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Task Force Sunburn

By Daniel Kendall



This is a work of fiction. All of the character, organizations, and events portrayed in this novel are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.

Task Force Sunburn by Daniel Kendall

Copyright © 2017 Daniel Kendall

All rights reserved. No portion of this book may be reproduced in any form without permission from the publisher, except as permitted by U.S. copyright law. For permissions contact:

dr85robert@gmail.com

Cover Design by James, GoOnWrite.com 




























Ben

The sun burned hot and high in the Udelhi sky. The Hunter adjusted his grip on the rifle and shuffled around a berm looking for his quarry. He was vaguely aware that Hunters probably weren’t supposed to shuffle, but he wasn’t really a hunter anyway right? I mean, the only reason he was out here in the first place was that the damn bookstore wasn’t bringing in enough to pay the bills.

As a matter of fact, Ben Jacobs would be thrilled to bag his damn game and get home before another dust storm blew in and reduced what little skin he had left exposed to raw red meat. At least it paid decent. Decent enough anyway. It seemed there were more and more dogs skulking around the desert causing no end of mischief.

Dogs. That’s what people called them. Great big mutant devils from gods know where. They kept out of town mostly but god help you if they caught you alone out in the desert. They were giving some of the foragers and caravanners hell so the Udelhi City Counsel was offering one hundred units a head. A couple of heads a week was enough to keep a family going if you were willing to risk becoming an object lesson on the perils of venture capitalism in the high desert.

Udelhi was a fair sized city, which existed on a smallish planet tucked away in a star system that all in all, depending on who you asked, may better have been forgotten. There was some evidence to suggest that it had indeed been forgotten by whatever reckless, gun toting, way fairing god had put it spinning on its axis in the first place.

The planet itself, depending on who you asked, was known as EX009, and had recently been battered by a series of wars, biological epidemics, and small scale incursions of various alien riff raff. This all led to EX009 having a rather post apocalyptical global culture. There was civilization and technology to be sure, but most of it was currently being used by the inhabitants to desperately cling to whatever threadbare existence they could manage. Or as some may say, they had nowhere to go but up.

















Mick

Mick Guenning kicked back in his chair and put a match to his favorite pipe. Private Detective Mick Guenning that is. Due to the somewhat overwhelmed local law enforcement and the relative viciousness of day to day life in the desert, business was booming. Guenning took a few exploratory puffs on his pipe and waited for his two o’clock.

He was a tall, lean man. All wiry muscle with deep set piercing eyes. Just over thirty and unattached he spent his time stalking sneaking spouses, searching for missing persons, and just about anything else for the right price. He kept a short barreled shotgun concealed under his desk and was never without a revolver and his trusty brass knuckles tucked away in his back pocket. This is to say he wasn’t any more heavily armed than most in the sprawling desert city but then again he didn’t need to be. Most self-styled toughs and gangsters were dangerous because they were armed, reckless, and violent. Guenning knew something they didn’t. You don’t need to be faster or have a bigger gun than the tough guys. You just had to use yours first. Call it premeditated self-defense.

He wasn’t a murderer. He held no truck with murdering folks. He just had a knack for recognizing when the shooting had already started. You needed to be a touch idealistic to wait around for someone to start poking holes in you. The pacifists had long ago passed on from Udelhi. Those who didn’t move along quickly found themselves resting peacefully below ground on a nice little plot among the many burgeoning cemeteries throughout the city.

As Guenning was watching his smoke rings glide gracefully through the air of his office his daydreaming was interrupted by the tinkling of his door bell.



Ben

Ben happily accepted the stack of paper credits from the police Lieutenant standing across the counter from him. Samantha Sledge was a compact woman that most found attractive in her way. Of course, with most men that’s a polite way of saying she had no obvious deformities and came equipped with the authorized bits and pieces standard in her sex. Sledge was one of three Lieutenants assigned to the precinct, and by extension paid the requisite bounties for pest animals put out by the city government.

As he stood at the desk they went through the usual chit chat about the weather, when LT Sledge suddenly became serious. “Hey, I don’t know what’s going on but be careful out there. We’ve been getting a rash of missing person calls and Joe hasn’t been in for about a week.”

“That’s odd,” Jacobs said. And it was. Udelhi wasn’t the type of place where people went to the police when people went missing. The reason the city only had two station houses was because when someone went missing everybody damn well knew where they went missing to and more often than not handled it themselves. It wasn’t an ideal system, but hell, twenty years ago the militia did what passed for policing.

Ben ran his hand through the thinning stubble on top of his head, “Yeah, thanks, I’ll keep my eyes open. Well, I better be getting back home and see what the wife’s up to.”

They exchanged goodbyes and he headed out the door with his rifle slung and his curiosity piqued. Joe Richards was one of only a handful of guys that hunted the same tract of desert Jacobs did. They weren’t exactly drinking buddies but hunters generally kept an eye out for each other and gave a hand when needed. Well, it was a dangerous way to make money and gods only knew Anna worried he would eventually become dog food himself if he wasn’t shot by some enterprising criminal first. But still, it wouldn’t hurt to ask around.

Jacobs walked the winding streets back to his home where he and his kept a part-time bookstore on the first floor. It wasn’t what he and Anna hoped it would be starting out but it was about what they expected it to be. Paper book sales had been on the rise lately, but it certainly wasn’t going to pay the bills.

It was difficult to say why exactly they hadn’t given up on it yet. There were certainly higher paying jobs to be had, and Anna was more than capable. To most people, paper books took up room and seemed a bit clumsy, but there was just something about it. Holding words and thoughts in your hand that didn’t rely on a power source. They didn’t corrupt or need to be downloaded every time you upgraded your hardware.

