Lone Star – Chapter 21

Morgan was in his quarters, alone, sitting at his little writing desk and finishing typing up his report- the second of these, he reminded himself.  The official report had left numerous details out, lying by omission but also at the orders of his superior officer.  This one was the unofficial report, and carried every detail.  It wasn’t meant for the official record, and most likely wouldn’t be read by more than a dozen people.  He’d written most of it down the night it had happened, but hadn’t sent it right away, preferring to wait and re-read it to make sure he hadn’t missed anything.  Claval would see to the disposition of this report.  Morgan wasn’t sure how he felt about that- he guessed there was an even chance that his report would go to Lab Administration, and be seen by no one else.  There wasn’t anything in his report that could be used against him, but it still made him feel nervous, knowing.  Knowing was sometimes enough.

His personal computer sat on the desktop, docked inside a full-size keyboard and monitor so he could type more comfortably and to let his PC recharge.  He leaned forward in his chair, retrieving the thin green cable for the wired connection from the back corner of the desk.  He plugged this directly into his PC, waited a moment for the computers to recognize each other, and sent off his report.  A copy of it would go back to Chi-Town, along with his other reports.  It self-encrypted, then sped off to its destination.  He sighed, wondering what ISS was going to do with the information he’d collected so far – up until this one, his reports hadn’t carried news of anything incriminating.  He wondered if ISS would be intrigued by the internal politics of a General’s renegade son being executed by order of the facility administrator.

His computer beeped, signaling a new message.  His ‘handler’ back in Chicago had already replied.  The message was simple, and nearly the same as all his others; continue to observe, attempt to make contacts in the lower lab complex.  He shook his head.  Being part of Internal Security Service wasn’t all that different than being in Special Forces, he chuckled to himself.  The guys on the front lines rarely knew the end-use of the information they gathered, any more than Morgan had really known the reasons behind his missions when he was posted up North.  He disconnected his PC, then stood and headed out the door and toward the exercise center.  His favorite way to burn off stress was weightlifting.

*****

James and Connor were taking turns bench-pressing when he got there. A dozen or so other soldiers were grinding out there workouts, in a gym that could easily support four times that number.  Morgan began stretching out his shoulders as he approached them- he had planned on doing his chest-and-back workout that day, also.  James sat up, having finished a set, and nodded at his Captain.  Then he turned around to look at Connor, still standing behind the rack in the spotter’s position.

“You want another plate on there?” he asked.

Connor shook his head.  “No, 275 is enough for me.”

Morgan smirked at him.  “Don’t let that orange hair fool you, James- he can bench whatever he wants.  He just doesn’t want you to feel like a wimp.”  McInsley got up, laughing, and Connor shook his head, coming around to sit on the bench.

“And what do you bench, sir?” Connor smiled, knowing the answer before he asked.

“A whopping 185 pounds, Lieutenant.  How many sets of pull-ups will it take you to get to 50?”  Morgan had always focused his weight training on his back, and pull-ups were the first thing on his list.

Connor knew this as well as anyone.  “I might be able to do four in a row,” he said, smirking.  James laughed again, and then Connor laid back on the bench and got his grip on the bar.  Morgan walked a few steps to a Squat rack that had pull-up grips on the top.  By the end of his first set, the stress was already bleeding away.  Joking with his LTs didn’t hurt, either.

Within a half-hour, the three of them had converged their workouts, and were taking turns doing Deadlifts.  James needed some help correcting his form, but it was easy to get assistance- there was always a trainer on duty in the gym. These men and women were usually Sergeant-Major rank, and had decades of experience helping officers lift weights.  At the time, it was a bear of a man named Linus Borreadt, taller even than Connor and sporting a huge, waxed moustache that Morgan couldn’t believe was within regulations.  His other affectation was that he never wanted to be referred to by rank when he was in the gym.  To him, in the weight room or the boxing ring, all men and women were equals.

Morgan was on his last set of Barbell Rows when he noticed a Corporal in uniform, scanning the weight room.  He shook his head, then hoisted the bar and did his set, making sure he finished his workout, just in case the Corporal had been sent for him and his team.

As it turned out, he was right.  The young woman approached him as he finished, doing the courtesy of standing well back until he’d set down the bar.  She was young, tall and thin, and had black hair tied back in a tight bun.  His first impression was that she was just Connor’s type, and he threw a glance at his Lieutenant to see if he’d noticed her.

