I meant to write this earlier, but unfortunately the dreaded real life got in the way <grin>
First, Wedding Hells is on its way to the editors. My beta readers were kind enough to identify areas that need some work, so the book will be given a pretty through hammering by the editors, then heavily edited by me. I’m not looking forward to this, of course, but it has to be done.
Second, I’m currently doing the final edits on Team Omega, which is a story that combines military heroics with superhumans. I’ll upload a snippet below this message for your pleasure. Once I’ve done the edits, written an afterword and finalised the cover, the book will be on sale at Amazon. I think Team Omega is pretty much the last of the books I’ve held back for editing – for the moment, you can download the semi-prequel for free once I have it uploaded to my site. (They’re migrating the servers or something and I don’t have it set up properly yet.) You don’t need to read the prequel to understand what’s happening in Team Omega, but you might like it.
Third, I’ve written a short story for Elsewhen Press’s planned anthology of writers – The Girl In Black, featuring the Royal Sorceress herself, Lady Gwen. I don’t have any news on the planned publication date, but I’ll update you when it comes out. I’m still mulling over plot concepts for the fourth Royal Sorceress book, currently entitled The Sons of Liberty.
Fourth, I have some updates on audio books. A Small Colonial War (now available in paperback from CreateSpace) should be coming out in November. The next book in The Empire’s Corps has been delayed, but should hopefully be coming out at around the same time.
Fifth, I have started writing Storm Front, the first book in the planned Twilight Of The Gods trilogy, featuring a civil war in 1985 Nazi Germany. (In hindsight, perhaps I should have set the book in 1984, but it’s only a year.) You can read a snippet on my blog.
And, in other news, Eric is now learning to stand up. <grin>.
Thank you for your kind attention. Here is your snippet.
Team Omega Cover Blurb
The next war will be a superhuman war.
Superhumans! They fly through the skies like gods; superhumans, men and women who have gained extraordinary powers. Some are celebrities, some rule entire countries, some just try to lead normal lives … and some are criminals.
Jackson McDonald, USMC, fought and killed a superhuman who threatened to tear Camp Pendleton apart. His reward is to be invited to join Team Omega, an elite black-ops military unit tasked with dealing with rogue superhumans.
But one superhuman has plans. He will save the world, even if it doesn’t want to be saved…
And no matter who tries to stop him.
There is something of a funny story behind how this book came to be written.
When I was at university, I discovered Stormwatch – a comic that had been newly taken over by Warren Ellis – and fell in love. Stormwatch was a far darker take on both superhumans and the effect they would have on the world. Their replacement by The Authority only cemented the concept for me. As Mark Miller’s opening lines, when he took over the comic, stated, what happens when superheroes go after the real bastards?
Think about it. Superman and Batman fight supervillains and costumed kooks – this was before Injustice: Gods Amongst Us. (I actually wrote the first draft of this before Injustice came out.) They don’t, as a general rule, go after dictators, real-life criminals and suchlike. The Authority’s take was largely revolutionary at the time, at least to me. Unfortunately, it didn’t last.
And then a new Stormwatch series came out. This one, entitled Stormwatch: Team Achilles, was an even better concept. A team of elite soldiers, without any effective superpowers, would tackle superhumans who were genuine threats, rather than leave them to other superhumans. I loved the series, particularly when they took on and bested the Authority; I won’t say it didn’t have its flaws, but I enjoyed it. The news that the Authority was actually going to be taking over the United States – Coup D’état – struck me as an excellent storyline. There could not fail, I thought, to be a genuine test of both teams …
Naturally, it fell flat. The almighty reset button was hit and nothing actually changed.
But what would happen, I asked myself, if real superhumans took on real bastards? What would this do to them? And who would oppose them?
This book was the result. Enjoy!
“At ease, Marine.”
Chester Harrison looked up at the young man in front of him and raised his eyebrows. “Is that as relaxed as you get, young man?”
“Yes, sir,” Lance Corporal Jackson McDonald said.
He was young and fit, with his hair shaved close to his scalp. Chester knew that the USMC had considered him one of their most promising enlisted men, with a promotion to Sergeant delayed only by his habit of picking fights and insubordination when not on active duty. Looking at him, Chester felt unfit, almost overweight. The life of a desk jockey, even a desk in the Pentagon, wasn’t the same as a person on active duty.
“I need to know what happened at Camp Pendleton,” Chester said. He’d read the reports, including the one McDonald had written himself, but he needed to hear it from the man’s own lips. “What happened on that day?”
