Insertion Operation: FaultLine. Prisoner Rescue.
- Capt. R.L. James: ex-Marine, Resistance Leader (Mags)
- Jackie Reyes: Resistance soldier, freelance Fixer (Quake Gamma)
- Bagman: Resistance soldier, Silent-kill Specialist (Quake Alpha)
- Marnie May: Resistance soldier, Racketeer, Intel Acquisition (Shaker)
- Black Warren: Weapons Smuggler, Gunslinger, Bodyguard (Fore)
- Carli-Lynn Mahoney: Resistance soldier, Recon, Distraction Agent (Seismic)
- Catman: Small Animal Meat Barterer, Resistance soldier, Saboteur (Roller)
I Insertion Time check: 04 34 00
“Standby, Quake Alpha. Gamma’s at the wire. Wait one.”
“I hear ya.” The soldier known as Bagman whispered it. His callsign on this caper matched his personality; an alpha male with a talent for the silent takedown.
He was hunkered nearby in a niche created by a pile of burnout; the remnants of a residential home, in a block of homes the enemy took out on Day One with some very efficient incendiaries. Across the street, Quake Alpha’s partner was busy cutting the thick wire surrounding the makeshift prison compound. It used to be a tourist spot in an industrial park.
“That checkpoint at the Box; it’s got some movement.” The female voice lilting through everybody’s temple-transducer headset again belonged to Carli-Lynn – callsign ‘Seismic’ – and it’s said that eagles envied her ability to see beyond the edges.
“Hold fast. Might be a ticker,” Seismic added. The vehicle checkpoint at the intersection of Alisal Road and Alisal Mesa, known by recon soldiers as The Box, was busier than usual this morning.
“Roger that,” Captain James replied. Callsign ‘Mags,’ she was head of a very short line of soldiers waiting behind a pair of stacked and cracked K-Rails. Ex-Marine badass and current base frontrunner in number of enemy kills, team leader James spoke into her wireless transceiver. “What page you on, Roller?”
Catman, callsign Roller, another post E-Day survivor who claimed a slang word that was actually a job description these days, as a name. It made things easier in a day and time when even your birth handle could get you in big trouble.
Roller worked best as a solo advance man, and that’s where he was now; in a shadow in the middle of the enemy’s Vehicle Motor Pool parking lot. Catman, barterer of small-animal meat and part-time Resistance soldier, reached into the canvas bag at his side and pulled out an oddly-shaped dull-gray metal box. Buttons, some unlit LEDs, and a pair of small antennae.
“Roger, Mags. Act two, page three.” He was ready already. His voice was husky with a developing cold in his sinuses. Waiting would be the hardest part; that, and not being discovered and shot to death.
“Roger.” Captain Rebecca James, ex-Marine officer and now full-time Resistance soldier. Out here in the field, ready to take the fight to the enemy, Capt. James was a stone-cold pro. “Stay small. It’s gonna get bitchfire soon.” Her favorite expression.
“Seismic. Quake Gamma at insertion. Wire is six of ten. Slow bite. Several layers of nine gauge. Need to wait.” Jackie the Fixer was assigned the incursion team-name, Gamma. Jackie’s Latina heritage was a perfect fit with this handle. The Urban Dictionary – before it and everything else normal in the country was fried – showed the definition of Gamma as ‘a woman of distinction’ and Jackie was all that and more. The thick wire yielded reluctantly.
“Eyes on you, Gamma. Your back is clear,” Seismic assured her teammate. So early in the morning, not much happening out in this bombed-out neighborhood. Even so, the sounds of machinery, metallic hammering and pneumatic spats were drifting in and out with the breeze. The fog patches helped and hindered the rescue team at its whim.
“Ready to cross, Seismic. Let’s go.” Bagman was eager to add some notches to his hilt. He’d had it with the Captain’s bragging.
“Clear, Alpha. Low and fast. Wait… Go.”
“Watch your step, ladies,” Catman said with a low rasp over the wireless; he was a fan of anything Orson Welles. The others heard occasional static from his transmission.
“Hey, Seismic. You hear the one about the two blondes walking up the Columbia River?”
Carli-Lynn was blonde and fiercely proud of her Norwegian heritage. And while she publicly admonished these kinds of jokes, secretly she thought they were funny. The far-away drone of an unmanned aerial vehicle served to remind the insurgents that eyes were everywhere. And the darkness was even riskier now with infrared sensors reportedly a standard onboard ability.
“Quake Alpha at the wire,” Bagman said as he scuttled up next to his insertion partner.
“Roger, Alpha. No, Roller, I didn’t. Better not…”
“One blonde was on the west bank and the other blonde was on the east bank…”
“…be a sexist…”
“…and the east bank blonde yells across the river and asks, ‘How do I get to the other side?’”
“Roller, you jerk.” Marnie spoke up from behind the Captain. She wasn’t supposed to talk.
“…and the west bank blonde says…”
“’You already are on the other side,’” Captain James whispered into her mic. “Now shut up.”
Carli-Lynn suppressed a laugh; James was only a few yards away and ready to cross the street as soon as the wire was cut. “Yeah.” She took a big breath and struggled to keep it in; stupid Roller trying to make her laugh.
“Good one.” Quake Alpha had heard it before; this version with the captain interrupting was a classic now. “Golden oldie.”
“Take a breath, people.”
“Seismic. Gamma. The wire is ten of ten. Need thirty to open. Get ready to scoot.”
“Roger, Gamma. There’s a bird in the clouds, but it’s out downtown.”
“Yeah. I heard it.”
“Okay.” Mags turned around and eyed the other two soldiers behind her waiting to move out. Marnie May – callsign Shaker – was tasked with recording the operation, taking in intel features and still photos, documenting as much as possible for the Resistance Gaming Group. And callsign Fore, Black Warren, a Smuggler with a few contacts that would trade some enemy wartech for the right price and was a right deadly shot. He was tasked with removing opposition at range. There were more than a few dozen notches on the grips of his favorite weapon.
“Stay on my six, watch where you step – may be trips – and don’t crowd me.” With a hard-Marine glare, James glanced up at Warren. “Check your rig, Fore. No time for a Mulligan.” Grapevine around camp was that the Captain was a helluva golfer once upon a time.
“It’s fine.” Black Warren hefted his Heckler & Koch VP40; it had been modified to fit a Jupiter Eye sound-suppressor and looked too long in the Captain’s opinion; awkward. “She’s been balanced well.”
“Seismic. Gamma. Door is open and tea is served.”
“Roger, Gamma. Ladies and alphas first. Mags, standby to scoot.” Seismic; all business now.
“Rogah.” Captain James had that twang in her voice now that the adrenaline was flowing.
“Waiting on the Box to close, Mags. Take a tick” Mags was silent; a tick meant ‘keep quiet and wait.’
“Quake Alpha insertion is go.” His whisper was harsh now, his pulse was quickening. “Got two greens, two hundred toes downrange. Gamma is under.”
“Roger, Alpha. Are your greens in the hear zone?”
Bagman, crouching behind an overturned picnic table with a wicked-looking burn scar, was holding a small night-vision scope to his face. “Negative. They’re talking.”
“Okay. It’s show time, then.” One last look at The Box; clear. “Mags; go, go.”
“Let’s move.” In the darkness, three slightly darker shadows slipped through the ground fog that was loitering as dawn approached. The patches of moist morning air swirled from their passing.
Nearly without pausing, James crouched and passed through the two-by-three-foot gap in the wire, followed by Marnie, who tore her jacket on a piece of the mangled fence. Black Warren was last to enter, and did so facing outward to the street, doing a backwards duck-walk, his gun poised dead-center from his chest.
Carli-Lynn saw him gracefully disappear into the dark, ruptured fencing; always admiring his lithe form and sexy butt.
“FaultLine team is in the lobby. The show is about to begin. Good luck. Seismic has gone Owl.” Her radio squelch-check clicked and she would remain silent unless there was a problem. If the rescue avoided any loud gunfights, she would likely be leading a group of prisoners back into mountains. FaultLine was too important to risk re-capture, so the Fireman had to exfiltrate by a different route; one the enemy wouldn’t expect.
That’s when Catman would do his thing; evade and escape. “See ya by the fire, Seismic.” Catman was in love; but she wasn’t. Not with him.
The fencing appeared to be about six or seven layers of heavy gauge wire sheets welded together to form a stout barrier all the way around these four buildings that used to house a motorcycle museum and some local business offices. Now it contained captured Resistance fighters and more than likely encompassed interrogation and torture facilities, as well.
“Settle. Check your gear.” Rebecca Louise James, former Marine aviator and a crack shot, taking her Marine Company’s top precision shooting title four years running, looked at each of her soldiers.
“Take a breath, people,” she whispered, barely audible. The Motorola Bluetooth headsets picked up her signal and transmitted the tiny vibrations through the team’s temple-pads, then through the skull bones and directly to the inner ear auditory receptor bones.
Captain James and her squad settled for a moment, huddled near a pile of broken flower pots tossed in the corner where the heavy wire fencing attached to the building. More wire panels were bolted and welded over the windows all along this side of the old motorcycle museum. A door about twelve feet from their location, and another one at the other end of the building looked to be their only choices for further ingress.
Marnie was struggling with an itchy nose; a sneeze perched and ready. Something moldy hereabouts. James saw it and held her finger up to her own nose; rubbed it like Charlie Chaplin. Marnie mimed her and the sneeze dissolved away for now.
Inside the maimed building, recent intel said there were a number of resistance fighters being held in steel cages, along with one unique gentleman: Fireman, former hazardous materials specialist and munitions expert, Wayne Michael Lampman in a previous life when the world wasn’t burning from war. Known as Fireman now to his friends, and ‘FaultLine’ to these rebels; the base commander had coined his temporary codename for this operation.
“FaultLine is supposed to be in this enclosure,” the Captain said, again barely audible, gesturing to the darkened structure. No telling where the enemy prison guards were stationed. Quake Alpha had already spotted two of them at the other end of this former Solvang community-corner-turned-prison. “Party is on.” She tapped her headset. “Radio needs only. Hand sig from here on.” She brought her right hand up, made a brief fist, then raised her index finger; ready?
The other members raised their hands and did likewise. She nodded; the darkness hid her eyes, but Bagman saw a glint there nonetheless. Killin’ time.
James retracted her finger, made the rebel fist again.
II Location Time check: 04 40 26
  
This mission was simple on paper: breach, locate, extract, exfiltrate, escape. On the ground, simple was the last thing a soldier expected. Captain James knew at any moment, their painstaking strategy could be converted to an ad lib circus of ‘anything-to-survive-this-fight’ mentality. Oddly, that’s when friendly combatants tend to be converted to corpses.
Team Leader James brought her gloved right hand up into everyone’s view; paused with a loose fist and a straight-on glare at Black Warren; Fore. She pointed at him with one finger, then moved her hand over her eyes as though she were shading them from the sun. Then she pointed back at Fore, this time with two fingers, quickly made the ‘gun hand’ sign, then indicated the two that Quake Alpha had spotted with a ‘thumbs-down’ gesture, and lastly drew her hand across her own throat and finished with a finger to her lips.
Warren knew the hand-code like the alphabet: relocate the two enemy guards, and if the field is clear, dispatch them with his silenced handgun and be discreet. He duck-walked off into the shadows. He’d already attached the night-scope to the modded rail on the barrel of his H&K.
Just as James was beginning her hand-orders to Gamma and Alpha, her headset clicked with a squelch-break; someone had keyed their mic without speaking.
