The Machine.

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Den of Thieves (2018)

They called themselves, The Machine. 

Precise. Violent. Ruthless.

The scourge of the city.

They didn’t bother with pretending to dress nicely, like criminals in a film.

No suits. No hiding. No illusions or allusions to something honourable or respectful.

This was a war, and they were the apex predators.

And in any war, like any fighter, they dressed accordingly.

Head to toe, they looked like a professional military fighting force.

Black long sleeved garments, cargo pants, heavy protective plate carriers, war-belts and open carry holsters.

They were a SWAT Team, armed to the teeth with assault rifles, pistols, breaching shotguns and dozens of cable ties.

The only difference were their masks. All criminals needed a mask.

Each of them, had a unique all steel ballistic face mask.

The leader was Clown.

A garish mixture of red, white and blue. Red lips and tears streaked down and past the jolly red nose, staining the ghostly pale white face. Blue shadows were sprayed around the eyes. Tragic and terrifying.

The medic was Roman.

Solid gold, it cut a stoic expression, with narrow eyes slits, a patrician nose and expressionless lips. It featured curls atop, to mimic hair and ridges that resembled a legionnaire’s cheek shields. Inscrutable and indomitable.

The support was Oni.

A visage of the Japanese underworld, the mask was sheer obsidian with red accents. Scarlet short stout horns curled towards the sky from the top of the mask, that contrasted the large flared onyx nose, and gave prominence to the large mouth, with flared crimson tusks. Demonic and dangerous.

The scout was Alien.

An elongated heart shape, with an over-sized forehead, the mask was a gradient of midnight blue to jet black, with the darkest part of the mask ending at the chin. The eyes were two diagonal tear-drops that glowed a night vision green and occasionally thermal white. Fear-inducing and frightening.

No one knew where they had come from, or how they got all their equipment. They left no traces of their identity anywhere. The countless shell casings were all devoid of prints. The boot prints only indicated their size. Witnesses couldn’t even place their voices, because they used voice modulators.

They moved and behaved like a former Special Forces unit, but all leads concerning their identities died, the moment queries started. No one was listed as missing, killed or having gone rogue. All men were accounted for in the military. None of the branches had any clue who these men were.

Even attempts to track their movements fizzled out. The police found themselves  getting desperate. They shook down prostitutes, drug dealers, other thieves … none of the major gangs knew who this crew was. Whoever they were, they didn’t associate themselves with the riff-raff.

They were exceptional professionals, disciplined to a fault, and tactful enough not to boast about their exploits. These men left no trace except their name and signature at the start of every robbery.

Every single witness reported the same speech, whispered about the same monotone delivery, and the instant fear it bought upon deliverance.

Good Evening ladies and gentlemen … 

We are the Machine. We are here for money, not lives.

You are to be restrained and immobilised. If you are experiencing distress, breathe and relieve yourself on the spot. 

Everything in these premises is insured, so you will not lose anything. The system will provide. 

If you allow the Machine to do its work, you will be unharmed. 

Interfere, and this will occur.”

Witnesses would report that at the end, the Clown would execute the cuffed security guard on the spot, with three shots. Two to the torso. One to the head.

Screams would emit throughout the bank and several hostages would faint on the spot. No one would try to be a hero. Hostages wet themselves on the spot. The other security guards felt like doing the same. Managers didn’t resist or ask stupid questions. Complete compliance was ensured.

Every single crime committed by these men ended with a single dead security guard. Every single robbery took place in under 9 minutes, from breach to extraction. Every details of every branch they hit, they knew intimately.

The Machine knew where the vault door was, who the bank manager for the day was, what type of coffee the cashiers liked, the time-locks, the trucks that would deliver the cash, the schools that the daughter of the manager attended … every aspect was covered, every detailed dotted, and every fact checked.

There was a modus operandi. A play-book they never deviated from. Every single survivor report would corroborate it.

Alien would secure and sweep the premises and keep an eye on the response time.

Oni would disable the cameras with quick bursts from his massive machine gun, before training them on the hostages.

Roman would pressure the manager, displaying photos of his family, friends, ex-lovers … and gain access to the vault.

Clown would execute the guard, before securing the hostages phones, and cable tie their hands, then place hoods over their heads.

Then he would leave and begin rifling through the deposit boxes, the vault and prepping the money alongside Roman.

Once everything was complete, all of the best valuables stored away in duffel bags, each member of the team would take one and sling it over their shoulders.

Alien would run out, and secure the car, a nondescript but powerful vehicle that was capable of outrunning any cruiser but never the same make and model as the heist before.

He would pull up, and Oni would fire a long burst from his gun, causing everyone to press their faces even harder into the ground, and the three men would pile into the car and be out, before the squad cars could turn up.

Not a single word would be exchanged between the men. No one would say anything, unless things went wrong. They would let the guns do the talking and Clown to his speech. Actions spoke louder than words.

The only true sounds that would be heard, as they drove away, were the constant screams from the hostages, as they wailed and begged, terrified that they had died after Oni’s machine gun rampage.

It was textbook. It was violent. It was efficient. It was deadly.

And it worked every time.

The only time, it had ever gone wrong, was when there was a pair of squad cars that arrived earlier than they had anticipated.

The resulting firefight was brief. Over in a matter of minutes.

4 officers dead, 240 rounds of ammunition expended. The cars had come away like Swiss cheese, the officers not much better off.

The police had sworn revenge for their fallen brothers and sisters. But no opportunity came.

