Fireteam Freelance – Episode 4: Repeat Performance

This is Episode 4 of Fireteam Freelance! 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.


Repeat Performance

“It figures, on it?” Anvil said, watching through the viewscreens as the VTOL neared the distant coastline.

Ursa shifted slightly, letting out a yawn and looking over at her. “What does?”

“First time in my life making it to Hawaii,” she answered, watching as the distant lights of the city winked at them over the water. They were coming in “low and slow,” so close to the water’s surface they were almost skimming the waves. “And it’s in the dead of night so I can’t even see it.”

“That’s what night-vision’s for,” Ursa replied with a shrug. “Besides, we’re gonna be hiking in it soon enough. It’s a long walk to the observatory complex.”

“Eh.” She shrugged, the heavy armor of her exosuit shifting as it executed the movement. “Armored. I always heard Hawaii was for surfing.”

“Surfing?” That did get her a glance from Ursa. “You going to get yourself one of those gene-mod tails for balance?”

“No thanks. But you don’t need one to have fun.” The city on the horizon was drawing closer, its lights growing brighter as they neared. Civilization on display against the stars.

“So then what?” Ursa asked. “Are you trying to say you’re disappointed with yourself for never coming here before we got a job that brought us here?”

“I …” She paused, then nodded. “Yeah, I guess I am. You’re on it. I’m annoyed because I’ve never actually seen this place, and now that I am, I’m on an op and can’t enjoy it.”

“You probably couldn’t enjoy it if we weren’t on an op,” Owl said, joining the conversation from her seat across the VTOL. “Aeroline owns the whole of the island. You can visit, but it’s expensive.”

Anvil shrugged. “We make good money.”

Really expensive,” Owl countered, as if that was an answer .

“There are other islands.”

“And they’re all owned too.”

“Still might be worth it,” Anvil said, turning her attention back to the distant view. Even at night and through a viewscreen, the island still looked like a glittering gem.

“Oh come on,” Ursa said, smirking. “You’d be bored in a few days and wondering how much of it you could blow up.”

That’s … probably true. But she didn’t have to let Ursa know that. “So it’d be a short vacation. I’m familiar with that.”

“You would be.”

“Hey …” She turned, looking Ursa in the eyes. “Let’s not forget who’s as tall as who in what armor, now.”

Ursa just laughed, and Anvil rolled her eyes. Though that was a good one. She took a moment to look around the cabin of the VTOL before turning back to the viewscreen, taking it in. Adah, as always, was examining a holographic diagram of their mission area, her attention fixed on the peak at the center. Running over things as always.

Then again, that was what Adah was best at. It was why the commander had hired her. Adah kept everyone on task and  handled command of the squad like a pro.

Me, I blow things up. She flexed one hand, the metal fingers of the exosuit opening and closing. The new paint job—a mottled array of greens and browns, chosen for its similarity around their objective—was definitely far more welcome than the odd colors they’d used for the last few ops. The only thing she didn’t like was the limit on their equipment.

All their gear, from the heavy weapons attached to her suit to the rifle resting across Owl’s lap across the cabin, was chosen from a very specific pool of materiel.

UN weapons. By request from their mysterious client, the very same one that had hired them to hit the orbital elevator and cut the dataweb relays.

And this mission is no less weird, she thought, turning back to the viewscreen. The briefing in particular had been almost bizarre as the commander had informed them that not only had the Capacians the team had tangled with in Norway been hired by the same client, they had in fact been after the exact same thing: the datacore containing UN orbital flight logs.

Why, the client hadn’t said. Neither had their first client, the commander’s “old friend.” But whatever the reason, their mystery client was willing to pay a staggering twenty-five million Euromarks for the team to procure another copy of the same data from somewhere else.

Of course, since they’d already stolen one UN backup and drawn attention to the rest of their sites, that meant going with what their odd client had referred to as “a more violent option.”

Works for me.

From the front of the cabin, Adah cleared her throat. Anvil turned, catching the expectant look she was giving all of them.

“It’s time, Freelance,” Adah said, whipping a hand through the display and spinning it around. “We’ll be dropping in about five minutes.”

“Then we hike,” Ursa said, grinning as she leaned against the projector.

Adah nodded. “Correct. We’ll be dropping here,” she said, pointing at a spot on the western side of the island. “Just past Kailua-Kona.”

After coming in low and slow, both to stay off any active sensors and so that anyone who looks at our bird thinks it’s just another wealthy tourist VTOL taking a night flight.

“After that, the commander will go to ground here.” Another part of the map flashed. “Where she’ll wait for us to call for pickup. We, meanwhile, have fifty klicks to hike before dawn—“ A line flashed, pathing across the map of the island. “—to the peak of Mauna Kea.”

Where Aeroline has their little orbital observatory. The more detailed briefing before they’d left had explained why. A century ago stellar observation had been done from the ground, high atop peaks around the world. As more infrastructure had entered orbit, however, the backscatter had made those observatories fairly useless for peering into deep space, and so they too had moved into orbit. Leaving behind old facilities, up for sale and perfect sites for monitoring stations.

And Aeroline uses this one to track orbital traffic for some reason. Probably something to do with business. But whatever it was … They’ve got the data our client wants.

Damned if I know why, though. She snapped her focus back as Adah expanded the view of the mountain’s peak.

“We’ll move up the mountain from the south, keeping alert for any sort of security measures on the way, but as far as we’ve been able to ascertain, our first obstacle—and target—is here.” Adah’s tapped a small plateau to the south of the observatory complex, the colored motes of light scattering beneath her finger and reforming in its wake. “Our client’s intel identifies this as the central hub of an anti-aircraft array that circles the complex.” Faint dots near the surrounding peaks lit up. “In this case, anti-aircraft and anti-missile defenses.”

“Can they be turned on ground targets?” Owl asked.

“The good news for us is that no, they cannot. So we only need to worry about Aeroline security forces in the area. However,” Adah continued. “The bad news is that the AA-batteries can cover the whole of the island and some of the surrounding sea.”

“Technically,” Castillo’s voice said over the intercom. “They could shoot us down right now over the bay.”

“In other words, we don’t leave until we take down those batteries, on it?” Anvil asked, pulling her eyes up from the map to look at Adah.

“Close, but not quite.” Adah moved her hands over the map once more, making it shrink until they could see the whole island once more. “Because the larger threat we face once we’ve made our presence known is here, in Waimea.” A city on the northwest point of the island lit up. “Aeroline has an airbase there.”

Anvil nodded. “Gunships.”

“And additional troops. From the moment we make ourselves known, we’ll have a few minutes at best before their VTOLs are on top of us.”

“At which point we’re done,” Anvil finished, nodding. I could take one or two of them with the right positioning, but that mountaintop looks pretty bare.

“Correct. Intel gathering says that they have a least a half-dozen VTOLs at the airbase. Maybe more.”

Far too many to take down on our own.

“So what’s the solution?” Ursa asked. ‘We haven’t turned around yet.”

“Simple,” Owl said. “We take the network and make it our own.”

Adah nodded. “Manually, if necessary. We hit the control center for the network here—“ Again she tapped the plateau. “—after which we slave the network to our own command grid and set it to shoot down anything that isn’t us. Or at the very least targets we mark.”

“And I can handle taking command of the defenses if needed,” Castillo added, her voice echoing around the cabin. “All I need is a good uplink.”