“Mags. Big traffic. Your six.” It was Seismic with a whispered brief warning. Callsign Mags just pressed the mic button integrated into her left-hand glove; received.
A moment later, two heavy-sounding vehicles with diesel engines rumbled past the insurgents; for a tight instant, James considered what to do if the truck stopped to investigate the hole in their improvised prison.
The vehicles passed without stopping and were no doubt headed to the parking area where Roller was waiting. Diesel fuel exhaust fumes drifted into the compound as the Captain continued her silent orders.
Marnie didn’t need specific orders unless lead was being exchanged, so she had her recorder running already; she was crouching about ten feet away in the embrace of an overturned potted fern and a pile of large ruined pots. Her glasses held the close-up-capture-lens of a high definition still camera, the device in her hands incorporated the video recorder and storage disc.
Capt. James pointed with two fingers at her silent assassin crouched two feet away, but facing in the direction that Warren went, the building with their prize to his right so he could keep an eye on it should anyone step outside for a piss or cigarette. Currently, Bagman was looking at his captain, his head craned around watching her hands in the darkness.
Her headset crackled again. “Mags. Foot patrol approaching your twenty. ETA, ten ticks.” Going south already, Rebecca thought. Hard not to see that fence cut from the sidewalk just a few feet away.
Everyone heard it; Mags saw Bagman start for the breach, but she was closer. Reaching out she grabbed Alpha’s arm, and he froze only a few inches away from her face. She shook her head in a brief, curt ‘negative’ as her eyes flashed to the fence and back.
Suddenly appearing in front of his face, James’s right hand pointed at him again with two fingers, then over his shoulder with two short waves at the building entrance only nine or ten feet away. They both heard the boots on the broken sidewalk nearby. Two more quick gestures: hand over the eyes like she gave to Fore, then made her hand into the letter ‘C’ and touched her chest over her heart: carry out your orders, but standby, watch my back.
The boots stopped suddenly and the Captain’s face dissolved backward into the shadows as Bagman turned to obey his orders. Getting in his captain’s way when she was in ‘save-our-ass’ mode wasn’t a good tactic.
That’s when a beam of white crystal light penetrated the gap in the fence followed by a voice that exclaimed surprise in a language unknown in these parts. And it wasn’t hard to figure out that the words were something like, “What the fu…?”
But that’s as far as the voice got; a surprised face appeared briefly as Captain James reached up, grabbed his jacket and pulled down hard, thrusting her Marine bayonet up into the guard’s throat. She grunted; shoved it again, hard, past the thyroid cartilage, into the vestibular fold, severing the supraglottis from the glottis, rendering the larynx inert, cutting off any screams. The soldier’s gurgled death sounds were sickening to Marnie, and she gagged.
Captain James completed her attack by lowering his limp, shivering body to the ground, withdrawing her bloody blade, then dragging him through the gap. The movements made more noise than she wanted and it was confirmed when Fore spoke in a low-toned whisper. His voice through her temple pad made it sound like he was perched between her ears.
“Company.” It was more of an exhale than a word. “Two to target.”
“Proceed.” James was breathing hard now; it was more talking than she liked, but things just got hot; once the steel comes out or lead flies, the game changes. Somebody is going to miss this guy at some point. “Clock’s running.”
“Copy,” Fore confirmed. “Standby for the conversion.” That’s how he thought of it; not killing; just conversion to a non-breathing state.
Jackie had been silent and waiting for her cue to proceed. And at the moment, she was right behind Fore – he was in heavy concentration now gazing through a green-hued scope mounted on his gun – and Gamma’s next mission was to cut this gate fencing that enclosed the courtyard-turned-prison-yard as the exfiltration escape path. Now that bullets were about to fly, it seemed smart to quickly scuttle away to her pre-assigned spot on the other end of this gateway; stopping presently to inspect the gate that needed her skills. Some fifty or sixty feet away to her left in another steel-fence-enclosed courtyard, a shadow changed position; Gamma was intent on the gate, and she missed it.
“Movement inside,” Quake Alpha breathed. He was keeping his eye on a shape sitting in a chair just a couple yards from the door on his right. He’d tried the doorknob a few seconds ago, and to his grinning surprise, it was unlocked. Along with this prison guard in the chair that was leaning back against an empty steel cage, Alpha could see dozens of these enclosures in long rows that disappeared into the other end of the building. “Got a walker.”
“Shit.” The Captain, just by habit, had keyed her mic and the team heard it. Pissed at her error, she began wiping the blood from her hands on the dead guard’s back. Fore would clean up his end of the yard, then we’ll deal with whatever’s inside.
It wasn’t the sleeper in the chair that moved, so there were at least two guards in this block as someone emerged from behind one of the cages and walked up to the window. Fore was crouched under and just a few feet from where the guard looked out.
“He’s window shopping, Fore. Stay small.” Don’t move. From Bagman’s position, he could just see the other guard’s shape through the steel-wired windows. Some low-level LED lighting inside provided just enough illumination.
Black Warren was just a heartbeat or two from a fast double-kill; both his targets must have heard the struggle behind him and were investigating, padding this way slowly, conversing in low tones, their rifles held loosely, for now.
Alpha knew that if Fore fired now, it would…
Captain James appeared with Marnie at her side. “Fore. Stay fire.”
Fore could sense the situation, even if he couldn’t see the problem. His finger on the finely-tooled-trigger remained steady, but his targets would arrive in just a few…
Fore moved his ‘steady-hand’ slightly and touched his wireless mic contact. The squelch-pop was brief, but it might have said, ‘I hear ya, but we’ll be dead soon if I can’t finish my mantra.’ That last part was pure Black Warren; he was reportedly observed murmuring a secret set of words as he aimed and squeezed, sending his targets to their personal versions of Elysium with a bit of poetry to comfort them. One drunken party night, Black Warren admitted to it all. That’s how legends were born.
“Wait one,” Quake Alpha said suddenly, then reached up and lightly tapped the metal door with the tip of his blade. The guard in the chair didn’t move, but the other one looked away. This time Alpha ran the blade-tip over the surface in a short, brash scrape.
Even at this distance, a trained soldier could see the change in the jail guard’s posture and situational awareness; the guard turned finally and began a slow pace towards the rebels.
“Clear,” Mags whispered. Fore hesitated another instant as convert number two walked past a careless heap of used construction materials and debris, opening the line-of-sight to his head.
Then Black Warren fired twice with the space of a pair of heartbeats in between. In the darkness, soon to be dawn, the gunshots were muffled through the engineered acoustic-negative chambers of the silencer and reminded Marnie of a cartoon she’d seen once with a weird snake that sounded like those shots.
“Two converted. Two down.” Fore gazed at the bodies only twenty feet away or so; another second and…
“Oh, my God.” It was Jackie, on her belly now after seeing that shadow morph into a soldier-guard unexpectedly when a breeze cleared the ground fog trapped in the enclosed courtyards. The soldier had been checking some doors directly opposite her on the other side when he heard the weird snake sound.
Black Warren was close enough to Gamma to hear her; it wasn’t a whisper. That probably saved them all. The guard knew the weird snake sound for what it was and had the training to freeze momentarily to triangulate where the shot originated, and he was rewarded as he spied Fore’s outline near the window. Fore had shifted a bit to get a better after-action-look at his converts; it was that tiny movement that gave him away.
Gamma saw the guard swing his assault rifle up, and move to rack the slide. That’s when she gasped.
But the guard heard her, too; didn’t know she was there, and looked around to his right, instantly panicking that he’d fallen into a trap. That’s when Fore added another traveler to his convert list.
Jackie saw, like in a slow-motion replay, the 40-caliber slug sock into the soldier’s left temple; his eyes bulged, the left one popped as the kinetic force of the projectile pushed bone, brain, and flesh aside, venting out the nearest orifice. All three of these shots were identical. Gamma saw the guard’s body fall, but it seemed to slump inward on itself, almost disappearing as mysteriously as it had appeared. Just a trick of the light and remaining fog.
“You okay, Gamma?” It was Fore; he was checking on her through his scope; she was nearly face down in a pile of rubbish.
“Yeah. Just startled me,” Jackie lied, getting back up to her knees. She’d missed him; didn’t scope his spot until it was almost too late. Once per mission was too many; can’t afford another.
Bagman had been watching the approaching guard inside; this guy’s pace was hesitant, and in his hand, he held a baton of some kind. On Fore’s third shot and Gamma’s gasp, the sound must have penetrated the windows, because he stopped and looked out again; his body bent and tense now. He was only twelve feet or so away on the other side of the window.
“Looky-loser at the window, Fore.”
“Copy.” All this not moving was harder than it looked. Black Warren focused his concentration again through his scope into the courtyard area where his surprise convert had emerged. Maybe he had a friend down there somewhere who was interested in a quick ride to the afterlife; another twofer. Might put him one up on the Captain’s record.
“Starting my garden,” Gamma said, a bit breathless. Her personal code for ‘make a hole.’ She breathed in, held it, then exhaled through her nose, gripped her cutters and began.
Captain James knew when to be a commander and when to be a shadow; her people were on station, alert, and taking out the trash. She reached over and lightly gripped Marnie’s arm, tapped three times, then released her. They’d arranged this silent signal long ago; stay close, shut up, keep recording.
“This guy has got to go,” Alpha said off-mic as a plan sprung up before his eyes. Sometimes these were the only way to go. James and Marnie had drifted back into the shadow against the fence while the guard inside was looking away.
The curious guard shifted his position again, taking a step toward Alpha; his gaze appeared to intensify like maybe he’d spotted Alpha. “Fore. He’s looking away. Count three slow, tap the door near you. Count two, do it again.”
“Copy,” Fore breathed and heard him say, ‘One’ before his mic squelched off. Alpha started his own count when he heard his teammate through his temple transducer. On ’three,’ Bagman turned the doorknob while watching the guard.
The deception appeared to work as the guard turned suddenly when he heard the tapping behind him. Alpha made his move.
Opening the door and hoping it wouldn’t squeak too badly, Bagman stood up and slipped across the threshold, eyeing the sleeping guard in the tipped chair about six feet away. Fore was watching, but his view was occluded by an unusually thick section of wire mesh and angle of the lights. But he got the plan instantly. He tapped the door again with the barrel of his baby, then waited. It wouldn’t take long.
The door did squeak after all, and the sleeping guard woke with a startled, guttural croak. He’d been caught sleeping before, probably. The curious guard turned around again, also probably expecting a bored officer looking to cure it with a little sadism.
Fore stood up and turned the knob, hoping to enter and surprise the guard one more time. But, it was locked. In a blur, Fore saw the standing guard move forward as though he were starting to rush an assailant. That’s when he curled his fist and banged on the door; once, forcefully.
At the other end of the building, Alpha tensed as the curious guard raised his baton; a viscous white electric arc lit the room in a fleeting, harsh glare and burnt the air as he started forward. Bagman also stepped forward to improve his response time and bent slightly at the waist; ready. The guard in the chair was just in front and to his right; chances are Sleepy hadn’t seen him yet. He probably thought the pissed-off guard with the cattle prod was going after him for taking a snooze.
Quake Alpha enters the zone; the entire world narrows down to two other men and the close-quarters combat space that fate decided would be their arena. Somewhere in the background of the breathing, heart beating, and foreign cursing, Bagman hears a thump.
The sound may have startled Bagman’s approaching opponent, now at arm’s length. His head starts to turn, then he thinks better of it. Too late, though.
Alpha bends forward, his left arm rises as though the blow is coming from a southpaw; that’s when the cattle prod rushes at him, right for his gut. Alpha’s right arm is already in motion, deflecting the weapon: his feint succeeds in distracting his foe.