“Captain?” she said.  The mention of rank earned a disapproving glare from Linus, but he let it go when he saw her in uniform.  Those on duty were forgiven.  “You’re needed up in ready-room 5, in about 30 minutes.  Major Claval needs your team on a mission this evening.”

He looked at her, askance.  James and Connor were moving his way, presuming they’d need to hear whatever summons their Captain had been given.  “30 minutes?  A mission this evening?  You mean we’re not in a mad rush to get out on the flight-line?”

The Corporal smiled, which was rare for the soldiers he was used to.  Few of them took his attempts at humor the way he intended.  “No, sir, no serious rush.  The ground team will be getting underway in about an hour, but will take another half-hour after that before they get in position, and need your team in the air.”

James caught the line of conversation immediately.  “Advance warning on a mission.  Must be a first.”

Connor piped up.  “I think it happened to us once, when we were at Iron Heart.”

This caught the Corporal’s attention, and she turned to look up at Connor for a moment before returning her gaze to Morgan.  He cocked his head.  “Something wrong, Corporal?”

“No, sir- I’m from Iron Heart, and don’t meet many people from there.”

Morgan smiled.  He knew Connor would pursue this line of conversation- he’d been without a ‘significant other’ since long before their transfer.  He also wasn’t above following a soldier he wasn’t familiar with in hopes of getting to know them.  Trusting Connor to stay within regulations, at least while the Corporal was on duty, Morgan decided to exit the conversation.  “30 minutes?”

“Yes, sir,” she said, returning to business.  “Ready room 5.”  She turned, and made her way out of the exercise room. Connor’s gaze followed her, a little too far.

Morgan shouldered his Lieutenant, smirking at him.  “You boys finish up your workouts.  I’ll come get you, or send someone down, when its time for your briefing.”  He started to put the weight plates back onto their respective racks, but Linus patted his shoulder.

“You go ahead, Morgan, I’ll clean this up for you.”  The huge man started unloading the bar, carrying two plates at a time back to the rack they’d come from.

“Thanks, Linus.”  He headed for the elevators, then noticed Connor keeping pace with him.  He smiled, then slowed to let his man catch up.  “Not going to finish?”

“Nah, I was almost done.  I’ve got something to check up on.  I’ll see you upstairs.”

Morgan laughed, pushing the elevator call button.  “Good luck, Lieutenant.  And don’t scare her off.”

“Yes, sir.”

*****

He entered Ready-Room 5, in his undress uniform, precisely 28 minutes after his summons.  He’d showered, groomed himself up to standards, and made his way down to the pilot’s briefing rooms quickly.

Upon entering, he’d wished he’d spent a little more time grooming himself.  The three people waiting for him were all above him in rank, and one of them was a Lieutenant Colonel.  All of them had pilot’s wings.  None of them were familiar to him.

“Good afternoon, Captain, I’m Major Feingreld,” one of the officers said, extending her hand.  “You look surprised to see us.”

He shook her hand, still looking confused.  “Well, I thought I was attending a briefing for a mission tonight.  If I’d known it was you officers waiting for me, ma’am, I’d have spent a little more time getting shined up.”

She chuckled, then motioned to her associates.  “This is Major Ingrid.  We’re from General Olson’s office.  And this is Lt. Colonel Murphy.”

Morgan’s eyebrows rose.  He was glad he’d let his confusion show earlier.  It was masking the tension he felt wash over him at the mention of the General.  “Lt. Colonel, it’s a pleasure to meet you,” he said.  “One of my Lieutenants has been hoping to meet you since we transfered here.”  Buck Murphy was as close to a living legend as anyone in the CS military.  If any SAMAS pilots had earned the title of ‘Ace’, it was him.  Morgan shook his hand, thinking that Connor would probably ask if he’d gotten the Colonel’s autograph.

“Captain,” Murphy replied.  “Please have a seat.”  The two Majors moved chairs around to form a small circle, and seated themselves.

“We don’t have too much time, Captain,” Major Ingrid said.  “We’ve been sent from General Olson’s office, to try to shed some light on what happened to his son, Garret.”

Morgan nodded.  You got here sooner than I’d thought you would, he thought.

“During our investigation,” Major Feingreld said, “we’ve asked permission to interview the members of the Mutant Containment and Recovery team that found him, as well as members of your own unit.  All those requests have been denied, first by Major Claval, but later on, from higher up the ranks than him.”

“I find that odd, ma’am,” Morgan said.  “I don’t see why you’d be denied that permission, at least from my personnel.  We were each asked to file an official report of the encounter.”

