"I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by" - Douglas Adams
Wow – this is so overdue I can't believe I've even got this far. And it's not even finished yet. Basically I didn't want to keep you waiting any longer, so I'm going to post what I've written so far and upload the remaining content once I've finished it. This is about 60 of the chapter, and it really annoys me that it's taken this long. Sorry for keeping you all waiting - I only hope I can improve on the time it takes for me to write this thing...
Enjoy it, anyway!
Disclaimer : The city of Metropolis, the Black Dogs and most of the Keepers belong to me. The other characters belong to their respective creators.
"Please!" Mike begged, "Please, help him!"
Allen's indifferent expression didn't change, but nevertheless he turned back round, clicked on his intercom and spoke into it. "Infirmary, this is number two-five-five, I'm on patrol in Sector Four…"
Still feigning confusion and distress as he spoke, Mike quietly delved into her pocket and took out Mac's belt. Her eyes darted back and forth between the belt and Allen's back as she tested how strong it was. It would do. Creeping up behind him, she swallowed before slinging the belt across his shoulders and then quickly brought it up in a gavotte around Allen's throat. Taken completely by surprise, he fell backwards and tried to call for help as he was dragged inside by his neck, but he was heard by no-one. With her knee jabbing forcefully into his spine, Mike jerked on the belt and forced his head upwards. Allen tore at it in a frantic attempt to free himself, but Mike tugged at it again and he uttered a strangled cry as it cut further into his windpipe.
"You have a card for the locks in this place," she hissed into his ear. "Put it on the floor." Allen obeyed and fished it out of his pocket, his arm trembling violently as he placed it down. "Good," Mike said, her voice still dangerously low. "How do we get out of here?"
Allen struggled to speak but all that resulted was a pained gargle. Mike cut him off and said, "Don't say anything, just point." He raised his arm and gestured to the left and then back towards himself, indicating a second left turn. While she followed his directions, Mike reached for the intercom lying at his side. There was a crackly transmission that asked, "…two-five-five? Come in, two-five-" before she brought it down on Allen's head with a crack. The soldier's body went limp and slumped to the floor. Almost instantly she grabbed his feet and hauled his body deeper into the shadows. Once the darkness had concealed it well enough, she gingerly lifted the gun from around his shoulders and checked the magazine. There was still plenty of ammunition remaining, but the noise would attract too much unwanted attention, so she couldn't afford to use it too readily. "Mac?" she asked quietly. At the sound of her voice Mac opened his eyes and sat up. She threw him his belt back and said, "Come on. We're getting out of here" before pushing the clip back into the gun. She opened the door a fraction wider and peered out from behind it. To the right of the cell lay a dead end and she turned her head in the other direction. Mac hastily fastened the belt around his waist, his heart pounding like a jackhammer in his chest, and came over to the door, where Mike was crouching down and waiting.
"So what happens now?" he asked.
Focusing unerringly on the far end of the hallway, Mike answered, "We make a break for it while there's still only a few of them around." She glanced at him out of the corner of her eye. "You ready?"
Mac braced himself and replied, "Yeah."
"OK – stay close to me, keep your voice down and keep your eyes and ears open, all right?" Mac nodded; it was clear he didn't need telling twice. Mike's attention returned to the corridor. Another soldier crossed the intersection ahead and she froze in case he turned round the corner, but he carried straight on and promptly disappeared from view. "Go," she said. The two of them crept out in silence and Mike shut the cell door as quietly as she could before they continued down the hallway. They reached the left turn without anyone spotting them, and they stood up close against the wall while Mike scanned the top of the low stairway ahead for any soldiers; there were none. Immediately they ascended the staircase and hurried along the passageway before they came to a door with a card slot at the side. Mike ran the card through it and they pushed the door open and kept going until they arrived at a right turn. They stopped and peered round the corner. Another soldier currently had his back turned and was walking away from them. A metal crate stood a little way in, so they quickly hid behind it, waiting for him to return.
His legs folded up against his chest, Mac sat rigidly up against the crate, disorientated by how unreal it all seemed and yet how real it actually was. Everything around him passed him by at light speed and with a lumbering sluggishness all at once, and the effect it created was dizzying. He started all of a sudden as he felt someone gently place their hand in his, but he instantly realised that it was only Mike. They looked each other in the eye. Her solemn expression didn't show it as much, but something was alive in her eyes, something akin to fear or determination or the surge of adrenaline, or all three. If they were ever going to get out of here, he thought, he'd have to act like she did and not let his fear gain control. His fingers closed over hers in solidarity.
At that moment, a boot descended from the air and landed barely an inch from Mike's other hand, only just managing to avoid treading on her. Both their gazes moved silently upwards and they watched, hearts in their mouths, as the soldier paced straight past without even noticing them and then paused about a metre away. Uttering a weary sigh, he opted to stem the monotony with a cigarette break and withdrew a packet and a lighter. He put one in his mouth and lit it, savouring whatever flavour he could extract from the smoke before allowing it to escape from his mouth and float gently on the air.
