When they found him, they also found the tapes.
They grabbed them, all the ones they could find that were dated within the last five days. It was standard procedure: Eliminate security tapes, photographs, signatures, any concrete evidence of their presence. They'd done it dozens of times before. The sweep was efficient and easy, which was thankful because the predominant thought screaming through their minds had nothing to do with their own safety or discretion.
"Get him out."
Face carried the bag with the tapes, as well as records, files and other signed documents that would bring this organisation down. He took the side exit with Hannibal, who carried their unconscious pilot to the van. They would catalogue his wounds later, when they were back at their safe house.
BA left by the back exit, ushering the other captives (children) into the awaiting bus. Alice was behind the wheel, pale but steady as she hurried the escapees in a tone that was just short of panic. He stayed with her, ostensibly to tend to the more serious injuries while Alice drove to the nearest hospital, but primarily because he wanted to make sure she stayed focused. The last thing they needed was for this bus to roll because she couldn't handle this.
Not that he blamed her. She wasn't trained. Hell, he didn't even know if you could be trained to handle this. People did all kinds of fucked up shit in the name of war, religion, for their flag or country or pride. BA wasn't sure how to categorise this. Evil sounded too trite and melodramatic. Science gave the impression of a greater good. There was no greater good here. Only a dozen terrified, bleeding children who might never recover from what happened to them in there.
BA set his jaw. The plan was to have Alice drop him a few blocks from the hospital. They'd stationed another car there, rented under a false name, so he could get himself to their current hideout. He would deal with his teammate then. Right now, he had to take care of the kids.
They'd received the call three weeks before. Alice Hewitt, a young woman with pale eyes and the reedy, undernourished look of a baby bird, had haltingly asked them for help. She'd escaped from a cult, she told them, where she and others had been held and used for experiments.
They met with her one week later, after checking her story out. The Truesong Community, it called itself, seemed to be founded on ideals of basic Christianity combined with a generic hippy attitude of karma, love and gluten-free vibes. It sounded flaky but harmless. Alice desperately insisted that it was not.
The commune was a front, she told them, for the experiments of the Leaders. Several months ago, the people who ran the community (the Leaders) began taking children of various ages from parents who lived in the commune. The story fed to the trusting mothers and fathers was that children benefitted most from the teachings and guidance of those who were truly enlightened. Being under the care of their parents, the Leaders said, would ultimately be detrimental to the child's personal and spiritual wellbeing. Wanting the best for their offspring, the parents gratefully entrusted their children into the Leaders' hands.
At nineteen, Alice was the eldest child taken to the place she said the Leaders called The Vestibule. It was a misnomer: The Vestibule was actually a large warehouse converted into a factory. White and sterile, it was a far cry from the modest tents and outdoor barbecues provided on the commune. A winding corridor snaked through the single-storey building, from which rooms of various size branched off. These rooms, Alice said, were where the experiments took place.
The Leaders were not completely deceptive when espousing their ideals and values. They did hold spirituality and a higher faith above all else. They did believe in the teachings of the New Testament. But they were also driven by their own need to know more. Specifically, they were interested in the soul.
Doctors in the past, Alice said (while Murdock nodded because of course he already knew this), had attempted to discern the weight of the soul by taking the weight of a person immediately before and after death. The weight of a human soul, she told them, had been declared to be twenty-one grams.
The Leaders wanted to know more. They wanted to know if and how the soul was affected by specific actions. The Vestibule was their laboratory. Each room was used for a different experiment. How would the soul react, the Leaders demanded to learn, to sin? To despair? To torture?
Alice had escaped after two days and one night at The Vestibule. She couldn't tell them what she had experienced or seen, but parts of her head had been shaved and there were needle marks in her arms. Sedatives and nothing more, she said. She swore she hadn't been raped. If the team tried to question her further, she started shaking. Alice provided them with details on the location and layout of the building, a rough estimate of how many children were being kept there and where, but she couldn't talk about what was done to her.
The day Murdock was taken was only supposed to be a recon mission. Locate The Vestibule, cite viable access points, observe the security measures and artillery (if any) and regroup to strategize. The four of them had been posted around the perimeter of the property, which was surrounded with a chain-link fence topped with razor wire.
They were nearly finished when it happened. Hannibal had been about to order them back to the van when Murdock came over the comm set BA had rigged up.
"Got a kid down here, Hannibal."
The Colonel had frowned. "Say again, Captain."
Silence for a beat, then: "Young boy, 'bout ten maybe, I can't see him too clear. He's between two of their vans."
BA spoke up then. "You think he's making a run for it?"
"Maybe." Murdock's voice was hushed. "I'm gonna move closer. Stand by."
Less than a minute later, he spoke again. "I'm fifteen feet from the outer fence. Kid's still there, definitely hiding, but something about this smells like Face's feet. ("Hey!" the blond interjected.) He's not focused on the warehouse. He keeps looking for something outside the fence. Seems real nervous."
A trap. Hannibal opened his mouth to give the order to fall back. That's when everything went to shit.
The Leaders had put a sniper in one of their vans. Luring them to the cowering boy put them right in the line of fire. Murdock was a perfect target.
Shots rang out. Hannibal couldn't see if they found their mark. Two men armed men exited the warehouse and grabbed the boy who'd been their bait. They held a gun to his head. He cried. They made him kneel on the ground in front of them, hands on his head. They aimed the gun. He screamed. He was only about eight years old. He wet himself and begged.
Murdock stood and shouted at them. He dropped his own weapon (and the comm headset) to the ground and raised his arms. He didn't look injured, which was a small mercy. Hannibal couldn't hear what he was saying, but he knew. He also knew that there was no way they could risk retaliation, not from this distance when there was a gun aimed point-blank at a child's head.
He watched long enough to see them let Murdock in through a heavily-padlocked side gate and take him inside without allowing him a backwards glance.
That was five days ago. When the team had returned the next day, guns ready to blaze, the warehouse was empty. Some metal operation tables and what looked like medical files remained, scattered on the floor as the Leaders had clearly packed and moved with great haste. They must have had another base of operations somewhere, but Alice insisted tearfully that she had no idea where it could be. The team had been searching tirelessly ever since, stopping only to eat and rest the bare minimum to fuel the energy necessary to mount a rescue mission.
Finally, they found it. V2, the team had taken to calling it: Vestibule 2. Nearly identical to the first, it was a large warehouse on the outskirts of town. The Leaders hadn't been expecting them this time. That part was easy.
The aftermath would not be.