Phantom Pains


raith_icon.gif rico2_icon.gif

Scene Title Phantom Pains
Synopsis Two survivors of the Vanguard hunt something in the jungle, and search for a reason behind the fall of their organization.
Date November 29, 2009

Cerro de Hierro Negro


Scouting the Argentinean jungles isn't an easy task, not for most people. The jungle is a harsh, unforgiving and wild place that devours lesser men. Jensen Raith, then, is not a lesser man. For the last two days he has been in the one place in the world he knows better than himself, the jungles of South America. This place was his home for so many years, it was his back-yard, was his territory, was his world.

What the jungle hides from most people, it seems to offer plainly to this ex-Vanguard operative. Signs of conflict riddle the forests outside of El Palenque. Expended shell casings ranging in age from months to years, and each of them tells a story of which local or foreign military was firing them. Haphazardly discarded bodies of decaying soldiers tossed into ravines, skeletal remains of local farm animals that look to have been slaughtered by mountain lions. It's a bit more wild than it was when Raith left.

Notably, though, in this dense jungle are tracks. The soft and wet jungle floor takes to footprints of all kinds, the plants snap at odd angles, bark sloughs off; everything aids in determining just how or when someone or something has been through an area. What Jensen has been following the faded tracks of for the last few hours, however, is both man and beast.

From where he crouches on the jungle floor, there's two sets of tracks in the soft earth. One is a man's footprints, light and booted, moving through the forest floor with care and caution. What seems to be dogging his heels leaves tracks like a Jaguar would, but the claws are too far apart, and the depression would indicate that it must weigh several hundred pounds; far more than a typical Jaguar would.

Someone headed on the same route that Raith is towards the base camp is being stalked by this thing. It might be best, for everyone's sake, if he figures out exactly what it is that haunts these woods.

There are literally millions of different species of animals in South America, although only a handful of them grow to any appreciable size. The jaguar is one of them, of course, but when it comes to size, even that has its limits. And the jungle is harsh; anything that ventures outside of its limits dies before it has the chance to move far outside them. So exactly what this thing is is of great concern, if only in the short-term; it won't live long in this environment, being unsuited for it, but in the time that it is alive, it could inflict significant damage, and truth be told, the ex-spy, ex-Vanguard, ex-terrorist, reactivated spy is hoping he doesn't run into it. An he has to defend himself with is a utility knife and an old machete he found with the remains of what used to be a man, and being lost in the wilderness hasn't done anything to help its rusting but still sharp blade. As long as the sun stays out and those tracks stay visible, he has more to fear from snakes and poisonous insects and arachnids than this thing; for it to have doubled-back to surprise him is so improbable as to be impossible. It's safe to follow the trail.

Of course, nothing is going to stop him from freezing and listening intently every time he hears something that doesn't sound 'in place.' And given the environment, that's going to happen more often than he'd like it to. But Raith presses on. If there's a big, hungry eats-you thing roaming the greenery, then all the better he knows where its going.

You learn things about your prey when you track them, be it an animal or a person. You learn their habits, and depending on their body functions you can even learn what they eat. After finding a clearing in the forest, there's a distinct impression that what Raith's tracking may use this area as a stomping ground. A body, propped up against a nearby tree looks to have been rent asunder some months ago. Olive-drab clothing looks as thin as paper now, stretched over bones held together by the sun-dried vestiges of flesh. Limbs have been rent asunder, an arm tossed several feet away from the body, a leg torn apart like it had been sent through a grain-harvester.

A wallet in the corpse's back pocket has a few American dollars in it, no identification though. Strapped at his waist, a Baretta 9mm pistol that has been exposed to the elements for god knows how long looks like it only got halfway out of the holster before its owner was torn apart. Two spare clips, equally weathered, are tucked into the gun belt at the holster's side.

Something feels wrong about this, about the body. None of the bones look gnawed on, the belly flesh hasn't been disturbed save for two thick slashes that Raith could estimate come from a five or six inch long blade or talon. Nothing on the body was eaten, it was just mauled.

Over the cliff edge near this twisted tree and corpse, a forested valley gives a distant view of the village of El Palenque, and balancing on the cliff edge is the corpse's missing arm, one wearing a conspicuous piece of weather-beaten jewelry— something like a handcuff without a chain.

It didn't look like good news from a distance, and after Raith made his way closer, approaching along the edge of the clearing and staying as far out of the open as possible, it didn't look any better, but at least it looked definite. There was no animal on earth that he knew of that would do this. Even if they aren't hungry, animals don't kill for sport. And even if they did, there's no living animal with claws or talons that cut like machetes instead of, well, claws or talons. And the fact that the poor bastard was just killed and left, not tugged around or played with, does more to convince him that this wasn't any jungle cat. Wendigo, maybe, but even if that wasn't garbage, he's way too far south.

And then there's the gun. Civilian? Military? Government? Who knows? It's too worn down to tell for certain, and the fact of the matter is that Berettas are everywhere; only shotguns are more common than Berettas. No help there. The wallet's just as useless, although the presence of American dollars and total lack of ID tell Raith that either this guy wasn't snooping around where he wasn't supposed to, the most likely story, or that whatever did this wanted to be certain that the body wouldn't be identified later. Interesting, but unhelpful.

