Chapter 2: Chips are Down

Never draw fire: it irritates everyone around you.
Murphy's Laws of Combat

Crash Site: Somewhere North of Eden Island, 27 August, 0715 Hours

Polecat has come to a blessed halt in the ankle-deep muck of a swampy patch of Louisiana wetlands on the shores of Lake Pontchartrain. As the rotors spin down and their accompanying lift slackens, the helicopter begins to settle and lean heavily to one side, mud bubbling up over the landing struts. A few thin plumes of smoke still trail from the jagged scars along the tail section where the missile scored the beleaguered craft, black tendrils creeping doggedly up against the cold driving rain.

Battered and no doubt completely bewildered by the sudden burst of violence, four figures stir and hesitantly begin to move about, taking stock of the situation and trying to get their bearings… the woods rising all around this patch of swamp tower forebodingly in the brightening gloom, seemingly (or perhaps actually?) concealing dark shapes with grim purposes.

Min manages to unclench her death-grip fingers from the armrests, but keeps her eyes squeezed shut for several fortifying seconds. The harsh tang of electrical smoke mixes with the humidity and swamp funk, adding a surreal touch to the immediate situation of desperado-style crash-landing, flickering and jumbled lighting, and the acid-metal surge of adrenaline. Min begins to return to her senses - Avery is shouting something. What? Something about a fool? Puk kai! Everything suddenly slams together into hyper reality, like sped-up movie footage, and Min lurches out of her seat. Her blonde coworker hurtles past from a crouched start and speeds toward the aircraft door, which hangs open and glints in the rain.

In the front of the chopper, Min sees Steve slumped back in his chair, hands knit behind his head; his headset dangles around his neck, and, improbably, he begins to whistle.

"WHAT in the EIGHT HELLS did you think you were doing?" Avery bawls down from the hatch at William, who is sprawled on his back in the rain-soaked field, scowling at the sky. "You coulda been killed!"

It takes a considerable amount of effort for William to stand up, but fortunately he is able to conceal both the pain and the effort from his teammate. Rising like some impossible swamp creature from the muck, he fixes Avery with a cold stare.

"I was ensuring that the door wouldn't be jammed shut when we hit the ground, following the orders of the pilot. I was not killed. And if I was killed, it would have been tangential to the mission itself. Keep that in mind please Avery, this is a mission and not a weekend jaunt. I would hope that you, and us all for that matter, will act far more professional now that this shit has just gotten ramped up. I will let this outburst slide."

William walks past a noticeable shocked and fuming Avery, gently pushes past the still visibly shaken Min, and comes to a halt beside the whistling Steve. "Nice flying, I am shocked that you were able to put this thing down so gently. How far away are we from the original LZ, and which direction did that shot come from?"

Steve raises an eyebrow and shrugs, "Three miles or so," he replies without looking down at the map. "I would guess the missile came from near the landing zone," He kicks open the pilot-side door and stares down into the mud with disappointment, "So… are we walking or swimming?"

Steve quickly makes some exchanges between his pilot bag and backpack, including the maps and a flashlight. Steve yells over the storm, "Alright somebody will come looking for us soon, so we need to move fast… but I'm a little pissed." He grabs Will's shoulder. "Will, you guys brought some explosives or something right? What do you say we leave a few behind and reorganize in the trees over there?" he points toward the nearest cover, a mad grin just visible through the dim light penetrating through the hurricane.

Avery's stomach lurches as she contemplates the implications of Steve's suggestion. Blow up the chopper. Their only mode of transport into … and out of this tea party. Fuck. Avery shakes her head. Not like the damn bird was going to fly again after that anyhow, but dang all… Maybe part of her had been hoping helicopter pilots knew some kinda super-mechanic fix-it skills.

Her eyes follow Will's strained departure from his swampy bed, and a flash of concern wrinkles her brow. Damn if he ain't limping something awful. Trying to pretend he's fine is gonna make it worse, too. She had to chuckle. "Will, you get any sweeter you're bound to make my teeth hurt." Dick. Let him have his man time calming down from the crash.