“Sounds like we’re going to be jacking more than one thing,” Anvil said, giving the rest of the group a quick grin. Ursa grinned and nodded, but Adah and Owl were all business. Ah well.

“Regardless, that makes this our first target,” Adah said. “We’ll approach from the south, take it fast and hard. There should be a small skeleton crew, but nothing comparable to our own force. Techs, not soldiers.”

“I’ll circle east,” Owl said, tracing a path along the map with one finger to a nearby northern peak. “Provide vantage and targeting.”

Anvil nodded along with the rest of the team. That’d work well. “That center doesn’t look like much,” she added, looking down at the small array of batteries and one central building.

“No,” Adah agreed. “We hit it hard and quick and they may not even have time to alert anyone that we’re there. Especially if they’ve got light camera coverage. We breach, secure the center, and take manual control of their system.”

“In other words, everyone bring a jack,” Ursa said.

“Several, just in case. If we can’t gain control of their AA network, we pull out, go to ground in the jungle, make our way south, and try to evac.”

Anvil nodded. We can’t win against heavy air support.

“However, once we’ve taken the defenses, we can move on the observatory itself.” The map shifted, moving north where a cluster of buildings sat in a depression between the peaks, ringed by the various scanning and sensor towers built into the old observatories. “There are three primary structures that make up the center, but our client believes the data we’re looking for is going to be held in this one.” The mid-sized of the three buildings lit up, flashing for a moment. “We’ve got rudimentary blueprints, but the building likely saw changes after it was constructed, so we’ll rely on up-to-date CNC readings to build our own map.”

Anvil nodded. So far that was fairly standard.

“Our primary goal is to grab whatever datacore we can find, in any of the buildings, but we’ll start with the most likely location first,” Adah continued. “In addition, we’re all bringing rippers. You know the drill.

Each of them nodded. Rippers were common tools, heavy-duty data thieves that whose only purpose was to interface with any port or connection it could find and “rip” every scrap of data it could find. If there wasn’t a datacor, then there were probably going to be a lot of drives holding whatever orbital data the facility had.

Every scrap of either would make their employer happy.

“As far as defenses go, high-res orbital shots suggest at least six automated gun emplacements. Three independent, here, here, and here.” Again sections of the map flashed, and Anvil focused on them, committing them to memory.

Classic concrete reinforcement, covered from the air. Shoulder mortars wouldn’t be much good. But a grenade launcher on the other hand. She spared a glance back to the armory she’d loaded the Stalker with before departing, a wide range of options she could take her pick from. Yeah, that’d work.

It’d be a lot of fun, too.

“The post is supposedly staffed with thirty-nine people, of which only eight are part of Aeroline security. Unfortunately—“

“Neural armor?” Ursa asked. Adah nodded. “Our client pulled some supply records. No exosuits though.”

Anvil grinned as the team glanced at her. “Nice. I like being the biggest, baddest foxtrot on the enemy’s field.”

“I like it when you’re our foxtrot,” Owl added.

Her grin widened. “You paint ‘em, I’ll pop ‘em, on it?”

“Speaking of which,” Adah said. “We need to talk loadouts. But first, evac.” Once more the map flashed, this time highlighting the southwestern peak opposite the one had Owl chosed as her overwatch point.

“Once we’ve either found the datacore or ripped every bit of data on orbitals we can, we’ll signal the commander and call for pickup. Assuming we still have air superiority, she’ll pick us up on the eastern face of the southwest peak.”

Keeping her out of LOS from the city and the base. Plus that road there …

“Once we’ve loaded, the commander will fly us around the east side of the ridge and south as fast as we can go. Any questions?” Adah looked at each of them, but one by one they shook their heads.

“Good. Loadouts. Ursa?”

“Smoke grenades. Flash grenades. Shotgun.”

No surprise there.

“Anvil?”

Anvil grinned. “Shoulder-mounted variable-heavy grenade launcher and a shoulder-mounted guided MMR battery.”

“Not bringing an MMR rifle?”

“No,” she said, giving the team a quick shake of her head. “I’m thinking a sweeper.”

“Ooh,” Owl said, her lips pursing into a small circle. “You’re going to make everyone keep their head down, aren’t you?”

“Well, that and it is a standard compliment among UN commandoes for exosuit ops in urban combat zones.” She grinned. “Gotta sell our cover.”

“That reminds me,” Adah noted. “No external mics. You lose your comms, you go silent unless it’s life-or-death. We keep everything combined to comm bands. Less chance of blowing that cover.” She turned her focus toward Owl. “Loadout?”

“UN standard carbine rifle,” Owl replied.

“Carbine? Not something with more weight and range?” Ursa asked.

Owl shook her head. “We might need all four of us indoors. Carbine’s better for close work. I’ll be popping both drones for scouting and overwatch too.”

“Good,” Adah said. “Now, let’s—“

“What about you?” Ursa asked. “Rifle and grenades?”

Adah nodded. “Rifle and grenades.”

“I think that’s standard even when we’re not trying to look like a UN raid,” Owl said with a smirk.

“Yeah yeah. All of you get buttoned up and loaded. Don’t forget the jacks and rippers.” Adah dismissed the display, the colored motes of light scattering like colorful fireflies and winking out. “Button up and sync up.”

Anvil grinned. “You got it.” Her helmet was on a rack next to the rest of her weapons. Along with a few extras that she’d brought just in case. Around them, the viewscreen showed the bright lights of Kailua-Kona, glowing as they flew past almost at roof-level.

Looks like a lot of parties, Anvil thought as she slipped her helmet down and locked it in place, the internal atmosphere sealing with a hiss. The balconies were alight with people in all stages and states of celebration. Wonder if they’re celebrating something specific, or if this is just a normal night? There was definitely money being thrown around from the decorations. And there’s someone throwing up … and a couple—yeesh, get a room before you go hopping on one another like that.

Then the pair was gone, the VTOL slipping on above the city. Another minute and the lights began to fade, the Stalker moving out over the dark jungle.

“Comm check. Adah clear.”

“Ursa, clear.”

“Owl, clear.”

She added her own voice to the mix. “Anvil clear.”

“Castillo, clear.”

“Good,” Adah said. “Keep them open. Commander?”

“About two minutes. You’re going to have to drop from above the treeline, and I’m not going to be able to slow down. There are definitely a lot of active signals out there looking for traffic.”

“What’s the ground distance on that?” Adah asked.

‘About fifty feet. Maybe more. Will your leg take it?”

“I’ll aim for a tree,” Adah answered. “I’ll be fine. It’s sore, but I’ll be okay.”

The view outside the VTOL grew darker still as they left Kailua-Kona behind. “One minute,” Castillo warned.

Anvil hefted her sweeper in her hands. A weapon built for exosuit rather than human hands, the oversized shotgun worked identically to its smaller sibling, but on a substantially larger scale.

Magazine’s secure, six more on my suit. She ran one last system check, the grenade-launcher on her right shoulder twisting and turning as it diagnosed itself, all its functions reporting back cleanly. Seventy-two shells for the sweeper, fifty-six variable-fuse high-explosive grenades. A hundred and twenty-eight guided micro-missiles … There was still an open contact on the side of each thigh.