The Machine was too efficient. Too cautious. Too disciplined to make any error. They had found their groove. Their niche.

Even when a mistake was made, they had come out with superior readiness and firepower.

They were the apex predator in town, and soon the entire city knew it, when robbery after robbery went unpunished.

Security guards application went down. No one wanted to be a statistic after a Machine crime. Banks found themselves seeing more resignation forms than applications.

Which left them more vulnerable.

Copy-cats began to appear everywhere, causing even more work for the police.

Most were sloppy. They didn’t possess the right gear. They weren’t disciplined. They forgot to shoot cameras, confiscate mobile phones, adequately use the right cable ties.

They used cheap guns; home-made shotguns and small calibre pistols. They would spent too long at the scene of the crime, trying to take everything instead of escaping with something.

Most couldn’t kill the security guard. They weren’t ruthless enough to set an early precedent to the rest of the hostages. They weren’t scary enough.

But the deed was done. Bank robberies were now in vogue. Everyone wanted a piece of the action.

Soon discussions were being made, about bank managers being armed, in case of an emergency. This backfired spectacularly, when a manager wounded more hostages than the copy-cat robbers did.

Gun instructors found more ways to make a living in this time of chaos, as more and more people sought their knowledge. Banks began organising training programs and funding support classes for their staff.

One branch even went so far as to simulate a robbery for realistic teaching purposes.

The mayor, desperate to fix his approval ratings, began the slow militarisation of the police. Now officers began to carry heavier firepower in their squad cars.

Shoot-outs between criminals and police reached an all-time high. It reached a tipping point where policemen were doing more property damage than the criminals, with their firepower.

Bystanders got caught in the fray more often.

Then it was gun stores who found themselves out of stock, as people began to believe in their own ability to protect themselves than the law.

A defining example was expressed, at a local small bank in an outskirts neighbourhood to the town, where 3 copy cats came in with stockings over their heads and tried to rob the place. 2 patrons drew their concealed carry pistols and began to fire at the robbers.

Both patrons died, along with one of the criminals, and 3 hostages were wounded in the fray. The other two impersonators died, when the police arrived and opened fire.

It was a time of chaos. Cops grew more and more aggressive as their brethren grew tired of being over-worked, under-appreciated and under-mined. Corruption within the force, an all-time high in the country, shot higher still.

Extra judicial justice was now more and more common. Patrols took bribes more often. Cops started pulling rifles out more than their pistols.

Atop of all this, the Mayor watched as his city tore itself apart. He was furious. The delicate balance that he had worked so hard to maintain between cop and criminal, was now completely erased.

He had played each other against one another and profited from it for so long, but now, the money was drying up. His anger and fury led to poor leadership.

Inefficient governance from the Mayor crippled the town and allowed the Machine to do its work under the cover of anarchy.

And work they did.

Heist after successful heist soon made them millionaires. They could now afford to do one last raid and be financially secure for the rest of their lives.

But the Machine knew that they couldn’t just do any ordinary robbery. It would have to reflect their status as the apex predator. It would have to be a message.

So they bid their time. They stopped taking down small banks and branches. They allowed the copy-cats to sow more discord in the town they had made their own.

The cops were bewildered by their sudden departure.

But they were grateful in a strange way. These men were untouchable. At last, they could salvage something akin to reputation from this mess. The break gave the beleaguered men and women in uniform some confidence back.

Rumours began to spread among the force that the Machine had finally stopped their crime spree.

One outlandish officer claimed he killed them. Another said they had moved on to another country, and began taking down targets there. Even more theories were circulated that the Machine had taken each other out in their greed.

For the Mayor, he didn’t care. This was his chance. He went out and claimed a victory for the city without truly announcing that they had actually caught the Machine robbers.

Now, he claimed, they could focus on the real crime.

The Mayor went into fanatic leader mode. He diverted even more money to the police force and began to ignore and overlook certain cases that were too brutal.

In every press conference and media outlet, the Mayor promised to be tough on crime. He swore that he would regain control of this town. Affirmed that he was the boss. Vowed to bring justice back.

Soon the police were cracking down hard on all types of banks. They reduced their response time from 10 minutes to 6 minutes. They came armed and ready. Countless copy-cats were arrested and many more killed in this moment of reprieve.

The city could breathe again. The Mayor could breathe again, with tributes pouring in from criminals and policemen alike, adding zeros to his account. Things were beginning to be normal again.

The Machine merely noted all these improvements and continued their preparation for their final heist. The end-all signature on their legendary chapter.

Their target was now the Mayor.

This had always been the plan from the get go.

The Machine against the System.

There were 4 common links among the men of the Machine.

Each had been presumed KIA (Killed In Action) by their respective foreign military and sought refuge in a foreign land. Only Clown belonged to the country that they had bought terror to.

Each man had grown to love the country they had adopted. But the flaws and lack of governance had become all too apparent after years of settlement. Every single one of them had conducted multiple types of vigilantism justice after a crime touched them. All of them had lambasted and blamed the Mayor for years about the corruption.

Each had lost all their relatives or contact with them, since their last military action. None had any strings that held them to any part of society. But that didn’t stop them from looking out for their families from afar.

And each man had his own personal score to settle with the Mayor.

Oni blamed him letting a murderer free, after he killed Oni’s niece.

Roman had lost his only daughter in an understaffed hospital.

Alien was a direct and tragic consequence of immigration laws.

