Fireteam Freelance Episode 11: Storm

This is Episode 11 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.

Storm

Adah’s hud began to flash, and she held up a closed fist. Behind her the rest of the team came to a stop, holding their positions.

“This is it,” she said quietly. She didn’t need to speak quietly, but somehow it felt appropriate, wrapped as they were on all sides by thick forest. “Time is zero. Now we wait.”

Their location was spot-on as well. Ahead of them the forest floor continued its steep climb up the hills of the Hokkaido Forest Preserve, seemingly identical to the dozens they’d hiked over in the last hour. But ahead of them, at the base of the next hill, was an invisible wall, one they didn’t dare pass yet. The outer sensor net of Piggy’s compound.

Because nothing says suspicious like having a massive home in the middle of an off-limits forest preserve, she thought as she signaled to the team to relax and wait. I wonder how much that cost in bribes to get.

But she understood. Piggy liked his privacy. Privacy that came with benefits for what they were about to do.

She took a quick look at the rest of the team, their armor smeared with a quick and dirty camouflage job to help them blend into the forest. All were loaded down with extra gear for the mission. Gear they’d hauled over the last eighty or so klicks of constant up and down mountains with almost no complaint.

Almost. Anvil let out a sigh over the comm channel. “I still say we could have landed a lot closer. If we have to call this off and haul everything back, I’m going to be irate, on it.”

“You’re already irate,” Ursa answered, her own visor turned skyward. “Relax. Japan is really good at this sort of thing. If they say it’ll rain at a time, it’ll rain. They’ve got really good weather prediction algorithms.”

“It’d better.” Anvil stepped over to a tree as if she was going to lean against it, then appeared to think better of it. “Tonight would be perfect.”

“Yes,” Adah agreed. “It will be. Just relax. Weather control and prediction isn’t an exact science. We wait.”

Anvil nodded and then crouched, probably stretching her back. Adah turned her gaze rearward, back the way they’d came. The ground for the last klick or so had been rocky and rough, making their cross-country excursion a slight bit more different. She could trace their path in her mind, back down the side of the mountain slope into a narrow valley before rising back up another of what had been dozens of the narrow peaks so far. The land of Hokkaido was like a piece of crumpled paper that had been laid flat across a table, all sharp rises and falls in all directions, thousands of small mountains twisting across the landscape.

Again, she thought as she turned her gaze up to the thick, almost ominous-looking clouds above them. Piggy likes his privacy.

There was only a single road that wound in to the compound, a narrow gravel path that wound almost a dozen kilometers from the nearest highway , just barely wide enough for a single one of the trucks that every so often made the journey past the various gates.

There had been a whole series of videos covering the road on the datawebs, ascribing the compound to a retreat of rich government officials, since they couldn’t actually get anywhere close to the location itself. Even the drive was private, bristling with cameras and security gates.

Come on … Come on … If the clouds gathering above didn’t deliver, then the whole mission would be a wash. Multiple freeweb sources had confirmed the outer edge of Piggy’s sensor net, as well as formulated theories as to what kind of net it was.

Granted, a few public records on the dataweb concerning the installation had helped too. Though none of them doubted that the sensors that were claimed to have been installed were far below what someone of Piggy’s power and influence had likely installed.

So … we wait. In the corner of her hud, the timer she’d set continued to run, now logging how long it had been since the timer had expired. Two minutes.

If the promised rainfall didn’t arrive in the next eight minutes, then it possibly wouldn’t. None of them would turn around, but the waiting would only become worse. And if it doesn’t arrive another ten minutes past that …

They’d have to abandon the op. If the weather report was wrong by so much, there would be no guarantee that the other predictions, such as how long the rain would last when it did arrive, would pan out. And if that rains stops halfway through the sensor net to the compound …

They’d be trapped, and a fighting retreat would be their best option.

“Wind’s picking up,” Ursa noted. “That’s a good sign.”

“It is,” she agreed. “The report did say to expect high winds.”

“And a little thunder,” Anvil said. “Of course, if they knew we’d be here, it would have been a lot.”

Ursa groaned. “Don’t tell me this is going to be a bad joke day.”

“It’s not,” Anvil replied. “I’m just looking forward to touching off these det packs.”

Adah glanced at Owl. The woman was standing where she’d stopped, examining the anti-material rifle they’d acquired in Australia. She’d pronounced the weapon “serviceable” and it was an older design, but they’d had the proper caliber for it.

I never worried this much about Owl being so quiet at the start of missions before now. At least she’d been able to confirm that Owl had been speaking with a therapy app, though she wasn’t privy to what was being said or spoken about. Not that she wanted to be, unless Owl chose so. The whole point of an automated therapist was that you could open up to an AI that wouldn’t pass judgement the way a human might.

Of course, you still had to find one that wasn’t going to immediately send whatever data it’d collected back to its makers, but that was true of almost everything. You’re a data point to be used, either for the good of the company, or for the “good of humanity.”

Wonder how much “good” any of those entities are doing today? The news feeds were locked down tightly now. Not that it seemed to matter. No one seemed sure what to make of an actual war between the megacorps and the United Nations. It didn’t appear to help that many places under control of both powers had rioted in response to the news, adding further fuel to the flames that were burning in dozens of cities around the globe. The major news earlier in the day had been the UN seizing of much of Washington DC in the US, only for the megacorps to rally and push them partway back out. During the process, several historic monuments had been destroyed, but the megacorps had managed to take back the capital building. Propaganda footage had been broadcast showing US congressional members addressing the nation from inside, though no doubt each of them were secure in the bunkers of the corporations of they were board members of, far removed from the fighting.

We can break the stranglehold. It was the only thing that kept her from feeling guilt for their role in kicking off the wave of violence. It was going to happen anyway. We get those schematics, and maybe this will all have been for something.

The wind was becoming more active, branches around them swaying with faint whispers as they swept back and forth. She looked upwards once more. Come on … Come—

I single drop of water struck the side of her visor, splattering and then beading up, rolling off to one side without even leaving a track.

Yes! She kept her gaze skyward, noticing little bursts of motion among nearby leaves that didn’t match up with the direction of the wind. More sign of the promised rain. Another droplet struck her visor, beading and rolling off. Then another. One struck her shoulder, beading but leaving a clear path through the dust on her plates like some sort of snake.

“Adah,” Ursa said, holding out a hand. “I think that’s the rain we ordered.”

“I think you’re right.” Already the frequency of the drops was increasing, the droplets growing fat and heavy. “Looks like a real downpour too.” A gust of wind swept through the forest, far stronger than any yet and making the trees around them bend and flex. “Perfect.”

“Move out?” Anvil asked.

“Move out,” she confirmed, turning. Already the drops were coming fast enough to pound out a faint rhythm against her helmet. She began climbing up the side of the mountain once more, occasionally wending back and forth to follow an easier line but for the most part simply striding ahead. The rain beating against her helmet changed from to an almost constant murmur, water running down across her armor and dripping from the ends in a constant cascade. A faint rumble echoed through the air, like a giant clearing its throat before assaulting the mount of the gods, and she smiled.

