'The Pit: Hell Frozen Over' - Arc 3, Chapter 3: 'The One Truth' (Closed, Started)

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Kusanagi glared at the Dragon as he screamed, "I'm not going anywhere with you. Now get the fuck out of my face before I rip your throat out," She spoke to Nikolai, her eyes still burning into Travis'. "Nikolai... Acolyte is a friend... this isn't what it looks like."

She looked from the flustered Dragon to Acolyte, "Come with us. We're getting out of this hellhole for good."

'Sir. Akua is down, and Lisa isn't answering her com.'

Korovitch swore under his breath. Around them, the eight men in the chapel lay dead. 'Wickers, let's get back out there. Hayes, meet up with us outside the chapel.'

'One moment, sir.' There was the faint sound of a gunshot outside. 'I'll be along in a second.

Korovitch and Wickers paced around the chapel. 'The wee lass should have been around here somewhere...' he paused. Then, 'look, sir. The morphine syringe.'

It lay broken on the ground. A couple of feet away was a pock mark in the stone, with a splatter of blood. Droplets of it trailed off towards a wall, and were suddenly cut off. How odd.

'What's the plan, sir?' It was Hayes. He carried a rifle, similar to the one Akua had been armed with. Slung over his back was a black holdall.

'It would seem our sniper has disappeared.' Korovitch was examining the wall where the blood trail stopped. Peeling off his gloves, he ran his hands across the stone. After a few seconds, he found the faint groove. 'Hayes, the plastic explosive from your bag. We need this to be quiet.'

A few seconds later, the hinge was filled with grey putty, from which stuck a stubby fuse. They all stood well back and Hayes lit the fuse, jumping back. A second later, there was a soft, hissing blast. The door was partially knocked out, and between them, they hauled the slab the rest of the way.

'Tunnels. Interesting. Let's go.'

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Travis had stepped in front of Acolyte in his ire, and he, himself lowered the rifle.

Acol- whatever your fucking name is. Grab. The. Bitch. And. Lets. GO!"

'She's not a bitch.'

Before Travis could reply, he lunged forward and clapped Travis' temple and neck on opposite sides in a blindingly swift motion. Travis jerked, and fell limp, unconscious.

'I've wanted to do that for a while.'

Conrad came running into the war room followed by a warden carrying the French sniper. Sticks was sitting at the end of a table in an old corduroy chair. Ten men stood around the room, checking their weapons and equipment. This was all that remained of their forces, "We heard them breaching the entrance behind us. We should evacuate and---"

"Not so fast Sergeant," Sticks got to his feet and walked over to the unconscious woman who had set down in a chair. "We have leverage now. We have a hostage," He looked over to one of the younger wardens. "I need you to go on ahead and deliver our demands to our friend Luka."

The man snapped to attention, "Yes, sir!"

Sticks laughed, "No need to be so formal. Tell them we have the French woman and that she will not be killed so long as they give themselves up."

Conrad cocked an eyebrow, "You really think they'd go for that?"

"If he values the life of his squad he will for a few reasons. A: If he doesn't listen we'll kill her. B: The brave soldier here will lie and say that the tunnel is rigged with dynamite and if they decline the offer they will die in a cave-in."

"If that were true couldn't you just do that anyway?"

"Our friend here will explain that I'd rather there not be any further bloodshed. Killing his squad would not ensure my survival, I simply need to disarm them so I can make my escape. Tell him... I don't want any more blood on my hands than I already have and that I will quietly leave the Pit for good if he plays along."

The man nodded and started down the tunnel. Conrad watched in discomfort as Sticks started manhandling the unconscious woman's face. He looked to one of his subordinates, "Bring her to the makeshift bedroom."

Without thinking, Conrad stepped forward, "You said we wouldn't hurt her."

"Kill her Sergeant," He grinned as he started for the bed room.

Conrad stood there watching in utter disbelief.

The girl spoke with disgust as she stared a hole right through Travis. "I'm not going anywhere with you. Now get the fuck out of my face before I rip your throat out, Nikolai... Acolyte is a friend... this isn't what it looks like."

Travis was about to roar at her and give her a good lesson in manners, before Acolyte stepped in.

'She's not a bitch.'

Travis was about to turn and give the man with the stupid name a lesson in women's roles- but a seering pain shot through his skull. Then silence. Then darkness.

Consciousness returned to Lisa painfully. Her vision started as a blur, and then sharpened to reveal Lieutenant Cornelius. The man she'd been sent to kill.

The morphine was wearing off, and the pain in her legs and right hand was almost unbearable. She groaned in dull pain as Sticks loomed over her.

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Several minutes after Lisa regained consciousness in Sticks' clutches, Korovitch's men turned a corner, and almost collided with a man in a Warden's uniform. They raised their weapons and he cried out, 'wait! I'm here to negotiate!'

'Negotiate?' In the sharp glare of the torchlight, Korovitch could see the fear in the young man's eyes. A greenhorn if ever he'd seen one.

