Ok, let’s get to the next chapter.
Two days of driving does not sound like much, in the abstract. But what Jervis failed to mention in his description of the distance, or rather what Jo failed to truly appreciate, was that it was almost literally two days – two entire twenty-four hour periods – from Brisbane to Camp Tycho. Past the mountains to the city’s west and into the Outback beyond where the settlements were few and far between, and then further still, into the vast desert that dominated the continent’s interior.
They stopped only for fuel – those stops were few enough that they carried extra fuel cans within the vans so they could ensure they made it to the next one – and for calls of nature. Fortunately, the vans were large enough that they were able to lie down in the back and sleep in shifts. But the sleep was short and fitful, as more often than not the van would hit an uneven patch of pavement or a pothole and jar the sleepers awake. By the time they reached their first rally point, two hours from the Camp, Jo was exhausted.
The rally point lay within a small box canyon that descended into the earth beside a butte – Jo had no idea if they called them that Down Under or not, but that was the only word that came to mind – that stood out from the flat countryside like a beacon. At first she had objected; it was too prominent a landmark. Surely stopping there would leave them visible to tourists, patrols, you name it. But the canyon was deep and would shield them from prying eyes, and there was no other option that would even come close to offering good concealment for a long way in any direction. They needed to rest after the long drive or they would certainly fail, and this was the best place for it. It was a risk, but a reasonable one.
All the same, Jo made sure to set a watch up near the canyon’s entrance before putting everyone in the rack.
* * * * *
Thomas brought the van to a halt behind a small rise and turned off the engine. In the passenger seat, Jo peered out the windshield toward the top of the rise, where the glow of electric lights a small distance away eclipsed the stars.
It was a beautiful night: clear and dark, with no moon. They had made sure of that during the planning process. With a few weeks before Agrippa would be ready to sail, Jo’s little team had the luxury of selecting the night of a new moon for the caper. Convenient.
Of course, no moon meant little with all the high-powered security lights ringing the place. That was where Winston came in. Assuming he came through and was not discovered. That was just one of the many things that could go wrong tonight, but Jo actually felt good about Winston’s role. He had as much to lose as any of them, maybe more, if this thing went south.
Jo glanced down at her wrist chronometer and frowned. Five minutes until the second van was due to arrive.
They had waited until just after sundown and staggered their departure from the box canyon in order to draw less attention. Maybe ten minutes after leaving, they had cut off the road and set off cross country toward this, the second rally point. It would not have been so bad except they had gone without headlights, or lights of any kind. Thomas drove using lowlight goggles, but even still he had twice almost driven into a ditch that would have been impossible to get out of.
Jo lowered her window and craned her neck to look behind, straining to make out the other van.
It should have been a relief to not see a thing. That boded well for their plan, at least for the initial phase. But instead all she felt was dread. If they had hit one of those ditches, the plan was shot. She had planned for a contingency, of course. She, Thomas, and Jörgen could, probably, accomplish the mission on their own, with Winston’s help. But it would take longer and the risk would be far greater than with the whole team. And worse, they would have to leave one of the team behind. The incubator was too large, it would take up the entire back of the van. Thomas knew that, and had accepted the risk. But the thought of just leaving him behind where he would certainly be nabbed by the NSA, whether he chose it or not, made Jo’s stomach lurch. That was not a choice she wanted to make.
So it came as a great relief when, a moment later, the second van pulled up next to them and shut down.
Everyone piled out of the vans and quickly got about their jobs. Grant and Thomas checked their weapons, then slung their rifles across their chests in tactical mode and split off, jogging off in separate directions to do a quick sweep of the immediate perimeter; they would subdue any patrols of individuals they found nearby. Not kill. Subdue. Jo had been prepared to fight hard on that matter, back in Brisbane during the planning, but was surprised when Grant beat her to it.
“Better to not hurt or kill anyone, if we can help it,” he said. “That gets messy fast.”
Watching the two brothers disappear into the night, Jo hoped they remembered that.
Malcolm walked up and held out her pack. It was black, just like the fatigues they all wore, to better blend into the night. She accepted it with a quick nod, took a minute to pull a black knit hat out of the pack, then slipped the straps over her shoulders. Then she pulled the hat on and rolled it down until it covered her face completely, except for her eyes, and touched the pistol on her hip. Better to not hurt anyone, but there was being humane and then there was being stupid.
Of course, Jo was not entirely sure if she could shoot another person, if it really came down to it. Hopefully she would not have to find out.
She reached into the van and pulled her night vision goggles from where she had left them on the dashboard. She had not bothered to wear them during the drive; she had tried for a short while but found them heavy and disconcerting to wear. But there would be little choice about using them now. Slipping them onto her head overtop the mask, she adjusted the straps and hit the power switch.
It was like someone turned on the sun. What a moment ago had been lost in shadow was now clear, down to the little pimple on Courtney’s chin before she pulled on her own mask.
Jo took a moment to survey her team. Everyone looked ready. As soon as the brothers finished their sweep, they would make the signal to Winston. And then…
The soft sound of boots on rocks behind her made Jo jump. She spun around, hand landing on the grip of her pistol, and found Thomas – she thought it was Thomas, but it was hard to tell with his mask down – standing there, his rifle held at the ready. Jo could not see his eyes behind the lenses of his goggles, but his tone when he spoke was disapproving.
“You make more noise than a herd of teenage girls,” he said, his voice low and serious, businesslike.
Jo blew out in a mixture of relief and exasperation, but nodded. This was a job that required stealth, at least in the initial stages. She needed to keep that in mind.
Thomas returned the nod and joined the group. A moment later, Grant emerged from a hollow of ground a few meters off to the left. Pretty impressive. Jo would not have thought it possible to hide with the goggles making everything so bright, but he managed it somehow. Training. Lots of training. He exchanged fist bumps with Thomas, who gestured for them all to huddle up.
“The position is secure,” Thomas said in that same low tone of voice. “Looks like they have beefed up security since our last brief from Winston, though. I counted a half dozen guard posts.” He paused and looked at Grant, who nodded, confirming the count.
Jo cursed softly. “Is it too much?”
Thomas did not answer for a long moment. Then he shook his head. “No. They’re spread out enough that we ought to be ok if we can take two of them down. But we’re going to have to move quickly. Once Winston cuts the power, there will be a few minutes of confusion. In that time, you’ll have to get the vans in and out of sight, or we’re done.”
“What about the guards?”
“We’ll take care of it.”
He said no more, and Jo decided she did not want to know. “Alright,” Jo said, “everyone ready?”
Again, nods all around.
“We’ll wait for your signal,” she said, and Thomas nodded.
The two brothers departed swiftly, again disappearing like ghosts despite the better visibility from Jo’s goggles. She shook her head at their prowess, then stuck up her index finger and made a little circle in the air. Mount up.
She got back into her van and turned on a small wireless receiver that lay in the console between the two front seats. A moment later Malcolm joined her, taking the driver’s seat. She was not sure because of his mask, but she could have sworn he was grinning.
Malcolm turned to her and made the little finger-circle again. “Really?”
Jo rolled her eyes but did not reply.
Malcolm just chuckled and started the motor.
And then they sat, awaiting the signal that would set the path for the rest of their lives.
* * * * *
If you like it, please leave a review on Goodreads, Amazon, and anywhere else you can think to. Every review helps, even the bad ones, believe it or not. Thanks!
Until next time, then.