The ricketing had grown louder and, even in these badly lit streets, Ricard was sure he was not hitting that many potholes or stones. Maybe some of the cargo was loose and adding to the noise? Or maybe the truck was even more of a piece of crap than he originally took it for.
‘It sure sounds like typical Marticiano miserliness,’ Ricard could not help feel a wave of amused resentment at the thought of this band of rather shitty crooks and their delusions of grandeur. ‘They are about to make a big score; quite possibly the biggest they will ever be able to pull off… and the bastards get stingy on a set of wheels!”
Whatever, he stopped mumbling to himself and dismissed his misgivings. If anything breaks or becomes unusable back there, it is not my fault. I’m sure their hidden spotters will attest I was not speeding.
Something bumped against the truck’s wall on the right side. A quick glance through the side-view mirror revealed nothing on that side. ‘Damned brats!’ Ricard Llorent kept both of his hands on the wheel and grimaced. ‘You’re not supposed to be out at this hour.’
He really wanted them to be naughty, bored children throwing stones to spook drivers. He prefered vandalism to the other option. Either way, he was not stopping. Not now that he was so close to the drop point and the two duffel bags full of money.
‘Ves a la merda,’ Ricard swallowed hard and stepped on the gas to make the truck go a little faster. ‘I’m not stopping to see what that was. Not until I’m at the warehouse, so... que et fotin, cabróns.’
Finally, he managed to drive the truck clear of an alley that was too narrow and turned around the corner to see the lone warehouse at the far end of a wider cul-de-sac. He flashed the truck’s light once, as instructed and received two back in response. It came from a place somewhere in the distance that he could not exactly pinpoint. Still, he was sure it was a point farther away than he had imagined. Then his eyes went to the warehouse and he spotted them; two duffels bags on the floor near a motorcycle with a sidecar parked in front of the old sliding doors in the dilapidated warehouse.
‘Cabróns!’ Ricard lost his temper and hit the steering wheels with the palms of both of his hands. ‘Of course the fucking doors had to be left closed! You shits!’
After a slow advance through the streets, the truck turned a corner and soon flashed its lights once. Zafran immediately and instinctively closed the eye she had to the scope and opened the other one to catch any glimpse of a possible response. She cursed under her breath as she could not see any, at all. Even lightning-fast reflexes and advanced military training could not cover all bases. If there had been an answer to the signal, it had to come up from ground level and somewhere either deep inside a structure or a very narrow alley. Zafran did not like not knowing the approximate number of possible hostiles present in any potential battlefield, but she had learned to bite the bullet and work around this inconvenience with a formula of her target range Drill Sergeant’s own devising:
‘If uncertain or unable to confirm, always assume it’s one hostile plus the number of visible vantage points or obvious foxholes in your area of influence. Then, you make a quick 360 check to ascertain you’re not inside somebody else’s AoI, and finally pray you’re right on both accounts.’
Even if the Drill Sergeant agreed with her that it was highly unscientific, it usually paid off when on the field and Zafran had not required too much praying in the past. This time, though, she counted at least five places where assailants could have positioned themselves around the obvious delivery zone. ‘You can’t cover all bases’ the clear memory of her Drill Instructor’s voice came to her riding in the night air. ‘So, pray there’s a Dread Angel near and looking over you.’
Zafran Berhane sighed. This time she was it and she was certain there were no other DAs out here on the field with her, so she had to look after herself.
‘Easier said than done,’ all mockery and jaded resignation, she closed her panoramic eye and returned to using the one still on the scope.
The old ice truck stopped a few yards from an older-still warehouse and a tall, slim man with his shirts’ sleeves rolled up almost to his elbows came out of the driver’s cabin. He was an European and visibly angry. Zafran couldn’t help but crack a brief smile when the man extended both arms above his head and flipped the finger with both hands all around him as he walked towards the warehouse closed door.
‘Guess your partners left you hanging, you fool,’ Berhane scolded and, after some quick computations, she sighed again and got up from the ceiling she was lying on and moved, crouching, to the next tin roof and the next one… and the next. As silent as a cat on its nightly strolls, all the while disassembling her opera binoculars and reassembling them into their scope configuration.
‘Let’s hope this doesn’t end in the need for flashy sidearm work.’
