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

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"Any lock can be bypassed, one way or another." Montoya replied, as the doors closed and the party began its second descent. Further, but faster than before. "Some of the Inmates here specialized in such activities before they were apprehended. On central transport system may be more efficient, but we take no chances when it comes to containment of this facility's population, especially after recent events. During the prison-wide riot three months ago, our ability to remotely shut down and reactivate all elevators independently allowed us to separate and contain pockets of violence, even shepherd the rioters into areas where they would be easier to combat. Such measures saved this facility from total collapse. If we had just one central elevator block, and we were to lose control of who could get on and off, and where, to consequences could be disastrous."

The elevator began to slow, marking the final few seconds before their arrival at the Mid-Levels. They touched down near one of the Cell Hubs in the North Wing, over a mile away from the Industrial Complex at the heart of the Mid-Levels, thanks in part to the slanting descent of the elevator car. Trident squad exited from their cars first, and after ascertaining the the area was secure, gave the signal for the rest to come through.

"Our next transit station is further out." Montoya informed them as they filed out into the corridor. "It's a short walk, and along the way you'll have the chance for a somewhat less formal inspection of some of the living quarters for the Inmates."

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Over a mile south, Husky and Viper squads were touching down at the Mid-Levels too, although the uninitiated could mistake their location for another facility entirely. They had arrived at the main thoroughfare leading into the Industrial Complex, the beating heart of the entire facility. Inmates moved about here in far greater numbers, careful to avoid eye-contact with the entourage of Wardens (very few Inmates even knew Lee's name, and fewer still had ever seen him in the flesh, but they all knew who he was). Husky and Viper were far from the only squads here, Lee counted fifteen on patrol just in his current field of vision, as it should be.

The ultimate distinction however, between the Industrial Complex and the rest of the facility, was the heat. Even with the massive flue system and ventilation, drawing hot exhaust away to the surface and pumping fresh air in, both at a rate of hundreds of liters per minute, the temperature here was over 45 degrees Celsius, and oppressive. The noise too. The Lower-Levels were always humming the the tune of a thousand pick-axes striking rock, punctuated by the roars of heavy mining drills and blasts of dynamite, but these noises were offset by the vast caverns, where the sometimes seemingly endless darkness would feel like it was swallowing up any evidence of life around it, covering up the cruelty and toil within its walls, as if the rock itself was ashamed. The Mid-Levels were a less sympathetic beast. At peak levels of production, the entire Industrial Complex would gird its loins and bellow out its chorus of hammers, fire, and shrieking jets of steam. Lee had seen it more active than this before, the facility was still ticking over productivity wise, in its recovery after Borealis. The workforce had replaced itself quickly enough, Venture Horizon would never have a shortage of clients more than willing to dump their dirty little secrets at its door. The Industrial Complex had been the epicenter of the riot though, which meant that heavy structural damage had been sustained, which had not yet been fully repaired in some areas. Nevertheless, the visitors would receive quite a show.

"Husky squad will take point." he ordered Lt. Abreu. "This way."

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The path up that Nikolai had spotted before was indeed climbable, although it seemed like it might be steeper than it had looked. The drink at the stream had given Nikolai a little injection of strength, and he led the Free Men up with renewed purpose. It wasn't long before the caves were in sight, looking like they could offer ample protection from the encroaching night. Nikolai was careful not to let his guard down though. The caves were ideal, meaning that they were like as not already inhabited, and they had met few Beasts in their travels so far that were willing to tolerate a shared living space. Besides, the Free Men would be eager to eat something that wasn't berries.

Gregor was up front with Nikolai. Not quite at his side, but maintaining a respectful position just off his shoulder. Gregor's left arm was held in a sling, but in his right he still carried a machine pistol, aided by the strap over his shoulder, and he was a deadly shot even with one hand.

"There was a small village not far downstream." Gregor said. "It looked like it might be deserted. We may find supplies there."

"We may find death there as well." Nikolai grunted "I saw. Men do not leave their homes unless their homes are dangerous... We shall have to pass though that area on our way anyway. Tomorrow, when we are fresh, I will scout ahead with a few Men, to decide whether we search there, or sneak by."

They were a coming up to the cave mouths now. Nothing had challenged them yet...

A single howl split the air. Close, too close, and soon accompanied by a hungry chorus. The Wolves had caught up with them. Nikolai spotted the faintest rustling in the undergrowth off to his left. Taking no chances, he turned and fired a single blast from his shotgun. A death yelp told him he had found his target.

"GET INSIDE! NOW!" he bellowed, as the chorus struck up again.

Acolyte moved towards the cave. More importantly, towards Lucia, drawing his revolver as he went. She turned to face him, and he saw her eyes widen as the scratch of claws on rock reached his ears. It was too late to turn and shoot. As he felt the beast's breath on his back, he threw himself forward, the revolver spinning across the ground as his palms slammed on the stone. One knee and both hands on the ground, he threw his right foot around through the air, and it connected hard with the side of the wolf's head. Acolyte rolled onto his back and the creature was on him. Too close for any of the Free Men to shoot without risking hitting him, as well. Its jaws passed inches in front of his face, and he brought up his forearm, smashing the wolf's lower jaw, slamming its fangs shut. It tried to rear away to reopen its mouth, but he kept pushing, and with his other hand buried the bowie knife in its throat. As the blade came loose, he got a faceful of the spraying blood. Kicking the twitching carcass off him, he put the knife back in his waistband, scooped up the python revolver, and dashed to Lucia, currying her towards the cave entrance, wolf blood still coating his upper body and face..

"GET INSIDE! NOW!"

Kusanagi did not think. She acted. Drawing her pistol, she double-timed it toward the cave. As she came around a small bend she could here the foliage nearby rustling. She aimed towards the noise. Just as soon as the bloodthirsty predator had made it's presence known Kusanagi had embedded two bullets into it's skull. It didn't even whimper as it collapsed like a sack of meat mid-sprint.

The sound of howls was quickly drowned out by the echos of gunfire as the Freemen marched towards the cave, guns blazing. Kusanagi managed to hear the heavy footfalls of someone behind her as she clambered towards the cave. It was Acolyte and... before Kusanagi could blink he was on the ground fighting for dear life. They were too close to each other. If she opened fire now she risked shooting Acolyte.

That was fucking reckless... I can look out for my---

She spotted movement in her periphery. A wolf was making a mad-dash towards her from out of the brush. She spun around and fired her weapon, but it was too late, it was upon her. The shot missed it's mark and as it bore it's teeth, ready to kill, Kusanagi managed to bring the large stick she was carrying to bare and swing it over her shoulder. The wolf caught the stick in it's mouth as it came down and continued lunging past Kusanagi; his momentum tugging the stick from her hand and pulling her to the ground.