Alpha breaths in, holds it, then moves: dodges left, his right hand grabs the prod-holder’s wrist and twists. Step right, cross his opponent’s forward momentum, redirecting it and finishes the grab with his left hand, now done with the fake, and guides him and the prod to the assailant’s left; right into Sleepy who had no chance to avoid the arcing light.
As the guard falls over his own leg, his balance completely gone, the lit baton in his hand drives itself into sleepy guard’s lap, discharging its amperage directly into his gonads. His shout is chopped short a second later as Alpha pivots his elbow, whipsaws his fist into the agonized man’s throat. Choking and in a total panic, both men fall over each other in a pile.
Brushing pasting Marnie, who was at the door recording it all into a digital chip, Captain James took a half-dozen large soldier steps, then plunged her bayonet into the walking guard’s skull. He jolted stiff, shook briefly as she gave it a twist, just to be sure.
Alpha stood up after ending Sleepy’s living nightmare. Fore appeared next to Marnie, ready to help.
“Party is over,” Marnie said, a bit stunned at the violence. Never would get comfortable with it; not like these professionals.
“Not by a mile,” Fore said aloud, happy the wireless wasn’t needed.
Mags and Quake Alpha were catching their breath, looking at each other with that smile that victors enjoy. Since no other guards showed up, this part was apparently over. But the clock was running. The alarm could go off any second.
“Two, so far,” Mags said between breaths; she was slowing her rhythm, stabilizing her respiration.
“That should be my line,” Bagman replied; he was looking at the soldier he’d tricked into giving his buddy an impromptu electrolysis treatment. “I’ll split him with you.”
“Deal.” She took one final breath in through her nose, then let it vent slowly from her mouth as she moved into the room. “Let’s go. Let’s find FaultLine and get the hell outta this fucked-up place.” Keying her wireless mic, she added, “Gamma. Standby and stay small.” One mic-squelch-pop as a reply.
Fore looked at Marnie; her soft, pale face had tear stains, and her slate-gray eyes had matching red rims. “Hey. We’re winning.” Black Warren had only recently learned to explore his feelings after a lifetime on the edge of evil, and with it came learning to give a shit about other people. He was trying.
“I know. It’s war; people die, and mothers cry.”
Black Warren had never heard it put better.
III Extraction Time check: 04 48 55
“Hey! Hey, Bagman! Over here, man! holy shit; it is you!”
The urgent voice cut through the other excited voices here in this humid and crowded space. So many of these steel cages welded to wide, flat steel plates that were bolted to the floor, and most had at least one ragged-looking prisoner.
“Hey, man! Got to break us out of here!” More prisoners echoed the sentiment in a spreading wave throughout this ex-museum dedicated to vintage motorcycles. After the enemy-refurb, the entire ground floor had its windows blocked and wired and the floor packed with these steel perp cages.
“Fore,” Captain James said over the wireless. “Take a walk, keep an eye on the fence and Gamma.” The team’s leader was sweeping this end of the room and working her way down to where she would meet up with Bagman; any sleeper guards between them would have a two-front fight on their hands.
“Copy. No surprises to ruin the party.” Black Warren was just preparing to walk back-up for the captain, in case there was an enemy soldier in one of the cages. He’d seen it happen. He turned and double-timed out the door and pulled up next to the breach that Gamma had made.
“Seismic. Fore. What’s the street look like this brisk morning? Any sightseers?”
“Negative. Like a Sunday in the Sahara.” Presumably, that meant not many folks around.
“Roger. Thank you.” Sliding his gun into a custom chest-rig, he grasped the bent wire and worked it back into place to make it as normal-looking as possible. The darkness was beginning to yield to the inevitable dawn, Fore noticed with another touch of the poetic.
Quake Alpha had made his way along the window area, retracing the steps his latest opponent had taken. Cautious, looking ahead in his mind: ‘what if there’s one in that dark corner?’ I’ll dodge right, down and roll, up and sweep kick, finish back against the wall, clear L-O-S.’ He blanked his mind instantly, looked right and repeated the exercise.
With her digital camera rolling, Shaker chose a path somewhere between these two other routes, taking it slow, looking left and right into the cages, her finger tapping the shutter button and capturing as many of these retched-looked faces as she could manage. The video lens looked forward in a wide arc, cataloging the minutia of the enemy’s tech-level and expertise in the field of impromptu prison-building.
“Bagman! Over here. Let me help you guys!” Bagman heard the voice a bit clearer this time; closer, down this row. Could be a diversion; best to finish the sweep.
“Keep it down, boys. You want some more company?” Captain James barked it out in a voice that wasn’t a yell, not a shout. “We’re here. Just pack it down, or it could get really loud!” Her voice was low-toned with an urgency familiar with giving commands that were not ignored.
Marnie paused, slowly rotated her head around with the zoom cranked, looking into the cages on the far side of the building wall. She was searching for someone in particular…
“Hey. Lady, hey! Get me outta here…” Someone grabbed her arm, shaking her focus just as she spotted a bearded man with eyes that… “The door is over here…”
Marnie’s arm suddenly burned with a stinging ring just below her elbow. “Let go!” she yelled, but her arm wouldn’t yield. “No…”
“Get me…” Marnie’s view of her assailant vanished as James stepped in front of her, and as she did so, her arm was released. The captain had reached in and grabbed the man by the throat, then pushed him backward. “Hands off, soldier. She’s on your side,” the Marine said it like the Drill Instructor she had been for a year once upon a time. “Stand down.”
The soldier who had accosted Marnie recognized that tone; he wasn’t a professional like this brave woman here, but he was a well-trained amateur. He’d been fighting this one-sided war for a while now and looked it.
The caged resistance soldier straightened up and fired off a salute. James returned it and felt a stab of regret; she didn’t have to be so rough, but hurting Marnie like that just pushed her buttons. She dropped her hand and finished the confrontation with a curt, but encouraging, head-nod. “Standby to evac, soldier.’
“Yes, Ma’am.” James moved off, and the soldier looked at Marnie, who was looking at her arm. The prisoner hadn’t caused all the pain; he’d grabbed her right where she’d cut herself when she ducked into the freshly-snipped fenced. Hadn’t even noticed…
“Sorry, ma’am. Didn’t mean to hurt you…”
“You didn’t,” Marnie replied, looking up at him now. “I did this myself. What’s your name?”
“Case Cooler, ma’am. From Miratown, down south.”
“I know the place,” Marnie said. “Please to meet you, Case Cooler. I have to go now.” Callsign Shaker walked away and directly toward the cage with the bearded man.
“See ya later? What’s your name?” Case called after her. She didn’t respond.
“Mags. Gamma at the back door. Coffee’s ready.” Jackie had finished cutting the fence; she had her cute side, but anyone mistaking her for a pushover generally regretted it soon enough.
“Copy, Gamma. Have a cup, we’ll be along shortly.” Rebecca’s private joke to Jackie who barely broke the surface at five feet, two inches.
“Dammit, Bagman. It’s Jaykay! Jaykay, man. Over here!”
Bagman, call sign Quake Alpha, finally finished the sweep and took the final three steps right up to the cage with the now-identified man.
“Stop shouting, Jaykay. We’re trying to keep breathing here.” Alpha said it louder than he intended, and it lacked any authority; so, he just laughed. “How the fuck did you end up in here?”
“Hey, man. I’m in the Army now,” Jaykay said it with a sloppy salute and a goofy grin.
“Yeah, aren’t we all.”
“Alpha! We’ve got our target. Check our path to the back door. We’re gone soon as we can get these kennels open.”
“Roger, Cap.” They had spent a minute sacking the guards; they found a relatively common-looking silver key in the uniform shirt pocket of each soldier. The door that Fore had found locked was a few feet away; through the window, he could just see Gamma and Fore hunkered in the shadows. Of course, he knew where to look.
“The next shift is gonna be here before breakfast. We need to book. Now.”
“Come on, Jaykay; downshift, man. We got a mission in progress. Priority extraction.”
“What? That crazy fireman over there?”
“He’s got a leaky valve, Bags. He’s nuts. Keeps saying he’s a bigwig fire marshal or some damn thing.”
“He’s not lying, Jaykay. He’s why we’re here. He’s a hazmat-gold-level chemist. That’s the intel.”
“These keys aren’t working, Alpha,” Mags said with more than a touch of annoyance. She was a few feet away, bent over the lock on the Fireman’s cage.
“These locks are not normal. A design I’ve never seen before,” Mags concluded. She straightened up to relieve her over-tensed back, heard it crack softly, then turned to get Alpha’s take on it. “Try your key?”
Bagman reached out and touched the eight-sided locking mechanism that was holding Jaykay’s cage door closed. “The keyhole looks standard to me.” He tried the key; it slid in nicely and stopped. Nothing.
“Hey, dude. You gonna spring the entire party?” Jaykay had moved to within whisper-distance; his tone spoke with a conspiracy-cant, his breath foul and his teeth yellowed.
“If we can get these locks open.”
“I seen the keys they use. They’re flat on one end with a round barrel. I think they’re kept in a locker over by the stairs.”
“Check the area by the stairs to your right, Cap,” Alpha said over the wireless. He saw the captain move off into the twilight. The prisoners settled into a hushed readiness now that it looked like freedom really was just minutes away. Military discipline and drilling paid off in unexpected ways.
“He’s the priority, Jaykay. If we can get you guys out safely, it’ll happen. But this guy is pri.” He gestured toward the cage a few feet away with the bearded man. Alpha could see him now; he didn’t look crazy, he looked serene. Smiling. Oddly, he was just sitting in a far corner, calmly watching the scene unfold; hadn’t said a damn thing. Maybe he was a leaky valve.
“Look, Bagman. Get me out, give me the keys, and I’ll free the rest. You’ve got a ‘scape-shoot, I take it?”
‘There’s a hole in the fence just to the north, facing Alisal. We’ve got an op across the street. She’ll get you to the mountains.”
“Oh, man. Better than I could dream up. You gotta trust me, Bags. I’ll get these guys out. We’ve been in here together for a week now. We’re motivated.”
“No doubt.” Bagman and Jaykay had had an herbal agricultural supply operation back in the day before it was legal. “If it’s green with the captain, you’ll be our squad leader.”
“Alpha; get over here with your key. We are running late.”
As Bagman made his way over to the captain’s position, the wireless crackled in his head. “Mags. Fore and Gamma in the lobby. Getting late.” The captain hadn’t used the radio just now, and she wondered briefly if Black Warren had just read her mind from a distance.
“Speedbump, Fore. Another three and we jet,” James said as Alpha appeared at her side with the silver key taken off of Sleepy the guard. She took it and slipped it into a keyhole.
“Alpha; over there. You gotta turn that key when I turn this one. It’s like a missile silo.”
“Might have underestimated these greensuits, boss,” Alpha said as he crossed the short space and reached the key already inserted into a keyhole in the middle of a metal plate affixed to the wall. “Okay. On three?”
“One. Two. Three,” Rebecca said and turned her key in concert with Alpha. Instantly, a vault door between them set into a concrete collar popped open.
“Got a reliable brother in the cage over there. He can open the rest while we get the Fireman on his way.”
“Trust him not to bolt?” Captain James opened the vault door wide and quickly scanned the contents.
“Yeah. He’s goofy but dependable.”
“Okay.” James was looking intensely into the key closet now; it was embedded in a large safe placed into the wall that had been modified to open with this two-key system. There were a few dozen keys that fit Jaykay’s description hanging on simple hooks. The blade end of the keys looked like they’d fit the cage-locks, but there was no marking on the keys or the cages themselves.
“Can’t anything be easy?” Mags asked, not expecting an answer. She took two keys at random from a pair of hooks, then handed one of them to Bagman.
“Dyin’ is easy,” Bagman replied rather absently while taking a closer look at these unusual keys. The other end of the flat blade that slid into the lock’s keyway had a small depression engineered into the metallic body.
“Too prophetic, Alpha.” James reached up and swept a group of ginger strands from her eyes; it was warm in this nightmare lockup. “There’s a button here…”
“Yeah. Just saw it. Push at our own risk?”
Just as he said this, James depressed it. “Standby for your answer.”
“Hey, General? Bags? Just saw a blue light over the cage door down there.”
Alpha was already moving. “Show me,” he said in a rush as Jaykay raised his arm to indicate a nearby cage. “Give me a ‘Q’ and ‘A’ in the code, cap.” He meant Morse’s code.
Rebecca had to think for a moment; it’d been a while since she had to use the code. Black Warren had scored these high-security wireless headsets; made missions smoother and older skills less usable. But her finger was already tapping her mission partner’s callsign letters while she was busy thinking.
“There. I see it.” Alpha touched the button of the key the captain had just handed him; a blue light appeared on the cage next to the captains. “The keys in the lockup correspond to the cage floor pattern.”
The captain had already figured that one out as soon as she saw the second cage light up. Based on her walk-through a few minutes ago, the correct key should be…
“Okay. We are in business. Find your buddy’s cage key and let’s get fuckin’ goin’!” The captain was at the Fireman’s cage but hesitated before inserting the key.
Bagman wasn’t completely sure which one opened Jaykay’s cage, so he scooped up four of the keys and went back over to Jaykay.
“You ready to go, Fireman?” Mags asked the man in the corner. This character couldn’t have weighed more than a hundred pounds; his shaggy black beard framed a gaunt face, thin lips with an uncertain smile, and vertical creases from the edges of his eyes that slid into his beard.
“My meds are gone,” Fireman said in a simple flat monotone. His voice was deeper in tone than James would’ve imagined, and it triggered something in her instinct-center deep in the Pineal Gland: ‘caution.’ “My meds ran out,” the man in the corner said again.
“Yes! Out, finally.” James heard Alpha’s friend, and that started a rise in the sound level from the others, now that liberty wasn’t just a fever dream anymore.
The captain hesitated again. “Eat that noise, men!” she said intensely, turning around to address the other caged prisoners. “We are just a few ticks from cool air or hot lead. You get to choose today; which will it be? Now, shut up and follow Quake Alpha’s orders and you’ll live to fight and fuck another day. Quiet!”
“And as for you…” James turned around again and was startled to see the Fireman standing only inches from her on the other side of the bars. Her combat instinct kicked in this time and Rebecca the Marine took over by bending at the knees, reaching in through the bars with both hands and grabbing the grinning man by his blood-stained lapels. “What the hell do you think you’re doing, mister?”
“He’s got a condition, Captain,” Alpha said as he walked up to her and put his hand gently, but briefly, on his team leader’s shoulder; just to let her know he was standing there to avoid any more surprises. “Intel said he’s fragile one minute, and a banshee the next.” The tension was doubling now; too much mission time was draining away. Bagman was feeling it, and it looked like Cap was, too.
“That right, soldier?” Mags asked the Fireman, still attached to her fists. She’d read the intel brief; didn’t mean it was true. He just nodded in the affirmative while his eyes scanned the hands nearly lifting him off the floor. She released him and withdrew. “We are leaving. Right now.” James said into his face. “You, behave.”
Jaykay was busy opening cage locks, and the men being freed quickly went to the key-vault, collected some keys and multiplied the effort. The noise level was rising again.
Alpha bent down and retrieved the key for the Fireman’s cage; it had fallen unnoticed from her hand. He inserted it into the lock’s keyway, sensed it magnetically ‘grab’ the blade and felt the tiny vibration of some electronic handshake that confirmed the partnership this lock and this particular key shared. The stout-looking silver hasp on the lock slid back without the traditional ‘click’ sound. Bagman felt cheated somehow; all this sleuthing and not even the satisfaction that comes with an expectation of a classic sound effect.
“Let’s go, Wayne. What’s left of your country needs you,” Captain James said in that matter-of-fact way that left no room for argument.
Marnie, silent and nearly unseen as usual, was sitting in an uncomfortable-looking metal chair with her recording device aimed in a close-up as each of the former-prisoners appeared before her quickly for a visual ID, saying their name and outfit for the record. Case Cooler stood nearby trying to catch her eye. He had a million questions for her.
“Fore, sweep the sidewalk; we’re coming out for some air.” Captain James had Fireman by the arm as she extricated him from the cage; his continued hesitation was really annoying. Alpha assisted by taking his other arm and hustling him over to the exit.
Wayne Michael Lampman, aka The Fireman, according to the freshest intel, was a hazardous material technician and had received some explosives training in the Army before having received a Medical Discharge for a previously-undiagnosed condition haphazardly described as Manic-Depressive Disorder.
“Almost there, General,” Jaykay said, as he met the other three at the door. Behind him, the newly-freed men waited to hear how the exit-plan would play out. “What’s the play?”
“It’s Captain,” she said automatically. Mags glanced out the streaked and wire-enshrouded window; still dark, but visibility was definitely improving, the fog was nearly gone, dawn wasn’t far away.
“You leave the way we arrived,” she told Jaykay, then held her hand up; one finger raised: wait one. “Seismic. Mags. We’ve got a present for the Emperor.” She mouthed the words, ‘how many?’ as Jaykay was looking at her. Her hair was cut short in the back but not short enough in front; red hair stuck out from her camo hat and cuddled the headset mic orbiting near her crimson lips. A single mic-pop confirmed that Carli-Lynn had received the message.
“Seventeen not counting him,” Jaykay said and jabbed a thumb at the Fireman. Their prize was still smiling and docile. It was really unsettling, and Jaykay couldn’t even say why.
“Seismic. Your gift is your favorite magazine plus one Shaker. Receive in sixty.” Mags had used one of the many radio codes they’d cooked up for relaying numbers, positions, intent and other covert actions. “Voice to confirm.”
“I’m not supposed to go back to the mountains, Captain,” Marnie finally said aloud. She’d finished her primary mission in here and was ready for the exfiltration phase. “RGG needs the exfil phase specifically.”
The Resistance Gaming Group was an eclectic collection of fiction writers, role-playing gamers, a logistics analyst in the form of the sharpest CPA this side of the Sierra Nevada mountains, and a pair of lawyers. They met to answer an endless list of ‘what if’ scenarios: mainly, what will the enemy do next? So, hot intel from the field was essential to keeping up with the invaders.
“Confirm, Mags. The river is clear, but the Box is heating up. Better make it thirty.”
“Rogah.” James looked briefly at the Fireman, then at Marnie. Her voice was firm, but soft. “You are injured, Shaker. There’s blood on your sleeve and pants. You’re going out the back way.” And that was final.
“Alpha. Get this group started. I’ll escort Fireman to the coffee shop. Hurry back.” Captain James adjusted her grip on Fireman as Alpha and Jaykay moved down the corridor; the rest of the prisoners followed, murmuring to each other.
“Good luck!” Fireman yelled at what must have been the top of his lungs. It made Cap wince, reflexively squeezing his arm as her ears reverberated with his oddly flat voice. He felt it and clammed up immediately. But that was it; his face returned to its passive resting grin and enigmatic gaze. “Good luck,” he said again, quiet as a whisper.
The whole company stopped and turned to look, but by the time they did, there was nothing to see. “Move, people,” James said, shaking her head trying to clear the ringing. “Move with a purpose and get home tonight. Make some babies, then get back in the fight.” And with that, she gripped Fireman’s arm again, opened the door and walked him briskly into the morning air that would soon be a bright Spring Day with plenty of eager enemy firearms to ruin it completely.
Should be long gone by then.
IV Exfiltration Time check: 04 55 16
“Case Cooler reporting for duty, Ma’am.”
“Your route is out the in-door, soldier,” Mags said after a quick up-and-down appraisal of the man she’d had to rough up not long ago. “Back there.”
“It was, Captain. Marnie – that is, Shaker – gave me her recorder. I’m taking her place for the exfil leg.”
“Who okayed this?” Mags was looking right at Bagman.
“Shaker insisted, and he volunteered. RGG needs the intel. Command decision.”
James looked at Cooler again. He got his shit together when it counted; he looked dirty but rugged enough. “Fine. You’re on board. You follow my orders, Cooler. You got it? If I’m dead, then Alpha’s your squad leader. That’s the gospel.” She looked at Case with a killer stare. “That’s the gospel according to James. Captain Rebecca James, USMC.”
“Yes, Ma’am.” Case replied smartly. He didn’t want any trouble from her. Plus, he’d seen the look in Marnie’s eyes when he volunteered; gratitude. Interest, maybe?
Alpha had updated Cooler as what to expect from his team leader. He admired Captain James more than he could say without getting emotional. She’d saved his bacon at more than one breakfast. Case stepped back a few paces and let Marnie’s recorder do its thing. She’d kept the glasses for her myopia.
“That’s the gospel,” Fireman said in a normal voice. “Where are we going, Captain?” His eyes were large and white despite the near-darkness.
“Back home, Wayne. You’re needed in the lab and the brain group,” James said and moved him forward in the damp morning; Gamma and Fore were a few yards away. Alpha’s voice spoke softly in Rebecca’s head; he was confirming reception of the former prisoners with Seismic across the street. Cap ignored it and finished guiding Fireman the remaining few feet to the gash in the gate Jackie had made.
“Get down. Stay quiet, Wayne. No yelling like before or you’ll get us all killed.” She was referring to her charge by his given name; a psych trick to hopefully encourage his trust in her. But he was still FaultLine; her mission, her duty. Do or die.
Black Warren was scanning the steel-fenced courtyard through his night-scope in the direction where those two original prison guards had been stationed. He’d heard Fireman’s brash and jarring voice a moment ago and felt sure that an entire enemy platoon would be flooding down this cluttered corridor, guns blazing. So far; nothing.
Quake Alpha appeared behind Cooler, then moved around him and took up a flanking position to support Fireman and give Cap a break. “They’re moving now, Captain. Should take about two minutes to cross.”
“Outstanding,” James whispered without turning; she was looking with a hard squint in the general direction that Fore was looking. Still a touch of drifting fog here and there; hard to lock on completely. “Anything, Fore? Breakfast crew here yet?”
“Nope. Heard some vehicle sounds from down there, though. Could be noisy any second.”
“And the welcoming committee is not at the gate.”
“That’ll be noticeable. I think there’s a bogey inside down there. I saw a glint.”
“A glint’s as good a gander. You think anybody’s gonna come out to find his missing gate guards?”
“That’s what I’m waiting for, Cap. Otherwise, I’ll have to get rude and invite myself in for a donut.”
“I love donuts,” Fireman said suddenly, much louder than anyone here would deem reasonable. “I love donuts!” FaultLine said again with a giggle. “Can we get some on the way?”
Captain James gritted her teeth. “What did I just tell you, soldier? Bitchfire morning; stow it! Fore? Don’t feed him his lines.” Warren might’ve responded with something witty, but he suddenly saw a shape emerge in his scope. Human shape, taller than he would’ve expected and with an assault rifle hefted and pointed in his direction. Too late for an accurate aim and conversion, the shape seemed to have shortened; ducked down maybe. “Another guest at the party, Cap.”
Mags tightened her grip on Fireman. “Don’t kill us today, Wayne.”
“I’ve got him, Cap,” Alpha said, a harsh whisper in the darkness; he also tightened his grip. “Hold it together, Fireman. Just another minute or two.”
“Could die in a minute or two.” Fireman said it simply but with a whisper finally. Alpha leaned in a bit and examined the man’s craggy face. Wonder what did that to him. “Maybe. But not today.” Fireman just smiled back and nodded.
“What’s the score, Fore?” James asked, her voice barely there.
“Standby for the…” Black Warren wasn’t even talking to his team leader; breathed something sub-audible in a hissing whisper…
Then, again, Fore fired only once. The group heard a grunt and a massive-sounding impact from down there. The guard was wary, he was careful, he’d waited; then peeked around the edge of some stacked lumber to get a better look at who was speaking English. Wouldn’t be the first time a prisoner had wiggled free only to be trapped in the steel-wire rat maze outside.
A thin muzzle flash – due to his head-on, dead-on angle – was the last image he saw.
The slug had entered his skull above his right eye, skewed left into the frontal lobe and flattened out, shutting down cognitive functions, disabling motor control and traumatizing the Broca Area; the speech spot.
“Conversion complete. Shouldn’t be able to see his body from the office up front there.” Warren figured this guy might be the gate-controller. Intel said the gates, only fifty or sixty feet away, were operated from a secure post inside a converted corner office.
“Another one bites the dust,” Fireman sang, this time not a whisper. “The world is a diaper, and we’re the babies,” Fireman opined as he faced James. “My meds are…”
“I know; gone. We’ll get you a shot when we get back to base.”
“It’s a patch,” Fireman said while raising his left shoulder, then tapping it twice. “Lithium carbonate and Divalproex cocktail!” Must’ve been funny to him, because he started laughing.
“Oh, fuck,” Captain James swore. She clapped her hand over the laughing man’s mouth, and his rising noise level halved. “Alpha, Fore. Get down there and drop the blockers. Our guest here isn’t a tactical asset at the moment. Move!”
On every drill and simulation, Alpha moves first into the combat zone; he’s fast and low, dodging around obstacles, slipping under a low-hanging branch from one of the unfortunate trees that used to grace this shady and pleasant tourist spot in a time when war in the homeland couldn’t even have been imagined.
A moment later, Fore injects himself into the littered maze of the quad area; the control room for the gate their objective and every Greensuit in the way, their target.
“Move out, Cooler. Stay to the right, try not to get shot. Jackie; stay behind us until the runway is clear. Keep an eye to port down that courtyard.”
“Yes, Ma’am.” Gamma had been squatting with her back to the building opposite the prison. Intel suggested this was the interrogation area and maybe arms storage in the basement. No time to recon it now, though.
“That’s the plan, Cap,” Case said as he brushed past her and the Fireman through the ragged gap in the wire-fencing. He did his best to look professional, but in selecting a ‘down-and-wait’ spot, he bumped into a metal table, sending it over on its side. He’d been distracted by the sight of Fore’s first two kills, slumped in a gruesome, bloody pile right there; he’d almost stepped on one of them.
“Save me a donu…” Wayne began. James had squeezed his arm hard; apparently sensing that the unbalanced man would say something. Couldn’t help himself, James guessed. At any rate, her experiment with squeezing might be working. Anything to manage this unwieldy critter until they were wheeling away into the dawn. “Not now, Wayne,” Rebecca finished for him.
“Mags. Alpha at the window.” What he saw wasn’t impressive; old office desks crammed into careless rows along a far wall, rotting boxes of forgotten paperwork stacked and sagging into nondescript piles, picture frames and unwanted art piled all the way to the ceiling in many places. Rope lights with a low wattage were strung on hooks along the wall from one darkness to another, casting sallow shadows on the dusty floor. No wire-mesh on these windows.
“Is there anybody left?” James asked over the headset as she helped Fireman through the gap in the fence. Fore had been busier than the others this morning.
FaultLine was preparing to take a stroll all by himself when Mags had finally breached the gap; had to grab him, then pull him over to the left, bent and moving carefully away from the windows that Alpha was currently peeking into across the compound.
“Stay with me, Wayne,” Captain James whispered into Fireman’s ear.
“My meds are…” Wayne’s breath got yanked from his throat as Rebecca pulled him down by the arm into a crouch. Wouldn’t be difficult to see a small crowd of creepers in the garden from that window over there.
“I know! I’ll roll you a joint when we get back. It’s good shit. Cure that condition of yours. Better than that poison you’ve been eating.”
“Cannabis has been proven to improve…” Fireman began in a professorial tone. James wondered if this character was even remotely aware of how vulnerable the team was right now; her people were very good, but that only works for you until it doesn’t. The tiniest movement – or lack thereof – could make that dreaded change happen.
“Not now, man.” She was about to add something else when her headset squelch-popped.
“Mags. Alpha. Some action down the hall there. The morning duty officer might’ve noticed his skeleton crew has turned into the real thing, maybe. Our jigs might be elevated.” Alpha had a way of turning a phrase. Fore chuckled from his position a few paces behind and to the left. Any sudden pop-ups in front of Alpha would catch a fly from his H&K.
“All the more reason to ghost this hole.” James looked over at Wayne, put her finger to her lips; then surprised the hell out of the Fireman when she winked at him and grinned. It looked for all the world like a flirt.
The smile slipped from the skinny chemist’s face for the first time, replaced by a scruffy puzzled expression. Rebecca had to laugh lightly in spite of the tension; it’s always the opposite thing that gets the unexpected reaction. Her military psych classes were finally paying off. Again, Mag’s headset clicked.
“Mags. Seismic. The Emperor thanks you for the gift,” Carli-Lyn said in a professional way; but Rebecca could hear the infused joy in her teammate’s voice. So many soldiers back in the arms of their comrades. Perhaps a few new recruits would be created tonight. For the war effort and the very survival of her country and everyone she loved; it was a duty Carli-Lyn took seriously. She was already a mom of two boys.
“Copy, Seismic. Send the Emperor our regards. Keep an eye on that Shaker, too.”
“Copy that, Mags. Godspeed. Get home. Seismic in flight.” Her eyes were on the road now; not on the team’s back. Mags, despite a thousand responses she’d like to make, just keyed her mic; once. A moment later, another mic-key that lingered a bit longer than it should before it squelched; that was Shaker.
“I like penguins!” Fireman announced, not a whisper, not a shout. Just too damn loud.
“Tell me later,” James said, placing her hand on Fireman’s chest; another nuance to try and distract him. “We’ll toss one on the barbecue and talk all about it.” She turned and gave him the finger-to-the-lips. Trying not to laugh, Rebecca then had to softly bite one of those lips when she caught his expression; he was either horrified at the prospect of a slowly rotating Emperor penguin on the spit or now entirely in love with the Captain.
Without losing eye-lock with Fireman, she keyed her mic. “Alpha. Tell me the gate is open and we can just leave; right now.”
“Sorry, Cap. Just finished watching these clowns scarf down some burritos or something. I think the breakfast club has arrived for morning rounds.”
Mags felt Gamma’s hand on her shoulder as she crept past; low and blending into the debris. Gamma paused and gestured toward Case, who was across the courtyard stooped behind a large roll of wire mesh with the recorder held above his head. He didn’t see it, but he was illuminated in a small pool of light from a nearby window.
Captain James followed Gamma’s gesture, saw Cooler there behind the dense coil of wire, and in another blink, he was gone; sucked up by the shadows, a loud bang followed immediately by some jerky movements.
That’s when Captain James feels the world shift; combat mode. Her focus narrows to what she can perceive in a heartbeat’s worth of time: Fireman; behind her, shielded; Fore’s gun speaks up again; Alpha moving forward, some shouting; Gamma just in front of her and moving away into shadow; Cooler, in the corner of her eye, on his butt on the ground scrabbling backwards; last fleeting image of blood on his legs.
“The breakfast crew is here,” Fireman, standing suddenly, yells over to Case.
“Get down,” James hisses, pulling on Fireman’s sleeve. There was a spurt of grunts in between her ears as someone’s wireless was repeatedly keyed on and off.
“Alpha! Step left; now!” It was Fore; his agile form had whisked across her sightline.
“Move it, Wayne!” She urges him and was anticipating having to force him again, but to her surprise, he lit off the ground and sprinted over to where Case had stopped moving; the soldier was leaning back against a moldy piece of plywood nailed to a picnic bench trying to catch his breath. “Dammit…”
The weird snake sounds again, but on this occasion, it was punctuated with a colorful swear. Alpha’s radio clicks, his ragged breath sawing the frequency and peaking the audio processors embedded in the headsets. “Greensuit down, but there’s another…” The wireless squelches off, and James hears his voice continue from 40 feet away. “…no, you don’t!”
“I’m at the gate, Mags,” Gamma says, low and throaty. “One hole to go.” Just in case the gate mechanism couldn’t be reached, this ‘scape-shoot could save their lives.
James didn’t acknowledge; she makes a decision: Fireman and Cooler were down and out of the fire zone. She sees FaultLine kneel and look at Cooler’s bloody pants and that’s when she bolts forward to Alpha’s position. Another gunshot; hideously abrasive and loud. The echo of the explosion in this shadowy, enclosed space slams back into everyone’s ears, causing a ringing. Gamma yells; screams in pain.
“Jackie!” Black Warren. He’s crouching just forward of Alpha trying to watch the office door – it had just been flung open and smacked something, the sound of glass smashing and tinkling in a fall catches his attention – and Jackie to his left.
Another grunting exclamation of agony to Fore’s right; a heavy falling crash as James brushes past Fore, her .45 auto speaking in her right hand, a yellow-white flame issuing, and ten feet away, a Greensuit falls back into a rusted railing, flipping over onto his face.
Warren sprints over to where Gamma is laying on her back, her shirt soaked in her blood, her eyes closed, her face slack. He hears another crash of glass and Bagman’s voice acknowledging Mags as they enter the office. Two more shots in rapid succession from inside, a man’s shout and a curse with an Asian lilt.
“Jackie! Speak to me, girl,” Warren says as he lifts her off the ground. There’s a nasty dark, bubbling hole in her left side just below her ribcage; several of those bones probably shattered. “Come on, we’re outta here.” He lifts her up into a better light, trying to place a hand over her wound to staunch the flow some; her face is smeared with blood. She moans with the movement, and Fore is relieved at her pain; she’s still alive.
“Alpha! There’s the gate console.” Warren hears Cap’s voice from inside the nearby office, but it sounds like it’s issuing from the other end of a long tunnel. All he can see is his injured teammate.
Fore’s gun is holstered on his chest, so if there’s trouble, he’s not going be much help. He hauls Jackie’s limp body up and steps a bit closer to the gate. As he reaches it, the gate begins to bump and slide open across the walkway. Alpha appears then and closes the distance, whispering in his ear. “Time to go. She alive?”
“Yeah. Don’t know for how long. Where’s Cap?”
“Collecting our prize and…”
“Let’s go, let’s go,” Captain says in a rush with the Fireman in tow, and a limping, bloody Case Cooler.
“Cooler, you okay?” Alpha grips Case’s left arm and helps him over the steel guide rail embedded in the ground just now revealed by the sliding gate. “Watch it.”
“No, man. Got shrapnel in my legs.” Walking bowlegged, but briskly.
