Six Weeks, Three Days Before the Michigan Avenue Proclamation
My life would have been a lot easier if the soldiers had decided to do something stereotypical and stupid, like using their rifles. However, real soldiers get warned about things like ricochets and so they came after me with knives instead of shooting up the inside of an armored tin can so I was forced to deal with them without the benefit of stupidity.
On the bright side, a magnetic can was an environment that I was practically born to work in.
There was a light in the center of the vehicle, just behind the soldiers who were coming at me, but a cursory examination, which was all I had time for, revealed no other places I could hijack current from the APC’s battery. I had exactly two seconds to figure out how I wanted to get to it. There wasn’t time for anything fancy and the fact that we were still in a moving vehicle cut down on my options, too. So I kept it simple and fired up the magnetic boots and vambraces again, using them to grab onto the side of the vehicle and throw myself towards the ceiling.
Unfortunately I couldn’t get both arms in good contact with the ceiling and I wound up swinging sloppily from one arm. But it was enough of a surprise to the guards that none of them managed to get their knives around and stick me before I crashed into the one on the right and sent us both to the floor. I was getting quite used to seeing the floor of the APC and it wasn’t exactly an experience I recommend. At least the guards weren’t wearing body armor, which made it a lost easier to drop an elbow into the soldier’s gut before shoving him under his companion’s feet and scrambling back and to my feet.
The other two guards stumbled just enough to give me time to get up without interference. In the process I grabbed a small device from my belt, a miniaturized version of the lightening funnel I’d used against Helix just a couple of weeks ago. The principle was simple. Using a precisely balanced set of magnetic fields I could change the balance of magnetic potentials over a much greater range than any other fusebox I’d heard of before. While the one I was holding wasn’t nearly strong enough to arc lightning out of storm clouds it was more than enough to let me hijack the APC’s electrical systems and arc them through people and into the floor of what was essentially a large metal box.
I reached up to the light fixture and switched it on. A second later there was a sizzle of ozone, a quiet pop and the other two guards dropped to the floor. Just to be sure they wouldn’t be any more trouble I gave all three a quick kick to the head, fairly certain that would keep them quiet. Then I switched the lightening funnel back off and I slipped it back into my belt. With my other hand I smashed the light fixture, throwing the compartment into darkness and siphoning much of the vehicle’s battery charge into my harness.
That gave me more than three quarter’s charge, enough to risk switching the maglev harness back on and feeling around. Unfortunately the weird, slippery feeling that I’d felt just before it went screwy was still there, which meant I couldn’t count on it for an escape if I needed one. Since there was no point wasting charge I switched the harness back off and cranked the volume of my headset back to conversational levels. “Hangman, something’s gone wrong with the maglev rig.”
“I tried to tell you earlier,” Hangman yelled in my ear. “You’re too low!”
“Stop yelling!” I yelled. “I turned you back up. What do you mean I’m too low?”
“The highway’s dipped too low,” Hangman said, her voice back at a manageable volume. “There’s only one maglev relay that’s low enough down for you to push on. That means-”
“Yes, I follow the theory, thank you.” Getting aloft using maglev relies on making a three point triangle. Magnets can only push directly away from each other, so if there aren’t two of them to balance your maglev array against you just wind up sliding along the path of least resistance – which usually means bouncing awkwardly along the ground getting lots of fun new bruises. But this was even worse, instead of pushing myself up with the relays they were now positioned so that I was a between two of them, and the weird slippery feeling from before was the repelling force of the maglev relays pushing against each other – and me. Until I could get some more altitude I was grounded.
“Okay back there, Donner?” That question came from the APC’s driver, who was looking back over his shoulder. I realized that draining the vehicle’s batter had also fried something important and the vehicle was stopped, probably totally inoperable. When he realized I wasn’t one of his buddies his expression changed from concern to hostility. “What the-”
I grabbed the first handy thing, which happened to be a shoulder bag sitting on one of the benches, and swung it around into the driver’s face. He went down, the rest of his sentence lost in the whump of the bag making contact. It sounded like there was something fairly weighty in there but I didn’t have time to wonder about what it might be.
Now apparently a man mysteriously landing on top of a vehicle in your convoy is not a valid reason for the Army to circle the wagons but one of said vehicles stopping unexpectedly is, because that’s exactly what the rest of the convoy proceeded to do. It didn’t take quite as long as fully subduing the driver so I had a few seconds to get the lay of the land. “What are they talking about, Hangman?”
“Why your APC is stopping. Why they’re not getting any response over the satlink. What they’re going to do when they find out who’s responsible for sending things so far south. Not very pleasant talk, that last bit.” There was some kind of strange background noise mixed in with Hangman’s voice. “I don’t suppose you could have your driver call them off?”
