Gunshot woke Vivienne.
The drugs that her abductors had given her made her feel groggy and disconnected from the grim reality of her situation although her cheek throbbed where they had cut her in order to prove to her father that they were serious about their ransom demands and she moaned in pain as she lifted onto her elbows.
She had dreamed it, she decided, and began to lie down again on the disgusting mattress that was the only furniture in the room despite the bucket in the corner.
She heard it again, a sharp bark of sound, followed by others. Bang. Bang-bang. Bang-bang. Bang!
She pushed herself up against the bare brick wall, fighting to keep her eyes open. The police? She thought with a flutter of hope. Had they managed to find her?
The door opened and filled with quite possibly the biggest man that she had ever seen. His helmet brushed the top of the doorframe. Dressed in black head to toe, his torso protected by body armour, he bristled with weapons, bullet clips strapped to his chest, a wicked looking blade at his hip and another strapped to a calf, at least six guns that she could see, as well as other items that she did not recognise.
The visor of his helmet shaded most of his face behind reflective tinting, but his jaw was strong and determined and his lips full and beautifully masculine.
“Vivienne Thornton,” he said, his voice deep. “You are to come with me.”
“Who are you?” Her voice was scratchy from screaming.
“5129. We must hurry. I have lost the element of surprise,” he reached out his hand and she took it, letting him pull her to her feet. He led her out of the room and down a hallway.
They had to step over several bodies and man against one wall clutched his stomach and moaned.
5129 did not pause.
“What the f-k?” A man stepped into the hallway before them looking at the bodies scattered around him in bewilderment before lifting his eyes to 5129 and Vivienne. “F-king - ”
His hand barely touched the gun tucked into his waistband before 5129 shot him. The man jerked and for a moment seemed puzzled by what had happened. The perfectly placed hole between his eyes seeped a slow ooze of blood down the bridge of his nose, and then he collapsed onto the ground like a discarded doll.
“Oh f-k,” Vivienne sobbed in a breath, but 5129 pulled her passed the man.
The door at the end of the hallway opened into an underground car park, and 5129 pressed her against the wall, shielding her with his body, whilst he exchanged bullet-fire with those in carpark. She could see the men using the cement support poles as shelter whilst they shot at them.
5129 took several of what looked like black marbles off his hip and cast them out without ceasing to lay down fire to keep the men behind their shelters. Vivienne watched the little marbles bounce and roll across the cement before suddenly exploding in a bright flash.
“Oh, my gawd,” she closed her eyes and turned her head away as limbs sprayed out, but she could not block out the screams or the acrid smell of smoke and burnt flesh.
“This way,” 5129 was moving again, reclaiming his hold on Vivienne’s hand. He used a device on a 4WD parked neatly to the side and untouched by the destruction and she heard the engine start. He opened the passenger door and lifted her in before running around to the driver’s seat. He put the device onto the dash before putting the car into gear, driving straight for the closed roller door. As they approached the device beeped and the door began to rise.
She heard the rear window of the 4WD shatter as someone behind them opened fire, and a metallic ping as they struck the rear door and bumper. The roof of the car scraped on the roller door as 5129 increased their speed.
He whipped the car onto the road, sending traffic into chaos as other drivers avoided collision with him, only to crash into other vehicles. She threw a look behind her and saw that the pile up had created a roadblock, preventing pursuit.
They drove for a few blocks before 5129 pulled off into a car park at the rear of a building and parked the car behind an overflowing industrial sized garbage bin. From the road, the car would be invisible she noted as he got out the car and probably by the time it was located, the locals would have stripped it to its frame.
There was blood on the seat, she saw, and realised that her rescuer was injured.
He opened the passenger door. “We need to walk,” he said to her.
“You are bleeding,” she protested. “We need to get you help.”
“I will survive,” he replied and lifted her down. “This way.”
They were in a poor area of Estray, she thought as he hurried her down an alleyway. A long way from her home, and her father. This was an area which had seen war first-hand, some buildings empty shells, the rooves and internal supports crumpled by explosions, others with all the windows boarded up as the glass had shattered away.
Burnt out, wheel-less cars rotted on the sides of the road, and the streets were lined with businesses permanently closed to customers.
