Thomas Fireheart paused to look at the fire red sun as it started to sink behind Pago Pago, the tallest volcano on the island. It really was a breathtaking sight that he didn't stop to enjoy as much as he ought to. These days, Thomas lived for the excitement of the hunt and the thrill of the chase. In some ways you could say that that was what he was bred for, if he was a dog. As it was, he came from a family of skilled outdoorsmen. His family belonged to the Kickapoo tribe in Oklahoma, and he had learned to be an expert tracker from an early age.
There aren't a lot of employment opportunities in the backwoods of the American Midwest, so when he was offered a lucrative position with Oscorp, he seized the chance to be paid to hunt all kinds of interesting creatures.
What he wasn't prepared for, of course, was that almost all of these animals that he was tasked with controlling and keeping track of were genetically enhanced or modified, often in unexpected and altogether strange ways that gave the animals unfair advantages. So when the good Dr. Lily Hollister offered him a procedure where his genetic code was altered, intensifying his senses and augmenting his strength; benefits from having the DNA of a mountain lion inserted into his own chromosomes, he pounced on the opportunity.
He came across some banana peels, carelessly tossed to the side of the trail. Thomas poked them and inhaled deeply the scent of Caesar. He was making excellent progress in keeping on Caesar's tracks, as his handful of hasty attempts to throw him off had been unsuccessful, and Thomas was effortlessly hot on the trail.
There was a dull niggle in the back of his mind, warning him to proceed with caution, but before he could pause to give heed to this instinctive, cautionary notion, he would happen upon the next clue or strong scent of Caesar's trail, and again he would be off, running with feverish haste.
Thomas reasoned to himself that he had two advantages working in his behalf. He had the advantage that he was downwind, and a nice, stiff tropical breeze kept him apprised of Caesar's direction. The other advantage was that Caesar was heading uphill, climbing the trail that scales the volcano, and Thomas felt that this could only advantage him in his pursuit.
The spoor was clear, and the scent so fresh that Thomas was hurrying now, jogging at a very brisk pace, even as the trail led to go up the green slope on the south side of Pago Pago. Thomas sprinted up the green slide, pausing at the top to sniff the air. For a fleeting moment, he thought he had lost the trail, but shifting his position by scaling a projecting seam of sandstone higher up, the wind blew Caesar's scent right into his nostrils. He proceeded forward towards a small open space in the wild upheaval of rock. On the mountainside was a wall that rose perpendicularly. Seven metres on the other side was a sheer fall of thirty to forty metres. Thomas looked around cautiously, but when a gust of wind reached him from around the rocks, Caesar's smell struck him full in the face, almost as if Caesar had paused to rub his sweaty back against the rocks to relieve some painful itch. As it was, the scent was so strong and tantalizing to Thomas's heightened senses, that he virtually felt intoxicated by the proximity of his prey, so that he took off at full speed, running along towards where the trail continued through a small opening in a huge crag of rock that had fallen from the shoulder of the volcano.
As Thomas, who was now charging headlong the trail with the scent of Caesar full in his lungs, swung sharply around a projecting bulge in the perpendicular wall, the thought briefly crossed his mind that he should be on Caesar at any moment.
As he ran and came around the crag, his instinctive warning suddenly went off just as a hairy arm reached out and a battered petrol can slammed into the back of his head, knocking him face first into the volcanic soil as he slid towards the edge of the precipice. He pushed himself up so that his face was out of the dirt, and he found himself staring over the edge of a cliff where rocks spiked up from a hundred feet below. He quickly turned around to face his aggressor and saw Caesar's menacing scowl, still clutching the dented petrol can in his hand.
The look of absolute shock and surprise in suddenly coming face to face with his would be quarry was frozen into Thomas' features. After ten seconds had passed, Thomas felt like he had lived hours. He finally managed to find his voice, while Caesar's head moved slightly from side to side, impassively eying his opponent. "Steady. Steady. I'm not here to hurt you. I'm here to help." Thomas raised his open hand towards Caesar, who responded by twitching his head forward and grunting.
