Fireteam Freelance – Episode 2: Blackout

This is Episode 2 of Fireteam Freelance readers! The episode is beyond the jump to save anyone from spoilers, so hit it to get started! A list of all episodes can be found at the Fireteam Freelance page.

A reminder that all episodes of Fireteam Freelance are posted in pre-Alpha, pure draft state. As such there may be minor errors, typos, etc as a result of being pre-edit. But you’re getting it for free, so that’s the trade-off.

Blackout

Ursa’s arm felt like it was on fire, the muscle burning like a flame with each expansion and contraction. Up. Pause. Down. Pause. Up again. The motion smooth and controlled. Flawless.

Up. Pause. Down. Her breathing was steady, controlled. Once again she rose, her bicep bulging as her arm curled, her entire body rising beneath it, hanging in the air and then lowering once more. Not to the gym floor, but to the point where her right arm was almost at full extension.

“Damn Lovai,” came a familiar voice from the door. “How many of those are you going to do?”

She didn’t turn to look back. Only one member of the team knew her actual name. And that individual would never call her by it if the rest of the team were around. To them, she was just Ursa. Her moniker, her identity. Safety and compartmentalization. A precaution.

“Just a hundred,” she said as she rose once more, bicep bulging. “Per arm. Then another hundred with the palm facing the other way.” She lowered herself again, eyes flicking to her datapad where it rested on a nearby bench, keeping count for her. “Gotta keep things prime.”

“For you that takes on a whole new meaning,” Commander Castillo said, moving into sight range and folding her arms across her chest. She was, Ursa noted, wearing a pair of jeans and a plain shirt, rather than workout gear. So she hadn’t come to the gym for exercise. The commander’s eyes flicked to Ursa’s bicep as she rose and lowered once more. “How close are you to being done?”

“This is my last set,” Ursa said, finishing her statement with a quick exhalation as her arm burned again with another rise. “Just six more to go.” The question was probably a formality; the commander likely knew how long she’d been in the gym for, and from there it was a simple matter to extrapolate when to arrive to catch her at the end of a workout. Which meant … Do I ask about it, or let her bring it up?

She settled for the latter as she dropped back down again, bicep burning, sweat running freely down her arm. But what was there to make small talk about while she waited for the commander to take initiative. “You seen the news about Pisces?”

“I have,” Castillo said, taking a few steps back and leaning against a nearby piece of workout equipment. That was a good sign. “Unbelievable.”

“Which part?” Ursa asked as she rose and dropped again. Four left. “The rebellion? The claims of alien life? The fact that local UNSEC forces have gone rogue? The other rebellions popping up on other words due to SoulComp’s software?” She got through another rep before the commander replied.

“All of it, really,” Castillo said with a shrug. Then she let out a laugh. “Though the bit about the aliens is the most outlandish one. So outlandish I almost wonder if it’s true.”

“You really think so?” Ursa asked, halfway through another rep.

“I don’t think so,” Castillo said, giving her a sort of half smile. “But it’s crazy enough it does make me wonder what the revolt was hoping to achieve by claiming such. If there was alien life on Pisces, wouldn’t it have been found before now? And why would it attack humans? And that whole bit about the planet being artificial?” She shook her head as Ursa rose for the final time. “It’s utterly ludicrous, personally … but not enough.”

“Sorry, what?” Ursa lowered herself down for the final time, her arm screaming for relief, and then dropped, her bare feet falling the two inches to the mat and bouncing slightly as they hit. A feeling not unlike plunging her arm into ice-cold water began rolling up her arm as her enhanced physiology went to work at her sore muscle. “What do you mean not enough.”

“I mean it’s not enough to cause full-scale panic, and it’s not enough to be completely unbelievable.”

“An artificial planet isn’t unbelievable?”

“Only in the same way FTL travel would have been unbelievable to most people a hundred-plus years ago.”

Ursa nodded as she stretched her arm behind her back. “I see your point.”

“Right. If they wanted to tell a story completely unbelievable, make the whole system fake.”

“So you actually think it might be aliens,” Ursa said, and gave the commander a grin.

“No,” Castillo replied, though she at least matched the smile. “Personally, I don’t. But I’m not sure what they’re trying to cover up with the explanation that couldn’t have been served by a better lie.”

“Maybe they’re just being—“ She caught herself before she could finish her though. “Except they took over an entire planet and got the local UNSEC forces to side with them. So they’re anything but stupid.”

“And that’s the conundrum,” Castillo said, pushing herself off of the equipment and taking a slow step forward. “They’re smart enough to have used a hole in UNSEC’s net to set all this up, and yet they’re flooding the datanet with talk of aliens. A good distraction?” She shrugged again. “The only thing I can say for certain is its got everyone on edge. Especially now that there’s reports of rebellions coming in all over colonized space.”

“I can’t say I blame ‘em,” Ursa said, switching her stretch. “I mean …” She gestured at her own build.

“Right,” the commander said with a nod. “You know all about that. How is your family, by the way? You talked with them recently, didn’t you?”

Ursa nodded. “They’re doing pretty well. Still half convinced I should leave this all behind and stop sending them money.”

“They still want you to move to Mars?”

Ursa let out a chuckle. “David does. He just misses his big sister. Mom and dad think I should try somewhere else out in the galaxy.”

“Even with all the panic over revolts right now?”

“That’s just proof to my mom and dad that now’s a good time to do it.” She let her arm down, letting it hang in a relaxed position once more. “You know, before the UNSEC fleet starts burning planets from orbit or something similar.”

Castillo’s expression soured. “I hope not. That’d be about the worst-case scenario, here and everywhere else. Nevermind the laws about using orbital weapons on ground targets, the fallout from that could rip occupied space in half. Wouldn’t be good for business either.”

“Yeah well, like I told my parents, it’s probably safer to ride this all out somewhere secure, like here, rather than trying to get ahead of it and getting caught in the storm.”

Castillo smiled. “I wasn’t worried that you were leaving, if that’s what you thought, Lovai.”

“Nah.” She shook her head. “Besides, you’d know I’d tell you. But my mom and dad …” She rolled her eyes. ‘Just looking out.”

“That’s what family does,” Castillo said with a smile. “Even at a distance.” There was an unspoken subtext to her comment too, one that hung the air for a moment. The commander knew where most of Ursa’s pay went. She’d helped set the system up, funneling her payments through several anonymous accounts so that her parents could receive it without setting off alerts and being visited by local peacekeepers. That money was the only way they’d afforded the move to Mars in the first place. And though they’d constantly told her they no longer needed it, and to keep it for her own, she still sent what she could from time to time.

“Well, glad to hear they’re doing all right,” Castillo said, her arms dropping at last, along with the more relaxed stance she’d been holding. That meant it was time.

Ursa beat her to it. “Ten minutes?” she asked.

Castillo smiled and then nodded. “Take fifteen. We’ve got a little time on this one.”

“I figured. Otherwise why track us down in person. If we’re even all around.”

“You are,” Castillo answered. “Adah’s already been informed, and Anvil’s barely left the second bay since she got that new tank of hers.”

“I know,” Ursa said with a laugh as she grabbed her phone and datapad. “It’s like Christmas came early. She spotted for me yesterday, and I learned all about Chobham armor, how it was used in old tank models, and how she might have to cheat her way around it with some composite plate because no one makes the stuff anymore.”

“She give you the rundown on the history of the one she’s got?” Castillo asked with a grin.

“No.”

The commander gave her a knowing nod. “Well, she knows it. I think half the debrief I gave after the Kamchtka op was about it rather than the op.”

Ursa shrugged and popped the top of her water bottle off. “She did kill a tank for us on that op.”

Castillo nodded and rolled her eyes. “I got a good rundown on that tank as well. And how she was able to take it apart so readily.”

Ursa nodded and then took a swig, feeling her shoulders sag slightly as she drank almost half the bottle. Already her right arm felt almost back to normal, aside from a little lingering soreness that would work its way out over the next few hours.

Apparently that was weird for a normal person, but it had never been any other way for her. Save that now it was even stronger than it had been before she’d gotten her physiology sorted out.

“Anyway,” Castillo said, turning ever so slightly toward the door. “I just figured I’d see how your family was doing. Out of curiosity, has Kale figured out what he wants to do for school yet?”

Ursa lowered the now nearly-empty bottle and gave the commander a grin, swallowing her last gulp of water to clear her throat. “Sort of. He’s pretty sure he wants to work in robotics, but past that he’s unsure.”

“Big field. He know how he’s going to get the training?”

She shrugged. “He’s actually thinking of taking an official course at a college somewhere, but with robotics you can honestly do a primary education program and be pretty good as long as you’ve got the money for the equipment. He’s thinking about it. There’re work training programs too, but …”

Castillo nodded. “Then you’re stuck with the company.”

“Right. After how mom and dad … Well, let’s just say it’s an option, but not one any of us are keen on, even if it’s not the same company.”

Castillo nodded. “I hear that. Anyway, fifteen minutes.”

“Closer to thirteen now, commander.”

Castillo’s only reaction was to shrug as she headed for the door. “Really? Because I just said fifteen.”

Ursa rolled her eyes but nodded. “Understood, commander.” A moment later Castillo was gone, and she was alone once more in the gym.

All right, fifteen minutes. Whatever it is, it must be a few days out. She bent to gather her small collection of things, taking a moment to wipe her face and upper body down with her towel.

I wonder if it has to do with that mess on Pisces, she thought as she left the gym and headed for her room. Or if it’s just another random job somewhere. Then she shook her head.

Like we’d ever know.

*             *             *

Adah was already in the briefing room when Ursa arrived, though she was the only one. Ursa sat down, giving the woman a nod when she looked up from her datapad, but otherwise not saying anything.

One minute to spare. Nice. It wasn’t too surprising that the commander herself hadn’t arrived yet. Sometimes she was there first, but other times not, and since whatever this job was it was far off enough that she’d come to collect each of them personally it definitely appeared to be one of the latter moments.

She glanced down at her own datapad, briefly contemplating pulling up something to keep her occupied for a few minutes and then deciding against it. The news would largely be about Pisces or the renewed, increased tensions between the UN and the megacorps, and anything else interesting would probably only become such the moment she needed to set the device aside. Either way, not worth the effort.

Not that it seemed to have stopped Adah. She glanced over at the woman and then spoke. “Anything interesting?”

Adah shrugged, not looking up from her datapad. “Just the usual mix of news. So Pisces, SoulComp, and little else.”

“Anything about our last op?”