Cap was looking at Jackie now, the leader’s Colt M45A1 still hot and smoking in her hand; Warren whispering that Gamma had about twenty minutes maybe before blood loss would lead to brain damage. “Stay behind me,” she tells Fore and proceeds ahead and to her right.
“Roller. Roller. You copy, son?” James on the wireless as she creeps past what passes for the official entrance to this hellhole. Catman hadn’t uttered a peep since his blonde joke only twenty minutes ago. It seems like a week.
“Roger, Captain. The yard is starting to get busy. I heard the powder blow; we all here?
“Roger that. But Gamma took a hit, she’s in the dark. Gonna need you, Roller.”
“Roger, Cap. I’m ready; but, hurry the hell up…Ma’am.”
“Be right there.”
Case Cooler is just in front of Quake Alpha who is bringing up the rear as the group exited the exterior lobby and sprinted down the sidewalk to the vehicle gate on Alisal Mesa. But, there was still one caterpillar in the buttermilk…
“There’s a guard shack just past that truck,” Fore said behind James as she kept the pace up, trying for the darkened fence only twenty feet ahead. That’s when a loud voice yelled down from above.
“Damn!” Alpha yelled in return, startled. His combat reflexes intervene: stopping long enough to get a firm footing, he flung his knife in a full over-his-head arc straight at the improvised guard shack tacked to the roof at the corner of the building. The blade grazed the soldier’s face, inflicting nothing but a gut-wrenching panic as he ducked down; his ears now waiting for any signal that it would be safe to pop up again. He heard shouted English words; angry and lethal.
“Cap! To your left,” Warren said as he ducks down to keep Jackie out of the way. James pivots slightly, then drives forward onto her belly as another guard rounded an old junked Volkswagen. He saw her hit the ground, instinctively fired his rifle, but the shot struck the car body with a dull clunk.
Rebecca’s shot is calm and centered; the slug bores a sizable core through his solar plexus, instantly disconnecting everything that makes him a threat. The force of the impact pushes him backward, and over in a deadfall; his head smacking the concrete with a sickening sound; a grapefruit abused in a canning machine.
Alpha sprints across the parking lot, enters the guard shack and a moment later, the vehicle access gate opens; the final barrier.
Hot on Bagman’s heels, Fore never slows, making his way out of the opening, veering left sharply and heading for some tall bushes where they would meet up with Roller.
Captain James had reacquired Fireman and Cooler; they had ducked behind the Volkswagen when the shooting started, now all three were running full out and were only a half-dozen steps from the half-open gate when a piercing alarm began.
The dawn made its appearance right then. The morning’s gloom was quickly dissolving when the first rifle bullet struck the gate, ricocheting, fragmenting with a tiny chunk of it sizzling into Fireman’s back. He yelled, Cap grabbed his arm and hustled around the edge of the gate and into the field beyond.
That’s when the machine guns opened up.
V Escape Time check: 05 01 36
“Split up!” Captain James yelled to everyone in the cool morning as she ran; her grip on the Fireman’s arm like a vice. Trying to keep her body between the gunners and her rescued prize was doable because Wayne didn’t weight much; she was almost pushing him forward like a wheelbarrow. Her pulse had kicked up a level when the machine guns started. “Fore! You are covered!”
“We are the stars!” Alpha yelled the tactical evasion code as he and Cooler dodged right and slid into a tall patch of goosegrass that competed in this agricultural land with the cheeseweed and sowthistle; all communing in a vast field of Ryegrass. Off to the right, whizzing wisps of a few bullets passed into a similar grassy clump. Bagman was already reaching into his tac-vest.
Another four rifle shots from a different direction; sharp, bright flashes from the other guard shack in the parking lot. One of the bullets nudged into the flesh of the captain’s left arm, burning a red gash along her forearm, and taking the tip of her pinky, as the contact with her spun the slug left and into the ground. James never slowed.
There was a brief pause in the machine gun fire; most of the first belt went high and far as the gunner was trying to aim-lead an unknown number of targets, at a rapidly changing set of multiple target-bearings, and moving in uncertain directions. Blind fire into an early morning kill-zone was the best he could manage. He could hear their voices, however.
“Bitchfire, son of a bitch!” James bellowed as she and Fireman also hit the ground, sliding and rolling into the grass; her finger finally succeeded in convincing her brain that it had been abused by a .223 caliber slug. “Get behind me!”
“You’re bleeding,” Wayne responded calmly as he scooted a few feet further from a painful injury. The Captain looked back around, waiting for the next set of bursts. Did Wayne even realize a handful of pissed-off Greensuits wanted to grind him and the others into horsemeat with that QJY 88?
More machine gun bursts; they were at random places, now mostly way in front of Alpha and Cooler and nowhere near her and Wayne. The gunner was clueless, – maybe even a bit reckless now, as well – but that wouldn’t last long; it was already lighter. Another ten minutes, their pinned-down positions would also serve as their graveyard. That belt of bullets went quick, and there was another pause.
“Light it up!” James yelled this time in the sudden silence, and after another heartbeat, a bright yellow flare launched into the dawn from way off to her left. It traced a smoky trail up and then tracked an arc into the side of the guard tower on the roof. Alpha had used an improvised projectile launcher that fired a regular flare. It looked intimidating for a few minutes; that’s all they would need.
“Get ready for a noisy morning, pal,” James, on her belly in the rough grass, mumbled it while looking toward the guard shack, now to her right. That bastard owed her a finger.
“Fore; you clear?” Mags asked over her wireless; doubtless, the Greensuits had dialed into their com-freq already. There were some random static bursts now and then in her head. ‘Way too late, assholes,’ Rebecca thought. But the pain in her left hand was intensifying; she felt her finger pulse along with her racing heart.
Black Warren had just run with everything he had in him and then some more; dodging and weaving at random, his burden clutched to his chest; her blood now running into his pants.
In high school, Warren Weldon’s sprinting ability had secured more than a few trophies for the hallway bookcase. But this was a deadly marathon, and his friend’s life was dripping away every time his foot pounded the ground.
“Fore is in sight, Cap,” Roller said as he waited by the breach in the fence where the escape truck was ready to go…
Another flare rocketed from a different spot near where Alpha and Cooler had landed; it crashed into the chain-link and wire-mesh fence enclosing the west end of the makeshift prison. Another burst of machine gun fire hit the ground about eight feet in front of Cooler “Shit! That’s too close.” But the bright, sudden glare from the aerial flare might be enough to confuse and distract the enemy for a moment; enough for a sprint to the truck.
“I…see…Roller,” Fore managed, his breath loud and huffy in everyone’s temple-pads; he sounded in control, but Mags could sense a rising, edgy tone as well; the woman he loved was dying. “Almost…” and his voice cut out.
“Roller, roller. You’ve got the ball,” Cap breathed into her mic. “Light the runway.”
“Roger, Cap.” There was a stout fence surrounding the military vehicle compound, and back in this corner, the path from the prison was as close as it could be, and at the moment a three-foot section had been cut free. Warren, working as hard to slow down now as he had to escape certain death, passed through the opening and placed Jackie roughly into the back of the flatbed truck Roller had prepped for their egress. Her groans tore through Warren like a fishhook raking across his brain, but she was still alive.
Three seconds later, at precisely five-oh-three Ante Meridiem, the dawn turned to noon as Roller’s carefully placed C4 charges -courtesy of Fore’s treasonous deep state contacts – detonated in a timed cadence of deafening destruction. Four of the five APCs parked one hundred yards away bucked and jumped in a searing chaos of fire and gray smoke.
More machine gun fire ripped the grass where Bagman and Case had been a few seconds ago. Small hot bits of tortured metal began to hit the ground and the other parked vehicles nearby.
“Rondo, rondo; time to fly,” Cap said forcefully into her mic as she hauled Wayne to his feet and started off to the breached fence.
Alpha was already running with Cooler close behind, every step a burning agony for Case as the splintered bullet from the prison guard’s gun that started this whole circus had sprayed hot bits and chunks into his thighs and groin. As he ran for his life, Case was terrified that his package wouldn’t be deliverable; so stupid that he should be obsessing on that when just keeping his basic breathing privileges was extremely uncertain.
The flash and compression wave from the first explosions struck them full on as they met Captain James and Fireman near the fence-line on the way to the rondo spot. Jackie was already in the back, bundled in a silver blanket, Warren working to stop the blood flow. Gamma already had an IV in her arm, with the Catman directing and helping an exhausted Fore.
“I’m driving,” James said as she brushed past the rear of the truck and climbed into the cab, and without a pause, cranked up the engine. Another explosion much closer and nearer to the prison immediately silencing a second 88 machine gun that spat a cluster of bullets into the truck parked next to the one they were stealing.
“Holy shit! Too close again,” Case whined, his voice high and strained. All he could see of Warren was his back as he spoke to Jackie.
Alpha helped Cooler unto the truck’s tailgate, then shuffled the rest of the way into the truck bed. In the grass, just on the other side of the fence, a rifle bullet hit something metal and half-buried there; the projectile bounced into the barrier. Case heard it lightly sizzling in the moist foliage during a lull in the gunfire.
Fireman had followed his rescuer, without her consent, and crossed quickly in front of the truck and lightly hopped into the shotgun seat. “Rondo, rondo,” Wayne said with a wicked grin; the bullet-burn on his left shoulder apparently forgotten.
James ignored him for the moment. “Hang on!” she said for everyone to hear when, in her rearview mirror, Alpha had slammed the tailgate closed and rotated his right hand in the air like a chopper blade, then moved toward the cab.
Across the compound, flaming bits of the interior of the ruined personnel carriers had started a dozen small fires among the crates and shipping containers parked at random angles. Shadows of workers, actual firefighters and soldiers appeared, vanished, and reappeared again.
“Time for us to blow!” James glanced at Fireman. “Buckle up!” Just then glass exploded into the Captain’s side window as a pair of bullets pierced the windows in the truck next to them. Alpha ducked to avoid the shards.
Captain James shoved the gearshift into first; the old Ford flatbed lurched as the input shaft and gear transferred torque to the countershaft, then connected the drive train to the rear end. Jackie groaned under Warren’s desperate embrace; Catman had her wrist upturned and was monitoring her pulse.
“Hold on, babe,” Warren whispered. Case grimaced as he gingerly touched his slowly oozing wounds on his upper thighs. It could be so much worse, he thought, looking at Gamma’s pale face. Light from the fires washed over them as Cap peeled out and headed for the gate some seventy yards away. Something smacked into the upright wooden rails rimming the flatbed, one of the projectiles slipping between two of them and embedding in Warren’s calf.
“Son of a bitch!” Warren felt it contact his skin; felt the burning as something penetrated one of his tough shin guards. The truck veered sharply right and glanced off a John Deere tractor parked between two cement pillars.
“Case!” Fore yelled through his pain. “Put up those rails in the back!” He quickly looked around and then back to Jackie. Catman should be the one fitting those flat rail panels into the slots along the tailgate, but he was busy; if CPR was needed; he needed Cats where he was right now.
“Right!” Cooler answered with a grimace; his wounds not forgotten, but not a hindrance. Quickly scooting to the rear of the truck, he seized one of the four panels and began to wrestle it into the slots in the truck bed. As he reached for the second panel, a bright white light filled his vision from the gate they’d just crashed past. It illuminated the dark backroad of this vineyard and fruit orchard in a way that ticked Catman off.
“That didn’t take long,” Wayne informed the Captain in a loud voice, followed by a whooping yell. He was cranked around and staring through the cab window. “We need a distraction!”