Some of Ben and Anna’s more loyal customers preferred to use their services to acquire research materials as well. Downloading electronic files could make them vulnerable to hackers, and Udelhi contained some very aggressive breeds of hacker indeed. In most of the world, the worst a hacker could do was empty your bank account. Here, the undiscerning researcher might find that some criminals could get a bit more personal. That’s to say nothing of those venturous souls who dared run afoul of the local government.

In fact most of what they sold recently seemed to revolve around scientific research of one form or another. Jacobs didn’t understand a bit of it. The other genre that seemed to be doing well was Romance, or as Anna referred to it “lady porn.” He never touched the stuff. Of course.

Still a few blocks from his house he reached up and squeezed the earpiece on his glasses which overlaid the world in front of him with a HUD. Smart glasses weren’t exactly cutting edge technology, but he still got a little thrill that he could make a phone call, surf the net, get GPS, and keep the sand out of his eyes all for one money.

Anna picked up on the first ring. “Hey, I was just going to call you.”

“Everything all right?”

“Yeah, everything’s OK, but someone came poking around asking about Dr. Johns about an hour ago.”

“What?” Didn’t Johns stop by to pick up his order today?” Ben felt his hackles rising

“No, he was supposed to. I guess he’s gone missing.”

“Missing!?”

“Babe, let me finish.”

“Sorry love.” He felt the beginnings of a smile sneak across his face even given the circumstances. She’s always so cute when she’s irritated.

“The guy who came in was a private detective. Mick Guenning. I looked him up and I guess he checks out. Anyway, he says Mrs. John’s hired him to find her husband and he was wanting to know if he came in or if we knew where he might be.” Jacobs felt his tension ease ever so slightly. Anna sounded more intrigued than worried and at least he had a name.

“Wow, I hope nothing horrible happened to him. He was one of our only regulars.”

“Ben! You should be ashamed!”

“Just saying love. I’ll be home in just a minute and then I’ll give Lieutenant Sledge a call and make sure this private detective checks out with the police too. What was his name again?”

“Mick Guenning, according to his website he has an office over on Zaragosa. See you when you get home.”

They exchanged ‘I love you’s’ and disconnected. What the holy hells? Between his conversation with Sledge and this, Ben was starting to wonder if he shouldn’t be looking for a new source of income. As if in answer, the rattle of an automatic rifle reported far off to his east followed by the a faint explosion.

Ben let out a prolonged sigh as his house came into view. At least we’ll never be bored. Eh?



Mick

Mick Guenning sat at the bar in a pub near the lab Dr. Mortimer Johns had been conducting research on using synthetically engineered ‘super’ stem cells. The cells were meant to regenerate amputated and badly damaged limbs. Mick sat and sipped his drink, and he watched.

Businessman in slacks and women in every type of business casual imaginable filtered in for burgers, salads, and beer. The Dancing Turtle was a refreshing break from the summer heat outside. Colorfully decorated windows let in ample sunlight showing off enormous desert murals. The walls of the bar brought the wildness and mystery of the desert into hyper reality. Mick couldn’t help but wonder how much it all cost.

According to Isabelle Johns, Mortimer liked to spend the majority of his lunch breaks alone over fried fish and potatoes. Mick was having a hard time imagining he never had lunch with a friend or a manager, but Emma hadn’t had any luck talking with Morty’s coworkers. If Emma couldn’t pump someone for information Mick knew better than to waste his time.

For the most part Morty’s wife had been more helpful than many of his clients significant others. So useful in fact, after the first day he hadn’t improved on what she told him during their first interview. Even now Mick hardly hoped to learn anything critical soaking up alcohol and fried onions, watching the locals come and go. In the absence of any useful information sometimes it paid to spend some time in your targets habitat.

The Johns’ were a reasonably happy couple and made plenty of money. Morty was good at his job but rarely talked about work. The few friends of the family all were sincerely concerned about his disappearance. Mortimer’s work sounded like it could have made his company a lot of money, and more than likely giving them a huge competitive advantage over their competition. Unfortunately there were three pharma companies in the city and Mick was reasonably certain they weren’t involved. Any private investigator worth their salt kept tabs on Medco, Udelhi Labs, and FuturePharm. They were absolutely not above murdering their competition, but all of his sources came back with nothing.

At the moment, it appeared either Morty had run off on his old lady, or got popped by someone with no obvious connections. Was it related to all the other missing persons lately?

Guenning paid his tab and stood up. Time to take a walk. That was another thing he’d learned over the years. Driving could get him where he wanted to go faster, but sometimes you needed to feel the concrete under your feet.

Sometimes he thought of the city as a monster, or maybe a psychotic lover. Two hundred thousand souls kicking, screaming, loving, and dying together. He’d seen a lot more in his thirty-two years than some saw in a lifetime. He’d seen children killed by their mothers in this city. Men shot while stealing food just trying to feed their family. Years of love and happiness shredded in a hail of gunfire and broken glass. That was the price. If you want to spend your life pulling people out of hell, sometimes you have to dance with the devil. And if you want to keep from screaming, sometimes the trick is not slowing down.

Mick started making his way from the bar toward Morty’s house. By all appearances he was pulled out of his vehicle, a newer model Kraken GLSH, at an intersection only a few blocks away from his home. Mick had tracked the stolen vehicle's GPS to The Triangle.

