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       Rebel Heart, p.4

           Lizzy Ford
 
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  Chapter Three

  BRADY APPROACHED THE FIVE soldiers in urban gray tactical suits crowded around the small box with a hole still smoking from a hit by a wayward laser bullet. The box was marked with a biohazard symbol on the outside. It was small and black, and yawned open to display a single keypad with a red serial number emblazoned along its side. The world around Brady was eerily quiet after a chaotic battle over the facility. The air was tinged with the scent of burning wood and melted metals, sulfur, and the facility’s damp mustiness.

  “What is it?” he asked.

  “Maybe if we—” one started, pulling off the protective second-skin glove to reach into the box.

  “Don’t do that!” Brady growled, taking the box. “We don’t know what this thing is.”

  He held it up to the light coming from the sole window in the massive basement. The dilapidated, abandoned facility fiercely defended by the soldiers in Western uniforms was not worth their efforts when compared to the buildings in much better shape down the road. There was no running water, no food supplies, no energy whatsoever, just a deteriorating building with a score of insurgents and a small black box.

  Uneasily, he looked to the others. His team continued to clear the building and toss flares into corners as they sought out any living insurgents or incendiary devices.

  “They were defending it for a reason,” another added. “That’s the worst fight we’ve had yet.”

  “All for this thing,” Brady agreed. “We’ll take it with us. Fan out and see what else we can salvage from here or if there are any survivors we can talk to about these funky uniforms.”

  He closed the box. Brady’s sharp gaze took in the smoldering remains of an escape ladder leading out of the basement’s opposite end. Some had escaped, though not with the treasure they sought to protect. He looked around, unnerved that such fervent men would retreat. His dark gaze returned to the box, and he reached up to the earpiece as he moved away from the others.

  “Yes,” the voice at the other end of the network responded.

  “Larry, we found something,” he said. “Not sure what it is.”

  “Wait one, Brady,” Larry responded then bellowed at the crowd of aides-de-camp Brady knew regularly surrounded him. “Someone grab me an intel guy!”

  “Brade, I think we should get outta here,” Dan said. “This place gives me the creeps.”

  “Me, too,” Brady said and met the gaze of his closest friend since basic training. “Let’s pull everyone out.”

  Dan activated one of the buttons on his command headpiece that sent his rally orders out to the soldiers in the building.

  “Brady,” Larry said. “Intel guy.”

  “I’m ready,” Brady said, trotting up the stairs to the main floor. He strode towards the entrance behind several others exiting the building.

  “Major, this is Lieutenant George.”

  “George, I have a small black box about the size of your hand with nothing but a keypad in it. It’s marked with biohazard signs and a serial.”

  “Read me the serial, and I’ll see who I can get on the net to tell me what it is.”

  Brady complied and closed the connection. He placed the box in his cargo pocket and joined the two teams in the chilly predawn morning. He turned to address Dan, when the sagging building behind them exploded into flames and light. Heat rolled over him as he was flung towards the weed-infested parking lot.

  He hit the ground with a grunt, one ear ringing and his face stinging from pelting, hot debris. Surprise was replaced by anger and concern as he vaulted to his feet, intent on ensuring his men were safe.

  “Dan!” he shouted.

  Groans and curses rose from the grassy area around the blazing facility. Heat pulsed off the building in waves, aided by a soft, cold breeze. Brady hit the rally emitter on his command headpiece. He paced as men rose from the ground and trotted to him, counting as they came. To his relief, he counted all five of his team members. Dan cursed as he trotted from an area to the side of the building.

  “Medic!” Brady called.

  “Here!”

  “Check everyone. Every man here needs to check his gear for tears or other issues!”

  “Brade, we’ve got one down,” Dan called, motioning to a soldier carried between two others.

  The medic rushed forward. In the near distance, beyond the other dilapidated buildings on the abandoned street, came the sound of small arms laser fire. Flares went up to the east and south. Brady looked from the injured man to the streaks of red in the sky, which were answered by two more streaks to the north. He bristled and checked his weapons. Adrenaline and battle lust reared once again.

  Ambush. He met Dan’s gaze and saw the same sense of dread on his counterpart’s face. The dark-haired man frowned at the unspoken exchange.

  “Rendezvous threat camp,” Brady said. “Medic, get him ready to go!”

  Dan rallied his team and broke towards the east, where the first flares had appeared. Brady turned to his team of five, which were gathered around the downed man.

  “Sir, I stopped the bleeding with skin patches, but he’s got metal in three—” the medic started.

