Josh stayed all but glued to Rex's back Hover Skirting. The wind whipping across open sections of the highway buffeted the hovercraft, making the drive a tough one. He glanced down to the civilian radio that had been sending nearly constant alerts for people to stay inside and off the roads, which was about the only good thing to say about the whole situation. There was no traffic. Even the dumbest of people were smart enough to stay home, or at least find a shelter to hunker down in. Still, every so often the Radar caught a hint of a car half buried in the snow, which was somewhere around three feet with drifts well over six.
Knowing his priority had to be to find the missing helicopter, he did the next best thing. He radioed the positions in to Eldora, who along with Gwyn, was taking the responsibility for the west side of the county. He couldn't help but grit his teeth as the girls' response time continued to grow with each and every find. As he moved by yet another car, he hoped whoever had been in it had either gotten picked up by someone and was safe, or was smart enough to now stay in the car until help arrived. Anyone, especially a non-augmented person, would not last long in a storm like this. Even walking on the road would be almost impossible, since there was no longer a road left visible.
With a deep sigh, he keyed the radio, "Command, this is BEARS 97 Cadet one."
North Star responded after a short burst of static, "Go ahead, Mr. Stellman."
"Ma'am, Highway 93 has over a dozen cars stuck, most off the road, a few on, between Whitefish and Olney. We are going to need more rescue resources if we have any hope of checking on them all in time to save people from exposure, unless you want us to break off the search."
"Negative, Mr. Stellman. The 97th girls will just have to get to them as fast as they can. We are doing everything we can to get you more help, but quite simply, nothing is moving, at least not fast. With any luck, many of those cars are abandoned; if not, they'll just have to wait it out. Believe me, we fully understand your concern and frustration. Be advised if you focus your IR, you should be able to determine if there are heat signatures inside. At least with information on actual survivors, it will allow the girls to prioritize which ones should be checked on first."
"I should have thought about the IR," Josh growled and smacked the armrest of the pilot chair with enough force to break it off. He quickly flung the broken off section of the armrest into the back, not really caring that he had just damaged a machine worth over half a million dollars.
Battlement's voice came back over. "You are doing fine and your concern for those stranded in this storm tells us all in USDT 19 just how big of a heart you have. As long as people don't run their engines and allow the snow to cover them, they should be able to hold out for quite some time. We will switch some emergency broadcasting resources to tell them as much. Thanks for the heads up and start tracking heat sources, if any, inside other cars as you find them. This way you can pass the information on to your female squadron members. Command Out."
Josh switched frequencies with a simple push of a button. "Logan, what is your status?"
"We are just passing Beaver Lake Road on Highway 93, the drifting and winds are insane!" Tanner answered for Logan. "It is taking everything Logan's got to keep her on the road and not hit any half buried cars. Without both radar and IR we would be screwed."
"Tell me about it," Josh concurred. "Hey, I screwed up and you guys could fill in the gaps since you are behind me. I want you to scan any cars with IR to see if there are people inside them. Then pass on what you find to Eldora. If they bypass the empties, it will save them time on getting to the ones who really need our help."
"It'll slow us down some."
"Rex and I can start the search for the bird and if it saves a single person, it's worth it."
"You got it."
Josh rolled his shoulders and focused on staying right behind Rex. Suddenly Rex's hover slowed and banked hard to the left as his friend hopped a rather large drift and took a side road. He grabbed the radio. "Where you going?"
"This is Old Fort, heading toward Upper Stillwater. I thought we were going to cross Stillwater Lake."
"We are, but I didn't even notice we passed Olney," Josh half shouted in surprise.
"I wouldn't know either, except I am going on GPS." Rex admitted. "The turnoff to Olney was nothing but a snow drift. Anyone without precise GPS trying to get there would go right past it and never know. With the near-white-out conditions, seeing buildings isn't going to happen either unless they are right on the road. Stick with me, but stay back a bit further. As bad as 93 is, this road is really going to be a mess. I am going to push up the speed a bit too, cause I bet I can simply knock the tops of the drifts off if I hit them hard enough. It'll make a rough ride for me, but should speed things up for Logan so he can catch up."
