It had been three days since the team had arrived at the Outpost. They had settled into the daily routine of their days at the outpost. Fern and Tempest set up their lab space in open bays on their floor. The boys settled into their rooms. The place was unmanned in the traditional sense.
The first floor was left to MTF Phi 7. The second floor was the Hellcat’s hole. Roaming around the facility was Minerva’s work fleet. The DRD’s cleaned and maintained the building. Johnny 5’s did vehicle maintenance and manual labor. The Hellcats had named the robots and Phi 7 had just taken to calling them by the same names.
The days passed slowly. Fern had made time to get Jackie to familiarize her with her P90. Her world had become a strange mess of crazy in the last week and the familiarity of martial instruction had actually made her feel normal.
Today though, the lights coming on were accompanied by the chime and Minerva’s voice. “Please meet in the ready room for mission briefing.” A single chime was all that was needed to get most of the team up and moving. Most of the team.
Pistachio rolled over and pulled the blankets up.
The lights brightened, “Please do not make me escalate this. Please get to the meeting.” Minerva’s voice chimed again.
“Uhh”, Pistachio moaned, “Turn the shower on.” The water hissed on in the bathroom.
The room was filled with chatter and the mixed smells of everyone’s breakfast. They slowly gathered around the central table. The lights dimmed and Minerva’s digital image appeared.
“Good morning. MTF Phi 7 you will be assigned to a simple escort mission today.”
“Simple escort mission?” Fern asked.
“Yeah, because nothing ever goes wrong with those.” Dan added derisively.
“One member of Hellcat will be accompanying you on the mission.”, Minerva added, “Milton Shaddik will be your designated support.”
“There is no current indications of EMP storms. You will be air transported to Tennessee. There you will have ground transport waiting for you. You will travel to Site 87. At Site 87 you will receive the package. Do not open the package. You will ground transport the package to Site 305, and release the package to the staff there.”
“So this is like, a pick-up, drop off no big deal, right?” Fern asked.
“What are we escorting?” Dan questioned
“Yeah are we allowed to know what we are escorting?” Fern added
“No.” Minerva curtly replied.
“Is whatever it is volatile?” Dan soldiered on
“Not in the traditional sense.” Minerva answered
“is it a….person?” Fern asked with trepidation
“It is an item, a case 20 inches by 15 inches by 9 inches. There is no expected resistance or hostility. Ground transport will be provided at the Tennessee airport.”
“Any special considerations for the package?” Dan asked
“Do not open the package.” Minerva answered again.
“Your transport is in the vehicle bay. A preset DAGR is in the vehicle. Please depart in the next 25 minutes.”
The hologram dissolved and the lights brightened. The meeting was obviously over.
The next 25 minutes were a hectic circus of quick questions and short responses as Phi 7 struggled to cover all of their bases.
Pistachio was shoving MRE cases, water cases and ammo cans into the vehicle. Dan was going over all of his gear and checking his weapons, and wondering what he had signed on for.
Fern checked the DAGR for their route and position then went over her gear as best as she could remember how.
Tempe adjusted the custom ear piece on to Bono’s ear. He fidgeted as it settled into place.
“Can you hear me?” Tempe asked him through the Coms.
A quick double click answered her that Bono could hear her.
Moving like a shadow through the group was Hellcat 3; Milton Shaddik. His go bag was slung on his back. Unconsciously he pushed the SBR .300 Blackout back by his pack as he hefted the long bag that held his real workhorse. Technically it was the Barret XM500, but he called her Vera. He watched the new MTF struggle with gear and trying to do the impossible. They were trying to prepare for all possible problems. Amateurs.
With 2 minutes to spare they were on the road to the airport.
The flight was uneventful and everyone was trying to pass the time and seem less nervous than what they felt. Milt slept like a log.
The vehicle provided was a Sprinter that had been reinforced. They loaded up the entire multitude of gear they had brought into the new wheels. As they were loading Milton pulled out Vera and laid out a mat. He now took up the floor between the back rows with the business end of Vera pointed to the back of the van.
“So who’s driving?” Tempe asked.
“Yeah who is driving?” Fern seconded.
“I got it.” Dan said as he shook the keys.
“Shotgun”, Tempe and Pistachio shouted. Tempe was barely faster than Pistachio and smiled as she threw her trauma bag into the floor board on the passenger side.
