SHIFT TENSE is the second installment of the Eshu International series. This page is a chance for me to offer early versions of scenes for free. I’m certain there will be revisions as the novel progresses, but I wanted folks to get a feel for the story. Comments welcome. Excellent illustrations by wOlly at Rebel Star Studios. Thanks.
CHAPTER TWO – TINKERBELL PAYLOAD
Latvian coast, Merger of Baltic Nations. 50 km south of Ventspils.
Pitch black at two a.m., a winter storm was shrieking off the Baltic Sea. Swarms of ice chips pinged off my face plate like glass slivers, their single abrading note keening through the skeletal metal frame around me. I was upside down with fifteen meters of empty air under me, a single scrawny I-beam at my back, and I couldn’t move a muscle. I just dangled there, tucked and tight, like some giant origami bat, battered by the wind.
With twenty minutes to extraction, I had been climbing a small crane to provide top cover when a Soviet-era KA-50 “Werewolf” assault chopper practically materialized right in front of me. Evil bastard dropped out of the sky so fast I slipped in my rush to disappear. That’s why I was hanging off a ladder with all my gear, blood rushing to my head, clutching eight girthy kilograms of Vychlop .50 cal sniper rifle, and trying very hard to look like a piece of machinery.
Sometimes I hate my job.
Rotors snarled in the brittle air behind me, suspicious and sadistic. The prying white of a searchlight snapped on, hard shadows suddenly lurching all around me.
I blinked away eye spots and exhaled slowly. Devious gusts swayed me back and forth. My armored vest was slipping, gathering around my chest and chin like it wanted to slither over my face and fall right off.
My arms started trembling.
My knees started screaming from being locked around the ladder rung.
My chest and shoulders glazed stiff with icy build-up. My stomach muscles cramped. Sweat ran inside my helmet from my neck into my eyes. Shadows expanded, the shredding closed in. Loitered.
Four minutes. Five.
Sometimes I really hate my job.
Then, as fast as it came, the copter darted off and began probing the trees along the dirt road from town. The engine roar faded, the wind came back. My heart started again.
“Oh, oh. Oryol is sumamente pissed,” Poet9’s voice sang in my helmet.
“The explosion woke up the whole damn place.” Tam snapped.
“You told Mopsy to stop the van.”
“I didn’t mean with a rocket launcher.”
“Well, there must have been eight Ivan’s in it.” Poet9 tried to sound reasonable.
Tam sighed. “Which is why that Werewolf will be back. They’re not sure if we’ve left yet.”
“Hey,” I gasped. “Can I. Move now?”
“Oh… yeah. Sure.” Tam answered.
I unfolded carefully. “You want me up or down?” I set the heavy rifle on a beam below me, wiped the ice off and tugged my body armor back into place. “We’ll need the Finger of God if company’s coming.”
“Not with that thing in the air. Find cover on the ground. Triplets will watch the road. I need you to help Curro with the ladies and hustle them into the boat when it arrives. We need to vacate the premises right fucking now.”
“Speaking of the ladies …” I started climbing down.
Curro’s soft Spanish lilt came over the radio. “The ladies are here under the dome with me. Daughter’s a little scared, but Mom’s got it under control. We’re ready when you are.”
Curro was hunkered down under a tiny thermal-masking pop-up in a clump of trees some twenty five meters away from the shore. The “ladies” were our objective for this run: the wife and young daughter of a Ukrainian micro-robotics engineer who’d gone over the wire to Microsoft International. Somehow the Americans had finagled our services from Dawson Hull, our usual employer, and that’s why we were hiding with his family by an abandoned fishing pier on the Latvian coast on a winter night being chased by Russian security.
Now I know DH hadn’t grown a conscience and gotten all family friendly. There must have been some heavy boardroom deals to send us on an errand for the Americans, but our swift and silent extraction had turned into a smash and grab, so it wasn’t the best time to speculate on corporate relations. Our immediate concern was to get them – and us – out safe.
My boots touched gravel and a siren started wailing in the distance. Security at the RSC Energia campus must have checked the apartment and connected the dots. I jogged away from the crane, keeping an eye on the road. “The Ravens up?”
