"Heads up, Bull," Skunkboy whispered into his comms. "They're back."
Agent Bullfrog of Assessment Team 735 "Sparkplug" lifted his head to look through his binoculars at the Chaos Insurgency camp below. Team Sparkplug had been camped out on the ridge overlooking the Insurgency facility for the past week. He was itchy, tired, cramped, and stank to high heaven. He was pretty sure that the inside of his greysuit could be considered a biohazard area at this point.
The most frustrating part of it, he decided, was that nothing was happening. In the past week, the Insurgency had done exactly jack shit. They had trained a few new soldiers, yes, and had done a lot of running through obstacle courses and firing guns and blowing up IEDs, but nothing that he hadn't seen in a dozen third-world training camps over the past few decades. As odd as it might sound to an outsider, this mission deep behind enemy lines was… boring.
"That's a really fancy car," Bullfrog murmured. "Are those chrome-plated alloy wheels?"
"Spinners." Skunkboy grimaced. "Ten thousand fucking bucks a pop. Shit, that guy's got more bling on his wheels than I'll ever make in a year."
"Classy," Bullfrog agreed. He raised an eyebrow at a flurry of activity down below, and let out a low, surprised whistle. "Skunkboy. Look at that."
"Fuck," Skunkboy whispered. "Yeah, that looks serious. Think we should call it in?"
"I'll do it."
"Tell me what I need to know."
Assistant Director Tariq Ahmed Khalid, head of PHYSICS Division's Kabul branch, sat at the head of the rosewood-inlaid conference table, tapping the end of his fountain pen against his thigh, his stern Semitic countenance frozen in a perpetual frown. On the broad screen before him, a satellite image displayed approximately ten square miles of the Hindu Kush: steep, cafe-au-lait mountains capped with snow, leading to a broad, verdant plain. And, in the center, a small, but distinctive terrorist training camp in a hidden defile.
The young adjutant at the laptop computer furiously tapped away at his keyboard for a few moments, before finally bringing up a different image of the training camp, overlaying it over the satellite view. "All right, sir," he said, nervously. "Here it is. We've known about this Chaos Insurgency facility for the past three weeks. One week ago, we managed to get a PHYSICS Division Assessment team into the area…"
"I'm familiar with the operation," Khalid said firmly. "Tell me what they found."
"… yes, sir," the young man gulped. "Well, sir… they found evidence of use of weapons… illegal weapons stockpiles… training camps and indoctrination… and thirty minutes ago, they reported in with this image." A second photograph was brought up on the screen, next to the first. It showed a large, expensive black luxury car pulled up to the gate of the training camp. Two men in combat vests, carrying AK-model assault rifles, were dragging a third man out of the back of the car, while a third guard carried away some kind of small cubical item. In the background, two other prisoners were being led away with their hands cuffed in front of them.
"PHYSICS ran a search on their faces and VERITAS profiles. We have a match," the adjutant continued. He brought up another image of a middle-aged man in a grey suit sitting in a coffee shop somewhere in France. "Philip Anderson. Manna Charitable Foundation. They're running a humanitarian operation in the region… if it weren't for their blatant disregard of Second Mission concerns, we'd have invited them to join the Coalition—"
"I'm also very familiar with MCF's policies and operations," Khalid interrupted again. "Tell me why it matters to us."
"… well, sir. A high-ranking member of another paranormal organization has been captured by the Chaos Insurgency. I thought…"
"You can do better than that, David," Khalid insisted. "Tell me why we should care."
The young man took a deep breath before forging on. "Because, sir, rescuing a high-ranking member of Manna Charitable Foundation would give us leverage in the next round of negotiations with them. It could give us a chance to bring them into the fold… have them agree to Second Mission concerns and join up with the Coalition. They have resources—"
"I know about their rescources," Khalid said. "Who is on deck?"
"Um. According to my information, sir, the next available Rapid Response Team is Broken Dagger. Based out of Ireland."
"Better get them on the horn right away. It's the middle of the night over there."
