Date: 01/12/2059. Location: 41.18821, 48.17886

The sun struggled over the high peaks, turning the grey pre-dawn into true daylight. Nearly 9am, local time, but the camp's position in the secluded little valley meant that it saw only a few hours of daylight in the middle of winter, surrounded as it was by the high peaks of the Caucasus Mountains. The air was damp, and the mountain fog swirled around the huts, shacks and prisoner cages in the small clearing, tendrils of mist clinging to the buildings like a primeval creature refusing to let go of its prey.

The clearing was perhaps sixty metres long, about forty wide, and surrounded by dense thickets of trees and fast growing bushes. The mountain trail climbed up from the villages far below, clinging to the side of the mountain and following the spurs of jagged rock, first north, then bending abruptly to the east, where it ran parallel to the clearing, which was screened from the road by dense foliage. The mountain trail curved south then, finally entering the clearing at the eastern side, after a short but sharp final climb. Six primitive and ramshackle huts were arrayed around the northern side of the clearing, each big enough to hold perhaps half a dozen residents, with another one to the south, along with a much larger and grander hut in the south-west corner. Parked by the side of this was a large military vehicle, painted a drab olive colour. A set of four large iron cages sat between the truck and the shacks to the north, each about three metres to a side, and each with two inmates. Sodden, bedraggled and wet through from the dew and rivulets of water that ran down from the spur of the mountain and soaked the whole area, they started to rouse themselves, wringing out their clothes and trying to position themselves to catch the meagre rays of sunlight and warm up.

In the first cage was a woman, 1.78 metres tall and weighing 60 kilograms, with long black hair swept back into a make-do bun, held in place with a few twigs. Her black eyes looked around the camp, and a hand wiped at an elfish ear as a raindrop plopped into it from the bar above and headed down her ear canal. She was dressed in basic but hard wearing clothes, with a top that looked to be hand woven. A deep sigh passed her lips, and she shuffled to one side of the cage and began some gentle stretching exercises revealing a relatively limber and lithe body. Next to her was another elf, of almost identical height but tipping the scales at a heftier 72 kilos. Well-muscled but equally limber to the woman next to him, he sat cross legged on the floor, clothes soaked through. He raised his head towards the sunlight, revealing a handsome face that mixed Asian and European features in a strangely alluring mix that looked to be straight out of a catalogue. He was wearing a set of stiff looking cargo trousers and a fleecy top layer that looked to be shaped to his body.

In the next cage over was a tall blond man, at least 190 centimetres tall, weighing 82 kilos. His blue eyes stared out at the camp from under bushy blond eyebrows with a hostile scowl, his eyes slowly surveilling the inhabitants of the camp as they started to stir, fixing each of them with a short vicious glare that clearly expressed his opinion of them. He was dressed in a flight suit that had clearly seen better days, stained and marked with mud and moss. Alongside him was a Japanese male, 1.75 metres tall and weighing around 100 kilograms. Wearing a tattered and ripped business suit, he too sat cross legged on the floor, ignoring the dampness. His face was typical for his race, but his hair and eyes were a very dark brown, rather than the more normal black. His features were serene and he seemed strangely at peace.

In the third cage, a large ork stood at the bars, his greenish-brown hands grasping the iron struts tightly. Standing 1.87 metres tall, he tipped the scales at just over 131 kilos, and his body filled out the white dress shirt – now sadly stained to the point of never being clean again – to capacity. A large and well developed set of shoulders narrowed down to a trim waist, then flared out again to muscular legs. Despite having a body that could easily feature in a bodybuilding magazine, his face was one that only his mother could love. He wasn't scarred, or marked in any way, but his features just didn't sit right, and he seemed to be angry at everything. Despite looking at first glance like the Humanis image of "one of those stupid orks", his eyes moved carefully over the clearing, obviously counting targets and evaluating distances in a way that revealed intelligence. In the back of the cage a tall man, easily over 2.1m tall, paced back and forth like a trapped animal. He weighed about 95kg – nowhere near as well muscled as the ork, but still trim and fit. He had a large set of dreadlocks that framed his black skin, making him look like a dark version of a lion. He was dressed in clothing that looked military in origin, with matching boots – around his chest looked to be the remains of a load bearing harness showing where items had been ripped or torn away from him.

