Some wars are loud, obvious, and directly draw in millions. This wasn’t one of them. For one of the groups of belligerents, this war could only be won in silence.
Alpha Lead, Alpha Three and Alpha Five had known each other for around half a decade. The three men still didn’t know their co-worker’s real names in case one of them was captured. When Alpha first started, the group had been a DIA-controlled project. Every few months, however, it was shunted to a different intelligence agency and given a different name generated by computer. Then records in the previous controller agency would then be destroyed: paper records shredded then burned, hard drives magnetized, then smashed with a sledgehammer, then tossed on top of the paper pyre. The only surviving copies would go to the POTUS and most likely never be read again.
That was scheduled to happen today. However, before that could happen, Alpha team had something to take care of. As Alpha Three drove the team through the semi-affluent suburb on the US-Mexican border, Lead and Five checked the strange guns that they had received from Lead’s friend. They were unmarked except for the words “Uilon Mangchi Six Millimeter.” Eventually, they pulled up in front of a small ranch house with well-manicured lawn by a bus stop. Just as Lead and Six got out, a Hispanic man exited the house.
The man suddenly looked up. Then, recognizing Lead and Six, he went for a gun in a concealed holster. He was too late. The world erupted in gunfire as Lead and Five dumped their mags. As the roar finished echoing, Lead could hear children crying and a dog barking. He slid the mag out, then pushed it back in when he saw he still had five bullets remaining, plus one in the chamber. Conscious of the fact that people were mostly still home, he walked over to the body. He didn’t see how the target could live, but he fired five more rounds into the target’s chest and two more into his head just to be sure.
Lead and Five then returned to the car at a brisk pace. Once they were both belted in, Three began to accelerate to a speed about five miles above the limit. While that was going on, Lead and Six inspected themselves for blood.
“So,” Lead asked after they were a safe distance away from the town, “who wants McDonalds?”
“Seconded,” Three said.
Their base was a two-story house that was so close to the border that it had nearly been demolished when the US-Mexico border wall was first proposed. When the cost to effectiveness ratio had been found to be… lacking, their outfit had bought the house.
“The bad informant’s been dealt with,” Lead said, “and we brought you some grub.”
Alpha Two who had been busy playing Xbox, looked up. “You know,” he said, “all this fast food’s going to kill us.” Five laughed in response. Two sighed. “I’m serious! You guys’re gonna die of a heart attack way before some whack job gets a bead on us. Anyway, new orders came in.”
“So what’re we being called now?” Alpha Three asked. “Is it as good as Clown Pants?” Everyone laughed. “Dying Death? Mistake Maker?” All of these names were ones that had happened in recent memory, and the men of what had recently been called Prosthetic Rooster found them hilarious.
“Naw, man,” Two said. “We got something boring this time. Silent Wars.”
“Shame,” Lead said. “Anyway, what’s the briefing? And are we getting a replacement for Four?”
“FBI,” Two said. “Apparently, a COINTELPRO operation got fucked up. They tried to infiltrate a mutie group and frame them for terrorism. We need to eliminate them before they go public.”
“They brought COINTELPRO back again?” Three asked. “Didn’t they learn their lesson when they tried to do that with the Civil Rights movement back in the Sixties? Besides, if we do this and get caught, the –”
“The difference is black people don’t shoot lightning out of their anuses! Parahumans do.” Two said. “Is what we’re doing wrong? Yeah. But if these guys talk about it in this election cycle…”
“That’s a bullshit excuse and you know it,” Three said. “If we were going to stabilize things, we’d…”
“Hey!” Lead said. “We’ve got a job to do. Stop talking about potentially fucking treasonous side projects and start planning.” Three and Two made murmurs of agreement, Three somewhat mutinously. Ignoring it, Lead then began to moderate the planning session.