“Ok, you wet-nappies… this has gone for long enough. I’m taking the bags and the piece of merda motorcycle and getting out of here” Ricard was more offended than angry. Still, he made his tone firm and curt. “I’m not opening that door and taking the truck inside. I was paid to drive here, deliver the vehicle, picking up the bags and getting back to Casablanca. That’s it. I’m not lingering to do your job, too. Fuck you, very much!” As Ricard walked towards the bags and he heard the tuck’s box rattle a bit. A sudden, brief sound, but he did hear it and a chill ran down his spine.
Did these assholes send me here to...smuggle people? His mind raced. It was too often that he heard about abductions all across the Axumite Federation’s borders because it was tantamount to hit a wasp hive with your bare hands. Serious accusations, quick and very frightening deployment of troops and DA squads, and broken families not finding solace or quick justice for their loss. Yet in the territories outside the Axumite rule, abductions were not as common… or nobody really cared if a small cattling community or even a small village went missing. Ricard frowned at the thought, but he had to accept that was the way of things. Especially in Casablanca, where people went missing everyday. Still, Ricard Llorent had never heard of the Marticiano gang being involved in human trafficking. He felt cold sweat running down the back of his neck.
He stopped two steps from the duffel bags and listened. The box rattled a bit louder.
‘OK! You know what? Fuck this!’ Ricard raised his voice enough so those inside the tuck’s box and the old warehouse both could hear him. ‘‘I’m taking my money. I delivered the box and I’m keeping it at that, so it’s what I’m owed. Whtatever is inside the truck, is none of my business and fuck if I know what it is. That’s on you and you alone can deal with the rest of your two-bit bunch of dimwit goons back in Casablanca yourselves.’
Ricard made for the bag and a single shot hit the floor near him. He was so frightened he could not even jump back. ‘I may be known as someone without even a shred of respect for most laws, but one thing I know is fucking rotten, is selling people.’ Ricard slowly raised his hands and looked at the warehouse’s doors. ‘So, I’m not going to get further involved in this—’
‘Go to the back of the truck and open the door!’ A man’s voice rag in the distance. Ricard could not ascertain if it had come from one of the roofs or from the nearby alley. Still, he knew who ever had taken the shot, was quite capable of taking another one and, should that happen, Ricard would not be left standing.
‘All right. Just don’t shoot me in the back,’ Ricard slowly turned and walked towards the back of the truck.
The shot rang loud and clear, but nothing else replied to it. Not a scream, a speeding vehicle or even a dog barking. It did not much rang as it stamped in the night; a dry, hollow and brief detonation getting lost in the night air as Zafran approached using the typical combat glide she had been taught during her first year as an army regular. Other, more impressive Dread Angels looked down on this mannerism, finding no real use for a tactic designed for normal, lightly armored soldiery and not a full-fledged operator in the Federation’s cadres of Angels. Still, many of her fellow Erelim sometimes had to agree it allowed Zafran to be very effective while on the field and did not mess with her accuracy.
‘Fu… n times!’ Zafran cut herself from blaspheming, grimacing with repressed anger and disgust. ‘Why do they always use guns?’
She lowered her rifle and deftly pulled at its sling, making it slide to her back and then quickly fastening it so it would not get in the way as she sprinted towards the hovels and old buildings , in hopes to find a better position.
‘I guess this might need sidearm tricks, after all!’
Ricard took a deep breath. Not because he was anticipating a bad smell, but some image he knew he would wish to forget as soon as he opened the door. He swallowed loudly and hard as he lifted his hands to the levers and locks. For an instant, he hesitated and another shot struck the floors inches away from his feet.
‘Don’t fool around! Open it, Spaniard! Now!’
Ricard unlocked the doors; then, a loud thud against the tin-laminated doors and the loud crack of a gun were the only two sounds he could hear before a bright flash blinded him and everything went black for him.
‘Spaniard! Now!’ Zafran could only make those words after the dry sound of the shot‘s faint echo ceased. It was all she needed to hear to pinpoint the approximate location of the man barking the orders and the shooter, Zafran counted her blessings. She had indeed been close to giving her position away to the sniper who was in the rooftops to the left of the truck. thus being able to fan over front and back. The poor driver had it bad as there could be no way for him to find cover quick enough to outrun a bullet from the hidden assailant.
