Rex continued to carefully guide the hovercraft deeper into the dense forest west of Lagoni Lake, occasionally having to backtrack because the trees were just too tightly bunched together to allow passage. Muttering to himself, he once again switched directions on the fans to angle out of a thick grove as he tried to make his way down the less rocky hill the moose had described to him. He rolled his eyes, wondering how the animal could continue to think of the area as it was during the summer, with running water, fish splashing, and lots of grass, but it did and try as he might, the directions he got were the best he could pull out of the scatter-brained beast.
He found another promising path as he just barely cleared a couple of trees burned the prior year in a lightning strike. The fires had been bad, especially since the Borer Bark Beetle infestation had moved into Montana, killing an incredible number of pines and spruce. Some whole hillsides and even mountainsides were now brown, almost asking for a fire to wipe out the old so new growth could eventually start. It was really kind of sad to see millions upon millions of dead trees all up and down the Rockies, but already the beetle populations that had done so much damage were dropping off as food sources became next to nonexistent. Nature, as it always seemed to do, was taking care of what man, normal or Augment, could not.
His preoccupations with the forest and the need to find a path through it almost caused him to miss the beeping tone, especially since it only lasted for a few seconds, but Rex's heightened senses picked up on the sound and the pitch of the tone made it almost painful to his very sensitive ears. Even as the tone suddenly ended, he pulled to a stop and glanced around before his eyes focused on the needle of the signal detector Josh had either made or installed. It bounced slightly, almost unnoticeable, but once again Rex's eyes caught what most would miss. He waited only to see it wiggle again.
Rex rubbed at the peach fuzz just starting to be visible on his top lip and scowled at the needle before deciding to back up in hopes of getting a tone. It didn't take much; twenty to thirty feet of backtracking with the fans on low power allowed the tone he had first noticed to resume. At the same time the needle on the meter Josh had rigged was now leaning way to the right. Once he was sure he had a good signal, he dropped the power to the lift fans and grabbed the radio.
"Josh, you there?"
A few seconds passed before Garret's voice came over the radio, "He's trying to follow Logan back down the creek where we first come into the upper lake. Logan says we can get to the creek we want faster by backtracking, but he is listening, Rex."
"Good," Rex responded while looking down at the needle of the direction-finding unit. "Hey, I got a tone on this thingy, and the needle is pretty much all the way to the right, but if I move just a few yards further downhill I lose it."
Josh's voice came back over the radio, but it was clear by the background noise and the kind of muffled voice he was not holding the mike up to his mouth. "Awesome! The needle going to the right tells you the back antenna is closer to the signal than the front one. Left means front and right means back. The further the needle is over, the further away the other antenna is from the signal."
"So it's behind me?"
"Normally I'd say yes, but if you lose the signal quickly, it is being blocked by something so it's hard to say at this point." Josh took a deep breath. Are you in a spot where you can maneuver enough to get the needle dead center?"
"I can give it a shot, but there isn't a whole lot of roaming room where I'm at and there is no place I have seen in the last thirty minutes or so to do a nice easy spin."
Josh let out a bit of a disgusted sigh, "Do the best you can to center the needle. Once you do, try to spin or at least mark the spot and come at it from different directions until you find where the needle is all the way to the left or right before it starts moving back the other direction. This will get you the line the signal is on. Once you have it I'll need you to get in at and be parallel with…."
"Hold on!" Rex barked back into the radio with a bit of anger, "I was right with you until you started talking lines and parallel crap. Once I get the first part done, I'll radio you back and you can talk me though the rest!"
"No problem, but there is no reason to growl at me!" Josh stated, wondering why his friend had just gotten mad at him.
"Yeah, well, you just proved Mr. Evans right, and I hate you at the moment!"
"Alrighty then…" Josh let his voice taper off. "I get the feeling I'm missing something here."
"Yeah, well, the whole damned reason I was in detention earlier this week was because that jackass told us we would need to understand the ideas of parallel lines, angles and basic geometry and be able to apply it to life! I asked him to point out a single situation and he couldn't, so I laughed at him…."
