“Power going off in three. Two. And-“
Right on cue the blinking lights turned dark on the mast she just flew by. The blackout spread to the rest of the building, quickly and noiseless. However, in the light of the late evening sun the lack of electricity was almost impossible to spot from the outside.
North continued through the radio, “-someone will be kicking their computer right now. See anyone rushing to the tower?”
“In this mist?” 479er had to snort, adjusting the controls without moving her eyes. “Hard to even see the tower.” She squinted, barely making out the contour of the slim control tower. Even with it being the only building left with power, its isolated location on the eastern coast of the small island made it difficult to notice. That was just another reason to keep a good eye out. “Staying low until extraction. Any estimated time or am I just waiting for something to explode?”
“I’d rather be out of here before anything goes kaboom. Illinois?”
A moment later the other Freelancer’s deep voice joined their channel. “I was asked to create a very big and very loud kaboom. Sadly, that also means we shouldn’t be here to witness it. With the elevators out, I need ‘least fifteen minutes to place the rest.”
“Copy that. I’ll keep the coast clear.”
479er snorted again, this time in amusement. “I thought that was my job,” she reminded North and continued her patrol around the island. The mist had kept her from being spotted so far, despite how close she stayed to the building. Not that it mattered in the end: should anyone spot her there was little they could do about it.
Ten minutes from now, if things went accordingly, this place would be smoking ruins. She was pretty sure the briefing file had described some sort of military laboratory: the most important focus being an unstable core Illinois had been charged with sabotaging.
Honestly, she’d only paid attention to the parts that actually played a role for her. Where to drop off the agents, where the designated extraction point was located, how many Freelancers she was supposed to bring back home and how long she was supposed to wait for their slow asses, just in case.
Since only North and Illinois had been assigned for this mission, it meant 479er had less troublesome Freelancers to put up with and therefore less bickering to worsen her headache. She regretted staying up late in order to look through the stats of the newest model she’d been promised, and at this point it was just the visor that kept her from constantly rubbing her eyes. The small number of passengers also allowed her to pilot a smaller ship, making her capable of sharper turns and smoother maneuvers.
It reminded her of her days as a newly titled pilot, only being trusted smaller, standard vehicles. Later she’d be in charge of bigger ships, armed with fancy guns and everything. Sophisticated stuff with a lot of buttons to press and that was all fun. Made it harder to do a flip, though.
Movement caught the corner of her eye when she dove out of a cloud of mist. A set of dull lights, moving quickly forward, and 479er quickly recognized it as a vehicle. It looked like a jeep, capable of moving through the sandy terrain with great speed.
And it was heading straight towards the tower.
479er kept her eyes on the target but refrained from revealing her presence by engaging any action. “North, did you happen set off an alarm again?” she asked, remembering the too many times she had tried being called in for an immediate escape after one of the agents had messed up. They didn’t always match those flawless reputations they had among the staff on the Mother of Invention.
Her radio turned online with North’s voice. It was slightly breathless. Probably done with another fight sequence, if she knew them right. “No power to trigger it. Guards know we’re here, though. Why?”
She grabbed the control handle just a bit tighter in preparation. “Vehicle spotted on the northern side, heading towards the tower. High speed.” Not only did the tower now have the only means of outside communication; it also functioned as the port and helipad. As the only way to get back to the mainland, it was the weak spot in their plan. North had claimed he’d spotted no movement in the area, but that was clearly changing. “I think you’ve been spotted.”
There was only a moment of hesitation from North’s end. “Coming in from the western building. I’ll try to cut him off.”
“Doubt you’ll make it with the speed he’s going.” She leaned forward in her seat to get a better view. The screen on her control panel focused on her target, marking it with a red square.
While this ship was not outfitted with guns, she knew she could stop him if she wanted to. She had the speed and handling to throw him off his path.
479er tapped a finger against the handle as she considered. Just for a moment – then she let the ship dive after him.
The mission was supposed to leave no witnesses. The explosion would take care of that little pesky detail. So she could reveal her presence in order to stop this attempt of either escaping or attempting to communicate with the outside world. Plus it was more of a challenge than flying around in circles.
Her sudden reveal threw the driver off enough to make the jeep steer abruptly to the left. But just for a moment.
Then he was back in full control. The jeep slowed down before turning away from its current path, allowing 479er to fly past him. Not that it made her give up the chase. She calmly adjusted the controlling handle to swerve back at him in an elegant arc.
Instead of heading down the beach towards his destination, the jeep had turned to drive between the buildings in an attempt to throw her off.
It didn’t work.
She went low enough to fly under a bridge, tilting the ship slightly to avoid letting the wings hit the sides of the buildings.
