Bobbie Maiuri was having a rough morning. Her daughter had gone out the night before with her niece, once nephew, and a group of ZPA agents. They had been brought home by the APD. Apparently Claire was in a fight of some sort, very one-sided from the sound of it, and the APD had decided she didn't need to spend the night in jail. She just wasn't supposed to de-Fuse or leave the property without supervision for the next 30 hours.
The man Claire attacked was a Cape Nord native who had been in town on business. Mosley said there were 2 reasons that he was very lucky to be alive. The first was that Claire being drunk caused a lack of finer control that could have landed him in the hospital for days. The second was that if Claire hadn't slammed him into the bar her cobra headed tail would have bitten him. She wouldn't say exactly what the snake was carrying in its fangs, just that it was guaranteed to be fatal, even to Integrates.
As soon as the APD had left Mel/Claire had gone to the backyard and sat down cross-legged. They hadn't moved since. When, Sam checked on them she said they were talking to someone on an Integrate secure comm line. Ajax said the fighting and brooding was not normal.
"Excuse me, is this the Maiuri residence?" There was a tiger Fuser at the door.
"I'm Tiger Sauer, with the ZPA." His voice reminded her of Harvey Keitel.
"Bobbie." she shook the offered hand.
"I have been led to believe you have some of my operatives here, is that correct?"
"It is. Won't you please come in?"
"Thank you very much." she closed the door "I've also been led to believe you know about Integrates is that correct?"
She nodded "Our daughter is Integrated, just came back to us a few days ago."
It took a second for Bobbie to realize, Tiger was also an Integrate. "You don’t have to stay in hardlight." he quirked a brow "I can tell by your body language. You aren't used to hiding."
He chuckled as he dropped the sherade. His black stripes doubled as faintly glowing tron lines. He was a lanky man, narrow in the shoulders and all arms and legs. As they walked she could see corded muscles rippling beneath his fur. Despite his desk job he made a point of keeping in shape.
Bobbie had done some research on her newest guest. Colonel Tiger Sauer, served in the North American Army during the Brush Wars. Emigrated to Zharus in 132 AL first settlingin Nextus. During the Nextus-Sturmhaven War he was involved in the development and adoption of RIDEs for and by covert units, partnering with a TGR(m)-HMA himself. After the war he and his partner mustered out and joined the Zharus Planetary Authority and information about them became scarce.
"So, what went wrong?" He asked as sat on the couch.
"They got lucky." Ajax said "I know it sounds like an excuse Sir but it’s the truth. We were a thousand klicks out from the nearest entrance to that place and one of the locals stumbled across us. Her description matched Quinoa Steader; sorry to say she's on the edge of a slippery slope."
Tiger nodded "I thought that might be the case. Scuttlebutt said she was moving out to the Towers Enclave, just thought we had more time before she left."
Bobbie stood there gaping "Um... are you sure you shouldn't be in a secure room or something for this."
"I secured the entire property before I rang the doorbell and no one would believe you if you told them. How's Claire?"
Mosley smiled "She's doing much better. I guess all she really needed was to get drunk, spill her guts, and get in a pointless fight. Once she had a few drinks she spent half the night talking to me on a secure line."
"How much did she say?"
"Only where she really went and what went wrong, no real details though."
"Wait she didn't go to Proxima?" Bobbie asked.
"No, I'll see if I can't get her clearance to give you guys full disclosure. At least your story matches what she told me this morning."
"You called her?"
"She called me. Mengsk gave her a Manchurian program with some hidden features. I was able to destroy most of it but I want to make sure she's in the clear before Tassadar nukes him."
"So that asshole's finally getting spaced?" Mike asked.
Bobbie blanched; spacing was slang for throwing someone out of an airlock. Tiger shook his head "I don't know. Tassadar might decide spacing is too good for him. Now, where is Claire?"
In the backyard Dominic, formerly MRS agents Carl Yottes and Dominic, was about to relive a humilitaing and terrifing experience. He had been overjoyed when his hacking revealed that Sam was related to the Fuser who humilated him in both Nextus and Oz. He could get his revenge on them at the same time.
It had been so easy to hack that idiot from Cape Nord into doing exactly what he needed. All he had to do was put out an anonymous tip to the APD and wait for them to haul that Fuser to jail. He didn't stick around to watch as he had other preparations to make. Aloha belonged to the Munns and Integrates who shared their mind set of sticking with meat. If Dominic was going to pull this off he needed an air-tight exit plan.
He peaked around the corner of the house checking the backyard. Nice and empty just like it should be, this was going to be too easy. He was going to Integrate Sam's mother and when her father came back he'd Integrate him to. Sure, Fritz wouldn't approve if he found out but it was a small price to pay if it meant teaching some freak meatie a lesson.
He opened up his sensors to check inside the house again. They bounced off a transparent hardlight barrier now encapsulating the two story home. That wasn't there a second ago. Sam wasn't strong enough to create something like this, so who did? This wasn't in the plan. He turned to leave and bump into something solid.
"Da fuq?" the entire backyard was encased by a hardlight shield.
"Leaving so soon?" He wiped around, siting crosslegged in the middle of the backyard was Claire/Mel in Fuser. "You haven't been dismissed yet Corporal."
He blanched "What did you just call me?"
