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Tanner's M40A1 -- a modified Remington 700 rifle -- was still strapped to his back, so Vin snatched his Desert Eagle pistol from his thigh holster and sent two quick shots back at his pursuers. One grunt of pain echoed in reply and he managed to push the woman farther and faster into the jungle, leaves and branches whipping at his face as they ran through the dense foliage. He grabbed her hand, pulling her off to the left, toward one of the grenade tripwires he'd set up the day before. He needed to get some distance from their pursuers or else they'd be dead in no time.
Shots were fired by their pursuers, one coming too close for comfort. He heard a crunch and glanced down to see his receiver/transmitter in pieces. "Son of a bitch," he cursed, pushing the woman even faster. Now he was cut off from the rest of his team.
Vin led Amanda to a small overgrowth where he said, "I want you to stay here and be quiet, no matter what you hear." He could see she was tired, gasping for breath and sweating, but he had to know that she would do what he'd asked. "Do you understand me?"
She nodded and smiled slightly. "Stay put and shut up."
"Thata girl." The soldier gave her a smile in return. "I'll be back as soon as I can."
Tucking some branches and leaves over her hiding place, Vin stalked off to the west. He could hear the men coming closer; there had to be at least three of them. And he'd lay odds there was a tracker among them --otherwise they shouldn't be able to find him quite so easily.
He admitted to himself that, hampered by Amanda, he hadn't been doing well at covering his trail, he had mainly been trying to outrun his enemies. Though he had to give her credit. She was keeping up with him surprisingly well, and hadn't once whined or complained. But she wouldn't be able to last for much longer.
Nearing the trap he'd set the day before, he had to make sure at least one of the men chasing him set it off. Bending down to grab a small stone, he quietly scaled a suitable tree, settling himself in among the branches. Bringing out his binoculars, he spied two men heading toward the trap. They were getting closer, but approaching at the wrong angle. Vin reached in his pocket for the stone. Calculating carefully, he tossed the stone out into the jungle, next to where he'd laid the trap. It made a soft rustle, just enough to bring the mercs' attention that way.
He watched from above as they signaled back and forth before circling around the area in which he'd sent the stone. Stupidly they thought they had the upper hand and both rushed into the fray. The small twig holding the grenade pin flew up, taking the pin with it. Five seconds later a blast rocked the spot.
Tanner saw the explosion of the grenade and the two mercenaries flew through the air, landing in a dead heap beyond. God bless amateurs, he thought with derision. But with that loss, the others would be more careful. Even now he could hear more of them hustling far around the location of the blast, making sure that there were no more grenades.
Shimmying down the tree, he thought of his options. Another trap he'd laid was too far away; he couldn't leave his "baggage" alone for that long.
Vin ducked under a growth of bushes and branches, and watched as more men passed by. He knew his hiding spot wouldn't fool the mercenaries for long; they'd double back and easily find it. He could tell Amanda wasn't going to be able to go on much longer and there was no way she could outrun the pursuing mercs all the way to the airfield. He'd have to stash her somewhere safe.
Thinking back to his prior scouting excursion, he remembered seeing a small crevice cut into the rocks just a ways out from the site. It wasn't a large cave, barely big enough for one person, but he could leave her there while he led the other men away.
Okay, he had his plan. Now he just had to execute it.
They continued to run northeast and evade the enemy for twenty more minutes, before Larabee stopped. "Let's find out the situation," he told Josiah. Keying his mike, Chris said, "Team, this is Shepherd, call in."
From right beside him, Josiah reported in first. Even though Chris knew he was all right, it was for the rest of the team that he called in over the radio. "This is Merlin."
"This is Doc."
"This is Cipher."
"This is Nova."
"This is Wonk."
After that was silence.
Chris waited a beat and called, "Robin, report."
Larabee knew that there was nothing he could do to help Tanner now; he had to rely on his friend to get himself clear. Ignoring Josiah's look of concern, he sent his orders. "Wonk, Nova, we'll meet at the alternate RP. Doc and Cipher continue on to EP2."
"Copy that, Shepherd," sent Buck.
"Roger, Shepherd," came from Nathan.
"Let's get to the rendezvous point," Chris said to Josiah, heading off any reassurances the larger man might make. He tightened his grip on his MP-5 and marched into the trees.
"Yes, sir." Sanchez knew his leader was worried about their sniper. The two had grown remarkably close; they seemed to have some sort of unnamed connection. This made the current situation even harder; Larabee was upset but would never admit it.
