Book: Apocalypse Austin
A Plague Wars Novel
THREE KINGS PUBLISHING
Copyright © 2015 by David VanDyke and Ryan King. All rights reserved. This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental. No part of this publication can be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, except for brief excerpts for the purpose of review or quotation, without permission in writing from the authors.
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Table of Contents
Alan “Skull” Denham strolled through the streets of Georgetown, a quaint section of Washington, D.C, known for its bars and restaurants in the environs of the university there. Even on a normal evening, the capital was a study in contrast. In some well-policed, well-lit areas, beautiful marble edifices and statues and historic Colonial buildings stood, while mere blocks away, criminals dealt drugs amidst the homeless in rampant squalor and filth.
There had been a time, Skull knew, when the capital had been largely cleaned up. Ever since Infection Day, though, political instability and the diversion of resources away from the rougher areas in order to beef up security around the elite had ceded larger and larger sections to the bottom feeders.
Tonight, an element of anger and confusion seemed to hang heavy in the air.
Skull slipped into a side street to avoid a raucous crowd storming out of a bar ahead. Talk of the expected Texas and Alaska secessions was further stirring up the populace already in the grip of anti-Eden Unionist Party propaganda. The common man, especially in the urban centers of the Northeast and Midwest, was firmly on the side of the government and its apparatus.
The possibility of a genuine split and breakaway was slowly changing in everyone’s mind from unlikely crazy talk to startling reality. Results of midterm elections showed that the Texas and Alaska situations were having powerful effects on voters. Unionists were leading in far more races than election analysts had predicted.
Now, the chaos at the polls began to spill into the streets.
Skull saw police stationed at the intersections. They gave off a sense of nervous worry, pacing here and there and craning their necks into the dark instead of relaxing and chatting to while away the time. However, he hadn’t seen riot gear or horses. No water cannons, clear plastic shields or tear gas. He thought they must be keeping those in reserve, nearer the Capitol and the richer suburbs.
By the looks of the growing anger on the streets, it was likely to be a long night for D.C.’s finest.
Skull hadn’t wanted to come back to the U.S., but after too much time on the beach, he’d itched for a real job. When Graham Kepler III, formerly the tenth richest man in America, had contacted him, he’d decided to take the man’s money and do his work.
Kepler was still fabulously wealthy, but as an Eden, had ended up in exile in Argentina when the United States had frozen his stateside assets. A prudent man, he’d seen the storm coming early, though, and had moved much of his liquid wealth into offshore accounts or non-American investments, mostly in South America and the European Union.
Even so, there was something that he wanted and could not get. That was where Skull came in.
It had been an easy job. Break into the man’s old, empty mansion. Open the hidden safe. Take the sealed envelope out. Return it unopened to his employer. Simple.
Skull patted the inside of his jacket to ensure the envelope was still there. He didn’t know what was in it, but Kepler had assured him it was nothing Skull would have a problem with.
Not that there was very much Skull would have a problem with. Unless it had to do with kiddie porn, human trafficking or genocide, he’d probably done worse himself.
There was a time he would have felt it necessary to open the envelope anyway, but his reputation was becoming quite valuable to him in certain circles, and he didn’t want to seem untrustworthy. On the flip side, doubtless Kepler knew that if he screwed Skull, he would meet a violent end in the not-too-distant future, or he would have to spend so much on personal security that his life would hardly be worth living.
The milling crowds on the street reached their emotional flashpoint, that moment when they transitioned from a group to a mob and all sense of decency and responsibility vanished. There came a crash across the street as one of them threw a chair through the plate glass window of an electronics store. Revelers cheered and rushed in to loot.
Skull looked to the end of the street and saw two immobile policemen consulting each other nervously.
“Why?” asked a small voice nearby.
He turned to see a tiny Asian man staring with wide eyes at the store and the people around him.
“That your shop?” Skull asked.
The man shook his head. “Someone I know. He works hard to earn a living. Built it from the ground up.”
Skull nodded. “Insurance should cover most of the loss. He’ll be all right.”
“But why? How does destroying other people’s property fix anything? What does any of this have to do with what’s going on a thousand miles away?”
Skull shrugged, his eyes narrow. “They’re angry and frightened. This distracts them. Easier to lash out like children than to face their fears as adults.”
The man shook his head. “I don’t understand how they can do it.”
Skull thought of the work he’d done on his uncle’s farm, growing up. How he and his family had labored on the sparse mountain soil in humid heat, day after backbreaking day. He remembered the pride he’d felt when that crop came to harvest. A sense of accomplishment and a job well done.
“They can do it because they’ve never worked to build or make anything real in their whole pathetic miserable lives,” said Skull with deep disgust.
An anomaly under a streetlight made Skull turn around. Though hundreds of people milled around, one man waited patiently, watching him.
“Good luck, buddy,” said Skull, striding abruptly in the opposite direction. He only saw one man on his tail now, but that didn’t mean he didn’t have friends.
Of course, Skull was wanted in the United States. His documents were first-rate and genuine – even if the superb false identity set up by Kepler’s people wasn’t – but if the Security Service got ahold of him, they might find a crack. And nowadays, with habeas corpus pretty much out the window, he might simply rot in detention, with no due process at all.
At least he wasn’t an Eden. That was the Mark of the Beast to the Unionists.
Skull turned another corner and crossed a street, checking for traffic in order to look behind him. Another man had joined the one he’d seen earlier, and they were following.
Ducking into a metro station, Skull used cash to buy a ticket with at one of the many machines and hurried to the train platforms. He knew if he were under genuine surveillance rather than merely catching the interest of some spooks, the team would be forced to close up around him fast, not wanting to lose him as he hopped a train.
He might have done just that, but unfortunately a train was pulling out as he came down the stairs, and no more waited on the double track. There would not likely be another for several minutes.
Finding a secluded corner of the platform near a maintenance panel, he watched the stairs from the shadows. The two men who had been following him came down and looked around. They conferred with two others who descended a different set of steps, and then pointed in various directions. One pair jogged toward the opposite end of the platform while the other approached Skull’s position.
He pulled back into the small alcove behind the electrical panel and maintenance access tunnel, flattening himself against the wall and watching them through slitted lids. There was no way they wouldn’t see him if they reached the end of the platform, but the longer that took, the better.
Skull waited for them to approach. The two men started when they walked around the electrical panel and saw the tall lean man smiling at them, hands in his pockets. They made abortive movements toward the firearms undoubtedly holstered inside their overcoats.
“Bad idea, gentlemen,” Skull said, removing one hand from a pocket. It held a gun.
They froze. “There you are,” said one of the men inanely.
“Here I am. What do you assholes want? Whatever it is, you’re not going to get it, but I have a curious nature.”
“We need you to come with us,” said the man Skull had originally seen on the street corner.
“You can’t shoot without bringing our backup, and there’s nowhere to go from here.”
Skull smiled, a rictus without a trace of humor. “I guess we’ll see.”
The other two men walked up behind their fellows. Now the four faced Skull as he placed his back against the wall. “We need you to put down the gun and come with us.”
“I’m not going anywhere with you,” said Skull, lifting the pistol and pointing it menacingly at the men.
When it caught the dim light, they saw it was a bright yellow high-quality water pistol, the kind you pump with air to power a hard stream of liquid.
Looks of surprise and hesitant smiles broke out before one of the men started laughing. Then the others joined in. “Oh, you can’t be serious.”
“I’m dead serious. You four freaks back away from me or I’m going to use this on you.”
The first man shook his head. “Enough fun. Go ahead and take him.”
As three men moved forward, Skull shot them each in the face with industrial ammonia he’d bought at a cleaning supply store. They shrieked with pain and gasped for air as they fell to their knees.
The leader reached into his jacket, trying to pull a pistol from a shoulder holster.
“No you don’t,” said Skull, squirting him full in the face. Skull walked over and kicked him savagely in the stomach as he lay on the ground. Then he administered a few more kicks to each of the fallen, helpless men. “Maybe you boys ought to give up on mugging. You’re not very good at it.”
“Agents down,” gasped one of the first three into a wrist microphone. “I repeat, agents down, move in now.”
“Agents down? Who the hell are you guys? Feds?” asked Skull with false surprise. He’d figured they must be some kind of law enforcement.
The first man struggled to open his burning eyes. He rasped through his raw throat, “You screwed up this time, Skull.”
“Shit,” said Skull to himself. They knew who he was.
He didn’t see any trains coming. He could jump onto the tracks and race into the tunnel, but they would block the ends and converge on him. His best bet was to make it out of the metro station before reinforcements arrived.
Skull scrambled across the double tracks and onto the opposite platform, taking the stairs two at a time to ground level. When he burst through the exit, there were half a dozen men with guns waiting for him.
“Easy now,” said a man near the front, smoking a cigar. Unlike the others, he didn’t have a gun in his hand. “We just want to have a little chat.”
“Then chat away,” answered Skull, calculating how many of the agents he could incapacitate before they shot him.
“Let’s go somewhere else,” the man answered. He waved his hand at the curious bystanders. “This isn’t the sort of place that gentlemen conduct business.”
Skull laughed. “This is exactly the sort of place I typically conduct business.
“But you’re not exactly a gentleman, are you?”
“You got me there. Just who the hell are you supposed to be?”
“You know who we are.”
Skull sneered, “No, I don’t. The men I left lying on the platform below didn’t bother to tell me. That’s a breach of protocol, isn’t it? I don’t have to obey the orders of four well-dressed muggers, do I?”
The unsmiling man reached into his pocket and produced his credentials, holding them open in front of him. “I’m FBI Special Agent-in-Charge Miles Vergone, and I apologize for my men’s breach of protocol, Mister Denham. I’ll make sure they are disciplined.”
“FBI. And you’re serious, aren’t you? About the discipline.”
Maybe this man was one of the Bureau’s straight arrows, the kind of guy that really would put a black mark on a subordinate’s record for not following protocol. Such a man might be dealt with, far less dangerous than an amoral one. Even in an America sliding toward a police state, some such men would remain, for a while at least.
Give it ten years and they’d be a rarity.
Skull suddenly grinned. “Well, Miles, why don’t we all just go our ways and pretend this didn’t happen? From my understanding, you suits don’t like paperwork.”
Vergone sighed. “Mister Denham, you’re obviously a clever man. Please consider your situation. You are coming with us. What condition you arrive in is up to you.”
“Since you put it that way…” Skull carefully laid the water pistol on the ground and put his hands up.
Vergone took a drag on his cigar and chuckled at the water pistol. “As resourceful as ever. Mister Denham, you’re a man to respect. For your sake, I hope you see me the same.” He turned to the rest of the agents. “Go ahead, cuff him.”
Governor of Texas Bret Tucker glanced around the small room buried deep within Austin’s Capitol building. He donned his famous smile, a smile filled with confidence and optimism, a smile that calmed volatile emotions and put people at ease.
Too bad I can’t calm myself with it, he thought.
Many had wanted this event to be conducted within the meeting chamber of the State Assembly and broadcast on radio, television and the internet instead of being held privately. Tucker had argued that doing so would be poking the bear of the United States – the rest of the United States, some would say – and that wasn’t something he wanted to do if he could help it.
Having studied the American Civil War, he believed that the South’s best chance had been to dig in and defend against the North. Make it politically hard for them to attack, and fortify, in hopes of drowning them in casualties and exhausting the Yankee public’s taste for blood and taxes.
If it came to fighting, that would be Tucker’s strategy as well.
The small conference room adjacent to his office contained only him, his wife Joanne, Deputy Governor Kurt Conner, his chief of staff Timothy Branch, Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Elmore Vonn, and about a dozen aides and staffers as witnesses.
Elmore picked up a worn black oversized Bible and turned to him. “Bret, you ready?”
“No, but let’s get on with it anyway.”
The chief justice cleared his throat. Those present fell silent. It wasn’t simply that Elmore was an imposing figure who commanded respect; it was also the fact that they were all in uncharted waters and no one knew what would come their way in the uncertain days ahead.
“Nearly two hundred years ago, our ancestors threw off the yoke of Mexican oppression. Against incredible odds they defeated the Mexicans and formed the Republic of Texas, with Sam Houston as our first president. A decade later, Texas joined the United States under the condition that they could secede at any time. Now, the people of Texas have decided to exercise that right. They no longer believe that the United States of America adequately represents them, so they’ve decided to reconstitute the Republic of Texas. Bret Tucker is the man to guide us in the same manner that Sam Houston led us so many years ago.”
That’s laying it on pretty thick, thought Tucker.
Tucker’s wife Joanne squeezed his hand. He turned to look at her and she gave him a wry smile filled with cheer and humor. He was struck by how beautiful she was, but it was becoming harder and harder for either of them to hide the fading wrinkles and hair that was no longer graying, improvements from the Eden Plague. Soon, they wouldn’t have to hide. Joanne squeezed his hand again before letting go.
Thank God for her, he thought. I couldn’t do this alone.
Elmore continued. “Now we are gathered here at the will of the citizens of Texas. They have chosen to execute their liberties and rights as a free people. They have decided that the state of Texas should sever its ties to the United States and become its own nation again.”
Tucker had to clench his hands together in front of him to keep them from shaking.
“We do not know what the days before us hold,” Elmore intoned in his commanding voice, “but only that we must trust in our Lord and each other.” He paused and looked at Tucker. “I have known this man for many years. There is no one I trust more in this time of trial and crisis. I am confident with the help of God he will see us through the storm ahead and into a safe harbor.”
Very poetic, Tucker thought. I wish I shared your optimism, old friend.
Elmore extended the thick Bible to Tucker like a waiter holding a tray, before raising his right hand.
Tucker laid his left hand on top of the Bible. The old leather felt surprisingly soft and warm, as if it had been set out in the sun. He raised his own right hand, straightening himself inwardly and outwardly.
“Please repeat after me,” Elmore said solemnly. “I, state your full name, do hereby swear...”
“I, Bret Samuel Tucker, do hereby swear...”
“...to faithfully uphold the duties of the President of the Republic of Texas...”
Tucker took a deep breath, “...to faithfully uphold the duties of President...”
“...and to the best of my ability preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the Republic of Texas.”
As soon as we get around to writing a constitution, thought Tucker. Another thing on our to-do list. Assuming we survive long enough.
He repeated the words.
“So help me God,” intoned Elmore.
“So help me God.”
“Congratulations.” Elmore dropped his right hand to grasp Tucker’s and shake it enthusiastically. Others in the room began to applaud more tentatively. “Now the fun part begins,” he said softly in Tucker’s hear.
“I don’t think any of this is going to be fun,” Tucker answered and then turned to the people in the room and waited for the applause to die down. “I’ll make formal remarks later that will be broadcast tonight. For now let me simply say thank you to everyone here. I didn’t ask for this job, but I promise to do the best I can.”
Tucker hadn’t planned the words, but he winced inwardly. The best I can. Do my best. His father had taught him those were often the first excuses of failures. No one cared about your best. They only cared about what you managed to accomplish. “Now, everyone get to work,” he said with his winning smile. “This promises to be a very busy day.”
Those in the room laughed nervously and began to disperse. Elmore, the deputy governor, and his chief of staff followed Tucker into the governor’s office.
Joanne slipped in behind them and shut the door, drawing some surprised looks.
“Don’t you ‘ma’am’ me, Elmore,” Joanne replied. “I’m not sitting on the sidelines for this one.”
“You’re not an official of the government, elected or appointed,” he replied patiently.
“After what you just done, neither are you, technically,” she snapped. “The cart’s already in front of the horse on this one, you old coot. If you want to stand on legality, then you can go back to private practice until my husband gets around to appointing you to whatever position he sees fit.”
Elmore opened and closed his mouth like a fish, and then smoothed his face into a smile. “Point taken, Joanne. We’re all operating without a net here. How do you see your role?”
“I serve at the pleasure of the president.” Joanne smiled at her husband before turning back to Elmore. “I’m sure he’ll let you know tomorrow. Today, I’ll just sit in.”
Tucker sat heavily behind his desk and offered the others seats with a wave of his hand, chuckling. He opened the folder on his desk, full of orders for signature. “Any surprises in here, Tim?”
“No. It’s all as we talked about. The first document orders all federal employees, including military and law enforcement personnel, who will not swear allegiance to Texas, to leave the state within three days or face arrest and deportation.”
“You sure that’s a good idea?” asked Conner. “The media is going to play that up for all it’s worth. Make us look like the unreasonable, arbitrary ones.”
“I know, but things are going to get bad before they get better. We can’t have people working against us from within.” Tucker signed the document and handed it to his chief of staff before picking up the next memo. It was similar to the first. This executive order stated that all federal property, including all military bases and equipment, now belonged to Texas under eminent domain, pending arbitration of payment of its value to the United States.
“What about the U.S. military folks?” asked Conner. “What if they refuse to come to our side? What if they button up and defend the bases until help arrives? I’m not sure threatening force will be to our benefit. The last thing we need is a pitched battle inside the state – excuse me, inside the Republic of Texas – before we really get started.”
Branch replied, “We’ve already run some statistics. Many of the active duty military stationed in Texas were actually born in Texas. They’ll probably support our independence. We’ve also observed a huge number of military folks take time off to return to Texas for the voting. Seeing how the results went, many may never leave.”
Conner shook his head. “That’s a lot of assumptions. Things could get real bloody in a hurry if they’re handled wrong. Do we even have anyone to take over the military side of things? That could be critical.”
“I have a few ideas,” said Tucker. “I’d like to talk to the candidates first, but rest assured I’ll get us the best man I can.”
“Or woman,” Joanne said.
“Of course, dear.”
“At some point you’ll need to run that nomination through the Texas congress,” said Elmore. “You’re talking about the equivalent of a Secretary of Defense. Same for all the other cabinet members you may be thinking of. That’s the kind of thing that needs confirmation.”
“We may not have time for that. I’ll put whoever it is into the position and call it an interim appointment.”
“That might get challenged in court.”
Branch frowned. “You know, Lincoln once said something to the effect that letting the Republic fall apart over one point of law was throwing the baby out with the bathwater.”
“I doubt he used that particular metaphor, and you’re quoting the leader of the War of Northern Aggression to me, you young pup?” said Elmore.
“He won, didn’t he?”
Tucker raised his voice and his hands. “Gentlemen, if I let you two lawyers argue, we’ll be here until doomsday.”
Branch sniffed, and then lifted the next piece of paper. “This order authorizes all reserve and National Guard forces be brought under the control of the Texas President for the duration of the crisis. It also directs all law enforcement and military retirees under the age of sixty, or who are otherwise fit, back on active duty.”
“Seems like we’d be taking in some old codgers,” said Conner. “What are we trying to do here?”
Tucker sighed. “We have to use Edens who volunteer. We can’t just cut them out.”
“Edens?” asked Conner. “Sir, I know your feelings about those people, but not everyone trusts them. I’m not saying lock them up like the Unionists are doing, but should we really let them serve in the military and in public positions?”
“Why?” asked Tucker. “Aren’t they Texans too? Don’t they have the right to serve their country and defend their homes?”
“With this Free Communities thing that Markis has declared, there’s already talk that Edens will have more loyalty to them than to the country. Our country now.”
Conner tried to speak but Tucker cut his vice president off, his face growing red. “That’s Unionist propaganda, designed to make people fear Edens. We’re not going to inflame or justify those fears by treating Edens differently. That is the end of that discussion.”
“Moving along,” said Branch giving Conner a pointed look, “this document declares a state of emergency for the next ninety days. It gives the Texas Rangers and other law enforcement more authority and power during that time.”
Elmore grunted. “You think the period of crisis will only last ninety days?”
“No,” answered Branch, “but it will give us time to get on our feet. If we announced a state of emergency and martial law for an indefinite time, people would balk.”
“What about our overtures?” Tucker asked. “Any responses?”
“Overtures?” asked Conner.
Branch shook his head. “To other political entities. Not much. I got a message from the European Union earlier. Unofficially they’re supportive; officially they must condemn us in order not to incite the ire of the United States, Russia, or China. They also technically have to support a fellow NATO member in crisis.”
“Because of the Edens,” said Conner. “You know this would all be a lot easier if we could get some distance from those people. Convince everyone it’s not about that at all. Make it about state’s rights instead.”
“Where have we heard that before?” Elmore muttered.
Tucker raised his voice. “But this time around, it’s reversed. The proud South, represented by the Republic of Texas, is standing for freedom, not slavery. The Unionists are the ones oppressing people just because they’re different. Therefore, it is about the Eden problem. We’re only in this corner because of the Edens and what the U.S. government is doing to them. Look at what happened in Arkansas with their Free State rebellion. There’s a whole portion of Texas that’s a giant refugee camp for Edens from Arkansas. They’ve formed up the remnants of their military into an Arkansas Free Brigade and vowed to fight on.” Tucker shook his head at Conner. “There is no going back. We’re committed to the Edens and we won’t throw them to the wolves. Besides, these are mostly Texans we’re talking about, the same people who elected us to represent them. I won’t turn my back on them to make things easier.”
“Speaking of Edens,” said Branch, “Daniel Markis did reach out to us.”
“Oh hell, that’s all we need. The glorified terrorist who started all this crap,” said Conner.
Elmore leaned forward. “I don’t agree with Kurt’s sentiments regarding the Edens, but are you sure it’s a good idea to ally ourselves with Daniel Markis? He has a lot of enemies, Bret.”
“When we refused to detain our Edens, we took sides. Might as well team up with our natural allies, what few of them there are.”
“Markis has shown himself to be more capable than expected,” said Branch. “Consider what he did in Ethiopia.”
Conner frowned. “Saving a few thousand refugees from a corrupt third world government is one thing. We’re talking about defending Texas from the whole United States.”
“Agreed,” answered Tucker, leaning forward on his desk toward Conner, “but he has resources, and he’s collecting more all the time. Besides, we must take our friends where we can get them. Damn few of them that there are.”
“What more do you expect to get?” asked Elmore.
“Alaska is also voting today on whether to secede,” replied Branch. “I have it on good authority that if they vote yes, they’ll join with us. And the polls are running in our favor.”
Conner sat back in disgust. “A small-time ally that will likely hurt us more than they help, three thousand miles away. We need something a lot closer and stronger.”
Tucker said, “Markis is in Colombia, and it looks like he’s picking up support in the South American countries. In fact, the whole southern hemisphere.”
“Also not close enough to us,” replied Conner.
“Whom does that leave?” Elmore asked, evidently with no expectation of a real answer.
“What about Mexico?” Tucker inquired of Branch.
His chief of staff looked pained. “The U.S. has already gotten to them. I think they really want to help us, and may even still be supportive behind the scenes, but they got the carrot-and-stick treatment to keep them in line.”
“Threat of invasion?” asked Elmore.
“That was the stick,” answered Branch. “The carrot was agreeing to pay off all of Mexico’s national debt as a ‘show of friendship.’ In stages, of course, to keep them panting for more.”
“A bribe, you mean. I can see how that would be hard for them to pass up,” said Elmore. “Not the sort of offer we could match.”
Branch made a face. “Even so, it isn’t terribly popular on either side of the border. The new academic elite in Mexico is tired of Yankee domination, and they’re talking about taking a stand. They also have a growing population of Edens and don’t appreciate their northern neighbors trying to dictate how to treat their own citizens. And in the U.S., the deficit hawks are up in arms at the cost, added to all the other money being spent on the internal security situation, the military, and dealing with the nuked areas.”
“So Mexico might help us after all?” asked Elmore.
“Maybe,” answered Branch. “If we can ease them out from under the U.S.’s grip and don’t ask too much of them too early.”
Tucker’s secretary opened the door with a knock. “Sorry to disturb you, but the final results are coming in on the networks. You might want to come see the reactions up north. What they’re doing. The things they’re saying about us,” Her face was stretched thin and tight.
Tucker stood. “I take it that it’s not good.”
She shook her head and burst into tears.
As she did most mornings, Cassandra Johnstone consciously cleared her head of concerns as she walked down the gravel path through the half-tamed Colombian jungle. The brutal rays of the equatorial sun were offset by the high elevation and trees that provided blessed shade. Brightly colored tropical birds flitted through the canopy above her, calling to each other in languages Cassandra wished she understood.
She’d decided to follow the lead of the Free Communities inner circle several months before and move her family into one of the newly built apartments on the more secure Free Communities’ headquarters campus. Assassination attempts from the drug cartels had ceased, but too many intelligence reports crossed her desk to think she and her family were safe.
Many groups around the world hated Edens. Governments often saw them as undesirables and oppressed them, sending them fleeing for other nations, causing a vicious cycle of refugee problems. The wealthy feared financial ruin as their portfolios of medical and pharmaceutical industry stocks plummeted in value. Drug cartels faced declining sales as in many areas the Eden Plague eliminated all but the most stubborn addictions.
And the Big Three – the U.S., Russia and China – viewed them as political disruptions, spawning deep divisions, even separatist movements, within each country.
All of these entities would like to see the Free Communities movement eliminated, and many were happy to use violence to do so. Cassandra hadn’t found evidence of plans for any large-scale assault on their Columbian sanctuary, but with her help, Spooky Nguyen had already captured several special-ops teams trying to infiltrate the area. With the help of the Colombian police, her people had also caught dozens of spies.
Besides, her kids loved the school that Elise Markis had helped put together.
Cassandra emerged from the high jungle trail that connected the housing area and the Free Communities headquarters itself. As usual, she paused and took a moment to appreciate what they had done.
Not too long ago, this area had been nothing more than a patch of ground given to them by the Colombian government. Then, after the initial clearing and leveling, stacks of temporary prefab conexes and shipping containers had been brought in for makeshift offices. A fence had been thrown up, and trailers had been towed in for housing.
Now, after less than a year of rapid work, it had begun to look like the capital of the global Free Communities movement.
Several impressive stone buildings rose in front of her around a large open quadrangle of tended lawns, sculptured hedges, and mighty trees carefully left standing. Two parallel barriers running through cleared ground fifty meters deep, all the way around, formed a continuous perimeter for the three-hundred-acre complex. High-tech security cameras monitored every inch of the fence line and Spooky’s security personnel guarded the two entrances to the complex.
Spooky, she thought, and sighed. Cassie, you’ll ruin your morning calm. You haven’t even had coffee yet.
Cassandra said hello to other Edens – no uninfected person was allowed in the compound – as she made her way across the quad to the largest of the buildings. She opened the door and felt cool air wash over her. The virus that had changed the world made it easier for them to withstand heat, cold and hardship, but it could do nothing about ingrained habits and desires for comfort.
Cassandra took a guarded elevator to the fifth floor, where the intelligence directorate of the Free Communities was located. When the doors opened, she walked into a large open room filled with an impressive formation of brightly lit cubicles arrayed around several open meeting areas. Few were in this early, but those who were present made a point of greeting their boss.
“Morning, Gina,” Cassandra said to her administrative assistant. “Do you mind bringing me some coffee, please?”
“No problem,” Gina answered, but gave Cassandra a worried look. “There’s a visitor in your office. I told him he would have to come back, but he...insisted. He does have clearance…” she continued lamely.
“It’s okay. Probably one’s of Markis’ aides needing something for one of those endless briefings.”
“Ah, no,” said Gina, but Cassandra had already moved past the secretary’s desk and into her own office. She froze in the doorway when she saw the small Asian man sitting on her leather couch.
Spooky Nguyen smiled at her. “Why Cassandra, you don’t look happy to see me.”
Cassandra forced herself to return the smile and closed the door behind her, walking over and sitting behind her desk. “Just surprised, Tran. This is the first time you’ve ever been in my office, to my knowledge.”
Spooky smiled a faint smile.
Was that just one of his subtle feints, or had the man actually been in her office without her knowledge?
She continued. “For all our usual interactions, you manage to get me somewhere else. Normally, your own office.”
“I don’t need home court advantage when there’s no contest. And it seems you may have taken some of our past disagreements personally. I want to assure you that they were never personal to me. I do hope we can continue to work together effectively.”
Cassandra laughed ruefully. “So…what do you want from me this time, Tran?”
A knock on the door interrupted them. Gina brought in a tray containing two pots and two cups. She set it on the coffee table in front of Spooky, and then moved Cassandra’s coffee and cup to her desk before departing.
Spooky stared at the cup of tea in front of him. “I didn’t tell her I wanted tea.”
“Do you?” Cassandra asked. “Want tea, I mean?”
He picked up the cup and took a sip. “I do. And it’s a decent blend. She must be very good at her job to anticipate my needs. Any chance I could hire her away?”
Cassandra chuckled faintly. “She probably pulled your file. Or she just assumed all Asians drink tea.”
“Perhaps.” He sipped again. “I must admit, you’re at least half right about why I’m here. I do want something, but I believe it’s in your best interest as well. When we cooperate, we make a formidable team.”
“I won’t disagree with that. My concern is that I can’t trust you, Tran. Or perhaps I should say, I can’t rely on you, which might be even worse.”
Spooky smiled. “As blunt as ever. The problem is that you westerners associate bluntness with honesty, whereas we Asians often associate it with discourtesy. You think you want bluntness in others when you’re actually looking for honesty. Just because my ingrained politeness and sense of privacy prevents me from telling you everything on my mind, don’t think that my intentions are always ill.”
“I like how you put that. Not always ill. Meaning sometimes they are.”
Spooky sighed and set his tea down. “We live in a brutal world. You know that better than anyone. You may disagree with my methods, but hopefully not the results or my loyalty to Markis and the Free Communities. Make no mistake. I will do whatever it takes to protect both.”
“You misjudge me. It’s not your methods that make me nervous. I spent nearly thirty years in the CIA and understand having to get your hands dirty to protect something you love. My concern is for your secrecy and your lack of true cooperation. It makes me nervous when I don’t know what I’m dealing with. Worse, it causes screw-ups.”
“Please allow me to be blunt in return,” said Spooky. “I hope you interpret it as honesty rather than discourtesy.”
“Your inability to trust me is your issue. I’m not going to tell you everything about me and everything I intend simply to placate the intelligence director’s desire to know everything about everyone. Frankly, I shouldn’t have to. Does Markis tell you every deep dark secret he has?”
“No, but that’s –”
“Does he clear everything with you beforehand and let you know his intentions?”
Cassandra didn’t answer for a moment. “You’re not Markis. You’re my peer, not my boss. I’ve always told you what you needed to know. I don’t think that courtesy has been reciprocated.”
Spooky smiled. “A part of you believes you must be suspicious of me in order to protect Markis and the Free Communities from me. Might I suggest that in the future you do not waste you limited efforts and resources worrying about me? We have plenty of other things to concern us.”
“Fair enough,” said Cassandra. “I’ll work on my personal issues, as you call them, while you work on your ability to cooperate. Now would you please tell me why you are here?”
“Of course. I presume you’re up to date on the recent votes in the United States?”
“Certainly. Not only did the Unionists sweep the U.S. elections, but Texas and Alaska have seceded. According to the federal government, they’re now in a state of rebellion. There’s not much else on the news.”
“I also presume you know that they’ve both reached out – separately it seems, but perhaps not – to Markis for help.”
Cassandra’s lips thinned. “And he promised to give it.”
“What’s your assessment of their chances of success?”
“Slim, but if you’re going to ask me to go behind Markis’ back and undermine him, you can forget it. It’s his decision and we’re here to advise and assist him.”
“I couldn’t have put it better myself,” Spooky said. “Markis has the vision and provides us his larger intent, but his vision tends to fail when it comes to the methods. That’s our department: making sure his goals get accomplished, regardless of whether he might like how we do it…assuming he has to know.”
“I don’t keep secrets from Markis.”
“Of course you do. You have a whole floor of secrets, and I doubt he knows all of them. You tell him what you think he needs to know and don’t bother him with the rest. I’m simply saying that soon there will be more of these things he doesn’t need to be distracted with.”
Cassandra crossed her arms. “You still haven’t told me why you’re here.”
“The Texas rebellion will fail,” Spooky said with certainty. “They have impressive resources and resolve, but in the long run isolation will ruin them. If it weren’t for the fear of the Edens they might have a chance, but no major power is likely to help them knowing they will gain all of the Big Three as enemies.”
“What a world,” Cassandra muttered. “China, Russia and America all agreeing on a major issue. I used to think that would be a good thing.”
“Be careful what you wish for.”
“Indeed.” She rubbed her forehead. “We will have to support them. Markis promised them help and you know he won’t go back on his word. I think you saw that in Ethiopia.”
“Of course. I’m not proposing that we fight Markis on this. What I am proposing is that together we play the long game and use this as an opportunity to prepare for the larger fight that’s coming.”
“You might be wrong. They could win. Texas is strong, and Alaska’s territory is too large to control. Stranger things have happened.”
Spooky lifted his lip in a sneer. “Alaska. All the U.S. has to do is occupy Anchorage and the rest is a sideshow unless Russia gets involved. As for Texas…it’s possible they could hold out, but even if they do win their independence, do you really think the United States will ever leave them alone? If they become their own country, they will face conflict and aggression until the end of time. They’ll be like Cuba without the ocean. Over time they will weaken and fall.”
“The longer that takes, though, the better off we are.”
Spooky lifted an eyebrow. “Texas will be our proxy.”
“Much as the Soviet Union did with North Vietnam, the U.S. did with the Mujaheddin in Afghanistan, or Iran did with Hamas. Supply them with everything we can, and let them fight on our behalf, soaking up American time and resources.”
“Taking their focus off us.”
“Just use them for our own goals?”
“No. We will really help them, but we will do it with both eyes open. Protecting Edens and surviving is the goal, not the independence of Texas.”
Cassandra closed her eyes and thought. When she opened them Spooky was still looking at her calmly. “We agree on that, then.”
Spooky sipped his tea. “We will use the time gained to prepare for the more important fight that’s coming.”
“The Unionists. Which in two years, when they take the Presidency, means the full weight of the U.S. government.”
Spooky nodded. “You know they will eventually come for us. Probably not alone. We must do everything we can to be ready when that day happens.”
“For intelligence and spec ops – you and me – you’re talking about source networks,” she said. “Subversion, sabotage, resistance fighters.”
“That’s why you need my help. I have the connections and the expertise to make it work without people ending up in prison or worse.”
“And I have the teams to take direct action when the time is right,” Spooky said.
Cassandra nodded. “Okay, but I have two conditions.”
“First,” she said holding up a finger, “complete openness on this. That means no bullshit like you pulled on the Ethiopian op.”
“Agreed. And what is the other condition?”
“That we do it my way, using clandestine methods, until I tell you it’s time for direct action. When it comes to protecting our assets in harm’s way, I have to have the final say. If you’re coming along behind me and changing things, it will only get people killed. Tradecraft and operational security are my areas.”
“I know you understand, Tran. I need you to agree.”
Spooky chuckled. “We’ll do it your way for now, Cassandra. Just remember that in the larger scheme of things, all individuals are expendable when protecting the whole. Even us.”
“I somehow doubt you see yourself as expendable. I know I’m not, if only because I’m needed to keep you in check.”
Jill “Reaper” Repeth made her way through what she thought of as the corridors of power in the Free Communities. Headquarters was a nice enough cluster of buildings, but she distrusted such places. Her few trips to the Pentagon had made her feel edgy and uncomfortable. Bureaucracy smothered clean, simple imperatives to complete missions, substituting shadowy power plays and manipulations.
Give her a simple job with a defined enemy any day.
No one had stopped Reaper as she walked into the special operations section of the building. Muscular men and startlingly fit women in dark uniforms had looked her over before speaking into their wrist microphones, but none had challenged her. That was likely a good thing, because she didn’t want to be here anyway. The first excuse she got, she was gone.
She’d trusted Spooky once, even admired him, but he’d proven himself to be one of the users. Reaper had seen dozens of those types during her Marine Corps career. Usually they were officers who said all the right things, but in actuality cared only about themselves. They would step on the backs of their own people to get ahead.
Worse yet, Spooky did such things unapologetically. When she’d confronted such types before, they typically had the decency to at least act ashamed or try to make excuses.
Maybe that wasn’t such a bad thing. It showed Spooky was honest, in his way. Or perhaps his bluntness was a double bluff. She sighed internally. You never know with him. If this is how he is as an Eden, what must he have been like before?
Reaper paused outside Spooky’s office, realizing she was nervous and hating that feeling. He’d asked her to come speak to him, and she’d accepted his invitation in order to prove she was over his betrayal in Ethiopia. Now she wondered if she were here for other reasons, reasons she wasn’t ready to admit to herself.
She opened the door abruptly, without knocking, and stepped into the large office. A television mounted in the corner carried a news broadcast, and Spooky sat behind his desk, watching the monitor. At the sound of the door, he spun in his chair and put his hand under his desk before relaxing.
Wonder what he was reaching for, she thought. A gun? An alarm? Nice to see I could’ve gotten the drop on him, though. He’s not invincible.
“Jill,” Spooky said, rising and extending a hand. “It’s good to see you again.”
She accepted his handshake automatically. “You too.”
Be on guard, she told herself. He’s a snake.
“Please, sit,” Spooky said and then turned back to the television. “Have you been watching this?”
Reaper looked at the broadcast after seating herself in a comfortable chair. The U.S. President spoke from behind his desk in the Oval Office. His hair was grayer than the last time she’d seen him on television, and wrinkles appeared to be spreading like cobwebs from the corners of his eyes. “I don’t have time to keep up with the fear-mongering propaganda. It’s the same old thing anyway, just with Texas as the enemy of the day instead of Edens. Keeps the sheep too worried about security to oppose their own oppression.”
Spooky shook his finger at her. “That’s a rather shortsighted view. It is important to study your enemy. They will often tell you much about themselves and their plans, if you only listen.” He picked up the remote and turned up the volume before Reaper could respond.
“The Texas rebels will be defeated,” the President of the United States said, using his most serious face. “Their illegal seizure of government property is criminal, and those responsible will be brought to justice. The forceful eviction of citizens who refuse to take an unlawful oath of loyalty to this rebel regime is proof of their illegitimacy. These traitors are not only acting irresponsibly but also dangerously. They seek to weaken our nation at a critical time. We cannot allow that.”
The President paused and softened his face. “Our nation has weathered worse storms than this one, and we will prevail. The so-called Republic of Texas has no more legitimacy than the old Confederacy did. Make no mistake. Texas is still part of the United States of America and the people living there are still American citizens. I urge loyal Americans within the rebel territory to refuse to comply when they can. Do not cooperate with this unlawful regime. Rest assured that when Texas and its people are rightfully brought back into the United States, there will be an accounting for every action that private citizens and government officials take. I urge you to make sure your actions can withstand scrutiny on that day. Similarly, I must condemn the leaders of the so-called Alaskan Nation. They are –”
Spooky muted the sound. “What do you think of that?”
Reaper’s tone turned sarcastic. “I have to admit that it’s really fun to hang out and watch TV together again, but I have things to do. How about you tell me what you want?”
“Haven’t you guessed already?”
Reaper crossed her arms. “I don’t play games. If this is some sort of roundabout apology for screwing us in Africa, then I accept.”
“Apology?” Spooky seemed genuinely confused.
“Fine.” Reaper sighed. “I forgot for a minute who I was dealing with. What is it you want?”
Spooky steepled his fingers together in front of him. “I want you to gather your team and lead them on an extremely critical mission. Time is short, so unfortunately you’ll need to depart soon. I’ve taken the liberty of making all the arrangements.”
Reaper realized her mouth was actually hanging open, and she snapped it shut. “You’re serious? How can you possibly think I would work for you again after what you did?”
“I’m afraid you’re taking those events too personally.”
“Kiss my ass,” Reaper said spinning on her heel. “This was fun. See you next year.”
“They’re planning to nuke Texas,” Spooky said abruptly.
Reaper froze at the door. “Be that as it may,” she said, looking back at him, “I can’t work for people I can’t trust. Find someone else.”
“There is no one else,” Spooky replied.
Reaper started laughing. “A little bird told me you tried to get someone else to lead my team and my guys wouldn’t go for it. I bet you’ll claim you don’t have time to train a new unit.”
“That pretty well sums it up.”
“Bullshit. You have your own teams. Use them.”
“I could. But I want you. You’ve proven yourself to be the best.”
“Touching. How is any of this my problem?” Reaper asked.
Spooky shrugged. “I supposed it’s not. I’m giving you an opportunity to prevent the death of millions of innocent lives, but if you chose not to take it, that’s not something I can do anything about. It’s your choice.”
“Double bullshit. You can’t put this on me.”
“I can if you’re really the best choice. If you refuse and another team fails, you’ll always wonder whether you could have prevented a disaster.”
“That’s hardly fair,” Reaper answered.
“Fairness is an illusion, an invention of the weak-minded.” Spooky said, leaning forward intently over his clasped hands. “It’s for those who whine and complain and constantly look for someone else to blame or take care of them. Every situation and experience in this vast universe throughout all of eternity is unique and different. Nothing is the same. How could fair even exist?”
“Because human beings make it that way by treating each other fairly. It’s something you seem to have missed. That’s why guilting me into doing what you want won’t work.”
Spooky pointed back to the silent television screen. “The President is in a very tough spot and is likely saying what he has to. The Unionists swept the elections of everything below the Presidency – Congress, governorships, state legislatures – but even before that, they were starting to pull the strings of power. Now they are firmly in control and they will force the President to do something drastic.”
“You make them sound more sinister than any other political party.”
“They are not merely a political party, any more than the Khmer Rouge or the Nazis or the Communists or the Taliban were merely political parties. They are the leading edge of a mass paranoia movement aimed at destroying Edens and all those who side with them. Now that they have power, do you think they will give it up lawfully?”
“Why wouldn’t they?”
Spooky sighed, as if Reaper were particularly dense pupil. “Because they do not respect the rule of law. They already have the Blackshirts, a paramilitary wing that attempts to intimidate anyone who dares to speak against them. All they have to do is accuse someone of being an Eden, and the Security Service – which has been deeply penetrated by the Unionists – will arrest them. Even if they are subsequently proven innocent, they will be stigmatized, facing loss of work and ostracism in their communities. Jill, within two years, the United States will have a one-party system, which means it will become a fascist state.”
“You once told me that fascist states can’t last.”
“In the long run. But that run may be very long indeed. The Soviet Union stood for seventy years, and has now been revived. Their adventurism caused untold damage in the last century and will likely cause more in this one. Like them, a Unionist America will turn their attention to the destruction of the Free Communities, because we represent everything they are not. Freedom. Tolerance. The rule of law.”
“That’s funny, coming from you. If you were in charge, I bet you’d be a fascist.”
Spooky waved a diffident hand. “Don’t mistake the guard dogs for the master. We both exercise strong authority in order to provide the ordinary citizen with the benefits of security. I have no interest in being a political leader.”
“Good. Because if you did, I’d have to kill you.”
“My, my. From whence does this anger flow?”
“I think it crystallized when a drug cartel butcher of a doctor was pulling two kilos of cocaine out of my abdomen.”
“You agreed to that subterfuge.”
“To complete the mission. Then, they betrayed us. I doubt they would have crossed you or the Mendoles cartel if they hadn’t been given some indication they could get away with it.”
“I assure you, I had nothing to do with that. They betrayed you on their own, and they’ve paid a steep price,” Spooky said.
“I wish I could believe you.”
Spooky shrugged. “It’s true, whatever you believe. Personal issues aside…the Unionists?”
“What about them?”
“Right now, they’re distracted.”
“By the Texas situation,” said Reaper.
Spooky smiled. “Among other things. I’m doing what I can to keep them busy.”
Reaper nodded. “With the cartels. Even more reason for me to distrust you.”
“I flood the U.S. with cheap cocaine, heroin and synthetics. These have little effect on Edens, who are not likely to become users, but soak up a great deal of the U.S.’s law enforcement resources. The drugs are tools in our fairly limited arsenal. We cannot be too picky in choosing our weapons.”
“This is all very fascinating,” Reaper said, crossing her arms, “but you still haven’t told me what you want the team for, why I would be willing to lead it, or how it relates to nukes in Texas.”
“I spoke of drastic measures earlier. Our source networks have indicated that the U.S. is readying a potential final option for Texas. B-2 bombers have been forward-deployed to Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico. It’s even been in the press, obviously as a warning to Texas, but what they haven’t said is they’re conducting exercises with nuclear-tipped air-to-ground missiles. Those weapons are highly accurate, virtually unstoppable by Texas’ air defenses, and won’t alarm the rest of the world the way an ICBM launch would.”
“I still find it hard to believe. They wouldn’t dare,” said Reaper. “Not on Americans.”
Spooky smiled patiently. “Don’t forget Los Angeles and West Virginia.”
“They explained those as terrorist attacks. There’s no way they could do that this time.”
“If they feel there’s no other way, they will not hesitate. The Unionists will worry about how to spin it after the fact. They might even try to blame it on us.”
Reaper felt her resolve weakening. No matter her personal issues with Spooky, he made a solid argument. “And you think I can get the mission done where others can’t?”
Spooky nodded. “Yes. We need a covert infiltration that can destroy, or at least disable, those nuclear weapons. They are a game changer that we cannot allow to be introduced into the equation.”
Reaper felt more sarcasm welling up inside her, but she suppressed it. Something within her was also pleased, even flattered. Spooky was asking her to do something that no one else could do.
“How do I know I can trust you?” she finally asked, more stalling than expecting an answer.
“Because I want this mission to succeed.”
Reaper snorted. “Like Ethiopia?”
“That was different. That was a mission rammed down my throat by Markis and Cassandra Johnstone. I didn’t think it was a good idea, so I attempted to comply with the letter of my instructions while bringing about a result I thought would be far more effective.”
Spooky spread his hands. “I thought those people were doomed anyway, and we might as well get some sympathy out of the situation. But I was mistaken, and I admit it. You pulled it off after all! That’s why I need you, Jill. Because you’re our best shot.”
“Are you sure you want me to succeed this time?”
“Of course. This isn’t about ten thousand refugees five thousand miles away. This is about millions of lives on North American soil.”
Reaper snorted. “Texans are more valuable than Africans?”
“To me and the Free Communities they are, because most of Africa is a sideshow with no effect on world politics. Texas, however, is pivotal. Not only is supporting it a good idea in general, it’s crucial to the long-term security of the Free Communities and Edens around the world. If Texas wins, they’re naturally aligned with us. If not, we need them to weaken the Unionists as much as possible before they collapse.” Spooky lifted a palm. “You’d also have the added benefit of knowing you might save millions of innocent lives.”
“I’m getting a bit tired of your heavy-handed manipulation.”
“You’re distrustful of me and I understand that, but things are what they are. This is our best chance to stop a very bad thing from happening. I trust you realize these opportunities don’t come along often.”
Reaper clenched her teeth. She hated to admit he was right...assuming he was telling the truth. What possible reason would Spooky have to lie about something like this? She would have to find some independent confirmation – or denial – of his assertions.
And she knew right where to get those.
The small Asian man stared at her patiently while she thought.
“Fine,” Reaper finally said, shaking her head. “I’ll lead the team on the mission, but the first indication I get that you’re screwing us over, I’ll abort.”
“Of course,” said Spooky, standing. He bowed slowly and solemnly. “I thank you.”
Reaper was so surprised that her martial arts instincts kicked in and she bowed in return. The moment felt heavy with purpose and meaning.
Spooky pulled out a folder and slid it across the desk to Reaper. Everything you need on the team and the mission itself are in here.”
She flipped open the folder and began going through the pages. She saw information on the team members, which was nothing new to her. She stopped when she saw a photo of a thin man with a jaunty smile.
“And this?” she asked, tapping the picture.
“A man who will get you across the border,” Spooky said. “He’s part of the network I have developed.”
“Your drug smuggling operation?”
Spooky shrugged. “It works, and it’s secure. Do you have a problem with the insertion plan?”
“I don’t like it. It reminds me of the Africa mission, but meeting up with one of your drug smugglers doesn’t hold a candle to carrying coke in my body to get into Kenya. That, I will never do again.”
“Yet it was an inspired solution, I must say,” Spooky said with a slight smile. “I understand your reticence, but it got you into the country.”
Reaper felt her blood pressure rising. She’d already agreed to do the mission, at least in principle. It did no good to get into an argument with the man in front of her. It was one thing to be mission-focused, but Spooky bordered on obsessive. She wasn’t likely to change him. She looked back at the picture in the folder. “How do you know him?”
Spooky’s head tilted slightly. “Maybe I should ask you the same question. It appears you have seen him before.”
Reaper slammed the folder shut and picked it up. “Okay. Let me digest all of this, meet with the team and get back with you. What’s our timeframe?”
“The nukes are already on station, but it will be three weeks before they’re usable, I’m told, due to some technical issues. So, the sooner the better, of course.”
“Of course. I’ve got work to do, so if you don’t mind, I’ll be on my way.”
“Certainly,” said Spooky with a smile. “I knew you’d see reason.”
“Don’t think this makes us BFF’s or anything. I still don’t trust you.”
“A wise view. It is best not to trust anyone unless you have to, but I hope we can work together.”
Reaper didn’t bother to answer as she turned to walk out of the man’s office. She was thinking about the picture of the drug smuggler. A thin, wiry man with ropy muscles. The facial scars were now healed and he was physically younger than when they’d first met, but the blue prison ink coiling up around his neck from the concealment of his shirt was unmistakable.
This was the man who was supposed to get her across the border, a man who had saved her life in a U.S. prison camp what seemed like years ago, a man she thought was dead.
The man she might have had feelings for, until she thought he’d been killed.
A man named Python, though she’d called him Keith.
Once, fate had brought them together.
Apparently it had again.
Skull sat in the brightly lit interrogation room, hands shackled through a ring on the heavy bolted-down table in front of him. He stared calmly at the large two-way mirror that filled the wall across from him. He imagined men staring back, discussing their new captive.
The FBI team had searched him and taken the thick envelope in his pocket. Skull vowed to make Kepler pay if he’d lied to him about the contents being innocuous.
The door opened and Vergone walked in, carrying a thick file and a steaming mug of coffee. The man set the drink and folder down carefully before he reached for the chair across from Skull. He pulled it out slowly, with a loud, prolonged screech, watching Skull carefully before seating himself.
“Save it,” said Skull with a grin.
“Save what?” asked Vergone.
Skull brought his shackled hands up as far as he could, indicating the room. “This contrived charade. You don’t scare me and I know your playbook. Better yet, I know your hands are tied worse than mine.”
Vergone took a slow, careful sip of his coffee. “You seem to think you know an awful lot about what’s going on.”
“You already said you’re FBI. That means this needs to be on the level and able to stand up in court. So am I under arrest?”
“Now why would you be under arrest? What have you done wrong?”
Skull held up his cuffed hands again. “You tell me.”
“Whether or not you’re under arrest largely depends on your level of cooperation.”
“I think you’re trying to strong-arm me into doing something for you. Maybe give you information you don’t have, or maybe do some kind of job you don’t have the stomach for. You’d better back up and tell me what sort of leverage you think you have.”
Vergone smiled, pulling Kepler's envelope out of the folder. Skull could see it had been opened and was now in an evidence bag.
“First, you unlawfully entered U.S. government property.”