Well … why not, she thought, glancing over at the rack of extras she’d brought along to choose from. It never hurts to have some extra boom along. She picked up a single breaching charge, and then a Triad disposable launcher.

There, she said as the launcher snapped into place on her thigh. Now I’m ready.

“Extras, Anvil?” Adah asked.

“Thirty seconds.” The lights inside the cabin dimmed, switching to a dull red.

Anvil nodded. “I had the space. Never know if we might need one or both of them, on it?”

“I’m just surprised she didn’t bring a powersaw,” Ursa said with a chuckle.

“Yeah, that was fun.”

“Fifteen seconds. Cracking the hatch.” The port side the VTOL opened up, the hatch retracting with a shriek of wind. Anvil stepped over to it, grabbing the bar above the door with one hand and looking down at the jungle, her visor applying faint shades of grey and color as its vision systems went to work. The other members of the team stepped up beside her, peering out over the jungle.

“Fun,” Anvil finished. “But my knife works.” Not to mention that saw would have broken if my suit actually tried to use it. It had been made for civilian construction, not the pressure her armored grip could put it under.

“Drop.”

“Go!” Adah said from the front-side of the hatch, and Ursa stepped out, striking the foliage almost immediately and disappearing from sight.

“Go!” Anvil stepped out, plummeting out of the VTOL and through the foliage, scrapes and snaps signaling her passage past each twig and branch. A sharper impact against her side alongside a sharper, louder crack signaled the destruction of a much thicker branch, and then the ground was rushing up at her. uneven and gnarled with roots.

She slammed into it with enough force to sink her armored feet a good several inches into the earth, utterly splintering and destroying a root that she had landed on, but not so hard that she needed a hand to steady herself. The impact made her insides ache, but she wasn’t worried. With her augments, she could take far worse.

She drew her sweeper from the middle of her back, scanning her surroundings and spotting Ursa nearby, sliding down the trunk of a tree with ease. Movement in the foliage to her right became Adah, also sliding down a trunk and rolling as she hit the ground, while past her Owl took the direct route, the jets in her armor firing just before impact to slow her slightly.

“We’re down,” Adah said. “We’ll call when we’re ready.”

“Good luck.” Above them the sound of the Stalker had already faded, though a marker on her hud was still marking its increasing distance and position.

“Sweep?” Adah asked, moving toward Anvil’s position.

Anvil shook her head as she peered at her hud. “Not picking anything up.”

“Me either,” Owl said. “Area’s clear.”

“Well, Anvil did bring down part of a tree,” Ursa noted as she walked up, her shotgun in a loose carry. “If there was any wildlife around here, we probably drove that off too.”

“Then we’re clear,” Adah said, tapping at her wrist and then nodding to the north. “Owl, take point, Ursa, you take the rear. Twenty yards, keep visual at all times. We’ve got four hours until sunrise, and fifty klicks to cover.”

“Let’s get to it.”

*             *             *

It didn’t take long for the jungle around them to fade, falling back as the team made its way higher and higher into the upper reaches of the island. Before long they were out of the trees entirely, the thicker jungle giving way to what almost felt like a scrub grassland. Mixed with sharp, rough reaches of volcanic rock.

Almost like a desert, Anvil thought as scrambled over the scrub grass. They were moving down now, into a valley between them and their target, green rising in volume once more as they moved down. Ahead and somewhere off to the team’s left was a cluster of landscaping that was obviously manmade even in its overgrown state.

A town maybe? Abandoned? They were giving it a wide berth, their path curving to the east. At the bottom of the valley a road rolled up and down old volcanic hills, and even in the early, pre-dawn light, her suit was good enough to pick out the fresh sections where the asphalt had been more recently replaced, each directly in line with the dark flows of recent eruptions that drew across the mountaintop like old water stains.

Ahead of them, however, the landscape shifted, the grass giving way to reddish earth that looked quite a bit like old pictures of Mars taken by early colonists. Reddish-brown and rough, like it was mostly gravel and rock.

“Highway’s clear.” Ahead of them Owl moved across the road, slipping like a shadow from one side to the other.

“Approach for the final peak?”

“Gully.”

Anvil nodded, peering across the valley at the obvious, steep-walled ravine Owl had been referring to. It’d make going up the mountain a little more tough … but it would keep them out of sight.

Adah crossed the road, and then the rocky ground and scrub grass gave way to asphalt, Anvil’s steady jog carrying her across the highway in a few heavy steps.

Then she was diving back into the brush once more, following the path set by Owl and then Adah, winding past trees , the ground once again beginning to slope upward beneath them.

Higher they climbed, following the rocky bottom of the ravine, until at last Owl instructed them to follow the leftmost fork when the ravine split ahead, following it up and out, onto the face of the mountain itself.

Stone and dirt shifted beneath Anvil as she climbed, often forcing her to watch her footing and pay as much attention to it as she was her hud. The altimeter on the side of her visor showed a steady climb, numbers scrolling rapidly as they continued up, and up, hardly ever finding flat ground. Then, as she was climbing up the north side of what looked to have once been a crater where one side had collapsed, Owl gave a quick whistle.

She dropped to the stone in a crouch, one armored knee battering a large stone aside. She caught it before it could skitter down the mountainside, making who knew how much noise.

“Vehicle,” Owl said a moment later. “Heading up the road to the observatory. Looks like a delivery truck of some kind.” Several moments passed, and then she spoke again. “All clear.”

Anvil rose, shoving the rock she’d caught into the gravel to hold it fast.

“We’ve got about half a klick of open, mostly flat space between us and the bottom of the plateau,” Owl said as Anvil reached the crest of the crater. Owl and Adah were both crouched by the top, peering at the mountainside ahead of them. Faint glows of sunlight were just starting to appear in the sky, brightening the otherwise desolate mountaintop. Off to the right Anvil could just make out one of the peaks around the observatory, several switchback roads putting identifiable lines in its face.

We’ll be there soon enough. There was another closer peak too, with a somewhat flattened top. Owl pointed at it. “Overwatch.”

Adah nodded. “You picking up and active scanners? Anything that might be a camera?”

Owl shook her head. “You?”

“Standard wireless frequencies, nothing else. Keep your eyes open. This would be a good place for a scanner fence.”

“Got it. Moving.”

Adah nodded, and Owl rose over the edge of the crater, heading eastward at high speed.

“I’ll take point,” Adah said as Ursa climbed up behind them. “Both of you keep your eyes open, but move quick.”

Each of them nodded, and then they were moving as well, rising over the edge of the crater and running across the relatively flat ground toward the plateau. Their augmented speed and stride made short work of the distance, and quickly the slope of the plateau loomed before them, rising into the sky.

“Hold!”

Anvil skidded to a stop at Adah’s commander, lifting her sweeper and doing a quick scan for hostiles. Nothing, but Adah had definitely noticed something.

Then she spotted it as well. Very faint, very low, small posts stuck into the rock, roughly twenty feet apart just before the incline truly began to climb upward once more.

Basic sensor fence. Simple to set up, and simple to operate. But also …

“Cover,” Adah said, and Anvil crouched, surveying the nearby scenery as Adah went to work. Her watch didn’t last long, however, only a few seconds passing before—

“We’re good,” Adah said, rising. “Old system. Spoofed us right in. Keep sharp, though. Where there’s one …”

Anvil nodded. There might be a second one. After all, if you were going through the trouble of a sensor fence, why not layer it?