'Lieutenant Cornelius has your French squad member. She is not to be killed so long as you surrender your arms and turn back. If you refuse to cooperate, she will be executed, and the Lieutenant will detonate dynamite charges placed along this stretch of tunnel, burying you alive.'

Korovitch squinted at the soldier, who seemed a moment away from wetting himself under the Russian's grizzly gaze. 'How much further does this tunnel go on for?'

'You're about seven eighths through now, sir,' the boy replied, unable to stop himself.

'Wickers. Opinion.'

'Sounds fishy to me, sir. Anything they detonate at this range has a not too negligible chance of burying them along with us.'

'I see. But Cornelius is just that mad, I suppose. Anyway...' he stepped forward and slapped the rifle from the young man's hands, and slugged him hard in the gut. 'Take him. Cornelius isn't the only one who can take hostages, though I wouldn't trust him as far as I could throw him to give a shit about this kid.' To the "kid", he said, 'you thumb your mic, I'll cut off the thumb that did it. Maintain radio silence.'

They were about to continue on their way when Hayes set the holdall on the ground again, unzipping it and gestured to their new prisoner. 'Sir, I have an idea.'

Nikolai stood over Travis' unconscious body. 'The Dragon' as he called himself, had hardly lived up to his name, nevertheless...

"Not good enough." he said to no-one in particular, though his remark was meant for Acolyte. "We should kill him. When he wakes up, he will only kill, rape and maim more. When a Beast is mad, you put it down."

Nikolai aimed his shotgun square at Travis' head.

"Here, it is easy. Let me show you."

Acolyte shoved the muzzle away from Travis. 'The killing is done for now. We're leaving now, so whether he lives or dies is of no consequence to us. Besides, he's got enough people after his blood that he'll probably get himself killed within the week. It'd have been just as easy for me to stop his heart or put him into a lethal seizure as it was to knock him out, but I chose to incapacitate him. Respect my choice.'

He met Nikolai's steely gaze evenly. Then, another thought occurred. 'These are the gas mines, right? Correct me if I'm wrong, but surely it's best not to let off any shots in here.'

Kusanagi bit her lip as Nikolai positioned himself for Travis' execution, "S-stop!" Everyone's eyes were now on Kusanagi. She banished her doubt and spoke confidently. "Haven't you killed enough men today Nikolai? You are free now to do with what you will. Any life you take from here on out is no longer someone else's will. It's your own."

Kusanagi's voice trembled a bit as she continued, "It's already hard enough for me to not think of you as a monster. As an animal. Would killing this man really bring you peace... or would is satiate your bloodlust?!"

She hadn't noticed it before she had stopped talking, but she found she'd bee gripping his wrist. She awkwardly let go and took a step back.

*************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************

Her screams echoed throughout the underground passage. Conrad tried his best to block it out, but it was just... too much. Some of Sticks' remaining men were standing guard by the tunnel entrance while a few others were playing cards at a table in the center of the room. It would be simple enough to just disappear...

And so he did.

Conrad moved the old podium back in place after climbing out of the trapdoor in the chapel and started for the tunnel entrance he'd previously taken.

Nikolai met Kusanagi's gaze, and his eyes stayed fixed on her for a long moment, his expression unchanging. In the end, he lowered his weapon and slung it back across his shoulder, before rounding on Acolyte.

"No gas left. It all burned away." he said, before his voice took on a fierce growl, and he grabbed Acolyte by the collar of his vest, lifting him off his feet. "I respect no choices of yours, not yet. You fight beside Squeal Pig here, and think he is a worthy ally for a rescue. Together, you would have hurt Free-Men. He would have tried to hurt Kusanagi. How many have the two of you killed today, to get to me? But when the time comes, you will not kill Kusanagi's true enemies, even though she says you are a friend. This makes me not trust you, Sneaky Man."

He shoved Acoltye away from him, where he fell against the wall.

"You come with us, or you go, I do not care. But you are not one of us. Free-Men are family. If I think you will try and hurt us, I will kill you. Understand?"

Sticks seemed content to let Lisa thrash as he did what he did. Her throat was hoarse with screaming. The bed rocked and tears prickled at her eyes. Her left hand slipped free of his grip, and he ignored her, content to jam his thumbs into her wounds as he thrust.

Her hand traveled up her own back as she grasped at the fine bladed knife held there under her bra strap, which Sticks had not yet touched. In one fluid movement, she brought her good hand up, and with such closeness, despite his sudden realization at the glint of steel, he could not stop her jamming it deep into his eye. He reared back, blood spurting from his head as he fell from the bed.

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They arrived at the entrance to the bunker underneath the chapel. The door was open, and they marched straight on.

The hostage was sandwiched firmly between Korovitch and Wickers, who held him roughly by the shoulders. His torso was covered in thickly applied duct tape, strapping a number of grenades to his body. Two frags and three stun grenades from the holdall.

