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

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"Rise n' shine, Travis! We've got a lot of ground to cover and we've got less that 48-hours to do it." Travis looked up and gave a really fucked up grin, one that hadn't graced his face for years... childish glee. Eyes shut tight and teeth showing, lips wide from ear to ear. He sprung out of bed and grabbed the beautiful knife, brandishing it like a holy grail. He kept it sheathed however, and tried not to look like he was so excited about using it. He stared at The Reaper with a grin and said with frightening enthusiasm "Ah c'mon. You know this fucking place. And from what I hear on the work floor the lower parts have become a 'ghetto of fear and violence'. Please tell me that's true."

"Yes?" Lee replied to his intercom. "Of course. Send her in."

"Lieutenant Abreau," he greeted her. "please take a seat. To what do I owe the pleasure?"

Lee already knew of course, but he wanted to hear how she would word it.

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"It's fine, Dr. Lu." Selina replied firmly. "I assure you, I..."

It wasn't going to be any use. They's already caught the scent. Each and every one of them knew something was wrong . Her surest course of action at this point, was to make up a different lie that them might believe.

"Very well." she said, appearing to recede. "I-I've received some very unwelcome personal news recently. My mother... It is nothing you need concern yourself with. A minor lapse in concentration... won't happen again." Selina made a good show of swallowing the lump in her throat, and quickly drying the wetness under her eyes.

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"It is no trouble." Nikolai replied to the Hunter Man in his deep, thickly accented tones. "They will obey. Old Master, Azrael, he wanted more than petty thugs. He wanted an army, so I built him one... or so he thought." he added, which stirred up some dark laughs among the Free Men.

In truth, Nikolai had chosen most his highest ranking and most disciplined fighters to split off into the other teams. of the top lieutenants who had made it this far in their journey, only Natalia was chosen to remain with him. With Nikolai here, the rest of these Men would fall in line, there was nothing to fear on that score. However, spread them too thinly among Talon's Men, and things could be more difficult. There was also another reason. He didn't want to give The Talon too much free reign to divide up and study his Men, where she might look for weaknesses. The only one's she would see out of his sight would be the one's Nikolai trusted completely. The Talon had given him a new leg, a new life, and perhaps even a new purpose. However, Nikolai was not so much a fool as Kusanagi would like to believe. He'd lived long enough to know that such gifts do not come without cost, and that often the true cost is hidden from view. They were all her guests; and perhaps, in time they would be her allies, but the Free Men were his. They were not for sale, and he would not tolerate anyone sizing them up or putting a price on them.

"Do not reply. Do not turn around. Go where I tell you to go."

Lewis nearly stopped midstep when he heard the man behind him. He didn't acknowledge him as instructed and Lewis already had a feeling on where he was being led to. The difference between being a prisoner and a Warden now seemed so clear to him now. When he was on the catwalk or on patrol with another Warden the differences tended to be drowned out beneath the chatter on the radio but now, Lewis was the one being watched and subject to even more scrutiny. His empty pockets only emphasized the nakedness he felt.

He wondered how he'd look to Aggie or better yet how'd she looked.

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Aggie stood by her cell, awaiting her baby brother. It had been too long since she had seen him and vice versa. It was an eternity since the airport when she last saw him behind the chain-linked fence. A feeling of guilt hit her like a brick to the stomach. She was probably the reason why he ventured all the way out here. She was the reason why he was always so close behind her heels. He only loved her too much.

She tapped on the concrete wall as prisoners passed her but none of them were him. Her mysterious bodyguard was nearby. She couldn't see him but she knew he was there. Just like that mysterious man who had given her the alcohol. She was tempted to drink it but she couldn't stand looking worse than she already did. She wakes up to a battered shell of herself everyday. She was used to it but she questioned how Lewis would react to such a broken image. It made her sick of her skin but she knew she had to carry on. Aggie can't fix the way she looked but at least she could fix the way she felt about it.

Now she waited. She waited for his familiar face. Aggie wondered if that face would still be the same the last time she saw him. The last time she saw his pleading face.

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Richard nodded his head and patted Selina on the shoulder. If that was the thing that truly bothered her then she needed no apologies. Death is the only constant thing in the world but what struck Richard was how much it had gotten to the cold-hearted Selina.

"If its anything to you, let me treat you out for a drink after this. You deserve it." Richard offered, giving his trademark smile.

Riley clapped Nikolai on the shoulder. "Good man. And don't worry, I plan to keep you and yours together. You've fought alongside each other, and that kind of fluid teamwork is vital."

He swept his gaze across the Free Men in his group. Like most men, most of them didn't quite look him in the eye. His yellow eyes people found disconcerting, particularly in the dark before the dawn, when they seemed to drink in what light there was and glow with it. Still, the men had steel, or they wouldn't have escaped RACDI-Alpha and lived to tell. They were going to need that steel before long.

Gathering all the men round, he spoke loud enough for everyone to hear. "Alright. We're not launching an attack or an infiltration. At least not yet. At the moment, this is just recon, to get the lie of the land, and learn weaknesses we can exploit. We're going to stake out the place. For this, I'll be dividing us into two groups. The first, mine, will be comprised of the Songbirds. We are heading up that ridge to get a bird's eye view. Nikolai shall lead the Free Men to get a head on view of the complex's north side."

One of his men spoke out at this. "But sir, they're--" Riley glared at him. "They're what? I was learning the minds of predators going on two legs or four when you were scrubbing latrines. Don't question my judgement."

Turning back to Nikolai, he said, "your group will be getting a head on view of the complex. Keep low to the ground, and stay behind the treeline. Your group could easily spot something mine misses, and vice-versa." To everyone, he said, "when we get to our respective positions, we wait two hours. Then we meet back here." Picking up a sheath knife, he strode to a thick tree in the middle of the clearing, and thrust it hard into the trunk, leaving a scant two inches of the blade sticking out. After a few seconds, sap began to drip along the knife's surface. "In case you get lost. Now... break!"

"Lieutenant Abreau, please take a seat. To what do I owe the pleasure?"

Clementina sighed briefly and sat down across from the Colonel. "I am here to hand in my report of the tour I gave sir.

The tour began with the executives arriving late, Lu and Olivander being the first to arrive with the rest trailing on behind them afterwards. I began my tour through the mid levels. During the tour I tried to mimic the way you-I apologise, the way Colonel Lee was presenting RACDI Alpha. I tried to make it look good and presentable. In fact I gloated about how much better RACDI Alpha was to every other RACDI facility on the planet. My tour group were unimpressed with my behaviour and I took it personally. I let my bias towards them cloud my judgement. I behaved inappropriately and threateningly, I lost control of the situation and I behaved unlike a tour guide, Warden and protector of civilians should sir. I failed in trying to impress them and came off as a thug. I surrender myself to any and all disciplinary action."

Clementina spoke straight to the point and not once changed her tone of voice.

Lee studied the young Lieutenant carefully. What he saw there greatly impressed one part of him, and greatly troubled another. In her conviction, she reminded Lee quite a bit of himself when he was her age. He wasn't going to say as much though. In her current mentality, Clementina would take such a remark as the highest praise, and it would not be meant as such.