“That was Graham Kepler’s house, and I didn’t break in. He gave me the codes in order to retrieve that envelope.”
“The property was confiscated by federal court order more than a month ago, so actually, you did.” Vergone held up the envelope. “Second, you stole U.S. government property.”
Skull chuckled. “You didn’t even know the hidden safe was there, much less what was inside. I did you a favor.”
“Speaking of what was inside...” said Vergone, putting on nitrile gloves. He then opened the evidence bag and pulled several pieces of paper from inside, laying them out on the table in three piles facing Skull for easy reading. Skull could see they were sworn and sealed affidavits.
“Do you know what these say?”
“No, but I’m guessing it’s something you don’t like.”
“Lies and sedition. Just the sort of thing this country doesn’t need right at this moment.”
“What is this, the Revolutionary War? Sedition isn’t a chargeable offense, and as for lies, you’ll have to lock up every politician in Washington.”
“Actually it is, under martial law. I think even you might agree when you read them.”
Skull smiled and rubbed his hands together. “I get to read them? Oh, goodie. You’ve piqued my interest. Hopefully they’re more exciting than the usual Congressional sex scandals.”
Vergone didn’t smile. He used one index finger to jab at each pile of papers slowly. “These statements are from three high-ranking Department of Defense officials, all of whom either are dead or have fled the country. They swear under oath that the nuclear attacks on Los Angeles and West Virginia were not, in fact, the work of Daniel Markis and his band of terrorists, but of the United States itself. They claim the U.S. government nuked its own people to prevent the spread of the Eden virus.”
Oh shit, thought Skull. Damn you, Graham Kepler. I’m screwed whether they believe the affidavits or not. Won’t make any difference that I didn’t know what was on them. I’d have been better off caught with two kilos of black tar heroin and a rocket launcher than this crap.
“I am no longer willing to answer questions without a lawyer present,” Skull said.
“There’s no need for that. You’re not actually under arrest. At least, not yet.”
Skull rattled his shackles once more. “I beg to differ.”
“Oh, those are not to facilitate your detention; they’re a safety measure for both you and us. We simply brought you in for questioning. You did, after all, assault four federal agents…for which you can easily be held, pending additional charges.”
“They didn’t identify themselves. I thought I was being mugged, and simply defended myself. Once I knew who I was dealing with, I surrendered.”
“You used a chemical weapon.”
Skull smiled. “I can see you boys are sore about that. I imagine that will be a popular subject for years around here, how one guy took our four agents with a squirt gun.”
“Filled with highly concentrated ammonia. There’s a reason the District of Columbia and most states have outlawed possession of guns and other dangerous weapons by anyone but law enforcement and the military.”
Skull snorted derisively. “Are you really that blind? The first act of an oppressor is to disarm the citizenry and shift all power to the government. Every authoritarian regime that ever took over from a democracy has done it. The Reds, the Nazis, Mao, Pol Pot, Mugabe’s Rhodesia, the Taliban, it’s straight out of their playbook. You’re on the wrong side, Vergone. Or should I say, far gone?”
“Childish wordplay won’t convince me of anything, Mister Denham. Deadly weapons are not permitted.”
“But not water pistols,” said Skull. “I am completely within my rights to carry a water pistol filled with whatever I want it filled with. As a matter of fact, when this fascinating discussion reaches its conclusion, I’ll be wanting it back. It cost me ten bucks.”
Vegone ground on, “You were carrying a dangerous chemical and used it to cause injury to federal agents. That’s battery. The delivery system isn’t actually germane.”
“Good luck arguing that in court,” said Skull. “Unless, of course, the judges are all as corrupt as the Unionists. If you don’t like it, then change the law to ban water guns filled with cleaning liquids. It’s no more deadly than pepper spray. I mean, how is an average citizen supposed to know that authorities wouldn’t like such a thing unless they’re told?”
Vergone sat silently for nearly a minute staring at Skull. He finally opened the file on the table and started going through the items contained inside. “Your name is Alan Christopher Denham, known as ‘Skull’ in your…line of work. You’re a U.S. citizen who hasn’t filed a tax return in the last three years, nor claimed permanent residence here. You’re a mercenary with ties to Daniel Markis’s Free Communities and other nefarious organizations around the world. You entered the United States a week ago on a false passport and used countermeasures to defeat the biometric scanners.”
“I’m still waiting for my lawyer. Will he be here soon?”
Vergone pulled out a glossy surveillance photograph taken at JFK airport entry control point. “You wore colored contacts to fool the iris scanner. You had cotton stuffed into your cheeks to change the shape of your face. You lifted prints from someone else and had them glued over your own fingertips using a synthetic rubber compound. Finally, you entered with a full beard, while you’re normally clean-shaven. The video shows that the customs agent had to tell you to take off your sunglasses and hat.”
“Not very politely, I might add.”
“Entering the United States under a false identity is a felony.”
“So you are arresting me? In that case, where’s my lawyer again?” Skull thought that the fact he still hadn’t been booked and processed meant Vergone didn’t want his presence entered in the FBI’s impeccable files. That was the key to wiggling out of this situation and regaining his freedom.
“We could arrest you,” Vergone sniffed. “Oh, so very easily. We could hold you on a dozen charges including assaulting federal agents, resisting arrest, breaking and entering, theft of government property, inciting sedition, and using false identity documents.”
“But...” Skull said, leaning forward with a smile.
Vergone closed the folder. “I believe there’s another way out of this. A way that can make all of this go away and be of the utmost benefit to us both.”
“Go on. Forgive me if I maintain a certain degree of skepticism.”
“We know that you have been contacted by the secessionist government in Texas to perform a service for them. You’re one of three people they have reached out to.”
Skull nodded. “Yeah, a few days ago I got a message. I turned them down flat. Not interested in getting involved in lost causes for no pay.”
“I’m glad to hear it, but we want you to go back and accept the job to become a mole on the inside.”
“And why would I be willing to do this?”
“Didn’t I just give you a laundry list of reasons? We could put you away for at least twenty years…and all sorts of things could happen in that time. Bad things.”
“Bullshit,” said Skull. “To convict me would mean a trial, and that means public exposure. The last thing you would want is those documents as court evidence. Might open up a Pandora’s box of questions you’ll never be able to close. If you charge me on anything, I’ll talk to my lawyer about everything.”
“We could put you in one of our military detention facilities,” Vergone answered. “Guantanamo still has some empty cells. You could sit in there until your attitude changes.”
“Not with an American citizen, you can’t.”
“We’ve done it with millions of Edens.”
“I’m not an Eden, so that stupid law doesn’t apply. Miles, I applaud the effort, I really do, but I think you’ve overplayed your hand here. I called your bluff and you lost. There’s no shame in it. Better luck next time. Now if we’re done here, I’ll take possession of my water gun and be on my way.”
Vergone sighed. “I was afraid it might come to this. I didn’t want to have to resort to unsavory measures, but I can see no choice.”
“Because the measures you’ve used so far have been completely savory? Like the ‘prime rib with melted butter and a loaded baked potato on the side’ sort of savory?”
“You’re originally from the hardscrabble hills of western Tennessee, correct?”
“That’s right. Rocky Top, baby.”
Vergone nodded. “We’ve actually been looking for you for some time. Even before Texas reached out to you. We of course talked to your grandmother up there. Detta, I think her name was. What a wonderful woman. Quite spry for someone her age.”
Skull froze and forced his hands to unclench. This was exactly the sort of reaction they were trying to elicit. They wanted leverage, beyond the threat of torture, which they had to know would be useless.
“She gave us a great deal of useful information on you and your extended family. Not the model of healthy interpersonal relationships, but let’s face it, every clan has its issues.”
“Where is she now?” Skull asked in almost a whisper.
Vergone’s face took on a look of surprise. “Oh, dear. It just occurred to me that you don’t know. You really should stay in contact more. Family is important.”
Vergone explained with mock sadness. “I’m sorry to have to be the one to tell you this, but that poor woman’s heart simply gave out. We were right in the middle of talking to her and did everything we could to save her, but evidently the stress was just too much for her to bear. It should be a comfort to you to know she lived a very long life.”
Skull held onto his temper, knowing it wouldn’t serve him. “You tortured an old woman? And here I thought the FBI hadn’t gone the way of the Security Service.”
Vergone shook his head. “We didn’t torture her. We simply talked to her, and at times used...shall we say, enhanced interrogation techniques to help her remember. They say the memory is the first thing to go once you start getting around her age.”
“And you think torturing and killing my grandmother will make me want to help you? As a matter of fact, you probably want to find a dark hole somewhere far away to crawl into before pulling a rock over your head. I’ll still find you, but it may take longer.”
Vergone snapped his fingers and laughed. “Silly me, I’m getting ahead of myself.” He reached into the folder and brought out a photograph, turning it for Skull to see. It showed three girls smiling for a photo with a blue backdrop. It was the sort of photo that families had been taking their children to Wal-Mart to get for years. The girls were in their Sunday best. None of them could have been older than ten.
“So?” asked Skull.
“I see you’ve never met. You really are the black sheep of the family. The blond on the left is little Allison. The one with the pretty eyes on the right is Danielle. And the cute little one in the middle is Samantha. These are the children of your youngest brother, Darryl Denham.”
“I see. So you’re threatening to hurt them if I don’t cooperate?”
“Why do you always assume the worst? We’re actually the good guys here. Darryl and his wife were taken into custody some time back due to being infected with the Eden virus. Unfortunately, they died in the relocation camp long before I even knew of them, and now their children are orphans. I’ve taken steps to have them looked after, but I can’t keep that up forever. The camps are not the happiest of places, I’m ashamed to admit, especially for young girls. All sorts of unsavory types have been transferred there. Much more efficient than the usual prison system, you see. All we have to do is guard the perimeters. What goes on inside, well…”
“And if I agree to this, you’ll let them emigrate to somewhere friendly to Edens, I suppose.”
Skull closed his eyes. It had been nearly twenty years since he’d seen his younger brother, and they’d never been close. He’d always thought when times were different, he’d reach out to him and patch things up. Now it would never happen.
Still, the children’s plight touched him.
Best not to let them know.
“Piss off,” Skull said opening his eyes. “You think I give a shit about three little kids I’ve never met?”
“Now look who’s bluffing,” Vergone said, taking another sip of his coffee. He set the cup down and opened the folder again. “I’ve studied you in some detail. Even the military psychiatrists that recommended your mandatory retirement noted that family was important to you, which I find ironic given your chosen estrangement from them, but that’s beside the point. They also noted that you have a soft spot for females and children, of which these three are both. You know these poor grieving nieces of yours would be in terrible danger in an Eden camp with a bunch of strangers. If you agree, we’ll remand them to whomever you choose, wherever you choose. Hell, I’ll put them on a plane to Colombia myself.”
Skull’s mind raced. Even if he refused and pretended he didn’t care about the kids, it wouldn’t get them out from under the knife that hung over their heads. As Edens, they might still go to some experimentation camp where they would be starved, or dissected, or given a series of diseases in order for these modern Mengeles to study the effects. Over time, even the miraculous Eden virus would lose the war for survival and they would die slow, agonizing, and humiliating deaths.
Skull kept his rage confined below the surface. He knew he had to remain calm, to play for time in order to find a way out of this situation. “So, you want me to accept the Texans’ offer? You said there were two other candidates. How do you know one of them hasn’t already accepted the job?”
“We have already made sure neither of them is interested. With your earlier refusal, the rebels are frantic. Whatever they want you to do seems important, requiring your special skills. When you contact them and accept, they will likely be so grateful that you can name your price. I’ll even be gracious enough to let you keep the money they pay you.”
Skull nodded, letting a tinge of defeat show, playing along. “Okay, I’ll do it, but the next time we meet, I’ll want proof the kids are alive and being treated well.”
“Understood,” Vergone answered with a smile. “One of my associates will brief you on the meeting and communications procedures before you leave.” He leaned in close to Skull. “And let’s keep all this just between us. We’ll be watching you. No talking to your little Free Communities friends. If I suspect for even a second you’re betraying us, these innocent children will suffer the consequences of your actions.”
Skull stared at the man while mentally imagining himself cutting off his nose and force-feeding it to him.
Vergone stood. “I can see we have an understanding. Let us know when you’ve taken the job.” He knocked on the door and it opened to reveal two agents waiting outside. Vergone walked through, and then turned back. “Don’t take any of this personally, Denham. Remember it’s business, and everything will be just fine.” He nodded to Skull and smiled warmly before disappearing down the hallway with the folder and his coffee.
The pair of agents walked into the room and unshackled Skull before leading him down the hall in the opposite direction. He recognized them as two of the four he’d tangled with.
“On second thought,” said Skull, “you can keep the fucking squirt gun. Maybe you can use it to give each other the enemas you so obviously need.”
One reached for Skull, but the other put out a warning hand. “Vergone said he’s untouchable.”
The first leaned in close to Skull. “This isn’t over, shithead.”
Skull met his eyes. “Oh, you are so right.”
Fifteen minutes later, Skull was tossed outside into the cool night air of Washington, D.C., apparently free.
But he knew he was trapped, nonetheless.
General Gerald McAllister, Republic of Texas Chief of Defense Forces, stared at the map on the projection screen in front of him. It was a topographical portrayal of his new nation and the surrounding U.S. states, with major highways, population centers and rail lines highlighted.
Colonel Sherrie Gervais, McAllister’s chief planner, pointed at the map. “We completed the process of securing all military bases and federal buildings. Operation Free Range went relatively smoothly, with no fatalities and only about a dozen injuries. Approximately fifty-two percent of the military personnel elected to swear loyalty to Texas and stay.”
That had to be tough, McAllister thought. The decision had been easier for him. The Texas resident and retired four-star CENTCOM commander had little to lose compared to those still on active duty. McAllister knew the president of Texas had initially offered the top military job to General Travis Tyler, but McAllister’s old friend had elected to remain loyal to the United States and was currently stationed at Fort Carson, Colorado.
They might even have to face each other on the field of battle.
Colonel Gervais continued, “We’re working to bring the prime ground combat units up to eighty percent strength using augmentees from personnel recalled to active duty, and from the Army Guard.”
“I don’t want to deplete our Guard units too much,” McAllister said. “They’ve been doing a fantastic job since they were activated six months ago and still have the critical mission of manning and serving as the first line of defense on our borders.”
General Buck Clemens, head of the Texas National Guard, cleared his throat. “Don’t worry, sir. My boys can hold until the new recruits get through basic training. We’ve got triple classes going right now to handle all the new enlistments. I’m not sure raw manpower is going to be the issue.”
McAllister elected not to say anything. Recruits made him nervous, but what choice did they have? Besides, every seasoned and competent soldier was a boot private at some point.
Gervais pointed to several positions well in from the border. “We’ve deployed all the air defense assets we have in Texas. We now have a shield that should deter air strikes from the U.S. Anything but a full-up air armada, anyway.”
McAllister grunted. “Make sure those positions are well defended with ground troops. Our radars are going to be prime targets. If they can get attack helicopters in low, or even a strike team to take a few of them out like we did to Iraq, they can open an air corridor into our vital rear areas, which would be very bad news for us.”
“We can take on that mission,” said General Clint Weston, head of the Texas State Guard. “We’re already helping to secure the major cities and airfields. A few more key sites won’t be too much for us.
Until a few weeks ago he had no idea something called the Texas State Guard, separate and distinct from the National Guard, even existed. Few other states had such a robust organization, but Texas’ unique history had sustained this unique, non-federal branch of the militia against the erosion of states’ rights.
Composed entirely of volunteers and seen mostly as a social club, McAllister had initially been skeptical of their ability to fight, but upon further investigation, he’d been pleasantly surprised. Nearly all of the troops were veterans who had served at least one active duty tour. Also, six Civil Affairs regiments, now reorganized as six light infantry brigades, plus two air wings, an engineer group and a medical group were nothing to sneer at.
“Thanks, Clint,” said McAllister. “Let me know if you need anything.”
Weston nodded and started writing on a notebook before handing the note to an aide behind him, who got up and left the room.
Good man, thought McAllister. Weston isn’t waiting for the meeting to be over. He understands every second counts.
Colonel Gervais continued her briefing. “We’re keeping a four-ship of F-16s on hot alert to be in the air within five minutes. Eight more can be airborne fifteen minutes after that, and the rest in two hours. We’ve also got an AWACS in the air around the clock, orbiting between San Antonio and Austin. The 147th Reconnaissance Wing just finished updating all their UAV software to prevent intrusion, and will begin patrolling the borders tomorrow.”
“Good,” said McAllister. “Make sure those UAVs stay well back from the U.S. airspace. They can see what they need to see several miles in. I don’t want to give anyone an excuse to retaliate over violated air space.”
Gervais nodded and brought up another slide showing units and numbers. “Sir, this shows our overall assets. When it comes to ground elements we’re in pretty good shape, both in combat and support elements. Our air elements are judged to be adequate, although we of course would prefer more. We’re actually sitting pretty good for ISR and cyber warfare, because the Air Force’s national centers for those functions are – were – located here, and we seized them pretty much intact. On the naval side, though, we’re severely deficient.”
“What do we have?” asked McAllister.
“Not much, I’m afraid,” answered Gervais pointing to a small column at the bottom of the slide. “The Texas State Guard has a Maritime Regiment composed mostly of Marines and shallow water elements. We weren’t able to seize any of the U.S. Navy’s major combat ships before their captains put out to sea last week.”
McAllister rubbed his hands together. “We have to anticipate the U.S. Navy will blockade our coastline. That means no revenue from oil or gas shipments. Right now almost nothing’s getting in or out along the Texas-U.S. border. Start working on options for mitigating an embargo.” McAllister turned to his chief of intelligence, Colonel Monroe. “What about Mexico?”
“Politically, a mixed bag. The U.S. has convinced them to close their border to us and allow no imports or exports. Indications are that the decision wasn’t terribly popular with the Mexican people and even some of the elite, but the deal they got was too good to pass up. Militarily…” the man laughed. “Nothing to worry about.”
“That’s a lot of border to control, though,” said General Weston. “No way the Mexican government can seal it up completely. Hell, we never could. We should be able to run any blockade, smuggle things in and out, especially if we make it worth the Mexicans’ while. They’ll look the other way as long as we don’t get them in too much trouble with the Unionists.”
“True,” said McAllister, looking back at Monroe. “Start working on that. Talk to our Texas Rangers and DEA – excuse me, former DEA liaison – and see if they can help. They know the players – who’s flexible, who’s corrupt, who won’t budge.”
Monroe took a note, nodded and sat back down.
“Bring that map back up again,” McAllister said. He stared at it for several long moments while everyone else in the room sat in silence.
“It’s a hell of a lot of open space to defend,” McAllister finally said.
“But we have the troops and units to do it,” said General Clemens.
McAllister shook his head. “We have the disadvantage of having to defend everywhere. All they have to do is mass their elements at one point along our perimeter and punch through. Then we would have to pull troops from along our border to repel them, but in the process open up more avenues for attack. I’m thinking forward defense is a recipe for defeat. We’re a big state. Ah, nation, I mean. Let’s use that bigness to our advantage.”
“We do have indications they’re massing maneuver elements at Fort Polk, Fort Sill, and Fort Carson,” said Monroe.
McAllister nodded. “They’ll be gathering intel and conducting surveillance on us as well. Once they’ve mobilized enough that they think they can win, they’ll hit us.”
“You don’t think they’ll exhaust all diplomatic avenues before they do, sir?”
“No. To them, we’re a state in rebellion, not another sovereign nation. And they need to move fast, riding the wave of outrage, before the public has time to get used to the situation.
“Even without air supremacy?” asked Clemens.
McAllister stroked his jaw. “Yes. Time is on our side, not theirs. The Unionists are under pressure to bring us to heel, so they can get back to all their other self-inflicted problems. They just won an absolute majority in both houses of Congress, and ironically, with all of the Texas members out of the picture, there’s even less opposition than there would be otherwise. The Texas Reclamation Act they passed already mandates that the executive branch must pacify Texas. The U.S. President will either have to go along with the mandate or be impeached, and I don’t see any politician giving up the top spot just on principle.”
“If they attack too early, they’re going to get hurt badly in the air…and no conventional war since World War Two has been won without at least aerial parity.”
“You’re thinking like a military man, Buck. This will be a political decision, forced on the President by a bunch of upstart neo-fascists. They’ll do their best to take out our air defenses with what’s handy, but remember, it took six months for the Gulf War One air campaign to prep the battlefield. Seventy days to take apart little Serbia’s air defenses.”
“Ah, we – they – could have gone in after four weeks, in either case,” Clemens retorted.
“Half the U.S. Air Force took part in Iraq. This time, they won’t be able to bring more than a quarter against us, and our own combined air defense is far superior to Iraq’s. I call it a draw, and a draw is a win if we can hold out for long enough.”
“Or they may just send in the fighters and bombers and say damn the air defense,” Weston chimed in. “Combine it with a blitzkrieg ground offensive, trying to crack us with shock and awe.”
“That would be insane,” Clemens answered. “The American people would never stand for that number of casualties.”
McAllister snorted. “Have you been watching the news, Buck? Or should I say, the propaganda? The American people are scared to death, not only of their nation breaking apart, but of a pack of rabid Edens on their southern flank who want nothing more than to storm across their borders and infect them, turn them into zombies. As ridiculous as that sounds to us, it’s a fear that resonates. Fear will blunt any outrage over American deaths. In fact, they’ll spin the casualty count even further, making the tragedies all our fault.”
The room fell silent again.
“What do we do about it?” asked Weston eventually.
McAllister shrugged. “Good question. For now, we make sure all our forces and people are as ready as they can be. Talk to your staffs and come up with ideas. If you have any good ones, bounce them off Colonel Gervais and she’ll brief me.”
More nervous looks flitted around the room.
“Look, everyone,” said McAllister, “we have a lot of people depending on us to do our jobs. There’s a great deal of work ahead of us. Don’t spend time you don’t have worrying about things you can’t control. For now, do what you can, the best you can. Everyone understand?”
There were murmurs of “Yes, sir,” and “Roger, sir.”
“Okay, then. That’s enough for today.” McAllister stood abruptly, and the rest of the room came out of their seats and to the position of attention. “Carry on,” he said as he walked out the door and down the hall to his office.
General McAllister sat heavily in his chair. He spun the seat to look out the window at the wide expanses of grass that characterized the old Fort Sam Houston, now part of Joint Base San Antonio. From this vantage he could see the Texas flag flying alone, where so recently the Stars and Stripes had proudly waved.
He felt as if a dagger had lodged in his heart when the flag of his former country had come down. Just as Robert E. Lee had made the soul-searing decision to refuse Lincoln’s offer of command of the Union forces and instead declare his loyalty to Virginia, and by extension the Confederacy, McAllister had decided that as a son of Texas; he had no choice. He would defend his home against a United States that had set aside the Constitution in all but name.
“Excuse me, sir,” said his chief of staff, knocking on his door frame. “I have that list you wanted.”
“For Senior Enlisted Adviser?” McAllister took the folder and opened it. Inside was a long list of names, followed by brief summaries of each on subsequent pages. Such a trivial thing, it hardly seemed to matter. “Choose who you think best.”
“If I may, sir, I think it’s critical you choose one yourself. Especially with the days we have ahead and with many fresh recruits. We’ve been getting lots of issues to deal with that should rightly be handled by an E-9, probably Army or Marine. You’ll have to trust him – or her – to handle enlisted issues, and with the expansion, we’re going to have a lot of lower enlisted.”
“All right. I guess I should know that too.” McAllister began scanning the list. A name caught his attention. He pulled out the man’s bio. “Retired Command Sergeant Major Silas Crouch. I knew him well from when I was V Corps commander in Germany and he was the 173rd Airborne Brigade sergeant major. Very good man. I wasn’t aware he was from Texas.”
“He’s not. He’s one of the refugees from Arkansas, with the Free Brigade. I almost left him off the list because he’s not one of ours, but his record is impressive.”
“Indeed it is, and that’s only half of it. A steady and hard man. Reliable. Tough, yet understanding. The sort of man I think I need advising me.”
“Very good. I’ll reach out to him and offer him the position.”
McAllister shook his head. “He’s a soldier and this is wartime. Just call him up and tell him when to report. He’ll understand.”
“Yes, sir.” He shut the door on the way out.
McAllister turned back to the window and gazed again at the Texas flag. He wondered how he was going to defend his new republic against the might of the United States military. His eyes focused on a statue in the distance and he smiled.
“Sam Houston,” McAllister said aloud, rubbing his chin. Some thought hovered just out of reach. He willed it to come forward, but it stayed away.
He shook his head and dove into paperwork. Whatever it was, it would find its way to his consciousness eventually.
National Security Adviser Prudence Layfield thought of her son Toby as she walked down the hallowed halls of the White House. The memories often came unbidden, and were never welcome. What had happened to him was a tragedy and she’d grieved, but that didn’t change the fact that he’d become an abomination.
Aides and staffers eyed her nervously. Some ventured hesitant smiles, which she returned coolly and out of political habit. Even the Secret Service agents nodded to her respectfully. All could recognize ascending power.
If only Toby could be here, she thought and then pushed the traitorous idea down. He could not be...would never be. Her sweet boy was no more, and all that was left of him was a host for some strange virus that they still didn’t understand, a genetically engineered disease that some in the intelligence community theorized must be extraterrestrial in origin.
The host that wore her son’s face was in one of the detainment camps somewhere out there, but she’d resisted the urge to find out where. Her former husband Leonard may have located the Toby-shell by now, but it would do no good; they wouldn’t let him near any of the prisoners.
At least, not without the influence she refused to provide.
Leonard. So idealistic. He’d railed against Prudence when she’d reported their son to the Security Service. Toby had been close to death in the hospital, fighting an infection that no one could identify, before miraculously making a full recovery. Test results had revealed the horror. Someone had given him the Eden Plague against his will…it must have been against his will. Her good boy would never have agreed to such a thing.
Layfield had tracked down the nurse that was responsible and had her arrested, thrown in a prison camp. There, the woman received special treatment for daring to harm the only son of then-Senator Prudence Layfield, but such retribution had been a hollow act. Her Toby was gone forever.
Her husband had wanted to take the boy and go run, hide somewhere, maybe in one of those freakish Free Communities she knew about where everyone grew young again. It had been necessary for her to have Leonard detained for a time so he wouldn’t interfere with what needed to be done. He would never understand, and probably never forgive her.
Leonard didn’t care that Prudence had done nothing needing forgiveness. He’d chosen her as the focus of his hatred. No matter. She’d forcibly divorced him.
Layfield nursed her own hatred. She knew who was responsible for her son’s fate-worse-than-death. She meant to make those responsible pay in full.
A thin gray woman at a desk stared at Layfield as she approached the closed door of the Oval Office. The woman’s lips tightened until her mouth disappeared.
They fear us, Layfield thought. And they are right to do so. We’re sweeping away the old, corrupt Democrats and Republicans, bringing a clean new age free of their outdated legacy.
The Unionists had come out of nowhere to dominate the elections. Layfield had joined the party nearly a year ago, after the infection of her son, shocking her former supporters. With her utter conviction and forceful personality, she’d become one of the leaders of the Unionists. When the old National Security Adviser was forced to resign because all his adamant guarantees that Texas would not secede were proven false, she’d made sure she was the new appointee.
Other than the White House Chief of Staff, no other official had as much access to the President…and as much direct influence. At least, that was the norm. Her appointment hadn’t yet yielded much fruit. The stubborn White House staff seemed determined to freeze her out, and until the Unionists could elect their own President in two years, it would clearly be an uphill fight.
Fortunately, she was an old hand at this game.
“I’m afraid I don’t see you on the schedule,” the President’s personal secretary said, looking at her computer screen.
Layfield was not a big woman, but people often thought of her as taller than she actually was. Her naturally arresting black eyes had become even more formidable when mixed with intense grief and resolution. Straightened, perfectly coiffed graying hair framed a face that had once been attractive, but was now a model of functional austerity.
She stared at the secretary in front of her until the old woman glanced up at the silent intruder in front of her. “The President is in a meeting,” the secretary said finally. “I can try to get you in sometime later this week.”
Layfield walked around to the other side of the desk and sat on the edge, stunning the woman, who moved involuntarily backward. The Unionist crossed her legs and used the toe of one pointed shoe to tap the woman on the elbow. “I want you to listen very carefully, because I intend to only have this conversation once.”
The secretary shied away from the contact. “Would you mind getting off my desk?” She looked around for assistance, but every eye that met hers shied away, except for the nearest Secret Service agent, who watched with narrow-eyed interest. Layfield winked at him as if to say, nothing to worry about. Just politics.
“Pay attention, now,” Layfield said, leaning forward even more into the woman’s personal space. “I’m the President’s National Security Adviser. I come and go as I please and you will not keep me from seeing the President if I decide I need to see him. Do you understand?”
The older woman crossed her arms. “Mister Roberts always made appointments.”
“Jack Roberts is a traitor to his country and has been banished in shame,” Layfield said of her predecessor. “Just because he fueled your delusion doesn’t mean I’m going to.”
“Yes. You believe because you sit close to power that you have power yourself. You believe that because you have some control over access to the President that you’re important.” Layfield poked the woman hard on the leg with the pointy heel of her shoe. “Make no mistake, you’re a low-level servant in the halls of power. You could be replaced tomorrow and no one would remember your name. They may not even learn where you disappeared to, you meddling little biddy.”
The woman moved away from Layfield’s heel that jabbed her thigh painfully. “You can’t speak to me like that,” she snapped, finally standing to get away from the poking shoe. “I don’t work for you. I serve at the pleasure of the President, and he’s given me specific instructions that you are to make appointments.”
Layfield slipped off the desk and into the open space the secretary had created. She leaned into the woman and smiled without the slightest trace of humor. “Then you’re going to make me an appointment for the exact moment the President’s meeting ends. That will comply with the President’s instructions, hm?”
Layfield lowered her voice and kept a smile on her face for the Secret Service agent’s benefit. “I don’t have anything personal against you yet, but you’re going to see a lot of me and I’m going to see a lot of the President. If I get even the slightest hint you’re trying to stick your pathetic servant’s neck into my way, I’ll make sure you never stick it anywhere else ever again. The Party knows where you live. Where your children live. Where your grandchildren go to school. We know everything.”
The secretary let fear leak through, and Layfield knew she’d won. “Do we understand each other?”
The woman nodded once, sharply.
“Good,” said Layfield, moving back around to the other side of the desk. “Now, I think it would be best for everyone if you retired soon. Make sure your request is submitted to the chief of staff by the end of the week. You deserve to enjoy those golden years.”
The woman lowered her eyes and sat down, reaching for her keyboard. “I’ll slot you in. He should be free in fifteen minutes.”
“No need to wait that long.” Layfield moved toward the closed door of the Oval Office. “Glad we had this talk.”
The Oval Office fell into frigid silence as she walked into the room. Cabinet members looked at her in surprise, some even in anger, but the President only appeared embarrassed, as if he’d been caught doing something he shouldn’t.
“This is a closed meeting, Ms. Layfield,” said Paul Milligan, the President’s chief of staff.
She closed the door carefully before facing him. “I see I was not invited.”
“You’re not a member of the Cabinet.”
“Neither are you.”
“But the President asked me to sit in. I don’t recall him extending you the same invitation.”
“Yet, I’m here to stay,” Layfield answered and sat on the arm of the sofa beside the shocked Secretary of Commerce. “Let’s stop wasting time that none of us has and focus on the task at hand.”
The chief of staff’s face grew livid. “Mister President, I object to this, this person’s presence here.”
The President waved his objection away, his expression guarded. “Let her stay. But Ms. Layfield, in the future, go through my secretary. Crashing a meeting won’t make you any friends here, and I’m still in charge for two more years.”
“Of course, Mister President,” Layfield replied, suddenly all grace and modesty.
“We were just discussing the new trade agreement with Russia,” said the uncomfortable woman beside Layfield.
Layfield looked at the chief of staff. “Trade agreement? With our home burning down around us?”
“We still have to run the nation,” answered Milligan. “Not everything can be about Texas.” He looked at her pointedly. “Or Edens, which is your personal bugaboo.”
The National Security Adviser rose and began to pace in front of the fireplace beneath the framed picture of George Washington. Ignoring Milligan, she steered the conversation where she wanted. “Where does Mexico stand? Have they finally accepted our terms?”
“They have,” answered Secretary of State George Hood. “I was on the phone with their president this morning. They’ll close off the Texas border and isolate them as long as we keep paying off their debts.”
“I’m not sure we can afford that,” said the Treasury Secretary.
“We can’t afford not to,” answered Layfield. “Borrow some more money from the Fed.”
“But the deficit’s already at an all-time high.”
“That won’t matter if we allow Texas and Alaska to win.”
Milligan looked at the cabinet disapprovingly. “We need to get back to the agenda. The Russian trade deal, which I might add, will help our financial situation rather than hurt it.”
“That can wait,” snapped Layfield before turning to the ancient Secretary of Defense, Harold Mason. “Is the blockade in place?”
Mason turned to the President to get some signal, but the so-called leader of the free world – more ironic all the time – was gazing intently out the window. Mason turned back to Layfield. “Atlantic Fleet is moving in that direction now. They should be in place by the end of the week, They’ll seal off the sea lanes and help enforce the air blockade.”
“We’re still allowing those who swear loyalty to the U.S. to leave Texas,” said the Secretary of the Interior. “That will drain their manpower and increase ours.”
“Better make sure they get tested,” said Layfield. “They’ll slip in some Edens if we let them. We’re already having a hard time controlling this plague.” She turned back to Mason. “What about the other option we talked about? Is that in place?”
The old man turned to the President again, who was at least looking in his direction, but who sat slumped in his chair as if exhausted. “Go ahead. Tell her.”
Layfield smiled inwardly. Her people had gotten to the President, explained the realities to the man. It was play ball or be impeached. He’d maintain his dignity, of course, but that would hardly matter, as long as he bent in the right places.
Mason finally sighed and then answered. “A squadron of B-2 bombers has been relocated to Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico. They should be able to deliver whatever package the President directs.”
“I’m only concerned with one type of package,” said Layfield.
“Yes,” Mason said, his mouth tight. “A full complement of tactical nuclear warheads have accompanied the bombers, which can be fitted to the latest ground attack missiles. However, these represent most of the tac nukes in inventory. They’ve been severely limited by treaty for some time.”
“Don’t worry about that. This is the only place we’re likely to need them in the near future.”
The President finally seemed to come out of his funk. “More nukes on American soil won’t be good. Look what happened last time.”
Layfield turned to the man and walked to stand close beside him. “Mister President, we have to be prepared for any eventuality. It is exceedingly unlikely that we shall ever have to resort to such extreme measures, but we want to be prepared if they are needed. Besides, we will only have to use them if the rebels force us into such a position.”
“I don’t like it either,” said Milligan moving up beside the President as well.
“Like?” snapped Layfield. “Do you think Abraham Lincoln liked precipitating the deaths of millions? Do you think President Roosevelt liked firebombing German cities? Do you think that President Truman liked dropping two nuclear weapons on Japan? We’re dealing with the survival of our nation here, and in case anyone thinks otherwise, we might lose this fight if we’re not prepared to go the extra mile.”
Milligan frowned. “That’s an extreme opinion. Texas is just one state. There’s still plenty of room for discussion with them before we commit to war. There are at least two cases before the Supreme Court regarding the legality of their actions.”
“Yes,” answered Layfield. “I’ve seen all the television shows and read up on the cases going before the Supreme Court. People debating endlessly on the legality of preventing a state from seceding, especially one like Texas that has an old treaty to cite. President Lincoln heard the same things in his time of crisis, but he didn’t sit back and wait for a consensus or for someone to tell him what he was allowed to do. Some said the Emancipation Proclamation was illegal, but he acted. We have to act now.”
“Except the Emancipation Proclamation was for a high moral reason. What’s our justification here?” asked Milligan.
“Why not just wait them out?” Hood interrupted. “We’ll have the blockade in place soon. How long can they really hold on, surrounded and with no trade?”
Layfield looked around the room. “Good question, George. How long can they hold out? Anyone take a look at this?”
The Secretary of the Interior cleared his throat. “They had a good harvest this year and abundant, rainfall. Food-wise they’ll be fine through the winter, longer if supplies get smuggled across the Mexico border. And they will.”
“But experts are predicting droughts next year,” said Milligan quickly. “They’ll have to see reason with their cattle dying and food prices going through the roof.”
Layfield looked at the chief of staff in shock. “Next year? Are you serious? You’re going to let a rebellion fester and grow for a year before you check to see if they’re willing to reason?”
Milligan pulled his glasses off and began to polish them with a smile. “Ms. Layfield, you may hold the title of National Security Adviser, but you’ve only been in that position for a few days, and what real security experience do you have, after all? A few Senate committees on defense procurement?”
She ignored the challenge. “Don’t you realize that the rest of the world is watching right now? Alaska has already followed their lead and I’m hearing reports that Wyoming, Montana, Idaho and Utah could follow. The Mormon church has already made pro-Eden noises, and they have ten million members in those four states. They could lead the Mountain West right into rebellion, and the rest of the West might soon follow. We can’t wait. We have to crush them now. They’ll gain more confidence and legitimacy by the day.”
“What are you suggesting?” asked the President.
“We hit them hard,” she answered. “Now. Before they’re ready.”
Milligan laughed. “And how do you propose we do that? We’re not ready for a full military operation, and if things don’t go well, we’ll end up worse off than before.”
Silence hung in the room. Layfield realized she might have miscalculated by not having at least a few other options in her pocket. She hadn’t expected the atmosphere of the Cabinet to be so caustic and cowardly, and had thought at least some in the room would swing over to her side. These career politicians cared more about getting reelected than doing the right thing by dealing with the danger in their midst.
They’re afraid. I shouldn’t be surprised. I was once just like them...before what happened to Toby made me see the truth.
“Fuel,” said a strong voice from the back of the room.
“Excuse me?” said Milligan.
An attractive blond woman stood from a chair along the wall. Although she was obviously someone’s intern or aide, she showed no signs of trepidation. “Fuel is the key to Texas’ survival, not food. Texas produces 75 million barrels of oil per month and nearly 750 million cubic feet of natural gas, and most of it gets exported. That’s where the majority of their cash comes from.”
“They’re blockaded,” said Mason. “Exports don’t mean anything now.”
The young woman didn’t back down. “If the full efforts of this country can’t keep illegal immigrants or drugs out, how can we keep oil and gas in? Especially when they will likely be willing to sell at well below market price. The entire free world couldn’t keep Iraq or Iran from smuggling oil. We ain’t gonna stop Texas.”
“Who are you exactly and how do you know all of this?” Layfield asked.
“Alana Cantrell, ma’am. Deputy Under Secretary for Energy. I’m covering for the energy secretary while she’s out of town. As far as how I know all of this, it’s public knowledge, but I have an advantage. I grew up in Texas and I’m an expert on domestic energy and fuels.”
An awkward silence descended, all of them acutely aware of the conversation and what this young woman from Texas must be going through.
“Your nation appreciates your loyalty,” Layfield finally said. “I know it can’t be easy.”
The woman nodded.
“Okay, so what?” asked Mason. “They have oil and natural gas and they need it, but they also have lots of air defense and how are we supposed to take out all those oil wells? They’re spread out all over the state.”
“True,” answered Alana, “but over half comes from the Periman Basin in west Texas. You only need to take out the major refineries and storage units there, not the fields. Between hitting Periman and the Strategic Petroleum Reserve Facilities at Freeport and Winnie along the gulf coast, that should effectively cripple their fuel production and reserves for some time.”
“But those are our strategic oil reserves,” said the Secretary of Commerce. “We need that in case we have another Middle East oil embargo like we did in the seventies. We can’t just destroy it.”
“It could also create an ecological disaster,” said the Secretary of the Interior.
The Treasury Secretary leaned forward, looking at the President. “It’s also going to cause prices to go through the roof. Not just gasoline, but everything, as transportation costs skyrocket. Between the loss of Texas and Alaskan oil, we’re in a tight spot right now.” He looked around cautiously and took a deep breath before speaking. “Perhaps we need to look at the bigger picture here. If we handle this right, Texas could be a staunch ally of ours instead of making them an enemy during a long and costly war. Do we really have the right to hold them against their will? More importantly, is it a smart move to try?”
The Secretary of the Interior cleared his throat. “It would be convenient if we could ship all the Edens we have in camps to Texas. Dump the problem in their lap. We’re stretched too thin as it is, and seeing Americans behind barbed wire is very unpopular.”
Layfield swept her burning eyes around the room. She’d tried to keep her iron fist in its velvet glove, but it appeared some of these people just didn’t get it. “The Unionist Party – my party – swept the elections for two reasons. First, because of the growing Eden problem, and second, ironically, because of your failure to preserve the national union. You let Texas rebel, and now some among you are suggesting we shirk our responsibility to suppress this evil plague?” She pounded her fist on the nearest table. “I – will – not – stand – for – it! The American people won’t stand for it. The Unionist Party won’t stand for it. These suggestions are treasonous, and will be dealt with accordingly.”
There came nervous shifting in the stunned silence that followed. Everyone understood that the Unionists had come to power for exactly the reasons she’d stated.
“No one’s talking treason, Ms. Layfield,” the President said. “These are merely discussions of options.”
“Options we refuse to consider.” Layfield smiled thinly at the Secretaries of the Treasury and Interior. “It appears you two are in the minority in your views. Perhaps you should consider changing them, or at least keep them to yourself. I would hate to think of the public backlash that could come your way should those views become public knowledge.”
The Secretary of the Treasury turned white, then red with anger. It seemed as if he wanted to say something, but instead looked at the President.
The President shook his head ever so slightly.
Layfield shifted her aim, pointing at the Secretary of Defense. “Can your people come up with some options for taking out their petroleum reserves? We need to work fast.”
Mason nodded. “We already have the B-2s at Holloman. Those should be able to get in and strike without losses. The facilities on the coast are in old underground salt mines. We’ll likely need bunker-busters for those.”
“No nukes,” said the President firmly.
“Agreed. It’s not the right time for that option.” Layfield turned to Mason, suddenly affable. “Why don’t I swing by tomorrow to see what your people have come up with, and then brief the President?”
Mason nodded, wary.
Layfield then tilted her head toward the uncomfortable man behind the big desk. “Good day, Mister President.” As she walked out of the Oval Office, she pointed at Alana Cantrell. “Young lady, you work for me now.”
Persistent trade winds blew from east to west across the Dutch Caribbean island of Curaçao, just a few miles north of Venezuela. The warm sun and cool ocean breeze made for what most locals considered paradise on earth.
Skull walked along the centuries-old stone harbor and gazed at the multicolored houses around him. He’d learned that an eighteenth century governor got headaches from the sun reflecting off all the whitewashed walls and decreed that homes must be painted in non-white colors. The result was a cacophony of reds, oranges, yellows, lights blues, and pale greens from paints that could be produced locally. Little Amsterdam had a charm that surprised him, and he’d grown fond of the Caribbean lifestyle, the history and culture of its people.
His tanned skin and Spanish-language ability allowed him to blend in among the polyglot populace, a mix of people of Dutch, Spanish, Portuguese, African and South American ethnicity. He’d taken full advantage in order to explore this place over the last months, one of the few large islands in the world he’d not visited.
Getting away from the touristy beaches and into the interior, he’d been surprised to find an arid, near-desert landscape with giant agave plants, mesquite trees, and barrel cactuses. If someone had surrounded southern Arizona with ocean, the result would have been Curaçao. Skull found he loved it.
Making his way up worn coral stone stairs, Skull took a seat at a local coffee shop with a vantage point above his designated meeting location. The instructions had been very specific; he was supposed to go to the restaurant first and then wait for the contact.
Screw that, thought Skull. I’m still in control here and I’m not going to go sit and wait for people to come to me. This could still all be a setup.
A young, dark waitress surprised him with a guttural utterance that sounded as if she were trying to cough up a fishhook caught in her throat. Realizing she was trying to speak to him in Dutch, Skull answered in Spanish, but the girl was way ahead of him.
“Canadian, right?” she asked in English.
“Yes. How did you know?”
The girl smiled. “If you’re not Dutch then you’re North American, and all the American visitors these days are Canadian.”
Skull smiled. “Right. Do you have coffee?”
“But of course.”
“Excellent. Also, better bring me the bill with it. I’m in a bit of a hurry.”
She frowned at him disapprovingly. “We have a saying here that we have used with our Dutch government for centuries. Not being Dutch, you may not understand.”
“We tell them, ‘you Dutch have the clocks, but we have the time.’ It is best to take things slow here, relax and enjoy life.”
“I’ll keep that in mind. Just the same, please bring me the bill with the coffee.”
The girl moved away, shaking her head and muttering under her breath.
Taking off his sunglasses, Skull looked across the old courtyard. A bronze statue stood in the middle, a man on a horse raising a sword. On the other side was a restaurant called the Governor’s House, which had actually been the island governor’s residence a hundred years ago. He could see diners enjoying delicious meals and wine on the wide open balcony, while simultaneously trying to keep their napkins from blowing away in the stiff breezes.
He wondered for a moment if one of these diners was his contact. Skull knew little of the man’s identity, but was confident he would spot him by demeanor. All he had to do was watch for who didn’t fit in, or who was trying too hard to fit in. Besides, Skull was an hour early, and should see the contact approach the restaurant.
Unless he’s a real pro like me, Skull thought, looking around the harbor casually. In that case, he’s doing exactly what I’m doing; the only difference is he likely has the advantage of knowing what I look like. Could even be watching me now.
It didn’t matter, he decided. If he was being watched, the contact would have to approach him at a location of Skull’s choosing in order not to reveal himself by going into the Governor’s House. Either way, Skull had exerted some degree of control over the situation.
The girl brought him the coffee and grudgingly slipped the bill under the saucer to keep it from flying away. “Let me know if you want anything else. We’ll have to reprint the bill, of course, since you simply had to have it before you were finished.”
“Thank you, dear,” said Skull sweetly.
The girl moved away, shaking her head.
He sipped slowly at the coffee and enjoyed the warm sun and cool wind. Skull could almost forget why he was here...almost. His fists tightened and eyes narrowed at the thought of Miles Vergone, and he forced himself to relax. That man’s time would come.
Within a few minutes of the designated meeting time, Skull saw a large man with a crew cut and Hawaiian shirt walking toward the restaurant. He glanced around nervously and walked haltingly, as if having to force his body to proceed when it so obviously wanted to be somewhere else.
Skull shook his head and chuckled. Everything about the man seemed out of place, especially his neat crew cut. If Skull were his handler, he would have at least told the guy to wear a hat.
Sliding several local bills under the now-empty coffee cup, Skull proceeded across the courtyard toward the restaurant. It was possible that he was under surveillance or the contact was under duress, but at this point it hardly mattered. He’d discovered what he’d sought: that he wasn’t walking into an ambush.
Following the man inside, Skull saw him bouncing around the many rooms of the restaurant with a concerned hostess following along behind him. When he spotted Skull he froze and became slightly pale.
I’d better take control, he thought. This guy looks like he’s going to pass out on me. Skull moved forward with a smile, his hand extended. “Good to see you, old friend; how you been?”
The man took Skull’s hand automatically, and a cautious smile lit his face.
The hostess relaxed and smiled as well. “Can I get you two a table?”
“By all means. Someplace inside, away from the wind. I’m craving a big bowl of banana soup, and I don’t want it blowing all over the front of my shirt.”
The hostess laughed. “Certainly. Follow me.” She led them to a small round table in the corner of an interior courtyard. The sky was open above them, but the breeze hardly reached them, and the garden’s small trees and high walls kept the sun’s heat at bay. “Your waiter will be with you in a moment,” she said before departing.
The man opened his mouth to speak, but Skull cut him off. “You’re obviously in over your head here, so pay attention. If we get separated or interrupted, we’ll meet tomorrow, same time, at the Ascension House on the south side of the island.” Skull pointed at the man’s head. “You’re obviously military. Too obviously. Wear a hat next time, or grow your hair. Air Force?”
“Army,” the man answered after a brief hesitation.
Skull nodded. “I was in the Corps. Combat tours?”
“Not really,” the man answered. “I was in the Green Zone for a while, but other than rockets and mortars, it wasn’t…”
Skull tried to keep the disgust out of his voice at the man’s lack of nerve. “Wasn’t really combat. Still, that’s where we’ll know each other from. We met in Iraq as advisers to the Iraqis and decided to catch up here where I’m on vacation. Got it?”
The man barely had time to nod before their waiter arrived and spoke. “Hello, and welcome to the Governor’s House. I will tell you about on our specials, but would you like something to drink first?”
Skull answered. “A plate of cheese and bread along with a bottle of good red wine. Chilean, I think, a Shiraz if you have it, but don’t put me in the poorhouse. I’m on vacation, not rich.”
“I know just the thing,” the waiter replied before departing.
Skull sat back in his chair and appraised the man across from him, who seemed to be relaxing. “I presume you know my name. Call me Stephen Fisk. That’s what my documents say. It might be less awkward if I know who you are.”
“Colonel Frank Cerullo. I’m the Defense Attaché in Caracas.”
“Venezuela,” Skull said slowly, things starting to fall into place in his head. “Let me guess: you were born in Texas?”
“Houston. Still have lots of family there, although I’ve denounced the Texas cause and made sure to have angry phone calls and emails with my family back there for the record.”
“Smart. I’m guessing the Embassy in Venezuela has no idea you’re here right now.”
“No. Took a few days leave and caught a ferry over here. They don’t even have a computer system to track travelers. All they do is look at your passport.”
“Sounds like my kind of place.”
The waiter returned with the food and the bottle. He poured a small amount into Skull’s glass and allowed him to approve it.
Skull nodded in appreciation. “Excellent.”
The waiter smiled and poured two glasses before setting the bottle down and leaving them.
“So,” said Skull, picking up a piece of dry white cheese and biting into it. “I was led to believe that you’re an official representative of the Republic of Texas, authorized to negotiate a contract with me on their behalf. Is that true?”
Cerullo looked around nervously before nodding.
Skull took a sip of the flavorful wine before continuing. “This would go better if you relax and act like we’re old friends. Drink some wine. Taste the cheese. Blend in.”
“All right.” Cerullo took a sip.
“Tell me what the job is and then I’ll tell you whether I’m interested in doing it or not. If I am, I’ll tell you my price.”
The man looked surprised. “I was told you’ve already agreed to the job.”
Shaking his head sadly, Skull set his glass down. “I’ve agreed to hear about the job. You don’t get as old as I am doing this type of work by agreeing to things without knowing the details.”
The man hesitated, as if he wanted to be somewhere else.
“Look,” Skull said, “it’s obvious you didn’t ask for this little task. You got family with you in Caracas?”
“Wife and two little girls.”
“And if you get caught doing this job it’s not only bad for you, but them as well. So, let’s get through this and on our way. Whatever the Texans told you to expect is out the window. They’re not here. It’s just you and me. Let’s figure it out.”
