Fireteam Freelance Episode 10: Swift Tilt

This is Episode 10 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.

Swift Tilt

“Hey,” Anvil said, catching the attention of the megacorp woman as they both headed for the large, circular room on the first floor. “You.” The woman turned, her expression hesitant and maybe even a little fearful. Good.

“Yes?”

Anvil slowed to a stop.  “Saw you come to the door of the kitchen last night. Don’t know if the rest of the team did. But just saying thanks for not intruding, on it.”

The woman—Apatos—nodded quickly. “It looked … private.”

“It was. So even though you’re a crouper—even one we’ve worked for before–I’m saying thanks.”

“You’re welcome,” the reply was quick. Almost too quick. But then again …

She’s hired us. She knows who I am. And that I can break her in half without even trying. The faint bruises around the woman’s neck where Owl had grabbed her the day before certainly bore testament to that. She’s a wrangler, not a doer. I make her nervous, because she knows she’s not in control.

At the same time. I could toss her a bit to gnaw on, couldn’t I? “If you want to talk about the commander with us later, you probably could. Since you were her old friend, after all. On it?”

“Thank you,” Apatos replied. “I may take you up on that. If nothing else, I’d like someone else to know what she did for me. Other than myself. You four, being so close with her, seem fitting.”

“Oh?” Anvil cocked on brow at her. “And what’d she do, on it?”

“She told me no.”

Anvil froze partway through turning to move toward the main room. “Say what?”

“She told me no,” Apatos repeated, before tilting her head down the hall in a clear invitation to move toward the main room. “It was a good lesson.”

“Right,” Anvil said, matching the woman’s pace. “I’m assuming there was more to it than that?”

“I wasn’t head of operational security then,” Apatos replied. “Though I was on my way. I had a particular element that needed to be taken care of, and quickly. A requirement was a pilot. Valerie was free, and capable. However, when I contacted her, she told me that you didn’t do that kind of work.”

“How’d you react?”

“Like a ‘crouper,’ I think you’d put it. I doubled my offer, then tripled it. Then I threatened her. Blacklist.”

Anvil let out a snort. “Went well for your high and mighty ass, on it?”

“She retorted that if my company was foolish enough to blacklist her, then it was proof well enough that none of our work would ever be worth her services.” Apatos fell silent.

“And?”

“And … she never took the job,” Apatos admitted. “I gave it to another private organization, and that was that. Or rather, it would have been had Valerie’s stance not stuck with me. I didn’t get it. I couldn’t. I’d offered money, and then more money, but I got the sense that even if I’d threatened to have her killed, she simply would have laughed in my face.”

“When I finally contacted her again, a week later,” Apatos continued, slowing as the end of the hall neared. “It was clear from the beginning that while her actions had bothered me, they had meant little to her. We exchanged some … choice words on the matter, and I realized that I respected her, because she had something I didn’t, though I couldn’t have said what it was. I suppose now I would call it autonomy. Or perhaps a better sense of self. Either way, while I was never as close to her as any of you, I still count her as one of my few friends.”

“So,” she said, her tone shifting slightly as they stepped into the main room. “If this operation allows me to get revenge on her killer, I’ll consider that a very welcome bonus.”

Owl and Adah were already in the main room, both of them looking up as Anvil and Apatos arrived. “Where’s Ursa?” Anvil asked.

“Getting her injuries checked to see how well they’re healing,” Adah answered. “Have you—“

“Already taken care of,” Anvil said. “Healing fine. Leonidas package.”

“It was good to check all the same,” Adah replied as Anvil tossed herself atop one of the couches, sinking into the leather. Then Adah turned toward Apatos. “Thank you for not intruding last night.”

So I wasn’t the only one that noticed.

“You’re welcome. You all looked as though you needed the rest anyway.”

“You got that right,” Anvil said, stretching herself out atop the couch, her head hanging over one arm. “Just because we can go without sleep doesn’t mean I like it.” She glanced around the room, her gaze honing in on Owl and stalling for a moment. “Right Owl?”

“Yeah.”

Shit. She caught herself before she could frown. She needs more time. “So …” she said, dropping her legs to the ground and sitting mostly upright. “Who’re we planning to kill today?”

“Not yet,” Adah said. “Ursa’s not here yet.”

“No no.” Ursa’s voice echoed from another hall, the woman stepping out and giving them a quick ‘hello’ with one hand. “I’m here. Let’s hear it. The big plan.”

Apatos nodded as Ursa took a seat. Anvil leaned over the gap between the couches and held out her elbow, getting a bump in return. The light coming off the bay outside the windows dimmed as Apatos adjusted their tint. A moment later the display emitters fired up, motes of colored light swirling together in the air above them.

“Director Netra Bora,” Apatos said as another image of the woman appeared, dated a decade or so earlier, when the woman had been a student. “Our target. Unfortunately, with her rapid rise inside the UN, there’s not a lot of public information available on her, and what little I or my partner have been able to ferret out isn’t much different from what’s public.” The image changed, shifting to a close-up of Bora at a UN general assembly meeting, sitting in her wheelchair.

“You got the nickname, on it?” Anvil asked. “Bora Yaga?”

Apatos nodded. “We did. So you have studied her.”

“There wasn’t much to find,” Adah answered. “But we are aware that her  position came about because of Syrah Eidre. And that she’s a genius.”

Apatos nodded. “Good, then you’ve likely already surmised that she’s dangerous. My partner and I, in pooling our resources, have been able to gather a bit more, however. Such as this clip …” The image above her swirled, reforming into still of Bora speaking at a podium, backed by neural armor-clad guards in black-and-blue coloration. “Which was one of her recent appearances.”

The image began to move, Bora speaking. “—simply a matter of logic,” she said. Her voice was flat, almost bored, like she couldn’t be bothered with the people she was speaking to. “The weaker elements of humanity will always prove to be the harshest barrier toward any elements of human achievement. A strong hand is needed to shepherd those elements. To guide them, push them, or sequester them as necessary. Left to our own, we squabble over foolish and conflicting ideals, squander time and resources in pursuit of foolish ventures. Freedoms, improperly focused, give rise to hedonism and selfishness, while the ideals we present, as the guardians of humanity, can be used to—“

Mega-crouper, Anvil thought, scowling as the woman continued her speech. Spoken like someone who loves power, and lots of it.

I wonder how the UN got to her first? Bet the megacorps would have loved to have her. But then again, her demeanor isn’t exactly friendly. Maybe no one wanted to share a board with her.

She almost chuckled. Then again, now she’s apparently in charge of black site, so maybe no-one in the UN wanted to associate with her either.

Bora was still speaking, now referring to recent “police actions” taken by both the megacorps and the UN and comparing their “effectiveness.” Her words were clipped and precise, as if sculpted by a laser, and with about the same amount of emotion.

Somehow, Anvil felt her eyes slide to the twin guards behind her. Never seen armor like that before. Huh. Something about the way the pair was standing drew her focus in, so much so that it took her a moment to realize that the recording had stopped.

“That was part of a speech given at her most recent public appearance,” Apatos said as the image faded away. “About four months ago. The topic was—“

“Hold up,” Anvil said, cutting her off. “Replay it? You can turn the sound off.” Apatos’ forehead creased, but she tapped at her pad, and the video began to play again, Bora’s mouth moving silently.

“Anyone else notice her guards?” Anvil asked. “They’re different.”

“I did,” Ursa said. Adah and Owl both nodded. “They’re not like any guards I’ve ever seen before.”

“Or armor,” Adah added.

“They’re very … odd,” Owl added. “Look how still they are, even at attention.”

“Some form of elite escort, maybe?”

“I’ve never seen armor paneling like that. You can hardly see the skinsuit.”

“Different coloration, too, on it?” Anvil said as one of the escorts slowly panned their visor across the audience hall. Very slowly. “Intimidating, not practical.”

“Maybe that’s what she’s working on,” Ursa suggested as the clip ended once more. “Or at least involved in. Robotics and artificial intelligence were her two doctorates. That could explain those new drones that were sent after us in the base.”

“New drones? What new drones?” Apatos stepped forward. “Did you get recordings?”

“No,” Adah said quickly. “They weren’t too dissimilar from standard UN sweep drones. Just armored and armed. Plus, they worked in packs, and had a tendency to explode like a frag grenade after they’d all gone down. And they didn’t feel like they were being remotely controlled. Maybe monitored, but loosely at best.”

“Interesting,” Apatos said, frowning and looking up at Bora’s frozen image. “I suppose given all the other laws the Un routinely ‘flexes’ in pursuit of their goals, the ban on automated, independent weapons could probe very flexible under the right conditions.”

Anvil frowned slightly. There was something about what Apatos had just said that felt … off, somehow. Not in the way that said she was hiding something, but more a hint that she knew something.

She spoke like she’s seen it already. “SoulComp ever get involved in anything like that?” she asked.

