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Stories posted in this category are works of fiction. Names, places, characters, events, and incidents are created by the authors' imaginations or are used fictitiously. Any resemblances to actual persons (living or dead), organizations, companies, events, or locales are entirely coincidental.
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Hidden Sunlight - 15. Key Of Hope

For a teenage boy, it was apparent to me even back on Earth, that I was already in the minority when it came to my peers. The few friendships I had with other boys my own age had hardly been deep or meaningful to begin with, but an interest was awakened in others that I seemed to lack. Some were explicit; bluntly and crudely showing their intentions. Most were a bit more subtle and had some self-control. Regardless of how it was expressed, one thing was for certain: I didn't feel the same way.

I knew what sex was. Much to my father's relief, my school health class had taught a segment on human reproduction, which explained the important facts in what seemed like excessive detail. It just wasn't interesting to me, and not in any sense. I never held any fascination with it and although I knew it was driven by hormones more than anything, I didn't feel the interest in girls and not even a scrap of it towards boys. The concept, if anything, was a messy and foreign thing, both literally and figuratively. It was also very confusing and fraught with all kinds of potential problems; the customs and social expectations that surrounded any kind of dating were downright intimidating.

It was something I was in no hurry to experience.

Yet, as I lay there, his head resting peacefully on my bare chest, his hair spilling across my skin in a dusky spread of warm gold, I considered again how things had changed on Lucere. My fingertips idly traced on Mira's shirtless back as he lay draped comfortably over me, content and unwilling to move in the afterglow. His breath was slow and dozy, his own finger circling lazy rings around my left nipple, playing for no reason other than the desire to touch.

Now, I felt differently.

From the first moments of knowing him, there was a connection. Every day it had changed, growing and strengthening. I had seen it in everything. Through the mixing of our emotions, through the wonder of shared physical touch and those words we spoke to one another, aloud and in the untarnished silence of mutual understanding. Now, sex was a part of that too. It was still mysterious, but no longer foreign; no longer uninteresting and troublesome.

That bond was so tight, so close. The fulfillment was encompassing; the present need to simply be together was without argument. If anyone had tried to separate us right then, Mira probably would have broken their arms. There had to be contact. Nothing could come between us.

My hand roamed down across his boxer-clad buttock, coming to rest underneath where it curved from his leg. The fit was snug, the material struggling to properly contain the healthy curve. With absolutely no shame, I found myself wishing that he wasn't wearing any underwear at all. There were few things I wanted more than to see Mira completely naked again. I squeezed him, loving the cushioned sensation of his flesh compressing and springing back in my hand. In retaliation, his head moved a little and then, I felt his tongue. It lapped slowly and wetly across my nipple, the flat of it rubbing lazily and thoroughly over the entire thing.

Goosebumps swept over my chest and I gave a soft grunt of enjoyment, a grin creeping onto my face at the same time. I could tell he was smiling too, though I couldn't see his expression the way he was lying.

Always ready to play.

As I thought back, there were certain things about Mira in boxers that I ... rather enjoyed. One of those moments, I remembered, was right as we began, when I had brought my hand around to undo the button on his fly, with him kneeling before me. That became the most erotic few seconds of my life, right then. His excitement was so keen, his arousal so eager, that the pressure proved too much. The button had burst, zinging away like shrapnel from a grenade. The boxer material went slack and he sighed, shuddering from the constricting release and open air, at once uncaged and exposed.

That was something I don't think I'll forget for a long time. My boy wanted me that much that he literally couldn't keep himself contained. Of course, his unintentional display of pure youthful libido had only made me want him even more in return. I was beyond shy at that point. I had pulled him closer with my right hand, leaned in and- ... and ...

... yeah.

The taste, the texture, was something that was forever branded in my mind. His breathing had become uneven as I pressed forward, something I had never heard from him before, always having such control. Soft mewling cries started as I slid down further, his hands rising to rub anxiously, lovingly, on my shoulders while my head moved. I had laid my free left hand on his thigh, gliding it upwards under the boxer opening, beneath the fabric. The skin between his legs felt heated, silky and velvet soft under my fingertips. His breath hitched suddenly as I touched him there, caressed, tickling, but if anything it only excited him more. Mira had shifted slightly, widening his stance, another muted whimpering moan escaping him, his hands quivering where they rested on my shoulders.

All the sounds he made, the way he reacted, everything about him; it was all just right. It was so sexy, and it was a big turn-on for me, more than I thought. Not to mention, it made him happy. Very happy, like a little boy in a candy store. Only, um, the candy is actually sex and the little boy is, uh ... yeah. My fantasising recollection made me flush, as I thought of his swelling attraction, how it was more than a mouthful.

