Life After Death
Life After Death17 mins 770 17 mins 770
Dogs howled in the distance. A storm had decided to grace the eerie night with its presence, and the distant sound of thunder felt as if it was coming closer at a tremendous speed. The rain had already started falling, and everything that lay on the ground succumbed to the moisture - becoming limp and lifeless. Falcon anxiously stepped over a heap of twigs only to find that they were damp and thus, did not betray the sound of his approach. Slowly, silently, he moved towards the house that stood tall and intimidating like a fortress in what was practically the middle of nowhere. Upon reaching his position, he pressed the push-to-talk button on his earpiece and whispered.
"Falcon in position, do you copy?" he whispered.
A unanimous click-click confirmed that all other members of the team had acknowledged. He crouched behind a tree, using its thick trunk for cover, and grimaced. A long night lay ahead of him, and wet clothes did not provide much hope.
Somewhere north of the building, Phoenix marveled at the beauty of the wilderness. The raw, untamed and abstract picturesqueness of the damp forest they were heading into pleased the poet inside him. The constant rumble of the clouds and the rain softly hitting his face soothed him in a way only his mother could when he was a child. For a long, unending moment, Phoenix forgot about the mission and just breathed. As his mind relaxed, his movements became more fluid, and instead of clumsily moving about in the woods, he gracefully avoided branches and thorns.
“Phoenix is ready to rise,” he muttered, taking up his post.
Zephyr and Hound ascended the hilly area west of the building. Slowly and steadily, the sniper and his spotter moved upwards, taking in every ounce of what they could lay their eyes on - searching for potential viewpoints and escape routes in case the need arose. Their eyes were constantly flitting from one point to another, plotting imaginary positions, gauging angles and distance to the building.
“Over here,” said Zephyr, pointing towards a flat area on the otherwise rough slope.
Both of them moved towards the viewpoint, and Hound put down the case containing his prized rifle. Taking out his Dragunov SVD, he set it down and took the position. While the others had AKS-74Us and engaged their assailants in close quarters, he could eliminate enemies from a distance. He was an exceptional marksman, and his trusted rifle had saved a life more times than he could remember.
“In position,” he murmured, as Zephyr crouched by his side.
The eastern side of the building faced a clearing in the forest. Delta slowly made his way towards the building. Hiding behind the vegetation, he carefully navigated around the clearing, afraid of being spotted out in the open. His gun hung on his shoulder, and his knife gleamed in the lightning lit night. He took his position - roughly fifty meters from the building towering in front of him - crouched and informed his team of his arrival.
“Delta in position. Does everyone copy?” he inquired.
“Copy that team leader. We are in position,” replied everyone in unison.
The dark clouds that had taken over the starless night sky gave the storm another thunderous applause before they started clearing. As the howling winds finally stopped, the forest was once again plunged into an eerie silence. All that could be heard was the drone of insects presently creeping out of their hiding places. The static in their earpieces sounded like a horrendous noise in contrast to the melody being created by nature. Neither one of them felt the need to break the jarring silence. What they were about to do was not relying on words but actions. They could hear their hearts pounding against their chests, but the forest knew only of their presence. Not their fear.
Gazing into his high-powered optical zoom telescope, Zephyr fiddled with its dials for a while before it started showing him a crystal-clear view of the building. The compound was devoid of guards, and had he not been informed, he would have wagered that the safe house was unoccupied. There was no sign of movement in the yard - the sole activity was the occasional droplet trickling down from the leaves of the trees and falling into the puddles of muddy water, sending ripples across the surface. Zephyr could feel a knot forming in his stomach, and the sweat on his brow stung his skin. He looked towards his partner for help, but none came.
Hound lay prone on the ground, looking into the scope of his rifle, his face white with terror. He was perfectly still, as if in a trance. Only a trembling finger on the trigger betrayed what was going on in his mind. He shook his head, trying to clear his thoughts, and without saying a word to his companion, he peered into his scope again. What he saw filled him with a mixture of blinding rage and all-consuming fear. What he saw was a man - standing at the window he had focused on - smiling back at him. The man was mocking him, telling him that he knew he was being watched. Telling him that he knew they would come for him. His wicked smile was proof that he had known it all along and that he was prepared.