“This weather is going to be better than perfect, on it.”

“Agreed.” They reached the peak, the next several rows of mountains spread out before them. They could see the fury of the storm stretching across the forest ahead of them, a grey, shimmering shadow of rain and barely contained fury. “This looks like a real storm.”

They passed down the other side, the ground wet and slick beneath their armored boots, the sky groaning above them. They were just about to start up the next mountain in their path when Owl spoke.

“Sensor. Fifteen meters to our left.”

Adah ran her eyes over the forest floor, spotting the thin, almost invisible little device poking just up above the forest floor. A motion sensor, now rendered useless by the wind and rain. And the first sign of Piggy’s security net.

“Good spot. Slower movement from here on out, people. Owl?”

“On it,” Owl said, stepping past Adah to take the lead. “Follow.”

“You stole my line,” Anvil grumbled as they moved out again, slower now that they were inside the net. “That’s cultural appropriation, on it?”

“I don’t think Britain invented the words ‘on it,’” Ursa replied. “Billions must have used the words ‘on it’ before it became street slang.”

“Yeah, but it’s ours now,” Anvil replied.

“That’s not how that works.”

“Really? You don’t think so? You should read more history. That’s always how it’s worked, on it.”

“Now you’re just using it wrong.”

“You can’t say that, Ursa. That’s against the cultural appropriation laws.”

“Screw those laws. They’re vague and mostly targeted at off-world colonies anyway. And they’re vague.”

“You said ‘vague’ twice.”

“Yeah I did. I’m making a point.”

Adah tuned the banter out as they climbed up and over the next mountain, following a rushing stream, now almost overflowing its banks, down into the next valley. One more to climb, she thought as they began making their way up. And then we’ll be able to see it.

The storm was almost in full effect now, the glimpses of sky through the branches of the forest dark and grey, the light so dim that it almost appeared to be early night, rather than the near twilight it was. And everything was wet, from the ground beneath their feet, to their armor, to the bark of the trees around them. Even the air shimmered with cascading rainfall, reducing the distant mountains to blurry, wavering images. Like fresh ink paints slathered on a canvas.

Then they reached the crest of the next mountain, and the compound lay before them, bright lights holding back the fury of the storm but shifting as the wind and rain lashed against them.

“You know,” Ursa said as they peered down at the distant structure. It stretched below the ridge of the next mountain, stretched along the lee. “It looks even more like a fortress now that I’m seeing it in person.”

“That’s the idea,” Owl replied. “It’s supposed to.”

Adah traced over the compound, picking out details through the blur of the rain. The main gate is right there, she thought, following the wet gravel with her eyes. Those are definitely defensive emplacements on either side, just like we guessed. And they’ll definitely be at our back once we go over the wall.

Glad we hauled one of the portable launch platforms all this way. We’ll have to lock-in the target manually, since the rain is definitely going to mess with targeting lasers.

She moved her focus past the front gate and across the rest of the complex. There’s our entry point, she thought as she spotted the garage. Follow that into the manor proper. There’s the comm array that Owl will take out first, just like we’d hoped. And there was no physical connection for the compound’s systems to fall back on. Most of their phones will probably still work, since we won’t be jamming them, but that’s fine.

Further back along the lee of the mountain, the rear of the compound rose upward several levels. According to the construction plans, that was the main housing the place, where Piggy kept his offices, his personal rooms, and most of closer, immediate needs. And lastly, poking out of the back of the compound and over the side of the mountain, came a VTOL pad, open to the elements and currently home to a single aircraft. It jutted out over a steep, rocky slope that had been stripped of trees.

That’s where we’ll pin him. We start with the front, work our way back, and Owl will make sure he doesn’t escape by air. It didn’t rule out tunnels or other forms of escape, but … If we can get to the main part of the complex quickly enough, he won’t have time to get to one.

Still plenty of things that can go wrong. She ran her gaze back down the length of the compound, noting the concealed defenses, the way her visor couldn’t see past the security tint of the windows. Even with the rain, it meant that the building was far more secure than the official records suggested.

“All right boss.” Anvil stepped up beside her, crouching. “We doing this?” One of her armored arms moved back to the launch platform on her back.

Adah squinted slightly, her visor trying to amplify her view but not really succeeding  against the smudged distortions of the heavy rainfall. “Yeah,” she said. “We’re doing this. Spread out and find a good place for that launcher. Keep an eye out for cameras. We’re far from the compound still, but he’s a criminal, so he might be paranoid. Owl, you pick a roost yet?”

“There,” Owl said, pointing at a slightly raised point at the peak of the mountain above the compound. “That should give me a good line of sight over most of the compound, and it’s high enough I should be able to get into the compound quickly once I’m no longer needed there.”

“Got a good spot for the launcher,” Ursa called over the comms. “Anvil, bring it over here. We’ll dial in the shots.”

“Good,” Adah said, rising. “Meet Owl and I further down the mountain. We’ll find space for some of the mortar tubes and get them set up.”

“Not all of them,” Owl said. “We should leave two near the road. It’ll confuse them.”

Adah nodded. “Definitely.”

She let Owl take the lead once more, following her path carefully down the steep mountainside and marking each sensor and camera with her CNC net so that Ursa and Anvil could follow their path. More than once they were forced to crawl or backtrack as Owl found cameras, but bit by bit, the stock of disposable mortars each of them carried shrank until at last Adah was carrying none at all.

“I’ll break west,” Owl said, pulling one of the two remaining mortars from her back. “Plant these by the road. Don’t move until I’m in position.”

“We won’t.” Adah watched as Owl moved off among the trees, silent and almost invisible. She turned her gaze upward, water sluicing off her visor. The weather could not be more perfect.

Another flash of lightning crawled across the sky, jagged, white-hot fingers of angry electrical energies that lit the forest. Anvil and Ursa slipped out of the trees. “Launcher set.”

“Good.” She tilted her head toward the compound. “Let’s go.”

The minutes passed, rain beating down on them as they crawled up the side of the mountain, moving in utmost silence now that they were so close to their goal. The trees began to thin out, the ground beneath their boots changing to mud and gravel, and then …

The outer edge of the compound was before them, a bare wall of concrete that rose up into the air, topped by the out wall of the compound, made from cut stone rather than plain concrete. Water was sluicing down from gutters, faint tracks showing the wear of years of use. The water splattered around the bare gravel at the base of the wall, droplets flying in all directions.

And absolutely blinding the small motion sensors someone had placed at the base. Adah smiled. Perfect.

She drew her rifle, carefully undocking it from her back and checking to make sure it was ready to go. Satisfied it was loaded and cocked, she slipped it back into place, eyeing the jump they’d need to make to reach the top of the wall.

Six meters to the base of the actual compound wall. And the wall is another four at least. Ten meters, plus a little more.

Her eyes fixed on the edges of the curved “tiles” that made up the top of the wall, water pouring out of the gullies between them. And I can’t grab those because they’re absolutely going to be made to hold very little weight, just to keep someone from doing exactly what we’re about to do. Plus, there’s bound to be some sort of simple defenses past that. Pressure spikes maybe.

