The construction site was as dark as Nova had expected. Only a small strip of the sun was left above the horizon, and the last of its light made the shadows almost deeper and starker than if it had been night. It was easy for Nova to hide, there.
She’d climbed the stairs up to the third floor – out of five, though steel beams had been erected on the fifth to form the foundation of a later sixth – and was hiding in the shadow of a concrete pillar rising on the edge of the half-finished building. There was no outer wall to block her sight, so Nova could watch the grounds below as five SUVs drifted to a stop next to her own discarded motorcycle, and a gaggle of masked men streamed out of them, all carrying assault rifles.
Geez, isn’t that a bit much, just to catch a little girl like me? Do they think I’m motherfucking Rambo? Why not just drop a bomb on the place and be done with it, at this point? Seriously. These fuckwits clearly don’t know how to spell ‘excessive force.’
Becoming less and less confident in her chances of getting out of this in one piece as time went on and she witnessed more of her pursuers’ resources and dedication to their mission, Nova glanced again at her bracer.
‘ETA DRONES: 20:03’
Can I hide in here for 20 minutes? That seems like a stretch. There are 12 of them. They’ll be able to split up and cover a lot of ground. And while it’s better than an open street, there still aren’t that many different places where I can hide, in this place. One of them is bound to catch me before the drones arrive.
Perhaps, she should simply draw them all inside the higher floors of the building to search for her, then sneak back down, blow their cars’ tires, and leave proudly astride her motorcycle, flipping the bird at them as they ran out of the building gnashing on their handkerchiefs in impotent rage.
Yes, this might be the… best… idea…
Just as the outline of her plan congealed within her brain, Nova saw two things that forced her to abandon it on the spot. First was the sixth car slowly circling the construction site, probably keeping an eye out for just such an occurrence as Nova making off discreetly while the other idiots were looking for her inside. Second was that one of the masked gunmen below apparently shared her brilliant idea. After a few mumbled words with his little friends, which Nova was too far to hear properly, he approached her motorcycle, propped his foot against its engine, and pushed, toppling it down onto its side. Then, he drew a knife and stabbed it without hesitation into the two tires. Done with his task, he straightened up and rejoined his squadmates, cheerfully flipping the knife around his fingertips like a circus performer.
The bastards might have carried modern weaponry, but they apparently weren’t taking their hunt too seriously. They held their rifles casually, in one hand pointed at the ground or propped onto their shoulder. They most definitely did not expect any resistance from Nova. They probably weren’t even planning to use their guns at all for anything but intimidation.
This comforted Nova, somewhat.
If they underestimated her, she might have a chance to take one or two of them by surprise.
And kill them.
Because the sheer casualness with which the son of a bitch with the knife had vandalized her property – her beloved motorcycle, a machine on which she had worked for three fun weeks with her father – had thoroughly incensed Nova. The fact that she’d planned to do the exact same thing to their cars didn’t change anything. It was her motorcycle. And it was beautiful. Nobody had the right to put even a single scratch on it, but that bastard had actually dared to take his knife to its tires. Those tires belonged to her. Anyone who had the guts to damage them needed to pay the proper price for their horrendous crime.
Nova grit her teeth and swallowed the angry lump in her throat as she stared unblinkingly at the knife-wielding man, her gaze roving over his body to memorize every element she could use to recognize him and differentiate him from the other masked gunmen. He was slightly bowlegged. He wore a tattered leather jacket, and a tattoo peeked from the collar of his shirt and stretched up the base of his neck. He seemed fairly muscular, so she would have to take him by surprise and finish him in one strike, or things would get dangerous.
You… If I have my way, you will die sometime in the next 20 minutes. Congratulations.
Nova took a deep breath and did her best to press down the righteous indignation raging inside her. She retreated into the darker shadows of the building. As she walked, she looked everywhere around herself, trying to get a good grasp of the environment and how she could use it against her pursuers. It was dark, but her eyesight and night vision were both near the upper limit of what humans could achieve; she had no trouble avoiding obstacles and spotting potentially useful tools.
This is… a hose? No, some kind of wire jacketing? Whatever. Looks solid and flexible. Could be useful.
