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RavingArmy
05-20-2019, 12:32 PM
Prologue

Roger Wanderley grinned as the cheers erupted in the Base of Operations as he and the other Division agents made their way through the UV lights and into the foyer. It was hard not to feel the elation of the people who'd just learned of the demise of Charles Bliss and the effective end of the Last Man Battalion. Things weren't going back to the way they were, but the groundwork for a new beginning had been finally established. Even the base's resident misanthrope, Paul Rhodes, couldn't deny the eventual effect of the LMB's defeat on the morale of the JTF personnel and the civilians staying in the shelter. Well, he might, Wanderley thought, his grin briefly taking on a wintry cast. That man would complain about being hanged with a golden rope.

He approached Faye Lau and braced briefly to attention. "Welcome back, agent," she said, smiling back at him. "Good work at the UN. With Bliss out of the picture, we're in good shape. Certainly better than when we first got here." Her left hand unconsciously came up, touching the dressing still wrapped around her head.

"At this rate, we might all be home by next Christmas," Wanderley quipped.

"It'd be good to go home. But this," said Lau, looking over at the Christmas tree set up in the shelter area, seeing New Yorkers enjoying each other's company despite the dire circumstances which brought them there, "this isn't too bad."

"Where's Lobo?"

"Ryckmen? He and Urquidez are back in the armory."

Wanderley blinked in surprise. "What're they doing back there? There a fight brewing I don't know about?"

"You'll have to ask them. But step lightly. He looked a little focused."

"Like how focused?" Wanderley's weeks with Ryckmen thus far had given him a much more nuanced appreciation for the word since first dropping on to Manhattan.

"Thousand yard stare focused."

Wanderley shuddered. He'd seen the results of Ryckmen's thousand yard focus. It was too messy to be considered clinical and too neat to be considered butchery. "Consider me warned." Wanderley left Lau, stopping briefly to receive Roy Benitez's congratulations in person, then continued into the armory. As he approached, he heard the distinctive clicking of ammunition being fed into magazines and the muffled rattling of grenades as they shifted in their cases.

Lowell Ryckmen sat on the edge of a heavy duty workbench as he pushed 7.62 NATO rounds into a box magazine, four of them already filled and lined up next to each other. Ryckmen's swarthy, windburned complexion and craggy features gave no indication of his mood. But the metronome steadiness of his fingers and the flat light in his eyes told Wanderley that Ryckmen was more than just angry. Wanderley wasn't sure he'd ever seen Ryckmen so elementally enraged. He felt his mouth going a little dry, hoping that Ryckmen wasn't angry at him. "Missed the fireworks, Lobo," he said quietly. "It was like a shooting gallery in there. You would have had fun."

"I could drill LMB skulls with ballistic tip boat tails every day for a year, and it would never start being fun," Ryckmen growled softly, not even glancing at Wanderley. He looked over at the woman sorting through the grenades. "Lena, can you pull a couple of flashbangs and some frags for me?"

"How many frags, do you think?" Urquidez asked, her faint Puerto Rican accent oddly musical in contrast to Ryckmen's flat Midwestern tone.

"Four, I'd say. If somebody can't take the hint after four of those, I'm clearly doing something wrong." He looked up at Wanderley. "I expected you'd be basking in the glow of your adoring public, Wonder Boy." The acid tone Wanderley couldn't ever seem to escape when he talked with Ryckmen seemed extra-concentrated now. "What? No head left to mount on the wall of the den?"

"Black Hawk crashes don't always leave a lot to pick up," Wanderley replied with studied dryness. "Plus, it seems the good colonel accidentally caught a 20mm round near the top of his sternum. Probably one of the last volleys before the bird crashed. No great loss, really. I got the photo confirming he's dead."

"Bully for you." Ryckmen continued to load magazines with monomaniacal focus.

"What's eating you, Lobo? This is the best day anybody has had since Black Friday. The Rikers are being rolled up, the Cleaners are pretty much gone, and the LMB just lost their boss. At this point, it's all over but the mop-up. We won."

"The hell we did," Ryckmen said flatly. "The job's not over yet. There's still loose ends to tie off."

Wanderley cocked his head to one side, scrutinizing Ryckmen closely. There was something about the marksman's hostility which felt off. Before, it had been the natural and understandable hostility of a master being dictated to by a tyro. Now, there was something else to it. "What happened to you today? I know you said you had something to check out, but that was right before I hit the UN Building, so I didn't figure it was going to be too much trouble."

"You're not wrong. It wasn't any trouble at all." A furious scowl crossed Ryckmen's face. "Fact is, I might have news better than yours. Lena and I found Gordon Amherst."

Feeling his eyebrows going back beyond his hairline, Wanderley looked right into Ryckmen's eyes. "You really found him?" he said breathlessly.

