From the Story Arc: The Fading Flame

Previous Story in the Arc: Fear by Astra Kyne Murdock (Friday, June 15, 2007)

Next Story in the Arc: Collusion by John Murdock (Sunday, June 17, 2007)

(posted Sunday, June 17, 2007)

((Cowritten by John Murdock and Petrograd))

Aut viam inveniam aut faciam. "I'll either find a way or make one."

Faultline was a spot of pride for Paragoners: a sign that finally, through all the madness, there was still hope in their great city. The civil engineers had attacked it with all their energy, but for all that it was still a slower, calmer 'zone' than the more hotly combated areas, quietly growing into its former austerity and grace.

So, despite the constant rattle of Arachnos jackhammers on the horizon and the whine of Sky Raider jets over the war walls, Faultline at dusk was as quiet and pleasant a place as could be found in the city. Workers, long off their shifts, stumbled from bars or waved to the police at the Famous Donut stand. The few white-collar tenants of the new condos abandoned their sedans and settled down to quiet nights of reality television.

A few tourists and joggers marveled at the sunset over the bay, and on a knoll near the rebuilt dam, a shutterbug snapped photos of the light reflecting off the water over the cranes and gantries. Reporters had become more scarce after the initial buzz of reconstruction, but in a city as busy as Paragon, no one paid the straight-backed, graying photographer a second glance.

A moment after snapping a fresh picture, the photographer heard the barest whisper of something rubbing against grass, and caught a whiff of what he could only describe as burnt ozone. Shaking his head lightly, he reached into his vest for a fresh flash card and deftly loaded it into the camera.

"Little dramatic, don't ya think?"

Behind him, a cascade of blue sparks dissolved into the rough form of an armored man. Even in the twilight, the dark red and yellow of a CCCP Berkut suit was vibrant. "Easier than sneakin' over here in some civvies. I'm not exactly as low-profile as I was a decade ago." The voice belonged to John Murdock, member of the Commissariat of the CCCP. John's gloved hand played over relays on a small device on his belt, presumably a stealth generator. The gadget's internal components slowly revved down, their ultrasonic whine fading into an almost inaudible hum.

The retired colonel dropped the camera to its strap, pulling the press cap down squarely over his swept grey hair. "Johnny Murdock, self-avowed anarchist and snappy dresser, late of Delta, late of SOCOM, late of the Program. Registered metahuman, and just about the last person on Earth I expected to hear from." The sharp-eyed man finally turned, smiling eerily, his head lightly swiveling behind polished glasses, as if something a football field and twice and big away was really, very droll. "What can I do for ya, you old SOB?"

John turned his helmeted head to the side, speaking low. "Y'sure it's safe to go throwing names around out here, Colonel? I need this to be discreet, for all of the obvious reasons an' some that aren't so obvious, yet." Hidden inside of the suit of armor, John's body language was almost unreadable. The Colonel still was able to pick up a constant wariness that he'd seen on countless other operators throughout the years. Not quite tense, but relaxed and ready to spring into action at a moment's notice.

The grin never left the Colonel's face. He nodded almost imperceptibly, indicating what looked to be an Arachnos patrol down the cliffside, a gang of Lost accosting passersby, and an apparent Sky Raider skirmish in-and out of-a nearby building, and then tapping a low-humming 'pager' on his belt. "Been decades since I was an FNG, kid."

"Yeah, well, nothin' is ever what it seems, and y'never know who you can trust, nowadays. Since you're here, I'm assuming you got my message. Y'know why I called you here?"

The old man tugged his press pass unconsciously, thinking after a moment to pull a cigarette case from his vest. "I've kept my ears open, but you know how intel gets distorted. I owe ya, that much is plain, but if a federal paycheck has taught me anything, it's 'look before you leap.' Mind clearing things up?"

"Not at all. I've been given some troubles, these past few months. I know who's responsible, but present circumstances prevent anythin' from being done about it. Every option up till now has been exhausted, in order to set things to rights. So, I'm changing course. I need to take ya up on that favor you owe me, and in a big way." John reached into a pouch on his belt, producing a rugged looking USB memory stick. "It's encrypted, but you'll know the ciphers or have people that do. It's all of the information on where I need to go, and what I'll need once I get there." He extended the memory stick towards the Colonel, carefully holding it in his gloved hand.

In a flourish, the photographer had a rich, black cigarette already lit in a long-stemmed holder, and took the drive from the armored hero with a chuckle. "Third least suspicious thing in the whole city is a hero passing info to a reporter, right behind a Hellion arsonist and a Republican double-cross."

"Have a gander. Just know, that no matter what else happens, this stays here, between the two of us. It goes without sayin', but y'know that it never does. Not really."

The graying Colonel shook his head again, the spark of his cigarette reflected in his aviator glasses. "Sounds like you ain't been around soldiers in a while, son. I can't risk the city too often, no matter if I'm clean as a whistle. I'll contact you when I've got things arranged. I've got to know one more thing though."

"Shoot. I know you're takin' a chance, and I wouldn't ask ya here unless it was serious."

Alton Southern squared his gaze at Murdock's visor, twin layers of reflecting gold between them. "This got anything to do with last October?"

John shook his head. "Naw. Some of the same players, some of their associates. Different game though. This one's for blood, Southern, and I need to know how big of a bat you'll be able to swing for me on this one. Logistics, a cover, the works. I won't ask ya to go out on a limb, but whatever y'can do is a sight more than what I've got right now. We square?"

The Colonel grinned. "Like I said, I owe ya. Long as you know what you're playing for, I'm Mark *#&^ing McGwire."

Without another word, John vanished from sight in a muted crackle of electricity as he keyed his stealth generator.

The photographer took a final shot, now that the sun was well below the war walls, and flicked the butt from his holder. It was a beautiful night. Maybe he'd have a donut.