The jeep had increased its speed and started to swerve left and right as she tried to get in his way. All she needed was to get close enough and he was bound to make himself crash eventually in an attempt to avoid getting hit.
But it was taking longer than expected, and 479er found herself growing impres- no, amused fit better, with the challenge. She smiled smugly as she anticipated him trying to throw her off by making a sharp turn around the upcoming corner.
She leaned forward in her seat, ready to follow him with ease.
And it would have worked – had it not been for the palm that suddenly came into view, standing just a bit too close to the building for her to swerve around it. The left wing smashed into it, the tree breaking with the pressure, and while she doubted it’d leave permanent damage, it throw her off balance, and with the ship too close to the ground she found herself too late to pull up.
“Are you kidding me?!”
To be fair, 479er had suffered worse crashes. Much worse. And the island was even covered in sand which made for a soft landing as the ship finally skipped along the ground.
When it came to a stop the entire window was covered in a layer of sand. 479er stared at the golden cover for a second before slamming her fist against the control panel. “Goddamnit.” This was a beginner mistake, and a humiliating one at that. She was blaming the mist but she could not help but imagine the smug look on the driver’s face.
“I saw that,” North let her know, and just a moment afterwards he coughed awkwardly, apparently realizing the bluntness of his words.
She sent him a glare that she knew he could feel, despite them not being within each other’s vision. “Oh, you want to gloat about it? Let’s see how you’ll handle that maneuver-“
The rear hatch slowly fell down for her to step outside, and the feeling of sand beneath her boot was just odd. She was a pilot, made to fit in a cockpit and spend her remaining time walking around inside an even bigger spaceship. She could not remember the last time she had set foot on Earth.
“Uhm…” North backtracked and then his voice turned firm again as he switched back into mission-mode, “I’m lining him up – got him.”
From her location, she could hear the crash. At least the show-off had been dealt with. She let out a satisfied huff as she walked along the side of her ship until she reached the wing. Time to survey the damage, and she wasn’t in the mood for crossed fingers.
“I think we have a problem.”
As always, the Freelancers weren’t helping.
“You think?” 479er hissed back at North. “Because I am witnessing one right now.” She brushed away pieces of wood and some few long leaves. It looked she’d hit a fucking palm tree, and that was just almost laughable. At least the damage was not severe; a lowkey dent and some scratches.
She should have stopped polishing her aircrafts the moment she joined Project Freelancer. At least they’d be able to take off with no problem – unless she jinxed it. There was always a chance for that to happen.
479er looked down and shook some sand of her boot. That was a feeling to get used to.
She heard North’s voice inside her helmet again. “Uhm, my problem requires some attention. Oh, shit.”
Normally the agents would save their chitchat until after the mission had been completed. Either North was trying (and failing) to butter her up for a future request, or he’d just messed up big time if he truly needed her help.
But his last exclamation was heartfelt enough for her to frown. “What?” she asked and started marching in the direction from where the crash had sounded. It required her to walk up a sandy hill, while constantly wiping her visor with a gloved hand in hope it would somehow fix her limited vision.
When she finally found North, she almost walked into him. How he had even managed to shoot something in this mist was a wonder. But she’d heard him talk about thermal scanners. Plus everyone knew North had the best aim.
In fact, it seemed to be a bit too good today. “Oh, goddamn it.” She watched him drag a limp figure out of the wreck that had once been a warthog-like vehicle. Smaller, but still more sturdy than a Mongoose. Well, everything was more sturdy than a Mongoose. Especially with Iowa around.
Judging from the back of the vehicle, it must have been used for transportation of smaller crates. The space was empty now, as he’d probably just tried to get to the tower in order to get away.
It was, judging by look of it, understandable.
“I shot a kid,” North muttered quietly in shock. He laid down the body in front of them, and 479er instinctively kneeled down next to him. The medical courses she’d been forced through took control of her eyes: heavy bleeding from the torso, presumably from a gun-shot wound, as well as several cuts decorating the face. Some pieces of glass were still stuck in the dark hair, and she reached out to remove them, fingers brushing against the bump that was definitely to blame for his unconscious state.
North pulled down the collar to check the pulse and his shoulders slumped in relief.
“He’s not a-“ But 479er cut herself off as she glanced at the bruised face with a tilted head. The blood and the swelling made him seem older at first, but at a closer look it was clear they were not dealing with an adult. Just a fucking kid, well, teenager, who was currently out cold and bleeding out. Just perfect.
She sighed heavily. “Well, fuck.” With her thumb, she forced the eyelid open but he remained unresponsive.
North had his hand pressed against the wound, talking frantically to himself, “You don’t shoot kids. Or dogs. Who does that?”
