"You can make a throne of bayonets, but you can’t sit on it for long"
"At the end of the game, the King and Pawn go back into the same box"
Ridley | November 7th, 2014 | One day after World’s End
“I thought you quit,” observed the woman in fatigues.
Jack Ridley took the cigar from his mouth, cradled it between two fingers, and contemplated the smoke rising from the tip of the long-extinguished stub. The heavy rain blanketed the island had doused any flame that showed its face, be it the light of the DSOE’s cigar or the multiple burning corpses that smoldered on the docks as MI6 collected all the bodies they could find.
“Yeah,” he said, eventually coming to a decision. Flicking the cigar into the tumultuous ocean, he turned and walked away from the rough precipice of rocks that overlooked the island’s north edge. “It just looks like it’s going to be one of those days.”
The windswept rock sat in the South Pacific, a hundred miles east of the New Zealand-owned Chatham island chain. It had served as a Japanese sub base during the Second World War, but had long been abandoned. The charred husks of the buildings that once stood on the island gave no clue as to the goal of its most recent occupant.
Ridley clambered down from the blood-soaked volcanic outcropping, crossed a clearing of trampled grass, and settled into the passenger’s seat of the waiting jeep. The vehicle’s engine purred as driver angled it back onto the sticky mud trail leading down the mountainside, cutting odd angles through the thick jungle.
Mary MacTaggert adjusted the windshield wipers to their maximum setting, and for a short time Ridley melted into the ambient sounds around him: the swoosh-swoosh of the wipers, the patter of the rain on the roof, and the squelching of the mud underneath spinning tires. It was Mary who broke the silence. “The shelling was spot on-target, unfortunately. Nobody got much of anything from the facilities in the southwest basin.”
“Don’t expect to pull much of anything from a crater,” Ridley said quietly, gazing out the window. “What’s the inbound count?”
“Over eighty so far, though not all of them have been catalogued,” Mary explained. “And we’re still finding just pieces, mind. Haven’t really been able to get an accurate count without resorting to decimals.”
“What about PALE HORSE?” Ridley asked, gripping a roof handle as the jeep sloshed down a steep incline into the rolling brush. Random patches were burnt to ash, while massive footprints could be seen in the ground, easily a meter wide.
“We’re still looking for a couple of them, but most of them are down on the docks, as part of the eighty. Dental matches for Baylor, as well as-”
“-Ryuhei Akamatsu,” Ridley guessed. “He wouldn’t be away from something like this. When it came down to it, he was his own man.”
“Took a lot to put him down. Body is near unrecognizable.”
“As it very well would be,” Ridley replied. “Any survivors?”
“Just one,” Mary confirmed. “Though he’s not in good shape. They pulled Butch Baylor out of the wreckage of the helo down on the south rocks. He was near-drowned and very much unconscious.”
“Get all our medics on him,” Ridley ordered. “He’s our only living lead right now.”
The jeep pulled to a stop on the south docks. A small Royal Navy cutter was parked out a ways, and small patrol boats surfed to and from the ship in the violent surf, ferrying the majority SAS commandos back to the decks. Whatever action had occurred on the island a night before, it was over.
Eighty charred bodies laid, stretched out in a grid-like fashion, on the tarp-covered wood before Ridley. Forensic technicians hurried from corpse to corpse, checking dentals.
“No way was all of this from the explosion,” Ridley noted, trying to keep his voice neutral. “See those footprints back in the paddies?”
“Yeah,” Mary said, slamming the door of the jeep behind her and shoving her hands in her pockets. “Whatever it was, it’s gone now. Any word from the Americans?”
“President Young isn’t answering our calls. They have enough going down as is, trying to work through the succession issues. We tried to track down the USN destroyers that participated in the raid, but their registries don’t match with anything in our intel archives.”
Mary picked her way around the “unclassifiables” – the growing pile of severed limbs and eviscerated torsos, heading to the white command sent MI6 has set up upwind of the tarps. Entering with Ridley, she pulled back the hood on her poncho. Ridley did the same.
“Savage went dark a couple hours ago,” Ridley announced as he checked his NTET smart phone. “We were betrayed from the inside. I’ve only got one message.”
Mary checked her own phone. “Me too. And I bet that if we checked Butch’s mobile we’d see the same thing.”
Ridley nodded. “‘Run.’”
“None of the contacts are squawking, either,” Mary said, scrolling through her messages. “We’re operating in the dark here.”
Glancing out through a clear patch of canvas at the cloudy skies beating down on the island, Ridley chose not to reply. “It was a trap,” he guessed after a long pause.
“Had to be,” Mary concurred. “We’re finding a lot of WRAITH operatives, top bodyguards, but not the top target.”
“Gosely swears he was there. We have comm traffic from PALE HORSE confirming it.”
“Right before they went dark.”
Ridley sighed. “Right before every one went dark. As it stands, SOLIDSIX is disbanded.”
Mary glanced up, slight alarm showing in her face.
“All our American counterparts are dead or, in Butch Baylor’s case, not going to be talking any time soon. We move forward with what we have. Pressure the Americans.”
A commotion arose around a radio station at the far side of the tent. Ridley glanced over at it. “What’s up, Sergeant?”
A dark haired, too-tired noncom tossed off a salute. “Sir. They’ve found another body. Pulled it out of a crevice at the north cliff face.”
“No, very much dead,” the sergeant said.
“Then what’s the commotion?” Ridley asked.
“Sir, they say it’s the body is of Malcolm Stavro Kroner. You believe them?”
“Only one way to be sure,” Ridley said. “Get your fucking game face on.”
It Came From Coulda, Shoulda, Woulda
By Mobius 1 and Siege
Baylor | October 31, 2014 | One Week Before World’s End
It was midmorning when our helicopter settled toward the landing zone. I shadowed the six-man team I had handpicked back on the carrier. Gold was team leader, having recently transferred from Omega Unit. Zelie served as the radio operator while Fender lugged the camera gear. Graham and Li immediately fanned out, securing the perimeter while O’Brien simply faded into the forest, checking the opposite flank. As an informal mission, I was just acting as a bird-dog; Lieutenant Jace “Gold” Ramirez was in command, training as my right-hand man.
Through the window I had seen an impossibly small patch of yellow grass. But the pilot was my brother, willing to put his bird into any zone an inch wider than the diameter of the rotor blades. The wheels had thumped down, and here we were, filing towards a skirmisher line of scraggly pines. After we were sure we were alone, Gold circled us into a tight formation. With the light and noise of the departing chopper fading into the dusk, ears and eyes needed time to adjust to the miniscule rhythms of the woods. I watched pupils darting within bright eyes, the Marines’ only recognizably human features. Eventually, even those faded as bodies adjusted to dusky equilibrium with the forest around them.
Birds resumed their song, and squirrels scurried through fallen leaves. The Marines rose as one.
Six miles of mountainous terrain separated us from the recon target. Any closer would have been too risky. The team planned to move into position before sunset to observe the objective and take photos to send back to NTET. Then we would use the safety of darkness to recon the zone up close before moving back to the extraction zone – known as Burrow – for pickup in the morning.
The team moved out with O’Brien on point. He placed each heel on the ground, slowly rotating his foot to shift his weight silently to the ball. Behind him was Gold, followed by Zelie, moving sprightly even under the weight of the radios. Fender and Li – the spotter – carried most of the team’s supplies – mainly water and batteries – but also the firepower of our one light machine gun. Graham, who was serving as assistant team leader, walked tail-end charlie, watching for stragglers and ready to take over if something happened to Ramirez. I shadowed Graham at the rear of the patrol, watching the group move, charting our time and distance on the map, and trying my best to be invisible. It wasn’t too hard, considering enhancements allowed me to do my best Predator impression
Just before sunset, the team stopped in the densest, most inhospitable thicket they could find – the perfect patrol base. Three men would remain there while three others went on a leader’s recon of the objective area. I opted to move with the leader’s recon – Gold, Fender, and O’Brien.
We padded through a thinly planted glen and reentered the receding sunlight to climb a shallow ridge of exposed rock. Enough shrubbery clutched to the veins of the soil in the stones to conceal our movement, and we quickly climbed to a vantage point of almost a thousand feet above the target. O’Brien and Ramirez scanned for threats, while Fender unpacked his equipment and went to work. He spun a telephoto lens the size of a wine bottle onto the camera body and began snapping a panoramic series across the length and breadth of the objective. He took five more shots with a different camera. After stowing the cameras, he unzipped a nylon bag and took out a sketchpad and a handful of colored pencils. In quick, confident strokes he drew the outline of the complex before, adding obstacles such as trees and ditches, penciling in estimated heights and dimensions. After cramming the page with data, he zipped the bag and stood. We clambered back down the ridge, leaving the hidden WRAITH facility behind us.
At the patrol base, the other Marines had set up the high-frequency radio while waiting for our group to return. They wanted to transmit their information back to NTET so that even if we were captured and killed, the mission would not have been in vain. Gold furiously typed a report in his tiny laptop while Zelie tried to contact the ROC.
“Phoenix Base, this is PALE HORSE ONE.” Gold was using my callsign to call the remote operations command.
“Phoenix Base, this is PALE HORSE ONE. Come in. Over.”
The mountains interfered with a conventional whip antenna, so Zelie shinnied up a nearby tree and wrapped a spool of thin wire around its branching, effecting turning it into a huge, field-expedient antenna.
“Phoenix Base, this is PALE HORSE ONE.”
“PALE HORSE ONE, Phoenix Base,” Colonel John Henry “Hank” Easly responded. “Send in your traffic.”
The team sent its pictures and text report back to base as an encrypted digital burst transmission. I knew the soldiers back in the ROC would be clustered around the receiving computer, anxious to see the near-real-time imagery sent by a team miles away. After sending the report, the team packed its gear and waited for dark to fall. Gold ran a few more recon passes, this time along the very edges of the darkened WRAITH buildings poking their walls out from the dirt. Sensor nodes were located and marked. Patrols were observed. After several hours of intrusion, we retreated back to the patrol base and left for the extraction point.
O’Brien drifted down the slope like a wisp of blown fog. While Gold and the team dropped night vision goggles over their eyes, I tapped my temple, activating the zero-light mode of my cybernetics so I could track the team in the dark. Without the enhancements, I had not even crunching footsteps to follow. I was amazed at how good my team was.
We split into two groups at the southern ridge of the valley leading to the EP and zigzagged along the edges of the field, with a kilometer of grass between the team’s two halves. A rising moon illuminated each condensed exhalation from the mouths of the Marines around me. No grunting. No cursing. No carelessly snapping a twig underfoot. We threaded single file along the shadow paths cast by the pines. Airliners bound for Cape Town slid through the dark far overhead, winking red and white. I imagined coffee cups being collected and tray tables placed upright in preparation for landing in the South African city. Twenty minutes for them, twenty light-years for us.
The teams linked up expertly north of the valley. Radio calls, flashes of infrared light, a cautious approach, a whispered password, a hurried reply. Sandwich. Lion. Gold steered the team halfway to the extract landing zone before settling into a tight circle. There we repeated our operation of composing and sending information to the battalion. The intel had worked out, there was a fully functional WRAITH base below. Another team would follow up behind us in the upcoming days and physically liquidate the facility. With dawn an hour away, there wasn’t time for sleep or food. Li compensated for both by sprinkling instant coffee crystals on his tongue, grinning with the satisfaction of a content connoisseur.
We had an hour until we had to get to Burrow. I tapped Gold on the shoulder, and informed him I would be breaking away into the forest to conduct recon of the zone. He nodded, and I faded into the dark, my cybernetics allowing me to become one with the abyss.
I trekked out for a couple minutes before doing a multi-spectral check with all my vision modes. Despite all of O’Brien’s skill giving them a run for their money, the Soviet cybernetics could pick if out if the operator had a good sense of how the man operated – which, as this commanding officer, I did. Fortunately, I was alone.
“Luke, I am your father,” I whispered into the green-tinged night.
“Search your feelings. You know it to be true,” a voice responded. “I truly wish you could have picked a different codeword. This may be your last mission for NTET this year, but at least take it seriously.” A figure detached itself from a nearby tree, simply blinking into existence as if spawned by the towering pine.
I shook my head. “C’mon, Storm. If there’s anything I’ve taught you, it’s that you can only respond to the absurd with the absurd. I count tracking down WRAITH’s backbone, base-by-base, as absurd. So I make Star Wars jokes.” I paused, dropping back into professionalism. “Anyway. Opinions?”
“This isn’t a base that I know of,” Storm responded, his mask concealing any expression. “None of my contacts know about it. I’m guessing it’s recent or some black project Kroner set up.”
“Yeah, Gosely has no idea about it either. Says she’s traced WRAITH cash to the facility, but can’t find any records pertaining to the place.”
“Looks like it extended pretty far underground,” Storm observed. “It’s most likely a research facility. Explains while all the counter surveillance is oriented against satellite observation and not Force Recon Marines ghosting in and out.”
I shifted uncomfortably. “You saying they wanted us to take a look, the owners of the base?”
“Never know,” Storm shrugged noncommittally. “But did you see the biohazard signs? Something bad’s going down in there. The place isn’t just a weapons testing site like the Paragon, it’s a bioweapons development zone as well.”
“Didn’t notice that,” I admitted. “Mind, the Paragon developed biological and chemical weapons. Carson mentioned a whole bunch of ubiquitous nerve gases, as well as the Romero Virus. I knew what VX was, had no clue as to what the Romero Virus was. You think zombies?”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Storm responded. “Anyway, the guards aren’t locals. They had American accents, but some of the non-guard personnel – I was pretty sure I caught sight of a couple of scientists – had accents all over the place. Some were South African, some Russian, some West German. A diverse team, never good.”
“So the staff suggests WRAITH, but the guards don’t,” I murmured. “Odd. Listen, if you have any other notes, get them back to me when I get back to Washington. Be careful, alright? The US doesn’t need to know you’re still kicking, right?”
“Like I don’t know that,” Storm said. “I’ve got a couple new leads on Kroner, by the way. Pass them along to Ridley tomorrow, okay?”
“You got it,” I said. “I’ll track down that accent issue when we review the MP3s tomorrow. Adios, mang.”
“See you,” Storm said, and was gone.
I met up with a platoon ten minutes later just outside the landing zone. The eastern sky was still dark when we began the final sprint to Burrow, balancing stealth with the new need to meet the helicopter. O’Brien still placed each heel down with care, but his steps fell in quicker succession than before. I looked at the map – just under two kilometers to the zone. A rule of thumb in terrain like this is one klick per hour. We had twenty minutes to do twice that.
I imagined Butch flying toward Burrow, trusting us to be there. Just as we approached the zone, rotor blades echoed through the second valley. Gold contacted the bird.
“LIQUID, this is PALE HORSE ONE. We’re oscar mike to the zone.”
“Roger, PALE HORSE ONE. Give me a buzz saw and a NATO-Y”
Butch had requested the most favored method for guiding a helo into a landing zone in the dark. The NATO-Y, standard throughout western militaries, is four chem lights tied to premeasured lengths of parachute cord. When laid on the ground and pulled taut, the form a Y. One of the Marines pulled it out, already tied, and cracked the four chem lights. He laid them across the landing zone, with the base pointing into the window and the two legs marking touchdown points for the chopper’s main landing gear.
The buzz saw is a single infrared chem light tied to a two-foot strip of parachute cord. The Marine cracked it and began swinging the cord like a lariat. Through night vision goggles, the spinning chem light stood out as a circle of shimmering light, a beacon to guide the aircrew into the little patch of grass where the team squatted in the tree line.
I turned my head as the rotor wash blasted dust and twigs against our bodies. Dull green light spilled from the cargo bay as the ramp dropped.
Gold counted his team aboard, placing his hands on each man. Then he reached into the grassed beneath the ramp and yanked the NATO-Y up into the helicopter. Leave no trace. Butch added power, and we headed toward breakfast, leaving the South African WRAITH base behind us. This had been PALE HORSE’s last mission for SOLIDSIX and NTET, the international intelligence agency tasked with steering the world away from World War Three. Over the past two years, we had been hunting down WRAITH’s bases and clearing them out on by one, intent on flushing out the elusive Chairman of the cartel – Malcolm Stavro Kroner by denying him hidey-holes.
After two long years, we were coming to the end of the road. By the weekend we’d be in DC, reporting to the President and aiming at another conspiracy: MIDNIGHT.
“Good mission, bro?” Butch asked on a private comm.
“It was cool,” I said tiredly.
Leaning my head against a bulkhead, I tapped my ears, loading the music collection stored across my brain. Notes filtered directly into my mind as my own mental version of iTunes played the Boss telling me that the town was a death trap, that it ripped the bones from your back. A suicide rap.
We gotta get out while we’re young.
‘Cause tramps like us…
Follow | November 8th, 2014 | Two days after World’s End
“…Ba-by we were born to ruuunnn!!”