I finished dragging the soldier in question out of his chair and laying him none-to-gently on the floor. “I’m afraid he’s a bit indisposed.”
“Hangman, are you moving?” I straightened up and looked out the front window of the APC. The lights of the rest of the convoy were getting close, blocking off the highway. Absently, I wondered how soon we could expect to start backing up traffic. I was actually rather surprised there weren’t a few civilian cars out there already. “I’m not ready for extraction yet.”
“No, you’re not. You’re in the middle of what you’re new friends would call a Charlie Foxtrot, when they’re in polite company, and it’s time we changed plans.” There was a squealing sound that sounded a lot like tires spinning on pavement, then, “I can be there in two minutes.”
“You can’t solo this one, Circuit,” she insisted. “You don’t have time to keep those soldiers jumping and grab the goods. All eyes are going to be on you, so I’ll make the grab.”
“They’re going to see you coming.”
“You’re in the middle of a highway. It may be 2 AM local time but you’re still going to be ankle deep in cars in just a few minutes.”
“Corporal Donner,” a voice called from outside the APC. “I want all your men out of there now!”
“Fine. We’ll do it your way, but keep your head down and don’t get hurt. You have the lot number we’re looking for?”
“Good.” I grabbed the step that swung down from the APC’s topside hatch. “And Hangman? We’re going to talk about this after we’re done here.”
“Of that I had no doubt.”
I vaulted myself up and clambered onto the top of APC. Since the silhouette of a man in a fedora and suit is much different from that of a soldier, even when he’s not in full battle dress, I got a lot of attention quickly.
“Up top!” One of the soldiers shouted.
That was my cue to leave. With a quick mental command I switched the maglev harness back on then bent my knees, ignoring the popping noise because I wasn’t that old, and jumped. Then I pushed as hard as I could against the closest maglev relay, sending myself slipping sideways across the highway and into the grass in the median. Of course, since I started a good ten or twelve feet off the pavement and the median was much lower than that, my meeting with the ground was fairly abrupt. Even with padded body armor and my best fall breaking techniques I was pretty winded but the scattered gunfire from the highway told me I really need to get moving. I’d probably just surprised the soldiers into shooting just then but that didn’t mean they wouldn’t be making very deliberate attempts to punch me full of holes in the near future.
So I pushed up and scrambled along the side of the road in a crouch. The only light was coming from the vehicles in the convoy and any other cars that had come along and gotten stuck behind them. In the wild crisscross of high beams it couldn’t be easy to see anything out in the dark. Unless one of them had infrared goggles or something, and wouldn’t that be just my luck?
Fortunately the arrival of civilian vehicles gave whoever was in charge of the convoy something to think about besides finding the guy in the hat and beating him until he admitted to being a terrorist. There was a lot of yelling going on up there but I did my best to ignore it. Hangman might think she could get ahold of the package we were there to pick up by herself but she apparently didn’t know how big it was – one way or another I was going to have to be there to help out. Might as well start looking for the thing myself.
My luck held as I scuttled along the pavement and over to the nearest truck, no one spotted me even though it felt like the whole world could hear my feet scraping on the pavement.
Magnetic boots are not exactly built for stealth.
Any hope of getting in and out without being observed was now long gone, so I felt no regret at slicing through the canvas and into the bed of the truck. I clambered in, produced a small penlight from my belt and took a quick look around. Thankfully the box I was looking for was fairly large, at least four feet long, and the boxes in the truck weren’t large enough for that. I wasn’t sure what all I was looking at but I was pretty sure it wasn’t what I was after.
The next truck in line was similarly devoid of my objective but I hit pay dirt in the third. The box was strapped to the truck bed and the rest of the vehicle was empty. I couldn’t see the whole identification number on the box but I really didn’t need to. If this wasn’t what I was after I would eat my hat. I was about to climb into the truck bed when I heard boots coming around the side of the truck. I slipped down the side of the vehicle and moved as quickly as I could, although it still wasn’t all that quiet.
The soldier came around the side of the truck before I could get up to the corner; so unfortunately he had enough time to shout “Hey!” before I could slap him with the taser. Then it was up into the truck bed. I threw my suit jacket off then fumbled the maglev harness off and looped it over the four corners of the box and switched it on. Voices were yelling outside the truck as I slashed the box free of the truck bed and sheathed my knife.
“Hangman,” I whispered. “Are you here yet?”
“Out of the van, sneaking along the side of the highway.” Her answering whisper was almost lost in the background noise of a idling cars.
“Well get back in the van,” I hissed. “I found the package and we’re ready to go, but the van needs to be running, with you leaning on the brakes, in order for this to work.”