She turns and puts a hand on the trembling scientist's shoulder. "Come on, Min, you're alright, aintcha? Let's start packing up all we can carry from the chopper, we got a little walk in the park ahead of us."

Avery's jaw clenches for a moment as she glances around at the whirling rainsheets obscuring miles of unknown terrain. Millions of hiding spots. A walk in the woods. … I am good…. at walking in the woods. A sly smile creeps up the corners of her mouth.

Wet Feet

Min grabs Avery's hand on her shoulder and squeezes it, looking briefly up at her coworker and forcing a smile. Her hands are steady as she releases Avery's grasp and surveys the wreck of the cabin, eyes narrowing in thought. Never mind for now why someone would shoot us down…not like you haven't been on the firing end of corp esp before, anyway. Just perhaps not this nerve wrackingly close, that is. She wipes her hair from her eyes and begins to rummage. Everything's still pretty well packed together from before, just have to unearth it and disentangle everything. Shouldn't take too long. With everyone moving silently and swiftly, the supplies are gathered and distributed. Avery and Will then strip a pack of explosives and begin to set and prime them, with terse suggestions from Steve who alternately hovers behind their crouching figures and glances out at the darkening rainfall.

While Polecat becomes less a downed helicopter and more a rather large piece of potential explosive shrapnel, Min chews on her lower lip and attempts to get her BlackBerry to work. Still nothing, which is less and less a surprise.

Will stands up, slapping his hands together, a grimace of concentration still lingering around his handsome features. "Well, that's that. Let's get going while the going's still good." Everyone shoulders their bags and steps out into the rain.

Why do I feel like I'm leaving the one link to safety? Min shakes her head under her clear rainhood, shoving aside the sense of disquiet, and concentrates on following her teammates through the patches of swampy, soggy muck to the treeline.

Avery leads the way across the treacherous ground; time has crept on past 8 am, but the day seems to have lightened only fractionally, the roiling clouds and driving rain consigning the day to a bleak twilight which reduces Polecat's curving bulk to an indistinct hummock in the bayou by the time they reach the treeline. As they make their way under the dense canopy the rain abates slightly; the boles of bald cypress and mangrove trees break the howling wind and fingers of higher ground are merely soggy instead of ankle-deep muck. The four pause momentarily to take stock, catch their breath, get their bearings - and watch for pursuit.

Will leans against a tree, teeth grinding hard against the lingering pain in his ankle and the fresh new abuse to his left hip and shoulder from the rough landing and the hobbling trot which followed. He drops to one knee awkwardly as the others follow Avery's lead and find a few patches of foliage to conceal themselves, reaching down to grip the high-rising ridge of a mangrove root for support… only to feel something shift and slide beneath his fingers, the blue-black length of a four-foot snake disambiguating itself with an oily shimmer in the gloom as it flees quickly from the sudden intrusion.

Steve squats down next to one of the trees, his helmet's visor flipped up providing a little relief from the rain, eyes fixed on the dim corpse of the downed helicopter in the distance. "You know if somebody had just told me we were getting shot at…" he grumbles a few inaudibles, pulling his backpack on.

As everyone regroups the swamp is suddenly illuminated with a spotlight that quickly sweeps from side to side before locking onto the smoldering helicopter.

"Too slow suckers…" Steve whispers under his breath.

"Holy shit," Avery hisses before she can catch herself. Who the fuck are these people? Why in hell are they after us like a hound on a hare?

Everyone instantly drops to a huddled crouch behind available foliage and stares uselessly toward the origin of the beam, naked eyes inadequate to decipher anything in the blinding light. Avery silently and efficiently produces her rifle from its bag and points it in what seems like the general direction of danger.

Soft as possible, Avery mutters, "Steve, boy, if you got any clues what these folks' deal is, now would be a fine time to share."

Min squints uselessly into the light, looking remarkably graceful in her crouched position behind Avery, despite the mud streaking her from sodden knees to booted ankles. She can almost taste her heartbeat, thudding behind her throat and in the whooshing pulse in her ears. Nearly inaudible, she mouths in Avery's ear, "Did anyone else know we were coming? Does Aegis or Diamond have any…anyone very angry at them?"

