This is Episode 8 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.
Last One Out
Adah looked up in surprise as she saw Ursa walking back to her apartment in her skinsuit. “Back already?”
“It wasn’t a long flight,” Ursa replied, slowing and then stopping as they neared. “I think the commander was as eager to get that maniac out of our base as we were. Coming from the gym?”
Adah nodded, lowering her datapad and giving Ursa her full focus. “What gave it away?” she asked, waving one hand at her sport attire. “But yes, he was … unnerving. Still took the money, though. As sure as he seemed to be that we were all dead.”
“That doesn’t worry you?”
“Hell yes it worries me.” Adah flipped the pad around. “I’ve spent the last hour pulling information on this Director Bora through six anonymizers, and I do not like what I’ve found.”
“Which is?” Ursa asked.
She scowled. “Very, very little. Which for someone who is a director for UNSEC research and development, worries me even more. And what little I’ve found has been … potentially unnerving.”
“Hit me,” Ursa said, tilting her head in the direction of her quarters. “If that’s all right?”
Adah nodded and turned, walking with her. “Well, for starters Netra Bora is a genius. From India, and apparently acquired her first doctorate at the age of seventeen.”
“Not the youngest I’ve heard of, but still pretty young. What in?”
“Robotics. She acquired a second by the time she was twenty, in a related topic: Artificial Intelligence.”
“Like peanut-butter and chocolate, then.”
“Indeed. But here’s the thing: She wasn’t a very public individual. Apparently she doesn’t get along with people very well. One of her classmates said that she wasn’t at all surprised by Bora’s early doctorate, as she seemed to think all people were machines to do her bidding anyway. A roommate of hers described her as, and I quote …” She flipped to the highlight she’d made “’A cold, calculating witch of a human being who probably studied robots just to have someone as cold and inhuman as her.’”
“Her nickname at the university was ‘Bora Yaga.’”
“Like the Russian witch myth?”
“Yes, and not in a good way. If one quote about ‘the skulls of those who displeased her’ is even remotely indicative of how everyone saw her character. Though this doesn’t help.” She flipped the datapad around so that Ursa could see the image on it.
They stopped, Ursa’s eyes widening and then narrowing in shock. “You’re joking.”
“No. I am not.”
“She claims to have been paralyzed in a rare accident with damage that can’t be fixed.”
“Bullshit. No one’s needed a wheelchair in half a century. Give the UN some credit, they’re at least serious about making sure everyone gets decent medical care.”
“And yet there she sits,” Adah said, gesturing toward the image, which was of Netra Bora sitting with a thin-lipped frown on her face as she regarded a set of steps. “Since medical records are privately locked, no one has any choice but to simply take her word on it.”
Ursa frowned. “Did most countries ever get around to getting rid of laws about wheelchairs?”
“Nope,” Adah said, flipping the datapad back around. “No point, since most were part of disability laws.”
“And let me guess,” Ursa said as they started forward once more. “No one calls her out on using those laws to her advantage?”
“Oh, they do,” Adah said as they reached Ursa’s apartment, Adah following as Ursa stepped inside. A pleasant floral scent swept into her nose as she entered, and a moment later the source became clear. The bank of flowers from Ursa’s home islands that filled almost an entire wall of her sitting room. Flanked by artful bamboo trim.
“The flowers are doing well,” Adah commented, stepping closer to a colorful one and giving it a quick sniff. The scent was deep and almost fruity.
“Thanks.” Ursa moved further into the apartment, heading for her bedroom but leaving the door open. “So what else have you found out about this Bora lady? Any reason why she’d be the one with these people our client would be looking for?”
“Well,” Adah said, raising her voice as Ursa changed. “There isn’t much else. She started working for the UN as soon as she had her degrees—“
“That’s just it.” She shut the datapad display down. “We don’t know. No one does. She did a few minor, standard projects before getting scooped up by a higher-up and since then all that’s been listed is her promotions. She became a director about three or so years ago and hasn’t been seen since outside of official appearances.”
“So … black projects then.”
“Oh, it gets better.” She folded her arms as Ursa came out of her bedroom in a simple sundress. “Guess who recruited her?”
Ursa frowned. “Someone of note that’s a little infamous.”
“Try ‘very.’ The Director of UNSEC Security Operations herself: Syrah Eidre.”
Ursa stopped cold. “Son of a skag-humper.”
“Yeah,” Adah replied with a deadpan look. “That about sums it up.”
“I mean … Shit. You don’t mess with Eidre.”
“No. You don’t. Not without an escape plan to beat all the escape plans out there.”
“Does the commander know?”
“I don’t know. Probably not. Keeping up on who Eidre hires would be a broad subject, and most people don’t like bringing her up. You know that logistics base we hit a week ago?”
“Remember the Ascendency Uprising?”
“Yeah. It’s how they shut down that revolt …” Comprehension dawned on Ursa’s face. “That was Eidre?”
Adah nodded. “Eidre.”
Ursa looked angry now. “Twenty-five thousand people dead … just to make a point. I remember seeing that on the news.”
“I remember hearing about it. Bad business. And Eidre got a medal out of it in the end. Speaking of which …” She lifted her datapad once more. “Eidre was in the news again today.”
“More debates on what to do about Pisces?”
Ursa shook her head and wandered over into her kitchen, opening the fridge. “Figures. Want a drink?”
“I’ll pour you a glass if you catch me up. Debates?”
Adah nodded. “Yeah. Political jockeying, I think. Pisces will keep, and if you believe the UN reports grows less stable by the day.”
“I don’t, but I see the logic,” Ursa said, setting a glass of milk down atop the gigantic island in the middle of her kitchen. Concealing a grill that could roast a whole pig.
They’d done it. Several times.
“UNSEC has the fleets, has the shipping. They might be able to starve Pisces out even if the place isn’t a lawless zone like they claim,” Ursa continued, pouring herself a glass as well and leaning on the island. “I mean, even if the place is stable, the theory would be that they couldn’t hold off the UN, right?” She shook her head before Adah could reply. “Of course, everyone thought the same thing about the States back when they were British colonies.”
