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  • #2118
    PistolgripPistolgrip
    Participant

    …continued

    “I… am unsure who else exactly is involved.” Achilles said with a slightly strained expression. He chewed thoughtfully for a moment while tapping his 3 remaining cyber fingers on the crate-table. “It might be other government. But I more suspect enterprising capitalists.” He said with an implicating grin towards the American. Then he put the bottle of vodka right to his lips and turned it vertical. He set it roughly back on the table and threw his hands up in the air resignedly. “Or perhaps it is insect cult! Who knows?” He shrugged and took another bite.

    Although the surroundings were new to him, Achilles felt like he had lived this scene a dozen times. The sounds of the mobile city outside, the smells and air, exhaust and food and something smoldering nearby, a bottle of vodka, and a colorful partner to keep things interesting. Al had, after all, declared their arrangement a partnership. Maybe he wasn’t a Russian operative, or a deep cover agent, but an American driver and gunslinger was as good a complement as any. And maybe a little bit of change was a good thing–maybe this one would survive the mission. In fact, maybe he’d be the only one.

    Achilles shook his head. His food had disappeared in the few moments his mind had wandered. Orkish appetites were something to behold.
    “I think Geber is working on big project. Something…” He waved his hands in the air in a generic gesture. “Incredible. If I can find what, that might tell us who else would wish to find him.” He stood, though Al was still eating. “As such, I am eager to transmit this data for analysis. Find us a bunk and I will find you when I am finished, da?”

    #2149
    Adamuadamu
    Participant

    Al waved the Russian off with a mutton grease-covered hand. “Sure, da, si, yupperoonie,” he rattled around a mouthful of pickled cabbage. Bunking down sounded pretty good – it had been one hell of a day. They could see to the ork’s cyber in the morning.

    Finishing the meal, Al mosied back to the car and grabbed a couple of things. Then he secured it again, using both the vehicle-standard countermeasures and activating his own little backup – a cut out in the power supply he’d buried deep in the car’s guts slaved to a stealth chip that he could deactivate with a revolving 64-bit code from his ‘link. Which he kept switched off whenever it wasn’t in use. He attached a similar security measure inside the dash of the deuce-and-a-half. That was the best security for the gear in the back, since the most expensive items were not easily man-portable. He’d already secured the rear before they’d arrived, and didn’t make any fuss about it now, knowing it would only invite curiosity. Most importantly, though, he had a chat with a troop of Uighurs setting up around a makeshift campfire across the track – all fur-lined hats and AKs. They were by no means a savory bunch, but they had their own code, and once they took his money he knew they’d keep a close eye on his rigs. Finally, he took out a burner commlink, put it inside the Landy on the dashboard, pointed the camera at the truck, and set it to call him if it picked up sounds over a certain decibel or visible movement over a certain velocity.

    Then he wandered back into the maze of trailers, prefab shanties, tents, refitted rec-vees and open-air camps. Karavan was a city. It had everything any other city had, but everything looked different, having to be portable. Accommodation, though, was in shorter supply than most towns. Most people didn’t travel to trade in Karavan – Karavan travelled to trade with them. Still, there was enough to be had. Mostly it was busses or containers reconfigured into rooms, cubicles, capsules, or just open-plan sleeping, depending on what you wanted to pay. Never much of a saver, Al figured he had money in his pocket, he might as well put it to good use. And that meant none of those options would do, and he headed straight for a big circus tent. From a distance it was easy to find by following the music – French cabaret-sounding stuff, lots of accordions and low, tremulous female vocals, and from closer by heading for the glow – hundreds of torches on stakes arrayed in ranks surrounding the place, with tables scattered among them for those with money to be seen wasting it on overpriced beverages and viands.

    This was Abdullah’s House of Favors, in all its decadent glory.

    The main entrance was surrounded by a veritable jungle of huge potted exotics – just the expense of keeping them alive nomadically must have been substantial – and Al sauntered up, hands in his pockets and cigarette in his teeth. The host was at a mahogany desk just within, and he said, “Mister Guthrie, a pleasure as always.”

