The safe house was looking in pretty good shape considering it had been shot to [censored] an hour or so ago. Granted the windows were gone, the carpet was covered in dust, and there were bullet holes and scorch marks all over the place, but the JTF had made it comfortable, if not homely.
Delta One had left for another mission which was a relief as it gave Punisher more time to calm down. Or to harbour a grudge. I was silently praying for the former when a cop wearing a JTF uniform came up to me.
‘Sir, I’m Paul O’Leary, your liaison. I’ll be running the mission briefings whilst making sure that you have a base to return to. We’ve retrieved all of the weapons from the drop opposite, and a rations resupply has also arrived.’
I shook his hand, he had a good grip and made eye contact that showed me he was sincere without being challenging. You get that a lot. People hear you’ve been in the army, or special forces, and they seem to think that because they weren’t they need to make up for it by being a [censored]. Never works out well.
‘Good to meet you. Vector 5 Alpha, individual callsign Beaker. If you have any missions, I’d appreciate it if you could let us have an hour’s break. We’re done in, and I don’t want my people dying because they made a stupid mistake.
He nodded. To be fair, he looked as tired as we were, but he wasn’t going out on the streets.
‘Let’s go people.’
An hour was nowhere near enough time to get the sleep I needed. It was more than enough time for every bump and bruise to get well and truly settled in. I felt like I’d been tossed into an industrial tumble dryer. From the groans the others made as they got up, they were feeling it too.
We made our way downstairs into O’Leary’s briefing room. He’d done good. There was a map showing the area of operations we’d been designated, ammunition supply crates, storage for any extra kit we didn’t need to carry, and food
Saliva flooded into my stomach at the sight of the MREs on the table. Grabbing one I didn’t even both to see what it was before I tore it open, snatched a spork up and started shovelling it into my mouth. At that moment it was the best thing I’d ever eaten.
The others dove in just as willingly and we stood in blissful silence, cramming food into our mouths. Silence. We were in an ops room and it was silent. Spork hanging before my mouth, I looked around. JTF were stood staring, open mouthed, at us. Looking at my people eating, I realised that we must have looked like neo-barbs.
‘Suck it up. We’re hungry.’ I glared at them, forcing them to look away. Embarrassed, they shuffled about then got on with their jobs.
O’Leary walked over to us, clipboard in hand and a grim expression on his face.
‘You did an excellent job on those cleaners. Feedback from the local civvies has been good. Built up a lot of support. Brought in some info as well.’ As he paused to flip over a page, I thought about the way his speech pattern had changed. Seemed like the reality of the situation was getting to everyone.
I swallowed the mouthful MRE I’d been chewing, giving up on reducing whatever it was to a more palatable state. A swig of water helped it down.
‘Well go on then, don’t leave us in suspense.’ I said.
‘We have a report that hostages have been taken by the Cleaners. That’s what we’re calling. They’re being held in this subway station’ he blipped a laser pointed onto the map behind us, ‘I need you go get them. One especially. Louise Martinez. She’s a comms engineer from around here. We need her to fix cables that have been cut.’
‘And the others?’
‘Nothing special. Just normal civvies. Here’s a profile picture from her Facebook. She’s the priority. The others are a bonus.’ He nodded and walked over to one of the many other maps and boards.
‘He’s turning into a right cold [censored],’ said Driffel, ‘ain’t no way I’m going to leave a hostage behind with those [censored].’
‘Nor me.’ The thought made my stomach turn. We were trying to save civilisation, and to me, rescuing all of the hostages was part of that.
‘If we’re going underground, we’re going to need to switch weapons,’ said Knight, unslinging her rifle, ‘I’m leaving this beauty behind.’
We followed her into the makeshift armoury. Weapons of all kinds had been gathered by the JTF, from gun shops, private homes through to supply drops.
I spotted an L86A LMG, a weapon that I was familiar with due to training and serving alongside Brit troops. It was in good condition and had been modified by its previous owner. I could tell I was going to be able to do a lot of damage with it. A G36-C caught my eye as well. It too had been modded and was in beautiful condition. With these two weapons I could put down a hail of lead. Perfect for tunnel fighting.
