Fox gathered us around Davis’ workstation which was really just a folding table with a small canopy that pulled out of the back of the tech van to look at the blueprints of the mall. At approximately two hundred thousand square feet it was going to be no small feat to infiltrate.
“So the working plan is as follows; Lieutenant Bidwell is going to resume calling inside the mall in an attempt to open a dialogue with whoever is inside. We’re going to give him about fifteen minutes to make contact and if after fifteen minutes it’s still radio silent from inside Star you are going to approach the entrance ahead of us and relay that they have five minutes to respond with the status of the hostages or we will consider them dead and react accordingly,” he said looking at each of us in turn.
“Okay but what will ‘act accordingly’ mean, and what will you be doing,” I said while trying to puzzle out what Fox had in mind.
“Having Lieutenant Bidwell call them is giving them a fair chance to resolve whatever this is without further escalation and while he’s attempting to communicate I will be confirming authorization for us to move on the mall and attempt intervention. Since the full team isn’t ready for deployment and you forced our hand on this I don’t expect any additional support as this isn’t how command wanted to debut the team.” Everyone standing there listening to Fox had a frown on their face at that last statement.
“So because this isn’t the PR the government wanted they are willing to just look the other way on this? It’s a freaking shopping mall full of people for crying out loud,” I ranted.
“I understand your frustration. I do, but welcome to politics. Politics are never a soldier’s friend and in this instance, our presence wasn’t requested or at least hadn’t yet been requested. You forced this by interjecting yourself into the situation, and in doing so screwed with the plans that had been put in place for your introduction. So whether your intentions are good or not the simple reality is by not deploying they have plausible deniability if it blows up and it’s you who will bear the brunt of the blame. I’m sorry but that’s the reality, he said with a sad shake of his head.
“Oh to hell with that I’m already starting to regret signing those papers if this is how they treat people who just want to help,” I said heatedly while balling my hands into fists.
Fox held my gaze for a moment before replying, “Noted, and we can talk about this afterward. This isn’t really the time for this particular discussion and I think it’s best if we just worry about what is in our control and do our absolute best to make sure they have no reason to make an example of you.”
Lieutenant Bidwell, Garcia, and Davis just kind of watched our exchange with a range of expressions from irritation to sympathy before Lieutenant Bidwell spoke up, “So yeah, politics suck. What’s the rest of the plan?”
Right, so assuming the terrorists continue to be incommunicado I’m going to scale the building to the roof and take out the troops stationed up there while Star is pulling attention to her. Davis will take the role of local overwatch and monitor communications, and if everything goes well I will then begin infiltration of the building proper and attempt to ascertain the status of the hostages. I will decide our best course of action based on whatever actionable intel I can gather from inside. Okay everyone, we will begin on my mark, so once I’ve signaled the op is go MCPD will move to your assigned roles, followed by Star based on the timeline I’ve laid out,” Fox explained.
“What if they pick up the phone this time?” asked Lieutenant Bidwell.
“Then negotiate like you normally would. Try to see what they want and get them to provide an update on the status of the hostages. I will still try to gain the roof and Star will hold for further instructions.”
“Roger that. Come on Garcia, let’s go fill in Seargent Pulaski and then you can spread the word to the other units at the entrances,” he said while heading off toward the heart of the police line.
Fox had started to trail off now that the instructions had been given but I still couldn’t help but grimace at my part of the plan, so I followed after him until he noticed me trailing him, “What is it Star?”
“So I couldn’t help but notice that my part of the plan was a little vague on details. What exactly does distracting them entail?”
Fox just waved my question away saying, “You’re going to go talk to them.”
“That’s it? Fox, they are armed, what am I supposed to say?” I really couldn’t fathom why he was being so light on details.
“Star, your role is to play the distraction so go be the face of the program like Astraea has trained you to be. If they shoot you, shoot back but do not enter the building unless I tell you to. You can look at it as a lack of direction or as trust in you. Up to you,” he said while walking back toward where his motorcycle was parked. I watched as he grabbed his custom battle helmet that looked like a futuristic kitsune mask and put it on before pulling his sword out of somewhere on the bike and sheathing it on his back. I turned away thinking for the millionth time how scary he could be, but despite that, I still promised myself one day I was going to get the story of his codename.