Thomas decided he needed to soothe Caesar into complacency. "It's Okay. It's Okay. I'm here to help. Let's just stay calm." He was practically talking to himself, trying to steel his own nerve. He waited until he felt that Caesar's breathing was becoming more regular.
Then, Thomas swiftly pulled out his pistol as fast as lightning. Alas, this was precisely what Caesar was waiting for, and just as quickly as Thomas tried to aim and get off a shot, Caesar hurled the petrol can with terrifying force. The can slammed into Thomas' hand and knocked him back, as the pistol went flying a short distance away. Thomas eyes focused on the gun, lying tantalizingly in a shrub on the side of the cliff. Caesar followed Thomas' gaze, and in one swift motion crossed the distance between them, swinging his bulk on his arms and kicking the unfortunate Thomas Fireheart with both feet, sending him careening, clean off the face of the mountain. Caesar watched stone-faced, as Thomas' body bounced grotesquely off the rocks below.
"Idiot!" Caesar grunted.
Commander Frank Castle had summoned a meeting with his captains in the main compound that lay to the west of the island, in the shadow of Pago Pago. He was tied in by short wave radios so that his troops that were entrenched to the north, and Dr. Kasady's contingent under the leadership of Captain Mike Hall, could listen to his final check before they went dark in preparation for the invasion. "This is the Commander. Remember that we have good defensive positions and can hold out longer than our aggressors. We also have our counterstrike heavy weapons platoons in position, along with our fleet of Comanche helicopters for counterstrikes. The plan is to hold out to reduce their strength and effectiveness to attack, and then cut off their communications with their supply base in Australia. We are well equipped, we are dug in. As long as we keep our heads, we will prevail. I will not tolerate any hotheads or self-proclaimed heroes who are out to prove how good they are at killing and end up coming unglued when the bullets start flying. Don't be too aggressive or trigger-happy under my command. I want you to make every shot count. Now let's get some rest, so that we're switched on and ready for action at 0400. Remember, I'm always in front of you."
After Castle's pep talk, Toby tried to force himself to go over once again in his mind the plan for the following day, but instead found himself reading the last messages he had received from his wife before their signals had been jammed.
"My dear Toby,
"I sincerely hope that you are well. It feels like you left so long ago, although I know it has only been a little more than a week. I check my phone obsessively for a message from you. I never leave my phone out of arm's reach, and I become very tense without it. Toviel and Tahlia like to laugh at me for this.
"Yana is enjoying a week in Boston. Please don't be upset if she becomes a Red Sox fan.
"I have decided to plant a garden, with tomatoes and herbs. I've read that gardening is very good for relaxation, and is the only guarantee that your vegetables really are organic. Wish me luck.
"I know that you tried to tell me that this 'business trip' of yours wasn't dangerous. Forgive me that I didn't believe you.
"I pray for you safety. Please come home soon.
"Sincerely, your loving wife,
He wrote a final message and hit send, hoping it would make it out once the jamming was lifted: "My dearest Kerry,
"No doubt you have been sending me further text messages and emails, but nothing has been getting through for the last week. Thank you for the last message you sent on Wednesday. I've read it over and over.
"The cold weather will be coming soon, so be careful to always bundle up so that you don't come down with something. You should treat yourself to a spa this weekend. You deserve it. Get one of those cleansing and fatigue reducing treatments, along with a manicure.
"I know your mother worries for me, and I appreciate that. If she finds comfort in reciting her rosary, then I believe that the repetition and familiarity of these traditions do her well. But please continue to exercise due caution. The streets of New York are getting more dangerous, and violent criminals won't stop to respect your faith. Maybe you should even consider getting out of the city, and going to my parents place in Fishkill.
"I wanted to let you know that I am doing reasonably well, so there's no need to worry about me. "Army" life has been good for me. I have even managed to put on a few pounds; of muscle I believe.
"I've learned a lot of things about nefarious forces at work in our world these past few days, and not to alarm you, but please always be careful when visiting zoos or meeting with my colleagues. I've come to learn that many of these men are unscrupulous, and therefore cannot be trusted.
