“We’re there,” Wieslaw said solemnly from the driver’s seat.
Sirius, riding shotgun – a bit more literally than usual, considering the weaponry he carried – looked through the windshield and nodded, solemnly.
Behind them, in the back of the van, Nova… Nova solemnly played Tetris on the van’s wall of computer screens. There were 12 screens in total, 12 simultaneous games. Enough to toss out Wieslaw and Sirius’s names from the high score table and monopolize all its top spots.
Sirius looked back from his seat. “Nova, could you take this seriously, please? We’re about to start.”
Nova stared at him with suspicion. He’d definitely noticed he was about to be ousted from the high scores and was looking to distract her with something else. She lamented at how petty and churlish he was before closing her games and displaying again the feeds from security cameras, the mugshots from identified criminals, the blueprints of the building they were about to raid.
It was an abandoned hotel. Though ‘abandoned’ was a euphemism. The place was a ruin. Perhaps even worse than the warehouse Sirius and Wieslaw had elected to use as their hidey-hole. The windows were boarded up with shoddy wooden planks; some walls were cracked and threatened to fall; the roof was open in several places, exposing the building’s insides to the elements… In fact, according to official records, this hotel was so shit it had been slated for destruction some time back, before people realized it would cost more money to demolish the place than to simply let it rot where it stood. It was in a pretty seedy part of Verizen, too, so no one even wanted to reclaim the land. Thus, the whole thing had fallen into complete disuse. Until this new criminal operation made their nest inside to support their purposes, that is. According to Wieslaw, there were a few rumors about this place – squatters and homeless bums walking in and never being seen again – but no one had filed a police report about it. Understandable. No one cared if a homeless guy or three disappeared, their organs harvested without anesthesia to be resold on the black market while their corpses were sawed into pieces and disposed of in trash bags. Nothing newsworthy about that, right?
Wieslaw actually wasn’t entirely sure what went on in the hotel. Did it serve as a supply depot or a warehouse? An armory? A meeting spot? A hideout where the members of this organization could hole up? A waystation where they gathered their victims before ‘processing’ them?
Wieslaw parked the van in an inconspicuous spot down a darkened alley, a bit away from the hotel, and activated its camouflage. Quickly, the color of its paint changed from flat black to a pattern of greys, browns, and reds, some darker or lighter than others, and all its windows became like one-way mirrors – opaque from the outside but see-through from the inside. Then, he and Sirius joined Nova in the back.
Wieslaw approached the screen displaying the building’s blueprints and layout. “I know we already discussed this earlier, but allow me to reiterate,” he said, his gaze on Nova making it clear it was for her benefit even though she was probably the one who remembered the plan best out of the three of them. “Sirius, in from the roof.” He pointed at one part of the blueprints. “Preliminary drone recon shows that the rooms on the top floor are unused, so you shouldn’t meet any resistance, at least at first, but be careful nonetheless. Primary objective is to sneak inside and make sure no innocents or victims are on site. If there are, rescue them and lead them out to safety. Secondary objective is to neutralize all targets. Speed is of the essence, here. We don’t want any of them calling for help or escaping. For that purpose, I’ll be jamming all signals but ours inside the hotel. Third, recon shows that a van came down into the hotel’s underground car park yesterday. Find out why. It may be relevant to our mission.”
Sirius nodded his understanding, and Wieslaw looked at Nova.
“Nova, neutralize escaping hostiles and provide support for Sirius as needed. I suggest you set up shop behind this billboard,” he continued, pointing at a photograph of a tall, brightly lit advertising billboard for an upcoming action movie. The same billboard could be seen through the van’s windows lighting up the darkened street some distance away. “You should have an unobstructed field of view of the hotel from up there. Don’t forget to link up your AR display to the drones. They’ll be flying around the hotel.” Wieslaw nudged a palm-sized camera equipped with four small propellers, which was lying on the desk. A few more like it rested next to it. “I will remain in the van and coordinate the operation. In case it’s necessary, I’ll come out and support the two of you. Keep in mind that average police response time in this part of Verizen is around 7 minutes. Questions?”
When none were forthcoming, Wieslaw nodded. “Then, let us start.”