The silence hung there a few moments, before Colonel Lee spoke up.

"Lieutenant," he sounded as weary as he felt. "answer me this honestly, and think carefully before you speak... Why exactly do you think the Executives are here?"

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As they turned into the cell block that housed Inmate Agatha Moore, Chen's brother Yu, who had been watching to make sure all was clear, fell in beside them. A few seconds later, all three were level with the bars outside her cell. The two brothers stayed close, watching Lewis with eyes narrowed. Luckily, the Warden seemed to have good enough sense not to rush to greet his sister where everyne could see. Lewis' cell had been prepared right next to hers, and the wall between was thin enough so that they could talk to each-other.

"This is your stop." Yu told him, shoving Lewis inside the cell unceremoniously.

"Make your greetings, and quickly." Chen added. "There is much to be done, and time is short. We will be back again in 3 minutes."

Silence was in the air for what seemed an eternity before the Colonel answered."Lieutenant," he sounded weary, "answer me this honestly, and think carefully before you speak... Why exactly do you think the Executives are here?"

Clementina thought for a few moments before answering. "To evaluate the performance of all wardens, yours in particular sir. To assess damage of the riots and the recovery of the facility, and to assess the profits of the facility sir."

Korovitch sat in the lobby outside Lee's office, waiting patiently. There was a lot to sort out. And in less than forty eight hours, he would be heading back into that outpost to gauge his associate's progress. He wondered idly if there would be blood on his hands when he left, that time.

There was a period of silence. But finally Aggie spoke.

"Lewis... is that really you?"

"I was about to ask the same thing, Aggie." Lewis answered back. "I never thought I'd see you... see you like this."

"How would you have liked to see me?" Aggie asked, curious of what Lewis had to say.

"Sneaking you out in a laundry hamper maybe." Lewis joked. Aggie smiled behind the thin wall. Even though he couldn't see it, he knew she smiled because she always smiled at his jokes. "But seriously though, I'm going to get you out of here."

"You don't think I haven't though of a way since the first day I was here?"

"You were never a Warden." Lewis plainly said. Aggie's "vision" was confirmed. That was Lewis she saw the other day.

"For how long?"

"A few months..." Lewis said.

"Not very good at the job are you?" Aggie mentioned.

"I'd like to see you be in my shoes."

"You mean a prisoner? I think I've got that covered."

"Don't worry, I have a plan. I'll get us both out. Trust me."

Aggie wished she could be for now she just humored him.

A few minutes later, Yu and Chen were both back. This time, however, they did not even so much as stop to talk, and spared the two Inmates less than a passing glance. As the twins passed the pair of cells, they each slipped a note through the bars. Yu took Aggie's, and Chen Lewis'.

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"You would be correct." Lee responded with cool courtesy. "Now, exactly where in that job description lies the part which you find so threatening? You are too fresh a recruit to have committed any noteworthy infractions, even if you wanted to; and your previous record before joining us here is exemplary. I should know, I memorized it."

The Colonel peered at her over arched fingers, with that look he knew made people feel as if he could see right through them.

"Now, I have my suspicions as to where this hostility stems from, but you will speak nonetheless. If you have a problem with any member or members of the Executive team in particular, or to their presence here in general, then I would have you speak your mind."

The smell of apprehension was strong in the air. Odin moved silently along with the pack. Soon, they would split off into two groups. One led by the Alpha, and one led by the big two leg with the cold leg who had been dying when Odin first smelled him. His Alpha had always been there, in Odin's memory and Odin would follow him always. Even though he was Alpha, he was not the Alpha. The strange female two leg with the cold arm was alpha over even him, and Odin gave her respect. But he loved his Alpha, who smelled of deer, and had the eyes of a wolf. Cold arm had not been there for Odin in the cold wastes. Wolf eyes had. Wolf eyes had come, and saved him as a brother. Those eyes unnerved other two legs, but they meant a great bond to Odin.

Odin remembered, with enough clarity, the female. Wolf eyes' mate. Wolf eyes had been happy with her. Then the fire had come, set upon them by the other two legs, Wolf eyes' old pack, too scared to face him when they decided they wanted rid of him. Wolf eyes still made the teeth baring that two legs made when happy, and the strange gasp bark that meant great fun. He did those things a lot; more than other two legs. But it wasn't real. Odin could smell it on him, and could tell by his eyes. It hadn't been real since the flames. Almost. Sometimes, he buried his face in Odin's pelt and breathed it in. Often times there was the wetness on his eyes, but Odin knew it was the only hint of real happiness left in his pack brother.

Now all that was left to him was the activity the two of them shared. The hunt. Which Wolf eyes always threw himself into, as he was now.

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As they trudged through the undergrowth, coming towards the point where their group would split, Riley glanced back to see Odin staring at him. Those huge amber eyes almost seemed to be full of introspection. He supposed this must be what it was like for other people when he looked at them. Not for the first time, he wondered what his companion was thinking.

Shrugging, he gave Odin a wolfish grin, and turned back to what he was doing.

The Colonel gave Clementina a look that she could swear made him see right through her. She figured what she did din't make any waves but she was still paranoid about any obstacles she put in the Colonel's way. "Now, I have my suspicions as to where this hostility stems from, but you will speak nonetheless. If you have a problem with any member or members of the Executive team in particular, or to their presence here in general, then I would have you speak your mind."

"Sir," she said before pausing for a moment,"I... dislike that they are here to scrutinise your work after you saved their biggest money machine. I don't want you to think I am infatuated or anything that would be implausible, but I greatly admire all you have done for this facility and what you had to do to do it. You saved them when they were choking on their own fat and now they are accusing you of choking them in the first place. I've seen how these people react and Sir they aren't people. They are walking forms of paper given human form. This isn't an inspection this is a battle and if they win they will be losing and not even realising because they are too stupid to see that they need you. I was worried Sir because I thought even the slightest obstacle in your way would give them an edge to say you aren't fit for duty when no one is fitter for duty. I have a serious distaste for people in suits who refuse to enter the real world, then try to rule it. I have a problem with all of the executives sir, and perhaps it would be best I am separated from them before I embarrasses either of us any further." This was the first time she spoke clearly in front of the Colonel and she liked it. She didn't speak with worship or infatuation like some of her words may imply but with a cold edge and serious distaste towards the executives.

"Are you okay?"

Kusanagi blinked a few times as she snapped back to her senses and smiles nervously, "Yeah, sorry, I uhh...." After staring at a bit of dirt between her fingers for a few moments she looked to Acolyte. "About the other day... I'm sorry I lashed out like that. Me being the way I am... it... I don't imagine Nikolai's men think highly of me, and us being so close, well..."

Her gaze strayed away to the wilderness before them, "Just let me know if you think I am weighing you down, okay? I've had enough people die because of my incompetence. It's time I started pulling my own weight. I don't need you going down the same road Samuel did."

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"... And from what I hear on the work floor the lower parts have become a 'ghetto of fear and violence'. Please tell me that's true."