As they began to work, no one noticed a blurry shape place something on the window. The figure waited until the five men inside finished their planning. When they got into their vehicle and began to leave, electricity fizzled, and the blurry outline turned into a short man wearing a black armored bodysuit that covered every inch of skin. His eyes were covered by a helmet, mask, and what seemed to be high-tech goggles.
As the car drove on, Lead ran over the plan in his head. Alpha Team would join Charlie and Bravo teams for the raid, which was scheduled for 1700. In the meantime, they had to do something first.
“Kill a Regenerator?” Five asked for what felt like the thousandth time. “We’re under-strength. How are we supposed to kill a Regenerator without AT weapons?”
Lead was sympathetic. Regenerators (or more scientifically, Homo Sapiens Regenerator) were Parahumans that, like Lupines, could heal various injuries at a decidedly inhuman rate. The difference between the two was that when Regenerators healed, their body parts came back different. For instance, if you shot a Regenerator and it didn’t die, it would become a bit more bullet-resistant than the average human. If someone repeated the process enough times, the Regenerator could become pretty much immune to small-arms fire. Also, as a Regenerator mutated, they would gain other abilities, like projectile-vomiting acid. This process was known as biological revolution.
There were, of course, limits. Despite some inhumane tests in the forties and plenty of misguided self-experimentation, there was a limit to how much of a juggernaut a Regenerator could become. Even at their apex, an anti-tank rocket to their chest would yield very impressive results. They also changed physical appearance drastically over time.
“Don’t worry,” Two said. “Intel says he’s still bipedal.”
“Oh, yes,” Five said bitingly. “Because intelligences is never wrong.”
“The problem I’m most worried about,” Lead said, “is if we can dispose of him before the cops come.” Dealing with a Regenerator could get messy. If you simply unloaded a magazine in the general direction of one, they could still get up. If you missed the heart or important parts of the brain, they would get up, and the next time you met, there was a good chance your weapon wouldn’t even penetrate. Currently, standard procedure was to douse a downed regenerator in thermite or sulfuric acid when it was necessary to be sure. However, that took time, and they weren’t exactly allowed to explain to police officers why they were trying to set a freshly murdered corpse on fire with a highly controlled substance.
“Thirty seconds til departure,” Three said. “Get ready.” Everyone else did a final check of their equipment and weaponry. Two had a compact pump-action shotgun loaded with solid slugs. Five had an HK417 battle rifle. Lead had his Uilon Mangchi and a device called a Yale gun. Looking slightly like a pistol, the Yale gun was designed as a kind of training wheel for lock pickers.
By the time the weapons were re-concealed, the car had drifted to a full and complete stop. The men got out of the car in front of a run-down house that was probably half the size of an average ranch house. All of the curtains were drawn. Moving quickly and confidently, they approached the house. Dressed in business clothes and concealing their weaponry under trench coats, no one would suspect a thing, at least until the shooting started. Upon reaching the door, Lead stuck in his Yale gun into the lock and pulled the trigger until he heard a click. He then turned the Yale gun in the keyhole and the lock opened.
When the door was open, they filed into a small hallway. There were five doors, two on the left, three on the right. From down the hall through the mid-right door, they could hear the sound of a washing machine. From the door to the immediate left, they could hear muffled voices. Lead quickly opened it and found a tiny kitchen and dining room combo. Mounted on the wall was a TV playing a person on some sort of soap opera monologuing.
After he checked the corners, he shook his head, indicating to Two and Five that everything was all clear. Then he heard a door open. Immediately, Two and Five opened fire. Lead got out just in time to see a strangely blobby man with odd gray skin stagger back and vomit something out, dropping his load of laundry as he did so. The vomit seemed to be a weird yellowish substance, and it traveled very far. Lead didn’t see it land, but he heard Five scream in pain. There was also the smell of flesh, Kevlar, and carpet burning.
