ZERO NINE FIVE ONE
April 8, 2094
A pair of automobile batteries kept the suitcase-sized purifier running, and the tall canisters of pressurized oxygen fed the enclosed space.
The incessant creaks of flexing metal wouldn't cease, and the deafening drone remained a constant punishment to their ears. The reeking stench of human waste, rotting food and unwashed bodies was overpowering. Throughout the six-day journey, the deplorable conditions tested the resolve of the prisoners which were packed like livestock inside the narrow cargo container.
They had been collected from all walks of life - abducted from wealthy neighborhoods, from daily morning jogs in the park, to being stolen publicly from the commuter train. For the homeless and the destitute, they were much easier targets.
Cryptic and mysterious, the captors were meticulous in gathering a diverse group of people for their twisted program. The daunting trips from Hong Kong to all points east had become routine for the Nightfall extremists, who prided themselves on supplying their organization with fresh participants for their classified field tests.
"The diesels are spinning up." Said Zheng Da, "That means she's making headway for our next destination."
Han Jin was slow to acknowledge, still hugging his knees to his chest while his empty stomach protested. He didn't trust the Nightfall operative, but there was something about this man who had eagerly volunteered to remain inside the container as they made the time-consuming crossing. "Hey Zheng…" Han's voice was weak from dehydration. "What…are they going to do with us?"
Zheng adjusted the holster on his belt, and then brushed away the strands of oily black hair from his face. He squinted into the dimness, straining his tired eyes on the sullied group of twelve women, twenty men and five children.
"I honestly don't know." He said, hearing another faint groan from the twisting metal boxes that were stacked outside of them. "I've done all I can to encourage the others to place the children like you toward the back of the container, so when they come, the adults will be chosen first."
Chosen? Han thought, failing to erase the chilling nightmare of his violent kidnapping. He lowered his head and buried his face in his hands. How did this happen? He cried, the shadowy image of the towering woman tormenting his every thought. He shuddered when a gentle hand touched his shoulder.
"Han, it'll be okay." The man replied, "You're much too very valuable, so don't think you're going to die or anything like that. Trust me, she needs you all alive."
The boy whimpered, beads of sweat mixing with tears that stung his eyes. "I…don't…want to ever see her again."
Zheng removed a granola bar from its wrapper and presented the stale piece of nourishment to the trembling youth.
Hesitating at first, the boy accepted the offering, biting into the hardened bar of peanut, oats and chocolate.
Making his rounds, Zheng inspected the trap-door entrance and then the corroded terminals on the batteries. Stepping over a pail of human waste, the man made his way to the other prisoners, offering snacks and cups of filtered water to each of them. When he completed his task, the man returned to his nervous companion.
"Hey, don't think anymore about Su Cheng okay?" The young boy quivered at the mention of her name. "She's…not so bad, once you get to know her." He failed to lighten the mood, chuckling to himself on how the artificial Pandora's recent treatment of his prisoners was unpleasant and cruel.
Pandora - for decades, that title stood for honor, glory and global security. As a young man, Zheng used to enjoy reading news articles boasting about the bravery of women soldiers sworn to protect the human race from inter-dimensional aliens known as NOVA.
Under the employment of Nightfall, Zheng Da's impression of those fearless girls had softened, becoming jaded and unconcerned with their latest reputation.
It was another twenty minutes that the prisoners sat huddled together, gathered around the rusty canisters of life-giving oxygen and the reassuring lantern light. Suddenly, loud banging and heavy thuds began coming from outside the metal wall. It was followed up by a severe clamping-like sound, which worried everyone inside the portable prison.
"The crate is probably being prepared for the crane boom." Reassured Zheng, "We'll either get separated here, or be placed into another crate for the next leg of the journey."
Han wiped the sweat from his face and searched for comfort in the man's face, but the indifferent escort remained calm, patiently waiting for his companions to open the iron box and let in a healthy dose of fresh air.
Another tremendous crash from outside brought the nervous group closer together. Everyone anticipated the unlocking mechanism to grant them a reprieve from this sheltered prison they had called home, but when the outer door didn't open, they began to panic.
"Just stay calm!" Said Zheng, "Soon they'll open the door and transfer you all."
Right as the man finished, a significant groaning sound was heard near the door. Shining his flashlight, Zheng watched in shock as the trick-hatchway bent apart, and collapsed in two jagged pieces.
A flood of light spilled into the darkened cabin, revealing a short girl in a flowing blue uniform. Zheng, Han and the other prisoners stared in awe as the silhouetted woman pushed her way through the mangled opening, her twin pig-tails fluttering in the sea-breeze as she desperately called to them.