Cerullo took a deep breath and let it out slowly before nodding. “It would be best if I’m on the four o’clock ferry going back, so I’m not late for dinner. If I’m not there, my wife might call work.”
“Right you are. Let’s get down to business. Why is Texas willing to pay my extremely overpriced fee?”
The man looked around again.
“Stop doing that,” Skull said. “It only draws attention. I’ll stop the conversation if anyone gets close enough to hear us.”
Cerullo glanced down at his lap as if trying to remember something. Eventually, he looked up. “They want you to escort a man to about two dozen cities along the east coast of the United States, where he will build devices and leave them in the hands of trusted agents there.”
“What type of devices?”
“I don’t know.” Cerullo rubbed his eyes. “And I don’t care.”
“Who are these agents?”
Cerullo shrugged. “People like me. Before the vote to leave the U.S., representatives of the new government reached out to me, and others I presume. They asked us to falsely swear loyalty to the United States and publicly condemn the Texas rebellion.”
“That’s a dangerous game. Especially someone with a family.”
“Tell me about it,” Cerullo said, finishing his glass of wine before refilling it.
“Who is this man I’m supposed to babysit?”
Cerullo shrugged again. “Theodore Herschel is his name. Some scientist. Whoever he is, the Republic thinks highly of him.”
Skull thought for a minute. He had to take the job in order to protect his relatives that Vergone had kidnapped, but he also had to put on a good show.
“Okay,” Skull finally said. “Seems like an easy job. I’ll do it for twice what you offered.”
The man fidgeted. “I don’t know how—“
“I know how this works. They told you I’d already agreed to a certain payment, but that was only the beginning of the negotiation. Tell them I’m taking the job and to double the amount. I expect to see half the payment in my account by tomorrow morning. Believe me, they’ll agree.”
“If you say so.”
“I do. Now...how am I supposed to meet Mister Theodore Herschel?”
The man looked around again before catching Skull’s frown. He pulled a small piece of paper out of his wallet and passed it to Skull, who opened it up and looked at it. Printed there were the details of a date and time window to meet at a bar near the fish market in Panama City, along with a general description of the contact.
“Everything you’re doing here, you can talk your way out of. Everything except this.” Skull held up the piece of paper. “This could get Mister Herschel killed and you thrown into prison.” Skull folded the paper back up and laid it beside the man’s wine glass.
Cerullo looked at the paper as if it were a poisonous spider.
“I suggest you pick that up and put it away,” Skull told him, taking another sip of his wine.
“What am I supposed to do with it?”
“It’s a free country...or it used to be, but I would suggest that as soon as our business is concluded you go into the bathroom, tear that note into small pieces, and flush it down the toilet, but that’s just me. You do as you like.”
The man nodded and put the note in his pocket.
“I’m going to leave now,” Skull said. “You’ll stand when I do and we’ll shake hands. Then you’ll wait in the restaurant at least fifteen minutes. Finish the wine and cheese if you like. Then you’ll go get on that ferry and go back home. If you get questioned, you will explain that you just wanted to see an old friend in Curaçao, and beg forgiveness. If you do get caught, no matter what, don’t admit to anything we have discussed. If you do, you’ll never see daylight again. Understood?”
Cerullo swallowed and nodded.
Skull rose to his feet and Cerullo followed. They shook hands. “Good luck,” Skull told him. “Make sure you pay the check. I have a reputation to maintain.” He then walked out of the restaurant and back toward the harbor.
When he returned to his hotel room, Skull logged onto his laptop using an attached encryption device. He sent Vergone a brief email explaining the job Texas was hiring him for, leaving out details about Cerullo. The FBI agent might ask, but if so, Skull would tell him the contact had been a professional spook, anonymous and shadowy.
Skull didn’t owe Cerullo anything, but there was no reason to throw him and his family to the wolves. Besides, he never knew when a friend could come in handy.
Skull almost closed his computer, but thinking of professional spooks brought Cassandra Johnstone to mind. He logged into the secure Free Communities server. Most of the information on the site wasn’t accessible to him, but he could still communicate with his old “Eden buddies,” as Vergone called them, if he wanted to.
Skull kept expecting them to revoke his access, but every time he checked he was still able to get inside. Of course, they would be watching whatever he did. No doubt Spooky thought he might have a use for Skull sometime.
“Fat chance,” Skull muttered as he pulled up the application for secure teleconference. It showed that Cassandra wasn’t online, but knew that might simply be her default setting, as she never appeared to be online. He clicked the small icon anyway.
It rang for several seconds before picking up. A man Skull didn’t recognize looked at him with excitement. “Mister Denham, please hold. Ms. Johnstone has given orders that she would like to speak to you should you call. I’ll just go get her.” The video disappeared, replaced by PLEASE WAIT.
After a few seconds he saw Cassandra appear, looking fresh and attractive as ever. If there ever were a woman that could replace Linde in his hardened heart, it would be this one.
“Alan! Great to see you.”
“Cassie, we both know you can find me if you need to, so why did you leave instructions to get you immediately if I called in?”
Cassandra’s smile slipped a little. “I could find you, but last time you told me to leave you alone. I wanted to respect your wishes. I’m not chasing you around the world cold-pitching jobs.”
“Nice of you.”
“But now that I have you…” Cassandra said with a shy smile, “I do have a job. It’s vitally important, and we can pay.”
“I’m sure it is and I know you can, but I’m not interested.”
“Alan, I know there’s bad blood between you and Spooky, but –”
“It has nothing to do with that,” Skull lied. “The fact is, I’ve already taken another job.”
She frowned. “Not with the Unionists, I hope.”
“No, you’ll be pleased to hear. Something else entirely. Real cushy, low risk, high pay. The sort of thing I love.”
“What’s the job?”
Skull tilted his head to one side. “Really, Cassie?”
Cassandra frowned and crossed her arms. “Okay, so why exactly are you calling? Just want to catch up?”
“Not exactly. I was actually hoping you would do me a little favor.”
“Can I expect a favor in return?”
Skull laughed. “Not to put too fine a point on it, but I believe you’re already in my debt for salvaging that Ethiopia debacle.”
Cassandra hesitated. “You’re probably right. What can I do for you?”
“Find out anything you can for me concerning a Texan named Theodore Herschel. Some kind of scientist.”
“Does this have something to do with the job you’re doing for the Texans?”
Skull ignored the question. “Forward anything you come up with to the email address I’m sending you now.”
Cassandra was silent for a moment. “Okay. I’ll see what I can find out.”
“Thanks. I appreciate it.”
Cassandra’s mouth opened and then closed before she spoke again. “Alan, please be careful. You know I care a great deal about you.”
Skull ended the connection and slowly closed the laptop, pensive.
If only that were true. So many things could be different. Is it possible?
It had been nearly a year since that intense and scary Marine had gotten Anson Crouch across the border from Arkansas into Texas. Anson had tried to do just as the man had advised and find his family, but that had turned out to be impossible. Maybe they’d gotten away to one of the Free Communities before the blockade. Maybe they were settled somewhere in a remote region of Australia or New Zealand. It was even possible they hadn’t gotten out of Arkansas at all and were starving in some Eden detainment camp.
At the thought of starving, Anson’s stomach growled, but he ignored it. He’d become quite proficient at ignoring the demands of his Eden-enhanced body. Eating out of dumpsters and taking handouts didn’t do much to take the constant edge off, but that desire for food was actually a comfort. It kept his mind off what had happened to his little brother Kevin and the part Anson had played in his death.
Anson groaned as he once more pushed that thought down deep. He stumbled across the parking lot toward a dumpster at the rear of a Mexican restaurant in the town of Killeen. He sometimes got lucky there and was able to gorge himself like a snake on stale chips and half-eaten burritos. The food likely would have made him ill if he weren’t an Eden, but now, like many such scavengers, he got by.
Things could have been so different, he thought. I should have stayed with Father instead of running off to fight for the Arkansas Free State and their stupid Homeland Defense League. Kevin would still be alive if I’d listened to him. We might even be together as a family. But now, I’ll never find them. They’re gone.
On one level, the thought was comforting. It meant he wouldn’t have to face his family to tell them his brother was dead, never admit the part he’d had played in that death. It was probably for the best, he told himself.
Anson noticed a few stray dogs and a mass of rats at the dumpster. That was a good sign. He yelled at the dogs and drove off the rats with the stick he always carried. They scurried away with protesting squeals. He picked up the grease-stained paper sack and saw the rats had been eating a congealed blob of refried beans mixed with Mexican rice.
His brain might have been revolted by what he was about to do, but his body would not be denied. Anson thrust the bag toward his face and started eating the leftover food.
“Hey, what the hell are you doing?” yelled a voice from the back door. “Get away from here, you lousy bum!”
Anson looked up to see a large fat man with a hair net and greasy apron. Ignoring him, Anson went back to eating.
A painful blow to his shoulder caused him to drop the bag. He looked up to see the man had thrown a rock at him. Anson’s right arm was numb and tingling. The man hefted another stone.
Anson ducked as the rock flew and hit the side of the dumpster with a loud clang. The fat man picked up another rock, so he grabbed the sack and ran.
Jogging across the lot, Anson made his way back toward the main street while finishing the crude food. A man in a military uniform watched him while smoking a cigarette.
Ignoring the watcher, Anson stood near a bus stop trying to look as if he belonged, hoping the common folk would ignore his filthy clothes that smelled of old sweat and garbage. He just wanted a minute to collect himself and figure out what to do next. The few bites of beans and rice only seemed to make the gnawing hunger worse. It felt as if an angry squirrel were trying to dig its way out of his stomach.
The man in uniform continued to smoke and stare at him.
Anson glared back and flipped his middle finger at the man, preparing to run away if he reacted. Instead, the man laughed and beckoned Anson over.
“No way,” Anson said weakly, almost a whisper.
The man shrugged and went inside the building where he’d been smoking. Anson slowly read the words above the entrance to himself.
Texas State Guard.
Within a few seconds the man came back, holding up a fast food bag that obviously had something in it.
Anson has been the victim of this ploy before. Most of the time it was a bag of trash or a used diaper, a cruel trick for a laugh, but on occasion a generous soul had actually fed him. It was a gamble, but he knew which way he had to go. The possibility of food was worth whatever shred of dignity he had left. Besides, pride was something he didn’t deserve after what had happened to Kevin.
Walking across the road as if mesmerized, Anson heard a car horn and a screech of tires. Look both ways before crossing the street, he thought and laughed, eyes still fixed on the bag. Someone was yelling at him from what seemed a thousand miles away. All of the vast universe and the immensity of time had shrunk to the a small brown sack of food twenty feet away.
Stumbling forward, Anson snatched the bag out of the man’s hand and put his back against the wall. He spared a suspicious look for the stranger, but the man in uniform stayed where he was and lit up another cigarette.
Anson opened the bag hesitantly, a whimper escaping his lips.
Please let it be food, he prayed.
He opened the bag and was nearly overwhelmed by the smell of meat and grease. He reached down and pulled out a soggy French fry and stuck it in his mouth. Saliva flooded his mouth and he began cramming more and more fries into his maw, willing his throat to work as fast as his hands.
Under the fries he found a still-warm, foil-wrapped package. Tearing it open, Anson found a giant cheeseburger and took a delicious bite as unbidden tears streaked his dirty face.
“Take it easy, son,” the man said, moving forward. “Don’t want to choke.”
Anson slid backward along the wall, away from the approaching man. He held the burger protectively to his chest.
The man retreated, holding his hands out. “It’s okay. You can have it. It was my lunch, but looks like you need it a hell of a lot more than I do.”
Anson ate as slowly as he could, licking the inside of the burger wrapper to get off every bit of ketchup and cheese that he could. He then ate the remaining fries, shaking the crumbs into his mouth.
After a while, the man in uniform mashed out his cigarette in an old coffee can filled with sand that rested on the sidewalk at his feet. Then he went inside.
Tense, Anson listened, preparing to flee if the man emerged with a stick or gun. Sometimes cops shot him with pepper spray. That was worse than getting beaten, because with nowhere to wash, the effects of the chemical lasted for days.
“Here,” the man said, coming back out and holding something toward Anson.
He instinctively shied away, but realized that the man was holding out a can of Coke. Condensation dripped off the sides.
Reaching his hand out hesitantly, Anson took it and with some difficulty managed to open the top. Just the smell was enough to make him smile. It had been a very long time since he’d tasted a Coke. He willed himself to drink it slowly. Even in days of plenty, drinking cold soda too fast had given him hiccups, and he hated hiccups.
“You can rest here, son,” the man said sitting on one of several nearby folding chairs, as if to illustrate his point. “Won’t nobody mess with you.”
Anson had finished the soda, but held the can protectively in both hands, unable to put it down. Occasionally he would tilt it back and get a remaining drop of the delicious sugary substance. His body felt like it was coming alive all over, as if he were waking from a dream.
“Thank you,” Anson finally managed to croak.
Anson looked at the man’s uniform closely. It was a different pattern from anything he’d seen before. “What’s the Texas State Guard?”
The man laughed. “Before we was all rebels again, it was a bunch of veterans who got together and drank and talked about the military. Every now and again we’d help out with disaster relief. Sort of what the National Guard used to be before getting deployed to the Middle East in all those wars. Now it turns out we’re needed.”
“To protect Texas, of course. You don’t think old Uncle Sam is just gonna let us be, do you? They hate a rebel state as bad as they do Edens, and Texas has both. There’s a fight coming and its all hands on deck, if I might use a Navy term.”
“You taking recruits?” Anson asked.
The man looked at him and smiled. “How old are you son?”
“Eighteen, Sergeant,” Anson answered, unconsciously straightening and recalling proper protocol. “And I’ve got experience.”
“I can see that,” the man answered, looking critically at Anson. “Listen, son, I can see you’ve come on hard times and I wish you the best, but we’re likely to be fighting in the days ahead. Wouldn’t be doing you any favors to bring you on board.”
“How long you think I’m going to last like this?” Anson asked with more anger than he thought he was capable. “If I don’t starve, someone’s going to kill me or I’ll finally give in to the temptation to sell myself for food and that will only be a short stop from me hanging myself.” Anson forced himself to speak the truth, as much as it shamed and hurt. “Do you really think I’ll be worse off with you?”
The man stared at him hard for a full minute. “What type of experience you got?”
“I fought with the Arkansas Free State,” Anson said, forcing himself not to think of his brother. “We got overrun and I managed to make my way across the border into Texas. Before that, they made me a squad leader. I’m a crack shot too.”
“Crack shot, huh,” the man smiled. “We’ll see about that. Maybe you would be better off with us. I’m allowed to sign up anyone who’s at least eighteen, although I would guess you have no identification that could prove your age.”
“Nope. If I had, I might have been able to get work.”
“I figured as much.” The man stared at Anson for a while, as if trying to make up his mind. “At the very least, we’d feed you and give you some clothes. Get you a shower and a place to sleep. Can always use someone to mop floors.” It almost seemed as if the sergeant were trying to discourage him.
“You got Netflix?”
“Don’t push it,” the man answered.
Anson smiled. “Just joking. I’d be grateful, seriously. I got no place else to go.”
The man chewed on the inside of his lip, and then smiled and reached out his hand. “Well, son, welcome to the Texas State Guard.”
“Does anyone else think we should be going just a tad bit faster?” asked Shortfuse from his place by the barge’s rail.
“Just enjoy the ride, dude,” said Tarzan.
“Yeah, dude,” Hawkeye echoed, lying on his back on top of a pallet of boxes, a yellow Speedo the only thing covering his oiled body. “This is one of the best coastlines in Mexico.”
“We’re not supposed to be on vacation,” said Crash. “Lots of people are depending on us.”
Reaper cleared her throat and gave a warning look toward the barge’s crew, some of whom watched their passengers, keeping their distance. “We’ll get there soon enough.”
“I still say flying would have been faster,” said Flyboy.
Reaper mentally agreed with her pilot, but knew it would have brought more scrutiny. Also, despite her initial alarm at learning they would infiltrate the U.S. using Spooky’s drug smuggling route on one of his large sea barges, she’d discovered that it was safer than expected.
Spooky had taken advantage of an international maritime law that said any country that forcibly boarded a ship in international waters and did not find contraband had to pay a hefty fine. Even a small banana boat could cost up to twelve million dollars, depending on how long it was stopped. So Spooky had sent slow moving boats and barges north over the past year, piled high with what looked like bags of drugs on the decks, but were in reality coffee or sugar. He’d reportedly made close to a quarter of a billion dollars off false stops, and now the countries along the route were leery of stopping them without probable cause.
“Anyone got any pogey bait?” asked Hulk, looking at the sides of the boxes and bags in the pallet.
“Dude, you ate it all,” said Bunny. “You ever heard of sharing?”
“I was hungry, that’s all.”
“What exactly is it you bring to the party anyway?” asked Livewire. “I mean, we all have skills, but the only one I’ve seen from you is the ability to make food disappear. You some sort of magician?”
“I can carry a lot of stuff. I break down doors pretty good.” He lifted one massive arm and clenched his fist. “When you’re in a tight spot, you’ll be glad you’ve got me, I promise you that.”
“Dude, we’ll be in a tight spot soon enough if you keep eating all our food,” said Tarzan, who was fishing off the side of the boat.
Reaper closed her eyes and enjoyed the sun. Her team was slightly smaller than the one she took into Kenya, but she felt better about it. She’d cut Hound Dog first thing. Spooky had tried to press her, but she’d stood fast and won. The man had done good work near the end of the Africa mission, but she still didn’t trust him. Besides, she’d learned that Tarzan wasn’t a half bad tracker should they need one.
C3PO had also stayed behind. There wasn’t much need for a translator in the U.S., except for Spanish, and she’d regained her fluency after almost two years in South and Central America. Adding Hulk, she had Hawkeye the sniper, Shortfuse for demo, Flyboy as their pilot, Crash the medic, Tarzan for outdoor survival, Livewire on commo, and Bunny the all-around actress and sexually charged convincer, to complete their team of nine. Reaper hoped it was enough for what they needed to do.
“I’d still feel better if we were moving a little faster,” muttered Shortfuse again, staring out at the water of the Gulf of Mexico.
Reaper sat up and looked at him. “We’re safer going slow. I know it doesn’t feel that way, but it’s the truth. Coast guard types look for fast movers. A slow heavy boat like this blends into the background noise, one of hundreds. Don’t worry.”
Bunny nodded toward the Colombian crew watching them. “What about these guys? They might make a boatload of money turning us in.”
“Spooky’s cartel enforcers would track them down and skin them alive and they know it,” said Reaper. “Don’t worry about the crew.”
“What’s with the new ‘don’t worry, be happy’ Reaper?” asked Shortfuse. “Aren’t you the one who’s always trying to plan for every conceivable contingency?”
Reaper shrugged. “There’s just not a whole lot we can do about this situation. The infil is the infil. Besides, I already planned for every conceivable contingency.”
“If you say so, boss.”
They sailed for three days up the Gulf of California before pulling into the port of Guaymas, on the west coast of Mexico. Small tugboats maneuvered them into a quay among other large, rusty barges. A line of Mexican police awaited them along the dock.
“What’s this?” asked Flyboy.
Reaper shook her head. “Play it cool.”
“Want me to go talk to them?” asked Hawkeye. “I can do the whole Mexican homeboy routine. We can bond over soccer and tequila.”
“Let’s see if the crew can handle it. This is their show.”
The barge’s Colombian captain talked to the police from the rail. There was a back-and-forth discussion for a few minutes before the police began raising their voices and pointing their weapons toward the boat.
“What’s going on?” Reaper asked Hawkeye.
“They’re saying they want more money, as the risk has increased lately. They’re asking for double.”
“Tell them to pay it,” Reaper said. “We need to get off this boat and on our way before we draw any more attention.”
“That’s not how things are done. To not push back might make them suspicious and cause them to take a closer look at us. The captain has to negotiate or he’ll also appear weak in front of his crew.”
“Couldn’t the police just arrest us all and seize everything?” asked Bunny.
“Maybe, but that’s a lot of trouble and paperwork. They just want some easy cash,” Hawkeye said.
The argument began to get more and more heated, and Reaper stepped closer to Hawkeye. “Slip below and get a couple of suppressed pistols.”
He looked at her for a second. “You sure?”
“No,” she answered, “but I want to be ready in case we need to force the situation.”
Hawkeye nodded and started to walk down a nearby stairway, but one of the police saw him and began yelling in their direction. When Hawkeye didn’t stop, the man fired a burst of automatic gunfire into the air. Heads from all over the harbor turned their way.
“I think now we’ve got a problem,” said Shortfuse softly.
“Whoa, whoa, whoa there muchachos,” came a surprisingly jovial voice from the parking lot near the dock, in English. “Is it Cinco de Mayo or something and no one told me?”
The Mexican police turned and began speaking to the man in Spanish, with raised voices and animated hand motions.
The Anglo, a man covered in blue prison tattoos, spoke calmly back to them in colloquial Mexican Spanish, a big smile on his face.
Hawkeye looked at Reaper, but she shook her head and he stayed put.
After a few moments, the tattooed man shook hands with each of the policemen in turn, who walked away from the boat.
“What the hell just happened?” asked Bunny.
“That man there,” said Hawkeye, “evidently has a great deal of influence in this area. It didn’t take much to calm them down and convince them to move along.”
“I guess he’s gotten smoother in the last year,” said Reaper, moving toward the dock. The gangplank hadn’t yet been lowered, but she leapt the six-foot gap from the boat to the edge and walked over to the tattooed man.
“I thought you were dead,” she said, hugging him fiercely.
Python smiled as he wrapped her up in his arms. “I wished I was, at times.”
Reaper pushed him back, holding him at arms’ length. “What happened to you?”
His face grew grim. “They grabbed me and threw me in a special lockup for Edens. Lots of starvation and experimentation, but I cut my teeth in real prisons, with professional bulls. Those bozos couldn’t hold the Python. Didn’t take me more than a few weeks to bust out and make it across the border after all. On dry land, this time, though.”
Reaper struggled with conflicting emotions. “I shouldn’t have...I would have come back...but...”
Python stepped close to her, placing a hand on her cheek. “It’s okay. I told you to leave me, otherwise they would have grabbed both of us. Nothing you could have done. Just my fault I never learned to swim.”
“I tried to find out what happened to you,” Reaper said. “Border Patrol said you were...”
“Dead? Yeah, they have a deal with the SS. Anyone they catch, they report as killed, and then turn them over to the creepos. It keeps the others in line, waiting in the camps, afraid to try to escape for knowing what could happen.”
“Scumbags. I didn’t know things were getting that bad.” Reaper took Python’s hand off her face and held it.
“Am I interrupting something?” asked Bunny, moving up close to Python and gazing at him with big eyes. “You haven’t introduced us to our rescuer.”
Reaper felt instant irritation at Bunny. Maybe it was jealousy. Reaper wondered if she could feel more for the man beyond comradeship? Did she ever have feelings for him? Or was it just resurgent lust – they’d shared a bed for months, after all – and the relief of seeing a comrade alive again after thinking he was dead?
And guilt at leaving him behind. Yeah, that was all.
The rest of her team had strolled off the boat and gathered around the pair. Reaper said, “This is Python. We escaped from Camp 240 over a year ago. Then we lost track of each other.”
“He’s kind of hot,” said Bunny in a voice loud enough for Python to hear.
Python preened and flexed slightly. “You ain’t so bad yourself.”
“You two knock yourselves out, but do it on your own time,” Reaper snapped, spinning on her heel and stalking back toward the boat. “Grab the gear and get moving, everyone.”
“I’ve got vans over there,” Python called after her. “We need to load all these boxes and bags first and then put your gear on top.”
Reaper stopped, turning to look at him curiously. “Why are we taking coffee and sugar with us?”
Python smiled and started laughing.
“You can’t be serious,” said Reaper, walking over and squatting by one of the canvas bags. She pulled out the knife in her belt and poked its razor-sharp tip into it, feeling it bite through a several layers of plastic beneath. A fine white powder stuck to the blade. She wiped it with her finger, and then touched it to her tongue, which immediately went numb.
“I guess that part of the plan was a surprise,” Python said.
“Damn you, Spooky,” Reaper muttered. “You actually used the boat we were on to ship drugs.”
“Don’t look at it like that,” Python said. “No reason to waste a trip. Besides, if anything went wrong, this would have been great cover. You’d have been exactly what you appear to be.”
“Drug smugglers?” asked Shortfuse. “Wouldn’t that get us thrown into Mexican prison?”
“Exactly,” smiled Python.
“And how is that a good thing?” asked Flyboy.
“Because we can bribe out drug smugglers a lot better than commandos.”
Reaper figured he was right.
Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Justin “Case” Lee tried not to think about the nature of his mission. A veteran of countless B-2 bombing missions, he struggled to convince himself that this was simply a mission like any other.
“Two minutes,” announced his copilot, Pierre “French” McElroy. “I can’t believe we’re doing this.”
“Stay focused,” Case ordered. Neither of them was happy with this one, but there was nothing to be done about it. At least they were bombing the Periman oil refineries and storage facilities early in the morning when it was very dark. That should minimize casualties.
The big plane, looking like nothing so much as a flying black boomerang, cruised above 40,000 feet, invisible to almost any radar. Well, technically not invisible, but its electronic return, if it was even noticed, would show something the size of a goose instead of a bomber with a payload of twenty tons. The B2 was an aeronautical marvel, but right now Lee would rather be at home in bed with his wife.
“One minute,” said French. “Opening ordnance doors. Permission to remove ordnance safeties.”
This is the last chance I have to back out of this, Case thought. I could claim some sort of warning light that would prevent us from dropping. French would back me up. Neither of us feels right about this mission.
“Remove safeties,” Case finally ordered.
A few seconds later French said, “Safeties removed. Acquiring target.”
A century ago he would have had to relinquish control of the plane to a bombardier at this point. Even a few decades ago, a mission like this would have required someone painting the target with a laser. Now, if they knew the target’s location – and the Periman Basin wasn’t likely to move – all they had to do was plug in the geo-coordinates and let the military-grade GPS do the rest, with an expected circular error probability of less than one meter.
“Thirty seconds,” said French.
This was the most dangerous part. With their big bottom doors open, their radar signature grew to the size of a Cessna. A savvy operator might wonder about that and deduce what was about to happen and scramble fighters or alert the air defenses. It wouldn’t short-circuit his mission, but the B-2 wasn’t a supersonic airplane. It could be caught and shot down after the fact. He hoped the Navy boys were on their toes; if he had to, he’d fly out to sea and let them cover his ass.
“Ten seconds,” said French. “Permission to release.”
Are we really doing this? Case wondered. “Release,” he heard himself say.
“Ordnance away. Closing doors.”
Case steered smoothly westward along the egress path, alone and unafraid. No escorts flew nearby; they hadn’t wanted to tip off the Texans.
“Confirmation message sent,” said French, indicating he’d transmitted the encrypted message reporting they’d successfully delivered their payload. They would not break radio silence until well past the Texas-New Mexico border ahead of them.
Case caught the flashes against the night sky and tilted his head back to look behind them at giant fireballs erupting into the sky. High explosives had combined with oil and natural gas to create a burning inferno that would take days, if not weeks, to extinguish. He saw other fireballs far off to his left and right as other B-2s from his squadron delivered their payloads. “Well done, French. We’ll be back for breakfast and I’m buying.”
There was a moment of silence. “I don’t think I’m hungry, sir,” said his copilot.
Case realized he wasn’t either.
“Sir, we’ve got multiple inbounds bearing three two one degrees, speed five hundred,” said the Texan AWACS’ early warning radar operator, not bothering to look away from her screen.
Bedlam broke out inside the aircraft. What had started out as a normal shift, monitoring Texas airspace from near orbit above Austin, had become a matter of life or death with the sudden attacks on Periman Basin, less than half an hour old.
“What are we looking at?” asked the air operations commander, Major Tate Gregory, forcing himself to speak slowly. He had a tendency to talk fast when he was excited, and he’d learned long ago that it had a negative effect on his subordinates in times of crisis. Now he was known as Iceman, because they erroneously thought his slow casual demeanor indicated he never became excited or scared.
“Aircraft at wave-top level. Twenty-two of them. But sir, they’re small. Or maybe stealthy. Their radar returns are…weird.”
Gregory rubbed his jaw, looking over the controller’s shoulder, thinking back to his tour at a joint air operations center in Dubai during antiterrorist strikes. Those looked like… “TLAMs!”
“Marking.” The tech designated the bogeys in the system as wave-skimming Tomahawk Land Attack Missiles, adding to the information the AWACS would share through its datalink, most importantly to the air operations center at Randolph Air Force Base in San Antonio.
“I also have a dozen bogies from the George Washington at medium altitude, inbound at max cruise toward the coastline.”
“They’ve got to know we have air defenses,” Gregory mused. “So those must be Growlers.” He meant EA-18s, the specialized electronic warfare version of the carrier-based F/A-18 fighter, whose mission was to jam or destroy ground-based radar and missiles.
“That would be my guess, sir,” the woman answered.
Gregory went to the secure comms panel and plugged in his headset to speak with the watch center in Austin. “Reflex, this is Buzzard Three. We have multiple inbounds approaching the gulf coast from the southeast, do you copy?”
There was silence for nearly five seconds before a shaky voice came on the line. “Sir...I’m not really...this isn’t normally what I...”
“Who is this?” Gregory asked. “Where’s the watch officer?”
“Sir, this is IS3 Smith. I’m an analyst. Major Reynolds was ordered to go prepare a situation brief for the governor. General Clemens wanted it ready first thing tomorrow morning.”
“Who’s in charge of the watch center now?” Gregory asked.
Another moment of silence. “Uh, no one I guess. Most everyone got pulled to the general’s quarters to brief him and prep for a morning meeting with the governor. Said they might have to prepare for a news broadcast interview.”
Gregory flicked the comms net off and barely suppressed the nearly overwhelming urge to scream in frustration. Punching up the air ops center, he spoke into the headset mike. “Stormwatcher, this is Buzzard Three.”
The panel indicated a secure handshake with the air ops center, which would tell the other end who was speaking to them and cue them to take a look at what the datalink showed on the common operating picture, the “Big Screen.”
“Stormwatcher, launch the alert birds and initiate full scramble. The datalink picture of what we’re seeing off the coast should show you why.”
“Roger, Buzzard, I have datalink. Initiating full scramble. You’ll have four birds over Galveston in ten minutes, and the rest as fast as I can get them.”
“Acknowledged. Buzzard Three out.”
We should have had CAP in the air, Gregory thought. But no one expected what must have been a B-2 sneak attack, followed by this naval strike, this soon. I guess that’s the whole point. Element of surprise. Have to hope the Army can keep them busy until our fighters get into it.
Gregory walked back over to the technician. “How much warning will the air defense radars have for the TLAMs?”
“At fifty feet above the deck? Three minutes, maybe two,” she answered.
Gregory thought. The TLAMs, stubby-winged cruise missiles, were too small and flew too low to be effectively engaged with fighters, even if any arrived in time, but two or three minutes was enough for the Army missile crews to see and acquire them. Hitting them might be another story, but the newest Patriot upgrades should be effective, and Stormwatcher would have passed the alert to the Army immediately.
“Here they come,” muttered one of the controllers.
Gregory watched as the TLAM icons crossed the range rings of the Texan missile batteries. Fire control radars blazed on his screens, beams and fans sweeping and scanning as they locked on to the incoming weapons. Tiny blips appeared, highlighted by the AWACS’ powerful radar, even from a hundred miles back.
When the tracks of missile and counter-missile merged, more often than not both disappeared in a burst of radar hash. The few that didn’t eventually vanished on their own, presumably striking their intended targets.
“We’re taking them down,” another controller said, excitement in his voice.
“Sir? The Growlers just pushed it up.” The early warning tech tapped her screen, and then zoomed in on the dozen electronic warfare airplanes, which now showed speeds just barely below Mach one.
Those Growlers were made to take out air defense radars with small, accurate missiles, blowing a hole for strike aircraft to follow. Their nose cones were also packed with sensors and jammers to detect radar and confuse anything trying to lock onto them.
And now, with the TLAMs stirring up the hornet’s nest, those radars blazed like beacons in the electromagnetic spectrum, giving the Growlers perfect data on their locations and types.
“Patch me through to the Army air defense command center,” said Gregory. “Lord help us if there’s no one down there awake who can make decisions.”
“You’re on the freq, sir, but there’s no handshake. You’re speaking in the clear. We don’t have the new Army encryption protocols yet.”
Dammit. Just one more thing that dropped through the cracks in the confusion of the secession. No encryption meant he could be heard by the enemy. He had to hope his transmission would be lost in the vast radio spectrum and confusion of the attack.
“Texas Army ADA net, this is Buzzard Three –” Gregory stopped. His Air Force call sign would likely mean nothing to them. “This is the air ops commander of the Texas Air Force AWACS airborne over Austin-San Antonio. I need to speak to someone in charge.”
“AWACS, this is Duck Nest. Please go secure.”
“We don’t have your protocols yet, Duck Nest.”
“Understood. Authenticate Zulu Alfa Niner.”
“Wait one.” Gregory ground his teeth as his communications specialist flipped through a binder to obtain the day’s authentication codes. The man held up the book with his finger under a specific line.
“I authenticate Kilo Alfa Four,” Gregory read. “Put whoever’s in charge on, now.”
“Stand by.” There came a long moment of silence, and Gregory looked at his watch. Those Growlers would be in range of the radars and start taking them out in less than two minutes. When that happened, Texas would have a big gaping hole in its airspace.
“AWACS? Who the hell is this?” asked a gruff voice.
Gregory sighed with relief. Only someone in authority would speak this way. “This is the AWACS ops commander, sir.” He almost said his own name, but with a clear transmission, that would be a further violation of operational security.
“Well, this is the fire direction center commander, and you better have a damn good reason to be calling in the clear.”
“We don’t have your protocols, sir, but I’m afraid we have a situation.”
“You’re damn right we got a situation. We just fended off a cruise missile attack. Mostly. Three got through.”
“Yes, sir, but that was only for openers. I’m picking up a dozen EA-18 Growlers approaching the coast, and I’m getting intermittent hits from aircraft behind them. I’m guessing the Atlantic Fleet has launched a full strike.”
“Why ain’t I hearing this from Reflex?”
“Good question, sir. Evidently someone down there thought the attacks were over and pulled the watch officer in charge to go prepare powerpoint briefings.”
“Goddamn headquarters pukes,” the Army officer responded.
“It appears so.” Gregory looked at his screens. “Sir, you have less than ninety seconds before those Growlers start taking down your lit-up fire control radars. You need to turn them off.”
Gregory heard his counterpart turn away from his mike and order a heads-up passed to his missile batteries. Then he came back on. “If we turn them off, we’ll be blind. Thanks for the warning, flyboy, but our systems need to stay active. We’ll rip them a new one, just like with the cruise missiles.”
“No you won’t, sir,” Gregory said, desperation in his voice. “I’ve studied the Growler, and it can take down your systems. You might get a couple of them, but you’re going to lose a nose-on fight. You’ve got to shut down your radars, give them nothing to shoot at. Right now, sir.”
“We’ll pop them on and off.”
“That won’t matter. If you let them lock on even once, the Growlers’ new missiles will remember where your radars are and hit them anyway, and they’re dead accurate. They were made for taking down the upgraded Russian SA-10s, which are better than what you have.”
“Dammit! If I turn them off, we’ll be blind!”
“I can still see everything,” Gregory answered. “If you turn all your radars off now, the enemy might believe we think it’s over, and send their strike package in hot. I’ll let you know when you can turn the radars back on and give those assholes a real surprise.”
The ADA officer laughed. “I like it, AWACS.” Then he roared in the background, “Flash message! Go black! We’re going black now across the entire Gulf coast! Put them out fast and stand by!”
“Thank you, sir,” Gregory said.
“Just don’t leave us hanging, flyboy.”
“I won’t. They’re going to pay for Periman.”
The twelve Growlers, the George Washington’s entire complement, fanned out up and down the Texas gulf coast, looking for radars to shoot. They found nothing except a few civilian emitters, which they ignored.
When a four-ship of Texas Air Force F-16s came screaming in high and fast, they turned tail and retreated out to sea. The Growlers had self-defense missiles, but the specialized aircraft were much too expensive to risk in an air-to-air battle.
The carrier’s Commander, Air Group, or CAG, recalled six of the Growlers so as not to leave his strike package without electronic warfare coverage, allowing the other six to loiter, waiting for a four-ship of friendly F-35s to come forward and deal with the Texan fighters.
The flight deck crews worked furiously, prepping to refuel the recalled Growlers. The CAG would have rather had them hit a tanker, but all of his flying gas had been used up by his strike package of Lightnings and Hornets, even now inbound on the deck, heading for the enemy.
Each of the two dozen strike pilots had a specific target, nearly all of them focused on the strategic oil reserves near Houston. The planes flew in six four-ships, vectoring in on their targets, executing textbook approaches, intending to launch precision attack munitions.
They were deep into the Texas air defense radar bubble when their lock-on warnings screeched as the entire network came alive beneath them.
Pilots desperately released chaff and flares. Some were close enough to pickle off their bombs. Others dumped all their ordnance just to lose the weight and drag of the weapons. All executed frantic evasive maneuvers, trying to find clear routes back to the carrier, but they’d been caught too deep in.
The Growlers raced forward, launching AMRAAM air-to-air missiles against the Texan F-16s to keep them busy while their back-seaters began firing anti-radar missiles, but it was too late. Fireballs blossomed above the Gulf Coast as Texan Patriot missiles and even some older HAWKs clawed most of the strike aircraft out of the sky.
Only five of the original twenty-four aircraft made it back to the Washington, and one of those had to ditch, losing the plane but not the pilot. The sun rose over a tranquil gulf as a helicopter picked up the U.S. Navy aviator bobbing on the surface, looking stunned.
The CAG briefly considered sending combat search and rescue into Texas airspace, but this wasn’t some third-world enemy where he could sneak helicopters in to pick up downed pilots. The Texans had been ready for them, and it had cost him nineteen good men and women. He wouldn’t sacrifice more.
Yesterday, the CAG had argued against the sneak attack, but had been overruled by orders from the top. With that damned Texan AWACS orbiting far back, there was no way to achieve true surprise. He’d hoped to overwhelm them with his TLAM-Growler one-two punch, blow a hole in their air defenses, get in and get out before their air forces could scramble, but the clever bastards had been waiting for them.
Respect for the Texans’ staunch resistance warred with anger at the mission he was forced to execute, bringing forth a string of curses that made the sailors around him blush.
So much for a short, easy war.
Skull at first thought he had the wrong man, but the location and time of the contact had been specific. Besides, there was no one else in the Balboa Beach, Panama bar at eight in the morning.
Theodore Herschel didn’t look like some geeky scientist. He was powerfully built, with the gnarled hands and weathered skin of a man who had endured many trials and emerged undaunted. He sat drinking a cup of coffee and reading an American newspaper at the designated table in the corner.
Skull knew what the paper contained. They all said the same thing lately, with headlines that might have been written by the same editor. Given the increasing government control of the media, perhaps they had. “Vicious Texas Attack on Patrolling Navy Murders Thousands of Innocent Patriots,” or something like that.
Of course, Skull didn’t know the whole story, but he doubted whatever had happened was the senseless act of aggression the news would have them believe. Even if it were, Skull would have applauded the Texans for seizing the initiative. He’d also noticed a curious back page story of a series of disastrous “accidental” fires at several oil refineries in west Texas. Given the lies elsewhere, he was sure these had been somehow caused by the U.S.
Herschel looked up as Skull approached. “You must be my new best friend. Coffee?”
Skull sat. “Yes, please.”
Herschel waved at the bartender, who looked half asleep. “Enrique, café, por favor.”
“You come here often?” Skull asked turning to look at the bartender moving slowly to get the coffee.
“You trying to pick me up?”
“I must say the surroundings are a little odd, given the time of day. I’m surprised it’s even open this early. Couldn’t we have met at a breakfast place or something?”
“I didn’t pick it. Your control did.”
The bartender set down a cup of coffee in front of Skull and turned away.
“Muchas gracias,” said Herschel with a Texas twang. He waved his hand dismissively and patted his mostly flat belly. “No worries; it ain’t like I’m fixin’ to blow away any time soon.”
Skull fixed his gaze on the older man, who looked back at him impassively. Most people Skull stared at that way fidgeted or tried to look back defiantly. Only a few managed to hold their own.
Yet there was no challenge in Herschel’s gaze, only mildly amused curiosity. He looked at Skull politely as if expecting him to say something extraordinary, and had the appearance of a man who was content to wait all day for it to happen.
“I have to say, you’re not what I expected,” Skull finally said.
“Well, you know what the Dalai Lama said. Expectations are the leading cause of disappointments.”
“I guess that’s true. Maybe you should tell me a little bit about yourself. Start by showing me some identification just to make me feel comfortable I got the right man.”
Herschel reached around to the back of his chair to retrieve his wallet. He flipped it open and pulled out a driver’s license. “Not the trusting sort, are ya? Probably not a bad way to be these days. Not like when I was growing up. In those days, a man’s word was his word and you knew where you stood with him.”
“Why are you here?”
“Same reason you are, I guess.”
Skull shook his head. “I’m getting paid. A lot. I don’t give two shits about your cause.”
Herschel’s smile slipped. “Then why do you ask?”
“I like to know a man’s motivations. It might matter in a tight spot.”
“Fair enough. What we’re doing means a great deal to me. It’s important. Maybe the most important thing I’ll ever do.”
“And I still want to know just what that is. I was led to believe you were some sort of scientist or inventor or something,” Skull said.
“Scientist, no. Inventor, yes. The two don’t necessarily go hand in hand.”
“What did you invent?”
Herschel’s smile returned. “Lots of things. Started when I was in college, but the education didn’t take. Missed too many classes while I was actually building and designing things. Took over my daddy’s repair shop and did all right by myself and my family. Eventually started an electronics company on the side that didn’t do half bad if I say so myself.”
“TexTech,” Skull said. “Your company invented nearly fifty new electronics processes or devices and holds three times that many patents.”
“Whoa there,” said Herschel shaking a finger at Skull. “I see you’ve done your due diligence. That’s a rare quality these days.”
“I’m still waiting to hear what this is all about.”
Herschel’s eyes flicked toward the bartender on the other side of the room before speaking. “Texas is my home. Grew up there. Spent my whole life there. Buried my wife there and sent my boys to college there – and they graduated. Now they’re joining up with the Texas State Guard and think they’re gonna be heroes. That’s the sort of dumbass talk that gets a lot of people killed, you know what I mean?”
“I do, indeed. I hate heroes. Go on.”
“Well, what if there was another way? What if we could end this war before it truly got started? With no fighting and a minimal amount of bloodshed.”
Skull shook his head. “Texas won’t be able to reason with a Unionist-dominated United States. Especially one in the midst of hysterical paranoia over the Eden virus. They’ll have to either surrender or fight; there’s no other way with fanatics.”
“I respectfully disagree,” said the man, with a knowing smile.
Skull sat back in his chair before slowly sipping his delicious freshly ground coffee. “So for the third or fourth time: how about you tell me what exactly it is you’re supposed to build.”
Herschel leaned forward and his voice dropped a few decibels. “Three words. Transient. Electromagnetic. Disturbance.” He sat back nodding with a wide grin on his face. “Believe it.”
“You might know it better as electromagnetic pulse. EMP.”
“Like in a nuclear explosion?”
“Yes, and no. A nuclear detonation creates an EMP pulse as a side effect of the release of energy, but there are non-nuclear EMPs. Hell, a lightning strike is nothing more than a highly localized EMP.”
“So you’re saying you can cause an EMP? Destroy the U.S. military’s ability to communicate or something?”
“No, not just the military,” Herschel leaned in again. “Everything. This conflict is about the public’s will to fight...or to be more accurate, their willingness to support a fight. How long do you think the American people will have to go without electricity or airline travel or cell phones before they say ‘Uncle’? How long without internet or cable television or their cars that run on computer chips? They’ll demand peace to get these things back.”
“What you’re talking about is terrorism, even if it’s mostly nonlethal.”
“This isn’t terrorism, it’s war, and the U.S. struck first.”
“But you were already planning to do this before they attacked.”
Herschel sat back. “I didn’t take you for the type of man to quibble about such things.”
“For moral reasons? Not. But for practical reasons? Attacking civilian infrastructure never works. It just hardens their resolve. Bombing London and firebombing Dresden. Lockerbie. 9/11. Drone strikes that miss the terrorists and wipe out weddings.”
“Hiroshima and Nagasaki broke the Japanese will.”
“You need to study your history better, Mr. Herschel. The Japanese people and the military were ready to fight to the death. It was the Emperor who declared they surrender. That gave everyone a face-saving reason to give up. After all, the Emperor was a god on Earth. Can’t argue with divine edict.”
Herschel shrugged in exasperation. “Then think of it as an enormous disruption of their ability to prosecute the war.”
“Okay.” Skull looked at the man skeptically. “I’ve heard tall tales of non-nuclear EMP bombs my entire life. Sorry, but I’ve never known of one actually working outside of a laboratory.”
“Mine works,” Herschel said solemnly. “I’ve tested it.”
“In the field? In a town? A big city?”
“Field, yes. City, no, but the principles are the same. And the electrical grid’s conductivity will balance out any shielding the buildings provide, so size doesn’t matter much.”
“Coming from Texas, I can’t believe you just said that, pops. Size always matters.”
Herschel sighed. “This will work, believe me. You’ll see, soon, as soon as the battle for Texas starts.”
“You made some for them?”
“Yup. For military use.”
Skull looked at the ceiling for a moment, and then back at the man in front of him. “So what’s the plan exactly?”
The older man tapped a single finger on the worn table for emphasis. “We go to every major city along the eastern seaboard. In each, there’s a contact to help us. I’ll build a device from locally available materials and leave it in the hands of the contact. Then we move on to the next city and repeat the process.”
“And then you set off all these things at once?”
“Heavens no,” cried Herschel. “I want minimal bloodshed. Cars and trains will crash, planes will fall out of the sky if they’re low enough, older pacemakers and hospital devices will stop. The intent is to apply leverage to get the Americans to let us be. We’ll likely have to set off at least two or three to show them what we can do. The rest will serve as long-term insurance.”
“The rest will eventually be found. They’ll figure out what the materials were, who bought them, and so on. Basic detective stuff, on a massive scale, with the entire populace behind them. Then they’ll have the technology themselves.”
“True,” answered Herschel, “but I can’t sit idly by based on what someone else might do down the road. I have the ability to save lives, maybe even my children’s lives, and I have to take it. I have to protect my family.”
As do I, thought Skull, remembering the images of his nieces that Vergone had shown him. “We’re going to need to get you some new identification documents and background story. And I want that list of contacts. As you mentioned earlier, I’m a man who believes in due diligence.”
“The only list is in my head,” Herschel answered, tapping his temple. “It’s better that you don’t know them all.”
“I’ll need at least the first two. One for the initial job, and one to contact in case the shit hits the fan.”
“Fair enough. Memorize this and destroy it.” Herschel scribbled in a notebook and tore off a piece of paper, handing it to Skull.
Skull took a couple of minutes to do exactly that, excusing himself to use the restroom and flush the paper down the toilet. After he sat down again, he drummed his fingers slowly on the table, thinking. Vergone was going to shit a brick when he told him about this. Maybe he could use the info to regain some leverage over the FBI man.
Maybe he could find a way out of his trap.
“All right,” Skull said finally. “Where do we start?”
“The Sunshine State,” said Herschel cheerfully. “Miami.”
President of Texas Tucker stared into the sober faces of the men and women gathered in the hastily designated War Room. Many of them seemed to be in shock; others were angry and wanted to strike back. He himself was filled with sorrow that it had come to this. He’d wanted to avoid bloodshed, or at least put it off as long as possible.
But now, the Americans had forced his hand.
“Sir, the press conference starts in less than fifteen minutes,” said Timothy Branch, his chief of staff. “We need to prepare your response.”
“I don’t need to prepare,” said Tucker. “I don’t have to spin anything or play damage control. I just need to talk to them, tell them the truth, and mourn with them. I also need to allow them to accept the destruction of any illusion that this is going to be easy.”
“Nevertheless, sir, in my experience it is best to speak publicly from a position of calm dispassion.”
“Not in this case. What is the final death toll?”
“One hundred and twenty-eight so far,” said Branch. “Most died at Periman, but one family’s home was crushed by an F-18 we shot down over Corpus Christi.”
“It could have been a lot worse,” General McAllister said. “And they’ve tipped their hand. We know they’re resolved to try to bring us back in by force. That makes things much simpler.”
Tucker looked around the room. “I tend to agree with General McAllister, but I want to hear if anyone disagrees. Does anyone see a possibility of negotiating a settlement with the United States?”
Faces looked back at him somberly, and several heads shook. No one spoke up.
“Okay, then,” Tucker said turning to the general. “If we’re going to do this, we better get busy. I believe we need to do what we can to hit back at them. Hard and fast. Send a message not only to the U.S., but to the world, that we can’t be bullied. But nothing that will get us bogged down.”
“How?” asked Branch.
Tucker turned to General McAllister with raised eyebrows.
“We have some options we’ve been exploring. We might be able to send the message you intend, while also crippling the blockade, at least for a time.”
Clearly, the general didn’t want to go into detail in this meeting, so Tucker nodded. “Put together a plan and brief me this afternoon.”
General McAllister held his gaze. “It will come at a cost. There may be severe American casualties. Far more than we suffered due to their attacks. It may not meet the guidelines of proportional response.”
“Screw proportional response,” said a staffer from the back. “My daughter was killed near Periman. She left my two-year-old grandson an orphan. Explain proportional response to him, general.” Shouts and other noises of support swept through the room.
Tucker stood, holding up his hands for quiet. “That’s enough of that. We’re not fighting for revenge. We’re fighting for our freedom, and to protect millions of innocent people being sent to concentration camps.” He then turned to the general. “Proportional response has to take a back seat to military and political effectiveness. Either we fight for what’s ours with everything we have, or we might as well give up.”
“Everything we have?” McAllister asked softly.
Tucker shook his head, almost imperceptibly. Now was not the time or place to talk about the ultimate option. Not while tempers were running so hot.
The Texas President closed his eyes and pictured the scenes from those burned-out facilities, huge plumes of oily smoke rising into the sky and spreading across Texas for all to see. He then visualized men, women and children tortured and starving in the camps. They would have these places in Texas if the U.S. had its way.
Opening his eyes, he said, “Expect orders later today. We’ll show them we’re serious. How much it will cost. How much it’s going to hurt.”
A persistent buzzer drew everyone’s attention to the USS Mount Whitney’s common operating picture screen in its large, well equipped fleet command center. From here, Admiral Harvey Lagen controlled the entire Atlantic Fleet, but his attention was naturally focused on the Washington and her carrier battle group.
“Sir,” an ensign said, pointing at the contacts blinking on the screen, “I’m detecting multiple bogies inbound toward the fleet, on the deck, forty nautical miles range. They’re really low.”
