Another fifteen minutes of trudging through lightless undergrowth brought them to another clearing. This one was larger than the last. On the far side stood a small cluster of gray structures, squat and ugly. ‘Crete pads, left over from the last war. Bunkers, weapons dumps, command centers. They could have been used for anything. Let go now that the need wasn’t the same. No government could afford the kind of military that paranoia demanded. Not anymore.
“Bludgeon, you take the right. Hunter, left. I’ll come in the back. We go in in five sweeps.” Squeeze melted into the undergrowth and was gone.
As Hunter moved towards her assigned spot she wondered briefly who the mice were. Really were. Not just what she and her cadre had been told. What had they done? What were they doing that brought such a heavy hand down on them? Because there was some serious pressure behind the go-between who’d hired them. Snake Cadre was one of the best, if not the best. They didn’t work cheap. Only those with hard currency could hire them. And there’d been a bonus if they eliminated the mice in less than three days.
That was it. Eliminate them. No questions. No information. Kill them and leave the bodies.
But she didn’t wonder for long. Such questions weren’t her problem. She was paid to do a job, and she would do it.
She crouched in the shadows and looked at her watch. Two more minutes. The structure was dark, unreadable. She pulled up the hood of the light jacket she was wearing and zipped it up under her chin. She wore pants of the same material. It reflected her body heat back to her, made her virtually invisible to infrared and night goggles. With thirty seconds to go she stood up and moved forward, every sense alert.
A figure lurched across the street in front of her and crashed into the undergrowth. The long arms, the heavy build – had to be a howler. A drunk one too, from the look of him.
Hunter’s hand tightened on the heavy pistol now in her hand. But the figure did not stop and she relaxed a fraction. Wound up was good. Keyed-up was bad. Hair trigger-ready, but not set to explode over nothing.
The gun was heavy, reassuring in her hand. Molded to her hand. An extension of her. She could hit a running man with her eyes closed, simply by the sound, the feel of him.
Hunter made her way to the edge of the large tree and peered around it. Heart and mind had entered into the super heightened, super aware state, moving and checking far faster than could normally be done. She smelled the rich rot of the forest, the thousand squirming, biting, fighting species all clawing for survival. The rough wetness under her palm. The sound of some kind of bird shrieking overhead. The pungent rot of decaying wood.
A short ways ahead, down one of the choked streets, stood a squat, stone building.
Her mind took all this in and sent back the message to go ahead. She touched a button on her wristband, alerting her companions and then she went in.
It was then that she first noticed something amiss. What, exactly, it was, she could not have said. A lack of sound, some detail pushed out of place, maybe something smelled in the air by an older, more primitive part of her mind. But Bludgeon and Squeeze were already converging on the dwelling and there was no more time for hesitation so the realization did not come fully to the front of her mind.
They were at the walls, each covering a different entrance. She knew without seeing what her partners were doing. Bludgeon was planting a small cube of blast clay around the doorknob.
A few seconds later there was a muffled blast and the back door blew in. That’s when she and Squeeze came in through the front windows, Squeeze tossing a flash in ahead of them.
There were four of them, three males and a female. The room was in disarray. Empty cups of caff littered a short table and hemps burned in the trays. Wide sheets of paper, curling in the damp, covered the table, covered with equations and machine drawings.
As Hunter and Squeeze came through the windows they looked up and started to rise, reaching for weapons. At that instant, Squeeze popped the flash. It lasted only a millisecond, as bright as a small sun. But it was enough to blind any eye anywhere in the room, no matter where the person was looking. The cadre were unaffected, the treated contact lenses they wore automatically shifting their chemical structure and filtering out the light.
The targets went to the floor, hands pressed into their eyes.
Bludgeon came in the back door, met Squeeze’s eyes and nodded. Squeeze poked his head in the small bathroom and spun back out, flashing the all clear sign.
Hunter allowed herself to relax just a fraction. It had gone perfectly, just as they’d planned. Just as they’d done dozens of times before. Now they only needed to collect what they’d come for and they could get out of here.
She stepped forward and that nagging sense of wrong suddenly turned into a full-blown shout of alarm.
One of them, stockier than the others, with streaks of red in his black fur, wasn’t clutching his eyes, wasn’t groping blindly for a weapon as they sometimes managed to do. He was reaching into his mouth, grabbing one of his teeth.
“Disperser!” Hunter yelled, even as her weapon pumped slugs uselessly into the man – knowing it was futile, he had only to squeeze the thing to activate it – and her body turned of its own accord, muscles pumping, straining for the window that was too far away. God, there wasn’t enough time!
In the corners of her awareness she was aware of her partners imitating her and she had a heartbeat to feel her goodbyes to them – hard men, but good men – and then she was through the window, already imagining the disperser’s edges touching her, dissolving every chemical bond that held her together, made her a living, physical being.
Then she was out the window – miraculous – and hitting the ground, rolling up behind the solidity of the stone wall, never so grateful for her next breath.
There was a flash, something felt more than seen or heard, and she stood, angry with the betrayal in her shaking legs. There was nothing more to be feared from inside the room. The disperser would have seen to that. But there might still be other dangers waiting for them out here in the darkness.
Hunter yanked her wristband off and ground it under her heel. Then she ran without looking back.