Not so little. He's definitely a big boy.

I smiled to myself, the rest of the scenario playing out in my mind. The muscles in his butt had seemed to tense in rhythm with my movements, his own fingers skipping in feverish agitation from my shoulders up to my neck and back again. It was like he wanted to communicate it to me, to give back every little tiny bit of how good it was. We had kept this going until I withdrew my left hand, shifting it up to sneak under the hem of his shirt. His lower abdomen was gloriously taut and flat, but I never got a chance to explore. The moment my hand brushed the skin of his stomach, Mira's whole body tightened, he gasped and ... that was all it took.

Fireworks.

Shortly after, it was him pushing me flat, lying on top of me and showering my face with a hundred frantic grateful little kisses. Then, stripping off our shirts so we lay skin on skin, he settled down to relax on top of me. Stretching, then covering me like a blanket made out of happy, satisfied, sleepy boy.

A boy that continually makes me amazed at how beautiful and selfless he is. One that makes me feel so glad I survived everything, and that I still have so much to live for.

No matter the circumstances, hope is a powerful thing.

Squeezing him again, already addicted to that feeling, he responded once more in kind. Only this time his mouth closed completely over my nipple, teeth nipping flirtatiously, tongue swabbing momentarily before retreating. Mira turned his head so his chin was on my chest, gazing up at me teasingly. I was giggling, grinning back at him. Then his look changed, the adoring light-of-my-life smile brightening his expression.

Breathless, thoughtless, timeless. Nothing can compare. Giddy, I whispered to him hoarsely, all the while trying to stop myself melting beneath the potent simplicity of that look.

"I love you," I told him. I don't think I can say it enough. I want to tell it to him all the time now. "I love you and you're the purest thing in my life. I don't ever want this to end."

For a second Mira didn't respond, and then he lifted off me a little, arms on the sheets either side of my body and shimmied himself up until we were face to face. Studying me as he hovered above, balanced on his forearms, it seemed he was memorising me for the thousandth time. The adoration was all the more potent from this very intimate position and he leaned in, placed a solitary kiss on my lips then pulled back again, regarding me seriously.

"It won't," he murmured. Awestruck, I could not reply, but I did not have to, as he spoke again without words, just the emotion of his inner self; 'fear nothing while you are with me. There is always time.'

Time? Time for what?

Then, almost hesitant, curious and uncertain, exactly like our first kiss all over again, he licked his lips oh so delicately, tilted his head and ...

... the magic took over, once more.

Oh.

As it turned out, there was plenty of time.

Then, right after that, enough time for one more.

-o-0-O-0-o-

We came across Carlos in the hallway as we were heading back towards the kitchen, a number of minutes later. He was carrying a shovel through from the garage, where Konstantin had been storing some of the spare gardening implements. A shovel? When he saw us, he paused, lingering on me to give an odd look and I shot him back an equally questioning glance.

"What are you doing?" I asked him.

Carlos patted the blade of the shovel. "Just taking my pet out for a walk. It needs some exercise."

I snorted at this bizarre sarcastic reply, and beside me Mira looked at the shovel curiously, as if it were a living thing, about to burst into song like something out of an animated children's film. "The dead soldiers?"

A nod, confirming my thoughts. "He asked me to take care of it. Isn't the first time, won't be the last." Carlos gave me that weird look again, his brows inching upwards as he spoke. The suggestive tone was heavy and I knew what he was implying as soon as he began to talk. "What have you two been doing?"

I'm not about to be one-upped by him. "Oh, nothing." Casual, nonchalant as I could make it. Unlike me, I swallowed my sense of inhibition and just said it. "We were just fucking each other senseless."

"Konstantin wants to see you." Carlos didn't bat an eyelid, continuing on conversationally, as if I had just told him the time of day. "Your shirt is on backwards, by the way. Might want to fix that first." He hoisted the shovel properly onto his shoulder and glanced knowingly at me before striding off along the hallway.

Fuck!

I squirmed inside my shirt, turning it around. My face was the customary red and Mira watched me admiringly, and clear as day I knew he just wanted me to take it off completely. Ignoring his attention and the backfire of my recent comment, I straightened myself out and then we both made our way to the Russian's study.

He was deep in thought when we entered the room, but he motioned for us to sit. I took the office chair closest to him and Mira sat in a more distant seat nearer the wall. Unexpectedly, Konstantin laughed. His chest shook, a welcoming broad grin on his face. "Come now, Shay!" A booming expansive tone. "Are you that afraid of being yourself?"

"What?" The question was odd to me, but some inkling of truth seemed to stick in my head regardless. He's talking about Mira? Everything is about Mira with me. I can't escape it. Not that I want to.

