Chapter 12: The Drive
“So, you remember when you said that we were on our own?” asked Riley as he was looking at the column of smoke that was coming from a few kilometers south of their position.
“Yes…” admitted Nick in a disappointed voice.
“Right, and do you remember when you mentioned that your Skyraider wouldn’t be able to drop any bombs because of the SAM sites?”
Nick gripped the binoculars out of Riley’s hand and then looked down into it, as Riley broke out in a burst of uncontrollable laughter.
It was 5:10 by now, or two hours and 10 minutes since the gliders got shot down. Tendor was already on its way upwards from below the horizon, and as it slowly lit up the skies of Azuno in their usual orange-ish tint, the two of them could clearly see the smoke column that was rising from somewhere south of them.
“I don’t often say this,” said Nick as he gave back the binoculars to Riley when he finally stopped laughing. “…but I’m damn glad that I was wrong.”
“Should we check it out?” asked Riley.
“You bet, but not now. How far is that building you mentioned?”
“A few kilometers. Should be there in less than an hour.”
Riley and Nick were heading towards the Ledford office building now, based on Riley’s suggestion. Ever since the attack, he tried to stay as far away from his workplace as possible, but after so many failed attempts at fixing Nick’s radio, he concluded that they needed to replace some of its parts. There were numerous hardware and electronic stores in the city, but all of them were either in the commercial district, or they were already looted in the past few days. Riley knew for a fact that the Ledford building had some old radios and computers in storage, so even if they couldn’t fix theirs, they should be able to salvage a working one.
There was also the chance that during the whole attack, Trevor, his colleague, had stayed there to make recordings of the event as a sort of insurance, similarly to what Riley did with his audio logs. If he was lucky enough to find these, then that would help him solve more parts of this giant puzzle.
At least, that was the plan.
Plans had their own will, and most of the time they hated Riley and his ideas.
While the two of them were jogging towards their destination, Nick decided to spend his time with interrogating Riley. “So how did you end up here in Blackfortress anyway?” he said as he climbed on top of another vehicle that was blocking an alleyway.
“University!” answered Riley as he took Nick’s hand and climbed up. “I moved here from Atros city as soon as I had the chance.”
“Atros?” gasped Nick. “damn, I’m not surprised you moved out.”
Riley’s original hometown, Atros, had a rather bad reputation for being one of the dirtiest, most polluted cities on the planet. Most of the city was filled with factories and foundries similarly to Blackfortress, but unlike here, there were no sea winds and rainstorms to wash away the smog on the ground and in the air. The city was pretty much a toxic wasteland in some places.
“One of my better choices,” Riley replied. “plus, the university paid for my dorms, so the move was rather cheap.”
“And which uni is that?” Nick queried.
“The University of Film and Communications, or UFC for short. I took a three-year course there in Mass Communication, and then afterwards I got a job at the ANC as part of an internship.”
“Guess that explains the logs.”
“Well, what can I say? Old habits die hard…”
After a bit of silence, Riley continued the conversation. “What about you?”
“You mean why I decided to come along on this stupid mission?”
Nick continued walking forward for a bit before he answered. “I would like to say that I got dragged into this, which is partially true…”
“…but to be frank with you, It didn’t feel right to just sit at home.”
He then stopped to face Riley. “And it’s not just about not being on the sidelines either. Can you imagine being at home while everyone else from your squad gets selected for a special mission that is borderline suicide and you might very well never see them again? Because I can’t.”
Riley understood what Nick meant more than he knew. He didn’t back away from the danger back in Esmos when he personally led a squad to rescue hostages, and he never even thought about running away when he and Collins decided to send a distress signal from the Central Police Station. Him being the sole survivor of both of those missions probably meant something, but he never figured out what it was. Not back then, and not today.
Riley sighed and then looked at Nick. “I can understand that. The thought to just pack up and leave occurred to me more than once during the past week, and in hindsight, it might have been a better idea. Hell, if I walked and swam all the way to Stormford or Baldock with these recordings I could have made sure that the whole world knew about the situation here and you wouldn’t be stuck here with practically no backup.”