As she fell to her knees she knew she had to act fast or she'd lose her throat. Her pistol was lying on the ground a good 15 feet away. She had lost her grip on it during the fall. Amateur mistake. The wolf had already turned around ready another charge as she desperately felt around the ground for something she could use. It's maw baring down on her; Kusanagi's hand felt around the surface of the dirt until it found what it was looking for. She could hear the sound of its jaw cracking as the large rock in her hand intercepted the wolf's attack. It reeled back yelping, giving Kusanagi the time she needed to scramble to her feet and pick up her gun.

Unfortunately the wolf had recovered faster this time and managed to give her chase and catch the bottom of her pants leg, yanking her down with surprising strength. Kusanagi fell to the ground on her chest and could feel the massive wolf making its way towards her throat once more. Panic only managed to creep into her mind for a moment. Her thoughts clear, devoid of doubt, she reached for the pistol on the ground. As the wolf lunged forward across her body, ready to claim it's kill, Kusanagi turned over firing her pistol three times into its chest.

Dead wolves were heavier than they looked. She managed to shove the carcass off of her before she realized Acolyte was running towards her once more. She got to her feet before he arrived and ran along side him. Both of them were coated in the blood of their canine foes, "That was reckless... You need to look out for yourself, Acolyte."

"I shouldn't have to tell you the purpose of administration. It's in the name, after all. Any questions?"

This was when Richard's interest peaked. His team began writing down notes about the computers while Richard himself just looked around. He knew these computer models by heart mostly because it was his father's company that had supplied most of the parts. The hum of running processors sounded like a finely tuned harmony to Richard's ears but he turned to the players instead of the instruments.

"These... office workers are Venture's finest, I presume?" Richard asked Korovitch. "An effective Administration runs like a orchestra. Now if one or more of the players had dirty hands then the tune wouldn't sound as the same it would on the sheet, correct?"

Olivander's pen worked quickly, taking down every detail he could about the cells as he past them. Uniform rows of small chambers with a bed, a toilet, a sink and a shelf. A few of those shelves contained books, usually of fiction. Everything seemed in order. The executive sopped scribbling, but did not pocket his pen or notepad. His eyes went wide as he realised something: he was disapointed.

Abigail smiled again as the squad cheered once more at the sound of more drinks, especially since they were free. After a few more minutes of joyous banter, the sound of a watch beeping could be heard coming from Oliva. "Aw, damn. I forgot I was supposed to pull double duty today at Lower. There's some fancy-schmancy people going to be touring the levels for something or other." Olivia said as he rolled his eyes. "Damn, I forgot it too." Albergo cursed, somewhat angry at himself. Lewis was quick to respond, saying that he would cover for his slightly drunken colleague.

Both Lewis and Albergo soon got suited up and left the table, leaving Marino, Walker, and Olivia behind to continue what looked to be a night of drinking. A few other guards scattered throughout the bar appeared to be in a similar situation, and soon left to carry out their duties, wherever that may be.

"Looks like you fine folks are quite the band of brothers, watching each others backs and all. How long have you been a team for?"

"Looks like you fine folks are quite the band of brothers, watching each others backs and all. How long have you been a team for?"

"Shogun squad has been here ever since this RACDI began really but we've changed hands so many times..." Oliva said, thinking back. His face was wrapped with thought. "Technically I've been here the longest with Marino being here second then Albergo then Walker then Moore."

"Yes... now I remember." Marino said. His thick Italian accent sticking out once more. "When I was a newcomer... there was Franklin, Hugo, and Breckenridge."

"When Hugo was stabbed, Albergo replaced him."

"Franklin went missing in the Lower Mines so Walker replaced him."

"And when Breckenridge kicked the bucket..." Walker mumbled. "Lewis arrived here with some nice tea from England."

The group laughed once more.

"We have quite the history as you can see but up until recently we've just heard about this lovely establishment." Marino said, complimenting Abigail.

"Lewis was quick to make friends with us. He's a good guy." Oliva said. Walker nodded and sipped again.

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Aggie clocked out but it wasn't like she was getting paid for the work anyway. But as she was about to leave Aggie heard that a heavily-armed Warden squad was roving through the Mid-levels and would shoot anyone who would come into their little 15 or 10 meter perimeter. Aggie chuckled and decided to stay in the stifling office for and watch the entourage go through the factory. She was safe in her machine enclosure the only thing she had to worry about was the heat. Aggie decided to wait until the group was clear from the entrance from where she heard they were. That meant her replacement would be late so that gave her some time to relax until the Wardens leave.

"Hey! Inmate!" Aggie heard over the loud machinery. She lifted her head up from her little nap to see a Warden above on the of the walkways call out to her. The Warden noticed. "Get back to work!"

Aggie rolled her eyes and she was sure that he wouldn't see it past his gear and the heat even from that height. She pressed someone else's metals on someone else's shift which ticked her off quite a bit but she knew that if she didn't then a baton was waiting for her.

"Shogun squad has been here ever since this RACDI began really but we've changed hands so many times..." Olivia said, his face showing he was deep in thought. "Technically I've been here the longest with Marino being here second then Albergo then Walker then Moore."

"Yes... now I remember." Marino said as he butted into the conversation, his Italian accent sounding more profound this time. "When I was a newcomer... there was Franklin, Hugo, and Breckenridge." The Italian then went on to talk about the fates of the past members of Shogun Squad. Then Walker interrupted by mentioning Lewis's contributions, which caused another bout of laughter from the group. Finally Marino finished up.

"We have quite the history as you can see but up until recently we've just heard about this lovely establishment." The compliment made Abigail blush, though she also shot a look that read 'Oh really?'.

"Your right, quite the colourful history this squad has had. I'm surprised that it has taken you almost five years to notice the existence of this bar of mine, the Gates of Pandemonium. Actually now that I think about it, the five year anniversary of this place opening is coming up in a few months; was thinking of throwing a celebratory party, but I doubt as though Lee or any of these Executives would actually allow it to happen; probably spout something along the lines of 'it being a waste of resources'." Abigail said with a sigh, saddened by the fact that such a thing would be true.

