“That was nice back there.”
I looked at Hicks. We were on our way to the town’s central square and the residence of one Bailey Sandoval. “What?”
“Flirting with the vice president of an enemy country.”
“I wasn’t flirting.”
“She seemed to have a different idea. I think she was sweet on you.”
“Sweet on me? Who says shit like that? What are you, an old west cattle rancher? Did I put a hitch in her giddyup?”
“Don’t try to change the subject.”
I sighed. “It was not my intention to flirt with her. I was trying to get information. I can’t help it if the ladies love me.”
Hicks snorted. “They love you back in your Coke-bottle glasses days?”
“Especially then. I was so hot they couldn’t stand to talk to me. Just walked away or asked me to leave them alone. I didn’t hold it against them. There’s only so much chiseled manliness a woman can handle.”
“I’m beginning to wish I brought my entrenching tool.”
“To shovel my way out of your bullshit.”
There was movement a few blocks ahead. Dark shapes ghosted through the shadows in a walking crouch. I saw hand signals pass back and forth, and the figures were clearly armed. I stopped and grabbed Hicks’ shoulder.
“What?” Hicks froze and peered into the darkness. He had long ago learned to trust my eyesight. “You see something?”
“Yeah. Let’s get off this street.”
We moved to an alley two blocks over and waited next to an overflowing dumpster. “What did you see?” Hicks asked.
“North Korean special forces, unless I miss my guess.”
“Shit. What are they doing out here?”
I shook my head.
We stayed still and quiet. Every second that ticked by grated against my nerves. We did not have all night.
“Okay,” I whispered. “You take that end of the alley, I’ll take this one. Use your night vision scope. Look for movement. You see hostiles, take them out.”
Hicks checked his suppressor was firmly attached, made sure his scope was activated, and tapped me on the shoulder. He was gone in an instant, no noise, no wasted movement. I stared after him and wondered what secrets his past held. No infantry grunt I'd ever met had half his abilities.
Questions for another day.
I crept to the edge of the building and peeked around the bricks. The black shapes were still moving toward me, closer now. My instincts told me to step back, but the corner where I hid was dark. The short, fatigue-sporting soldiers seemed not to notice me. So I stayed, and watched, and whispered into my radio.
“Incoming on my side.”
The radio crackled, and Gabe spoke up. “Everything all right?”
“Tell you in a minute. Stay off the net.”
“Copy.” Gabe’s voice was strained, but he understood the necessity. Hicks chimed in. “Clear on my side.”
“Get back over here.”
I did not hear him approach. One second I was alone, and the next I felt a tap on my shoulder.
“Stacked up behind you.”
“Stand by. I’m going to leapfrog the alley. Be ready to engage.”
Not for the first time, I detected a note of excitement in his voice. I looked back.
“You like this shit, don’t you?”
A grin. “I do. I really do.”
“Sometimes I worry about you, Caleb.”
“Worry about crossing the alley.”
“Right. Okay, here goes.”
There is nothing a man can do to prepare for the maneuver I executed. You just go as fast as you can and hope for the best. In my case, it worked out. I flung myself from cover, stayed low, ran on the edges of my boots to minimize noise, and stacked up at the corner of the next alley over. No shots fired. No shouts. No explosions. I keyed my radio.
“Hicks, see anything?”
He had pied out the corner with his night vision scope. I checked mine, found it dark, and activated it.
“They don’t seem agitated, but they’re still moving in our direction.”
“I suppose so. Their version of it, anyway.”
“Prepare to engage. Leave no survivors.”
“You sure about this? Maybe we ought to slip out of here.”
I stuck my scope around a narrow sliver of corner. “No time. They’re almost on us. On my mark.”
I called to mind everything Gabe and Captain Steve McCray taught me about close quarters combat. Accuracy. Speed. Violence of movement. Silence.
The shapes grew closer. Thirty meters. Twenty. Ten.
“Three, two, one, mark.”
I slipped enough of my torso from cover to aim from a stable shooting platform. By the time I lined up on my first target, Caleb had already loosed three rounds. A dark black head snapped back, and the figure attached to it collapsed without a sound. In the same instant as I mentally praised Caleb for his marksmanship, my finger squeezed down on the trigger. Another head snapped back. I made a follow up shot and resisted the urge for a third one. I was firing 6.8 SPC after all, not standard 5.56 NATO rounds. Which meant I did not have to shoot a man five times to make sure he was dead. Twice to the head was enough.
As often happens in combat, my training took over and I was firing again before I knew what was happening. Another dark shape dropped. Caleb’s rifle coughed twice and a fourth man died. Only two left now.
The one closest to me noticed something amiss, or maybe caught a dim muzzle flash, and started to shout something. He got out half a syllable before two rounds from my rifle tore his throat to shreds. Blood flew from his lips as I ended his misery with a third shot between the eyes. He went stiff, shuddered, and toppled like a felled tree.
