“Let me guess,” Dustin said, stopping just before ascending the lowered ramp of the vessel, leaving Trix to head on up and inside on her own. “You and the Commander’s daughter are operating on a first name basis now.”
“Not hardly,” Apollo said after killing the flame to his torch and lifting the mask up to uncover his face.
“Then do you mind my asking how you knew we were gearing up to pull out of here? Trix and I just got the wire no more than a half hour ago. I would have figured you’d still be hold up underneath whatever downtime had found its way through this pitch black mess and over to your apartment.”
“Sorry to disappoint you, my friend,” Apollo replied. “But I’ve been here for the past few hours trying to help these butchers put this boat back together. Figure it’s a good thing I had the foresight to go ahead and get my gear stowed though. You say we’re pulling out. Why haven’t I heard about it?” he asked, turning to take a look back at the scattering of hovercrafts at his back. What was once just a minute scattering of maintenance workers and dock personnel was slowly being peppered with the roving and wandering bodies of other fleet soldiers closing in on their ships.
“Ink’s not even wet on the orders they cut,” Dustin said to him. “Rumor has it, even as we speak the Council and every other ranking official in the fleet and infantry are still locked in debriefing right along with every other egghead specialist they managed to scrounge up to try and help dig us out of this mess.”
“So we don’t even have our mission yet?”
“Guess we’ll get it whenever Despauna find’s his way up here. Give me a yell if you guys need any help out here.”
Apollo watched Dustin disappear up the ramp and into the ship. He looked back out at the rest of the dock and took note again of the numerous duffle toting men and women that continued to pack the area. Afterwards, he quickly tucked away the tools that he had been using to go over some of the much need repairs to the hull of the ship and ventured on ahead inside with the others.
“Alright,” Syntax said from the post that he occupied, seated atop of one of the countertops in the kitchen area onboard the Nexus. “Now that the gang is all here, any chance that you can bring us up to speed on what exactly it is that our most esteemed Council along with you other master war craftsmen have come up with in order to promise us tomorrow?”
Stepping further into the room, Despauna looked past every other curious eye that had been turned in his direction for a straight shot at Syntax. Regardless of the very negative connotation that he detected in his voice, Despauna continued to make his way to the elongated dining table that the rest of his crew was crowded around with an air of confidence about him.
“With any luck it’ll be an exceedingly clever way for us all to get ourselves dead just before Zion is packed in with rubble,” Dustin chimed in.
“In keeping with the momentum of such an upbeat, optimistic introduction…” Despauna said, dropping the stack of rolled up blueprints that he carried beneath his arms and spreading them out one on top of the other across the table top. “Abner wants to set up a three dimensional perimeter around the entire city,” he said, tracing his finger across the map around the bordering tunneling surrounding the city of Zion. “Two interlocking layers of defense. One rank of ships out front and the second stationed in the tunnels behind them shifted over to plug up the gaps between their EMP range.”
“Come on, Captain,” Apollo said in disbelief, watching Despauna trace his fingers around the map as he laid out the plan. “For an operation of that size we would need every ship in the fleet.”
“Barring the few back up ships that are going to be left on standby in the docks along with the handful being prepped for lifeboats in the event of an emergency evacuation, that’s exactly what we’ll be working with,” Despauna replied.
“And even then we could hardly guarantee that there won’t be any holes in the formation,” Trix spoke up. “Even with the perimeter defenses taking up the slack at our back…”
“They’re not expecting it to hold,” Despauna interrupted her. “They’re just hoping it’s enough of an intimidation to help move us into position to make the first move and hopefully get the upper hand at controlling the tempo of this fight.”
“Say we do get these guys on the ropes,” Syntax said. “Hold them off. Thin out the ranks a little bit to give the soldiers back home a fighting chance. As long as we’re still occupied back here the power plant and every other human planted in the fields are still laid to waste.”
“Which is why we’ve got to make our way to broadcast level, get into the matrix, and put a stop to whatever it is that Ezekiel has got planned,” Despauna said. “I’ve already arranged to have this ship positioned in one of the spots across the rear flank.”
“But breaking away for a shot at broadcast level…won’t that open up a hole in this supposed fence that we’re supposed to be creating?” Raven offered up.
“We’ve been able to get a trace on where the bulk of their army is positioned,” Despauna answered her. He rolled back a layer of the blueprints on the table and traced over another area with his fingers. “Now with our fleet moving forward, effectively bringing the fight to them, I figure it’ll be some time before their faction splinters to the point that they locate our misstep.”
“Meaning we’re not going to have a lot of time to pull this off and get back into position once shit hits the fan,” Syntax said.
“If anyone has any better suggestions, now’s the time,” Despauna said.
“What about Zero One?” Raven spoke. A collection of confused looks came her way.
“Come again,” Apollo said.
“As in the enemy of my enemy could maybe do something to lend a hand in this thing,” Raven continued. “I mean, it’s not as if they don’t have any skin in the game. So to speak. If the plant goes down like Trix says Ezekiel in planning to make happen then they would have just as much to lose in this as us. And we’re already straying off the beaten path. What could making time to try and send a kite up to them hurt?”
“You mean more than wasting time we’re already short on?” Apollo said.
“We’ll back burner that for now,” Despauna said. “In the meantime, I believe this entire operation will be better served with us applying our every effort to put a stop to Ezekiel. Who knows. Maybe in the end taking him out will play like two birds with one stone.”
