Logan finally pulled up to their squadron's base. From the outside it didn't look like much, just an old concrete building resting in the shadow of the much larger Ranger Station. The only thing marking it as something other than part of the Ranger Station was the BEARS 97 banner painted over the front door. On the other hand, as one got closer and if they knew anything about construction, there were a few hints of something more important beyond. First, the doors were thick steel and anchored deep into the concrete. Second, the building was not just some pre-fab concrete slabs, but one solid mold. Anyone who had ever seen what a military ammunition bunker looked like would certainly see the similarities.
Logan pulled up his goggles and looked around as he shivered lightly. "Man, I have lived up here my whole life and I have never seen anything like this. It's a good thing A.T. issued all of us infrared glasses, cause I don't think I would have been able to get us here without them."
Rex jumped off the back of the snow mobile, "I hear ya. There were several minutes I couldn't make out more than outlines of trees only a few feet off the road, and I am the one with the heightened senses. This is insane."
"Which is why command wants us in the hovers. The only way anyone needing help is going to get it will be from us running around with radar and infrared both active." Josh reminded his two friends before keying his radio, "Command, this is BEARS 97 cadet one. We are at the squadron base and ready to get the FEMA hovers."
A female voice responded, "Key your GPS so we can confirm location, Joshua Stellman."
Josh's eyebrows shot up as he did as instructed. "Wow, a real person who called me by name!"
"I didn't know they even knew our names," Logan remarked, "but that voice sounded kind of familiar."
"You should know it." Rex stated with some surprise, "That was North Star!"
Both Logan and Josh stopped dead in their tracks and turned. Josh was the first to speak. "Are you sure?"
"Very. My hearing is better than yours. I can pretty much tell a person's voice once I have heard it. You are in direct contact with the XO of USDT 19 and she knows your name."
A few moments later the three boys clearly heard the thick steel bolts that normally locked the side bay doors of the ranger station slide open, followed only a second later by a pop as the lock on their meeting hall unlocked. North Star's voice came back over the radio, "We show you now have access to the FEMA bunker and your base. Mr. Stellman, please confirm."
Josh pointed for Rex to pull the very heavy doors to the bunker open while he kicked enough snow out of the way to open the door to their meeting hall. The second he saw Rex's increased strength pushing open the main bay doors, he responded. "We are in both buildings, Command."
Suddenly another voice came over, this of a very deep-voiced man. "Excellent work so far, young man. I know you were given some basic instructions from your Squadron leader and you already know you are on our highest alert status before actual activation, but I want to know if you are really comfortable leading? Before you answer, remember, we don't have any adult supervision for you all at the moment, so when I am asking you if you are comfortable with leading, I mean really being in command."
Logan's jaw dropped open awe as even he knew who the latest voice belonged to, "That's Battlement!"
Josh nodded with wide eyes and forced himself to take a breath to control the butterflies in his stomach. It was not often someone got a chance to speak directly to a U.S. Defender team commander. "Command, we can handle it."
"Son," Battlement's voice hardened making the man on the other side of the radio sound absolutely terrifying, "I am certain you and those in your squadron can handle basic emergency transportation and the like. So listen to what I am asking you, as I am going to ask you just one more time. Are you, Joshua Mitchell Stellman, ready to lead?"
Joshua glanced at his radio for a moment, then back to his two friends.
Rex nodded his support. "Come on, Josh, we have your back."
Logan quickly agreed, "This sounds really important, Josh. We can't say no and you are our leader!"
Josh glanced back at the radio for a moment, took a deep breath and closed his eyes as he keyed the radio, "Command, I am ready to lead."
"Then lead you shall, starting right now!" Battlement's voice came back, sounding somewhat satisfied by the response he got.
Before Josh could ask what was going on all three of their radios lit up and a civil defense alert tone came over them. A moment later a computerized voice came over. "All BEARS 97 members, this is a phase one activation. All male members are now under the command of BEARS 97 cadet one. All Female cadets are now under the command of BEARS 97 cadet two. Cadet one still has overall command authority of the squadron. Confirm now and stand by for instructions from your commanders!"
Josh almost dropped his radio as Logan quickly radioed his acknowledgement.
Rex also radioed back to command before stepping up to Josh, "Come on, let's find out what this is all about!"
Josh forcefully shook his head to get past his momentary shock as he keyed his radio, "Command, this is BEARS 97 cadet one, confirming activation and awaiting orders."
