Stalled Horizons ~~ Gutter Troubles

Gutter Troubles

Russel found himself staring off into the distance again; this time he was looking upwards at the clouded roof panels letting in what natural light they could down into the main waiting room at Combined Dynamics. This was the real headquarters of the organization, hidden under an abandoned industrial district just a few miles south of New Austin. Occasionally, he could see the odd figure come up to the glass and peer down into the complex, Russel didn’t care who they were but sometimes took a note of what they were wearing, often their faces were concealed as to not let the particulates in the air irritate their skin.
Dr Nielsen was taking his sweet time today, insisting in his messages that both himself and Jerry, another agent who now sat opposite him, were to appear in the building at seven in the morning and then to delay the meeting for two hours, had put Russel’s hopes that he would be a reasonable man to rest, but every doctor who had managed to slither their way to a chief position in C.D. had been this way, he was the newest in the line of a long tradition.
“Dr Nielsen will see you both now,” came the voice from the front desk, their voice obscured through the microphone and their figure resembling a vague blur behind the purple panelling. The two men looked at each other and got up from their seats. Jerry went to open the door which led into the large atrium but found that it was locked.
“Hey, what’s this?” the other agent looked back to the desk impatiently. There was no response other than a faint hissing noise coming from the ventilation and a white cloud of white gas gracefully filled the space.
“Relax,” said Russel, understanding the situation and calmly making his way back to his seat.
“Relax? What are you on about?” the other agent responded as he quickly backed away from the cloud and ran to the front entrance, he was met with another blocked exit, he tried to break the handle but to no avail and finally resolved himself to look to Russel.
“You know what’s going on?” he asked.
“It looks like Nielsen wants us to get his augment whether we like it or not,” Russel responded, trying his best to calm the man down but failing irrevocably.
“Bastards!” Jerry resolved to bash on the desk panelling as hard as he could, the figure did not react to his protests and as the gas finished replacing the clear air, his protests gradually fatigued until he finally collapsed to the ground, as Rusell got comfortable in his seat and as he drifted off, he could faintly hear the sound of laughter coming from the front desk.


Some hours later Russel awoke in Dr Nielsen’s office, it did not take him long to notice a new feeling behind his right eye, it was as if a cavity he had no prior knowledge of before had been filled and now a faint weighty sensation rested against his temple. The doctor was positioned at the far side of the room behind his computer.
“Bold of you to bring Jerry into this,” Russel said, choosing to leave his annoyances with Nielsen alone.
“Perhaps, but I trust the decision of the board,” the doctor replied, the speed of his typing remained unchanged.
“Then what does the board want with him of all people? He has standards you know,” Russel raised his eyebrows.
“This isn’t about Jerry…” the doctor sighed as he was forced to take pause from his work and got up from his desk.
“What’s to come in two days’ time will be about numbers” he continued to explain before stopping within arm’s reach of Russel.
“Before your death-rest last week, much of your internal hardware malfunctioned. Sandorf’s final blow to us looked like an eighty-K-write-off you could say albeit you kept some very old componentry,” Nielsen laughed at his own statement, looking up to the corners of his eyes in a way to recall the surgery.
“You always had a talent for changing the subject Doctor, you say numbers so I’m guessing they see a firefight, so let me guess, the sewer cult?” Russel inquired has he had now mustered the strength to sit up in bed.
“Right on the money Mister Johnson, you’ll all be in for a hell of a time from the sounds of things too,” Nielsen’s face was now beaming, he was taking too much pleasure in the situation.
“Well, whatever is being bet on in regard to Jerry and whoever else I sure hope it pays off, recruiting too fast could blow C.D. wide open, this has happened in the past,” said Russel as he looked towards a painting on one of the walls, privately he understood one thing in this moment and that was the certainty of Jerry’s death.
“Oh absolutely, there really has been too much malpractice recently, not in my department of course, but we should be optimistic; maybe things fall through but we still all get what we want, maybe I get invited to the country club in the end, who knows?” The doctor threw his arms up in the air, the prospect of joining the board on their summer outings seemed to remain a strange fixation. Feeling a change of subject was needed, Russel got out of the bed and felt the carpet below his feet as he turned towards the doctor again, it was warm and pleasant.
“Alright Doctor, tell me what you’ve done to me,”