Overcome by a splitting headache, he rested his head against the butt of his rifle. Everything around him became silent. Gone was the drone of the insects, the static in his ear, and the sound of his violent heartbeat. For that long, excruciating moment, all that mattered was the rifleman and his target - the predator and its prey. As he raised his head and took aim once more, he could hear a distant voice saying his name. Perhaps it was death calling out to him. Death could wait. All that mattered was the rifleman and his target. He relaxed, taking deep breaths, all the while carefully taking aim. He switched off the safety and held his breath. The distant voice now seemed closer, still calling out his name, but everything else would have to wait.
"Ours is not to question why. Ours is just to do or die,” he whispered as his finger depressed the trigger. He heard an ear-splitting crack, and the bullet hurled itself towards its target, but before Hound could see that he had missed, something rammed into his side, knocking the wind out of him. Perhaps it was death, but that did not matter.
Zephyr had seen the face too. He had seen a shadow of doubt pass over his partner's face, only to be replaced by a look of unshakeable resolve. He knew what was about to happen, and he also knew all too well the fatal ramifications of the moments that would follow. He decided then that it would be best if all of that could be avoided. The rifleman was already taking aim. Now or never.
"Wait," he shouted, "don't shoot!"
Hound had not heard his voice. Zephyr scrambled towards him, lunging at him with all his might. He thrust into his side, but the crack of the bullet leaving the barrel told him that he was too late.
The two men rolled down the small hill, their limbs entangled with one another. Machine-gun fire erupted from within the complex, the bullets spraying the spot they had been in seconds ago. The two of them dashed behind a boulder to shield themselves from the incoming fire. Zephyr looked towards his ally, whose expression was contorted in a mixture of pain and disbelief. Hound was trying to say something, but before he could find his voice, their earpieces came alive.
"What is going on?" Delta was screaming over the sound of the various machine guns that had started firing all over the place.
"It is a trap Delta, we have walked into a goddamned trap!" Zephyr replied, "Hound and I have left our position. We are making our way to you now, over."
"Now is not the time for this Hound," he turned over to his partner, who was still deep in shock. "Come on, we need to move."
Clutching their side-arms, they scrambled towards where Falcon was. Keeping their heads low, Hound and Zephyr bolted down the hill. The bullets were tearing through the air, inches from their head. Upon reaching level ground, Hound broke into a run with Zephyr in tow, jumping over undergrowth, boulders, and fallen trees. They found Falcon taking cover behind a cluster of fallen trees - their barks shredded by bullets. Crouching by his side, they caught their breath. Neither of them spoke to the other but silently waited for the others to join them.
Falcon and Delta arrived a while later. By then, the firing had ceased, but the red-hot glow of the machine gun barrels could be seen from afar. Delta's expression betrayed nothing, but Phoenix looked troubled. The world around him was not remotely poetic now. Falcon and Zephyr were calm, but Hound wore the look of a defeated man. He had missed his target - a first for him. He looked at Delta, who nodded, telling him that he understood.
"It was him, I am sure of it," Hound muttered, his voice quivering. "He is not alone though, I do not know who these people are."
"It must be the mutineers. It has to be," said Delta, finally breaking the silence. He looked at his companions, his eyes filled with sorrow. He knew that they knew what he meant, but nobody dared to say it out loud. He would have to be the one to say it.
"We are fighting against our own people," he said resignedly.
The firing had started afresh, and the bullets were once again tearing through the forest landscape. The tracer rounds speeding past where the team was huddled washed the area in a dull glow. The dilapidated building had swiftly come alive with hordes of men swarming within the complex. Reckoning that they were outnumbered at least two to one, Delta nodded to his allies, and the five of them embraced each other one last time. The mission had been a march to the death right from the beginning, but somewhere deep down, they had had hope. That hope had long since been replaced by a sense of foreboding. If there was a way to leave this forest now, it was in a body bag. Everyone said his prayers, and with a final shake of hands, they walked into the hellfire of battle. It was each man for himself now. Each one of them had inwardly hoped that this would not be their final mission, but none of that mattered now. All that mattered was looking death in the eyes and accepting the inevitable.
