Chapter 7: Descent into Darkness

Into the Belly of the Beast

As the jet was crossing the ocean, Lara sank down onto the cot in her sparse quarters, the weight of exhaustion finally catching up to her after the day’s intense happenings. As she stared up at the cold metal ceiling, her thoughts drifted back through the years, to another time and place.

Long time before Ascendance. Before GlobeX. Back when she was just a starry-eyed grad student, working alongside Ethan… They had been idealistic and ambitious, united in their passion for discovery and bettering humankind. Their ideas and optimism had fed off each other in those early days, possibilities seeming boundless.

But seeds of doubt had already been planted. Ethan grew concerned about the military’s interest in their research, fearing weaponization and control. Lara had called him paranoid, too naive about the realities of scientific progress. Their ideological clash came to a head when Lara accepted funding from VeritaCorp, a rising biotech firm with shadowy government ties. Ethan accused her of complicity with unethical powers. Her indignant response had driven the final wedge between them.

Looking back now, Lara felt a twinge of regret recalling their heated accusations during those final arguments. Though she maintained her pragmatism was justified, perhaps there had been wisdom in Ethan’s caution she had refused to heed at the time. Before long, VeritaCorp was acquired by the GlobeX Corporation, and Lara was swept fully into their clandestine fold.

She had sacrificed much personal freedom for the sake of Ascendance’s visionary science, she knew. And likely damaged herself in Ethan’s eyes in the process. Though they stood on opposing sides now, she hoped he still recognized that glow of scientific curiosity within her, underneath the harsh realities that had reshaped them both. She clung to the faint notion that the great discoveries of their past might somehow unite them again one day.

But now was not that time. Tonight she needed rest before assuming her role in taking Project Ascendance’s dangerous human trials to light. The die was cast, her path set. Wherever it led, she could not stray from it now. With a heavy heart, Lara closed her eyes and surrendered to sleep’s embrace, the bittersweet memories already fading into dreams…

The sleek jet sliced through the crisp mountain air as it began its descent towards the snowy Italian Alps. Inside, Ethan gazed pensively out the window, taking in the stunning panorama of jagged, ice-laced peaks unfolding below. Somewhere amid this majestic but unforgiving landscape lay their target – Dr. Natalie Blackwood, a crucial ally who could help expose the sinister truths behind Project Ascendance.

The past few days had been a whirlwind since fleeing Boston and joining forces with the shadowy Silas, who seemed to be spearheading a resistance against the powerful GlobeX Corporation and its human experimentation schemes. While Silas’ motives remained somewhat unclear, securing Natalie’s knowledge and experience was apparently critical to understanding and sabotaging the project’s true aims.

The jet descended towards the craggy spires of the Dolomites, whose towering peaks jutted into the azure canopy above like stone sentinels guarding the Alps’ misty valleys. Nestled at the convergence of three steep-walled limestone valleys sat the mountain hamlet of Cortina d’Ampezzo, its timber-framed chalets and rustic lodges dusted with new fallen snow.

Once a hidden jewel where European aristocracy flocked to ski its legendary runs, Cortina had become a sleepy ghost town as fickle winters drove tourists to more reliable climes. Yet a more clandestine clientele now found haven in its discreet isolation. Far from the bustling metropolises, Cortina was the ideal place to vanish from all watchful eyes.

As the jet banked over Cortina’s quaint clocktower, Ethan peered down at the medieval frescoes and wrought-iron balconies adorning the village square, which now sat empty and bereft of life. He felt as if they were flying back through time itself, to an era when Cortina’s only visitors arrived on horseback, seeking refuge from civilization’s encroaching malaise. But its secluded mountain locale made it the perfect hiding spot for those wanting to vanish from the grid. And if Natalie was here, it was surely no accident.

As the jet lined up its approach, Ethan glanced over at Lara. Though she had reluctantly agreed to the mission, he could see the tension in her face. Since learning of Project Ascendance’s profoundly unethical experiments on human subjects, Lara had become their most forceful moral voice, wary of compromising their ideals even to achieve a noble end. Ethan reached over and gave her hand a reassuring squeeze.

“We’re doing the right thing” he said firmly. “Once Natalie is safe, she can expose exactly what GlobeX is planning. Without stooping to their level.”

Lara managed a thin but grateful smile, knowing Ethan shared her reservations about Silas’ scorched-earth methodology. “Let’s just get her out first, then we can decide our next move.”

The plane touched down smoothly on the small airfield outside Cortina. Fresh powder swirled around them as they descended from the jet. The cold mountain air bit at their exposed faces, heightening their alertness. Kai scanned their surroundings cautiously as the jet taxied away, leaving them alone on the tarmac.

“The coordinates are pointing toward the mountains north of town” he said. “I’ll secure some transport, you two track down supplies.”

