Trusting in what you can't see,
Take my lead I'll set you free.
-"City Escape", Sonic Adventure 2

Chapter 1-04: EXIT

Stampton Bridge, Neon approach
01 Sept 2009 1034
Tuesday

The flower seller watched the two men approach the crowd at the Stampton Bridge, and, once again, glanced at the massive gate that had replaced the tollbooths. Of course, there were plenty of people in the area. Some staring angrily, some muttering, some huddled masses, yearning to be free. People with lives Outside, with families to get back to, families that didn't know if they were alive or dead.

He knew how that felt.

These two, though, they were different. The shorter one was armed, but so was he, so were a lot of people on the bridge. The taller guy dressed like an athlete; light pants, running shoes, sweatshirt with the hood down. He moved through the path of least resistance, his friend following in his wake. No visible weapons, but for some reason the florist kept thinking of a shark.

The speakers on the gate suddenly came on, just as the two newcomers arrived at the mostly-clear area in front of it.

"This area is under strict quarantine. Lethal force is authorized against unauthorized personnel. This is your final warning."

Then it repeated in Spanish and Cantonese.

"Nice to see 'em embracin' diversity," the shorter guy said. "How'd they get this gate built so fast?"

"Pre-fab?" said the other.

"That'd work, if you knew ahead of time you'd need a gate for this particular bridge. And this looks like a real professional job, not something the Army Corps of Engineers threw together last night. Even got a camera, so they can when tell the natives are getting restless." He waved at it, beauty queen style.

"Can you get it open?"

"Maybe...I dunno. Maybe they accidentally left a big red lever that says 'GATE CONTROL'."

"That'd be nice of 'em," the florist said as he walked up to them, "but I'm not counting on it." He stuck out his hand. "Ron Rosen, flower salesman."

The smaller of the two shook first. "Zeke Mercer, repairman."

The other guy seemed to be concentrating as he shook. "Sly Cooper, between jobs."

Ron raised an eyebrow. "Like the video games?"

"What? Never heard of them."

"My son used to have them on his PlayStation. He had to sell it when the divorce went through and he went to live with his mom in Jersey." He sighed. "Son, if you're going to use a fake name, at least make it a good one."

"Sly" stared at Ron for a second. "Let's try this again. Alex J. Cole."

Ron shook. "Pleased to meet you. That was a pretty good one, but most people don't give their middle initial."

Cole smiled a little. "I'll keep that in mind." He looked around. "Where'd Zeke go? Oh, there he is. Zeke!"

"Cole, I think I got it! Look!"

Cole went. Ron followed, a few feet back.

"See that box up there? Fry it."

There was no way Cole could do anything electrical from down on the ground, Ron thought. Maybe he would climb up, somehow. Why was he raising his ar -

"Huh," said Ron a few seconds later, and managed to close his mouth. "No wonder you don't want to tell everyone your real name."

Mercer made a guilty face. "Uh...yeah. Alex shoots lightning out of his hands."

"Thanks for the update," Ron growled, as his heart stopped feeling like it was about to jump out of his chest. It hadn't really been that loud, just...surprising.

"Gate's opening," Cole said, like he hadn't noticed the two men.

The crowd, which had backed up when Cole threw lightning, was starting to move forward. Ron drew his Ruger, held it next to his leg on the side away from the gate. Then he edged backward, keeping the sliding wing of the gate between him and whatever was on the other side.

Which, as it turned out, was a machine gun.

The sound of a Browning 50 Cal made Ron cover his ears, just like old times. It felt weird to be on the bad end of the M2. It felt even stranger to watch Cole be flung back by the bullets tearing through his body. No, not strange at all. That hollow feeling in his gut, yeah, that was way too familiar.

The gun stopped.

Alex groaned.

Ron tried not to look. He had seen men hit by a fifty before, and it hadn't been pretty. He didn't look, even when he heard Cole dragging himself out of the line of fire.

"Hey."

Ron jumped.

"You okay?" Mercer said. He was crouched next to Ron, his forty-five out.

"I'm-" Ron swallowed. "I'm sorry about your brother."

"Don't worry about it. You gotta gun?"

Ron drew. His hand was shaking. Hello adrenaline, my old friend.

"A twenty-two?" said Mercer, who was pretty chipper for a guy whose brother just got mowed down by heavy weaponry. "Really? You want to tickle 'em? These guys are probably wearing body armor!"

"It's a target gun. I have some heavier hardware back at the ranch, but I needed to stay mobile."

