Rachel fought against the cramping in her ankles by alternately removing the pressure from them and letting it pull at her elevated wrists instead. She was furious with herself for not trying harder to keep Sergei’s attention on her, furious with him for leaving her in this state, and had therefore expected him back at any moment. The moments dragged on, until she calculated she’d been left in this dark room for over an hour. Another hour would see separation in her tendons, and while he might murder her loved ones in front of her, she very much doubted whether he intended to do permanent damage to Rachel herself.
She breathed a sigh of bitter relief when the door opened, even if she had to shield her eyes from the sudden flood of stale florescent light from the hall. Yet, even as she squinted, she could see that it wasn’t Sergei, but a more diminutive figure. A woman she’d never seen before, dressed in a neat blue jersey dress, with a mane of black curls. She ducked her face as she freed Rachel’s ankles, her features remaining hidden until she straightened, almost mimicking Rachel’s protracted posture, bringing them face to face even as she kept her head tilted back and her eyes on the task. Even in the dim, Rachel could see she had astonishing azure-blue eyes, and an unfamiliar but beautiful face.
“Who are you?” she whispered.
“Lucretia Byrne,” she said quickly in an unmistakably Irish brogue. “Time for talk later.”
Rachel was about to agree when her wrists came loose of their bonds, and she fell at once to her knees, her hands throbbing as the blood surged back into them. She closed her eyes against the tears of pain, gritting her teeth as she willed it to lessen, to pass.
“Can you walk?” Lucretia asked.
“Yes, just give me… one second…”
The other woman fitted an arm under hers and half assisted, half dragged her to her feet. “Come on. Take this, you might want it later.”
Rachel accepted the black tactical knife, and noticed the pistol that seemed to have materialized in Lucretia’s other hand. It was a Desert Eagle .50, the model Sergei favoured, but Rachel knew at once it wasn’t one of the pair — his were pre 2030, due to his distaste for safety regulations. This looked factory new and had belonged to one of the guards to either side of the door. They had both suffered some kind of internal hemorrhage because there was bloody bile leaking from their noses and mouths.
“How — ?”
“A-B method,” Lucretia said as she chivvied Rachel along. “I marked most of his people with chemical A, but the reaction doesn’t occur until I introduce the second ingredient.”
“And you’ve just been wandering around Sergei’s garrison doing… this?”
“Not so loud,” she said, looking around the corner. Rachel realized, as she did this, that she was sporting several bruises and cuts on her neck and throat. She knew from one look that the bruises on her neck were the result of having been gripped from behind. The whole picture suddenly came into sharper focus.
“Where is he?” Rachel demanded. “He has to die. I can’t leave here without—“
Lucretia shrugged her off, then stared at her. “That’s no longer the mission objective. We get out of here, we live.”
“Whatever he did to you — “
There was a sudden, percussive thump which shook the dust from the ceiling. They were at least one floor underground, but the impact still rattled through her as though she was standing close to it. She looked to Lucretia for explanation, but was distracted by another thump, this one closer.
At the far end of the corridor behind them, the door flew open so hard it snapped back on its hinges, revealing not just Sergei, but a flock of his soldiers at his back. Lucretia dragged Rachel around the corner but it was too late — he’d seen them.
“You go,” Rachel hissed, but Lucretia took her hand and together they pelted down the hallway.
The armoury guard was already on his feet by the time they approached, but Lucretia raised the massive pistol, took steady aim and blew a hole the size of a fist in the man’s chest. He crumpled, and she worked quickly to detach his keys. By the time Sergei rounded the corner, she was already behind the armoury door. Rachel hesitated for a split second, ready to confront him, to leverage his red-faced rage. Instead she followed her benefactor.
Together they shut the heavy door, and threw the deadbolt. Lucretia disappeared at once into the stacks of arms, ammunition and materiel. Rachel meanwhile backed away from the door as bullets slammed into it like hammer blows, puckering the steel.
“That’s not going to hold,” she said pointlessly, but Lucretia was already at her elbow.
“Help me with these.”
Lucretia handed her three small packs of C4 with adhesive and remote transmitters on them. Rachel held them and stared at her.
“There,” Lucretia indicated the wall, with far too much calm for Rachel’s liking. “Just set them up the way I do.”
The bullets had stopped, but now there was a heavy crunch from the door. Rachel hurried to do as she was bidden, setting the palm-sized bombs where Lucretia directed.
“Do you want your chance at him?” she asked, her expression flat and serious.
“I do,” Rachel said, trying to sound a lot more confident than she felt.
“Three minutes,” Lucretia warned her as she activated a detonator. “Be ready.”
“Are you sure that’s enough explosive?” Rachel said, looking between the door and the wall. “That wall is thick.”
“They’re made for this purpose,” Lucretia explained. “Here, take this.”
She tossed Rachel the pistol. She caught it, but barely. “I’m not a good shot.”
