Kyle knew there was something wrong as soon as he saw Caspar’s rig.
He flew in low over the field west of the Esso charging station, skating in from the shadows. On the side of the rig he could see the name of the front company, Radio Transport Services, and their logo, a friendly golden retriever. Rumor had it that the company was named after Jack the Lad’s dog, Radio – whom some said had also been impacted by the Pulse. Jack the Lad was the Executive Director of the Security division of Black Signal Group, and one of the most powerful and respected PIPs in North America. Warp didn’t know if Jack’s dog was actually a PIP, but it was a great story regardless.
The rig’s lights were out and the engine was off, both bad signs. It was parked well away from the station’s lights, at the edge of the lot, and there was no sign of anyone close by. No sign of life at all, in fact.
The correct course of action was clear. With an active threat of enemy action, the situation called for him to remain out of sight, do some basic recon for the next twenty minutes. See if he could identify any nearby hostiles, and make a risk assessment.
But he was freezing. The adrenaline that had powered him through his encounter with Zone and Whip had faded long ago, and so had sensation in most of his extremities. His legs were so numb he was apprehensive about landing. He needed to get out of the cold, come what may.
He touched down fifty feet in front of the rig. He stumbled into a clumsy jog as his feet slapped pavement, and for a second he thought his legs would collapse and he’d crack his head open on the frozen asphalt. But he managed to stay upright, hugging himself against the biting wind, and staggered towards Caspar’s rig.
Seconds later the driver side door swung open, and he saw Array climbing out. He exhaled in relief, feeling his stomach unknot.
She ran to him, hugging him. She held him tight. “You okay? Are you hurt?”
Kyle shook his head. “Let’s get inside, Toni,” he said, eager for the warmth of the cabin.
She helped him up. His legs were wobbly as he climbed. Two-Bug was waiting inside. He had a deep scrape on his cheek, and his chin and nose were bloody and bruised. He looked like he’d gone a dozen rounds in a bare-knuckle match.
“What happened to you?” Kyle said. He squeezed past the front seats and collapsed into his waiting chair. He heard Array slam the door, blessedly cutting off the wind.
Two-Bug didn’t answer. Warp closed his eyes and stretched out, feeling a last shiver rattle his shoulders, so relieved to be out of the cold that it took him a moment to fully take stock.
“Where’s Caspar?” he asked.
There was no answer. Warp shook off his lethargy and sat up with an effort.
Array avoided his eyes. Two-Bug’s battered face was grim.
“Caspar’s dead,” Two-Bug said. He jerked his head towards the back of the rig. “We found him buried in the snow about fifty feet back.”
“Jesus,” said Kyle. He felt stunned. “What the hell happened?”
“You first. Where are Bear and Mina?” Two-Bug winced as he turned in his seat, and for the first time Warp realized just how injured he was.
“Give it to us straight,” said Two-Bug. “Are they alive?”
“Yes, of course they’re alive. They’re okay,” said Kyle.
A sob of relief escaped Array. She surged forward, wrapping him in her arms again. “Oh thank God, thank God,” she breathed into his shoulder.
Her embrace was warm, and Warp released her reluctantly. “I left them about a mile and a half down the interstate,” he said. “Bear’s rig is off-road. It’s been gutted by fire. It’ll need a tow truck to get back on the highway.”
“What drove them off the road?” Two-Bug asked.
As quickly as he could, Kyle sketched out the events of the past forty minutes, sparing no important details.
“Why did you leave them there?” said Array. “Sounds like they were in rough shape.”
“They were,” said Kyle. “But you know Whiskers. No way he wanted to leave his rig, regardless of the shape he was in. He’d never admit he needed help. Plus, they knew that enemy Ops team Zone talked about was on the way. Whiskers wasn’t about to leave his rig to them. He told me that he and Lone would protect the rig, and make sure the Ops team got an appropriate welcome.”
“Who hit us?” asked Two-Bug. “Who are they?”
“Professionals,” Kyle said. “I don’t know for sure, but they’re a tightly organized team of Villains. I’m pretty sure they caused the blizzard. They knew what they were doing, and they were well briefed. They knew our names, our schedule, everything. Zone put Bear and Mina in restraint bags for pickup by a recovery team. I found them in the snow about thirty feet behind Bear’s vehicle. They’d been roughed up by Whip pretty bad, but they’re okay. I got to them before they suffered any real exposure to the cold. Fortunately, they weren’t the objective. Zone and Whip were supposed to secure the site, and then move on to our rig. To the three of you.”
