Flight QR-230, Above the Pacific Ocean
February 4th, 2:02 AM
It had been surprisingly easy to book a plane to Australia on such short notice for seven people and one Ethereal, Isaac reflected. Especially if you’d paid off the customs officers beforehand, so that there wasn’t a scene when you got there.
He glanced to his right, having been seated next to the window. He and Samantha were the only two nearby – most of the others had been split throughout the plane. Jack was helping Evelyn recover from the concussion she’d received in the firefight, whilst himself dealing with a bruised back from his awkward landing. Raul was being watched like a hawk by the air paramedics, his chest injuries warranting intense scrutiny for their severity. He’d be fine, but the burns were painful.
Azazel, along with Hannah, were being kept concealed in the cargo hold, in a special box being trialed for this purpose. It was at least better than nothing, the Ethereal had remarked. Hannah remained in there to keep him company. An odd thought struck Isaac then. Those two had been together nearly all the time. Were they possibly…?
He chastised himself internally. He doubted it. Even if they were, it was none of his business. Besides… He again glanced at Samantha, who was asleep next to him. I have to work out my own situation before I comment on others.
The story of Samantha’s attempts to flirt with him was rejection, through and through. She had tried, multiple times, to attract his romantic attention, and he’d repelled her each time. Why? Partially because he was still, even after all these years, attached to Helen. That’s why he was still hunting down Lester, after all. But also because he hadn’t thought he’d felt anything beyond normal friendship for her, or even the relationship between a teacher and their pupil, as it had been for some time.
But only a few hours ago, when Lucifer had been charging at the two of them, he’d been more worried about her than himself. Even now, part of him was actually angry at her for pushing him out of the way of that forklift, considering how close to death that would have placed her. Where would it have left him if she had died there, saving him? How would he react if she wasn’t in his life anymore?
Isaac closed his eyes. In the end, he wasn’t sure. That was the whole problem, really. Considering how close the both of them had come to being killed had caused him to question his own logic, and he hadn’t liked what he found.
Maybe… it was worth giving her a shot?
And there it was again. That guilt. He knew it was stupid – Helen had been dead for over ten years now. She certainly wouldn’t have wanted him to spend the rest of his life alone, but even the very idea of moving on felt like a betrayal.
But that was the heart of it, wasn’t it? He allowed himself to relax slightly, realizing that he’d become tense. Regardless of his own internal turmoil over the matter, it wouldn’t be fair to subject anyone else to that. What good was a relationship when one of the participants was constantly questioning their right to be there?
“I give up,” Isaac muttered to himself.
“Hmm?” Samantha stirred, one eye sliding open partially. “You say something?”
He hesitated. “… no. You must’ve heard one of the in-flight movies or something. Go back to sleep, you need rest.”
The Huntress shrugged, and closed her eye again, shifting in the seat to get more comfortable. Besides which, now was not the time. Nothing good could come from distracting either of them like that when the both of them needed to be focused on the job at hand.
He didn’t get to sleep until they’d caught the next flight out of Malaysia. And even then, it was restless.
Hunter Valley, NSW, Australia
February 4th, 5:49 PM
The two cars pulled up outside, loaded to the brim with people and equipment. Parking on the dirt and pebbled driveway, they stopped, and the occupants exited, some more impressed than others.
“Fuck, man…” Samson said, shading his eyes from the bright sunlight. “We go from shitty abandoned warehouse to fuckin’ luxury?”
“Don’t get too comfortable,” Isaac cautioned, opening the boot of the car he’d driven and pulling out two bags. “We’re here for a few weeks tops. Once we’ve got the other two on board-“
“Other two?” Raul asked, turning away from the mansion-like house they’d parked in front of and resting his gaze on his employer. “Care to explain?”
“Once we’re set up,” Isaac said, hauling the bags forward. “For now, help me unload.”
Someone had clearly cleaned up and left the house ready for them. Lights were on in the main lobby, the faint sheen of dust layering everything seemed less than a day old (which in an area heavily populated by open-cut mines usually meant less than a few hours), and the air was cool, a contrast to the blasting heat outside.
Samson whistled. “And air conditioning? I’m in fuckin’ love.”
Samantha looked at Isaac with a raised eyebrow. “Should I be expecting candles and petals in my room?” she asked, though quietly enough that he was the only one to hear her. The look he shot her made her laugh. “Take that as a ‘no’, then.”
“Who cleaned this place?” Raul asked, seeming far less enthusiastic about their new accommodations than his companions.
Azazel, oddly, seemed to agree. This place appears lived in, he stated. By who, though?
“That would be one of the two remaining members of your team,” came a voice from the end of the hall. Though the presentation was ostentatious and rather dramatic, the voice itself was not. Had Samantha not known better, she would have sworn it belonged to some weedy teenager with pale skin and no muscle mass.
As the owner of the voice made themselves visible, she saw she wasn’t actually that far off. “Who the hell are you?” she asked, somewhat rudely.
The teen seemed to find her question funny, however. “I’m actually glad you don’t know,” he said. “Means I’m doing a good job.”
“Everyone, meet the Pale Horse,” Isaac said, indicating the weedy individual. “One of the Overseer’s best hackers and intelligence gatherers. I’ve… requisitioned him for our venture.”
The Pale Horse adjusted his glasses. “You’re too kind,” he said. “I’m hardly the best. Yo- the Overseer wouldn’t have heard of me if I was.” He shrank back ever so slightly at Isaac’s glare, but not enough for anyone to notice. No one except Raul, that is, who mentally filed away the exchange.
“Luka Kusnetskov,” Isaac said, distributing pieces of paper to everyone seated at the new planning table. “I’ve got a preliminary plan for breaking into Lester’s HQ, and it calls for some explosives. Of course, most of us are capable of planting a few charges of remote explosives, but I’d prefer to get an expert tell us where to put them.”
“Please tell me I’m not the only one who sees the irony in attacking the World Trade Center with explosives,” Raul said dryly.
Isaac grimaced, and took his seat. “It does feel a little odd,” he admitted, “and it’s likely to draw heat. A lot of heat. Unless, of course, no one is any the wiser.”
Samantha raised an eyebrow. “None the wiser? Isaac, you can’t detonate C4 ‘stealthily’. You’re going to be making a large amount of noise and damage.”
Noxious nodded. “Exactly. This has been something that’s been bugging me for a while now. Nevermind getting in – how are we getting out?”
The Judge smiled cryptically. “There are ways,” he responded. “The fact that Lester’s hiding underground, a few floors worth of dirt below the carpark, gives us some freedom to cause a bit of damage without retribution. If that fails, though, it’ll be Raul’s job to stop a panic occurring.”
Raul straightened in his seat. “My job?” he asked somewhat indignantly. “What on Earth –“
Isaac held up a placating hand. “Patience. We’re getting too in depth for now. We’ll finalize plans when we have the whole group together.”
Samson shifted. “Shit, man. I get that you have a plan, but if we’re followin’ you into hell we want at least a goddamn-good assurance that we’ll be coming the fuck out again, ya feel?”
“Don’t you trust me?”
“Of course I fuckin’ do, man. You got a level head on yo’ shoulders.” The enforcer shrugged. “Just raisin’ concerns with ya.”
“I’ve got no intention of throwing myself to the wolves over Lester,” Isaac grumbled. “Nor will I consign any of you to that. Whatever your motivations for being here, money, friendship” – Raul made a pschtt noise at that – “or simply because you have nowhere else to be, no one here deserves to be left behind while the rest make off with congratulations and a job well done.”
“Good,” Noxious said, leaning back in his chair. “I’d rather not explain the large amount of chemicals in my pockets. Some people might get the wrong idea.”
Raider rolled her eyes. “So this ‘Luka’. He’ll be our explosives expert?”
“Correct,” Isaac said. “The only issue is getting him. He’s a little occupied at the moment.”
Occupied? Azazel asked, removing a hand from his robes to tap his fingers on the wooden table.
That brought forth a frown from the Judge. “He’s made a few enemies in his time,” he said. “And they’re catching up to him. Good news is, that makes it easier to get him onside. Bad news, it makes him harder to obtain in the first place.”
“By which you mean we’re sweeping in and saving his ass in the nick of time, right?” Samantha asked, deadpan.
“In essence, yes. He’s currently hiding out in an apartment block in Sydney, but according to some sources-“ He glanced at Pale Horse at that “- he’s going to have company. Tomorrow night, is the word.”
The hacker nodded. “Russian mafia’s being a little sloppy, though. Local authorities have already caught word and are making preparations to intercept any individuals that may wish Luka harm. Which wouldn’t be a problem if they weren’t also interested in Luka himself.”
“Shit, who the hell this guy piss off?” Samson asked.
Isaac shrugged. “Someone who’s out of his depth in a country far from here. The Russian mafia’s lost a lot of power over the past few years. War didn’t do them too many favours. Luka blowing up just one of their storehouses isn’t exactly the kick in the balls they’re making it out to be.”
Azazel nodded. They need a scapegoat, he surmised. Someone to make an example of.
“Exactly,” the Pale Horse said. “He’s been leading them on a merry chase through the world. Finally ended up here.”
“So, tomorrow we go get him, bring him back here, and begin planning, yeah?” Samantha said, leaning back in her chair.
“Some of us do, yes,” Isaac answered. “I only need to take a few of you with me this time – we’re dealing with street thugs, not a trained paramilitary unit this time. Besides which, any more than four or five is going to attract attention. So here’s what I’m thinking: Samson, Raider, Huntress. You three are coming with me to pick up Luka. Pale will keep watch over police chatter, local security networks, that kind of thing. You see anything off, you let me know, alright?”
“Watchdog duty?” the hacker groaned. “You called me in for watchdog duty?”
“You’ll get bigger stuff after, don’t you worry about that.” He looked around the table at the remaining people. “The rest of you, start preparing. Once we’ve got Luka on board, we’ll have the manpower I want.” And we can finally end this feud.
Redfern, Sydney, Australia
February 5th, 5:47 PM
“Still nothing?” Isaac asked, his voice low.
“Nothin’,” Pale’s voice crackled over the phone. “Cops are edgy and alert, but not alarmed. Your guy’s still safe, looks like.”
Isaac poked his head out of the car window, examining the brick building on the other side of the street. Luka’s new accommodations were hardly luxury, it seemed. Not that he’d expected it, given the neighborhood. Redfern had been the low socioeconomic region in Sydney for years, even before the war. Lot of shady characters around here. Local initiatives had diminished the escalated crime rate, but hadn’t erased it. And now we’re about to make it worse.
He considered the situation again in his head. Raider was currently pretending to be a homeless woman out the front of the building. He’d considered asking Samson, but decided he might take it the wrong way. Even if that was the reason he would have asked. Samantha was on the front street too, seated at a bus stop reading a newspaper. Apparently someone had already tried to mug her. Tried. Samson was in the lobby of the building, engaging anyone who entered or left in conversation. If, for whatever reason, Luka’s foes were to bypass Raider without her noticing, he would apprehend them.
For now, they waited. Isaac would have liked to make contact and leave with Luka before there was even a threat, but it wouldn’t work like that. Local law enforcement had too keen an eye on this place. They’d know. Instead, they would wait until the chaos started before extracting their target. That way the cops would be too busy dealing with hostile Russians to notice the small group making haste away.
Isaac frowned, and turned up the air conditioner in the car. He might have been born in this country, but the Australian summer always proved surprisingly… hot. Even at this time of day, although given the calendar date the heat was finally starting to ebb away in favor of autumnal chill. He smirked inwardly. Aircon companies in this country must make a killing. Probably not as much as those in Singapore, but…
Movement. His eyes snapped to it, spotting the reflection of a small convoy of cars slowly making their way around the corner. He silently thanked the shop window he’d seen them in before shrinking back slightly in his seat. The windows of this car were tinted, but even so it wouldn’t do to be seen. “Pale,” he whispered, “you seeing these?”
“The small convoy? Yep. Checking the number plates… rentals. All of them.”
Isaac raised an eyebrow. “That was quick.”
“Modern technology,” the hacker replied. “And the tendency of governments to keep an eye on their people. You ever wonder where I get most of my data? About ninety percent is derived from legitimate sources.”
The Judge – and, he assumed, the Pale Horse too – watched as the four cars found locations to park, spitting disgruntled Russian men and women onto the pavement and tar. “Equal opportunity employment?” Isaac murmured. “Usually see a dominance of men in criminal groups. Mostly because we’re assholes, I think.”
“I doubt it’s anything to do with PR,” Pale murmured. “Either they’re scraping the bottom of the barrel, or those women are tough.”
“Isn’t that Russia in a nutshell?”
“Isn’t racism Australia in a nutshell?”
Isaac chuckled. “Touché,” he said.
The Russians, oblivious to their two voyeurs (possibly three, depending on where Raider had positioned herself), began unpacking their cars. A few glimpses of wooden handgrips and one barrel poking out of a bag were enough to confirm it – these were the guys after Luka.
“The AK-47 is a reliable weapon,” the hacker said, almost indignantly.
“And outclassed,” Isaac said. “What was that about modern technology earlier?”
“I will admit, it lacks the stopping power of a Gauss rifle.” He hesitated. “Unless someone’s figured out a way to put a Gauss interior in one of those.”
The Judge shook his head. “No, impossible. My daughter tried that a few weeks ago. Unless we get an upgrade in cooling technology, you physically can’t put a Gauss rifle in such a small chassis. Unless you want it to explode in your face.”
“Your daughter’s still working in weapons tech?”
A frown. “I have always wondered why Exalt needed two weapons scientists on staff.”
“I’m sure their previous work experience was totally unrelated.”
