Thursday, October 31, 2013

Kronskye's Revenge CH 33-34

Chapter 33

   Sarah fell into a light, troubled sleep on the couch.
   The room was different. Instead of people approaching the light, columns of light approached it.
   “Sarah,” a distant voice whispered as a column of light appeared directly in front of her. This column was different, for a female shape materialized from a different light source within the column of light. She wore a loose, flowing dress. The face was blank, but the voice was pleasant and feminine.
   Dream-Sarah knelt before her Goddess quickly, her head bowed, acutely aware the light of Perfection that surrounded her had shrunk once more.
   “You know it had to be done,” the Goddess said, her voice taking on a slight echo in the dark room.
   “I love him! I want him back!” dream-Sarah cried as she looked at the faceless Goddess.
   “It should never have been. If not for your actions, you would never have met him. Thus, your relationship was doomed from the start. You do not deserve his love for what you did,” the Goddess said as a column of light appeared next to the Goddess’ column.
   Aerlyn materialized slowly in the column of light, but instead of a flowing dress, Aerlyn wore a pristine police uniform.
   “Aer?” dream-Sarah asked hopefully as she looked at Aerlyn. “How can I get him back? Please, help me get him back!”
   “There is no going back!” the Goddess declared.
   “Though he is not a believer, the task of restoring his Balance will fall to one far more deserving. The only thing that should concern you is atonement.” dream-Aerlyn said.
   “I do not know where to start,” dream-Sarah whispered pitifully as her circle of light shrank again.
   “Start by thinking,” Aerlyn said as the lights went out.

***
   Jon felt refreshed when the hotel clerk awakened him at 0900. Jon thanked the clerk and started his mission.
   Jon noted the PSS posted sniper teams around the house in order to guard the house. On the north and west sides, the sniper teams were on the dominant terrain.
   On the south and west sides, the snipers were on the highest terrain between them and the house, well within the 1.5 kilometer range of their BRS75 sniper rifles.
   Behind the south side sniper teams were several ridges high enough to engage anyone entering the house and the PSS sniper teams with heavier rifles. But they were out of range for the BRS75. The east side was relatively flat and could be covered from both the North and South side teams.
   Jon decided to position himself where the PSS sniper teams could not see him, yet where he could see the higher ridges and the house. The Rodents were some underhanded mothers, and Jon knew the ABI didn’t understand how underhanded Kirl Belastuger could be.

***
August 16th, 239 Pleasant Lane, New Alexandria:   Sarah called in sick the next morning. She spent the day aimlessly wandering around her house. Her mind was in a daze over what she had done. She stepped onto the patio and looked at the lawn chairs, arranged side by side. A tear fell from her eye as she remembered how happy she had been when both chairs were occupied.
   She walked to her bedroom and looked at the bed she shared with Jon. More tears fell, for she knew she would not find pleasure in this room unless Jon was there to share it with her.
   “What’s the point of it?” she asked dejectedly as she made her decision. A growing sense of numbness filled her being as she turned and walked downstairs to the living room. She opened the gun safe.
   Her teary eyes fell onto the revolver Jon had taken from the mugger. A small box of ammunition lay next to it. Her heart pounded as she realized she had a chance to talk to him again.
   Yes! She would call him. She would tell him she had his revolver. He would come, they would talk, then she would delicately suggest she was afraid of rushing into marriage. She still loved him and since he was going to be assigned to the Eternals, they could start over again.
   She knew she would let Jon set the pace of their relationship. She would accept his offer to go reserves after he finished his conscription and have everything she wanted in life!
   Sarah had to have love, for life without love wasn’t worth living. She picked up the com with nervous fingers and dialed Jon’s com.
   “We’re sorry, but the number you have dialed is unavailable at this time. Please recheck your number and try again. Thank you for using American Com Services,” the recorded voice said.
   Sarah refused to give up hope. She dialed Information.
   “ACS Information, what city, please?”
   “Lexington, Kentucky,” Sarah said as she sniffled.
   “Please hold.”
   “Lexington directory, what is the name of the party you wish to speak to?”
   “Doctor Paul Walker,” Sarah said.
   “I show no listing for a Doctor Paul Walker, Em Dee,” the operator said.
   “How about O’Brien and Walker? Something like that.”
   “I have a general practice listed under that name.”
   “Yes. May I have it?”
   “Please hold for the number.”
   “The number is zero two four two eight one five one two six,” a recorded voice said.
   Sarah scribbled the number down and hung up. She dialed the number with shaking fingers.
   “Good afternoon, Doctors O’Brien and Walker.”
   “Hi. May I speak to Doctor Paul Walker?”
   “I’m sorry, he is unavailable at the moment. May I take a message?”
   “Yes. This is Sarah Lindstrom, his son’s girlfriend. Would you ask him to com me at five eight eight six two one four two oh nine at his earliest convenience?”

