of his cover, fired a single shell, then dove into the room opposite him. As his target fell to the ground, Samson realized that he’d gone into Raider’s bedroom. Man, she gets a fuckin’ mirror? Fuckin’ favouritism.
“Shotgun, that much is obvious,” his rival said from around the corner. “I’d say AA-12, if I had to guess from the sound. So you’re a close combat aficionado too?”
“Man, who the fuck you think you are?” Samson replied, almost bored.
“Someone who knows how to echo-locate,” was the answer, and a flashbang hit the interior of the doorframe, hitting the floor inside the room.
Samson eyed it briefly before registering the shape, and turned away. “Man, fuck y-“
The bang cut out any of the sound that came out of his mouth afterward. Probably a good thing for anyone that was of a sensitive mind, Samson thought idly. Having prevented the worst of the flash from affecting him, he swung back out the door, firing a few shots in the direction the voice and grenade had come from. He caught one of his enemies, unfortunately not the one that had been speaking, in the shoulder, preventing them from retaliating. He fired again, three more times, before backpedalling towards the remaining intact stairway, positioning himself behind a corner. It was only when he glanced at the wall at the end of the hallway he’d just come from that he realized someone had shot at him, the bullet-holes pockmarking the metal wall. “Hey, fuck you!” he shouted. “Careful where you’re pointin’ that shit, almost capped my ass.”
“That was the intention,” came the response, albeit faint from the after-effects of the flashbang. “You’re good, I’ll give you that. Good and lucky. Excellent traits to have if you’re working with the Judge.” Back behind the wall, the remaining operative smiled to himself. “Very well. You win this one. The second floor is yours. I will need to find another way in, if I even can in time.”
“Hey, hey! Don’t you fuckin’ go runnin’ without even tryin’!”
“I know a hopeless situation when I see one. And I’m not that crazy that I’m about to charge you when you’ve still got eleven shells in your magazine.” The operative began backing away, holding his Gauss assault rifle carefully. “I might see you again, I might not. I will be seeing Isaac though. Tell him the Lost said hello.” And with that, the Ghost exited out the same window he’d come, allowing himself to fall to the ground.
Samson breathed out and shook his head, the adrenaline slowly ebbing away. Replacing it, however, was a slight worry.
Why had Azazel stopped giving intel?
They weren’t very subtle about their entrance, the Ethereal reflected, lowering his hands from the sides of his head and turning to face his visitors. Hello, he said calmly, examining each of the dozen or so mercenaries as they filed in, weapons raised towards him. Ballistic class weapons, one or two Gauss. Not a single Beam or Pulse weapon between them. The shitty light globe above him flickered slightly as the final member entering locked the door, a cocky smile on their face.
“Well, well, well,” he said, walking into the middle of his squad. “So the rumors were true. An Ethereal.”
Are you certain I’m not just a basketball player with a mask and robes?
The merc actually laughed. “This guy thinks he’s funny,” he said to his allies, all of whom smirked in response, some of them even relaxing their stance slightly. “I don’t know if you’ve noticed,” he continued, “but you’re facing a firing squad.”
Azazel calmly ran his gaze over the humans. Wouldn’t be the first time, he said evenly. And yet here I stand.
“You seem remarkably calm for someone about to die,” the merc said, a very slight element of confusion present in his tone, largely imperceptible. “I mean, look at your position. You’re in a small room, nowhere to run, against a wall of us. What’s more, you’re locked in here, so even if you have some trick up your sleeve to get to the door, you aren’t going to be able to leave.”
You mean the door you locked from the inside? The Ethereal queried.
A shrug. “Still delays you,” he said. “And then there’s the five guys outside who’ll gun you down after you open it.”
You mean the five guys who were standing between a crate and the wall and, just mere seconds ago, were crushed when that crate moved into the wall?
The mercenary frowned. “Now, that wasn’t very funny.” He brought up his handheld radio, switched it to the appropriate frequency, and spoke into it. “Jeffrey, what’s your status?” When he got no answer, he frowned. “Jeffrey? H-hello?”