Nick nodded. “So why didn’t you leave then?”
Riley didn’t answer for a while. “I always had this... drive to look for answers, and I wanted to figure out what happened. Who attacked us, why, on whose orders, where they took my neighbors… that kind of thing?”
His friend raised his head. “Speaking of civvies, any idea where they have gone to?”
“Nah. I overheard a few of these soldiers talking about rounding them up somewhere, but that’s all I know. This is good news because there’s a chance that we can rescue them, but…”
“But we have no clue where they could be, yeah.”
“Precisely. However,” he said as he pulled out the picture that Agent Cipher gave him “…I do know that their whole attack has something to do with this.”
Riley showed Nick the picture of that sealed waterproof box as they climbed another vehicle. The Aftonian took a long look at it, and he just shrugged afterwards. “This… is a box.”
“I’m pretty sure they want what’s inside the box, not the box itself.”
“It’s a pretty cool box though…”
“Well, yes, but there are boxes all over the planet! And besides, why take over an entire city just to get what’s inside this one?”
Nick scratched his chin as he thought of an answer. “Maybe whatever’s inside is valuable enough to make an attack on Blackfortress seem trivial?”
Riley chuckled and shook his head at that thought. “Yeah, right, of course. I doubt someone would fit something that valuable into such a small box and then proceed to leave it in water all this time…”
Nick gave the picture back to Riley as they climbed down from a vehicle once again. They took a few steps forward before Nick stopped in his tracks. “Wait… what if that box was on the Bluehammer?”
Riley’s heart skipped a beat. “Now that… that, my friend, is a huge stretch.”
“Well, why not? You said it yourself, whatever is inside must be worth the loss of an entire city. I’d say a piece of the Bluehammer fits that category.”
The Bluehammer, along with the Danuvee, the Ironfist, and the Ravanna, was a DSC type colony spaceship that originally moved a couple hundred thousand colonists from Earth to Azuno on a century-long journey three hundred and eighty years ago. During their descent, all four of the ships suffered critical damage and except for the Danuvee and the Bluehammer, none of them remained intact. The Danuvee suffered some injuries as well but the ship remained in mostly one piece after it crash-landed on the shores of Andos, now occupied by the Aftonian Empire.
The Bluehammer’s fate on the other hand was a complete mystery. During its descent, a lot of the passengers were able to evacuate, but the ship itself crashed into the ocean and it was never found again. Not the ship, not the pieces of the ship, and certainly not the people who were on board the ship. As far as they knew, the ship ceased to exist once it hit the waters.
If that stupid box did indeed contain some part of it, then that was pretty much the holy grail of Azuno.
Which is precisely why Riley didn’t want to jump to conclusions. “Look, Nick, right now there are still millions of other explanations for the attack on the city. How about we go through those before we announce it to every person that we meet that we found the literal holy grail of our civilization?”
“What’s a holy grail?” he asked completely seriously.
“It’s… never mind, it’s a phrase I read in an old book. Point is, that we should go with the more rational explanations first.”
Nick rolled his eyes. “Fine, take all the fun out of it…”
Once they finished the discussion, Riley focused on the road ahead of them. They should be able to reach the Ledford building no problem since most of the turrets were around the main roads and they already left those behind. They mostly stuck to the alleyways and the side streets to avoid getting unnecessary attention, which worked out quite well so far.
Riley was just about to step out of one such alleyway to cross a street when all of a sudden, a gun sounded off from the right side, further down the road.
The bullet landed right in front of Riley, who in turn jumped back into the alleyway immediately and crouch-walked to the closest wall he could find. Nick followed his example and took off the shotgun from his back.
“Any idea where that came from?” he asked.
“Somewhere from the right, I think... Hey, can you give me your helmet for a sec?”
Nick raised an eyebrow, and then quickly took it off. “Sure, but what for?” he said while handing it to Riley.
McConnel then proceeded to lean forward a bit and wave the helmet around outside the wall. A second later a bullet went right through it, and he quickly pulled his arm back. Seeing how clean of a hole the bullet made in Nick’s helmet made Riley feel uneasy. “Man, I thought these things would be more resilient…” he remarked, still staring at it.