"You will address your superior officer as Sir. As to your question, well it took me a while to remember y'all, Corporal Carl Yottes and HAA(m)-GRZ-012J Dominic of Nextus Material Recovey Services. I was in charge of a joint op about 5 years back, ZPA and MRS, you were assigned to my squad." he frowned "Still don't remember? I was in an AIDE, matte black."
The bottom dropped out of his stomach, now he remembered having pushed it to the very bottom hoping that embaressesment would never again come up. Carl was a Cape Nord native with an extensive Mancard and, as such, expected that they would be leading the assault. Instead they had placed under the command of a young waif of a Staff Sargent.
That was fine, not being in command meant fewer responsiblities. They were confident that the Sargent would place them at the head of the entry team. They thought wrong; instead their job was to breach the wall and defend the entry point. Carl had fumed at this indignity. He was a Man for crying out loud.
When he requested (demanded) that he lead the assault he found himself re-assigned to the perimeter instead. When their target fled he almost let them get away. When questioned about it he had foolish responded that a true Man doesn't attack a defeated opponent. He wanted the Sargent to prove his Manhood.
The next 2 minutes were the most humiliating and painful of his life. His opponent, using an old AIDE, danced around his strikes and easily landing his own. They had to replace 35% of his plating, along with their hands.
"Sargent Maiuri." he whispered.
Thus named Claire gave a cold smile "Actually it's Lieutant now. Reports said you went AWOL 2 years back, guess that's a lie." the smile turned to a frown "It also seems you've forgotten the lesson I taught you. How about a refresher?"
Dominic was frozen, it had been 4 years and he had Integrated. There was no way he would lose a second time. The part of him that was Carl pointed out that it was that same attitude that had gotten pummeled in the first place. Whatever branch of the ZPA Claire nee Stuart was in they awarded merit at least partially based on how much ass you could kick.
With a snarl he leapt at the large Fuser, only to be met midway by a two fingered strike to his stomach. He doubled over boosting away with his lifters as he suppressed the urge to puke. He could hear a faint ringing in his ears, like he had stood too close to an explosion. The same ringing he heard when she struck him in Nextus. A quick check showed his lens were in no danger of failing.
He made himself invisible and prepared to strike. By the time he noticed her tail tracking him it was too late to avoid her strike. It was only because he did try that her arm grazed his shoulder instead of passing through it. The ringing in his ears abruptly stopped as most of his shoulder exploded. As he gaped at his severed arm he was very glad that he had already shut down his pain reception.
That hesitation was all the opening Claire/Mel needed. A pair of rapid strikes gave Dominic's left leg the same treatment. They de-Fused mid-leap, Mel pinning the Integrate to the ground as her jaws clamped around his head. Claire's tail lashed out fangs sinking deeply into the severed portion of the leg and tossing it down near his head. They stood there for a few seconds before he noticed the leg was beginning to dissolving.
"Nitric acid." Claire said in a bored tone.
He could practically feel the data flowing between the partners. They were on the cusp of Integration. If he tried to hack Mel, Claire would instantly know and she would kill him. If he tried to attack Claire, Mel would know before he could finish twitching and she would kill him. The fight had taken seconds and now he was completely trapped beaten by naked meat and a mech.
"Root." he didn't argue.
Claire wasted no time locking him out of everything except life support, consciousness, and basic senses. She could hand him over to someone else, maybe the Marshals would take him. She Fused up and sat down to wait. The others should be along shortly.
Tiger frowned when he saw Claire/Mel sitting next to an immobilized grizzly Integrate “I’m getting sloppy.”
She tapped Dominic's head "What are we going to do with him?"
He shrugged " I have no problem with turning him over to the Marshals."
She nodded "Did you bring Mel's kit?"
"Yeah, come around front and we'll get her squared away."
"Who was that guy anyway?" Ajax asked.
"Remember that smash and grab we pulled with MRS?"
"Yeah, wait was that?"
Ajax shrugged "Well, you can't fix stupid."
Claire/Mel nodded as they came around into the front yard they saw Tiger opening the trailer of a skimmer truck parked in the driveway. Mel slid off into Walker mode before they went up the ramp into the mobile maintenance bay. It was a little cramped with everyone inside, especially once Tiger closed it. Mel settled herself in the middle of the room before powering down.
"I'm glad you sent me Mel's updated specs. You did a good job bringing her up to Ghost-spec so all she really needs are the specialty items."
"Stealth coating?" Claire asked.
Claire gave a squeal, jumping up and down with joy. It was girliest thing any of them had every seen her do. Tiger just smiled as he started swapping out Mel's old plating.
Bobbie was very confused "I'm lost what's Ghost-spec?"
"Ghost-spec is like Mil-spec but better. On the official paperwork we're known as Task Force Stalker but we're called Ghosts. Always have been, even during the Brush Wars."
"Um, are you sure we should be hearing this. I mean we're civilians."
He shrugged " You guys have seen enough that you deserve full disclosure. I was just a squad leader in the original but ended up running it before we were disbanded at the end of the war. After moving out here It became my Task Force during the Nextus-Sturmhaven War. I kept that one small, a single platoon, but that was all we really needed. Top brass wanted to go public with us and our achievements, I wouldn't let 'em. Especially since they had been all hush hush with the RIDE program"
"What about weapons?" Claire asked.