‘Damn it,’ Zafran felt the tug of her conscience. There was someone actively working on a potential threat to the Axumite Federation’s integrity as well as Berhane’s personal and quite not-entirely-official efforts to keep clean of any overt criminal activity in the territory she had been appointed as a diplomatic envoy to. Still, he was in grave danger and she could not idly witness how things went south for him. Her Erel nature kicked in and she jumped out of cover trying to get the sniper’s attention.
A single shot rang almost immediately, and the sound of the bullet hitting the rooftop on the spot where she had been but a fraction of a second ago, told Zafran everything she needed to know:the shooter was someone who had a good eye, but not training as a marksman.
‘This is going to be easy,’ Berhand muttered and seatied her breathing; her lips tightened under the mask as she readied her pistol. Then, as she prepared to jump once more to lead the shooter astray and be able to finally zero in on them, the loud sound of the ice truck’s doors slamming against something drew her attention back to the ground. She could not believe her eyes.
A mass of swirling muscles and tendrils jumped out of the tuck’s cargo box and to the ground. It just stood there, balancing on all fours from side to side; it bobbed its huge bulging head up and down, as if trying to shake something off, its large eyes furiously blinking. Then, it focused its attention on the man prone several feet away and Zafran instinctively knew what was going to happen next.
‘Not if I got any say on it!’ She swallowed another string of swearing as she jumped into the streets below and shot twice at the rooftop where she calculated the sniper could be holed up and another one down the dark alley next to the old warehouse. “For good measure! Don’t get any ideas, I know where you are!”
Great. Bravado… that’ll teach ‘em, mamma! Zafran reprimanded herself and hoped that didn’t incise the sniper to try his luck against a Dread Angel. Go get that poor guy out of there and be done with it, Berhane!”
The strange creatures finally seemed to get its bearings and adjust to the poor lighting on the cul-de-sac. It opened its maw in what seemed to be a roar, but Zafran Berhame could not hear anything. Still, the man on the ground twitched and whimpered as if hit hard by some unseen force. Berhane’s augmented eyesight allowed her to catch a glimpse of blood trailing from the poor fellow’s ears. She had read about these strange creatures in the post-mission briefings of other fellow Dread Angels. Mindstalkers, her mind raced trying to remember all the references and details about these beasts and how they have been beaten. In the meantime, well... a couple of shots won’t do me any harm!
Zafran raised her pistol and fired once, only to be surprised at the creature’s lightning fast reflexes. What she had meant to be a shot to the head, ended hitting the ghoulish creature’s pallid flank. She noticed how a rib broke and the waxen flesh ruptured, oozing out a viscous, transparent liquid while, at the same time, the man squirming on the floor ceased his movements and relaxed for a bit.
That was when a second shot rang out and left Berhane a bit startled, but turned in time to let her next shot fly true to where the hidden assailant had been. With the corner of her eye, she noticed how the beast turned towards her and opened its elliptical maw.
The pain hit her squarely in the temples, as if a pair of spikes had been driven through them deep inside her skull and crashed behind her eyes, making her head throb and her legs falter. It was only her training as a Dread Angel that saved her from falling face first on the ground. Zafran could not utter a sound, but could feel her inner ear swelling at the outlandish vibration coming from inside her head. Anxious confusion started to claw its way out at the back of her mind at the thought of an unseen threat creeping from behind her. Staggering and disoriented, Zafran stumbled forwards. She was using her free hand every other step to straighten herself as best she could as the pain surging from deep inside her head drilled at a point behind her nose. She felt it starting to bleed and her ears began ringing as her eardrums were about to burst.
Focus! The voice of Drill Sergeant Rabin made its way from the back of the mush containing Zafran’s recollections of time she used to be… exactly, what? What did I use to do then? She saw the creature open its disproportionate maw again, and another wave of searing pain stabbed her just above the palate. Zafran could clearly feel how a long needle descended from a point right at the center of her skull cavity and that made her immediately stand up and arch her back. Still, something bright at the edge of her forehead made her keep her eyes on the beast as it slowly approached where she was.
‘Fuck us!’ The man trying to get up from the floor screamed, with terror and confusion ringing wild in his voice, as he crawled backwards and away from the horrible milky creature. ‘That thing will fucks us!’
Berhane heard the man’s wailing, but did not take her eyes from the beast. Her heart skipped a beat when she saw how it tensed its muscles as if readying itself to pounce and it protruded many tendrils around its lower jaw, each one of these crowned by what looked like a lancet promising a long, gruesome agony to anyone unlucky enough to harbor them into their flesh.
