She shuddered. She felt the metal of the pick-up lurch beneath her. The ride was terrible.
"Even if you can get in there alive," she recalled Rat arguing, "what makes you think we can even get near that thing?"
"He has a point." She remembered the pang of doubt when Ghost had said that. "Pyotr does a lot of things wrong, but security isn't one of them. I'm sure as hell not a pilot, anyway."
She reflected on how that argument had progressed. Joel had provided his usual begrudging opinions. He'd tried to help, she supposed. Blufor and Evelynn had joked, much to Adam's distaste. She remembered how the Watcher had hardly spoke, all the time just staring at the map laid out in front of him. He had muttered the odd "Yes" every now and again, but otherwise remained steadfast, lost in tactical thought.
Now, she was seated in front of him. They'd been travelling for a few hours - the cramp in her lower spine told her that - but she couldn't bring herself to look him in the eye. She couldn't get the words Joel had whispered to her out of her mind. She hated them. She was repulsed by them. However, she began to realise the sense in them.
"We can't just leave them, Joel!" She'd said to him. She heard the words she'd spoken repeat in her head, perfectly. Just like a re-run of a movie. She found that a little ironic.
"That's exactly what we can do." She remembered him replying. "We're talking about a full-on war, here."
"So what? These people deserve all the help they can get."
She remembered the cool, stinging liquid that had welled up in her eyes. It seemed to be a common thing, recently.
"That may be. But yelling and shooting and launching assaults like this? It's one damn sure way of getting you killed."
"How would you survive, then? By living a shell of a life with nothing to fight for?" In hindsight, she realised she had worded that question poorly. Joel was only looking out for her. She should remember to at least try and be more eloquent.
"By flying under the radar." He'd replied begrudgingly. It wasn't what she wanted to hear. She recalled her temper flaring.
"No, Joel." She'd spat. "By abandoning anyone that matters, and hiding under rocks. Am I right?"
She'd hoped she'd one day be able to banish the look on his face after she'd made that comment. For now, it hung as a gruesome reminder of how she always seemed to hurt him when he gave his everything to her.
"Do I look like I've abandoned you?" She remembered how low his voice had been. How hurt.
"This isn't about me."
"Everything is about you, now."
She'd been caught off guard by his sudden affection.
"Everything is about you." She'd heard him repeat. "Adam is the most skilled man I've met in a long time. Tough. Capable. Convicted. But, he's younger than I am, and more foolish than I am. And, compared to you? He's nothing to me. You are all that matters, now."
She'd felt smaller than she ever had in the pause that had followed.
"Don't throw your life away in a fight you can't win, Ellie."
She remembered a long pause before she'd responded.
"Why do you care so much?" She hadn't spoken that question with poison; merely with curiosity.
"You're what I live for." She'd heard him reply. "You die, so do I. You live, so do I."
She'd coped with the next pause a little better.
"Just… just listen to me, okay?"
She remembered nodding.
"We stick with 'em for now. They're good for us. Plus, won't do us harm to get some gun practice in. But, the second the shit hits the fan, I call it, and we leave. Yeah?"
She hadn't answered. She couldn't. Just like she couldn't look straight at Adam, seated opposite her right now. He'd been through so much, she knew. She knew she owed him a lot. Leaving him behind seemed like a betrayal. When the time came, she wouldn't be sure she'd have the courage to do it. She relied on Joel for that.
She glanced up, looking to the left of the Watcher. Joel was seated there. He seemed to notice her gaze, and she locked eyes with him. He smiled dully, and nodded. She knew what he was referencing. Kitted in the peculiar padded body armour that he, Adam and Blufor all wore, she thought he looked more intimidating than ever. She reflected how childish she must have looked wielding the M40A5 that was almost as big as she was.
She traced her gaze around the back of the pick-up and observed the armaments. She saw a familiar friend in Adam's giant machine gun, the writing 'M240B' still scrawled on the side. She was impressed by how he'd switched the weapon up. She noticed an improvised addition the muzzle. She was unsure what the benefit of that would be. She also observed surprisingly neat welding around the rail of the gun where the Watcher had attached a 3.4x scope from one of the old assault rifles.
That summed Adam up entirely, she thought. Military through and through. A fighter, and an improviser. She couldn't help but wonder how horrific it would be to find yourself at the business end of one of his battle furies. She hoped she'd never have to find out.
She noticed Blufor wearing identical attire, his thickening beard obscuring his jawline. His gun was smaller, she saw, but massively different. There was no box hanging off the side, and the barrel was much wider. The stock was almost identical. She didn't inquire, but instead made the assumption it was some sort of shotgun.
Rat's gear intrigued her the most. She saw he'd ditched the scruffy civilian clothes he'd worn. In their place, he wore what she could only describe as a suit made of grass. She knew it was plastic, but she thought it made him look like a walking bush. In his arms, she saw the long sniper rifle he'd wielded at the prison. It was different to hers, she noticed. It was much larger, and draped in a netting made of the same stuff his suit was.
Apparently Adam had noticed her surprise at Rat's costume change.
"We've had a slight change of plans." She heard him say.
"How so?" She replied cautiously.
"We're not just going to waltz up to the gates." Rat interjected. She hated the way he patronised everyone when he spoke. "The plan is basically the same as we'd discussed, but we're going to have a sniff around the walls first. Also, I'll be staying outside."
"What?" She was surprised by this. "Why?"
"Anything goes wrong in there," she watched him say as he pulled the bolt on his rifle, "you guys will be trapped on the inside. If I can lay down sniper fire from a distance... I can at least suppress any bastards who try and get at you. Give you some time."