“Yes, we’ve read them,” Major Ingrid said.  The effect of the two of them, taking turns speaking, was making Morgan feel like he was the subject of an interrogation.  “They more or less agree with Major Claval’s report- that you located Olson and his companions, just moments after they’d been ambushed and killed by a fair sized group of mutant rats.”

“Yes, sir.”

“You and your SAMAS squad were on the scene before Claval and his team, yes?”

“Yes, we were ordered to go forward and land in front of them.  We dropped out of the sky, intending to shock them into surrender.” Morgan shrugged.  “We shocked the rats instead, apparently- they dispersed.”

“Yes, that’s how your report reads.”  Major Ingrid looked at his personal computer unit, apparently having pulled the official reports up and reading over a section of them.  “Now, no one in your squad fired a shot, correct?”

“That’s correct, sir.”

“But the rats dispersed?”

“I don’t believe they would have lasted long, had they chosen to open fire on us, sir.  Fleeing the scene was the prudent thing for them to do.”

Major Ingrid smiled.  “Can’t say I disagree there, Captain.  The only one in the whole encounter who did fire a shot turns out to be Major Claval.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Five shots, it turns out.”  Major Ingrid was sitting stone still, his eyes locked on Morgan.  “Did you see Major Claval discharge his weapon?”

This, Morgan thought, was going to be a stretch of the truth, and this Major is an investigator, no question.  He’ll pick up an outright lie in an instant.  Good thing Major Claval had anticipated this meeting.  He might be a killer, but he isn’t keeping his job by being stupid.

“Yes, sir, I did.  The explanation may take some time, sirs- while returning to base, we were ambushed by vampires.  This is in the report, so I won’t go into too much detail.  But my squad engaged the vampires directly while Major Claval and his team hit the afterburners to get back here to base.  After returning, I queried my SAMAS computer to see if all of the Major’s team had returned, and they had- all except for the Major himself.  This was the reason I took flight without getting full permission from Control.”

“Yes, that’s also in the report.  Continue, Captain.”

“My SAMAS unit didn’t report the Major’s position at first, and guessed he had turned off his locator beacon.  Not long after I left, it reappeared, and I found him near an abandoned metal building, perhaps 15 kilometers from the outer perimeter.  I saw the flash of his weapon-fire from the air, at a distance.  My computer couldn’t identify who he was shooting at before they scattered.”

“His report says they were mutant rats, possibly the same ones that ambushed Garret Olson.”

Morgan nodded.  “That’s what he indicated to me, sir.”

Major Ingrid nodded, then looked over at Major Feingreld.  She spoke next.  “Now, at the scene, there was nothing left of the hoverbikes Olson and his friends had been riding.  NPD-14 residue was the only thing left.”

Morgan nodded again.  “Before they dispersed, the rats must have set the scuttling charges on the bikes.”

“Those devices have only been part of our arsenal for 6 months,” she said.  “How do you think the rats got ahold of them?”

Morgan shrugged.  “There’s been a black market for our weapons for decades, ma’am.  I don’t know how much time it takes for them to steal something new.”

“But if they were connected to the black market, why not loot from the hoverbikes?  Why scuttle them?”

“I don’t know how long they’d been there when we arrived, sir,” Morgan said evenly.  “They may already have ransacked the bikes, and didn’t want us to get anything back.”

“True.  They did leave the bodies, though.  All but one hit in the chest with a high-power energy weapon.  Garret himself looked like his head had been hit directly, and at close range.”

Morgan nodded.  “I don’t know how much warning they were given.  If I had been laying that sort of ambush, I would have hit them without any warning at all.  Not very sporting, but that’s how it’s done.”

Lt. Col. Murphy cleared his throat, and leaned forward.  “Captain, your description of events that night matches Major Claval’s, and everyone else in your squad.”  He sighed.  “But the lack of official information surrounding the orders leading your team, and the MCR team, out to that scene, has led many people to wonder if the official reports have been entirely truthful.”  He paused again.  “I knew Garret Olson- he and I went through a year of flight training together.  I’ve had occasional contact with him ever since.  His father asked me, personally, to inquire after his death.”  Another pause.  “While I don’t agree with Garret’s choices, he didn’t deserve the fate he met.”

I wish I could tell you how right you are, sir, Morgan couldn’t help thinking.  He merely nodded.