“Missiles?” asked the admiral, tension in his voice.
“Negative, sir. Too slow.”
“What do you mean too slow?”
The ensign shook his head. “Two hundred fifty knots. Too slow to be fighters either, too fast for helicopters.”
“What are they then?”
No one else in the room offered a hypothesis, everyone staring intently at their own screens. Some tapped at keyboards, undoubtedly running datanet searches, trying to match the bogies.
“Doesn’t matter what they are,” the admiral said. “Raise the fleet alert status. Condition Zebra on every ship within five hundred miles. Tell the Washington to turn away and go to flank speed. Also, inform Captain Wilson.” Wilson was his flag captain, in charge of the Whitney’s operations so Lagen could control his fleet.
Within a minute, the Mount Whitney was at battle stations.
“Tell the Washington’s CAG to go take a look,” the admiral ordered. “We need to know what we’re dealing with here.”
“They’ve already diverted a two-ship of Lightnings and launched Ready Five,” said the air liaison officer. “And they’re bringing up more birds.”
After two tense minutes the communications officer called out. “Sir, the Lightnings have visual.”
“Good, what have we got?”
The man listened intently for several long seconds.
“Well?” said the admiral testily.
“They appear to be drones,” the man answered. “Reaper UAVs.”
UAVs could carry missiles, the admiral realized. “Tell them to engage. Weapons free, now.”
The air liaison passed the word, and then said, “They’re engaging, but it’s going to be tricky, sir. They’ll have to come down from thirty thousand feet, and bogies are on the deck. With no jet engines for their heat-seekers to lock onto, they’ll have to engage with radar AMRAAMs from low attitude to avoid the targets getting lost in the wave clutter.”
“Dammit,” said the admiral. “Tell battle group to put everybody they can between those Reapers and the Washington.”
“They may not be able to get them before the Reapers fire their missiles. Also, each ship’s counter-missile system will be fully active, and having F-35s flying around within that umbrella trying to engage targets will endanger us and them.”
The admiral growled, “We’ll have to risk it. Better to lose a pilot or two than a ship.”
They watched as the F-35s dove to the deck, rolling in behind the Reapers. Missiles leaped from the fighters, and the drones began to evade and release chaff. One enemy disappeared, but the rest flew serenely onward as the anti-air weapons missed or plunged into the waves.
Within thirty seconds, the admiral began to hear the deep bass hum of CIWS Gatling guns engaging targets topside, sounding like a god ripping enormous sheets of cloth in the heavens.
“Three Reapers down. Four. Five.” said the weapons officer watching his screen and the little red blips approaching the fleet. “Four more down, looks like they’re –”
The room went completely black for a moment, and then the battery lights came on.
“What the hell just happened?” asked the admiral.
“All systems dead, sir,” said someone. “We got nothing.”
A senior chief turned on the flashlight he kept at his belt. “Sir, perhaps we should go up to the bridge.”
“Right. Ensign, go see if the ship’s ops center is any better off.”
The admiral and the senior chief made it by flashlight and battery lighting to the bridge. There, the flag captain and his executive officer stood by as a rating tried to get the signal lamp working.
“What do we have?” the admiral asked.
The captain shook his head. “Not sure, sir. All our systems just went dead when that last UAV got close to us. We have no power, steering, commo, anything.” He pointed at the other ships around them. “Looks like they’re all dead in the water too.”
“How?” asked the admiral.
“A powerful EMP is the only thing that makes sense,” said the XO. “All electronics were instantly fried.”
“EMP? But there was no nuclear blast.”
The XO shrugged. “I know, sir. Maybe they have a new weapon or something.”
“Our ships are supposed to be built to withstand EMPs.”
“Right,” said the flag captain, “but we weren’t prepared for a nuclear event. There was no indication of a nuclear threat. We’ve got the backup systems, but it will take about twenty minutes to get those on line.
“Sir?” said a warning voice from the front of the bridge. There, a lieutenant stood gazing at the western horizon with an oversized pair of binoculars.
“What is it, son?” asked the admiral, unconsciously stepping on the captain’s prerogative.
“I see planes, sir, coming in low,” the man said. “F-16s, I think. Lots of them.”
“Oh, dear Lord,” said the admiral in horror. “We’re sitting ducks. We can’t fight back, or even maneuver.”
The senior chief grabbed the admiral by the elbow. “Admiral, come with me.”
“What the hell are we supposed to do?” asked the lieutenant with the binoculars.
The senior chief looked at the captain as he paused in the door. “I suggest you prepare to abandon ship.”
“Five degree down bubble on all planes, make turns for ten knots,” Commander Henrich J. Absen, XO of the attack submarine USS Houston – and he was well aware of the irony of the name – ordered as soon as he heard the warning of inbound bogies. “And make your depth…as low as we can go and still keep water under the keel.” They couldn’t descend too deep in the shallow Gulf of Mexico, but he hoped it was low enough that a plane couldn’t spot them in the water from high above.
Unlike the surface ships, submarines had no air defense systems, and their best protection from planes and missiles was under the surface of the water.
“Want me to inform the captain?” asked a petty officer.
“No,” Absen answered. “The doc just got him sedated enough that he can sleep. Leave him alone for now.” The captain and two dozen of the 129-man crew were severely dehydrated from vomiting and diarrhea brought on by a bout of stomach flu that had swept through the confined quarters of the submarine. In peacetime, they might have headed to port and let another boat take the Houston’s place.
Not now, though. Today, she was Absen’s boat.
“Sir, we’ve lost signal,” said the communications officer.
“The radio is fine,” the man said, “but it looks like the shortwave antenna’s been fried. Saw that happen once in the Indian Ocean when it was struck by lightning. We still have longwave, of course.” The longwave antenna was a mile-long cable that could be trailed behind the boat, but it was only used for slow, long-range coded communications with massive installations ashore.
“It’s supposed to be clear skies up there,” said the Chief of the Boat, or COB.
“Make your depth fifty feet. Up periscope,” Absen ordered, taking position at the heavy cylinder.
The Houston was on the outer edge of the fleet, typical for submarines when they operated with surface ships. He saw three frigates, but they looked off somehow. After a few seconds he realized they were all unmoving, adrift and wallowing.
Why would they all be without power? he wondered as he glanced over at the communications officer, who was trying to get some kind of signal.
“It wasn’t a lightning strike,” Absen said. “There’s been an electromagnetic pulse up there.”
“Everything’s good here,” said the weapons officer, waving at the unaffected combat center around them.
“The water protected us from the pulse. All except the shortwave antenna on the surface.”
“Did the Texans nuke the battle group?”
“I don’t think so,” said Absen. “Sonar would have picked up a sonic event that big. From what I can see, our ships are just drifting.” He stopped talking when he spotted the specks on the horizon, and his mouth went dry. “Rig for air attack. Down periscope. All ahead flank, max down bubble, dive, dive, dive.”
The boat’s driver grimly gripped his controls, sending the boat into a crash dive. When loud explosions began to echo through the water, the men looked at him with worried faces.
“Give me all hands,” Absen told the communications officer as he picked up the microphone near the periscope. “Now hear this. The battle group is under attack by air, most likely the Texas rebels. We should be all right; I doubt they have what it takes for a sub hunt, but there’s nothing we can do about aircraft. I have reason to believe they used an electromagnetic pulse device to disable our surface combatants’ electronics. When the attack ends, we will surface and rescue as many survivors as we can. All hands prepare to receive casualties. It might get very crowded in here real fast, so be ready. That is all.”
Absen hung up the microphone.
Strained faces looked at him. “How far to the nearest surface combatant?” he asked the navigator.
“A little over a thousand yards.”
Absen nodded. “Fair enough. All ahead dead slow. Make your depth fifty feet from the bottom. Sonar, go active for five seconds once per minute. I want to know who’s out there. And put the passive sonics on loudspeaker.”
Absen waited nearly ten minutes for the crumps of explosions to come to a stop. Now, all they could hear on the sensitive sonic sensors were gurgles, snaps and pops…the sounds of ships sinking.
“All ahead half. Make your depth fifty feet. Up periscope.”
In the binocular eyepiece, waves splashed over the lens of the scope before it was high enough for Absen to see the surface of the ocean above them. When he rotated to find the battle group, the horror of it stunned him.
The first thing he noticed was the billowing smoke all around them, the debris in the water. He saw a destroyer half-submerged, with the crew in the process of loading into lifeboats. A breeze lifted the smoke away for a second and Absen’s breath caught in his throat as the Washington came into view.
The massive carrier burned, listing at a severe angle, with the lower edge of the flight deck nearly level with the water around it. Even from a distance, Absen could see sailors sliding off the edge of the tilted deck and into the water to avoid the growing flames.
“Surface and begin rescue operations,” Absen ordered, stowing the handles of the periscope, and heading for the door.
“How bad is it?” asked the navigator.
“Bad as it gets. Navigator, you have the conn.”
The lieutenant looked at him in near panic. “Where are you going, sir?”
“I believe I need to go wake up the captain after all.”
Reaper rode in the front seat of the lead suburban as Python drove, heading northeast on dusty dirt roads, occasionally stopping for gas and restroom breaks. The remainder of her team was spread out between the other five vehicles carrying their gear and Spooky’s cocaine.
Python tried to make small talk from time to time. When that didn’t work, he sang loudly with the radio between bouts of talking to himself under his breath. Eventually, he turned to Reaper with an exaggerated sigh. “I see you haven’t yet learned the art of conversation.”
Reaper stared out the window, not looking at him. “I make conversation just fine when I want to say something.”
“Right. You’re saying plenty now. Typical woman.”
“What the hell is that supposed to mean? I’m the least typical woman you ever met.” she said, her voice rising.
“No, you’re not. You’re all mad about something but you don’t want to tell me because you think I ought to know already. You want me to figure it out, but I’m not a mind reader.”
“Maybe it’s the fact that you’ve become a professional drug smuggler!”
Python grinned and waggled the toothpick in his mouth. “You’re one to talk. Aren’t you helping to smuggle these drugs right now?”
Reaper shifted, looking straight at Python for the first time. “Spooky dropped that on us. On my team, I mean. I don’t like it, but this mission is paramount. That’s different from choosing to do this as a career.”
“I just don’t understand why you’re so upset about it. I make good money, set my own hours, and get to travel. What’s not to like?”
“Maybe it’s all the lives these drugs ruin.”
“Nobody else shoves this coke up their noses. They do it to themselves. Believe me, I’ve seen enough junkies to know these are weak, worthless people.”
Reaper laid her head back against her headrest. “I joined an East L.A. street gang at thirteen, Python. Most of us were just kids. The leader was twenty-two, and we thought he was an old man. We did drugs – I did drugs – because I thought I had a dead-end life with no future. My father was a worthless bum who only came around for sex or money to buy drugs. Mama tried to keep me and my brothers and sisters on the straight and narrow, but the drugs were always there, trying to drag us under. We weren’t weak, worthless people.”
“You were just a kid.”
“Kids are getting this stuff from you.”
“Hey, I’m just the delivery guy.”
“I can’t even talk to you about this,” Reaper said, sitting back in her seat and crossing her arms.
“Oh, don’t tune out again. Keep talking. Maybe you’ll convince me.”
Reaper was silent for a moment. When she spoke again her voice was softer. “I thought you were dead and it was my fault. Then, after a year, I find out you’re alive. I knew from the beginning you weren’t some sort of saint, but I just never thought you’d end up trafficking.”
“And I never thought you’d end up as a mercenary,” he said.
“I’m not a mercenary,” she yelled, punching him in the shoulder hard enough to make the vehicle swerve.
“Hey, watch it!”
“I’m still a Marine where it counts. I’m fighting evil people doing evil things. I’m fighting for something I believe in. I’m fighting to get the real America back.”
“You might not believe me, but so am I.”
Reaper snorted. “Please, tell yourself whatever you need to in order to sleep at night, but don’t try and feed it to me. It still smells and tastes like bullshit, so you eat it.”
“As ladylike as ever, I see.”
“You had no problem with my mouth when it was doing something you liked.”
Python shrugged. “I wasn’t going to piss you off back then. You were the boss. I was the flunky. I liked you. But we’re not together anymore. Are we?”
Reaper looked out the window at the Mexican barrier desert landscape, a landscape she’d grown to hate after fleeing the United States what seemed like so long ago. It was an escape she wouldn’t have lived to make without the help of the man beside her.
“No,” she finally said. “We’re not together, but we might have been. If you made it to Mexico, you could have made it to Colombia to join me.”
“I had no idea where you were! I got here with nothing at all. Beat the shit out of three banditos that tried to rob me – not that I had anything to steal – and then made them take me to their boss. Good thing he saw the value in hiring a gringo who could blend in up north. Been working my way up the ladder every since, but I never forgot you. Here.” He reached into a pocket and pulled out a picture, handing it to her.
“Wow. My mug shot from the Security Service ‘Wanted’ web site. How romantic.”
“It’s all I could find.”
Reaper sat looking at the cheap color printout for long moments. “I’m no better,” she sighed. “I didn’t try very hard to find out what happened to you. Maybe I didn’t want to know. I’m sorry.”
“It’s okay. It’s a fucked-up world.”
“You can say that again.”
“It’s a –”
Reaper punched his shoulder again and laughed. “Shut up!”
The ensuing silence now seemed more comradely than uncomfortable, until Python spoke. “This may look like drug smuggling, but it’s really just asymmetric warfare. That means –”
“I know what it means.”
“Jill, the drugs help save lives. I help save lives.”
Reaper shook her head. “Who sold you that line of crap?”
Python looked at her in surprise. “You really don’t know?”
He started laughing. “No wonder you’re so angry.”
“Know what?” she said slowly through gritted teeth.
“I can’t believe he didn’t tell you. He’s one manipulative son-of-a-bitch.”
Python chuckled. “The guy who controls the cocaine distro. Spooky. Our boss.”
“He’s not my boss. We just happen to be working together right now.”
“Okay. Whatever you need to tell yourself so you can sleep at night. But you still don’t have a clue.”
“What don’t I have a clue about?”
“The cocaine,” said Python hooking his thumb over his shoulder toward the back of the SUV. “It’s infected with low doses of Eden Plague.”
Python shook his head. “Nope. Every time someone snorts a line, smokes a rock or shoots a speedball, they have maybe a two percent chance of getting infected, I was told. That’s to try to hide where the infection is coming from. See, I’m not making junkies, I’m curing them. Curing them of a hell of a lot more than drug addiction, too.”
“How long has this been going on?”
“One shipment three months ago had a few random bags infected, as a test case. The SS didn’t seem to connect the outbreaks to the drugs. This is the second round, with half the bags infected. It’s pure genius.”
Reaper stared at Python with awe. “It is. So Spooky told you this?”
“When and where?”
“What the hell does that mean?”
Python rubbed his mouth, and then opened the cooler that sat on the seat between them, pulling out a bottle of water to take a long drink. “It means I didn’t like what I was doing, and I wanted to find you. I heard the Free Communities were looking for good people in Colombia, so I took all the cash I had and headed south. When I found a recruiter in Tunja, she said I was expected, and sent me to Spooky. He told me why it was important I come back to my job here.”
“Damn, Python. Sorry I busted your balls. I was just so mad at what I thought you’d turned into. You could have told me.”
Python shrugged. “More fun to see you twist yourself all up.”
“You didn’t used to be such a dick.”
“Sure I was. That’s why when we first met you slugged me and had the bulls beat the shit out of me. But who cares? The Plague was the best thing that ever happened to me. Once I escaped from detention, I tried to spread it to others, offered it, tried to convince people to take it and got beat up for it. Almost got arrested and sent back. This way, though...it’s perfect.”
Reaper had to ask herself why it meant so much what Python did for a living. What were her feelings for him? Was he someone she could love, or simply a comrade-in-arms and part-time lay? They’d shared a bond based on enduring hardships together. He was a friend, a brother, someone she wanted the best for. Reaper was glad he was alive.
But what about more? She really didn’t know…but at least she saw possibilities. He wasn’t a scumbag after all.
As the small convoy drove farther north, they encountered more and more Mexican military. Python told her it was part of the deal Mexico had made with the Unionists to seal off Texas, which was why they were angling toward Arizona. Twice they were stopped by police, but Python was able to get them through by passing along thick envelopes from beneath his seat. Reaper looked and saw there was a pile of them.
“Bribes?” she asked.
“Of course,” he answered. “It’s how things are done down here.”
Reaper frowned. “I’m a cop. Was a cop, I guess. I hate dirty cops.”
“Except for you, I don’t like cops period, but don’t be too hard on them. It’s not all greed; some of it’s necessity.”
“The police are paid almost nothing. It’s expected that they make up the money through ‘fees’ or ‘tolls.’ They have families to feed. In the cities, they take cash to provide extra security for certain businesses or neighborhoods. Out here, they pull over people in nice cars for traffic violations, and then take bribes to rip up the tickets. Sure, some end up completely corrupt, but most start out just trying to make ends meet.”
“Sounds like an unreliable police force.”
“It’s the way things are when you don’t pay the cops enough. Ironic for a hard case like me to say, huh?”
“That was before you were an Eden,” Reaper said. “You’re not a hard case any more.”
“I think that was some sort of compliment or something. Thank you.”
Two days later, they drove down a long, winding road to a small mobile home beside a large warehouse, which rested on a low hill covered in scrub.
“Here we are,” said Python cheerfully.
“Where is here?”
Python pointed to their front, across the desert. “See that fence line in the distance? That’s the Arizona border. Tohono O’odham Nation Reservation. Not heavily patrolled. The terrain’s bad, and the Indians catch most smugglers and coyotes, and then turn them over to INS. In return, the feds leave them alone. Saves on manpower.”
When one big door slid open, Python drove the SUV into the warehouse, and the other vehicles followed into the blessedly cool interior. Rough-looking armed Mexicans shut the portal, and then spread out alertly.
“What is this place?” asked Shortfuse, climbing out of the back of a van and stretching.
Python pointed at a half-dismantled semi tractor on a jack along one wall. “Truck repair depot, but that’s just a front. Come on and let me show you. Don’t worry about the cargo or your gear; my men will handle it.”
Reaper’s team watched Python walk down into one of the maintenance pits, where he pushed a small button beneath the lift. A pneumatic whining sounded, and then a section of the wall opened a crack. Python pushed it aside, revealing a set of stairs.
“Follow me,” he said.
They found several rooms comfortably furnished with bunk beds. There was also a bathroom and shower area, a kitchen, and even a dayroom, with sofas, a pool table, a television and a bar.
Python walked around behind the bar, pulling a cold case of Mexican beer from a chest fridge and opening one for himself. “I recommend you stay here a few hours until nightfall and then make your crossing. Who wants a drink?”
“Got any scotch?” asked Flyboy.
“Tequila and rum.” Python lifted two bottles from beneath the bar, setting highball glasses beside them. “Ice in the freezer there.”
Flyboy grabbed the rum and a glass, heading toward the ice. The rest of the team picked up beer bottles and distributed themselves around the room to relax.
“Tell me about the crossing,” said Reaper.
“C’mere.” Python led her to a door in the back of the room. When he opened it, he pointed down a long hallway leading away into the darkness. “That leads north for almost a mile and a half. At the other end is another set of stairs that comes up inside a mobile home. Outside you’ll find an extended-size van. The keys should be in a magnetic holder in the front right wheel well. It will be crowded, but I think you all can squeeze in.”
“Just like the last time I came across the border as a boy,” said Hawkeye, coming over to look.
“I thought you were from Peru,” said Bunny.
“I am, but in case you didn’t notice, America don’t share no border with Peru.”
“So why’d you leave?”
“My family didn’t like the U.S. Too many Mexicans,” he chortled.
“That’s got to be the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard,” said Tarzan, now bare-chested as usual, his t-shirt tucked into a pocket.
“Not as dumb as your outfit,” answered Hawkeye. “Just because they call you Tarzan doesn’t mean you have to dress like him. Put some freaking clothes on, man.”
“Weren’t you laying out with a Speedo on the boat earlier? Only fruits wear Speedos.”
“And Olympic swimmers.”
“You ain’t no Olympic swimmer, dude.”
“I tried out.”
“Yeah, Peru’s a swimming powerhouse at the Games.”
“Your breath is the powerhouse, hermano.”
The banter continued in the background as Reaper asked Python, “You’re not coming with us?”
“Sorry, Reap. I’ll be here when you come back this way, though. Maybe when you’re not so busy, we can hang out. Be like old times.”
“We’ll see.” Reaper looked around pointedly. “How can you keep something this big secret?”
Python shut the door. “We can’t, really. That’s why a significant amount of the budget goes to paying the right people off. We look at it as profit sharing, which has a way of making people mentally invest.”
“Got anything to eat?” Hulk asked.
Python pointed to a door down the hall. “Fridge and freezer are in the kitchen and you’re all welcome to cook something. Pantry in there’s full of food. My personal philosophy is, never go on a suicide mission with an empty stomach.”
“And the hits just keep coming,” said Livewire, following Hulk into the kitchen.
Flyboy and Bunny disappeared into a different room. Probably exactly what it looks like, Reaper thought. And I haven’t got laid in forever. Wonder why?
She caught Python watching her. “What?”
He shrugged and turned away.
Well, at least he isn’t pushy about it. Should I give him a roll in the hay? Every mission might be my last. Why deny myself, or him? He’s not a bad guy, after all. No Mister Right, but at least he’s Mister Right Now.
The rest of the team started sorting the equipment Python’s men were hauling downstairs. Soon, Hawkeye had all their weapons laid out, stripping and cleaning them again while drinking his third beer. His hands worked automatically as he watched the Mexican news.
“Tight crew you got here,” Python told Reaper.
“Thanks. Picked and trained them myself. We’re technically regulars, not spec ops, though.”
“It means we don’t work for Spooky.”
“Special arrangement. Markis approved it.”
“Markis? The big cheese? You met him?”
“What’s he like?”
Reaper considered. “He’s a man I can follow. Straight arrow. Honest. The right kind of man to keep people like Spooky on a short leash.”
“Maybe I should join your team. Next time, I mean.”
“You’re not military.”
Python smiled. “So train me. Whip me into shape. Or just whip me.”
That drew a laugh. “Talk to me about it when we get back.”
Python sobered. “Have you been to the U.S., since we escaped?”
“A couple times. Raided border camps, freeing Edens, until they moved everyone deeper into the interior.”
“You better watch yourself. It’s worse than when we left. The Unionists are turning the whole country into a police state. Informants are everywhere and there are rewards for snitching on your neighbors. Eden detention camps are popping up all over. You can even rent yourself a gaggle of them as chain-gang slave labor.”
“You can’t be serious.”
“Very serious,” Python answered. “I was one of those chain-gangers myself for a while. Worked shoveling blacktop. That’s brutal, backbreaking labor even when they aren’t starving you.”
Reaper shook her head. “I just don’t see how people can turn against each other so fast.”
“I heard you say people are sheep. Not in my book. I think people are rats. They always want to have someone else to blame their problems on. It’s always the Jews, the blacks, the whites, the wetbacks, the northerners, the southerners...never themselves. Add that to the fear of disease and the ignorance of what the Eden Plague even does, and yeah. They turn on each other like rats.”
“Even Edens, if they’re afraid. I’ve seen enough to know the virus ain’t a perfect cure.”
“Better than the alternative.”
Python nodded his head toward the ceiling. “Sure. I better go check on things. I have a tight crew too, but it never hurts to keep an eye on business.”
Helping herself to a cold beer, Reaper watched Python go, and then sat down with her team to finish cleaning the weapons and checking the gear.
At nightfall, they trudged through the low tunnel, using headlamps to light their way. Reaper’s back hurt from leaning over, and she wasn’t that tall. She could only imagine how painful it was for Hulk, but to the big man’s credit he hadn’t uttered one word of complaint.
The air felt thick and stale, and Reaper imagined she could feel the weight of the earth pressing down on them. She fingered the stock of the submachine gun slung across her chest and sped up, forcing herself to ignore the discomfort.
Finally, she saw a wooden staircase in front of her. She stopped and listened as Python had advised her, waving everyone to silence. The house at the other end should be secure, but it never hurt to be cautious. Not hearing anything, she climbed the stairs quietly and listened again.
She pushed open a large wooden hatch in the floor. A thin carpet slid off, and then she entered, finding no one there and all dark. The rest followed her into the shabby mobile home, spreading out, using night vision goggles to see. Although it didn’t look abandoned, it also didn’t look loved.
“House is secure,” said Hawkeye, coming into the living room after making a sweep.
“Let’s get out of here,” said Reaper. “We’re sitting ducks.”
They filed out of the house and into the van. The keys were just where Python had said they would be. Hawkeye got behind the wheel and Reaper took the passenger seat. The rest of the team piled into the back with their rucksacks and weapons.
“That wasn’t so hard,” Tarzan told Hawkeye. “You talk like it’s hard to get across the border.”
“We’re not home free yet, gringo,” Hawkeye answered.
Reaper pointed north. “Let’s go.”
They drove with no headlights for five miles along a gravel road, until Hawkeye slowed down and stopped in front of a log drawn across the way. No one spoke as two men with shotguns appeared as if out of nowhere. One held back, weapon ready, as the other approached. He said something in his native language.
“Sorry, chief, no hablo,” said Hawkeye.
Reaper leaned over and turned on the cab light. “Death to the Apache,” she said, extending an envelope full of money.
The man smiled, showing perfect white teeth, and took the packet, putting it briefly to his forehead in salute. “Funny. Snake-man said you would come tonight. Travel in peace.”
“Not where we’re going, brother. You take care.” She clapped Hawkeye on the shoulder.
Four other men stepped out of the darkness, put down their weapons, and dragged the log out of the way.
They drove another twenty miles before approaching a paved road. Turning eastward as instructed, Reaper thought they were home free when their headlights speared two police cars pulled over, the officers talking to each other. The cops seemed startled to see the van come down the road, and one held up his hand for them to stop.
Hawkeye rolled down the window. “Evening, officer.”
“It’s pretty late. Where you folks coming from...” His voice trailed off as he saw the heavily armed people crammed in the back.
Reaper shot him at his collarbone with the suppressed pistol she’d slipped from under her leg. The SAM round took him just above the vest he wore and the impact dropped him to the ground.
The other officer clawed for his handgun and backed up rapidly, but Reaper had already leaped out of the van. She fired four rounds into his lower torso, aiming for his navel, below the protection of his vest.
He collapsed, still trying to pull his weapon from its holster.
Reaper advanced rapidly, disarming both men and stripping them of their handheld radios and cell phones, saying nothing despite the pleas of the one conscious officer. Hawkeye followed to disable the vehicle radios and pull the memory modules from the dash cams.
Noticing a cooler of food and drink in one squad car, Reaper brought it over to set it beside the second man, and then dragged the first one she’d shot, still unconscious, to lie near his comrade. That would provide them with calories when they awoke.
The virus-packed ceramic bullets would have already fragmented inside each of them. In half an hour their wounds would be closed and in an hour they would be able to drag themselves into their cruisers and drive in to Tucson. By that time, the team would be long gone.
“So much for things being easy,” Tarzan said as the two climbed back in.
Reaper swapped magazines on her handgun and began to reload. “Drive.”
Cassandra Johnstone smiled as she read the latest report from Geoffrey Rayburne, her MI-6 mole. He was working diligently to try to keep the United Kingdom, and by extension the European Union, neutral and out of the influence of Russia, China, or the United States. This neutrality was important for keeping the Free Communities from becoming totally isolated, politically and economically.
Geoffrey had been the perfect source since she’d managed to smuggle his Chinese wife and child from Virginia to Australia, right from under the CIA’s nose. He’d even been able to visit them for the first time in years. Cassandra knew the man was smart enough to accept the situation, and she didn’t have to threaten to throw his family to the wolves to get him to do as she wanted.
She flipped through other reports and saw that her Eden’s Eves source network in North America was doing wonders. Not only did they spread the virus by working their trade as volunteer prostitutes – which they had all been before their infection – but they also collected valuable information. As always, pillow talk tended to be terribly indiscreet.
The American news network on the television mounted in the corner of her office was muted, but a horrific scene caught her eye and she turned up the volume. The caption underneath read “Texas Rebels’ Cowardly Attack on U.S. Atlantic Fleet - President Compares it to Pearl Harbor.”
She listened carefully for several minutes to the sketchy details, and then changed the channel several times to compare other news networks, paying special attention to the Mexican and British channels. Then she ran several internet searches.
Something made her remember the request Skull had made of her, and she pulled up everything she’d sent him on Theodore Herschel. Intuition told her there was a connection if she could make it.
She was deep in thought when she heard Gina protest loudly as Spooky walked into her office unannounced.
“Well, come on in, Tran. You know you’re always welcome.”
He closed the door in the face of the annoyed secretary behind him and pointed at the screen. “All the source networks we’ve got and this happens with no prior indication whatsoever. How did we not know? Or should I say, how did you not know?”
“That the Texans would try to break the blockade? You don’t need a source network to tell you that. Obviously they had good OPSEC about the details.”
“You had to know,” said Spooky. “Why would you keep this from us? From me? I thought we had an agreement to share information.”
“Tran, you’re not making any sense. If I didn’t know better, I’d say you’re losing your cool.”
He stared at her, and over a few seconds slowed his breathing. “Forgive me. May I sit?”
He sat down slowly, staring at her hard, as if by doing so he could manifest an answer.
“What?” Cassandra asked.
“I believe that I’m a very good interrogator. Perhaps one of the best,” Spooky said. “I know more about telling truth from falsehood than anyone I know. But you’re not just anyone, Cassandra. You’re a professional liar.”
“Which means, I’m not completely sure I would know if you were lying to me or not.”
She leaned back in her chair. “What does your gut tell you? I’m a great proponent of trusting your instincts.”
His eyes bored holes into her before softening. “I don’t think you’re lying this time.”
“Good. Now would you mind explaining to me what I’m not lying to you about?”
He pointed at the television screen again. “How do you suppose the Texans managed to cripple the most powerful fleet in the history of the world? They don’t have a navy, and their air forces are nothing but national guard and reserves.”
Cassandra shrugged. “I’m not sure. Military strategy isn’t really my specialty.”
“False modesty is not a good trait for you. Not now.” His voice held a note of warning she’d never heard before.
Cassandra realized that she couldn’t see Spooky’s hands. He might be holding a weapon. Surely he wasn’t crazy enough to harm her. She didn’t even know what this was all about yet. She decided maybe it was time to stop playing the usual games. Things could get out of hand.
“Tran,” she said, “I’m telling you the truth when I say I know nothing about that,” she pointed at the screen. “I didn’t know it was coming and I don’t know how they did it. The attacks on the Periman Basin and the strategic reserves were not totally unexpected, given the movement of American assets, but even there I didn’t know the intended target or time of attack.”
Spooky nodded at her, and then turned back to the television. “I’ve been scouring reports to get every detail I can about this attack. Something disabled those ships and their air cover all at once, allowing a relatively weak strike by a dozen F-16s to fly in and kill those ships like sitting ducks.”
“What could have done it?”
“I’ve spoken with several experts. Only two things make sense to me: a computer virus, or an EMP attack. I’m pretty sure it was the latter, using some kind of generator. A virus would have taken down their defenses, but not their engines. These ships were dead in the water. I also checked with the radio telescope in Puerto Rico. They picked up a generalized broad-spectrum burst at the same time. So it was EMP.”
“I didn’t think operationalized EMP generators existed outside of nukes and science fiction stories.”
“Apparently they do,” said Spooky, “which makes the Texans’ possession of one all the more disturbing.”
“Why is that? We want the Texans to hurt the U.S.”
“Because neither of us knew about it. What else don’t we know? Good human intelligence is one of the Free Communities’ only advantages. We can’t prepare for what we don’t anticipate.”
Cassandra chewed her lip, and then spun her laptop so Spooky could see it. “Skull contacted me a few days ago. Said he was taking a job with the Texans, but wouldn’t say what it was. He asked me to find out as much as I could about this man.”
Spooky read quickly before looking up. “Herschel…an electronics expert and inventor, working on capacitors and electromagnetics. He could be the source of this.”
“And Skull is with him,” Cassandra said.
“Doing what exactly?”
“That is a very good question. I’m going to see what I can find out.”
“Think he would help us?”
“You, no. Me…probably also no, at least not directly, if he’s on a job. But knowing he’s involved gives us someone to watch for and follow.”
Spooky though for a moment in silence. “They wouldn’t need Skull inside Texas. It’s more likely they need him to infiltrate the U.S. for some reason. When he contacted you, where was he calling from?”
“He had an encryption and masking device, but my best guess was somewhere in Panama, given the signal bounce pattern.”
“Panama? Maybe the canal?” Spooky said, and then shook his head. “No, that doesn’t make sense. Attacking the canal does the Texans no good. As a matter of fact, they need worldwide support for their cause and attacking anyone other than the U.S. hurts them.”
“Maybe that’s just where he called me from. Skull moves around a lot, never staying in any one place, and he really likes beaches. Especially tropical beaches.”
“I’ll keep that in mind,” said Spooky.
“Could you at least say it without sounding so ominous? I know you two aren’t exactly on good terms, but you were both Zeke’s friends, and you were there for me when I needed you. Alan is important to me, and I would take it poorly if you were behind anything unfortunate happening to him.”
“Noted,” said Spooky, rising off the couch. “I have no intention of harming him unless I absolutely must. I’d appreciate it if you let me know of anymore communications from Skull or developments on this new device.”
Cassandra nodded. “Sure, no problem.”
“One thing is for certain no matter how all of this turns out. Whether the Texans are crushed as expected, or find a way to prevail, we must get our hands on this new technology, even if only to learn how to defend against it.” Spooky left.
You make me nervous, Tran, Cassandra thought. You want this EMP thing too much. I’m not sure I would trust you with that sort of power.
Getting across the border into the United States had been easier than Skull expected. They’d arranged for a fishing boat captain to drop them off in a motorboat at a place near Key West. Landing at a public wharf, they tied up the boat and left it there, as if they were coming ashore for lunch.
Both he and Herschel had obtained new identity documents and were able to pose as members of an international electronics company attempting to build a client base in Cuba. The cover was very shallow, with nothing but hastily printed business cards for a company called Inter-Tech, but Herschel was definitely able to talk the talk. Skull often had to gently remind him they were not in fact trying to drum up business in Cuba.
Using a throwaway credit card, they rented a small car and drove north to Miami. Their contact there was Janus. He turned out to be a scrawny man of questionable hygiene habits and limited social skills.
When they knocked on the warehouse door, he initially didn’t want to open it. “Go away,” he said through the door. “I’m busy and don’t want anything.”
Herschel knocked again. “Just open up so we can talk.”
“Nothing to talk about. Send me a text or IM if you need anything.”
Skull pounded on the door. “Open up! This is the police!”
There was shuffling inside before the door cracked open a hair and one wild eye looked out at them. “You’re not the police.”
Skull threw his shoulder into the door and pushed his way into the warehouse, sending Janus sprawling.
“Hey, you can’t come in here...I’ll...I’ll call the police. The real police.”
“Relax,” said Herschel, coming in and closing the door. “We were sent here to meet up with you.”
Janus looked at them with a blank face framed by shaggy hair and a thin unkempt beard.
“To do something together...”
Still no understanding.
Herschel sighed. “From our friends in Texas.”
Janus’ eyes widened and he smiled. “Oh yeah, right. You’re the dude that’s going to build some cool techno thing in my workspace. Most excellent.”
Skull pointed at Janus and turned to Herschel. “This is the guy that Texas is placing its bets on?”
“One of them,” said Herschel, pulling Janus to his feet. “And don’t judge too quickly. I’ve worked with people like him before. They seem off at first, but I would guess he’s brilliant in his own way.”
“His own very special way,” said Skull.
“Janus, my name is Herschel, and this here is –”
“John Wayne,” said Skull, cutting him off. “Can we move this along a little, pilgrim, since we need to get the wagon train back on the trail?”
“Janus, what is it you do exactly?”
“Hosting, mostly,” Janus answered, looking around the room at everything but the two men. “I troubleshoot problems, some coding. Maybe a DOS smackdown now and then, or a SWAT.”
Skull stared at them both uncomprehendingly.
“He’s a hacker for hire,” said Herschel.
“Only part-time,” said Janus. “Got to keep the feds off my ass. Now I mostly host server space. Come on.” He led them through a series of untidy hallways, past an untidy sleeping area and a dirty kitchen, and into a large back room. The whine of cooling fans and air conditioners grew steadily louder the deeper they went.
Janus pulled open a cheap wooden door that had been bolted onto the wall by someone who knew nothing of carpentry. Inside the room were at least a hundred server racks, and an elaborate computer desk with a dozen monitors.
“You host server space,” said Herschel.
“That’s what I said.”
“All things considered,” said Skull looking at a pile of empty potato chip bags on the floor, “a not unwise career choice. I bet you don’t have to leave here very often.”
“Dude, everyone delivers these days,” Janus answered, only meeting Skull’s eyes by accident.
Skull shook his head and turned to Herschel. “Okay, so what’s the plan?”
Herschel peered around the room, following electrical conduits. He opened a few of the server racks and found a large open space in the bottom of one. “Yeah, I can work with this.”
“Okay, let’s get to it!” said Janus.
“Not so fast.” Herschel walked back out of the room and into the filthy attached kitchen. “I’m going to need some things.” He looked around and finally grabbed an old pizza box, shaking out several petrified crusts into the sink. Flipping it over on the back, he began to write on the back. “You’ll need to get this stuff from electrical and plumbing supply stores. Might even have to go to several different ones if they don’t have exactly what I mark down.”
“Won’t you be coming with me?” asked Skull.
Herschel shook his head. “This is going to take me all night to build, and I need to rest.” He looked around the warehouse. “Of course, I could take my time and we could just crash here for a few days or so if you want.”
“Give me the list,” said Skull, taking the pizza box. He pulled a small notebook out of his back pocket and began copying the items. “Seriously? Your super-secret high-tech gizmo that you’re building requires Cool Ranch Doritos to work? No wonder the greatest minds in science couldn’t figure it out before now.”
“Snack food. I have a routine when I get in the zone. Don’t mess with it.”
“Whatever,” said Skull continuing to write.
“Dude,” said Janus, “we could just order whatever you need online.”
“Would take too long to get here,” said Herschel.
“And I don’t think we want to create an electronic signature by buying these items and having them delivered to one place. Correct me if I’m wrong, but it doesn’t look like you do a lot of electrical or plumbing work here.”
Janus shook his head.
Herschel cleared off a space on a couch in the corner, pulled off his cowboy boots, and lay down with his hands behind his head. “Remember to get everything.”
Skull pointed at Herschel and Janus. “Don’t go anywhere.”
Janus looked at him as if he were crazy.
Skull returned later that night and had to beat on the door loudly enough to be heard above the sounds of country music coming through the walls.
“Oh, you’re back,” said Herschel, finally opening the door.
Skull pushed a bag into Herschel’s arms, and then began tossing more bags and boxes into the room before closing the door behind him. He turned to Herschel. “I could kill you for all this stuff I had to get.”
“I assure you it was all vitally important for what I have to do.”
Skull reached down into one box and pulled out a bottle of Kentucky bourbon. “You sure?”
“Yep,” said Herschel taking it out of his hands and looking at the label.
“And what’s it for?”
Herschel gazed at Skull as if he were simple. “I don’t know what they do with bourbon where you come from, son, but in Texas, we drink it.”
“I see you couldn’t find the Pappy Von Winkle,” he said looking at the bottle in his hands. “Doesn’t surprise me. That’s the best bourbon in the world and they only sell nine hundred bottles a year. Woodford Reserve is no wallflower though.” He pulled out the cork and took a deep drink.
“We gonna get started?” asked Janus, picking up one of the bags of Doritos before opening it and shoving them into his mouth, occasionally wiping his hands on his already multicolored t-shirt.
The loud country music made Skull’s head hurt. “Could you at least turn that stuff down a little bit?”
“Sorry,” said Herschel not looking sorry. “Like the bourbon here” – he took a swig out of the bottle – “it’s part of the process.”
“Fine, do your thing.” Skull searched until he found a small, mostly empty room. All the clutter made him uneasy, so he simply sat, resting.
A few hours later, he was woken from a light doze by a loud crash. He climbed out of the cheap lawn chair and rushed to find smoke filling the server room.
“What the hell happened?” asked Skull.
“No cause for concern,” said Herschel with bright eyes and slightly slurry voice. “Just a little short circuit.”
“Aren’t you supposed to be an electronics expert?”
“It’s not an exact science, young man.”
“Yeah, I think it kind of is.” Skull looked at the bottle of bourbon that was at least a third gone. “And maybe you should lay off the booze. Isn’t this supposed to be important?”
“It is important,” said Herschel. “More important than you know, but like I said –”
“I know; it’s all part of the process.”
Janus closed one of several metal panels. “Okay, we’re reset. Try again.”
Skull looked at the device at their feet, no bigger than a mini-fridge. “I got a question.”
“Shoot,” said Herschel sticking his head into the box and picking up a pair of wire cutters.
“Where does the power come from? Something like this obviously needs a great deal of it to send out a pulse like we’re talking about. There’s no nuclear discharge, so what powers it?”
“Electricity, of course,” said Herschel. “Lots of it.”
“You can’t power something like this by simply plugging it into the wall.”
“Look around you,” said Herschel. “How much power do you think it takes to run all these servers? That’s why this warehouse is perfect. It’s set up to pull plenty of current. When the time comes, Janus will plug the power into my little darling. Contrary to your initial impressions, our young patriot is the perfect choice for this job.”
Skull looked at Janus, whose mouth was slightly open, with pieces of Doritos in his beard. “I’ll take your word for it.” He looked around the room again. “It still doesn’t add up to me,” said Skull.
“What doesn’t add up?”
“Well, I’m not an electronics expert or anything, but how can electricity create an EMP that’s going to knock out all of Miami?”
“And Fort Lauderdale, and maybe even parts of Orlando,” said Herschel. “And remember, like lightning, an EMP is simply a huge burst of free electrons. Electricity.”
“But how is all of that coming from the electrical company? Even with all these industrial strength panels, it seems like a reach.”
Herschel pulled his head out of the device and looked at Skull. “You’re smarter than you know. The grid electricity by itself won’t be enough. We’ll need something else to boost it.”
“And what’s that?”
Herschel pointed to a large black case against the wall. It was plugged into one of the electrical outlets and contained about two dozen smaller cubes, with red and green LEDs on them.
“What is that?” asked Skull walking over to take a closer look.
“Each one of those modules is a very powerful capacitor battery.”
“Capacitor battery? How’s that different from a regular battery?”
“It’s designed to store a huge amount of power, and discharge it slow or fast as you want. For our purposes, really, really fast.”
“Enough to knock out the city power grid.”
“Where did you get them?”
“I built them.”
Skull reached down to pick one up.
“Please don’t. They’re very sensitive when they’re charging. Might discharge and kill you.”
Skull looked at him in surprise. “So why haven’t you patented and sold them to energy companies?”
“I did patent them. Prototyped and tested them myself, but I had the usual problems with any new tech. So I contracted with a lab to work on it, and Exextron Energy got wind of it. They leaked reports about safety and reliability, making it sound like the batteries were too dangerous to use, long before we’d even worked out the bugs. They lobbied some congressmen for a special investigation, and shut me down.”
“So you kept working on them yourself.”
“Yes. I sunk all my money into overcoming the problems and finding a backer. Imagine my surprise when Exextron made me an offer.”
Skull raised his eyebrows. “So they’d been playing hardball, trying to bring the price down.”
“That’s what I thought at first, but the price they gave me was unbelievably generous. I was so blinded by the thought of all the applications. Electric homes, cars, trains and airplanes, or super-efficient power grids. Even improved satellites and spacecraft. Hell, I thought my batteries were going to Mars.”
“So what did they use them for?”
“Nothing. I found out later that companies do it all the time. They’ll pay big bucks to buy a patent and bury it. That way nothing competes with their old, expensive and inefficient technology. It keeps the prices high for everyone, keeps the money flowing into their pockets. Later, if someone does come up with a similar system, they can bring theirs online fast and stay ahead of the competition, touting how wonderful their advances are.”
Skull shook his head, staring at the array of batteries. “So small, and so powerful. You’re using electricity to knock out electricity.”
“The irony wasn’t lost on me either,” answered Herschel, sticking his head back inside the EMP device. “Now I better get back to it, otherwise I’ll get out of the flow and –”
“I know, mess up the process. I’ll be keeping an eye out. Try not to burn the place down. That sort of thing tends to draw attention.”
“Don’t worry. If something goes wrong, we’ll all be dead before we feel the pain.”
“Oh, wow, dude,” said Janus.
Skull rolled his eyes and walked away.
Anson felt normal for the first time in...he couldn’t remember how long, since leaving Arkansas. Part of this came from eating regularly and sleeping soundly in a safe place each night. It also helped that he could work himself to exhaustion each day and not have to think about old, haunting memories.
“Again,” Master Sergeant Toombs told him and the other recruits. “You have to do it faster.”
Most of the young people in the newly formed Eden Detachment stifled groans. They’d been negotiating the obstacle course all morning. The bruises and scrapes they got healed fast, but it made them cranky and hungry.
More than a year ago, U.S. Army Master Sergeant Toombs had been arrested by military police once it was learned he was an Eden. After a harrowing escape from the detention center at Fort Bragg, he’d made his way from North Carolina to Texas without being caught.
Now he was their boss.
Toombs told them, “Forget about pain. You injuries will heal. Strive to win. To be victorious.”
“Victorious over what?” asked Rachel, a beautiful raven-haired girl with the disposition of a wolverine even when she wasn’t enraged.
“That,” said Toombs, pointing at the challenging course to their front. “And yourself. Strive to do your best in everything you do. If your goal is to do better than the person beside you or to impress me, you’re limiting yourself. Excellent comes from within.”
“More Zen bullshit,” whispered Donald from somewhere to Anson’s right.
“Excellent hearing is something that is not Zen bullshit,” roared Toombs, striding toward Donald to get in his face. “One hundred squat-thrusts. Anson, you count them out.”
“Open ranks, MARCH. Position of exercise, MOVE,” Anson barked. The formation opened ranks to create space for all of them to perform the punitive calisthenics.
Toombs had appointed Anson as the group’s student leader, and he’d gladly accepted the role, despite its mixed blessing. On the one hand, it granted him authority and some extra freedoms. On the other hand, it stuck him in a kind of no-man’s land, neither fully staff nor fully student, and friend to no one.
He sometimes wondered what else he could have done. Refuse the position? He was the best qualified. None of the other recruits had any military experience at all, beyond some high-school ROTC.
“Ready, begin!” Anson ordered, counting off the one-two-three-four of the exercise: squat, thrust out the feet into pushup position, pull them back to a squat, and rise to stand once more.
“One,” the group yelled out in unison.
Only ninety-nine more to go.
Rachel stared daggers right through him, as if it were his fault instead of Donald’s.
Screw her, he thought and sped up the count. By the time they reached one hundred, they were panting and wheezing.
“Okay, where was I?” said Toombs, brushing invisible dust off his hands as if nothing had happened. “Oh, yes: do your best. Call it Zen bullshit if you want, but excellence is the foundation of any successful military unit. Now, we’ll keep running this obstacle course until you stop looking like geriatric zombies. Who’ll go first?”
Anson stepped forward immediately, sensing the others’ angry eyes on him.
Toombs looked at his watch. “Go!”
Anson sprinted toward the thick hanging rope and leapt over the deep pit to catch it. His momentum carried him only a few feet, but he knew when to let go. If he waited to swing any farther, he would slow. He landed and fell forward into a shoulder roll, coming back onto his feet before sprinting toward the next obstacle, a giant vertical cargo net.
“Next,” he heard Toombs say behind him.
Anson felt free as he flogged his body to give him its best. He climbed and leapt and crawled and nothing more than the task at hand entered his mind. If he’d thought about it, the word he would have used to describe the experience would have been tranquil.
His calm was interrupted as he was descending the stacked platform obstacle. This was a series of seven flat wooden floors with a post at each corner. Each level was six feet above the one below it, making it a difficult challenge.
Coming down, he met Rachel going up.
“You think you’re better than us,” she growled. “You’re not.” Rachel was only a little over five feet tall and this obstacle could be especially difficult for shorter people.
“Just focus on climbing,” Anson said. “You can make it.” He held out his hand to help her.
“Don’t tell me what to do,” she panted, ignoring his offer. “You’re not Toombs. You’re not in charge.”
“You know that’s not what I meant,” he said, as she snaked past him, climbing higher.
“Nobody cares what you meant,” she grunted as her lean, muscular body leapt up and grabbed the edge to pull herself upward.
“Good job,” Anson said.
“Don’t worry about me. Worry about yourself. You’re not as far ahead of me as you think. The monkey bars are next. I’m going to beat you this time, even with your head start.”
Anson realized she might be right. Rachel was a gymnast, and normally flew across the metal bars, while that obstacle was one of his weak spots.
He swung his body to the platform below him and hung before dropping to the next level. He would have to pick up his own pace to prevent her from making good on her promise.
Something made him look up, just in time to see Rachel struggling at the very top, more than forty feet above the ground. Her hands were obviously slipping in the morning dew. Anson had almost fallen there himself.
He saw her slide as if in slow motion from the edge of the top platform, her feet reaching for the surface a few feet below her. Her toes touched, but her body overbalanced toward the open air. She tried to recover, jackknifing forward to grab at the platform below with her hands, but the momentum was too much. Rachel bounced outward and fell toward the ground.
Anson reached out to grasp her ankle, swinging her under and onto the next platform. The momentum twisted her leg out of his grip, and then he followed her down. He saw her lying stunned, eyes open and staring at the bottom of the wooden floor above. “Are you okay?” he asked, cradling her head.
She licked her lips, and then slapped his hand away. “Don’t expect some kind of thank-you. We’re Edens, remember. I would have healed just fine...and I’m still going to beat you.”
Rolling out of his grip, she staggered to her feet, stepped toward the side, and jumped.
Anson scrambled over to the edge to see her falling the remaining twenty-four feet to the ground, where she did a tuck roll and came up to her feet.
Rachel looked up with a smile, flipped him the bird, and then raced off toward the monkey bars.
He hesitated only a second before he leapt off the platform after her.
General McAllister was late, and he hated being late. Some might call it a general’s prerogative to keep others waiting, but he’d always found it rude and arrogant to waste his subordinates’ important man-hours. His time might – technically – be more important than theirs, but it seemed bad practice to rub it in.
“Sorry, people,” he said walking into the conference room as men and women in uniform jumped to their feet. “I got held up in Galveston. Please take your seats.”
The people sat as he made his way to the front of the room and took the cup of coffee Sergeant Major Crouch handed him. He then looked at the screen and the briefer in front of him, waving for him to start as he sipped.