"Yeah. It's kind of a good news and bad news situation. The good news being that we found him. Bad news is he's dead."

"Did you kill him?"

Ryckmen shook his head. "No. He checked out on his own. Seems he didn't heed the old advice of 'physician, heal thyself.' Or maybe he just didn't give a ****." Ryckmen paused for a moment as he turned to Urquidez, taking the grenades from her and clipping them to his load bearing gear. "Gracias, Lena." He turned back to Wanderley. "Looks like he must have been exposed to the Dollar Flu. Guessing he didn't come up with an immunization protocol." The marksman closed his eyes and shuddered a little bit. "Son of a ***** left an epitaph. ISAC has it stored on my rig. I can cross-load it over to you, if you like. Personally, though, I figure if a man's last words to the world are, 'I'll see you in Hell,' he kinda figures there's going to be an appointment on the books somewhere later."

"Tell him the rest, Lowell. He needs to know," said Urquidez. Her alto voice was usually low and sweet, but this time there was an iron tang to it.

"What else did you find there?"

Ryckmen's expression dropped into a deep frown. "ISAC notified us about a signal coming from a SHD watch. We couldn't get a complete read on its serial number. But what we had seemed to match one issued to a second wave Division agent. They went missing on a probe into the Dark Zone about a week or so back. It seemed to be coming from an apartment above a bodega. Magdalena and I went inside, found Amherst's little home lab and his corpse, and we found the watch. Along with an ECHO."

"What was it about?"

"Follow me," Ryckmen said, getting up from the bench and heading towards one of the loading docks. "I saved a copy of it locally. It's from our former compatriot, Aaron Keener."

"Keener? How does he tie into Amherst?"

"Watch and learn, Wonder Boy." Ryckmen fiddled with his own watch for a moment, then stood stock still as the ECHO replayed for Wanderley. When it was over, he took a certain grim satisfaction from Wanderley's shocked expression.

"He's completely insane," murmured Wanderley.

"No, he's not. And that's the scary part." Ryckmen looked right into Wanderley's eyes, the thousand yard stare feeling as icy as the streets outside. "He is completely rational. He doesn't sound like some deranged lunatic. He doesn't even sound like Ferro or Barrett. I hate to say it, but he sounds like a far more grounded version of Bliss. And that scares the hell out of me. You're familiar with the acronym MICE, correct?" Wanderley shook his head and Ryckmen snorted. "Christ, how did you ever get off the Ranch? MICE stands for the four reasons a man will betray his country. Money, that one's easy to parse, pretty much what Bliss was after. After all, if you're a mercenary, you need to get paid one way or the other. Ideology, arguably what Larae Barrett built the Rikers around. I personally don't think she entirely believed it, but she hummed the tune well enough to fake it. Conscience, which in a very perverse sort of way was what moved Joe Ferro. He said, 'this cannot stand, this cannot be allowed to continue,' and he went about fighting it the only way his very limited intellect could come up with. And then we have ego, a sense of personal aggrievement disproportionate to the injury involved, and the single quality which you and Keener have in common." Wanderley twitched and flushed deeply at the barb, but said nothing. "To your credit, you haven't betrayed the country yet, so that's a plus. I won't pretend Keener and other guys in the First Wave didn't get screwed over, and I'd be the first person to agree that they have every reason in the world to be as furious as humanly possible. But that fury does not excuse their actions.

"You want to be mad at the JTF for walling off the Dark Zone? Fine. You want to be mad at the suits back in D.C. who sat on their asses, sent good men and women off to die, and piously washed their hands of the matter at the first sign of trouble? Go right ahead. I'll be grousing right next to you, brother. But you don't kill the people who got called in after the first screw-up. You don't torture and murder the people you are sworn to fight and die beside just because you got crapped on first. And for damned sure, you don't take the Devil's own cookbook and decide to start coming up with increasingly inventive ways to murder the human race. Which, if you haven't noticed, has already been pretty brutally pruned back over the last month or so."

Wanderley shook his head vigorously. "He doesn't have the means to do that, even if he has the notes and Tchernenko. And he's got no way off this island. We'll find him soon enough."

"Were you not paying attention, you stupid *****?!" roared Ryckmen, eyes blazing now, a ruddy color starting to underlay his weathered skin. "Even if he couldn't leave, he has the means! I'm morally certain Keener found that lab before we ever showed up here, which means he's had around a month's head start on whatever plan he's got in mind. This little catch-me-if-you-can message is fairly recent, but not recent enough to make me feel like I'm hot on his heels. He's in the wind, and that's bad news for everybody. Picture an airborne virus, tailor made to survive high levels of UV exposure, and tossed into the upper atmosphere. Wouldn't need anything fancier than a party balloon and a helium tank for that. The jet stream would do all the work. Or maybe he creates one suited for a water vector. Dump some into the East River, make sure it doesn't actually sicken any fish or crustaceans, but use them as carriers, and we're all kinds of screwed. And don't get me started on the explosive population growth we've seen in rats and pigeons. Cats and dogs are likely to be spayed or neutered, but I have no doubt Keener would use rat carriers if only for the poetry of it all!" Ryckmen closed his eyes, his fists clenched tightly, as he took deep heaving breaths. When he opened his eyes, the fury was still there, but it was once again firmly leashed. "It's like Kandel said. We can't survive this again. And there is only one way to stop it."

