The longest one this far, this chapter covers Hell's Kitchen, the rooftops and the warehouse. Loads of dialogue.
Chapter 5 – Policy
As I stepped off the train in Hell's Kitchen my hands were still trembling from the carnage I had unleashed in Battery Park, and the similarity between the two platforms was hardly soothing. I had killed before, true, but this was different. Far different. I felt as if I had crossed an important line; if I, too, caused the deaths of innocents, was I really any different from the men and women I fought against? The whole concept of anti-terrorism becomes less appealing once you realize that "terrorist" is a subjective definition.
Doubts aside, I still had my mission. In many ways, the most difficult part of guilt is not the pain of the guilt itself, but rather that of setting guilt aside. Using every technique the academy ever taught me, I turned inwards, focused, and forced myself to ignore the events in the Battery Park subway. I didn't forget them, but rather, I dulled myself to the emotions associated with them. I needed to keep a level head if I were to complete the mission without causing any more damage.
Paul met me in the stairway. Had he heard about the hostage fiasco yet? Hoping to avoid any questions, I went straight to business
"What's the situation here?"
"You're taking over. I've got to get my team ready to raid the warehouse"
"What about the EMP field"
"Still in place. Your primary objective will be to locate and disable its power source, probably an industrial-sized generator in a large building". Paul's voice gave away nothing. He didn't mention the mess Navarre had talked about earlier.
"I ordered the civilians to take cover a block south of here in the free clinic and at the Underworld Tavern, down on the corner". He added it like an afterthought.
"Why'd you have to clear the streets?"
"There's still a heavy NSF presence in the streets, and we're taking some fire. We could use your help if you get the chance"
"Maybe. I'll see if I get an opportunity"
"Good. And JC – we'll be waiting for you to take down that EMP field, but use reasonable force. Liberty island was fine, but we don't need another Anna Navarre shooting spree". So word of the subway massacre hadn't reached him. I nodded, and we parted ways.
The streets of NYC were deserted, save for the homeless and the police. The streets – closed off due to the heavy NSF activity in the area - were littered with garbage and debris, and graffiti lined the walls of the buildings. Hell's Kitchen had seen better days. No stars shone on the cloudy sky above, and I made my way towards the Underground Tavern in the bright white glow of streetlights.
The tavern was the prototypical seedy metropolitan dive. A winding corridor led into the dimly lit main room, where the patrons sipped on cheap drinks and tried to ignore the omnipresent smell of spilled alcohol. The place was packed; Paul had been in a hurry when he evacuated the civilians off the streets, and he hadn't had the time to be picky.
I too was running short on time. The NSF power generator was somewhere nearby; odds where that one of the locals would've picked up on something unusual.
"...Ambrosia's a controlled substance. Most people don't even thinks it is". The words came a corner, where a young woman was talking to a middle-aged man. Remaining as inconspicuous as I could, I moved closer. The woman seemed to be trying to talk the man into some sort of agreement
"You oughta be thankful the dealers got their hands on it. A week from now it might be too late.
"To be paying in chits, in a grimy alley somewhere...". The man sounded doubtful. I stepped forward, and they turned to me.
"Yes?". The woman's voice was crisp and businesslike.
"Just curious", I replied carefully, "Thought I heard you say Ambrosia"
The man seemed beyond carefulness. "I'm Dan", he said in a low voice. "My wife has the plague"
"He already lost his daughter", the woman interjected. I ignored her and watched Dan.
"I'm sorry to hear that". He didn't seem to hear me.
"So do I trust some street punk called JoJo to get me pharmaceuticals? Trust him with my wife's life?"
This was getting out of hand; I could hardly discuss the plague vaccine with a couple of civilians.
"I thought Ambrosia was just an urban legend".
The line was Coalition policy. If confronted with questions about Ambrosia, we knew nothing. The bureaucracy made sense at some point, or so I told myself. Dan's shoulders slumped, and the fight seemed to go out of him.
"JoJo probably just wants to sound like a player. I shouldn't get my hopes up"
"I don't know what to say. You just have to do what you think is right". There. Standard issue government answer. We do not order, just suggest.
Sometimes we suggest with guns.
"I'm going to do it". Damn. So much for government suggestions. The woman patted him soothingly.
"I'm glad. I hope she does better"
"Can't be any worse for her than morphine". Dan didn't exactly look convinced. No matter. I would have to leave the policing to the police; I had more important business.
"Can I ask you a question?"
"Go right ahead".
"I'm looking around for a power generator, possibly hidden, large enough to cover a building"
"You in real estate".
"I just need to find it". I lay all the weight of being an armed secret agent in a trench coat behind the words.
