My watch was glowing. A bright orange circle. Like the Black Spot of Death. I was fucked. Work was calling.
“Blend in, work hard at the day job, make friends but keep them casual and don’t get attached”, they said.
As usual they were wrong. People are social animals, no matter what the profiles state. Don’t get attached. That was the first order we were given that I knew would be broken. Even if the attachment was just a fish, it would happen. It didn’t matter how hard any of us tried. None of us would be able to obey that order.
Other orders were along the lines of ‘stay sharp, wait for a call that might never come’. All of the projections were that the call would come, but they just didn’t know when. It was as if they had built the Doomsday Clock of Uncertainty. It was almost as bad as volunteering for the U.N.
Our orders were to simply wait for an event that would cause us to be activated. I don’t mean something like 9/11. I mean something big such as the Zombie Apocalypse or, in this case, terrorists painting money with a smallpox derivative. The Green Plague. Our strategic objective is to ensure the continuity of government in the case of a catastrophic emergency using any means possible.
The trouble with getting a job and trying your best to blend in, is that it causes you to have social interaction with a wide range of people. Depending on the job you get, that social interaction can reach far and wide. Some of us got jobs with the fire department, others were cops, or paramedics. Two even opened a coffee shop together. They were the canny ones as they got funded to assist them.
I got a crummy job working in a tech firm. It was middle-of-the-road, developing apps and the odd online game such as ‘Munchkins World’. Nothing hot and way below what I was actually capable of. I settled in well.
I used the corporate gym members and was a member of a number of martial arts clubs. Bartitsu, reality based, BJJ, HEMA, as well as a shooting club. I had to keep my training up. Keep my skills sharp. But it’s hard to say sharp when your mission is to live in to a population that isn’t out to get you, where there aren’t enemy agencies hunting you down. Hell, I didn’t even leave my country.
I picked the tech firm because the tech world is still predominantly male, most of whom have no real social skills, and therefore the chance of me meeting someone I wanted to get closer to was incredibly low.
Only it wasn’t. Within two weeks I was smitten. I tried to hide it, but Karen was a stunning strawberry blonde with the sick sort of humour that I had. She was also active; horse riding and martial arts being two of her hobbies. She was everything I’d ever wanted in a woman. The fact that I’d been ordered to not get close to her made it all the more inevitable that I would.
And so I sat there, looking at my watch as is glowed orange, trying to keep it away from my three-month-old daughter’s chubby hands, wondering how the hell I was going to tell Karen the truth. Three fucking years I’d been waiting for the call. Three. I waited one year before I got with Karen. Another before I married her. Our daughter was a happy surprise. Not that my superiors agreed. I think by that time they’d all but given up on trying to create emotionless robots. After all, if we can’t empathise with the people we’re supposed to help, what’s the point? Didn’t stop them from chewing out my arse.
I stared at my watch. At that moment I wanted to smash it. To deny that I’d ever seen it glow. Only I couldn’t. This was my calling. I’d been approached by agents of the Strategic Homeland Division, vetted before I even knew they were interested in me, trained in secret and then sent back to normal life.
‘Why’s your watch glowing?’ I hadn’t realised that Karen had entered the room. She was supposed to be catching up on sleep after the baby had spent five hours crying straight through the night. My stomach flipped. Damn I felt sick.
‘It’s work. I’ve got to go. Manhattan,’ the words stuck in my throat, my mouth dry.
‘Go where? Are you fucking kidding me? People are dying out there. There’s even rumours that rioters are on the streets in Brooklyn. It’s spreading. Why does a tech company need one of their nerds to go into the fucking apocalypse?’
I winced as her voice rose. She had a set of lungs on her that my platoon sergeant would have killed for. It set the baby crying.
‘That’s not my real work.’ There, I’d said it. For three whole years I’d wanted to say it. I’d thought, naively, that saying it would lift a weight from my shoulders. Looking at her face, I wished I could un-say it.
‘What?’ she took the baby from me and hugged her tight, sea-green eyes pinning me to the spot. I stood as she did so, not wanting to let go, wanting an extra second of contact with my daughter.
My stomach cramped and I wished it was me she was holding.
‘That’s not my real job. It’s a cover I’m..’ she didn’t let me finish.
