The hike into DC went well, with only a couple of notches, such as a couple who thought they’d try to rob Cloudy when she was on a scouting mission. They were dead before they even had a chance to realise just what a monumental mistake they’d made.
Aside from them, there was a small gang of people having a cookout. When we saw what they were cooking, it took just a few seconds to make sure they’d never barbecue again. Not sure how long the memories would last though. Forever probably.
It was a relief when we finally spotted the White House, friendly patrols greeting us, urging us on, smiling, cheering. Made a massive difference to the way we’d been treated in Manhattan if I’m honest.
The biggest difference was that people were actually doing something rather than holing up waiting for someone else to help them survive. There were patrols, foraging parties, work parties. All of them moved and acted with a purpose rather than the defeated listlessness we’d seen in Manhattan.
It felt odd to see all the Christmas decorations lying around in bright sunlight. How Floridians did Christmas I’ll never understand.
‘Agents, this way please,’ a JTF NCO, wearing just a tee-shirt and cargoes stepped forward once we’d been processed through the main gates. The only sign of his rank was three chevrons stencilled onto his chest. I was not impressed.
‘Team Vector,’ I said, ignoring he hand he held out to point us in the direction he wanted us to go. ‘Many other Agents here?’
‘Enough, sir. Since the call went out, we’ve managed to break the siege on the White House and assist two big settlements. The Campus and the Theatre.’
I nodded, then waved for him to lead on. His lack of professionalism grated. Face souring, he started walking. I didn’t bother speaking for the rest of the walk, just took everything in. The HESCO walls looked solid, and the towers lining them were all manned with sentries hat look bored, but alert.
It was a hive of activity. To our right a ground crew was working on a helicopter. It needed some serious patching on the fuselage, but other than that looked like it was in good condition all things considered.
Inside was even better. There was a well-stocked armourer, a skills upgrader and a busyness that spoke of well-purposed activity rather than panic-driven activity.
The NCO, whose name I didn’t bother learning, led us upstairs where I could see a project manager handing out assignments and a grizzled-looking guy with a kill-board behind him.
‘Ooh, bounties,’ giggled Cloudy. ‘Mind if I take a peek?’
‘Go for it. It’ll give us a chance to get the lay of the land,’ I said. She clapped her hands like a giddy schoolgirl and skipped over to speak to the board’s owner.
‘Something’s not right with that one,’ said a voice from behind me. A grin split my face as I turned around to envelope the owner in a rib-cracking hug which was returned with gusto.
‘Ericksson, you dumb sum’bitch,’ I thought you were dead!’ he said as we finally released each other.
‘You too man! Oh, hey, this is Team Vector. Driffel, Zendar, and Cloudy. And an addition, Max Wild. One of his team went rogue. We kinda rescued him.’ Driffel and Zendar gave casual finger salutes. Wild just tiled his head. ‘Guys, this is Manny Ortega, Division Co-ordinator extraordinaire. He was supposed to be Wave 1.’
‘Until I bust my knee coming off my bike. Ended up in the army instead. Signals., ‘Good to meet you. Guess you got lucky with Wave 1!’ Chuckled Zendar
‘Bang on, man,’ laughed Driffel, fist bumping Zendar.
‘You could say that,’ smiled Ortega, although I could see the pain in his eyes. ‘Listen. I’m gonna take your team leader for a whole. Take a poke around the White House. You can even sit in the Oval Office.’
‘For real?’ Squealed Cloudy, making us all jump. She could move as silently as a cat when she wanted to. ‘Shotgun!’ And with that she raced off, Driffield and Zendar close on her heels. Wild just hovered, before following them. It was clear he was lost without his team.
‘Fucking dangerous that one,’ Ortega’s face darkened as he spoke. ‘She your sniper?’
‘That and the best scout I’ve ever seen. Spookily good.’
‘Oh, she spooked me alright,’ he replied as he led me into what I presumed was his office. ‘She’s broken, you know that yeah?’
I nodded, too choked to say anything. I knew what was coming.
‘She gets out of hand, drop her. We got enough rogues and psychos fucking things up.’
My head jerked in what I hoped was a nod.
‘I’m fucking serious man. She’ll kill all of you in a heartbeat if she thinks you’re drawing on her.’
‘Okay man,’ I said, desperate to change the subject. ‘You still playing with figures?’ I asked, pointing at a street map with assorted toy figures in it.
‘Don’t worry, you’ll get your own. These are all agents. The most recent one I call the Sherriff. He’s done some hard work.’
We spent the next five minutes going over the various agents, state of the nation, city in this case, and working out where we’d fit.
‘Okay, I’m going to assign Wild to you temporarily. I’ve got another,’ he fished out a figure of a Roman Centurion. ‘Callsign Maximus.’
