Samuel E. Paxton

Chapter II
To Kill A Kestrel

Newmarket, Canada. 30 Miles Northwest of Toronto

To any outsider, Eclipse's Private Security Branch Command was an imposing building. Covering seven million square feet and built to a brutalist style with much of the exterior made up of glass, the fortress like, linear, blockish ten storey high structure was the dominant building in the Canadian town of Newmarket, built in the town centre. While it was more commonly referred to as the Brian Elliot Building its corporate name served as a reminder to anyone who forgot about what the building was about. It was headquarters of the Eclipse Private Security Branch; it was to Eclipse what the Pentagon was to the United States Government. Only a few hours ago the man in charge of the facility had been Nikolai Fyodorov but news of his death had become common knowledge within the company and, as was procedure, his replacement had arrived. Having been needed within hours the new Director of the PSB had been flown in all the way from Indianapolis aboard a corporate Westland Lynx, the fastest helicopter in the world. Civilians on the streets watched the black helicopter touching down on the roof's landing pad. As soon as the wheels softly settled on the helipad, an Eclipse PSB operative, dressed in a white shirt with a bulletproof vest over it (and a grey Glock visible in the holster), ran to the side of the chopper and slid the door of the passenger bay open. The new Director stepped out, not bothering to duck down to shield himself from the winds whipped up by the rotor blades, which the operative was doing.
His name was Tyson Kurtz. Former US Navy SEAL and now in charge of the Private Security Branch. Wearing a classic grey two piece suit with a black tie, he seemed the epitome of class. His black skin was only interrupted by a small scar across his forehead that ran down to his temple. With piercing blue eyes and biceps visible even through his suit, he commanded respect and authority.
"Welcome to Canada, sir!" the agent shouted over the din of the rotor blades, still at full power. "They're expecting you down at Operations Command, if you'll just follow me..." he continued, but the new Director walked right past him and headed for the external stairs that descended the top half of the building.
"I know my way around here kid, I don't need a tour" came his reply, from a voice just as sharp as his features. The agent stopped in his tracks and watched his new commander disappear down the stairs.
"Uh, okay!" he shouted back, though more to himself than to the Director. "Have fun down there!" he shouted sarcastically before turning back to the noisy helicopter and waving the pilot off aggressively. The Lynx was quick to take off again and leave.

"Director Kurtz, pleasure to finally meet you. Operations Command're waiting for you just down the hall" were the first words that greeted the Director once he arrived in the main building. Susan Cannon, Deputy Director of the PSB and Taskforce Chief. Essentially his second in command.
"Good to see you're still in one shape after Colombia" replied Kurtz as they walked side by side down the corridor. Either side of them the walls were ultra thin glass, separating the corridor from offices that all seemed identical, all sporting the same shelves with the same desks and the same paper thin, white ultrabook laptops.
"Don't act like you didn't see anything in Colombia. My truck got hit by a bit of shrapnel, meanwhile you're charging through Bogot√°withan M16" replied Cannon. Kurtz chuckled.
"Good old civil wars, always gets the heart racing whether you're shooting at drug cartels or Colombian soldiers" he replied, not smiling. "Bad news about Nikolai" he continued.
"Yeah... no-one really cares about him personally though. It's all about losing his skills that we're worrying about. You've got some big shoes to fill, Tyson" Cannon told him as they neared the Operations Command. "One more thing; you're commanding people thirsty for revenge. They don't take corporate assassinations kindly, whether it kills a janitor or the CEO" she said, turning to face him directly just in front of the door to Operations Command.
"Then I'll get on with them just fine" Kurtz responded, before heading in front of Cannon and pushing open the door into Operations Command.