    It wasn’t exactly as though Al was a frequent guest, but he dropped in when he could. And it was the host’s job to remember people. And Al was easy to remember.

    “Two ta sleep, separate, neighborin’.”

    “Of course. And….” the man’s eyes wandered to the bevy of beauties arranged in a posed simulacrum of langour across silk-upholstered divans on the other side of the room.

    “Not fer me. You’ll hafta ask my coworker when he gits here. Big Russky ork, busted cyberhand.”

    Al was taken down a hall all walled in hanging satins with no apparent doors and his guide, a woman dressed the way a tourist might think a belly dancer ought to be, put her hand to the cloth where no aperture was visible and pulled aside the drape to reveal a small area covered with thick Persion carpets, one corner stacked high with cushions. The only furniture was a mother-of-pearl wash basin on a low wood table that also held an ewer of fresh water and a tall hardwood wardrobe with elaborate silver filigree. Al sensed that one wall was the exterior of the tent, but it was well secured to the ground by stakes at ten-inch intervals.

    He pinged his location to Nikolas and took off his boots.

    #2192
    PistolgripPistolgrip
    Participant

    Achilles was glad to see the satlink station–just a truck with a dish in the back and a stall to the side–was still open for business. A few other customers stood around with hardlines to their devices, talking with friends or associates, browsing or downloading things from the matrix at large, and so on. He handed off an unsecured credstick he’d found on one of the dead mercs and a few moments later his ‘link was online. He bundled the data and sent it with a simple note: “Found on abandoned system. Analyze and reply with further direction.”

    After the transfer was successful, Achilles noted the location Al had pinged him and began his trek. Naturally it was on the opposite end of the conglomerate city, but with some good food and vodka in his stomach he was up for the walk. A number of people were still active and engines rumbled through the night, burning fossil fuels for energy like it was the turn of the century. Some people were loud and raucous, presumably drunk, while others spoke in hushed tones, conducting whatever manner of business they didn’t care to make public. It reminded him a bit of the markets that cropped up in bombed-out cities during the Euro Wars. In a way, that made it feel almost like home. Then something else made it feel a little more like home.

    “Hey, Trog!” A man with a bottle of liquid courage in his hand called out, his friends looking on approvingly. “Shouldn’t you be cleaning a gutter somewhere?” He yelled with a twisted smirk. The man and his friends all appeared to be western European and wore expressions ranging from amusement to disgust. One spat on the ground. Achilles walked past the group without turning his head. His jaw tightened but he didn’t break his stride. “You are very far from home, gentlemen. These grounds are dangerous.” It wasn’t quite the threat he’d hoped to communicate, but his English wasn’t perfect. All the same, he patted a synthleather bag on his leg to insinuate a weapon and let that carry the message for him. He could hear a hushed debate erupt among the European men, but it carried on long enough for him to get clear. “Go to hell, meta!” was the last he heard before he lost the men behind some trailers.

    Achilles entered the House of Favors and checked in at the front, shaking his head. “Humanis.” he thought, rolling the word around inside his head. Suddenly he snapped back to reality as he found he was being offered some companionship-for-hire. The juxtaposition of the two thoughts left him in a bit of shock for a moment, but finally he waved away the offer. “No, no, that is not–“ He stammered, “Perhaps another time.” He looked tired, flustered, charred, and partially melted. His shirt was in shreds and his chrome was looking jagged. He was all too eager to get some rest and see a doctor and a cyber-mechanic in the morning.

    #2211
    Adamuadamu
    Participant

    Boots off, Al next removed his brown leather jacket, only to notice that it was caked with dried blood. Zombie blood, to be precise, from when he and Nikolas had gone back into the basement car park the third time to salvage all the sweet milspec toys down there. Glancing down, he saw that his jeans were also covered in the stuff, and touching his head gingerly he realized it was matted with undead ichor.

    It was a sad comment on the life he led that he’d eaten dinner without remembering the state he was in. But then, he had been pretty hungry, he mused in his own defense, and congratulated himself on putting function before fashion.