But that conspicuous-looking piece of jewelry, that's something helpful, and after a quick look around to make certain he hasn't attracted attention from the apparition he's chasing, something else equally interested in eating him, or perhaps even los indios, that bracelet is the next thing he inspects. All the better if it has something engraved on it.

Out on the cliff edge, the rusted metal of the bracelet looks less and less like a handcuff the closer Raith gets to it. Crouched down and able to inspect it fully by breaking the fragile arm its attached to at the wrist and sliding it off, it becomes readily evident that it's something far more comfounding. The bracelet is thick, about an inch wide and rounded on the outside. There's a pair of broken LEDs on the outside of the cuff near a hinge opposite the latch side. The cuff's interior is flat, with a pneumatic needle that extends out a half an inch inside the band, clearly designed to puncture the skin.

Scratch and scuff marks on the metal look like someone had tried to apply a hacksaw to the metal, or perhaps something a bit less efficient. Turning it around in the light and brushing away some of the rust with his thumb, Raith notices a small panel that opens attached by a single screw. Using the tip of his swiss army knife, he unwinds the rusted screw and pops open the panel, revealing a thin wafer-board and soldered wires and a coiled broadcasting antenna. It's some sort've receptor, or signal beacon from the looks of it.

And whatever it is, completely fucking useless by this point. There's a reason electronics don't do well out here, and the general lack of batteries and wall outlets isn't it. Moisture gets in everywhere, on everything, shorts out any circuit it pleases, whenever it pleases. Bad news for anyone looking to use it, but goods news for Raith; it is does, in fact, transmit, or did at some point in the past, the odds of it suddenly turning on and giving his position away to whoever happens to be watching for the signal is nil.

but at the same time, it's still useless and unhelpful. Raith knows a fair deal about mechanical systems, but when it comes to electronics, his knowledge comes to a stop at the same point as any modern auto mechanic; find the bad component, replace it, charge the customer half their paycheck on the bill. If fortune's good, the base camp has a specialist in this sort of thing, but Raith has to settle for double-checking on the presence of a power source and then stuffing it into his pocket for safekeeping before he starts making his way back towards the trail his comrades are following. As far as he's concerned, the hunt for the culprit is over. He's not going to find it. He doesn't want to find it. And whatever it is, it's probably a lot less interested in him than he is in it. And that's the best news of all.

Raith realizes the eyes are on him just in time to react, quick enough to turn and snap to attention, ready a knife only to have muscles slack when he realizes the person he was hunting in the jungle had doubled back on him. "Better him than you, eh signor?" The familiar silhouette coming out of the woods flicks a cigar down to the ground, crunched under one booted heel as he walks. In the warm sunlight, Rico Velasquez' presence here in the jungle is as much the pain of a phantom limb than any bad memory or amputation could be.

It's almost like old times.

"The locals call it a monster…" He nods towards the body, rubbing his hand over the stubble that has accumulated on an uncharacteristically clean-shaven face. "Good to see you made it out to this shit-hole alive. Your friends are a half-mile from here, they're chatty." A cracked smile is offered, along with one hand out in offering and a coarse laugh.

"This brings back memories, doesn't it?"

Muscles may slacken, but the air remains tense. Rico being alive is no surprise to Raith, not in the way it was nearly two months ago. Rico being here, however, is something of a surprise. And not all that welcome, either. "Bueno y malo, muchacho," he replies without much inflection or emotion. It's not information Rico didn't already know, and even if he didn't, it's not information Raith considers vitally important. What is important, however, is the matter at hand.

"No animal did this," the spy states, likewise nodding towards the corpse, "And if a man did it, he must have a real tough time finding shoes that fit him. Hope the bastard wasn't one of yours."

"Don't know, it's been a long time since I've been home." Rico's eyes drift down to the untaken hand, fingers rubbing together before he rests both hands on his hips and shrugs his shoulders. "I got down to ground about a week ago here, turns out mi hermana is in charge of some resistance here. She's fighting Iago and the Vanguard, took after her brother…" There's a sullen look on Rico's face, brows furrowed. "I haven't told her Mattias is dead yet. I think she knows."

Rubbing his hand over his chin again, Rico takes a stroll over to the mangled corpse, looking down at it. "She says there's monsters out here in the woods. The locals say there'd glowing-eyed jaguars that stalk the forest, can rip a man's limbs off and are invincible. Sounds like a load of bullshit…" Dark eyes sweep from the body to Raith. "I think one was following me for a few hours." He grimaces, bitterly. "Maybe not so much bullshit."

"Evolved jaguars?" is Raith's suggestion, followed immediately by a sharp, singular, "Ha!" Whatever Rico thinks, Raith disagrees. "That is a load of bullshit. Now, what I will buy is a bunch of guys with knives and ghillie suits trying to keep the locals from venturing out and stumbling on their operation. Especially considering this."

