Chapter 3: New Dealer

"Though in Heaven," I said, "be all
That the ear could think to lack,
All the things I ever knew
Are this roaring at my back."
E.St.V.Millay, The Blue-flag in the Bog

Railroad Tracks near McClane City, 27 August, 0755 Hours

The bedraggled Aegis team crunch and splash their way across the gravel of the railroad tracks, making for the small residential neighborhood visible to the east - through wind-whipped trees and blasting rain. They seem to have slipped their pursuit rather thoroughly: no shouts or flashlights from the west tell of the soldiers they saw so recently, and the darkened sky reduces the pillar of smoke from Polecat's still-burning wreckage to a barely-visible thread over the treetops. Min and Washer converse quietly, looking over the (blessedly waterproof) map to plot a best course to her nearby apartment (see map).

Anchee hands Steve the map, a course charted in her head. He folds it absently, blinking water from his lashes as the waterproofed map slips neatly in his hands, settling its creases. With a groan, Anchee settles her pack on her shoulders, motioning for William and Avery to follow. William, she notices, has fine white lines etched around his mouth and nose as he clenches his teeth unconsciously, his restless eyes scanning the forest edge behind the team. Avery, Anchee and William crunch soddenly in Steve's wake as Anchee briefly explains the path she and Steve have chosen.

"We'll nearly head straight up the tracks - they run parallel to Front Street and Pontchartrain. I think, though, that we should angle through the neighbourhood first, cut through on Woodcrest Drive ahead - yes, you see it? Then we can be not seen so easily." Avery nods distractedly, still turning to check if their trail has been sighted. A ripple of foreboding tingles through her spine as Anchee blithely continues. "Then we will take Pontchartrain north until Front Street and rejoin the tracks until Gause intersection. East on Gause and we will be at my home. Mr. Washer estimates it should be three and a half miles. Perhaps there will be a bus we can catch," she finishes with a small grin, eyeing Avery's and Will's bristling hardware. "I think they will not charge you fare."

Steve's eyes dart back and forth as the hurry down deserted roads, windows boarded up against the coming storm. Worst case scenarios run through his mind on loop… a sniper in every window left open, machine guns on every rooftop, a grenade flying in from around the corner… fuck this.

"Where's a damn tank when you need one?" Steve grumbles aloud between exhausted breaths. They're making much better time out here on the street compared to in the swamp at least.

Anchee and Steve lead the group across the final stretch of mud and plant life east of the railroad tracks and out onto a tiny cul-de-sac. The savage wind and rain are already taking their toll on this quiet residential neighborhood: a few trees, roots tearing free of the supersaturated, near-liquid soil, have toppled over, knocking over streetlights and shattering windows and walls. Nearby a minivan supports a massive oak, windows converted to a jagged circle of glass in the ankle-deep pond rising against the curbs.

Technical Difficulties

A subtle vibration and a muted chirp barely penetrates the distracted, tense fugue over Anchee's awareness. Almost unbelieving, she fumbles the blackberry from her satchel's exterior pocket, trying to shield the little electronic device as best she can with her clear plastic raincoat as she punches buttons furiously.

Hold on… I'm getting a signal! It's weak, but… Damn, I lost it again… no… Da-shiong bao-jah-shr duh la-doo-tze!

Avery and Will drop to a crouch, weapons ready, at Min's sudden shout; but the moment of hair-trigger reflex passes, and the three Aegis agents crowd closer to the tiny scientist to peer at the Blackberry.

Anchee squints, muttering furiously against a mouthful of sodden hair; she chews it viciously as the Blackberry's screen sends up intermittent "searching for connection" messages. "Ai ya! Dung ee-miao… Dung ee-maio…" She pulls the Blackberry up through the sleeve of her raincoat and bunches the cuff around her hand, then sticks her arm up into the air and waves the device above her head. "I need to get it higher, the puk kai satellite signal is too weak. (1 Fact) The storm is interfering too much with satellite reception at this… this elevation." (2 Facts) Anchee spins around, craning her head and looking curiously like a frantic, bedraggled owl; Avery grabs her arm and steadies the Blackberry to peer at it herself through the raincoat arm. Anchee hisses through her teeth, espying the oak and the van…perhaps she could climb on that? "If we can just get enough signal, I think I can get on Aegis' server by decoding the sending signature from their last message - it probably has a public access key…." (3 Facts)

Steve looks behind him to see his three companions crowded around the Blackberry.

Yeah right…

He leans up against one of the few standing trees, leaves thrashing against each other as the wind tries to tear the tree from its roots. "Well someone better keep a lookout," he grumbles quietly to himself, shielding his eyes and busily scanning the area behind them, trying to keep the panic of being so exposed to a minimum.

