It was cold. I hate the cold, but a job's a job, and I was being paid well to cross that forsaken wasteland. If the pay had been good enough, I would have even taken a trip to Hell wearing black leather. But right then, I had to agree with the Norse that Hell is a frozen tundra. I'd have probably died out there already if I hadn't been wearing that heavily insulated snowsuit. Goggles kept the wind out of my eyes but some of my face was unprotected. I was wearing snow shoes, too; that made it hard to move fast, but they kept me from sinking too deep into the snow.
I paused at the forested edge of a box canyon to take in my surroundings and check my bearings. The snow was falling gently from the cold, clouded sky.
As I descended into the box canyon I startled a racoon that I hadn't noticed, and it scurried into a burrow. As I continued on I saw a fox on the ridge. It probably would have gotten the 'coon if I hadn't scared it away. As difficult as it was to find food in that unusually cold winter, the fox would probably starve.
The snow started to come down heavily. That was good; it would cover my tracks.
Like I already said, I hate the cold, and I wished I could get out of that snow and into a shelter. That would have been nice; out of the freezer and into the fridge. A shelter wouldn't really have been warmer, though; just less cold. Less wind too. The hard wind made it difficult to breath as it blew into my face, sweeping away the air too quickly for me to catch any.
What I wouldn't have given for a snowmobile right then. Or a snow tank for that matter. Instead I came across a digital alarm clock with its face barely sticking out of the snow at an angle. Amazingly enough, it was still working; I could see the display flashing twelve o'clock in bright, red figures.
As I picked it up to examine it, the radio alarm blared to life. Startled, I dropped the clock and fell backwards, having reflexively tryed to jump back while the snowshoes weighed me down. I had let my guard down. That was moronically dangerous.
The radio was playing “Rock Around the Clock” with hardly any static. It was amazing that any station was still broadcasting anything that old, let alone with so strong a signal. Any radio towers that could still transmit were few and far between.
I thought I could use a wireless digital radio alarm clock next to my bed, so I turned it off and put it in my rucksack.
* * *
A couple of hours after I crossed the box canyon, I reached my first observation point: A forested mountain side overlooking a seemingly abandoned city, nestled into the canyon crevasse. Taking the roads to get there would have been easier, but the roads were being watched.
It was amazing how thick the forest was, what with the climatological changes that came after the war. It was still mostly deadwood though.
I whipped out my snow-crusted binoculars to scope out the city. It had once been a bustling metropolis, complete with subways and skyscrapers, before most of it had been covered by the toppled east mountain. There were still a few high-rises standing amongst the rubble, but there was no mistaking the one I was looking for; it was the least crappiest looking one. All the windows on the first few floors were blown out, but the top looked classy if you ignored the boarded-up windows. There was also an array of launch-ready missiles on the rooftop.
I looked for a way down into town. The only suitable paths for skiing were too exposed. I'd have to continue by foot.
* * *
I reached the city as the sun was setting. Of the few residents wandering the streets, everyone was too frightened of the looming threat to notice that I was from out of town.
When I got close to the building I was looking for, I stopped a little ways down the street and peered through my binoculars from behind a burned out automobile. The ground floor was a lobby which had once been walled in by glass panes, but now only empty frames remained standing.
Security was light. There were wires dangling from a few spots in the ceiling where surveillance cameras had once been mounted, and now there was only one guard by the stairs, craddling a fully-automatic rifle with the strap over his shoulder. He was leaning on a “dead man's switch”: If the button were depressurized an alarm would sound. A steel-tipped arrow from my crossbow tacked him to the wall, ensuring that his limp body didn't slide off the button.
Before approaching the building, I shucked off my heavy snowsuit and replaced it with a light jacket, along with a compact parachute pack. The rest of my gear I wouldn't need again until after the job was done, so I packed it into the burned out car for safekeeping and hoped a hobo wouldn't find my stash. As I did so, the digital alarm clock fell out of my rucksack. On a whim, I stuffed it into my jacket pocket. With my crossbow in hand, I then made a crouched dash for the lobby.
There were likely more guards on the stairs (where it was warmer), so I brought a short prybar with me and pryed open the doors of the broken down elevator. Once inside the cabin, I climbed out the maintenance hatch in the ceiling.
As I had hoped, there was a maintenance ladder. That meant I didn't have to climb the cables. I took a deep breath and let it out, then began my ascent.
* * *
It took me only ten minutes to reach the top floor. Rather than announcing my intrusion by noisily forcing the elevator doors open, I carefully removed the screws from a vent cover on the adjacent wall, leaving one screw in the bottom so that the cover could remain hanging. I took off my pack and found a convenient tangle of wire to hang it on while I climbed into the vent. Once most of myself was in, I awkwardly wrapped a pack strap around my foot and pulled it into the vent.