Tiger frowned "We'll get to that now hush." Claire wilted a bit as he began installing other equipment "Now where was I? Right Nextus, we carried out stealth, counter-stealth, and miliatary/industrial espionage. When the war came to an end we signed on to work infiltration for the ZPA. We've expanded over the years to counter-intelligence and added espionage back into our responsiblities. Along with monitoring the global political situation."
"Including Integrates." Sam said.
His muzzle twitched into a smile "Obviously, we steer clear of politics in general. The ZPA focus on keeping the planet as whole safe from other threats."
"Earth." Claire growled, literally.
Tiger gave her a nod "Keep it brief, I'll pass them some of your memories."
"My real mission was to conduct espionage and sabatoge on Earth. It was going to be a 5 year mission but someone tipped off the Terran Intelligence Agency."
"You think it was that Mengsk guy you and Heather were talking about?"
Tiger grimaced "Think? Ha, we know it was him. The only reason I haven't done anything is because Tassadar wants names and I think he wants the first crack at him."
Ajax grunted "I think every Ghost wants a crack at him Sir."
Mike/Aug nodded and Mosley looked positively murderous "No arguements here.Bastard wanted to have me studied after my Integration." She shuddered. "No points for guessing what he meant by that."
Tiger nodded as he woke Mel up "Now, on the subject of weapons." he led them over to a crate.
Claire gasped; inside the crate was a gun in matte grey. It was large but still small enough to be used in or out of Fuser. Its barrel was mounted beneath a rectangular cooling unit topped by square cooling fins. The stock's forend had lightening holes and a rail that connected to its battery housing. Mounted atop the gun was a boxy scope sitting infront of 5 angled cylinders the last directly above the trigger and pistol grip. It was practically a work of art.
She grunted as she carefully lifted it out "Its heavier than I thought it'd be." she braced it against her shoulder and did a few quick draws.
He smiled "It's called the Mark 14 Variable Plasma Rifle."
Mel giggled "What happened to Vipers 1 thru 13?" Claire asked with a smile.
"Hardy har har. It has 2 configurations. Basic configuration is your standard assault weapon with selective fire; burst or fully automatic. Configuration 2 is AMR/HPC support, single shot only. It can also be powered from an external source, just have to toggle the feed."
Stamped on the top of the stock was the serial number LN2. “The tech boys insisted you receive the first one. Its based on schematics you brought back. I’ve also got the codes so you can fabb replacement parts and geist missiles for the launcher I’ve given Mel. Now before you all go running off I need to make Sam a proper DIN, shouldn't take long."
In short order Sam had removed her DIN and was letting Tiger scan the port on the back of her hand. In the space of a few minutes he had a new DIN for her. In minutes Tiger had made a DIN that was orders of magnitutude above what any Enclave Technomancer could. Then there was the comm laser he attatched it to. Only a centimer in diameter it had more power than her old unit.
Once Tiger confirmed its function with a hand shake she received a data packet. It was Claire's memories, not everything but, it was all neatly indexed. She would have to watch them later or they'd miss the raid.
Sam was about ready to panic. They had ten minutes to get to the meeting point, which was 20 minutes away. Claire had them running full speed out of the safe zone. They didn’t make it very far before she had them all stop.
“Everyone’s geared up right?” Claire asked.
Ajax and Mosley both wore light plated mail armor and carried a shield and sword. Mike/Aug wore lamellar armor made of small rectangular plates and carried a slim rapier. Like he Sam he used a mix of melee and magical combat. Mel didn’t wear any armor but had a wide range of high level AoE spells both offensive and defensive. There was a round of confirmation.
“Good, I’m not technically supposed to do this but I doubt they’ll care too much.” She pulled up a menu.
“Do what?” Mike/Aug asked.
She made a few selections “This.”
There was a flash, indicating they had teleported. The forest they had been standing in was replaced by a high ceilinged rock tunnel. Sam looked around and recognized the markers for the last safe zone of the 74th floor dungeon. Claire didn’t wait for them to ask questions before leading them the rest of the way to the boss chamber.
It was the largest raid group Sam had ever seen, let alone been a part of. Over 70 players, more once she remembered that RIDEs had their own accounts. They had almost 2 dozen known Integrates and probably at least another 5 that were staying hidden. Of all the teams there they were the only one unaligned with a guild. It took a few more minutes to get everyone gathered then the raid leader gave a speech about staying with your team and how xp and drops would be divided.
As she looked around Sam felt out of place with her team, even though she could tentatively call them her friends. The Ghosts were so at ease, like they weren’t about to walk into the jaws of virtual death. Ajax and Mosley were joking with Claire about things that had happened on previous raids and missions. Mike/Aug was talking about game mechanics with Mel. It was a reminder to her that she still knew next to nothing about her cousin anymore.
The massive doors creaked open and the group streamed inside the amphitheater sized room. When the first player stepped inside the whole place lit up revealing the boss of the 74th floor. It was 3 meters of headless dark purple plate armor. It stood there, its sword embedded in the floor. Its name and HP appeared; Crom the Dulahan Lord, he had 5 HP bars.
"I know what you're thinking Sam," Mel said "but the bosses down here are on a different scale."
"Then why are you the only people unFused?"
Before she could press the issue the battle began in earnest. A dozen large black dogs poured out from caves lining the walls, Fairy Hounds. Their main job was to help keep the busy so the main teams could focus on Crom.