There was an electrical crackle from Cole's direction, and Ron looked. Alex rolled over onto his back, coughed some blood, and started to stand -

"What-"

"Like I said, don't worry about it."

Cole was up, leaning against the gate, where the gunner couldn't see him, looking stronger and angrier by the second.

"He's-" Ron swallowed. "He's pretty lively for a guy who just got shot with a fifty-cal."

"That's my brother," Zeke said. "Likes to keep active. Get a workout."

Ron closed his eyes. Focus. He needed to focus. Okay. The enemy had a good position, and, of course, they had knowledge of what the people outside were doing.

He raised his gun and shot out the camera.

Had. Of course, he still didn't have any idea what was going o-wait a minute.

Ron pulled his cell phone, turned on the camera, pointed it around the gate.

"Ron?" Cole rasped. "What are you doing?"

"Getting the lay of the landscape. Can you get over here?"

"Gimme a sec."

Cole snapped two bolts at the unseen gunner, and sprinted across the gap. No return fire. The man on the gun must've been flinching from all the lightning getting thrown at him, which they probably hadn't used in basic.

"Hey," he said, as he reached the far side.

"Hey," Zeke said.

"Hey," Ron said. "Lookit."

Most of the width of the bridge was taken up by a container someone had rudely dropped there. There was a gap to the right, about the length of a particularly pretentious SUV. In the middle of it was a man behind a machine gun, with a clear shield made from reinforced plastic. He was aiming where Cole had been when Ron had shot the video.

"I think I got a chance if I can get to the top of that container. But first we need to take out that camera - oh. Which one of you-ah. Good job, Ron. Okay, I'm gonna go plow the road."

He backed up, then sprinted through the gap.

The gunner, whoever he was, was too surprised to shoot before Alex leapt toward the roof of the container, fingers catching the rust-pitted steel. He was out of the line of fire, unless the gunner had a handgun or rifle or something and left the big gun. Best to assume the worst.

Alex pulled himself up, and caught the edge of the container with his foot. As he rolled onto it, something pressed into his back. A piece of rebar.

Alex grinned. Perfect.


There was a yell, and a weird kind of meaty, crunchy noise. A few seconds later, Cole shouted "Move up!" Ron gestured for everyone else to stay put, and he and Mercer moved up.

The cameras on the other side didn't track them; Ron figured the guy standing on top of a container throwing lightning out of his hands was distracting whoever was watching. It was certainly distracting the guy at the next emplacement, and Ron and Zeke reached cover unmolested.

Which left the guy at the first turret.

Ron stared at the dead man, at the object sticking out of his neck. The rebar was wet where it met the body, and didn't move when Zeke poked it with his Colt.

"It's in there," he grunted.

Ron, his jaw hanging open a little, pressed the heel of his hand against the bar. Zeke was right; it was deep in. In fact, Ron was pretty sure that he could feel it grinding against something.

He stopped touching it.

"How long has your brother been doing stuff like this?" He asked, as he scrubbed his hand on his shirt.

"Since yesterday morning.".

"Fast learner."

Both men jumped as something knocked on the container wall above their heads. Turned out to be Cole.

"Alex, did you do this?" Ron asked.

"You see anyone else crazy enough to jump off a shipping container with a piece of rebar to stab a soldier in the neck?"

Come to think, Ron thought, Cole was grinning a little too hard.

"Found some more rebar."

"Gonna stab him again?"

"What? No, he's neutralized. It's too small for that anyway. I'm going to create a distraction."

"For what?"

Cole raised an eyebrow.

"Oh."

"Why don't they have proper roadblock?" Zeke mused. "Get some of those big concrete mothers out here, slap some barbed wire on top. Probably cheaper too."

"The whole S-curves thing means any cars have to slow down, which means they get shot," Alex said, without thinking. "And anyone on a motorbike is basically a sitting duck. Anyone on foot..." he grinned. "Who's gonna be nuts enough to walk toward a machine gun?"

"Well...us," Ron pointed out.

"No, we're running."

Yeah, that was so much better. It meant the bullets would take slightly more time to kill them.

When Cole popped into view again, the gunner was ready for him, his rifle pointed at the top of the container. What he wasn't prepared for was an older man hosing down his shield with his fellow soldier's weapon, turning it to opaque cracks. He stepped to the right, just for a second, and behind the guy with the rifle was a fat guy with a Colt .45 -

"Down!" Cole called.

They all moved up, Zeke was breathing hard, and Ron doubted it was from the exercise.

"First kill?" he asked, as they stared down at the body.

"Yeah," Zeke grunted.

