1 || Duel
July 6, 2076 – Chicago, Central Territory, United States of America
Alex ‘Scope’ Samuelson peered through the smoke and dust. His eyes scanned the cratered streets of Chicago as he sought his opponent, hidden out amongst the destruction. The predawn light of summer was already starting to filter through the city, penetrating the wreckage of the battle just waged. Broken glass twinkled as stray rays of sunlight struck their jagged edges. It set a kaleidoscope of colors off on the blackened walls of buildings that had once held schools and businesses. All that remained inside was broken furniture and shattered lives.
Alex momentarily let his vision drop from the scope attached to the top of his rifle. His eyes drank in the sights of the destroyed downtown district, seeking any sign of movement in an otherwise empty place. Nothing moved, save a few plastic bags that tumbled through the deserted streets. Smoke coiled high into the sky from a hundred fires that burned unchecked across the ruination that had been a thriving metropolis only days before. An occasional burst of gunfire or the impact of a stray mortar had replaced the almost constant noise of the once bustling city.
A movement at the corner of his vision caused Alex to duck, flattening his body out along the concrete floor that made up his firing position. The round intended for his upper torso blasted a hunk of cement out of a support pillar behind him. A second round quickly followed the first, aimed lower in anticipation of his movement. Unfortunately for the other shooter, he had picked his spot for just that reason. The second round slammed into a section of bullet proof plexiglass shielding that had been dislodged from a penthouse suite further up the building. Alex moved without thinking, sliding his entire body back into the building. He quickly pulled in his rifle, muttering a quick prayer to any deity in hearing range.
“The was a good shot, Gemini, but you should always survey your surroundings before taking the shot,” he said to himself. “Now I know where you are.” He was vaguely aware that both rounds had been non-lethal projectiles, designed to incapacitate him rather than kill him. Now he knew they wanted to capture him, not eliminate him.
Alex stood, shouldered his rifle, and carefully positioned his DID, Decoy Imaging Device, just behind where he had been positioned at the edge of the building. He punched a command into the communications screen sewn into his combat vest and set a one minute timer. Then he set off down the stairs, moving quickly and quietly to his alternate firing position. The building had been cleared out even before fighting broke out in the city, the firm in charge of construction having gone bankrupt. The top five floors had held the luxury apartments whose bullet proof glass he had to thank for being alive and not in enemy hands. The bottom twenty floors were just the skeleton of the building, unfinished when the war had arrived in the downtown district. Alex’s first firing position was on the nineteenth floor and he had to descend three floors in under a minute to make his plan work. He glanced intently at the timer on his wrist.
“Thirty five seconds, damn it Alex you better hurry,” he chided himself as his boots finally touched down on the sixteenth floor of the high rise. He practically dove into his next firing position as he heard the twenty second countdown begin in his earpiece.
“Nineteen, eighteen, seventeen.” He slowed his breathing as he counted with the time. He folded the stock out and set the rifle down.
“Thirteen, twelve, eleven,” he manually clicked over to his medium range setting, adjusting the wind and range setting to where he thought the other shooter was hiding.
“Six, five, four,” he almost whispered as he loaded in the special round designed to end this duel. He’d been saving it for her. “Time for some show and tell.”
As the time hit one, the DID activated, creating a hyper-reality image of Alex. To the sniper across the street, it appeared as if he was venturing back out for a second look. He scanned the area where he suspected she was hidden, waiting. The hit warning flared in his earpieces even as he saw the flash from her scope. She had secreted herself underneath a dumpster on the fourth floor of a parking garage, not more than a hundred yards from his current position, incredibly close for a shooter of her skill.
“I didn’t want this, I hope you know that. I’m sorry,” he whispered mournfully to himself as he squeezed the trigger. The semi-liquid shell blasted out of the the chamber, traveling down the barrel of his rifle at nearly twice the speed of sound. It crossed the distance between them in an immeasurably small amount of time. The rifle bucked in his hands and Alex quickly realigned himself to confirm the hit. As he studied the shot through the telescopic sight, his breath caught in his chest. Then he heard the click of a pistol being cocked behind him.
“I didn’t want to have to do this either, Scope. I hope you know that,” Cassie ‘Gemin’ Hawthorne said quietly from where she stood a few feet behind him. He took one more glance at his shot. The liquid round had splattered against Cassie’s own DID. “I knew you wouldn’t peak back out for another shot and I knew where you were. Did you really think I would let you adjust for a second try?” Her tone was mocking, but there was something else behind it.
“Obviously I chose wrong,” Alex muttered, as embarrassed about being outsmarted as he was fearful for knowing he was now in enemy hands. “You always were more clever than I, Gemini.” He used her operational code name and graced her with a sly smile. Even under strain and in life threatening situations, Alex made sure to keep a positive image and emotional state. Being negative made people give up and that could get him killed in a situation like this.
“I have to be. You’ve always been the best shooter. A girl’s gotta make up ground where she can, know what I mean?” she quipped back. Her own self-confident smile made it obvious the statement was intended as a jab at Alex, not a compliment of his abilities.
He just kept smiling as he locked his gaze with Cassie’s. Her eyes were purple and ringed with blue, a genetic phenomena and one that had earned her more than a casual glance in her life. Those eyes, in combination with her raven black hair and pale complexion, had given her an edge over her male counterparts. It’s always the ones with the pretty faces that you have to be most careful of Alex, he remembered his father telling him. People assume beautiful people have a squeamish disposition to violence. They’re usually wrong. Alex had always known Cassie was dangerous, that was one of the things he liked about her. But fighting against her, losing to her in a duel like this, was not something he would relish. Then he snapped his gaze away from her eyes, focusing instead on the men coming through the door behind her.