“And here you are blowing up an island, but who am I to judge,” she muttered back and watched as the dark fabric steadily grew red.
That answer had her snorting, “Obviously, if they’re hiring goddamn kids.”
“This needs treatment,” North said shortly and proceeded to put his arms under his knees and armpits. He grunted as he hoisted him up. Despite his young age, the boy was heavy set.
In fact, had 479er been alone, she doubted she would have been able to move him. She was aware of her own lack of height. Not that it mattered when she was behind the control panel. She had other people move the heavy stuff. She was perfectly capable as she was. Things just tended to function better if she stayed inside a cockpit.
North had already begun to walk and the kid’s arm swung limply as he fastened his pace. 479er struggled to keep up. “Right,” she said, “Let’s dump him inside-“
“Bombs placed,” Illinois of course disturbed them through the radio. At least he was unaware of the situation – his timing was just horribly bad as always. “Can I order an extraction?”
“-the place you’re gonna blow up,” she finished her sentence with a sigh. Turing her head to glare at North, she told him, “You guys really make things easy for your surroundings.”
“What’s our time?” he asked the radio instead of replaying to her sarcasm.
“Three minutes until blast. Don’t supposed you could swing by E-Point A? North, you gonna join me or do I just wait in loneliness? You know how I love company.”
“You can always ask the guards for a dance.” He grunted again as he readjusted the weight of the wounded teen. “Already in the ship. See you in a few.”
479er halted for a moment, staring straight ahead as she watched him enter her ship. She frowned. “What are we doing?”
“We got that medkit in the ship.”
“Did I mention you guys’ bad habit of bleeding in my seats? Not a fan of it.” They stepped inside, blood and sand spilling on the metal floor. She turned her head to stare at the stranger: though unconscious, he still seemed to be in a lot of pain. “You just had to look at his face.”
“I don’t suppose you want to leave him here.”
“I’m the pilot – you’re the ones killing people. Hey, I don’t deserve this guilt trip, don’t go putting this on me.”
“You are the one who spotted him in the first place.” They stepped inside the cockpit and North lowered him into the copilot’s seat. Despite the gentle motion, it still caused a groan. “Hang on, kiddo,” he told him soothingly and pulled the fabric away from the wound again.
479er threw the medkit at him. Perhaps the motion was a bit to forceful than necessary. “Oh, let’s bitch at me for doing my job. This is just what happens when I step on actual ground.”
As he began to apply the biofoam, the kid moaned loudly, twisting in the seat with his eyes closed. 479er placed herself behind the control panel and looked away. She didn’t count herself as squeamish, but she wasn’t a medic either. The agents had been banged up so many times by now, they had to at least know some procedures.
Hopefully North wouldn’t kill the kid by accident. 479er knew him well enough to know it would make him sob the entire way home.
Plus a dead kid was not something she wanted on her conscience.
Her plans also didn’t involve dying in an explosion, so she brought the ship to life. The familiar rumble was somewhat soothing, enough for her to let herself lean back in her seat. As they left the ground, the sand fell from the window.
They’d barely reached proper height before Illinois called them again, “Are you two making popcorn?” They could hear gunshots in the background.
“You wish.” She then shut off the radio before turning to North who was getting his gloves more bloody at the second, “Hold him steady.”
He looked up at her. “Wha-“
He almost fell over when the ship accelerated, speeding towards the extraction point as fast as possible. 479er smirked behind her helmet. The sudden rush cleared her head: for a moment she just focused on their vertical speed and incoming obstacles. Maneuvering smoothly around the corner of the construction, she prepared to land on the southern part of the manufactory. An aqua figure was waiting on the roof.
For this brief moment she’d almost forgotten about their bleeding passenger. She pressed a button so the door to the cockpit slammed shut before opening the hatch for Illinois to enter.
“He could use a healing unit,” North let her know. Too bad she had none of those stored away on this ship.
She shrugged. “Won’t be doing him any good if we don’t get out of the blast range.” The moment she was sure Illinois was onboard, she flipped a button and prepared for sudden takeoff. “Hang on.”
Pulling down the lever as much as possible, she made sure they flew away from the island with as much speed as possible. Whatever Illinois had decided to mess up, it worked perfectly. When the countdown hit zero, she was able to feel just the last trace of the shockwave. Heavy explosives, of course, but that was only to be expected when dealing with Illinois.
She doubted the island looked pretty now, and with the distance to the mainland it would take too much precious time before any help could arrive. The kid should count himself lucky that North had decided to look at his face and bring him along. For now.
479er chewed her lip.
“Should be stable for a while,” North said with the kid breathing heavily next to him. “No bullet in there, so just a graze. Pretty heavy bleeding though.”