The intelligence officer, Colonel Monroe, cleared his throat and brought up a slide, showing overhead surveillance. “Sir, this is open source commercial satellite imagery of the Joint Readiness Training Center at Fort Polk, Louisiana. What we have seen in the last two days is a giant spike in activity. Other sources of information indicate that the 101st Air Assault Division is there now.”
“Kind of large for a training exercise,” said McAllister.
“Yes, sir. Normally exercises there are no more than brigade level at most due to available maneuver space. The 82nd Airborne is clearly mustering at Bragg and Pope, along with 18th Airborne Corps headquarters and enough airlift for brigade-strength airdrops. Furthermore, II MEF in the Atlantic has also been brought to full readiness, and one of its reinforced Marine brigades appears to be assembling near New Orleans.”
“So now we have three very mobile formations within striking distance of our borders.”
“Yes, sir. Between an amphibious assault along the coast, airborne drops from the 82nd and a deep airmobile penetration by the 101st, they could hit three very widely separated objectives at the same time.”
“What about to the north. Still the same?” McAllister asked.
“Yes, sir. The 4th Mechanized Infantry Division is on alert at Fort Carson and a brigade of the 1st Armored Division and another mechanized brigade of the 2nd Infantry Division are mobilizing in Fort Riley, Kansas. We’ve also gotten intelligence that Striker brigades from Fort Lewis and Fort Drum are on railcars headed to Fort Sill, Oklahoma.”
“How long until they arrive and can deploy?”
“The end of the week,” answered Monroe.
McAllister sighed. “So, by my count we have a heavy division and five heavy brigades on our northern border, and the equivalent of three light divisions on our eastern flank.”
“That’s not all, sir,” said Monroe.
“Oh, by all means, brighten my day.” That brought a few chuckles.
Monroe brought up a slide showing northern Mexico. “There are sixteen Mexican divisions along our southern border. It is uncertain yet if these will only serve to keep the border closed or actually plan offensive action.”
General Clemens snorted. “I can’t imagine the United States would want, or even allow, a foreign power to invade Texas. They’re just there to keep us distracted.”
“I wouldn’t be too sure,” said McAllister. “I think the Unionists would do just about anything to keep us from winning, even sanction a Mexican invasion.”
“There are also some indications of U.S. mechanized elements gathering in northern Mexico,” Monroe added.
“How much?” McAllister asked.
Monroe shook his head. “Not sure, sir. The reports are sketchy, but given the amount of headquarters elements, logistical movement, and radio chatter we’re guessing it could be as much as a brigade, all told.”
“Are they exercising or training with the Mexicans now?”
“Not that we’ve seen, sir. They appear to be setting up company-sized bivoucs.”
McAllister thought for moment. “That implies any attack won’t be a combined Mexican-American effort. They’ll probably use the numerically superior but far less mobile Mexican divisions to keep us bottled up while the U.S. forces attack across the thinly held border when the time comes.”
Monroe said, “Sir, that’s all I’ve got for the overview. My staff is preparing detailed order of battle updates for regular distribution. Are there any questions?”
“Lots of them,” McAllister said, “but not regarding your briefing. Thank you.”
The intel officer sat.
McAllister looked around the room. “I think it’s becoming apparent that the United States is in the midst of preparing for a massive combined assault into Texas. The question is, what do we do about it?”
“Hit them first,” said General Clemens. “We drive north and strike at Sill, Carson, and Riley just like Lee did when he invaded the Union. Seized the initiative.”
“Sir, I’d remind you that didn’t work out so well for Lee,” Colonel Gervais said. “Most historians agree that Gettysburg spelled the doom of the Confederacy.”
General Clemens waved his hand. “The strategy was sound. Lee’s generals failed to execute properly. They could have won the war and so can we.”
“They’ll tear us apart,” objected General Weston. “Right now they can’t attain air supremacy because of our robust air defense umbrella. The best they can achieve is a brutal air war of attrition. But those defenses are not mobile enough to cover any ground attacks outside of Texas. Once we move out from under, their air assets will chew us up with impunity. Don’t forget they have satellite intel we don’t have, too.”
“We’ll cover our attacks with our own air forces,” retorted Clemens.
McAllister shook his head. “We don’t have enough tankers, electronic warfare aircraft, or other support assets. Most of our aircraft are a generation behind theirs. I might be a ground-pounder, but I went to Air War College. Air power is synergistic, and we’re simply too fragile, too thin in our roster. Our outnumbered planes would have minutes on station before they had to turn around, while theirs are flying from nearby bases. If – when – our people get shot down, they’ll eject inside enemy territory and be lost to us. Additionally, we’ll be operating inside their air defense umbrella. In short, we’re strongest on the defense.”
Clemens crossed his arms. “So I guess we sit back and wait for them to attack us, is that the plan?”
“Actually, that’s pretty close to what I was thinking,” said McAllister.
“I can’t believe you’re going to yield them the initiative, especially as the longer we wait, the better chance they’ll come up with a counter to our new EMP weapon.”
McAllister held up a hand. “We’ve talked about General Lee and the Confederacy, but there’s actually a more suitable historical comparison: the late Western Roman Empire.”
“Sorry, sir, but they also lost the war,” said Gervais.
“Thank you,” said McAllister giving her an annoyed look. “They did lose, but not for hundreds of years. They had a huge border to defend with not enough troops and a series of invaders that constantly outnumbered them, but they consistently beat them back.”
“How?” asked Weston.
“With a grand defense-in-depth strategy. I believe we have no choice but to do the same. We can’t defend the entire border, as our enemy can strike anywhere and achieve a local numerical advantage. When we face those heavy elements we need to be able to meet them with our own massed forces. We blunt their assault, fix them in place, pressure them from the flanks, and force them to withdraw or be surrounded.”
Clemens glowered. “A counterpunching strategy would mean letting them drive deep into Texas territory. That won’t set well with our people.”
McAllister nodded. “Unfortunately, that’s true, but we’ll fortify all the major cities. The invading elements will bypass resistance as they did in Iraq, or they’ll bog down. In fact, I hope they do commit to attacking a big city like Houston or Dallas. With native Texans willing to resist to the end, it would turn into a Stalingrad.”
“But they probably won’t.”
“Probably not. More likely, mechanized and armored forces will blitzkrieg deep, trying to strike a decisive blow against our rear, but they’ll be outracing their logistics. They’ll also become more vulnerable to our air assets operating close to home. Then, when they’re exhausted and strung out, we turn and meet them at a place of our choosing.”
“Like Sam Houston,” said Weston.
McAllister could have hugged the man then. It couldn’t really be called running if the Texas icon had done it. “Exactly. Just like Sam Houston. We’ll draw them in, and then destroy them.”
Gervais raised a hand. “It’s fairly obvious that the heavy forces will drive south in a concerted assault. But we have no way to predict where the three expeditionary divisions will go. The Marines will likely conduct an amphibious landing, but the others...who knows?”
McAllister replied, “Neither the 82nd nor the 101st will likely conduct air insertions until they achieve at least local air superiority. I believe their primary roles are to be threats and distractions. They’ll try to make us waste forces defending everywhere. The real threat is the heavy divisions.”
“But we do have to defend against their expected targets. Airfields especially, with runways long enough to bring in reinforcements on heavy transports. Landing’s a lot more efficient than airdrops.”
McAllister turned to Weston. “You and the Texas State Guard will have to fortify the cities, towns and key airfields. Organize the local citizens to assist and fight if needed. It means you’ll end up fighting outnumbered and outgunned until our regular forces can rush to help, but it will be vital to keep the enemy busy.”
Weston nodded. “Yes, sir. We won’t let you down.”
“Thanks,” said McAllister, now turning to the Texas National Guard Commander.
“What about my boys?” Clemens asked. “Are we going to be part of the big counterattack?”
“Not immediately,” said McAllister patiently. Clemens was clearly wishing for a more offensive role, but that wasn’t the best use of National Guard forces with their older equipment, no matter how well motivated. “We need you to form reserves in the center of Texas, and secure the southern border. You’ll face down the Mexicans and beat back the U.S. forces there when they attack. Keep them from getting a foothold in Texas. Don’t worry, Buck. Your forces will be the ones coming to the rescue.”
Clemens appeared to be trying to decide if he were happy with the mission or not. McAllister figured the mention of Sam Houston before had made him think about history, and the idea of being a second Sam Houston, beating back an invasion from Mexico, appealed to his glory-seeking side.
“Consider it done,” said Clemens, slapping the tabletop.
“Thank you. I’m going to need all your aviation assets for our counterpunching, but...” he held up a hand to forestall the objection he saw, “I’m going to give you three Regular towed artillery brigades out of Fort Bliss. Those will tear up any assault by masses of Mexicans, they’ll allow you to interdict the U.S. forces, and they’re light enough to move to where they’re needed.”
The general reluctantly nodded.
“Good,” said McAllister. “This is going to be a tough pill for everyone to swallow, and to make it work, we need to keep it as secret as possible. The evacuation and abandonment of large tracts of land to the invaders will have to be presented as an emergency plan. Let the ranchers and other folk know that they’ll need to evacuate to the nearest fortified town or city at a moment’s notice, where they’ll fight or hold out together until the danger passes.”
Gervais said, “Not all of them will go. They’ll want to stay and defend their land.”
“They can’t defend it against tanks and armored fighting vehicles. And if they’re Edens, they’ll likely get shipped off to some death camp in the U.S.” McAllister stood and looked around at everyone once more. “I want to remind everyone again, our strategy needs to stay secret as long as possible. Does everyone understand?”
Heads nodded soberly.
“Sir,” asked Gervais, “has anyone decided to stand with us?”
“No one new. Alaska will do its best up there, and the Free Communities are sharing intelligence and have promised all the support they can, neither is likely to do us much good in the short run. For now, we need to beat the enemy on our own.”
“If we can,” McAllister heard a voice mutter in the back. He decided to ignore it. The words only stated what everyone else was thinking.
“God bless Texas.”
The staff echoed McAllister as he left.
It wasn’t as hard to get onto Holloman Air Force Base as they feared. As a former Marine military police specialist, Reaper knew that during times of crisis, the heightened alert demanded of security forces quickly gave way to fatigue and shortcuts. Overtasked guards soon tended to focus on the things that seemed out of place, unconsciously ignoring what looked familiar and safe to them.
Therefore, Reaper’s team bought well-worn Air Force duty uniforms from one of the military surplus stores just outside of base, along with appropriate patches and insignia. A quick trip to a nearby sewing shop run by a hardworking Korean-American seamstress got them all set up to perfect military standard, with a bonus for rush delivery.
A fake base decal they’d brought with them went onto their van, along with a faked government license plate. When Reaper and her team rolled through the base’s front gate late at night with the usual banter, their forged ID cards hardly drew a second glance. Most of the security police were focused on searching civilian delivery trucks or cars, the obvious threats.
“That wasn’t so bad,” said Livewire from the back as they rolled away from the gate.
Reaper relaxed her hand off the suppressed pistol under her leg. “Don’t get cocky. The next part is going to be a lot tougher.” Pulling out the map Spooky’s people had given her, she had Hawkeye navigate them around to a secluded portion of the base, where they all got out and put on their gear.
“The bunker’s over there,” Reaper said pointing to the glare of lights around the temporary nuclear storage facility, a group of bunkers and special trucks. “About a kilometer.”
Hawkeye pulled out the specially designed high-powered air rifle and tranquilizer rounds. “I’ll have to get pretty close with these. Wish we could use SAM rounds.”
“The SAM rounds won’t knock them out,” Reaper explained again. “You’ll wound them and they’ll alert everyone to our presence, even as they’re healing and becoming Edens. We need them to go to sleep and stay that way. You have to put them down fast, before anyone can call in the cavalry.”
“With any luck I’ll get them all on the first pass,” said Hawkeye, testing out his night vision scope and body microphone. “Anyone who has guard duty at an isolated location late at night isn’t likely to be super alert.”
“Let’s hope so,” said Bunny.
“I’ll let you know when I’m in position,” said Hawkeye, slipping into the darkness toward the bunker. The rest of the team spread out behind him and began their infiltration across a series of dry ridges covered with desert plants. Over and over, they climbed ten feet up and slid ten feet down. If it hadn’t been for the bright lights from their objective, they might have lost their way.
Fifteen minutes later, Hawkeye called on his secure, frequency-hopping radio. “Reaper, this is Hawkeye. I’m in position.”
“What does it look like?”
“Four guards outside,” he answered. “They’re walking their rounds, talking when they meet. Probably at least four more inside the trucks, but they’ll be relaxing or sleeping.”
“Can you do it?”
“It would have been easier with two.”
“Nobody else can hit shit with that air rifle. Just tell me if you can do it, or do we have to go in heavy.”
“I think I can, but I’ll have to wait for the perfect setup. Be ready to come running.”
The team reached its objective rally point, the final assembly location before moving forward.
Agonizing minutes went by. Reaper was about to order the final approach to begin when Hawkeye called on the radio. “They’re down. Clear to move to the objective.”
“Let’s go,” Reaper said, leading them forward into the darkness. When they arrived, they found three men and a woman lying sprawled on the tarmac in the glare of the generator-trailer lights. Mufflers muted the sound of the engines, but it gave them sonic cover as they rushed the boxy trucks that housed the on-site guards.
“Shit,” she said as she realized the vehicles were armored, both the cabs and the rear personnel doors. Keypads locked them, and thick glass allowed those inside to look out. If the interior guards noticed their comrades were down, they would call for the ready reaction force and turtle up.
“Bunny, put on the woman’s rig,” Reaper said, pointing at the fallen female guard. “The rest of you, pull the others out of sight.”
Bunny donned the vest, helmet and headset, swapping out her suppressed submachine gun for the woman’s standard carbine. “Ready.”
Reaper said, “Now go about thirty yards away and use her radio to make a garbled transmission. When they look out the window, wave and tap your headset, then gesture for them to come out. We’ll take them when they open the door.”
Bunny did as ordered, and when the door swung wide to reveal a sleepy relief guard, Reaper shot him with a SAM round from her suppressed pistol and leaped into the truck, Hulk right behind her.
Reaper popped two more before they could get up from their bunks, and Hulk shot a fourth as he exited the toilet. They quickly disarmed the four, ignoring their groans of pain.
“Hulk, watch these guys and explain their situation to them,” Reaper said.
“You got it, boss,” he replied with a smile.
Back on the harshly lit tarmac, Reaper said, “Put the first four inside. Crash, give them Eden shots, and then trank the wounded. Once that’s done, you, Hulk and Tarzan walk around outside, impersonating guards so everything looks normal. We got about ten minutes before they miss a commo check, and five to ten after that before the reaction force arrives.”
Reaper found Hawkeye standing in front of the heavy metal vault door of a half-buried munitions bunker. He tapped it with a fist and they heard a thick dull metal thud. “Looks pretty solid.”
“They all do at first,” said Shortfuse, taking off his backpack and digging inside. “You just have to know their weak spots.” He brought out a collapsible camping tent and began assembling it.
“Uh...buddy?” said Crash. “I don’t think we’re going to be here long enough to need to camp out.”
“What I’m going to do’s gonna create a lot of light,” explained Shortfuse as he worked. “We’ll want to keep from alerting the bad guys as long as possible.” He finished assembling the dome- shaped tent, and then placed the opening toward the door. He pulled out a foil survival blanket that he draped over the top of the flimsy structure and secured with zip ties.
A maintenance truck drove past on a nearby road, not slowing. “Maybe we should hurry this along,” said Flyboy.
“When it comes to demo,” said Shortfuse, pulling packages out of his pack, “you can do it fast or you can do it safely, but not both.”
“I choose fast, then,” said Bunny. “We’ll just wait way over there.” She strolled back to her “guarding.”
“Thanks a lot.” Shortfuse unrolled a cord from around a series of charges encased on one side by thick metal sheeting. Shortfuse had spent much of the drive up from Arizona tweaking the setup on these curious objects.
He next used thick duct tape to place them over the three sets of hinges on one side of the heavy door, with the objects touching the joints and their metal casings facing outward. Unrolling the wire from each, he connected them to a small demo switchboard.
“We ready?” Reaper asked.
“Almost. Help me with this.” Shortfuse picked up the blanket-covered tent and maneuvered the bottom against the vault door, securing it in place with more duct tape.
“Now?” asked Crash.
“Yes. Everyone stand back.” When they had all moved to his rear, Shortfuse pushed a lever on the demo control board.
They heard a series of pops and then a loud hissing.
Crash said, “Kind of anticlimactic. I was sort of expecting something more...boom-like.”
Shortfuse shook his head. “We don’t want boom. This is supposed to be a covert op. I’m using thermite to melt off the hinges. Uh-oh.”
“What?” Reaper asked.
He pointed at the tent edges closest to the hinges at the top and bottom. They were starting to smoke and glow. “The thermite’s heating up the tent’s nylon and melting it.”
“Should we stop it?”
“There’s no stopping thermite. Once it starts, best to stand out of the way and let it run its course.”
The blanket and tent began to burn at the edges. Flyboy said, “You do know this is an air base. Planes come in all the time. A fire like this is likely to stand out just a little bit.”
“I know, dammit!” said Shortfuse. “I’m the one who came up with the idea to hide it. The tent was supposed to be fireproof, and the blanket. Cheap made-in-China shit.”
“What should we do?” asked Crash.
“Nothing we can do. Give it a few more seconds for the thermite to stop burning and then we can pull the tent off and stomp the fires out.”
They waited as the hissing noise lessened before finally stopping.
“Okay, let’s –”
There came a loud slow creaking and scraping sound. The tent started to bend backward, and then the heavy foot-thick metal door slammed down on the concrete pad with a thunderous crash that made their ears ring.
“Yeah, it worked!” called Bunny, clapping her hands from her position across the tarmac. “Are we still covert?”
Reaper growled at Shortfuse, “Get inside. We need to do what we need to do and get the hell out of here.” She used her headset to say to Hawkeye and the others. “Stick to the plan. If they show up, buy us as much time as you can.”
Shortfuse stepped through the metal doorway and Reaper followed. The hinges still glowed and smoked. She hit a series of switches near the doorway, and florescent lights began to illuminate the inside of the domelike structure.
Wooden crates of munitions were piled high against the walls, making room for a half-sized semi-trailer with no markings other than a few numbers.
“I guess the warheads must be in there,” said Reaper.
Shortfuse stared around them, aghast. “This is really horrible procedure for storing nuclear weapons. I can’t believe how sloppy they are, putting them in the middle of a bunch of conventional munitions. Even though they don’t have any dedicated nuke bunkers here, they should have emptied one of these out and stored them alone.”
“Everybody’s taking shortcuts. Between the external threats, the anti-Eden campaign and the scramble to get the Texas situation under control, the U.S. is stretched thin.”
“Lucky for us.”
“Think they have any more warheads handy?”
Shortfuse shrugged. “According to our intel, these are the only tactical weapons nearby. At least it should buy Texas a few weeks, before they can pull and prep some more.”
“Nukes ain’t like hand grenades. They take a lot of care and feeding or they deteriorate, especially the small ones. They use plutonium, which is far more finicky than uranium.”
“So how do we open it?”
Shortfuse walked over to the trailer, looking at the back door. “This is a standard portable anti-access vault, as expected. It’s made to hold out for several hours against anyone trying to get in and steal the weapons. My plan was to put all the rest of the thermite on top and let it melt its way through.”
“Won’t that set off the bombs? I don’t want to be anywhere near when that happens. I know we’re Edens and all, but I’m not sure our healing properties extend to being obliterated by a nuclear explosion.”
Shortfuse shook his head. “It doesn’t work that way. It actually takes a lot of work to set off the reaction that makes the big boom. Any tiny thing goes wrong, you get no nuclear yield. But as soon as my thermite gets to the warheads, the heat will ignite – not detonate – the conventional explosives inside and all they’ll have is a really nasty radioactive mess.”
“Go ahead, do it,” Reaper said.
Shortfuse grabbed his rucksack and climbed atop the trailer. Quickly, he set several devices there, and then climbed down.
Reaper’s headset crackled. “Boss, we got company,” Hawkeye said.
“Delay them,” she snapped. “Everyone else, exfil now. Shortfuse and I will be right behind you.” The rest of the team acknowledged as she heard the sound of firing from a heavy sniper rifle begin.
“You sure this will work?” Reaper asked as Shortfuse stopped near one wall of boxes and rummaged in his nearly empty rucksack.
“Those vaults are made to resist cutting torches, thermic lances, diamond saws, you name it. The trailer probably weighs fifteen tons, and most of that’s armor – high-tech alloys and ceramics. The whole point is to buy time for a strong reaction force to recover the weapons. But they made a mistake this time.” He pulled out a block of C4 and stuck a radio-command detonator in it, and then shoved the assembly between wooden boxes.
“Oh, shit,” Reaper said as she realized what he was doing.
“Yep. This bunker contains at least twenty tons of explosives, mostly shaped charge warheads for precision-guided munitions. My demo will set up a chain reaction that’ll blow it sky-high. Even if the thermite doesn’t destroy the nukes, the shock and blast should render them useless until they’re repaired at a specialized facility.”
“What about the tranked guards? Will it kill them?”
“Shouldn’t. They’ll probably be deaf for a while, but they’re Edens now. These bunkers are made to blast upward and outward so an explosion in one won’t set off the stuff in the next one.”
“Boss, you need to extract now,” Reaper heard Hawkeye say.
“Come on, firebug. Time to go.” She grabbed Shortfuse’s shoulder and propelled him toward the exit as soon as he finished setting the demo.
Outside, she led him around the back of the bunker, and they ran in the direction of their van. Behind them, Reaper could see armored Humvees advancing, machineguns firing. Hopefully Hawkeye was pulling out as well; one sniper against a platoon of security forces wasn’t much of a contest.
When she and Shortfuse reached the crest of the first of the series of scrubby ridges in the desert, she stopped, grabbing her comrade. “Blow it now.”
“I already set off the thermite, but it’s still burning. Better to let it do its work.”
“Wait one.” Reaper took out her binoculars, surveying the situation. “They’re almost to the bunker. If you wait, some of them will probably be inside when you blow it. We’re not here to kill a bunch of ordinary joes doing their jobs. Do it now.”
Reluctantly, Shortfuse took out his demo board and flipped a switch. A tiny light went from green to red. “Might want to get down.”
Reaper dropped her binoculars from her eyes and slid farther into the sandy depression, Shortfuse right behind her. “Fire in the hole,” he said over his radio, and then toggled another switch.
The night lit up with fire, and a wave of sound smote them. The sand they rested on jumped, and dust rose to hang in the air.
Shortfuse scrambled to the top to look at his handiwork for a moment before Reaper grabbed him by the empty rucksack and yanked. “Get moving! We’re on the clock!”
They raced up and down the ridges as Reaper tried to keep them on course, glancing at the stars she’d tried to fix in her mind for this purpose. A few minutes later they hit a paved road and she looked through the night vision scope of her weapon, scanning. The shine of what might be the sought-for near-infrared glowstick showed off to her left, but she couldn’t see the van.
“Hawkeye, this is Reaper.”
“You at the van?”
“Toss an IR glowstick in the air.”
A pinpoint of light popped upward, and then fell near where she expected. “Okay, we’re coming in.”
When they arrived, Reaper threw herself onto the passenger seat while Shortfuse climbed into the back. “Drive.”
Hawkeye drove with night vision goggles, navigating unerringly toward the edge of the base far from the mess they had made. “Helos,” he said, gesturing out his window.
Reaper could see two helicopters, one circling the bunkers, one apparently patrolling the fence line, its spotlight on full. “This will be the hard part,” she yelled toward the back above the sound of the racing engine. “This place is buzzing like a hornet’s nest.”
By the time they approached the little-used gate they’d chosen as an exit, two more helicopters had taken off, and Reaper could see flashing strobes from police vehicles, spinning yellow lights from maintenance trucks, and headlights from just about everything else. “Maybe we should have just tried to go out the front gate. There’s no way this clusterfuck is under positive control.”
“The base will be on lockdown,” Flyboy said. “Air Force bases aren’t as porous as Army facilities. We have to get out of the perimeter fast.”
Behind them, they could see vehicle headlights racing for their position, while a helicopter approached from along the fence line. Hawkeye pulled up at the gate and Hulk jumped out, a huge set of bolt cutters in his hands. Two quick snips and chains fell to the ground. He shoved it open and ran for the van. As soon as he was in, Hawkeye accelerated rapidly into the night.
Instead of heading toward the Mexican border as soon as they could, Reaper’s team cut across White Sands National Monument, and then drove eastward on highway 70 through Las Cruces. Their fake Air Force personas, coupled with their obvious American accents, got them through two checkpoints without difficulty.
It apparently hadn’t quite sunk in that, with Edens in detention and Texas in rebellion, “American born” didn’t necessarily mean “loyal to the U.S.”
Shortly after leaving Las Cruces on I-10, they departed the interstate and headed south on the minor roads, still trusting in their disguises. That’s why it was all the more disheartening when they came over a ridge and saw a dozen border patrol vehicles blocking the way.
“Crap,” Hawkeye said as he slowed. “Make a decision fast, boss. Run or bluff.”
“Bluff,” she said. “Everyone lock and load, and be ready. And smile.”
“This road was supposed to be clear,” Hulk rumbled.
“Murphy strikes again,” Reaper replied.
When they came to a halt at the barrier, it became clear that this was some kind of command post for the INS. A custom RV with “Immigration and Naturalization Service” printed on the side was parked and freshly leveled.
Lights speared them, and a voice said from a megaphone, “Step out of the vehicle and show your hands.”
“Hawkeye, stay in that driver’s seat. I’ll lock my mike open. If I tell you to execute, the lights are yours,” Reaper said.
“The rest of you stay out of sight and be ready. I’ll try to talk our way through.” Reaper slid her pistol into its regulation holster and got out of the passenger side of the van, her hands to the sides and empty.
A border patrol agent carrying a shotgun stepped up to speak with her. “Evening, Captain.” That was the highest rank she’d thought she could get away with, given the Eden-induced youthfulness of her appearance.
“Morning, I think, officer,” she said pedantically, checking her watch. It read 03:22. “Let us through, please. Official business.” She held up a hand against the light and walked confidently around the man, placing herself in a position to see what they faced.
“I need to see some orders.”
As Reaper moved into the darkness, she could make out one other agent with an assault rifle at the ready, and two more inside an unarmored SUV, watching. She frowned. “I don’t have written orders, officer…Alvarez, is it? Someone hit Holloman over an hour ago, and we’re looking for whoever did it.”
“No one’s come this way since sundown,” Alvarez said. “We’re securing the border. Aren’t you kind of far out from Holloman, anyway?”
“Just running down a tip.” She faced him, hands on her hips. “So you’re sure no one’s slipped by? No activity along this stretch of the border?”
“Nothing outbound. One family of Mexicans trying to slip in.”
Reaper showed surprise. “Illegals are still trying to cross northward?”
Alvarez shrugged. “Not so many lately, but a few. America’s still the land of opportunity.”
“Well, we need to go through anyway. My boss won’t take your word for it, with all due respect. I’ll need to tell him I checked myself.”
“And I can’t let armed military with no orders go messing around in our sector. Too much chance of fratricide.”
“Then I need to talk to your boss.”
Alvarez sighed. “She ain’t gonna be happy to be woke up.”
“My responsibility. Where is she, in the RV?”
“Yeah.” Alvarez led Reaper over to the vehicle and opened the door without knocking, and then preceded her inside.
As soon as the door closed and the man flipped on the interior lights, Reaper drew her suppressed pistol and put a round into his kidney, and then one into his thigh for good measure. The shock kept him from crying out, and she quickly shot the three other INS personnel, two rounds each, as they lay in their bunks.
“Execute,” she said over her open mike, turning off the light and hunkering down on the floor of the RV. With only a small-caliber pistol and lacking night vision, she had to trust that her team would finish what she’d started.
Weapons fire stuttered, answered by yells and terse orders in her headset. Within thirty seconds, she heard, “Hawkeye, entering the RV. Don’t shoot me, boss.”
Reaper lowered her pistol and waited until she could see his silhouette. “I’m good. Crash, trank the four in here.”
“Ah…” Hawkeye trailed off. “Crash took a stray round to the neck. He’s down, maybe out.”
“Tarzan and Bunny are working on him, but he might bleed out.”
Reaper leaped out of the RV to see Crash lying in a pool of blood. Lit by truck headlights, Tarzan held pressure on the man’s throat while Bunny slipped an IV into his femoral artery, trying to keep his blood pressure up and feeding him nutrients for his Eden Plague-powered healing to use.
“Anything I can do?” Reaper asked.
“Pray,” said Bunny. “This is a Hail Mary if I ever saw one. His throat’s blown wide open.”
Hawkeye swore, then began to recite a prayer in Spanish.
Reaper tried desperately to pull something, anything, out of memory. “Hail Mary, full of grace,” she said, and then stopped.
She couldn’t remember any more.
Ten minutes and four bags of fluids later, Tarzan shook his head. “No pulse.” He removed his hands from Crash’s mangled throat and closed his staring eyes. “Sorry, dude.”
Bunny sobbed once, wiping away tears. “Shit, shit, shit.”
Reaper stomped on her grief. “All right. Strip his body and sanitize it. Bunny, trank all the INS people. Hulk and Tarzan, cover her in case any of them get froggy. We’re leaving in five minutes. Move.”
Dawn was breaking above the desert hills as Reaper lay on the crest of one of them, scanning the terrain ahead. Behind her, in a steep arroyo, the team waited.
They’d run out of road several miles ago, and she’d made the decision to ditch the van and proceed on foot toward the border rather than backtrack. She’d also ordered them to dump the Air Force uniforms rather than get caught wearing them. By now, the military would have worked out how they infiltrated Holloman, and issued alerts to all the government agencies looking for them.
Of course, a bunch of heavily armed civilians might be almost as noticeable, but that couldn’t be helped, unless they were to dump their weapons. She thought about doing so, but decided against it for now.
The next question was whether to travel in the heat of the day, or wait until nightfall. Each had its advantages, but eventually she decided to wait. They’d be far harder to spot at night, and it would be much cooler.
Sliding down to the bottom of the dry, sandy stream bed, she told her team to break out their camouflage ponchos and set up shade to wait out the day.
Around three in the afternoon, the noise of helicopters roused Reaper from a doze. Moving carefully to the lip of the arroyo, she watched as a dozen birds spread out to the south and vanished over the horizon. She waited for half an hour, looking through her binoculars for any indication of what the aircraft might be doing, but saw nothing. Eventually, she went back to her shade.
“I counted twelve Black Hawks,” she said to Hawkeye. The others were near enough to hear her easily.
“Lots of activity along the border. They’re stirred up. Going to be tricky to cross,” he replied.
“Maybe we should have tried for Texas.”
“No way. The whole area’s militarized. We’d have been caught right away.”
“If we had water, I’d say hole up for a week, let them get tired of looking.”
“But we don’t.” Hawkeye shook his half-filled canteen. “We go tonight or we have to find more.”
“I know. I’m trying to decide if we should sanitize. Ditch the weapons, go as civilians trying to flee to Mexico. If they identify us as the ones who blew that bunker, we’ll be lucky to be merely executed as saboteurs.”
Hawkeye’s eyes lost their focus as he thought. “I see what you mean. If we get picked up as fleeing Edens, they’ll probably just put us in a camp. With our skill sets, we should be able to break out and try again.”
“On the other hand, if we keep everything, we might be able to fight through.”
Reaper shook her head. “Not on foot, in this terrain, with helicopters looking for us.”
Hawkeye shrugged. “Your call, boss.”
“Let me think about it.”
An hour later Reaper said, “Okay, we’re sanitizing. Ditch everything incriminating, especially any notes, maps or papers. Keep your fake identities and go over them again. Think like Edens fleeing from oppression. Me, Hawkeye and Bunny will keep our pistols with standard ammo, not SAM rounds. Civilians wouldn’t have those.”
The team meticulously divested itself of everything that might mark them as anything other than refugees. Reaper had Hawkeye go over everyone’s gear, and then she did it herself while others searched hers for any items out of place. All of the excess equipment went into a hole in the sand. She especially hated to lose the night vision devices, but there was nothing to be done.
At sundown they moved out, hurrying southward, keeping the North Star at their backs. The twenty or so miles to the border had seemed close when they’d looked at the distance on the map they’d buried, but without a clear path, they found themselves ascending and descending an endless series of ridges, washes, arroyos and canyons formed by intermittent flash flooding.
When they finally reached Highway 9, the last paved road that ran east and west just inside the U.S. border, they were exhausted. The last of their water had been consumed, and most of the food. Extraction had always been the weakest part of the plan; there were simply too many variables to juggle. Reaper counted herself lucky to have made it this far without losing more than one soul.
“All right,” she said as her team gathered in a depression just short of the highway. “The border’s one or two miles beyond the road. The good news is, there’s a lot of ground for the Border Patrol to cover. The bad news is, there’s a lot of Border Patrol, and they’re used to looking for people trying to cross at night. They have NVGs, infrared, and dogs.”
“So what’s our protocol if we get spotted?” Hulk asked.
“First, run. If we can get across, one of Spooky’s cartel contacts will be waiting for us in Los Trios. Second, if there’s only a couple of agents in our way, try to take them down quietly – and then run some more. Third, if you get captured, do everything you can to stick together with other team members. I’ve been in a detention camp; the last thing we want is to be alone. Got it?”
Quiet acknowledgements reassured her. They were good people, steady and solid.
“Okay, I don’t see any vehicles. Move out.”
Reaper led the way, pistol in hand. It was a compromise between having no firearm at all and having one that would mark her as military. It could also be easily discarded.
The team crossed the road. The terrain on the other side flattened out, and within five minutes they could see an artificial structure looming ahead of them: the border fence. Twelve feet high, it should have been an effective barrier if not for neglect and the constant damage to it by drug smugglers and human traffickers.
Reaper had ensured they kept a set of bolt cutters, something well-prepared refugees might possess. They might be useful in cutting through.
Hope welled up in her as they approached, only to be dashed as lights suddenly blazed along the barrier. It must have been some kind of automatic system activated by motion detectors, because no one was in sight.
“Run!” she yelled, and they raced across the two hundred meters to the fence. When she reached it first by virtue of her exceptional athleticism, she almost despaired. Instead of one fence, the border now sported two. The new, second one turned out to consist of a line of T-walls, concrete barriers twelve feet high, emplaced in interlocking sections and topped by razor wire. She’d seen plenty of them in Iraq, used to shield buildings from snipers and suicide bombers.
There was simply no way to cross.
“Back!” she yelled, and the team ran to retrace its steps, but it was too late. Border patrol vehicles raced in from the sides, and a helicopter rose from less than a mile away to hover above them, pinning them in its sun-bright spotlight.
“That’s it! We’re done!” she yelled. Tossing her pistol to the ground, she kicked dirt over it before the agents closed in. Hawkeye and Bunny did the same. Then they sat on the sand, arms laced behind their heads, and waited to be taken.
The only thing that surprised her about the process was the sting of a dart that struck her in the back. She felt a brief burning sensation. Trank, she thought as the darkness took her.
Gideon Stanovsky gazed nervously out over the waves from his position at the rail of the oceangoing barge. His wife often chided him for being too much of a worrywart, but he thought that was because she didn’t worry nearly enough. She believed everything would always work out.
He looked over at her now. She sat on the deck of the barge, near a cut-down trough being used as a baby pool, laughing and talking with other mothers. The makeshift pool was filled to capacity with small children, including their two girls.
He glanced over at the Texas soldier in uniform leaning against the railing, a Stinger missile launcher beside him. This man seemed relaxed, but Gideon could tell different; he was as tightly wound as Gideon was.
And why not? One of his fellow soldiers had already shot down a U.S. Coast Guard helicopter that tried to land on a companion barge’s deck as they passed near the coast of Central America.
Gideon knew about persecution. His grandfather had survived the secret anti-Semitism of the Russian gulags before escaping to the West, reminding him of how terrible life could become. The man had spoken little about the Siberian work until he was in a Boston cancer hospice, filled with painkillers and near death.
Gideon sat day after day listening to the man, fascinated with the stories, writing down as much as he could. He’d used all of his vacation days, but he didn’t care. For some reason, at the end of his grandfather’s life, this narrative became the most precious thing in the world to him.
His grandfather had told him of the disbelief of it all. How even when the Soviet government started rounding them up, no one could believe their neighbors and friends could stand by and watch this done to them. After all, the Soviet Union had outlawed anti-Semitism as a Nazi doctrine. All races and creeds were supposed to be equal under the Hammer and Sickle.
Yet Stalin had rounded up hundreds of thousands of Jews, the intelligentsia especially, confiscating their property and gutting their subculture of its leaders.
Gideon did not intend to be sent away to be brutalized, as his grandfather had been. He and his family had fled Massachusetts for Texas early after becoming Edens. They’d seen the writing on the wall.
Texas had been much better, even in the refugee camps, but the discrimination and shame was still there. When the blockade was shattered by the surprising Texas naval victory, the Battle of the Gulf of Mexico, as they were calling it now, the Free Communities had offered to take in any Edens who wanted to immigrate.
Gideon hadn’t hesitated to volunteer.
His wife had taken some convincing; despite the hardships of the refugee camp, she’d settled in, making the tiny living-trailer a comfortable home for the four of them. “It’s like camping,” she’d said to him and the girls. “You’ll find a job, and we’ll get an apartment. Eventually we’ll have our own house again.”
That seemed optimistic to him. Other than joining the Texas military, he didn’t see a lot of jobs available for a jeweler without any stock. Nobody but the wealthy owned fine mechanical watches anymore either, so that skill seemed useless. No, the best thing he could do was insist his family become refugees again in hopes of settling far, far away from the Unionists.
Gideon resolved to rebuild, like a million Jews before him.
He’d been told their first stop would be the bustling port of Baranquilla, Colombia, and who knew where they would end up after that? Word was that most of them were being shipped to the hot interior of Australia, or to the frigid south island of New Zealand. Gideon didn’t care. His people had flourished in every country and in every culture known to man. The most important thing was that they would be allowed to live at all. It was all in the hands of Adonai, of course, but the LORD was a shepherd, and made his people to be alert and wary. The wolf was always out there, even if you could not see it.
He felt a subtle change in the barge’s movement. A few others noticed it as well, but most kept on about their business.
Not all Adonai’s flock are as wary as they should be, Gideon thought.
He looked toward the soldier, seeing him toss a half-finished cigarette into the ocean and pick up his missile before hurriedly walking toward the front of the ship. Gideon followed, interested.
Despite the fact that they were off the coast of Nicaragua, Gideon wasn’t surprised to see a large U.S. Coast Guard ship approaching.
You didn’t really think they would let you go? the voice of Gideon’s grandfather asked in his head. They don’t need you, but it is in their nature to destroy the Chosen People. The Evil One whispers in their ears and they too readily listen, believing they think only their own thoughts.
Gideon turned toward the soldier to gauge his reaction, but the man had disappeared. Perhaps he’d gone belowdecks, or run to the bridge. Perhaps he’d jumped overboard, for all Gideon knew, but now that mental security blanket was gone.
They would abandon you in a second to save their own skin, his grandfather insisted. Put no faith in the forces of any government. Only THE LORD is with you. All other security is false.
Gideon could see their barge slow behind the three in front of them. The two others sternward frantically reversed engines to prevent a collision. A voice boomed out over a loudspeaker from the American ship. “This is the U.S. Coast Guard. Remain calm. You’re in no danger. Prepare to be boarded.”
We just shot down one of their helicopters last night, thought Gideon. I don’t think they’re likely to be forgiving.
“Assemble on the decks of your ships,” the voice boomed out again. “Prepare to show your passports for inspection. Any resistance or failure to follow instructions will be interpreted as a violation of international maritime law. Any violence may be met with deadly force.”
Gideon watched a small craft leave the Coast Guard ship and speed toward the first barge. Armed sailors in dull blue uniforms boarded.
After nearly half an hour, the sailors returned to their boat and proceeded to the next barge. Meanwhile, the first barge began reversing course, heading back north.
The soldier walked back on deck, paler than before, his Stinger nowhere in sight.
“What’s happening?” asked Gideon.
The man was much younger than Gideon originally realized. Only a boy of eighteen or nineteen, really. “They’ve seized the first ship and ordered it to Guantanamo.”
“What’s going to happen then?”
The soldier looked at him with a quivering lip. “You know what’s going to happen then.” He turned and walked away as if he had nowhere to go.
Gideon did know what was going to happen. Hadn’t it happened before?
He sank to his knees and pressed his forehead against the deck of the ship to pray. “Adonai, Elohim, LORD of my fathers. Please do not abandon your people now. Hear our cries and come to our aid. Let not the evildoers prevail. Hear me oh LORD. Save my family and everyone on this vessel.” Gideon stayed that way for several minutes, realizing his tears had run out on the deck.
He was about to climb to his feet when a loud explosion rocked the air.
“Distance to target,” asked Captain Erid Jakil aboard the submarine Jackal, formerly the South African Navy’s fast attack boat Winnie Mandela.
Now the boat was manned by crew that was a part of no nation’s military force. Some might call them mercenaries, but that was not entirely accurate. The vessel's designation was a play on its captain’s name, but it also could have described its role, and its tactics.
“Twelve hundred meters,” replied the weapons officer.
“Firing plot,” Jakil commanded. “Bearing: two seven three. Flood tubes two and four and open outer doors.”
It was a dangerous game they played. If they were captured, South Africa would not claim them. The nation would say, with great apology, that their submarine had been stolen by defecting naval personnel. There was nothing to be done; the boat was abroad, far from home waters.
The captain and crew were on their own, yet they believed in what they were doing. Every man and woman on board was a volunteer, and they understood they were warriors in a new battle: a battle to prevent genocide.
In that cause, they would strike from the depths, killing a few to prevent the death of many. At least, that’s what they had told themselves.
This would be their first engagement.
“Tubes two and four ready. Bearing loaded: two seven three, range twelve hundred meters.”
Jakil was an Eden, just like every member of his crew. South Africa was negotiating to become a full-fledged Free Communities member, and he was proud of that fact. Yet, global politics was complex, full of pitfalls. Daniel Markis reportedly wanted desperately to help evacuate these Edens from Texas, but he also wanted to avoid a full-scale war with the United States.
Thus, the “rogue” submarine.
Looking through his periscope, Jakil could just see another boarding party climbing into a small craft next to the Coast Guard ship. He hesitated to speak the order he knew he must give. These men would detain thousands of innocent Edens and imprison them, maybe even kill them. He knew what he needed to do.
Yet, these were sailors, like him, following orders, trying to do their jobs. They had family and children waiting for them back home. They didn’t deserve to die.
Neither do these Edens, he thought as he witnessed the first barge beginning to turn around and head north.
“What’s the bottom depth?” Jakil said.
The navigator looked at him quizzically before referring to a chart on his table. “Between twenty-five and twenty-eight meters, sir. Rather shallow this close to shore.”
Jakil examined the cutter again. Some sailors would certainly get trapped belowdecks, but it wouldn’t sink to the bottom. They would have time to evacuate. Most would live.
It reminded him of a sailor’s joke he’d heard from an American. Q: Why do you have to be at least six feet tall to join the Coast Guard? A: So you can walk to shore if the boat sinks.
“Fire one,” he ordered tonelessly.
The boat shuddered slightly as the torpedo left the submarine.
“Target acquired,” said the weapons officer. “Running straight and true.”
Rather than elating Jakil, the crump as the weapon shattered the cutter’s keel sickened him. He fought off remorse by reminding himself the barges full of Edens would make it to safety because of his crew’s actions.
“Surface. We’ll rescue as many as we can.”
Skull knew the routine by heart now; they’d done it over a dozen times. He and Herschel would arrive in a major city, go visit some contact that had a reason to live or work in a secluded area with heavy-duty electrical distribution, and then the old man would do his thing.
Skull would go visit the local plumbing and electrical stores and return with parts and bourbon and Doritos. Herschel would work through the night while Skull slept fitfully, earplugs fitted to tune out the loud country music. The next morning they would be on their way. Skull would drive while Herschel snored loudly beside him.
Sometimes they spent a night in a hotel, but most of the time they were able to make it to the next city before evening.
Today they stopped early. It had only taken them a few hours to drive from Richmond to Arlington, Virginia, just across the Potomac from Washington, D.C. Skull had become proficient at his procurement runs and soon had what the man needed stacked in boxes and grocery bags on the warehouse floor.
“You okay for a little while?” Skull asked. “I need to step out for a few errands.”
“Right as rain,” answered Herschel, already tipping back the bourbon.
Skull was starting to get worried about the old man. Every day seemed to be taking a worse toll. He slept and ate poorly, got little exercise, and then drank all night while working himself to exhaustion. It wouldn’t surprise him to come back and find Herschel laid out on the floor, covered in Doritos and wiring, having suffered a heart attack.
“Can’t do anything about that right now,” Skull muttered to himself, getting into their rental car. He pulled out of the residential area and drove north.
He didn’t know if Vergone and the FBI could track his phone or not, but he didn’t want to risk it. Skull’s instincts told him that Herschel and the locations of the devices was the only leverage he had, and not something he wanted his adversary to discover.
Whenever Skull needed to contact Vergone, he’d buy a burner phone, and then throw it away afterward. He pulled into a nearby strip mall, made his purchase, and then called the number from memory.
After a few rings, a bored voice picked up. “Vergone’s phone.”
The voice was unfamiliar. “Who is this?”
“Who is this?”
Skull’s fist tightened on the phone. “Listen, asshole. Either the owner of this phone is in a coma or – I can only hope – dead after a long and horribly terminal bout of ass-raping by a bunch of angry gorillas, or you’re answering his phone for him. If it’s the first choice, please let me know so I can hang up and start partying. Otherwise, you better get that dickhead you call a boss on the phone.”
“Denham?” asked the disgusted voice.
“Wait a second.”
It was more like two hundred seconds. Skull couldn’t help but count every one of them. He’d once obsessively counted things, but now only did it during times of stress.
“Mister Denham,” said Vergone’s silky smooth voice when he finally picked up. “Very nice to hear from you, as always.”
“I thought this was your cell phone. Why’s someone else answering it?”
“Although it’s none of your business, I was in a meeting. That was an assistant. I know it may be hard for you to believe, but the FBI does have other things going on besides waiting on edge for your next call.”
“Oh, no, no, no. That’s not how you handle a source. You’re supposed to make him feel like he’s the most important person in the whole wide world. You woo him, wine him and dine him. Speaking of which, when was the last time you took me out for a decent meal?”
“What do you want?”
“I want to know whether I’m starting to crack that superficial calm. I figure it’s your professional trademark; the sort of thing that’s gotten you promoted ahead of your peers because everyone thinks you’re so cool and collected, not knowing that inside your head is a constant tsunami of doubt and worry about all the ugly things you’re doing.”
Vergone breathed deeply into the phone before speaking. “Is there some sort of actual reason for this call, or are you merely getting off on berating me?”
“Thought I’d let you know I’m in D.C. and we’re still on track, but you might say we’ve got an emergency.”
“I’ve learned these devices are much more powerful than I first thought. They’re bigger, better versions of what lost you all those ships in the Gulf of Mexico.”
“That’s still being investigated,” said Vergone quickly. “We shouldn’t talk about it on this line.”
“Why, you worried that the NSA has your phone tapped? I sure as hell hope so. Someone should be keeping an eye on Gestapo types like you. Anyway, you can investigate all you want, but we both know what happened.”
“What’s your point?”
“My point is, I’m altering our arrangement.”
Vergone’s voice dripped menace, which Skull was beginning to realize was reflexive, well-rehearsed acting. “There is no altering. You cooperate and those adorable little kittens will be just fine.”
“Just because it’s blackmail doesn’t mean the deal can’t be adjusted. I’ve come to realize that my position is much better than I thought it was.”
“You don’t have a position. You do as I say, or things go badly for them.”
“Why don’t you simply say what you mean? You’re threatening to torture and murder three innocent children, Special Agent-in-Charge Miles Vergone. You got all of that, NSA?”
“This is a secure phone on my end, and yours is obviously a one-off. These antics are not very smart, or particularly helpful.”
“It’s worth a try, although with the state of the country nowadays, they’ll probably give you a medal for sadism instead of prosecuting you. Anyway, I’ve been thinking. There are going to be twenty-four of these things in major cities on the east coast. All I have to do is withhold information on one of them and ‘things could go badly’ for you and your new Unionist commissars.”
“Denham, you will cooperate fully or –”
Skull interrupted, “Or you’ll do awful things to three little girls. We’ve established that. What you’re banking on is that I care about them as much as you think I do.”
“You do care,” Vergone said. “Your psych profile proves it.”
“But does my psych profile say how much I care? I bet it said that I don’t like being manipulated or feeling trapped. I might even do something self-destructive rather than be controlled. How I might do just about anything to get out of that situation if I felt it was a hopeless cause, say if I was dealing with someone untrustworthy like you, who’s just going to kill them anyway.”
“I’ll honor our arrangement as long as you do. Keep informing us of the location of the devices so we can take them all out at once and everything will be fine. You have my word.”
“Your word? Please. We both know you will do anything and everything to advance yourself, you egotistical selfish prick. You’re supposed to be a law enforcement officer, but I don’t see any law here, only enforcement.”
Vergone sighed. “I’m really not very good at this sort of insulting banter. Perhaps you can suggest some nasty things for me to say to you, if that would entertain you. I do have a couple of agents from New York that are true experts.”
“No need. I’m done.”
“Wonderful. Now, why exactly did you call?”
“I want to see them,” said Skull. “In the flesh. Talk with them. Visit with them. You know, family time.”
“Not going to happen.”
“Is that your final offer? We’re renegotiating the deal here. I’m starting to think my best play is to never contact you again and make sure all those little doomsday devices go off. I can think of several countries that would not miss the opportunity to attack a crippled and vulnerable U.S.”
“There’s no upside to you seeing them,” said Vergone. “This is to protect you as well as them. We both know you might lose your cool or try something rash. Those little ones could get hurt in the process.”
“I can be extremely controlled when I want to. You should know that from my dossier. I just need to know that I’m not being played, that those little girls really do exist and they’re okay. Otherwise I’m wasting my time.”
“Are you sure you want to do this?”
“Are you sure you want to find out?”
Vergone remained silent for a moment. “Hold on.” He muted the phone. After one hundred and three seconds, he came back on the line. “Here’s how it’s going to work. You meet my men at the corner of Vermont and Fifth in one hour. They’ll be in a black van with government plates. You’ll be searched, cuffed, and hooded, and then taken to see them. You do anything we don’t want, you resist in any way, you fail to follow instructions, and you’re out of there. Do you understand?”
“Perfectly. It’s your world, boss. I just live in it.”
Vergone hung up.
Skull looked at his watch. It was nearly rush hour, and he had to make sure he got to the meet in plenty of time. After programming his plug-in GPS, he sped out of the shopping center.
Twenty minutes later, he made a hard turn right off the freeway, drawing several angry honks from fellow motorists. His GPS led him to the Metro station three stops from the pickup point, and he parked in the enormous, multi-story parking garage.
