From the Story Arc: The Fading Flame

Previous Story in the Arc: Conspiracies by John Murdock (Sunday, June 17, 2007)

Next Story in the Arc: Interlude--Dr. Horatio Foxglove by Dr. Jacob Garvey (Wednesday, June 20, 2007)

(posted Sunday, June 17, 2007)

((Cowritten by John Murdock and Petrograd))

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? "Who is to guard the guards themselves?"

The gulls wheeled through clean blue skies above the stacks, and the sharp cadences of marching soldiers mixed with sea sounds to wash over the port of Striga. William Blakesley, fresh of the Penumbra Division, loved the sound. His father had used to take him up the coast on long fishing trips, and the posting on the island had allowed him to relive some of the better memories of his childhood.

The greeting party below him on the dock stood impatiently, tapping their feet, checking and rechecking their surroundings, but he was content to scan the sea, binoculars hung unused before him. The South African freighter "Botany Bay" had been sitting in the port for hours, and would remain for hours more before the Mech Men came to unload the fresh shipment of contraband weaponry. The Council had learned better than to move in daylight after losing a dozen loads to enterprising heroes. One of the troopers had once made a joke that they were the regular ammunition supplier for the CCCP. He was a Warwolf now.

Surreptitiously he fished in his pocket for the oyster crackers he'd put in there at lunch at the Mermaid Tavern. Making sure no one saw him, he flicked one high in the air. The seagulls, who knew his habits very well by now, and somehow could pick him out among all the other identically uniformed Penumbras, were watching for that motion. Three dove after the cracker simultaneously. One got it. The other two followed in hot pursuit, even as he flicked a few more crackers high after them. None fell back more than a foot before being snatched.

What was it that kid's movie had gulls yelling? Oh yes. Mine mine mine mine mine! Or "Mein" which meant the same thing.

The soldiers below him took up the call, muttering amongst each other. "Mein gott, Fleder-ratten." The pun on "Fledermaus" made them all laugh. "Wir kanst night diesen verdammte dingen schutzen." There were standing orders against shooting at the gulls. It tended to attract heroes. Still, Blakesly frowned to himself. These intellectuals had all taken up 'die kultur' after some rumors about the Center, clamoring grubbily for promotion, but he knew it was only a matter of time before annoyance and sheer cruelty overcame orders. He tucked the oyster crackers back into his pocket, glad if only that they hadn't seen him.

The hours passed slowly, but Willie was jolted from a doze as the party fell into attack positions. Sweeping their guns to the sky. A hazy red figure was approaching, slowly resolving into a hazmat suit many in the Council had come to rue seeing. The figure landed among them in an explosion of light, flicking out tendrils of pure energy towards the few members of the party scattering in all directions.

Realizing how little he could do with his rifle, the kid grabbed for his radio. Reinforcements would hardly be needed, the ship itself had a full complement of Vortex troopers, and the lone CCCPer would hardly be a match for them. This was good, he thought to himself as the hard-plated Red chased the last of his squad across the deck of the cargo ship. It probably meant a capture, which would put the Archon's eye off the easy loss, and that would mean he would be safe in Striga for at least a few weeks. They might even make him a Vortex, but it was hardly a fate he admired. He doubted he could stand any treatments.

Still, he had to go through procedure. Keying the proper sequence into his encoder, he pulled the mic up, waiting for acknowledgment to continue the codes. The CCCPer was almost to the superstructure, the lone member of the dock party already inside the door, and still no signal had come. He rolled slightly to look over his equipment, slowly continuing his gaze up the laced black boot on his transmitter, and the tied black fatigue pant leg. He didn't see the rifle butt.

Pvt. Kendall gave the kid another blow to make sure, and slid his arms under the scrawny supersoldier's shoulders. The helmet bounced against Kendall's chest as the kid's head rolled loosely. Kendal dragged the body off and shoved it down the stairwell for safekeeping. Wouldn't want to attract gulls.