Lead quickly opened fire with his Uilon. This time the gray blob of a man collapsed. Lead spared a half a glance at the rest of his team. Two had dropped his shotgun in disgust, a shell jamming the breech open. Five was crumpled on the floor. The highly caustic substance had eaten away his face and skull and seemed to be working on his brain now.
Turning back to the Regenerator lying on the floor, Lead considered things. If that substance currently eating away at Five was any indication, it was, at best, a 50/50 chance that sulfuric acid wouldn’t work. “Two,” Lead said, “go out and get the thermite from the trunk.”
As Three left, careful not to step in the puddles of hazardous liquid, Lead advanced to the Regenerator. After putting a few additional bullets into it, he dragged what was hopefully a corpse nearer to where Five lay. He then collected the HK417, Five’s Uilon, and Three’s abandoned shotgun, as well as every other useful item from Five. By that time, Two and Three were back with the can of thermite. They could also hear sirens in the distance.
“Ok,” Lead said, “douse Five and the target in thermite. I’ll store the gear and pull security.”
It only took a few minutes for the fire to start. Three and Two didn’t have to be told to run. Once Two was in the driver’s seat, Lead yelled, “Don’t worry about your seatbelt, fucking gun it!” In response, Two turned the key, put the car in drive, and slammed on the accelerator.
Neither the leaving team nor the arriving police officers noticed that on the roof of the house there was an odd refraction of light. It had been there before the black ops team had come, and it remained there well after the cops left.
Several hours and two stolen cars later, the remainder of Alpha got to the RV point. It was sunset when they finally arrived. There, four members of Bravo team and all six of Charlie were waiting impatiently. Lead supposed they had reason. After all, this was a highly sensitive mission and Alpha was five minutes late.
“What the hell happened to you guys?” Charlie Lead asked. “Why are you understrength? And why are you driving a convertible with bronco horns on the grille?”
Alpha Lead, wincing internally said, “We lost Five going after their Regenerator. The cops showed up and we had to change vehicles several times to avoid pursuit. The previous mission we lost Four and Six because a source turned out to be working for the target.”
“That’s fucked up,” Bravo lead said sympathetically. “Sorry to hear that.”
“Speaking of that,” Alpha said, “Where’s your other two guys?”
Another Bravo member responded, “They’ve set up sniper positions on their clubhouse and cut the phone lines. The target building used to be a roadhouse between two towns. Then vehicles became faster and more efficient, and there wasn’t really much need for anything here. Heck, there wasn’t much reason for either of the two towns. So the building got abandoned in the early two thousands, then got purchased by our friends a few years ago.”
“Anything else we need to know?” Alpha Three asked. Alpha lead looked over at the getaway driver. He was obviously very tired, and with very good reason. He had been dodging cops for most of the day. Alpha Two wasn’t looking much better if Alpha Lead was honest with himself. Sadly enough, this day had been more than typical of the past few months, and none of his men had had a break since the organization had been called Legume Wind.
Bravo and Charlie Lead both exchanged looks. Then Charlie Lead asked Alpha, “In all honesty, are your men prepared to fight?”
Alpha Lead, after bracing himself, replied, “In all honesty, we are almost combat ineffective. We need to be rotated out.”
“Then go home,” Charlie Lead said. “You got the Regenerator, right?”
“Yeah,” Alpha Lead said. Suddenly, he remembered seeing things the past few weeks. Patches of refracted light on roofs and behind windows, dogs staring at things that weren’t there, and the safe house’s infrared cameras picking up a large heat spike before going dead.
“Is there something else?” Bravo Lead asked.
“Not sure,” Alpha said. “I might just be too tired.” That was probably it. The first time any of them had gotten a full eight hours of uninterrupted sleep in the past two months was last night, and they had to break protocol and not post sentries to get it.
“Take our car,” Bravo Lead said, indicating one of two large SUVs. “Procurement can get it replaced. Those snazzy new pistols they bought were cheaper than expected, so they might be able to afford it. We can just double up in Charlie’s.”