Ethan nodded. “We’ll meet at the far end of the airfield in twenty minutes. Stay alert.”

They split up and moved into the sleepy town. Despite the early hour, villagers were already bustling about, hardened against the constant chill. Lara managed to purchase cold weather gear, provisions, and medical kits from the local shops while Ethan discreetly inquired about snow transport rentals.

As they loaded up a snowmobile and two snow bikes at the rendezvous, Kai came roaring up on a sleek, heavily modified snow skimmer outfitted with aggressive tread tracks. The custom vehicle looked like a hybrid snowmobile-tank, with a lifted suspension and stealth matte-black paneling built for extreme mountain terrain.

“Had a little chat with one of Silas’ contacts,” Kai said with a roguish grin, pulling up beside them. “Was able to borrow these new Axon-4 Skimblasters ‘to get some fresh mountain air’.”

The high-powered skimmer made their rented snowmobiles look like child’s toys. With its oversized cargo sled capable of hauling major weight, the vehicle was perfect for their impending rescue op. Kai clearly had connections in the world of black-market military prototypes, Ethan thought with a tinge of unease. But he pushed aside his reservations, knowing they needed every advantage to have a chance at this dangerous mission.

They quickly loaded their gear onto the Skimblaster’s sled, lashing it tightly. As they secured their helmets, Lara ran an admiring hand over the armored hull and turbocharged engine.

“This thing is built like a tank,” she said appreciatively. “We’ll have the power to outrun an avalanche in this monster.”

Kai grinned as the engine roared to life with a thunderous rumble, slicing tracks churning the snow. “Then let’s go start one!”

Within minutes they were racing north out of town into the backcountry, following a winding trail along the ridge. Lara tracked their position using the geographic coordinates Silas had extracted from Dr. Blackwood’s hidden pendant message. According to the map, there was some kind of facility nestled high up one of the smaller peaks accessible only by snow machine.

They drove for over an hour, Eventually leaving behind any signs of civilization. The three vehicles cut twin tracks along the narrow, ever-rising path. Though the doctor’s exact location remained masked, they all sensed they were closing in on their quarry.

Without warning, Kai braked hard and cut his engine. Ethan and Lara stopped sharply beside him, instantly on alert. Kai pointed up at a ridge about a hundred yards to their left. Barely visible against the snow was a human silhouette, observing them through binoculars.

Lara’s heart raced. “Lookout! They’re onto us already.”

Ethan grimaced. “We need to take him out before he alerts the whole base. Any non-lethal options, Kai?”

Kai thought for a second then rummaged through his pack, assembling a makeshift launcher. “Sponge grenade. The impact will knock him out so we can restrain him.”

From his sled Kai fired a foam projectile in a high arcing shot. It exploded against the lookout’s chest before he could react, violently slamming him to the snow where he lay still. They hurried to zip-tie the unconscious guard before he came around.

“He’ll freeze out here, his core temperature dropping dangerously low within an hour,” Lara said anxiously as they concealed the man in a snowdrift.

“Nothing we can do about that now if we want to avoid detection, take care of him when we’ll come back…” Ethan countered ruefully. “We have to press on before they realize he’s been taken out.”

Lara bit her lip but nodded silently. She hopped on behind Ethan as they gunned the vehicles onwards and upwards. The trail narrowed even further, winding treacherously close to sheer cliffs and overhangs. Only one snow machine could pass safely in places. After fifteen tense minutes, Kai raised a clenched fist, signaling them to stop.

“There!” He pointed towards a depression up ahead framed by steep rock walls. Built right into the mountainside was a set of massive steel doors barely visible under accumulated ice and snow. They had reached what looked like a secret facility entrance.

They ditched their vehicles in a sheltered gulley and approached on foot. 

As Kai located a camouflaged terminal and started bypassing its encryption protocols, Lara studied the heavy blast doors warily.

“This looks nothing like the remote hideout Natalie made it seem in her message,” she said in a hushed voice. “This base is built like a fortress. Are we sure Silas gave us accurate intel?”

Ethan’s face creased with worry as he scrutinized the heavily fortified entrance, his mind racing through the implications. “You’re right, something’s off. This has all the hallmarks of a GlobeX facility center.”

“You think Natalie’s message was a fake? That this is a trap?” asked Lara.

Kai paused his hacking efforts and exchanged an uneasy look with Ethan. “It’s possible. Either way, we’ve come too far to turn back now without confirming if she’s here.”

Ethan checked his pistol and nodded firmly. “We have to try, but be ready for anything on the other side.”

Lara bit her lip anxiously but didn’t protest as Kai cracked the access code. She took a deep breath and followed Ethan into the tunnel revealed as the massive doors rumbled open. The farther they descended into the mountain installation, the stronger her sense of foreboding grew that they were walking blindly into grave peril. 