The biggest grievance however, belonged to Clown.

Clown knew that the Mayor was responsible for his “death”. A former squadmate who had betrayed Clown’s squad and left them for dead in the desert.

A traitor who used his “tragic” story to win sympathy and votes and gain control of a city, where he had run it into the ground with his corruption. Clown and the men of the Machine were a direct consequence of the Mayor’s corruption and incompetence.

Each member of the Machine crew, were completely focused on the Mayor. It was he, who was responsible for their actions.

It was all on the hands of the Mayor. The Machine was merely life’s response to the system the Mayor had created.

The robberies, the new-found riches, was mere compensation for these men who had lost so much and wanted to build anew.

Outside of the robberies, the four men barely spoke to each other. Their native languages were too diverse from each other, but years of military training had taught them basic commands.

And that was all they needed. Each knew of each other’s story, but privately considered it insignificant to their own personal tale. However such justification didn’t matter when taking a score together. All that mattered was that each member was aware of his job and were to execute it well.

To take down the Mayor, they were going to have to make it past a veritable platoon of  bodyguards, not least of all, take into consideration the Mayor’s past as a soldier.

Clown had dismissed that idea. The man was soft. Spineless. If he was a true soldier, he would not have betrayed Clown’s squad.

The others nodded in agreement.

In addition, terrain was on their side. The Mayor had purchased an ultra-modern forest retreat that was situated well away from the town that he governed.

A beautiful and stylish house, the retreat featured a large clearing surrounding it and a nearby private lake, that generated a moody mist that enveloped the entire area.

Tall pines and birch on hilltops, surrounded the compound, with a single road that lead to a major highway to the town, some 6 miles away.

A security booth was situated at the road, to allow the police to check visitors and there was a permanent sniper’s nest for the Mayor’s bodyguards to use.

An expensive speedboat was docked at the lonely pier, and there was even a private helicopter pad that allowed the Mayor to park his private black and white McDonnell Douglas MD-900.

All in all, it would be challenging for the Machine to infiltrate and kidnap the Mayor, especially when he had three potential escape routes ready to go at any given time.

But to finally retire, the Machine had to go through with this. There was simply no other way they could walk away, knowing that the Mayor was still running the city, and sitting atop 200 million dollars worth of illicit sales, bribes and dirty information.

Money that would secure the men’s future until death.

Information that would protect them from any reprisal.

Bribes that would loosen any obstacle that stood in their way.

It was the perfect score.

It was to be a whole month after the city had died down that the Machine finally got its gears moving again.

When the hour of final raid came, it was twilight and the sky was beginning to darken and soften into black.

In the Machine’s safe-house, Oni, Alien and Roman were quietly nursing beers, wrapped in their thoughts.

Oni, sitting silently on the couch, his huge frame taking up half the space, stared at the TV, allowing the visual and noise to wash over him like ambient distractions.

Alien was contemplating the dart board, with multiple knives embedded in the centre bullseye, wondering if he could pin another one.

Roman was hunched over the kitchen table, scratching his chin and staring at the sudoku puzzle that Oni had designed for him, only reaching for his beer once he solved a line.

As Alien threw the knife, Oni switched channels on the TV and Roman solved a square, they all heard the sounds of sirens nearing.

Oni reached under the large coffee table in front of him, and drew out a large assault rifle, standing up to his full frame and aiming it squarely at the door.

Roman and Alien, both drew pistols from their waistbands and stood to the sides of the door, their weapons held close to their chest, ready to engage.

The sirens came closer, and closer, before dying out and disappearing.

Relieved, the men lowered their weapons and were surprised when the door was opened and a man in uniform stood there.

Oni, his reflexes the fastest, snapped the heavy rifle up and was about to send two to the head, when he recognised Clown.

Scowling, Oni safetied the weapon and lowered it, motioning to the others that it was OK.

Clown made a mute gesture of apology and gestured to them to ready up.

The time had come.

A month of reparation and training was about to come to fruition.

Upon being given the green light, none of the men smiled or showed any emotion. Instead, they silently padded back to their room, where they began to change and kit-up.

Dark woodland camouflage long sleeved shirts and pants came on, with Alien slipping on extra camouflage scrim and netting to hide his body better. Whilst the others looked ready for war, Alien looked ready to hunt.

Each man tugged their body vests tight around their torso and checked their holsters for fit.

A variety of pistols were slammed into hips, and each man chose their favourite weapon;

Clown with his assault rifle, Roman opting for a nimbler submachine gun, Oni hefting a huge machine gun, and Alien slinging a sniper rifle across his back.

Clown made sure his police uniform was easily torn off in case of an emergency and waited for his men.

In their only ritual, they came together in the living space and presented to each other their masks. Each man would whisper a brief battlefield prayer in their native tongue, before ceremoniously putting their masks over their heads together, as a unit.

Clown led them to the police car that he had stolen and killed for, and they piled in, and silently waited through the long drive to the outskirts of the town they owned.

Amber lights flashed across their masks, as suburbia began to flatten out, landscape,  away from the skyscrapers and high-rises of the central business district.

Looking out, the men saw houses that showcased ordinary men, women and children living together. Some were watching TV, others had a man and his child playing baseball; there was even a couple making out on the couch, their window left open for all the world to see.

Domestic bliss.

The sanctity of a home. The comfort of the ordinary.

Clown, Roman, Oni and Alien stared out, reminded of a quote that they had heard bastardised many times in their military career:

“People sleep peaceably in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf.”

