It had been a couple of days since the fit test for my uniform and unfortunately, Astraea had been good to her word, and Fox started running new drills with me wearing the uniform the next day. The upside was that since I lived on the base now I didn’t need to worry about changing in the locker room if I didn’t want to, and could just go to my quarters.
Which was where I was currently after one such session munching on a power bar and downing a sports drink. I didn’t really work up a sweat in the sessions unless we really went at it due to my enhanced stamina, but I was still contemplating a shower since I actually had the afternoon free and could afford to relax a bit.
I had just tossed my empty bottle and wrapper in the trash on the way to my room when my phone’s alert tone chirped from the table where I had set it along with my earbud when I got home. It was a local news alert from my news app stating that there was a possible hostage situation at Briarland Mall. There wasn’t much information other than police were responding with SWAT and that the story was developing. A hostage situation was unusual but I hoped everything could be resolved peacefully. It didn’t seem like we would be called in to help, but that could always change.
Since I was already on my phone I decided to check on Christina and after seeing she still hadn’t replied to my texts I switched to Instagram to see if she’d posted anything new and hoped she hadn’t blocked me. What I saw on her feed made my blood run cold. It was a picture of her and Amber, one of our mutual friends, smiling at the food court holding frozen custards from Bob Joe’s in the mall. The timestamp on the photo was thirty seven minutes ago which meant there was a good chance they were at the mall when the hostage situation started. With a bad feeling in my gut, I tried calling Christina only for it to go to voicemail without ringing. Hoping that she was just screening me I called Amber’s phone next and it also went straight to voicemail.
Pure dread settled into my gut and I started pacing my living area unsure of what to do. Officially we weren’t operational as a unit yet even though we were available to deploy in an emergency. Going up the chain to Astrea or Captain Williams wouldn’t be a good idea because they either wouldn’t tell me anything or I’d have to explain why I was so interested in the mall. Dammit, I had no idea if the girls were safe and the more I thought about it, the more antsy I got. I was gripping my phone so hard I heard it creak and took a few deep breaths before I shattered it and decided to call Fox and see if he knew anything.
“Hey Fox, did you see the news alert about the mall? Do you think we’ll get deployed to assist?” I said trying to sound calm.
“Hello Dani,” Fox answered right away. “I saw the alert and right now we’re still on general standby. The local LEOs haven’t requested assistance and the situation hasn’t escalated to trigger a response from us on our own.”
“Everything ok? You sound tense,” he said with his concern coming through the connection.
Damn his intuition I thought before replying, “Nothing, I guess I’m just antsy that this might be it. My first deployment.” I lied, feeling awful about it.
“Well it could still happen but right now I would do your best to relax. Our first mission is coming soon,” he said in his calm manner trying to keep me centered like always.
“But Fox…shouldn’t I try to help? Isn’t that what these abilities are for? To help people?”
“Dani, I understand where you’re coming from but you agreed to work with this unit and follow our rules of engagement. Trust in our protocols and believe that we want to help you use your abilities to properly help those who need it. There are professionals on site doing their jobs. If they need us they’ll call.” he said.
“Yeah, you’re right Fox. Thank you for always keeping me level. I’ll talk to you soon,” I finished and broke the connection.
The thing is, I wasn’t level. Everything Fox said felt wrong, and at that moment I made the decision to go to the mall, consequences be damned. My friends were there and in danger as well as other innocent people. I had to at least see if I could help.
With my decision made I walked into the bathroom and set my phone down on the counter before turning on the faucet and splashing water on my face. Pausing to look at myself in the mirror still wearing my silly uniform like I was some comic book hero. I blew out a breath and grabbed a hair brush and hair tie and quickly tied my hair back into a ponytail before saying to my reflection ‘I hope you know what you’re doing. You could very well be throwing everything away before you’ve even started.’ The reflection of course didn’t answer back but I did. ‘Alright let's do this.’
With that, I left my room quickly and made my way to the elevator which I took to the top floor. Nobody was around that would question what I was doing since I used the roof access pretty regularly, so I ran to the door and as soon as I was outside I took off as fast as I could fly toward the mall.
About ten minutes later I found myself circling wide of the mall to land by the electronics store adjacent to the mall’s main entrance hoping that nobody on the bad guy team saw my approach but that illusion was quickly shattered as I poked my head out for a look.
Fhiiiz! followed a nano-second later by the crack of a bullet as it zipped past my face and impacted with the concrete planter behind me, showering the area in concrete splinters. I’m telling you now that it doesn’t matter how much you’ve trained to face this type of situation it does not prepare you for getting shot at in reality, It’s always goddamned terrifying. Thankfully they missed.