Sirius put on his helmet, which sealed with a small, pneumatic hiss of escaping air. He grabbed his weapons and disembarked, with Nova after him. He patted her shoulder once, as if in encouragement, then started sprinting toward the side of the hotel, vaulting over the barbed wire fence around it in a single bound in clear defiance of all the ‘keep out’ signs hung upon it. Nova watched him scale the wall as nimbly as a gecko, even though he was carrying 40 kg of kit on his back. Then, she also left the alley and proceeded through the deserted street toward the billboard Wieslaw had indicated. She didn’t sprint, though; she jogged. If she tried to match Sirius’s world-record-like speed, she’d be too tired when arriving, and she didn’t want a messy heartbeat to lower her accuracy.
The billboard was set up on top of an apartment building. The building wasn’t high-class enough to have a guard watching over its entrance, so Nova made her way into the lobby openly with her sniper rifle slung across her back. Like everything else in this part of town, the place didn’t look like much. The neon lights encased in the ceiling were flickering unsteadily. Strewn all over the floor were crumpled flyers and newspapers and cigarette butts. It almost reminded Nova of her home back on Earth.
Shaking her head, she walked to the back of the lobby and called the elevator. As the numbers above the elevator doors went down, Nova absently watched Sirius’s infiltration of the hotel through the feed on her helmet’s display. He was currently clearing rooms on the top floor, making sure that he wouldn’t expose his back to his enemies when he went down and started sweeping the place in earnest. In the meantime, Wieslaw was giving him updates from what he could gather of the drones flying around the building.
Soon, however, Nova was brought back to her side of the operation when footsteps and loud voices rang out from a side door of the lobby. The elevator was just about to arrive when the door swung open to reveal three young men talking animatedly and laughing. The frontmost one, who opened the door, was the first to catch sight of Nova, in her combat suit and armed to the teeth. The broad grin that had been hanging on his face froze, and he abruptly stopped walking. The other two behind him bumped into his back.
“Hey, man, what’re you…”
The other guy’s voice trailed off when he looked over his friend’s shoulder. In the end, the three young men stood on the lobby’s threshold, stunned, their mouths wide open and their gazes locked on the strange figure before them.
Discreetly, Nova’s left hand moved. She played a sound file she’d prepared beforehand on her bracer for just this sort of occasion.
‘Haaaa, sssss, haaaa, sssss…’
A heavy, mechanical breathing sound slithered out of the microphones encased in her helmet. The sound wasn’t very loud, but that only made it more frightening. Then, Nova turned to face the young men under the flickering lights of the lobby. The three of them flinched, but they remained rooted to the spot, as if their legs refused to move despite all attempts to convince them otherwise. That stopped when Nova slowly, menacingly drew the knife sheathed at her thigh and increased the volume of her bracer. The breathing noise filled the lobby.
When Nova took a step toward them, knife in hand, the three young men finally moved. In fact, they bolted.
They scrambled over each other and fled back the way they’d come, rushing away and disappearing in an instant, leaving only the echo of their screams behind. One of them also dropped his cap, but he made no move to recover it.
Pleased with herself, Nova stopped her bracer’s audio playback and returned her knife to its sheath.
The elevator chose this appropriate moment to finally arrive. Nova stepped inside and pressed the button for the top floor.
“Nova,” Wieslaw’s voice said inside her helmet’s comms, sounding reproachful. “Please don’t traumatize innocent civilians for fun. Chasing them off was the right move, but I don’t think you needed to transport them right into a horror movie scene.”
Nova didn’t bother answering. Wieslaw just didn’t have the necessary flair to properly appreciate the quality of her performance.
The elevator reached the top floor, though it shook and stuttered a few times and Nova wondered if it was going to crash down and kill her. When Nova exited the elevator, she quickly found the service door leading to the rooftop stairway. She made her way up, then through one last dark corridor, which looked even shittier than the rest of the building as the occupants rarely used it, and finally found herself in front of a metal door held shut by a padlock, with the roof on the other side. She didn’t bother picking the lock. She didn’t bother shooting the padlock, either; that only worked well in video games, and Nova didn’t want to get hit by a ricocheting bullet. Instead, a good, uncomplicated kick ripped the door, hinges and padlock and all, right off the crumbly, mold-eaten wall around it. It wasn’t exactly the epitome of subtlety and sneakiness, but it didn’t matter. Leaving traces of her passage here didn’t mean much when Sirius would leave even more next door by putting two dozen armed goons into a meat grinder.
Nova walked to the edge of the roof and looked down. The billboard was attached to the building’s wall, a good 20 meters above ground. Nova jumped down and landed lightly on the maintenance catwalk surrounding the billboard. She didn’t circle around to its front, of course. Doing that would provide everyone with a perfectly visible target. Instead, she stayed behind the billboard and sat with her back against the catwalk’s railing, her rifle slung across her chest with the barrel pointing past the billboard’s corner. The billboard’s bright light all over its front only made the darkness behind it more profound and impenetrable. The scant few cars that passed through the street below certainly showed no sign that Nova’d been spotted.
