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Ties That Bind - Carpathian Mountains
Routine.  It could be a comfort or a killer, depending on the person or circumstance for sure.  Order, chaos, time, purpose...these were all necessities in the wild world of rambling and things to contemplate as one is held captive by the decision of Fate.  Death.  What was death?  Nothingness?  Life then was what, the opposite?  And who had the answers?  Why wouldn’t they share?  Selfishness?  An old pact, ancient and secret?  What the hell was the point of it all?

The message was like all the others, nothing had been different.  Copy and paste.  They called and Nika, their weapon, dutifully answered.  Like she always had.  The drop was set in dense forest.  Romania or Ukraine?  The mountains and woods presented a rolling terrain welcomed for the challenge it offered and already she had crossed and recrossed the old borders so many times she’d stopped glancing at the HUD to see which country she occupied.  Old-growth trees grew up rather than out, no doubt compensating for their thick numbers, toward a sun that seemed farther away somehow.  It would get darker quicker here which wasn’t a problem really, just food for thought.  The length of the hike wasn’t abnormal either, especially for the times.  Gliding into this mess had been impossible for a couple of reasons.  Clearly the trees would have none of it and then her bosses were a paranoid bunch.  The exact location of the drop was only revealed by proximity.  As in you had to just fucking find it.  Sometimes that was rather maddening.  Whatever it was she was supposed to retrieve though had to be at least marginally portable as she was already two hours into this hike.  That put it in the middle range of the goody drops on the all-time list.  So, not bad.  Yet.

The micro drones cast a net around her.  Eyes and ears.  Still she used her own senses, only glancing at the HUD if something interesting popped up.  Which nothing did and that was great.  Time was passed singing to herself, mostly old cartoony songs from the stuff her parents had watched as kids and she was able to tuck her love interest neatly into a corner.  That Liv was there at all was significant.  A brief picture in minds-eye drew a dimpled smile.

Thirty minutes later saw a slight opening in the trees.  A squat camouflage polymer case beckoned.  Nika took a knee and the code she was given parted the lid.  There was a small hard-shelled pack, which she slung onto her back, no questions asked.  Why would she?  It wasn’t the first time.  She clicked the chest strap closed with one hand and reached for a box of what she assumed were the latest anti-evil darts.  Please and thank you.

The explosion, small and focused, caught her unaware.  Despite dampers and the armor of her helmet and face shield, the flare from the surgical blast did it’s job.  Nika staggered backward at the force of the concussion and fought to regain her footing.  A sustained ring drowned out all other sound and time.  The flash had birthed a million suns flaring bright yellow and blinding white before fading to black again.  She felt her boots on the rough ground as she backed away from the case.  One step, two.  Then the surface was smooth.  Made.  She reached out.  Where the forest air should be, was, only moments before.  Her gloved fingers touched glass and the world exploded into light.
Ringing.  Her ears rang.  Was it in her head?  Head or ears.  She couldn’t tell.  The beam of light was the rough equivalent voltage-wise to a lightning strike, if she remembered the stats correctly.  Her suit had taken the brunt of the massive charge.  Nika didn’t need the forearm readout on her dead screen to know that; she was colder.  The automatic comfort settings were no longer functioning.  Like everything else.  She’d released herself from the pack and dropped to the floor, leaving the webbing to dangle.  Nika couldn’t say with clarity whether or not she’d lost consciousness.  That probably meant yes but it had taken forever, it seemed, for the halos of light to dissipate.  At least she could see now.  Around a mild headache.

It mildly amused her that she could be blinded twice.  More blind?   More blind was, well, more accurate.  She laughed and the sound echoed in the confined space.  Thank God for therapists.  She was doing alright now.  All of her focus was on the problem at hand and it was a significant problem.  Problems.  The distraction was welcome as it pushed the panic away.  At the moment establishing communication with her drones was at the top of the list.  There was no escaping the pod without help from outside.  Not if this was what she thought it was.  No. She knew what this was.  Fuck.  She was fucked.  Scale of one to ten?  Six.  At least.  This was an Explosive Ordinance Containment Disposal Shell.  Designed by zee Germans.  There was nothing else it could be.  Smooth walls, no seams.  Definitely.  She’d run her fingers over every surface.  She was a thousand percent certain.

