So this is how it ends.
Nathaniel Lakewood inhaled sharply, hand pressed firmly against the bullet graze on his left arm. It was bleeding pretty badly, but it didn't hurt as bad as if the bullet had struck him true. Thank God for small miracles.
The gunfire down the alleyway abated. Lakewood chanced taking pressure off the wound to fire off a quick burst at his pursuers. To his satisfaction, one of them dropped, their body spilling out in the street. That earned him more earnest return fire, forcing Lakewood to press deeper into the wall crevice where he sought shelter. All things considered, he was doing his job quite well.
One last Mission. One last op. Guess there are worse ways to go out.
"Delta Leader," the comm piece in his ear buzzed, "I've got sights on three— no, five new Strike Teams descending on your location."
Lakewood fired a couple of wild shots, keeping his current pursuers interested in the standoff. "Terrific news," he replied. "They still holding down the factory we pegged?"
"Affirmative. Looks like the explosives we set are disarmed. Damn…whole army looks to be teleporting in."
He wouldn't be able to drag this show on much longer. He could still see afterimages in his eyes where Delta Three and Four lay sprawled on the asphalt outside the factory. Lakewood had wanted as few people on this suicide mission as possible. He was essentially glorified bait. The others on Delta Team didn't need to throw their lives away for this.
"Simon, get out of here," Lakewood barked into his comm. "Gather anyone else with you and head for the rendezvous in Alaska. We have good people waiting for you there."
"Not gonna happen, Delta Leader. Not what I signed up for."
"That's an order, Simon!"
"I'm going to have to get back to you on that; my location just got compromised."
To punctuate the last remark, Lakewood heard a distant boom. Light from a small fireball rose up over the rooftops. Damn it, he hoped Simon was still alive, if for no other reason than to distract the new waves of soldiers descending on them.
"Come on out, Arner!" His pursuers had let off on their gunfire. Apparently they wanted to open a dialogue. "Tonight's your lucky night! The Empress doesn't want you dead!"
"Not yet," he muttered, loosing a grenade. He flung it back up the alley and was rewarded with several screams in the blast.
Bolting from his cover, Lakewood ran full out in the other direction. His maps indicated there was a terraced street on the other side, a steep drop off on the far side leading down into a seaside district. That seemed like a good place to lead them on the wild goose chase.
Sprinting into the open, Lakewood leapt, the ground dropping out sharply beneath him. He was lucky. The first terrace was less than a five foot drop. He landed amidst a mix of dead shrubs and decorative grass. Recovering from the ground shock, he bolted over the next terrace, springing out over an alleyway below. A rooftop came up to meet him fast.
He didn't land it very well. Tumbling, he felt a tweak in his left ankle as he came back up. There was shouting in the street behind him. Time to get inside.
A rooftop stairwell took him inside a small apartment building. Once the door was shut, he whipped out his Remote, checking for temporal shielding. Shit. They had expanded the range of the one guarding the factory. It looked like they were setting up three new ones in a perimeter throughout the city. Lakewood wasn't getting out of here any time soon.
But that was the point, wasn't it?
He heard feet land with muffled thuds on the roof overhead. His pursuers had caught up quickly. Lakewood made a dash for a stairwell down the hall, ducking inside and bracing his back against the wall. With any luck, the enemy would take to the streets, assuming he had moved on. But why should he be so lucky?
His sidearm was out; he had no spare magazines. His G36 had about seven shots, plus three extra mags. Two more grenades completed his arsenal. He really should have tried policing some of the bodies back in the alley. Barely twenty minutes into the op and he was already running dry. Then again, how long did this charade need to go on? As long as the Empire thought they had the alleged Arner contained, no one would notice a small insertion op back at the Palace in Srinagar. Right?
"Simon?" Lakewood hissed in his comm. He could still hear feet thudding around in the building around him. "Do you have eyes on my location?"
No one responded. That could mean any number of things, but the worst possibilities were the most likely. Delta Team was pretty much toast. Simon probably dead back on the roof, Three and Four back at the factory. Six had split off during the stint back at the alley, and Kyle and Marika were long dead from an incident several months back. That only left one other, and Lakewood prayed to God she was far, far away from here tonight.
The Empire was going to finish us off eventually. Just like Bravo Team.
Hopefully we made it count.
Grimacing, Lakewood shuffled down the stairwell on light feet. Scanning the first floor hallway down the barrel of his G36, Lakewood didn't spot enemy soldiers. They seemed to have followed his ruse. Maybe he was going to get a little luck on his side tonight.
Lakewood took the hallway to an exterior side door and bolted back into the night. A spray of fire chipped up the street beside him, sending him for cover across the way. He found a metal postal box to duck behind with a decent shadow. Now he just needed to move before someone with a high caliber rifle sniped him out.
"Arner's in the street!" someone yelled from a rooftop. "Arner's down there!"
Lakewood stifled a chuckle. He hadn't expected this distraction op to go so well. Who knew so many people wanted Arner out of the picture? Lakewood had assumed the identity was supposed to be utterly classified. It seemed just about everybody had heard of the guy these days.
