"Gama-Six arreear secured. No hostages orr enemmies soffar," a voice with a stark slavic accent buzzed over the intercom. "Milan ofer."
Kenneth noticed a field in the head-up display of his helmet turning orange. It wasn't of high interest to him, his primary concern belonged to the steps under his feet. Wet, slimy and no handrail or anything else which could have given him some support. Needless to say, just a single peek at the helmet display and he stumbled and continued his trip to the bottom end of the staircase on his rear. Along the clanging, a muffled curse echoed through the tunnel.
"Kenneth here, reached area Tango-Two, confirm."
There was no reaction. At least the squad leader should have confirmed the position report.
"Oh great, no radio down here", he commented aloud on the warning display in his view. Should he go back up the stairs to report again?
'Nah', his aching back decided for him. But the other direction wasn't anything more inviting. The water at his boots stood ankle-deep in the old cable tunnel and the flashlight on his helmet shed its beam only onto a much deeper flooded section. With a sigh he started to wade through the mud.
Milan hadn't hit the jackpot either. Obviously, driving an 1.5-ton exos inside some narrow tunnel wasn't possible so he had to hurl the thing and himself over the rooftops. At least the KHALES was designed specificly for that purpose, he shot the grappling hook over the next ridge. The thing got stucked as intended so he could let it pull the wide belt of the actual conveyor after it. As it secured itself on the ridge, he started the lifter drive and his exos slowly moved upwards.
The sun stood high over the boondocks and Milan sure had admired the beautiful sight over the blossoming treetops if he hadn't been at work. Right on display on a building wall, the KHALES was an eye-catcher, too. A matter of fact, snipers had a quite different taste for beautiful scenery.
Inside the KHALES, and still moving upwards, he had a comfortable journey -- if you call an all-in-one suit which squeezes your arms and legs into tight tubes comfortable. After all it was better than doing any work in the Landmates he used years ago on his first job as a farm worker. No twitching, climate control, he could easily concentrate on the monitors that filled his view with an augmented reality display of the surroundings.
The snipers did it on their leisure it seemed, as the image processor of the exos noticed no unusual activity in the trees or the other surroundings. Milan wasn't relieved; this could only mean the bastards were hiding somewhere else.
The small puddle was packed to the gunwales with extinguished cigarette butts. A veiny hand added another one and the man it belonged to pleasantly exhaled a last nicotine breath into the half-light of the room. The window gave him a good view over the square and the roofs vis-a-vis. He had secured his own position half an hour ago, the roof above him wasn't reachable and the staircase booby-trapped.
They would come. He could wait.
In the lower bowels of the area, Kenneth continued his wading, passing endless line-ups of graffiti. Mostly the tag-trash noone would take notice of, especially not down here, but some pictures were quity arty. At a stairwell someone sprayed a colorful three-metre lighthouse on the wall, with a big arrow pointing upwards.
"Landmark guideposts -- this place has everything," he smirked, "must bring the family next time."
Maybe Ken wondered a moment too long; a few bends later he tripped over a cable which sagged from its tray to the flooded ground. However, in contrary to the slump down the staircase, his exos had the chance for a countermeasure this time: in a reflex action, the suit forced his other foot to skip and do a scissors jump. In result, it prevented him from falling straight into the murky brew.
Such reflex actions were a main feature of the AURES light exos but Kenneth wasn't used to it at all. He would have felt better if he have had decided doing that maneuver on his own, at least his rapid panting suggested it. Of course, reflexes don't work that way and he realized that immediately. The suit had done a good job.
Still no radio. He wondered where he was, the AURES gave him an estimation. Adding step lengths and turning angles was another useful feature of the suit, the mapper even detected points of interest by scanning the camera stream and voice commands. "OW, SHIT" seemed to be such a command, at least an unhappy face marked the end of the entry staircase on the map. Or maybe it was just estimating Ken's butt hurt from the drops?
To his relief, the wastewater voyage would end soon. He'd strolled about 600 metres away from Tango-Two and any coming exit should lead him right into the conflict zone.
Jean was still fumbling with his own exos. Similar to the AURES, the JARES was a light suit, an older model with some features missing but Jean didn't care anyway. To him, the additional protection the suit provided was the key feature. It could lift its own weight of about 120 kilograms, mainly caused by the armor plates and it had the reflex actions, too. The matching helmet wasn't as sophisticated as the AURES one - no mapping, no voice commands, just plain-old intercom. Thomas even had to add the ops documentation camera to the exos himself.