The alarm blared in "Fox's" ear like the shrieking of some tortured beast. The slight redheaded woman slammed her palm down over the button, silencing the chorus of "The Immigrant Song" by Led Zeppelin. She groaned as she turned to her nightstand, trying to focus her bleary eyes on the text scrolling by.
One phrase in large red text immediately got her attention: "PRIORITY ALERT." She came awake immediately, sitting up on the edge of the bed and reading through the report twice through, to make sure she'd gotten everything. Only then did she slap the button on the wall of her quarters to sound the alarm in the general barracks.
It took her sixty seconds to walk down the hall to the barracks in which Strike Team Broken Dagger slept. She was pleased to see that, by the time she arrived, the entire team was already out of bed and dressed (although a couple of them were pulling on t-shirts and sweat pants as she opened the door.) "All right, this one's urgent," she said grimly, tossing copies of the report to her three squad leaders. "A bunch of CI goons just kidnapped an MCF bigshot. We're going to get him back."
"Greysuits, ma'am?" "Jackal" asked. Fox's XO was a tall, lanky guy who looked like a professional basketball player, with ebony skin and close-cropped hair. He looked even more striking standing next to his diminutive commander.
"White," Fox said. "We're going in all-out on this one. Full Plus-Two Gen tech. Get suited up."
"Whew," Jackal hissed. "They're serious, aren't they?"
"Yeah. This one's for real. Let's go."
As team leader, Fox claimed first dibs on the shower, stripping out of her tank-top and underwear with careless ease, before stepping into the drying room, where powerful blasts of heated air dried her skin off within a few moments. She ran her ID card (kept on the same chain as her dog tags) through the security scanner. The lights on the heavy steel door blinked green for a moment before opening up to the Whitesuit morgue.
Whitesuits weren't white, any more than blacksuits were black (greysuits, coincidentally, did default to a grey tone). The term was, instead, supposed to designate the visibility level of its advanced technology. Blacksuits looked like ordinary, every day clothing that just happened to be bulletproof (for a certain level of "proof.") Whitesuits looked like science-fiction super soldiers from a video game.
The bottom layer of the whitesuit was a one-piece garment, similar to a racing swimsuit, that fit snugly against her skin. She took a moment to make sure that the relief tubes were properly aligned (something that could become very important during a long mission), and adjusted the fit around her shoulders and hips, to prevent the garment from pinching under the close-fitting armor. After that, it wasn't difficult to climb into the unfolded whitesuit itself. She closed the torso plates manually, shifting her shoulders around to get a good, solid fit, then slipped her hands into the gloves and chinned the "close" button in her helmet.
The suit tightened around her with a loud electric whir, followed by the high metallic pings of hundreds of tiny clamps locking in place. She closed her eyes and waited the thirty seconds it took for the on-board computer systems to power up, then opened her eyes to find herself viewing the world in bright, false colors, as the suit's OCULUS system activated.
A scrolling column of text along the left hand side of her screen let her know that her suit was working properly: everything read green. She gingerly took her first step out of the chamber. The suit didn't fold up and snap every bone in her body, neither did it freeze up and entrap her in a quarter-ton of steel and composites.
So far, so good.
"Everything all right, Iron Man?" Jackal asked, as his own suit finished its power-up sequence.
Fox grinned. "Tony Stark wishes he had one of these."
"This is the part that I really really hate," Agent Arsegike grumbled, as the twelve members of Strike Team Broken Dagger assembled in the silver circle painted on the floor of what had once been an aircraft hangar. There were several men and women in white coats milling around, checking the equipment and runes that powered the transfer circle: mages from the Center for Unified Thaumatology.
"Just close your eyes and think of England," Ferret said, grinning. "It'll be over before you know it."
"That's what I told your Mom last night," Arsegike grumbled.
"All right, team!" Fox shouted, as she strode into the hangar. "Last chance to go back for anything you forgot. Weapons. Ammo. Rations. Power. Make sure you've got everything you need, because coming back is a hell of a lot harder than getting out there. Alpha Squad?"
"Looks good, chief."
"Everything checks out."
"All right," Fox said, taking a deep breath. ""Visors down. From now on, no faces, no voices. We ready to go, Ops?"