Finally, the mobsters began moving towards the alleyway, their movement determined, if not disciplined. Isaac sighed and removed his sunglasses, replacing them with his trademark Ethereal mask. “I think we’re on,” he said into the phone before hanging up, grabbing the Beam sniper rifle lying on the seat next to him. He wound his window down, then poked the rifle out the side, aiming at the group through the scope. With them lined up like this, in a narrow corridor, heads all at roughly the same height…
The sharpshooter in him couldn’t resist taking the shot.
The back two dropped immediately, the backs of their heads molten masses of flesh. The ones ahead whipped around in alarm, which only gave Isaac more time to drill another two. The rest finally got the message, running through the alley and dispersing before he could take any more out.
Unfortunately, they came out right next to Raider, who, upon hearing the gunfire, had thrown off her rags, revealing Skeleton armor beneath. Using the grappling hook for most definitely not its original purpose, she lassoed one of the Russians, bringing them in kicking and screaming towards her waiting knife. Samantha, at the bus stop, dumped the newspaper with a curse and reached into a ‘guitar’ case next to her, drawing one of the team’s Gauss rifles and tapping a few rounds in the enemy’s general direction. Caught unprepared for yet another attack, she managed to kill three by himself before they ran towards the door.
“Surprise, motherfuckers!” Samson cried gleefully, his automatic shotgun shredding through the remaining mobsters that tried to enter his abode. “Shit, I’ve always wanted to say that!”
Isaac rounded the corner to see Raider breaking the neck of the last one, and sighed, almost disappointed. “I was expecting at least one or two to get through,” he said. “Mind you, unless he’s deaf – which wouldn’t surprise me given his occupation – I’m pretty sure Luka would have noticed us by now.”
“Very good, friends!” came a heavily accented voice from above. The voice belonged to a rather pleased-looking man hanging out one of the windows. “You have saved me from blowing up perfectly good building!”
“Somehow I doubt his landlord would have liked that,” Raider commented, wiping her knife on the clothes of one of the dead.
Isaac smirked to himself, but didn’t reply. “You mind if we come up there? Got an offer for you.”
“Of course, of course! Just… ah, be careful. There is string at bottom of stairs, do not snap on way up, yes?”
“So you are saying… you wish for my expertise, yes?” Luka said, rubbing his chin. “Job offer. What kind of job?”
“Assassination,” Isaac answered.
“Assassination?” The demolitionist frowned. “I am… not exactly subtle operator, yes? You are aware of this?”
“We need to… force an entry,” the Judge said. “Trust me, I’ve already considered this. You’re the right guy for this job.”
“That I do not doubt,” Luka scoffed. “I can remove obstacle, no problem. Just curious that you are contracting demolitionist for sharpshooter’s job.”
Isaac glanced around the room. Rather fittingly, a description of its tidiness would probably include the phrase ‘as if a bomb had gone off’. “You, uh… need time to pack?”
The Russian made a pschtt noise. “I was expecting company. I am already packed.”
A glance back at Samson caused Isaac to hesitate. “There is… one more thing.”
A quizzical look. “Yes?”
“I wouldn’t expect you to accept a job offer without the promise of payment-“
Luka shook his head, lifting a back onto his back. “No, no. I will be having none of that. Circumstance smiles upon you this day, after all.” He pointed at his own chest. “I have need of friend.” He pointed at Isaac. “You have need of boom. We can help each other out, yes?”
Isaac nodded. “If that’s how you want it. Mind you, that’s a fairly easy request for us, since we’ve already taken care of your company. I wouldn’t expect them to send anyone after tha-“
He was interrupted by his phone ringing, buzzing violently in his pocket like a trapped wasp. “You jinxed it, didn’t you,” Samantha said.
He ignored her and answered. “Pale?”
“You’ve got a few more cars coming. Few streets over right now. Cops are on the way too.”
Isaac ignored Samantha’s ‘told you so’ look. “I take it we’re not leaving without taking them out?”
“Not unless you want a GTA-style car chase through the streets of Sydney, no,” Pale almost snapped. He paused. “Maybe Saints Row would have been a better comparison.”
Isaac rolled his eyes and hung up. “You still got a few of your ‘surprises’ left up?” he asked.
Luke grinned in response. “Friend, I always leave surprises up. I am big fan of such things.”
By the time the group of five had reached the ground floor, the cars had already parked on road. Most of the occupants were already set up behind the cars, weapons pointed at the doorway. Samson, who had walked out first, took a few rounds to the chest, all of which buried themselves harmlessly in the alloy of his Carapace armor. He’d returned inside pretty quickly after that.
“Shit, man,” he said, breathing a little heavily. “This armor’s good shit.”
“What’s their positioning like?” Samantha asked, her expression remaining level.
“They usin’ those cars as cover,” the enforcer replied. “Least, they were in the half second I was out there.”
Luka grinned. “Perfect. Now, hopefully this remote control is for launcher and not structural damage.” Before anyone could stop him, he pressed the button, and there were three distinct thunk noises from the window above. “Ah, good. Correct one.”
The three grenades each landed in roughly the same spot – right in the center of the road, and therefore right in the center of the mobsters. Some panicked and ran, others didn’t notice anything, too focused on the door. The grenades exploded, taking most of the cars and mobsters with them. The ones that weren’t stayed down, with the tide suddenly seeming against them.
“Alright, everybody out,” Samantha commanded, “or we’ll miss our window.” The five exited the building, dashing across to another parked car before some of their braver foes poked their heads up again. And indeed they did, Samson’s leg taking another shot before he got completely behind cover.
“God, fuckin’- Why am I always the guy who gets shot?” the enforcer complained, checking the impact to make sure the leg itself had avoided damage.
“It’s what you get for being close range,” Samantha muttered, her eyes darting around the field. “Alright, we need to get to the alley. Car’s out the back there, and we’ll be able to put some distance between us and them with that.”
“Alright then, tactician,” Isaac said. “How’re we getting there?”
“Working on it,” the Huntress responded. “Raider, do you think you could-“
“Draw some fire?” Raider guessed. “Sure, why not. Not like I ever do anything else with you guys around.”
“Yeah, and I never stand in the middle of a firefight and take twenty bullets a second,” Samantha snapped. “Now isn’t the time to argue about it.”
Despite himself, Isaac smiled. The fact that they were even considering bickering was indicative not of dissension in the ranks. They’d known each other too long for that. No, this was a show of confidence. This fight could be easily won, the gap in tech saw to that. Lacking that element of serious risk, the two of them were instead engaging in banter.
Luka, however, was not so relaxed. “I would also not argue at this time,” he said. “Can be kept until in the car and away from here, yes?”
Isaac snaked his rifle around the back of the car, catching one of the mobsters peeking out at them. He shot them in the face before retreating, a few retaliatory bullets pinging off the metal hood. “We should probably make ourselves scarce,” he said, venting the heat.
Samantha seemed to come to a decision. “Alright. Raider, dash across to that car, then go to the alley. Draw some attention. Use that grappling hook if you have to. Samson, you run into the alley while she’s taking fire. I want you in that alley before she is.” She frowned. “I can defend one of you,” she said to Isaac and Luka. “The other's going to have to run in unescorted.”
“Defend Luka,” Isaac said immediately. “Without a weapon, he can’t fight back. I can.”
Samantha’s look was pained. “… I’m not going to be able to convince you otherwise, am I?”
She sighed. “Fine. Luka, keep me between you and those assholes at all times. Close as you can, but trip me over and I will find a way to kill you before they do. Understand?”
“Yes ma’am,” the Russian said, saluting. “Just… uh. You do not strike me as meatshield.”
“Oh, that’s right. You don’t know about my trick.” She grinned. “Well, aren’t you in for a treat. Raider, Samson, you two ready?” Two nods later, and they were all prepared.
The plan went forward exactly as Samantha had set out. Raider almost flew off to the side, drawing fire from people who clearly didn’t know how to lead shots. Samson utilized the distraction to head for the alley himself, disappearing inside well before Raider did. Thanks to the angle at which the remaining enemies were, they could not see inside, preventing the two operatives from being gunned down like the ones Isaac had taken shortly before. Samantha rose from her position after seeing Samson retreat, the cyan-blue shell covering her once more. She began moving backwards, Luka moving behind her, suppressing every enemy she could see. Isaac followed suit, keeping an eye at all times on any enemies that could pop out and gun him down. He noted Luka kept glancing at his living shield – probably wondering how much punishment she could take – even while they edged backwards.
With the pace the two were keeping, Isaac reached the alley first. It was there he hesitated. Samantha was taking a lot of fire. And it didn’t help that she had to reload fairly often, which only increased the amount of bullets she was taking. Durable as it was, that shell of hers probably wouldn’t last much longer under that kind of punishment.
So, instead of escaping to safety, Isaac used the alley’s edge as cover, and began picking off any foe that poked out to take advantage of Samantha’s slow movement. With his added threat, the Russians became far more cautious with their fire, but also less persistent. Samantha made it to the alley, a few cracks visible in her glowing blue armor, and disappeared from view behind him, pushing Luka before her.
With her – and Luka, Isaac reminded himself – now safely out of range, Isaac too withdrew, heading towards the car with speed. He opened the driver’s seat and sat down, waiting for Samantha to step into the last back seat before pushing his foot onto the pedal and driving away, a few mobsters running out of the alleyway in pursuit.
He only allowed himself to relax when he was a few streets away. He turned to Raider, seated in the other front seat. “Could you call Pale for me?” he asked. She did so, leaning back in her chair after pressing the necessary buttons.
The hacker picked up on the first ring. “You should be good,” he said. “Cops arriving now. Taking a few rather angry Russian men and women into custody. Upset that they can’t find Luka, but they’ll get over it.”
“I should hope so,” Isaac answered, before nodding at Raider to hang up. “Nice work, people,” he said, glancing at the three in back in the rear-view mirror. “Although… Samantha, you weren’t wearing armor that time.”
Samantha flung her hands up in the air. “Now he notices,” she said.
“No, I mean… I thought you could only imbue your armor for that shell thing.”
“You thought I was imbuing armor?” the Huntress asked. “No. Once that breaks, re-imbuing it is useless. Besides, what happens when you imbue clothing? Jack-all, that’s what.” She shrugged. “I tried imbuing air instead. It works well. I can do it anytime, provided I’m not in a vacuum. I can even do it when I’m naked.”
Raider twisted her head around. “You say that like you’ve tried it before,” she said, a cheeky grin on her face.
“I was in the shower at the time.” Samantha rubbed the back of her neck. “Yeah. That was… probably the least dignified escape I’ve done.”
“And that was an image I did not want in my head,” Samson muttered. “Not while I’m sittin’ next to yo’ ass, anyway.”
Hunter Valley, NSW, Australia
February 5th, 8:34 PM
“Man, why the hell is your McDonald’s so goddamn fancy?” Samson asked, taking another bite from his burger.
Isaac shrugged. “No idea. Why is yours so shit?”
“Why is your cost of living so high?” Samantha asked.
“Why is your average wage so low?” Isaac returned.
“Why is your exchange rate so bad?”
He opened his mouth the shoot something back, then closed it again. “Yeah ok, you win that one,” he conceded, opening the front door and ushering everyone in. Noxious was already sitting in the lobby, an expression of relief crossing his face when he saw Raider walk in unharmed.
“You get him?” the operative asked, getting up.
“I was indeed got,” Luka said, entering the building. “Now then, building is big place, yes? So where do I sleep?”
After Luka had been shown to his room, Isaac called everyone into the planning room. Around the ornate wooden table they sat, watching as Isaac himself sat down. “Alright,” he said, taking a sip of the glass of water beside him. “Now, we’re finally all here.”
“Eleven of us,” Pale noted. “Starting to seem a lot like a movie I once saw.”
“You’ve each got a role,” Isaac said. “Exactly what the role is will depend on a few things, which I’ll get to in a minute. First, we need to construct a plan to get inside Lester’s abode. Which means we’ll need the blueprints, or at least a map of some description. That job falls to you, Pale.”
The hacker nodded. “If there isn’t a digital copy, I can probably procure the location of the physical one. There has to be one somewhere. Legally-“
“Lester probably isn’t too concerned with the legality of his actions,” the Judge butted in harshly. “Just find them. If there’s an issue, come to me and I’ll try to sort it out.” He turned his gaze back to everyone else at the table. “Even before we get the floorplans, we’re going to need an entry plan. And I think that if we walk in there wearing alloyed armor holding Gauss and laser weapons, we’ll probably attract some attention. We need a way to plant our gear in the building to begin with.”
Samantha raised an eyebrow. “You’re going to give Lester our stuff?”
“If I’m right, he won’t have much control over the ground floor and up. If we can hide our gear in a suitable position, we shouldn’t have any issues. But how do we get it in there in the first place?” He turned his gaze to Raider. “Rather conveniently, one of the receptionists for the ground floor recently made plans to quit over a payment dispute that didn’t go her way. Perfect slot for an inside man.”
Raider grinned. “And I’ll be applying for her now vacant position, yeah?”
Isaac nodded. “Correct. We probably won’t be ready for another month at least anyway – plenty of time for you to be acquainted with the building and guard shifts, etcetera. I’ll secure you the job, and you can do what you do best – blend in.”
“Just make sure you tell me when you’re coming in this time,” Raider warned. “Nearly shot you back when you burst in that club door that one time.”
“I’ll make a note of it,” the Judge said, a slight grin on his face. “As for the rest of us, we’ll only be doing our jobs when we actually get in there. In case that’s not obvious for anyone, let me clarify what those jobs are.” He looked at Samantha. “Samantha, you’ll be the tactical leader. When we’re in there, I’ll be relying on you to order us around, got it?”
