The flight was short, Puck wasting no time. The helicopter flared and landed, then taxied over towards the hangars before Puck stopped and the crew chiefs motioned for everyone to unload. Andrew and Talia waited for everyone else to move first, then they exited the aircraft and headed straight towards the Renegade.
The airship sat on its own pad, the turbofans sitting idle but obviously running. Ground crew stood at the ready to cast off when told, but personnel were boarding and what appeared to be last minute supplies were being loaded. Andrew guided Talia towards a personnel hatch on the side and then followed her on board.
Once inside, the two of them were immediately wrapped up in a bear hug by what could only be described as a giant. Jason Cooper was Andrew’s senior NCO for all thing’s gunnery on the Renegade. He towered over everyone and from the look on his face you would assume that he had the disposition of a constipated wampa. He knew the Tesla’s inside and out, no one questioned him whenever he said something outlandish could be done, or something more outlandish couldn’t be done. He also had history with the McCalls, so the bear hug was a welcome greeting.
“I am so glad you guys are ok. We heard about the girls,” at that point Jason released the two of them and looked down at the both of them, “word has gotten around the crew.”
“Thanks Smoke” said Andrew. “What’s our status?”
“It’s a short notice deployment but everything is looking good so far. I’ll keep you apprised. For now, Captain XO is waiting in the Plunder and Lightening for you.”
Talia looked concerned. “Isn’t that your bar?”
“Yep” replied Andrew, “It’s also outfitted as a briefing space, for those rare occasions when XO likes to tell us what we’re doing first.”
“Tell me again why I let you go places with this guy” asked Talia.
“Because the pay is great, the bonuses are even better, and I get to play with Tesla cannons that may or may not be atomic powered” Andrew said with a smile.
Jason’s smile was even bigger, “Yeah, the bonuses.”
Talia just stared at the two of them and then shook her head. “Right, ok, lead the way”
Jason led the way into the airship and down the central corridor until the door to the P&L appeared on their right. Moving in they found the senior officers and a lot of the crew gathered inside, mostly sitting at the tables or at the bar. In true air-pirate fashion, bottles of beer and other spirits were very much in evidence. Conversation stopped as they entered, causing Captain XO to look up and motion them over towards the bar where he was sitting. Talia sat down at one of the barstools that a crew member quickly gave up, then she jumped as Yoda the bar-cat jumped up into her lap. His presence was an immediate comfort in an unfamiliar environment, and his purrs put her at ease.
“Ok” said Captain XO, “everyone knows what happened this afternoon and we got the info about the bodies doing a mysterious immolation. The S2 section has tracked down the vehicles to a rental establishment in Wales, so that’s where we are heading as soon as Puck gets us off the ground. What else can you tell us?”
Andrew replied, speaking loudly enough to be heard throughout the P&L. “We saw pretty conclusive evidence that our attackers were from the Gilead cult. At this moment, unless the S2 has found other information, that’s who we need to focus on.”
“Ok, how do you know they were Gilead? And why would they be coming after you?” asked Jerri.
“The ‘how’ is answered by a tattoo that we saw on the forearms of two of the attackers. It’s the symbol of the ‘Eyes of god’, the secret police of Gilead” replied Andrew. “As to why they were coming after us, well we have history.”
“Were you members of the cult and then left?” This question came from a table near the door. Andrew wasn’t sure who asked it, but there was no malice or snark in the speaker’s voice, and it was a fair question.
“No, we were never members, at least not because we wanted to join. The cult tried to recruit us, first by asking but when we made it known that we weren’t interested they tried to force us, even going so far as to say it was already a done deal and they were just following what god willed.” Andrew looked around, seeing all the gathered crew looking back at him. “Look, I know many of you might not see a difference between the Gilead cult and my own beliefs, but there really is a world of difference, and we had no desire to be a part of the society they had established.”
“So we’re supposed to take your word on that?” This question came from Martin, one of the Tesla crew chiefs. It wasn’t spoken with any animus, more like a curious question that was looking for a more substantive answer.
“I won’t complain if you do” replied Andrew, “but I can also give you some evidence to support it.” He looked at the table where Jerri and some of her analysts were sitting. “Can you pull up a US Military ‘Wanted’ notice for a Lieutenant Colonel Sean Truax?”
Jerri got a confused look on her face, then she glanced at the analyst who was working a laptop and she nodded. The sound of key strokes were heard, then silence, then a gasp from him. Jerri’s eyes got wide. “Oh my” she said.
“Put it on the screen Jerri, if you please” said Andrew as he put an arm around Talia. Jerri nodded again, as all eyes turned towards the viewscreen along one wall of the P&L. Then before everyone, appeared a wanted poster from the United States, the picture on the poster was Andrews.
“Whoa” said Martin, and other murmurs could be heard throughout the room. “You’re wanted for the murder of your Commander?”