“I would consider it a personal favor if you could help us out, Captain.  Even if you could tell us where the orders originated, we could find out why we’ve been getting blocked from interviewing the two teams.”

Morgan nodded.  “I only know what Major Claval told me.  As a general rule, I know most of his instructions come from the Laboratory Administration- since his job is to hunt down their experiments.  But that’s no big secret.”

The Lt. Col. nodded.  “The orders do seem to point that direction, but once we get outside of military command structure and into the administration records, they get less specific.”

The two Majors looked at each other for a moment, then back at Morgan.  “Well,” Major Feingreld said, “thanks for speaking to us, Captain.”  She stood, and Murphy and Ingrid stood with her.  The Majors moved toward the door, but Murphy moved slower, waiting for Morgan to stand.  He extended his hand again, and Morgan shook it.

“If anything else that could help us comes to mind, Captain, don’t hesitate to contact me,” Murphy said.  His grip was stronger this time, but still friendly.  The Colonel turned to join the other officers at the door.  It took a moment for Morgan to realize that the Lt. Col. had slipped him something- he didn’t look at it, merely put it into his pocket.

Just in time, it turned out.  As Morgan turned to watch the officers leave, Major Claval entered the room, followed by his Sergeant.  The two investigating Majors moved past him, nodding their greetings, but Lt. Col. Murphy stopped for a moment, just looking at Claval for a long moment.  The expressions on both men was pure ice.  No words were spoken, and when the moment passed, Murphy moved on towards the door.  Claval closed the door behind them, then turned to Morgan.  He approached, slowly and quietly.

Morgan merely nodded.  “As you suspected, sir.”

“And you told them…”

“Precisely what’s in the reports, sir.  They’re suspicious, though.  I believe my orders from you are all that kept them from pressing their inquiry.”

Claval nodded.  “They won’t come after you, Captain.  I’m not the one they want, either.”  He looked back toward the door, then locked eyes with Morgan and took a step closer.  His voice lowered, but intensified.  “There’s always someone listening in on rooms like this one, and they’ll know if you said too much.  And you know it’ll be me that cleans up the mess that would cause.”

Morgan didn’t move.  He tried hard to keep his face from registering a reaction, because an outright threat always made his subconscious react the same way, and he didn’t want his expression giving away what he was thinking.  But at that point, the decision was made in Morgan’s mind.  Claval isn’t a pawn in this game.  He’s a bigger player.  Whoever else ISS picks up with their investigation, Claval has to go down with them.

Claval’s voice came back up to it’s normal volume, and the dangerous tone disappeared.  “Your squad will be here in a minute, but I’ll give you the short version in the meantime.”  He began to describe their mission for the night.

Morgan sighed, and nodded, listening but thinking at the same time.  He was still coping with the fact that he was complicit in covering up an outright murder.  And now his commanding officer felt the need to deliver an explicit threat.  He remembered Claval’s speech about trust on his first day, wondering how much trust-worthiness he could tolerate.

*****

Morgan’s squad sat along one side of the room. The other half of the ready-room was populated by Claval’s team- and most of them were mutant canines.  The two exeptions were Claval’s sergeant and an enormous mutant bear, who sat in the back of the room.  The briefing was quick, and within 5 minutes, they more or less had their mission figured out.  Two of the scientists from the lower lab complex had gone missing, and were believed to have been kidnapped- by mutant rats, it was believed.  Major Claval’s team was the easiest to send out after them- and had the most experience dealing with mutants.  Morgan and his group would act as air support.  They expected heavy resistance from the kidnappers, so this mission would be tricky.  The hostages were far more valuable alive- even to the mutant rats, who would find some way to profit from the scientist’s knowledge.  But that didn’t mean they wouldn’t get hurt in a cross-fire, or threatened if the rats were cornered.  The MCR team would be going out on hoverbikes again, escorting an armored personnel carrier that would carry the two scientists home. Morgan and his squad would lead the way.

“Pardon me, sir,” Connor said when the brief was over.  “But it seems like MCR has lately gotten a lot of work that the regular army should be handling.”

Major Claval smirked.  “I agree with you, Lieutenant, but these two we’re rescuing are part of the laboratory staff, not the military.  We take our orders through Administration, so I guess this is just a matter of keeping the event in-house.  There’s more to it here, though.  This is the second time that staff members from the lower laboratories have gone missing in as many weeks.  Last time it was a trio from downstairs- and it looked as though they’d run off on their own, instead of being kidnapped.  A ground team backed up by a SAMAS squadron was sent out after them, but the lab rats gave them the slip.  Lab Admin trusts our ability to find people, whereas regular Army troops specialize in breaking things.”  He paused for a moment.  “Any other questions?”