They were big and there were four of them. Those were the first two things Alex noticed. They were dressed in old, 2010 era United States military style uniforms. Desert green and tan camouflage shirts and pants were covered by more modern looking black body armor. Black special forces helmets cradled their heads. Muted, unreflective dark goggles covered eyes that no doubt looked upon the captured form of Alex with anything ranging from smug confidence to outright hostility. The only ornamental item the men sported was a red armband wrapped around their right biceps. On the outside facing side of the armband was a circle of white with a black lion’s head crest. Alex had remarked that the first time he’d seen the Pride Securities’ armband that it looked much like the old Nazi bands of the 1940’s. The four moved into the room with a steady confidence he’d seen before in countless others. These men were veterans and war was their business. They approached Alex with limbs extended out, ready for any sudden move he might make to escape. He knew he wasn’t in much of a position to escape. Five well armed, trained mercenaries blocked the one escape route out of the building, short of jumping out of a sixteenth floor window to the cratered streets below. No, he thought bitterly, this was the end of the line. Alex turned his attention back to Cassie.
“Goliath, Dash, Semtex, and Zero have already been brought in, Scope. They’re still mopping up the rest of the company, but you were the last of the prime targets,” Cassie said quietly.
“Only my friends call me Scope, Cassie. But it’s good to know the whole team will be in this together, thanks to you,” he hissed back as he momentarily let his emotional barrier drop. Cassie’s eyes widened, almost imperceptibly so. Alex knew her well enough to know his words had struck deep. “I just want to know why Cassie. Why all the lying, why all the deception? You had your opportunity a hundred times during the mission. So why?”
“I’m just doing what I was taught in Basic, Alex. Loyalty to the contract and the paymasters,” she shot back and instantly her walls were back up, the cold soldier back in place of the his one-time friend and teammate.
“You can cut the crap with me, Cassie. Were you a plant the whole time, or did they get to you when we got here? And what happened to sticking with your team?” Alex grunted as the four men now interrupted their conversation. Each grabbed one of Alex’s limbs and hoisted him up. He knew there was no chance of escape now. These men were strong, their vice-like grips a knowing sign that they could snap his neck as easily as kindling.
“You have to trust me on this one, Alex. I’m doing this to protect you guys,” Cassie responded evenly in a low enough voice that the guards couldn’t hear as she walked behind them. Alex was looking directly at her now as his captors walked him down the sixteen flights of stairs to the ground floor. Something in her words made Scope reconsider his hostility toward her. “Besides,” she whispered, “you still owe me that date.” She reached up and kissed his cheek softly.
Alex smiled and blushed. It was kind of an awkward situation for a kiss, but he couldn’t keep the smile off his face. He looked into Cassie’s eyes and saw the same girl he’d known and fought with for what seemed like years but was only a few months. Then his vision began to cloud and he realized what she’d done. Cassie carefully wiped the neurotoxin from her lips. She applied some solvent to dissolve any remnants that might inadvertently incapacitate her.
* * *
Alex awoke sometime later. He opened his eyes and instantly wished he’d kept them closed. Bright light flooded his vision as a sharp pain spiked through his head. He wiggled his fingers and toes, making sure nothing was broken or paralysed. Everything responded well, thought stiffly. I’ve been out for a while, he thought. He also realized that his hands were bound in front of him, held together by tightly bound triple ply zip cords. That was disconcerting. The last thing he remembered was the kiss from Cassie, how wonderful it had felt.
“So wonderful I passed out,” he said aloud. His voice sounded cracked and he felt the dryness in his throat for the first time. “Damn you, Cassie. You played me, again.”
He cracked his eyes open, just enough to let him adjust to the brightness. The searing pain that had first accompanied the light now dropped to a dull ache behind his eyebrows. After what seemed like hours, but was likely only a few minutes, Alex gently eased his eyes open further. Light poured onto his retinas and for the first time he got a good look at the room. Cell is more like it, he thought as he quickly absorbed all the pertinent information about the room. Solid cement walls towered up to a ceiling that must have been at least ten meters high. Two small windows, no more than the size of Alex’s open palm, allowed in minimal light. About seven meters up there was a slit of some sort of glass, likely bulletproof, that seemed to give onto an attached room. He guessed it was where anyone observing his incarceration would be stationed. The room was roughly six meters from corner to corner. The only indication of a way in or out was the faint trace of seams in the floor, indicating an elevator shaft of some sort to allow food or, more likely, interrogators to enter without fear of Alex springing a trap or overpowering the guards. Hard to escape a subterranean building when the only way out is down, he observed approvingly. Whoever had placed him here was covering all their bases.
Knowing there was nothing to do but wait, he settled back into as comfortable a situation as he could manage. The concrete floor and cement walls offered scant comfort. The cold, dry surfaces seemed to sap the heat from his body, but he knew that was just another part of the psychological warfare perpetrated on the incarcerated. After a time, the sunlight that filtered down from the tiny windows far above waned. As the last rays of natural light disappeared from the glass portals, the glaring light in his cell blinked out. No moonlight came through the windows and there was no obvious source of light up above. Sleep came slowly as Alex started at images and thoughts in the bleak darkness of the cell. When it finally did, he slipped fitfully away and dreamed of a time before, back when everything had started.
“Sweet dreams, Scope,” Cassie said from behind the glass, though the sleeping form on the cold ground was not aware of her presence in the adjoining room. “See you tomorrow.”
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