"If it helps, he would've done the same."

Beat.

"If you want to puke, just use the corner."

"Thanks," Zeke said, and swallowed. "Think I'm fine for now."

"Ron?" said someone behind them.

Zeke whirled, but kept his gun low, and thus avoided pointing his weapon at a pregnant woman.

Ron sighed, and turned to face her, look her square in those big, dark eyes of hers. "Stay back, Connie, this is no place for a lady."

The Hispanic woman raised an eyebrow. Ron felt his cheeks getting hot.

He walked over to the expectant mother. "Conchita, I need you and the others to give us some room." He was holding her hand, squeezing it a little. She looked at him with a half-smile on her face. "It's not safe. Do you want to get hit by a random bullet?"

"Not again, no."

"Someday, you're gonna have to tell me one of these stories."

A full smile, now. "Maybe when we get across."

"Yeah." He let go of her hand. "Maybe. Be safe."

Ron watched her make her somewhat ponderous way back to the others, heard her start to order them back. She didn't even look twice at the bodies. Good woman. The florist turned around.

"Stop smiling, Mercer."

"I didn't say anything. What if I was smiling because it's a nice day? What if I just remembered a joke? Why, Ron, you're not embarrassed, are you?"

Ron coughed. "Where's Alex?"

The other - (refugees? Escapees? Runners? Monkeys in the zoo?) - were moving up, confident in the ability of their...Three Musketeers to protect them. Gunny would've put Ron's head on a platter if he knew he was letting civvies - the people he was trying to protect, not "civilians" - into an unsecured area.

'Course, he wasn't a soldier anymore, just a guy with a flower shop, a beer gut, and a handgun that seemed way too small.

"Zeke," he said a few seconds later, "catch."

Mercer turned just in time to keep the M4 from bouncing off of his face, but not fast enough to catch it. He juggled the assault rifle for a few seconds before getting a good grip, and glared at Ron, who was busy relieving the soldier of his ammo pouches.

"Looks like he was using a .45, same as you. Want the ammo?"

Zeke shook his head.

"More for me, then." Ron took the soldier's pistol and holster as well, stared at the dead guy for a few seconds, and stood up.

"Penny for your thoughts?"

"There, but for the grace of God..." Ron mused, then shook himself. "Let's catch up to Alex."


Ron's mom, rest her soul, had always been very religious, ever since she was a little girl. And she had been determined to have Ron grow up the same way.

"After all," she would say to her husband, who would roll his eyes the second she looked away, "train up a child."

Ron had been ten before he learned the second half of the Bible verse.

His favorite verse had been Proverbs 6:6; "Go to the ant, thy sluggard, consider her ways and be wise." Lord Sluggard was a recurring figure in the little dramas Ronald would act out with the neighbor kids, or cousin Jimmy, until he learned what a sluggard was when he was nine. Still, Solomon urging his reader to action stayed with Ron all through high school, through Desert Storm, all the way to when his son was born. He hadn't thought about it for a while, in his flower shop, but it came back to mind as he looked at Alex's handiwork.

Clearly, Cole was more of an ant kind of guy.

Suppress. Surround. Silence.

It wasn't that different from being back in the Gulf. Half the job of the guy with the light MG was to be the biggest, noisiest thing on the block, and while Cole didn't have an automatic weapon, throwing lightning bolts at people tended to attract attention. So much attention, in fact, that they tended not to notice the two guys flanking them until it was too late.

Ron felt an odd sort of contempt for the men. No...for their commanding officer. The whole setup was fine for anti-vehicle work, but a determined group of unarmed civvies could easily swarm them. There should've been another gate, with machine guns, not vulnerable positions with isolated fields of fire that could be neutralized by a repairman, some guy who was good at climbing, and a fat florist. It was like he wanted his men to die.

The way time stretched and shrank? That was familiar too. It couldn't have taken them more than an hour to make their way up the bridge, but it felt like days. And they didn't manage to make it without a scratch, either.

The tail end of a burst from a SMG glanced hard off the bulletproof vest Ron had salvaged from one of the soldiers. The florist fell to the ground and gasped for air. Yeah, that still hurt. Didn't feel like a cracked rib, but he needed to rest for a while.

"You okay?" Cole said over his shoulder. The guy who had fired at them was screaming as a lightning went through his body. Then he stopped.

"I'll be fine. Just...gimme a minute." And then Ron laid down, right there in the middle of the road. It was peaceful. He laced his hands on his chest. He could sit for a spell.