Maybe not. Still it wasn’t worth the risk. Good thing we’re not going over the wall. She glanced to her side, where Anvil had crouched on the ground, carefully assembling something in her hands. A few seconds later she pulled her arm back, a small det-pack held in her hand, and gave Adah a nod.

Ready. Adah nodded back, then got the same motion from Ursa. So close to the wall it wasn’t worth the risk of speaking, even with the frequencies they used and the storm, there was still an extremely faint chance that someone would pick up the signal in some form and wonder where it was coming from. Or worse, conclude a risk and lock down the compound.

Any moment now. The sky rumbled once more, flashes of light lighting the compound.

And then with an angry hiss, the first missile shot by almost overhead, slamming into the emplacements around the front gate and detonating with the roar of an angry god.

“Go!” Anvil’s arm was already in motion, hurling the det-pack up into the outer wall, where it stuck fast against the stones. A light on the side began to blink, even as another missile rocketed across the valley, slamming into the other side of the gate and blowing the checkpoint outward in a burst of flame and fire.

The det-pack did its job a second later, adding yet another titanic whump to the still echoing explosions, the sound so heavy she could feel it in her chest. Shattered stone and masonry flew outward, revealing a gaping hole in the wall. By the time Adah had risen from her crouch, Ursa was already halfway across the space between the forest and the base of the wall, arms and legs pumping. Then she leaped, easily reaching the base of the stone and pulling herself up and through the breach the team had just made.

Adah followed her, pushing off and then kicking off of the wall for good measure, rising through the air and easily rolling into the hole the team had carved. She came up with one hand on the butt of her rifle, eyes racing to take in the compound …

And was greeted with chaos. A mere dozen feet away someone lay on the ground, almost completely pulverized by the outward explosion of rock and stone. Another body lying nearby, this one armored but missing most of their head, showed that Owl had already gone to work.

As should I. She stepped away from the hole, clearing way for Anvil, and crouched, drawing her rifle and already sighting in on the nearest bit of motion.

There was plenty to choose from. The surprise attack had caught the compound off-guard, but there were still a number of hostile targets. As well as signs of activity along the back walls, defensive emplacements that were being brought online. Some of them were for use on heavier targets, but some …

Worry later! Her rifle kicked as she fired, a small cluster of shots slamming into a truly massive guard dog that had been running across the compound. It stumbled, but the shots didn’t bring it down. Another flash of lightning showed her that Ursa was currently locked in what looked like melee combat with another of the dogs, and it wasn’t winning. She fired again, her shots this time striking the beast in the front legs and tripping it up. A mortar slammed down atop the distant wall of the compound, blowing apart one of the deploying defenses. Another, an automated turret, simply came apart as a shot from Owl’s AMR ripped it apart.

She ignored the dog for the moment, firing instead at an armored figure taking cover behind some sort of decorative statue but missing. One of the doors to the ruined gatehouse blasted open, another armored figure appearing around the doorway with an MMR tracking in her direction.

A grenade from Anvil’s new launcher sailed right past them and into the remains of the gatehouse, and then the world went mad as all of it, the armored soldier, his weapon, rubble, and even the rain in the air rocketed outward as if pushed by the hand of a giant.

“Woo!” Anvil’s shout of joy echoed across the com net as she fired again, the shell this time landing in the mud by the defender taking cover. It was almost as if an invisible bubble appeared, pushing everything out and away from it.

Including both her initial target and their cover. She fired as they flew through the air, her shots working their way across their form. Blood spewed from them as they penetrated their skinsuit.

More mortars were crashing down now, assisted in their descent by Owl’s positioning. A truck parked outside the garage took a round squarely in the back of its bed, shredding the metal and throwing back the few people that had been taking cover behind it with screams and shouts. Another of Anvil’s grenades went off beneath it a moment later, launching the entire mass of metal into the air where it hung for a moment before crashing down on its side.

“Garage!” she shouted, firing on the guard that had survived the gatehouse where they were lying in the mud. “Breach!”

Anvil and Ursa were already moving, the latter leaving one of the monstrous dogs in her wake, head bent at an odd angle. A door on the far side of the front grounds opened, and Adah fired, someone jerking back as her shots whizzed through the open doorway.

Anvil reached the garage doors and slapped another det-pack on them, shifting to the side. “Breach!” Another heavy whump echoed across the compound, mixing with the cracks of the mortars as the det-pack blew the garage door to pieces. Without even looking through the opening, Anvil fired another of her grenades through.

Adah didn’t miss the sudden array of outward bulging dents that appeared in the two remaining garage doors when the grenade went off. Nor the shouts and screams of panic, which only multiplied when Ursa dove through a second later.

Twin howls announced the arrival of more dogs, and she spun, covering Anvil and Ursa. More mortars rained down atop the compound, slamming into the roof and sending ceramic tiles spinning through the air. Smaller pieces bounced off of her armor as she fired, cracking further apart against her plates. One dog went down, skidding across the ground as her magazine went dry, and she reloaded in one smooth motion, drawing a bead on the other monstrous dog as it rushed toward her.

Until its entire, heavily-muscled midsection blew apart, the AMR bullet that had done it punching into the ground a few feet past and splashing mud everywhere. The beast convulsed, still managing several steps before crashing to the ground, and Adah fired a burst of shots into its bony skull for good measure.

I hate security dogs, she thought, giving the rest of the courtyard a quick once over. The door that had opened before was shut again, probably out of a survival instinct. Gene-tweaked monstrosities.

“VTOL is down, courtyard appears clear,” Owl stated, her words cool and methodical. “Covering the main structure.”

“Affirmative. Heading in.” She gave the courtyard one final look, then turned and dove through the twisted remains of the garage door after Ursa and Anvil.

*             *             *

Ursa almost stopped in shock as she entered the massive garage, taking in the chaos with wide eyes. Those weird grenades really messed things up.

Almost stopping was not the same as actually stopping, however. To her right an armored figure was already shoving themselves to their feet from where Anvil’s grenade had flung them against the garage doors. Ursa pivoted on one foot, rotating as she stepped toward them and wrapping her hand around their wrist, twisting it down and to the side. She carried her momentum on, using her other elbow to block the figure’s attempt at retaliation with their other hand, then brought her head forward, slamming her armored forehead into her target’s visor. There was a crack as their head snapped back, a thin line running across the non-reflective visor.

She continued forward, the hand that held the wrist going low and jerking their body around as their arm reached the limits of its flexibility, lifting them from the ground. She let go with a final flick of the wrist, shoving them forward … And then planted a boot in their back, her kick launching them across the garage and right into the front corner of one of the flat-nosed trucks. Metal and plastic bent and warped, the windshield shattering as her for slammed into it.

She darted forward, grabbing the back of their head as they attempted to rise and slamming them further into the body of the truck. Part of her mind could see several other threats in the garage, but Anvil was at her back, as well as Adah. As long as she could move if she was fired on the current foe was her priority.

Even as she slammed their head into the truck once more, shoving it through the metal body, they snapped a leg out and back, catching her in the side and almost knocking her off balance. She snapped an elbow back, knocking the foot down, then caught it by the ankle on the rebound and pulled. With a screech of composite plate being pulled over metal, she ripped the guard out of the front of the truck, pivoting once more to whip them up and over her head, then down into the concrete floor of the garage.