Rebecca felt a brick form in her gut; no telling what Wayne the Pain was gonna do. She reached over with her right hand and grasped his shirt. Her eyes never left the road as James swung the truck through a sharp right turn; the lights behind them dimmed momentarily. As she gunned the stolen Ford past the gate, a lingering flash illuminated her bloody left hand; it was missing more of her finger than she initially thought.
Fireman fell away toward his door during the turn, and for a heart-halting fraction of a glance, James thought she’d lost him; his door opened, the overhead bulb cast a feeble light, but it felt like a klieg to the Captain. She heard Case say something in a raspy yell.
“Bitchfire morning! Get back here!” James nearly lost control of the truck as she overcompensated for the sudden bend in this agricultural access road. Letting go of Wayne, now with both hands on the wheel, she braked and yanked the wheel hard.
The Ford’s tires bit into the damp dirt road and slid a quarter of a turn. Behind them in the distance, another set of headlights filtered through the trees separating them. And it was clear that morning had broken; darkness and shadows wouldn’t be a comfort any longer.
“Goddamn it,” Mags heard Warren yell from behind her; it sounded clear and near. The small cab window had a ragged hole in it just to her right; no wonder. “No time,” he said.
“Roller! Get ready to drop your ‘trops!” Cap hit the gas again just as the pursuing headlights rounded that last curve. Captain James and Roller had simmed this maneuver a thousand times, and they knew the timing.
Catman didn’t want to, but he gently handed Jackie’s cooling hand to Warren as he wiggled past his teammates and took the defensive position at the tailgate. The bumpy ride along the dirt required a steady inner-ear. Catman didn’t have one; his stomach was roiling. Nevertheless, he shouted, “Ready, Cap!” with a thumbs-up gesture that no one had time to see.
Roller was still looking backward, and just as Cap had negotiated this crazy hairpin turn, he’d caught a quick look at the pursuit truck; it was one of those Greensuit Military Safir Jeeps. Not surprising, these light multi-use vehicles were everywhere nowadays in what was once Solvang, California.
“Got one of those GeeJays on our six,” Roller said aloud, informing all who could hear him. Cap did, and slowed down some; just let it coast a moment. In the back, Roller pulled a metal chain attached to a heavy canvas bag that had been strapped to the tailgate.
Catman had a thing for the Ninja mystique; anything and everything he could adapt from those ancient warriors; the weapons, techniques, and mindset could be found in his bag-of-tricks. As the Captain sped up again, the bag opened completely and out spilled precisely seventy-six specially-welded Tetsubishi, or caltrops.
“Off we go!” Roller yelled and banged the tailgate twice. The steel spikes were designed so that no matter how they landed on the road, a spike was propped for a pop.
Headlights again from at least two Safir jeeps. The basic model wasn’t as fast as the Ford truck they were chasing, but front-line Safir could easily be modified with rocket-propelled grenade systems, machine guns, and similar offensive weaponry.
The team discovered it soon enough. Just as Captain James hit the gas, a bright yellow-white flash off to the left from the speeding Safir jeep; the rocket’s exhaust lit the shadows under the nearby trees. Captain James had the truck up to speed already as the projectile passed where they’d had been paused a moment ago. “Two jeeps on our tail; just saw a drone fly,” Roller yelled, hanging onto the upright deflection panels, trying to visually lock onto a flashing red-and-green flying light.
The RPG was swallowed up by the surrounding trees as the Ford bumped along the feeder-road to the vineyard on the other side of those trees. Catman heard the shell explode, and immediately a bright fire lit up one of the Safir jeeps; it was on its side; the Greensuits operating it were slowly crawling away from the wreck.
“One down, Cap,” Roller reported without looking toward the cab. “Got a bird in the clouds.” Case had been concentrating on his breathing, trying to suppress the pain in his legs. Nevertheless, he slapped the cab window and repeated what Roller had just said.
“A bird in the clouds, Cap,” Fireman repeated. James took a quick look at him and back just as their truck passed into another cluster of trees. “We need a cat with a shotgun!” Wayne concluded, looking back at James.
“We’ve got one in the back,” Rebecca said way too loud. “Put that seatbelt on, Wayne!” He was reaching for the belt as the truck hit a deep pothole; bouncing, roughing everybody up.
“I’ve got eyes on that bird,” Alpha reported through the rushing wind.
Breaking through the trees into the wide-open vineyard, Rebecca smiled grimly as the old F350 handled the rutted secondary road; behind them, another Safir jeep emerged with their spotlights blazing. Catman had to squeeze his eyes shut; the intense light pinged his already queasy stomach, knocking his internal gyroscope off kilter. The world spun for a moment, and he lost his balance and fell against Warren.
“Hey, man!” Fore felt as though he was keeping his beloved alive with sheer willpower; his concentration had blocked nearly everything out of his vision: just Jackie and keeping her breathing. The truck had bucked to a stop earlier and now…
“…Catman. You hit?”
“No. No, not…” Catman’s stomach growled, he farted, and his head cleared when Fore swatted his face. “Hey…”
“That fuckin’ bird is right there,” Fore yelled, then glanced over his left shoulder. The drone’s engine was discernable now, and the flight-nav-lights disappeared as it switched on a SunGun, illuminating the truck as it fled across the field. He resumed his effort to keep Jackie alive.
Alpha had been keeping his eye on the drone; he was stationed on the left side of the truck behind the Captain; if any stray bullets got through from the rear, they’d have to go through him first. He had his Colt steadied in the direction of that drone, but it was out of range. Quake Alpha abhorred wasting ammo.
The pursuing Safir took advantage of their illuminated target and improved sightline.
“Another rocket,” Wayne yelled; he sounded terrified, Rebecca thought in a rush. Fireman had been focused on the pursuing jeep; they had a work-light on in the cab or something, because Wayne could see them moving around. He’d watched as one of the Greensuits helped another insert a payload-projectile into an unwieldy-looking tube. That’s when he yelled; James was already shifting the truck before the rocket was fired. That’s why they were still alive.
Wrenching the wheel to the left, Cap ran the hefty Ford off the road and into the neat rows of young plants. The trellises weren’t even installed yet; the truck’s heavyweight tires smashed dozens of plants as another smoky trail appeared, then disappeared, followed by a fulgent impact in the field ahead and to the right. Small fires littered the ground after the timed explosive detonated only twenty feet from the speeding truck. Shrapnel pattered across the windshield, passenger window and bed rails.
“Where’s that drone?” Cap yelled. The bright aerial spotlight had slipped away during the evasion maneuver; now it was gone completely.
Alpha tapped the window to get her attention. “I’m on it, Cap,” he yelled in the rushing wind. It was more than light enough to see the drone now. But not for long; the UAV controlled by the pursuing Safir veered sharply, tilted in the direction everyone was traveling, then whooshed off into the distance.
“Got another bird in the air,” Roller said as he climbed back to his observation spot at the back of the truck. “It’s off to the right. They’re gonna box us!”
“I can see it,” Case said, and pointed off to the left. The drone had flashed its searchlight while flying erratically for a moment; one of the Greensuit soldiers was probably trying to coordinate a pair of drones now in the air. This new one hadn’t sig-locked the truck yet.
“That first bird is up ahead, Cap,” Alpha said through the hole in the cab window. From the corner of his eye, he saw Fireman unbuckle his seatbelt. “Gonna light us up for another shot.” Alpha’s face moved back as he half-stood in the truck bed; yelled something no one heard clearly.
“I need to get back there,” Fireman said suddenly. Captain James had been concentrating on the road ahead; it was about to slope down pretty quickly if she remembered rightly.
“Sit down, dammit…” Another bright, searing searchlight to her left, illuminating her hands on the steering wheel. It looked like a slaughter scene from a horror movie. Blood. Her hands, wheel, down her sleeves, in her lap, all over the door and seat.
“Get down!” Alpha yelled and threw his arms over Warren and Jackie. Case turned over, went face-down onto the truck bed. Wayne was already sliding the cab window open and attempting to wiggle through it. “Wayne!”
“Oh, shit!” Fireman yelled. From the pursuing jeep, another garish yellow gush of firelight and smoke. Wayne’s stomach ‘fell’ as the truck tilted forward, airborne briefly, then banging hard in a double-thumping concussion; cascading down the grade that led from the vineyard onto the next property.
Captain James saw the rocket pass overhead as she leaned forward with an expectation of an explosion that would change everything. “Bitchfire…” Rebecca jammed the gas pedal back down and looked ahead for the next junction.
“Now that’s what I call close,” Catman yelled as the Ford bumped along the dirt road. He watched the rocket-propelled explosive detonate in the hay field off to his left; the road had canted to the right, moving the truck out of the blast zone.
“I’ve seen closer,” Case said aloud in the rushing wind after getting off his face; no one heard him.
Warren grunted as the truck landed and struggled to keep from crushing Jackie. She moaned softly; more like a hissing breath, and it frightened him, but she had just squeezed his hand slightly; twice. He’d been gently tapping her hand in short messages since they left; Morse code love-notes of encouragement. She’d responded, and his heart leaped.
“Get back in there, man!” Alpha said through his teeth and pushed Wayne back into the cab. Fireman yelled as his back scraped the window frame, raking across the shrapnel wounds.
“Dammit, Wayne!” Captain James yelled. “Sit down and stop helping!”
“I see the other drone,” Case, now on his knees, grasping the truck bed rails, waving his right arm around trying to get someone to notice. Looking back through the rear truck rails, Case saw the Safir jeep still chasing them clear the drop in the road, and then speed up somehow. The distance between them appeared to evaporate quickly. Almost as though the captain was letting them catch up.
“I see it,” Alpha, squatting behind the driver’s seat, his hands now holding a dark gray tube. “Roller! Ready with the oil? Let’s catch it at the turn!”
“Right! One second.”
“Match and scratch, Captain! At the turn!” Alpha yelled it into the cab, then turned around without waiting for a reply.
“Roger that!” Rebecca said and moved to roll down the window at her elbow. Throbbing pain radiating from her palm and up her arm as her damaged finger brushed against the door panel. The side mirror was missing; just a piece of the mount and a dark, ragged hole.
“Roger that,” Wayne repeated, but his voice was cracked; in pain as well.
Roller had a pair of green bottles in his hands, his body wedged into the driver’s side rear corner of the flatbed; the upright rails the only thing supporting his weight. “Ready!”
Alpha slapped the hood of the cab; twice, waited a beat, then once more, and stood up.
Perhaps waiting for so long and worried their quarry would get away, someone in the Safir opened fire. It was wild shooting, no stability in the quick-moving light jeep and careless speed. The first bullet out of the barrel was the only accurate trajectory striking one of the truck’s rear rail panels; recoil, inadequate training and a panicky trigger finger doomed the rest of the magazine to the sky.
Just as Alpha stood up to full height – his back wedged against the truck cab – something struck his face, tearing his cheek; lodging there. There was pain; but it was dull, distant.
“Alpha! You got a chunk o’ wood…” Warren felt some of the wooden splinters from the bed rail patter onto his back, and he looked up from Jackie. She was pale; shallow breaths, and still managed a light squeeze, but that was before the last explosion. “In your jaw!” Warren pointed with a bloody hand to his own face, and Alpha reached up and touched a finger-sized lump of wood. He’d slumped into a half-crouch.
“Hey! Bottles out!” Roller had been watching the Safir close the distance when the passenger started shooting; it took everything he had not to dive unto the bed. If he had, this tactic might’ve backfired on them; literally. “Now!”
“Alpha, light the…” Warren yelled.