There was a knocking on the metal door behind them. “Are you two holding a party in there? And why am I not invited?”
479er didn’t answer but instead blindly searched for the nearest glove compartment where she dug out a dirty rag. She threw it at North whose reflexes kicked in. He grabbed with ease.
“Deal with that.” She threw a hand back, pointing at the closed door with her thumb.
North tried to wipe the worst blood smears off his gloves before stepping out. The door was only open briefly before 479er pressed the button again. North found himself visor to visor with Illinois.
“You two having fun in there?”
North let out an amused huff and walked a few feet down the cramped space. He shrugged to brush off the subject. “Just a minor emergency. You know how that goes.”
“You know I do.”
“Are you wriggling your eyebrows behind your visor again?” North glared at Illinois for second before sighing and turning to rest his back against the wall. “Think everything went smoothly?”
Illinois placed himself in front of him. There were a few scratches in the aqua armor near his left shoulder, but obviously nothing alarming. He crossed his arms. “Should be blamed on an overheated core. A lot of sketchy stuff going on down there.”
“Yep. Real sketchy.”
“So accidents happen.”
“They sure do.”
Then they fell silent. North kept tapping his fingers against his armor plate on his upper arm, head turning towards the closed door every so often.
“Not how I remember it,” Illinois broke the silence with an uncharacteristically somber voice.
North looked at him again. “What?”
“Hawaii,” the other agent said. “That wasn’t really the place you would settle down on a sunbed. I don’t know – do explosions give you tan?”
After another gentle huff, North told him, “That’s probably a question for another day.”
Illinois nodded. “You hurt?” he asked and gestured towards the crimson spots that decorated the purple armor at the waist and down the legs.
“Yeah, uhm, stubbed a toe. Hang on a minute.”
North hurried to the door where he had to knock twice before he was let in. Inside the cockpit 479er was currently busy, just finishing a call through the ship’s radio. “Right. Roger that, Command.”
The kid was still out cold with the blood beginning to dry around the ugly bruises. North sighed as he crouched down next to him. “Don’t suppose there’s a nearby hospital we can-“
“Command wants us back in five,” 479er told him sharply. Her jaw was set as she stared straight ahead.
“Well… We could try telling them we’re late?”
“Sure,” she snorted bitterly, the stress causing her to handle the controls with jerky and harsh movements. “And a ship just appearing out of nowhere to drop off an injured teenager won’t be the cause of any unwanted attention. Make yourself useful and look for some identification.”
His uniform had been partly shredded during the wreck, not the mention the blood staining it, but North carefully patted the pockets until he found what he was looking for. It was tucked away safely inside a pocket in his vest. “Got a driver’s license,” he called out and proceeded to throw it at the pilot who grabbed it without turning her head.
As she held it in front of her visor, she looked it over with a frown. The age said 16, and the picture showed a teenage boy who didn’t smile to the camera. He was a native from the looks of it, with his dark hair pulled back. His set jaw and bags under his eyes made him look older than he probably was, but there was something in his big eyes that made her uncertain.
She’d never liked guessing ages, not after a growing up with people always assuming her years younger than her actual age. Just the pains of growing up as a scrawny kid.
His eyes stole her attention as it was a set of mismatched irises that stared back at her: one eye was brown, the other one a bright blue. She pushed aside that detail and instead focused on the overall quality of the bloodstained license. It didn’t speak in his favor.
“It’s fake,” she declared shortly and adjusted their current speed.
North looked up at her. “How would you-“
“I learned to tell. Wherever he got this from, he got it cheap.” She dropped it to the floor. “There’re two things where you should never go down on quality: jet engines and your illegal paperwork.”
“I’ll have to take your word for that.” The kid reminded them of his presence again by groaning and North turned around to fuss over him again, gentle hands checking the wound. “Sorry, bud.”
479er felt a weird twinge in her gut as they entered the darkness of space. Strange – she’d never suffered from motion sickness. “You think he’s gonna make it?” she asked, mentally debating her choices.
“Biofoam’s working but that’s only temporary.”
She inhaled sharply. “This is definitely not a part of my job description.”
“Well, you’re doing it anyway.” From the way North said it, it almost sounded like a praise. They both looked out of the window towards the approaching Mother of Invention, and he asked, “You sure this is a good idea?”
“When did I say this was a good idea?” As she steered the ship into the landing bay, she narrowed her eyes as she came up with a stupid plan to fix this stupid situation. “Let’s call it a short-term solution, and not even a good one.”
479er looked down at the floor where the driver license was staring up at her. She couldn’t help but read the name again, a drop of blood almost erasing the last name.