    He stripped to his boxers, revealing a slight but compactly muscled frame, arms and pelvis liberally tattooed. Then he filled the wash basin with cool water and washed out his hair and four-day beard as best he could. His one change of clothes was in the Landy, but he wouldn’t need it here. He used is commlink to buzz for assistance, and turned his filthy clothing over to another belly-dancer-looking maid for overnight laundering. Not his jacket though, he’d never trust that to some cantily clad scullery maid. He was scrubbing the blood off it himself when he heard sounds outside. The Russian was thanking the girl for showing him to his room.

    He left the jacket in the wash basin and padded barefoot out and into the corridor. With nothing to knock on he fumbled with the hangings until he found the near invisible parting that opened to the ork’s room. Half a step inside and mouth half open in a friendly greeting, his throat quickly found that, damaged or not, the Russian’s cyberhand still had a hell of a grip. “Shit, sorry to barge in, amigo, jist me….” he croaked through ten percent of his windpipe, and then the voodoo gods spoke to him and he rasped, “Fuck, git down!” as a hail of bullets tore through the canvas exterior wall of the room.

    #2224
    PistolgripPistolgrip
    Participant

    Al was on the ground before the last bullet tore through the canvas. Achilles had as much discarded the man as thrown him. Unfortunately he moved himself a bit slower and had only just begun to turn when two rounds struck him in the back. He landed on his side and his back arched as his nerves shot white lightning to his brain and he grasped behind him in the air vainly, still temporarily in shock. Had it been a moment later, with his armored vest off, he might’ve had a severed spine and punctured lung. As it was, he was momentarily confused. The sounds of panic welling up from further inside the tent did little to bring the situation into focus. But adrenaline was already flowing and the world was already starting to make sense again: “Humanis bastards!”

    Achilles rolled onto his stomach and pushed both hands on the ground hard. He planted his foot under him as the other one pushed off and suddenly he was tumbling through the cloth door as it gave way with a loud rip. He tugged and ripped it from his body and looked over to see Al already standing, starting to take action. He wasn’t too sure what the American was preparing to do, seeing as he was almost naked and apparently unarmed, but his focus was quickly redirected to the small metal canister that ripped through the outer wall and bounced around a bit before erupting in a dark purple cloud of noxious gas.

    #2248
    Adamuadamu
    Participant

    Al was standing stock still behind the tall hardwood wardrobe, a twin to the one in his own room. It might not stop bullets, but he didn’t think there would be many more anyway. The canister that had been rolled into the room told him volumes.

    First, it let him know that whoever was attacking them was well equipped – no ragtag bandits these. It also told him the target was not random – they probably wouldn’t gas a room unless they’d confirmed occupancy. But most importantly, it meant they were coming in to confirm their kills.

    Nikolas had wisely gotten himself out of the klll zone, though Al doubted the ork had gone far – he’d seen for himself that the Russian was no wilting flower. For his own part, Al had switched to his internal air supply. He knew that that alone would not protect him against all gasses, but he was pretty sure he knew what this was – the dark purple gave it away as a watered-down version of NS similar to one he’d used back with the Troubleshooters. It was a good knockout gas, but inhalation vector only – the other components traded off for the thick opacity that would obscure vision.

    So though he’d be unaffected by the toxin, he’d have to rely on his ears, while the entry team would doubtless have thermal imaging. Too bad, he generally liked to let a few pass him by and then grab the one to the rear, but that wouldn’t work this time.

    And there it was, moments after the gas had dispersed through the room, the distinctive sound of sharp blades slicing through canvas. A few short, controlled bursts to clear the path and they were in. Thermal wasn’t much for spotting scattered throw pillows, though, and the lead guy stumbled slightly, just enough for Al to pinpoint his position in the gas.The little man pushed the heavy wardrobe over onto the follow-on man – nothing lethal, but it would slow his target’s back up by a precious second or two, then launched himself at the lead guy from the side, hands groping with blind strength at wrists and forearms. He managed to land atop his foe, hands wresting at the bullpup-configured carbine in the man’s grip, teeth snapping at where the man’s face and throat should be.