In the fourth cage were two women who from the skin colour, features and clothing appeared to be locals. They were stood at the back of the cage, together, pressed into one corner – apparently sharing body heat. They too glared around the camp, and spoke quietly to each other, watching their surroundings.

As the minutes crept by the camp stirred, and the Chechen rebels went about their unhurried morning routine. A pair came over and examined the cage, ensuring it was still locked shut and secure. A few minutes later they returned with several bowls of nasty looking slops, which they pushed through the bars, being careful not to get too close to the prisoners. After they had left, the eight captives grabbed the bowls of unappetising food, and sipped at them, each lost in their own thoughts, and rueing their capture by these mountain bandits. The day wore on with nothing to do for the captives but stare out of the bars at the Chechen warband and watch them as they carried out their duties in a lax and haphazard way.

It was mid-afternoon when the man with the dreadlocks spied movement on the peak overlooking the camp. He ceased his pacing and focused, watching the vegetation a couple of hundred metres away, squinting to try and make out details. As he watched, the large mountain tiger moved from one piece of cover to another, its 300kg mass weaving sinuously through the undergrowth with an ease that belied its size.

He let out a low whistle and watched with fascination as the tiger stalked some prey, disappearing from view a few minutes later. He watched a while longer – it wasn't like he had anything else to do after all – in case it came back. The tiger didn't return, but he did catch a glimpse of something else – a small red light, flashing intermittently. He stared for a few moments, trying to work out what it was, and then he saw the other end of the laser, focussed on the ground by the cage with the two local women in it. They hadn't noticed it at all yet, and sat on the opposite side of the cage, talking in low voices.

He cleared his throat, discreetly at first, then louder, until one of them glared at him. With a small gesture, he pointed down at the red dot tracing a pattern next to their cage. The woman looked down at it, and then back to him, nodded and raised a finger to her lips. Unhurriedly, she sat down, pulling her fellow prisoner with her. Then she lay down, facing away from the camp, flattening her body as far as possible, and buried her head under her arms.

The dreadlocked man looked around at the other cages, and called out "Hey!" Once he had their attention, he followed the example of the woman – not knowing why, but suspecting that life was about to get interesting.

Peeeee-wheeeeeeeeeeee! The shrill whistle echoed off the mountains, reverberating off the peaks and sounding as if it was coming from many points of the compass. The Chechens looked around and up, a few of them raising their weapons, looking for the cause. About the only direction they weren't looking was the ridge to the north – which was unfortunate. The screecher round flew up to several thousand meters and then faded away.

Two rockets arced down from the ridge, the troops firing them almost invisible in their camouflage fatigues against the dense brush. The rockets exploded over the camp, the large concussion warheads exploding and sending a vicious shockwave over the area. Men and women were thrown from their feet, ears bleeding and stunned. The blast wave rolled over the cages, mostly leaving the prisoners untouched, though it thrust them into the bars on the far west of the cages.

The heavy staccato of machine gun fire filled the air as two teams opened up on the camp, stitching fire across the camp, rounds punching through the walls of the shacks. The faster "brppp" of light machine guns firing in short controlled bursts started to take down the guards when they were exposed. Chechens ran for cover, returning fire blindly up into the rise – but the combination of range, elevation and blind fire lowered their chances of hitting their attackers to virtually nil.

A loud spang echoed off the cages, followed by a second. The heavy rounds from a hidden sniper destroyed the lock on the cage of the two women, sending parts of the padlock spinning across the compound. There was a pause, then another round slammed into the padlocks of the remaining cages, one after another. Some took one shot, none took more than two.

The captives cautiously crawled across the ground, and shook the doors, dislodging the wrecked padlocks and swinging the rusty gates open with a screech. They watched the two women dive out of the cage and run towards the north, straight towards the fire, heading into the no-man's land between the two forks.

The handsome elf looked over at the others, and then called out, his voice low and pitched with a strange bass resonance – "You two, check the hut, see if you can get some small arms, you two, check the truck over there, see if it'll start, you with me, let's grab something from the big hut. Meet at the truck, 60 seconds – GO!"