New International Port Basin - Manila, Philippines
Manila Western Port Harbour
April 8, 2094 – 21:30 Hours
The man-made peninsula jutted from the mainland like a massive wedge, fording the greenish-blue water of Manila Bay.
"Mark. Tiger Team is in position." Came the voice through the headset. "Confirmed. Three tangos, east wall. Do not engage, repeat, do not engage. Await further instructions." She gestured to her men to hold position as the enemy rounded the corner.
It was a lone sentry out on patrol near the concrete knee wall, strolling carefree in the cool night air. The hooded gunman paused near the opening in the chain-link, gazing through the fence to take in the majestic lights of the city.
Beams of light rained from the searchlights mounted on six giant container cranes looming high above the pier. Each boom of ominous steel extended upward, poised and ready to begin the daunting tasks of unloading ships that frequent the two-kilometer slab of brick and asphalt.
The pungent stink from his cigarette irritated her heightened senses as the sentinel took another labored drag. Puffing the smoke into the air, he turned and retraced his steps back toward the opposite end of the dock.
Oblivious to the lethal danger that lurked in the shadow, he closed to within four meters of her position. Shrouded in cover, the Pandora waited. Even her fire team of Allied Nation elite, armed with suppressed weaponry, maintained their silent composure.
"All clear, section three, east dock." Said the mercenary into his two-way.
A shimmering gray Kunai instantly appeared in her hand, a manifestation of matter and energy derived from her symbiosis with alien DNA called Stigmata.
A childish smile formed on her face as she ached to unleash herself upon her unsuspecting prey patrolling the pier. "We are still awaiting Caballo's check in." Said the operator through the earpiece. "Hold for the order Lieutenant Marigold."
"Roger." Pina sighed, watching the sentry fall out of effective range. The man continued unconcerned, traveling the length of five containers before disappearing around the corner of a triple-stacked row of crates. The thick blade vanished from Pina's hand as she shook her head. "This is Marigold, Tango Three is returning to Section One. Over."
"Roger that," Came the high-pitched voice over the com, "Don't worry, I got him following the northeast extension walkway."
"Keep him in your sights Bella," Said Pina, gesturing a two-finger affirmation to the lead A.N. commando. "I'm going for the cargo ship, so tell us when…"
Pina's instruction was interrupted as a loud buzzing sound resounded from the micro-earpiece.
"What the hell?" She demanded, "Bella? Are you there? Over." She pulled the little component, inspecting its condition. Tapping the plug, she forced herself to keep her voice low, "Hey, Mayberry? Bella? Anybody there?"
The unfortunate sounds of static were the only response heard through the speaker. It was another minute before the crackles of the com-link subsided.
"Hey Pina?" Said Bella's shaking voice.
"I'm here, what happened?"
There was another pause. "N…nothing. Umm I'm very sorry, but I didn't copy your last because I…I dropped my headset in the water."
"Great." Pina lowered her head in frustration, "My God, what is it with you Fourth-Year Pandora?"
"Now wait a minute." Came a different voice, "Not all of us are screw-ups. Bronwen and I don't have issues, it's just Bella."
"Shut up! I don't have any issues Tamsin!"
Pina covered her face as her A.N. team heard every word.
"Will all of you cut the chatter?" Said the operator, "I swear, you girls are going back to Basics School if you can't get your acts together."
"Understood Instructor Abetz." Bella replied, "I still have eyes on…oh shit belay that. He's already heading back your way Lieutenant."
The impish grin returned to Pina's face. Good, she thought, it was about time to release some hostility on the enemy.
The remnants of the terrorist organization known as Nightfall, rooted themselves deep underground, eluding the reach of the Allied Nations. Their definitive failure of hijacking the Perses-Titan, an orbiting Anti-NOVA weapon, and the death of their leader, left the syndicate broken and mismanaged. For the last few months, assigned battalions of Pandora were tasked with locating and dismantling the remaining cells that were operating independently within the borders of countries still loyal to their cause.
"Confirmed. I got him back by the side wall." Pina pointed to her team to remain in cover. "Awaiting orders to engage."
Practically indestructible to anything made by the hands of men, the devastating potential of a Pandora's Volt Textures are effective and deadly.
"Volt Weapon equip." Said the Lieutenant, conjuring her Stigmata into manipulating a Kunai for each hand. Anticipating the moment to strike from the protection of the shadow, the petite Pandora waited.
"Marigold, you're cleared to engage."
She loosed a quick breath. "Roger, engaging."
The proud woman stood and emerged from cover. Her navy-blue Volt Texture fluttered in the sea breeze as she effortlessly charged the inattentive sentry.
With a flash of her left arm, his semi-automatic fell to pieces, while her right arm slashed across his chest, dissevering the armored vest from his shell jacket. He gasped at her inhuman abilities, and within the time it took for him to blink, the Pandora delivered a powerful backhand that knocked the man senseless.