Josh snickered. "And he gave you three days of detention for laughing at him and disrupting the class?"
"Well, that and the fact I told him there was never a chance in hell I would use a single stupid thing he taught."
"Calling him or his class stupid certainly explains why he gave you three days." Josh nodded and spoke to no one in particular.
"So are you going to apologize to him?" Garret asked sincerely.
There was a long pause followed by a true snarl. "OK, now two of you are going into snow banks before this break is over with, and I take back every nice thing I have said about you, rookie!"
"You use your empowerments and augmentations and I'll use mine!" Garret fired back. "You're strong, but it'll take you a while to bust out of the shackles I make around your wrists and ankles! You'll be chasing me walking like a duck!"
"Oh rookie, you are so going down for that one!" Colt responded over the radio with a snort of laughter from the other hover. "I can't wait to see this all go down!"
"And go down he will!" Rex stated with a firm yet humor filled voice.
Garret grinned while concentrating on his sorcery powers; suddenly a duck bill appeared out of nowhere. "Keep it up and I'll put a duck bill on you too, Rex!" He giggled.
Josh almost lost control of the hover as he glanced up at the floating duck bill and started laughing. "Damn, he really can too! I'm looking at it!"
"I'll buy the duck call whistle!" Tanner chimed in.
"And I'll buy the electric blankets." Colt joined in, "Cause my money is on Rex and the rookie is going to need something to warm up in."
"I ain't so sure." Logan snickered, "The rookie's got my vote!"
As the back and forth continued, Josh lightly punched Garret's arm and grinned, "You'll fit in with us great!"
Garret cocked his head to the side from the copilot's seat. "You sound surprised."
"I think we all are, at least a bit." Josh admitted. "Gwyn was moved up to keep us close to ten members so we didn't lose the squadron status, but she was just too young and skittish and still is. When we found out we had another 11-year-old new-bee moving in, all of us were pretty skeptical, but in this case, it looks like you really were ready to graduate to squadron level while Gwyn wasn't and still isn't."
"Why?" Garret asked in surprise. "She seems to have good control."
"Her control is fine and there is no doubt she's going to be a solid Class 4, but she isn't one of us yet. There is no way she would have ever challenged one of the rest of us openly like you just did to Rex. As a matter of fact, she would have never joined in on the snowball fight like you did. You got pegged a couple of times really hard without a hint of crying. Her feelings would have been all hurt, and she would have bawled her eyes out if she had taken one in the face from Colt like you did!"
"That kind of smarted. I think he put some of his extra strength into that one."
"Knowing Colt, he probably did…" Josh raised an eyebrow, "You are not rated with toughness as an empowerment, are you?"
Josh chewed on his lip in thought for a few seconds, "Because if Colt did peg you with a snowball with even a little bit of his empowered strength, I should have had to heal you."
"Yeah," Josh stated with total certainty. "Colt is as strong as I am, and to be honest, I could kill a Normal with a snowball if I wasn't careful." Josh reached up and flipped on the inside lights for a moment then reached over and tilted Garret's head so he could look at the boy's face. "Not even a scratch or red mark. Dude, you must have some unnoticed toughness or healing."
"You think so?"
"I'd put money on it. When we meet up with A.T. for the outing, I'll have him test you out a bit and see how much. In the meantime, I want you to pay attention to things that would or do hurt others and see if you think they would hurt you."
Further conversation was cut off as Rex's voice came back over the radio. "OK, I managed to find an area where I can turn pretty well while still getting a signal. I have the needle dead center, Josh. Now what?"
Josh motioned for Garret to key the radio. "Perfect. Now mark your exact compass heading. Once you have it, I want you to spin until the needle goes all the way to the left. The moment it starts to go back to the right stop and adjust until you are certain you are as close to perfect as possible. This should mean you are facing right at the signal. With any luck you will be very close to 90 degrees different from your first heading…"
"Don't go all angle happy on me again, Josh." Rex commanded, "I currently have a compass heading of right at 13 degrees.