Two days later, on the Wednesday at six thirty, orange rays from the sun had begun to shine through the portholes of the company boat. With Russel was with sat eleven other private security personnel in the passenger seats waiting for the taskforce manager to give a briefing. Control had sent out one Caroline Goldbrook, dressed in a dark suit she made her way down to the lower deck, the jacket which she wore was embroidered with intricate floral patterning. She had a character like that of Doctor Nielsen and had even gone as far as to adopt that signature smile worn in management.
“Good morning Gentlemen, as I’m sure your all aware the new management at Curartis has kindly let us use their facilities, in an hour or so we will be at the other side of the lake where you will all be leant a protective biohazard suit and breathing apparatus, you don’t need me to tell you about the state of the gulf so I’m sure you’re all aware of the necessity of such precautions,” Goldbrook took pause to check everyone was paying attention, she then pulled out a small silver transmitter from her pocket and pressed down on its activation trigger. A projection of the operation plans was broadcast to the collective retinas of the squad.
“Now, the wharf has managed to effect a full blockade on the sewer cult, each of the entrances into the underground have either been sealed in with concrete or have an active guard established around them, regardless of these measures however the cult is yet to make an attack or signal their surrender,” as she spoke, the projections showed a detailed model of the Texan gulf, concreted entrances were greyed out and the remaining openings were flashing red, the viewport then singled in on a particular section of the cave, right above two major walkways.
“Assuming they know the nature of their situation as well as we do, they are most likely preparing to attack outwards at one of the available exits. To take full advantage of this I present a simple plan, agents Wildcat and Fisher will cause a pneumatic explosion above this section of these major passageways,” following her words, the graphic highlighted a branching pathway near the south side of the gulf.
“The resulting explosion will collapse the loose shale and heavily restrict their movement and if their forces are tied up near the southern entrances, this could mean the encirclement of much of their force, but regardless of what comes of the initial breach, expect and prepare for a largescale firefight, you will be filled in with the particulars of this later but for now I must explain the primary and secondary objectives,” Russel had begun to drift off and imagined that much of the red contingent had as well, Goldbrook’s insistence to take the role of handler in this regard certainly made sense given how important the operation was to her career, no, there was little more than that to it, the more of an active role she took meant the more credit she could claim later after the dirty work was done.
“The primary objective is the elimination of Mark Gurney, so called high priest Gurney by his cult followers, unlike Sandorf, Mister Gurney has not undergone any dramatic physical transformations only that he has been exposed to high levels of atmospheric sulphur and other oxides, we expect not only Gurney, but every individual bar maybe the biospaves in the interior to be exhibiting some form of skin damage, inflammation and sensory inhibition,”
“So why not wait for them to come out to us? Am I missing something here lady?” the question came from Jerry, thoroughly surprising Russel- despite everything that had occurred in the past few days for him, he was exhibiting a level of confidence beyond that of a standard green.
“With all due respect, I will answer your question by moving onto the second objective. This is to locate an SS drive labelled ‘0557’ and return it intact to control, the information on this drive is invaluable to C.D. upper management and you have all been deployed as fast as possible ensure it falls into their hands as quickly as possible. Every scenario has been played out by our models, the plan I present now is realistic while scoring relatively low on our risk factors please be assured,” the squad leader made her closing remarks and freed the agents to wonder around the ship for a time before docking, Russel found himself on the top deck watching the lake waters travel by with Stuka, perhaps the only person on the ship with more combat experience than himself; Stuka was three years a red when Russel was omitted into the security branch as an inexperienced green.
“You know, sometimes you forget,” he spoke outwards into the water.
“Forget what?” asked Russel.
“That water shouldn’t be this purple, look at the bow and how viscus it is,” Stuka pointed towards the front of the ship and how the fluid was almost being pulled apart, the sight reminded Russel of an old memory of cutting into jelly.
“Man, it’s so fucked, courtesy of Curartis but I’m sure the new administration will take their job seriously(!)” Stuka smiled, finding the humour in the situation.
“I try not to think about it I guess, so many things should be different, no, that sounds stupid,”
“You still live in that apartment?”
“It’s too damn funny, someone with your savings and you still live in Austin,”
“Well maybe I live there to save,”
“You got a girl?”