There weren’t.  The two squads rose from their seats.  The MCR ground team was more or less ready to move out as they were- Morgan hadn’t seen them wear anything but field uniforms.  The SAMAS squad headed for their lockers, to get suited up for flight.  They had plenty of time, and moved rather slowly for Special Forces troops.  They’d get pre-flighted soon, but wouldn’t head out unless Claval and his team ran into trouble on their way out.  Presuming no trouble, Shadow Flight would hit the flight deck in about an hour.

It wasn’t until he changed into his flight suit that Morgan looked at the object Lt. Col. Murphy had passed him.  It was a simple data storage device-  only four centimeters long and half that wide.  He slipped it into a pocket of the flight suit, then slipped it on quickly.  He followed the squad out into the hangar, looking around for Claval’s team as he walked.  He spotted them just as he reached his SAMAS unit- the group of hoverbikes was heading out the smaller set of doors.  The larger doors were already open- a pair of huge combat robots was marching inside, their shift apparently over.  One was an Abolisher, and Morgan smirked as he watched it turn its torso toward them as it stomped across the floor to it’s resting place, against the far wall.  It waved its right hand as it passed- it must have been Sergey’s sweetheart in the pilot seat.

Morgan stepped up to his own power armor unit, looking at the deck-hand who worked on it.  They looked at the monitors, then looked at Morgan and nodded once.  He glanced at the diagnostic monitor, but couldn’t make heads or tails of what it showed him- the data was swimming down the screen far faster than he could even read it.  He turned around, stepping backward into the boots, and facing the deckhand as they began closing the rest of the suit around him.  As the arms approached his, he pulled the tiny data storage unit out of his pocket, then inserted it into a port that would nestle near his chest.  The deck-hand paid no attention- many pilots would often interface their personal computers during flight.

“I can keep track of twenty squadmates in a dogfight, but I still can’t read your monitors,” he said, motioning his head toward the screens behind him.

The deckhand stopped for a moment, looking up at him instead of his armor.  He was surprised when she spoke- the suits they wore on the deck made it nearly impossible to tell whether they were guys or girls.  “It takes practice, Captain- most of it we learn to ignore, and skim through for the important stuff.  Error messages are mostly what we look for, and they’re highlighted.”

He nodded as the suit closed, and she secured it.  “Same with us, up in the air.  We just learn what to pay attention to.”

“Yes, sir,” she said, finished with the suit and turning to retrieve the helmet unit.  She set it in place, and a few moments later, Morgan was re-adjusting to the digital helmet display.  It took another five minutes for the armor to warm up- it had been a while since he had last been inside the armor while it was firing up.  He was used to being in a big rush, and having the deck-hands get his SAMAS warmed up and ready for him while he was getting briefed.  Not being in a rush felt almost wrong.  He smirked at that thought.  The deck-hand finally began detaching the diagnostic connections, then patted the suit on the shoulder and gave him a thumbs-up.  The rest of the squad was moving toward the smaller doors that led to the flight deck, passing the pair of giant Abolisher robots that had just ended their patrol.  Sergey stopped to wave at his sweetheart as she exited her machine.  She and her team needed only to climb down from their mount, and didn’t have a long ordeal to get on their own feet.  The SAMAS squad marched out onto the flight deck, letting Morgan move into the lead position.

“Allright, boys and girls, Lariat Team is about in position, and they’ll be waiting for us to move in.”  He looked around to make sure the deck was clear.  Flight control had already declared the air clear for them to lift off.  Morgan lit his thrusters, boosting himself into the air over 100 meters.

“Regis, are we linked up with Lariat Team?”

“Yes, sir, we are.  Your new data unit is unplinked with my system.  What shall I do with it?”

“Keep it off your own memory systems, please.  Just let me know what’s on there.”

“Sir, there is only one file on the device.  It is an audio file, no name or tag information.”

Morgan sighed, looking to each side at his squadmates.  They were in perfect formation, quietly moving North by Northeast.  Within three minutes they had overtaken Lariat Team, far below them.  The sun was going down, but they had at least an hour before before sunset.  The scattered trees were casting long shadows.  A few animals moved on the ground, here and there, but most of them were taking shelter from the night.

“Regis, how long until we get into range of our quarry?”