A faint series of grey dots appeared on the map in the corner of her hud, threaded together by a very thin line. The fence, now acknowledged by their own shared suit network.

“Owl, report.” They were halfway up the side now, moving slower now that each step threatened to send a cascade of stones scattering back down the mountainside in a noisy shower.

“Almost there. No problems so far.”

“Good.”

The top of the plateau neared, and Anvil slowed further, scanning the rocky slope above them and looking for any sign of—

There. “Adah, we’ve got another fence.”

“I see it. Nice spot. Give me a second and … it’s spoofed. We’re in.”

“Old fence?” Ursa asked from below.

“Just like the last one.”

“They must not be very worried about intruders.”

“I wouldn’t be,” Anvil said, wrapping one armored hand around a large rock and pulling herself up. “We’re here to steal orbital data, remember? Who steals orbital data?”

“Aeroline’s collecting it, so clearly someone wants it,” Ursa countered. “But past that … you got me.”

Anvil turned toward Adah. “How about you, boss? Any theories?”

“Two jobs mean’s somebody wants it,” Adah said, slowing as she neared the top. “But past that, I’m as clueless as you are. But if they’re willing to pay this much for it …” She froze, and Anvil tensed, only to relax a moment later as Adah announced a third fence.

“Same age as the others and … We’re in.” Adah climbed a few feet more, laying almost on her belly as she reached the top. The map in the corner of Anvil’s hud began to update, faint colors identifying the anti-aircraft systems and the structures around their target. Another feed popped up as well, this one a live video from Adah’s helmet, giving the rest of them their first glimpse of the control nexus.

It wasn’t much. In fact, if it hadn’t been for the three rather large anti-aircraft missile batteries arrayed around the platueu, the structure sitting in the middle would have been otherwise unremarkable.

“Owl, I do not see any patrols. Can you confirm?”

“Give me a moment.” There was a pause, and then Owl’s voice flowed across their comms once more. “All right, I’m in place. Taking a look and … Nope. I’m not seeing anything.” On Anvil’s hud, the feed from Adah shifted into several different spectrums, from infrared to a few others designed to aid in identifying recon and stealth gear, before finally shifting back toward normal.

“Prime,” Ursa said. “Let’s hope the rest of their security is as lax or out of date as the fences were.”

“It’d certainly make our job a little easier,” Adah said, motioning for the three of them to move up.

Beneath Anvil’s feet the slope leveled out, and she rose over the edge of the plateau, getting her first glimpse of the anti-air battery with her own eyes. Fairly standard. Almost identical to any one of hundreds of other anti-air batteries she’d seen over the years, either up close or at a distance. The three batteries were mounted on mechanized swivel so that they could turn as necessary to aid with their target, and thick cables came out of the base of each one, vanishing into the ground but clearly heading for the central command structure.

“Boss, these things look wired in. If worse comes to worse, we can cut the cables and throw the whole system offline, provided they don’t have manual controls and a backup somewhere.”

“If they did, that might be something we’d have to use if we can’t take the center,” Adah replied as they ran past one of the batteries. The central command nexus looked almost dull and unimportant by comparison, settled off and alone by itself near a small lake, but then that was usually the point with a control nexus. You wanted incoming attackers to be focused on the real targets.

Ground’s clear, no sign of mines … There was a small vehicle parked beside the hub, but its motors were cold as the ground around it. For whatever overnight crew they have, probably.

Fifty feet from the building, Adah slowed, and Anvil adjusted her speed slightly, waiting. A moment later the feed from Adah’s helmet was back, but this time as a directed active sensor read, showing two humanoid figures seated at chairs behind the wall of the nexus. The image reading wasn’t clear enough to make out detail, but it was more than enough to give them an estimate of the room the pair was seated in.

“Ursa? You’re up.”

“With pleasure.” Ursa’s armored hands flexed as she stepped up to the front door of the nexus. “Breaching in three … two … one …”

There was a loud pop as the latch holding the door gave way, echoed an instant later by a crash and the beginnings of a shout as Ursa swept into the room. The sound cut off abruptly with a heavy thud. A few seconds passed, and then Ursa’s spoke.

“Cleared and secured. Both are bound.”

“Good work,” Adah stepped through. “Jack it.”

“I’m glad I’ve got filters. One of them pissed himself.”

“With you coming through the door? Can’t say I’m surprised.”

Anvil turned, ignoring the interior of the nexus and instead keeping her gaze on the open expanse around them.

Movement caught her eye, but it was distant, up at the observatory complex. The same truck they’d seen earlier. She squinted, her visor reading the expression and zooming in.

It was the truck, backing up to one of the buildings in Aeroline’s little complex. She couldn’t make out the logo on side, but it looked colorful. Probably food.

The complex was decently lit, though it looked as though some of the lights were already shutting off now that the sun was coming up, though it hadn’t yet arrived. Even the massive, monolithic shapes of the old observatory structures backing the complex were still dark, their tips untouched by any rays of sunlight.

Won’t be long now, though. The sun was due to rise any minute. And with it …

Her eyes slipped to the closest defensive gun emplacement, a reinforced concrete box with a slit across one face, and she smiled. I think I’ll take you down first, before you get a chance to fire. Set a fuse to impact, lob it long and low … The only question was whether it would flag her as a threat and fire first.

“Got it!” She could almost hear the grin of satisfaction in Adah’s voice. “Commander, you copy?”

“I hear you, Fireteam. Taking control of their AA now.”

“Sounds like it’s time to spread a little mayhem,” Anvil said as Adah and Ursa stepped out of the command hub. She glanced in their direction. “Straight up the middle?”

“Owl?” Adah asked.

“You’re clear. If anyone at the main hub knows what just happened, they’re doing a good job hiding it.”

“Patrols?”

“None. There are a pair of guards at the security checkpoint below me, though, plus another automated gun. You’ve got the feeds.”

“I do,” Adah said. “Neural armor. Anyone up for a fair fight?”

“No,” Ursa said quickly. “But an unfair fight, yes.”

Adah chuckled. “Owl, will those guards see us?”

“Maybe. Depends on how alert they’re being. You could go west. There’s a berm of rock at the base of the other peak. Stick behind that, and they won’t get a chance.”

“Acknowledged.” A nav marker appeared on Anvil’s hud. “Keep west team. Let’s see how close we can get before one of those guns opens up.”

Anvil nodded as they set out once again, this time cutting straight west and putting the upward slope at the far end of the lake between them and the observatory for a moment.

“Truck’s leaving,” Owl said a minute later. “Marking that structure as the garage. Then central, then power.” The names appeared on Anvil’s hud as the designations filtered through their tactical net. “No sign of alarm.”

“Good. Let’s keep it that way as long as we can.” The terrain they were following now was broken by a series of ridges, like the crust on the skin of a dessert lest out to dry.

Just … larger, Anvil thought as they passed another ledge, keeping it to their right. She’d lost track of the gun emplacement, but her hud was still doing its best to approximate its position relative to her own. Ahead of them the land flattened out, a gravel wash at the base of one of the peaks.

And above it, a narrow, low channel that ran along the base of the westmost peak. The cover Owl had notified them of.

“Wait,” Adah said, holding up a hand and stopping them before they could move out onto the gravel. “When I signal, we cross fast.”