“What did you expect? These things were made to protect us against fragments, not actual bullets.”
“If you are close enough to get hit by a grenade that helmet won’t do shit to save you! With all due respect to our military, this thing is literal garbage!” argued Riley.
He was about to pull out his pistol and fire off a few shots when the enemy sounded off.
“Nick is that you?!” asked a woman.
Riley and Nick looked at each other, and then both of them leaned out from behind their wall.
A dark-brown haired, female soldier, wearing the red and white medic armor of the AMC, with a suppressed APGM sub-machinegun in her hands was looking at them with wide eyes. Riley was about to introduce himself when Nick almost knocked him over as he ran out.
“Ira!” he exclaimed excitedly as he ran up to the soldier.
The medic looked like she was about to hug Nick, but instead, she just punched his shoulders and flipped him off as a joke. Once the celebrations were over, Riley walked up to them.
“Riley,” started Nick. “…allow me to introduce you to Private Ira Cote, Rhino’s current medic.”
“Pleasure to meet you, the name’s Riley McConnel,” said Riley as he extended his hand.
The medic took it, but she kept looking at Riley and Nick with raised eyebrows. “O-okay, out with it. How did this happen?”
Riley and Nick looked at each other confusedly. “What do you mean?” asked Nick.
“I mean how did you manage to end up with the guy who sent the distress signal from this city a week ago?”
“Oh, that. Well, you see––”
“You know what, I don’t actually care,” said Ira, interrupting Nick in the process. “…we have more important things to do.”
“Yeah but first, mind telling me where everybody else is?” Nick asked.
Ira explained that Major Jefferson, along with Lance-Corporal Richards and Private First Class Gary Tibor, who was actually Riley’s neighbor for a while, were all on a scouting mission at the city’s local prison, since the Major suspected that if the civilians were still here on the island, they were likely locked up somewhere. Riley thought about checking out the prison building once or twice, but before today he didn’t want to risk it since he had no backup or any sort of weaponry.
“So why did they leave you behind?” he asked.
“I actually volunteered to stay in the area and look around for you guys, or any other soldiers.”
“On your own?” gasped Nick.
“Of course. Easier to sneak past enemies if you don’t have a blabbermouth on your side. No offense.”
Riley did his best to keep his laughter inside himself. Once he was able to speak, he turned to Ira. “So since you found us, do you want to tag along? We were heading towards the Ledford building to attempt to fix our communications.”
Ira shrugged. “It’s not like I have anything better to do. Plus watching Nick get shot a few times might make my day happier.”
Nick shook his head and then waved at the other two to follow him. During their trip to the office complex, Ira did her best to explain her side of the events. Her story wasn’t much different from Nick’s except for more people and less crashing being involved.
They made their way into a tiny street once again, and as they went past a store that was selling vases and kitchen equipment, Ira shook her head. “Even the damned plates are made out of aluminum…”
“Oh yeah, that’s been bothering me too. Why is everything made of metal around here?” queried Nick.
“It’s pretty much the only resource we have,” shrugged Riley. “Our economy is based around mining the ore and then exporting it, but we still end up making a lot of excess over the year. Instead of throwing it away, our Mayor had the genius idea of spending the excess on improving the city.”
“So instead of building walls or turrets, you made combat bottles.”
“That’s actually not too far from the truth” continued Riley. “…see, these bottles for example can be either melted down and turned into bullets, or you can take the complete bottle and turn it into a rocket without too much trouble.”
“Or you can smack people with them,” added Nick.
“Or that, yes.”
They were about to continue their conversation when three black-armored people carrying a large chest appeared on the other end of the road they were walking on. Riley and the others jumped behind a car or a bin in an attempt to hide, and as Riley peeked out, he saw two of the three men stroll into a building with the crate in hand. The other one stayed outside.
“You two want to see what’s in that box as well, right?” McConnel asked.
Both of them nodded.