Commander Abner made his way up to the top level of the tower. After shooing off the salutes and other cordial greetings complimentary to his rank he moved his full attention to the panel of windows that spanned the entire perimeter of the room. On the other side of the glass he watched the world outside of the tower become overwhelmed with the massive amount of flaming pads that took to the sky carrying nearly every ship in the city’s fleet. Every gate inside of the dock was given the order to open, and once they were they gave way to the slow procession of hovercrafts parading out into what had once been an interconnecting labyrinth of darkened tunnels. The light coming from the army of ships pierced through every shadow for a half mile in all directions. Abner just hoped that it would be enough to help stave off the very menacing darkness that was currently in the process of barreling down on the city walls.
“Ezekiel’s plugged in deep into the machine underworld,” Trix replied. “If we expect to have any chance of smoking him out then our best bet is going to be someone who knows his way around the terrain.”
“So the old lady’s out of the equation?”
“Apparently, not even her reach goes that deep,” Trix said.
“Last time I checked neither did the Merovingian’s,” Apollo responded. “Besides. Wasn’t he the one that originally tried to rope us into getting a bead on this guy when he had nothing else to go on?”
“Doesn’t exactly mean that we were his first option. Or the last. Not to mention the fact that we’re currently in possession of a card to play that could get him to work for us this time around.”
“Mr. Fogleman,” Apollo said. “Our little signal analysis expert turned fugitive turned makeshift hostage.”
“Maybe enough to persuade the French to extend his reach a bit more,” Trix said.
“And Fogleman? I take it he wasn’t exactly raring to play out his little part in this scheme you guys cooked up on the fly. Especially seeing as how he’s slated to playing the worm on the hook.”
“He doesn’t have a choice,” Trix told him. “Right now we’re his only hope of getting out of a lifetime of toil with the Merovingian or the deletion that’s coming whenever the system catches up to him again. He’ll do it.”
“I just hope you’re right about this,” Apollo said, turning and stepping away from the ledge.
“I hope so to,” Trix uttered to herself, still looking down over the side of the building. She kept staring until she saw a particular car move out of the building’s garage area and merge into the flow of traffic moving along the street. “They’re on the move,” Trix craned her head around and said to Apollo’s back.
“I don’t like this,” Fogleman said. He was currently sitting in the backseat of a moving vehicle after having been escorted out of the safe house that he had been holdup in.
“What’s to like?” Raven said to him.
Seated behind the driver’s seat that Despauna occupied next to Dustin, he had been content with staring out of the window in search of any immediate dangers until he heard the woman sitting next to him in the backseat speak up. “A better plan, for one,” he said to her, looking in her direction now. “Preferably one that doesn’t involve you waltzing me right into the hands of the man that I have expelled so much wasted energy trying to keep away from.”
“Sorry to disappoint you,” Raven went on, “but we’re kind of on a clock. One that unfortunately requires a little improvising now and then.” While she spoke she was also in the process of pulling her cell phone out of her pocket. She punched in a number and Syntax picked up. “Where are we?” she said into the phone.
“Not good,” Syntax replied. “Holographics have the fleet making some pretty good time sweeping these tunnels. Most likely they’ll be in position to strike against that army before the day’s out. So whatever you guys were gonna do in there your schedule just got bumped up a notch.”
“Got it,” Raven said, and hung up the phone.
“Well?” Despauna said back over his shoulder.
“We’d better step on it,” she replied.
“Great,” Fogleman said. “Now we’re rushing towards the gallows.”
Persephone held onto the clipboard and scribbled her signature in the designated areas across the small stack of papers that it held. Immediately after she was done she turned the board back over to the slightly cowering individual standing in front of her. Standing there watching him scamper back out into the midst of the rest of the mob of workers, designers, decorators, and pencil pushers that cluttered the ballroom floor, she was that close to letting her overwhelming boredom at orchestrating this event get the better of her when out of nowhere a slight grin threatened to overtake her facial features. Turning around to the area behind her, she saw the small crowd of civilians that wandered the area cut through by a pack of armed gunmen escorting a small troop of individuals in her direction.
“Now isn’t this an interesting twist to an otherwise colorless turn of events.”
“We’re here to see the Merovingian,” Despauna said to her once the approaching crowd came to a stop.
“And bearing gifts, no less,” Persephone said, looking over the outwardly nervous Mr. Fogleman. “It’s almost a shame that my husband isn’t here to witness this. No doubt he would be utterly reeling from the pleasure of it all.”
“So the Merovingian isn’t even here?” Raven spoke up.
“I’m afraid not, my sweet,” Persephone said to her. “As much as he enjoys these little events that he’s constantly throwing for himself it seems that he’s never really ever developed a penchant for actually organizing them himself. But I’ll be sure to let him know that you stopped by, and I’m sure that he’ll be very anxious to meet you,” she said, looking over in Fogleman’s direction.”
“No deal,” Apollo spoke up, placing his hand down on the top of Mr. Fogleman’s shoulder. “We’re here to make a trade for some information. So you can either produce the Frenchman or we can walk.”
The collection of small firearms surrounding them suddenly raised into the air and began producing an array of clicking noises. The distraction, as light as it was in its apparition, was enough to nearly throw the entire ballroom into disarray. Workers that were all previously busy with their assigned tasks either stopped whatever it was that they were doing in order to turn their shocked glances in the direction of the hostile activity or simply opted to drop everything and leave the room altogether.
