Fireteam Freelance Episode 6: Mandatory Takeout

This is Episode 6 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.

Mandatory Takeout

I REQUIRE YOUR EXPERTISE ONCE MORE.

Valerie Castillo stared at the words on the display, pondering a response. I could just say nothing. Never reply. She’d already turned down four jobs since their last, both to give the team time to recuperate and because none of them had offered to pay well.

I could turn this one down too. Especially as it was from their strange client. But then again, they were one of the reasons the team could afford to turn down less savory work at the moment. Besides, there was still something … odd … about interacting with this one. Most clients dealt with a degree of anonymity, but this one took it to lengths beyond the normal. Even a cursory attempt to discern a network location had completely failed. Whoever they were, they were working through so many anonymous nodes and relays they were probably circling the planet a few dozen times.

I CAN PAY WELL.

Valerie frowned. And then there’s this bit. Where they predict what I’m thinking and reply without my even saying anything. It’s … creepy.

She glanced at the clock in the corner of her display. It had only been four days since their last operation. The team had settled into a smooth, relaxed period of downtime. We don’t really need another job right now.

Especially with how tense things have gotten. Pisces still was in open rebellion, and tensions between the megacorps and the UN were higher than ever. Good for paying work, but … We just got paid a lot. We can afford to pick and choose for a little while.

The display flashed again, yet another message from their mystery client coming through.

FIFTY MILLION EUROMARKS. HALF IN ADVANCE.

A shiver ran down her back. It was quite a bit of money. For that much money, it’d have to be something long and dan—

IN AND OUT RAID. ONE HOUR AT MOST.

See, her mind noted. Creepy.

IT WOULD NOT BE WITHOUT RISK.

Valerie let out a snort. What job isn’t?

IF YOU REQUIRE HIGHER PAYMENT, I AM WILLING TO NEGOTIATE.

Still. Weird. She sat still for a moment, then shook her head. We’ve had a good few days off since that hit on Fat Shrimp. We could use a little longer. She tapped at the keys.

Sorry, she wrote. We’re not currently looking for work. You’ll have to find someone else.

THERE IS NO ONE ELSE.

The reply came almost immediately, and she frowned.

YOU ARE THE TEAM I REQUIRE. YOUR SKILLS AND YOUR POSITION ARE UNIQUE. YOU ARE UNBOUND. YOU ARE HIGHLY SKILLED. YOU ARE ALSO MORAL.

She’d typed out a reply before even thinking. Nice of someone to notice. Go hire the Capacians.

THE CAPACIANS ARE NOT SUITED FOR THE TASK AT HAND.

They’re trying to make you curious. And appeal to your pride. But it was working. Still … She typed out another reply. The last time we took a job from you we put the megacorps and the UN at each other’s throats.

A WELCOME SIDE-EFFECT, BUT NOT MY GOAL.

Her frown deepened at the unexpected response. Who the hell is this person? Another message arrived.

THE CURRENT MISSION WOULD HAVE A SIMILAR EFFECT, BUT AGAIN IT WOULD ONLY BE A SIDE EFFECT.

You do realize that if tensions get high enough, they might actually start shooting one another, she typed back.

YES. BUT THEY WERE ALREADY ON THAT PATH.

There’s a difference between seeing two people get ready to shoot one another and goading them both on, she shot back.

I AM NOT GOADING. I AM SIMPLY TAKING ADVANTAGE OF THEIR DISTRACTION. IF THEY BLAME ONE ANOTHER IN THE PROCESS, SO MUCH THE BETTER.

Who the hell is this guy? She stared at the last message on the screen. “I’ve heard of people war-profiteering before, but this is just …”

YOUR HESITATION IS WHY I WOULD PREFER TO WORK WITH YOU. YOU CONSIDER THE RAMIFICATIONS OF YOUR JOBS. THE MORALITY OF YOUR WORK. I NEED THAT CLARITY.

You want my advice? she typed back. You’re creepy as hell and unnerving. This conversation makes me wonder if you’re sociopathic.

NOT BY ORDINARY STANDARDS, I THINK.

And that just makes you sound creepier.

THAT, UNFORTUNATELY, IS UNAVOIDABLE. I LABOR UNDER CERTAIN RESTRICTIONS. YES, I AM AWARE OF HOW THAT PRESENTS ITSELF.

HOWEVER, WHILE YOU DO NOT TRUST ME FOR UNDERSTANDABLE, IF UNAVOIDALBE, REASONS, I CAN OFFER YOU SOEMTHING YOU DO TRUST.

“No, this is getting too strange.” She reached up to close the connection when another part of the display flashed, a new message dropping into her inbox. The header was one she recognized even without consulting her cipher. A tap brought it to the forefront. It was nothing more than a single line.

Valerie. They’re weird. Take the job anyway. Trust me. APT.

For a moment she sat in stunned silence. Did someone compromise –?

No. They couldn’t have. The cipher wasn’t digital. They’d settled on a physical one years ago. If someone had captured her, they’d have needed to get the cipher as well. Which, knowing Apt, she had memorized.

She snapped back to the strange chat. How do you know Apt?

WE SHARE A MUTUAL FRIEND. THAT IS ALL YOU NEED TO KNOW.

What?

REGARDLESS, SINCE YOU HAVE SEEN HER MESSAGE, AND YOU TRUST HER, I ASSUME YOU WOULD LIKE TO KNOW THE DETAILS?

I am going to have words with Apt. Lots of them.

SHE IS ONLY TRYING TO PROTECT YOU. BUT THIS JOB MUST BE DONE.

She sat for a moment before typing back. Eighty million. And I don’t like you.

I CAN LIVE WITH THAT.

*             *             *

“A supply raid,” Adah said, staring at the commander. “On the UN. Under a false-flag.”

“An information raid,” Commander Castillo clarified. “The goal isn’t the resources. It’s the data.”

Against the UN,” Adah repeated, emphasizing their target. “False. Flag.

“I’m aware—“

“With all due respect, commander, I’m not comfortable with this mission.” She sat back, staring as Castillo, refusing to break eye-contact. “We’ve been doing too much of it lately. An anonymous raid is one thing on its own. But this? It’s openly accusing UAI of making an attack. They’re far from angels, but that isn’t an excuse for us to make take the blame for it.”

The commander held her gaze for a moment but then broke away. She knows, Adah thought. She doesn’t like it either.

“I uh, I agree with Adah,” Anvil said, breaking the silence. “UAI aren’t exactly angels. Hell, far from it, on it? I bounced out of Biotat when they took over, right? But this is a bit more than just looking like someone else. We’d be implicating UAI attacking the UN, and they’re already shooting at one another.”

“It could make things a lot worse,” Ursa added with a nod of her own, glancing between Adah and the commander. “But then again, they’re already raiding one another.”

“No.” Adah shook her head. “Not like this. This is beyond what they’re doing now. What they’re doing right now is probing. Posturing.”

“No,” Owl cut in. “They’re not so far from what we’d be doing. Two days ago the UN seized that town in Egypt, remember? There was a UAI garrison there.”

“Three soldiers.”

“She has a point,” Anvil said. “We’re just four. Three, four …” She shrugged.

“The raid will be associated with the UAI regardless of whether or not we sneak in under their flag,” Castillo pointed out.

“Then we can go in as ourselves, can’t we?”

“That’d be unadvisable.”

Adah shook her head. “You know what I mean. There’s a world of difference between going in with no insignia and going in pretending to be someone else’s under your cover.”

“That’s also a good point,” Ursa said, looking back to Castillo. “I’m with Adah. I’d feel a lot better about this if we just dropped the false-flag bit. Our client might be benefiting from making those two shoot each other, but I’d rather make this a clean in and out.”

“Besides,” she added after a moment. “Neither the UN or UAI are keen on false flags when others use them. If we were identified, the UN could censure us. We’d lose a lot of work.”

“For eighty million euromarks we could afford to lose a lot of work, on it?”

“That kind of thing can catch up with you,” Owl countered. “Granted, some of us could probably retire, but I’m not certain we want to.”

The room fell silent again, all of them looking at one another and then turning one by one to Commander Castillo. Several seconds passed, but at long last she nodded. “Fine. I’ll tell the client we won’t be disguising ourselves as UAI. But we’re not going to do this one as ourselves. We go full black. No decals, no details. Nothing identifiable past what we have to have.”

“Assuming the client doesn’t dump us,” Anvil said.

“I have a fairly high degree of certainty that they won’t,” the commander said, picking up her datapad. “They were very insistent about this job.”

“Why take it?” Adah asked. “Is it the money?”

“Well, that certainly doesn’t hurt,” Castillo replied, but the joke fell flat. “But no, it wasn’t.”

“Your old friend?” Owl asked. “How well do you trust them?”

The commander tapped at the pad, then sighed. “Look, I may own this outfit, but you can opt out of a mission if you all feel so strongly against it. It’s not for my old friend, but they urged me to take it.”

“I’m not saying we turn the mission down,” Anvil said. “But I am siding with Adah on this one. We’re doing a lot of these false-flag ops where we pretend to be someone else. That’s bound to catch us eventually. Sure, they pay well, but …” She shrugged. “I prefer just being us.”