They hit hard enough for their plate to chip out small bits out of the floor. She kicked them over, then dropped to her knees, hammering blows into their cracked faceplate until it shattered.

For a second, she almost hesitated. But the bleeding, dazed, and angry figure inside the armor, their hand twitching for the pistol at their hip wasn’t just some soldier. He’s a trafficker. Of children.

She rose, drawing her Rezzer in one smooth motion and putting a shot right through the remains of the guard’s visor. Then she turned, already searching for more threats. They weren’t hard to find.

The garage had been home to two luxury vehicles and three trucks, with space for three more. Anvil’s grenade had shoved four vehicles to their sides, catching at least one unarmored soul between a truck and the next nearest vehicle. They were already dead, though a pistol still held in one hand showed they’d been intending to end up that way anyway.

Several defenders were already dead, and as she watched Anvil shoved one of the trucks to one side, scattering an armored guard behind it and forcing them to jump free or be crushed. A burst of shots from Adah cut the figure down.

Motion caught her eye and she spun as a mechanic dove out from behind the wrecked truck, a wrench held over his head. She didn’t even bother shooting, sidestepping his wild dash and slamming the butt of the Rezzer into the back of his head with enough force to crack his skull.

These people are crazy. She broke around the far side of the truck, moving quickly and drawing fire from another random member of the household. Two pistol shots broke against her side, not even penetrating her skinsuit. She saved her shells, knocking the woman’s pistol from their grip with a single swing and caching her face with a backswing. Bone cracked, the woman going down hard.

She came around the back end of the truck, Rezzer at the ready, but Anvil and Adah had already cleared the rest of the garage. It wasn’t hard to see where they were heading either: An open door at the back of the garage that moved deeper into the compound. And both were moving at a run, Anvil not even slowing as she fired another one of her odd grenades through the doorway.

A moment later a chair came flying out, missing Anvil’s head by less than a meter. “Maybe you should be more careful with that thing,” Adah suggested as she fired. Ursa caught up to them as they entered the doorway and caught sight of another slumped figure with a pistol, the target of Adah’s last barrage.

“These people are crazy,” she remarked as they hurried through what looked like a supply room of some kind. There was another door at the back which, according to the map on her hud, led further into the compound. “They’re not even wearing armor.”

They were a few steps from the door when it burst open, a large man holding an SMG twisting to bring his weapon up in the wake of his shoulder charge. Anvil batted him aside without pause, the force of the blow enough that he caved in several of the shelves as he hit, slumping. Adah slowed only enough to scoop up his SMG and eject the magazine.

“Armor-piercing ammo,” she said as they continued into what looked like a back of house area. So far the layout was lining up nicely with the official plans. “Watch yourself. Third door.”

Ursa cut ahead of Anvil, her Rezzer leading as they passed doors one and two, Anvil slowing only long enough to attach det-packs to both doors. The first quarter of the compound was mostly security and public meeting spaces. We need to be deeper in, to get to Piggy’s home and past the “show floor.” They’d found the space on the map and been confused until Owl had noted what the “dance space” was probably used for.

She paused outside the third door, pressing herself against the wall and counting in her head. Twin whumps echoed down the hall in near perfect synchronization as the pair of det-packs did their work, pulverizing the other two doors and shotgunning the rooms beyond. Ursa gave the explosions two seconds to clear, then bashed the third door open, sweeping her Rezzer up and firing almost instantly, catching a distracted—and armed—staff member down.

With a howl, a guard dog slammed into her, bearing her down to the ground, its long fangs just inches from her throat, and only then because she was pressing back against its heavy bulk. Anvil slammed into the creature’s side, knocking it off her and sending it slamming into a decorated wall hard enough to leave an imprint. Ursa brought her Rezzer up and fired, splinter rounds shredding the creature’s face and eliciting a pained howl.

Not that the injury stopped it. it pushed away from the wall, blood streaming down its muzzle, and lunged for Anvil. But deadly as the creature was, it was no match for an armored exosuit. Anvil brought both hands down clasped together atop the thing’s back, the blow driving it into the floor with enough force that Ursa heard the floorboards crack and give way. The thing mewled almost pitifully, then slumped, its spine shattered.

“I hate those things,” Anvil said, turning. “Made by complete croupers.”

“Don’t disagree.” Ursa moved for the next door, reloading her spent shells as she moved. Adah took point, kicking the door open and firing instantly, her shots shredding a luxurious couch and the staff member that had been taking cover behind it. The three of them fanned into the room, clearly a public meeting area for Piggy to speak with clients or do business. Just like the diagrams indicated.

The doors to the forward part of the compound burst open, two armored figures charging in with guns at the ready. Ursa threw herself to the side, firing but missing. A familiar whump echoed beneath the gunfire, and she had just enough time to identify one of Anvil’s grenades flying toward the two and work out how close they were before flattening herself out against the floor.

The world flipped, down still there but suddenly far less important than the force pushing her to one side. It lasted only the briefest moment, but her stomach lurched at the strange sensation, even after the change had vanished as quickly as it had come. One of the room’s couches flew by overhead, passing her as her slide against the carpet came to a stop. One of the armored guards flew by as well, and she fired, catching them in the leg and adding to their tumble.

Then she was sitting up, still tracking the tumbling guard and firing again, this time catching them in the midsection. From the blood both shots had penetrated the armor, but neither was a killing blow that she could see. Anvil grabbed the other figure out of the air, slamming them into the ground and crushing them beneath her armored fingers.

Ursa kept firing as her target slammed to the ground, rolling but obviously still attempting to take control. Until a shot clipped him in the arm. A couch flew through the air, aimed at no one, and it took her a second to realize that Adah had thrown it off.

During that same second she put two more shells into her target, who slumped at last, body going limp on the floor. Ursa climbed to her feet in time with Anvil rising, her own target’s chest crushed in.

“Anyone injured?” Adah asked, glancing at both of them. “No? Then let’s move, and warn before you fire like that again.”

“On it,” Anvil replied as they burst through the back door to the meeting area, moving down a short hall and then stepping into—

“Oh, I’m going to be sick,” Ursa said as she saw the recliners, the small stage, and the massive viewscreens behind it. There was no doubting what the room had been for. Special clients.

“There’s activity in Piggy’s office,” Owl said over the comms. “I’m getting some motion through the glass. He may be trying to rabbit.”

“Move.” Adah’s command was quick and curt, all of them rushing past the stage toward the ornate doors on the far side of the room. “We need to block off any way down.”

The next room they passed into looked more like living space, if a bit large. A bar occupied one corner of the room. This is different from what was on the plans, but not by much. Which meant that at the end of the next hall …

There. The elevator doors. Unguarded and—

Four guns dropped down from the ceiling, barrels swinging in the team’s direction. Ursa threw herself to the side, smashing into and then partially through the wall of the hall, one hand already reaching for the grenades. She yanked the pin out with her thumb, hurling the device down the hall even as bullets tore through the sheetrock by her head. With a crack she could barely hear over the gunfire, thick, disruptive smoke filled the hall.