“True,” Adah said with a nod. “Though didn’t you say that film wasn’t that accurate?”
“It got a lot of things wrong, but not the victory. And it got things wrong on both sides,” Ursa said quickly. “No one had magazines or repeating rifles in the American Revolution. Vally Forged was fun, but it got that incredibly wrong. Washington wasn’t Native American either.”
Adah shrugged. “I don’t expect movies to get things right. When have they ever? It was still good.”
“That I don’t disagree with. And like I said, they got that part right. The states won.”
“You think Pisces is hoping to do the same thing?”
“Maybe. Depends how much history whoever’s in charge over there knows—if there is anyone in charge there. Either way, the UN can probably afford to wait.”
“Especially with problems here getting worse.”
“Hit me again,” Ursa said, smirking.
“Well, for starters the investigation into our hit on that logistics base found their scapegoat.” Adah flicked through the feed on her datapad. “Remember those two we thought might be smuggling?”
“There they are,” she said, projecting the image of the pair into the air and flipping it around. “We were right. They were smuggling. Looks like authorities are pinning our theft on them, despite there not being much of a link between what we stole and what they were smuggling.”
“ Banned religious texts. King James Bibles, Talmuds, uncensored Qurans, stuff like that.” She spun the image back. “The official story is that they were stealing weapons as well to supplement religious terrorism.”
“Load of bull. I feel bad for those guys though. Personally I don’t think they were doing anything wrong.”
“Me either. They just got caught.”
“Because we took a job.”
“That I don’t feel like grappling with today,” Adah said quickly. “I’ve got enough on my soul without worrying about that.”
“What about our job last night?”
“Officially the UN seems to be saying that it was a terrorist strike carried out by a megacorp. Which one they haven’t specified, but they have already chosen to blame megacorps as a whole for. In fairness, two have actually gone ahead and commented that they could do a lot more, indirectly claiming responsibility.”
“That’s pretty gutsy. It’s almost like they want a war.”
“They might get it. In all fairness, there were five raids last night, ours included. Two others from megacorps, and two from the UN.”
Ursa let out a faint hiss. “Good time for us to be getting out of work.”
Adah nodded, taking another sip from her drink. “Ultimately, I have to agree. Maybe even lay low somewhere other than the tower for awhile.”
“You think so?”
She frowned as she looked up from the tablet. “You know, I don’t know. But something about how … certain … that guy was last night, after he told our client what had happened to that woman … Something about it just left a bit of worry in my gut. I can’t place it, but it’s not going away.”
Ursa nodded. “And your gut usually is pretty on top of things.”
“Which makes me feel more alert.” She downed the rest of her glass, the milk sitting heavy in her stomach after her workout. “I’ll talk to Commander Castillo about it. But before I go …” She skipped through the feed. “You will appreciate this.”
She flipped the image around and Ursa let out a gasp as she saw it. “Is that—?”
“You surfing down the side of a megascraper and then landing on a train? Before hopping atop a peacekeeper VTOL and shooting it down while riding it? All clipped together from security footage? Yes to all three. You made it sound pretty good during the debriefing, but I kind of wish we’d had this footage then.”
“Send me a copy of that. I want my own.”
She tapped at the image. “Done. Thanks for the drink. I should probably clean up and go speak with the commander.”
“Flip it,” Ursa said quickly.
“Flip it,” she repeated, standing up and no longer leaning on the island. “Go speak with the commander, then get cleaned up. Just in case. Your gut thinks something’s wrong, and it’s usually right.”
Adah nodded. “All right. I’ll speak with her right now.”
“Thanks,” Ursa said. “And maybe I’ll think about going somewhere too. After I check out Anvil’s little project.”
“She got it running?”
“From the almost incoherent message I deciphered while I was stripping my armor off, yes. Granted, it was driving around the garage when I arrived. Made it a bit easier.”
“Guess I’ll have to come down and see it.”
“After you talk with the commander.”
She nodded. “After. Later, Ursa.”
She turned and left Ursa’s apartment, the nibble of worry still gnawing at her gut.
* * *
Well, Adah thought as she folded the last shirt into place atop her bag. That’s the packing done. She took another look at her closet, trying to decide if she should bring anything else along for her “vacation.” Nothing I can’t think about tomorrow before I leave. So now I can worry about the real problem: how to keep Uncle Tobias from telling me he was right all along.
She let out a sigh and flopped back onto her bed. The meeting with Commander Castillo had gone well. Almost to the degree of being unnecessary. The commander had already let a few of the more common client contacts know that the team would be out of reach until further notice, and had been in the process of crafting a polite but firm “not interested” message to a number of potential clients when Adah had interested. Showing her the information on Bora had only seemed to confirm the commander’s existing ideal that it was time for a break until hostilities eased somewhat.
She’d spent the rest of the day conversing with the team and figuring out where she would go next, before settling on a trip home if nothing else. From there? she thought, letting out another sigh. I don’t know. Besides, there’s a pretty high chance once I head home that mom and dad won’t want to see me leave.
Her thoughts shifted to the rest of the team. Owl, of course, would be sticking with Castillo. Ursa had mentioned going off-world—which given that her family lived on Mars made sense.
Mars … I’ve never been. But I could certainly afford the trip. Or maybe Luna? There were a number of resorts and parks there. A ticket to either is well within my range.
Of course, if things did boil over … I’d probably end up stuck there. Luna’s an even mix, so it would be anyone’s guess who they’d side with, while Mars would side with the UN officially but otherwise stay neutral.
Plus there are all those ships in system now. The count kept climbing as UNSEC recalled its various fleets from around human space. So I’d be stuck there if something did happen.
And hell, half the planet seems to be begging for something to happen. Much of it was propaganda, she knew, but … She lifted a hand, gesturing toward the display on her wall. “Viewscreen activate. UN News feeds. Mute.”