Almost without thinking about it, people sprang to obey - he seemed to know what he was talking about, and it made sense, sort of….

The ork and the tall dreadlocked man ran in a stoop to one of the huts, bursting through the door and charging in quickly, trying to take people by surprise. Inside the hut they found the bodies of four men, torn to pieces by a long string of fire from the heavy machine gun. Looking around they quickly grabbed a few weapons – a couple of old-looking rifles, some crappy pistols, a few grenades, and a pair of machetes. They threw themselves flat as another string of fire perforated the north wall of the hut, then crawled out on their bellies, trying to stay low and inconspicuous.

The confident-sounding elf and the oriental guy ran into the chief's hut, arms pumping and heart racing as they tried to avoid the lines of fire. Inside they found a fairly opulent room, many rugs and pieces of luxury furniture scattered around the room – but no enemy. In the middle of the room was a large military-style cargo box, about two metres long, and half a metre high and wide. Steel carry handles were riveted to the heavy duty plastic at each end. The room had many items that looked valuable in it – but nothing that was easy to carry or compact enough to be handy during a gunfight.

"What do you think it is?" asked the Japanese guy. "Dunno… expensive. Let's have it," replied the elf. They heaved on each end, staggering out of the hut and heading to the truck. By the time they staggered there, the ork and his partner had almost caught up with them.

The back door swung open, the woman standing in the gap leading to the darkened trailer, waving to the four other prisoners to run around to the rear and put the body of the truck between them and the gunfight. They passed up their booty, with the woman hefting the guns and knives in and to the side with a clatter, before she helped them up the steep steps at the back. The truck bed was nearly one and a half meters above the ground, and it was an effort to get the large box lifted and in through the door. As they were half way through the process, the truck engine rumbled to life, a meaty V8 diesel spewing out a cloud of black exhaust as it fired before it settled down. A voice rang out of a pair of speakers in the back "Thirty seconds and we're moving – no more." The ex-prisoners redoubled their efforts, heaving the box into the doorway and sliding it into the truck, then clambering up after it.

The woman reached out for the door and pulled it closed with a slam and shouted towards the front of the truck "All in!" before moving that way herself. The other four had already moved that way, catching glimpses of strange equipment, a rack of bunks, tables – before passing through a narrow doorway into the front of the vehicle. The ork and the oriental guy had to turn sideways to fit through, but adrenaline drove them onwards.

In the front were two long bench seats, running the full width of the truck. The blond guy sat slumped in the front seat, held up by the four point harness. At first they feared that a burst of fire had penetrated the windscreen and killed him, but a moment's examination revealed that the window was intact – and a two meter long fibre optic cable ran from a jack on the dashboard into a slot in the side of his neck. His voice echoed over the speakers again "Strap in, this may get bumpy. I am inexperienced with this class of vehicle."

They piled into the seats, grabbing at seatbelts and trying to work out how they fastened together. Once the belts locked into the mechanism with reassuring "clunk" noises, they were free to look around. The truck was painted the same drab olive colour inside, the seats had only minimal padding and the vinyl looked uncomfortable. Light filtered through the windscreen with a pronounced green tint, and they realised that it was at least an inch thick – hopefully bulletproof. The side windows were much the same, but both sides of the vehicles had a weird rubber gasket and a block of thick Perspex fashioned into two rollers roughly in the centre. The ork tried pushing the barrel of his appropriated assault rifle through, finding it to be a perfect fit, and allowing him to swing the rifle through about 30 degrees in all directions.

With a lurch, the vehicle drove backwards, throwing them all forwards into the restraints. A crunch from the gearbox sounded, then the truck skidded to a halt on the loose soil, before starting to crawl forwards, the front wheels locked hard to the right. They crawled around the large hut, just missing the back corner by an inch, as the ungainly truck fought to manoeuvre in the tight confines. The voice came over the speakers again "Right, ahhh, I have it now. Hang on." The vehicle pitched back on the suspension, the nose rising as the driver revved the engine high then dumped the clutch. It shot forwards, accelerating ponderously, the cab wobbling on the soft suspension designed to handle rough terrain – but making it handle like a jelly on the hard-packed rough road.