The truck veered to the right, the bottles crashed onto the road, and Alpha’s instinct kicked in; he raised the tube, striking the flare in the muzzle into a blazing glare, then aimed and triggered the device. Roller did dive onto the truck bed this time and hoped none of that hot drip would hit him as it passed over. It did anyway, and he yelled as a molten drop of potassium perchlorate and magnesium sizzled into his scalp.
“That drone is getting…” Case Cooler started to say when a fiery whoosh blossomed behind them; the pursuing jeep blowing through a moment later. Spits and shoots of red and yellow flame thrown about by the vehicle’s tires. The passenger’s arm was on fire, and his assault rifle dropped into the road as they hit the oil spot. The driver over-corrected, spinning the jeep off the packed-dirt path and into a drainage gully, sliding to a dusty stop.
“Down, but not out,” Roller said flatly after standing to check the result of the Match-n-Scratch. He turned to check on Jackie and saw Alpha in his peripheral; blood now flowing down his neck and arm. Alpha was crouched all the way again against the cab directly behind Captain James. His hands were busy trying to dislodge a chunk of wood in his jaw.
Small patches of flaming oil surrounded the Safir; the rear passenger was slapping his arms and neck. The Greensuit passenger in front started to exit to retrieve his rifle, but the driver gunned it immediately nearly dumping his wingman in the ditch.
“Hang on,” Cap yelled. “Big turn!”
Small clumps of fruit trees appeared on both sides of the road as the Ford sped toward the sudden turn; a pre-planned evasion maneuver.
“Brace up, Fore!” Roller shifted his position back to Jackie’s other side and clasped Warren’s shoulders. Just then the truck tipped as the Captain took a sharp right turn.
“Here comes the drone!” Trying to gauge its destination, Case looked toward the Greensuit Safir jeep just in time to see it leave the road and cut across the field, avoiding the sharp corner the rebels had just taken, then Cooler’s view was cut off. The UAV blew past, failing to compensate for the sudden change in the direction of its prey.
“Ambush Alley dead ahead,” Rebecca reported loud enough for her soldiers in the bed to hear. Out of the sharp right turn, she straightened the truck expertly with a just a hint of a fishtail, glanced into the rearview mirror only to find it missing as well. Several small cracks in the windshield distorted her view of the wide-open field ahead.
“Ambush Alley,” Fireman repeated. “You guys thought of everything.”
“Wait til you see the fireworks show.” The truck bounced through a gully; the concussion vibrated through the steel frame and was absorbed into the fractured windshield. Several of the cracks widened. Wayne could hear the sickly cracking of the glass.
Alpha had succeeded in removing the wooden slug; his face felt numb; his eyesight blurry. His hands were sticky and felt useless.
“There they are,” Roller said, half standing now that the turn was complete and hoping to report a direct hit from the hidden RPG team tasked with taking out any pursuers. But the rocket was fired too late and, combined with the enemy jeep’s shortcut, steamed past and exploded well behind the Safir.
“They missed, Captain,” Fireman said. Craned back around again and fidgeting with his seatbelt.
“It’s a big alley, Wayne,” Captain James replied through gritted teeth. The pain in her arm was getting worse. “Catman! Need another Ninja trick!”
“Kagi Nawa! Give me five!” Roller was already moving, scrabbling on his knees, brushing past Case in a smooth pivot, snagging a three-foot bundle of black chain wrapped around something dull and heavy.
The day was brightening, but not sunny; overcast skies this close to the coast was normal. Roller felt like their truck, hustling down this rural road, was glowing hot pink with a flashing target on the roof. Both of the Greensuit drones had triangulated their position and were now buzzing along on each side of the truck attempting to close the distance.
“At those trees; gimme a break!” Roller yelled to Case, who had taken a moment to look at Alpha. The gunman had recovered apparently; he was following the movements of his teammates. “Hey, Cooler! Break at the trees!”
It took another heartbeat to get it; relay to the Captain. Looking into the cab, he repeated the instruction, but had locked eyes with the Fireman; mister weirdo Faultline was staring at him intensely. Case withdrew quickly; unnerved.
“Here’s that Kagikiller you ordered, assholes,” Roller said and stood up suddenly just as the truck slowed and drove between another cluster of trees that grew on both sides of the road. The Captain hit the brakes momentarily; slowing just enough for this tactic.
The Safir seemed to sprint forward; that’s when Roller flung a pair of weighted wrought-iron hooks in a whirling motion. The drone’s collision avoidance systems forced them apart to avoid the trees and continued around the stand without slowing.
Between the iron hooks – now each with a pair of barbed prongs on locked hinges that sprung open from the motion – a chain of magnetized steel links allowed the hooks to separate some twenty feet wide.
“Let’s go!” Roller yelled and flipped off the Greensuit driver. A burst of rifle fire from the rear of the Safir sent Roller back to the truck bed; immediately squashing up against the tailgate as Captain James gunned the engine; rear tires spinning dirt clods in a gusty cloud.
One end of Roller’s Kagikiller struck the limb of a small tree and lodged as it was engineered to do. The body of the chain smacked the Jeep as it rushed forward, cracking the windshield, then sliding over the roof. Chaos theory saw the other end of the chain whipsaw around and strike the rear soldier in the neck before sailing away. Roller heard him yell in some high-pitched, clipped-sounding language.
“Swing and another miss, dammit!” Roller pulled something from his tac-vest and Case saw him bring it to his mouth.
“Alpha! You online, soldier?” Captain James yelled from the cab. Fireman had described what he’d seen when the crew had tried the Match-n-Scratch. Alpha held his bloody hand up; he had his backup piece gripped. He waggled the Colt Delta Elite briefly, then tapped the cab window with the barrel instead of verbally responding.
“Then do something about that goddamned drone…” Captain James yelled. “Got another ball-breaker turn coming!”
The sound level at the moment was insane; between the rushing wind, drone engines, machine gun fire coming from one genuinely pissed-off enemy soldier, and now a sudden heinous screeching from the truck’s engine compartment.
“That doesn’t sound good,” Fireman shouted, his voice high and brittle.
“That drone’s a bigger problem,” Cap replied with a nod out his passenger window. Up ahead, there was a wicked left turn. “Hold on, Wayne. Don’t wanna lose you now.”
Wayne looked out his window in time to see the unmanned vehicle completing a turn, then heading back toward the truck. The drone had a green-taped package as a payload.
Alpha was moving past Case now as the Ford cleared this grove of trees that marked the road to the Greensuit soldier’s brothel. Case pointed out and to his left and Alpha’s arm went up, his other hand as a brace; crimson-streaked and garish in the morning light.
“Team two has breakfast ready! Get ready for a…” Roller said as he moved next to Warren and Jackie, his voice ripped away in the din. He said something in his teammate’s ear; Warren nodded, then bent forward over his dying friend and lover. Her breath was barely there.
Quake Alpha’s Colt was flaring now in his blood-stained hand, the ten-millimeter tungsten phalanx slugs – a tight group of three shells with around fifty tiny projectiles each – took flight, exploded and bloomed some ten feet in front of the drone, shredding it into polymer confetti in a heartbeat, and the explosive it carried atomized the rest at the speed of light.
“Who are you guys?” Fireman asked as he turned back to Captain James. She was focused dead ahead, her hands locked onto the steering wheel. Wayne looked at that mangled hand, then to her face; dried blood splotches painted in with her red hair.
“Hold on!” Cap yelled, then cranked the wheel, feathered the brakes with a few taps, and stomped the gas again. “Bitchfire, boys! Get this Greensuit bastard off my ass!”
“Holy shit!” Case Cooler was standing now, his hands gripping the upright rails, watching a smoking trail speed across the field from a large group of rocks up on that hill. The old Ford fishtailed again, and for an instant, Case felt as though gravity would finally have its way, and tip the truck over.
“Breakfast is served, you bastards!” Roller yelled as he moved next to Alpha, who still seemed a bit unsteady, but upright at the back of the truck; he was trying to draw a bead on the other drone. It was had paused in-flight and went into auto-hover, too far out to target.
“Never mind, buddy,” Roller said, and pointed. Behind them, the Safir jeep was cartwheeling in a flaming circle, bits and parts and bodies orbiting away into the fields. Warm smoke in the fresh morning air wafted back toward the sea as the pursuit vehicle came to a halt.
“Yes!” Captain James heard the explosion and risked a quick glance back to see one of her pursuer’s body arc into the field she’d just driven past. “Let’s get you home, Wayne. You got a busy day ahead.”
The battered old Ford took another sharp ditch, then groaned as the road dropped away again. The engine howled with the strain and began a rhythmic clunking; a fine white smoke leaked from the under the hood. Rebecca ignored it and pushed it harder. The base was only two minutes away.
“Lucky for you I’m free today,” Wayne replied. His voice sounded weak; sad. He was looking into the bed of the truck; Roller was performing CPR on Jackie, Warren was speaking into her ear, Case was at the rear of the bed as lookout and Alpha holding Jackie’s other hand. Wayne described it all as the truck took another turn and headed up into a rocky area.
“Sepsis is a real worry now,” Fireman said in that sad voice. This melancholy aspect of their strange rescue was even more disturbing than his manic side, Cap thought. She navigated the truck around another sharp curve, then seemingly right for a large rocky outcrop surrounded by a dense grove of orange trees.
“What? What did you say?” Cap had been busy guiding the truck past the sheltered rebel entrance when Wayne answered…
“Sepsis. It’s a blood disease that gunshot victims often contract.”
“I know all about it.” Captain James had seen it many times. Her vision was suddenly blurry; she blinked it away.
“Still, it’s not as bad as ARS.”
“What?” Captain James asked; genuinely perplexed.
“Acute Radiation Sickness. Back at the lab, the brass was adamant we use the acronym…” Fireman trailed off, mumbled about an oath or some damn thing.
“Radiation? Like nuclear…?”
Wayne hesitated, then just nodded his head. His lips were clamped shut as though someone had just stapled them that way. This guy’s been heavily trained, Rebecca thought quickly.
“Aren’t you a hazardous materials tech? You know chemicals and stuff?”
Wayne unclamped his lips after another few seconds; the conditioning was breaking down, maybe with the ebb of his ‘medication.’
“Well, yes. Nuclear materials and stuff.”
“I build bombs, Captain. Big ones.”
And like a swat to the tits, it hit Captain Rebeca Louise James why this oddball man with the medication dependency was so crucial to the rebel agenda.
“Holy shit, Wayne,” was all she could muster. Her vision was slipping as she eased the truck into the gap in the rocks that had appeared. The gap widened; several armed men and women emerged surrounding the smoking truck; the rails were pulled, and Cap saw Jackie being transported inside, Warren moving with her as if attached, Alpha helping Case off the tailgate and into a wheelchair then walking and rolling together into the now-busy entrance, Roller remaining in the truck bed; tears rolling down his dirt-caked face.
James turned back around as Wayne’s door opened, and just before he was helped out, she reached over and grasped the Fireman’s arm. “Hey, Mr. Faultline!” Wayne looked around and into her eyes.
“You and me, we got a lot to talk about,” Rebecca said. Someone was gently pulling on her arm, examining her shot-up hand. “What do you drink, Bomberman?” Her words were slurred; she felt giddy.
“Boilermakers,” Wayne replied with a wicked smile.
“Bitchfire! American bomb shots!” Arms reaching in and Wayne disappeared from his seat, and a moment later, rank be damned, Captain James was pulled from the cab and placed on a stretcher. She was seen smiling as she passed out.
“This goddamn war is about to change…” someone said as Rebecca sank into the gray.
November 26, 2017
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