The Long Road Home – III

PREVIOUSLY – THE LONG ROAD HOME II

0548 HOURS
“Flint I need you here now! Front line! Bull is down!” I turn to look at Bull, whom I just dragged to cover behind some shipping crates. I can only hope they aren’t full of explosives. Those Caretaker drones aren’t messing around. I didn’t even know those things had made it to production. I remember seeing a prototype once, during a military contract; they were vicious. In the space of a few seconds, they had torn through an entire regiment of infantry elite. They were only tagged, of course; no live ammo, but damn if it hadn’t been one of the most terrifying things I had seen on the ground. But it had flaws, which is why it never made it into the field. I wish I could remember one of those flaws now. I’m getting old. Hopefully I’ll get older.

“Tore … right through … my …” Bull says while gurgling up blood.

“Shut it, merc; I’m here, remember? I saw it. You did good.” I say, propping his head up on my knee. I sneak a peek around the edge of the container. The drones are moving quickly, systematically cutting off every escape vector. We have seconds, if we’re lucky.

“Did … good.” Bull says, his eyes rolling into the back of his head.

“Don’t you fucking dare.” I yell at him. “Don’t you fucking dare leave me alone in this mess, you selfish oaf! You’re the tank! You’re the muscle. You aren’t paid to sleep. You’re paid to fight!” I check my gun; energy clip shows I have about a dozen shots left; unlikely to get us out of this situation, but it’s the only hope we have if Flint doesn’t show up.

“Flint! ETA! Respond!” I say into my throat mic.

This entire mission has gone to shit.

0402 HOURS
“It’s approximately 5.65 km to the east of our current position.” Dervish says. “I saw it on the way here. How queer to be so near, but have no fear we’re dear. Beer?” He smirks smugly. He’s a crazy one, no doubt, but as long as his talents are on my payroll, I’m happy.

“Alright then, Reco, you’ll …” it takes me a moment to remember Reco’s gone. Everyone looks at me, then at the ground. A looming silence hangs in the thick jungle air. “Right. Maggie, you’ll scout ahead.”

“On it, boss.” Maggie nods, and just like that, disappears into the jungle.

“Don’t go too far ahead of us, girl. You know how the comms have been acting.” A double click of acknowledgement. She’s come a long way since I first let her in the unit.

“Bull, you’ll take point. Flint, you’re rear guard. Knock it off Goggles, it wasn’t funny the first time; it ain’t funny now. Just friggin’ grow a pair will ya?” Boy genius or not, the kid gets under my skin.

“Dervish, you don’t exist. Run a small perimeter while we move. Keep me informed.”

“As you wish.” he says back at me, with what looks like undying love in his eyes. Goddammit what is wrong with these people? What is wrong with me for hiring them again and again? Was it really that hard to find good help?

0500 HOURS
“Ok, that is not a remote outpost by a longshot.” Maggie’s intel shows a heavily armed facility with tight security and surveillance grids. Self-contained generators, shielded perimeter; our employer is going to be spending a lot more than originally quoted for this job.

“Based on Maggie’s intel, we’re going in here. Bull, you’re our tank. You’ll be first.” Bull nods, a small smirk of anticipation spreading across his thick face. “Goggles, you’re going to be tight on his ass. Knock it off, it’s not funny. You need to disable their security system before they even know we’re there or we’re all dead. No pressure, kid.” That stops his giggling. “Flint, Dervish, Maggie. If it moves, we neutralize it. We’re not being paid to kill anyone, so we go lethal only if provoked. Understood?” Three nods. Dervish is still nodding. WTF? I ignore it.

0530 HOURS
We breach the outer grid without problem. We split up into three teams: Goggles and his drone with Bull and I, Maggie and Flint, Dervish a team of his own. Goggles disables the inner shielding, as well as overriding the door controls. We’re in, and they’re none the wiser. Kid is slightly less annoying.

0545 HOURS
We make our way up the main tower, through the labyrinth this place offers. I make note of the Caretaker drones patrolling the hallways; not a single human sighted yet. Those drones could be trouble, but they’re just machines. If this place is fully automated, we’ll be in and out without a problem. Maggie signals that she’s found the package, two floors up from our current position, but that I need to see it for myself. Dervish is humming quietly in the channel despite my numerous attempts to try and shut him up.

0547 HOURS
“That’s interesting.” Goggles says, plugged into the computer terminal. “What is?” I ask, immediately concerned. We’re not here to dig, kid. We’re here to do the job, and get out with the package. Curiosity killed the cat, they say.

“This facility. It doesn’t exist.” Goggles says. I look at him quizzically. Obviously it exists. My eyes open wide; my jaw slacking. “Kid, unplug now.” I say, taking a step towards him.

“It’s actually a black ops research … AAARAGH!” he screams, falling to the ground as he’s torn apart by energy slices from two groups of Caretakers who have appeared out of nowhere at each exit to this room. The damn things can cloak!

Bull screams a throaty yell, charging at them, his heavy weapons dropping three of them before they manage to calibrate. It takes them no time to tear through Bull’s energy shields. His yell is cut short as he drops heavily to the ground.

