He ran blindly through the low undergrowth, whimpering through his gasps for breath. Lifting his rifle he twisted slightly and fired blindly over his shoulder, switching from semi-automatic to full-auto, spraying the area behind him.
A root caught his foot and he went sprawling with a cry of fear. Face hitting the ground, he struggled to his feet, wiping at his eyes to clear them of the soft loam. Struggling for breath, he scrabbled about, looking for his rifle.
“I’m coming little dear! I’m coming!” the voice had a sing-song lilt to it. As if the hunter was speaking to a little child and not a fellow human.
“Fuck, fuck, fuck,” he gave up trying to find his rifle, drew his pistol.
Pushing himself to his feet, he shook the dizziness that sent the world spinning. He’d hit his face harder than he thought. Staggering, he started to run again. Started to, until pain lanced up his leg from his ankle.
“Dammit!” he crashed into the ground again, clutching at his ankle, whimpering as he felt bone jutting out from where bone should never jut.
“That looks painful,” the voice was just to his right. He rolled, firing until the hammer clicked home on an empty chamber.
“Missed,” my turn. A shape materialised out of the ferns, a metallic glint the last thing he saw as the hunter’s knife was driven deep into his throat.
“Man, that Samuel might bring home the bacon, but he fucking gives me the shivers,” muttered Morrisson to Chuck, his buddy from back in the service.
Both of them had been police, taking up a security role on Aurora before Sentinel’s stormtroopers had made them redundant.
Chuck laughed quietly at the joke as Samuel dropped the carcass of a hog onto the canteen table, sharing a few quiet words with Lemuel, the Erehwon butcher-cum-chef.
“He’s a stone cold killer,” Chuck muttered back just as quietly. Both of them knew a killer when they saw one. Some killers were soldiers, killing out of a sense of duty. Others, like Samuel were just killers, murderers. Neither of them could say exactly why they thought that, just that after years on the streets and in interrogation rooms they knew the true nature of the man they were watching.
Morrisson shifted his view slightly. Everyone possessed the innate ability to know when they were being watched, and a predator such as Samuel would easily pick up on their stares if they weren’t careful.
“He’s a valuable asset,” Chuck pointed to the hog. “Without the food that he brings in, we’d be a lot hungrier.”
“I know, I know,” sighed Morrisson. “I just don’t like the fact that we have someone like that walking around our families.”
“He might be a psycho, but at least he’s our psycho,” his friend patted him on the shoulder. “So long as we keep an eye on him, he can’t make trouble here. Besides, he seems to enjoy helping us.”
Samuel finished up his business with Lemuel, shaking hands with the other man before shouldering his hunting rifle and making his way over to Maria. Shaking her hand, he handed her the bag he’d had on his back.
“Fuck me, where’d he get those?” Morrisson and Chuck watched as Maria unpacked three assault rifles, numerous magazines and a couple of pistols followed by chest armour and harnesses. “That’s Sentinel gear.”
“Looks like he’s hunting more than one type of game,” Chuck pretended to tighten his laces. “He’s got to be damned good if he can take on the type of PMC that Sentinel hire.”
Morrisson didn’t reply, chewing his lip as he realised that Samuel was going to be much more of a threat than he’d previously thought.
“Roger that, callsign Baker Two commencing sweep,” the patrol leader gestured to the other two men with him and they moved out, a few metres separating them. They were casual, weapons held low, not really checking all of the angles. Tail end Charlie rarely even turned to see if they were being followed.
“Careless,” whispered the hunter to themselves as he ghosted through the undergrowth. He left them get a lead of ten or so metres, shifting his angle of approach so that we was slightly to their left.
One of the Sentinels turned his head and the hunter froze, holding his breath, looking down at the ground, using his peripheral vision to continue to watch the Sentinels. The man’s head turned away, and the hunter moved again.
Of all of them, that one was the most alert.
He should have been the patrol leader, not that dumb sheep leading them, thought the hunter.
Dropping to his knee, he tucked his rifle into his shoulder, laying the reticle of his scope onto the back of the Sentinel’s head.
“Boom, headshot,” his rifle coughed, suppressor turning what should have been a loud roar into a sharp crack. It wasn’t silent, suppressed weapons never were unless they were in films, but it was considerable quieter than an unsuppressed weapon.
“What …” the Sentinels leader was still trying to process the fact that he was covered in his friend’s brains when the hunter’s second shot took him in the throat. Dropping to the floor, gobbling like a turkey, the Sentinel leader thrashed about as he took his last few dying breaths.