"Just make sure you are only hitting snow. I don't know what kind of impact the skirting of these things can take, and I really don't want to find out the hard way."
"I hear ya," Rex fired back with a snicker. "It'd be a real shame to lose my certification because I wrecked a FEMA hover."
Josh burst out laughing. "You sound soooo concerned!"
"Yeah, well after finding out the who and the why, they can send the good senator the bill for all I care. The guy is such an ass. We probably just bypassed half a dozen people freezing to death in their cars to find this guy's kid."
"Agreed, but we can't hold his views against his son."
"Maybe you can't," Rex kind of snarled, "Me, on the other hand, am half tempted to find the kid and not give him back until given a chance to point out how many lives were lost cause some idiot senator demanded a crew fly his son though a blizzard."
"As much as I agree with you, we still need all three hovers for this search. We have somewhere around twenty-five square miles of nasty ground to cover, even if the data from USDT is correct."
"OK, Uncle Josh, I won't wreck the nice shiny FEMA hover too much."
Josh couldn't help but laugh and groan at the same time as he backed off a bit, only to watch the hover in front of him pick up speed and partially slam through a large snow drift. After nearly ten minutes he radioed back, "By the way, thanks."
"Smoothing out my ride."
Rex chuckled, "There is a snow bank waiting for me to toss you in, there really is."
"No, you just keep knocking them down; I'm good."
The good natured banter came to an abrupt halt as Rex called out, "What in the hell?" He then spun his hovercraft hard to the left and pushed a considerable amount of power to the port side blowers to quickly bring it to a stop.
Before Josh could ask what the problem was, the radar captured an image of a flipped semi off to the side of the road, basically blocking the snow covered rail line. He moved up slowly, frowning. He was about to contact command when Rex's voice broke his train of thought.
"The cab has some heavy damage to the side and all the tires are shredded. It looks like it was attacked."
"Well, I don't see any tracks at all and there is no sign of tire marks on the road, so it's been here long enough to have the storm cover up all signs of movement. Normally that would tell us something, but in this storm, I'd say it hasn't been bothered for at least half an hour, maybe an hour. On the other hand, it could have been here for several hours, hard to tell. I am going to give it a once-over. You may want to find out if Command wants us to move it off the tracks."
"Come on, Josh, it's just an empty flatbed semi and the only thing on the tracks is the cab. If I disconnect the trailer, the two of us should be able to roll it all the way to the other side of the road so it doesn't end up spilling any diesel in the lake. Then we can just shove the trailer far enough away from the tracks so it doesn't endanger the snow train. It can't weigh more than a few tons. Heck, if the tires weren't mangled and there wasn't snow up to and over my waist out here, I am sure I could flip the whole thing back to being upright and push it myself."
"I'm not as strong as you."
"I've seen you pick up a car; don't go giving me the ‘I'm not strong enough' crap. A.T. would smack the back of your head hard enough to make your ears ring if he heard you right now."
Josh couldn't help but nod his head in silent agreement. "OK, fine, but don't go far. There is no telling how many may be out there."
"No problem, I just want to check the cab and look over the damage."
Josh let out a deep breath and switched frequencies, "Command, This is 97 cadet one."
"Hold a minute." A younger male voice, sounding somewhat out of breath, responded. In the background the sound of an explosion clearly came over the radio.
Josh's lips twisted up toward the left side of his face as he glanced at the radio. His eyes kind of arched as he spoke aloud, "That didn't sound good."
Almost two full minutes passed before Rex poked his head in Josh's hover. "So there is a lot of blood in the cab. It's part frozen and part dry and there are small jagged slivers of rock in all the tires. The cab itself looks like it has some burn marks, but it was not done by someone with Tanner's ability, not even close, they are small, only quarter sized burns. All the surviving windows are coated in a thick layer of ice too, almost like it was sprayed with water. Finally there are two 12 gauge shell casings inside, but no sign of a shotgun. Someone with some augmentation hit this truck, probably more than one. What's Command say?"
"They haven't yet." Josh glanced over, "It kind of sounded like they were busy."