“Nothing,” Adah said, setting the datapad down at last and looking Ursa in the eyes. “Outside of a mention in the media that it happened at all. And I still can’t decide if that’s a good or a bad thing. I’m leaning toward bad.”

Ursa nodded. “Why keep it quiet unless there was something going on.”

“Exactly.”

The door to the briefing room opened once again, this time admitting a dirty and oil-stained Anvil, who gave them both a wide grin. “Ladies.”

“Anvil,” Adah said, nodding. Ursa settled for the nod. “Hard at work on your new toy?”

Anvil let out a laugh as she sat down. Well, less sat and more dropped into her seat, one arm over the back of the chair. “Of course,” she said, her tone upbeat. “That’s half the fun, you know? Restoring it.”

“And no using the rigs, I’m guessing?” Ursa asked, noting the dirt on Anvil’s arm. “Looks like you’ve been hands-on.”

“I’ve used the rig a little,” Anvil said, sitting up slightly and running her hands down her arms, as if she could brush away the oil and grease. “Some of this stuff was meant to be done with a team. But it’s a lot more fun to be hands on, rather than watching in a booth, you know?”

“Does the rig even have instructions for a vehicle that old?” Adah asked. “That tank’s over a century old, isn’t it?”

Anvil shook one hand in a dismissive gesture. “Depends on the model. This is an M1A3, one of the last ones they made. It actually does have some basic stuff in the rig, though it’s all pretty old. Most of what I’m doing with the rig is manual instruction. But there’s some stuff it can handle all-right. The A3 comes from right around the beginning of the automation movement, so there was a lot of experimentation with it before the bans.”

“Plus,” she added. “Everyone wanted to work around those bans for the longest time, even if they claimed they weren’t, on it?”

Ursa nodded. “Let me guess. It could do it all on its own, but it has to have a human double-check it every step of the way?”

“Right.” Anvil said with a nod. “Gotta tap that button that says ‘checked’ for every step.” She shrugged. “Not so bad since I’m doing most of it myself anyway.”

The door opened again, this time letting in the last member of the team, Owl, followed by Commander Castillo. For a second the room quieted, all three of them waiting to see if the commander would signal for their attention, but when she didn’t the conversation resumed. “So what’s left to do?” Ursa asked.

Anvil let out a snort. “Everything, on it? It’s not in the best shape. Retired in 2047, left to sit in a warehouse for a good two decades before being sold to some corporate military, saw combat, took a hit, got slated for backup parts, then sat in a landfill for a couple of decades while the company changed hands …”

“So there was no way you were driving it in here.”

“Hell no,” Anvil said quickly. “It doesn’t move without the rig right now. I’m still working on getting the engine out, but even if it ran, the treads and drive-wheels are all seized up.”

“So it’s a long-term project,” Ursa said.

Very long-term,” Anvil agreed, though the prospect didn’t seem to bother her. “A couple of months at least, probably more. Machining new parts, figuring out why it won’t work …” She let out a satisfied sigh and leaned back. “Feels good, on it?”

“A good project usually does,” Adah said, setting her datapad down. “So will it be a fully accurate restoration?”

Anvil shrugged. “I don’t know yet. I could, probably, but it’d require spending a lot of marks. Like seriously, a lot. And while it’d be cool, all it’d give me is a tank a hundred-plus years out of date. I’ll figure it out later. For now, I’m just going to enjoy getting the blasted thing taken apart, right?”

Ursa nodded. One step at a time. Certainly makes sense. One of the docs had said something similar about her once, after she’d agreed to work for the commander. Not quite in the same context, but certainly similar. They had to take a pretty solid look to understand what needed to be worked on. They’d done it though. Months of careful—and likely questionably legal—gene therapy at a cost she could only guess at had paid off.

Both Adah and Anvil were looking in the direction of the head of the table now, and she followed, twisting in her seat to follow their example. Commander Castillo wasn’t waiting impatiently—her focus was clearly on her own datapad in front of her, projecting something into the air with a security filter enabled—but she was sitting, usually a sign that she was prepared to start and waiting on the rest of them. Ursa switched her gaze to Owl’s position, giving the woman a quick nod of acknowledgement before bringing her focus back to Castillo.

They waited a few moments more, and then the commander set her datapad down, waving the display away with one hand before looking up to lock eyes with each of them. As she made contact, a change seemed to sweep through the room, the atmosphere tensing slightly. They had a mission.

“Fireteam,” Castillo began. “We’ve been offered a job.”

The phrasing took Ursa slightly aback. Offered? We haven’t taken it yet? She could see similar looks of surprise on the faces of the rest of the team. None of them had failed to notice the peculiar wording.

“No,” the commander said, as if she’d read their minds. “We haven’t taken it yet. That decision rests with you.”

Ursa glanced at her teammates once again. It wasn’t the first time such a thing had happened … but it was highly unusual. She spoke up. “Who’s the client? Anyone we’ve worked for before?”

To her surprise, Castillo shook her head. “No. We’ve never worked for them before. They’re entirely new. I don’t even have a name.”

That was even more unusual, and again Ursa glanced at the rest of the table, again noting that she wasn’t the only one who looked surprised.

Anvil spoke up. “Then what’s the job?”

Castillo opened her mouth but then closed it again without saying anything, her fingers darting over the controls at the head of the table. The emitter in the center of the table powered up, blue-colored motes of light coming together to form an image—though of what, Ursa wasn’t quite certain yet.

That’s a cityscape, she realized after a moment, her eyes picking out the shapes of buildings making up most of the image. A big one.

But it was the bit in the center that caught her attention fully. At first glance she’d assumed it was a megascraper, its peak climbing off of the top of the emitter’s image, but then she noticed the long strands coming off of it and stretching out all around it, like strands of a spider’s web.

But bigger. Much bigger. Almost impossibly big.

That’s not a city, she realized. At least not all of it. That’s an orbital station. And the central tower wasn’t a tower. It was an elevator. A space elevator.

“Okay,” Anvil said, speaking before any of the rest of them did. “You’ve got my attention. I’m assuming our client doesn’t want us to do something suicidal and insane, like try to blow the orbital up?” She frowned and leaned forward, staring at the image. “Which one is that, anyway?”

“The Mexican Orbital Station,” Castillo answered. ‘And no, our job doesn’t have to do with the station. Not directly, anyway.”

The answer was worth giving the commander a curious look, but not a long one. There was still the map to consider. The view was so pulled out that the topography of the region was on display. That’s gotta be at least a hundred, two-hundred square miles of territory right there.

“So then,” Adah said. “What is the job?”

“The job,” Castillo said, tapping the controls on the table. “Are these.” Across the vast, packed cityscape, a number of buildings began to flash red. Almost a half-a-dozen in all, and not with any pattern that Ursa could see.

“What you’re looking at,” Commander Castillo said. “Are the primary and secondary conduits for all datanet and freeweb activity in and around the orbital station.”

“No way.” Anvil leaned forward. “Are we going to take down the dataweb?”

“Sort of … but yes,” Castillo said, and Ursa’s eyes widened. “That’s what this new client wants us to do, anyway. Around the orbital station.”

“Why?” The question was Adah’s. “For starters, that won’t be an easy job. Once someone realizes what’s happening, they’ll bring the hammer down on us. A job like this is somewhere between terrorism and a direct attack on UNSEC.”

‘Thirty-five million euromarks.”

Ursa let out a whistle. “It’s the week for high-paying jobs.”

“It’s high-paying because it’s dangerous,” Adah countered. “Unless I’m wrong, we’re talking about taking the Mexican Orbital Station off the net.”

“You’re right,” Castillo said with a nod. “These targets—“ Again the red buildings flashed. “—are the primary and backup relay nodes for the entire area. If we take these offline, which is what this client wants us to do, then the whole region is offline until one of them is brought back online again.”

“How hard do they want us to take them offline?” Anvil asked. “Is this a ‘Break in a nicely flip the switches?’ sort of thing, or a ‘Blow it up and burn it down?’ sort of thing?”

“Unspecified,” Castillo said. “The only requirement we’ve been given is that the entire area needs to be offline for at least fifteen minutes.”

“So we need to take it down,” Adah said. “And then keep it down.”

“Exactly.”

“We’re not taking it down,” Owl said. Ursa snapped her attention to the woman, as did the rest of the table. “I misspoke,” she said quickly, holding up a hand. “If we took the mission, we wouldn’t be taking the datanet offline. We’d just be disconnecting this region from the rest of the globe. The difference being that the datanet inside this region would still be connected to anything that didn’t require going through one of those relays.”

Ursa nodded as what Owl was saying clicked inside her head. “In other words, we’re shutting off this part of the dataweb, like a quarantine.”

“Yes,” Owl said. “Anyone who was using the datanet or freewebs inside this region to speak with anyone else inside of it would still be able to while the connections are gone. The connections to anyone outside of the region, however, would be dead.”

She paused. “Though considering the specific locale we’d be taking offline, the response would be swift and serious. Most likely military.”

“Agreed,” Castillo said. “The client was up-front about that. One relay going down would probably mean local law enforcement. But two will mean military response, given the nature of the region. And …” She tapped at the emitter controls once more, the display shifting and zooming in on a cluster of buildings by the base of the elevator. “Such a response will come rather quickly, as the Mexican military maintains an active force on site for just such occurrences.”

“So we strike fast,” Ursa said. “Really fast. Take down the relays as closely together as we can to beat their response time.”

“It’d be the only way to do it,” Adah agreed. “Unless we wanted to get drawn into a standing fight.”

“We’d lose,” Anvil said quickly, shaking her head. “So no. Quick and dirty.” She glanced at the commander. “We haven’t accepted this yet, have we?”

Castillo shook her head. “No, we have not.”

“When would we need to move?”

“The client would like this operation to occur tomorrow night, roughly around noon, though they specified that they were flexible.”

“Which would be …” Ursa began.

“Two in the morning, our time,” Owl supplied.

“Interesting,” Adah noted, but didn’t elaborate, even when the rest of the team glanced at her.

“The real question is ‘do we take it?’” Commander Casitllo asked. “I don’t know how many other groups the offer was made to, but after last week’s successful—and lucrative—operation, there’s no pressing need for us to take this job.”

“But we could take it,” Adah noted. “And the client clearly thinks we will, or they wouldn’t have given us so much information up front.”

“Well,” Castillo said, pulling the display back out to show the whole region once more. “Or they understood we’d wish to make a proper evaluation of the requirements and risks before accepting. Five primary nodes,” she said, five of the targets flickering. “Plus two back-up nodes.” Two more images on the map flickered. “We’ll need to take all seven down and make sure they stay down for at least fifteen minutes.”