“When she puts it that way, I’m with Anvil,” Ursa said. “We’ve done a lot of this kind of thing lately. We’re getting paid well, but it is a bit less clean than the work we normally do.”

“I’m fine with the false-flag,” Owl added. “But I agree that it has potential to catch up with us in detrimental forms.”

“Right,” Adah said. “Claiming to be no one at all is different than claiming to be someone else.”

“Very well,” Castillo said. “I’m messaging the client. If they’re determined to make that part of their plan, well … We can return their advance, and they can fi—“

She paused as the datapad flashed. “They’ve accepted.”

“Just like that?” Anvil asked.

“Just like that.”

“For eighty million.” Anvil frowned. “And we’re stealing data rather than supplies.”

“They still want us to do that as cover,” Castillo noted.

“This is that weird client again, isn’t it. The one who hired the Capacians?”

The commander nodded. “It is. And they seem to have a fixation on us.” At that, she smirked, Adah looking on in confusion until the commander clarified. “They said they liked our morals.”

“Damn,” Anvil said. “I’m not sure what bar we hit, or whether or not it’s good.” A chuckle rolled around the table.

“Regardless, they still want us, even if we’re just unmarked.” The commander’s datapad flashed again. “Badly. So, is anyone feeling uncomfortable with the mission provided that we will no longer be placing a false flag?”

“Are we still stealing supplies?” Ursa asked.

Castillo nodded. “We are, though our client doesn’t care for them.”

“That’s misdirection I’m comfortable with,” Adah said, leaning forward once more. “So … what’s the plan? And what sort of data do they want us to steal?”

“Supply logs,” Castillo said. “But very specific logs. We, ladies, are going to be siphoning data from UNSEC’s own system: LockOut.”

*             *             *

“You’re watching what?” Owl asked, giving Ursa a sideways glance.

The Great Dictator.” Ursa replied. “Charlie Chaplin. Extremely old film. The one with the speech at the end.”

“I remember you showing us that one,” Anvil said. “Isn’t that the one that’s contraband everywhere. Massively banned?”

“Because of the speech, yeah.”

“And you’re watching it on your suit as we head into a major UN logistics hub why? They catch you with that, you’re dead.”

“They catch us anyway we’re dead,” Ursa shot back. “They can’t bring me back and kill me again.”

“That we know of,” Anvil countered. There was a pause, then she spoke again. “So … want to share the feed? What part are you at?”

“We’re two minutes out,” Adah noted. “You won’t have time to watch much.”

“Wish we had windows.” Owl stood, rising from the crate she’d been sitting atop and walking back and forth across the train car.

“There wouldn’t be much to see.” Adah pushed herself up as well, stretching her legs. “Just miles and miles of desert and rock.”

“That’s right, you grew up around here.”

“North actually, but yeah,” Adah said. “I did. Not a whole lot out here.”

“But the elevator.”

“Yup.” And one of the larger United Nations Space Exploration and Colonization logistical hubs on the planet. Technically it was a UN hub, but so close to the orbital elevator near Khartoum, much of it was dedicated to shipping and receiving goods to and from off-world.

And why UAI and the UN are so on edge around here. Orbital elevator access was still the cheapest way to send something into orbit, so whoever had control over the elevators held a great deal of power.

The train car they’d stowed away on jerked slightly. “We’re slowing,” Adah said, looking at the rest of the team. “Get ready.”

Their armor had been painted in dull, mottled shades of grey, ones that would hopefully let them move undetected through the massive logistics complex. All their gear would be running passively, and their client had provided them with a list of every location monitored by cameras. Thankfully, they weren’t many.

Unfortunately, that was because much of the base, in keeping with UN mandate, was staffed. There was still a decent amount of automation carried out in certain sections, but the center itself was staffed by over two-thousand people. Two thousand workers to avoid.

Thankfully, while they were employed for the simple, boring purpose of having employment, most of their work was light. Monitoring duty. Machines did the heavy lifting. All we need to do is plot a course that keeps us in those machines without causing any sort of trouble, and make it to an unsecured network port where our client’s software can do its work.

And then we need to steal a bunch of supplies and a VTOL. She wasn’t sure which was going to be harder. Their client had provided them with software that would take care of the downloading the data logs and slipping through LockOut’s security, though how they’d managed that Adah had no idea. But each of them was carrying a small drive with the software on it. All they needed was the proper port, and it would go to work.

After that we steal some supplies and make a break for it. Without getting shot down. At least until we ditch the VTOL and make it crash and burn. Without killing us.

Definitely high risk. And there was no mistaking the squeal echoing through the cargo car, nor the shaking underfoot: The train was slowing down. And as soon as it’s pulled into the station, we need to move out, and fast.

Her CNC suite had a map of the massive logistical center they’d be in, but their choice of insertion had been their own, which meant they didn’t have solid data on where their ride would stop. We’ll just have to stay quiet, careful, and not get spotted until we figure out where we are. Let the system figure out where we are on the map.

Made more dangerous by the fact that all of them would be operating in passive modes, even their comms operating on low power just in case someone was scanning or keeping alert.

And if we get spotted … deal with it quickly and quietly.

If we’re lucky. The train was still slowing, but she fixed her eyes on the door they’d entered through. Insertion had been unique, dropping out of the back of the VTOL above the train almost a hundred and fifty kilometers an hour. Then one of them had dangled over the edge to break through the lock on the door so the rest of the team could enter. It had gone off without a hitch, but …

Actually, that was kind of exciting. We’ve never been asked to do a train heist before. And they still hadn’t but it had made the most sense as a method of getting into the base. The trains were automated with no stops between stations, so getting a sizeable force aboard one would be difficult and likely noticed. But four-person squad?

The car shook again. “That’d be us coming into the base itself,” Owl said, pulling her weapon from her back and checking the charge.

“Get ready everyone.” Adah pulled her own weapon out, checking the charge. It didn’t feel alien—she’d worked with enough energy weapons to avoid feeling completely off-put by the design—but it had been a while. The whole team had made the decision, one of the advantages of energy weapons being their volume. Energy discharges could be loud, but there were still quieter than a rifle shot, suppressor or no.

Even Anvil had stripped her exosuit down to the armor, her hulking figure much smaller and more streamlined than normal. She almost looked like a large skinsuit wearer rather than the exosuit user she actually was.

With luck even if we’re spotted that’s all anyone will think. The longer they keep from identifying us, the better.

The entire room shook again, crates rattling against their straps as the train bled momentum once more. Then with a final forward pressure, it came to a stop.

“Owl?”

Owl stepped over to the door they’d popped earlier, feeding a tiny camera through the seam. “Looks like a dark warehouse. Not seeing any signs of activity, just lots of shelves.” The feed popped up in the corner of Adah’s hud, her CNC suite already going to work crunching it. “Wait.” A large, bulky shape rolled past. “Robotic loaders. Looks like they’re unloading a car a few lengths ahead of us. No sign of any sort of overseer.”

“Might be on the other side,” Ursa suggested. “Or above us.”

The view spun, and Owl let out a faint curse. “Right overhead. Shit.”

“No no, that’s good,” Anvil said. “They’ll be watching the cars that are being unloaded. We won’t draw any attention. We just need to move away from it and be careful. Stick right to the side of the train until we get a break.”

Adah nodded. “Owl? Take point? I’ll bring up rear?”

“Don’t forget to reset the lock when you leave.”

“I will.”

Owl pulled her camera back, the feed going dead, and then with a three-two-one count of her fingers, slowly eased the train car door open. Bright light spilled into the dim interior, Adah’s visor reacting and trying to keep the darkness well-lit while keeping the exterior light in focus.

Owl slipped out like a ghost, followed by Ursa and then Anvil. Adah slipped out last, her hud already pinging several cameras that Owl’s sensor suite had identified. Carefully, slowly, keeping her back firmly against the wall of the train, she slid the door shut, keying the lock so that it reset, any trace of their ride gone. The rest of the team was already moving back, away from the activity further up the train where a large forklift was at work emptying one of the cars.

The warehouse was well-lit, bright LEDs along the rafters illuminating row after row of massive shelves and at least giving her a good idea of how far they’d need to move to find a way out. While not a megastructure, the place wasn’t small.

Worse, according to the map, the warehouse they were in, whichever one it happened to be, was one of dozens of similar structures. The base spanned miles of desert. We could be right next to our target … or need to sneak two miles across a massive base. There was no way of knowing until they reached a point where she could get a fix on their position.

The coloration of her plating shifted slightly, stealth paneling adjusting the tones and shades of greys to better fit in with her surroundings as she moved. Down the body of the train Owl stopped, the rest of the team following her lead. “We’ve got an exit.”

“Alarmed?”

“Maybe. Looks like a fire exit.”

She thought for a moment, weighing the team’s options before replying. “If it’s less exposed then this, let’s move for it.”

“Got it.” Owl waited for a moment, then pushed herself away from the side of the train and moved smoothly across the open space between the train and rows of shelving. She vanished into one of the aisles a moment later.

“Clear,” she said. “No cameras or sensors in the aisle that I can pick up.”