"Remember your number."
Sam remembered she was 6. Mike/Aug were 5, Mosley 4, Ajax 3, Mel 2, and Claire 1. Mosley said it was to make it easier to do callouts and give give commands. One syllable did take less time to produce.
"3, 4 we need to group then togther for 2. 5 and 6 you're on support."
Sam did her best to anticipate her friends providing heals and buffs whenever she could. Mike/Aug was doing much the same with his debuffs. She admired the ease with which the others worked together. Mel, Ajax and Mosley did their best to corral the Fairy Hounds. Whenever 2 were close enough Mel would hit them with one of her spells.
A few times one of the Hounds would make a break for it only to be cut off and driven back by her saber or Mike/Aug's rapier. If it weren't for the constant strain Sam would almost have called it easy. Then again she I am working for real soldiers. She thought wryly.
Under Claire's calm, almost lazy, direction they eliminated all of the Fairy Hounds in about 45 minutes. They kept their gaurd up, they didn't know if or when the Hounds might respawn. Sam was already starting to feel a little drained. Who knew a raid would be so tiring, Claire had prevent what would have been her first one.
Taking a deep breath She risked a glance over at the main battle. It wasn't going nearly as well as theirs had. Crom had already defeated a quarter of the main raid group and they had only just finished taking out his first HP bar.
Claire frowned, Mel sighed "They didn't listen to us." They all looked at her. "If we don’t hurry the whole raid is going to fall apart.”
“Crom is just as capable of memorizing patterns as we are. If we don’t hurry he’ll screw us when he decides to counter attack by breaking their rotation pattern apart.”
It took a few minutes to get their team worked into the rotation. Unfortunately they were only able to spend another 10 minutes chipping away at Crom's HP. Despite their team's best efforts Mel’s prediction still came painfully true.
"Hit the deck!" Mel shouted.
Years of rough housing with her cousins came back to her as Sam went limp and dropped to the ground. Crom lashed out at them mid rotation, his blade knocking everyone to the ground with varying amounts of damage. She looked around as another handful of players died.
Sam quickly recovered scrambling back to her feet with the rest of her team. Thanks to Mel quick warning they were the only team that wasn't caught flat-footed by Crom's next swing. Mosley and Ajax locked shields preventing him from killing another batch of downed players.
Claire was still on her hands and knees. She looked around at the other downed players and had a flash of panic. They had to do something or the raid would fall apart and they would all end up dead. But what could they do alone? Mel met her panicked eyes with her own calm ones and at that moment something passed between them.
Claire surged to her feet heading towards Mel.
"5, 6 the wounded! 3, 4 stall him!"
She knew when she reached Mel there would be no turning back. She gave the Fuse command. They weren't alone anymore, they hadn't been alone for almost 3 months. They had each other.
"Half my heart to make you whole," one of them said
"My strength to purify your weakness." The other finished.
Fused in both worlds she abandoned the use of their beloved menu in favor of the more efficient thought commands. She raised their left hand and launched a salvo of spells at Crom. He reeled back, breastplate derezzing as they destroyed it.
She swiped their left hand across the hilt of their blade and came away, it came away grasping a second. She blurred as they crossed the distance catching his blade's overhead strike in a double block. With a yank she forced his blade up and away. Her twin blades ignited into the blue white glow of special skill.
"This is the Black Blade,Laevateinn." Everyone was staring at her. Laevateinn was one of a kind, dropped for the first player to kill Surtr. The more you killed with it, the higher its damage became. If you used its special the damage modifier was reset to 0. A small price to pay if it meant saving lives. Her two halves in agreement she verbalized the command "Dual Sonic."
She was in motion again slashing at Crom's pale exposed flesh. She ducked a swing and viciously attacked the opening in his guard. But he was just as unforgiving. They trade blows hers landing more than his. He forced an opening and tried another overhead strike which She caught between their blades.
She didn't just bellow. She roared as she yanked their swords apart. His blade shattering as the damage overwhelmed it. He hesitated for a microsecond, the AI unsure of what to do. That was all the time she needed. She rushed him and cut clean through with Laevateinn, shattering him into countless points of light.
A massive banner appeared in the air declaring her victorious. She staggered back Laevateinn vanishing from her left hand, its skill complete. She collapsed onto her butt, tired and head aching. As her team gathered round she gave a weak smile.
"I feel terrible. Just gonna log out, maybe get some shut eye."
"Take my bed." Ajax said.
She nodded closing her eyes and opening them in the real. She felt like shit as she trudged up the stairs to the guest room Ajax was using. She kicked the door closed behind her before collapsing on the bed. Her wings splayed out to catch the sunlight filtering through the blinds. Maybe she would feel better when she woke.
Back in Oz there was little speculation about why Claire and Mel had logged out. Mike/Aug, Ajax, Sam and Mosley led the way down the staircase into the first town on the 75th floor. The other players treated them with anything from jovial friendship to thinly veiled disgust, mostly from the closet Inties.
Sam was relieved when they finally picked an Inn and logged out. Thanks to Claire/Mel the raid hadn't taken nearly as long as it should have. Then again if they hadn't Fused the raid would have been over even sooner. Sam thought wryly.