"What if we need you inside?"
"I can do that." She couldn't see the surly leader's face beneath the suit. "I'll be on a hill a few hundred meters north. I'll be able to run in. Even though I hate running. Make you feel good?"
"And what if you're seen?"
She immediately regretted saying that, and could almost feel his smug grin from beneath the plastic leaves.
"You're kidding, right? I'm a goddamn tree."
"Even trees get chopped." She heard a gruff voice from her right speak. She turned to see Ghost in his red-ring attire. He had his burlap sack back on, she saw. It still made her feel horrible. "They have snipers, too. Pretty well trained. This'll be a cinch if you stay on the low, and we do our jobs."
She watched the ex-red-ring direct his speech towards Adam.
"If we're noticed, and it goes south, people will die. On both sides."
She tried to read the Watcher, as he responded with a mere nod. She couldn't read his emotions, so she turned to Rat.
"You said the plan was basically the same. What's changed?"
"Joel's idea." She heard the bush comment. "Ask him."
That sounded suspicious. She knew how much Joel wanted to quit the Nest.
She heard him exhale loudly. Whether he hadn't wanted her to know for tactical or personal reasons, she didn't know.
"One team through the pump station and one through the gate with Ghost is risky. If we get caught inside, we're all as good as dead. Instead, we've split into three groups. Infiltration, Helo and Intervention."
"Buddy boy came up with the flashy names." She heard Rat say as he playfully elbowed Adam. The Watcher didn't respond.
"Who's doing what?" She asked, suddenly at unease with the late change of plans.
"Infiltration enter the Nest with Ghost." She heard Joel start again. "That's Ryker, Olivia, Rider and Evelynn. All of them unknown to the red-rings. Same tactics as before. Go to the prison, release the inmates. Make it seem like a jailbreak rather than an assault. They'll distract the red-rings so that we can stay off the sonar until we get to that Bird or that they're all dead. The VIPs - that is, people who are known by the red-rings - are Helo team. That's me, you, and Amber. We go for the Bird."
"Just the three of us?"
"The Little Bird has room for a pilot, co-pilot and a gunner." Adam muttered from in front of her.
"Right." She pretended to agree. "And, Intervention?"
"Rat, Blufor and Adam." She heard Joel utter menacingly. "Heavy weapons, heavy armour."
She heard Adam click the bolt on his massive machine gun. Then, she noticed what he wore on his back. She can't believe she'd missed the dull, rusted-orange fuel container and the apparatus it was connected to. Next to him, she noticed a tube protruding from Blufor's back. Mounted in the top end, she saw a woodland-green coloured rocket. It had the words RPG-7V2 spray-painted on the side.
"If this goes tits-up," She heard Adam start, "Rat takes the head off anything that moves, and we kill any threats on sight."
She felt massively uneasy at the thought of that massacre. She knew the red-rings were evil, but what if they were simply all men like Ghost? Just carrying out orders, being to scared to second-guess them? She retained her argument, but kept her aversion to the tactic. She felt there was something unusual about her, Joel and Amber. What was Joel expecting to do? Dump Amber out the side and fly the helicopter himself?
That was if there even was a helicopter, she noted. The existence of such a vehicle seemed bleak at best. Maybe even mythical.
She felt the suspension of the pick-up strain underneath the flat bed as they pulled onto a grass verge. She looked at Joel, perplexed, as the pick-up pulled up a hill. They moved past trees, and into a clearing. She noticed Adam's car and the SUV had followed.
"Here we go, ladies!" She heard Blufor shout, bailing out over the side of the pickup and heading into the trees. She watched Adam follow suit, not saying a word. She couldn't bear the scowl on his face.
"What's happening?" She asked dully, confused by the situation.
"We're about two miles out." She heard Joel reply softly. "We're hoofing it from here. Can't risk the noise of the cars too close to the Nest."
"What's wrong, kid?" She listened to Rat say, as patronisingly as ever. "Afraid to get your boots a little dirty? Too many video games?"
She huffed, which was all the answer she was going to grant him with. She noticed the front of the bush jitter in time with a raspy chuckle. She watched Rat scoop up his leaf-covered rifle, and follow the two heavily-armed men into the undergrowth. She lost sight of the walking bush almost immediately, probing the woodland for any sign of him. She could see Adam and Blufor as they disappeared slowly, but Rat had vanished.
She looked at Joel.
"You ready for this?" She asked, unsure if she was ready herself.
"If it goes right, 'this' will be hardly anything."
"What do you mean?" She inquired. She thought she already knew the answer, but wasn't sure she wanted to.
She watched him lean in, and heard the change in volume in his voice.
"I explained a plan to them. It wasn't the whole plan."
She felt his firm hand lovingly grip her shoulder, then watched him stand, and drop out the back of the pick-up. She heard the moist ground squelch slightly under the impact.
"You ready, big guy?" Came a voice from behind them. She turned, to see Amber walking up to the side of the truck, also clad in the strange armour. Ellie noticed her gun was small, with an unusual black cylinder fixed to the end of the barrel. She watched the white-blonde woman slide her hand into her pocket, and remove another two. One was bigger than the other.
"Take these. Screw them on to the end of your guns."
Ellie did as she was told, taking the bigger cylinder and screwing it onto the engraving at the end of her rifle's barrel. She watched Joel do the same with the smaller one, onto a gun identical to Amber's.
She drew her head up as the female veteran addressed her.
"I know you know how to use that thing, but listen. Stealth is our objective. That silencer is gonna bring some drawbacks to your gun. When you aim, you gotta go a little higher than before, okay? Same goes for moving targets. Slightly more up and to the side. Okay?"