Anvil nodded. “Got it.” If we cross fast enough, and neither of those guards looks …

“Go!”

The three of them bolted forward, rushing across the darkened wash as quickly as they could. Adah was the first to dart into cover, leaving the wash behind and slowing as she entered the gully. Anvil slowed as well, careful to let the momentum bleed rather than locking her legs and throwing up a cloud of dust and rock.

“Owl?”

“You’re clear. They haven’t looked.”

“Prime.” Adah singled, and the three of them continued up the gully. Not a word passed between them, but there was a tense quality to their silence now, a tightness each of them understood. Things were quiet now, but in a minute or two that would change. Each of them was gearing up for it, getting ready.

I take the emplacements and any heavy opposition, provide cover while Adah and Ursa get inside the main structure. I enter and assist if we’ve got time, or stay out here and defend if we don’t.

Like most combat plans, it was fairly simple on the surface. The undercurrent, though, where plans met brutal violence. That was where things got complicated.

“Owl, we’re almost in position. How’s it looking.”

“Still no signs of any sort of activity.”

“Well, that’s going to change quick enough. Are the automated defenses painted?”

“Five of them. The sixth is blocked.”

“Anvil, can you—“

“I’ll handle it.” The last emplacement shouldn’t be hard to find. “How many of them are painted now?”

“Three. All on the buildings themselves. You’ll have sight-lines on each of them the moment you leave the gully.”

Which we’re almost clear of. She slowed, Adah and Ursa noticing and slowing as well. “I’ll come over the embankment and start firing as soon as I can, then move to take out any resistance.”

Adah waited for a moment before replying. “We’ll rush central, then, and go for the backups.”

“Hey,” Anvil said before she could turn. “If it’s as easy as that hub was, we’ll be out of here in minutes.”

Adah nodded before speaking. “Be careful either way. Intel’s never what you hope for.”

“She picks fights at bars, Adah. Deaf ears.”

“Good enough to hear you,” Anvil said, shaking her head and giving her gear a last-second check. “Just have those targets painted.”

“They’re painted. Are you going to—?”

Anvil leaped, rising over the edge of the gulley with ease and landing atop the rocky edge, the launcher on her shoulder already swiveling in response to Owl’s marked targets. It kicked once, then twice, then three times, smoothly rotating between each shot and firing the last before the first grenade had even struck home.

Now the emplacement. At her command the launcher swiveled, targeting system homing in on the slit of the nearby emplacement. The heavy thud of the weapon firing once more was drowned out by the sharp crack of its first round striking its target and detonating.

Move. Her enhanced reflexes were on full display as she shifted targets to the second emplacement, even as another crack announced another detonation. Her reticule flashed, notifying her that the distance was too great for a low-arc shot like she wanted, and she snapped fire control to the MMR battery, automating the launcher once more.

With a series of shrieks, a full barrage of micro-missiles burst from the battery, thrity-two howling projectiles screaming across the open rock toward the distant gun as the final of her first three shots slammed home.

Hitting home didn’t mean that any of them were out of commission, however. Before the battery had even snapped closed to reload she was turning back toward the first of the three guns, checking that the dissipating blast from the grenade had done its job.

I had … but the second had missed, the gun damaged but clearly still somewhat functional as it twisted in its mount, trying to line its barrel on her position. She fired again, the launcher kicking against her armor. Another sharp explosion sounded, marking her fourth grenade striking, and she turned to see flecks of concrete and smoke spraying out of the emplacement. A secondary detonation as something inside the bunker cooked off added a new roar to the crescendo of cracks that sounded as her MMR barrage tore into the second emplacement.

A glance at the clock in the corner of her hud told her that the entire engagement had taken only a few seconds. Enough time for anyone inside augmented to react, but not to—

A spray of bullets stitched the ground nearby, missing her but sending flecks of stone bouncing off her armor. I guess the third gun is still up too.

Up, but functioning poorly. The gun looked even worse off than the second had, and before she could even fire another grenade it seized up, its fire stopping and never coming closer to her than a few feet away.

Then the second emplacement opened up, and she broke to the right, away from the complex as bullets cut through the air around her. Several slammed into her armor, but the suit did its job, the shots deflecting off without even leaving marks.

“The automated guns are firing regular ammunition!” she said, sliding to a stop. The distant gun zeroed in on her, the shots rattling against her armor but completely unable to penetrate.

“Good to hear. Take ‘em down anyway.”

“With pleasure.” And if the missiles won’t do the trick, then I’ll just need to get close enough to use a grenade. She began to run forward toward the emplacement, shots bouncing off her armor with little to no effect other than scratching the paint. She kept her eyes on it, the targeting system flashing but then switching to give her a remaining distance that shot down with every step.

Then the reticule stopped flashing and the launcher kicked once more. It was a long shot, the grenade arcing through the air, but it was precise. It shot through the narrow gap, silencing the gun for good.

“Both guards are down,” Owl said as Anvil turned.

“We’re entering central now,” Adah added.

“Movement! West side of the complex, by power. Two in neural armor.”

“On it. Get it?” Anvil asked as she began running toward the building.

“I did the first time you made that joke and it was old then. More movement, east side. Painting …”

On her shoulder the launcher twisted and fired, lobbing a series of grenades high into the air. Up ahead Anvil caught sight of an armored helm peering around the corner of one of the building Owl had marked as power, and she snapped her sweeper up, firing. The figure ducked back, but the heavy pellets ripped into the plain metal siding of the structure, punching holes in it.

Hide and seek? Anvil asked as she cut to the right. Sure enough, the other figure was poking their head our around it as well. She fired again, but they ducked back before the spray of pellets had even left her barrel. Or just pins?

“I’m watching them,” Owl said before Anvil could ask. “I can’t see the far side, but they’re not getting around.”

“What about the two guards?”

“Down. Permanently.”

Anvil nodded, her eyes flicking to the marker on her hud signifying the third emplacement, still behind the central building from her position. I’d feel worse about that if Aeroline didn’t have such a sorid history.

“Keep ‘em pinned. I’ll take care of that last emplacement.” No sense in letting it catch us by surprise later. Especially if it had armor-piercing ammunition and only needed the input of someone inside one of the buildings around the base to make that change.

She left the power structure behind, breaking around the east side of the central structure at a run and feeling the familiar kick of the launcher as it sighted in and fired on the emplacement even before it had returned fire.

The boom a second later made her smile. Hide and seek? Pins? I call it a mop.

A faint crack echoed from somewhere behind her. “We’re inside,” Adah said over the coms. “Looking for the target.”

*             *             *

The guard flew through the air, lifted by the force of Ursa’s blow and launched back across the small lobby. Ursa was in her element now, the opposition blinded and overloaded by the flashbang, their visors still tinted black from the sudden harsh glare. They would adjust in moments, but that was all the time Ursa needed.

Her own visor probably caught some of that, Adah thought as the woman spun and caught one of the other guards by the rifle, tearing the weapon down. The guard had the presence of mind to keep their grip, but that only served to yank their whole body downward which, as Ursa reversed the course of her elbow, made the two collide with enough force to crack the guard’s visor.

But she’s used to fighting partially blind. The third guard blindly opened fired, but Ursa had already spun her second opponent around herself, placing them between her and her assailant. The rounds shattered against the still-stunned figure.

