To Run Forever
rating: +12+x

The command room was an ocean away from the area of operation, and yet the tension could be cut with a knife. Workers making last minute preparations scurried around the workstations lining the semicircular room's perimeter. The large monitor towards the front of the room buzzed to life. Commander Hoffmann was reviewing the operation plan at his desk toward the center of the room, where he could keep an eye on everything.

Hoffman heard the metallic click of the door opening behind him. He stood and turned around to see a small elderly woman with a cane hobble into the command room. She needed no introduction. "You shouldn't be in here. We are-" He was cut off as Dr. Wythers pressed a sheet of paper against his chest.

"GOC command has assigned me to oversee this operation," she said.

Hoffmann grabbed the sheet of paper confirming her proclamation, glanced at it, and then back at her. "We are perfectly capable of handling this ourselves," Hoffmann retorted. "We don't need some researcher here to complicate-"

"The Director disagrees," Dr. Wythers snapped, planting herself in the nearest open chair, which just happened to be Hoffmann's. While she was physically unimposing, she faced this tall German man with an impressive ferocity. "If your last disaster was any indication, you need someone with my expertise. You got an entire strike team infected with Snyder's worm, and he was never even there."

This was true, not that Hoffmann was going to admit it, least of all to this crazy old woman. His last operation was in pursuit of a lead that revealed itself to be a dead end, and he had sent a strike team into worm-infested territory with nothing to show for it. Command had informed him that this was his chance to redeem himself. They neglected to mention that they would be assigning him a babysitter.

"Strike team 6805 is well prepared for this mission," said Hoffmann, attempting to change the subject from his past misjudgements, "and they have dealt with situations involving potential cognitohazards before."

"Are you at least certain that you have actually found him this time?" Wythers asked, furrowing her brow.

"Indisputably." This was a bit of an exaggeration, but not by much.

"Are you certain he isn't just passing through?"

Hoffmann was visibly annoyed by the interrogation, but kept his composure. "We have evidence of Snyder's presence in the AO dating back two years. Even if he does try to leave, it won't be so easy to uproot himself."

A voice came over the radio. "HQ, this is Toad. Strike team Halberd is in position."

Hoffmann leaned over and pressed the green button next to the monitor on his desk. "Copy that, Halberd. Stand by." He turned to the drone operator to his left. "Are you in position Patrenko?"

"We are ready sir," the drone operator replied.

Well then, Hoffmann thought to himself, let's begin.


As far as American cities go, Santa Fe is fairly unremarkable. It is the fourth largest city in New Mexico as well as its capital, but in any other state would have be mistaken for an average-sized town. It is a fairly convenient city to get to, but not convenient enough that you could easily find yourself there unless you were trying to. There is not much to keep tourists occupied, aside from modern art fanatics, and the surrounding landscape has little to offer except sandy soil pockmarked with cacti and parched shrubs. It was a perfect place to hide, and it was also the last place Nathan Snyder wanted to be.

Well, maybe that was a little unfair. He could think of a few war-torn countries and frostbitten Siberian villages that he would like even less, but most of them were places where some pasty American would stick out like a sore thumb. Besides, visas could be tracked, and that leads to a Foundation MTF on your doorstep. Or the Chaos Insurgency. Or the Serpent's Hand. Or the…Nathan wondered if there was anyone who didn't want him dead by now.

Not that he would be there for much longer.

Nathan was in the habit of skimming through the minds of the infected on his laptop or iPhone in his free time, partially out of boredom, partially for security. Despite the anomalous enforcer organizations' efforts to keep his worm out, they had only ever been able to slow its spread rather than control it. On one had, this meant that Nathan always had people on the inside he could look at to see how close his hunters were. On the other, this meant that they had all the more incentive to find him.

It was about 2:30 that morning during a bout of insomnia when he had learned of the GOC raid planned later that morning. It was already pushing 5:50, despite his hurry to get out quickly, and Nathan was getting nervous. He finished wiping down the bathroom doorknob - can't afford to leave fingerprints - and shoved the paper towel in his front left pocket, which was already stuffed with similar garbage. He ran down the hall to what had been his bedroom. There was still a mattress that he had used, but that couldn't be helped. He couldn't take it with him, and he didn't have time to destroy it. He grabbed a black backpack that had been packed with everything that couldn't be easily replaced - he had destroyed everything else.