‘What a spy? You’re going to tell me you’re a spy, grabbing their corporate secrets?’
‘No love. I work for the government. When things go wrong like they have in Manhattan, it’s up to us to clear things up.’
‘Is your name even Dave?’
‘No.’ Even holding the baby she was able to hit me hard enough that I took three steps to regain my balance. She had a mean right hook and it had landed full on. I’d forgotten how fast she was. Christ, I loved her.
‘I deserved that. I’m sorry. My name is Johannus Ericksson. My parents are dead, that part is true. They died when I was a Ranger,’ she didn’t know that I was a veteran either. She did a double-take at that. We’d had the chance to tell people the truth about our past. I thought it would be easier if I built up a completely new life. How wrong could I be?
‘Get. The. Fuck. Out.’ Tears streamed down her face as she took one last look at me and ran into the bedroom, slamming the door shut.
I want to the under stairs cupboard, removed the false panel and took out my go bag. Pulling out a radio, I slotted in my earpiece and toggled the send button.
‘This is Ericksson. En route.’ Dashing away the tears on my cheeks I grabbed my stuff and left, abandoning my family during the worst humanitarian disaster in American history.
‘Don’t get so fucking close!’ A 50-something suit shouted in face, actually trying to push me back as the queue for the train station exit surged.
Sure, tensions were high and people were worried about catching The Green Plague, but it wasn’t as if there was anything I could do about it. I didn’t want be rubbing up against someone that smelt as bad as he did. So when he placed his hand on my chest, something snapped. Some things snapped actually.
He screamed, dropping his Buckstar Americano as he clutched at his broken wrist.
‘Learn some fucking manners.’
I stepped past him, pushing through the crowd, trying to catch the attention a couple transit cops stood at the head of the queue. They were on edge. Batons in both hands, their eyes darted over everyone and no-one. Masks covered their mouths.
One finally spotted me as I sharpened my elbows and people started crying out.
‘Hey, buddy! Quit shoving, and wait your turn!’ The cop was shitting himself. Probably pissing his pants about getting ill; wishing he was at home with his family. I knew exactly how he felt.
I held my ID wallet up, my shiny SHD badge drawing his eyes like a fly to shit.
‘Homeland. Get me out of this station and get me a car. Now.’
‘About fucking time! Good to see you Ericksson!’ Dom Driffel pulled me into a massive hug. My back popped, fortunately in a good way. He was strong. Surprisingly so for a geography teacher. Climbing kept him in shape it seemed.
‘Hey man,’ Cloudy Knight waved from across the room. That wasn’t her real name, but she’d liked it and insisted we call her by it. As ever she looked completely chilled out, chugging a beer down as quickly as she could.
‘Thought you weren’t supposed to be drinking?’
‘I’m not, but my cover as a lapsed Muslim has caused some seriously bad habits. It’s my last one. It’s the last one we’ll have for a long time.’ She drew “long out:, actually having to take breath. Then she belched. I could have sworn the windows rattled.
‘Ooops,’ she and Driffel both laughed. They were the grunts of the squad. Driffel’s favourite weapon was the M-60, Knight was our marksman and close-in SMG specialist. Between the two of them they could assault or suppress targets at will.
The last member of our squad was Phil ‘Mad’ Zendar. I’d asked him where the surname came from and had then promptly forgotten it. He’d got the nickname ‘Mad’ because he was up for anything when it came to Parkour. Point at it and he would climb it, scale it, flip over it or jump off it. Mad. I preferred to keep both my feet on the ground.
‘Good afternoon good sir,’ Zendar was always the gentleman and could grow a beard in a day. He was impeccably turned out in casual attire, a cravat puffing over his jumper, ‘Catch.’
I caught. It was a field dressing. Zendar was our medic. The best I’d ever come across.
‘Thanks. Gear check in 30 minutes.’ I started laying my gear on the coffee table nearby. I was the tech guy. I deployed turrets, seeker mines, called out all of the targets and interfaced my smart lenses with their weapon systems, improving situational awareness and their ability to hit vital targets as quickly as possible.
Picking up a seeker mine, I huffed on if, buffing away some speck of dust. I’d named each one of them, this was Christine. It’s sick, I know, but the way that they chirruped as they acquired targets made me empathise with them. I’d had them all through training, using dummy explosives to mark a kill, and now I’d get a chance to use them in anger. I’d be lying if I said wasn’t curious to see what they did to a human being.