"You two." The curve of his mirth was close enough to splitting his face apart. "You are so bashful all the time. It is truly a delight to me. I know you love him, moy droog." Konstantin spread his arms, such a welcoming gesture. "God's will favours such things. There is no shame in this. Do not feel you should hide it. Sit as close as you want. If you wish it, sit in his lap. It matters not to me. Understand?"

I understood.

It was strange, but I didn't realise how much I wanted that acceptance until I had it. If only it was ... my father saying this to me. Both of them, telling me that- ... that Mira was okay.

That they were okay with him.

I wish they could have met him. As I beckoned him to move his chair across the floor so he was next to me, I couldn't help but wonder what my parents would really have thought of this boy and his all-important influence over my life. If I remember anything about my mom and dad, it's that they would have wanted the best for me, and he is the best. Maybe they wouldn't have understood it straight away, but they would have seen it. I'm so sure of that.

Mira's hand slipped easily into mine as the chair scraped into position right next to me. Konstantin's smile was calm and approving as our fingers meshed together, tightening. It was an incredibly liberating feeling being so openly affectionate in front of someone else and suddenly I felt so happy I wanted to cry.

How is he so good to me?

"I think," the Russian began, "that you suspect religious faith and tradition to be a source of refusal. You imagine condemnation and persecution. It is true, there are centuries of trouble based around the code upon which my beliefs are founded." He gave a hearty snort of contemplation. "Would that be right?"

Completely right. Honestly, some of that stuff just plain scares me.

"Yeah."

"Then consider this." He looked at me steadily, then also at Mira too, who uncharacteristically was giving Konstantin his full attention instead of me, absorbing his words. "Love is love. I believe it flows from the deity, and is beyond any judgement of man and his scripture. It is a paramount thing, a basic attachment without which we would be lost, as humans. Yet, even if you discard the dogma of faith, there is no moral ground upon which such criticism could stand and still be valid. Objectively, by any normal standard, you have committed no wrong. The one that condemns love is the one without truth in his heart, the criminal and the sinner, if you will." A grave look again, to both of us. "These people always have other intentions. Never allow another's motives to turn your feelings for one another into a weapon against you."

"Hartley tried." I looked to Mira and swallowed. His mask was there again, but he squeezed my hand and I squeezed back. "He tried to break my spirit. He tried to make you and Carlos no more than slaves."

"He tried and he failed," stated Konstantin, the last word drawn out and deliberate. Very emphatic. "Though, he thinks he succeeded, at least in part. Mira is dead, you are powerless in your grief and we are all targets, victims before the soldiers he sends to destroy us." A pause there, then he continued, sounding more upbeat, though still rather serious. "He imagines this is his world, that we are pieces moving on a chessboard to his grand design." Here, he stopped once more, leaning forward so he was focused solely on me, his voice deep, slow and full of weighty sobriety. "So, Mr Andersen, what is our next move?"

We outplay him, pure and simple. "Um, well, we should summarise what we know, come up with some sort of plan and then act. The sooner we do something the better, since he will just send more men once he realises the last lot have failed."

"Yes," Konstantin sat back, folding his arms, "and to manage this we must look to the past, since it has become obvious to me that everything happening today was set into motion a long time ago." He clapped his hands together suddenly, nearly making me jump. "Right! Where does this saga begin?"

The beginning? Wouldn't that be ... the grid? "I guess it begins with whomever, with whatever created the aqumi network on Lucere, but we still don't know anything about where it came from and how it was made."

"Ah yes, the so-named aqumi grid! Indeed we do not know about aqumi's creators. Hartley's data was informative, but it did not contain any such hints. No, this began for us some time in the late 21st century when the Lucere administration discovered the existence of the grid. Clearly, they recognised the potential in it and secretly contracted several groups to conduct specific research in related scientific fields. By the sounds of what the Volkov Research Foundation were up to, things were going pretty well until -- bang! The Sharpe virus exploded onto the scene."

Exploded is the right word. "How much do you know about what really happened during the outbreak?"

The big man shook his head. "Even with the PDN working, there is still very little real information left from around that time. It is complicated by the fact that most of it is meaningless social commentary or useless junk data. What I can say for certain is that the outbreak began in Palatus in the middle of February 2104, as you know. Somewhere between one and two weeks after the first cases, the city was destroyed by an aerial thermobaric barrage as an extreme alternative to the quarantine failing. In early March, Fyodor fled to his home here, perhaps three weeks after it began. At that point, the virus had found its way beyond the Palatus provincial boundary anyway and was appearing in the neighbouring areas to the east, the more heavily populated provinces. I guess from there it grew in any direction there were people, outpacing the government's ability to curb it, allowing it to accelerate as society's defences crumbled."