The guns kept firing, then began spraying wildly. Controlled then, not automated. And whoever was manning them was simply burning through ammo.

A cascade of shrieks filled the air as Anvil’s MMR battery fired, a barrage of micro-missiles swirling through the smoke and detonating. Three of the guns went silent, and a second later the last one died as well.

It could be a trick. But she shoved herself out of the wall anyway, rushing through the smoke at a sprint to close on the guns, docking her shotgun on her back. Bursting out of the other side revealed an utterly destroyed waiting area before the elevator, as well as perforated elevator doors … but only two destroyed guns. The other two were safe and sound behind forward-facing hard-light emitters.

Now that’s new. Both swiveled toward her but didn’t fire, the shields still up. Very new. She jumped, locking her hands around one of the turrets and flipping herself up so her feet were braced on the ceiling.

The she heaved, twisting her upper body and pushing. The gun creaked, groaned … and then with a snap the housing broke apart, the weapon spinning freely and barrel pointing to the ground. She dropped, flipping to land on her feet by the elevator doors, hoping the remaining gun wouldn’t be able to track her.

It hadn’t, stopping almost where it could aim at her but coming up short. Ooh, someone cheaped out. She jumped, and a second later the remaining gun joined its sibling in death.

There was no time to stop and admire her handiwork, however. Instead she turned and ripped the elevator doors open, metal squealing. First she glanced down … then up.

The elevator car was at the top floor.

“Top!” she called, stepping back to make way as Anvil rushed out of the smoke, her launcher at the ready.

“Just the one car?” Adah asked as Anvil leaned out into the shaft.

“Just the one,” she confirmed, heading for a nearby set of stairs that wrapped their way around a shaft of their own for the second floor before vanishing into the ceiling of the third. She drew her Rezzer, holding it at the ready—and not a moment too soon as someone poked a pistol over the wooden railing of the steps about to fire—

Her shot ripped the railing to pieces and tore through them. They fell back, out of sight.

Another chorus of shrieks mixed with explosions announced the firing of Anvil’s shoulder battery once more, and Ursa stepped back, glancing at both her and Adah to confirm that the elevator was out of—

“You’re hit,” she said, spotting the holes in Anvil’s armor.

“Just the suit. Mostly. Nothing I can’t handle.”

She nodded. If she says she can handle it, she can handle it.

“Stairs, then,” Adah ordered. “Now.”

“Someone’s back in the office,” Owl reported as they pounded up the carpeted steps, passing a bloody body on the second floor. “I put a shot through the window and now they’re staying put.”

Ahead of them a closed wooden door marked the top of the steps and the third and final floor. Ursa slowed, then moved out of the way as Anvil accelerated, stairs shaking beneath her tread as she slammed into the wood with a crash. It splintered, completely unable to hold back several hundred kilos of armor.

Which only made it all the more shocking when Anvil crashed to a halt a second later, a similar, taller exosuit crashing into her from the side and wrapping her up in a bear hug. Ursa fired, the splinter rounds digging into the shoulder of Anvil’s attacker but not stopping them.

She fired once more, but then Anvil’s feet touched the ground and she twisted, jerking her weight to the side and making it hard to lead a shot. The pair slammed into the doorframe, wood cracking and splintering  beneath their combined weights. They turned again, the attacker’s back to Ursa, and she fired, several shots punching into the armor until the Rezzer ran dry. Anvil brought her head forward, slamming it into her attacker’s helm and knocking them back again, but they didn’t relax their grip.

The she fired a grenade shell straight down, and Ursa’s eyes went wide.

The shell detonated, Anvil and her attacker flying up into the ceiling, wrenching apart with a screech of composite plate amidst a shower of wood pieces. Both dropped as the inertia the sudden gravity field had placed them under faded, but Anvil had weathered the grenade’s effects far better than her attacker, who was visibly staggering. Anvil took two quick steps toward them, batting away a hand that came up to ward her off, and brought her other fist down atop their armored helm.

Burying her knife up to its hilt in her attacker’s head. For a moment they stayed standing, and then, as she pulled the blade out, fell to the side, smashing into the wall and staying partially slumped.

“I’m fine,” Anvil said before anyone could ask, wiping her knife on the wall and sheathing it once more. “Let’s get this pig.”

Ursa reloaded on the move, following in Anvil’s wake past the body and down a hall toward the room that, according to the map, was Piggy’s office. The door was open, exposing a luxurious office with a wide desk made out of some kind of dark wood, and behind it.

Piggy. Their target. Sitting calmly in his chair with a faint smile on his face. A smile that didn’t even come close to reaching his eyes.

In fact, it made her feel more sick than welcome.

“You speak English, I hope?” Piggy asked as the three of them entered the room. He didn’t at all seem perturbed by the missing bit of glass in the window behind him. “I sent my remaining aids away as soon as it became apparent they would do little good here as a show of good faith. Now …” He spread his fingers. “Do you understand how much trouble you’re in?”

“Plenty,” Anvil said. “Do you?”

“Please.” He was still smiling, but his eyes somehow grew even colder. “Spare me the theatrics. I have very powerful friends. Harm me, and they will hunt you to the ends of the earth. You’re already fools for having come here and threatened me. Now, let me tell you—“

Without warning Anvil seized his hair and slammed his head down on his desk, Piggy’s words cutting out in a cry of pain.

“How about we explain to you? Anvil said, unsheathing her knife and laying the point by his eye. “We have some questions for you to answer. We’re not patient people.” She yanked Piggy upright once more. “Starting with how you make certain deliveries.”

Piggy blinked, but then chuckled. “Whatever you’re being paid, it isn’t enough to save you. I have very powerful friends. Maybe you don’t understand—“

“We do,” Adah said, stepping forward. She nodded at Anvil, who let go of Piggy’s head. “We’re after one of those friends. Netra Bora.”

Piggy’s smile abruptly vanished. Somehow, the effect was more unsettling than the smile had been moments earlier. “You’re insane.”

“We know you deliver to her,” Adah continued. “Like you said, you have powerful friends. And they’ve given you access codes. Back entries. And information.”

“I …” For the first time since they’d entered, Piggy seemed at a loss for words. “I can’t.”

“We already know you have them.” At a nod from Adah, Anvil kicked Piggy’s chair back, right up against the windows, the storm still rolling across the sky behind him. “You deliver to her … once a week?”

“You don’t understand,” Piggy said, holding up his hands. “Just mentioning her name … you’re dead. All of you. Not just for touching me, but—“

Anvil reached out and twisted one of his fingers, breaking it with a faint pop, Piggy’s words devolving into a scream of pain.

One of the other entrances to the office burst open, a woman in suit entering pistol first. Ursa barely blinked before she pulled the trigger, cutting them down. A moment later a body fell out of another doorway, Owl stepping in behind it and pausing to wipe her knife on their clothes.

“You … You’re mad …” Piggy let out between gasps of pain. “You can’t be—“

There was another pop as Anvil broke another finger, and he let out another gasp of pain. Adah grabbed him by the hair, pulling him out of his seat and level with her visor.