He threw the bag over his shoulder and ran downstairs into the living room, being careful not to touch anything. The curtains as well as the early hour darkened the room significantly, but he could still make out the Japanese plants and modern art pieces scattered across it. His roommate - an anartist that had taken him in in exchange for rent money and use of Neurocrack - worked a night shift, and wouldn't be home for another hour. Despite his hospitality, Nathan had always found him somewhat annoying, although he was careful not to show it. Irritating or otherwise, an ally was an ally, and Nathan's list of allies was disturbingly short. Nathan made a mental note to wipe his roommate's memory of him later. As much as the world hated him for it, the worm had its perks.

He rushed through his mental checklist. Laptop, in his bag. Phone, in his pocket. Clothes, all burned except for what he was wearing. His wallet, long stripped of any identification, check. He had wiped down everything. Every trace of his existence had been swept from the house, except the aforementioned mattress, but, again, that couldn't be helped. Time to go. He grabbed his car keys off of the stand next to the door. He procured a paper towel from his pocket, grabbed the doorknob with it…and froze. It may have just been paranoia, but he could have sworn he had seen a shadow move across the window curtains.


He's seen you, said the voice inside the other Nathan's head.

The operative could no longer hear Snyder's footsteps, and the expected click of the door opening had not come as expected. He slowly backed away from the door and hid behind the corner of the house.

It was a few minutes before the operative could hear the slow, steady beat of footsteps again. He slowly peeked his head out. It was still fairly dim outside, but he could still see his target slowly making his way towards the tan Oldsmobile in the driveway, looking around as he went with his keys in one hand and a phone in the other. Snyder had clearly done a lot of work to disguise himself, cutting his hair short and going clean shaven as opposed to his previous heavy stubble, but he still largely matched the description Nathan had been given. He was of middling height, very skinny, and somewhat pale, but not enough to make him stand out. Nathan smiled. His target still hadn't seen him. He pulled a small black tube off of his belt, removed the cap, and pulled out a long syringe filled with a green liquid. Sedative.

Nathan began slowly moving closer, being careful not to make any discernible noise. Snyder put his key in the car door, and turned his head.

He saw him.

It was now or never.

Nathan lunged forward as Snyder threw the car door open and slung his bag into the back seat. Snyder threw himself into the driver's seat and tried to close the door, but Nathan grabbed onto the handle and pulled hard. The engine sputtered to life as Nathan felt the tension in the door release, causing him to lose his balance, but he still kept his death grip on the handle. Nathan felt Snyder pull on the door again, bringing Nathan with it, slamming him into the side of the car.

Snyder threw the car into reverse. The car bounced as the front tire passed over Nathan's right foot before darting away as the engine squealed in protest.

Nathan winced in pain. His foot wasn't broken, but he could tell there would be a nasty bruise. "Snyder got away. I need extraction," Nathan said to the voice.

I already sent the driver. He should be arriving shortly, replied the Director.

As if on cue, a black Honda pulled over in front of the driveway. The passenger door opened, and the driver, a middle-aged Hispanic man, shouted "Get in!" Nathan complied.

"Are we going after Snyder?" he asked the Director.

Yes, the voice replied. The driver nodded, possibly in agreement, but probably thinking Nathan was talking to him. There is a GOC strike team inbound and we can't let them get to Snyder first.

This was news to Nathan. The GOC wasn't the most competent organization in the world, but a strike team was no joke. Juggling both them and Snyder was going to be difficult.

"Do you know where he's going? We don't have a visual," Nathan asked, knowing full well that the Director was tapped into his visual feed.

No, but he will almost certainly be-

The Director was interrupted by a bright flash coming from the side of the car accompanied by a deafening booming noise and a shower of shrapnel that cracked the passenger windows. The driver floored the accelerator as Nathan gazed back at where the house used to be.


Hoffmann watched the plume of fire on the monitor before pressing down on the radio button on his desk. "Halberd, move in to secure the-" Hoffmann was cut short by a pain in his wrist as Wythers brought the iron head of her cane down onto his arm.

He turned to her with a gaze to kill a thousand men, barely restraining himself from strangling her right then and there. "Don't ever do that again."

She stared back at him without any sign of fear or regret. "Do you want a repeat of last time? That house was probably full of cognitohazards."

"You are completely out of line. Whether you are supervising or not, I am still in command of this strike team!" The entire room was turned to them, watching anxiously, half expecting them to come to blows at any moment.

"Um, sir?"

Hoffmann turned to the drone operator, who had cautiously interjected. "What is it, Patrenko?"