"Busy?" Rex cocked his head to the side, "What are they…?" His question was cut short as a new female voice came over the radio, "BEARS 97, be advised, unless this is a big emergency, we aren't really available…" The sound of automatic weapons fire, an explosion and an anger-filled roar cut off the transmission for a few seconds, followed a few seconds later by a an almost deafening snapping sound.
Josh glanced over at Rex and shook his head. "Never mind, Command. We'll deal with this. 97 one out."
Rex had to force his jaw to close. "Yeah… Good call. So what do we do now, boss?"
Josh shrugged. "Well, after hearing that, I guess I should be happy to only have to roll a semi out of the way of a train."
Rex gave a single nod and pointed at Josh. "What you said. Let's do this."
Josh grunted as he used his heightened strength to help the stronger Rex roll the cab from next to the tracks all the way to the opposite side of the road. After nearly 15 minutes, Rex gave it one last hard shove, rolling it several times before it finally came to a rest against a couple of trees. As they walked back to the flatbed trailer, he shook his head. "So who do you think that was on the radio?"
Rex shook his head. "Not sure. Kind of sounded like a kid. It wasn't one of the 19th normal members, that's for sure. Whoever it was is having a much worse night then we are, though." Rex braced his hands on the flatbed and gave it a hard shove, single-handedly pushing it far enough away from the tracks that it wouldn't endanger any trains coming through. "What a nice workout!"
Josh rolled his eyes and shook his head while putting his back against the tires and managed to push it a few more feet, just to make sure it was indeed clear, "This is why the teachers are scared of you. Most kids, even us augmented ones, don't consider rolling and shoving around real semis as fun."
Rex's eyes sparkled up as he grinned. "They have no idea what they are missing!"
Josh chuckled as he made his way back to his hovercraft and electronically unlocked the door. He couldn't help but wonder how he would see himself or Rex if he was not augmented. What the two of them had just done would take ten normals double the time, if not more, and the truth of the matter was neither of them had broken a real sweat. ‘No wonder they are so scared of us,' he thought as he sat in the pilot's seat, glanced at the missing arm rest and sighed.
He pushed those thoughts to the side as he once again followed Rex, who used the spot they had just cleared to angle toward the lake. They were able to pick up speed as the snow over the frozen water was pretty even, eliminating the need to smash though or go over larger drifts. As radar picked up trees on the far shoreline, he radioed over to Rex. "We are less than a mile from Lagoni, but I have no idea how we are going to get the hovers in there."
"There is a long cove-like area on the west side of Upper Stillwater. If I remember correctly, there is a small stream connecting Lagoni's south side to Stillwater. We should try there."
Josh nodded as he remembered the spot, "Not on the maps and a horrible fishing spot plus heavy on mosquitoes, but you're right. It might just be wide enough for the hovers. Let's give it a shot."
"OK, but stay back once we hit the creek; we don't need both of us getting stuck." Rex angled toward the inlet into Upper Stillwater Lake before saying anything. "Josh, how in the name of God are we going to find anything out here? We could miss them by a few feet and never know it and there is no way these hovers are going to make in much past Lagoni. The terrain is hilly with steep slopes and the growth is way too thick."
"I have been wondering the same thing. I have an idea, but I need to talk to command first, and since they haven't radioed back, I'm guessing they are still a bit busy. Until we hear from them, I want the two of us to work into the tree line on as far as we can until Logan gets here with the others. You take the northwest and I'll take the southwest half."
"Better than picking our noses while we wait, that's for sure." Rex slowed to a near crawl as he entered the narrow rocky streambed. "Radar says it's too tight, but I am going to give it a shot. Most of what is in the way is small braches and the like, I should be able to put a bit more power into the back fans and make a path. At worst we'll have to stop a couple of times and cut a tree or two."
Josh stayed way back nervously watching with the IR and radar, hearing the constant scraping of branches and undergrowth rubbing and smacking against almost every inch of the hover as he moved at a snail's pace through the dense foliage. Twice he had to stop as Rex bumped into something, had to back up, and use a little extra forward momentum to break through. Finally, after nearly ten minutes and less than 2000 feet of travel, the trees parted and they had a straight shot onto Lake Lagoni.
Rex breathed a giant sigh of relief, "Well, here we are: the easternmost area of our search zone. I'll head to the north side and push west from there; you move in here. Good luck."