Dragging her defeated opponent to a nearby crate, the Pandora neatly tucked the man away. "Jaguar Team, rally to my coordinates. We're going to hit the ship."
"This is Caballo, affirmative on that Lieutenant." Tamsin responded, "Bronwen and I are moving to your position."
"This is Bella, I'm with Wendy and we are en-route to the Dockmaster building."
"Copy that." Said Pina as she moved toward the lone ship at the end of the pier.
The four hundred-thirty meter cargo ship Geng Wu, swayed delicately against her tethered moorings. The exterior lighting of the ship illuminated the bridge deck and superstructure as the crane worked to maneuver the last container aboard.
The twelve-man team, armed with modified sub-machine guns, keenly observed the ship's crew handle the final crate. The nondescript orange container swung easily over their heads, landing safely on the ship's aft deck. Inspecting the paper manifest, a Filipino man in his late forties signed and initialed several documents before giving a reassuring thumbs-up to the gunmen.
"That ship's quite large huh?" Mused Tamsin, twirling a strand of her chocolate-brown hair. She braced herself on an interconnecting girder to one of the crane booms as she looked over the side.
"Yep, one of the biggest." Pina replied, sitting beside the fourth-year soldier. "Everyone's in place, so it's now or never."
Bronwen Labarrie lowered her augmented binoculars. "Hey Lieutenant, do you think they're preparing to leave? All I saw was the crew settling down that last orange crate before disappearing inside."
Pina wrinkled her forehead. Experience assumed that the enemy had their own intelligence of the A.N. assault plan, and probably had taken precautions against an attack. There was no margin for error she thought, the window of surprise was fleeting, and the Pandora knew she had to act fast.
Pina held out a hand for Bronwen's field glasses. "Your A-Bs please?" She peered through the lenses, confirming the unattended deck and superstructure. "It's a little too convenient isn't it?"
The sequential blasts from the ship's horn startled the nesting Pandora, signaling the ship's departure.
"Does that answer your question?" Said the Lieutenant, "Time to go, so equip your Volt Weapons and follow me."
The A.N. soldiers left the protection of their Pandora and proceeded to an adjacent pier to assume an all-round defensive position. Under the camouflage of night, Pina, Tamsin and Bronwen made their way to the stern of the great ship, climbing the anchor chain until they had reached the main deck. At forty-five meters above the water, it was quite the sight to gaze out and see the flickering lights of the skyline silhouetted against the horizon.
"This way." Pina kept her voice low, creeping along the edge of neatly stacked crates, careful not to tread from the shadows cast by the oversized containers. Successfully navigating the labyrinth, the team found an access hatch to the interior of the ship. When the girls were safely through, the gentle purr from the diesel electric engines below deck signified the monstrous ship's withdrawal from dock.
Another unfortunate sentry collided fiercely with the façade of the Dockmaster building. Bella Mayberry nodded her victory to Wendy Daehn, who dispatched her target with ruthless precision.
"Tangos Four and Five pacified." Bella said into her headset, running to cover behind a line of automobiles parked in the open-sheltered garage. The remaining guards had quickly circled, re-entering the garage and shouting warnings and pleas for help into their radios.
Bella pointed to the disorganized enemies. "You're up. Kick their asses and make it quick."
"Gladly." Wendy smirked, equipping her shimmering Volt Weapon. In a burst of speed, the Pandora tore into the men, angrily dropping each soldier in systematic fashion. When the last sentry was unconscious, Wendy tossed her head, playfully making her short pony tails bob to the left and right. "It's just child's play with these guys."
"You definitely enjoy this don't you?" Bella replied, following behind the blonde-haired woman. "The Command Center is two floors up."
"Roger that, let's do this."
"They're inside sir." Said the controller, "Suggestions?" The young man punched in a few more keystrokes at his terminal before turning to the man standing crossed-armed behind him. "Mr. Sifkin? Sir?"
The tall figure stood motionless, his chiseled jaw and raked facial features aglow by the light of the computer monitor. Being a former A.N. soldier, Blaine Sifkin witnessed firsthand the devastating potential of a fully trained Pandora. However, there was something about this peculiar leader that made him pause.
"Tell me about their commander."
The operator blinked. "Um, right sir. One moment please." He switched to his personal laptop, quietly tapping the keyboard to bring up an unusually detailed dossier of the Platoon 13 Lieutenant.
"Uh, she's Pina Marigold, identification number GM Nine Zero One. Distinguished Medal of Valor with cluster. Commendation for bravery with two emerald pins. Decoy position. Family lives in Paris, France."
"And her abilities?"