  “Can he travel?” Brady asked.

  “He’s in shock.”

  Brady knelt beside the unconscious soldier. His face and neck suffered severe burns while his right side looked as though a Brillo brush had been taken to it. He saw the skin patches, fracture brace, and laser-sealed wounds—evidence of the medic’s quick work—but he also saw the unusual bulge in the wounded soldier’s side. Large pieces of shrapnel were stuck inside.

  “What’s near here?” he demanded, twisting to see the team’s scout.

  “Nothing for miles in working condition, except the fed buildings down the road. They have a hospital, but—”

  “Hospital,” he breathed.

  “It’s a feds hospital, wrapped in armor and surrounded by one of those biohazard elimination fields and landmines. There’s no going near it,” Jem replied. “They don’t take our kind there, anyway.”

  “But it’s up and running?” Brady pressed.

  “The only thing running for a hundred miles.”

  Brady rose, hope flickering through him. He motioned for his men to stay where they were and jogged out of earshot. He tapped his personal net implant and murmured “Angel” to direct the implant in his brain to contact her.

  “Angel, you there?” he asked.

  “Please wait,” came the woman’s response. He did so impatiently, shifting his gear around his body. “I’m here.”

  “You of all people could probably help me about now,” he said.

  “What’s wrong?” she asked, concern entering her tired voice.

  He paused, glancing at the yellow stripe of dawn nudging back the night sky. He wondered often about Angel, the woman with the soft-spoken voice and peculiar perspective of the world. She was a fed, and a powerful one if she held the keys to the government’s secret emerops facilities. Tim trusted her, but Brady was cautious, suspecting she was unwitting of Tim’s activities in the PMF.

  “Do you have access to the hospitals?” he asked and braced himself for more bad news.

  “Yes,” she responded without hesitation. “Are you hurt?”

  “No, but one of my men is down. We’re in a complicated situation, and we need a doctor.”

  “Send me your coords.”

  He withdrew his computer and did so, grateful for the woman that helped him out of blind faith. The enigmatic Tim’s request for a favor was readily granted after three generations of both their families working together towards the PMF’s goals of national unity. As Easterners, Brady and his brothers continued the legacy their father and grandfather had of serving as the military advisors to the politicians that Tim’s Western family bred. And yet, Tim said nothing of Angel except to take care of her.

  “I’m sending the coords for the nearest facility. I’ll tell them you’re coming,” she said. “They’ll need to verif
y who you are. When you arrive, pass them your micro. I’m uploading information to confirm the order for assistance.”

  Brady motioned for his men to ready themselves as he listened. His eyes took in their surroundings as more flares went up, this time only a street away in each direction.

  “Before I go, you doing all right?” he asked, tucking the computer away and pulling free his weapons. He loosened the knives at his hip and thighs before drawing on the protective gloves and tugging the protective hood and face combo over his head.

  “Just tired,” she replied. “You’re at the border of a restricted area, by the way. Keep to the eastern part of the city to reach the hospital.”

  “Thanks,” he said. “Remember. We’re in this together. Call if you need me, but not for the next hour, because I’ve got to make it to the hospital.”

  “Thank you,” she said, a smile in her voice.

  “Guardian out.”

  The medic and another man placed the injured soldier on a portable litter and rose, ready. The others drew weapons and lowered their hoods, looking around with the same unease he felt. Brady started forward, and the others followed, falling into two teams.

  A long hour later, the team waited at gunpoint in front of a mega-secured facility. The first gate consisted of a few dozen men better armed than his team atop a thick steel wall with an iron core. Two well-armed guards stood outside the gate, flanking the slender fed in a blue medical uniform.

  Sweating and impatient after the slim escape from the ambush, Brady restrained his urge to thump the fed slowly checking Brady’s micro.

  He peered past the first gate. The biohazard elimination field was marked by pristine white fencing. Past the fencing was a sandy stretch where the landmines awaited those foolish enough to cross. Beyond the fencing was a second massive gate, where more guards awaited.

  He admired the security measures, noting that it was impossible for anyone to reach the landmines, unless the biohazard elimination field was down. The nasty field that dissolved any type of biological entity was one of the government’s latest controversial creations. Brady glanced over his shoulder at his team, whose chests heaved and guns were still at the ready. The medic was kneeling beside the injured man.

  “You’re permitted access. The injured may proceed immediately to the emergency station,” the fed said. He looked them over with a raised eyebrow. “We’ll proceed directly to the bio-decontam chamber.”