“Sorry, lover,” Persephone said rather salaciously as she looked Apollo up and down. “But I’m afraid that there’s no such deal on the table. Now as I am well aware that it wouldn’t require much effort on your part in making short work out of my husband’s lackeys what you should be more concerned with at the moment is my husband’s enduring flare for contingency. The very same flare along with the fact that this event will be catering to more enemies than friends that led him to have this place wire to blow at the touch of a button. Now as much as I would simply love to make my way towards the nearest exit and reduce this fiasco to rubble I think we both can agree that that wouldn’t be the most profitable outcome for either of us.” She immediately turned her back on the crowd and began walking away from them. “You know the way out,” she hurled back over her shoulder with a wave of her hand in the air.
“Lover?” Trix said to Apollo as the group exited the building leaving their armed escort at the top of the concrete staircase that they descended.
“Long story,” Apollo replied.
“One that it sounds like I wouldn’t mind hearing.”
“Looks like it’s one that’s going to have to wait,” Dustin said.
All of them suddenly turned their attention to the automobile that they had left by the curb. The one that had the strange woman standing next to it leaning back against the passenger side door. Apollo instantly recognized her as one of the trio of leather clad muscle that the Merovingian had sicked on him and Trix during their first meeting regarding this situation.
“Can’t wait to find out what this is all about,” Apollo said.
“Right,” Apollo replied. “And light the one card that we had to play in this whole ordeal. But I’m guessing you’re here to do something about that.”
“I don’t see how,” Trix chimed in. “Or for that matter why. Seeing as how you’re on the Merovingian’s payroll and we’ve already gotten his answer on the subject.”
“It’s true,” the woman said. “I have been known to lend out my services to the Frenchman on occasion. Along with a few other of my associates. But he is by no means the only party that I’ve grown accustomed to dealing with. One in particular that happens to be well aware of your current…situation.”
“Is he or she also aware that we’re pressed for time?” Despauna said to her.
“Alright then,” she said. “Somewhere where we can discuss this privately.”
Despauna was back behind the steering wheel of the car with this strange woman now sitting behind him in the seat that Mr. Fogleman once occupied. He continued to guide the automobile down the street with Apollo and Trix trailing behind on their bikes.
“I believe you said something about helping us,” Raven said to the woman sitting next to her in the backseat.
“Rumor has it you’re interested in putting a stop to Ezekiel’s rising ambitions for domination. I represent parties that would be equally pleased in seeing you accomplish that goal. Ezekiel’s been recruiting all over the matrix, both man and the like, looking for anyone willing to join his cause. We‘ve been presently involved in attempting to infiltrate their operations in the hopes of getting hold of whatever information that could prove vital to such an end.”
“Any progress so far?” Raven asked.
“If that’s the case then why do you need us?” Dustin asked.
“Because even with all that we would be able to accomplish on our end, the entire effort could eventually wind up as little more than a waste of time without an arm to extend outside of the matrix where it is rumored that the main source of Ezekiel’s power is being protected.”
“So that’s where we’d come in. What about the Frenchman?” Dustin said. “Wouldn’t it stand to reason that he would have just as much to lose in the event of Ezekiel’s success? Why not go to him with this information?”
“Because even if he were to stop Ezekiel my employer isn’t interested in working with someone who would be just as quick to try and work out an arrangement with Ezekiel’s benefactors and assume the same role that he’s seeking.”
“I suppose that’s rather insightful of this employer of yours,” Dustin said. “What is his name, by the way?”
“I’m not at liberty to disclose such information at this time,” she said.
“Then how about yours?”
“You can call me Illana,” she said. “And I’ll need a designated contact from your team, a liaison, whereby I can relay any updates and be assured of a quick response from your side.”
“That won’t be a problem,” Despauna said. Raven reached inside of her coat and removed a small rectangular card. She passed it to the woman who promptly stuffed it into her coat. “When’s the next time we can expect to hear from you?”
“Within the hour,” Illana replied. “Pull over up here.”
“You don’t really think we’re gonna have the opportunity to use any of those, do you?” Dustin said to her.
“Doesn’t change my orders,” she replied without looking up at him.
Dustin slipped through the bars of the railing and dropped down next to her. “Despauna was just on with the Corposant. That sentinel line broke formation just under twenty minutes ago. As far as we know this thing is already off and running.”
“Doesn’t bode too well for our so called contingency. Any idea when Despauna’s gonna pull the plug on this thing and throw the Nexus back into the mix?”
“Apollo’s exit is already prepped. If Syntax doesn’t hear otherwise he should be phoning him in any minute now.”
Illana let the fingers of one of her hands casually slip away from the keyboard that she tapped at and very slyly dug out the memory disc that she had planted into the system she operated. Despite being surrounded by a number of the allies operating this clandestine programming station for Ezekiel, she managed to carry out her assigned mission without so much as inquiring an inquisitive eye from her newfound cohorts. She was supposed to be helping to further debug the system designed to cloak the signal being broadcast to their forward command outside of the matrix. Illana had been tasked by her employer to infiltrate the ranks of this clan and upon being charged with the handling of their system of operations sift through their intelligence for any link to their primary stronghold outside of the programmed world.
Illana had successfully completed her mission via a link that she was able to establish between her and Ezekiel’s network mainframe. Now all that she had to do was rendezvous with her contact aboard the Nexus and transfer the data. The only obstacle standing before her now was the double digit number of rogue programs and human sentinels roaming the corridors between the nearest building exit and her current position in the basement section several floors down. She moved through the halls and stairwells with leery eyes that were constantly on the prowl for the slightest hint that her motives here had been uncovered. Everyone that passed just seemed to regard her with the same blind eye of trust that she had incurred ever since the first moment that she had infiltrated this troupe. Before she knew it the nightscape that was awaiting her up on the city streets were welcoming her in with open arms just as the clandestine world at her back was safely sending her on her way. With the data that she had stolen tucked safely away in her pocket, Illana hastily made off into the world to meet up with her contact, transfer the Intel, and thus complete her assignment.