“It’s in my report, sir,” McDonald said, stiffly. He hadn’t enjoyed writing the report, any more than his superiors had enjoyed reading it. Nineteen Marines dead and five more on the critical list…and no one even knew why. “You can read it all there.”
“I need to hear it from you,” Chester said, softly. “What happened that day?”
“What happened?” For the first time, McDonald showed a trace of emotion. Horror…and remembered fear. “What happened was a goddamned nightmare.”
Sergeant Bass considered himself to be the very model of a Marine Corps Sergeant—and that included disciplining the young men in his platoon. Jackson was rowdy, all day every day, and Bass took it as a personal challenge. After an argument in the barracks that went straight to a fight, Bass had sent Jackson out on a punishment detail- they needed sandbags. Two thousand of them, to be precise. Jackson could secure them on his own, but if there weren’t two thousand sandbags filled to standard, stacked nice and neat, he’d be back at it tomorrow. And the day after. Probably the day after that, too.
All day long, Jackson had cursed his luck, hating how he’d been seconded over to the Recruit Training Battalion at Pendleton. What he would give to be back in the field. In six years, he’d done four deployments there, and thoroughly enjoyed it every time. Why couldn’t he just be sent out to a Marine unit on actual operations? Being in the field was what he lived for, not coaching recruits on how to shoot the M-16A2.
He heard the explosion just as he came over the hill towards the parade deck, headed back to the barracks. It looked as if someone had smuggled a bomb into the Camp, perhaps one of the Mexican terrorist groups that kept threatening the integrity of the US border. He ran towards the sound of the blast, forgetting his anger at the Sergeant in the fear that one of his brothers might be injured. Alarms were going off everywhere as he ran into one of the PT compounds used for recruits—and saw a man tearing through Marines as if they were made of paper.
Two Marines, armed with M-16s, were trying to gun the intruder down, but the bullets were merely bouncing off his skin. Jackson realised, with a thrill of horror, that he was looking at his first superhuman. He’d heard about them, of course, yet he’d never seen one before. But any fascination was washed away by the grim awareness that the intruder had already killed a dozen Marines and seemed intent on murdering dozens more.
The superhuman roared as bullets hit his eye—it was clear that he could feel pain, even if the bullets couldn’t penetrate his skin—and lunged at the two guards. He caught one of them, picked him up and threw him through the air towards a helicopter that was flying over the camp. The hapless Marine missed the helicopter and fell somewhere towards LA. His buddy backed off hastily, only to be caught and physically ripped apart. Jackson saw blood splashing on the ground and realised, in horror, that he would be the next victim…
“I put it all together without realising it,” he admitted. Chester listened carefully as he outlined the story. “Maybe he was strong enough to pick up a tank and maybe he was tough enough to survive a bullet striking his body, but he still needed to breathe.”
Yelling wouldn’t get the bastard’s attention, but a mattock to the dome piece? That would work just fine. Jackson threw it overhand, watching it sail through the air end over end till it slammed point first directly into the back of the asshole’s head. Slowly, he turned until he saw a Marine in dirt-and-sweat stained utilities, shovel by his side.
Seeing that he had the super’s attention, Jackson raised the middle finger on either hand. Then he ran, trusting that the superhuman wouldn’t hesitate to give chase. The man didn’t seem to have any form of super-speed, thankfully; he just lunged after Jackson with a loping stride that suggested that he knew that he was invincible. No one would be able to stop him even if they caught him.
Gritting his teeth, Jackson looked back and saw that he’d put some distance between himself and his pursuer. Thank you, Staff Sergeant Fischer, for making us run up and down all these damned hills with those damned mortars. We might not be the smartest Marines, but we’ll damned well outmaneuver anybody.
Up ahead, the low, squat building was awaiting Jackson. He ran through the open door, then slammed it closed behind him, as if he were trying to hide inside.
A few minutes later, the superhuman burst into the chamber, lungs sucking down air in great noisy drafts. Three miles across broken road was never easy on the untrained. The superhuman looked around, puzzled: where had his quarry disappeared to?
The door behind him slammed shut. He whirled around, finding a quartet of grenades lying on the ground. The superhuman smiled, waiting for the inevitable blast.
Jackson stood outside the door, holding a gas mask in one hand while he kept a sharp eye on his watch. Part of his training during the thirteen weeks of boot camp had involved the vaunted Gas Chamber. The recruits would enter, suited up in MOPP gear, do several minutes of calisthenics and then break the seal while Drill Instructors demanded their name, platoon and all manner of Marine Corps knowledge. All in all, a miserable, god-awful experience.