There was a lawlessness to the people, and a disinterest in anything other than their own survival – she and 5129 barely drew curious glances as they hurriedly crossed from one alleyway to another. In this alleyway he paused, and looked up, before pulling down the ladder of a fire escape.
“Up,” he said.
She began the climb, her arms weak and shaking. He cupped her with his body, his thighs beneath hers, supporting her until she reached the first landing. The rest of the way up was easier – stairs rather than ladders.
Several levels from the ground, he took a strip of metal from his pocket and slid it under the edge of the window until it hit the lock, and then sawed through it using the fine teeth on the strip. He lifted the window up, and she slithered through into a fully furnished room.
“Stay here,” he told her, and went to the door. She sat on the bed, her legs collapsing in exhaustion under her. After a moment, he returned. “This domicile is unoccupied,” he told her. “We will remain here until it becomes dark. Come,” he held out a hand. “You require medical attention.”
“So do you,” she pointed out taking his hand.
“Hmm,” he guided her down a tastefully decorated hallway decorated with the smiling photos of a family who had probably fled the Estray war, leaving behind everything they owned. Or, at least, that was what she hoped had happened to them.
In the bathroom, he removed his helmet, and she gaped up at him. He had a handful of years on her, she thought, and was devastatingly handsome, with true blue eyes and golden-brown hair braided back from his face, the tail of which was tucked into the turtlenecked top he wore. His cheekbones were astonishing, high, and prominent, and his nose strong. But there was something… not quite right about the bone structure.
Her rescuer was an altered human, she thought, and wondered exactly what alterations he had done in order to change the structure of his face in such a way.
He washed and sterilized his hands in the sink before easing the bandage that her abductors had placed on her face after they had sliced it open. She kept her eyes on his, avoiding the mirror over the sink, not wanting to see the damage for herself.
“Is it bad?” She whispered as he scrutinized the wound carefully.
“You will require surgery if you wish to remove the scar,” he replied. “I will do what I can to minimise the damage in the interim.” He took a small black kit out of a pocket on the cargo-pants that he wore and unfolded it revealing a compact med-kit.
He used a sterilizing spray and wipes to clean the wound, and then with gentle fingers brought the edges together with butterfly stitches. “Better,” he announced as he concluded the process, and she dared risk a glance in the mirror.
Her cheek was grotesquely swollen on that side, but the slice was a neat red line from the corner of her eye to the corner of her mouth. She nodded with resignation. The surgery that would be required would be extensive.
“Okay,” she said to him. “Now you.”
He removed the armoured vest, and she could see where the ballistics material had not completely stopped the bullets. She drew in a deep breath as he carefully lifted the black turtle-necked top off over his head.
5129’s body was beautiful, she thought. She tried to focus on the wounds, but it was hard not to notice that there wasn’t an ounce of fat on the man, and he was heavily muscled. He seemed oblivious to his effect on her, his attention on his wounds as he used tweezers to remove the bullets that had lodged in his chest.
“Not deep,” she observed with relief.
“No, the body armour prevented serious injury.” He passed her the tweezers and turned to face the sink and his kit. She drew in a deep breath and began to pick bullets out of his back whilst he sterilized and applied pressure bandages over his front. Their eyes met in the mirror several times as she did her best to sterilize and bandage his back, possessing none of his efficient adeptness.
Ridiculous, Vivienne, she scolded herself. You are filthy, hungry, exhausted, half off your face with drugs, and wounded – it is absolutely ridiculous to even contemplate a romantic connection. It was just a misplaced gratitude for her rescue.
“So, who are you with?” She asked him as he pulled his top back on. “Special forces? Or a private guard service?”
“I was told to advise you, should you ask,” he said. “That I was sent by Adriana Thornton.”
“Grandmother?” She was stunned. “Oh.”
“We will eat and then rest. You are under the influence. Sleep, food, and liquids will assist your body to process the narcotics.”
“Okay,” the adrenaline was wearing off and fatigue was creeping in.
They returned to the bedroom, and he handed her a protein bar from another pocket before retrieving glasses from the kitchen, bringing water. She curled up on her side, and watched him position himself in the window, using the curtains to hide himself from sight from the fire-escape and the street below.