Logan joined in the conversations, "Rex, give me your lat long. As soon as you give me a heading, I'll adjust for magnetic declination and get us a line to search on."
"More lines…." Rex muttered, "You guys are just bound and determined to make Mr. Evans right about needing this crap. OK, I have north 48.59897 and west 114.68198, and no, I really don't need you trying to tell me what that means again, Logan. You run with those numbers and do what you want or need to do with them. Give me a few, and I'll be right back with you with a compass heading pointing toward he stupid brat's cell phone."
The left side of Josh's mouth twisted up into a weird grin and glanced over at Garret, "Rex hates Math almost as much as he hates his Math teacher. This has got to be killing him to know it is actually useful to know something about math."
Garret shook his head and snickered. "I'm not about to tell Rex this, but I used to sail with my folks out on the Gulf of Mexico all the time. I actually understand everything you guys are talking about cause dad made me learn how to compass navigate and then made me do it almost all the time."
"Oh, time to have fun then." Josh snickered. "Pull out the maps from the back. I'm going to let you help him."
Garret shook his head, "Are you nuts, he is already annoyed at me."
"Yeah, but just a little. Besides, if a rookie shows him up, he'll be forced to actually study a bit more so he at least understands the basics. Cause there is no way he is going to let a rookie make him look bad more than once. Besides, he is way smarter than he lets on and if he would put a bit more effort into Math, Mr. Evans might stop seeing Rex as some sort of wild animal and more of a person. Like it or not, the guy hates all Augments and he uses Rex's stubborn side to feed those beliefs."
"What a jerk."
"Yes he is, and unfortunately he is the only Math teacher in our middle school so we all have to deal with him."
Garret let out a long breath, "So if I do this, it might cut down on him focusing on me when I get there next year?"
"With any luck."
"OK, then." Garret grabbed the map, took a seat again and started drawing lines with the help of a protractor. "Do you happen to know the magnetic declination? This far north it must be pretty big."
"I don't right off, but Logan next to lives with A.T. during the summers and goes on every hiking or camping trip the guy invites us on. Hit the radio again."
Garret shrugged and did as instructed.
"Hey, Logan," Josh spoke up loudly, "The rookie wants to know the magnetic dec up this far north."
"He knows what it is?" Logan sounded totally astonished.
"He says he knows how to ocean sail and says he'll get us right to the signal."
"Cool!" Logan shouted, "We are just under 15 degrees up here. 15 should give you a great line rookie."
"Oh come on!" Rex shouted, "Don't go telling me the rookie knows this crap!"
Josh smiled and pointed at Garret to respond.
Garret grinned albeit a bit nervously. "I'm really good at it. If your first reading was a good one and the moose was right…" He paused, shaking his head, "I can't believe I just said that... Anyway, if it is to the west, then you should find your next heading at 283 degrees give or take. If I make a line from your current lat long on a map adjusting for declination of 15 degrees, it'll be on a line at 268 degrees on the map. I then plug in Logan's guess that they are somewhere close to Le Beau Creek, then I would say we should find them right about 48.595 North 114.712 West.
The radio went quiet as kids in all three hovercraft felt their jaws drop slightly. A few seconds passed before Rex's voice came over, clearly feeling a bit bested, "OK, you ain't no rookie no more, especially if Logan confirms. I'm centered on the front at a heading of about 283.2 degrees according to the electronic compass."
Logan whistled, "Put a mark on the board for the rookie! He is almost right on target and his lat long is perfect!"
Josh nodded while patting Garret on the back, "We have a search area. I want all of us in armor before we head in, but we do not want to engage if we can avoid it."
"Hey Josh," Logan asked, "Since Rex has a signal, can't he just call the phone and see if someone answers?"
"He could, but if it rings it may allow whoever is out here with us to find it before we do. We will get there first, then we'll give it a ring. This way we'll all be in a position to support if the Woodsman's people really are out here in this storm with us."