Apatos eyes widened. “What? No. We couldn’t risk that. Not with all the attention on us. The furthest we went was automated defensive turrets that could be activated by AI, but those still had a human overseer. We wouldn’t have handed over control of our defenses to an AI.”

Huh. But the answer was satisfying enough. If a little … clean. Maybe she cleaned up a rouge project that tried or something.

“Still, this is important to note,” Apatos said. “I hadn’t thought about it until now, but I’ve never seen skinsuit armor like that either. Perhaps Bora’s black site is involved in a wide array of development projects.”

“Could you do a passive trawl of the datawebs?” Adah asked. “See if it’s shown up elsewhere? If we do engage Bora, we should know about her assets.”

“I’ll see what I can do,” Apatos said. “And what I can find. Carefully. For now, the best step forward may be to assume that like Syrah Eidre, Bora may have access to state-of-the-art protection from the UN.”

“Getting back to where we started from,” Apatos said, the video of Bora fading at last. “Bora isn’t a very public figure. Her salary is undisclosed, as is her location, or even the nature of her research.”

“But you have found it anyway, or we wouldn’t be having this conversation,” Owl noted, her voice dry.

“Close,” Apatos replied, bringing up a map of the Earth. “I’ll begin with the current theory: Netra Bora was recruited by the United Nations to oversee the automated production of FTL drives or to use her expertise to further automate the lack of people involved in the construction of such drives. So either further reducing the number of people involved in the process, overseeing an AI system that managed it, or both.”

Anvil nodded. It made sense. And the outright hypocrisy of it when taken with the UN’s anti-automation laws still made sense. Can’t have basic mannys working on parts for an FTL drive. There had already been famous leaks in history, leaks that the UN had come down against with all the force it could muster.

“Based on orbital paths of what we believe to be delivery VTOLs bearing FTL drives for installation at shipyards throughout the system, UN logistic supply records for more esoteric components, and fuel levels of VTOLs used by Bora during her few public appearances, we’ve narrowed her location down to somewhere in this part of the world.” A bluish overlay appeared over the image of the Earth, highlighting a section of the planet.

“Well, that narrows it down a bit,” Ursa said, and Anvil nodded in agreement. “That’s what, maybe a quarter of the Earth instead of all of it?”

“More like an eighth,” Apatos replied. Ursa nodded as the image flexed and warped, the Earth now a sphere instead of a flat panel. The planet spun, the blue-tinted zone covering a good quarter of the upper hemisphere. “Still a large swath of territory, to put it lightly.”

“You could hide multiple black sites in that space,” Adah said. “Easily. That’s what, the entire eastern half of Russia?”

“Almost. And some of Alaska. Parts of the Dragon Bloc. Japan. Korea. We’ve decided to rule out the Dragon Bloc as a potential for any black sites. From the UN, in any case.”

“I’d agree.” Adah’s tone was matter-of-fact. “It’d be far too risky a location for something that secretive. Too little local control.”

“My thoughts exactly.” On the globe, the blue-tint over the Dragon Bloc vanished. “Korea would also be extremely unlikely. The proximity to the quarantine zone would make it a risky location, and South Korea is wholly owned by a megacorp.” Another, smaller section of the map returned to its normal color.

“Japan, however, is an ideal location. They’re firmly part of the United Nations, and historically have retained a strong economy in areas of high-technology. Controlled, secure, and with the manufacturing needed to produce more exotic components. Of course, that could simply be used to funnel those same materials off-record to most of the other areas under our range,” Apatos added, then looked at the team, her expression almost expectant.

“If that were the case,” Owl said, speaking up. “Wouldn’t there be traces left of such shipments?”

“Correct. Almost certainly hard to find. Buried really. Scrubbed clean by a massive entity determined to get rid of any of those traces. Unless …” She tapped at her datapad. “They were in conflict with their own goals.”

“Conflict?” Adah’s confusion was evident in her tone. “What do you mean?”

“In digging into Bora’s past, we came across a particular weakness of hers. One the UN and megacorps openly decry, but like many things, accept in back corners: Bora would appear to have a fondness for young boys and girls. Pre-teen children.

Anvil felt her stomach lurch slightly. “So the sex trade.” The one everyone ‘fights against’ while allowing it to stick around for their own benefit.

“The one and the same. My hiring of Fat Shrimp wasn’t just a matter of convenience. When you killed Shrimp and destroyed his organization, I kept tabs on those who left his employ. Several of them led me to this man. It wasn’t foresight, understand. Just pragmatism.”

A new image replaced that of the stationary globe, that of a rather portly individual wearing a very expensive suit. “This,” Apatos said with a bit of malice. “Is a man known to most as ‘Piggy.’ His real name is Eiichi Pyo … I think. Whether or not that was the name he was born with doesn’t matter. What does matter is that Piggy is the own who owns, runs, and operates most of the sex trafficking over the eastern hemisphere.”

“And Bora,” Apatos said, eyes narrowing as she looked at the team. “Is one of his clients.”

“How the hell did you figure that out?” Ursa asked.

“With difficulty. Fat Shrimp’s security was good, but not as good as the tools at my disposal. Once I had a worm on their systems, it spread. When you took down his organization, some of his underlings were ‘recruited’ by Piggy. Some of my agents got through. Of course, it didn’t hurt that Piggy’s vocation is an open secret, and once I knew what to look for … Like I said, the UN scrubs away all traces of Bora’s location, but they can’t bring down the same force against Piggy because—“

“Cross purposes.” Adah nodded. “Very clever.”

“Thank you.”

“So we’re going to go find this Piggy guy and ‘make him squeal,’ on it?” Anvil asked as she looked up at the man. “Of have you already found him?”

“Piggy’s compound in Northern Japan is well-known,” Apatos replied. Again the image on the screen changed, this time of a sprawling mansion that, from appearances, had apparently been designed to invoke images of ancient Japan while still holding a modern aesthetic. “As is its seemingly innocent lack of secure oversight by local defense networks … perfect for smuggling people in and out. Piggy himself has many high connections with UN authorities. So high that he appears to have access codes allowing him to slip right through their security.”

“Oooo,” Anvil said. “And we want that.”

“We do indeed. We also want the instructions his organization uses to deliver Bora her ‘cargo.’ Her vice will be the weak point we need to determine her location.”

“And get back your targets, plus leads. And the FTL schematics. What about getting out alive?”

“That’s already been worked out, but again, we’ll need our ‘friend’ Piggy’s clearance codes to make it work.”

“And he cannot be allowed to tip anyone off,” Owl noted.

“Exactly. So he needs to die. We’ll take his codes and his intel, but the UN’s reluctance to acknowledge their association should keep them from acknowledging the hole in their security.”

“However, before we can do that,” Apatos continued, dismissing the images. “We need to discuss your equipment needs. Simply put, right now the assets of this team are lacking. We need to change that.”

The display changed again, lists appearing in the air. Anvil stared at them. They were supply logs, detailing ammunition, firearms, and more.

“In order for this to work, there are no shortcuts. The black site is a mystery. Piggy’s compound is acknowledged, but doubtlessly far more secure than any ‘official’ record would suggest. And we have no margin for error. I leave the discussion of the how and what to you—“ She ran her eyes around the room. “—but this team must be properly equipped. Hence …” Apatos stepped back, motioning to the lists above her. “These are supply logs for a number of military depots, both megacorp and UN. Consider it a shopping list. If you need it, we’re going to steal it.”

“That seems a little ambitious,” Adah said slowly. “If we hit a number of depots—“

“You won’t be the only ones hitting them,” Apatos interrupted. “This will empty the remainder of my coffers. UN and megacorp sites both. At the same time. Different companies, different goals and objectives. Staggered out over two days.”

“That could start a war,” Ursa said, sitting up. “They’re already at each other’s—“

“I’m aware of that.” For once, Apatos almost sounded … quiet. “Save that you’re mistaken. We’re already at war. Even if you don’t know it yet. Pisces was the first domino, and this was coming to Earth one way or another. I don’t intend to stick around to see who the victor is. I’ll take my chances getting off-world.”

“Even if that means tearing the peace down on your way out?” Anvil asked. “You’re a crouper, on it.”

“You need supplies, and our window shrinks with every passing day. My partner and I already made the call. You want revenge on Bora, and to make all this mean something? That’s part of the price.”

She stabbed at her pad. “The information is now open to your personal devices. I’ll leave you to work out what you need.”

With that, she turned and walked out of the room, leaving silence in her wake.

Ursa was the first to speak. “Do we really want to do this?”

“Yes.” Owl’s answer was cut and clear.

Adah frowned. “I’m not so certain. I don’t disagree that getting rid of Bora is going to make the world a better place, and help us all sleep easier, but we won’t just be doing that. We raid these depots like this, and we’re effectively starting a war. Billions could die.”