A third shot and the last Sentinel was down, a heavy slug pulverising his heart, dropping him instantly.
Silence reigned, the hunter slowly panning his scope back and forth, waiting to see if he was actually the hunted. One minute, then another passed. Finally, after five minutes and no sign of other enemies, the hunter moved slowly forward and started to gather his trophies.
“Jesus, three more. He’s going to bring some serious shit down on himself if he’s not careful,” Chuck examined the receiver on his M416, holding it up to the light to make sure it was as clean as the day it was first made.
Morrisson looked down his barrel, pretending to examine it for any dirt, but using it to look at Samuel as the man handed Maria yet more weaponry.
“Not a mark on him, cool as a fucking cucumber,” Chuck blew on the receiver then started to clean it again.
“I get the feeling that he kills humans as easily as he kills those hogs he brings in. No difference, only one might be slightly harder to kill than the other.”
Chuck reassembled his rifle, working the action to make sure it was to his satisfaction, dry firing it before putting it down and setting to work on loading his magazines. Morrisson smiled as Chuck started to polish every round before carefully pushing them into the magazine. It was what set the two men apart from many of the homesteaders. They still had professional pride, realised that a clean round could literally mean the difference between life or death.
“We still hitting that truck?” Chuck pushed the last round home, then started work on the next magazine’s worth.
“Yep. They’re setting up a communications point just west of an old fort. Usual three-man crew, maybe a civilian specialist with them. We’re to leave the specialist, just take out the guards and blow the truck.”
Chuck spat onto the ground. Whilst many of the civilians were working for the Sentinels because they’d been forced to at the end of barrel, many others, too many others if they were honest, were more than happy to work for the Sentinels.
“Well, give me another twenty minutes and I’ll be ready,” Chuck laid aside a round he didn’t like the look of.
Morrisson nodded, saying nothing as he watched Samuel head back out.
“Bastards have got a drone with them,” whispered Morrisson as he watched the Sentinels go about their work. One of them was clearly a commander, the other two were assault troopers.
“Civilian working on the laptop,” Chuck replied, marking the civilian as he did.
“Three enemies, two of us. Hardly seems to be fair,” Morrison pinged the two targets he was going to take, the commander and the drone hovering above them. “You cool taking the other two?”
“Roger that amigo. Count it down.”
Morrison started breathing slowly, trying to still his pounding heart, ignoring the mouth which had suddenly gone as dry as sand, the sweat on his palm. It always happened when it came to having to take someone’s life. As cop he’d only had to fire his sidearm once, and the incident had seared itself into his brain, waking him many years later.
Since Sentinel had arrived, and since they’d driven the homesteaders and many Skell employees into hiding, he’d been forced to take more lives. Each and every one had been seared into his brain.
Sniping someone is far more personal than he realised. You get to watch the person you’re shooting at, sometimes even hearing snatches of their conversations, personalising them before snatching their lives away.
He breathed out, then held his breath, his sight centred directly on the commander’s red-bereted head. A slow count of one, then he squeezed the trigger.
His rifle bucked, a three-round burst hammering through the commander’s skull in an explosion of bone and brain matter. Before the commander’s colleague’s had a chance to react he shifted his aim and blew the drone out of the sky in a shower of sparks and shrapnel.
“Targets down,” Chuck was up and moving, rifle tucked into his shoulder, scanning for additional targets. “Stay the fuck down!”
That last was directed towards the civilian who, being covered in the bodily fluids of the dead Sentinels, was quite rightly freaking out in Morrisson’s opinion. Chuck played the assault part of their team, whilst Morrisson stayed in overwatch.
“Push the civilian away, and we’ll blow the truck,” Morrisson ordered as he panned around, looking for any additional targets.
What the fuck? He could have sworn he spotted movement as his rifle panned over a section of brush. Panning back, he stared hard at the area. Nothing moved, but his gut told him something was wrong.
“Move quickly, we’ve got a guest. Can’t see them, but my gut’s doing backflips,” Morrisson radioed to Chuck.
“Roger that,” Chuck hauled the frightened scientist to her feet, then booted her rear and sent her running. Whilst he set about planting C4, Morrisson continued to scan the area of brush.
Where the fuck are you? He was certain he’d seen movement. Movement that couldn’t be explained by a breeze, or a small animal moving through it. Not even a bird. Someone had been watching them. Whether they were there now he couldn’t be sure, but whilst Chuck was vulnerable there wasn’t a snowball’s chance in hell that he wasn’t going to keep looking for the threat.