Leaning forward, he pressed a Hutton on his desk phone. ‘Marjorie, send in Maximus please.’
We stood silently. There was knock, just one and hard enough to be confident without being dickish.
‘Come!’ said Ortega.
The door opened and a young man, somewhere in his late twenties, early thirties entered. He was well built, broad shoulders, thick stomach. Looked like he could take a lot of punishment whilst dishing it back. His face was open and honest, friendly-looking.
‘Max Thomas, callsign Maximus,’ he said as his hand enveloped mine. It was like being hugged by a rock. I tilted my hand as we shook, pleased to see the massive callouses on his knuckles. This was a man who wasn’t afraid to work – on people – with his hands.
‘Ericksson. Special Agent in Charge of Team Vector. Pleased to have you.’
‘Ditto. I’ve been following your process ever since we learned you guys were coming here. That subway rescue was awesome! Smashed it!’ Maximus said, his voice the deepest is ever heard. Barry White would have sounded like a castrati in comparison.
Eyes narrowing at the slang, I release his hand. ‘Been in the UK?’
‘Yeah. I was based in Cambridgeshire. USAAF. Joined the Division when I came back to the US. Stayed in the army too, just never had to deploy again.’ He paused and frowned, ‘thought it was a sweet deal until I had to leave my family at the start of all this bullshit.’
‘Amen to that brother,’ rumbled Maximus. ‘What’s our task?’
‘Stearns. Find him, kill him.’
‘That we can do. Wild will be more than happy to comply,’ I said.
‘That’s not all. There are certain government officials who have been deemed to be vital to getting DC and the country back on their feet. We need you to collect them. Ring them back. And we’ve also got some who we have discovered are working with an element of the military and other branches which don’t want to see us back on our feet. Heard traitors, and they’ve had burn notices.’
I whistled in surprise at that. Burn notices were the ultimate sanction. Kill in sight. No arrest. No trial. No plea deals. Just a bullet to the face, or a knife to the throat.
‘How many we talking?’ Asked Maximus. I was pleased to see he wasn’t afraid to ask questions. Just how many he’d ask, and when was the next consideration. I didn’t want him questioning orders when it came to burning the traitors.
‘Thirty all told. We have evidence thing them to a unit called BTSU. We don’t have anything other than that though. We do know that they had a obs team situated just outside of our perimeter. Not sure for how long. Long enough to map out he whole damn place.’
‘Jesus, Manny. I need a drink.’ My hands shook, and my mouth tasted like ashes. A terrorist attacking in the form of a bioweapon was bad enough. But to know that elements of the government had been involved shook me to the core.
‘Here. Glenfiddich 18-year-old. We spammed the oldest bottles when the siege was lifted. Still got a hangover.’
He handed me a crystal whisky glass full to the brim as he spoke. Half was gone before he’d even finished talking.
‘Okay. Mind if I get the rest of the team in now. We do a full brief?’
‘Streets are even more deserted than Manhattan,’ said Zendar as we patrolled down a street which had once been packed nose to tail. ‘There’s even deer!’
‘And Racoons!’ laughed Cloudy as a particularly large example waddled away from an overflowing trash can.
+++++ CIVILIANS IN DANGER +++++
ISAC’s monotone spoiled the light-hearted moment ‘Shit, looks like some Hyenas have got hostages,’ Cloudy said as scoped in the direction indicated by ISAC. ‘Actually, change that. Looks like an execution.’
‘Oh hell no,’ snarled Maximus, checking his automatic shotgun. ‘Not on my watch.’
‘Agreed. We split into two teams. Team Vector Alpha break left. Team Vector Bravo goes right.’
‘What’s the signal bossman?’ asked Wild, bouncing on his toes, dealing with the adrenaline coursing through his veins in his own way.
‘I’ll tag them. Then we bag them. Drones out,’ I said, rolling the tension out of my shoulders.
We had a good split of healing and Stryker drones. The Strykers would engage first, tie the enemy up. Disorientate them. Then seeker mines would go in, and we’d sweep for whatever remained. Any counterattacks would be dealt with by turrets.
‘Let’s hustle. I haven’t killed anyone for a while,’ hissed Cloudy.
We ran as quickly as we could, maximum speed for minimum effort, and to keep things as quiet as we could.
‘Go silent people,’ I ordered, screwing my own suppressor onto my LMG. ‘Hope the drones back until we’re engaged.’
A series of clicks confirmed my people understood as we flowed through a deserted refugee camp, jumping wrecked tents and discarded luggage.
I skidded to a halt behind a low wall, sweeping the area with my scope. We were just in time. I pulsed the enemy, lighting them up on our HUDS, took aim, and fired. The enemy didn’t know what hit them. Bodies tumbled to the floor of the makeshift platform, the prisoners crying out in fear and surprise we killed their would-be executioners.
‘Fuck you!’ screamed the last surviving Hyena as they dove into cover.
‘Dammit, I missed. Fucker flinched,’ grumbled Zendar.
Thanks to the pulse we could still see the lone Hyena. He was bunkered down, blasting away over his cover. Blind-firing.
‘Sending my drone in,’ warned Zendar, clear in his time that this was his kill.
+++++ HEAVILY ARMOURED ENEMY APPROACHING +++++
‘Strategic Homeland Division!’ Roared Maximus, all of us jumping art he power of his voice. ‘Get the fuck over here!’
The former prisoners snatched up weapons and sprinted in our direction, flinching as Zendar’s drone zipped past them, unleashing a hail of bullets at the Hyena. Blood from an arterial shot fountained into the air, the Hyena screeching at his reinforcements for help as he bled to death.
‘Thank fuck you got here!’ gasped one of the prisoners as she vaulted the wall and tucked in next to us. ‘Bastards ambushed our foraging party. Killed the rest where they stood. Wanted to kill us to set an example. Her hands shook as she spoke, eyes looking as though they were going to burst out of her skull.
‘Time for a bit of chill then,’ said Driffel, laying a gentle hand in her shoulder. ‘Relax. You won’t get any payback if you miss these fuckers because you’re too weird. You do want payback?’
‘Fuck yeah,’ she snarled, baring her teeth. ‘I’m gonna shoot their dicks off.’
‘Oh, I like this one,’ said Cloudy. ‘Enough chatter. More killing.’
Her rifle barked, far too loud for a suppressor. Snatching a glance, I saw that she’d removed it. A scream rang out, quickly followed by a hail of bullets. Now wasn’t the time to argue, but the sound of that rifle was going to let everyman and his dog know there was a high-powered rifle in action.
‘What the fuck?’ said Driffel as the enemy leader waddled into view. They were even better armoured than the one we’d encountered at the check point. They opened fire, filling the air with tracer and ball, chips of cement showering us.
I threw mine, an assault turret, as far as I could into the path of the advancing enemy. Driffel lobbed his, a flamer, even further. Flamers were perfect for crowd control; an instinctive fear sending our attackers scurrying back into cover.
One of them was too slow and their screams drowned out the sound of our battle as they staggered about, arms wind milling until they collapsed face down. Even then they continued to moan and twitch.
‘Motherfuckers!’ screamed a woman as she led another in a drug-induced charge towards Maximus’ position. I watched, keen to see how he’d perform under pressure. He stood, exposing himself to enemy fire as if he was out on a stroll. Bracing himself, he fired his shotgun from the hip. Dragon rounds, incendiaries to the layman, filled the space before them with a wall of fire. His next cartridges were a mix of solid and scatter shot. The lead attacker exploded, what remained of her torso and legs continuing for a couple of paces further.
Switching targets, he blew the kneecaps off the second brawler, then shit her through the crown of her helmet as she screamed out her rage.
‘Good job, Maximus,’ I said as I turned back to the matter in hand. He’d killed them in under two seconds. My first shot took an SMG-Wielding gangster in the groin, blasting his hips further apart than nature intended. I let him drop, not wanting to waste another round on him.
Bullets hammered into the wall before me, one of them hitting my chest plate and driving the breath from me as I crashed into my back.
‘Ericksson’s hit!’ shouted Driffel, pausing his attack on the leader to give me a quick scan. ‘Nothing serious. Just winded.’
‘Get the fuck up then,’ said Cloudy. ‘No time to take a break. We got scum to kill.’
A hand reached down as I tried to suck air into my battered ribs. Grasping it, I looked up into the eyes of the civilian we’d just rescued. And so that’s how I saw her die. A bullet struck the back of her head, blowing her face and brains directly into my face. A sledgehammer pounded my face, and I blacked out
‘About time you woke up,’ murmured Zendar as I cracked open an eye. ‘You were knocked out by the spent round. And I’ve removed all of her bone splinters from your face. No lasting damage.’
I sat up slowly, head banging like a bitch. It hurt so much I groaned.
‘Yeah. You’ll have a concussion. I used the drone healing the other prisoner. He ran away from, and not to us. Dick.’
‘Everyone else okay?’
‘Not a scratch. You should have seen Maximus when he heard you were down. Pulled out a tomahawk and Bowie. Charged the leader and cut him to pieces. Balletic. Never seen a thing so graceful. Like a berserk Nureyev.’
‘Right, let’s head back to base. This patrol was a fuck up.’