Apparently their previous demolition op in New Zealand had ruffled a lot of feathers.
When Lakewood was certain people were moving positions, he bolted from behind the postal box, heading up the curved street. Most of the buildings along here were sandwiched together, but there seemed to be an intersection up ahead. He needed to clear it before the enemy had sights on both ends. Otherwise he would be a fish in a barrel, and that never worked out well for the fish in that metaphor.
Two buildings from the intersection, a storefront door burst open, nearly catching Lakewood in the face. He spun out of the way in time to spot a large handgun take aim at his head. He froze, sizing up the new soldier. Not someone from a Strike Team, especially with those custom pants and decal t-shirt. This guy was a mercenary. And if he could bring in "Arner" alive, he probably expected a hefty reward.
"Drop your gun," the mercenary barked.
Lakewood exhaled, nodding. Honestly, he hadn't expected to actually be taken alive. He wondered how long he'd last in their torture chambers…
A high-caliber round thunder clapped through the night, and the front of Mr. Mercenary's head blew apart. Lakewood dodged to the side, close to the profile of a building where the sniper wouldn't be able to draw a bead on him. He had the mercenary to thank—that round was probably meant for him.
But as he pressed his back to the wall, Lakewood was surprised to hear gunfire staccato on the rooftops. Several soldiers screamed out, and then suddenly all was quiet. He could still hear more activity in other parts of the city, particular from up above the sheer-faced terrace wall where he had originally dropped down. But the enemies that had tracked him here sounded downed.
Had a third party joined the fray?
Stepping out of the building profile, Lakewood jumped in surprise when a rope dropped down over the side of the building. A figure clad in Spec Ops black descended gracefully, crouch landing in the street near where Mr. Mercenary's corpse lay sprawled out. As the feminine figure stood up to her full height, Lakewood felt a twist of regret.
"Sarah," he hissed. "What are you doing here?!"
She blitzed over to him, enveloping him in a tight hug. Then she was kissing him.
"Not leaving you to die, Nathaniel," she said, breaking from one of her kisses.
Lakewood sighed. "You were supposed to be in India. Making sure the Strike Teams stumbled onto our base and the planted evidence."
Sarah smiled grimly. "Nice try, Nathaniel. They'll find the place on their own soon enough. Now we're leaving before you decide to die a hero."
Taking his hand, she yanked him up the street, turning left down the intersection he had spied earlier. This street sloped downward, moving in a straight line towards the waterfront. If they kept on it, they could reach the docks. Lakewood had no doubt Sarah probably had some escape planned there. A jet-ski or motorboat. The woman was too well suited for these spy games.
How had they ever decided a covert relationship was a good idea?
It didn't take long for more Strike Teams to start spilling over the terrace and down into their quarter of the city. Still, they had a bit of a head start, which they used to cover as much distance as possible towards the waterfront. When the first shots started zipping down from rooftops behind, Sarah ducked down an alley, hand still firmly grasping Lakewood's.
"At least we're keeping them occupied," he grunted.
Sarah paused, shooting him a look. "Why the hell did you agree to this suicide mission?"
"Not the best time, love."
She grunted, continuing forward. Eventually, enemy fire rained down from above, and the two broke apart, backs pressed against separate walls on either side of the alley. Lakewood risked a peek, sighting two enemy targets. At least with the shields blanketing the city, it kept the Strike Teams from teleporting in right on top of him. They were limited to just as much ground mobility.
He finished off his current magazine, spraying for the rooftops. That was enough cover fire to get Sarah over to his side and the two of them taking the first opening back to a main street.
A Strike Team had slipped in behind them, taking up residency in an alleyway opening across the way. They immediately opened fire, pinning the two on their side of the street.
"Damn it!" Sarah growled. "We were almost there!"
It didn't take a genius to figure out that if they couldn't get past that new team, they would quickly get surrounded. Time to waste one of their precious last grenades.
The fire let up briefly, the Strike Team assuming they had the upper hand. "Turn yourself in, Arner!" the leader called out. "And we'll let your men live!"
"Bull-freakin'-shit!" Sarah called back.
Lakewood used the lull to fling the grenade across the street. In the darkness, the Strike Team hadn't realized what he did before it blew up in their faces. No one from that direction fired on them again as they tore off back downhill.
Holy shit, they were going to make it.
His comm crackled to life, and a pained voice croaked on the other end. "Lakewood?"
"Simon? Shit, you're alive!"
"Heh, not for long, I don't think. Look…I think the whole army is here. They let down the shield up by the factory. There are dozens of them teleporting in, moving down to surround you. The ocean…it's a dead end. There's nowhere to go."
"If the shield is down, then you should get out of there. They don't need you. Just me."
Sarah looked at him sharply.
"I don't think—" The signal went dead.
Lakewood cursed. Well that it was it, then. Delta Team was finished. Now he needed to stay and see things to the bitter end. Time to get Sarah out of here. She shouldn't have to endure what was coming.
They were among the docks now. The large, squat warehouses were laid out in a grid, leaving plenty of cover. Just as Lakewood suspected, Sarah seemed to have a predetermined destination. Time to make sure she got there.