“Billions are going to die anyway.” Anvil shifted her position, twisting on her couch so that she could look at the rest of the team. “I gave her shit, but she’s not wrong.”

Ursa’s eyes widened. “You’re agreeing with her? You just called her a—a—Well whatever that word means. I don’t actually know. Something to do with business and megacorps.”

“Yeah, I can take shots at her for being who she is, or was, and still ultimately agree with her. That’s my right as a hypocrite.” She crossed her arms, staring across the hardwood floor at Ursa. “I can also put the pieces together. Whether or not we do this, war is happening.”

“Does that give us the right to excuse starting it?” Ursa countered. “We’re mercenaries, but we’re not warmongers.”

“No, we’re terrorists!” Anvil yanked her phone out of her pocket, bringing up the latest feeds and shooting them to the open display. Images of each of them appeared overhead, some from their official paperwork for the team, others taken from security footage or even media sites. All of them bore the same message. EXTREMELY DANGEROUS, LETHAL FORCE ORDERED.

“Or have you seen what’s happened in the last twelve hours?” She flicked new feeds up onto the display, overriding the old ones. Images of UN peacekeepers filled the display, descending VTOL ramps or jogging through city streets. She flicked her finger once more, the images morphing again, now showing megacorp militias rolling out, checking over equipment beneath headlines that declared they were “PROACTIVE DEFENSE.”

“I reserve my right to antagonize a proper crouper, but that doesn’t mean she isn’t right,” Anvil said, dismissing the images with a wave of her hand. “Pisces was the tipping point. We already passed it.”

“Pisces could still cave before it comes to actual war,” Adah replied.

Anvil shook her head. “Not if they’re sending spies, Adah.”

“Maybe those spies are making everything worse.”

“Then does it really matter?” Her answer seemed to catch Adah off-guard. “Even more on it, how will it matter if this war doesn’t happen?”

“I don’t follow you.”

“Look around us, on it. At the world. You all know where I got my start. England, or what’s left of it. Where over ninety percent of the population works in welfare conditions, making it buy on Un drip-feeds, to keep that small percent that has everything else going.”

“Yeah, Earth sucks. A war would still make that worse.”

“In the long run?”

“Walk me through it,” Ursa said, leaning forward.

“What happens if we don’t take this job and a war doesn’t start tomorrow? Or maybe never starts.”

“Lots of people live.”

“Do they?” She could already see Owl nodding. “Is spending your days flipping a switch for ten hours simply so that there’s a human flipping a switch, to make money that won’t pay for half of what you need to live living? Is letting the UN and the megacorps call all the shots and run everything from countries to individual lives ‘living?’ I call that slavery under a different name. The world’s just rationalized it.”

“That’s not a great defense for starting a war that could kill billions,” Adah said. “It may not be much of a life, but it’s still living.”

“Living with what hope, on it?” She shook her head. “You guys are still thinking about Earth. This isn’t about Earth anymore. This is about humanity, on it. Look, say we turn this down. What happens?”

Adah shrugged. “Maybe they go to war, maybe things settle down and they don’t?”

“And?”

“I’m not an economist. Or a futurist.”

“What happens to Pisces?”

“Well … they’ll probably lose.”

“No,” Anvil said, shaking her head. “They will lose. Without FTL, they’re as dead as we would have been sitting in our base when we got attacked earlier this week. The UN fleets will pound them, rack them, starve them … whatever it takes. And then the UN wins.”

“Or maybe,” she continued, rising and striding across the hardwood, across the space Apatos had occupied. “Maybe this war happens, and the megacorps win. It doesn’t matter, because Pisces ends up the same way. They lose.” Owl, she noted, was nodding. She got it. Ursa and Adah still looked unconvinced.

“Look, I’ll spell it out for you,” she said, looking at both of them. “If we don’t take this job, war or not, mankind loses. We have a chance here. A chance to break the grip. You said it yourself, Adah. If this succeeds, the ‘genie is out of the bottle,’ on it? If we sit this out, nothing changes. But if we carry it out, even if it does start a war …”

“Everyone else can leave. There’d be nothing holding mankind back,” Ursa said, nodding. Then she frowned. “Assuming, of course, that Pisces doesn’t just try to lock it down the same way.”

“That’d still be two players in play with the same power weapon,” Adah said, her voice low. “That’s better than one.”

“On it. Besides,” Anvil said. “We could always make sure it gets to more than those two. There are a million satellites around the system. We steal the drive plans, then we transmit them while we’re escaping. We give them to everyone. Regardless of what our client or this spy from Pisces want.”

“So …” She looked around the group, locking eyes with each of them. “War or not, I say we let the genie out. They’re those guys that grant wishes, right? Let’s give everyone a chance to go someplace else. Or, I guess, a lot of people. Still better than just letting the UN call the shots. Or the megacorps.”

She walked back over to the couch she’d been sitting on and dropped into it, the wood frame creaking as it absorbed almost a hundred kilos of mercenary. The rest of the room was quiet, Ursa and Adah both deep in thought. Ursa was the first to break the silence.

“My mom has this old saying. I mean really old. But it goes ‘you can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs.’ But if you don’t break the eggs, you never eat and starve, I guess.” She turned her eyes toward Adah. “Anvil makes a good point. If we don’t do this, everyone might lose.”

“She did,” Adah agreed with a nod. “Or rather,” she noted, turning to look in Anvil’s direction. “You did. With my own words. When did you become the voice of reason?”

Anvil shook her head. “It’s not that I’m a voice of reason, on it? It’s that everything right now is so screwed up that blowing it apart with the biggest bang is actually one of the best options we’ve got. And being the team’s demo expert, I’m the one who would know what to look for.”

“We make this call, we have to live with it forever.”

“True,” Ursa added. “But in light of what Anvil’s said … I think it’d be even hard to live with it if we didn’t do anything and knew we had the chance.”

“And if we don’t succeed?” Adah asked.

At that Ursa let out a snort. “Adah, we screw this up and none of us are living to worry about it.”

“See?” Anvil gave them a grin. “If we fail, we don’t have to live with the guilt either way. Win-win, on it?”

“All right.” Adah stood, pulling out a datapad and flicking something to the displays. “Then it’s agreed. We’re doing this.” The image of Piggy’s compound appeared in the air, rotating as Adah twisted one hand. “So then, we won’t know what we’re facing at the black site, assuming we get that far, so let’s start with this compound. Everybody pull it up. We make plans of attack, then we make our shopping list.”

“Let’s let help the genie break some eggs.”

*             *             *

Breathe. Owl glanced down at the carbine in her hands, running a hand down the barrel. Breathe. The rest of the team was silent around her, all of them already prepared for the symphony of violence that was about to occur. Breathe.

She didn’t want to look at them. Doing so would remind her that one of them wasn’t in her usual place. Ursa was in the cockpit of the Stalker, rather than in the cabin.

In the wrong place. Thinking about it made the tight knot in the center of her chest ache. It was easier to just keep her eyes on her weapon and ignore it.

She could still see some of the cabin from the corners of her visor. And the weapon lockers they’d stolen at the first of their three targets.

It had been a quick, in-and-out job. The UN depot had been a smaller one, manned by only a few people, on the edges of the divided nation of India. They’d dropped out of the sky from high-altitude, the Stalker’s missiles blowing apart the depot’s main defensive emplacement. The peacekeepers on display had wisely locked the facility down and called for reinforcements that were only minutes away. “Minutes” being more than enough time for Anvil to blast a wall down and get them at the goodies behind it. Apatos’ data had been good, their hurried shuffling of equipment coming out missing only a few items that were low on their priority list.

The next one wouldn’t be quite as easy. Not now that word had gotten out. Their target had been one of almost a dozen struck around the globe, other groups of mercs hired to raid depots, logistical centers, and even conduct quick attacks on hardened bases. The dataweb was alight with speculation already, both at the brazenness of the attacks and the lack of response from both UN and megacorp representatives.

Come on, she thought as she wiped a bit of dust from her carbine. Do it. You know you want to.

It was only a matter of time. One of them would break. Someone would pull the trigger. They’d wanted to for years, and everyone knew it.

The VTOL banked, deck tilting beneath her feet. A moment later Ursa’s voice came over the comm channel. “One minute.”

Their second target wasn’t too far from the first, insofar as the range of the VTOL was concerned. A megacorp naval facility off the coast of the Gulf of Oman, one that was to undergo a synchronized strike from two different mercenary groups in addition to their own. The other two groups were to focus on damaging as many naval vessels and aircraft as they could, while the team’s job was to use the distraction to break into another supply warehouse and make off with several expensive items.

“Active AA!” Ursa’s shout came mere moments before the VTOL jerked, going into a tight dive. “Clear! Someone took it out, but I think our friends need gunship support. Open the doors!”