"Yes sir!" barked Leiutenant Abreu as they entered the industrial complex, the true heart of the Pit, where all of the materials and main work came to and eventually left. The hub of productivity. Clementina had only been directly inside the Pit a few times and usually in much smaller groups than this. This was the first time she was given direct responsibility of something truly important... not that she considered these men and women in suits important, but she knew it was necessary. She took point and had to stop herself from scoffing as some of the executives had to cover their ears from the deafening sound, and pull at their collars as they were hit by sweltering heat. She'd be lying if it didn't hit her too, and this truly was the hottest place she had ever been even in Brazil, but at least she was able to handle the heat like a god damn soldier. They may not have been soldiers but these civilians could at least stop acting like little bitches. She knew for a fact that the executives were to be impressed with what they were soon to see, it was exactly what they wanted out of the Pit, and any who had the gall to complain was nothing more than an overly greedy jobs-worth.
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Travis had finally made his way down into the industrial complex. He much preferred to just hack away in a mine with a pickaxe but he knew how dangerous it was with all the enemies he had made. These huge machines weren't much better but at least there were less violent criminals around who were more willing to make some noise if it looked as if someone was about to sneak up and shank someone. He was glad when he heard of his transfer into the industrial complex, though it was boring it was at least safer. His job was to refine various metals along with a line of dozens of other inmates, row after row of criminals surrounded him so again, it was good to know he good keep a good eye around him. He threw on his mask and wore his gloves as he got on with his job, the sweat pouring from his massive ugly brow. He had a firm grip on his tools as he knew that even if someone were to try and kill him from behind he was a brutal warrior when it came to blunt weapons and bashing someone's skull in.
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Felix clenched his face and his fists as he saw one of the wardens giving the Spanish speaking man a beating. He screamed in pain, clearly the man was a stranger to beatings. Perhaps, much like Felix, he was taken in one of Venture's random raids. Felix wasn't the only one who didn't enjoy such a sight, the other Warden looked just as disturbed as him. At least there was one Warden in this hell that seemed to be a decent human being. Luckily the thrashing didn't last long and the Warden was on his way.

"You. Take care of him," said the other Warden.

Felix nodded and replied "Yes sir," as he crouched down and tended to the man. He groaned in pain as Felix tried to help him to his feet. He couldn't stand. "C'mon my good man, vas a estar bien, te tengo usted." Felix tried to reeasure the man, but suddenly he started coughing up some blood. Felix panicked and sat him up against the wall. "Voy a buscar algo para aliviar el dolor." Felix told him he would find something to ease the pain. The man thanked him and sat in an upright position as Felix left the mine, sure to avoid any guards. Luckily the ones he saw earlier had left but there were a few around to make sure no one was slacking off. He didn't know where to go. Maybe he could just go up to a guard and ask for help? No, they might just throw him back into the mine. He should ask around the prisoners first.

"Our administrative staff are subject to annual evaluations by onsite management, and bi-annual evaluation by offsite visiting officials. This assures a standard of skill for the employees."

He continued to speak, as he led them further through the expansive administration department. "As for anyone looking to utilize their position or knowledge to acquire wealth that is not theirs, or otherwise betray Venture Horizon it is not unheard of, though rare, that such employees wake up in the Pit itself. Their work uniform replaced with a prisoner's fatigues."

Even though this was only a minor side-show on the way to the main event, Montoya was showing the Executives some of the best cells in The Pit. In an area that had only taken minimal damage during Borealis. He would have preferred a respectable average, but he was no fool. He understood the fragile nature of Lee's situation. The Colonel had planned and plotted for over 2 years, and crossed lines that even Venture would consider unethical. The thought of all that being undone by a few fussy accountants with clipboards, just as these sacrifices were starting to yield some positive economic and humanitarian results, was gut-wrenching. Ms Hernandez's team would see nothing but the best they had to offer.

Even so, this one seemed dissatisfied.

"Is there a problem, Doctor?" Montoya asked.

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Selina took off her furs as they neared the gates of the Industrial Complex, but beyond that she made no fuss. In spite of her father's devout background, the childhood Selina had quickly grown out of any notion of an afterlife, not least of all the concept of Hell. Nevertheless, she could imagine the gateway to eternal damnation looking something like this; and Selina had long ago resolved herself to the notion that, if she was wrong and her actions were to be judged unfavorably at the end of her days, she would walk to her fate proud and unbowed. She new the role she played in the continued rise of a the new world order, and her faith in that at least was unshakable. While she new how objectionable she may seem to others, even to some of her peers; nothing, not even an eternal and omnipotent judge of right from wrong, would sway her from this path.

She resisted the temptation to roll her eyes at the less resolute members of her entourage. The weaklings were embarrassing her. The Wardens were closing ranks and had home advantage. In order to be taken seriously here, they would need to prove their metal. She discreetly shot them a look that communicated as much.

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The Free-Men backed into a wedge, seven fighters holding a perimeter, protecting the others as they filed into the caves. The more Wolves that went down the more there seemed to be, and no amount of violence on the part of the Free-Men was making them hesitate or back off. The Beasts must have been as hungry as Nikolai was.

Nikolai stood his ground at the tip of the wedge, three Wolves baring down on him. He cycled his shotgun twice, and smashed the stock into the jaw of the third as it lunged for his throat, sending it sprawling. He pumped and pulled the trigger again to finish it where it lay, but was met with only an impotent click. The gun was empty.

Wasting no time, Nikolai dropped the spent weapon and drew the magnum from his waist instead. He shot the Wolf in the head as it struggled to rise, before sweeping his arm round to the right, firing at the Animal that was moving up on Gregor's blind side. Two shots, shoulder and head, felled the Beast, and the ejection port of the magnum locked open. It too was empty. Nikolai found himself alone and unarmed, standing in the mouth of the cave, when the Alpha Male slunk his way out of the vegetation, snarling. He was huge, with dark fur and darker eyes, with four more Wolves approaching on his flank, who banked to either side, moving to encircle Nikolai.

He had one weapon left, his heavy iron sledgehammer, which he drew, tossing it in the air and catching it with one hand, such was his strength. The feel of its weight and balance, of his grip around the wooden shaft, put Nikolai back in The Hive, fighting in Azrael's tournaments. A pet to be shown off he may have been, but still... in that arena he had been invincible, unbeaten, and the feeling put Nikolai strangely at peace. Let it come to blood. To roars, grunts and gnashing of teeth. That was what Nikolai knew. That was the realm in which he was King, not wandering aimlessly around these woods, waiting to starve or succumb to shit and sickness.

He swung the hammer around his head in an impressive arc, unleashed his battle roar, and charged.

"Hm? What? N-No." Olivander said, suddenly snapped from his thoughts. He was about to holster the notepad when a thought occured to him, "Tell me,though, are there any guard posts down here? I'd have expected at least one guarding the elevator, or perhaps overlooking the cells. Oh! And I don't believe you answered my question on the maintenance costs."

Felix scoured through the lower levels of the Pit. Asking various prisoners and often having to change direction and dodge out the way of patrolling Wardens. He had to avoid a couple fights as well. The Pit may have been under good control but it still housed dangerous criminals. Eventually he found a man tweaking in a corner pushing his own face up against the ice cold walls.

"Excuse me sir, have you any idea where to find some pain relief?" asked Felix politely.

The man was twitching badly. Felix wondered how he even got his hands on drugs this low below ground, especially considering just how locked down this facility is. Eventually he answered him. "Dude named Penn... penn penn... penn something. He's got shit... my last guy got busted and shot..."

"Can you tell me where he is?" Felix tried to seem friendly to the man. Clearly he was going through withdrawal symptoms, but Felix needed him to find some medicine, or at least he hoped some kind of medication that wasn't a lethal narcotic.

"I tried getting his shit... he has it locked down... real-real up on his game. Help me get there, get me some shit."

Felix sighed and said "I will take you to him but I will only ask him for medication, I will not steal or attack him."