Follow adjusted her coat against the rain, not that it did much good to block out the near-horizontal blades of rain cascading in torrents from the sky, or the drunken slurs of the pair of college-age kids emerging from a nearby bar. She examined their faces; neither matched that of her quarry. She didn’t really think Baylor would have been able to skip between buildings, change clothes, and find an inebriated dweeb to hang his shoulder on, but others had underestimated the man at their own peril.
It hadn’t really been necessary. Baylor emerged from the CVS pharmacy a beat later, dragging the bill of his cap tighter over his face. Not that it matter much, as Follow adjusted her tri-ocular imagers to zoom and in sharpen the focus on a tight-in of Baylor’s face. No, it was him. Same misshapen nose and black hair. There was something… off about him, but Follow quickly realized the difference was in the Marine’s demeanor. He was cautious, glancing around every few seconds. The normally self-assured slink of a master prowler was just a tad quicker, but there was also a limp to his gait. Baylor was struggling to contain the injuries he had sustained at the WRAITH HQ.
How Baylor had survived the outcome was beyond Follow, the exact details mattered little compared to the fact that Baylor had managed to escape with the tattered remnants of his slaughtered squad. Follow had tracked Baylor out of his Upper East Side safehouse, near the edge of Harlem. A short subway jaunt from the UN. Another junction could swiftly let Baylor disappear into the Bronx; to the east, queens. The outlet of the Harlem River ran along one end of the empty street. Baylor deliberated moved away from the pharmacy and was placing himself along the east edge of the Manhattan in order to place himself in the open, to easily notice followers.
Follow shrugged. Not that it mattered. Leaping silently from rooftop to rooftop, she circled around in front of Baylor so she could have a clear shot on the approaching Marine.
Baylor stopped, halting suddenly, and glanced around, as though he were a hound sniffing the air.
Follow froze, melting against a wall of brick underneath the platform of a fire escape.
Her target stood there for a full minute, surveying the surrounding area. Most likely flickering through multiple vision modes. Follow hoped the new sneaking suit MIDNIGHT had given her was all it was cracked up to be. Her heat signature would be masked, and the rain should drown out her breathing or heartbeat
Baylor still did not move. He crooked an ear, as though presenting a sophisticated microphone towards the wall of skyscrapers in facing him. Dialing in the magnification.
He swore and went for the handgun in his jacket.
Follow was ready for him. The trusty Russian S4M in her grip was internally silenced, with no need for a bulky suppressor. She had carried the break-open derringer for nearly a decade, back from when she had taken it off a Soviet spy in Central America back at the turn of the millennium. With the large, weather-proofed scope centered on her target’s center of mass, she fired twice.
Baylor jerked at the two bullets caught in him the gut, doubling him over.
Unclipping her harness, Follow dropped silently to the alleyway some fifteen feet below. She landed, and as she rolled to a one-kneed firing position, she broke open the S4M, dropped the smoking, spent shell cases into a glove palm, and loaded two more 9.3X64mm projectiles into the chamber. Snapping the action closed, she sighted through the scope and put two more bullets into Baylor’s heart.
The commando went down without a word.
Standing, Follow glanced down the street. It was two in the morning, and this was a residential area. There was no one in sight. She had specifically chosen this area for the lack of random security cameras. Likewise, the faces of the buildings were black, their inhabitants asleep or otherwise preoccupied.
Walking toward into the street, Follow reloaded once again. The S4M had originally been designed to fire 7.62mm rounds, specifically intended to confuse ballistic forensics by implying that the victim had been shot at long range, at low velocity by an AK-47. The feasibility was not outlandish; street gangs in New York had as easy an access to the ubiquitous rifle as jihadists in the Middle East.
Doubtful, however, that anyone would believe that the great John Baylor would be murdered by gangbangers, Follow had ordered the pistol refitted to fire the 9.o SN cartridge indicative of the Dragunov SVDK rifle – one of the most common sniping platforms utilized by international assassins. Upon examining the body, officials would conclude Baylor had been found and assassinated in the aftermath of the World’s End catastrophe. Moreover, fingers would probably be pointed at the scattered leftovers of Sechalin’s separatist faction calling in revenge on an old enemy. It was not as if Baylor lacked enemies in the global community. Bounties did exist in the underworld on his head.
Stopping briefly over Baylor’s corpse, Follow kicked the loosely held Five-seveN from his grip. Baylor’s breathing was week and shallow, while thinner-than-entirely-human blood bubbled silently from four chest wounds. He gazed sightlessly up at her masked face as if struggling to commit the nonexistent-details to memory.
Follow supposed the operator deserved a more heroic death than this, but she honestly didn’t care. Life went on, and it wasn’t nearly as dramatic as everyone said it was.
Raising her pistol, Follow fired in single shot in Baylor’s temple. His head bounced once, and was still.
Reaching down, Follow checked the body’s lifesigns – nonexistent – and hoisted the corpse up and over metal railing, allowing it to splash, unnoticed, into the turbulent water. Bending over, she retrieved Baylor’s sidearm and stuffed it into her tactical webbing. Pausing, she glanced around, checking her tiny details she may have overlooked. The blood would be long washed-away in the morning, draining ingloriously into a nearby storm drain. Baylor’s CVS bag had been tucked underneath his coat and had gone down with the ship. Still no one was in sight.
She stood for a couple seconds, watching as the body was washed away by the waters, most likely down the East River and into the Bay. She shrugged. You could run, but you’d only die tired. She knew that from constant years as MIDNIGHT’s chief operative, acting in a multitude of positions: wetworks, clean-up, deep cover, and data retrieval. Hopefully tonight’s mission would finally bring to a close the long-standing Baylor case and Follow could move on with her life. Hopefully.
The emotion was so foreign to Follow it took a moment to actually recognize it. The thought shook her; the prospect that it all could finally come to an end, that is represented the last of the loose ends.
If only. Follow just knew that she had bigger things in her life than MIDNIGHT. You didn’t get as far as she had without knowing the world’s secrets inside and out. She had been as perfectly crafted by events as Baylor had.
That too gave her pause. What was the difference between the two of them? Well, one was dead and about to become shark bait. Follow would have to tread carefully from here on out if she wanted to come out it all alive and on top.
Melting back into the concrete jungle, the predator was swallowed in the storm.
All that was left was the tinny music floating down the street from the bar…
“I took a walk around the world to ease my troubled mind, I left my body lying somewhere in the sands of time…”
Gold | November 2rd, 2014 | Five Days Before World’s End
“…I watched the world float to the dark side of the moon, I feel there’s nothing I can do…”
The decade-old radio hit faded into a guitar intro which sounded tinny over my cheap earbuds.
Baylor and I fidgeted nervously as we stood in the lobby of the UN, waiting for a President Skye to finish her meeting with the WEU ambassadors. Though the meeting had been under the pretense of a new free-trade agreement with the increasingly distanced combine, the true purpose of the summit was to exchange intelligence on global terrorism and formulate group policy, specifically in relation to WRAITH.
Baylor sat quietly in a seat the size of a semi bed, constantly adjusting his suit. He never wore the ensemble out in public, and, though I didn’t show it, neither had I. It was like going out in a clown suit. It was just different camouflage for a different environment. The cloak-and-dagger business was alien to him when it didn’t involve jungles and deserts and suspiciously western terrorists.
I examined my CO. Baylor was a tall, slim but broad-shouldered, built like a spring perpetually about to uncoil. To the untrained eye the attitude came off like the grace of a stalking panther, but to me it simply read as a man continuing compacting their emotions inside him, shoving off any release for a nonexistent future date until it all flowed out in one massive release. The question was how Baylor released. He always seemed just on the breaking point, but just never crossed the point. I momentarily considered the idea that Baylor was one of those combat sociopaths that found catharsis in a firefight. But that wasn’t it.
As a man, his entire façade was an external style of a machine-gun motor-mouth of sarcasm and references, as though he could deal with what he believed absurd by responding in kind. While I kept my sardonic comments to a level of subtlety expected of XOs, Baylor simply let it fly loose. But any question in his mental stability was swiftly waved away in the display of his sterling integrity and competency; as a leader of small-team tactics, Baylor was unmatched, his style unconventional and completely off-the-wall. His integrity, in the end, was the reason why President Skye and NTET kept him on their rosters. Should Baylor decide you were on his team, he wouldn’t desert you if hell itself came between you and him.
Vice President Young emerged from a nearby elevator, flanked by a quartet of burly – why were they always burly – secret service agents, all casting furtive looks across the deserted lobby as though they hadn’t already swept it five times already. I met Baylor’s eyes, and we shrugged. Together, we rose, and fell in behind the Veep.
Olivia Young was easily as striking as her boss, a statuesque woman with long black hair bound into a perpetual tail. Right now she wore a conservative pantsuit, so well tailored it was practically a predator’s skin as she prowled easily across the lobby towards the waiting limo outside. Much like Baylor, Young’s demeanor was a ruse; I could practically watch the patches of assumed menace fall off in tatters as she strode away from the elevator. Young always played the bad cop to Skye’s reasonable authority figure. The POTUS, after all, had been a professional diplomat before being elected; she had every reason to be involved in the dirty work usually delegated to professional negotiation teams.
“What are they up to?” Young muttered under her breath.
“Ma’am?” Baylor asked innocently, eyes shifting into intelligence-gathering mode.
“The WEU delegation,” Young said, yawning and rubbing her eyes. It was eleven at night. “It’s the fourth time they’ve called a recess today. They only do that if they’re stalling. Drawing it out. You only stall like that when you’re waiting for information. They kept recessing so they can talk with their intelligence people and get an update on things, whatever that is.”
Baylor nodded. I knew he understood the gist of what Young was saying, for one of his favorite tactics had that of obstruction and misdirection. The Major understood the tactic, but not the reason why.
Young sighed as we exited through the automatic doors of the hotel and into the freezing night. Storm clouds gathered overhead, having threatened a downpour for the past couple days. She climbed easily into the waiting limo as though it was a practiced motion, and we followed, emerging into a circle of facing leather seats. Young eased herself down on the far end of space, near the tinted window separating the driver from the passengers. Baylor and I took up seats opposite each other while Young slid out a holographic computer terminal from the wet bar and logged in.
“They couldn’t have picked a worse occasion, too,” Young sighed. “The line fed to the press is mostly, if not entirely correct. This is the affirmation of what is arguably the most important alliance of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, even moreso than the Pact. NATO. Everything our predecessors have worked for.”
Pouring a shot of brandy from the bar, Young offered us each a glass. We both politely refused – thanks but no thanks. “Despite what you may think,” she continued, “international alliances are not about friendship. They are about advantage. If friendship brings advantage, then friendship is desirable. If it doesn’t, well, perhaps merely civil relation may be all that is necessary. International friendship – foreign aid, trade alignment, military allegiance – is a very expensive business. It is not to be entered into lightly.”
She shrugged. “I wish it was any other way, I did, but it’s not very pretty in there. Some were wondering if Europe even needed American anymore.” Young paused. “Well, Major, does Europe need America anymore?” It was a loaded question.
Baylor held up his hands. “I tried to get involved in geopolitics, ma’am.”
Young laughed, a full and pleasing sound. “Yes, indeed. We all know what happened the last time you involved yourself in the ownership of nations.” A neutral statement, alluding to Baylor’s direct hand in the Soviet crisis of twenty-eleven. What about you, Lieutenant?”
I was silent for a few seconds. “You honestly want my analysis?”
“This isn’t a performance review,” she said, offering me a slight, tired smile.
“Well,” I said, “NATO makes European countries economically and technologically dependent upon the State for defense. Even highly developed countries like France and England know that if they want the best weapons systems, they have to come to us. And that leaves them with three options – join the Warsaw Pact, which Sarkozy and the like would never do; come knocking on our door with their hats in their hands, or, three, join NATO. And so far as I know, the US hasn’t sold any Patriot missile systems to non-NATO countries -” Baylor barely suppressed an eye-roll “–So, yes, I think NATO does perpetuate our influence over Europe and WEU. Whether or not this is a bad thing depends on who you ask.”
“Not a bad analysis, Ramirez,” she said, mock-clapping. “But let me tell you something; it goes a lot further than that, a lot further. So much so that the position of the White House for the past few decades had been that the national security of the United States depends upon that influence. WEU doesn’t want that economic and technologic influence. And over the last ten years WEU had been steadily eroding our influence in the region.”
Baylor frowned. “Example?”
“Did you know that the European Space Agency has been specifically targeting NASA and is humongously subsidized by the French government so that the ESA can charge vastly cheaper prices for taking commercial satellite up into orbit than NASA can? The militarization of NASA over the last decade was due in part to the civilian space market drying up overnight.”
“And did you know that WEU has been the most active opponent of American energy interests in the Middle East? It’s not the Soviets that we brush against when negotiating with the Saudis, it’s the WEU-sponsored consortiums.”
“No, I didn’t know that,” I admitted.
“And did you know that WEU has been the driving force behind the organization of third world countries into powerful regional alliances? The PacRimPact – PRP – was a creation of Western Germany and Britain. WEU has been establishing massive trade ties with India and China, especially China, crowding out the international market and deliberately targeting American jobs? WEU’s even made inroads into South America, healing old conflicts with Argentina and Brazil.”
She paused, pulling up an old newspaper article. “This isn’t a particularly recent trend. France pulled out of NATO’s integrated military command in 1966 because it did not want French nuclear weapons to be placed under NATO – and therefore US – control. At the time, the French President, Charles de Gaulle, point-blank called NATO “an American organization.” Now France simply maintains a seat on NATO’s North Atlantic Council to keep an eye on things.”
“So what would happen if WEU decided to leave NATO?” Baylor asked, finally getting involved in the conversation.
“It isn’t 1966 anymore. If France or Britain walked out of NATO now, I think half of the other European nations – fittingly exactly along the lines of WEU membership – would walk out with them. But they won’t just yet. They may think us beer-swilling rednecks who through a cosmic joke got our hands on the world’s most powerful weapons, but as long as we stay ahead of them in defense tech, they do need us. Until they can match us weapon-for-weapon – which is getting closer to a reality every day – they’re stuck in NATO. But-” Young held up a finger “-Once they get their hands on something new, something they develop that tops our technology or find a new partner that can radically change the game, then I think things can be different.
“What worries me the most, though, is that the Europeans may be closer that we think to that paradigm shift. Look at them today, or even just tonight. They recessed four times already. Four times, and the negotiations are still going well into the morning. As I said, they’re stalling. And, by the looks of things, what that is, it could be the difference between the continued existence of NATO and its complete dissolution.”
Gold | November 2rd, 2014 | Five Days Before World’s End
I missed the days when such a proclamation would be decried as a completely melodramatic statement. But the Russian Crisis had changed everything.
Young slid the newspaper articles to the side and turned to Baylor. “So, Captain, did anything come of your mission in Africa?”
Baylor reached into a suitcase and retrieved the annotated photos from the South Africa op. Seeing this, Young flipped a switch, allowing a small table to rise from the floor of the limo. The major spread the sheets out like a deck of cards on the sturdy plastic.
“Yeah, it was cool. From our analysis of the site, WRAITH only recently set up this base – our dating places its construction in the past fifteen to eighteen months. Prolonged observation by PALE HORSE Beta Team showed stealth jets entering and leaving the facility’s interior hangar on a regular basis. Make and model points to a mixture of last-generation American tech, perhaps from the collaboration with the Paragon, and current-gen Russian tech, all scavenged from the fall of Sechalin.
Baylor pointed to another photo. “Whatever this base is, it’s almost entirely self-sufficient. We never tracked any large transports planes coming in – what the base outputs, it’s carried on the jets.”
I sat forward. “Which begs the question of what the base is manufacturing. Signs onsite point to the facility being a bioweapons manufacturing plant, but the infrastructure indicated by seismic scans implies an underground segment much larger than necessary for a base like this.”
Young considered. “Any chance of this being a headquarters for a WRAITH bigwig?”
“Not a chance,” Baylor said. “The security was off for a location of that magnitude, but we did manage to notice one thing about the jets.”
“What was that?” Young asked.
“They all depart on the same vector,” Baylor explained, tracing printed red lines of the maps with his finger. “We’re extrapolating from there, but we’re sure it’s not because they’re following a specific stealth path. We think they’re leaving for the real catch, an actual WRAITH HQ. Colonel Easly back at intel has been in full collaboration with the NRO towards figuring out what WRAITH targets exist along the vector, but we’re pretty sure the location is in the South Pacific, past Australia.”
Young nodded. “You know, of course, that NTET has America’s full support in this matter. I’m confident we can track down the WRAITH HQ within the week.”
When Young said it, she said it with the authority of fact, not mere prediction.
There was another pause.
“So,” Young said, eyes hard. “MIDNIGHT. We’ve been tracking down the leads given to us by the Cutler USB and Farley, but every time we get close to them the lead is assassinated or a warehouse turns out to be deserted seconds before we arrive. Which leads to the obvious next step: we have a leak within the cleared camp.”
