Chapter 33

 

 

         <21:10, Base Camp>

 

         Andrew stepped into the night and took a deep breath of the cool air. The sun was gone, the forest around him darkening by the minute. Glancing back at the tent, he picked his way through the forest until he stood in the garden.

 

         Sounds seemed… Muted, once he got there. The insects around him, even the creaking trees seemed to quiet down in respect.

 

         He approached the stone, running his hands down the smooth face until his fingers encountered the engraved names. They stuttered as they jumped from letter to letter, tapping a soft sound into the night.

 

         “Do not cry for me.”

 

         Andrew whirled, hastily wiping away the wet spots from his face. “Who’s there?”

 

         The clearing stayed empty. Glancing up, he could see a large cloud drifting lazily across the starry sky. As he watched it seemed to change direction until it touched the moon and began to slide across, casting a deep shadow across him.

 

         “Do not cry for me, Andrew.” The voice came again. Glancing around, Andrew could see a small light in the trees. As it got closer, he could begin to make out a small orb drifting on the wind. “I lived my life until I lived no more.”

 

         Andrew could only watch as it hovered in front of him, casting a dancing shadow on the rock behind him. “What… Who are you?”

 

         The light pulsed, and Andrew heard laughter. “I just wanted to thank you.” The orb shrank slightly and an outline began to form around it. “I have lived for decades, moving from man to man, healing, surviving. You were different.” Fox ears wiggled on the top of the specter’s head, the girl smiling at him sadly. “I found the man I truly wanted to end my life with.”

 

         “Azhara.” Andrew fell to his knees, gazing up at the Kyubi. “How.”

 

         “I won’t be here long.” Azhara replied, kneeling down with him. “The next life pulls hard, and I have no true right to be here. But before I faded, I wanted to make sure you knew I didn’t resent you.”

 

         “How could you not?” Andrew whispered, tears rolling down his cheeks. “I killed you. I killed you in my weakness.”

 

         Azhara smiled gently and embraced him. “I don’t hate you, Andrew. The person that killed me may have used your body, but it was not you. You are strong. Stronger than me. You killed the one that killed me, and thus I have no reason to be unhappy.”

 

         Andrew shook his head. “No. No, I killed you. I did this, I stabbed you, I-“

 

         Azhara covered his mouth with hers, breaking free after a moment and chuckling. “You blame yourself. But I’m telling you not to. You were suborned, forced to do things against your will. There is no fault in that.” She looked up as a breeze blew through the clearing. “I need to go. My borrowed time has run out.”

 

         Andrew reached out his right hand and grabbed her arm as she started to rise. “Azhara. Do you really want to leave?”

 

         Azhara glanced down in surprise as her lower body was lifted off the ground, Andrew still holding fast to her arm. “How… How are you touching me? How?”

 

         The moon shone through a crack in the cloud, light glinting off of Andrew’s gauntlet as he held Azhara down. “Answer me. Do you really want to leave?”

 

         Azhara closed her eyes. “My life is over, Andrew. I would not want to live again.” She looked away. “But… I don’t want to die, either.” She looked back at him sadly. “So I have to go. I can’t just disappear.”

 

         Andrew stood, his back sliding up the standing stone. “Would you stay here?”

 

         Azhara frowned at his question. “I can’t! No matter how much I try, my soul has to leave. I already cheated death once; His hands are on me, and there is nothing you can do to stop that.”

 

         “There is.” Andrew held his hand to the top of the stone, Azhara’s pinned underneath. “Please. I need you to answer me. Would you stay here?”

 

         Azhara blinked, then winced as Andrew’s hand began to glow. “If you did that, I would be trapped here. Forever.”

 

         “Would it be worth it?”

 

         Azhara stayed silent as her body began to fade. “I would still reside on the other side.”

 

         Andrew chuckled. “This could be your vacation home.”

 

         Azhara smiled. “You’re a rather selfish man, you know that?”

 

         Andrew nodded. “I know.” He turned to the stone, his hand glowing as magic spilled from it, casting the area in a bluish white glow. As the cloud neared the edge of the moon, and Azhara’s body had almost dissolved, the power focused itself, searing a fox head pattern into the stone and dissipating her arm.

 

         Andrew fell backwards as moonlight lit the garden once again. At the spot he had pressed his hand, a marking glowed softly, before the light faded. Hesitantly, Andrew pressed his hand against the head and tails began to sprout from it, circling around the mark until nine glowed from beneath his fingers.

 

         For a moment, an observer would have seen a woman’s upper body sprout from the stone and cup the man’s face in her hands. They would have seen her kiss his forehead before pulling free and flying into the air, her tails waving behind her.

 

         But of course there were no observers. And so when Lyn came to the clearing hours later, she only saw Andrew lying curled next to the stone.

 

         “Andrew?” She called hesitantly and prodding the sleeping man’s back. “Hey.”

 

         Andrew rolled over and yawned, blinking at her. “Whu- oh, Lyn. Hey.”

 

         She chuckled and pulled him to his feet. “I had a feeling I’d find you here.” She glanced up at the stone, her eyes staying at the names. “You hadn’t had a chance yet to say goodbye.” She looked at him. “Are you okay?”

 

         Andrew closed his eyes, a smile forming on his face. “I am, Lyn.” He opened them and grinned at her. “For the first time today. I really am.”

 

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

 

         <21:30, Near Carlsbad >

 

         The sniper shifted her hood slightly as the wind changed direction, sending a splash of water into her face. The goggles she wore kept it from doing much, though her scope did get slightly blurred. She left off her watch for a moment, pulling out a cloth and quickly drying it off before settling her eye back in.