Across the swampy patch of what can only charitably be described as a clearing, indistinct dark figures emerge from the brush. Silhouettes in the glaring spotlight, they slog purposefully towards Polecat as she gently lists mud-ward and sighs a trail of smoke.

Min barely even notices the mud squishing through the laces of her boots as she white-knuckles the straps of her satchel, thoughts darting like a flock of startled birds.

Steve glares at Avery and whispers loudly, "Fuck I just know where to drop you off and pick you up, you tell ME what's going on."

As the figures approach Polecat, in unison flashlight attachments to their weapons join the spotlight, pointed toward the wreckage. They approach cautiously and quietly, crouched down in the swamp water.

"They got here pretty damn fast…" Steve comments, peering up toward the helicopter, but unable to make out anything distinguishing. The dark figures pick their way cautiously over the last few yards of open swamp and begin to busy themselves at the doors of the chopper; Steve looks over to Will and grins, "Let's see those fireworks."

Fiat Lux

A half-dozen or so creeping shapes move like ghosts over the marshy surface, checking door handles and pointing short, black weapons at doors and windows. Will and Steve carefully left only the sliding side door unlocked, and sure enough this is where the tactical team chooses to make their entry.

Cabling salvaged from the doomed electronics systems run from the door handles to each arming pin, yanking all four loose when the side cargo door is opened. One grenade is set among the ceiling girders beneath the turbine engine; another nestles under the avionics system in the cockpit; and two lie in wait behind a closed panel in the rear of the passenger/cargo compartment, beside the main fuel line which runs back to the rear tank.

Powdered aluminim and iron oxide, catalyzed by barium and a dash of sulfur, burn at 4500 degrees Fahrenheit for just over thirty seconds; the UV light generated by the reaction is intense enough to cause harm to eyesight; but there is no large explosion, cloud of shrapnel, or blast of sound and fury in a huge radius. Thermite grenades are a poor antipersonnel weapon. Luckily their primary purpose in the Andersonian arrangement on Polecat's doors is simple and straightforward.

Exploding helicopters, after all, make excellent antipersonnel weapons.

The flare of light from within the helicopter is monumental in the thick gloom of the stormy lowlands. The hissing shriek of flash-boiling metal and ceramic pitches up immediately, like fireworks from Hell. The shadowy forms on the near side of Polecat are thrown into sharp silhouette by the bright flash, arms cast up across their faces as they throw themselves instinctively back and away from the sudden surge of light and heat. Startled oaths and a few guttural cries ring out, along with a few choice screams from those who were too quick across the threshold into the doomed aircraft.

Four of the six figures scuttle their way clear of the bird in time, scattering in all directions as the shrill whistle of the demolition charges reaches a screaming peak - the metal beneath the rotor turbine assembly at the top of the craft has just begun to visibly blister and bulge when —

The fuel reserves catch with a low whump. Then the tail section of the helicopter explodes outward, scattering pieces of flaming debris for twenty yards in every direction and sending gouts of flame and roiling black smoke upward into the sky. The rotors tear loose and whirl off through the air, one scything downward to chop across a figure only just knocked flat by the pressure wave from the blast.

This new burst of flame is less bright than the thermite, but it also flares in all directions rather than stabbing out in lances of painful radiance from portholes and doorways. Thus it reveals the additional handful of figures in the treeline where the original six emerged, throwing themselves flat and going for cover, weapons coming up and forward, scanning the clearing and the woods opposite for additional threats.

Steve looks onward with vengeful satisfaction for a few moments as the figures scramble to regroup, then turns away into the woods checking with everyone that it's time to move out.

At first Steve keeps low to the ground, but as the trees thicken and the crackling of the burning helicopter dies away into the pouring rain back in the swamp he relaxes, pulling out a compass occasionally for reference as he heads eastward. The trees block out what little light is arriving through the thick clouds, but at least block out some of the quickly strengthening wind.