    #2274
    PistolgripPistolgrip
    Participant

    One annoying thing about cyberware was that it heated up and cooled down quickly when exposed to desert days and nights. It made the junctions uncomfortable, although they did have a bit of internal climate control to help. But in this instance, it made the fingers holding the large bolt of fabric more difficult to see. Achilles ran forward, holding up the torn tent flap in front of him and waiting to run into the lead man and snare him. Unfortunately the lead man was on the floor by the time he got there, and he tripped over the struggle and went careening into a fallen wardrobe. The furniture gave way under his weight, and by the sound of it, so did a man underneath it.

    The gas didn’t bother his lungs as he’d already started using the internal air supply linked to them through his cybered shoulder. But it sure shot visibility all to hell. His cybereyes didn’t have the right upgrades for the job, so for a moment he found himself wishing for his old AR monocle. But he spared only a fraction of a second for the thought as he caught the flash of a knife coming down at him. “Don’t want to shoot your comrade?” He thought with a slight smile as he blocked the knife with his cyberarm. Unfortunately much of the armor had been melted, so the blade caught purchase in some hydraulics and his hand locked up. The fluids spit back at the man as he wrenched the weapon, so he didn’t see Achilles’ other hand swing wildly towards his sternum. Achilles felt the give of soft tissue as the man went stumbling back with a small groan. “No body armor.” He noted as he tried to haul himself out of the ruined wardrobe. But he was thrown off as the man under him tried to stand.

    #2397
    Adamuadamu
    Participant

    Still struggling for control of the carbine, Al’s teeth had just found a sure purchase in the gas mask on his victim’s face when a horse or perhaps small elephant stepped squarely on his back. The momentary impact was followed by a crash of splintering wood and a medley of other painful sounding noises, but the legs that had trod on him were still scrabbling around atop him. “Son of a bitch,” he tried to say around a mouthful of rubber. What his voice lacked in sibilance it made up for in vehmence. He wrenched upward with his powerful neck and shoulders as best he could from under half an ork, ripping the mask from his opponent’s face. The man tried to hold his breath but he was dreaming if he thought he was keeping the Neurostun out of his system while fighting with a crazy Ozark mountain boy, and went limp almost immediately. By that time, carbine in hand, Al was already trying to regain his feet, but every move he made in the thick cloud he seemed to bump painfully into something or someone. “Shee-it, that you Ivan?” he hissed, with half a mind to slap the form on top of him whatever the answer was.

    #3078
    PistolgripPistolgrip
    Participant

    Achilles rolled to the floor as the man under him apparently gained his footing. “Shee-it, that you Ivan?” He heard the American ask. Apparently that was who he’d tripped over. But he’d just given away his location and likely didn’t know what was coming.

    Achilles pushed back against the ground and swung his leg up towards where the attacker ought to vaguely be. He made contact before he expected to and lost a lot of momentum. The man seemed to stumble away, but it wasn’t a hit that would keep him busy for long. Achilles made it to his feet, but he didn’t know where anyone–or anything–was; he scoured his mind for options, plans of attack, weapons he had hidden, but came up with nothing. “Shit.” He rushed right for where he’d heard them enter, aiming to clear the tent and escape. But the man he’d punched before had somehow gotten in between him and the exit, and they both went rolling out into the dust outside. And somewhere in the tumble, Achilles took a knife under the ribs.

    #3089
    Adamuadamu
    Participant

    By the time Al had reached his feet there’d still been no answer. Not if you didn’t count an ongoing flurry of grunts, gasps, and crashes. He was still wearing only his shorts, but he was armed now. Still couldnt see, but that didn’t stop his hands from checking the carbine’s action on their own. The guy he was standing on was limp, and the sounds of struggle had shifted to what he was pretty sure was outside the tent. He recalled one of his Pa’s favorite remonstrances – They’s them as runs from the shootin’, an’ them as runs towards it. Which’re you boy?

    And Al’s answer had always been the same: Depends who’s gittin’ shot at, sir.

    In this case, it was his new coworker, and that left him only one direction to go in. It was only a few stumbling steps to the tent fabric, and a half a second to find and claw his way through the cut. He emerged into a cloud of dust that stung his eyes but was a hell of a lot easier to see through than the damned purple gas had been. He saw Nikolas and another guy rolling around on the ground. And a fair amount of blood.