“On my way back,” Morrisson took his eye from his sight, looking over at his friend as Chuck sprinted away from the truck, remote detonator in hand.
“Fire in the hole!” Chuck dropped back down next to Morrison and squeezed the trigger. With a bright flash of light, the truck was blown apart, the shockwave blasting over the two men as they ducked their heads.
“Want to check on our voyeur?” Chuck raised an eyebrow.
“No, let’s get the hell out of here, I can still hear the damned echoes from that blast,” Morrisson pushed himself to his feet and ran towards where they’d parked their motocross bikes.
Morrisson and Chuck sat around the Erehwon campfire, sharing a meal of beans and rice. Whilst they were accepted by the Homesteaders, there was still an air of reservation. They’d been part of Skell Security Operations, and when some of their colleagues had been co-opted by Sentinel, that shit had rubbed off.
“Samuel’s back,” Chuck gave a slight nod in the direction of the hunter. “More hog, some bananas.”
“No weapons this time,” Morrison spooned a mouthful, wishing he had some tabasco sauce. “Looks like he’s left the Sentinels alone this time.”
“That, or we took the ones he was planning on. He did leave just before us, and it’s what, only thirty minutes since we got back?” Chuck leaned over and ladled another serving into his mess tin. They got extra rations for carrying out missions and, since both liked their food, they were more than happy to take advantage of that.
“Notice he only ever speaks to the high-ups, and a few others?” Morrisson swallowed, watching from the corner of his eye as Samuel moved through the camp. “Seems pretty tight with that couple there. Man and woman.”
“Yeah, seen them talking to each other before. Not many others though,” Chuck dipped a slice of bread into his food, stuffing it into his mouth and chewing loudly with an open mouth. It was an ongoing joke, harking back to when their parents tried to instil good manners.
“Pig,” Morrisson stretched, using it as an excuse to turn his head and get a good look at the couple Chuck was talking about. “Seen. Wonder if they get a weird vibe from him?”
“Not by the way they’re talking to him. All smiles,” Chuck finished off the last of his meal, scraping every last bit of the food from the tin before putting it to one side. “What we going to do?”
“Watch and wait, nothing we can do without evidence. And I’m not going to go looking for where he lives. That would … escalate things.”
Samuel said his good byes to the couple, then turned and stared at both of the ex-cops. Seconds passed as the three men just looked at each other. None of them moved. None of them spoke. Then the hunter smiled, gave a little wave, and left.
“Those two are looking upset,” Chuck pointed over at the couple they’d seen speaking to Samuel. Ever since the standoff a while ago, they hadn’t seen Samuel.
“Wonder what they’re saying to the operator?” Morrisson put the map he’d been studying down and looked over at the couple, and the bear of a man speaking to them.
“Talk of the town aren’t they. Our rescuers, knocked out of the sky by drones, hardly a chalk left intact.”
“Let’s go ask,” Morrisson walked over to the ghost. “Hey man, everything okay with those two?”
The ghost looked them over. His face was hard bitten, eyes permanently narrowed. A full-on hard ass who’d seen more shit than a public toilet. A scar ran full length down his face, and Morrisson spotted what looked like burns spreading up from his collar.
“They’ve lost a friend. Some hunter,” the ghost’s voice was a lot warmer than Morrisson expected.
“Samuel?” Chuck asked.
“That’s him. What can you tell me?”
“Loner. Good at hunting. Beast or man doesn’t seem to make a difference to him. Was wondering what happened to that psycho fuck.”
“You two ex-cops?” it was less of a question, more of a statement.
“Yeah, police department, then Skell Security, then .. this,” Chuck waved his hand at the cave they were in. “Still, hard to shake the habit.”
“Anything else you can tell me?”
“That’s it. Consummate hunter. One dangerous fucker,” Morrisson added.
“He knows we don’t like him much too. Let us know he knows we’re watching him.”
Sighing, the ghost nodded his thanks then took his leave.
“A word?” the ghost they’d spoken too previously lowered himself down next to them, passing out a couple of MRE – Meal Ready to Eat – packs, not waiting for a reply.
“Hey man, how’d the mission go?” Chuck tore the pack open. “Beef Teriyaki! Fucking yes!”
“I completed it,” the ghost opened up his MRE and started to eat without reading what was in it. “Guy’s a fucking psycho. Gave us access to his cabin. It’s got a cellar.”