“Then the primary nodes are then problem,” Anvil said with a shake of her head. “Or the backup nodes.” All eyes turned to her as she spoke. “Realistically, taking out all seven nodes won’t be too difficult. The backup nodes will likely be either lightly defended or not at all defended, so it wouldn’t be too hard to setup something to take them down at the same time.”

“They’d have security,” Owl pointed out. “All of the nodes would. There has to be some kind of protective feature.”

“Local city AI, at the very least,” Adah added. “Watching via cameras for specific activity.”

“A quick query.” Castillo said, her fingers tapping at her datapad, “shows that the city monitors its security with a level five ‘dumb’ AI. So no true awareness to worry about.”

“A dumb AI can still be a dangerous threat,” Ursa said, glancing at each of them. “And if this mission was to happen tomorrow, we wouldn’t have much time to place for contingencies.”

“True,” Castillo said, tapping the display once more. “But why don’t we take a look at our targets first. A closer look.” The display zoomed in, buildings swelling and falling out of sight along the edges of the display as one of the backup nodes filled the center of the table.

“Wait,” Anvil said. “That’s it? A chain link fence around a shed?”

“That’s … it,” the commander confirmed, even as details began to spring up around the image, noting cameras that were watching from nearby the small space. “Surrounded by industrial park. That’s the backup.”

“Well, that’s easy enough,” Anvil said. “Rental unit, hacked, and a small explosive. If they’re going to make security that light—“

The image shifted, panning across the city to what Ursa assumed was the other backup unit. Inside a closet in what appeared to be a parking garage in a government building.

“A bit more difficult,” Owl said. “But still attainable.”

“Not the best security,” Ursa said as they image panned again.

“Well, it’s probably likely that they weren’t counting on someone being crazy enough to knock the whole city off of the dataweb.” Adah pointed at the display as it shifted again. “Most of these defenses are circumstantial; there to protect something else that the relay happens to be close to. Besides,” she said as the view jumped again. “Taking down the relays won’t cut the city off. Half of the dataweb is run through low-orbit satellites and short-range data transmission, even around the elevator.”

“That may make it easier to take the physical linkages down,” Commander Castillo pointed out. “The government won’t react as quickly if it’s a mere annoyance.”

Ursa nodded. “I’m with the commander. That does make sense. It does raise the question of why we’re being paid thirty-five million euromarks to do it, though.”

“Because we’re not the only angle,” Owl said. “Why hire one team to do all that when you can hire another team for that angle?”

“To what, drop a giant ECM across the city?” Anvil countered. “I mean, it would work, but—“

“But it sounds like to me that’d make contacting us last minute either a mark of desperation, especially with how much they offered, or they were very sure we’d take the job for what we had to do,” Adah cut in.

“Could be last-minute planning,” Ursa said, shrugging. “We’ve dealt with that before.”

“True.” The display shifted again. “Still, I’m not sure I like having a prize dangled in front of our faces to get us to jump. How do we know this isn’t a setup? Bait for something else? It is a fresh client, correct?” The commander nodded. “So then would taking this job be walking into a trap? How are we paid?”

“Half up front, half on completion.”

“Could mean anything.”

“Agreed.”

“I don’t know,” Anvil said, cocking her head to one side. “I mean, it looks doable. And what would the penalty be for knocking out the ground relays for the datanet anyway?”

“No idea. I’d imagine at the very least someone will start shooting at all of you, though.”

Anvil shrugged. “That’s our job, isn’t it? Besides, the way I see it, this isn’t that bad a job. I’m only seeing a few of these relay nodes here that’d really be a problem. The two backups I can take care of with two rental cars and a couple of bombs. Hit a button, and both of those go offline.” She paused. “Well, maybe heavy trucks, just to make sure both make it past the fence. But you all get my point, on it?”

“That the backup nodes aren’t an issue?” Castillo said. “Yes, though the one in the parking garage might be a bit more involved.”

“Eh.” Anvil shrugged. “It’s on the lower level. Getting past the security gate is the only real problem.”

She paused. “Actually, I see a way past it. Nevermind.”

“So you could do it?”

“Me?” Anvil grinned. “Sure. But I won’t. A remotely triggered missile mounted inside a rental truck, though, that’d do nicely. Truck doesn’t even have to make it past the security. Make it a breaching missile, just in case the wall around the backup is reinforced.”

“All right, so we can deal with the backups easily enough,” Adah said. “What about these other five nodes?” She leaned forward, hands grasping at the display and plucking out each of the relays until the center of the table was full of them. “Suggestions, team?”

“I say we strike four at once,” Owl said. “Synchronized with the proposed remote actions against the backup relays. That way, we catch as many people off-guard as possible, and then can work together to strike the last relay.”

Ursa nodded. “I like the logic. If we hit them one at a time, we’re just giving local enforcement time to figure out what we’re up to. If we hit them all at once and then collapse on the last relay, we keep everyone off-balance. We fight once, together, at the fifth relay.”

“Thank you,” Owl said, nodding in her direction. “As well, we must consider that our client must have some means of jamming airborne signals, as already pointed out, otherwise our actions have little meaning. Therefore, we should be prepared to act while under complete communication denial.”

“I get it,” Anvil said. “The moment we tell our client we’re going, they might drop a giant ECM on us. With no warning.”

“Not very friendly,” Ursa said, frowning. “It’s logical, but it’d be nice to be informed …” She looked at Castillo, and the commander shook her head.

“If that’s their plan, it wasn’t part of the mission offer. Still, I like Owl’s suggestion. It would minimize time spent dealing with enforcement and potentially operating bereft of comms. However …” The commander’s eyes turned to Adah.

“It does mean we’d each need to be able to take out one of these relays all on our own,” Adah said, taking command smoothly from Castillo. “Which means we need to examine each of these relays in detail and decide which one—“

“I’ve got that one,” Anvil cut in, swiping her hand through one of the relays. “It’ll be a dod.”

“Easy, huh?” Adah shot back. “You sure?”

Anvil grinned. “I’m already making my plans. So that one’s mine.”

“And it’s now primary objective Anvil,” Adah said, a flag appearing above the relay Anvil had chosen with a few flicks of her fingers. “Though I do want a run-down of how you plan to take it out before finalizing everything.”

“I can take this one,” Owl said, reaching out and waving a hand through one of the remaining images. “Long range shot, I think, with a controlled detonation round, right through the wall.”

“All right,” Adah said, another flag appearing. Ursa, meanwhile, flipped her gaze between the three remaining relays.

Which one do I want to volunteer for? Maybe … no, that one’s  … Actually, what’s going on there?

“Commander?” she asked, turning toward the head of the table but letting her eyes linger on the strange structure. “That looks like reinforcement around that relay. Not just security, but reinforcement.”

“It does.” Castillo’s brow furrowed as she looked first at the image and then at her datapad. “I’m querying records now. It’s … Oh foxtrot.”

The rest of the team perked up the commander’s choice of words. That never means anything good.

“It looks reinforced because it is reinforced,” Commander Castillo answered at last. “It’s an old ISP building. From before the corporate wars.”

“Catch me up?” Anvil asked in confusion as the rest of them grimaced.

“ISP meant ‘internet service provider’ about a hundred or so years ago,” Ursa said when no one else jumped to explain. “Think early monopoly, proto-megacorps. Government backing, no competition, that sort of thing. They’d get the local government to pay for building all the networks, and then the ISP would take over and run them, usually at incredibly high rates, because at that point what was anyone going to do? Build a second network?”

“Then they’d spend that money on political clout so that exact thing never could happen,” she continued. “Buying votes and manipulating media until they were the only choice at all. At which point the rates would just start going up.”

“They ran media empires for entire nations,” Castillo added. “Datamining and techniques like everyone uses now, to target people and manipulate them, but before people were used to it and understood it was something that could happen.”

“Let me guess,” Anvil said. “Once they got that kind of power, they had to defend it?”

“Right.” Ursa gave her a nod. “So private military forces, reinforced businesses, and of course force projection to make sure no one could threaten their business model.”

“Sounds like a megacorp all right. What happened to them?”

“The freewebs and the UN happened, actually,” Adah cut in. “I’ve got a great-grandfather who  was one of the soldiers who got pulled into it. The UN argued that the datanet—and the webs—should be free and open. The ISPs … disagreed. Hard.”

“UN pulled them down forcefully, froze assets, locked up board members,” Ursa continued.
“Course, some lodged complaints at gunpoint.”

“That’s how my great-grandfather got roped into it. Part of the peacekeepers that took down an ISP,” Adah added.

“Right. Of course,” Ursa added. “It did leave a lot of these companies leaderless, and so they were split and sold up to the highest bidders, who were the real megacorps, who got what they wanted as long as they promised to either hand the relays over to the UN or support the freewebs. So in a way, both the true megacorps and the UN got some power out of it.”

“Anyway,” Adah said. “That’s the history lesson. Where it leaves us is figuring out how to break into a reinforced installation specifically designed to repel attackers. More than half a century out of date, but a fort is still a fort.”

“I say we let that one be the one we tackle as a team,” Ursa said. “Neither of the other two look remotely as difficult. I’ll—“ She began to reach forward, but paused as she saw Adah’s eyes flicker toward one of the two.

“Would you—?” she began, but Adah shook her head.

“After you.”

“Then I’ll take this one,” she said, swiping her hand through one of the relays. And I already see how I’ll do it.

“The last one is mine, then,” Adah said, flagging both images appropriately. Then she paused before speaking again. “Just to be clear, I don’t count this as an acceptance of the job. Let’s see what everyone’s got for their relays, and what our assessment of the last relay is. Then I say we make a decision.” She looked at each of them in turn, waiting for a sign of acknowledgement before moving on. When it was her turn, Ursa nodded.

“Commander?” Adah asked when only Castillo was left.

The commander stared down at the five relays, four of them flagged, her brow furrowed in thought once more, and then she nodded. “I think that’s a good idea. Get to it.”

“All right!” Adah’s expression took on an energetic, eager edge. “Well then Anvil, since you were first, let’s hear how you’ll deal with that relay. And the backup relays. Lay the whole plan out.”

Anvil began speaking, and Ursa found herself wearing a grin to match both the spunky heavy weapon’s user and Adah. The plan was both surprisingly subtle … and then very abruptly not, all at once.

Her grin widened. Even if they didn’t take the job, just planning what they could do was pretty entertaining. Though if the looks on the rest of the team’s faces were reading the way she thought they were …

Tomorrow … we see Mexico!