“Doesn’t matter. It’s a cannon. Just point and shoot, and don’t go over. You’re confident he won’t hurt you?”
“As much as I can be. What about you?”
There was something brittle in her hard gaze. “I can’t be seen by him,” she said in a tone that implied clearly she did not intend to be taken alive.
Rachel felt a surge of guilt, though she was still not sure what she felt guilty for, her mind not prepared to slow down for contemplation. She went and stood in front of the door, pistol in both hands, watching as the metal frame began to bend, to separate from the wall. A flash of dark red on silver. A fire axe. With one more terrific blow, the axe head sheared through the door jamb. Sergei’s booted foot followed, kicking hard enough to bend the top of the door on the hinges so that it now struggled to open.
He leaped gracefully through the breach, his Lammergeiers bottlenecked behind him. He immediately realized his peril as he looked down the massive barrel aimed at his face. Rachel jerked the trigger, but he had already dropped into a crouch. The bullet meant for him instead went into the face of the soldier behind him. The front of his skull blossomed into a bloody gory mess, but the bullet didn’t stop there, passing into the neck of the man behind him. They stood there for a moment, as though they had forgotten to fall, then collapsed.
Rachel, momentarily distracted by the horror of seeing the spongy red interior of the man’s blasted face, did not react quickly enough when Sergei rose again. She turned, aimed, but he was ahead of her, using the flat of the axe to bat the gun from her hand. His rage had given way to an expression of triumph, a flush rising to his mouth, as though the devestation she had wrought was an incomparable aphrodisiac.
He held a hand out to her, blinded by the raw adrenaline coursing through him. Rachel looked him directly in the eyes, imagined his skull exploding outwards, and moved as fast as she could. The knife was there, wedged between her belt and her canvas trousers, ready for her. She drew it thumb out, slashing in a quick sharp arc, catching Sergei in the meat of his forearm. He hissed as he drew back, but she came on, using the momentum to drive it down, slicing through the black material of his commando sweater and opening up a line of red across his ribs.
He snarled, moving to block her, but she was close now. Everything she’d learned from Val Savage was with her. She was perfect, her memory as pristine as creation. She had never loved her gift more, when it was finally in perfect tune with her. Cut after cut, forcing him out of an effective defensive posture, and then she had him, black sweater in her fist, tearing the fabric as she pulled it down to expose his thick neck, the beating pulse, the memory of how it had once felt against her lips now retreating from her desire to cut through it, to bleed him out. To finally rectify her past failure.
His expression slackened as he stared at her, lips parted, his eyes glossy with something that might have been ecstacy, or intoxication, or even adoration, as though she could perform no more tender gesture of regard. She squeezed on the grip of the knife as she pressed, ready to bite into the vein, to open his windpipe and free the breath from his lungs. He didn’t try to fight, only gave her a hungry grin. It was almost like he wanted her to win.
Only dimly did she hear Lucretia scream her name. Then the concussive force of the explosion. It darkened her vision and blocked her ears just long enough for the hand to grab her wrist, to force it back until the knife fell from her grip. Enraged, she struggled, vaguely aware of the sound of machine gun fire through the hole in the wall, but Sergei had her pinned back against him, his hand on her throat, mouth at her ear, whispering something she couldn’t hear through the ringing din.
She could feel his chest against her back, heaving in time with his heavy breath on her neck. The daylight that had penetrated the dust was suddenly blocked, and Rachel could perceive boot falls in the rubble, silhouettes, one of them broad shouldered and tall. Behind that two more — Lieutenant-Commander Wailea and a woman she didn’t know.
“Let her go,” came Delaware’s low voice.
Rachel felt Sergei’s contemplative hmm resonate through him as held her tighter against chest. “No,” he concluded in a lamentory tone. “Put down your weapons and maybe I’ll think about it.”
“Shoot him,” Rachel tried to say, but the grip on her throat was too tight. She struggled, hoping to turn him, provide a target for one of the River to take the shot, but it was absolutely useless.
“Not going to happen,” Delaware said, but she could see the doubt in his face. If he downed his weapons, the fighters behind Sergei would blow him and his team away, he could see that clearly, but she could also tell his fear for her was in danger of overwhelming him.
To make matters worse, Rachel felt a thin thread of sensation against her throat, and realized that Sergei had pressed the knife against it. Delaware’s eyes widened, moving from her to Sergei, struck with indecisiveness.
“Look at him,” Sergei hissed into her ear in Russian. “He really thinks I’ll do it.”
“My word of honour,” Delaware continued. “We’ll settle this, just you and me.”
“Really.” Sergei’s laugh was disbelieving. “Your little brother believed in honour too, until I gutted him like Christmas dinner.”
Now Delaware’s face darkened with fury, but before he could act, there was a click from the shadow of the racks. Everyone’s attention went to Lucretia. She stood, two hands on the Desert Eagle now levelled at Sergei’s face.
He seemed momentarily fazed, but not by the danger she presented. It was her presence that confused him, as though the order of things had somehow been violated.
“Don’t,” Delaware said quietly, directing his words to her without turning his gaze. “Please.”
Rachel met her eyes, willing her to do it, to take the shot. It was the best opportunity they would have.
“I don’t think we’re going to work out, darling,” she said to Sergei, her voice a monotone. “Fun while it lasted.”
“Shame.” Sergei glanced around, reassessing the situation. He seemed unsure if Lucretia would sacrifice Rachel to kill him. Revealing his reluctance to allow it.
Rachel felt a sweep of relief as Delaware sensed this, and recognized his bluff. He raised the M16 and advanced. Taking advantage of the distraction, Lucretia lowered the weapon, took aim at Sergei’s thigh and jerked the trigger. Rachel braced herself for the impact, but instead of blowing his leg off at the knee, the gun clicked. The magazine, she could now see, had been displaced by the explosion, and wasn’t fully inserted. Unlike the 9mm, this model could not fire without it in place.
Sergei acted at once. He shoved Rachel at Delaware and took the opportunity to slap the gun from Lucretia’s hand. Before Delaware could recover, before anyone could fire a shot, Sergei seized Lucretia by the throat, and grinned at Rachel.
“Maybe you can save this one, Rakhila.”
Lucretia made a strangled, agonized sound as he flashed the knife across her stomach, opening a diagonal wound that immediately began pouring blood. He dropped her, and before anyone could react, he’d backed through the twisted door, shielded from view behind his fighters.
Rachel ignored their raised weapons as he she dropped to her hands and knees, going straight to Lucretia. She heard Delaware bellow out an order in Sioux, and at once he, Wailea and the Song fighter all crouched. She heard the scrape of tires, then the roar of the 50 calibre turret machine gun as, with just enough clearance through the blasted wall, Jonie Littlehawk fired, cutting the nearest Lammergeiers into bloody ruin.
Trying very hard to block the image of them opening up like human piñatas, Rachel caught Wailea’s eye. He immediately sensed her intent, put up his weapon and went to help her move Lucretia’s limp body. Delaware and the Song lieutenant covered them, firing into the corridor to keep off any more attempts from the retreating Guard.
It was cramped in the back of the L-ATV, but they managed by laying Lucretia across their laps. Delaware was last, jumping into the passenger’s side with his finger still on the trigger, dissuading the cowering Lammergeier soldiers from pursuing them.
“First aid kit?” Rachel prompted, then to Wailea. “Keep the pressure on.”
He obeyed, using both hands to press against the seeping wound in the young woman’s belly.
“Above you,” came Kurosawa’s voice. “Hang on.”
The vehicle swung in a tight circle. Leaning against the centrifugal force, Rachel rummaged the kit, came up with the fat syringe of temporary wound sealant.
“How is she?” Delaware asked, looking at her through the rearview mirror.
“Not great,” Rachel said through gritted teeth. “I can’t tell how deep it is yet.”
Lucretia was in and out of consciousness, but every jostle forced a whimper from her, and Wailea’s rough hands on her exposed flesh wasn’t helping. She wept reflexively as Rachel ordered him to push the edges of the wound so she could apply the sealant.
“There’s morphine,” Kurosawa said tersely.
“She’s lost too much blood. I can’t give her a safe dose, not while we’re in motion.”
“Well, let’s not be in motion,” Delaware said. “Where to?”
Lucretia’s eyes fluttered, rolled back. “The painter. The call sign, the painter.”
Rachel frowned at her. “What does that mean?”
But Delaware was already on the radio. “If you’re still on my frequency, we’ve got them. Your girl’s hurt bad and bleeding heavily, and we need a safe place to attend to her.”
A series of beeps streamed from the radio. Rachel translated them at once, giving Kurosawa the coordinates to a small cargo box complex just off the high road in the Choke. When they arrived it appeared abandoned, except for the slender man in his fifties who was anxiously awaiting them. He had salt and pepper hair and skin the colour of caramel. Rachel didn’t know him by sight, but he clearly knew Lucretia, because his face fell when he saw her condition.
Delaware immediately took charge of the situation, jumping down from the passenger’s side.
“Drozdova, there’s an expanding spinal board in the roof compartment. You and Wailea get her inside. Mr. Karzai, I need a place to hide my vehicle.”
“This way,” said the man, beckoning. He looked to Rachel. “In there, there’s hot and cold water, and a table. Edward’s on his way.”
“What do you mean, Edward’s on his way?” Rachel snapped, then looked to Delaware. “What the hell has Edward got to do with this?
He didn’t seem surprised, but neither did he seem inclined to explain. There wasn’t time. She forced herself to put the confusion aside and set her mind to the task at hand. With as much care as they could manage, they lifted Lucretia on to the spinal board, and carried her into the shipping container.