Wow.

"So, uh, what happened when it reached Aspira?" My mouth felt dry as I asked the question, as if the topic were so morbid and sacred that it was forbidden to even think of it. Whatever it was, it won't be very pretty. "I remember when you showed me the ruins of Palatus for the first time, you said it was a tragedy second only to Aspira."

"The city fell." His dark eyes regarded me solemnly. "I know only three concrete things about the fate of the capital. Truly, just three things. The first is that it was the best defended place on the planet; a fortress holding back the anarchy and death taking place outside. The second is that chaos gaining a foothold was inevitable. The Sharpe virus found a way inside just as it would for every other city on Lucere. The third thing? Well, three is a magic number, isn't it? Fyodor kept a diary, and he wrote he was still in touch with a few people in the city even as it was breached. That was April 2. Three days later, by April 5, none of his contacts were responding any more, all of the major stations had ceased transmission and even the government's emergency broadcast beacons were stuck on an endless loop, nothing more."

Speechless.

"Tell me, you probably knew Aspira's population when you arrived?"

Oh god. "Yeah, I did." Involuntarily my voice had dropped to a murmur, and I tripped over my tongue trying to reply."The urban area, it, uh- ... it had ... s-six- ... um, sixteen." So many people. "Sixteen million." The number seemed to hang in the air as I spoke it.

Sixteen million people.

"If you include refugees, that would be somewhere closer to twenty." Konstantin sighed. "Twenty million souls trapped there with the virus. Nowhere to run. Three days was all it took. That is the tragedy. An unholy slaughter that I cannot comprehend. It is beyond understanding now, just a number, a price tag of human hurt. I could not tell you what lies there today. No one goes too far east into Alcubierre or Leeuwenhoek, and certainly none in living memory have been crazy enough to try for Aspira itself."

Perhaps it was the numbers or maybe the words he used. I wasn't sure, but I was confronted by the overwhelming realisation that the description was right. Apocalyptic is the accurate term, and what's worse is that the capital was only a fraction of the global population.

The true price tag was much higher.

"So, uh, during all this, John Albans either left the Volkov centre and ran away into the countryside or was killed by the military before he could do so. Either way, we don't know any more about him. Chris Albans stayed in Aspira until at least the beginning of March. Probably longer, since he had some kind of civilian job working for the military."

"Mhmm," hummed Konstantin. "He was certain the virus could be beaten and that Aspira was safe, so it is likely he stayed there until the end. The research data on aqumi went to two men; James Hartley and Charles Bainbridge. My guess is that James' superior officer was somehow killed and he was promoted into the commanding role. It could explain how Miles is still the leader now. His military unit became a hereditary dictatorship, passed from father to son over the last couple of centuries."

Except that his division has now shrunk a couple of sizes down to a regiment after 200 years. Fighting an unwinnable war of attrition with the Sharpe virus has taken a big toll. "Bainbridge, though," I mused, "was also alive when Chris sent that message, and living somewhere in Mersenne."

"That is someone we will come back to." He gave both of us a thoughtful look. "There are three other people we know survived, as they are evidenced right here. My own ancestor, Fyodor. Also, Andrea Parker."

Andrea? Why does that name sound familiar? I tried to recall where I heard it. Nothing seemed to fit until ... that email I read at the GSPI was addressed to an Andrea wasn't it? The one from 'Mike' about the puzzle pieces, the data they had collected. Then it clicked. Andrea Parker, working at the Gillespie-Salford Physics Institute. Lily Parker, an intelligent woman with a self proclaimed family passion for ... physics.

Oh.

It had never occurred to me just how Lily had known about the GSPI data in the first place, or how she had Andrea's login details that had given us access to the GSPI computer network. Now, I knew.

Family connections.

"The last is, of course, you," continued Konstantin. "Now this is where the story is all yours. The survivors did what they had to over the years, but in my mind everything outside of your chamber was secondary to what was happening inside; to what was happening to you."

To me ...

"I believe it runs something like this. Albans put you in the chamber on, what was it, February 12?"

I nodded.

"The virus broke out on February 14. He then disabled the timer before he left on February 19, after one week. Normally, you would wake by two weeks at the latest, but obviously that never happened. So, by deduction, the aqumi field had to bond with your body in those first two weeks. My best guess is that it functions as Lily thinks, a view that seems supported by the synopsis from Hartley's information. Whatever programming it possesses was easily able to recognise the genetic virus, given you were sitting right on top of the aqumi node. Albans also mentioned a 'DNA activator sequence' in one of the emails, which may have been used as some kind of genetic trigger to prompt aqumi into acting."