Mike's grip on her gun tightened. This was their chance; if he turned round, he'd see them for sure. She furtively got to her feet and approached him from behind, raising the butt of the gun so that it became level with his head. As he took another drag, Mike brought it back a little and then rammed it forcefully into the back of his skull. A succinct grunt was all that passed the soldier's lips before he toppled forward and lay unconscious at her feet. The cigarette tumbled from between his teeth and lay smouldering on the ground.
Quickly looking on ahead, Mike saw that there was another crate and another right turn further along the corridor. Mac got up and they headed over towards them before she gestured to him to wait in front of the crate. Keeping the gun in position, she stealthily crept towards the doorway. The sound of two soldiers having a conversation wafted down through the small stairwell it led to. Somehow she'd have to draw them downstairs, and a plan immediately formed in her head, but this time she couldn't simply knock them both out cold. She briskly walked back over to the crate and said uneasily, "I'm gonna set this thing off in a minute, and…I don't want you to see what happens. I want you to close your eyes and wait right here until I say, all right?" Mac's eyes widened a little as he understood what she was getting at, but he nodded all the same.
As he shut his eyes, Mike inched along the far wall until she was level with the entrance to the stairwell. She settled the sight directly in the centre of a tile on the wall. Suddenly hoping that there were only two of them, she fired twice and then withdrew a few feet to her right, listening to the noise as the guards raced down the stairs.
His hand pressed firmly over his eyes, Mac sat in nervous anticipation, waiting for something to shatter the silence as he'd done in the darkness of his own room. Two shots rang out from in front of him, followed a heavy thud and then another. Instantly seized by lurid curiosity, his fingers parted and he peered through the gap. The bodies of the two soldiers lay sprawled on the floor, their lifeless eyes staring up at the ceiling. For a moment his eyes were transfixed on the blood that was steadily seeping from their bullet-wounds and pooling around their heads, and as much as it revolted and terrified him, he couldn't stop. Then his frightened mind asked him, was it really Mike who had done this? How could she –
"Mac!" she hissed, grabbing his arm, "Come on!" She pulled him to his feet and they raced up the stairwell until they came out into another corridor that branched out in both directions both there and at each end. The left fork was deserted, but Mike glimpsed to her right just in time to see a soldier march across the end of the hallway. Once he'd vanished, she steadied her gun and advanced on his position.
Following her as closely as possible, Mac took a couple of deep breaths and tried to keep calm, but with danger lurking around every corner, it was no easy task. He glanced nervously over his shoulder towards the other end of the corridor, saw nothing and looked ahead, but his head immediately whipped round again. He had seen something.
Another soldier had just stepped out from behind the wall, and he and Mike were completely out in the open. "Behind," he stammered, starting to panic again, "behind us…"
Mike spun around and caught sight of the lone gunman in the near distance just as he caught sight of her, but she was quicker to react and she opened fire on him before he could rest his finger on the trigger. Turning back in the direction they were going, she simply said, "Go, this way!" to Mac before they broke into a run. The soldier they had tried to bypass earlier came out from the right but he flew backwards as a fresh round of ammunition struck him square in the chest. As they rounded the corner, Mike recognised the shadowy path ahead because at the end lay the back exit she'd come in by. They stopped at the door and Mike slid the card into the slot, seeing an LED on the lock turn from red to green as it deactivated. She pushed it open and the two of them stepped out into the night.
The air outside was hazy with mist and drizzle. Through it they could dimly perceive a ladder leading out of the embankment and up towards the grassy slope she'd slid down earlier. Her eyes darting vigilantly between either ends of the pathway, Mike let the door swing shut and led Mac over to the ladder, allowing him to climb up first and then following at his heel. As soon as she was over the top, they both began to clamber up the slope. The ground was damp underfoot and they hooked their fingers into the soft earth to prevent themselves from losing their grip. In the darkness it was almost impossible to determine where their ascent would end, but at last the ground evened out and they sprinted the few remaining yards to the fence. Mike pulled the bottom of the lattice up again and waited for Mac to crawl through the gap before she snaked underneath, wincing as a few stray barbs cut her hand deeply enough to draw blood.
On the other side, without a moment's hesitation or another glance back at the building, they surged up and fled headlong into the darkness, guided through the trees only by the moonlight. Deafening noise rose from all sides, the heavy rustle of foliage coupled with their frantic breathing and pounding footsteps. Branches whipped and scratched against their faces as they weaved their way through. Mike's eyes frequently turned towards the treetops and once her pulse was sent racing as the moonlight appeared to glint off something metallic, but no shots rang out.
Eventually the rows of trees disappeared to reveal the broad, open hillside that led back down to the main road. Their lungs and throats were burning as they emerged from the wood, but they persisted through the discomfort down the slope, gathering momentum with every step. Once at the bottom, Mike cast a brief glimpse in both directions down the road before they ran across and concealed themselves in the undergrowth. As soon as they hit the ground she clasped Mac's arm to make sure that he was still there and that she'd know if someone suddenly whisked him off. Miniscule drops of rain settled on their foreheads as they waited in silence, ears strained for any hint of danger, but no sound reached them, save the occasional breeze that rattled the treetops. When Mike thought it was safe, they rose to their feet and began to creep as hurriedly as they dared along the side of the road. For a few minutes they followed its steady course back towards the city while the night hung still and benign around them.