The drive took three hours into the Tennessee woods. The destination was a large raised earthen berm with a single entrance that was gated. As they drive up the gate opened. Three men and a table were visible standing outside of a single small concrete building.
The lab coat on one gave him away as the tech, his shiny Massive Dynamic logo on the pocket. The two accompanying him dressed in full combat gear brandishing G36 rifles, Massive Dynamic logos on all their gear. On the table set a black case.
A quick exchange of signatures and documents and the case was handed off to MTF Phi 7. They began the long drive to Nevada.
As the silence settled in, Pistachio finally broke the quiet, “So…Are we going to open it?”
Fern spun in her seat, “What if it has radiation or something? You just want to open this?”
Pistachio’s hand moved unconsciously towards the package. Fern and Tempe, oblivious to each other began to use the tech in their head sets to scan the package. There was no Alpha, Beta, or Gamma particle emission. Of course that could just be the protection from the case.
“No, this is like, Pandora’s box. This is not a good ideal.” Fern established her position more firmly.
“Yeah, but…” was as much of Pistachio’s counter argument that made it out.
Dan spoke over him, “Milt, What do you have to say about this?”
“Probably rigged to explode, that’s how I would do it.”
Dan shook his head and refocused on the road.
Fern unholstered her weapon and pointed it at Pistachio, “Don’t, just don’t. I don’t trust you.”
“Yeah, your knee showed how well you make decisions.” Tempe added in agreement.
Pistachio shook his head and settled back against the wall away from the accusing stares. This is why he hated people.
Everyone’s attention was focused on the standoff in the front of the van. No one noticed Milton grab the case and pop the latches, peering at what it held. His eyes focused on the effigy nested in the foam. A carved likeness of something his mind rebelled against. His brain and higher functions started to sway and the need to vomit was rising. Milton felt the cybernetic enhancement at the base of his spine begin to do its job. His eyes began to see the image as pixilated and distorted. His body began to set itself right immediately. He hadn’t felt things like that since South America.
Fern felt the skin around her eyes begin to warm and then to burn. She snapped her attention to the case that Milt held.
“No!” She yelled. Her goggles showed no change in emissions from the now open case. She crammed her gun back into her holster. “Nobody move. Nobody touch it!” She moved over to the case. The statue inside the case hurt her mind to look at. She snapped the case closed. Her face cooled off instantly.
“Ah you opened it without me!” Pistachio complained to Milt, “What was inside?”
“Nightmare fuel.” Fern answered as she tightened her grip around the case handle, “Dan you need to go faster.”
“It’s a four day drive.” Dan replied
“Then make it a three day drive.”
From the back Milton spoke up, “Pull over if you see a place that has calamari.”
“Didn’t the briefing say don’t open the case?” Tempest said trying to recall the briefing.
“Do you two know what you have done?” Fern started to berate the two men not driving.
“I didn’t do anything!” Pistachio protested
“You do know that we have to answer for this!” Ferns face was hot again but this was due to the rush of blood to her face, “If I didn’t care so much about my own life I would unleash it on both of you!”
The rest of the day passed in uncomfortable silence.
Dan was starting to bob and weave. His head would touch his chest and he would snap back awake. Finally he pulled over to the side of the road.
“I need someone to swap off.”
“Defiantly, who else is driving?” Fern asked
A small furry hand raised in the back.
“Can we please not go with the Raccoon?” She pleaded.
“We need to do this in shifts. It still isn’t proven that this thing won’t kill us in our sleep, Kruger style.” Milt spoke up.
“So who else can drive?” Tempe pressed the question.
“I’ll drive,” Pistachio said as confidently as he could.
He grabbed the keys and with a shuffling of positions, they were loaded back into the van. As they sat there and Pistachio revved the engine in neutral, it became obvious that Pistachio did not know how to drive.
Pistachio turned the van off and stepped out of the van, walking back to the rear passenger bay, “Yeah, someone else gets to drive.”
Fern moved to the front, taking the driver’s seat as she wedged the case between her and Temperance.
The day passed in monotony. Milton was a quiet, creepy presence. They were never sure when he was asleep or awake.
Twelve hours had passed, and now Fern was the one who needed a break.
“Guys, I need a relief.”
A sharp whistle called all eyes to its source and a small four fingered hand appeared above the seat.
“No. No, I put up with so much weirdness; I am not letting the raccoon drive!” Fern shouted.
The hand turned into the modified yet unmistakable gesture of the “bird” before disappearing.