Tonight, the Mayor’s sleep would experience such rough men ready to do violence.

It was nearly 3 hours later, when the houses became sparse and the tall trees more abundant, that Clown began to slow the car down.

He was now taking his time, using the police side-mounted headlamp to scan the dense forestry, eyes peeled for the marker he had placed for Alien.

Spotting it, a surreptitiously placed discarded Coke bottle that leaned against a tree, he signalled for Alien to bail out.

Alien kicked open the door, and whilst the car was still moving at a good clip, half-stepped and half-ran out, his sniper rifle unslung in his arms, disappearing into the dark woodland in less than 5 seconds.

Clown kept going, circling around the Mayor’s compound, looking for the last Coke bottle. Upon its discovery, Oni leapt out, his huge frame hugging his precious machine gun and he ran up the hills, letting the darkness take him.

Roman looked at Clown and they both synchronised their watches, for 20 minutes and both men settled in for the wait, Clown tearing off his police uniform and getting comfortable. Neither men spoke, as they waited by the side of the road.

~

Alien crept through the woods, grateful for the thick mist that was rolling off the lake and providing even more difficult visibility for the sniper nest.

If Clown was correct in his recon, Alien would be coming up directly behind the nest, his job being to secure it and then provide cover for the rest of the team and prevent any escape routes from being used.

The nest was situated on the right side of the lake, closest to the road, to allow the sniper team to cover their VIP en route to the road if the police checkpoint was taken down.

With the retreat situated directly in the middle, the nest was at a relatively high elevated position, almost level with the second storey of the compound, giving the team incredible overwatch over the surroundings and into the building itself.

Alien, aware that there were most likely traps surrounding the nest itself, placed each boot carefully in front of the other, his sense attuned and alert, paranoid about every sound and any movement he could see.

As he moved from tree to tree, creeping ever so closer, he kept scanning his surroundings, his caution paying off when he saw a thin wire run at ankle height between two trees.

Scowling in concentration, Alien followed the wire with his eyes and saw a large Claymore mine staring back at him.

Noting the small metal hook that stretched the wire, he carefully lifted the hook and slowly spooled it back, and stepping into the safe area, behind the Claymore before slightly shifting the angle of the mine and attaching it to an area that would protect his flank if there were any counter-attacks.

Knowing that he was in the right area, Alien kept moving, now in a low crouch, his footsteps silent in the dense undergrowth.

Every few steps forward, Alien would touch the side of his mask, turning the world from night green to thermal white, and scan the floor and trees, unsure if the snipers would be above or below.

His patience was rewarded, when he saw a dark spot in his thermal vision, on the ground not some 10 metres away from him. Flipping over to his night vision, he saw 2 pairs of feet, lying face down in front of him, camouflage netting covering them.

Taking out his suppressed pistol, Alien scanned around to do a final check, to make sure there were no sentries, and that these men had truly only used a Claymore to protect their rear, Alien walked up to the two mounds that were meant to be men, and without hesitation fired four shots, two into each of their heads.

Shoving the bodies aside, Alien settled into their warm sniper pad, and pulled their netting over him, and taking the dead spotter’s night vision binoculars, began scanning over the lake for Oni.

Oni, having encountered no resistance to his side, was approaching from the left side of the lake.

It was his job to take the brunt of the fire. He would find an appropriate spot, suppress the house, draw fire and hope that Alien would take over multiple targets as they came out to attack Oni. Once the initial attack stopped, he would help Alien engage any escape vehicles and be support for Clown and Roman if they needed it.

With a small army of 30 men, the Mayor was extremely well protected, his paranoia about his crimes and corruption evident by the type of men he chose.

They were your standard ex-cop, ex-infantry private contractors. Cheap, disposable and in plentiful supply. They understood basic tactics and were disciplined enough against the criminals that the mayor feared. But push them against the Machine and they would crumble.

The Mayor slept upstairs, with a bevy of prostitutes that he enjoyed soliciting and having fun with, on all his woodland retreats. In the rooms next to him, were his quartet of most trusted and dangerous bodyguards, who were all ex-SWAT officers.

It was Oni and Alien’s job to try and eliminate those first.

The lights of the house shone over the lake, shimmering the water and creating a warm glow.

Oni crawled over the hill and settled down behind the sights of his machine gun and checked his watch. There was still 5 minutes to go. Looking over at where the supposedly sniper nest was, he pressed his radio once and heard a reply squawk. Relieved that the first part of the operation was smooth, Oni squinted his eyes through the tiny red dot and superimposed it onto a security man’s head at the docks.

Clown and Roman waited until the very second that the 20 minute mark ticked over before beginning to flash the lights on the squad car and driving off the highway and into the road that led to the back of the retreat and the police checkpoint.

Oni and Alien saw the sirens light up the forest and began to control their breathing, their feet plush into the leaves and grass of the forest, the cold steel of their guns resting against their masks’ cheeks.

The policeman at the checkpoint, stared at the flashing lights, thought about calling it in, but decided against it and waved the squad-car forward.

Clown lowered his window and the policeman’s eyes widened in shock, before feeling three thuds across his chest.

Clown kept the car moving forwards and Roman flicked off the lights, as they pulled up to the front door of the house.

From above, the head bodyguard, a tall ex-sergeant from an elite SWAT team stared down at the car, and frowned when one of his trusted men shook his head at the radio.