***

   Jon went to a surplus store and purchased a serviceable two-man tent, sleeping bag and other necessities.
   He went to a nearby grocery store, bought a proper cooler and enough food to last two weeks. He would give his mission two weeks, then he would drive home and spend the rest of his convalescent leave with Paul and Michelle as he promised.
   Jon laughed at the repercussions of being caught by the ABI-PSS teams and turned over to military authority.
   “What are they gonna do? Bend my dog tags, stamp my meal card ‘no dessert,’ and send me to the Eternals?”

***

   Sarah snatched the com off the table before it could complete its first ring. She saw Doctor Walker was returning her call.
   “Hello?”
   “This is Paul Walker."
   “Hi, I’m Sarah, Jon’s girlfriend.”
   “Ex-girlfriend,” Paul gently reminded her. “He told me last night.”
   “Yes. I’ve tried to com him and his com is unavailable and I really would like to talk to him. He left a weapon in my gun safe, and--”
   “My son would never forget a weapon,” Paul said bluntly. “You don’t have to create a reason to com. Jon told me he was going camping for a few weeks with some friends. He felt he needed some time to get his head screwed on right before reporting to the Eternals. When he coms, I will tell him you want to talk to him, I promise,” Paul said, his disapproval of his son’s choice in female companionship barely hidden. Paul believed his normally level-headed son had been thinking with his genitals when he took up with Sarah.
   “Thank you so much,” Sarah said as the call was terminated. She saved the number in her com, went to her computer and sent Jon an E-mail.

***

August 18th, AEDF Headquarters:   Ryo noted Sarah’s depression, and decided to step in and help her out. She told Andre what little she knew, and Andre nodded approvingly at her plan.
   Encouraged by Andre’s support, Ryo walked to the Computer Security Room. Sarah was sitting in her office, checking the weekend security rosters. “Sarah?”
   “Hi, Ryo. What can I do for you?”
   “It’s been a while since we talked, and I was thinking that you and I could talk at Andre’s cabin. He said he’d fly us down tonight, and pick us up Sunday.”
   “I’m waiting for a call.”
   “Your com always works at the cabin. You need some time away from here.”
   “And if I get the call and have to go?” Sarah asked.
   “I’ll personally com Andre and tell him he better pick us up or else!”
   “All right. When can we go?”
   “How soon can you get packed?”

***
   “Let the weekend begin!” Ryo shouted joyously as she watched Andre’s shuttle disappear into the darkening sky.
   “Yes,” Sarah said quietly.
   “Let’s get settled,” Ryo said practically as she squatted down and picked up one end of the cooler. Sarah picked up the other end, and a few moments later, they had reached the rustic cabin.
   After turning on the lights and the mosquito repellers, they prepared a light meal and drank a lot of wine until they decided to get some sleep.
   Sarah enjoyed the first dreamless sleep in several months.

***

   Jon checked into the campgrounds about seven kilometers from Schloss’ house. He found the most isolated camp site the Comet could reach.
   After setting up his campsite, Jon walked around cautiously, looking like a camper and checked for nearby campers. Being late August, the camping season was ending, and Jon saw there nobody within 400 meters of his campsite. The only thing he would have to worry about was the road running past his campsite.
   Satisfied with his preparations, Jon slept fitfully during the day and awakened an hour before sundown. He ate a cold meal and walked around casually, looking for any campers who might have set up nearby. Jon was alone.
   At 2100 hours, Jon picked up his rucksack and walked casually towards the edge of the campgrounds, looking like a hiker enjoying a bit of solitude. He reached the very edge of the campgrounds and knew he had five kilometers to go before reaching his planned spot.
   Cautiously, Jon looked around. Satisfied he was alone, he changed into the tiger-striped SWUs he had been issued in Basic Training. Then he camouflaged the rucksack, put on his helmet and followed the trail he had established to the twin ridges he named Shooter’s Lair.
   From the Lair, he cleared enough small brush to ensure a clear field of fire that covered the south and east sides of the house. He cleared several spots on the south side ridge to ensure he could watch the hills for sniper activity.
   Using the frequency scan feature in his helmet, Jon quickly found the frequency used by the ABI and PSS for the operation. Listening in, he was able to discern that the teams were alert, but bored.
   The night passed slowly.
   At 0500, Jon knew the attackers would not come and he left his position quietly.
   Two kilometers from his site, just before dawn, Jon stopped and changed from his tiger-striped SWUs to civilian attire. His helmet and camouflage went in the backpack. He put on his backpack and carried several long branches awkwardly to his campsite.
   After he put his backpack in his tent, he noted nobody was near his campsite. Satisfied with his decision, Jon made a light breakfast and went to bed.