I’d not even been here a minute and I’d already been shot at and that had my ‘Fox Senses’ tingling. It felt like an overly aggressive response and I was certain that I’d gotten into the perimeter clean, but clearly, I’d been spotted somehow even though the main entrance didn’t have a sightline on my approach and landing. Not to mention that based on the sound and size of the impact on the planter the gunman was packing a decent caliber rifle.
Retreating further back behind the wall of the electronics store I closed my eyes and rested my head on the brick while wishing desperately for x-ray vision like in the comics. Ok, time to use all that training no matter how badly I wanted to fly away or curl up in a ball of anxiety now that I was there. I looked over to the Police line only to find them in a pretty standard perimeter looking pretty tense as would be expected. They looked pretty uncomfortable at my arrival and that I was drawing fire, and I was at a loss now that I knew whoever was inside the mall had high-powered rifles. Small arms fire was one thing. The rounds hurt but I could withstand a handful of those, but the higher caliber stuff could pierce my skin and do it at range which was problematic. Sigh, it was time to go consult the S.W.A.T. commander.
I sort of half flew, jumped over to the police line trying to stay out of line of sight for the gunman at the entrance, and managed to make it without drawing more fire. I identified the Lieutenant in charge, he was a stout man a little taller than average with red hair and a mustache. He was speaking urgently into a radio as I dropped in and I only caught the tail end of the conversation, “I don’t care! If you can’t get Metro South over here this is going to go to hell real fast…especially with her here”.
“Greetings Lieutenant”, I said as I landed next to him.
“Shit!”, he exclaimed. “What the hell is wrong with you!? Are you goddamned stupid!” he yelled as he turned to face me. Evidently whoever was on the other end of his earpiece must have thought he was talking to them as he gave me a withering look and addressed the radio, “No not you. I was yelling at her. Now get South over here now even if you have to drag Jennings out of the donut shop”.
With a look to the heavens and a pained sigh, the Lieutenant turned to address me directly, “What do you want? Why are you here?” while motioning for the officers who had trained their guns on me to lower their weapons.
“I’m here to help get those civilians out of there safely and to hopefully end this without any casualties. As for what I want, I was hoping to coordinate with you. I don’t want to make this worse”
“Then leave,” was his terse reply. “We don’t need some amateur in...whatever the hell that getup you’re wearing is getting in our way. This is going to be hard enough as it is.”
Even though I kind of figured this would be the reaction, I tried my best to hide my irritation and inject some earnest enthusiasm into my reply. “I know this is less than ideal circumstances for introductions but I’m really here to help. I know your department has been briefed that I’ve been cleared by the government to deploy for emergency response operations and I think this qualifies. If you’d like, I can contact my superiors and we can squabble over authorizations and jurisdiction, or we could just try to help the hostages.”
“You’re not leaving are you?” he said glaring a hole through me.
“No sir!” I said with probably too much enthusiasm as I earned an even sharper glare.
“Fine. Tell me what you were able to see when you were over by the entrance. So far we’ve been unable to get an idea of exactly how many gunmen are occupying the mall, and we’re still unclear on how heavily armed they are. We’ve called for the bomb unit to set up in case they have explosives but right now we don’t know jack. They haven’t even called out demands.”
“Sure, Lieutenant…?” I said with a pregnant pause for him to hopefully provide a name.
“Bidwell, now get on with it. Every minute we waste is a minute those hostages are in danger,” he said with his temper starting to edge back into his tone.
“Yes sir,” I said and got to it. “I flew in from the North and since I was already aware of the situation I made sure to get a look at the roof thinking I might be able to land there, but I spotted at least three men on the roof probably guarding the roof access. At that point I didn’t want to alert them, so I put some distance between us. Unfortunately, I don’t have enhanced vision.”
“Yeah, that would have actually been helpful,'' the Lieutenant snarked at me.
Ignoring his continued hostility I continued to share the little information that I had, “Yeah, I agree,'' I said. “After that, I realized that sneaking in probably wasn’t going to be an option so I dropped in over by the electronic store to get a look. Either I wasn’t as stealthy as I thought on approach or they spotted me after I landed somehow as I took fire when I poked my head out for a look. What I can tell you from my training is that based on the sound and the impact it was a military-grade rifle and your everyday hunting rifle. Aside from that, I didn’t get much.”
The Lieutenant squeezed the bridge of his nose and sighed while looking back over his shoulder at the mall entrance. “Ok, we now know they have positions on the roof which is bad as we don’t know if they have set up sniper positions or are just guarding entry points. We know that they have at least semi-automatic rifles of a decent caliber but should be prepared for them to have military-grade automatic weapons. The officers deployed around the perimeter have confirmed that the other 5 entrances have armed hostiles guarding them. We currently don’t have any idea of their numbers, how well armed they are, or what their intentions are. So basically we have a cluster with the option of turning into a shit show. Ok, Miss based on my training, what's your tactical assessment?”.