"I am only a mile or so away," Rex reported, "but it'll take me a good 15 minutes or more to get there because of the terrain."
"You'll still get there first," Logan stated with total certainty. "We are three to four miles out since we are following the creek. Try to get us a good radar and infrared sweep of the area so we know if there is any of the Woodsman idiots close by."
"I'll stick to the high ground and keep it at low power, which will make it almost impossible to hear in this wind and snow unless someone stumbles on me from downwind. I'm guessing, since the wind will be pushing the sound of my hover to the southeast, I should try to circle around a bit so I come in from as close to a deaf spot as I can."
"Good idea," Logan concurred. "We will be coming in from the southeast so you can just meet us along the creek about a thousand yards south of the projected phone location."
"No." Josh interrupted, "If the signal is confined to a cone like it seems to be, then I want Rex to overlook the area where he can still get a signal. Rex, you'll need to come in on the line Garret has on his map. Go ahead and get a good sweep of the area, then contact us and Garret should be able to get you a lat long for you to get back into the phone's signal cone. It looks like it will be from the northeast."
"East northeast." Garret jumped in without realizing he was, once again, showing the others just how valuable a squadron mate he was turning out to be. He continued to talk while studying the topographic map he had plotted the probable phone location on. "I don't know if you can get up there, but there is a ridge overlooking the valley I have the target location in. The east side is not nearly as steep as the west, but it still doesn't look easy. It'd also put you pretty close, maybe too close, less than eight hundred yards, but it should give you a view of the valley and allow you to get a phone signal again."
"Get me exact coordinates of where you want me," Rex flatly demanded, "and I'll get there, rookie."
Josh waited until Garret passed over the information, then gave Garret another reassuring grin. "Nice work."
"Thanks. I just hope all of this is worth it."
Josh nodded nervously. "Me too."
The next few minutes seemed to take hours for all six boys of BEARS 97 as they willed the hovercraft to move faster. Finally Rex's voice broke the uneasy silence. "Guys, Garret was right on the mark. I have the signal again. I can't make out much through the trees, but bad news. Between radar, my heightened senses, and IR, I have picked up three snowmobiles, all with a driver and passenger and all carrying guns. I think there may be one or two more out here as well, judging on the echoes, but between the wind and the hover fans, it's impossible for me to tell for sure.
"I can tell you all this much. They are crisscrossing the area and even poking at snow drifts. They beat us here and are clearly looking for the same thing we are."
"But if they are looking, they haven't found him yet. Back out a bit but keep a signal lock. Logan, is there any kind of shortcut?"
"Yeah, but it would put us out in the open for a couple of minutes."
"Take it," Josh ordered, then reached up and switched frequencies. "USDT command this is Ninety-Seven one."
North Star's voice responded almost before he had finished speaking. "Go, Joshua."
Josh cringed, hating it when people used his full first name, but was not about to tell the XO of USDT 19 to stop using it. "Ma'am, we have a signal lock on the phone, but it is directional. We are approaching the search area and with any luck should be there in just a couple of minutes, but the local wildlife have told Rex there were gunshots in the area an hour or so ago, and one of us has a bead on at least six armed figures on snowmobiles searching the area we are closing in on."
"Is the phone moving?"
"Only one of us can get a lock and only in a very narrow arc, so we have no way of verifying, but it does not seem to be."
"Young man, none of us here feel comfortable with this, and we certainly don't want you to risk life or limb. However, if a bunch of Augments can get this boy safely back into the senator's arms, it will almost certainly derail all pending anti-Augment legislation coming out of the senate, at least until the next election."
"Ma'am," Josh hardened, "we have our vests on and are ready. Just give us the green light."
Battlement's voice came over the radio. "Mr. Stellman, I know I put you in command, but this situation is all but unheard of. I want… No, actually, I need to hear what you just said come out of all the others personally."
Garret frowned and snatched the mike from Josh's hands, "Sir, this is cadet 10. We want the go order!"
Within seconds Logan, