Sirius lay prone behind a wall. Fragments of plaster and stone dust rained down all around him as the gunmen at the other end of the hallway sprayed assault rifle fire toward his position.
Alarmingly many bullets made it through the wall, but it was thick enough that even the few that touched Sirius’s body didn’t have much momentum anymore and bounced harmlessly off his suit. Still, their enthusiasm in expending all their ammunition did force him to keep his head down, at least for the moment. He wouldn’t die from a direct hit or three, but a few of his ribs might break. Healing from that wouldn’t be an issue but would take a little time. Considering the amount of work he still had to complete after this hotel, however, he couldn’t afford that.
Ordinarily, he would’ve pushed himself a bit and dealt with his trouble on his own, but tonight, he wasn’t alone. The situation changed.
Suddenly, out of the six sources of gunfire aiming for him, one fell silent. The others also faltered, and in the momentary hush, Sirius heard the dull thump of a body toppling to the floor.
He didn’t lose any time and burst out of cover. He rushed through the hallway faster than an Olympic sprinter. Before him, five armed criminals stood, leaning half out from behind walls and furniture. For the moment, all their gazes were focused on their fallen comrade, the one farthest inside the corridor, closest to Sirius. His head was nothing more now than an unpleasant smear on the already decaying carpet, the result of one of Nova’s bullets penetrating right through the hotel’s walls and blowing it to pieces. The remaining gangsters didn’t recover in time from the shock of seeing their friend’s head spontaneously explode. By the time it occurred to them that his death would serve well as a distraction, Sirius was already in their midst.
*BANG BANG BANG BANG BANG*
One shotgun shell each. That was enough to silence the hallway. Sirius’s helmet informed him that no more hostiles were in sight, and Wieslaw’s voice confirmed it.
“The entire floor is clear. Nearest targets are in the staircase leading to the floor below. They don’t appear to want to go up and meet you. They must be a little shy.”
A small window opened on Sirius’s AR display and showed him a scene of three armed men crouching in a dark stairway. The drone hovered silently above them, remaining out of sight and hearing. The video’s resolution was good enough to show Sirius the beads of sweat on the three men’s brows as they aimed their rifles up at the staircase’s landing, where Sirius would have appeared if Wieslaw hadn’t warned him of the ambush. Another video feed on the side showed Nova lining up her scope with one of the three red outlines in her view, waiting for his call in case he needed assistance.
He’d never realized how great a comfort sniper support could be before tonight…
“Understood,” Sirius said as the drone flew away to safety under Wieslaw’s control.
Sirius snuck closer to the mouth of the staircase, his steps producing not a single sound. Flattening himself against the wall, he primed a frag grenade. After a count of three, he tossed it out the corner. The grenade clattered down the stairs. Surprised, panicked shouts rang out but were abruptly drowned out by the grenade’s detonation. The blast itself wasn’t very deadly, but the shrapnel which came afterward was. It tore through the three men and peppered the walls all around. Some bounced and flew up the staircase, but none reached Sirius himself, safely behind his cover.
Without further ado, Sirius raised his shotgun and rushed down the stairs to capitalize on the chaos which the explosion, with a bit of luck, might have caused on his enemies’ plans and expectations.
The battle continued. It didn’t take long for Sirius to clear the lower floors. Once or twice, he overheard some quiet dialogue between Nova and Wieslaw on the comms as she prevented some of their targets from escaping the building and running to the streets, but there weren’t many such occasions. This suited Sirius just fine. No matter how often Nova claimed to hold no scruples toward committing murder, she was still only a girl. So, rather than worry about the effects too much violence might have on her psyche, Sirius would much rather heap most of that guilt on his own shoulders. He was better equipped to deal with it.
“One minute until the police arrive,” Wieslaw called once Sirius reached the first floor.
There was still one basement floor along with the underground car park. One minute would be too tight to clear them both. Once the police stormed the building, Sirius would have to play hide and seek with them and try to evade detection. There was, of course, no way he could open fire on them, not even to protect himself; they were just doing their jobs, and Sirius was the one breaking the law.
‘I’ll win time for you.’
Instead of alleviating his worries, however, Nova’s sudden offer frightened Wieslaw. “Please, remember that you’re forbidden from shooting policemen,” he said. “Even non-lethal shots.”
‘I don’t think those even exist, with this sort of rifle.’
“That’s exactly my point. No opening fire on innocents,” Wieslaw insisted. “For any reason whatsoever.”
Sirius did his best to avoid thinking too deeply on the longer-than-usual pause before Nova’s answer came. He was almost certain she was joking. Not even she would do this sort of thing. Shaking his head at his teammates’ antics, he slung his shotgun, which had run out of ammunition, across his back and grabbed his assault rifle.