"We'll need it," Josh stated as he shot across the lake and probed into the woods on the far side. After 20 minutes and less than half a mile, his radio came to life, "97 cadet one, this is Sandstorm. We hear you tired to contact us earlier. How are things going?"
"We have started the search, but going is slow to impossible in areas. Also be advised we came across a flatbed that showed almost certain signs of attack by augmented forces on the east side of Upper Stillwater Lake, so there are some rogue augments roaming the area not far from us. There was quite a bit of blood but no sign of a driver or cargo; it looked to have been there for a while, probably a few hours or longer, but no idea as to exactly how long. We moved it off the train tracks just in case the railroad wanted to send a snow train to clear the tracks before we could get back to it. "
Josh paused for a moment, his curiosity demanding to ask an unrelated question. "Are you all OK? It sounded kind of nasty when I radioed you."
Sandstorm took a deep breath. "One of the BEARS 96 cadets took a bullet, but she'll be fine. We now have confirmation we are going against the Woodsman and his band. They are pretty well armed and it appears he has done some serious recruiting over the last 14 months or so too. We took three captives and had to kill two others to find this out, though. Battlement wants to make sure you are ready and willing to use all your abilities up to and including lethal force. Cause it is clear to us Woodsman and his people are."
"We'll do whatever it takes to get the senator's son," Josh stated firmly, "But I need your help."
"Not sure what we can do for you from here, but ask away."
Josh paused. "I need to know if the Senator's son has a cell phone and if he does, can I get the number?"
There was a short snicker. "We aren't quite that slow, young man. We tried it within minutes of the flight for life going down. Wherever he is, it is either busted or in a dead spot."
"Doesn't matter if it is in a dead spot or not. There is enough radio and transmission gear in this hovercraft to turn it into a base station and scan for his number. If it is working, I can get three base stations out here trying to get a signal. If we get one, I can make contact, or at the very least use two of us to triangulate his position."
"You can do that?"
"Yes sir, but I need the number and the carrier of his phone plan, along with his GPS locator code if he has one in his phone."
"I'll personally get it all to you within a couple of minutes, cadet. Stand by."
Josh parked and went to work configuring the electronics to pick up a cell phone signal. Before he was even close to getting everything set up, Battlement's voice came over the radio. "Mr. Stellman, you there?"
"Yes sir," he stated as he continued to rework the circuits in the FEMA craft.
"Sandstorm just ran down your cell phone idea to the rest of us. If you pull this off, you will have single-handedly rewritten the book on search and rescue!"
"If his phone is working and on, there is no reason it shouldn't work. All I have to do is change the backup receiving gear in each hover into a cell phone base station. I have everything here to do it with. You all keep telling me how smart I am, so I figured I ought to be using some of that brain power rather than just pushing semis around with my bare hands."
Battlement laughed hard. "Hey now there, youngster, don't go bad-mouthing raw power. That's how I make my living."
Josh couldn't help but giggle. "I'll use some more of that side of me if any of the Woodsman people show up. In the meantime the mess of synopsis gaps in my head wants to give this a try."
Sandstorm's voice came over the radio trying hard not to snicker. "I just downloaded a file into your hover's computer, Mr. Stellman. You should now have everything you need to give your unique idea a go."
"I'll let you know as soon as I have something. Thanks, Command."
"Son," Battlement came back over with a warning, "We know Woodsman is further up north and well west of you, and at least one of his officers is down here, but as you have seen, he and his people are active across all of western Montana. They probably murdered the trucker that was running the rig you found and stole the cargo. His thugs wouldn't hesitate to put a bullet or fire bolt in that beautiful brain of yours. Don't take this situation lightly."
"Not going to happen," Josh responded, "They will regret the day they ever found us if they happen to do so. All of us have our Kevlar vests and I already passed on that we may freely use our augmentations as needed."
"Good to hear," Battlement stated firmly. "Take care of each other out there. Command out."
Josh finished reworking the circuits in the hover, powered it on and let it go to work trying to acquire a signal. He then got back on the primary radio. "Rex, how are things going?"
"They aren't," the frustrated boy radioed back, "I haven't even pushed in a quarter of a mile and have only covered a mile and a half. It's just too rocky and thick, even for hovers. We'd have been better off taking Logan's snowmobile."