"Ready to apportate on your mark, ma'am," said the lead magister.
"Take a knee, team."
The twelve members of Strike Team Broken Dagger all dropped to one knee in the center of the circle: a dozen superhero robots carrying massive sci-fi rifles, kneeling like knights before an altar.
Fox closed the visor of her helmet, waited to confirm that her internal air supply had kicked in, then said "Execute," and clenched her gut as hard as she could.
There was a flash of bright purple light, the sickening sensation of being turned inside out and shunted through a ten-dimensional manifold. Somewhere in England, a cornfield rippled and swayed, as the backlash from the teleport caused a ten-meter wide circular patch of it to be stomped flat. Somewhere in Scotland, a confused plesiosaur poked its head above water and realized that it wasn't in the Jurassic Period any more.
The ground dropped away, and Fox found herself plummeting to earth from ten thousand meters above an Afghanistani mountain range.
Working just as planned.
"There they are. I've got eyes on the team," Skunkboy reported. "Looks good. I count twelve agents, no aborts or partials."
Through the VERITAS sensors, the twelve members of the strike team glowed brightly, like shooting stars against the night sky. They formed up into three tight diamonds before banking, slowly, and turning to approach the target area.
"Why don't they just teleport them onto the ground?" the sniper wondered. "Would save them the HALO jump."
"Margin of error," Spider explained. "Despite our best efforts, we can still be up to ten meters off target. If those ten meters put you underground …"
"… gotcha." Skunkboy shuddered. "So, ever seen a Strike team in full whitesuits take down a target?"
"Can't say that I ever have, no," Spider admitted.
"Then get up here and spot for me. You're not going to want to miss this."
James Krantz wasn't a terrorist. At least, he didn't think he was. After all, terrorists were brown, and they did things like wear towels on their head and blow themselves up with bombs and worship Allah. James was a white guy from a suburban Chicago neighborhood who just happened to be recruited by a man in a dark suit who told him, in no uncertain terms, that he could either come along with them and help to save the world, or he could die. James was an atheist. Sure, he was in Afghanistan learning how to make bombs and shoot people, but he wasn't going to do that to Americans. Terrorists did things like that. James was no terrorist.
Still, there were moments when he wondered. Like tonight, walking around the perimeter of the camp (someone had to stand guard) carrying an AK-47 (good assault rifle, nothing more), wearing a scarf around his nose and mouth (just to keep the sand and dust out). That felt like a very terroristy thing to do. But James loved America. Terrorists hated America. Didn't they?
He was still mulling over this conundrum when the man in the powered armor descended from the sky with a pistol in one hand and shot him three times.
"Show-off," Fox murmured, as she hit the ground a few yards away from Jackal.
"It worked, didn't it?"
"You were still showing off." Fox grabbed her parachute shroud and began gathering up the billowing cloth. "Status report."
"Everyone's on the ground. One misdrop: Cartman's ten klicks too far south. He'll catch up with us in time for exfil," Jackal replied. He took Fox's parachute from her and stowed it, along with his, behind a nearby rock.
"All right. I'll take his slot in the security element. Team leaders?"
"Alpha, ready," Jackal said.
"Charlie. Wait one… all right. We're good."
"Go," Fox ordered.
Jackal took off at a dead sprint, legs pumping furiously, with the other three members of the assault element close behind. He smashed down the chain-link fence, raced straight through three exploding claymore mines (steel ball bearings bouncing off his armor like marbles off a concrete floor) and slammed through the cinderblock wall shoulder-first, smashing concrete and rebar like tissue paper. He rain straight into three surprised men sitting around a table playing cards. They started reaching for assault rifles, but there were three other members of the assault element who could take them down, so Jackal ignored them and kept running.
His momentum carried him straight through the room and through the far wall, smashing through the drywall with a loud, papery crunch. He slid across the tile floor on his hip, like a baseball player sliding into second base, and slapped a shaped charge onto the ground, as the three men in the room he'd just vacated went down with rifle rounds in their heads and torsos. The other members of his team joined him in the kitchen, taking up security positions looking up and down the hallway.