“What do they want?” Toni asked.
“You know what they want,” said Two-Bug flatly. “Blue.”
“He’s right,” said Kyle. “They’re after the Package.”
“Who are they?” said Toni.
“They’re organized, and they knew exactly when to hit us,” said Kyle. “My guess, they hit Package Red at the same time.”
“That means multiple teams,” said Two-Bug.
“Yeah,” said Kyle. “That narrows it down to one of the bigger Villain outfits.”
“San Diablo? Midnight Train?” said Two-Bug.
“Possible, but I doubt it. I’ve seen most of the senior roster for both, and I didn’t recognize the colonel or his wingman in that SUV I drove off the road. I think it’s one of the bigger European syndicates.”
“Makes sense,” said Two-Bug.
“Now, what’s the story here?” said Kyle. “What were you up against? What happened to Caspar?”
Two-Bug gave him a quick summary of events of the last half-hour. “We found Caspar’s body in the snow after the fight,” he finished. “He’d been messed up pretty bad.”
“What happened to Spectre?”
“One-Bug gave him a beating like I’ve never seen him beat anyone,” said Toni. “And there’s barely a mark on him. He’s unconscious, at least for now. He reverted to a more normal appearance once he passed out. Good thing – his ghoul form gives me the creeps.”
“I know Spectre,” Kyle said thoughtfully. “Kulture Karma did a special on The World’s Most Dangerous PIPs a few months ago, and they had a brief segment on him. Had some bystander video of a night battle in Düsseldorf. Savage stuff. He’s a hell of a fighter. ”
“That’s where you get your operational intel?” said Toni scornfully. “Entertainment channels? That sounds reliable.”
“Damn straight,” said Kyle, a little defensively. “Those reality shows pay a premium for authentic footage of these guys. They get video you’ll never see in an internal Threat Memo.”
“How would you know?” Toni said. “You’ve never read an operational memo in your life.”
Kyle was warming to this topic now. “Don’t need to. I get everything I need from TMZ and the SkyRank Leaderboards. Their ranking system is the best source of intel on rogue PIPs.”
Toni rolled her eyes. Two-Bug was more interested, however. “Is this Spectre guy on any of their big Villain lists?” he asked.
“He was included in SkyRank’s 100 Most Dangerous PIPs.” said Kyle. “Somewhere in the low 80s, I think. He’s a merc and he fights to win, but here’s the strange thing. From what I’ve heard, he doesn’t have a rep as a Villain.”
“What’s he doing working with these assholes, then?” said Toni.
“No idea,” said Kyle. “You’re sure it’s Spectre? The description you gave me doesn’t sound anything like the pictures I’ve seen.”
“It’s him,” said Toni. “He’s got at least two forms. He looks normal now, but he looked very different when he was conscious. Trust me.”
“Well, whatever the case, congrats to you both for coming through that okay – especially you, Two-Bug.” said Kyle. “Spectre is a serious customer. Taking him out is the kind of thing that earns you a reputation for life.”
Toni smiled proudly at Two-Bug. “I think the man who laid him out should take his place on the 100 Most Dangerous PIPs list.”
“I don’t need that kind of credit,” said Two-Bug stoically. “Besides, Black Signal will never let me take public credit for a takedown, you know that. It invites too much public attention.”
“You and One-Bug deserve a ranking,” said Kyle. “Top 100, at the very least.”
“Maybe I’ll call TMZ,” said Toni with a smile. “With an anonymous report.”
“You do that,” said Two-Bug. He said it sarcastically, but Kyle saw the hint of a smile on his lips.
“Is Spectre secure?” said Kyle. “Tell me we don’t have to worry about him for the next few hours.”
“He’s face-down in one of the detention cells,” said Toni. “Full containment. He’s not going anywhere.”
“And Caspar?” Kyle said.
“We wrapped him up as best we could,” Two-Bug said. “Laid him out in the back.”
Kyle nodded, satisfied. “What about you? You survive the fight okay?”
Two-Bug grunted. “Just a little bruised.”
It was fairly obvious to Kyle that wasn’t true. “Bullshit,” said Toni matter-of-factly. “His shoulder was dislocated, and he’s one-hundred percent concussed. There’s probably more, but he won’t let me examine him. He should be in a hospital.”
Kyle winced. “Let me see the shoulder,” he said.