"Below average Volt manifestation and weaponry, but it says she can exceed a Triple Accel."
"Fascinating." Blaine smiled, moving to the window and peering out across the port. With subtle elation, he watched the Geng Wu lumber herself clear of the inner harbor lanes. "When they get into deeper water, order them to scuttle the ship."
"Uh, Mr. Sifkin? What of the asset assigned to the shipment of prisoners?"
"Su Cheng?" Blaine huffed. "She's got a week left at best - it's calculated collateral."
The programmer failed to hide his disgust, returning his attention to the view screen that monitored the massive cargo ship. He typed off the quick sequence of commands. "Order sent to the captain."
"Excellent Nicholas, now let's go." He quickly looked over his shoulder at the sounds of muffled gunfire, "Marigold's soldiers are almost upon us."
Muzzle flashes lit the hallway as purple blurs of two Pandora made swift work of the remaining guards. Bella didn't hesitate to dislocate arms and break the bones of her opponents as she forced her way into the command center.
Wendy's tactic was blunter, unleashing her maximum potential to gravely injure her targets.
"Hey, throttle it back will you?" Warned Bella, "The A.N. would like to interrogate and gather intelligence, rather than receive reports about unnecessary casualties."
"Whatever." Wendy rolled her eyes as the whimpers of men prone on the floor filled the stairway landing. "They're the enemy, and I'm a tool for their destruction. Convince me why I should consider holding back?"
The brunette frowned, "Wendy, I agree that we are weapons of the Allied Nations, but once we start believing that certain civilians aren't worthy of our mercy, we're just as bad as the NOVA."
Wendy smirked. "Keep telling yourself that Bella. You've been hanging around Summer El Bridget-Aoi too long." Bella gritted her teeth as her partner marched through the doorway. Stay in control, she told herself, Wendy just doesn't understand.
The Pandora entered the unlit control room, finding the pre-programmed access terminals still online. Wendy called up the data logs and paused when she read the launch orders of the Geng Wu.
"Damn, she set sail ten minutes ago."
"What?" Bella pushed her partner aside and scanned the monitor. "What the hell's going on?"
Wendy let her teammate stare at the screen while she scrutinized the rest of the office space. With skillful efficiency, she cleared the rest of the floor, ending outside the entrance to the server closet. She thought about ignoring it, but something suddenly compelled her to investigate. With a cautious hand, she gripped the handle, turning it ever so slowly.
From across the room, Bella was startled by Wendy's high-pitched shriek. The bodies of the Dockmaster and two of his office personnel tumbled out, landing on the carpet with muffled thuds. The shaken Pandora went wide-eyed at the sight of explosive belts wrapped tightly around each of the victim's abdomen.
"Bella! Fire in the hole!"
It was too late. The long-haired brunette didn't have a chance to react as Wendy exploded into a Double Accel, seizing her friend and crashing through the window, avoiding the terrible detonation that ripped apart the third floor of the watchtower.
"Well done sir." Nicholas replied, admiring the glow of red and orange from the cascading destruction behind. "You've single-handily defeated the Pandora!"
Blaine shifted the gear lever as he steered the compact SUV through the lighted side streets of Manila.
"I said shut up."
"I…don't understand, didn't you kill them?"
Blaine kept his eyes on the road, weaving in and out of traffic as he pushed the vehicle to its limits.
"They're not dead you idiot."
The coldness of his words left the computer programmer speechless. He chose not to respond, catching the feverish glare of seriousness in his leader's eye.
The small vehicle surged forward, passing under another street light which illuminated the truck's interior. Nicholas had never observed a Pandora in action, but he obviously underestimated their toughness and determination. Contemplating his leader's swift action, he judged that Blaine Sifkin probably rigged the explosives to not only erase the evidence of their presence at the Dockmaster building, but buy them just enough time to escape.
"Through there." Whispered Pina, motioning the two teammates to assemble on opposite sides of the entryway. "Breach and clear in five seconds."
The silent countdown commenced, with Tamsin and Bronwen poised like feral predators ready to devour their unassuming prey. Pina gripped her Kunai knives tightly, anticipating firm resistance from within.
"…three, two, one. Hit it."
The two girls stormed the opening, charging through and dropping the four armed guards that were stationed inside the vessel's bridge. "Clear!" Said the girls simultaneously, taking up positions that flanked the ship's commander and first officer.
Pina stepped through the access hatch, taking in the empty interior of the bridge deck. "Good evening captain." She purred, sauntering across the floor. "I'm Lieutenant Marigold of the Allied Nations and I'm under orders to return this vessel to the Port of Manila." The senior officer seemed overly apprehensive as he stared at the unassuming woman. "We have a report that you're carrying a certain piece of cargo that is in violation of the Durian Trade Pact of 2088. I suggest you comply immediately."