I looked over at Davis who looked every bit as nervous as I felt. Both Davis and Garcia looked to be in their mid-twenties and I couldn’t imagine he was too far removed from college. It would be interesting to talk to them outside of work and get their perspective on why they chose law enforcement and what it was like navigating it as a young professional, and if I was honest, it would be nice to maybe have a friend that wasn’t involved with STAR or college.
“Hey Davis, it’s going to be alright. We’ll figure this out one way or another,” I said to the nervous technician figuring might be able to use some positivity at the moment.
It took him a second to process that I’d said something to him and he shook his head and looked away from whatever held his attention on the screen. “Sorry, I was just a little lost in thought and trying to process the floorplans. I’ve never been on… overwatch. That's what your very intense teammate called it, right?”
“Yep, you got it right. Don’t stress too much, you’re basically a glorified operator making sure all the channels are managed and open. I’ve seen you with the tech, you’ve got this,” I replied hoping to give him a shot of confidence.
“I hope so. I thought Lieutenant Bidwell was scary but Fox is a whole different kind of scary.”
I couldn’t help but laugh a little a that as it validated what I had often thought. “You’re not wrong there,” I said with a smile.
I was rewarded with a big smile from Davis and he seemed to visibly relax a bit so of course our radios crackled to life at that moment with Fox issuing orders. “The operation is go. On my mark begin phase one with a fifteen minute countdown. Mark, MCPD please open negotiations. Fox out.”
I looked out in the direction Fox had gone but I couldn’t see him and honestly didn’t really expect to see him so I looked over to see Deputy Garcia rushing back over to us from the main part of the police line. I couldn’t see Lieutenant Bidwell but I assumed he was there somewhere.
“Davis, Lieutenant Bidwell wants you to patch his radio through to the mall as well as Star and Fox. Once you’ve done that he’ll start calling the emergency phones in the mall and security office,” Deputy Garcia explained breathlessly having sprinted over to where we were standing which was probably about thirty yards from the main police line.
Davis turned to his computer and started rapidly typing and while I’m not stupid and can maneuver my way around tech just fine I was also smart enough to know I wasn’t going to learn anything from watching him so I turned back to Deputy Garcia and asked, “Where is the Lieutenant?”
She was intently watching Davis and answered without looking at me. “He’s over at the big SWAT van. They have a communication hub and he wanted to be able to have a good look at the perimeter.”
Makes sense I thought idly waiting for Davis to finish his communications work when I suddenly realized that Fox had started his infiltration attempt and that having an open channel feeding into his ear might not be the best idea. I quickly turned away and checked my wrist panel to make sure I was on the STAR channel before speaking so only he would hear me, “Fox the Lieutenant has asked that his attempt at communications be patched through to your communicator. Double click if negative for communication relay.”
Click, click came through the earbud indicating that Fox did not want the hear the open line. “Roger, that. Updates will be provided based on operational need otherwise communication will remain limited. Let us know when you are clear to communicate freely. Star out,” I said and then quickly turned to let Davis know to not include Fox on the open line.
“Davis don’t patch the Lieutenant through to Fox. With what he’s doing he doesn’t need the distraction. I’ll relay to him as needed until he’s in a safe place to fully communicate.”
Davis just nodded and resumed adjusting whatever programs he needed to patch everything together. A bead of sweat was making its way down from his temple when a final keystroke he announced “Finished.”
Deputy Gracia wasted no time speaking into her radio, “Communications are go.” We heard the line pick up and begin ringing while Lieutenant Bidwell started making an announcement on a loudspeaker.
“Attention whoever is in charge inside the mall. We are calling the phone in the security office and the emergency phones. We would ask that pick up the line so that we can understand why you have taken hostages and what your intentions are. We cannot help if we don't know what you want. We would like to see this situation resolved peacefully.”