North Star's voice came back over Josh's radio. "Mr. Stellman, we just received word that a flight for life chopper has gone down in your area with a VIP. We have no GPS on its location. You will have to go by the rough estimates based on its last radio Mayday transmissions. Best we can do for you is tell you it is almost straight west of your location and probably close to the county line, but we could be off by quite a bit. We are sending all information we have directly to the FEMA hovers, so you will have everything we do."
"Confirmed Command." Josh stated, "Am I going to get help from the girls?"
"Negative," North Star responded. "They are going to break up and take over emergency services for the whole county while you are attempting a rescue. I understand you have three certified male hover pilots, correct?"
"Yes, ma'am. The other two are with me at the squadron base because A.T. said we could grab two of them and we got here by snowmobile, so we were planning on having him follow us back on it."
Josh gulped, "Sorry, ma'am. That our nick name for Arctic Trooper."
There were a couple of snickers that come from behind North Star as she spoke. "I should have figured that out, Mr. Stellman, but thanks for the clarification. Park the snowmobile in the bunker; you have authority to take out three hovers from the station, along with anything you think you may need from the FEMA stores inside. Once you are ready to move out, contact us again so we can remotely lock the base and the bunker. Also, make sure you take an extra fuel load, but make it all happen quickly; we need you out there looking ASAP."
"We'll be on the move in less than 15 minutes, ma'am."
"Good. Note, this is a high priority mission, young man, and you are all we have in the area at this time. All flights are now grounded in the area and our team is under a heightened alert for other reasons, so we cannot break off to help."
"What about BEARS 96 or 98?" Josh asked.
There was a bit of a pause before North Star answered. As she did so it was apparent she was holding something back, "All I can tell you at this time is this: you know where the last position of your squadron commander was and the same for your XO. You ten cadets in Flathead County are all the resources we have there at the moment. The second we can find a way to get you re-enforcements, you will be the first to know. Also be aware, Battlement will want to talk to you over the secure radio once you are alone in one of the hovers, so radio us back at that point."
Josh frowned deeply, "Understood, command. I'll be back with you all in a few minutes."
Logan looked over. "Jade Witch went down south and is basically in BEARS 96's area and A.T. went northwest which puts him in BEARS 98 territory. What gives, Josh?"
"Not sure, but it sounds like there was more going on than A.T. let on earlier. You know, it wouldn't be above the Woodsman to use this weather to stage a couple of attacks with his rag tag group of mostly class one augmented morons."
"No one has heard from the Woodsman or his band since he and his followers hit that Canadian Army convoy and got their butts kicked by USDT 19 and the 16th Red Leaf Defenders over a year ago, Josh. They pretty much crushed his forces," Rex stated.
"But they didn't get him and this weather would prevent either team from pinpointing him. He could stage all kinds of raids and pull back before anyone could stop him," Logan reminded Rex. "Besides, when is Josh ever wrong when his brain starts putting things together?"
Josh rolled his eyes, "If I was all that, we wouldn't have a rookie telling me how I should be trying to help Tanner; I would have already tried it."
Rex snickered, "I happen to like the rookie. He's not nearly as skittish as most of us were when we moved up to squadron level. Besides, his folks are awesome. Almost all the food we have in the cabin came from them."
"Fastest way to Rex's heart," Logan joked as he started putting fuel cans in one of the storage compartments of the hovercraft he was going to take out, "is by way of the stomach!"
Josh chuckled as he started loading the craft he was going to take, "Unless your name is Valda."
Rex turned a bit red. "You're really lucky we have to hurry, or I'd be tossing you in a snow bank about fifty feet from here."
Logan couldn't help but giggle, "Somehow, I don't think threatening your squadron leader is allowed, Rex."
Rex kind of shrugged. "True, but it would be satisfying none the less."
Josh ignored the comment as he made his way across the ranger station grounds and entered the BEARS 97 meeting hall. He quickly gathered up the cold weather equipment Arctic Trooper had set aside for Garret, then glanced around trying to figure out what else he would need. As he gathered some ration packs and three wood axes, his radio came to life. "Hey," Tanner asked, "What gives, Josh? Are we really fully activated under your command?"