She stretched and went into the kitchen were Tiger was talking to her mom. She ignored them as she made a beeline for the fridge and the crunchy dill pickles inside. Enclave life had always chafed her the wrong way. It was good to be back in civilization and out in the open, at least with her family.
Mosley wandered in and sat down at the table joining Bobbie and Tiger's discussion about something computer related. Sam tuned them out as she walked back into the family room. Ajax had gone somewhere while Mike and Aug had deFused and were talking about sports. She Went up to her room and lay down on her bed before starting to watch Claire's memories.
Earth Orbit, 2501 AD
Stuart took a deep calming breath. He did his best to ignore the warning klaxons blaring in his ears as he finished overriding the shuttle's emergency systems. This was going to be tricky, the stolen IDE he had in the cargo hold wasn't properly rated for-entry. There was a shout as a full cyborg rounded the corner, gun drawn. It was quickly silenced as Stuart's combat knife, also stolen, buried itself in his head.
He tugged it free as he ran past, the gun would just slow him down at this point. He sprinted down to the cargo hold making quick work of additional armed interference along the way. He slid into his IDE and ran the start up sequence. Automated systems aboard the ship announced the impending failure of its hull.
It took him a few minutes to get in position behind his chosen bulkhead before the alarm on his chrono beeped at him. He braced himself and fired into the engineering deck. There was a half second of silence. Then everything went white as the ship's tokamak exploded. Stuart had a fraction of a second to think he might have made a mistake before blacking out.
Consciousness was slow to return and painful when it did. His head pounded in time with the rhythmic beeping of an EKG machine. So he was in a medical facility of some kind, not good. Past that he could hear a couple of voices talking quietly off to one side. The voices stopped and one of them came closer.
"Relax," the voice sounded like Ron Pearlman "you're safe here." Stuart struggled to open his eyes. "That's it nice and slow, there we go."
The man standing next to his bed was dressed in army fatigues. He was short, broad shoulder and in excellent physical condition despite his apparent age. What was left of his grey hair was cut into a perfect flat top. He had a wry half smile on his wrinkled face as he adjusted the bed to sit Stuart up.
He extended a hand "Helluva stunt you pulled up there kid. General Alphonso Knoxx, North American Army."
This was like meeting a celebrity. General Knoxx was the founder and leader of Task Force Stalker during the brush wars on Earth. Every Ghost had heard stories about this man. General Knoxx waited patiently as Stuart slowly reached out and shook it.
"It's an honor sir, Staff Sargent Stuart Maiuri, Zharus Planetary Authority."
He chuckled "One of Tiger's new Ghosts eh?"
"Yes, Sir." Stuart smiled weakly "I'm afraid my infiltration might have been compromised."
The other man laughed "Its a distinct possibility. Colonel John Carter, we've managed to rig the IDE to show that you died when the ship exploded. We moved quickly enough that we were able to destroy the actual time data. You were only dead for 2.7 seconds."
"Still, without a body it will only be a matter of time before someone else starts looking into it." Knoxx said "This location is secure for now but we need to start arranging for your extraction, Earth is no longer safe for you."
"You should be on your feet in a few days but you'll still need to rest a little longer." John said.
Stuart nodded "What about my mission?"
"Plenty of time for that later. It'll take time for our message to reach Tiger and hen we have to wait for him to respond. So for now rest, recover and start trying to figure out who tipped off the TIA."
Atlantic Coast, South America, Earth, 2502 AD
Everything was black. Stuart must have had his eyes closed. A few minutes passed before a transmission came in on a secure line.
:This is Fuego. We've acquired transport, stand by.
Stuart opened his eyes. He was surrounded by a thick heavy rain forest. It was pouring down rain but his stealth suit was sealed against water penetration. Now that his eyes were open he could hear the rain as well, must have dozed off. The clearing ahead of him rippled outward as a small craft descended on quiet lifters.
:Roger that Fuego, I have eyes on, over._ Stuart transmitted.
The tail ramp lowered and 4 figures quickly slipped out of it and over to the treeline. As quickly as it had come the craft lifted off and flew away. Like him they were all dressed in stealth suits, their active camoflage making them invisible to the naked eye. His VISR system painted them as moving green outlines and tagged each with a name.
:We have 10 minutes to get inside Black Zone. Stuart transmitted.
:Short window, let's move. Stuart's HUD identified the speaker as Hammond.
They quickly headed deeper into the forest soon spotting a pair of IDEs patroling in the distance. It was time to put General Knoxx's gift into action. Stuart used his new command neural implant to check into their local comm traffic. It was just the usual chatter between friends but they were constantly checking in with the base which meant killing them would just sound the alarm that much faster.
They skirted around the IDEs heading farther north before cutting back to the west again. They crested a hill and caught sight of their target facility. Above ground it was a massive complex of squat buildings but below the surface it opened up into a series of large R & D labs.
That factory was their target, get in, figure out what they’re making, steal data, and get out. He was also tasked with capturing or destroying any existing prototypes. The hard part would be getting back out after the alarm was raised. Stuart had no doubt that the facility personnel wouldn't hesitate to kill them if they were discovered.
They made short work of a group of guards that were lounging around. They waited a few seconds as Stuart's implant fed authorization codes to the vault door. There was a hiss as the cylindrical door rotated open allowing them to slip into the facility proper.