Every city had one of those geographical crime magnets and The Triangle, was Udelhi’s. Mick had caught up with the kids who had taken it for a joy ride after they found it abandoned at an intersection. Their story was that they noticed a nice new hovercraft pulled over on the shoulder of the road so they thought they’d have some fun. Eventually it occurred to them that someone would probably come looking for it. And, eventually it occurred to them that people don’t just leave nice new cars running and abandoned near busy intersections so they ditched it in The Triangle.

What they didn’t count on was that the little idiots looked so suspicious that no one would touch the car. More importantly, they weren’t counting on the fact the species of criminal that hung around The Triangle didn’t appreciate being set up. They made it about a hundred feet from the car before the local wildlife grabbed them by the back of the neck.

It took Mick about thirty minutes before he had introduced himself to the gentleman who found the two boys, but the entire episode was a bust. Emma had been able to pull some fingerprints and fibres from the vehicle but at this point it would be anyone’s guess what belonged to who. Even if he was able to identify a suspect there was about a zero percent chance fingerprints and DNA were going to come into play.

He stopped at a side street and let a car pass when Mick noticed a man approaching a woman who was walking away from him. He was a tall gaunt man in very plain clothes. Too plain. Sunken cheeks. Hawkish nose and deep set eyes. And he wasn’t simply walking the same direction as the woman either. No, he was walking at her. All this registered in an intuitive flash as Mick altered his path slightly so as to come up behind Mr. Creepy. He hardly had time to register the wrongness of the man stalking a woman in public during rush hour.

Mick’s hand started moving toward the revolver tucked into the small of his back as Creepy closed in on his prey. They were only about sixty feet away, through the next intersection. Mick was just starting clearing the crosswalk when a bulky looking ATV came roaring around the corner. His adrenaline sent his heart rocketing in his throat as he made a running dive across the street. Rubber screamed against hot concrete as the SUV slammed on its breaks.

Shit! Creepy had already dragged the struggling woman halfway to the waiting vehicle. Not wasting time Mick wrenched himself on to a knee and cleared leather as he raised his pistol. The typical buzz saw of activity in his head went to white cold static. Only time for one shot. No room for error. He tried to control his breath and lock his wrists as his site picture came to bare just under creepy’s ear. Mick thanked the gods he couldn’t have been more than 20 meters away as he squeezed the trigger. The forty-five caliber pistol rang his ears as he felt the recoil in his hand. Creepy’s freshly mangled head snapped to the side as his body very nearly struck the SUV.

The girl was screaming bloody murder as Mick swung his aim to the rear drivers side window and fired two more rounds in rapid succession. Glass spider webbed as the vehicle's engine roared to life and lurched forward.

“Stay down!” Was all that he could get out of his mouth before one of Creepy’s buddies blew out a window with return fire sending Mick sprawling on his face as bullets hissed and cracked overhead. The SUV sped around the corner, tires squealing and was out of site.

Mick was on his feet running to the girl. She was laying face down on the street covering the back of her head with her hands. She flinched violently as Mick knelt down and put his hand on her shoulder.

“Are you okay?” He didn’t think she’d been hit but he wanted to be sure. He’d seen more than one person get hit and not realize it immediately.

As he helped her to her feet and checked her out he was happy to see that she only seemed to have some minor scrapes and bruises from the struggle. She was ghost white and shaking, her breath coming in short rapid gasps and her eyes wild. He led her over to sit down on the curb so she didn’t pass out and face plant on to the concrete.

She sat holding her knees to her body, “Oh shit, oh shit, oh shit.”

Mick called back to her while he made his way to check the body and kicked himself for not clearing Creepy first. “You’re okay, one second and I’ll get you out of here.” He hoped he wasn’t getting soft. On the off chance the bullet hadn’t struck the brain Creepy could still have pulled a weapon. Especially if Creepy wasn’t…

No sooner had the thought started to form in his head Creepy exploded from the ground as if propelled by some invisible force barreling over him and knocking the revolver from his hand. Without missing a beat Creepy rolled to his feet and continued to lurch clumsily forward. Mick scrambled to his feet and scooped his revolver off of the sidewalk.

As Creepy came barreling clumsily after his victim gore slopping out of the gaping wound in his head, she fainted and slumped to the side. Mick couldn’t get a clear shot without risking hurting the girl. What the hell is that thing?

Creepy was lurching drunkenly but still moving surprisingly fast for carrying a grown woman slumped over his shoulder. “Fuck,” Mick cursed as he sprinted with everything he had toward Creepy intent on tackling him to the ground when his stomach caught in his throat. Again.

“No!,” he screamed as Creepy lurched sideways into the street as a huge freight truck came bearing down on top of them. The two bodies practically exploded as the huge vehicle slammed into them. Mick stood stunned as the huge hovering truck swerved over the shoulder its reverse thrusters screaming. It was at a complete stop a second after it hit them but a second too late.

The gore was incredible. Creepy’s lower torso was the only easily identifiable piece of meat on the road. The driver was out of his truck and having hysterics on the shoulder. Mick was desperately trying to keep it together and was caught between wanting to get out of the area and wanting to make sure the driver was okay.

What the hell just happened? His mind reeled with the possible implications of what he had just seen as he pulled out his phone and dialed the Udelhi City Police. After he gave the front desk a brief rundown of what had just happened he walked over to talk to the freight driver and wait for the watch to show up.

It took just under half an hour for Constable Koren to show up and fill out a report. Koren was a huge man who looked like he’d been constructed out of marble. He would have looked intimidating enough without the light machine gun and body armor in his crisp navy blue uniform. It had taken a few to convince the driver he wasn’t in trouble.

