Mercenary Wing Rv6-4 "Zero Dogs"
TastyTech Foods Corp
NE 181st Avenue, Portland, Oregon
1417 Hours PST April 7th
The first bullet is always free.
That's the motto of the Zero Dog mercenaries. After the first bullet, the charges come fast and steep because, while we aren't the best, we're certainly in the top ten, and you had to pay for quality. I should know. I run this chickenshit outfit and my name's on all the invoices: Captain Andrea Walker, Pyromancer. My job description included burning everything from bad guys to bunkers into charred toast and getting my people home with all their pieces in the proper order.
Oh, and getting paid.
The Zero Dogs had deployed near a Portland-area industrial park just off I-84, close enough to the Columbia River to smell the water, but not see it. We'd been contracted to deal with a radical fringe element deemed a clear and present danger to the private-label packaging industry. Negotiating with food-industry terrorists could be tricky, so here I stood in the turret of our M2A3 Warhammer Bradley Fighting Vehicle, peering along the barrel of the chain gun and wishing I had some more coffee.
It was gonna be one of those days.
I keyed my mike. "Tiffany, you're clear. Get in the air and give me a good lookdown."
"Roger wilco, Captain." Behind the cover of the Bradley, my scout, Tiffany Sparx, spread her black wings and took to the air. She swung overhead, and I turned to watch her fly, a curvy shape against the low cloud ceiling. Tiffany was a succubus. Even decked out in flak jacket, sky camo fatigues and wearing a helmet with a side-mounted camera, she drew whistles and cheers from the SWAT team guys stationed behind the perimeter barricades.
Tiffany's voice, sultry and silken, came over my headset. "Captain, they're whistling at me, over."
"Don't worry, I'll singe their jockstraps later." I kept my own voice reassuring and very open to interpretation on whether or not I was kidding. "Focus on the mission. You're my eyes in the sky, girl. Out."
I watched as she swung back in a slow arc, her wings massive, bat-like, pounding the air with hard strokes as she picked up speed and altitude. My insides felt as if they were frozen solid, and my heart beat hard enough to shatter them. I hated sending Tiffany over hot zones. That damn flak jacket wouldn't stop much more than shrapnel, but heavier armor would mean too much weight to fly. Still, she had a job to do, and I wanted a lookdown view on the plant before I decided which side to assault. I pulled down our modified Helmet Mounted Display System visor that fed me real-time information and images from the camera on Tiffany's helmet.
"How long, Captain?" Gavin asked over the com. He gunned the Bradley's engine, underlining his impatience with a diesel roar, and a cloud of black diesel exhaust billowed out on the right side of my turret. "My jockeys are riding up my crack, over."
"Be patient. Cut the chatter. Out." I mentally reviewed my mission assets as I scanned through Tiffany's feed.
Gavin Carter, at the Bradley's controls, could drive anything and drive it well, including the ill-fated prototype armor-plated Urban Assault Solo Segway design with the rather unfortunate acronym of UASS. He was registered as a Class 2 empath, yet flaunted the social skills of a tree frog, a sarcastic streak as wide as an aircraft carrier, and a heap of artistic pretension to boot.
I had Hanzo Sorenson, our medic, on the weapons systems--a damn sight better than letting him sneak around with his katana and Band-Aids. His real name was Austin, and he was as white as freshly bleached socks, but he'd had his name legally changed to Hanzo in honor of some legendary ninja. The fact that we had our medic on guns was another example of how desperately shorthanded we'd been for the last six months.
I'd claimed the commander's spot atop the turret. In the back I had my quick deployment team, led by my second-in-command, Sergeant Nathan Genna, ubiquitously known as Sarge, whose issues revolved around being a demon and having lost his key for the elevator to heaven, our werewolf, Rafe Lupo, the horniest bastard I'd ever seen and always on the prowl for his destined mate, and our summoner mage, Mia Tanaka, who--thanks to the fact she surrounded herself with chittering death pets from another dimension--smelled like wet fur most of the time. Only Stefan Dalca, our vampire, wasn't present because the lazy, delicate-skinned bastard wasn't available for the day shift.