Owl rose from her seat and rushed to the port side, opting to pull a safety clip down from next to the bar and dock it with the back of her armor so that both hands would be free. Adah stepped up to the rear-end of the hatch and did the same, though unlike Owl she was holding one of the grenade launchers they’d liberated from their first target. She slapped at a panel, the viewscreens coming to life and giving them a vivid view of a brown, arid landscape and a sharply contrasting blue sea.

What truly caught her attention, however, was the broad, sprawling complex they were circling, an edifice of hardened concrete and almost identical buildings, all wrapped in smoke and fire. A long cluster of docks poked out into an artificial bay, the water ablaze with burning oil that belched thick clouds of smoke into the sky. A distraction, she knew, as well as a crude but effective way to establish a literal smokescreen to cover for an attack.

The door rolled forward, Adah shoving it toward the front of the aircraft, reality replacing the image on the screens, now mixed with the chaos of an active battlefield. It wasn’t hard to see where and how the attacks had taken place, even as the CNC net in Adah’s system began feeding out FoF data and marking the various factions in play. The first group to arrive had come through the nearby hills on foot, using surprise to drop guided mortars down atop the bases air and anti-missile defenses. A burning, partially deflated blimp on the southeast hills behind the base showed what had happened to the air-based defensive systems, likely cut down by projectiles they couldn’t stop.

Once the air defenses had been mostly removed from the board, gunships had swept in and laid waste to the bases own air complement, a burning, twisted field of scrap and craters all that was left of the bases airfield. The ships berthed at the docks had been the other target, one of the other companies attempting to land troops on them but as near as she could tell from a quick glance, had been forced back into a landing behind nearby buildings, many of which were now the scene of an intense firefight as the both sides attempted to keep the other from gaining the upper hand.

The naval vessels were the largest threat. Though small, each still represented a significant amount of firepower, and the Stalker dropped low, almost level with one ship’s main deck, its engines roaring.

Then they were up and over it once more, all of them firing as they swept the dock’s defenders from behind. Dozens dove for cover or were cut down, and several more ducked out of their path only to expose themselves to the sightlines of the forces holed up in the buildings along the waterfront. The roar of a minigun from the other side of the cabin followed by the distant boom of something blowing apart and Anvil’s laughter over the comm channel announced that she’d likely found a fragile home for her bullets.

Chaff fired from the rear of the Stalker as Ursa put the aircraft into a sudden roll, the engines howling as someone on the ground got a missile off in their direction. For a brief moment Owl felt the strange discomfort of being pulled in three directions, the top half of her body outside the cabin’s gravitics and feeling both the pull of the Earth and their sudden change in direction. The missile shot past harmlessly, wrapping around through the sky and then sputtering out entirely as an anti-missile system cut it down.

Several loud pings sounded off the side of the VTOL as they dropped, stray bullets colliding with the aircraft’s armor, and then they were below the angle of fire, down in the gap between two of the buildings. “Almost there, but we caught some attention. Be quick.”

Owl nodded out of reflex. Translation: We’re in the middle of a base under attack, about to rob and armory that may or may not be occupied, and may have drawn attention after strafing some targets. Expect resistance to materialize.

The lifted up and over a building, and their target came into view, not near the center of the base but not too far off from it either. A low, squat building with a heavily reinforced exterior door, reinforced by a small number of troops behind barricades.

“Drop!” Ursa called as the Stalker’s gun opened up, peppering the front of the armory with rounds and sending the troops diving into cover. Owl reached back and disconnected the clip on her back, dropping out of the side of the VTOL and not even bothering to fire her thrusters to slow her impact. Less than a second passed before she landed atop the ground, a heavy nearby thud signifying Anvil’s arrival, followed a moment later by a loud braap as she opened up with her minigun.

Owl popped one of her drones, Vincent shooting into the sky and feeding tactical information to the team. Highlights began to appear across her hud, outlining the positions of each soldier taking cover behind the armory barricades and marking them through the dust and smoke. A moment later Anvil’s augmented, distorted voice echoed across the open space, booming above the whine of the VTOL’s engines.

“Throw down your weapons and live! We just want the armory!” To her credit, even the saturation fire of her minigun ceased. The drone feed in the corner of Owl’s hud showed the six soldiers glancing at one another, no doubt debating whether or not to comply. Two of them nodded, but another—probably a superior from the pips on their shoulders—shook their head. A moment later their reply came across loud and clear.

“Sleg off, skag-humpers!” Judging from the fixed visors of their subordinate’s, not all of them agreed with their superior’s decision.

“Popping pineapple.” Owl stayed still, her carbine fixed on the barricades as Adah fired once, her launcher arcing a grenade through the air and into the ground on one side of the barricade. It detonated with a sharp crack, several short screams … and then five of the six threw their weapons over the barricade, rising with open hands. One of them—the one who’d shouted out against them—carefully kicked the sixth’s now useless weapon out across the gravel.

“Open the door and get out of here,” Anvil said, her intonation flat. “And take your wounded; they might make it.” The one with the pips nodded and quickly stabbed at the controls near the door, keying in an entry code while two of their fellows crouched to help pull their wounded fellow away.

Owl popped her other drone—Roy—and assigned it to follow the group for a set distance. Several of them looked up at it. Good. No heroic ideas. Anvil was keeping her minigun fixed on them as well.

The armory was now open, and Owl followed Adah inside, the “list” of serial numbers they’d flagged popping up in the corner of her visor, alongside names of items that would be sitting out.

“Remember,” Anvil said, her voice over the private comm channel. “Case 16C7B. And every ammo box with that tag you can find.”

“Got it,” Adah said, already on her way back out with a pair of Poseidon disposable missile launchers under each arm. Owl followed her example, grabbing two more of the launchers and ferrying them back outside. The Stalker was hovering just above the ground, kicking dust and gravel in all directions. She tossed the twin launchers through the open door and turned back for more. Adah passed her partway, arms straining under a heavy weapon case. In the corner of Owl’s hud one of the flagged numbers flashed, crossed itself out, and vanished.

They moved fast, clearing the armory of the few items they wanted with precision. She only slowed once, when Roy returned, leashing back, landing, and integrating into one of her shoulder panels once more. In less than thirty seconds the list was gone, the armory stripped of every bit of materiel they’d wanted while distant booms and cracks echoed around them.

“Give me that case,” Anvil said as she climbed back aboard the Stalker, rolling the door shut behind her.

“Which case? Also, sit down. You can do that once we’re away.” The world on the viewscreen shifted as the VTOL rose and shot down the street, heading for one side of the base. “Ursa?”

“Got a clean path out, but I think one of the other merc crews is already pulling—yeah, they’re pulling out.” The VTOL roared past the burning remains of an armored car, smoke churning in the wake of its jets. “Just let me get past this and …”

The engines surged, the VTOL leaping forward and a great weight pressing Owl back even over the compensation of the gravitics. They shot out over the ocean, the tan desert vanishing behind them as the Stalker passed the sound barrier and accelerated.

“Hold on!” It was the only warning they got before the VTOL went into a wide turn, dropping down toward the surface of the ocean and getting so close that they could see the disturbance on the surface of the sparkling waves left by their passing. Loose weapon cases shifted, sliding across the deck and slamming into legs and barriers. A second later their course straightened out, Owl shifting as “down” once again changed.

“Missile. Someone on one of those ships got a quick shot off at us. We lost it.”

“Good,” Adah said, standing and moving to the front of the cabin, stepping over hastily dropped weapon cases and launchers. “Good job all of you. Now let’s stow this gear and reset for the next round. We’ve still got one more target to hit.”

“Stow nothing,” Anvil said, glee in her voice as she lifted one of the cases. “There’s a Gravix in this thing. I’m at least getting a look at it before securing it.” The lid popped open, and Anvil let out a little laugh. “Oh … yes.”

Owl peered in the lid, looking down at the smooth, contoured lines of Anvil’s newest toy. “Looks like an oversized grenade launcher to me.”

“Oh, it is,” Anvil replied, closing the case. “For their proprietary ammo. Thing won’t even go live without the launcher. But …” She set the case down and picked up one of the scattered ammo boxes. With sharp pop the top came open, revealing a neat row of oversized grenade shells nestled in foam. “These things are worth it. Pick your target, fire it out, and … woosh.”

“Woosh?”

“Woosh,” Anvil repeated with a nod. “Everything around it is subject to a repulsive gravity field that pushes outward for just a fraction of a second before the grenade rips itself apart. Things closest to the detonation will be subject to almost fifty g’s worth of force. You want to flip the world topsy-turvy? This is the toy, on it.”

“Huh.” Must be why the shells are so large. Packing all that tech in there. “I guess that could be useful.”

“Word has it they’re working on a beam version that doesn’t take any shells at all, just energy cells, but that’s rumor.” Anvil snapped the case shut. “Either way, whatever we face in that black site, this’ll be a real fun surprise for them. I saw the demo video, and it was wild. Stuff getting flung everywhere.”