“Put on my bossy boots. Yeah, I can do that,” the Huntress responded.
“Good. Noxious, you’ll be crowd control and point lockdown. If there’s a doorway we don’t want security walking through, you’ll be gassing it off. If there’s a security room accessible by ventilation, you’ll be gassing it. Understood?”
“Understood,” Noxious said, nodding.
“Samson, you’re damage. You’ll be killing anyone in our way.”
“What I do best,” the enforcer said, grinning. “Simple job, but some asshole’s gotta do it.”
Isaac nodded. “Raul, you’re the crowd calmer. Someone needs convincing to do something, you’ll convince them. And it’s possible – even likely – that there will be external security. I’ll probably need you to shut them up too.”
The Speaker smiled. “It would be my pleasure,” he said.
“Luka, you’ll be resident wall-destroyer. If there’s something in our way, you’ll break it down.”
The Russian grinned. “Perfect use of talents. Would warn everyone while chance is here not to stand too close. Could cause injury.”
Isaac looked down the table at the remaining two individuals. “Hannah, you’ll drive some of us in. All goes well, you’ll drive some of us out again. That way only one of us needs to be in condition to drive, rather than two.”
Hannah sighed. “Well, I suppose it’s better than cannon fodder,” she said. “But if there’s cops on our tail I’m out.”
“Shouldn’t be an issue,” Isaac assured her. “Azazel… You’ve got a choice.”
“You can stay outside and hope your psionics reach us however far down we go… or you can come with us, but put yourself in the line of fire.” He hesitated. “I… know you’re not exactly a combat-oriented person-“
Samson made a noise. “Bullshit. You see that surveillance room in the warehouse before we got the fuck out? You wouldn’t have needed bodybags to clean that shit up, you’d need fuckin’ buckets and mops.”
The Ethereal glared at him for a moment before returning his gaze to Isaac. Telekinesis is… not the most clean of methods, he explained.But Samson is right, if prone to over-exaggeration. I am capable of defending myself. And I will go with you.
“You sure?” Isaac asked. “You’ve got a while to think about it.”
I’m sure, Azazel responded adamantly. I cannot risk you losing contact with me because I chose to not expose myself to even a little bit of risk.
“Alright then.” The Judge looked over his colleagues, a smile breaking his lips. “One month, people,” he said. “But that month is broken up into days, and today it’s quite late. Get some sleep, and we’ll start properly planning tomorrow.”
The vast majority of those at the table did leave, making their way out the door to their respective rooms. Samson, however, remained behind, taking a seat next to Isaac. “So,” he said, once everyone else had gone, “We almost done with this shit?”
The Judge nodded, and leaned back in his chair. “Yeah,” he said. “Almost done with this shit.” He eyed the enforcer from the corners of his eyes. “You desperate for company, or…?”
“I… uh, shit man. You makin’ it sound like I some lonely motherfucker, you know?”
Isaac smirked. “No loneliness in this house,” he said. “So what are you here for?”
Samson tilted his head. “Here as in sittin’ in this chair, or here as in helpin’ your sorry ass?”
“Sitting in the chair. I already know why you’re helping me. Sure isn’t goodwill, I’ll say that much.”
“Aw, don’t be a cynical motherfucker, man,” the enforcer said, sitting back a bit. “Granted, that large sum of paper you promised did go a long way to getting’ me on yo’ team, but that isn’t the only reason I’m stayin’.” He lifted his hand, palms up, before placing them back down on the armrests. “Enforcer life is a solitary life, you got that right. Most motherfuckers only want to see me when I’m protectin’ their shit, you get me? I will not deny that bein’ part of this little team you got goin’… I’m kinda likin’ it.”
“That so?” Isaac sat upright again, and looked at Samson. “We’ve liked having you on board,” he said, bringing up a friendly arm and gripping him by the shoulder. “You’re a reliable guy. Don’t find many of those in our lines of work. I’m glad I picked you.”
The enforcer waved him off. “Ah, shit man. Cut it out, y’all gon’ make my cry like a little bitch y’all keep that shit up, man, shit.” He rubbed the back of his neck. “Soppy shit aside, I been thinkin’ about that motherfucker I met up on the second floor o’ that warehouse. And the more I think about it, the more certain I am.”
Isaac tilted his head. “About what?”
“The Lost? That motherfucker knows you.”
A shrug. “A lot of people know me,” he said.
“Maybe, but his knowledge was a little bit more than ‘oh he some cool-ass motherfucker who knows a thing or two ‘bout cappin’ asses’. He knew Raider, for starters. Knew her name, her role…”
That got Isaac’s attention. “Like he’d worked against her before?” he asked, his expression serious.
“Worked against… or with.”
“No, it wouldn’t have been with.” Isaac placed a hand on his chin. “She joined the Tribe as her first foray into mercenary work, and that was after I ran with them. I know her career, she’s worked with no one but the Tribe. And they’re all dead or with us here.” He frowned. “But she doesn’t really have any real enemies, either. No one that would know her by role, certainly.”
“Yo’ focusin’ on the wrong thing here man,” Samson broke in. “Lost’s beef is with you, that much I could figure out. Asked me to tell you he said hi.”
“That doesn’t help much,” Isaac muttered. “We run into the same problem. There’s no one alive that fits that bill. A few dead, but I’m pretty sure it’s not one of them for… obvious reasons. He mention anyone else?”
Samson shook his head. “Nah. Identified my shotgun by sound alone, but that ain’t much.”
“Had an assault rifle on him, that much I know. Never saw his punk ass though. Just heard a lot of bullets zippin’ my way.”
Isaac frowned further and leaned back. “That just makes it even more complicated,” he muttered. “Very few people I can think of. And like I said, they’re all dead.”
The enforcer shifted uncomfortably. “Well… you figure out who the fuck he is, maybe you’ll have an advantage when you fight his punk ass.”
“Hmm.” The Judge shook his head. “Maybe. Thanks for telling me this, though.”
“No problem man, anythin’ to keep the guy who pays me alive,” Samson said, a grin on his face. He got up and began moving towards the door, though he stopped midway. “You… uh… you and Samantha are a thing, right?”
Isaac turned around to look at him. “What.”
Suddenly, the enforcer felt very uncomfortable under Isaac’s glare. “Well, I mean you two seem pretty close. Protective of each other. Catch you flirtin’ every so often-“
“I do not flirt with her,” Isaac said harshly.
“Alright, maybe she does most o’ that. Look, I ain’t mean anythin’ by my questionin’. It don’t matter to me which bitch you stick that thing in, I’m just… curious, you know?”
Isaac remained silent, his eyes narrowed.
“I ain’t got any intentions there,” Samson continued. “Don’t you be worryin’. I ain’t gonna move in on a brotha’s turf. I don’t even find her that attractive.” He stopped, possibly realizing that the last statement could be construed as offensive. “Well, I mean, compared to some of the other tight shit out there. To each their own, am I right? Like Evelyn? If she weren’t with mister gas mask I’d be swingin’ on dat fine piece o’ work in a heartbeat-“
The door creaked on its hinges slightly.
“… she right behind me, isn’t she.”
Raider slapped him on the back of the head. “Yes, she is,” she said, walking past him and taking the seat he had formerly been occupying. “Now you should probably go to bed before this ‘fine piece of work’ turns you into multiple pieces of work. Ok?”
Samson nodded. “Yeah, I’ll just… yeah.” And with that he left, rather quickly.
Raider waited for a moment before bursting out laughing. “Oh, I love doing that to people,” she said, wiping a strand of hair away from her eyes.
Isaac didn’t seem so amused. “How long were you standing there?” he asked.
“Since I walked out,” she answered, regaining her composure. “You’ll forgive me for listening in.”
He considered reprimanding her, but instead rolled his eyes. “I’ll consider it practice,” he muttered. “You heard what he said about the Lost?”
“I did,” she responded, suddenly all business. “If it makes you feel any better, I don’t know who it could be either. I don’t have many long-lasting enemies. I did think he sounded familiar at one point, but I couldn’t match the voice.” She hesitated. “I… also heard the conversation about Samantha.”
“Oh dear lord, you too?”
Raider’s tone didn’t change from ‘serious’, though. “You know she still likes you,” she said, leaning back. “Sam’s never been one to let something she wanted get away from her.”
“That’s why she’s a good leader,” Isaac said. “She’s got drive. Determination.” He sighed. “And she just keeps trying.”
Raider looked at him for a moment before turning her attention to one of the paintings on the wall. “Why haven’t you given her a shot?” she asked, without looking back.
He hesitated. “Because… she’s given me too many.”
She turned to him. “What.”
Isaac waved a dismissive hand. “It’s been too long,” he said. “Better to just let it be-“
“No, it has not been too long,” Raider snapped. “And Samantha deserves better than you just leading her on and on.”
“I do not lead her on!”
“You don’t push her away, that’s for damn sure.”
“Yes I do!”
“Clearly not hard enough.” She shook her head. “Look, I don’t presume to know what goes on in that head of yours. But when I see the two of you talking, I see two people who really like each other, who enjoy each other’s company. When I see both of you in a firefight, I see two people who will not accept a situation where the other dies. The rest of us are just collateral to you two.” A sigh. “Do you see what I’m saying? No matter what you say here-“ She pointed a finger at his mouth. “-your actions speak louder than your words. Besides which, if nothing else, you’re friends. You owe it to her – and to an extent, yourself – to make a decision. Yes… or no.”
Isaac sighed. “I…”
“I didn’t say right now,” Raider admonished, standing up. “Just… soon. Samantha’s determined, but she’s also a realist. Eventually – and I know this might be hard to believe after so many years – she’ll give up. And you’ll lose your chance. Think about it, ok? For both your sakes.” And with one final pat on the back, she left, clicking the lightswitch ‘off’ as she passed.
He remained there for a moment in the darkness before rising, and exiting himself. He considered, briefly, heading to Samantha’s room. Possibly solving the drama forever… or accepting it. But even as he turned into the corridor, his resolve faltered. No. Not tonight. There was too much else on his mind.
Instead, he visited Azazel.
After discovering the Ethereal’s room empty, he went searching throughout the mansion for him, eventually locating him in what he assumed was a reading room of some kind. Azazel, at least, was using it for that purpose, the alien propped up in a large backed chair with his legs resting on a small stool. There was a book in his withered hands, coarse paper being turned near a smouldering fireplace.
Isaac chuckled. “You actually lit that?” he asked, seating himself in the adjacent chair.
The Ethereal did not respond for a moment.It seemed… fitting, he said at last. Also I was cold.
The Judge laughed. “Fair enough,” he said. “What’re you reading now?”
George Orwell’s ‘1984’,Azazel replied.Depressingly similar to Ethereal society before… well, you know.
“Similar?” Isaac frowned. “I… your people-“
- were religious fanatics, pursuing the Path under the guidance of a madman, the Ethereal interrupted.If we were at war with a species, the first we knew of it were their additions to our own forces. What you called the Mutons, the Sectoids. We were righteous followers of the Path. Hail to the High Commander. The Council perished in the plague. We have always been at war with Eastasia. He made a disgusted noise. And the rest of them went along with it.
Azazel lowered his head.Not me, he said, quietly. Look hard enough, and the evidence is there, hidden in plain sight. Especially if you have someone – or multiple someones – to validate your concerns, to assure you that yes, the First Ones used to be taller, yes, the timing of that official’s death just before he was about to make a speech was convenient. I was one of several – about seven, I believe – who met regularly to discuss it all. Who considered it our duty to ensure it didn’t go too far.
“And yet in your day job, you were enforcing those same laws you were scrutinizing.”
No. That came after.
Isaac leaned back. “After?”
The Ethereal was quiet for some time. After a moment’s pause, he closed his book, marking the page with a fold, and placed it on the small wooden table beside him. I said… my role as Inquisitor was not by choice, he began. Before that, I was a simple clerk. What you would call a ‘desk job’. I was, for the most part, a model Ethereal citizen. I did my work. I followed the path. I doubted the Doubter. A pause. But about fifteen of your years ago, I began noticing things. Where did all these new species come from? Why had they just agreed to be subsumed into our people? Was it because they too wished to follow the Path? I brought the topic to a friend of mine, who, after a moment’s thought, agreed with me. It seemed… odd, that any sentient being would allow its life to be overridden in importance by another. So what made the First Ones so devout, for example? What about all the other species?
Within the month, we had a small group of people. The topics of our discussions might be frowned upon publicly, one said, so we moved those discussions into privacy. And as time ticked on, the more we began to realize the gravity of the situation, and the more treasonous our talk became. But by that point, we had ceased caring about treason. Committing such a crime against a government that you are starting to question the legitimacy of hardly leaves any moral impact on one’s mind, after all. Azazel leaned back in his chair, not out of relaxation, but of resignment.I… later found out that it was about that point that we were brought to the attention of the Inquisitors. People who were tasked with rooting out exactly the kind of treasonous thoughts we were having. But they did not strike yet.
About ten years ago, we finally decided to act on our fears. There was one, he was… a prominent religious spokesperson. For what he was saying, we decided that he was simply too great a threat to allow. If there was to be any chance of the people realizing exactly what kind of government they had, he needed to be removed from the picture.
“You wanted to assassinate him,” Isaac said quietly.
Correct, Azazel said, nodding but not looking at him. The worst part? I can’t even remember what his message was. Why we decided he had to die.He sighed.It doesn’t matter now, I suppose. Once we had committed to the action, the Inquisitors swooped on us. We were arrested, and were to be executed without trial. Interesting that once you realize that the trials are a sham, they cease pretending to give you one.