"Please, please!" Begged the captain, clasping his hands as if in prayer. "We just supervise this merchant vessel! She's a good ship, we…do not understand your claims!"
Pina took in more of his peculiar behavior, relying on her experience to determine the situation. "Soldiers, something's not right." She disregarded the Chinese officers and marched to the massive row of windows that overlooked the jungle of crates crowding the forward section of the ship.
Of the twenty-thousand boxes in her direct line of sight, none of them seemed to scream for attention. Pina scanned the array of metal boxes, ranked by color and size. On a hunch, she turned back toward Bronwen - the slender brunette looking surprised at her commander's expression.
"Your field glasses!"
Pina rushed to the rear of the bridge, gazing out through the small rectangular windows at the nondescript container placed oddly on the rear deck platform.
"I bet that's the one," Said the Pandora, "That orange box numbered Zero Nine Five One." Pina stepped over an unconscious gunman as she returned to face the two officers. "Team, get down to the platform deck. I believe what we're looking for is in that crate." She leaned closer, making the grown men cringe, "I'm going to stay here and…motivate these gentlemen to return this ship to the mainland."
"You're not going anywhere near that container!"
The petite Lieutenant turned, surprised to see a fit young woman holding a slender gray rapier. Her perfect complexion gleamed under the fluorescent lights as she emerged from the hatchway. "I can't permit any of you from getting close to that crate."
The fair-skinned Asian, standing over a head taller than Pina, displayed little in the way of fear. She strutted across the command deck, waving off the two cringing bridge officers. "So…there are three of you?" She raised her sword, pointing the razor-sharp tip in Pina's direction. "My orders to guard Five-Nine-One are absolute."
Pina stood her ground, flanked by Tamsin and Bronwen. The strange woman took up a defensive position near the exit, blocking the Pandora access to the stern hatch.
"It's almost an honor," She acknowledged, taking in their confused expressions, "To face a team of fellow… blood sisters."
"Who are you?" Bronwen sneered, "What the hell are you talking about?"
Pina held up a hand, cooling her subordinate. "I'm Lieutenant Marigold of the Allied Nations, what business do you have aboard this vessel?"
A wicked smile formed on the woman's face. "My name…is Su Cheng, and I am in charge here."
A gentle nod was all the Lieutenant needed to communicate to her soldiers. In less than a second, Tamsin and Bronwen were in motion, accelerating through the doorway and leaping down toward the stern platform. "No!" Su shouted, twisting her weapon in a vain attempt to slice at her escaping prey.
The sudden impact of connecting Volt Weapons sent a twinge of pain up the assassin's arm. Pina's Kunai had blocked the strike, forcing the two women into a one-on-one struggle between each other.
Marveling at the woman's unusual strength, Pina pushed herself to the limit just to keep the advantage. With a sudden shift of weight and a well placed hip-toss, the petite Lieutenant sent her enemy tumbling hard to the deck plate.
Su Cheng scrambled back to her feet, her sword angled downward as she charged in swinging. "We were told that true Pandora always looked down on us!" She executed several thrusts and lunges, attempting to pierce her opponent. "Not anymore! Now, the improved Evolution Program will show the world just how effective we can truly be!"
Pina paused for a moment, alarmed at what the woman had said. Unfortunately, the hesitation came with the hefty price of several egregious injuries inflicted by the savage assassin.
Bella blinked the encrusted dirt from her eyes. She scanned the dissipating cloud of rubble and discovered that the two of them had plummeted through the roof of the parking shelter and landing in a heap on the hardened cement.
"Hey, do you mind getting off of me now?"
Wendy Daehn still had her eyes closed. The subtle shimmer of her shielded Volt Texture still crackling from the residual energy absorbed from the concussive blast. The blonde was slow to respond as she rolled over and stood.
"Sorry about that Bella."
Wendy was covered head to toe in a mix of sheetrock and ash. She dusted off her purple uniform, before inspecting the wide swath of debris. "Man, this whole place got wrecked." The uppermost sections of the three-story building were engulfed in flames, pumping acrid smoke into the night sky. "We should probably get out of here, HQ wouldn't want us taken into custody by the local police."
Bella quickly got up and steadied her teammate. "You…saved me. I totally owe you one."
Wendy managed a frown. "Please don't…it's fine." Bella reacted surprised, concerned that her friend was more injured than she was willing to acknowledge. With the sounds of impending sirens closing in, the two Pandora fled for the massive cargo ship facility.
Along the journey, Bella glanced at her chrono. "Oh God Wendy! It's way passed time and they haven't checked in yet."
