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chapter five
Part Six

Algiers' team closed in on the spot where Vogel was directing them.   They found bramble, nothing but mud, river clay, twigs and leaves.   No sign anyone had been on this spot, no boot prints but their own, nothing.

On the other side of the river Tremblay was getting frustrated and it was starting to show.

There was no answer on any of the three lines, which was bad enough, and no one was showing topside, but the worse news was the lack of success by Charlie Squad.   Things were rapidly spiraling out of control.

He turned away from his team and tried to force all his rage through his face while pivoting.   Had anyone been watching they would've thought he was having a stroke.   While he did this he heard Vogel direct Algiers to take a core sample of the mud.

That didn't make much sense on hearing it, but maybe it was part of the forensic process that Vogel was following.   Algiers didn't have the right instrument in his Link kit but one of the noncoms did.   A moment later a pen-sized wand was inserted in the mud and left there while Vogel's systems did a chemical core analysis.   This mystery had to have answers, he knew it.

Tremblay continued to look around, growing concern on his face.   Had this been a mistake?   Had he come in with the wrong approach?

On his order three locals had been taken out, and there could be four others in these woods, hiding, maybe waiting to attack or were they?   He switched his link to Vogel, "What are the chances that the three we took down by the barges were three of the four who didn't go inside?"

It took a second for Vogel to respond, the coordination of the forensic systems had five displays going simultaneously, and he needed to pause everything before responding, less he miss something critical.   "No way to tell."

Double damn, Tremblay thought.   Alpha and Bravo could be scanning the ground for nothing.   At least if they could find the person who'd fired they'd know what they were looking for, how they were being eluded.   "What's the hold-up?"

Algiers was about to respond.   Vogel beat him to it.   "Target must be under the bio-mass."

Tremblay's head snapped back in a slight double take.   Bio-mass was enough to beat their systems?   "How?"

"Certain combinations of leaf material, mud and clay are capable of masking heat and sound signatures, certainly they muffle movement.   Problem with that is without the right combination of materials the effect is useless."

"Is this the right combination?"

"Must be, if they're still here."

But that would mean someone was giving these people specific lessons on how to beat Network systems.   This was getting worse by the moment.   "OK, what's the counter-move on this camo?"

Vogel sat back in his seat, well, as much as the seat would allow him.   They were up against people who'd been trained, instructed on what to do to warn each other, how to fire coil induction weapons, even hide from Rez-nay systems.   But they didn't smart fire the bullets on a misleading trajectory.   Maybe that was because they also knew Network systems could back-track that.

He thrust any thoughts they were up against inexperienced, antiquated forces out of his head.   Whoever these people were they were thwarting the greatest military in history with simple tricks.   They had hidden from the best scanners, and had fired without revealing their exact location, and did so without leaving trace to track.   These people were prepared, but where they ready?   Vogel flipped the comm toggle, "I could buzz them.   In fact I suggest all of us close in and flush them out like our namesakes suggest."

That was risky.   Close quarters hovering was tricky and dangerous, both for the Hornet drivers and anyone below.   It also increased the vulnerability of the Hornets, which would have must less time to react the closer to the ground they were.   It stank of a trap and that bothered Tremblay as well.

But what option did he have?   Even trained soldiers cracked upon facing the menacing approach of these five tonne vehicles.   Something that large and bulky, dark and ugly, powerful and angry simply wasn't supposed to hover centimetres above the ground.   It was unnatural.   Tremblay brought the Link back up to his ear, took a breath and then calmly said, "Do it."

* * *

Winnie Coldwater peered nervously through his covering at the Squad of Troopers across the river.   They were hovering over Bear's position, maybe they had even found him.   MaQ said they wouldn't, which meant he lied to them.   And if they found Bear then that meant they would find him as well, and that frightened Winnie because he had heard stories of what these soldiers were capable of.

He pushed the muzzle of his Cody Rifle through the bio-matter and activated it, using the scopes to get a better look at those on the opposite bank.   Eight people, all soldiers, all heavily armed; he was outgunned eight to one but at least none of the people he shot would be civilians.

Winnie's breathing grew faster and he began to sweat, he thought it was the lack of oxygen, maybe the heat of being under this muck, but it was nerves.   Should he fire on them?   He could take out more than a few before they could return fire, it would give Bear a chance to get a few more.   And maybe even Kels and Zito would join in.   Eight to four were nearly even odds.   More than even when you considered they'd have the element of surprise and would be harder to find, dug in as they were.

But it meant actually killing someone.   Real people, not the targets MaQ had them practice on.   Each person that fell at his shots would be dead because of him.   Winnie didn't know now if he could deal with that.

He looked up again, through the peephole of his cover.   Surely they'd found Bear by now, maybe already killed him.   Him or them?   He didn't know them; he hadn't grown up with them, gone hunting with them, shared meat with them.   He owed them nothing, but he did owe Bear.

Bear had jumped in after him, when they were young, after Winnie had fallen in the river.

Winnie had been drowning, and Bear had saved his life.   And later, Bear had knocked Zito to the ground when the elder youth went through his bullying phase.   Bear had always been there for Winnie, protected him like a little brother.   And Bear was his clan.

Winnie flipped the sight on the rifle active and selected the semi-automatic setting.   He shifted the weapon so that it was aimed directly in the middle of these aliens.   No matter what affect the wind had these bullets would strike someone.   He owed that to Bear.

It must be the right thing to do, saving your kin, because already his breathing had steadied and his hands had stopped shaking, although they were still deathly cold.

When his finger approached the trigger it crossed a sensor that pulled power from the clip and began to charge the induction coils, ready to propel the ballistic out the barrel at the requested speed.

As Winnie's finger made contact with the trigger; internal controllers switched the rifle into firing mode; the internal generator unlocked and shifted to stand-by, ready to power up and replenish whatever juiced was used by the coils.

Winnie blinked, trying to squeeze the perspiration from his eyes before squinting, focusing intently on his targets across the water.   He began to squeeze the trigger but pulled off suddenly when a large shadow came into view.

His eyes grew wide as the giant metal dragon glided across the water approaching the invaders, who failed to react to the behemoth's approach.

* * *