"Hold still, there, girl, you're going to take somebody's eye. … Probably your own. Lemme see." Avery gently wrests the Blackberry from the increasingly frenetic Anchee's slightly quivering slender fingers. She tries to curve her torso above it to keep some of the rain off it. "I don't know about hooking up to Aegis way the hell out here, but don't these things just use cell service like any regular phone? Even in a hurricane about to hit, I'm betting at least even odds you could pick up something; though also could be too many other people are trying the same thing right now." (1 fact) She squints at the unfamiliar gadget, listening for a moment to its erratic blips. "In fact, have you got any idea why it's chirping at us like that? Could be it already is picking up some cell network. Doing its best to, anyway." (2 facts)

Steve lets out a disgruntled sigh as he imagines the last dry part of his underwear finally soaks through from the relentless rain, then suddenly jumps as the Blackberry chirps a dying breath, water shorting out the batteries. Anchee lets out a few choice words of Chinese as she bangs it against the side of her boot.

"Look let's take care of it back at Anchee's place," Steve says as his eyes glance from window to window, paranoia increasing, "No reason to stay out here in the open if we don't need to."

Anchee glares at the Blackberry, eyes narrowed in frustration. With a very disgruntled look, she slips it back into her pocket, then nearly staggers into Will as a sudden barrage of wind tears down the street, whirling leaf debris in its wake. Will grabs her reflexively, steadying the small scientist back onto her feet. Don't think about how strong his hands are now, you fool. To clear her head, she steps away self consciously, settling her pack and peering down the lane. Steve, looking a little jittery, urges them on. "No reason to stay out here in the open if we don't need to."

"Very sensible. We can use my computer…" Anchee trails off, her dark eyes suddenly become startled-deer wide, sliding past Steve and Avery to the end of the street where the field meets pavement. "I think we need to hurry - I think those men might have found us." Anchee's arm flies up, pointing to possible figures in the distance; as if on cue, the rain intensifies, making it difficult to see into the gray-brown field. "Is that them?"

All eyes follow Min's outstretched finger, straining to see through the billowing rains toward the wildlands from which they came. Sure enough, a few black-and-grey blurred shapes lurch free of the treeline shielding the railroad tracks and begin picking their way across the open mudflat.

Will snarls soundlessly, some of his increasingly-unnatural-looking pallor dissipating in the rush of renewed adrenaline. Hands clenching on the small assault weapon in his hands, he calls in a stage-whisper to be heard above the blast of wind: "Right, let's get outta here before Avery has to perforate any more of these idiots."

The four slip quietly away, taking cover in the dense, boarded-up housing development as they make their way east towards US-11. Hawkwood directs the maneuver, pointing out likely spots where an intervening fence or house will keep them out of sight, and leading the way in quick, crouched sprints between such structures. "These guys took us down with a SAM," William remarks. "Probably not a big stretch to think they might have night-vision or IR equipment."

Covering the half-kilometer or so to Pontchartrain Drive in this fashion takes a few minutes; the residential neighborhood gives way to a small strip-mall with a dry-cleaner and convenience store, and the four Aegis agents gratefully take advantage of the minute shelter and shadow offered by the wide overhang covering the sidewalk in front of the building's plywood-windowed facade. Avery unslings her rifle and begins surveying the wide four-lane road from south to north, looking for signs of life or pursuit. When her traverse completes, she releases a quiet whistle of amazement. "Look at that…"

Too Many Cooks

Faint red and blue flashes gradually pierce the blasting maelstrom, resolving into the shadowy bulk of a small police convoy - a few patrol SUVs - followed by a line of blocky HMMV military vehicles and green-canvassed transport trucks.

Most of the convoy blares past, sirens howling, to continue racing south; but one police vehicle and two Humvees turn right down Woodcrest Drive, skidding and slewing in the standing water pouring down the neighborhood from which the Aegis party just emerged.

"…The ARMY?" Splutters Steve in consternation. "Where the hell did THEY come from?!"

Steve hesitates, weighing the benefits of meeting up with some probable allies against having to explain why four people are running through a deserted city with assault rifles. His mind races back to the kind of morons he worked with back in the day and decides they're more likely to open fire on sight.

Steve ducks back around the corner of the building and squats down, expecting not to be seen in the continuous rain.

Sure enough, the military convoy and its outriders blow by in a spray of floodwater and a blare of lights… the vehicles come close enough for Steve to make out the unit designations emblazoned on the side of the Humvees, and he stifles a chuckle of surprise and derision.

"Lousiana National Guard - but those are training vehicles! This must be a bunch of cadets down from Camp Villere. Looks like they got deputized by the county police for… something."

"Wonder if the sight of a flamin' helicopter crashin' and explodin' out in the bayou is what's got 'em all worried," muses Avery with a wan smile.