Wendy grabbed her partner by the arm. "Listen to me, when we rendezvous with the A.N. team, we're going to report on every little detail of what happened." She stared into her partner's eyes. "Bella, I think this was all a set up, and the enemy was expecting us to come."
Back at the docks, the weary Pandora met up with Pina's team of A.N. soldiers. On the com, Wendy received the sobering information from Instructor Abetz on the situation with Lieutenant Marigold.
Bella squinted through the optics of her field binoculars, making out the speckles of light that represented the Geng Wu. At fifty kilometers distant, the great ship appeared as a slab of royal blue muted against the starlit sky. She was steaming west, navigating the narrow channel before the crowded artery opened to the South China Sea.
"Yes ma'am. That's why I feel it's important we compare our intel before…" Wendy wrinkled her forehead at hearing Elise Abetz's abrupt and tactless response. "Uh, yes ma'am, I understand. Standing by for the pickup. Over and out." She removed the earpiece and took a moment to collect her thoughts.
"What did Abetz say?" Bella inquired.
Walking to the edge of the pier, the troubled Pandora looked out over the black horizon, ignoring her concerned teammate. Struggling with her broken spirit, the blonde experienced another disturbing image of a dead Dockmaster and explosive suicide vests.
Tamsin Caballo evaded another barrage of incoming armor piercing shells. The Nightfall assault team was well entrenched, feverishly keeping the bold Pandora from getting closer to the rear of the ship.
Bronwen crouched nearby, nursing a sore shoulder where a well-placed projectile had found its mark. The glow of her Volt Texture was mending the injury, and the hardened Pandora guessed another minute or so remained before she was back to optimal fighting strength.
The girls only had a brief reprieve to muster a new strategy as a hulking machine crashed through a stack of containers and opened fire.
"We've got a mech!" Cried Tamsin, rolling forward and pulling Bronwen to safety as green energy bolts shredded several cavernous openings in the rectangular crates. "And it's got phased-plasma cannons mounted on its shoulders!"
A shock wave of destruction had the girls retreating as the powerful weapon unleashed another deadly attack. "We need to take that thing down before we do anything else!" Tamsin replied, twirling her weapon. "Are you good to go yet?" Nodding, Bronwen gritted her teeth and followed her teammate to the far side of the platform, positioning themselves along the side of the three meter tall automaton.
The repeating pulse of the phased plasma cannons ripped into the stacks of cargo containers, creating gaps of searing holes and splitting the thick metal plating in halves. The blasts kept coming, hindering the Pandora from getting close enough to launch a counter attack.
"Watch it!" Bronwen shouted, "Just one of those bolts will take us down for a few moments!" Another impact erupted nearby, spraying fragments of deck material against the young Pandora. Shielding their eyes, the pair rolled forward and leapt to opposite sides, evading additional barrages of the mech's devastating power.
"Tamsin! On three, let's go for its arms and legs!"
Bronwen ducked under a sizzling slab of falling metal as she called out the countdown. "Three, two, one, go!" The pair cut sideways, accelerating toward the approaching mechanical chassis. On opposite sides, they engaged their adversary, using their Volt Weapons to hack and dismember the machine until the smoking hulk crashed heavily onto the deck plating.
Landing on one knee, Tamsin spotted the orange crate placed neatly between two towering stacks of containers. Looking for her partner, she spotted Bronwen Labarrie lunging for the last two guards. In an instant, the fearsome warrior had disabled their weapons and rendered the men unconscious.
"Clear!" Bronwen called over her shoulder. She loosed a quick breath as Tamsin ran up. "Another win for Team Marigold."
"We're not done yet." Tamsin scowled in the direction of a slender Asian who was casually marching down a passage between two fallen stacks of cargo containers. Bronwen immediately clenched her fists.
"Shit, where the hell is Pina?"
"Your Lieutenant unfortunately was not as strong as I had assumed." Su Cheng raised her sword in victory. "Now it's your turn to suffer the same fate!"
Bronwen Labarrie's half-swords gleamed in the ship's exterior light as she spun the weapons in semi-circles. Su Cheng sidestepped, anticipating the Pandora's attack.
The Double Accel sent out a shock wave of energy as Bronwen engaged the woman. The collision of Volt Weapons reverberated off the cargo containers as the heroic Pandora maliciously tore into her opponent. Unlike Lieutenant Marigold's weak but efficient attack pattern, Bronwen's random and erratic strikes were delivered with extreme vengeance.
Wave after wave of devastating sword-skills forced the tall Asian into a vulnerable position that led to her crushing defeat. Bronwen's untamed intensity continued until the battle ended with her shimmering blades buried deep inside Su Cheng's chest.
A violent cough sent a splatter of blood onto Bronwen's purple uniform as the crushed warrior sank to the ground with a quiet thud.