Ok, this is the moment I’d been waiting for I thought. Lieutenant Bidwell was giving me space to offer my opinion as a professional. Now I just had to not screw it up so I took a deep breath and hoped he didn’t notice the shakiness of it and started my tactical analysis.
“Based on my flyover we know they've stationed at least three guards on the roof entrance that I was able to confirm. This also tells us that they’re most likely aware of the layout of the mall and points of entry as I imagine roof access is accessed from the service corridors that run behind the storefronts and not public knowledge. Considering it’s only been about 40 minutes since they took control of the mall and you had officers on the scene in less than 10 minutes we can somewhat assume they knew where to go.”
“Alright, so far so good,” he said. “Now what else do you have and make it quick. We need to start planning on how to get the hostages and we need to know what in the hell they want.”
“Yes sir, based on the assumption that they know the layout we need to plan that they’ve either got guards or have booby-trapped the service entrances. Since the service doors are metal security doors and open out it’s a problematic breach. My guess is that they will have also brought the hostages to someplace like the food court that will be defensible with good sightlines and proximity to multiple exits. The mall has skylights especially at the food court so that’s both a positive and a negative as it works as a possible breach point, but also as another way to get spotted.
If this is a professional operation I would also guess that they would have dropped the security gates on the storefronts to slow down anyone trying to enter from the back of a store. My instructor would say that until we know their intentions and demands any breach would result in unacceptable casualties, and that communication should be a priority followed closely by getting real intel on how many hostages are being held and the numbers and composition of the occupying force.”
“I like your instructor already but that’s our current problem. We haven’t been able to establish communication. Any approach has been met with gunfire. Based on your flyover and what we can see at the entrances we know there are at least ten armed individuals inside and have to assume the actual number is higher. That’s a decent-sized group depending on how they are armed but not for a space like a mall,” he growled.
I think it was at that moment I realized how much this was frustrating him, and that while he probably didn’t really like me, some of his abrasiveness was due to not having the answers he needed to do something. At that moment a tech from a van I hadn’t noticed off to the side yelled to the Lieutenant “Drone Ready!”
“Great, send it up,” Lieutenant Bidwell said to the tech, “Maybe now we can get some concrete intel.”
As we watched the drone lift off and approach the mall, apprehension filled the police line. This was the first thing they’d been able to do other than set up and get shot at. “Try to get a look at the roof.” Lieutenant Bidwell instructed the tech. As the drone altered its approach, gaining altitude to get a high angle look at the roof a shot rang out and the drone exploded into pieces. Everyone ducked back down into cover at the noise waiting for another shot. After a few minutes, the Lieutenant told the front lines to maintain cover and went over to the tech while I trailed behind him and asked “You get anything?”
The tech responded with a grimace and pointed at his screen. “Only this, which doesn’t tell us much.” We were looking at a frozen image of a man in dark tactical gear with a sniper position aiming through his scope. It was the last image the drone had captured.
“Oh crap!” I exclaimed. “That's a TAC-Fifty which confirms that they have some military-grade gear.” This garnered an eyebrow raise from Lieutenant Bidwell, which I’m going to label as an ‘eyebrow raise of approval’. I also should remember to thank Captain Williams and Fox for all the endless lessons on current weaponry.
At this little revelation, Lieutenant Bidwell moved the police line back and placed the heavy SWAT units at the front of the line for better cover. Smart move and my estimation of him went up a notch. The SWAT team and Police were limited in cover due to there being no buildings around except the electronics store being stuck in the open parking lot. Still, it was weird that no demands had been issued. What possible reason could a team of kidnappers or terrorists hope to gain? Inaction was starting to eat at me and the voices of Fox and my Mom in my head preaching patience were not helping.
While I was standing off to the side being entirely unhelpful a small commotion was taking place by the command and control area of the cordon. As I wandered over I could see a livid Lieutenant Bidwell exclaiming into his radio that it was not acceptable that South hadn't shown up yet, but evidently, there was a multi-car pileup in South’s jurisdiction that included a hazmat situation. That was awfully convenient, and I was starting to get a bad feeling...ok a worse feeling that something bigger was going on, but accidents happen every day. I was sure it was probably just bad luck right up until I heard him exclaim, “What do you mean the helicopter support is not coming? How in the hell do both tail rotors get stripped at the same time? Find me some air support now!”
“Get me the girl!” he bellowed to everyone around him. “Dammit, I don’t even know her name. Sunshine or something?” a very angry Lieutenant Bidwell grumbled not realizing that I had just been around the corner just as a nervous-looking deputy pointed helpfully behind Lieutenant Bidwell.