As he made his way down, letting his helmet’s night vision do its work against the pitch darkness of the service staircase, Nova spoke again. ‘I won’t be able to provide covering fire in the basement and car park. The ground and walls are too thick for my bullets to penetrate.’
Sirius wasn’t dismayed. He’d expected that, and he still had Wieslaw’s drones to recon ahead of him.
Contrary to the staircase leading down to it, the basement itself was brightly lit with neon lights set into the ceiling, and perhaps paradoxically, it was also much cleaner than the surface levels. No debris littered the grounds, here. No cobwebs, no rats, no discarded, rotting furniture. There wasn’t even much dust at all. Frowning, Sirius carefully advanced down the silent hallway stretching before him. There were a few solid metal doors on either side, all closed. The place looked remarkably like the entrance to his and Wieslaw’s hideout, now that he thought about it. Instead of an open hangar, however, one last door stood at the end of this corridor. It was marked with a sign indicating the car park Wieslaw had spoken about laid beyond it.
Suddenly, two of the doors flew open, one on each side. Two men, already sighting down their modern assault rifles, aimed at Sirius from either side. Through his enhanced vision, he could already see their trigger fingers starting to contract. There was no cover to speak of in the empty hallway, and Sirius was too far from the closest door to dive into one of the side rooms. Sirius’s eyes narrowed, and the world slowed around him so much that it seemed it had stopped. The two doors that had been flung open by his enemies continued spinning around their hinges, but now it seemed like it would take them at least a subjective minute to slam into the walls their frames were attached to. Same for the two men trying to kill him. They’d still been in mid-motion, trying to center their balance after bursting out of cover, but now they moved too slowly for Sirius to even notice.
The only one in that scene who could still move with any degree of speed was Sirius, thanks to his increased physical capabilities. He brought his own rifle to bear, aimed, and fired once at the man on the left. He had to wait for the gun to cycle and slide in the next round, the sound of scraping metal stretching into lower notes than he was used to. Then, he swept the gun’s barrel to the right and fired again. Of course, every movement he made was still painfully, frustratingly slow to his current senses, but compared to everyone else, he moved unthinkably fast. From the perspective of the two gunmen, Sirius’s arms must’ve turned into indistinct blurs the moment they caught sight of him.
However it appeared to the two of them, it was the last thing they ever saw. Sirius was accurate. The two rounds he fired hit home, the bullets’ course faintly visible to the naked eye in this slowed-down world – though still way, way, waaaay too fast to react to.
The world returned to normal speed, and the faces of the two gunmen turned to mush under the high-caliber rounds digging into them. Despite their textbook ambush, they both slumped to the ground lifelessly without even having the opportunity to open fire.
Sirius couldn’t hear anyone else in the room on the right.
In the room on the left, however, a shrill, terrified scream rang out, followed by the hollow clang of metal bouncing off and rolling on the ground. Whoever was in here must have been startled by the sudden death of this goon and bumped into something.
Above Sirius’s head, two small drones whizzed by and stopped in front of the two open doors. Slowly, they hovered down a little bit to let the cameras screwed to their undersides peek past the doorframes and into the rooms.
Sirius was proceeding down the hallway carefully – two doors had been opened already, but there were several more still closed and sheltering potentially more armed thugs – when he heard Wieslaw let out a gasp.
Crouching and keeping his gun held before him, Sirius redirected his attention to the screens displaying the views of the drones. His face immediately paled.
The open door on the right led to a morgue of some sort. At least a dozen body bags were piled haphazardly on one side. On another, a furnace was dug into the wall. The solid metal grate protecting its mouth was open, and bright flames were roaring inside it. Grey ash had spilled out of the furnace and piled below it. Repeated comings and goings had also spread the ash to the rest of the room, tracing lines of footsteps between the doorway, the pile of body bags, and the furnace.
The room on the left was even worse. The scream Sirius had heard earlier had manifestly come from the lone man remaining inside. He was dressed in bloodstained scrubs, like a surgeon. The drone showed him cowering in a corner, holding a scalpel in front of him like he thought it would provide him with some measure of protection against the intruder who’d gunned down his last protector. In the middle of the room was an operating table. And atop the operating table lied the corpse of a naked young woman, her abdomen cut open from throat to groin. Her body was tightly restrained, almost taped to the operating table, and her eyes were lifeless but wide open, her face twisted in a painful rictus. It was clear that whatever had been done to her, sedation had not been a part of it. A white and sterile light, so bright it removed all shadows, highlighted the grisly spectacle in perfect, repulsive detail. Piled on a rolling trolley next to the operating table were small, biohazard sealed crates presumably containing the organs they’d already harvested from their most recent victim.
Sirius felt his blood boil at the sight, and the barrel of his gun wavered. But he restrained himself. This wasn’t the time to throw a tantrum.
And indeed, Wieslaw called out at this point. “The cavalry has arrived.”