"Oh-oh-oh, of course. You know, I tied in power at a place a few blocks south, a warehouse. Strangest thing. They wanted to conceal these gas-driven generators on the second floor. Didn't give a hoot if their own people got asphyxiated". There it was.
"How do I get over there?"
"No way through the blockades now. We went over some rooftops to get there; there was a lift - the code was 3316, I think". Rooftops. Great.
I thanked Dan and walked off, looking around the tavern for more possible informants. In the shadows next to the bar stood a man clad in black pilot's clothes. He was wearing sunglasses, even though we were indoors. At night. Perfect. The tinfoil hats may be lunatics, but they're usually good at keeping an eye open for information. I went up the him.
"Mind if I ask you a few questions"
"Hey, you look like the vigilante type. What if I said where you could load up on military hardware?"
This probably didn't have anything to do with my mission, but weapon trade was a serious, especially if it involved military-grade technology.
"That's valuable information. You'll have to come up with some kind of payment". The bar was close by, to the left.
"Hey, bartender", I called, trying to sound casual. "Get this man a beer"
I turned back to the pilot-guy, who seemed pleased
"That'll do. His name's Smuggler. A real paranoid nut; wires himself in with booby traps. But he knows things; there's stuff in the sewers that only Smuggler knows about"
"Thanks. Maybe I'll pay him a visit"
"Now I'll tell you something you can't hear from anybody but me"
"Area 51. You heard of it, right?"
I almost rolled my eyes, behind my sunglasses. Tinfoil hats and their theories. I fought to keep a straight face as I replied
"Actually, I'd rather hear whether you know anything about a warehouse with an illicit generator..."
"I worked out there". The guy didn't seem to hear me. "Most people think they've got aliens from another planet, but I didn't see any flying saucers. You want to hear about it, I'll tell you – for the price of a beer".
I refused the offer as politely as I could, and backed away from the tinfoil hat. Maybe this tavern hadn't been such a good idea after all. A UNATCO agent interviewing the locals while a street war rages outside is bound to attract every lunatic in town. Besides, I had a fairly good idea of where the warehouse was located, based on Dan's description. I decided to take my chances. Time was running short. I'd already made my presence known here; chances where the NSF had an informant somewhere in the tavern, and every second I delayed increased the likelihood that they would receive warning.
I was just about to leave the tavern when a young girl approached me. Her face was lined with excessive makeup, her clothing minimal.
"Hey, you with the troops? I need help?"
"What's the problem?". As much as I needed to hurry, I decided that the mood among the civilians of Hell's Kitchen was hardly going to be helped by UNATCO agents ignoring the questions of the people we were trying to protect.
"Actually, it's my friend. Johnny took her into the alley west of here, across the street. Her name's Sandra. Sandra Renton"
I was prepared to deliver the standard "Please take your request to the police"-line, but the name caught me off guard. Sandra Renton...
I'd met Sandra when I was staying with Paul in New York. As far as I remembered, she'd been a bright young girl. A bit rebellious, a bit of a troublemaker, but nothing more than the ordinary. Certainly not someone who deserved to be pushed around in a dark alley by some street punk. I checked my internal watch as my instinctive morale clashed with my sense of duty. Technically, Sandra wasn't any different than the myriad of civilians who could use help in one way or another. Technically.
The girl in front of me was, naturally, oblivious to my dilemma.
"I've got a bad feeling about this", she said, trying to convince me. "He was mad. He gets crazy when he's mad"
"Don't worry. I'll check it out", I answered absentmindedly, still considering the situation. Then, like the ticking of a clock, or the firing of a handgun, I reached my decision.
"Where is this alley?" I had already made the mistake of disregarding civilian life in favor of mission priorities once this night.
A few minutes later, I was standing at the edge of the alley. The overhead streetlights were broken and didn't provide much lighting. I switched on my nightvision augmentation. Inside the alley I could see the silhouettes of two people, one of them smaller than the other. A man and a woman. I moved forward, towards them.
"What I'm TELLIN' you, girl?". The young man's shrill voice cut through the relative silence of the alley like a knife. The girl answered in a bored, slightly-too-cocky tone. The voice of someone who is afraid, but knows that showing it won't do any good.
"You said I didn't have to. Make Janey do it"
"I already took the money, and when it's JoJo and it's somethin' he wants, you got to do it. You and me both, baby. We helpless". JoJo. That name kept cropping up everywhere. The girl's facade was beginning to crack. She sounded frightened.
"We were just gonna hang out today"
"I TOLD you how it don't play with me, this amateur unprofessional bullshit". He emphasized the last word.
"If it's business, it's business. If it's us two hangin' out, then we hang out. Right now it's business"
"I want out, Johnny. I didn't know it would get like this"
"Put it this way. You do it. You want out it's like a gang; you get beat out"
I had heard enough. I stepped forward
"Leave her alone or I'll have your ass picked up for pandering". The pimp didn't seem too impressed.
"You ain't no police. I OWN the police"
I shrugged, my hand resting on the stealth pistol in it's holster. I didn't want to shoot this thug, but if he made things difficult, UNATCO had a very clear policy when it came to handling situations like this.
Moving slowly, I lifted my hand to my sunglasses, noticing at the same time that the thug held his behind his back, probably clutching a handgun in his back pocket. He smiled a broad smile and started to move his arm. At the same moment, I tilted my sunglasses down just an inch, revealing the crystalline blue underneath.
The thug stopped mid-motion, his arm freezing with his hand still behind his back.
"Hey, man, look, I don't want no trouble. I'll be leaving, cool?". I didn't bother to answer, and he all but ran out of the alley. I turned to Sandra, moving my sunglasses back to cover my eyes again.
"Thanks", she said, sounding relieved.
"Sucks to get backed into a corner". I wasn't about to throw a lecture; the Sandra I knew detested them. Besides, I didn't really have the time.
"I was tryna' find the back way into Smuggler's". Smuggler? The weapons dealer that the pilot guy in the Underworld Tavern had talked about? What did Sandra want with someone like him?
"Smuggler?" I queried, careful to keep an even face.
"Though guy like you? Figured you'd be a big customer"
"What's he sell? Weapons? Drugs?"
"High-priced weapons. Yeah, you should talk to him. His place is over near the subway. You have to give the password "bloodshot" or he won't let you in"
She looked nervous. "Hey, you shouldn'a threatened Johnny. Soon as JoJo finds out...
"Who's this JoJo?". I was beginning to suspect that "JoJo" was more then just a small time thug. Could be a lead into the NSF.
"You can't touch JoJo". Sandra sounded frantic. "He doesn't go out, and there's only two ways into the warehouse. You think you can sneak into Osgood's at the park, but in the first place it's locked"
"The park? Where UNATCO has the NSF pinned down?". At least I assumed that was still the case. Damn it. Time was running. Sandra didn't seem to hear me
"...and if you go underground he's got laser tripwires, drone guns – military-type stuff. Plus there are guards on the roof"
"Tell you what. I'll handle JoJo". If he was at the warehouse, chances were that I would. "You stay out of the way until the NSF have pulled back". Not giving her a chance to feel offended, nodded at her and left.
The park was nearby, and I could hear sporadic gunfire as I approached. My idea of the battery park subway entrance being a war zone was quickly diminished as I arrived there. This was what war looked like. The NSF and UNATCO were holed up on different sides of a canopy in the middle of the park, hiding behind fences and low brick walls in a bizarre kind of reversed trench warfare. I crouched beside the UNATCO officer giving orders, deducing him to be the one in charge of the situation.
"What's the plan here, officer?"
He shrugged. "Command wants us to take as many as we can alive, but I don't care what the media will think – this is a war we're fighting here. You Denton?"
I nodded. "I need to get through to Osgood's".
"Guess we have no choice but to push the attack on these NSF sons-of-bitches, then." He all but grinned at me. Then he turned to the rest of the men and barked out some quick orders.
Truth be told, it was a slaughter. The NSF were outnumbered and outgunned, and the UNATCO troopers closed in on them like a pack of hungry dogs. A few of our men went down before the NSF squad was overwhelmed by a storm assault rifle fire. You could almost see disappointment on the faces of some of the UNATCO soldiers as the remaining terrorists threw their hands in the air after the initial onslaught. Moving past the mop-up, I walked up the small stair leading to the door to the Osgood & Sons building.
The door was locked, but after a few moments of careful manipulation by my lock picks, it swung wide open. Inside was a storage area of some kind, which I moved through quickly, exiting in a back alley on the other side. A ladder on the side of the alley led to the rooftops.
As I climbed higher, the air grew colder around me, and the wind almost threatened to blow me off the ladder. The sky was starless and dark, and I could only hope that the illumination of the streetlights would not be enough to distinguish my blue-coated silhouette against the brick wall. I was practically defenseless to a skilled sniper, and I felt my body tense. Finally reaching the rooftop, I dropped into a crouch and surveyed the adjacent buildings. No snipers were visible in the immediate area, but I had to be careful. The open space of the rooftops was too much of an advantage for the NSF to oversee. Using the compass built into my visual augmentations, I determined the direction of the warehouse.