The Reaper shook his head, "Fear? Certainly. Violence? Not so much as you'd think. The Colonel's got this place locked down tighter than ever. Everyone down there's too afraid to look anyone else in the eye, much less throw a punch." He led Travis out the door and continued. "That's why this recent murder is so strange. First warden killed in three months. That has to mean something, doesn't it? I would have known where to start in the old world, but things have changed. There are no 'bad' wardens. There are no gangs. There is no power structure to speak of, it's just the wardens and the prisoners now."

The Reaper stopped close to one of the mine entrances and sighed, "So where do you start when it's every man for themselves?" He scanned the area from the shadows, holding Travis back with his left arm as some prisoners walked by for their shift. "You go down to the miners' cells. Find people you remember and see if they know anything. I am going to pay some friends a visit. See if they still remember the old days."

Revealing himself to Blackrock was risky, but at this point he was about out of options. He had little faith Travis would be of much use and the old man was nowhere to be found.

Compromises would have to be made.

"Just let me know if you think I am weighing you down, okay? I've had enough people die because of my incompetence. It's time I started pulling my own weight. I don't need you going down the same road Samuel did."

Samuel. This was getting ridiculous. Acolyte caught himself, opening his mouth to say that he was Samuel. Or had been. But he closed it again, and gave her a playful shove. "Oh, fuck that. You really don't have a high opinion of yourself, do you? You're one of the strongest women I've ever met, and that's a fact."

He took a breath and continued. "Look, Orphan-- um, Samuel wouldn't have wasted time on you if he didn't see the potential for someone who could stand on their own two feet after he was gone. So take that to mind, or the next stream we see, I'm gonna hold your head underwater to wash out all the bullshit you have stuck up in there." He said it not unkindly, but it was still somewhat blunt.

Not very monk-like, but it'd been a long time since he'd considered himself a model monk.

"... I'm gonna hold your head underwater to wash out all the bullshit you have stuck up in there."

Kusanagi smiled and shook her head, "My mom always used to say she'd wash my mouth out with soap if she ever heard me curse. Funny, I've been doing some much of it since this all started." Her weak smile remained on her lips as she continued. "It's taken a long time, but I think I'm finally beginning to accept that I'll never get my old life back. My mother, father and brother... they're gone. Forever."

Kusanagi gave Acolyte a friendly pat on the back, "I've begun looking forward. Looking towards tomorrow. I may not have much, but I do have my life and I do have you." She paused for a moment, gazing in the vague direction of the other recon sqaud. "And, well, I suppose I have Nikolai too. Not sure he feels the same way about me, though."

Both of them disposed of the note after reading but only Lewis was slightly confused given the nature of how they were tracking him. He wondered how they got the chip inside of him without him knowing but he knew Lee had his ways. After some time, Aggie left her cell and she beckoned Lewis do join her on her little walk.

"First thing is not to attract attention to yourself."

"Yea I noticed." Lewis said curtly. He followed Aggie from some distance away so it didn't outwardly look like they were related. That's when he noticed the changes. Aggie had barely any hair left on her head. She looked more tired, older than she looked but not age wise. Aggie looked visibly worn as if years were taken away from her by force. Scar were sprinkled all over her body with the most noticeable one on her face, giving her a permanent grin. Aggie noticed Lewis gawking at her wounds and Lewis noticed too with him trying to look some place else.

"Its this place." Aggie whispered. "It always take something away from you piece by piece over time until there's nothing left."

They eventually arrived at the refinery. Lewis couldn't help but sweat but Aggie was already used to the heat. She saw Mr.Connors. She filled out her part of the bargain and rubbed the back of her neck before approaching him. Lewis was skeptical about the old man.

"Mr.Connors, this is my brother. No doubt you've heard about him." Aggie said.

Just as Nikolai's team reached their positions, they heard the staccato beat of helicopter blades approaching from behind them.

'Helicopter.' Nikolai reminded himself of the word. Down in the dark, he could use whatever words for things that served him, but he was in a different world now, and he had to learn to speak to strangers on terms that they understood. It would do for him to learn to read as well, when he found the time.

'Don't learn. Remember.' piped up the voice again, and it hit the heart of the matter. All of these things that he was struggling to re-learn, he already knew. The knowledge was there, somehow, somewhere, all he needed to do was find it. However, perhaps the most important question was, what else would he find when he did.

Nikolai shook his head, and focused on the present. There was a job to do and he couldn't allow himself to be distracted. Learn, or remember, in made no matter. Nikolai was in a different world now, and he needed to change.

As the helicopter passed overhead, they huddled in one, horizontal line, their backs pressed to the south bank of a small river that wound it's way through the trees. They had the canopy above them, so their was little chance of them being spotted from above. However, it was still prudent to be as small and still as possible. From this position, they had a clear view though the perimeter fence, little more than 50 yards away, while the ditch and treeline made them invisible to anyone looking out. In one way, their close proximity to the perimeter was an advantage. The snipers and machine-gunners stationed atop the high watchtowers just behind the fence were looking right over them.

Nikolai got a better view of the helicopter as it came into land, while he lay prone on the steep riverbank, his own binoculars out and his elbows resting on the lip of the rise. This one was not like the others he had seen at the prison. Those had been smaller, and more agile. The helicopter that was descending on the landing pad inside the base was long and fat, with two mighty sets of rotors on top, mounted one behind the other, instead of just one. It landed facing away from them, and no sooner had it's wheels touched the ground than it's rear opened up, and Men started pouring out. These were no Wardens, Nikolai knew that at once. While the Warden's had always been armed, and often decked out in full riot armor, especially when the few patrols came down to the Lower-Levels, these Men were covered almost head to heel in Kevlar. Their helmets covered their entire faces, apart from narrow eye-slits which were behind layers of reinforced perspex. Heavy plates hung from their thick flak jackets, protecting their rear and groin. Interlocking segments covered the join of their shoulders. As well as all this, they carried a deadly array of arms. Most had hi-tech assault rifles with huge grenade launchers mounted underneath the barrels, and with brand new optics on top. He also saw sniper rifles and LMG's that were almost as big as the men wielding them, and more than a few chunky missile launchers strapped over shoulders. The Pit may have been heavily guarded, but these were no guards. They were looking at elite shock troopers, an expression of all of Venture Horizon's military might compressed into a single soldier. Underneath, most of them could have been mere Men, no different from the rest, but in their armor some of them appeared almost as huge as Nikolai.

Behind them, specimens followed who seemed almost dwarfish in comparison. They were unarmed, unarmored, and wore white coats with an insignia sewn on their breasts that Nikolai did not know, but that looked similar to all the others that designated Men working for Venture Horizon.

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The Talon watched the same scene unfold from a different angle. Her squad had all climbed trees atop their more hilly approach, well above the eye-line of anyone who may be searching, and in their camouflage the canopy shielded them. The Talon was highest of them all.