All of a sudden, a pair of headlights veered into view, accompanied by the low rumble of a car engine; the glare cast a beam of light on the asphalt in their direction. Instantly they hurled themselves to the floor again and covered their heads. The noise steadily grew louder and louder until, with a whoosh, it passed them by and sped off into the distance. Mike lifted her head, saw that the coast was clear again and nudged Mac, who then got up with her, and the two of them continued down the road. Occasionally they would hear a noise and think there was someone in pursuit of them, but nothing could slacken their pace, not until they'd left the compound far behind.
Chilled to the bone and miserable from standing out in the bitter cold for the last hour, and now in the rain as well, a soldier trooped back towards the front door of Cicatriz, having just completed his shift. He keyed a number into a keypad, pushed the door open and headed inside the building, unaware that Sam and Tucker were monitoring his every move.
"Are we in?" Sam asked as the door swung shut behind him.
"On the home stretch," Tucker answered. "I've managed to hack into their computer mainframe. All I need to do is locate the security grid and disable it."
"How long will that take?"
Tucker shrugged. "Your guess is as good as mine – this grid goes on forever."
While he continued to trawl through matrices and data banks, Sam cast her eye over to the dull and lifeless building and waited in anticipation. Despite the overwhelming terror and ever-present danger, she felt heartened by the prospect of looking upon Danny's face after so long, that he was now only a stone's throw away when this morning she feared she'd never see him again. But she was also scared of whether he would be the same person as the one she'd fallen in love with; whether the Keepers and their Mengele-like experiments had reduced him almost to a non-entity, left enervated and deranged by months of being tortured in the name of "science"; whether the drugs had caused his memories of them to fade entirely…
Just as it had been for the last eighteen months, not knowing the truth was the most troubling part. Sam sighed and stared longingly at the wall, as if to gaze straight through it and catch even the briefest glimpse of him; grey concrete was all she was rewarded with.
The winter wind drifting across the back of her neck, she heard Tucker mutter "Damn it" beside her as he entered a password, only to have it refused by the mainframe, and again as the next attempt was similarly unsuccessful. After mulling it over for a little bit, he entered another and held his breath. The words 'Password accepted' flashed in green on his PDA and he released it, causing Sam's eyes to snap open at the sound. "Almost there," Tucker reported. "Now there's nothing to stop us shutting this thing down."
Sam tensed in readiness and moved into a crouching position, awaiting the all-clear. Tucker typed in the command and laid the tip of his finger on the enter key. Suddenly the door opened and a soldier stepped out. "Wait," Sam hissed quietly, raising her hand to stop him, and with their eye on the entrance they shrank back a little into the darkness. The soldier surveyed his surroundings then turned right and disappeared around the corner.
"Do it," Sam told him, and Tucker pressed the key. There was a soft click as the lock on the door was deactivated. Quickly they readied their guns and hurried out from behind the bushes.
Tucker cautiously swung the door open and glanced down the hallway before saying, "Clear." Before anyone could spot them, they snuck inside and continued towards the doorway ahead, scanning the corridor in all directions with their weapons.
As they went through the doorway, Sam pressed on her earpiece and whispered into the headset, "This is Manson and Foley, we are inside Cicatriz. I repeat, we are inside Cicatriz."
As he waited in a communications tent, General Steiner shifted his weight uncomfortably from foot to foot. Now that the guns and artillery had been stilled on both sides, a chilling calm had descended over everything and now billowed across the battlefield much like the wind was doing. It was too tranquil, too stark a contrast to the former deafening roar of warfare, and part of him pleaded for something to pierce through it, a gunshot, a voice, anything. Suddenly his calls were answered when a phone rang and an analyst picked up.
"Hello?...Yes, sir…Yes, of course, sir…" With his hand over the mouthpiece, he looked over his shoulder at Steiner and said, "Sir, it's General Skarr. He wants to speak with you."
Steiner took the receiver from his hand and said into it, "Steiner here."
"We reached an accord," Skarr told him, almost morosely, Steiner thought. "We've surrendered. The war is over."
Steiner paused, contemplating the unenviable task that now lay ahead of him. "Then I will relay this to the troops immediately."
"Be precise," Skarr advised. "Tell them to throw down their weapons when the Eurasians approach, tell them not to provoke them or put up any resistance. We can't afford for this to fall through, the city's survival depends on it."
"I'll see that it's done," he answered, and his statement was greeted with a murmur of approval. "Is there anything else, General?"
There was a steady intake and release of breath from the other end. "Yes, there is," Skarr said, "but it's for your ears only. No-one else can overhear this conversation."
"Understood." At that point, Steiner turned to the analysts listening in on the call and indicated with a nod that they leave the tent. Once he was alone, he said, "Go ahead."