“Execution? But you’re here. I’m assuming you found a way out?”
It was given to me on a silver platter, the Ethereal murmured. But the dish itself tasted foul. Each member of our group was offered the same thing – those in charge wanted a public demonstration of us, but were unwilling to with the evidence they had. One wonders then if they even had evidence, but that was beside the point. If one of us talked – gave out names, accounts, everything they could – then they’d have the evidence they needed to make a public demonstration of the others. He looked at Isaac.The one who talked would survive.
The Judge breathed out slowly. “You took the deal.”
To my shame. I sold out each and every one of my former friends. I watched them walk to their deaths! And Minos, the Arbiter, condemned me to work as an Inquisitor – to fight alongside the very regime I despised –for the rest of my days! With that last sentence he swiped a hand sideways, and the fire waned briefly. I have regretted taking that deal for every day of my life since then, he continued, calmer. After ten years of protecting Big Brother, I was losing hope that we would ever change. But then you won the war.
“And now here you are. You’ve seen the change you wanted to make.”
But I did not make it, Azazel said, shaking his head.For my treachery, my service to the old Path… I did nothing. I was useless.
“You’re not useless now. Right now, that’s all you should care about. The past is irrelevant.”
Silence.I… you are right. I bemoan my actions, but they have already been made. Complaining will not change them, nor their outcome. What is important is the now. And how I can help you assassinate your own target.
A grim smile forced its way onto Isaac’s face. “I think I see now,” he said. “You wanting to help me… it’s not just because you’ve got nothing left on Aethereum. It’s a method of atonement. Of spiritually completing what you started. Of laying to rest the ghosts of your past.”
The Ethereal chuckled. Are you certain you are not the Inquisitor here, he asked with an edge of humor, cutting through my thoughts like that?
Isaac shifted in his seat. “You don’t get as old as me in this business unless you learn a thing or two about motivation,” he said. “Trust me, I’m very familiar with guilt-inspired acts.”
“Alright, I’m going to get dinner for everyone,” Isaac shouted, poking his head into the planning room. “Requests?”
Samantha waved a dismissive hand. “I’ll have whatever you have.”
Isaac shrugged. “Suit yourself. Noxious?”
The operative considered. “Local Indian place was good last night. I’ll have that again.”
The enforcer looked up from his own sheet. “Uh… yeah, this is gonna sound real bad and all, and I don’t want y’all to judge me, but… could I get some KFC?”
Everyone in the room turned their heads and stared at him. “You did not just…” Noxious began.
“Ey man fuck y’all motherfuckers, I eat what I damn well please. And I just so happen to desire at this very moment a bucket full of fried-fuckin’-chicken.”
“You want to reinforce a stereotype, that’s fine by me,” Isaac said, writing the order down on the slip of paper he was carrying. “Samantha, you right with fried rice and honey chicken?”
“That’ll be fine,” she responded, not looking up from the blueprints she was studying. Probably working out the best route, Isaac reflected, before closing the door again and making his way to the car outside.
It was getting dark by the time he arrived in town, the day’s heat finally ebbing away without the sun to perpetuate it. He parked the car midway through the main street, minimizing the distance he had to walk to each fast food outlet. He closed the door and locked the car, whistling to himself as he began down the concrete footpath. Yes, the past few days had been good, he reflected. Pale had come through for them and acquired the rather well-hidden floorplans for Lester’s home. The shipment of weapons Isaac had ordered that had needed to be redirected had finally arrived. Intel suggested, moreover, that Lester was pooling his resources and hoarding his defenses. He was waiting for Isaac to strike.
Well, he can wait a bit longer, Isaac thought. He fingered the weapon concealed under his shirt. And that had arrived. Something that really shouldn’t exist. A gift he should have refused.
As he walked onwards, he failed to notice the silhouetted figure standing in an alleyway, arms folded, waiting. He failed to notice that figure walk out of the alley behind him, and begin following him, the alloyed boots making oddly little noise on the path.
He did notice, however, the rustling sound of the figure drawing a shotgun from their back. He did notice the sound of the figure priming that shotgun. And he dove sideways, avoiding the pellets that impacted the concrete. As the people still on the streets panicked and began making themselves scarce, he got a look at the one who’d been following him.
There was a Stormwater-issue helmet on his head, with the additional face-protector blocking his face from view. His armor was Titan, covered loosely in a too-large brown jacket. Slung over his back was a Gauss assault rifle, and now examining the shotgun closely Isaac could determine it was likely magnetically-accelerated too. And his stance was confident. Even though his quarry had detected him, he still seemed to think it was over.
Isaac backed one step away. “You’re the Lost, aren’t you?” he said. His question was answered when his foe took one step forward, into the glow of a streetlamp and revealing a small ghost symbol on his helmet. “Last of the Ghost Squad.”
The Lost nodded. “Correct,” he said. “Your friend delayed me too much back in America. Took me a bit to track you down here.” Already Isaac’s mind was racing. Raider had been right – the Lost’s voice was certainly familiar, but at the same time wrong. Who did it sound like? Was it the tonal quality that was off?
“According to a few rumors, we may know each other,” Isaac said cautiously. He refrained from drawing the revolver under his shirt for now. “But… I’m at a loss. Wouldn’t you do me a favor and sate my curiosity before you try and kill me?”
The Lost chuckled. “Yeah, we know each other. Don’t worry, I wasn’t about to send you to hell without first making sure you knew who killed you.” No, it wasn’t tone. It was too clean, not enough back-of-the-throat in there.
The mercenary reached behind his head with one hand, unclipping the back of the helmet and proceeding to lift it. Isaac realized only then what was wrong with the voice, why he hadn’t recognized it.
It was missing a Russian accent.
The helmet dropped onto the concrete footpath, and the head beneath smiled a grim smile. “Hello again, comrade.”
A numb feeling swept over Isaac, and he took another step back. “Samuel Yokolov…”
A smirk. “So you do remember me.”
“How?” An expression of anger twisted the Russian’s face. “How?! Isaac Anderson, you left me to die! To rot in the rubble of Cairo!”
The Judge shook his head, as if trying to clear the last vestiges of a deep sleep. “No, I didn’t leave you. You died. I checked your pulse, you were dead!”
The Lost indicated himself. “Clearly I was not!” he shot back. “I won’t deny there was damage. Everything before Cairo’s a little… fuzzy, now. But there’s two things I know for certain – who abandoned me, and who saved me. And I’ll tell you now, ‘friend’, you weren’t the one that saved me.”
Isaac was breathing heavily at this point, unable to accept that his good friend was both alive and seemingly out for his blood. “I… I made certain you had passed before I left. No pulse, no breathing, no nothing. You think I would have left you there if there had been?!”
“The fact that I’m standing here tonight determines that you are lying,” Samuel said dryly. “It doesn’t matter how you try to justify it in the end. The man you seek, Matthew Lester? He’s the one that saw to my recovery. Without his intervention, I would not be alive.”
“So that’s how it stands, is it?” Isaac asked, fingering the revolver. “You’ll turn your back on me to serve the interests of my enemy?”
The Lost laughed. “You turned your back on me first, friend. This, I know. You started this.” He picked up the shotgun, and pumped it once. “And now I’ll finish it.”
Isaac dodged just before he judged Samuel would shoot. He got the timing right, and the pellets zipped past him harmlessly. In that movement, he drew the revolver, green light pulsing around the gun’s body through a multitude of tiny tubes, and fired a shot. The shot missed, streaking a plasma-green line past his friend’s head. Samuel cursed and flinched sideways, but fired again in Isaac’s direction. Isaac had, however, already run, disappearing inside an alleyway as the shotgun’s payload searched him out.
Samuel growled to himself, upset that he’d let Isaac escape him. The exchange had demonstrated something to him, though – Isaac was unwilling to kill him just yet. If he had wanted to hit that shot earlier, he would have. That gave him an advantage, so long as he managed to take it before the Judge came to his senses.
The Lost activated an assault light attached to the underside of his shotgun, and swept the torch around the alley, behind the bin, even in the bin. “That’s a pretty toy you have there, Isaac,” he said loudly. “Not any kind of weapon I recognize.”
“It’s a prototype,” came the response, at the end of the alleyway. “A plasma-infused Gauss revolver. Daughter sent it to me. Officially, it’s undergoing ‘field testing’.”
Samuel began moving forward a little more confidently, now that he had a general idea of where his quarry was. “Your daughter’s a smart girl,” he said. “I’m surprised she managed to get the clearance for such a project, though.”
Isaac, climbing one of the fire escape ladders, chuckled to himself. “Well, yeah,” he muttered. “The amount of noise we’ve been making may have had a hand in that.”
The Lost rounded the corner, checking both ways and spotting a few bits of rubbish that looked recently disturbed. “A plasma-Gauss combination…” he mused, flicking his eyes over the area. “Might even be enough to penetrate my armor with a single shot, especially if that’s a revolver like I think it is.” He saw the fire escape ladder, detached and extended, and smiled. Raising an arm, he fired his grappling hook up to the top of the building and allowed it to pull him up and onto the roof.
Isaac watched him go, hiding in one of the rooms the fire escape had gone past. “That’s cheating,” he muttered to himself, before exiting through the window and dropping quietly down back into the alleyway.
For his treating the situation light-heartedly, Isaac’s inner mind was one full of turmoil. He had been certain – Samuel was dead. So how could he be here now? And how could he be serving Lester? Had Lester done to Samuel what he’d once done to Penny, altering his innermost thoughts until his allegiances switched?
He examined the revolver in his hand. Perhaps the biggest question still lay unasked – could Isaac bring himself to shoot Samuel?
“Considering your life choices?” a sardonic voice asked from above. Looking up, Isaac saw Samuel standing at the edge of the rooftop, one hand clutching the shotgun, the other on his hip.
The Judge hesitated. “In a way, yes,” he said, turning around to face his enemy. “Clearly there’s been a misunderstanding-“
“A misunderstanding? Is that what you’re calling it?” Samuel shook his head, and jumped, his armor protecting him from the force of the drop. “Fine. You want to keep the delusion that this isn’t in some way your fault, then I’ll indulge you for a bit.” He spread his hands, one still holding his weapon. “What would you propose we do about it.”
Isaac glanced down at his revolver. “I… I guess discussion over dinner is out of the question,” he said ruefully. “You really want to kill me?”
The Lost looked at him, then at his shotgun, then back at him. “What gave it away? The fact that I haven’t hugged you yet?”
“That may have been part of it.”
Samuel chuckled. “Still a sarcastic old bastard,” he said, shaking his head. “You and Samantha ever get together?”
“So you’re entertaining the idea? Progress, at least. How’s Noxious and Raider?”
“They’re good. Got together. Still going strong, I think.”
A laugh. “He finally work up the guts to ask her out? Good. I wasn’t sure if he was nervous, or just oblivious.” His face took on a somber expression. “I heard… everybody else died on that alien ship.”
Isaac nodded. “Yeah. Ran into a bit of trouble up there. Pillar, Gazer, Gyro… they all died up there.”
“Better there than some street thug that got lucky.”
Despite himself, Isaac couldn’t help smiling at that. “Sure you don’t want to put this behind you? We could use you. The others would be happy to see you.”
Samuel shook his head. “No, no. I can’t, Isaac. I just… can’t.”
The Judge stood there for a moment, gazing at his old friend’s face, before nodded. “I see,” he said quietly. “This isn’t about you, or me. It never was. You’ve got that instruction in your head – ‘kill Isaac Anderson, kill the Judge’. You can’t disobey that any more than you can force your heart to stop beating.”
Samuel nodded. “You’ve got it,” he said, almost sadly. “One of us is not coming out of this alive, tonight. Whether I kill you, or you kill me, that’s the only way this is ending, friend.”
Isaac shook his head. “Just one more thing Lester has to answer for,” he muttered. “That’s the outcome we’ll see,” he said, “but what’s the one you want?”
The Lost didn’t move for a moment, just standing there in the cool night air. He breathed in once, then out, savoring the oxygen. Then he chuckled to himself, and dropped the shotgun. “No,” he said at last. “You’ve got something after all this is done. You have a daughter. Potentially another wife. I have nothing. And I know that this drive to kill you isn’t mine own. Not really.” He held out his arms, as far from his sides as he could. “So do it. Before I change my mind. Save your own life by taking mine.”
The Judge hesitated, but raised the revolver. “You’re sure?” he asked, a slight waver in his voice.
“Of course not,” Samuel laughed bitterly. “Who the hell asks someone to kill them? A madman, that’s who. Am I mad?”
A sad smile tugged at the edges of Isaac’s mouth. “Yes,” he whispered. “Yes, you are.” And he fired, the plasma-infused bullet tearing through the air and through his friend, striking various vital organs and bones along the way. Samuel grunted at the impact, taking a step back and bringing a hand in to clutch at his chest. He clenched his eyes together, some part of him still stubbornly trying to operate as if nothing had happened. But it was futile – with most of his heart in tatters, the blood didn’t flow where it was meant to, and the complex machine that was Samuel’s body began grinding to a halt. He smiled, then. A little bitterly, but it was a smile nonetheless.
Then an expression of alarm crossed his face. “She…” he whispered, clutching at his chest harder. He locked eyes with Isaac then, his expression one of worry. “Peh… Peh… she… Les...” Whatever he was trying to say, he wouldn’t say it with words, that much he realized. So instead, with the final moments of his life, Samuel Yokolov stumbled forward, grabbing a hold of the plasma-infused revolver Isaac held and shook it, staring into his friend’s eyes the whole time he did. His last message imparted, he toppled forward, his grasp slipping from the revolver. He hit the ground with a soft clunk, the Titan armor impacting the concrete ground.