They shot out from behind the hut, hanging on tight and saw the devastation being wrought on the camp by the sustained fire. Most of the Chechens were down now, pools of blood spreading far and wide from the mangled remains of people butchered by the 50 calibre and rapid firing 7.62mm machine guns. There were still a few crouching behind the huts though, hunkered down behind the log foundations, safe from the questing fire. A few of them noticed the truck bouncing past and shouted, and they opened fire.

Rounds spanged against the windows and the body of the truck, streel rain sounding like a drum crescendo. The vehicle lurched as a few lucky rounds hit something vital on the underside, managing to ricochet past the protection into an unarmoured section.

The driver winced as the feedback from the rigged system transferred the sensations of damage into his pain receptors, as he flinched, the truck crabbed over to the side, away from the string of fire. His eyes fluttered for a moment behind closed eyes as he processed the sensations and checked over his metallic body. He felt the wheels turning on the axles, the electronics damaged by the burst of fire isolated and routed around by the damage control system. Eyebrows twitched a millimetre in surprise – as far as his muscles would react past the muscle override built into the rigger interface – this vehicle was military spec alright. Already it was performing as if it had taken no damage, the contingency controls finding alternative routes and backup equipment to handle the load.

They swung around the track, taking the U bend at a reasonable pace, balancing speed of escape against the risks of driving the unfamiliar vehicle off the road and into the river gorge. As they rounded the bend and entered the straight, heading from east to west, all of them could see the numerous steams of fire, lancing down from the mountain, straight across their path.

If the wild bursts from the Chechen 7.62s could get lucky and rip past their armour, the light machine guns could too – probably with ease given the obviously higher skill of the operators. The heavy machine guns would have no issue stoving in the side of their vehicle and leaving them a sitting duck. But, there was no alternative – nowhere else to go. They felt the truck continue to accelerate, its mass driven faster and faster by the powerful engine. It didn't accelerate well, but it had all the torque in the world, it seemed.

They drove closer and closer to the streams of fire, and then miraculously, the fire stopped. The tracers disappeared and the sounds diminished as the guns nearest to them ceased fire. Ahead of them, they could see the other set of tracers continuing down into the camp. As the truck sped past the first position, the fire resumed behind them – tracers flying down anew and continuing to supress the enemy anew. The second set of guns followed suit, ceasing fire as the truck bounced past, and then continuing to pour fire down onto the camp.

The truck reached the end of the path and slewed crazily around, almost leaving the road, before bouncing down the hill and out of sight. Unseen by the escaping prisoners, a figure stood up from the brush, aiming a large tubular launcher down at the camp. He aimed, taking about 5 seconds to line up the glowing holographic display over the centre of the camp, before gently squeezing the trigger of the 9M123 Khrizantema. A gout of back blast blew away the vegetation and caused the foliage to smoulder for 5 metres behind him, though it quickly died down in the damp air. The round shot down towards the camp, until it reached exactly one metre from the impact point. The spinning laser head hit the critical distance and the round split open. The small first stage charge ruptured the fuel tank, and a large globe of fuel spread out from the central point. A few milliseconds later, the second stage pyrotechnic went off. The globe of atomised fuel was ignited, creating a massive blast wave that expanded outwards from the central point. The huts flew apart under the impact, their structure riven to matchwood, exploding outwards in a wave of destruction. A few seconds later, the vacuum at the centre of the blast zone reversed the direction, sucking back in the debris that had been sent outwards. Bodies were ripped to pieces, the air sucked out of lungs and flesh burnt to a crisp by the initial blast wave was then torn to shreds and whipped across the scoured area. Not a living thing remained in the camp.

The truck bounced down the narrow road, unaware of the destruction behind it. The occupants kept up a watch behind them, out of the side windows, whilst the driver checked his vehicle sensors – such as they were – every few seconds. As they descended down the road, without further incident, they relaxed slightly. The euphoria from their escape flooded their systems with adrenaline, and smiles spread from face to face – they were free. They were mobile. Once again, their destiny was their own…

As they headed down the mountain, putting distance between them and their escape, they checked each other over, wondering who would make the first move.