“Six minutes, sir,” she replied.

“Play back the audio file for me, but interrupt it for comm traffic if you need to.”

“Yes, sir,” she said.  After a pause, the internal speakers played back the voice of Lt. Colonel Murphy.

“Thank you, Captain, for taking the time to listen to this.  I won’t take long.  Air Command knows more than I could tell you openly- we know where Major Clavals orders came from, and we know what the orders were.  Those orders were to execute Garret and everyone in his group.  Garret Olson was not just a military brat who was stealing from the lab complex and using his daddy’s rank to get him out of trouble.  He was an agent, working undercover in the south to try to determine what sort of threat we’re facing from that direction.  His work led him to uncovering some disquieting aspects of the research going on at the Lone Star labs, and I believe the higher-ups in the lab administration had him killed to keep their secrets.  I’m telling you this because you’re relatively new to Lone Star, and may not have gotten drawn into whatever is going on down there.  I know Claval isn’t behind it, but he is up to his neck in it, and if he’s not a big part of it, then he’s scared to death of putting a foot wrong.  I’m telling you all this because I read both the official and un-official report behind the incident that got you transferred there, and I see the signs of someone willing to put their life on the line for the Coalition States, and their brothers and sisters in uniform.  Garret Olson was one of our brothers.  I need to find out what it was that he learned, that got him killed.  I need your help to do it.  If there’s anything I can do to help you, contact me through the direct-link embedded in this file.  Take care, Captain.”

Morgan shook his head.  He wouldn’t have been surprised to hear Murphy’s voice telling him all about his assignment to the ISS at that point.  How much could Murphy have found out?  How much pull did General Olson have back in Chi-town, or in the ISS?  Could Murphy be in a position to burn Morgan’s cover if he wanted to?  Or could he be in a position to help Morgan’s mission?  It occurred to him that the Lt. Col. was now undertaking a mission very similar to the one ISS had set upon his own shoulders.  This duty station was getting stranger and stranger.

“Captain, how is it that a group of mutant rats can get into the lower levels of the Lone Star lab complex and make off with a pair of high-rank researchers?” Connor asked.  “I mean, I couldn’t even get down there if I wanted to.”

“Lariat team, this is Shadow lead.  You linked into our comms?  You can answer that one better than I can,” Morgan said.

“Yes, Shadow team, we read you,” the reply came.  It was Claval.  “Sergeant, brief Shadow team on the local rodent situation, please.”

“Certainly, sir,” the purring voice answered.  “The mutant rats were originally created in the lower labs, but unfortunately were clever enough to make a mass escape.  This was many years ago.  They’ve bred just like unmodified rats, and have dug out a series of tunnels surrounding the underground labs, making a maze of smuggling and escape routes.  They use this to acquire weapons and gear to sell on the black market, and sometimes to gather information that they can sell.  No one is sure how they get access to the labs themselves, but they found a way.  And now, there are so many of them, around the lab and scattered throughout the surrounding area, that it wouldn’t be realistic to try to hunt them all down.”

“On a side note,” Claval spoke again, “the metal building I visited after our encounter with Olson was the exit point of one of those tunnels.  There are a dozen or so that I know of, but lots more that I don’t.”

Morgan turned his communications microphone off, and spoke directly to his computer.  “Do we have a co-ordinate location for that building, Regis?”

“Yes, sir,” came the reply.  Morgan immediately wondered how he could arrange a visit to that place.

Claval’s sergeant spoke again.  “These days, the rats can get into and out of Lone Star, but the human security down there keeps them from getting away with too much.  Actually kidnapping people, and getting them outside, is a new trick.”

Christine spoke up next.  “Lead, this is 3, I have a reading four kilos East-Northeast of us.  At least 9 warm bodies, maybe more, on the ground in a group.”

“Copy that, Shadow 3.  Lariat team, we’ll move in as planned.” Morgan sighed, turning his SAMAS to the East.

“We read you, Shadow team,” Claval’s voice replied.  “We have transport home rolling that way now.”

They flew over the beginnings of a fairly thick forest, the tall trees reaching up more than 50 meters in some places.  They were beginning to enter an area where the natural magic flowed more freely, and it was making the trees grow larger and stronger.  The sun was close to setting now, just peeking across the horizon behind them.

“This is 4, I’ve got a visual,” Gavin called out.  “One kilometer ahead, in a clearing.  Looks like some old ruins.”