"So what do you propose to do?"

"I aim to hunt down Aaron Keener, put a bullet clean through his head, burn Amherst's notes until they're very fine ash, and certify he hasn't used Stockholm Syndrome to turn Vitaly Tchernenko to his cause. Until that is done, I cannot in good conscience state the island of Manhattan has been completely secured. And I will not endorse any such statement to that effect. You will not hang up a 'Mission Accomplished!' banner today, Wonder Boy," said Ryckmen coldly. "Not if you expect to wake up tomorrow morning still breathing."

Wanderley felt his own eyes lock on Ryckmen's, seeing the adamantine purpose in the marksman's expression. It had been Urquidez who'd taken to calling Ryckmen 'Lobo' because he was the quintessential wolf: all teeth and claws, dedicated to his pack, and suicidally brave in his efforts to protect his packmates. Surly, snarly, and apt to close his jaws around your throat if you stepped out of line. A line from Kipling came to Wanderley. "For the strength of the wolf is the pack, and the strength of the pack is the wolf." He twitched a little as he realized how desperately the base would miss Ryckmen, and how badly it needed him to succeed in his efforts. "Where will you start?"

"Thinking the Dark Zone. It's not quite as bad as it used to be, but it's still plenty ugly, and I figure Keener's just arrogant enough to leave breadcrumbs for people to follow. But I'm thinking he's either already off the island or he's getting pieces in place to get off. Where he goes from there, I don't know. But I will not stop. I'll chase him around Long Island Sound, around the Eastern Seaboard, around the Gulf of Mexico, and around Perdition's flames before I give him up."

"Alone?"

"Not alone," said Urquidez quietly. "I'm going with him. The buddy system's worked out pretty well for us so far. And he needs somebody meaner than he is to keep him safe." Wanderley nodded in acknowledgment more than agreement. Around the Base of Operations, nobody had the guts or the balls to use Urquidez's nickname to her face. She probably wouldn't snap shoot the agent dumb enough to call her 'Cascabel' on an open channel. But if the mood struck her, the viper-like reflexes which had suggested the name would ensure the warning rattle would be very brief.

The three of them went back to the armory, Ryckmen and Urquidez loading up their gear with care, then performing final checks on their weapons. Wanderley had always been tremendously jealous of Ryckmen's Urban MDR rifle, but even he had to admit there was nobody around the base who could have used it so effectively. It had been dumb luck Ryckmen had found it, and he treated it with a level of care which showed his deep affection for the weapon. Concert violinists had their Stradivarius violins, Ryckmen had his MDR, and both were peerless in their fields.

Once Ryckmen holstered his sidearm, Wanderley stepped up and extended his right hand. "I don't know when I'll see you again, Lowell. Until I do, Godspeed and good hunting."

"Thank you, Roger," said Ryckmen with unusual sincerity as he shook Wanderley's hand firmly. "With any luck at all, Lena and I will have him tagged and bagged before spring. But we won't be coming back here till we have him."

"Little extreme, isn't it?"

"Extremis malis, extremis remedia," Urquidez chimed in. "I think it's time we showed Keener just how desperate we've gotten. And make sure he lives just long enough to regret having pushed us to that point." She glanced over at Ryckmen. "Let's get moving. I want to make it at least to the Bravo checkpoint before dark."

"Sounds good." Ryckmen reached back, checking to make sure the Model 700 was firmly secured, then walked out towards the front door with Urquidez. Wanderley watched them pass through the UV lights and out into freshly falling snow before disappearing down the street.

Lau came up behind Wanderley, looking past him at the backs of the two agents. "Where are those two heading off to?"

"They're going out to find Aaron Keener and kill him."

"By themselves?" asked Lau in a painfully neutral tone.

"Yeah, by themselves."

Lau shook her head, her good eye closing briefly in dismay. "He'll never let them get close enough to kill him."

"I wouldn't put any money down on that notion, Faye," Wanderley said with a crooked smile on his face. "They may not kill him. Hell, they may not ever get close enough to actually see him. But they're sure going to make him sweat trying to stay ahead of them."

er1cksson
05-20-2019, 01:51 PM
Good job! Very well written indeed. Nice to see someone else doing some writing!

UbiSc0ttie
05-22-2019, 09:48 PM
This was a good read! Keep up the great work @RavingArmy! :cool:

- Scottie