The suit finally met Jean's snugness requirements and he began to concentrate on his weapons again. The rifle was equipped and on its post, his handgun on the waist, unlocked. Smoke bombs and mace were laid out.
The dance could start any minute now. He was prepared.
Milan was the first one under fire. Just as he climbed on top of a building, a gunman had spotted him. Good luck, all the shots missed and he could seek for cover behind a big heat exchanger. Bad luck, the shooting had spoiled all his chances to sneak into the target building.
So fast the shooting had begun as fast it ended. His opponent obviously didn't like to be a target himself, and he was completely right on this. The KHALES not only offered excellent passive protection through a tight package of thick armour plates, it's impressive physique would have allowed to carry even both a heavy machine gun and a rocket launcher array with it. Not that ESWAT employ such weapons. But the clearly visible 12.7mm bullpup rifle and 40mm grenande launcher on it's waist sounded a loud enough note of warning.
After some seconds of securing his position against further attacks from below, Milan realized there wasn't any time to lose to enter the building. On the plus side, with the element of surprise eliminated, it was becoming less important which way to go.
He was pretty sure the door of the staircase hut wasn't locked, but considering potential booby-traps, he carefully attached the grapple to the door's handle and let the KHALES open it from safe distance. The steel rope strained and after a few seconds, the latch broke and the door swung open. No explosion. Either these terrorists were quite harmless or outright over-confident. Milan squeezed the KHALES through the door and down the stairs.
The cigarette man sure was aware of what was going on, he didn't even twitch on the noise from the nearby roof. Instead, he concentrated on the other cop who had entered the square below him a moment ago. He wasn't in a hurry, the guy down there hadn't noticed his presence yet. Still, the cop was clever enough not to lower his guard, used the trees and arcardes as a cover by every trick in the book. But even this wasn't important to the cigarette man, he concentrated on the path he'd left free for the cops when he constructed the scene. A single path where he had a clear line of fire, barely identifiable as such from the ground.
Three bangs and Kenneth was hit. He hadn't see it coming, and his exos hadn't either. At least the AURES immediately reacted to the kicks from the bullets and made him jump back to the wall, into a much safer position.
"AWW, SHIT." The next curse just for the mapper. He checked the diagnosis screen for a report on the actual damage. The AURES, again, had done a good job protecting him, even extrapolated to high-velocity ammunition this should have caused him only some bruised rips. The simunition his colleague used did no real damage even to the suit. Apart from the camouflage, of course.
Either way, the hurt from the shots was very real and he had to recover for a while. This play wasn't over yet.
Briareos was supervising the scene from a lookout stand when he noticed Deunan's bike arriving on the site. Without saying a word, she rushed into the small office shack. Not unusual for her not to interfere with his work, but he'd thought he'd better look, just in case. "Bri speaking, I'm off for a few minutes, carry on." His colleagues acknowledged one-by-one while he was climbing down the narrow staircase.
In the shack, Deunan was busy changing clothes. "Ah, Bri, you have to read this. NO, wait a second, I read it to you."
"For better effect?" he asked, "I'm marveling at unbeatable ones right now. What could be better?"
"Charmer!" she peeled herself out of the leathers and grabbed for a paper she'd plunked on her desk a minute ago.
She addressed him straight: "Bri, you have to hear this. I got a letter from the city council, they finally realized we're undermanned." she nervously wagged the sheet.
"Yeah, so what? That's good news isn't it?" Briareos wondered about her discomposure.
"Okay, I read it to you. Unbelievable!" she continued huffishly. 'Mrs. Knute, the city council of Olympus is strongly concerned about the limited work capability of ESWAT you've reported RECENTLY.'
"Haha, you're doing this for years now," Briareos snickered.
"From the first day on the job, yes... but let me continue," she read further 'To maintain the safety of our citizens against crimes, a strong police force is irreplaceable, Blah blah blah...'
"Really?" he asked with an unbelieving tone.
Deunan sticked her tongue out at him. At least she was smiling for a moment, then she reached the blowoff: '...we advised Metro Police chief Donner to lend any EXPENDABLE PERSONNEL to your department until the current budget shortage situation has been solved. Sincerely, Blah.'
"Ugh," was the only comment of the squad leader.
"Yeah, ick!" Deunan groused in perfect consent, "but the best is yet to come. That asshole Donner had already given me a file of all the people he can 'expend'."
Briareos pointed at the thin folder Deunan had on her desk. "These?" he asked with curiosity.