“The van has a relay built in, Hangman.” My voice was rising and I took a moment to throttle it back down to a whisper. “It comes on when the motor is running. I need the van running but stationary if I’m going to maglev this piece of junk out of the truck bed and into the van.”
Hangman cursed and I heard quiet scrabbling noises over the headset. Then one of the convoy guards poked his head through the canvas truck cover and I got distracted.
Option one was to shoot him, but if you don’t want to be killing a cop before you’re ready to deal with all the cops in the county then you really don’t want to be killing a soldier unless you’re ready to deal with, at a minimum, whole infantry divisions. Option two was to close the distance and go with the tasers in my gloves. But I didn’t have the element of surprise this time so my chances of coming out of that in good condition were much, much smaller and I needed to stay near the harness to make it work anyways. So I went with option three and slipped out one of the two magnesium flares I kept on my belt, closed my eyes and lit it with a snap of the wrist.
I’d packed them with the idea that Hangman might have to move the van and the come find me later. The flares were to make the finding part easier. Well, she’d moved the van but we were close enough that finding me shouldn’t pose any problem, and it would be a shame to let a perfectly good flare go to waste. From the pained noise the soldier made when his night adjusted eyes were blinded by the brilliant glare, it had definitely been put to good use.
The flare wasn’t much use now so I threw it down and grabbed hold of the box and nudged the maglev harness to life. For a few nerve-wracking seconds there was no sign of the van’s maglev relay, then it sprang to life. There wasn’t anything to do but hope that Hangman had already set the brake, flip polarity on the harness and push it to life.
With polarities reversed the harness was no longer repelled by the maglev relay, but rather attracted towards it. Although the combined weight of the package and myself was nearly three times what the harness had been carrying before; I figured I could afford to turn the power up since the battery only had to get us a few hundred feet to the van. So I pushed as hard as I could and spared a little attention to make sure nothing important shorted out from the extra current load. And I did my best to hang on, twenty miles an hour is pretty fast when all you have to hang on to is an improvised set of straps on a large wooden box.
Of course, the van wasn’t parked directly behind the truck so I actually wound up sliding across the truck bed and into the canvas on the side – not the side I’d cut through on my way in, either. But as soon as I got my knife free and started cutting the force of the box pushing against the canvas tore things the rest of the way and the box and I went flipping over the side of the truck. For a moment I thought the box would land on top of me and that would be the end of it, but we wound up rotating just enough that the edge of the box caught on the pavement and it flipped one more time, sliding across the pavement with me on the top and not the bottom, accompanied by the surprised profanity of half a dozen soldiers.
For the second time in five minutes surprise was on my side, none of the guards managed to react in time to make a grab for me or the box and then I was beyond them and skidding through the cars that had come up on the stopped convoy and gotten stuck there. There were only ten or so civilian vehicles there and the soldiers had thankfully been in the process of clearing them off the highway, otherwise my trip could have come to an abrupt end against some hapless family’s Toyota, doing no good for them or me. Then the van loomed up, the back doors already open, and I flipped the polarity of the harness back around, letting up on the pressure on the maglev system some, so that the magnets repelled again and acted as brakes. The box slowed, tilting precariously up on one side. I hopped off and, at the last second, killed the maglev harness entirely and put my shoulder behind the box and pushed it. That, along with the last of the momentum from our mad rush out of the truck, was enough for it tip over into the back of the van. I gave it a good, hard push and got it the rest of the way into the van, then jumped up and swung the doors closed behind me. Not a moment too soon, either, as the guards were already starting to take shots at us.
But with the doors closed and all the armor in the vehicle’s chassis between us and them they weren’t really a threat anymore. I clambered over the box and into the front seat, saying, “Drive!”
Hangman wordlessly floored the gas and we took off down the highway against traffic. The vehicles I take with me on jobs are hardly stock vans, however, and between four wheel drive and upgraded suspension crossing a grass maridian like you find on the typical divided highway is no big deal. We were driving with traffic soon enough.
I noticed as I was settling in that the front windshield had taken a bullet, leaving a small impact crater in the bullet resistant glass. It wasn’t until Hangman fished the spent round out of her lap and tossed it in the back with shaking hands that I realized it was on the inside and not the outside.
I studied her carefully. She was pale, but seemed to be in possession of her faculties. “Are you alright?”
“Sure.” She spared a glance away from the road. “When were you going to tell me the package was so big we had to lift it by maglev?”
“When it became relevant,” I said testily.
“We have a bit of a drive before we can switch to a less conspicuous vehicle,” she said, matching my tone. “Maybe we can talk about that.”
“No.” I stood up and climbed into the back. “We’re going to keep all our attention on the road so that no one can sneak up on us. But believe me, we will talk about that, and a number of other things, once we’re out of the field.”