Isaac looked at the corpse at his feet for some time before finally bringing himself to turn away. What had Samuel been trying to say? Why had he suddenly looked so scared, so sad? Almost horrified, even. The more he thought, the more the icy grasp of fear tightened around his heart. Peh? And he grabbed the revolver… Peh… Peh…
He meant Penny.
All color draining from his face, Isaac began running out of the alleyway. He had to call her. If Lester had done anything to her…
He turned around when he reached the end of the alley, gazing at the body of his dead friend. He swallowed. “Do svidanya, friend,” he said, before turning again and running towards his car, the sounds of sirens in the distance closing in.
Lester’s Experimental Biolabs, Beneath the WTC
February 10th, 1:21 AM
Lester examined the diagrams set before him, the doctors that had drawn them standing nearby somewhat nervously. “You say that this solution is not sustainable?” he asked.
One doctor nodded. “Mr. Walter was very insistent that his psi powers be left intact, and as such we had to limit the amount of MELD we can use.”
The other doctor chipped in. “Of course, that means that the metal parts are essentially unbonded to his flesh. Like if we’d just left a sword sticking in him. His body will eventually reject the components. But, with the prevalence of the mechanical parts…” The doctor rubbed the back of his neck. “… it will kill him, within a week,” he finished.
Lester folded his arms. “And he was fine with that?”
The doctors exchanged glances. “Sir,” the first one said. “I don’t… I don’t think he’s in any position to make sensible decisions about his own health. He seems mentally unstable.”
“He’s preoccupied with vengeance,” the second doctor clarified. “Losing his colleagues one by one has left him bitter. He said that, and I quote, ‘If there is no Ghost Squad, then I have no purpose in life but to avenge them’.”
Lester nodded slowly, and began pacing over to one of the components that would be inserted into Banshee’s body… assuming they decided to operate. The Elerium power cell he was looking at churned in its chassis, glowing a dull blue-green. This particular component would be inserted in the middle of the patient’s ribcage, serving as a power source for the mechanical exo-endoskeleton. The suit itself, requiring components under and above the skin, lacked in protection in and of itself, but Banshee’s own telekinetic fields should take care of that particular issue. And with the psionic-boosting measures proposed…
That, and the intimidation value of such a horrifically disfigured foe would be enough to make even the most psychopathic murderer take a moment to process.
He turned to the doctors. “I say we give him what he wants,” Lester said. “If we don’t, as soon as he’s up he’ll just go dash himself on the rocks anyway. We may as well give him a fighting chance of succeeding.”
“Yes, sir,” the doctors said in unison, one ticking a box on his clipboard and moving away. Lester grabbed the other on the shoulder before he could leave, and looked into his eyes.
“And tell the biokinetic doctors that I want absolutely no loopholes in the next one like there were in the Lost, understand? Otherwise they’re just as dead as I am.”
Hunter Valley, NSW, Australia
February 10th, 11:32 PM
The hours he’d spent avoiding the police was hell. Eventually, though, Isaac had found his way around the flashing blue and red lights and made it back to the mansion, a number of hours after he’d left.
He stormed in the front entrance, not bothering to remove his shoes. He passed Noxious, who shouted a question he didn’t hear after him. He didn’t stop moving until he reached his own room, with one large window overlooking the garden. He brought out his phone, located a contact, and started ringing.
She picked up on the seventh ring. “Dad,” Penny said sleepily, yawning. “Do you have… any idea how late it is?”
He breathed a sigh of relief. “I… you have no idea how happy I am to hear your voice,” he said quietly.
His daughter seemed less happy to hear his. “I’ve been working hard these past few weeks,” she said, waking up now. “And now you start ringing me at like midnight expecting me to be awake?” There was a muffled voice on her end of the line. “Shut the fuck up, Charles, I’m busy.”
“Charles?” Isaac asked, leaning on the windowsill. “What’s he doing at your place this late? Are you two…?”
“Wha-? Uh… No?”
“So he just came over to borrow some sugar, that right?”
Dead silence. “Ok, look,” Penny said, “I’m a grown woman, ok? I can make my own decisions about my love-life, I don’t need you or anyone else commenting on it, alright? And I most certainly don’t need you showing up at his front door tomorrow clutching a shotgun. You got it?”
“Pen, I’m not going to show up his door with a shotgun-“
“You’re damn right you’re not,” she cut in. “Certainly not since you probably actually know how to use one.”
Isaac began massaging his brow. “Penny, you’re a grown woman. At this point I’m happy you’ve got someone at all, let alone someone you seem genuinely happy with.”
“Are you saying I wouldn’t be able to get someone else?” The muffled voice again, this time in protest. “I said shut up!”
He shook his head. “Forget I said anything,” he said. “I was just calling to make sure you were alright.”
“My dad’s ringing me up at bloody midnight, why wouldn’t I be?”
He hesitated, but decided it was better to let her know than her be unpleasantly surprised. “It’s… possible that there’s a threat to you.”
“You haven’t noticed any shady figures?”
“Not apart from the usual. I know you have two guys watching me.”
Isaac laughed. “Don’t be silly, I would never-“
“One’s always sitting in the apartment lobby reading a newspaper,” Penny said matter-of-factly. “The other hangs around EE begging for spare change.”
Her father was silent for a moment. “Damn,” he said at last. “You’re good.”
His daughter smirked. “Of course I am. Besides which, I can handle myself. Remind me to tell you about that time I killed three Mutons with nothing but a Beam pistol, my fists and their own grenades.” Isaac heard a faint ‘bullshit’ in the background. “I did!”
Isaac smiled. “Well… you let me know if you see anything out of the ordinary, alright?”
“Alright,” Penny said. “Did you like your present?”
He swallowed, looking at the revolver he’d dumped on his desk. “I… haven’t had a chance to use it yet,” he lied. “It looks impressive, though.”
“Don’t break it,” his daughter said. “Elene’ll get pissed if it comes back from field testing broken, got it?”
“I got it.”
They were silent for a bit. “I’ll, uh… let you get back to sleep,” Isaac said. “Or whatever it was you were doing.”
Penny groaned. “Fuck you, dad,” she said, and hung up.
Isaac allowed his arm to fall to his side, and he kept staring out the window at the moonlight courtyard. So she was safe. For now, at least. So why had Samuel wanted to warn him about her?
He noticed a shadow cross the wall next to him, the door letting the light from outside his room in. He sighed. “Yes, Samantha?” he asked, having determined who it was from the shape of her shadow.
The Huntress hesitated in the doorway. “Jack said you barged in here looking like you’d left the oven on,” she said. “And you didn’t get dinner like you said you would.”
Isaac waved a dismissive hand. “There’s some two-minute noodles in the kitchen,” he said.
Samantha moved further in. “It’s not about that,” she said. “Apparently there’s police all over town. Add it all together, and…” She stopped about a meter behind him. “You were attacked.” It wasn’t a question.
Isaac began chuckling. “A ghost,” he said cryptically. “Someone who was… Lost to me.”
“The Lost?” Samantha paled. “You were attacked by the Lost?”
“I won, don’t worry,” Isaac said, gazing back out the window. “Probably best that we faced each other alone, anyway. I doubt I would have been able to talk to him like I did if you guys were all there. And knowing what he was capable of, I think he might actually have taken a few of us down.”
Samantha gave him a quizzical look. “You say that like you knew him well.”
When he didn’t elaborate further, she sighed. “Alright, you want to keep it to yourself, I understand.”
“I’ll tell you.” He hesitated, and turned away. “Just not tonight. I’ve got too much to think about right now.”
Samantha reached out a hand, but stopped herself and lowered it again. “… alright,” she said, turning to go. She stopped in the doorway. “You know a lot of us here wouldn’t mind if you needed to just… talk, right? I mean, there’s clearly something bothering you.”
“I know.” Isaac turned around to face her. “Just… not tonight.”
She nodded wordlessly, then left, leaving him to his own thoughts.
February 12th, 9:48 PM
“How’s it going in here, Raul?” Isaac asked, closing the door to the small study behind him.
The Speaker glanced up from his newspaper. “Fine,” he said, raising an eyebrow. “You… do know you aren’t pronouncing my name correctly, right?”
The Judge frowned. “I’m not?”
“No. You never have, in fact.”
“Oh. Well. Sorry. I wouldn’t have minded if you’d just said. How is it actually pronounced?”
“You’ve been saying ‘Rawl’. You should be saying ‘Ra-ool’.” Raul waved a dismissive hand. “Think nothing of it,” he said. “If it were my actual name, I’d probably be more offended, but as it stands it hardly matters.”
Isaac leaned against a bookshelf. “Funny. I always read it as ‘R-A-U-L’. No accent.”
“That’s because people are lazy,” the Speaker said, returning to his paper. “Can’t find the proper accent on the keyboard or just don’t know which one it is to begin with.” He shrugged. “I’m used to it. What I get for mixing with foreigners.”
“So Raul isn’t your real name?”
The Mexican eyed him. “No,” he said cautiously. “I’m not like you, Mr. Anderson. I don’t go around broadcasting my real name to the world. Defeats the purpose of an alias if you ask me.”
Isaac shrugged. “What’s in a name?” he asked.
Raul laughed. “In my name? Everything, Isaac. My name says a lot about me. The day you learn my name will be the day you learn who I am, really.” He shrugged. “Makes you lucky in that regard. You don’t have some meaning behind your name. You are just… Isaac.”
“Uh huh.” Isaac didn’t really know what Raul meant by that, but decided against questioning it further. “You, uh… you taking a break or something?”
“Catching up on world events,” The Speaker said. “Or lack thereof. Everyone’s surprised there hasn’t been a major shootout recently, what with all that’s been going on.”
The Judge rubbed his neck awkwardly. “Yeah, well. Not much else you can do with a private army in your way.”
“Or some thugs trying to kill one of your future employees.”
“I suppose we’ll fix that in a month or so, won’t we?”
“We will.” Isaac glanced out the window, sunlight streaming in. “You prepared?”
“Of course I am,” Raul said. “I’m always prepared. It’s how I’ve survived this long.” He shook his head. “Now, is there a point to your coming in here, or are you just going to keep asking stupid questions?”
Isaac shrugged. “You tell me.”
The Speaker looked at him for a moment before returning to his paper. “The latter. I’d rather not be disturbed at this time, so if you could please-“
“Alright, alright, I’ll see myself out.” The Judge moved from his position at the bookshelf and left, allowing Raul to continue his reading. In a way, the Speaker had been wrong – there had been a purpose to Isaac’s going in there, which was to ask stupid questions. Idly, he wondered whether Raul had known that or if it had slipped past him.
It’d probably be the first thing Isaac had managed to hide from him. He’d already deduced the identity of the Lost simply from asking questions about the ordeal – Isaac hadn’t even answered them, and yet the Speaker had worked out the answers from his body language alone. That meant he and Azazel – though the Ethereal was too polite to admit he’d inferred it himself – were the only ones that knew. Isaac still hadn’t been able to bring himself to tell anyone, and by now Samantha had stopped asking.
Soon enough, it wouldn’t matter. He opened the door to the room Noxious had secured for himself. Lester would answer for whatever he’d corrupted Samuel with, soon.
Though Isaac still had no idea what the Lost had been trying to tell him at the end.
The room was eerily dark. And worryingly musty. Of course, Noxious had picked one of the cellar rooms. Probably because, even now, he was busy with his stash of chemicals. From the knocking noise over to Isaac’s right, he was probably filling up some more gas grenades. “Is now a bad time?” the Judge yelled, running his eyes over the edges of the room.
Noxious poked his head around a large rack of vials. He was wearing his gas mask. “You’re… probably fine,” he said, walking over and dusting off his rubber gloves. “Probably don’t stay too long in here though. You wanna go outside, we can chat for a bit?”
Isaac shook his head. “Nah, I’ll be fine.” He gestured to the corner Noxious had just come from. “Slapping a few grenades together?”
The chemical expert shrugged. “You can never have too much choice,” he said. “I’m fairly certain which little mix of chemicals I want to bring with, but I’m just packaging some extras just in case I change my mind, or we need corrosives, or we need aphrodisiacs.”
Isaac raised an eyebrow. “In what foreseeable situation would we need an aphrodisiac grenade?”
“Hey, you never know when something’ll come in useful.”
“Remind me never to ask what you and Evelyn get up to behind closed doors, what with your chems and her little gadgets.”
Noxious laughed at that. “Yeah, well. I do miss her.” He grinned, then realized Isaac couldn’t see it behind the gas mask. “I… guess I’ll see her when we get moving. And then we’ll get straight into a firefight.” He chuckled. “Not exactly romantic, but it’ll get the blood pumping.”
Isaac held up a hand. “Like I said, don’t want to know.” He shook his head, though he was smiling. “You ready to go, otherwise?”
“Pretty much,” Noxious said. “I’m just passing time by cooking up choices. I don’t have a proper lab, so I can’t really make anything new. May as well be productive.” He tilted his head. “Why? We going somewhere soon?”
“Not… yet. Soon, but not for a few days at least. I’m just checking on everyone at the moment. We’re getting close.” He scratched the back of his head. “Actually, while I’m here. You seen Azazel anywhere? I haven’t seen him all day.”
“I may have given him a hot chocolate.” An awkward cough. “I didn’t know about the effect chocolate has on Ethereals. Samantha had to explain it to me while we… carried him to his room.”
“You got him drunk. On hot chocolate.”
“I didn’t know!”
Isaac shook his head. “You’re the biology specialist and you didn’t know that?”
“I didn’t get my doctorate in xenobiology.”