*             *             *

This feels so weird, Anvil thought, hunching low in the seat of the rental van. Like … somehow worse than going into battle starkers. She glanced down at her neckline once again, at the one-piece jumpsuit that she was wearing over her skinsuit, buttoned so that the cool cream color looked like an undershirt rather than the advanced collection of carbon composite muscle it was. It felt weird to be wearing clothing over it. Like putting a bandage on top of another bandage. It was just …

Weird, she thought again, pulling her eyes away from t the jumpsuit and the shoes on her feet and back up to the world outside the van. It was nothing but crowded city streets, choked with people, cars, lorries, street vendors trying to make a few marks, and even the occasional rickshaw. Or whatever they were called in this part of the world.

A surplus datapad was attached to the dash, tracking her route through the city, and she glanced at it. She’d been using the back roads ever since she entered the outskirts that morning, her van splitting from the other two vehicles she’d taken control of. All three of them were slaved to the datapad, which she’d picked up the night before outside the base in the Dragon Bloc. A small explosive charge on the back of the pad—known as a popper—would detonate as soon as she was done with it, slagging the pad and further reducing any answers an investigation would reveal. The rental fleet she’d paid for that morning had been done so from anonymous temporary accounts, the seller too interested in making a sale to look deeply at where the money was coming from.

Everything had been planned out and was ready to go. Except …

The waiting … Ugh. She’d packed several bottles of water with herself in the van, and she took another swig from one, briefly wishing she’d had the foresight to fill it with something other than water. Juice, maybe. Or a nice wine. Something with a strong flavor. Can’t get drunk anyway. Her mods wouldn’t allow it. Might as well enjoy the flavor.

But with everything else she’d needed to take care of, variance in her liquid refreshment hadn’t really been a priority. Oh well. She took another sip, the tepid liquid but tolerable.

The van braked as someone cut across the street ahead of it, slowing traffic, and Anvil rolled her eyes. Part of the reason she’d set out so early was because traffic in the city, especially in the back roads, was so bad. On the freeways and the direct routes, or the parkways, it was business as usual, but the back roads, where people walked into traffic almost constantly, counting on the local laws the vehicles were programmed to follow, it was a different story. In some areas traffic was so slow that walking would have been quicker.

Local customs, she thought as the van rolled forward once more, its motors whining. But on the other hand, this absolutely works in our favor, so …

She leaned forward in her seat, tapping the datapad and bringing up a tiny private channel with the rest of the team. A hard-light keyboard materialized in the air, and she tapped away at it, sending out her inquiry.

Update?

“AD” or Adah was the first to reply. Waiting. That meant she was ready.

Ursa’s reply came next. Almost there.

Next came Owl. Waiting on you ladies. What’s taking so long?

Anvil rolled her eyes as she typed back. Traffic. It was partially true. She was still a few blocks away from her destination, but that was by design. And comparatively, her insertion was the easiest. Her preparation for it had been the hardest. The others had simply needed to figure out how they were going to move across the city undetected. She, on the other hand, had needed to slave several rental vehicles control systems to her datapad and rig them properly for the job at hand. The rest of her day had simply been sitting in a van waiting for her destination to arrive.

Drinking tepid water, she thought as another message appeared on the screen, this one from command.

Nothing out of the ordinary here. In other words, Castillo, sitting back at base and monitoring every local security feed she could find, wasn’t seeing any signs that their entrance into the city had been noted or tracked by anyone.

Up ahead traffic was slowing again, though there was a break in the foot traffic. A quick look made it easy to see why. An armored police vehicle was parked at the next corner, two enforcers—Or whatever they’re called here—scanning each passing vehicle as it went by.

She wasn’t worried. Even at a distance she could see what kind of scanner it was. It was the same that was already used by the occasional cameras on street corners, one that could peer through the security tint on the outside of the van’s windows. She did her best to bored—not hard, since she was—and slouched back down in her seat, waving away the datapad’s chat.

Nothing to see, she thought as the van rolled past the two enforcers, their scanner plying over her. Just another bored delivery drone playing at being a driver to keep everyone happy. There wasn’t any need for a driver. Hadn’t been for decades. Or dock staff. Or … Hell, most of the jobs anyone has these days. But the laws were strictly enforced: People had to be a part of the process. Even if that part was just doing something a simple machine could have done a century ago.

Then again, it wouldn’t be any better under the megacorps. The UN requires bodies, the megacorps would just remove people entirely and consolidate everything into some sort of techno-fuedualism or something worse, where they’ve got all the power and everyone else has the dregs.

Meh. She shook her head as the enforcers passed by the rear-view cameras, already scanning the next vehicle in line, a worn-down pickup that looked as though it had seen better days. They both suck. Big and tough, crushing everyone else underfoot.

Pisces has the right idea.

She kept one eye on the camera-view of the two enforcers until she was more than a block away, checking to see if either of them were casting worried glances in her direction or trying to covertly place calls to anyone. But they weren’t, instead scanning the vehicles before them with the same detached boredom they’d shown for everyone else so far.

Good. The last thing she needed was for a more advanced scanner to take a peek past the walls of the van and get a good look at the exoskeleton sitting in the back. That would lead to questions. And then violence. Possibly not in that order.

Up ahead the building that was her target finally came into view, and she glanced at the clock on the van’s dash. Eleven fifty-eight. Say what you will about the traffic, at least modern data algorithms are really good at figuring out your travel time.

She brought the chat channel back up, fingers striking keys. Almost there. One by other the other team members acknowledged her message and noted that all of them were in place.

The van slowed, turn signals coming on as it aimed for an alley across the street from her target. One with access to the next street over.

This particular relay had, according to the files she’d examined the night before, been in place before the building that was now sitting atop it. A small real-estate outlet owned by a megacorp, the official understanding was that the building was responsible for making sure nothing happened to the relay, and in turn would get a nice discount to their taxes. Provided that city inspectors were allowed to enter the building to keep an eye on the relay from time to time. Which is why her jumpsuit was similar to the ones worn by Orbital City technicians. Not a perfect match, but close enough.

The van pulled over, aiming for the alley … only to stop, its path blocked by a street vender hawking … something with what looked like off-color cabbage. Who glared at the van as if its arrival were going to drive away traffic. Then they stepped over and rapped on the window.

She ignored the vendor’s tapping, instead eyeing the chat as she typed out her location. Ready.

Ready.

Ready.

Ready.

The tapping was getting louder now, insistent and moving toward full out beating. A second later the vendor began slamming her spatula against the window, shouting faint Spanish.

Confirm? That was Castillo. Anvil adjusted the view on her datapad, bringing up the feeds from her other two vehicles and confirming that both of them were in the proper place and waiting for her orders. Meanwhile, the woman at her window was shouting now, banging on the glass with her spatula.

R2G.

Go.

That was the signal. She issued the command to both the slaved vehicles, watching for a brief second to make sure they were going into action and then finally moving to crack the driver’s side window. Angry Spanish spilled through.

“English,” she said, loudly. “I need to get into the alley. You need to—“

You need to move!” the vendor shouted in a thick accent. “Go away!”

“Lady, I need access to this alley, you’re blocking—“

“Leave!” The woman stabbed her spatula through the crack in the window, the blade jutting by above Anvil’s head and waving back and forth. She could feel her pulse rising. “Leave now!”

“Lady!” She tried again, glaring at the woman and lowering the window so that the woman could see her eyes when she spoke. “I need to get into that alley, so you need to—“

“Leave!” This time she had to duck as the spatula swept back. “My wife and I, we sell this corner! You’re driving away traffic. You want trou—?”

The vendor’s last words cut out in a sudden gurgle as Anvil grabbed the spatula and the woman’s shirtfront in the same instant, yanking her forward and partway through the window.

“Move,” Anvil growled, bending the metal of the spatula back with one thumb. The vendor’s wide eyes locked on it and then on the apparent ease with which Anvil was holding her off the ground by her shirt. “Now.”

,” the woman said quickly, nodding in fear. “!”

Anvil let go, and they stumbled back, eyes hesitating for the briefest moment on the bent metal of their large spatula, and then they darted for the vendor cart, hastily rolling it out of the way.

Gracias,” Anvil said as the van began to roll forward. On the datapad, her two paws were almost at their destinations. The encounter with the vendor had cost her half-a-minute, maybe, but she wasn’t worried. She bent down as the van came to a stop, grabbing a large, heavy metal toolbox from between the two seats and a deli-style brown paper back, casually lifting both in one hand. She stepped out of the van into the shadowed alley, noting almost immediately that the vendor was still watching her. She gave her a smile and a wave with the heavy toolbox. That seemed to discourage any further interaction, the woman ducking back and shouting at someone else to clear space on the sidewalk.

“You can have your spot back,” Anvil called to her as she walked past, heading for the building across the street and almost bouncing with each step, though it still felt strange to be wearing shoes over her skinsuit. “Just don’t block me off.” She wasn’t sure if the woman heard her or not.

But it didn’t matter. Ahead the entrance to the small office building loomed, and she grinned. Too bad I can’t see what those two pawns are going to do. I’ll bet it’ll look glorious.

*             *             *

Gabriel leaned back in his seat and let out another long sigh. He’d been so excited to get a security job for the industrial park two weeks ago. Paid to sit around and watch cameras? With an AI assist? Easiest job in the world. He could spend it reading. Or watching shows. Maybe a game or two.

Except the same AI that helped him monitor all the security cameras also monitored him. Which meant that as he sat there, it noted how long he spent watching each screen, how often he switched his gaze to another view … or if he was even watching at all.

It made the job hell. It should have been easy, but it wasn’t. There had to be a human being in the chair, watching the screens, and if that was so, even with an AI, his employers were going to make sure that he watched, that he couldn’t put them at risk of the UN cracking down on the elevator.

They wanted it. Everyone knew it. The fact that it was owned by one of the larger companies in the Americas meant nothing. The UN wanted full control, ground and orbit, and they’d jump on any excuse to try again. Being allowed to run the station at the top wasn’t enough. They wanted ground too. But Mexico International wouldn’t allow it. And so the stalemate endured.

And he had to endure a job where an AI forced him to perform all day, every day. Twelve hours on. Twelve hours off.

And his contract was for five years. If he bailed he’d owe the company more money than he’d make in a year. At the time of signing, it had made sense, and who wouldn’t want to have a stable income? But now?

He let out another sigh and moved his eyes to the next camera. Watch the empty street. Make sure no one was approaching the warehouses that looked unusual. Repeat. Only six hours left on his shift. At least he could eat at his desk.

A faint chirp caught his attention and he sighed as he spotted the flashing border around one display. The AI was demanding his attention. Half the time he wondered if it just did it randomly to see if he was paying attention, to try and trip him up. The other half of the time, it was something like a bird or a covered security clearance. He leaned forward and—

It was neither. It was an empty, driverless truck. Exceeding the speed limit.

That was odd. A driverless truck shouldn’t be exceeding the limit.

Or accelerating. And the truck was definitely doing that. Indicators were popping up all around it.

It’d been so long since something interesting had happened he almost forgot what to do, but the large red button to the side of his kiosk brought it all back. Call it up, let the company decide.

His palm slapped down on the button even as his other hand reached out and began tracking the truck, following it as it jumped from camera to camera, picking up speed. Eighty kilometers an hour. Eighty-five. Ninety. A hundred. A hundred-and-ten.

He slapped the button again. Someone was supposed to ask him to report. Why hadn’t they asked him! The truck was really moving now, and then as he watched it turned, cutting across an intersection to head straight for—

The old shack in the middle of the complex? In the lot full of weeds that hardly anyone ever visited, with the old weather chain-link fence topped by barbed wire.

It was no match for the several tons of metal bearing down on it. The truck hit the curb first, front end leaping as it slammed over it, front suspension bottoming out. Though the image was silent, he could still hear the screech of metal-on-metal in his head as the runaway vehicle smashed through the fence like tissue paper, wrenching it aside and ripping it from the ground. It barreled across the grass lot, slowing but not stopping and dragging the fence behind it.

Then it hit the shack, and it was as if a bomb had gone off. The corrugated metal sides exploded outward, flying in all directions as the truck bounced again, this time hard, so hard that all four tires came off of the ground, sparks flying from its underbelly.

Then it was all dust from any angle, rising over and covering his view completely in the wake of the wreck. He sat in stunned silence, watching, waiting, not caring if the AI noted he hadn’t looked at another monitor yet.

No one had answered him yet. He slapped the alarm button again. Maybe they already knew.

The dust cleared, revealing the extent of the damage. The truck was high-centered atop … something, or rather what was left of something. What he wasn’t really sure, but there were sparks still arcing out of it here and there. All four walls of the shack were gone, as was the roof, scattered across the lot.

The red button flashed, a loud and thoroughly annoyed voice echoing through his tiny office. “Qué!?”

Gabriel opened his mouth, unsure about how to reply … and that was when the truck exploded, ripping what was left of the lot apart and killing the cameras.

*             *             *

Sophia waved her hand as the screen cleared the car waiting by the front gate, and a moment later it responded, pulling forward and into the garage. Soon it’d be the lunch rush, and cars would be leaving, not arriving. Then returning an hour later. Right now though, it was merely stragglers or employees coming in off their normal hours. Nothing special. And she’d be off after that. Free to go home and do something with Marco. Something … fun.

Another car pulled up to the gate, waiting, and a moment later the security clearance flashed on her terminal. Another wave of the hand, and again the bars dropped into the ground, the gate-arm lifting and letting the car past.

The vehicle behind it, however, was a large box truck, and she frowned as it pulled up to the gate. There were no deliveries listed.

The security screen flashed red. Nor did the box truck have the right clearance.  Maybe it was lost? She keyed the security scanners. If she could get a look at the driver—

Her eyes went wide. Past the tinted glass, there was no driver. Instead, there was a very familiar-looking pipelike object poking its way out of the back of the truck, tilting on electric motors.

Her hand punched the alert button just as the launcher fired, the truck windows exploding outward in a shower of glass fragments. The missile was past her booth before she could scream, and she twisted her head, trying to track it as it flew off into the garage but failing to catch anything but wisps of smoke. A moment later there was a heavy thud and her breath seemed to catch in her throat, the world stopping for a brief instant as she waited for it to end.

But it didn’t, even when a moment later a roaring boom echoed through the garage, drawing a scream from her throat. Alarms began to sound, and all she could do was stare at the now-windowless truck, wondering what had just happened.

*             *             *

An alert popped up in the corner of Owl’s hud, notifying her of a shift in the wind between her and her target. Gusts. Never helpful when taking a long shot. But she could circumvent them, provided Vincent and the yet unnamed spotter drone kept an accurate estimation of things. The message faded away, leaving only the rough timeline below it of “predicted wind activity.” It was a simple wave graph, outlining what her equipment expected the wind speeds to be like over the next twenty seconds and the actual noted speeds both.

It was nice doing a job with a fully active sensor suite running from both of her drones and her armor. Made taking a shot much easier.

Off in the distance, a faint boom echoed across the city, a cloud of dust rising from the direction of the industrial park. That would be one of Anvil’s trucks taking down the backup relay in that location. Which meant it was time to take her shot.

She was lying atop an apartment rooftop, the closest of any of them to the fifth and final relay, but likely the furthest of the team from her actual target. Which was almost two kilometers distant, firmly inside an old office building that according to records had once been concerned with financial markets but now was another arm of a megacorp and used for who knew what.

She didn’t know. Nor was it important to the mission at hand. All that mattered was that the relay had been installed on the seventh story, behind two walls, only one of which was reinforced concrete three inches thick, the other simple plaster, wood, and sheetrock.

There would have been an outer wall, but she’d found a perfect firing line right through a window of the outermost room. Which, from what she was seeing, was some sort of meeting room, currently filled with fourteen very bored looking employees and one presenter who hadn’t stopped talking once in the entire forty-seven minutes Owl had been in position.

She’d used a directional laser on one of the unopened windows at one point, but the entire presentation had been in Spanish, which she didn’t speak. And while there was a translation suite built into her suit’s systems, it wasn’t perfect, and most of what the presenter seemed to be saying was a lot of business terminology anyway.

Repeatedly, if the bored looks on the faces of everyone sitting around the table were any indication. What one must do to be paid, Owl thought, watching the graph in the corner of her hud.

Another, fainter boom echoed across the city. Likely Anvil’s other truck taking care of the other backup relay.

Mark.

She was already sighting down her rifle, the long barrel stretched out before her on the roof. For this particular operation she’d chosen a heavier rifle than she normally used, an almost ludicrously powerful anti-material rifle manufactured in South America and designed to deal with armored cars and—in a pinch—actual tanks.

For the shot she was about to take, it had felt like the right weapon. The round was already chambered, tiny fuse circuits inside it in contact with the rifle itself, and therefore her suit. She peered through the scope, the systems inside it interfacing with her suit and projecting what it saw across most of her visor.

The open room. Fifteen occupants. One of them was sitting just to the side of the room’s door.  She’d already gotten a reading of the width of the hall beyond it when one of the occupants had gotten up to leave the room, a good confirmation of what the building’s public blueprints had already noted.

She held her breath, watching the wind out of the corner of her eye and shifting the rifle ever so slightly up and to the left. The range was dialed in, and the calculations had been done.

She squeezed the trigger gently, and the rifle kicked against her shoulder like an ox, dust and debris flying away from the end of the barrel even as its discordant crack rang across the cityscape. Through the scope she saw the work of the bullet appear almost instantly, the high-powered bullet punching right through the conference room door and leaving a neat, clean hole. The room’s inhabitants jerked in shock, and a moment later both drones reported the sound of a detonation. Each of them ran the numbers, reporting that the explosive round had, based on the speed with which the report from the blast had vibrated the outer windows of the conference center, detonated precisely four-point-seven meters past the door to the hallway.

Squarely in the middle of the dataweb  relay. Which meant it was likely a smoking pile of shattered circuits.

Still, likely didn’t cut it. She pulled her head back from the scope and picked up a small, disposable phone she’d purchased the night before back at base. The thing had been so cheap it didn’t even have a projection system, just an old touchscreen. She woke it up and tapped the screen twice, issuing the command she’d set up forty-some odd minutes earlier.

The addresses of the relay nodes were public information, and could be pinged directly. Her target included. Which the disposable phone was now trying to do. Unsuccessfully. After several seconds it gave up. She tapped the screen again, repeating the command, and again the device failed to connect, noting that there might be problems with the device she was attempting to connect to.

Perfect. The node was down. Clean. Quick. Efficient.

Which meant it was time to move. She crushed the phone beneath her armored fingers, grinding it into small bits of plastic, then ordered Vincent and the unnamed drone to keep watch while she packed up her rifle.

Thirty seconds later, the rooftop of the apartment building was empty, the only traces of her presence the remains of the phone and a faint thermal impression where she’d been laying.

*             *             *

Chiara leaned back in her seat, pulling her eyes away from the displays in front of her for just a moment and taking a look out the large window that made up the corner of her office.

The view wasn’t much. She was on one of the middle floors after all. So really all she could see was the front of the building across the street, weather-baked brick and glass baking under the sun, but it was something. She was important enough to have an office, but not important enough to have one of the internal ones with fully-functioning viewscreens that could display anything they wanted to.

Well, almost anything. Anything company approved. The top-most offices in the building had most of their viewscreens set to display the view from the company headquarters in Mexico City. There were other options, but everyone knew that if you picked any other view, then that office was as high as you would ever go.

She could still see the street below if she got up and walked over to it. Whenever she did, she couldn’t stay there for long. Inevitably something would call for her attention back at her desk, and she’d need to turn back, away from the street below with whatever activity it held. Sometimes it was a lot, and sometimes it was very little.

But … a window was a window. It was better than the tiny cubicle she’d once shared, her only job to go over and verify with a human eye reports that AIs had already verified. The “human element.”

Now she just verified that people were verifying the reports. The same job, but slightly higher on the company’s ladder. Getting paid enough to afford food and her small, one-room apartment at the company complex.

She’d just turned her attention back to the display when something flickered outside her window, and she looked up just in time to see a massive armored figure swinging out over the street on a cable, like some sort of performer.

There was just enough time for her eyes to widen as she worked out the figure’s trajectory before it smashed into her office window, crashing through it in a cascade of shattered safety glass. Chiara’s jaw dropped as the armored soldier landed on their feet, standing there for a brief moment before turning their visor in her direction and drawing a gun of some kind from their back.

Her hands went into the air without her even thinking about it. The figure was towering and huge, the top of their helmet almost reaching the ceiling, and there were strange black markings all over their armor, repeated designs she couldn’t identify but looked almost … tribal.

Por favor no—“ she began, only for the armored figure to cut her off with their own voice. One that sounded almost feminine … though it was hard to tell beneath the distortion their helmet gave it and their butchered Spanish.

Perdona el desorden,” they said before turning away from her and striding toward the door out of her office, small cubes of broken glass falling away from their shoulders with each step.