The Watch served primarily to keep Udelhi from becoming a warzone. While recently they had begun investigations of some of the nastier violent crimes, armed robberies, and abductions they were not in the business of traffic enforcement. Anything other than the most serious incidents could be brought before The Council who could impose fines and imprisonment. The Council had their own means of enforcement and The Watch and Council generally stayed out of each other’s business.

By the time Mick got back to his office he was exhausted. Emma, his receptionist, poured him a cup of coffee and listened intently as he filled her in on what had happened. She took it all in with her usual composure and when he was done looked at him from over her own cup.

“Mick, why don’t you take the afternoon and decompress?”

“I’m fine.”

Emma paused while she remembered what happened last time Mick decided not go home after a pretty serious dust up with the local wildlife. “And last time you were fine when you punched that poor guy who surprised you going out the door.” She raised her eyebrows with an alacrity that would have made any house wife swell with pride.

“What?” Mick threw up his hands. “We paid for his hospital bill. He’s fine.”

“Exactly, we paid for his hospital bill. Go home Mick!”

And with that, he conceded. Emma was just the receptionist in the way some emperors were just the guy in the funny hat. She didn’t put her foot down often but it was best to listen when she did. It took about two years for Mick to figure out that of his many considerable talents paperwork and organization were not among them. She had answered his advertisement and thirteen years later was the one person he could count on besides himself.

“Alright, I’ll take the afternoon off but you be careful. If anybody so much as looks at you funny call.” The rash of disappearances mixed with the events of the day didn’t sit well and he would never forgive himself... best not to think about it.

“You’re running around getting in shootouts with aliens and chasing gangsters around and you want me to be careful?”

He sighed, “Yeah, I know. Just, shoot first alright?”

Emma grinned at his joke and told him goodbye as he walked out to go home. It was only a couple of hours until Emma would be hopping in her little yellow Sportster to head home anyway, he realized. The sun was midway in its slow descent to mark the end of another day and Mick had to wonder if he was any closer to figuring out what happened to Morty.

He desperately wanted to believe what he just witnessed was unrelated to Morty’s disappearance. However, it didn’t take a detective to figure out that the probability of the same non-humans being involved in the rash of missing persons was pretty high. And being Morty’s disappearance fit the same timeline as the others…

But why? The girl who Mr. Creepy was trying to drag away had her ID but when Guenning had ran it there was no conceivable link. His headache was beginning to grow with the realization that his investigation was going to have to widen considerably.

Mick walked out the door and started for home. His feet carried him while his mind wandered. Udelhi was coming alive as people began to get off work. The sidewalks were filling with people of every description and a few who could be described as not people at all. The streets were beginning to choke up with traffic both wheeled and otherwise and he was glad at least to not be trapped in his car. He was also anxious to get home and see if the SUV from earlier had been caught on any of the city’s cameras he had access to.



Sam

The police didn’t usually act on behest of the city council but business was anything but usual. Sam hooked her thumb under her body armor and tried to adjust it on her shoulders as she slowly baked under the scorching desert sun. She could already feel the beginnings of heat rash setting in on her back.

The assault vehicle she was driving today was highly advanced and designed by Abel Aun Gorge, one of a handful of alien scientists that lived on EX009. He had fondly named them Rockbadgers for their relatively large amount of firepower they could bring to bare in a diminutive package.

Most other planets tended to avoid EX009 but a few individuals found that its relative wildness brought a certain opportunity and liberty. Gorge had given the city watch a small fleet of his newly designed Rockbadgers armed with MK 37 Grenade Turrets several years ago when Udelhi suffered a series of raids from nearby outlaw groups. The attacks cost hundreds of lives and caused huge damage to the city. The Rockbadgers had given the city a desperately needed advantage.

They were light and fast but open and exposed. Lt Sledge came to a stop on top of a berm and took a sip of water from the straw of her hydration bladder. The council had come straight to Andy Jorgensen, commander of the entire city watch, after the daughter of councilwoman Linda Heldenger had been abducted from her own home. The abduction was caught on the video surveillance. A nanny and two council operators were killed by the abductors before they escaped with Cynthia, a nine year old girl. A third operator had been sent out to investigate almost immediately. His body had been found here.

Council operators acted as the spies, guards, jailers, and general enforcers for the Udelhi City Council. While they may not always live up to their elite reputation in experience, they were generally competent and reliable in Sam’s opinion. It was definitely not a good sign that three of them were dead. She knew if the operators didn’t have the time and resources the police certainly didn’t. They had a hard enough time keeping the usual suspects to a dull roar.

Commander Jorgensen must feel the same way. At least two dangerous aliens at large, three dead operators, a missing nine year old girl, and little old me... Sam scanned the desert looking for any signs of who or what killed the last operator. Jorgensen’s orders had been pretty clear. Take a look around, see what she could see and report back. Every other available unit had been called in as well, but they were spread throughout the city. It was the best they could do given the personnel they had.

Sam had started at the spot the last operator had been found and using her GPS boxed her way further and further out in the desert looking for any sign of the attackers the operator may have been following. She kept one hand on the wheel and the other on the MK37 control. The digital targeting reticle fed into her sunglasses and gave her an estimated trajectory and kill radius. She was going to have to raise the inappropriateness of the weapons system to Jorgenson again. Shooting frag grenades on full auto isn’t exactly conducive to rescuing hostages.

Soon she found herself enjoying the solitude of the desert and the soft hum of the engine as she continued her reconnaissance. The Burnt Mountains stood in dramatic relief on the horizon. Vast and imposing, the mountain range covered several hundred miles of hot red rock, cactus, and scrub. The nearest foothills, only some twenty miles from her current position, had been used as a refuge by raiders, settlers, and miscellaneous travelers for tens of thousands of years.