Deunan took the folder and held it over her head like a trophy.
"THIS ONE! -- ONE * SINGLE * PERSON!" She was really upset.
"Good afternoon!" a small blonde woman in Metro Police outfit greeted from the office door. "My name's Irina Volkow, I was told to report here."
.---------------------------------------- | Uh, oh, that's me introducing myself! `----- / How do we handle this best? Hmm, for the time being, I think I rather stick to the omniscient storyteller position. Because I ... I have another big problem. Remember Neigher? He made it into "Guns&Ammo" -with an imaginary story about Ayako and me-. He even got his hands on the posing photos we did last November for Ken and Jean. Scumbags! What do I do? The chief is an eager reader of the mag, she would definetely miss the hunk in the centerfold. Hngh!! Squad leader, I need a really old issue of "Guns&Ammo" from you! One with a guy still guarding it from the middle of the booklet.
Still holding the document over her head, and still in underwear, Deunan coyly greeted back. "Hi," she snickered.
Briareos turned around to give their guest a more proper welcome but the small blonde was feeling uneasy already.
"Hiiiii...," she spluttered.
Deunan put away the file and approached her quickly: "Good afternoon, I'm Deunan Knute. How may I help you?" she tried to circle around this awkward situation.
The woman was still bewildered by her interviewer's most casual wardrobe. "I ... I'd like to apply for the job opening. Gianna ... Sergeant Vicari sent me here. I mean, sorry, I should have waited for an official invitation, Chief Knute" the woman explained.
"Oh, you know Gianna?" Deunan wondered and offered her a seat. And yes, a notice in advance would had been nice.
The woman made herself comfortable on the stool, if this was possible at all. "Yes, her son is in the same school as my daughter. We often meet on the street, too." -- "And at work, of course." she hastily added.
"So I bet this is your portfolio," Deunan grabbed for the file again and skimmed through it. "...born 2113, so you are... 38 years old, ... married, two kids ... you've worked for Metro Police for about half a year now ... office duty ... translation service ...okayyyy," she scratched her head and turned to her guest -- "but Gianna told you what we are doing here at ESWAT, yes?"
"I've worked for the Energy Ministry of Russia before, but my qualifications haven't been approved by the Olympus authorities yet, so they aren't in the files," the small blonde countered self-confidently.
"OH!" Deunan's face lit up in an instant. "Which profession?"
"Mostly interpreting," she answered but hurried to add, "but I was trained as a bodyguard, too. All interpreters at the Ministry have been." Realizing the last sentence did not back up her position she nervously bit her lip.
"And your last job wasn't meeting your expectations?" Deunan poked.
"No, no, my husband has got a job offer at the University of Olympus and we have followed him. Me and our children," Irina replied.
"Why the police force, then?" Deunan insisted, "I mean, it's easier to find a job in business, skip the paperwork and you're in, right?"
"Well, I... I've wanted to join the police force in Russia, but they're not very open for women, ... and I'm too short..." the small blonde reluctantly confessed, "so I ended up studying languages. Made a living from my other passion."
Deunan wondered a bit about her vis-a-vis 'being too short'. She was at least 1.7 metres tall. They have to grow girls on the beanstalk over there if they decline such a candidate. She skimmed through the file again. Finally putting aside the folder, she addressed her visitor with a straight look: "How's your markmanship?"
"I... I don't know... Haven't shot for a while... ," Irina hesitated to give an answer.
"I think the chief likes to have samples of your qualifications," Bri barged in, "by the way, I'm Briareos, ESWAT instructor and your future squad leader," he invited the woman to shake hands. She hesitated a moment to lay her hand into the metallic paw of the cyborg cop but when she finally did, his squeeze was firm but soft.
Behind her back, Deunan shook her head emphatically, Bri couldn't have missed.
'KRSHHH, KRSHHH' -- The small blonde wondered about the noises from the cyborg's head, but for Deunan, it was an easy guess -- Bri tried to blink again, which the servos of his eyes still didn't support. The message was more or less clear -- 'let's see what happens'.
"I go and prepare our guest. See you in a minute," he gave Deunan some time to dress properly. She could not say anything against it in front of the visitor anyway.
Bri unlocked the heavy steel door to the shooting range and guided his guest inside. Though the sound of the bangs was greatly muffled, it was obvious someone was practising right now.
The small blonde was taking a broad view of the room when Briareos interrupted. "So which kind of gun you have been trained with? Jakov-P89?"
"Yes! How did you know?" she wondered.