 

         Below her, her target had disappeared.

 

         Biting back a curse, she glanced down at her data book and tracked the target’s path to the two buildings it could have gone to. As she watched, one’s lights came on and a shadow moved across a window. She breathed a sigh of relief as the profile matched. He had just gone inside.

 

         “Target seems to have retired for the night.” She murmured, her throat mike transmitting back to her camp. “Rain has kept visibility low. No sign of discovery.” She listened for a few moments and settled in behind her rifle. “Understood.” She slowed her breathing, waiting for her target to stop moving and sit at the table. A flash of lightning briefly illuminated the room, showing the man clearly as he ate his dinner. The sniper finished her breath and fired.

 

         The lightning that had helped her now completed the job, its thunderclap booming over the sound of her shot. The grass that had been stuffed into her barrel flew out, the bullet carving a trail through the rain. It pierced the window without a problem, sending a thin spiderweb of cracks and plowing into the man’s head.

 

         The sniper packed up her rifle as soon as she confirmed the hit. She swiftly pulled off the long barrel, stowing it away and letting it cool as she screwed in the regular barrel and dropped the sight into its pocket. Stand, stock, and grip all followed suit until she was left holding the base model, which she clipped onto her sling. By the time the body had slumped off the chair and begun to cool she was gone, only a slightly flattened patch of grass left behind to give her position away. By the time anyone would discover the body and mount a search, that, too, had disappeared.

 

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

 

         Constance pulled off the ghillie suit she had been sitting in for two days and shook her head, water spraying over the walls. She scrubbed at her hair and nodded at Andrew. “How did I do?”

 

         He shrugged, stepping back from the spray and holding out a towel. “How well do you think you did?”

 

         Constance took it and began scrubbing her body, her fur slightly puffing up from the static. “I eliminated my target. I wasn’t spotted. I left nothing behind.” She fished in one of her pockets, pulling out a casing and flipping it at him. “Actually nothing, this time.”

 

         Andrew inspected the bullet casing, nodding at her words. “Good job.” He flicked it back to her. “Get your gear dried off. You’re going back in.”

 

         “I haven’t had any sleep!” She watched him turn away. “Hey! I’ve been sitting in there for who knows how long! I’m tired!”

 

         Andrew glanced back over his shoulder and pointed at the training room door. “The simulation has already been running for eight hours. You’re being deployed to a combat zone. Every second you waste means your job gets harder.”

 

         Constance grit her teeth but began stripping her ghillie suit. “You’re a right bastard, you know that?”

 

         Andrew chuckled as he walked away. “Get going.”

 

 

         He closed the door for the observation room behind him and sat, watching the battle that was currently ongoing. “How are they doing, Cortney?”

 

         On the screens various angles were shown of a small town, the nighttime illuminated by a handful of lamps. “The first group has made it to their objective.” The Upgrade replied, a section of one of the buildings flashing red. “What did you tell Constance?”

 

         “Just that there was an ongoing combat situation.” Andrew replied, sitting down and watching intently. “She’ll be querying for instructions soon.”

 

         “Alright. The ones inside don’t know that it’s going to be her on overwatch. I’ll make sure to modulate everyone’s voices as well, just in case.”

 

         “Overwatch, I am in position and ready for my assignment.” Constance’s voice relayed through the speakers. “Please advise.”

 

         “Sniper, you are designated Watchdog.” Cortney replied. “Putting you through to the ground now.”

 

         Andrew leaned forward as Cortney linked the transmissions. Constance was nearing her fiftieth hour with little sleep, and the girls that had been in the simulation for the past eight hours were not fresh either. Though none of them knew it, this was their stress test.

 

         “Ground units, this is Watchdog. I am on station and awaiting instruction.” Constance projected, Cortney modulating her voice until it resembled a man’s. “I need to know where you are.”

 

         “Watchdog, glad you could join us.” Fu replied. “Alpha team is at our objective and awaiting the go from Beta. We’re in the rectangular building north of the square.”

 

         “Acknowledged, Alpha 1. Beta, please respond?”

 

         There was a quick burst of static before the line went silent again. Inside the town, a guard fell backwards and a few shadows flit past. “Watchdog, apologies.” Aella’s hushed voice responded. “We are on the main thoroughfare headed east. South side, moving towards the hospital. Going dark.”

 

         “I see you.” Constance replied. “Good luck.”

 

         Beside the road, Aella surveyed the hospital building. “Gale, any leads on our target?”

 

         The Night Nurse knelt, scanning each window. “I’m seeing a lot of what we’re looking for. We’re going to need to cut the power before I can get a more accurate read.”

 

         Aella blinked. “Why’s that?”

 

         Gale grinned. “She won’t be on life support.”

 

         Aella shuddered. “Fair enough.” She glanced at the sky, watching the moon as it scuttled around clouds. “But you’ve got a decent idea?”

 

         “Yea. We can move whenever.”

 

         “Alright.” Aella watched as a larger cloud approached, casting a shadow over where they crouched. “Alpha 1, you are go.”

 

         Across from them, all lights went out, plunging the hospital into darkness. There were a few moments where people began shouting before the lights all flickered back on, accompanied by a loud hum from a building further into the town.

 

         And then there was an explosion.

 

         Aella vaulted onto the road as the hospital was plunged back into darkness, Grace and Lucina following. “Watchdog, we’re about to be unreachable. Cover Alpha.”