***

   Ryo Senai leaned against the wall of the hot spring on Andre’s retreat. “More wine?” she asked Sarah.
   “Yes,” Sarah said as she held out her glass. Ryo started pouring. “Stop!” Sarah forced herself to laugh at the three-quarters full glass. “Any more than that, and I’ll start looking at you really closely!”
   Ryo laughed comfortably as she put the bottle on the ledge. She poured herself a glass, though not as full and took a cautious sip. She turned to Sarah. “Why did you turn him down?”
   “I don’t want a man I can wrap around my finger. Bend slightly, yes. He was going to New Palestine, now he’s going to the Eternals. I know he changed his assignment for me. I don’t want to be a military wife, even if it’s to a good man. He would eventually hate his assignment and blame me for changing his mind,” Sarah said quietly. “Now I don’t know what I want. I’m so confused.”
   “Did he attempt to change your mind?” Ryo asked as she put her glass down on the rock rim and lowered herself into the water to her neck, her dark eyes on Sarah.
   “Yes.”
   “Why didn’t you accept? You were on Cloud Nine whenever he was near you.”
   “Because that would have ended our relationship sooner or later. Jon is a special kind of guy. I love him so much, I freed him to follow his dream.”
   “I see,” Ryo said as she stood up and reveled in the cooling night air. The slightly cool air had the desired effect on her body. She stifled a pleasurable, nervous moan as she felt Sarah’s eyes on her.
   “So you loved him enough to let him go,” Ryo said as she looked around for her glass. “What will you do now?”
   “Enjoy a quiet evening with a good friend,” Sarah said as she turned her back and set her wine on the rock rim. Ryo picked up her glass and sat next to Sarah, offering comfort and more.

***

   Jon reached his “changing area” without incident. Glad to put down the bundle of branches, he looked furtively around before changing clothes. After changing into his SWUs, Jon removed the Enfield he concealed in his “firewood” in the fading light. He put on his helmet, let it orient itself, then he started the long path towards his lair.

***

   Sarah found herself standing nude in the spotlight, surrounded by darkness. A dozen columns of light circled and mocked her.
   Dream-Sarah covered herself with her hands and arms. “Stop it!”
   Her show of modesty only made the laughter louder. The columns of light and the laughter vanished instantly, leaving her alone in her spotlight again.
   “Sarah,” a voice whispered from the darkness. Dream-Sarah looked around warily, expecting to find someone sneaking up on her.
   The Goddess appeared, her form of light perfect.
   Dream-Sarah knelt before the Goddess, her hands hiding herself. 
   “Shame! Stand up! Let us see what you let Ryo touch,” the Goddess ordered contemptuously. Sarah stood up, her hands lowering. The laughter resumed. The Goddess moved her hand slightly and the laughter died down, then the other columns faded, leaving Sarah alone with the Goddess.
   “This is how you declare your love for a man you claim you want back? This only declares you are a shameless slut!”
   “My Goddess--” dream-Sarah said.
   “Silence!” the Goddess roared angrily, making dream-Sarah’s ears ring. “You must atone.”
   “How?”
   “Start thinking, sis,” Aerlyn said contemptuously from the darkness. Dream-Sarah looked for Aerlyn.
   “Aer? Aerlyn! Help me!” Sarah cried fearfully.
   “You must atone for your sins to prove yourself worthy of starting the Path again. Then you must make a decision to take the Path. Only you can take that first step. Goodbye,” Aerlyn whispered and disappeared.
   Sarah looked at the faceless Goddess.
   “The choice is yours, and yours alone,” the Goddess said, her voice fading.
   “What must I do?” dream-Sarah asked.
   “You can start over in your quest for Perfection. You can bask in the light of Perfection when your time arrives. Or, you can go to him and never hope to rejoin your sisters when your time comes.”

***

   Jon watched the distant house. His mind drifted to thoughts of Sarah and of the end of their relationship. I still don’t get it, he thought as he looked around his immediate surroundings. I did everything right, even she admits we have chemistry, and hell. Women. Someone ought to write an instruction manual on women!

   Jon’s countdown clock flashed “0500.” He moved away from the house to a spot he was certain wasn’t being watched. Then he took a slightly different path back to his campsite.

Chapter 34
August 21st, North of Bentonville, Virginia:   The painters arrived. All were PSS agents with reputations for being “do it yourselfers” as that phrase applied to home improvement. After being briefed on the situation, they set up rented scaffolding and ladders, hauled buckets of paint out and began painting the house.