"Slightly more up, and to the side." Ellie repeated. "Got it."
"Okay." She heard Amber reply. "Infiltration, you ready?"
"Ready!" She heard Evelynn echo from behind Adam's car. Eventually, she saw the slender woman appear from around the bodywork with Ryker, Rider and Olivia in tow. She noticed they all wore used civilian clothes. She saw they had no weapons.
She felt Ghost leap nimbly over the side of the pick-up and land next to her. She heard a bolt being drawn back, and realised this was the prisoner scenario.
"Adam didn't say goodbye to you?" She asked the scientist, feeling slightly sorry for her.
She saw Evelynn smile back at her. "He said goodbye and be safe before we left. He's a military type. When he's on a mission he's got to concentrate on it. He loves me, but I'm a distraction."
"Did he say that?"
"No. I did."
She locked eyes with Rider as she drew up behind the scientist.
"Hey." She heard the girl speak.
Hey? Was that all?
"Hey." She replied, wanting to say so much more.
"You be safe, okay?" She watched the elder girl say as she drew in. Ellie accepted the embrace, yearning for more than that. She couldn't bring herself to make the move, though. Not with Joel there.
"Yeah, course." She answered awkwardly.
"See you on the other side. We'll share stories after this is over, yeah?"
"Infiltration, we're late." She heard Ghost rumble from behind her. "Let's move."
"I gotta go." She almost couldn't bear Rider leaving.
She glanced around quickly to find Joel looking the other way, conversing with Ghost. Deftly, she leant in and planted her lips gently on Rider's. She lingered there for an extra second before drawing back, expressing her emotions through the contact. She saw Rider blush, grin, and move past her toward Ghost. On her way past, she felt Evelynn pat her on the shoulder. When she turned to face the scientist, she saw her grin and wink, then turn back around and continue walking away. She watched solemnly as Ryker and Olivia followed, and the five disappeared into the treeline in front of Ghost.
"Time for us to go as well." She heard Amber issue. "Ready team?"
"Born ready." Joel replied. His tone was encouraging enough, but she noticed mistrust in his look. Mistrust led to betrayal, she knew.
"Let's hike, then. It's about a kilometre this way."
She saw Amber make her move towards the treeline. Their direction was at a 45 degree angle to Ghost's, and almost opposite to Adam's. Strangely, she felt safer without the other huge men around. It wasn't long before she received an order from Amber.
"Ellie, can you run the radios please?" It felt weird hearing the command without having Amber turn to address her. "Channel 274.2. Just a status check."
"Yeah, sure." Ellie replied, somewhat unsure of what to do. Reluctantly, she plucked the radio handset from a coupling on Amber's backpack, set the frequency, and pushed the button in.
"Teams, status check." She spoke. She thought the military lingo sounded daft coming from a sixteen year old girl.
It wasn't long before the radios reacted.
"Infiltration here." Ghost's voice sounded from the handset. "In position. Waiting for recon and the go. Out."
She knew the gap that followed was short, but the nervousness in her stomach made it feel all the longer.
Finally, she heard Adam's voice.
"Intervention in position. Initial recon shows low activity. Almost like a lull. Rat tagged eight guards on perimeter, ten on fence and five interior not including buildings. Twenty-three dark-grey uniforms all up, considerably less than last engagement. Exterior stations are roughly 100 meters out, but from gate positions only. You'll have to get past one of the three to get in."
"Shit." She heard Ghost curse down the radio. "Officers take orders they should but grunts ask questions they shouldn't."
"Won't be the clever ones on the outside, I'll tell you that."
She smiled a little at that comment.
"Civilians?" She heard Ghost say through the radio.
"No, and that concerns me." She also felt unnerved. The Nest had been a hive of activity when they'd busted out. The main street had been full of people. "It's practically dead in there. Looks fortified though. Windows barred up, the works."
"Copy." She listened to Ghost say, almost robotically with the distortion of the radio. "Any sign of Simon?"
Again, she bore the silence until the radio crackled a third time.
"Helo, are you in position?" Adam asked curtly.
"No, not yet." She replied.
"Get a bloody move on then."
She heard the radio click and the connection die as Adam hung up. She felt heat rush over her at that comment. She was getting tired of him.
"Amber!" She hollered up to the white-blonde, only to be silenced by shushes.
"Sorry." She said more quietly. "How far out are we?"
She saw the female veteran gesture for her to come closer. She watched Amber angle herself around a pine, and direct her to do the same.
"Scope in, up there."
She did as bid, and slid the rifle scope onto her eye, directed the weapon through the trees. The magnification was intense, and through it she could make out shapes that weren't natural.
"Concrete?" She whispered.
She saw Amber nod as she drew the scope away from her eye. "The pump-station."
She shuddered deeply as she remembered their ordeal escaping from the Nest the first time.
"If that's still the same station," she heard Joel begin, "it should head straight to the Warehouses."
She felt the need to confirm their position on the radio. Anything to delay their entry to the station and the dank, stinking tubes that led back to the Nest.
She pressed the button on the radio again.
"Helo in position outside of the pump-station."
"Copy." Came Adam's voice a few seconds later.
"Be careful." She heard Ghost's voice advise a few moments later. "After the breakout, Simon probably set up a heftier post in there. I advise sending one man in to do a sweep."
"I agree." Adam uttered.
She looked around to see Amber and Joel up behind her. She stood stock still, scared stiff. She didn't want to be the one to go in, and worse, potentially kill whoever was in there. She knew it was wrong of her, but she couldn't help looking at the red-ring soldiers the same way as she looked at Ghost. They didn't make the decisions. They just followed orders. They probably thought they had safety in numbers, and stuck with that despite all the sick shit that they did.
"I'll do it." Joel piped up from behind her. "I'll give you a holler when it's clear."
She wanted to object, to tell him to be safe, but she didn't. She didn't say anything. She merely stood in place, watching helplessly as he disappeared through the trees. She marvelled at how quiet he was for his size.
She strained her ears to try and reach through it, to try and hear anything that told her Joel was okay. She heard the rustling of wind in trees. When she listened a little harder, she could hear the water rushing through the inactive pumping station. The noise was only ambient, she realised.
She tried to listen harder, and harder. Silence.
She glanced up at Amber, whose eyes were fixated on the protruding concrete a ways ahead.
Moments later, she thought she had heard the sound of popping. It reminded her of bubble-wrap. She'd found a ream of it in a warehouse, once. She never expected to hear a sound like that here, however.
It was then she saw Joel's head, barely visible in the undergrowth. Slowly, as she focused, she could see the lines defining his armoured body. The canvas on top of the padding was almost identical in colour to the foliage. If she hadn't been looking for him, she wouldn't have seen him. She did a quick sweep to see if Rat was around. She couldn't see a human bush anywhere, though, and decided that had been a daft thing to do.
"Clear." She heard Joel quietly converse to them. She moved forward as he beckoned to them, and gestured up a slight embankment that spanned the distance between the forest floor and a crumbling hole in the concrete wall.
"Contacts?" Amber spoke from behind her. She'd been wondering the same thing.
"Three outside, two in. All dead."
"Thanks." She turned and saw Joel smile slightly. It wasn't the smile itself, but its context that made her skin crawl. "It's this way."
Slowly, she followed the other two up the embankment. Upon scaling it, she knew exactly where she was. There was the main building of the pump station, directly ahead, the stairs descending into the entryway. She saw the door was open. Inside, she made out the outline of a torso.
He was probably just doing his job, she thought solemnly. Her mouth stayed shut, though. She hoped one day she could be as desensitised to killing as Joel was. That way she wouldn't need to deal with this guilt.
On second thought, she realised she was glad for it.
"Where are the three on the outside?" She asked, surprised she couldn't see them nearby."
"They took a swim." She heard Joel say. Luckily, his gruff tones carried a degree of humour. She thought maybe that was how he coped with it.
"The river flows away from the Nest." She listened to Amber comment, as if that justified it.
"I'm only an old man." Came Joel's voice as she watched him descend the stairs. "I'm sure I'm far too weak to lift bodies up these stairs."
Was he really enjoying this that much? She found his jokes almost as off-putting as Adam's recently-acquired aggression.
"Radio in, Ellie. Let them know we're here."
"Right." She spoke, trying her best to cover her apprehension. "Helo in position. Five red-rings dead. No noise." She felt the fear climb higher in her throat with every step they took towards the Nest.
"About time." She heard Ghost say from the radio.
"Good work, Ellie." This time it was Blufor who spoke to her from Intervention's position. "Adam says operation is a go. Everyone move in. We'll be there if it all goes south. Radio silence from now on, too. Good luck, people. Be safe."
"Ditto." Came Ghost's voice again. She heard the radio fizzle and crackle out of life. Slipping it back into her pack, she pulled the bolt of her rifle, readying a round. She had to focus on what what ahead and block out the fear. Just like the men did. People were depending on her.
She noticed she'd fallen slightly behind Amber and Joel, who had both already entered the station. With a bit of speed in her step, she picked up the pace and descended the steps two at a time. Luckily, her companions were waiting inside the entrance. She almost bowled into Joel as she rushed through the doorway to catch up.
"Ellie, calm down." She heard Joel whisper forcibly to her. She looked him in the eye. "Keep a level head and we'll be out of here in no time at all. Okay?"
She nodded, the words she wanted to say unable to come out while Amber was present.
They lingered in the pump-station for a few moments, giving her enough time to glance around. She couldn't help but reminisce about the last time they were here. She blocked out the memory of the scummy journey down the pipes, instead taking refuge in the warmer memories. She remembered her relief. She remembered how Carlos and the mysterious man had helped her. Most notably, she recalled the smile on Adam's face when that mysterious man turned out to be his best friend. She noted that he hadn't smiled like that in a while. She had originally wallowed in Adam's warmth, and his eloquence. Now, he seemed to be almost as cold as Joel had the capability to be. She hated to think of the possibility that those two find themselves fighting each other. She genuinely wasn't sure who would win. Maybe they would beat each other to the point where they both died. She struggled to think about being alone. She was with more people at the moment than she had ever been, but she still felt vulnerable.
She made herself shut the door on that room of thought, and instead observe her surroundings. The middle room, which they were stood in, had barely changed since they'd been here last. She noticed that boxes and chair still surrounded a burnt-out fire. The fire had a spit on it now, she saw. Next to it, she noticed a handful of brown, glass bottles. Three of them were full.
Glancing around quickly, she checked to see if anyone was watching. She saw Joel had proceeded further towards the pipeline. She couldn't see Amber.
She grasped two of the bottles quickly, and slid them into her bag. She winced as they clinked together, immediately trying to muffle the noise. Luckily, neither of the two adults noticed. She sealed her bag, stood, and moved to catch up with Joel. At least she managed to get the bottles. One for her, one for Rider. Whatever was in there, judging by the spit-roast, she guessed it went well with meat. Might be she'd try to take down a stag once they'd cleared the Nest. She thought Rider deserved that.