I was really hoping that a stroke of luck would occur and the terrorists would actually respond and this could all be resolved but unfortunately, I was too much of a realist to believe that. Everything about this felt wrong and if I was picking that up then all these veteran officers had to be as well. I guess you have to try because occasionally people would surprise you I thought.
I stayed back at the technician van while the Lieutenant made his call so that I was out of his way and wasn’t a distraction. To my surprise, Depty Garcia stayed with me with both of us scanning the mall entrance to see if we could pick up anything but I kept looking up at the roof to see if I could spot Fox but I never did. It’s amazing how long and short fifteen minutes can be. It felt like we stood there forever but then the Lieutenant’s voice came through, “Okay, cut the line. They clearly don’t wish to respond. You’re up Star.”
I looked over to Davis and said softly “You got this,” before looking over to Deputy Garcia and saying, “Care to escort me to the Lieutenant?”
She looked up at me since I was a few inches taller than her and smiled before saying, “Not really, but let's go anyway.”
With that, we made the walk up to the line. Again I scanned the rooftop but still couldn’t see anything which I hoped was a good sign. When I reached the armored SWAT van I could see the Lieutenant watching us walk up.
“I wish that would have worked out but it never did pass the smell test. Listen Star, you’ve been a pain in my ass all afternoon but be careful. Everything about this feels off.”
I nodded at the Lieutenant and Garcia before stepping around the SWAT van. I could feel my stomach clench and a bead of sweat started to make its way down the back of my neck. I reached up and adjusted my ponytail and tapped my earbud to let Fox know were moving on to phase two.
“Fox, moving to phase two. If you want me to abort this now is the time. Either double click or verbally confirm,” I waited a few seconds for a response but didn’t get any. Ignoring the lump that had formed in my throat I started walking out in front of the police line toward the entrance to the mall.
The whole time I was walking I kept focusing on projecting confidence and poise like Astraea had coached. I was consciously making sure to keep my shoulders back my head up and my gaze forward on the doors and not darting around nervously like I felt. It was way harder to do than I ever expected and gave me a bit more appreciation for celebrities and models that have to stuff like this. Which is the fear of death of course.
I got to about fifty yards in front of the entrance when gunshots tore up the parking lot in front of my feet. A man dressed in military style tactical gear with a mask over his nose and mouth was shooting out of the breezeway between the outer doors and inner doors of the entrance. He had taken a shooter's stance and was using the door jam to brace his weapon through the cracked door. I could just imagine how tense the police line had to have gotten with shots fired.
I held up my hands in front of my shoulders with my palms facing out to try and show that I meant no harm and raised my voice toward the entrance, “My name is Star. I’m a first responder and I’d like to speak to whoever is in charge to ascertain the condition of the people you have trapped inside,” and took another step forward.
Again gunfire ripped up the concrete at my feet followed by a shout that was somewhat muffled by the mask the gunman was wearing, “DO. NOT. COME ANY CLOSER!”
“Okay, but you have to understand that your refusal to communicate is complicating this situation. We don’t know what you want and more importantly by not telling us the status of your hostages you are limiting our options. While all of us on this side would love nothing more than to resolve this peacefully you are narrowing our options. Without a guarantee of the hostages' safety, we will have to assume the worst and will respond accordingly. You are on the clock so I would very much appreciate it if you could arrange for me to talk to whoever is in charge,” I monologued hoping dearly that I was saying the right things.
I could see the gunman somewhat clearly now and he was kitted out in light tactical gear which matched up perfectly for a quick hit squad. There didn’t seem to be any distinguishing marks that were immediately visible and he was wearing a face mask that covered his eyes and mouth leaving just his eyes exposed. He handled his weapon like an expert which in my mind just lent more credence to the theory that these guys were professionals and not some slapdash group of radicals.
While I was taking in whatever details I could the gunman was speaking into what was most likely a throat mic while never taking his eyes off of me and keeping his rifle leveled on me. This was going to be a pivotal moment depending on how whoever was in charge responded.
“You no have leverage here to make demands. Back up to the line or we will start executing prisoners!” he yelled from his position.