“How does the grenade keep itself from being pushed away?” Adah asked, lifting one of the “liberated” cases and racking it. “I get if it’s beneath an object, but what if its beside one?”

“You are asking the wrong person, on it,” Anvil said, holding up her hands. “I just watched the demo video and knew I wanted one. Don’t ask me how it keeps itself from firing off like a bullet.”

“Fair enough,” Adah said. “I couldn’t explain how a gravitic plate works either, and we use that every time we set foot in this thing.”

“One of my brothers can,” Ursa cut in. “But I wouldn’t recommend it. I got lost after about a minute, and I honestly couldn’t tell you if it was because it was really that complex, or if it was because he’s just really boring when he starts lecturing on something.”

“There’s probably a whole series of videos out there on the dataweb explaining it,” Anvil said, lifting both the case and one of the ammo boxes in her hands.

“The grenade? Or gravitics?”

“Second on, on it. The grenade is probably all kinds of proprietary.”

“Makes sense.”

Owl listened to the team talk, shifting some of the stolen cases into position and latching them down on the deck, but not adding her own opinion on the matter. It wasn’t that the thoughts weren’t there. But she couldn’t seem to shove them past the hard knot in the middle of her chest, the motivation dying partway through.

Just as well. She tied down the last of the cases and then moved to one of the seats that hadn’t been taken up by their recently acquired materiel, sitting down and beginning an examination of her armor. It’s just idle chatter. Spoken lubricant to keep the team moving forward on the mission. You don’t need that. All you need is Bora.

Specifically, her head. She took everything you had from you. Her examination of her armor slowed as she felt something hot and violent well up from deep inside her. Deal that back.

The thoughts were, if not wrong, off. She knew that.

She just didn’t care. And not caring about it almost felt alarming, except she didn’t care about that either.

A hand touched her shoulder and she jerked, looking up to see Adah’s visor right in front of her. When had she gotten so close. A sound in her ears snapped her back to reality. “—you all right? Owl?”

There was genuine concern in Adah’s voice. Anvil was staring in her direction as well, clearly worried if the current position of her armor was anything to go by.

She swallowed. “I’m fine. Just thinking about this next raid.” It was an easy lie, and she looked down once more, away from Adah’s visor and toward the carbine she’d been absentmindedly stripping.

“Little deep in thought there, Owl,” Anvil said. “That’s the third time you’ve stripped your rifle.”

She froze. Not for long, but long enough that both of them had to have seen it. “Just being thorough.”

“Owl.” Adah knealt down in front of her. “If you need time or—“

“What I need,” she said, the last work coming out in a hiss. “Is to get this mission done.”

That’s not good enough. Worse, it was grounds for the rest of the team to make her sit the mission out. Even Valerie would have—No no no no no no!

“I’m not fine.” She said before anyone else could break the awkward silence. “I know that. But I’m mission capable, and I’m not going to sit this one out. I can’t. You need me.”

Again there was a silence, so she kept speaking. “We’re only a team of four. Doing this with three would be almost impossible. It may still be impossible with me. I’m not fine, but I can still do what I do and do it well.”

“I’m sorry for snapping at you. And getting lost in my thoughts.” The hot, angry feeling was fading now, cooling again to a dull hard lump somewhere inside her. “You will have my full focus and capability as we finish this raid. I’m capable of seeing this through to the end.”

She didn’t miss the silent glance between Adah and Anvil. They’re worried about you because they care.

“Owl …” Adah said as she turned back toward her. “You’re right. We need every hand we have for this mission. And you’ve not shown a single sign of cracking at all during today’s operation, nor during any of the planning.”

“Outside of being a little quieter than normal,” Ursa cut in. “I know we call you Owl and all, but you’ve got to hoot sometime, on it?”

“Right.” Adah nodded, then reached out and put a hand on her shoulder. “I’m not unhappy with you. Hell, you’ve got more reason than any of us to be messed up over … Over why we’re all doing this. But you’re also wrong.”

The words caught her like a slap, and she snapped her head back. Wrong? About what?

“That bit about us needing you,” Ursa said over the comms. “You’re right, we need you. But we also need you, Owl. Not someone wearing your face.”

“Ursa’s has it,” Adah said, tugging Owl’s shoulder slightly and pulling her back forward. “Everything’s going to hell. Shit, I may never be able to go home and see my family again. Part of the job.” Then she shook her head. “But I’m not saying that to try and make you feel bad. That’s not what I meant.”

“What she’s saying is that we’re all we got now.” Anvil stepped across the cluttered deck, dropping her hand on Owl’s other shoulder. “And none of us want to see that get cut any further down.”

Adah nodded. “So you’re not out, Owl. But when we get back to the island today, assuming we don’t have to immediately relocate … There are therapy programs. You need to talk to someone, not just us. Just load one on your phone and talk to it for a bit, all right? Just …” Adah went silent for a moment. And then, to Owl’s surprise, she pulled her forward into a hug.

“I’m glad you’re with us. But I don’t want you to leave us. Or shut us out. Got it?” More armored hands joined Adah’s, Anvil bending down and wrapping her arms around her as well.

It was … odd. And it didn’t do much for the hard knot of tangled emotions in her chest. But it didn’t do nothing either.

She nodded, swallowing as Adah and Anvil both stepped away, giving her a little space. “Thank you. I’ll talk with a therapy program. After the raid.” Maybe it would help. Maybe not. But it couldn’t hurt to try. “Thank you.”

“I missed a hug, didn’t I?” Someone—maybe it was her—let out a snort of surprise at Ursa’s declaration. “Damn it. I’m getting one when we get back. I’m not being left out of this.”

“You may … have it.” The words slipped out, and she found herself, to her surprise, nodding with them. “But just the one.”

“I’ll take it.”

“And everyone? Thank you. When this is all over …” Her words died, the block once again getting in the way.

“When this is all over, we’ll have time to grieve and do it properly,” Adah said. “All of us.”

“When it’s all over,” Anvil said. “Which makes these waiting moments the hardest of all. Ursa, how far out are we?”

“At current speeds? Almost two hours. We go any faster, we might draw the wrong kind of attention. Not a good day for that.”

“Two hours. Do we want to talk about it?”

Owl shook her head. “No, I don’t. Not now.”

“I agree with Owl,” Adah said. “We need our focus. The site we’re raiding in Australia isn’t small, and we’re going to want to—“

“Uh, guys?” Owl froze as she caught the tone in Ursa’s voice. “You might want to tune one of the displays to a news feed down there.”

Anvil moved first, stepping over to the display controls and bringing the emitters to life. “Which one?”

“Any of them. Trust me, no one isn’t going to be showing this.”

The emitter shifted, faint, disorganized pinpricks of light sliding around and forming into a familiar megacorp-sponsored news feed. Owl only had to glance at it to see what had caught Ursa’s attention. The caster’s voice filled the cabin, speaking calmly and with only the slightest hint of concern.

“—closing immediately. Again, all unauthorized travel and trade to UN-controlled territory is closing immediately. UAI forces are mobilizing in the defense of our free nations—“

The scrolling banner at the bottom said everything that the caster hadn’t yet: UN ISSUES DECLARATION OF WAR IN RETALIATION FOR CORPORATE RAIDS.

Another, smaller feed noted that rioting was reported to have already broken out in dozens of UN-controlled cities. Whether or not that was true … probably didn’t matter.

Anvil flipped the feed, this time to a UN channel, where another reporter was saying almost the same thing … save that in this case it was the megacorps who were at fault. And their smaller banner, while not accusing them of rioting, did cite “poll numbers” that declared UN citizenship overwhelmingly in favor of the military action now being readied.

A third flip showed a neutral feed claiming that shooting had already begun in the United States. Unsurprising, given that UN control of SoulComp was a serious foothold in a nation that had, until that coup, been under complete control of the megacorps.

“You know,” Anvil said as she flicked to another feed, this one already showing megacorp troops deploying across city streets somewhere in the US. “It’s kind of a shame we’re about to leave. This would be the ideal market.”

“It’s a market that’d kill us,” Adah said without missing a beat. “Keep going. See what you can find about Australia.”

“Austra—“ Anvil caught herself. “Mission. On it.” She began to change the feed with rapid pace.

“Right. I don’t want to dive right into a warzone situation. Not for this. We’ll just have to adjust our plans.”

“The depot will be on high alert either way,” Owl noted.

“It also might be in a lot of chaos. Could be in our favor.”

“Of course it’ll be in chaos. Apatos hired three other merc groups to hit it when we do, and they’re all going to be stealing supplies and fuel as well.”

“We definitely need that last one.”

“I’m aware. But if we have to, we can acquire it elsewhere. Even with the price on our heads, someone has to be willing to sell to us. In the meantime, gear up. The war may have gone hot, but we still need that fuel.”

*             *             *

“Bad news.”

Adah held back a sigh as Ursa’s words came over the comm channel. “It’s a day for it. What is it?”

“Just got a ping from Apatos. One of the groups that was supposed to hit the depot with us backed out. They got a new job offer, and they sprang for it.”

Shit. “And the other two?”

“Still on, but it’s not looking good. One of them was already flaky. We might be the only ones left by the time we get there. Which, by the way, isn’t long.”

“I know. How’s our fuel?”

“Also not wrong. We could make it back to the island, but we’d have to drain their stock just for the op against Piggy. The black site would be out of reach completely.”

She held back a sigh, well aware that both Anvil and Owl’s attention was fixed on her. We need that fuel, if nothing else. We can make do without the few weapons we wanted there, but the fuel …

She made her decision, eyes snapping open. “Anvil, Owl, I need that depot listing. The one Apatos gave us. Put it up the display.” She turned, the news feed Anvil had been watching fading away as the team jumped at her orders.

My orders. Not just the team leader now. I’m filling in the commander’s position. It didn’t feel right, but … Someone has to.

“What are we looking for?” Owl asked, stepping up to the display as it began showing a familiar list.

“Fuel locations in western Australia,” Adah said, tapping the display controls so that all three of them could manipulate it. “The more remote the better, but we need something with fuel we can use.” A few taps of the controls brought up a search, and page after page began to flick past, each one showing the fuel they needed, but unwelcome for various reason—

“I have one.”

Adah looked up as Owl expanded the log. “And?”

“It’s a small emergency depot in the middle of the Gibson desert,” Owl said. “No human presence. Entirely automated.”

“We should have hit that one to start with,” Ursa commented.

“No,” Adah said, shaking her head as she looked over the log. “Apatos goal was to break the eggs, remember? Stir up chaos.”

“She’s got it now, on it.”

“Exactly.” She reached the bottom of the log, her eyes darting over the amounts of fuel on record and mentally comparing them to the Stalker’s own reserves. “So if we’re not too concerned with the extra explosive we were planning on lifting during that raid, we can simply steal this fuel and be done with it. Not without risk, but certainly with less risk.”

“Far less risk,” Owl noted. “As long as we’re not detected approaching the depot, we’d be free to take what we wanted with a little work.”

“It’d mean giving up some of the demolition charges we’d planned on acquiring. And that rifle. The plasma one.”

“I’ll manage,” Owl replied. “It won’t take much to make adjustments. “Surely we can acquire an anti-material rifle that will be adequate from a black market somewhere.”

“Prices are about to go through the roof,” Anvil cautioned.

“Then we’ll bargain.” Adah flicked the depot’s coordinates into her CNC system. “Ursa, message Apatos and tell her we’re pulling out of the third depot and making for another target. It’s up to her if she wants the other two teams to go forward with it. Then give us a quiet route to these coordinates. If Apatos protests, remind her she’d got her omelet and that all we need at this point is the fuel.”

“Does that mean we won’t need to worry about a fight?” Anvil asked.

Adah shook her head. “No. Stay armed. Just because it’s an unmanned depot doesn’t mean there won’t be someone that doesn’t ask what we’re doing once we start pumping fuel over.”

“Their own systems will flag it,” Owl added.

“Yes, and the whole country is already going to be on alert. Even if we don’t fight our way in, we may be running fast on the way out.”

*             *             *

“Adah?”

Adah pulled her eyes away from the view outside the Stalker, her eyes slipping to the hud where a request for a private channel from Ursa had just surfaced. She tapped at her wrist, accepting the connection. “I’m here. What’s wrong?”

“Nothing for certain,” Ursa replied. “I’m just getting some odd backscatter from somewhere behind us.”

“Backscatter? Like on a sensor?” Adah’s eyes slipped back to the endless horizon stretching outside the VTOL, a flat expanse of orange-yellow earth broken only by pockets of brush.

“Right. We’re running passive, so our range is limited, but something keeps popping up an alert.”

“As in, ‘we’re being followed’ or something that could be just atmospheric?”

“The latter. I think. I don’t know this system as well as Castillo did. It could be that someone’s tailing us, or it could just be we’re picking up something off the atmosphere. Hell if I know. We did start getting it after we dropped down from high atmo.”

Which could mean nothing. Or something. We do not need this right now. “Right. Keep an eye on it. Could be nothing, like you said.” Or it could be a curious defense drone taking a look. The Stalker was one of the best stealth VTOLs on the market … but it wasn’t the best. And the arms race of stealth technology was ever moving forward. With luck it’s just something bouncing off the upper atmosphere or a pressure shift somewhere. Precision instruments could be funky. “What’s our ETA?”

“Three minutes.”

She nodded. “Keep me posted.” She closed the channel and turned away from the viewscreen, catching Anvil and then Owl’s attention.

“Three minutes,” she said, back on the team’s primary comm channel. “Owl, as soon as we land I want you to pop both your drones. I’ll set up one of the launch platforms. Just in case. Anvil, get the depot ready for the fuel transfer.”

“Worried we might be being followed?” Anvil asked, rising from her seat.

“A precaution.” It wasn’t the best answer, but it was all she could give. “Ursa hasn’t gotten anything concrete, but we’re far from the only people in the sky.”

Especially as the last few hours had carried on. The world, locked in a cold stalemate for months, had gone hot very, very quickly. Even if neither side had committed full-scale invasions yet, the datawebs, especially the freewebs, were alight with reports of small scale attacks. UN forces had apparently made a rapid bid for several locations in the US, including Washington DC, and were engaged with local military and megacorp forces. UN forces had already been reported spotted moving for the African orbital elevator, and some freeweb feeds had reported aerial dogfights and ground strikes on defensive emplacements.

It’s finally happening. Whole feeds out of South America had gone silent, both sides working to lock down any source of data that could betray their positions or their plans. Dataweb feeds from both sides had already started to lock in, playing the same reports on repeat and from the sound of remaining freeweb connections, rejecting inbound connection requests.

The world’s going dark.

The desert outside the VTOL shifted, their course twitching slightly. Probably to avoid what few passing settlements of people Ursa could pick up in advance. Even now, there wasn’t much reason for people to live out in a wilderness so dry. Not when it was cheaper to simply live by the coast or go off-world.

Weird how it works out like that. She stepped away from the viewscreen, eyes slipping to the still-active display emitters, now following a freeweb “unsanctioned news” display of current military activity around Earth.

The globe looked like a planet on fire. Which felt apt.

“One minute,” Ursa’s voice warned. “We’ll be able to see the depot soon.” Outside the VTOL, a faint discolored ribbon grew out of the scrub brush, resolving into two matching, faded tracks that wound through the outback parallel to their flight.

“Understood. We’re getting ready.” Part of her wanted to switch over to a private channel and ask if there’d been any further alerts from the Stalker’s sensors, but … She’d have said something if there was, Adah thought as she picked up one of the launch platforms they’d liberated earlier that day and passed it to Owl. A moment passed before Owl passed it back, her suit systems having made a secure connection with it.

The whine of the VTOL’s engines shifted as they slowed, the blur of desert brush growing more distinct with each passing second. Adah lifted a Poseidon, stowing the small launcher on her back and shifting as she adjusted to its weight and bulk. The VTOL began to descend gradually, Ursa adjusting their course as their destination neared.

“Depot’s in sight. Not seeing any sign of anybody around. Hell, it looks deserted,” Ursa reported.

“Give us a loop around it, just to be sure.”

“You got it.” The outback outside the VTOL tilted slightly, their heading shifting once again. “Keep the doors closed until we’re sure we’re going to land.”

Adah nodded but didn’t respond, her eyes locked on the viewscreens as their target came into view at last.

“Damn,” Anvil said as the depot neared. “I wasn’t expecting much but … It looks like something out of one of those apocalypse movies.”

“It is the Outback.”

Adah glanced at Owl in surprise, aware that she probably wasn’t the only one. “Good point,” she added. “It probably has to look like that.” She pulled her eyes back to the depot, a small, squat lump of angled concrete set low in the ground, the nearby track running right past it and exposing, ever so slightly, that the dusty clear ground around the depot, free of brush, was concrete. A weathered wooden fence stretched perimeter of the pad, the wood so cracked and warped it could have easily been a century old.

“Anyone want to lay odds on finding a skeleton?” Anvil asked as the VTOL finished its loop and began to descend. Dust began to swirl up around their landing site, blasted outward by the aircraft’s engines.

“Human or animal?” Ursa asked as the VTOL touched down. Adah yanked the side door forward, exposing the inside of the VTOL to the outside’s dust and heat. “Because I’ll bet we find the latter.”

Adah landed on the depot’s concrete pad, the area around the VTOL blasted clean by their landing. The desert in every direction was empty, nothing but brush all the way to the horizon. “Deploy!”

The command was only a reflex. Anvil was already halfway to the depot’s weathered metal fuel pump. Owl was moving away from the depot and the side of the Stalker both, and a moment later both her drones popped free of her armor and shot up into the sky before angling off across the desert.

