A/N Once again, Getuie and I have put together a story outline and then written our own versions of the same story. Read them both and let us know what you think!
Disclaimer: Characters and events depicted herein are fictitious and similarity to actual persons living or dead is coincidental.
Run, Natasha, run. Get to safety.
The words hammered over and over in the young girl's mind, a counterpart to her wildly thudding heart. Her breath came in great, heaving gasps as she reached the top of the slight incline she had been climbing. Driven by fear and the impetus of that last instruction given to her, she had pushed herself harder and faster than ever before. Natasha bent at the waist, swaying back and forth on shaky legs, and attempted to control her nausea. How long had she been running? She had lost her prized wrist chrono, a 12th birthday gift from her father, over a year and a half ago, so she had no way to accurately track the time. It feels like forever. I'm so tired. The heavy submachine gun that her brother Gaige had given her earlier was a dead weight on her shoulder, and she gratefully slipped the strap over her head, allowing the gun to slip to the ground.
She straightened unsteadily, stretching her weary muscles as she tried to orient her mental map of the city with what she could see. Towering office blocks and lower, flatter shopping malls alike had been reduced to rubble by massive artillery barrages, leaving bare skeletons of girders that rose in stark memorial to the remains of a bustling commercial centre. This side of the city, it seemed, had received special attention; in the distance Natasha could see the telltale signs of a huge firestorm that had levelled multiple blocks, the charred and blackened ruins mute testimony to the storm's ferocious heat.
A bird rose into the air with an abrupt squawk, startling her, and she swept frightened eyes around and behind her. Something flashed in the distance, sunlight glinting off a reflective surface. Was that...? Run! demanded her mind, as fear surged anew I can't, her body protested, I'm spent. Natasha gritted her teeth. No, you're not, she told herself. Now move!
Snatching up her weapon, she broke into a run.
- - - - 0 - - - -
An hour and a half later found Natasha within the city. After an initial burst of speed she had slowed her pace to an easy, distance-eating walk, realizing that she would need to conserve her energy if she was to have any hope of reaching her destination. It had proved to be a sensible decision.
Where am I? she wondered for what seemed like the hundredth time as she looked about her, a tendril of fresh concern working its way into her chest. She had assumed that she would be able to easily navigate the city she once knew so well, but the destruction had stripped the area of familiar landmarks, leaving an unrecognisable wasteland in its wake. Block after block had passed with little to distinguish it from the previous one, Natasha having pressed on in the hope of seeing an identifiable feature she could use to establish her location. She hadn't been successful. Everything looks the same! How am I ever going to find the safehouse? With no clear direction she could end up wandering for days, completely lost. She shivered uncomfortably, visions of herself slowly starving to death parading through her head. Unconsciously she fingered the bulky water bottle strapped to her waist, given to her earlier by her brother. It was already half-empty.
Gaige, I wish you were here. The last memory of her brother's face floated in Natasha's mind for a moment, and she fought to control the surge of emotion that abruptly threatened to overwhelm her. No! She couldn't afford to dwell on the past, not yet, not until she got to safety. But how could she do that, if she didn't know where she was? Gaige, I'm lost, she whispered shakily, acutely aware of her loneliness. I've been walking for ages, and I seem to just be going round in circles. What do I do now?
The sigh of the wind through the ruins was her only answer, and she sagged to the ground, burying her face in her hands as the fragile dam around her mind broke and the memories of the last few hours flooded in.
- - - - 0 - - - -
3 hours previously
Natasha Jednyak finished stirring the cup of tea she was making for her brother and lifted the mug to her face, breathing in the aroma. Brewed nice and strong, with one spoon of sugar, just as he likes it. The siblings had been living here in the safehouse ever since their father, now ex-General Nils Jednyak, left the Lunar Front. One of the LF's most highly prized leaders of their armed forces, his defection to the side of the local resistance had caused untold fury among the LF leadership. Nils had expected the extensive manhunt that had been promptly mounted and which was still continuing, and had made thorough preparations for his children's protection before he defected. His carefully cultivated contacts within the resistance groups had linked him to the cell coordinator within this area of the city, who was happy to take them in on the condition that Gaige, Natasha's brother and also a soldier of high ability, aided with the resistance's activities.
That was three months ago. Their resistance cell had quickly become one of the most effective in the area, a constant thorn in the LF's side. It could be considered somewhat risky to be so involved in front line actions against the invaders given their identity, but sometimes "hiding in plain sight" was the safest approach. So said both Gaige and his father; evidently the strategy had proved sound so far.
Natasha turned from the small kitchen and pushed open the door to the main living section. "Here you g-" She stopped short, realising she had interrupted a meeting, as the inhabitants of the room broke off their conversation and spun to look at her. Her brother stood with Mike, the second-in-command of their group, and one of their current lookouts, Jean-Luc.