Nika took stock of her inventory.  She needed power.  Obviously.  But the main batteries in her suit were fried.  Her helmet might be salvageable as that had a separate power source.  So then she’d need to try and salvage the auxiliary batteries woven into the suit liner’s fabric.  Which meant she had to remove her exo-suit and cut them out from the inside because even her knives would have a hard time penetrating the armor and exterior weave.

She had no idea how long she’d been at flaying the little things.  It became a routine though.  Carve out a patch of fabric, split the weave carefully as there was no way to detect them otherwise, and then carefully extract the little rectangles.  She made a pile during the mindless work and worked around the next step in her head.  These things weren’t ever meant to be used externally.  They held a minute amount of energy but were basically self-charging once powered up.  Nika had no idea how many of them it would take to power her communications.  This presented another problem.  There was no way to know the battery polarity without a wiring diagram or a multimeter.  She had neither.  Connecting them incorrectly would fry them and there was a one in four chance to get it right.  Nika stared at the pile of trash in her lap.  Fuck.  

Tapeworm.  Or half-sticks of gum which was less gross.  She’d been at it a long time.  The battery pile had amassed to fill both boots tamped down.  Her baselayer did a good job of insulating from the chill of the obsidian egg-prison however it did nothing to help her numb ass from sitting too long.  Tired of drooling around the flashlight in her mouth, the webbing on the wall held it now.  The light was more than enough for the space and would last longer than she’d live if whomever had set this up intended on leaving her in here to die.  If it were her, that’s what she’d do to kill herself.  Nika for all her skill as an assassin was after all, completely neutralized in this thing.  So her thoughts bounced around a bit.  The flashlight potentially outlasting her gave way to a wry laugh every once in a while.  That power unit would be more than enough for communications but the case was not penetrable by anything she currently had at her disposal.  Sure a grenade might do the trick but it would also kill her and probably destroy the battery.  Same with a bullet.  So again, here she was with plan F.  Nika Raskov, super seamstress...or whatever you called someone who did shit like this.

During a break she’d found the battery that powered the HUD inside her helmet seemed to be unscathed, if discharged.  Nika didn’t question what was grounded and not during the surge.  It made sense though that the explosion from the case had knocked it offline.  She figured she’d take the good luck as it came.  

After tearing apart the suit lining, the helmet itself was next.  She tried to keep everything relatively organized but it was not a large area to work in.  Crap was everywhere between the fibers of filleted fabric to the actual suit skin.  She’d folded the big pieces and sat on them to help her dead butt, the rest of the debris was just there like she was building a nest or something.  

The aperture helmet was also partially disassembled, crudely, because she only had knives for tools.  Wires were exposed and hanging, some spliced while others cut completely in an effort to power only the essentials.  That meant no visual, only audio.  The EOCDS that held her would allow signals out by default and with interface, in as well.

By twos, Nika mated the little power cells and twisted the fine wire leads together at either ends of the soft rectangles.  Those were carefully lined up on her left leg so they didn’t touch one another.  When the real estate was full, she tested the union on the flashlight casing.  The charge indicator appeared when the polarity was correct.  The bad couples she stuffed in her baselayer shirt, they were soft after all, and the good ones she laid out on her right leg.  There were many more bad couples.  Three left legs to fill one right.  Once her right leg was full, those were in turn mated into foursomes.  Half the batch was a loss.  This process was repeated until her good stack was two inches thick.  Nika then wove the leads around a thicker pilfered wire and touched the two ends to the good com battery.

Nothing.  Nika held her breath for what seemed an age.  A blue charge indicator lit up.  “YEAH!”  Her outburst was loud in the enclosed space.

She felt a surge of hope.  The whole process was repeated until six such packs of gum were wired in.  It had taken a god awfully long time and her shirt was stuffed with failures.

Nika keyed into her audio.  Transmitting only.  Now hopefully the perimeter microdrones hadn’t been fried by the lightning.  “DADS Receive.  If you can hear me, park com relay-capable drones on the EOCDS.  Acknowledge with audio.”  Nika giggled and brought out her Sean Connery.  “Single ping only.”