“Roger, 4.  Shadow team, drop to the treetops, perimeter formation Delta.  Shadow 2, come down to the ground with me.” Morgan let gravity pull him down to within a meter of kicking the tops of the trees, swooping down close and getting ready to drop out of the sky again.  “I have two humans, 9 mutant rats, on an old concrete pad of some kind.  All units, hold your fire unless you need to stop the rats from killing the humans.”

He calculated in his head the best place to land, wondering if he could get between the rats and their prisoners.  They were too close for that to be practical.  Instead he selected a place flanking them, cutting thrust and folding his wings back.  Gravity and forward momentum did the rest.  Sergey took aim for a position on the far side of the group.

As he cleared the trees, he could see the situation wasn’t what they thought it was.  The rats had heard his team’s engines, but couldn’t see them yet.  They didn’t have weapons, at least not in their hands, but were scanning the skies to see where the threat was coming from.  The two scientists were seated, covered up with blankets near a small campfire.  Morgan landed within 5 meters of them, startling everyone in the area.  One of the scientists nearly threw his canteen at the other in surprise.  Morgan switched on his spotlights, dazzling the rats for a split second before Sergey landed on the other side.

The rats dashed in all directions, scattering into the woods.  There was a small ruin nearby, most likely an ancient fueling station, but there was little more than cement block walls left standing.  The two scientists were on their feet a moment later, looking from Morgan’s SAMAS over to Sergey, too shocked to speak.

Morgan commanded Regis to open his face-plate, and approached the pair.  “No need to be alarmed.  I’m Captain Grey.  We’ve come to rescue you.”  He turned his attention to the team overhead.  “Any chance of following the rats?”

“Not a good one, lead,” CC replied.  “They all went separate directions, everywhere except back toward the complex.  We might get one or two, but they’re finding cover from our sensors and laying low.”

Sergey took a position across the clearing, scanning the forest for threats.  The rest of the squad circled overhead.  Morgan moved closer to the scientists.  They were much shorter than his SAMAS, looking up at him with terrified, confused eyes.

“You’re safe now,” he said.  “My team says the rats are long gone.  A ground team is on its way with transport, ready to escort you home.”

“I don’t understand,” one of them said.  “They sent regular army out after us?”

“No, sir, we’re the air squad attached to MCR.  Major Claval is with the ground team, he’ll be taking you home.  We’ll cover you from the air.”

Their eyes got even wider.  They were both a bit overweight, Morgan thought, but had decent travelling clothes and enough gear around them to keep them comfortable in the wild, at least for a while.  Then an odd thought occurred to him, and he switched off his comm-link microphones just in time.

“Captain, if it’s Claval that was sent out here, he might have orders to kill us, not bring us back,” the first speaker said.  His companion nodded her head, emphatically.  “Look, we’ve been in jeopardy at our regular work for a while, and had to find a way to get out.  The rats were the only chance we had.”

Morgan’s thought had been correct.  “So they were helping you escape, not kidnapping you?  You’d better pretend to have been kidnapped, and quick, because that’s what everyone else is expecting to see.”

“But you’re going to take us back!” the woman exclaimed.  “We’ll be right back where we started.  We don’t even know if we’ll survive the road back!”

“Look,” Morgan said, drawing closer again. He bent forward just enough to put his face out of the line-of-sight of the rest of the squad.  Their audio sensors wouldn’t be able to pick up what he said.  “I might be in a position to help you.  If you have reason to try to escape the complex, then you’ve got information I need.  I’m Special Forces, attached to MCR, but I’m also in contact with ISS.  They’ve been trying to get information on whats going on in the lower labs for years, and I’m as close as they’ve gotten someone.  If you’ll help me out, I’ll do what I can to get you back to Chi-town, but I can’t do it tonight.  We’ve already reported in that we’d located you, so for now you’ve gotta go back.  Send me a thank-you note, via your personal computers, when we get back, and I’ll let you know what the next step is.  But for now, just act relieved to be rescued.  You won’t need to say anything, pretend you’re in shock.  Do your jobs, and keep your heads down.  And give me those backpacks- they’re a dead giveaway- you don’t get time to pack for a kidnapping.”  He grabbed one of them, turned and hurled it into the woods to the North.  The SAMAS’s strength was enough to put it well beyond the treeline.  He didn’t believe Claval would spend much time scouring the area- not with night coming on.  The woman handed over her own pack, and he hurled it Eastward.

“Regis, please send Sergey a secure text-line message asking him to keep quiet about what he’s seeing right now.  I’ll explain later.”

