The convoy rolled along, the radio operators barking as the line went dead. The gunners kept their eyes peeled, focusing on the far horizon where the flashes of muzzle fire had suddenly ceased. They moved at a quickened pace, the Humvees and escorting LAVs rolling along on the ridge. After several failed attempts, the CO got on the line with the rest of the platoon and issued new orders.
“Keep your eyes peeled. We’re entering the ballpark. Our orders are to dispatch all-“
The communique barely got out when the convoy came to a sudden halt. The lead LAV that led the way suddenly ceased to be there, and fireballs engulfed two of the Humvees seconds later. Those that remained began to bring their guns about, seeking out whatever enemy they could. From the front convoy, troops jumped from their burning vehicles and began rolling on the ground, trying to suppress the flames that were catching on their uniforms.
Those who managed to get out and bring their weapons to bear weren’t standing long, as a black streak flew through them and knocked them clear into the trees. The grunts in the rear deployed from their vehicles as well and began searching the skies. Whatever had hit them had to have come from above.
“What the hell was that?” asked the squad leader.
No one answered. Whatever hit them seemed to be beyond the realm of their experience…
* * *
“First pass, a success!”
Angel looked at Judgement’s beaming face and his bared teeth. Taking out armored vehicles clearly agreed with him. A quick look at Bonfire told her that he was having fun too. Already, a second volley of flames was forming in his palms, slowly trickling up his forearms.
“Any plans for a second pass?” she asked.
“Can’t leave their friends there unattended,” replied Judgement. “Same as before? I charge the LAV, you guys take out those grunts?”
“I’ll handle the grunts,” said Angel. “After our pyrotechnic friend here sets the vehicles ablaze.”
Bonfire nodded. It seemed they had a consensus. Even if they had walked into a trap, this aspect of the operation was going well at least. The Captain had paired them well, letting the three of them hold up the rear. Who knew they’d be of the most use back here?
“Alright,” she said. “We’re a go. On three…”
Everyone dug their heels in and made ready to pounce. She counted them off.
“One… two… “
She scarcely got it out before they were off again. Moving as fast as his telekinesis enhanced legs could, Judgement slammed into the remaining LAV, sending it rolling sideways onto the side of the hill. The grunts before it turned to open fire, only to find themselves engulfed in flames as their vehicles gas tanks went up. Their torment was shortlived though, as an unseen force reached down and plucked them out of the fireball, hurling them up into the air and bringing them down hard on the dirt. Their flames extinguished, but bodies smashed, they simply lay there and cried out in pain.
Bonfire, Judgement and Angel landed together a few meters away, looking up their handiwork. Two armored vehicles, four Humvees, and about two dozen armed soldiers. All neutralized, and without a single death…
“The Captain would be proud of us!” said Bonfire. Angel smiled, but quickly stopped as a new sound took to the skies. Aside from her, there was nothing in this sector that ought to be flying about the heavens. And the noise wasn’t exactly coming from the direction of the warehouse either.
“Oh dear…” she said. To the east, a telltale profile was visible, a flying dorito that at the very edge of visibility.
* * *
Smackdown eyed the door tightened his grip on his weapon. He could feel the handles getting slick from sweat, and his legs were beginning to cramp up from standing poised for so long. He placed his finger to his ear and contacted Atrum again.
Atrum was a second in replying. The panel he was tending to had become a mess of tangled wires, every circuit exposed and rerouted one way or another.
“I’m almost there,” he said, breathing heavily. “Just a few more connections.”
Smackdown grunted and looked back at Tsunami. Aside from Styka, who had stayed behind to watch Atrum’s back, everyone was assembled in the facilities main chamber and waiting for the final security door to open. Of all of them, she seemed to be the least interested to see what was on the other end. At least that was the impression he was getting from her. Her face was stony and still, her body still fluid and ready to move at a moment’s notice.
It didn’t make sense to him. He could feel his heart racing and his feet itching at the mere thought of what lay beyond them. Every second that passed made his nerves that much more raw and frayed. How was it she was enduring this with such apparent calm?
Or was that merely what she was projecting, he wondered. Everyone suspected she would be the most interested party in their group. Perhaps she sought to prove them wrong. Perhaps she simply didn’t want them to see how much it was effecting her. Then again, Smackdown wondered if he was simply projecting all that onto her because he was sick and tired of waiting…
A loud clank answered his call and the door began to slide open. Smackdown breathed a sigh of relief just as Atrum’s delayed reply came through.
“It’s done, Captain! The last of the security seals is down. The doors should be opening.”
“They are…” he said happily. “Standby!”
He waited as long as he could. As soon as the large steel doors slid open wide enough, he moved forward and squeezed himself through. On the other side, a wide atrium sat, a small set of steps leading to a narrow corridor that went on for what looked like an indefinite distance. Smackdown could tell from the way the warehouse hugged the earth that this tunnel led deep underground. No one could say from this vantage point just how deep it went…
He was followed close behind by the rest of the team. Erotica, Pax, Freedom, Panacea, and of course, Tsunami. Moving fast, she maintained a certain fluid grace as she poured through the doorway and kept close behind. He glanced at her only once as they made their way deeper to the interior, the long, dimly-lit corridor stretching on even farther into the earth. Forced to move in a single line, they pushed forward, following the tunnel onward and onward…
“Captain…” his earpiece buzzed. “Captain… are you there?”
Smackdown put his finger to his ear. He stopped in his tracks and motioned for the team to stop. The interference was already quite extreme.
“Atrum, is that you? What’s wrong?”