A lifetime seemed to pass before a tone sounded in her earpiece.  This brought on another whoop. The drones weren’t equipped with speech capabilities.  “Alright, one ping for yes, two pings for no.  Do you understand?”  Ping.  “Are there any other humans within our tactical area of operation?”  Moment of truth.  Ping.  Ping.  Excellent!  Or not but at least she wasn’t having to immediately deal with being attacked or hauled off to who knew where.  “Three pings if you detect anyone besides me until I’m out of here.  Widen the scout area to insertion point.  Acknowledge with one ping.”  Ping.  ”Connect me to Gillian.  Secure channel.”
“Mmm...that’s it.”  Nika tried to keep it simple especially since Jacinda had to carry everything, even if it just amounted to an efficiently packed rucksack.  She’d instructed Gillian to offer an exo-suit but it wasn’t clear if the other woman would wear it.  Nika certainly took advantage of them and she was young and zippy.  Cross, while not a centenarian...had likely not taken care of herself like Nika had.  It was probably some combination of the gung-ho American attitude mixed with a lack of regular resources from Rome.  She’d analyzed the feeds from their last encounter and the other woman had mentioned her back was hurting.  So that was it really.  Jacinda was old and hurt and Nika didn’t want to be more of a burden than she was turning out to be with this fiasco.  

Nika hadn’t been a part of any sort of atheri team for what, six...eight years now?  It was hard for her to rely on someone else, especially given past events but the die was cast here.  She hadn’t spared a thought on where the rest of the Spice Girls were; one person was enough.  Truth be told, the more people that came the more awkward this became.  Needing rescue like some child.  It was embarrassing.  Nika made a vexed sound that echoed in the egg.  Who’d set this up, anyway?  ...and why the hell go through so much trouble?  The hardware alone was...geez...expensive.  Then setup and…  Thoughts for later.  

Nika spent an unknown amount of time turning outcomes over, inside out and upside down in her head.  The problem was she was no longer insulated.  So then the shock could easily be lethal or do any number of interesting things to her.  There really was no precedent.  Since that was the only real constant, Nika focused on streamlining the instructions Jacinda would need both to trigger the charge and what to do in the aftermath.  Assuming they didn’t end up fried to a crisp.  

Cross meanwhile had been ferried back to Ukraine, this time in a much more spacious insertion drone called Eeny, and deposited two or so hours north of Nika’s position.  Route C had her travel downhill at least in case she encountered hostiles...she’d have the high ground.  Their escape route was similarly planned.  Assuming a lot.

It was doubtful Jacinda was in full tactical assassin evening wear and therefore not likely to have access to the eyes and ears of her micro drone defensive net via HUD in an aperture  helmet but the little guys were dutifully escorting her nonetheless.  Gillian would have given her a forearm tactical interface and earpiece at minimum.  Those were non-negotiable as necessary to communicate with Nika once they were in range.

Critical thinking finalized, she’d busied herself tidying up the flayed suit and making sure no metal or batteries remained in the baselayer she wore.  Nika’s earpiece made a double “tch, tch” which instantly snapped her attention outward.  Not that she could see anything through the dark egg’s walls.  “X?” A com drone would have been instructed to sync up when the elder woman got in range.  1000 yards maybe?
Confirmations sounded off in her earpiece.  





Akari blipped the target’s communication channel twice and was rewarded with contact confirming her team’s movements had not been detected.  Finding the proper sync channel had taken far, far too long.  Who/what the fuck was “X”?  Surely not a partner given the kid’s history.  Another drone?  “Fry ‘em,” she ordered, and five overlapping starburst EMPs sent gods only knew how many pet microdrones to the afterlife.  Jorge’s voice came through shortly thereafter.  

“Deadzone confirmed, Cap.”

Pale eyes regarded the obsidian egg on the HUD.  “Blow it.”

The clearing once again bore witness to a beam of otherworldly light.  The creepy giant oval absorbed it all disconcertingly like a black hole.  It would not have surprised her in the slightest if some tentacled monstrosity emerged to do battle for the fate of the cosmos.  “We really need better sci-fi vid feeds in the transpo,” she mumbled.

“Again, Cap?” Jorge came back.

“Disregard.”  The egg was folding itself neatly away around a cloud of…fluff?  Akari squinted at her own drone’s grainy image on the helmet HUD.  I swear to god if all we find is a fucking teddy bear…  It certainly wouldn’t have been the first time this one had slipped away.  The team was closing in but had started farther out than she liked.  The target’s security net necessitated distance until the drones had been eliminated.  “Weapons hot.”  Acknowledgements echoed in her ear.  The egg disassembled further and regurgitated a boneless form like a newborn baby blob.  She could almost feel the team tense over the shared surveillance feed.  Jorge said what she was thinking.

“Careful, could be a ruse.”