‘Here.’ Driffel dropped a belt of 7.62mm rounds next to me, ‘I’m going to need you to carry these. Everyone is.’ The M-60 had a relatively slow rate of fire, but it still burned through ammunition so if we could carry extra rounds to feed it, we would. Driffel was an artist with that gun. He once boasted that he’d signed his name on a wall with one. I believed him.
‘You got a bad feeling about this?’ It was a shitty question. A good leader should never voice doubts, but we’d known each other long enough for me to know he was off kilter.
‘We’ve all got a bad feeling about this. Wave 1 is what .. fucked? There was never really supposed to be a Wave 2. Adele is fucking pissed.’
Driffel had also disobeyed the don’t get attached order. As had Zendar.
Cloudy looked over to me with a somewhat smug smile, ‘Jane freaked out too. She was so fucking excited. It was hot.’ I could have smacked her in the face for that. But then I’d have had to sleep with one eye open for the rest of eternity. There was an edge to Cloudy that had even the most hard-bitten instructors tip-toeing around her.
‘It’s time for us to earn our second salary. You know, the one where we pay no taxes and get to retire on when we reach 45?’
‘Yeah, like we’re ever going to get that old!’ she said.
We all laughed at that. People were dying in droves in Manhattan. The plague had brought New York City to its knees. There were rumours of rioters, escaped prisoners and mercenaries gone wild. And we were being dropped in there. Our life expectancy was in days now, not years.
‘Check your gear. Make sure you’re ready.’
I loved helicopter rides. Swooping over the land as its blades cut through the air, defying all attempts by gravity to pull us back down. Usually the view was pretty cool too. Not this one. Manhattan was a mess. Smoke rose from buildings where someone had died and left the stove on, or dropped a cigarette onto their chair. There were no emergency services able to fight those fires. The Joint Task Force, aka JTF, was doing its best, but they weren’t tasked with firefighting. To be honest, I was a bit unsure what they were tasked with as they’d done such a shit job in central Manhattan. So shit that everyone had pulled out of there.
‘Two minutes!’ I jumped out of my skin as the gunner’s voice blasted into my headset. I thought I’d hidden my surprise well as I gave her a thumbs-up, but the shit-eating smile on her face said otherwise.
Our mission was simple. We were to set up a safe house. A staging post if you like. From there other Wave 2 agents would be able to get supplies and be tasked with missions. On paper it looked like a walk in the park. Looking at the chaos below us, I knew it would be anything but.
The helicopter suddenly lurched to the side, then dropped so fast that my stomach felt like it was trying to climb out of my nose. I snatched at the aptly named grab rail as we banked sharply.
The gunner was screaming in my ears. I looked over, seeing that Zendar was slapping a dressing onto what remained of the woman’s arm. Light streamed through holes that hadn’t been there seconds before, caused by heavy calibre rounds that had stitched their way across the cabin, the noise hidden by the thunder of the engines.
The helo nosed down again and my stomach flipped as I experienced a moment of negative g, weightlessness, before dropping back down onto my seat so hard my teeth clacked.
I ripped off my headphones and clambered towards the cockpit.
‘We’re dropping you there. That dock. Hudson,’ yelled the pilot before I even had a chance to ask them what the fuck they were doing. A horrible grinding was coming from the engine and I knew better than to insist they stay on mission.
‘Well, fuck me,’ said Cloudy as we watched the helo lurch into the sky. They had barely touched the skids to the ground before they were screaming at us to disembark.
All of the additional supplies we were supposed to have had were rapidly vanishing into the distance.
‘Suck it up babyface, we’re over 500 metres from our objective, and in hostile territory. Focus on what needs to be done, not what has been done.’
She flipped me the bird as soon as I’d finished talking. Guess I deserved it
Warehouses were dotted all over the dockyard, with shipping containers and abandoned vehicles everywhere. Lines of sight were good in some places, poor in others. The potential for an ambush would have had my instructors drooling.
‘Diamond pattern. Driffle on point, Zendar at the rear.’
