All Good Things by The Neon Gang


Editors' Note: The original version of this story first appeared in the Mag 7 zine, Let's Ride #14, published by Neon RainBow Press, Cinda Gillilan and Jody Norman, editors. When we all decided to post the stories that have appeared in the issues of Seven Card Stud that are more than two years old, we opted to use a generic pen name because, while Patricia Grace and Michelle Fortado were the primary authors of this story, they had so much help from the other folks writing for the press that it just made sense to consider the story to be written by the Neon RainBow Press Collective! Resistance was futile. So, thanks to the whole Neon Gang – Dori Adams, Sierra Chaves, Dana Ely, Michelle Fortado, Patricia Grace, Dani Martin, Erica Michaels, Nina Talbot, Kasey Tucker, Rebecca Wright, and Lorin and Mary Fallon Zane. Story lasted edited 7-12-2010. Art by Shiloh.

Monday, 0445 Hours
Chris shifted slightly in his bed, the dream drawing him in deeper. He recognized the location immediately: a secret research laboratory in the heart of Purgatory. The place that had allowed mice infected with bio-engineered plague to escape. The place where Vin had "died" less than a year ago.
The events of those few weeks had turned Larabee's life upside down for a while, and had nearly cost him his friendship with Vin. But with time and some professional intervention, he had made his peace with the possibility of losing someone else he called "family."
And now it seemed that his subconscious had decided to bring it all back up again. So, here he was, walking down the corridors of the facility, heading toward Vin's room.
Even out in the hallway he could hear Tanner's labored breathing. It reminded him of the asthma attack he'd seen one of Adam's kindergarten classmates experience while on a trip to the local zoo. He picked up the pace, knowing he had to reach Vin in time…
In time to what, escape the facility before Vin could no longer draw another breath and he suffocated to death?
He couldn't let that happen. Vin had made him promise to help him get out, so he could die outside rather than inside the sterile white walls of the laboratory. It was the least he could do for the man.
He trembled as he reached the closed door to Vin's room. He was about to help Vin to die. But he wasn't at all sure he could actually do it. But he had to, he knew.
And this was just a dream…
The door opened in front of him and he forced himself inside. Vin was lying on his bed, hooked up to more machines than Chris would have thought possible. Each one had taken over some function of Vin's body and the man was dwarfed by the stacks of equipment.
But Vin was awake, and reaching out for him, silently begging him to help him to die the way he wanted to – outside, free, under blue skies…
Then, suddenly, things shifted and the two of them were making their way through the lab, carrying their weapons. They were wearing bio-hazard suits for some reason. His first thought was that he and Vin were hunting the mice that had infected Tanner, but that didn't make any sense. The mice were long dead…
And Vin should have been as well, but there he was, working his way down the hallway, acting like the facility had been taken over by terrorists and they were there to stop them.
He followed Vin, feeling more and more anxious as they moved deeper into the facility. Then, suddenly, everything exploded around them and he and Vin were flying through the air. He watched as Vin was slammed into a bank of equipment, pieces piercing Tanner's body in multiple places.
Scrambling to his feet, Chris hurried to Vin, his gaze searching for some way to get him off the metal spikes that were holding him in place like a bug that had been pinned down.
"Chris," Vin wheezed.
"Don't talk. I'll find someone to—"
"Too late fer that," Vin managed, his eyes already beginning to dim.
"See y' on the other side, Cowboy," Vin breathed, his lips curling up in a small smile, and then he was gone.
"Vin!" he cried, and jerked awake.
He sat up, running his shaking hand over his face, wiping off the sweat. He sucked in a couple of deep breaths, trying to decide why he'd dreamed something like this; why now?
But there were no answers.
He sighed heavily and glanced over at his digital alarm clock, which sparked a groan. Knowing he didn't really have enough time to get back to sleep before the alarm would go off, he decided he might as well get up.
With a mumbled curse he climbed out of bed.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Monday, 0830 Hours
JD Dunne watched an explosion of text messages erupt across his monitor. His gaze flickered to the digital clock sitting nearby. This was not how he wanted to start a Monday morning.
"This could be bad," he muttered, shaking his head.
He picked up his phone and punched the button for Chris, and heard Larabee's phone ring at the same.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
A soft jingle and two lines on Larabee's phone lit up. He grabbed the receiver, punching the one that would connect him to JD's line. "Yeah?" he asked.
"Hey, Chris, I'm getting a lot of chatter in the New Life chat rooms," JD replied. "I can't be sure, but I think something might be going down, or is just about to."
"I'll be out there as soon as I can. I have another call." Reaching out, he poked the button for the second line. "Larabee," he said.
"Chris, there's been an incident," Orin Travis, ATF Assistant Director, said crisply. "How soon can you and your people be ready to go?"
Larabee stiffened and he turned his head, his gaze meeting Vin's briefly through the glass of his office window. The images from his nightmare flashed through his mind. "We're ready now, sir."
"Good. Bring the entire team. I'll explain when you get here."
"Sir, JD says we have New Life activity—"
"So do I, Chris. Meet me in the situation center. We're at the corner of Taos and Pueblo."
The cross streets immediately set off alarm bells in Larabee's mind. "Sir, does this have anything to do with that damn lab again?"
"I'll explain when you get here," Travis stated.
"Yes, sir." Larabee hung up, jaw muscles twitching. Meeting Tanner's concerned expression through the glass once again, he shook his head; there was no time for explanations. He stood and walked out to the bullpen, saying, "Travis wants us to meet him in the situation center a-s-a-p."
The other six men immediately stood and started out of the room.
"The chatter?" JD asked worriedly.
Not breaking stride, Larabee stated, "Sounds like this is related, but we won't know for sure until we get there."
JD nodded, sighing softly. New Life Covenant had been their bane for nearly four months now, and he hoped the group hadn't managed to actually pull off any of its stated intentions. They hated Blacks, Asians, Latinos, Jews, gays, academics, and anyone who believed in any kind of "supernatural" god, and not because they were religious zealots of some kind themselves. On the contrary, they believed aliens had seeded life on earth millions of years ago, and the descendants of that effort were superior beings who had been put here to guide the development of human life on earth. The pinnacle of that civilization had been at Atlantis.
However, some of the alien seed had interbred with the developing indigenous life forms, and that had been a terrible mistake. The resulting half-breed life forms had overpowered the original rulers of Earth, and continued to this day to drag humanity down. New Life Covenant was made up of individuals who believed they were over fifty percent alien stock – although JD still wasn't sure how the members determined that fact. The group was determined to purge the Earth of this intermediate life form so the true "Children of Light" could take their place as rightful sovereigns of the planet.
Once that happened, they believed their alien ancestors would return and take them away, making them gods on other worlds.
They were all certifiable as far as JD was concerned, but they had begun to act out on their delusions, and people had died – over a hundred so far.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Monday, 0846 Hours
The agents made the trip to Travis' location in silence, each member of the elite SRT unit spending the time in preparation, going over their weapons and supplies with the perpetual redundancy that had kept them alive so far.
As they each finished, they looked up, making eye contact with each of the others. Chris watched the ritual play out, feeling a surge of pride for these men who were his coworkers, his friends, and his brothers.
Larabee wished they knew more about what was happening, but they didn't, so Travis must feel it was important to speak to them in person. That didn't bode well. Still, his memories of the damn lab they were headed toward weren't the sort he wanted to face again, especially after having just dreamed about it.
Vin had damn near died, had died, in fact, and now they were going back to that blasted facility. He had to admit, he didn't want to do it, but they had no choice. Given what scientists were doing inside that lab, they couldn't take any chances. There would be no telling what someone like the NLC might get their hands on if they got access to the stuff in that lab…
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Monday, 0905 Hours
The ATF mobile command and control center, called the "situation center," was parked in a grocery store parking lot. Streets for six blocks in all directions had been evacuated. Larabee and his men moved from their van to the C&C unit where Travis and representatives of local authorities were waiting for them.
While Chris spoke to Travis and the local SWAT commander, the others hung back at the door, waiting. Vin could feel the sweat trickling down his ribs, and he took several deep breaths, trying to force the anxiousness down, but it was impossible. He could still remember sitting in a bed in the secret laboratory, waiting to die… and how Larabee had taken him outside, so he wouldn't die inside that sterile room…
He'd fought as long and as hard as he could, not wanting to hurt Chris by dying on him, but, in the end, he hadn't been able to win that fight. He had died.
And he could remember seeing his mother on the other side, and the vivid feeling of love he'd experienced as he'd watched his friends reacting to his "death." It was all a little overwhelming, and he'd had to work hard to put it all behind him and get back to normal. But that reality was there now, haunting the edges of his thoughts.
Watching Chris since Travis' call had come in, he knew his friend was feeling some of the same things he was. Vin just hoped that this encounter with the secret research lab went better than the first had.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Monday, 1010 Hours
Intelligence was thin, and Larabee and his men entered the facility knowing little more than laboratory personnel had reported a break in. Shortly after that, a spokesman from New Life Covenant had contacted the media, telling them that members of the organization had taken over a top secret government facility and would blow it up if one of their leaders wasn't released from jail where he was awaiting trial on sexual abuse charges.
And so they went in, only to find the NLC members inside the Purgatory facility were more than happy to surrender to them. The ease with which the situation was resolved left the entire team waiting for the other shoe to drop.
And drop it did.
"Sir," one of the agents in the situation center called to Travis.
The AD walked over to see what the man wanted. He was back in seconds, saying to Larabee, "This was just a diversion. There's another laboratory, a sister facility to this one, out near Wiggins. New Life Covenant has sent a message to the local county sheriff, telling him that they are in control of the facility… He'd never heard of them, so he thought it was a prank call. New Life as stated again that they want William Doventry released from jail, or they'll blow up the facility."
Larabee shook his head. "Let me guess, this is another facility no one was supposed to know about."
Travis nodded. "Get back to the federal building. There will be choppers there to pick you up and take you to the facility. Homeland Security has also called in troops from a local Army post to help. They'll be under your authority. Contact a Captain Riddle when you arrive."
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Monday, 1055 Hours
The outside of the secret facility revealed few details to identify the location as a government installation, but to Larabee's trained eye they were inescapable.
What the hell's going on? Chris wondered as the choppers wagged into a line and landed in the high plains desert, sending up a cloud of dust that immediately snuck into ears and noses as the doors were opened.
A young army captain greeted them as they debarked.
Team Seven gathered just beyond the landing area, their gear resting on the ground next to them.
"Agent Larabee," Captain Riddle said, "if you and your people would follow me. And, please, don't stray. Facility security here has clearance to shoot to kill."
Larabee nodded, leaning forward and jogging out from under the wind-wash of the chopper blades. "I understand," he told the officer. They stopped at the edge of the landing pad, the captain waiting impatiently, his gaze shifting nervously from Larabee to the others.
Chris squinted against the dust, but it was useless. He couldn't tell a damned thing about the situation from external appearances. The facility must be primarily underground, he realized.
"Where's AD Travis?" Larabee asked.
"He was taken directly to the facility's operations room. He's waiting for you there, sir." The captain turned and headed off, keeping to the paved areas.
Larabee whistled and the others picked up their gear and followed the agitated officer.
"Check the perimeter," Chris said to Vin. "Josiah, make sure we have a list of the personnel on this site. Nathan, find out what it is they're doing here, what the dangers are. Buck, you and JD coordinate with Team Three and the Army. I want everyone ready to move immediately."