She arrived next to Joel, who'd stopped at the edge of the raised metal platform that protruded from the central room, into the reservoir. Next to him, she saw a large wall constructed out of sandbags, directly overlooking the end of both pipelines. Behind it stood a huge, mounted machine gun. She thought the one Adam carried was big, but it was dwarfed by this weapon. The bullets that were fed into it from a large green box were almost as long as her fingers.
"Holy shit." She muttered, resting her hands on the huge barrel of the gun. "Ghost was right about them packing some pretty serious gear, huh?"
"It's to be expected." She heard Amber reply, from the bottom of the reservoir. Glancing over the edge, she saw the veteran knee-deep in muck, wading over to the pipes. "They don't want anyone getting in or out. Have men on one side and a big machine gun on the other."
"We breezed in here pretty easily." Joel commented from her side.
"Also to be expected." She could almost predict what Amber was going to say. "They were expecting rag-tag survivors, not armed assailants with silenced weapons. Hence why they haven't sealed the pipes."
She felt the statement was flawed. She remembered the encounter with Simon and Buck, and how Adam had exposed his identity.
She wanted to tell Amber, but before she could, Joel read her mind and clasped her arm. She looked up at him in surprise, to see his finger on his lips.
Keep that between us, the look on his face said to her. She suspected that he might try to slip away before they arrived. She couldn't bring herself to leave Amber behind. She also couldn't bring herself to sell Joel out - he'd done more for her than anyone else.
"Hop down." She heard him say to her. "Let's go."
"But… but it's shit." She protested, looking down at the brown, water-logged muck that coated the floor of the reservoir.
"I'm aware." She heard Joel say, moments before he leapt down from the raised platform. She heard him land in the filth with a dull splat.
"I hate this." She mumbled to herself, preparing for the jump.
"C'mon." The prompt came from the bottom of the pit. "It cushions the fall."
"Fuck." She said, drawing out the vowel. She clutched her backpack, waited a moment, and moved her body away from the platform.
She felt the air whip past her, and a strong shock course up her legs when she landed. Her feet entered the muck badly, and it sprayed up the front of her jacket.
"Oh, for fuck's…" She began, pawing at the damp lumps of crap on the front of her jacket with gloved hands. "This is just nasty."
She heard Joel chuckle from in front of her, and shot him an angry glare.
"Oh boy. You look like a human mud-cake." She heard her protector joke. "C'mon, kiddo. Little bit of dirt never hurt anyone."
She heard him laugh, and looking at him, saw the grin that accompanied it.
"Yeah, it does. C'mon, we ought to move."
She followed closely behind Joel. They were a distance away from Amber, and traversing that distance was easier said than done. The shit caked around her calves, stuck her in place, squelched when she moved free from it. She thought it was a miracle none got in her boots. Luckily, she'd copied an old army technique of tucking her pants into the tops of her shoes and sealing it with waterproof wrapping. Adam had quickly shown her how to do it while they had stopped in the ward. He'd said it was surprising how much better troops would perform with warm, dry feet.
She could only find duct tape at the hospital, but decided that it would do. Still, it kept the shit out. She was more than glad about that.
She watched Amber heave herself up into the pipe, followed by Joel. She couldn't quite break away from the suction of the crap and needed a tug from Joel to hoist herself up into the pipe. Once they were inside, the smell was more confined. She almost retched as it hit her.
Gagging, she made herself put one foot in front of the other. The darkness told her they'd decided not to use lights, so her only sense of direction was the tug of Joel's backpack and the damp squelch of his heavy footfalls. She clutched onto a strap fiercely, not wanting to be alone in the stinking dark.
Suddenly, she felt him pause. A quick stab of fear went through her spine. She immediately assumed he'd seen someone further ahead, but couldn't understand how in the darkness. The next second, she felt him raise and bring his arm down suddenly on something in front of him. The movement was sharp, and was followed by a loud smack. Moments later, she heard Amber's unconscious body hit the metal floor of the pipe, and squelch in the shit that coated it.
"What the fuck, Joel?" She whispered, keeping her voice low but her anger high.
"She'll be fine." Came his response. She felt almost insulted that he didn't tell her he was going to do it in the middle of the tunnel. "She's just out cold. With luck she won't wake up until after we're shot of this place."
"Shot of this place?" She doubled around on him. "What, you gonna fly a helicopter all by yourself, Joel?"
"Hell no." She heard him reply gruffly. "There won't even be a goddamn helicopter. We stole a car before. Won't be hard to do it again now there's no civilians in the Nest to blow our cover."
"And what about Amber, huh?" She could feel her anger rising into her cheeks. "You can't just leave her here!"
If she could see him properly, she knew he'd be wearing his characteristic scowl.
"Watch me." It was the coldest thing she'd heard him say in a while.
She saw a light flicker, then direct itself down the pipeline, illuminating the away. Joel must've brought a torch. It moved, and she followed it. She almost stepped on Amber's body as they walked past her. She noticed Joel turn, and assumed he'd sat her up against the wall of the pipeline when a dull clink of her gun's body on metal sounded near her. She felt genuinely awful about leaving Amber there. She followed after Joel as he trudged up the tunnel, regardless.
It was a few minutes before Joel decided to justify himself.
"Survival ain't easy, Ellie." She heard him say from ahead, almost awkwardly. It was as if he regretted what he did but kept telling himself not to. "Now under normal circumstances I wouldn't have done that. But, I rest easy knowing your safe, and you aren't safe with these people. Especially not Adam."