The confident-sounding elf spoke up first. "The name's Kai. Import export man. Trader in fine arts and antiquities. Bastards captured me after a trade deal got rumbled."

The tall dark-skinned man spoke next. "I am Aswon, a hunter. I was captured by those vermin a week ago, when my convoy was attacked. I am a soldier for hire." As he said "vermin", his teeth pulled back, revealing huge incisors implanted into his gums.

"I am Shimazu, a bodyguard. I was returning from escorting a client to a meeting when they struck. They used gas, and we had no respirators…" said the Oriental man, looking down at his hands as he spoke.

The speakers rattled as the drivers voice was piped through. "My name is Herr Marius Schroder. I am a pilot, for a large company. My chopper was shot with a SAM, and I was forced down in the mountains. Those men killed my team."

The women spoke up next. "Call me Tadibya. I'm from way up north, but I don't really do much. I'm just wandering the land, trying to help people as best as I can. I'm an outdoors kinda person though, good with plants and rocks and such like."

It went quiet for a moment, and heads turned towards the sixth and final person in the cab. "Um… you can call me Hunter. I'm an information specialist"

Everyone looked around them, aware that much was being left unsaid at the moment, that there was much distrust.

As they increased the distance between themselves and the mountain camp, they examined their "getaway vehicle". From the Cyrillic writing everywhere, the colour and the obvious armour it was clear that this was a Russian military vehicle – it looked fairly new though, not battered and worn. It had huge ground clearance and six enormous off road tyres, along with deep travel suspension that made the potted and under-developed road relatively comfortable to drive down – though it tended to wallow in the curves a little. There was no steering wheel or pedals, no manual controls at all in the front – just the rigger jackpoint and a set of displays, most of which were dark. In the back left seat was a set of data jacks and a rugged fold out screen – this looked to be tied into the navigation system for the vehicle, and after a little experimentation, could also display the sensor feeds showing the area around the truck. The back right seat had a radio built into the wall next to it, along with another jack point – but it had no frequencies programmed in at the moment. The centre back seat had a strange folding backrest, which collapsed to the side and allowed access through the narrow doorway into the back of the truck through a vestibule about 100mm thick.

In the rear box section was the armoured rear door, with a tiny shower and toilet cubicle in the corner to one side. Next to that was a bunk, about waist high with plenty of headroom. Underneath it was a large storage area, and a pull-out table that would fill most of the central area. In the front corner was a fold-down chair that was bolted to the wall. On the opposite side of the truck was another. Opposite the single bunk was a triple set of bunks – but these were crammed from floor to ceiling, with very little headroom. Finally, in the other back corner, opposite the shower, was a food preparation area, with a rugged fold-out stove and various cupboards and utensils – but no food. There were no windows in the back, and when the overhead lights were turned off, it became clear that the doors were well sealed and let no light through.

They drove down the mountain, following the winding single track road. As night started to fall, they passed through a tiny village, the buildings shuttered and dark. It was barely more than a dozen houses stretched out along the road. They drove through slowly, but didn't see anyone or anything moving. As the sun rapidly set behind the mountains, the darkness enveloped them – but the driver didn't turn on the truck headlights, apparently able to see well enough by the starlight and the optical sensors on the truck

As they left the village, the truck crested a narrow and high-arched hump backed bridge, over a deep gorge filled with a fast-flowing river. Ahead of them the road turned sharply to the left, and continued down the mountain towards the lowlands – and just coming around the mountain was a large red pickup truck. The prisoners recognised it immediately – it had spent several days parked next to their current vehicle back at the camp. It was the personal vehicle of the camp commander, a huge swarthy brute who had organised their capture and incarceration. The driver stopped the vehicle on the bridge and looked around with the sensors, his voice coming from the speakers. "I can see a narrow passing place ahead, about 20 meters from the bridge – but there is nowhere to hide. I cannot see anywhere in the village, either."