***

   “Sniper Four to control. Got movement. Two men, heavy on camo on the west side. Moving very good for amateurs.”
   “Roger. Do not engage. Repeat, do not engage. All west side teams, do not engage. Observe only.”

***
August 21st:
   Jon slid into position carefully, dressed in his tiger-striped pattern SWUs. After assuring himself he was well-hidden, he turned on the powerful thermal sight to his Enfield and connected his helmet to it, enhancing his range to close to two kilometers. Wherever the “+” reticle projected on the interior of his visor rested, that was where the bullet was going to go. Jon smiled coldly as he waited.

***

   Vito Ameche clutched the short-barreled BR75 rifle tightly from his concealed position. Dressed in standard black and gray ABI raid uniform, Vito shared a two-man position with Yancey, who lay on the ground beside him.
   He was unsure why she wanted to be there. This was going to be dangerous, and she had no raid team experience. While she was a competent pistol shot and had survived several deadly shootouts, her experience was not sufficient to survive an all-out firefight between elite raid-team members and elite forces. He looked over at her as he texted a message for his teams to report in.

***

   Unlike other missions, this mission would have the team members assemble from different points.
   Belastuger looked at the six men and four women who formed his team for the evening. “All right. We did our preliminary recon. Mark has learned Schloss is sleeping over tonight, waiting for the electric company and plumbers to show up in the morning. As you know, he dismissed his GSS bodyguards two days ago and feels he’s quite safe.
   “Word of warning; Schloss is armed with a pistol and is reported to be fairly competent with it. What is our mission?”
   “Make an example out of him,” Harriet Sotheby said softly.
   “Paula, describe our route in.”

***
   “Freeze!” Per commanded softly as he pointed the M905 pistol at the shape with a rifle in front of him.
   “Jon Walker,” Jon announced as he pointedly kept his hands held high. “Army.”
   “I know you’re Army, dickhead. It’s me,” Per whispered. Jon lowered his hands and looked over his shoulder. Per was dressed in tiger-striped SWUs and wore his helmet.
   “Stay below the crest. One of Ameche’s teams can spot you if you go on it.”
   “Gotcha,” Per said as he joined Jon, then lay down next to him. “Let me tell Sam.”
   “How the hell did you sneak up on me?”
   “Sneaky is a prerequisite for boning the battalion commander’s daughter,” Per replied softly. A moment later Sam approached warily.
   “Get down. Go on the ridge and Ameche’s people can see you,” Per said. Sam crouched and lay on Jon’s left side.
   “Jonnie, you are in deep shit!” Sam hissed. “You know how long it took us to find you?”
   “Not long enough,” Jon replied dryly as he snugged the rifle tightly against his shoulder. He shrugged slightly and settled himself quietly, getting back into a good shooting position. “How did you find me?”
   “I still had the chip of our routes in. I noted we never got caught until we got within a couple hundred meters of the house. I figured you would remember the old adage of, “Long distance is the next best thing to being there.”
   Jon smiled at the old sniper’s joke.
   Per studied Jon intently. Jon was totally focused on the house just over a kilometer away. The old rifle was wrapped in camouflage tape and burlap intended to break up the outline. The Enfield rested on a log for support. In addition, Jon had the sling wrapped around his left forearm and bicep in a way Per associated with snipers and competition shooters.
   “What the hell are you doing here?”
   “Army wants you to com in in a bad way. What the hell did you do?” Sam said as he looked over his left shoulder.
   “Huh?” Jon asked. He turned his head to face Sam. “I didn’t do anything. I’m on convalescent leave and told the Army I was gonna be bouncing around between here and home. Why are they looking for me?”
   “I don’t know. We got called into General Napier’s office about fourteen hundred hours. He told us in no uncertain terms to get your dumb ass to a com ASAP.”
   “Who’s he?”
   “Commander of the Eternals,” Per replied.
   “Hopefully they want to tell me I can go home.”
   “Huh?” Per asked.
   “Army cancelled my assignment to the Highlanders. I’m supposed to report October first to the Eternals. I’ll com as soon as I get back to camp, okay?” Jon said as he took a deep breath.
   “Guys, it’s going down. Tonight. I want you to get out of here, because if you get caught, you’re toast. Ameche brought in two more assault teams,” Jon whispered. “You really need to go. You’re breaking my concentration.”
   “Why are you here?” Per asked.
   “Rodent season is open and its no-limit hunting on a baited field,” Jon replied cruelly as he looked at the house nearly a kilometer away.
   “With this thing?” Sam blurted as he looked at the grafting of ancient and modern technology. “You’re nuts!”
   “Keep your voice down,” Jon whispered harshly. “This thing has more range than a BRS75 and less signature with the suppressor. I can knock your dick in the dirt with this thing at twelve hundred meters and still have range to spare,” Jon replied.
   “Anything I can do?” Sam asked.
   Jon thought for a moment, trying to get rid of them so he could focus on the upcoming fight. They wouldn’t merely walk away. Per and Sam were loyal to their friends and fellow soldiers to a fault.
   “Think like a Rodent. Belastuger wants to spank the ABI. How would you humiliate the ABI?”
   “Use air-rifles for the range and silence. Then I’d put some teams on the hill to the south. I could overwatch the house and the ridge covering your ass. I figured you couldn’t be there, because the helmet range without a good sight is only twelve hundred meters. So I figured you’d come here to cover the house,” Sam said quietly.
   “Precisely. Both the house and the hill are inside of my range from here. I checked the big hill on my way in. Nobody there, obviously.” Jon turned his head to look at the house.
   “Want us to go up there? Someone might be watching the house.”
   “Yes. Let’s set freq.”
   After setting a private frequency, Per and Sam disappeared into the night, dreading the long climb.