Fifteen minutes later, he emerged a block from the meeting location.
Skull walked deliberately down the street at a pace designed not to draw attention – not too slow, not too quick. At the corner of Vermont and Fifth, he spotted not one van with government plates but two. Both were parked side by side in a convenience store parking lot, facing the street in front of them.
Two people sat in the front of each vehicle. They appeared to be talking through the open windows.
Ducking around behind the store, Skull made his way up a side alley to a position behind the vans. Slipping up behind them, he listened to the conversation, hoping to gather some information he could use.
“...no way they make the playoffs this year.”
“Are you kidding me? They got the best point guard in the league, and the east is horrible. Besides, they made the playoffs the last two years.”
“Naw, they’re worse this year, while the rest of the Eastern Conference is better. And John Wall is not the best point guard in the NBA.”
“You name me one who’s better.”
Skull shook his head in disgust and walked up just behind the windows. “Hey, guys. Sorry to interrupt. I know I’m early. You want me to walk around for a while and come back in a few minutes?”
The men at the windows froze, and a female agent from the nearest van leaned out to look. “That him?”
“Of course it’s him. Didn’t you look at the picture?”
“Didn’t get a chance. I figured you would.”
Skull snorted with disgust. “The Bureau has really fallen off lately. What happened, all the best agents become Edens?”
The woman sighed and looked at Skull. “Mister Denham, my partner and I will transport you to a secure location. We’ll need to observe certain protocols for your own protection as well as ours. These protocols –”
“Save the speech. I know the drill. Do what you need to do.”
“Fine,” she said testily, evidently not happy about having her rehearsed pitch interrupted. “Go into the back.”
“Where’s your car?” asked one of the men.
“Why?” Skull asked.
The agent glanced away, elaborately casual. “No reason. Just wanted to keep an eye on it for you while you were away, that’s all.”
“You guys really aren’t very good at this, are you?”
“Good at what?”
“No car,” said Skull. “I took the Metro.”
The agent seemed disappointed.
They were going to tag my car, Skull thought as he climbed into the back and sat down next to two more men.
One of the agents pulled out a bag and held it open. “Empty the contents of your pockets. That includes any cell phones, keys, and your watch. You’ll receive all of this back later.”
“And don’t bother trying to sneak anything by us,” said the other agent. “We’ll be searching you thoroughly.”
“I wouldn’t dream of trying to sneak anything by you. Can I also say thank you both from the bottom of my heart for the service you render to our society. I know you don’t get paid near enough.”
The man’s sneer softened. “Thank you. You’re right, we certainly don’t get paid enough.”
“Jackbooted thugs rarely do,” Skull said. “I imagine you make it up with bribes. Even so, there’s the joy of violating our civil liberties, abusing prisoners and such. You have to remember, job satisfaction is more important than compensation. It’s a total package, you know.”
The man’s face turned red and he looked like he wanted to punch Skull.
“Relax, Terry,” the agent with the bag said. “He’s just trying to push your buttons.”
“Maybe we should teach him a lesson.”
The agent looked at Skull and shook his head. “That won’t be necessary. We were told that if we had any trouble out of him to kick him out to the curb and call the whole thing off. Is that what we’re going to have to do here?”
“No worries. You won’t have any trouble out of me. Just making bromantic conversation. If I offended your esteemed colleague here, I apologize. I didn’t realize you Feds were so thin-skinned.” Skull winked at Terry.
“In the bag,” said the agent again, holding it out toward Skull.
Skull emptied his pockets. Terry then searched him, roughly.
“You sure you don’t want to check my prison pocket? I might have something special in there for you to pull out.”
“We’ll pass,” Terry said, pulling out a pair of handcuffs. “Put these on.”
Skull complied. As soon as he had, they pulled a cloth sack over his head. He felt the van drive through rush-hour traffic, with many starts, stops, turns and honks. Skull bounced around on the bench seat. At one point he became nauseated from the motion and inability to see, but forced himself to relax and breathe deeply until the feeling went away.
After forty-eight and one-half minutes – Skull counted his own heartbeats in order to try to do a radius analysis later – they stopped and the agents pulled his hood off. They appeared to have parked inside the garage of a suburban house. He glimpsed an upscale residential neighborhood with children playing on the street before the garage door shut.
“We’re going to take the cuffs off now,” Terry’s partner, the more professional one, said. “Then we’ll go inside where you will enter the first room on the right. There, the agent in charge of this location will give you a briefing.”
“I got it. I promise to be a good boy.”
“Good. Please follow me.”
Skull climbed out of the van and up several stairs into an entryway that led into a small sunroom. Inside he saw a table and four chairs, a pleasant-looking woman siting in one. The room faced a back yard with a baby pool and jungle gym. Toys spread over the grass.
“I’m Special Agent Lisa Summers,” the woman said. “Please sit.”
“It’s important that throughout all interactions with the girls, you refer to me as Lisa and make no reference to the FBI or government involvement.”
“Where do they think they are?” asked Skull.
“An aunt’s house.”
“No. Sadly, my cover husband died of a horrible disease, giving the girls and me a common bond.”
“So they’re treated well?”
“Certainly,” the woman said. “We’re not monsters.”
“Monsters always say that.” Skull looked out into the back yard. “Do they get to go outside?”
“Of course. They play with children on the streets and have friends. They’re normal children.”
“Normal children aren’t hostages.”
Summers shrugged. “I haven’t hurt them.”
“Your boss might.”
She pressed her lips together and looked away.
“Do they go to school?”
The woman smiled. “Of course.”
“Do they ask about their parents?”
Summers’ smile vanished. “On occasion, but we try to discourage those questions, as it only upsets them. Their parents were Eden carriers and had to be isolated for their own safety and that of –”
“– others, yes. I’ve been hearing that same song and dance for the past two years.”
“It’s the truth.”
“It’s a total crock of shit. The girls are Edens, right?”
“Aren’t you worried you’ll get infected as well? I mean, all it takes is one little slip up, one little drink from a cup or kiss on the lips and you’ve got it.”
“Actually, that’s one reason I got the job,” Summers said. “I’m also infected.”
Skull looked at her, surprised for the first time today. “Why hasn’t the government sent you to a camp?”
“I caught the virus by accident, on a case. When I was tested, it was found I was one of the few unaffected by the mental side effects. I was allowed to continue to serve in the FBI.”
“Mental side effects?”
Summers looked at him curiously. “Mister Denham, I find it hard to believe you don’t know how the virus subverts the thinking of most infectees.”
“Are you talking about the virtue effect?”
Summers cocked her head. “What a stupid name. There’s no virtue in turning people into sheep. Fortunately I was one of the few that did not suffer the usual brain damage.”
“Brain damage.” Skull snorted. “Now who’s being stupid?”
“I notice you haven’t allowed yourself to be infected.”
Skull stared steadily at Summers. “Touché. There’s a downside for people like me and you, I suppose, but I never quite figured out why the power brokers wouldn’t want those docile sheep showing up at their cube farms every morning with insipid smiles on their faces, working hard to make them richer. The Eden problem could have been handled so that everyone won. Instead, we come to this.”
Summers shrugged. “That’s far above my pay grade.”
She reminds me of someone, Skull thought. Spooky. She’s casually confirmed the rumors, too. A small minority of Edens don’t get the virtue effect. Maybe if they’re already sociopaths, they stay that way. I’ll have to keep that in mind. She won’t actually care about the girls. It’s all an act.
“But back to our discussion,” said Summers. “The girls are well treated and there’s no reason for you to be concerned.”
“I’m here to see them.”
She nodded. “I was told it would be allowed under certain conditions.”
“First, you will not refer to them as relatives or indicate in any way that you know who they are. I will introduce you as Thomas, an old friend of mine who is visiting from out of state. You will not touch them, you will not ask them anything more than superficial questions. You will at all times follow my lead.”
“I’m not sure I can remember all these rules.”
“This is not a game. If you create a scene, they will be the ones who suffer. As you will see in a moment, they are happy and well cared for.”
“Until I fail to do exactly what your boss wants. Then you brutalize them in retaliation.”
Summers’s smile never wavered. “That’s not my concern. My job is to care for them now.”
One of the other agents interrupted. “We’re under strict orders to limit this visit to no more than a half hour. We’ll need to be out of here soon.”
“Want to meet the girls?” asked Summers with a strangely giddy voice and smile.
“Lead on,” said Skull.
They walked down a narrow hallway to a playroom at the other end of the house. As they approached, Skull could hear the unmistakable sound of cartoons from a television.
“Girls,” Summers said. “I’d like you to say hello to Thomas, an old friend of mine.”
Three little sets of eyes looked at him curiously. The oldest girl might have been ten and was reading a book. The next seemed a few years younger and was in the midst of building a structure with blocks. The youngest played with several dolls. None of them seemed to be interested in the television.”
“Hello, girls,” said Skull trying to put on a kid-friendly smile. He had no idea if he was succeeding. Friendly expressions weren’t his strong suit. He didn’t have much experience with children, and he found these three made him oddly nervous.
“Hello,” they said in near unison, only the youngest even looking at him.
“Can you tell me your names?”
“Of course we can, silly,” said the oldest, this time turning to look.
“I’m Samantha,” said the youngest, walking over to him and holding up a doll. “This is Charlotte, but not like the spider in Charlotte’s Web. She’s a girl.”
“Ah...I can see that,” said Skull, mystified.
“She likes to sing,” Samantha said. She began singing, though Skull had no idea what.
“Don’t be rude, girls,” said Summers. “Please introduce yourself.”
The older girl with blond hair put her book down and waved vaguely in Skull’s direction. “Hi. I’m Allison.”
“I’m Danielle,” said the middle girl, carefully setting a block on an already architecturally unstable tower of wooden pieces.
“Thomas and I are going to go talk in the dining room, girls,” Summers said.
“When’s dinner?” asked Samantha. “Charlotte’s hungry.”
“In a little bit, dear. Once my friend leaves, we’ll eat.”
“Can we have grilled cheese? That’s Charlotte’s favorite.”
“You had grilled cheese for lunch today,” Summers said.
“Pleeeease.” Samantha drew out the word for at least three full seconds.
“I tell you what. I’ll make some broccoli and if you eat a good bit of that, you and Charlotte can have grilled cheese.”
“Thank you,” Samantha squealed, hugging Summers on her leg.
“And now we have to go. Say goodbye to Thomas.”
“Bye, Mister Thomas,” she said before running back to plop down on a pile of pillows.
“Bye,” Skull said, looking them over a little longer.
“This way.” Summers gestured. Skull led the way and she followed. “Satisfied?”
“How can you do this?” Skull asked.
“What do you mean?”
He pointed back toward the room with the girls. “Take care of them. Raise them. Care for them, knowing what Vergone might do to them?”
“He would do that with or without me. My job is to care for them the best I can while they are in my charge. If I have to kill them, at least they had this.”
“You’re one sick bitch.” Skull stared at Summers, who returned his look without flinching.
“Sticks and stones. Would it be better if I felt bad about killing them?”
“It would be better if you didn’t kill them at all.”
“I read your file, Mister Denham. They don’t call you ‘Skull’ merely for your forbidding face. You have at least a hundred kills to your credit. I admire that.”
“You should…but none of them were innocent children.”
“That’s where we differ.”
Skull’s minder moved toward them from the end of the hall. “I think it’s time we go.”
Skull allowed himself to be led to the van, where he was handcuffed and hooded again. This time, he didn’t banter with his captors.
He had a lot to think about.
A man who went by the code name Dorian looked though his binoculars down from the wooded hilltop toward the undistinguished tract home. Big house, small lot, he thought. Six feet from your wall to the neighbor’s. Might as well get a duplex and save yourself some money.
He saw the black van with the government plates pull out of the driveway and head in the direction of the nearest freeway. Why would Denham be visiting an FBI safe house?
Cassandra Johnstone had assigned him and his team to shadow Skull while in the U.S. It had not always been an easy task, such as when the tall man had parked his bugged car and hopped onto the Metro, but Dorian had managed to get one of his people onto the train. That had allowed the team to reacquire their target and continue the surveillance.
Was Skull working with the FBI? If so, why?
Dorian decided to make this a flash priority report to his boss. Whatever Skull was doing, he wasn’t supposed to be talking to their common enemy, the government of the United States.
Anson crept through the dense underbrush, pushing limbs aside in the darkness. Mosquitoes buzzed around his head as he crawled forward as quietly as possible until he could see the target in front of them.
A large open field lay surrounded by extended rolls of concertina wire. Trucks and thick rubber bladders holding aviation fuel were set in the middle of the field, and panels and markers designated the helicopter landing zones spread out around them like the sections of a clock. Although the trucks were lit, Anson pulled out his night vision goggles and peered carefully around the perimeter. It appeared there were only the dozen or so soldiers gathered around the large tent near the fuel trucks.
Anson crawled slowly backward toward the rest of the detachment. They were all tired and hungry, frankly ready to leave Louisiana, but first they had a mission to perform: take out the main forward area refueling point of the 101st Air Assault Division. Without their FARP, their main source of refueling, they couldn’t travel very deeply into Texas. If they went anyway and used it all, they might not be able to get back out.
The mission was Toombs’ brainchild, a crazy, risky proof of concept. Anson knew he’d been seeking an assignment for the special Eden detachment for weeks¸ but no one seemed sure what to do with them.
Objections about their ability to engage in combat because of the virtue effect were the most common, but also there was the question of food. There was a rumor going around that the Free Communities had made a breakthrough, creating a new strain of the virus that didn’t cause the voracious, pointless appetite, but that might be mere wishful thinking.
So Toombs was looking for some way to prove their worth, and this mission would do it…or get the concept killed, and them along with it.
“Rainchild,” challenged a hissed voice in the darkness.
“Autumn,” Anson responded with the password.
“This way,” said Toombs.
Anson crawled forward into their small triangular perimeter, set around a natural bowl in the ground. Each of three squads had one side. A machinegun on a tripod covered each point. He made his way to the center and knelt with Toombs and the other two squad leaders.
“What do we have?” asked Toombs, using a red-lens flashlight under the cover of a poncho drawn over all of them.
Anson drew a quick sketch in the dirt using a stick. “Looks like it’s the FARP, just where the reports indicated.”
“Only a concertina fence line as best I could tell. Large open landing zones around the refuel trucks and bladders, and a big sleep tent, plus a small one that’s probably the company TOC. Only a few guards: two by the fuel, two by the tents. Not very alert, easy to spot.”
“They’re not expecting anyone to attack them. Not this deep into Louisiana.”
“We should circle around and recon from another angle,” said one of the other squad leaders. “Just to be sure.”
“Would take too much time,” said Toombs. “We need to be humping our way back toward the border well before sunrise. Surprise will have to be enough. If we’re lucky, we’ll be extracting when the demo blows and they won’t know what hit them.”
The three squad leaders waited for the combat veteran to give them further direction.
“Anson, your squad will be the support element, on overwatch. Move to a good vantage point near here,” he pointed to a spot representing a low rise, “and lay down suppressive fire if it comes to an assault. Also, take out any reinforcements.”
“Roger that, Sergeant.”
Toombs turned to Kell and Stone. “Your two teams are with me. Once we get to the objective, I’ll rig demo, blow the fuel and get out of there. If the shit hits the fan, you assault forward and get me to those gas tanks. We’ll rally here before hurrying back to Texas and all the beer you can drink. Everyone understand?”
They all nodded.
Toombs looked at his watch. “You got exactly ten minutes to go brief your people, and then start moving out to your positions.”
Anson moved quietly to his right where his squad was spread out in a line.
“What’s going on?” asked Rachel. His other team chief, Brian, came up beside her.
“We’re the support team.” Anson pulled out a poncho and repeated Tombs’ briefing beneath it.
Rachel snarled, “Crap. Why do we never get the action?”
“Just focus on what we have to do. Each of you, leave one person to guard the rally point. Brief your people; have them eat and drink if they can. We’re going to be moving fast to get out of here once the shooting is over. The op starts in eight minutes.”
They both vanished into the darkness and Anson could hear faint whispering. He forced himself to eat some of the compact high-calorie energy bars all the Edens carried. He wasn’t hungry, but knew he would be soon. It was best to get ahead of the cravings, especially if there was a chance of being wounded.
Anson looked at his watch and saw it was time. He peered at Toombs in the dim darkness and received a thumbs-up. “Let’s go. Follow me. I’ve already scouted out a good position.”
Anson led them back to his earlier observation point. It was a low hill with a clear vantage above the giant open field. The space below was bounded by the ring of concertina wire fifty meters from the wood line surrounding the fields. The fuel trucks sat in the middle of it all.
“Why can’t we just shoot the trucks from here and blow them up?” Rachel asked him.
Anson shook his head. “That only works in movies. Aviation fuel is a form of kerosene, which isn’t even as flammable as gasoline. Neither are explosive, only the vapors. Besides, remember we’re shooting the SAM rounds the Free Communities shipped to Texas. They’re made of ceramic. They won’t even penetrate the thin metal of the tanks. Toombs has to use the demo.”
“Sometimes I think you guys just like blowing shit up,” she said.
Anson didn’t argue with her. He crawled up and down the line, making sure all his people were in good positions to provide covering fire. He also reminded them not to fire unless he ordered, or unless the other two teams started taking fire. They nodded at his words, with big eyes and eager smiles. None of them had actually been in combat. All of them wanted to prove themselves.
He understood that feeling, but he no longer felt it himself. Not since the night his brother Kevin died, the night the man withe the face like a skull had saved his life.
The night he’d understood that war wasn’t really fun or glorious, only sometimes necessary.
Anson placed himself in the middle of the line and used his night vision goggles. He watched Toombs leading a dispersed formation of troops toward the wire barrier.
Once there, they began to carefully cut through the wire, vigilant for any booby traps or trip flares.
Holding his breath, Anson watched as the wire separated into pieces and they pushed it to either side. Toombs walked through, and the rest of the two squads began to follow, single file. After passing the obstacle, they spread out in a line again on the other side.
That’s going to be a problem getting away, Anson realized. They’ll have to go out single file as well, possibly while under fire. But the alternative is to make a larger hole, adding risk of activating any tripwires. It was standard practice to rig flash-bangs and pop flares at any barrier.
They were all almost past, when someone snagged his uniform on the wire, probably trying to go through too quickly. Instead of taking his time and unhooking the wire, the figure dragged a long section of wire out of place.
There came a soft popping noise, followed by a whizzing sound. The night sky lit brightly as a high-intensity flare floated downward, suspended by a small parachute.
“Uh oh,” said Rachel, much too loudly.
“Assault!” screamed Toombs, and the two squads rushed forward, firing.
Anson didn’t need the night vision goggles any longer. Soldiers began stumbling out of the tents, to see the line of attackers less than a football field length from them. Gunfire lit the night, and enemy troops scattered or dove for the dirt. Many obviously didn’t even have weapons with them.
Thirty seconds later, Toombs reached the fuel, and one of his two squads turned in a firing line to attack the tents. The other spread out, guarding their leader as he set the explosive charges.
“Suppressive fire!” ordered Anson. His team began shooting at the defenders near the tents, who were beginning to get organized and return fire at the enemies in their midst.
As an Eden, he did as Toombs had trained him, visualizing each figure in his sights as nothing more than a target on the range. Combined with the knowledge that he was firing less-lethal SAM rounds, he was able to put aside his emotions and do his job. He hated to imagine he might actually kill scared and confused people just roused from sound sleep.
Anson saw several dozen defenders flee flat-out toward the woods, most unarmed. Despite their numbers, the shock and fright of being surprised in the middle of the night by determined attackers had broken their will. “Cease fire! Cease fire!” he ordered. He didn’t want to shoot their own people by accident.
He heard shouts and a few more isolated shots, but the firefight itself had effectively ended. By the dwindling light of the flare, he could see Toombs rigging demo charges and attaching them to the fuel trucks.
Suddenly there came a loud rumbling noise from the far edge of the open field. The sound grew louder.
“What the hell is that?” asked Rachel.
Anson didn’t have time to answer before they heard a heavy hammering sound, accompanied by lighter machinegun fire. Flashes of flame five yards long lit the night. Edens below began to spin and fall as they were gunned down.
The rumbling became louder and Anson could see four Bradley infantry fighting vehicles mounting 25mm electrically fired guns – rolling forward from under camouflaged netting, their turrets sweeping the field for targets.
Anson felt the blood drain from his face. “Oh shit! Engage the Bradleys. We need to distract them.”
His people did as he instructed, but their rifle fire did nothing to harm the armored vehicles.
“Get out of there,” Anson hissed, wondering why the Edens below weren’t fleeing. He saw Toombs still rigging the demo charges.
“He’s trying to complete the mission,” said Rachel from beside him. “Damn fool!” She fired her rifle in the direction of the Bradleys.
One of the turrets turned their way and heavy burst of automatic gunfire raked their position. Anson heard cries of pain. He was about to ask who was hurt when he felt a warm pool underneath him. He looked down to see a hole in his side the size of a golf ball. One of the heavy rounds had gone completely through the ground on which they lay and up through him before exiting into the sky.
Shock threatened to cause him to pass out, and he pressed his fingers painfully into the wound, crying out in agony. He felt the skin knitting back together and the blood flow slowing. Anson knew limiting his blood loss was critical. The Eden virus was miraculous at healing tissue damage, but could do nothing about fluid loss.
“Help me with a field dressing,” he gasped.
Rachel swore, and then stuffed one heavy gauze pad into Anson’s wound before wrapping the cloth tails of another around the mess and tying it off. “Here, eat,” she said, handing him a ration bar.
The fire from the Bradleys died down. Anson could see the field littered with motionless Eden bodies, and parts of bodies.
A small group of survivors had gathered around Toombs. The armored vehicles stopped, not firing, clearly knowing their heavy weapons would blow holes in the valuable fuel tanks. Instead, ramps dropped from the rear of each. Fireteams of infantry deployed and made ready to advance against those Edens remaining. More parachute flares flew upward into the night, lighting the scene with harsh radiance.
“What’s Toombs doing?” asked Rachel. “He should run for the woods!”
Anson saw Toombs leaning against one of the trucks, wounded. Three Edens fired their rifles at the advancing infantry, who didn’t yet fire back. “No time. We don’t have radio detonators. He was supposed to use the wire spool, but…”
Toombs pulled the detonator close to his chest and flipped the switch.
A huge fireball erupted into the sky, casting gigantic shadows in all directions. Toombs and the Edens vanished, obliterated. The enemy infantry was blown backward, sheets of flame washing over them. Anson wanted to vomit as some stumbled backward, covered in fuel, burning alive.
Rachel hissed, “We have to get out of here. There’s nothing we can do for them.”
Anson wanted to argue with her, but couldn’t. Even if any Eden were left alive down there, they’d be captured. His squad’s only hope was to run. “Yes, fall back to the rally point. Prepare for a forced march.”
Did this prove Edens could make good troops? Not just a few special ones, but any kid off the street, given the proper training? At best, only eleven of us will survive this mission. Did we make a difference? Was it worth it, losing twenty-three good men and women?
Anson pushed those painful thoughts aside. Time enough to second-guess himself later.
For now, they had to run.
Reaper awoke, coughing and disoriented, to find herself looking up into the sky from within a vast open pit.
“I think she’s waking up,” said a voice.
“Water,” Reaper rasped, feeling as if her vocal cords had been sandpapered.
A small cup was pressed against her lips and she drank eagerly until it was gone. “More,” she said her voice stronger.
“I’m afraid that’s all we have,” Hawkeye said.
Rubbing the remnants of unconsciousness from her eyes, she looked at her team gathered around her. Hawkeye and Flyboy leaned toward her while Livewire knelt over the huge prostrate form of Hulk and the smaller one of Shortfuse. Bunny and Tarzan stood nearby, as if they were guarding their little section of rocky ground.
“Where the hell are we?” Reaper asked, struggling to sit up.
“Hell is pretty close. Best we can tell, an old copper mine,” said Flyboy. “I visited the one in Bisbee, Arizona when I was a child and this looks the same. Not as big.”
The pit could have easily contained a football stadium. Sheer orange rock walls rose upward for hundreds of feet. Only one winding road spiraled its way around the wall until it reached the top. There, Reaper could see a fenced gate and a building. A dozen more guard towers dotted the rim of the depression.
“Our new home for a while, it appears,” said Hawkeye.
Reaper gazed out over the ground and saw hundreds of ragged, dirty, thin men, women, and children. They clustered around tiny pools of bilious water. “Let me guess. An Eden camp.”
Flyboy grunted. “Worse yet, I suspect this is simply a place to put Edens until they conveniently die. It’s a death camp.”
Hawkeye scowled at the scene. “It makes a brutal sort of sense. It’s a maximum security prison at minimum cost. Only a few guards at the top can keep everyone bottled in. Don’t even have to feed them.”
“No food?” Reaper asked.
Flyboy shook his head. “We talked to some who have been here for almost a month. The only water they get is from dew and rain. The only food is the occasional bird or rodent they catch. Except when someone dies.”
Hawkeye’s jaw tightened. “The guards don’t even have to worry about bodies or evidence. A thousand starving Edens take care of it, immediately. I imagine the meat’s much better when fresh, and they can’t afford to lose the fluids.”
“Don’t be too quick to judge,” said Bunny. “We stay here long enough, who knows what we’ll resort to? The drive to survive is mighty powerful.”
“I vote we eat Hulk first,” said Tarzan.
“He'll be tough and stringy,” Bunny replied.
“You look tender,” Flyboy said with a tired leer.
“Anyone get interrogated?” Reaper asked.
Hawkeye nodded, pointing to a yellow bruise on the side of his own head, and then at Hulk and Shortfuse lying on the ground. “Everyone except you, Shortfuse and Hulk. It was pretty short. No one said anything, though. We stuck with the cover story and they bought it.”
“What’s wrong with them?”
“Shortfuse will be fine. He woke up before you, took some water, and went back to sleep. Hulk is in worse shape. Fought the Border Patrol agents after they got rough with him. They shot him eight or ten times with live rounds. Lucky they didn’t kill him.”
“Damn maniac.” Reaper forced protesting legs to work as she made her way over to Hulk. “How is he?”
Flyboy looked at her critically before turning back to the gaunt giant before him. “Most of his wounds are nearly healed, but he’s slipped into a coma from lack of calories.”
“Will he be okay?”
“That depends. He’s in no immediate danger. A coma is a very efficient way to stay alive while consuming a minimal amount of calories. As a matter of fact, he may fare better than us, but we’ll need to keep him hydrated. Bastards took everything, or I’d rig up a drip.”
“They even stole my lucky elephant hair bracelet,” Tarzan said.
“I think we can safely agree that it wasn’t lucky after all,” said Hawkeye.
“Or,” Tarzan countered, “we’re in this spot because I no longer have it. Did you ever think about that?”
“I think if I had an elephant hair anything right now, I’d try to eat it,” Bunny said.
Reaper looked out over the camp. “We’ve got to get some food, water, or both. Has any type of camp or gang boss approached us yet?”
“Yeah,” said Bunny. “We faced off against a large group about an hour ago, but as they’re far weaker than we are, they let us be after a little posturing.”
Hawkeye snorted. “Eden gangs aren’t that intimidating anyway. They have to have a good reason to overcome their aversion to violence. I think they were more curious than anything.”
“What did they want?” asked Reaper.
Hawkeye snorted. “Welcome to the neighborhood. Now give us your food. But we didn’t have any.”
Tarzan looked around at the masses of skeletal wraiths. “It takes Edens less time to die of starvation than non-Edens, but we’re still looking at weeks of misery if we don’t get out of here.”
Reaper stared at the guards at the end of the road. “That doesn’t look likely. Think we could rush them, get through, if we organized everyone?”
“Like the Ethiopians at Mega Mountain?”
Hawkeye narrowed his eyes. “It would be ugly, but it’s our best play as I see it. Wait until everyone has recovered, but not lost too much strength. Organize a mass rush. The key is talking all the Edens into joining us. They have nothing to lose, but it’s hard to convince people of that as long as they have some kind of hope.”
“What about the walls?” Reaper asked Tarzan. “You’re a rock climber. Could you get up there?”
“It’s not impossible. But those are sheer granite walls. This wasn’t a copper mine like Flyboy thinks; this was a quarry. They likely cut out stones for use in construction.”
“But can you climb it?” Reaper asked.
“I can climb butter-covered sheet metal,” said Tarzan.
“Then why haven’t you already?” asked Bunny.
“Jeez, dude, the worse things get, the more of a smartass you are.”
Bunny pouted. “How many times do I have to tell you not to call me ‘dude’?”
“The climbing,” Reaper snarled, shooting Bunny a warning look.
“Dude, if I start now, a guard’s gonna shoot at me. That means waiting until nightfall and climbing in the dark by feel. But even if I can do it, the rest of you can’t.” He held up his fingers and made them like claws. “Takes years to build up this kind of hand strength.”
Livewire cleared his throat for attention. “I hate to say it, but it may come down to deciding how many of us are going to die, or at least how. I’m not a pessimist by nature, but this is a tight spot and all the ways out seem like long shots.”
“Any chance of a rescue?” Bunny asked Reaper.
Reaper shook her head. “This is a covert op, and the first rule of covert ops is, you’re on your own. The Free Communities can’t afford to be openly affiliated with an attack on a U.S. facility. That’s the sort of thing that could start a war between the U.S. and the F.C. Besides, we don’t even know where we are. How would anyone else?”
The team sat in silence for long minutes, pressing themselves close to the rock wall for its slight shade and coolness.
“Granite’s not the only thing here,” said Shortfuse abruptly. He climbed to his feet and began to examine some of the boulders here and there. He scraped at them, sniffing and tasting his fingertips. “See these yellowish streaks in the stone?”
“Yeah,” said Tarzan. “So?”
“I don’t smell sulfur,” said Bunny.
“Only impure sulfur has an odor. This is pure sulfur crystal. Odorless.”
“That’s great,” said Flyboy. “I love geology as much as the next person, but can we get back to talking about our limited choices on how to die?”
Shortfuse’s face took on an intense look, along with a slight smile. “You get me enough pure sulfur and urea nitrate, and I can make something that goes boom.”
Everyone stopped talking and looked at him.
“Are you serious?” asked Bunny.
Shortfuse shrugged. “Sure. The trick will be getting enough urea nitrate.”
“How do we do that?” asked Flyboy. “Also, what is urea nitrate?”
“It’s something that’s left after urine dries.”
“Do you have any idea how much urine you’ll need for that?” asked Livewire. “Even after the liquid evaporates and you’re left with the nitrates, you’ll only get a miniscule amount.”
Shortfuse smiled, pointing at the populace. “Fortunately, we have hundreds of bored people who piss every day. Also, since everyone is dehydrated, it will be easier to evaporate and collect what’s left.”
Bunny made a face. “So we need to get everyone to piss in the same spot – where, on a flat rock? And then scrape up what’s left after it evaporates?”
“That’s pretty much it,” said Shortfuse.
They looked at each other in awkward silence.
Hawkeye raised his hand. “Who else votes for Tarzan trying to climb the wall at night?”
Three hands shot up.
Sergeant Major Silas Crouch’s hands shook as he looked over the stack of award recommendations. He hadn’t even known the Texas State Guard had a special Eden detachment, much less that it had been sent on a near-suicide mission across the border.
He scanned the folders again and was appalled at the number of posthumous award recommendations. Only the detachment’s commander was over twenty years old. Another phrase jumped out at him: bodies unrecoverable. That meant of the two dozen reported missing in action, some of them might still be alive. In the heat of battle, especially in one like this where they had to retreat in a hurry, soldiers often assumed what they needed to assume. Some of these posthumous award recommendations could be for people left behind.
It wasn’t a completely unthinkable scenario, especially when dealing with Edens.
Silas forced himself to take a deep breath and read through the reports again. It wasn’t just the stupidity of the mission and its lack of support, but that the Texas State Guard had sent so many newly trained youngsters to perform a task fit only for highly trained and experienced commandos.
The military jargon phrases were clichéd, telling a story to those who could read between the lines. Accomplished mission against overwhelming odds...sacrificed herself so that others could live...fought valiantly until overcome by enemy fire...refused to surrender...successfully evaded through enemy territory...continued to fight...willingly assumed command...
Silas froze on this last award recommendation. The name. Anson. Anson Crouch. The age was right.
Thankfully he was sitting down as the strength left his legs.
Could it be? he wondered. After all this time, thinking Anson and Kevin were lost? Here, after joining that forlorn hope of an Arkansas Free State, he’d joined another forlorn hope?
“Probably a coincidence,” he surprised himself by saying out loud. He wanted too much to believe. What parent wouldn’t? Believing this could be his lost son was a forlorn hope all its own.
Gathering the paperwork, Silas shoved it back into the large binder and marched down the hallway to General McAllister’s office. As he walked, he thought about all those dead teenagers and his anger burned anew.
What a senseless, stupid loss.
The general’s aide turned as he saw where Silas was going and called out, “Sergeant Major, the general’s resting right now. He didn’t get back from Amarillo until late last night.”
“Then I’ll be kind enough to wake him. Be sure we are not interrupted.”
He opened the door and saw McAllister asleep on his couch, his boots off but still in uniform, a blanket covering part of his body. He almost hesitated, but then slammed the door.
The general popped half up off the sofa, disoriented. “What? What is it?”
Crouch’s voice edged toward bitter sarcasm. “It’s just a little thing, General. Just a handful of soldiers lost. Nothing to really worry about. I mean, who cares about a few Eden children sent to their deaths?”
McAllister sat up and rubbed his eyes. “Silas, what are you talking about?”
“Twenty-one dead, general. Only one old enough to drink whiskey, for God’s sake, and some were so young I’m not even sure how they were allowed to join.”
McAllister pulled on his boots, lacing them up firmly. “We’re losing people by the dozen every day, Sergeant Major, and as soon as the ground war starts, we’ll lose thousands. Why are these special?”
Silas slapped the binder down on the coffee table. “Stupidity. Arrogance. Waste. Loss. All for nothing. Sending the young to slaughter. Unsupported and minimally trained.”
The general put on his reading glasses and looked at the reports. “Ah, yes, I heard about this last night. Losing people is terrible, but it’s a part of our business. I wouldn’t say it was all for nothing. They did destroy the FARP.”
Silas’ fists clenched. “How could you have approved this? If it’s that important, send special operators. Send attack aircraft. Hell, send me if you want, but don’t send the Texas State Guard and especially not some underage suicide Eden unit they cooked up.”
“You need to calm down and look at this rationally. First of all, the Texas State Guard is filled with capable soldiers. Second, we’re fighting for our lives here and have to make tough decisions. Finally, you talk as if I cooked this thing up myself and waved goodbye to them at the border.”
Silas looking at him closely. “Are you telling me you didn’t know about this?”
“Of course not. Colonels plan missions like this, or even captains, not generals.”
“So you’re saying a covert assault across our national boundaries, before the war has even started, isn’t something that you want to know about?”
“The war started when the U.S. bombed our petroleum facilities, and when we sent two dozen ships to the bottom.”
“I want someone held responsible.”
The general’s face hardened. “I’ll look into it. That’s as much as you’re going to get out of me right now.”
“Then give me a transfer. Send me to a combat unit so I can tell myself the lie that my leadership has some integrity left.”
“What’s got you so riled up, Silas? You’ve seen death and tragedy before. Things go wrong. People make stupid decisions. It happens.” He picked up the folder and flipped through it, and then froze with one paper in his hands. He looked at Silas’ pained face with wide eyes. “Anson Crouch? Your son?”
Silas turned away to look out the window. “It can’t be him. Probably lots of people with that same name.”
“Well, at least I understand why you’re taking this so personal.”
Crouch turned toward him. “I’d take it personal even if one of them didn’t have my lost son’s name. Every single one of those boys and girls is someone’s son or daughter or brother or sister.”
McAllister glanced through the folder. “They didn’t recover the bodies?”
“So some could still be alive. We’ll wait a bit before notifying next of kin.”
“We’re not covering this up.”
McAllister’s eyes narrowed. “Of course not, Sergeant Major. I just don’t want to make more mistakes. When the time comes, I’ll talk to them personally. I can’t fix this mistake, but I’ll do my best to tell everyone they didn’t die in vain. And you’ll help me do that.”
Sergeant Major Crouch had to push aside a vision of his son before it overwhelmed him. “Yes, sir, I will.”
“How long until we have more warheads ready?” asked Prudence Layfield, a sharp edge in her voice.
Alana Cantrell didn’t seem intimidated by her new boss. Although her expertise lay in petroleum, these days Layfield expected her to know everything about everything, including nuclear weapons. “Unless we use ICBMs – and the President is standing firm against that – ten weeks at least, maybe twelve, to adapt more warheads for attachment to the precision guided munitions. Even then, they may not work. If you want something right away, the best option is to use standard air-dropped bombs. However, even if our bombers can reach their targets, the yield is too large to call them tactical.”
“This is unacceptable!” She pounded on the desktop. “We’re in a battle for our nation and our way of life, and everyone acts as if this is one of the little foreign brush wars people forget about after a day of news coverage.”
“I’m afraid many people don’t see Texas as a villain. They’re doing a good job of making their case to the world media.”
“Even after that attack on the Atlantic Fleet? Even after the raids in New Mexico and Louisiana?”
“Actually, the public doesn’t know about the Holloman raid. We covered it up, remember?”
Layfield scowled at Cantrell. “If not Texas, then how about Edens? Surely people see the danger in that evil plague.”
“They do, but I’m afraid we’ve done our jobs too well.”
“The Edens are mostly out of sight now, removed to detainment camps. Before, everyone was scared of getting the disease from their neighbors, but not anymore. It’s not something they have to worry about, so it’s not something they feel they should have to make sacrifices for or fight against.”
“Fools. Sheep. Fat lazy idiots.”
“Are you talking about all civilians, or just our citizens?”
“Careful, Miss Cantrell,” said Layfield, eyeing her critically. “I’ve grown rather fond of you recently, but everyone is replaceable.”
“My apologies, ma’am,” Cantrell said without change in facial expression. “It wasn’t my intent to give offense.”
“I can’t believe we don’t have other tactical nuclear weapons.”
“There are stockpiles in Europe and the Far East,” Cantrell said. “We could have them shipped here, but we can’t keep that secret, like we did with the Holloman stockpile. Like we should have, that is.”
“Yes, someone’s head will roll for that failure.” Layfield frowned and paced for a few seconds before looking back at her. “Speaking of Holloman, have we learned anything new?”
Cantrell shrugged slightly. “Not much. Security footage has identified five of them by name, all former American citizens. Edens.”
“So, we know who they are?”
“Not exactly, ma’am. The Security Service database pings on their pictures, but their records have been wiped clean.”
“Someone on the inside must have done it.”
“Texas infiltrators? Sympathizers?”
“Possibly. But I’ve spoken with the Director, and he believes it’s Free Communities operatives.”
Layfield looked at her in shock. “You mean to tell me Daniel Markis and his band of freaks dared to invade the United States and attack a U.S. Air Force base?”
“That’s what it looks like. Of course we initially assumed it was part of the Texas rebellion, but our sources there tell us the Texans knew nothing about it. Neither in the governor’s office, nor on the military side. They didn’t even find out about it until yesterday.”
Layfield gritted her teeth. “I want those Edens found and confined to one of our special facilities. I want to know everything they know. I want them picked clean before we send them back home in tiny little boxes.”
“I’ll pass on your instructions, but we have to find them first,” said Cantrell, taking a note.
Layfield’s eyes glazed. You’re next, Daniel Markis. Probably think we’re too busy to deal with you right now, but your time will come.
Cantrell waited for her boss to come back to the here and now. It took a long minute. “So what do we do now?”
“Get me Harold Mason.”
Within fifteen minutes, the U.S. Secretary of the Defense joined her on a secure video link. “I’m rather busy, Prudence. What is it?” he said.
“We’re all busy, Harold. It’s just that some of us aren’t busy being effective.”
Mason sighed. “What can I do for you?”
“All of your ground assets are in place, correct?”
“You know they are.”
“It’s time. We hit them now. No point in waiting until they are more prepared.”
There was a moment of silence. “Are we talking about Operation Lincoln?”
“Whatever the hell we’re calling it, yes. Full-scale attack on every front. The sooner the better. Do it.”
“You don’t have that sort of authority.”
Layfield’s teeth showed, though none would have called it a smile. “Of course not. The President will call you within the hour. But in the meantime, you can use that hour to get the ball rolling. Don’t let me hear you sat on your ass.”
“Prudence, I’ve said this repeatedly: we could use more time. We still need to stockpile fuel, ammo, and parts. Many of the units are in the middle of training or pre-combat unit checklists. Some of our vehicles are combat ineffective. Many of the units are understrength from desertions or Eden losses. Ground combat divisions are complex things.”
“There’s no more time,” insisted Layfield. “It’s not like these divisions have to be shipped halfway around the world. All they have to do is get in their tanks and drive to the border of Texas. Remember, I’ll be the first to proclaim you as the nation’s savior when you’re victorious. If you’re not…”
“What the hell’s that supposed to mean?”
“It means there’s always more room in the camps, and not everyone there’s an Eden. Do not fail me.” Layfield hung up the phone.
“That went well,” Cantrell said.
Layfield glanced sharply at her. “Do we have official contact with Markis’ people?” she asked.
“The Colombian Embassy is handling everything for them, since we don’t recognize them as a national entity. I can reach out to them there.”
“Do it. I want a video teleconference with that sicko freak as soon as possible.”
“I’ll get right on it, ma’am.” Cantrell departed.
Layfield picked up the phone and called the President’s office. “This is Prudence Layfield. I’d like to speak to the President.”
“Just a moment, Miss Layfield.” This new, Unionist-vetted secretary was so much easier to deal with.
“Prudence, this is Paul Milligan,” said the chief of staff.
“I need to speak to the President, Paul. It’s urgent.”
“I’m sorry, but he’s in the air headed to Camp David right now.”
“I know you can get in touch with him.”
“I can,” said Milligan.
“Enough games. We don’t like each other and that’s okay, but I have to believe we both want what is best for this country and want the President to succeed. Correct?”
She heard Milligan take a deep breath. “What’s this about?”
“I need the President to initiate Operation Lincoln.”
More silence. “I’m not so sure about that, Prudence. That’s a big step, and a decision he’s not going to want to make quickly.”
“It isn’t a decision he’s making quickly. He made it weeks ago when he started moving units into position for this. Since then it’s not been about if we will attack, but when. I’m telling you, the when is now.”
“I’m not sure I feel comfortable with this,” Milligan said.
“You don’t have to be comfortable with it. It’s not your decision; it’s his.”
“He’s just going to say no. It’s a waste of his valuable time.”
“Again, not your call.”
“Actually, it is. That’s what a chief of staff is for: to screen out what can be handled at a lower level, to make sure the President isn’t overwhelmed with demands on his time.”
Layfield controlled herself with difficulty. For the moment, she had to put up with this piss-ant gatekeeper. “Do I have to point out the obvious, Paul? The Unionist Party is in control of Congress. It’s already declared Texas to be in rebellion and has authorized all necessary measures. All that remains is the order to attack.”
“The Unionist Party,” said Milligan with disgust. “Two years ago you didn’t even exist, and now you believe you own the President?”
“Your party could learn from our connections and appeal with the common man.”
“Don’t you mean ‘fear-mongering’?”
“Paul, do your job. Do you want it known after the fact that during this nation’s biggest crisis you prevented the President from receiving critical security communications from his National Security Adviser?”
“I’ll make the call, damn you. But I’m sure he’ll say no.”
“If he does, he’ll regret it. Tell him that.”
“Oh, I’ll tell him all right.”
“Thanks, Paul. Always a pleasure.” She hung up before he could respond.
Cantrell had been standing at her door waiting for the conversation to end. “The video link you wanted is ready when you are.”
“Good, patch it in here now,” she said turning to the large screen in the corner.
There came several seconds of grainy static, and then the unmistakable picture of the Antichrist himself.
“Daniel Markis. I never thought we would speak.”
“Prudence Layfield, I presume. This is a quite a surprise. Nice to see we can establish official dialogue between our two entities.”
“Oh, this is not an official dialogue. This is not the establishment of relations. The Free Communities is not a legitimate government and will never be anything more than a terrorist organization. As a matter of fact, this entire conversation is off the record.”
“Because you’d never speak to a terrorist organization.”
Markis smiled. “Sort of a personal call then, I presume?”
“You could say that. I wanted you to know that we’ve discovered the origin of the recent attack on our Holloman Air Force Base and captured the perpetrators.”
“Congratulations,” said Markis. “I’m all for law and order, but not sure what that has to do with me.”
“Very good. You’re extremely convincing. I could almost believe you knew nothing about it.”
“Are you making an accusation?”
“Let’s not play games. We both know the Eden commando team that destroyed our...munitions...came from your band of terrorists.”
“I’m afraid I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
She waved her hand dismissively. “It doesn’t matter. The intent of my call was to give you a warning.”
“Yes. Any further terrorist attacks will be interpreted as an act of war and we will retaliate with overwhelming destructive power.”
“An act of war? I thought you said we’re not a nation. Will this be another pointless ‘war on’ something? Poverty, terrorism, drugs, porn, homelessness, alcoholism, corruption…the list’s pretty long already, and you haven’t won any of those.”
“It will be war against the countries that are sheltering you. We’ll start by dropping a nuke on Bogotá and see where it goes from there.”
“If you’re joking, it’s in poor taste. If you’re not, you’re even more evil than I expected. Good day.” Markis appeared to reach for the cutoff.
“I suggest you listen. You and your kind are a scourge that must eventually be wiped off the face of the Earth. What is the death of a few millions to save our species?”
“You’re insane,” Markis said. “Edens don’t threaten humanity. Edens are humanity, only better. That’s what frightens you. If everyone were an Eden, you and your fascist party would never hold power. And if you use nuclear weapons against innocent civilians, I’ll make sure you’re tried and convicted of genocide.”
“What you think about me doesn’t matter. I’ve given you my warning. There will not be another.” Layfield disconnected the line and shuddered in the grip of overwhelming hatred and disgust. Edens could seem so normal, and that was what made them so dangerous. She rose from her chair and went to wash her hands.
She felt dirty.
Markis looked from the blank screen to Spooky and Cassandra, sitting out of sight behind it. “It is true? Did we raid Holloman?”
Spooky nodded. “I sent Repeth and her team.”
“Why?” Markis asked. “I’m presuming you must have had a good reason.”
Cassandra spoke. “We obtained intel that they were stockpiling tactical nuclear weapons at Holloman. Combined with the presence of B2s and F117s, both stealth bombing platforms, it was plain they were planning a nuke strike on Texas. Perhaps elsewhere too.”
“How did they think they could get away with it?”
“Every satellite in the world would spot an ICBM launch. Tactical nukes carried by stealth PGMs could be denied and blamed on terrorists. On us again, probably. We had to take them out. But it only buys us some time. They’ll retrofit or make more, eventually.”
Markis sat back and looked up at the ceiling. “Okay. I understand, but any reason I had to hear about this from that vile woman?”
“If you’d known, your performance would have been less convincing,” said Spooky.
“I don’t think my denial made any difference with her,” Markis said.
“Perhaps not, but the mission was the right call, and you said you wanted Cassandra and me to work together. This is one that we came up with together, agreed on together, and executed together.”
Cassandra nodded. “Perhaps we should have told you, but you have a lot going on. This is what you pay us to do.”
Markis stared at them both before leaning forward. “New ground rules, then. Counterterrorist ops, suppression of criminals, intel gathering, you can brief me after the fact, as needed. We attack national assets of another sovereign nation, you brief me beforehand. Period, full stop, no exceptions. Understood?”
Both Spooky and Cassandra nodded.
“Now, she said they captured our team? What are we doing about that?”
“Nothing,” Spooky answered.
“It was a covert team with a covert mission. They knew the risks. Right now, we have no idea where they are, or even if they’ve actually been captured. If they were, they’d be deep inside a secure facility of some sort. Baiting us into sending a rescue mission might even have been the true purpose of her call.”
“But we can’t just leave them out there. You both know as well as I do what happens to Edens they get ahold of. And if we start throwing our people to the wolves, pretty soon we won’t have any more.”
Spooky drummed his fingers on the table.
Cassandra spoke. “I’m fairly certain they don’t have them, actually.”
“Why?” asked Markis.
“Because either way, we’d have solid intel on their location. Layfield would have ‘slipped’ and told us, or we’d have been fed the information through a source. The goal would have been to get us to do something stupid, something she could use as justification for the nuke, or some other retaliation.”
“What if we leak a recording of our chat?”
Spooky shrugged elaborately. “They’ll claim we altered or fabricated it.”
“But a lot of people would believe it.”
Cassandra held up a finger. “Let’s put a pin in that idea for now. Such things are much more effective if they’re properly timed.”
Markis said, “Okay. Back to Repeth.”
“Reaper and her team will not be looking for us to come rescue them,” said Spooky. “They’re trained to escape and exfil on their own. Give them time. Our best hope is that they escape and contact us.”
“And if they can’t?”
“Then they are casualties of war,” Spooky said. “Sad, tragic, but necessary. They accomplished their mission and thereby saved millions of lives. Tell any of them that was the trade, and they’d say it was fair. They’d volunteer all over again.”
“That’s unacceptable. We’re not leaving them behind.”
Spooky sighed. “At heart you’re still a PJ, Daniel. Might I suggest you start thinking like a president?”
“And might I suggest you start thinking like a human being?”
“I know my methods and reasoning can seem cold and calculating at times, but that doesn’t mean I feel any less horrible. And it doesn’t mean I’m wrong.”
“Regardless,” said Markis, “if we can locate them, we’re going to go get our people out. Damn the potential blowback. Work together on this. I want to hear options by tomorrow morning.”
Spooky and Cassandra looked at each other, and then at Markis before nodding.
“Good. Is there anything else you’re keeping secret from me that I need to know about?”
They shook their heads in negation.
“Then get your asses moving.”
The last thing Anson or any of the other survivors wanted was to be part of some ceremony. All of them were still shook up about what had happened in Louisiana, and the Texas State Guard wasn’t sure what to do with the embarrassing survivors. The latest rumor was they would be split up between different units.
He looked across the bus aisle at Rachel and felt his stomach turn over at this thought. She scratched under her collar, oblivious to his stares...or his growing feelings. In fact, all of the survivors of the raid were scratching at their skin beneath their clothing.
When it had been announced they were to go to San Antonio to be recognized by General McAllister himself, the Texas State Guard realized that the teenagers didn’t even own dress uniforms. They’d dug up high-collared stiff wool monstrosities from somewhere.
“Think they’ll feed us?” Rachel asked while sliding over to sit in the vacant seat beside Anson.
“Don’t they have to? Might even be something nice like a cook-out or a BBQ.”
“Yeah, that would be perfect,” she said sarcastically, pulling at the front of her uniform in an effort to ventilate it. “A big nice cook-out with music and games, and we’ll be passed out somewhere from heat stroke from wearing these things.”
