"So, um… this whole Hartle Anomaly thing seems to be heating up. Think they'll send us in?"
"Hartle's scientific, not paranormal," Bullfrog said, as he carefully replaced the battery cover on a slim, 3 inch LCD screen. "We don't do scientific."
"'Scientific' can become 'paranormal' in an instant," Fartboy pointed out. He turned the page of his magazine. "Line between normal and weird's a fuzzy one, and this looks like it's about to tip over."
"Well, then, when they send us in, you'll get to say 'I told you so.' Until then, focus on the mission." Bullfrog flipped a switch on the side of the little screen, nodded in satisfaction, then turned the monitor back off and slid it into its pouch on his backpack.
"Yes, sir, team leader sir, abso-fucking-lutely Semper Fi Do or Die Airborne fucking Garry Owen Who Dares Wins, team leader," Fartboy muttered, turning the page.
"Heads up," Kitten said. "Spook and stars incoming."
Bullfrog glanced over at the barracks door. "I don't see…"
Two sharp knocks, followed by the door opening, letting in a brief gust of hot desert air. Two men walked into the room. One was a short, incredibly ugly man with a cheshire-cat smile wearing an expensive but shabby black suit. The other man was tall, barrel-chested, and had a bearing so military that the stick up his ass probably had campaign ribbons and a Silver Star.
"Don't you fucking people salute?" the military man growled.
"Actually, no, General," the smiling man in the suit said. "We're technically a civilian organization under the—"
"Civilians. God. Don't remind me. Bunch of fucking sheep, bean-counters, and fat lazy fucks. Aren't you going to introduce me?"
"I was just getting to that," the smiling man said. "Team Sparkplug, meet General Bowe. General Bowe, Team Sparkplug is one of our top infiltration and assessment teams. Their real names are classified, of course, but you can call them Bullfrog, Kitten, and Fartboy."
General Bowe frowned at the sandy-haired young man sitting with his feet up on the table, flipping through an issue of TIME magazine. "Fartboy? What the fuck kind of name for a soldier is Fartboy?"
"I didn't pick it, General. They, ummmm… gave it to me after the first time I failed stalking course at scout-sniper school," Fartboy admitted sheepishly. "In my defense, they served red beans and rice at the mess hall the night before."
"Really. Well, ain't that just fucking great," General Bowe muttered sarcastically. "Well? Tell them the news."
The smiling man's expression didn't change from its fixed, mirthless grin. "Mission's scrapped," he said shortly. "Word's come down from the top. We are no longer assessing the target, we are assaulting it."
"Fuck," Bullfrog growled. "That's exactly what we need. A blind assault into a secured structure. Fan-fucking-tastic."
"Well, then, you're in luck. You're not assaulting, you're overwatch. The assault and perimeter security elements are coming from Pandora's Box," the smiling man said.
The silence in the room was palpable.
"Boss?" Bullfrog said, slowly and carefully. "Can we talk?"
"Of course, Bull. General, may I have a moment to speak to my team in private?"
"Take your time, Director. Boys."
"Pandora's Box is active?" Bullfrog asked, once the General had left the room.
"This is going to be their first mission," the smiling man said. "From what I've heard from on high, General Bowe is being pressured to justify his budget: not surprising in this economy. He asked for this one, and they gave it to him."
"And what did they give us in return for stepping all over our territory?"
"Don't worry about that part, Bull. Let the Scary Lady and her Twelve Evil Minions worry about that."
"I've uhhh… I've got a concern," Fartboy said, raising his hand. "This ain't our field of expertise, Boss. Assaulting a building's a job for Strike, not Assessment. We're not exactly equipped for it."
"I'm aware. General Bowe has generously offered to loan us the use of some equipment from his armory."
"Kitten?" Bullfrog asked.
"We'll need uniforms to match what the rest of them are wearing. Body armor too. We brought our weapons, but we need ammo," Kitten said curtly.
"You didn't bring ammo?"