Stopping in his tracks, Sarah spun around, eyes wide. "Our ride is just up ahead. We don't need to hold them!"
Lakewood shook his head, drawing close to her. God, why was such a pretty girl like her fighting in this war? She had been military before the First Strike, but that didn't mean she had any responsibility to see this through.
"They're going to take me alive," he said. "They need to find our base."
"Dumbass! I left a trail of clues for them. They will find it. We don't need to die!"
"You don't. You're going to get out of here. Get back to the resistance. I'm—"
A shadow fluttered overhead. Lakewood spun on his heels, watching as a black shape disappeared over the rooftops. A flash of light drew his eyes down low to another corner. What the hell was happening? Had someone shut off the shield? Were soldiers teleporting in?
"Who are you?" The voice rang out in the darkness, coming from nowhere specific. Sarah had drawn her sidearm, gazing around furtively.
"Do not make me repeat myself!"
Lakewood caught another shadow, as if flying down one of the passages between warehouses. It was gone too fast for him to focus on. Another mercenary?
"I'm Arner," he called out. "The one you've been looking for."
Sarah glared at him. "Don't encourage them!" she hissed.
An inky black feeling welled up inside Lakewood. Turning around slowly, he spotted a figure in black standing in the shadow of a warehouse, staring back at him. A faint reflection of silver revealed a bladed weapon in hand.
"A lot of people want you," said Jon Tree Top. The most dangerous man in the Empire.
Sarah spun at the sound, firing three quick shots at the shadow. A flash of light briefly blinded them. When it was gone, the figure in the darkness had vanished.
Sarah yelped. Lakewood turned slowly, finding her frozen stiff with a blade to her neck. Jon stood behind her, still bathed in blackness.
"Why are you so damn important?" Jon growled.
Lakewood felt his G36 drop from his grasp, clattering on the ground. The sound of boots pounding on asphalt surrounded them now. Down each passage between warehouses, several Strike Teams moved into position, their weapons drawn on the center. Jon was easily in the midst of this crossfire. Yet he seemed utterly unconcerned, his attention focused on Lakewood.
How often had Lakewood read reports on this man? The dark assassin of Kenzi? The firefights with Bravo Team alone were terrifying to review. And now here he was, his blade ready to take the life of the woman he loved. The game was already lost.
"I'm not Arner," Lakewood admitted, the desperation clear in his voice. "There is no Arner. Only an identity meant to throw off the Empire. Whenever it matters most, another one of us will take up the mantle."
Jon grunted. "Keep talking."
Lakewood stammered. Might as well finish this now. It would save time later…
"We operated out of a dilapidated building on the southeast outskirts of Srinagar. We ran operations with Bravo Team. We were meticulous in our records—you'll find everything there." Lakewood held up his useless Time Remote. "The location is hardwired in here. No booby traps. We were pulling out for good. The Resistance…they have no more need of us."
Jon's expression seemed contemplative. Then he did the unexpected; he pulled his sword away from Sarah's back. Giving her a brief shove, she stumbled into Lakewood's arms. She didn't tremble or cry—Sarah had always been the strong one in these shadow wars. If anything, it was Lakewood who wanted to break down now, holding her in this last embrace.
Jon started backing away from them, towards one of the Strike Teams poised on the periphery. "Set the Time Remote down."
Lakewood readily obeyed. Then he held Sarah. He had a fair idea how this was going to end.
"If there is no Arner, then who are you, soldier?"
Lakewood glanced up from Sarah, making eye contact with his own personal angel of death. "Lakewood. Nathaniel Lakewood."
Jon nodded to himself. Then he turned, disappearing into the darkness beyond the Strike Team. "Give me regards to Daniel Pouliot."
Lakewood didn't watch for the hand motion, giving the order to the Strike Teams. Instead, he buried his face in Sarah's hair, holding her tight. At the end of all things, he still had her—the most amazing person. One of the reasons he had soldiered on all this time. And better still, she held him back.
There were worse ways to go out.
("Cartonius, I need to know which one of the First Generation the General's line belongs to.")
(I'm sorry, young master Dante, but that information is purely conjecture.)
("I know you above all else have a guess.")
(A guess for an answer of little relevance.)
("You're wrong, Cartonius. I live by one simple philosophy: know thy enemy. If I can pin down the General's ancestry, I can gain an upper hand to end this conflict.")
(General Kadar is of the Sixteenth Generation. I suspect the heritage has little relevance this far down the line.)
("Wrong again. Why do you think the Clerics study the lines so piously? They share the same belief I do, and which you will never comprehend, Cartonius—that our destiny is entwined with our forbearers. I traced my own heritage, Cartonius. Did you know that? I found my line traces all the way back to the Soldier. Even you cannot deny the relevance to that.")
(… … … … Curious indeed.)
("I'll take that as a compliment. Now tell me that guess of yours.")
(Very well. It is my estimation that the General's line links with fair certainty to Hakim Attar of the Fifth Generation.)
("Well, well, well…now there is a name I know.")