There was a noise. Ron turned his head, found lightning streaming from a cable Alex held. He saw the bullets drop out from under Alex's bloodied shirt, and sat up. The courier poked at himself, tested his range of motion, and dropped the cable.

Ron snapped his mouth shut. Just for something to do, he traced the cable to one of the cameras that had been hastily bolted to the shipping containers. It had stopped moving.

"Who are these guys?" Ron muttered as he got to his feet. Cole moved up.

"Whaddya mean?" Mercer asked.

Ron walked over to the dead man. His finger had locked on the trigger after Cole's bolt hit him, spraying the rest of the mag into thin air, sending it bouncing off the containers. It had somehow run dry before the ammo caught; the electricity had gone through the gun, then through the man holding it, then to the ground.

Smelt like roast pork.

The florist yanked the submachine gun free with a little more force than he needed.

"This is a TMP. It's not a normal service weapon for any branch of the US Military, last time I checked."

"Don't special forces sometimes use special weapons?"

"Special forces don't usually set up barricades and guard bridges. Special forces don't usually wear black uniforms without any insignia on them, not even a nametag that says "Joe". I'll bet if we checked his underwear, it'd be off-the-shelf Fruit of the Loom."

"Plus the cameras, and the radios."

"Yeah. Those radios aren't cheap. Who sets up their radios to self-destruct if you take 'em without putting in a code? And if they have cameras watching, why don't they use the radios to warn their men? Why do they have the fences on both sides? Do you have any idea who these guys are?"

Zeke sighed. "Yeah. One idea. Tell you later. Let's catch up."

They found Cole engaging one last black-clad soldier. The man had pulled out what looked like an old-school Fairbain knife, from WW2. He slashed at Alex, who evaded the first strike, slapped away the second, and got his hands on the man's wrist and elbow for the third.

Ron watched his face. It was cold, and empty, and didn't change as he engaged the soldier's wrist in a lock. Didn't change when he did something to the man's elbow. Didn't change as he used his two points of leverage to make the soldier drive his own knife into his throat.

Then it changed, to the look of a man waking up from a dream. Maybe he had. Maybe he'd been sleepkilling.

Cole stared at the man he had just killed - he was still making a kind of wet, wheezing noise, clutching at his neck, trying to hold onto his life for a few seconds longer - then down at himself, at the blood on his clothes, his hands. He looked up, startled, when he realized Zeke and Ron were there, tried to scrub his hand dry on his pants.

He gestured at the dead man, with something that looked kind of like a smile. "He...he couldn't cut it."

There was a brief silence.

"What are you?" Ron whispered.

Alex blinked. "Good question. Let's...let's go."

There was no more opposition between them and the barrier in the middle of the bridge.

"End of the line," Zeke grunted.

"Anyone see another box?" Alex asked.

"There's something different here," Ron said. "The gate's bigger, and the last one didn't have those panel things on top. You could drive a truck right through there."

"So this is more of a loading gate?"

"More of a, uh, 'redoubt'?" Ron made a face. "Fallback position. I miss Wikipedia."

"What about that door over there?" Zeke pointed at an unobtrusive hatch toward the side of the barrier. Steel door, glass window, keypad next to it, camera bubble above.

"Well, lets try and imagine. Let's say you're sitting behind that door, and you see someone messing with the keypad, trying to break in. What do you do?"

"Shoot 'em."

"What if they're in an APC or something with armor?"

"They can't drive a truck through that doorway. There's probably a hallway or something on the other side. Where I can shoot them."

"What if they try for that gap in the fence, by the barrier?"

"While they're trying to get through that barbed wire, shoot them. Or let them jump." Zeke snorted. "Probably break their neck."

"Seems like that's all the angles."

"Not really. You'd need someone to cover the...way in..."

Something went 'click' at the back of Ron's mind, and the whole setup suddenly started to make a lot more sense.

Cole eyes narrowed. "Like containers full of soldiers."

Zeke blanched.

"Yeah," said Ron, "That'd do the trick."

"So why haven't they -"

There was the sound of a pair of big, heavy metal doors opening. Several pairs.

Connie, Ron thought. He had to get to her -

There was a grinding noise, and all three men looked around wildly; the panels above the gate were sliding back.

"Zeke!" Cole yelled."Get down!" He leapt for his stepbrother.

The machine guns that emerged couldn't depress quite far enough to hit the two men falling to the ground.

But they could hit Ron.

There was a sound like God coughing, and something warm spattered over the two men.