“You really don’t want to do that. It won’t end well for you,” I yelled back.
“GET…BACK!”, he yelled at me.
“Alright, I’m going to back up but if you don’t provide proof of the hostages' safety in the next five minutes I’ll be back for another chat,” and with that, I backed up keeping my eyes on the entryway while trying to sneak glances at the roof for signs of Fox. I hoped he was having more success than we were.
Once I reached the police line Lieutenant Bidwell was there asking, “What now?”
I kept walking until we could use the SWAT van to break line of sight before answering. “Well I gave them five minutes to prove anyone is still alive in there and then I go have another chat. Right now I’m going to risk reaching out to Fox and see if he has any advice or orders.”
“Alright we’re in it now, so keep us updated.”
I nodded while selecting the STAR channel on my wrist panel. “Fox, are you in a position to receive a sit-rep?”
Click, Click Fox’s mic popped in my receiver as Fox gave the affirmative to proceed without speaking.
“Acknowledged, the MCPD was unsuccessful in making contact. Moving to phase two, I approached to make contact, and warning shots were fired from the entrance. I proceeded to inform the gunman at the entrance that we required proof of life for the hostages and gave them five minutes to comply or let us speak with their leader. I could really use some direction,” I said pacing back and forth behind the SWAT van.
I felt a faint vibration from my wrist panel and turned my arm over to look at it. Fox replied via text which told me wherever he was he couldn’t speak.
Push proof of life request. Do not attack unless danger to self or others. Wait for the signal.
“Acknowledged. Good luck Fox, Star out,” I said and terminated the connection.
I turned to find Lieutenant Bidwell and found him speaking with an officer with a Captain’s stripes. “Excuse me, but Lieutenant you wanted an update.”
He paused his conversation and walked a step away from the Captain. “Well, what did your ninja say?”
“He wants me to try again to secure proof that the hostages are alive and I’m to wait for his signal. Wherever he is in there he couldn’t talk and was only able to text me a reply. I don’t know what the ‘Signal’ will be but I hope it’s obvious. Be ready, I don’t like this,” I relayed to the Lieutenant.
“In that, we agree, but we’ll cover your back,” he said and then went back over to the line.
I switched back to the MCPD channel and asked “Davis, any new developments I should know about before I head back over to the guys with guns?”
I wish, but there hasn’t been any response. The place is too big to pick up anything useful on imaging. I could try to put up another drone or try deploying the tactical robot.
“No, I don’t think any of that will help and would just serve as a distraction. They have to have some kind of extraction plan and I’ll need you ready once things start to happen. Just keep monitoring what you can and we’ll let Fox make his play.
With that said I made my way back over to the edge of the police line nodding at the officers I passed hoping to build up some goodwill. At this point, I really had no idea how this was going to turn out. While I collected myself I noticed the wind had picked up into a nice breeze and I could feel my cape and ponytail swaying along with it. I couldn’t help but think what a nice day this should have been and how unfair it was that the people inside the mall were being robbed of the peace of mind of enjoying a nice day. With that in mind, I steeled my resolve and crossed the parking lot.
I stopped at the same spot as before which was marked by where the gunfire had torn up the ground. I noticed the same gunman in the entranceway was sighting down on me the entire time I approached.
“Your time is up! Show me proof of life or we will be forced to escalate!” I yelled to the gunman who didn’t so much as blink as he kept his gun pointed at me. Ok, I guess this is going to get interesting, and hoping that they couldn’t see my knees shaking I took a step forward.
Gunfire rang out and again tore up the parking lot directly in front of me. “DO NOT APPROACH ANY CLOSER!” the gunman shouted.
I stopped and after a minute I asked him, “What’s your name?”
Silence. “Ok, Timmy. I hope you don’t mind, but I’m going to call you Timmy since you’re being rude not talking, and saying ‘gunman’ or ‘terrorist’ feels reductive,” I said putting every ounce of false bravado I had into it, “So here’s the deal Timmy, I’m very much out of patience and I’m going to ask one more time to prove the hostages are still alive and if I don’t get an answer then I’m going to show you why I have the fancy uniform.” The last part was said while balling up my fists and channeling my energy into them so they lit up and crackled with unreleased energy.