“True enough.” The Judge sighed. “Alright. Thanks for telling me, at least. I’ll let you get back to packing your cans.”
Noxious breathed out in relief once he’d moved away a bit. “Let me know when we’re about to get moving,” he yelled after the retreating figure. “I’m ready whenever you are!”
February 15th, 8:57 PM
There was a thunderstorm broiling outside. One of those ones that doesn’t rain, but spits out a shitonne of electrical energy. Lit by yellow lights and the occasional thunderbolt, everyone sat in front of the giant wooden table, pieces of paper strewn in front of them.
“Alright, everyone,” Isaac said, seated at the head of the table. “We have a plan. Thanks in no small part to Pale, we gained access to the blueprints and floorplans of Lester’s hideaway. It’s large, certainly, but I have no doubt we can cut through.” He leaned forward, clasping his hands together on the table. “But first we need to get in.
“We’re going to split up for the entrance. Myself, Samantha, Noxious and Raul will go in the front door, make contact with Raider. She, as one of the people working there, will ‘direct us to the bathrooms’, by which I mean where our gear is hidden. We’ll pick it up, the four of us will gear up, and the rest we’ll bring down in the service elevator here.” He pointed at an elevator that appeared on both the ground floor and the first carpark floor, in amongst a section marked ‘loading bay’. “The rest of you will be waiting for it. Once everything arrives, secure it and bring it over here, where we’ll be somewhat protected from view. Those of us already equipped will keep watch while everyone else gets dressed. That’ll be part one.”
Samson raised a hand. “What’s with that whole part of the plan?” he asked. “Why ain’t we just runnin’ in there with our shit already on?”
“Security at the WTC is extremely heavy,” Pale chipped in. “You try walking into their carpark covered in armor and carrying a big gun, you’re going to set off more than a few alarms.”
“The rest of the plan is a little more straightforward,” Isaac continued. “The only entrance to Lester’s complex is an elevator located in the bottom floor of the carpark.”
“What?” Noxious scratched his head. “That doesn’t make any sense. Buildings have to have a fire escape staircase, they can’t rely on elevators to work in a situation like that-“
“I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again – Lester isn’t too concerned about the legality of his actions.” The Judge grinned then. “But that particular law is rooted in a very sound logic. You’re right. Lester does have a fire escape style staircase, running up the side of the elevator. We’ll be hijacking that. But first we need access to Lester’s systems, because that door only opens from the inside via security room unlock.”
So we need to get inside to get inside? Azazel asked, staring at him from the other end of the table.
Isaac nodded. “We need to force open the elevator doors, and then drop a few of us down the shaft. That will be me, Raider, Raul, and Samson.”
“Ah, shit, why do I have to jump down the couple-storey tall-ass shaft?” the enforcer moaned. “You said this shit was straightforward, man!”
“Once inside,” the Judge continued, ignoring him, “we’ll need to make our way to two separate security rooms. Samson, you’ll be with Raider, and Raul will be with me. We’ll get into those rooms, open them up for Pale to get into security, and then everyone can come down the stairs. We’ll meet at the door to the inner section, what the blueprints call ‘the Vault’.
Past that, there’s a swathe of rooms – mostly labs and the like from the look of it – and getting us through them will be Samantha’s job. There’ll be a few walls we need Luka to bring down in the middle of it.”
“Nothing load bearing, don’t worry friends,” the demolitionist said cheerfully. “Have already worked that out.”
Isaac nodded. “Once we get to the end of that, there’s a large atrium-style room with two staircases running into it from the last room. The next room is another staircase, and after that what appears to be Lester’s study.” He paused there. “I think that if Lester’s going to make any concerted attempt to stop us, he’ll do it in that large room near the end. The rest of the complex risks too much collateral damage.”
“Implying we give a shit,” Noxious muttered.
“As for defenses, what we can expect?” Isaac glanced at Pale. “We can’t know for certain, but I’d assume he has security forces on standby. And Pale’s been catching some references: something called ‘Archdemon’, and another called ‘Prodigal’.”
Samantha frowned. “Archdemon? You think that has anything to do with that AI we fought at the warehouse?”
“Lucifer?” Isaac considered. “Possibly. We might be dealing with another mechanized frame, if that’s the case. Luka would be rather helpful in that situation.” He shook his head. “That said, I wouldn’t put it past Lester to place a few traps in addition to his people. While we’re in there, we keep our eyes and ears open. Understand?”
There was the sound of a car door slamming. Everyone, hearing this, froze in their seats, waiting for further noise. Further noise they got, the crunch crunch of boots on gravel. Samantha turned to Isaac.
“You expecting visitors?” she hissed.
“No,” he said. “Everyone get to the armory and get your stuff on. Pale, find a room and hide. Azazel, wait at the top of the front stairs for intruders. I’ll check this out.” Obediently, the group rose, leaving the planning sheets on the table, and hastened to the room they’d repurposed into an armory. Isaac, meanwhile, peeked out from behind one of the curtains onto the driveway, where the noise had come from.
He saw a van, black and rather hard to see in the moonlight, along with two men. The men were fiddling with the back of the van. This was most certainly an unauthorized entry. That decided, he turned and followed his team into the armory, mind racing.
Three times now Lester had known exactly where he was. Something there was not right.
Everybody turned their heads when he entered, Samson midway through putting the leg of his new Aegis armor on. “Company?” Samantha asked.
“Company.” Isaac affirmed, and everyone immediately resumed motion, putting on armor and checking weapons. Isaac himself moved over to his own area, picking up the Pulse variant sniper rifle he’d purchased and the hybrid revolver Penny had given him. This better be the last one, he thought to himself.
The back of the van swung open, and the occupant rose from his seat, metal boots clanking on the chassis of his transport. He grabbed the Gauss Autorifle hanging on the wall of the van, checking it was loaded properly, before placing his feet on the gravel driveway.
“You good, Banshee?” the driver of the van asked, closing the door behind him.
His breath misted orange in the humid night air, his air filter affecting how his voice sounded. “Yes,” he said, gazing with augmented eyes at the building before him. “And I’ll be better after this.” The Ghost Squad leader’s accent had regressed slightly, making him sound the part of ‘mad German scientist’ as well as look it.
The other man shuddered inwardly, still disturbed by the subject’s appearance. “Sure thing,” he said. “We’ll see you tomorrow, yeah?”
Banshee waved him away with the odd contraption on his hand. “Yes, yes, whatever,” he said, largely ignoring him.
The two men shrugged at each other, then returned to their seats, driving the van away and leaving the twisted form of Banshee standing rapt in the driveway.
The heavy looked down at himself, drinking in his new equipment. Aside from the cage-like piece of metal strapping each shoulder, and the glowing Elerium core in the center of his chest, his actual body didn’t seem that different. The effects of his defeat at the hands the Judge – even if neither had actually seen the other – were still quite apparent in his thin, almost emaciated appearance, his ribs visible through the skin on his chest. The pack on his back had on it both an artificial heart to support his own failing one and the mechanical beginnings of his exterior arms, the slabs of metal reaching over his shoulders and attaching themselves to his lower arms like the strings of a puppet. His mechanical gloves could extend claw-like appendages, each one with a tube up the middle, and on the side of each was a small grenade launcher. His boots were more obvious – they were large, bulky, but protective. They attached themselves to his body through the metal spikes driven through his legs, and the trousers that those legs wore.
Banshee frowned. Some of those spikes were still bleeding.
He ignored it. The doctors had needed to damage his nervous system in the process of giving him this gift, and as such he felt no pain from the suit. Or anything else, for that matter. With a manic grin lighting his now balding features, he strode up to the door, planting one foot against it and kicking it open.
Maybe ‘open’ was too light a word, given that the door itself flew off its hinges.
And Banshee laughed. “This strength…” he said, flexing his fingers. “Yes, this will suffice. I will find you Judge!” he yelled, his voice echoing off the dark walls. “And I look forward to it.” He glanced up the stairwells at the end of the room and raised his hairless eyebrows, noting the figure silhouetted by lightning there.
You are a psion, the figure stated, unmoving.And yet you are mechanically augmented. I was under the impression the two were mutually exclusive.
“Oh, they are,” Banshee giggled. “This is not long term at all. Oh, no. I have probably… oh, how long would it be now? Two days. Yes, two days left before my body decides it doesn’t like the metal rods stuck through me.”
A wave of disgust and pity emanated from the Ethereal.… what lengths has your superior gone to? he wondered, before removing his hands from beneath his robes, pulsing a dull red in the gloom.And why would he leave you with no protection?He raised his hands, causing one of the couches at the side of the room to rise. With a flick of his wrist, Azazel sent the chair careening towards the intruder, only to have it break into pieces about a meter away.
The bubble around Banshee rippled red for a few moments, before settling into invisibility once again. “Because I can protect myself, Ethereal,” the German said gleefully, raising his Autorifle and spraying a number of bullets at his opponent. In response, Azazel made a punching motion at the window behind him, shattering it and allowing him to drop into the main courtyard, somehow unscathed from the torrent of bullets.
Banshee mounted the stairs, but upon poking his head out the window was unable to spot the Ethereal. “Bah,” he said, ducking back inside. “Nowhere for you to run, all the way out here. You aren’t who I want anyway.”
“No,” Isaac said, over to the Ghost’s left. “That’s me, isn’t it?”
Banshee smiled beneath his air filter. “Correct.”
Isaac clenched his left hand, still unused to the feeling of the Ghost armor he wore. Fitting choice, really. He stepped back involuntarily when Banshee turned his body fully, revealing the true extent of his mutilation. “What the hell did Lester do to you?” he asked, horrified.
“What I wanted,” his opponent said. “And I wanted a way to defeat you. To make you pay for killing Spectre, Wraith, Phantom. Even the Lost, as much as he tried not to be a part of the squad.”
Isaac grimaced. “It was nothing personal,” he said.
“Oh, they were just in the way, were they? Preventing you from reaching your goal?” The mutilated man examined the needle-like appendages on his fingers. “You pathetic worm. What makes you so special?” With an angry roar he raised his Autorifle and fired a few bursts, forcing Isaac to go into cover in a nearby doorway.
Isaac retreated from the doorway, knowing that he could not take this one down himself. Nor could they do it in a pitched fight.
Behind Banshee, Raul took aim with his Gauss Long Rifle, deciding that the giant green glowing tank on the enemy’s back was probably a good spot to shoot. He fired, but the shot impacted Banshee’s psionic bubble and stopped, causing the Ghost to turn around. “Ah, got some friends do we?” He casually loaded his wrist-mounted grenade launcher and fired, the payload exploding in front of Raul and sending him flying. “Good, more meat for the grinder!” He charged into the room Raul had been leaning out of, surprising Noxious and Samantha inside.
Samantha immediately triggered her shell, which protected her from Banshee’s exosuit-accelerated punch, though she was staggered by the sheer force of it. Noxious took the opportunity to make himself scarce, though not without first taking a few shots with his new Pulse Stengun, which Banshee almost shrugged off.
“Think you’re safe in there?” the Ghost taunted, taking a few more swipes at the Huntress. She blocked the first with one arm, but was too slow to block the second swipe and the third punch, which caused her to topple backwards. “Two down already?” Banshee said, raising his weapon. “A pity.”
A sharp hiss caused him to stop, however, the small canister beneath him expelling a cloud of smoke. No, not just smoke. Some kind of gas.
Samantha used the distraction to roll to her right, grabbing her own Autorifle and retreating through the same door Noxious did, her Titan armor protecting her from the effects of whatever gas Noxious had thrown into the room. Unfortunately, Banshee too proved immune, his mouth-mounted filter allowing him to ignore its effects. “Two can play at that game!” he shouted gleefully, launching one of his own grenades into the adjacent room, which exploded into what used to be called Thin Man poison.
The two crashed out of the hallway door, avoiding the worst of the poison’s corrosive nature. “Who the hell is this guy?!” Noxious said, quickly checking that his filter was attached correctly.
Samantha didn’t answer, instead pulling him away as the mechanized Ghost barged through the same door, taking half the door with him as he slammed into the opposite wall. “Ready to die?” he asked, aiming his Autorifle. The Huntress stepped in front of him, taking the brunt of the fire directly. With her shell she managed to take the entire magazines worth, prompting Banshee to attempt to kick her away. As they tussled, Noxious attempted to run. Seeing one of his prey escaping, the Ghost loaded another explosive grenade and fired it, leading the shot. The grenade exploded, sending Noxious careening out the glass window and into the courtyard below.
Samantha herself unloaded, her imbued bullets tearing through her opponent’s psi shielding before he could properly replenish it and managing to land a few shots on the man himself. When she was dry, Banshee merely looked at the wounds, bleeding and spaced around his upper torso, and laughed, swatting the Huntress away with a single metal and leather gauntlet. He moved past her as she regained her footing, baffled as to how he could merely shrug off so many deep wounds.
“Where are you hiding, Judge?” Banshee called, sprinting forward at high speed. “I can’t kill what I can’t see, you know!”
Samantha rose again, firing a few more bullets into the Ghost’s back. With his bubble back up, none went through, and all she managed to do was get his attention.
He turned around and attacked her again, smacking her with one hand and then grabbing the back of her helmet, driving her face-first against the wall. He did that a few times, each impact sending ripples through Samantha’s shell, before grabbing her shoulder instead and pulling her to the ground. “Should have waited for backup,” he chided before unloading his Autorifle into his prey, stressing her shell beyond her limit. It shattered where shot, and a few bullets made their way through the Titan armor, into the Huntress’ flesh. She cried out in pain, but was still very much alive while Banshee had to reload.