They passed through a decontamination airlock before entering one of the deserted side areas moving swiftly and silently to the local security station. They waited outside its vault door as Stuart's implant went to work once again. As soon as the opening was wide enough they tossed in a mix of smoke grenades and short range jammers. They waited for a 3 count before entering themselves and easily eliminating the disoriented soldiers inside.
In the blink of an eye Stuart had full control of the facility's local security systems. It was child’s play to rig the system on a loop, no back up would be coming for the defenders in this area. They changed the codes on their way out, every extra second was important.
They stuck to the side passages as they made their way deeper into the facility with minimal, almost nonexistent, resistance. The combination of their stealth gear and Stuart’s implant probably played a part in that. Their next stop was the server room which they would liberate of all its information.
They ran into a problem when they got there. The server room had single civilian technician inside. Civilians were non-combatants and therefore off limits. To make matters worse he had fully prosthetic body so they couldn’t just knock him out. As he turned facial recognition identified him as Doctor Karl Sanderson, an expert on cybernetics and data security who had been shanghaied into service.
:We've got a civilian here, Dr Karl Sanderson. He's been pressed into service.
:Understood make his evac a priority.
Now with the green light, Stuart tapped into his com :Doctor Sanderson.
His head snapped up and he looked around. :Who is this? How did you get this com code?
:I know you’ve been forced into this job. How would you like to get out of here, forever.
He slumped _:I wouldn’t be safe anywhere on Earth._
:What about off world?
:My passport's been revoked.
:Smuggling one person off planet is pretty easy. Well, easier than smuggling a group anyway.
:You can do that?
Stuart de-cloaked and offered his hand :We can, but first we need to get you out of here.
Dr. Sanderson shook it :Easy enough, the newest IDEs are in workshop lambda. You could make a pretty big distraction with those.
:We'll head out as soon as we're finished here.
They connected directly to the file server and copied everything before leaving behind several time bombs. They re-engaged their active camouflage and slipped out accompanied by Dr Sanderson. Workshop lambda was two levels below the server room; it also had a greater concentration of guards.
Sanderson surprised all of them by making himself into a distraction enabling them to quickly eliminate the guards. The way he kicked a few of the corpses proved that the man had his own reasons for wanting them dead. A quick check showed they had been tormenting the good Doctor since his interment began.
Workshop lambda was equal parts amazing and horrifying. There were hundreds of 3 meter mechs all standing in perfect little rows. The first production batch of the brand new Titan model IDE. This factory had to go.
:Command, Hammond, you seeing this?
:Affirmative, Hammond. Intel confirmed. You have 14 mikes before Eclipse makes that place a crater.
They had just finished powering up the IDEs when things went wrong. The nearby freight elevator came to life bringing a large group of off duty soldiers up from the next level. Their shift had just ended and they were still armed, mostly with light guns but a few with anti-IDE weapons.
:Command can we get a hold on Eclipse?
:Negative, its already past PNR.
:Shit! We do *not* want to be here!
Hammond's IDE rushed forward as he took the initiative, melee weapons making quick work of the anti-IDE guards. The main threat dealt with they all moved as the remaining guards opened fire on them. While annoying the small arms fire was far from dangerous to the IDEs. Especially as they displayed an interesting feature, hardlight shielding.
It wasn't nearly as powerful or efficient as the hardlight on Zharus but its existence was still worrying. It was a good thing the only copy of its plans was staying with him. They plowed through the remaining forces and restarted the freight elevator. Stuart fed a set of over-rides to the elevator safeties, they needed to be gone.
They battered aside the doors and kicked on their lifters as the alarm sounded. They burned cavorite as they flew out the main gate they had scant seconds to make it to MSD. If they didn't. No, don't think about that just focus on getting there. There was a deafening roar behind them and Stuart risked a peak over his shoulder. There was a burning light overhead as a small sun plummeted toward the facility.They passed the MSD line painted on their HUDs and didn't stop, the further they got the better.
He knew what was coming and quickly looked away to protect his eyes from the blinding flash as the 5 and a half meter tungsten carbide rod made impact. The shock-wave was on them in less than a second. The displaced air tore whole trees from the ground and sent everything flying like ships in a hurricane. The IDEs crashed and bounced along the ground before slowly sliding half a klick to a stop.
Stuart was in pain :Squad, sound off. he managed to groan.
There were all battered and bruised but everyone, even Dr Sanderson, had made it out alive and relativly intact. With some effort they managed to get their IDEs standing and clambered over a hill of trees, rock, and dirt to look back at the facility. It was gone, replaced by a massive jagged edged crater. There was a 400 meter ring around the crater, completely devoid of anything except scorched earth.
Stuart whistled appreciatively :Damn, now *that's* how you destroy something.
:That's nothing. The original system used rods large enough to destroy cities. Buscemi said.
Bavarian Alps, Europe, Earth, 2502
Stuart straightened his "borrowed" gloves and pulled down his visor before checking again to make sure the uniform was clean of any stains. The uniform had belonged to a full borg security officer and barely fit Stuart's smaller frame. He stepped out of the security building as Holland finished stashing the stripped body of one of the former security officers. Hammond and Buscemi were already in position on the other side of the snow covered road.
It had been an interesting and harrowing 8 months working with Echo Squad. They were Knoxx's final group of Ghost operatives, once Echo was finished there would no more Earth trained Ghosts. They were a good squad, well trained and fun to be around, more than once they had dragged him out drinking or had him over for family celebrations.