“What about…” Alpha Lead began, but Charlie Lead cut him off.
“Go,” Charlie Lead said. “We’ll take care of your pimpmobile.”
Suddenly, Alpha Lead felt very heavy. He could rest now. “Well,” he said, tossing Charlie Lead the keys, “I guess I get to take a rest now.”
Lead and Two took turns driving. Three had been sitting in cars for almost half the day, so the other two had decided to give him a break. Eventually, though, Lead and Two were so tired (despite copious amounts of coffee) that Three had to wake up and drive the last leg of the journey.
It was the time of night (well, technically morning) that spawned the phrase “things are darkest just before the dawn” when the tire blew. They were in view of the safe house when everyone was jolted out of their sleep by a loud bang. Three swore as the car began swerving wildly. They eventually coasted to a stop directly in front of the telephone pole that connected their safe house to the electrical grid, phone system and internet.
“No!” Three said, getting out of the vehicle. “We were so close! Why’d those assholes in Charlie have to inflate the tires so much?” He then began cry.
Lead, disturbed, said, “Hey, Three… it can still drive, right? We can drive it back into the garage, can’t we?” Three was too tear-stricken to answer in anything other than unintelligible blubbering, but was able to shake his head.
“I think…” Two said, “he said that if we want to damage the axle, we can. Otherwise, we’ll need to change the tire.”
“Ok,” Lead said, “We can do that, can’t we? What’s another thirty minutes?” Three took a deep breath, then nodded.
“Hey boss,” Two said, “while you two are doing that, can I do my weekly bug check on the pole? I’ve been so busy for the past two weeks since Six died that I couldn’t get it done.”
“Sure,” Lead said.
“Besides,” Three said, “this is kind of a two-man job. We get three doing it, and we’ll end up fighting.”
They still ended up getting snippy. Just as they managed to get the third of the five lug nuts connecting the hubcap to the axle, Two said, “Hey, guys? I found something.”
Lead suddenly felt like his stomach had turned to ice. “What is it?”
“I can’t be sure,” Two said, “but since it was connected to our…”
Before he could finish, there was a thump and pieces of a black synthetic object and gore rained down on Lead and Three. Two fell from the pole and onto the roof of the SUV with another thump. The car buckled. That seemed to be Two’s cue to start screaming. Lead, slipping into combat mode, yelled, “Get him down!”
Together, Lead and Three pulled down Two. Once Two was down, Lead and Three saw that his left hand had been blown to bits. Everything beyond where his thumb met his hand had been removed. The top of the thumb seemed to be connected to the rest by a few strings of gristle and meat.
Making an executive decision, Lead said, “Fuck the last two bolts, we’re driving into the garage.”
“Agreed,” Three said. His eyes were huge. None of them had expected a bomb.
As they finally brought Two in to the living room, Lead said, “I can’t believe someone bombed our telephone line.”
“Not… not a bomb,” Two said.
“Painkillers and bandages are upstairs,” Three said.
“Well fucking go get them!” Lead said.
“Not a bomb!”
“Yes, sir!” Three said. He then spun on his heel and began to run up the stairs.
“It wasn’t a bomb!”
Lead, exasperated, tired, and completely burned out, turned back to Two and yelled, “THEN WHAT THE FUCK WAS IT?”
“IT WAS A BUG!” Two yelled back.
Lead stared at Two for a moment. “But…” he said… “but that was too much explosive to…”
“No,” Two said. “It was too little. Think about it: I only lost a hand. Plus, the wires are still up. I bet if you turned on the TV, booted up the net, or placed a call, you’d go through. Besides, why would you attach a bomb to a wire in order to cut those things? Why not just cut the cable further upstream? Or use an automated knife or something?” When Lead just stared at Two dumbly, Two continued, “I mean, yeah, technically, it was also a bomb, but that must have been to destroy the device. I mean, I’d literally seen nothing like it. Chances are, the guys who made didn’t want anyone looking at it too closely.”