"Yes," Josh replied, as he suddenly realized he was really in command, and somewhere out in the storm there was a crew of a missing helicopter depending on him and his decision-making. He took a deep breath. He now understood why Battlement had asked the question the way he had. Being able to handle a mission was one thing, leading it and having others look to you in a life-and-death situation was something a bit different… a lot different, actually. "Command says a flight for life bird went down, and needs us to find it. Have everything ready to move. We are each taking a hover back. Since I am grabbing Garret's winter gear, he'll be with me. Tanner, you'll be with Logan and Colt will join Rex."
"What about the girls?"
"They are going to split and run emergency services for Flathead County. It's really bad out here; without IR and radar no one is going anywhere, even if they could manage to plow through what is already out here. Speaking of which, did you get the roof cleared?"
"Barely," Tanner admitted, "It is so damned windy and cold I had a hard time keeping enough heat around me to stay aloft, let alone melt snow, so I finally had to clear a spot and do it by foot. The roof is totally clear, as is a path around the house and the wood pile, but I just didn't have enough juice to really clear more than a few feet around the cabin. I am next to the fire eating another full dinner and trying to recharge as best as I can. When we get back from the mission, I'll have to do some ice melting, cause I am sure what I melted is already turning into a sheet of it."
"Better than the roof caving in," Josh reminded his fellow squadron member. "Do me a favor: while you warm up and recharge, can you get a hold of Eldora for me? Make sure they clear her parents' roof before they grab the hovers from the eastern FEMA station. While you're at it, tell them to pack their Kevlar vests. I'm grabbing some spares for us from the squadron hut, so we don't have to run around to all our houses to grab them."
There was a pause, "Um, sure, Josh… But why do we need armor if it's just a SAR?"
"It's a gut feeling for now. But after talking things over with Rex and Logan, we all think this has to be more than a simple Search and Rescue. I'll know more once I talk to Battlement again…"
"Battlement? You talked to Battlement?" Tanner shouted, cutting Josh off.
Josh grumbled slightly, knowing normal two-way radios would not allow for someone to cut you off like their handhelds did, but just like much of the equipment issued to BEARS members, the communication technology was better than what was available to 'normal' people. In this case, each radio was able to receive multiple frequencies at the same time while broadcasting on an individualized one. "Yeah, he and North Star both called me by name. It's kind of scary actually. But just trust me for now and tell the girls to take their armor. It's probably nothing, but Battlement put me in overall command, so I want everyone to have armor ready just in case."
"OK, you got it," Tanner responded, sounding a bit nervous.
Josh ignored the boy's tone as he continued to pull equipment out of supply lockers inside the back underground bunker of BEARS 97 meeting hall. After a few minutes, Josh dropped the last bag of gear he thought might be helpful on the ground next to the entry door and glanced down at the assembled gear. He audibly groaned at the small mountain of equipment, realizing he was almost certainly taking too much stuff. Shaking his head, he wondered how a kid with his supposed extreme intelligence couldn't see past the idea that almost everything in the meeting hall could be helpful; all the while knowing it wasn't all needed.
He poked at the three piles of gear and mulled over what to remove from each stack, before deciding it was better to have too much than not enough. At the same time, Josh couldn't help but speculate what Arctic Trooper would be saying if the man had been in the base to watch. The corner of his mouth twisted upward, knowing in his heart the former Army Ranger would be laughing the mountain of gear. Certain his squadron commander would point out all of Josh's mistakes the second the group had their next meeting, all the while having a great deal of fun while doing so, didn't sit well. However, the jibes Josh knew would come would be far better than not taking something and getting chewed out because of his oversight.
Tossing up his arms in a bit of disgust, he quickly grabbed the stuff in his stack and made his way over to the hovercraft he would be taking. He glanced over to Logan, "I piled your stuff and Rex's right inside the door of the meeting hall. Where do we stand over here?"
Logan pointed toward the back of the FEMA bunker. "I got all three fully fueled and warming up, and Rex ran diagnostics on yours and his. We figured we'd grab extra food, blankets and water, then add in whatever you set out and move out. I don't think Rex put an extra fuel load in yours yet, though."
"I want two extra loads of fuel in each. We have plenty of room, and this weather is going to force us to put a lot more power into the fans, and the wind will probably mean we will have to have to do a great deal of compensation to fight it."
"Seriously?" Rex asked, sounding annoyed. "No matter what the weather, we have a good 500 miles with what we already have."
"Look," Josh growled back, "I already know I am taking too much crap from our bunker and I feel stupid enough, but one thing we aren't going to do is run out of gas!"