“It’s Star sir,” I said as I walked up to the group. “How can I help?”
“Well Sunbeam, I’ve just been informed that our backup from South is delayed and somehow our helios for this area are both out of commission. The longer this drags on the more danger the hostages are in, if there even are any at this point. Something about this feels off and I don’t like it. I can’t believe I’m going to ask this but I’m going to need you to do some aerial reconnaissance, ideally without getting spotted or killed. Do you think you can do it, Star girl?”
I think I’m growing on him. He almost got my name right. This is clearly a man that shows affection through some lighthearted razzing. “Uh sure, I think I can do that,” I replied and immediately knew that was the wrong way to answer.
“You think you can?” he growled and turned on me. If you only think you can, then you can turn your stupid costumed ass right around and fly the hell right out of here. I don’t care what the Commissioner says and what training you’ve supposedly had, the professionals here will handle it. I can’t believe I was starting to think you might be helpful in some...”
“Lieutenant!” a deputy holding a handheld radio interrupted him and if looks could kill I wouldn’t be alone in my journey to the afterlife. I don’t know how I planned this day to go but this was NOT it.
“What! Deputy Garcia, what could be so damned important that you needed to interrupt me right now?” he growled at who I presumed was Deputy Garcia.
To her credit, Deputy Garcia just deadpanned back “She’s got a call.” and held up a handheld radio. I couldn’t be sure but I didn't think this was her first rodeo with the Lieutenant.
The range of expressions that rolled across the Lieutenant’s face was a sight to behold and he finally settled on “I’m not paid enough for this shit” and asked the deputy what they wanted? “They wouldn’t say, Lieutenant. They said it’s for Star’s clearance only. It’s straight from headquarters on the command channel.”
With yet another withering look aimed at my direction, the Lieutenant said, “Give me the damn radio,” and snatched it from Deputy Garcia’s hand.
“This is SWAT Commander Lieutenant Bidwell. I’m in charge of this scene and I expect communication security to be….no...she hasn’t. So far she hasn’t been much...yes, ma’am. I was going to authorize reconnaissance to try to gain some actionable intel. Something feels off about this. Yes, ok I understand” he stammered.
Whoever was on the other end must be just as forceful or outrank our dear Lieutenant as his demeanor changed from rampaging bull to just regulation pissed off.
“They want to speak to YOU,” he said and handed me the radio.
I took the radio and started to drift a bit from the Lieutenant and Deputy who were both watching me intently. “This is Star,” I said into the radio.
“Confirmation Code.” the radio cracked back. Oh crap. I want to go back to just dealing with Lieutenant Bidwell, I thought before responding, “ Confirmation code 36951.”
“Confirmed,” the radio cracked back. “This is Wolf Leader, Fox is en route, ETA fifteen minutes.”
Oh crap, oh crap. They knew where I was, and she sounded less than happy. I focused back on the radio when she continued, “Lieutenant Bidwell is correct, you are to do aerial reconnaissance. I expect two plans for neutralizing the roof threat by the time Fox arrives. Utilize reconnaissance pattern Solis One and make sure you are not seen.”
I swiftly replied, “Acknowledged,” but the radio wasn’t done with me yet, unfortunately.
“Star, you violated protocol by not informing us of deployment. That’s ignoring the fact you weren’t ordered to deploy in the first place,” the radio practically crackled with Wolf Leader’s disapproval. “Additionally, why are you radio silent? Enable your earbud immediately.”
Thankfully Wolf Leader wasn’t there to see how red I had turned but having to admit I left it on my table wasn’t going to go over well. “I kind of left it on the table in my rush to leave,” I said fully expecting to be reamed, but surprisingly all I got back was a sigh that spoke volumes of how Wolf Leader felt about having to babysit me. Clearly, I was not knocking it out of the park today.
Wolf Leader finally responded, “Astrea says to check your waistband…right hip. You should have an emergency backup. It’s a shorter range model but should sync up with your collar mic and allow you to communicate with Overwatch and Fox when he arrives. We will talk about this when this situation is over. You clearly need more work with protocol and didn’t pay attention to your equipment briefing.”
I checked my right hip for the pouch tucked away under the faux belt of my uniform, and sure enough, there was the backup earbud that Doctor Rokker had briefed me about. I quickly put it in my ear hitting the activation button as I did, and waited for it to chime that it had synced with my collar mic and responded, “Star online.”
The response this time was in my ear, “Good. Fox has onsite oversight upon arrival. Follow his orders. Wolf Leader out.”
Either I’ve screwed up something major or this is something far worse than it seems. It never occurred to me that it could be both.