The involvement of Behemoth Corps was a complication, but not an unforeseen one. The safe transportation of Phantom wasn't going to be entrusted to just anyone after all. They looked to be platoon strength, on top of the three companies of regular soldiers that were assigned to the compound. The transport that had brought them now made three helicopters, alongside the two gunships that were already in residence. On the ground, the defenders had several fortified pillar-boxes, armored trucks, LRV's, and five light tanks. Without Project Condor, such a garrison would have been impossible to conceal.

If the boffins were here, that meant that Phantom would be rolling out in no more than 48 hours. The time for waiting was truly done now. This group would only be transporting one batch, and there would be plenty of time until all stock was transported to all locations, but The Talon didn't want any slipping through her fingers.

"And, well, I suppose I have Nikolai too. Not sure he feels the same way about me, though."

"Nikolai... I'm sure you're as aware as I am that he seems to have grown up fighting for his life in the Pit. I don't imagine he's been in the position to care about someone before now, or even really get away with thinking for himself. It's alien to him, I think. And given how relentlessly pragmatic he is by nature, do you really think he'd stick his neck out for you as much as he has if he didn't care? I just don't think he's great at expressing it, but I'm very sure it's there."

They moved up to their position and watched the men.

"Damn, they're like robots." Acolyte peered through the pair of battered old binoculars he'd been given, and then passed them to Lucia. "They're wearing Kevlar, like us," he said, falling automatically into his role as her impromptu instructor. "Remember, Kevlar may stop your bullets up to a point, but it won't do shit against your knife. Kevlar weave cuts just as easily as any other fiber. But it will absorb your blows in hand to hand combat. If you can't get at their throats due to size, get under their guard and aim for the armpits. They're soft and are the most vulnerable point on the torso. You can really damage someone's core like that."

As an afterthought, he added, "that British guy is going to go to town with those arrows of his."

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Riley stared down from on top of the ridge. This was going to be worst case scenario, but it was worst case scenario they had taken into account. He watched the armoured. men. Covered in Kevlar, as he'd expected. He stroked the razor edge of a broadhead arrow, smiling wolfishly. He was going to go to town with these.

The tour was finished, and what little new information that Selina had been able to absorb had already begun to trickle away. She knew that she must reconcile her next course of action with herself soon. It wouldn't do for her to be stuck in this state for the entire rest of this expedition.

What she really needed was advice, she begrudgingly conceded. That only raised more complications however. One wrong word in the wrong ear, and Lee would know what she had uncovered, or perhaps the Director. Either way, the choice would be taken out of her hands, and Selina still wasn't sure which of those would produce the worst outcome. If she was going to do this, she had to play it smart. Involving a third party was one thing, but involving them without said third party even realising what they were being involved with was quite another. In a bizarre turn, committing to this thought made Selina feel greatly more at ease. This was, after all, what she was good at.

"Rich-I mean, Dr. Lu!" she called out as the group emerged from the top of the Atrium and began to disperse. She offered her colleague a small, shy smile, blushing slightly as if embarrassed by her oh-so-impulsive lapse of professionalism. "I believe I'll take you up on your offer of a drink later..." It was always better to keep them waiting. "If it still stands of course. I-I think it might do me some good."

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Lee couldn't help but be a little cowed by Clementina's praise, even if he had been expecting something of the sort. He had, of course, encountered Clementina's type before, but even so Lee was particularly disquieted by the bitterness in her tone when talking about the Executives.

"Well, I thank you for your vote of confidence, Lieutenant Abreu." Lee replied, frank but composed. "Although you give me rather too much credit. This facility is far from saved yet. We will not be turning a significant profit again for several fiscal quarters; and even after that mountain has been climbed, there's much more that I hope can be accomplished. Before my time is up, I'd like to be able to call myself a Warden without feeling like a fraud. The name implies pastoral care, a protector, and well as a custodian. So far, my progress on that score has been woefully slow. Every day, innocent people are suffering on my watch, and even among those who are not so innocent, there are thousands of Inmates who could have, should have, been reformed and released by now, were I presiding over a system that knew any small measure of justice. The harder lessons are the ones that must be taught first, and I teach them every day in The Hive, with that damnable glass box of mine, but I do not enjoy playing the part of the Tyrant."

Lee paused for a moment, grinding his teeth. It occurred to him that he had been gripping the edge of his desk rather harder than was necessary. When he looked at Clementina, his eyes were as dry and sharp as ever, and when he spoke again his voice did not crack. However, there was a rawness to him now.

"Like you, I've never pretended to be fond of bean-counters and pencil-pushers, but even so we dismiss them at our peril. This world is in dire needs of more checks and balances, more accountability, more... justice. You say that they are the one's not living in the real world, but what about us? We are about as for removed from civilisation out here as can be without leaving orbit. We are coloured by the harshness and misery that we see all around us every day. We preside over a mixture of some of the most terrible, and most vulnerable, people on this Earth, and too many of us find it all too easy to tar them all with the same brush. I've seen too many good men lose themselves in my years, and if tolerating a few irksome bureaucrats is what it will take to prevent me seeing any more, then that is a price that I will gladly pay.

You have incredible drive and self-belief Lieutenant, and I respect it immensely. Out of that respect, I will give you a warning. Do not turn into a zealot. There is no person more suspect in this world, than the one who believes, unshakably, that they are doing the right thing; and when a man claims to have all the answers, that's all the more reason to start asking questions. Too many people died to teach me that same lesson. Some were friends, some were foes, and there were corpses on both sides who had been far better men than me."

Had he said too much? Not enough? Lee was no longer as confident in these things as he had been. The colonel dropped his gaze, and chose instead to busy himself with some new files in his in-tray.

"No-one is likely to be harsher on your mistakes than yourself, Lieutenant." he said, not looking up again. "I see no gain to be had from disciplining you further. You are dismissed."

"If it still stands of course. I-I think it might do me some good."

"That's good to hear." Richard smiled warmly at Selina and then made their way to the Bar which was called the "Gates of Pandemonium". He had been there a few times but only to stop by. He had never actually gotten a drink there but now seemed like the best time. He needed to know what was bothering her so much and maybe some alcohol would prove as a sufficient truth serum. He never refused drinking on the job but he knew his limits. Richard wondered if Selina knew hers.

"May I please have a White Russian, please?" Richard asked the bartender. He then turned to Selina who sat herself on a seat facing the bar so Richard sat next to her.

"So how are you faring in this little slice of paradise?" He asked, jokingly of course as he tried to break the ice.

"May I please have a White Russian, please?" Asked one of the Executives as he entered the bar, Abigail had seen this one poking around the Gates a couple of times now over the last few days, but he never actually ordered one before, guess there is a first time for everything. Alongside the man was Selina who he sat next to.

"Certainly sir, one White Russian coming up." Abigail said with a brief smile before she turned to gather the ingredients; vodka, coffee liqueur, and fresh cream. Whilst the first two made sense for a cocktail, the fresh cream always puzzled her somewhat, but nevertheless, if its what the customer order, than that is what they got.