Adah fired, her burst of shots slamming into the thigh gap in the guard’s armor and puncturing the skinsuit with a spray of blood. They wobbled but didn’t fall, clearly still trying to parse a shot on Ursa—until the guard Ursa had been using as cover slammed into them, both guards going down in a tangle of limbs.

Which let Ursa whip around and take on the first she’d thrown, knocking their rifle out of their hands with a backhand and sending it skipping across the lobby. The guard attempted to get their hands up, and from the their positioning and stance could at last see their assailant, but it was too late.

Ursa’s been in way too many fights for you to have a chance, Adah thought as each fist became a blur, blasting through the guard’s feeble defenses and slamming their head back against the wall again and again, each impact a sharp crack that echoed through the lobby. The other pair still hadn’t stood, and before they’d even untangled themselves Ursa tossed the last guard at them, the limp figure slamming into all three with enough force to drive them down once again.

Adah stepped out of cover, her rifle trained on the pile of guards, only one of whom—the one she’d shot in the leg—was showing any signs of clear focus. They slowed as they saw the rifle pointed at their visor, as well as the giant of a woman walking across the lobby, and they slowly opened their hands, dropping their own weapon and miming surrender.

“Lobby secured,” she said as Ursa knelt and began ripping the power supply out of the back of each suit, tossing them aside with brutal efficiency. The skinsuit would still function in lessened capacity without it, but with the armor attached the impact would still be significant.

It was also a sign on the battlefield that you weren’t going to kill a combatant if they stayed put.

“Still quiet out her,” Anvil said. “Got a pair playing hide and seek on the west side. All emplacements down.”

“I’m seeing activity at the garage.”

Ursa finished tossing aside the last battery and hauled the remaining conscious guard to their feet, pointing at the other two. The guard nodded and crouched, sticking a hand beneath each of their arms and pulling the pair up. Adah stepped forward, her rifle still trained on their visor, and with one hand began stripping their armor of any weapons. Knives, stun grenades, ammo, tossing all of it to one side of the lobby. They could deal with it later.

And now restraints. That was always the tricky bit. Granted, two of the three guards were stunned or unconscious—or faking, though that seemed unlikely. But with their augments, they’d come out of it much quicker than a normal human would and be less groggy.

“The two are up to something.” Part of her filtered through Owl’s words, keeping that half of the operation in mind while she and Ursa set about restraining the three guards, using heavy-duty zip-ties to lock all three of their limbs together in awkward positions that gave them little leverage to work against and would have been difficult to get out of even with power.

“We’re moving in.” She kicked most of the gear they’d taken from the guards aside, but did pause to add the stun grenades to her gear. In the upper corner of her hud her CNC system was attempting to build a map of the building using the sound of their combat, but there were still plenty of dead spaces, and it wasn’t perfectly reliable. Some installations even had jammers built specifically to confuse such gear.

The lobby had three possible exits, but they chose the largest and most conspicuous one. Hey systems said that the space behind it was a large hall that wrapped around some sort of interior space. Possibly glass. She motioned to Ursa, each of them taking up positions on either side of the door and then breaching in synchro.

The hallway beyond it was empty save for a security camera, which she shot out on principle, and another set of doors her CNC system hadn’t noticed.

Through the glass windows in each, however, she could see the hallway, inner wall made of glass just as she’d suspected. And past that, a large open space, probably multiple stories high, full of computers and hard-light displays showing what were probably orbital patterns.

Not than the brief glimpses of panic she saw as someone ran past indicated anyone was paying attention to the displays. Gunfire travels.

“Lost those two behind power. Not sure where they went.”

They reached the doors, and Adah signaled to Ursa, the woman nodding and pulled two more flashbangs from her kit. Adah motioned. One down the hall, one through the glass.

Intel had claimed eight security forces, all wearing skinsuits. Two at the front gate. Two by power. Three in the lobby. That left one unaccounted for.

Assuming there were only eight. Records were easy enough to fake if you suspected someone might be looking. “Three guards inside. Neutralized.”

“Airbase is scrambling,” Castillo said as Adah cracked the door. Ursa lobbed one of the flashbangs through, and they both twisted, turning away from the hall as a second later the grenade detonated, filling the hall with an all-consuming flash and sound.

Then she shoved, slamming the door open and stepping into the hall, sweeping it with her rifle and seeing no sign of any armored figures. Ursa’s fist lashed out, impacting the glass with enough force to send cracks darting through the pane.

That is unusual, Adah noted as Ursa lashed out again, the glass shattering into thousands of tiny cubes, exposing the interior space. Ursa’s other hand lashed out … but the grenade didn’t fly. The techs inside were scrambling away from them, hands held open and up, but none of them were armed.

Ursa turned without a word and tossed the flashbang, already primed, back down the hall they just vacated. It went off, several of the techs shielding their eyes and letting out cries as it did so.

“Two VTOLs on route,” Castillo said as Adah stepped over the broken glass into the center. “Painting now.”

“Wha-?” One of the techs swallowed, looking up at her. “What do you want?”

She tapped her wrist, keying her external speakers and layering several layers of voice scrambling over that. “Datacore. Everything you’ve recorded.”

“I—Uh.” The turned, pointing at a door along the back of the room. “Server’s in there. Datacore at the back.”

She nodded but didn’t speak, disabling the speakers.

“Activity at the garage.”

“On it.”

Ursa covered her as she moved across the room, past displays and panicked techs. What were they doing with all this? The display in the center of the room certainly showed a lot of orbital traffic, but why?

This facility certainly wasn’t cheap, she thought as she opened the door to the server room, keeping it between herself and the entryway as Ursa gave it a quick scan. But no one fired out at them.

No one was inside either. Instead there were rows of servers, each of them displaying dozens of drives for easy removal and exchange. And at the back of the room what could only be the datacore, though this one was square instead of cylindrical, and slotted into one of the racks.

There was a control face to one side, easy  to read, and she tapped one of the buttons on it, watching as the racks around her came to life, lights glowing bright as the datacore made one final backup.

“I found the core. Making one final backup.” A bar on one side the drive began to flash, counting down.

“The garage door is opening. Definitely something going on in there.”

“I see it.”

“Contact!”

“I got this.”

The datacore flashed, and Adah yanked it free. “Datacore recovered. Coming out.”

“Anvil, watch—“

A titanic boom echoed through the room, ground shaking.

*             *             *

“Anvil? Anvil!”

Whoa. The world outside her visor was spinning. Or maybe that was just her. It was hard to tell. She could make out a patch of blue—definitely the sky—and a lot of dusk—or was that smoke? Or both?

What happened? Her brain felt sluggish, which fit considering her entire body felt like it had been punched through the back wall of a bar after going toe-to-toe with a lorry.

The garage. Hawaii. Observatory.  And the opening garage door. The acceleration of the compact car headed right for her.

But she’d been armored. She’d caught the thing, barely sliding back across the loose stone. The wimpy little compact hadn’t even been made of anything tough, and had shredded one of its tires on the way to her.

But then Owl had shouted something, and there had been something through the front windows of the compact, even as she’d crumpled its front with an armored fist …

A bomb. That explained the ringing in her ears. And the feeling like she’d been punted like a football. Damn guards are more clever than I expected.

“Anvil is down. Repeat, Anvil is down.”

Oh. Right. The team.

