Mission 01 - Trial by Fire

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I'm Tommy Snyder.

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And I'm a rock star.

I have a recording of Thunderer even saying so.

"What a mess," I can hear Thunderer muttering a few yards away from the mobile command center. Okay, it's true, Aberdeen Proving Ground might be in blazes -- ncendiary rounds will wreak havoc on your landscaping -- but it is still standing. Thankyouverymuch.

Sackcloth scowls beside him, arms folded defensively and tightly across her chest. Why Thunderer isn't ripping her a new one after the stunt she pulled, I have no idea.

And then at 18:07:42, guess who comes streaking across the blackened sky with his own trail of fire? Yes, it's Rook, exactly when I said he'd arrive.

He lands near Thunderer, all out of breath and gasping, "I'm here, I'm here..."

"Ah, well..." Thunderer glances at me, "Everything is under control now, thanks to Tommy. Sorry about that, but since you're here, we've got an incident over in the Capital. Blondie's team was dispatched, but I'm sure the Director would feel a whole lot better about it if you provided backup."

Rook turns slowly toward me. His jaw is clenched, his eyes narrowed. "Yes, sir."

Thunderer claps Rook on the shoulder. "Thanks, kiddo. Have Tommy clear a flight path for you..."

And with that, Thunderer turns away from him to rejoin Sulkcloth. Rook stomps over to where I'm lounging in a tailgating chair outside the Bus. I make real busy pinging NORAD, to avoid looking up from my iPad.

"What happened to 'it'll take me, like, 3 days'?" he asks.

"Under-promise and over-deliver. It's the engineer's mantra. You flew here all the way from upstate New York?"

"You know I did, Tommy! Why didn't you..."

"You're all clear to go! Watch out for flocks of geese!"

Rook makes a gagging sound. "Don't remind me. What a nasty smell..."

He lights up with fire and yes, I admit, it's pretty damn badass. Over the years, he's learned to tone down the "Holy Hell" and "Put the Fear of God in 'Em" sort of effect he was trained to go for. Regardless, it remains pretty intimidating. He hovers above the pavement for a half a heated second before zipping off into the sky, leaving me to wave goodbye to his after-image.

"Have fun storming the castle!"

***21 minutes, 14 seconds earlier...***

Oh man, ever since Montserrat fine-tuned the firmware, this neural interface has been humming. I'm maxing out just about as many windows as I can have open. I've got every camera angle I can get on the tank, and since this is an army base, there are a whole bunch... that is until the tank blows up the buildings, utility poles, etc. Then there's the media chatter -- got to monitor that and potentially block or disrupt. And yes, I've got my visuals and vitals up for the team: Thunderer, Sackcloth, Vanguard and --WHOAH -- D-Day, who gets three stories of brick wall in the face when a missile takes out the building beside him.

I can see Vanguard's heart rate go through the roof as she screams, "D-Day are you all right?"

"He's fine," I jump in, "D-Day, I'm reading a Grade 1 concussion. You should be okay..."

But I guess Thunderer's had enough of this crap. "All right, everyone, pull back to the perimeter," he orders "We wait for Rook to get here. Acknowledge!"

Vanguard and D-Day pipe up right away. "Got it!"" from Vanguard, a more formal "Yes, sir" from D-Day.

But from her ground position, Sackcloth remains silent. Her pulse count remains icily steady, and through her peer camera, a hook-up straight from her visual cortex, I see her hands flex around her rifle. Then her vision flicks up at the tank.

I don't even have to warn Thunderer. He's got mad instincts. "Sacklcoth!" he shouts, "Acknowledge!"

Sulkily, Sackcloth responds at last, "...Acknowledged." But she continues to watch the tank make its way down the road.

While everyone hunkers down, I message Rook, who I recalled from PTO about a half an hour earlier. At the same time, I get an incoming text from Jun, who went with Blondie's crew to respond to a bank robbery being perpetrated by Gen-alts in Dupont Circle.

Me: Rook, everyone's waiting on you, so... yeah. Hurry up.

Rook: I heard. Flying as fast as I can.

Me: Well, I should hope so. Sending you the specs on this thing.

Rook: Received. "Spider Tank v.18.1.05? R&D has way too much time on their hands!

Me: Also, too much funding.

Rook: What happened?

Me: Egghead scientist spends life savings on engagement ring and proposes to lab partner. She says no. So the guy steals functional prototype they've been working on in a fit of nerd frustration. Mayhem ensues.

Rook: I take it you already tried to hack it?

Me: Yeah. He's got it running in iso mode.

Rook: That shouldn't stop you.

Me: Indeed, you are correct, sir. But the software updates its admin codes every .5 milliseconds. It'd take me, like, three days to crack the algorithm.

Rook: EMP burst?

Rook: Tommy?

Me: That would require me to touch the damn thing. Plus, it's got shielding.

Rook: Ah.

Me: Ah.

Rook: Why a spider?

Me: Why an albino?

Rook: You're such a jackass.

Me: YUP!

Jun: Hi, how's it going?

Me: Oh, you know. The usual. There's gonna be a lot of paperwork from this one.

Jun: Just wait till Rook gets there. THEN you'll have paperwork.

Me: Let's just see how Blondie's "Redemption Project" debut goes.

Jun: It's not a... terrible idea.

Me: Really? Sending a former drug dealer and an arsonist to stop Gen-Alt bank robbers? REALLY?

Jun: I don't believe Hot Stuff meant to burn down her high school.

Me: You sure about that?

Jun: As a matter of fact... yes.

Me: ... Oh.

Sackcloth cuts into the conversation, almost as if she can sense me chattering. "ETA for backup?" she wants to know.

"Let's see, if a train leaves the station at 440 miles per hour..."

"Tommy!" Sackcloth snaps.

"Rook will be here in 20 minutes, 33 seconds."

There's a sputter of disbelief from Rook. "No way! That long?"

"Yeah," I answer, "Are you questioning my math?"

"I estimate it's more like --"

"More flying, less talking." I terminate the tunnel with Rook and with the freed thread, kick off some Kronos Quartet.

"So what are you doing this weekend?" Jun asks.

"Oh, not much. Maybe some gaming."

"Want to go see a movie?"

"I dunno, it's the dead season in Hollywood when nothing of worth... wait, are you asking me out on a... HEY!!"

A sudden flicker of movement from one of my peer cameras stops me mid-sentence.

"What's the matter?" Jun IMs.

"Sackcloth's making a move!" I broadcast.