    He also saw three more guys with the same gas masks on, carrying the same carbines. Stranding in a little semi-circle watching the fight on the ground. They saw Al. Al saw them. He squeezed one off from the hip and then there were two. Both firing back.

    #3429
    PistolgripPistolgrip
    Participant

    Achilles grabbed the man’s wrist to keep him from working the knife further and doing more damage, but he fought back with both hands struggling with the knife. Yet while he was focused on his blade, he missed a crashing blow from a cyberhand that left him struggling for air beneath a broken rib cage. Achilles knew better than to pull the knife out, but he wasn’t sure what to do at that point. He looked up in time to see two men trading fire with Al at unsettlingly close range. He moved to attack but found his injuries catching up to him, and all he managed was to stumble forward onto his face. Suddenly Al went down; not from gunfire, but from a man leaping from the tent behind him and grabbing on, restraining his arms. The carbine hit the ground.

    The rifle landed only a meter from Achilles, but it felt like a mile in his current condition. He struggled forward but fell on his side, blood pouring from his knife wound. The two gunners kept their guns trained on the wrestling match, but Al had been taken by surprise and it wasn’t looking good. Then one of the men noticed Achilles and took a half-step in his direction, coming in to finish the job. Achilles made a mental note to carry more guns in the future.

    Suddenly the roar of gasoline motorcycles ripped through the air as two armored men drove into the scene, raining shots into the fray. The two gunners turned to face them but were quickly taken down in convulsions as the shock rounds struck home. The motorcycles came to sliding stops around Achilles and kicked up enough dust that he lost sight of Al. Achilles took a moment to be thankful for his internal air that saved him from what surely would have been a very painful coughing fit as the dust settled around him. One man jumped off his bike and knelt over Achilles, pulling the knife out unceremoniously and pushing a slap patch over the hole before too much blood leaked out. The other waved his gun around and started stalking the area, apparently looking for additional threats. The first loaded Achilles onto the back of his motorcycle and barked, “Caravan post-paid security. I’m taking you to a safe location.” before roaring off.

    #3472
    Adamuadamu
    Participant

    Al was almost free of his new assailant when two more came out of nowhere and piled on. They picked him up off the ground, robbing him of precious leverage. He got an arm free and elbowed one in the nose as one of the gun-toting onlookers drew a bead on Nikolas’s head. Al was desperate to get free, do anything to stop the ork from getting cacked. He caught another attacker in the chest with a solid kick as two bikers roared up and put the carbine guys down. So that at least was good…maybe. A thumb to an eye caught someone’s attention, but whichever of his grapplers Al stunned, there were always still two holding on to him.

    The two newcomers were loading Nikolas up, and from the shadows near the tent Al was shouting, “Hey, over…” when a hand that smelled of old fish clamped over his mouth. He kept struggling and got a finger between his teeth, but by the time the guy yanked his bleeding hand off of Al’s mouth, the bikers were turning tail. “The fuck??? What am I then, assholes, chopped liver!?!?!?!”

    And then someone got tired of getting clawed, spit on, and kicked – something hard and heavy hit Al’s head and the lights went out.

    #4254
    PistolgripPistolgrip
    Participant

    Achilles faded in and out of consciousness as he was swept away. There was quite a bit of noise, some grunting, and sharp pain as he landed on a hard surface at a bad angle. But when you have a knife hole in your chest, there’s really not a good angle. Still, there obviously was not overly much concern for his comfort in play at this time. A few people seemed busy around him, but talking was at a minimum and mostly came through as soft murmurs. Eventually something like burning honey was coursing through his veins and into his brain, and suddenly his eyes fully opened and the room came into focus.

    It was a small metal room, like something that used to be half of a shipping container a few thousand nuyen ago. Now it was an ER with plasteel armor plates on the walls and a number of lower-end yet functional medical systems. A man in dirty white cotton with a tac vest and a Browning on his hip lounged idly near the door, the smoke from his cigarette wafting upward into a low-powered ventilation fan. Looking over, Achilles saw a woman in a white lab coat working on a tablet and a system next to her. He tried to reach over and feel his stab wound, but suddenly found that he was bound quite tightly. Glancing down at himself, he noticed that they’d done a fine job of patching him up, but alarmingly he was missing his cyberarm. “что за черт?”