"Snyder's Oldsmobile left the house before the blast. A black car pulled up shortly after he left."

The Oldsmobile was definitely Snyder, but Hoffmann didn't know who the black car belonged to. This was concerning. There were not many other groups that conducted lone wolf missions, and those that did didn't mess around.

"Has it left yet?"

"Yes sir, shortly after the strike."

"Do you have a visual?"

"On the black one, sir, but not Snyder's."

"Where is it?" If it was there for the reasons Hoffmann suspected, it would lead him straight to Snyder.

"Heading eastward, towards Highway 84."

"Very well, then. Keep it in sight."

Hoffmann reached for the radio button, but not before shooting a threatening glance at Wythers. "Halberd, disregard. Begin heading east and await further orders," said Hoffmann, as the room slowly returned to work.


Nathan Snyder drove as if he had seen a ghost. He had heard the explosion behind him, and instantly knew what it was. He felt a little ridiculous for having taken the time to wipe down everything.

What he didn't know was who his assailant was, and this concerned him. He had known the GOC was coming, but didn't expect other company. The agent hadn't looked like GOC, but he was too well armed to be most others. Chaos Insurgency maybe? He certainly was dressed the part. Nathan shuddered. At least with the GOC he would be guaranteed a quick end. Spending an eternity slowly tortured to death in a dark Insurgency cell was probably the worst way to go.

He needed to get away, and fast.

There are three main routes out of Santa Fe. The first one is southwest on I-25 towards Albuquerque, but Snyder dismissed it. As a UN agency, the GOC rarely operates inside of the United States. Albuquerque held the nearest international airport, so the GOC strike team likely had come from there. It was possible they had a temporary base of operations there as well, which was the last place Nathan wanted to be.

The second was to go the opposite direction on I-25. From there he could either take Highway 285 south and then take I-40 back east towards Texas, or keep following the interstate as it snaked up towards Denver. This was the fastest route, but Nathan expected that this was exactly the route the GOC would expect him to take. This too was not ideal. I-25 was out.

Northward on Highway 84 was the slowest route out of Santa Fe, and led to nowhere in particular, but was still fast enough that it wasn't too much of a hindrance. It was also much more well-connected than the interstate, making it harder for his pursuers to guess where he intended to go.

84 it was, then.

He turned onto the ramp, and pressed hard on the accelerator until he was going ten miles per hour over the speed limit. It was still early enough that the highway was mostly empty. He wished there were more cars. It would be easier to hide among a crowd.

Nathan wondered where he was going. He knew better than anyone how difficult it was becoming to hide; even in Santa Fe, he was always looking over his shoulder. He had to swear off the internet, his bread and butter, in order to avoid tracking networks. He had begun wearing hats and sunglasses everywhere and found himself dodging security cameras in stores and on street corners. There weren't many places with an anartist willing to put himself between Nathan and a landlord's background check. Before Neurocrack, he would never have given most of these things a second thought, but now that he was on the run, the threats they posed were glaringly obvious. Nathan doubted that he would be able to conceal himself for much longer.

Who was he kidding. The Foundation, the GOC, the Insurgency, all of them had eyes and hands everywhere. He wouldn't be able to run forever. One of them was going to catch him eventually.

It was only a matter of time.

Snyder had just begun to get comfortable when he saw the black Honda quickly approaching him in his rearview mirror. The car's windshield was heavily tinted, but he could just make out his assailant in the passenger seat. He also saw an unmarked white van trailing him, staying a fair distance behind, but still matching his speed. He didn't need the worm to know who it was. How did they find him? Oh, of course. The drone. His escape plan hadn't accounted for that. It didn't explain how the insurgent had found him (lucky guess, maybe?), but that was a hole he was willing to let slide. He had bigger problems.

Nathan floored the accelerator, pushing his tired old car as fast as it would go, but there was no way it would be able to outrun his pursuers' much newer vehicles. The black Honda was quickly gaining on him, and the white GOC van was not far behind. And although he couldn't see it, he could sense the drone up in the skies, ready and willing to put an explosive end to his life.

Unless…

Nathan reached for his right pocket, keeping his left hand on the steering wheel. He generally tried to avoid using his phone while driving - draws too much attention - but maybe this time he could make an exception.


Hoffmann and Wythers could do nothing but watch in horror as the drone dove out of control towards the highway. It passed about a meter over Snyder's car, the force of the air causing him to swerve off the road and into the railing. The drone's tail punctured the driver's window of the Insurgent's Honda, briefly carrying the little car along before the the tail broke off and the car was tossed aside like a soda can. The van driver tried to steer out of the way, but the drone slammed directly into its side, the remains of its payload scattering the van and its occupants to the wind as the drone's camera was destroyed and the monitor went to static.