Two-Bug complied as best he could, complaining steadily in the process. They helped him get his parka off. It was so painful to move the arm that Kyle abandoned the idea of removing his shirt for a closer look. He probed Two-Bug’s shoulder and left arm lightly with his fingers.
“You reset the shoulder?” he said to Array.
“One-Bug did it,” she said.
“It was nice work. There’s no swelling or break that I can see.”
“He’s got no strength in his left hand. He can’t even grip the steering wheel.”
“Don’t need to,” said Two-Bug confidently. He raised his right arm, flexing his biceps and making a fist. “This is my beat-down arm.”
“All the same, let’s keep you and One-Bug out of the beat-down zone for the rest of the day,” said Kyle reasonably.
“Fair enough,” Two-Bug agreed. He began the careful process of pulling on his parka.
“Where did Spectre come from?” Kyle asked.
“Yeah, that’s the big question,” said Two-Bug. “He just showed up. Caspar spotted him walking around the back of the trailer.”
“Well, he didn’t just walk here,” said Kyle. “There has to be another transport nearby.”
“We figure it the same way,” said Toni.
“Okay,” said Kyle. He thought for a moment, then nodded. “Okay. Whoever this is, they probably have another Operations team nearby, waiting for Spectre’s signal. They likely won’t interfere if we hit the road.”
Two-Bug nodded. He and Array had obviously reached the same conclusion.
“We should get on the move,” said Kyle.
“We can’t,” said Array. She sounded apologetic.
“Why the hell not?”
“Orders,” said Array simply. “Before all our communications were jammed, I contacted Davenport. I told them our situation, and they’re on the way. The entire team. We’re under orders to shelter in place. They’ll relieve us, then Bear and Mina.”
“About an hour and forty minutes,” said Array. She looked out the window at the blowing snow, made a mental adjustment for driving conditions. “Maybe two.”
“Damn,” said Kyle. “That’s a long time to be stuck here like sitting ducks.”
“Yeah,” agreed Two-Bug.
Kyle leaned forward, took a long look out Toni’s window. They were parked about three hundred feet from the Esso station, on the far edge of the lot. “I count five cars at the station, mostly sedans. One SUV. You been watching them?”
“Of course,” said Two-Bug. “Nobody suspicious. None of the vehicles you see have been there more than fifteen minutes.”
“Okay,” said Kyle. “So our attackers are likely not in the parking lot. Somewhere close, then. Did Spectre have a cell phone on him? Any kind of comms?”
“He have time to get off a message after your fight?”
“One-Bug took him out from behind,” said Array. “Cracked his ugly skull with a tire iron.” She spoke with a mixture of pride and satisfaction.
“Good.” Kyle nodded. “That’s good.”
“You see anybody leave the crash site, headed our way?” asked Two-Bug.
“Just the colonel and the other guy in the black SUV I drove off the road. They’re not going anywhere.”
Array ran a hand through her hair. “So there must be a clean up crew nearby, waiting for Spectre to signal that it’s okay to come in with body bags. And another Ops team that will arrive at Whiskers’ rig in less than thirty minutes.”
“Whiskers and Lone will be ready for them,” said Kyle.
“Whiskers is a mutant,” said Array. “He’ll make short work of the Ops team when it shows up,”
“I don’t like leaving them out there,” said Two-Bug.
“Neither do I,” Kyle admitted. He pondered for a moment. “If we have hours until the Davenport team gets here, we could retrieve Whiskers and Lone and be back long before then.”
“You think Bear will abandon his rig?” asked Two-Bug.
“He will once we tell him Caspar is dead,” said Kyle.
Two-Bug and Array were quiet for long seconds, considering. “I say we do it,” said Two-Bug at last.
That was all Array needed to hear. “Hell, yeah,” she said. She was already buckling into Caspar’s seat, and a second later the rig rumbled to life.
“We should tell them we’re coming,” said Kyle.
“Do their Comms still work?” asked Toni, surprised.
“I don’t know. I found the receiver in the snow. But I think they can receive okay.”
“That’s great!” said Array. “Hand me my Comms unit.”
Two-Bug was staring out the front window. “Array,” he said. He put a hand on her shoulder.
A long white vehicle was making its way towards them across the expanse of the parking lot. It was huge, more like a yacht on wheels than a semi-truck. It looked heavily armored, but it was unlike any military transport they’d ever seen. It was unmarked, and the glare of its lights made it difficult to see its occupants. It was approaching slowly, unhurried, but there was no question where it was headed.
“Keep the engine running,” said Two-Bug.