“Your goanna’ break her heart one day,” the conversation trailed off at this point and any brief moments of reflection were quickly washed away by the rush of the wharf, as described by Caroline everyone was given a biohazard suit and breathing apparatus, the suits were surprisingly lightweight but the metal joints connecting the torso to the arm segments dug into the shoulders and having to look through a layer of transparent fiberglass was irritatingly restrictive. An oppressive feeling of foreboding came over Russel, an infiltration of this scale was quite rare let alone factoring in all the particulars of the situation and what for? A chance at some key data and the life of a man already marked for a slow death. As usual trying to figure out the machinations of C.D. was futile and a waste of time considering how what they wanted would come out in the wash anyway.
Major shipments into the wharf had been postponed leaving much of the machinery vacant, but the place was still crawling with employees dressed in bright colours with increasingly severe looking symbols on their hoods, workers dressed in dark green looked to deal with less dangerous organic substances while the yellow suits donned radioactive skulls and carefully wheeled around trolleys of metal boxes, just standing out in the open would make anyone feel tainted like the excesses of the world had amalgamated into something terrible and you were caught in its aura. Nevertheless, Russel and the rest of the squad for all he knew were glad to begin the climb up to the plateau.
The explosives were set and sans Wildcat and Fisher the group crouched down at a safe distance from the breach point to set up their winching gear waiting for Goldbrook to give further orders.
“Green group, supported by Stuka and Hart will advance up the north-eastern ridge while red group will make their way over to the north-west, Fisher and Wildcat, you are to stay back at the breach and keep the way out secure. In the end both groups will preform a pincer mauver on the underground facility. Now ignite the fuses and proceed!” on her word, the breach was opened, and flares were shot down by the duo to assess the aftermath of the collapse, the rest of the squad sprinted over from cover.
“Looks like the south is cut off, Hart advance first, and make space,” with this Hart lead down green group first into the gulf, gunshots were quickly heard spurring the rest of the squad to either follow by rope or look down their scopes into the hole. The purpose of Doctor Nielsen’s operation request was now more than apparent: an infrared vision overlay, interfacing with the optical nerve allowed the squad to see past the thick atmospheric fog and powdered rock to quickly spot whatever was still alive in the gulch, with just a thought, without the need to physically interact with the new optical implant; it was perfectly designed for their needs.
After just over a minute the whole squad had reached the ground and organised into two groups to start their advance, green group started up the right flank were they were rushed upon by a throng of bioslaves, their skin was thick enough to withstand the harshness of their environment but unfortunately for them, could not overcome the concentrated fire from four semi-automatics, their morale quickly broke and they were quickly cleaned up, their type could only communicate in grunts and screams and their bestial intelligence came through well in their all too earnest cries.
Russel was a sniper in the red group which was now rushing down the left flank in hopes that they would catch the enemy by surprise. This hope was quickly realised, taking full advantage of their superior vision and firepower, red group picked off a gunner set up in a centre tower and two more laying prone further down the passageways, for being so deep within hostile territory, the operation was moving on smoothly, the number of agents involved even felt quite excessive for how easy it all seemed.
A faint gunshot could be heard coming from the far north, a distance outranging the infrared equipment, a projectile flew dangerously close to green group, they were lucky, but another shot was quickly fired from the unknown regions.
“Agent down!” Hart announced through their coms link, the stray sniper out in the distance was quickly joined by another and the drip of bullets quickly turned into a problem. Both groups rushed to find cover in the various thin caves that led off the main paths, the ground where Russel found himself was wet with a mix of long forgotten chemicals. They were tied down with no reliable means of retreat, the same could also be said about the position of the opposition, advancing out of their advantageous positions to try and dislodge the taskforce was also off the table.
“This is green group, we’ve lost Striker and were hauling up in one of these caves for now,” described Hart.
“Same over here…” Dutch, the lead of the red flank, responded but was quickly interrupted by a nearby altercation, Russel could hear the fighting happening further up the pathway and the faint shapes of the rest of red team in the infrared.
“We’re tied down, and now they intend to overwhelm us in isolation, it’s not going to be pretty, but our best chance now is to make a break for it, my group will continue down the north east and try to distract their snipers, reds, you just need to get into range and cover us,” Stuka was now speaking over the comms in a grave tone, some chatter in their group could be heard in the background but the connection was soon cut. Moments later, a commotion of gunshots was heard over the far side of the gulf, taking stock of the situation, Russel decided to assist with the assault and ran out of his cover.
He was not met with any resistance from afar but could spot up ahead that red group was reforming and had started engaging out in the open again. He re-joined the taskforce and Dutch lead the push, slowly, as they advanced, more of the attention was diverted to them again.