At first blush it might not seem like a lot of punch, but for destruction, we were pretty damn Sierra Hotel badass. And we needed to be shit-hot badass, because a few hours ago four heavily armed dark elves had broken into TastyTech Foods Corp, a canning plant well northeast of downtown. Due to a union strike, economic recession and a plant slowdown, nobody had been working at the time except for the custodian, who'd called the cops. The first cruiser on the scene had been shot up by assault rifles and then disintegrated by a spell that rusted all the metal down to dust. No casualties, but the cops had pulled back and called in SWAT. Once SWAT learned of the dark magic involved, they doubled back and called in the Zero Dogs. We had an independent contractor agreement with the city for handling thaumaturgical threats. The dark elves had holed themselves up with automatic weapons, defensive spells, and made bomb threats by singing them over the phone in haunting, maudlin and overly complex Elvish verse to the SWAT team negotiator.
A typical, everyday, willy-nilly clusterfuck of righteous proportions in other words.
"I can't go on this mission, Captain," Rafe said over the com, interrupting my brooding thoughts.
"Shut up, Rafe," Mia answered. "You already said that twice. We all know your fun needle went off the scale ten minutes ago."
I heard his low growl. He hadn't shifted yet--he'd do it right before the assault--but like mustard stains, wolf traits bled through. Thank God he was housebroken.
"And I mean it," Rafe said. "I happen to agree with what these guys are doing. They're threatening to destroy processed food that's been leached of every bit of nutrition, loaded down with high fructose corn syrup and--"
I cut him off. "I don't care if they make radioactive Twinkies. Keep this goddamn channel clear of chatter."
Good images of the canning plant started to stream across my HUD display as Tiffany circled. I had building blueprints from the city, of course, but I needed to see how their spell defenses were set. Two massive decay spells glowed with black auras in my display, one near the roof access and one near a group of A/C ducts. That meant no topside assault, because I didn't have a spell sapper. Note to self: Put a job ad in the paper for one, post haste.
"I've got a hostile on the roof, Captain," Tiffany said.
I zoomed the camera in on the tiny figure that jumped out from behind an A/C unit. A dark elf in urban camo, holding an AK-47 instead of a trusty longbow which never missed, even at three thousand meters in hurricane winds, as he glared up at Tiffany. I zoomed in still closer, cursing the unsteady image. He had those noble elven features, so beautiful you wanted to blacken one of his eyes just for the pleasure of making his face asymmetrical. The dark elf sported long, narrow ears that would shame Spock, and smooth gray skin. He had pure white hair tied back from his head held with golden bangles, creepy pale eyes, and a chin I could only describe as an arrogant, jutting monstrosity. Full disclosure: I loathed elves with the heat of a thousand burning suns.
He lifted the assault rifle and sighted in on Tiffany. The HUD view in my visor swung wildly as Tiffany saw the threat and peeled away, twisting and swooping through the air. The crack, crack, crack of rifle fire echoed down the street.
"I can't get close enough to charm him, over," Tiffany said.
"Pull back and stay out of range." My heart thudded with a rapid, dull punch. I had to force my breathing to remain even. I took it personally when bad guys shot at my people. Very personally. "We're going in, hard and hot."
Gavin snickered, and werewolf Rafe said, "That's exactly what I told Cindy last night."
"You two miscreants not hear the captain?" Sarge's bass-heavy voice rumbled in my ear. "Cut the chatter and that's an order."
I smirked at the ringing silence that followed Sarge's words. There were times I loved that demon. Too bad for my currently anemic love life that he was gay. I keyed the mike again. "All right, people, let's roll out. Attack plan Theta."
The diesel engine roared and the Bradley lurched forward, treads crunching on the asphalt as the fighting vehicle rounded the corner of the cinderblock wall, bringing the plant into view. The building stood two stories high, painted off-white, surrounded by an eight-foot chain-link fence, and baking in a concrete frying pan devoid of trees, shade and minimal landscaping.
"Which one is plan Theta, again?" Gavin asked over the com.
Hanzo keyed in. "It is the approach of silence, like wind above the water. The slide through shadows, as the fog creeps in from the ocean on the quiet feet of monkeys."
"Yeah, because Bradleys are so like ninjas," Gavin replied. "Or monkeys."