“Oh yeah, ” Poet9 breathed. “All three. Carrying surprises, too.”
I knelt behind a small tin-roofed shed near the longest of the three piers. “Not again.” I heard Tam say.
“You’ll love it. Pure genius.” Poet9 answered.
“So where’s our ride?” I asked.
“Coming. I sent the ready signal.” I could almost hear Tam’s finger stroking the trigger.
“Oh, muy bueno” Poet9 snorted. “Can anyone say ‘blue screen of doom’? DH should have let us do our own exit, instead of relying on the Microsofties. We have a perfectly good STAB of our —”
“You’re not helping.” Tam interrupted. “Curro, I’ll call once we see the boat. Stay under wraps until then. No heroics.”
“Si.” He answered.
I had just found a decent spot out of the knifing wind when Cottontail’s voice sounded out. “Contact. Two vehicles approaching on the dirt road. One truck and one SUV.”
“Raven Two has three more vehicles less than five minutes behind ’em.” Poet9 added.
Tam was already up and sprinting toward the Triplets. “Activate mines. Engage vehicles when ready,” he said crisply. “Poet, maintain the Raven feeds. Jace, be ready for that boat.”
Tam vanished into the tree line and I ran to a small rise next to a garage. More like a trash pile, it wasn’t the best position, but it gave me a little height, and some sickly scrub brush provided a hint of cover. Most important, I had a clear shot up the road. I watched Poet9, his massive Walther in one hand, lug the Raven’s Boss Box over to where Curro was hiding, then I flicked on my rifle’s optics and sighted on the approaching headlights.
A small Korean cheap-jeep blossomed in my scope. Light colored, it charged toward us, bouncing and swerving like a thing possessed. The Russian muscle wanted their principles back. Behind it, an old Mercedes panel truck struggled to keep up. The jeep slewed around the bend spraying sand, righted, then shot forward straight towards the first pier.
The Mercedes slammed to a halt. With the wash-out compensators in the scope, I could see body shapes swimming in the green-white glare of burning jeep. Figures were leaping out of the back, fanning out to either side. They ran forward, then scuttled back from the flames. No survivors there. If we were very lucky and the Russians very stupid, the jeep had been carrying their officers.
The men from the truck assumed defensive positions and dropped out of sight. Ten seconds. Thirty. No shots, no motion. Seemed no one wanted to go first and knock on our door.
Then someone started barking orders. Either there had been an officer in the truck or some Alpha-type wanted a promotion. So much for luck. Eventually, six of the Russian security soldiers appeared, wary, unwilling to leave the protective bulk of the Mercedes.
I found the loud one in the back and settled crosshairs on his torso. Real commissar type. He was bellowing, urging the rest of them forward with big slashes and chops of his arms. My finger took up half the slack. I waited for Tam’s signal.
There was motion on either side of the road: things scurrying through the grass. I squeezed the trigger as the spider mines went off; the boom covered by a rapid Crack-Hiss. The officer tumbled back and suddenly there was screaming. Claymores with legs, Tam calls them. With the brain of a gerbil, Poet9 always added.
Screams turned to moans turned to wind again. I swept the area through the scope. Flames were the only thing moving on that road. Ten, maybe twelve men had just died, and none of us fired a shot.
Poet9 updated us. “Raven One has zero movement in killbox, but Raven Two has those three other vehicles coming fast. There’s a forth one leaving town. Cossacks are riding hard.”
“Raven Three?” I asked.
“No contacts on the water.”
“Helicopter?” Tam demanded.
“No sign of it.”
“Screw the helicopter. Where’s. The. Damn. Boat?” I demanded.
“It’s coming.” Tam snapped back.
“Three vehicles have stopped half a klick out. Figures dismounting.” Poet9 said. “Carajo. Fifteen. No, twenty plus, coming our way. And we’re out of mines.”
Tam muttered something nasty in Korean then ordered the Triplets forward. Cottontail spoke one phrase, something short and sharp in their Zulu combat argot, and the three big clones ghosted into the woods.
I chinned the video from Raven One and Oryol boys popped up on my helmet’s H.U.D. Twenty one of them were spread out in a skirmish line, trotting along the road in a hurry. These guys wanted the ladies back something fierce. Most sported compact AK-9 assault rifles but I spotted at least four Pecheneg LMGs and a RG8 40mm grenade launcher. What Oryol Security lacked in finesse they made up in blunt force trauma.
The Ivans were about a hundred meters from the curve in the road when three grenades exploded, followed by the deep stutter of H&K G46s. “Contact.” Cottontail said simply.
The Russians’ response was almost immediate. Definitely not mall security wash-outs. They reacted fast and vicious, opening up with everything they had. Continuous muzzle flash washed out the drone’s video, so I cut the feed and waited. The chainsaw growl ripped through the night for a full minute then fell silent all at once.
Cottontail’s voice sounded in my helmet a second later. “Repositioning to beta.”
I brought up Raven One again, and this time the view was from behind the Russian troopers. Sixteen figures were now creeping toward the bend. Not bad. Not good, but not bad. And they were heading straight to our Nightingale.
An old trick out of the Spec Ops black bag, a Nightingale Device is a one meter by one and a half meter mesh net rigged with firecrackers and cherry bombs. Add a remote detonator, press ‘play’ and it looks and sounds like a platoon unloading on full auto.
The Russians were around the curve, four teams leapfrogging down the road in angry spurts. They had blood in their teeth and they knew we were still here.
Seventy five meters from the first pier, Cottontail spoke again. “Beta position. Engaging.”
First, the Nightingale erupted on the right and the Oryol teams swung into it like it was another ambush, furiously unloading into the woods again. I saw bushes and small trees collapsing. Thirty seconds into their response, the Triplets hit them from behind, Another five went down, and the rest scattered like leaves in a gale.
One team took made the mistake of taking cover behind what was left of the jeep. The Vychlop slammed into my shoulder twice before the other two scurried back to the Mercedes.
The Nightingale stopped, allowing the Russians to regroup and focus on the Triplets, but they were wary and off-balance, and our Killer Bunnies picked them off steadily. A no-neck with the grenade launcher was thumping out 40mm rounds, but Tam’s Tavor 24 coughed sharply and he stopped.
Things were definitely looking up. Now if that boat would just show up …
Eyes still on the road, I spotted the bounce of approaching headlights the same moment Poet9 sang out. “Fourth vehicle coming fast.”
A large black van swung around the Mercedes truck and blew past the burning jeep.
“Kill it.” Tam ordered.
A Bumblebee rocket screeched out of the woods and caught the van in the rear. It exploded Hollywood-style, flipping end over end and tumbled to a halt, blazing in smaller pieces.
Each of the Bunnies carried a single-use RPO-M thermobaric launcher. Made to crack hardened concrete bunkers, using them to radically disassemble vehicles was definite overkill. Whatever works though…
“Raven Three has water contact coming our way.” Poet9 spoke up.”Our ride’s here.”
“Better late than never.” Tam murmured. “Disengage and fall back to third pier. Curro, Poet, get the women into the boat.”
I stayed on my garbage heap and kept my eyes glued on the road. Once again, no one was moving up there. That last display must have gutted Oryol’s slavic zeal.
As the thrum of outboard motors grew behind me, Poet9 emerged from hiding and ran across the road. He was still jacked in to the Ravens’ controller and waving his oversized pistol. Curro followed more slowly, sheltering the mother with his body. He’d given her his jacket, and she was carrying her young daughter in her arms. They went past me and headed to the end of the pier.
Tam and the Triplets loosed a final round of grenades and tri-bursts. Still no response. Not like Ivans to widdle their knickers, but far be it from me to interrupt when my opponent is making a mistake. Tam and the Triplets broke from the tree line at a dead run straight towards me.
Still no motion up the road.
The Triplets settled into position around me and Tam tapped my shoulder as he ran past. I got up and followed him down the pier.
The Microsoft boat was a Code X clone: chiseled long and low, with a cabin bulge at the rear. It was covered in mimetic smart-camo, so its surface flashed with the heave of moonlit waves. Curro and Poet9 had already helped the two women down the ladder. The wiry Mexican was still jacked in, but he flashed a smile up at me.
