River Of Night – Snippet 33
The access road was unexpectedly difficult. The Suburban had to be carefully diverted around or in some cases, eased across large, jagged rocks. There were unaccountably steep sections and one stretch that appeared to have washed out despite any evidence of a drainage or a stream uphill.
In the end, they had to move the emptied vehicles one at a time, while Tom and Kaplan alternated between driving or being a road guide.
“Your friends have a shit road, Tom,” said Kaplan.
“That’s the point,” retorted Tom. “You have to want to get up this road. Casual tourists and refugees in anything but a dedicated four wheel drive wouldn’t persist.”
Just past a sharp bend they had to halt in front of an unexpected sort of obstruction.
“I think you misread the map, sir,” said Astroga helpfully. “It’s okay, happens a lot to officers.” She snapped her fingers at a nearby middle schooler. “Take a note.”
Eric flipped open a familiar, small green notebook and began writing while Astroga dictated.
“Number fifty-eight: officers will always misread the map and should rely on E-4 navigational expertise.”
“Isn’t that your notebook, Astro?” Tom commented, with a glance Eric.
“Yessir,” she answered. “But now I got people for that.”
“Ex-per-tise,” mumbled Eric. He looked up. “Does that word end in ‘se’ or ‘ze’?
“Never mind,” Tom said. “Here’s what you put down.”
Behind him the first SUV audibly scraped past a boulder. Tom elected not to look over his shoulder.
The entire party was staring at the obstacle that blocked further progress.
A tall chain link gate, reinforced with cross members, barred the road at the point of their further travel. A bright white sign was wired to the gate. The legend was picked out in bold black letters. It warned against touching the fence without opening Master Switch #12, and appeared to belong to something called the Interbureau Liaison Agency, Bio-ecological Research Division. It went on to specify the gate for dropping off radioactive material, an exposure limit to same and pledged that Americans’ taxes were being well spent. The last bit made Tom snort.
“Are you sure, Boss?” Worf said dubiously. He had taken to using the same title for Tom as the bank team. “This looks some kind of official installation.”
The faces behind Worf looked more worried than puzzled.
“I’m pretty sure,” Tom leaned back from reading the sign and examined the wire topped chain link fence more closely. Neither the sign nor the new installation were things he’d seen on his last visit long ago. The sturdy obstruction disappeared into the woods on both sides of the road. Deep drainage ditches complicated the task of anyone who might try to bypass the gate. “The guy that runs this has a sense of humor. This feels like something he would do.”
A small junction box was mounted on the gate post. He popped the lid, revealing a button and a small grille.
“Everyone stay cool and mount back up,” Tom said decisively, pressing the exposed button. “Two Ton, this is Thunder at the gate,” he said, and after waiting a beat, he repeated the call again.
A minute later the grille issued tinny scratches.
“Thunder, that you?”
“Yeah, it’s me, with friends,” Tom said, releasing the button as he finished talking.
“Did you bring my hat?” the voice inquired.
“Yeah, I brought the Eagles hat you wanted.” Tom replied.
“That’s got to be a code, right?” In the car Worf looked at Kaplan.
“Yeah, a real simple one.” Kaplan answered, turning the engine on. “The challenger asks for an in-extremis verification, in order to see if we are forcing Tom to get us inside. Tom answers with a sports team whose color corresponds to our situation. The New York Eagles have green jerseys. Green means everything is legit.”
“That’s pretty cool, actually.” Astroga piped up from the last bench seat. “Gotta remember that one.”
“How about that handle?” Worf asked, leaning back in his seat. “Thunder? How do you suppose the Boss caught that handle?”
“The whole nickname is Thunderblast.” Kaplan mused. “That one I don’t know. Way too cheesy to be legit though. There gotta be a story. He prefers ‘Train’, so we all call him Thunder.”
A loud buzz sounded and the gate slid aside while the motor hummed efficiently.
“This guy has power, whoever he is,” Astroga observed. “I’ll offer free handies to that voice if they have hot water showers and they’re ready to share.”
Worf rolled his eyes.