Now they were inhabited by a handful of small villages and ruled over by local strongmen and warlords. Sledge’s stomach sank when she thought that a scared little girl may be out there experiencing gods knew what. Better to focus on the task at hand.

That was the question in her mind now. Did they cross the desert for the safety of the mountains or was it merely their plan to lure the operator out to the desert so they could ambush him. If they had returned to the city after killing the operator, it would at least give the police a chance to find something. The odds of tracking them through the desert were seriously not good.

Two more hours yielded nothing except a continued break from sitting behind her desk at the department. Sergeant Adams, her senior officer remaining at post, was capable enough to handle things when she was out. Always a silver lining.

Things were running at their normal pace at the office when she checked back in to let Jorgensen know she hadn’t found a damn thing. He sat behind a sleek black desk monitoring his officers out on patrol, keeping tabs on the council and whatever else it was he did when Sledge knocked on his door.

“Come on in Sam, whaddaya got?”

Jorgensen preferred to talk to his lieutenants and captains on a first name basis. It gave him the appearance of being laid back and casual. Easy to talk to. It belied the old hard charging gun slinger beneath the surface.

“Unfortunately, not much,” she had to admit. “I had a pretty thorough look around the desert where the last operator was killed and found nothing. No tracks, no brass from expended rounds, no trail to follow either way, Sir. I personally think the most likely scenario is that they’re keeping our missing persons somewhere out in the mountains.”

Jorgensen leaned back in his chair and ran a hand through his salt and pepper buzzcut. “You figure that’s why we haven’t seen any bodies popping up?”

“I think that’s the most likely reason, sir.”

“Have a seat, we need to talk about some things.”

Tiny alarm bells started ringing in the back of Sledge’s brain. Had she done something wrong?

“Sam, I sent you because you’re one of the most experienced officers I have. I also sent you because you know how to handle people and what questions to ask.” His cool blue eyes bored into her before he continued.

“The city council is starting to panic. More importantly, the public is starting to panic. I don’t know if you’ve been paying attention to the news this morning, but they’re making it sound like the end fucking times out there. Now, I don’t give a shit what the media or the council says, but I think we all want to find that little girl. And we certainly can’t afford some shady outside organization to think they can have open season on our citizens.”

He paused before continuing, “Sam, The Council and myself are putting you in charge of unraveling this rat’s nest. You will have whatever you need from us and from the city. I, we, are giving you the authority to put together a task force to find those responsible for this mess and bury them.”

Sam’s head spun as Jorgensen ran her through the details and logistics of how it all would work. Jorgensen would be at her disposal as needed but she would command the task force as well as select those whom she deemed fit to serve on it. She would periodically report her progress to Jorgensen who would speak to a select board of Council representatives simply to inform them of any progress or in case she found herself in need of resources they had access to.

For the first time in memory The Council was giving an outside organization carte blanche of their personnel, logistical, and intelligence services. It was clear they were terrified and she couldn’t blame them.

Her task force, to be known as Sunburn, would be commanded by her and receive support from the police via Commander Jorgenson and The City Council.

He continued, “Your primary objective is to verify whether a link exists between the rash of missing persons being abducted, and if so, what that link is. The city, as well as this department, is authorizing you to use lethal force to target any individuals implicated in these abductions. I’m also authorizing you to deputize additional manpower as needed. Any individuals you deputize will be on the city’s payroll.”



Sam’s head spun as the questions about how it would all work began to pile up in her head. They spent the next two hours hammering out the details. Sam spent the rest of the afternoon reviewing potential leads that had been phoned in from the general public. It didn’t take long to figure out it wasn’t going to be a productive use of her time. People were calling in to report everything from angels to little green men abducting the souls of their neighbors cat.

That evening as the sunset painted a purple sky over the city, Sam walked out of the front doors of the department into a brave new world. The scope of what lay ahead was heavy in her mind she hopped into her car headed for home.

Sam made good money. More than her parents ever had. She didn’t spend it on much but her downtown apartment was her one indulgence. She had three bedrooms all to herself, a fireplace, a balcony, and a bathroom to kill for. Not literally of course. Well…never mind.

After a day like today, it was nice to be able to retreat to her own personal fortress. She needed a game plan. She also needed dinner, and at least a couple glasses of wine.

By the time she sank into her oversized garden tub she already knew she needed to talk to Ben. Her oversized soaking tub was where she usually did her best thinking. As she let the hot soapy water drain the stress of the day out of her aching muscles the facts as she knew them drifted over her like a white fog.

Ben frequented the general area where the last operator had been killed. He knew the area better than she did, and if anyone would notice unusual vehicle tracks or signs of a struggle it would be him. She wasn’t sure if he ever made it out near the mountains or not. The only thing she really knew about the man other than the fact he made a killing varmint hunting for the city, was that his wife ran a bookstore out of there home. Strange guy.

After Sam hauled herself out of the tub, she dried off and pulled on some comfy clothes. Then she pulled out a notebook and pen and called Ben.

Ben picked up on the second ring, “Scorched Earth Books, what can I do for you?”

Sledge could feel the corners of her mouth creep into a smile at the name. “Hey Ben, this is LT Sledge with Udelhi PD.”

There was a brief pause before he rallied, “Hi LT, is there something I can do for you?”

“I hope so, I’m looking for a young girl that was taken from her family a few days ago by some aliens. I’m calling you because we believe they left the city near the area you hunt.”

“Wow, no I haven’t seen anything that stands out. When did you say again?”