“Maybe they’ll let us change out of them after the ceremony.”
“I may not make it that long. You think it would cause any embarrassment if I stripped naked?”
Anson’s face got red and hot at the thought and he had to look away.
Rachel smiled at his reaction. “Anyway...my point is, we’re all still healing, and non-Edens sometimes forget that we need more calories. Someone needs to make sure they know and see about getting us some snacks at least.”
“Yeah, you’re right. I hope someone does that. It would be nice to have a snack.”
She elbowed him hard.
“You’re as oblivious as any guy I’ve ever met. It’s the leader’s responsibility to provide for his people and make sure they’re taken care of. Our leader should make sure we have something to eat so half of us don’t fall out.”
“Leader?” Anson looked around. “Are you talking about me?”
“Duh. Who else?”
“Look, I got us out of Louisiana because there was no one else. Toombs was dead and I was your squad leader, but we’re back now and I didn’t sign up to be in charge of anything.”
“What did you sign up for, then?”
Anson started to say something glib about fighting for Texas or against oppression or any of the other trite things he’d heard over the last few weeks. Finally, he said, “Food, mainly. A warm safe place to sleep. Something to belong to, I guess. I never knew how important that was until I didn’t have it.”
“You don’t have any family?”
“Maybe. I’m not sure where they are, or even if they’re alive. My brother is dead.” A wave of guilt and grief swept over him anew.
“Yeah, that sucks. My parents were killed.”
“Damn. I’m sorry.”
“Yeah, me too. A bunch of men came to our farm in Oklahoma one night. Most of them were neighbors we’d known for years, but that didn’t keep them from telling us to leave. Called us devils and dirty freaks. Said we had the Mark of Cain and we were cursed and were ruining their crops.” She wrinkled her nose. “Mark of Cain. Can you believe that? In the twenty-first century?”
“Dad heard them coming and had mom and me go hide in the barn. We could see dad with a gun on the front porch talking to them. Mom told me to stay put and joined my dad, where she started giving them a piece of her mind.”
“Sounds like my mom.” Anson smiled.
“Then Snags got loose, and everything went to hell.”
“My dog,” she said, wiping away a stray tear. “Big mongrel mutt. I loved him. He’d been barking his head off at the strangers. He jumped the fence and tore into them. They shot Snags, and then Dad ran at them, firing into the air to get their attention. The men must have thought Dad was attacking them, because all of a sudden they were shooting the shit out of him, like twenty times.”
“Oh my God.”
“Mom screamed and ran out to Dad, but he was dead. Said she was going to see them all go to jail. That they would die in prison, that the whole world would know what they done.”
Anson shook his head. He might be young, but he’d become street-smart about how people tried to hide their own mistakes.
Rachel went on, “Yeah. They knew they had to cover it up. They shot her too, then dragged the bodies inside our house and burned it down. I heard them talking about how they’d divide up our livestock and land. The sheriff and a couple of his deputies were with them. I knew there was nobody to report it to, so I ran.”
“Where to? Relatives?”
“None of them were Edens. They’d already disowned us completely. I heard about Texas and made my way here.”
“But why the Texas State Guard?”
Rachel didn’t answer for nearly a minute. “You don’t know what it was like, watching it all happen and doing nothing.”
“They would have killed you too.”
“I know. But that wasn’t why I didn’t help. It wasn’t some common-sense calculation. It was…” Rachel stopped, agonized.
Anson didn’t speak. Rachel had never talked to him like this before and he was afraid he would break the spell. He watched her struggle visibly, and then force herself to look at him full in the eyes, her face filled with anger and defiance.
“I was afraid.”
“Who wouldn’t be?”
“You wouldn’t. Not the Anson Crouch who ran off at sixteen to join the Arkansas Free State and fought there. Not the Anson Crouch who escaped the Unionists and survived all alone on the streets of Killeen before coming to us. You’re not a coward.”
“I’m afraid plenty,” he said in a soft voice. “But dying isn’t what scares me most.”
He almost didn’t say it. “Finding my family. Having to tell them I’m responsible for Kevin dying. How he wanted to go back to them and how I stopped him and now he’s dead because of me.”
“Guess we’re both a couple of cowards then,” she said, but softened the words by taking his hand in one of hers.
He was so overwhelmed by the contact that he forgot about his family, or how hot he was in his ridiculous uniform, or what the future held. It was enough to be close to this beautiful and fascinating girl.
Funny, I thought I hated her until the night of the attack on the FARP. Then she was just one of my squad. Now, all of a sudden, she’d…what?
“It’s ironic actually,” she said, looking out the front of the bus, his hand still clutched in hers.
“They’re giving us awards for bravery and stuff.” She laughed ruefully.
Anson couldn’t help but laugh too.
They arrived at the Texas Defense Forces headquarters an hour later. A sergeant holding a clipboard met them. “You’ll all need to file into that room over there where you’ll be briefed.”
Anson stepped up to him. “We need a latrine break and some food.”
“Lunch will be after the ceremony. As far as latrines, they’re over behind you but you’ll need to make it quick.”
Anson steeled himself to look the man in the eye. “You don’t understand. Some of us are still healing. We need calories.”
“No, kid, you don’t understand. I’ve got a schedule to keep and getting y’all a snack isn’t high on my agenda.” He looked down at the clipboard. “Sound off when I call your names.”
Anson put his hand on the clipboard and saw anger blossom in the man’s eyes. He ignored it, hiking up the heavy wool uniform to show his side. “We’re all Edens, which means we need food. This here,” he pointed at the angry red scar on his side, “is where a 25-millimeter shell blew a chunk out of my guts. I know it looks pretty good on the outside, but things are still a little tricky on the inside, and I’m not in the worst shape. We need food and water, right away.”
The man hesitated.
“You say you’ve got a schedule to keep,” said Rachel, stepping up beside Anson and waving at the others swaying on their feet behind them. “Well, I guarantee you won’t make it if we fall over and you have to carry us to the stage.”
The sergeant looked at his watch and then shook his head. “Okay, dammit, follow me. The chow hall’s still open, but you’ll have to make it fast.”
Rachel gave Anson a triumphant smile as they followed the sergeant.
Fifteen minutes later, after shoveling vast amounts of food into their stomachs, they were directed to wait in a small classroom. Several of the teenagers immediately dozed off.
A few minutes later, a captain walked into the room and spotted the sergeant. “We’re going to have to pick it up a little. The general’s here early and is talking to the families now. You know how he likes to get ahead of schedule. Get them lined up.”
“All right, people,” the sergeant said. “Follow me in the order I gave you earlier.”
“Families?” asked Rachel.
“Of the missing. He’s meeting with them now.”
“What do they mean by ‘missing’?” Rachel whispered to Anson, who shook his head.
The sergeant marched them onto the stage of an auditorium filled with people. Everyone smiled at them and some even clapped when they walked in.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” said the captain from the podium, “the ceremony will begin in approximately two minutes. Please take your seats and silence all phones.”
As the squad’s leader Anson was the first in line. Rachel sneaked up beside him, even though it wasn’t the order the NCO had given them. “Please rise for the commander, General McAllister,” the captain said into the microphone, and everyone in the room came to their feet.
A tall, dignified gray-haired general escorted a series of families down to the front row where he personally seated each of them with a word and a smile. He then turned and took the stage, along with a small entourage of military men and women in dress uniforms.
“I’m General Gerald McAllister. Thank you all for coming here today. Like most military traditions, this one is rooted in history and culture. Also like many, traditions, it is a bittersweet affair. We are here to recognize the heroism and bravery of young soldiers, both those with us, and those who are not.”
Because we left them to die, Anson thought. Suddenly, he better understood Rachel’s guilt about leaving her family. Just like on the mission, it would have been suicide to stay and fight. The realization didn’t make him feel any better.
“We’re all in a struggle for our lives and our way of life,” the general continued. “Tough choices will have to be made in the...”
McAllister’s voice droned into a background hum as Anson’s eyes flitted here and there over the crowd. Most were attentively following the words, but some were looking at the young soldiers on the stage.
Probably wondering why we’re up here instead of their sons or daughters, Anson thought, trying hard not to meet their sad, searching eyes.
His eyes glanced around and stopped on an older muscular sergeant major along the wall with the general’s other staff. The man was staring hard at Anson.
He looks familiar, Anson thought.
The hard face was obviously struggling for control. The man’s eyes were watery and he appeared to be shaking slightly.
No, Anson thought, feeling his knees go watery. It can’t be. It can’t.
But it was. The face of his father smiled and nodded back at him, wiping a lone tear from his cheek.
“...the Republic of Texas will always stand for...” the general droned on.
Anson stared as though he were at the end of a long, constricting tunnel. Voices and sounds came from far away, as if he were under water. The world tilted slightly and Anson felt himself falling before he crashed to the stage.
“Everyone stay calm,” the general’s voice ordered over the loudspeaker. “Let’s give him some space and get a medic up here.”
It wasn’t a medic he saw first, but his father leaning over him. “I never thought I’d see you again,” Silas Crouch said as he picked up his son to cradle him in his arms.
A medic checked his pulse and blood pressure. “He seems to be okay. Probably just a reaction to stress.”
“They’ve all endured a great deal of that,” the general answered.
“These things don’t help,” the medic said, opening Anson’s wool uniform coat.
McAllister walked back to the microphone. “Ladies and gentleman, this young man will be fine, I’m told. More important than any ceremony or award is that a prodigal son has returned to his father today.” Cheers and applause broke out as the crowd resonated with the joy and enthusiasm in his voice.
The door at the top rear of the auditorium burst open then, and a woman in uniform ran down the aisle. She pulled the captain from the podium and spoke to him for several long moments.
The captain looked as if he didn’t want to believe what he was hearing, walking over to the general as if in a daze.
McAllister’s smile vanished in a moment as he listened intently to what the man said. Eventually he nodded, and spoke into the microphone again. “Ladies and gentleman, I need your complete attention. I would like everyone to remain calm, as I give you some distressing news.”
“This doesn’t sound good,” said Rachel, leaning over Anson from beside the elder Crouch.
“I’ve just received word that United States armored and mechanized forces have crossed into northern Texas in great force. All military person need to report to their places of duty immediately, and I urge civilians to implement the civil defense actions they’ve practiced in the last few weeks.”
There came a low murmur in the crowd, and people began to rise. Sergeant Major Crouch stood, walking to the edge of the stage. He roared out, “Dismissed!”
That broke the spell that had descended on the auditorium, and everyone began to move at once.
“I have to go with the general over to Headquarters, son,” said Crouch. “I’d like you to come with me.”
“What about us?” asked Rachel.
“Who’s your commanding officer?”
She pointed at Anson. “He is, I think.”
Crouch pulled Anson to his feet. “Good Lord Almighty. Better come with me, all of you. Hurry.”
“Good thing you got us fed,” Rachel whispered to Anson as they walked hurriedly in the wake of the general’s entourage of aides and staff. “Looks like we’re going to miss that cookout.”
General Buck Clemens didn’t consider himself vain or egotistical. His overwhelming desire to succeed and achieve admiration in the eyes of others had driven him his entire life and served to propel him through the ranks. In short, he was one of those officers whose superiors loved him, subordinates distrusted him, and peers loathed him.
Ironically, he was incapable of recognizing any of this in himself, and attributed any animosity he perceived as jealousy or base meanness on the others’ part.
Clemens would admit, however, that General McAllister was the better strategist, so he didn’t resist his commander’s advice, helping him develop a grand strategy to defend the southern border with Mexico. McAllister had told Clemens that his mission was critical, and that he believed in him.
“General, we have reports from the 71st Battlefield Surveillance Brigade of an incursion in force near Del Rio,” said his battle captain. “Looks like at least a brigade pushing up from the south. Other battalions are crossing the Rio Grande in force north and south of the main effort. They’ve seized a dozen bridges within a seventy-mile stretch.”
“That’s more force than we expected. Any Mexican elements?” Clemens asked. He knew from talks with McAllister this was the key question, one that would dictate their next move.
“No, sir. Sir, why didn’t we blow the bridges right away?”
“Don’t worry about that right now.”
The man turned away, clearly concerned.
“Good that there’s no Mexicans.” Clemens stared at the large map, focusing on the area around the border city of Del Rio. Intel specialists were busy updating friendly and enemy positions based on the new info.
“Tell the 36th Infantry Division to withdraw to phase line yellow,” Clemens ordered. “All other units maintain their position.
The battle captain hesitated, then picked up the radio to begin relaying the message.
Clemens knew what they were all thinking. McAllister had prepared him for it. They would think he’d lost his nerve, but with all the reported spies and insiders amongst the Texas military, they couldn’t risk briefing the plan to subordinates. The commander of the 36th Division knew what was expected. That would be enough.
“They’re pulling back now, General,” said the battle captain. “Small-scale engagements are reported up and down the line.”
“Tell the 71st that I want to know when most of the U.S. elements have crossed into Texas.”
Over the next hour, he watched several monitors on the walls that showed live feeds from UAVs and reconnaissance vehicles. At every bridge he could see camouflaged vehicles streaming northward across the river. Along phase line yellow, the 36th had moved into prepared defensive positions and was engaging the lead elements of what was believed to be the 3rd Mechanized Infantry Division, the 9th Infantry Division and the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment.
It was a lot more than he’d expected. The U.S. had done a good job of hiding how much force they’d sneaked around to the southern border.
“Sir,” said the battle captain, “vehicles are still moving across the bridges, but the 71st estimates that seventy percent of the known combat elements are across the river. Of course, we don’t know for sure what’s behind them. Sir, why are we letting them get across the river so easily? We could have slowed them down for at least a day or two, maybe even held them.”
“Trust me, son. I know what I’m doing. Get me Colonel Asher on the line.” Clemens looked at the map carefully.
After a few seconds the commander of the 176th Combat Engineer Brigade came on the line.
“Ash, this is General Clemens. It’s time. Execute Code Word Anvil around Del Rio. Boundary line Hippo south to Jaguar. I say again, execute Anvil.”
“With pleasure, sir,” said the man, and the line went dead.
Those in the command center glanced at each other curiously, and then stared at the screens along with Clemens.
Most were shocked into gasps when the giant four-lane bridge near Del Rio exploded in a horrendous blast, sending concrete, dust, and military vehicles high into the air. Moments later, a dozen other bridges along a seventy mile stretch to the north and south of Del Rio also exploded.
It had taken the engineers nearly a week to rig all the bridges across the river for detonation. They’d done it at night, and carefully disguised the charges to ensure the enemy wouldn’t know.
“All artillery and rocket elements, fire for effect,” General Clemens said. “I say again, fire for effect.”
All along the battle line, men and women dragged camouflage nets and dust-cover tarps off of carefully camouflaged guns and rockets. Self-propelled models drove out of barns and warehouses to take positions on preselected locations. Computerized fire control systems on the more modern weapons instantly directed their barrels and launchers toward the enemy.
As soon as each battery was in position, it began to vomit forth a hell of steel and explosives, which streaked across the sky to slam into preregistered positions where the enemy had no choice but to be – road intersections, minor bridges and overpasses, gaps in the low but steep hills.
Within a minute, the combined firepower of five brigades of artillery rained down on the U.S. forces. Trapped between the 36th’s defensive positions and the Rio Grande river, they had nowhere to go, nowhere to maneuver.
“Order the 36th to attack, now!” Clemens said with relish. The screens soon began to show his armored forces pushing deliberately southward, overwhelming the lead edge of the now-disorganized enemy. There might be a small amount of fratricide as artillery fell among friendly units, but the Texas units had practiced coordinating their rolling barrages over the past few weeks, and the assault functioned as well as these things ever did on a confused battlefield.
The command center fell silent as everyone watched the slaughter.
“Sir, the 71st says enemy elements are moving into the city of Del Rio,” the battle captain said. “The Texas State Guard there is being pushed back.”
“What’s the battle damage assessment?” Clemens asked. “How bad did we hurt them?”
“Near eight-five percent for the lead elements. Closer to fifty for those near the river. Some are attempting an amphibious withdrawal, but without swimming modifications or bridging equipment, only a few will get away.”
“Should we refocus our fires on the river?” the battle captain asked.
“No, we don’t have enough observers. We’d waste a lot of ammo. Order the artillery to shift to combat support mode for their organic units. Priority of fires is assigned to the 36th. Tell the 36th to press forward to Del Rio and assist with the defense of the city. We don’t want them getting in there and then have to dig them out.”
General Clemens tried not to smile, but he couldn’t help it. By tomorrow everyone would know his name. He’d soundly defeated the Americans, inflicting catastrophic casualties on their lead elements. The other enemy forces were now stuck south of the Rio Grande. If they wanted to cross, they would have to throw up field bridges under fire, one of the most difficult military operations there ever was…and he wasn’t going to make it easy for them.
Probably end up with lots of prisoners, and captured equipment as well, a nice bonus.
It’s a glorious, overwhelming victory, certain to secure Texas from its enemies, and it’s got my name on it.
Lieutenant Colonel Louie Korver felt as if he were coming home, albeit not in any way he would have ever imagined. He’d spent most of his army career at Fort Hood, Texas and he and his wife still owned a home in Killeen. Therefore, it seemed surreal to stand in the open hatch of his armored vehicle, looking out over the flat dusty landscape.
As the battalion commander of the lead element of Operation Lincoln, he knew speed was key. His three Bradley companies were spread out in front of him in a mighty wedge of mobility, firepower, and steel nearly two miles across, consisting of fifty Bradley fighting vehicles. His armored company of sixteen Abrams M2 tanks were right behind him to serve as a reserve should they encounter any resistance.
“Go around,” Korver said to his driver, who dutifully sped through the narrow opening in the highway they were crossing. Hundreds of dazed civilians looked on in shock from the long lines of vehicles that were standing still, nowhere to go in the mass panic to get away.
Why are they running? The fighting will be farther to the south. If they were smart they would stay where they are. It’s not like we’re the Russians bent on revenge, driving into Germany in ’45, after all.
The streaming masses of civilians had slowed the armored advance, and Korver had gritted his teeth in frustration. He knew that speed of maneuver was the way to take the Texans off guard, and he especially wanted to catch the lead elements of his former unit, Fort Hood’s 1st Armored Division, with their pants down.
Korver knew he would face former friends and comrades, and he was eager to do it. They were rebels and traitors. If they chose to stand against him and his men, he would do his best to make them regret it.
First, though, he had to achieve his principal objective. The entire operation depended upon him and his men.
“Incoming Hellfire! Helo, two o’clock,” said a voice over the battalion secure net.
“Engaging, now,” said another voice and Korver pulled up his binoculars just in time to see a puff of smoke leave the turret of one of the Bradleys. The Stinger missile streaked up into the sky before curving off to the left out of sight. A split second later there came an explosion in the sky, and then another, separate one on the ground.
“Target destroyed,” said a satisfied voice.
“Charlie Company, one mobility kill,” a different voice said. “Need recovery at grid…” The unnamed speaker recited the details needed to get a crew to repair or salvage the damaged Bradley.
This was the third helicopter they’d shot down and the second Bradley lost. Korver had heard on the division net that the main elements behind him were being harassed by A-10 ground attack planes, and he was grateful he only had to deal with the helos. On the flat open ground during daylight, the helicopters had a rough time, thank God. Once they got closer to built-up areas, it would be a different story.
Don’t plan on being here that long, Korver thought, looking at his watch. They had another hour until they reached their initial objective phase line. There, they would either link up with supply units to refuel, or raid gas stations.
Salvaging local fuel might work for the Bradleys, but he might have to leave the gas-guzzling Abrams tanks behind.
If we have to leave them behind for the support elements, I will. Speed is the most important thing and I won’t spend much time sitting still.
“Watch out!” Korver yelled into his headset. He was thrown sharply to the side as his driver swerved to the left to keep from running down a small herd of cattle that seemed to materialize out of the ground, equally startled.
He remembered the lightning armored drive into Iraq, and so much about this mission reminded him of that operation. Flat open dusty ground. Lines of cars and masses of bewildered civilians. Light to no resistance. Shepherds and their sheep wandering the arid landscape. He shuddered at the chain of thought, because it ended with outrun supply lines and brutal urban warfare inside the cities.
That’s why we have to move fast. Knock them out before they even realize they’re in a fight. But it all depends on taking the objective. My objective.
Objective Crimson, it had been designated. Target: an automated communications hub west of Fort Worth, one which controlled and coordinated the data streams for the radars and missiles of the umbrella covering all of Texas. As soon as they took out that site, the briefings had said the war would be largely won. U.S. warplanes could fly in with impunity, bombing every military target they could identify. The 101st and 82nd could drop and air assault deep, to seize key locations. And perhaps most importantly, friendly units would have no fear of attack from the Texas air forces and could concentrate on winning the ground war.
They came upon a long barbed wire fence enclosing thousands of sheep. “Go through it,” Korver roared. The Bradley burst through the thin barrier, and then had to slow to let the frightened flock run away.
He almost ordered his driver to run them down, and then remembered their instructions to minimize damage to private property. All they would need is some reporter showing a scene of his Bradley chewing through a herd of sheep, leaving a bloody train in its wake. That was the sort of thing he didn’t want associated with his name in the news.
Besides, his daughter loved sheep. She’d probably never recover from the spectacle.
It’s all about public opinion, he thought angrily, and was reminded again how much this was like Iraq. I hate public opinion. Hell, I hate the public.
“Stupid civilians,” he said, not realizing his microphone was open.
“What, sir?” asked the gunner.
“Nothing.” Korver checked his watch again. If they could reach their objective before nightfall, the Texas Rebellion would be toast and he’d make Colonel within six months.
Reaper’s team sat in the shade provided by one of the sheer rock walls. They were gathered around Shortfuse, who was mixing powders and crystals.
“How is it going?” she asked.
“Hard to say,” said Shortfuse. “I’d really like to test it, but that’s probably not a good idea.”
“How much more of this do you need?” Bunny asked.
He looked at the mixture in the bowl-shaped hollow in the rock before him, and then critically at the small mesh bag at his feet. “I’d like to have at least ten pounds of urea nitrate for a fifty-fifty mixture.”
“How much have we collected so far?” asked Hawkeye.
“I’d say we’ve got a pound so far. Maybe a little less.”
“What?” asked Bunny. “You mean after three days of collecting the camp’s smelly piss, Evaporating it and then scraping up the crystals to bring you, we only have a pound.”
Shortfuse shrugged. “It is what it is. It’s too bad everyone is so dehydrated or this would go faster.”
“So at this rate we only need another month here to be able to see if this works?”
There came a loud collective groan from the team, even Hulk, who had finally come out of his coma although he was still extremely weak.
“What else is there to do? I never said it would be quick.”
“Looks like we have more prisoners coming in,” said Hawkeye, pointing up toward activity at the main gate. Several guards were opening the series of barriers and letting someone in.”
Tarzan grunted. “Just one person. Must have been a slow day.”
Reaper ignored them and their griping. Something about the man’s walk seemed familiar. She stood as she saw the blue prison tattoos on bare arms, and then his face.
“Tarzan, Hawkeye, back me up.” Making her way through the shuffling crowds, Reaper met him at the base of the long winding rock path. Leaning close so that others couldn’t hear, she said, “What the hell are you doing here?”
Python looked at her, distressed. “Damn, Reap. You’ve lost at least twenty pounds and you were already a stick.”
“We’ve only been here a few days. You should see some of the long-timers. Again, what the hell are you doing here?”
“Spooky sent me.”
“Not to be critical, getting yourself captured might not be a good first step.”
“Have some faith. I’ve got a plan. Up here.” He tapped his head and waggled his eyebrows.
“I’m too tired and weak for banter,” Reaper said. “Just tell me. I’d like the opportunity to be disappointed and disgusted alone with you before we have to go tell my team the news of your already-failed rescue attempt.”
“Same old Reap. Anybody ever tell you you’re a pessimist?”
“All the time.”
Python pointed at the closed gates at the top of the path. “We’re going to get your team and walk right through there to freedom. My men are up top with vehicles and we’ll drive you south and back across the border.”
“And why would the guards just let us go?”
“Because I gave them an official military order saying you were free to go.”
“Surely they’re not dumb enough to think it’s legit,” she said.
“Of course not. The paper is only a justification if they get caught letting us go, although I’m not sure anyone will notice. There are so many Eden detainees around the country now they can hardly keep track of them all.”
“Why would they just let us go?”
Python rubbed his finger and thumb together. “Because I’ve made it worth their while. Given a choice between money or risking their lives for a questionable cause, a surprising number chose the green.”
Reaper looked around the vast dirt hole and the thousands of miserable, starving wraiths. “What about them?”
“Just have three vehicles. They won’t fit.”
“You know what I mean.”
Python sighed. “We can’t get them all out. The guards have to have someone to guard. There’s no way they can claim to believe an order to disband the camp, or something like that.”
Reaper shook her head. “We can’t just leave them.”
Python’s face turned grim. “I love you, girl, but I’m afraid you don’t really know what you’re talking about here.”
“Try me,” she said walking up close to glare at him. “Lay it out for me real simple and slow so I get it.”
He spread his hands toward the vast hole. “You think we’re in the only place like this? The Unionists bragged last week that they managed to get the Eden infection rate below five percent. Do you know what that means for a population of over three hundred million?”
Reaper sat down slowly on a rock beside her.
“Where do you put fifteen million infectees?” he continued. “Lots have escaped and Texas is now full of them, but the vast majority I would guess are like these poor souls...those that are still alive, that is. As you can see, now that the Unionists have taken control of Congress and many of the state governments, they’ve given up on the pretext of containing the Edens. This is a death camp. Efficient, brutal, and hidden. Pretty soon, they’ll fill places like this with transported Edens. They’ll tell them they’re being resettled, they’ll load them all into boxcars, and ship them here.”
“So we can’t smuggle them out. There are too many.”
“That’s what I said.”
Reaper chewed her lip in thought. “We’ve got to do something more.”
Python threw his hands in the air and then pushed them slowly through his hair. “Didn’t you hear me? Fifteen million Edens. Some put in places like this. Others are being shipped to the Canadian north to freeze slowly in the tundra. Saving a few thousand won’t make any difference.”
Reaper looked at him coldly. “Saving just us two made a difference. Now we’re working to help all Edens. Every one of them can make a difference. Just because we can’t save all of them doesn’t mean we should give up and not try to save any of them.”
“Okay,” said Python. “I cede the moral high ground, but it doesn’t matter. I’ve only paid to get you and your team out, and we need to do that fast, before the people I’ve paid off get nervous or my boys at the top do.”
“Fine. Let’s get going. But when the time comes, you follow my lead, get it?”
Python nodded slowly. “Of course, Jill.”
Reaper eyed him narrowly, but he only smiled. “Let’s go get the rest.”
When she told her team, they leaped to their feet.
“Wait,” she said. “Amble slowly through the crowds until we get a ways up the road. Otherwise, they might turn into a mob and stop us.”
“Why would they stop us?” Hawkeye asked.
Python looked at the short Hispanic man with disdain. “You don’t know much about people, do you?”
“Listen, convict –”
Reaper snapped, “Shut up, both of you, and do as I say. Walk slow and be ready for anything.”
They did as she instructed, and soon they were climbing the spiral road toward the top. Once they were halfway up, some of the zombies below began to point and holler, but by that time it was too late.
When they reached the top, the guards opened the gate to let them through. A roar of indignation swelled behind them, as if somehow the good fortune of a few meant that they were now worse off.
Three trucks and a dozen hard-bitten men with assault rifles stood beyond. One of them walked over to place a thick envelope in the hand of the prison guards’ leader, who nodded. “You can go.”
Python grinned, slapping the man’s back. “Sure I can’t interest you in some high-quality powder? On the house. Must get pretty boring out here in bumfuck, New Mexico.”
The eyes of the camp boss roved over his men as he licked his lips. “Ah, maybe. If it’s free.”
“The first one always is. We’ll be back in a week or two with more cash and the best blow you ever put up your nose.” Python slapped an ounce into his hand, and then called over his shoulder, “Enrique, give them that case of tequila too.”
The man chuckled, fingering the packet and watching the liquor handed over. “My new friend, you can buy all the Edens you want for these prices.”
“Good. Pleasure doing business with you.” Python waved for everyone to load up in the trucks.
Once on the road, after stuffing her face with military rations and warm beer, Reaper said to Python, “We’re coming back tonight.”
“You got extra weapons?”
“Of course. And some RPGs.”
Reaper made a face. “That will mean killing.”
“Going in like SWAT will mean risking our own lives. Besides, that ounce and that tequila I gave them was jam-packed with a max dose of Plague. That will give them a chance to live through it.”
Reaper chewed her lip for a moment, and then nodded. “I already lost Crash. Better them than us.”
“Glad we’re on the same page.”
“We hit them at three a.m.”
From her position a hundred yards from the pit, the moon gave Reaper plenty of light to see the building and guard towers along the rim. An hour of careful recon had determined that only a few of them were actually occupied. A pair of two-man teams rotated from place to place, moving around and checking to see no one was climbing the sheer walls. Two more men walked back and forth near the gate.
“These are the guys that drew the short straws,” Reaper said to Python. “The rest must be sleeping it off or still diddling each other.”
“Yeah.” He spoke into his walkie. “Everyone in place?”
Double-clicks came back.
“Boss lady says go.”
Rocket-propelled grenades streaked across the night, aimed at the two doors of the guard’s barracks. Before the debris stopped falling, Reaper’s team charged through the openings, assault rifles chattering.
Simultaneously, the roving guards and those at the gate were cut down by Python’s men.
In thirty seconds it was over. Five minutes later, Reaper confirmed two guards dead and twenty wounded. She could live with that.
“Make sure you trank and infect all of them,” she told Bunny and Livewire. “Hulk, open the gate. Tarzan, jog down there and tell a few people they’re free, then run like hell back up here before you get swarmed. We march in five minutes.”
Her timing was impeccable. The first shuffling groups of skeletal Edens exited the pit just as her team and Python’s began jogging away on the road. They’d eat all the guards’ food, drink their fill of water, and then…well, it wasn’t her problem anymore. She’d done what she could.
“Where are they headed?” General McAllister asked, looking at the overhead live feed. They had been watching the lead elements of the U.S. mechanized force drive relentlessly southward from their jumpoff positions on the Oklahoma border. McAllister had expected the invaders to bypass points of resistance in order to seize key terrain, but he couldn’t see the point of their current maneuver.
“They’re on a path to go right between Fort Worth and Abilene,” Colonel Sherrie Gervais said. “Kinda looks like they’re driving straight for Austin.”
McAllister shook his head. That one mechanized battalion was outracing everything else the enemy had crossed the border with. Either its commander was criminally overeager, or he had a specific target, one important enough to sacrifice his unit. They might get in, but they wouldn’t get out. They simply didn’t have enough fuel.
“III Corps says they’re ready whenever you need them,” said a comms NCO with a headset. “1st Cav Division has cleared the highways north in order to speed the counterattack.”
“Not yet. We want to draw the majority of the attacking element into our kill zone before we spring the trap.”
Something wasn’t right, McAllister realized. He looked at the Common Operating Picture screen. The invading red mech battalion icon inched closer to a miniscule blue dot. “What is that?” he asked.
The analysts leaned close, clicked on the icon, and then consulted a spreadsheet. “Comms hub, it says, sir.”
“What type of comms hub?”
“I don’t have more specific info in the system.” The analyst looked around as if for help from anyone in the room, but saw that he was on his own. “I’ll find out, sir.” He hurried away in the direction of the intelligence center.
“Sir,” said an officer. “We’ve gotten reports of aircraft taking off from every enemy airbase within three hundred miles of Texas. Looks like a full court press.”
“Not a good idea,” said Gervais. “Our air defense will rip them to shreds. They must be desperate to support the ground push.”
McAllister frowned. “Never assume your enemy is stupid. They’ve got something up their sleeves. We need to figure out what it is.”
“We’re also getting reports that enemy maneuver brigades have turned toward Austin and are speeding forward. Looks like a coordinated advance to swing wide around to bypass the DFW urban center to the west. As expected, they’re setting up to screen Abilene and San Angelo, cut the state in half, and assault Austin.”
“The capital isn’t that important,” McAllister mused. “Do they think a symbolic victory will make Texas collapse? It’s the DFW-San Antonio-Houston triangle that matters. We hold that, we hold Texas.”
“Sir,” said the analyst, rushing back in. “That blue dot is an automated communications hub.”
“For what?” he asked, only half listening.
“Air defense, sir. The entire network runs through it.”
McAllister froze and turned to give the mapscreen his full attention. They’d been fooled, he realized. Caught sleeping. The enemy had identified the one node that would cripple their air defense, a point McAllister didn’t even know about until now. As the commanding general, he couldn’t keep everything in mind. He had to trust his subordinates, but someone had dropped the ball by not distributing the network routing better, or at least highlighting the importance of this one location so that it could be defended.
“Hit that battalion with everything we have, now,” McAllister ordered, pointing at the screen. “Priority across the board goes to that target. Divert aircraft, retarget artillery – anything we have!”
The air and artillery liaison officers immediately began yelling into their headsets while their assistants frantically typed orders into their computers. Gervais said, “We don’t have any ground units in the area that can even slow them down. Just a few Guard companies with no mobility, garrisoning the smaller towns, and the enemy is bypassing those. The air, and maybe a couple of light artillery batteries, are all there is.”
“It doesn’t matter how many helicopters or planes we lose; we can’t let them destroy that data hub. If they do, we’re cooked. Our air defense umbrella will lose most of its effectiveness.”
“What have we got defending that site?” McAllister asked.
“A Texas State Guard light infantry company,” the analyst answered. “Unfortunately, there’s no cover or defenses. It’s just a small abandoned industrial park at a crossroads.”
Gervais shook her head. “There’s no way they stand against a heavy battalion.”
“Patch me through to them,” said McAllister. “We better hope they can buy us some time until we can send help their way; otherwise we’re going to have enemy planes crawling all over Texas.”
“What about the rest of our counterattack?” asked Gervais.
“Go ahead, initiate it. It may be too little too late, though if we don’t stop that one battalion.”
Too smart for my own good, McAllister thought. Let them invade deep and then catch them on the flip side. The problem is, I missed a critical node. Dear God, please don’t let my negligence lose us this war.
“Sir,” said an aide. “I have Captain Scaggs on the line. He’s the commander of the company guarding the relay station.”
“Yes, General,” said Captain Jimmy Scaggs. “We’ll hold, somehow.” He then hung up the phone.
“General McAllister himself?” said Scaggs’ executive officer, Lieutenant Allen. “From the look on your face, he gave you an ass chewing. How could we possibly screw anything up way out here in the middle of nowhere?”
Captain Scaggs face had taken on a cold, dead look. “Get the key personnel together. Everyone down to squad leader level. Quickly. I need to talk to them.”
Within two minutes, twenty-five sets of eyes looked at him.
“I just got a call from General McAllister,” Scaggs said. “The lead element of the entire U.S. advance, a mechanized battalion, is headed this way. They’re ten miles out. Twenty minutes, maybe less.”
“Why here?” asked one of the platoon leaders.
Scaggs pointed at the warehouse behind them, the largest building in a small industrial cluster at the intersection of a rail line and a highway. A microwave tower studded with dish antennas rose next to it, and a large diesel generator ran day and night, providing electricity to feed its servers and air conditioners. “The general just told me this might be the key to the entire war. All the primary air defense data for Texas runs through it. If it’s destroyed, we’ll probably lose the air war within twenty-four hours, and then Texas will fall. We’ve got help coming, but we have to hold them off.”
“Uh, sir,” said one of his platoon leaders. “Didn’t you say it was a mechanized battalion? We’re light infantry. They even took our antitank weapons to reinforce other units defending the bigger towns. All we were supposed to do is fend off commando raids. We got nothin’ but small arms.”
Scaggs nodded, looking off into the distance at the line of stalled refugee vehicles spread as far as the eye could see along the highway. Then he turned to the detailed map of the area mounted on the wall.
“What you thinking, boss?” asked Allen.
“We need to slow them down before they get into effective main gun range, which means at least three kilometers north of here to be safe. We don’t have to destroy them, just get mobility kills. Slow them down. The general said we’d have help within two or three hours.” Skaggs traced his finger along a road on the map, where it crossed a deep concrete canal.
“I wish we had antitank mines, or had dug some ditches ahead of time.”
Scaggs shook his head. “That wouldn’t have mattered. We couldn’t have prepared anything three klicks out, not with all the civilians driving everywhere. We’d just have killed some citizens. No, we have to hurry out and set up a hasty ambush. I’m asking for volunteers only. The chances of walking away from this are slim to none.”
“An ambush with what?”
He pointed at the line of refugees’ cars and trucks. “If we can ram some trucks into the sides of the Bradleys, we might get mobility kills by destroying their tracks. If we do it at the right place, we can hold up the whole battalion for a couple of hours. By the time they get clear, the cavalry will have arrived.”
Twenty-five sets of knitted brows stared back at him.
“I’m open to other suggestions,” Scaggs said, “but it needs to be quick. The only alternative I see is to sit here and get turned into cat food by their 25-millimeter cannons and machine guns. Either that, or run. And I ain’t runnin’.”
“They’ll just shoot the vehicles before we can get close enough to ram them,” said Allen.
Scaggs nodded. “They might, but I’m hoping they’ll be hesitant to fire at civilian vehicles until they know for sure they’re a threat. Might be able to sneak up on them.”
“That’s…isn’t that against the laws of war? Using civilian vehicles?”
Scaggs snorted. “Nope. It’s called a ‘ruse de guerre,’ a trick of war. As long as we don’t fly white flags, we’re good. We’re partisans defending our own country.”
“Well,” said a voice from the back, “let’s be honest. Who hasn’t wanted to drive in a demolition derby? Are we really going to let that pass us by?”
A nervous laugh rippled through the formation.
“Ask your folks for volunteers. I don’t want anyone going who isn’t committed,” Skaggs growled. “We load our vehicles in three minutes. Bring the mortar and all the rounds we got. I’ll brief you over the radio as we go. Dismissed.”
Three minutes later, all eighty-six men in the company had jammed into their Humvees and trucks. Skaggs led them northward beside the railroad tracks next to the stalled civilians on the highway. At intervals, one of his squads would stop and commandeer several trucks, nothing smaller than a heavy-duty work van. Soon, eighty-six civilian vehicles from duallies to milk trucks raced across dry, hard fields toward near-certain death.
Skaggs led them up a two-lane that ran obliquely across the route of the enemy’s advance. Perpendicular to the road, a deep drainage canal formed the other half of a V. The oncoming battalion would have to turn and form up single file to cross the lone bridge strong enough to hold armored vehicles.
In the distance, he saw the giant cloud of reddish dust that marked the forward edge of the mechanized battalion. Fifty high-tech, heavily armed combat vehicles against a bunch of trucks, one mortar and the men’s small arms.
It would be a slaughter, even if everything went perfectly.
Yelling orders over the radio, he got the four heaviest trucks parked on the canal bridge, haphazardly as if they had tried to go around traffic and gotten stuck. One was a full gasoline hauler. He sent off his two-man mortar team to emplace themselves five hundred meters away, in the bed of the canal where they couldn’t be seen, with orders to aim at the bridge.
The rest of the vehicles he ordered pulled forward, and then backed up in order to appear as if they had experienced a traffic jam due to two trucks crashed at the head of the column, and then had abandoned the mess.
“Hunker down in your seats, boys,” Skaggs called over the radio. He watched as the mech battalion approached, slowing as they spotted the canal. For long moments they nearly stopped, before one platoon of four Bradleys lumbered forward to investigate the bridge.
The others began to maneuver into a loosely packed column in the middle of the fields in preparation for racing across the bridge when it had been cleared. Hatches opened and men jumped out to check the condition of their vehicles, drink water and smoke. Turrets rotated and elevated into air-defense positions, obviously more concerned about helicopters and airplanes than nonexistent enemy tanks.
“What a godsend,” Skaggs breathed, and then gave the order. “God bless Texas, boys, and I’ll see you all in heaven. If you ain’t there, we’ll come break you outa hell. Execute.”
Engines roared to life and the civilian trucks turned as one to race across the dusty plain and aim themselves at the sides of the Bradleys. Crews gaped in shock or ran for their armored vehicles.
Mortar shells began falling among the lead platoon, which was still trying to figure out how to clear the bridge of its forty-ton blockages. The small shells had little effect, but they threw up dust and forced the track commanders to button up, causing confusion. When one round detonated the five thousand gallons of gasoline parked there, spreading an inferno of petroleum, the Bradleys withdrew, still unaware of what was happening behind them.
Five of the forty halted Bradleys rotated their turrets and opened fire, blowing an equal number of trucks to kingdom come, but that was far fewer than Skaggs had feared. With no ground threat in front of them and the Abrams company to cover their rear, the enemy had become complacent. Now they were going to pay.
Skaggs lost track of how many of his trucks slammed into Bradleys. He’d set himself at the lead of the road column, which meant he had the farthest to go. He’d wanted to see the results of his ploy, as well as giving others the best chance to hit their targets. The more open ground to cover, the more likely it was that he would get picked off.
Whether due to luck, skill or divine providence, Captain Jimmy Skaggs smashed his five-ton truck loaded with beer into the track assembly of a Bradley, thus immortalizing himself and his State Guard company, and becoming the most famous Texan military hero since William B. Travis, Jim Bowie and Davy Crockett died defending the Alamo.
Ten minutes later, F-16s and A-10s of the Texas Air Force began savaging the battalion until a hard-driven company of Texas National Guard M1 Abrams tanks arrived. Between them, they destroyed all the Bradleys and forcing ten surviving Abrams to withdraw to a nearby copse of trees for cover, where they wisely dug in, cut off and nearly empty of fuel.
When the sun went down, the two mortarmen were the only survivors of Bravo Company, 39th Regiment (Roughnecks), Texas State Guard. No other action in Texas since the Alamo had resulted in such a casualty percentage. No other engagement had been so mismatched, yet had achieved such lopsided result. Some historians later compared Bravo Company to the 300 Spartans (and over 1000 other Greeks) who had died defending the pass at Thermopylae.
The air defense communications node, though now unguarded, remained untouched.
McAllister kept his face neutral as the day wore on, but the growing death toll hit him like a physical blow. Stopping the mechanized battalion had been successful, though bought at terrible cost. The price of war had been far greater elsewhere, but no other single unit had sustained such high casualties. Those Guard boys...
He watched as the largest armored engagement in the western hemisphere was fought around Abilene. Battalions and brigades smashed into each other head to head, aided by hundreds of tubes of artillery. Aircraft fought and died grappling for the upper hand, while missiles crisscrossed in the sky, some incoming, some outgoing. Helicopters died the quickest, unless they stayed at the fringes of the battlefield.
Unlike the clean, neat exercises of War College, or the meticulous conventional campaign against the Iraqi military that had yielded few friendly casualties, this was a swirling melee, fought by men and women who spoke the same language, had gone to the same training, and operated the same equipment. It was perhaps the finest example of a pure civil war since the Reds and the Whites fought for dominance in the Russia of a century ago.
Some amateur historian quickly claimed it ranked in the top ten by sheer size. McAllister didn’t care about that; he just wanted it over.
Thousands of infantry had disgorged themselves from personnel carriers and found each other in short-range, even hand-to-hand combat while armored vehicles fought around them. Dismounted engineers slapped sticky bombs on the sides of tanks while steel treads rolled over formations of prone riflemen. Fire and smoke engulfed an area of more than five hundred square miles.
Throughout the long night, the two gargantuan combatants fought with every weapon at their disposal. Masses of attackers fell to stubborn, outnumbered defenders, dug in and determined to hold. The kill ratio averaged three to one in the air, two to one on the ground in Texas’ favor. By morning, every combat unit on both sides had sustained at least thirty percent casualties. Some had taken double that. Out of ammo and fuel, many became combat ineffective.
The difference was, the Texans were on home ground. Ammo and fuel were scrounged from armories and redistributed among units. Escaped vehicle crews were fed and given medical aid by local citizens, and returned to fight. Aviators parachuted into friendly hands and were dropped off at airfields in search of planes to fly.
The invaders, however, had nowhere to go once they’d been surrounded and their supply lines cut.
It was exactly 1247 hours the next day when Texas received its first surrender. McAllister made a note of the time because he thought it would have significance in the years to come. Within hours, most of the fighting had tapered off, and more than ten thousand American troops had been taken as prisoners of war.
The Texas armed forces headquarters became a madhouse of joy as the word spread. Around 1700 hours, McAllister received a call from President of Texas Bret Tucker.
“Congratulations, General,” he said. “You and your people have done Texas a great service.”
“Thank you, sir,” answered McAllister. “But this is only one necessary victory. I’m afraid this might not be the end of the fighting as some expect.”
“It’s likely to at least be the beginning of the end. The U.S. State Department has unofficially floated a request for a ceasefire. I replied officially with a proposal of my own, to save them face. It won’t matter how it’s spun. Everyone will know Texas was victorious.”
“Only because they rushed the attack. They won’t do that next time.”
“Maybe there won’t be a next time. Mexico has also made overtures about withdrawing from its unofficial alliance with the U.S. and dismantling the blockade. They want trade reopened. I told them we were in favor of that.”
McAllister asked, “How long until a ceasefire becomes official?”
“No idea, so stay on your toes. It could be a ploy just to get us to lower our guard, but I don’t think so.”
McAllister looked up at the television screen, showing celebrations in front of the Capitol building in Austin. “Someone said you have a press conference scheduled.”
“I do,” said Tucker. “Lots to prepare for, but I had to congratulate you personally. From the bottom of my heart, thank you.”
“I can’t take the credit, sir. It was the people in the fight that did it.”
“You can and you will –”
The line went dead.
McAllister looked at his communications officer, who was directing his technicians to try all their equipment. “There’s no service at all, sir. Austin just went black.”
As had the television screen.
Layfield strode into the White House. The Unionist Party had been forced to exert all its power to get what she wanted, but in the end they were successful.
What use was power if not to wield it in times like these?
She was followed by a very unhappy military aide, carrying a thick heavy briefcase. Four Secret Service agents walked with them.
The door to the Oval Office already stood open. The President was there along with his chief of staff, the Secretary of State, and Secretary of Defense.
Layfield could just catch the last part of what was being said. “...can still find a way to salvage the situation.”
“No, we cannot,” said Layfield, walking in.
“I hardly think we need your help,” said Milligan angrily. “Not after all the mess you caused.”
Layfield turned to the Secret Service agents. “I need to speak to the President alone, please.”
“That’s not going to happen...” said Milligan his voice trailing off as one agent moved forward to gesture for him to leave. He looked at the President for help, but the tired man just sat behind his antique desk and rubbed his face.
“I won’t be long, gentlemen,” Layfield told them as they walked out. “I promise.”
The man with the briefcase turned to follow the departing staff. “Not you, dear,” said Layfield. “We’ll need you very close for the next few minutes.”
The President’s eyes narrowed as he recognized the military aide, who had only one job. The thick briefcase in his hand confirmed the reason for his presence.
The so-called leader of the free world began shaking his head back and forth slowly.
“Just set it up here,” said Layfield, indicating the desk in front of the President.
“I’m not going to do it. I did it once already – twice, really – pushed into it by my advisers who thought the virus could be contained early. It’s too late for that.”
“It’s too late not to do it. Don’t you realize that with what has happened in the last twenty-four hours, the situation is slipping out of control? India, Brazil, and Saudi Arabia have all recognized Texas as a nation in its own right. I insist you do something you’ve lost the strength of will to do on your own. You like to quote Lincoln. This is your chance to live up to his legacy, and save the union before it’s lost forever.”
“We’re in this situation because I listened to you and we attacked too hastily. Now you want more hasty action. Besides, we don’t have any tactical weapons ready – not ones that can penetrate their air defense anyway. We’d have to use an ICBM. So you want to start an all-out nuclear war with Russia or China?”
“As soon as we authorize the launch, our ambassadors will inform all relevant parties of what will happen, assuring them that this is an internal matter, and that they are in no danger.”
The military aide, whom Layfield had been assured was a fanatical Unionist, opened the case and presented it to her. She’d ensured that she was a valid control authority when the President authenticated the launch. Now it only required the two of them to do what needed to be done.
“Has the specific mission been entered?” she asked.
The aide nodded, a rapturous expression on his face.
“Good,” she said and then typed in her own eight-digit code. She turned the case toward the President.
“I told you, I’m not doing this again. Killing half a million people to save the rest was one thing. Killing millions more just to terrorize Texas back into the fold? Forget it.”
Layfield stepped around the side of the Presidential desk and reached under its lip to turn off the recorder she knew was there. “Upstairs, right now, your family is as confused and frightened as the rest of the country. They need someone to take control, to reestablish authority. I know this seems harsh, but it will be a blessing in the long run.”
The President stood, his face turning red. “What does my family have to do with this?”
“You know, they’re being guarded right now by people loyal to the Unionist cause. People who will do anything I say.”
He sat back down again. “You wouldn’t dare.”
Her eyebrows rose. “I wouldn’t dare have them infected with the Eden virus? I wouldn’t dare have them thrown into a camp? Do you really think I wouldn’t dare do those things?”
Gazing at it in horror, the President reached out to touch the briefcase with one finger, as if he were afraid of the contact.
Layfield sighed heavily. “If you can’t do it for your country, then think about your wife and children right upstairs there. Would you really let them suffer for your lack of resolve?”
“You will pay for this, I swear it.” Eyes brimming with anger, he typed in his code, looked at her once more, and pressed the enter key.
Lieutenant James Lutton sat deep underground beneath the North Dakota prairie. He was startled out of his paperback novel by an alarm from the fire control console. He looked over at Captain Francis Ness sitting next to him. “God, not again.
She rolled her neck, and then her eyes, as she read the incoming message on her screen. “Third one today. This is getting old. Begin the sequence. Packet eleven.”
Lutton went to the small safe behind him, entered the combination and popped open the heavy door. He pulled out a thick plastic container, packet eleven, and broke it open. Captain Ness had done the same, and was also holding a sheet of just-printed hardcopy.
In a bored voice, he said, “I authenticate Alpha One November Zulu Five India.”
“Authentication confirmed.” She punched the code into her side of the console, and then handed him the piece of paper while breaking open her own plastic packet. “I authenticate Sierra Niner Tango Sierra Four Juliet.”
Lutton looked past the first confirmation code he’d just read to the one below it. “Authentication confirmed,” he said, entering her code in his console.
Both pulled out the keys they wore on chains around their necks. “Insert keys,” said Ness, staring at Lutton to make sure he was ready. “To the right: three, two, one, turn.”
They both turned them to the right.
“To the left for launch,” she continued. “Three, two, one, turn.”
Both rotated their keys to the left.
A deep rumbling shook the silo.
Lutton turned to Ness in utter shock. “What the hell?” He’d never actually heard a missile launch, and thought he never would.
“It’s real,” his partner said. “It’s a real launch! Holy shit!”
The rumbling shook the entire structure before abruptly subsiding.