***
   Jon tensed up as he saw a figure break from the woodline and run to the side door that led to the garage. “Fight’s on!” he texted Per and Sam.
   Jon snugged the rifle into his shoulder and shifted his left forearm a bit, tightening the sling wrapped around it. He pushed the safety off with his thumb as he held the man in his sights. The man used a crowbar to force the door open. He stepped inside quickly.
   Jon swung the rifle back to the woodline to watch a group of five run from the woodline and into the garage. A second later, five more ran into the garage.
   Jon saw one man remaining about sixty meters back in the woodline. “Shit! The north team doesn’t see the guy in the woodline!” Jon whispered to himself as he saw a second man closing in fast. Jon decided to watch the stationary man. He flipped the field of view to “narrow” and centered the “+” reticle appear on the old Aggressor helmet.

***

   “They’re in!” Yancey whispered excitedly as the second group of five entered.
   “Light them up!” Ameche shouted. Twenty agents, well camouflaged in all aspects, rose from positions near the house. The exterior lights placed in the woods around the house came on instantly.

***

   Ryo was eighty meters behind Kirl, feigning a slight limp. When the lights came on, Ryo did what she knew would be best. She turned and ran.

***

   Kirl Belastuger turned instantly when the lights came on. He drew his M905 from the built-in holster on his fighting harness and started to run.

***

   Jon pulled the two-stage trigger gently. The first stage disengaged. The thermal sight shown the running man made no attempt to zigzag or use bigger trees as cover.
   Even pressure throughout the hand, he thought as he applied that pressure to the second stage of the trigger and forgot about everything else except keeping the sight on the target.
   The normally loud bark of the powder-rifle was muted to a soft hand-clap by the suppressor. The 174-grain bullet raced downrange to its target over a kilometer away.
   Without looking at the bolt or his hand, Jon knew he missed, because he forgot to factor in the time of flight for the bullet. He lifted the bolt handle, pulled it to the rear, pushed forward, then pushed the handle down, left hand holding the rifle firmly against his shoulder as his right hand gripped the small of the stock and his finger again pressed the trigger.

***

   Per heard the harsh bark of an air-rifle. Sam heard it too, and the two Aggressors responded like the team they were. Per moved to his left, Sam to his right and they came up behind the two soft-suited figures as they looked for a target. Despite the best efforts of its unknown designer, the air-rifle was far from silent. A loud “PAFFT” was heard as the compressed nitrogen pushed the 500-grain machined bronze bullet from the precision barrel.
   Per noted the team was watching the house. “Freeze!” he shouted. The shooters rolled in opposite directions, abandoning the large rifle between them. They didn’t have a chance. Sam and Per’s bolts caught the killers in the chest and back.

***
   “We got two, no four on the south ridge! They’re out of range!” the south side spotter said loudly as he looked at the two men moving forward. “Be advised! Some are not, repeat not wearing soft-suits!”


***
   The 174-grain bullet Jon had selected for his “match loads” raced towards Belastuger’s head at twenty three hundred feet per second. Belastuger had moved just enough to hear the “crack” as the bullet passed less than a meter behind him.
   The second bullet three seconds later glanced off a branch.

***

   “ABI! You’re under arrest! Put down your weapons and come out with your hands up!” Ameche shouted into the microphone. His voice was transmitted to a dozen carefully hidden speakers.
   A burst of gunfire pierced the tranquility of the night as the assassins realized they were trapped.