Scowling, he grabbed his rifle from a locker and signalled to the rest to get ready.

Alpha, Bravo, Charlie, Delta.

Simple, smart, and efficient names. They had a combined 15 years of experience in SWAT teams, and many more as regular patrol officers. They had fought cartels, gang-bangers, angry and abusive husbands and mobs. They were hardened fighters, used to street violence, and not above taking a lot of money on the side.

These men were the thugs of any police force, gangster cops that could be expected to take the dirtiest jobs, the highest bribes, and employ the most violent methods.

There was nothing more they loved than a good fight. The Mayor offered them plenty. Political opponents, high-ranking lieutenants, journalists … all were removed at the Mayor’s whim. These men were the foundation of the Mayor’s power, the extension of his will and guardians of the system.

Modern day Praetorians.

Alpha was Clown’s counterpart, a burly, tough and brutal man, whose face was scarred by a cartel bomb years ago.

Bravo was Roman’s analogue. Stout, muscular and possessing skilled hands, Bravo was callous in his application of medication, preferring to twist his knowledge in interrogation techniques.

Oni’s twin was Charlie. Equally big. Equally terrifying. A hulking mass of a man that could bulldoze his way through doors as if he was knocking over a vase. He stood at over 2 metres tall, and once shrugged off a small calibre pistol shot to the chest as if it was an bee sting.

Delta equalled Alien. Wiry, small, sneaky and playful with a knife. He was an expert hand to hand combatant, once taking out 5 gang-bangers who cornered him in an alleyway with just his knife. He adored serrated steel and relished any opportunity to wield it.

Just as Alpha aimed his rifle at the squad car, and his men were slapping on their vests, a single crack split the silence of the night.

What followed was chaos and fear, as machine gun fire streaked across the upper floor of the house and terrace, and shattered windows splintered and showered glass fragments everywhere.

Oni, keeping his finger poised and steady, watched as bright red streaks from tracer rounds flew from the barrel of his gun and laced their way across the back lawn and into flesh, as security guards ran out, guns up, only to be flung backwards by the heavy bullets.

Oni kept up the suppression, the heavy kick of the gun, barely registering in his shoulder, lacing round after round across and around the lawn and house, sighting muzzle flashes and punching bullets into cover, watching men reel back as metal, glass and wooden splinters entered their face and hands.

From across the pond, Alien heard the frantic radio calls from the Praetorian guards as they tried to reach the two corpses next to him. Ignoring them, Alien blew on his trigger finger, and swivelled his sniper rifle onto a man’s head, who was gesturing wildly at the woods, to his team-mates and felt the gentle kick in his shoulders as he pulled the trigger.

The man’s head snapped sickeningly hard and propelled the body into the ground, the dead fingers working the trigger of his gun, spraying rounds in a crazed cartwheel of death.

Several of his compatriots screamed and dove to the ground, where Alien’s crosshairs followed them and stilled them.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the house, Clown saw Alpha’s rifle up at the window and sprayed a burst, through the windshield of the squad car, Roman mirroring his movement, as they kicked open the door of their car and ran to the front entrance of the house.

A hail of bullets smashed through the front doors, splintering wood and causing Roman and Clown to take cover on either side of the door.

Inside, Charlie was laying it on thick, with his assault rifle, as Alpha grabbed the Mayor’s shoulders and with Bravo covering them both with his body, the three of them moved from the upper floor to the lower, as Delta scouted ahead of the three, flicking his weapon left, right, centre and up, down, searching for targets.

Charlie continued firing into the front entrance, until he saw the four of them go past him and into the kitchen where there was another staircase to go below the porch. Peeling off, he narrowly just avoided the counter-fire from Roman and Clown, as they kicked open the door and stitched gunfire across the corners of the room.

Holding for a moment, Roman nodded to Clown about the upstairs floor, and Clown pressed his radio.

Alien heard the radio squawk, and scanned the mostly glass upper floor, noting dispassionately the trio of dead women that Oni had killed in his initial machine gun burst. Scowling, he sighted one more man hiding behind a closet, his gun jutting out from behind the cover.

Pulling the trigger, he shot the man once through the head, and followed it up with two more through the chest as the body fell forwards, blood erupting violently and splashing the wall.

Satisfied there was no-one else, Alien gave a signal back and began eyeing targets on the lawn, most of whom were lying in puddles of blood.

Of the initial 30 men, 12 of them laid in pools of blood. The others had retreated to the darkened interior of the house, where they refused the orders to go back out.

Alpha stared out from the basement of the house, and looked at the simpering man next to him, and disgust entered his mind. Looking away, he stared out and knew that his sniper team was dead.

The main road was blocked.

Only the helicopter, and the boat were the two viable escape options. If they weren’t shot up. Luckily the pilot was still alive, bunking in the basement having saved his life.

But in order to reach them, he needed to remove the sniper.

Looking across at his squad and the remaining 14 men, Alpha pulled Delta close and whispered to him.

Delta nodded tersely, with the beginnings of a confident smile emerging on his face. Motioning for 3 men to follow him, Delta snuck away, and disappeared into the darkness of the night.

Repositioning the rest of the men, he strategically situated them in rooms all around the basement floor. Some stared out glass doors, at the tempting lake, whilst others got comfortable laying prone on the floor, staring at the doorway.

Bravo chose a choke point that if Clown and Roman came down, they would have to confront a three prong assault, tackling the hallway to their rear as they came down the staircase, or dealing with the two doors in front.