 

         Constance swiveled her sight over to the generator building as the three raced inside. “Understood.” She swept over, focusing on the soldiers that were running in. “Alpha, two bogies in the square.”

 

         Inside Fu flattened herself against the wall while Melody and Ann worked on covering the door. “Understood. Let us know if they come from the back.”

 

         Melody clutched the busted cooling pipe, funneling the runoff over the door while Ann slowly built up ice. “Fu, this might not hold for long if they’re already here.”

 

         Fu nodded. “We left Kuu and Mira out back. If we need to they’ll get us out. Hold it as long as you can.”

 

         Constance watched the two soldiers pull open the door and rush inside. “Two bogies now in the building. That’s all so far; it seems to be a regular reaction force.”

 

         Inside the hospital doctors and nurses rushed around, emergency power supplies wailing as they were forced to compensate for a drain much higher than they could supply. Unseen in the chaos, three figures slipped into an unoccupied room and closed the door.

 

         Aella pulled off the coat she was wearing and pointed up at the ceiling. “You’re sure?”

 

         Gale nodded. “She’s above us. There are two guards in the door, one at her bed, and one sitting across from it.” She motioned around the room they were in. “Same configuration as here.”

 

         Aella nodded and strode to a chair, glancing up. “One here?” At Gale’s nod, she pointed her finger straight up. “One less.”

 

         The thunderbolt speared through the floor and conducted beautifully across the metal legs of the chair the guard was sitting in. With the door guards watching out into the chaos, only the one watching the bed saw him spasm and slump to the side. With a shout, he ran over, attempting to get his comrade off the chair and lay him onto the floor. In the space he had just occupied a blade poked through the flooring before cutting a decent sized hole. A muffled thud emanated from it before a shadow slipped up and snapped the bonds holding the woman to the bed. As one of the door guards broke off to help the wounded man, she slid off and through the hole.

 

         “I’ve got her.” Lucina murmured. “Window or door.”

 

         “Window.” Aella responded, easing away from the hole in the ceiling. “We’d be noticed through the door.”

 

         Gale gently popped the seal on the glass, putting it aside as the night air blew in. “We’re three stories up.”

 

         Aella took a deep breath and hopped out, clinging to the windowsill. “Watchdog, I need assistance.”

 

         Constance shifted her sight from where the soldiers had begun beating on the internal door and ran her gaze over the hospital. “Roger Beta, where are you?”

 

         “Third story, south side. I’m hanging out a window.”

 

         Constance focused in on her. “I see you. What can I do?”

 

         “Are there any onlookers watching this building.”

 

         Constance looked up from her rifle and scanned the area. “There are two soldiers outside. Neither are looking up. There are numerous buildings across from you; I am not in a position to see into them. Most of the vision is being used in the hospital lobby or at the generator building.”

 

         “Thank you, Watchdog.” Aella replied and glanced up at the other two. “I’m going to switch forms. Get ready.”

 

         Gale nodded, steadying Lucina as Aella kicked off, shifting to her dragon form in midair and floating closer to the building. Lucina jumped first, Gale coming soon after and laying the unconscious woman on Aella’s back as they dropped to the ground. As soon as they had landed Aella shifted back, catching the woman as she fell. “Alright. Now-“

 

         “You were spotted, Beta.” Constance relayed as she watched a handful of soldiers exit one of the buildings she hadn’t been able to see into. “From my blind spot. Move. Now.”

 

         Aella cursed and the three ran, cutting through the trees that they had landed in. As they ran they could hear shouting, accompanied by yells from the guards above. They cut around the hospital, looping back toward the generator building. “Alpha, we have the target, but we need to leave. NOW.”

 

         Fu watched the ice covering the door splinter. “Acknowledged. We’re about to be discovered over here. Meet at rally B.”

 

         Constance followed Beta’s progress as they ran, watching soldiers turn from what they were doing and move towards the generator building. “Alpha, you need to leave. Someone’s connected the dots and you have bogies incoming.”

 

         Fu cursed as the shouting from the two soldiers grew more insistent. “Melody, Ann, move away from the door.”

 

         Ann dove away as the door was peppered with bullets, some ricocheting to hit the fuel lines and sending a spray of pressurized kerosene across the room. “SCRATCH that, we are LEAVING!” Fu screamed, grabbing Melody and dragging her unmoving body towards the back exit. “Watchdog, we need distractions right now. I have wounded.”

 

         Constance chambered a round and scanned the incoming soldiers. “Roger that. Get out safe.” She focused on one that was reaching for the door. “Firing.”

 

         The man had begun to pull when his torso exploded, the shock sending his body crumpling to the ground. As the next soldier reacted, lunging for the door handle to try to get inside, the second round took him through the leg, leaving him lying on the ground screaming in pain. The remaining forces scattered, some hiding around the corner, some crouching in the ditch across from the building. Constance gave a grim smile as she focused on the ones in the ditch, still squarely in her line of sight. “They think you’re shooting from inside. Go.”

 

         Fu yanked open the back door as another shot rang out and ran, Melody over her shoulder in a fireman’s carry. “Kuu, we need to go now. Where are you?”

 

         “Covering. Mira has met with Beta and are on their way out of here. Just waiting on you.” The ElfQueen replied as a section of the forest peeled back to let Fu and Ann run in. “Watchdog is pulling out.  The only pursuit has been taken care of. We are clear.”

 

         Fu ran behind her. “Cortney really picked up the slack on that Watchdog character.”

