A/N: So the deadline for the Presidian Christmas Challenge is tomorrow and I'm cutting it a little tight here! Hopefully, I'll have chapter two of this up by some ridiculous hour of tonight or probably tomorrow morning. It'll be finished by tomorrow, I'm sure it will…
Perhaps with hindsight, Zack Weinberg thought he should have realised that their nice safe little testing expedition would never have gone quite to plan with a man like the Scarecrow around.
Seven weeks prior to their rescue following the Dragon Island Escapade, the small team of scientists and soldiers had just landed in the remotest location in the world, the Arctic, and were glad for it. After all, they were still recovering from their rather traumatic Christmas and surely nothing else could possibly happen in the Arctic?
Eight weeks before that, none of it had happened yet.
25th December, 0816
Despite the baking heat, Shane Schofield jogged across the compound, ducking from one tent to another. The sun was barely up but the minute she poked her head above the horizon, the complete enveloping heat of day begun and not one member of the team wanted to spend any more time than they had to in it.
The team was midway through their first posting of the expedition – the harsh, unforgiving landscape of the Sahara Desert. The world's hottest desert, stretching over three and a half million miles from Mauritania to Sudan, provided all the space and extreme conditions the testing team was looking for.
On their first arrival in the Tuat region of Algeria, Mother had expressed her hearty approval – the marines' primary job was to keep an eye on the scientists and occasionally play with the toys they had brought for testing, which would leave plenty of time for sunbathing around the many natural oases that made up the region.
Or so she had thought.
Mario had been as surly as ever but the remaining male members of the team – Zack, The Kid and Schofield himself – supressed snorts of laughter as they continued to load the equipment onto the waiting vehicles. It was left to the petit Emma to explain to Mother, with a gentle hand on her shoulder and an even gentler voice, that their base camp would be set up at least an hour away from the closest oasis so that there wouldn't be any unfortunate repercussions of any small, or not so small, explosions they may cause.
Which was why Schofield was careful to stick to the weak shadows cast by their makeshift camp as he moved from the tent that housed all their electronic equipment to the common area where he hoped to find Mother; the tents didn't provide much in the way of relief from the baking heat but at least they offered some protection from the unforgiving sun. Pushing the tent flap aside, he indeed found Mother along with Emma and Billy 'The Kid' Thompson.
Emma Dawson, a remarkably pretty and diligent meteorologist from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, had pulled the lucky straw. She was working quietly on her laptop in the shade of the tent. Emma wasn't involved in the equipment testing that was the primary focus of the expedition. Instead, she was accompanying the team to monitor the varying effects of climate change in these extreme weather locations. In the Sahara, she was measuring the annual rainfall and the declining water table levels that fed the oases, which in turn provided the other means of life in the otherwise impossible environment.
Exactly how she was measuring that when not a single drop of water had fallen during their time there was beyond the marines.
Zack Weinberg, a DARPA scientist, and the last marine member of their team, the surly Italian by the name of Mario, on the other hand had drawn the short straw. Barely into their eight week stay in the Sahara, Zack had discovered a problem with his pet project – an independent tactical robot with some serious offensive capabilities - designated BRTE-500, or Bertie. Bertie, they had discovered, did not like sand. His wheels failed to gain traction on it and whenever they let him out for testing, the boiling sand would become stuck inside the grooves of the tires, burning microscopic holes. The first sign they'd had of this problem was when they brought him back the first time. As he trailed around the tent after Zack like a puppy, he left thin lines of foul smelling ooze which turned out to be melting rubber.
Zack, bummed by the failure, had spent the however many next days in his workshop before finally dragging the reluctant Mario out to test the six, yes six, new prototype tyres he'd developed.
Mario was less than impressed.
The other two remaining scientists, an uptight weapons Senior Executive by the name of Hartigan and his personal assistant, Chad, were nowhere to be seen but that wasn't unusual.
They mostly kept to their private tents.
Which just left the last two marines, Mother and The Kid, sprawled across the makeshift couches in the common tent. There was no chance of them getting any television signal out here so the two marines were keeping as still and as cool as possible. In the background, Schofield could hear music playing, the gentle riffs of The Kid's country music as opposed to Mother's rock n' roll, kept low so as not to disturb Emma.
Striding over to Mother, Schofield held out a piece of paper that had just come through on their dodgy satellite internet connection.
Slowly, Mother cracked open one eye just wide enough to take in the serious look on Schofield's face and the official looking header on the piece of paper.
"That better not be what I think it is," she growled.
"Come on. Up," Schofield commanded, "We've got a mission."
The Kid's voice was muffled from where he lay face down on the couch.
"We're already on a mission," he groaned.
Ignoring him, Schofield raised a single eyebrow at Mother who hadn't moved an inch.
"We're in the middle of the fucking desert," she said, "It's fucking hot, yesterday I thought I saw a fucking mirage and it's fucking Christmas."
Schofield just held the paper out steady until she reluctantly swung her not inconsiderable bulk into an upright position, still muttering curses under her breath, and snatched the paper from his hand.
"Diplomat's daughter been kidnapped by a ramshackle organisation," Schofield said as he crossed the room and slapped The Kid lightly about the shoulders until he too was on his feet. "Should be a milk run."