He smiled, darkly. He hoped the superhuman was enjoying it as much as the recruits.
Thirty-seven seconds, he thought. Plenty of time to suck down a shitload of pain.
Picking up a fire extinguisher, he stepped into the chamber. It felt like combat all over again, a chemical cocktail of dopamine and adrenaline pumping through his body. The superhuman had fallen to the ground, twitching and coughing as if he were still trying to throw up everything in his stomach. His hands were tearing at his face, trying to claw the irritants away. It was pointless.
Quite calmly, Jackson pushed the extinguisher into the man’s mouth and pulled the trigger.
Two minutes later, it was all over.
“Your report stated that you made the decision to kill him without consulting anyone,” Chester said, when McDonald reached the end of his story. “Do you think that that was a wise decision?”
“I think that there was no way he could be secured and taken away before he recovered from the gas,” McDonald said, flatly. “And he had killed a number of Marines. The only thing I could do was kill him before he recovered and ripped my head off, sir.”
Chester could almost read the Marine’s mind. He had been the person on the spot, the sole person to figure out a way to end the crisis before it claimed more innocent lives…and yet he was being second-guessed by some Washington deskbound bureaucrat who wouldn’t know an M-16 from a broomstick.
But there would be repercussions from this incident, even though no one had—as yet—figured out who the superhuman had been, or why he had had a grudge against the United States Marine Corps. The CIA, FBI, SDI and Interpol had all drawn a blank. It was quite possible that the superhuman had been nothing more than an unregistered superhuman, but it was equally possible that the attack on Camp Pendleton could be the first shot in the long-feared superhuman war. Superhumans had upset the balance of power between the world’s nations ever since they had first appeared.
“You’re not in trouble, Marine,” he said, as reassuringly as he could. But he wasn’t really there to be reassuring. “You kept your head when others panicked and you took down a superhuman opponent. Not everyone can make the same claim.”
He smiled at McDonald’s reaction. Superhumans weren’t invincible, but they did tend to intimidate the hell out of people. The police preferred to back off and call for the military if there was even a hint that a superhuman was involved, while calls for mass registrations of superhumans had failed because there were fears that superhumans would turn on the government. Some could live normal lives, passing for mundane humans. Others were physical freaks, marked as superhuman whatever they did. Far too many of them had been driven into the underworld by suspicion and bigotry. Chester regretted that, as much as he regretted anything, but it didn’t keep him from having to deal with the consequences.
“Your platoon has been scattered by the attack,” he continued. “I would like to offer you a transfer to my unit…”
McDonald gaped at him. “Your unit, sir?”
“My unit,” Chester confirmed. He looked like a Washington paper-pusher; hell, he was a Washington paper-pusher. But he served as the director of a unit that was probably more important than any other in the era of the superhuman. “Your superiors have consented to your immediate transfer, assuming you want to take up the position.”
“I see,” McDonald said. He was too young to hide his scepticism. “And what exactly does this unit do?”
Chester smiled. “We kill superhumans,” he said. “Interested?”
"You’ve got my attention, sir," McDonald replied.
Chester explained, as best as he could. “Superhumans show an alarming series of personality traits—almost disorders—after they become superhuman. These tend to fall into several different categories. Some believe that they are heroes and have a right to save people, some become instant assholes and decide that they have the right to take what they want, some just want to hide from their powers…and some want revenge on people who tormented them before they became superhuman. It is comparatively rare to find a superhuman who can be considered suitable for the military—and most of those who are tend to be among the lesser powers.
“This gives us a major problem. We have had superhumans turn divorce courts into murder chambers, superhuman heroes who injure or kill criminals they catch while on patrol and plenty of villains whose only concern is getting all the money and women they want in the world. And then there are the superhumans serving in foreign countries as part of their defence forces. I assume you’ve heard some of the rumours about Iraq.”
McDonald nodded. The Protector of Iraq, himself a superhuman, had created a superhuman force to defend the country’s borders. They were allowed to indulge themselves in almost any way they wanted, provided they served the Protector’s country. Some of the rumours flooding out of Iraq were downright terrifying.
And Iraq wasn’t even the worst problem in the world.