"I packed some ammo, but this was supposed to be a covert assessment mission. If we needed to start shooting, things would be fucked to pieces, so I spent our weight allowance on other things. Like COLLICULUS." Kitten frowned. "Damn. I need to train the perimeter team on setting up the nodes. Any of them trained to use COLLIC?
"Not that I know of, no," the smiling man said.
"I'll pre-calibrate the emitters for them, then," Kitten said. "That way they can just turn them on and slap them to the outside of the target building. I won't get as good a picture, but it should be fine."
"Out of curiosity, how were you planning on disguising the nodes, anyway?" Fartboy asked.
"I wasn't. R&D gave me this little drill-robot thing. I was going to tunnel under the building from the sewer systems."
"Any other questions?" the smiling man asked.
"I want a complete briefing on the assault plan and our place in it," Bullfrog said.
"The assault plan you'll have to get from General Bowe or one of his subordinates. As for your place in it… same as before. Infiltrate, observe, assess, and report. This is General Bowe's show, not ours. If all goes well, you'll just watch the mission take place and report the details back to us."
"And if it doesn't?" Bullfrog asked.
"If it doesn't? Consult the handbook and do what you feel is best. Good luck, team."
"This is fucked," Fartboy sighed, once the smiling man had left the room.
"Yeah, I know, "Bullfrog said. "All right, then. Time to fucking unpack. Kitten?"
"I'm on it. What do we need?"
"5.56 and 9mm for you and me. Fartboy?"
"7.62 and .45," Fartboy said.
"I'm on it." Kitten turned and left the room quickly. She always did things quickly if she could afford to.
"You know," Fartboy noted, "General Bowe is obviously not a student of mythology." He opened up a battered rifle case and pulled out a heavily customized sniper rifle.
"The Pandora's Box thing? If I recall, the box contained Hope, didn't it?" Bullfrog opened up his own weapon case and pulled out an M-4, checking the chamber for a live round before continuing his inspection of his weapon.
"Hope, yeah. Also a whole bunch of pain, misery, and suffering." Fartboy frowned as he wiped a speck of dust off the lens of his rifle scope with a soft cloth. "I dunno. Maybe it's just because I think he's an asshole."
"No, you're right. General Bowe is deluding himself, and he's detached from reality. Did you catch the last thing that he said before he walked out? He called us 'boys.' Even Kitten."
"In his defense, that's an easy mistake to make."
"Maybe. Or maybe it's a sign of rigid thinking. Making assumptions without fact-checking," Bullfrog said.
"We're fucked, aren't we?"
"That's a distinct possibility, yeah."
"Some day," Fartboy sighed, "someone will invent body armor that lets me scratch where it itches and I will fucking marry him. Or her. Or it." He glanced over at Kitten, who was in the middle of doing a ridiculous number of pull-ups at a frankly disquieting pace. "Is that smart? I mean, what if you wear yourself out?"
"Keyed up. Nervous. Need to burn off energy or I'll get the shakes." Kitten dropped down from the pull-up bar and switched to doing push-ups. "I can rest on the way in."
"Suit yourself. 'Sup, Bull."
"'Sup, Fartboy. Kitten. Got our orders. They want us to stay in the helicopter and provide airborne sniper support. Since they're expecting little to no civilian resistance, we should just be sitting there and watching it all go down." Bullfrog scoffed. "Also, the check is in the mail, air support is on the way, and I'm only going to put in the tip."
"God Bless America Hoorah Tally-Ho and Molon Fucking Labe," Fartboy muttered.
"You got that right. Fartboy, you all set? How about you, Kitten? You ready to go, or do you want to run a marathon first?"
"I'm set, boss. Let's go." Kitten finished one last push-up, dusted off her hands, then picked up her backpack and a large equipment case.
"Yeah. Let's get this over with," Fartboy said, picking up his own backpack and rifle.
They were walking across the tarmac towards their helicopter when Kitten paused and turned towards a small group of men gathered around a Black Hawk. "Tall, Dark, and Lethal at three o'clock."