The room was filled with about fifteen personnel, almost all of them working on computers. The two large desks accommodated multiple people while the wall in front of them was covered in paper thin, Ultra High Definition TVs that showed live news reports and other events around the world. Cannon called out across the room.
"Okay, listen up people! Our new Director has arrived, this is Tyson Kurtz. He'll be commanding all our operations from here on in" she said. Kurtz wasted no time in getting started.
"That's right, now first things first. What do we know about Fyodorov's death?" he asked. One of the analysts across the room responded.
"Not a whole lot of his body left to analyse, but that's not what caught our attention" he said, before beginning to type away at his laptop. "If you look here..." he began, and the main screens on the wall immediately began showing CCTV images from inside the Technology Innovation Demonstration Centre in Chicago. There were few people in any of the rooms. "This is approx twenty minutes before the demonstration began. But if we fast forward to about two minutes after it started..." he trailed off as the camera feeds degraded quickly into a mess of static.
"What happened?" asked Kurtz.
"Someone was jamming the CCTV. Five minutes later, we get our first reports of gunfire inside the building" said the analyst.
"So whoever went in after Fyodorov had the tech to jam the security camera" said Kurtz, watching the screens.
"That's right, so we couldn't find out who went in there" replied the analyst.
"And this is as much as you've got?" asked Kurtz, beginning to sound annoyed.
"For now, yes. We're still trying to crack the jam on the cameras, then we'll be able to find the missing footage" the analyst finished. Kurtz looked at the screens for several seconds before shaking his head in disbelief.
"No wonder Fyodorov died with you lot" he said loudly so everyone would hear him. "Chicago has a Central Operating System, right?" he asked. The analyst nodded. "So break into it, find the nearest CCTV camera to the Demonstration Centre, take control of it, find the exact time when the gunfire was first reported and watch the building through that" he told them. The analysts seemed to be hesitating. "Now!" he shouted and everyone immediately got to work. The room quickly exploded into chatter as they worked to break into the Central Operating System.
"Is this really the people I'm working with?" Kurtz muttered to Cannon. She smirked.
"They're a lot better than you think. See that guy over there?" she pointed at one of the analysts on the left of the room.
"Yeah, what of him?" Kurtz asked.
"He was the one that found Bin Laden. Don't count these guys out yet" she said, still smirking. Kurtz was impressed, but didn't let it show on his face.
"Got it!" came the triumphant shout from one of the analysts. Kurtz quickly turned to face the screen once more. Said screen quickly shifted to an impressively high quality view from a CCTV camera down the street from the Innovation Centre. Within seconds an Audi A6 sped past the camera, flanked by two BMW M5s.
"That's Fyodorov" said one of the female analysts, referring to the Audi. A couple other analysts nodded in response.
"We know he was chased by an Aston Martin, just need to catch the driver on cam" said Kurtz, watching the screen intently. About fifteen seconds passed, the room falling into unnerving silence. Then the easily recognisable form of an Aston Martin sped past the camera. The footage was quickly rewound before being played back at a fraction of its normal speed. The entire room watched the Aston Martin inch into the shot, frame by frame. Finally it was paused as they found a perfect view into the windscreen. And it was clear to everyone that there was two people inside, not one.
"Yeah, definitely two people. Zoom in on the driver" instructed one of the analysts.
The zoom took place, focusing on Jake's face. Several of the women in the room found it difficult not to wolf whistle as the image came into focus. Kurtz walked several paces towards the screen to get a better look.
"Cross reference him through facial recognition" he ordered, not taking his eyes off Jake's face.
"On it" was the response and the large screen changed to show Jake's face being scanned, before millions of images of millions of people began streaming through, being tested for correlation at a speed that would make computers of just five years ago green with envy.

Finally the computer found a match. A second, far better quality image of Jake's face came up. It was his passport picture.
"Got a name?" asked Kurtz.
"Jake Edwards... oh dear" the analyst trailed off. Kurtz snapped his head around to look at him.
"What, what is it?" he asked.
"See for yourself sir" replied the analyst, and the screen showed very clearly in red letters; "KNOWN CERBERUS CORPORATION OPERATIVE", the letters flashing as if they weren't getting enough attention already. Kurtz stared at the words, burning from the inside with anger.
"I should've known..." he muttered to himself. "And the other one?" he asked, pointing to my face inside the Aston Martin.
"Most likely Cerberus too, but there's no record of her in the company files. No name, no D.O.B, no official corporate affiliation" responded one of the analysts, typing frantically at his holographic keyboard.
"So what, her face isn't showing up anywhere else?" asked Kurtz.
"Not within Cerberus. She could be a mercenary working for them? It'd explain why they've no record of her" one of the analysts offered as a solution. This time Cannon was the one who responded.
"No. A mission to assassinate a top ranking enemy official is never undertaken by a hired gun. Especially when we're talking about Cerberus, a company more powerful than a lot of governments. The only explanation for her not showing up is that her records don't exist, on purpose" she said with pursed lips.
"So what, she's some kind of black ops assassin?" asked one of the analysts, a hint of sarcasm in his voice. Cannon chose to ignore the sarcasm and answer like he expected one.
"It's possible, but there's no reason to use her alongside a regular agent who can be identified" she said.
"You said her face isn't showing up within Cerberus.Run her face through every security camera feed over the last ten years" ordered Kurtz. He was met by faces of alarm and puzzlement.
"Sir... that's trillions of terabytes of footage, it'd take hours to sift through all that" said one concerned looking analyst. Funny to think that ten years earlier it would have taken years. Kurtz took a second to consider.
"Run her face through the camera of every location where we experienced any kind of incident" he ordered, and the analysts began typing away yet again. As they did so, Cannon leaned over to Kurtz.
"What's this about?" she asked.
"If she really is black ops, something tells me she's behind more than one assassination. And we've had a fair few" he told her. Out of the corner of his eye he could see her smile at his response. But his attention was quickly caught by a whoop of triumph from one of the analysts.

"Got it! Four months and six days ago she turned up in Times Square, Manhattan" he said. The images on the large screens clearly showed me among the crowd, easily missed if it wasn't for the technology that had caught me. "One hour later, guess what happens?" the analyst asked, but he didn't wait for anyone to answer. The perspective switched to an image most likely captured by a police camera, showing a pale, balding man in a business suit lying dead against a table with a single bullet mark in the side of his head. "Colonel Timothy Griggs, retired US Marine Corps and then second in command of our very own Special Security Command. Killed by a sniper bullet to the head in the Blue Note Jazz Club, Greenwich Village" the analyst finished. Kurtz could only shake his head as the pieces began to fall into place.
"That's not the half of it" the analyst continued, and the screen changed once again. This time to the inside of a bank, viewed from a security camera. Four well armed people dressed in all black with balaclavas were in the middle robbing it. "Six months and three days ago. A branch of Germany's Deutsche Bank is robbed in Frankfurt, sixty eight million Euros taken. Four police officers dead. We zoom in on the one on the left, use eye recognition..." he said and the computer began scanning the figure's eye. It was cross referenced with my eye from the other image they had of me, and it was a perfect match.
"Matches exactly! Her face pops up everywhere, scratch the surface just a tad and you'll find her" announced the analyst. The screen began to change to images showing what he was talking about. "Last month she showed up in Alaska, the same day and the same location where outspoken Cerberus critic Nelson Brown died. Brown was claiming he had information that would expose Cerberus but a gas leak at his home stuck him in a coffin before he could, also conveniently taking out the rest of his house including his hard drive and all computer backups. Five months, twenty nine days ago. She shows up yet again in Moscow. After leading police on a twenty mile car chase she escaped through the subways before popping up on the other side of the city the same day that the leader of Russia's Liberal Democratic Party died of an apparent drug overdose. The man was supposed to deliver a speech against corporate involvement in government affairs" continued the analyst. Kurtz was taken aback; he never expected to be dealing with someone like me. Had I known what was happening there, I probably would have been flattered that they were finally taking me so seriously.