Ursa crossed the gap next, moving a little more quickly than Owl but just as smoothly vanishing into the aisle. Anvil followed moments later, and then Adah was across from the team, sliding into the position Owl had vacated. She moved across the open forklift track with no amount of held breath, her eyes watching for any sort of activity that her CNC system could pick up and flag as a potential alarm, but …

Nothing. They were clean. Her plating shifted shades once more as she crouched next to one of the shelving units, taking on darker shades and lines to match the coloration.

She could see the exit Owl had identified as well, set in the far wall of the warehouse and lit by floating text declaring the word in several languages. And she had been right: it did look like a emergency exit, rather than a conventional one.

Still, it was worth checking out, and Owl was already moving  down the aisle, crossing the several hundred meter length and pausing only at each intersection before moving on. Once again the rest of them followed in a staggered line, only breaking slightly as Anvil was forced to wait for an automated forklift to hum past an intersection.

“Definitely an emergency door,” Owl said as she reached the end of the final row, mere meters from the exit. “Live circuit. Electromagnetic.”

“Cameras?”

“At least two, but they’re probably not being actively monitored. We keep the approach slow and pop the lock properly, no one should notice.”

“Should being the optimum word,” Anvil noted.

“You want to do this?” Owl asked, cutting across the last gap and pressing herself up against the wall. The pattern on her suit had changed now, the shades forming odd, shapeless lines that were designed to help deflect the attention of any monitoring systems employed by the cameras she was now in full view of. Anvil and Ursa’s armor was taking on the look too, as was Adah’s, each of their systems reacting to the commands from her CNC suite.

Owl knealt by the door, placing one hand against it. “One circuit. Good.” She removed a small, thin tool from a hard case on her armor, almost like a knife but with a far, far thinner blade.

And a lot more expensive, Adah thought as Owl slowly began to trace the edge of the doorframe with the blade’s tip. She ran it around the entire length, slowing only once by the bar that would trigger the latch to open the door. Once she’d completed the circuit, she brought the blade back to the spot where she’d slowed and carefully began to work the thin metal into the seam.

“Charge is looking good,” she said after a few seconds had passed. The blade of the tool was halfway in now, each of them watching as it slowly scanned and then mimicked the electrical current of the lock.

“Almost there.” The tool was almost buried to the hilt now, forming a break in the lock but providing its own draw and discharge so that neither side of the system saw any errant change or flux. “And … Got it.”

Owl gave the handle a quick twist and it split apart into two halves. “Sixty seconds.” There was a low clunk as she pressed the bar in, pushing the door open. One half of the tool stayed on the frame while the other moved with the door. No alarm sounded, and the exit sign over the frame stayed steady.

Owl slipped one hand through the crack she’d made. “Looks like … a dark alley between warehouses. No cameras or sensors.” She opened the door further and slipped out, flipping around to hold it open for the rest of them. One by one each of them followed, stepping into the darkened alley between the massive warehouses. As soon as Adah was clear, Owl carefully flipped both halved of the now split tool around, the handles facing outward, and eased the door shut. Once it had let out a faint click, she twisted the two halves back together an then smoothly pulled it free of the gap.

“Thirty-five seconds left on the caps,” she said, tapping the edges of the blade to line them up once more and then returning the tool to her pockets. “Clean exit.”

“Right,” Ursa said, staring down one end of the alley at distant lights. Overhead the sky was twilight, a bluish-purple already alight with the pinpoint flickers of orbital installations and ships. “Now what?”

“Give me a moment,” Adah said as her hud began to shift, one by one picking the various signals from orbiting satellites and building a location. “We are …” The map in the corner of her hud flashed, then rotated and spun, the team’s location marked by a singular, pulsing dot against the rest of the base. “A good klick or more from the nearest warehouse that would be connected to LockOut.

Shit. It wasn’t the worst option, but it was far from ideal. “Closest LockOut hub is that way,” she said, pointing east. “About a klick directly. But …” She tapped at her wrist, zooming out and changing the orientation. “The airfield is to the north. We’re better off skirting around the center of the base, hitting a node there, and then pulling the misdirection part of our job. So we need to go … That way.” She pointed up the alley at the well-lit “street.”

“Think we could hitch a ride on one of those trucks?” Ursa asked as another one of the large platforms rolled past, several cargo containers sitting atop its back.

“Maybe under,” Anvil said. “If we came at it from the back. Or dropped down from above, then swung under.”

Light splayed over them as one of the vehicles in question turned into the alleyway there were in, each of them pressing themselves up against the wall as quickly as they could. A few seconds later the behemoth vehicle rolled past, its tires almost as tall as each of them.

It didn’t stop, and her CNC system didn’t detect any unusual bursts from its communications systems. “We’re clear.”

“I could definitely fit under one of those,” Ursa said as they continued down the alley. “Or on top.”

“Given how high they are, that might work.”

“We’d want one with cargo. It’d break up the visual.” Owl slowed as they intersection loomed, keeping to the shadows. More trucks rolled past, their motors humming as they powered across the base.

“The trick is getting on one without its systems picking us up,” Adah said as another one of the trucks rolled past. “Stationary is one thing, but if any of the sensors show somebody rushing at it, it’s going to flag us.”

“Right, low or high,” Anvil said. “Same thing when hopping on busses back home.”

“You hopped busses?” Ursa asked.

“I’ve never told you guys that?” Anvil turned, looking at them.

“You might have. But you make up so much about your background how are we supposed to know what’s real and what isn’t?”

“I don’t make up shit with you guys. Mostly. On it? Anyway, it was pretty easy to do. You just gotta get high and land on one. No cameras watching the top. Systems assume any jerk is a bump it missed. At most, you get a drone out looking for potholes. Just don’t go into any tunnels.”

“Low ceiling?”

“No.” Anvil sounded insulted. “Cameras.”

“So up high, then,” Adah said as another truck rolled past. “Like the top of one of the warehouses.”

“That could work.”

“We’d just need to pick a truck that wasn’t going to pull into a warehouse anytime soon,” Ursa noted as one of the trucks slowed and then turned down the alley opposite them. “Anyone see any identifying marks?”

“Not from here,” Anvil said. “But I’ll bet there’s a difference in the signals they bounce back to command, on it? Busses use something similar. We get up high and if Adah’s system can monitor them, we might be able to figure out which one’s going to take us where we want.”

“Adah?” Owl glanced in her direction, clearly waiting for a command.

“Do it.”

Owl waited until a lull in the trucks, then backed up and ran at one side of the alley. She jumped, her jets firing with short hisses to boost her upward, and she hit the side about a quarter of the way up, running up the wall. She made it only a few steps before her momentum lagged, and she leaped again, pushing herself off and up, twisting in the air to hit the wall of the warehouse across the way and rush another few steps up, short bursts from her jets keeping her pressed against the wall. Again, her pace lagging, she jumped, this time the grapple on one wrist letting out a faint hiss as it fired. Owl landed on the first wall again, almost at the top, and one arm stretched before her ran up the final distance, disappearing over the lip.

“Well,” Anvil said. “That’s nice and all, but that won’t work for me.”

With another faint hiss, the tiny dart that made up the tip of Owl’s grappling hook hit the concrete at the base of the warehouse wall. “You don’t have to,” Owl said. “Just wrap that around and hang on. On it, get it?”

“Oh come on, that’s not how that phrase works.” Anvil grabbed the small dart, but Adah held out her hand.

“Let me go first. I need to be scanning. Boost me.”

Anvil nodded, passed her the dart, and then knelt, holding out a cupped hand. A moment later the world dropped away as Anvil hurled Adah upward, far enough that she was almost halfway up the side of the warehouse before she began to run. She cleared the lip of the warehouse at full speed in moments, Ow lying behind it with her legs braced.

“Ursa, you’re next,” Owl said, firing the dart back over the edge. “Take it easy.”

Adah knelt near the forward edge of the warehouse, peering down at the well-lit thoroughfare and watching as another truck rumbled past. Good view from up here, she thought as Ursa arrived atop the warehouse. Better yet, we’re hidden by the lights. They could see down, but someone else couldn’t see up.

It was tempting to just move across the roofs of the giant facilities, jumping alleys on a direct route to their target. But that’d be a surefire way to get caught, Adah thought as she lifted her gaze toward the center of the complex, watching as a security VTOL slowly slid past. Four people on a rooftop would stick out from the air like a hard light dress on a street corner.

Thankfully the slowly patrolling VTOL wasn’t anywhere near their position, but Owl’s suit had picked up a few smaller security drones nearby. The rooftop was out save as a convenient vantage point. There was far more cover on the ground.

Two more trucks rolled past beneath her, and she set her suit’s systems to passively track the repeater signals each was bouncing back to the main center of the complex, instructing it to hunt for patterns in the mix. In her peripheral vision she saw Owl brace again against the rooftop, a faint whine sounding from her grapple as she pulled up Anvil. Ursa was crouched by the edge, and a few seconds later she hauled back, pulling Anvil onto the roof.

“How’s it going?” Anvil asked, moving up alongside Adah.

“Six trucks scanned, but no results yet.” She twisted her head as a prompting from her hud, following one of the trucks north.