"Oh, I'm sorry," she murmured, and began to back out of the room. Why is Jean-Luc here? she thought to herself. He should be outside. "I'll just leave this he–"
"Natasha, wait," interrupted Gaige. She offered him the mug, thinking he wanted the drink, but he shook his head impatiently, waving it off with a hand. "There's no time for that." Natasha opened her mouth to protest, feeling hurt – tea was a luxury in these times of need – but closed it again as Gaige continued, the urgency in his voice making Natasha's chest tighten. "We need to leave, right now."
"Why?" she asked uncertainly. "What's happened?"
"Jean-Luc spotted a walker heading this way," replied Gaige. "He's convinced that they know we're in this area."
"I don't think they have an exact location, but they're doing a thorough sector-by-sector sweep," Jean-Luc put in tensely. "They'll find us for sure if we stay here."
"So we're moving?" said Natasha. This doesn't sound good.
Gaige nodded. "I want to set up again a couple of miles east. Dad has a location already scoped out for a new cell he was planning there. It won't be ideal, but–" He broke off abruptly as another lookout rushed into the room, breathing heavily.
"They're here," he panted. "About five minutes away."
Mike exchanged a dark look with Gaige and murmured something to him that Natasha didn't catch.
"Yeah, I know," replied Gaige, and turned to the newcomer. "Can you confirm it's a Mark II?"
The lookout nodded. "Yeah, big and boxy, with a shoulder-mounted turret."
"Okay." Gaige thought for a moment. "Mike, get the others together, and start handing out the heavy weapons. We need to be in position as soon as possible; there's no room for mistakes with so few of us." His second-in-command threw a hasty salute before spinning on his heel and disappearing out the door.
Gaige turned to his sister, grasping her slim shoulders with strong hands. "Take the tunnel," he instructed, "and head towards town. You remember where Elizabeth's safehouse is?"
Natasha didn't hear the question. "Weapons?" she mumbled dazedly, her mind spinning. Her brother's words didn't make sense. Why does Gaige want to take the heavy weapons with us? Aren't we running?
Gaige shook her. "Natasha!" She looked up. "You must head for the safehouse. Do you remember where it is?"
He cut her off before she could protest. "Then you must go, Natasha, now."
"But what about you? You said something about heavy weap–"
"Don't worry about us. Just worry about getting away safely."
"What do you mean, 'don't worry about us'? Aren't you com–" Then it clicked. They're going to fight the walker?! The Mark II was the Lunar Front's latest version of their mechanised walker, a huge, heavily armoured walking weapon platform that they continued to field with great success in their attempted takeover of Earth. This one was designed for anti-personnel missions and troop support, and held up to eight soldiers, providing direct and indirect fire support with its turreted heavy laser and the 120mm smoothbore cannon that made up its right arm. Bad news indeed for a small group of resistance fighters such as themselves.
"Why fight, Gaige?" she asked uneasily. "Why not run?"
"I don't have a choice," he replied, his voice tight.
"Yes you do. You told me to run; why can't you come with me?"
Gaige shook his head roughly. "No, Natasha."
"Why?" she pleaded. "You know it's next to impossible to stop those things!"
"We have to try. We need to giv–" He clamped his mouth shut.
In a flash of comprehension Natasha understood, and mentally finished the sentence. ...give you time to run. Hot tears sprang to her eyes. They're going to fight so that I can get away, even if it costs them everything.
"Come on, we're running out of time," he said, taking her arm and moving to the doorway. After two steps she stopped short.
"That's enough!" he snapped, startling her. "You've got t– "
She didn't let him finish. "No, Gaige!" she shot back, her eyes brimming with tears. Natasha glared at her brother. "I'm not four anymore! I know what you're doing, okay? I just... just..." Her voice cracked, and she took a deep breath before flinging her arms around him, burying her head into his chest. For a long moment he held her tightly as a single convulsive sob shook her body.
"I'm sorry," he whispered into her hair.
"I just wanted to say I love you," she mumbled.
Gaige gently eased himself out of his sister's embrace. "I love you too," he said softly, gazing into her eyes. She nodded, and wiped away her tears with a hand. "But you must go now," he continued more firmly. "Head for Elizabeth's place, you'll be safe there. We'll meet you as soon as we can, okay?"
Natasha headed for the escape tunnel as her brother exited the house. We'll meet you as soon as we can, she repeated to herself with a heavy heart. It was typical of Gaige; he always held out hope, even in the most dire of situations, while at the same time courageously leading his people into the fray. They, in turn, followed him without hesitation. His tactical expertise and sheer physical and martial ability had proved time and time again that their trust in him was well-founded.
This time, however, Natasha wondered whether it would be enough.