“Personal clearance codes. You have them. We want them.”

“They’ll … change them. As soon as they hear of this …”

“No they won’t.” Adah threw him back into his seat. “Our employer knows how carefully you keep your secrets. They’ve been poking around you operation for long enough. Bora gave you codes, codes no one else knows about. Just like all your rich clients.”

“We want your logs, too,” Ursa said, stepping around the man’s desk and drawing a data ripper from a pocket on her gear. “But we can get those. Your clearance codes … those are personal.” She slipped the ripper into an open socket on the man’s desk, and the device went to work, bringing up a massive list of files. Thanks to Apatos’ worms, they knew exactly which ones they needed.

“Those … those are encrypted …” Piggy said, his eyes widening. “How?”

“We have powerful friends too,” Adah said. “Now. The codes. Or do we have to break more fingers?”

“We can just start skinning him,” Owl suggested, stepping up to the desk and drawing her knife. “Layer by layer … Or maybe we can find some of those gene-viruses they use on their ‘assets’ around here somewhere. Make him a little more … compliant.”

“No … I can’t …” Piggy looked back at Adah. “You don’t understand! You’ll never get away from them! Never!”

“That the same line you feed your slaves?” Anvil asked. “Because I don’t buy it. Just as untrue here.”

“They will track you down and kill you. Nowhere will be safe. Nowhere.”

Adah leaned in close. “The codes,” she said, her visor inches from Piggy’s face. “Now. Or we get messy.”

“They’re in my pocket. In a slipcase behind my phone.”

Adah slipped a hand into the inside of his jacket, retracting it a moment later with a small, thin phone. The backing came free with a faint twist, and a card fell to the top of the desk, bearing an UN logo.

“There,” Piggy said as Adah picked it up. “That’s the card. The clearance phrase that goes with it is ‘Pious Andronicus delivery.’”

Carefully, Adah pulled out a phone Apatos had supplied and held it up to the card. The screen flashed. Adah nodded.

“They cleared,” she said, turning to look at Ursa and ignoring Piggy’s look of wide-eyed shock. “How’s the rip coming?”

“It’s taking a minute,” Ursa admitted. “But it’s grabbing the files we need. Transport logs, directions … Looks like we’re getting it all.”

Piggy was sweating now, his face shining with a sickly sheen. Thunder crackled across the sky behind him, and he swallowed.

“You don’t understand,” he said again, visibly shivering. “Bora is … You’ve never met her. Or her guard. If you’re trying to get to her, she will kill you.”

“That’s our problem,” Adah said, pocketing the card. “Not yours.”

“They’ll never stop hunting you.”

“Again, not your problem.”

“Your employer is a fool. You’re all fools. Nowhere will be safe.” Piggy’s voice rose, his mask back once more with only hints of pain showing through. “They’ll hunt you down. The Dragon Bloc, the independent nations … No place on Earth will be safe.”

“Works for me,” Anvil said, stepping up beside him. “Our client isn’t from Earth anyway. Owl?”

“Wait! You—“ Ursa wasn’t sure if Piggy’s look of shock was from Anvil’s words, or from the sight of Owl drawing her pistol. Either way, it was the last expression he made before Owl fired, her shot passing right through his skull just above the bridge of his nose and blowing the back of his head across the large rear windows.

“So much for that,” Ursa remarked as Piggy’s body slumped forward in his seat.

“Good riddance to one of the worst croupers,” Anvil retorted. “When’s the VTOL arrive?”

“It pinged me a minute ago,” Adah answered. “Just the logs, then we can burn everything.” Her visor slid in Ursa’s direction.

The light on the ripper changed colors, indicating a successful copy. She yanked the ripper out, returning it to its hardcase. “Got it.”

“Start the burn,” Adah ordered, even as Ursa reached into a separate pocket and brought out a small drive. It slipped into the same port the ripper had been using, the light on the side flashing as it went to work, sending out coded commands to every worm Apatos had already slipped into the system. Overwriting every file they system had before bringing the entire thing to a screeching, crashing halt.

“Done.” The light on the drive had already stopped flashing, its instructions sent. “That it?”

“That’s it. Anvil?”

Anvil turned and swung a fist into the wide window behind Piggy’s corpse. The glass, already weakened by the hole Owl had blown through it, cracked and then shattered, sparkling under the light like drops of hard, crystalline rain as it fell apart. Wind rushed into the room in force, bringing with it a near wall of rain that instantly wetted everything it touched.

The path clear, Anvil took a step forward and hopped over the edge, dropping down out of sight. Ursa followed her, swinging her body up and over the lower edge of the window and falling out into the stormy night. Wind ripped at her body as she landed with a splash atop the pad, absorbing the three-story fall with a grunt and moving forward to make way for Adah and Owl. Both of them landed a second later behind her.

“ETA?” Anvil asked, already past the pad’s only occupant, her launcher up and at the ready. Ursa brought her Rezzer up as well, moving to the other side of the pad and keeping an eye on both the VTOL Owl had downed and the back side of the compound. There wasn’t any movement she could see save the distant branches of the forest blowing in the wind, but that didn’t mean there couldn’t be compound staff waiting for an opening to avenge their boss.

“Twenty seconds.”

An eternity. At least in some scenarios. She kept her Rezzer up, watching one side of the compound and the upper side of the mountain. Adah and Owl had fanned out as well, covering the rest of the pad. And a very long time to spend exposed. Her eyes flicked to the downed VTOL, bearing several holes through each engine and one clear hole through its cockpit, rain sluicing off its stubby wings and fins. Then again if I were hiding out in that cover, and saw someone coming in for an evac …

“Owl,” she said, speaking quietly enough that her voice would only go across their private comms, rather than be heard aloud. “Was anyone in the VTOL when you disabled it?”

“Not that I know of, but I couldn’t see inside.”

“Did anyone leave it after you downed it?”

“Not that I saw. But I lost visual once I went inside.”

“Worried it might be occupied?” Adah asked.

“No,” she said as a faint whine began to sound through the air over the storm, growing louder with each passing second. “But if I were hiding out in it, and someone was landing nearby to pull out, that’d be the perfect time to try something stupid.”

“Good point.” The approaching whine of the Stalker’s engines drew closer. “Clean it out.”

Ursa turned, her Rezzer at the ready as she moved through the rain toward the side door. The water gave everything a faint sheen under the few lights that were left, making everything look faintly reflective. Even the standing puddle of water beneath the VTOL’s port door, its surface rippling from hundreds of raindrops and cutting winds, still bore part of the image of the aircraft in it. She’d just taken another step forward, her boot adding ripples of its own to the pool, when the door shot open.

Launcher! Reflex took over throwing her body to the side as the lone figure inside the VTOL fired, a trio of small missiles firing out of their launcher with a shriek and shooting across the open pad. There was a faint bang as one of them hit something—what she couldn’t see lying on the ground—and then she was firing, her shots tearing into the unarmored figure and cutting them in half. The spent Poseidon launcher dropped from their hands, bouncing across the cabin floor and then out the open door. Two more bangs echoed as the other two warheads detonated, but the sound was distant, echoing.