Sighing, Josiah followed the blond deeper into the jungle.
Wednesday, 0900 hrs
En route to Extraction Point 2
The Humvee traveled along the dirt track, bouncing up and down so hard that Nathan was sure they'd use up the shocks on this one trip. They were making their way to the small airfield that Sanchez had designated as their alternative departing point. There was at least one small plane known to be there. It wouldn't be big enough to remove both the team and the civilians, but if there were two planes, they could. Standish was their backup pilot, not quite as skilled in various aircraft as Jackson, but he could hold his own with the simple fixed-wing design.
After assuring the group of scientists that they were almost to safety, Nathan looked aside at his partner, who was driving the Humvee. Jackson was the one who'd bestowed Standish with his call sign --Cipher --seeing as how the Southerner could talk incessantly but still remain a complete mystery. But even with his hazy background, Ezra had shown himself to be a valuable and trustworthy member of the team.
"We're going to have to head to the right," Nathan said, pointing at the fork in the road.
Ezra nodded. "I shall comply, Mr. Jackson."
Nathan smiled, thinking that Ezra was the only person he'd ever met who dry-cleaned his fatigues. On the opposite end of the spectrum was Vin Tanner who usually went "commando" when he went commando. The medic had the misfortune to discover this a few months ago when Vin took a hit in his thigh and Nathan had removed his pants to work on it.
At the medic's raised eyebrows, Vin had given an unabashed shrug. "Don't like feeling constricted," he'd said with a smile.
Jackson had managed to keep a straight face while he was patching up his friend, only laughing when he relayed the story to the rest of the men.
Tanner returned quickly to the female scientist's hiding spot, careful to softly announce his presence, so as not to scare her. Amanda looked immensely relieved to see him, and when he extended his hand, she took it without hesitation.
"I have a plan," Vin told her.
"Hope it's good," she replied.
Backtracking and circling around, Vin managed to find the area he sought without complications. Holding up his hand for silence, the scout listened to the jungle carefully, trying to pick out the noises that didn't belong. He heard some vague noises off to the west, but they sounded far enough away. Maybe he'd be able to pull this off after all.
Orienting himself, he took Amanda's hand in his own and gently pulled her along. "We're almost there," he assured her. After twenty more minutes of travel and maneuvering, Vin found the nearly hidden cave.
He pointed it out. "Okay, this is where you're going to hide."
Amanda picked up one word from that sentence: you're. "I can't stay here alone. No way, nuh-uh." She shook her head in denial.
"Listen to me. It's too dangerous to be roaming around here. Too many bad guys and too many booby-traps."
"Then you should stay here with me," she insisted.
"There's no room," he countered. "And I have to lead them away." As the frightened look on her face remained, he hurried to reassure her. "I'm going to be fine and so are you, but we have to split up."
Looking at the serious expression on her rescuer's face, she nodded. "Fine. When will you be back?"
"I won't be." Vin held up a hand to silence her impending objection. Taking off his watch he placed it on her wrist. "I'm going to push this button, which sets off a tracking system for my team. They'll come and get you and take you home." He placed his canteen next to her. "Drink it," he ordered.
"What about you?"
He winked and grinned. "I'm gonna go have some fun."
JD gripped his twin S & W 1006s tighter as he held his position. Buck was flushing out a few men and moving them towards Dunne. He and Buck were about three klicks away from the location of the rendezvous with Chris and Josiah, and couldn't take a chance on leading the mercenaries straight there.
The young soldier was proud of his pistols, having to prove to Buck that he could handle them before Chris would give his consent for their purchase. The 10mm pistols were powerful, but after his advanced weapon's training, they felt like extensions of himself. He was quite proficient with them.
The crashing sound brought him out of his reverie, and he focused his attention on the impending battle. Coming up through the trees, he could see two men. They were concentrating their machine gun fire on something behind them; neither man was paying attention to where he was going.
Dunne debated whether or not to give them a chance to surrender, but that idea was quickly dismissed. Since the first shot, this group of men had been trying to kill his team, his family. They would get no mercy.
The first mercenary burst through the trees near the youth and Dunne opened fire: two quick shots to the chest, one to the head. The target didn't stand a chance. The second mercenary heard his companion's demise and tried to retreat, but JD was watching for it. He caught the movement of the foliage and fired into it. With a cry of pain, a man fell into the open.
The soldier cautiously crept up to the second man, gun at the ready, and flipped the man on his back using his boot. Dead eyes stared up at JD, and he let the man fall facedown again.