  Brady snatched his computer fast enough to surprise the fed in blue and strode towards the gates. They opened, and he led his team past the layers of security into the facility.

  “You have orders for lodging and supplies,” the fed said, hurrying to catch up to him. “Decontam chamber is that way.”

  Brady turned in the direction indicated and yanked open the door to a dark room with a glowing red floor. The medic gave him a worried look as he passed, and Brady’s gaze went again to the wounded soldier. The decontamination chamber sealed itself. Heat then red light washed over them. Faster than he expected, the door opposite them opened.

  “Where’s the med station?” Brady snapped. He stepped through to a massive atrium with a marble floor, pillars, and water fountain surrounded by small gardens. The facility was clean and elegant with crisp light emanating from glowing orbs on the walls.

  “This way,” the fed said, starting down a corridor lined with gilded mirrors and marble statues. “I’m Planey, in charge of security here at the hospital. Your communiqué—”

  “Is this real?” one of the men trailing asked in surprise. “Light, water, you have food, too?”

  Planey looked from Brady to the soldier before motioning them down another hallway and quickening his step. Two more men in blue appeared, trailed by two in pale red leading a self-propelled gurney. They paused a safe distance from Brady’s restless team.

  “These doctors will take care of the injured,” Planey explained.

  Brady stepped aside first, and the others followed his lead. The four men were clean, neatly dressed, and without the signs of lack of sleep or food that Brady’s men displayed. Brady watched the feds, irritated at the pockets of elite unaffected by the squalid conditions the non-elite were forced to live in.

  He looked over his team, whose mission was to protect both the elite and non-elite. They were hearty, dedicated men, but their gear was damaged, their protective suits sloppily stitched in many places, their boots in need of soles. There were circles under their eyes and strain in their features.

  The disparity disturbed him. This was why he’d followed in his father’s and grandfather’s footsteps in running a militia to challenge the elite’s power and affluence while the rest of the people served the elites or went into the regular military, the only two reputable professions. The rest of the population lived on the streets or underground.

  “We don’t need lodging,” he said. “We’ve got other teams out there who need us. We’ll take the supplies and come back for our team member when he’s well.”

  Planey appeared surprised. He held out his arm towards a closed door leading to another corridor.

  “Your communiqué indicated you needed chocolate,” he said as they walked. “One of our chefs has been working to make some since the message came in.”

  Brady smiled, amused that Angel remembered his affinity for chocolate.

  “How did we get in here?” one of his men asked.

  “A friend,” Brady replied.

  “Your communiqué came directly from the Vice President’s staff,” Planey stated, giving him a long look.

  While he shouldn’t have been surprised to find Angel in such a position, Brady was still impressed.

  “You’ll have to stay for an hour to await the chocolate,” Planey continued. “We have uniforms and … showers for you in the meantime.”

  Brady checked the time and calculated how long it would take to reach the rendezvous point. With the hour, he may know the condition of his team member.

  “We’ll stay for the chocolate,” he decided. “I’d like to take enough supplies for our other team as well.”

  Planey led them to the barracks. After a quick shower, Brady dressed in a new protective suit. He replaced his weapons and pulled on new boots, pausing when the net beeped, indicating someone was trying to contact him. He tapped the subcutaneous button before returning to his boots.

  “Major Hanson?” a man’s voice asked.

  “Yes.”

  “This is Lieutenant George with the intel unit assigned to your command.”

  “Find anything?”

  “Well, yes, in a sense,” the lieutenant said, an odd note in his voice. “You’ll soon receive orders to report to a set of coords with the box. The feds want it back now.”

  “I have a real mission to execute hunting down insurgents. Can’t it wait?”

  “I don’t think so. I don’t know what that thing is, but I would say not to lose it. They went crazy when I read them the serial. Can you reconfirm?”

  Brady stretched a muscular arm across the table beside him to tug the box out of his other uniform. He opened it and looked at the small black keypad a quarter the size of his palm. It appeared harmless despite the biohazard warnings. If it was an actual hazard, the sensors built into his uniform would have warned him. He read the numbers aloud again.

  “It’s the same,” the lieutenant said. “I’ll have the command submit your new orders.”

  “They can send someone else,” Brady replied. “I’m not going to deal with the slimy feds when I can kill bad guys.”