I took a sharp breath in at that thought. "So maybe the genetic virus contained a segment of code that sorta kicked the whole thing into gear?"

"If aqumi's creators were using this field to protect a certain species -- perhaps even their own -- it is not too far-fetched that the key to merging the field with individual organisms was hidden in DNA itself. How the Volkov researchers knew precisely what code the activator sequence contained and where they got it from is a complete mystery, seeing as direct interaction with the aqumi field isn't something anyone has achieved."

I poked my tongue out at him. "I don't know what's wrong with them, I managed it."

Konstantin gave a melodious chuckle. "Well, whatever the case, it worked. You slept on, the stasis unable to cause any cellular damage to you as aqumi kept you whole and healthy. Now, as I have previously said, I think the changes, the fine-tuning to your genetic code, took place over a much longer period of time. With nothing else to do, aqumi would have spent years, decades or longer, examining and tweaking your DNA."

And that's how I stayed, for 214 years. I took a breath, thinking over the mass of information and history that we'd just rehashed. It was almost like a TV series. That's the story so far, tune in next week for another thrilling episode in The Epic Adventures of Shay Andersen. Starring me as myself, some badass Russian guy as Konstantin Andropov and a teenage ninja prodigy as Mira. Biting back a smile, I had to remember the serious context of the discussion. "Okay, so then we get to today, right? Miles is following the trail of information that his family line has been holding onto. He's been looking for the 'inhibitor locations' which are just aqumi nodes."

"Right," agreed Konstantin. "Yet despite having this information for quite a long time, he has only come to search Volkov for clues in the last couple of days."

Which means there are still some critical gaps in his knowledge. "That could mean a few things." Frowning I looked across at Mira for inspiration, who was just patiently listening, as he so often did, his thumb rubbing affectionately across mine, our hands linked. He regarded me warmly, and although there was no particular message in his look, I could still sense an encouragement, a whisper of advancement that promised me I'd get to where I needed to be soon enough.

"Maybe he didn't know where the medical centre's ruins were? You said you first met Hartley a couple months ago when he was scouting on his own, so that could have been like, recon, or something. Or ... maybe the data from Albans had no mention of Volkov, so Miles had no reason to be looking for it until he discovered something more ... OR ... maybe he was just coming here because he found out it was a medical facility built on top of an aqumi 'inhibitor location.'"

The Russian raised a hand to stroke his beard pensively. "Mmmm, yes. I think you're right on the first suggestion. The way he spoke during that whole incident implied that he knew very well what Volkov had been up to. He also knew who you were, thanks to León's help, and now too that your disease immunity is linked to aqumi."

"But Hartley doesn't know about all the other stuff, the, uh, immortality, the regeneration and all of it." I can't let him find out either. "He knew Volkov is an aqumi node and I'm guessing he had those sharpelings brought there because he wanted to expose them to it, maybe to see if he could do anything to reverse the virus."

"Well," rumbled Konstantin, "he lost that chance. Now he is back to his search for this 'control node' and that is what brings us full circle to Mr Bainbridge."

Mersenne. Seems like Chris Albans had a fondness for the place. "Okay. We have the advantage of knowing where all the aqumi nodes are, thanks to Lily. We just don't know which one is the important one. Hartley's advantage is the opposite. He mentioned customs records, so there's a good chance he has access to other military database info from back then, which means ... "

"-that he likely knows where in Mersenne that Bainbridge lived." Konstantin finished the sentence. "Chyort. He has a headstart on us. Most likely his men are already on the way there."

To hell with that. I'm not going to let that arrogant fucker carry this all off without a hitch. Remember, outplay him, pure and fucking simple. A surge of confidence shot through me as I realised what we had to do.

"Konstantin." His eyes shifted to me from where he had been passively staring at the ceiling, in the middle of his ruminations on our dilemma. "This is our plan. We have one of his officers. If Hartley planned a mission to Mersenne, this guy would know about it. We make him talk, find out where we need to go and get there as quickly as we can."

The big man eyed me, a question hovering there. "That is bold. Make him talk?"

"Yes." My reply was completely matter-of-fact, my mind made up. "Make him. We have to know."

"Well then." He stood. Reaching to his desk, he picked up the Tokarev. Releasing the clip a fraction, he checked that the weapon was fully stocked before clicking it back soundly into place. "Just like our guest Federico, we will have a chat with this man."

A chat with a loaded gun? "Wasn't the pistol just a prop for interrogation?"

"Yes." The Russian's own response mirrored mine. The deep hum of his baritone was soft, the accent subtle, but his words were deadly serious. "Yet, now, my friend, the gloves are off." He flicked the safety on the side of the weapon.

It's time for action.

"One way or another, we will get answers."

-o-0-O-0-o-

The man was in the garage, just as Federico had been. Bound to a chair, his limbs were tied closely to the legs and armrests. Unable to move, he had been stripped of all his combat gear and now wore only the uniform. Burly, close cropped brown hair, a smattering of stubble and a passive somewhat nondescript face, he would have been only slightly shorter than Konstantin when he was standing. As we entered, his eyes followed us, but his face showed no emotion.

Mira moved noiselessly behind the captive officer, while Konstantin and I came to his front. Even in Lucere's summer warmth, the Russian often wore either a jacket or a longcoat, but now he had removed the outer layer and he stepped forward to stand in close to the man, the solid hard build of his stature cutting an intimidating figure.

Not someone I'd want to fuck with, but then again, this guy works for people like Klaus. No idea how he's going to react.

"What is your name and rank?" Konstantin spoke, a direct question, his voice hard as iron. There was none of his normal joviality in it. All business, no more Mr Nice Guy.

Surprisingly, the man gazed back for a few seconds then spoke. Though I didn't remember hearing any accent when we were confronting him and his squad, there was an uncommon lilt there that I immediately detected.

Irish?

"Morgan, Sergeant. 2nd Battalion, B Company, 1st Platoon." Despite his apathy, the accent brought a quiet sort of spirit to him, an unintended sympathy.

Definitely Irish. I think I've met almost every single European nationality since I've been here.

Leaning down next to the sergeant, Konstantin's voice softened, in volume only. The tone was the same. "That is some title for a bunch of mercenary thugs."

Morgan's eyes shifted to look at me, then back to the Russian, who was practically in his face. He didn't reply.

"Tell me, what does your treacherous bastard of a commander pay you to kill women and children?" The Russian snorted. "All the loot and rape you could ask for, is that it?"

There was a heavy pause, then Morgan started to respond. "What is it y-"

Konstantin's blow knocked the man's head back and it hung there for a second before lolling forward, his eyes unfocused, dazed. Holy shit! That must have really hurt. Momentarily shocked, I quickly buried that feeling. One way or another ...

"No, I'm not done yet." Back in close again, he continued his monologue, the sergeant grunting in pain, his head swaying slightly. "Did your lieutenant-colonel ever tell you what happened to Le Renard? Did he tell you how karma destroyed the man for stabbing an unarmed boy in the back?"

Woozy, Morgan glared up at Konstantin, regaining his coherence. Finally, he managed to speak and this time he was allowed to finish. "You?" There was a slight drawl there, and he shook his head, fighting off the slur. "Your lot offed him?" Emotion made its way onto his face and he smiled, a sour cynical note. "I should probably thank you then," he coughed, then swallowed, "but if you think that scares me, you don't know anything about Hartley ... or Klaus, or ... her."

Her?

I cleared my throat. "I wouldn't say offed so much as ripped apart. There were only pieces when it was over."

Morgan's attention came back to me again, scanning me over quickly. "You fit the brief. You must be the one, but you don't look like much."

"I once killed a man," I told him, giving my friendliest smile, then added: "With a fork."

"That's not all," Konstantin cut in, the captive's eyes being drawn back yet again. "The boy behind you? He wiped out one of your squads on his own. Why? They shot at us first. Why? Because it's what that ... ublyudok mudilo gaduka ... wanted. " He paused, the anger and strength in him startling, unlike anything I had seen before. "What that faithless whore Hartley wanted." The name was spat, the most tasteless and filthy thing to pass Konstantin's lips. "So. Now he goes to Mersenne, and we will find him, and you will help us." With his left hand, he gave Morgan a decidedly unfriendly slap on the cheek, a stinging hit that was hard enough to be quite uncomfortable. "If I must, I will hurt you until you tell me. I will continue until my hands bleed."

"He means it," I said.

The sergeant winced, grimacing at the punishment. He shook his head, then addressing us both. "I don't think you understand. What you can do to me doesn't scare me. Neither does death. Beating me will only earn you your bloody fists. I may not love the lieutenant-colonel nor our regiment, but if you think I'm stupid enough to betray him, then you just don't know the consequences."

Konstantin studied the man's face up close for a second or two, then he stood abruptly, looking across to me. I could tell as plainly as anything: Morgan wasn't going to talk. Consequences? Which means, basically, that he'd prefer to die than get in trouble with Hartley.

Fuck.

So then what? There was only one way around this and it was to find something that was an even bigger threat than what his commander would do to him for disobedience. What's more frightening than a ruthless adversary like Hartley? What's worse than dying?

There wasn't anything that ranked worse than death. It was the end of all things, the stopping of the brain, the heart, everything that made you a person. A finality that had defined human struggle and had been a centrepiece theme of art and philosophy for as long as we had been capable of understanding what it meant.