Driffel went with a H&K MP7, old-school but dependable and good for hostage rescue. The rounds were sub-sonic and so stopped in their target. My rounds would punch through at least two people if they were close enough. I’d be switching to pistol for any room clearance.
Knight had picked up an SASG shotgun and was busy pressing a mixed load into her magazines. Aside from buckshot, I could see Dragon’s Breath and explosive shells going in. Her backup was a Vector.
‘Looks like you and Driffel are doing the room entries,’ I said, passing her a Vector magazine.
‘Damn straight, we’re going to punch through those fucks like they’re paper.’ She gave a feral grin and high-fived Driffel.
‘Don’t cocky, especially you Driffel since you’ve proven you’re a bullet magnet.’ That wiped the grin from his face. This was going to be a tricky mission. We had no idea where the hostages were being held beyond ‘underground’. The thought of killing a hostage made my stomach churn. That or it was the MRE.
‘Well, I’ll be taking this beautiful pump-action M70, and this just-as-gorgeous AUG.’ Said Zendar, brandishing the two with a barely visible smile.
‘Fine, Driffel and Knight will be taking point. Zendar following, I’ll be fire support. I doubt that the hostages are held in any of the corridors or tunnels. They’ll be holed up in a room somewhere, which means clearing those areas shouldn’t pose too much of a risk. Be aware of any doors that are in your arc of fire. We don’t want a stray round killing the wrong target.’
‘Prisoners?’ Asked Zendar.
‘None. I don’t want to be hightailing it out of there with someone that will slow us down. Kill shots and coup de grace if you can’t get’em first time. The hostages are the be all and end all. Capiche?’
They all nodded. Briefing over, we set about making sure our kit was in order.
We double-timed it over to the subway. By the time we got there, despite the cold I was sweating like a pig. With this many clothes on us, hydration was going to be an issue any time we physically exerted ourselves.
‘Looks like we’ve still got power.’ Said Zendar, motioning towards the still-lit subway sign.
‘Thank God for small mercies,’ said Driffel, ‘I didn’t fancy being a tunnel rat. Bad enough that we’ll be trapped in tunnels, doing it in the dark would have been a nightmare.’ He shuddered theatrically, but I could tell he was trying to hide a real fear. Something that should have been on his record, but wasn’t, I thought.
I took a quick look down the stairway to the entrance of the subway. Aside from being covered in trash it looked clear.
‘Okay, you know the plan, 5 yard gap between us. Lead on.’
Driffel set off first, shotgun set to his shoulder. Carefully he moved down the stairs, stepping only where there was no trash. As the steps were made of concrete, there was little chance that someone would be able to set a pressure-plate under one of them. That wasn’t the case with the trash.
Reaching the bottom he pressed himself against the corner of the wall and took a quick peak around it.
‘Clear. No plates or trips where I stood. Moving.’ He flowed around the corner, entering the subway to take up position just inside the corridor. It was standard procedure and meant that we wouldn’t be stacked up on the steps.
Knight made her way down, Vector raised, laser pointer dancing over the opposite wall. As soon as she got to the corner she murmured ‘Go.’ A ‘roger’ from Driffel meant that he was on his way. As Zendar started to move down, Knight slipped out of sight, her and Driffel giving a running commentary as I started to follow.
Moving around the corner myself I could see that it was a dead with two entrances to the main foyer. The first was just ten yards from the corner, the other ten yards beyond that. Driffel and Knight had taken up positions on both sides of the nearest entrance.
Knight shook her head, ‘Moving.’
This time she took point, stealthily walking down the still escalator. Driffel waited a moment then started to follow down his side of the entrance. I bounded across the gap to cover Driffel as Zendar took Knight’s former position.
‘Man this is [censored] creepy. Smells like [censored] too.’ Muttered Driffel as he continued moving down, sweeping his weapon through his arc of fire.
‘Guess people have been living down here. Hence the smell,’ Knight said as she stepped off the escalator. She moved forward and took cover behind a tipped over vending machine, ‘Pulsing.’
Our lenses lit up. Just in front of Knight’s position, only twenty or so yards was a subway office. The red outlines of four targets were clear. I could see no hostages.