Mai sounded her usual serene self when she added, "I thought it was the Shattered Jewel Attack. But with ferrets and tear gas--"
"No, no," Rafe interrupted. "It's simple. You run on first down, throw on third. Start with Plan Theta, end with Plan Napalm Everything. You guys didn't read the manual? It even has pictures."
"Goddammit!" So much for cutting the chatter. When we got back to base I'd hand out some hardcore attack plan memorization as well as a heaping cupful of weeping and gnashing of teeth. "Blow a hole in the wall and drive the Bradley through."
"Affirmative, Big Mama One," Gavin said, and then muttered, "Why didn't you just say so in the first place?" He gunned the engine again and angled across the street, straight toward the plant's closest wall while I debated the best way to kill him later.
We used the Warhammer version of the Bradley Fighting Vehicle, with the Javelin missile system instead of the TOW IIs for its fire-and-forget capability. The boys had painted the Bradley black, added an image of a snarling pit bull on the turret, and covered the back end with bumper stickers. Among them: Keep honking, I'm reloading. A large green sticker that read: A Gun Nut is Someone Who Doesn't Own One. And my personal favorite: Jesus Loves You. Everybody Else Thinks You're An Asshole. Mia had painted a bright pink peace sign on the front armor. Her version of a joke. The wind snapped and fluttered the edges of our Japanese warlord banner (Hanzo's idea) displaying our Rv6-4 insignia, black long sword on a beige field with an inverted crimson chevron.
The Bradley rumbled over the curb, antennae swinging, spewing diesel fumes in clouds of black smoke like a dragon after a bucket of habanero-and-garlic-flavored chicken wings. The dark elf on the roof ran to the edge and began to fire at the Bradley. I ducked inside and slammed the hatch. A couple rounds zinged off the armor. I killed the video feed and peered out the view port, watching as the guy deluded himself that 7.62mm ammo would do anything more than make scuff marks I'd have to clean off later with a magic eraser.
"Suppress that guy," I ordered. For a moment I wanted to grab the hand station joystick and use the weapon systems to do it myself, payback for his potshots at Tiffany, but I held the urge in check and left it to Hanzo.
The turret swung and the Bushmaster 25mm chain gun angled upward. "Target acquired," Hanzo said. "Engaging target."
The dark elf seemed to realize he was attempting the equivalent of poking a rhino in the balls with an electric cattle prod. He ducked back behind the raised roof ledge. Too late. The chain gun spat tungsten APFSDS-T rounds and that section of roof disappeared in a billowing cloud of brown dust and debris. And since APFSDS-T stood for Armor-Piercing Fin-Stabilized Discarding Sabot with Tracer--a long acronym to say depleted uranium death dart not made by Nerf--I knew the bastard was going to feel it in the morning.
"That's gonna leave a mark," Gavin confirmed.
"Prepare for assault," I said. "Weapons free."
We crashed through the chain-link fence, crushing it beneath our treads. The turret moved again. I glanced at my tactical display and the image relayed to me by gunner Hanzo's Integrated Sight Unit. At less than a hundred meters this would be pretty much point-blank. We'd be charging into our own shrapnel and right through the smoke, but the Bradley could take the dings.
"Target acquired," Hanzo said. "One away."
A Javelin missile roared out of the launcher in a cloud of white smoke and hit the nearside wall. I felt the explosion vibrate up through the metal floor of the fighting vehicle. Shrapnel and debris shot across the pavement, some of it tinging off our armor, and smoke billowed out in a roiling black mass. A second later another Javelin launched and slammed into the damaged wall, blowing the gap wider.
We bore down on the jagged opening, what grunts called a mouse hole, at thirty-plus miles an hour. The Bradley crashed through the debris, rocking hard to the right as one of the treads bit into a pile of rubble and scrap metal, and we plunged through the roiling gray smoke. There were no hostages and the surrounding streets and businesses had been shut down and evacuated, so we didn't need to worry about crushing some poor civilian.
Gavin smashed the Bradley through some kind of stainless-steel-shrouded conveyor belt, and a section went skidding across the work floor with a tortured groan of metal. The destroyed conveyor was empty, and the dispensers and racks of the flanking machines stood silent and bare. Their metal panels gleamed with spots of reflected fluorescent light.