Azazel shook his head, and removed his hands from under his robes. None of you seem to understand, he said, as he moved forward slightly, enough so that his shadow encompassed every one of the now slightly nervous Stormwater units.I’m not locked in here with you…
The mercenaries collectively took a step back, as the Ethereal’s form became silhouetted from the light.
Samantha gave a satisfied grunt as her Gauss rifle began clicking again, forcing her to reload. “They’re like lemmings!” she said, almost gleefully. “I’m… enjoying this far more than I should.”
“No, by all means, continue,” Raul said, picking off a straggler with the Strike rifle. “Success is good for the soul, and you’re getting a lot of success tonight.”
“Is that a euphemism?”
The Speaker frowned. “No.”
“Good. I’ll be too tired after this anyway.”
The door to their left, the one leading into the West wing, burst open at that point, a lone Stormwater mercenary charging out from it to behind a large metal storage container and then out towards the four defenders. Isaac whipped his rifle sideways and fired, the beam splitting through the mercenary’s head and causing him to fall backward. The individual that had followed him merely watched, and continued staring at the body for a moment before also revealing himself from behind the container. Isaac shot him too, but the beam this time had far less effect, actually rebounding off the figure’s helmet and striking a hole in the roof. He lowered his rifle, realizing their intruder wasn’t actually holing their own weapon, as it was slung across their back.
The figure looked at him. “That was a rude greeting,” they said, voice amplified by speakers on the outside of the helmet. “But warranted, I suppose. You’ve had a stressful night.”
“Who are you?” Isaac asked, venting his rifle cautiously.
That brought forth a bark of laughter from their foe. “My name is Lucifer,” he said, bowing slightly. “The right hand of Matthew Lester.”
“What, you jerk him off too?” Noxious said tersely. For once, Isaac didn’t reprimand him.
Lucifer tilted his head. “He hasn’t requested that,” he said. “Besides which, he’s left handed. Perfectly capable of doing that himself.”
Titan armor. Gauss rifle. And very confident. Isaac narrowed his eyes, and prepared his body to run backwards. I don’t like the look of this guy at all.
“So then, going to kill us?” Samantha asked. “Hurry it up, then. I don’t have all night.”
“First, an offer,” Lucifer said. “Mr. Anderson. That’s you in the Ethereal mask, yes?”
Isaac hesitated. “Yeah. Why?”
“Like I said, an offer,” the devil replied. “Lester is hardly forgiving, but in this case forgiveness is essentially a moot point. If this little war we have continues, there’s going to be a significant amount of destruction and bloodshed. On both sides. And the outcome is far from guaranteed.” He clenched a fist, then loosened it again. “I give you a choice. Give up this righteous crusade of yours, and I will call off any of our operatives still here. I myself will leave, and so long as you never come after Lester again, you and your daughter will be left alone. Continue…” He raised an arm, grabbing the butt of his rifle but not pulling it over just yet. “… and we will decide this the old fashioned way.”
There was silence for a moment, but then Isaac began chuckling. “You think… you think I’d just forget… everything your boss has taken from me? Everything he’s done to my family? Tell you what, I have a counter-offer. Samantha!”
With a grin on her face, the Huntress pumped a small amount of psionic energy into the next four bullets in her rifle’s magazine, all of which she fired at the standing devil. To everyone’s surprise, however, he jumped… up to the roof, grabbing onto one of the steel beams criss-crossing the roof.
“Disappointing,” Lucifer said, before slinging himself over to the body of Hackett, still lying on the ground. His landing created cracks in the concrete, such was its force. “But not so disappointing. I’ve been dying to test this out!” He turned around, rifle in his right hand, and sprayed it at the four operatives.
All four of them dove down to the ground, avoiding the torrent of metal. Not wasting any time, all four of them then dispersed, taking cover behind the various crates still viable for this exact purpose. Something had caught Isaac’s eye, however. He fired that thing with one arm, he thought. Without much discernible recoil! And that jump… is this guy genemodded?
The devil began laughing, the laugh of someone enjoying themselves far too much. “Oh, this will be an experience to remember,” he said, before launching himself forward and crashing into Noxious’ crate, breaking through the wood and knocking the both of them to the ground in a shower of splinters. “Hello there, Jack!” Lucifer giggled, raising his empty left hand and planting it on the operative’s throat. “You’ve choked so many in your lifetime… how does it feel?!”