Riley was about to think up a brilliant plan of sneakily taking out that guard when all of a sudden, he fell to the ground after something knocked him over from behind. A series of muted gunshots sounded off next to him, and when Riley looked to his right side, he saw Ira holding her suppressed SMG, with its barrel still smoking. She lowered her gun and then looked at Riley.
“Well, what are you waiting for? Let’s go!”
He didn’t need any more convincing. Riley gripped his pistol and began crouch-walking towards the building where the crate was. Once he reached the door and the dead mercenary, he walked up right next to the entrance, and then looked at the others. “How do you want to do this?”
Ira shrugged once again. “Wait until they come out and ambush them?”
Riley wanted to simply charge in headfirst and hopefully knock both enemies out, but Ira’s plan seemed like the safer option. He carefully opened the door to try to see where the enemy was, and he quickly noticed that there was a staircase leading down to a basement. He waved at Nick and Ira to follow him, and in a matter of seconds they set themselves up into an ambush position inside the building, which turned out to be a clothing shop. Riley was hiding right above the stairs, while Ira and Nick were taking cover on both sides of it.
They waited around three minutes in silence before they heard somebody walk up the staircase. As soon as that person’s head appeared, Ira immediately fired her gun, killing the man instantly. They all heard somebody cursing down below, but Riley, not wanting to waste the element of surprise, immediately jumped down the stairs and landed on his stomach. The final soldier was standing in the doorway that led to the basement room, and before he had a chance to react, Riley shot him. However, instead of hitting his head, torso, or one of his limbs, he accidentally hit the gun in the man’s hand, causing him to drop it almost right away. Once he realized that he was unarmed, he raised his hands right away.
“I surrender!” he shouted.
Riley quickly got up to his feet and called the others down to the basement. The three of them then dragged the man up to the first floor, and once Nick tied him to a chair with a rope they looted in the store, he spoke up.
“So, what should we do this guy?”
Ira shrugged. “Don’t feel like dragging his fat ass along for the ride. Just shoot him and let’s go.”
The soldier’s eyes widened, and he started breathing faster.
“Executing a prisoner? Come on Ira…” replied Nick.
“What? It ain’t a crime anymore, and he probably shot a few dozen civvies anyway.”
The prisoner looked at Riley and mouthed a “please”. Just like at the parking building, Riley was facing quite a moral dilemma.
On one hand, this man was part of the group that caused the death of more than one of his friends and a whole lot of other people.
On the other, executing an enemy after he surrendered was looked down upon by most Aftonians. Ira was right in that it wasn’t a crime anymore according to Aftonian law following the Gredrurgian Independence war, but there was a reason there were only a handful of merciless soldiers that made their way to a higher rank. And this young red-haired soldier was most likely not from Blackfortress, so he wasn't exactly a traitor either. And he could provide useful information… “Before we decide what we do with you,” Riley said after a bit of thinking. “...you’re going to answer a few questions.”
“I-I don’t know anything useful!” he spluttered right away. “Look, I’m only here because one of my mercenary buddies got a job from some guy called Swordfish, and I thought it was a good way to make some money! I had no idea we were going to take an entire city and kidnap the civilians!”
Ira lowered her eyebrows and punched the soldier so hard that he almost fell to the floor. “Ignorant fuck…”
Nick grabbed her shoulder and pulled her away from the prisoner.
“Do you at least know where they are holed up?” asked Riley calmly.
“N-No idea sir! At least not all of them. Some of the soldiers were locked up in the p-prison, but we loaded the rest onto trucks, and I don’t know where those went!”
Nick scratched his chin, then suddenly looked at the prisoner. “What kind of trucks were they?”
“Uhh... b-big ones. And the containers that were on their backs were detachable as far as I could see.”
“Interesting. Riley, how do you guys transport the ore to Black Harbor?”
“Precisely with trucks like that. You’re thinking that they took them to the port?”
“Yes, that’s right,” he replied with a nod, then turned to their hostage. “What do you think, young man?”
He tried to shrug but the rope prevented that. “I... I guess it’s possible that they were taken to the port? Like I said I have no clue where they are. Honestly though, to me, it would make more sense if they were temporarily kept captive somewhere inside the city until the island was fully under our control.”