“Fighting a superhuman opponent doesn’t have to be a death sentence—but you know that already,” Chester concluded. “Team Omega’s task is to monitor the world’s superhumans and, should it be necessary, take them down one by one. Should you agree to join, you’ll serve as part of a small force of elite soldiers and intelligence operatives, working from the shadows to keep the world safe for humanity. You won’t get credit for your work, but you will have the satisfaction of knowing that you’re doing something that no one else can do.”
He smiled at McDonald’s stunned expression. “Your superiors have already approved a week’s leave for you,” he added. “You have that long to decide what you want to do.”
“I have questions,” McDonald said, slowly.
“I can’t answer them, not until you’re all the way in,” Chester said. “Team Omega does not—officially—exist. The government fears what will happen when the superhuman community becomes aware of its existence. It is possible they will react against the government as a whole.”
He shrugged and stood up, holding out a hand. “Thank you for coming to see me,” he said, as if McDonald hadn’t been ordered to attend. “Should you decide to join us, your superiors will give you your final set of orders.”
One week after that first fateful meeting, Jackson found himself reporting to a small military base located within Andrews Air Force Base. It looked rather more like one of the makeshift FOBs he’d staged patrols out of in Latin America instead of a proper office space, complete with bunkers sporting auto-cannons behind layers of concrete, earth barriers and sand bags. Security was tight, he noted with approval; the guards checked his ID at two separate checkpoints before they allowed him to drive into the parking lot. The interior of the base was fenced, too, making it difficult for a body to move from section to section without the right ID.
Someone was being careful. Very careful.
He pushed through the door to the admin building and stepped inside. The secretary behind the desk smiled as she looked him over. “ID and retina scan, please.”
The machine chirped as Jackson looked into it, and then she stood.
"Please follow me." She led him down the hall to an open hatch and called to someone inside. "Sir, that Marine’s here."
"Have him report in," came a clipped voice.
Jackson pounded on the pine board nailed up beside the hatch frame.
Jackson stepped in, rapidly appraising the office’s inhabitants. Eight men in black coveralls with the insignia of their service branch were seated on a long bench. He marched to the center of the room, heels coming together swiftly, right hand rising to the corner of his eyebrow in a salute.
"Good afternoon, gentlemen!"
"Good afternoon," the uniformed man replied. "Stand at ease."
Jackson spread his feet, hands dropping into the small of his back. He was on unfamiliar ground here, and it was best to stay stiff until he knew the terrain.
"Lance Corporal, you know why you’re here," one of the men said in a colorless voice. "What you don’t know is these gentlemen, and what their purpose is."
"Most units conduct initiation via a purpose-driven schoolhouse and training that forces people to fail. We don’t need to test physical acumen. Every man in Omega is a graduate of those schools. Rather, we need to know your mental capacity and discipline. Between the eight of us here there’s a combined 117 years military service. Delta, Seals, Recon, even Air Force PJs. Gentlemen, you may begin."
"Lance Corporal, it says here…"
Four hours after he entered the office, Jackson was dismissed. He’d passed, though it had not been without some reservation on the part of one or two officers. But he could live with that. He sat down in the anteroom, waiting. Presently a door opened, admitting a dark-skinned man who had been one of his questioners, wearing a pair of plain black coveralls.
“I’m Lane,” the man said, holding out a hand. “Just Lane. Any jokes about my daughter marrying Clark Kent will not be appreciated.”
Jackson had to smile. “Jackson McDonald, Marine Corps.”
“Not any longer,” Lane said. “You’re Team Omega now, and don’t you forget it. We’re a little bit more relaxed than most military organisations, but if I catch you giving me less than your all, you’ll regret it. I’m Field Team Leader for Team One. Any questions?”
“Yes, sir,” Jackson said, carefully. “How many teams are there?”
“Four,” Lane said. He turned and headed towards a door, leading Jackson into a long corridor decorated with photographs of famous superhumans. “Four teams, plus the researchers who dig up most of the shit we use against the capes, the intelligence group who spy on the capes and the admin workers who do the paperwork. All four teams are expected to be combat ready at all times; Team One and Two are based here, Team Three and Four over on the west coast somewhere. Right now, Two is on QRA and One is standing down.”
He snorted. “In the event of Two being scrambled, One will come to full alert and you—until you are cleared to work with us—will go to your room and stay there until we let you out. Once you’ve been checked out on the equipment, you will be training with us until we decide that you’re fit to join officially. We’ll probably still be a little leery of you until you actually see action, but don’t take it personally.”
“I’ve been a Nugget before sir,” Jackson said. It happened in all military units; the new guy was regarded with some suspicion until he proved himself. Smart commanders kept it firmly under control. Less capable commanders sometimes let it get out of hand. “I know the score.”