It took only a second for the display to come to life, displaying almost a dozen images at once, all silent. More than half of them seemed concerned with the tensions between the UN and the megacorp-run “free states.” And of those half, that same amount again were displaying “evidence” that the megacorps’ military forces couldn’t stand up to the might of the UN.
Idly she flicked a finger, selecting one of the channels and bringing it forward. “Viewscreen, active selection, unmute.”
“—irrefutable, Amy. The megacorps can not stand up to the power of UN peacekeepers. People living in these so-called ‘free states’ are little more than slaves, most wondering where their next meal is going to come from while the megacorps exploit the populace. They’re wracked by gang violence, they’re barely able to feed themselves most weeks, and we as the UN have a moral right to go in and put a stop to—“
“Viewscreen mute.” The man’s voice cut off. “Viewscreen, load free state news feeds.”
The images changed, bringing up a new, much more numerous array of feeds, many of them showing material that wasn’t too different from what she’d just been looking at, barring the obvious changes of branding.
She picked a screen at random and brought it forward. “Viewscreen, active selection, unmute.”
“—isn’t going to stop,” the talking head was saying. She looked perfect, but not too perfect. An artificial creation, like all the rest, pumped out by a computer with just the right amount of flaws to seem real. “They took SoulComp, they’re taking the US, and they’ll come for the rest of us too. For our children. For our freedoms.”
For your profits, Adah though, scowling. I’ve seen how people live in both places. Pretty much the same.
“The UN will stop at nothing to expand their vision of a universal, single seat of power. If the megacorps don’t defend us, we lose our freedom. The mobilization of megacorp forces is—”
“Viewscreen, turn off.” The image and voice vanished. One seat of power compared to what? To constant mergers and a CEO? With a board? Maximizing everything for their own gain?
Both sides want to fight because both sides are incompatible with one another. The UN can’t rule with megacorps running everything, and the megacorps can’t run everything with the UN calling all the shots and setting the rules. They’ve all played by the old rules for decades, but …
Neither of them want the olds rules to apply anymore either. Because they get in the way of power or profits or some combination of the two.
And if both don’t want the old rules to apply anymore …
She sighed again, and pushed herself up from the bed. Maybe all those revolts really do have it right. All they’re trying to do is govern themselves and be allowed to set their own rules. If those rules work, they work, if they don’t, well … That’s the risk.
But on Earth the rules are either those of the megacorps or the UN, she thought as she padded into her bathroom, grabbing her toothbrush and activating it. And you play by those rules, or you don’t play at all. Worse, neither set of rules is really in your favor. Unless you’re one of the top pieces, you’re a piece in someone else’s game.
She spit into the sink, washing the foamy residue down. And then there’s the few lucky enough to be somewhere in the middle, like us.
Not many of us, though. I’m blessed to have what I’ve got. She paused. Which is a pretty hefty paycheck for the last few weeks.
From money our two employers were spending like it didn’t matter. That bit worried her a little bit. It brought to mind Recife in the weeks before the revolutionaries arrived.
Half the people spending their money with abandon because they didn’t expect to need it in another week, the other half hording it as best they could to weather the storm, or for bribes.
She couldn’t really recall if either side had been right. But if we’re benefiting from the former …
She relieved herself, washed her hands, and walked out into the bedroom once more, enjoying the switch from bare tile to warm carpet beneath her feet. I guess I’m glad Castillo said she’d turn up the sensitivity of the security system tonight.
There was another though wriggling away at the back of her mind too as she stripped off her shirt and pants, slipping into her sheets. A thought that normally she could ignore, but lately had been voicing itself with more and more volume.
Maybe we’re just contributing to the problem? We’re not the cause, but we certainly benefit from it. Everyone has to make a living, but … maybe we’re just making it the wrong way?
No, maybe it’s for the wrong people? She scowled. I need to stop thinking about this. I’m sure to have plenty of discussion over it once I get home.
She tapped the controls for the lights by her bed, the room going dark, and then on a whim, brought the viewscreen back up, setting it to a beachfront view at night under an uncolonized moon. All digital, of course, but indistinguishable from the real thing. Closing her eyes, she said a quick prayer, shifted onto her side, and let the rolling waves carry her into sleep.
A warbling tone pulled her from her slumber, cutting through the fog of sleep and pulling her back to the waking world. She let out a meaningless mutter as she sat up, her mouth somewhat dry. The viewscreen was no longer showing its sedate nighttime beach, but rather an incoming video call from the commander.
A chill ran down her spine despite the warmth of the room. She … wouldn’t call this late … unless it was important. She grabbed a shirt from beside her bed, throwing it over her head and casting a glance at the nearest clock. Three-twenty in the morning?
Her gut gave a warning twist, pulling her further from her slumber as she stepped up to the viewscreen and tapped “Accept” to take the call. “Commander?”
Commander Castillo appeared on the screen, and Adah’s gut gave another little lurch. The commander was in the building communications hub rather than her own rooms, and fully clothed.
“Adah,” Castillo said. “Sorry to wake you, but I’m putting the whole team on alert. Get suited up and be ready.”
The cold chill magnified, pushing away her mental fog. “What happened?”
“Two minutes ago, a high-rise in the Corporate Dragon Bloc exploded. About six miles from where we dropped of our captive yesterday.”
Oh. “Is it related?”
Castillo shook her head. “I don’t know. But better safe then sorry. Suit up, grab your things, and—“ She cut off as a light began flashing, the commander’s eyes going wide with alarm. “Incoming! Get—“
A titanic boom seemed to fill her world, a wall of sound so all-encompassing she felt it in every pore, rippling over her and drowning out every word of the commander’s warning. The floor beneath her bucked, throwing her back onto her back, and she tucked her knees to her chest, rolling with the impact and springing back up on her feet.
The commander’s mouth was still moving, the image flickering slightly, but Adah couldn’t make out what she was saying over the muffled ringing in her ears.
She knew what it meant, though. The base was under attack.