I threw open the top hatch and climbed halfway out, ready to help suppress fire with flame of my own. I could smell metal, machine oil and some other chemical stink as I searched for targets to suppress. The Bradley's rear hydraulic ramp descended with a whine.
A dark elf stood near one of the canning machines and pallets of cardboard. His rifle barrel swung toward me. I thrust out my hand, calling on my fire magic and directing the extremely flammable vapor I'd summoned in a psychic-controlled flow toward the elf, less than a second before I sparked flame and watched my fire race along the vapor column toward him.
He shrieked and hurled himself out of the way of the fire stream an instant before it incinerated the stacks of unfolded cardboard boxes. He half-scooted, half-crawled behind the cover of the canning machine, screaming Elvish words. The room flared with yellow-orange firelight as the cardboard on the pallets burned.
Rafe leapt off the ramp edge before it had dropped halfway. He'd shifted into his werewolf form, an intimidating hybrid of wolf and man, his slavering wolf jaws too full of teeth, complete with blazing yellow eyes and long claws. Behind him came Sarge, our muscle-bound demon sporting a huge fucking gun, skin the color of an eggplant and looking like a stuntman who'd wandered away from a Terminator movie. His red pupils glowed like laser pointers, and his irises were as black as the barrel of a M4 carbine at midnight. Mia Tanaka brought up the rear, a slim shape in blue and yellow summoner robes wrinkled beneath her Kevlar vest, one dark strand of hair hanging out of her black helmet with a goddamn daisy painted on the front. A dozen ferret-like creatures with glowing red eyes flanked her and filled the air with high-pitched squeaking.
Assault team deployed. Time to kick ass.
One of the dark elves popped out from behind a file cabinet and opened fire with some kind of bullpup rifle, maybe a SAR 21 or QBZ-95. Rafe leapt toward him, taking the bullets without slowing. He howled with glee a moment before falling on the dark elf.
"Hey, wait, arrest that guy!" I shouted.
"Too late," Sarge informed me. The sounds of Rafe's bad table manners echoed through the office. The other dark elf who'd dodged my fire stream now sprayed bullets at us as he retreated. Sarge dropped him with a single headshot.
I saw the last dark elf and I froze, my breath catching in my throat. He was wrapped in a vest covered with explosives, standing in front of two spill-containment caddies with 55-gallon drums of acetone inside. About a million and a half red diamond flammable stickers were pasted everywhere, and because nobody on SWAT had bothered to inform me the place had hazardous materials stored inside, I'd just lit a merry cardboard bonfire.
"Nuru heren huo!" the dark elf screamed, holding his hand over a classic red-button detonator switch.
"Everybody out!" I yelled. "Fall back!"
I slammed the hatch down. Sarge, Rafe and Mai and a hundred terrified demon ferrets piled into the back of the Bradley. The ramp came up, the hydraulics whining in a halfhearted machine scream.
"Get us out of here!" Through the Commander's Independent Viewer, I could see the dark elf threatening us with the detonator, his thumb over the switch. We couldn't light him up because of the flammable material. If he was determined to suicide himself, none of us could stop him. Few individuals scored as high on the bat-shit-crazy scale as a creature that strapped itself with explosives.
The engine rumbled and whined as Gavin reversed out of the hole in the wall, treads spitting chunks of concrete and plaster. He clipped the shattered edge of the hole and more of the wall came clattering down on the chassis with dull thuds. I clung to the metal support bar as we jounced around. My muscles trembled with all the adrenaline sizzling in my veins. Smoke curled out of the hole we'd blasted, and the inside glowed orange and yellow, making me think of a Jack-o'-lantern with a bullet hole in its forehead.
The explosion tore the world with a ka-whump that rocked the Bradley with a powerful shock wave. Shrapnel pinged off the armor. A roiling cloud of black smoke swept toward us with a fireball at its heart and then surged over us. I heard someone cussing over the com and realized it was me. Larger chunks of debris came crashing down, hitting topside with resounding metal clongs and clangs as if wrenches had started to rain from the heavens instead of frogs.
Gavin kept backing up, and seconds later we were free of the smoke cloud. He continued reversing out of the parking lot as fast as the Bradley would go. He accidentally backed over a parked Geo Metro and it crumpled like a soda can beneath a boot heel. Spectators cheered from behind the distant police barricades.