"Two years ago she showed up under what was probably a fake name, 'Kate McReary', as security for the private yacht of the infamous dictator of Eritrea, Abassi Deedat. Then..." the analyst trailed off as the screen showed a clear security camera image of me standing over Deedat's frail body, his black and gold military uniform stained red from multiple gunshot wounds. "I think that's all the evidence you need" finished the analyst. There was silence for several seconds in the room as everyone soaked in the information. Several murder mysteries had just been solved right before their eyes, all of them giving me full, and rightful, credit. Finally the silence was broken by another analyst.
"I think I found her name. Four years ago she appeared on the guest list for a private party at the Academy Awards where she was to meet with an actor about his arranged donations to Cerberus. She'd likely have been there under her real name to give a sense of trust" she said.
"So her name is...?" asked Cannon.
"Kestrel" answered the woman. "No last name it seems, though the nickname 'Scarlett' seems to be quite popular among Cerberus brass"
"Catchy" replied Cannon. Kurtz was quick to take over the situation.
"If Cerberus wants to play this game, we will too. They'll learn that it works both ways. After a mission like that, those agents should be getting debriefed at a major Cerberus facility. What's the nearest one?" he demanded.
"That'd be, uh... their Milwaukee substation!" answered an analyst after a quick check on his laptop.
"Wisconsin huh? Alright. Get a team prepped and ready within ten hours. We're hitting that building and we're hitting it today. Time for Cerberus to learn if they fuck with us, we'll fuck back" he said, which earned a few odd looks exchanged between the analysts.
Unfortunately for me, Kurtz was right. I was there.

Milwaukee, Wisconsin, United States
Eleven Hours Later

Within the four storey high, modern substation in Milwaukee, I sat in a large meeting room. With me were Gwen and Jake. The three of us were being debriefed by Malcolm. By now I'd managed to get out of my previous business clothing and had replaced it with a black hoodie and some jeans. The hood was pulled up over my black-purple hair and my arms were crossed over my chest, which was probably really pissing Malcolm off since I looked exactly like the kind of slacker he probably tried to kill regularly in Cambridge. Now that I was in the same room as him, I could really appreciate just how menacing he seemed. He was in his early fifties with long creases all over his face. His greying hair wasn't showing any signs of balding but it wasn't his hair I focused on. His piercing though slightly bloodshot blue eyes were almost hypnotic when you stared into them for too long.
"We came close to having to mop up a fucking hurricane of piss when you left a crashed helicopter on the Expressway" remarked Malcolm, his strong Scottish accent pulling me out of my thoughts and back to the real world.
"Lovely image" replied Jake, his eyes appearing half closed. Malcolm ignored him.
"But they don't know it had anything to do with us and we won't be commenting on it. Leaving an attack helicopter in the motorway isn't something PR unfucks you from very easily" he continued.
"Aren't you worried about Eclipse trying to get back at us?" asked Gwen, her Welsh accent kicking in with every word.
"I hoped you'd ask something like that, and my answer is no" Malcolm replied. "You don't need to worry your pretty, four kilogram head about anything because Uncle Malcolm has it covered" he told her.
"Great, now I'm related to you" joked Jake, though all it got from Malcolm was a sharp look and Jake quickly fell quiet. Not out of fear, but out of knowing no-one needed an argument right now.
"Anyway" continued Malcolm, getting the meeting back on track. "There is one thing we've got to worry about" he said, before presenting us with several photos of a black, heavily built man in military uniform. Unbeknownst to me at the time, this was Kurtz.
"Okay, so who's this and why's he worth worrying about?" asked Gwen, studying one of the photos.
"Name's Tyson Kurtz" replied Malcolm, arms crossed. "Fyodorov's replacement." Jake cut in.
"Wait, they've replaced him already? Doesn't it take a while to name a successor?" he asked, an eyebrow raised.
"Not this time. Fyodorov was murdered by 'unknown gunmen', so it's an emergency situation. If he was resigning, yes it'd take longer. But when there's a clear threat you need to have a leader at all times" Malcolm affirmed. I snorted in response.
"Huh. Gunmen", words which got me an amused look from Gwen.
"That's all they've said about his death so far. They'll probably treat it as a terrorist incident or something. Announcing we've attacked them won't get them anywhere. It'll put them in a world of government and media scrutiny" said Malcolm.
"So why's this Tyson Kurtz guy worth worrying about?" Gwen asked a second time.
"He was a close friend to Fyodorov, so it's only obvious that he'll have a good deal of interest in finding out who was responsible for his death. Eclipse has the resources, the money and the technology to find out. Think of their Private Security Branch as a more covert version of the American military, but better funded."
"How is that even possible?" Jake asked, more to himself than to Malcolm as he looked at one of Kurtz's photos. Malcolm answered anyway.
"Corporations can be more powerful than governments, and they don't have to abide by the same laws as governments, while still being able to exert a lot of influence on them" said Malcolm. "Kurtz can take advantage of that in plenty of ways. Trust me, he knows how. Fyodorov was a genius but he taught Kurtz a lot when it comes to the business world. The private military world he's now in charge of, he knows all about it already"
"How so?" I asked.
"He's a former Navy SEAL, was until 2009" answered Malcolm.
"Until 2009? Why'd he leave?" asked Jake.
"He got discharged after killing two Iraqi civilians" Malcolm answered bluntly. I could hear an intake of breath from Jake.
"Nasty" he said, shaking his head.
"When it comes to private militaries, a lot of the leaders have an... interesting past" Malcolm told us.
"What about you then? You're in charge of Special Operations, how's your past looking? You were in MI6 before Cerberus" I said. Malcolm chuckled.
"There's no Iraqi blood on my hands. Well, not civilian anyway. Let's just say I was really busy during the Cold War."