As they came to the door, the Wardens looked up at them. Some lazily stood guard, and others played cards. They had heard the feminine screams from some feet away, but as they came to the door, they heard a decidedly masculine yelling. As they were noticed, several Wardens dove for weapons. With all their strength, Wickers and Korovitch hurled their suicide bomber hostage forwards. running through the pins was a knotted cord, that trailed backwards to the hands of Sergeant Hayes. The man was pitched forwards and Hayes yanked hard as he and the others leaped back.

The explosion, primarily magnesium, but still containing fragmentation, seemed enormous in the confined space. Immediately, they were through the breach, and dust hung thickly in the air. Most of the men were unconscious or heavily wounded. Some had weapons, though, and were scrambling to find cover. Korovitch ignored them and barreled towards the bedroom beyond, bursting through the door. Behind him, a fierce firefight was erupting between his men and Sticks'. He pushed through the door.

There was blood everywhere, with more coming out and still a lot of yelling.

Conrad avoided the traps and kept his gaze away from the scores of Warden corpses littering the compound. Once outside the gate he crouched down beside the man he'd shot earlier. He yanked his old dogtag off, placed it gently in the man's open palm and closed his fingers over it before moving on.

And with that, Sergeant Conrad Verner was no more.

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The pain of his gauged eye pretty much conquered the entirety of his senses. Sticks flailed about screaming and reached for his pistol. The woman was already on the ground, trying to crawl away despite her injuries, "YOU FUCKING BITCH!" Partially blinded, he managed to hit her in the shoulder, knocking her to the floor. As he came over the side of the bed the door flung open and Luka, momentarily shocked by the scene in front of him, charged forward and disarmed him before he could fire another shot. "FUCK YOU!"

How could this have happened? Where was Conrad?! Had he...

Luka grabbed him by the throat and threw him up against the wall, bringing his kukri inches from his other eye. Why was he hesitating? Was he supposed to take him alive? No, Lee wouldn't go through all of this if he wanted a prisoner. Luka looked down at his subordinate below; beaten, broken and humiliated. If he was devastated it didn't show on his face. Sticks started laughing through the excruciating pain, "You win! YOU WIN! I-I suppose it's too late to show mercy, isn't it?"

Luka looked like he was loosing his patience. Sticks had to move fast if he were to truly win this, his final game, "You may hate me for what I've done to you and your squad today, but you'd be mistaken if you thought it was all my doing. Who sent your men into a trap to die like animals!? IT WAS LEE! You see, he couldn't beat me because he didn't want to sink to my level. So, you know what he did?! HE SUNK LOWER!"

"Do you have any FUCKING IDEA how many people will die because of Lee's gambit?! THOUSANDS, TENS OF THOUSANDS! Many of them will be innocents! And they won't all die simple deaths, oh no," Sticks looked with his one good eye to the woman on the floor. "Many will suffer as she had! How can you willingly follow such a tyrant? At the end of the day will a more stable Pit justify the countless dead you and your master have manufactured?! So yes, kill me now while my dick is hard and my pants are down, but know this: when there's blood in the water the sharks will come. Lee will oversee the death of this place and everyone in it."

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As Nikolai and his men moved on Kusanagi momentarily stopped and put a hand on Acolyte's shoulder, "Are you okay?"

Acolyte looked up into Lucia's eyes. '... blackout. Don't have long. You...' he shook his head to clear it. 'You should... leave me... go!'

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'Even if you're right; and you're a liar to the core, but even if you were right... this,' he gestured around. Not just referencing Lisa, who was now sat on the floor, against a wall, watching him, but also referencing his dead men, and the Wardens Sticks had corrupted and sent to their deaths, 'this cannot stand.'

He hauled Sticks up by the scruff. Standing, the man came up to his chin, and was much less broad of shoulder. With his pants round his ankles, he was helpless as Luka planted a boot in his chest and sent him sprawling across the bed. Laying an arm across his midriff to pin him, Luka brought the kukri to bear. 'You'll die with your pants down, but your dick won't be hard.'

Realization dawned on the Lieutenant's face, and he struggled futilely, as the kukri swung down. A bloodstain spread quickly across the sheets where Sticks' genitals were separated from his body. He screamed highly, a piercing, inhuman sound.

Seizing his collar, Luka hauled him to his feet, and swung his blade again. The rogue Warden's head hit the floor and rolled. Several minutes later, Luka and his men left the chapel. Wickers, being a large, looming man, cradled the now tranquilized Lisa like a baby. Hayes carried the guns collected from the Wardens they'd killed, packing the holdall until it was full to bursting, and then filling another they'd found in the bell tower. They didn't know it, but Conrad had previously stored his sniper in it.

Korovitch walked slightly ahead, the bed sheet containing Sticks' head and manhood, as well as the collected dog tags of the men they'd killed (piled into a pillow case) slung over his back like the world's most terrifying Santa Clause.