The flickering gray cloud cover above was reflecting off of the glossy surface of the hood of the car that Illana pulled up next to the curb in the industrial park. After stepping out of the car and moving up to the curb she still took caution enough to give the area around her one more half decent looking over even though it was quite obvious that this section of the city wasn’t catering to any sort of pedestrian traffic at this hour. Nothing but the scarce number of aimlessly wandering vagrants; the creeping and slithering rodent infestation that made shadows appear to move, and the soft creak of the aged hinges whose payload they were carrying were being gently pushed around by the breeze being picked up on the growing storm. This place was as bleak and off the beaten path as anyone might have expected given this time of night. Subsequently making it an excellent locale for the events about to transpire here.
Illana stuck to the seclusion of the claustrophobically tight labyrinth of alleyways that snaked their way in between the nest of run down old buildings that inhabited this site. And even then she continued to stick to the shadows, always keeping an eye on the area at her back. Soon enough the doorway that she sought was in sight. She had laid out the framework for this rendezvous during her last communiqué with the parties aboard the Nexus. Her instructions were meticulous in their hopes to see both her and the faction that she was dealing with through this exchange and on their way while incurring the least amount of foreseeable danger to either one of them in the process. Her timing was impeccable and if her contact was equally as punctual then this little get-together was going to be over in no time.
Illana reached out for the door handle and gave it a twist. The rusted out gears of the ancient metal creaked hard as she turned it. She pulled the door away from the frame and let a short metal grinding against metal squawk rain out into the night.
He was standing right in front of her; the majority of his features melted into the cloak of shadows that covered the dark atmosphere at his back. Still, even with all of the night’s camouflage at his aid it would have been nearly impossible to mistake him.
“Illana. I must say, I am truly disappointed.”
Or maybe over before it started.
She remained frozen in place while staring ahead at him. “I’ll admit, when you first approached me about joining our organization I did detect a minor hint of reluctance in your stature. Curious, but forgivable.” Illana took a step back, moving away from the door frame and back out into the alley. It took her all of a second and a half to realize that she had already been flanked on both sides by the two ragged figures that had seemed to appear out of nowhere. Jacob and Wilhelm. Illana’s disadvantage had just increased two fold. “And now there’s this,” Ezekiel continued. “Honestly. I had really hoped that you would come around.”
She was all set make her move; a swift jab into one of the faces on either side of her, a blinding attack to the roadblock standing in front of her, anything that might buy her the one flickering moment that she needed in order to mount some sort of escape attempt from this smoldering frying pan of a situation that she had just found herself entangled in. It was as if they were reading her mind. Or maybe their powers of anticipation were just that finely tuned. In any event, seconds before Illana could so much as flex the first muscle of her offensive maneuver both of her arms were being wrapped up in the constricting clutches of the two beings standing beside her.
Apollo stepped across the floor and approached the large bay window. He looked down from his high perch at the thin corridor leading away from the building that he occupied and spied on the small group heading in the opposite direction. “Shit,” he uttered quietly to himself.
Ezekiel moved behind his two cohorts and the prisoner that they calmly escorted. The collective sounds of their footsteps alone in the dark had nearly reached the point of hypnotic until Ezekiel found himself somewhat distracted by the distant whisper of shattering glass and creaking metal. His only response at the moment was to turn an eye up to the sickly gray sky that hovered above the towering walls around him. Seconds later the faint impression of a grin could be seen gracing his lips as he dropped his eyes back down in front of him.
“Excellent,” Ezekiel said as he saw them approaching the automobile that Illana had left parked out on the street. “Our chariot awaits.” Jacob pulled open the back door and held it open for Illana while Wilhelm circled around to the other side of the car. After she climbed inside Ezekiel joined her alone in the backseat. Once all four of them were tucked away inside of the car every door surrounding them shut closed. “Now I’m assuming that you still have our little parcel on you,” Ezekiel said to a still stoically silent Illana. “Undoubtedly, much to the dismay of your lingering accomplice, who, I can assure you, will be dealt with most egregiously.”
“And what makes you think you’ll find him?” Illana asked. In reality she was more curious to know whether or not that had already found him.
“Actually…,” Ezekiel said, looking ahead at the front seat, barely able to fight back the grin taking hold of his lips. “I don’t imagine the search will be all that difficult.”
Mere seconds after the last word fell from his lips and he was done speaking, every square inch of the interior of the car was filled with a thunderously explosive noise that coincided with the shattering effect that took hold of every pane of glass surrounding the occupants of the vehicle. The once glossy hood of the car had been instantly caved in by the massive force that had slammed down into it, knocking the entire engine beneath it loose from the trappings holding it in place and splattering the scattering components across the concrete below. The violent impact of the crash had also succeeded in hoisting the rear tires off the ground just high enough to further rattle the occupants when the back of the vehicle ultimately came crashing back down to earth. Once all of the ensuing chaos began to settle Apollo straightened his bent knees and brought his slightly crouching body back upright into a fully erect standing position. Standing there in the center of the bowl that had been made of the car’s front hood, he carefully inspected the wreckage beneath him for any sign of the impending retaliation that he was expecting at any moment now.
“Come on,” Apollo said to her, walking her to the back of the car and down to the street below. “We’ve gotta get you outta here.”