"You've got it," Buck said, he and JD veering off and jogging back to the assembled troops.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
"Chris," Travis greeted as Larabee and Riddle entered a small but high-tech control center.
Josiah and Nathan didn't go in, heading off to get the information Chris had asked for.
Larabee's gaze swept over the room, the occupants, and the consoles that were full of electronic equipment – enough so it left the room looking like the cockpit of the space shuttle, but the dials, switches, and monitors gave nothing away concerning the exact nature of the location.
Travis stepped up to Larabee. "This is stickier than we first thought," he said quietly. "They have more hostages than we expected."
"That sounds like trouble," Ezra ventured, doing his own reconnaissance of the room.
Travis nodded. "Follow me, gentlemen. Dr. Chappick can explain."
The three men trailed the AD out of the control room and down a short, bare hallway into a small, modern, fifty-seat lecture hall. They took front row seats in the plush auditorium chairs.
A woman stood behind an oak podium, shuffling through a stack of papers. She looked up, acknowledging them with a brief smile before going back to the papers. In her mid-thirties, she had angular features and thick mahogany hair that fell in waves over her shoulders. Dr. Chappick's eyes were an unusual shade of amber, almost gold. A very fetching picture, all in all, and Chris knew Buck would be hitting on the woman as soon as he saw her.
She righted the papers and looked up again, clearing her throat. "I am very sorry we had to bring you here," she said, her accent telling them she was Eastern European. "We have a very delicate and dangerous situation." She glanced at Travis.
"You may speak freely, Doctor," he assured her. "These men have been cleared."
Looking relieved, she continued. "This is the Largo Research Facility. Three days ago representatives from several industrialized nations arrived here to discuss the implications surrounding the increasing number of mutant bacteria and viruses being discovered in Third World countries. These representatives include scientists, diplomats, and military leaders, each committed to understanding the dangers and doing whatever is necessary to assure that these plagues do not visit their own countries."
She stepped around the podium and leaned against the table it rested on. "This facility is the most advanced laboratory in the United States for the study of bacteriological and viral agents. It houses stores of these agents, and the laboratories where they are tested and studied." Her gaze dropped to the plush green carpet. "This morning we discovered that this facility had been compromised."
"By members of New Life Covenant," Larabee stated.
She nodded. "We had no way of knowing that there was a danger from within. We had no security in place to uncover who of the representatives were… Well, you know what they claim. We believe that three to ten of the delegates are… Ah, what do you call it? 'Possessed' with these strange beliefs? These people have barricaded themselves and the rest of the delegates in the main research wing and have threatened to kill them if we interfere with their activity."
"Which has been?" Ezra questioned.
"At first they simply accessed the computers—"
"What sort of access do they have to the bacteriological and viral agents?" Chris asked, cutting to what was really important.
Dr. Chappick drew a deep breath. "From their present location they have complete access. They can use the data in the computers, the researchers, and the agents themselves. Everything."
Larabee swore under his breath. "Do we have schematics for the facility, and information on the security systems?"
Dr. Chappick nodded. "It is waiting for you in an office."
"I'll need a list of everyone who's inside – the visitors, staff, technicians, everyone," Larabee stated. "Any chance that some of your laboratory personnel might have been compromised?"
"That information is being compiled now," she acknowledged. "And, no, all of the facility personnel have been accounted for."
"Fort Hawkins is on emergency standby to evacuate this location if things get… out of hand," Travis added.
"We'll need some extra equipment," Larabee told his boss. "We aren't prepared to infiltrate a high security location like this."
"Whatever you need, Agent Larabee," Dr. Chappick said. "It will be here within the hour. You are in command."
Chris stood, then checked his watch. "All right, I want everyone back here in an hour for a briefing. Vin, get with security. Find out what we need. And find out all the ways in and out. Ezra, find Josiah, see if you can come up with a way we might talk to these people."
The two agents nodded and left.
Larabee keyed his communication units and said, "Buck, JD, get all non-essential facility personnel out of here."
"Roger that," was Wilmington's reply.
"Representatives of New Life Covenant are demanding Doventry be released by four this afternoon, or they'll begin to kill their hostages," Travis said.
Larabee considered that for a moment, then said, "I don't think freeing Doventry is what they're really after, do you?"
Travis shook his head. If they want to eradicate human life on Earth, they're in the right place to find the weapon to do that with."
His hands coming up to rest on his hips, Larabee said, "We need to ensure no one leaves this facility."
"We need to ensure these delegates are freed, unharmed," Dr. Chappick countered. "They are from countries all over the globe."
"Lady, right now we have to make sure these cultists don't kick off Armageddon," Larabee told her. "We'll do our best to make sure the hostages are freed, but I've already seen what the shit you work with can do."
"Our work will save countless lives," she argued.
"Or kill them," Chris snapped.
"Chris, please, this won't help the situation," Travis said.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Monday, 1200 Hours
The group reassembled in the lecture hall, ATF Team Three leader Neal Chaves in attendance as well. Larabee stood behind the podium, his fingers wrapped tightly around the edges. "Listen up, people."
The room immediately fell silent.
"At 0800, three days ago, a delegation of forty people was escorted into this facility. There are fifty-one men and women who make up facility personnel. At 0830 this morning all communication with the primary research area of the facility was lost. A half hour later, several unauthorized messages were sent from this facility to a private chat room the New Life Covenant is using."
Chris nodded at JD, adding, "That was the same chatter Agent Dunne monitored this morning. We can be reasonably sure that the NLC are holding the delegates and twenty of the staff hostage, but for what exact purpose we can only guess. A spokesman for the cult has told the media they want William Doventry released, but we know they're looking for a way to kill as many people as possible.
"Internal monitors registered ninety-one individuals in the facility as of fifteen minutes ago, so as far as we know, no one has been killed. The thirty-one lab folks who aren't being held hostage have been taken out, and are being debriefed by the military. The NLC has separated their fifty-two hostages into five static groups of ten or eleven individuals each, ten others scattered and moving randomly through the research facility. And it's a good bet that those ten are the NLC infiltrators," he added.
Larabee's gaze swept over the men. "The lab's video monitoring equipment was disabled at 0915 this morning, so we have no idea what they're currently doing in there."
Larabee motioned to Dr. Chappick, who stood and moved to take his place at the podium. "We also know now that three of the storage vaults were opened twenty-five minutes ago. Dr. Tanka is presently distributing a list of the agents stored in those vaults. As you can see, they are extremely deadly. There have been no leaks, or the facility's failsafe mechanisms would have already engaged, but we must assume that these cultists have the agents in their possession."
She stepped back around the table and sat down.
"What kind of internal security are we lookin' at, Chris?" Buck asked as Larabee took back the podium.
"This is a Level-7 NBC Containment and Research Facility," Chris answered. "We don't know if the NLC have access to any weapons."
JD leaned forward in his seat. "Dr. Chappick, do the internal monitors here measure for trace elements?"
Dr. Chappick turned in her seat to look at the younger agent. "Yes, they do, or, they can. Why?"
JD looked from the woman to Larabee as he said, "I might be able to write a program that would tell us if the NLC have guns based on increased level of certain oils and—"
"It's worth a try," Larabee agreed, interrupting. "Do it."
JD rose and left the room to get to work.
"What's the game plan?" Vin prompted from his seat.
A small feral leer shot across the blond's features. "We're going to earn our pay. According to the schematics, this facility was designed to withstand a nuclear blast twenty to fifty miles distant. Notification of an impending attack from NORAD will kick off a series of failsafe routines that cannot be overridden from inside the facility."
Steve McCullough, Team Three's computer expert, grinned. "We're going to play War Games?"
The briefest smile crossed the blond's face. "Something like that, Mac."
"Once the 'under attack' message is sent, things here will move rather quickly," Travis explained. He nodded to one of the facility people, who turned on a waiting slide projector and dimmed the lights. The image that filled the screen behind the podium was a schematic of the facility. It rested on what looked like a large version of an auto mechanic's hydraulic lift.
"With a notification from NORAD, this facility will drop approximately two hundred and fifty feet below its present position in seven minutes," Travis stated.
"Drop?" Nathan asked.
"The facility is resting on a hydraulic system. It will be lowered into a natural dry cave," Travis explained.
"That is why this location was chosen," Dr. Chappick added. "In case of an attack, or a breach of containment, this facility can be dropped into the cave and sealed off to ensure no escape of the agents into the surrounding environment."
"Concrete and steel doors will close at the top of the facility, effectively sealing it inside the cave complex."
"How does that help us?" Buck asked.
"It was assumed that the facility would still be manned after the relocation," Larabee said. "There are three escape routes leading back to the surface. We'll breach these escape routes and wait for the facility to reach the cave complex. If the NLC try to escape, we'll be there to stop them."
"And if the NLC don't try to leave?" Josiah asked.
"Then we'll have to go in and get them," Larabee said. "Once the facility is relocated, internal security will be automatically disabled for an hour, to ensure that the people trapped inside can escape. Failsafe systems will still be operational, but they'll only activate if there's a leak." He glanced out at the group, green eyes hard. "There is one catch."
"Why did I know that was coming?" Ezra asked.
"Exactly one hour after relocation the facility will begin an automatic shutdown process. One hour and ten minutes after the relocation the facility will be automatically neutralized."
"Neutralized?" Ezra echoed, leaning forward. "Could you elaborate on that?"
Dr. Chappick spoke up. "Seventy minutes after the facility reaches the cave complex, it will be flooded with a combination of lethal radiation, chemicals, and super-heated steam to sterilize it."
"So it's been designed to let the researchers and the information out, then kill off the remaining danger," Nathan translated. "And there's no way to stop that process?"
"None," Dr. Chappick said.
"We can't get breech the facility now, but once it's lowered to the cave we'll have exactly seventy minutes to get in, get the delegates, and get out," Larabee said. "We'll have to assume that the cultists will be waiting for us. They're not going to miss the relocation."
"Chris," JD interrupted, stepping back into the room. "One of the NLC infiltrators is on the phone."
Larabee's eyebrows flew up.
"He wants to talk to Dr. Chappick," JD finished.
Chris motioned to the woman and she left the room, Larabee and Travis right behind her.
Entering the control center, Larabee led the way to the communication's console. Team Three's surveillance man, Michael Stein, glanced up, his hand cupped firmly over the handset receiver. "He wants to talk to Dr. Chappick."
Larabee stuck out his hand and Stein handed him the phone without hesitation. Team Seven rarely did what the bad guys wanted.
"This is Special Agent Chris Larabee, ATF."
There was a brief hesitation, then a man said, "I want to speak to Dr. Natalia Chappick."
"That won't be possible," Larabee replied, motioning to Stein to put them on the speaker. The agent complied.
"If you do not allow me to speak to Dr. Chappick, I will terminate one of the hostages."
"I am here," the woman spoke up, ignoring Larabee's angry glare. "What do you want?"
"We require nine TAS-D transportation units."
"What are those?" Chris asked quietly.
"Storage containers for our most active biological agents," she replied, equally quiet.
He shook his head.
"We— We do not have that many containers on-site. I can—"
"Don't lie to me, Dr. Chappick. I know you have the containers. You'll leave the nine units in Lab Seven within thirty minutes, or one of the delegates will die."
Larabee's teeth ground momentarily. He nodded sharply.
"They will be there," she promised. "Please, do not harm the delegates."