I frowned. Apparently, after the Russian Crisis, Skye had instituted a truly hardcore background check on everyone within her inner circle and anyone involved in the underground MIDNIGHT investigation. As PALE HORSE was the chief field team in regards to tracking down MIDNIGHT, we answered directly to the POTUS and VPOTUS in order to prevent orders getting passed down that could lead us on another suicide mission, as had happened to Baylor’s squad twice already. Hell, even the SAND SCORPION op in Iraq with that Cuban Agent had been a set-up last year, despite Skye’s assurances that we were in the clear. The traitor had subsequently been executed – by a MIDNIGHT sniper, but what the hell. The subsequent BAD BOYS clean-up ops hadn’t been any better.
Color me unsurprised that the anti-MIDNIGHT crowd couldn’t get their shit together. Anti-MIDNIGHT, now that I reflected on it, was really in need of a new name. I’d run it by my nicknaming CO later.
“The only option now,” Young explained, “is to follow the leads from the third party side of things. Not just WRAITH, but the homegrown anti-government that flourished under Barclay, as well as the jihadists that are turning their attention from Russia after 9/11 to the US.”
She drew up a dozen floating dossiers, manipulating each into view as she reviewed them. “We’ve prepared a good score of cells that are suspected of having outside support. They might just be WRAITH-subsidized, but somehow I doubt WRAITH has this extensive a network. We need to take the leaders alive, hopefully.”
Young flicked the incorporeal dossiers at us, each of which instantly printed out on a laser printer mounted in the micro-table, spitting out in a receiver tray. Baylor took this tech in stride and collected the mission profiles. Just as he was collecting the papers the limo came to a stop outside Baylor’s hotel.
“I believe this is your stop, gentlemen,” Young said. “I have to get back to the UN.”
A Secret Service Agent pulled open the door to my right. Baylor closed his suitcase and clambered out of the limo easily. I turned to join him, but Young’s voice caught up with me. “Ramirez, wait.”
I stopped, rotating back to look at Young.
She waved a hand at the seat. “I need a word. You can tell Baylor to go on ahead.”
I turned back to Baylor and shrugged. His eyes narrowed, but he entered the hotel without a word.
Settling back into the seat, I affixed Young with a level stare.
Young waited until Baylor was out of sight before speaking. “I put you on the PALE HORSE team so as to keep an eye on Baylor and so the White House would have a second agent in the field in case Baylor was even incapacitated. PALE HORSE is not the only asset we have investigating MIDNIGHT right now, and John Baylor isn’t the sole proprietor of PALE HORSE.”
She paused. “In that light, now that Baylor is back in the states, he’s about to resume his regular visits with an acquaintance in Queens.”
I arched an eyebrow. “So? Baylor’s personal life is of no interest to me. Guy deserves some off time.”
“Not when the person in question is Charles Lennox’s wife. And not when CIA observation pre-Crisis indicates Anne Lennox may have had ties to an unknown foreign intelligence service. Baylor’s bound to meet up with Mrs. Lennox sometime over the next week, and he trusts you enough not to suspect you shadowing his activities from a safe distance without his knowledge.”
Young swept out another dossier onto the table printer. The face of a pretty young, if tired-looking blonde woman smiled wanly up at me from the top corner of the report.
“I need to make sure Anne Lennox is not a threat, or, hell, a MIDNIGHT agent. The last thing we need is for Baylor himself to become a security leak because he’s distracted by little miss widow,” Young concluded, voice regretful. “We need every agent hundred percent for the coming months, right?”
“Right,” I said, pursing my lips as I glanced through the file. I trusted Young – she had come from a military family and was a natural around military operations. She knew the ins and outs of the American military-industrial complex and had been a steady resource in diminishing MIDNIGHT’s resources (even if its operatives remained at large).
“We just need to play on the safe side,” Young said, giving me a slight smile.
The agent opened to the door, and I exited the limo.
“Good night, Lieutenant,” Young said, before the limo wheeled away.
Letting my shoulders finally slouch, I padded wearily up the stairs to the west side hotel, where PALE HORSE was unwinding after the recent mission. Fishing out my iPod, I dialed up a new song.
“Well, I was there, I saw what you did, I saw it with my own two eyes…”
Baylor | November 9th, 2014 | Three Days After World’s End
“…So you can wipe off that grin, I know where you’ve been, it’s all been a pack of lies!”
It had to have been the stupid jogger singing the song that awoke me. Here I was, taking a nice dirtnap on the side of a drainage pipe when some six o’clock freak who gets up way too early feels the need to ruin a completely good song. I mean, does the guy even hear himself? I’m sure he killed a couple birds that flew too close. And half of the forest.
Aaaugh. Goddamn did my head hurt.
I rolled over, immediately placing my elbow deep into a thicket of mud. Wonderful.
I guess it took a while for me to start asking why I was in a ditch in the middle of a forest. Such questions were just too much to me to handle immediately. My head throbbed something awful.
Picking myself shakily out of the muck, I began to cough. I held my hands up to instinctive muffle the sound as pain wracked my ribs. After I finished, my hands came away slick with blood. Not good.
Hell, where was I? Memory was a good place to start.
Except it wasn’t. It was the damndest thing. I knew how to move, how to stand, what this word and that word meant and that I was probably doing a goddamn internal monologue (and I even knew that was something I usually did!) right now over the entire freaking situation.
I knew that, from the receding sound of the jogger’s voice that he was about fifty meters away. Any farther and he’d be reasonably out of reach from where I could lethally hit him with the rock that had somehow found its way into my blood-soaked grip.
I paused, and tackled that thought before it would retreat from my mind. I had just, quite calmly, considered murdering some random passerby. That was surely not something an ordinary person would do, right? But ordinary people didn’t hack up blood with each cough and wake up in ditches.
So I, cautiously, mind, decided to take a gander at my surroundings. Nice, clear, northeastern American forest. Probably somewhere in New York. There. Another detail. I was in New York. The city? The state? Who knew.
I began to follow the ditch of quaking limbs. It didn’t take long for me to come to a full-blown river that ran parallel to the ditch. There, over, about twenty feet to the right, was a nice pavilion, the sort of thing families would take their children to for a nice picnic as they watch fishing boats cruise on past. I stumbled over to it, and found a sign within seconds.
FLUSHING MEADOWS STATE PARK
QUEENS, NEW YORK
I considered. My clothes were soaked, but it looked like it had just rained, so that was to be expected. Still, something was dripping at a beat that didn’t match the drops coming off of the edges of the roof.
I looked down. Odd that that trail of red matched wherever I had gone.
I shuddered, and clutched at my stomach. Fingers instinctively found gaping holes where smooth skin should have been. I had to choke down a cry of pain as my exploring digits canvassed out four or so pockmarks – so trivial a word – in my torso.
Something dripped off my brow. Not sweat, not water. This was red.
When I touched my skull, I actually did scream. Birds took to the air with startled hoots.
There was a five-inch long furrow along the side of my temple, with a corresponding groove in what could only be my skull. My skull was… exposed. Groovy. Or disgusting. Or terrifying. I really couldn’t identify the wave of emotions that crested through me when I realized that I was the equivalent of a Law and Order corpse of the week getting up and asking for a drink after the morning jogger found me.
Speaking of a morning jogger…
I spun, to find a trio of young women facing me, faces white, eyes wide. How they had snuck up on me, I had no idea, but there they were. One had frizzy red hair and was clearly a catholic by her fanny pack, wide hips, and weary eyes only brought on by multiple children and years of motherhood. No immediate threat, she probably thought I was a college kid doing a zombie flick.
Another was short, dumpy, Asian. No kids. No wedding band. But she had the eyes of a Fed. I was sure of it; it was just the way she held herself. Maybe FBI. No, definitely FBI. But off-duty. I could see the exasperation roll through her experienced gaze as she realized she’d have to be called back into work on this nice weekend.
The last of the group was a compact blonde woman with her short hair pulled back under a nice red bandana. She wore a shapeless hooded sweatshirt and tiny jogging shorts. Her eyes had a sparkle to them, and of the three, she was the most clearly interested in this new development, as though it happened every day and was just one grand adventure. She was my new favorite.
Without any real weighing need on my hands beyond maybe getting patched up from the five or so wounds currently leaking blood, I plopped down onto a nearby picnic bench.
“Lovely day, ain’t it?” I said, trying my best to etch a smile onto my face. The world spun, and the concrete floor raced up to meet me.
“Jesus!” the Asian said, voice concerned. I heard the pitter-patter of tennis shoes as the trio rushed to me side. “Stacy, call 911.”
“That’d be a bad idea,” another voice said. Probably Blondie. “Just look at those wounds, Vy. The last thing we need is getting connected to some gunshot victim.”
“Yeah, well, you maybe,” responded another voice. Stacy. “Getting linked to a corpse in the middle of Flushing Meadows would be a terrible idea in its own right, Anne. There might not be anyone around now, but someone will eventually find him.”
“Christ, I’m not suggesting we leave him here,” said Anne heatedly. “Not like he’s just some homeless guy who got mugged. Look at him. You recognize that face?”
“Not seeing anything,” stated Stacy evenly.
“Holy shit,” the Asian – Vy – said. “It is who you think it is.”
“You sure?” Stacy said, voice losing some of its solidness.
“The JSDF has been tracking him for years. I was the agent in charge of following his actions during the Russian crisis.”
Stacy sat back into an easy crouch. Her hand reached slowly for her fanny pack. “Any of our agencies would give their right arm to get him.”
“Or the tech he represents,” corrected Vy. “We keep this on the down-low, right?” I could also see her right hand, out of the sight of the other two women, reaching for an ankle holster.
“Hey, let’s not get rash here,” said Anne. A click. Two. She had a pistol in each hand, one leveled at Vy, the other at Stacy. “The walks are nice and all, and we get to share information, but this guy’s no reason to break up our friendship over it.”
“Are you kidding?” Stacy said, voice deadpan. “We’d share with you. And you, Vy. Us smaller nations need to band together.”
“Bullshit,” Vy said harshly. Her pistol cleared her holster, and quick as a flash, was pointed at Anne’s face. “We each know we’d be ordered to clean up witnesses. That includes each other.”
“As I said, let’s be reasonable,” Anne cautioned. “No one need know you two were involved. Walk away and we can maintain our relationship for another day.”
Stacy disagreed. Two Skorpion submachine guns were in her hands, quick as a flash. Each pointed at a supposed friend. “Australia disagrees.”
“Listen to yourself,” Anne said, exasperated. “We’ve known each other long enough to know we’re distinct entities from our countries of allegiance… right?”
“No,” Vy said. “Stacy’s right. Sorry, Anne.”
And then, pandemonium. Stacy’s Skorpions roared. A stitch of three rounds caught Vy in the side, sending her dropping to one knee while Vy struggled to bring her gun away from Anne to her attacker.
The other submachine gun burped, and Anne fell back, thwack-thwack-thwack as another burst caught her in the left breast.
Vy fired twice, catching Stacy in the kneecap. Blood exploded everywhere and Stacy howled, firing both her Skorpions on full auto in Vy’s chest. Vy’s body danced in place under the barrage, but her pistol still fired, tracing a line of bullets up Stacy’s chest. One shot in her shoulder. Another in her neck. A third in her jaw, blowing it off. The final one caught Stacy between the eyes, painting her brains across a black cooking grill.
Stacy’s guns fell to the side, the scything bursts literally cutting Vy in half.
And then silence. Just as soon as the shootout had begun, it was over. Just like that.
Birds warbled tunelessly in the treetops above.
I lay there, drenched in blood and gore, where three international agents had just wiped themselves out over the right to take me home like a prize from the fair.
And I didn’t who know who I was.
To my left, Anne’s chest bucked, and she sucked in a lungful of precious air. Sitting up, she peeled off her lumpy sweatshirt to reveal a ballistic bulletproof vest. Three flattened lumps of metal glittered like jewelry where her heart would have been. Tearing off the vest as well, she rolled over and checked her two dead friends. No need to check pulses.
Anne surveyed the bloody tableau and gave an explosive sigh. Stashing her pistols, she set about extricating me from the mess without disturbing the bodies.. Thankfully, she hadn’t fired her pistol once during the entire exchange. If anyone investigated, it would look like the two agents had killed each other in the shootout.
Stepping back like an artist viewing her work from a distance, Anne arranged the top half of Vy’s corpse so it looked like the bloody swathe that Anne had created by dragging me out of the pile of body parts had been caused by the Japanese Operative trying and failing to drag herself away from the scene of the crime.
Wrapping me in her tattered sweatshirt, Anne led me out of the park and to her small Nissan SUV. Arranging me easily in the backseat, she slammed the door behind her and mounted the step rail up into the driver’s seat, easily starting up her vehicle.
She caught me staring at her. “Rest,” she said, smiling. “You’re cool. Compared to them, I’m your best friend. More than you know.”
I nodded. Totally awesome.
Baylor | November 4th, 2014 | Three Days Before World’s End
“Goddammit!” I shouted. “Dammit, goddammit!”
“Boss…” Gold said, holding up a hand.
“No,” I said. “This is the fifth fucking warehouse we’ve hit today! Nothing but the same drum full of burning papers! These are all friggin’ different cells. Sword of Allah! Christian Militia! Those Neo-Anarchists! No way there’s a Nut-Net where they send out tip-offs that raids are coming down the pipe. This is not cool.”
I swiped a smashed monitor into nearby wall in frustration. My strength still surprised me, as the monitor went clean through the cheap drywall.
Calming down, I slung my MP5 around behind my back. I usually never lost my calm, but I had the most massive headache, and, fortunately, no one beyond Gold was around. The rest of PALE HORSE was just outside the office, securing the perimeter of the industrial site.
Ironically, one of General Ethan Carson’s lectures echoed in my head. You can never allow yourself to lose your temper, especially in front of your men. Keep a cool head, because your worst enemy, in the end, is yourself. Remember that. Hold it in, none of the lives placed in your care will be threatened by a decision made in anger instead of the heat of the moment.
Almost immediately, I reeled in my anger, visibly reducing myself in physical size as the rage subsided within me. I had to make a plan.
“Alright,” I said, after a moment. “Call the troops in. Not much more we can do today. This site is another dead zone, and it’s getting close to dark. We’ll be rubbing up against plain jane organized crime, which nobody really cares about right now. Region’ll be too crowded to care.”
“Sir…” Gold said, pointing to the hole I had punched in the wall with my makeshift missile.
It was a false panel, torn to the shreds. I don’t know how we’d missed it. But then I realized the monitor had smashed through an entire bookshelf, laden with random chemistry texts. Kee-hrist.
Beyond the splintered bookshelf was a two-meter recess, evidently patched over by the drywall.
And on the newly revealed backwall was a steel security door. Nope, no lessons learned here, nosiree
I examined the lock for a couple seconds, before keying my mike. “Eh, Fender. Got a computer lock up here in the manager’s office. Need you to take a look at it.”
Not soon after I sent out the call than Pete Fender appeared at the top of the metal staircase, already unzipping the cover on his wrist computer. I only needed to point him in the direction of the door.
He inspected and scrutinized and analyzed the lock for a good two minutes before sitting back up.
“See, I’ve actually got a key for this sort of thing,” Fender said nonchalantly. “It’s an old model; terrorists probably spent all their money on the set-up.”
My face lit up, while Gold, leaning against a far desk, arms crossed, smiled silently. “Really?” I asked.
“Yeah,” Fender said, unlimbering a grenade launcher. “Fire in the hole!”
He aimed the M79 at where the lowest hinge and fired at point-blank range.
The effect was nothing short of spectacular. Fender clearly didn’t have a normal 40mm HEAP around loaded. It was something special, a concentrated load-out that acted almost like a laser cannon, literally boring straight through the armored hinge.
“Like I said,” Fender shrugged, loading another shell, one with an orange-band of tape around it. “Old school.”
He fired again at the top hinge and the entire door fell inward. Gold was on his feet and by my side, as we both swept the interior of the carpeted vault with our MP5s. “Clear,” I called.
Fender slotted his launcher onto a large slot on the back-plate of his body armor. “Not everything’s solved by computers, boss. When in doubt, blow shit up.”
“Yeah, well,” I said, trailing off as I saw the interior of the vault in greater detail.
Another goddamn barrel. Smashed computers.
Striding swiftly over to the barrel, I overturned it easily, knocking it over with a knee. Ash and smoking debris scattered over the white floor.
My eyes widened. “Gold!” I called. “Fire extinguisher!”
Overturning the remains of the bookcase, I literally dropped the entire affair onto the section of fire, nearly smothering it instantly. Gold was behind me in a second; foam blasting out of the nozzle of the extended extinguisher.
Smoke drifted lazily from the doused remains, reacting poorly with the cheap carpet.
“What’d you see, sir?” asked Fender after he made sure none of the computers had survived.
Easily flipping over the bookcase, I beheld a patch of documents not scorched by the flames. At least four pictures had survived behind scorched.
Bending over, I retrieved the evidence, glancing over it.
“Gold, take a look at this,” I said, waving him over. “This who I think it is?”
Gold’s mouth formed a tight white line as he saw the face on the photograph. “al-Hassan. But this is Hutaree, the Christian anti-government McVeigh types. Why would they have pictures – wait, that next photo, is that Ed Wazkowski? Meeting with al-Hassan?”
“Looks like it,” I declared. “So the leaders of the groups are meeting. That would explain the tip-offs.”
“Yup,” Gold nodded. “Looks like they’re pooling their resources for one big job. Normally these guys wouldn’t be able to stand the sight of each other. They have to have one damn big target for them to get over their differences and work together, eh? What’s the last photo?”
I flipped over to the last surviving shot, and my blood ran cold. It was a collection of photos, a double-stacked collection of two rows of faceshots. All grizzled, professional-looking men dressed in black suits.
“Christ,” I breathed. “That’s Secret Service Team Romeo.”
And a red X had been drawn over each face with what I sincerely hoped was crimson crayon.
“Thoughts?” Gold said.
“Give me a second,” I said, leaning against a nearby wall and staring hard at the mugshots as though imploring more information to leap out at me.
Bateau’s voice crackled over my shoulder radio. “Sir, Russian Mafia types are rolling up a block down. Looks like they’re setting up shop for the night. I see some big guns: at least one LMG and a couple underbarrel M203s. Recommend we’re not here when they come poking around.”
“I here you, Sergeant,” I said. “PALE HORSE, pack up. We’re out in two minutes.” Looking up at Fender, I said, “Yo, Pete, found anything more?”
Fender looked up, and brandished a cell phone. “Hells yeah.”
“It works?” Gold asked, surprised.
“Yeah, but battery’s a tad low. Someone was stupid enough to toss it in the bin. Just a little scorched, but a fat ol’ text covered it from most of the damage.”
Tucking the photos into a plastic bag, I unslung my MP5. “Nothing else in the room?”
“Nope,” said Fender, fiddling with the phone, before attaching a zip-cable from his wrist computer to a port of the mobile. “Not many numbers on here. Last three calls are to a ‘ECW.’”
Gold met my eyes. “Wazkowski?” he asked.
“Maybe,” I said. “Fender, pack up, we’re oscar mike.”
“Give me a sec, sir. My comp connects to the NSA database – I can track down even those new ‘untraceable’ phones on the market. Let me ring up Wazkowski. It would help to have a target to gun for once we’re out of here.”
“You’ve got ten seconds,” I said, as Fender dialed the cell.
Almost instantly, the floor beneath me began to tweedle.
“Gold,” I said slowly. “Tell me I’m not insane.”
“You’re not insane, boss,” Gold said, shouldering his MP5 and aiming it the floor. “I hear it too.”
Stepping back, I drew my kukri from a sheath at the small of my back and began to slice at the floor, hacking away a meter-wide section of carpet.
“Gold,” I called. “Give me a hand here. Fender, cover me.”
“Got it,” said Fender, drawing his Five-seveN with one hand and aiming it at the slowly appearing baseboard.
“Shit,” Gold said, “looks like there’s a whole crawlspace down her – gee-zus, what’s that smell?”
Together, we threw the carpet to the side.
Revealing the dozen bullet-ridden bodies of the Hutaree Christian Militia. The butt pocket of one man – I couldn’t read his face, for his entire head was a mask of dried blood – beeped insistently as the cell phone lodged their began to vibrate.
“Crap,” I stated, matter of factly. “These groups we’re clearing out. They were being cleared out. By MIDNIGHT.”
“I bet,” Gold mused, “that if we had a couple more hours with this place we’d find all sort of tiny pieces of evidence linking these groups together and pointing them towards whatever they have planned with the secret service. They set them up to as fall boys.”
“Shit!” Bateau’s voice crackled once again over the radio. “O’Brien just found some incendiary charges at the foundations, sir. On some sort of countdown.”
“Can you disable them?” I asked.
“No, Hawley says they’ve got some sort of anti-tampering device on them. Says we touch ‘em, the entire place goes.”
“Copy that,” I responded. “We’re on our way down. Get your men out.” Turning to Gold, who was snapping pictures of the corpses alongside Fender, I said, “Not that it matters. MIDNIGHT’s torching the evidence behind them.”
“This entire thing doesn’t track,” stated Fender as he zipped up his computer and stowed his digital camera. “Why frame the militias for any upcoming mission or attack if you burn the bodies? There’s clearly some evidence here framing the militias – there’s no reason the photos wouldn’t have burned if they weren’t here for us. And it can’t be a trap. It’s a lazy one if it is.”
“Agree,” said Gold, storing his own camera in a cargo pocket. “But let’s get out. I’m not getting caught in another burning building.”
I smiled thinly, remembering the end of the BAD BOYS mission. “Yeah. We’re oscar mike.”
Baylor | November 4th, 2014 | Three Days Before World’s End
Anne set the videophone down on the table. “Ridley, Easly – Baylor and I are on the line.”
I sat back in the creaky kitchen chair and sipped the Diet Coke as the projected faces of Jack Ridley, MI6, and Colonel Hank Easly, USAF turned to face us.
“Room’s clean?” asked Ridley, his face ‘glancing’ around the suburban kitchen.
“I don’t even know why you bother to ask that anymore,” I said tiredly. “I mean, you’ve used my ECM on other occasions.”
Easly’s careful basso voice cut in. “What my colleague means to say, John, is that we can’t take any more risks than we need to, not with the potential of an attack on the horizon.”
I glanced around the room, specifically eying the windows. Back when he had bought this house, Chuck Lennox had rigged it so that nobody would be able to mess with it, surveillance wise, without him knowing it first. This went on down to the glass panes of the windows, which had been specifically engineered so as the whole “laser on the window to detect the vibrations” trick of old spy novels would be completely ineffective. Little did I know it when I had first met his widow, Anne, but the Lennox’s house could lock down so tight that not even Santa Claus could magic his way inside.
Anne sat in the chair opposite the table from me, a pad of paper before her and a pen cradled in one hand. With her hair swept back into a tail and her glasses on, she looked less like an average housewife and more an undercover NTET analyst – which was what she was. I hadn’t known it at the time, but she had been Ridley’s contact during the Russian Crisis, with her husband feeding the British spymaster PALE HORSE’s movements during the entire affair.
Lennox himself was still a mystery to me. Cutler, Lennox’s treacherous XO, had claimed Lennox had been in the theft of the BLACK prototype only for the money, and Lennox hadn’t disputed the statement. But in the aftermath of Sechalin’s demise, I had sought out Anne Lennox, Chuck’s widow, for closure. She had let onto her complicity in the entire affair, which in turn caused me to completely lose my shit, so to speak. I had tracked her down through NTET channels, only for Ridley himself to let on that she was an NTET operative.
It so obviously wasn’t the whole story that the entire thing was ridiculous, but neither Ridley nor Anne had let on further to the mystery of the Lennox family. Even the little kid, a sixth-grader named Timmy, looked like he knew something. In the end, Anne Lennox’s house represented an NTET safe zone in New York City, where I could duck down and discuss recent developments.
I observed the two other participants in the conversation. Ridley was Ridley was Ridley, a spy some ten years my senior. I had originally met him back at the Paragon some eight years ago, where he had been in deep cover and saved me from an untimely death. The guy had even given me my trusty bandanna, which practically made us bros – at least until it turned out he had been making deals with the likes of Chandra Gosely and Chaos Farley. I hadn’t spoken but ten words to Ridley over the past three years outside of the job.
Easly was a different case. While my cybernetics were unnoticeable until I got into a fight, Easly had the whole Terminator glowing red-eye from the get-go. He had lost the original in a dogfight against a fearsome WRAITH UCAV. That had been the cue for the Colonel – Phoenix One – to retire from active operations – well; he had only been involved in the Cambodia op as a favor for a friend. Now he operated mission control for any American that the President’s anti-MIDNIGHT initiative (boy, did I need a better name than that – maybe DAYLIGHT or the like) ran. Easly was reliable, stoic, and a good hint of what I’d become if I didn’t follow down Ridley or Storm’s path. The good Colonel had lost something vital back in Cambodia.
“So what’s the news, Captain?” Easly asked, looking away from the computer screen painted behind him to look at what was probably a desk-mounted camera.
“The warehouses were all cleared out,” I said. “Flat gone, any evidence being burned. We thought at first the cells were collaborating somehow, until we reached the Hutaree hideout in Brooklyn. We managed to find the bodies of the militia’s leadership stuffed under the floorboards, but we forced out by local activity as well as, get this: incendiary devices planted on a countdown.
Anne looked up. “I agree with the Captain on this, the conclusions are obvious: whoever killed the terrorists, they wanted us to find them. Otherwise the building would have been a smoking crater before PALE HORSE arrived.”
“Moreover,” I said, “we rolled by the warehouses we had passed earlier. All were in the process of burning down or where already covered with crime scene tape while the arson investigators poked at a pile of ash.”
“So,” Ridley said, scratching his chin, “Whatever final conclusions we draw from all of this, you think it’s a trap?”
“Most likely,” I agreed. “But there’s a small possibility we could attribute this all to incompetence.”
“What do you mean, Baylor?” asked Easly.
“This isn’t MIDNIGHT’s style. When they want something gone, it’s gone. They wouldn’t play some game to lead us on. I’m thinking one of their pet terrorist groups decided it wanted to be top dog – and, in the name of working together, they off all their competition and take their supplies and intel. On their own, any one of those terrorist groups wouldn’t be much of a problem. But combined, with a single unified purpose and no conflicting ideologies, they’d be like a one-shot missile launcher. They’ll only get one chance before the feds take them down, but whatever target they hit, they hit hard.”
Anne glanced at the print-out of Wazkowski meeting with al-Hassan. “But which terrorist group? Which one do we look out for?”
“And what are they doing with the Secret Service team? It’s not like they can impersonate a group in an environment like that around the US President. She could tell the difference, and if not, there are about a dozen other people who could.”
“Heads up,” said Easly. “NSA just finished decrypting some heavy files on the phone. Looks like al-Hassan’s group was going to host a meeting with the militia groups tonight.”
“Where?” I asked.
“At the Saint Industries plant in Queens. That is, looks like they were planning a raid for tonight.”
“But they were cleaned out by al-Hassan, or someone else,” noted Anne. “So why would al-Hassan liquidate his own help?”
“Didn’t want competition,” I guessed, leaning back.
“Or, perhaps, it wasn’t al-Hassan,” retorted Ridley. “Point is, we don’t have enough to go on with just this data.”
“Jack’s right,” agreed Easly, retrieving a PDA from off the screen. “Our best bet to expand our pool of intel is to investigate the plant. Worst case scenario, it’s a trap and your men waste a bunch of terrorists.”
“This whole thing doesn’t feel right,” muttered Anne.
“We’re sending the data over about the meeting now, Baylor,” said Easly. “Meeting’s in a little less than two hours, so you’ll be able to get over there and set up assuming light traffic. We’re running inquiries with Saint Industries now to see what they have that’s valuable at the plant.”
“Alright,” I said, standing and downing the rest of my cola. “Here’s the gameplan. I’m having two teams running tonight. Team Two, led by Sergeant Bateau, checks out the plant, loaded for bear. Meanwhile, Team One, which I’m leading, RZs with Secret Service Team Romeo. We’ll be running the infiltration gear, with teams in reserve incase anything goes down. Way things are, we need to tip off the SecServ, and in person.”
“Keep us updated,” said Easly. “We’re getting news of increased chatter over the international terrorist channels. Looks like a lot of people are banking on what happens tonight.”
He and Ridley cut their vidfeeds. I stood to go, shrugging on my shoulder harness. Anne stood with me, connecting her eyes with mine. “John… be careful.”
“You know me.” I punched her lightly on the arm. “Like telling a dog not to bark. I’ll be fine.”
Baylor | November 4th, 2014 | Three Days Before World’s End
I tapped Gold on the shoulder. “Where’s POTUS’s motorcade right now?”
Gold, sitting next to me in the back seat of one of Team One’s multiple black SUVs, checked his PDA. “Looks like they’ve just crossed over the Queensboro bridge, heading to La Guardia for pickup by Air Force One.”
I nodded to Pillsbury, who was driving. We needed to catch the convoy before it got into the air and out of our hands.
Everything was happening at the speed of light. Just this afternoon we had uncovered dozens of question with pitifully few answers. So, waiting for Bateau to report in, I review the facts.
Multiple militia bases cleared out. Looks to be work of single militia. Have been observing Secret Service Team and Saint Industries facility. Dead militia leaders supposedly having meeting tonight at SI factory with supposed perpetrator. Facts not watertight, though. Clues make it look like a set up, but either option is on the table at this point. This could be a clean terrorist operation, but MIDNIGHT has a hand in this.
The question is, how?
They’d be providing materiel to some of the groups. We had trace evidence and surveillance photographs from yesterday’s stakeouts showing equipment in use that worked directly in line with the Paragon’s old modus operandi. But the Paragon had a different focus – their tech was handed out to foreign groups, on the condition that it was used to weaken American’s enemies and never used against America.
Here, MIDNIGHT was fermenting these groups within their own borders. And why play these many groups in the same area. It was a pressure cooker.
Unless, of course, it didn’t matter who came out on top. The wise man, after all, doesn’t plan. He steers. So, by providing information here, a passcode there, a cache of tech there, MIDNIGHT could play petri dish in trying to orient whatever their survival of the fittest group for whatever they had in mind. Moreover, the resulting chaos of a turf war between terrorist groups would obscure whatever fingerprints MIDNIGHT left on the operation.
But what was the end goal, then? If the means didn’t matter, it just further begged the question of the ends. I focused on the mission before me.
Saint Industries. Well-known defense contractor. Major supplier to special operations command.
“Gold,” I said. “I need all the foreign contracts in relation to Saint Industries around over the past seven years – really, starting mid-2005. Limit the focus to Central America. You’re going to need to case any off-the-grid files for this as well, so see if you can use General Farley’s old passcodes to access the old black boxes.”
“Sir – oh, I see. I think.” Gold leaned over and conferred with Fender, who was in the front passenger’s seat, typing rapidly on an open laptop.
“Actually, Fender,” I said. “You take that job. Gold, I need to know what’s contained at the SI facility. What’s there that could be of interest to al-Hassan.”
“Already got that part,” Fender announced. “Who’s awesome? I am. Look,” he said, orienting his laptop so we could see it in the back. “It’s an R&D facility, specializing in prototype personal-wear armor. Dragonscale, that sort of thing. There’s also a black section of the lab complex that I can’t access, and which is rebuffing Farley’s codebreakers. I’m working with the NSA right now to case the locks.”
“And what about the Central American contracts?”
“Working on that too. I’ve got a rough idea of what you’re looking for… wait, got it now. 2007, Saint Industries signed a deal with one General Weber over the contents of a supply cache in the La Cinco Muertes island chain.”
“Son of a bitch,” I said.
“What?” Gold asked, and then groaned. “The Paragon was located there, right? You’re thinking MIDNIGHT contracted out some of the Paragon’s projects when it moved its location out of the hemisphere?”
“Yeah, so we need to find out what’s in the black labs over at the facility,” I stated. Tapping my ear mike, I called Bateau in. “Team Two, you hearing this?”
“Loud and clear, boss,” Bateau responded. “Be better to know what we’re dealing with if al-Hassan decides to do his business early.”
“Could be anything,” Fender mused. “Hell, it may not even be TEMPEST-related. The Paragon was in involved with bioweapons first, after all…” Motioning to Gold, he switched seats so I could see the laptop more clearly.
“Any response back from POTUS’s motorcade?” I asked Zelie over the channel.
“They’re running dark,” the comm specialist replied. “No, not a distress signal. Something’s up, but it isn’t major. It’s a special type of comm signal I haven’t seen before, boss.”
“Figure it out, then,” I said. “Phoenix One, Team One,” I called into base, “no word yet from the motorcade. Any word from your end, we’re getting a signal our comm operator doesn’t recognize.”
“Phoenix One copies, Team One,” Easly was on instantly. “We’ve got the same signal now. Secret Service Command is mum about the issue, but we know what the signal means: it’s an old nonreply code.”
“Define ‘old,’ Phoenix One,” I said seriously.
“Hasn’t been used since Johnson old. It’s what special forces teams use when they’re on a mission that operates out of the chain of command. Basically states that noninterference is required and that whatever mission the broadcaster had is of the utmost importance.”
“Jesus, if Skye knows something, she needs to clue us into the intel loop,” I growled.
“It couldn’t have come at a worse time,” Gold commented.
“Explains why she’s leaving the UN, though,” Fender said. “Something’s come up and she needs to get underground. Looking at the AF1 flightplan, it’s blacked out under the same nonresponse code.”
“Sir, we’re pulling up to the SI facility. We’re cool so far.”
“Totally awesome,” I groaned. “Any response from the inside?”
“None. Dead air. We’re making ready for a hard infiltration.” I grimaced. Such an oxymoron.
“But we got a response from them when we let them know you were coming,” Easly noted from the sidelines. Its past closing time, breach and clear.”
“You heard him,” I relayed to Bateau. “Fender, any word on what’s in the facility?”
“Almost done with the decryption, boss,” Fender responded. “Whatever’s in there, it’s got the most recent black ops firewalls. Unique to every operation. We have our own key, and apparently SI has their own encryption – wait, got it, it’s loading now. We’ve only unlocked the outer layer; the inner layers will take way more time, maybe a couple days-”
“What’re we looking at, Fender?” I asked, cutting to the chase.
“Sir, I believe Saint Industries holds the contract to construct INTEGRAL TEMPESTS.”
“Christ,” I said. “They’re gearing up. To crack something tough.”
“Sir,” Bateau dropped in. “We’re in. But it’s not pretty. Looks like someone lined up the research staff and executed them. And we’ve got evidence of INTEGRAL manufacturing. Some final products here, but several are missing. Looks like four all about.”
“Shit,” Gold said. “Four TEMPESTS. That’s a lot of firepower. They’re making a move for Skye. Look, the nonresponse code is cover.”
“Looks that way,” Bateau said. “We’ve got dead Secret Service boys here. Looks like someone tried to burn the corpses, but we managed to get the fires out. We’re checking dentals now.”
“Fender, get on that,” I ordered.
“Uploading…” Fender said, biting his lip. “Running them through the SecServ personnel database… One sec, aaaand we’ve got a match. Sir, it’s a member of Team Romeo.”
Gold tensed, following the chains of logic. “No reason for a Romeo Team member to be there. Either al-Hassan’s boys turned a member of Team Romeo and replaced him, or the killed one of the bunch that decided to play on the good side. Point is, we’re looking at a compromised Team Romeo.”
“Aaaaand I can safely assume, just for extra great luck that Team Romeo is on the roster for Skye’s motorcade?” I said dejectedly.
“Got it in one,” Fender said. “Teams Romeo, Sierra, and Tango.”
“Guys,” Zelie said. “The nonresponse code from the motorcade just flatlined. We’ve got dead air.”
“Gold,” I said, motioning to the back of the SUV. “Get the night vision rig up. Check the alleys.”
“You got it,” the Lieutenant said, clambering over the back seat and unlatching a massive grey crate. He handled me a pair of goggles, and I passed them along to Fender. I had my own set, and I tapped my temple twice, throwing the world into shades of green. Fender racked the slide on his SOPMOD to my right as I began to check out each alley we passed.
“We’re about six blocks from the motorcade,” Pillsbury said from behind the wheel. “If al-Hassan’s going to try anything, he’ll do it before we get too close.”
“Roger,” I said, touching my hand to my ear mike. “PALE HORSE, lock and load. Check your flanks. This may be Astoria, but for all we care it’s Fallujah. Check your corners and flanks.”
“No response from the convoy,” Zelie called in over teamcom. “Still dead air.”
I tapped Pillsbury on the shoulder. “Gun it.”
Just as he jammed down on the accelerator, a fireball bloomed in the distance down by the LaGuardia entrance. Dusk was transformed to dawn, but the fireball faded quickly, taking the last remnants of daylight with it.
“Woah!” Gold called, barely avoiding being blinded by tossing his face in the other direction and thus sparing his goggled eyes from being overloaded.
Chattering gunfire and the shrieking of torn metal could be heard in the distance as the buildings began to blur together.
I had just reached back to grab a weapon – a black tactical shotgun with a folding stock - of my own off the rear rack when the INTEGRAL TEMPEST stepped into the street, leveled a heavy machine gun, and opened fire on our oncoming vehicle.
Baylor | November 4th, 2014 | Three Days Before World’s End
I yanked Fender to the floor of the cavernous SUV as a line of spiderweb cracks raked across the windshield. It was bulletproof, but bulletproof didn’t preclude heavy caliber bullet hoses.
Gold’s head snapped back and blood splattered the passenger’s side window to his right. Pillsbury swore and swerved to avoid the I’m-going-to-hold-my-ground TEMPEST just as a bullet caught in the shoulder, just past where his vest protected. He swore and jerked the wheel reflexively in the alternate direction.
The SUV spun alarmingly, one set of wheels coming off the ground as he began to tip over.
The INTEGRAL TEMPEST met the out-of-control block of angry Detroit Thunder, standing its ground more or less. Pushing the strap of the HMG until the gun was safely behind its back, the TEMPEST drew its arms back like readying a baseball pitch before punching down, hard on the right nose of the vehicle’s hood.
The reaction was instantaneous. The SUV jackknifed, flipping over the cyborg handily – and came to a halt, nose pointing straight down, as it didn’t have enough momentum to carry over for a full flip. We all hung there for a second, before coming crashing down onto the TEMPEST. To the operator of the suit’s credit, he managed to catch us, Iron Man-style, and gravity took over the situation before he could work up the strength to toss us into a nearby building.
The ass-end of the SUV touched down, and Pillsbury, who still had his wits about him, gunned the engine, sending the vehicle bursting forward and catching the TEMPEST askance across the front bumper, arms spread wide, crumpling the metal in its grip as it tried to maintain its precarious hold.
Fender leveled his SOPMOD at the half-shattered windshield and opened fire over Pillsbury’s shoulder.
The TEMPEST shrugged off the trail of fire that centered in on its left eye, I was groaned inwardly. The first batch of INTEGRAL TEMPESTS, prototypes gifted to groups like WRAITH and the US Air Force, had kinks in the armor that repeated point-blank or high-caliber shoulder shatter – like the glowing blue rectangular ‘eyes’ of the armored helmet.
“Boss,” Fender said sourly, “I think this one’s for you… Yo, Baylor, go fight that INTEGRAL TEMPEST”
I glared at the Corporal. “Oh, man, you only said that because I’m a cyborg and he’s still going to punch me in the face. Yeah, that’s cool. It’s totally awesome.”
The TEMPEST didn’t think much of our conversation, and released one iron-fisted grip on the hood to slot forth a wrist-mounted submachine gun from its right gauntlet.
“Oh, well,” I said, vaulting forward out of the backseat, placing a hand on each of the front seats, and vaulted out through the gaping hole in the windshield, planting both my boots onto the TEMPEST’s face. Spinning around with superhuman speed, perched there like a gymnast in the moment of forward motion on the armor’s angry mask, I twirled to face the hand of the TEMPEST and fired at it point-blank with my shotgun.
The blast may not have much damaged the gauntlet, but the sudden, jarring impact was more than enough to shake loose the hand’s grip on the hood.
The TEMPEST was sucked underneath the SUV as I pushed back off his face. I was suddenly floating in the air as the SUV sped by underneath me, trundling over the armor, and suddenly I was falling back down to earth. I rolled and came to my feet to the left of the TEMPEST, which bouncing out from the rear wheels of my fleeing ride and tumbled easily to its feet in the best Iron Man impression the armor’s operator could pull off.
I was already darting to the side, trying to put distance between me and the suit – a hand-to-hand battle out in the open like this wouldn’t do much for my life expectancy without the operator being seriously dazed, which he obviously wasn’t – shucking the action on my shotgun and firing away as quickly as I could into the TEMPEST’s boots, hoping to blow him off his feet.
At the same time, the TEMPEST brought forth its scuffed HMG – which had somehow survived the adventure under the SUV with its belt still attached – in one hand and leveled its wrist SMG with the other and opened fire. Bullets opened up sparks on closed restaurant storefronts as I leapt, flipped, and all around dodged for my life as I tried to avoid the streams of lead.
As I ran, I knew my options were slim to nil. I knew I had seconds before the TEMPEST zeroed in on something my limited trial version cyborg awesomeness didn’t take care of, so I closed back in, flipping over the TEMPEST’s head and drawing my kukri, hoping to get at a weak spot in the neck armor.
No cigar. The TEMPEST’s right arm shot out – I always underestimated the reflexes of the whole TEMPEST family and wrapped around my ankle, continuing my momentum around as the armor slung me into a nearby light pole. I had barely seconds to recover in midair and spun around the cement mast with agility that would put the Olympics to shame. Getting tossed through the air was something that always to seemed to happen constantly during my fights and such, so I figured that, with my newfound grace, I’d start turning those inevitable moments into a quick and unexpected rebound.
I spun around the light pole twice, building up momentum before I flung a small metal object towards the TEMPEST. His wrist gun easily acquired the speeding target like a hunter shooting a clay pigeon from the air, but that was exactly what I had expected of the suit’s reflexes. The flashbang exploded into a starburst and the TEMPEST reeled momentarily.
Giving me enough of an opening to rip a nearby blue mailbox from its mounts and throw a more impressive shot at my opponent. The metal missile struck the TEMPEST across its barrel chest, exploding into shrapnel and fluttering envelopes and knocking the suit back a good several meters.
And then I was on the INTEGRAL TEMPEST.
I had once faced a Soviet cyborg in close quarters combat, with three of my most trusted friends and allies at my side. The cyborg had nearly one, killing two of us – beating them to a pulp with his bare hands – and had survived more torture and punishment that I would have thought physically possible. Even the downgraded bodyguard cyborgs I had faced upon the late station MIR had given me a run for my money, forcing my to place my very life of a ticking time clock in order to give myself to power to defy them.
And now I unleashed that very same ferocity on the mechanical titan before me. My shotgun was up and pressed against the cyborg’s right knee joint, temporarily jamming in a flash of fire and buckshot. As the cyborg spun to grab at me, it faltered, fingers grasping just out of reach of the edges of my bulletproof vest. I already had my kukri in hand and had it skittering up the suit’s back, searching with lightning speed for any joints in the armor I could slip my blade into. Nothing.
I threw the shotgun into the air, caught it by the stock, and shucked it Sarah Connor-style, dropping the armed firearm back into my grip and blasting the SMG mounted on the wrist coming around to perforate me with one bullet-laden uppercut. The armored weapon exploded in a shower of sparks as the point-blank blast slamming the wrist into the ground at terminal speeds.
Knowing my shotgun was empty; I flipped it around one more time and slammed it across the TEMPEST’s face. The blow barely slapped the helmet around to look to the left – the pilot turned its head slowly back to glare balefully with those icy blue eyes at me and my shattered shotgun.
I knew the blow was coming, and tried to turn to the side as fast as I could, but I couldn’t completely avoid the rabbit-jab from gut level that caught me just below the rib cage and sent me careening off another light post, leaving a Baylor-sized crater in the concrete. My world went red as the INTEGRAL TEMPEST took advantage of the backhanded blow to instantly close the distance between us in something of a flash-step.
My only response was to let my legs go underneath me and crumple to the ground as the TEMPEST drove both fists, Street Fighter Style, into the lamp, shattering the concrete with an earth-shattering kaboom.
I tried to scramble away, but the TEMPEST was already raising its boot to crush my head – I rolled as a metallic meteor impacts inches to the left of my face, shards of concrete racing red lines across my cheek as I vaulted to my feet in the time it took for the suit to rip its boot from the pavement.
Fading back into the darkness, I circled silently around the TEMPEST before it could acquire me. Giving the electronic approximation of a curse, the pilot brought up the HMG still in its grip and raked the air around it. Bullets sizzled in front of me as I skidded to a halt in order to avoid becoming swiss cheese. From there, it was a short skip, hop, and a leap into the TEMPEST’s back.
The operator responded nearly immediately, scrabbling for me, but I already had my kukri held high in the air and brought it down violently into the top of the suit’s neon blue spinal column. The kukri skipped upward as hydraulic fluid began boiling everywhere in a high-pressure breach, coating a nearby wall in a blue-white ooze.
By then I had already leapt back off the TEMPEST, not even pausing to slow my assault. Removing the second grenade from my pouch – a very real HE grenade, I tossed it at the blinded TEMPEST with fingers crossed.
The pilot managed to rip off his malfunctioning helmet – revealing a handsome Middle Eastern man sporting a mean goatee – just in time to see the grenade incoming. The man held up an arm to shield his uncovered back while tossing his helmet half-heartedly at the explosive.
The two connected in mid-air, detonating between us and sending us both skidding a dozen feet backwards – the TEMPEST deep into a storefront, me towards the curb of the far sidewalk, unceremoniously dumping me on my rear.
I paused to observe the crater in the obsidian storefront where not even a single blue eye winked out from, and decided that, in the time it would take for the TEMPEST to rip himself out from that mess, I could easily reached the convoy.
I pulled myself shakily to my feet and took off at a dead sprint.
Baylor | November 4th, 2014 | Three Days Before World’s End
Crossing the corner at the end of the street, I emerged into a warzone. Black SUVS were flipped, sprawled everywhere like discarded hot wheels cars, some on fire, some smoking carcasses. Bursts of gunfire, their sources backlit by the tufts of flame, winked every which way. Green laser sights scythed through the darkness.
I saw Fender and Zelie crouched behind the engine block of our totaled vehicle, swearing as bullets thundered over their heads.
Alright. Game face.
I strolled into the street, snatching a pair of handguns from a dead Secret Service against and harness of ammo. “Fender!” I called. “Where’s POTUS?”
Fender spun to face me and his eyes widened. “Down at the far end! She’s trapped in her car. There are plainclothes hajjis and Secret Service impersonators standing for Team Six. They’ve got a gauntlet set up down a straight funnel, we can’t get past!”
“Well, then,” I muttered grimly. “My turn. You guys are with me, don’t fall behind.”
Taking a deep breath, I spun to face the avenue of death.
My tactics had changed considerably with my new soviet outfit, in case you couldn’t tell when I did a sideways pirouette on that TEMPEST’s hand. What had been formerly a game of sneaking, flanking, and extermination was now…
I took two bounding steps and leapt off the hood of the closest automobile.
Four terrorists – clad in black paramilitary gear, whirled at the sound of me vaulting off the SUV, denting the metal beneath my. Their green lasers swept around wildly, and I landed lightly between the pair of the left.
I came up, firing two shots into the neck of the nearest dickwad, blowing his brains into the air as I pivoted, holding his body in front of me as the farthest terrorist unloaded his Uzi into what he thought was my shimmering form. The corpse in my grasp danced wildly, and I shoved the bloodied mannequin away, into its partner. My other gun was up as dickwad number two caught the body haphazardly, one more shot taking off the side of Two’s head.
I was already rolling by the time Three and Four unloaded their reloaded SMGs into the space I had been moments before, without even enough time for Two’s headless body to hit the concrete.
But I was already firing, just as the terrorists ducked back into cover – I took a round in my chest armor, but tanked through it as tendrils of red gathered at the edges of my vision
Striding swiftly forward, I emptied one of my pistols at Three in order to keep his head down. Click. Gun empty.
Four peaked his head and Uzi up, and I tossed my pistol at him, sending him sprawling backward in a fountain of blood as his nose broke audibly. And then I was already on top of the burning roof of the sedan the Three and Four were hiding behind, hands forward and planted as I swung in legs underneath me and outward in a straight kick that sent the flailing Four flying backward and skidding across the street.
Three swore in Arabic as his gun went dry and went for his sidearm, but I was faster, already off the sedan, landing in an easy crouch, dropping my spent sidearm, and coming upward with a kukri to slash Four’s neck. I resumed by confident stride- confidence was key here – down the roadblock
Three moaned behind me as he rolled pitifully, holding his bleeding nose. Without sparing a glance at him, I fired my remaining pistol offhanded, catching him in the nose. His cries ceased.
That’s when Five and Six opened up with their assault rifles. I saw them coming up from behind cover, and I leapt to the side, easily morphing my stride into a sprint and bounding off the side of a nearby SUV into deliver a 9mm-backed punch to Five’s face. The terrorist went down when the haymaker-backed bullet caught him across the cheek, while Six leveled his rifle at my back – onto the torn to shreds as Fender and Zelie, struggling to follow in my wake, let go with their SOPMODs.
Alright. One squad down. Two more to go.
Li’s voice buzzed in my ear. “Major, PALE HORSE ONE-Two is on the scene, ready to support.”
“Copy that,” I responded without so much as breaking my rhythm. Ducking behind a car, I slid free the magazine of the spent Glock and fed into a new clip, nodding to Zelie and Fender two cars back.
An underbarrel-launched grenade struck my cover near the farthest wheel well and flipped the vehicle entirely over my head. One second, I was prepping myself for another burst of asskickery, the next I found myself crouched, ass facing an entire squad of terrorists. Despite myself, I fell backwards, having spent all my grace points over the past several minutes.
Li’s SUV rolled out into the street behind me and the sunroof opened, revealing an emerging minigun. Li sat in the newly created turret, and racked the action on the gatling gun, nodding professionally to me as he jammed both thumbs down on the twin firing studs.
There was an almighty, pervasive sound that was more like a thousand pillows ripping in half at once than a minigun opening up on down the street.
Bodies, their owners not lucky enough to dodge for cover in time, simply evaporated under the hailstorm of lead.
Then I saw a pair of Secret Service agents – I knew they were baddies because the only other Secret Service agents I had seen so far had been dead dead dead – each ready a Javelin missile launcher.
“Shit!” I shouted into my jawline radio. “Li, get out of there,”
Li nodded as the words came into his earpiece, and the SUV gunned forward with an unheard word to the driver.
Two tracking missiles ejected from their launchers, rocket motors igniting some thirty feet out, streaking like lances from god, all that was visible their exhaust plumes, towards ONE-Two.