Meanwhile on the ground floor of the building, the receptionist in the lobby was busy on her desk laptop, though not working, like she was being paid $30,000 a year for. Instead her computer screen gave away that she was absent mindedly playing Angry Birds. Eight years old and it was still massively popular. However her attention to the game quickly left when she heard the sound of the automatic door into the lobby sliding open. Quickly minimising the game, she looked up over her desk, not expecting what she saw. Five men, wearing body armour and balaclavas were heading right towards her. They all wielded advanced looking rifles, though one was armed with a SPAS-15 shotgun with a red dot sight. They split up into two groups without a word; two of the men heading right towards her, but their weapons weren't raised. They seemed to be ignoring her. The initial shock of seeing them quickly went away as she realised they were paying no attention to her. But then without warning one of them reached into his flak jacket and pulled out a QSZ-92 handgun, with a long silencer on the end. He fired right at her and the bullet ripped through her clothes and into her chest. The last noise she heard was the quiet, suppressed shot of the pistol. The intense, sudden pain seemed to knock her down more than the impact itself as, after a splatter of blood hit her laptop, she staggered backwards before collapsing against the wall and lying on the floor in a sitting position, dead. The Eclipse operatives had arrived.
"We can access security cameras from here" said one of the men, standing behind the desk where the woman had just been. He reopened the Internet on the laptop. "Heh, Angry Birds" he remarked before closing the game and opening the building's security systems.
"Found anything?" asked another of the operatives. They were covering all entrances into the room while he got into the security.
"Got it! Okay, I've found the girl!" he said, seeing the meeting I was in through the security camera inside. "She's in... uh... fourth floor, west side. Office of Malcolm Smith. Looks like we'll be bagging the Cerberus Chief of Special Operations too!" the agent declared.
"Good, good" replied the other operative, the lieutenant in charge. "Get teams Bravo and Charlie to standby, once they see the fireworks they come in to confirm the kill" he told another operative. "Move quickly, move quietly" he said, before they headed into the building.
It wasn't long until they reached the mechanical room. The few black uniformed security guards they'd run into were now lying on the floor with holes in their heads and chest, as well as any and all Cerberus employees they'd come across. Two of the operatives were hauling backpacks as well as the rest of their equipment. They finally came across the door that led to the mechanical room. The lieutenant took out a keycard he'd taken from one of the dead security guards and swiped it through the keycard lock. After the lock made a beep and showed a green light, the door unlocked. Four of the operatives went inside, while the fifth remained outside.
"I'll keep watch, I'll let you know if anything happens" he told the rest of the squad as they descended down some stairs into the basement of the building.
"No need, we'll hear the gunshots" the lieutenant muttered to himself. The four men headed through a dark corridor before reaching the mechanical room. The only person inside was the stationary engineer. He swung round to face the four men approaching.
"What the hell are you doing here, this room is-" he began but was interrupted by a silenced bullet to the chest, and he fell to the ground.
"Alright, everyone grab C4 off Daniels and Martinez" ordered the lieutenant. Daniels and Martinez were taking off their backpacks and removing the huge amount of C4 they'd been carrying with them. "Get C4 in place on the air handlers, the boiler, the piping, and the backup electric generators. Should knock out all the building's systems and start a second Nagasaki in here" the lieutenant ordered. The operatives got to work, attaching the explosives to the different systems throughout the room. Within a few minutes the boiler, the generators, the pipes and the air handling units had C4 all over them.
"All done here" announced one of the operatives.
"Alright, let's get out of here" said the lieutenant, before making an announcement to all operatives over his ear chip. "All Viper teams, this is Viper Actual. Explosives are primed; we're vacating the building now. Standby" he said, as the men made their way quickly out of the room. They met up with the fifth operative standing guard and heading back to the lobby, before going outside and onto the street. A waiting armoured van, filled with weapons, was parked just outside and they climbed in through the back. The van quickly sped away down the road, away from the building. The lieutenant held the detonator button in his gloved hand, watching the building get further and further away. Once they'd gotten to a safe distance, he pressed the detonator.