Driffel set off, as soon he was about 10 metres in front, myself and Cloudy, the ‘side’ points of the diamond started walking, angling ourselves away so that there was 20 metres between us. I heard Zendar start to walk once we too were far enough away from him.
The diamond pattern was a good formation. It gave us all round visibility with the ability to react to any threat regardless as to where it came from. If any one of us came under fire, they would take any cover they could and return it whilst the rest of us work our way towards them until we were in an extended line with one member just behind the rest.
I looked up. Driffel had his secondary weapon – an M416 up – and was aiming in the direction of the contact. A group of men in what looked like orange jumpsuits and heavy winter jackets had just stepped out from behind a shipping crate. They were walking perpendicular to us and it looked like they hadn’t spotted us. Yet.
Driffel slung his rifle and unslung his M-60, a grin stretching across his face.
‘Rikers. Confirmed that they’re Rikers.’
My mouth went dry. It always did when I had to start earning my pay. Putting it simply, I was paid to kill the enemies of America. Who those enemies were was decided by people much higher up than me. Those men – and possibly women – in front of us had been declared enemies of the state. I had to kill them. Damn I needed a piss.
‘Get to the concrete barrier, double-time.’
The barrier was only a few metres in front of Driffel. As the rest of us sprinted towards his position, he was already popping out the bipod of his M-60 and resting it on the top of the barrier.
I pulsed the targets, my Intelligent System Analytic Computer- otherwise known as ISAC – immediately identifying threats and feeding that information to the others. That in turn would be fed into their weapons, allowing them a modicum of smart tracking.
Dropping onto the snowy ground, I let my kneepads take the impact as I slid across the ice-covered concrete and into the cover of the barrier.
‘Cloudy, you call it.’
‘Fat fucker at the front is mine. Mad, take the rear. Driffel and Ericksson engage the centre. Three, two, one. Boom! Headshot!’
She was right. Fat Fuck’s head blew apart, blood, brains and skull fragments filling the air.
Tracer ripped through the air from Driffel’s M-60, falling short by a couple of metres before he rapidly walked it up and into the enemy patrol. The heavy slugs were devastating, a Cold-war calibre that was designed to kill everyone and everything. I watched as a knee hit blew one of the enemy’s legs off before yet more bullets sent blood and clothing puffing into the air, killing the Riker before they even finished hitting the ground.
They were good. The enemy that is. They reacted well after their initial surprise. Sure we’d caught them in the open, but they moved to cover and returned fire. They also moved towards contact, their return fire becoming more and more accurate.
‘Shit!’ Driffel. I looked over, blood streamed through concrete powder where a chip had cut him on the forehead.
‘Zendar, check on Driffel.’
‘Ha, it’s just a flesh wound,’ Zendar wasn’t the most sympathetic medic I’d met. I trusted his judgement however. So did Driffel. The M-60 continued to lay down fire.
I called out targets and the team started to take them down. Any piece of exposed flesh was targeted. A hit to the foot caused one of the enemy to fall forward. He was dead before he hit the ground as all three of us got a shot in.
Then it was quiet. Ten or so of the enemy lay in the twisted positions that only corpses could achieve.
‘Are we clear?’
‘Negative. Two made it back behind the red Marsk container, thirty metres to our 11 o’clock.’
‘Hold position. Time to get my balls of steel out,’ we had a long way to go and if this fight was any indicator, I didn’t want to risk losing any of my team this early into the mission. Hunting psychopathic prisoners in a warren of shipping containers was a good way to lose people for no gain. The Rikers weren’t our mission, the safe house was.
Reaching into one of my many pouches, I pulled out a smart mine. It was Christine.
‘Go get’em baby.’
I lobbed her as far as I could. It was a good throw. She landed heavily and rolled forward a couple of more metres before stopping. I pulsed again, highlighting the enemy. She gave a happy little chirp as she started to roll. Slowly at first, then faster as she neared them.
There was a series of firecracker-like explosions, sub-munitions leaping a few metres into the air before detonating. The enemy didn’t have a chance. The firestorm that descended upon them set everything alight, whilst the force of the explosion that gave birth to it sent their flaming corpses wheeling through the air.
I pulsed one more time. Nothing.
Climbing over the barrier, we set off once more. We were The Division, and we had a mission to do.
Read part two; Safehouse