Caleb let loose a final salvo of four shots. Two hit center of mass, and two blew holes in the diminutive commando’s upper sinus cavity. He died without a sound. Caleb and I looked at each other, nodded, and waited. No more sounds. No movement. I let a minute go by. It appeared the high-quality suppressors had done their job.
Static. “All clear.”
I gave Caleb a thumbs up by way of acknowledgement. Then I remembered Gabe was listening in and keyed my radio. “All clear. Let’s move out.”
“How many tangos?” Gabe asked over the net.
“Six. All down.”
“No. Proceeding on mission.”
“Roger.” Gabe sounded relieved. Hicks gave a ‘move forward’ hand signal, to which I nodded, hid my rifle beneath my bush jacket, and followed.
I spotted another patrol shortly before arriving near the town square. They were not North Koreans, but were nonetheless heavily armed. One even carried an RPK light machine gun with a bipod and drum magazine. I grabbed Hicks’ arm and led him down a side street. We stopped under an awning and stood in near total darkness. One of the guards carried a small oil lamp that let us see their outline as they passed.
“These fellas ain’t messin’ around,” Caleb said. “Think they know something’s up?”
“Could be. Doesn’t change anything. Let’s go.”
We approached the building from the rear. It had once been a hotel, but had been repurposed to house government officials. Sandoval’s residence took up three rooms, all connected by open doorways. He was on the second floor at the easternmost corner. There were two entrances, both manned by a pair of armed guards. If Lena Grimsdottir’s intel was correct, there would be four more guards posted inside, also heavily armed.
“Mission lead, alpha team,” Hicks told his radio. “We are in position, standing by.”
“Roger alpha team. Stand by, will advise when it’s time to start the party.”
“Roger. Alpha out.”
I checked my weapons for the tenth or eleventh time. Good to go. “So now we wait.”
“I’ll move to the corner of that building over there.” Hicks pointed. “Have a better shot at the guards on that side.”
Hicks moved. I waited. And waited. Ten minutes passed. I saw no patrols, no citizens conducting late night business, no voices, no music from the bars or taverns, no sign at all anyone was alive in Carbondale. The streets that were so busy earlier were now empty and silent.
I thought once again about the pervasive silence of the post-Outbreak world, and how it was so hard to get used to. No drone of planes overhead, no Doppler hum of cars on the highways, no news or traffic helicopters, no buzz of air conditioners or power lines or street lights. Over three years had passed since the Outbreak, and it still bothered me. I was beginning to think it always would.
Static. “Mission lead, Bravo team in position.”
“Copy. Stand by.”
“Roger. Bravo out.”
More time passed. Charlie team checked in. Gabe and Great Hawk’s group were still en route to the president’s mansion. I closed my eyes and visualized a map of Carbondale in my head. I traced imaginary lines from where I was to the east gate. There were several possible routes I could take. Hicks and I planned to split up and proceed separately. That way, if one of us was caught or pinned down, the other could attempt rescue. Failing that, it minimized the risk we would both be caught. Better for the Union to lose one operator than two.
The radio stayed silent. I thought about the target, visualized his face. There had been several photos in his dossier. He was tall, approximately six foot four, bald head, goatee, narrow features, a casual arrogance in the eyes that screamed ‘hatchet-faced prick’.
It would have been a lie to say I was entirely comfortable with the idea of carrying out an assassination. I had killed before, but always in self-defense or defense of others. Reminding myself of the danger this man posed to untold thousands if he lived lessened the dread, but only marginally.
All the other times I had killed—the Free Legion, raiders and marauders, Alliance insurgents, etc.—I had made it a point not to look the enemy in the eye. Better to focus on hitting center of mass, or make a quick head shot. I rarely dialed a scope to more than four power and that only at very long range. I did not like it when I could discern a man’s facial features, his expression, and watch the shock and disbelief and pain overwhelm him in the moment before he died. The few faces I had observed in those final seconds still visited me in the quiet hours of the night when sleep refused to come. And when I finally did sleep, I saw them in my dreams—bloody, angry, eyes accusing.
On the nights when they woke me from slumber, I disconnected my mp3 player from the solar charger, put in the earbuds, and poured myself a drink. Al Green, Jimmy Cliff, Buddy Guy, and Johann Sebastian Bach usually did a pretty good job of keeping the demons at bay. Mike Stall’s finest moonshine didn’t hurt either.
The earpiece crackled, and Gabe said, “All stations are in position. Everybody ready to go?”
The teams responded in order, Hicks speaking up for the two of us. All stations were as ready as they were going to be.
“Very well. Good luck and Godspeed, gentlemen. If it all goes south, it’s been an honor. Engage on my mark.”
I eased out from cover and peered around the corner. Raised my rifle. Sighted in. The guard in my crosshairs looked bored. They’re not expecting trouble.
Static. “For freedom. For the Union. For our nation’s future. Take ‘em out.”
The coldness inside me rose to a burning crescendo as icy heat coursed through my blood. The fire lent strength to my limbs, firmed my resolve, and burned away the last tremblings of fear. I went still inside. My hands were sure and steady. My mind, and my conscience, were clear.
I let out half a breath and fired.