In the mechanical room, forty pounds of C4 detonated simultaneously. The entire room was filled with a gargantuan fireball which consumed just about everything inside, heating the room to 5,000 degrees within seconds. However it was when the C4 went off on the pipes that everything went mad. Unknown to the Eclipse agents, the pipes were gas rather than water. They had intended to knock out the sprinkler systems but instead had accidentally blown up the gas pipes. The gas immediately exploded, causing a chain reaction throughout the building. Much of the ground floor shook violently as the pipes exploded all around. But then the boiler, already heavily damaged, also exploded. The massive explosion generated created a fireball that had nowhere to go but up. The roof of the mechanical room was blown to pieces as what was essentially a massive bomb went off underneath the building. Windows all over the building shattered as the fireball made it outside, expanding out into the open air like clouds of bright orange gas. Once outdoors the fireball snaked up the building from all sides, making the substation look like it was being swallowed in a fiery black hole.
The fireballs on the outside soon calmed down, but it was completely different on the inside. Every floor was heavily damaged, with the ceiling caving in at some parts. The hundred or so people working inside were largely dead, their blackened corpses littering the burning rooms of the building. It was miracle it hadn't collapsed completely.

Just minutes earlier, the meeting was still going.
"So do we have to kill Kurtz now too?" Jake asked Malcolm.
"Maybe, maybe not" Malcolm replied. "He's dangerous, far more so than Fyodorov ever was. Eclipse got a lot more ruthless when they decided to put him in charge. Don't underestimate him. We're on high alert right now as it is, some kind of retaliation for killing Fyodorov is inevitable, but only if they find out who was responsible. Which they won't."
The moment Malcolm finished saying that sentence there was a sudden, enormous rumble that shook the entire building. An ear popping, muffled explosion could be heard directly below. A second later the windows shattered and I felt shards flying right into my face. As the building continued to rumble violently I was sure an earthquake was happening, but I quickly realised it was an explosion as the room turned orange from the light of a fireball rising up outside. The force of the explosion threw me from my seat and I landed hard on the ground. I couldn't see what was happening to everyone else but I could feel the room heating up enormously, like I was inside an oven. Still lying on the floor I could hear the walls falling apart around me, and thought the building was collapsing. As I struggled to get to my feet, a second explosion went off but this time on the same floor we were on. I was thrown to the ground once more before blacking out.