The chapel was far removed from much of what was left of the rioting, with numerous inmates in the area having been gunned down by Sticks' men. Their journey back would be more or less safe.

Lucia quickly put her pistol in her waistband and grabbed hold of him for support, "Black out?! Now?"

'You should... leave me... go!'

"Not on your fucking life! You came here to save me," Lucia paused for a moment. "I assume. There's no way in hell I am about to leave you here!" Lucia snapped her head towards Nikolai, who'd already walked a fair bit ahead. "Help me carry him!"

Nikolai walked back to see Kusanagi struggling to keep Acolyte on his feet. He was going limp, and his eyes were beginning to roll. Some kind of seizure? He thought for a moment about just leaving him behind, but the look on Kusanagi's face made him think better of saying it out loud.

Clearly frustrated by the hold up, Nikolai gave a disgruntled grunt, before reaching down and hauling Acolyte up with one arm, seemingly without any effort. He strode back down the hall, with Acolyte in a fireman's lift over his left shoulder, and his shotgun in his right hand.

The next couple of hours were a blur for Korovitch. First, when they pushed back up to the surface levels, and got buzzed through by on duty Wardens, Lisa was carried away on a stretcher, and none of them were allowed to accompany her to the infirmary.

Luka decided to deal with the contents of the bed sheet. Walking into one of the break rooms dotted around the complex, he found a plugin electric cooler. Emptying it of its contents, two sodas and a can of cheap lager, despite protests of relaxing guards, he carried it to his room and plugged it in, putting the improvised sack containing Sticks' head and genitalia in, and closed the lid. That should keep it in fine condition until Lee called him for debrief.

He wondered at the trophy taking behavior he'd exhibited under the chapel. Korovitch was not an emotional man. Even internally, behind the stone features, there was rarely much going on internally, besides cold, calculating intellect and determination. What Cornelius had done, though... in their short time, Korovitch had consigned himself to a close brotherhood with his new squad. To have them torn apart so soon, by a sadistic and gleeful maniac, filled him with insurmountable rage. More than that, it filled him with sorrow that had not gripped him since...

Since she had died.

His thoughts drifted to what remained of his squad. Most of all, Lisa, whose condition, both physical and psychological, was critical.

Physically, she'd recover, he thought. If there was one perk for working for a company rivaling governments in power, it was that the health plan was top of the line. Psychologically speaking though... there would be therapy, but that wasn't a guaranteed fix.

He would see her safe and happy, again.

=================================================================================

In his last moments of consciousness, dangling from Nikolai's shoulders, he pinned the strap of his rifle between their bulks so it wouldn't fall. The last thing Acolyte saw before passing out was Lucia's worried expression.

Chapter 4

Lee was silent for a long time, as he watched the mission recordings from the combat cams of every member of Iron squad on his command tablet. He felt somehow compelled to absorb every last detail of the mission. This was his work, and he should bear witness to it.

After the things he had seen, even done, in his years of service, there were few things that could make Lee's stomach turn. Even after everything, he'd underestimated Sticks. Both in terms of ability and in his capacity for cruelty. The nano-shells, hidden inside mandatory inoculations, were supposed to have been a particular masterstroke for Lee. Instead, they had turned out to be a Red Herring that had cost the live of one member of Iron Squad, while putting another in a perilous position that had led to something even worse.

His mission. His responsibility.

"Progress Report?" he asked Montoya.

"At least 85% of targets are confirmed neutralized. As for anyone else, any gangs of significant size and strength are fracturing under the weight of such heavy losses. The few targets who may still survive if we go in now will have had their power-bases swept from beneath their feet, and will no longer have the capacity to challenge us."

"Casualties?"

"Initial estimates stand at around 1500 Inmates, and 125 Wardens. Both these estimates are expected to rise."

An 85% success rate, with anyone still alive being brought to their knees... It would have to be enough.

"Time to end this Captain." Lee ordered "Initiate Black Protocol."

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Even though he'd been in The Pit for what must have been decades, the upper-levels were not a familiar environment for Nikolai. Up here, the inter-gang fighting was thinner, but now the new threat was from Surface Men, garrisoned in the upper levels to protect supply caches, and most importantly, the Atrium.

With Acolyte still hung unconscious over his shoulder, Nikolai fired at anyone and anything that got in his way. In the fight to get here they'd lost another three of their number, and Nikolai knew that soon, the Surface Men would move to regain control over the rest of The Pit, and then escape really would be impossible. Nikolai jogged over a walkway, turned left, then right. A black shape appeared in front of him. A shot at close range, and the shape went sprawling away. They'd been sticking to the smaller service corridors, to bypass the worst of the patrols, and it took Nikolai a second or two to realise they had arrived.

The Atrium was vast. A massive, concrete cylinder, almost the size of The Hive in diameter, and stretching over 100ft up to the surface. All around the edge, open-platform service elevators, that were the only way to and from the surface, lay in wait.

He looked up, and forgot where he was. It had been so long. So very very long. It couldn't be real. It must be a dream, his first good dream.

Nikolai could see the sky.

Travis lifted his head off the cold ground. He held his head as a splitting headache shot through his brain. "Mother fucker!" He shouted, immediately regretting it as every sound was amplified. He winced and whsipered to himself "Alright, now they all die. Ac- ugh," he grunted as he stood up and grabbed his gun. "Dumbasses didn't even take my guns" he laughed. He checked through his gear and found everything was still intact. Assault rifle, SMG, Pistol, Hammer, a few grenades and his kevlar was still in good condition. He set off in search of Nikolai and his pack, ready to finally show why his name was 'The Dragon'.

Kusanagi kept Tristan close as they stayed behind Nikolai, watching his flank. On their way to the atrium she'd hit a few targets, but she had no clue if any of them were dead or simply injured due to their distance. By the time they had arrived to the wide open area of the atrium Kusanagi was onto her last magazine. The sky was a welcome sight; it had been several months since she'd seen it after all, but that's not what grabbed her attention.

Nikolai gazed up at the sky above. His expression remained emotionless, though she could tell what was going through his mind, "We're not quite there yet," Kusanagi glanced around the atrium. "Where do we go from here?"

Nikolai took a second to snap out of his trance, whereupon he pointed to the service elevators lining the rim of The Atrium.

The lifts were meant for carrying potentially large loads of cargo on their open platforms, so all of the Free-Men could easily split themselves between two waiting platforms. When all were aboard, Nikolai hit the green button on the console, and the platform began its slow crawl to the surface.

They were around halfway up when a squad of Wardens arrived at the bottom of The Atrium, and saw them trying to make their escape.

"DOWN!" Nikolai shouted, dropping Acolyte rather unceremoniously on the floor, and crouching behind the metal safety gate that surrounded the platform. A second later, bullets were slamming into the steel and concrete all around them.

"SHI--" Kusanagi hadn't even had enough time to finish voicing her reaction before the entire area was booming with the sound of automatic gunfire. She grabbed Tristan by the back of his shirt and pulled him down to his knees, holding him close with one hand and readying her pistol in the other. Ducking her head down she noticed Acolyte limp on the floor. "NOW'S A GOOD A TIME AS ANY TO WAKE UP!"

She looked to Nikolai and flinched as a bullet ricocheted off the wall right next to her face, "ANY IDEAS?!"

Acolyte was nineteen again. Thrown in the county jail for possession of pot. Not that he took it, but it was part of the drug runner's business. This was the fifth time he'd been snagged in the years he'd worked for the the drug runners on the Dutch streets. An alright track record. Not amazing. He knew they wouldn't come for him, though. This and the previous occasion were too close for comfort, and previously, he'd been caught with a pocket full of LSD sheets. It was only due to the shit nature of the area they were in, and that some pre-bribed officers had been on duty to destroy the 'evidence'. He lay curled up in the hard cell cot, while the world fell down inside his head. He'd taken his fix before starting out, but that had been four days ago.

For something so minor as pot, slightly more frowned upon than it was pre-collapse, there wasn't anything they could do, but in post-collapse Holland, everything was so far down the drain, the officers had no problem keeping him here for a little while to stew.

Four days without heroin and he was coming into withdrawal. Every noise reverberated like a shot around his head. His skin alternated between burning and clammy coldness, and in the past forty eight hours, he'd thrown up six times. They didn't feed him very regularly to begin with, but since he'd stopped eating, they'd stopped bringing it. A cold, now well skinned bowl of soup sat on a plate also containing a heel of bread, and a tin cup that had contained water, which he'd poured over himself during one of his burning up spells.

Groaning, Acolyte curled even tighter, burying his head in his arms to shut out the dinging. One of the cell occupants a ways down was using his tin cup to bang on the bars of his cell door, and each ding was like a hammer blow in the base of his skull and a clap on the temples. The dinging wouldn't stop. The dinging...

"NOW'S A GOOD A TIME AS ANY TO WAKE UP!"

The cell began to melt away, but the dinging persisted. Not dinging, gunfire...

Acolyte groaned as consciousness worked its way, unwelcome, into his head. Years of hiding in vents had cured his reflex of immediately trying to sit up when this happened, and that probably saved his life. He opened his eyes. The blur focused into two pairs of legs and a hand holding a pistol. He looked up. Lucia and her brother.

'Morning...' he said, wryly with a mouth that felt as though it were full of cotton. He felt around him and found the stock of his rifle.

Nikolai unclipped a grenade from his belt, and signaled to five other Free-Men on the other platform, who all did the same. Some of the grenades were military grade, having found their way from the Surface-Men supplies into the arsenal of the Arctic Wolves. Others had been improvised. The one Nikolai held was a tin can with a stick of dynamite glued in place inside. The space between the dynamite and the inside rim of the can was stuffed full of iron nails and bolts, that would act as shrapnel.