“It would have been last Thursday between two and four in the afternoon that they would have been in your neck of the woods. They shot a council operator who was pursuing them so needless to say any information that you have would be helpful.”

There was another brief pause before Ben’s voice broke the silence. “Well, I do hear shots fired fairly regularly as I’m sure you could guess. If you tell me where you think they were I’d be happy to go look around and see what I can see in the morning.”

“Tell you what Ben,” Sledge continued, “Why don’t I go with you instead.”

They agreed to meet at six o’clock in the morning. She would drive in case things got hairy. She would have liked a few more bodies with them for the extra fire power but right now her task force still just consisted of her. If things got too hot for her and Ben any back up would be just in time to pack out their bodies.

Samantha Sledge, commander of Task Force Sunburn, ha, changed into her workout clothes and headed out to the gym. There was no point lying around obsessing about what she couldn’t do tonight. Besides, you didn’t last long chasing psychos and rogue aliens around Udeli if you were fat and slow. As much as she would have enjoyed laying on the couch and stuffing her face, getting her teeth kicked in by someone quicker and stronger than her didn’t sound like a good plan.





Ben

Ben parked his blue and rust colored SUV in the shade of a large scrub topped berm and waited for LT Sledge to show up. Before he started varmint hunting for the city he had almost zero tactical experience. After his first two months he had more than one encounter with small bands of raiders in the open desert. By now he had survived enough encounters with raiders, hostile wildlife, and shitheads of various description to consider himself something of an amateur tactician.

Between the city and the Burnt Mountains, Ben’s gaze swept over the vast and dangerous desert that Ben hunted. There were probably a dozen or so people that were making a living doing the same thing but they tended to spread out and respect each other’s space. Enough of them got maimed, killed, lost, discouraged, and otherwise mistreated on a regular basis that a loose alliance of individuals developed over time. A threat to one of them could very easily become a threat to all if left untended.

Right now Ben was hoping the approaching engine noise belonged to Lieutenant Sledge. Experience said it was not likely to be a family coming out for a picnic.

Indeed it was not a picnic. The large dark colored SUV barreled through the desert kicking up plumes of sand as it went. Ben couldn’t keep it in his site on account of the innumerable berms that it was busy weaving its way through. All he could tell at the moment was that it was traveling toward the mountains.

Ben drew the scope of his rifle up to his eye and took one last peek. As it came level with him, it was still about a half-mile off. He hopped out of his truck and climbed to the top of the nearest berm that wasn’t completely covered in thorny shrub to get a better look. He had to catch himself with his left arm as the sand slid from under his boots as he made the scramble to the top. One last look through the scope showed one of the back windows had been busted out. Definitely not law enforcement. He noted the time and direction of travel as he watched the large vehicle disappear in the distance.

The morning sky slowly turned from its purple and orange majesty to a more customary work day blue as the suspicious vehicle finally winked out of site. Just as he was starting to wonder when Lieutenant Sledge was going to arrive he heard the very distinct sound of a Desert Rat.

The Desert Rat was essentially a motorcycle that was made with reverse engineered Grolon technology. That is to say it hovered rather than rolled.

It was really hauling ass and if he hadn’t been paying attention he would have certainly missed it. Jacobs pulse started picking up the pace as he wondered just what the hell he was getting into.

Luckily he didn’t have to wonder long before a highly armed monstrosity pulled up baring enough firepower to turn any number of SUV driving nere-do-wells into so much fine pink mist.

“Hey Jacobs hop in!”

Ben shook the Lieutenant's hand as he relayed what he had just observed. He had seen officers driving the highly armed vehicles before. Normally he tried not to be anywhere they were needed, but knowing it was on his side was a comforting thought. He climbed in the passenger seat and adjusted his rifle accordingly.

Sam raised her voice over the engine noise, “Alright, that SUV matches the description of a vehicle that was used in another attempted abduction in town. I don’t have anything on the bike but keep your head on a swivel and if something tries to kill us… kill it back, okay?”

That was all the more encouragement Ben needed. However, despite any encouragement he soon discovered that the best he could do to provide cover was plant his feet firmly while maintaining a death grip on his rifle as the Rockbadger jerked, banged, and otherwise plowed its way through the scrub and dune infested desert. One advantage they had in the Rockbadger, other than the fully automatic grenade launcher, was that it didn’t kick a plume of sand into the air that gave away their location. I hope that means we’re less likely to be shot.

Ben did his best to provide some amount of security as they attempted to keep the dissipating trail left by the SUV. It will be a trick to catch the SUV without being spotted by the bike that was following it, although maybe not being spotted isn’t the plan, he thought. Ben gritted his teeth as they veered around another thorn and scrub crowned berm. Fortunately it wasn’t a challenge to keep his bearings as they wound through the natural obstacle course that was the desert.

The sun was peaking over the mountain range and Ben realized they were going to be looking directly into the sun when they did catch up with their prey. The adrenaline of the chase brought the familiar excitement and clarity. An almost crisp sweet smell from the abundant desert blossoms mixed with the smell of engine exhaust. Time seemed to almost stand still even as the world zipped by them.

The SUV was leaving less and less of a trail as they got closer to the mountains and the soil became rockier. As they approached the foot hills there was no more tell-tale dust plume to follow.

“Any ideas?” Sam broke the silence as Ben was scanning off to their right side.

“This is further than I go,” Ben said, “Your guess is as good as mine from here.”

Sledge pulled up a map on her in dash computer screen so they could both get a quick look. There were some unimproved roads that wound through two of the saddles in this section of the mountains. From what Jacobs could tell from the look he’d had at the SUV there was no way they were crossing the mountains off road.