"Survive!" shouted Delta just before he dashed towards the safe-house. "Kill or be killed, gentlemen. They may have been your comrades before, but right now, they are your enemies. It is either them or you. Survive!"
Hound and Zephyr were the first ones to fall. They were far better at sniping from a distance than they were at charging headfirst into the battle. Ever the faithful spotter, Zephyr watched over his partner up till the end. Pushing Hound aside, he faced the man charging towards them. As another burst of bullets blazed past him, he saw in the dull glow the face of his adversary. He wavered, and before he could press the trigger, he felt a bullet ripping his chest apart. Then another tore through his head, followed by another through the heart. He was dead before he hit the ground. Hound's eyes met those of the killer, but he was ready. Without hesitation, he fired four rounds into the man's face, shattering his skull into countless shards of bone.
"We were supposed to be comrades," he whispered, with tears rolling down his cheeks.
Leaving behind his dead brothers, Hound charged onwards with his gun aloft, his eyes searching for the enemy. He gunned down two more men before his gun gave a loud click - he had run out of bullets. Like a lion backed into a corner, he roared, running towards his painful demise. He was still screaming when a shot hit him in the knee, blowing his leg from under him. Grunting in agony, he soldiered on, crawling towards the enemy before the pain became unbearable and overcame him. Lying on the ground muddied by his own blood, the rifleman met death with a smile on his face. It was ironic. The rifleman had missed his target, but the predator had found its prey. It always did.
The world around Phoenix was not remotely close to poetic now. For a man who loved nature, it had turned into his worst nightmare. The machineguns had not yet ceased firing and the jagged pieces of shredded bark flying everywhere around him. The splinters cut his face as he raced through the woods, circling around the enemy. His proficiency with the AKS-74U was impeccable - the poet made poetry with guns just as good as he did with words. Ducking and dodging with ease as he made the enemy forces - his forces - look like fools with no true aim, but coming this close to the enemy forces, he exposed himself. That proved to be a fatal mistake. The machineguns were firing blindly into the dark in the hope of getting lucky. In a daring attempt to equal the odds, he found himself stuck in the open with nowhere to run for cover. His limbs shredded by a barrage of bullets, the poet was silenced forever.
Falcon and Delta were fighting alongside each other - circling the building and drawing the enemy forces away from it - deeper into the forest. It was easier to deal with the lone mercenary charging at them when they were out of the range of fire. The two were making light work of the few enemy soldiers who had been conceited to think that the battle would be won easily. Met by a group of three adversaries, they dived for cover behind the stump of a fallen tree. The spray of bullets sent splinters flying at their faces. Falcon nodded to his partner, who was busy reloading his gun.
"You take the left flank, and I will take the right one. Let us not die in this forest today," he said anxiously.
"We will not," replied Delta, ramming the magazine in place and pulling back the bolt.
They scrambled out from cover, firing at the enemy with deadly accuracy. Two men fell dead, having been shot through the face. The other howled while blindly firing his gun, but he was no match for them. Soon, he joined his dead comrades on the forest floor. The two men stood over the bodies of the men they had just killed. They were men known to them during what felt like a past life. Be that as it may, they had to keep moving. Delta had no idea what had happened to the rest of his team and was still thinking about the others when the deafening racket of machineguns ceased. The forest, which had only moments ago felt like the centre of a violent battlefield, was silent once more.
Falcon's gaze met that of his ally - the confusion was mutual. They made their way towards the safehouse, careful not to be seen lest the firing recommence. They were roughly three hundred metres away from the compound when Delta heard cloth brushing against a tree. He pushed Falcon to the ground immediately and whipped around, his gun held firmly in his hand, ready to fire. He stood there facing five men, armed to the teeth. Behind him, Falcon had levelled his gun as well.