In unison, they stood up just long enough to aim and lob the grenades. As he let go, Nikolai felt something thump him at waist height. The grenades detonated, and the Surface-Men disappeared in a burst of dust and smoke. The firing stopped.

As Nikolai turned back around to check on the others, he felt a stiffness in the top of hi right leg, near where he had felt the impact. Looking down, he saw he had a bullet wound. There was still no pain. Taking a closer look, Nikolai saw that the round had hit the bottom of the Kevlar vest, that had taken away some of its velocity, before ricocheting down into his hip. He could feel the bullet nestled in his pelvis, more of an irritation than anything else. Nikolai barely even grunted as he pushed his thumb and forefinger into the open wound. He found the distinct touch of the crumpled lead, twisted one way, then another, easing the metal out of the bone, before drawing it out, and tossing the remains of the bullet over the side.

He wiped the blood on his hands off on his trousers. He'd had worse.

"We are almost at the top." he said to Kusanagi. "When we get there, we must move quickly. We will find some metal Land Cows with the rubber legs. They will take us to the metal Birds."

Travis made his way through the Pit, trying to find Nikolai and the rest. As he got back to the throne room of the wolves he couldn't find Harris. He looked around for the Aryan leader, this could be a chance to get in Harris's good books and assert his power if he could kill Nikolai. Eventually he found what he was looking for. A bunch of dead Aryans along with the leader in a corridor filled with their blood and limbs. In his rage Travis stomped one of their skulls into the ground, just as Harris had done to Azreal earlier. Even this mutilation couldn't calm Travis down or quench his bloodlust as he set off the find the Dog and his pack.

Their path was fairly obvious to follow as they left a trail of bodies killed in a way unlike the rioters. These were clean killed shots instead of panic induced beatings. The corpses were like a yellow brick road leading up into the higher areas of the Pit. "This is gonna take a long fucking time," he groaned, as he made his way up corridors and catwalks. Several tweaking crackheads jumped out at him- easy enough to deal with. However he could not relish the murders and had to make quick work of them with his assault rifle. He got a few shots off people and despite his ego had to avoid a few large groups trying to band together to survive.

The worst fight he had took him by surprise. As he was walking up a set of stairs a stocky black man ran up and kicked him in the chest, sending him tumbling down the stairs. Travis held himself as he hit the bottom, trying to see if anything was broken. He looked up to find the man pouncing upon him with a large improvised club. Travis rolled out of the way so the man didn't crush his head, but as he was getting up the man struck him hard in the left shoulder and forcing the strap carrying his gun to fall to the floor. The Dragon yelled in pain as he ducked under a swing and pulled out the hammer he stole of the wolf he killed earlier. Travis dodged and swerved a few swings from the man until he could get close enough to crush it against the man's groin. He fell back clutched his testicols; to which The Dragon lurched forwards and beat him mercilessly. Before his skull was crushed to bits Travis could see he was Zulu. "Savage motherfucker! Spear chucking piece of shit!" Travis yelled racial slur after racial slur as he brutally destroyed the man's head. After he was done he picked up the club and claimed it for his own, as well as his assault rifle and wrapping the strap around his right shoulder. "Bastard," grunted Travis. His left shoulder hurt like hell.

Kusanagi couldn't help but be amused by Nikolai's word choice... that was until she noticed he'd been digging a bullet out of his pelvis, "You've been hit! Are you okay?"

And then he just kind of tossed the bullet aside. Kusanagi winced, "We're going to have a good look at that once we're in the air."

Shaking his head to clear it, Acolyte pulled himself into a sitting position behind the cover, holding his rifle in the crook of his arm. Lucia hadn't heard him. She was too transfixed by Nikolai's wound. She was also oblivious to the Warden, sprawled on the ground in the aftermath of the grenade explosion. His leg was riddled with shrapnel, but his Kevlar had partially shielded his upper body. Hauling an assault rifle around, the man took aim at Lucia.

No...

Lurching dizzily to his feet, Acolyte shouldered into Lucia, sending her stumbling several paces to the side. At the same moment, the man fired a small burst and Acolyte felt three lines of intense heat across his cheek. Still unsteady, he fell to his side from the force of his tackle. From where he lay, he fired his rifle, hitting the man in the jaw, sending the Warden's head jerking back and hitting the solid floor, hard. If he was still alive, he wasn't conscious.

Acolyte put a hand to where the burst had skimmed him and winced. He got the feeling the three gashes resembled a claw mark across his cheek.

After slamming hard against the side of the lift Kusanagi watched as Acolyte barely managed to avoid death. How could she be so reckless? No one else was going to die for her sake. She rushed over to his side, and before checking his wounds fired a three shots down at the warden below, catching him in the skull with the final shot. He wouldn't be getting up after that, "Shit, shit, shit! Are you okay?!"

Thank God... it was only a flesh wound, "What the hell were you thinking?! You could have died!"

Tristan watched Kusanagi's uncompromising ruthlessness. What had this place done to his sister? He slowly walked over to the pair and placed a hand on her shoulder. She jumped and looked back at him, "Tristan, what are you doing? Keep close to Nikolai's men!"

He didn't respond, he just continued to stare. He was worried about her. Lucia placed a hand on his, "It's almost over, Tristan."

"It is nothing, Kusanagi" Nikolai replied to her concern over his wound.

After that, the fighting resumed briefly, as Acolyte barely escaped a brush with death. As Kusanagi started worrying over him instead he gave a stiff nod in Acolytes direction. He still didn't trust the Sneaky Man, but he had put himself in harms way for Kusanagi's sake, not to mention he was able to hit is target in one shot, at range, while moving, wounded and semi-conscious. He was capable, at least.

"We are at the top!" Nikolai has to yell over the whistling sound of the wind as the two elevators crested the lip of The Atrium. A blizzard was in full force by this point, and Nikolai had to put a firm had on the back of Kusanagi's brother to stop him from being blown back over the side. Unsurprisingly, Nikolai felt the boy shiver at his touch, or perhaps it was just the chill. The feel of snow on Nikolai's face was strange. Magical, but strange. The only problem was, they could barely see more than a few meters in front of them, and from this point on Nikolai didn't know where to go. Right now, the attention of the Surface Men was still focused on events inside. That, along with the cover of the blizzard, was the advantage they needed to pass largely unseen, but they may have only a few short minutes to exploit it.

"Move!" he shouted to Kusanagi and Acolyte, as he and the rest of the Free-Men piled out of the elevators.

Kusanagi grabbed Tristan from behind to both support him and use him as a temporary shield against the sudden flurry of snow. It had been a very long time since she'd come into contact with it, "We're really... outside." She was getting excited. Tristan turned his head around to offer his sister a warm smile.

Kusanagi saw the uncertainty in Nikolai's expression, "Visibility's shit out here. Do you know where we need to go?"

Acolyte winced as he came out into the cold, regretting his perpetual shirtlessness. The Kevlar didn't do much, and goosebumps broke out along his arms.

He glanced up at Nikolai, who seemed to be pondering. He wondered idly if the man knew what a plane hanger looked like.

The cold weather did one thing for him, it numbed the burning cuts on his face.

Nikolai's eyes were useless, so he focused on his hearing instead, trying to block out the howling of the blizzard and search for any minor sound that would aid him. The Motor Pool would be close, he knew. his first memory as Nikolai had been the walk to the Atrium when he was brought to The Pit, and even with a bag over his head he could tell that it had not been far.

That was when he heard it, the sound of one of the Surface Men's metal cows, rumbling into life.

"That way!" he ordered, gesturing with his arm, and the troop moved out. It was a short jog, spread out with guns pointed in every direction. In the middle of the blizzard, death could come from anywhere. What started as an in distinct clack shape in from of him became a truck, with a squad of Wardens turning round to see them emerging from the snow.

Nikolai cycled his shotgun again and again,as he and the other Free Men made short work of them. Most of the men boarded the big truck, while Nikolai and the rest took two smaller jeeps. Gregor took the driver's seat, Kusanagi, Tristan, and Acolyte mounted up on the back, while Nikolai stood up On the passenger's side. The engine revved, and the convoy sped away into the white.

A bemused grin spread across Acolyte's face. To Lucia, he said, 'after five years... I'm free... never really paid attention to the possibility that would happen. I got life...' he tailed off. He didn't want to think about that.

=========================================================================================================================

Korovitch stood awkwardly next to Lisa's bed, the upper section of which was raised into a sitting position. He felt her eyes, large, brown eyes that put him in mind of a doe, set intently upon him. It made him uneasy. Her shins were bound, with molded splints, and her hand, fresh out of the first of five reconstructive surgeries, was potted. The doctors told her they could get it more or less as good as new, which was lucky. The bullet had gone straight through rather than fragmenting, despite hitting the bones of her hand. If the range had been anything less than point blank, she wouldn't be so lucky.

They'd been through the immediate necessary questions, how were her injuries, what had the doctors said, how was she holding up? The last was the only one that was not optimistic. Now, the pause seemed to stretch indefinitely. And then...

'Luka?'

'Yes?'

'Could you come here?'

He stepped closer to her bed, but she beckoned him further. Further. Then, she threw her arms around him in a tight hug. He stood stunned, then awkwardly put his hands on her back, causing her to shiver involuntarily. Sticks' cackle echoed through Luka's mind at that, and he began to pull away, but she whispered, 'no, I didn't mean to.' He returned his hands to her back, and she hugged him tighter, nearly crushing the wind out of him.

After a few seconds, he realized she was crying. Unable to see her face due to it being buried in his shoulder, he only realized when she spoke. 'You... you saved me, sir. You saved me and...' she tried to say something that might have been "thank you" and broke down completely. All he could say was, 'it's fine.'