Slipping into Blakesly's spot on the parapet, the black-clad warrior pulled a silicon card from the back of the radio, slipping a fresh one in from his BDUs.

"Colonel? We're all clear."

John stepped through the doorway and out of the daylight. The compensators inside his suit's helmet automatically adjusted for the lighting conditions, giving him a clear view of the entire room. A black shape slid from the shadow behind the door, easing it shut with an easy hand before resolving into a black-suited trooper. He flicked off his NVGs and flipped them up, helping the young-looking "Penumbra" that John had been chasing out of his ridiculous uniform. "You look like a clown, Mueller." John took a few more steps forward, releasing the neck seal for his helmet before pulling it off and holding it under his arm. This looked like every other cargo ship hold of every other cargo ship docked at Striga port. Catwalk overlooking cargo containers stacked five and six high, overhead cranes for moving said cargo containers. The only difference was that right now this one didn't seem to have anyone in it except for the people on the catwalk.

The Colonel pushed his way through the clear plastic flaps of a packing container, with Sean following close behind. Both were dressed in simple fatigues, and Southern was grimacing past a cigar. "If you're quite finished with the theatrics?"

John shook his head, switching his helmet from under his right arm to his left, freeing himself to shake hands with Southern. "It was your plan; I just made it look good."

The Colonel tilted his head up, chuckling, "Right, right, I'm sure it'll make all the papers tomorrow." He turned momentarily back to the clone, raising an eyebrow above his glasses. "You know how to work that monkey-suit of his, kid?"

Sean nodded simply. "I've had trainin'."

Southern motioned grandly to the shabby plastic curtain behind him. "They're ready for you in the OR, gentlemen."

Sean took a step towards John, leaning in close and keeping his voice below a whisper. "I don't trust this guy. Are y'sure that you wanna do this?" John clapped his clone on the shoulder reassuringly, a tight and grim smile crossing his face.

"I really doubt we can trust anybody, nowadays. But Southern is one of the few that qualifies as a maybe, Sean."

"Early 90's, somewhere in the Middle East..."

The distinct bark of Kalashnikovs echoed from the shoddy mud-brick walls, filling the air with the cacophony of pointless violence under the noon-day sun.

Southern cursed, sliding a fresh magazine into his sidearm. It was all supposed to be so simple. He'd never have gone off-mission if it weren't. A simple solution to a simple problem, no fuss, and everyone walks away happy. Not like this.

It had began with helicopters. Sikorsky, Bell, and all the other manufacturers had pioneered grand new designs in the days of Vietnam, and with the end of that war had simply, fairly, and conscientiously sought out new markets for their products. The burgeoning nation of Iraq, with its poor road system and broad swathes of open country, seemed a perfect candidate, and so companies had swarmed to the newly CIA-friendly nation to sell off their products.

After a brief honeymoon with the country of their manufacture, the President of Iraq had begged on bended knee before their Commander in Chief to be allowed his helicopters, with mercy for his people, for emergency transport and medical aid. The leader of the Americans, in his benevolence, agreed.

It was approximately one week before the gunships were slaughtering ethnic Kurds. Like any good businessman, several officials of these companies sensed a scandal. Some phone calls were made to Congressmen. Some to friends. And one, very important one to a market VP at Raytheon. With sales trailing off at the end of the United States occupation, he agreed it would only be prudent to seek new markets for his product.

He called a friend, a young lieutenant in Delta Force. After some small talk about the cafes in Istanbul and the Turkish girls, and absolutely no mention of the Al Queda cell they had been waiting to surface, the general idea was across.

A few hours in a jeep with his hand-picked squad, items change hands, a few hours back. Simple.

Southern cursed again, kicking the useless crate of Stingers away from where he was crouched. Cover and concealment were not the same thing, as he'd learned long, long ago during his own basic training; the wood of the crate was only serving to obscure him from view, while largely failing to stop the incoming bullets. Those that were being "stopped" were actually being deflected in unpredictable ways by the Stinger housings.