"Why not?" She argued. "He's huge. He's scary, he's dependable. He's gotten us out of trouble a lot."
"He goes looking for trouble." She found it hard not to accept his counter-argument. "I'm huge. I'm scary, and I like to think I'm dependable. What sets him and I apart is that I'm old. I know how to play the game, Ellie. He's smart, but he's reckless. He's been hiding in a mountain for ten years and that's made him impulsive... almost cocky, I'd wager. He's going to get them all… what the fuck?"
She stopped dead in her tracks.
"What?" She asked hesitantly, suddenly concerned.
"This… this can't be right." She noticed he was suddenly short of breath.
"What can't be?"
She heard the sound of hands grabbing metal, and then Joel heaving.
"Bars. This shit is barred up. Amber said it wasn't, what the hell is-"
Her heart sank in her throat when she heard the bolt of a gun click behind her. She also noticed a group of squelching footsteps approaching... they must've been masked by her own, she thought.
"Amber was wrong." The voice was scarily familiar. "Hey, pipsqueak. Looks like you and granddad are a little up shit creek, huh?"
She turned to see Buck, accompanied by two armed riflemen. She couldn't make out their uniforms in the dark; only the bright red beams from their laser sights.
"Figuratively and literally."
For some reason, she realised the futility of diplomacy in this situation, and took the offensive.
"How's the hand, you bitch?" She blurted at Buck. She felt Joel wince next to her, but didn't regret what she'd said.
"Fuck you!" Came the response, throwing Ellie slightly. There was an almost crazy kind of rage in Buck's screech. She heard rapid, moist footfalls as Buck rushed forward, coming into the visible light of Joel's torch. Ellie stood steadfast, frozen in place by the speed of Buck's approach. She felt a good hand clamp around her jaw, only to be removed a split second later by a sickening crunch as one of Joel's much bigger hands impacted Buck's face. She watched the flamboyant girl smack down into the shit in front of her, her lip split and bleeding. There was another click of a rifle, and she noticed both laser sights flick over to Joel's chest. She saw him draw backwards, and raise his hands.
"Back off, big guy, or you'll be a goddamn pin-cushion." She heard one of the red-rings say, his voice slightly muffled by his gas mask. She saw him gesture to the other guard. "Grab her."
She watched the rage on Buck's face as the other guard drew her up. She enjoyed it. She almost smiled. But she resisted the urge. She heard the red-ring talk again.
"Don't be so goddamn stupid, Buck. You know Simon wants them alive. Fuck knows what I did to deserve you assigned to me, though."
She locked eyes with Buck, grimacing, and watched the older teen spit a hunk of blood into the shit below.
"Now, big fella." She heard the red-ring talk again. "Easy way, or hard way?"
She broke her stare with Buck, and looked up to Joel. After a moments pause, she heard him speak.
"Good. Turn around." She saw Joel stand still, and didn't move herself. "Both of you, now!"
She did as bid first, forcing Joel to as well. Moments later, she heard him hit the muck as a gun-butt landed on the back of his head. She winced as she heard the impact, wondering just how many times he'd been hit in exactly the same spot. Surprisingly, the same didn't happen to her.
"You gonna put her out, too?" She heard a different male voice ask from behind her. "She could jump us."
"What, you serious?" She heard the red-ring snort. Then, she noticed his tone changed. "You are serious. No. I... I don't hit little girls."
"You arguing? I'm your superior, correct?"
"Then, no. She won't get the same. Clear?"
That comment made her shudder with guilt. The way this was going... she knew that Adam would kill all of them, without mercy. She was too caught up in her feelings to noticed herself being searched, and her gun being removed.
"Thank you..." She muttered quietly, feeling as if she at least owed that to the red-ring.
She heard a horrendous cackle from behind her as she felt her hands being bound, then her ankles.
"Sure, you get a bit of mercy, now!" It was Buck's incessant voice, again. "But, when you get to Simon... oh man, you will be begging for him to kill you."
"Shut up, Buck." She heard the red-ring say, closer to her than she'd imagined. She realised the merciful one was the one binding her. "That's an order."
She heard the older teen storm off, back down the pipe and towards the station in a rage.
"Grab the big guy."
She felt herself being lifted, surprisingly easily, and slung over the merciful one's back. She'd been hog-tied, and any attempt to escape would probably prove useless, as well as likely earning her a smack on the back of the head.
"You behave now, okay?" She heard the merciful one say to her. There was a tinge of menace in his voice, but also a degree of affection. She assumed he must've had a daughter before all this. "Don't make me regret my decision."
She decided not to answer, and wait out the ride. She noticed they'd left the torch at the top of the tunnel, by the bars. She lost her focus again as they drifted back into the darkness. For a decent ten minutes, the only sound she heard was squelching, and the only thing she saw was black, until they began nearing the station again, and the light started permeating the shit. She had had a momentary fright when she'd realised she'd left the radio on, but breathed a sigh of relief when she remembered they'd all agreed to radio silence unless there was an emergency. The last thing she wanted was to risk any of the others calling in and giving up their positions because she'd made a stupid mistake.
Finally, they drew towards the end of the tunnel, and back out into the station's large atrium. She watched the red-ring dragging Joel through the shit jump down, out of pipe, and then pull her protector with him afterwards. She almost heard him mutter how he didn't get paid enough for this kind of shit. She allowed herself a little smile at that humour.