A quick glance at Nova’s viewpoint showed a van screeching to a halt in front of the hotel right before a squad of armed and armored riot cops rushed out its back. They had barely stepped outside, however, when Nova fired in their direction. None were hit, but they quickly scrambled and took cover at the incoming fire.
‘Hurry. This won’t keep their heads down for long.’
Sirius acknowledged Nova’s message. He swallowed the lump in his throat, grit his teeth, and pushed down his anger. He quickly started clearing the nearby rooms, trusting Wieslaw to keep an eye on the surgeon so that he wouldn’t have the opportunity to escape while Sirius was checking the rest of the place.
He went through a storage room, then barracks of sorts with a row of empty, messy bunk beds lined along one wall and lockers on the other. Then, he found the jail where the gang’s unfortunate prisoners were likely held before being butchered. Though, perhaps ‘pen’ or ‘kennel’ would have been more accurate. Walls padded thickly enough to smother any screams surrounded rows of plain steel square cages piled on top of each other three levels high. The cages were too small to allow the inmates the ability to either stand or lie down. There were enough to hold perhaps two dozen people altogether, but right now, all of them were empty. On the wall next to the doorway, a water hose hung limply while plugged to a rusted tap. It was still dripping with a thin, erratic string of water, which formed a wet trail and disappeared into a drain in the middle of the room. The gang members must have used it to wash the room and its occupants all at once like livestock. Despite this, old bloodstains had still managed to seep into and stain the concrete floor in several places, leaving unerasable traces of the horrors that had gone on in this room.
Sirius almost felt nauseous. The handle of his assault rifle groaned as his grip on it tightened and the plastic almost split. But his self-control wasn’t so poor that he’d lose himself at such a time. He turned away from the prison and headed down the corridor. He ignored the morgue-cum-furnace room and entered the operating room where that surgeon was still waiting indecisively.
At least, the man had taken the last minute to compose himself. When Sirius appeared before him, the man flinched, but he didn’t soil himself or scream his lungs out or start crying. Instead, he fiddled with the sleeves of his scrubs and nervously licked his lips. “Sir, please don’t misunderstand. I assure you that I am as much a victim of these criminals you killed as the people they… brought here. They… They forced me. I was kidnapped and – OOF!”
The rest of the surgeon’s excuses were rudely interrupted when the butt of Sirius’s weapon slammed into his mouth. The man reeled back, spitting out blood and broken teeth, but Sirius grabbed him by the collar and yanked him back upright before he could fall.
It hadn’t occurred to Sirius when he first saw him through Wieslaw’s drones, but perhaps the man was speaking the truth. Sirius had no time to find out. In any case, the police would get him, wring the truth from him, and make sure he was properly punished for his actions. The only thing Sirius needed to do was make sure the guy wouldn’t escape or tamper with the evidence. Oh, and work off some of the fire smoldering in his chest, because no matter what, someone had been holding the fucking scalpel.
*SLAP, SLAP, SLAP*
“Here’s to your misunderstanding, you scumbag.”
The surgeon’s face spun back and forth, spurting out more blood and shattered teeth each time Sirius’s hand whipped across his cheeks.
‘Enough,’ Nova said, bringing him back to his senses. ‘Kill him and be done with it. The police are about to storm my building. And yours.’
“They’re also drawing a cordon around the neighborhood,” Wieslaw added. “If we want to get out with the van in one piece, we need to do it fast. We have more work to do tonight.”
Sirius let out a sigh, then punched the surgeon one last time. His nose broke with a crunch, and he lost consciousness. Sirius dropped the body to the floor, gave it another kick in the ribs for good measure, then rushed out of the room. He headed toward the last door at the end of the hallway, which lead to the underground car park and his escape path.
# # #
As soon as the situation started getting a bit too heated for comfort, Nova decided to abandon her post and flee from the police banging on her metaphorical door.
There was little more she could do, anyway. She’d barely managed to gain Sirius a minute, perhaps a minute and a half, before the cops below started getting organized and struck back against her interference. One squad resumed its course toward the hotel while another covered them and prevented Nova from getting in the way.
Fortunately, Sirius was done already and was exfiltrating the area.
Tsk. He didn’t kill that surgeon guy, in the end?
Well, there was nothing she could do about that. It was Sirius’s operation. Nova was just here to help out.
Nova shook her head and watched the police slowly advance toward her, thick, broad, bulletproof shields turning the line of squishy, vulnerable bodies into a solid steel wall she knew she couldn’t breach without special ammunition.
These guys are well equipped, aren’t they? Well, even if I do breach their shields and kill all of them, Wieslaw and Sirius will never let me hear the end of it. And it wouldn’t improve my situation.
The shield wall was merely a distraction. More law enforcement officers had already entered her building while she’d been distracted by the covering fire coming from the obvious, lumbering armored squad inching carefully toward her position. Whether the infiltrators took the stairs or the elevator, they’d be bursting onto the roof guns blazing and put her down in a minute, tops.