Morrisson put his pack of Maple Sausage down, appetite gone. Chuck met his eyes, it was clear that his friend also knew what was coming.
“Let me guess. It’s a kill room,” stated Chuck.
“You’re the experts, but there was a Sentinel on the table who’d had a drill taken to him, and dead civilians in a corner. I don’t know if the Sentinels killed them and Samuel’s just put the bodies there, or if he killed them himself. That’s for you to find out.”
He reached into his shirt pocket and took out a key card.
“He has a cabin South of Mossy Pond in Sinking County, just here,” he pointed to a location on the map that Morrisson had been using. “Then up on a rise, there’s a small shed. That’s what this key card is for. The kill room is beneath it.”
“Any idea where Samuel is?”
“Nah, he made off once I’d dealt with the Sentinel death squad sent to remove him. There were three in his hunting grounds, and another at his place. Got there just in time.”
Morrisson wasn’t sure that was good news or not. Still, innocent until proven guilty.
“Thanks, guess we’ll take it from here, you say his cabin is here?”
The three of them looked over the map, the ghost marking out the approach he’d taken to reach the cabin, all three agreeing that it was probably best they headed directly to the shed as the entrance was hidden from the cabin.
“Nothing there when I was. Might have changed though.” The ghost didn’t need to warn them to be careful. With someone like this, it was a given. Shaking hands, they parted, and Morrisson and Chuck got down to planning their next steps.
“I can see the shed, just up on the rise,” Morrisson whispered over his radio. They’d managed to borrow some throat mikes and earpieces, so he was able to sub-vocalise.
“Gotcha, moving up to the forked tree twenty metres to my twelve,” Chuck moved as he was talking, keep in a low crouch, placing his feet carefully.
“Reckon he’s still here considering that death squad knew his location?”
“Depends. Does he gamble on the fact that they know he knows they know where he is, or does he relocate? In position. Move.”
Morrisson didn’t bother answering Chuck’s question. It was rhetorical. They still had to assume that Samuel was around. To do otherwise could prove fatal. Moving through the brush, he split his attention between his next step and the area around them.
Dropping down onto his belly, he sighted on the shed door.
“Got the door covered. Get up there.”
Chuck moved again, rifle tucked into his shoulder, each step placed carefully before the next was taken. It was painfully slow. Literally. Morrisson’s thighs were already screaming from the slow approach they’d made and he swore that if they made it out of this alive, he’d be hitting the gym and squatting for all he was worth.
Chuck tucked himself against the wall of the shed and gestured for Morrisson to move up. They wouldn’t speak again until they were in the shed. Morrisson moved, weapon trained on the shed door whilst Chuck covered him, making sure that his six was protected.
Morrisson breathed out in relief when he stacked in behind Chuck.
“Slice the pie, or fast?” whispered Chuck so quietly that Morrisson barely heard him in his earpiece.
“Fast, I’m getting twitchy out here.”
Chuck nodded, then moved as soon as Morrisson patted his shoulder. Keying the door open, Chuck moved in and to the left, whilst Morrisson moved in and to the right. Both of them swept their weapons across the nearest corners of the room before clearing the rest of the small room.
“Clear,” Morrisson whispered. Blinking at the sudden stinging in his eyes, he wiped a sleeve across his face, clearing it of the sweat running down it.
“Hatch in the floor,” Chuck had his weapon aim at the hatch.
Morrisson moved up, keeping his weapon trained on the opening. The ghost hadn’t closed it since his visit. Nose wrinkling at the smell coming up through the hole, Morrisson looked over at Chuck who nodded. Both of them recognised the stench of rotting flesh.
“Going to be nasty,” Chuck’s voice was neutral, devoid of emotion as he reined in any emotions.
“Moving,” Morrisson stepped up and swept his sights around the hatch, making sure no-one was hiding. Slinging his rifle, he grabbed hold of the ladder leading into the cellar and slid quickly down.
“God!” the stench hit him hard, eyes watering, gorge rising. He drew his pistol and stepped away from the ladder, clearing the room as quickly as he could before calling out for Chuck to join him.
“Motherfucker!” Chuck shook his head in disgust as he looked at the kill room. The dead Sentinel trooper was still on the table, a DeWalt drill next to him. In one of the corners was a pile of civilian bodies.
“Look at this, the trooper has been tortured, the civilians look like clean kills,” Morrisson had his phone out and was filming the scene. Taking a breath through his mouth, he leaned in to make sure that he captured all of the details.