Adah slammed the launch platform down, sand and dirt kicking back from its sides. A few taps at its simple screen had the platform properly aligned and its legs deployed to stabilize itself—though it acknowledged that it was on loose earth before giving her a ready signal and advising her to be some feet back. She turned just in time to see Anvil began pulling the fuel hose out of its protective housing and toward the Stalker.

“Any trouble?” she asked.

Anvil shook her head. “Security system didn’t even flinch when we cracked it.”

“ID?”

“Picture. Close enough.” She was almost to the Stalker now, the thin fuel line slowly spooling out of the depot.

“Ah.” Likely for whatever report would go out alongside the notice that someone had used the depot. And a security system like that demanded human features.

And usually was fairly easy to crack. She turned and jumped up atop the depot, barely needing her augmented physique to hop atop a structure barely taller than Ursa. The Poseidon slid from back, internal systems coming to life at her touch and the launch rails folding out. Her eyes scanning the horizon as well as the feeds from Owl’s drones, she opened a private channel to Ursa once more.

“How long?” she asked.

“Hard to say,” came Ursa’s reply. “That hose doesn’t look meant for speed. Once Anvil’s got it hooked up I’ll have a better idea, but I want to say twenty minutes, maybe more.”

That’s a lot of time to be out in the open. “Any sign of that backscatter?”

“Not since we slowed down on our way to the depot. But at that point—“

“Yeah, I know.” If they had been tailed, their course change would have made their destination easy to spot. Their shadow could have simply peeled off to go elsewhere. “Keep us posted.”

“Doing everything I can short of going active.”

“Good.” She closed the channel. Let’s have a nice, clean, easy refueling.

She paused for a moment, then offered a quick prayer. Can’t hurt.

“We’re pumping,” Anvil announced. “But this thing isn’t quick. Anybody bring cards?”

“If we had enough time to play, then we’d have been here for too long.”

“Well, then I’ve got bad news on that front,” Ursa said. “I’m getting a reading on how fast this thing moves fuel. We’re looking at twenty minutes. At the least. Maybe more.”

Wonderful.

“I guess emergency depots in the middle of nowhere aren’t too concerned with speed. Maybe we could get a siphon going?”

Owl of all people let out a snort. “I don’t think even your augments would save you from that.”

“Good point. Thanks for volunteering.”

It was harmless banter, but better yet it was actually banter. From Owl. Adah gave both of them a quick glance but let the back-and-forth slide. Anything to pull her out a bit and get her to open up.

The minutes ticked past like hours, brush around them shifting in faint breezes that none of them could feel through their armor. Her armor’s cooling systems began to soak up more power, her plating and her skinsuit soaking up the heady thermal energy all across the Outback while still trying to keep her body at peak efficiency. Owl and Anvil had devolved into a mostly bored game of how many different things they could see that could kill one of them around the depot—and were coming up with a surprising number, if a little exaggerated in the exact nature of things. Owl’s drones had located and notified them of a number of local animals, most snakes and other small critters, but nothing that could indicate a person.

Definitely one of those places that could contest for the title of “nowhere,” she thought, stepping across one of the small solar panels built into the roof of the depot and scanning the horizon once more. Pale wisps of cloud littered the sky, like someone had been partway to creating clouds and then just given up, leaving their work across the distant horizon. Then again, it’s kind of beautiful in its own way. I can see why someone would—

“Adah? We’ve got problems.”

The urgent, worried tone drove away the heat of the sun as effectively as an ice bath. “Incoming?”

“Yeah. They just went active. They’re going to be here in minutes. No way they didn’t know we were here.”

She held back a curse. There was no point. Think! “How many?”

“At least four VTOLs, and I’m picking up …” A pause. “Two fighters, hanging further back but broadcasting IDs.”

This time she did curse. “ETA?”

“Less than a minute. They’re coming in hot from the west.”

Adah turned, but Owl and Anvil were already taking covered positions, not that there was much to do so behind save brush, the depot, and the VTOL. Part of her wanted to hear the commander’s voice offering advice over the comm channel. But it wasn’t going to come. They’re looking to you.

Four VTOLs. Two fighters. Even if we took off now, we’d have no hope of escaping those fighters. Not in a clear sky.

And four gunships was more than enough to overwhelm them on the ground. She took a deep breath, closing her eyes halfway and trying to gauge out how her gut felt about what she was about to do.

Nothing. Good enough.

“Owl!” She turned and ran across the roof of the depot, heading for the launch platform she’d deployed earlier. “Stand down any active targeting on your drones. No lasers, nothing! Same goes for any weapons we’ve got.” She jumped from the roof of the depot, landing next to the launcher in a spray of dust and dirt. “Shut it all down!”

She held to her own order as she spoke, stabbing out at the launcher’s screen and shutting the device down, the stabilizer legs folding back up into a packed position. Her Poseidon was next, launch rails folding back into place so she could stow the weapon on her back.

“Team?” she asked. “Acknowledge?”

“Acknowledged,” Owl said. “They’re down and on the way back.”

“Done,” Anvil added. “We surrendering?”

“No,” Adah said as she grabbed the launcher. Motion on the horizon caught her eyes as she stood. Distant dots against the blue that could only be their incoming visitors. “We’re stalling and hoping our new visitors aren’t inclined to just blow us away an end it.”

“Here.” She passed the launcher to Anvil. “Stow it. I’m going to make a call.” She hopped back up atop the depot, tapping at her comm controls and switching to a common frequency. “Incoming aircraft approaching depot …” She stalled for a second, trying to recall the designation and settled for the best she could remember. “… in the middle of the Gibson Desert. We have no active weapons systems. Say again, we’re not looking for a fight. Copy?”

The dots had already swelled to small shapes, ones that were getting more distinct by the second. If they don’t respond …

It would probably be over quick. A long-range missile barrage would do that nicely. Unless they’re worried about saving the depot.

“Unidentified individuals at depot number two-seven, this is Outback Security. You were tracked on an external vector from outside the country. Stand down any arms or you will be fired upon.”

Better than nothing. “Understood, security. All our arms are down. We’re not looking for a fight.”

“Well-armed thieves usually aren’t. Hold your positions and do not act without further orders or you will be fired upon.”

“Friendly bunch, aren’t they?” Ursa’s voice carried across their private channel as the approaching aircraft began to fan out.

“They’re not wrong, on it. We are stealing their fuel.”

The approaching aircraft were close enough that Adah could hear them now, as well as pick out details. Fairly standard security aircraft, she thought, noting the shape and armaments. Transport gunships. In fact … those look like Mchawi Shrikes. Modified, but those are definitely Shrikes. She held steady as the lead VTOL neared, close enough she could pick out the chin-gun pointed at her position, as well as the deployed weapon pods on either side of the aircraft. Slowly, carefully, she lifted her hands, palms open and out. Not above her head, but by it, to show she wasn’t holding any arms.

“Palms up, people.” Two of the VTOLs swept past them on either side, spinning in the air in perfect synchronization to cover the whole of the depot with her weapons, and her gut gave a twist. If I gambled wrong … “Let’s make it clear we’re just here for the fuel.”

The public frequency flashed again as their visitors spoke. “You planning on paying for that fuel, mystery shoppers?”

Humor. It was the same voice as before, but the humor could be a good sign. Maybe. She’d need to voice her response carefully.

“We were kind of hoping an emergency depot wouldn’t worry as much about the price of fuel,” she said, hoping for a laugh in return. When none came, her gut gave another little twist.

“Funny.” The stern tone was back again. Maybe responding in jest had been a mistake. “Got a good reason why we shouldn’t just gun you down for stealing corporation assets?”

Maybe he was asking for a bribe, maybe he wasn’t. “Because we’re not looking for a fight, and we might be able to arrange payment if you don’t shoot us first.” The second part was a stretch but …

For a moment the VTOL just hung there, chin-gun pointed right at her. Then the voice was back. “Take off your helmet, please.”

Well, at least he asked nicely. “Just out of curiosity, what if I said no?” she asked, reaching for the seal around her neck.

“I wouldn’t recommend that.”

She paused, fingers on the seal. “You know once I do, I won’t be able to hear anything else you say, right?”

“I’m aware, yes.” The voice boomed this time from external speakers on the lead VTOL. “Helmets off. All of you. And if we see your pilot’s hands go for the controls, you’re down a bird and a pilot.”

“Understood.” I hope this was the right move. But they weren’t dead yet.

She pulled off the helmet, feeling hot air break across her skin, hot enough that she broke out in a sweat almost immediately. The sunlight was bright enough that she had to squint, shielding her eyes with one hand as she looked up at the lead VTOL, waiting.

“Well shit,” the voice said, booming around the outback. “Valerie’s Valkyries.” Adah tried not to scowl at the name, but no doubt they’d already seen the reaction. “Well … this is interesting.”