"Yeah yeah whatever fuck just help me dude!"

Felix sighed again and put the man's arm around his shoulder, helping him up as the man gave him directions to what he hoped would be this "Penn" fellow. Hopefully this man could be trusted.

Unfortunately Neil couldn't sleep. There were two things that had consistently kept him awake at night since the riot: withdrawals and memories. This time it seemed his memories were to blame. The woman's pained expression found its way into his thoughts.

He watched as she struggled, unable to help her... no, he was able to help her. He simply chose not to. His inaction was to blame for her suffering. His inaction...

He looked at the ski mask on the ground beside him. That woman was why he started all this. Why he assumed the identity that he had. That woman woke him from his drugged up stupor and showed him the reality of the hellscape he called home. There were more people liker her out there in the Pit. More people who needed liberating.

He pictured the woman he met earlier in his mind.

Fuck this...

Neil left the chapel and headed toward the industrial complex with his rifle bag slung over his shoulder.

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Neil had been following his movements for quite sometime now. He was surprised to learn that the Illustrious "Dragon" made it through the riot in one piece. He'd bee behaving himself since then for the most part, but Neil knew the man. He knew men like that don't simply go straight.

Given the opportunity he'd follow the same path he had. A path of violence and chaos. A path of evil. Hidden atop the roof of a building across the way, Neil watched as Travis entered the industrial complex through his binoculars. There was a time where Travis' life was very much in the palm of Neil's hand... but that was from a time long since past and his hands were different now. They belonged to a new man.

Neil had been given a second chance and he'd be a hypocrite to deny this man his. If he proved to Neil he was worthy to continue on he'd be left alone. Neil had his doubts, however.

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Mr. Connors entered the building in the same fashion he always had. Unassumingly. He gathered his tools up and went to work just as all the other inmates had. The Wardens had just finished their pre-lunch inspections and were on their way out. As soon as they left many of the inmates sighed in relief, sat down for a breather or pulled a small snack out of their pockets for a quick bite. Mr. Connors made his way deeper into the building until he happened upon his mark. The men working around him had left to slack off elsewhere.

He looked around cautiously before approaching Travis from behind, "Hey, hey man... the Wardens just left. Wanna get high?"

Korovitch led the procession down several flights of stairs, even further than their trip up, until they were underground, and only a couple of floors above the Pit. Here were two squads of Wardens spread across the huge room, not including those driving and guarding the quad bikes hitched to hauling trailers packed with wooden crates.

"Here is where the various goods assembled by the one third of the inmate populace not assigned to mining duties are brought in. As you know better than I, prison-run sweatshops are one of the cornerstones of Venture Horizon's capital."

He unsheathed the Kukri, causing several of the executives to jump or step back. Leading them towards a row of idle crates, he moved past the guards without a second look and used the thick blade to lever the tops off of three of them.

"Copper piping. Simple machinery. And the old prison stereotype, license plates. Aside from refined metals, and building stone, these are the three primary outputs of this particular prison facility. With each crate representing a unit, the inmates put out approximately three hundred units of license plates, two hundred and twenty units of piping, and between one hundred and forty, and one hundred and ninety units of machinery, depending on type, daily."

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Acolyte stood at the mouth of the large cave. Most of the Free men stood, weapons drawn as Nikolai and his men faced the remainder of the pack, which seemed to be running out of beasts. Things were cooling down. A groaning from the back of the cave caught his attention, and he walked quickly to it.

One of the Free Men was sprawled against the cave's back wall clutching his leg, moaning through gritted teeth. He was young, maybe in his early twenties, but the pain was aging him. Another was crouched over him, and Acolyte overheard a snatch of their conversation.

"The gash doesn't look too bad. Seems like it's healing over after that girl stitched it, so what's wrong?"

"I dunno man, but it hurts! Hurts inside!"

"I think I've heard of this before. Muscle gets cut and can't heal because of the scarring. Pretty soon, the scar tissue cuts off the blood flow and you get a clot. From there, it just turns worse and worse. Think you gotta lose the leg, man."

In response to this, the man groaned in protest. Acolyte crouched in front of him. "What's your name?"

"Darrius..."

"Singular guards in a fixed position are just a target for Inmates to gang up on." Montoya told Dr. Ollivander. "A squad will sweep this area on patrol at least once every 15 minutes. As our numbers increase further, we may explore the avenue of permanent squad postings. In the mean-time, the elevators are locked down to anyone without a pass-card, and the doors are six inches of reinforced steel at their weakest point. The Inmates don't have the kind of firepower they would need to gain access to them through brute force, especially not anymore...

I'm afraid I'm not the person to ask if you want exact numbers in regards to maintenance costs. Our most recent stats would be warped anyway, due to the wide-scale structural damage across the Mid and Lower Levels that occurred three months ago. What I can tell you, is that all transportation systems within the facility are built to withstand punishment. and can often go for over a decade without anything other than minor, routine maintenance."

Montoya sensed that these questions were apart from the dissatisfaction he had seen in the man's eyes earlier, but decided not to press the issue. A few twists and turns later, they were at their next set of elevators, these one's heading straight down to the Lower Levels.

"After you." Montoya offered, as the heavy doors slid open to reveal the spartan innards of the elevator car.

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The Alpha Male fell for Nikolai's feint of a frontal assault, and charged to meet Nikolai in the middle, aiming to tear him to shreds then and there. The timing was crucial. As the Beast leaped, its jaws widening to intercept him around his throat, Nikolai hit the floor, once again using agility and strategy to his advantage where his enemy would see only brute strength. As he slid under the Wolf's dive, Nikolai aimed a kick into it's belly, knocking the wind out of it and sending the Wolf tumbling end over end. Using his momentum, Nikolai was back on his feet before he'd stopped sliding, with two Wolves coming at him from either side. Nikolai jilted to one side, avoiding the first to reach him, simultaneously twisting round to drive his hammer into the second's jaw, obliterating its skull and killing it instantly. A third came at him now. Holding the hammer horizontally, Nikolai jammed the wooden shaft into its jaws. As the Beast bit down, Nikolai vaulted over its head, and pulled up one arm and pushed sown the other in a violent twisting motion. With its jaws still clamped down on the shaft as it was wrenched around, the Wolf's neck snapped.

Two down, another Beast jumped onto his back, attempting to fasten its jaws round Nikolai's shoulder, while the one he had jilted just before wheeled round and charged again. Leaving the hammer still in the grip of his last victim, Nikolai reached over and grabbed the Wolf by the scruff of its neck with both hands, flinging the Beast over his shoulder and onto its back, where he finished it by stamping down on its neck, crushing its spine. The other was almost on him. Nikolai dropped and rolled to the side, causing it to miss another lunge. As he rose, Nikolai wrenched his hammed free again, and swung it in an arc that caught the Wolf in its hind legs, crippling it. A second, over-hand swing brought the hammer down on the Beast's rib cage, pulverizing bone and soft tissue.

The Alpha had learned faster than the others, and since its first charge had been skulking at the edges, waiting for the right moment. No sooner had Nikolai buried his hammer in the last of its compatriots, that he felt the Alpha's mighty jaws clamp down on his lower calf, pulling Nikolai off his feet with its strength. The Alpha thrashed, it teeth tearing deeper and deeper through muscle, as it attempted to wrench Nikolai's leg off. With his hammer out of reach, Nikolai scrambled around for anything else he could use. His fingers brushed against stone, a large rock near the mouth of the cave, too big for most to lift with one hand. The mighty span of Nikolai's fingers however, meant he could get a good grip. He pulled his right leg up with the Wolf still attached, blood leaking from the corners of its mouth. A roll left, and Nikolai brought his other leg over the back of the Alpha Male's neck, securing him in a headlock. Next, a roll to the right, flipping them both around so that Nikolai was now the one on top, his full weight trapping the Beast, rock raised above his head. Again and again, Nikolai struck, roaring in a fury that may have made the trees tremble, the stone coming down on the Alpha's head more times than he bothered to count, until the Beast's brains were dashed into the dirt.

Nikolai prized the jaws of the carcass open in inspect the damage. Below his right knee, his leg was a mangled mess of torn flesh and skin, in some places the cuts went so deep he could see his own bone. Very, very carefully, Nikolai rose to check in the leg could still take his weight. If he couldn't stand, if his shin bone snapped clean in two without the structure of hard muscle to support it, he was as good as dead. Miraculously, it seemed his body had not failed him yet, A shredded mess though it was, it still provided strength enough for him to walk, for now. Retrieving his hammer, Nikolai hobbled inside to join the others, dragging the carcass of the Alpha Male with him.

At least they now had plenty to eat.

Kusanagi stopped short of following Acolyte towards the wailing man when she heard the collective gasps of the Freemen guarding the cave's entrance. She turned and brushed by them just in time to see Nikolai stumbling towards the cave, his leg a torn up mess. She ran to his side, took the hammer from his hand and threw his left arm over her shoulders. The image of such a large man being supported by someone of her size would have been comical had the circumstances been different, "If you put anymore weight on that leg your shin's going to snap in half."

Before Nikolai could protest she continued, "Forget the Alpha Male bullshit for one second and worry about your own survival. If you lose your leg you're done." The rest of the Freemen stood there in silence, "What are you all gawking at?! Someone lay down a tarp and get the medical supplies. I have a surgery to perform."

Richard's team took notes to share with the rest of the team while Richard just looked on "admiring the view". While his team worried about reporting everything the man showed him, Richard worried about where his next step was. This was meant to look pretty, to be clean and spotless for the executives to gawk at but Richard was no such one. He gave the grizzled Captain his trademark smile as he tried to intimidate him but all he did was smile. When they finally arrived at the shipping Richard looked at box containers probably spit-shined to make things look a lot more "pristine".

"Excellent!" Richard belted out. He glanced at Korovitch's knife. "That's also an impressive knife. I'd trust that knife over a few people I already know."

------------------------------------------------------------------

Aggie worked for a bit more, giving a half effort until the Wardens transitioned into their lunch break. A new guy arrived on the belt. She heard things about him. Bad things that involved bad people. Some people called him "Dragon" but others called him "Travis". He was a few feet away from her and as she finished up one of the men approached Travis from behind.

"Hey, hey man... the Wardens just left. Wanna get high?"

Aggie overheard the man's proposal and she couldn't help but laugh.

"Guards catch you with a needle in your arm and they'll beat it into you." Aggie said to Travis, warning him of the repercussions that he most likely knew but she just felt like voicing.

Acolyte heard Lucia setting out her surgery space several feet away from him, and put it out of his mind. 'Darrius. What happened?'

'Shrapnel from the plane's hull when we crashed. It tore my knee open, and now I can't bend it.'

Acolyte gently rolled up the man's tattered trouser leg. Darrius gave a look of surprise but didn't stop him.

'Looks like your friend's right. There's scar tissue building and it's inflamed.' The other man, a stocky middle aged Free man, interrupted. 'Yeah, I'm right, so you piss off so we can wait for that girl to lop it off.'

Acolyte calmly took the man's hand from his shoulder and looked at Darrius. 'I'll try to help you.'

The young man nodded and then winced as Acolyte jammed his thumbs into the flesh of the man's knee. His eyes widened in confusion as Acolyte began a complex massage, pausing to probe different areas. This was suddenly interrupted as the stocky inmate barged him away from Darrius. 'Get the hell outta here, monk man. Nikolai's getting tired if your shit and you're lucky--'

'Fuck off,' Acolyte replied calmly, with a swift jab that caught the man on the bridge of the nose, which broke with a sharp crack. He reared away with a yelp that caused others to look round. 'You bastard, we're gonna fucking kill you!'

'Go for it,' Acolyte replied absent mindledly as he turned back to his work with Darrius.

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

Korovitch shrugged as he sheathed the kukri. 'It gave me an impressive scar, so I thought it was worth keeping.'

"Shut up broad... I'm good man..." Travis continued with his work and tried his best to ignore his surroundings. Mr Connors was a good connection to have but Travis was never one to get high. Even when he had his dragons it was rather rare for him to inject. He's rather amuse himself with various games with his men or jump someone and beat them to death. He didn't know who the hell this girl was but he didn't want to know. The less people he knew the better. All Travis needed was food water and a quick route to his cell. Nothing else. The hardest lesson for him was when he learned that no one was going to run this Pit as king. There would be no gang leader, just the Wardens, finally gaining control of this shit hole. He was too dumb to realise he would never be the new Azrael, so he let his hopes build up; and when they were destroyed and reality sunk in, he knew the only thing that truly mattered was survival.
---------------------
It was a maze getting to this Penn. The drug addict had changed his name many times in his description when telling Felix, but at least his directions were good, even if it took ages for him to get his words out. "Through the manufacturing centre, a few floors up, take a left, then down the stairs." He spoke with a stutter, barely any teeth in his mouth. Eventually Felix found what he thought was the cell of this supposed doctor, or drug dealer, the addict wasn't very clear. There was an old sleeping man on the bed and the addict was antsy and tweaking frantically. "Okay," he whispered, "you keep watch while I check his stash."

"What? That was not part of our deal" replied Felix.

"Just shut the fuck up and keep watch!" ordered the tweaker.

"No I will not" Felix responded, surprisingly calmly, as he dropped the man on the ground and kept his foot on his chest. "Penn?" he said, trying to wake him but not scare him. "I need your help sir. Mr Penn?"

Mr. Connors looked around the area once more. The woman who spoke out against him was the only other person with them. He was sure of it. Connors was good like that. There was a simple solution to this situation, but he hadn't the luxury to make such a call. The person he was doing this for wouldn't condone the method he had in mind. In fact, he'd likely shift his vengeance on to Mr. Connors himself had he made the wrong call.

Mr. Connors sighed and pulled a cloth out of his jacket pocket, "Wrong answer."

He had made the chloroform himself. Connors was good like that.

As he smothered Travis with one arm he held him close against his chest with the other. Travis had been so preoccupied with actively ignoring his surroundings that he didn't even realize what was happening to him until it was too late. He struggled, sure, but Connors had done this more times than he could count. He looked up at the girl, "Stay put."

Once Travis' body had gone limp in his arms Mr. Connors glanced around the room once more and set his eyes on Aggie, "Don't worry, this is for his own good. He just don't know it yet," Travis was heavy. "Say, you want to make a quick 'buck'? Help me carry this sad sack, will ya?"

Penn groaned as he was awakened. In his years incarcerated, he had learned that early mornings are something you don't get used to. He quickly hopped out of bed, turning to face his visitors. One was a young man he'd not spoken to yet, and the other...
"You again? Really? Look, I'm not running a charity here, and you still haven't paid me for last time! In any case, I'm not feeding your addiction! It's bad for business if all my customers turn in to strung-out sloths! Show a little will power, for chrissake!"
He looked at Felix, "And you, if you're here to feed your drug habit, then you're shit outa luck. I don't know what this arsehole told you, but I only carry medicinal drugs. So, come on, what're you here for?"

Aggie didn't hesitate to help. Although it wasn't the smartest idea to help carry this hulking brute it would guarantee her a favor which is the most helpful commodity in the Pitt. But a favor wouldn't be very useful if you didn't earn it in the first place.

Aggie grabbed the man on one side while the other man got the other side. Aggie underestimated how heavy this man because he was beyond heavy but Aggie soldiered on. The quicker they get him out the better.

"So..." Aggie grunted. "Where are we taking this asshole?"

----------------------------------------------------

"Actually now that I think about it, the five year anniversary of this place opening is coming up in a few months; was thinking of throwing a celebratory party, but I doubt as though Lee or any of these Executives would actually allow it to happen; probably spout something along the lines of 'it being a waste of resources'."

"Sounds like a celebration is in order, m'lady." Oliva said. He drank a bit more but now he was being conservative about it.

"Lee would say that... haha..." Marino said.

"But he has his reason to I presume..." Walker said, rubbing his blonde goatee. "Lee is a hardass but there's a reason for it. I mean this place isn't exactly a vacation resort."

"Maybe we can do it after the Executives leave." Marino proposed.

"That's the thing though. We don't know when they are going to leave." Oliva cautioned. "Lee's careful on the details of the Executives and even a few of the hardened men I know what's in his head let alone the exact dates of when they will leave or not."

"Doing it in secret would be out of the question." Walker said. "He'd kill us if he'd find out."

"Then we'd best not do it unless someone can convince him otherwise... ah what the hell am I saying?" Oliva spouted. "There's nothing can convince that man."

"Perhaps Ms.Nyte can." Marino said still in his stupor.

"Marino, you are so stupid." Walker rolled his eyes.

Felix was irritated by this man's callous nature. Granted this addict was going to rob him but Felix had shown him no hostility. Regardless Felix knew he had to show this man some manners and respect, this was his homestead after all. "Forgive me sir, I only needed this man to get directions to your cell. While I do not like your demeanour I will respect your right to business, and I must warn you this man intended to rob you. But I need your help. A man has been assualted by the Wardens and he needs medical attention, he is coughing up blood."

Abigail listened to the back and forth conversation that was going on between the remaining members of Shogun Squad. The general consensus was that having a celebration party would be a bad idea, given the risk and complications that would arise with getting it approved by those with the power.

"Perhaps Ms. Nyte can." Marino said, and a few gears in Abigail's head began to turn, she knew what, or rather who he was talking about; it had been a long time since she was last needed, ever since the riots had ended she had been in a sort of slumber, finding the peace and quiet to be too dull for her tastes.

"If I know who your talking about Marino, then I'd hate to break it to you, but Lilith tried to butter Lee up the last he was here; she said that his stone cold heart was too tough for her to crack, that his mind was too strong. As many have said, the Chief Warden has seen much in his time, enough that would drive any normal man insane. Perhaps it is for the best, that it doesn't happen."

Nikolai submitted to Kusanagi's will easily, dumping the Wolf carcass on the floor of the cave as she put his arm round her shoulder to support him. He still lifted much of his own weight without her help, as his bulk would have crushed her had he truly no strength left to support his own weight. She appealed for help, but none of the Free Men would answer without Nikolai's lead. He nodded at Niklaus, the youngest of their group at just 17. One of many who had been born in The Pit, learning the way of blood along with walking and talking. At Nikolai's command he fetched what medical supplies they had left, enough to be delivered in only one journey, and helped set Nikolai down with his mangled leg outstretched.

He felt strangely impassive about the whole affair. So many times Nikolai had fought for his life, all the time believing that it was the only thing that mattered. Life or death, that was the only choice. Pain, grief, exhaustion. These things were illusions; distractions that served only to blind the weak and stupid to the simplistic, binary nature of it all. Still, he did not lust after death, still he felt the urge to cling to life, his one constant, like a vice; only now, something was different. There was a strange detachment to his feeling, as if he were only observing the fight, not struggling himself. Looking at his wounds, Nikolai's most prominent emotion was nothing more than faint surprise that he had made it back into the cave under his own steam, dragging a corpse that weighed as much as himself again. He knew the wounds would likely fester, but all that the thought inspired in him was to wonder, absent minded, how far he would be able to walk tomorrow.

Perhaps the only reason he still fought, was to answer the question once and for all of just how much he could take before he fell?

Nikolai was brought out of this self indulgence by Mikhail's rising anger at Acolyte. Among other things, Mikhail was presuming too much with his use of the word "we're", as if he had any authority to command others here. It was an error that needed to be corrected.

Nikolai signaled to Gregor this time, who nodded, before striding up to Mikhail and whipping the grip of his machine pistol across his cheek, sending Mikhail down on his arse with a crack and another yelp of pain. Nikolai spoke in a bastardised Russian, that had been the most common language among the Inmates of the Lower Levels of The Pit. His voice was still powerful, and the guttural tongue served to make his deep voice even more menacing. Even when lying in the dirt with his leg cut to pieces, he must still speak with authority.

"Enough! If you would cut off his leg, then you volunteer yourself to carry him. No? Well than let the Sleepy Man work. I will decide if and when he is not welcome, and when I do, I will do my own killing. Speak out of turn again, and I will rip out your tongue and make it taste your own shit! Is that understood?"

With what was going to be a nasty bruise already starting to rise above his cheekbone, Mikhail backed down.