‘Can you push on?’ Zendar and I were halfway down the escalators, if Knight and Driffel couldn’t move on we’d be no use in a fire fight.
‘Roger that. Knight, cover me.’ Driffel moved forward out of my line of sight, ‘Knight, move.’ She too moved on.
‘Moving.’ I said and motioned to Zendar to pick up the pace. When we got to the bottom of the stairs I saw that Driffel and Knight had taken up positions by the entrance to the room where the Cleaners were. I did a quick scan of the area, noting at least two exits to the platforms at the far end of the foyer. As above in the streets, trash was everywhere.
‘Flash and clear. Zendar and I will cover from here in case anyone comes up the stairs at the far end.’
‘Okay boss man. Cover my rear.’ I could have sworn that Knight winked at me when she said that.
At Driffel’s nod, Knight cranked the door handle, pulled it open and then shut it quickly after Driffel tossed a flashbang through the gap. Cries of fear and alarm were drowned out by the grenade detonating. Knight yanked the door open, Driffel stepping through, SMG already spitting bullets. Knight was right behind him, her shotgun roaring a couple of times, the sound of the shots echoing in the marble-covered foyer.
‘Clear. All down. No hostages present.’
Shouts drifted towards us from the far end, where the foyer entered the platform area.
‘Heads up, we got company.’ I popped the bipod of my LMG out and propped it on the overturned vending machine I was behind, shifting so that the butt fit snugly into my shoulder. A Cleaner suddenly appeared, sprinting up the stairs with no thought of what he might find. He was barely halfway visible when my burst stitched its way up his chest and then punched into his face. His body dropped back out of sight as another Cleaner appeared. Another burst took him in the throat.
‘Get some.’ Zendar’s rifle opened up and I risked a quick glance to see that he was shooting at targets coming up from his platform entrance.
‘Driffel, Knight, back out of the room, take up positions on corners nearest us.’ I killed another Cleaner as I spoke. The two of them popped out and took up positions, Knight snapping off a burst, beating me to another kill.
‘Zendar, send a seeker down. I’m going to send one down mine. Driffel and Knight, when the seekers hit, move to the entrances.’
I pulled a seeker, an incendiary, primed it and then lobbed it as far as I could. It bounced to the edge of the steps, chirruped happily and rolled out of sight. The ceiling of the corridor beyond lit up as a thunderous explosion roared out of the entrances. Zendar’s mine detonated just after. Driffel and Knight were already moving, taking advantage of the disorientation that such blasts would cause in a contained area.
A Cleaner appeared, flailing at the flames wreathed all over his body. I fired a quick burst, not out of mercy, but because I didn’t want him to block my line of sight.
As soon as Knight and Driffel reached the entrances they started to pour fire down the stairs. Zendar and I were up and running even before they gave the word, pounding towards the entrances as quickly as we could. I dropped to my knees, using my pads to slide into cover behind Knight. She gave one final burst then, ‘Clear my side.’
‘Clear mine too.’
‘Guns up, move down.’ As Knight followed my order, I took her place at the corner, sighting down the long barrel of my LMG, aiming past her head at where enemies might appear. The stench of burning flesh and man-made materials was appalling. A number of bodies littered the stairs and the floor below. Due to the state of them, it was hard to be exact as to how many, but I guessed at about 10. The seekers had massacred them.
I pulsed, got a negative reading.
[censored], looks like we’re going to have to go deeper. I didn’t like the way that we were having to blindly make our way into enemy-held territory. This was improvisation of the worst kind.
It took another five minutes of careful exploration before we got another hit. The platforms had been clear, leaving us with no choice but to move into the darkened tunnels beyond. We’d pulsed all the way, and it had been getting to the point where I was beginning to think that the information O’Leary had been given was duff. Or a setup.
Just as I was about to call it, I pulsed once more and our lenses lit up. Beyond the confine of the tunnel we were in was a large chamber, possibly where trains were routed to more than one destination. I didn’t have a clue and couldn’t really care. If I’d wanted to know about that sort of thing I’d have signed up as a train driver. Targets were all over the place, with three marked as unarmed.