“You’re not going anywhere.” The two of them had only managed a single step away from the rear bumper of the car before a voice emanating from somewhere inside of the wreckage turned their heads back towards the car again. They both simultaneously took a step back when they saw the roof of the damaged vehicle take a leap up into the air and come crashing back down on the street next to the car. All it had taken to perform that feat was a quick shove from the set of hands that they could see extending up from the backseat of the newly refashioned convertible. With no roof to hinder his rise, Ezekiel gradually rose up from his seat and turned around to face them both. “At least, not with her,” he said, finishing out his thought with his eyes trained directly on Apollo.
Ezekiel stepped up onto the cushion of the car seat and continued on up onto the back hood of the trunk. The entire time Apollo was taking a step back with his every step forward, all the while holding his left arm out beside him to force Illana back with him.
“Do you still have it on you?” Apollo asked her, keeping his eyes locked on Ezekiel’s every move.
“I take it you’re referring to the information pertaining to the location of his contact outside of the matrix. Yeah. I still got it,” she said.
“Good,” Apollo said to her. “Hold on to it.” He gave her another soft shove backwards and stepped forward toward Ezekiel just as he was coming down to the pavement in front of him. “I’ve got something to take care of.”
“Do you now?” Ezekiel said, unable to fight back the grin that had spread across his lips.
“Yeah,” Apollo said to him. “I believe we have a little score to settle.” The fists that came flying out from his sides were nothing more than a blur of repetitive motion as far as any onlooker was concerned. But as for Ezekiel, every swift blow that came his way was little more than a laughable gesture that he quickly swatted away with the equally swift if not significantly faster wave of just one of his hands. Eventually he wound up catching hold of one of Apollo’s swinging fist in the clutch of his palm. Afterwards all of the eye blurring motions of their rapid movement stopped and Illana saw Apollo turn an eager look back in her direction. “Run!” he yelled out to her. The sound of the intensity in his voice and the frightfulness that she found in watching her would-be capture so effortlessly ward off the most detrimental physical attack that she had ever seen applied to someone was all that she needed in order to coax her into a small stumble backwards that quickly broke out into an all out mad dash.
Apollo turned back to Ezekiel and was once again anticipating severe ramifications for his aggressive actions. Instead all that he received for his efforts was Ezekiel’s grinning face. Instead of returning the attack that had just been levied against him, Apollo felt the palm that was tightly wrapped around his fist slowly begin to uncoil. Soon Ezekiel’s grip became so loose that Apollo was able to snatch his arm back. Ezekiel let his arm gradually drop back down to his side. He turned and took several steps off to his side. “The systemic anomaly,” Ezekiel said, still keeping his eyes trained on Apollo. “Still quite the formidable force inside of the matrix. Too bad you only make up one third of the entire component. Not that it would make much difference if the rest of the equation were here.”
“You sound pretty sure about that,” Apollo said.
“You don’t seriously think we would have undertaken this course of action without taking into consideration such a predictable reaction as the possibility of your involvement? As you’ve already seen, my resurrection came equipped with quite a collection of contingencies.”
“None of it will help you now, Ezekiel. Zion’s not gonna fall today. But I promise you by the time this is all over you’re gonna wish that you had gone down with the Harbinger.”
Ezekiel stopped pacing and stood face to face with him again. “Then what are you waiting for? Why not just dispose of me now and get it over with?” Apollo just stood staring at him in silence. “Or is it the sound of those pounding footsteps in the distance that you’re so concerned with at the moment? You’re right to worry about her. I seriously doubt that she’s going to make it out of this in one piece.”
“We’ll see about that.”
“Really? I wonder where she could be?”
Apollo’s crouch was minimal but the push up was enough to launch him into the air and up towards the hazy gray cloud cover that began to sprinkle down onto the street below. Ezekiel just craned his head up and watched him go while stepping towards the place that he had just occupied.
The windshield on the front of Raven’s motorbike ran wet with the streaks of rain that were washing across it. The engine beneath her warmed and roared as she zigzagged the vehicle through the lanes of traffic in front of her. She had the night, pouring rain, and the congested traffic in front of her to contend with as she raced towards her destination. But with the beam of light on the front of her bike cutting back and forth between the lanes, Raven didn’t seem to be in a mood to let any of that stop her.
Illana was nearly out of breath but she continued to pump her arms and legs as she cut the next corner and sprinted off down the alley. She turned her head around and took a look back over her shoulder so sure that she would be able to spot the pursuers that were most assuredly still on her trail. There was no one there but Illana didn’t let that get her spirits up. For all that she knew, they could be waiting just around whatever corner she decided to make next in this maze of brick and steel. She swung her head back around and sucked in a deep, wet gasp of air. She immediately stopped her feet from splashing through the puddles in the concrete and brought them through a skidding stop to keep from slamming right into him. It was as if he had dropped down out of the sky, right out of nowhere, and landed in the lane in front of her.
Apollo reached out and grabbed hold of her by the shoulder to steady her. “We have to get out of here.”
“Way ahead of you,” Illana said, tossing her head to the side to shake the wet strands of hair out of her eyes. “There’s just one problem with that.” She took another look back over her shoulder and Apollo looked down the alleyway behind her. They both looked on at the lone figure rounding the corner. He was so casual in his walk that any other onlooker witnessing his march might have actually questioned the intensity of his determination. But the two objects of his obsession knew better.
Ezekiel continued his steady stride towards the two standing at the opposite end of the alley. The small grin that he wore grew that much brighter with every step that he shaved off between them. They stood there frozen like small animals caught in the menacing headlights of his beaming eyes. And then his stride was broken; frozen in place by the growing noise of a revving engine. Apollo and Illana were also distracted by the mechanical growl reverberating off of the concrete acoustics. The maze of connecting alleyways surrounding them made placing the exact origin of the source next to impossible. It wasn’t until a beam of light came pouring out of one of the passageways at Apollo’s back that they were all finally able to focus their wandering eyes.
Raven placed the phone that she was holding next to the side of her head back into her coat pocket and slammed on the breaks. It helped her to successfully snatched the handle bars to the right and sling her rear tire out to help quickly navigate the sharp turn around the next corner that she came to. Having flawlessly pulled off that maneuver, she saw that the single beam of light pouring out of the two fixed halogens on the front of her bike had painted a glow around Apollo and the woman he was standing with. There was also a third party further off in the distance that managed to catch a fading portion of the shine. Raven hit the gas again and hurried down the alley until she was right on top of her shipmate.
“Syntax?” Apollo said to Raven once the skidding tires of her bike came to a complete halt.
“Said you were taking too damn long,” Raven replied. She peeled the fingers of her right hand away from the handgrip on the handlebars and used it to throw back the hanging lapel of the glistening leather coat that she wore. Once it was out of the way she gripped hold of the pistol grip at her back and brought the barrel of her gun forward, training the sights at the dark figure standing at the other end of the pathway. “This wouldn’t happen to be the reason why?”
“Save it,” Apollo said to her, using his fingers to tip up the barrel of her gun as he escorted Illana around to the rear of the bike. “Right now all we need is a ride.”
Illana climbed onto the seat behind Raven. “What about you?” Illana said to Apollo, quickly realizing that there was no more room for him on the conveyance.
“Just get out of here,” he replied. “Zion needs that disc. I’ll do my best to buy you some time. Just don’t think of using that as an excuse to slack off,” he said, directing his words more towards Raven now.
She revved the engine again, filling the tight corridor surrounding her with the explosive noise blasting out of the machine’s exhaust system. Staring ahead, she saw the dark figure standing near the opening of the pathway in front of her start up waking in their direction. After giving another twist on the right handlebar grip she set the rear tire loose and helped guide the spinning wheel of burning rubber around in a half circle until she and her bike were facing in the opposite direction. Afterwards she released the break and nearly brought the front wheel up off of the pavement with the speed that she used to take off down the alley.
Apollo watched them go and then turned his glance back around over his shoulder. The figure that had once been moving at a steady stride of walk gradually began to quicken his pace into a full-on sprint right in his direction.
Raven made the corner and immediately pumped some more gas into the engine to make up for the speed that she had lost in the turn. The motorbike hadn’t made it more than fifty or so feet before both she and the passenger at her back were racked by the noise of something heavy exploding into the wall at the end of the corridor that they had just turned out of.
Apollo had been determined to do his best to hold the ground that he was standing on, but the speed that Ezekiel had propelled himself towards in less than just a few seconds reached an almost astronomical level. It was certainly enough to throw a considerable blow against his body once Ezekiel had decided that he wasn’t going to stop. Lowering his shoulder and slamming it into the chest of the standing roadblock, not only did Ezekiel managed to scoop him up off of his feet, he used that continuous flow of motion to carry him on down the alley and through the brick wall at his back. Apollo moved through several walls actually, the brick structure lining the outer shell of the building being the most resistant of the cluster. The only victory that he was able to claim after having been knocked blissfully silly by his opponent was the fact that he was still holding onto him when his back came to a sliding stop across the floor that he had landed on.
Unfortunately, it would be short-lived.
Ezekiel forcefully shoved himself up from the floor and the grasp holding him down there, breaking free instantly. Once he was up on his feet he was quite kind enough to give Apollo a hand up. Two, in fact. Both of which grabbed hold of him by the front of his shirt and coat. He nearly suffered a severe case of whiplash from the force with which he was snatched up. The next thing that Apollo knew his body was being swung around in a spin until he was let go of and sent flying once again. This time he would be smashing through walls alone and have no one there to greet him when he finally came to on the ground again.
Raven’s bike was ripping through the wet lanes of traffic in front of her. Illana was on her back holding on for dear life around every sharp cutting dodge around the vehicles in front of them. It was only by chance that she was able to catch the sound of whipping fabric snapping against the wet wind shear from the area behind them. She took a look back over her shoulder and sucked in a deep gasp of breath. He was right there. Nearly right on top of them and the strange woman in front of her piloting the bike was completely oblivious to their peril. Illana quickly sprang into action, whipping the back of Raven’s coat to the side and reaching for the gun sitting in the holster at the small of her back. “What are you doing?!” Raven called out to her, taking a few quick peeks back over her shoulder. The only response she received were the rapid succession of shots that went off at her back. The sudden arrival of the noise not only sent a surprising shudder through her, but it threw all of the nearby traffic surrounding them into a panic. Raven had instinctively ducked her head down lower when the sound of the shots appeared. She was just about to spin her head around again in the hopes of finding out what the hell this lady’s problem was when she caught a glimpse of the image being reflected in her side mirror. She could hardly believe what she was looking at. The picture of what could only be described as a man streaking through the rain cluttered air behind them no more than a few feet above the lanes of traffic they traveled. A closer look let Raven know that it certainly wasn’t Apollo that was gaining on them so fast. There wasn’t a picture of his familiar face anywhere in the small panel of glass that she was staring into, and it froze her veins over even harder.