Nova took the long plastic cable and tugged on it experimentally. It stretched a little, but it was tough enough that Nova had no doubt her arm strength was insufficient to the task of tearing it in half. She might be able to use it as a whip, perhaps? Except she had no experience at all even cracking a whip, let alone fighting trained soldiers with one. She’d likely hurt herself trying.
On the floor, next to the coiled length of cable lay a bunch of hollow steel bars, probably also used to thread cords or things inside them. Nova had never worked in construction, so she wasn’t exactly sure of their original purpose. What she did know for certain, however, was that even though they were hollow, they had enough weight to them to serve perfectly adequately as bludgeons. The gunmen only wore cloth balaclavas over their heads, not hard helmets. One good knock should be enough to put them out of commission.
But then again, she’d need to get up close, to do this, and they were all carrying automatic firearms with flashlights attached to the barrel. So a bunch of metal sticks couldn’t exactly be called a game-changer, either.
Fortunately, none of them have night-vision goggles, or I’d be in trouble.
Sighing to herself, Nova reached out behind her back for the gloves slung into her belt there, which she sometimes used when driving her motorcycle when it was cold or raining. She put them on, clenching her fists a few times to make sure they fit snugly enough and wouldn’t affect her grip. She then wrapped the plastic cable around her shoulder like the ropes on old-timey uniforms that denoted decorated soldiers. She also took a steel bar in each hand – she was ambidextrous, and her brain could work fast enough to make dual wielding free of self-injury risk.
Straightening up, Nova glanced once more at her bracer and toyed with the impulse to call Marian or Aaron. However, no matter how reassuring hearing her parents’ voices would be, it wouldn’t help in any way. Even the two of them, as wondrous as they were, couldn’t do anything for her when several hundred kilometers separated them.
Mom probably wants to call me even more than I want to call her.
As overprotective as Marian was of Nova, the woman was undoubtedly gnawing on her fingernails out of sheer anxiety, right now. The fact that Nova hadn’t received a call from her yet did nothing to invalidate this notion; it only told Nova that her mother knew she was in a delicate situation and didn’t want to disturb her or break her concentration at a crucial moment. Or set her phone ringing while she was trying to hide. All of which would be embarrassingly counterproductive toward Nova’s well-being.
Nova raised her head and focused back on her current predicament when she heard the echoing footsteps and voices of the hunters entering the darkness of the building and starting their search for their quarry, a few stories below her.
# # #
“Man, this is taking a lot more effort than I thought it would,” Tanner said, sighing audibly and shaking his head as he got out of the car.
“I know. When I get my hands on that bitch, she’s gonna get it.”
“Haha, don’t overreact,” Tanner said with a laugh when he saw Piotr’s fuming anger. “We should have around 20 minutes left to get her before reinforcements arrive to help her. And now that we’ve forced her off the road, she’s pretty much in our hands already. Once we’ve caught her, we remove that tracker from around her wrist, and we’re in the clear. Easy peasy.”
“Yeah, well, excuse me if I think we’ve got better things to do than to run after some kid for the young master,” Piotr said testily, infusing as much sarcasm as he could into the title.
“The boss was the one who authorized it, though. His son is just a mouthpiece. No reason to take it out on him just because he was the one to relay the message.”
Piotr scoffed and closed the car door on his side by bumping it with his hip. “You believe that? Why would the boss give half a crap about catching that little cunt, even if she’s one of the Storms? I’m telling you, the boy sent us here of his own accord so we could fetch him a whore to pass the night.”
Tanner smiled wryly and shook his head. He obviously wasn’t taking Piotr’s concerns seriously. “I doubt that boy would dare defy his father like this. Too gutless for that. And if you truly believed that, why would you have even come here in the first place? Didn’t you volunteer for this mission?”
“Hehe. Haven’t you heard? Word is that the youngest daughter of the Storm family is a real beauty.” Piotr smacked his lips in anticipation. “Since the young master sent us to pick up a girl for him, he surely won’t mind if we first get a taste of her for ourselves to make sure she’s worthy of his greatness, right?”
Tanner crinkled his nose in distaste. “Again with your disgusting hobbies.”
“What’s disgusting about bedding a beautiful woman?”
“The fact that she’s 15 years old? And unwilling?”