It wasn't unusual for men to walk around without their shirts on in the desert heat. What was unusual were the jagged-edged red tattoos that covered every inch of the tall, olive-skinned man's body. There was a massive steel collar around his neck, and steel manacles bound his hands. A dozen men in full body armor, carrying assault rifles, kept their weapons trained on him at all times.
The tall man paused and turned to face them. Fartboy felt a cold chill in his gut as their eyes met. Shark's eyes, he thought. Killer's eyes. Nothing behind them but death and war.
Then someone prodded the stranger with the muzzle of his rifle, and the strange tableau continued across the tarmac and into the helicopter.
"That him?" Kitten asked.
"Yeah," Bullfrog said. "Subject Able, a.k.a. Rascal One. You've seen the video?"
"Yes," Kitten said. "Impressive."
"Impressive, hell, try fucking terrifying. We should be blowing that guy away, not weaponizing him."
"We did. Nine times. He just keeps coming back," Bullfrog pointed out.
"Fan-fucking tastic. And he's one of the good guys."
"So are we. Game faces, people."
"ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, IT'S NOT GOING SO BADLY!" Bullfrog shouted over the sound of the helicopter rotors.
Fartboy nodded back. He was lying on the floor of the helicopter on a padded foam mattress, scanning the surrounding city through his scope. Aside from a few looky-loo types cautiously watching the men in helicopters descending upon the building, things were quiet. No one was waving a gun around or inciting the crowds to violence. He honestly wasn't surprised. This wasn't Baghdad or Kabul: people around here didn't often see men with guns walking around. They hadn't yet learned to associate soldiers with violence and chaos.
"COLLIC is up," Kitten said into her headset mic. She tapped a button on her tablet computer and watched a progress bar fill up for a couple of seconds. When the screen cleared, an image of the target building and the surrounding city block appeared. The buildings themselves were ghostly white and translucent, as were the inanimate objects within. People appeared as black silhouettes surrounded by an aura of multicolored flame.
Except one: a particularly tall and lanky silhouette in the lead assault helicopter, who leaped twenty feet down onto the roof of the target building, disdaining the use of the fast-rope. That one's aura was a deep, dark violet, so dark it was nearly black. It flicked its wrists, and a pair of cruel, hooked blades appeared in its hands, laced with black fire.
"Huh," Kitten said. "Interesting."
"The swords. We'd always suspected they were alive somehow. This confirms that."
Down on the roof, the rest of the assault team had disembarked and were racing across the rooftop. Two of them, carrying big, plate-like breaching charges, were waved off by Rascal One, who simply cut the door off its hinges with his swords and kicked it in.
The next few minutes were like a symphony of slaughter. Panicked men, roused from sleep by the sound of helicopters and gunfire, emerged from their beds shooting, and were ruthlessly cut down. Life-auras flared brightly in pain and terror, and were just as quickly snuffed out. One particularly brave enemy tried to jump the assault team with a knife. He ended up hurled out a third-story window in three pieces.
"What was the target suspected of again, Bull?" Fartboy asked.
"Suspected "Type White" immortal. He's supposed to be five hundred years old. No other paranormal traits. If it weren't for his politics I don't think anyone would give a shit."
"Oh. In that case, all this seems rather excessive," Fartboy mused. Down below, a terrified teenage boy with an assault rifle was cut in half with a giant curved scimitar.
"Rather," Kitten said, mildly.
"Pandora One to all units. Package is secure. I say again, package is secure." On Kitten's screen, six men were grouped around a seventh, who was lying on the ground face-down with his hands on his head.
If anything is going to go wrong, Bullfrog thought, now's when it's going to happen.
A black-aura'd figure walked into the room, slashed the man on the ground into pieces, then cut down the six others swiftly and methodically.
I hate being right.
"HOLY SHIT! RASCAL ONE IS AMOK! RASCAL ONE IS—" the voice of the terrified soldier on the ground was cut off in a scream of pain and a gurgle of blood.
"HIT THE SWITCH! HIT THE SWITCH!"
The figure in black clawed at its throat. A moment later, all the windows on the bottom two floors of the building blew outward in a shower of glass and dust.