"But if you want the units, you'll have to give us something in exchange," Larabee told the man. "Nine of the delegates for the containers – a one for one trade."
There was a second pause, then the man replied, "Two of the delegates will be freed. No more."
The line returned to a steady dial tone and Stein hung up.
"It's a start," Travis said somberly. "Our priority is to stop these people from acquiring bio-weapons."
Larabee nodded his understanding, but he had a terrible feeling about this one.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Monday, 1250 Hours
Barney Harrison and Henry Derriman, two members of Team Three moved steadily down the sterile off-white hallway toward Lab Seven. Behind them one of the lab personnel followed, pushing a wheeled cart bearing the requested containers. The two agents stopped short of the door, Harrison keying his lip mike.
"Red One to Red Leader. We're at Lab Seven. No contact."
"Roger, Red One," Neal Chaves replied. "If the delegates aren't there, destroy the containers and pull back."
"Yes, sir."
Harrison moved to the door, risking a quick glance through the glass inset and into the room beyond. "Red One to Red Leader. We have two women, bound and gagged, sitting on stools in the center of the room. No sign of traps, or the NLC."
"Roger. Proceed with caution."
"Proceeding. Red One, out."
Harrison motioned Derriman closer, still keeping a close watch on the room and the hallway. Palming a flash/bang grenade, he reached out and inserted the magnetic key Dr. Chappick had provided into the waiting slot. The numeric code warbled and the magnetic lock clicked off. He pushed the door open and the three entered, still sweeping for traps.
"Red One to Red Leader. We're in," Harrison said. "Looks good so far."
Derriman moved to the two women, cutting them free while the lab technician wheeled the cart in and left it in the center of the lab. The two ATF agents quickly escorted the women back into the hall, closing the door behind them.
"Red Leader, we have them."
"Get the hell out of there," Chaves ordered.
"Yes, sir."
The two agents backtracked to the first decontamination airlock. Stepping inside, all five were surprised when the doors whisked shut and locked, lights shifting from a cheery yellow-orange to a glaring red. An alarm began to blare.
"Red Leader, what's going on, sir?" Harrison asked.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Monday, 1305 Hours
"What the hell is that?" Larabee demanded.
Dr. Chappick and a technician huddled over a monitor, talking quietly, the tech flipping switches and dials.
"Doctor…" Chaves growled.
Chappick turned to them, her expression a rigid mask of professionalism. "They've been exposed."
A chill froze Larabee's back into a stiff rod, images of Vin as he lay dying flashing through his mind. "Exposed, to what?" he demanded.
"We are working on that right now," Dr. Chappick said.
"What about my men?" Chaves snapped.
"I do not know," the doctor replied.
Chris paced off several steps, then swung back to face the woman. "I thought any release of these agents would activate the internal security? What happened?"
"It would," the technician interrupted. "This wasn't an airborne exposure. I don't know how—"
Dr. Chappick bent over the keyboard, tapping across the keys. "The agents must have been in solution…"
"There, on the UV scan," the technician said, tapping the monitor. "It looks like they suspended the agent in something and painted the delegates' clothing with it. I can't get an ID on the agent yet…" The technician fell silent as the screams began.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Monday, 1325 Hours
Larabee knocked once, then stepped into the small office Travis had commandeered for himself and the two team leaders. "Neal," he said softly.
Neal Chaves looked up from a blueprint of the facility. "Something—?"
"Nothing," Chris replied, shaking his head. "I just wanted to say… To tell you how sorry I am about what happened."
The older man nodded, the pair lapsing into uncomfortable silence broken by JD's arrival a moment later. "Chris, we've checked and double-checked the three exit routes and there's no way to override the security and open them from the outside."
"Damn it," Larabee hissed. "Can you reprogram—?"
"No, I can't," JD interrupted. "There's just no way to do it. The whole function of the escape routes is to allow people inside to get out. The system designers figured that anyone trying to go from the outside in had to be terrorists, or Russians, or some kind of a bad guy. They've got watchdogs set up in the programs to keep hacker out. If I trip one, it'll trigger an automatic intruder shutdown and the escape routes will be permanently sealed. We wouldn't be able to get them opened for days. I might be able to bypass the security, but it'll take me who knows how long."
Chris reached up and squeezed the bridge of his nose, hoping the headache he felt forming would hold off. "All right, so we'll have to be inside when the relocation's triggered."
"But, Chris," Chaves said, "if these nutballs have booby trapped the facility with—"
"I know, I know," Larabee interrupted. He looked back at JD. "Get Dr. Chappick. I have a few questions for her."
"Right," Dunne replied.
Chris keyed his mike and said, "Vin, I want the teams ready to move in thirty minutes."
"You've got it," was the reply.
"Chris, you can't be serious," Chaves argued. "We can't go in there with the NLC in control of those kinds of—"
"We don't have a choice," Chris told him. "We have to be inside when the facility drops, or we won't be able to stop them at all."
"We can just wait for them to emerge and stop them there."
"And what if they get outside, just one, Neal, that's all it'll take. If just one of them gets past us, we'll have no way to stop them from releasing whatever the hell they want before we mow them down," Larabee told him. "I've seen what some of the stuff they work with can do… If it gets loose…"
Chaves nodded his understanding. "I just want a shot at these freaks," he said. "I owe Barney and Henry that much."
Chris nodded, understanding completely. "Ten of them, twelve of us," he said, green eyes looking deadly, "we'll stop them."
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Monday, 1335 Hours
"It cannot be done, Agent Larabee." Dr. Chappick swung her chair to track Chris as he paced in her office.
"You have the suits."
"Yes, but they are not intended to be fought in. They're—"
"Chris," JD called from the doorway. Given the expression on Larabee's face, he wasn't sure he wanted to report his latest bit of news, but he had no choice. "I'm pretty sure the NLC have weapons."
The blond stopped. "Type?"
JD shrugged. "I'm not sure, but I'd guess guns and probably some C4, too."
"Great," Larabee spat, his gaze dropping to the floor. Looking back to Dr. Chappick, he asked, "How many suits do you have?"
"Twenty-seven, more than enough, but each suit only has enough oxygen to sustain the wearer for sixty minutes of average use. They are designed to be used inside a laboratory where they are connected to direct oxygen lines."
"We'll only have seventy minutes anyway, Doctor," Chris reminded her.
She nodded, but it was clear she was still skeptical.
"Could each man carry two of the independent O-2 canisters?" Chris asked.
She nodded thoughtfully. "Yes, I believe it might work."
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Monday, 1355 Hours
Standing behind the podium, Larabee surveyed eleven men the room. "Listen up," he said and the agents fell silent. "The techs tell me we're still dealing with five groups of hostages, ten people each. We have suits for all of us, and enough oxygen for an hour or so."
There was some uncomfortable shifting in the seats. "Suits are gonna slow us down," Vin stated.
"I realize that, but the NLC has already shown that they're willing to use the agents they have access to as weapons." He looked the agents over, wondering how many of them would survive the upcoming fight. "And JD tells me they're probably armed with guns and C4."
"Better and better," someone mumbled.
"At 1415 NORAD will send this facility notification of a nuclear launch from North Korea. The lab here will begin its descent. We'll have seven minutes to enter the complex. At 1422 we'll be at the bottom and sealed in. The army will secure the three escape routes. We'll locate and release the delegates, working in two-man teams. You are authorized to take out any NLC members you encounter, but be careful. In all likelihood they'll all be carrying bio-agents.
"This facility is deceptive," Larabee went on. "There are labs inside labs, so the room-by-rooms will have to be conducted carefully. We have a maximum of sixty-nine minutes. After that, we won't be coming out. Questions?"
"What kind of internal security will be left intact after the relocation?" Neal Chaves asked.
"Only the internal sensors that monitor for any leaks of the bio-agents. The door locks will all be opened. We'll reseal the doors after each sweep with a failsafe key. The NLC won't be able to override those."
Dr. Chappick stood, adding, "However, if they release any active agents, the complex will automatically begin a shutdown from the point of release out. If that happens while you are in a section, and you have not been exposed, you will have fifteen minutes to reach a decontamination chamber at one of the three escape portals, and get into the tunnels."
"What about a repeat of what happened to Henry and Barney?" Charlie Reed, Team Three, asked.
"The suits should protect us," Nathan stated. "If your suit is exposed, it can be sterilized and removed inside the first decontamination airlock. You then move through a second lock before you pass into a third for release."
"There are no guarantees they won't try something we can't plan for," Chris added. "We're going to have to stay on our toes on this one."
"Why didn't Henry's and Barney's exposures set off the alarms?" Noah Coleman, Team Three, asked.
Larabee gestured to Dr. Chappick, who was sitting next to the podium. She stood again, saying, "The monitors are designed to register mistakes made by researchers – accidental releases, spills, and the like. The general system is not set up to detect agents in solution, since they would, theoretically, never leave the work stations in that form. Specialized areas are programmed slightly differently, like the decontamination chambers, and some of the specific research stations. Those areas can detect the agents in solution. If you are exposed, the alarms in these particular areas will seal you in."
"If one of the escape routes is shut down due to an exposure, you'll have to move to the next closest route and exit there," Nathan added.
"Okay, here are the assignments – Josiah and Nathan, Buck and Ezra, Vin and Mike, Charlie and Steve, Neal and Noah. JD, I want you topside with the computers," Larabee said. "Everybody be ready to go at 1405."
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Monday, 1405 Hours
The ten agents accompanying Larabee into the facility stood, waiting in their suits, their equipment ready. Chris looked them over, noting their serious expressions. It was going to be tight.
Outside, eighteen soldiers covered the choppers that waited to evacuate the above-ground facility, while three nine-man squads covered each escape route exit – just in case. A remaining nine soldiers were stationed in the above-ground facility for security, and to help with the evacuation of the delegates. It was thin coverage, but it minimized the possible losses.
"Chris," JD said, walking up to the man, "I found a way past the last escape route lock, but that's as far as I can go without risking a shutdown."
"You mean we can breach the outermost doors now?"
JD nodded.
"Do it." Larabee switched his lip mike on. "Captain Riddle, do you read me?"
"Loud and clear, Agent Larabee," the Army officer stated.
"My man can put us past the first set of outside doors. I want you to put a demolitions team in the tunnels and get them ready to blow. If the NLC gets through, blow the exits. Understood?"
"Roger, will do, Agent Larabee," Captain Riddle replied, but the strained clip of his voice told Larabee that he didn't like it. He could be condemning whoever was left in the facility to a certain death.
Larabee turned to Chaves. "You ready?"
"Let's do it."
"All right," Larabee said, "this is—"
"Chris, wait!"
Larabee's finger lifted off the mike button. "Orin, we—"
"The NLC are on the phone again," Travis explained. "Come with me," he ordered, turning and starting back for the control room. "The shadow launch is on hold."
Chris fell into step beside the AD, keying his mike. "This is Larabee. The mission is on standby. Repeat, we are on standby, all teams stand down. Acknowledge."
"Roger, stand down," Vin replied for Team Seven.
"Roger, stand down," Chaves said for Team Three.
"Roger, stand down status," Captain Riddle echoed as well.
"The NLC are threatening to kill the hostages if we don't let them go," Travis stated flatly. "But we both know they cannot be allowed to leave with any of the agents. They also demanded to speak to the public."
"How?" Larabee asked as they stepped into the command and control center.