Cursing, Samantha charged a few more bullets before unleashing them on Noxious’ would-be murderer. Though she thought some of them struck Lucifer’s back, he dived away, and jumped back towards the main entrance. “You’ll have to do better than that, Huntress!” he taunted.
“Samantha,” Isaac said quietly. “You’re really the only one of us that can even dent that guy. He’s wearing Titan armor – everything we have will just bounce off.”
“So no pressure.” She nodded and aimed down the iron sights. “Got it.” A burst later, and the devil had jumped over to the side. She scowled. “I swear I hit him that time…”
Noxious, having now recovered, pulled a smoke grenade from his belt. “Let’s see if they gave you air filters, prick,” he muttered, holding it behind his back in his left hand. With his right he fired a few pistol shots at their foe, though Lucifer didn’t even try to dodge the ballistic weapon.
“Useless, useless!” Lucifer almost sang, launching himself forward again and to Noxious, this time grabbing him by the armor and then leaping away before Samantha could retaliate. “Too hard to hit, and when you do it does nothing!”
“Jack!” Samantha cried, unable to fire for fear of hitting her friend. Lucifer danced across the roof beams, with his captive struggling in his vice-like grip.
Isaac grimaced, aiming down the scope of his rifle. As he watched the devil try to get far enough away, something caught his eye. Something’s flapping against that guy’s back… Though he only got a short time to look at it, he realized immediately what it was. The armor! Samantha did hit it after all, part of it has broken off! Which means if I can get the timing right…
A few seconds later, a beam screamed out of his sniper rifle, impacting the devil in the back – precisely in the spot where a part of the armor had been broken off. Lucifer lost his momentum, falling down from the roof and onto the ground below, using the wall as a method of slowing himself down. His grip had also loosened on Noxious, who had fallen on a balcony on top of the planning room, but thrown his surprise where he judged the devil would land. Sure enough, as their enemy’s boots touched the floor, so too did a small cylinder, missing the pin. When Lucifer straightened, he smiled beneath his helmet.
“Good aim, Judge,” he said. “But you got quite lucky there. And that’s not about to-“ The gas exploded, showering the devil with toxic particles.
Isaac exhaled, but didn’t relax. If he was right, that gas wouldn’t do much, if anything. Sure enough, out of the mustard-orange cloud strode Lucifer, clearly unamused. “Dammit,” he muttered, but Samantha was already reacting. A torrent of imbued Gauss fire rushed towards the devil, before he could even really react. Some bullets impacted his arms, torso, but one struck the helmet, causing Lucifer to stagger backwards.
The three remaining operatives paled as Lucifer straightened again, with half of his helmet now essentially useless. “How the hell…?” Raul muttered, for once caught completely off-guard.
The devil merely started laughing. “Titan armor is certainly a treat,” he said, “but it doesn’t help when the skin beneath is almost as durable!” Considering it now in his way, he tore off the remainder of the helmet, exposing a bald, completely hairless human head, almost amorphous in its shape. “And I’m nowhere near dead yet!”
He hurled forward, propelled by whatever ungodly force was trapped within his legs, towards Samantha this time, marking her as the biggest threat. Her reactive fire caused him to twist, however, and instead he sailed past her, tumbling but eventually landing on his feet behind them. Realizing a new tactic was needed, he instead this time targeted Raul.
But Raul, as always, anticipated it. He merely sidestepped out of the way when he judged the living projectile to be too close to abandon, but far enough away to get away from, and again the devil missed. “Didn’t you do your research?” the Speaker asked disdainfully. “I can predict exactly what you’ll do long before you do it.”
Lucifer snarled, and adjusted his stance before springing this time towards Isaac. However, midway through his flight, a jet fired from his leg and his trajectory changed, allowing him to snatch Raul before he even had a chance to react. “Surprise!” the devil shouted gleefully, pulling the captive Speaker by the collar out through the main metal door.
“Shit,” Samantha said, reloading her rifle. “What do we do?”
Isaac grimaced. “We’re chipping him down,” he said, almost as much to reassure himself as her. “Problem is he’s also chipping us down.” He began sprinting towards the door, unwilling to let the devil have his prize. As he sprinted past the now-dispersed gas cloud, however, he noticed something that in hindsight was rather obvious – Lucifer had dropped his gun.