Suddenly, the stiffness making her arch her back went away and Zafran Berhane let out the air trapped inside her lungs, feeling how it came out and dragged a spray of blood with it. She could taste the iron in her mouth, along something else. It was a pungent, zesty ooze, with a consistency harder than a phlegm and it was painful to have it go out the nose or drag it from the back of her throat to her mouth in order to spit it out. It hurt, yes; still, not nearly enough as having her brain turned into a pin, no, a rail spike cushion and her back bending over in the wrong direction. All these unpleasantness only made her concentrate on the threat before her and she prepared for the fight ahead For a brief fleeting instant, Berhane felt the tug of fear as she noticed her gun was no longer in her hand. The beast began opening its enlarged mouth once more, but paused as the Erel immediately focused her attention on it once more.
‘Oh, no, you don’t, kumonyaniswa.’ Zafran was not absolutely sure why she had used Shona-Xhosa to name the miasma-born abomination, but she felt it was quite appropriate. The distortion seemed quite fitting and it certainly earned it. ‘Now, I know your game. The moment I let my mind wander off from you, you’re going to puree my brain, so no. You don’t get the upper hand, ever again.’ The abomination bobbed its head from one side to the other, trying to ascertain if the man still dragging himself on the ground or the Dread Angel standing before it, and so it was the horrid creature started to slowly try and circle the most obvious threat before it, its many tendrils wriggling around its bulbous head.
Without a second thought, Zafran’s left hand went for her rifle sling’s security brooch and released it. The weapon’s weight shifted from her back to her buttocks and, with Zafran only twisting her hip but a fraction of an inch, it went to her left side. There, she grabbed the stock, straightened the rifle and slipped her finger inside the trigger guard, quickly squeezing a shot from her hip and blasting the creature’s right shoulder. Even though the weapon was highly modified to reduce its recoil, the kickback was enough to make Berhane stagger a couple of paces to the right. Still, she did not lose sight of the reeling creature. The repulsive transparent goo had splattered the ground between them and now Zafran could see there was a trail of faint, greenish mist coming out of the wound as the beast thrashed in the floor, its right foreleg limp. The tendrils on its lower jaw all taut and dripping with another viscous liquid.
Zafran, now holding the rifle with both hands and in a proper firing position, squeezed the trigger once more. The creature’s forehead caved in and it stopped moving. For good measure, the Erel shot the creature on the chest and only after it did not twitch, she turned to the man on the ground and, using the barrel of her rifle, pointed vaguely to her right side in a general direction. ‘You, go get my pistol,’ she ordered him. Her voice came out with a small wheeze, yet remained calm and quite firm. The man’s shocked stare softened a bit and he nodded twice, quickly shifting his position and walking towards the general direction the Dread Angels had pointed him to. Berhane circled around the beast’s corpse to never lose sight of the man.
‘Did you know what was inside that truck?’ Zafran was angry, yet her tone came out soft and business-like. She watched the man shake his head. He was also fixedly looking at her with wide, still fearful eyes. ‘I can’t hear you. Also, don’t look at me, look for the gun. If I meant to kill you, I could have taken the shot the moment you entered the city.’
Ricard Llorent nodded and turned his head to look for the missing pistol. In what seemed like the time it takes to turn on the light switch and have a small room lit, he saw afterimages of a vast field surrounded by mist and the Dread Angel’s pistol just sat there, bright and appealing. Many thoughts raced through his addled mind, some of them feeling sticky and heavy, not the least of which was to grab the gun and either shoot his savior or himself, to avoid being taken to the Federation’s questioning rooms. Ricard had heard many rumors of people taken there, never to be seen again.
‘No. I didn’t, I swear,’ his own voice sounded strange to him. ‘I was hired to drive the truck here, take those bags in front of the vehicle and then return to Rabat. I didn’t know I was hauling that piece of miasmic shit.’
He reached the gun and his mind focused on only one thing.
‘I’m going to slowly bend a knee, pick up your gun and toss it back, officer.’ ‘I’ve got no rank,’ Berhane half-lied. Erelim did not separate or organize themselves into any specific hierarchy, and she was almost sure the other Dread Angels also did not pay that much attention to distinctions besides Team Leader, Comms, Demo, Sniper, Spotter and Heavy Support. ‘And I’m not the police, either. So, depending on what your next answer is, that can be either good for you… or very, very unpleasant.’