There was a spare skinsuit in her closet, and she turned, stripping off her clothing as she ran for it. A tub of neural gel had been knocked off a shelf by an explosion, along with a number of other possessions, but she ignored all of them, scooping up the container and popping the cap off with a quick squeeze. She slapped a handful of gel onto one hip and shoved it down, coating her leg and foot. A second later she was shoving her foot into her skinsuit, one hand holding the suit in the right place while the other slathered more gel.
The floor shook again, a more distant boom echoing through her muffled, compressed hearing. Come on augments. Get those hairs up already!
She was halfway into her suit now, one arm slipping down the sleeve. Come on! She turned, but Castillo’s image had winked out, replaced by a simple text message.
UNKNOWN NUMBER HOSTILES. DEFENSES NOT REPELLING MISSILE STRIKES. COUNT 4 VTOLS. BREACHING HOLES TO INTERIOR. DEFEND.
Shit. If they were breaching holes but not raining missiles in on them, it was for one reason. They’re going to send in strike teams. The breaches are for entering.
She rapped her knuckles against the bottom of one of the shelves, pulling out a hidden shelf and plucking a loaded shotgun from it. We always wondered if someone would come for us. Time to make them pay in blood.
The cocked the shotgun, then moved over to her bed. A second compartment there held a FOX-7 SMG and a few basic, out-of-date composite plates she’d kept on hand just in case. Nothing that would give her full coverage, but enough to cover her chest and back and give her a limited carry capacity.
Breathe steady, she thought as she put the plates in place and docked the SMG. Her hearing was starting to come back, her ears feeling less like they’d been wrapped in plastic or stuffed with bells with each passing moment. The floor trembled once more, though she couldn’t hear the impact yet.
Her few plates loaded with as many magazines and shells as she could carry, she rose and moved to the viewscreen, waving away the message and instead bringing up the camera feeds from her own apartment.
Several of the feeds were dead, and it wasn’t hard to see why. Part of the exterior wall of the megascraper had been blown apart, her living room and office little more than devastated wrecks full of shredding furniture and buckled floorboards. The only reason the damage wasn’t more severe was because it had been so specific: she could just see the edges of a gaping hole to the outside world from the corner one of the remaining living room cameras.
And the dark, armor-clad figure jumping through it, a shotgun in their hands as the stalked past the shredded remains of Adah’s couch, broken plastic and glass cracking under their boots.
You’re. In. My. Home. She tapped at the viewscreen, going to a root menu and bringing up the controls for the whole apartment. I don’t care who you are—or your friends, she mentally added as another armored figure hopped in the hole. You’re not welcome here.
The figure jerked in surprise as all the house lights lit up to full brightness, then cut into darkness. Then lit again, back and forth at half-second intervals.
There, she thought, briefly flipping the viewscreen to the exterior cameras and seeing a glimpse of an exchange between the defensive emplacements and one of the attacking VTOLs. Mostly it was bright flashes of weapon fire against a dark cityscape.
She flipped the view back. A third figure had entered through the wreckage of her front room, and the first two were moving out, slowly but carefully heading deeper in.
Toward me. And her gut said it wasn’t a capture mission.
Carefully, she aimed her shotgun at the door to her bedroom. She’d closed it out of habit, but now she could see one of the figures on the viewscreen approaching the other side. He turned slightly, giving her a clear view of the patch on his armored shoulder. It was a UN patch.
Jahangir’s mad ramblings had been right.
She waited, carefully adjusting her aim as the first of the armored figures came to a stop just outside her door, pressing his body up against the wall. His fellow took place opposite him, and the first reached for something on his belt. A grenade. Flashbang or something else, she couldn’t tell. The pair nodded at one another as the first pulled the pin.
A standard breach, then. In two seconds the second figure would crack the door open, while the first would toss the flashbang in. It would detonate before it hit the ground, and the pair would sweep in, shooting everyone inside the room in the wake of the blast.
The first figure dropped the pin and she fired. Their head snapped to the side as the splinter rounds tore through the doorframe, puncturing the cheap material and the figure’s helmet with ease. They sagged, their body going limp even as their counterpart swiveled, turning to fire in the direction of the assault. But she was already moving, throwing herself to the side and covering her head as behind the door, the armed grenade dropped from lifeless fingers.
She heard the bang as the grenade went off. Felt it too, as well as caught the imprint of the flash through tightly closed eyes. As soon as the color faded she was on her feet, rushing for the door and firing as quickly as she could at the second intruder. She saw them slump to the ground through the ragged holes in what was left of her door, the rapid firing of splinter rounds too many for even their heavy armor.
Go! She smashed through the door, tossing the now-empty Mossberg to one side and batting away the dying attacker’s feeble attempt to aim their gun at her. Blood stained the wall of the hallway behind them. Her shots looked to have torn through his chest cavity. Only chemicals and their armor were keeping them alive. Their grip tightened around their gun, but it wasn’t the weapon she was interested in. As the third figure appeared around the end of the hall, their weapon up and ready, she threw all three of her attacker’s grenades down the hall, ducking behind the rapidly dying body as the third figure opened fire.
A second later, a cascade of sharp bangs resonated in her chest, the hallway lighting up once more, and she shoved herself out from behind her slumped cover, her SMG spewing fire.
One of the grenades had been a frag, she realized as she saw the perforated remains of the hall. Even at point blank range, the third attacker’s armor had deflected most of the explosion.
Most. She could see spots of blood between the plates of their suit. Not that it mattered as she walked her fire into the figure’s visor. The figure’s armor was good, good enough that it appeared even her armor-piercing ammunition was having trouble penetrating … but even the best visor in the world was still a weak point.
Except … he didn’t have one. Her shots staggered the figure back, but where most helmets had a visor of some kind, her attackers was nothing more than slightly depressed armor.
Shit! Full coverage armor!