Buck sprinted to his partner, surveyed the scene, and checked that both men were dead. "Good job, kid. Now let's git. Chris is waitin'." He motioned in the direction of the meet and headed off into the trees.
JD looked at the lifeless men one last time before following after his partner. He'd deal with any guilt later.
Nathan had Ezra park the Humvee half a mile away from the airport. He wanted to walk in and check the place out, because they didn't want to drive into an ambush. He got out of the vehicle and Standish followed.
Ezra called to the civilian scientists to stay put and stay low.
"Give me about twenty minutes to check it out," Nathan said. "If you don't hear from me, head for the other airport."
"I think not, my friend," Ezra countered. "It would be most unseemly to leave a teammate in peril."
"Now's not the time for heroics, Ez. We have these people counting on us to keep 'em safe."
Looking back at the vehicle filled with civilians, Ezra seemed to accept the seriousness of the situation. "Twenty minutes. I'll expect your call."
Jackson nodded and started his hike to the airfield. Moving off the main path, the pilot chose to circle around, coming up to the airfield from the side. Crouching down, he got out a pair of binoculars and surveyed the scene before him.
He could see no one in the vicinity. Good, but suspicious. He wondered why there were no men tending to the planes and such. He had to get a closer look.
Keeping low and staying within cover, Nathan was able to get close to the rear of the hangar. He climbed up onto a box and peered inside a window. The interior was lit only by the sunlight drifting in through the windows and between loose boards of the hangar. The pilot could make out one small plane that could hold up to six passengers, and some equipment covered with tarps. Nowhere could he see any people or signs that any had been there recently. Knowing his time limit was getting close he made the decision to go inside and check it out.
Spotting a small side door through the window, Nathan got down and made his way there. The door was locked, but the shoddy lock was no match for a simple pick. Within seconds he was inside, looking around. He checked the area for booby-traps and found nothing. Sighing softly in relief, he called his partner on the radio.
"Cipher, the way is clear."
"Coming in," came the Southern drawl.
Nathan discovered the hand controls to the large hangar door and opened it, stepping outside to signal his teammate. Within a few minutes, Standish drove onto the airfield, turning when he saw his friend at the open door. He drove the Humvee inside the hangar, and got out. The scientists exited the vehicle and followed the Southerner outside.
"What's the situation?" Ezra asked as he came beside his teammate. The group of scientists stood nearby, listening in on their conversation.
"There's only one plane. It's big enough for six or seven people, but that's it."
"I'd say it might be time for a chat with our esteemed leader." Standish took out a handkerchief and wiped his brow. "We've gone as far as we are able unless he wants us to continue alone."
"Let me call it in," Nathan said. He keyed his mike. "Doc to Shepherd."
There was a pause before an answer came. "Shepherd here."
"We've reached EP2. Only one transport."
"Understood. Wait for number five unless forced."
"Roger that, Shepherd. Doc out."
"What does that mean?" Rob, the brown-haired archeologist asked.
"Means he wants us to wait for your missing friend unless something goes wrong."
"We're here," Morris fumed, "and we have a plane. I think we should leave now. It'd be safer."
"Screw you, Professor," said Tanya with a sneer. "We're waiting for Amanda."
"I agree with Tanya," added Max. "Amanda would wait for us."
Rob shook his head. "You don't know that," he said. "She'd probably cut and run the first chance she got."
"Just because she refused your advances is no reason to give her up," Max shouted back. His blond head shook with fury. Tanya stood beside him nodding her head in agreement.
"You don't know what you're talking about!" yelled back the archeologist. "Like you never asked her out."
"Quiet!" Ezra's bellow brought silence to the bickering scientists. With a pointed glare at the group, he slowly said, "We are going to remain here for your companion unless told otherwise. And I believe we should retire into the hangar, away from prying eyes."
"Agreed." Nathan motioned the civilians before him. "Let's get inside people."
Ezra was watching the reactions of each civilian during the argument. Although Morris technically started it with his expressed wish to leave, once the yelling commenced, he stood back and merely watched. The others appeared outraged while arguing their sides, but Morris was smiling slightly with self-satisfaction.
Nathan noticed Ezra's scrutiny. He sidled up to him, well away from the civilians. The team had quickly learned to trust Ezra's ability to judge people. "What's up?"
"I'm not sure, my friend, but something about the dear old professor strikes me as irregular."
"Irregular?" Nathan surreptitiously studied the older man.