In addition, Alpha and Charlie were in the room adjacent to the staircase, ready to shoot right through banisters and railing, with a door behind them ready to exit.

Clown and Roman stared down the staircase, knowing that it was a trap. The gunfire had ceased and receded into silence, and they had found no one on the ground floor.

Pressing his radio, Clown awaited for confirmation from Oni, before looking at Roman. Together, they unhooked 4 grenades and slowly crept down the staircase until they were level with the first gap in the railing.

Pulling the pins, Clown tossed his pair to the two rooms in front, while Roman stuffed his down the hallway.

Sprinting back up, as gunfire roared and nipped at their boots, Clown and Roman surged back out the front entrance and Roman waited by the front door, while Clown went at a full sprint towards the rear of the house, hoping to cut off any runners with Oni.

Oni had already moved forwards and positioned his machine gun at the likely enfilade angle and saw Clown peer around the corner of the house, as they both heard yells and shouts and the sounds of hurried movement.

Just a nano-second before the explosions and frag shattered everything, Oni could have sworn he saw bright flashes at the sniper nest.

But it was forgotten, as he saw a man his size smash through a glass door, along with 7 other men, three of which were crouched and running as fast as they could.

Oni aimed his weapon and mowed 4 of them down instantly, bodies shuddering as bullets tore through them.

But the big one was still up and he roared and returned fire, charging straight at Oni.

Oni ducked for cover, as the rounds pinged through his machine gun, one of them cutting through his bicep, as he scrabbled at the ground, trying to hide.

The fire stopped as abruptly as it started and Oni tore at his leg, drawing his pistol, as Charlie appeared over the brim and with his empty rifle, clubbed at Oni, smacking away the sidearm.

Oni rolled to his feet and the two massive men stared at each other, before settling into defensive poses, Charlie adopting a boxer’s poise, while Oni hunched into a defensive jiu-jitsu stance.

Clown’s eyes widened in shock as he saw the two of them settle into their stances, but by then, the Mayor, and Alpha had reached the helicopter, the pilot desperately trying to spin up the rotors.

Emptying his magazine into the helicopter cockpit, which soon became splattered with the blood of the pilot, Clown ran forwards, towards his revenge, his pistol outstretched, the slide rocking back and forth as round after round entered the helicopter.

Elsewhere, just before the grenades had gone off, Bravo had recognised the distinctive noises and charged headlong up the stairs, screaming and firing in desperation, and colliding head-first into Roman.

Both men fell to the ground, as the explosion rocked the house and placed all the defenders out of commission except for the Praetorians and the Machine.

Scrambling back, both men went for their pistols and began firing wildly at each other, not truly aiming, just squeezing the trigger as fast as their fingers would allow. On their backs, and wriggling from side to side as bullets impacted near and on them, they looked like bizarre break dancers, desperate to avoid death.

Blood immediately began to pour, as surface wounds appeared across both men’s arms and legs, before together they ran out of ammunition.

Exhausted and desperate, Bravo pulled out a surgical knife from his chest rig and threw it at Roman, who caught it square in the face.

His head snapped back, and laid still.

Moments passed, before eerily, Roman sat back up, the knife sticking out of his stoic, expressionless mask.

He pulled the knife out, and Bravo opened his mouth to scream, but were unable to find the sounds, as the knife entered his throat and blocked them from coming out.

Groaning, Roman fumbled for his pistol, managing to just slam in a reload and angrily shoot Bravo three more times, before slumping back, clutching at his arms and legs and pressing the radio three times, to indicate his wounded state.

~

Alien heard the distress call, above the sounds of a man choking to death, his death rattle emptying into Alien’s ear. Rolling off to the side, he released the choke-hold on the man he had caught trying to ambush him and ducked as an explosion went off near him, the Claymore mine shredding the two men who dared to set it off.

Alien looked around, his senses nearly overloading him, as he stared through his mask, scanning around furiously.

As he stepped around, he suddenly tripped and the movement saved his life, as Delta rushed from the shadows, his arms outstretched, knife in hand.

Grabbing nothing but air, and tripping over Alien, as he kicked out his feet, Delta lashed out with the knife and narrowly missed stabbing Alien’s head.

Rolling away, Alien pushed himself up and drew his own knife.

Both men stared down at each other, weaving their knives slowly, their hand movements like snakes eyeing down threats, jabbing forward with terrifying speed.

Circling one another, Alien felt fear and adrenaline coursing through his body.

Delta, with a serious grimace across his face, lunged forwards with a yell.

Alien side-stepped and blocked the knife-hand sweeping in towards his stomach. Turning his torso, he let Delta in closer to him, to prevent him from getting distance, and stabbed down hard with his own knife.

However, Delta, reading his intentions, jerked backwards and spun around in Alien’s grip, breaking free and stepping away.

Both men took deep breaths, and charged in again.

Like mirror images, Delta’s support hand grasped Alien’s knife hand, with Alien mimicking the same defensive move.

They stood still, like statues, tense sinews and strained muscles, fighting each other, unwillingly to give up pressure. Desperate to avoid death and the killing move that would follow. Alien stared through the night vision green to scan Delta’s eyes, who showed immense concentration.

Suddenly remembering his advantage, Alien swiftly shifted the pressure down, instead of up, and Delta buckled, as the Alien mask smashed the bridge of his nose, stunning him.

Reeling back, Alien cut away at Delta’s knife hand, causing him to drop it, before severing the man’s armpit and then slicing out the tendon at the ankle.