"You have to flee the city, tonight."
"What?" Steiner asked in shock, "Why?"
"The Eurasians took complete advantage of our situation," Skarr explained. "They gave me a document to sign which would end the war but also hand control of Metropolis over to them. I was left with no option but to sign it." At Steiner's silence, Skarr emphasised his point urgently. "They're going to take this place over, Steiner, add her to their empire. Their troops will start to move in soon and once they reach the city, they won't just go after the Inner Circle, they'll go after people like you and me and arrest them. That's why you have to get the hell out of here." Steiner listened, lost for words, and struggled to believe what Skarr was saying. "I'm leaving here within the next few hours," Skarr continued, "and I urge you to do the same."
Completely immersed in his thoughts, Steiner's eyes closed in resignation; he knew what he had to do. The chance of escape lay just within his reach, and yet he didn't feel that he could grasp it. "I appreciate your offer, General," he said sombrely, "but I must decline."
"Steiner, the Eurasians will capture you, maybe even kill you if you don't –"
"I realise that," Steiner interjected, "but it doesn't concern me. Right now, my place is out here with the troops. Many of our men didn't even want to fight at all. I feel I have some sort of duty to stay with them. There's nothing left for me…not anywhere, not in this life."
There was a pause. "Your decision isn't what I would have preferred," Skarr said eventually, "but it's what I expected to hear. I hope the army serves you well. Good luck."
"Farewell, General," Steiner said.
Skarr hesitated and then replied, "Farewell, my friend" before ending the call.
Steiner silently replaced the handset and walked outside, where the analysts were still waiting by the entrance. "Open up a channel to the other commanders," he ordered. "I'll announce the surrender myself." The analysts nodded obediently and then filed back into the tent. A group of soldiers stood close by, looking out with uncertainty onto the horizon at their Eurasian counterparts undoubtedly doing the same thing. "Lower your weapons, men," he told them and at the inquisitive looks they gave him, he added, "You won't need them any more."
Further down the front, a soldier by the name of Ulrich Meinl irritably drummed his fingers on the barrel of his gun. The endless period of inactivity was driving him crazy. A couple of hours ago he and the other soldiers around him were in the thick of everything, fighting on the Keepers' behalf, happily taking pot-shots at any Eurasian who dared to show his face; now they'd been reduced to simply staring them out from across No Man's Land. He craved the adrenaline rush, he craved the giddy thrill that military service had promised him and that currently eluded him. Occasionally glancing up through the rain, he was considering having a smoke when his unit commander returned.
"We've surrendered," he said bluntly. "General Steiner has ordered a total ceasefire. Soon the Eurasians will advance on our position and then forward into the city. Once they arrive here, every soldier is to disarm themselves and throw down their weapons." He regarded the band of soldiers gathered around him, many of whom stared back in silent relief. "We've lost the war. It's over." At that point, as the news continued to spread through the ranks, some soldiers, devastated by the impending fall of their city, pointed their guns to their heads and took their own lives. Gunshots could be heard all across the front.
Meinl gaped incredulously at his commander. He'd been betrayed. All of them had been betrayed. Their own generals had sold them, the Keepers and Metropolis down the river, and of all people, to their sworn enemies, the ones whose sole purpose was to destroy their way of life and everything they believed in. "This is treason," he managed eventually. "They're playing the city right into their hands! We can't surrender, the Party would never approve!"
"That's an order!" the commander barked authoritatively. "It's the only way to protect the civilians."
"Protect them? What for?" Meinl demanded, "Just so they can stay around to watch the Eurasians overrun Metropolis? I've made my pledge to the Keepers – I'd rather die than surrender to those Eurasian bastards. I don't care what Steiner said, I'll shoot at them until the last bullet!"
At his words, the commander lunged forward and seized him by the jacket, his fist resting just below Meinl's jawbone. "Listen up, soldier," he snarled. "There is a delicate balance here at this point in time and I have been ordered to shoot on sight anybody who tries to upset that balance. I've been waiting to put a cap in someone's ass all goddamn day, and if you wanna be first up, then go ahead. I'm not gonna stop you."
Fuming at the apparent cowardice of his comrades, Meinl kept silent. The commander released his grip and walked off. The other soldiers also began to disperse and return to their posts to await the arrival of the Eurasians. However, as they did so, Meinl headed off in the direction of the nearest comm. station. If he couldn't persuade the troops himself, he knew of the one person that could. Once he reached the station, he peered in through the doorway. It was deserted apart from an analyst who sat before a row of computer monitors, oblivious to his presence. Before anyone else noticed him, he ducked inside.
From the reflection on his screen, the analyst noticed him enter and turned around, nervously watching him as he bolted the door shut and then strode purposefully over to his side. He didn't know why the soldier had come in here, but judging from his actions, he didn't want anyone else to know what he was doing, and he broke out in a sweat as he feared what sinister purposes he might be here for. "What's…what's going on?" he stammered.
"Shut up," Meinl replied and he forcibly turned the analyst around in his chair so that he faced the console again. "Send a dispatch to Central Core, saying that General Skarr has accepted an offer of capitulation by the Eurasians and that they will shortly take possession of the city."