 

         Kuu nodded as they reached the edge of the combat zone, coming to a halt in front of the others. “He was amazing.” She took Melody from her, scanning the unmoving girl. “She’s fine. The helmet took the brunt of the bullet and the remaining force knocked her out. She’s not bleeding.”

 

         “Thank god.” Fu breathed, glancing at the dummy they had extracted. “That was tough.”

 

         “Alpha and Beta teams, you are clear.” Cortney’s voice relayed. “Congratulations.”

 

         Fu began to cheer before staccato gunfire broke out from behind them. “Wait, what’s that?”

 

         “Watchdog hasn’t cleared yet.”

 

         Fu whirled around. “Cortney, he’s a simulation!”

 

         “Watchdog has not cleared.”

 

         Fu cursed and began running back. “You would have thought he had his own extraction. LET’S GO!”

 

         “Alpha, Beta, this is Watchdog.” Constance relayed, completely out of breath. “I’ve run into some trouble but I’m currently safe. You’re clear. Don’t bother.”

 

         Fu growled as she vaulted over a tree trunk, the rest running behind her. “Watchdog, we don’t leave anyone behind.”

 

         Constance popped her head up and squeezed a few shots at the soldiers milling around before dropping back down. “Alright. I’m on the south east side. I can get clear if they don’t see me make it to the trees.”

 

         Kuu vaulted past Fu. “Leave that to me, Watchdog. Fu, you can sit back.” Her hands began to glow, the forest rippling in response. “Watchdog. Go.”

 

         Constance broke from her cover and ran, fully expecting shouting and bullets to chase her. When she reached the treeline without any problems, she glanced back.

 

         The ground beneath the soldiers had erupted, roots throwing them off their feet and constricting them. She winced in sympathy as she broke through the tree line, but kept going. “Thank you. Watchdog clear.”

 

         “All are clear.” Cortney replied, the soldiers disappearing as the ground went back to normal. “All units are clear. Good job, everyone.”

 

         “Cortney, what the hell was that!” Fu yelled. “The sniper didn’t come in with us, so he should have had his own extraction!”

 

         “He did.” Cortney replied, materializing in front of the irate Warvern. “Or, I should say, she did.” She stepped back, bringing Constance forward. “Congratulations. You all passed.”

 

         Fu’s jaw dropped. “Con-Constance?” Her eyes widened. “Oh shit, you were Watchdog?”

 

         Constance scratched her nose. “I’m as surprised as you… are…” She yawned. “Gods I’m tired.”

 

         “None of you knew the other was here in order to test you effectively.” Cortney replied. “If you couldn’t succeed, even when you didn’t know your allies, you would have failed.” She glanced at Constance. “Constance needed to be able to obey callouts instantly, without stopping to think who was giving them. Her role was as overwatch. She needed to assist anyone she could.” She looked back at Fu. “Similarly, you needed to trust your support. It didn’t matter who she was if she was telling you where the enemy was, right?”

 

         “I… No, it didn’t.” Fu conceded. She chuckled as Constance blinked owlishly. “Is the exercise over?”

 

         Cortney nodded. “Go rest. We can do a breakdown later.”

 

         Fu propped up the drooping Tank Vixxen and helped her out the door, the others following. “Come on, everyone. Let’s all get some sleep.”

 

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

 

         <Three days later, Command Bunker>

 

         “We have a small payment coming in for clearing out that nest near Carlsbad, and word around Juaritos is that they need some guards.” Cortney summarized. “I wasn’t able to fully get why, but it appears they’re having trouble with the Sunshine military.”

 

         Andrew shook his head. “No. We’re not going against any of the leagues outright.” He shrugged. “If the cities want help that we can provide, we charge them for it. If anyone wants us to fight against an organized military force, we tell them to fuck off.” He glanced around the conference table. “Is that all?”

 

         Cristina raised her hand. “Enya is fitting in well. We ran her through a few simulations yesterday, and except for one incident where she burnt a building down rather than search it, she did exceptionally well.” She shrugged. “I wouldn’t put her on any stealth squads, but smash and grab or heavy support she’d be excellent.”

 

         Andrew nodded. “Noted.” He glanced around. “Anyone else?”

 

         Lyn lazily raised her hand. “Permission to speak freely?”

 

         Andrew blinked. “Uh, sure.”

 

         “Kuu won’t tell you this because she doesn’t think you need to know. Furia wants to have sex with you.”

 

         Andrew blinked. “Oh.” He bit his lip. “Has she… Said… This…?”

 

         Lyn shook her head. “Not explicitly. But she has been questioning Kuu about ‘the King’ and why ‘her Queen doesn’t smell like her King’.”

 

         Andrew rubbed his face. “Ah. Was there anything else? Anything, other than this random pokegirl pressuring Kuu into having sex with me?”

 

         “She asked Kuu if it was alright if she smelled like her King first.”

 

         Andrew threw up his hands. “Alright, and that’s what you meant in the first place. Great.”

 

         Cristina chuckled softly. “Why not? It might get Kuu to finally come around as well.”

 

         “No.” Andrew pointed at her. “I’m not pressuring her. I’ve said that before, I’m sticking by it. And if I hear that anyone else has pressured her I’ll be pissed.”

 

         “Yea, I remember.” Cristina looked around. “Nothing really has happened lately.”

 

         “It’s been quiet.” Andrew stared blankly at the table. “That’s been good, I suppose. I’ll head to Juarez later and look around. See if there’s any strife we can take advantage of.”