"Agreed, but a bit late to be going back for it. Meet me back where we entered Lagoni and switch vehicles with me. I have converted this one so it can lock onto the senator's kid's cell. I'll do the same thing with yours while I wait for Logan and the others. If you get a hit, stop and try to make contact. Even if you can't, stay put and get a signal direction. We'll triangulate."
"Sure…" Rex spoke slowly, "You do realize you are going to have to teach me how to do just about everything you just said, right?"
"It's simple. All you have to do is drive around and wait to hear a tone, then look at a meter to tell you if the signal strength is stronger on the forward or the back antenna. If you get a hit, then I'll talk you though getting a better location."
"Fine, but don't go getting all technical on me."
"You're smarter than you let on."
"No, I just hate the teachers and they know it, so I don't get straight A's like you do, mister advanced everything."
"Not French, I suck at foreign languages."
"So why are you one of two in our class getting an A?"
"Well, I get to spend all my time studying, since I don't for the rest of my classes."
Rex audibly groaned, "You are impossible. I'll be there as soon as I can."
Josh glanced at his handiwork and tried to will the computer to lock onto the cell phone number. When that didn't help, he grabbed the radio again. "Logan, where you at?"
"We just pulled out of some town called Olney," Garret's voice responded, "And we can see the turn you guys took; the drifts are knocked out of the way."
"You can thank Rex; he had a rough ride to smooth it out for the rest of us." Josh paused, "So what were you doing in Olney?"
Colt took over for Garret, "We had to stop and help a woman and three kids stranded in a car. The heat image showed one was a baby; we couldn't just pass them by. We pulled into Olney and dropped them off at the first house we found…"
"You don't have to explain, guys. Both Rex and I are a bit pissed about the fact we are devoting as much resources as we are to finding one kid when there are dozens, maybe even hundreds, across this county in danger."
"So are we," Colt stated with clear annoyance in his tone. "We're making great time and should be able to follow your path. See you soon."
"Great, but be advised you can ignore the semi when you get to it. We already checked it out. Be warned, though, it was clearly hit by augments. Also USDT 19 has engaged forces allied with the Woodsman to the south and it sounds like the same holds true to the northwest. We are in a very hot zone at the moment."
"Nothing an electrical bolt up the butt of one of those idiots can't solve," Colt fired back with even more anger in his voice. "We'll keep the IR and the radar peeled and hope they decide we look like an easy target."
"I pretty much told Battlement the same thing, but get on your vests just in case. One of the 96th cadets took a bullet according to Sandstorm."
"Aw, come on!" Logan complained, "How come they get to see action with USDT 19 and we get to go looking for some snobby senator's kid?"
"According to Battlement, there is a good chance the Woodsman's forces are doing the same thing we are, so you may get your wish, except we won't have USDT support."
"Let em bring it!" Logan snarled into the radio. "We have a class five, two class fours, and at least two class threes. Even if they all have guns, we'll kick the crap out of a bunch of class ones."
"Don't get too cocky, Logan," Josh cautioned. "Woodsman probably has some class two or even higher leaders, and if he wants this senator's kid as much as Battlement thinks he does, he will not send just class ones to get him."
"Probably not," Tanner concurred, "but I doubt he will be able to field more than a single class three or four. Besides, A.T. has all but said both me and Rex are at the upper edge of class three. There may only be ten of us in BEARS 97, but put us up against other squadrons, and we would kick the snot out of most of them even ones double our size."
"And then there is me…" Garret sounded more down than worried.
Rex entered the conversation, "Rookie, both Jade Witch and A.T. says there's no way you are a mere class 2, so you ain't. BEST screws up sometimes when they test a fledgling augment and Jade Witch has this weird ability to see it when they do. Also, we are still at squadron level and cadets for a reason. It's unlikely any of us have found all our augments and empowerments yet, and there sure as hell no way you have. There are only a handful of 11-year-olds in Squadron level nationwide. Give it time. When needed, something new will come out. Also, like we said before and have been told repeatedly, when it does, it ain't going to be to be a happy moment for whoever or whatever is on the receiving end."