"I-I'm not authorised to send –" the analyst protested, but Meinl cut him off.
"Here's your authorisation," he growled and the analyst's eyes widened uncontrollably as he withdrew a pistol, released the catch and rested it in the middle of his forehead. "Do it," he ordered, "now."
Down in the communications room at Central Core, a young soldier skim-read an incoming message from the front line with a look of unparalleled horror on his face. Had he understood correctly? Did their High Command really intend to gift Metropolis to their enemies, and all this behind the backs of the Inner Circle? Strokov had to know about this. When the last letter had been imprinted on the page, he tore the flimsy sheet of paper from the teleprinter and raced out of the room.
As he hurried through the building, Chairman Vladimir Strokov was anxiously considering his next move. A spacious military map lay before him like a giant chessboard, its pawns currently spread in a circle around the city. Around his desk stood the remaining six members of the Inner Circle.
"Comrade Chairman, we received another demand from President Wasson about fifteen minutes ago," Foreign Secretary Heyerdahl reported. "He said that they were still open to negotiations, but he made it clear that if we do not withdraw from Vismund Cygnus immediately, they are fully prepared to launch a full-scale attack on Metropolis."
"Keep them there," Strokov ordered. "It will be a last stronghold if this city should fall."
Adjusting his collar, Roland Worff said, "Chairman, if the Eurasians enter Metropolis by force, the entire fabric of our society will unravel. The city will not be able to withstand an assault like what the Eurasians are threatening us with and if we are to prevent it from happening, we have to appease them, at least until we can muster enough strength for an assault."
Strokov appeared to reflect on this for a moment, but then quickly rebuffed it. "What is destroyed can be rebuilt. The divisions in Vismund Cygnus will stay where they are."
"But what of the civilians?" the Defence Minister persisted, getting more and more agitated. "We can evacuate them if we bargain with the Eurasians for more time, otherwise the fighting will come to them and with no troops to protect them, the population will surely be decimated."
"That's no concern of mine."
"Chairman, I urge you –"
"I feel no sympathy!" Strokov shouted, rising swiftly from his seat. "The civilians are undeserving of compassion. They chose their own fate, and now that their lives are in danger, they expect me to –?"
At that point, the soldier burst into the room and stood doubled over in the doorway catching his breath. The ministers watched him in confusion and annoyance until he straightened up and walked straight to Strokov's desk. "A dispatch…for your attention, Chairman," he panted, holding it out to him.
Frowning, Strokov took the piece of paper and adjusted his spectacles. "Skarr has accepted an offer of capitulation by the Eurasians," he read aloud, "and they will shortly take possession of the city." The atmosphere inside the room instantly became deathly quiet. Horrified at the news, the ministers looked uneasily between him and each other, noticing the hand that held the letter tremble with fury. "That traitor!" he roared, "That disloyal, contemptible coward! He dared override my authority?" He flung the paper aside and it floated harmlessly to the floor. "He dared disobey my orders? And now our generals are following his lead? That bloodsucker, thinking he could commit treason against me…" His words gradually dissolved into mutterings as he sank back into his chair. By now sweating profusely, the soldier wiped his forehead on the back of his sleeve and watched Strokov fuming silently at his desk. Suddenly he found the Chairman's withering glare directed at him, and the blood froze in his veins. "Who did you receive this from?" he asked.
The soldier swallowed nervously and replied, "I don't know, sir. It came from a comm. station to the north-east."
"Send a dispatch back to them. I want the remaining generals deprived of office and, as new Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces, I order the troops to resume hostilities immediately."
"Yes, sir," he acknowledged, then saluted and departed for the comm. room.
"Adler," Strokov beckoned, and the Minister for State Security stepped forward. "Find Skarr and bring him to me here. Scour every corner of the city, use every man available to you if you need to. I want him found, and I want him alive."
"I assure you, Chairman – the secret service will not fail you." Adler saluted, then turned on his heel and strode out through the doorway.
Strokov turned back to face Worff and Heyerdahl as Adler left the room. "Get a message to Hofmann," he said to Worff, "and tell him to commence with his assault."
"Chairman, Hofmann's battalion does not have enough manpower to take on the Eurasians by itself," said Heyerdahl.
"Then have them reinforce the front-line troops!"
"How?" Worff asked, "There's no way for them to penetrate their lines –"
"Then make them find a way!" Strokov ordered. He got up again and began to head for the door. "The Eurasians may have us surrounded," he said, a threatening calmness present in his voice. "But I won't surrender to them. Never…" Without another word, he hobbled past them and out into the corridor.
Once he went round the corner and out of sight, Worff's eyes closed in resignation. Strokov's already tenuous grasp on reality was becoming ever slimmer, and now that he had replaced their generals, men with years of military experience, with himself and ordered a full-out attack on the Eurasians from their already depleted army, there was no hope left for them. Their regime had reached its twilight stages and he was tempted to jump overboard before this ship sank. However, suffering the same fate as Skarr would do in a few hours was not an attractive option to him. Glancing sideways at Heyerdahl, the Foreign Secretary gave him a brief nod before the ministers parted company and went their separate ways. As he wandered along the hallway, he could physically sense the small distance between them and the Eurasians, a distance that was steadily growing shorter.