‘Found them. Looks like the hostages are being held in a room off the main chamber. No guards inside with them.’ Said Knight, as she then started to call out the targets in order of priority, ‘[censored], there’s a lot of flamethrowers with this lot.’
‘Can we move along the right-hand wall and set up turrets and shields there? Dominate the approach to the cell?’ asked Driffel. He had a portable shield with him. Amazing piece of technology that could morph into a ballistic wall, creating an emplacement on the fly.
‘Roger that. We’ll have to move fast. I have eye on 20 bogeys. Five close to where we need to be. Marking them on your HUDS now.’ The priorities she’d marked pulsed on our lenses. One of them was huge.
‘Good grief. That’s man’s a positive leviathan!’ Gasped Zendar. It was good to hear him slipping back into his gentlemanly mannerisms, the shock of the school bus pushed to the back of his mind. For now. ‘I’ll suggest we send out a seeker, clear the way, set them on fire, give them something to think about as we make our approach and set up.’
‘Agreed.’ It was a good plan. Using shock and awe tactics we’d be dug into a position that allowed us to dominate most of the open space, whilst keep stray fire away from the room the hostages were in. Once the numbers of the enemy were more manageable, we’d be able to effect a rescue.
‘Driffel, take point with the shield. Knight, I want turrets out as quickly as possible. A good mix. Ballistic, shock and flame please. Zendar, get an aid station out and running as soon as you’re in position. Confirm.’ They all clicked their mics in confirmation. I took a deep breath, steadied my nerves, then nodded to Zendar.
‘Balls of death on their way.’ He chuckled as he rolled two seekers towards our priority targets. They gave happy little chirrups as they acquired the targets and then bounced their way across the ground. None of their enemy seemed to know they were there. We were running even before they detonated. One sent a shower of sub-munitions into the air. With a series of firecracker-like explosions they sprayed flammable material over the nearest guards. Before they even knew they were on fire, the second mine detonated, flinging limbs and wrecked equipment everywhere.
‘Three down. That big chappy’s still up.’ Said Zendar as he opened up with his shotgun.
The Cleaner was huge. If I’d thought that the Cleaners at the school bus looked like demons, I was wrong, they were cherubs compared to this beast. Tanks of propane and napalm hung all over him, connected to the biggest flamethrower I’d ever seen.
‘He’s covered in armour!’ Spat Knight as she let out a long burst. The Cleaner staggered a little, more from the shock of being hit than from the actual force of the bullets, then gave himself a shake before turning the flamethrower onto her. Heart in mouth I watched as she dove clear, rolling into a crouch and letting rip once more. One of his tanks suddenly spouted flames, the explosion sending shrapnel flying, throwing the Cleaner forward.
It was then that something slammed into my chest armour. Knocked off my feet, I slammed down onto a rail, smashing my coccyx, sending sharp waves of pain up my back. Looking up I realised that the other Cleaner had charged forward, hitting me with an improvised shield. Less improvised was the axe he was about to bury in my skull. I rolled, grunting at the pain from my injured back, flinching as the axe struck sparks from the rail.
I kept rolling, dropping my LMG and drawing my pistol. I laid my laser onto his knee and blew it off. Screaming he dropped to the other knee, shield falling away. His protection gone, he had no way of stopping the next two shots to his chest, followed by one to the face.
‘Come on bossman! Quit laying down on the job!’ Driffel was already in place, mobile cover up and turrets pouring a mixture of lead and fire at the enemy. The colossus had pulled back somewhat, his mask making his bellowed orders sound like the roars of a beast. My back was agony, tears springing from my eyes as I bet to retrieve my LMG. Hobbling as fast as I could towards our firebase, I flinched as bullets cracked past my head.
‘Station up! Get in boss, get in.’ Zendar grabbed a handle on my backpack and hauled me into the med-station’s proximity. The pain from my back was immediately dulled as stims and painkillers were blasted into my system.
‘Six down. Fourteen to go.’ Knight sounded as though she was out for a Sunday stroll.
‘Sticky!’ Driffel let loose with his launcher. His aim was perfect, the man was a genius with that weapon. Limbs were blasted from their owners, one body flying a good ten feet before smashing into a stationary train. Others lay wounded, screaming for help, for their mothers.