 

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

 

         <One week later, Ciudad Juarez>

 

         Andrew walked calmly through the streets of Juarez. They had been helping the local police force for the past few days and he’d caught wind of a group of terrorists that had been operating nearby. Apparently the Juarez government was asking for help. The meeting was today.

 

         He walked into the lobby of the police station and waved at the officer sitting at the front desk. “Hey, Jackson. How’s it going today?”

 

         The man grinned at him. “Andrew. We’re hanging in there; you here to go after those bastards?”

 

         Andrew shrugged. “Might be. Depends on how much the council is willing to offer me.” He glanced around. “What door should I…?”

 

         Jackson jabbed his thumb over his shoulder. “Second on the right. Might want to hurry. You weren’t the only one to show up.”

 

         Andrew shrugged and nonchalantly strolled to the door, pulling it open and glancing inside.

 

         Two men stood with their backs to him, gazing at another who sat at the head of the conference table. “That’s all you’re offering?” The man on the right threw his hand in the air. “My boys don’t fight for free, councilor. Count me out.” He turned and shouldered past Andrew, his heavily scarred face passing inches from Andrew’s as he sneered. “Good luck, boy.”

 

         “Alexei certainly seems like himself today.” Andrew remarked dryly as he stepped in and closed the door behind himself. “John.”

 

         The other man half turned and inclined his head at Andrew’s entrance. “Ranger. You can go home; I’ll be taking this one.”

 

         Andrew chuckled and moved to stand where Alexei had just been. “I don’t think so. Sounds interesting.” He looked at the man sitting in front of them. “And you are?”

 

         The man waved his hand dismissively. “Mercenaries like you don’t need my name. All you need to know is I represent the city council on this matter.” He cocked his head at Andrew. “You come highly regarded at this station, Ranger.”

 

         Andrew nodded. “My people get the job done.” He glanced at John. “So do John’s. I’ve happily worked with him these past few days.”

 

         “I see.” The councilor leaned forwards. “By the way, I am quite curious. No matter how hard I pry, I can’t find any mention of you employing men. How do you keep those monsters in check? And, more importantly, how have you not been drafted yet?”

 

         Andrew’s half smile dropped off his face. “I have an agreement with Sunshine. I have no agreement with you. Are you interested in hiring me, or are you going to continue poking in places you don’t belong?”

 

         The man regarded him. “Very well.” He dropped a file onto the table. “The city is only willing to pay fifteen thousand of these new league credits to have this problem taken care of. Regrettably, the military forces stationed here have made it very clear they will be paying far more if these terrorists are not taken care of.”

 

         Andrew glanced at John. “And we’re supposed to work for that much? No wonder Alexei stormed out.” He turned back to the councilor. “No.”

 

         The man blinked. “Excuse me?”

 

         Andrew gestured. “All yours, John. Have fun.”

 

         The other man scratched his chin nervously. “Well, actually, I was hoping you’d want to take it.” He dropped his gaze. “For that price I’d have to work with a minimal squad. I doubt we’d make it.”

 

         Andrew smiled warmly across the table. “Well, looks like none of us are taking your offer. Good luck with those terrorists.” He called as he walked out the door.

 

         John followed soon after, the man giving Andrew a slight nod as he passed. Andrew leaned back against the wall and waited.

 

         The shouting started soon enough; Andrew could hear the councilor arguing with somebody over a phone. He stepped away from the door as it burst open, the man’s face red.

 

         “GET THEM BACK-“ He started to yell before noticing Andrew lounging against the wall. “Oh. You. Get in here.”

 

         Andrew followed amicably. “Had a change of heart?”

 

         The councilor glared at him. “You did this just to get more money, didn’t you.” He sneered. “Of course you did, you shit. Well, it worked. We’ll give you 50k if you get it done right.”

 

         Andrew chuckled. “That’s the only way I do things.”

 

         “I’m sure.” The man shook his head. “Get rid of them. They don’t care how, they don’t care if you loot the corpses. But get rid of them.”

 

         “Gladly.” Andrew watched the man storm out of the room before ambling over and thumbing through the various papers he had left behind. “Do not stab people for insulting me.”

 

         The air next to the door shimmered and Lucina appeared with a pout. “You’re no fun.”

 

         “No, I’m fun. I’m also trying to keep us from falling in ill repute around here.” He pulled out a page and scrutinized its contents. “I’ll have a couple of you check the area nearby. The reports on the attacks should help Cortney find a common vector.” He put the paper back in the pile and scooped it up. “We’re leaving.”

 

         Lucina faded from view again before Andrew pulled open the door, making his way out of the building. On his way out he passed the councilor, who was checking out with Jackson before leaving the building. “Have a good one, Andrew.” Jackson called while finishing scribbling some notes. “You’re all set to go, sir.” He remarked. “By the way, I could hear what you said all the way out here. You were playing with some pretty serious fire.”

 

         The councilor frowned. “What, that merc?” He snorted. “What was he going to do. Punch me?”

 

         Jackson shook his head. “He doesn’t punch people. He has people to do that for him.” He nodded at the door as it stayed open for a few seconds too long. “Have a nice day, Lucy.”

 

         The man’s face paled as he realized what Jackson was insinuating. “He… There was…”

 

         “You’re lucky he can control his ‘monsters’ quite well or you’d have ended up with a knife in your back.” Jackson remarked. “Goodbye, councilor.”

 

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

 

         <The next day, 19:20, Northwest of Ciudad Juarez>

 

         Fu gazed around the field uncomfortably before keying her mic. “Overwatch, could you repeat the information on the encampment we’re not supposed to fire on?”