I crawled slowly to minimize the noise I made, but the pack dragging behind me sounded in my head like fingernails being dragged across a chalkboard. I seriously doubted that ventilation ducts were ever made of kevlar, and I didn't want to find out what would happen if a trigger-happy baddy heard me crawling in the wall.
After a while, I found where the vent opened into a janitor's closet. The door was on the opposite side of the room, and a small window let in a little light. I had no choice but to bust out the vent grill, which would certainly attract lots of unwanted attention, so I would have to act fast.
I kicked the grill free and it clattered to the floor. I slid out of the duct and no sooner than I got on my feet than some bozo with an Uzi flung the door open and barked, “What do you think you're doing?”
Trying to sound matter-of-fact, I said, “Uh, I'm embarrassed to say this, but um, I'm lost and I was wondering if you could tell me where the toilet is.”
I expected to next hear the sound of bullets ripping through my flesh, but instead I heard the bozo say, “Down the hall and to the right. You noobs are always getting lost.”
What stupid luck! He thought I was a new recruit! I guess the fact that he was wearing sunglasses in a poorly lit room didn't help his vision. Better safe than sorry though; I had to ice this turkey right then.
As he turned away, I made my move: I grabbed his head and gave it a quick, hard twist that ended with a crunch. He died too quickly to realize his neck had been broken. I plucked the Uzi off the dead guard since he no longer needed it.
I still had a bigger fish to fry: Rafael Avanccini, one of the many warmongers to rise up from the chaos after the war. It had been 20 years since the war, and this nutjob was still firing rockets randomly at his neighbors. I didn't care much for political intrigue, but I had to agree that an unpredictable menace like this was worse than an enemy with a grudge who you knew was gunning for you.
I pulled the parachute pack back on and quietly slipped out the door to search the floor.
It wasn't hard to find Avanccini; His Exaltedness was using the old ballroom as his throne room, complete with chandeliers and electric “candles” mounted on the walls. The double doors had been left open a crack, and most of the lights in the hallway were broken, so I stood unseen in the darkness and peered in. I could see six bored guards positioned around Avanccini, who was preoccupied with a Boris Vallejo book. One of the guards dug in an ear with his pinky then examined his findings.
I then got an idea and went back to the janitor's closet where I had seen some tools. There, I took apart the digital clock I had found on the tundra and wired in some explosives. After putting it back together I reset the clock.
I returned to the ballroom doors and set the alarm on the clock. I slowly pushed one of the doors open a bit then pushed the clock in so that it slid a few yards across the floor. Two additional guards I hadn't seen positioned at either side of the doors moved in to investigated the object while the others stood their ground with hopeful looks for some excitement. One guard picked up the clock and turned it over in his hands while the other gave baffled comments to Avanccini who in turn gave looks of annoyance.
The doorguard not holding the clock raised his pistol in both hands and was about to investigate the door when the clock ticked to the alarm's time and the radio flared to life. The radio station happened to be broadcasting its callsign, and the D.J. on the air said “This is K-B-O-M, K-BOM, and we're blowing the competition away!” The guards might have thought it humorously ironic and laughed as the clock then exploded if it hadn't blown their heads off.
Six guards were left (none of which were laughing either). Before they could react, I kicked the doors in and I threw a knife into one's heart then dispelled two more with my crossbow; the arrow passed clear through both of their bodies.
The three remaining guards raised their guns at me, but I got two of them with quick spirts from the Uzi. The last thug threw a table on its side for cover. The table was thick enough to swallow several bullets, so I shot away the supports on the chandelier directly above the guard until it fell on him. If that didn't kill him, he was out cold with a nasty concussion.
Avanccini pulled a handgun of his own, but I shot him in the bicep and he immediately dropped his weapon. I ran over and knocked him down with a right hook before he could retrieve the gun with his good hand.
I expected enemy reinforcements any second, so I just grabbed the back of Avanccini's collar and headed for the stairs, regardless of what I dragged him over.
Upon reaching the roof I threw Avanccini down on his butt. Two tough-looking baddies were manning the controls for the missile array, so I pumped them full of lead.
Turning back to Avanccini, I said, “So you like playing with rockets, Avanccini? How about a taste of your own medicine?” All he could do was spit threats at me and curse in Italian as I mounted him onto one of the anti-aircraft missiles so that it was stuffed down the back of his trousers.
At the control panel I programed a flight path for the missile then mashed the launch button.
A few more goons then burst out of the stairwell with guns blazing and I ran for the edge of the roof. I leaped off the building and the goons ran to the edge and continued to fire after me. They stopped, however, and slowly looked up as the sound of a screaming man hurtled from above. Avanccini plunged into the center of the roof and the missile exploded.
As I fell away, I pulled the ripcord and deployed my parachute. I drifted to safety as secondary explosions tore the building apart and illuminated my surroundings.
Another job well done.
It would be a cold night, but for a while at least there would be plenty of fire.