All eyes were on the drone operator, who seemed to almost be in a daze. Only a confused "huh?" escaped his lips before two bullets from Dr. Wythers' Beretta pierced his skull, spraying blood onto his workstation and the wall behind it.

"Nobody say anything!" she yelled, now standing and waving her gun around, firing another bullet into the ceiling for good measure. "Nobody make a sound!"

Commander Hoffmann felt a knot form in his stomach. He knew perfectly well what this meant. Not only had they completely failed to capture or terminate Snyder, but the game had been rigged from the start. There was no cure for the Neurocrack worms, and all it took was a simple "hello" for it to spread. The GOC would not allow the worm to escape again. Not only had he failed, but it was the last time he ever would.


By the time the operative realized what was going on, he was hanging upside down on the side of the highway. He looked over at the lifeless driver hanging next to him. While the drone's tail had mostly missed Nathan, the driver had not been so lucky. He unbuckled his seat belt and fell headfirst onto a bed of broken glass and torn leather, suddenly becoming aware of the sharp pain in his chest.

You have suffered several broken bones and a punctured lung, said the Director. I have administered the necessary medications. You need to get moving.

Nathan thought of making a sarcastic reply, but the only sound he could make was a bloody cough. He awkwardly tried to reposition himself upright, embedding shards of glass into his clothing. He crawled out of the car through the space where the windshield used to be before standing and surveying the wreckage.

Bits of the drone were scattered everywhere. Snyder's Oldsmobile was still running, but had crashed hard into the railing on the shoulder. The van further down the road was unrecognizable. Only half of the van's side still remained - everything else had been melted or scattered by the blast. It would have taken an act of God to survive.

Local law enforcement is seven minutes away, said the Director. You need to hurry.

"What about extraction?" gasped Nathan, looking behind him at the previous extraction plan.

I'm working on it. In the meantime, retrieve Snyder and get off of the road.

Nathan obediently began limping towards Snyder's car, trying to ignore the excruciating pain. The driver door was open, albeit with a shattered window, and Snyder's phone was lying cracked on the pavement just underneath. Snyder himself fell out of the driver's seat with a yelp of pain just as the operative turned around the rear bumper. His left arm was red and badly swollen, and his skin was covered in cut and scrapes from the broken glass, with a large shard embedded in his right leg. Snyder rolled onto his back and struggled to sit himself up with his good arm. For a brief moment, his eyes made contact with Nathan's before he panicked and desperately tried to use his two good limbs to push himself away. Nathan unsheathed his syringe once again. It was time to finish the mission.

In a final act of desperation, Snyder quickly grabbed for his phone, and Nathan instinctively lunged forward in reaction. By the time he realized what was happening, the broken screen was being pressed against his eyes.

Nathan screamed as the cognitohazard acted on his mind.

He fell.

He could feel his mind leaving him.


His heart stopped beating.



The syringe shattered on the pavement.




Then blackness.






Silence.


Nathan Snyder exhaled nervously and leaned back onto the car door. He needed to get moving. The police would be there soon, but he found himself unable to move. He was familiar with occurrences such as these - the masquerade he found himself a participant in was no stranger to violence - but he wasn't used to them being so…close.

How many deaths was he responsible for, but had never devoted a thought to until the bodies were inches in front of his face?

Men killed with no warning by psionic-induced seizures. Innocent people lying in comas, their arms sliced open, a ransom note written in their own blood on the wall. Scientists shot dead simply for saying hello to the wrong person at the wrong time. Whether it was his original intention or not, these deaths were a result of his actions. The GOC, the Foundation, the Hand, they believed he was a menace to humanity. Nathan considered that, just maybe, they were right.

Not that there was any point in dwelling on it. It was already far too late to turn back from that path.

Nathan pushed himself up with his good arm, using the door as a support, and weakly sat himself back in the driver's seat. He closed the door, releasing a shower of glass shards, and put the car in reverse, wincing in pain. He backed up a few feet and put the car back in drive, carefully steering around chunks of debris as the car rattled down the highway.


Written for the Original Character Tournament.

AFX NeuromancerAFX Neuromancer's entry: Default
Illyrias_AcolyteIllyrias_Acolyte's entry: The Scent of the Worm

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