Their mission this time was the rescue of a European Union researcher that the Terran Intelligence Agency had tasked with investigating something. Knoxx wanted to know what it was and get the woman safely on her way to Zharus where the rest of her family would be waiting. They had already completed their first objective, take over the security check point and pose as its guard detail.
:Here they come. Holland transmitted as a small fully loaded, and wheeled, military skimmer came around the corner.
:These disgues better work. Buscemi transmitted before signaling them to stop for inspection.
:Two up front, two in back with the HVT between them. All lightly armed and very squishy.
:Roger that, drop 'em.
Buscemi began speaking to the driver in rapid German, making general small talk as he checked the documentation on their tablet. The rest of squad quietly advanced on vehicle as the slipped combat knives into their hands. As the Buscemi was handing back the tablet they struck, knives sinking through necks and striking the brain stem.
Stuart grimaced as he pulled the blade out and dumped the body onto the roadway. The steady snowfall would cover the body soon enough and they would be long gone before the next group came by in 4 hours. He settled in next to the HVT as Holland climbed into the driver seat.
:It's alright Dr. Magnussen. General Knoxx sent us to get you out of here.
She sagged with relief Thank god, I'm dumping the details of everything they been having me do over to you now.
:Thank you, get comfortable it'll be a while before we get to the extraction point.
They spent the next 40 minutes riding in silence as they kept a weather eye out for signs of trouble. When they got to the extraction point the sub-orbital was waiting for them, lifters primed and ready.They piled out weapons sweeping the surrounding forest as Hammond escorted Dr. Magnussen to the sub.
Stuart readied his weapon :Everybody, quiet. There was silence on the radio. :Where did all the noise go?
The others readied their weapons and slowly backed up to the sub. It was too quiet; the only sounds they could hear now were the low whines of the sub’s lifters. He was worried now. There was a brief flash of movement in the woods. He blanched as his implant identified it. Stalkers, they were the TIA equivalent of secret police.
Stuart didn’t hesitate, immediately opening fire. His gauss rifle’s hypersonic rounds tearing through the low quality stealth armor with ease. Through the trees he caught sight of a camouflaged troop transport, adjusting his fire angle before pulling a second trigger and firing a small rocket at it.
By now the others had started shooting as they retreated into the sub. Stalkers began pouring out into the surrounding clearing first 5, then 10, then 20. Their numbers just kept growing, zerg tactics overwhelm the enemy with superior numbers.
The situation was rapidly deteriorating, he had to to get to cover. As he moved he saw white and pain exploded across his left thigh before he threw himself behind the stolen skimmer for cover. He looked down and confirmed one of the Stalkers had gotten lucky and grazed him. High velocity round tearing a chunk out of his leg.
He pulled the pin on a smoke grenade and lobbed it over the skimmer. Shortly after it detonated he followed it up with a frag, capitalizing on the smokescreen and basic reasoning that the Stalkers would ignore it as another smoke. His suspicions were confirmed when its explosion was accompanied by screams of pain.
:Tell Knoxx, I'm sorry.
Hammond said:We aren't leaving you behind.
:You don't have a choice. I'm not going anywhere with this bum leg, finish the mission.
A round clipped the sub's ramp :Go!
With a roar the sub took off accelerating flat out away from the clearing. Stuart wiped out all the comm codes in his implants and destroyed any data that could lead the TIA back to Knoxx, Zharus, or anything else. He braced the rifle against his shoulder and struggled to pull himself upright. If he was going to die, then he was taking as many of them with him as he could.
Laying atop the hood he fired his remaining rocket at a nearby cluster of enemies, as always doing his best to ignore their pain. He emptied his first magazine and slipped behind the skimmer again ejecting the empty magazine and slamming in a full one. He lay on his stomach as he fired trying to make every shot count.
His weeks spent on the firing range paid off, each shot hitting and while not all were fatal they were certainly debilitating. He pulled the trigger again and the rifle clicked, empty. He threw his remaining grenade before rolling over and pulling himself into a sitting position before changing loading his last mag.
He looked up, seeing Stalkers exiting the woods in front of him. He opened fire, again each shot killing or mortally wounding an advancing foe before the rifle started clicking. He chucked it at someone's stomach making them double over in pain as he pulled his side arm from its holster on his right thigh and finishing the gasping man off.
Stuart got off another dozen shots before someone shot his left shoulder causing him to drop it in pain. That same soldier quickly advanced bending down to grab him only to get 18 centimeters of knife blade shoved and twisted into his throat. Stuart placed his final grenade on the ground next to his left hand, putting a finger through the pin's ring as the arm hung useless at his side.
He ripped the dieing man's knife from the sheath on his shoulder before pushing him aside. With the ease of long practice he spin the knife around to grip it by the blade befoe taking careful aim and hurling it at the nearest Stalker. Stuart struggled to sit up further, right hand now firmly wrapped around his final grenade.
They had him surrounded, but they weren't shooting at him anymore. It confirmed what Stuart was thinking, they wanted him alive. They wouldn't get anything from his implants which meant they would resort to interrogation and torture. Stuart had no intention of going through that.