“And the post chaplain, some MPs, my wife and children, and the theft of classified documents related to the operation of a new experimental weapon system known as a Tesla Cannon” said Andrew.
“Oh man, this story keeps getting better” remarked Martin.
The phone rang in the bar, and Kiwi, the bartender, answered. She listened for a moment and then turned towards Captain XO. “That was Puck, we are airborne and headed towards Wales. Lookouts are watching for the target vehicle.”
“Good” said Captain XO, then he turned towards Andrew. “Ok Redleg, don’t keep them in suspense, time to tell your story.”
Andrew nodded and started to look around the P&L. “Knowing most of you don’t have an attention span any deeper than your beer steins, I’ll keep this as simple as possible.” The guffaws, chuckles and random “Heys!” told Andrew that he hit the right tone with his shipmates.
“Ok, so as you can see from the wanted poster, I used to be an LTC in the US Army, and yes we all had different names then what we use now. Two years ago, I was the commander of an experimental unit that was testing Tesla Cannons at Ft. Carson, Colorado. I was having fun in what was planned to be my twilight job, and the family was enjoying Colorado once we all got used to the higher altitude. We’d been there a few months when the post commander, who was my boss, and his chaplain both invited our family to attend a pilot program for a family retreat that was being put together. 4-days at a vacation lodge in Utah with all sorts of family and couples activities, all paid for out of a chaplain fund. They billed it as a time to rest, recommit, and rejuvenate. At first it sounded odd since I had never heard of anything like this before, but the COL and CH kept saying how our family was perfect to help them test it out due to the age of our kids and how long Talia and I had been married. The COL, CH, and their wives had all been pretty friendly with us during our first few months at Carson, so we decided to go and check it out. We took a train up to Denver and then over into Utah, and we’re picked up by some vans along with a couple of other families.”
“Things started to get weird from there and we started to realize that everything wasn’t on the up and up, but it was hard to fully come to grips with our suspicions while it was all happening. First off, I recognized our driver as a post MP that I had seen at the gate. Also, he immediately asked us about knives and firearms and he wanted to search our luggage because those were his orders. I complained some but relented, and then did my best to keep him from seeing a small backpack I had.”
“Why was that?” This question came from Jerri. Andrew quickly replied “Because after the Lycanthrope episode of 2010 I never went anywhere without a pistol and a couple of magazines with silver bullets. Those were in my bag, along with a multi-tool and a hunting knife that I kept in there.” Jerri nodded “Well that was fortuitous.” Andrew nodded and replied “Yep”, then he continued.
“So after about an hour in the vans we get to the retreat site, but it’s more of a compound than a vacation retreat. Again, odd that it wasn’t described like this but with the previously mentioned Lycan episode and other weird stuff we run into, I really didn’t think much of it. Then we get inside, and the staff are acting pretty distant towards us, no smiles and not being really helpful. They kept telling us we needed to rest in our rooms and stick with the schedule of events, only we didn’t have a schedule and they wouldn’t give us one. The other three families didn’t interact with us at all, and we noticed that they each had a toddler, a baby, and the wife looked pregnant. So, we get to our rooms, two of them which are near each other but not adjoining. While we’re unpacking the CH comes by and tells us dinner is in an hour, but he doesn’t answer any questions, just keeps saying we should be patient, he’s excited we agreed to join them, and all will be revealed at dinner. After he leaves our oldest daughter points out something else that’s odd, we’re in Utah but there are no Bibles or Books of Mormon in either room, in fact there are no books, the TV doesn’t pick up anything, and the phones only ring the front desk. On top of that, the girls have some kind of cloaks in their closet, but there wasn’t anything like that in ours. We finish getting ready and head to dinner. Now I’m noticing that our van driver is also posted just off of our hall-way, with no way to not pass by him if we leave our rooms.”
“Why are you still in the place?” asks the Professor, “Just hearing all of this is creeping me out.” Talia replies “Oh believe me we have had that same discussion several times. It boils down to being weird, but we had no reason not to trust that we were safe.” Then Andrew added “And you have the benefit of starting from the knowledge that Gilead is already involved. I’m not sure we had ever heard of them before this whole episode.” Then Andrew continued.