“How many pattern headers has it found?”

Adah pulled her eyes away long enough to give Anvil a glance before checking the report. “Three.”

“Hmm … I’m going to guess there are five, on it.”

“Why four?” Ursa asked.

“Four sections of the base,” Anvil said, motioning with one arm. “Northeast, southeast, southwest, northwest. Then the central, home location where the garage is located.”

“Well,” Adah said as her hud pinged again, another truck passing by. “I’ve got four now.”

“You might not see the fifth one as often,” Anvil said. “Unless they have warehouses near the center.”

“I guess a misspent youth really does have its benefits,” Ursa said, giving Anvil a light slug on the shoulder before leaning over the lip of the warehouse. “I tell you what I’m seeing, though. No drivers.”

“Nope,” Adah confirmed. “No heat signatures, no cab, nothing.”

“Hey …” Anvil said. “You’re right. Even the busses have to have drivers. UN breaking its own rules.”

“Technically, they aren’t,” Owl said. “UN law requires mannys attached to self-driving vehicles on any major road, airport, or seaport. This logistical center is technically none of those things. Though roughly a quarter of their staff are listed as ‘drivers,’ so I expect they’re monitoring these things via feeds somewhere in case remote control is needed.”

“Guess that makes sense.” Ursa glanced at Adah, but she shook her head.

“Ten. Not enough data ye—“ Her hud flashed. “Nevermind. It’s got one of the headers pinned as ‘south’.”

“That’s probably the header for the section we’re in,” Anvil said. Down below a small cart loaded with a team of people hummed past, following in the wake of one of the trucks.

“You’re probably right,” Adah agreed. “And … it just made that connection. I think you were right about the quadrant division. System’s reporting the same thing. Which means …” A few more seconds passed, and the hud flashed again. “It’s got what it thinks is the second cardinal direction figured out. We’ve got our ride.”

She tapped at her wrist, giving the system new instructions based on what it had learned. A moment later her hud changed, this time bringing up a visual overlay over a truck that had just passed.

“Hold up,” Anvil said. “We shouldn’t jump from here. Too visual. We need an alley. Less room for error, no cameras.”

“Good call.” Adah motioned and the four of them moved out, sneaking across the rooftop toward the far alley and waiting by the edge.

They weren’t waiting long. A truck turned into the alley, its running lights filling the space and illuminating the dusty, sand-swept concrete. Its back held two cargo containers and a collection of smaller boxes. Perfect.

Get ready.” Adah’s hud was already making estimations, feeding them data about when the truck would be precisely below them and how long they would drop. It would be a heavy impact, but thankfully the truck’s suspension would help cushion it a little.

Ready … Adah swung herself over the edge as the truck neared, hanging from the lip of the warehouse and lessening the drop. Each member of the team had done the same, all of them hanging in a line.

Owl was the first to drop, then Ursa. Adah let go as the truck neared her position, dropping through the air. She landed a moment later, crouching to absorb the jarring impact and glancing at her hud, searching for any change in the truck’s signal.

Nothing. “No signal,” she said, sliding off of the container and crouching between it and raised front of the bed that supported the lights. Owl was already there, taking advantage of the harsh jump from light to shadow to blend in and disappear.

“See?” Anvil said, crouching next to her. “Nothing to it. The system reports it as a pothole of some kind, later tonight when it hits the garage it reports it, and someone goes out to look for it. Easy.”

“Now we just need to worry about getting off the truck before it arrives at its destination,” Owl noted. The truck left the alley, turning into the light, their armor shifting for a moment as it attempted to make them blend into the moving shadows.

The truck picked up speed, surging forward across the complex. Adah slid down lower, unable to see but still able to track their progress on their map. Neon-colored hard light filled the sky to either side, markers and indicators in several languages providing direction or identifiers for the various warehouses they passed. Multiple trucks passed going in the other direction, the air hissing as they shot past. Without any regard for human passengers their ride accelerated and slowed quickly, the experience more jerky than smooth.

“Were the busses like this?” Ursa asked as their ride slowed again, another truck whizzing past in front of it by mere feet.

“No. This bit is different.”

They passed into the norther half of complex, the central spire just visible over the tops of the nearest warehouses. Watching and orchestrating everything, Adah thought as she watched the glass sparkle. It was lit from within, night shift workers keeping tabs on everything outside.

Hell of a target. But then again, this is supposed to be a civilian installation. Security, armory, and airfield notwithstanding.

The truck turned off the road, into an alley that began taking it east. Owl rose, preparing to jump.

“Wait,” Adah said. “This might have just gotten easier.” There was a large open space on the map nearby, almost a kilometer to a side, surrounded by little more than a simple fence and fill with thousands of larger cargo containers. And that edge isn’t too far from our hub. Sneaking across an empty, dark cargo lot would be much better. And we’re next to one of those containers.

The truck turned out once more, only for Owl to let out a hiss of warning. “Drone!”

All of them were holding fairly still already, but Adah froze even further, holding her breath as she caught sight of the small, automated unit humming past on almost silent rotors. Her eyes flicked to the signal monitor in the corner of her hud, checking for any changes in frequency, power, or activity.

Nothing. The drone passed them by, and she let out a breath. Good.

Their ride accelerated once more, zipping down the street at high speed, the cargo lot growing closer and closer. Adah tapped at her wrist, feeding the map to the rest of the team and making the cargo lot flash.

“Ooh, prime,” Anvil said as the lot grew closer and closer. “Take us there, truck.”

“If you can give it orders, just tell it to take us to the hub,” Ursa said.

“Not a bad idea.” Anvil tapped the bed of the truck with one palm. “Hear me, noble steed! Take us to a LockOut hub!” A pause. “Nothing. Well, I tried.”

“Even if you could, it’d be a bad idea,” Owl cut in. “There’d be drones on us so fast.”

“Yeah, that’s probably true.” The truck began to slow, and Adah rose slightly, peering over the front of the bed to see if any of the nearby warehouse doors were open. None of them were. But a long chain-link gate just ahead of them … that was opening. Perfect. “This is our stop.”

“Wait,” Owl said as the gate neared. “Cameras.” The hud noted them a second later,  twin balls of full vision in all directions atop either side of the gate.

“Right, hold.” The truck passed through the gate, moving out of the well-lit warehouses into relative darkness. A moment later its own lights switched off.

“Must be a machines-only area,” Ursa said. “No light at all.”

“Works for me,” Adah answered as her visor adjusted, the lights of the night sky growing briefly brighter by comparison. The containers around her took one greyish and purple hues. “Let’s see how far this ride takes us. If it goes far enough, all we need to do is cut west and we’ll have our hub.”

They moved on in silence through the darkness, their transport rolling forward through the darkness with unerring accuracy. Once her eyes caught a flash of movement, some small desert creature darting out of the way of their truck and vanishing into the maze of cargo containers. Risky. There can’t be much in here to hunt. But maybe that wasn’t the point, and it was looking for shelter.

At last their ride began to slow, and a moment later a large forklift emerged from the nearby stacks of containers, clearly ready to meet their ride. “That’s the signal people. Anvil? Any advice for getting off?”

“Let’s just jump up onto that rack of containers,” Anvil said, pointing at a section of containers only one level high. “Nice and easy.”

The first of the containers swept by, and Owl leaped, easily rising high enough to step atop the metal. Adah followed, her feet touching down a moment later, followed by Ursa and Anvil.

“Owl, you’ve got the map feed. Can you lead us to the west side of this yard?”

“Yes. I’ll keep us one level below the highest, just in case, but it should be quick.”

Good, Adah thought, signaling to the sniper to move. Commander Castillo is just waiting out there in the dark for our signal. The faster, the better. They set out, running across the tops of the containers and leaving their ride behind to unload.

The cargo containers were easy to move across, their surfaces ridged and easy to grip, and their size not nearly enough to be a problem to a team of skinsuit wearers, each of them easily able to jump up or down the metal containers. They rotated at random, keeping what sound their impacts made chaotic and without pattern, working their way across the yard to the warehouses on the fair side. Several times they were high enough among the stacks that Adah could see the airfield past that, the small open space filled with several VTOLs, all but one of them clearly made for hauling cargo, with large bulbous bodies and larger than normal wings and fins.

But it was the lone different VTOL that caught her eye. It was hard to tell at the distance they were at, but it appeared to be a security VTOL. We take that, run west toward UAI airspace …

They were descending the stacks of containers now, the edge of the yard in view. It ran right up against the back side of more warehouses, the chain link just a few feet shy of the buildings themselves. The concrete between them was filled with windswept debris and detritus.

No one comes back here, she thought. Perfect. Each of them cleared the fence with ease, landing on the other side.

“We’re close,” Owl reported. “Looks like … actually, if I’m reading this right, any of these should have access.” Her helmet tilted back, looking up at the warehouses. “Including this one. Look for a side door.”

“Like an emergency exit?” Ursa asked as the team fanned out.

“Right. That’d be perfect.”

“Got one,” Anvil said from the corner. “A couple actually.”

“Perfect,” Owl said, kneeling by the door and pulling out the same tool she’d used to fool the circuit when they’d left. “Give me a minute.”

“All right, I’ll bite,” Anvil said as Owl played the tool around the edge of the door before once again sliding it into the thin gap. “The bar’s on the other side and there’s no handle on this one. How are you going to get it to open?”

“Watch and learn.” The pride in Owl’s voice came across clearly as she twisted the handle, looking up at the door as if waiting for an alarm. Then she placed the back of her wrist against the door near where the bar was. With a hiss and a sharp tink her grapple fired, driving the tiny but weighty spike at the end right through the door’s thin metal.

Then Owl pulled back, and there was a heavy clunk as the pinion, its arms deployed, caught the bar from the other side, pulling the door open.

“That was prime,” Ursa said as Owl retrieved her grapple and held the door open, exposing a dark, cave-like interior lit only by the dim glow of the exit lighting. “Done that before?”

“Maybe,” Owl said, her tone dripping with satisfaction. “Maybe not. Forty-five seconds …” They filed into the warehouse, Owl reversing the maneuver she’d pulled earlier to retrieve her tool and close the door behind them.

It’s like being in a cave, Adah thought as her visor made what use it could of the exit door’s dim sign. Around her she could see shelves identical to those she’d seen earlier … just now in greys and darker shades, the suit’s software amplifying what it could.

“All right …” Ursa said, her helmet panning from side to side as she looked around and then up. “Central control?”

“There might be an access hub by the door,” Owl noted. “For quick checks.”

“We’ll check both,” Adah said. “Ursa, Owl, take central control. Anvil and I will check the front door.”

Owl nodded, her and Ursa moving off into the darkness and vanishing from view in moments. Adah turned for the front of the warehouse, Anvil falling in beside her.

“What do you suppose is in these things, anyway?” Anvil asked, idly tapping one of the crates as they passed.

“Something for off-world colonies, I guess,” Ursa replied over the comm channel. “Food, maybe. Tools. Whatever they need.”

“We could ask our client,” Owl pointed out. “After all, we’re here to steal supply logs. So they’ll know.”

“Weird thing to want to know.”

“You were just saying you wanted to know.”

“Yeah, but that’s because I’m right here staring at them,” Anvil retorted. “And I don’t really care. Not enough to pay what we’re getting for it.”

“Well,” Ursa said as a faint clang echoed through the warehouse, followed by the sound of boots on a catwalk. “Whatever’s in them, something about it is important enough for someone to want to pay for it.”

Focus, Adah thought, but she didn’t say it. A little chatter was fine, and it hadn’t gotten out of hand yet. The front of the warehouse loomed out of the darkness, and she slowed, looking for the main door and then for a smaller entrance. It wasn’t hard to find, but when her gaze swept across the nearby wall there was no sign of what she was looking for. No obvious door terminal, display, or port to plug into.

“We’re at the front door,” Anvil said before she could announce their finding. “No sign of a node.”

“All right,” Owl answered. “We’re almost up at their little command center. If we—“

A sudden loud click made Adah let out a warning hiss, cutting Owl off, and a moment later there was a second, louder click as the small door in front of her and Anvil began to open, light spilling in.

Hide! She threw herself backwards, trying to move as quietly as possible as she stepped up against one of the ground level crates and pressed herself around the side. Lights came to life across the warehouse, and she bit back a curse. Now? Someone’s here now?

She froze, trusting that she was out of sight to whoever had walked through the front door. There were at least two of them, judging from the rapid back-and-forth of their voices, but neither was speaking a language she was familiar with.

If they’re here to start some sort of loading or unloading process we’re in deep shit. The pair’s voices echoed around the entryway, her suit helpfully using the sounds to note their positions relative to her own. “Anyone got eyes?”

“Looks like a pair of workers,” Owl said. “No visible weapons. Just jumpsuits.”

Shit. “What are they doing?” If this place is about to become active, we’re going to need to leave fast.

“Debating something from the look,” Ursa said. “One of them’s pointing up at the central overlook, while the other is pointing at a shelf and waving his pad.”

“If they start up those stairs—“ she began to warn.

“Way ahead of you,” Ursa replied. “They’ve got blind spots. We’ll use ‘em.” Footsteps echoed across the concrete, one of the dots on Adah’s hud moving deeper into the warehouse.

“Looks like the one waving the pad won the debate. They’re walking down the main row.” Both were still talking, their voices echoing off the shelving as they moved past Adah’s position. “Let us hope they don’t look up.”

“Most people don’t,” Anvil replied.

“I’m aware,” Owl said. “I just—nevermind.”

“Hope that their business here is over quickly,” Adah countered as the pair of techs moved deeper into the warehouse. She risked a quick glance around the corner of the crate she was hiding behind, catching sight of the two blue jumpsuits still arguing as they walked further in. One of them was clearly used to speaking with their hands as they expressed what looked to be displeasure, while the other—the one holding the datapad—rolled their head to one side. From the snort of the first figure, it wasn’t hard to guess what facial expression they’d given in response to their partner’s vocal comments.

Bad timing. That’s all. She pulled her view back, relaxing slightly as the pair moved deeper into the warehouse, the one still berating the other. I wonder what language that is? She tapped at her wrist, giving her suit instructions to analyze the words and try for a translation, only to get an error message in return. Whatever it was, it wasn’t something her suit had in its admittedly limited database. Probably regional. A few moments later her hud noted that there were trace elements of Arabic mixed with something called Afar and Dinka.

A local pidgin, then. Which her suit helpfully informed her a few seconds later. Along with an advertisement for a more advanced and up-to-date linguistic model that would most likely be able to translate the pair’s speech. She rolled her eyes and dismissed the message. It made sense for the suit to let her know it was possible, but it still felt out of place.

“They’ve stopped,” Owl said. “The one with the pad is checking something on the end of one of the rows. Must be what they’re looking for. They’re heading down the row now.”

For a moment Adah considered whether or not to tell the team to stay put. It was clear now what the unexpected pair of dockworkers was up to: It was an inventory check. The debate had been about whether or not they were going to walk up to the center of the warehouse and instruct the machines to do it or wander over to the correct shelf and row on their own. One of the pair had chosen the latter to the frustration of the other.

She made her decision. “Owl? Keep an eye on that pair. If it looks like they’re taking their time, or this will be long, focus on getting into that center. If they’re in and out, we’ll wait.”

“Affirmative. Repositioning.”

And now … we wait. She could still hear the pair talking, their voices echoing off the warehouse walls.

“They’re slowing,” Owl reported a moment later. “Checking serial numbers against a pad. One of them just pointed at a crate. Ground level.” A pause. “They’re popping it. The one with the pad just said something that was probably sarcastic and … They took something out? Didn’t see what it was.”

A laugh erupted over the channel, startling Adah. “It’s obvious, on it?” Anvil said. “Ladies, they’re smugglers.”

“Oh shit.” Ursa laughed next. “You know, that makes sense.”

“I have to concur,” Owl agreed. “They removed something, probably a small data card, from the crate. Now they’re closing it up and making to leave.”

“Never have I been so relieved to find we’re not the only ones sneaking around.”

“They’re on their way back to the main row,” Owl reported. “Still not looking up.”

“Let’s wait until they’re gone,” Adah said. “Let them clear out, and then we can get back to our own skulking.”

“Prime,” Anvil said. For a few seconds the comms were quiet. Then she spoke again. “I wonder what they’re smuggling?”

“Well, if it’s a data card, it’s information of some kind,” Ursa said. “Could be they’re selling secrets on the side and getting them from further up the chain. More than likely its just contraband, though. If we knew where that crate had come from we’d have a better idea.”

“Let’s not get distracted,” Adah said as the sound of the two smugglers grew, the pair drawing closer to her position. “We’ve got our own smuggling to worry about.”

“Fair enough, boss.”

A minute later, the pair stepped out the door, still chatting among themselves as they shut the warehouse lights off. Darkness swept over the shelves once more, colors washing away into dark shades of grey.

“And … they’re gone,” Owl said. “Moving.”

“Make it fast,” Adah ordered, rising from her own hiding space and watching the doorway. “We’ve been here long enough.” Up ahead, lights flickered on, and she glanced up to see the command hub casting shadows across the ceiling.

“Sorry,” Ursa said. “I think they were on a motion sensor.”

“There’s our node. Plugging in now.”

Adah held her breath, waiting. Now we find out of it our client knows LockOut as well as they think they do.

The seconds ticked past like eternities. Her mouth felt parched, and she licked her lips, wishing she’d drunk more before deployment.

Come on. In one corner of her hud the timer ticked over another minute. No alarms yet. That’s a good sign.

“We’re in. Or it’s in, anyway. System says it’s copying things over.”

“What’s it grabbing anyway?”

“Well, it could be anything, but it claims it’s grabbing shipping logs.”

“Shipping logs? Like what goes where?”

“And when? Yes. Again, however,” Owl noted. “It could just as easily be lying to us.”

“Or not.” Anvil’s voice sounded smug. “After all, you’d need something like that to run a smuggling operation like the one we just saw.”

“That is a fair point as well,” Owl replied. “A bit grander in scale, certainly, but yes, it would be helpful for something like that.”