Isaac quickly grabbed the Gauss rifle, reasoning that if Noxious had made a toxin able to go through clothing and skin then he would have been more cautious with it, and resumed moving outside, taking a few spare magazines from Samantha in the process.
Once outside, the two discovered that Raul had somehow wrested himself free from the devil’s grasp and was now dodging his swipes and grabs. “It’s pointless to continue this,” Raul said, ducking under another swipe, “unless you have any more surprises up your sleeve.”
“They are up my sleeves, yes,” Lucifer said, and Isaac noyiced that his voice sounded as if he still had the external speakers of the helmet projecting his voice. At least, that’s what it sounded like. Almost…
“Synthetic.” Isaac realized, just as Lucifer fired a grappling hook out of his right arm, latching onto Raul’s Carapace armor and dragging him in close. “He’s an AI.”
As soon as Lucifer’s hand was in contact with Raul’s armor, vents appeared in the sides, discharging heat. “You know why I dropped my gun back there, Speaker?” He leaned in close, so that he could gaze into Raul’s eyes. “Because I have two more right here.” A flash of light, red and bursting, appeared in the small space between Lucifer’s hand and Raul’s armor, and the vents in the devil’s arm hissed with released heat. The force of the blast propelled the Speaker backwards a few meters, though he was able to see the glowing red parts on the android’s palm before smashing back against the concrete, a slow burning sensation in his chest.
Lucifer frowned at the display. “I assumed a Pulse Blaster would do more damage than that,” he muttered. “Might be an internal fault.”
“Alright, play time’s over,” Isaac said, his gaze flicking nervously to the unconscious Raul. Still alive. “How’d Lester get an AI on side? And who are you really?”
Lucifer laughed. “I’m Lucifer, I told you. I’m not any of the other AI’s you know of masquerading under a different name. I am myself, me, and I. I was created by Lester’s technicians, with a little help from the man himself. Know why they called me Lucifer? They went through six hundred and sixty five iterations of code before they hit on the one that would be my base, my operating system.” The AI spread its hands. “I am the pinnacle of software engineering, this body the height of mechanics. Ironic really that humanity’s goal in both has been the effort to emulate itself.”
“You talk yourself up a lot,” Samantha noted. “Insecurity issues? Or are you just scared? Because in your position, I would be.”
The devil smiled, an eerie expression with his lack of facial features. “Samantha Steele and Isaac Anderson. Possibly the most dangerous out of the entire squad.” He sighed. “If only the Lost hadn’t run off. I’d call it cowardly, but he doesn’t have the luxury of surviving headshots like I do. No matter.” The android cracked his knuckles together, likely as an attempt to intimidate. “I can take care of both of you myself.” And with that, he leapt forward, metal fingers outstretched towards Samantha.
But she had been expecting it. A cyan-blue shell, crystalline in material and relatively androgynous in shape, rippled over her body from the eyes outward, protecting her entire body and turning her into an immovable object. The android wasn’t able to correct in time, and so crashed into her, falling backwards but jumping away again before she could regain her balance.
Isaac, however, had no balance to regain, and so opened fire. Gauss rounds sprayed into the AI’s torso from the left side, creating holes in the armor. The devil groaned when he landed, turning his head to examine the damage.
“This armor is useless,” he complained, removing a now-loose shoulderplate. “I’d be better protected by the law, and neither of you abide to that.” He dashed forward again, this time lifting an arm and preparing to fire the Pulse Blaster within. He fired and the beam connected with Samantha’s shell.
“Now who can’t hit who?” She taunted, spraying a few imbued bullets towards the flying android. The shots connected, a few even going straight through his torso, but it didn’t stop him from standing back up as if nothing had happened. “Oh, piss off.”
“I will say, of all the things I envy organic beings for, mortality is not one of them.” The android jumped straight up this time, landing on the roof of the warehouse. “I’ve got a lot of empty space in here,” he said, pointing a thumb at his chest, “and lucky for me you’ve so far avoided hitting anything important.”