Abigail first poured the vodka and liqueur into a mini cocktail shaker, which already had ice in it. A minute or so later, the chilled contents was poured over some ice in an old fashioned cocktail tumbler, and given a short stir with a spoon that came from the shaker. Next came the fresh cream; she had some in case someone ordered a dessert style drink. A couple of small spoonfuls, and the nearly finished cocktail was then slowly stirred, allowing the concoctions to come together. Finally, Abigail placed the drink on a coaster and nudged it towards the male Executive, and then she proceeded to clean up the shaker and spoon.

"There you go sir, a White Russian, enjoy." Abigail said politely before turning to Selina.

"Ah, welcome back Miss Hernandez, a pleasure to see you again. Would you care for another Seville Cocktail?"

"... that British guy is going to go to town with those arrows of his."

Kusanagi bit her lip as she examined the troops from afar, "Suddenly this who operation doesn't seem like such a good idea. The wardens didn't even have half the gear these guys do. Do you really think we'd stand a chance against such a well armed force? Sure, Nikolai's men are all experienced fighters, but that was the Pit. Fighting out here against these guys... I doubt any of us have ever experienced anything like it."

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

Mr. Connors was retrieving a cigarette from his jacket pocket when a familiar voice reached his ear.

"Mr.Connors, this is my brother. No doubt you've heard about him."

Connors turned around to see the pair. Without a word he pulled out a lighter and took a long drag. His eyes looked over the man thoroughly, "Hindsight's 20/20, but it still wouldn't have been too hard to peg him as a warden." Connors smiled as a look of wariness appeared on their faces. "Don't lose yer shit, son. Most prisoners are fuck'n morons. You don't have a damn thing to worry about."

He glanced around the room and signaled for them to retreat to a more private section of the refinery. After a short trip he turned back to face them, "So what is it that you two want?"

"So what is it that you two want?"

"We need to talk to the Reaper." Lewis said first. Aggie clenched her first and restrained the urge to smack Lewis across the head because of the way he talked Mr. Connors but she also questioned why. She managed to hide her curiosity as well for her own brother's motives but she just went along with it.

"I'm calling in a favor, Mr. Connors. -My brother- needs to talk to the Reaper." Aggie said to the old man. Hopefully the man would comply otherwise would be hard contacting such an elusive man inside such a dangerous place.

"Fighting out here against these guys... I doubt any of us have ever experienced anything like it."

"What I told you to do is the best advice I can give you. Besides, I doubt this is gonna be like the riot. We're going to have a strategy. A plan to get the drop on these guys."

Clementina found herself speechless. For the first time in her life she was stunned. Others had made her speechless through sheer stupidity or shameful cowardice but for the first time in her existence she was stunned beyond words. It took her a moment to react but she saluted the Colonel with a sharp salute, standing up and saying with all the ice in her voice melted "Colonel." She turned to leave and exited his office. Clementina walked out into the open air of the Siberian ice. The Colonel had so much experience and knew so much yet it would be foolish to romanticise his life. According to him he could very well be in the prison, and he never made any attempts to sound like a hero. Unfortunately his reputation preceded him along with rumours and lies to both discredit him and make him sound like some sort of super hero. She sighed and stared at her breath in the air as it dissipated. He had given her food for thought and her belly was full. A zealot? She could never become a zealot. The two worse people in the world were zealots and weak people who sought to control the strong. Could she become a zealot? Easily dismissing people who could help? Many people down there were vulnerable but they are just collateral damage when it comes to saving this place. Yet... could they be helped? Saved? Could those who had done terrible things be reformed? Surely they only deserved to toil their worthless lives away but the Colonel seeks to save them? Why? That glass box in the hive teaches them a lesson they better fucking learn!

Wait, was she doing it now? Becoming a zealot? She was certainly acting like one. "Isso ť desgastante, eu preciso de uma bebida ou dois ... ou trÍs ..." she sighed as she made her way towards the Gates of Pandemonium.
================================================================================
Travis was disappointed to hear about the lack of violence down on the lower levels. He was looking forward to someone giving him an excuse to use the wondrous knife he was given.

"You go down to the miners' cells. Find people you remember and see if they know anything. I am going to pay some friends a visit. See if they still remember the old days."

Travis mock saluted the Reaper as he made his way down to the miners cells. By the time he was out of sight and could tell that he had gone elsewhere he pulled out the knife and swaggered down across the cells. Whistling he came upon a tired man looking just a couple years older than him. He was chinese and looked exhausted, probably just coming from a shift. Travis rapped on the bars with the sheath of the knife while he waved it in the air like a toy. The man took one look at Travis and immediately got ready for a fight.

"Dragon." he said sternly.

"Tiger," chuckled Travis, "may I come in."

The man looked at the knife and said "Are you gonna use that if I don't?"

"Oh I'm probably gonna use this even if you do, but depending on what you say depends on who I use it on." The man sighed and nodded his head for Travis to enter, keeping his eye on him the whole time. "Why thank you good sir-"

"What the fuck do you want?" the man interrupted.

"Woah woah hostility. How rude Mr Tiger." Travis kept laughing as he sat down on the man's bed. He stepped forward about to intimidate him but Travis held up his knife and the man stepped back frowning. "That's better." Travis put his hand and the knife at his side.

"You still haven't said what you want."

"Well... first I want you to remind me of some history. Who were here first the Tigers or The Dragons?"

The Chinese man turned up his lip and answered "My Tigers."

Smiling Travis continued "Yeah yeah you were. And what a dumb fucking idea that was. Starting a gang based off authority? Did you really think people'd take you seriously?! YOU FUCKING IDIOT!" Travis barked and laughed hysterically in his face as The Tiger just stood there and took it.

"Oh yeah cos we were both big dogs weren't we? The Dragons? Our downfall came from being stupid and a lack of creativity." Travis stopped laughing and stared up at the man curious. The Tiger flinched a little before carrying on "Arctic wolves, Zulu, The Aryan Brotherhood, the biggest gangs all came from being creative and smart, not just being strong. Put together we wouldn't have even had a hundred people in our crew. So don't think for a second you're better than me Dragon cos you're not."

Travis stood and the Tiger backed up against the wall. "Says the man who's entire crew got wasted by mine." He spoke with ice in his veins colder than the prison that surrounded them. "Remember? Dozens of mine killing dozens of yours, I even remember the mine it was in. But I remember a couple young guns a couple days before the riot came up to me acting all big dick. I hurt them, hurt 'em bad, and killed them slow. You wanna be the same? Look at you!" Travis sized him up, "out of shape. Weak. After the fight in the mine you just gave up didn't you? No more of that "bring honour to the tigers" bullshit you just focused on surviving. I bet you hid out in a little warden cubby hole in the riot you faggot!" Travis ignored the fact that that's exactly what he did during the riot. "Huh! ANSWER ME!" Travis pinned him to the wall and pressed the knife against his throat. He kicked and choked as he tried to escape The Dragon's grasp but he was too weak. Lack of exercise had made him weak, the one thing Travis could say he kept up was exercise.

"What do y-you want??!!" he choked out.

"I'm glad you asked. Warden, sexy thing, got raped and murdered down here and I need to know who did it."

"WHat? Why the fuck would you care? Sucking warden dick no-" He was interupted by a harsh headbutt.