Tadibya was sitting in the centre rear seat, and leant forwards to stare past the unmoving form of Marius. "I've got this, if you want?" The others looked at each other and shrugged – they were out of ideas beyond grabbing their stolen guns and engaging in a gunfight. Tads licked her lips, and raised her hands in front of her, a look of intense concentration on her face. Her hands made a fluid gesture, weaving a complex pattern in front of her whilst she muttered under her breath. A single bead of sweat formed on her brow.

The others watched, glancing from the muttering woman to the road ahead, watching the headlights sweep closer and closer. Then a small cry as they saw the road ripple ahead of them – and move. Suddenly the turn in the road was much sharper, more of a hairpin, and the road and humpback bridge were clearly visible about 5 meters to the north of where it had previously been. They squinted and examined the situation, but everything looked solid and normal…

The red pickup slewed around the corner, the back end kicking out slightly, and then accelerated towards the village. The prisoners watched as it followed the new road position, starting to bounce over the rough terrain and then with a massive lurch fell "through" the humpback bridge. Tads stopped concentrating, and the illusion wavered and then vanished, reality asserting itself. The bridge was back in the normal position, as was the road. A pall of steam was rising from the gorge.

Marius edged the truck forward, over the bridge, and they could see down into the gorge. The pickup truck had hit the bottom hard, and several bodies had been thrown out of the front window. Shards of glass had punctured several of them, and blood flowed slowly down into the stream, the churning water a frothy pink colour.

They pulled to the side, and got out of the truck to examine the wreck, casting an appraising eye at the woman.

"Don't do much, eh", said Kai, looking at Tads. She shrugged, appearing unconcerned about the crashed vehicle and the dead bodies. "Don't go around stealing people then," she said. Glances were exchanged between the others… clearly this was someone to be careful around. They gathered at the top of the rocks, looking down at the gorge. In the darkness, the wet rocks looked slick and dangerous, and not a pleasant climb.

Aswon looked at the others, then stepped forwards and bent down to take position on all fours. Then, without a word, he started to crawl down the rocks, his hands and feet incredibly sure. Without a slip or a slide, he padded down the four metres of steeply sloped rocks to the car. Reaching the bottom, he started to salvage items from the car – another pair of assault rifles, pistols, knives, grenades. An ID card and wallet came from the front seat passenger. Kai called down "Bring me his head, will you?" Aswon looked up in distaste, "Really?" Kai nodded again, so Aswon pulled out one of the machetes and hacked away at the head, ignoring the surprised and pained expression on the face. With a mighty heave he threw the head up towards Kai, then padded back up the slope as easily as he'd descended.

The others stared at him, wondering how he'd managed the climb so easily. Aswon just shrugged and said, "The power of Gecko is with me".

Kai meanwhile had confirmed the name from the ID and grabbed the severed head by the hair, and wandered into the middle of the village. Raising his voice, he called out loudly – almost shouting. He told the unseen watchers that Azad Gasimov, the warlord that no doubt had caused them grief and hardship was dead. The camp up the mountain had been attacked, and most of the bandits killed. They need fear this band of Chechens no longer.

Apparently satisfied, he left the head by the side of the road, impaled on a wooden fence post, and returned to the truck. The others had divided up the spoils, and now everyone had either a pistol or rifle, a knife or some grenades – as they saw fit. He examined the ID card and the numbers printed on it, turning it over in his hand. With a flash of inspiration, he moved into the back of the truck, and tried the number sequences on the card against the electronic lock sealing the large case shut.

With a click, the case opened, and Kai heaved on the top – then looked in with a chill running down his spine. Inside were a half dozen class IV biohazard suits, the plastic material shining dully in the light. Attached air bottles fed into the respirators, and thick gloves and boots covered in ridges designed to give grip were neatly folded in their own bags. At the end of the box was a map showing the southern part of Russia and an airport near a town marked as "Elista", along with a route marked in pen to the north east to an isolated facility on the edge of what appeared to be a large lake. Kai gently closed the lid and sealed the box again.

"What do you say – shall we get down out of these mountains and back to civilisation, and see where we go next?"

Marius got the truck moving, and they continued down the mountain into the darkness.