The road improved remarkably just past the gate and the vehicle ascended past a few more twists and turns before being halted by a single unarmed man. Tall, the ruddy faced man was another member of the shaved head and a sharp beard club. His hands were empty, but otherwise he wore a complete set of up-to-date tactical equipment, including a very short black rifle hanging from a friction strap.
“Only one guard?” Worf said critically. “Seems a little… light.”
“Left side, in the trees,” Kaplan said, grunting. “Dirt mound with dark green moss. See the bipod? That’s a belt fed. You can count on more than one if Tom’s description of this crew was accurate.”
“Not seeing i…” Word said, but then paused. “Wait, ah. Got it. Nice camo. Gotta love competent allies. They really are allies, right?”
“Tom?” the man called out as the lead SUV stopped short. “That really you?”
Tom eased his door open with no particular haste, keeping his hands well in view. He paused for a moment to inhale. The pines scented the air, and that simple breath made him feel a little better.
“Yeah, Robby,” he replied. “It’s me. And some friends. Mind if we unass? Everyone is carrying, except for the kids, but I vouch for all of us.”
“You close the gate behind you?” asked Robbins as he walked up to Tom.
“We aren’t barbarians, Two-Ton,” Tom said reassuringly, before taking Robby’s hand and embracing quickly. One good thump on the back and the men broke back apart, beaming. “We even covered up our tracks from the main road so no one will spot recent activity.”
“I guess you SAS pretty boys are alright after all,” Robbins replied before putting two fingers in his mouth and whistling impossibly loud before waving his left hand in a circle over his head. “Bring it in!”
Twenty meters away from one side of the track, four shapes stood up. Clad in shaggy over garments the same color as the earth, their outlines were further blurred with layers of vegetation and burlap. They collected some burdens whose familiar shape jogged Tom’s memory, before picking their way over to the group that was eagerly piling out of the two Suburbans.
“Where did you get that museum pieces?” Tom asked, indicating the large machine guns dating to the Second World War. A particularly broad shouldered young man carried his burden easily over his shoulder, one hand negligently balancing the barrel. A smaller figure next to him unceremoniously dumped two green ammunition cans on the ground and then swept its head gear off, revealing a raven-haired, fresh-faced teenage girl. As she scanned the newcomers with an intelligent look, a second, similarly encumbered pair walked up behind the first.
“Meet my oldest, Jordan,” said the proud father. “Wants to be an electrical engineer. The tall oaf is my son Jake – call him Junior – and that is his “leetle fren”.”
“Is that a replica Browning?” asked Kaplan.
“Replica?” replied Robbins Senior. “Bite your tongue! I picked up some M1919 parts kits from that crazy guy in southern Indiana that you turned me onto a few years back. A little welding, a little machining and we have a proper light machine gun without all the bothersome paperwork. I even chambered ’em in seven six two by fifty one.”
“I wouldn’t call a thirty cal light, but…” Tom said jokingly. He knew from personal experience that the weapon was very heavy, but if the weight bothered Junior, it wasn’t obvious. A hard hitting weapon, the Browning was still in use in many developing nations where there SAS had conducted training.
Tom paused, reflecting that he now aspired to live in a developing nation.
“Well, hellooo Mr. Fancy Pants!” the second gunner said, striding up. “Where are those sexy five thousand dollar suits that I heard you bankers were wearing?”
“‘Lo, Half Ass,” Tom replied, looking down ruefully at his stained plate carrier, but then extended a hand to the new man. “Good to see you! Are Sarah and kids with you?”
“Yep,” said Dave Pascoe. “We’ve got parts of five families here, but a few never made it.”
Pascoe was considerably shorter than the others, but nearly as broad as he was tall. If the bulk of the machine gun that he cradled was an effort, there was no sign of it on his cheerful face.
“Whoa, boys,” interjected Robbins. “Let’s debrief somewhere besides the main road. Dave, Junior, get the guns back to the ready service locker. I’ll…”
A brief swirl in the debarking passengers caught the attention of the reunited comrades.
“Where’s the bathroom?” Dina said, pushing her way up to the main group, addressing Tom personally. She looked at the heavily armed reception crew and blanched. “Wait, machine guns? Is that even legal?!”
“One of yours, Thunder?” Robbins said, regarding her in alarm.
“It’s a long story,” Tom sighed. “Astroga! Come take care of this.”