“…barely hear you, Captain… I think we got trouble… I’m sensing something… something bad…”
The link cut out shortly thereafter. Smackdown removed his finger from his ear and frowned. He tapped at the earpiece several times, hoping that might somehow correct the signal. He repeated Atrum’s name several times over, releasing his hold so as not to tie up the line in case a reply came through. When he heard Atrum’s voice again, he sounded far more urgent, and far more garbled.
“…Angel’s contacting… Enemy’s… incoming… we have to …!”
“Atrum?” he asked, as soon as the line went dead. He waited for several more seconds, but to no avail. “Atrum?!” He released his hold on the link. Given their current position, the interference was just too great. But he didn’t need to hear the message in its entirety to know that something was wrong. He took another look down the corridor, and then back the way the way they had come.
“Trouble…” he muttered
“What’s that, Captain?”
Smackdown looked to Panacea. “Something’s wrong up above. I want you, Erotica, and Pax to head back. The rest of us will press on.”
Panacea nodded and looked to the others he had ordered back. A single nod passed between them, and they began doubling back with a purpose. Alone, Smackdown looked to the one team member that remained. Tsunami was still unreadable. He chanced to ask her one last time.
“You okay with this, stormy lady?”
She took a deep breath, but her expression didn’t change. “You’re call, Captain. I can go on alone if you want. You don’t have to be down here. It’s not like the answer to your origins that might be down that way.”
Smackdown frowned. He couldn’t help but feel that there was a trace of mockery in her tone. Thus far, he had given her a wide birth, but at this juncture, he just wasn’t in the mood.
“What the hell is going on with you, Tsunami? We’re could be on the verge of finding out what happened to you. Nobody else in this group has ever had that opportunity. Are you telling me you have no feelings on the subject?”
Her face twisted to form something new, something angry and borderline menacing. Smackdown’s fingers tightened around his weapon, the feeling that he might have something to fear from her suddenly occurring to him. Her words did little to lessen that suspicion.
“What difference does it make, Captain? Whether we find that artifact or not, my father is still just as dead. And you, you can’t know what that’s like. You take away that armor, that gun, and your strange sense of purpose, and you’re no different from the rest of humanity. So don’t pretend like you know what it’s like to be me.”
Smackdown’s fear passed. She had slighted him, but not in any physical way. Her assault struck him nevertheless, and hurt him on a much deeper level.
“You’re not the only one who’s lost someone, Hawa. I may not know what it is to be different, like you. But I know what its like to see someone you love die and not be able to do a damn thing about it. That kind of thing changes you. Whether or not it gives you special powers, you’re transformed all the same. And I know that if I had the chance to understand why that happened, I would snatch it up in a heartbeat.”
Tsunami’s face changed again. This time around, it seemed to soften a little; she even looked her expression might crack. But of course, no tears followed. It was clear she had stopped shedding those long ago…
“Fine, Captain. Maybe you do understand something of what I’m feeling right now. But I’m sick of people asking me about it, bugging me like they expect me to show them something. What I feel, that’s for me to know. What I want to learn, that’s for me too. Nobody else needs to worry about that.”
Smackdown waited for her to continue, eventually nodded and realized this was all he could expect from her right now.
“Alright, fine. You keep your mind on the mission, and I guess we’ll have no problem. You just be sure to let me know if you’re feeling yourself slip. I know how that is too…”
“I don’t have that problem,” she replied. “Let’s move on.”
* * *
She came upon the warehouse at last. Judgement and Bonfire were still a ways behind, but she expected them to catch up quickly. Even if they didn’t possess the gift of flight, fear and urgency was giving them all wings.
She spotted the open door around the top level, the bodies of Atrum and Styka filing out to wave her down. She descended quickly and came in for a landing a few meters away. Her boots landed hard on the concrete surface, cracking the surface and sending chips in all directions.
“How far is it?” asked Atrum. Angel looked up at the sky. The drone was almost directly overhead, its profile passing in front of the sun and becoming a tiny, blackened dot.
“Who can tell?” she said. “It’s so high up, it’d take me forever to reach it. Judgement doesn’t think he can do anything about it unless it fires on us.”
Atrum put his hand over his eyes and tried to get a glimpse of the thing. He shook his head and grunted.
“That’s not like any UAV I’ve ever seen. Who knows what kind of range it has? But I think it’s fair to say they’ve got us targeted.”
“We have to get the Captain out,” said Styka, decisively. “There’s nothing inside there. This whole op was one big trap.”
Atrum and Angel were about to voice their agreement, but another noise arose to interrupt them. All at once, their comms became active with the noise of new chatter. And while everyone else was busy tending to their earpieces, Atrum was receiving a message of a different kind.
[It’s me. What’s going on up there?]
[We’ve got company] Atrum shot back. [A high-altitude UAV. And it’s got us in it’s sights.]
“Where’s the Captain?” asked Angel through her comm. “Inside? What are they still doing in there?” She released her hold on the comm and looked at Atrum and Styka with bewilderment. “What the hell are we supposed to do?”
Atrum concluded his psychic conversation with Pax and came back to them. “They’re out of comm range. We have to go back in there and pull them out before -“
A loud noise cracked overhead, followed by several more. They all looked up, and spotted the plumes of smoke which were descending towards them. It didn’t take long for them to realize that the drone was well within striking distance, and was firing on them with everything it had.
“Oh shit,” said Angel. She did a quick count of the plumes and looked out at the treeline. Judgement and Bonfire were still well away, and the only other people with the ability to take to the air were still deep inside. She looked back to Atrum and Styka. “Anybody want to tell me how the hell are we going to stop twelve missiles?”
No answer. But then again, she hadn’t been expecting one…