Rex tossed the last of the fuel cans he had filled up in the side storage area of Josh's hover, badly denting them both because of his strength. "OK, fine. You are in command, but we should be heading back and grabbing the rest of the guys instead of still loading up, Josh. The longer we are here screwing around, the bigger the chance of those in the downed bird dying from exposure. Remember, they probably aren't like us and cannot survive long, especially if they are hurt."
"If we run out of gas, they're dead! Don't you get it? I can't let that happen!"
Logan glanced over half wondering if he was going to have to break up an argument or worse yet a fight. In an attempt to cool things down, he stepped between the two slightly older boys, but readied his special abilities just in case. "Josh, we'll do what you want, but Rex is right. If we need to go through two full tanks of fuel to find them, they're probably already dead."
Josh stopped and clenched his fists. "I just don't want to screw this up!"
Rex motioned for Logan to get out of the way as he moved over to his friend. "You aren't going to let that happen." He gave Josh a hard squeeze on his shoulder. "But you have to let us help."
Logan glanced over, making sure the two were not going to suddenly go after each other, before backing off a bit further. "I'm going to grab the rest of the stuff Josh pulled out of our base. What else do we need?"
Josh rubbed his forehead and kicked at the ground, "Nothing. I've already grabbed too much and am screwing this up."
Rex pointed for Logan to grab whatever Josh had assembled in the other building before he spun Josh around and looked into his eyes. "Dude, knock it off. You're doing fine."
"Dammit, stop!" Rex shouted while poking a finger into Josh's chest with enough force to knock him back a couple of steps. "None of us would be doing any better. You are this squadron's number one cadet and you are the leader. Don't go second-guessing yourself or anything you have done up to this point. Now get in your hover and find out what Battlement wants. While you're at it, take a few breaths while the two of us finish loading everything."
Josh winced and rubbed his chest before looking at Rex with a bit of shock and anger.
Rex backed off a step and held up both hands. "I'm normally the hard-headed fool, and I really don't want to have to smack down the only person who can chill me out."
Josh gritted his teeth for a second. "You may be able to take me, but neither one of us would be in any shape to rescue anyone."
"So let's not," Rex stated with a bit of a grin, "Besides, you have healing powers and I don't think I could outlast them, especially since I am used to being healed by you."
Josh let out a bit of a snort. "Nope, you'd probably knock me out before I got a chance to heal myself." He finally smiled as he turned to head into the hover. "Thanks, Rex."
Rex's eyes gleamed as a hint of a smile played over his lips. "It's about time I get to pay you back for all the times you prevented me from beating the snot out of some kid at school."
"It's not the kids I am worried about," Josh snickered after a moment more of rubbing his chest. "It's the teachers."
"Well, if they would treat us like all the other kids…"
"Maybe someday, Rex, but not any time soon. There is just too much fear of us in the general population and idiots like the Woodsman don't help."
"Maybe not, but sometimes I find myself agreeing with him and those like him. I might be better if the world just gave all us augmented folks a country of our own and let us be."
"Jade Witch said it best, Rex." Josh reminded his friend as he moved up to enter the hover vehicle he would be taking out. "All that would accomplish would be to create a new Israel, with most of the world ganging up on us to take us out. At least this way, the non-augments need us to deal with the augments who do real harm. They may never like us, but they do need us."
Rex let out a long breath. "I just wish our math teacher would see just how much he does need us."
"Sooner or later he will. When that day comes, I'll be only too happy to let you rub it in a bit."
Rex snickered, "I can only dream of such a day!"
Josh flashed a grin as he entered the hovercraft and closed the door. A few seconds later, he pulled the craft out into the blizzard, activated the infrared and radar screens so he could see through the snow and finally keyed the main radio, "Command, this is Bears 97 cadet one."
Battlement's voice came over instantly. "Are you on the move yet?"
"Pulling out now, sir."
"You're at 18 minutes, Mr. Stellman, three minutes behind the schedule you set, but all things considered not too bad." Battlement was clearly fighting to keep his voice a bit calmer than he wanted to. "OK, this is strictly classified information I am going to be giving you, so make sure it does not go out over your handhelds; they are not secure enough."
"Good." There was a pause, "All right, young man, I am about to let you know everything we do at this time, which isn't nearly enough. First, the flight for life bird has Senator Miles Jackson's 12-year-old son on board. The kid was seriously hurt in a snowboarding accident in the back country a few hours before the storm really settled in and the wonderful Senator from Michigan wanted his boy to be flown home instead of being brought to a closer hospital or even here. So we now have a crew of three and the boy out there somewhere."