Like a zombie, Ness spoke, following the training that had been drilled into her by repeated, mind-numbingly routine exercises. “Launch successful. One bird away, confirm.”
“Confirmed,” Lutton answered, staring at the computer display in front of him. “One bird away.”
To where? he wondered. By design, the crews never knew their targets, the better to depersonalize the process. Will they fall on Russia? China? Iran? Maybe North Korea? That was it. It must be North Korea. They were always threatening war. Maybe they’d finally gone too far.
“Must be at North Korea,” he said aloud.
“Yeah. Sure.” Ness put her face in her hands. “I want to throw up.”
“It’s okay,” he said, still in a daze. “They deserve it.”
Hank Burrell looked out from the projection room of the Cross Town Theater in Manhattan. A large crowd seethed below him: men, women, boys, and girls of all ages. Some had come in costume, some in casual clothes, some in suits. They must all be serious Tolkien fans, for they’d jumped at the opportunity to watch all three Lord of the Rings movies back to back...extended versions, of course.
The place had once brought in first run movies, but it turned out the profit margin was higher if they played classics or special promotions, like tonight.
The first movie was just at what Hank considered the climax, when Frodo was trying to go off alone and steadfast and loyal Sam wouldn’t let him. Most considered Frodo the hero, but Hank had always thought Sam had more courage, because he could have quit or gone home without shame a dozen times throughout the trip to Mount Doom.
Hank cursed under his breath when his phone beeped. He wanted to see the end of this movie, and besides, he had to get the next one ready. He didn’t have the newfangled digital setup of the big theaters. He had to change reels himself. There would also be a ten-minute intermission where the Tolkienites would mob the concession stand, and he would be expected to assist.
His breath caught as he saw the message. Sorry to tell you that Uncle Bob has died. Please come home.
He didn’t have an Uncle Bob. His heart beat heavily as he fumbled the phone back into his pocket, forgetting about the next movie or selling overpriced popcorn and soda to middle-aged dwarves.
As a rule, Hank didn’t pay much attention to the news. He found it overwhelming and depressing. If there was something he needed to know, someone would tell him. Fantasy was much more pleasant.
Today, though, reality was forcing itself upon him.
Hearing a series of gasps and cries, he looked below and saw that most of the Middle Earth fans were no longer watching the movie. They all had their smart phones out and were talking loudly to each other, a serious no-no in a movie theater, especially among these introverts.
Something very bad has happened, he thought. I wonder what? Maybe I don’t want to know. It doesn’t matter. Just do what you’re supposed to do. That’s all you have to think about. Just do the mission.
All alone, without even a trusty Sam. Off to Mount Doom to destroy the Ring of Power.
Hank made his way down the stairs into the lobby, where he had to dodge past a giant shaven-headed orc, two goblins, three child hobbits followed by a frazzled looking mom, a pack of aggressively drunk dwarves, loads of semi-beautiful women dressed as elves, an aging Gandalf, and what appeared to be a bridal party.
None of them appeared to be having a good time anymore.
Edging his way into the now almost-empty theater itself, Hank climbed up on the old stage, casting his shadow on the screen, which was showing the final scenes of the movie. Opening a door to the space behind, he stepped past old props and sets used to facilitate the occasional stage play or Rocky Horror midnight showing. At the very rear, behind heavy curtains, were the electrical panels. Nearly a whole wall of them. Sucking electricity at an alarming rate.
On the floor, in an old wooden crate, was the Device. The thing the drunk Texan had built a few days ago while being escorted by the man Hank called the Nazgul. The thin man with the killer’s eyes had made Hank sweat just being in the same room with him.
It had been a fine day when he’d departed.
But now Hank would have to do it. Something that might cause lots of damage. At the very least it would piss off every user of smart phones he knew. They would want someone to blame. Who would they blame except him?
“Why couldn’t my parents have retired to Florida like everyone else, instead of Texas?” he said.
Picking up the flathead screwdriver he’d left under the crate, Hank pried off the lid. He then hefted the headlamp flashlight the nice old Texan had left for him.
“You’re going to need this if the time comes,” Herschel had said. “Don’t want to be fumbling around in the dark or you’re likely to get yourself electrocuted.”
Hank put the lamp on his head, turned it on and adjusted it. He then opened all the electrical panels and walked down the line, throwing the heavy master control levers one at a time, in order, as he’d been briefed. Loud snaps and hums greeted each lever as it went from pointing at the sky to the ground. On the next-to last-lever, the cinema went dark throughout. He threw the last one by the light of the headlamp.
Returning to the wooden crate, Hank pulled out seven specially modified cables. The old Texan had helpfully labeled them so he would know where each went. The other end of each cable attached to a small thick box that looked like a giant power strip.
He plugged them in.
A green light on the device indicated it detected the necessary power. All he had to do now was flip that little switch. With a fraction of a pound of pressure it would engage this device. Hank had some idea what it was for, but he wasn’t sure anyone knew the true consequences.
“I sure wish it would fall to someone else,” he said and then froze. This was what Frodo had said, and of course there was no one else. Like Gandalf had told Frodo, the burden had fallen to him, and with it the destiny of the world.
He dithered for long minutes. In the end, though, he couldn’t go through with it. He was no freedom fighter. He was just a movie geek, a fanboy. He’d been caught up in the dream of an independent Texas, and he’d wanted to protect his Eden parents, so he’d gone along with this crazy scheme. But now, at the end of the line, he couldn’t do it. What would be the point of sending New York City back to the stone age?
A loud buzz startled him out of his fugue. “What? Oh, crap.” He pulled out his smart phone and froze as he saw the title of an email from his parents. Reading it twice, he staggered, putting his hand against the wall to keep himself from collapsing. “They nuked Austin,” he breathed.
Thank God Dad and Mom are on Padre Island, far away.
Suddenly his whole world shifted. What two minutes ago had seemed an insane act of terrorism now made perfect sense, as punishment for the crime of wiping out so many Texans. Texans who ate and drank, loved and made love, played music and football, who loved Lord of the Rings and Star Wars and Marvel superheroes with just as much passion as he did.
People who deserved to be avenged.
Hank put his thumb on the edge of the switch, closed his eyes, and pushed.
From the Cross Town Theater an electromagnetic pulse spread in all directions at the speed of light, much faster than safety cutouts could compensate. The airborne wave generated a surge of electricity in the power and telephone wires, which now acted like a giant antenna, sucking up every volt and amp.
All electrical systems hooked to the grid within a fifty-mile radius were instantly fried. Generators at the five main power plants that serviced New York City overloaded from the backflow. Parts melted and spinning turbines ruptured, wrecking the facilities and killing several, injuring dozens.
At the same time, the pulse caused everything with a microchip in it – all phones, laptops, modern automobiles, most trains and buses and more – to instantaneously cease to function.
At the New York City Hospital, Doctor Christopher Nurton was performing brain surgery on a nine-year-old boy. He’d just successfully removed the tumor that had resided the frontal lobe and was cauterizing a ruptured artery with a medical laser when everything went black.
Helplessly, without the life support machines, without even light, Nurton felt the child die beneath his hands.
Chief Air Traffic Controller Matthew Ulm had nine jumbo jets lined up on approach to JFK International Airport. Flight 386, transatlantic from Brussels, was about to land on runway two when the interior of the control tower went completely and suddenly dark.
Outside, all the runway lights winked out, and the airport became a vast sea of blackness as he blinked, trying to adjust his eyes. Against the moonlit sky Matthew could see the giant jumbo jet touching down without lights, making a perfect landing, but it continued to race down the runway at horrific speed. Without reverse thrusters or hydraulic brakes, it reached the end of the runway and entered the grassy verge. Its front landing gear snapped off and its nose slammed into the ground, plowing up soil for two hundred yards before coming to rest with its tail in the air.
Matthew turned to see Flight 229 out of Atlanta gliding in also, but without lights, navigation aids or computerized primary flight systems, it veered off its path and into the grassy median, where it turned to spin out of control, wings and tail breaking as it flipped and rolled. The remaining seven planes in his landing stick couldn’t be seen until they began crashing into the ground in the distance, bright gouts of superheated fire lighting the night sky.
From space, satellites captured the scene perfectly. All along the eastern seaboard of the United States, tendrils of bright ribbony lights burned, interconnected and constant since the introduction of electricity a century ago.
All except for one gaping black hole where the twenty million people of the New York metropolitan area lived.
Skull sat in his car on a Boston street and assembled the cell phone Miles Vergone had given him, watching as it shook hands with the network and missed calls filled up the queue.
The man must be having a meltdown, given everything that has happened.
He hesitated, but then hit the redial button. Everything inside him screamed to run, but he couldn’t do that. Not with what was at stake.
“It’s me,” said Skull as the line picked up.
“Why aren’t you answering your phone?” asked Vergone, nearly screaming.
“Poor signal. We don’t stay in the nicest parts of town.”
“Doesn’t matter. Not now. I’m transmitting your location to our Boston Field Office. Do not attempt to leave or you know what will happen. I’m flying there now.”
“Oh, I can’t wait,” Skull said, but the line had already gone dead.
He’s been tracking me. Knew I was in Boston and didn’t need my location for his thugs to come pick me up.
Within five minutes, a group of black SUVs and vans pulled up, lights flashing. Agents piled out of the vehicles and pointed guns at Skull.
“Out of the car! Hands where we can see them!” screamed an agent.
This is not good, thought Skull, climbing out of the car and raising his hands.
Two beefy agents threw him to the ground and handcuffed his hands behind his back. They searched him roughly, with a knee in his back and a few punches thrown in for good measure. Skull was panting with pain by the time they pulled him up and tossed him into the back of the van after pulling a cloth bag over his head. His butt had barely touched the metal bench before the van sped away.
Fifteen minutes later, they pulled him out of the van and took him up a short stairway and then down a dimly lit hallway. He could see the floor at his feet through the opening in the bag, but nothing else. Tossing him into an empty concrete room, the agents left, turning off the lights.
Skull sat on the floor, his back against the wall, and tried to count the seconds, but eventually lost track and admitted to himself that it didn’t really matter. The game would begin when it began.
He was dozing when the door slammed open and the lights came on. Several sets of feet walked in, dragging what turned out to be metal folding chairs and an old wooden table. Hands slipped under his armpits and lifted him off the ground to place him on one of the seats, and someone yanked the bag off his head.
Vergone stood across the room, taking off a shoulder bag and a jacket to place them carefully on the floor. The agents positioned the scarred and stained wooden table between them, setting up the other chairs.
“It’s okay,” Vergone told the agents. “Leave me the handcuff key. You can wait outside. Mister Denham and I are good friends.”
One of the agents slipped a key into Vergone’s outstretched hand and left with his partner.
“Feel free to take these off,” Skull said, twisting around so Vergone could see his hands in the small of his back.
“Let’s not get ahead of ourselves.” Vergone set the key down slowly on the table between them. “I can see you’ve been playing games with me.” He drew a pistol out of the holster at his hip and lay it beside the key.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Do you know what happened in New York last night?”
Skull nodded. “Yeah, it was all over the news.”
“Don’t call it my device. I’m following your instructions. I wouldn’t even be in this shit if you hadn’t blackmailed me into it.”
“As you can imagine, it was quite a surprise to me and my superiors. I expected at least a warning from you.”
“I didn’t know either. I told you before that neither Herschel nor I knew anything about when or how the contacts would get a detonation signal. Once he built the things and we left, it was completely out of our hands.”
“And I believed you,” said Vergone, leaning forward. “Which is why we put those contacts under electronic surveillance. The ones you told us about, anyway.”
“You probably wouldn’t get anything anyway, until they were given the signal,” said Skull.
“Here’s my problem. There was nothing on the lady you identified as the contact in New York. We arrested and interrogated her at great length and my experts believe that she knows nothing about any of this.”
Skull kept his silence.
“Imagine my surprise today after the Director ordered me to take down all the devices at the locations you gave us...and found nothing but confused citizens, now proven innocent.”
“I thought citizens were innocent until proven guilty, not vice-versa.”
Vergone leaned forward. “No more games, Mister Denham. You will give me the location of the other twenty-three devices starting with the one in Boston. You will tell me where to find Theodore Herschel. You will do all of these things or suffer the consequences.”
“Seems like a bit of a Mexican standoff to me,” Skull said with a faint smile. “You have three little girls. I have the entire eastern seaboard, from Florida to Massachusetts. Billions of dollars, thousands of lives, and a major embarrassment for the government. And you’d better believe the world media will have a field day with it, no matter what your tame news channels say.”
“You’re running out of time,” Vergone said. “What you don’t know is that right now, Special Agent Lisa Summers has drugged all three of the girls so that they will sleep for the next few hours. She has set up a secure video teleconference so you can watch as she kills little Samantha. Summers said that you and she made a sort of…connection during your visit.”
Skull glared hatred at Vergone so pure it felt like fire in his veins. Even with the agents watching, even with his hands in shackles, he knew he could kill this man before anyone had time to intervene. It might be worth dying here and now, knowing his enemy would be gone with him and a powerful blow would be struck against the evil strangling his beloved America.
But if he did, three children would also die…or if they were allowed to live, they would undoubtedly be indoctrinated, twisted, poisoned.
That might be a fate worse than death.
“You, and only you, can stop this,” said Vergone.
Skull looked away. “Herschel’s at the Brewer Inn out on Highway 20. That’s where you’ll find Boston’s device. It’s being built inside the electrical room beside the ice machine.”
Vergone speed dialed a number on his phone and relayed the information before hanging up and looking at Skull. “You better hope we catch them...for that little girl’s sake.” He then pulled out a laptop computer and began typing furiously.
“If you kill any one of them, I’ll clam up. You won’t get another word out of me.”
Vergone merely smiled.
He thinks he’s won, Skull thought. And he has, unless I can get the upper hand again. This is a game of poker, and scared money is dead money. Whoever is more afraid of the consequences loses.
Can I throw my nieces to their fates?
Soon, Vergone’s phone rang. “Tell me the good news,” he said with a smile already on his face.
The smile slowly faded and Vergone became pale, and then red. He looked at Skull with wide eyes and ended his call. “You son of a bitch. There’s no one there!” He screamed and threw his phone at the wall, where it shattered.
“I told you the truth. Someone else must have tipped them off or maybe your guys spooked them. Doesn’t mean it’s not too late to salvage the situation. I know where all the other devices are.”
“You’re right,” said Vergone breathing heavily. “It isn’t too late to salvage this situation, but I can see I have to teach you that I’m serious. Fortunately, there are three of those little girls.”
“Don’t do this.”
Vergone typed into the computer furiously before saying. “Lisa, you there?”
“Read you loud and clear, sir. Good picture,” came the female voice.
“Let’s do this,” Vergone said, spinning the laptop so Skull could watch. The screen showed the girls’ playroom except it appeared that the furniture and floor was covered in plastic. There was also an out-of-place gray metal folding chair in the middle of the floor facing the camera.
Summers walked heavily into the picture and set a sleeping Samantha in the chair. She tucked the little girl’s blanket around her to keep her from falling.
“You don’t have to do this, Lisa,” Skull pleaded. “I know you care for her.”
“I do,” the woman said, pulling a wicked knife from a nearby table. “Which is why I’m pissed as hell at you for making us do this. What kind of irresponsible uncle are you anyway?”
“If you do this,” Skull said slowly, menacingly, “wherever you run, I will find you and kill you, very slowly. If you’re really an Eden like you said, I can stretch it out for days, weeks maybe. Then I’ll kill anyone you ever even thought you cared about.”
“You’re assuming I care about anyone except these little girls.”
Skull had never been so frustrated in all his life. He nearly screamed, “What the fuck kind of psycho Eden are you anyway? Where’s your virtue effect?”
“Fortunately, I’m free of such limitations.” The woman picked up Samantha’s limp hand and waved it at the camera. “Bye-bye, Uncle Alan,” she said in an eerily good mimic of the little girl’s voice. She wound her left hand several times into the girl’s long blond hair, and then pulled her limp head back before placing the knife at the bottom of a closed eye.
“No!” screamed Skull, leaping up from the chair as the knife went in. Blood spurted, and then welled in a sticky mess as the eyeball came out on the tip of Lisa’s knife.
There came a thud from the computer speaker, and then a muddle of voices. The woman still held the knife with Samantha’s eyeball, but her head turned to focus off-camera.
“What’s going on there?” barked Vergone, racing around the table to look at the screen.
Two more thuds sounded, matched by thin bursts of blood and brain from the side of Lisa’s head. The knife fell, but her left hand was still wrapped in Samantha’s hair. As Lisa fell sideways, the comatose girl went over with her, and the camera ended up on its side, showing a blank floor.
Skull and Vergone could see three sets of boots. One walked over and picked up the little girl. “What a mess. Thank God she’s an Eden. She’ll get her eye back.”
“The other two are asleep in here,” said a voice from off camera.
“What the hell?” whispered Vergone.
Skull elbowed Vergone as hard as he could in the face, feeling the man’s cheekbone crack. He fell against the table, sending it and its contents flying, and Skull kicked Vergone savagely in the groin.
Skull scrabbled after the pistol that had skittered into a corner, hands still cuffed behind his back. Turning awkwardly, he fired three shots toward Vergone, who had managed to stand and open the door. All missed, and his nemesis slipped out, slamming the door behind him.
Shoving the pistol awkwardly into his pocket, Skull twisted his cuffed hands and shut the deadbolt lock on the steel door just in time. Someone from outside rattled the knob, and then kicked at it, but it held solidly. He heard yelling for a battering ram and shotguns.
The key had to be somewhere. Skull searched, finally finding it under the edge of Vergone’s discarded jacket. He squatted down and grasped the key, quickly unlocking his right wrist, and then snapping it again to the left, creating a nice set of steel bracelets before dropping the key into his pants pocket.
The yelling died down and now Skull heard whispering outside the room.
Probably getting ready to bust in, thought Skull. They’ll come charging in here shooting, with nowhere for me to go.
Checking the pistol, Skull saw he had twelve rounds left. He grabbed the fallen laptop and shoved it into Vergone’s bag, along with the remnants of the man’s broken cell phone, and then slung it over his shoulder.
He could now hear a soft counting outside.
They’re stacked up. Getting ready to clear this room. There wasn’t enough time to get a tactical team in here, so those guys out there are ordinary agents, probably doing this for the first time. Have to surprise them, throw them off their game plan. They won’t be used to killing the way I am.
Skull strode to the door, threw the deadbolt and yanked the door open, lifting his pistol immediately.
The foremost agent stood with a battering ram in his hands, a startled look on his face.
Skull shot him in the head at point-blank range and immediately shifted his aim to the next, and then the next. It was like shooting plastic ducks at a target range, one-two-three-four-five. As another agent came flying around the corner behind them, evidently drawn by the gunfire, Skull shot him in the torso, and then stepped forward to finish him off with one in the forehead.
Listening in the sudden silence, Skull didn’t hear any other agents coming, but that proved nothing. His ears were ringing from the shots in the enclosed space. He would love to find Vergone, but the agent-in-charge was either gone or barricaded somewhere, waiting for reinforcements.
Survival was always the top priority. Skull knew he needed to run.
Rifling through the dead agents’ pockets and holsters, Skull dumped pistols, ammo, wallets, and radios into Vergone’s bag, and then raced down the hall toward the door he’d entered. Peeking out slowly, he found no one waiting for him.
Someone might try to ambush him, but Skull realized he didn’t have time to be careful. As a sniper, he knew the hardest target to hit was the one that was moving laterally and erratically, so he raced through the door toward the nearest alleyway. A single shout came from behind him, but no gunfire.
Skull didn’t stop running until he was at the edge of the industrial area he found himself in, a multi-block section of warehouses. As he heard ordinary street traffic and the voices of pedestrians, he slowed to a walk, reloaded the pistol, and placed it in the belt at the back of his pants.
Emerging on a street corner, Skull stood and caught his breath next to what were likely a street prostitute and a thin, unhealthy-looking drug dealer.
“You need somethin’?” the man asked.
“Lookin’ for a date, honey?” The hooker said immediately after.
Skull smiled. “I’m good, thanks.” Before either could answer, Skull walked across the street toward a brightly lit convenience store, dodging several cars.
Striding in, he saw a group of customers and the salesgirl gathered around the television behind the counter, engrossed in the special news report.
An attractive brunette broadcaster stood in front of the White House. “...just announced that the so-called Republic of Texas has accepted the President’s demand for an immediate and unconditional surrender after a second demonstration nuclear strike, this one near Amarillo. We at CBN News remind you that these explosions were targeted on thinly populated areas, and were intended to bring a peaceful resolution to this tragic rebellion. The President regrets being forced to take this action, saying, ‘the leaders of the Texas rebellion bear the entire blame for this unfortunate tragedy.’ In other news…”
“Liars,” whispered Skull. Unfiltered internet news and social media had already told about the strike that wiped out Austin, but as long as the U.S. channels kept repeating the party line, the sheep would begin to believe it, the “Big Lie” of Hitler’s “Mein Kampf,” a lie “so colossal no one would believe that someone could have the audacity to distort the truth so infamously.”
Skull walked back outside and looked over the cars in the lot, choosing the oldest one he could find, a large Chevy very similar to one Skull could remember his family owning when he was a young boy, a car without any microchips in it. If the Boston device went off and fried all electronics, Skull wanted a vehicle that would still run.
Forcing the edge of the window open using the barrel of his pistol, he looked around to see if anyone watched. Though at least five people eyed him from various positions up and down the street, no one seemed to care in this run-down, high-crime area. Skull tossed his bag onto the passenger seat and then bent under the steering column to quickly hotwire the ignition.
Within a minute, the engine was rumbling. Older cars were always the easiest. Skull pulled out of the parking lot and an older man came running out of the convenience store, screaming at him to stop. He ignored the distraction and drove away as energetic and inventive curses followed him.
He’d ditch the car soon and get another, as the owner was probably already calling the police to report the theft. For now, though, he’d drive and hope. He needed to get some distance from Vergone’s people.
Skull looked at the bag beside him containing the laptop and cell phone remnants. Clearly, he had a lot of work to do.
Prudence Layfield sat in the small sunlit library at Camp David. The President, Paul Milligan, the Secretary of Defense and the Secretary of State were all there. They had recently arrived and sipped coffee nervously.
Milligan cleared his throat. “Okay, the Texas delegation will arrive here via helicopter in approximately fifteen minutes.”
“Who’s the senior person?” asked the President.
“General Gerald McAllister,” answered Milligan. “Everyone above him was killed in Austin.”
“He knows he’ll be arrested after he signs the terms of surrender, correct?” asked Layfield.
Milligan nodded. “He does.”
“They’re getting off easy. Everyone else getting a pardon?” said Layfield.
Mason grunted. “After a public oath of loyalty to the United States. We have other things to worry about besides punishing the Texans.”
“Like Alaska,” said George Hood.
“And Mexico,” replied Layfield.
“Mexico?” asked the President.
Layfield looked at them quizzically. “Are we supposed to simply forget what happened with our forces getting butchered along the Rio Grande? They refused to help, even with sixteen divisions just sitting a few miles away! If they had answered our calls to join the invasion, then other, more drastic measures might not have been necessary.”
At the oblique mention of nuclear weapons, the atmosphere turned awkward once more. Only the hour before, they had received a briefing on the damage to Austin and Amarillo. Not only was the direct damage devastating, but the fallout would cause health problems for years to come.
“Besides,” continued Layfield, sipping her coffee, “we’ve gotten reports that the Mexicans also assisted the Free Communities. At the very least, they turned a blind eye to some of their actions. We can’t ignore that.”
“What do you propose?” asked Hood.
“We look at options. Political, economic, even military. Decide what objectives are critical for this nation, and then take action.”
“That sounds...reasonable,” said the President. “As long as we aren’t talking about anything drastic.”
“Sir,” said Layfield, “I know you feel uncomfortable with your decision to use nuclear weapons against the rebels, but it was the right call. It saved countless lives and helped preserve our union. I’m not sure any of us would have had the courage to do what you did, and we’re grateful for your resolve, but that was an extreme case.”
The President waved a vague hand. “That’s what my advisers said about Los Angeles and West Virginia. That we’d never have to do anything like that again.”
“Circumstances change. We can only do our best.” Layfield intentionally kept her tone reasonable. This wasn’t the time to crush these men’s egos with her political power. It was a time to be magnanimous in victory. This lame-duck President was a weak man who could be manipulated. Two more years and he would be gone, with a Unionist in power. Until then, they were right in their own way. Stability, rebuilding and replenishment was the order of the day.
“We’ll need a loyal and stable Texas for any operations against Mexico,” said Mason, looking at Layfield. “There can’t be harsh punishments or we won’t be able to bring them back into the fold.”
She forced her lips to smile. “Of course. As much as I would like to use these traitors as an example to deter any others, I recognize the need to focus on the bigger picture.”
“Even with the Edens?” asked Milligan.
Layfield stiffened slightly. “Even with the Edens. Perhaps we will be better off without them. Our detainment camps are overflowing anyway, and are a constant drain on resources…but we’re only talking about Texas Edens, right?”
“Correct,” said Hood. “Over a million of them. They’ll renounce their U.S. citizenship and settle elsewhere. Let someone else deal with them. Mexico, perhaps. Serves them right.”
Layfield shrugged melodramatically. “Good riddance to them.”
The sound of approaching helicopter blades caused them to look out the window.
“Looks like time, Mister President,” said Milligan.
They rose and walked down the narrow wood-paneled hallway toward the garden near the east wing. In the center stood a table with folders containing the surrender decree and other documents, along with ceremonial pens. A host of reporter with their camera personnel crowded around to document the historic occasion.
Several military police stood off to the side, awaiting their own special task.
After the surrender ceremony, the media would photograph and film the arrest of General McAllister. His subsequent speedy trial and execution for treason was a foregone conclusion. Layfield had already seen to it.
All the rest was mere formality and ceremony.
Just like the true position of power within the United States of America now, Layfield thought. A faint smile stole over her face as a vision came to mind, of a different ceremony and a different oath, one that she would take as the next President of the United States.
Skull sat and fidgeted while he waited for the designated time to speak to Cassandra on the secure video feed. Evidently she doesn’t sit around waiting for me to call, he thought.
It had taken him forty-eight harrowing hours to get out of the United States, with no idea what happened to his nieces and no way to find out. All he knew for sure was that psycho Lisa was dead. The rest was a matter of tissue-thin hope.
He now sat in a five-star hotel room in Santiago, Chile. The price was exorbitant, but he could afford it, even though he hadn’t collected the second half of his payment from Texas. That was one reason he always asked for half up front.
His laptop beeped and the video chat screen showed a pretty blonde face with a serious expression. “Hello, Alan,” Cassandra said.
“Was that you?” he asked. “Do you have them?”
She didn’t need to ask what he meant. “Yes, that was my people. The girls are safe.”
Skull let out a breath. He hadn’t realized how much he’d feared the worst until now. An unwelcome feeling of gratitude, of owing Cassandra something, washed over him, and it morphed into anger. “Why the hell did you get into my business? You could have gotten them killed. Hell, you could have gotten me killed. You should have told me you were involved.”
“Like you told me you were a double agent with the FBI?”
“That wasn’t by choice.”
“I know that, but you still should have told me. I could have helped.”
“I didn’t ask for your help.”
Cassandra rolled her eyes. “Same old Skull. The lone wolf. God forbid you ever admit you need anyone else.”
“I presume you have Herschel?”
Cassandra nodded. “He’s safe. Quite a character.”
“Keep an eye on him. I think he’s worried about his sons.”
Her face clouded. “They didn’t make it. Both were in Austin when the warheads fell. The Texans thought it would be the safest place.”
“Damn,” said Skull. The old man had grated on his nerves, but he didn’t deserve to lose his kids. Nobody did.
Bastards. Vergone now sat at the top of his shit list.
“Herschel will be looked after,” Cassandra finally said. “We’re giving him a large budget and a state-of-the-art laboratory.”
“Vengeance and grief are wonderful motivators.”
“You’re living proof of that, Alan.”
Skull showed his teeth. “You’d be fools not to use him. I should probably warn you, though; best set aside a significant portion of the FC budget for bourbon and Doritos.”
“We’ve noticed,” she said with a smile.
Skull looked away and took a breath. “I supposed I should thank you for saving my nieces.” He looked back to meet her gaze. “I sincerely appreciate it and know I owe you one.”
Cassandra’s face smoothed, never a good sign. It meant something bad was coming, Skull had come to realize. “Alan, there’s something I need to tell you and I’m afraid it’s not good.”
“I thought you said they were okay.”
Cassandra nodded. “All three girls are fine, but...they’re not your nieces.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean they are Eden orphans. Innocents Vergone dredged up somewhere, but no relation to you. We did the DNA testing just to be sure.”
“So it was all a lie?” Skull felt his anger rise. He’d been manipulated, played for a fool!
“No,” she said softly. “It wasn’t all a lie.”
“Alan, I don’t want you to do anything rash. You know I care about you.”
“Enough bullshit, Cassie. Treat me like a goddamn adult and tell me, or I’m cutting the connection.”
Cassandra sighed heavily. “Those girls do look remarkably like your real nieces.”
“Yes. The background story was true, but Vergone didn’t know for sure how well you knew your extended family. He’d been able to gather that it wasn’t close, but couldn’t gamble that you hadn’t seen photos.”
Skull clutched his chair’s armrests, fingers digging into the leather. “So where are my real nieces?”
“By the time Vergone saw an opportunity to use you to get inside the Texas rebellion, they were already in an experimentation camp.”
“Where are they now?”
“Their parents had already died and the girls were in bad shape. They tried to nurse them back to health, but there are limits even for the Plague. They were too far gone.”
“So, they were already dead before Vergone even brought me in?”
“It appears so.”
“How did they die?”
“No,” she said softly. “You don’t want that. It can’t possibly matter now.”
“Cassie,” said Skull firmly. “Tell me. I deserve to know how my nieces died.”
She sighed. “If you want the details you can read the reports. Experimentation camp says enough.”
“How do you know all this?”
“One of Spooky’s hit teams wiped out the facility about three months ago and brought back their hard drives. When I had a team of analysts run detailed searches later, that’s what they found.”
Skull’s vision had become blurry and the room felt like it was tilting. Cassandra said something about tragic losses and not taking vengeance personally, but the words didn’t penetrate his consciousness. “Thank you, Cassie,” Skull finally said.
“Alan, don’t you dare—“
He cut the connection and closed the laptop computer.
Skull sat still and silent for a very long time. Finally, he looked over at the hotel desk where Vergone’s laptop sat. Beside it was a phone that now contained the flash drive and sim card of Vergone’s damaged device, a product of a stack of money paid to a Chilean freelance electronics wizard. Both machines yielded a wealth of valuable information about the FBI “psycho squad,” as Skull had taken to calling them in his head.
“Miles Vergone,” he said softly, seeing the man’s face in his head. Skull realized it wasn’t just about that one man, though. A host of demons cloaked in human skin walked secretly among them.
Not merely people like himself, who didn’t wish to be Edens, limited by the virtue effect. No, now he’d encountered Edens that didn’t act like Edens…or at least, not like nearly all of them. Some of them were missing the gene for conscience, it seemed, and no amount of enhancement would make them into anything but psychopaths, like Lisa.
Like others he had met from time to time?
Cassandra was right. It was not about payback...at least not totally.
Some people simply couldn’t be allowed to live.
Stark photographs spread across Daniel Markis’ desk, some satellite images, others from near ground zero taken by rescuers in radiation suits. Still others showed hospital tents and overflowing medical facilities.
Scenes of horror. Nightmares. Piles of vaporized ash. People with their skin slowly falling off of them while their insides melted. Edens were not immune, either, often dying more horrible deaths than most as the Plague fought a losing battle to heal while their bodies so plainly knew that death was inevitable.
Overwhelming death. Destruction. Despair. And...guilt.
Blasted landscapes filled with nothing but memories and echoes.
The numbers were worse even than the death toll from a single warhead in Los Angeles a year ago. Six bombs and nearly one and a half million dead for Austin and Amarillo. Twice that number to die within the next month. Life expectancy in the fallout zones expected to drop by at least fifteen years for the next century.
And that was just the human cost.
Livestock had fallen in vast fields of death, rotting in the Texas winter, not cold enough to retard decomposition. Fertile fields became poisonous as the soil filled with heavy radioactive particles. Isotopes drained into rivers and streams, poisoning underground water supplies for hundreds of miles. A radioactive cloud that sickened millions throughout the Caribbean and even West Africa.
Horror upon horror.
All his fault. He felt too ashamed to even ask God to forgive him.
His office door opened, and then shut.
“Go away,” said Markis without even looking up.
“What are you doing?” asked Spooky.
“Not now, Tran.”
Spooky held up a piece of paper. “Resignation? This is not a solution. It solves nothing. Fortunately for all of us, I intercepted it.”
Markis turned on him angrily. “I told Bernice to distribute that throughout the FC!”
“I was able to…convince her to hold off until I spoke with you.”
Markis looked narrowly at Spooky and wondered what leverage he’d exerted on his secretary. Bernice was normally a bulldog when she had her orders. Probably Spooky’d used some of that roguish charm he seemed to be able to turn on and off like a light switch. Or maybe he’d simply snatched the hardcopy from her on the way in.
That raised the interesting question of how he knew about it in the first place.
“Tran, this is none of your concern. I would appreciate it if you would respect my wishes and stay out of this. It’s my decision and I need some time.”
“There are so many inaccuracies in that statement, I can’t even begin to help you.”
“I don’t need your help. I need to be left alone.”
Spooky shook his head. “Left alone? Perhaps. We all need a bit of time to grieve, but not now. As for the resignation, that’s not going to happen. I can’t let it happen. You’re too important for me to let you fall apart from guilt.”
“Don’t you see?” Markis snarled at him. “Don’t you get it? You were right. It was a lost cause. I should have stayed out of it and maybe things wouldn’t have gone far enough that this,” he slapped his hands down on the pictures, “would have happened. I just had to get involved. I just had to try and fix things. This is on me.”
Spooky was silent for a moment. “Yes. It is. And on me. And on Cassandra. And on the Unionists. And on a whole host of others.”
“Don’t do that,” said Markis. “Don’t devalue what I’m saying.”
“I’m not devaluing it, I’m agreeing with it. You’re responsible, but not on your own. You’re not that powerful or all knowing. You’re the Chairman, and a valuable symbol, but you’re not a god, Daniel Markis. Nor will I allow you to give up and be a martyr. We need a leader, not a quitter.”
Markis punched the top of his desk with his fist. “Get out of here. Leave me alone.”
“Responsibility isn’t the same thing as fault. People with malice in their hearts did this with eyes wide open. They knew what they were doing and now they look at these same photographs not with agony and shame, but with pride in their accomplishments. Are we going to quit and let them win?”
Markis breathed heavily, staring at Spooky, who continued to speak.
“We’re not done and this isn’t over. We have work to do. There are millions of Eden refugees coming our way via Texas. They’ll be looking to us to find them new homes. Many are infecting others before they leave, deliberately or voluntarily. If you don’t do your job, if you don’t find them homes, they will have fled from Texas for nothing. Worse yet, we will have failed them.”
Markis breathed deeply before screaming at the top of his lungs and sweeping the pictures from his desk, taking the landline and his monitor with them.
“I’ll take that as a good sign,” said Spooky.
Markis only glared.
“You’re a good man, Daniel,” Spooky said. “Perhaps the best man I’ve ever known, but you believe everything is within your power to fix and therefore that everything is your fault. Remember you felt this exact same way when they nuked Los Angeles.”
“Which means I should have seen it coming. That I was wrong then, and wrong now.”
“So? We should just surrender because we face an enemy who will not hesitate to murder millions of innocents?”
“No. No we can’t.”
Spooky bent down to begin sweeping the pictures into a pile. “This will be a long war that we have to win. It may take five years, or fifty. And trust me...there will be a reckoning for those responsible.”
“But that comes later,” said Spooky, standing and shoving the stack of photographs under one slim arm. “Right now, you’re going to get on that phone and do what you do best. Be the consummate statesman and negotiator. Call the leaders of Free Communities nations and find these people homes, the quicker the better.” Spooky turned to leave.
“Tran?” Markis said.
Spooky stopped. “Yes?”
“Thank you. For your strength. For your clarity.”
Nodding, Spooky left, pulling the door shut. As he walked by Markis’ secretary he tossed the pile of photographs on her desk. “Shred these.”
Spooky smiled and hummed a peppy tune. Everything was back on track, and this whole Texas affair hadn’t been a total loss. True, the rebellion had been crushed much faster than he’d hoped, but the Unionists had sown for themselves a thick crop of horror, a harvest that would harden the world’s resolve and slowly turn it against them.
He could work with that.
Miles Vergone rode the elevator to his small but comfortable Washington, D.C. apartment. You didn’t work for the government in order to become rich, he’d realized years ago. You did it for the power.
All of that had nearly been lost. Even though he’d covered up the Denham escape and the fiasco at the safe house, plenty of jealous peers within the FBI had been eager for him to take the fall for New York City and the failure to recover the other EMP devices. Those still waited, ticking time bombs, for their enemies to use them as tools of blackmail or economic damage.
Fortunately, Vergone had been able to throw several of his subordinates and at least one of his rivals under the proverbial bus. He’d escaped with a relatively light reprimand.
All I want now is a drink, he thought. His broken cheekbone, hastily treated and set, ached through a haze of painkillers.
Vergone unlocked his door before walking into his apartment. Yes, it was cramped, but it had a fabulous view of the Mall, and he could walk to work.
Closing and locking his door, he turned on the light.
A thin man with the face of death stood in the corner pointing a suppressed pistol at him.
“Don’t move,” said Skull softly, his gloved hands rock-steady.
“Let’s just take it easy here.”
“Lay your pistol and phone on the counter and step away from them.”
Vergone did as he was told, slowly and carefully. He could see the tension in Skull’s face and trigger finger.
“Now, take off your jacket and sit down.”
Vergone did as he was told. “Coming here was a bad idea.”
“No, what you did to my family at the experimentation camp was a bad idea. A monumentally, historically, incredibly bad idea.”
“So, you found out. Technically, that wasn’t me,” said Vergone. “As a matter of fact, I did what I could to save them once I figured out who they were.”
“To use as leverage against me.”
“Yes...but I still tried to save them, and I had nothing to do with their deaths.”
“I’m not sure I care about technicalities.” Skull shot the agent in the leg.
Vergone screamed and held his thigh with both hands.
“I told you not to yell. Good thing you have one of these nice soundproof apartments. Don’t want the noise of riots and protests disturbing your sleep, after all.”
“You just shot me, you maniac. You shot a federal agent.”
“I know,” said Skull. “Felt good.”
“You’re not going to get away with this. We’ll find you.”
Skull shook his head. “You think that’s a deterrent? To me?”
“There’s a way out of this,” said Vergone. “We can make a deal.”
“There you go,” said Skull with a smile. “Try to talk the gunman down. Convince him he hasn’t crossed a line that he can’t retreat from. Oh, look, your leg’s starting to heal anyway.”
“That’s what the Eden Plague does.”
“I’m not an Eden.”
“You are now. I shot you with a SAM round, courtesy of the Free Communities research laboratories. You must have heard of them. One hit and you’re infected.”
“Oh my GOD.”
“I doubt He listens to a man like you, Vergone.”
“Why are you doing this?”
“Information. That psychopathic nanny you had watching the girls, Lisa. She was really going to murder that girl. Yet she was an Eden. I know the signs.”
“We all follow orders.”
“No, she wasn’t doing it regretfully, or setting up to fake it. I think she was going to enjoy it.”
Skull indicated a bottle of Laphroaig brand single-malt Scotch on a side table, surrounded by several highball glasses. “Would you like a drink? Kind of a consolation prize for getting shot.”
“Mind if I have one? Looks like pretty good stuff.”
The agent waved a bloody hand in Skull’s direction. “Be my guest.”
Skull poured generous portions into two crystal glasses and handed one to Vergone. Skull raised his in the agent’s direction. “Cheers.” He took a sip. Rolling it around in his mouth, he nodded. “Damn, that is pretty good. So, back to the topic at hand. How is it that Lisa wasn’t affected by the virtue effect? Have you found a way to beat it? Some drug or treatment?”
“I wish we had, but it’s random. Genetic. I’m told the doctors think it’s a mutation that keeps the virus from damaging the frontal lobe like it does in most of those infected.”
Skull checked back a laugh. “Brain damage is propaganda to scare the masses. Does Daniel Markis seem brain damaged?”
“Maybe he’s one of these lucky ones.”
“You really are brainwashed, aren’t you?”
Vergone merely shook his head in disbelief. “I’d say the same about you.”
Skull growled, “How many of these people would you say are working for the U.S. government.”
“More than you know,” said Vergone with a smile, taking another sip of his drink.
“That’s why I was asking the question: so you can tell me. You sure you’re not brain damaged?”
“I guess I will be soon,” Vergone said. “But I really don’t feel that different yet.”
“Start talking. Tell me about these special Edens.”
“You don’t really think I’m going to give you that information, do you?”
“I don’t think you’re going to give me that information willingly. How much pain can you tolerate?”
“Now that I’m an Eden, quite a bit more, I guess.”
“Unfortunately for you, that’s not how it works. Your senses become sharper, not duller…including your sense of pain.” Skull shot Vergone again, this time in the kneecap.
Vergone screamed longer this time.
Skull waited until the man calmed down, and then held up a large photograph. “This is your mother and father, who live in Tacoma, Washington. They were loving parents who worked hard to put you through school and sacrificed all their lives to get you what you needed. You owe them a great deal.”
Vergone looked at the now-blank space on the wall where two framed pictures had recently hung, and then back at Skull.
“This is your little sister, her husband, their two little boys, and their dog Samson. They live in Boise, Idaho. You don’t see her often, but hardly a week goes by that you don’t call or email them.”
“How the hell do you know all that?”
“I have my sources. You’ve consistently underestimated me, Miles.”
“What do you want?”
“What I keep asking you for. Tell me everything you know about your psychotic Edens and I won’t hunt down these innocents, who have done nothing wrong except have the misfortune of being related to you.”
“You wouldn’t do it,” Vergone said hesitantly.
“Didn’t you say you read my psych profile? Can you be sure? Besides, it’ll be our little secret that you talked. I won’t tell anyone if you won’t.”
“You’re going to let me live?”
“I’m going to be merciful and play the odds. It’s unlikely you’ll be one of these, these psychos, so making you an Eden is better than killing you. You’ll either stay in your job and be a much better influence on the Bureau, or you’ll have to flee. Either way, I win.”
Vergone took a long slow sip. “Okay, I’ll tell you. Every Eden detention camp has a testing center. They identify those Edens who are not brain damaged and pull them out to be used by the government.”
“Primarily as infiltrators. Edens think if someone is a fellow Eden, they can be completely trusted. Some infected federal agents were allowed to return to their jobs and join a special unit. My unit.”
“Where have they infiltrated? Into the FC government? Are any close to Daniel Markis?”
“Probably, but I don’t know for sure,” said Vergone. “That’s the CIA’s area.”
Skull thought about the implications of this for a moment.
Vergone smiled. “Thinking about your FC Eden friends, aren’t you? Wondering how many of them have a spy working near them, perhaps even sharing a bed with them. It’s a disturbing thought, isn’t it? A terrible thing not to know who to trust.”
“Give me a name,” said Skull, pointing his pistol at Vergone for emphasis. “Someone in the CIA who can tell me more about the infiltrators.”
Vergone shook his head. “I don’t have that information. You know how the Bureau and the Agency hate each other. Besides, why threaten me? You already said you’ll leave me in place and let the virus do its work.”
“Guess I lied.”
Vergone’s eyes widened. He suddenly threw his empty highball glass at Skull’s head and threw himself toward his weapon. Before he could reach it, Skull shot him five times in the torso, and then once more in the head to ensure not even the Eden Plague could save him.
Staring down at the man, Skull breathed deeply. After reloading and holstering his pistol, he walked over toward the window and looked out on the Washington Monument, lit by spotlights. He slowly poured himself another glass of the Laphroaig before he began tossing the man’s apartment, looking for information that could be of use to him.
Skull recognized that he was good at many things, but he was only great at a few. He felt a sense of focus and eagerness, knowing the way ahead. His purpose for being was clear. A purpose squarely within his skill set’s sweet spot. Killing these special Edens. These psychos, he called them to himself.
It reminded him of a TV series he’d seen once, about a sinister serial killer that only murdered other killers. A man with a code…a code like Skull had now found, after floundering for the last couple of years.
Skull took a break from searching the man’s apartment, putting on some light jazz from Vergone’s impressive collection of vintage vinyl. He also poured himself another Scotch. He couldn’t get over how good it tasted.
Lifting the glass in a toast toward the dead body of Vergone, Skull laughed before taking a slow, savory sip.
Jill Repeth looked over at Keith as they lounged on a Cancun beach, fruity drinks in their hands. Waiters bustled to and fro, serving the tourists’ every whim. With tourism down all over, the staff seemed to be working even harder.
“We failed after all,” she said. “And now we’re sitting on a beach while Texas is occupied.”
Keith shrugged philosophically. “You didn’t fail. You completed your mission. The nuke was from an ICBM. At least they couldn’t cover it up, or blame it on the FC.”
“Still feels wrong.”
“The way the world is, some shit’s always going to be going down somewhere. We can’t sit and agonize over it all the time. You deserve this, and you know why.”
“I do? Why?”
“Because soon enough you'll be back in the middle of the fight. Every soldier’s gotta have some R&R.”
“I'm not a soldier, I'm a Marine.”
“Not anymore you're not. You’re a commando, or something like that.”
Their conversation lapse for several long minutes as they stared at the perversely idyllic ocean waves, clouds drifting above.
“What’s your last name, anyway?” Jill asked.
Keith snorted. “Wow. Progress, Reap.”
“We agreed no handles on vacation.”
“What’s wrong with just ‘Keith’?”
Jill rolled up on an elbow and placed a hand on his tattooed chest. “Tell me or I hurt you,” she said with a mock scowl.
“That’s the Jill I know.”
Keith sighed. “I hate it.”
“Tell me, dammit.”
“Kuntz.” He pronounced it Coonts.
“What’s wrong with that?”
“Makes me sound like a pussy. You have no idea how much shit I took in school from the other kids. I thought about changing it, but once I got convicted of my first felony, no judge would sign off on it.”
Jill laughed, and then leaned over to put her head on his shoulder. “I’m used to funny names. And we’re both Edens. We have lots of time to change our names when things calm down.”
“If they ever do. If we live to see it. If –”
“Shut up.” She kissed him, and he kissed her back. “Enjoy today. Tomorrow may never come.”
Keith ran his hand through Jill’s short brown hair. “Repeth seems like a name I could get used to.”
“Better than Kuntz.”
“Got that right. How do we make it happen?”
Jill stared at him, and then disengaged, sitting up. “Oh, boy. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves.”
“What’d I say?”
She turned away to lie back down on her lounge chair. “I don’t like being pushed.”
“I didn’t realize that’s what I was doing.”
“Guys never do.”
This time it was Keith’s turn to sigh. “Forget I said anything.”
“Okay then.” He reached across to take her hand.
After a moment, she wrapped her fingers into his.
Maybe not Mister Right, but today, I'll settle for Mister Right Now.
The End of Apocalypse Austin.
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Continue reading below for a sample from the next book, The Demon Plagues.
THE DEMON PLAGUES
Infection Year Ten
Alan “Skull” Denham put his eye to the sight of his venerable Barrett sniper rifle. Mexico City sprawled smoggy as ever; he could just barely see his target area. The fascist United Governments of North America hadn’t done any better than the old Mexican regime had in cleaning the place up. Annexation of Mexico and Canada by the former U.S. had proven to be the proverbial anaconda swallowing the buffalo; the process seemed inevitable, but very, very slow.
Skull was indigestion.
The cold logic of insurgency dictated that he kill as many northerners as possible and spare the locals, sowing distrust between Latinos and gringos. When he did, government cracked down, locals protested and rioted and bombed.
Skull loved it.
This target was special: a Security Service Psycho officer, one of the tiny percentage of infected humanity that the Plague turned evil…or at least narcissistic. Most people considered the two the same.
Like many low-level Psychos in the Unionist-Party-dominated UG, this one led an SS death squad, searching out the UGNA’s enemies, criminal or political, real or imagined.
Crosshairs drifted downward to rest on the norteamericano. Skull inhaled, then let his breath out most of the way and paused naturally. His finger gently squeezed the trigger, surprising him with the sharp report. All well-aimed shots were unanticipated; that was a secret of the sniper, especially for shots like this at over eight hundred meters.
He didn’t have to see the Psycho fall, didn’t have to observe his head explode like a ripe melon. Zen-like, as soon as the bullet left the barrel he had felt the shot was good. Skull was already moving from his position before the first sirens wailed and the SS airmobile reaction team spun into the air.
He slid the weapon into the beat-up guitar case, barely large enough to contain the gun. A sombrero settled onto his head, completing his mariachi costume. With his dark eyes and deeply tanned face wrinkled from a lifetime of outdoor exposure, he became just another local musician heading to a concert. His Apache grandfather had bequeathed him the ability to tan darker than any ordinary white man, and he blended in among the South and Central Americans with ease. Down the stairs, off the roof of the building and into the slums, in two minutes he had disappeared among the bars and cantinas and squalid apartments.
Helicopters pummeled the air overhead, too late. The crowds on the dirty streets hid him, one among many, as he made his way to his dwelling.
In his tiny rented room he searched his own face, dark eyes like pits in the cracked mirror. Over fifty now, he was resigned to the aging as long as he could keep the hate alive. He nursed it like a beloved child; the killing gave his life meaning. Perhaps someday the fear of age and infirmity would tempt him to accept the emasculating Eden Plague virus that had upended his world.
But not today. Today he had filled his cup of death. Today he was whole.
Water on his face, on his hands. In the fading light coming through the cheap curtains it turned to blood, but he ignored the sight by long practice. He reached for a bottle of mescal. “Arriba, abajo, al centro y pa ´dentro,” he murmured, and then drank a slug from the neck. The traditional toast of “up, down, center and in” seemed to make the smoky liquor taste better.
Opening the guitar case, he gently removed his exquisite rifle. Before he stripped it down and cleaned it, he took out a knife and made a thin hash mark at the end of the row on the stock.
His fingertips touched the four hundred and fifty-five tiny indentations, one for each kill with the weapon. The first ninety-six had been the enemies of his country, back when he had a country, back when the United States was something to believe in. He’d killed in Somalia, Iraq, Yemen, Afghanistan and countless other places.
The rest of the marks…those were personal. Payback for his old commander Zeke, payback for hacker Vinny, payback for the innocents in the death camps and for the other millions murdered by the chickenshit jackbooted thugs of the Unionist Party and the United Governments, those that had corrupted his flag, stole his Constitution, and murdered all he held sacred.
Who needs sex, he thought, when killing is so much more satisfying.
Closing the knife, he began to lovingly service his weapon.
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