“I’m up,” she said. The words sounded slurred. Probably were. Less from the bomb, and probably more from the sudden acceleration and followed deceleration. Her armor would have handled the pressure wave. And the fragments from the compact. The ringing was already fading.

Leonidas augments take another round. The world outside her visor was stabilizing as well, hud and exterior elements lining up properly once more.

“I’m up,” she said again, this time pushing herself up for emphasis and taking a quick look around, though it was hard to see through the dust and smoke the explosion had kicked up. “Just got rattled.” The smoke was already clearing, and she took a quick glance at her systems, noting that her launcher had been knocked out of alignment during her tumble. Nothing a quick sighting couldn’t fix.

And hey, that garage just declared itself as a very unfriendly place. “Paint the garage, Owl.”

“Done.”

Her hud flashed and she hit the command without hesitation, the launcher on her back spitting out several grenades in quick succession, sensors in the suit monitoring the flight path and adjusting its targeting as the weapon zeroed back in. Before the first grenade had even hit—well off target, sending gravel flying—she’d already noted the divot her impact had left in the rocky ground, along with the smoking remains of the compact car, not that there was much left but a skeletal frame.

They must have wired together every grenade and explosive they had, she thought as the grenades began slamming into the side of the garage, detonating with sharp cracks. But not leaving nearly as much damage as she would have expected.

She stopped the rain of grenades. “Building’s reinforced.” And that wasn’t in our intel.

“We’re almost out,” Adah said over the comms. “Prepare to break.”

“Got it,” Anvil said, eyes still fixed on the garage. And if it’s reinforced, what else may we not know about—

The front door began to roll upward once more, quite quickly, but not quickly enough that she didn’t recognize the large, segmented tires revealed, nor react to their appearance before the whole ocf the unit came into view.

“Armor!” She shouted even as she painted the base for her MMR battery, the assembly snapping open and letting loose another barrage. Thirty-two micro missiles screamed across the mountain, some of them impacting the door itself and punching craters or holes in the metal, but more still slamming into the front of the armored car she was now looking at or diving past it to detonate inside the garage.

She missed some of them, turning before the door had retracted all the way to run for the nearest ridge of stone and rock. She dove behind it just in time, the familiar thud of some large cannon sounding in concert with a heavy impact that sent a shower of stone an dirt flying over the ridge she’d just landed behind.

“IFV,” Owl announced. “Looks like a IUA Predator. Backed by about a dozen armored hostiles.”

“Shit.” Adah’s curse echoed across the comm net. “No wonder we only saw about two-dozen techs inside.”

Footage from one of Owl’s drones popped up on Anvil’s hud, showing the Predator in all its dangerous glory. Six armored, segmented tires on independent suspension held an armored body, topped with a deadly turret that could punch a hole through anything up to its own weight class. The missile racks on either side of the turret could engage heavier armor or even aircraft, while the automated machine gun on its own swivel could engage infantry. The mortar tubes on the back end of the main body were just extra death and destruction.

Worse, from the feed she could see the obvious additions someone had made to the base unit. Extra armor had been added, along with what were most definitely active missile countermeasures, armored claymores that would fill the air with flechettes and cut apart any inbound missile before it could deliver its payload.

Active defenses that were currently just a few feet away from the rapidly deploying force of infantry now pouring out of the garage.

Her decision was made in an instant, and she grabbed the triad launcher from her hip, rolling around the edge of the rock berm and squeezing off a blind shot as soon as she had the launcher up. The three missiles roared out of the launcher, shrieking in a tight spiral toward the Predator. It wasn’t a bad shot, and she rolled back into cover before they made it to the IFV, but the results on her hud were easy enough to follow.

The Predator’s countermeasures fired in sequence, the vehicle’s systems correctly identifying the threat and taking their pre-programed response. All three of the missiles detonated before reaching their target, the massive spray of flechettes shredding the projectiles well short of the Predator.

Unfortunately for Aeroline, and just as she’d hoped, her missiles weren’t the only thing around the IFV. The spray of flechettes caught part of the force coming out of the garage in the side, shredding through their armor in a spray of blood. The remaining infantry stopped in shock as half their number died in an instant, perforated with thousands of holes by the IFV they’d been counting on to protect them.

“Paint paint paint!” Anvil shouted, dropping the spent Triad. The launcher on her back kicked as Owl complied, firing rapidly and launching a whole fusillade of grenades into the air. The IFV turret twisted, aiming in Owl’s direction, and Anvil’s launcher stopped firing as the sniper broke line of sight. The Predator’s cannon opened up a split second later, firing across the peak and Owl’s postion.

Go go go go! She shot out of her hiding place, running north and firing her sweeper on the move. It’s shots ripped into the remaining guards even as the first of her grenades began to hit. Most of them had already moved for cover,  but the high-arcing explosives showered them with fragments and were hard to predict a path for other than “not here.”

Return fire bounced off her exosuit, the MG atop the Predator whirling in her direction. She dropped into a slide still firing as a heavy automatic fire began to walk in her direction. Her sweeper cut down another guard, and then she was behind another ridge of rock, lying completely on her back.

Spent the Triad to thin their numbers, but that IFV will hunt us down. Already her hud showed it rolling across the rock, segmented tires moving across the rough surface with impunity. MMR battery will damage it, but I can’t count on it. Launcher will take out exterior gear, but can’t stop the IFV itself.

Commander can’t drop in because those missiles may be dual-ground and air, unless she had a full drop on it.

Wait. “Ursa, got smoke?” A familiar but alarming whump filled the air as one of the mortars on the back of the Predator fired. She pushed herself out of cover again, changing directions and running south, back toward the ridges of rock. On her hud the turret twisted, and she changed her direction just in time, its shot blowing away part of the distant peak.

“Lots.”

“All of it. On the IFV!” her return fire was keeping the infantry down, but not even inconveniencing the IFV, which was rolling forward without pause. She dove behind another rough shelf of rock, another shot humming as it shot by overhead to blow another crater elsewhere.

The image on her hud blanked to static, then changed to a different view a moment later.

“Lost a painter.”

The launcher on Anvil’s back twisted, hud flashing red as it tried to fire, and she rolled to one side, giving it an angle once more to rain grenades down. Another flash on her hud alerted her that the MMR battery had reloaded, ready to fire once more.

“Distracting!” She rose, breaking to the right and triggering the battery once more, hoping the wave of projectiles would screen her movement. The Predator fired, and something struck her shoulder, hard.

She hit the ground, alerts flashing across her hud. The MMR battery was dead. The Predator’s shot had caught it fully deployed, ripping through it and punching out the exhaust vents on the back-side. It wouldn’t even retract now.  An alert on her hud estimated that at least a dozen of the thirty-two micro-missile barrage had failed to go off due to safeties, the small shots shoved aside by the Predator’s own. The rest had stayed active, but as expected had done little to harm the armored vehicle.

It was worth it, though, as she caught sight of a small item arcing down from the corner of the frame, bouncing twice along the rock before spewing thick, heavy smoke.

Smoke full of reflective metal particulates. Jamming comms, sensors, visors, and most other forms of vision inside its thick clouds. Four more bounced across the ground, surrounding the Predator and spitting out more of the smoke.

Now! Anvil thought as the quickly spreading smoke concealed the Predator. Whoever was driving it would quickly try to make for the smoke’s edge. She had to catch it before then.