    “Where is my arm?!” He asked, as close to infuriated as he could be for a man in his condition. The woman turned with a cold expression on her face. She evaluated Achilles with a clinical gaze and a strong hint of boredom. After a moment, she tapped her tablet twice and walked away without a word. Achilles just sighed.

    After a few minutes, a pudgy man in a brown button-up shirt and stiff work pants entered to give an emotionless explanation. For a clinic, it was the most lifeless place Achilles had been in the entire country-state. “Welcome to ‘The Caravan’ security and medical services. The services are free, but checkout for a fee.” He didn’t even look up from his commlink while he said it. “Will you or a family member be paying by matrix or would you prefer to pay by credstick today?” The clerk’s monotone was more painful than the knife wound.

    “Where’s my arm?” Achilles demanded again.
    “Your primary cybernetic augmentation has been confiscated as collateral until payment can be collected. We contract with qualified service technicians that are capable of reinstalling and repairing the hardware for an additional fee.”
    “You’re going to charge me to get my arm back, and to put it back on??” Achilles was incredulous.
    “If you’re unsatisfied with the quality of your care, we can return you to your pre-service state.” The clerk said passively. The guard by the door stood up straight and snuffed out his cigarette.
    Achilles thrashed against the restraints ineffectually. “It is not augmentation, you Идиота кусок, it’s my arm!” When the man seemed completely unsympathetic, bordering on unresponsive, Achilles gave up and rolled his eyes. “Fine. Keep the arm and I will go get payment.”

    Meanwhile, in a dark tent somewhere on the outskirts of Caravan, a black boot kicked Al awake. A lighter flicked open, and was raised up to illuminate the hateful eyes of HedAyat staring down.

    #4310
    Adamuadamu
    Participant

    “The fuuuuuh….?” Al spit the blood from his mouth onto the ground. Switched to Arabic. “Listen, if this is about stealing your job….”

    But looking into the man’s eyes, Al knew it was far from that simple.

    His hands, which he now realized were taped together behind his back, were yanked up roughly. He allowed the action to bring him to his still-bare feet as intended, and winced as if in pain. It was easy enough, since most of the rest of him was either throbbing or felt like it was on fire. But his joints, well…the fact was that he used the sounds of his body being forced up to mask the faint pops of his thumbs slipping out of their sockets. He was pretty sure he could get his hands out of the tape now. But it wasn’t the time.

    They lifted him up, put him down over a thick wooden post so that he was upright, his taped hands around the beam. He made sure to slump straight down to a splayed out squat the moment they let him go, make it look like he was too out of it to stand – if they saw his legs as any sort of threat they might tape those too, and that’d be a serious hassle.

    They pulled him back up straight, one asshole behind him holding his arms so he couldn’t drop. And they went back to work on him. He was getting hit so much it took him a while to count how many were in there with him. His nose was broken by the time he settled on four…besides HedAyat, who just stood there smiling. No, no one chased anyone across half of Persia over a snaked guide job. But from the look in the guy’s eyes as he got beaten for no apparent reason, Al figured that whatever this guy’s real agenda was, nicking his job out from under his nose had hurt his pride enough that things had become personal….

    Five of them. Yup. He was going to have to get the shit kicked out of him for a while before he could make his move.

    #5137
    PistolgripPistolgrip
    Participant

    It was a straight march to the truck they’d salvaged from underneath the building back in Rasht. Achilles grabbed some hardware and reached out to the buyer he’d found earlier, but he didn’t get an answer. It made sense–it was the middle of the night, and freezing to boot. He stood around and cursed for a few minutes, then decided to take it with him and go consult with the American. “Cowboy Ублюдок will probably think it’s hilarious.” He grumbled to himself, nearly out loud. He was in a mood to pick a fight with anyone, even his new comrade, if only to let off some steam. Sure, he was beat to hell and missing an arm, but he had some blood back inside of him, his wounds were bandaged, and it felt like he might have some stimulant in his veins. And, perhaps because he was Russian, the cold always made him want to fight anyway.