"FISHDO," I said over the com. A very utilitarian acronym meaning Fuck It, Shit Happens Drive On.
"FISHDO, copy," Gavin answered.
He finally stopped near the southern police perimeter which sealed off the street. My ears were still ringing from the explosion, and I could feel the tightness across my chest, the tremble of my muscles as reaction set in.
"Everybody all right?" I called out.
One by one, everybody checked in, including Tiffany, who sounded beside herself with relief, almost sobbing over the mike. Things must've looked bad from the air.
I switched radio frequencies. "SWAT, this is Zero Dog One. Targets neutralized. Send in the hose jockeys, over."
"Neutralized?" some guy's voice came back over the headset, sparking with either outrage or jealousy. "You fucking nuked that place."
I keyed off without responding. Some people loved to wallow in the melodrama.
Patrolmen moved the barriers and let police cars through to escort the advancing fire trucks. The place burned with a furious intensity, sending up a huge twisting column of black smoke. The firefighters swarmed around, within minutes dumping streams of water onto the flames.
We hung around the Bradley and watched the festivities, waiting for a liaison from the mayor's office to sign off on the contract work order and take our carbon copies. Gavin sat on the Bradley's front end as he sipped an energy drink and chewed a candy bar. Tiffany wrapped herself in her wings and stared over the top of them at the fire with wide, unblinking cat's eyes. Rafe had shifted back to human form and strutted around naked, showing off all his tattoos.
"Rafe," I said, "get some clothes on."
"What if my destined mate walks past? She won't recognize me if I hide the wang."
Sarge eyed him. "I suggest you do as the captain asks. Otherwise, I'll be forced to strip down and shame your earthworm."
"You guys are disgusting," Tiffany said, but I noticed she cast a surreptitious glance at Rafe's bare ass.
Hanzo walked over from the other side of the Bradley, having escaped his gunner position. He gripped a smoking piece of metal in one gloved hand, his black ninja pajamas and white face streaked with ashes. The hilt and grip of a katana poked up over his shoulder with the sheath strapped to his back over the red cross identifying him as a medic. This certainly qualified as a violation of the Geneva Convention rule about medics not being used in an offensive capacity. Our reality-challenged medic believed he was the reincarnated soul of a 14th-century ninja from the Iga Province during the Kamakura period.
"Captain," Hanzo said. "My sword cries to me its vengeance is appeased. Those dark elves died like warriors. Like snow throwing itself from the clouds to perish upon the mountains. I have a haiku I'd like to read--"
I held up a hand. "Hanzo. Don't." Between haiku and naked werewolves, my head threatened to explode. Honestly, I could see the countdown in my mind's eye. An egg timer on a bundle of dynamite, ticking away. "Can we please try and appear professional? At least until we get paid?"
"Look, Captain." Mia pointed across the street. A ferret had curled itself up on her shoulder. The rest she'd sent back to the dimension they'd come from. "The TV people."
Sure enough, news cameras and crew had lined up along the barricades, busy filming the still-naked Rafe. Rafe grinned and began to run through his selection of Mr. Universe poses.
Blessed Bitch of the Apocalypse, redeem us all with fire. Things couldn't get worse.
A black SUV zoomed past the barriers and slid to a stop near us with a serenade of chirping tires. The door flew open and out came four men, all in suits, all looking like veteran bureaucrats of the file-cabinet wars and cubical trenches. Two of them had digital cameras and began taking pictures. I recognized the guy who power walked over to us. Norville Ford. He had a piece of paper in his hand and jerked it around like a conductor who'd consumed far too much caffeine.
"You blew up that plant!" Norville yelled. "The jobs! The tax revenue lost!" He looked at Rafe and his voice screeched with the dulcet harmonies of a rake on a chalkboard. "And that's indecent exposure!"
What the hell had I been thinking when I'd said things couldn't get worse? God must hate me more than I'd suspected. I cleared my throat and tried on my shiniest smile. "Hi there, Norville--"
Norville locked in on me and didn't just invade my personal space--no, he blitzkrieged right into my face. His eyes were wild, outraged, and he screamed intermixed gibberish about the fire and naked Rafe. A bit of his spittle landed on my cheek.