“Glad to hear it,” Lane said. He pushed through a swing door and into a briefing room. “As Chester probably explained to you, our mission is to identify, monitor and eliminate dangerous superhumans. Principally, we deal with the psychopaths, the rogues and the dangerous criminals. Some of the bastards are pretty much celebrities and we have to be careful about how we deal with them. If you have any belief in the value of a fair fight, I suggest that you get it out of your system right now.”
“Yes, sir,” Jackson said.
“That’s Lane to you,” Lane said, firmly. “We don’t stand on ceremony here—besides, I work for a living. Luckily, I only have to use PowerPoint when a new guy comes along.”
He picked up a remote control and waved Jackson to a chair. “Team One consists of nine active members, three support staff. You’ll be pleased to know that we insist that our field support staff are riflemen first, a concept we shamelessly stole from the Marines. There’s no such thing as a standard weapons’ load for us, so you’ll be trained and checked out on everything. We’ll also expect you to spend some of your spare time studying for additional MOS certificates, as we want as many disciplines as possible on the field teams.”
Jackson nodded. It sounded as though he would be busy. Good.
“You’ll get a proper briefing on the Rules of Engagement later, but suffice it to say that we exist somewhere in the grey area between police SWAT teams and the Delta Force guys who would back them up if they ran into trouble they couldn’t handle. Those who know a little about us think we’re a federal SWAT team linked to the FBI’s Hostage Rescue Team, so we attempt to abide by the same rules they do. However, when dealing with a superhuman opponent, it is generally wiser to apply maximum force and worry about the legalities later. We would prefer to avoid an incident that would cause embarrassing questions to be raised.
“However, I expect total professionalism from my people at all times,” he added. “Use the vague ROE as an excuse to fuck up and you’ll wish the superhuman had killed you by the time I’m through with you. Understand?”
“Yes, Lane,” Jackson said. It felt strange referring to a superior officer by his first name. “Don’t fuck up.”
Lane snorted. “Team Omega’s overall director is Chester Harrison, the man who first interviewed you. We have an agreement: I run Team One to suit myself in exchange for making sure that we win all of our encounters with capes, while he covers our political ass and reports directly to the President. It was I who approved your provisional transfer to Team Omega. Do you have a problem with that?”
“No,” Jackson said. It seemed to make sense—and it was more rational than some of the other arrangements for military-civil relationships. “We report directly to the President?”
“You report to me, I report to Chester, Chester reports to the President,” Lane said. He looked down at the floor and then back up at Jackson. “I won’t lie to you, son. There’s a good chance that you will end up dead or crippled within five years. And you will be held to a very high standard. We fuck up—hundreds of lives can be lost. If you want to back out…”
“Fuck that,” Jackson said. “It sounds like a challenge.”
“You have no idea,” Lane said. “If you’ll come along…it’s time to start putting you through your paces.”
Team One’s barracks were strikingly large for such a small group of soldiers, although half of the space had been converted into a storage locker for weapons, first aid and a handful of devices that Jackson didn’t recognise. The centre of the barracks consisted of a handful of chairs, a computer projector and a stack of drink cans—all non-alcoholic, Jackson was pleased to note. He’d been on overseas bases where the locals had been drunk or drugged up and felt safer out in bandit country.
“This is Sergeant Johannes von Shrakenberg,” Lane said, nodding to the largest man in the room. “The Sergeant is second-in-command of Team One; he’d be a Chief like me by now if he hadn’t refused to quit being an enlisted schmuck.”
Jackson felt his eyes widen as he looked at the Sergeant. Von Shrakenberg’s physical appearance was freakish, almost inhuman. Everything below his chest was normal, but his shoulders were massive, with muscles on top of muscles. It took Jackson a moment to realise that he was looking at a Boerbel, one of the humans who had been modified by Dr. Death before the South African regime had collapsed into civil war. He couldn’t understand how the Sergeant’s legs could support his massive chest, or why his skin seemed to vary from white to black.
“You’re a Boerbel,” he said, shocked. “I thought you were all gone.”
“Dr. Death never managed to get his experiments quite right,” the Sergeant explained as he shook Jackson’s hand. His handshake was tightly controlled, suggesting an inhuman strength that was more than just the result of Special Forces exercises. “I was nine when the bastard put me under the knife and spliced organs from some dead black superhuman into my chest. As you can see”—he waved a hand at his face—“the experiments didn’t work properly. My skin changed colour and my shoulders just kept growing.”
He grinned, nastily. “It wasn’t until I was rescued by Delta that I came to the United States, and then they weren’t sure what to do with me. So I went into the Army, and eventually ended up riding herd on freaks like me.”
Jackson found himself unable to say anything. He’d heard about the experiments, but he’d never seen any of the results, not in person.
Von Shrakenberg ignored his hesitation and bellowed for the remainder of Team One to stop slacking and come meet the fucking new guy. Several ambled over from the direction of the firing range, carrying all sorts of weapons. They all looked quietly competent.
Jackson couldn’t help feeling quietly relieved. Some of the allied SF units he’d dealt with in the past had thought themselves kings of the world.
“Welcome to the first day of hell,” von Shrakenberg informed him, as Team One studied him. “We are going to test you right up to your limits—and if you pass, you will be welcomed into Team One. If you fail, the rats will have your body. The lads will be helping to test you, so don’t show them any weakness.”
He grinned. Jackson winced. SF training was deliberately made as hard as possible to sort out the operators from the wannabes.
Team One looked at him, while Jackson fought to keep his face expressionless. SF units rarely welcomed newcomers until they had proven themselves. Jackson knew that Team One would put him through his paces until they were sure that they could depend upon him. It wasn’t exactly hazing, not like some recruits were hazed in boot camp, but something they needed to do in order to make sure Jackson was right for them.
“Isn’t it lucky that we have some downtime?” von Shrakenberg said to his men. His expression changed from pleasant to furious with alarming speed. “Why are you lollygagging around here? Get in the Shooting House!”
He beckoned Jackson to follow him and marched down to the firing range. It was larger than the one Jackson had used at Camp Pendleton, with a handful of holographic simulators to generate moving targets for the soldiers. Military operations in urban terrain—street-fighting, in other words—had become more common even before the first superhumans had appeared to muddy the waters and make the global situation even more complicated than it had been before. He shuddered as he remembered the superhuman who had struck Camp Pendleton, and realised, once again, just how capable Team Omega had to be. They monitored and—if necessary—killed superhumans.
“This is the M-22,” von Shrakenberg said as he pulled a gun off the rack. He held it up in one hand, locking the bolt to the rear as he did so, running a finger into the feed chamber to ensure that it was empty before he handed it to Jackson. “This is our primary weapon for use against caped freaks. It’s chambered in .375 Remington Ultra Magnum.”
Jackson looked up the spout before tapping the release and sending the bolt home. The M-22 was heavier than its predecessor, he noted as he studied the weapon with professional interest. It was larger than an M-16, with a complex-looking scope mounted on the top rail. The weapon looked too complicated for the field—military tech was never as reliable as the manufacturers claimed—almost like it had come out of a science-fiction movie.
The Sergeant tapped a recessed switch on the side and the gun’s magazine dropped out.
“You will notice that the weapon’s great failing is that it cannot fire standard ammo from an M-16 or another assault rifle,” he informed Jackson. “Instead, we fire a variety of different projectiles that are produced for our specific needs.”
He reached behind the counter and produced a briefcase, which, when opened, revealed a number of colour-coded magazines. “Green shells are basically comparable to normal ammunition, except they carry a heavier punch when they hit a body; try not to use them if you have to snipe someone standing in the middle of a crowd of human shields. We modified the rounds developed by Delta if we do have to snipe at someone like that, but with superhumans you cannot assume that standard ammunition will do the trick.”
Jackson nodded. The intruder at Camp Pendleton had shrugged off bullets. If he hadn’t needed to breathe, Jackson would have ended up dead.
“Yellow shells are…well, we call them rocket shells, but you’ll get a briefing on the science later,” the Sergeant continued. “Suffice it to say that they move at terrifying speed and over an astonishing distance. We’ve sometimes had to use them to take down speedsters and believe me, they work.
“Red shells are penetrator rounds, intended to blast through the toughest of skin. I’ve seen them punch through the armour on a tank, so don’t take these babies lightly. Some Level 4 freaks have been taken down with penetrator rounds.” He grinned. “I don’t think I need to warn you that using them in a crowded room can be disastrous. Much of what we do requires careful planning beforehand.” He looked up at Jackson, as if he was inviting comment.
“Yes, Sergeant,” Jackson said, feeling a little overwhelmed and trying not to show it. “What happens if the plans go wrong?”
“Then we have to improvise,” von Shrakenberg said. “You should be good at that, after what you did at Camp Pendleton.”