I don't know how long I was unconscious but when I came to, I still felt incredibly hot. By now it was understandable as I could see that there was fire all around me. The entire room was soaked in an orange glow and the wall of the room had collapsed, showing the rest of the fourth floor which was also covered in fire. The entire building was an inferno and I was lying in the middle of it all. Still lying on my back I tried to take a few deep breaths but instead inhaled the smoke. I quickly descended into a violent coughing fit, while rolling over onto my stomach to shield my face from the intense heat. For about twenty seconds I lay on the floor, unmoving. Feeling an intense pain on my face, I brought my hand to it to try and pull shards of glass out, thinking that was the source of the pain. But there was no glass embedded in my skin, though I could feel fresh blood running down my face. I looked down at the floor and saw a few shards of glass scattered below me. With them I could just about see my reflection and was quick to realise that a stream of hot red blood was trickling down the left side of my face from cuts in my forehead. My hair was singed and I had several painful burn marks all over my face, and many more across my body. Much of my clothes were singed and it was painful to move. But I had to get out.
I returned to lying on my back, hoping I wouldn't discover my legs were broken when I tried to get up. As I successfully managed to roll over, I heard the sounds of movement nearby. Malcolm had managed to get to his feet, bloodied and clearly burnt across his body but he could stand. He swept his eyes across the burning room before seeing me. I spluttered violently several times as I again inhaled the smoke, but he was already on top of me and holding my hand in his. I felt him pulling me up and I slowly managed to get to my feet. My legs still worked and I could stand, but upon doing so I became very dizzy, my head feeling like it was swirling around. Malcolm was holding me steady, making sure I wouldn't fall over. Finally I kept my balance and he let go. My vision adjusted to the brightness of the fire all around us and I saw him looking at me, concerned.
"You can hold for now, get up!" he shouted, trying to be heard over the roar of the flames. I took several seconds to answer.
"What were you saying that they won't find us?" I asked, and he smiled.
"Yeah, you're okay" he said with a pat on my shoulder. My attention was distracted by the sound of coughing. "Shallow breaths only! Inhale too deep and you're dead!" I heard Malcolm shout as he rushed over to Gwen, who was trying to get to her feet with the help of Malcolm's desk. Meanwhile I was already running to Jake, who was lying on his back with blood splattered across the front of his shirt. His eyes blinked several times before he looked up at me properly.
"Kestrel... you're banged up" he remarked. He seemed okay for someone with what looked like a bad wound across his chest, judging by the blood on his shirt. He caught me looking anxiously at the shirt. "Don't worry, it's not mine" he said about the blood, before turning his attention to my bloodied face, still oozing fresh blood. "In fact... I think it might be yours" he said, biting his lip.
"No worries, my blood is great" I replied jokingly, holding out a hand to help him up.
"I'd agree, but that'd sound creepy" he said back, taking my hand and I helped pull him to his feet. There weren't a lot of people that could be so calm while in the middle of a burning building. Malcolm came up behind me, giving me the fright of my life as he tapped me on the shoulder. I swung round and Malcolm quickly held both hands in the air to show he wasn't someone trying to attack me. It was only natural for me to be on my guard after being in a building that'd been bombed.
"You okay Jake?" asked Malcolm.
"Worry about yourself old man" replied Jake, smirking. Malcolm couldn't help but smile. "Is Gwen okay?" Jake then asked. Malcolm didn't need to answer as Gwen emerged from behind Malcolm's desk, holding a small MAC-10 machine pistol in one hand. She held up a hand to show herself.
"What the hell happened?" she shouted over the roaring of the nearby fires, which were everywhere.
"Felt like a bomb to me" Jake shouted back.
"You said they wouldn't find us!" Gwen shouted over to Malcolm, pointing at him.
"Maybe I was wrong" Malcolm replied.
"Yeah, maybe" Jake retorted. "You got any more weapons here?" he asked Malcolm.
"One second" Malcolm replied, going to a nearby cabinet that had been knocked over by the explosion. "Here's hoping they're not all broken... no, we're good!" he announced as he opened the cabinet and pulled out two Uzis and an AA-12 shotgun.
"Bags the shotgun!" shouted Jake, and Malcolm tossed the black AA-12 to him. Jake caught it in one hand.
"Do you really need that much personal defence in your office?" I asked Malcolm.
"Look around for a few seconds, then ask me that question again" he replied without looking at me. I knew what he meant.
"I hope you've got a plan" said Gwen, chambering her machine pistol.
"Get out the building sounds like a good idea" said Malcolm.
"Right through all the fire" Jake replied.
"Who knows, maybe I'll find someone's wallet" I said, before walking through the sizeable hole in the wall left there by the explosion. The other three were quick to follow. Once I'd made it through the hole, I found myself surrounded by fire. Several bodies lay scattered around the place, burned beyond recognition.
"This is a fucking mess" I heard Jake mutter as we tried to navigate through the burning building.
"Where're the stairs?" I asked.
"I don't know, this place looks real different when it's all fucking burning" Jake replied. It was difficult to keep watch for enemy movement thanks to the fire, with the fumes burning our eyes and making them water. We were forced to take turns closing our eyes for several seconds to try and keep them from drying out, or at least that's what it felt like they were doing. We finally found the stairs after navigating the burning rooms, but I was alerted to the sounds of people coming up.
"Shit, take cover!" I hissed, and everyone quickly tried to find something to hide behind that wasn't on fire, which was easier said than done. I hid behind a desk, which was blackened but not on fire. Peeking out from behind it were two Eclipse operatives in full black combat gear including military tactical helmets, balaclavas, bulletproof vests and shoulder and knee pads. They both held ACR assault rifles with ACOG sights.
"No way there's anything alive up here, it's like Hell" I heard one of them say.
"We've gotta sweep the area, they might still be alive" the other answered, beginning to walk forwards and further into the burning rooms.
"Christ, I'm burning up here. Why we wearing this much shit!? Doesn't help that it's all black!" the other yelled. At that moment I felt Jake pat me on the arm. I turned my head to see him crouching behind the desk next to me.
"You take the first shot" he said, not needing to whisper since the fires were so loud.
"Always the gentlemen" I replied, before leaning out from behind the desk and carefully taking aim with my Uzi at one of the Eclipse soldiers. The moment I reached out my arm began to feel like it was burning, thanks to the nearby fires, but I ignored it.
"Three, two, one" Jake counted down. On the beat after he said "one", I fired. A quick squeeze of the trigger expelled four bullets in quick succession, going right through the side of the soldier's head and throwing up a red mist all around him. At almost exactly the same time Jake fired, causing my ear to ring as his fully automatic AA-12 shotgun viciously fired two rounds at the other soldier, the rounds ripping into his chest as if the body armour wasn't even there. Both soldiers fell to the ground like ragdolls and the four of us made a move for the stairs. We descended two steps at a time but the moment we rounded the corner and reached the third floor, several bullets flew right past my head and hit the wall behind me. More Eclipse operatives were here.

"Watch it!" I shouted, and dived onto my stomach to take cover behind a metal pillar as bullets whizzed past. Several Eclipse soldiers were on the opposite side of the room, all armed with AK-74s. They fired in a coordinated pattern; at all times there would be at least two soldiers not firing, so they could open fire when the rest needed to reload. This meant there was a constant stream of bullets coming at us. Gwen and Malcolm soon joined Jake and I behind the pillar and what was left of several blackened desks, with Gwen taking pot-shots at the well equipped soldiers on the other side of the room.
"Got any fucking wonderful ideas?" Malcolm shouted over the deafening noise of gunfire.
"I always have ideas!" I shouted back, before crawling across the boiling floor to the end of the desks. I leaned out and took aim at one of the Eclipse agents with my Uzi before firing. The bullets ripped through his abdomen and a river of blood spurted out with a fountain as he fell backwards onto the ground with a thud. Almost immediately his friends saw me and all fired at once. I managed to get back behind the desks just in time, only for a hail of bullets to rip through them easily. Realising that I was practically guaranteed to be shot, I was screaming as the bullets tore past so close I could hear them whistle through the air. I wasn't sure why I was screaming exactly, I'd never known myself to react like that to fear. Whatever reason, it certainly helped expel some frustration. I felt Gwen hit me on the shoulder and I swung my head round to see her behind me.
"Move it! I'll cover you!" she shouted, trying to be heard as the gunfire continued to shrink our cover.
"You so owe me a tenner if I get shot!" I shouted back, before bolting it. As I did so, I felt Gwen pat my ass for good luck. As she did.
I ran across the room to another set of desks as the Eclipse agents fired on me. I could feel the bullets shooting past just behind me as they turned their guns to follow me while I ran, turning the wall behind me into a mess of bullet holes. Gwen fired twice and brought down two of the Eclipse operatives in quick succession, but it wasn't good enough. I was within a couple of metres of getting to some new cover when an Eclipse bullet tore through my shoulder. As I fell sideways, I could feel time slowing down and from the corner of my eye could see the bullet pushing its way out of the back of my shoulder in a fountain of blood. I fell hard right into the desk I was supposed to have taken cover behind, crushing it like matchwood before tumbling onto the floor. The searing pain in my shoulder threatened to overwhelm me as blood leaked out like a broken pipe. I crawled behind the desks, narrowly avoiding being killed by the bullets that continued to come my way. I pressed my right hand against the wound in my left shoulder, trying to stop the bleeding. Slowly the pain started to subside. One of the more useful augmentations we agents had were nanobots that floated through our blood. They released anaesthetic at any major wounds, before working together to rapidly heal the wound. It would probably take about fifteen minutes for the skin over the wound to heal. A lot longer for all the injured flesh inside.