Delta, his legs splayed out and on his knees, stared up at the Alien that was going to kill him.

Burying the knife back of Delta’s neck, and slicing through, Alien watched as the blood poured out and stood back, as the body fell forward limply into the dirt.

Gasping slightly, he picked up his rifle again and aimed through the scope, desperate to get back into the fight.

~

Down at the lake, Oni and Charlie mirrored the fight at the sniper nest.

Charlie was throwing punch after punch, with Oni ducking and weaving, his huge mass slowing him down, as he tried to get close the distance.

Their styles were radically different.

Oni needed to defend and tackle Charlie onto the ground, before he took too much damage from Charlie’s powerful boxing moves.

He had already absorbed too many jabs, grateful that he mostly just had to protect his face and throat, as he could rely on his chest rig to soften body hits. Even with his mask softening the hits, the force was immense.

Oni was also desperately trying to read Charlie’s moves, to avoid the devastating uppercuts that could end the fight.

He kept his elbows up, hands out, blocking and ducking like a madman under the onslaught.

In the end, when the fight wasn’t going your way, it was time to improvise.

Oni saw his damaged machine gun on the ground behind Charlie and began to subtly move him towards it.

Charlie, focused too much on landing satisfying punches, kept up the flow. A jab to the right, followed by a feint, that transformed into a straight left. Haymaker that he knew would miss, but could follow it up with 2 jabs into Oni’s chest and then a big swing into the side of his head.

Only the final swing didn’t occur, because he stepped into Oni’s machine gun, breaking his concentration, and Oni immediately rushed forwards, wrapped his arms around Charlie’s legs and swept him onto the ground.

Charlie’s eyes buckled as Oni wrapped his legs around his torso and squeezed them together in a vice like grip. Charlie desperately tried to punch at Oni’s face, but with his movement limited and with most of the power coming from the hips, the punches were ineffectual and beginning to weaken under the immense pressure that Oni was applying to him.

Feeling Charlie was close to a blackout, Oni squeezed even harder, and heard a sickening crack as Charlie’s spinal cord snapped and immediately resistance went limp and weak.

Holding on for just a few more seconds, Oni stumbled away from Charlie, sweating profusely, his breathing, ragged and raspy. Picking up his discarded pistol, Oni walked over to Charlie and delivered a coup de grace to the back of his head, before sinking to his knees in exhaustion, staring at Clown.

~

With the helicopter destroyed, the pilot killed, Alpha was forced to move the Mayor down to the docks. The final option. Everything had gone completely wrong, even in his protection duty, as the Mayor had gotten hit in the leg by Clown’s pistol fire.

Half carrying the limping Mayor, Alpha gritted his teeth in anger, and fired his pistol back at Clown, who took two to the chest, dropping him hard onto the floor.

Gasping for breath, Clown shuddered as he opened up the chest rig and pulled the ceramic plates from beneath to stop the huge deformation of the rounds from pressuring his body.

Rolling off to the side, as more pistol fire slammed into the ground near him, Clown reattached the chest rig correctly and got into a crouch, his eyes watering from the pain.

Cursing, he saw that the Mayor was already in the speedboat at the pier, and tried to fire his pistol, except he couldn’t see the sights through his blurry vision.

Struggling upwards, Clown got to his feet and tried to rub his eyes, only to touch his mask.

Shaking his head instead, he cleared the tears, dropped the magazine in the pistol, racked the slide and pressed on, cold fury in his eyes.

Alpha saw him move down and fired at him, as behind him, the Mayor struggled to operate the speedboat through the pain in his leg. Above the gunfire, Alien looked through his scope and finally settling his breathing, centered the crosshairs on the boat itself, and began firing methodically.

Bullets ripped themselves into the control panel, causing sparks and the Mayor to shriek in pain, and duck for cover in the boat. The engine spluttered and sparked as rounds after round continue to slam into the boat.

Alpha, realising what was happening, dove off the side of the boat and towards the docks, where he pulled himself up, just as Clown came charging down and drove them both into the lake.

Alien looked up and swore under his breath, and remembered the distress call. Coldly speaking over the radio to Oni, he told him to head over to Roman and see to his wounds, as he continued to suppress the Mayor, hoping Clown was alright.

In the dark water, Clown and Alpha struggled together, their arms clutched in each other’s chest rigs. The cog in the Machine, against the elite of the system.

Seeing Alpha’s pistol come out, Clown let go and scrambled away, watching as the pistol barked underwater and the bullet coming towards him, only to drop suddenly off, robbed of its momentum.

Seeing the pistol run dry, Clown swam for the surface, taking a quick breath, before Alpha pulled his leg under. Opening his eyes in the murky water, Clown punched Alpha in the groin, and watched as he reeled back.

Taking out his knife, Clown stabbed at Alpha, only to get kicked in the face as Alpha tried to get away.

Losing his grip, he made for the surface again and saw that Alpha had begun swimming for the pier. Swearing, Clown did the same and go to the pier, just as Alpha had climbed up and was spinning back around, trying to reload his pistol.

Boosting himself up, Clown grabbed the Alpha by the chest and threw him back into the water. Taking a massive breath, Clown dove down and this time, stabbed manically through the water, slashing at anything that resembled Alpha’s form.

Alpha screamed as his arms took the brunt of the attack. His training was trying to kick in, to remind him to keep up his defence, but by then the terrifying Clown mask was so close that terror took hold of him.