Anyone who has visited the seedier parts of New York City know that the broad avenues that they show on the tourist information papers represents only half of the city. Downtown, the back alleys are dark and narrow, the buildings huddled together to make maximum possible use of the available space. Sometimes, fire escape platforms and construction scaffolds will arc over the streets below them as bridges between the rooftops.
Using these natural passageways, I made swift progress in the direction I had determined to be the right one. I crossed one rooftop, then another. Then, the NSF snipers started cropping up.
I was crouching behind a brick chimney when I spotted my first one, standing on a roof directly below mine, clutching a high-powered long-range rifle. Moving slowly and quietly, I removed my own rifle from it's holster on my back, and took aim. Everything was in place, and a pull of my trigger would, barring a unforeseeable twist of the wind or the like, take his life in a single bloodied moment. The rifle was equipped with a silencer, curtsy of Kaplan, a friend of mine back at UNATCO HQ. No one would even hear this lonely trooper fall.
My eye pressed to the lens, the barrel of the rifle pointing a straight line to his head, I hesitated.
It surprises me that I did, when I think back of it. I was still fresh from the massacre in the Battery Park subway, where a man wearing the same uniform as the one in my crosshairs had unleashed fire and death upon innocent men and women rather then let UNATCO "win"; you would've thought that I would be less than scrupulous about taking down one of his friends. Yet, hesitated I did. I sat for what felt like hours, but couldn't have been much more than a minute on the windswept roof, following the patrolling terrorist with my aim.
In the end, that minute of hesitation means little in the long run. I still killed a lot of NSF people in my days at UNATCO. Far more than the average soldier in the average war. I have no excuses, no redeeming facts, except for one: It was no average war, and more importantly, I was no average soldier.
I've held responsibilities far greater than myself in my hands all my life. The right to judge whether a man lives or dies does not belong to any other man, or so the sermons tell us, but then again, after all that has happened, am I still a man? The twenty-first century has been the century of transcendence; step by step, we have cast off the limitations of our flesh, eschewing bone and blood in favor of steel and wires, leaving behind the bodies we were born with to embrace the machine. When a man no longer possesses the body of a man, is he still a man? Does the limitations of a man – moral as well as practical – still apply to him? What is the concept of God, if not that of a human mind and morality unburdened by the limitations of the human flesh?
Steadying my aim, I fired. The terrorist fell to the ground without a sound, and I proceeded to move on across the rooftops.
Crossing a metal walkway in front of a huge advertisement sign, my eyes finally fell on the building which a knew must be the warehouse. My visual augmentations showed high electrical activity from inside, but I wouldn't have needed the tech; you could practically hear the buzzing from inside.
Getting there proved easy. A fire escape ladder led me to a low brick building next to the warehouse garage, and from there I jumped down onto the garage roof, my leg augmentations easing the fall. From the garage roof, a ladder led me to the top of the warehouse itself. The lonely NSF trooper patrolling the roof fell without a sound after a bullet to the head from my stealth pistol.
Proceeding downstairs, I stalked through the shadows. The place was crawling with NSF, every floor patrolled by at least five troopers. My hesitation dealt with after the sniper combat on the rooftops, I eliminated them systematically. You can't scream after someone's slit your throat with a combat knife. I am not proud of the way I fought – a knife in the back is a cruel way to die, and there are always ways to take out a man without killing him - , but I had put my scruples behind me and acted on instinct. An unconscious man can wake up, and sound an alarm. It's hardly rational – my infiltration of the warehouse took minutes at most; anyone I knocked out would've stayed unconscious for the entirety of the mission – but rationality won't keep you alive on the field. Instinct will, and instinct had me leave no man breathing behind me.
Proceeding downstairs, I eventually reached the main part of the building, a huge chamber at the bottom of which the generator loomed like an oversized seashell, giving off visible sparks.
Coalition policy dictates that we – within reasonable limits – try to avoid collateral damage. With this in mind, I could have moved from floor downstairs until I reached the generator, and then disabled it by cutting a few wires. No big fuss. Minimum amount of unforeseeable risks. Minimum property damage.
I felt something wet trail down my hand, and looking down, I was surprised to notice that it was covered in blood. Not mine.
I was tired of moving through shadows, stabbing men in their backs. On a rational level, killing is killing, but the mind is not rational, and feeling the life of a man seep out of him as you push your knife into his throat is toiling to the psyche.
Picking up a LAM grenade from my pocket, I made some quick calculations. The grenade soared through the air in an almost gracious arc, and I was halfway up the stairs upwards before it even landed. The explosion shook the walls, and Alex made an appearance on the infolink.
"Good job, JC. The power just died at the NSF headquarters. Now it's up to Paul. Go to the roof. A chopper is arriving with Agent Hermann on board. He will lock down the warehouse while you take the chopper back to HQ."