***

   Per moved cautiously towards the two corpses, intending to turn their helmets off and secure the weapon when he came under fire again. The 500-grain bronze bullet cracked hard as it hit a tree less than 20 centimeters from Per’s head.
   “Jon! Lift and shift to the hill fast! We’re pinned down!” Per said as he dived for cover.
   Jon got up from his position and ran hard to the other ridge fifty meters away. He lay on the ground and put his elbows into the carefully dug depressions intended to steady his arms. He saw four clear thermal images the tall hill to the south.
   “Beacons,” Jon said as he took up a steady prone position. Two asterisk beacons appeared instantly in Jon’s visor, showing him where Per and Sam were. “No problem,” Jon said confidently as the grin on his face fell off.
   Jon activated the range-finder. The dull green “920” glowed at the bottom of his visor. He pulled the trigger without thinking, his eye focused on the “+” reticle.
   As the old rifle pounded his shoulder, Jon’s right hand cycled the bolt, extracting and ejecting the spent cartridge and feeding a new one. He shifted position slightly and put the “+” reticle on the second target who was trying to clear the body of the first away from the heavy air-rifle and pulled the trigger, knowing the range had not changed.
   He was rewarded with a puff that indicated the bullet had exited the helmet, taking some of the dead sniper’s brains with it.
   Two head shots in less than six seconds.
   “Gods, Jon! You got them!” Per blurted he raised up cautiously to see two cooling thermal targets in his visor. “Let’s tag ‘em.”
   Sam rose to a wary crouch, then dived for cover as splinters flew from a tree to his left. “Shit!” Sam shouted into his microphone. “Two more!”
   “Where? Spot him for me!” Jon asked. 
   “Start looking around zero seven two!” Per said as he crawled behind a thick log, to hear the slap of the bullet hit where he had been. “I’d say about five hundred from my pos.”
   Jon automatically set the thermal sights to a wide field of view. “I see them.”

***

   One of the assassins decided he was fast enough. He got exactly two meters out the front door before a burst from Ameche’s BR75 caught him at the knees. The man fell down the steps screaming. The door slammed behind him, sealing his fate. He reached for his pistol when Yancey fired a second burst into him.

***

   Belastuger crawled twenty meters deeper into the woodline before he examined his wound. Jon’s deflected bullet had entered fifteen centimeters to the left of Kirl’s spine and five centimeters below his waist to glance off the pelvis and rest next to his right thighbone.
   His face a painful grimace, the Rodinan bandaged the wound and put a temp patch on his suit, knowing it was vital no traces were left behind. He grabbed a thick branch about two meters in length and used it as a crutch.
   Grunting painfully, Kirl got to his feet and moved fifty meters deeper in the woodline. He looked at the house in the distance, and knew all attention was focused now on the house. Escape was impossible for those inside. Kirl Belastuger would finish the mission.

***

   Jon sighted the two men who had Per pinned down. Jon returned to a narrow field of view and put the reticle on the sniper. He forced himself to maintain the shooting discipline he had learned, all intended to make his body a rock-steady weapons platform for the critical split-second when the bullet began its path to the target.
   Jon had remembered his lessons well as the range finder number flashed “1062” at the bottom of helmet visor. He pulled the trigger.

***

   Per doubled back along his route, thinking he might be able to get to the first air-rifle. A bullet screamed high over his head, and Per decided to stay down.

***
   “We want to negotiate!” one terrified voice screamed from the inside of the now-darkened house. “Cease fire so we can show ourselves! Please!”
   “Cease fire, Vito,” Yancey said as she started to rise. Ameche grabbed her arm and pulled her down.
   “Stay down. It’s a trick.”
   “We want to surrender!” another voice shouted.
   “What do you want?” Yancey asked loudly without keying herself into the public address system.
   A burst of gunfire tore the air above Yancey and Ameche.
   “They don’t want to negotiate. They want to die. I don’t want to die tonight, and watching you die is not on my list either!” Ameche said.

***

   Ryo ran faster, knowing now the woods were filled with ABI agents. When she reached the Shenandoah River, a mere kilometer away, she turned off her helmet and removed it.