“Grab that light for me,” he pointed over his shoulder, “picture’s too grainy.”
Shutting out the sight of the bodies, he concentrated on making sure he got as much detail as possible.
Going to have fucking nightmares for weeks, he thought as the light bared the true nature of the bodies piled before him.
“What you think? Shoots civilians, kills Sentinels. Or Sentinels killed the civilians and he brought the bodies here for whatever reason?” Chuck asked.
“Fuck knows. Gut says the former. I’m hoping for the latter,” Morrisson locked his phone. “Let’s get out of here. We’ll leave it as is for now, come back with a proper team to bury the victims.”
Climbing the ladder, he unslung his rifle.
“Game face on, fucker could be waiting outside.”
“Roger that, you going to take point this time?” It was an old joke, they swapped who went first, happy to share the risk.
“Guess it is my turn,” chuckled Morrisson as he stepped out of the shed and turned swiftly left. That was what saved him as a bullet struck the shed just where his head would have been.
“Contact front!” he screamed, throwing himself down the slope, sliding into the cover of a large tree. Firing off a couple of shots in the direction he thought the shot had come from he looked over his shoulder to make sure that Chuck was still in the game.
“You okay?” called his friend, laying down fire from within the shelter of the shed.
“Fucker missed!” Morrisson moved to the other side of his tree and popped off another couple of rounds. There was no return fire. “He’s hunting us. Reckon he’s trying to get an angle on me.”
Morrisson looked to his left and right, trying to work out the best angle for Samuel to get a bead on him.
“He’s going to move to my nine to eleven o’clock, can you get out of the shed?”
“Working on it now,” Chuck replied, the sound of a knife digging into wood coming over Morrisson’s ear piece. Morrisson shifted his angle slightly, making sure that he didn’t expose his back as he covered the angle he thought Samuel would be taking. “I’m through, dropping down to the pond and looping out. I’ll move fifty metres, then sweep back in.”
“Roger that,” Morrisson tried to ignore the pressure between his shoulder blades, the thought of a bullet ripping through his spine, or the cold edge of a knife cutting his throat. Hands shaking, he tried to steady his breath.
I wouldn’t hit the side of a barn from the fucking inside right now, get a damned grip Morrisson! He pounded his thigh, using the dull pain to focus.
“Don’t fucking move!” screamed Chuck, somewhere to his ten o’clock, followed by a flurry of gun fire. “Fucker’s moving towards you.”
A shape appeared, broken up by the ghillie suit covering it, running at an angle to Morrisson, back towards the pond. Morrisson took a shot, in his excitement he laid the sights directly on the target, his bullet going to where Samuel had been, not to where he was.
Cursing, Morrisson shifted aim, leading the hunter by just a few inches and took another shot. Blood puffed into the air, Samuel grunting then planting face first into the ground.
“He’s down! Moving up!” thigh muscles screaming, Morrisson moved rapidly towards the now screaming Samuel. As soon as he reached the man he kicked his rifle further away. “Freeze!”
“You fucking traitor! You’re as bad as them!” Samuel snarled through bloodied teeth. Morrisson looked at Samuel’s hand as it clutched at his chest, covering where Morrisson had hit him.
Lung shot, thought Morrisson with no pity for the man. He’d tried to kill them in cold blood rather than actually speak to them and explain what had happened. Fucking hope it hurts.
“What do you mean we’re traitors?” asked Chuck, weapon still trained on the hunter.
“Those civilians, they worked with Sentinel. So I executed them. They’re traitors, working with killers.”
“And the Sentinel on the table?” asked Morrisson.
“I needed information. So I drilled it out of him,” Samuel tried to laugh, but it turned into a choking gargle and a gush of blood.
Morrisson pulled out his phone and hit record.
“So you’re admitting to murdering unarmed civilians, and torturing Sentinel troopers, as well as trying to kill us because we’d found out what you were doing?”
“Fucking right, and I’d do it again,” choked Samuel.
Morrisson locked his phone.
“Fucker’s reaching for a weapon,” he said as calmly as if he was commenting on the weather.
“No choice but to defend ourselves,” Chuck’s voice was just as conversational.
Morrisson wasn’t sure who fired first, but both of their rifles barked, Samuel twitching the last few seconds of his life out in the dirt.
“I need a drink,” Chuck put a fresh magazine into his rifle.
“God damn now you’re talking,” smiled Morrisson and with that, they returned to Erehwon.