Tanner retraced his steps and reached the stairway they’d taken up. He didn’t bother to go and investigate the sound of metal clattering he’d heard earlier. It was dark, and in his growing impatience and irritability, Piotr must have bumped into a pile of construction materials or something.
Even if it was Nova Storm who made that noise, Piotr was enough to take care of her and bring her back here on his own. The man was more thug than soldier, but that didn’t mean he was completely incompetent. Otherwise, Tanner would never have agreed to team up with him in the first place.
Tanner lit a cigarette and leaned against the wall while waiting for his partner. He quietly took pulls of smoke and breathed them out, enjoying the cool evening for a few minutes.
It was only when his cigarette was only a stubby ember hanging from his lips that Tanner thought to check his watch. The eight minutes Piotr had talked about had come and gone already. They were entering their ninth minute, now.
“Fuck. What’s taking so long?”
Tanner spat out the remains of his spent cigarette and started walking toward the eastern part of the building, his gun held loosely in one hand, pointed at the floor.
It just occurred to him that Piotr might already have found the Storm girl and was having his fun with her on his own, without caring about either his teammates or the mission.
I wouldn’t put it past this bastard. He’s just the kind to let a beautiful face make him forget that we’re working under a time limit.
They still had some time until Viper Nest’s drones arrived – if they arrived at all; Tanner wasn’t sure even the Storms could afford that kind of stink in the capital, so they might just be bluffing – but they were starting to cut it close.
Cursing under his breath, Tanner advanced into the darkness, sweeping his flashlight here and there. He glanced into every room he passed without success until he grew too annoyed to continue like this.
Tanner stopped for a moment, listening out for any sign of Piotr.
The third floor was completely silent, however.
“Piotr, hey!” Tanner yelled. “Where the fuck are you, man?”
Calling that loud while hunting for someone didn’t seem like the intelligent thing to do, somehow, but thinking about it, whether he made noise or not didn’t seem like it would affect the situation much. He was already shining a flashlight everywhere, and he hadn’t been particularly careful to hide the sound of his footsteps, either. Anyone hiding from him would have already known he was there before he even yelled.
Still, even after his call, no answer was forthcoming.
After a few more seconds of silence, Tanner cursed and reached for the walkie-talkie strapped to his vest.
“Piotr, do you receive? Where the fuck are you?”
There was no answer for a long time.
“Anybody seen Piotr?” Tanner asked again.
This time, a chorus of negatives streamed back at him from the rest of Typhoon’s troops, and Tanner cursed again.
That fuckwit couldn’t have gotten himself killed by that little girl, right? Even he wouldn’t be that stupid. But if he tried to do her and she took him out while he was distracted… It could’ve happened.
Then Hartnett’s voice came out with a question of his own. “Anybody seen the target?” No again. “Fucking hell. All right. Mills and Toombs, go to the third floor and link up with Tanner. Rest of you keep looking on your floor. Be careful. The target may already have received reinforcements.”
Already? Shit. This mission is going from bad to worse.
Tanner frowned as he hunched over and brought his assault rifle to the ready, flicking off the safety. The atmosphere around him changed as he evened out his breathing and started taking this more seriously.
If they took down Piotr so silently, whoever came to help that girl definitely isn’t a pushover. Better be careful.
Piotr’s potential demise didn’t particularly distress Tanner. It wasn’t like they were friends or anything. It only worried him that the same thing could happen to him.
This way should be a shortcut, I think.
Instead of retracing his steps again, Tanner instead continued forward. He’d almost completed a loop through the eastern part of the third floor, so it would take longer to backtrack than to proceed forward. He hurried down the hallway, heading for the stairway where Mills and Toombs would be joining up with him, then entered a room that should cut the distance to his destination even further.
The moment the door opened, he finally found Piotr.
He was hanging a few centimeters above the ground, an electrical cord tied around his neck and looped over a metal fixture in the hollow ceiling. His tongue was swollen and hanging out of his mouth, while his face was twisted in a frozen grimace of pain, his eyes bulging out of their sockets. The cord had dug into his neck – or perhaps his nails had dug into his neck to loosen the cord – and trails of blood disappeared down his collar. More blood had flowed from a scalp wound down his forehead to cover his face, giving him an even more terrifying appearance.