"That's…enough." Came the quivering voice of Pina Marigold, limping alongside Tamsin. "At ease soldier. It's over."
Bronwen's chest heaved as she fought to keep her composure. Her hands shook as she gazed upon the handles of her weapons protruding from her opponent. "I thought…" Her voice cracking, "For a moment, I lost control. I thought, because of your low compatibility and…she actually killed you Lieutenant."
Pina placed a hand on Bronwen's shoulder, easing her away. "It'll take more than the likes of her to take me out." She left the assistance of her subordinate and knelt down by the bleeding woman. Su Cheng struggled to breathe as her injuries soaked through her black jumpsuit. "Who is your employer?" Pina inquired, "Was it Gavril Magda of Nightfall that implanted you with Stigmata?"
A gurgle of blood, then a forced laugh was all the Lieutenant received. Pina's bruised and aching body kept her on edge, fighting through the distress of the woman's earlier victory.
She asked again, but this time implementing a less conventional approach. Leaning in, she stared down the broken woman. "You fought hard to protect crate Five-Nine-One, and I respect your bravery for such an act." Pina placed her hands on Bronwen's short swords, sending sharp bites of agony that made Su Cheng shudder. "Now answer me, where did you get your Stigmata tablets, and what the hell is inside that crate?"
Su Cheng gasped as the Lieutenant twisted the piercing weapons. The hardened woman lost whatever control she had left as fiery slivers of pain coursed through her body. She couldn't admit defeat, not after everything Nightfall had given to her. She gritted her teeth as another ripple of torment carved a trail of burning agony across her swelling chest. Su Cheng knew she had to choose - protect Nightfall's secret success, or allow these Pandora to rescue the Mark IX test subjects.
A low rumble began to course through the deck plating, signaling a slight change in the Geng Wu's buoyancy compensators. The subtle shift in the great ship's attitude became more evident as the vessel slowly began to heel.
"We…don't…have…very…long, so…I'll tell you…what you…need…to know."
Pina released her tight-fisted grip, allowing the crushed assassin to expel a high-pitched shriek as Bronwen's weapons dematerialized. It took a few moments for Su Cheng to steady herself, managing just a few words.
"It's…the Mark Nine, the…newest tranquilizer."
Pina blinked at Su Cheng's statement, unsure if her suspicions were correct. Tamsin and Bronwen also raised a troubling eyebrow at the confusing comment. The Asian coughed through another arduous laugh as she raised a shaking finger toward the orange container. "In there…are the next…Mark…Nine…donor patients."
"You mean prisoners!" Bronwen blurted out, "There're people trapped inside?" Su Cheng nodded, smiling broadly as she urged herself to stay conscious.
Pina knew exactly what the assassin meant as she felt another tremor from below deck.
In seconds, Pina was on her feet and rushing to the container. Wedging her fingers into the thick metal, she tugged and twisted, wrenching the door free from its hinges.
Su Cheng forced herself to look upon the precious container she was tasked with protecting. For a moment, the assassin was amazed at how effortlessly the Lieutenant had everything pried apart. Despite her resentment, she did marvel at this Original Pandora's ability, wishing that she could have been granted with that same capability from birth.
Pina peeled the final plate away, halting at the sight of thirty-nine petrified faces huddled in the furthest corner of the container. "Team!" She called over her shoulder, "Guys, I need you here immediately!" She turned back and extended an open hand. "Don't worry everyone, we're going to save you."
Bronwen and Tamsin peered over the Lieutenant, wincing at the pungent odor from within.
"Oh my God," whispered Tamsin, "There's children in here."
Letting the darkness take her, Su Cheng felt a tinge of healing power return. Her mind wandered as she dreamed of her former classmates and the failed experiments. In another vision, she relived her successful field test and how the Nightfall scientists celebrated her achievements. She could even recall their ridiculous faces; the shear arrogance of those men witnessing their creation surpass every expectation that was unattainable from the earlier research and implementation done thirty years earlier.
Another rolling wave crashed into the ship's prow, causing the great vessel to founder in the cold embrace of the deep ocean. Down in the bowels of the engineering and mechanical sections, millions of gallons of water were pouring in at an alarming rate.
The chatter from the emergency communication network filled Bella's ear-piece as she leaned over the jump seat to observe the listing cargo ship.
"Confirmed, there they are." Wendy pointed her finger, "Get us down there, it looks likes she's got a definite list to the port side." The pilot acknowledged, but determined quickly that securing a suitable landing spot was improbable. Pivoting the tri-rotor on its axis, the skillful aviator hovered the aircraft, releasing several recovery lines down to the stricken vessel.