"Oh God, don't say that," Mother's voice interjected behind him.
"Why not?" The Kid asked curiously.
"Cause with him around," Mother jerked her head towards Schofield. "It's never a fucking milk run."
25th December, 1127
It hadn't taken the small team of marines long to assemble their gear into one of the off-road vehicles they had used to get from Tuat to their base camp. The supposed 'headquarters' of the unknown organisation who had taken the girl was about three hours' drive away. A satellite had caught an image of a cluster caves with some suspicious additions just north of their position, which was where the four marines were now headed. Having stopped off briefly to steal Mario back from Zack, they would drive the majority of the way there across the desert until they were approximately three miles out. Getting into the caves themselves would be a more subtle affair.
"Remind me why we have to do this," Mother yelled over the roar of the sand whipping past the vehicle.
"Because," Schofield yelled back, "Algeria still isn't overly fond of the US and the government doesn't want the political fallout that would follow them sending a US military team in. Besides, we were in the area and it was convenient."
He didn't add that if they wanted to get that little girl back alive, speed was of the essence. Neither the government nor the girl's family had been able to provide any reason for the kidnapping. There had been no ransom demanded and neither the Algerians nor the Americans wanted to disrupt the tentative peace forming in the region.
But without a motive, the kidnappers had no reason for keeping her alive.
They abandoned the vehicle at the top of a rocky outcrop, still well out of sight of the caves. Contrary to popular belief, the Sahara desert is not actually made up of endless sand dunes. Instead, its surface was broken with hundreds upon thousands of stony plateaus known as hamadas. This particular hamada in which the kidnappers had set up their hideaway, was home to an extensive cave system and could only be approached by a dried valley.
For a bunch of supposedly impromptu kidnappers, it was a good set up and that had Schofield's senses on high alert.
The four marines made their approach from the top of the ridge. Without any sure intel of what was waiting for them inside, Schofield had decided a full frontal attack via the valley was nothing short of suicide. As soon as the caves came into view, he was glad of that decision.
"That's a lot of caves for one little girl," The Kid said, staring in horror over the rim at the hundreds of small entrances that dotted the almost sheer sides of the plateau.
"That's a lot of guns for one little girl," Mario sneered.
He was right. At least a dozen of the caves had several armed guards posted at the mouths of each one.
"That's our way in," Schofield said, the pieces starting to fall together in his head.
"How," Mario retorted, "In case you didn't notice, there's four of us and at least forty of them, not to mention hundreds of caves where they could be keeping her. Those aren't good odds."
Suddenly, beside him, Mother cast one large hand over her eyes and pointed with the other at an almost invisible but unmistakable glint of metal, high above the caves atop the plateau.
"What's that," She said.
"It's a water tank," Schofield said slowly as the realisation hit him. "We're hundreds of miles away from the nearest water source so they'll need a tank. They can't survive without it. It's gotta be important enough to them that if we blow it up, they'll go check it out."
"Oh yeah, sure, blow up the water tank," Mother said, "no problem."
"And you just happen to know which one of those caves has got the girl in it?" Mario scoffed disbelievingly.
Schofield turned to him, a deadly smile lighting his lips.
"Those caves must interconnect underground," he said, pointing to the dozen or so that were marked by guards at their mouths. "They're guarding all the entrances. They've given us the right ones."
It took the four marines little over half an hour to skirt around the edges of the ravine until they reached the top of the plateau. Directly below them, Schofield could see the armed men close enough to I.D. the guns they were holding.
"Shit, they've got MP-5s," he said, pulling back from the edge quickly.
Apart from Mother, who had the prototype Armacorp rifle they were meant to be testing slung across her shoulders, the Algerians' MP-5s were an earlier model of the MP-7s that Schofield and his team carried.
"How they hell did a bunch of wannabe kidnappers in the middle of the fucking desert get MP-5s?" Mother asked furiously.
"From us," Schofield said shrewdly, "as part of the peace treaty I suppose."
"We gave them weapons as part of a peace treaty?" Mother said incredulously. "That is some fucked up shit. No wonder the country's going to the dogs."
Schofield just shrugged as if to say, it's beyond me or you to understand politics.
From their position, the plan – as it was – was for Mother and The Kid to attempt to blow up the tank, nestled just beyond the plateau on the other side of the ravine. Schofield and Mario would infiltrate the cave system and it would be improvisation from there.
"Hey Mother," Shane called to her disappearing back, "Be careful. As soon as you blow that tank, they're going to be on to you."
Mother threw him a cocky grin and a salute.
"Don't cause a diplomatic incident without me," She replied and then they were gone.
Schofield and Mario shimmied right up to the edge of the plateau. They didn't have long to wait before a sudden boom and gush of water high into the air sent the guards below them into a panic. Gesticulating wildly and yelling in what Schofield correctly assumed to be Arabic, all the guards save two ran off in the direction of the disturbance and Schofield sighed with relief.
He spared a moment, just a moment, to wait for a sign from Mother that she was okay.
When it wasn't forthcoming, Schofield shot a pointed look at Mario, signalling at the two guards below them.