I dive behind his body, snapping off a few ineffectual shots against the drones, watching as the bullets richochet. They’ve already adjusted their shield harmonics.

We’re so fucked.

0548 HOURS
“Flint! ETA! Respond!” I say into my throat mic.

This entire mission has gone to shit.

I peek around the edge again, looking at Goggles on the ground. Kid’s twitching, but I don’t know if he’s alive or if his body’s just spasming in death throes. They hit him hard. Or was it feedback from the console? Either way, I don’t think he’s gonna make it.

The crossway fills with flame, engulfing the Caretakers. If drones can scream, they certainly are. Several fall to the ground; a couple bump into each other, their weapons firing. Stray shots race around the room. The only target they find is other drones.

“Mission abort!” I yell through my throat microphone. “Meet at backup point Charlie Echo Niner. We’re done here.” I say, already dragging Bull towards Flint. He’s quick to respond, hauling the Brutor into a fireman’s carry over his shoulders.

“Cover us, boss man.” he says, handing me the flamer.

This job would’ve made us rich beyond our wildest imaginations you know. ISK lining our pockets. Now we’ll be lucky to escape with our lives. A little intel would’ve been nice. If we survive, we’re going to be paid, and paid well, package or no.

“Sarge, you need to get up here. The package.” Maggie says. “I gave the abort, soldier. You listen, or you’re on your own.” I’d left people behind before for insuboordination. You follow orders, or you’re fired. I’ve never had time for anyone’s will other than my own.

“Sarge, with respect, this is going to let us print our own money. Get up here, sir.”

“You know women.” Flint says, cocking his head in the direction he had come from. I nod in return, handing him back the flamer. I know if anyone’s going to get through this, it’s going to be Flint. That fucker is just too damn stupid to die.

I race through the hallways, trying to balance stealth with speed. I cover the two floors to Maggie’s position quickly. As I approach a room at the end of the hallway, I see a body laid out on a hoversled, sealed inside a containment unit. Maggie walks out, and seeing me, smiles.
“This had better be the Empress’ hidden treasure trove, or I’m going to kick your ass.” I say between breaths.

“See this?” she says, pointing to the body. “This is the package.” I look down at the body. It’s a male, early twenties, no hair … at all. His skin is perfectly flawless. It looks … new actually, like a baby. There’s almost a slight translucent quality to it.

“What is this, Maggie?” I say, completely at a loss. I had assumed the package was an object, not a person. Again, our employer had better have deep pockets.

“Look in the room.” Maggie says, throwing a glance behind her.

I slowly walk inside, my mind reeling at what I see before me. That young man on the hoversled, he’s in the room as well; thousands of him. Each one sleeping in a vertical containment unit, a cloning chamber of some sort. They’re breathing through tubes it looks like, but it’s hard to tell in the murky blue fluid. I approach the closest one, and see a serial number or description, I’m not sure. “Halwick, D. DUST 514.” I say out loud. “What the fuck is this?”

“I dont know.” Maggie says sternly, “But my guess is we’re dealing with capsuleers.” She grinds her teeth, nearly spitting out the last word, her hatred for the eggers known well to me.

I can interpret her look easily, and after thinking about it for a minute, I nod. “Ok, let’s blow it. It’ll be a good distraction while we evac our asses outta here.”

She quickly disappears into the room, and I know I won’t see her until she satisfys her need for this. She was cut deep, that one, and nobody is ever going to cut her again.

0551 HOURS
“We’re almost clear, boss.” Flint says over comms. I hear his flamer in the background, and the strain in his voice. He’s telling me they’re dead, in his own way.

“Dervish, I need you to cover Flint’s evac.” Dervish has been mysteriously silent through all of this, not responding to comms once. Is he dead? Did he leave? He’s probably the most talented man I’ve ever employed, but every time we work together I wonder if his head’s become a little more loose. This will be the last time; he’s too much of a risk.

I make it to the ground floor, the hoversled intact.

0552 HOURS
“Hold on, bull, we’re almost clear.” Flint says. Bull is incoherent, but damned if Flint will let him die on his watch. Bad enough we lost the kid, he thinks to himself, fatiguing, almost out of breath and plasma. This is gonna be close.

He rounds a corner, what should be the final hallways out of the facility, and nearly runs into a half dozen Caretakers. He turns the flamer on the drones, point blank and watches as nothing happens. His plasma tanks have run dry. Fuck. Sorry Bull.

A drone explodes, split cleanly in half. Then another. Then Flint sees Dervish, spinning as a feverish whirlwind of death, slicing and shooting, singing all the while. Flint had never liked that creepy ass mother, but is determined to kiss him when they get out of this.

Only a few drones left. What was that white flash? It’s gone now. The drones are done. They made it. Flint walks forward, only his legs don’t respond, and he falls towards the floor. He puts his arms out to break his fall, but nothing happens. There is another white flash as he hits the floor, and where there should be pain, there is nothing. He doesn’t understand that he’s been shot between the eyes.