I took a deep breath and leaned toward him, which he hadn't expected. He drew back and his rapid-fire word assault died off.
"SWAT called us in," I told him. "At no time were we warned that the elves had strapped explosives to their bodies and were standing next to flammable materials. It makes a difference, you know, in how we approach a problem." I leaned in even closer, doing my shark-grin thing, and pointed my finger in his face. "They blew the place up. We didn't. No good guys got hurt."
"Of course not," he snapped. "That's why we sent you instead of SWAT. If you inept circus freaks got hurt, nobody would care. I didn't want city employees in danger. Imagine the lawsuits." He looked back at the fire and his fingers twitched. "But you weren't supposed to burn it down!"
I held up the contract copies. "Speaking of which, can you sign this? We still need to be paid."
His face flushed red. Then purple. Part of me wondered if he'd spontaneously combust in front of the TV cameras. Then he went very, very still. I didn't like the cold smile that curled on his lips like a dying worm. Didn't like it at all.
"We're going to have to deduct damages from the fees owed you." He glanced at the burning building, and then swept a hand around at all the cops and firefighters. "You may even have to reimburse the city for all this." His grin grew positively Grinch-esque. "Union employees on overtime."
"Dammit! You can't--"
"Oh I assure you I very much can. And, Ms. Walker, the city's contract with the Zero Dog Mercenaries is terminated as of now for flagrant and willful breach and destruction of significant Portland cultural and economic landmarks. I think you'll find a clause in section J, paragraph three that deals with just such an eventuality."
Oh shit. We could not afford to lose this client--our only current client, steady revenue stream and paycheck source for the foreseeable cloudy-gray Oregon future.
Norville took a moment to revel in the panic he must've seen in my eyes. Then he turned and marched back to the SUV, followed by his scurrying, paper-shoveling lackeys. I watched them drive off and somehow resisted the urge to light their tires on fire. Burning bridges. I was all about that, thank you very much.
"What now, Captain?" Mai asked. I glanced back and found everyone staring at me. All those eyes. Waiting for me to make things right.
I forced a grin on my face even though my facial muscles felt like plastic. "I'm thirsty. Let's go get some beers." General cheers erupted all around, even if they sounded a trifle forced. "And, Rafe, put some clothes on, dammit."
I climbed onto the Bradley and scrambled up the turret to the top hatch, my heart thudding dully. We weren't getting paid. We'd probably end up owing money. Our expenses had spiraled out of control in the last few weeks. Our single biggest and currently only client had just metaphorically torn up our contract and pissed on it for good measure. No wonder the acid in my stomach felt as if it sloshed around like dirty water in a mop bucket.
We rolled out past the police barriers. A crowd of people pushed up against the barricades, taking pictures with their cell phones and pointing. All the news channels had shown up, KATU, KOIN, KGW, and they tracked us with their cameras. I smiled and did my beauty-queen wave from atop the turret as they filmed. Probably looked dramatic against the backdrop of the burning building.
I'd started to drop back inside the turret and shut the hatch when I saw him, and for a moment all my newfound money troubles blinked away into nothing.
A man stood away from the crowd, leaning against a police cruiser while he watched me, but he was no cop. Military. Had to be. And not just some run-of-the-mill grunt, either. He wore black fatigues, combat boots and sported a M9 Beretta in a shoulder holster. His dog tags glinted against his wide chest. Tall. Good-looking. Sandy-brown hair, cut very short. The Bradley passed within a half dozen feet of him and the guy never looked away from me. He was cut, hard muscles sculpted in all the right places, scars on his lower biceps. Clean-shaven. Looked like he could wrestle crocodiles and turn them into matching handbag and gator-skin boot sets. A real hard case, giving me the evaluation eye.
We locked gazes until the Bradley rumbled past him. He never smiled, but neither did the look on his face seem aggressive or antagonistic. It had been...interested. Intensely interested. So who was he? Competition? A prospective client, please God? A grunt on leave who liked caterpillar treads? Some psycho stalker?
I glanced backward and caught a last glimpse of him ducking under the police barriers and disappearing into the crowd.
What the hell had that been about? I tried to shake it off. I had more important things to worry about, all of them related to money and the sudden dismaying lack thereof. Still...his face lingered in my mind, like drifts of ashes after a fire.