Once he re-entered his office, he shut the doors, took a bottle of vodka off the shelf and poured himself a glass of it. He downed it in one, feeling the warmth it brought as it cascaded down his throat, and then sat back down at his desk. Staring dolefully at the clock on the wall, he watched time run away from them, tick by tick. He sighed deeply. He had tasks to complete, but not yet. First there was someone he had to call.
Their hands roaming across the metal walls, Double-D and Timmy struggled to see anything as they blindly felt their way along the pipe. Down in the sewer it was almost pitch black. Every footstep created a quiet ripple that reverberated through the tunnel and caused Timmy to look instinctively over his shoulder to check that no-one was tailing them, even though everything around them was obscured in shadow.
Reaching into the darkness again, Double-D felt the cold metal curve away to the right, and the other withdrew a flashlight from his pocket. The forms of four people became visible as he shone the torch beam round the corner, and he was instantly paralysed with terror as one of them made to fire at him. Then one of the others said to the gunman, "It's Double-D, man, relax."
The muzzle of the gun descended towards the floor again, and Double-D breathed a sigh of relief. Motioning to Timmy to follow him, he emerged from behind the corner and approached the group. A third member came up to meet him and said, "Evening, Double-D."
"Evening, Sullivan," Double-D answered. "The field clear?"
"If there's anyone else down here, we haven't found 'em," Sullivan said. "We've searched everywhere, all four of us." Double-D nodded and looked briefly to the side at the remaining three operatives. Johnson, the gunman, nodded in greeting, a little embarrassed that he'd narrowly avoided shooting his own boss; Meineck, the taller one, did the same. On their left stood Gaz Driscoll, Dib's nihilistic and deeply cynical younger sister, who received him instead with an aloof stare.
"Good," he said. "Has the EMP arrived yet?" As soon he uttered the words, three sharp knocks rang out as someone rapped on the manhole cover above them.
"That'll be them," Sullivan said. At the signal, Johnson and Meineck mounted the ladder that led up to street level and ascended it. Double-D and Sullivan craned their necks upwards and watched as someone up above slid the manhole cover aside. A thin pillar of moonlight was projected towards the floor and to Gaz's astonishment, with it appeared the image of Timmy Turner, waiting and watching them. "What's he doing here?" she demanded, pointing a finger at him. Intimidated by her accusing outburst, Timmy edged away a little.
Not averting his gaze from the ceiling, Double-D glanced at Timmy out of the corner of his eye and replied tersely, "He's gonna help me."
"But he doesn't belong here!" Gaz protested, "He's too much of a liability. He should be back at Division."
"I want him with me," he reaffirmed, looking sharply at her. It had been enough effort to quell his doubts first time round – he didn't want to have to repeat it.
Gaz stared at him for a second before irritably muttering, "Whatever" and turning her attention to the bomb now being lowered into the sewer. Having clasped one of the handles on the EMP, Meineck was now leaning backwards as the agents above ground gently eased it at an angle through the narrow opening. Eventually the entire device was inside, and the other half dangled in the air from someone's outstretched arm.
"Grab that, will you, someone?" a voice called, and Johnson obliged. Carefully, the two agents climbed back down the ladder, each carrying the bomb by its handles in one hand and clinging to the rail with the other. Once they reached the bottom, they held it out to Sullivan and Double-D, who then set it down; there was a soft clang as the transporters replaced the cover, and their surroundings became dark again.
Double-D handed the torch to Timmy and said, "Hold this." With that, he grasped both the handles and lifted the EMP, which, although burdensome, didn't weigh too much. "All right," he instructed quietly. "Timmy and I will take it from here. Sullivan, I need you and the rest of the team to continue patrolling the area, coordinate with Division if you need to. Let me know if you encounter anything suspect."
"Will do," Sullivan said. "Good luck."
"And to you. See you back at Division," he replied. He said, "Let's go" to Timmy and then tipped Sullivan a nod before he headed out towards Cicatriz.
Timmy followed on, trying to avoid eye contact with Gaz as they passed each other. Eventually, however, he threw a brief sideways glimpse at her; she fixed him with a last resentful glare and then promptly turned away. Even as he and Double-D rounded the corner, he couldn't comprehend the animosity he was getting from her. Why did she dislike him so much? It wasn't as though his purpose was to deliberately impede their progress; Double-D had purposely asked him for his help, not out of a fanatical, ill-conceived notion that Timmy was some sort of miracle worker, but because he thought he was competent enough to do the job he'd been assigned to. As he and Double-D continued further into the darkness, he felt a little aggrieved at her lack of trust, wondering just what he'd have to do to earn it.