"A lucky guess. I was at the KGB before the wars," he replied, "so still good'ol P89, who could have guessed?"
"Ah, I'm in your good books because I'm Russian, understood," she smiled seductively, "that's why you outvoted your chief."
"Oh, you've noticed?" Briareos was surprised by her intuition, "But not at all," he made a dramatic pause, "It's simply I can do the math. If you'd worked for the Energy Ministry, you'd been in the best 10% of your class -- AND in the best 10% in all the additional training after that. That makes you our jackpot."
"Oh, thank you. You are very kind," the blonde snickered.
"Which languages do you speak?" Bri asked bluntly.
"Oh, besides Russian, Belorussian, Ukrainian, Polish, some Czech and a little Serbo-Crotian, some Italian, Spanish and French, German," she answered enthusiastically, "..."
"...and English of course," Bri concluded the list prematurely, "see what I mean? But they hadn't taken you for the Energy Ministry if you hadn't excelled on the bodyguard training, too."
"Okayyyyyy," she touched her glasses, visibly ashamed by all the praise.
"Back to topic," Bri gave her a weapon he took from his cabinet, "that's my old Jakov and here we have the rounds."
"Shouldn't we wait for the chief?" she asked.
"Nah, it's better when she only sees your best shots. But wait, safety first!" Bri stopped.
"Okay, safety goggles, earplugs, earmuffs," the small blonde answered and he pulled the stuff from a shelf.
"I guess you don't need it?" she looked at the cyborg while she was putting the gear on.
"Yeah, that's why I always forget it. I just set my microphones to lower noise reduction so the volume won't swivel after each shot", he answered, "no further safety kit neccessary."
The two entered the main room of the shooting range and Irina took the chance to sneak a peek on the cop on the other side of the range. He was still practising. Fully armored and helmet put on, he took his gun from the holster, made a step forward, aimed and shot. And hit. All in two seconds. Wow!
Something was wrong with the picture, but the squad leader interrupted her thoughts. "Irina?"
"Yeah?" she turned to him.
"Oh, may I call you Irina? We are very informal here. Team-building, such things," Bri added nervously.
"Sure," Irina smiled at him. It was funny how the tall cyborg hawed. "So I'm in?" she asked coyly. On purpose, of course.
"Not yet, you should do some shots! To warm up for the chief."
"Okay," she concentrated on the cartridge, filled it with rounds and put the loaded thing into the pistol. She put the earmuffs on, worked the slide and unlocked the safety switch -- the pistol was ready. She was ready.
Bri had put a target sheet on the conveyor in the meantime. "25 metres? Or should we start with less than that?" Bri asked loudly.
"No, 25 metres is okay. I had fairly good results over 50 metres, too," she put her left hand on her thigh, raised the gun with the right, focused on its sights, and slowly pressed the trigger. Eventually the shot fired. And hit.
"Right from the instruction book. Good, go on!" Bri commented.
She adjusted her sight and did some more shots, each one with the same procedure. Finally, Bri let the target sheet return to the firing point and examined the result.
"One o'clock," he subsumed the hit distribution and gave the sheet to her.
"So my wrist is too loose on the shot?" she asked.
"Yes, most likely. If you know the problem, why don't you handle it correctly?" he commented. "By the way, I'm impressed. I had to recall these basics into anyone else's mind, you just happen to remember them. Now take advantage of your knowledge." He'd put another sheet on the conveyor and stopped it at 50 metres.
The other cop ended his shooting practise and approached Irina while she was loading the cartridge with another set of rounds.
"That's fairly good," he looked at her sheet. Wait, he? That was a female voice!
Irina turned from the small table to the cop. A young woman, she had pulled the helmet off her head, smiled at her.
"I'm Ayako," she put her hand forth for a shakehands, "wanna join our team?"
"Actually, yes!" Irina cheerfully replied, "I'm Irina, nice to meet you!" and reached out for a greeting with the other woman.
The grab was firm. Too firm not to notice the hard rods under the leather of her glove. Irina sought for eye contact.
"Are you ... ," she faltered, " ... sorry, I just thought your handshake is firm as steel."
"Cannot deny it," Ayako came back and stripped the glove from her right hand, "another one?"
Irina fluttered between the smile of the lovely young woman and the rubber-coated metallic fingers she had aligned for another greeting.
"Oh my ...," she hesitated a moment but then responded to the gesture of respect, "are you ... are you all ... cyborgs?" She felt surreal. What did she signed up for?