He half-stood long enough to line up his front sight and double-tap a running hostile before ducking back from the window, and cursed again for good measure. "Kendall, how's it look?" The sound of his own voice was muted by the sporadic small-arms fire, but he made sure to shout loud enough so that he'd be heard.

The gruff-looking blonde glanced out the door, past the bodies of the Kurdish militia, before grunting. "Not good. Least ten hostiles out there, I'm on my last mag. Don't look like Republican Guard."

The lieutenant yelled from his perch. "They're not! Opium dealers, Golden Triangle. Of all the days to come through..."

They all ducked as an RPG flew into the room, embedding itself into the wall above the crates. A dud. Dunbar, behind the table in the same loose islamic robes as the rest of them, clutched his own AK tight as he returned to a firing position. No one asked when help was coming. No one knew they were there.

Another string of bullets scattered across the wall behind Southern, sending hot flakes of mud-brick skirting across his back. He thanked God that no one had taught these drug-runners to aim, then waited until the instant the Hadji would have to reload. With the moment of silence, at least from that direction, he stood. And fell just as quickly as he had stood.

It had felt like someone had punched him in the chest with a fist the size of a Mac truck. All of his wind had left him, though that was probably from when he'd landed flat on his back against the packed earth of the street. At least he hoped that was it; a collapsed lung was definitely not an asset at this point. There was blood, but Southern couldn't make out exactly where it was coming from, since it was soaking the front of his robes. The pain wasn't localized either. He managed to prop himself up on his elbows, his gun forgotten. He wanted to see who in the hell had shot him.

The kid before him, weathered to the texture of one of his own camel saddles by exposure to sun and wind, grinned broadly, the sun showing off his gold tooth. He obviously had Southern figured for a sitting duck. And he was right. Southern had been knocked out from behind any kind of cover, and it wasn't likely that someone was going to drop an APC between him and the kid in the next five seconds. Still grinning as he lined up his shot, the kid walked tall towards Southern, wanting to be up close for the kill, proud to bag his first American---

---when the kid crumpled in a sustained burst of automatic fire. It sounded like every gun in the world had started firing all at once. Just as soon as it had started, it stopped again. His vision was getting hazy, but Southern could make out a number of dark shapes rushing into the village from the eastern fringes. More weapons fire, but not as concentrated. Mopping up survivors, he thought to himself. The sun was suddenly blotted out in front of Southern, with someone looming over him.

And then another grin was before him, between the gristly brush of a young beard and the red of a tight wrapped turban, with a mouth full of gleaming-white American teeth--nobody in the world had perfect teeth like Americans did. It was a surer means of ID than knowing who won the Pennant.

"Now, what the heck are ya doin' in my neck of the woods, old man?"

John regained consciousness a few hours later. The anesthesia had somehow left a bad taste in his mouth, and he felt queasy, but after the medic assured him he was recovered enough to roam, he stood up and got dressed.

Once he was dressed, John walked over to the "operating room", a cargo container cordoned off with sterile plastic sheets and a few simple steel tables. Another medic was rinsing bloody gear and surgical instruments in a basin with a vodka bottle and repacking his field bag. John could just make out Sean's gurney through a hanging sheet.

The Colonel stood over the table, grinning as he played with a translucent green rectangle, his chest visible as a blinking red skeleton through it. "Got five of em in all. You'll never guess where the third one was."

"I don't want to. So, explain it to me again how it's all gonna work. I need t'be sure on this."

Southern shook his head lightly. "Simple enough on the technical end. Pike over ther pulled your hero tags, redundant CCCP transponders, a few ID tags from your Program days, and, just for the heck of it, your Shadow Government subdermal SSN tag. We hacked your twin's hero tags with a quantum belly-dancer, put the extras in a fatty part of his thigh, and left the rest in a foil packet that goes with him. He won't hold up to psychics, magic, or anything like this number," he spun the rectangle, his ghostly skull and glasses showing above the khaki tunic like atrocity footage, "but other than that, he's you. I just hope to god he can act."