Meanwhile, the other four agents stood guard below the manhole in silence, training their weapons on any activity they perceived. After a few minutes, Meineck could still hear nothing but the steady flow of the water and sensed that, save for them, there was no-one else down here. But then, a soft noise reached his ears and suddenly he wasn't so sure. He waited a few seconds and then heard it again, a furtive movement in the water. A band of sweat formed on his forehead and he moved cautiously towards the mouth of the pipe it came from, almost adjacent from where he stood. The cavernous passage appeared to open up before him as he gazed inside and, curiously, the noise subsided. He waded a little further in but the only movements he could hear were his own. Still slightly discomfited, he began to head back. Suddenly he felt someone grab his head from behind and jerk it sideways, and then he felt nothing more.
Sullivan and Johnson looked up at a dry, succinct sound, similar to that of a twig snapping, and saw Meineck's body limply tip forward from behind a wall and land face-down in the water, calmly bobbing on the surface; there was no doubt in their minds that he was dead.
"Oh, Jesus…" Johnson moaned.
"Easy, man," Sullivan said, "stay calm." He turned to Gaz and said, "Gaz, you're unarmed. Take cover now and we'll follow you." She hesitated and he ordered, "Go!" Spurred into action, Gaz headed off to the right and ducked inside another tunnel.
Feeling an invisible force relentlessly closing in on them, Johnson whirled around in a blind madness with the gun and frantically tried to spot the assailant in the dim light. "C-come on out, you m-mother-fuckers!" he yelled into the darkness.
"Keep your voice down –!" Sullivan hissed, but at that instant a shot, muffled by a silencer, was fired from behind them, cutting him off in mid-sentence. Aghast, Johnson watched him crumple to the floor but barely had time to react before another bullet struck him in the base of his skull.
At the sound of the shots Gaz retreated further inside the pipe until she was safely concealed from view. Outside someone shone a torch along the channel and she could make out the undulating reflection of an armed soldier wading towards her. She edged away as quietly as she could, watching the image as it loomed closer and closer on the surface of the water.
"Jung!" a voice barked suddenly from behind her. The soldier's head turned to look back at the comrade beckoning to him. "Move out, the bomb ain't here."
"They told us there were four people down here," Jung answered. "I can only see three."
"It doesn't matter!" the other said curtly. "We came looking for the bomb. It ain't here, so let's go find it." Gaz heard Jung mutter something in response, and his reflection began to recede into darkness along with the torchlight. Their footsteps gradually faded away and when they had resolved into nothing, she peered out from the tunnel. Whoever the assassins were, they were gone. Immediately she ran over to the ladder, past the lifeless bodies of her team-mates, and climbed up it, pushing against the heavy lid with her shoulder. A breeze of blissfully fresh air flooded in underneath it and after spending so long in the musty environment of the sewer, she gulped at it eagerly as she heaved herself up onto the street. She grasped the lid with both hands and held it over the manhole, taking one last look at the faint outlines of the bodies down below before she sombrely set it back down.
As the enemy on the other side of the mire prepared to receive them, a group of Eurasian soldiers prepared to commence their march into the city. The mood among them was hardly triumphal; the Keepers never stood a chance against them. Hopelessly outnumbered and outclassed, their line of defence had been pushed back so far it was encamped almost inside their own city walls. Their victory had been nothing more than a walkover; the real task lay ahead of them, that of rooting out the remaining party members and preventing the state from hurtling into anarchy once its leaders were removed. The process would take days, requiring far more manpower, money and effort than the actual fighting. At least one of the Keepers had seen sense and brought the conflict to an end before the entire city was razed to the ground, even though it sounded the death knell for their regime and placed a bounty on their head. Sure hate to be you, pal, the lieutenant thought, and he hoisted his gun over his shoulder.
Suddenly, his ears pricked, and he hushed the soldiers talking next to him. Through the stillness came a shrill screaming sound that gradually rose in volume and lowered in pitch and which the lieutenant recognised immediately. "That's artillery!" he hollered, "Take cover!" The soldiers hurried away from the sound then hurled themselves on the floor and covered their heads. There was a deafening explosion as the shell landed less than a hundred feet away from them, scattering earth and shrapnel in every direction. Tremors shook the ground beneath them before the noise rolled away into the atmosphere, only to be replaced by blood-curdling screams that rent the air. The lieutenant lifted his head to see one of his platoon writhing and shrieking in agony; a fragment of shrapnel had embedded itself firmly in his leg. As the others tended to his wounds, the lieutenant scrambled to his feet and made immediately for a comm. station. Pushing past the soldiers standing aghast in the doorway, he seized the nearest apparatus and radioed Eisner.
"Marshal, we've been attacked," the lieutenant panted. "They fired a shell at us."
"So I heard," Eisner said. "I knew we couldn't trust a government that lies to its own people. At this moment we're mobilising all available units. Since the armistice has already been broken, we'll take the city by force. If this is the playing field the Keepers want, it's what they'll get."
"Affirmative, sir." His heart sinking a little, he returned to his platoon and ordered, "Reload the artillery." None of them moved. "The Marshal's orders!" he shouted. "Reload and prepare to fire!"