"They're trying to bypass the facility's computers and get use an outside line," JD said, his fingers flying over a keyboard. "I guess they wanted to call CNN."
"Can they?" Chris asked.
"No, I stopped them," JD said. "They tried to go through the server where the chat room is, but since we already knew about that one—" He broke of, seeing that Chris wanted him to get to the point. "If they try some other server we don't know about, I won't be able to stop them."
A male voice reverberated over the speaker phone. "Cease your interference, lesser humans, or we will kill those we hold."
"What do you want?" Dr. Chappick asked.
"We want to be allowed to leave with these agents, or we will begin to kill the hostages. And we want the immediate release of William Doventry."
"I don't think so," Larabee growled.
"If you continue to block our efforts, we will kill the delegates. You saw what we can do."
Chris and Travis exchanged a brief glance. "You will not be given access to the media, and you're not leaving with any of the agents," Larabee stated.
"Then the delegates will die."
"Then they will die," Larabee returned flatly.
The line went dead, and Chris sank back against the workstation.
"I have to go talk to some diplomats," Travis said quietly. "The repercussions are going to be messy, but we have no choice. Those bio-agents cannot be allowed out of this facility."
Larabee nodded, but he was kept from responding when a high pitched squeal sounded. "What's that?" he demanded.
"Internal alarm," JD stated. "There's been a leak in one of the labs."
"I am checking for the cause—" Dr. Chappick said.
"We just lost the all life signs in one of the rooms of ten hostages," JD added. "Two other sets of hostages are moving."
"Security is shutting down area three, section three," Dr. Chappick said.
Larabee bolted for the door. "Orin, call in that the strike now," he directed, exiting at a run.
Travis grabbed the phone. "General Track, AD Orin Travis, implement Shadow Attack now. Authorization code three-one-Oscar-Tango-seven."
"Will the facility relocate with internal security activated?" JD asked Dr. Chappick.
The doctor shook her head, still typing. "I am not sure. This scenario was never considered. At least it is just one lab, not a general shutdown."
"Damn it!" JD yelped. "We've lost communications in section three."
"Section three is sealed. I am not registering any leakage in the rest of area three…"
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Monday, 1420 Hours
Larabee stepped into the chemical defense suit, Nathan sealing it up for him. The former medic tore strips of duct tape free from a roll, reinforcing the seals at Chris' wrists and ankles.
Larabee buckled on his utility pack and web belt, then accepted an HK from Vin as another facility alarm sounded, the lights around them shifting to blue.
"That's the shadow launch," Chris said. "Let's go."
The ten men fell in behind him, following Larabee through the first decon lock and into the facility. The floor vibrated violently for a moment, tossing the men into the walls. They clung to the vertical surface until the shaking leveled off to a steady quake.
The two-man teams broke off as they made their way down the main corridor, each pair heading for their assigned destinations.
Army security teams moved in to secure the escape locks.
It was a go.
Now all they had to do was find the delegates, neutralize the NLC members, and get the hell out before time ran out on all of them.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Monday, 1422 Hours
"Doctor, we're in trouble," JD said, worry overriding the anger he felt at being left behind.
Travis and Dr. Chappick swung away from the main monitor board and moved to the workstation Dunne was using.
"What's going on?" Travis asked him.
JD ignored the question, his fingers banging across the keyboard. Then, with an exasperated hiss, JD slapped the keys and leaned back in his chair, his hands coming up to cup the crown of his skull. "Damn, damn, damn."
"What?" Travis' voice had a no-nonsense edge that seemed to get through to the hacker.
"We're blown out of the water, that's what," JD said.
"Why?" Travis asked, ready to strangle Dunne if he didn't get an answer, and pronto.
"When the NLC released those bio-agents, the computer started an automatic shutdown of area three, section three. That basically locks that section of the facility up from the inside out. Then, when the relocation order came in, it kicked off another program in the computer that unlocks the facility, including area three, section three, from the outside in."
"And when the programs met in the middle?" Dr. Chappick asked, already guessing the answer.
"They're incompatible commands. The computer can't do both, but it has to do both. It froze up. It's dead."
"Can you bypass it?" Travis asked.
JD shook his head. "It's dead. But that's not the real problem. It's triggered a feedback loop that's affecting all the areas and sections. We've lost communication with them."
"You mean we can't monitor what's going on in there?" Travis asked.
"No, sir." JD stood and started out of the room.
"JD!" Travis called after him. "Where do you think you're going, son?"
"You will need a suit," Dr. Chappick said, walking up to join them with her arms full.
"There's no time, sir," JD said, stepping into the protective clothing. "I'm going to have to go down there and see if I can't patch us into the mainframe."
Travis stepped into the hallway, calling, "Captain Riddle!"
The officer arrived a moment later, the two men talking briefly. A minute later a model-faced blond soldier joined JD, climbing into a suit as quickly as he could. Dr. Chappick sealed them and started the oxygen flow.
"Here," she said, holding out a radio, a cell phone, and a laptop.
JD nodded. "I'll plug into the mainframe from the communication center and contact you. Maybe I can do something from the inside."
"I will send for our best technician," she promised. "Hurry," she added. "You only have two minutes before they reach the bottom."
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Vin moved forward slowly, his gaze sweeping the long hallway. The structure was still vibrating and humming as it made its way to the underground cave complex, but the motion was little hindrance to the agent. He glanced at his watch; two minutes before the relocation was complete. He checked the NBC-meter hanging on his belt. No nuclear, biological or chemical agents in the atmosphere – so far.
Listening to the mike chatter, he mentally monitored the other teams as they moved in on their targets. NLC resistance was non-existent, but he knew their luck wouldn't hold forever.
He ground his teeth, saying, "Tanner. Target area is empty. Repeat, empty."
"Roger, continue to next location," Larabee ordered.
"Roger. Tanner, out."
"Chris, do you copy?" Vin heard JD say.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Larabee paused, sliding up against the wall as he reached the door to one of the labs where the NLC had been holding one of the hostage groups. "JD?" He leaned forward, checking the room.
It was empty.
"Chris, the facility's computer is dead, locked up. We're relying on radio contact to monitor activity until we reach the bottom, then we'll lose contact topside."
"Damn it!" Chris growled, moving out of the lab and relocking it with the failsafe key. At least the NLC couldn't get back inside a lab once they had checked it. "Why are you down here?"
"I'm going to try and patch us in from the mainframe," Dunne said.
"Are you alone?"
"No, I have an escort."
"One might not be enough," Chris told him. "Watch your back. And let me know when you reach the computer."
"Roger that," JD replied.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
JD swallowed hard, following Timmons as they repelled down to the surface of the facility as it continued its slow descent to the bottom of the cave. Thankful that the soldier had reminded him not to look down, he dropped the remaining three feet and landed on the unsteady surface.
He stood as the facility locked into place, jerking and upsetting his balance. Stepping out to steady himself, JD felt his foot slide over the curved surface of a pipe. His ankle gave way, and he gasped.
Timmons was beside him, helping him up and unhooking the rope. A sharp grinding above them made JD flinch. The cap was coming down to seal them in.
He wondered how Vin was doing. Tanner hated any place that was too closed in, and he was already locked into the suit…
"Come on," Timmons said, grabbing his arm and helping him hop to the hatchway that opened into the third decon airlock. JD inserted the key Dr. Chappick had given him and waited while the hydraulic door slowly slid open.
Timmons entered first, then signaled an all clear and gestured for him to enter. JD hobbled down the steps and past the door. Both men jumped when the door closed behind them with a snap, sounding like a steel trap springing shut.
JD glanced around the room. "It's okay, we have to go this way anyway," he said, stepping forward to key in the release code.
Timmons gave him a nod, willing to follow JD's lead now that they were in the facility.
They stepped through the second and then the first decon chambers, then out into a main hallway of the facility. Timmons took over there, checking for bogies.
"We have to get to the main computer lab," JD said.
"Hope we can override the problem from down here," Timmons added.
JD nodded, then keyed his lip mike. "Chris, we're in, over."
"Roger," Larabee replied. "Get to the computer, but be careful. Bogies are on the move."
"Roger. JD, out." Pulling his copy of the facility map out of his utility pouch, JD located the room, showing it to Timmons.
"Okay, stay close and stay quiet," the soldier said. "Let's go."
JD took one step to follow the man and stopped, pain shooting up his leg and making him pale. "Sprained," he breathed. "Sorry."
Timmons moved to JD's side, helping him down the hall.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Larabee hoped JD could work some of his computer magic. With the facility topside blind, they would have no way of knowing where the hostages were, or what the NLC was doing about getting that outside connection. Not to mention what biological surprises they might be planning for them.
It didn't affect his plans, though. He and the other agents would start at the original hostage locations, then work their way out, conducting a room by room sweep until they found them – alive or dead.
But it was slower going than he'd hoped, due to the bulky suits. Chris checked his watch. At this rate, they would be pushing the sixty-nine minute limit by the time the sweep was completed. If JD could tell them where to go, it would give them back some valuable time they needed.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Vin started to pull out of an empty lab, Michael Stein shadowing him, but a thin seam in a wall caught the sniper's attention. He froze.
Stein stepped up next to him. "What is it?"
Vin pointed.
They moved forward, examining the seam, finding a door set flush into the wall. It was just like the other internal labs – specialized rooms for high containment work. There was no way to know what was waiting for them behind that door.
"Looks clean," Stein said, running a detonator detector along the thin seam of the door, then a NBC sniffer. "It's a pressure release lock. Do we open it?"
Tanner nodded.
Stein pressed the locking mechanism and the door hissed as the lock disengaged and the door opened. Inside, ten bound and gagged delegates were crowded into an ultraviolet lab station. Given their panicked expressions and their frantic grunting, both agents guessed that the room was booby-trapped.
Vin and Stein swung back, pressing up against the wall on either side of the door. Double-checking the opening turned up nothing.
"Ready?" Tanner asked. He received a nod from Stein. "On three… one, two, three."
They slid into the room, Stein going low while Vin went high. Their weapons ready, they scanned the interior for traps and bogies.
Stein moved farther into the room while Vin headed for the delegates, sweeping them with the bio-agent detector to make sure they weren't painted with an agent.
But something was wrong; Vin could feel it – a persistent prickling along the back of his neck.
"Tanner!" Stein called as both their sniffers beeped.
The two men dropped into a crouch, sweeping the room for the source. They had no way to know if it was a biological threat they were facing, or if they were picking up the presence of guns or explosives.
"I'm not seeing anything," Stein said.
"This is Tanner," Vin said into his mike. "We have contact." His gaze moved over the delegates, up the walls, over the ceiling, and down under the lab benches.
Where the hell was the source?
There was a low, frightened groan from one of the delegates, and then a grenade slipped from his exhausted, cramping hand. It hit the floor and bounced once.
"Cover!" Tanner called, leaving Stein to watch for cultists as he lunged, scooping up the grenade and flinging it out of the small room and into the main lab. Rolling away from the door, he caught sight of two men in lab uniforms at the main entrance to the laboratory, and they were armed.
Vin's arms came up to protect his face as the grenade exploded, the concussion slamming him into the wall. "In the lab," he snapped.
Both agents scrambled to the door as a burst of gunfire tore into the room. The hostages threw themselves to the floor.
Stein fired, the burst from his KH catching one of the cultist in the chest. The man fell back against the wall, dead.