‘It was the Marticiano gang. They offered me the job and I took it because it paid enough to get me out of this place.’ RIcard grabbed the gun with two fingers and stood back up, raising his free arm to show he was not a threat. As if I could ever pose one to a Dread Angel or anyone other than myself.
‘I appreciate the gesture, but you don’t need to worry. I know you don’t mean to shoot me with my own weapon,’ now that she was completely sure the beast was dead and quickly decomposing under her watchful eye, she lowered the rifle and waved the man to approach her. ‘Give me the gun and let’s get out of here. Whoever took potshots at you and left you hanging dry might try to come back now this thing is out of the picture. Go get those bags, get in the sidecar and wait for me.’
Ricard sheepishly nodded as he gave the gun to the Dread Angel, his eyes fixed on her strange mask which showed many faces… or features of faces, but ended up forming none at all. Then, he turned and trotted to the front of the truck, and as he was trying to pick up the bags, he heard ticking come from one of them. He looked at the Dread Angel with horror and without a second thought, dropped over bags, trying to pull them both under him.
The man’s quick reflexes and the contained blast startled Zafran Berhane. The flash from the explosion quickly turned into a red mist and she ducked to avoid as much shrapnel as she could.
‘Dammit all to hell!’ The sound of her own voice hurt her ringing ears and she took a deep breath to stop from further cursing. She had intended to save the fool someone else had selected to be porter and bait for a miasmic horror, and it ended up being him who had given up his life so she could keep hers. ‘Debt’s cleared, I suppose.’ Zafran bit her lower lip as she felt the warm caress of a single tear coming from her right eye. She turned to the corpse with every intention to kick it until she needed a rest, and found it liquefying at a quicker rate than she thought normal. She stamped her feet and made for the dark alley next to the old warehouse, in hopes of finding a trail or a route out of the damned place as the explosion was sure to bring out the curious and the local police, and the least the Federation wanted was an Erel spotted in a zone well outside its borders, and where a miasmic creature had been put down and a man lost his life. Diplomacy being hard enough as it was, Zafran could not jeopardize her own work by remaining there.
Still, she had a name to go away with: the Marticiano gang.
Zafran would use her diplomatic connections to dig out as much information on this outfit as she could, and then… The Faceless would make sure this man whom she did not know the name had not died in vain.
She scurried down the alley, moving as silently as the night’s light breeze.
Casablanca had always been a hotspot for the activities of many agents and several interest groups trying to advance their agendas before the Miasma’s third expansion, but the five men looking down at the place where the events unfolded were well outside the typical cloak and dagger sort.
One of them was evidently furious at the outcome.
‘Failure! Utter, abject failure!’ His accent was thick, full with the rich, long drawn use vowels so common to Mexicans speaking in English.
‘No, Dr. Salazar, not at all.’ The tallest of the men calmly corrected the irate Mexican. ‘The outcome was not what we set out to evaluate, of course, but we did get results.’ ‘Ah, sí? What were those, Sr. Surrey?’
‘If you’ll allow me, I’ll explain our obfuscated colleague here, Mr. Surrey.’ ‘If Dr. Wessex and Mr. York also agree, please do, Prof. Cambridge.’
Neither one of the two silent men made neither a sign nor a gesture to make any dissent evident, and the one referred to as Mr. Surrey nodded for the other to continue.
‘Thank you, sir. You’ll see, Dr. Salazar. Even if we were unable to clearly observe the full extent of the biological asset’s powers or resilience outside the miasmic field, we now know for a fact… its psionic attack can affect Dread Angels.’
Before the Mexican could air any objection, Mr. Surrey lifted his hand to signal the meeting was over and then flicked a switch in the console board. Immediately, the twelve small monitor screens went black, leaving only the red lightbulb over their heads to light the way out of the observation deck.
‘Africa will still be ours, Dr. Salazar. Now, your job will continue as convened: you will proceed to immediately prepare another specimen; meanwhile, Mr. York here will make haste and find us another, more private testing ground. That will be all.’’
The hatch opened with the loud creaking of the wheel being turned from the outside, silently sliding open to let the four men in sharp-looking civilian suits out and leaving the still livid Mexican inside, with his hands balled into fists as he blankly stared at the now empty screens.