"I can't put my finger on it. I do believe he deserves a closer look."
"Let's not discount the others."
They split up and set up a secure perimeter. They would continue to keep an eye on the civilians, Morris in particular.
"Where are they?" Chris was pacing around, awaiting the other members of his team. Josiah was watching him with a neutral expression, knowing that his boss was not accustomed to inaction.
Chris checked his watch again.
"You know," Josiah said, "wishing isn't going to make them appear any faster." The large man ignored the scowl flashed his way. "Buck and JD probably had a ways to walk."
"Maybe his mike is out, but he could still hear us and know where to come."
"And how long are we supposed to wait?"
"Patience is a virtue."
"And silence is golden," snapped Chris.
The two remained silent save for the crunch of leaves and such under the leader's feet walking back and forth. Fifteen minutes or so later they heard movement off to the west. Josiah and Chris faded back further into the undergrowth; Larabee cursed when he saw the well- worn path he'd trampled. No way to make believe as if there'd been no one here.
Chris wrapped the shoulder strap of his MP-5 around his neck and pulled the slide on his Glock 20, a powerful 10 mm automatic pistol, cocking it.
Josiah clutched his Colt Python. He was from the old school, preferring the revolver rather than an automatic pistol. What he gave up in reloading speed, he made up in stopping power. Luckily he was a large man, able to handle the recoil of the .357 Magnum with ease.
Slowly, through the trees, a backwards facing camouflaged cap appeared on top of dark brown hair. Brown eyes scoured the area, taking in the details.
At seeing his youngest team member, Larabee stepped out into the cleared area. "It's okay, JD."
Buck and JD came forward as Josiah approached from behind. "Hey, pard," said Wilmington with a smirk. "How much fun are we having now?"
"None." Larabee looked his men up and down, checking for injuries. "You guys all right?"
"Peachy," Buck answered with a grin. "Nothin' I like better'n a stroll through the woods."
"Nothing?" Josiah asked, incredulous.
"Well," the gregarious soldier smiled widely, "almost nothin'."
"Now that we have a minute to breathe, who the hell were those guys?" JD asked.
"Definitely cheap hire," Josiah said. "Most of them weren't very skillful." He looked at his team members and shrugged. "I think they might have one or two pros mixed in, but most of them were too easily taken out."
"So that means ?" JD raised an eyebrow.
Getting what Josiah was driving at, Buck said, "Probably was a spur- of-the-moment acquisition. Possibly one of the civilians."
"Just what we need." Chris sighed. "Anyone notice anything unusual from the scientists?"
JD and Buck shook their heads no.
Josiah hedged, "The older woman did strike up a conversation with me when I was looking at the temple."
"What did she ask?" Chris questioned, suspicion coloring his tone.
"Basically she asked why we were here and about our call-signs." Sanchez shrugged. "None of my warning flags were raised."
Larabee wasn't satisfied. "Still, looking back, do you think she was seeking specific info?"
"Anything's possible," Josiah conceded, "but I don't think so." The large man pondered a bit before adding, "She did ask if our arrival had anything to do with 'the idols'."
"What idols?" Dunne asked.
"I have no idea. Possibly something found at the dig. I told her I didn't know anything about it and she let it drop."
"Something to ask about when we see her again," Buck said.
"Definitely." Chris started to pace again. "We've been stationary long enough. Have either of you heard anything from Vin?" asked Chris. At the negative responses he keyed his mike again. "Robin. Robin, do you copy?"
There was no answer. Buck and Josiah each tried to call him -- again, without success.
"All right, JD. You got your laptop?"
"Yep," JD answered, motioning to his rucksack. "Kept it with me."
"Good. Get on and see if you can find 'im."
The other commandos covered their teammate as JD dropped down to the ground and removed the small computer from his pack. It was of the highest quality as well as the smallest available for ease in travel.
He typed for a bit, connecting through a wireless network to the satellite system tracking the watches worn by the team. After more searching, ignoring the pacing leader behind him, JD called out, "He's activated his GPS tracker." After downloading a geographical map of the region he pointed at a lighted dot showing the location. Clicking onto it, he got the codename 'Unit Three,' Vin's code. "I've got him."
"That's my boy!" crowed Buck.
Even Chris smiled, showing his relief. "How far away?"
JD studied the terrain. "I'd say about four klicks southwest."
Josiah looked at the online map with a raised eyebrow. "That should be by the temple."
"Pretty damn close," the young soldier agreed.
"Why would he go back there?"