Chiara couldn’t breath. Her chest felt like it was locked. The giant shoved the door to her office open as if it had been made of cardboard, not even bothering with the latch. A second later they moved out of sight, their tread surprisingly silent despite their size as they vanished from sight. Several seconds passed, and Chiara remembered to breathe, her chest suddenly jerking out as she gasped for breath.

Her office was a wreck, and there was an armored, dangerous looking figure in the building. Why? Who had they come for? Iyanna was the least-liked person in the office by far, but would someone have gone as far as to hire an assassin?

Gunfire echoed up the hall, deafening booms as the intruder fired, and Chiara fell back into her seat, barely aware that at some point she’d stood as she clutched her hands over her ears. The shots rang out again and again. Four, five, then six, followed by a metal shriek as something that wasn’t supposed to bent and rent.

Then there was silence. At some point she’d shut her eyes, her head tucked tight against her chest. She cracked one eye open, looking up just in time to see the massive armor step back into her office, their weapon no longer held in their—she felt a faint trickle of wetness between her legs—clawed hands but on their back.

The figure stopped, looking down at her, and once again she found she couldn’t breathe, as if the figure before her had somehow paralyzed her with a glance.

Lo siento por eso,” they said, their Spanish still horrid. Then they rushed across the room and leapt out the window, vanishing from sight.

Once more the ability to breath came back to her, and she stood, pushing herself up on shaky legs and not caring about the wet, warm spot she’d left on her chair. The walk to her office door seemed  to take forever, like she was dreaming and couldn’t move properly, but at last she reached it, fully expecting to see that half of the office had been slaughtered in a red spray of gore.

But they weren’t. In fact, a cold, clinical part of her mind noted that all of them, Iyanna included, were standing in mute shock around the door to the weird bit of equipment the engineers had always told them to leave alone. Confused, she stepped up to it, joining the rest of her office mates.

The door had been wrenched aside, ripped from the frame. And behind it …

A pile of smoking, sparking, shattered circuitry.

All she could do was stare at her team, speechless, even as some small part of her mind wondered exactly how much she was going to be billed by her employer for all the damage.

*             *             *

Jefe?”

Mattrew kept his eyes on the park pathway in front of him as he reached for the small radio on his belt. “Yes?”

“We’ve got an intruder, jefe. Came right over the wall.”

“Again?” He bit back the urge to curse. Not when he was out in the park. Not where paying customers could see him. He settled for tilting his head back, away from the pathway he’d been sweeping. Above him, past the trees of the park, he could see one mighty strand of the orbital elevator’s support structure hanging above the city. In another hour it would be casting its shadow across the park. “You got eyes on them?”

, but—“

“Well you know the rules,” he said, shaking his head. “Stun them and call the cops.”

Jefe, they’re wearing armor.”

“What?” He pulled his focus away from the path in front of him and the edger he’d been using the clip the grass back. “Like, body armor or—?”

“It’s a skinsuit. Like the enforcers wear.”

Shit. “Okay, that’s new. They armed?” What am I supposed to do if someone in skinsuit armor breaks into the park? Call the enforcers?

Sí, sí. A rifle at least.”

He covered the radio’s speaker with one hand, quickly checking to make sure there weren’t any customers nearby that might have heard the report. “I got it,” he said, holding it close to his mouth. “Any idea why? They just passing through or …?”

“No idea. Me, I’d like to keep my distance.”

“Do that, Ferdy.” There was no sense in stepping in front of someone wearing a skinsuit.

The radio crackled again. “I just spotted her, Mattrew.” He recognized the voice. It was Rocia. She’d been working on the flowerbeds in the center of the park. “You know that dataweb relay in the south end of the park?”

“Yeah.”

“They’re headed right for it.”

“Like they might pass it? Or right for it, right for it?”

“Uh … The second one. She’s heading right for the door.”

Relief poured through him like cool water. The relay hut was officially not part of his—or his team’s—job description.

“She just went through the door.”

He keyed the radio. “It’s fine. I’ll call the city. The hut isn’t our responsibility. Just keep your distance.” A faint pop echoed across the park, and he frowned. “What was that?”

“Something just exploded inside the hut, I think? Oh! They just came out, running back across the park. Should I say something?”

“Nope.” He crouched, setting the edger down. “I’ll call it in to the city, and they can deal with it. Just … everyone keep an eye out and let me know when they’re gone, all right?” He pulled his phone from his pocket, the device waking up as it scanned his face. “And let’s all hope they don’t head for the office.”

Several replies came back as he found the right number and placed his call, the phone beginning to ring. A few seconds later someone picked up.

Hola?”

“Hey, this is Mattrew down at the Orbital park. We just had—“

With a beep his call dropped, and he stared down at the phone in shock. The words NO SIGNAL began to flash in the corner of the display, and he shook the small device in one hand.

This, he thought, taking a quick look around, is the weirdest day.

*             *             *

There was a bounce to her steps as Anvil walked in the front of the small business, taking a quick look around the lobby and spotting both her objective and exactly what she needed to get to it. The lobby wasn’t much, just a few chairs and a couch arrayed around a small table atop industrial carpet. A receptionist behind a nearby desk. A door, unlocked, that led to a small restroom. Three other doors, each leading deeper into the building, and all of them locked by security systems.

Which was fine. She walked across the lobby, making a straight line right for the nearest trash can and crushing the paper bag she’d grabbed from her van in one hand before dropping it into the basket. Which, she noted, was already partway full with plastic and cardboard, plus what looked like the remains of someone’s lunch.

Perfect. She gave the receptionist a smile—he wasn’t bad looking—and then turned for the restroom, acutely aware of the faint popping sensation she’d felt through the bag as she’d crushed it into a ball. The restroom lights flickering on around her as she stepped into the small space, and she reached out with one hand to flip on the sink, standing and waiting for her surprise to take effect as the water ran.

I’m just washing my hands after lunch. Don’t pay it any mind. Instead of doing that, however, she set the heavy toolbox down and reached into the pockets of her jumpsuit, pulling out the gloved part of her skinsuit that normally covered her wrist and hands. Most soldiers preferred to have the whole suit as one unit … but most soldiers weren’t safely enclosed inside several-hundred pounds of composite metal exoskeleton. She slipped both the gloves on, the seams around the wrist sealing as the skinsuit portions made contact. Fully suited, she picked up the toolbox again, turned to face the door, and waited.

She didn’t have to wait long. Through the thin metal came a faint cry, followed by shouting.

Two seconds later, the building’s fire alarm went off, and she burst from the restroom, surprise and shock on her face as she saw the smoldering conflagration that had become the wastebasket.

It was hard not to grin as she saw the thick smoke pouring into the air. Better yet, the receptionist had grabbed not a nearby fire extinguisher, but a large drink from their desk and was about to pour it over the flames.

The massive pillar of fire that resulted, blackening the ceiling as the receptionist fell back against the couch with a panicked yell, was enough that she couldn’t keep the grin from her face, and she settled for turning and walking toward one of the nearby doors. Normally locked, but now that the building’s systems had identified a fire…

The door opened smoothly, the lock having automatically disabled the moment the fire alarms had gone off. She stepped into the hallway beyond it, looking left and then right and noting several confused looking employees poking their heads out of small cubicles in one direction. The wrong direction. She turned the other way, heading down the hall toward another door that, according to the diagram online, would lead her down to the relay.

Oye!” someone shouted at her as she walked down past one of the blinking fire alerts. “Eh tú!” She ignored them, shoving open the stairwell door.

“Oye!” A hand reached for her shoulder, and she ducked out of the way, spinning and kicking the door closed just fast enough that it caught the hand in the door, a screamed curse sounding from the hall.

She moved down the steps quickly, heading for the bottom. The door there, from what she’d looked at, would not have unlocked for the fire alert.

That was fine. I brought my own key.

From above, past the landing, there was the sound the door crashing open once more. Shouted, angry Spanish echoed down the stairwell at her as she opened the toolbox, withdrawing the lone tool it had been holding and dropping the box to one side.

The she turned, grinning, and watched as the man who had been pursuing her down the steps came around the landing and got his first good look at her.

Her, and the massive circular power cutter she was hefting casually in one hand. The man skidded to a halt, almost sliding off the landing and onto the next set of steps, one hand flailing at the railing. She grinned wider, one hand squeezing the trigger and revving the large saw blade with an electric whine.

With a shout the man yanked his way backwards around the railing and scrambled up the steps. She waited until he’d gone to let out a wild laugh.

I don’t know about the rest of the team, but I’m enjoying this job. Sparks flew as she brought the power saw down on the heavy metal lock, burning through her jumpsuit but not nearly hot enough to damage the skinsuit beneath it. The squeal of the saw biting through metal was ear-piercing as it echoed around the stairwell, probably loud enough to damage the hearing of someone who wasn’t altered.

The saw dropped with an abrupt jerk, the shriek of metal changing pitch as she made it through a lock. A single kick was enough to throw the door wide open, exposing a whole cluster of what looked like server racks, lights blinking away and fans whirring.

She grinned and hefted the saw. Really enjoying this.

A minute later, there was nothing left of the relay but a lot of sliced up circuitry and quantum bricks. For good measure she’d severed any and all cables heading out of the room as well, some of them almost tripping the saw’s breakers as they shorted out.

Good fun.

She placed the saw back into the toolbox and then made her way back up the stairs. The fire alarm was still screaming and smoke was curling under the door to the lobby, so she took an alternate exit, heading for one of the building’s side doors and stepping out into a narrow alley only wide enough for two people to walk shoulder to shoulder at the most.

No one gave her more than a moment’s glance as she walked out of the alley and into the crowd of employees watching the fire in the lobby be put out by some quick thinkers with extinguishers. From the look of it the wastebasket had melted into the carpet and some of the furniture was showing signs of damage, plus the ceiling was black, but all in all her little trick didn’t seem to have done too much damage.

She crossed the street, moving through the crowd of onlookers and street traffic and back into the alley where her van waited. The datapad was flashing at her as she climbed in, and a quick glance at the screen showed that it had lost its signal.

That would be the jamming we planned for. And it explained a few of the curious looks she’d seen people in the crowd giving their phones.

The van came to life as she entered the next destination into its systems, and a moment later it began to pull forward, down the alley and away from the building that had held the relay. Anvil stepped into the back, peeling off the jumpsuit with the sound of tearing cloth.

“Seven minutes to destination.”

She grinned, swaying slightly as the van pulled out into traffic and began to accelerate. Seven minutes? She eyed the grey-camo exoskeleton filling the back of the van, waiting for its occupant. Plenty of time to get ready.

Maybe she’d keep using the saw, too. That thing was fun.

*             *             *

She was getting a lot of panicked looks as she ran through the city. And honestly, Adah couldn’t blame them.