“Then we’ll fix that,” Samantha said, raising her rifle along with Isaac, the two of them spitting out clusters of magnetically accelerated metal. Lucifer jumped back off the roof, twisting and turning mid-air to avoid as many bullets as he could before landing back on the tar, the force of his impact creating a small indent. In retaliation he fired a few more blasts at the two, but Samantha stepped in front of Isaac, defending him. “What is this, a fight or an acrobatics contest?”
For the first time, Lucifer seemed to consider the possibility that he might not be winning, if not losing. He scowled, and, surprising the both of his enemies, launched himself backwards, towards the shadowed area around the warehouse. “I’ve had enough of this,” he claimed, disappearing behind a large metal storage container.
Out of energy at last, Samantha dispelled her shield, and slumped slightly. “This guy’s tough, but his armor’s practically ripped to shreds. We can get him.”
Isaac hesitated, gazing into the shadows ahead. “It’s very likely a trap,” he murmured. “He’s not that close to losing that’s he’s running away. I don’t believe he’d do that.”
“Then we chase him down.”
“That we do,” Isaac agreed, before sprinting forward. “Come on, the faster we catch him the less time he has to prepare whatever he’s doing!” Samantha started following behind, though she was clearly flagging and thus was unable to keep up the pace.
There was, fortunately, a trail of broken metal and alloy leading into a shipyard of storage containers, a maze of steel. Unfortunately, the trail ended there. Isaac scowled, but wasn’t willing to give up.
Isaac,came a familiar voice.I can’t mark him as usual for you since he isn’t a living being. But I can direct you with ESP.
You’re back? Take care of your visitors?
There was a moment of silence. … yes. Azazel answered at last. Although you may want a bucket on hand if you want to stay here.
No chance of that, remember. We’re leaving as soon as we take down the devil.
Then I shall direct you. Forward, for now. Run, for he is moving very quickly.
Isaac ran forward, not checking to see if Samantha was following or not. In the end, it wouldn’t really matter – they only needed one Gauss rifle to hit something critical and end that android’s ‘life’.
The shipyard was labyrinthine. Abandoned at night, the shipping containers lay stacked one atop the other, forming a maze with giant walls. This particular port was meant for more permanent storage, Isaac remembered dully as he ran. The containers sitting here weren’t full of food or other high-priority items, but rather materials, metals, coal, luxury items. There was no rush to remove them, and so most of the containers would see a stint here of a few days at least before being removed.
Ahead, the flash of a leg running behind other containers snapped Isaac out of his daydreaming. He was catching up. Rounding another corner, Isaac witnessed Lucifer run to the left… but something was off. Had he seen two of them for a moment there?
Yes, Azazel said. The one that went left disappeared completely soon after, and the one that went right appeared halfway down the corridor after decloaking. He’s attempting to get you to face the other way, if not pursue him. But be cautious, he’s doing somethi-
Isaac didn’t listen to that last bit. He rounded the corner, rifle at the ready, in time to see Lucifer launch himself forward. That in itself wasn’t entirely threatening. What was, however, was the forklift Lucifer was pushing before him.
From the distance and speed at which Lucifer was traveling, Isaac guessed he had maybe two seconds before he was run over.
At 1.5 seconds, he had realized there was no way in hell he could get away in time. This was most certainly the end.
At 1 second, he was thinking of Penny, regretful of their relationship up to that point but unworried. She’d done well for herself over the years. Without anyone to guide her, no less. He was proud of her.
At 0.5 seconds, he felt something crash into him from the side, knocking him away as that last half a second screamed past him, into the abyss that had been behind him not even a moment ago. There was the sound of screeching metal, then tumbling metal, then the sound of fuel being heated by friction. A fireball spat out of the mouth of the containers, briefly burning outside before dying back.
And Isaac breathed. Inhale, exhale. For the second time in his life, he’d survived something that only moments before he would have called ‘the end’.
It took him maybe half a minute to realize Samantha was lying next to him, one arm around his waist, the other outstretched towards another wall of containers. The grappling hook on her other arm, he noticed, was still attached to that wall. He examined that for a moment before sitting up, causing her to stir as well.
Samantha cracked open her eyes, and blinked a few times, not seeming to understand that there was concrete in front of her. She tried to push herself off the ground, but her muscles, already extended beyond their limit, refused to obey her, and so she fell back down.