"Maybe he couldn't find the civilian."
"It doesn't matter. If he's activated it, he's in trouble. We're going in." Chris spoke with authority.
JD picked up his ruck, throwing it onto his back. He kept his laptop out, closing the cover but not disconnecting the feed. With his three teammates to watch his back, he could afford to keep his hands occupied with the equipment, leading them straight to their missing sniper.
The trip back to the temple was made in near silence, broken only by soft directions by their youngest team member. They avoided two separate groups of gunmen, choosing to hide rather than fight. Since most of the civilians were safe and they were heading back into what had become enemy territory, the soldiers thought stealth would be wiser than force.
Once they were close, they slowed, letting JD point out the exact location of the signal. Knowing better then to sneak up on Tanner, the leader gave a short bird whistle as he approached -- a common signal between the men. There was no answering whistle.
Buck quickly tried to remember the missing civilian's name. Thinking back to when he met the group back in the temple, he softly called out, "Amanda?"
"Hello?" called out a female voice. A head popped out of a crack in the rocks. "Oh, thank God," she cried in relief, scuttling out to join them. The archeologist barely kept herself from hugging the nearest soldier. She saw the blond leader looking expectantly from where she emerged.
"Vin's not here," Amanda told him.
"Where is he?" Chris demanded.
"I don't know." At the angry expression on the soldier's face, she quickly continued, "He said I would be safe here and then he took off."
"Dammit! Spread out. Josiah, take her to the airfield. We'll find Vin."
"I think Vin can take care of himself," Josiah countered. Even when confronted with Chris' glare, he remained calm. "What is this mission's priority?" He sent a pointed glance toward the woman.
Chris growled, knowing Josiah was right. "Okay." He nodded, regaining control. "Okay. JD, you and Buck take point. Josiah, stay with her. I'll watch your six."
"I'll update our brothers on the situation." Josiah spoke into the radio. "Merlin to Doc."
"We have number five and are en route to your position."
"Copy that. Any sign of Robin?"
"That's a negative."
"Understood. Doc out."
Chapter Four: If the Enemy is in range, so are you.
Wednesday, 1135 hrs
Somewhere in the jungle
Vin crashed through the trees, putting more distance between him and the men chasing him. He was slowly making his way to the airfield -- the last direction he'd heard before his radio broke -- but couldn't afford to lead any of the gunmen there. He'd have to make a circular route and hope that he could take care of anyone following him.
He had drawn the men away from the woman's hiding place, and passed by the excavation site. He'd seen some mercs searching the temple and trashing the camp. He hadn't had a chance to see anything further before he was spotted. Shouts and sounds of gunfire preceded his mad dash. Not stopping to see how many men were after him, he ran hard in the opposite direction of the hidden civilian.
Breathing heavy, he slowed down and listened to his surroundings. He could hear the crunching of ground cover behind him. He figured at least three men had to be on his trail. He wanted to take the high ground and pick off the men with his rifle from above, but the trees were too dense. He'd have to do this by close combat.
He stopped where he was, in a small opening within the trees. He brought out his IMI Desert Eagle automatic pistol and gripped it in his hand. The scout knew he was making a target of himself, but it was the only way he could think of to lure them out so he could kill them. Within a few minutes, he heard one man stalking through the tree line. Tanner tracked the man as he went around and past him.
Hearing a soft sound behind him, he cursed internally. Shit! He'd gotten too distracted. He dodged left, but not fast enough. He felt the slash and burn of a knife blade slice through his upper back shoulder, managing somehow to avoid his ruck. Snapping his pistol up, he whipped around and grabbed his assailant by the collar. He put two quick shots in his chest, dead center. Noticing another man coming up fast, Vin tapped him as well.
Hearing more movement behind him, Vin pivoted, holding the dead mercenary in front of him, letting the corpse take the blast of the bullets. From behind the body, the scout shot the last two rounds of his Desert Eagle, killing the final assailant. Dropping the dead man, he quickly reloaded his pistol in case more mercs appeared.
After no more showed, he sat down to catch his breath and reorient himself. He leaned his head back on a tree trunk, careful not to press on his wound, and kept his ears on the jungle to listen for anything. How many of them fuckers were there? Seemed to be coming outta the woodwork. He just hoped that his team was safe.
Checking himself over, he realized that he wouldn't be able to bandage the knife wound on his own; it was too far back. Mentally he figured out how far he'd come. All right, he should be far enough away from the team and the woman, and he was tired of running.
It was time for him to hunt.
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