"SHUT THE FUCK UP!" Travis kept head butting him until he had him down on the floor. He stood over the man brandishing his knife ready to end his life. "Yeah I'm doing a couple warden favours so what? No worse than you actually doing work for them! FAG!" He yelled as he stomped on his testicles. The man screamed in pain and Travis continued "At least this way I get some nice new presents. Now I think you know something, and if you don't give me an answer that helps me out I'm gonna be leaving here with pieces of you in my pockets. Now SAY SOMETHING!"

The man snivvled and drooled onto the floor before saying right before Travis hit him again, "Someone's been gloating about a dead Warden. Saying he ran a train on her. I don't know who but he's been saying all sorts of shit."

"What did he look like?"

"I don't know I just heard people talking about it" he whimpered.

"Ah you're fucking useless!" Travis kicked him hard in the face knocking him nearly unconscious before heading out. He could find more info somewhere down here.

When a young female Lieutenant exited Lee's office, Korovitch got to his feet and, at a nod from the secretary, entered Lee's office. What he said now would be very important. The Colonel needed to be wary about who was loyal to him, and Korovitch knew Lee saw him as a grey area. For quite a while, even he hadn't known how far he would follow the man. What followed now would be a turning point. But for the time being, he merely stood and waited for the Colonel to acknowledge him.

"We're going to have a strategy. A plan to get the drop on these guys."

Acolyte spoke as if he had the utmost confidence in the Songbirds. Whether he feigned confidence for Kusanagi's sake, she didn't know. Kusanagi bit her lip and shrugged, "If you say so, but I'll remain skeptical until proven otherwise. I know you're probably tired of hearing this, but I don't trust Talon. Nikolai's men must have been in the Pit too long to tell when someone's a whack-job, otherwise I don't see how they'd be so willing to die for her."

Kusanagi turned to face Acolyte, "I'm not alone here right? The Songbirds... I can't be the only one that sees how utterly deluded they are, can I?"

Come on, don't feed me any bullshit. Give it to me straight.

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

The Reaper let out a long-winded sigh after Travis' departure. He couldn't even begin to imagine how fucked this whole situation would get before it was over. He smacked himself in the head and groaned in frustration. Now wasn't the time to second guess every coarse of action. He was running out of time and he had to get moving.

Two more days...

In less than 48-hours Luka would come for his head. He needed results and he needed them now. Without further hesitation he found the closest ventilation access and started for the bottom levels. Despite how much the status quo had changed, he was fortunate the architecture had remained the same. Crawling through vents, hopping from rafter to rooftop, scaling jagged stone overhangs; this particular backdoor was not an easy one. Traveling through the Pit undetected was easy enough on the upper and mid levels, but on the bottom...

Mere seconds away from his destination the Reaper fell short on the final jump. He struggled to lift himself over the ledge of the rooftop, but he didn't have enough leverage and slipped off the side of the building. With but a moment to react he managed to grab hold of a loose pipe two stories down that snapped under the pressure almost immediately. Thankfully it had slowed him down just enough to crash to the ground another two stories with nothing more than a few bruises.

He took a moment to collect himself and check his gear.

Reckless, fucking reckless. Come on!

Was he losing his edge or was he just shaken up? The specter of death constantly looming over your shoulder was a great motivator, but it didn't do much for moral. The Reaper pushed his doubts aside and moved on. After sneaking around the backside of the building he made his way into the parallel alleyway where the septic tank sat along the side of the old Black Rock office. He spat into his gloved hands and rubbed them together before dropping into a low stance.

The septic tank was usually moved by two people and took everything he had to push it aside. Once the dust settled a trap door with a simple handle revealed itself. He dropped to one knee, opened it up and proceeded down the dark, dank steps.

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

"I'm calling in a favor, Mr. Connors. -My brother- needs to talk to the Reaper."

"Oh boy," Connors said as he rubbed his eyes in frustration. "Look, he's gone and got his dumb ass into some deep shit. It'll be a bitch tracking him down. I don't even know if he's still alive."

He looked to the ground, scratching his beard in thought and then looked up at the man before him with a concered expression, "You're not here to put him in the ground are ya'?"

Lee could tell from the look on the Captain's face that whatever was about to be discussed was grave, and he resisted the urge to sigh audibly. What he wouldn't give for a moment's peace right now. However, duty would not wait, as had always been the case.

"Welcome, Captain. How goes the training?" he asked.

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

From their workstations on a production line four columns away, Yu and Chen observed the conversation intently. This mission was starting to fray already. The Warden and his sister were being too direct, and it was making Mr. Connors' suspicious. There'd been too little time for preparation, and they'd only been able to pass on the barest instructions. They had however hoped that two military veterans, one of whom had survived down here for a fair amount of time, would be a little less green than this. Still, if they'd over-rehearsed the routine it would only have come off as transparent to a man as experienced as Mr. Connors. It was no use cursing their lack of preparation now. The opportunity for this mission to happen at all had only presented itself in the last few days. The Moore siblings were the only way in they had.

Connors would need more convincing of the validity of the threat. As soon as the company made their move, Yu and Chen would make theirs.

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

The Talon had seen enough, and saw no reason to alter the plan in the bargain. If anything, the arrival of the Behemoth troopers only further cemented that they were on the right track.

"All units, fall back." she dictated into her radio. "Regroup at Rally Point: Bravo."

"Regroup at Rally Point: Bravo."

Riley spoke into his radio. "You heard her, Nikolai. Pull back. Meet at that tree and we'll head back as a group."

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

Acolyte moved with the others back from where they watched, and straightened up, his knees cracking. "Alright, time to see what fucked up plan of action we're taking here."

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

"Welcome, Captain. How goes the training?

"It is going as well as can be expected. But that is not why I'm here. I don't doubt your contacts have told you about the inmate known as Reaper. Also known as Neil, also known as Conrad Verner. Warden, and right hand to Cornelius. Roughly twenty four hours ago, I made contact with him for my own reasons. He had been sending letters to Lisa Beaumont, and the last one was a request for help. It appears circumstances arose that mean he will be under fire for a murder he supposedly didn't commit. The murder of one of our Wardens. I have given him three days, of which around forty three hours remain, to find evidence to support his claims of innocence and point us to the inmates responsible. If at the end of the three days, he has found nothing, then evidence dictates he is guilty, and I will execute him personally."

Then Korovitch did something that was, for him, unprecedented. He took the seat opposite Lee at the desk. "I suspect the man is of at least a little importance to you, so I tell you this partly to give you complete transparency in regards to myself. And partly to request that the investigation into the Warden's death be... bureaucratically held up for the next two days, so that I do not find Wardens have marched into the Pit and arrested the man."

"Alright, time to see what fucked up plan of action we're taking here."

What convenient timing...

Kusanagi followed alongside Acolyte as they retreated back into the brush. Privacy had been quite rare to find recently and Kusanagi was thankful she finally had some time alone with Acolyte. It may have been short lived, but it was something.