A moment after that, Rascal One emerged from the building. His left arm was a mangled mess below the shoulder. The left side of his body was bloody and torn to pieces. Parts of it still smouldered. But his right hand still held a sword of pitch blackness.
Things got a bit crazy after that.
"SLIPPED CHAIN! I SAY AGAIN, SLIPPED CHAIN!"
"He's out of the building! He's out of the building!"
"We need a medevac, now!"
"Do not take this helicopter down!" Bullfrog shouted in response to that last panicked cry.
"Fuck you! Those are my guys down there!" the pilot shouted back.
Down below, the first helicopter attempting to evacuate the casualties was sliced in half by a thrown sword. The pilot stopped arguing and took the helicopter back up.
"Give me your radio," Bullfrog said grimly. He plugged in his headset and switched to a frequency that didn't appear on the comms order.
The smiling man was not surprised when Bullfrog called in on the secure frequency. Disappointed, maybe. Surprised, no.
"You seeing this, boss?"
"Yes," the smiling man said. "General Bowe is rather upset, to say the least. They're getting ready to send in an airstrike. Your assessment?"
A short pause, probably so that Bullfrog could shout some profanity without it appearing on the official record. "Boss, by the time they get aircraft overhead, Able's going to be in the city proper. It'll take saturation bombing to flush him out. If the Americans bomb this city, it's going to be bad. We're talking international destabilization bad, not to mention Ban-Ki's gonna be pissed."
"Can you do it, then?"
Another, somewhat longer pause. "Yeah, Boss. Give the word and we'll pull it off."
"The word is given. Out."
The smiling man stood up and cleared his throat. "Gentlemen!" he shouted, over the confused din. "I'm taking over. Under Article 45 of the United Nations Charter, the Special Agreement between the U.N. Security Council and the government of the United States of America, and Article 9 of the Global Occult Coalition Charter, this is now a GOC operation…"
The first thing that Kitten did was take off her body armor. From what she'd seen, it didn't seem to do any good against Rascal One's black sword, and she couldn't afford the extra weight. She left most of her ammo behind too: if her plan worked, one magazine was all she'd need. If it didn't, an extra mag wouldn't help.
She did bring the knife, though.
When the helicopter descended to ten feet, she jumped off and hit the ground rolling. Bullfrog tossed her rifle to her, and she turned and ran into the target building's courtyard.
Her blood sang. This was a part of the job she didn't get to do very often, but when she did, it was an absolute joy.
She started firing her rifle from the hip the moment she saw Rascal One: she didn't care about hits, only getting his attention. She transitioned to her pistol on the run and emptied that too. Then she threw the empty pistol at him - which he caught and threw back at her - so she dodged that and took the last ten meters at a sprint.
All her energy, all her tension that she kept bottled up and hidden behind her cold reserve and iron self-control, exploded like a grenade.
"Kitten," Bullfrog had often thought, was a singularly inappropriate nickname for a six foot tall, musclebound amazon. "Cheetah," maybe. "Tiger," perhaps. But "Kitten?" It smacked of sexism and a deeply entrenched patriarchal attitude that reduced women to childish cuteness. Or maybe it was meant ironically. He'd have to ask her about that sometime.
He also hated how it was always in the moments of deepest tension that he worried about the dumbest things.
The pilot put them down on the roof of a nearby building. Bullfrog jumped out first, carrying the foam mat and Kitten's tablet computer. Fartboy followed, cradling his rifle to his chest like an infant. He ran to the edge of the roof and quickly set up his shooting position, then looked through his scope.
And immediately frowned. "Jesus, they're moving fast."
"Can you take the shot?"
"Uhhhh… no. I can't even keep them in my sights. Sorry, Bull."
Was it worth telling Kitten to slow down? No. From what he could see, she had her hands full just keeping him from eviscerating her. No energy to spare a breath replying, and distracting her now could be fatal. She was getting tired, too. No matter how fast or tough she was, she was still human, and Rascal One was practically a god: even half-blown to hell, he was more than a match for her.