Piotr chuckled, his gloomy mood lifted by the conversation. “Hehehe, both of those only make it more attractive. Don’t worry; I’ll let you have her after I’m done. Actually, I reckon all twelve of us could take turns and…”
“Stop chattering, you two!” Hartnett hollered from the side. “Piotr, take care of the bike, so the girl doesn’t slip away again. We’ll split into pairs to cover every floor of that building. Remember to hold your fire; the boss wants her alive.”
Tanner smiled wryly as Piotr grumbled and unsheathed his knife. When he was done, it didn’t take more than a few seconds for everyone to check their gear – more out of habit than because they expected to use it – and enter the building. Five teams went inside, while another remained outside to guard the vehicles and make sure their target didn’t somehow escape.
Night had fallen, now, and the building’s insides were pretty dark despite the lack of exterior walls to break the glow from the streetlights bordering the construction site. They probably could have found a generator somewhere and get some proper lighting up and running within the construction site itself, but Tanner, Piotr, and their comrades from Typhoon didn’t have quite enough time to wander around the place looking for the appropriate switch. They needed to grab the girl and go.
Tanner and Piotr were still on the same team. They’d been assigned to check the third floor. Of course, this didn’t mean they were actually using proper urban warfare tactics, where one man covered the door while the other threw in a flashbang and burst in, guns blazing. They were only hunting for a civilian, a teenage girl, unarmed and alone, while they were trained mercenaries. They didn’t need to put in quite that much effort.
Piotr was still impatient to see the end their mission, however. “Fuuuuuck, where is she?”
“You’re in a bad mood, today.”
Piotr stopped walking and turned back to face Tanner, pointing his flashlight – and, incidentally, the barrel of his gun – into Tanner’s eyes, probably just to be obnoxious. “Omar was part of the ambush in Amidonia, two days ago.”
“Omar… Oh, yeah, I remember him. That fat guy, right? With the awful dreadlocks? So? What about him? Don’t tell me you were friends with this idiot?”
“No. But he owed me money. What am I supposed to do, now? Who’s gonna pay me back?” Piotr sighed. “You know, I’d predicted it would end badly for whoever went there. I fucking told them so. But nooooo. ‘Let’s ambush the vipers in the forest when they come pick up the satellite; they’ll never see it coming.’ And now, look. How many dead? Twenty? Thirty? Plus a chopper. Fucking waste is what it is.” Piotr concluded his rant by spitting on the floor.
“You know how Lindgren is. He hates Marian Storm with a passion. There was no way he would let an opportunity to mess with Viper Nest pass him by.”
“Yeah, well maybe he should learn to pick his battles. And against the boss’s orders, too. This is just unprofessional.”
“I don’t think you’re one to speak of professionalism, what with you planning to rape our target even though you believe the young master wants her for himself,” Tanner said, shining his flashlight down a bare corridor with electrical wires dangling from the hollow ceiling.
“Hmm. I wonder if I should film it. And send the video to the vipers. What I wouldn’t give to see her mother’s reaction when she sees what I did to her precious daughter. Or maybe I could sell it to some perverted old noble. There’s gotta be a market for snuff films, right? Could tide me over until payday.”
“Well, you won’t have your fun until we actually find this girl,” Tanner said absently, taking a few steps away to continue the search. He checked his watch. “Sixteen minutes left.”
“Haaa, fuck it. This place is a lot bigger than it looked from the outside.” Piotr glanced around at the pervading gloom around them. “Let’s split up. You cover the western half of this floor; I’ll check the eastern half. We meet up at the stairway in eight minutes. What do you say?”
“Fine by me.”
Tanner nodded, then strode off without another word. He too was starting to get bored of this mission. Failing to catch a teenager for such a long time was just embarrassing.
He walked for a minute or two through the corridors of the building. Since the place was very much still a work in progress, everything looked either dilapidated or featureless. Added to the darkness, it messed with Tanner’s sense of direction. Still, he was pretty sure he’d gone through most of his part of the third floor and was getting more confident that Nova Storm wasn’t hiding in the area that had been assigned to him.
Letting out a frustrated sigh, Tanner prepared to return to the stairway and wait for Piotr when a clatter of metal echoed through the hallways of the third floor.
It seemed to originate from the western part of the building, where Piotr was searching.