Clown stabbed the knife into Alpha’s chest, and strangled him savagely with the other, watching as large air bubbles erupted from the mouth, mute with horror and fear. He kept going, working the blade methodically, tightening his grip on the neck until finally the last gaggle of bubbles came billowing out, and the eyes turned glassy.

Bursting through the surface again, Clown swam back to the pier and exhausted, hauled himself onto the sand, lying flat on his face, dead to the world.

~

It seemed ages later that Alien came running down, and began slamming his fists into Clown’s chest, waking him. Clown struggled up and went mute with horror for a second, when he saw a Roman, a Demon and an Alien stare at him, before recovering and remembering where he was.

Getting up, Clown saw that the Mayor was zip-cuffed to a lawn chair and was pleading with his eyes, his mouth having been stuffed with his own socks.

Looking over at the Machine, his squad, they nodded and Oni handed him a knife.

Clown remembered the speech, that he had rehearsed and reaching under the mask, he deactivated the voice modulator.

Good Evening Mayor … 

We are the Machine. We are here for money, and your life. 

You have been restrained and immobilised. If you are experiencing distress, breathe and relieve yourself on the spot. 

Everything in these premises is now ours. Nothing you own is sacred to you any-more. The system no longer exists for a man like you. Only the Machine will spare you any attention.

If you allow the Machine to do its work, you will be spared further pain. 

Interfere, and this will occur.”

Clown punctuated the speech with a swift knife into the Mayor’s thigh and dismissing the muffled scream, pulled out a pen and paper from his chest rig and wrote the word “PASSWORD.” in block letters.

Ripping the socks away, the Mayor began spilling out all his secrets, Oni standing by with a tape recorder, whilst Clown wrote them down.

Once he had finished, the Mayor slumped in his chair, exhausted, staring dully at the knife that stood out from his thigh.

“I just want to know one thing before I die. Who the fuck are you guys.” he murmured.

Clown tucked away the notepad and pen in a waterproof sleeve. Raising the mask briefly, he stared into the Mayor’s eyes.

“You! You …”

The Clown sealed his mask shut and stepped back.

Roman, Clown, Oni and Alien stood side by side, as the Mayor looked up at them.

The Machine drew their pistols as a unit, and fired together.

4 bullets. 4 attempts at redemption that had been destroyed. 4 men that had been turned into something else, something mechanical.

Turning around, the Machine walked towards the house, to their prize among the dead, silent and emotionless, their masks betraying nothing of how they felt inside.

Author’s Note:

Quite easily the longest story I have ever written in a single sitting, clocking in at around 8400 words.

I started it yesterday, taking a break around the 1500 words mark, before finishing it off today at 10.30pm. in between serving customers at work and taking breaks here and there.

The inspiration for this, mostly came from the film Den of Thieves (2018) which to me, was a decent attempt to pay homage to the legendary film Heat (1995).

I used the basis of extremely violent, highly trained thieves, and originally wanted to describe a bank robbery, but it ended up turning a lot more interesting and reminiscent of the 007 short story by Ian Fleming, For Your Eyes Only which I stole the entire basis of a cabin retreat, surrounded by dense forestry and a lake.

If you are struggling to imagine what the retreat look like, I took inspiration from the film Gone Girl (2014) when crafting together the overall look of the Mayor’s home. In particular, I referenced Desi Collings’ cabin retreat, where Amy seeks refuge.

Obviously for the Machine, I didn’t really intend for it to be about how the “system” failed these men, but I needed a recurring theme as to why these men were so driven, so ruthless in how they operated and performed in bank robberies.

This was also inspired by why in fiction, you seem to see so many iconic masks for bank robbers but not many other criminals. I don’t really know the reason myself, but I was pondering that question and wanted each member of the team to stand out and have an identity for him.

Clown, was obviously American based, with his colour scheme and the fact that creepy clowns are a very iconic American pop culture reference. His masks resembles that of the clowns in Payday 2 (2013).

Oni, my personal favourite, was Japanese-influenced and meant to be the antithesis of typical Asian depictions, him being the biggest and strongest guy, akin to a sumo wrestler, of the quartet.

Roman, was based on the video game designs seen in Ryse: Son of Rome (2013), in which I also took the idea of Praetorian guards to design the counter-SWAT team for the Mayor and of course the Centurion character in For Honor (2017). Of course, this indicates Italian origins for the character.

Alien’s mask, was actually designed around a custom mask I made in the game Payday 2 (2013), in which it was called Alienware and I made a very similar colour scheme, only the mask’s eyes didn’t glow green or white. He is a rather obvious nod to the US-Mexico border problems.

Another writing technique I tried was seamlessly merging the four separate fights. I don’t think I had ever written anything quite like this, where I was trying to create connective tissues between the 4 different locations, as well as create something unique for them all.

Of the 4, I struggled with describing Alpha and Clown’s fight the most, as trying to make a water fight sound interesting is difficult to pull off, when your vocabulary is limited to words like “splash, swim” etc. I hope what I managed to do, did convey the chaos, but at the end of the day, action … is inherently better suited to film, than writing.

Maybe I should read more Matthew Reilly to get a better understanding of action. I can always visualise his scenes perfectly well, when reading his books.

That’s it for now, I hope you didn’t mind the long read.

Expect some reflective stuff soon.

~ Damocles.

P.S. This is now officially, 9000 words long. Not bad eh?

 

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