"Our orders are not to kill you, Delta," the leader spoke in a calm voice - the voice of someone who knew he had won. "But should either of you choose to resist, you will meet the same fate as the rest of your team."
They put down their guns - signalling compliance. Falcon stared into the eyes of his assailant with hatred bubbling inside him. The man stood his ground while his companions collected their weapons - knives included. After they had been patted down - making sure that neither of them had any concealed weapon - the man led them towards the building. The other four moved alongside the captives - two on either side. They entered the compound, now littered with empty bullet shells. The soldiers present inside eyed them with suspicion - their eyes focused on the captives every step of the way. Falcon and Delta were led into the safehouse by their captors, and once they were inside, the five soldiers left. They were on their own now.
Inside, the building was plain - chipped stone floor, paint peeling off the white walls, scant furniture and poor lighting. They were in a long corridor with a couple of doors on either side. At the end of the hallway was a flight of stairs leading to the floor above. Descending those stairs was the man they had been sent to kill. The target Hound had missed. Delta stared at him, the fury in his eyes clearly visible. Unperturbed by the death stare, the man walked up to them, his face cold and impassive.
"You must be the infamous Zorawar Singh," he said, patting Delta on the shoulder. "And you are Advay Bansal. You must know who I am, for you were sent to kill me," he smiled mockingly. "Now, with introductions out of the way, follow me. There is a lot we need to talk about."
Advay was about to protest, but Zorawar held him back. "How do you know our names? " he asked.
"Out of all the questions you could have asked, you chose this," the man sighed. He turned around and gestured for them to follow. "Very well. Follow me, gentlemen."
He led them up the flight of stairs. He walked to the end of the corridor and ushered them into the room. In contrast to the rest of the building, the room was well lit and tastefully decorated. The furniture was polished to an impeccable gleam, and the large tabletop was littered with pages passing through different stages of being crumpled and reused. In one corner of the room was a pile of broken glass, and the windowpane it had come from still had jagged pieces of glass sticking out from it. A cool breeze was blowing in through the window, carrying with it the stench of blood and gunpowder.
"Mind the glass, both of you," their host spoke. "The window suffered this terrible fate at the hands of one of you, I believe," he continued matter of factly, walking around the table and taking the seat opposite his guests. He motioned for them to sit.
"How do you know our names?" Zorawar repeated, grabbing a glass of water off the tabletop.
The man smiled - this time showing his perfect teeth in the yellow light of the room. His face was youthful, but the wrinkles near his eyes and the greying hair at the temples betrayed how tired he was. The dark circles under his eyes told Delta that this man had spent much of his time cooped up in this room. There was a scar on his nose - a deep cut that had never fully healed. He looked first at him, then at his companion, carefully deciding how to respond.
"How I know your names will pale in comparison to what I am about to tell you. But because you insist on knowing that particular detail, I will let you know." He slumped into his chair, and from a drawer at his side, he extracted two cream-coloured folders and placed them on the table. "I knew a day would come when my own people would be sent to kill me, though I must say I did not expect it to arrive so soon. Nevertheless, I had to know who I was up against, and mere codenames would never have sufficed. So, I took favours from the handful of people who still believe in me and got these," he said, pointing at the files. He sensed the hostility in the air and hurriedly continued. "Of course, now that you know that I have had access to the most intimate aspects of your life, you must feel betrayed. But trust me, it had to be done. Forgive me, and for what it is worth, should you choose to listen to what I have to say, you will know me a lot better than I know you."
"Why aren't we dead yet?" It was Advay who spoke now. "We were sent to kill you, and we failed. Why are we still alive?"
"You are alive because I need you. But don't get me wrong. Zorawar Singh and Advay Bansal died today. You are phantoms, and your country needs you," he replied, staring out of the window. There was a fire burning in his eyes. At length, he turned towards them and seeing the confusion on their faces, he grinned.
"Only after crossing the threshold of death does one truly begin to live. Remember that."