Li tracked the rockets with his tracers, catching one across the nose and sending the missile blossoming into a starburst of flame – but the second caught the SUV across its ass, sending it spinning out of sight wildly.
And I was up and running again, pegging the would-be assassins with my pistol, flipping over their falling bodies to land next to Nine through Thirteen.
Nine already had a pistol up and firing, but I shrugged the round off as it careened off my vest, sliding in behind the would-be terrorist and stabbing him in the throat. Blood arced as I withdrew the massive kukri and drove a hard kick into Ten, throwing him flat on his face without so much as a helpless grunt.
Eleven was on me in an instant, and I had to hurriedly parry a massive bowie knife. My cybernetically-enhanced reflexes allowed me to snake a hand around the extended arm and yank Eleven forward, clamping an elbow down across his ribs and pinning his against my side, facing downward.
Out of the corners of my vision I saw Secret Service moles, simple wraiths backlit by a towering wall of flames, yanking a limp form out of the farthest SUV – the short blond hair confirmed it to be President Skye.
Somewhere behind me another car exploded. The trio trying to exit the battlefield was thrown into stark relief, painted against the midnight horizon.
And then I was back into speed-mode, slashing Eleven’s spine and whipping up my handgun in one clean motion, forcing Twelve back into cover by blowing off one of Twelve’s fingers. The startled terrorist blinked as his handgun, as well as his trigger finger, were yanked from his grip, and he fell backwards – right into the waiting sights of Zelie, who blew the target away.
Ten was back up and raising his pistol, but I was almost ridiculously faster, landing a double-tap in his forehead that sent him flying. The world almost seemed to pulse as I fired my gun, and I realized I was on the verge of dangerously overclocking my mind if I kept this up for much longer.
No, I couldn’t stop now. Not with Skye about to be dragged away.
I yanked Eleven upward as a meat shield just as Thirteen brought his buddies – what you could probably guess were Fourteen and Fifteen – around from the left, hoping to flank me and cover the kidnapper’s escape.
Eleven kindly absorbed a trio of slugs for me, and I shoved the body at the oncoming terrorists before they could break for cover, sending them all to the ground like bowling pins Thirteen’s shotgun went off before he could get my head it is sights.
I resumed my sprint down the street, ignoring the bullets chasing my heels as Fourteen dug himself free of the tangle of bodies, yelling into his microphone – only to be sideswiped by a burst from Fender.
Everything was reaching a tunnel now as I clambered over the President’s burning SUV, firing my handgun’s last bullet into one of Skye’s captors.
A van screeched down a sidestreet, a massive white delivery job, the sort you’d expect the Agency to use. Skidding to a halt, the van disgorged a pair of more dickwads, who leapt out of a sliding door and began laying down a fan of suppressive fire with riot shields and light machine guns. Swearing, I dropped backwards in a baseball player’s slide, my gun up and capping the second terrorists dragging Skye away, sending both bodies dropping to the cement.
Zelie swore over my earpiece, and I saw him dive for cover just as a line of tracers tracked him. Fender was off struggling to one side as Thirteen pulled himself to his feet, firing a shell at him. The soft-spoken corporal dodged under the blast, a forearm coming up underneath the shotgun and shoving it into the air while Fender’s other hand drove a vicious cross across Thirteen’s face. Yanking the shotgun from his opponent’s hands, his shoved Thirteen away, worked the action, and fire at point-blank range into Thirteen’s chest. Fourteen, the only surviving terrorist still standing behind me, lunged at Fender’s unprotected back – only to be blown away by Zelie from the other side of the street.
The machine gunners, seeing Skye exposed just meters from their truck and a literal killing machine sliding towards them, chose to do the sensible thing. They opened fire on me.
Time slowed even further past the breaking point I had already push it to as twin geysers of smoke and rubble traced lines towards me across the street from either side like miniature domino explosions.
So, time for a race.
I swung my pistol around in a whiplash gesture that nearly dislocated my shoulder, firing reflexively. The shield-bearer on the left gave a cry of pain as a round blew through his exposed boot. The left-side bullet trail faltered and skipped over me, blowing chunks out of a corner building.
Jamming my boots into the ground, I turned my inertia into a catapult, lifting myself back off the ground into a flying tackle that impacted the shield of the remaining terrorist just inside the LMG’s firing range. Searing spent casings pattered the side of my head, singing my hair, but I rode the gunman to the ground. The machine gun skittered to the side, but my foe was protected from my immediate gunshots by his shield, which also prevented him from effectively retrieving his own sidearm.
So I didn’t stay on top of him. Instead, I milked my forward motion for all it was forth, continuing forward for one last somersault, rebounding off the van – and shooting the driver – and coming back to face the recovering final terrorist.
And found him aiming his pistol at me. Blam, one shot to the head and it’d be all over.
The terrorist took a single advancing step and plunged to his knees. Behind him, some fifty feet away, was Fender, holding a smoking shotgun to his shoulder.
I gave him an appreciative nod, killed the writhing terrorists behind me, and whirled to check on Skye.
Click. The hammer being drawn back on the pistol was a thunderclap in the momentary silence of the peaceful street.
Baylor | November 4th, 2014 | Three Days Before World’s End
The INTEGRAL TEMPEST held President Helen Skye’s form easily in its massive paw of a hand, the other gauntlet jamming the muzzle of a comparatively tiny gun into the temple of the suit’s hostage.
Only now did I get a good look at the pilot’s face. I pride myself on my ability to get the measure of a bigwig dickwad upon first look, be it a mad Russian separatist leader or an even crazier criminal mastermind. I always only had a couple of seconds to derive whatever I could from my opponent’s countenance before the chaos resumed again.
Pilot-boy was a close shadow of al-Hassan. I mean, the baseline was all there. Same long jaw, heavy eyebrows, straight nose, short, swept back black hair, intense eyes. A closely trimmed, professional beard and mustache that formed a rectangular border around a thin, serious mouth. Scar running down one cheek that was an ugly zigzag pattern, suggesting a chainsaw or something similar in a dark corner of my mind.
Sure, it looked like the picture – but something was off. Maybe the cheekbones. Maybe the chin was a bit weaker than it should have been. The scar was something new, too, now that I thought of it. Al-Hassan in the records usually had his face in three-quarters profile, but whatever suggestions of a scar in the intelligence dossiers was a smaller, less violent affair than the man before me sported.
“Drop you pistol and knife,” al-Hassan ordered in a clipped, educated British accent. “Order your men back. I have the suit’s batteries set to overload if you so much as think about shooting me.”
“Yo, man,” I said. “Whaddya want? I mean, you’re not going to get far with Secret Service backup closing in from all directions.”
“I’m not an idiot,” al-Hassan retorted. “Shut your mouth, because I’m not going to so much as open mine with all the answers to your questions.”
“Unless, of course, you think your same contact that allowed you to impersonate a Service Team Romeo is going to open a clean route for your escape. Because after all, I’m sure I’m not the only one who finds it a bit ridiculous that some random al-Qaeda group managed to orchestrate all this on their own.”
“Back up, now,” al-Hassan said curtly, nodding for me to get out of his way and let him onto the van. “Or it all ends right here.”
“And what? You kill the President, I kill you, and no one wins.”
“The difference between you and me,” the terrorist leader noted, “is that I am ready to die. You are not. The man who steps into Allah’s domain prepared is the man who truly wins.”
Some portion of me scoffed internally. This guy didn’t sound at all like the terrorists I had confronted during the SAND SCORPION mission in A-Stan. It was a third movie villain dialogue, a third too philosophic for this guy’s pay grade, and a third shadow of a real statement. Considering this, I opted upon, “What makes you think I’m going to die, dude?”
“Because you’re John Baylor,” al-Hassan shot back with an all-too-knowing smirk. “You’re a dead man walking, and you don’t even know it yet.”
“The dead man walking,” I said calmly refusing to budge as al-Hassan came within spitting distance of me, “is you.”
A single gunshot rang out.
Al-Hassan’s head snapped to the side as the right portion of his head exploded outward onto Skye’s unconscious face. It was so sudden, even I jumped despite myself.
Skye slid from al-Hassan’s slackening grip, and I leapt forward to catch the President before she hit the ground. I realized it wasn’t just the TEMPEST suit that made Skye look small. She was like a child in my arms, with the thin rivulets of blood leaking from a scalp wound now indistinguishable from the gore painted over her brow.
The final terrorist’s body toppled in place like a redwood, bouncing once when it touched down. One arm was flung out at an impossible angle.
I looked up to see Jason – Jace, “Gold” – Ramirez lower his smoking sidearm smoothly. With his other hand, he tossed a shattered pair of night vision goggles onto the barrel chest of al-Hassan’s torso.
“You missed,” he noted dryly.
“Holy shit,” I breathed, looking up at him. I took charge from there. “I need help checking out the President, Gold.”
He was kneeling beside me in an instant, holding Skye’s head as we lowered her gently to the ground. Sirens began to filter across the neighborhood from the direction of LaGuardia. “Fender,” I called into my comm, “Go check on Li’s group. From there, secure the area. Pillsbury, get on the radio and make sure those EMTs are on our side. The last thing I need, even less than more moles showing up, is opening fire on our own side in a fit of rightful paranoia.”
“Copy that, boss,” said Fender, nodding to me from across the obliterated street. Somewhere further down the road another gas tank cooked off, sending a fireball blossoming into the sky.
“Bleeding’s pretty bad,” noted Gold as he gingerly but professionally inspected the gash on Skye’s scalp. “Looks like the bulletproof insert she was wearing soaked up a couple bursts of Uzi fire, so the only wound is what looks like a shrapnel gash, the one on her head. Definite concussion.”
I was already opening an encrypted line to Easly, back at the Pentagon. He picked up on the first wing – the Colonel had been waiting for an update every since we came into contact with the enemy.
“Phoenix here,” Easly said gruffly. “We saw the whole thing on satellite. Looks like you’re safe, the only people incoming are cleared first-responders that Young vetted.”
“She’s appraised?” I asked.
“She was with me when the attack went down,” said Easly. “What’s the condition of POTUS?”
“Unconscious with a serious head wound. From what I can tell, she had a couple broken ribs and… yeah, second-degree burns down her right arm. But the main worry here is the head trauma. We can’t do much here beyond stabilize her, and barely that.”
The sirens were getting closer.
“Look, the challenge with the first responders is ‘swordfish.’ The counter response is ‘Pluto.’ Got it?”
“I hear you,” I said. “Copy.”
“We’re going into lockdown here,” explained Easly. We’re bringing VPOTUS down to the bunke- oh, shit.”
“Phoenix?” I yelled into the comm.
“No, shoot it! He’s going for the deto-” A roiling sound not entirely unlike an explosion cut off the channel into a haze of static.
“Phoenix? Phoenix!” I shouted. “Shit!”
“What?” asked Gold.
“Explosion cut off the channel,” I said. “Last thing I heard was Easly telling them to shoot ‘it,’ because ‘he’ was going for the deto- detonator, obviously.”
Gold’s eyes narrowed. “They’re going after Young. Eliminate the chain of succession.”
I nodded down to sky. “Won’t be a need for Young to step up if we do our job here.”
Gold ripped open a first aid kit strapped to his side and folded a compress to Skye’s head, making sure to immobilize her neck first. He passed me a syringe, and I prepped the derivative E-Meds retroactively engineered from the Russian design, focused more towards staving off certain death for a short period than banishing extreme fatigue. Tapping out the air bubbles, I located a vein and depressed the plunger before discarded the used needle.
“Fender,” I said. “Report.”
“Li’s out cold, slammed his head pretty hard against the turret. Looks like he’s just cold-cocked, though. Staub, on the other hand, is up and okay. We’re securing a perimeter now.”
“Just don’t open up on the ambulances, they’re cleared by Easly,” I cautioned.
“Hey, take a look at this,” called Gold, as he lifted Skye’s unwounded left hand. “Check the fingernails.”
I glanced down the fingertips. “Blood under the nails. She put up a fight.”
“But this head wound isn’t something she’d get after the moles pulled her out of the car,” Gold mused. “They had a traitor in the car with her.” He looked back up at me. “So what’s the play here? These aren’t your average terrorists, obviously. They had moles in the Secret Service. I can accept the terrorists getting fed the location of an INTEGRAL TEMPEST factory. I can buy the knowledge and planning as given information. But the moles throw me off.”
“Yeah,” I agreed. “Two parties working in collusion on a small-scale mission never works out, and MIDNIGHT knows it, if they learned anything from dealing with Sechalin and WRAITH. Better to streamline the participants to prevent conflicting interests.”
“But here’s the thing that we both know,” Gold stated with a pained grimace. “We personally vetted the Secret Service teams with Easly a year ago. There hasn’t been any rotation in the teams involved with the incident tonight. Team Four was pretty much wiped out in the opening minutes by Team Romeo, before we even got here.”
“So we failed. MIDNIGHT got the better of us,” I stated with a growl in my voice. “Or this isn’t really Team Romeo at all.”
“Take a look at al-Hassa- well, nevermind. Not much of a face left to look at, but I’ll swear to you his facial structure was a hairsbreadth off reality.”
Pillsbury’s voice cut in over the mic. “Sir, first responders are about thirty seconds out. Orders?”
“One sec,” I replied. “Easly managed to pass off a challenge/response set to me, but command’s offline right now. We’re on our own, so be on your toes. Right, the challenge is ‘swordfish.’ Reply is ‘Pluto.’”
“Ooorah,” replied the Lance Corporal. “Staub’s with me, Fender’s got Li up and patrolling the area.”
One that note, Li’s voice cut into the conversation. “Damn, sir, you’re not going to believe this…”
I frowned, seeping edges of paranoia tingeing my thoughts as my adrenaline-induced high began to wear off and my fingers began to shake ever so slightly. “What is it?”
“The Service moles…” Li said. “They’re all goo. Something’s liquefying them.”
I glanced over at al-Hassan and the four or so other terrorist corpses surrounding us. “Bodies are all fine over here. You mean the bodies actually had some sort of anti-retrieval countermeasure on them?”
“Sir..” Gold said, tapping me on the shoulder. I glanced over at him, and then in the direction he was pointing.
The two would-be getaway drivers were ever so slightly trembling in their dark fatigues.
And then the smoke began to rise from their skin.
“Shit, get pictures!” I shouted, lunging forward and activating the still capture feature of my cybernetics. Taking a steady glance at each of the dissolving corpses, I leapt over to al-Hassan – just in time for the body to buck, and dissociate horribly, disgustingly, and terrifyingly into a puddle within his TEMPEST suit.
“Jesus…” breathed Gold. “Whoever sent these guys, they didn’t want anybody taking too good a look at their identities.”
Really. I had heard of erasers before that involves external ‘Cleaner’ squads or time-delay bombs, or even the simple, ever-popular cyanide pill. But not mortality-triggered acid packs.
“So what do we do now?” Gold asked.
I dropped my crouch, letting my knees touch the pavement. Somewhere behind me, the EMTs were sprinting through the wreckage toward us. “Hell, I don’t know man,” I said wearily. “Damned if I know.”
My radio crackled, and I scrambled for it. “Colonel?”
A weak cough met my ears. “Christ, John. How’s POTUS?”
I glanced at the EMTs descending upon Skye. “Just got here, they’re clean. What the hell happened on your end?”
“Bomber went after Young in the underlevels. She’s okay, but we lost five men in the explosion and a good dozen are injured. John, you need to clear things up on your end and get everyone into cover. We can’t let anything else go down. Lock down the situation ASAP.”
“Copy. PALEHORSE over and out.”
I looked to the medic. “We’re under orders to clear out as fast as we can, we don’t want to be sitting around when another attack goes down. What’s the final line on Skye?”
The EMT nodded and continued to work for another minute before affixing me with a level stare. “We need an airlift, now. She’s in a coma, and if we don’t operate, she’ll never wake up at all.”
Teague | November 9th, 2014 | Three Days After World’s End
Major Aerts De Vos emerged into the garage to find his team nearly packed and ready for the assault.
“Just got the intel on Lennox,” he stated to his team. “She has the target in custody and is trying to negotiate terms with the handlers back in Oslo.”
Lieutenant Thern, De Vos’ XO, snorted. “Sir, what do you mean, ‘negotiating’?”
De Vos grabbed an assault rifle from a nearby rack and set to methodically prepping attachments: laser sights, barrel-mounted flashlight, underbarrel grenade launcher, side-mounted taser-bayonet, mounted foregrip. It was calming, the before-action ritual, in its own way. “As in the fact that she never called Oslo at all. No, she’s talking with Savage and the NTET boys on her private line, trying desperately to get immunity with Baylor as the bargaining chip.”
“NTET would pass up recovering Baylor?” asked Thern.
“Either Savage doubts Lennox’s claims and doesn’t want to poke her head out of her hidey hole, or NTET is too bloody pissed over the debacle on World’s End to accept the target. Word is the US government is trying to pin the disaster on Baylor and a ‘rogue decision.’”