She kept her finger on the trigger until the magazine ran dry, her attacker stumbling back as she worked the rounds over their head. She pushed herself up as soon as the magazine ejected, ready to throw herself through the nearest doorway … but the figure toppled back, landing in a limp tangle on the ground.
She slammed a new magazine in, holding her aim on the armored figure as she approached. A few twitches broke the stillness, but she didn’t lower her aim until she caught sight of the small hole one of her shots had punched in their helmet, smashing through one of the few weakpoints to cleave their skull apart.
She glanced back at the other two corpses. Both of them were wearing similarly armored helms. A cold shiver ran down her back. I just got very lucky.
A closer look at the second soldier, the one she’d taken cover behind, showed why they hadn’t attacked her. A series of shots had slammed right into the side of his head. His own teammate killed him trying to get to me, Adah thought as she eyed the damaged armor.
Someone really wants us dead.
She rose, rushing to the end of the hall and taking a quick peek through the open rift to the out world. She couldn’t see anything, but she could at least hear the wind tearing at the ragged edges. Her hearing was almost back.
Armory. She had her own, as did each of them. A backup. Just in case. In her own it was little more than a hall closet—one her attackers had already passed by—but that was enough. She tore the door open as quickly as she could, eyeing the array of weapons and gear but quickly fixing on the most important one.
Headset. It wasn’t a helmet. Not like her armor. But it was better than nothing. A filter and comm system synced to the megascraper network, and she slipped it over her cheeks. Given the dust and smoke in the air from the brief firefight, it was better than nothing.
“Commander, this is Adah,” she said as the headset synced up. “What’s—“
“You’re alive!” The commander’s voice was tinny, but audible. “We’re being overrun. They’ve already breached the upper levels. Defenses are down. Get to the garage and get out. Any way you can.”
“Do it!” Even with her hearing damage she could hear the steel in Castillo’s voice. “That’s a direct order!” Anvil and Ursa are already on their way. I couldn’t reach Owl. Be aware that we have breaches on multiple levels. I’ll try to meet you at the bottom. Copy?”
“Copy.” There was a tightness in her chest. “Commander, the attackers are wearing UN insignia.”
“I’m aware. Get to the garage. Castillo out.” The comm channel closed. Deactivated.
Shit. For a moment the room felt unsteady. We’re pulling out. Abandoning our home.
The floor shook again. And with good reason.
She retrieved her shotgun, loading it with shells once more and exhausting her supply of splinter rounds. She took several more magazines for the FOX-7 as well, stuffing them into a bag she could throw over one shoulder. Get to the garage. Which route? And do I go back for the commander?
But no, her orders had been to head down, not up. Stairs then. But not the main stairs. And the elevators will be shut down. And both would be prime targets for the kill squads that there were likely more of sweeping the building with each passing moment.
She had to decide, and fast. She slammed the armory doors shut with a bang. At least her hearing was coming back, though still muffled.
The elevator is the most tempting, even without using a car. But that’d be the same thing I’d watch for if I were attacking, she thought. And while a stairwell can become a killbox, it can also be hard to catch someone once they’ve broken through a line. If I can get there before there’s a killbox set up …
She ran across the shattered remains of her living room, trying not to flinch as the strobing lights highlighted shattered photo frames and destroyed knickknacks. They were just things, but at the same time.
They were my things, she thought as she reached the front door and slid up the wall alongside it, FOX-7 at the ready. Assholes.
She reached her free hand toward the door, only for it to explode inward, a figure letting out a kamikaze cry as they barreled in the entryway, their gun leading the charge.
The glimpse of the gun was the only thing that kept Adah’s trigger finger from hosing the figure down in automatic fire. The brief decision backed up as soon as she caught sight of the woman’s short stature and manic grin. “Anvil?”
Anvil whipped around. Blood stained her shirt and face, and Adah had a sudden suspicion it didn’t belong to her. “Adah! There you are! I came looking for you once the fight started.” She shifted the giant weapon she was holding—a heavily modified anti-material rifle with a shortened barrel at a guess—and shook her head. “A FOX-7? Really? The Mossberg I get, but why a seven?”
“Hey, it was a holdout. Have you spoken with the commander?”
“Just in my room when the fighting started.” She told me to head for the garage, but I figured I’d try and gather the team first.”
“Well, I won’t argue,” Adah said, poking her head out into the dimly lit hall. Two more armored figures were lying in middle of the hall, blood and viscera coating the space behind them. “How’d those two get in?”
“They came out of the stairwell while I was coming for you.” Anvil stepped past her, into the hall. “Come on, let’s find Owl and Ursa. We stand a better chance together.”
Adah nodded. “If you shot them, where’d the blood come from?”
“A breach in my apartment,” Anvil said. “You know the neck seal on a skinsuit? It’s not nearly as tough to rip open as they claim.” One of her hands, Adah noted, was also bloody. “I’d feel worse if the crouper hadn’t just blown half my armory away.”
They moved down the hallway at a quick jog, slowing as they neared the center intersection. They had almost reached it when a faint hum filled the air. “Drone!”
They both broke to opposite sides of the hall as the robotic drone flitted around the corner, all angles and hard edges.
And guns. Low powered ones, but still with enough force to puncture a skinsuit if given time. Or bare flesh.
She opened up, walking her hipfired shots into the angled forward face of the drone and watching as they bit deep into its … armor?
The hell kind of drone is this? It slid back in the air, opening up in return, and she felt several heavy impacts strike her right leg as the machine walked its shots past her. Then something inside the drone gave out, its tiny engines cutting out with a sudden whine and shower of sparks. It fell to the floor, engines winding down.
“We need to move,” she said, taking a step forward but then pausing. The whine was back, but rather than a whine it sounded almost like a warning siren. Lines of light along the length of the drone began to flash, and her eyes went wide.
“Run!” She turned and bolted, putting as much of her body in front of Anvil as she could as they both ran back down the hall. She tucked her head low, and moment later there was a loud crack as the drone detonated. A series of snapping impacts against her back and legs sent a flash of panic through her, but there was no matching sharp sting of pain. Just the feeling of impact.