By the time I was concentrating on where I was again, Gwen had reached me, looking panicked.
"You okay?!" she asked me frantically.
"You bitch. You stupid bitch" I said in a frustrated voice, not meaning it by still voicing my evident disapproval of her plan.
"Sorry hun" she replied, recognising through my comment that I was fine. "The anaesthetic'll kick in soon"
"Already has. You owe me a tenner" I said as I regained concentration, the pain subsiding faster and faster. Gwen was achieving a miracle of multitasking by keeping conversation while shooting at the remaining Eclipse operatives.
"You can use it to help buy a treadmill" she shouted to me. She caught my confused look and explained. "When I smacked your ass, it seemed a little chubbier than normal" she said.
"You remember what my ass feels like?" I shouted back.
"It's hard to forget!" she replied, smiling. It took me a few seconds to come up with an adequate reply.
"Fuck you"

Finally, apart from the ever present roaring flames and the escalating volume of chunks of ceiling hitting the floor, there was silence. The Eclipse agents lay sprawled across the floor, blood oozing from bullet wounds across their bodies.
"We're clear. Onwards comrades!" shouted Jake, his last sentence given a surprisingly good fake Russian accent.
"How much further now?" Gwen asked as we headed for the stairs. Malcolm replied.
"Ground floor is down here. By the looks of all this shit, we got our hurricane of piss eventually" he remarked. Exactly what he meant I wasn't sure. But as we turned a corner on the stairs, we found it had been completely blocked off by rubble.
"Is there another way out?" asked Gwen. Jake responded by kicking the pile of rubble fiercely, only to quickly retreat once he did so and sit on a step.
"That hurt?" I asked, smirking.
"Yes..." Jake admitted begrudgingly, stroking his dead leg.
"Can we dig our way out?" Gwen asked. Malcolm was already hitting the pile of rubble with a long stick he must have found lying somewhere.
"If Haitians can do it, we can too" he replied brightly.
"Okay, that's offensive on several levels" came Gwen's sharp reply, though Malcolm paid no attention whatsoever.
"Fuck this" I said, before pulling a hand grenade from my pocket, pulling the pin out and lodging it in the rubble.
"What the fuck?!" yelled Malcolm, as everyone charged up the stairs to get out of the way. They just managed to get out of the way before the grenade exploded, sending dust flying everywhere. A neat hole had been made in the pile of rubble.
"You vinegar faced, spunk balloon bitch!" yelled Malcolm. I merely smiled innocently at him, which seemed to make every vein in his neck pop out, turning a sickly shade of purple as if someone had spilt Ribena all over him.
"You had a grenade on you this whole time?" asked a similarly confounded Jake.
"Yes. I thought it might be useful. And it was. So don't bitch at me, now we're not trapped" I said calmly, still smiling innocently like a little girl. I dashed for the hole in the rubble and began to make my way through it like a rat. On the other side I could see the lobby of the building, itself also aflame and littered with parts of the upper floors that had collapsed. As I clambered through the hole, making sure I wasn't going to gouge myself on any nails, I felt someone smack my ass yet again. This time it was deliberately hard.
"That's for the grenade throwing dust in my eyes" came Jake's voice. I tried to kick out but he caught my leg and held it still, before hitting my hindquarters a second time, though far more lightly. I protested, mostly playing along, but it ended when I heard Malcolm's annoyed voice saying "Is this really what my black ops agents do?"