All this, Tanner caught in the fragment of a second before his peripheral vision caught a sign of movement. Just a slightly shifting shadow, a motion almost too minute to notice, but that his eyes caught anyway.
He didn’t have time to turn his flashlight and examine what it was.
A flash of light imprinted itself in his pupils for a brief instant.
Tanner’s brain didn’t have time to register the sound of the gunshot before it left his skull and spattered over the wall and floor.
# # #
That makes two.
Nova straightened up from the corner where she’d been hiding in wait for the other one to enter the room and be distracted by the sight of his dead partner.
She kept the gun trained on the fallen man and circled his prone form, keeping at a respectable distance. When she’d taken a few steps and had another clear shot at his head, she pressed the trigger again to make sure he was dead.
With a muffled sound, about as loud as a thick dictionary dropping flat on the floor, more fragments of splintered skull spurted out of the man’s head. The flashlight he’d dropped nicely lit his ruined head, highlighting the glistening red blood and brain matter spreading over the floor.
Nova had to turn away. A shudder of revulsion shook her body. She closed her eyes and took deep breaths through her mouth as a bout of nausea churned through her stomach.
It didn’t take long for Nova to regain her composure. She approached the corpse, striving to keep her eyes away from the grisly spectacle she’d made of the man’s face. Even watching the other bastard die by hanging hadn’t been that repulsive. She’d whacked him over the head hard enough with a metal bar that he’d remained unconscious right up until he was about to choke to death, and he thus didn’t have time to do anything too horrible to his own neck to free himself.
This new victim too carried an assault rifle and a handgun. They were different from the weapons carried by the first one though – Piotr, judging from the radio communications she’d heard; this one should be Tanner. Even the ammunition didn’t match.
Damn it. Can’t they all carry the same gear? What kind of organization is this disorganized?
Nova discarded the weapons she’d looted from Piotr. They were bigger and heavier and more unwieldy. Even the handgun she’d used to kill Tanner was oversized. Perhaps not as much as a Desert Eagle, but definitely the next best thing. It was certainly powerful, but even silenced, it was still too loud for her purposes. Even now, Nova was worried someone might have heard the two gunshots. It didn’t really fit in her smaller hands, too. The weapons carried by Tanner, on the contrary, were more compact and lightweight.
They said two more would be coming to the third floor…
Hopefully, the small surprise she’d left at the mouth of the stairway would be enough to give them a warm welcome. After killing Piotr, she’d had to rush there and back while Tanner had been searching the rooms on the eastern part of the floor, setting up the trap.
Nova’s eyes went to Tanner’s waistband, then she rolled him over onto his belly.
So this guy doesn’t have any grenades? Shame.
It was at this point that the walkie-talkie Nova had stolen from Piotr crackled again. “Mills, here. We’re on the third floor. Tanner, where are you?”
A few seconds of silence elapsed before Mills continued. “Tanner? What’s – Shit! Du–!”
The low sound of an explosion, muffled by walls and distance, cut off Mills’s panicked voice. At the same time, vibrations ran through the floor as the shockwave expended itself.
It had been a pretty simple trap Nova had made with wires and a fragmentation grenade she’d taken from Piotr, but it looked like the thing had been effective.
Four down. Maybe. At worst, the two of them managed to dodge the blast perfectly. Let’s assume they’re alive and well. And angry.
Nova was really starting to feel a bit anxious about this whole situation. The only reason she’d met that much success in counter-attacking these men was that they didn’t see her as a threat.
That would change, now.
Now, they likely wouldn’t hesitate to open fire, and they wouldn’t wander alone in the dark anymore. Let alone taking any more of them down, she’d be lucky to survive another encounter.
Nova glanced down at her bracer. Besides the dwindling ETA for the drones, there was a new message from Hiraki. ‘On our way. Stay hidden.’ The two of them had probably finished dealing with their own ambush. It wouldn’t be difficult for them to find her, since the bracer also included a tracking device. But while it brought Nova comfort to see that reinforcements were coming, she wasn’t sure she had enough time to wait for them to arrive.