The delegates stayed on the floor, another one of the men grunting frantically as he felt the armed grenade the cultist had forced into his palm beginning to slip out of his sweat-damp grip.
Vin heard the muffled but panicked cry and he dove back toward the hostages, a shot catching him in the back of the thigh. He fell forward with a grunt.
Tanner scrambled forward on his elbows and grabbed the grenade as it dropped out of the man's trembling hand. Rolling onto his back, he yelled, "Stein, down!"
Mike dropped to his belly, still firing at the remaining cultist as the sniper tossed the grenade over his head and out into the lab.
A flash of panic hit Stein. There was no way he could get to cover in time.
But Tanner threw, then jack-knifed up and lunged for Stein's feet, grabbing his ankles and jerking him farther back into the room. A searing spike of agony embedded itself in the sniper's thigh, and he groaned.
The grenade rolled up against the toe of the second cultist's shoe, then exploded.
Stein was already moving before the sound of the blast died away, reaching into his utility pack and pulling a dressing free. He pressed it down on Tanner's wound and tied it down as tightly as he could.
Vin struggled to his feet, HK covering the door and the hostages as he tested his leg. It was painful, but held his weight.
Stein freed the hostages, finding another grenade. Breaking off a wire-tipped instrument, he inserted the wire in place of the pin and pocketed the grenade. With that done, they led the delegates out through the blast-ruined room and into the hallway.
"Tanner, targets found, two bogies down," Vin said into his lip mike as the delegates expressed their quiet, but heartfelt thanks to the two men.
"Roger," Chris replied. "Deliver targets to Decon Three."
"Roger," Tanner replied.
Stein pointed. "Vin, your suit is compromised. You should go with them."
"Too late t' worry about it now," Vin replied.
Stein nodded, but he reached into his utility pack and pulled out a small roll of duct tape, sealing the tear in Tanner's suit as best he could, and praying silently it would be enough.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Monday, 1440 Hours
Larabee listened as the hostages Vin and Mike Stein had located were received at the airlock. Ten down and thirty to go…
"Vin, you and Mike get out," Chris instructed over his mike.
"Negative," Tanner replied. "We didn't complete our sweep."
"Buck," the ladies' man interrupted, "we have acquired targets. Two bogies down. Moving to Decon Two."
"Roger, Buck, you can Ezra leave with them," Larabee said, wishing he could ask Vin where he was. His nightmare from that morning was continuing to trouble him.
But at least they had twenty now, only twenty left to go…
"Josiah," the profiler said, "finished sweep of section. No contact."
"Roger, no contact. You can Nathan get out."
"Roger. Leaving through Decon One."
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Vin and Stein returned to their room by room sweep once the hostages were delivered to the airlock at the third decontamination station. His wound slowed the sniper down, but at least he was still on his feet.
He and Stein progressed steadily down another hallway, moving in and out of rooms with practiced ease, checking and locking them as they went.
"Charlie," said Team Three Charlie Reed, "sweep concluded, no contact."
"Roger, Charlie. You can Steve head back topside," Larabee told them.
Where the hell were the rest of the delegates? Were they already dead?
Vin's leg cramped, and he fought back a curse.
Chaves and Coleman reported in. They had located more of the delegates. That just left one group of hostages unaccounted for, and two teams still searching, him and Mike, and Chris. And no further contact from the NLC.
What were they waiting for? The numbers were turning to the cultists' advantage with just three agents left and six cultists…
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
JD walked into the main computer room, heading for a clear spot on a counter. He set up his laptop, then linked into the mainframe. From there he was able to by pass the feedback loop and connected to the command and control center topside.
"Back on line," JD breathed, sinking down onto a stool in front of the computer. The contamination suit he was wearing was hot and uncomfortable, but he couldn't risk taking it off. He wondered how the others could possibly work in them. He glanced at Timmons, who looked as uncomfortable as he did.
"JD, how's it going?" Larabee asked.
"No contact. We're back online," was his reply.
"Can you find the last of the hostages?" Chris asked.
"I'll see what I can do."
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Monday, 1455 Hours
"We have contact, section four, grid eight," Nathan stated. " Repeat under attack, four-eight."
Vin finished a room sweep, his mind racing. That was in the same area JD was in now, just two sections away.
"Vin, Mike, can you reinforce? Over," Chris asked.
"Roger," Stein replied instantly. "On our way."
Vin motioned for Stein to close the distance between them, and they moved steadily down the hallway, still sweeping rooms as they went, but moving swiftly toward the firefight.
Dull metallic pings said Josiah and Nathan were holding their position. They were thirty, maybe forty-five seconds away – just to the end of the hall and turn. The cultists probably didn't even know about JD and his escort entering the facility…
"Tanner," Stein said. "Hostages."
Vin eased back, joining the Team Three agent. Behind a glass door marked "Lab 31" ten men sat on the floor, their uniforms revealing them to be among the contingent of foreign generals.
"Vin," the sniper said, "we have the last hostages. Chris, JD can you backup Josiah and Nathan?"
"Will do," Larabee replied.
"On my way," JD said.
Stein checked the door, while Vin swept the hallway. Mike cursed softly when he found a thin wire filament attached to the locking mechanism.
The sniper shifted. More gunfire, closer to the intersection of the hallway ahead… He glanced back at Stein. "I'll take care of this. Join up with Josiah 'n' Nathan, get rid 'a those damn crazies."
Stein pulled the trip wire up where it could be cut, nodded, and was gone.
Vin turned his attention to disarming the booby-trap, his gaze flickering up regularly to check the hall for bogies. His leg throbbed, and he blinked off the sweat that was running down his forehead and catching in his eyelashes.
The muffled sound of the firefight continued.
"Nathan. Looks like we have five bogies, repeat, five."
Stein's voice filtered over the mike. "Mike. Backup on the way. Coming at you through the back door."
That left one cultist unaccounted for, Vin realized.
Disarming the door, he reached to open it, but movement at the corner of his eye triggered an immediate response. The HK snapped up in his hands and Vin raked the hallway, the approaching cultist falling.
"Tanner. I have contact. One bogie down. Repeat, one down."
"Roger, one," Stein acknowledged. "Nate, Josiah, I'm at the door."
Slipping into the lab, Vin checked the delegates, then cut the first man free.
The British general scrambled to his feet. "There's a bomb," he announced, pointing. "We have to—"
Vin handed the man his knife and moved immediately to the device. It was one of the TAS-D canisters, wired with C4. "Great," he mumbled. Where was Buck when you needed him?
Gritting his teeth, Vin knelt down next to the bomb and started his investigation.
"Mike. Three bogies down. Josiah is hit," the agent reported over the com-link.
"Tanner. I have a live bang," Vin replied into the lip mike.
"Larabee. Stein, move Josiah to the surface. Route One."
"Roger that," Stein replied.
Vin remained focused on the device. The wiring was… wrong… twisted… distorted. He blinked and the image returned to a more sane perspective.
He fished into his utility pouch and removed needle-nosed pliers and a pair of thin wire-cutters. His hand rose to push the sweat off his forehead, but only met the hard plastic of the clear suit visor. He puffed in frustration. He was losing blood, getting shocky, and it was starting to tell. This was no time to lose it.
Using the pointed tips of the pliers he carefully moved several of the wires, trying to decipher the mechanism the cultists had used. No mercury device… probably not a motion switch, just a timer…
"There it is," he said softly.
"They're all free, soldier," the Brit reported, squatting down next to Tanner. "Special Agent Vin Tanner, ATF. Take the HK 'n' get everyone into the hall 'n' close the door, I'll have—"
"I believe I'll stay, Agent," the general replied, staring at the bloody dressing on the back of Vin's leg. He handed the HK to his Russian counterpart.
"We will keep these… lunatics away, on that you can count," the burly, grey-haired man said, then he herded the others out, drawing the door shut behind him.
Vin handed the wire cutters to the Brit. "I'm a little shaky, sir, you'll have t' cut."
"Right-o." The response rang with false bravado, but the man accepted the cutters.
Vin worked, rearranging the wires, looking for the one that connected the tangled knot to the timer.
"General George Andrew Twiselton."
"If you'd cut that green one, sir," Vin said, blinking the sweat out of his eyes again.
"You're sure?"
"If I'm wrong, you'll be one 'a the first t' know."
Twiselton sucked in a deep breath and snipped the wire. The timer stopped and Vin took the clippers back, dropping them and the pliers into his pouch.
A burst from the HK sent the sniper hobbling to the door, his Glock drawn. The nine officers were pressed up against the far wall, the Russian general firing around the corner. They were under attack, but he thought they had gotten all of the cultists…
"Tanner. We have contact, unknown number."
A woosh-clang spurred Vin into action before he could think.
The overhead vent had swung open above them, squeaking loudly. A grenade dropped into the room.
Vin lunged, his shoulder catching Twiselton mid-back and forcing the general against the wall as the device exploded with a deafening blast and blinding flash. Tanner hit the wall, his injured leg giving way.
Twisting as he fell, Vin fired blindly in the direction of the overhead opening. A dull thud told him he'd found his target a second before beakers and glassware on a lab bench exploded, along with a second grenade, showering the two men with glass and chemicals.
The sniper curled, his arms instinctively coming up to cover his face. The plastic visor shattered, the world dissolving into a sickening smear of colors. He felt himself pitching into the blackness and fought frantically, mentally clawing his way back from the lip of unconsciousness.
He felt Twiselton helping him up, holding him on his feet, asking him something, but his ears were ringing too loudly to make out the man's words. With difficulty he forced his eyes open, finding the world a grey and twisted parody of reality. Reaching up tentatively, Vin gently reached through the broken mask and touched his face around his eyes. No blood… no shards… must be flash blindness.
"Bloody good shot, Agent."
More gunfire sounded from outside in the hallway. Vin keyed the mike. "Tanner. We have one bogie down, still under fire."
He waited.
His communication unit must be damaged. "What's goin' on in the hall?"
Twiselton stepped up to the door. "They're all there. Yuri's holding someone back. There's an injury… Azad – he must have caught some glass from the blast. General Gruber is helping him." There was an embarrassed pause. "And I'm afraid I've wrenched a knee."
Vin took a deep breath and called up a mental map of the facility. They were about equal-distance from the first and second decon escape locks, but the remaining cultists were between them and Chris and JD.
His fingers fumbled over his com unit, finding the problem. Reattaching the plug that led from his mike to the power unit, he tried again. "Tanner. One bogie down."
"Roger," JD replied. "Mike and I are holding Airlock Two. All hostages minus ten located. Chris is on his way to you."
"Roger. I have the last group."
"Okay, let's go," Vin said to Twiselton, limping for the door.
"But, Agent," Twiselton objected. "You can't see."
"I know the layout, General. Y' just follow me 'n' keep me from bouncin' off the walls. We have t' pick up three more, then we're out 'a here."
The two men stepped into the hall as the Russian general bellowed a string of obscenities in his native tongue. A quickly barked question revealed that three of the officers had rabbited.
Vin could hear the German still working on the Egyptian.
"Damn it," the sniper hissed.
Holding out his hand, he felt Twiselton return the HK, then the knife, which he returned to its sheath on his web belt.
"Break off," Vin commanded. "Follow me 'n' stay tight." Over his shoulder, he added to Twiselton, "An' don't forget the walls, sir."
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Monday, 1515 Hours
Chris met them halfway between the lab and the computer room. "Vin?" he asked, getting his first look at the sniper.