What beats that?

From behind the sergeant, Mira caught my eye. Deliberately, he raised his arm a little and along it I could see the fading marks of the sharpeling bite and cuts. It had healed fantastically fast given how recently he'd received it. What about it though? It was a visible symbol of his struggle to come back to me. I felt an upwelling of joy, reminded of how lucky I was to have him, and the piercing emotion of the price he paid for that.

It was more than that though. It was a sign of something that could not hurt him, nor me ... but for everyone else?

The Sharpe virus was as good as death, or worse.

Of course. What can be more dehumanising, more horrific than having all your logic and reason and emotion and soul stripped away and being turned into a beast, an unknowing slave inside the twisted shell of your own body?

Forced by some foreign alien impulses to hunt other people and kill them or subject them to the same torment?

The idea itself was hell, to me.

How then could I use that? Morgan was already a carrier, just like everyone else we had encountered. I could see glimpses of orange-red on the edges of his mostly downturned hands.

There has to be a way to use that fear. The same fear that everyone has of sharpelings and the virus in its active mutating transforming state. Only, Sergeant Morgan didn't seem to be at all slow. Direct threats would be as pointless as promising to beat him to death or shoot him. So it has to be used as an alternative that makes betraying Hartley seem by far the lesser of two evils. Yet, how?

Then, I had an idea. An unfair, unkind idea.

Another necessary evil.

The illusion of choice.

If he won't choose us ... then the devil will choose him.

-o-0-O-0-o-

According to Lily, the province of Mersenne had some large areas of low-lying marshlands and it shared coastal bayous, which retained an abundance of fish, with southern Palatus. Unlike our trip to the Lorentz Provincial Health Commission, there was no need to go to the city of Mersenne itself, which was deep on the far southeastern side of the province. Lorentz too had been more agricultural and flat, whereas western Mersenne was hilly, covered in the smaller deciduous forest that was much less grand than the kinds of foliage around the Andropov Villa, that sort of trailed off into wetlands growth to the south.

Our target was a country home, a few miles west of a town called Vendhall. Though Morgan's description had been inaccurate, as he hadn't known the exact location of the mission that Hartley had sent out to recover Bainbridge's secrets, it was enough to go on for Konstantin to use one of the PDN's surviving residential directories to find the probable address and location.

The rest had taken care of itself. Except, as soon as we'd arrived, the precarious nature of it all was pretty obvious. Our timing was remarkably bad. Military vehicles were parked out the front of the building and a bunch of soldiers were standing around on watch. All the entrances and exits were being guarded.

The Liberators were in the middle of their operation.

Bainbridge's house was a large stately double-floored Victorian style residence, reminiscent of a manor home. Though Albans had described him as a military surveyor, the house wasn't small and he must have been fairly wealthy. From the safety of where we had been hidden after arrival, vines and overgrowth were rambling up the short side of the building as it faced towards us. Guards stood on the right side, towards the entrance and where the vehicles were parked.

No way in. Except ... a metal grating in the side of the wall that led directly into the ventilation system.

Getting into a firefight was the worst idea possible, so the quick realisation was that one of us had to sneak inside. The only people small enough to do so were Mira and I. Konstantin had immediately vetoed the idea of Mira going, despite the consensus that he was by far stealthier than anyone else present, and also because he didn't really know what to look for inside. So it fell to me to 'open the gates' for the others, and as I crawled through the suffocating gloom in that confined metal tunnel, Konstantin's Tokarev firmly in my grip, once more I found myself comparing my life to something out of fiction.

This time it would be a spy movie. I'm a secret agent, sent to free the world from a military dictator's evil plans. It was exciting but completely nerve-wracking and I gripped the gun securely, drawing on the comfort and stability that came up when I thought of the big man. Trying to calm myself and make as little noise as possible was difficult, especially while I removed the grating to exit the duct. Without warning, it came loose and disappeared downwards and I froze in place.

It hit the carpet with a faint indistinct thump.

The overwhelming silence of the interior continued, undisturbed.

I let go a soft breath. Doesn't seem like anyone is in this room. Easing myself out, I dropped down as gently as I could onto the floor, hardly making a sound. It was dark, but I could see the vague shapes of furniture and I guessed I was in a living room or lounge of some sort, on the rear side of the building. There was a door that led into a passageway towards the front side of the house, and another into the next room along the rear wall.

Creeping around the furniture, I wondered who had been sent to keep an eye on the mission. It has to be one of his trusted officers, I'd think. I hope it's not Klaus. Despite my status as an impromptu spy, I was extremely unwilling to face someone that big, gun or not. Don't like to admit it, but he puts Konstantin to shame.