“What is your name?” She asked him, her eyelids growing heavy, but the intrigue of him held her to consciousness.
“5129,” he glanced over his shoulder at her. “Sleep, Vivienne Thornton.”
“5129 isn’t a name,” she murmured.
“Vivienne Thornton,” he murmured, and she woke out of a deep sleep with a start, relaxing when she met 5129’s eyes. “You are safe,” he assured her. “It is time to leave.”
She sat up with a groan.
Through the window, she could see that it was night. A single streetlight below flickered as it struggled to light. The other streetlights were darkened, the globes smashed or blown long before. Estray had been at war for so long that utilities like water and electricity were sporadic at best, and basic city maintenance had been abandoned. Bins remained overflowing, broken glass unfixed, and blown globes were not replaced.
5129 put on his helmet. “Come,” he said to her, leading her back to the window, and out onto the fire escape. “Up, Vivienne Thornton,” he told her, and she took the next stairs up and onto the roof, looking around in confusion.
“Now where?” She asked him, and then heard the sound of a helicopter approaching. “Oh, no,” she moaned to herself, knowing what was going to follow.
“I will keep you safe,” 5129 assured her as something was tossed from the helicopter above. He stooped to collect it, shaking it out into a double body harness. He adjusted the straps around himself securely before pulling her against him so that they were face to face. “Trust me, Vivienne,” he said softly.
“I do,” she whispered, and he nodded before strapping her into the second part of the harness. He lifted her so that her legs were around his waist and her arms around his shoulders as he completed the process.
Below she saw several vehicles tear along the street, their headlights cutting through the darkness, and armed men leapt free – her abductors or the local war lord’s men drawn by the presence o the helicopter, it did not matter which, both would open fire indiscriminately.
The helicopter began to rise, and 5129 gave a slight grunt as the harness lifted them from the ground. He kept one arm around her and held onto the rope that connected them to the helicopter above with his free hand.
The grunt had been pain, she thought, seeing a muscle in the corner of his jaw work. “Are you alright, 5129?” She asked him, her anxiety for him overriding her fear of their precarious position for a moment.
“Fine,” his lips curled slightly in a reassuring smile. “The harness pressed against the wounds on my back.”
“Are you in pain?” She fretted.
“Not intolerable.” Below there was the rapid discharge of an automatic weapon and she cried out in alarm. “We are out of range,” he assured her. “They are just wasting bullets.”
“Okay,” she clung to his neck and tried to ignore how they swung high over the city.
“Vivienne Thornton,” he caught her attention. “We are being pulled onto the helicopter. Do not be alarmed.” He released his arm hold on her in order to clasp the arms offered through the helicopter door, and then they were lying on the helicopter floor, surrounded by three other black-clad men, with two more in the cockpit.
One of the men pushed the helicopter door closed, shutting off the rush of air and much of the beating of the helicopter blades, and the other men assisted to disconnect the harness. It was far too loud in the cab to talk, but 5129 strapped Vivienne into a seat and sat beside her, holding her hand, until the helicopter began to descend.
The helicopter landed, but the engine and the blades did not stop. One of the men opened the door and 5129 helped Vivienne out, crouching over her as he half ran them across the tarmac. She recognised the location as the main airfield of Estray, currently held by the warlord with whom her father, a diplomat on behalf of the planetary government, was working, trying to bring peace to the war-torn country.
Once they were safely out of the reach of the blades, 5129 straightened to his impressive height, and Vivienne saw her father amongst a group of armed men. “Daddy!” She began to cry and broke free of 5129 in order to run into her father’s arms.
“Oh, my darling,” Richard Thornton held her tight, weeping. “Oh, Vivienne.”
She remembered 5129 and turned to thank him, but was too late - the helicopter lifted off, carrying him away from her life as swiftly as he had appeared in it. “I didn’t get to say thank you,” she gasped, horrified.
“I’m sure he knows,” her father assured her. “Come, Vivienne, let’s get you cleaned up and seen to…”
Although she was grateful to be returned to the safety of her father and home, the mystery of 5129 lingered in Vivienne’s mind and heart. Who was he? And how could she arrange to see him again?