They just stared at the body, as the machine guns chattered, as they heard the unseen men engaging the unarmed people who had just wanted to get to safety -

They will panic, said the quiet little voice in the back of Alex's mind. Tramplings and other injuries will occur. The soldiers have left them nowhere to run.

Good, chimed in Goodwin. The Watch gets it done.

"What..what the -" sputtered Zeke.

"It was a trap, Zeke," Alex growled. "The whole thing was a trap."

Zeke swore. "Can those machine guns get us?"

"Nah, they can't point that far down."

"So we're safe?"

There was a noise from the other side of the "airlock". People were coming. Military-sounding people.

"Don't move. Go limp. And keep your eyes closed until I say so."

Zeke would've pointed out he was lying on his rifle and it was really uncomfortable, but the soldiers were coming out. They didn't move out like a SWAT team, cheaking their sectors and stuff, but with a swagger. Or so Zeke assumed, since his head was facing the other way. One stopped next to the brothers.

Zeke tried not to breathe.

He heard the sound of someone unbuckling their holster, and the two flat bangs of a double-tap into Alex's back. Then a rustle as the soldier bent over the two men. He was gonna Dee-Tee Zeke as soon as he got rid of Cole -

Alex moved-

Zeke covered his head and tried not to look like a target as gunfire rang out. Along with screams, lightning bolts, and cries to "shoot him, shoot him, shoot him!"

Eventually, it went quiet, and Alex called "Zeke!"

It seemed he had been busy.

Zeke tried not to look at the bodies.

"Now what?" Zeke waved at the dead men. "They're not exactly gonna let us into their parlor after this."

"I'm getting you out of here."

"How?"

"Can you swim?"

"Yeah, but-no."

"Got any wireclippers?"

"No. I am not jumping in the river, Alex! It's a ten-story drop! I'm pretty sure I'd die!"

"More certain than bullets?"

"Well...no...but-"

"Zeke, those soldiers back there are going to realize what happened any time now! We need to get you out of here!"

"What do you mean, 'me'?"

Cole reached for a dead soldier's belt, pulled the pin on anything that felt like a grenade, threw him at the barbed wire next to the doorway, ducked.

When the smoke cleared, there was a gap in the wires just big enough for a large-ish repairman, assuming he didn't mind risking a few scrapes. Neither man wanted to look at what had been the soldier's body.

"Go, go!" Alex yelled. "Feet first! Cross your arms!"

"Aren't you comin'?"

"Don't feel like a swim! Stop arguing! I'll be fine! Go!" He tried to smile.

Zeke tried to smile back, got a running start, and ran for the gap in the fence.

Later, the accounts of the two men would differ at this point. Zeke insisted that Alex had it wrong; that he wasn't crying. If anything weird had been going on in the facial area, it was plain old worry and sweat about running into the wire, that was all.

Cole waited for the splash, and then ducked into the doorway.

There was a passageway. Solid steel, no holes for anyone to pour boiling oil down on him. If any cameras were there, they were invisible. And at the far end, an identical door, this one with no keypad. The door he had come in by clanged shut behind him.

Great. Another dead end.

Cole heard the men on the other side approaching, slipped off his backpack, stretched a bit. If he was going to die in a box like a rat in a trap, he was going to die fighting.

"Form up," he heard one of the soldiers say. "Frag and clear on three. One, two-wait."

There was a brief silence. "Are you sure?" said the speaker. If Alex concentrated, he could almost feel the radio. Or maybe that was just wishful thinking.

"Roger," said the unseen soldier, sounding almost disappointed that he wasn't going to get to make chunky Alex salsa. "Holding position."

Well, that was weird.

The door opened.

"Curiouser and curiouser," Alex muttered, and stepped through. He could've stayed in the box, but that didn't seem to have a high life expectancy, and he would have to use the bathroom sometime. Besides, whoever was behind all this was going a long way to not kill him. It would be a good idea, advised the cold, pragmatic voice at the back of Alex's skull, to hear them out, to gather intel.

The only thing lit up in the room was a single metal chair, bolted to the floor. Alex made his way over, what seemed to be a grating of some sort under him. Weird.

The door closed behind him.

He sat in the chair and waited.

Presently, a light came on. Behind a thick pane of reinforced glass - probably bulletproof - was a woman in a chair just like his own. Thirtyish, dressed in a pantsuit with no tie, the top few buttons undone. Her hair was cut in a severe brown bob, and her face was hard and professional. Alex saw a man behind her, but he was mostly in the shadows, though what little could be seen looked...hard-edged.

"Hello," said the woman through an intercom. "I don't think we've met. Alex Cole, I presume?"