Anchee pulls her lower lip between her teeth, her sodden hair dancing a two-step in the howling wind. "Mr. Washer, you were asking for a tank earlier. Perhaps your wish will be granted. Nonetheless, I think we should take advantage of the Guard's presence to fucking hurry it up, yes?" She lingeringly rests her fingertips on the curve of her Taser, an interruption in the straight lines of her body. "My home is not so far." She slips out of the sheltering strip mall promenade and motions the others to follow; Avery and Will look around once more before following Steve and Anchee, their weapons ready and bristling still.

Despite morning on the way the sky continues to darken, the entire sky a sea of clouds visible only when approaching lightning flashes in the distance. The party passes quickly down a few streets, nothing more than shadows against brick and siding hidden by the rain now in full force. Steve almost passes by Anchee's place altogether before she gives out a quick shout to stop him, fiddling with her keys.

Jiggity Jig

A bare handful of moments later and the team stands in Anchee's living room, dripping unceremoniously on the nondescript beige carpeting. Anchee flushes a little, but says nothing about the mud her teammates have already tracked. Avery crosses immediately to the small television and begins fiddling with the remote.
The apartment itself is nearly spartan in its decor; a few hints of personality from the framed posters of Gilbert and Sullivan musicals, a low divan covered in Beanie Babies and red pillows, and the neatly-stacked piles of books, magazines, journals, and folders which take up nearly every corner. Regardless, the three-room space feels almost obsessively neat and proper.
Anchee, occupied in divesting herself of her sopping boots and peeling off her raincoat, doesn't notice Will duck into the kitchen. Steve makes an inscrutable face at the Beanie Babies, who stare beadily back at him from their careful perch on Anchee's divan.
Avery snorts from her akimbo stance in front of the TV set. "Y'all might want to take a look at this. We might need to hurry ourselves up if we're goin' to do this Eden Island thing."
Steve turns to face the set, joining Avery. Anchee moves to her computer desk, listening to the news report with half an ear as the anchor informs the room that Hurricane Katrina was now possibly on course for southeastern Louisiana - including the New Orleans area.

Steve shakes his head, maybe we weren't going to make it out of here in that chopper anyway…, and wanders to Anchee's fridge. Reaching into the back he pulls out a bottle of some unfamiliar Asian beer and starts rummaging around for a bottle opener until something out the window catches his eye. As the others follow the meteorologists grim prediction for the storm, Steve stares out the window waiting for another flash of lightning to illuminate the scene below.

The torrential rains outside continue to beat down, but as predicted by the weather station, a momentary slackening has begun to set in as one major band of the storm passes. Steve smiles as the sky lightens from lead to gunmetal and the opposite side of the street comes into view.

His smile vanishes at the sight of three sodden figures sprinting up the street at a breakneck pace through the ankle-deep water. Steve knows desperation when he sees it - he flew choppers in Rwanda a few times, watching the machete-wielding death squads march door-to-door while people with the wrong last name ran ragged through the streets to avoid them.

The people in the street below run like those Tutsis - something behind them wants to kill them, and they know it.

His eyes narrow, mind cycling rapidly up through the fugue of confusion, shock and exhaustion laid in over the past few hours… he leans to the left to better examine the street behind the running figures (two adults, one teenager, carrying toddler… unarmed, one with chest wound…) —

and he grunts in surprise to see a pack of dogs, perhaps twenty strong, snarling and scrabbling their way up the street, bounding across the roofs of cars and leaping down where necessary to slog through deep water. Washer yells to the others to take a look. Two claw their way onto a minivan simultaneously and engage in a short, vicious, bloody altercation which ends with the winner leaping away to continue chasing the people while the loser falls, broken, back to the street.

Steve grimaces in disgust. "Who set DOGS on those people?"

Anchee stands from her computer chair, peering over the screen out the Venetian blinds at the street below. She shudders, clutching a hand to her throat in reflex. "Are… you have guns… are we going to help them? This is insanity! Where's the Army now?" She pivots in place, fixing Avery with her dark, piercing gaze. "Well?" Behind her, her computer screen quietly loads the information sought about the Aegis mission, earlier unretrievable from the Blackberry.

Steve smirks, "Forget guns, Anchee you've got a car ya?"

In moments Steve is hurrying out the front door, beer still in hand, out into the street. It takes him just long enough to get the car started for everyone to pile into the small compact car. Tires send water flying behind the car as he fish-tails around the first corner, the roaring engine cutting Anchee's plead for her car's well-being short. Steve flips on the brights as the car bears down on the pack of dogs from behind, just before they catch up on the fleeing figures. The animals scatter too late, several of them flying up over the hood while a few more result in satisfying bumps from both the front and real wheels.

Steve brings the car to a lurching, fountainous halt, slewing sideways but somehow managing somehow to avoid hydroplaning in the inch-deep water. The fleeing family stagger to an uncertain halt; the older woman drops to her knees, gasping for air, while the younger one gently sets her wailing baby brother down.

A single, thick smear of red on Anchee's windshield slowly dilutes beneath the pounding rain.


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