Josh frowned as the name of the senator was said. "Isn't he one of the leaders behind the movement to put us augments put in separate schools?"
"One and the same, and even worse, he is committee head on Augmented Affairs. But right now, he is all about letting you all risk your skins to get his son. You pull this off and he may even have to give you a medal or something, which those of us here and USDT 19 command would love to see him have to do publicly."
"If he gives us one, I'll make sure it is public, whether or not he likes it."
Battlement snickered. "Arctic Trooper said I'd like you if I got to know you; now I know why." He took a moment and spoke again, this time with a deadly serious voice, "But there is a much larger problem. Areas to your north and south have both been hit by separatist augment forces, and we suspect they may be responsible for the chopper going down. If they are, then you have to get to them before the separatists do. If augments cause the death of Senator Jackson's son or hold him hostage, the man will really put on pressure.
"On the plus side, the chopper was a military bird and stayed aloft for over 20 minutes after reporting getting hit with something, and they didn't take any more hits. This means there is a good chance that whatever hit them also lost track of them and are in the same spot we are, looking for a needle in a blizzard. We know they hit the ground and at least one of the medics and the boy was alive, but that was over half an hour ago and we lost radio communication almost immediately, so we didn't get a position lock. On the other hand, what we can send you is far better than what we let on over your handhelds. Mr. Stellman, you have to get there first."
Beads of sweat broke out over Josh's forehead as seriousness of the mission became apparent. "What if we don't? Can we engage?"
"If it comes to that, we will go active and move in to support, but we are way out of position and dealing with two large incursions. As it is, we are using both the 98th and the 96th to help us beat back the separatists. You are in command of all augmented forces in Flathead County at least until morning. By then I hope to have elements of USDT 20 in the area, but this weather system is really screwing us. I will say this much: if you feel you can secure the boy safely by use of force then, you will have to make the call. As of right now all of you in BEARS 97 are free to use any and all augmentations. We'll pick up the pieces and the bills later."
Josh felt a cold shiver run down his spine as he glanced out to see both the other hovercraft had pulled out of the bay and Rex had shut both doors."Understood, command. We are on the move now; you can relock both buildings."
Josh glanced out his port side window and let out a long breath as he saw a pair of red lights flash, then change to green before going out, over both the meeting hall and the FEMA station doors, letting him know they had locked. "Both doors show secure, command."
"We concur," North Star's voice answered back. "Good luck, son, Command out."
Josh took a few calming breath as he looked over the data USDT 19 had downloaded into the hovercraft on the last known position of the helicopter and its projected crash location. Battlement had been correct. The information was actually pretty good, but in this kind of weather, finding it was still going to be incredibly difficult. Even worse, the projected area was in the middle of nothing but heavy forest.
Josh looked over the information for a few seconds more, then grabbed the vehicle's radio. "Guys, from now on all talk has to be face to face or over the hover radios. We are on a classified mission and as we suspected there is a possibility of hostiles listening in. Logan, I want you to head back and grab the other three and catch up to Rex and me, since you are the best pilot out of the three of us. Rex and I are heading north to start a search."
"Where do I meet you?" Logan asked after a couple of seconds
"Lagoni Lake," Josh responded with a bit of a sigh. "Command thinks they are somewhere just west of there."
Rex groaned, "Could they have found a more remote place to crash?"
"Not that I am aware of."
Logan's voice didn't sound nearly as unhappy. "Hey, at least we know the area since it is one of A. T.'s favorite camping locations. Since we have the hovers, I'd think the best way would be to head up highway 93, then cut over straight across Stillwater Lake. But I don't think the hovers are going to be able to handle the rocks and trees; some of those woods get awfully thick."
"Logan's right, Josh, some of this will probably have to be done on foot or with Tanner and Colt doing it from the air." Rex tossed in his own thoughts. "Shouldn't we go as a full team?
"No, speed is of the essence here. Rex, your eyes are better than mine; even with the IR active you should take the lead. Trust me, I'll fill you all in as we move, but we need to get to Lagoni now!"
"You're the boss," Rex stated as he pulled out of the ranger station grounds and angled to the north.
Josh sighed slightly and spoke without keying his radio so no one could hear the uncertainty he was feeling. "So I am starting to realize."