Dervish rolls him over, kneeling above his face. “If I let you leave, the fun ends.” he says. What is he talking about? He puts his finger to Flint’s forehead, and pulls it away wet with blood. I think he shot me. I think he actually … no, not Bull.

Flint’s final sight is watching Dervish straddle Bull, his faces less than an inch away, smelling Bull, as his blade slices cleanly across his throat. A tear falls down Flint’s face, though he won’t admit it to himself. He can’t stop it. He can’t do a damn thing except welcome the darkness that comes, saving him from having to watch anything else.

0553 HOURS
“Motherfucker!” I scream, as I tackle Dervish. I had just come around the corner to see Flint laying immobile and Dervish atop of Bull, slicing his throat. I land on Dervish, and flail his face with my fists. “You fucking piece of shit! I’ve always been good to you! What the fuck is your problem?!” I scream at him as I wallop him again and again, trying to wipe that eternal grin off of his face. I feel warmth in my stomach, and look down to see his blade sticking through me. It doesn’t hurt. It’s just warm.

He gently rolls me off of him to one side, shushing me, I think, while talking to nobody around him. He’s lost it. The building rumbles above. Dervish flips out of the way instinctively, commending his performance, then laughs at his jittery nerves. At least Maggie’s done. Hopefully she’s taking another exit. That girl deserves a better life than this. Dervish looks at his motion sensor, his smile widening. He notice a small blemish on the motion sensor light bulb and hoped it would not interfere.

Maggie’s on her way.

0555 HOURS
She can see the stationary hoversled at the corner. Sarge wouldn’t leave it, so what’s going on? she wonders. She races around the corner and sees Sarge laying face up on the floor. Bull is there. Flint is there. Her eyes widen, and she scrambles forward. “Maggie … no.” a weak voice says. It’s Sarge. She turns to run towards him and sees a glint of light out of the corner of her eye. She rolls to the side as Dervish’s blade slices cleanly through the air she just occupied. She stands out of her roll, guns drawn. “What the fuck, Dervish? You nearly killed me!” she screams, hoping her ally is just twitchy from the hell they’ve all had to just fight through. His eyes look around, at her, at the floor, back at her, and he smiles. It’s a predator’s smile. “Oh, fuck you!” she screams, unloading her pistols at him, but he’s no longer there. He drops down to the floor, and using the wall as leverage, launchs himself across the floor towards her, blade first. He’s so very proud of himself, of his finesse and ingenuity. At the last moment he turns his slide into a roll, so he can come up towards her, so he can break her heart. How poetic. How glorious. How odd.

“Not today, you piece of shit.” I say, spitting into Dervish’s face. “Maggie, run.” I throw one last look at her, and she understands how serious I am. She takes the hoversled and makes haste out of that building. Dervish tries to break free and follow.

“Not gonna happen.” I say, grinding my teeth, pulling him close. He’s strong. I’m tired. I hold him as long as I possibly can. In my right hand is a live grenade, the trigger squeezed tight just waiting eagerly to be released. He doesn’t see it. As he breaks free, I release the pin, smiling.

0700 HOURS
She sent the signal over an hour ago. They need to get here soon, she thinks to herself. She’s losing it. She’s been crying since she made it to the extraction point. All of them are dead. Every last one, but her. Again. She rocks back and forth, holding her knees, seated on the jungle floor. She hears the load roar of the engines long before the Rifter class frigate hovers overhead.

A bright spotlight shines on her as the ship gently touches down, snapping foliage and trees like toothpicks.

The loading ramp lowers, and two military dressed men race towards her, towards the hoversled. One of them punches a series of keys on the side of the sled. “Vitals check ok, sir.” he says into the air. The two of them direct the hover sled back towards the ship. As they disappear into the darkness, a short Brutor walks down the ramp towards her. He wears sunglasses and a too confident smile, a tribal tattoo etched down one side of his face.

She waits until he is within talking distance before standing to her feet in a flash, pulling her gun on him. He continues walking towards her, pulling out a cigar and lighting it. The aroma reminds her of Flint and she begins to cry anew. He puts his forehead against the barrel of the gun, takes off his sunglasses, and with the most piercing gaze she has ever seen, says to her “I’m sorry for your loss, Maggie.”

She knows he’s a capsuleer. She knows she should kill him now. She knows.

She drops the gun and sinks into his arms. He smells good. He holds her close in strong arms. She cries.

“You’re one of the strongest I’ve seen.” he says, but she’s not listening anymore. “The full payment is yours, and I’ve added a considerable bonus. Call it a thank you for not shooting me.” he says, his deep, husky voice sending unwanted shivers down her spine.

She wants her old life back. She wants this life to be over. She wants no future.

“Give me a name, Maggie, and you have my word that if they are ever in my sights, they won’t survive.”

She wants to believe him, but she knows how impossibly huge the universe is. She feels cold metal against her face. Her hand touches dog tags. He’s a Colonel for the Republic. He may actually be able to do what he says, if she trusts him, this … capsuleer.

She leans close to his ear and whispers a name. He nods.

He extends the crook of his arm, gesturing towards his ship with his hand.

Reluctantly, she accepts the offer.

END

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