He gave a weak smile "Shel kek nem ron." He pulled the pin on the grenade and held it in front of him for all to see. Before he could drop it his hand was crushed by an iron grip keeping safety lever on the grenade. He struggled with what little strength he had left before it was ripped from his hand and hurled into the woods as blood loss caught up to him and he passed out.
Location Unknown, Date Unknown
Tied to a chair there was little Stuart could do. He had grown thinner, his muscles atrophied from a combination of disuse and minor malnutrition. His wounds had been allowed to completely heal before they started the "interrogations". They had done something to screw up his internal chrono. He had no idea how long he had been there.
"Prisoner 24601." there was the simulated sound of rustling paper. "My my, you have been here a while haven't you?" a hand lifted his chin "You've given us nothing but shit answers." They were trying to break him, turn him to their side. "Let's try this again." Looking up he could see that the speaker was a blonde man in a clean black suit and tie. "Name?"
With a sigh the man punched him "Name." he said more insistently.
"Edmond...Dontes." Stuart wheezed.
He punched Stuart in the jaw "Name!" he yelled.
Stuart spit in his face "Inigo...Montoya."
There was a tiny thread keeping him sane. The others had gotten away. They were safe and soon enough the TIA would get sick of his bullshit and either kill him or, more likely, just dump him somewhere to die. If and when they did he would have a chance to live.
"I don't know who you think you're protecting. We shot down Dr. Magnussen's sub before it could even reach orbit."
His statement was accompanied by images and video projecting on the walls of small room. It couldn't be true, he'd seen them escape. He knew how easily digital video and images could be faked. It was a lie it had to be...but...what if it wasn't? That niggling little doubt finally snapped his thread, it just wasn't the _right_ thread.
The man frowned, clearly talking to someone on the comms. His frown deepened, clearly he was getting bad news. He turned his back on Stuart as he continued speaking on the comms. There were several minutes of silence before he huffed and turned back around pulling on a pair of gloves.
He drew his gun "It seems the time has come for us to be deprived of your...pleasant company, permanently." He crouched next to Stuart "This is your last chance to live. What is your name? Who do you work for?" silence "Well, I guess this is the end for you." As he started to pull back Stuart lunged for his neck.
He stared blankly at the dead agent on the floor. Oxygen deprivation had killed him long before he bled to death. Soon enough Stuart would be following him. The agent had managed to get off a handful of shots, a lucky one even managed to hit him.
Had it been hours or just minutes since all that had been done? Everything was getting blurry, going dark just like it had when he nearly bled out in Germany. His eyes sank closed as his breathing grew ragged. The sound from videos abruptly stopped as someone opened the door. He heard snatches of a rolling fluid language and felt a hand pressed to his neck.
There was a pause then more shouting as the first hand was replaced by a second. He fell as someone had cut the ropes that were binding him. He was carefully laid down on something soft, a stretcher? His eyes opened briefly and he saw one of the men. There was a prick on his neck and he started to fall asleep.
Location Unknown, Date Unknown
Stuart woke slowly to the steady beep of an EKG. A quick check confirmed that yes, he was still alive and no he was not restrained. He carefully pushed himself into a sitting position, his weakened muscles protesting a little at their sudden use. The room was simply furnished; bed, a few chairs, night stand and a lamp. With a moments hesitation he pressed the nurse's call button.
There was the sound of running in hallway and the door to his room flew open as the nurse answered the summons. When she saw him, up and awake, she shouted down the hallway in the same language he heard during his rescue. She waited for a response before crossing the room in 3 strides and beginning the basic check-up procedure.
She was just finishing when the door opened a second time and a second nurse walked in carrying a tray of food closely followed by someone else. He was tall, narrow shouldered. He was bald sporting a full beard and mustache. He was bald. His black beard and mustache were shot through with streaks of gray and his face was weathered from age and harsh living. His implant's facial recognition identified the man, Imran Zakaev.
He was clad simply in flecktarn camo pants, green brown shirt, long leather overcoat and heavy combat boots. He moved a chair next to the bed and sat down single arm resting casually in his lap. The second nurse spoke to him as she set down the food, he responded and both nurses left the room with a nod.
His gravely voice had only a hint of a Russian accent "You must be hungry. Please, eat, we can discuss business when you are finished."
Even though it was hospital food it was much better then the gruel he had been fed while in TIA custody. He was careful not to eat to quickly it would have been both rude and unhealthy. While he ate Zakhaev sat silently, likely speaking to people over a private comm channel.
"Thank you." Stuart said.
Zakhaev gave a wan smile "Your rescue was a happy accident. We've been hoping to find you ever since Alfonso told us of your capture."
"6 months, that's how long you were with."
"That’s how long it took them to break me."
Zakhaev nodded "Yes, but it wasn’t in the manner they were hoping for.”
“My chances of going home are still probably nil.”
He smirked “Actually, a ship will be arriving in 7 months. There will be an extraction team on board.”
“Until then you’ll just have to find a way to keep busy.”
“If ya’ll are going to be running any ops I’d be happy to help.”
“Not until the doctors clear you, not even RO. I mean it.” Stuart hung his head “Hey,” Zakhaev put his hand his shoulder “You’ve literally been through hell. You need to _recover_ before you do anything else.”
Zakhaev gave him a pat on the shoulder before leaving with the empty tray. Stuart sighed, maybe tomorrow he would finally check out Virtual Life. It seemed that everyone else on the planet used it for at least 1 thing so why not?