Ira looked at her wrist terminal. “I hate to break this conversation, but we really need to get moving. Decide what we do with him and then let’s move.”
Riley looked at the prisoner again. It was obvious that the poor man was scared as hell, and since Nick already took away the guy’s gun, he wasn’t much of a threat anymore. Ira was right however; they couldn’t drag him around. This meant that they either had to execute him right then and there or leave him tied up where he wouldn’t be able to move until somebody found him. Or…
“Let him go,” said Riley
All three of them looked at Riley in their surprise. Ira was visibly pissed.
“Are you out of your mind McConnel?! Did you forget what he and his friends did to this wretched city?! What they did to our planes?”
“No, but our only other options are to shoot him right here and now or leave him tied up until he starves to death! And as much as he deserves it, I am not going to sink to their level!”
Ira shook her head then kicked one of the chairs in the room in her frustration. Nick crossed his arms. “He won’t be that much of a threat without his gun. And even if he rejoins his allies, it’s not like one more scared grunt will make much of a difference...”
“Fine! But if this asshole comes back with his friends, I’m going to use the two of you as human shields!” Ira agreed reluctantly.
Riley walked over to the prisoner and cut the rope with Ira’s knife. The man stood up.
“Thank you, thank you!” he said after he wiped the sweat off his forehead.
“Just get moving before I decide to desert!” Ira said in a threatening tone.
The prisoner didn’t need much convincing, and he bolted out of the building. As he passed the door though Riley suddenly saw Nick pointing a grey handgun at him that had a scope on it.
He jumped to take the gun away from the private but it was too late.
Nick fired the weapon, and out of the barrel came... nothing. No smoke, no blast, nothing apart from a small projectile that hit the fleeing mercenary's shoulder, but even that didn't seem to flinch him. Riley stared at the running man for a while longer who completely ignored what just happened and then turned to Nick with lowered eyebrows. “What the hell was that?!”
As a reply, Nick just pulled out a smaller wrist terminal from one of his pockets and handed it to Riley. As he looked at it, he saw an arrow pointing towards where the mercenary had run to, along with a distance counter on it that increased with every second.
Ira took a look at the device as well, and then whistled sharply. "You planted a tracker on him, Becket?"
“Indeed I did!” said Nick proudly. “If he tries coming after us, we'll know.”
Ira slowly shook her head. “Good move. Now let's see what's in that crate!”
After Riley handed back the terminal to Nick, the three of them headed down into the basement finally. The room the crate was inside had reinforced walls and a massive door at the front, but despite that, it was completely empty, except for a few shelves.
Riley walked up to the crate and took a look at the lock.
“Any ideas on how we’re going to open that?” asked Riley.
Ira grabbed the shotgun from Nick’s back and blasted the lock clean off from the crate. She then proceeded to open it.
The thing that Riley saw inside was just as surprising as it was expected. He carefully grabbed the object and took it out of the chest.
It was the box that Agent Cipher was looking for.
“Well… this looks mighty familiar, doesn’t it?” asked Riley, without taking his eyes off from the chest.
“Just open the damn thing already.” Ira urged.
Riley carefully opened all the padlocks on the metal box. The outer part of it was covered in rust and seaweed, but as it turned out the inside was still intact. Along with the contents.
He gracefully took out the electronic device from the box.
It was a brick-shaped and sized object with a dark-grey color. It had numerous circuit boards and wires inside it, along with a few weird-looking cylinders on its sides. He rotated it around a few times as he tried to make sense of it, but in the end, he just shook his head in defeat.
“Why in the world would anybody toss a mechanical storage drive into the ocean?” he asked as he turned around.
I'm just an average dude from Hungary who has way too much time on his hands. I started writing a couple years ago as a hobby, partly because I wanted to practice and improve my English, and partly because there's just something amazing about inventing new worlds and people from scratch and then writing about their deeds and adventures.
At this point I honestly can't imagine myself putting down my writing pen ever again, and I would like to wish lots of luck to every other writer out there with their projects!
Favorite genres: Science Fiction, Adventure, Military