One dead ended at a defunct structure that a tech company by the name of Reemacorp had carved into the mountains. The other snaked off to the west, before eventually feeding into the main road to Silver Springs. The Springs was a coastal city near the Oreal Ocean.

It was common knowledge that only criminals, militants, and less savory individuals now lived in the mountains. People who traveled between Udelhi and Silver Springs either paid them off, shot their way through, or didn’t make the trip. Back when Udelhi had a standing militia they had cleared the mountain pass out. They had nearly finished patting themselves on the back before the next batch of assholes moved in. For now Silver Springs and Udelhi left them alone in the hope they would reciprocate.

Sledge spoke to Jacobs as she scanned ahead, “Okay, we’re going to slowly make our way to the old Reemacorp facility. Let me know if you see any signs of our vehicles. These guys may be holding several missing people, so if at all possible we need to avoid being seen until we know where they’re at.”

She paused and looked him in the eye. “Have you been shot at before?”

“I’ve had a few run ins out here. You don’t have to worry about me.” Ben hoped he sounded a little more confident than he felt. Defending himself on his home turf was hairy enough. He hadn’t envisioned storming an underground compound swarming with psychotic alien kidnappers when he agreed to ride with Sledge over the phone. His wife would kill him if he got hurt.

He also didn’t want to embarrass himself in front of the lieutenant. This had nothing to do with her being a powerful and attractive woman. Obviously.

They slowly worked their way toward the destination. Their pace was much more controlled now and Ben found it easier to scan for their mystery men without his stomach trying to crawl out of his nostrils. As they came nearer to the road they worked out a basic strategy. If they found the SUV without being spotted, Sam would decide whether or not to engage the suspects based. She spelled out her decision would be based on how many there were, what kind of weapons they had, and if any civilians were in immediate danger. If there were too many she would snap some pictures, mark the area on her map, and they would leave.

A thought crept its way to the front of Ben’s mind. “I kind of thought you would call for more people if we were outnumbered. Am I missing something…”

“We’ll talk about it when we get back.”

What may have turned into a stony silence was interrupted when Ben picked out a dark shape about 100 meters away from where they were going to enter the road.

“I think I’ve got something,” he said.

Sledge stopped the Badger as Ben pointed out what appeared to be the Desert Rat half hidden behind a berm between them and the road. She grabbed a pair of smallish binoculars to have a better look while Ben checked it out with his optic. The rider didn’t appear to have stuck around and neither had the SUV. But they sure as shit weren’t far.

“Looks like we’re close,” Sledge punched a couple of keys on the HUD interface and marked the location of the bike on the Badgers digital map.

“So you want me to get out and take a closer look?” Ben asked.

“No, I want to be able to light these motherfuckers up if I need to. We may have to dismount eventually but I don’t want to unless we have to.”

Ben didn’t like it but he let her run the show. He knew on foot he could use the terrain to his advantage while approaching the compound and stand a better chance of getting a look without being seen. He also was fairly certain they wouldn’t be able to use the Badgers big grenade launcher. It wouldn’t do to kill people they were trying to save because they blundered into a shootout. I sure hope she knows what she’s doing.

Ben could see their road come into view as Sam slowed down to a crawl. The dirt road snaked in a north south line to the base of the nearest mountain and then followed a small recess about a third of the way up. The recess widened out into a substantial plateau where the complex was. The whole thing was nestled back behind a line of foot hills that made it impossible to see until now.

Ben heard Sam mutter something under her breath as they came to a stop. From here they could clearly see the gate that controlled the only point of entry visible. It didn’t look very substantial and was probably controlled remotely as no one was manning it. Because of the sheer climb up to the complex no one had bothered to keep up the fence surrounding it. Whole panels were missing or lying on the ground.

The other piece of the complex they could make out was a medium sized concrete structure. Sam pulled out her binoculars again while Ben took a look through his scope. Son of a bitch.

He could clearly make out a gun port complete with a clearly visible machine gun barrel sticking out. The building had probably not been built as a bunker judging by its placement but the new occupants had certainly made do. Ben was betting that if they took a look there would be another on the opposite side.

Ben started scanning the area for vehicles while a tense quiet settled over them. Ben lowered his rifle to take a sip from a water bottle and scanned the area outside of the complex with his naked eye again.

He couldn’t see anyone moving around outside. They would have to get up higher to see the doors that opened into the main complex that burrowed under the mountain. Of course, he didn’t need to see the doors to know that it would take more than himself and Lieutenant Sledge, Rockbadger or no, to raid the compound. You didn’t need to be a soldier to see that.

Ben kept his eyes forward and spoke low. “Hey, uh, I don’t want to rain on your parade ‘LT’, but when I told my wife I was going to help you out this morning I didn’t mention any suicide charges on heavily reinforced bunkers.”

He was surprised to hear her giggle under her breath. “Yeah, we’re going to back off a little and see if we can get a look from the top of one of these foothills. I wouldn’t want to get you killed without advanced notice.”

About 10 minutes later the conferred from their new overwatch position. Ben couldn’t help but feel slightly awkward as Sam looked over and seemed to weigh him with her eyes.

“Between what you and I’ve seen and what I can tell from this map I think we’ll head back so I can come up with a plan,” she said.

Ben could feel the hairs on his neck stand up as he waited for her to snap some last minute pictures with a camera she had brought. His mind filled the desert with invisible enemies hiding behind every berm. He let out a small sigh of relief that he hoped Sam couldn’t hear when they finally headed back for town. They both felt confident that the truck was likely in the subterranean compound. Neither he nor Sam offered any theories on the bike. He had a hunch it wasn’t with the SUV so much as pursuing it.