'No, it isn't, I... I saw the bodies. How many you had to go through. You nearly got yourselves killed for me, I can't just...'

He didn't tell her he'd gone through all that to see his objective to its completion. Not just due to how she might react, but also because, deep down in some long dead part of him, he too felt disgust at that. When he'd finally found her, in the state she was in, his rage had been all consuming. He had killed Sticks out of anger, completely forgetting that it had been his objective in any case. His objective had been forgotten, and if he'd had to bring the Lieutenant alive, the man would still be dead.

Finally, Lisa let him go, and he stood back, slightly relieved. She asked, 'so what will you do now?'

Firmer ground. 'Well, I expect Lee will request a personal report from me, soon. After that, I suppose I'll have to make some additions to Iron Squad to... to cover our losses, and to fill in your spot, until you come back.' Then, 'if you are up to coming back,' he added, hastily.

She nodded, taking this information in.

Lee and Montoya listened carefully to the crackling radio, making out the message as best they could over the static and the blizzard.

"We have Inma... attempting to... have commandeered vehicles... for the airstr... I rep... for the airstrip! We... in pursuit... over."

"How many are there?" Montoya asked

"Approximately... all heavily armed." The Warden on the other end replied "We... identific... Inmate #49... 140. Desig... Nikolai! There... young female... ID unknown... Permission to... gunship support, over?"

'Nikolai. He must have...'

Lee stayed silent for a moment, he was aware of Montoya's eyes on him, waiting for orders. When Lee spoke, he addressed the radio directly.

"Corporal. This is Colonel Lee Jin-Oh. You do not have permission to engage. I repeat, you do not have permission to engage. Fall back. All Wardens are to focus their attention on restoring order inside The Pit, as per the Black Protocol. Do you read?"

There was silence on the radio, before eventually "We read. All Unit... back to... secure The Atrium."

The usually officious tone of Montoya's voice faltered somewhat.

"Sir, any escaped Inmates could pass on vital information about the facility to outside hands. With all due respect, what exactly do you think you're doing?!"

"Keeping a promise, Captain." was Lee's reply.

'I told you I keep my word Orphan; and it's good to know that I did at least one noble thing today.'

Kusanagi held on to Tristan tight as the pair weathered the blizzard together. When accosted by wardens Kusanagi threw Tristan behind her and leveled her pistol... though by the time she'd taken aim on one of them they'd more or less been neutralized. Nikolai's men were efficient if nothing else.

She hopped on the back of the vehicle and helped her brother aboard.

"...After five years... I'm free... never really paid attention to the possibility that would happen. I got life..."

Kusanagi smiled warmly as she rubbed his back, "That's right, you do," She looked to Tristan. "We all do."

Navigating their way around wasn't easy in the blizzard, especially with the Surface Men chasing them. Having grown up in The Pit, where Inmates were brought in from across the entire continent, and sometimes even beyond, Nikolai could speak several different languages. However, he couldn't read, and had to rely on interpreting the visual symbols on the signs they drove past, sometimes only having the finest split second to catch them before the convoy raced past. Never the less, he kept them moving towards the airstrip, towards freedom.

He heard another noise, above the howling of the wind, the growl of engines, and the staccato cracks of gunfire. The deep, rapidly repeating whoosh of rotor blades beating against the air. Nikolai had heard that sound before. No, no it hadn't been Nikolai, but rather the boy who came before him. The boy who was weak. The boy who cried when the hot pokers burned on his skin.

The black gunships emerged from the veil of wind and snow, one on each side, trying to box them in, while the chasing armored trucks harried their rear. A side door opened on each helicopter, and two heavy machine guns trained on their position.

The convoy had nowhere to go, and no way to defend itself.

The Free Men braced, and waited, for a moment that could have filled a thousand lives. Why weren't they firing? Nikolai looked up, and saw that, rather than unleashing their payload, the gunships were banking, moving away. The pursuing vehicles were backing off. As quickly as they had been outnumbered and surrounded, the Free Men found themselves seemingly alone in the white wilderness. Taking the lead of the convoy, Gregor drove their truck straight through a chain link fence, and the frozen dirt they'd been driving on turned to smooth tarmac. Standing again in the passenger seat, Nikolai saw them. They were parked, waiting in line, waiting for them. Not for the first time today, Nikolai was lost for a moment in wonder. Hopw could something so big and so hulking ever get off the ground?

When the gunships appeared Kusanagi grabbed Tristan and pulled him in close. If nothing else she'd get one final embrace from her only remaining family. But then... nothing. After several moments of silence Kusanagi opened her eyes to see their executioners departing. Still holding Tristan close she spoke to no one in particular, "What was that about?"

As they crossed the threshold onto the runway their means of escape came into view. Kusanagi stood up and pointed, "Look! We've made it!"

Finally...

Kusanagi sat back down and held Tristan's hand close to her chest. She looked back in the direction of the atrium.

Thank you Samuel. I will never forget you...

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