“So, we’re at dinner, and we’re kind of taken aback by the setting and the food being served. Families are at their own tables, but there aren’t a lot of kids, in fact there are no males present except for the husbands and a few guys standing by doors as if they are security. The food was lamb, squash, beets, and quinoa; stuff that you hardly see at a military function. They served us some kind of juice that we couldn’t ID and didn’t really like the smell of, and when we saw that ours was the only table getting it, we decided to avoid it. The suspicion meters were really going up by now, but what really set them off was when the chaplain started talking, but it was more of a sermon then a ‘Welcome to our Retreat’. He’s up there talking about the ‘proper place for women’ and that ‘daughters are for marriage and babies’ and ‘the temple and the elders are to be trusted and obeyed, no questions’. It was a very warped version of old-testament teachings with different parts being taken out of context, and with a whole lot of other stuff mixed in. Some of it was old testament, some eastern mysticism, some deification of lycanthrope and cthulu, some was just out there. But what was really unsettling is not just that this is coming from the Post Chaplain, but all of the other people in the room that are clapping and nodding their heads in agreement. Somewhere in there we heard the first mention of Gilead, spoken in the context of an organization.”
“By now though we are really on edge and have totally lost our appetites. None of the evening even remotely represented anything that we would call a Chaplain, family, or even an Army event. As soon as we could get back to our rooms, we did just as fast as we could. We all piled into one room and started talking about what we had seen and how uncomfortable we all were. Our girls were obviously scared, and we were definitely nervous, but also feeling betrayed by the misrepresentation of the retreat. No one wanted to stay the night, but we weren’t certain we would be able to leave just then, especially with the obvious guards that were around. That’s when I decided that the girls would sleep in our room that night; no one would be alone. Talia went with the girls to their room to get their stuff and I decided to arm up, getting my pistol and knives from my backpack and carrying them until we got home. Once that was done, I went across the hall to see if I could help the girls move their stuff. Opening their door, I ran right into my COL. To say that was a bit off and shocking would be an understatement. Even more so, was the way he was talking to my wife and daughters, telling them to put their stuff back, and ordering them to change out of their “heathen outfits” and into the proper clothing that was provided. Then he looks up with me and orders me out of the room, that I had no right to be there anymore since my daughters were now betrothed. To say that this didn’t sit well with me would be an understatement.”
The background noise in the P&L had dropped off to almost nothing but quite whispers at this point. So it wasn’t hard to hear a quiet voice speak up from behind the bar as Kiwi interrupted. “Is that when you killed him?”
“Not quite. We started to argue about who was the head of our family, and that we had no intention of staying any longer. He didn’t like that answer, or the fact that I was arguing with him altogether, and he got beet red and started to yell at me about how I wasn’t worthy and now he was just going to take our oldest and make her his next wife that very night. When he grabbed her, I grabbed him and tried to break her free. He starts yelling ‘Eyes! Eyes!’ but I don’t care about his eyes I just want him to let go of our daughter, so I didn’t notice when the MP goon-guard came in, grabbed me, and tossed me across the room. I mean that literally, that dude was strong. I hit the floor and looked up to see him holding a pistol on me, so I just froze. The COL said something about ‘eyes of god’ and started to drag our daughter towards the door and the guard turned his head to acknowledge, and that’s when I decided to pull my own weapon. You see the way I fell he couldn’t see the side with my pistol, so when he turns his head, I’ve got a chance, I can’t just sit there. I pull my Glock free with my left hand, raise it, and start to bring both hands together. That’s when he turns back towards me, so I fire several times and he falls. Then the COL turns back towards me with a shocked look on his face, and at this point I really didn’t care and probably had too much adrenaline going, so I shot him too and he falls.”
Andrew stopped for a moment, the image of his former boss falling and his daughter in shock and terror hovering right in front of him. He looked up, saw that Kiwi had placed a coke within reach, so he grabbed it and took a couple of drinks before continuing.
“Now with two bodies on the floor it’s obvious to me that we need to run. Everyone’s ears are ringing after all of the shooting in an enclosed space, and the girls are all in shock from it, so it’s throw coats on and head out the door and down the hall to see if we can escape. Around the corner comes the chaplain and another one of the guards. I unloaded on the guard and that stopped the CH, who looks at me and the girls and then asks what we’re doing. I’m not in a mood to be nice or answer questions, so we grabbed him and forced him to get us out and away. A couple of times we run into guards and we hear him addressing them as ‘eyes’ and telling them to stand down and other stuff. I’m pretty sure he was giving them code words, but he’s still cooperating, and we finally get out the front door, into an SUV, and off we went.”
“Now we have no idea where we are or where we can go, all we know for certain is that we are driving away from the lodge. We’re able to take advantage of having the CH along for the ride, so we start asking questions and learn more than we want to about the Gilead cult, their semi-apocalyptic theology, how the ‘eyes of god’ are their internal security, and the fact that they intended to kill me, imprison my wife, and turn our daughters into wives for the Commander, the COL, and oh by the way the CH is kind of a Chief of Staff and head recruiter. All of this info has pretty much disgusted us, but we know that we can’t stop so we keep driving. Eventually morning breaks and we see signs that put us near Bingham Canyon, which is between Provo and Salt Lake City. We park by a diner in order to get some food, but we leave the CH secured in the car, and then we walk inside to discover a decently full place with a bunch of rough and tumble looking individuals, led by a guy that is being addressed as “Viking.”