“You okay?” she asked as she skidded to a halt.
“Fine,” Anvil said. “Never seen a combat drone do that before.”
Adah nodded. “Must be new. And right up against the restrictions on automated warfare.” She began to retrace the steps they’d just lost. “Come on. It’ll have signaled its handlers.”
They neared the intersection once more, covering one another as they made quick, harried glances around each corner. Both were empty.
“Do you know if Ursa or Owl were in their rooms?”
“No,” Anvil said with a shake of her head. “Wait … Ursa said something about talking to her family. She uses the official comm gear for that.”
One level up.
“And Owl said she was going out for something. Not sure what.”
“She might be all right then.” Adah knelt by the remains of the drone. The lines of the self-destruct it had activated were openly visible, as was the faint heat from the shattered unit’s power cell. She reached into one of the gaps and grabbed at a bit of circuitry.
“Shove it in your pocket,” she said, passing the piece to Anvil. “Just in case.”
They moved for the stairs, and were halfway down the hall when the door to Owl’s room burst open, two grenades rolling out. Adah threw herself back, firing blindly as the twin flashbang detonated, her magazine going dry within moments of her opening fire.
Shit! Even through her tightly closed eyes the flash had been almost blinding. She groped for a spare magazine. Any second now their attackers would come through the door.
A titanic boom filled the hallway, a shockwave hammering at her chest and face and ruffling her short hair.
So much for my hearing, she thought, opening her eyes at last and blinking away splotches of color. Gunfire hadn’t hit her yet. Her fingers found a magazine and she slammed it into the FOX-7, racking the lever back and loading the weapon. Only …
Anvil’s shot had taken out the target first. Another armored figure was crumpled against the doorframe, a gaping hole in the center of their mass showing exactly where her shot had struck. As well as the wall behind him, which now sported a long gash where the continuing shot had ripped through it.
Anvil yelled something, but her hearing was still muffled by the ringing, so she shook her head. Anvil nodded and signaled. “One target, door, maybe more.”
Right. She pointed at the door the stairs, and then held up a grenade. We move past. If there were soldiers in Owl’s room still, then she was probably already dead if she hadn’t joined them by now.
Anvil nodded, and she tossed primed one of the flashbangs, tossing it at the still-open doorway. She shut her eyes and covered them, charging forward even as the first grenade blew. She opened her eyes just enough to toss the second one through the opening as they passed it by, and once more shielded herself from the detonation.
Then they were at the doors to the stairwell, and she shoved them open, rushing it almost blindly, Anvil hot on her heels. She slammed them shut, spinning to cover both them and the stairs on either side of the landing.
Anvil reacted to something, snapping her massive gun upward. Adah mimicked the maneuver, and a moment later a tumble of limbs and armor slammed around the corner of the next landing, a familiar figure on top. With growling grimace that had to be a howl, Ursa slammed her attacker’s armored helm down with both hands atop the edge of the landing, the next twisting at an awkward angle. The body convulsed as she gave the helmet a final, sickening twist to one side, and then went still.
Ursa sank back, and only then did Adah notice her injuries. She was bleeding from several bullet wounds on her arm and side, and one of her fingers looked like it had been bent completely out of position.
“Hey,” she said, offering them a wave as she leaned down and drew her dead foe’s knife. “We’re under attack.” Her voice was muffled, but once again sound was returning.
“Yeah, we know,” Anvil said. “You okay?”
“I’ll be fine,” Ursa said, though she swayed as she said it. “What are you two doing?”
“Garage,” Adah said. “We’re rabbiting.”
Ursa shook her head, swaying slightly again but still managing to walk down the steps. “Fire escapes.”
“Drop right down. Closest one is next to the elevators.”
“I didn’t think of that,” Adah said, passing Ursa the Mossberg. “You going to be all right?”
“I’ll be fine,” Ursa said. “Only one tough as me is Anvil.” She glanced in Anvil’s direction, then at her weapon. “Planning on killing a tank?”
“If I have to. Works better than hands.”
Ursa shrugged. “You use the tools you’ve got. I left two more in the comm center.” A faint, familiar whine began to echo up the stairwell, and she frowned. “Drones?”
“Go,” Adah said, motioning both of them toward the door as she drew the last two grenades she’d collected from her bag. “I’ll slow them.”
She leaned out over the narrow gap of the stairwell, both grenades in one hand. She pulled both pins and dropped the mix immediately, turning and following Anvil and Ursa back into the hall. Faint detonations sounded behind her. Hope that slows them down.
The hallway was still clear as they moved into it, but they took no chances, covering one another and slowing by the intersection. You think they’d send in more troops once they knew where we were.
As if to answer her thoughts, more whines filled the air, and a trio of drones slipped out of the door to her apartment, all of them spinning and catching sight of the group.
She fired, her shots cutting into one of the drones and knocking it to the ground. Anvil fired as well, her own shot missing but blowing a hole out of the viewscreen at the end of the hall.
Then the drones opened up, and Adah threw herself to the ground, landing on her back so that her exposed head was somewhat protected by the rest of her skinsuit clad body. She fired again, one of the drones ducking to the side and catching only a few stray shots that bit into its armor but didn’t do any harm.
The hell are these things made of? she thought as one of them opened fire again, letting out a short burst before another shot from Anvil’s AMR split it in two. The last one charged forward toward their position, rushing at them until combined fire from Adah’s FOX-7 and Ursa’s Mossberg took it down.
It crashed to the floor, and as if a signal had been sent, both it and the drone that hadn’t been cut in half began to emit telltale whines. Adah twisted so her back was toward the drones, tucking her body into a ball a second before they both detonated. A series of rapid impacts against her back mixed with one stinging sensation in her right lower back let her know that the tactic had mostly worked.
She uncurled herself just as quickly, looking for Anvil and Ursa. Both poked their heads around the corner of the intersection.
“That’s new,” Ursa remarked. “You all right?”