“Yes, sir,” the computer replied.

“Shadow team, any sign of hostile activity?”

Four negative reports came back, one after another.

Morgan switched over to the open channel, knowing that his transmission would get picked up back at the Lone Star complex.  “Lariat Team, this is Shadow Lead, I have our passengers safe and sound.  Kidnappers have dispersed into the woods, no shots fired.”  He switched back to the channel used by his team.  “Shadow 2, turn your lights off.  They’re just going to attract attention.”

“Roger, Lead,” Sergey replied.  The clearing darkened, and Morgan could barely see.  He closed his visor, giving his digitized vision back as well as his protection.  He turned back to the forest behind him, making sure nothing was creeping up on them.  It was seven tense minutes before Lariat team broke through the trees, six hover-bikes of different models escorting a small armored troop carrier.  The carrier turned sideward, opening the large door in the rear compartment.  Claval and his Sergeant strode out, armed with CP-40 rifles and scanning the trees.  They helped the two scientists into the machine, gave thumbs up to the two SAMAS on the ground, then climbed back inside.  The door closed, and the carrier started rolling again.  After it entered the trees, Morgan gave Sergey a nod, and the two lifted off the ground again, rejoining the rest of the squad.  They changed formation without being ordered to, Morgan thought with a smile.

It was a slow trip back to base, the squad flying a racetrack pattern around the carrier as it crept along the ground.  Once they cleared the heavy forest, they could speed up to 80 kph, but it was still slow for the SAMAS pilots.  They escorted the carrier to the outer perimeter, then across the base grounds to the main hangar.  The regular air patrols would cover them, but Morgan wanted to watch them all the way down.  When the carrier was inside, he and his team set down on the flight deck, then marched inside.  CC was the last to get to her tree, but as always was out of her suit first.  Morgan took his time getting out of the armor, pulling the data unit back out, slipping it into a pocket, then looking around for Major Claval and his team.  He spotted them, crossing the hangar toward him just as he’d expected them to.

“We need an after-action report on this one, Major?” he called across the noisy floor.

Claval smirked.  “Don’t think so, Captain, not tonight.  Our guests asked me to convey their thanks to you, and said you should expect an official thank-you from them and their department.  Dr Bradford himself left a message for me, saying thanks for bringing his people back.  He may drop you a line, too, he said- you don’t get upper-level attention bigger than that, at least not around here.”

Morgan nodded.  “Yes, sir.”

“Instead of an AAR, I’ll buy you and your squad a round in the officer’s lounge.  Sound good?”

“It sure does, sir.  I’ll see you there.”  Claval and his Sergeant walked back across the hangar, heading toward their own lockers.  Morgan stepped out of his power armor unit, patted his deck-hand on the shoulder, and walked toward the lockers.  He was just about to the door when his personal computer, still in the breast pocket of his flight suit, beeped.  James was holding the door open for him, but Morgan stopped in the doorway, holding it open with one hand while pulling out the computer.  With a few touches on the screen, he’d accessed the list of incoming messages.  There were three new messages; one from each of the ‘rescued’ scientists, and one from the office of Lab Administration.  They didn’t waste any time, Morgan thought, slipping the computer back into his pocket and entering the locker room.

Ten minutes and a shower later, he was entering his own quarters.  The rest of the squad was going to meet in the officer’s lounge, and they’d get started without him.  That was fine with him- most of them drank more than he did, anyway.  He sat at his desk, linking his computer into the monitor/keyboard interface and reading the new messages.

The note from Lab Admin was concise, written quickly as he had guessed, and praised him and his team for their fast work.  It wasn’t all that hard, Morgan thought to himself.  They hadn’t known how to stay hidden in the wild.  It wasn’t signed by anyone in particular, just the Lab Administration staff.  Morgan shrugged, then opened the next message.

Dr. Aaron Winters, Morgan thought, reading the personal thank-you message, pleased to make your acquaintence. The message was short, thankful, and was more or less what Morgan had wanted- a plausible excuse for someone on the lab staff to exchange contact information with a SAMAS pilot.  The other note was basically the same, signed by Dr. Belinda Nadlia.  He sent a reply to each of them, offering to meet for lunch or dinner in the next few days, inquiring about their schedules.  He then typed a quick note to his contact at ISS, then disconnected his PC and headed for the door.  He’d truly relax this evening, even if Claval made good on his promise of having a drink with them.

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