Next, the red-ring carrying her jumped down. She felt the rush of air. On landing, she gasped as one of his shoulders dug into her gut. Funnily enough, she noticed that her sharp intake of breath had merited no reaction from him. She managed to catch a glimpse of the atrium, and saw where they had been hiding. There was a service door on the other side to where they were, with a few air slits in the top of the metal. She felt like an idiot when she realised they'd probably stayed hidden in there after Joel had killed the guards outside and watched them all move into the pipeline.
She felt herself being removed from the merciful one's back after they reached the catwalk back to the station, and noticed she was being raised up. Another two pairs of hands grabbed her, and pulled her the remaining way, up onto the catwalk. She wondered where they had come from.
One of them spoke above her.
"You know Simon wants them back at the compound, right?"
She heard the merciful one hoist himself up the height of the wall, and appear in her sight, as he heaved Joel up with the help of the other red-ring. Moving her head around, she saw Amber's unconscious body lying in the next room.
"What?" Merciful said, standing in front of where she lay. "You know we don't listen to Simon when he says kill them. We just take their shit and turn them out somewhere far away. I thought we'd discussed this, Jim. What changed?"
"Samson, fuck you and your conscience! Don't you get it? Simon has caught on. He wants to see them dead now."
She saw the merciful one rear back slightly in shock. She needed to ask Adam not to kill him. The thought of him paying with his life for the red-rings' crimes made her sick to her stomach.
"Why?" She watched him say. She guessed it was all he could manage.
"Look, we're all fucked up people. We've all done pretty bad shit. But, it's them dead or us dead, Samson, you know how the goddamn game goes!"
She resisted the urge to comment, scared they'd kill her now and take their corpses to Simon.
She heard the other red-ring talk as he finished pulling himself onto the catwalk with the other three. She'd lost track of where Buck had gone.
"I say we kill them here. Make it easier to get them in the truck."
"I agree." The fourth said.
"No, no!" She heard Samson say, feeling his anger rise. She didn't even know what he looked like under that mask, but she guessed he had a warm face like Blufor.
"Can it, Samson! You two as well, that's enough." She heard the one Samson called Jim command. "We ain't killing them here. He wants to see them dead, but he wants intel too. You know we're running low on supplies."
She allowed herself a sigh of relief realizing she'd earned another few minutes alive.
"Let's quit this place." She heard the leader say. She heard him walk out alone, towards Amber, while she watched the other two grunts grapple trying to lift Joel's body. Samson was the one who lifted her, again.
They were out of the pump station in mere seconds, and she prayed that was the last she'd see of that awful, shitty place. She might be dead in an hour. Who knew? At least the red-rings hadn't mentioned anything about executions earlier in the day - she made the assumption Ghost and the rest of his team had made it to the prison alive. Doubtless she'd be heading there soon.
She was loaded into the back of the SUV that had magically appeared out the front of the pumping station. She didn't see exactly, but assumed that Buck had pulled it around to the front, as the engine was idling. She heard one man get in the front seat, two in the boot, and the fourth next to her. She'd lost track of which one was Samson – they all wore gas masks – but she guess that he'd sat next to her. For a moment, she felt a smidgen of safety. Then, she remembered he was a red-ring.
The SUV pulled off, leaving the station behind, hopefully for good. She tried to sleep through the ride, thinking that it could be her last, but was lurched awake every time they hit a bump in the track. Being a forest track, there were more than a few of those.
She kept glancing out the window behind who she thought was Samson, just looking. She looked at the green and the blue. She felt surprisingly calm and meditative given her situation. She thought about how in this world full of death, life still flourished. She thought maybe humans just didn't deserve what this earth was, anymore. She knew that she probably didn't. Joel, definitely not. Adam wouldn't even make the waiting list. But, she knew they were both just trying to make good from bad. She thought maybe that was more admirable than being good in the first place.
She hardly noticed when they'd made it onto smoother road. Everyone had been silent the entire way, which she admitted was odd for herself. She saw the treeline begin to lessen, until they were out into the clear and she felt them slow down. She almost slipped into the foot-well when the car suddenly stopped. She heard no exchange of voice, only seeing Buck gesture to a guard on the outside in her peripheral.
She felt the car start moving again, and moments later, saw the dark confines of the Nest's walls pass by the windows. She felt fear, now. It sat in her gut, manifesting. Real. She hoped everyone was okay.
She saw they were approaching the prison building, via the high-street. She saw what team Intervention had talked about on the radios. Everything that was open had been shut, windows had been barred and boarded, and she saw men stationed everywhere. There wasn't a civilian in sight.
Suddenly, she noticed the prison building slipping past her.
Where were they heading?
She felt her head moving around frantically, trying to find something to gauge her position off. She noticed this drew the attention of the red-ring sitting next to her. She locked eyes with him. She could feel the fear swimming in hers. In his, she saw discomfort. Through the enamel eyelets of the mask, she noticed his eyes were hazel. She thought it seemed as if they were apologizing to her.
Without a word, he turned away, and looked out the window again.
She squirmed, fruitless trying to free herself from the hog-tie, or at least loosen it. She could hear movement in the back, now, and heard gruff male voices and a lighter female tone.
Everyone was awake.
She felt the car stop.
She heard doors fly open, men step out, and felt the cold of the air across her face as she was blinded by the light of the sun. She was pulled out, her leg bonds cut, and forced to walk into an open area. As her vision returned to her, she noticed two old, dilapidated warehouses. She saw armed red-rings all around.
The next thing she knew, she was on her knees. She glanced to her left, and saw the line of others as she heard Joel and Amber thrown down to their knees on her right.
Past the warehouses, she could see the outside. Hills, trees, and freedom.
"Ellie." She heard from her left. Fear coursed through her, stronger than anything she'd ever felt before. It made her want to wretch.