Well, let’s do the best I can.
Nova clenched her shaking hands and got up. Checking how many bullets were left in her stolen guns’ magazines, she headed out of the room and deeper into the building, away from the stairway through which her pursuers would arrive. The stairway’s mouth was a good choke point for an ambush, but it seemed quite risky to engage in a firefight against an enemy which outnumbered her so badly. And if the rest of these guys weren’t using silencers and all started blasting on full-auto in a cramped, echo-inducing space like this one, the sheer noise of it would likely be enough to stun her into unconsciousness. That was one weakness Nova hadn’t found a good solution for, even after all these years. If anything, the problem had grown worse with time, as her senses continued to slowly sharpen along with the growth of her body. She could bear day to day life without problem, but gunfire was too loud for her. Aaron had actually tried to make a pair of earbuds designed to be worn constantly, which would dampen all loud sounds down to more reasonable volumes. Nova had been grateful for the attention, but the things had turned out to be too uncomfortable and had fallen into disuse. Having plastic and foam rubbing against her inner ear all the time was just unbearable to Nova’s heightened senses.
Still, now that she found herself in this situation, being uncomfortable sure seemed to beat being dead…
Usually, I’d be wearing my suit and helmet in combat situations, so it didn’t exactly matter, but I didn’t exactly expect I’d be ambushed like this… Maybe I should just wear it all the time from now on, just to be safe?
In any case, a direct confrontation seemed unwise. Which was why Nova decided to simply go with her previous plan and attempt to escape from her predicament by climbing out the side of the building. The problem was the car circling the building like a vulture around a carcass, keeping watch. Hopefully, Nova would be fast enough to slip through while it was busy driving through the other streets. She’d need to check how long it took them to drive the full circuit.
Nova was still contemplating the feasibility of her plan when she saw a beam of light flicker through the small gap beneath a door, in front of her.
The spike of fear and adrenaline instantly bumped her brain’s processing speed up to 100%, and she focused on her hearing.
And indeed, she could hear faint footsteps and breathing come from beyond that door. Nova instantly ducked into the nearest room and crouched against the wall, cursing at herself for her negligence.
The irony is strong, in this one. Am I seriously going to die because I was too busy complaining about my sensitive hearing to hear an approaching threat? Please spare me from such an embarrassing end!
Nova could hear them very well, now. With a small mechanical click and a whispered ‘go’, the door at the end of the hallway opened, and two sets of footsteps, carefully silent and restrained, started making their way up the corridor, taking a few seconds each time they passed a room to check inside. There weren’t any beams of light anymore, so they’d probably turned their flashlights off, but they turned them on then off again every time they cleared a room, to make sure they weren’t missing anything.
Not good. Not good at all. They must have had the same idea I did and just rappelled down the sides of the building to encircle the third floor. Why do they keep stealing my ideas? First my bike’s tires and now this? What am I supposed to do now? And how didn’t I hear of this through the walkie-talkie? Did they change the frequency?
Thinking about it, it seemed like the obvious sort of thing to do. They must have had protocols in place for just such an occurrence when their soldiers’ radio equipment became potentially compromised. But since Viper Nest had no need for such precautions with their high-tech gadgets, it hadn’t occurred to Nova that her pursuers would do so as soon as it became apparent to them that something was happening.
The two people who had climbed down the eastern wall – or climbed up, maybe? – and cut Nova off from her planned escape route were slowly approaching her position. Soon, they’d enter the room where she was hiding and find her. They were clearly trying to move without making any sound, presumably communicating with gestures and signs, but Nova could still hear them getting closer loud and clear.
Nova’s eyes swept the room. It was despairingly empty. The building wasn’t finished enough for furniture to have been brought in, but there weren’t even construction materials piled up or anything of the sort. There was nothing to hide behind.
The two men were close now, but Nova’s brain was still working at 100%. Time flowed slowly and let her come up with – and discard – many ideas. Eventually, she ran her hand against the bare wall behind her.
All right. Let’s do this, then. I’ll need to run to the edge of the building and quickly make my way down before the others can come. Hopefully, they’re not too close to this position, yet.