“Hey ‘LT’,” he started.

“You can call me Sam,” she cut in, “I think after today we’re on a first name basis.”

“Oh ok, well uh, do you think that rider was following the SUV? Because I’m not sure I like what that means.”

She kept her eyes on her driving as she replied, “Yeah. I’ve got a hunch about that. I’ll fill you in if it turns out I’m right.”

“And if not?”

“Then I hope whoever it was didn’t ditch the bike to watch us.”

“My thoughts exactly,” he took a long pull on his water bottle and re-checked the safety on his rifle out of habit. Or maybe compulsion. He hoped Anna wasn’t freaking out right now. Of course, for all she knew he had been calmly perusing the desert all morning with Sledge. Or Sam now.

Sam sat quietly beside him apparently deep in thought. Ben took the time to check his phone, and send his wife a quick message letting her know that he would probably be home for lunch.

Eventually Sam broke the silence.

“Would you be interested in continuing me try to find these missing persons?”

Ben ran his hand over the stubble on top of his head. “Sure, I’d be happy to do what I can.” He hoped he didn’t need to add, as long as you don’t get me killed, but he hoped that went without saying.

“What I’m about to say stays between you, me, and your wife at the most,” she continued.

“The city has authorized me to deputize citizens with certain helpful skills as part of a special task force. You would be compensated for any time spent, and would be acting on behalf of the city police department.”

She paused only briefly before plunging on as Ben tried to shake the feeling this was some elaborate practical joke.

“You would answer only to me, and may have to attend additional training as I see fit. It will almost certainly not be safe, but you will have the chance to do something positive for a lot of people.”

Ben paused and tried to collect his thoughts. Well, today’s getting WEIRD.

“What is it exactly you expect me to do? I’m alright with a rifle, but I’m no soldier,” he said.

“A lot of what we’re going to do is basic investigative work right now. If it comes to it I have the authority to use lethal action to bring whoever is behind the kidnappings down, but I absolutely will not ask you to do anything I’m not willing to do.”

Sam continued to fill him in on the operation as they sat in the Badger. It took a solid twenty minutes to get through the details but by the time Ben and Sam parted ways Ben had agreed. Hopefully Anna wouldn’t murder him once he told her how much money they were paying. It was certainly going to be dangerous work, but they wouldn’t have to worry about the bills for a while.

Mick

Mick breathed a sigh of relief as the Rockbadger started meandering back to the city. What the hell were the police doing out here? He knew people had been getting pretty worked up about all of the disappearances lately but this was the first time he knew of the police leaving the city limits.

For the moment he pushed the distractions out of his head and refocused his attention on the old Reemacorp facility. The morning was starting to heat up and Mick knew he couldn’t sit out here for more than a couple of hours without running the risk of heat exhaustion. It had been a stroke of luck that Emma had been able to identify the SUV that had nearly killed him earlier in the day. She had been running through every available video feed she had access to, and made a lucky find on a hacked video loop from a traffic camera. He had jumped on his bike and tailed it out here with nothing more than what he had in his pockets. He wasn’t sure they even had the right SUV until he saw the shattered windows as it neared the edge of town.

Another bead of sweat began to follow the line of Micks somewhat hawkish nose as he lay on his stomach concealed behind the thorny brush that crowned the hill he was on. He was damn glad he paid the extra money for the DragonNet software that interfaced his watch and glasses.

Now Mick used it to send the location of the Reemacorp complex back to the office along with the real time footage Mick had shot with his glasses trailing the SUV. Emma could use what he sent her to start building a file back at the office and cross reference any relevant intel she could glean with other databases in the city they had infiltrated. Emma could view live feed from his glasses as long as he was broadcasting but she didn’t often.

Guenning laid behind the brush observing for the next hour with nothing to show for it. He could occasionally make out shapes milling about through the small open ports in the bunker. No vehicles came in or out of the main gates that burrowed into the mountain and no one left the bunker.

Mick didn’t exactly expect the keys to the kingdom to fall into his lap in an hour, but he felt himself gritting his teeth in disappointment nonetheless. A scrub brush thorn caught him just above the ankle as he slowly crawled backward out of his hide site. It was a challenge to both keep a lookout on the heavily fortified compound behind him and scan the desert for the small prickly pear cacti that littered the desert floor around him as he made his way back to his bike.

The undulating whine of the the small engine climbed and dropped as Mick picked his way back to civilization through the berm and brush strewn desert. The sun had only been up for a few hours but the metal and plastic of the Desert Rat was already burning uncomfortably hot and Mick was grateful he wasn’t wearing any less clothing.

The real planning wouldn’t start until he made it back to the office to see what Emma had for him. He was hoping she had found him a platoon of heavily armored vehicles and a freaking miracle. If there wasn’t a secondary access into the underground complex that he could get into undetected he was in trouble.

Unless the guys in that bunker were perilously incompetent he didn’t feel good about his odds of even making it to the door without getting pounded into hamburger by those guns.

By the time he made it back to the office Emma already had a file put together for him and was on the phone taking notes. They made eye contact when he came through the door and he gestured that he would be in his office when she got done. Mick grabbed some water and some leftover sandwich from his mini fridge and plopped down behind his desk to take a load off.

He could tell he was a little wind and sun burnt, and grimy to boot, from his romp in the desert. He gave himself an exploratory smell wondering how much it would cost to get a shower put in one of the big bathrooms in his suite.


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