If I am unable to pass this on personally, I would like to say something to the children. Always do what your mother tells you. If I am not able to return, I want you to help your mother, treat her as the centre of the family, and help each other so you can all live vigorous, positive lives. With you in particular Toviel, I pray with all my heart that you become the kind of strong, tough-minded young man that your mother and your younger sisters can depend on. Yana, you are already a pretty tough little lady, so I'm confident about you. I feel sorry for your mommy because maybe she hasn't got that strength of character. I do regret that I had so little time to love you, Little Tahlia. Please grow up to be big and strong for me.
"I'm afraid I must close this letter, as we are putting out the lights.
"I will always love you, Kerry, and some part of me will live on in you and our children.
"Your loving husband and father."
Toby Auchmann was never, by nature, a sentimental man. As a scientist he had always prized logic and reason over emotion or demonstrative feelings. But he was softhearted with his immediate family, especially his youngest daughter, Tahlia.
Now when faced with the chimeric issue threatening humankind, he had chosen to weigh his future life as a family man, against not only the future of his own family, but of humanity itself. He knew what he was risking when he undertook the decision to assassinate Julian Connors. And now his thoughts and resolve were the same. If he failed to protect the human genome from corruption, and mutants were allowed to spread across the planet, then humanity itself would probably come under attack in a cataclysmic, worldwide ethnic cleansing.
Fighting, and even dying to protect the future life prospects of his children and the world in which they lived was a duty he felt he had to accept.
Even still, while feeling a sense of pride in his determination and sacrifice, he was blanketed by a lingering sadness that this could be the end. It really was so sad to fall in battle, he thought. He may never look into his wife's eyes again. He may never again hear laughter nor enjoy the soft sunlight upon his face. This is the end.
Tom and Elias sat around a cheerful campfire that was welcome in helping to stave off the surprising chill of the night air. Both were lost in their thoughts and were mesmerized by the flickering flames. Peter sat a short distance away, stroking a white rabbit on his lap.
Elias broke the pensive atmosphere. "Do you really think there will be a battle tomorrow?"
Tom answered without being able to take his eyes off of the fire. "It would seem that that is what it has come to. Neither side is willing to concede anything, and wants complete control over this technology. Also, if I am being honest, Iraklis and Osborne are out for revenge, so I don't think they'll be in a very diplomatic mood once they get here."
"Careful what you say, Tom," said Peter, while continuing to face away from them. "That's the side of the argument you chose and now you have to live with the consequences, same as the rest of us."
"I'm well aware of that," said Tom. "I think we're of the same mind in that we just wanted to develop medical research and technology to help people and save lives. But isn't that the twisted irony of the human experience? Sometimes it's the people you're trying to save that end up fighting you the most, and when you decide that you would like to save the world that is when you lose it. Obviously I neither intended to end up in this position nor did I envision it, but that is precisely why the path to hell is so damnably crowded."
"Well I guess one day we'll see who was right and who was wrong," said Peter.
Tom started poking the fire with a stick. "As in most disagreements, if we're only out to prove ourselves right, then battle is unavoidable. And by doing so, we have made it deeply personal. I'm afraid that not only has peace eluded us, but we tossed it aside, as if it was some ridiculous, quaint fairy tale, and in so doing have set ourselves on the one way track to ruin. It truly has proved to be a waste of resources and lives."
Peter looked down at the rabbit that he was holding. "It is my earnest prayer, that the time will come when we as a civilization look upon the murder of animals as we now look on the murder of men. He who is cruel to animals inevitably becomes brutal in his dealings with humans. We can judge the heart of a man by his treatment of animals. So discerns the ancient proverb: 'A right-minded man regardeth the life of his beast; but even the mercies of the wicked are cruel.' How come, since the time of Abe Lincoln we've known that animal rights are on par with human rights, for that is the way of a whole human being, yet no progress has been made?"
"I think you may have answered your own question. How long did it take for the so-called 'free' world to acknowledge human rights for non-whites, women or minorities? The truth is that technology continues advancing at an astonishing pace, while no human, group, nation or corporation has made any success in establishing a stable platform on which to resolve moral and ethical issues. As mercurial mortals we unavoidably come to blows, and then as a matter of course, the last person still alive sets the standard," brooded Tom aloud.
"Wow. Listening to you guys is depressing," said Elias. I'm going to get some sleep."