Jackson cursed himself mentally. Of course von Shrakenberg would know what he’d done at Camp Pendleton; he would have been fully briefed long before Jackson ever made it to Team One’s barracks. A SF unit’s internal structure was flatter than the regular army’s hierarchy and von Shrakenberg had probably played a role in the discussions that had resulted in Jackson being invited to try out for Team One.
“I see,” he said. “How often do we have to improvise?”
“As often as necessary,” von Shrakenberg said. “I’m afraid we get very little actual downtime in this organisation. None of the lads are married or have social attachments outside the group. You can probably imagine why we stick to that policy, even if the headshrinkers do claim that married men are more grounded in reality.”
Jackson nodded. They dealt with superhumans, who could be dangerously unpredictable and immune to conventional weapons. Each mission could leave one—or all—of the team crippled, or dead. A single mischance could doom the entire operation. It was better that Team One’s members left no one behind when they died, even if it did isolate them from the world.
The Sergeant pulled a fourth and fifth magazine out of the case. “Black rounds are designed to explode within the target’s body,” he told Jackson. “They are technically illegal across the world, but with superhumans you need to inflict a shitload of trauma very quickly and most SF units have quietly agreed to let that rule fall by the wayside. Try not to use them too close to the media as the President would have to answer questions if anyone figured out what we were doing. Luckily, the media’s collective ignorance is so great that they think a person’s head exploding is natural when they get shot.”
He chuckled. “White rounds…they’re chancy, so the lads prefer not to use them if possible. They’re designed to inject a powerful sedative into a target’s body, knocking him out very quickly. Do not rely on them. Superhumans can have quick-healing as well as other powers, particularly the Level 4 and 5 freaks. We only really use them if we need the target alive and we always have other snipers standing by with black or red rounds, just in case the sedative fails.”
Carefully, he pulled another M-22 off the rack and slotted one of the magazines into the gun, which came to life in his hands. “You have one of the finest sniper scopes developed by Uncle Sam in your hands,” he said, as he activated the firing range and pointed the rifle towards the targets in the distance. Most of them, Jackson noted, were human figures wearing capes. “In theory”—he grinned; practice rarely worked out as well as theory said it should—“you can hit a flying target in absolute darkness. Switching to auto will have the gun firing the moment it sees a target—again, don’t use it without direct orders from the boss. It’s not totally reliable.”
Jackson winced. The thought of a gun that picked its own targets and fired without any input from its wielder was chilling. “Now,” von Shrakenberg said, as he took aim. “Let’s see how good you are with a rifle.”
Jackson was exhausted when the Sergeant brought him to a small room and motioned for him to go inside, on his own. Apart from the shooting exercises, where the Sergeant had taken a sinister delight in pointing out all of his failings while trying to shoot an unfamiliar weapon, they’d gone for a run and a scramble through an assault course that had clearly been designed by a sadist. Jackson was no stranger to danger—he’d seen combat, after all—but the assault course had been completely unsafe. A fall would probably have broken bones as well as disqualifying him for inclusion in Team Omega.
“Go,” the Sergeant said. He hadn’t dropped any hints about this part of the qualification process. “I’ll wait outside.”
Don’t you have something better to do? Jackson thought. He wasn’t stupid enough to ask out loud. Drill Instructors were a fact of life in boot camp, but he couldn’t ever remember a sergeant who also served as second-in-command being an instructor. But then, von Shrakenberg probably had absolute confidence in his men not to goof off while they were practicing in the Shooting House. Soldiers didn’t make the transition to SF unless they were dedicated and disciplined. That and the average rank in the squad was E-6, which meant most of the stupidity had already been knocked out of them.
He pushed at the door and it swung open, revealing a lighted room. There was a desk, two chairs and little else, apart from a water dispenser on one side of the room. Behind the desk, a man sat with his fingertips pressed together, watching Jackson with an expression of cool disapproval. He didn’t look military, but looks could be deceiving.
“Be seated,” he said, shortly. He had a fussy voice that reminded Jackson of the counsellor he’d had to see in High School. The bastard had been totally unable to realise that the only way to deal with bullies was to turn on them and break their noses. “My name is Grimes. You may call me sir.”
Jackson swallowed the response that came to mind. “Yes, sir,” he said, and waited.