Penn's eyes locked Felix's, staring at him with a cold malice. "Right, then." He muttered. The old man pulled his cell door open. There were few prisoners in RACDI-Alpha who had not devised a method of leaving their cells unmolested. It didn't really help anything, they were all still trapped in the Pit, but it did give them a modicum of freedom, one likely to be eliminated under Lee.
The aging prisoner walked to an inconspicuous flooring grate (stepping on the addict on the way) which wasthen pulled up to reveal a small green bag. "If you don't mind, I'll be coming with you to make sure you ain't pullin' this outa your arse. Actually, never mind that. I'll be coming along if you do mind as well."

Penn seemed like a very odd fellow, staring deep into Felix's eyes before stepping on the addict and grabbing a small green bag from a flooring grate. "Hey!" Felix knelt down and checked on the addict, he was way too out of it to feel the pain of Penn's body weight but still, it wasn't necessary.

"If you don't mind, I'll be coming with you to make sure you ain't pullin' this outa your arse. Actually, never mind that. I'll be coming along if you do mind as well."

"Sure" replied Felix as he pulled the addict up on a fireman's carry. "I don't appreciate you stepping on this man but he might need something to... um make him forget. I think he saw where you keep your stash."

Penn let out a loud chuckle, "What, this?" He said, holding aloft the bag, "You think this is my stash? How dumb do you think I am, keeping everything in one spot? I've got little hideaways all over the place!"
He gestured down the hall, "Now, we goin' somewhere or what?"

Acolyte ignored Gregor's punishing of the aggressive free man. Those bruises on top of the broken nose he had dealt out was no concern of his. He kept on with his work, prodding and massaging to incite the Meridians to infuse the knot of scar tissue in the man's knee. The blood flow was faintly beginning to return to the area and Darrius groaned at the unpleasant tingling. After several minutes, Acolyte removed his hands. 'That's all for now. The scar tissue is beginning to break up, but not completely. I'll have to do that a couple more nights, but you ought to be able to walk on it a little. If it cramps up, I'll support you. Best not to strain it or you'll be back at square one.'

Darrius nodded, and Acolyte got up and went to sit at the mouth of the cave.

"Yes this way," Felix sighed, clearly not appreciating the fact that Penn ignored his concern for the addict. Felix would make sure to find some way to help the man later on. Felix lead Penn back through the way he came up until he found the spot where he came across the addict where he lay him down sitting against the wall.

"You cant just leave me here we had a deal!" shouted the addict.

"Yes, a deal you broke by attempting to rob this man," Felix answered as he turned around and signalled to Penn, "this way". The addict yelled empty threats after them until they were far out of sight, making Felix roll his eyes. They were nearly back to the cave now, and Felix could clearly hear the spanish man coughing more.

"So..." Aggie grunted. "Where are we taking this asshole?"

Mr. Connors began walking backwards as the pair hauled Travis' massive form past a few unoccupied machines, "A friend of mine called in a favor. Ya see, he and this moron go back a ways or so I am told. He wants to... have a little chat with him."

The pair made it to one of the side doors where a pair of inmates had been slacking off, smoking cigarettes. They were laughing about something before one of them noticed the unconscious man in their arms, "Pardon me. What's going on here."

Mr. Connors held up a finger, signaling Aggie to hold on for a moment. He reached in his jacket pocket, and without a word, pulled out a small baggie of powder and tossed it at the man's feet. The two men looked at each other and dropped to the floor to grab the heroine. As Connors and Aggie left the building one of the men turned around, "You're cool man."

Mr. Connors turned his head slightly, "You saw nothing. Pleasure doing business with ya."

The pair avoided Warden patrols that had returned from lunch and made their way to a small storage facility on the far side of the complex. The building looked to have been deserted for some time, "Black Rock Company used to store their goods here before sending it to the surface," Connors began. "After the riot though... The Wardens didn't need their kind anymore. Some old Black Rock guys still hang out here, but my friend made sure they'd give him time alone with this piece of shit."

Travis was heavy and Mr. Connors' arms were getting sore. Thankfully, they had arrived. As they sat him down in a metal chair, a man in all black appeared; a ski mask concealing his identity. His body language implied he wasn't happy, "What the fuck's this about? Why'd you bring the girl here?"

It was... the girl from earlier...

"'The Dragon' wasn't being cooperative," Connors said as he began tying Travis down. "She helped me carry him here."

The Reaper stared at her. He didn't know what to say.

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

Kusanagi ignored the violent discipline and focused on the task at hand. She had been thankful that Nikolai listened to her. It was a rare thing. Considering the tension in the group as of late...

She banished the thought. Such things would only distract her from her duty. She needed to make sure Nikolai could hold himself up tomorrow. Though, at this rate that was looking unlikely. The wound was bad and if it didn't stop Nikolai completely it would certainly slow him down.

Mending Nikolai's wounds was always an unsettling experience. She had performed several surgeries on wounded soldiers without anesthetics before, but Nikolai was different. Nikolai never screamed. He never cried. Had she not understood it she would be terrified. But she knew. She knew all too well how Nikolai worked. How he buried everything under the surface so well.

She'd been forced to do the same. Everyday she spent trudging through the wilderness she asked herself if she could ever live without Kusanagi. Was it possible for her and Nikolai to return to the innocence their lives once knew?

She pulled hard and with that his leg was splinted and dressed, "There's good news and bad news," She said as she finished putting what remained of her equipment away and looked him in the eye. "The good news is that you'll make a full recovery. The bad..."

He's not going to like this.

She spoke in a hushed tone so that his subordinates didn't hear, "You need to spend a few days laid up if you want that to happen. If you push yourself you'll end up with permanent damage. Plus... even if you pushed yourself to your limit you'd still fall behind." She paused for a moment, considering her words carefully. Her disposition softened. "Look, strength to lead isn't always about overwhelming might. Sometimes true strength comes from making tough calls. If you think these men need their leader to be as strong as he can be you need to explain how resting here and recovering will ensure that happens."

Lucia bit her lip in anticipation of his rebuttal.

They moved on catwalks, above the heat and the noise, but not apart from it. From there they observed the ordered rows of hundreds and hundreds of Inmates along linear workstations, stretching the entire length of this particular factory. Warden's patrolled on their level, above, and below. As well as this, squads manned the rail stations on which the goods were loaded before being transported away to the Upper Levels, ensuring that the goods were in order. Unlike the State this particular building had been in when Lee first toured The Pit as Warden In Chief, nothing and no-one was ever out of sight for long.

"This wing has been dedicated to the production of materials required for Project Condor." he explained to the team of Executives. "The details of which I'm sure you are aware. From this facility, our biggest contribution to the project is gold, from the significant deposits we have down on the Lower Levels. Due to the significance of the project to Venture Horizon, keeping a stable environment to ensure the highest rate of production is an absolute priority for us."

"How close to maximum capacity are we seeing now?" asked on of the Executives, struggling valiantly to be heard above the noise.

There was a small pause before Lee replied.

"This wing is now at 85%. We should hit the maximum rate of production within this next month. This wing required substantial repairs after the riots three months ago, and after that assigning the Inmates was an even tougher challenge. Rest assured though, we've now turned the corner, and will me more than reaching the demands placed on us for the project."