"What if I say yes?" Ayako tried to bait her. But noticing the sheer terror in the face of her coworker to be she quickly -and cheerfully- added "No, no, it's just the squad leader and me."
"We're not that extra special," said squad leader chimed in, "though I have to admit cyborgs have some advantage doing ESWAT work. But you can do it in our standard armor and with our standard vehicles and tools, don't worry."
"Yeah, and for sneaking it's impractical to be that heavy. No chance not to stomp around," Ayako added, "I cannot undress my armor."
As if to demonstrate it, the chief had sneaked up into the doorframe.
"So, time for a chitchat?" she asked, "Ayako, are you done with your shooting? How are your results?"
"I'm done, ma'am," she answered obediently and showed the sheets.
"Impressive," Briareos commented, "I never shot this precise."
"Good, really good," Deunan flared up, "makes it easier for me to pardon your latest lapse."
"Uh, what did I do wrong, chief?" Ayako coyly asked. Irina was taken aback how that terrifying machine woman knuckled under the chief. But okay, she was her boss after all.
"I had a call from Captain Neigher, our PR clown," she explained, "he wanted to thank me I had released you from work to create a promo film for the police force."
"Err, I wanted to tell you already ...," Ayako trembled.
"Not needed anymore, I can imagine all the parts of the story I don't know yet." The chief continued, "he took advantage of your adolescent inexperience. What I don't know yet why you had capitulated before that asshole. Couldn't you have dislocated his arm, something like that?"
"I tried not to," Ayako excused, "I had him attacking me with a chair and crushed him down."
"Oh, he left out that episode," Deunan chuckled, "good girl. But next time you call me first and ask for permission, okay? It's our department you represent and I have to clean up the mess."
"Understood, chief." Ayako was glad the chief hadn't ticked her off in front of the guest. Or not at all.
Irina was puzzled about the constant switch between formal and informal behavior prevalent in this department. As shown before, chief Knute clearly didn't focus on manners and now she tried something like good breeding on one of her subordinates? It seemed to work, the overpowered youngster submitted without being lowered and dispirited. Her special technique?
"I guess we should give our new teammate a chance to tell what she's thinking about ESWAT," Bri chipped in with the notion Irina was still there. Or better, that she hadn't bunked off from those weird people.
"Err, I think ... ", said one struggled for words.
"You are in," Deunan interrupted her.
"Huh? You haven't seen my shooting results yet," Irina asked affectedly.
"I don't need to. Briareos said you're in and I trust his competence. But okay, show me," the chief justified herself, "One o'clock, your wrist is too loose. You will get better at it as soon you do more finger training. I expect you to start today."
"Understood, chief," Irina sprang to attention. A moment later she asked herself why but the reason still echoed in her head:
"You are in!"
"Would you like to meet the team?" Ayako asked her new colleague, trying to put the situation to some ease again.
"Of course," was Irina's answer and like too girls asking their mommy for permission to go out with the boys, they both eyed Deunan thoroughly.
"Dismissed!" the chief consented.
"A mole?" Deunan mused aloud when the two had gone off to the exercise grounds.
"The question is whose," Briareos commented dryly, "and who is the target."
"'Russian Energy Ministry', that's a cover of the KGB, right?" she presumed.
"It was back then," Bri turned to her, "but why would THEY spy on us? We're far too unimportant for them."
"You don't think KGB is after you, do you?" she worried about him.
"Nah, don't think so. That was more than twenty years ago, if they'd yearned for me they have had thousands of chances already," he denied the thought.
"You mean, it's simply the city council, politicians?" Deunan wondered.
"Yeah, that suits us down to the ground. Or even less important, Donner and fellows," he replied, "but they aren't that dumb, they must have noticed her background, too."
"Maybe it's just a provocation? I mean, we cannot simply reject her, with all the memos I'd sent. It could be her husband is a dissident, and she's all honest now, something like that. Wouldn't be the first time a spy had fallen in love for her target," Deunan hugged him.
"Haha, you mean your father set you on me?" he snickered.
"Mmm-hmm," she nodded, "I'm always there to hear all the little secrets you tell when you're talking in your sleep. Kiss me, I'm your honeytrap spy." Deunan entangled herself into the arms of her long-term boyfriend. He lifted her up a bit and she gave him a coy kiss on the bare metal of his 'face'.
"I think we can handle her, right?" Bri asked.
"If she's a mole and we reject her, they'd just send another one, right?" she smiled at him like a lynx, "Well, in my experience, ex-KGB agents make excellent cops."