“Dammit!” shouted Dutch as he was shot through his left shoulder, then a cultist who had been waiting under a suspended section of the large walkway jumped upwards and lurched at him with a knife, he was quicky dealt with but managed to land a decisive blow to the agent, taking a good look at his body, his skin had began to peel away from the corrosive air and his eyes were also clouded giving Russel reason to suspect many of the assailants had gone blind. Now extremely conscious of the heat vents from below obscuring their sensors, three of the four remaining flank members opted to deactivate the infrared and brave the practical blindness of their regular vision. Russel made himself an exception and trusting the vigilance of the rest of the team, he made sure to finally get into range of the phantom snipers.
Their signatures could now finally be seen, with his heartrate at the highest it had ever been, he fondled for a second to attach the scope apparatus to his visor, the gunners had noticed him and were now aiming in his direction, they were poor shots but if Russel could land a shot of his own was now also in question. That same feeling he got from Sandorf had now returned but only faintly, all of a sudden the agent felt his vision wobble and a sensation that a heavy weight was pressing on his sinuses, he let out the first shot anyway and his bet paid off, the projectile looked to distract one of the creatures and temporarily released Russel from their oppressive aura, he did not delay and let out two more bullets in quick succession, they both fell backwards and far down into the depths of the dried up aquifer.
“Come in green group,” Russel called through the comms link.
“This is Stuka,”
“Their fire support has been neutralised, were now preparing for a final assault on the worker barracks,”
“We’re in the same position here too, they’ve been bled out from the looks of things but who knows what we’re gonna’ find in there, we will start now so let’s preform some kind of pincer manoeuvre shall we,”
“We read you,” but there was no need for a plan as the guard at the barracks has been completely wiped out, Russel thought back to the initial breach, if their main force really had been cut off from the interior or if the inhabitants of the gulf had simply succumbed to the hostile conditions sooner than expected. Both groups entered the premises and met up in a common area. The ten agents who had been assigned to the assault were now six strong, Hart was injured and there was a bloodstain clearly visible on his right calf, despite all logic he was being supported by Jerry who had been the only new recruit to survive.
“Where’s Dutch?” Hart asked, the answer was clear, but the man’s injuries seemed to be getting to him.
“He’s gone,” Russel answered.
“Oh, I see, yeah,” this was the last word he spoke before he collapsed, Hart was moved to a nearby sofa and the five prepared to enter the next room. What they were met with was obvious in hindsight but quite surprising in the moment. Thirty or more cultists were dead on the ground where they had stabbed themselves in ritual and in the centre of the room was their high priest, Mark Gurney who was still alive and sat crooked in his throne.
“Ahh, visitors,” he spoke in a rasping voice followed by a wheezing laugh, he’s body had been subjected to the same physical ailments of that of the others, his eyes had clouded, and his body looked to be in a painful state of chemical erosion.
“Trapping us down here was quite…” he trailed off in another coughing fit, as this happened the squad looked around and searched for the second objective. Russel was still standing with Jerry in the centre of the room, he thought he would have questions for Gurney but now that he finally had to opportunity to ask them, they all seemed pointless. Russel looked at Jerry and they both shook their head at each other, the two of them pulled out their pistols and fulfilled their primary objective.
“0557!” the drive was found in an adjoining lab and all of a sudden, the weight of their task was lifted. For the moment the party celebrated before Goldbrook re-established contact and ordered their withdrawal, on the walk back to the breach Russel met up with Stuka again, he was carrying the large SSD.
“All this for some names,” he turned the hardware around in his arms, inspecting its make.
“Archon Global, yeah obviously… from what I hear from the others, that was some good shooting back there Zeta,”
“They don’t know everything, their snipers had the same thing done to them as Sandorf, they can outrange us and if given real training, they could completely disable anyone with just a thought,” Russel replied.
“That’s some heavy shit, thinking about it, you must be an expert at tackling those freaks at this point, how lucky(!)”
“Yeah, lucky,” the duo walked past Striker, his body had been dragged into a cave.
“Poor bastards,” Stuka spoke under his breath.
“This operation was a farce; sure, greens are cheap but that’s 50K of lost augments alone and for what? Just a few days and they all would have gone blind,”
“Don’t ask questions you already know the answer to,” Stuka responded bluntly and cut the conversation prematurely.
The squad caught up with Wildcat and Fisher, and there on the surface to greet the tired men was Goldbrook, animated in a way nobody had seen before and with the biggest smile on her face.
“Great work! Very good work!”

Stalled Horizons

Stalled Horizons

Status: Ongoing Released: 2023 Native Language: English (United Kingdom)


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