Hatch won the footrace.  “Contact.  Holding.”  His quiet voice was joined shortly thereafter by Jorge’s breathless confirmation of the same.  Later she’d poke fun.  He came on the line signaling an advance and gave instructions to Hatch.  The two men were joined by Suggs, the tech nerd.  Then all hell broke loose.  Coms were all an overlap.

"The fuck is the black thing?  Wait, is that her exosuit?"

"She’s not wearing her suit?!" Jorge bellowed. 

"Vitals, now!"  
                                                   "She wasn’t insulated against…"  

                    "FUCK!  MEDIC!"                                                         "I am literally standing right behind you so move.  No vitals."  

                                                                             "How many volts was that?"  

"FUCK."                                   "Scan got nothing."                                                             "Prepping defib.  Set. Charge is good. Clear."  

                            "Clear."                                 "Got her.  DID YOU JUST SHOOT HER!?"         
                  "Yeah, with the stuff, she might wake up."                                                               "Look at this screen, fucktard, she’s out." 

                                           "She woke up last time."                                         "This is totally different, man."   

                                                                                     "She shot me last time."  

                    "I would have shot your ass too."  

Akari cut through the cacophony.  “SITREP.”

Jorge’s tone belied his annoyance.  “Target contained, Cap.  I fucked up planning, sir, and did not account for…”
She cut him off knowing he felt guilty as hell.  “Put her in the haptic and clear the scene.  I’m nearly there with transpo.”

The best laid plans…

Jorge had a Werther’s Original addiction problem and was furiously sucking one of the candies into oblivion when she arrived.  She’d wager 100 grand that the man had had at least five prior to that one too.  Her own eyes confirmed what he was telling her around the clicking of the sweet in his mouth.  Their target was subdued in the haptic suit, Suggs and Freeman were monitoring and Hatch was attempting to corral the debris.  Akari bent over and picked up one of the white things.  “What are these?”  

Suggs replied excitedly, looking up over his flex screens and wires.  “I think they’re integrated power storage units from her suit.  See how some of them are stacked?  I bet that’s how she found the power to get a signal out.  You know, wire in series?   Must have taken her hours.”

Akari shook her head and gave Jorge a look.  “...when our children surpass us.”  He snorted back.  “That was a long time ago for me.”  The two shared another look that was a memory from the past.  “You ready?”  

“Yeah Cap, soon as Doc and Suggs give the green light.”

“Alright, go get hooked up.  Hatch, dig in.  You’re rear guard in case ‘X’ is an issue.”

Hatch laughed.  “Find X.  Boss, I should tell you I suck at maths.”

“You suck at cleaning too.”

“I’ve got like, a thousand of these things in my bag already!”

“Gotta catch ‘em all.”

Akari made her way over to the eUTV where the crew was playing ‘If this scene were a meme.’  

“Nah.  Steampunk caterpillar.”

Doc Freeman provided his update.  “She’s good across the board med-wise and we’re ready to plug in.”

Suggs confirmed.  “Power meter says two hours.”

“Why are there less wires than in training?  Right?  Tell me I’m not crazy.”

“You’re right.  Jorge hurt her so now I don’t have to.”


“It’s true, shock like that means we don't have to use haptic to inflict pain…just squeeze a little.  Nervous system is chaos right now, honestly it’s better this way.”

Jorge’s response was laced with regret as he echoed something the techie had said earlier.  “Apparently it will make her less likely to ground in the program and figure it out.”

Suggs nodded and offered a practical, “it’ll save power too, Cap.”

“I’ll take it.  Link up and let’s get moving.”

She saw Jorge check the restraining straps holding their prisoner to the litter basket before settling his bulk on the jump seat next to her.  Doc fit a weird helmet over the kid’s head while Suggs hooked up actual hard wires to the VR goggles Jorge had put on then connected those to the weird helmet and the final Y end to a bulky, old-style laptop.  The big man put a hand on the prisoner’s shoulder where she lay and gave a thumbs up to Suggs.

Akari made her way around to the cab and detached a briefcase from stow clips.  “Hatch, here’s your bike.  Wait 60 mikes and then get your ass to the LZ.  We’ll send the drone back for XFIL.  Check in early and often.”

“You got it, Cap.”

“Alright, we’re moving.”

Hatch watched the vehicle depart and turned back to his hidey hole.  Waiting.

(( Akari et. al. continue in Lost Boy ))

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