   Ryo acted quickly. She removed the soft-suit and skin-suit to reveal she wore hiking boots, socks, pants and a bright T-shirt underneath. Her skin was red and raw in a dozen places, but she could attribute those to a fall while trying to find her way to her campsite in the dark.
   She turned the helmet on long enough to lock out the com system and initiate the erase feature. After verifying all systems were erased, she removed her boots and socks and then waded into the river. She removed the battery and threw it as hard as she could. Then she pushed the helmet underwater with a stick.
   Looking around nervously, she returned to shore and gathered her soft-suit, boots and socks. She walked about sixty meters further downriver. She walked into the river up to her knees and put the soft-suit in the water.
   She took the long stick and dunked the suit into the water, knowing it would float for some time, but the critical evidence of dead skin cells would be washed away. She pushed the suit away from her hard. The current caught it and it disappeared into the night.
   She retraced her steps and watched the last bit of evidence linking her to Kronskye’s Revenge disappear from sight.
   She put on her boots and socks, then headed towards a nearby camping ground. If anyone spotted her, she was a camper who had gotten lost while hiking. It would be embarrassing to admit she’d gotten lost, but better than being caught. If she wasn’t spotted, she would calmly drive back to New Alexandria the following morning, having enjoyed a couple of days in Nature’s Embrace.

***

   “Got the first one, the other hauled ass with the weapon,” Jon said. “You’re clear of him,” Jon said as he searched for the second sniper with the thermal sights on wide field of view.

***

   Kirl double-blinked the scroll-bar marked “Surprise.” He hurried towards the river, his mission complete.

***

   Harriet Sotheby looked out the front window for targets. The “+” reticle in her helmet disappeared. Before she could realize the reticle was gone, the White Phosphorous charge in her helmet exploded.

***

   “What the hell?” Ameche said as he watched one soft-suited attacker burst into flames. He raised his BR75 and fired a burst into the flaming chest as a mercy.
   “Jesus!” a voice shouted in dismay.
   “Sniper Two. I have two on fire here. What the hell is going on?”
   “I’d like to know that too!” Yancey shouted as the flames grew in the house.
   “The house is on fire!” Sniper Four reported needlessly as he saw a burning figure dive from the second story window.
   “This is Sniper Seven! I have fires on the hill behind me!”
   “Sniper Two sees two fires also on the hill. Be advised, we still have two people up there, not in soft-suits!”

***

   Belastuger heard a faint, yet vicious flurry of gunfire. He knew the ABI was delivering finishing shots.
   He smiled despite his pain. All he had to do now was extract and watch the news.
   Unlike the others, Ryo’s suit had been rigged to electrocute her. Someone would eventually find Ryo’s body and the link between the AEDF and Kronskye’s Revenge would be established beyond a doubt.
   Past associations with and accepting the AEDF’s endorsements would suddenly become anchors to multitudes of politicians across the Alliance, opening the way for more acceptable politicians to take their rightful places.
   Mission completed.
   Kirl Belastuger slipped into the river and started towards his rendezvous.

***

   “Jon, these guys had pop-tops,” Per said as he looked at the burning remains of a team and their air-rifle.
   “Yep. Never saw it done this way before. I think we’ve done all the damage we can do for one night. Let’s extract,” Jon said brightly. “Beer’s on me.”
   “Good thinking,” Sam replied.
   “I like your plan,” Per said as two ABI agents came into view, carrying BR75s.
   “FREEZE! ABI!” the agents shouted. Two more agents moved wide to the left to catch Per and Sam in a crossfire if needed.
   “Army!” Sam shouted as he held up his hands. “Corporals Acton and Olsen!”
   The agents quickly handcuffed and searched the two Aggressors. After assuring themselves the two men posed no threat, they sent images of Per and Sam’s faces to Ameche.
   “Uncuff them, give them back their pieces and bring them here.”
   “Right. They say they’re here on official business and there’s one more out here.”
   “Tell him to come to the house. Approach from the front, hands in sight,” Ameche said decisively as a distant siren was heard.

***

   Jon acknowledged Per’s instructions and made his approach carefully. After he hid the thermal sight, Jon marked the location with his helmet Planetary Positioning System before he encrypted the coordinates. While legal to own, Jon didn’t want the ABI to know he had the night sight.
   He carefully moved to within fifty meters of Ameche and Yancey, who were talking to Per and Sam by a car.
   “Ameche!” Jon shouted loudly from under cover. “Can I show myself?”
   “Show yourself!” Ameche said loudly. Jon stepped out into the driveway, hands empty and high, the Enfield slung over his shoulder. “Okay, he’s a good guy,” Ameche said to two agents who had weapons pointed in Jon’s direction. “Come on in, Walker.” The agents lowered their weapons and gave Jon disapproving looks as he lowered his hands.
   “What the hell are you doing here?” Yancey demanded. “This is an ABI operation.”
   “Why did they set themselves afire like that?” Ameche asked as Jon joined them.
   “Pop-tops,” Per said bluntly.
   “Pop-tops?” Yancey said.
   “Yeah. We told you the Rodents were underhanded mothers. They used an old trespasser trick. They rigged their helmets so when they die, their bodies can’t be identified or their helmets be interrogated. These old boys took it to the extreme,” Jon said. “They didn’t want bodies left behind.”
   “You haven’t answered my question; What are you doing here?” Yancey said with a frown.
   “Had to spend my con leave somehow. I knew you would focus on the house and not the hills behind you. There were a few sniper teams. Per and Sam got one of the teams, I got the others. There’s one down over there, about sixty meters in, beyond your perimeter team.”