He took a few moments to make sure that the charge was properly placed, aiming it away from the life-auras that he could see through the VERITAS imager. "On three," he said. "I've got the target. One… two… three."
He sent the detonation code and braced for impact. The bomb exploded, cutting a round hole in the floor, revealing a darkened basement room illuminated by a single crazily swinging lightbulb. Three men were gathered around a fourth, who was tied to a chair with electrodes strapped to his face. One of the interrogators was holding up a printout of a brightly colored fractal, and Jackal's vision immediately blurred as his visor detected a possible visual cognitohazard and switched out of visible light mode.
"STAND CLEAR!" Jackal shouted. He dropped into the room, grabbed the target, and pinned him to the ground, covering him with his body, then triggered the anti-personnel charge strapped to his back. Ten thousand tiny (but fast) tungsten darts exploded from his armor in a hemispherical pattern, penetrating flesh, bone, and concrete with equal ease, riddling the Chaos Insurgency personnel.
Things were very quiet in the room after that. Only the sound of muffled gunfire let Jackal know that the battle was technically still raging.
Two minutes later, even that ceased.
"Wow," Spider whispered. "That was… something."
"Fast, aren't they?" Skunkboy agreed.
"Did that guy really have to do that thing with the window?"
"No, but it worked."
"All right, guys, enough chatting." Bullfrog said. "In a couple of hours, we're going to have twelve Strike Team members coming up our way, needing an exfil. Spider?"
"Central's got a helicopter incoming," the mage said. "Can you help me clear an LZ?"
"Can do. Skunkboy, Kitten, keep an eye on the compound. Let me know if anything comes up."
"Can do, Boss. Who Dares Wins and all that shit."
"All right!" Fox shouted. "We've got thirty minutes! Grab what you can and clear the fuck out. Jackal? How's our damsel?"
"He's still unconscious," Jackal said, a bit sheepishly. "I think I burst his eardrums. Sorry, Fox."
"He's alive, right? Don't worry about it." She stepped over the groaning body of a Chaos Insurgency operative laying on the concrete and casually shot him in the back of the head. "Ferret? Arsegike?"
"We've got the other two prisoners," came the reply. "But one of them keeps babbling something that makes no sense. Something about an aquarium."
"I'm heading your way," Fox said. "Anyone else?"
"Shatner's suit took a hit and froze up. He's fine, but I don't think I can fix it. Maybe if we had two guys supporting him from either side . ."
"With the Chaos Insurgency breathing down our necks? Fuck that. Pop his suit and set scuttling charges. Everyone else, keep grabbing any intel you can find. Fox, out."
"All right, here they come," Skunkboy said. "And not a moment too soon, either. Sun's about to come up."
As the sun rose, eleven agents in black powered armor (carrying three rescued prisoners and one sheepish-looking half-naked man wearing what looked like a cross between a speedo and a wrestling singlet) finally emerged from the smoking buildings of the training camp and came jogging up the hill towards the Assessment Team. At least, it looked like they were jogging, until you realized that the easy, graceful lope was actually traveling at around fifty miles per hour.
They leaped up the cliff face one by one and wordlessly nodded to the members of Team Sparkplug. The last to arrive was a slight, feminine figure wearing red commander's stripes on her helmet and shoulder.
"We ready to go?" Bullfrog asked.
"One moment," Fox said. "Central, this is Dagger Six Actual. I'm sanitizing the site now."
"Dagger Six, Central. Go ahead."
She tapped a control on her left gauntlet. Down below, a flash of bright blue light, followed by a loud crack like that of thunder, indicated that the unfortunate Agent Shatner's whitesuit was now destroyed… as well as the building it had been left in, which collapsed in a cloud of white-hot, incandescent dust.
"All right," Fox said. "Now we can call in our ride home."
"Team Broken Dagger reported in at 0548 hours. They're in the barracks right now, repairing, regrouping, and preparing for their trip back to Ireland," David explained. "All in all, a successful oper—"
"So it was a successful op. Big deal. Anything interesting or unusual I should know about?" Khalid asked.