Avery stares for a moment at the smoldering wreckage of their only way out of the foreboding swamp around them, and squints at the shrieking and retreating figures. She spends a brief moment getting a shot lined up at one of them. Just checking the sights in this light and damn rain, that's all. It would be idiocy to give away their position, even with a well-sniped bullet.

She glances around at her stunned, terrified, and determined companions. Time to get going. Everyone spreads out just slightly to avoid making too much noise in one spot, but for the most part the party is able to retreat eastward unnoticed. The blazing distraction behind them has served more than one purpose.

When a sufficient distance is covered, Avery strides a little closer to Will. "Nice little bonfire back there."

Will turns his head toward Avery, a wry smile starting to curl his aristocratic features, when his eyes narrow and he lets out a short hiss of surprise, grabbing the shoulder strap of her duffel and pulling her rapidly and quietly down to a crouch in the mud beside a gnarled ridge of concealing mangrove roots. Steve and Min go for cover a heartbeat later. Will locks eyes with each in turn, beginning a series of complex hand signals which look distinctly improvised and fail to convey much beyond "see… two… that way," the last gesture pointing through and beyond the meager cover, off to the north.

Min huddles miserably in the wet earth, trying to stay out of sight and perhaps beginning to recalculate exactly what "generous hazard pay" really ought to be; meanwhile Steve reaches into his jacket to quietly produce the Ruger automatic he was definitely not expecting to use on this trip, thumbing the safety off and peering curiously around the bole of the broad swamp cedar he is crouched behind.

Sure enough, two bright flashlight beams are raking the foggy, rain-soaked swamp off to the left of the Aegis group's line of march, drawing closer with the laborious slowness of a very thorough search. But it is Min's startled gasp which alerts them to a similar pair of lights moving up on them from the south… neither search team is more than twenty yards out, though given the rain and the ever-present morning mist which shrouds the area, it is unlikely they have laid eyes on their quarry just yet.

Steve gropes around the cedar for a moment before finding a fist sized rock, and hurls it unceremoniously into the pouring rain back in the direction of the chopper, where it lands against the roots of a tree with a satisfying *thunk*. In unison the flashlights flash up from the ground in the direction of the sound, although they make it a short distance through the rain making tis way down through the trees. Steve presses himself back against the tree, waiting with both hands on the pistol.

Min hunches miserably, rain filling her fear-dry mouth and dripping in slow rivulets down her cheeks - but the streams of sweat make her just as soaked inside the raincoat as out. This is NOT what is supposed to happen! This is not what I signed up to do! Nide muchin sh'r ega da wukwei! And then for added emphasis, she sticks her fingers in her ears and scrunches her eyes shut as Steve pulls out a pistol and Avery echoes with clicking noises from her own stash of lethality. However, the rational part of her mind, the part not cowering in sucking mud and matted rotting vegetation, quaking in terror, was angry and racing. Insultingly comparing the unknown assailants' mothers to turtles, while satisfying, was not exactly going to save her ass. And yet, she knew that she was woefully out of her league here. She had no gun, had never shot one or even held one before. Damp seconds passed, as the far figures turned towards Steve's hurled rock, and Will and Avery trained their weapons on the advancing southern group.

The rational side, after a pitched struggle with the quaking, fear-curled side, wins the victory. Of a sorts. She takes her fingers out of her ears only seconds after putting them in, and forces her eyes open. Breathing comes easier, not the desperate panting of a moment before. She hopes Will didn't see that little episode… Whatever happened next, she would try not to shriek like a baby.

Avery's scope floats softly about the dark area where the human shapes last appeared. The sounds of the others vanish from her awareness as she enters the world of her sights - and her prey.

She has always loved the perfect predator that is her rifle. Hunched in the grass like a mountain lion ready to pounce, only so much more silent, so much more invisible, not even an instant of terror to flush your body as you stare down spread jaws and dripping fangs before you expire. Death from nowhere. No one.

A silhouette flashes into visibility from behind a tree. Squeeze. Crumple.

Avery exhales. The sensation in her lungs feels good.


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