“Wait a minute. Guys, hold up.” Ursa’s tone had a sense of urgency to it. “This is the same weirdo that wanted us to steal the observatory data, right?”

“Shit,” Anvil said. “It is, isn’t it? Shipping logs plus a record of orbital traffic. You could use that to track something.”

“Not something,” Ursa said. “But somewhere. You could compare what was shipped and when to orbital logs and see where something was going.”

“Seventy-five percent,” Owl cut in. “And data like that is already public if you know where to look.”

“Right. Except the stuff that isn’t public. Remember? The orbital data could have been used to find stuff that was supposed to be secret.”

Ursa’s words sent a shiver down Adah’s back. “If that’s true, then our client could be putting us in a much more dangerous position than we realize.”

“Agreed,” Owl added, and Adah could hear a sense of worry in her voice as well. “I suggest we make our concerns known to Ca—to Commander Castillo as soon as we return. Copy finished and disconnecting. Data secure.”

“Right. Everyone meet up at the same door we came in, and let’s get out of here.”

A minute later the door shut behind them with a click as Adah consulted the map of the facility. “Best route to the armory and airfield is … due west. Half a klick.” She turned to Adah and held out her hand. “Package?”

Owl nodded, pulling a small datajack out and passing it over. Adah slipped it into one of the hardcase pockets on her armor, then nodded her head east. “Owl, take point. We’ll follow. Keep low and slow people; the fewer eyes see us before we want them to the better.”

“Should we hitch a ride again?” Ursa asked. “That made it a lot easier.”

“We’re close enough that I’d rather go on foot,” Adah replied. “If we’re caught, you know the drill.”

“Yeah,” Anvil said with obvious anticipation. “Running fight.”

“Not getting caught until we want to is the safer option, though,” Adah added, glancing at Anvil. “Keep that in mind.”

“On it. I will. Still …” Anvil drew her heavy laser. “Shame to bring this all this way and never use it.”

“You’ll have plenty of options once we steal a VTOL,” Adah said, jerking her head east. “Now let’s move out.”

*             *             *

“You know what?” Anvil said as she crouched by the armory’s exterior wall, one hand slowly feeding out a thin strand of explosive in a line. “Either we’re getting too good at our jobs, or this place has way too little security.”

“It’s a logistical center for orbital shipments,” Ursa countered. “How much security do you want them to have?”

“I’m laying det-cord against the outer wall of the base armory, undetected, and you want to know how much security I think they should have?” Anvil replied, shifting her feet slightly as she moved to the next section. “I’d say more than we found, on it?”

“Anvil,” Adah said, giving the small alleyway they were standing in another sweep. “If you don’t stop complaining about how easy this is, I’m going to personally kick your ass when we get back home.”

“I’m just saying it’s embarrassing, on it?” Anvil shifted again, shifting the thin line she was laying downward. “The only close call we’ve had was with those smugglers, and that was a coincidence.”

“That’s it. I’m kicking your ass when we’re back at base.”

“Yeah? You and what army?”

“I don’t know, I might help,” Ursa cut in. “You’re getting on my nerves too. Just lay the cord and get us in.”

“Yeah yeah, almost done, on it? Owl? How’s it looking?”

“No one’s come in or out since that last patrol loaded up,” Owl said. “Still reading two heat signatures behind the wall, same rough location.”

“How’s our exit path?”

A pause. “Still a straight shot.”

“Good. You got a VTOL picked out?”

“Yup. I’ll mark it as soon as you three leave the armory.”

“Excellent.” Adah turned her focus back to Anvil. The woman had finished the outer layer of explosive and was now laying in a cross pattern that met in the middle.

“All right,” Anvil said, cutting off the end of the line she’d laid and rising. “Just about ready.” She swapped the dispenser for a det-pack and planted it squarely in the middle of the door atop the crossing X she’d made. “Breach time, on it?”

Adah nodded, raising her laser rifle as she and Ursa took up a flanking position. “Ready.”

“Ready.” Ursa hefted her own weapon, a short-range electrical discharge cannon.

“Ready.” Owl’s voice was the last confirmation, and Anvil nodded.

“Blowing in five, four …” The last three seconds passed in silence, Anvil holding up her fingers to count down. “Boom in the hole!”

Adah tilted her head to one side as the det-cord flared a brilliant, vivid white, her visor dimming to prevent her from being blinded. The flashing hiss was followed by a sudden heavy whump as the det-pack blew, the wall coming apart in several sections as the explosive capitalized on the weaknesses imparted by the det-cord.

Then Ursa was sweeping through the red-hot opening, weapon raised as she vanished through the swirling smoke. Adah followed, several drops of molten metal dripping down on her armor and causing heat warnings to appear on her hud. Through the swirling smoke she could make out the interior of the armory, as well as what looked like the twisted remains of a row of lockers that had been shredded by Anvil’s blast. She stepped over them, metal squealing and shifting beneath her.

A heavy crack from ahead signaled the firing of Ursa’s cannon, along with a flash of light, and someone screamed. A second later she was ahead of the smoke front, bursting from it just in time to see a smoking, twitching figure slam into a wire-mesh wall, hair standing on end. The other armory guard had time to fire a single round from their pistol before Ursa fired again. The spray of short-lived electrical orbs lit their body up, launching them back against their desk, and then they slumped to the ground, twitching.

Alarms were already beginning to sound. Adah turned back into the thinning smoke, moving for the armory storage. Anvil was already there, slapping another explosive on the lock. With a bang the lock was torn apart, and Anvil wrenched the door open, stepping into the armored cage.

“Grab anything portable and expensive,” Adah said as she stepped inside. Anvil flipped a metal crate over with one hand, dumping dozens of grenades out on the floor. “The costlier the better!” The armory was divided into rows, and she moved past Anvil, eyeing each assortment as she passed it. Something expensive.

“”You’ve got guards running this way,” Owl said. “Armored. Twenty seconds tops.”

“Understood. Grab what you can!” A row of Gorka Uno rifles caught her eyes, and she grabbed a nearby duffel, tossing it on the floor and shoving rifle after rifle into it. Magazines went in next, her outstretched hand sweeping dozens of them into the bag.

“VTOL’s headed this way. And drones. I’ll pop the latter.”

A few mags bounced across the floor but she didn’t care. The bag was mostly full. She zipped it up and threw it over one shoulder. What now?

Her eyes spotted a familiar, tube-like shape. Grenade launchers. Perfect. Another duffel hit the ground, three of the tubular weapons dropping inside it. She left the other three. The ordinance was far more valuable than the launcher, though neither would work without the other. But it was good ordinance. Shell after shell rained into the bag as she pulled out drawers and swept them into the bag, cataloguing them at a glance. Prox-burst, flame, volt, armor-frag, jello, standard frag, flash. She ignored the latter three. They were cheap and easiest to acquire. Volt, however, were the costliest, and she focused her attention on grabbing as many as she could.

From somewhere within the armory Anvil let out an excited whoop. She must have found the explosives.

“Five seconds. Firing.”

“Team, bag one more and move out.” Adah slung the second bag over her shoulders, eyes already catching a whole rack of expensive optical scope equipment. Fungible. She grabbed a third duffel, stuffing it with high-powered sights and optical attachments.

“VTOL’s coming it. Rabbiting.”

“Bag it and move!” Adah said, zipping the bag shut and throwing it over her shoulder. She snatched one last launcher as she began to move out of the armory, grabbing three shells at random and feeding one of them into the launcher’s breach. Anvil and Ursa were both already out, each loaded with several bags and one of them holding—

“Wha—?” Her exclamation of surprise was cut off as the door to the armory exploded inward, several flashbangs flying through. She turned away, firing her stolen launcher in a blind shot and bouncing the shell through the open doorway even as her world lit up.

Her visor took most of  the flash, an upraised arm the rest, leaving just the edges of her vision with purple streaks. A heavy thud from beyond the door announced the detonation of her return fire, but she didn’t stay to admire her handiwork, rushing out their “door” instead and into the alley.

Just in time to see Anvil, cackling madly, fire the two man-portable launchers she’d swiped at the incoming VTOL, the missiles streaking into the sky and sending the aircraft into immediate evasive action. The first missile missed, shooting by harmlessly.

The second delivered a glancing blow, crashing into the rear of the VTOL and punching through the armor to blow out the rear of the aircraft. It spun off, smoke pouring into the dark sky.

“Go!” Return fire was rushing toward their position, and Adah turned and ran along the path they’d picked out. She ejected the spent shell as she ran, loading another of the two she had left on hand without looking at it. A bullet slammed into her shoulder, hot and angry and punishing the plate, and she lifted the launcher over it, faintly eyeing the weapon’s sight feed in the corner of her hud and firing.

She didn’t even wait to see if she’d hit anything. There was no time. Another shot hit her in the back, the armor absorbing the blow.

Then she was on a lit street, spent shell ejected and bouncing away from her as she changed directions, running in the direction of the airfield. She slipped the last shell into the launcher, caught site of an oncoming truck, and fired.

The shell arced through the air, skipped under the truck, and then let out a burst of energy, a thunderstorm in miniature. The truck’s tires locked, rubber screaming as it skidded to a halt, smoke pouring from its six motors.