“Everyone okay?” Ursa asked, twisting and glancing in the direction of the rest of the team, all of whom were pushing themselves up from the pad. It wasn’t hard to see the source of the first bang. The lowermost of the trio of missiles—or rockets, seeing as the shot had been unguided—had slammed into the edge of the pad and blown a small crater out of it. The other two rockets had detonated somewhere in the forest below.

Ursa jerked, her Rezzer coming back up as a sudden hiss and flash of movement started inside the cabin of the VTOL, but it was only a fire-suppression system activating in reaction to the damage the smoke and flame of the launcher backblast.

If I hadn’t fired, they probably would have cooked themselves anyway, she thought as she climbed back to her feet. Poseidons are not indoor toys. Not that model anyway. She peered into the interior of the VTOL, eyeing the now foam-covered leather luxury but not seeing any other sign of occupation.

“Good call, Ursa. That could have gutted the Stalker at close range.” As if summoned, the Stalker rose over the side of the mountain, descending toward the pad in a straight line, automated systems bringing it in.

Keep an eye out, Ursa cautioned, sweeping her focus over the trees. One close call is enough. She kept watch as the Stalker passed by her, setting down atop the pad. Only once the rest of the team was aboard and covering her from the doors did she turn and sprint across the pad, through mixed gusts of rain, wind, and air from the Stalker’s jets. She didn’t bother with the side doors, instead leaping up the side and entering through the cockpit, splashing bits of water and rain across the console.

She didn’t even bother strapping in, instead closing the canopy and shutting down the autopilot, taking full control of the craft. “Lifting,” she said as the VTOl rose into the air. She tilted one of the sticks, sending them sliding to one side and rotating so that their weapons were facing the compound. “We’ve got aircraft inbound, hot and noisy. Probably local peacekeeper forces or the equivalent. Two minutes out.”

“Cutting it close.”

“Agreed,” she said, her fingers on the triggers. “Anvil?”

“Can I at least watch?”

“If you can get the viewscreens up in five seco—“

“Got ‘em. Boom time, croupers!”

Explosions ripped across the compound, the roof of the garage splitting as the det-packs Anvil had casually tossed across the compound went up in synchronization. The shockwave rolled over the Stalker, the aircraft quivering slightly as the boom echoed through the airframe. A matching explosion, Ursa noted, ripped out several trees a ways down the road.

“Hey Anvil,” Owl said. “Looks like someone tried to take a truck and run, just like you said.”

Half the compound was still left in the wake of Anvil’s detonations. Almost good, Ursa thought. But not enough. She squeezed both triggers down, the Stalker vibrating as both its chin gun and its missile pods opened up in full. She slid the VTOL back and forth through the sky, raking the compound with wave after wave of fire, watching with a sense of grim satisfaction as the walls blew apart and then caved in. Something in one of the lower levels exploded, shooting debris high into the sky and once again producing a boom that drove the rain back like a grey wave.

“There,” Ursa said as she let go of the triggers. “It’s done.” Let ‘em sift through that for a few weeks.

“Get us out of here.”

“Already on it,” she said, the VTOL spinning under her fingers and leaping off through the storm. “Fast and quick.”

Behind them, the remains of Piggy’s compound smoldered under the heavy rain.

*             *             *

“You’re injured,” Apatos said as Anvil walked into the main room, which she’d started to think of as the “briefing room” despite not looking anything like most of the rooms she was familiar with that used the term.

“It’s nothing,” she replied, leaping over the back of one of the couches and landing on the seat. It let out a creak of stressed wood. “Just some burns, on it? Had a few close shots almost get through.” She patted the bandages over her side. “The armor’s in worse shape than I am. I’ll have it patched by tomorrow.”

Tomorrow. One wat or another this’ll all work, or we’ll all either die or have a very rough stay in a UN prison somewhere.

“All right,” Apatos said, still giving her a critical eye. “But is there any reason why you’re not wearing a shirt?”

“Yeah. I was bandaging my side and you said to get here  ASAP. What are you whining about? I at least put on a sports bra, on it. Or should I take that off too?”

“What? No!”

“You sure?” Anvil leaned forward, grinning. “I could also go for totally nude, but I’d want reassurance you weren’t taking pictures. Plus I don’t do shows. Just lounging.”

“You—“

“Anvil, quite antagonizing our client. She’s got enough to deal with.” Adah strode into the room,  her hair and face still showing signs of dampness from what was probably a shower. Anvil leaned back, but couldn’t resist giving Apatos a wink, grinning as the woman rolled her eyes.

Too easy. Megacorp types are always so stuck up. Probably had something to do with having to navigate a million rules and layers of bureaucracy just to wipe their own piss.

Owl was the next to arrive, her expression still worryingly neutral as she took a seat on a couch near Adah. Seeing the blank stare she gave out the windows while she waited did drive away some of the elation Anvil had felt getting a rise out of Apatos.

We really need to get her help. Some time to grieve. She still remembered how long it had taken her to recover after she’d lost her mother. Back when booze actually did something to me. Thankfully she’d pulled herself out of the spiral, but it certainly had been touch and go for a while.

And in fairness, I was never the same. Neither was dad. Huh, I wonder how he’s taking the war?

It was an unpleasant thing to dwell on, and she forced her focus away from it, first zoning in on Adah and Apatos’ conversation before shifting away when it was little more than a discussion of the assets the team had used during their raid. Logistical reassurance. We’ve got enough.

Unless we don’t. But then it won’t matter, will it? She almost laughed aloud, but caught herself. The room had enough instability in it without adding her own to the mix.

Hell, the world’s got enough. Their raid on Piggy’s manor probably wouldn’t even rate a report on most newsfeeds the way things were going. UNSEC ships had begun dropping troops from orbit into North America, mostly centered around major hubs in the United States and the Mexican Orbital Elevator ground station. The section in space had so far been able to avoid dispute with the mess of UN ships crowding the orbitals through various claims that the war was specific to the ground of Earth, but it was anyone’s guess how long that would hold.

Lots of fighting in South America too. And Egypt. The UAI seemed to be holding the upper hand there, despite UN attempts to access the orbital elevator near Khartoum.

Plus border skirmishes, rioting, internal dissention … A few of the freewebs had been running headlines about power shifts inside the United Nations in the wake of Pisces and how that could change their approach to the war. Given that there had been more than one of the articles she’d noticed in passing, it was likely a concerted effort by a small group to get to word out. But who that group was or possibly worked for was up in the air.

Ursa joined the team at last, still toweling off her head. “Sorry,” she said as she dropped down onto a couch. “I was still in the shower when I got the word. Thought we were good for the night.”

“I wanted to give you all as much time to prepare as possible,” Apatos said. Anvil nodded, as did Ursa.

“So you already know where we’re going?”

“I do.” Apatos tapped at her pad, the windows once again tinting and cutting off their view of the nighttime beach and moonlight shining off the waves. The emitters came to life, building a globe in the air. Earth. “You’ll be pleased to hear that between the various bits of data you’ve helped collect,  there was a commonality.”