Thern dropped a pack into a large van – converted to house a team of six troops, one of two such vehicles in the garage the WEU strike cell get handy for covert raids – and set his jaw. “So Lennox went to NTET before us, and we’re heading on in to… remind her of where her true allegiances lie, as well as recover Baylor?”
“Aye,” nodded De Vos, selecting a set of night-vision goggles from a rack and inspecting the lenses.
“But where did we get the intel?” Thern asked. “Lennox reports when she damn well wants to, and we still haven’t been able to crack the NTET encryption.”
A drawling baritone rolled across the garage like an inexorable wave. “That’s because De Vos isn’t playing alone on this mission.”
Ten gun barrels snapped up from different points in the garage as the WEU team oriented to face the newcomer.
“Stand down,” said De Vos, waving his hands at his squad. “It’s only the American contact, but I didn’t expect him to still be around.”
A single figure stepped from the long shadows cast over the far corner of the garage, revealing a barrel-chested American Air Force officer with the eagle insignia of a full colonel. His muscles rippled under the nondescript BDU he wore under a brown military full coat. His one eye – for the other was covered in an eyepatch – exuded incredibly calm, to an almost ridiculous degree. White hair was shaved close over his head and a jagged pair of scars ran over his brow and underneath his black eyepatch.
The Colonel seemed to smother the room in his mere presence and confidence – no, confidence wasn’t the right word to use. It implied a minor degree of pride. No, this was a man used to being in charge, in control – except that wasn’t right either. It was simply the impression of a man who knew what he was doing, and what was going to happen, and he was simply going through the motions. A pistol could he seen riding in a reverse mount on a hip holster.
Another figure lurked, just out of sight, in the shadows, slightly behind and to the left of the Colonel. He was slimmer than the mountain of a man in front of him, but just as tall. Lithe ability reflected barely constrained energy as the figure shifted from foot to foot – as though he rightfully expected the situation to turn violent at any second and would not find the prospect entirely objectionable at all. The build was startlingly familiar yet just beyond the recognition of De Vos or his men. Yet it was clear this shadowed man was the Colonel’s enforcer, his right hand man in the field, and just as subtly dangerous as the officer.
“Teague,” De Vos growled. “I thought you were leaving.”
Teague – the Colonel – raised a finger in a mock-fencer’s salute of acknowledgement to De Vos. “Didn’t want to miss your men going out to go play soldier.”
Thern tensed at the casual insult, but De Vos just tipped his head back and let loose a long, bellowing laugh. Slowly but surely the laughing spread across the room, ranging from nervous chuckles to sarcastic guffawing.
Teague made a cutting motion with his hand. “Okay, let’s get serious. Or I’ll kill everyone in this room.”
The laughter died at once.
“Don’t lie to your men, Major. Not good in my book. So I’m here until they get the full picture – after all, it’s my enemies who are supposed to be the one who run around without all the facts. My employers did not furnish WEU with this golden opportunity for a team-up in order for your half-pint mercenaries to botch it.”
“This doesn’t need to turn ugly before the mission even begins, Teague,” De Vos cautioned.
“Rest assured, De Vos,” Teague said dryly, as though spelling something out to a particularly dense subject, “that if my colleague and I wanted you dead, there we about a thousand ways we could have murdered you by now. And 974 of them would have been incredibly painful.” Such was the assurance reflected in the words that the WEU team shifted uncomfortably under the statement. Behind Teague, his ‘colleague’ chucked menacingly, the sound bouncing oddly across the acoustic of the room in a completely unnerving manner.
Teague turned from the Major to the team at large. “You about to carry out a twilight raid on a suburban home of a possibly rogue WEU agent. I’m sure you are all briefed on how well fortified the house is. What you do not know is they I damn well want the WEU agent – Anne Lennox alive. You can keep your ‘target,’ you can keep the boy. I don’t give a shit about them. But I will have a team of my men on hand, observing your assault, there to ensure Lennox is returned to me unharmed. Think of it as the price for the intel.”
De Vos scoffed. “That wasn’t part of the original deal, Teague.”
The colonel shrugged one mighty shoulder. “I have altered the deal.”
The man behind Teague shifted unexpectedly with lazy leonine grace and let loose a short, rolling chuckle. “Pray he does not alter it any further.”
“This affair is not filling me with confidence over MIDNIGHT’s-” De Vos savored the emphasis on the name of Teague’s employer “-ability to interface with WEU. A partnership does not bode well if one side talks to themselves in a manic voice.”
Teague jerked his head back to his companion. “Who, him? It would be better to say that he has a penchant for… intelligent conversation.”
With another wave of Teague’s finger, four wraiths simply melted out of the shadows shrouding Teague’s partner – black-clad, triocular-mounting, UMP-wielding MIDNIGHT operatives.
“Remember,” Teague said. “They get the girl. So don’t get yourselves off vaping the block. If you come back alive at all.”
“Is that a threat, Teague?” De Vos asked.
“Hell yeah,” Teague said, turning to leave. “I like to have a bomber on station for any of my missions. They make bunker busters these days that look just like gas line explosions when they go off, you know that?”
“You’d bomb us if something went wrong? If we don’t follow your plan?” De Vos blanched.
“I don’t plan, I steer. And not you; don’t take it personal, bucko,” Teague shrugged again, before melting in the shadows. “Baylor, maybe. Peace through superior fire, after all.”
"You make it seem as though Baylor is that tough a customer," remarked one of the WEU commandos from the background. "But he's just one man, and we're an entire squad. What can one man possibly do?"
Teague rolled his eyes and removed a revolver from his coat. Without even bothering to aim, he shot the offending commando in the chest. "That."
The commando reeled back, clutching at his bulletproof vest - but the point had been made.
And like that, Teague and his companion were gone, leaving the fireteam of MIDNIGHT wraiths standing in their wake. De Vos’ eyes narrowed – there wasn’t even a door through that side of the garage.
Thern whirled on De Vos. “You made a deal with him?”
De Vos bristled, but didn’t snap. “How do you know the good Colonel?”
“Remember Nairobi?” Thern asked. “Dude was part of a joint task force charged with extracting a political exile so the Russians didn’t get their hands on him. When it looked like the Navy’s team wasn’t going to get the job done, Teague just bombed the entire field of engagement and said, hey, better dead than red. Turns out he had been playing both sides when the prisoner turned up dead in New Guinea, outside some MIDNIGHT torture house. You don’t fuck with Thaddeus Teague.”
De Vos eyed the triocular wraiths. “We’ll see about that. Right now, let’s focus on recovering an old friend.”
Baylor | November 9th, 2014 | Three Days After World’s End
The lady in the SUV drove up to a nice-looking two story suburban home in what the signs told me was Queens. Casting a brief, furtive look at the sky, she led me into the open garage, under the flickering shade of the overhanging oak trees. Emerging into a practical kitchen, she sat me down on a stool next to the massive island before bringing out a positively massive first aid kit from a cabinet up high.
She hissed when she took a close look at the wound on my face, recoiling. “Jesus, how’re you still alive?”
“Er, what happened?” I asked.
“You were shot in the head,” the lady declared. “Looks like the bullet skimmed along the inside of your skull and is still in there.”
“Aaaand, I don’t want to sound rude, but who are you?”
The lady frowned. “Anne. I told you a half hour ago.”
“No, you didn’t. Er, last, I think. I don’t remember.”
“You don’t remember what happened in the park?”
“What park,” I asked, genuinely puzzled.
“Well, shit,” Anne declared, placing her hands on her hips. “I guessed amnesia, but I didn’t figure it’d be anterograde as well as retrograde.” Her frown deepened. Crossing over to a drawer on the other side of the island. With a clank, she drew out a gun from underneath the drawer.
“Woah,” I said. “Let’s not get hasty.”
Feeding a magazine into the grip of the pistol, Anne worked the action, feeding it a round, flipped off the safety, and cocked the hammer. Passing it grip-first to me, she said “Disassemble it.”
“What?” I asked, incredibly confused.
“I need to know if there’s procedural amnesia as well. You’re functioning reasonably well, but I need to know how much of your skillset you retain.”
Taking the gun – one I instinctively understood to be an M9 Beretta – I eased down the hammer, ejected the clip, worked the action to remove the shell in the chamber, ejected the bullets one by one from the magazine, and separated the grip from the slide. All in the space of about ten seconds.
“Well I guess that answers that,” Anne said. “Alright. Before you forget. The last thing I need is you getting angry because you don’t know where you are.” She took out a notepad and pen from another drawer. “Can’t give you tattoos like Memento, but we can do our best.”
“Say what?” I asked.
“This is different,” said a new voice. Anne and I both spun to see a young preteen kid holding a backpack and a baseball bat, standing in the portal between the kitchen and the foyer. He was thin for his age, with short blond hair. “Usually Baylor loves making those movie jokes.”
“Ryan?” Anne asked. “Ah, shit.”
“Why’s John here?” Ryan asked. “And why’s he bleeding?”
“Ryan,” Anne said again, with an urgent tone. “Baylor’s staying here for the night. We need to keep quiet about this. It’s about work.”
Ryan’s eyes narrowed. “Work. Right. Anyway, got sent home early.”
“Fighting? Again?” the lady asked, exasperated. “Look, Ryan, you can’t keep doing this.”
“Wait, wait,” I said. “Hold up. Who are you again?”
The lady, Anne, sat me down, and wrote out a list of facts for me on a yellow notepad. She said it was essentially ‘creating an identity from the ground up,’ which was fine by me, considering I really didn’t have anything to go on at the moment. A good portion of the written instructions were situational notes, telling me where I was, who the people in the house were (Anne and her son, Ryan), where I could go (couldn’t leave the house itself), and who I was allowed to talk to (again, just Anne and Ryan).
Standing from her light seat on the stool beside me, Anne went over to an alcove and shook out two pictures from their frames. “Here, just so you recognize us.” Uncapping a felt pen, she labeled the polaroids, and taped them to the pad. She taped the page and photos, upside down, to my t-shirt.
I looked down. T-shirt? Yeah, last thing I remember, was her giving me her husband’s old clothes as I got out of the shower. I fingered the bandage on my head. She must’ve done that too.
She sat me in the living room, turned on the TV, and, after a moment, placed me on the 24-hour news. Figured TV shows wouldn’t mean much, considering I couldn’t follow the stories. Instead, just commercials and sound bites would be good enough for me. I settled down and began to watch. Some guy – Chris Matthews, the caption said – was talking about a floating photo of a blonde-haired woman.
“Its 3:05, and this is MSNBC. And, in the aftershocks of the failed assassination attempt on President Skye, the tenuous legal situation of Vice President Young continues into its sixth day. We go now to our Washington station chief, Chuck Todd, for background about the constitutional limbo.”
A red-haired suit came onto the screen, complete with a carefully manicured red beard. “Thank you, Chris. As a refresher on the twenty-fifth amendment, either the President or the majority of cabinet secretary must submit a declaration of inability to discharge the powers and duties of the presidential office to the President pro tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House in order for the VP to assume the President’s place.
Bullet points began to stream across the screen. “And, obviously, in the wake of the attempt and the following coma, Skye was and is unable of providing such a letter. That leaves the job to the cabinet. And there’s the problem, Chris. The cabinet and the Vice President have been at odds – to describe it charitably – since Young took office with Skye. They don’t like her foreign policy, and Skye, busy with the aftermath of the Russian civil war and the new NATO renewal, hasn’t had the time to remedy the cold war.
Chris cut in. “But can’t Congress just solve the whole issue?”
“Yes, that’s true. Section 4 of the amendment requires the Congress to step in and vote to resolve any conflict that exists in the cabinet. But Congress is given twenty-one days to actually provide a two-thirds vote, which simply isn’t going to happen right now. We all knew Skye’s moderate coalition wasn’t going to hold itself together this far into her term, and now the disgruntled Tea Party republicans and opposed liberals have found an uneasy team in filibustering any attempts to resolve the issue in the Senat-”
Jesus, I was so tired.
Awake. Where am I? Living room, news channel blaring, talking about filibusters in the Senate. On a couch. I moved to sit up, but I saw that moving too quickly would tear the paper on my chest. Wait, paper? I looked down and found the big, blocky letters of “READ THIS FIRST” at the top – bottom – of the page.
Okay, there we go. I’m on vacation with friends in Queens. Got into a car accident. Amnesia, both anterograde and retrograde, whatever that meant. Should fade off over the next week, sounds good. Can’t leave house, wouldn’t want to get run over by car. Sodas are in mini-fridge underneath table.
Standing, I spied a discrete mini-fridge located underneath a thin lamp table across the room. Crossing over and opening the door, I fished out a Diet Coke and plopped back down on the couch.
“It’s 4:05, and this is MSNBC,” stated a blond man from the TV nearby. “More on the continuing succession situation here on capitol hill…”
It wasn’t long before the kid, young and bored, sought me out. Anne only gave the two of us a look out of the corner of her eye, but shrugged and accepted it. I got the idea. Ryan, the kid, hadn’t gotten come out of his shell much since her husband had apparently died (Ryan told me I was wearing his dad’s favorite shirt). For the life of my, the husband’s name – Charles, or as I liked it, Chuck – seemed ridiculously familiar but, like everything else, seemed just beyond the edges of my recollection.
Ryan showed me an Xbox controller and invited me to play some shooter with him on co-op. I think he said the title was Modern Warfare 3 or the like. I picked up the controls naturally and we sped through the entire campaign in about four hours or so while Anne spent the entire time on the phone.
“Aaaand, what are we playing again?”
“Again? Man, John, this is weird,” Ryan remarked, pulling up the control scheme through the pause menu. I took a brief look at it. “It’s good these missions are so short, man, or you’d be forgetting in the middle of the game, and that’d suck.”
“Yeah, I guess,” I said, scratching my head before practicing moving around with the controller.
I set the controller down. “I remember most of the recent current events, but what’s with the game’s plot?” The storyline had been entirely too uncomfortable for me for reason I couldn’t quite place. Ryan was having a hell of a time explaining the plot over and over again after each mission.
“What, the part with Sechalin still being alive?” asked Ryan, swiped his bangs out of his eyes and speaking in a far too knowledgeable voice for a preteen. Oh, I was dealing with a nerd. Got it. “The other two games ran off the whole crisis over in Russia for their plots, with Sechalin winning.”
“But he’s dead in real life,” I stated, as though I now knew the fact to be the indisputable truth and hadn’t been told it ten minutes ago.
“Yeah, well, the second game came out right after the war ended a couple years ago. They said ‘oh well’ and went on anyway. No one’s complaining about the result. You see that point with the knife fight on MIR? Wicked cool.”
I pursed my lips, bemused. “You might be missing the point kiddo. Violence ain’t ever solved anything. Trust me, it ends up creating more problems than it solved.” I don’t know why I said that, it just felt right.
Ryan rolled up the controller cord and smiled. “Hey, don’t look at me. I just got into the eigth grade. I’m no professor.”
“But that’s the thing,” I said, breaking open the Diet Coke Anne had dropped off an hour or so ago. Cool beads of condensation slicked against my slightly shaking hands as I chugged down the can. “From what I could see, the game’s a stand against war. Look at that Chernobyl level, I mean. Or where they force you to live through the character’s dying moments from, what you tell, me, is something like the fifth or sixth time in the series.”
I shrugged. “But I guess, in the end, if you want proof, just go look at Price and Soap. When DC betrays them, they don’t try to plead their case. They go underground, dish out retribution in the only way they know how, and become wanted criminals. In the end, the person who loses is the soldier himself, not the nation. You can go three ways with the result. You can end up dead-dead. You can go crazy and as horrible as the bad guys themselves, like Price. Or you can slough through it and uphold your ideals. Fight for something greater than a flag.”
Ryan furrowed his brow as he placed the disc back in the case. “Mr. Baylor, I know you’re a soldier of some kind like dad. And the only reason mom’d be keeping you here right now with all these wounds is if something went wrong on that mission you mentioned a couple nights ago. I’m not blind. So, the question is, in the end, which one are you? Price? Or Soap?”
I stared at Ryan for a long moment. Christ, this entire family was up to it in its eyeballs. Or something. Standing up, I tossed the empty cola can into the bin. But clearly I didn’t have anything in my past to do with a car accident. Ryan was fairly adamant I had something to do with his dad’s death in the military, if only for the picture he showed me on his computer – him, Anne, and I smiling at the camera at some Tex-Mex joint. I was wearing a USMC jacket, a bandana, and looked like I had what Ryan swore was a shoulder holster poking into the frame. “You mentioned I came by here before whatever happened on this mission, right? I need you to tell me more about it, right?”
Ryan smiled. “We have a ping pong table out on the back porch. I’ll tell you all I know if you come play a couple games with me.”
Hell, if I was getting my information from a kid, this might as well be my price. He was a heck of a lot more talkative that Anne. I put aside the paper packet I had lifted from Ryan’s backpack, on which I had been taking notes.
“Deal,” I said. “You get first serve.”
“What’s the score?” I asked.
“Two-one, my serve,” Ryan said, readying the ball. “You know, I could make up any score I wanted, right?”