Which meant he'd probably have to go down there and help. Damn it.
"All right, I'm going in," Bullfrog sighed. "No matter what happens, if you see the shot, take it."
"Don't have to tell me twice. Good luck, Bull."
"Fuckin' A." Bull kicked down the door and started running down the stairs, muttering a brief apology to the terrified civilians huddled inside. If he was going to go out there, he reflected, he was going to need a bigger gun.
Kitten was going to die.
Not her fault. Rascal One was just faster, stronger, and better than she was. He didn't get tired. She did. He didn't feel pain. She did.
She took some solace in the fact that she'd lasted about two minutes longer than anyone else she'd seen fight him. That was something, at least.
It was going to happen soon. She was going to make a mistake, and then she would die. It sucked but there was nothing she could do about it.
She stepped back a bit too far and lost her balance.
He came to kill her.
But he stopped as a long burst from a Squad Automatic Weapon stitched through the air between them.
"Hey asshole!" Bullfrog shouted. "Your mother sucks goat cocks!"
He fired a second burst from the light machine gun, only to see Rascal One swat the bullets out of the air with his sword. Something about that triggered a memory in Kitten's mind, and she threw her knife at him.
Which Rascal One immediately grabbed out of the air.
Which occupied his one good hand so he couldn't manifest a sword.
Which let Bullfrog's next SAW burst take his legs out from under him.
Which was followed by Fartboy's rifle firing ten times in rapid succession, pulping Able's head like a cantaloupe.
Just to be sure, Kitten took the time to smash his spine into pulp with a cinder block.
Only then did she let herself relax.
It was a very nice cabin, and a very nice lake, the smiling man had to admit. A perfect place to spend a week getting away from the world… or in self-imposed exile, hiding from public disgrace.
Civilian clothing didn't suit General Bowe. His big, broad chest looked sad and empty without its ribbons and medals. The tumbler of ice and vodka by his side completed the tragic picture.
"I just got word from the Secretary of Defense," he said. "Project Pandora is over. They're canceling our budget and liquidating our assets." He raised his glass in ironic salute. "Motherfuckers."
Liquidating assets. Such a nice, clean term for mass executions. Palmdale Base was going to become an abbatoir. The smiling man shuddered inwardly at that mental image. "That's going to be difficult for some of your assets," he pointed out. "Able comes to mind."
"They're going to dig a giant mine shaft and put the box at the bottom of ten thousand tons of solid concrete. Fucking waste," General Bowe muttered.
"Maybe it's for the best," the smiling man said. "Some things we simply can't control or destroy… and we're not in the business of storing these things, either."
"Huh." General Bowe took a big gulp of his vodka and stared hard into the sunset. "Speaking of which, I was reviewing the tapes of the operation the other day."
"Oh?" the smiling man asked.
"Yeah. That big scary bitch? We clocked her at about 80 kph on her last sprint. Only for a couple of seconds, but that's almost twice as fast as Usain Fucking Bolt."
"Ah," the smiling man said.
"And that blond kid with the stupid name? He mag-dumped an M-14 DMR into a man's head from a distance of 300 yards. In about two seconds."
"Hm," the smiling man said.
"Care to explain?"
The smiling man stared into the sunset for a long while. When the sun had finally disappeared behind the hills, and only the grey twilight remained, he finally spoke. "Arms research tends to focus on the exotic. Politicians and generals want big, flashy, exciting advancements. Aircraft carriers. Fighter jets. Tanks. An immortal warrior with magic swords. But if you ask a soldier what he really wants, the answers get more prosaic. A better rifle that never jams. A communications system that doesn't cut out. Pants that don't rip."
"… a sniper who never misses a clean shot?"
"I thought those were the types of people your outfit was supposed to kill."
"Our job is to protect humanity from the paranormal, yes. But the line between the normal and paranormal is often… fuzzy." The smiling man checked his watch and stood up. "Now if you'll excuse me, I have a meeting with NASA. Seems like there might be something odd going on with the Hartle Anomaly. Good evening, General."