Lee listened as Korovitch outlined his previous activities, as well as his future plan of action. All the while, his expression did not change, and when Korovitch was done Lee remained quiet for what felt like some minutes. When eventually he did speak, his tone was deathly calm, and edged so sharply it was a wonder that his words did not cut his tongue.

"You presume too much, Captain." Lee began, his eyes piercing deep into Luka's own, unblinking. "Perhaps I made a mistake in promoting you so far, and so quickly. I had thought you had proved yourself capable of shouldering the responsibility. However, I guess that shall now remain to be seen. Myself and the promising, if in her own way naive, Lieutenant Abreu have just been having a discussion of sorts on the subject of justice. Tell me, how am I to look her in the eye again after one of my top Warden's, a man I had intended to hold up to the rest as a paragon of all they should aspire to be, comes in here and announces, with neither caution nor shame, his intention to murder a man based on nothing but a personal vendetta? What's more, said paragon has the gall to even suggest that "evidence" is on his side...

Let me outline for you, as you appear to be having some difficulty on your own, what "evidence" you have. You have a dead Warden, bludgeoned to death after sustaining both sexual assault and physical torture, in a place where there are at the very least a thousand men who would gladly commit such crimes had they been given half the chance. The man you accuse, for all his faults, had no more motive to kill the victim than any of the rest, and what's more, I'd believe it less of him than almost all of them. Put aside your personal hatred for the man Korovitch, just for a moment, and use your head. Conrad Verner was a sniper, an efficient operator who dispatched his target's quickly, and from a distance, taking no perverse pleasure in it other than perhaps the pride of a job well done. If it were Cornelius who were still alive, a hunted, friendless and desperate man, then I would believe it of him. Not Verner though, never Verner. Verner was weak and corrupt, but he wasn't half the monster that his master was, and always took after him in the bare minimum of respects. If you truly believe this was Verner's work, and you are not just looking for an excuse to vent your rage, just as you did with Cornelius when you mutilated him, then that would make you an utter fool."

Lee had arched his fingers under his chin, and was now pressing them together so hard that his fingers had turned white all the way down to the second knuckle.

"Fool you may, or may not be, you are not mistaken in everything. The life of Conrad Verner is of particular importance to me, one way or another. As such, I will say this once, and once only. I do not care what arrangements you and Verner believe you have come to. I have not sanctioned any of them, and you would do well to remember which one of us is in charge. Verner is off-limits unless, and until, I explicitly state otherwise. If I decide that his life is forfeit, I may still ask you to do the honours, as I has originally intended, although you may now have some work to do in order to re-earn that privilege. Regardless, you will do nothing without my leave. Is that understood?"

Lee finally dropped his gaze and busied himself, brusquely, with him in-tray once more.

"Unless we have any other subject to discuss, get out of my sight."

"Unless we have any other subject to discuss, get out of my sight."

Wait... what had he said? Korovitch replayed the conversation in his head. And then it hit him. His own words. "If at the end of the three days, he has found nothing, then evidence dictates he is guilty, and I will execute him personally."

He had completely misspoken his explanation of the events. He glanced down at the surface of the Colonel's desk. Polished to a high sheen as it was, it was almost as good as a mirror. He took in the bags under his eyes. It was coming back to bite him. After seeing what had happened to Beaumont, he hadn't been sleeping. He'd been spending most of his nights poring over the silver locket with the careworn picture in it. Years, and years old. From back when he'd been a young soldier, the last picture of Belinda ever taken. The spitting image of the woman he had just barely saved three months ago.

At most, he'd been operating on around two or three hours' sleep a night. Most of the time not even that much. He hadn't realized how close to burning out he'd been. In the last few days, particularly, now he could recall lots of little things. Stumbles, small but noticeable lapses in memory. He wondered if Lee could tell how run down he was. Korovitch had always been the dictionary definition of hale, but for the first time, he was beginning to feel his middle age.

"I misspoke, didn't I?" He spoke more to himself than Lee when he said that, and could hear the incredulity in his own voice. The Colonel just looked at him. Korovitch shook himself. Then slapped himself and knuckled his eyes to bring back some proper alertness. Doing so dislodged a surprising amount of grit from the corners of his eyes.

He cleared his throat, and began his explanation again, taking himself slowly through it. It was a nearly identical speech to the one he'd given, but Lee sat through it. Then he finished with "It's not that I suspect him of being guilty. I've read the man's psych profile, and I never noted particularly... sadistic behaviour during the altercation during the riots. What little of him I did see. It isn't about revenge, either. Verner has put himself in a position where, disregarding a miracle, the evidence will point to him being responsible. More so than any other inmate by a wide margin, at least. I do not intend to actually kill him, but it was imperative to make him believe that I did, to assure the depth of his work. To the point that even those in my group aware of the meeting expect me to shoot him on sight if he does not produce results. If he cannot find the evidence to free himself, then assuming you do not step in yourself, then my influence won't protect him forever, and he'll die anyway."

He pinched the scarred bridge of his nose in another attempt to reign in his blurred senses. "Really, if it were a vendetta, I'd have left him to rot and ignored the letter, or killed him when I first went to meet him. I had the chance; he made sure of that. As for my lapse, I apologise. The medical staff have been prescribing me sleeping medication for the past three months, and I've been ignoring them. I suppose I should take some. After I've recovered, unless you say otherwise, I suppose I might get a report from the Ragged Man, so I can see preemptively what he's doing to clear his name."

"You're not here to put him in the ground are ya'?"

Lewis met a lump in his throat. In his mind, he was damning his outward directness but if Lee believed in him then he could do it. This line of work was not his forte and he needed to convince Connors to get him a meeting with the Reaper because for all intents and purposes Lee wanted to. Lewis wondered how Lee would react in this situation. No doubt he would sail these waters easily than he would.

"No, I need protection." Lewis said with genuine fear in his eyes. The fear came from not only disappointing Lee but fear from being killed in this place because of his failure. A part of him hoped that he wouldn't do that but another knew what Lee would do with failures or threat of failure. He thought of how many ways Lee would dispose of man who would not or could not complete an objective here. Right now, he was probably in someone's crosshairs with a finger on the trigger or the twins lurking in the shadows with a shiv in their hands waiting for him to pass by again. Lewis crept closer to Connors but not enough to illicit a reaction, just closer to emphasize a wish. "My patrol beat a man, that much I'm sure you know but the man we beat had friends. Before I was thrown away, I managed to dig through some files because my guilt forced me to. The man's files linked him to some sort of group made of ex-cartel members. During the riots, these men forced their way out of the cartel in a very violent way. These men won't like the fact that I potentially paralyzed one of their friends. Of course I regret doing what I did but I had to gain the trust of the Wardens because I'm getting Aggie out of this prison and I didn't come several hundred miles, get thrown into the worst hellhole imaginable just to get shanked by a few prisoners. I'm getting my sister out and I have a plan that's sure as hell going to work. Now please, can I see the Reaper?" Lewis breathed out almost out of breath from his tirade. He cupped his hands together as if asking for water seeing as how Mr. Connors truly decided whether he would live or whether he would die.