After several minutes tinkering and bypassing safeguards, the heavy doors slid open with a deep metallic groan.

One by one, they slipped into the dark mouth of the tunnel revealed behind the slowly retracting doors. Finger on the trigger of a non-lethal stun pistol taken from Kai’s stash, Ethan took point as they crept down the dim passage. The sleek, minimalist design told him this was undoubtedly a GlobeX facility.

After descending two levels, they emerged into a cavernous chamber housing rows of advanced computer servers and research equipment. But no guards were in sight. Moving room to room, they found only vacant workstations and powered down machines.

“This whole level looks deserted” whispered Ethan. “I don’t like it. Where is everyone?”

Kai shook his head grimly. “Maybe they cleared out already.”

Lara’s expression darkened. “Or we just walked straight into a trap…”

As if on cue, blast doors suddenly slammed down sealing both the facility entrance and stairwell exit behind them. Simultaneously, the overhead lights switched on, blinding them temporarily. Squinting against the glare, Ethan could make out figures converging on them from side passages, armed and outfitted in combat gear. They wore no insignia, but their coordinated actions gave them away as a GlobeX private strike squad.

Realizing escape was now impossible, the three stood back to back, facing outward with weapons raised warily. Heavy bootfalls echoed through the chamber as over a dozen soldiers encircled them. To Ethan, they moved with the menacing calculation of predators cornering their prey.

A tall figure strode forward, separate from the soldiers. He was powerfully built and clad entirely in black tactical gear. His angular features were coldly handsome, but his pale blue eyes shone with a disturbing zeal. He glared down at the trapped team with unconcealed contempt.

When he spoke, his refined accent rang out crisply in the cavernous space. “Dr. Monroe, Ethan Chase, and… the barbarian infiltrator. You have each caused considerable trouble for GlobeX. My orders are to detain you until your… uncooperative tendencies can be neutralized appropriately.”

His icy tone sent a chill through Ethan. This man embodied the dangerous ends-justify-means ideology that had clearly corrupted GlobeX’s research ethos. While no doubt brilliant, Drake’s cold zealotry revealed a warped sense of purpose. Lara responded defiantly before Ethan could reply.

“Commander Drake, I presume? Your reputation precedes you. But if you think we’ll be subjected to your twisted manipulation experiments, you’re tragically overconfident.”

Drake’s stony expression flickered briefly at her utterance of his name. He turned his glare fully on Lara. “You know nothing of what GlobeX has achieved, or what humanity is on the cusp of becoming thanks to our guidance. But you will, soon enough.”

Lara recoiled involuntarily at the thinly veiled threat. Ethan quickly stepped partly in front of her, glaring back at their opponent. “Sorry to ruin your day, Drake, but we have no plans to become your lab rats. So either let us leave freely, or this is going end badly for you.”

Drake stared back impassively, then glanced down at a communication device on his wrist that had just blinked urgently. After reading the message, a cruel smile slowly creased his lips.

“Fortunately, you won’t have a choice in the matter.” He nodded to his men, who converged to roughly disarm and restrain the group, cuffing their hands behind their backs. Ethan struggled in vain as they removed the pistol and other tools he had concealed in his gear.

Drake moved face to face with Ethan, glowering down at him with pitiless eyes. “My scout teams just intercepted your friend Silas approaching from the south. He will also be joining us shortly.”

Ethan’s chest tightened at this news. Silas was supposed to have split off from them earlier, taking his own route through the mountains as a precaution. If anything went wrong with Ethan’s team, Silas could still find a way to get to Dr. Blackwood and enact their backup plan. But now, caught by Drake’s scouts, he was compromised – any contingencies he had prepared would be neutralized.

Ethan cursed himself for not anticipating Drake might have lookouts posted all through the surrounding mountains. Of course they would monitor every possible approach vector. With both infiltration teams captured, there was no longer any element of surprise on their side. They were well and truly trapped, Ethan realized despairingly.

Drake watched Ethan’s reaction closely with satisfaction. Then he stepped back and turned on his heel towards the tunnel leading down. “Bring them,” he ordered his men curtly. “It’s time they met the future firsthand.”

The soldiers dragged Ethan, Lara and Kai after Drake towards the restricted lower levels. As they descended, Lara shot Ethan a desperate, frightened look that mirrored his own dread. All their efforts had led only into the hands of GlobeX and Commander Drake, whose reputation for cunning ruthlessness was unmatched. What nightmarish human experiments awaited them below, Ethan could only imagine with chilling horror. Even slim hope of thwarting the Ascendance project seemed lost. As the lift descended into the mountain’s icy depths, it felt like they were crossing a one-way threshold into darkness from which they might never emerge again.

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