"Uhh… oh, there was one thing. Kind of funny, actually. The team was delayed for ten minutes trying to find one of the prisoner's pets. A sea slug of some kind. Apparently, he wouldn't leave without it. He claims it can talk," the young man chuckled.
"Really?" Khalid asked calmly, taking a sip of his coffee. "What's it's name?"
"Very ungentlemanly of them," Lord Blackwood said, waving his feathery gills about. "Absolutely no way to treat a civilized human being. I was reminded of T.S. Lawrence in the hands of the Turks, although thankfully, I managed to escape without suffering any of the outrages endured by that illustrious gentleman." The colorful nudibranch lowered its head into the teacup that had been placed into its tank, staining the water a pale brown. "All in all, this was not the summer holiday I would have chosen."
"I'm just glad to see that you're came through it in one piece," Khalid said. "You always did have a knack for getting into trouble."
"Balderdash. I was never in any true danger, except perhaps running low on rum and tea. Speaking of which, how is that Anderson fellow? Good chap that, but not exactly the adventuring type."
"Philip Anderson will recover, although he may have some hearing loss," Khalid reported. "He'll be fine."
"That's good, that's good. By Jove, this really has been an odd week, hasn't it?"
"That it has, that it has," Khalid agreed. "I don't suppose I can convince you to stay a bit longer? There's no reason for you to go back to the Foundation."
"Rubbish. I gave them my parole. A gentleman's word is as binding as oak. Besides, my housekeeper will be worried about me. She does get into such terrible fits when I'm away for too long."
"If you must," Khalid said, inclining his head politely. "I'll have a courier take you back in the morning."
"Nonsense. I may be getting a bit on in years, but there's still life in these old bones. If I couldn't enjoy an invigorating afternoon sabbatical like a little walk back home, I'd be ashamed to call myself a Blackwood."
"In that case, I'll be seeing you around, old friend," Khalid said, getting to his feet.
"And you as well, my Arab friend. Inshallah, and may Allah smile upon you, peace be on his name," Lord Blackwood said.
Khalid got to his feet and walked out of the small interrogation chamber, closing the door behind him. His aide, David, cleared his throat nervously.
"I didn't know you were Mus—"
"I'm not," Khalid interrupted. "And I'm not an Arab either. But Theodore is a bit set in his ways. Comes from the era in which he was raised. He means well."
"Ah. And um. How do you know this sea slu—"
Khalid fixed his aide with a martinet's glare, before turning crisply away and walking down the hallway.
"That's above your security clearance," he said.
"You know," Bullfrog said thoughtfully. "These guys should stop building their camps in known terrorist strongholds. I mean, when someone blows up a mysterious camp in the Hindu Kush, no one gives a crap. But if it it happened in, say, Montana? Someone would ask questions."
"Yeah, but then they'd have to deal with nosy neighbors… IRS property taxes… deer shitting on their lawn…" Fox pointed out. "Besides, we could still blow them up. We'd just have to claim it was a meth lab or something."
"I guess that's true," Bullfrog said. "To the Chaos Insurgency."
"And may their ammo ever run low," Fox agreed.
She picked up her beer and took a sip. Not as good as the real thing, but then again, it was impossible to find a real Guinness anywhere outside of Dublin.
"So," she asked. "How's the new girl working out?"
"Spider? Not bad. She's got a lot to learn, but she learns quickly. Probably one of the best mages I've had the pleasure of working with."
"Really? Think she'd consider a career in Strike?"
"Hey, I didn't drag you out of that cave in Argentina so that you could headhunt my wizard away from me."
"As I recall, it was me dragging you out of that cave, not the other way around."
"More like we were dragging each other," Bullfrog chuckled.
"True, true." Fox finished off the rest of her beer and stood up, stretching her arms over her head. "We've got to catch an early flight back to Ireland at 0600. Want to join me in my room for a nightcap?"
"Our flight's at 0400," Bullfrog pointed out. "I should probably get some sleep too."
"C'mon, Bull. It's been months since we last saw each other. We've got a lot of catching up to do." The petite redhead smirked at the larger man as she ran a finger gently across his shoulderblades.
Bullfrog smiled. "All right," he said, with a sly, knowing smile. "One drink."