The hub of Intel was teeming with analysts frantically inputting fresh data and hurrying back and forth between monitors as Dib entered from the East Wing, and he weaved his way through the swarming mass towards Kimiko, who was sitting at her station amidst the chaos. "Kim," he said, attracting her attention, "have we had an update from Sam and Tucker?"
"Not yet. The security matrix at Cicatriz went offline about twenty minutes ago – we oughta receive one soon."
"What about the EMP?"
"We got off the line with Peres a little earlier, said Double-D picked up the device without incident. They should still be on course for the target."
"All right, page me if something comes up. I'll be in Tech One."
"Got it," Kimiko answered, and Dib headed off, his mind almost on autopilot
When he arrived at Tech One, a technician inside said, "Just in time, Dib, got a live wire just opened up." Dib walked up to the transceiver he was sitting at, donned a headset and listened in. Someone could be faintly heard down the line, but their words were smothered by white noise and rendered unintelligible. "Hello?" the technician requested, "This is Tech One, do you read me? Please respond."
"Tech One…Minesweeper…" was all that was audible while the technician continued to alter the wavelength, but Dib's head whipped round at the familiar sound of their voice. "Gaz?" he asked automatically.
The static on the transmission lifted and Gaz could be heard more clearly. "Dib? Can you hear me?"
"Yeah, I can hear you. Go ahead."
"We've got a problem. We weren't alone down there."
"What do you mean?" Dib said. "What happened?"
"Sullivan, Meineck…all the others are dead," Gaz replied, out of breath. "The Keepers ambushed us, after Double-D took the EMP. I'm the only one that got out."
Dib's fist clenched; he wanted desperately to doubt Gaz's information, but the truth was still inexorably clear to him. Nevertheless he ventured, "You're sure it was them?"
"They don't patrol down here very often, Dib," Gaz answered scornfully. "They knew we were down here, it was obvious. They came looking for us."
Pressing down on the bridge of his nose, Dib ventured, "OK – where's Double-D?"
"Timmy and Double-D, where are they?" he pressed her. "Did they follow them?"
"How should I know?" Gaz demanded. "The gunmen went off in another direction, maybe they're trying to head them off somewhere. I don't know, I can't reach Double-D. He could be anywhere, these drains go on for miles."
His eyes closed, Dib listened to the last bit with only half an ear; his mind was in a dozen different places, each one presenting a fresh and pressing problem. Of all the incidents that could've arisen on his watch, this was one he could have done without. "…Dib…?" How could the Keepers have uncovered their plan so rapidly and effortlessly…? "Dib. What do you want me to do?"
He was roused from his thoughts by the question sounding in his ear and he murmured, "I need you to return to Division for debriefing. But watch your back – if we've been compromised, the Keepers might be stationed above ground as well."
"I'm on the way."
He hesitated and then added, "Wait, Gaz?"
"Are you OK? Did they hurt you?"
"What? No, I'm fine."
Dib breathed a small sigh of relief. "OK. See you back at Division – be careful."
"What do you think I do all day?" Gaz said and then signed off. Hurriedly removing the headset, Dib wandered outside the room and called Kimiko.
"Kimiko, it's Dib. I need you to report to Tech One. Don't let anyone know where you're going."
Kimiko paused. "OK, I'll be right over." With that she hung up and less than a minute later she was walking down the corridor towards him. "What's going on?" she asked.
Lowering his voice, Dib answered, "The Keepers cottoned on to our plan. They took out our surveillance team, they were aware of their exact location."
Stunned into silence, words formed in vain on Kimiko's tongue until she managed, "But…how's that possible?"
"That's what I wanna know. Damn it…" Dib muttered, shaking his head. For a few seconds, their minds beset by unease, they contemplated the situation and frantically sought an answer. It seemed odd how Division continued to function as normal around them, totally unaware of the sinister developments. Eventually Dib suggested, "Could the Keepers have hacked into our mainframe? Maybe they rifled through our databanks."
Kimiko shook her head. "Wouldn't make a difference. There's nothing to find – Double-D told everyone to keep any information off the network so this wouldn't happen. All we had on there was some schematics." An anxious expression crossed her face. "Maybe they're a little closer to home. Maybe they planted someone on the inside."
"Or they're already on the inside," Dib said, peering up from the floor. As they looked at each other, the realisation dawned on them both simultaneously.
"That could mean anyone," Kimiko said.
"Exactly," Dib answered, "which is why we have to leave everyone out of the loop." He peered through the window where the technician was still scouring the airwaves for any activity. "All right, there's a computer in Field Ops with full access to the mainframe. Pull up a database of all transmissions made in the last six hours. Cellphone calls, anything. I'll meet you there."
"Got it." As she hastened towards the stairwell, Dib headed in the opposite direction, wiping beads of viscous sweat from his forehead. With a mole inside the compound, they couldn't communicate with any of their agents or pass information onto them, which left them isolated and trapped in the open. Whoever this person was, he and Kimiko needed to find them before this chain of events triggered something worse.
Watch this space...more to come soon!