Ina single, swift motion, Raith pulls the bracelet he'd found out of his pocket and tosses it to Rico, leaving the catching up to him. "Jaguars don't use tracking bracelets. Or whatever the fuck that is. Nothing I've ever seen before."

One brow quirks up and Rico comes walking over to eye the bracelet. "You found that on him?" There's a nod of Rico's head over to the skeletal remains, dark eyes flitting back to Raith again. "Fantastic." Breathing in a deep breath, he starts to turn for the direction Raith knows the others are in. "Iago wasn't ever a man of finesse, you know that much. Doesn't seem like one of his plans, si?" Rico pauses, just long enough to regard Raith over his shoulder, and then reach down to open the front of his jacket and withdraw a matte black Glock from within. He spins it around, offering it out to Raith.

"If you see any men in ghillie suits…" There's a crack of a smile across Rico's lips. "You might want this instead of your kitchenette set, compadre."

"'Iago' and 'finesse' are two words that don't belong in the same fucking dictionary, much less in the same sentence," Raith concludes. With measured caution, he accepts the Glock, popping the magazine out to make sure it has bullets before sliding it back into the weapon and verifying that the chamber is empty. Only then, does he take the belt and holster off the corpse at his feet and fasten both around his waist. Gruesome, sure, but Raith needs the equipment a lot more than he does. "Listen, paisano. Iago's not running this show alone. Hector Steel. MIT, ex-government, muy inteligente para un rata del laboratorio. At least until he got mixed up with Iago. Maybe not so smart, after all." That seems to be the case with people who fall under the Vanguard's sway.

"If anyone's stapling radio bracelets onto people, it's that cabrĂ³n. Maybe he's the reason the load of bullshit that was following you isn't so much bullshit."

Rolling his tongue over the inside of his cheek, Rico takes pause when Hector's name comes up. "Good to see Iago is keeping the recruitment drive running…" He circles around the base of a tree, stepping into the shaded canopy of the forest. "How much do you know about this Steel?" Dark eyes drift over to regard Raith, walking at his side. "Aside from him being a lab rat."

There's a crunch of a branch under Rico's boot, then the snap of something metallic, a tongue of flame, and he's snapping his lighter closed and bringing a cigar up to his mouth pinched between forefingers and thumb. "More importantly…" he says with an exhalation of smoke, "is he like us, or like them?" An important Vanguard distinction.

Raith offers little more than what he can; a simple shrug. "Disappeared around the same time Volken died," he says, "So make of that what you will. No mention was made by the boss, no point in lying about being in charge here, one way or the other, so either he's like us, or they don't know. As far as we know, he's still alive, so if he's like them, then he's either very useful to Iago, or very good at hiding it.

"And you know, sooner or later, Iago finds out if you're hiding something from him. That's why he's still alive." Finishes that thought, Raith sends another glance down to the corpse. "And why he isn't. These are dark times, my friend. If things don't change soon, maybe worse than Vietnam. World-wide 'police action.' It would sell a lot of papers, at least."

"This whole world is fucked if you ask me…" Which Jensen didn't, but Rico is still willing to oblige the opinion. "The old man, dead as he is, knew exactly what he was dong setting us up. This whole— " a hand is waved flippantly in the air, "nuclear weapon business? It is madness, and somehow there are still people carrying this out, even after he turned on us? Turned us on each other?" Dark brows furrow and Rico shakes his head slowly.

"That man was like a father to me, more than mi padre ever was. He treated a lot of us like that, like family. I don't know what made him change, why he lost his sense, but for a while I believed what he was thinking. Maybe he was right, yes?" Dark eyes drift over to Raith. "Maybe this world is sick, maybe we killed the prophet?" He shrugs his shoulders, sucking on the cigar.

"We saved ourselves, is what we did. We got cold feet in New York, couldn't follow through. I wonder if we're cowards for that, spinless traitors, no?" Rico shakes his head, coming to rest under a tree. "Sometimes I think back, remember how things were here when I was a boy? Maybe there is something worse coming, something we could have stopped? For all its evils, sometimes I wonder if we were the lesser."

"That's where you're slightly off-track, Rico," Raith says, bringing his attention back to the other man, "I didn't realize it at first, but somewhere along the way, Vanguard came to life. It started thinking for itself. Maybe Kazimir went loco, maybe not. But even if he didn't lose his way, we lost ours, somewhere in there. Became something we weren't, that we didn't want to be." Once again, the bracelet goes back into Raith's pocket. "We wanted to protect the world, no? We did, but from what? We almost destroyed the thing we were trying to protect, because Vanguard was too big. Too powerful. Kazimir went loco, that I'm sure of, but so did Vanguard. Lost its mind, and lost its way, because it was too big.

"It'll come back, some day, we both know it. But it has to be different. Vanguard has to 'evolve', or in ten years, you and I will be back here in the forest, wondering to each other what went wrong, just like the Germans, just like the Romans. All this has happened before, and it will all happen again."

"But eventually, paisano, eventually… we'll get it right."

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