“So how was it triggered?” Lead asked.
“All I could do is list possibilities,” Two said. “Could be anything from removal to someone directly observing the device. Same for how long it’s been there but I can narrow it down to when I last checked… Boss, you good?”
As soon Two had said “directly observing,” Lead had gone silent and began looking at the stairs behind him. When Two repeated his question, Lead said, “Three should be back by now.”
Instantly, both men went silent. Lead grabbed the HK417 and began heading towards the stairs. The stairs led to a t-junction. Lead could go left or right. To his right was nothing but the normal two rooms. To the left was the bathroom. Oddly enough, the hall lights, which Lead was certain Three had turned on, were off. Even weirder was the faint whiff of something burning. The bathroom lights were illuminating two dark shapes, one long with four long offshoots, and another that was semi-spherical. Lead went to turn on the lights. Nothing happened.
Cursing the lack of a tactical light on the HK417, Lead began heading towards the dark shape. He was unsurprised to see that the big shape was Three’s headless body clutching pills. He was about to turn around when he saw something flutter in the bathroom.
Moving carefully, Lead headed into the bathroom. When he was in, he saw that it was the window’s curtain wavering in the breeze. While it could mean that whoever had bugged them, snuck in, and decapitated Three had left, Lead wasn’t about to take chances. Just before he turned around, however, he felt an odd coldness in his chest and could suddenly smell a mix of ozone and burning flesh. He looked down.
A blade had been stuck through his back and out his heart. It extended almost half a foot in front of his chest, smoke pouring from the wound. He tried to scream, but only a wheeze came out. Then everything went black.
The Dragon’s Teeth soldier, a type called a Shinobi, sat down on a couch opposite its final victim, tending to his shoulder wound. The seat was wonderful, and the Ninja had never felt anything like it. When the Creators were overthrown, the Ninja promised himself then and there he would do his best to get a couch.
The bullet wound was quite the annoyance. Somehow, the final man of the black ops squad the Shinobi had to observe had spotted the tell-tale refraction of light that indicated a cloaked Shinobi and had fired wildly. The bullet the black ops soldier had somehow manage to hit the Shinobi with had pierced the Shinobi’s thick shoulder plate armor.
The Shinobi was annoyed and concerned by that. While the bullet had missed any blood vessels and bones, it should not have been able to penetrate his armor twice. The second layer should have stopped it cold. He’d even had to fire his spring-loaded super-heated blade at his enemy before another bullet had hit him.
When the Shinobi was finished dressing his wound, he walked over to the gun, pried it from his enemy’s cold, dead fingers, and brought it back to the couch he was rapidly falling in love with. He then removed the magazine, revealing that the bullets were caseless with a screw-on back. Upon unscrewing the back, he was surprised to find liquid propellant. Somehow, someone had stolen the formula that The Dragon’s Teeth used for most of their ammo, replicated it, and gave it to an American black ops team. That was disturbing to say the least.
Deciding to multitask, the Shinobi had the satellite phone play its voicemail messages. Not only was that the only thing in the house the Shinobi hadn’t been able to bug in the past two weeks, but it was also the only way the cells of the organization kept in touch. “Hey, Alpha,” a hurried voice on the other end said, “when we did the mission, there was a weird ninja guy in the basement with a… a… cloaking field. The only reason we saw him was because Charlie Six had a thermal scope. We think you guys might be in danger. This… this could be bad. We know you guys probably aren’t back yet, but when you get here, call us back, ok?”
The next message was from the same man but more desperate. “Alpha, we looked over something in the ninja’s boot. It was a slip of paper with several addresses on it, including your safe house’s. If you don’t get back to us in the next ten minutes, we’re coming over. If everything’s secure, give us a call.”
Suddenly realizing the friends of the group he just murdered could arrive at any minute, the Shinobi stood up. It was time, as the locals said, to move it or lose it.
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