"Got t' get these men out 'a here."
"JD. We have three hostages at airlock two, spending them topside with Stein."
"Come on," Larabee said to the generals, but he kept a worried eye on Vin.
At least the world was slowly coming back into focus, the sniper thought. But it was going to take a while before things were back to their usual clarity.
Larabee's and Vin's sniffers began to beep.
"Down!" Chris bellowed.
The remaining generals dropped. Vin and Larabee opened fire, hitting a white-coated man who had stepped out of a lab.
"Twiselton," Vin called, and the general joined him. He handed the man back the HK. "Stay here."
Moving down the hall, he and Chris slipped around the corner, only to be confronted by another cultist standing in the hall. In his hand he clutched a TAS-D container.
"You will all die," he said, frothy spittle dribbling over his lips. "The Children of Light will prevail."
The Glock sprang up and Larabee fired. A split-second later Vin's shot hit. The man fell, dead before he had a chance to react.
"Come on," Larabee said, "let's get the fuck out of Dodge."
They turned and nearly ran into Twiselton and Yuriskov. "I've never seen anyone react that fast," the Brit said, giving Larabee a shaky smile. "Amazing."
"You haven't seen the Spetsnaz," the Russian countered. He nodded to Larabee. "But that was still impressive."
Twiselton grinned. "Yes, and quite impressive for a blind man as well."
Vin's head and leg were throbbing too much to appreciate the compliment. He staggered back to where the other generals waited. "Let's go, people."
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Monday, 1520 Hours
"Vin?" JD gasped, hobbling over to examine Vin's puffy face as Tanner limped into the computer room.
"Flash/bang grenade," Tanner explained. "I'll be fine, just a little fuzzy 'round the edges."
"Is everyone out?" Chris asked.
"The last military teams are just clearing the external locks," JD said, then checked the chronometer on his suit. "We have less than forty minutes before facility neutralization."
A blaring siren sounded, causing all of them to jump. Larabee keyed the com unit. "What's going on?"
"Looks like a leak of some kind in area two, Chris," Nathan explained over the mike.
JD and Chris both looked at the broken face visor on the sniper's suit.
"Vin, your—" JD started.
"I know," the sniper replied. "Right now we have t' worry 'bout the wounded."
"I'm afraid I can't move too quickly either," JD said. "I sprained an ankle."
A second alarm sounded.
"We're picking up leaks in areas five and three. That's three in failsafe. Exit route through Decon Two is shutting down," Nathan reported. "Chris, I think they're trying to block the escape routes. You've got to move – now!"
"Chris, take the non-wounded," Vin said, his look and his voice pleading with the man not to argue. "Go for route three. JD, you're with me, we'll go for one."
"There's no time to argue, Chris. Go!"
Larabee gathered his party and headed out, leaving JD, Azad, and Twiselton with Vin.
The sniper squinted through the constant tearing at the fuzzy outlines of the people in the room. "JD, I want y' at the rear. General Twiselton, if you'd stay with General Azad in the middle, sir. If y' see something, sing out 'n' drop."
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Monday, 1523 Hours
Vin listened as Chris engaged another one of the cultists.
Less than a minute later the man was dispatched. "Bogie down," Larabee stated. "We're at the airlock. Tanner, I'm coming back."
"Negative, Larabee," Vin interrupted. "Leave with 'em."
"Ain't got time t' argue, Cowboy. Get your ass topside."
"Meet you at One."
"Damn it," Vin hissed, but there was nothing he could do to force Larabee to leave. That just left the five of them in the facility.
Thoughts flew through the sniper's mind – escape route two had been shut down. The army would close three once the generals were past the last decon lock. Three of the four sections leading to Decon One were already locked down due to leaks. They were in the last open section, moving in on the last escape route. It was now or never, and they had ten minutes.
Things could be worse. Of course, they could be a whole lot better, too.
The distant blare of a siren told him the Army had the generals and were on their way out.
He turned a corner, blinking to clear his vision enough to verify that it was the main hall leading into the facility. Decon One fed off that hall near the first airlock.
"There!" Azad yelled.
Twiselton grabbed the man, shoving him to the floor.
Vin sprayed the hall, forcing the last cultist back, but not before he returned fire, driving the sniper up against the wall.
It was a stand-off.
"Get 'em into the lock!" Vin yelled at JD as he stumbled forward to hit the door release. That done, he moved back down the hall, laying down cover fire.
The three men stumbled into the first decon chamber, their injuries slowing but not stopping them. Vin fired a final burst and headed back toward them, sliding along the wall for extra support.
"Come on, Vin!" JD called.
"Go!" Vin yelled. "I'll wait fer Chris!"
JD nodded and the men started out.
"Vin!" Chris yelled as he turned the corner of a hallway.
"Get in the airlock!" Vin yelled.
Larabee slipped inside just as a small block of C-4 landed in the center of the hallway.
"Get down!" Vin bellowed, turning and charging for the open door to the airlock where Larabee waited. He dove, somersaulting into the small room and colliding back-first with the far wall. Larabee hit the release button and the door slid shut, giving them some protection from the explosion, but the concussion still shook them like a pair of dice in a cup.
Larabee helped Vin to his feet, the sniper gasping as he felt a new pain shoot through his shoulder. He'd pulled or torn something.
"Vin, what's wrong!"
Ignoring the helping hands, Tanner scrambled back to the door. One of the TAS-D canisters was rolled around in the hallway, a fine grey fog hissing from one end. The lights inside the airlock shifted to red, the alarm beginning to scream.
As they watched, a heavy metal plate dropped down in front of the escape route door, blocking them from returning to the facility.
Larabee moved to the far door and keyed in a code. The door slid open and they entered the second decon unit. After sealing the door behind them, Chris went to open the next door that would allow them into the last of the three decon chambers.
They made it into that one, but were there stopped there as the system began to shut down in preparation for the neutralization.
"Go up!" Vin yelled, pointing to the shaft that JD had used to enter the facility.
Chris grabbed the ladder and pulled himself up, Vin following right behind him.
They climbed the stairs and tried the trap door. It refused to budge.
"I can't maneuver in this damn suit," the blond said, dropping back into the last decon chamber and struggling out of his suit.
"I think that explosion torqued a hinge," Vin panted, positioning his back and shoulder against the door and pressing again. He could feel the muscles tearing in his shoulder, but kept up the pressure, forcing it open halfway.
"Chris," he called airily.
He scrambled up the ladder and forced his way through. Tanner was last. As he stood, the door creaked and fell back into place. Without the light from the hallway, the roof of the facility was plunged into total darkness.
Removing the strong but small flashlight from his web belt, Larabee conducted a three hundred and sixty degree reconnaissance of the flat roof. There was no obvious way off, but there had to be; the builders would have had a way down if nothing else.
"Spread out. Feel for stair rungs," he directed Vin.
Bending over, Tanner braced his hands above his knees, trying to catch his breath, thankful that the darkness hid his condition from Larabee. He wasn't going to make it too much longer.
Good thing they didn't have too much longer.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Monday, 1530 Hours
"I have it," Vin called, his voice weak.
Chris swung the flashlight around to locate the sniper. Holding the light on him, he made their way over. Vin had found a ladder mounted to the outside of the facility.
"Looks steep," Vin sighed, trying to keep his weight off the injured leg. Suddenly, the building vibrated and shuttered. "What's that?" he asked.
"The building's being neutralized," Larabee said. "You'd better go down first."
Vin nodded, but he wasn't at all sure he could make it.
"Let's get you out of that suit first," Larabee added.
As he helped Vin get out of the suit he found the gunshot wound.
"Jesus, Vin, you should have said something."
"No time," the sniper admitted.
Stepping over to the ladder, he carefully maneuvered around and stepped down onto the first rung. Chris held the beam of the flashlight on the steps as the sniper began to make his way down.
It was obvious his leg was going to make the going difficult, as was his shoulder. He hooked his good arm around the rail to give himself some extra support if he lost his grip.
"I think it should be about thirty feet or so," Chris said. "Ready?"
Tanner sucked in a deep breath. "I think so…"
"You'll be fine, just don't look down. Use your toes and feel for the steps. We're not that far up."
"Says you," Vin grumbled.
Larabee flashed him a reassuring smile. "Not much longer, Vin. You're doing great."
Tanner white-knuckled the rails and stepped down another rung, his eyes clinching shut. "It's a really big cave, ain't it?"
"Huge," Chris assured him.
Vin took a deep breath, held it, and stepped gingerly down to the next rung. "Yep, a huge, airy, spacious cave…"
The sniper ground his teeth together and continued on, silently praying his leg wouldn't give out on the way down. It was numb from mid-calf down, but from knee to hip it burned as hot as a gasoline fire, forcing sweat out of him. His shoulder throbbed painfully in counterpoint, and he still couldn't see very well. All in all, it wasn't a pretty picture.
He reached the bottom, but still clung to the ladder to keep himself from swaying dangerously.
Then it was Larabee's his turn to make the climb down. A few minutes late, the blond was at his side.
"Easy, Vin," he said. "I've got another dressing in my utility pouch."
He fished into the pouch, pulling out the thick bandage and quickly tying it onto Tanner's bleeding leg. "You're losing a lot of blood, pard."
"Now we gotta find the escape route," Vin replied, ignoring the comment.
"Yep, it's past time to get the hell out of Dodge."
The two started around the facility, Vin moving slowly with painful determination.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Monday, 1540 Hours
JD and the others stumbled out of the tunnel and into the afternoon sun. He looked at his watch. Thirteen minutes to get out of the tunnels. The facility began neutralization at 3:30.
Around them soldiers and technicians scanned them with bio-weapon sniffers.
He drew in a deep breath. It felt very good to be out of the long, narrow passage. He might not have Vin's problems with claustrophobia, but closed, dark places weren't his favorite hangouts either.
Travis stalked across the desert to join him. "JD, are you all right?"
"Fine. Are Chris and Vin out?"
"Not yet," Travis replied.
A distant rumble echoed from under the ground and everyone fell silent. The ground trembled, and several birds roosting in the nearby brush fluttered into flight.
"What was that?" JD asked, his voice refusing to climb higher than a whisper.
"The facility is being neutralized," Dr. Chappick said softly.
JD turned, surprised to find her still there.
She looked down at her hands. "Once that's done, the escape tunnels will be next."
"But if they're still in the tunnels—" JD began.
"They won't be," Travis said matter-of-factly, his gaze swinging to the exit. An army detachment still stood guard, but Travis' eyes were fixed on his watch, not the opening.
JD studied Travis' face, reading the anxiety easily. Moments later the rest of Team Seven was there was well.
"I'm sure Chris will get Vin out," Buck said.
"So am I," Josiah agreed.
"This way, JD," Nathan said, taking the younger man's elbow and leading him off toward a large tent that had been set up.
"I'm fine," he argued.
"You sure?" Nathan asked. "You still have to get out of that suit, and get checked for any exposure, so you might as well let me take a look at that ankle."
JD nodded, but he glanced back over his shoulder at the escape opening. Chris and Vin always come through, he thought to himself. Then silently prayed this time would not the exception.
Entering the tent, JD scanned the relieved faces of the delegates who had been rescued from the facility. They looked cheerful, but the shadow of the nightmare would haunt them.
"…damnest thing I have seen in years," the Russian general was saying. "The man was nearly blind and still he shot that man like he was a— a paper target."