Grimes made a show of shuffling a sheaf of papers he produced from his briefcase. “You are tasked to take out”—he made a face at the words—“a Level X superhuman who resides in the Beverly Hills Apartment Complex, San Francisco. The man generally lives alone, but is known to have enthralled women and brought them to his apartment from time to time. For various reasons, notably his connection to other superhumans, you must leave no trail—assume that the FBI will be hunting you and act accordingly.
“It is imperative,” Grimes added, “that he be taken out before he realises what is happening to him. How would you carry out the operation?”
Jackson needed time to think, but he had a feeling that time was critical. Level X superhumans weren’t super-strong, nor could they fly; they possessed abilities that meddled with reality itself. As such, they were incredibly dangerous, even to their fellow superhumans. He’d never heard of a Level X superhuman choosing to live away from the rest of the superhuman community, but there were superhumans who preferred not to enter the world of caped superheroes and masked villains. Or fight for their country as part of the Superhuman Defence Initiative.
“Level X,” he repeated. “Just what powers does he possess?”
Grimes looked at him, dispassionately. “I have given you everything you need,” he said, impassively. Jackson could sense the disdain behind his words. “How do you intend to take out the superhuman?”
“Assuming that he leaves his apartment, snipe him down from a distance using explosive rounds,” Jackson said, finally. Level X superhumans were rarely invulnerable, thankfully. There was a story about a town that had been warped into a nightmare by a Level X superhuman some years ago. The townsfolk had never really recovered from the event, even after their town had been liberated. “If not…quietly evacuate the entire apartment and then destroy it.”
Grimes slapped the table, his expression shifting from disdain to anger in a split-second. “You stupid son-of-a-bitch,” he bellowed. “The man you just killed was the lover of your commanding officer’s wife! Don’t you think before you jump into action?”
Jackson fought down the urge to land a punch between the bastard’s eyes. The hell of it was that Grimes was right, at least to some extent. He should have asked more questions; he’d just assumed that it was a test to see how he would carry out the assassination. Assassinating a Level X superhuman was a more plausible operation than assassinating any other superhuman, with the added bonus that no one would be able to prove any differently once the superhuman was dead. Level X superhumans had no enhanced muscles or other detectable traits. And yet he resented how the test had been carried out. Perhaps it was also an exercise in self-control.
“I take your point,” he said, finally. “Look before I leap.”
“And before you carry out an unauthorised operation within the United States,” Grimes added, unpleasantly. “Don’t you know that the military can only be deployed here for a series of specific contingencies?”
Which did, Jackson knew, include dealing with a rogue superhuman. But Grimes probably wouldn’t be impressed by that point. The test, if it was a test, was rigged to see how he would react to each question. Grimes, he suspected, wasn’t the real judge. That would be the operatives of Team Omega.
“So,” Grimes said, “after a moment. You have a sister?”
“Yes, sir,” Jackson said.
There was a long pause as Grimes waited for him to say something else, before looking down at the papers on the desk. “Quite a pretty girl, your sister,” Grimes observed. “Just about to enter college on a scholarship from Harvard. Not too bad for a girl from a lower middle-class family.”
He looked at Jackson. “What would you do for your sister?”
Jackson looked back at him, evenly. Gayle had been a pain in the ass when she’d been young, but they’d come to a truce as they both grew older and matured. He’d once had to convince a prospective boyfriend to look elsewhere, only to discover that Gayle was quite prepared to do the same to his girlfriends. She wasn’t the sort of person to take such an insult lying down.
“Whatever I had to,” he said, evenly.
Grimes shrugged. “There’s a Level 5 superhuman who has taken over a building on campus and is holding several students as hostages,” he said. Jackson remembered some of the students who had demonstrated against the Marines at Camp Pendleton and wondered if that would be a small loss. “Those hostages include your sister, but your CO doesn’t know it. Would you tell him that you have a personal stake in the operation?”
Jackson fought down his anger, once again. A Level 5 superhuman was powerful enough to knock down the entire university. Taking one out required advanced weapons and a great deal of luck. The crossfire might kill all of the hostages and destroy Harvard before the superhuman either escaped— as most Level 5 superhumans could fly—or was brought down by Team Omega. It would only become more complicated if other superhumans showed up to help…
“I would have to,” he admitted. Rescuing hostages was a tricky business, even at the best of times. “And I’d be withdrawn from the team until the mission was completed.”
Grimes nodded. “You may return to the Sergeant,” he said. There was no clue in his face about just how well Jackson had done on the test. “Thank you for your time.”
His head spinning, Jackson left the office.
“Welcome back,” von Shrakenberg said. He grinned, evilly. “You’re just in time for another run around the track.”