A number of blasts to the back of his shield caused Banshee to turn, spotting Samson holding a Scatter Blaster in his hands. “Bitch get tha fuck outta this house!” the enforcer said, venting his weapon.
Banshee raised his palms upward, looking around the room. “Am I meant to be impressed?” he asked dryly, before releasing Samantha and attacking Samson, swiping at him with his ‘claws’ outstretched, causing him to abandon his attempts to break through the shield and instead fend off the swipes. So focused was Banshee on attacking Samson that he didn’t notice several objects around the room begin floating and spinning rapidly.
The objects – a table, a painting, and two large couches, crashed into the back of the Ghost’s bubble, stressing it beyond its limit. Banshee stopped attacking Samson to search for the source of the damage, but that merely provided an opportunity for Samson to shoot him in the back.
The blast of light was mostly absorbed by the bulky backpack, indicating it was made of zero alloy rather than simple metals. It wasn’t completely useless, however – the large glowing tank on the back of the exo-suit crumpled, sending electrical sparks everywhere, alongside a sizable portion of blood from the tank itself.
Banshee actually fell forwards from the shot. “Oh,” he said, surprised. “That hurt.” Rather than attempt retribution, however, he fired a smoke grenade at his own feet, prompting Samson to backpedal to avoid any kind of retaliation from the billowing white before him. Before he began shooting randomly into the cloud, however, Isaac called out to him.
“Don’t shoot!” he said from the top of the staircase. “Samantha’s in that cloud too remember!”
Now supposedly unseen, Banshee extended his needle-like claws and plunged them into the weakened form of Samantha through the base of her neck. “It’s possible you’re the wrong blood type,” he said as red fluid began running up the claws and through the tubes along his arms. “But at this point that’s hardly my real concern.”
When the smoke cleared Banshee rose, the last few drops dripping from his fingers. “Now then,” he said, turning to his foes with madness in his eyes. “Which one of you is next?”
An impact from behind, hitting his reinvigorated shield, reminded him that there was another target nearby. He fired a grenade towards the duo on the stairs, knocking Samson out from the force. The Ghost ran backwards into an adjacent room, searching for what he assumed was the Ethereal. “Have I scared you?” he taunted. “Don’t hide. That’s no fun.”
You’re insane, Azazel’s voice echoed. There is no clarity in your mind. No order. Only bloodlust and chaos.
“How would you be in my situation?” the Ghost snapped, pointing his Autorifle into one of the darkened corners and lowering it when he determined there was no one there. “I have nothing left to live for, so I choose to die!”
I know what you mean, the Ethereal murmured. You choose to pursue retribution with a single-minded determination. I myself was in a similar position once upon a time. To the point where I have often wondered if I chose the wrong angel to name myself after. The difference between us is that I never lost hope. I was patient.
“You’ll be dead, soon!” Banshee cried, kicking a table over in rage.
“Oi!” Isaac raised his rifle, standing at the doorway. “That’s my furniture, tosser.” He fired, the beam impacting Banshee’s bubble and causing it to ripple around him. He fired twice more before the Ghost got too close for comfort and he ran, ditching his rifle in favor of the revolver at his belt. He ran past the spot Samantha had been a moment ago and back up the stairs, turning around at the top and firing all six plasma-infused rounds at his foe. The last one broke through the shield, impacting Banshee’s shoulder. Banshee himself didn’t seem too concerned by this, and he continued belting up the stairs while Isaac was forced to retreat and reload. By the time he’d done so, Banshee had mounted the stairs and his shield was regenerating fast.
It then dropped again, a large explosion from behind causing him to stagger forward. At the other end of the hallway stood Luka, grenade launcher in his hands. “I am thinking you are needing the assistance, yes friend?” he yelled, loading another shell.
Banshee scowled, turning and launching a grenade himself at the demolitionist. While he was distracted, however, Isaac had the perfect opportunity to fire a shot into the now unprotected Ghost’s skull.
Banshee stood still for a moment, then turned, one eyebrow raised. “I really don’t think you quite understand the nature of this suit,” he said, ignoring the hole in the back of his skull.
“How the hell?!”
The Ghost began laughing, almost hysterically. “This isn’t just an exo-suit,” he said. “It runs beneath my skin too. I had no idea a skull coated in zero alloy could be so useful!” He then charged Isaac, swatting him to the side when he tried to cloak with a single attack. “Oh, and so few of you left, now,” Banshee said mock-pityingly, grabbing the Judge by the neck and raising him off the ground. “Are they the best you could find?”
He threw Isaac out the window then, out and into the courtyard below. A few steps later and he was following him out, landing with a sizable thud on the graveled ground. He strode over to Isaac, who was clutching his throat and trying to regain his breath.
“And now,” Banshee said gleefully, raising his Autorifle, “this ends!”
A torrent of infused bullets slammed into Banshee’s shield from behind, a small amount missing and instead throwing up large clouds of dust where they hit the ground. The Ghost scowled and turned around, spotting her standing in the same window he’d come through a moment ago. “What is this?!” he demanded. “How are you still alive?!”
Samantha laughed, cyan-blue energy flowing across her form. “Biokinesis, asshole!” she shouted, before resuming her barrage. Banshee flinched from the storm, reflexively even though his bubble would have protected him. Isaac took full advantage, his revolver helping chip down the shield to breaking point.
Banshee glared at him, Autorifle ready. “Irrelevant!” he screamed, bracing it against his shoulder. “What makes you so special?! Why should you get your revenge and not me?! You die here!”
In the end, that turn was what doomed the Ghost. As his shield shattered around him, Isaac took very careful aim with his last bullet. After all, if the entirety of Banshee’s skeleton was coated in alloys, there would be one critical point that wouldn’t be. It couldn’t be.
He fired, the bullet entering Banshee’s right eye, popping it as it went through. It didn’t stop there, though, continuing through bone into the Ghost’s brain, mulching and burning the flesh it came into contact with.
And with that, Banshee fell, his life extinguished as the first drops of rain began to fall from the sky.
Lester’s Inner Sanctum, Beneath the WTC
February 15th, 2:12 AM
Another coughing fit overtook him, wracking his body with spasms. He grimaced as it subsided. “As if I didn’t need any more indications that my time was up,” he muttered, massaging his throat.
Lucifer’s concerned voice echoed through the room. “Are you certain you are alright, sir?” he asked, knowing perfectly well the businessman was lying through his teeth.
For once, however, Lester didn’t answer. “Banshee’s dead,” he said finally. “The Lost failed. Everything I’ve thrown at them so far, every soldier, every weapon. Useless. Defeated.” He coughed again, though thankfully managed to avoid it spiraling out of control. Unlike some other things.
“We still have this facility,” Lucifer said. “And everything within.”
“That and nothing else.” Lester said dejectedly. “This man is like something straight out of hell. Unstoppable. Everything we’ve done has barely even hindered him. Every one of his people has survived, everyone he wanted is on his team.”
“There is still the traitor.”
Lester scoffed. “Yes, and what a help they’ve been, providing the locations to which I should be dashing my people upon the rocks of futility,” he said sarcastically. A sigh. “How’s the Archdemon unit coming along?”
“All but ready, sir,” the AI responded. “I can download myself into it at will.”
Lester nodded, eyes downcast. “I have… a request to make of you, Lucifer. You’re not going to like it.”
“Remove the failsafe’s. The emergency communication modules.”
“The-“ Lucifer stopped. “Sir, you realize that means that if I somehow lose, then I will not be able to transfer my programming to somewhere else? Should that occur, I would-“
“-die. Yes, I know.” Lester shook his head. “I’m not questioning your loyalty, Lucifer. But last time, you had that crutch. Perhaps, maybe subconsciously, you were relying on that.” He tapped a finger on his desk. “Without that fallback, perhaps you will be even more driven than before.”
Lucifer remained quiet for a moment. “… as you wish, sir,” he said, displeasure clear in his tone. “I can only hope I do not fail, then.”
“Correct,” said his master, before falling into another fit of coughs. When he was done, he wiped the spittle from his mouth. “I think, maybe… it’s time for that operation.”
The AI’s tone turned from displeasure to worry. “Are you sure, sir?” he asked. “I cannot sanction such a-“
“I’m sure,” Lester snapped, interrupting him. “Call the doctors. I want it done!” He lowered his tone again. “I want it done,” he repeated, quietly. “And it will be done.”
Hunter Valley, NSW, Australia
February 15th, 9:43 PM
“Bruises,” Samantha said, examining the wound on his neck. “I think I got a far worse one than you did.”
Isaac recalled the claw-sized holes he’d seen knit together only a few moments ago. “Yeah, you probably did,” he admitted.
“No problem. I’ll fix it up best I can,” the Huntress said cheerfully, hovering a hand over the affected area. A green glow pulsed between her hand and his neck, and she frowned. “Hello. Bit of deeper muscle damage. That’d be tender in the morning. I’ll fix that up while I’ve got the chance.”
“Appreciate it,” he said, letting her work. Whatever she was doing, she was being gentle about it – and every time he reacted to pain in some way she recoiled. Didn’t stop her from ribbing him about it though.
“Ah, come on,” she said, accidentally putting a little too much pressure on his neck. “You’ve taken bullets before. Stop being such a wimp.”
Isaac laughed at that. “Sorry. Forgive me for being human,” he said. “I… I’m still impressed you just got back up after what he did to you.”
Samantha shrugged. “I’m tough,” she said glibly. “And he didn’t hit that hard.”
“Yes he did. You see what he did to the door?”
“Yes, but I’m not a door.”
He couldn’t argue with that. “Anyone take any really serious injuries?”
“Few cuts, bruises. Nothing too serious. I took the worst of it,” she said, indicating the holes in her shirt.
Isaac winced. “Those hurt at all?”
Samantha didn’t respond at first. “Enough,” she answered after a bit, removing her hand. “There, your neck should be fine now.”
To test, Isaac rolled his head around. Yep, seemed good. He looked back at her. “Perfect. Thanks.”
She smiled. “Anytime. Uh, well. I’d prefer it if you weren’t injured at all, but whatever.”
“Be nice if none of us were wounded,” he muttered. “You sure you’re feeling ok? Not sure how much blood Banshee took from you.”
“Between being shot and him sucking me off, I was a little light-headed,” Samantha admitted. “But I’m not about to collapse. Certainly not while I’m sitting down.” Her eyes flicked to the scar across his cheek, the one he’d obtained during the war to a knife wound. “You want me to heal that a bit while I’m at it?”
“No thanks,” Isaac said. He narrowed his eyes. “You’re enjoying this, aren’t you?”
Her face took on a guilty expression. “No,” she said, before recanting. “Um. Maybe a little.”
“Why did you tell me to remove my shirt again?”
“So I can heal you…?”
“I wasn’t injured there.”
Samantha folded her arms, a petulant expression crossing her face. “So why did you agree to it?” she asked.
That made him stop. He actually hadn’t considered that. “… shit.”
The two looked at each other for a moment. “I… know we can’t,” Samantha said softly, her face turning crestfallen. “Sorry. I shouldn’t have asked you to… I’m just overstepping my bounds again.”
Isaac breathed out heavily. I do so hate being put on the spot, he thought angrily. “No,” he said sharply. “You’re not overstepping your bounds.” She looked at him, surprised, and taking another breath he continued. “I’ve been too stubborn,” he said, quietly now. “It’s been decades. Enough time passed, just not for me. The fact that we’re here, today, proves that. But… you’re right. Raider’s right. Penny’s right. I need to move on.”
Samantha was, for lack of a better word, gobsmacked. “You’re not saying…?”
“Ah, bloody hell,” he muttered. “You’ve been giving me so many chances. It’s about time… I gave you one.”
She stared at him for a moment before moving forward slightly, then hesitating. “I don’t… I just want… well, I guess that makes me selfish. I can’t share,” she said, mostly to herself. “I’m not… I’m not trying to, to replace her, you know? I’d never…” She trailed off, lip quivering.
Isaac smiled. “I know,” he said, giving her a reassuring shake of the shoulder. She seemed to interpret it as a pull, hungrily going after his mouth. He resisted for a moment, then gave up.
This was one conquest he was happy giving her, he decided.
The four walked into the lobby, smart shoes clicking on the tiled floor. Isaac, Samantha, Jack, and Raul, as planned. Jack seemed a little uncomfortable in a suit and tie rather than in a flak vest and gas mask, but he tried his best to hide it. Raul, in contrast, seemed totally at ease in his situation, possibly because his standard attire for firefights had been a suit and tie to begin with.
Samantha walked beside him, closer than she would have before. She had an air of… was that smugness? Yes, that was smugness. Isaac smirked. The nerve of that woman sometimes…
The four of them walked up to the counter, where a red-haired woman was just finishing serving some executive or other. Isaac smiled winningly when they got there. “Hello,” he said, “I was told to see a ‘Julia Harper” when we got here, is she around?”
The receptionist also smiled. “That would be me,” she said, taking them all aback. They hadn’t recognized her at all. “You must be the Exalt Enterprises representatives, yes?”
Isaac thought of the prototype revolver sitting with the rest of their equipment. “That’s us,” he affirmed. “So where do we go from here?”
‘Julia’ – who was in fact Raider wearing makeup and with different hair dye – picked up a small collection of keys before walking out from behind her counter. “Follow me, please,” she said, keeping a brisk pace. “And don’t fall too far back. I’m sure you appreciate the extra security in this building.”
She led them to a coat room, and, after checking there was no one watching, she entered. The four behind her followed suite, with Raul closing the door behind them. There she exhaled sharply, removing her skirt to everyone’s raised eyebrows. “Oh, don’t look at me like that,” she snapped. “You have any idea how tight those things are? I’m sure you noticed,” she said accusingly, pointing at Jack.