"And the way he disarmed that bomb," another added. "I watched those lunatics put that thing together, and I still don't know how he did it. It made no sense to me."
"We would all be dead if he hadn't stopped those grenades from exploding in the lab," another man added. "I've never seen anyone react like that. He wasn't afraid at all."
"Oh, yes, he was," the Russian corrected. "But a real warrior does not let fear get in his way. That man is a true warrior."
Vin, JD thought. It had to be. He stared out of the open tent flap at the escape route exit. At this distance it looked like a small black scar on the low hillside.
"Come on, Vin, Chris," he said softly. "You guys have a lot of people waiting out here to shake your hands."
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
The explosion shook the ground, sending the two agents to their knees inside the narrow passage. A fine dust boiled up from the ground, choking them.
"What was that?" Vin gasped, then groaned as he forced himself to his feet.
"The facility neutralization's over," Chris said. Reaching out, he pulled Vin up.
"But we're safe, right?" the sniper asked.
Larabee's gaze immediately fell to the dirt. "The tunnels are incrementally purged after the facility," he said softly.
"Don't think I like the sound 'a that," Tanner commented.
"Me either," Chris agreed. "But the tunnel sections will be blown at regular intervals from the inside out."
"How long?" Vin asked.
A dull explosion sounded and the ground shook, nearly knocking them down a second time.
"Now," Chris said hoarsely. "Let's go."
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Monday, 1550 Hours
Buck slid into the empty seat next to DJ. "Good to see you, kid," Wilmington greeted, reaching out to grab JD's shoulder and give it a squeeze. "Any word?"
JD shook his head. "The internal shutdown is done, the tunnels are almost finished. I tried tapping into the security system for the escape tunnels, but it was just too dangerous, so I backed out. I didn't want to take any chances."
Buck nodded grimly. "They'll make it."
"They're the best," JD said quietly, his gaze remaining steadfastly fixed to the monitor. "You should hear some of the stories going around here."
"I did," Buck replied. "But Vin's hurt – bad from the looks of it."
"That bad?"
Buck shrugged. "I hope not."
"Me, too."
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
"Move!" Larabee barked as another section of the tunnel exploded, dust erupting up behind them and engulfing them. "Vin!"
The blond caught Tanner in a hug. The sniper sagged heavily against him.
"Sorry. M' leg. It gave out."
Tanner pulled back and dropped to his knee, his injury screaming in protest. The sniper was bleeding again.
Opening his pouch, Chris removed the last of a gauze roll and wrapped it around the man's leg.
"Chris," Vin said, reaching out to stop him. "I saw someone back there."
The blond's gaze flickered to his watch. "We have to hurry."
Vin nodded, but as they started off again, the sniper held back, placing himself between the closing cultist and the fleeing blond.
Another blast; closer this time.
Vin's arms came up to half cover his head, shards of rocks falling from the roof of the tunnel. "Go, go, go!" he prodded Larabee.
Chris picked up the pace.
"You are nothing but corrupted flesh!" echoed out of the darkness behind the two agents.
Vin stopped, his Glock ready. A shadow darted across the rear of the space. He fired.
"Go!" he yelled at Larabee.
"Now! I'm right behind ya!"
But when Chris started off again, Vin moved back, slowly, sweeping the tunnel as he did.
Another explosion. It was in the section right behind them. This one was next…
"You will die, you half-seed human," echoed out of the darkness.
"Least I'll take y' with me."
Vin picked up the pace, trying to reach the marker for the next section. Loose rocks and slabs of rock knocked free by the blasts made the progress slow, but if he could keep the cultist in the section set to be destroyed…
There was a hiss. Tanner turned, diving for the section marker as the explosion hit. The tunnel erupted.
He was buried!
Panic hit and Vin moved, pushing up on his hands and realizing he'd only been thrown face-first onto the tunnel floor, the dust and grit coming up to nearly choke him.
His fingers curled. His Glock was gone.
He tried to stand, but couldn't.
Blinking through the dust, Vin saw Larabee still moving down the tunnel. Then, he stopped.
"Get… the hell… out… of here!" he yelled, his words ending in a groan as the strain sent waves of pain rippling out from his lower back.
He turned, looking back over his shoulder. "Damn it," he growled.
A slab of rock lay across his legs.
He heard Larabee returning. "No, Chris! Get out!" He stopped, the cultist emerging from the swirling dirt.
Twisting as best he could, Vin knew he had no weapon to stop the man, except the knife, still in its sheath. "Stop. Right there," he ordered.
A feral smile cracked the cultist's face.
Tanner's mind reeled, but then he knew. He chuckled.
The man's smile evaporated. "What do you have to laugh about?"
"You, asshole – you're dead." Tanner's smile widened, his hand going to the knife hilt.
"And so are you."
"This is my job."
The man's face folded into a frown. "I am a Child of Light."
"Wrong. You're exposed. To what, it don't matter. Whatever it is, it's eatin' y' up. Yer dead."
A brutal snarl erupted from the man's chest and he stepped forward, hefting and moving the slab of stone in order to get at Vin. The cultist leaned over, his fingers closing on Tanner's throat. He smiled, his expression shifting into a twisted snarl.
Vin drew the knife, and with both hands, forced the blade deep into the man's mid-section. He screamed.
Vin pulled the knife free, rolling away as the man collapsed.
Then, scrambling to his feet, he stumbled down the tunnel, meeting Chris on his way back. "Go! Go! Go!" Tanner managed.
They cleared the section just as the explosion sent a blast of dust and rock fragments belching from behind them. Just ahead they could see the dust-fuzzied outlines of the soldiers.
"They're coming out!" someone yelled.
"Hold your fire!" Travis bellowed.
Chris and Vin stumbled into the fresh air, gasping and coughing, Tanner covered in dust and blood. He almost fell.
"Vin?" Larabee said softly.
Blue eyes flickered up, dulled with pain, but aware. Vin shook his head. Larabee took a step back.
Cradling his left arm tightly to his chest with his right, the sniper shuffled forward over the rugged terrain. Behind him, the final section of tunnel exploded and collapsed, shaking the ground. Pain thrummed along every nerve, blinding him to the anxious group of people gathered along the stretch of desert between the exit and the waiting ambulances, blinding him also to the solemn and respectful salutes the generals gave him as he passed.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Monday, 1600 Hours
The other members of Team Seven felt their hearts stumble as Vin miss-stepped exiting the tunnel. Buck started forward, but Josiah reached out, placing his hand on the ladies' man's shoulder. "No, Buck," he said. "Vin's earned this walk without our help," he said softly.
Buck studied the profiler's eyes, wondering just what it was the man was seeing. He looked back to Vin – bloody, dirty, limping, his arm, the leg…
The sniper looked bruised and battered, but Vin had survived much worse. What am I missing?
Travis trailed behind the two agents, his face set in grim but determined lines.
Why? What the hell's going on? Buck wondered.
Harrison's attention shifted to Larabee. He cupped his hand under Vin's right elbow, steadying his step and keeping his course straight. Together they limped to the waiting medics.
In the pit of his stomach Buck felt his world crumble away. He didn't know why, or how, but everything had changed, and for the worse.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Fort Hawkins Hospital
Monday, 1630 Hours
Sitting in the small but crowded waiting room, Buck stopped himself from demanding an explanation from the stone-faced soldiers waiting with him. He glanced around, angry and feeling alone. Chris and Vin was still being treated, and Nathan had disappeared.
Travis, a treated Twiselton, the Russian general… they knew something he didn't, something about Vin.
Chris walked in, cleaned up, dressed in borrowed green fatigues. Buck stood, giving Larabee his chair.
"You okay?" he asked his longtime friend as he lowered himself into the padded comfort and sighed.
"Fine. How's Vin?"
Buck shook his head. "We're still waiting to hear something."
Ezra, Josiah, and JD moved over.
"What happened?" Josiah asked.
"He saved our lives," Twiselton sad. "More times than I can remember. He was hurting, so badly I just don't see how—" The man stopped as a doctor walked into the room with Nathan, who looked decidedly unhappy.
"I'm Major Carl Raglan, Mr. Tanner's physician," the stranger stated, looking decidedly uncomfortable with the amount of brass in the room.
"How is he?" Chris demanded.
The major paused, his gaze sweeping over the gathering. "Does Mr. Tanner have family?"
"Major," Travis interrupted. "You will consider these six men Mr. Tanner's family. Now, answer the question."
"Yes, sir," the doctor said. "Mr. Tanner's injuries have all been treated. They were not life threatening, individually, but their cumulative effect has us a little worried. The gunshot wound to the thigh was a clean T&T. No bone, arterial, or nerve damage. I don't foresee any complications on that front. He's in recovery now, in stable condition. We'll move him to ICU for twenty-four hours, just to be on the safe side, then onto a post-op ward. I've already processed the request to have him returned to Denver. We have a follow-up surgery scheduled for the day after tomorrow, in the afternoon. He can be moved the following day, barring any complications."
"Follow-up surgery?" Chris questioned. "What for?"
The major cleared his throat, his gaze meeting no one's. "Mr. Tanner detached the muscles and ligaments from his left scapula. The surgeon will try to reattach what he can, and get a better assessment of the damage, but I have to tell you, it doesn't look good at this point. I'm very sorry."
Chris scrutinized Nathan's expression. Vin's injury obviously wasn't life threatening, but it was bad. "What does that mean exactly?" he demanded softly.
Nathan met the blond's gaze. "It means Vin's days in the field are over," he replied. "He'll be lucky if he can regain forty to sixty percent of his strength and mobility in that shoulder."
"What?" Buck gasped. "What about a specialist?"
Nathan shook his head.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Summit Hospital and Trauma Center, Denver
Wednesday, 1200 Hours
Vin sat on the edge of his hospital bed, waiting in silence while Josiah checked the various drawers in his room for any forgotten items. Finding none, the profiler hefted the small gym bag as a nurse entered, pushing a wheelchair in front of her.
"Vin, one last ride and you're free," she said. "I hope you'll stop by and let us know how the physical therapy goes."
Tanner nodded, pushing up from the bed and stepping over to the chair. "I'll do that, Terri."
The arm brace he wore made his movements stiff and difficult, but Vin turned and lowered himself into the wheelchair with the nurse's help. With that done, she stepped around to flip the foot rests down.
Vin picked up his feet and placed them on the peddles.
"We're kind of sorry to see you go," she said. "You've been one of our better patients."
"Believe me, that's a first," Josiah rumbled.
"I find that hard to believe," she said, rolling Vin from the room, Josiah trailing. "But if it's true, be nice to any future nurses, okay? We're just doing our jobs, too."
"I know, 'n' I appreciate it," Vin told her.
They reached the front doors, the nurse stopping. "Here you go. Take care now."
"Thanks," Vin said, standing. Without looking back, he pushed the door open with his good arm and stepped outside. Josiah's Suburban was parked at the curb.
The profiler stepped past Vin and opened the passenger door, waiting until Tanner was settled before walking to the driver's side and tossing the gym bag in to the second seat.
Sliding in behind the wheel, the profiler tried to keep his voice light. "Everyone's going to be mighty glad to see you. You want me to call ahead to the ranch, let 'em know we're on the way?"
"Ain't going to the ranch," Tanner replied flatly.