“First,” she said, tapping at her pad. A series of colored lines appeared, crisscrossing the globe. “The paths of unregistered UN orbital craft, built from the logs you acquired. Twice.”

“Did us acquiring it twice actually do something, or did we spend bullets for nothing?” Anvil asked.

“No, it did,” Apatos replied, reaching up and poking two of the wide lines on the globe. “Not only did Areoline’s observations confirm many of the suspected paths from the data I asked you to acquire, they also narrowed several wider vectors further down, giving a general launch area … here.” Anvil watched as a chunk of the globe lit up.

“Still large,” she commented.

“It is,” Apatos agreed. “But the data you brought me tonight gave me this point in Northern Japan.” A new point flashed on the map. “Combined with some other nuggets of data like how long it was before his delivery aircraft returned, and what sort of queries they received from defense networks along the way. And what nodes they logged into while on route. Which, calculated out, gives us an overlap. Leading … here.”

Above her the Earth slowed in its rotation, the brightly-lit section shrinking down into a thin, narrow band.

Anvil sat up in surprise. “You’re kidding.”

“I am not,” Apatos answered, her voice level. “Though it is an interesting coincidence.”

“I’m with Anvil,” Ursa said. “It does feel almost like a joke.”

“Not particularly.” Adah stood, looking up at the small section of the globe as it began to zoom in. “It’s remote. Far from people. Most people never even think it’s a place. But it’s close to hubs of industry or research. And if I remember my history properly, was once home to a number of installations from the late twentieth century.”

The image continued zooming in, mountains resolving into more than just lumps of color.

“The more I think about it,” Adah continued. “The more it does seem like the ideal location for a black site.” The image stopped zooming at last, leaving the team with a somewhat fuzzy view of a weathered installation of some kind, overgrown and almost blending in with the trees and scrub brush around it. Several long, rectangular buildings sitting atop old asphalt, centered around a single larger building with a tower—Why is it always towers?—sticking high up above it. Cracks were visible in the asphalt around the buildings, bushes and other bits of green poking up.

“Officially,” Apatos said. “This installation is listed on every public space I could find as an old Soviet listening post from the cold war. Meaning that Neres is correct. Abandoned and off-limits as part of natural and historical preservation efforts.”

“Huh.” This time it was Ursa who rose, tapping a section of the image, her finger passing through one of the old structures. “That explains the look of them. But if that’s what they’re all from, then why does this one have a communications array on it that looks a lot more modern?”

“You can tell that just by looking at it?” Anvil asked, eyeing the collection of antennas. “I can’t.”

“Well, it is a bit of a hunch,” Ursa said. “But also, if you look over here, from my angle …” Anvil rose, following Ursa as she stepped to one side of the image, adjacent to where she’d been sitting. “Take a look at that. Tell me what you think that is?”

“I’d say it looks like an old radio tower,” Adah said. “Or what’s left of one. Overgrown.”

“Right.” Ursa stepped to the side, pointing at a series of square shadows in the ground. “And these?”

At that Adah shook her head. “No idea.”

Ursa smiled. “Mounts for radio telescope and listening equipment. You know. The dishes in the movies?”

Anvil frowned. “I’m not sure those are accurate—“

“That’s not the point,” Ursa said with a wave of her hand. “The point is that they’re gone. Removed. So then, who takes old equipment like that out … but leaves something that’s more modern?” Again she pointed to the collection of antennas sitting atop one of the structures.

“They do look like high-speed data channel systems,” Owl added, speaking up for the first time. “And there’s another set on that tower.”

For a moment Anvil stared at the image. That does make sense. Especially the empty bits. “And all that data we’ve collected points right here?”

Apatos nodded. “There are other installations in these mountains, but this is the only one that intersects with all the data you’ve collected.”

“Can we see one of them?” Adah asked.

“Well, yes.” Apatos’ fingers flew across her pad, the image suddenly leaping and blurring as it zoomed in on another collection of old buildings. “Why?”

“Comparison,” Adah said, eyes narrowing as she stepped closer. “But I think that clinches it. Anyone else see it?”

“I do,” Owl said. “No antennas.”

“More than that.” Anvil said, pointing. “All but two of these buildings have collapsed. When’s the last time they were supposed to be in use?” She glanced at Apatos.

“A moment.” Apatos looked down at her pad. “Nineteen … eighty-eight? Ninety? The Soviet Union’s records are somewhat nebulous.”

“So about a hundred and fifty years, on it. Any other sites we can look at? Just one more.”

The image blurred again, racing over mountains, valleys, and flat … What is that? Taiga? Muskeg? Tundra? It was hard to tell. New buildings leapt into view. Again, none of them had the antenna arrays of the first … not that it would have been easy to tell. Only one of them was still standing with a roof. The rest had slowly given in to the ravages of time. Or vandalism.

“So we’ve looked at three,” Anvil said. “And only one has the antennas. Or any buildings left standing. Or that tower.”

“Right. And there are a lot of ways to make something look old,” Ursa said, nodding.

“Then that’s it,” Owl said, almost popping to her feet as the image switched back to the first. “That’s the black site. Bora’s black site. She’s there.”

Adah nodded and looked toward Apatos. “Any information?”

“What I have, you’ll have,” the woman said with a shake of her white hair. “We’ll move tomorrow night. We can’t afford to wait any longer. You’ll have Piggy’s clearance codes to get in and do what it is you do.”

“Don’t chill it,” Anvil said, baring her teeth in a grin. “What we do largely involves killing or stopping people from being killed. In this case it’s the first one, on it.”

“Yes, well … Just don’t die in return. If we don’t get the schematics or the two I’m looking for, this is all for nothing. Even if you kill Bora.”

“We know,” Adah said, her lips a thin, grim line. “We’ll get the schematics. And these two people you’re looking for.”

“There may be other items there as well. Anything we can get—“

Adah held up a hand. “We know. Dump us everything you have. We’ll go over it, form a basic plan, and sleep on it so we’re rested for the final details tomorrow.”

Apatos nodded. “Very well. In order for this to work, I’ll need to leave several hours before you. Otherwise you may not have an escape route.”

“This escape route,” Owl asked. “Will we need communications with this facility to be operational?”

“No,” Apatos said with a quick shake of her head. “In fact, it’ll probably be easier if you take them down. The longer it takes for the UN to know we’ve found their secret, the better. I’ll coordinate the rest of the plan with you tomorrow, when you have yours. Good night.” Apatos gave them each a nod, and then turned and walked out.

Anvil looked back up at the image floating in the air. “Hell of a coincidence, on it?”

“Almost serendipitous,” Ursa remarked. “Does feel fitting, though. It all started there.”

“And tomorrow night it’ll end there. Weird.”

Adah shook her head. “Enough commentary. We’ve got twelve hours, maybe less, maybe more, to come up with a plan! If you don’t have your phone or a pad, grab one! We need a working incursion plan accounting for everything this place might throw at us. Force estimates, defensive emplacements, the works.  We brainstorm, we sleep, we hammer out the flaws. Twelve hours or less people!”

“And then we’re back in Kamchatka.”


 

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

 

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

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