Interesting how?

“All right, Valkyries, I’m landing. Let’s talk.”

That’s a good sign. The foremost VTOL slid to the right through the air, its path curving until it was over the concrete pad of the depot and descending. One of the side doors rolled forward as it came down to land, several skinsuit-clad security forces dropping out with rifles on display.

But held loose carry, she noted. And the one in front wasn’t carrying any weapon at all. In their hands, at least. There was still a rifle on their back and a pistol on one hip. Plus a knife. Standard kit.

And I’m still on the roof, she thought, turning and giving the lead figure a wave of acknowledgement. She dropped from the side of the depot, meeting them halfway between the two VTOLs, Owl and Anvil in view but not directly behind her. The four security soldiers came to a stop when she did.

“So,” their lead said. “Valerie’s Val—“

“She hated that name,” Adah said quickly, cutting them off. “And she’s no longer with us.”

The figure tilted their head forward slightly. “It’s true, then? The last Valkyrie is dead?”

“Killed when the UN shot a cruise missile into our headquarters,” Adah replied. “She died getting the rest of us out. We’re just Freelance.”

“And terrorists, according to the UN.” The lead figure reached up, locking their fingers under their helmet and pulling it up and away, exposing an unfamiliar man with a tanned face and stubby mustache. “With a pretty big price on your head. Lieutenant Andre Novelo.” He didn’t extend a hand, but he wasn’t glaring at her either.

“Adah Nay. No rank.”

“Yeah, I’ve heard about that too,” Novelo said, tucking his helmet under one arm. “You know there’d be a pretty substantial  bonus for all of us if we called you in right now. The UN wants you really badly. Bad enough whoever had you could be set for life. Even with …” They paused for a moment. “A war,” he said at last, almost like he couldn’t quite believe what he was saying. “I think they’d still want you enough to pay a lot.”

“Well, I don’t think you’re stalling for time,” Adah said, turning her head to give a pointed look at the other three VTOLs surrounding them. “Considering you’ve got the advantage here. So either you’re grandstanding at the good fortune you’ve just had, or …?” She gave the lieutenant a pointed look.

“I’m not turning you in just yet, if that’s what you mean,” he said. “Kind of surprised you folks aren’t lying low, to be honest. Maybe I’m wondering why you aren’t. Unless you’ve been flying around for the last few days.”

She paused for a moment, choosing her words carefully. “We lost Castillo, but we’re still on the job.”

“I don’t think your licenses are recognized by anyone anywhere, anymore. But then again …” He gave her an odd grin. “If the money’s good enough.”

Was that a hint? “You a merc?”

“Was,” Novelo said quickly. “Some time ago. Last mission almost wiped out most of my team. Only made it out through some mercy. But I remember how the job works.” His eyes slipped over to Owl, Anvil, and then the Stalker. “Must be some payday you’re getting … especially if they can’t spring for fuel.”

“It’s … complicated,” Adah admitted. “Would it help our case any if I said we were supposed to take part in a raid on a base north of here and steal our fuel there, but we chose not to?”

“It might,” Novelo said, an odd look she couldn’t quite read on his face. “Let me ask you a question: Is the rest of whatever operation you’re taking part in going to make things worse for the corporate holdings of Australia and Outback Industrial?”

“Depends on how you define worse,” she said carefully. “Personally, I think it might make things better. In the long run.”

Novelo’s eyes narrowed.

“But I can assure you we’re not actively working against you,” she stated a bit more quickly. “Our ultimate target is in the employ of the UN.”

Novelo frowned and shifted his weight slightly. “If I had to guess, I’d say that you didn’t have an employer at all, and were just angling to settle the score with whoever killed your boss. But then, that doesn’t seem like the Fireteam Freelance I remember—“

Remember?

“—so I’m going to guess it’s a perk. Can’t figure out what kind of job you’d be doing that wouldn’t be paying in something that couldn’t get you fuel though.”

“It’s kind of hard to buy fuel when all your accounts are frozen and anyone you contact would become a political prisoner.”

Novelo nodded. “Truth. Your employer that hands-off?”

“It’s complicated. And—“

“I know.” He held up a hand. “Confidentiality. But all you want here is the fuel?”

“You have my word.”

“Hmmm …” He paused for a moment. “You know, I still remember you from the last time we met.”

What? “I don’t—“

He shook his head. “Of course you don’t. I was just a sergeant then. It’s a small world, though. Dragon Bloc. South Isles. Old Philippines.”

“We were hired to push out some private mercs acting as hired muscle for a few megacorps interested in the area,” she finished. “I remember it, yes. Were you on the other side?”

“Me and all my squad, yeah. Couple of ‘em here today.” He nodded in the direction of one of the VTOLs. “But I also remember that we faced you. Directly. In combat. It … didn’t go well with us. That devil of yours? The one they call Ursa? She caught us from the side.”

Oh. Maybe they don’t want a bribe. Maybe they want revenge.

“You could have killed all of us. But you didn’t.”

“Wait …” She cocked her head to one side and then tried to snap her fingers, her armored gloves doing little but making a faint click. “We faced three different merc groups on that op, but the second one … Some small unit. I can’t even remember the name, but we offered you surrender.”

“Twice,” Novelo said. “We ignored the first one and … Well, you made a very good case why we should take the second one.”

“You were holed up in an old mall of some kind, right?”

“Yes, I think so.”

She didn’t sense any hostility behind his words. Instead he sounded … grateful?

“You spared seven of us. Then your commander argued against reprisals on me or my squad, and we were let loose once the conflict was over. You could have just killed all of us.”

“Your point?”

“My point, Nay, is that while you don’t remember me, I remember you. And you and your team remind of something my ma-mah once said about what goes around, comes around. You were hired to kill all of us, but you spared most of us instead. None of the people serving under me now would be here if you hadn’t done that. Mercy for mercy. Take the fuel. We’ll report that the depot suffered a breakdown and the fuel got out. Or that you were just a stranded CEO that wanted things kept very quiet with everything going on.”

“I’d go with the second one,” Anvil cut in. “It’s more believable.”

“I may do that,” Novelo said, turning to walk back to his VTOL. “Good luck.”

“You’d let us go?” Adah asked, pausing him halfway through his turn. “Just like that?”

“I am,” Novelo said after a moment. “I looked you up, you know that? All of you. After we got out. Your records. To see if your team had been paid to spare us, or if it was just something your people did.”

“You four … you’re unique. You spared me and my men, so I’ll spare you and yours. Besides, given your history, whatever you’re involved in, I figure it’s probably better than anything I’ll get up to for a while.” He turned back toward his VTOL and began striding away.

“Lieutenant.” Her call brought him to a stop once more. “Could I ask you for a favor?”

Novelo turned, a look of … amusement, perhaps, on his face. “A favor? The fuel doesn’t count?”

She shrugged. “It’s a small favor. The one I’m asking after. From one merc to another. You wouldn’t happen to have an anti-material rifle on one of those VTOLs, would you? We were planning on having one for our job, but since we’re not hitting that base, and we’re among the most wanted terrorists in the world right now, we didn’t want to just go shopping for one.”

“And you’re broke fuel thieves,” Novelo replied. “But yeah, I think we’ve got one.” He nodded at one of his escorts, and they broke into a swift walk for the side of the VTOL. A few seconds later they returned carrying a long, familiar rifle. “Need ammo?” Novelo asked as they tossed it to him.

“No,” Adah said as he turned and tossed it again. She caught it in one hand. “We just needed the rifle. Thanks.” We can sweep it for trackers later. Just in case.

“As favors go, that one ain’t so bad. Finish fueling and get out of here, Freelance. And don’t go too far East if you don’t have to. You’re cleared where I have authority. But I’d still keep off the radar.”

He slipped his helmet back over his head, climbed aboard his VTOL, and a moment later the aircraft lifted off. Adah lifted her hands, covering her face against the spray of dust and dirt as all four VTOLs went to full power.

And then they were gone, rocketing off toward the horizon. Adah waited for the dust to subside, wiped her face down with one hand to brush away the worst of the dirt, and then shoved her helmet back on.

“So …” Ursa was saying over the team comms. “Are we good then?”

“We’re good, I think.” Her gut seemed to have relaxed. “Let’s finish fueling up and get out of here.”

‘Any idea for what we’ll tell Apatos?”

“I think …” She turned to look at the rest of the team. “I think we’ll just tell her we let our reputation speak for us, and that was all it took. In a way, it’s true.”

“Yeah …” Anvil said. “It is, isn’t it? Nice to meet someone who … Well, whatever the hell you call that.”

“Payback,” Adah said, passing Owl the AMR. “But the good kind.”

Fifteen minutes later, the Stalker lifted out over the Outback and shot off to the north.


 

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.

One thought on “Fireteam Freelance Episode 10: Swift Tilt

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