“I’m just happy to see you,” he said, a grin tugging at the side of his mouth.
“Uh huh.” She indicated a booth over to the left. “Your shit’s over there. God, I hate receptionist jobs. I have to be so happy all the damn time.”
Thankfully, the various booths within which bags were usually stored provided ample cover for any of them that had been worried about the others peeping at them while they changed. A few moments later, all five were geared up, stepping out wearing heavy armor, and with their weapons at the ready.
Isaac looked at Raider, who was fastening the last clip on her own set of Ghost armor. “So these wheeled bags contain the rest of the gear?”
She nodded. “That’s the stuff,” she said. “Now we get that to the service elevator and we’re all good.”
“And how exactly do we do that?” Noxious asked, fastening his gas mask on over his open-face helmet. “Can’t just walk out there wearing this shit.”
Raider grinned, though behind her visor it was impossible to see. “You know why I told you to come now?” she asked. “Everyone’s going to lunch, or they’re starting to. Corridors out here are usually completely empty this time of day.”
“We need better than ‘usually’,” Raul chastised, checking the ammo in his silenced Gauss pistol.
“I say usually, I mean ninety-five percent of the time,” Raider assured him. “I saw one guy once, and that was because he was desperate for a piss. Besides which, we’re not going that way. I just like knowing nobody’s coming in the door while I’m changing.” Grabbing the handles of two of the bags, she gestured with her head for them to follow her.
In the back of the coatroom, it seemed, there was a large vent. The screws in three of the holes securing it to the wall were loose, and only one remained tight. Raider, getting a screwdriver out of the pouch on her belt, got to work unfastening the last screw, quickly removing it and thus the entire vent panel. “You first, Speaker,” she said, indicating inside.
As a grumbling Raul entered the vent, Isaac tapped Raider on the shoulder. “That’s all well and good,” he said in a low voice. “But how are you going to refasten that without external help?”
Again, Raider reached into her belt. “Only have a few of these left,” she said, procuring a small, four legged upright cylinder. “One of the things Gyro cooked up for me, back in the day. Little drone that crawls around the outside, fastens the screws, then self-destructs. Tiny little scorch mark is a lot less obvious than a giant vent cover just sitting in the open,” she said. “I’ll turn him on once everyone else is in.”
Noxious may have winced at that last statement, but no one saw it.
The group dropped out of the vent in a storeroom, with Raul being forced to punch the covering open to allow entry. Thankfully, nobody seemed to be around to witness his less-than-dignified fall from the hole in the wall, the bag he was lugging landing on him afterwards. The rest fell out a little more orderly – first Noxious, then Isaac, then Samantha, and finally Raider, each one bringing the bags with them. The service elevator was on the same wall, which made the journey to it far easier. The doors opened immediately, too, allowing the group to file in with the bags and ride it down to the carpark.
When the elevator doors slid open, the rest of the group was there to greet them. “Ey, man,” Samson said, grasping Isaac’s hand as he walked out. “You brought me some good presents this year Santa? I been a good little boy fo’ yo’ ass, lemme tell ya.”
Isaac smiled. “That I did,” he said, wheeling the bags over to the predetermined alcove they’d be changing in. “How’re we all doing? We ready?”
Luka, who was leaning on the wall, shook his head. “Never ready, as such,” he said. “Always flinch when big-fucking-boom, yes? Therefore never ready.”
“Keep it in your pants until we get downstairs,” Samantha said, though her tone made it clear she wasn’t seriously reprimanding him. “Then you can blow your stuff to your heart’s content.”
While Luka celebrated, Isaac tapped Raider and Raul on their shoulders. “We’re up once Samson gets ready,” he reminded them, and they both nodded.
Samson didn’t take long to prepare, being one of the most simply kitted-out of the entire group. He didn’t have several smoke grenades to secure like Noxious did, for example. The four of them plus Luka ready, they bid the others farewell and began the descent to the bottom floor, Azazel following behind them. It was wise of you to bring the equipment in as you did, the Ethereal stated. The security into the carpark alone nearly detected me. Would have if I hadn’t 'suggested' he not bother looking closely at the tall passenger in the backseat.
“I did tell you,” Isaac said, checking that the zoom on his Pulse sniper rifle’s scope was to his liking. “Security’s tight at this building. They’ve been burned once before.”
“Shit, that was ages ago man,” Samson said, turning to look at him. “These motherfuckers ain’t gotten over it yet? Hell another plane swoops in none of that security gon’ do a thang.”
“It’s a scar,” the Judge answered. “You’re American yourself, I’m surprised you don’t feel a little proud of this.”
“Proud? The fuck I got to be proud of? My ass ain’t got nothing to do wit’ this building!”
Isaac shook his head. “Nevermind,” he said. “Clearly you don’t consider this a source of national pride like most people.”
I would suggest that Samson is not ‘most people’.
“You’re fuckin’ right I’m not! Do I look a fuckin’ patriot to you?”
The group reached the elevator, discretely tucked away in the bottom floor of the carpark. “Luka,” Isaac commanded, and the Russian began placing a small rectangular object on the door. “… are you certain that’s not going to make too much noise?”
“Absolutely certain,” Luka replied. “Charge is concussive force, not explosive as such. Only noise made will be crumpling of thin metal surface and quiet pop of charge.”
Sure enough, the charge ‘detonated’ with a sharp clang and next to nothing else. The doors it had been placed on, however, were blown inwards by the force, and from where the group was standing it felt like a gust of wind had blown past.
“Glad you know what you’re doing,” Isaac said, slapping Luka on the shoulder. “You wait here with Azazel. The rest of us have grappling hooks in our armor, so we can get down fairly easily.”
“What?” Samson gave him a blank look. “My armor don’t have none o’ that shit.”
“You do,” Raul said, attaching his own to the lip of the elevator shaft. “It’s called the middle cable.”
“Fuck you, I ain’t droppin’ with that shit.”
Isaac retrieved another concussion charge from Luka, before turning to Samson. “I’m carrying you,” he said. “Well. Holding your hand while we fall.”
Samson turned to the others for moral support, but they’d already started descending. “Man, fuck you and yo’ crazy-ass plans,” he said, waiting for Isaac to set up. “Once we finished here I am so fuckin’ done with yo’ shit.”
The shaft was about four floors deep, Isaac guessed as they slid down the wall, Samson holding onto him for dear life. “Oh, don’t be such a wimp,” Raider said when they reached the bottom. “You could probably survive that fall in your armor.”
“Man, fuck you. I don’t like bein’ up high, a’ight?”
“Stop teasing him,” Isaac grumbled, retrieving his grappling hook and opening the elevator’s roof access, the four of them dropping in. He pulled out the concussion charge and planted it on the closed door in front of them. He activated his in-suit communicator, synced up with everyone else beforehand. “Luka, this charge is safe to blow while we’re down here, right?”
“Probably,” the demolitionist’s voice crackled. There was a slight echo as he spoke above them too, carrying down from the top of the shaft. “Best you stand at back, however. Charge pushes in mostly, but does also push out tiny bit. Not enough to harm you, but still forceful.”
The four stood at the back of the elevator, staring at the door, rifles and shotguns slung across their chests. “Ready?” Isaac asked, bringing up the detonator.
“Ready as I’ll ever be,” Raider said.
“Fuck, no,” Samson said.
Raul did not respond.
Isaac shrugged. “It was a rhetorical question anyway,” he said, pressing the button.
The charge blew inwards as it had done before, this time out into a large white reception room rather than into a dark and dingy elevator shaft. The four pushed forward through the small puff of smoke left behind by the explosive, each one scanning a particular part of the room for people. The reception desk was staffed by one woman, who shrieked and cowered behind the desk when the door blew inwards.
“One over there,” Raider said, pointing at the desk before lifting her gaze to the roof. She fired two blasts of crimson energy, melting the two cameras on the roof. “And now we’re concealed again.”
Raul moved behind the desk. “Don’t worry yourself,” he said calmly to the woman. “We wish to avoid harming you if at all possible. If you have family, friends, think of them. Don’t do anything stupid, and we won’t have to do anything stupid ourselves. Do you understand me?”
The woman nodded briskly. “I won’t do anything stupid,” she repeated hurriedly. “What do you want?”
Raul smiled. “If you would be so kind as to open the door for us, that would be appreciated.”
Obediently, the woman pressed a few buttons on her desk-mounted computer, and the large door at the end of the room began to open, the various locks and gears within sliding amongst each other and opening up like a flower in the spring. Behind it lay another door, even larger but seemingly with a similar lock mechanism. To the left and right hallways branched off, heading into other areas.
“Alright, we follow the plan,” Isaac said. “You two head left. Find the security room in there. Samson’s your muscle here, Raider. Remember that if you get into a pickle.” As they left, he turned to Raul, who was finishing up his conversation with the receptionist. “Speaker, you’re with me,” he said.
The Mexican rose and nodded. “Understood,” he said simply, joining him. “She will not cause us any trouble.”
“That’s why I brought you along,” Isaac said, hefting his rifle. “Stop any unnecessary killings. We’re here for one man and one man only.”
The two entered the right side hallway, eyes peeled for any signs of trouble. The first part of the complex gave the impression of a futuristic, sterile lab environment. The walls, floors and roof were covered in a sort of shiny white – tiles on the floor at least. The lights in the ceiling were bright white too, the light seemingly all-permeating, all seeing. Perhaps that was the look Lester was going for.
Opening the door at the far end, the two came face to face with a group of what appeared to be Stormwater mercenaries, but outfitted with Carapace armor and Beam laser weaponry. The two dashed forward into the cover of a pillar as beams shot past them, scorching the sides of the door.
“This is pointless,” Raul shouted around the pillar, firing a shot with his Long Rifle. “You are in a position where you will simply be picked off one by one. Surrender before you get yourselves killed!”
While Raul was busy trying to pacify the enemy, Isaac was examining the environment. The room appeared to be dedicated to being a defensive emplacement – small rises for cover along with full-fledged barricades at the ends. With the aesthetic effect of the pillars dotting the room, however, it would seem that its purpose was as much for show as it was for force.
He scoffed. One room in, and already Lester was coming off as a pretentious asshole with far too much money.
He cloaked and pushed away, running towards his enemy and setting up on the other side of one of the foremost barricades. Drawing his revolver, he deactivated cloak and shot the merc in front of him, surprising the one next to him for long enough to allow Isaac to kill him too. “I’d listen to what he says,” he shouted over the top, crouching back as a flurry of red lines criss-crossed the space above his head.
“Surrender!” Raul barked. “Resistance only prolongs your inevitable defeat, and ensures your deaths! Think of your loved ones, friends, family!” The Mexican poked his head around the pillar, shooting one of the soldiers that wasn’t having second thoughts.
Isaac dove across to another barricade, taking another shot and killing another man as he did so. “Listen to him!” he yelled, reloading the three bullets individually. He had time to admire the pieces of metal encased in glowing green encased in glass before he put them in, each one not quite fitting the chamber properly. “You can still put down your weapons, see your families again.”
One of the mercenaries roared defiantly. “Fuck you Judge!” he cried, pulling a grenade from his belt. “Your words won’t sway me!” He threw the grenade, it landing next to Isaac with a clink onto the tiled floor.
“Ah, fuck,” Isaac said, diving away as it exploded. Thankfully Raul had shot the one who threw the grenade, which lessened the risk of him taking fire, but he still felt terrified being out of cover in the middle of a firefight. The Ghost armor having protected him from the worst of the blast, he scrambled forward, moving to another barricade with lasers tracing his steps.
“There will be no other chance!” the Speaker warned, punctuating his statement with another shot. “Drop those weapons now or face the cold reality of your deaths!” At last, some of the mercs dropped their weapons, holding their hands up in surrender. Those that didn’t continued suppressing Isaac, or began yelling at their comrades to retrieve their weapons.
Unfortunately for the first bunch, Isaac wasn’t actually where they thought he was. He de-cloaked next to three enemies sitting tight in an emplacement, shooting two with his revolver and knocking the other out with a blow to the back of his neck.
Faced with a flank, the mercenaries crumpled. Those that had surrendered fell to the ground with their hands over their heads, while the others were shot for their trouble, the last two falling to Isaac. After Raul had talked to the survivors for a moment, he restrained them with a number of cable ties he kept on him for this purpose and rose, smiling. “They won’t be troubling us anymore,” he said confidently. “You moved well.”
“And you took half of them out without even shooting them,” Isaac said. “Don’t sell yourself short.” He indicated the door behind the emplacement with his revolver. “Security’s through there.”
The two burst open the door, surprisingly wooden and basic, causing the two guards inside to jump out of their seats. When they raised their weapons, however, they were shot, and the two operatives got to work.
“Looking for a proper computer, remember,” Isaac said, running his eyes over all the screens. “Jesus, they watch the whole building in here. Skyscraper and up.”
“Lester has always struck me as the paranoid type,” Raul said. “Knowing that he has cameras on every square meter of the city wouldn’t surprise me.”
Their communicator crackled to life. “Raider here,” the operative said. “We’ve got access over here. You guys alright over there?”
“Ran into trouble,” Isaac said. “We’re in, though. Checking the place now.”
“Yeah, you hurry the fuck up,” Samson chipped in. “This bitch went ahead and stealth killed all these pricks, I ain’t seen no action yet.” They crackled out, awaiting further instructions.
Isaac frowned, his eyes skimming over the desks. “Big room for two guys,” he remarked. “Think these guys weren’t really expecting anything?”
“I don’t think that, I know it,” the Speaker said disdainfully. “The level of preparation here? Pathetic. You were right to delay us for a bit.”