The two were standing in front of what appeared to be the largest opening.
They were going in that way.
Silently, Schofield slid off the top of the plateau, landing behind the first of the guards with a muffled thump. With his trademark reflexes, Schofield got an arm around the guard's neck and clamped the other hard over his mouth but not before he'd had a second to scuffle.
That second was all it took for the other guard to look over and with a surprised yell, raised his gun.
He tried to swing the other guard's body around to shield himself but the guard was struggling fiercely. He landed a hard jab with his elbow into the side of Schofield's stomach, just slipping past the body armour he was wearing and the moment's distraction took all the time he might have had to defend himself.
The gun cracked loudly and Schofield expected to feel the bullet crash through his skull but it never came. Instead, he was left with an armful of still struggling Algerian kidnapper whilst the other guard crumpled to the ground with what was left of his head, courtesy of a sharp shot from Mario.
Another quick blow to the temple and Schofield had one unconscious and one dead guard at his feet when Mario landed beside him.
He nodded his thanks and cautiously, with their guns raised, they set off into the tunnel.
What they didn't know was that the remaining guards had heard the scuffle over their radios and having found the water tank already destroyed, had immediately hurried back to the main entrance, screaming into their radios as they did so.
Schofield and Mario got maybe twenty paces down the tunnel before a stream of bullets came hurtling out of the darkness towards them. Mario ducked instinctively behind an outcrop for a bit of shelter but Schofield walked calmly down the tunnel, sights raised and picked off the gunman with a single shot through the bridge of his nose. Then he kept on walking.
"What the fuck are you doing?" Mario called to him and Schofield stopped, turned to look at him. "We should stay here, consolidate our position-"
"And wait until we're a nice target with no ammo?" Schofield cut across, gesturing into the darkness. "I'm going that way. You can stay here if you want."
At that moment, a veritable firestorm started up behind them. Thirty odd more armed kidnappers were now filling the mouth of the tunnel, silhouetted against the blazing sunlight.
"Shit, run," Schofield said, hustling Mario along the passageway. Bullets burst the ground at their feet and pinged overhead, bringing rubble down upon them and giving Scarecrow an idea.
He stopped still and spun around, searching his sights for something.
"What the fuck are you doing?" Mario screamed as the kidnappers got closer and closer without Schofield doing anything.
"Waiting," he replied.
Mario drew his own gun and picked off the nearest and they fell with holes to the chest, neck and stomach respectively. Schofield meanwhile, was calm as his sights found what he was searching for. The roof of the cave above their heads was densely packed stone but as you got closer and closer to the entrance, it became less stable. So much so that on one side of the entrance passageway, there was a large steel girder, propping the roof up. Schofield took careful aim and with a single shot of a very special bullet with a strange orange band painted around it, blew the girder clear away. The steel support fell and brought the whole roof of the tunnel with it. Rocks from the size of a fist to the size of a small armchair crashed down upon the hapless kidnappers, pulverising their bodies in an instant.
Mario and Schofield turned heel and ran down the passageway, barely outrunning the falling rocks. Fortunately, as Schofield had seen, the tunnel quickly became more structurally sound and the cave-in was largely confined to the entrance-way.
Total, complete blackness enveloped them.
"The fuck was that?" Mario said angrily, "they were getting real close and you didn't do anything!"
Schofield shrugged though the gesture was useless in the dark.
"I figured you'd got my back."
Together they made their way cautiously down the tunnel. In the absolute darkness, the only way down was by touch so with one hand each plastered against the wall and Schofield, in the rear, with his other resting lightly on Mario's shoulder, they made their way step by achingly slow step down into the heart of the cave system.
Their guns stayed loosely at their sides, they were useless in the total dark anyway, unless anyone could aim based on the soft crunch of gravel underneath their slow tread, or the almost inaudible hiss of their breathing. They could pass one of the enemy in the passageway and have no idea unless they walked into each other.
Suddenly, in the dark, Mario stumbled and Schofield felt, rather than saw why. The wall beneath his fingers came to a sudden end and he realised they were in a vast open space, still utterly black. In the open space, the blackness felt less close, less oppressive than it did in the passageway but somehow, it felt more threatening, as though it concealed danger in its unreachable corners.
Schofield's grip on Mario's shoulder tightened. If they got lost in this, they'd never find each other again.
Abruptly, light flared around them and a harsh cacophony of voices filled the void. The two marines had their guns up before the stars had even cleared from their eyes but it was no use. Looking down his gun barrel, Schofield could see at least twenty more barrels pointed back at the two of them.
Having walked, literally, into a trap, they were surrounded.
The sound of both their MP-7s clattering to the floor was drowned out by one steady braaack of bullets awash all around them but seemingly miraculously, none of them made contact with either marine. Instead, the glowsticks lit up each kidnapper as they fell to the ground, one after another and still, the bullets kept coming.
It wasn't until Schofield and Mario were surrounded by a pile of bodies that someone else emerging from a side passageway picked up one of the fallen glowsticks, its unearthly pale green light illuminating her broad smiling face.
"Honestly Scarecrow," Mother said, "Can't you stay out of trouble for one minute?"