Illana’s trigger finger went spastic again. The only thing that Raven could think to do to help her out in her endeavor now was to try and increase the already dangerous speed that they were moving at to try and shake this tail. Once again Illana’s bullets hit nothing but air and water as the target that she aimed for barrel rolled and careened from left to right behind them. Ezekiel came in harder and faster above their heads, throwing his clawed hands down to make a reach for her. What Illana couldn’t accomplish from ducking out of the way of his grasps, Raven managed to take care of by swerving from one lane to the next. Just as Illana was rearing back up and preparing to answer his next approach with another flurry of shots Ezekiel’s body was suddenly bolted forward at an even greater rate of speed. Apparently, Apollo had finally been able to catch up with them. His assistance came in the form of him exploding out of the darkness above and crashing head-on into Ezekiel’s back until the two of them went tumbling headlong into the lanes of traffic ahead of them. Raven watched them crash into the street in front of her and quickly made the decision to veer off around the next corner to her left.
They bounced off of concrete, careened off of metal, and fell back to the street again as their rolling collision made a mess out of traffic. Of course their rolling tumble ended with Ezekiel on top. He used his position of advantage to purposefully slam Apollo that much harder down into the shallow divot of concrete that they had landed in. He then gripped one of his palms around Apollo’s face and lifted him up from the ground. With Apollo’s hands clasped around his wrist and the rest of his body struggling against the hold that he had on him, Ezekiel cocked his arm back and slung it forward, releasing his hold on his hostage. Apollo went soaring through the air until his back came slamming up against the front side of an oncoming bus. His body hit so hard that the bus came to an immediate halt around the deep indention being form in its front end. The impact was so forceful that the back wheels of the monstrous vehicle were hoisted up several feet into the air. Ezekiel quickly lost interest in the phenomenon, preferring instead to crane his body around in the intersection that he was standing in and look down the street that Raven had sped out across. His feet left the ground and he was swiftly after her again. Apollo dropped down out of the crease that he had put in the front of the bus. Barely having shaken the stun off of him, he was back in the air having lit off after Ezekiel again. His current path took him through a first floor window of a building on the corner of the intersection and brought him out of the structure through a second story wall as he moved at an angle towards Ezekiel’s fleeing form.
Illana took another look back behind her. She watched Apollo try his best to contend with the menace making a flying beeline for the bike that she was on; having his every gallant effort rewarded with an increasingly painful rebuke. “Here! Take this!” Illana turned back around and belted out into Raven’s ear.
“What?!” Raven replied, feeling a hand go digging around into one of her coat pockets.
“I have to help him. He’s coming after me. Just get out of here.”
Raven suddenly felt the weight on the back of her bike lighten significantly. She took a quick look back behind her and saw that her passenger had let herself slip from the seat and go tumbling back in front of the traffic that was hurrying to catch up with them.
Apollo had flown in to throw another hit against Ezekiel again only to get himself caught up in another air rolling struggle that ended with him being thrown against the side panel of the trailer of a passing eighteen wheeler. Apollo hit the ground, rolled a bit, and was quickly back up onto his sprinting feet; feet that left the ground in flight a few seconds later. Ezekiel had already spotted Illana’s tumbling body and was in a rush to catch up to it before the front bumper of that very same truck that Apollo had just hit was able to make contact with her body. By the time she had stopped rolling across the ground Illana was able to look up from the ground and stare ahead at the set of headlights bearing down on her. Ezekiel swooped in just in time to scoop her up before the gigantic wheels of the vehicle could smash her to paste.
“Illana,” Ezekiel sneered at her as he rose up higher into the air with the front of her shirt held firmly in his grip. “It’s time for you to…” When Apollo’s body hit it jarred Ezekiel so hard that he nearly lost his grip on Illana. One hand had slipped free but the other was still able to keep a somewhat loose grip on the fabric of her shirt. With him still holding on to her, the three of them managed to stick together until they all came crashing through the nearest brick wall. Ezekiel rolled over on the floor and pushed himself back up to his feet. Wiping away the dust and grit that covered the sleeves of his coat, he looked over at the gaping hole in the wall that he had just come through. “You know, I’m really getting tired of you,” he said, turning his glance back around to the crumpled heap on the floor across the room from him. “Suppose it’s best that I just take care of you two little birds with one great big stone.”
“That’s really…not a bad idea,” Illana said, struggling to get up on her feet. “But just so you know, by the time you’re finished with the both of us, that disc will be well on its way to sealing your fate.”
The sinister grin that Ezekiel wore slowly began to melt away into a grimacing look of aggression as the image of the third, and still missing, culprit flashed in his mind. “You’re lying,” he said to her. He took a step in Illana’s direction and she mimicked his move with a step back.
“You really think so?”
Ezekiel dropped his glance down to the groaning individual who was still crumpled up at her feet. Ezekiel spoke a single, angered grumble just before forcing himself up through the ceiling above him.
Illana walked across the room until she was standing underneath the hole that he had made. She looked up through the falling rain water and debris that had been trickling down from the dozen or so similar holes that had been bored through the building until the night sky was visible. The sound of another groan carried her eyes back over to the man that she saw struggling to rise up from the floor only to collapse back down again.
Raven’s eyes opened wide as saucers as she snapped her upper body up into a vertical position in the loading chair. She sucked back a loud, deep gasp of wind into her lungs and could have sworn that she could taste broken glass in the back of her throat.
“Damn it!” She heard the words spilling out of Syntax’s mouth just as a hand was reaching out and snatching the plug out of the back of her head. “Think you can cut it a little closer next time?”
A few more deep breaths later and Raven finally came to her senses. “Scold later,” she said to him. “Just tell me you copied the download.”
Syntax moved back over to his station. After running a few taps of his fingers across the screens and keyboards he reached down and ejected a single disk from one of the drives. “Got it,” he said, holding it up next to his head. By now Raven had already hopped down out of her seat and was swiftly moving over in his direction. She snatched the disk from his hand and just kept on moving. “Hey!” Syntax turned and called after her. “Where do you think you’re going with that?”