    He eventually found his way to the tent where they’d arranged for accommodations, only to find out that it was being “relocated” and had already been mostly taken down. A number of former occupants were out milling around, some huddled under blankets around fires or heater units, others on calls or screens trying to make other arrangements, and some apparently out scavenging in the chaos. A few mild scuffles seemed to have broken out, but it was dark and cold and very late, and it hung like a soggy blanket over the whole area, draining the passions from everyone around. Achilles searched for nearly an hour, but couldn’t find the American anywhere. So he started in on one of the things he hated the most in life–asking around.

    #5138
    Adamuadamu
    Participant

    They’d beat on Al until they’d gotten tired. And then they’d kept beating him because HedAyat had not been tired of watching. Felt like a few hours, but probably closer to twenty minutes. Long enough for his face to be distorted with bloody contusions and his naked upper body to be black with bruises under all the hair and tats. At least they’d left him his boxers, and he respected them a little for not being into that kind of torture.

    When they’d finally let his hands go he had once again slid down the pole to an awkward squat, wrists behind the heavy beam. This time he didn’t have to fake the collapse, and he sat there like that for a while getting his head together. But it wasn’t long before the position his bonds forced him to sit in was almost worse than the beating, and he started thinking about the best way out of Dodge.

    His wrists were still taped. Not a problem. There was now only one guy in the room instead of five. Another not a problem. But the guy was sitting well across the room, alert. His carbine’s safety was off and it was trained on Al. Problem.

    Al tried coughing. Just a whimpering sort of a hack at first, but escalating steadily to a full-on choke, gasping for breath, trying to get the guy to step closer. Made his ribs and diaphragm hurt like hell. And then instead of getting out of his chair, the guy kept his weapon trained on Al and called some other asshole in, who simply kicked Al with his heavy boots until the captive stopped coughing. They got a good laugh out of it.

    So Al sat there bleeding for a while longer, trying to shift his weight often enough to keep at least a little circulation in his legs for when his chance came, though soon they were numb anyway.

    Time faded away and with it the sounds from the surrounding rooms. Al pretended to be asleep, and indeed drifted in and out of consciousness despite his best efforts. At some point, however, he caught his guard nodding off. He stood up – slowly, silently, excruciatingly forcing his sleeping legs to push his body off the ground, hands still behind the post. Patiently spent five minutes quietly kicking some blood back into his lower extremities as he watched the soon-to-be-dead gunmen doze in his chair. Finally ready, he slipped his thumb joints and started wriggling out of the sticky tape. Almost free, he heard HedAyat’s voice in the next room.

    His first thought was Bonus! Now he could kill that asshole in a minute, too. But then he realized HedAyat was talking to someone else, someone on a device – a commlink or a tridcomm. The Arabic was fast, but Al listened faster. HedAyat was speaking very respectfully, reporting on the capture of the “little dog-like American.” The other voice was harder to hear – the speaker was probably facing away, and the guy had a quieter voice anyway. And he spoke Arabic with a weird accent Al couldn’t place.

    Now HedAyat was apologizing. Making a good job of it, too. Acknowledging his unworthiness even to clean a camel’s ass with his tongue and various other colorful local euphemisms for “Yes sir I suck.” The other guy never raised his voice, though, and as he spoke at length, Al’s ears caught the rhythm and started to pick out a few phrases. One of the main points was that Al should suffer long and horribly, an order HedAyat eagerly acknowledged. Then the voice asked some sort of question, and HedAyat, in a tone delighted with the chance to deliver some good news, said, “Yes, Master, he is still in the camp. He is searching for the American, but he will not find him.”

    The other voice still didn’t rise in volume, but venom in the delivery was clear. Al caught words like “idiot”, “monkey”, and, finally, “bait”.

    “Yes, yes of course Master. It is genius. Soon the Russian goblin will be yours.”

    Al figured at this point that his escape was well overdue, but the conversation had roused his guard to alertness, and a few seconds later HedAyat had shouted something and the room filled with armed men.

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