“Careful,” Isaac said, placing a cautious hand on her shoulder. “Did… you just…?”
“Save your sorry ass?” she responded, her voice disbelieving despite her apparent attitude. “Yeah. Yeah, I did.” She glanced back at her legs, and frowned. “Mine too, apparently.”
Never do that again, Azazel said quietly.I thought for certain either you would die, or her legs would be taken clean off. How you managed to escape that is…
“Well… I wasn’t about to let you get killed by a forklift,” Samantha said. “That’d be a shitty way to go.”
And despite himself, Isaac laughed. “Yeah. Yeah, it would.”
“Why can’t you just die?!” a voice screamed out of the containers, a figure striding out from where the wreckage flamed. “You’re meant to be mortal! Killable!” The android, now stripped of all his armor and flesh from the flames, was nothing but a metal skeleton now. His eyes glowed red, though whether that was an effect of the heat or some actual system was an unknown. “You were sooooooo close, Isaac. So close.”
The Judge’s eyes dashed sideways. His Gauss rifle was still within reach. “The benefits of having allies,” he responded, turning his gaze back to the charred devil standing before him.
“Dependable ones, at that,” Lucifer added somewhat ruefully. “No matter. This, here, is where you die!” And he sprinted, fast as he could, towards his target. Isaac, almost lazily and without even dislodging Samantha, reached sideways, grabbed his rifle, and began firing.
Either the devil didn’t see him firing, or didn’t care. He continued running forward, storming into the torrent of lead pouring his way. And with only five meters to spare, one struck the android’s skull, within which lay his CPU. The metal corpse tumbled forward, skipping over the two humans from its sheer momentum and crashing into the container behind them, a tangled mess of artificial bones and tendons.
Isaac remained in position for a moment, gun still pointed forward, before firing the remainder of his magazine. There were two shots, then a click. He stared at it for a moment, and Samantha too lifted her gaze. And he started to laugh. The long, proper laugh of someone that has just survived two scrapes with death in the space of less than an hour. Samantha smiled, but didn’t join him, instead content to remain where she was. Hopefully he wouldn’t remember she was basically hugging him for a while.
Behind them, the last few precious ticks of Lucifer’s mind considered what had happened, and whether he could have done anything better. As the last bit of data was copied and sent away, he realized that the answer was, in reality, no. Circumstance had not been his ally.
Lester’s Inner Sanctum, Beneath the WTC
February 3rd, 7:23 PM
Lester sighed as the image Lucifer used, two red circles on a black background, appeared on his screen. “You failed, then.” It wasn’t a question. Nor did Lester seem overtly surprised.
Lucifer also sighed. “Yes,” he admitted. “I was the last member of our side standing, and I was unsuccessful.”
That prompted the man to raise an eyebrow. “Last man standing? Hackett?”
“Run. I have no idea where he is now, and without Hackett to reign him in-“
Lester smiled then, something that bewildered the AI. “He’ll pursue his own goals,” he said. “As well he should. He’s got a bone to pick with the Judge, you know. Did they meet at any point?”
The AI considered. “No,” he said. “The Lost never descended from the second floor, said something about someone up there repelling him.”
“Then the surprise is still waiting to be opened.” And Lester laughed. “So be it. Stretch out some feelers. Let the Lost know that I’m willing to direct him to the Judge when we’ve figured out where he is again, for he will surely have moved by now. Get the production of the Archdemon unit bumped up to highest priority. And get me some of my doctors.”
Lucifer was quiet. “Your doctors?” he asked.
In response, Lester grabbed a medical file, labelled ‘Rudolph Walter’ from his desk. “I want to see what we can do to speed up Banshee’s recovery,” he said, tapping a finger on the desk.
“Very good, sir,” Lucifer said. “I’ll get right on it.” The circles disappeared, and Lester was once again alone.
“I’m not stupid,” he said, largely to himself. “I’ve got death approaching me on all sides. The universe is trying to tell me that my time is up. But what is the best thing to do when you’re going to die?”
He popped open a wine bottle, pouring himself a glass of red. “Enjoy what little time you have left,” he answered himself, leaning back and taking a sip.