The sniper's head turned and he met Josiah's concerned gaze. "I'm not goin' to the ranch. Sooner y'all get used t' the idea, the better. Goin' back now would just drag out the process. I'll be helpin' t' find y' a new sniper, and Travis said I c'n stay on in some capacity… least fer now…"
"Vin, you're jumping the gun," Josiah said. "And even if you can't work with the team any more, we're still your friends, your family."
Vin looked forward again. "I know that," he said thickly. "But 'm not one 'a ya no more… Guess I just ain't ready t' face it m'self, not yet."
The profiler nodded, willing to accept that. "Where do you want to go?"
"Home. Want t' look the paperwork over Travis gave me, see what the hell's goin' on."
Josiah nodded, knowing Chris and the others weren't going to be happy.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Larabee's Ranch
Monday, 1500
Chris stalked to the front door as soon as he heard the car pulling up and parking. Grabbing the knob, he pulled the door open, expecting to find Vin.
"Josiah, where's Vin?"
The profiler took a deep breath. "Settling in at his apartment. He wanted me to pack up his stuff that's out here this afternoon."
"Pack? His apartment? What the hell's going on?" Larabee demanded.
Josiah reached out and rested his hand on the blond's shoulder. "Chris, he's been pulled off field duty and he's having some trouble with the transition."
"That doesn't change who he is, Josiah. We're his friends, his family," Chris argued.
"I know that, and so does Vin, but you might have to give him a little time to remember it."
"Josiah, you know as well as I do that he shouldn't be alone—"
"Yes, I do know. And me taking his stuff back will mean I can look in on him without him getting mad."
Chris nodded, knowing the older man was right. He sighed heavily. "All right, you can go find his stuff, but I want you to call me when you get home so I know how he's doing. And if you don't think he can manage on his own, you call me and I'll go bring him out here whether or not he wants to."
Josiah grinned. "Funny, he sounds just like you when it's you who's hurt."
Chris shook his head. "Yeah, well, we both know he's twice as stubborn as I am."
Larabee's green eyes narrowed.
"All right, twice it is," Josiah agreed, then he added, "If you wanted to throw something on a plate that I can warm up for him, that might keep him from trying to putter around in that kitchen of his."
Nodding, Chris turned to go see what he could find. What he really wanted to do was go back with Josiah, but he knew he couldn't. If Vin needed a little space, then he had to give it to him. But he wasn't going to let the sniper slip away. He meant to much to all of them for that. He meant too much to Chris. He'd lost enough family over the years, there was no way in hell he was losing Vin if he could help it.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
The Saloon
Monday, 2000 Hours
"It's not right," Buck said adamantly, shaking his head. "Everything we've been though and now something as— as simple as this ends his career?"
"Not his career," Nathan corrected. "Just his ability to function in the field."
"Vin is a gifted strategist," Ezra said. "There is no reason he should be forced to leave the ATF, he just needs to change his focus."
"But we need him," JD argued.
Josiah regarded JD and the others like he would a bunch of young children. "What you all mean is we've gotten used to having him around. There's a decided difference."
Buck leaned back in his chair and folded his arms over his chest. "All right. I need him here. Hell, Josiah, Chris needs him here."
"I concur," Ezra said. "If for no other reason than Mr. Larabee seems to do best when Vin is there, I do not think any adjustment to the present team would be possible."
"That's not the point," Nathan argued. "There's no way Vin can function in the field, and if he stays with us you know as well as I do that he's going to want to be out there with us."
He others lapsed into silence, knowing that Nathan was right.
"He'll be miserable stuck behind a desk," JD said when the silence stretched into the realm of the uncomfortable.
"What else could he do?" Buck asked. "Hell, everything he has done he can't any more…"
"It might be a good opportunity for him to find something new to do, something he really enjoys," Josiah suggested.
"Like what?" JD asked.
"Teaching," Ezra said. "He does so well with the children who live in his building—"
"But he'd have to go back to college," Nathan said.
"No reason he couldn't do that," Buck offered.
"Don't think he'd want to," JD said. "You know how much trouble he has with writing…"
"And how difficult college was for him," Ezra added.
The all settled back, thinking, but none of them had any answers. They just knew that Vin wouldn't be happy unless he was with them, and they could think of no way to keep with in their midst.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Friday, 1700 Hours
It was a bright, cool evening under the erected tents. Small heaters were scattered around, softly blowing warm air onto the small group of guests. Fading orange-red sunlight filtered into the tents. The beauty of the park beyond the tent flap contrasted sharply with the somber mood of the people who sat in the neat rows of folding white chairs. Furthest from the speaker's podium were some of the soldiers who had been with Team Seven at the Wiggins facility, closer, a collection of foreign generals, scientists, and diplomats – former hostages. The front row was taken up by Travis, the Director of the ATF, the Vice-President, Team Seven, and the surviving members of Team Three.
Sitting rigid in a suit, Vin looked anxious. The shoulder brace was gone, but it was clear watching the sniper that he was still sore and stiff. Movement was strained and slow, but at the moment he sat shock-still, eyes focused on the Vice-President as he stepped up to the podium.
The man cleared his throat and began, glancing only occasionally at his notes. "Few men in the history of this nation have distinguished themselves so profoundly as the men we are here this evening to honor. Fewer still have done so twice in their lives, but Agent Vin Tanner is one of them.
"The deeds which SRT Teams Three and Seven will be honored for today are acts of personal bravery and self-sacrifice so conspicuous as to clearly distinguish them for gallantry and intrepidity above their peers. These acts involved selfless risk of life and ceaseless dedication to duty."
The Vice-President's voice caught, and he took a sip of water before continuing. "My friends, today we come together to honor men, who in the service of their country, risked their lives, and two lost them, to ensure the safe return of innocent civilians, respected foreign generals, and diplomats from the clutches of a most abhorrent foe."
There was a murmur of agreement, and the Vice-President met the agents' gazes. "In addition, Agent Vin Tanner's actions were directly responsible for stopping the possible disastrous results of terrorism, which would have been possible if these enemies had succeeded in their mission."
The Vice-President picked up a small jeweler's box and opened it. Inside was the highest civilian medal the U.S. Government could award, the Presidential Medal of Freedom. "Agent Tanner, if you would please step forward."
Vin stood and stepped up to the podium, stopping at attention, eyes locked forward.
The Vice-President removed the medal, slipping the blue ribbon over Tanner's head and settling the medal over the Congressional Medal of Honor he already wore. With a look of heartfelt gratitude, the Vice-President reached out and shook Vin's right hand. "Our country owes you a debt of gratitude, Agent Tanner."
Startled, Vin blinked and nodded.
JD, bracketed by Josiah and Buck, nudged the older men. They looked down, then accepted JD's proffered tissues. JD smiled at their shared tears, and Josiah wondered if he, more than any of the others there, understood exactly what price Vin had paid for this honor.
The Vice-President broke the hand shake, saying, "Agent Tanner, it is indeed an honor to present you with this medal in recognition of your exceptional service to this country. I know this mission has cost you dearly, but that sacrifice has not been wasted. Thanks to you, a disaster of unthinkable proportions was averted, and many lives were spared. I and the President thank you."
"Thank you, sir," Vin replied quietly. He executed a sharp left-face that sent a flash of pain across his features.
Turning, Vin found himself facing Travis, his teammates and the other generals, who were now on their. In unison, all the soldiers saluted him.
His jaws grinding with bottled emotion, Vin reciprocated the salute, then returned to his seat.
Chris waited for Vin to sit, then reached out and squeezed his good arm. There were no words he could say that wouldn't sound trite, so he didn't say anything, but he could tell that Vin appreciated his gesture.
Vin flashed his a brief smile. "Back at ya, Cowboy," he whispered.
He smiled, nodded, then wiped the tears off his cheek.
The Vice-President then went on to honor each of the members of Teams Seven and Three.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Friday, 1730 Hours
The small reception following the Vice-President's presentation was subdued and quiet, voices rarely climbing above a whisper. Vin stayed as long as good manners forced him to, then he tapped Chris' shoulder and inclined his head toward a convenient exit. Larabee nodded and followed, grateful for their successful getaway.
Vin led the way where he had parked his Jeep. He paused at the door, looking down at the two medals that clinked against one another on his chest.
Tanner looked up.
Chris put his hand out, his fingers closing around Vin's forearm when he automatically reached back. "It's been an honor and a privilege serving with you," Larabee said.
"Feel just the same, Chris," Vin replied. "Notice y' didn't say it's been a pleasure."
"I'm a lot of things, but I'm not a liar," Larabee teased, a sad grin tugging at his lips. "You know it was. It was one helluva ride… Not sure I want to keep it going without you."
"Hell, Chris, this is what y' do, 'n; y' do it better than anybody out there."
"Because of you and the others."
"You'll find another sniper."
Larabee shook his head.
"Chris, 'm gonna be around." Vin pulled the handle up, opening the door. "Now, what d'ya say we find a bar 'n' have a drink?"
"All right," Chris said. "I know just the place. Little hole-in-the-wall called 'Round the Bend."
"Sounds 'bout right," Vin said, climbing carefully into the driver's seat. "Y' know, now that 'm not goin' t' be a movin' target, reckon I'll… Ah hell, I don't know what I'm goin' t' do, but I figger as long as you and the others are out there, 'm goin' t' do what I can t' watch yer back."
"We'll figure something out, Vin, I promise you."
Tanner nodded. "Now, come on, think I need that drink."
Chris nodded and headed for his Ram, calling, "Follow me."
"Always do," Vin said quietly, starting the Jeep. He waited until Chris pulled out and then pulled out after him, following him, just like he'd thought he would for a long time to come.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Monday, 1000 Hours
Vin sat behind his desk, staring out the window. It was all so familiar, so… normal, he decided.
Two weeks… He'd been back to work for two weeks now, and it felt more like two months. Still, he knew he shouldn't complain. He still had a career, even if it was behind a desk for the time being.
At least I'm still on the team, he reminded himself.
He felt a twinge of jealousy over the fact that he'd been so easily replaced for today's mission. But he knew that wasn't really fair. He hadn't been replaced. Chris had just "borrowed" one of the other teams' snipers. But, sooner or later, Larabee was going to have to replace him…
He glanced over at the picture sitting on the corner of his desk – a group shot of the Team Seven members: him, Chris, Josiah, Nathan, Buck, JD and Ezra, out at the ranch.
God, he missed them.
Not that he didn't see them on a daily basis, but it just wasn't the same as working with them out there… in the field…
He shook his head. He'd let himself get too involved. Way too involved. And he knew better. Any one of them could be killed or lost, and, damn it, he was supposed to be the first. But knowing that didn't cut the anger, or the pain he felt over the situation.
His phone rang and he picked it up, gaze automatically checking for the extension number. "What can I do for ya, Buck?"
"Vin–" The ladies' man's voice caught.
Vin leaned forward, his gaze locking on the photo. Everyone was smiling, happy… "Buck, what's wrong?"
"It's Chris… He's… He's been… hurt."
"How? Where? I wasn't–"
"They're on their way to Summit right now – a flight for life chopper. Nathan's with him and the medics."
"I'll meet y' at the hospital."
"I was hoping you would. It's bad, Vin, real bad. I don't think… I don't think he's gonna make it this time…"
"Like hell he won't," Tanner snapped. "He'll be fine."
"Not this time, Vin. He's–"
"I've got t' go," Tanner said, cutting the man off. He didn't want to hear the truth, he already knew that.
"We'll be there as soon as we can," Buck said, but Vin had already hung up…

Continues in Desperation