It was most definitely time to leave. Apart from the armored convoy that had stopped in front of the abandoned hotel, Nova could see the bright, revolving red-blue lights of more police vehicles sealing the surrounding streets.
Thankfully, she wouldn’t have to go through them.
Nova stood up and took shelter behind the advertising billboard. The advancing line of riot cops would pick up the pace when they noticed the fire holding them down had fallen silent, but it would still leave Nova enough time to beat a safe retreat. She reached for the grenade at her belt, turned the dial to point at the little smoke cloud icon, removed the pin, then dropped the grenade over the railing. It clattered across the concrete a few meters below before bursting open and releasing a thick, off-white cloud of smoke full of tiny metallic flecks floating inside it, which quickly spread to cover a disproportionately large area for such a small device. The top of the cloud reached as high as Nova’s hiding place, while its sides encroached on the surrounding buildings.
While she was out of sight of any potentially vindictive officer of the law, Nova reached for the buckle of her utility belt. She pulled on a small metal ball encased in the center of the buckle, a marble with a notch cutting deep into one side of it. A long, thin wire was attached to the underside of this marble and disappeared into the belt’s hollow insides. Nova looped the wire around one of the feet of the billboard’s railing, then secured the loop in place by bringing the marble around and pressing the wire down into the notch crossing the marble’s surface. The notch clicked shut around the wire, creating a solid noose around the railing which should, hopefully, hold Nova’s weight as she descended to street level. Both the wire and the marble looked too thin and fragile for that, but in truth, Nova was more worried the billboard’s railing would be the one to fail first. She’d already stress-tested her gear in various situations, and she was confident it wouldn’t snap so easily. The railing, on the other hand, looked kind of rusty and flimsy…
There was no time to hesitate, though. The cloud of smoke her grenade had produced wouldn’t last forever. Trusting in the solidity of her makeshift rappelling apparatus, Nova slung her sniper rifle over her chest and vaulted over the railing. The wire kept unrolling out of her belt with a whirring sound as she fell, keeping her speed under control so she wouldn’t ram her kneecaps into her skull once she reached the floor.
When her feet hit solid ground, Nova flicked a small switch next to the concave dent on her belt buckle left behind by the removed marble. With another click, the marble coiled around the billboard’s railing released the wire it had been holding inside its notch. The noose broke open, and the wire started rolling back into Nova’s belt, drawing the marble after it. It took merely a second for the marble to snap back into its previous place, returning to being a mere decoration on Nova’s equipment.
The smoke cloud was starting to dissipate, and the beams of a number of flashlights could be seen cutting through it already.
Wieslaw had already picked up Sirius, and the van was in motion. Nova confirmed its position on the map her helmet showed her, then bolted toward the narrow gap separating the building she’d infiltrated from its neighbor.
The police had picked up the pace behind her, but the smoke was still hiding her exact position. No doubt the cops were equipped with infrared goggles which would have rendered standard smoke grenades useless, but this was an Aaron-quality smoke grenade. It wouldn’t be defeated so easily.
Which didn’t mean Nova could waste any time.
She ran past garbage bags ripped open by crows or rats, leaped onto a dented, overturned dumpster, and vaulted over a chain-link fence spanning the entire alley. When she reached the open street on the other side, a beige van with a flashy logo promoting a professional window cleaning company painted on the side was already coasting to a stop in front of her. Its side door slid open, and Nova jumped inside.
“Good job, everyone,” Wieslaw said as Sirius shut the van’s door and Nova took a seat. He drove off and strove to disappear into traffic before they could be hailed or shot at or otherwise discovered by anyone.
For a while, no one spoke, and the only sound was the quiet buzz of the van’s electric engine. Sirius sat opposite Nova, presumably brooding on the horrors he’d witnessed down in the hotel’s basement. Wieslaw drove on and, presumably, brooded too. Nova just focused on resupplying from the van’s mobile armory and reloading her weapons. She’d been busy with her own thing at the time and had only seen a few images of corpses and of the surgeon responsible for them, so even though she knew intellectually that this whole business was terrible and gruesome and brutal, she wasn’t emotionally invested in the victims’ plight.
She could read the mood, though. This wasn’t the time to be chipper and crack jokes. So she kept her mouth shut, as well.
Eventually, Wieslaw continued. “There are three more locations we need to hit tonight if we want to put a stop to their activities. Ready for the next spot?”
“Ready,” Sirius growled, his fingers tightening around the handle of his gun.
Nova didn’t bother answering.
She just sent a silent prayer for the poor, overworked cops who’d be running all over the city tonight trying to catch up with the murderous shenanigans of two teenage superheroes with a throbbing hard-on for justice and one selfish exhibitionist dumbass who’d been roped into this nonsense despite her best intentions.