Once I finally managed to clamber through the hole, I waited for Jake to come next. Sadly no-one smacked his ass for me but that didn't surprise me. Malcolm wasn't exactly the most likely person to do that, and Gwen would never do it when she was on her own with him. Being a good sport, mostly, I held out my hand and helped pull Jake through the hole. He smiled at me.
"How's your butt?" he asked.
"Wouldn't you like to know" I began, but was interrupted when a bullet suddenly hit the concrete that made up the rubble, breaking a small piece off. There were Eclipse agents in the lobby that I'd never noticed.
"Fuck!" Jake yelled, grabbing me by the waist and pulling me to the ground. I fell on top of him, eyes closed, and when I opened my eyes I found him looking up at me while I lay on him in a very awkward position.
"This is awkward" I said, ignoring the bullets flying past our ears.
"You crushed my testicles" was Jake's reply as he rolled over in pain. I was on my own for this shootout. Taking out my Uzi once more, I opened fire on the Eclipse agents. I was surprised by how easily they were going down. They were only armed with handguns and were dressed in suits, unlike the soldiers we'd encountered earlier. They went down like bowling pins. It was only the last agent who put up any true resistance, and by then Jake had recovered from his man-injury to join me in the firefight. Realising we were too exposed by now, I led Jake to the reception desk. Behind it I found the body of Cathy, the receptionist, lying on the floor in a pool of blood that was soaking into her clothes.
"Poor girl" said Jake as he checked her vital signs. However we didn't have time to mourn; we were still taking fire. Firing in tandem, I finally managed to strike the agent in the stomach as he stood up to fire, totally exposing himself. The centre of his white polo shirt suddenly turned red as blood splattered against the inside. Before he even fell to his knees, a well placed bullet by Jake found its way right into his forehead, almost cracking the top of his skull right off and showering the nearby area with blood.
"Sexy" I remarked, complimenting his shot. Jake deliberately misread it.
"You have some weird fetishes" Jake replied as he reloaded.
"You don't know nothing yet" I said back. Jake immediately stopped reloading and looked at me. I stuck my tongue out at him. "Where's the other two?"
"Coming. I think Gwen's claustrophobic so getting her through that hole'll be a nightmare for Malcolm" Jake told me. "How's your shoulder by the way?" I felt where the gunshot wound had been with my hand. It felt slightly numb but the nanobots appeared to have almost totally healed it.
"I might have another sexy scar, but it's alright" I told him. He smiled, before his attention was caught by the sound of a car engine approaching fast.
"The fuck is that?" he asked, before 'it' revealed itself.

Without warning a black van sped right through the glass wall, shattering it in a spectacular shard shower. But it kept speeding right at us. I had only a split second to react. Jumping on top of the large lobby desk, I stood atop it and unloaded my Uzi on the driver's side of the windscreen. Jake copied me, but it didn't slow the van down. It smashed right into the desk, crushing it against the wall and turning it as thin as Nicole Richie. The van, now decorated with bullet holes, stood still with steam hissing out of the radiator.
"What the flying fuck was that?" came a familiar voice. Malcolm and Gwen appeared at the bottom of the stairs. While Gwen ran to Jake and I, Malcolm merely surveyed the devastated scene of the lobby, which looked like a repeat of Dresden.
"I'm not paying for this" was all he had to say, before making his way to the exit. Rather than use the door, he simply walked through the large hole left by the Eclipse van.
"They seriously tried to crash into us" said Jake as our feet hit the floor once again.
"And they kinda succeeded" I replied as we followed Malcolm.

Once we left the building, we weren't too surprised not to find any emergency vehicles nearby. Eclipse was probably holding them up. There was, however, a large crowd of civilians that had gathered to watch the structure burn down. Taking a look at the building on the outside showed just how much damage it had sustained. It was burning to a crisp, and it was incredible to think that just moments ago we had been inside. Our enjoyment of the hellish spectacle was cut short when I saw movement in the corner of my eye. Swinging round to face it, I saw a suited man sprinting away down the street. I immediately realised he must be Eclipse, and chased after him.

"Kestrel, where you going?" I heard Jake call after me. I didn't respond, focusing only on chasing him down. I ran down the sidewalk, catching up fast before he looked over his shoulder and saw me. Immediately he turned to the left and ran across the road, narrowly avoiding being hit by a taxi. I followed, sliding right over the taxi's hood before hitting the ground running. As I neared the sidewalk, I drew my Uzi and fired off several shots into the air. I hoped that these would convince him to stop, but it had the opposite effect and encouraged him to run faster. There was screaming in the street as civilians ran for safety, believing they were caught in the middle of a gunfight. The Eclipse operative continued to run before I saw him reaching into the inside of his jacket. I dived behind a parked Audi S8 as he drew a Glock from his jacket and fired several shots off. None of them came close to hitting me, his hand was far too shaky. I returned fire but the rounds just missed him, instead hitting a parked van as he took cover behind a parked car further down the street. We began exchanging fire from opposite sides of the sidewalk, our bullets smashing windshields and leaving holes in the parked cars but not hitting our true targets. But finally I spotted a window of opportunity and I unloaded my entire magazine into his position. The suppression tactic worked perfectly, and he lost his nerve. He tried to run from cover to a better position but was too slow. A burst of my Uzi let a few bullets find their way into his stomach. He fell backwards onto the floor, blood dripping from his wounds and turning his clothes bright red. I ran to him and, seeing that he was reaching for his Glock, kicked it away and it slid across the street. I knelt down next to him.
"Who the fuck are you? Who are you working for?" I demanded. Through his heavy breathing as he fought to stay alive, he managed a laugh.
"You ain't that bright are ya, bitch?" he managed to jeer, despite the lines of blood dripping out of his mouth. "You don't know the size of the hornet's nest you kicked in Chicago?" he asked. I shook him angrily.
"What are you on about?! Tell me or there'll be a fuckload of lead in you" I told him.
"I'm already dead... this is only the beginning" he managed, before going limp. I dropped him to the floor before a whirring sound nearby caught my attention. I looked up to see a nearby CCTV camera turning to look right at me.

At Eclipse's Private Security Branch Command, Kurtz and the intelligence team watched the main screen in silence as the feed from the CCTV camera showed by standing over the dead body of one of their agents. The last thing they saw was me raising my Uzi to the camera, before the muzzle flashed yellow and the feed cut. There were several tense seconds of silence from Kurtz's voice filled the room.
"Spread the word to every mercenary and bounty hunter out there. Kill this... 'girl'... and twenty million dollars is theirs."

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"Spread the word to every mercenary and bounty hunter out there. End the life of this girl and the equivalent of their home country's GDP is theirs. This is war"