 

         Cortney pulled up a hologram back in the command center. “About 2 miles south-southwest of the primary target. On the border of the forests and the flatlands. It’s inhabited by a group of gypsy type settlers who are currently doing just fine on their own and we are not going to be responsible for any of their deaths.” Cortney frowned. “Your orders are to avoid that settlement. DO NOT ENTER IT.”

 

         Fu slowly rotated. “Yea, roger. Uh, hypothetically, what should we do if the settlement isn’t there… anymore?”

 

         Cortney blinked, scenarios calculating and being discarded as she spoke. “Alpha 1, please repeat. Not there anymore?”

 

         Fu kicked at the charred ground beneath her boot. “Affirmative Overwatch. We’re where it’s supposed to be, but it isn’t here.” She glanced at Lucina, who shook her head. “Beta 3 says there’s nothing left.”

 

         Andrew slowly rested his head in his hands as Fu’s voice came through the radio. Cortney paused momentarily before drawing a large x through the hologram and shunting it away. “Acknowledged, Strike. Continue to your primary objective.” She glanced at Andrew, who nodded. “Assume hostiles. Weapons free.”

 

         “Roger.” Fu lowered her rifle and waved her squad forwards. “Beta, cover our flank. We are to assume hostiles are still present.”

 

         Aella glided forward and began gesturing, forming her own squad around Fu’s pincer. “Pleasure.”

 

         Fu waited for them to disperse before striding forward. “Let’s go.”

 

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

 

         Cristina monitored the compound through her scope before sliding back down the hill and nodding at Fu. “They’re pretty well set up in there. Solid walls, nice layout of buildings. Definitely some pokegirls helping with the infrastructure.”

 

         “Will it be a problem?”

 

         Cristina shook her head. “They’ve done the time honored human fallacy of putting the biggest, most important building in the middle. That’s our target, and I’ve got a clear line of sight.”

 

         Fu chuckled. “Alright. Remember, we need to identify the observers asap.” She keyed her com. “Lyn. Teleport in 5.”

 

         Cristina nodded as Lucina grabbed her arm. “You know the drill. If we lose connection, assume the worst and terminate with prejudice.”

 

         Fu nodded, stepping back. “I know. Good luck.”

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

         The man rubbed his temples as he pored over the reports arrayed on the table in front of him. Those damn Sunshiners had been getting closer and closer lately. They had nearly caught them coming back from their latest raid in Juaritos and those… He grit his teeth as he remembered the faces of the panicked settlers. The military hadn’t cared.

 

         “You look like you need some coffee.” A soft voice interrupted his reverie, and he was startled to see a cup held in front of him. He took it with a word of thanks, taking a sip as he gazed up at whomever had been kind enough to bring it. He thought he had dismissed his aides for the night, and-

 

         The armored figure betrayed nothing through the helmet it wore, though the unmistakable butt of an assault rifle peeked from behind its shoulder.

 

         The man bit back a curse as he stumbled backwards, his hand clawing for his sidearm and finding an empty holster. “It’s not there. Finish your coffee.”

 

         The man turned slowly to see a second figure holding his sidearm, with a rifle trained on him. He slowly sat back down. “Who are you? Are you Sunshine?”

 

         The first shook its head. “Kind of, but not quite. Finish your coffee, and then we can talk.”

 

         The man gazed at the liquid with trepidation, but hesitantly continued as the second spoke again. “You’ve already taken a sip. If we had laced it with anything, it’s too late. You need to be alert right now.”

 

         The man nodded reluctantly. “You’ve got me there. How did you get in here?”

 

         “Through the door.” The man’s heart skipped a beat at a third voice originating from the windows. This figure had been completely shadowed and impossible to see until it moved into the light, and he could see its helmet in its hands. His heart sank at the face that greeted him. The woman seemed normal enough, until you looked at her eyes. They glowed, and the lack of a visible weapon confirmed his fear. She was a Pokegirl. “Nobody saw us. So there was no trouble.”

 

         “Here’s what’s going on, Sergeant.” The first figure sat down. “Your actions got the Sunshine Military all riled up. Since they were happening in Juaritos, the Juaritos government got blamed. Since the Juaritos government got blamed, the Juaritos government wanted to fix the problem.” It cocked its head at him. “Following so far?”

 

         “So you’re under contract by the assholes in Juarez to get rid of us.” The man spat. “Bastards wouldn’t even do us the honor of doing it themselves.”

 

         The figure laughed, and the Sergeant was surprised to hear the sing-songy voice behind it. “Oh no. If we wanted to get rid of you, this camp wouldn’t be more than a smoking crater.” It reached up and disengaged a latch, pulling the helmet off to reveal another woman’s face. “If three pokegirls can breach your defenses so easily, the full force wouldn’t have even been a warmup.”

 

         “Three.” The man glanced between the two in front of him in fear before glancing back at the third, who had begun playing with his sidearm. “All of you are…”

 

         “Pokegirls, yes.” The one in front of him extended her hand. “Captain Cristina of the Smoke Devils. The one by the window is Major Lyn, and the playful spirit behind you is Lieutenant Lucina. And no, Sergeant, we’re not here to eliminate you.” She smiled. “We’re here to extract you.”

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

         “I’m getting telemetry from Lyn now. There’s only one probe.” Fu sounded surprised. “Well, that makes things much easier. Aella, Constance, kill her. And make sure it looks like it came from the rebels, please.”

 

         Constance shouldered her sniper rifle. “Piece of cake. Aella, what’s my angle?”