Nova looked through her scope at her unobstructed view of the hotel. She couldn’t spot any hostiles, though she knew there must be some inside.
“Acknowledged. Sirius, you can start the real thing, now.”
“All right. Top floors are clear. I’m going down.”
It didn’t take long for gunfire to ring out from inside the warehouse. At first, the sound was one-sided, with only one loud roar bursting out regularly – Sirius’s shotgun. But soon, a slightly different tone of gunfire responded, and soon, the exchange between the two got more and more heated until it sounded like a full-on war was being waged in there.
Sirius apparently didn’t care much for subtlety and sneakiness, either. Nor did he care for his ears – if the firefight was so loud even at this distance, Nova didn’t even want to imagine being stuck in the middle of it. She didn’t know how Sirius bore with it. Had he reduced the audio feedback on his helmet? That would be dangerous, too, if that were the case, as he would become unable to hear such things as footsteps and such…
Well, he knows what he’s doing. I don’t need to worry about him.
Some lights flicked on in the neighboring residential buildings as people woke up and realized that people were murdering each other right outside their doorstep. Most of those lights promptly flicked right back off again as those same people realized that nothing good would come of presenting an obvious potential target to whatever homicidal nutjobs were currently slaughtering each other.
“Police are on their way,” Wieslaw said just a few seconds later. “A call just went through. Seven minutes, counting down now.”
“Got it,” Sirius replied, his voice perfectly calm and level even though the sound of gunfire still rang out heatedly inside the hotel.
For a time, Nova still couldn’t see any targets, but her idleness didn’t last long. Soon, the first deserters showed themselves.
Sirius’s brutality had impressive effects. One of the hotels windows burst into pieces as a heavy upholstered chair flew through it, blowing glass and broken wood – from the nailed boards that had sealed it – out into the courtyard. Three men were inside that room, two covering the last, who had thrown the chair, with bursts from their assault rifles. The man who had thrown the chair frantically climbed out the window, visibly terrified, and another promptly followed him once he ran out of ammunition. The last also ran for it once his two companions were gone, but before he could climb out, a shotgun blast tore through his back, and his momentum pushed him forward and made him plunge through the open window. Trailing blood all the way, he crashed down onto the courtyard below with a sickening crunch Nova could hear even all the way from her position. He didn’t get up.
Sirius didn’t pursue the two who had escaped. While the gunfight proceeded inside the hotel, the two gunmen attempted to scale the wall and make their way down. In their hurry, they almost slipped a few times, but all in all, they showed remarkable agility. They likely found great motivation in the sight of their comrade’s broken corpse lying below them.
Their good fortune stopped, however, when one of Nova’s bullets pierced through the skull of the man who’d climbed the lowest. The man’s head whiplashed and collided against the hotel’s wall, leaving behind a huge, circular blood spatter. Then, his body lifelessly lost its grip on the wall and fell to the ground below. The other goon panicked even more at his colleague’s sudden demise and, perhaps expectedly, slipped. As he toppled backward, his fingers scrabbled for purchase but found none.
He landed three floors down, on his back.
Lucky for him, a thick carpet of overgrown grass and dead leaves cushioned his fall. Unlucky for him, the impact still left him stunned long enough for Nova to line up a perfect shot.
With a second shockwave riding up her shoulder, Nova watched dispassionately as her second victim’s head burst open and spread its grisly contents over the ground and the two additional corpses around it.
Nova breathed in and slowly released the trigger. She worked her rifle’s lever again, and a fresh round slid in. She recovered the spent casings and stored them in a pouch at her belt, then focused on the data displayed on her helmet’s display. When Sirius had started his ruckus, Wieslaw piloted some of the drones. They infiltrated the hotel and started tagging every target. It was a bit risky, since the drones were fragile enough to fall to a single bullet, but with Sirius grabbing all the attention, more and more red silhouettes were drawn over the hotel’s wall in Nova’s vision. A blue silhouette faced off against the red ones.
As she watched, the blue silhouette popped from behind cover – presumably, judging by the movements it made – and a red silhouette stumbled back and blinked out of existence. The other red silhouettes quickly hunkered down or wildly fired their weapons, and the blue silhouette was forced behind cover again to avoid getting hit.
Nova calmly aligned her scope on one of the red silhouettes.