The Executive nodded, as the rest took notes.

It was then that the beginnings of a fight started to wind up down below. Two Inmates squaring off against each-other, with those around them starting to take notice. The two had been members of rival gangs before Borealis, and it was no surprise that the old hatreds would come to the surface sooner or later when forced to work side by side. It offered the perfect opportunity for a demonstration. Lee spoke into his radio, and the squad leader who had been standing by gave the order. Four Wardens broke off and moved in. In a unified, almost uniform motion, telescopic batons were unsheathed and extended. There was no time wasted on stand down commands. The Inmates were incapacitated as soon as the Wardens reached them, taking multiple blows the the head and abdomen, while the rest of the squad formed a perimeter around them, warding off their neighbors from getting involved. Both then had their hands tied, were searched for weapons, and were dragged off barely conscious.

"Where are they being taken?" Selina inquired. Her expression when she looked at Lee was knowing, yet also impressed.

"The Lower Levels." he told her. "Until the facility has an appropriate system of solitary confinement, Inmates who cannot keep order are reassigned to where their aggression can be put to good use. Considering the level of danger associated with the excavation work below, the threat also works as a deterrent."

The other Inmates at the work station had already withdrawn, taking care to not look directly into the faces of the Wardens. 3 months ago, such a stand off would have certainly ended with casualties.

"We have just one more area to cover before we return to the surface." Lee announced.

" Why'd you bring the girl here?"

That ticked her off a bit. She was far from a girl. She was 31 years old with two years in this hellhole. Two years is long enough for the Pitt to rip away any semblance of innocence a person had in their body and with none to spare. Aggie had seen and done things. Things that a girl should never have to do. Horrible things.

"Says the one hiding behind the mask." Aggie spouted back. She took offense to the word more than she would get offended if someone smacked her in the face. She didn't want to be associated with that word. That word teases her, makes fun of her existence. To be a girl would imply innocence, happiness, or delicateness of which Aggie had none. She was far from innocent, perpetually unhappy and rough like a piece of granite.

The masked man stared at her and she stared right back, challenging his will to look on. In her green, tainted eyes she challenged this masked man. He is a coward for wearing a mask and she wants him to know so.

-------------------------------------------------------------

"Inmate coming in... uncuff him once he gets there. Watch him, over." The radio crackled.

"Roger that, we'll be there once you drop him off, over." Albergo said. "There's an inmate coming in. Come on Lewis."

Lewis nodded and together they picked up the pace as another prisoner was hauled in from above. Apparently, there aren't any sufficient places for the worst of the prison to put in yet so they put all down here in the harsh underground where they could die from a number of things. Lewis heard the stories of entire tunnels collapsing, an entrance collapse where toxic fumes would kill anyone trapped behind the pile of rubble, and even someone sparking a match in the wrong kind of tunnel.

They arrived at the entrance but another pair of Wardens was already there.

"We'll take this one, Albergo." One of them said. Albergo smiled and nodded. "I owe you a favor anyway."

"Alright, my friend." Albergo smiled. Just a few moments ago he was beating someone's stomach out. Lewis wondered if he smiled then too. "Consider yourself a free man."

The pair chuckled as the inmate was delivered to them. He already looked beaten up. Sweat and blood rolled down his body. He obviously was on the wrong side of an argument or baton. A squad of Wardens hauled him in. To Lewis, they looked extra mean and moved like a bunch of clones. They had more gear on than usual which Lewis guessed they were up above with the Executives. They pushed the prisoner at them. The pair of Wardens caught the bloodied prisoner and put him on the ground. And like that the Wardens from up above left. The pair in front of them dealt with the "new" prisoner. As Lewis looked more closely, the inmate had gang tattoos all over his body.

"A gang member..." Lewis scoffed. "Poor sod."

"The gangs here are just like the rock under out boots." Albergo said.

"What about back then? What about before the riots?"

"They were boulders." Lewis shook his head.

-------------------------------------------------------------

"Perhaps it is for the best, that it doesn't happen."

"Perhaps..." Marino said, crossing his arms.

"It's okay Marino maybe when Lee isn't a hardass we'll be able to throw a party." Walker said.

"Maybe once cats and dogs start living together." Oliva said.

"I wonder when the executives are going to come." Walker said. "I'm hearing chatter all over about the executives."

"They'll come here soon enough. Once they hear this place has booze then Ms.Nyte's gonna be expecting her tips in checks." Oliva said.

She didn't understand. Perhaps she never would, but Nikolai had to try and make her see, otherwise there would be no hope for her or her friend should they ever have to go on without him. When Nikolai spoke, there was no anger in his voice. He may even have summoned the ghost of a smile, thought it was hard to be certain.

"Look with your eyes, Kusanagi. See these Men as they are, not as what you think we should be. Over half of them were born in The Pit, or reborn in it, so young that they remember nothing else. If these Men wanted the strength of which you speak, they would never have come to me. They would have stayed with the other Masters, with their orders and their treats for the giving to others who do their violence for them. They followed me when I found them, because I was a Dog. I fight. That is what they understand. It is all they want from me."

Nikolai shook his head, as if to shake off the bittersweet, like water clinging to fur.

"Before any could be accepted, they had to fight me and survive. Many did not. Those that did, proved that they could keep pace with their leader, and match his strength, as he fought beside them. We do not wait for the weak. I made that point to them as I struck down those that might have been their brothers. You think they don't remember? You think they will unlearn that lesson if I ask them to wait for me? We have left that place Kusanagi, but it will never leave us.

Tomorrow we go down to the village. Take whatever we can carry, and move on. We stay, and the Wolves and Bears will fight us for this shelter, or Surface Men will catch up to us and send us back. We keep moving until we fall. That is what we do. That is all we can ever do."

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In the last hundred feet or so of descent, the sides of the elevator shaft ended, leaving only the corner pillars and the central pulley for the open car to travel down. The cavern was enormous, with walkways running along its walls, and crossing from one to another, over 20 stories high. At ordered intervals, powerful spotlights were mounted on these catwalks, throwing glistening smears of light onto the bare rock, supported by the distant twinkles of all the head-lights worn by the Inmates assigned to mine here, and the Wardens assigned to watch them. As they passed, the party could see Inmates with pickaxes, sledgehammers, and even some with satchels of explosives (those few being under Warden escort) emerging from and disappearing into the hundreds of tunnels that shot off from the central chamber. When RACDI-Alpha was first established. This massive cavern (though back them it would have been smaller) had been teeming with seams of precious minerals. Now, it was a spent husk, completely mined out. It still had its uses as a convenient terminus though, providing a point of access between the Mid-Levels, and new, still rich caverns.

Right at the very bottom, Montoya, his men, and the Executives exited. A squad that was passing by snapped off a crisp salute, which Montoya promptly returned, giving them leave to move on.

"We're almost at the end of the line Doctor." He announced, his voice echoing in the space. "Follow me please."

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