The pounding sound of swift moving footfalls racing through the dark corridors at their backs managed to turn both Despauna’s and Concent’s faces around in the opposite direction. It wasn’t long until a figure emerged from the darkness and rushed headlong into the cockpit of the Nexus.
“You guy’s are back,” Despauna said, turning abck around to face front again in the seat that he occupied. “And not a moment too soon. Just heard back from the Corposant. Those sentinels are really hammering them with a purpose. They’ve already broken through are initial line of defense. Flagard’s been scrambling to snatch up a few stragglers, but that ain’t do much in stopping the hit that’s about to fall on the city. They’re gonna need every ship they can get their hands on and we gotta go. Go tell the others to strap in.”
“But we can’t abandon broadcast depth yet, sir,” Raven said to him, gaining herself another look back in her direction. “Apollo’s still in. I just barely managed to make it out myself.”
“Then get Trix and Dustin and the three of you go in there and get him,” Despauna insisted. “Whatever it takes, but I need him out of there now. We’re pulling out ASAP.”
“I understand that, sir, but that’s not why I came up here.” She pulled the disk out from her pocket and showed it to him. “We’ve got it. The location of Ezekiel’s city.”
“Right,” Despauna said, breathing out heavily and turning back around towards the windows in front of him. “And you’re still hellbent on beaming that Intel back towards Zero One.”
“Sir, you know what happens if we attempt that transmission,” Concent said to him. “Forget about our matrix broadcast. Once we start pumping out a feed with the strength to hit that city there won’t be a machine in existence that won’t be able to zero us two seconds later. Forget about making it back to the front lines. We’ll be lucky if we make it out of this tunnel.”
“Yeah, but if we do manage to draw some of their soldiers away from the fight it just might be the best thing that we can do for them back home.” Despauna cut another look back in Raven’s direction. “Tell Syntax to send it up. And get Apollo out of there.”
“You should take better care,” a voice spoke out to him from the darkness. Apollo’s head craned over to the right and he noticed a dark figure heading over in his direction. She was moving away from the floor length curtains that were decorating a window on the wall across the room from him. It wasn’t long before she moved into a segment of light that was washing in through the window. All of the nervous intensity building in him vanished the second that he was able to recognize her.
“Illana,” he breathed out exhaustedly.
“You were really banged up,” she said as she continued to approach the bed. “I figured this would be a good place for you to rest up while keeping us both safe from Ezekiel. Not that he would be looking for us. Guessing he’s got enough on his plate at the moment.”
“You mind telling me exactly where here is?” Apollo said, snatching back the covers blanketing his legs and climbing out of bed.
“Safe house. My boss has several around town. They’re reasonably secure if that’s what you’re worried about.”
“Good to know,” he spoke blandly while easing back into his footwear. Once he was done he went straight for the leather trench that he could see draped over the back of a lounge chair across the room. He clutched at the pockets and felt nothing inside of them. The cell phone that he was after had obviously been lost in the melee that he had just survived. “Phone,” he said to her in the same dulled down, straight to business tone that he had been addressing her in.
“Sorry,” Illana replied. “Safe house means no lines in or out. And even if you had a cell it wouldn’t do you much good in here. There’s no reception. This place is practically a dead zone. So relax.”
“I can’t relax,” Apollo said, slipping his arms into the sleeves of the coat. “I’ve got a war to get back to, assuming it isn’t already over. In which case this place should be coming down around our ears at any moment now.”
“What about your friends? Surely they’ve made it back with the information I secured. Which would make Ezekiel’s fall a mere matter of time. Has your faith in their abilities completely lapsed to the point that they’d require your presence simply to function?”
“Seems like a dangerously complacent attitude to have, given our current situation. If I didn’t know any better, I’d assume that you were trying to keep me here for some reason.”
“You looked like you could use the break.”
“Well thanks, but I don’t think Ezekiel did that big of a number on me.”
“That’s not what I meant.” Apollo just stared at her for a second before turning and heading for the nearest door. “You know, there’s always going to be some other battle to fight,” she said as she followed him out into the dimly lit hall. “Out there. Just beyond the horizon. Like a brand new sun waiting to greet you each day. Must you constantly rush out after each and every one?”
“What do you want me to say? I’m an early riser and I bore easily,” he replied.
“Why not enjoy the night?” Illana said to him. She stopped walking and leaned against the wall next to her right shoulder. “After all, there’s no telling just how many more any of us are promised.”
Apollo had just made it down the first few rungs of the staircase before he stopped moving and turned around to face her. He took a moment to carefully inspect her pose as she stood there awaiting a response from him. “I’ve enjoyed plenty. Whatever makes you think otherwise or that there could be anything different about this one is absolutely baseless. It’s not like you know anything about me.”
“I know your type,” Illana said to him just as he was turning to take up his walk again. She succeeded in pausing him and gaining his eyes again. “And merely surviving from one to the next is not the same thing.”
The moment of silence between them lingered longer than Apollo would have preferred to let on. Finally snapping back to his senses and shaking off the small trance of reflection that she had lulled him into, he said, “I need a phone.”
“Once you leave here, about a block in any direction,” she said. Illana pushed off the wall and started heading back in the opposite direction. “You should be able to find everything you need.”
Apollo listened to the sound of her footsteps reverberating off of the walls around her as she made her way back to the room they had left. “And if I need anything else?” he said.
“You’ll know where to find me.”
Apollo turned and continued on his way down the steps.