She plunged into the smoke, her comms and camera feed cutting out, charging blindly in the last direction of the IFV. Even sounds were muffled by the substance, her own footsteps sounding oddly faint. Come on … come on …

Yes! The IFV loomed out of the smoke, appearing almost out of nowhere and roaring forward. It slammed into her head on, knocking her to the ground, and she had just enough presence of mind to slap the breaching charge on its underplate as it roared over her, segmented tires just inches from her side.

Then it was gone, barreling through the shifting smoke, and she pushed herself up, running in roughly the opposite direction, trying to get out of the smoke. She almost slammed into the wall of the garage as it appeared out of the thick miasma, and a moment later something slammed into her side. A confused Aeroline guard. She wrapped one hand around their helmet, squeezed until she felt the armor give, and then flung them into the garage.

Get out of the smoke. She couldn’t be far now. There was too much wind atop the peak for the stuff to stick around anyhow. The world around her began to take shape as she moved on, first in shades and greys, then with more detail as the smokescreen thineed.

“—not done—yet.”

Comms were back, if a little imperfect. It would pass. “What?”

“Predator’s limping but active.”

“Dammit. I only had the one charge.”

Bullets bounced off of her armor, and she turned to see one of the Aeroline guards firing at her. A single shot from her sweeper laid them out.

“Predator’s coming around the smoke, east side.” She could see it moving once again, rolling across the ground. Smoke was pouring from the underside and one tire seemed to have locked. Damaged, but still active.

Still firing too, more mortars arcing out toward Owl’s position. And in a few seconds it’ll have open sight on me. She backed up, then ducked into the garage. Which, now that she was inside, looked more like an armory.

Maybe I can find something in here. Armor maybe. Or one of those cars? The Predator would just roll over them. Come on, there’s got to be something—

On her hud, a barrage of missiles tore into the Predator from behind. Full-sized, active missiles. More than enough to oversaturate its defensive measures and punch into the rear armor. A moment later something inside the IFV detonated, blowing out the back end, and the armored vehicle slid to a halt, smoking and burning.

“Nice distraction, Anvil,” Commander Castillo said as the Stalker spun around the remains of its target. “Who’s ready for evac?”

A few more Aeroline guards were becoming visible through the thinning smoke, but as they saw the gunship hanging above them and the smoking remains of their armor, they threw their weapons down, hands held above their heads.

“I’d like that,” Owl said over the comm. “A lot.”

*             *             *

Only once the island was behind them, the Stalker flying out over the Pacific at full speed, did Adah let out a sigh of relief. “That,” she said, giving the rest of the team a quick look. “Got dicey.”

“Agreed,” Owl said, picking a bit of gravel from her armor and flicking it onto the cabin floor. Her armor was scarred by thin lines, close calls from the mortar shells that had been lobbed at her position. Her arm and leg had been hit, but the wounds minor enough that she’d been able to slap a quick patch over each and seal them off, though her suit would need work.

“I’m glad we all made it out,” Adah added, looking at each member of the team.

“I am as well,” Castillo said over the intercom. “You performed admirably.”

Metal shrieked as Anvil wrenched part of her broken MMR battery off of her shoulder. “Sorry,” she said as she noticed everyone’s eyes on her. “That shot was a little close. Probably going to have to cut some of this off.” She dropped the twisted launch tubes on the deck with a clatter, then shrugged.

“On the other hand, we going to get paid well enough it doesn’t matter! I’ll buy a new one!”

Adah smiled. Doesn’t take much for her to spring back. She lifted the datacore in her hands, staring at the plain white exterior.

“Wondering what this was all for?” Owl asked.

She nodded. “Yes, I am. First Norway and now this. What’s going on in orbit that’s so important we’ve been paid thirty million marks in the last week over it?”

“UN secrets,” Ursa said, only for Owl to shake her head.

“The data we grabbed in Norway wasn’t classified, remember? Anyone could have accessed it. They just didn’t want someone to know that they’d looked.”

“Still doesn’t make sense,” Anvil said, shaking her armored helm. “What’s to gain from accessing it at all?”

“You’re looking at it all wrong,” Ursa said, pausing and tugging her helmet over her head. “It’s not about the data.”

“Ursa might be right,” Castillo cut in. “Look what’s already hitting the news feeds.”

One of the VTOL’s displays activated, projecting an image that had to have been tailored, since the image showed four figures actively firing at Aeroline security forces. The headline was even more eye-catching: COVERT UN STRIKE ON AEROLINE INSTALLATION!

“I think it’s less about the data and more about stirring up trouble between the UN and the megacorps,” Castillo said as ‘footage’ from the battle they’d just left played. Not that any of it was real. But it looked real. And that was what would sway people.

“Respectfully, commander, I don’t think that’s it.” Ursa rose, nodding in the direction of the news feed. “I think this is part of it, maybe. Maybe it’s what our client wants people to think it was about.”

“But you think it’s about the data?”

Ursa shook her head. “No, it’s about what’s not in the data. Though it might be in that data,” she said, nodding again, this time in the direction of Aeroline’s datacore. “Think about it: If you were to analyze all the orbital data on the UN datacore, what would you get?”

“All charted orbital flight paths for the last five or something years?” Anvil said. “So?”

“And what if you took the negative of that? Flipped it?”

Owl spoke first. “You’d see patterns. Patterns where paths did not go where someone should have.”

“Exactly!” Ursa declared, pointing at Owl and then looking at each of them. “All the records are public, but if you combed through them all, you might be able to find some very not public information.”

“By looking where orbital traffic wasn’t.” Adah nodded. “That actually makes sense. Even if the UN is doing something covert, which they probably always are, they would still want to assign orbital paths that wouldn’t have things getting too close.”

“Right. And that’d also mean you’d want to really only do that for the really secret stuff. So it’s have to be rare. Maybe.” Ursa shrugged. “I’ve been thinking about it.”

“It’s a good thought, Ursa,” Castillo said. “And since there wasn’t any companion news piece about us hitting Norway, I’d bet you’re right.”

“Still doesn’t answer what they’re looking for,” Anvil pointed out, wrenching another piece of metal out of the busted battery.

“No,” Adah said. “But it makes me feel a little bit more like our work was worth it. As nice as getting paid is, I like to know it’s for something other than some wealthy weirdo’s amusement.”

That was an odd job,” Owl said, pulling her own helmet off and shaking her hair free.

“Agreed,” Ursa added. Then she turned toward the feed. “So what now, commander?”

“Debriefing,” Castillo replied. “Once we’re back. And we’ll need to do an inventory and get that datacore sent out so we can collect our pay.”

“Courier?”

“Affirmative. And after that … we don’t have any missions lined up, and I feel like we could all use a few day’s break at least. Maybe a week or two.”

Adah nodded. “That does sound nice. I could get behind that.” She reached up, pulling her own helmet over her head with a faint hiss of pressure equalization. “Relaxation sounds nice.”

Her eyes flicked to the feed, still playing the premade video of the “UN attack” on Aeroline. Someone made that and had it ready, probably our client. Why?

We’ll probably never know, she thought. And maybe it’s better that we don’t. Let the big players fight.

Me? I’ll settle for a shower.


 

Thank you for reading Fireteam Freelance! If you’ve comments or concerns, please leave them below! Thank you for reading, and be sure to check out my books for more!

 

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

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