“Fine.” She pushed herself up, ignoring the hot flash of pain from her back. “Minor injury. Fire escape. Let’s go.”
Should have thought of this on my own, she noted as they neared the elevators. Though at the same time, she wasn’t surprised that she hadn’t. Installed during their modifications, the fire escape chutes used one of the empty elevator shafts that the megascraper had never finished. I don’t think I’ve looked twice at that panel since we installed it, she thought as Ursa ripped the small emergency covering aside. Behind it was a dimly lit hole covered by a stretchy-looking material.
“Great,” Anvil said. “Now if I die, it’ll be in a building’s sphincter.”
“I wasn’t going to say anything,” Ursa added. “But yeah.”
“Ursa, go first, then Anvil,” Adah ordered. “I’ll follow.” A familiar whine echoed down the hall. “Go!”
Ursa grabbed a bar above the hole with one hand, the other holding her shotgun, and swung her legs and upper body through the opening. She let go, vanishing with a faint woosh as gravity took over. Anvil went next, diving headfirst through the opening, feet disappearing with the same sound.
The whine was getting closer. For a brief instant she contemplated trying to reattach the emergency panel, but cast the idea aside as she saw the warped metal. It hadn’t been made with that in mind. Instead she docked her SMG across her back, grabbed the bar, and swung herself into the stretchy material.
It was cooler than she’d expected it to be, and slicker. Which only made her think further on Anvil’s comment that it was a sphincter.
It was also, however, fast. She could see the faint lights of each floor passing by as she dropped lower and lower into the bow—depths of the megascraper.
Wait. She wiped a hand against the side of the tunnel and looked at it. That doesn’t just feel slick. That’s blood.
Great. She was probably leaving her own trail of it as well, adding to the mess. I guess I’m glad we don’t have to clean it up.
The tunnel abruptly constricted, slowing her speed until without warning it gave way around her, dropping her onto a large air cushion that let out a heavy whuff as she hit it.
Two blood tracks showed where Anvil and Ursa had pulled themselves off the pad, and she followed, rolling and landing on bare concrete. The lighting around her was dim, everything shadowed and dark, the only sources of illumination the level marker LEDs running up the shaft and what was coming in through the slit surface of a nearby vent.
Which wasn’t much considering that Ursa’s broad shoulders were over most of it, the woman having pulled herself up by her fingertips to get a look through the grate.
“It’s not good,” she said in low tones as she lowered herself back down.
“They waiting for us?” Adah asked.
Ursa nodded. “At least two-dozen. Maybe more. Killbox positions. We come out that door—“ she nodded in the direction of the nearby emergency exit, “—and they’re going to open up. Same for the stairway exits and the actual elevator.”
“Any sign of Owl?”
Again Ursa shook her head. “They also have heavy weapon emplacements set up. Rush job, but competent.”
“Shit.” She closed her eyes, trying to mentally sort through everything. There’s got to be some way out of this. Something! But I’d need to see positions, formulate a strategy. Maybe we can climb up the shaft, leave a level early? They’d blocked off all the old ground-level entrances quite thoroughly, but maybe …
“Have they done anything to our equipment? Does the Stalker look touched?”
Ursa shook her head. “Nothing I noticed. Just a few dozen troops all covering one another.”
“I need to see their positions.” She started forward toward the grate, only for Anvil to step in front of her with one upraised hand.
“No,” she said. “I need to see something.” Without explanation she hopped up, gripping the lip of the vent and raising herself until she could see. “Bad news,” she said after a moment, turning her head back toward Adah and dropping down. “They’re looking this way. I think they figured out where we went. That or they have good scanners. They’ve also got drones coming in through one of the exit tunnels.”
Adah’s gut twitched again, but there was something to the expression in Anvil’s eyes that didn’t match the news she’d just delivered. “And you’re smiling because?”
“Because we’ve got an asset they don’t,” Anvil said, pulling a phone from her pocket and tapping at the screen. “It’s going to get loud, and then it’s going to get crazy. Get ready.”
Adah glanced at Ursa but nodded, moving over to the door. Through the vent there was a sudden whine.
Then there was a boom that made Anvil’s rifle sound quiet, the walls and door shaking as if a bolt of lightning had just ripped the garage in two.
For a second everything went bizarrely quiet, a strange calm settling over everything. Then the silence was gone as dozens of weapons opened up, firing with abandon.
What did she do!? Adah glanced at Anvil to see her shake her head and signal for them to stay. More gunfire erupted outside. Did she detonate a warhead?
Then a sound rose over the roar of gunfire, a familiar rhythmic metal squeal, and her jaw dropped. Ursa seemed to have figured it out as well, though her expression was one of pure glee.
Her tank! She’s controlling it!
Another world-shattering boom echoed through the elevator shaft as the Abrams fired again, concrete shaking beneath Adah’s feet as something in the garage took the brunt of the tank’s main gun.
“That’s the second heavy emplacement,” Anvil said. “If we’re going to move, we’re going to need to do it now!” She tossed Ursa her rifle. “I have to drive.” The display on her phone jumped into the air. “Hug right for the exit.”
“No.,” Adah said quickly. “Not the exits. The Stalker. We use the long tunnel. We fly out. We have a better chance making it out of the city.” Anvil and Ursa both nodded. “Let’s go.”
Ursa kicked the door open, and they rushed out into chaos.
Anvil’s tank was rolling over the UN soldiers, spitting fire from both of its heavy MGs while attempting to run some of them down. Or at the very least crushing anything they might have been taking cover behind. Several mangled corpses on the floor showed where the tank’s speed had caught its targets by surprise. Two massive holes in the far wall of the garage showed where the shots from its main gun had hit as well.
At least, what little could be seen through the dust and smoke. Adah fired, catching a distracted UN soldier in the back as they moved along the far wall. The soldier turned, but Ursa opened up as well, the pair of them staggering their shots until several got through. The armored figure opted for cover rather than taking fire from both of them.
“Down!” Adah dove as she heard Anvil’s cry of warning. A moment later the Abrams fired again, the force of its main gun both firing and impacting in such an enclosed space like blow across every inch of her body. They were up and running again in an instant, firing at everyone who seemed to glance in their direction.
It was pure chaos. The soldiers didn’t appear to have brought any anti-armor weaponry, and despite the tank’s age it was dealing a significant amount of damage. But no anti-armor weaponry didn’t mean that the tank’s age wasn’t already beginning to show, cracks and holes appearing all across its face as the UN forces concentrated their fire.
But it’s doing its job. They were halfway across the garage now, surrounded by dust and smoke, some of which seemed to have come from smoke grenades that someone had lobbed all over the garage.
Did the Abrams have a smoke package? Or maybe they had come from some quick-thinking UN soldiers.
An armored figure appeared out of the smoke and Ursa fired, cutting them down with Anvil’s rifle. Bent, broken forms of armor racks and equipment moved in and out of the smoke.
“Down!” Again the tank fired, smoke and dust swirling under the reverberations of its main gun. A section of lights went out, plunging part of the garage into darkness.
Almost there … She cut down a drone as it flew across their path, the machine smashing across a workbench and tumbling out of sight.
“Owl!” Adah followed Ursa’s pointing finger to see Owl ducking out of one of the stairwells across the garage. Her dress was torn and dirty, and she was holding one of the UN rifles.
Unfortunately, she was also on the other side of the garage, near the Abrams, and was forced to duck back into the doorway as a cascade of fire swept in her direction.
“Stalker!” Adah shouted, making a snap decision. “We can cover her!” They were almost there now, but there was a lot of open ground between—
A shot slammed into her side, just barely bouncing off the armor as across the garage, reinforcements appeared to have arrived, a number of them taking aim.
“Go!” Maybe she had said it, maybe she hadn’t, but each of them acted anyway, tearing across the open concrete of the pad and rushing for the Stalker. A bullet struck Ursa in the arm, and she dropped her shotgun, stumbling slightly but still rushing forward. Go! Two more impacts struck against her side, one feeling like a blunt impact but the other coming with a spike of sharp pain—
Then they were next to the VTOL, Ursa casting Anvil’s rifle aside and almost punching the door controls. Bullets began slam into the far side, then skip off the pavement by their feet as they hopped up and inside.
“I’ll fly,” Ursa said, moving for the door to the cockpit.
“No,” a voice said from the intercom. Castillo. “I will. We’re getting you all out!” The deck vibrated as the engines wound up, the VTOL lifting from the concrete a second later.
Adah slapped her hand over the intercom. “Owl’s in the north stairwell and pinned!”
The Stalker spun in the air, pirouetting and angling toward the north stairs. A moment later the telltale rumble of the Stalker’s nose gun joined the storm of sound filling the garage, the VTOL jetting forward at the same time.
They passed by Anvil’s tank rolling in the other direction. The machine had taken a beating, the pintle gun little more than scrap, its armor battered to hell and back.
The VTOL rolled as they neared the floor of the garage, Adah ripping open the port door and gesturing to Owl. A storm of fire swept in Owl’s direction as she leaped toward the open door, one bullet catching her in the shoulder and throwing her leap into a tumble.
Adah caught Owl’s hand in hers, pulling and throwing her weight back to yank her aboard. “Got her! Go!” she shouted as she slammed into the deck, Owl half-landing on top of her. The VTOL roared, shooting across the garage and down one of the exit tunnels. Both side doors slid shut , cutting off the outside world.
“All right, Freelance,” Castillo’s voice said over the intercom. “I’m getting you out of here.”
“Not without you,” Adah replied, pushing herself up and glancing at Owl’s injuries. Dangerous, but not threatening. “Meet us on the roof.”
Owl’s expression turned to confusion. “She’s not on board?” She turned her face upward. “Why are you not onboard?
“Negative, Adah,” Castillo said, and there was a weight to her words, the very pronouncement sounding aged. “They’ve got at least six VTOLs covering the skyline, maybe more. All our defenses are down. You need to get out of—“
“Not without you!” Owl’s shout filled the cabin. She was glaring at the ceiling now, fists clenched.
“The defenses are down, and they’re not going to—Wait … Something’s wrong. They’re pulling the VTOL’s back.”
“Then we can come get you,” Owl said, moving for the door to the cockpit. “Bring us ba—“
“No.” The heaviness behind Castillo’s words seemed to hit Owl like a shot to the gut, the woman stumbling. “No you can’t.”
The viewscreen at the front of the cabin came to life, filling with Castillo’s visage. Blood marred her face, and in the background Adah could see several dead UN soldiers piled against the door to the communications center.
“You do this job long enough, and you’ll have to make the hard choices,” Castillo said, closing her eyes for a moment. “I … I got lucky once. Sometimes …” She closed her mouth.
Owl stepped up to the viewscreen. “No.” Her voice was a whisper.
“I want you all to know what an honor it was serving as your commander,” Castillo said. “You four are some of the best damn soldiers I’ve ever known or had the pleasure of leading. Get out, go to ground, and hide. Stay safe. Stay alive.”
“No.” Owl’s voice had risen in volume. “No!” She slammed a hand against the viewscreen, the image flickering under her fist.
Around them the rest of the viewscreens came to life, showing the outside of the VTOL as it left the concealed tunnel exit. Behind them, Adah could see the megascraper, standing against the skyline of the city.
“Owl.” Castillo’s words seemed to hit Owl like a slap. “I’m so glad I found you. You saved me, por maybe we saved each other. I lo—“
Something hot and white shot across the city at high speed and slammed into the base, detonating in a white flash that lit the sky.
The forward viewscreen went blank, the VTOL rocking slightly as the automatic pilot took over.
“No!” Owl sank to the deck. Adah stared at Ursa and Anvil in shock as behind them the megascraper crumbled, flame and fire spewing into the night.
The VTOL flew on through the night, silent.
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.