More chuckles, and Viking lifts his arms into the air so he can suck in the adulation.
“Now we had no idea that a raid by the good ship Renegade was pending. Truth be told I never paid that much attention to the growing air pirate threat out in the world. Anyway, we’re ordering breakfast, Viking and his buddies (cheers from 3rd squad fill the P&L) are being polite and amazingly respectful, especially when Talia and the girls have to go past them to make a restroom trip. Apparently good impressions were made all the way around, which was a good thing.”
“So we’re nearly done with breakfast when a train whistle is heard and Viking and his crew pay and leave. We start to head back to our stolen car when a lot of chaos suddenly breaks loose all at once. First, we’re confronted by more Gileads, or we assume they were Gileads, who start shooting at us and we end up taking cover behind a low wall. Then some explosions occur as the train is passing through town. And finally, this really big dirigible comes floating down overhead with Tesla’s firing all over town. Does this sound familiar to anyone?”
At this Andrew looks around the room and sees some knowing smiles and nods from some of the original crew. A voice from the back spoke up. “Hey, I remember that raid, or parts of it, we were pretty drunk, but we were having a great time!” This brought a round of laughter and smiles from the rest of the crew, as everyone by now had been on a similar raid.
“Yep, and we are caught completely in the cross-fire. Fortunately, thanks to our earlier interaction with Viking and his crew, they notice the Gileads shooting at us, which they take exception to, so they take them out with what I can only describe as a mixture of efficiency and glee.” Viking spoke up “Yeah, that was really crazy, you guys seemed so nice and here these goons are attacking you. I asked him if they were wanted, and you just told me that these guys were trying to kidnap your girls. We might be pirates, but kidnapping women and kids is definitely not something we approve of.”
“For which I’m grateful. Anyway, by this point it’s complete chaos on the ground, what with Tesla fire all over and all sorts of people shooting in nearly every direction. Viking makes a comment about Tesla’s not knocking out stuff as planned, and I start asking question about the settings. I mean, testing Tesla’s was my job, so I was pretty familiar with how they worked. Then Viking offers me and the family passage out of town if I can set the Tesla’s right so they can pull off their ‘job’. I’m too strung out from lack of sleep and borderline shock to say no. The next thing I know I’m yelling instructions for stun and disrupt settings into a radio to two people that I would later learn were Martin and Kiwi.”
Kiwi laughed out loud at that point. “Oh yeah, we had no idea what you were talking about. We were doing well to point and shoot.” Martin laughed and replied, “you’ve got that right sister.” At that point they toasted each other.
Andrew continued. “Yeah, I wasn’t sure why my instructions weren’t being followed, I thought I was breaking it down to simple steps, but it wasn’t working. Next thing I know a basket lands on the ground near us, with lines going up to the airship, and Viking is yelling at us to get in. We all piled in and get lifted up to the Dirigible. Our fearless Captain XO greets us with a hearty ‘Welcome Aboard,’ and then he points to the closest Tesla and yells at me to fix it.”
Now XO spoke up “I’m still debating the wisdom of that decision, but so far so good.”
Andrew nodded at XO, paused and looked around. He noticed that Talia had a really firm grip on his hand at this point. He squeezed her hand before continuing. “And that covers how we were entangled with Gilead and ended up with the Renegade. If you don’t know the full story of that raid, ask someone else. I think I’m done talking for now.”
“Wait a second” shouted a voice from another table that Andrew identified as Turbo, the leader of the parasite fighters, “how did you know about the wanted poster and all the info that you’re accused of?”
“That’s my story!” boomed Jason. “Probably a story of another day.”
Andrew smiled at Jason and then looked around the room again. “So we knew that our lives as we knew them were over, so we had to create new ones. Captain XO accepted me as the Gunnery Officer, we changed our names and adopted ones from my wife’s side of the family with the intent of hiding from the cult in what we figured was the last place they would ever look for us, with an air pirate crew. That’s pretty much it, accept now we know that Gilead never stopped looking for us and they’ve taken our daughters. Oh, and the whole weird blue smoke body dissolving thing is new, as is the fact that we had to head-shot them to kill them. We never saw either of those in Utah. I don’t even want to know how they got those talents.” With that, Andrew stopped talking and just leaned into his wife, emotionally spent from having to relive those events from two years ago.
Captain XO looked around the room. The crew had heard of, seen, and fully experienced some pretty wild things over the last few years, and this story was no exception. From the looks on most of the faces, the crew believed the story, but they still looked at him for the final decision. It really wasn’t a hard decision. “Crew is family. We don’t all agree with each other all the time, or even like each other, but no one messes with family. Everyone get to your stations and keep an eye out. Let’s bring those girls home. Dismissed.”