Aggie was speechless the entire time but also she felt guilty because she was the reason why Lewis is here. She was the reason why he's begging to Mr. Connors but then she felt angry. He didn't have to come all this way. He didn't have to do what he did to get here. He could have forgotten about her and let it be. She would have gotten out one way or the other, the way she saw it. It didn't matter how she left, as long as she left.

"A favors a favor, Mr. Connors." Aggie said to the old man.

"Would you care for another Seville Cocktail?"

"That would be perfect!" Selina said, kindly, before responding to Richard's opener.

"Oh, it's not been so bad if truth be told." she lied. "I think we Iberians take a little piece of the Sun with us wherever we go. I've always known how to generate a certain heat."

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

"Well, I am glad that we air has been cleared somewhat." Lee offered, less acidly than before. "I've asked too much from you from the first, and I'll admit that was part of why I left you in the dark. Had I in fact demanded more from you, instead of less, then perhaps we may have avoided this impasse. Still, I stand by what I said. This game you're playing with Verner is cancelled from the moment you leave my office. From now on, my reports are you only ones you need concern yourself with. Now go and get some sleep Captain, you look like you need it almost as much as I do."

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

Nikolai grunted in response to the radio message. His view from here, while close, was nowhere near as expansive as the one from Talon's vantage point, and he suspected that he had nothing useful to report. So close to the perimeter, he communicated to the others to fall back using hand signals, and they all began to creep their way back down the bank.

They were about four feet above the stream, when a loose patch of mud slid away from under Natalia's feet, and she fell into the stream with a splash. The fall was hardly anything, but the water amplified the noise, and heads turned in the watchtowers above them. Instinctively, and quick as a cat, Natalia made herself as small as possible, curling up and pressing her side into the soft mud of the bank, giving her all the cover she was likely to have. The rest of the Free Men held still, their own breaths howling like gales in their ears.

Korovitch got to his feet, and saluted. "Understood, sir. Though if I may, I'm not sure how Verner will react to me not being there two days from now. And for one reason or another, he seems to trust me." He shrugged, almost casually, then turned on his heel. At the door, he looked back. "It's not so much the workload. This is still easier than the Spetsnaz, or mercenary work. It's more... personal." With that, he was gone.

Several minutes later, he was in his quarters with a cup of water, and a small white tablet in front of him. Sighing, he popped the medication into his mouth and swigged the water. After several minutes' lying stiffly on the mattress. Then he was gone, snoring softly.

Dreams soon formed, lapsing from one to the next seamlessly. The first was the same dream he'd had every night for over thirty years. The flashbulb memory recollection of a scene of his childhood. He and the other boys and girls of the Mikengrad orphanage visiting the ruins of Red Square. Luka was eleven at the time. The Orphanage was miserable, not least due to its headmaster, Vladimir Petrikov. He beat the children, and worked them mercilessly. Beyond that, he had unsavory appetites. Korovitch was old enough to escape his notice, but the little seven year old boy, Dimitri, whom Korovitch protected from the torment and danger presented by some of the other boys, no longer smiled, and shook whenever anyone touched him. He was not the first, and would not be the last. Beyond that, Luka himself was in danger. Most children were cowed enough that they would never tell a soul of the abuse present in the Orphanage, but tales were rife that whenever a child showed enough spirit to pose the risk of possibly blowing the whistle, he or she disappeared. Korovitch knew he had been marked out a trouble maker, and often times had wondered if the creak of the headmaster's heel walking by their door might this time be the sound of his oncoming doom.

Red Square's ruin was done up with festive decoration for the season. The orphanage visited it every year, with every child being given a few rubles in his or her stocking the night before as spending money. It was, so far as Luka could tell, the only break in the somber upbringing of the orphanage. So here, the same dream he had every night began. As though he hung in the sky, he watched the children, his young self included, step off the old, battered bus that brought them there. They all buddied up, with Luka pairing himself with little Dimitri. They wandered through the cold and snow for a couple of hours, eyeing the wrecked stonework and annihilated buildings with familiarity. The only excitement was for the stalls, which changed yearly. Peddlers selling their wares. But Luka could enjoy none of it. Dimitri's suffering was a bitter pill to swallow when the boy was so different from how he had been, and Luka was concerned for his own life on top of that.

The trip's ending came looming and he had not spent his rubles. The headmaster and his attendants were currying the children back onto the bus. Quickly, he found Dimitri, tapping him on the shoulder. The boy jumped with shock, turning to face Luka with a look of abject animal fear. The scent of urine hit the air. Luka's eyes, child though they were, were a mask of fury. Taking Dimitri by the hand, he headed towards the bus, veering to a stall at the last moment, selling sweets. When Luka came away, he clutched a thick, foot long candy cane in his fist.

The dream dissolved here, moving to its next well worn scene. Luka being summoned to the headmaster's office when all the other boys were settling to bed. Luka stood in the office, as the headmaster strode in front of him. They both stood on a large, thick rug. New, Luka thought. And as Vladimir strode by him, he saw the switchblade handle sticking from his pocket. The man stopped, and placed a hand almost genially on Luka's shoulder. Then gave a grunt and fell to his knees, with five inches of candy cane sticking from his gut and Luka scrabbling on top of him to put a hand on the man's mouth. The candy cane had been a loose idea formed from rage at the last second, but he'd gone with it, sitting in the corner of the dorm, breaking off the hook and and sucking the tip of the cane with precision to bring it to a rough point. He'd been about to stick it under his pillow when he was called for, and instead put it in the waistband of his pants, covering it with his shirt.

When the man's jolts ceased, Luka cast about worriedly. He was a child after all, even if he had just shed the last of his innocence. Taking a paperweight from Vladimir's desk, he hurled it at the window, breaking the old, chipped glass. He kicked the pointed shards that would cut him, then scrambled through and ran into the cold.

The next dream came along. It too a memory. But as a dream, it was entirely new. He watched himself, a young man with black hair, no grey. No scar. He was in Spetsnaz fatigues, in the great barracks. Many soldiers were housing their families there, and he was no different. He nuzzled the neck of the woman in his arms, his hands on her protruding pregnant belly. Belinda. Then there was a jarring sensation, and he saw a graphic image. Belinda, throat cut, sprawled on the ground; violated womanhood exposed.

The image changed again, and he saw once again himself. This time bent in fury, stabbing furiously at another man in Spetsnaz fatigues. But where Korovitch's showed the Captain's insignia, his showed the insignia of a Lieutenant Colonel. The man was portly, and out of shape. No match for Korovitch, who set upon him in a fury, to end the man who had abused his power to rape and kill Belinda. His love.

What followed next was a blur of images, each time showing him slightly older. Escaping the Spetsnaz compound. Establishing himself as a mercenary. Hundreds of campaigns and assignments, usually in harsh climates on both ends of the spectrum. Again, the kukri flashing down at his face. Signing the form that would attach him to RACDI-Alpha.

Then again, he saw Belinda's violated body. Then it flashed and became Lisa. The two women not dissimilar in appearance. Sticks standing over her. Then the dreams lost comprehension; a stream of nonsensical images as everything drew to a close.

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