“Well, at least you’re honest about it,” I said, throwing off a ready grin before raising my paddle. “Bring it, shorty.”
Ryan waved a hand at me. “Actually, let me go get a drink. For a crazy dude you play pretty well.” Setting down his paddle and ball on the ping-pong table, he slid open the nearby glass door and went inside.
I flopped down onto a nearby porch chair and sighed. Kid had game, if I remembered correctly. I felt though, that the climax of the match had passed – that it was all downhill from here. It was a notion that kept resurfacing in the back of my mind, like the big moment in my life had gone by and everything now was just the cards floating back down to earth. Someone already knew how they would fall, it was just a question of what happened along the way.
Anne’s voice cut in from the open sliding glass door to my right, floating in from the kitchen. “No! No, it’s not like that. No, I don’t have him, but I’m telling you, he’s key to this. He’ll help us find him, I tell you.”
I sat forward to listen more closely.
“You have to trust me here, I can prove my loyalty to the team. Yes, I was with them, but I’m on your side now. I need protection. He needs protection. My son needs protection, or we’re all going to die, I promise you.”
My torso leaned even more forward, straining to focus. And, out of the corner of my eye, through the back porch screen, I saw a blur of motion on the street outside. Two large vans. Through the bushes, I made out one stopping, the other pulling around the corner and out of sight. Nothing about it looks right. I yanked out my notebook and scribbled a reminder before standing.
I rushed inside to go give Anne a head’s up, slamming and locking the door behind me. When I entered the kitchen, Anne had just put down the phone and was crossing a name off of a positively gargantuan list of crossed-off names. “John, what is it?”
I pulled a momentary blank before glancing at the notebook in my hands. It read: Tell Anne in the kitchen two vans have pulled up. One’s stopped, another’s pulling around the corner. Warning bells. I passed it on to her.
Her eyes widened, and she spun to face a security panel mounted in the hallway and began typing rapidly on it. Wordlessly, some, at the same time, a pistol – one I instinctively knew to be an M9 – appeared in her other hand.
“John, get down!” she called over to me. “Ryan! Get to the panic room!”
“What’s going on?” I asked, confused to the utmost degree. “Those vans dangerous?”
As if in response, a spider’s web of bullet tracks raced across the porch door behind me as someone raked the doorway with automatic fire.
Baylor | November 9th, 2014 | Three Days After World’s End
A moment later, a pair of dark forms moved outside the translucent glass panel, readying what I thought was a massive hammer. The shaft rose, raised high, and swung around to impact the glass.
An almighty screech split the air as a lightning bolt coursed through the pane, travelled down the metal head, and sent the hammer’s wielder flying back out of the porch like a smoking meteor.
Anne, as a calm as could be, tapped two buttons on her security panel. “Fire in the hole, I’m activating the land mines.”
“Land MINES?” Ryan called somewhere from upstairs.
“Land mines?” I repeated incredulously to myself.
The body hit the grass – and immediately lifted off again upon contact with the ground, coming back down in multiple pieces. The corpse’s partner, standing outside the doorway, little more than a silhouette, did a comical double take before taking another step back, to the side to as to (I assumed) avoid the outburst of any hidden claymores, and lifted his submachine gun, which I would bet a million bucks mounted a grenade launcher.
“Down!” I yelled, diving forward and yanking Anne off her feet just as the glass door exploded inward.
“Breaching, breaching!” the entry commando screamed to his presumed comrades as he rushed into the dining room.
And just like that, a massive metal pole exploded from the ceiling, dropping with the force of an asteroid into the crook of commando’s neck, impaling him mid-stride. The firing SMG went wild as the dying soldier spazzed out, sending puffs of exploding plaster across the entire back wall of the kitchen.
Anne’s gun barked over my shoulder and the gunfire died.
“C’mon,” I said, pulling Anne to her feet. “There’ll be more on the way.”
I grabbed my notepad and began to scribble as I ran. Hostiles attacking house. Two vans outside. Panic room upstairs. Protect Anne and Ryan. Two dead already.
“Wait,” I said. “How did those first two die?”
“OhjesuschristwhyamIdoingthis,” Anne moaned all in one word, grabbing my shoulder and yanking me up the stairs – just as the front door exploded inward.
A pair of riot shield-wielding intruders stood on the threshold of the door just as a line of claymores exploded in their face, shredding the front of their shields but ultimately leaving the soldiers unharmed. A third soldier behind the pair ducked down and sprayed the borders of the doorframe with a foam-like substance, for some reason.
“Urm,” why are they doing that?” I asked.
“Didn’t you just see the punji sticks back ther-oh why do I even bother,” Anne growled as she ran up the stairs, firing down at the blurred riot shields below, if only to keep them from peeking out to return shots.
As she ran, Anne slapped at the wall that ran alongside the staircase, opening a locker in the wall. Inside was a small submachine gun – a Steyr TMP – an ammo belt, and a pair of grenades. Scooping out the contents, Anne specifically juggled out the grenade and tossed it to me. “Give our friends a welcome present.”
Somehow knowing exactly what to do, I yanked the pin and let the grenade bounced down the stairs, rolling between the two riot shields before the entry team could react. The third, unshielded soldier tried to kick the grenade, and managed to send it out a couple of feet before it detonated, shredding him and sending the left-most shield-bearer flying straight into foyer, onto the front rug.
Which promptly gave away beneath his feet, plunging him a meter into the floor. Suddenly, the man began to scream as some unseen force began to savage his legs. The remaining soldier withdrew out of sight, deciding instead to respond with a pair of flashbang grenades. Recognizing them with instant realization, I tugged Anne around and shielded her eyes while shutting my own eyelids tight. “Cover your ears!” I demanded as I covered one ear with my free and hand and the other with a shrugged shoulder.
The world went white and for a moment I couldn’t hear anything beyond a generic, painful roar. But Anne and I wear already at the top of the suitcase. Someone was shooting. Anne was shooting. More than one enemy below was firing. Plaster was exploding all around me.
And then we were around a corner, breathing heavily as the world and color and sound faded back into normal. As normal as could be.
The lady next to me groaned, wiping her eyes, and flipped over a vase on a nearby nook in the wall. Slotting open a cover, she slammed her fist down on the blue button. Somewhere beneath me, I heard a chunk as the staircase slotted into a sheer ramp. Oil, from hidden nozzles, began to coat the newly-created slide.
“That should hold them,” the lady said. “Let’s go, I need to activate the mines in this hallway.”
“Mines?” I asked. “Why do you have mines in your own house, womaaaan…” I checked the notepad clutched tightly in one of my hands. “Anne. Right, Anne. Intruders. Two down.”
“Four,” Anne corrected, beginning to sprint down the corridor, M9 in one hand, TMP in the other. I changed the two to a four in my book. “Ryan?” she called. “You in the panic room?”
“Yeah, mom,” came in a voice over a hidden intercom. “I’m good. Locked up. But you’re about to have some compan-”
Just then, windows shattered somewhere down the hall, presumably in one of the bedrooms. Boots hit the carpet.
I motioned to Anne. “Give me the TMP. And the combat knife you’re hiding on your inner calve.”
Anne’s head jerked around, blond hair flying in front of her glasses as I called the location of the hidden knife.
“Now,” I said. “Go get Ryan. I’ll get these guys.”
Pausing for the briefest moment, Anne rolled off one leg of her Capri’s and drew out a mean-looking knife, handing it to me grip first.
“Thank you,” I said as the cold steel hit the palm of my hand. My other hand stowed my notes and took the TMP. “I’ve got this, go. Go.”
“If only because I know what you’re capable of, John. If only,” Anne replied. “Panic room’s in the closet of the second room of the left.” I juggled the knife, put Anne just grabbed my pen and wrote the location on my forearm. “Thank you.”
I paused. “Why bother with the ‘car crash’ lie? I’m obviously not stupid enough to ignore notes and conditioning, eh?”
Anne gave me a pained look, twisted with something beyond simple affection. “Maybe I wanted you to become a better man that the one you were before.”
And with that cryptic remark, she fled.
Thern | November 9th, 2014 | Three Days After World’s End
De Vos paced in the street outside the Lennox residence, cursing to himself. It was the opening of Raiders of the Lost Ark. All death traps and razor wire. The two entry teams had been killed upon stepping into the house, but they had at least managed to flush the targets into the top floor. The perimeter was airtight – there weren’t any tunnels underneath the house.
“Sir, Beta Team is making entry on the top floor,” Thern said from his side. Holding his MP5 tight, Thern tensely eyed the triocular MIDNIGHT wraiths hiding in the shadows of an oak tree nearby. They had all but said they would take control of the assault if the second team failed.
But De Vos wasn’t the incompetent he passed himself off as, Thern knew. True, De Vos was approaching retirement age and, yes, true, he was more focused in his skillset in regard to surveillance and slick tricks, but De Vos hadn’t operated in the New York area as the leader of an undercover WEU intelligence ring without getting his hands dirty from time to time.
No, what worried Thern were the targets. He knew all about Baylor, of course – his actions during the Soviet civil war were now legendary in the black ops community. If Baylor could handle Soviet cyborgs or INTEGRAL TEMPESTS, a WEU strike team wouldn’t trouble him beyond his abilities. And then there was the girl, Lennox…
There came light screams from the top floor of the house, echoing out of the smashed windows, and a pair of forms was thrown out of the portal at something resembling terminal velocity, hit the ground, bouncing, and skipping. Thern spun at the commotion, and instantly recognized the corpses on the lawn as half of Beta Team.
The wraiths exchanged looks behind Thern, nodded to one another, and started forward with an air of finality.
A second later, another pair of forms, intertwined, fell, no slid out of the window. It was clear they were grappling as they rolled off the roof and onto the bushes below. A knife glinted in the darkness as one of the combatants raised his blade high before driving it into the neck of his opponent.
The first wraith raised his pistol, a silenced H&K SOCOM .45, and shoot Baylor in the shoulder.
Baylor spun backwards, falling onto the mulch without so much of a cry of pain.
A second wraith simply appeared behind Baylor, kicking a weapon out of each of the injured man’s hands before placing his boot on the man’s neck.
The final wraith brought out a tranquilizer pistol from behind his back and, quite calmly, loading a red-banded dart into the gun’s chamber. Without any sort of urgency, the WRAITH readied his pistol, aimed, and shot Baylor. The commando’s struggling body jerked and near instantly went still.
Thern spun to his radio. “Lambda team, Baylor is down. Status of the woman?”
“Trap is set,” replied Lambda lead, a former French paratrooper. “We have the boy in custody.”
De Vos, beside Thern, allowed himself a small smile. Perhaps the first development of the plan had been the infiltration of the top floor and the capture of Lennox’s son. From there, it was simple to lure Baylor and the mother onto the top floor, where Lambda team was lying in wait.
At the same time, Beta team would make a hot entry with the express purpose of dividing the group. De Vos had essentially written off one of the groups as cannon fodder, his true goal was to goad the wraiths into entering the fray. And look, best case scenario. Baylor had engaged the wraiths. Granted, De Vos hadn’t been convinced the battle would be that one-sided, but the wraiths were positioned poorly enough to severely damage their hand in any negotiations.
“Moving the kid into position…” Lambda lead intoned. “Fiennes, go for the tranq shot when she enters. Three.. two… one.”
There came a muffled grunt and then a scream over the come. Someone began to gibber in German.
And then the entire eastern half of the second floor exploded outwards.
The cause, Thern observed, as he moved hastily to avoid falling wreckage, were a quartet of bodies shooting through the walls like missiles.
Thern saw it all from that point on. Lennox, with a blue aura of power surrounding one hand as she twirled, dropped to one knee and made a violent slashing gesture, leaving trails of azure flame in the night sky. The final man of Team Lambda – Lead, Thern saw, was seized by an invisible force, arms and legs clamped tightly together. Rising into the air like a human log, Lambda Lead could only scream shrilly as Lennox closed her open hand into a fist.
Lambda Lead’s body twisted in four directions at once. He literally and simultaneously imploded to become a pretzel.
This was why the Teague wanted Anne Lennox so bad, Thern realized with a flash. She. Was. A. Telekine. The entire game just changed.
The two wraiths that weren’t guarding Baylor were already moving like ninja over the remnant of the shingled roof, moving faster than Thern could see.
“Still want to give the girl to Teague, sir?” Thern asked lightly, his hand on his pistol.
De Vos shook his head. “I haven’t come this far to let an alliance with MIDNIGHT fall apart over a rogue telekine. Stand down, Lieutenant.”
“You see…” Thern said, drawing his sidearm. “SIG doesn’t exactly agree with you.” Raising his sidearm, he shot De Vos in the side of the head.
Several things began to happen at once.
Anne Lennox spun as the first wraith launched himself at her, tranq pistol raised. The operative and the two fired darts were sideswiped by the hand of god and sent tumbling across the lawn three meters to Thern’s right.
As De Vos’ body began to fall to the ground, the WEU commandos loyal to Thern leveled their weapons at the lone wraith. Being fast and badass didn’t protect against massed fire when there was nowhere to go. The wraith was painted against the suburban wall.
One of Thern’s allies threw him a PGS1 sniper rifle as the WEU operative began to stride along the periphery of the fray.
BLAM, the wraith on the grass died before he could stand, sent falling backwards into the grass, never to rise.
The third wraith raised his tranq rifle and shot Anne Lennox square in the neck. Slowly, as if in a trance, she fell off the side of the open room, falling a story – into the waiting arms of Thern’s positioned second van strike team. Bundled away and injected with a second dose, she was offsite in seconds.
Suddenly confronted with the news of the deaths of his teammates over his HUD, the final wraith yanked a dead man’s switch from his tac-vest, getting ready to call in Teague’s airstrike personally – BLAM, his hand was blown off at the wrist by Thern, who was still striding confidently to his waiting van. Another shot sent the MIDNIGHT assassin sprawling backwards into the cover of a hallway. Thern didn’t so much as swear at the escape of his quarry, because…
The result was instantaneous. There was maybe, just maybe, a half-second of shrieking, piercing noise, before the bomb hit. Only frame-by-frame of the WEU tac-cams could have seen the black bunker buster slide into place right next to the house’s chimney. And then the house simply dissolved into an outwardly expanding ball of flame that died as soon as it began.
The fireball never expanded past the property limits of the former Lennox residence.
But the WEU team – loyal to Thern – had already exfiltrated from the premises and was already loaded into the vans. Because this operation had been planned for months, ever since the rogue German telekine had finally resurfaced – in New York City, of all places. A special operator, Thern, had been sent to orient the situation so as to recover Lennox. MIDNIGHT was irrelevant, after all, SIG sought to play a game that extended beyond its own country’s borders.
Inside the departing van, Thern gazed down at the sedated and restrained Lennox. She had been AWOL, no, she had gone native, after being sent to seduce a Reaper on a mission. Instead, she had faked her death and sought protection with NTET as an informant when her husband was sent to work at the decommissioning of the Avalonian Woods Paragon. They had shielded her – at least until the World’s End debacle, where the blame had fallen on her for the deaths of dozens of NTET agents.
It was no wonder Teague wanted Lennox. Not because of what she knew, but because of her psychokinetic powers. PK operators were entirely the domain of WEU, much like cybernetic technology was a closely guarded secret within Soviet borders. Just like Thern viewed Baylor as tantamount to delivering the technology finally to Europe, Teague wanted Anne Lennox for the exact same reason. If the news behind his biological experiments were correct, he would do for Lennox exactly what he did for Storm when he teamed with Gosely and WRAITH.
But WEU needed its agent back, and had netted a target just as valuable in the process.
The SIG team changed vans not far into its journey, making the switch in a random industrial warehouse before making separate ways to Thern’s secret back-up base.
All the while, the single pre-teen boy watched helplessly as the vans wheeled off with his mom and her friend. The fall into the bushes from the floor above hadn’t been pleasant, and it had been fell putting out the fire that had started on his shirtsleeve when his house – his home for all his life – had inexplicably exploded, annihilating all his accumulated possessions and all his memories of his dad.
Wrapping his tattered shirt around the foot-long gash the debris had skimmed out of his other arm, Ryan Lennox began to limp out of the ashes. He heard sirens in the distance and shouts of his neighbors from around the block as they came out of their comfortable homes, perhaps awakening by the sniper shots and definitely yanked from their sleep by the explosion.
The commandos had abducted him the second he had stepped out of his room, clamping a hand over his mouth and placing a pistol muzzle in the small of his back. He could only watch over the (open) panic room’s monitors as the intruders forced him to guide his mom into a trap.
Of course, he hadn’t expected the blue fire. Or the psychic powers. Not once had Ryan ever considered the idea that his mom had superpowers.
A figure stepped confidently into the alleyway in front of Ryan, blocking his path. He was tall, broad-shouldered, mid-fifties. Eyepatch. And he held a pistol.
“Ryan,” he stated quite calmly, in the gravelly voice. “My name is Teague, Colonel Teague. I’m John Baylor’s commander. And, as a matter of national security, you need to come with me if you want to live.”