Most everything with a wireless signal is jammed, which includes all their phones and pads, there are explosions echoing across the city, the orbital elevator is on high alert, and now there are armored soldiers rushing down the street.

The middle of the street. There were too many panicked, confused-looking people taking to the sidewalks for her to want to try and cut through them. After she’d jumped the wall from the park, she’d started running down the middle of the road, clearing cars and trucks where necessary. Which was fairly often, as she could run at higher speed than the local, backroads traffic could keep anyway, and now that people were surging into the streets to try and figure out what was going on things had slowed even further.

She pushed off of the ground once more, her armored boots just clearing the back side of a small hatchback and landing cleanly on the roof with twin, rhythmic thuds. A single bootprint on the hood later—one that made the cheap plastic pop like a small firecracker—and she was back on the pavement, running down the road once more, weaving around a truck that had slowed for the crowd.

A glance at the city map in the corner of her hud showed that her suit’s estimate of her location was in line with her own. All wireless signals were being completely overwhelmed by a titanic jamming field, but her suits sensors could still make estimated measurements based on her momentum and distance to nearby objects. It wasn’t perfect, but it would do.

Eighteen blocks to go. Hopefully she’d arrive before any resistance had formed at the final relay. Their plan wasn’t exactly a subtle one, counting on speed and shock tactics more than subtlety. They were going to hit the final relay with everything they had, as hard as they could. The only real question was how much of a force would be there to meet them, or if it took the local enforcers time to figure out what was going on, materialized while they were working.

Then there was the orbital elevator, towering above the city even with the several kilometers of open space between its base and the habitation that had sprung up around it. Distant as it was, she could see the red flashing lights everywhere as the entire facility went on full alert.

Small wonder. Her suit’s countermeasure systems had noted that the jamming effect was strongest in the direction of the elevator. Considering it was as close to the actual “center” of the city as it could be, it was incredibly likely that somehow, despite all the security around the orbital complex, it was the source of the jamming.

With a little luck, that’ll keep all the enforcers there busy tracking down the source of the jamming and shutting it down. Which meant they’d probably be too busy to deploy their forces into the city.

But flip it, she thought as she jumped up and over a truck loaded with gas tanks of all shapes and sizes. Someone on the sidewalk shouted something as she passed. If all the enforcers at the spaceport work together to find the source of that jamming, then we need to take out the last relay before they do. Otherwise our client loses their window for whatever it is they wanted to do.

Owl had some suspicions on that, but since it wasn’t critical to the job, they’d been left unsaid. They could speculate after they got paid.

Up ahead she could see several police officers trying to placate a larger crowd, their vehicle nearby with the doors open. Judging from the looks of the crowd, it wasn’t working very well.

It worked a lot less when someone in the crowd pointed at her and shouted something in Spanish, cries of panic erupting from the frightened citizens as they saw the armored figure rushing toward them.

Worse, both of the officers turned and drew their weapons shouting at her to stop. She adjusted her run, darting to the left and putting several cars between her and the officers.

A loud crack echoed across the street, and people began screaming. One of the officers had fired, though where their shot had gone she couldn’t say. The other officer tackled their partner, shouting rapid Spanish and chewing them out as the crowed bolted in all directions.

Little more chaos than I expected to cause when we took the job, Adah thought as she continued on, kicking off of the side of the box van to make the next corner and leaving a sizable dent where her boot had hit. Hopefully once she was out of sight things would die down from a near riot, but—

More shots echoed from behind her, and she waited for the telltale hum of shots whipping past her or an impact against her armor, but it never came. Whoever was shooting wasn’t aiming at her.

Great. Now we’re kicking off a city-wide panic. I hope whatever this client wants is worth it. She kept running, arms pumping at her sides as she flew past startled faces and panicked drivers. More than once she tripped a vehicle’s sensors, a vehicle attempting to stop to avoid hitting her or steering out of the way, but she was already gone by the time it mattered.

Three blocks. She was almost there now, and all around her she was seeing the signs of a city that seemed to be tilting towards panic. And all it took was some explosions and taking out everyone’s communications.

Well, she admitted as the street the final relay was on neared. That and have armored mercenaries running down the streets. That can’t be helping at all.

As she neared the final turn that would put her on the same street as the fortified building that housed the relay, something on the skyline caught her eye. The bottom of her stomach seemed to jump as she looked up, catching sight of what appeared to be a number of VTOL’s lifting off from the spaceport and flying out over the city.

That’s not good. Not good at all. It wasn’t hard to imagine what would be in those VTOLs. Some of them would be evacuating important figures in case the jamming was a prelude to something worse. But others?

They weren’t climbing into the sky. They were flying out over the city. Probably full of soldiers. And boasting a number of weapon emplacements.

The high-risk phase of the mission had just begun. At least she was close to their target. Unfortunately, with the jamming covering every available spectrum, there was no way of knowing if she was the first to arrive or not.

At least, until she saw a familiar white van smashed into the fortified business center’s front gate. Its side had been peeled back like some kind of fruit, exposing an empty interior. One that had been full the last time she’d see it.

That meant that Anvil was already on site. And, she noted as she jumped atop the van, surveying the small grounds that led to the front doors of complex, doing what she did best. The reinforced doors had been cratered and ripped apart by what were likely micro-missile shots, followed by a judicious display of force. The lobby past that had been torn to shreds, furniture and fixtures annihilated in equal measures, and another set of reinforced doors past that were both lying on the floor, twisted and broken.

More of Anvil’s handiwork. No bodies though.

Maybe she drove them all out. That would be nice. All that they’d been able to find was that the building was owned by Mexico International, the same company that owned the orbital elevators and most of Central America. Part of South America as well.

Past that, what sort of security force they’d have on the building itself had been unspecified, but they’d assumed that there would be one. And there was definitely going to be one on the way out, given the VTOLs she’d seen.

She moved up to the damaged front doors, Vertix-3 rifle held in a loose carry. No resistance materialized as she cut around the corner into the lobby, nor when she moved to the battered doors at the far end.

From somewhere within building a familiar roar echoed. She identified the sound in an instant. Micro-missile fire from an MMR. Anvil. Or someone else with an MMR.

It was possible. They were popular weapons, though not well-suited to firing if you weren’t wearing an exoskeleton. Not impossible, but difficult.

She moved down the hall at a quick jog, her profile low. Anvil’s path wasn’t hard to follow; she appeared to be taking the straightest possible route to the relay.

Given our ticking clock, Adah thought as she rounded another smashed doorway, rifle at the ready and panning over steps going both down and up. Probably a good idea.

The roar of MMR fire erupted again, but this time the echoing pops of gunfire echoed in response.

“Anvil? This is Adah? Copy?” There was no response. Either Anvil wasn’t listening or the jamming was still in effect even this far into the building.

The sounds of gunfire continued, followed by a scream that cut off halfway with strange, metallic shriek.

The hell was that? There were still two more landings before the bottom of the stairs and the level she was looking for. She picked up the pace, trying her comms once more.

“Anvil, report!”

Nothing. The reinforced doors at the bottom of the steps had been sliced and wrenched apart. Some sort of new toy Anvil has?

She poked around the opening cautiously, catching sight of an unconscious security guard nearby. From the look of it, their faceplate had been mashed in by a blow from an armored fist. But … they were breathing, so there was that.

“Anvil, this is Adah. Do you copy?” The hallway beyond the door looked like a heavily-reinforced security station. Or what had been one before Anvil had gone through it. Automated security guns had been torn apart, craters blown in the walls.

From down the hall another burst of MMR fire echoed, and then a familiar voice echoed across her comms.

“Hey boss. Sorry about that. My hands were full, and I wasn’t expecting to hear from you. Coast is clear.” Another metallic shriek filled the air, and at last Adah recognized it as a power saw. “And the relay is … offline.”

“Offline, or …?” Adah asked as she moved down the hall, past the destroyed security checkpoint and several bodies. The hallway opened up into a larger, secondary security checkpoint, again with an array of guns. They really were serious about protecting this thing. Without an exoskeleton, this would have taken some work to get past.

“Destroyed,” Anvil said, her armored form stepping out a nearby doorway, a power saw in one armored hand, her MMR in the other. “They’re not getting it back up anytime soon.”

“Then the commander will be coming in for pickup,” Adah said, giving Anvil a nod and noting the scratches across her armor. “It looks like we’ve got enforcers from the station on route. Bringing VTOLs.” She lowered her rifle, tapping at her wrist with her free hand and rotating the map on her hud. “And probably a whole lot of armor. Let’s get topside.”

“You got it,” Anvil said, moving down the hallway at a jog.

“Ideally, we’ll sneak away,” Adah said, following Anvil. “If we get into a firefight here there’s a lot of collateral damage we could do and high number of potential civilian casualties.”

“Building’s got clear space on all sides,” Anvil countered as the made their way up the stairs. “Which way would have the least collateral damage?”

“Front looks good enough to me.” Ursa’s voice cut across the line. “Definitely going to be issues with those gunships coming in.”

“Ursa, report!”

“Just arrived. I’m in the lobby.” They reached the top of the steps, and Adah saw Ursa’s familiar bulk wave from the end of the hall. “We’ve got three VTOL’s coming in hot. Enforcers.”

“Armament?”

“Didn’t get a good look.”

“Ideas?”

“If we move now—“ A loud roar cut Ursa off as one of the VTOLs swept past the building, dropping into the middle of the street, chin gun beneath the cockpit pointed right at the open doors. “Take cover!”

Adah darted to the side, ducking behind one of the battered but still fairly thick security doors as Anvil and Ursa scrambled for cover. A loud roar filled the air as the VTOL fired, bullets clawing their way up the walkway and then chewing through the lobby, shredding carpet and what was left of the furniture Anvil hadn’t destroyed. It was unfocused. Saturation fire.

To keep our heads down while they disgorge their forces. All of whom would likely be wearing equivalent armor to most of their team. Time to earn that paycheck, I suppose.

A new roar joined the first as Anvil fired. Adah looked up just in time to see a barrage of micro-missiles slam into the front of the VTOL, detonating against the nose armor and chewing into it. It wasn’t enough to deal a large amount of damage, or well-aimed enough to take out the chin-gun, but it was enough that the pilot panicked, jerking the VTOL away and to the side and disrupting its troop deployment. Two soldiers went stumbling out of the hatch as the aircraft veered away, falling to the pavement, while another held on with a single arm, staying inside as the craft climbed out of sight. The soldiers already on the ground, deprived of their suppressive fire, ate dirt, diving behind anything they could see.