Pina extended an arm, pleading with the remaining occupants to take her hand. "Please stay calm and come with me! The ship's in danger of sinking and we need to evacuate you!"
The spinning blades of the waiting aircraft disrupted the flow of air around the cargo ship, creating gale force winds that disorientated the fleeing captives.
"Get them rounded up!" Pina shouted to her subordinates, feeling another subtle vibration from under her boots. "I have no idea how much time we have left!" Without warning, the massive ship heaved, displaying a more severe list as the ocean tossed the drowning vessel. "Tamsin, help these people to the tri-rotor's rescue line! I'll go for the officers in the wheelhouse!"
Zeng Da turned his face from the torrid wind that buffeted his body. Through the chaos, he kept a firm grip on Han Jin, who stayed close as they were led from their container by an imposing young woman dressed in a revealing purple uniform.
"Keep you head low and don't look at them," whispered Zheng, "They're not to be trusted, so don't forget what I'm telling you." Han wanted to listen, but there was something strange about their rescuers that made him question Zeng's insistent warnings.
Allowing the warm hand to touch his arm, Han felt a flow of comfort from the tall brunette who assisted him along the slanting deck. He could almost sense her incredible strength, but how could this beautiful person be an enemy?
The women were speaking English, and Han's interpretation of their conversations was poor. Cursing his failure in introductory class, he couldn't understand much of what they were saying. Through the commotion of assembling at the rescue line, the young man did recognize one frightening sentence – "Hurry! The ship is sinking faster!"
Bella and Wendy met the Lieutenant en route to the command deck. Meeting outside an entrance to the superstructure, the terrifying list of the great ship kept the three Pandora slightly off balance.
"Perfect timing!" Said Pina, "We need to act fast! Wendy, I need you assisting Tamsin and Bronwen."
She turned to the anxious brunette, who was staring blankly at the impending ocean's advance.
The nervous Pandora nodded, still looking toward the blackened waves. "You know Lieutenant…I don't really like water."
Pina understood, "Try not to worry too much about it."
"Yeah…right." Bella sighed. Stepping through the opening, she looked down the sloping deck at Bronwen Labarrie, who was shouldering an unconscious woman dressed in a tattered black field uniform.
"Hey Lieutenant? Who's that?"
Reaching the uppermost deck, the two Pandora found the automated wheelhouse un-occupied.
"Shit!" Pina shouted, "They must have escaped somewhere inside the ship after I fought Su Cheng!"
"Hold up, who did you fight?" Bella inquired.
The little Pandora paused, contemplating going after the two men who were doomed to drown if she couldn't rescue them in time.
"Who? Oh, the Chinese captain and his first officer?"
Bella frowned. "No Lieutenant, you mentioned the name Su Cheng."
Pina didn't answer as she scanned the helm controls and its myriad of automatic command functions. Across the intricate console was blinking lights, signaling a system-wide malfunction of the monitoring equipment.
"They must have done the damage from below deck." Pina's voice stayed low as she continued thinking out-loud, "Why would they sink the ship? What would they gain? Think Pina…"
Leery to peer through the forward glass, Bella's heart skipped a beat as the massive vessel rolled helplessly in the waves. Feeling the onset of queasiness, the Pandora approached her superior, noticing that the Lieutenant was succumbing to the weight of this doomed mission.
"Pina, if they're truly loyal to Nightfall, then perhaps they were just following orders to sink the ship?" Contemplating the terrorists' reasoning behind the sabotage, Pina quickly led her subordinate outside to the starboard bridge wing.
The tinge of seawater in the air met the women as they overlooked the final stages of the rescue operation. The bare aluminum and royal blue Tri-Rotor hovered gracefully above the cargo ship with its rescue line hauling up the last group of survivors. Pina forced a slight smile as she watched the emergency cradle reach the aircraft. From the extended boom, she watched Tamsin Caballo swing out the tethered harness and pull the people inside.
"So…" Bella pressed, "About this Su Cheng person?"
Pina kept her attention on the wavering aircraft, wishing to herself that the night was over.
"Lieutenant?" The petite Pandora faced her subordinate with a glimmer of fear in her eyes. "Pina, what the hell happened?"
Pina opened her mouth, but couldn't manage the right words. Su Cheng was definitely someone she had underestimated, and her confidence in being a competent leader was shaken. The assassin's unusual strength and resolve rivaled a true Pandora - which concerned the young Lieutenant greatly with her affirmation of being an Evolutionary.
Pina wished that Bella's interest in the Nightfall operative would fade, but the young subordinate was persistent. When the Lieutenant turned to leave the bridge deck, a sudden explosion rocked the massive vessel. The extreme blast knocked the two heroes aft, pinning them against a bulkhead as the mighty ship quickly plunged beneath the waves.