Guess that was a volt shell, Adah thought as the three of them raced past it. She tossed the now empty launcher away. “Owl, status?”

“They’re chasing, but they’re disorganized. VTOL’s broken off, but I don’t think it’s down. Almost at point two.”

“Copy.” Adah glanced at Ursa and then Anvil. “We’re almost—What is that!?”

“My new toy,” Anvil said, her voice gleeful. “Like it?”

“Is that—?”

“It is,” Anvil confirmed, and it was clear what her whoop of delight had been for. “A genuine PR6-BFG. You did want us to steal expensive stuff.” One of her hands dug into a duffel, pulling out an three-sided, oval-shaped energy cell.

“Yeah, expensive stuff. Not quantum-level terror,” Ursa cut in as Adah slapped the cell into place, the weapon spooling up.

“It’s done!” Adah shouted, feet sliding on the asphalt as they changed directions once more. “Worry about it later!”

“And use it,” Owl said. “Security is converging on the airfield. I think they’ve deduced our escape route. And they’ve got one, tw—make that three armored cars.”

“See?” Anvil asked. “We needed it anyway.”

“They’re definitely tracking you,” Owl continued. “They’re setting up a line.”

“Split!” Adah said. “Ursa right, Anvil middle. Let her do the heavy work. Next intersection!”

“Wait! They’re on the move. Opening fire.”

“Adah?”

“Head on, Anvil. Use your new toy.”

Anvil’s mad laugh was enough to send a shiver down Adah’s spine as the woman surged forward, hold the PR6 in her large, armored hands. The battery cell was spinning now, the end of the weapon glowing.

Anvil burst around the next intersection, and the world lit up.

The sound, more than anything, made Adah’s insides turn to water. The flash was impressive, to be certain, the flashes from the BFG firing so bright that the world around Anvil turned to day.

But the sound. A cascade of hungry, salivating cracks that seemed to be one continuous roar, rolling on and on. Orb after orb of white-hot, magnetically contained plasma tore free from the front of the weapon, streaking forward in blurs and then detonating fractions of a second later with a fury few things could match.

Anvil’s maniacal laugh over the comm channel made the situation all the more surreal. Her armored figure was silhouetted against the twilight by the glare of the weapon, an avatar of fury and fire as the entrance to the airfield melted in an inferno.

“Anvil! Hold!” The avalanche of destruction ceased before Adah had even finish shouting the command, the booming echo of detonating plasma orbs rolling across the base. “Let’s go!”

Of the front gate, little was left but molten metal and shimmering, cratered concrete. The guard shack had caught fire and collapsed. Two of the armored cars had been reduced to burning heaps of slag metal torn apart by the blasts, barely recognizable any longer, while the third was one fire and hastily being evacuated.

Guards were running in all directions, but one thing was certain: They were all running away. One stopped and turned as Anvil’s fire let up, lifting their rifle to return fire. Only to stagger back as a bolt of energy caught them in the visor, incapacitating or killing them.

“Let them run,” Adah ordered, but Anvil was already throwing the PR6 over her shoulder, the weapon no longer spinning up. They rushed forward, toward the distant wall of the airfield.

“Fregging night.” Ursa’s curse cut across the comm channel as they neared. “I’m glad we’ve never gone up against one of those things. Look at this.”

“It’s terrifying.” The destruction wrought by the PR6 became all the more clear as they came closer. The asphalt near the impact of Anvil’s fury had become molten, their boots leaving imprints in the soft material. Rubber tires had melted, exposing armored innards that were still glowing red hot. Bodies lay on the ground, the composite plate glowing or scorched with heat, cracked from the sudden violence of the explosion.

The only positive was that there was far more sign that they’d routed their enemy than burned most of them into oblivion. “Anvil …” Adah asked as they ran past on of the burning wrecks, moving from melted asphalt to charred concrete once more. “How many shots did you fire?”

“It fires pretty fast. Maybe half the cell?”

That’s still a terrifying amount of damage. No wonder these things are in such short supply and so costly!

As they left the destroyed gate behind, a familiar armored figure slipped out of the shadows. Owl, back alongside them once more. Ahead the bulbous bodies of cargo-lifter VTOL’s laid on the tarmac like fat, dead flies, rotund but still airworthy.

“Which one are we taking, boss?” Anvil asked.

“First one we come too. We—“ Adah’s eyes flicked to Anvil, and she cut herself off. “You’re injured!” The blood was clearly visible as a dark stain across the side of Anvil’s exosuit, leaking from a tear in the plating.

“A little, yeah. They opened up on me when I did. I won out.” Anvil reached the door to the nearest VTOL first, grabbing the handle and yanking it to one side. The massive door rolled toward the front of the aircraft. “Relax. It’s already stopped bleeding, and we can dig out any bits that might still be in there later.”

“I’ll pilot,” Ursa said, moving for the front of the aircraft and leaping up past the handhelds in the metal. The cockpit door opened at her touch, and she vanished inside. “Everyone aboard!”

Adah jumped into the spacious interior of the aircraft, quickly glancing around at the empty, cavernous space and noting the lack of amenities, like seats. And probably no gravitics either, she noted as the cargo lifter’s engines began to wind up. Everyone hang on!

At least there were lights, and as Anvil yanked the door shut Owl flipped them on, revealing more gashes across the exosuit where it had taken fire. A moment later the deck tilted underfoot, each of them stumbling slightly as the VTOL lifted off.

“Easy, Ursa. There’s no gravitics back here.”

“None here either,” came the reply. “But got it.”

“Take us East! Fast as this tub can move!”

“Hold on!” The deck rotated, pitching as the heavy, ungainly aircraft began to turn. Motion pulled Adah backward, and she bent slightly, absorbing the force with her knees. The engines built to a roar that she could feel even through her suit, the interior space of the VTOL not designed to muffle sound in any way or form.

Of course not, she noted idly as the deck vibrated. It’s not meant for human cargo. The lack of viewscreens became all the more apparent as well as the deck jerked beneath them, the aircraft twisting in response to … something … outside, but hostile or benign she couldn’t tell.

Is this what it was like when Saba Issac was in the war? Pitching around in a metal box with no gravitics and no idea what was happening outside? She’d always known on some level that it was what he’d gone through, but now being in the same situation herself … It made her mind itch that something was wrong, that she shouldn’t be so blind.

Can’t let it get in the way of the mission, though. They weren’t in the clear yet. The UN wouldn’t take well to having their materiel stolen. And the nearest garrison with air intercept fighters is only ten minutes out.

But first … She turned to Anvil, dropping her center of gravity slightly to compensate as the deck abruptly titled once more. “You’re hit, we’ve got a moment, give me a report.”

“It’s fine,” Anvil said, tapping the fractured bits of armor on her side. “It wasn’t a piercing round. Just a big one from one of those armored cars. I think there’s some fragments in there, but the suit sealed it and it’ll hold until we’re back, on it.”

“Is that the only one?” Adah ran her eye down the exosuit. Several other pieces of armor showed notable impact dents and even a few surface cracks.

“The only one that got through.”

“All right. As soon as we’re on the stalker—”

The deck pitched, yawing hard to one side, and Adah stumbled backwards, tipping over and coming up on her feet but still slamming into the wall of the aircraft with a bang.

“Take it easy, Ursa, we’ve got no seats in here.”

“Well we’ve got company out here! That security VTOL is back!” The deck tilted the other direction, engines roaring, several loose duffels sliding back across it. A muffled cascade of heavy thuds echoed through the interior of the craft, a sound that sent a cold chill rushing down Adah’s spine.

Bullet impacts. On a fragile cargo lifter that probably couldn’t take more than a few hits. As if to emphasize her point a trio of shots broke through the back roof of the aircraft, punching through the decking and leaving neat little holes.

Shit. A security VTOL easily run the cargo lifter down. And if those shots hit a fuel cell or take out our reactor, or an engine …

Their ride wasn’t built to take fire. Which means … “Secure the duffels and kill the lights, then let’s open the doors and fire back. Got any more launchers?”

The last question had clearly been aimed at Anvil,  but she shook her head even as  she bent to thread her duffel carry-straps through one of the loops on the floor. “No. Plenty of ordinance, though. And the BFG.”

Which has limited range and a slower projectile speed. Useless against aircraft. Still, it would make them a riskier target.

The deck abruptly dropped away, the entire cabin momentarily weightless before gravity came back with a vengeance, the engines screaming.

“Secure,” Owl said, moments before Anvil echoed her words.

“Secure,” Adah repeated, her own duffels tied down. “Now get those doors open and Ursa, try to warn us before one of us goes out. Everyone keep one hand on a grip!”

The lights flicked off, bathing them in blackness a moment before the starboard outer door rolled open, exposing a desert colored in blues and greys beneath her visor’s enhancement and lit otherwise only by a nighttime sky lit by thousands of glowing pinpricks.

And there, its engines a dull glow as it tailed them off to the side, painting the craft in odd colors and shades to her low-light enhancement, was the security VTOL from earlier. It was close enough for her to pick out the rotary cannon below its nose, a stinger attempting to get a line on one of their engines.