“Cease fire!” Her shouted command rang across both the lobby and the comm channel. “Cease fire!” She waved a hand, and no return fire spat out at her.

She rose slightly, well aware that she was giving her position away. “Anyone out there speak English?”

There was a pause, and then a cry came back. “Yeah. Why? Surrendering?”

“No. But we’re open to walking out of here. Private military unit, and our job is already done. Let us walk out, and no one has to shoot anyone. You can be mad at our client all you want, but we can leave right now.”

Someone shouted something in Spanish, and she ducked as several of the soldiers opened up, bullets whizzing through the lobby. Her suit helpfully translated the shouts as “No,” “Open Fire,” and then a selection of descriptive swears about her suggestion.

“Well,” Ursa said over the comm channel. “On the plus side, they’re jammed, so they can’t call for reinforcements. Easily, anyway. Return fire?”

“Fight our way out,” Adah said, tapping her wrist and keying the advanced Command and Control suite that was part of her helmet. “I’m sending positional data for a few of them to your huds now. Take ‘em out, and let’s see if that changes their minds!” Both Ursa and Anvil opened fire, each aiming at different targets as the CAC divided up the locations.

“Watch for the VTOLs. And watch the backdrop! Aim low, not high! I don’t want any dead civis ending up on the news. Not from our shots!” Three micro-missiles caught a unlucky enforcer in the visor as they poked their head up, removing both in a spray of blood and kinetic fire. Adah fired, her own shots catching an enforcer in the shoulder. She ducked back into cover as bullets rained on her position, unsure if her shots had left an impact on her target. Against neural skinsuit armor and lacking penetrative armor-piercing weaponry, normal rounds of ammunition were of limited use, mostly counting on luck or a precise strike to do real damage. Or successive impacts to the same location, weakening a plate.

Always an arms race. Her grandfather had assured her that it had been much the same when he’d been a soldier. Now people just moved, fired faster, and took more, tougher bullets to take down. So guns had progressed in response.

She fired again, this time kicking up flecks of broken concrete and making one of the enforcers duck their head. A bullet ricocheted off of her shoulder, the impact stinging but not breaking her skinsuit, and she ducked back.

Then another one of the VTOLs opened up, a heavy gun chewing into the side of the lobby and splintering almost every bit of bulletproof glass in a long line. Then there was a sharp hiss that her CAC identified over the constant chatter of gunfire, and she shouted in warning.

“Miss—!”

It was all she had time to shout before the projectile slammed into the side of the building, blowing the bulletproof glass out and letting loose a shockwave that she could feel kick her back through her armor. Rubble and debris flew across the lobby, and even before the dust cleared her tactical readout had updated to show the new hole the missile had punched in the building.

“Headcount!”

“I’m up!”

“Rattled but alive. No injury.”

New gunfire poured in the gap from one of the other VTOLs, chewing up the floor and cutting trails through the smoke. Ursa was already falling back to the hall, making use of the cover and sliding into place across from Adah.

“So,” she asked over the comm. “We’re pinned pretty good. What’s the plan?” Anvil roared across the lobby to the new opening, coming up from the side where the VTOL wouldn’t see her. One of the enforcers outside must have seen it however, because the gunfire stopped before she could make it to the gap. A second later another missile shot down into the gap, and Anvil threw herself back as it detonated inside the lobby.

“I’m fine!” Anvil called over the comms. “Just rattled. Small breach, no injury.”

“Pull back,” Adah said. “They’re close enough to have comms too. They’re just baiting us. Get in the hallway.”

“Give up the lobby?” Ursa asked.

“They can have it,” she replied as Anvil lumbered past, then picked up one of the doors and held it like a shield. Bullets bounced off of one exposed arm. “We can’t cover it, and with those VTOLs out there we’re basically exposed from all sides. Here at least the only way they can fire a missile at us or lob a grenade is if they get close enough for us to hit back.”

“Want me to smoke ‘em?”

“Not yet,” she answered as Anvil sent another barrage of micro-missiles out the front door. There was a hiss and another missile slammed into the other side of the lobby, blowing a hole through that side of the wall as well. “Wait for it.”

“Wait for wha—?” Ursa shook her head. “No, I got it. Wait.”

“And keep firing.” She poked her head around one of the doors, sending several quick burst out into the street and catching one enforcer who’d been trying to move up in the chest. Return fire came back quickly, slapping into Anvil’s improvised shield. “We don’t want to make this easy for them.”

“Couldn’t we just fall back?” Anvil asked. “They’re probably already landing troops down the street.”

“The only place we could run to is the roof,” Adah replied. “And they’re the ones with the air support. And I don’t want to be too far from the entrance because—“

A loud boom echoed down the street and a second later one of the VTOLs spun into view, smoke spewing from one of its engines as it fought to stay in the air. It stabilized, but Anvil had already taken the initiative, a full fusillade of micro-missiles streaking out of her rifle and toward the struggling bird. It turned, trying to react, but the loss of one engine had already destabilized it. The missiles slammed into its right side, biting through the armor and punching through it. Explosions blossomed from inside, the VTOL juking wildly in the air, and then, its one functioning engine screaming, it flipped and slammed into the street, asphalt buckling and cracking. The damaged engine exploded a moment later, grounding it completely.

“Guess Owl’s rifle was pretty big,” Ursa commented as one of the other VTOLs juked hard to the left side of the building, likely trying to get out Owl’s line of sight. There was no sign of the third VTOL. The second VTOL rotated, bringing twin missile pods to bear on the left side of the building—

Two missiles slammed into the enemy gunship from behind, punching through the weaker upper armor and blowing the aircraft apart from the inside. It seemed to split as the twin explosions gutted it, swelling and then breaking in a burst of light and smoke before falling from the sky. It crumpled like an empty can as it hit the ground, smoke and fire spewing from it.

“Hello ladies,” said a familiar voice over the comms. “I hope you like close air support.” Outside on the street, enforcers were throwing their hands up, dropping their weapons as the team’s Stalker gunship dropped from the sky, its own bristling weapons pointed down at them.

“Glad to see you, commander,” Adah said, rising from her cover and jogging toward the lobby doors. “It was getting cramped in there.”

“She actually came?” Anvil asked, tossing the large door aside and following her out. The enforcers were backing away now, hands still in the air. A glance up the street told her what had happened to the third VTOL. A precision armor-piercing shot had managed to gut the reinforced pilot’s compartment. Smoke was spilling out of a hole in one side as the aircraft’s backup computers guided it down to an open space on the street. It was out of the fight.

“With the jamming?” Adah said, glancing at the enforcers and keeping her rifle on them as she backed toward the Stalker in case one of the tried something. “Yeah.”

“You think I’d trust a remote?” Castillo asked, the VTOL lowering to the ground and one of its side doors opening. “Not a chance. Now get in. We still need Owl, and any minute now the orbital station is going to wonder where three of their VTOLs went and send backup.”

Adah hopped up into the VTOL, landing in a sitting position with her legs and rifle still hanging out the door. It felt odd being half in and half out of the internal gravitic field the gunship was emitting, but it let her cover Anvil and Ursa as they boarded. It felt even weirder when the Stalker lifted off, rising swiftly into the sky. Wind whipped across both halves of her body, but only her legs and arms felt the full effect of the change in direction and position outside the aircraft.

One of Anvil’s hands landed on her shoulder, pulling her back into the aircraft where she could stand up. Rooftops were shooting by below them, sometimes only a few feet away, and then the aircraft went into a pitched turn, engines whining as the starboard-side hatch spun to face an empty rooftop, and beyond it—

“Whoa,” Anvil said as all three of them looked at one of the enormous support cables that helped provide support for the groundside portion of the elevator. “That’s huge.” It stretched by overhead, half a kilometer above their position but still thick enough to look substantial.

“This is as close as I can get without really triggering some dangerous automatic safeties,” Castillo said. “But I think—There she is!”

A figure dove from the side of the cable, dropping through the sky at high speed, arms and legs tucked tightly to reduce drag as much as possible. The fall had to be assisted, as it took far less time than it should have, the distinctive smoothed profile of Owl’s recon armor coming into view seconds earlier than it should have. With less than a hundred feet to go she twisted, small jets all across her armor firing and bleeding airspeed. She hit the rooftop at a run, sprinting for the Stalker.

Adah stepped to one side as Owl leapt through the starboard hatch, calling “In!” before her feet had even touched the deck. The VTOL spun, door sliding shut all on its own, and moments later the engines screamed to full power, each member of the team bracing themselves as it accelerated across the city.

“Hey Owl,” Ursa said as they left the city behind. “Nice shot on that second VTOL. Right through the cockpit.”

“Thanks,” Owl said, dropping into one of the seats and only then remembering the weapon case docked on her back. “Kind of glad I brought the big gun.”

“How’d you get up on the cable?” Anvil asked.

“Ran until it was within reach from the rooftops,” Owl answered with a shrug. “Then hopped on over. Probably tripped a bunch of security systems, but I wasn’t there long, and with the jamming …”

“I spotted her when she fired,” Castillo added. “But I was looking for her. It seemed like an ideal perch.”

Owl nodded. “That,” she said. “And it was fun to get off of.”

“Showoff,” Ursa said, but there was a playfulness to the words.

Adah moved over and sat down next to Owl. Anvil took a seat across the way, and Ursa moved past her to sit across from Owl.

“Team, you did good out there.” It almost didn’t feel like enough. “Real good.”

“Ah,” Anvil said, raising one robotic finger. “But was it good enough?” She tilted her head toward the ceiling. “Was the jamming still up when you came in to pick us up?”

“It was still going as we left,” Castillo said. “Hopefully we gave our client enough time for whatever it was they wanted to do.”

“Well, if they wanted to cause chaos, they definitely succeeded there,” Anvil said.

“Hey Owl.” Ursa pulled off her helmet, exposing her face. “Didn’t you have a theory on that?”

Owl tugged her own helmet off, shaking her head and letting her long hair spill over the back of her armor. “Yes. But I’ll need to check on some things after this is all over before I make any real postulations.”

Adah shrugged. “Sometimes we never find out.” Her own helmet came loose with a faint hiss of equalizing pressures.

“Sure, but it doesn’t mean we can’t try,” Anvil countered. “Sometimes it’s fun to think about.”

“I, for one,” Castillo said over the intercom, “will think about it once we’re back at base.”

The VTOL climbed into the sky, heading west.


 

That’s a wrap for episode 2. If you’ve got comments or concerns, please leave them below! And thank you for reading!

Fireteam Freelance is copyright 2020 Max Florschutz, all rights reserved.

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