Nova silently laid prone on the ground, listening to the sounds of her pursuers closing in on her. She made sure the assault rifle she’d stolen from Tanner was in semi-automatic firing mode – she’d never used that particular weapon before, so she wasn’t sure she could handle the recoil correctly – and brought it to bear, lining up the sights against the doorway. Now that she’d been backed against a wall, she didn’t have any other choice but remove the immediate threat. Her gun was silenced, but silencing a pistol and silencing an assault rifle didn’t exactly produce the same result. Even Piotr’s handgun had already been pretty loud. This rifle would be much worse. It probably wouldn’t destroy Nova’s hearing, but there was no doubt that everyone on the third floor would hear it.
She’d need to move fast afterward.
After a few million years of waiting, the time finally came. Nova’s sharp senses told her precisely where her targets were.
The door opened a crack. A scraggly face and the barrel of a gun peeked inside. Nova only took the time to make sure it wasn’t, in fact, Ethan or Hiraki before she opened fire with a regular tempo, just enough time between each shot for her shoulder to absorb the recoil.
The scraggly face snapped back out of the room as the first bullet tore into it. The second bullet blasted the scraggly face’s chin into pieces. By the time the third bullet flew out of Nova’s weapon, she had tilted its barrel slightly to the right. It left a hole in the plaster wall and hit the man standing behind it – hopefully. The fourth and fifth bullet struck the wall a little lower than before, to account for the man ducking or being shorter than she’d imagined. She heard a pained scream at that point. Then, the sixth to tenth bullets pierced the wall near the plinth at its bottom, giving the coup de grace to what should be a prone and dying person.
After ten rounds, Nova leaped to her feet and burst out the door, her handgun in hand, leaving the assault rifle to hang against her chest by the sling attached to it.
Everything had gone reasonably well, except that the second man, who’d been standing behind the wall clearly hadn’t received the headshot he’d been destined for. The scream he’d let out had been loud.
Let’s run away before anyone else comes.
As she left the room, Nova put two more bullets in each man’s head. They were already down, but there was no point in taking the risk of them suddenly getting up to shoot her in the back as soon as she turned away.
Then, she ran.
It wasn’t far. The room the two dead men had come out of should be the one bordering the eastern side of the building. She should be able to climb down, there.
However, the moment she skidded to a halt inside the room and turned to close the door after her to hide her activities, she saw someone round a corner down the hallway, a bit further than the two dead bodies lying on the floor. That someone instantly caught sight of her.
“Hey! Stop right there, bitch!” the man yelled at her.
Nova dropped to a knee, sighted, fired. The first shot missed. The man flinched and failed to return fire. The next few shots caught him in the chest. He fell onto his back, groaning, but he was wearing a vest. He was most likely alive.
Then, the others arrived.
One leaned out of the same corner the one she’d just downed had come from and sent a burst of fire in her direction.
The flimsy wooden door, along with the door frame and the nearby wall, were chewed into tatters by the high-caliber bullets. Nova had already rolled away from the door and was lying on the ground, so she wasn’t injured, but neither was she quite sure what she should do, now. This particular room happened to have solid exterior walls, and the empty window frame she was supposed to go through was in sight of the destroyed door and the hallway beyond. If she tried to climb down now, her pursuers would have all the time in the world to make their way here and shoot her down.
Even if they wanted to catch her alive, they might find it convenient to shoot her hands off while she clung to the wall, and just worry later about whether she’d actually survive the fall or not. They didn’t seem very professional, after all; one of them had even planned to rape her, from what she’d heard of their conversations. Or they might even just assume that, as a Storm, the clothes she was wearing were bulletproof and just blast away as much as they wanted. The one just now certainly hadn’t hesitated before opening fire on her, though it was perhaps only to provide cover for his fallen comrade rather than actually kill Nova.
In any case, this time, Nova didn’t really have much time to come up with something.
*clang, clang, clang*
She was still making her way to her feet when a canister bounced its way into the room and rolled to a stop against a wall.
Nova closed her eyes against the flash of the flashbang.
She couldn’t close her ears against its bang.