Adah fired, her rifle discharging with a muted crack all but buried beneath the roar of the VTOL’s engines and the wind howling over them. The beam flashed out, missing the security VTOL but making the pilot juke to one side all the same. Owl fired a moment later, her shot lashing the nose but otherwise not doing any damage.

Then Anvil opened up, a cluster of plasma orbs streaking off into the night and momentarily drowning out everything else on Adah’s visor. The explosion a second later as the containment around the shots faded made everything else go black by comparison, save for two small pinpoints of blue light—the engines of the security VTOL as it weaved hard to get out of the path of the plasma.

Good. At least the plasma could make it back off. And it can’t gun us down with its cannon from too far out. It’ll need to be in stabbing distance with that gun.

The blue lights lifted, rising up into the sky and then arcing over the back of the lifter.

“Port side! Go!” Owl was already moving, opening the other side door as Adah arrived. She scanned her eyes over the dark horizon, searching for any sign of the security VTOL’s engines.

“Grab!” Adah barely had time to heed Ursa’s command before the world outside the aircraft lurched, the motion tugging her hard against the tie-down she’d locked her fingers against. Their ride banked and pivoted in the air, ground vanishing as the port-side door became open to nothing but sky.

Sky, and a familiar dark, angled shape. Like a predatory creature lurking in the night, the cannon at the front of its fuselage hunting for a target.

Adah fired, stitching several shots across the front of the aircraft. It juked to one side even as it returned fire, its tracer rounds contrasting to the duller gleam of her own laser fire.

Then the VTOL was gone, vanishing into the night, the deck lurching again as Ursa whipped them back on course. From the starboard side Anvil fired again, hanging out of the aircraft with one hand on the frame. Chaining flashes followed by dull cracks from their tail indicated that if nothing else, the shots were keeping their pursuer at bay.

At least until another series of hollow thuds echoed across the airframe, followed by a sharp bang that sent the cargo lifter lurching to one side.

“One engine down! We can stabilize, but we’re done for if we lose another!”

This isn’t working, Adah thought as the security VTOL dove across her view once more, soaking laser fire. We need heavier firepower. Owl’s laser cracked, a bolt of energy lashing out across the sky. We need—

A Gorka Uno. “Owl! One of my duffels has Unos in it!”

There was no hesitation on Owl’s part. She rose, slipping her rifle across her back and then diving for the duffels. “Which one?” She ripped one of the bags open, grenade shells scattering across the deck as their VTOL rolled to one side.

“The long one!” Owl was already scrabbling to open it as their ride pitched again, hollow thuds sounding as bullets tore through the skin of the aircraft. One of them narrowly missed her hand, punching a hole in the deck inches from it.

Again the VTOL pitched, dropping and lifting Adah’s gut as Ursa struggled to avoid their attacker. Adah leaned out the door, holding tight as the desert spun by beneath her, and fired, laser shots cracking across the sky.

“Got it!” Owl called, and a moment later she was at the hatch, the long shape of the Uno held in one hand. She dropped by the front of the hatch, driving the point of one boot into a tie-down and her opposing shoulder into the edge of the hatch. “Braced!”

“Ursa, we need to give Owl a clear shot out the port door. Be ready to give it. Anvil, drive it, but don’t hit our tail!”

“Got it!” The BFG opened up again, the sky lit with flashes of light. “She’s breaking!”

“Ursa!” The cargo lifter spun to the side, g-forces pulling at Adah’s body. But outside the hatch, she saw the faint glow of the security VTOL’s engines.

“Gotcha.”

Where the sound of the PR6-BFG was a rolling cascade of destruction breaking upon its target, the Gorka Uno was a titan’s fist breaking the sky in half by comparison. The sound of the hypersonic projectile firing overrode everything for a brief instant, and in that same passage of time, the right side of the security VTOL tailing them exploded, ceasing to exist in a catastrophic array of violence and light.

“It’s hit,” Adah said as the VTOL began to spin out of control, flaming pieces of its side flying in all directions. “We can—SHIT! Brace!”

She pulled herself back from the hatch as the flaming security VTOL rushed right toward them, its pilot either intending to take them with them or locked on a course they couldn’t prevent. A second later there was a titanic screech and sense of weightlessness, the rear of the cargo lifter buckling inward and coming apart in fire and flame.

“Brace! Brace! Bra—!”

The two aircraft slammed into the desert, and then everything became noise, metal, and pain, the world rolling and flipping around Adah as she lost her grip.

Then everything came to a blissful, merciful stop. For a moment she laid there, her mind feeling … slow … as it tried to catch up. Her brain felt hazy, like her thoughts were trying to slip through a thick fog. What happened? She was lying on her side, one armor twisted beneath her, and through the soup of her mind she could feel pain pushing at her senses.

Africa. Base. Cargo lifter. Crash. Crash!

We crashed! That means …

Adah opened her eyes, trying not to wince as pain stabbed through her skull. Her visor was still functioning, though at the moment it was blurry. Concussion. Definitely a concussion.

She was hearing things too. Scattering metallic pops. Metal settling. The world outside her view was growing clearer, but she wanted to see her hud first. That was the important thing.

Well … shit, she thought as the blinking alerts on her hud finally became clear. That’s not good.

Her armor had cracked in multiple places, but the worst of it appeared centered around her right arm and a spot around her hip. Now that her head felt clearer she could definitely tell that her arm was broken. And the puncture in her hip.

She could feel it. Something was in her, had punched through her skinsuit, slipping under the plate and tearing into the side of her hip.

More metal creaked, and the light she could see through her visor shifted. She shifted her focus, trying to look past her hud. Where did I end up? Bare, twisted metal and shadows were all she could see.

Then the world shifted, a pressure she hadn’t realized lay across her vanishing as it was pulled away, and she felt something touch her back.

“—me? Adah?”

It was Anvil, her voice coming over suit-to-suit contact channels, rather than her comms. So they were out, then. And that probably explains the concussion.

“Anvil?” It was hard to talk. The breath had been knocked out of her. Hopefully.

“Don’t move. I’m pulling your suit report now, on it?”

“I can do that.” She was pretty sure she’d said it out loud.

“Okay, your arm is broken, you’ve got a chunk of metal punching through your hip I don’t want to pull out, and you’ve probably got a concussion.”

“I do.”

“Right. Just gonna shift this here …” An armored arm came down in front of Adah, and then the fire burning in her hip became an inferno, hot enough that she gasped.

“Okay, you’re free. Just take it easy. Commander’s almost here. Don’t bother standing.” Armored hands shifted her, her vision rippling as pain tore through her, and then she was rising into the air.

“Easy Adah. I’ve got you.” It was Ursa. “Anvil, get that charge planted.”

Things were easier to focus on now. Anvil was carrying her in her arms out of the twisted remains of the cargo lifter. It was still recognizable as having once been an aircraft, but that was about it. Half its side had been torn away. Probably in the scar it and the other VTOL had left on impact.

They were in a low spot between the rocks. As Anvil turned, she saw the remains of the other aircraft. It had fared better in the crash, but was still a wreck. The pilot appeared to have ejected.

A faint whine sounded the arrival of the Stalker, slipping out of the night like the shadow of a whisper. It didn’t even land, simply holding position just off the ground. Adah caught sight of Owl limping toward it.

“Anvil. We have to burn the wreck. Make it hard to—“

“Anvil’s on it. She’s attaching her det packs to the batteries she stole for the BFG. They’ll never know we made it out.”

“Good.”

Anvil climbed aboard the Stalker and moved for the medical suite, folding down the scaffold table and gentle setting Adah down atop it. A moment later Anvil hopped aboard. One of them must have called for them to leave, because the desert outside the hatch tilted, dropping away.

The medical suite went to work, spindly arms removing her battered armor and syncing up with her suit. When it asked, she told it to connect her to the ship’s comm network. As a passive listener, but it beat not hearing anything.

“—teen seconds,” Anvil was saying. “They’ll see the boom.”

“Adah?”

“She’s on the table. Autodoc’s going to work. She’s still going to need an actual doctor, though. But we’re not going to lose her.”

“Good.” There was a clear tone of relief to the commander’s voice. “That was close.”

“Agreed. I could use some R&R after that,” Ursa said.

“You’ll get it. You all will. After that, you deserve it. And we’ve been paid enough not to work for a while.”

A few seconds later the viewscreens went white, and Adah saw Anvil nod. “There it goes.”

“No evidence. No wreck, either.”

“Nope,” Anvil replied. “Just a glassy crater. That’s a lot of energy going up. They’ll hear and feel that at the base.”

“And we got the data?” Adah asked. Then she frowned. Right. No two-way. She raised a hand, the auto-doc blaring warnings as she did so.

“Trouble?” Ursa asked, setting her hand on Adah’s shoulder.

“No. I don’t have comms. We got the data?”

“We got the data,” Ursa said. “And the autodoc wants you to ride this one off out.”

“Oh. Great.” She hadn’t even felt the prick, but already she could feel herself getting drowsy. “Fine, just get that data … delivered.”

“We will, Adah. You just sleep. You just—“

The world faded into blissful nothingness.


 

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 action, adventure, and mystery!

 

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

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