‘Leave the wounded for now. Get that big [censored]!’
Driffel was busy loading his launcher again. They were great weapons, but the design of the loading mechanism meant that it took far longer than it should have to get back into action. He pounded the weapon in frustration as he fumbled the heavy shell into the chamber.
‘Relax, Driffel. Less haste, more speed.’ I ducked as enemy fire thumped into the barrier, ricochets whining away down the tunnel. It was so heavy I couldn’t take proper aim, so propped my weapon on the top and just sprayed away, emptying a full magazine at the enemy.
‘Grenade! Move!’ I didn’t have time think. As soon as Zendar shouted his warning my reflexes were kicking in. I dove towards a junction box, tucking into a roll and covering my head. The blast was deafening, the shockwave punching into me. My ear hurt as Knight yelped in pain over the comm.
‘On the way!’ Driffel’s sticky bomb launcher coughed and the sound of another explosion filled the chamber. The noise was literally deafening. My ears were ringing from the bark of Kalashnikovs, the roar of explosions and the screams of the wounded.
‘I’ve been hit, dammit, I’ve been hit!’ Knight sound more angry than in pain.
I looked over, she was lying on her front, just behind the battered-looking mobile cover, blood oozing from a gaping hole in her [censored]. I couldn’t help it. A laugh barked its way out of me, ‘Of all the places to get hit, you get it in the butt!’
‘With all respect, sir. [censored]. You.’ She gasped. Zendar was already by her side, popping out another station, making sure that any shrapnel was out of the wound and controlling the bleeding.
I risked a look from behind my cover. It seemed that the enemy weren’t aware of my position as I’d rolled a good 5 yards away from the rest of my team. I edged around the side of the box furthest away from them. A pile of sleepers a few yards away offered a good flanking position.
‘I’m going to move to those sleepers. Flashbang out. Cover.’ I pulled the pin from the flashbang and lobbed it towards the enemy. With a thunderous boom and blinding flash it detonated. In a trice I was up and running, using the confusion caused by the flashbang to get into position safely.
The enemy continued to pour fire onto my team. Three of Knight’s turrets nothing more than shredded metal and smoking electronics. Crawling carefully to the top of the sleeper pile I slowly edged the barrel of my LMG over. Pulsing I highlighted the enemy close to me, guesstimating their position in relation to my weapon. Three were tucked behind a roof support’s concrete plinth, taking turns to pop up and down as they fired at my team. I switched magazines, slipping a magazine filled with explosive rounds into it.
‘Boomshots. As soon as I open fire, I’m going to track onto Colossus. Should knock him out of cover. All fire on him until he’s down. Confirm.’ My earpiece clicked, the team too busy to talk. I took a deep breath, slowly started to release it, then held it and squeezed the trigger.
The Cleaners didn’t stand a chance. My first round blew the nearest man’s arm off. The second blasted through his ribcage sending his charred organs over his comrades. Even as they reacted his shattered body was falling out of the way, clearing the following bullets’ path. One struck the tank on the next Cleaner’s back. One second he was there, the next there was nothing but the remains of a leg sticking up out of boot, the explosion killing his remaining friend.
I switched targets and poured the rest of my magazine, over 50 rounds, onto Colossus’ position, showering him with shrapnel and shards of concrete. The concussive storm forced him away from his rapidly deteriorating cover and into the open. I kept firing, bullet after bullet blasting into his improvised armour. I couldn’t believe the punishment he was taking. Tracer from my team zipped into him, the weight of fire pushing him back, preventing him from using that God-awful flamethrower. Finally, with a blinding explosion his main tank exploded, his upper torso vapourising. What was left of him crumpled to the ground.
The fight went out of the rest of the Cleaners, a number of them throwing out their weapons and standing with their hands raised. We cut them down, advancing towards them, shooting those that tried to run in the back, moving them down mercilessly. It was over in seconds.
On unsteady legs, sweat stinging my eyes, I knocked on the door that the hostages were in.
‘Strategic Homeland Division. We’re here to take you home.’