  “There isn’t anyone else to go right now, sir,” he responded. “The Twelfth Army is on its way back from Europe. We had two teams operational able to conduct a mission requiring well over a dozen teams and no supplies. Major Scroll’s team was hit with an ambush an hour ago. We haven’t heard back from them yet to know if there are any survivors, which means we have one team available: yours.”

  The words came as a blow. Brady had worked
with Dan for fifteen years. Every mission overseas with the regular military, every PMF mission here. Dan had always been his second-in-command and most importantly, as good a friend as any of Brady’s brothers.

  “So the solution is to run away?” Brady snapped.

  “The solution is to survive until reinforcements arrive from overseas.”

  Brady rose and snatched his weapons, snapping them into place on his body armor. He stuffed the small box of fresh chocolate into his cargo pocket.

  “You’re leaving my team with luck to survive?” he growled.

  “Brade, it’s Larry. Stop harassing the intel guy,” Larry said. “We don’t have the people or supplies to sustain ourselves on the regular army side. Your team is being dispatched on a new mission.”

  “Where did Dan last report in?” Brady asked, concern for his closest friend making his chest tighten. “If you won’t help, I’ll go to him.”

  “We can’t help, Brade. Jesus, look around you! You may be accustomed to scraping by in some third world country, but this is our country. We can do nothing here without supplies and without more men to replace those that have died the past few weeks,” Larry said, frustration in his voice. “Regrouping is our only option right now.”

  “Sorry, Larry. Give me Dan’s last coords, and I’ll see what I can do.”

  “You have a new mission, one that’s got the feds screaming,” Larry reminded him. “If they don’t get it, they’ll start digging. This isn’t a good time to draw attention to your other activities.”

  Brady waited. Larry—and most other regular army soldiers—either joined or quietly supported the PMF. The people credited the PMF with saving them from the elite’s Civil War while the elites tried hard to stamp out the PMF’s existence.

  “Fine,” Larry said with a sigh. “I’ll send his coords. Get that box to the feds; they’re not far. Good luck to you. Larry out.”

  Larry was right. Brady had conducted many missions in austere conditions in other countries. Of course, no one had ever expected the nuke attacks to happen, even someone involved in the insurgent organization blamed for them. The regular military was in no position to help, not when the bulk of it was overseas.

  On impulse, Brady tapped his implant and breathed her name as he continued to ready himself. He didn’t realize how much he relied upon Angel’s soothing voice until he heard her answer. Brady hesitated to respond, feeling as though he should concentrate on supporting her, per Tim’s directions, rather than reach out to her when he needed her.

  “Hey, Angel,” he said at last.

  “Did you make it to the hospital?” she asked. Her soft voice was always calm. It stilled his nerves and helped him focus.

  “We did,” he confirmed. “You remembered the chocolate.”

  She chuckled, a sound he liked but rarely heard.

  “Thank you,” he said with warmth. “My friend wouldn’t have made it otherwise.”

  “You’re welcome. Is it still bad out?” she asked.

  “Depends on how you define bad,” he replied grimly. “This hospital is the only thing in a day’s walk with power. We haven’t seen any civilians in two days, though we’ve had some fierce battles with some sort of insurgency.”

  “We underestimated the PMF.”

  “I don’t think it’s them,” he said carefully. “The guys we’re facing don’t fit the bill.”

  “Really? Why?”

  “The guys we’re running into are wearing uniforms from the war era. I think someone wasn’t happy the war ended and has the power and money to reinvigorate it,” he said. He stopped, awaiting her response.

  “Interesting,” she said. “I’ve been researching this as well. I’m afraid there aren’t many people willing to look beyond the obvious in this circumstance.”

  “What do you think?” he responded.

  “You’re the second person to ask me for my opinion on something. I’m an analyst and skilled technician. I gather information and present findings, not give my opinions.”

  “C’mon, Angel. I’m not a politician. Tell me what you think.”

  She hesitated then said, “I think you’re right, but I can’t find proof of it anywhere.”

  He almost sighed. While he didn’t understand why Tim wanted this woman protected, he saw her appeal: intelligence, artlessness, and perceptiveness combined with a general good will. No, she was not at all the type of person Tim normally surrounded himself with.

  “Are you going out again for more bad guys?”

  “Yeah. Still trying to get killed,” he replied.

  “Don’t try too hard. I don’t have anyone else to talk to.”

  He chuckled.

  “The general is paging me. I’d better go,” she said.

  “Have a good one,” he responded. “Guardian out.”

  Brady strode from the private room into a common area, where two of his four remaining men waited.

  “We have a new mission,” he began.

 
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