Evelynn was the first on her left, her nose broken and blood caked on her feminine face. Next to her, she saw Olivia, Ryker, and Rider, all tied and helpless.
A horribly familiar voice sounded in front of her.
"It seems we have a problem, here."
She heard a scream of agony and a gut-wrenching snap as she saw Simon break a beaten Ghost's leg with a metal pipe. She gasped as the huge man threw her friend to the floor. She saw him, lying in the dust, his hair and face matted with blood. She made eye contact with him, her eyes stinging.
"He thinks he's awfully smart, this one, doesn't he?" She heard the huge, shaved-headed man monologue to them. "Sure, he's quick, and quiet... but he's weak."
She winced as a huge boot crashed into Ghost's side.
"You've all made a grave mistake here, I'm afraid." She watched him pacing up and down in front of the line as he spoke, arrogant, his unnaturally large biceps almost pulsing. "I didn't think the two groups were together, you know."
She saw the red-ring leader round on her.
"Until the little one started crying."
She scolded herself, until Simon kicked Ghost again. Then she cried even more.
"You tried to attack us. That's bad. I'm afraid that means a quick death for you."
She heard Joel grunt to her right, his tension towards Simon almost palpable. She knew he was waiting for the right moment to strike. She tried to ready herself as well.
The sun was horrendously hot on her head, now. Maybe it was the fear. Maybe both.
"However, he tried to attack us... after he betrayed us. That's worse. So... it's going to be awfully slow, for him."
She saw the eloquent maniac cackle. The noise grated her ears.
"We've already been at it for hours. And the best part is... you all get to watch the finale!"
She couldn't help herself, and burst into tears. She heard Evelynn doing the same. Joel was a quiet as he always was.
"Stand him up." She heard Simon order, as the beast of a man pounded his way over to where Samson stood. Next to him, she saw the weapons they'd had in the pump station. She watched the beast rifling through them, until she heard him huff in satisfaction, and stand up again.
She saw he was weilding Adam's revolver. It must've been jutting out of her jacket, enough for one of the red-rings to take it when they'd jumped her, Joel and Amber.
"A beautiful piece." She heard him say, as he moved back in front of the line. He stood just in front and to the left of her. ".44, correct? Big bullets."
Ghost was ten feet away, only just being supported by two red-rings. She saw Simon take aim, and heard the hammer click back.
"Any final words, traitor?" The huge man spoke.
She saw Ghost lock eyes with her.
"I am so, so sorry, Ellie. For everything."
She noticed he was crying.
The Magnum fired.
"One!" Simon yelled from her left. She thought he sounded like a murderous schoolgirl.
She saw Ghost double over. She noticed the floor was now slick with fresh blood. She tried her hardest to avert her eyes from the hole in his stomach, but couldn't take them away. She heard the other women in the group hysterical, and Ryker screaming at the top of his lungs. Joel stayed quiet.
The hammer clicked, and the Magnum fired.
"Two!" She heard Simon cackle. She watched Ghost collapse to the floor, the bullet ripping through his right thigh, only to be hoisted back up by the red-rings.
Her eyes stung horribly.
The hammer clicked, and the Magnum fired.
"Three!" And again. "Four!"
And again. Joel was silent to her right.
"Five!" She swallowed hard as Simon almost sang the number. He was enjoying this far too much.
She saw Ghost, peppered with large holes. Somehow, he was still alive.
"And, finally." She heard Simon say, his tone now deadly serious. She saw him stand at his full height, the pistol raised. "Six."
The hammer clicked, and the Magnum fired.
She saw the bullet strike Ghost in the head. The red-rings let go, and she watched him collapse to the floor. Still.
She felt only nothingness inside. She knew that he hadn't wanted any of this.
"Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for watching the opening sequence." She heard him throw Adam's pistol lazily to the side. "Now for the main event."
She kept her eyes on him as he turned, stepped away from the line-up, and looked them over. Fury and sadness burned within her.
She saw him call to his red-rings.
"Who dies next?" She heard him say. He gestured at Ryker. "The loudmouth?"
She could feel her focus on the world slipping as emotion began to consume her.
She saw him gesture to Evelynn next. "Or, the pretty one?"
She tried to zone out, to pretend she wasn't there. She tried to ignore Ghost's lifeless body in front of her.
"The girl." Came a voice from behind her, snapping her back into reality. "And I want to do it."
She saw the big man grin menacingly, and nod.
"No!" She heard Evelynn scream from her left. She noticed Joel stand in his rage to protect her, only to be beaten over the head and thrown back down, now restrained by guards. She listened to his panicked struggles as Buck entered her sight, a large knife gleaming in her grip.
She felt the cool edge press up against her throat, and felt a slight tingle as it cut through the very surface of the skin. She noticed Buck was practically salivating at the opportunity.
"Do it." She said to the bully, defeat in her voice and tears on her face. "Just fucking do it."
She saw the girl in front of her, but felt no slash. What was she waiting for? Ellie could see the crazy in her eyes.
Suddenly, she heard the radio in her pocket crackle into life.
"Buck!" Came Adam's voice from the device.
She saw the older teen become perplexed, glance at the pocket, and then draw back from her.
"Turn around." Came Adam's voice, again.
For some reason, she watched Buck do as he'd commanded, and gaze off into the hills. She saw Simon had an equally perplexed look on his face. She looked past Buck, in the same direction, trying to find what they were all looking for.
She heard a dull bang in the distance.
A split-second later, there was a loud whistle, and she saw Buck's head explode. She was covered in thick red muck, and pieces of something worse.