"Right, right. I don't need this gig to last indefinitely. Just long enough for me to get over there, at the minimum." John glanced over to the doorway that led further into the ship. "Let's get to the rest of the deal. Sooner I'm outta 'ere, the safer it is for you and your people. Sooner I can get my job done, too."

The skull faded, except for the grin, and Southern tucked the rectangle back under his arm. "Insertion and cover are simple enough. There are at least fifteen independent 'contractors' operating in the Isles, from Crey Security to Blackwater RI. WSPDR likes to take contacts from Hudson Ltd., including several active Kheldian fusions and ex-Council Nictus splices. I've arranged for papers in the name of John Williams, a Pennsylvania reservist discharged during his second tour in Afghanistan to avoid violations of the suspended Might for Right act. All Kheldians are summarily discharged under current policy, and Hudson's been known to scoop them up. You keep your gear on at all times, and leave the WSPDR patch visible, and no one'll bother you. I've gotten you an assignment guarding Frank Gordon, a real philistine, never leaves his desk. Thinks he's 'entitled' because his uncle's an Arachnos bigwig. Right now he's being held by the Circle of Thorns, but even when he gets back from that, you'll basically be on your own."

"Good. I don't need any distractions once I get there." John followed Southern as he stepped past the hanging plastic curtains, then spoke again after thinking a few moments. "Y'didn't specify how we're gonna go about insertion. Most of the stuff my people have written up is...a bit less than covert, y'know?"

The Colonel nodded, handing the Rikti Scanner back to the following medic. "Easy as pie. We're already on the way."

"The ship is movin'? Is all this gonna pass muster for any sorta Customs agents, or whatever the hell they have in the Isles?"

Southern kept walking, motioning to the stairs to the deck. "Leave it to me. My regular runs are a little off-schedule for this, but all the Council ammo in the hold easily makes up for it."

"Gotcha. What sorta kit am I gonna have for this one? I brought a few goodies from home, but I was plannin' on travelin' light."

The sea was calm as they walked into the open, and the sun much closer to the horizon. "Standard company gear. It's good equipment, I made the lists myself. It's as 'licensed' as anythign, but the place is like LA: everyone carries. If a cop says your papers are out of order, he's asking for a bribe. If an Arbiter asks... well, steer clear of Arbiters. You've also got limited registration as a Kheldian, but you're not Destined, so don't do anything flashy. Someone shoots at you, kill 'em, and get out. Cops included. If you need anything else, there are about a half-dozen ways to contact me. Anything you need, including gun hands, name it."

"Demo gear is high up on the list. I may need to get into somewhere that doesn't want gettin' into." The fine art of making crap go boom was a useful skill, and one that was probably going to turn out to be indispensable. That said, it was worthless without the right tools.

The Colonel shook his head again, "Son, whadya take me for? Granted, I'm not handing you a truckload right off the boat, but when you need it, get ahold of me."

"John nodded at this, walking forward and placing his hands on the railing. "Thanks again, Southern. Just keep your ass out of Iraq, and maybe we'll stay even after this. Sound good to you?"

The grey-haired sociopath grinned again. "Now, you never mentioned travel restrictions. Tell you what. Next time, I'll bring my cell phone so I can call 911."

"Response times are a bitch, these days. But y'know what I mean."

The Colonel went grim, the sun glinting off his glasses as he looked out to sea. "Like I said, I owe ya."

John leaned over the railing, watching as the Colonel 'worked his magic' on the customs agent, a duffel heavy in his hand.

They had been talking civilly on the dock for about five minutes, and it was plain that the black-helmeted Wolf Spider was aggravated. They had flipped all the way through the thick pad on the clip-board, and the minor Arachnos official was now gesticulating wildly towards the unwanted ship. Before he crumpled.

The glint in Southern's hand disappeared as he slid the soldier off the dock, flashing a thumbs-up to Murdock.

The faded sign behind him read "Welcome to Nerva Archipelago." He was here.