***

   An hour later, the fires were contained. Jennifer studied the nearest corpse, which was now nothing more than soggy ash that smoked despite the fire fighter’s best efforts. “How long will it be before we put the fires out? The forensics teams will want to get to work when they get here.”
   “Won’t help the bodies though. They’re covered with Willie Pete and there ain’t no putting them out,” a fireman said distastefully as he turned his hose away from the corpse. Incredibly, the soggy ash burst into flames again. The hose was aimed back at it and covered with a high-density mist and the flames died down, but the corpse continued to burn.
   “Only way we can put this stuff out would be with Chem Agent Five. We commed Richmond for some, but it will be several hours before we see it here. By then, you won’t even have DNA to test.”

***
   Yancey stood with Per and Sam on the driveway when Kevin Reynolds arrived, wearing raid-team gray.
   “What the hell are they doing here?” Reynolds blurted as he saw the Aggressors.
   “Long story, Kevin. What are you doing here?”
   “Wyman wanted me to give her an appraisal of the house.”
   “House is Class--Ash,” Sam said with a grin as he “high-fived” Per enthusiastically.
   “Obviously. Enough White Phosphorous to keep burning for a long time,” Yancey said as Ameche and Jon returned from where Belastuger was shot.
   “Busy night,” Ameche said to Reynolds, then turned to Yancey. “Jen, Walker popped one of them. Got a blood trail about seventy meters in, abruptly stops. We have a chase team heading towards the river, but I don’t think we’re going to catch whoever it was. Hopefully the guy will go to a hospital and we can bag him there.”
   “We have boats out there?”
   “Yes. I called in a favor with Fish and Game. They have three boats out here now, and will have four more by dawn. Two equipped for sonar searches for bodies.”
   “How did you know about the person there?” Ameche asked.
   “Remember when we got caught? The guy who had nearly buried himself and rigged a corner checker to act as a periscope? If I suspected this could be a trap, I’d give myself a headstart. So I would stand there and set off the pop-tops.
   “If popping tops wasn’t the goal, then that’s where I’d stand to watch the driveway, some of the front yard and side yards and part of the back yard,” Jon said as he lit a nicstic.
   “I’d make for the river. Take a little swim, get in a boat, dump the suit, and become a fisherman just looking for some relaxation,” Per said.
   “Convenient end to Kronskye’s Revenge,” Ameche said bitterly.
   “Angels,” Per said as he looked at the house. “You’re saying this was a setup?”
   “Yes,” Jon said as he contemplated the glowing end of his nicstic. “A way to end the operation in such a way the ABI can’t keep investigating without looking like paranoid conspiracy freaks. They got bodies, caught at the scene, shucks, unidentifiable bodies, but you have images of soft-suits. All you have to do now is wait for missing person reports to come in and see how many wackos are listed. I’m willing to bet they’ll be locals.”
   “What are you going to do now?” Per asked.
   “We wait for someone to show up at a hospital with for a person to show up with a bullet in his back,” Ameche said.
   Jon’s smile would have put a Cheshire cat to shame.
   “I think I shot him in the ass.”

***

   After being sworn to secrecy by Yancey, Jon, Per and Sam looked at each other in the driveway.
   “Did you get your satisfaction?” Per asked.
   “Nope. The son of a bitch got away. I just know it was Belastuger. Damn it.”
   “Now what?”
   “I don’t think the ABI will catch him. He has to have a few supporters somewhere, and no doubt one will be able to patch him up. With this little job done, I figure I might as well snooze a few hours and head home.”
   “That’s over a thousand kilometers!” Sam said.
   “Yep. No time to waste.”
   “So us a favor. Com Personnel and find out what the hell the Army wants,” Sam said.
   “Okay. I’ll do it once I get some sleep. Don’t think a duty NCO at zero dark thirty will be able to tell me what is going on anyway.”
   “Well, I’ll see you in about five weeks,” Per said as he put his right hand on Jon’s left shoulder as Aggressors did in the field. “You take care.”
   “You too,” Jon said distantly as he returned the friendly gesture, then repeated the gesture with Sam.
   “Hey, anyone need a ride?” Reynolds asked from his car.
   “We do,” Sam said, gesturing to Per and himself.
   “Get in.”
   “See ya,” Jon said as he turned and disappeared into the night.