Tiptoeing up to the door, it was pulled to, but not properly closed. With my heart in my mouth and agonisingly slowly, I nudged it and it swung with an unusual smoothness, drifting silently open.

It was right then that I realised there was someone else in the room I had just revealed. A couple of paces ahead of me, standing in front of a desk, there was a man. His back was turned and his head was forward, craning to read something. Barely daring to breath, I stepped into the room, making the minimum noise, foot after foot, my heart's rhythm a drumbeat of urgency. Raising the butt of the pistol, I had almost reached him when the floor creaked, the sound disturbingly loud and obvious in the stillness and quiet.

Um, shit.

"Delta One, I thought I told you not to bother me." His head came up and he turned around, still talking as he did. "That was a direct ord-" The speech cut off as soon as he saw me. "You!"

"Hi!" I grinned at him, a split second before I smashed the butt of the pistol across Miles Hartley's face.

I think I'm going to refrain for making estimate on when chapter 16 might be done, because Murphy's Law dictates that if I try to hint it will be within a reasonable timeframe, you'll be waiting until the third quarter of 2013. So .. um .. reverse psychology .. yeah! Conservative estimate of several months! That's the one! :whistle:
What's wrong Hartley? I thought you were a mastermind. You should have seen that pistol whip coming ... from Miles away! B) Okay, that was really a terrible pun. I'll stop here. Story discussion is right about here if you want it. Likes, comments, etc always appreciated ^_^
Copyright © 2013 Stellar; All Rights Reserved.
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Stories posted in this category are works of fiction. Names, places, characters, events, and incidents are created by the authors' imaginations or are used fictitiously. Any resemblances to actual persons (living or dead), organizations, companies, events, or locales are entirely coincidental.
Note: While authors are asked to place warnings on their stories for some moderated content, everyone has different thresholds, and it is your responsibility as a reader to avoid stories or stop reading if something bothers you. 

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  • Site Administrator

That was an interesting chapter. I would like to know more about how they got the information from Morgan. And, of course, you left it there?!

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I echo Myr's question and then have to add that you are becoming adept at leaving us at the precipice. Have you been reading the Goat or Cia?

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On 01/22/2013 10:37 AM, Myr said:
That was an interesting chapter. I would like to know more about how they got the information from Morgan. And, of course, you left it there?!
Sergeant Morgan's interrogation will be explored some more in the coming text. And yes, once again .. I left it right *there* ^_^
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On 01/22/2013 03:05 PM, Daddydavek said:
I echo Myr's question and then have to add that you are becoming adept at leaving us at the precipice. Have you been reading the Goat or Cia?
And my answer is the same as to Myr: Morgan's coercion is described more in the next chapter. As to the latter part: no and no.
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We learn more about Shay, and Shay learns how to use guns. And then the chapter

ends as it does. HA! You devil you!

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On 01/25/2013 05:48 PM, Stephen said:
We learn more about Shay, and Shay learns how to use guns. And then the chapter

ends as it does. HA! You devil you!

well to be fair he learned about gun use the *previous* chapter, though the opportunity to pistol-whip someone was a first for him.

 

Yeah, I know! Guilty as charged. Willingly guilty what's more :D

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Poor Morgan, didn't know what's was gonna happen. Never liked a physical interrogation. Psychological, now that's something else. :). Another excellent chapter.

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On 03/18/2013 10:21 AM, Kiltie69 said:
Poor Morgan, didn't know what's was gonna happen. Never liked a physical interrogation. Psychological, now that's something else. :). Another excellent chapter.
Morgan's interrogation was a bit of both, in the end. Physical certainly worked on Federico, but Morgan is a much different person.
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On 05/28/2013 01:42 AM, sandrewn said:
You evil, evil person. I salute you.

:worship:

If this is with regard to the chapter ending, then I probably deserve it!
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On 11/28/2015 11:46 AM, Ashdaw said:

All I can say is, James Bond, eat your heart out. :)

Ashley D

If this was a role-playing game, he'd have a fair few skill points invested in 'Sneak'.

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I have a question how old is Hardley? I just loved this chapter so well written so scary the shoot out so wild west:yes:

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5 hours ago, Albert1434 said:

I have a question how old is Hardley? I just loved this chapter so well written so scary the shoot out so wild west:yes:

I cannot remember offhand canonically what Hartley's age is, but it's somewhere around the early 30s.

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On 1/21/2013 at 4:37 PM, Myr said:

That was an interesting chapter. I would like to know more about how they got the information from Morgan. And, of course, you left it there?!

Really? What would you do if Konstantin approached you with a needle full of supper Sparks? Hmm?

At least, that's my best guess... Now on to the next chapter!

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