 

         Aella gazed into the camp below them before settling on a guard outpost. “Let’s go with 20 south and 70 above. I’m not giving them time to react, so get it right the first time.”

 

         Constance snorted and chambered a round, settling herself into a firing position facing the directions Aella had given. “I’ve only missed once.”

 

         “And you’ve never lost a kill. I know.” She grabbed Constance’s waist, preparing them for teleport. “Teleporting on 1. 3. 2. 1.”

 

         The two vanished, reappearing on top of the guard post. The pokegirl inside perked up as they landed, her tamer glancing at her in confusion. “Hey, what’s…” He started to ask before a shot blasted from above them.

 

         Constance had kept her countdown. At 1, she had begun to pull the trigger. As they appeared in position and she saw her target appear in her sights, she breathed out the final count.

 

         “Fire.”

 

         The .50 caliber round speared out from the guard post and through the crouching pokegirl, sending a spray of blood and brain matter through the air as her head was completely obliterated by the force of the shot. Before the guard had a chance to react, Aella had taken them back into position and Constance was disassembling her gun to scrub the barrel clean.

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

         Cristina glanced up as the sound of the shot rang out, accompanied by the random bustle as the camp began to react. “Fucking idiots, they’ve moved already?” She turned back to the man. “You’re damned lucky we got the contract, but even still, we need your assistance.” She pulled her helmet back on. “Get on your radio and order your men to fall back, shooting as they go. Please tell them not to actually aim at us. They might get hurt.” She nodded at Lucina, the Shadowcat handing his firearm back to him. “We’re making it look like you’re under attack. Make sure you have everything vital packed up before we leave. This building won’t be here in a few minutes.”

 

         The man stared at them as Cristina motioned to Lyn, watching the second girl wave her hands and a shimmer descend from around them. “Wait, what is going on?” He frowned. “And actually, what makes you think you can order me around?”

 

         Cristina sighed. “You would think humans would learn to think more quickly.” She pointed out the window. “Our team just took out the Sunshine spy that had been watching you for the last who knows how long. They’re going to mobilize, and if they get here before we can get you out, we’re not going to blow our cover.” She sneered at him. “As to what makes me think I can order you around, I outrank you. Even if I didn’t, I could kill you.”

 

         He shuddered at her tone. “Ok. I get it.” He picked up his radio, which had suddenly come alive with chatter. “What about…” He trailed off as he noticed the empty room before shaking his head and shouting orders.

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

         Cristina let go of Lucina’s arm and strode up to Fu angrily. “You started before we had explained anything! For all we know he could order his men to shoot anyone coming in.”

 

         Fu shrugged. “They had the shot. They took it. If anyone fires back at us, they’ll be the ones dying.”

 

         Cristina growled but stepped back. “Fine. Let’s go.”

 

         The strike force spread out, poising to charge down the hill. “Hit the lights as you go, don’t hit the defenders.” Fu reminded them. “Pokegirls get itchy trigger fingers. If one starts brawling with you, shoot her arms. Shoot her stomach. Do NOT shoot her legs or head. Force her to run.” She watched as the outermost guards began to run into the compound. “There we go. Do it.”

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

         “They’re hitting the lights!” A voice screamed in panic as a section of the compound plunged into darkness. “Sir, we can’t see them!”

 

         The man ushering soldiers back nodded. “Orders are to retreat. All fall back to the command center. Let’s go!”

 

         Inside, the man and his aides were busy packing manifestos, intelligence, everything they needed. The staccato sounds of gunfire continued outside, growing less and less frequent as the remaining rebels were pushed back into the center. A man ran into the room, snapping a swift salute to the Sergeant. “Sir. What is going on? Aren’t we under attack?”

 

         He glanced up. “Corporal, have we sustained any fatalities?”

 

         The man blinked. “Uh, not that I know of, sir. There were a few gunshot wounds, but nothing serious.”

 

         The Sergeant nodded. “We’re leaving. Get the men ready to go. And CEASE FIRE!” He yelled the last line, directing his voice out at the last line of defenders. They hesitated, halting after a few moments and glancing around in confusion.

 

         “Ready to go?” Cristina asked as she teleported in, Lucina holding her arm. “We’ll set the explosives.”

 

         The corporal yelled in surprise, beginning to train his rifle on her before stopping at the other man’s look. “I said we’re leaving, corporal. This is our ride.”

 

         The man nodded slowly, sweat trickling down his chin as he stared at Cristina’s dark spear hovering in front of his eye. She dismissed it and stepped aside as the other teleporters began appearing, Kuu handing her the demolition materials. “We’re going, and we’re going fast. I sincerely hope you are a competent enough leader to get your men moving without any problems.”

 

         The man bobbed his head before rushing out of the room. The Sergeant finished sweeping some papers into a bundle before dropping it into a bag. “I’m all set.”

 

         While Lyn and Aella moved off to deal with the soldiers, Lucina held out her hand to him. “Ready on you.”

 

         He took it, blinking as the scenery changed from his office to a large conference room. “Greetings, Sergeant.”

 

         The man glanced around before his eyes settled on the figure sitting at the head of the table, their hands steepled in front of them. “Good evening. Are you to blame for all of this?”

 

         The figure chuckled and stood, coming around with his hand outstretched. “I call myself the leader of this force, yes. Andrew.”

 

         The Sergeant took the proffered hand. “Jack.” He glanced around. “Where are my men?”