Temperance changed out with Fern.
“I heard raccoon is tasty…” Pistachio mentioned to no one.
As Bono set down in the passenger seat, he made the “I’m watching you”, to Pistachio as he made a feeble attempt at making a sign for trap.
Bono took Tempe’s P90 and settled in for the drive.
Three hours into the ride they crested a hill and below them they could see two busses parked nose to nose blocking the two lane road.
“Everyone up.” Tempe stated as she slowed the van.
They could see six people moving from between the busses. A single man stepped in front of the other five.
“Shit,” Milton said, “that’s Lattimer Mason, he is part of the Esoteric Order of Dagon. Dirty as hell but we haven’t been able to get anything to stick.”
Milton dropped back into position, with Vera.
The group ahead started to aim at the van. Lattimer opened a book and raised his hand. The earth began to shake and Temperance jerked the van into a hasty U-turn. Before them the road was gone. A fifteen foot wall of earth rose to block the way they had come.
“Oh shit, he’s an earth bender!” Fern yelled
Milton shoved the rear doors open and took the shot.
Vera barked. Lattimer’s chest exploded into a mist of blood and there was a clear hole through his chest where his heart should be. One of his followers began to drag him behind the busses. “One down.”
Temperance closed her eyes and suddenly the heavily armed woman dropped and the man next to her fell a heartbeat after.
The rear tire of the van blew as a round hit it.
Fern made her way out of the van and moved to the rear corner of the van using it as cover against the people in the road.
Milton extracted himself and Vera from the van and positioned himself across the hood.
Pistachio dashed to the right hand side of the woods, charging forward to flank the group.
Bono dashed out into the left hand woods and moved counter to Pistachio.
Wild fire from the church followers spread across the van. One man in tactical gear began to advance as he unleashed shotgun fire at Milton.
Temperance took a quick sharp breath and popped up with her P90 and squeezed the trigger as she swept it across the man closest man. He crumpled to the ground.
Dan brought “The Reverend” up on target and pulled the trigger. The hammer fell and there was nothing. As he cleared the chamber, he had a better view of the assailant with the shotgun. That son of a bitch was Gordon Miller. Dan leaned out the window, “Gordon Fucking Miller, it is going to be a pleasure to wipe you of the face of the fucking earth!”
The Reverend boomed and Miller’s left elbow was blown apart. As he wheeled from the impact, the bullet carried on its path and struck the church follower in her side dropping her to the ground.
At the opposing side of the vans the pair emerged from the woods. Latimer was standing and the hole in his chest was gone. Pistachio ran towards the priest as the man next Latimer fell from Bono’s shot. Bono aimed at the priest and fired. Three rounds hit the priest’s chest. The impact from the shots pulled Latimer out of Pistachio’s bullet path.
Fern moved around the van to try and get a shot at Miller.
Temperance brought her P90 back on line and took a shot at Miller. The bullets rocked his lower torso. Miller frantically grabbed flash bangs off of his vest as Milton’s shot glance over his head.
Miller tossed the flash bangs and ran for the woods.
Latimer looked Pistachio in the eyes; Pistachio could feel the hate this man now had for him, and then Lattimer was gone.
Bono looked at Pistachio and shrugged.
As their ears stopped ringing and sight returned, Milton yelled, “Check the bodies!”
The group began to move forward and check the bodies. There were identical tattoos on all of the church members. Pistachio began to board the closest bus and found it empty of
people and gear inside. Bono clicked the intercom key to get Tempe’s attention.
Dan checked the pulse of the female mercenary. She was down but alive. Milton handed him zip-cuffs to secure her. Dan secured her and took her weapons, and began to pull off her armor.
Pistachio jumped up on the closest bus. The keys sat in the ignition. Lying across the back seats he found 3 M-4s, 3 sets of Armor, and a sheet of old, curling paper. Looking at was unsettling. The runic characters on the sheet seemed to crawl across the page. 4 boxes of MRE’s sat unopened in the back 2 seats.
“What is it?” Fern asked
“It says something about “The Binder”, I can’t make it out.” Tempe answered.
Minerva chimed in on the com system, “I concur. The page is about the page is about the “Binder”, but I will need more time for the text.”
MTF Phi 7 began to move all of their gear to the bus Pistachio had checked. As the last piece was taken off, Milton tossed a thermite grenade into the van.
Dan settled into the driver seat of the commercial bus and restarted the journey west.