“Home free, homie”. I gave him a thumbs up. I was spending my percentage already.
“We’re leaving.” Tam called over the radio, and the Triplets rose out of the shadows and ran towards us. They were halfway down the pier when the Werewolf returned and all my sugar turned to shit.
“Drop it.” Tam ordered. Flospy skidded to a halt, tugged the launcher tube off his back. A thread of fire lanced up into the sky straight toward the helicopter.
That Russian pilot executed one of the most incredible feats of flying I’d ever seen. The twin rotor assault chopper literally spun in a three-sixty and sidestepped the rocket. It came around facing us head on again fifty feet from its original position. I’d never been so impressed and horrified at the same time.
The searchlight snapped on again, this time accompanied by a quick belch of its 30mm gun. The water geysered directly in front of us.
God. Damn. It.
Tam, the Triplets, and I froze like mystics with a peek at apotheosis. And between the roar of the storm, the helicopter’s engine, the bright light, and the threat of instant death, it was like God speaking doom out of a tornado.
All of a sudden, another sound barged in on that weirdly sacred moment, so normal as to seem profane: the loud buzz of fans. It seemed to swoop in from all around us, and I heard three tiny pops before it vanished. A split second later there was a soft grinding noise.
It grew louder, and louder.
The searchlight dipped. Righted itself, then dipped again.
The grinding morphed into a rasp, and the Werewolf’s nose dropped. The engine began to shriek.
The five of us stared, still rooted in place, as the pilot began to struggle for control. The helicopter dropped down, began to wobble back and forth like a drunk. The shriek became a grating howl, and suddenly the helicopter reeled up and away, lunging toward land.
“Go, go, go!” Tam shouted, and the five of us jumped into the boat. Twin Ilmor Formula One engines purred and we shot into the frigid darkness on the Baltic Sea.
The shoreline fell away. I started breathing again for a second time that night.
“What just happened?” Tam said out loud. “What was that?”
I stared at Curro. “Your mom praying again?” He only laughed.
“All you need is trust and a little bit of pixie dust.” Poet9 warbled. “Knew it would work.”
The Triplets turned in unison. “Peter Pan!” they boomed out, big grins on their faces.
Tam blinked twice. “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is ‘pixie dust’?”
“Mostly sand, with metal shavings and chaff to spice it up. Slight drag on the Ravens’ aerodynamics, but when that chopper came back, I stuka-ed it and blew all three at the rotor assembly.”
My jaw dropped.”Sorry?”
“I was worried RSC Energia might have their own drones over the facility, and seeing as missiles are too obvious, I rigged each of the Ravens with a Tinkerbell payload.” Poet9 explained. “Each Raven had two kilos of pixie dust in a fiberglass canister. Stuff will wreck any drone engine.”
“You know it would work on the chopper?” I asked.
“Nope.” He shrugged. “But I figured it was worth a shot.”
“Holy shit.” Tam said slowly.
“For God’s sake, don’t tell her about tonight, ok?” Tam pleaded. Curro laughed again, and handed a mug of tea to the mother.
I looked over at the two women. Both of them wrapped in blankets, the daughter was fast asleep and her mother was brushing hair out of her round, little face. She saw me looking and smiled back. Everything was right in their world now. They were warm and safe, going to be reunited with a loved one in a better country, for a better company. This one turned out alright.
Sometimes I love my job.
Seven hundred fifteen horsepower throbbed steadily under our feet, carrying us further into the deep black of the Baltic night. Finding a Code X stealth boat anytime was a task; throw in a storm like this and the Russians would never trace us. Ever. This run was over.
Poet9 spoke up. He had jacked in to the boat’s main console. “I told Rao we were clear, and he’s relayed that to the Microsofties. Balance will be in the bank tomorrow.” He unplugged the cable from the Interface Unit on the side of his head. “And he says not to get too comfortable. D-H is sending Hester around tomorrow to brief us on our next job.”
I looked out at the storm swirling past the windows. “I hope it’s somewhere warm.”