 

         “Currently being teleported into one of our barracks.” Andrew replied, motioning Jack to follow as Lucina disappeared. “I wanted a few extra minutes to explain some things to you before you briefed them on what was going on.”

 

         “And what is that?”

 

         Andrew shrugged. “You run a very efficient guerilla force. It became so efficient that the forces that be in Juaritos got tired of you. We had done other dirty work for them in the past, and they figured we’d be perfect for the job.” He glanced at Jack. “Luckily, we’d gotten into their good graces in order to be the ones called for jobs like this.”

 

         Jack frowned. “So, you’re not with Sunshine?”

 

         Andrew laughed. “Gods, no. Officially we’re freelancers, though we are on Sunshine claimed land. No, if I had to choose an affiliation…” He grinned. “We’re Texans.”

 

         Jack blinked. “Oh.” He shook his head. “Wait, you’re with those lunatics to the east? They’re just going to get steamrolled one day.”

 

         Andrew shrugged. “They might. Or they might not. But for now I consider myself one of them.” He stopped at a door. “Here’s what I wanted to alert you to. Because of our affiliation, we follow certain laws. Laws that are different from what you’re accustomed to.” He nodded at the door. “Every pokegirl in that room is officially granted equal rights to any human. Military command structure notwithstanding, that means she can act in the same ways as a human without repercussions.”

 

         Jack’s lip twisted into a sneer. “You let those beasts run free?”

 

         Andrew folded his arms. “I follow the laws set for me. I am of a much different mind than you, Sergeant.” He emphasized the last word. “Just because someone looks different or acts different doesn’t make them less human.”

 

         Jack’s sneer twitched and he turned away. “Fine. I’ll make sure everyone knows of those… laws.” He glanced back. “What are we doing here. What are you going to do with us?”

 

         Andrew shrugged. “Basically? You’re free to go. As long as where you go is Texas. They’re always looking for volunteers for the forces there, and you’ll be working against Sunshine, just like you’re doing now. Not much will change.”

 

         Jack’s face soured. “Fine. I’ll let them know.”

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

         “How bad was it.”

 

         Gale finished wrapping Aella’s hand as she finished her report. “None of the regulars cared. Any of them that had the same thoughts had no interest in defending it, since they had no pokegirls. It was just a few of the tamers. After the Sergeant made the announcement, there was one in particular that really voiced his opinion. He took offense to me reminding him that that was the law and he opened fire.” She twisted the hand experimentally. “Sorry that I didn’t take care of him before the other two attacked Shamira.”

 

         “You have nothing to apologize for.” Andrew replied, glancing at the bed that Shamira lay in snoring. “The bullets barely fazed her. We’ve just got to take care of the bodies.”

 

         “Already taken care of.” Fu walked in. “Also, we’ve got… refugees.”

 

         Andrew blinked. “Pardon?”

 

         “Six pokegirls in total. None of them wish to stay with their current tamers, or are… no longer bound. They all asked to stay here and become a part of our unit.”

 

         Andrew shook his head. “No. I’m not adding anyone else. Send them to Texas.”

 

         “Wait.” Aella glanced at him. “They could be useful. Due to the nature of our disguise, all of us are known to the various local governments. Having a couple of trump cards could be useful if we needed to spy on someone.”

 

         Andrew stroked his chin. “Ok, that’s a valid idea. But we don’t have the time to train anyone to be a spy.”

 

         Fu shrugged. “I do. And it’s not all that hard; keep them from ever meeting you and they can’t give up information, none of us ever give them our real names, and tailing someone isn’t really that hard. Now we just need to find some male volunteers.”

 

         Andrew blinked. “What? Why?”

 

         Fu laughed. “Remember, this isn’t Blue. A pokegirl wandering around on her own will draw suspicion and would probably be pressured into joining the military.”

 

         Andrew grimaced. “Wouldn’t a single tamer have the same thing happen to him?”

 

         Fu shrugged. “With luck, nobody would think to ask.”

 

         Andrew nodded slowly. “Alright. We’ll keep it as an option. Let them stick around.”

 

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

         <Carlsbad, 09:00>

 

         Andrew stepped back and surveyed the poster he had finished putting up. “Finished yet in El Paso?”

 

         “We’re all done down here.” Fu replied in his ear. “Are you sure you want to do this?”

 

         “It’s a front.” Andrew replied, watching the activity around him pick up as the sun rose higher. “And besides, it might be fun.”

 

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

 

Tech Ops: Cortney – (Upgrade) Videogirl

Commander: Andrew Ranger

Smoke Devils Strike Force

Lucina – Shadowcat

Nami – Sharptits

Fu – Warvern

Cristina – (Blessed, Fiendish) Ophanim

Constance – Tank Vixxen

Gale – Night Nurse

Shamira – Goldina

Aella – (Hunter) Shinryu

Nevaeh – (Blessed, Fiendish) G-Splice

Melody – Wet Queen

Ann – Ice Empress

Enya – Blazicunt

Furia – (Fiendish) Wolf Queen

 

Support Force

Ishara – Romanticide

Kuu – Elfqueen

Lyn – Archmage

Rein – Myobu

Yang – Nereidame

 

KIA:

Juel – Matratya

Ashba – Rosebreasts

Nial – Assasara

Tracii – (Red) Longfly

Azhara – Kyubi

Brigid – Unicorn

Adria – Groaning

Noira – (Flying) Mecha Musume

Kary – Gunvalkyrie

April – Seabra

Erren – Ballisticunt

Grace – Mini-Top

Yin – Nereidame

Phial – Gravelgal

Leira – Queenler

 

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