I could see Timmy’s eyes widen a bit before he started speaking to whoever was on the other end of his earpiece. After a few back and forths he locked his eyes back on me and yelled, “Do not move any closer. We are sending someone out!”
After a couple of minutes, another gunman came into the entryway pushing a young woman who looked to be about my age. She looked terrified and very small next to the men in tactical armor. It pissed me off to see her look so scared and my powers flared for a second which didn’t go unnoticed.
“You will release whatever ability you are using and we will send the girl to you! After that you will retreat and not approach again!” and with that Timmy’s friend shoved the girl out the doors and yelled, “Walk!”
I dismissed the energy I was channeling into my hands and it felt like time had slowed to crawl. Every hair on the back of my neck was standing up as I tried to take in every detail as my body fell into hyper-focus. The girl was walking towards me tears running down her cheeks with red-rimmed eyes from crying her mascara had run a bit and she was wearing a cute yellow sun dress with honey bees on it. She was petite and had light brown hair that had come partially free from the side braided bun she had styled it into and was now blowing around her face in the breeze. I’d bet money she was on a date.
When she was about ten yards from me I started when I realized that I recognized her. It was the girl from the student union who was taking photos with her supernormal boyfriend. At that moment I lost my focus for a second only to start in surprise when a loud crack rang out and I felt something wet splatter across my face. I looked at the girl in horror as she stumbled and fell with a gaping hole in her forehead.
I jumped forward and caught her before she could hit the ground and cradled her gently to the ground. Her eyes were still wide open in fear but without the spark of life. Still crouched down cradling her I instinctively closed her eyes before turning toward the entrance and screamed “WHY!” with tears streaming down my face.
“BECAUSE NOW YOU’LL BACK THE HELL UP AND STAY QUIET OR THIS WILL HAPPEN AGAIN!” not Timmy yelled back. Timmy while clearly not a good dude must not have been in on the plan because he managed to look shocked at what not-Timmy just did with only his eyes visible.
I took care to gently lay the dead girl’s head down on the ground and stood up feeling a rage I’d never felt before bubbling up inside of me. They’d killed her. Killed her for no reason other than to send a message. I could barely hear the police line shouting over the pounding in my ears. Locking eyes with Lieutenant Bidwell I could see his shocked expression while Deputy Garcia covered her mouth in horror. EMTs were rushing to break the line and run to us but it wouldn’t do any good she was already dead. They would just put themselves in danger so I yelled for them to stay back all the while feeling the rage still building.
The EMTs stopped trying to advance at my shout and looked at the Lieutenant who motioned them back snapping out of his shock, and that’s when I noticed something wet dripping down my face and reached up to wipe at it, and when my hand came back it was red. At first I couldn’t figure out where the blood had come from in my haze, but then I remembered feeling something wet hit my face when she was shot and realized I was covered in her blood.
With that realization, the rage bubbled over. Reaching back I grabbed a hold of my cape and ripped it free of its anchors while kneeling down and gently covering the dead girl with it. This small dignity was the least I could do considering how I’d failed to protect her. Standing back up I wiped the blood and tears off my face with my sleeve and balled up my fists my mind made up. My anger demanded a target and I might as well add another bad decision to the pile I’d accumulated today. I may have just killed my career before it ever got started but that didn’t matter anymore.
I toggled my communicator to the open channel knowing Fox would be monitoring it and spoke through gritted teeth, “Civilian hostage killed on transfer by hostiles.” While I was giving a sitrep I had started advancing on Timmy’s position energy building in my fists. Timmy's friend noticed and took up a stronger firing stance as he and Timmy both put me in their sights. At about twenty yards they opened fire and while it hurt, their bullets wouldn’t be enough to stop me and I could see it in their eyes when they realized it.
Speaking softly into my comm I simply said, “Engaging hostiles,” and promptly blew the entrance to hell.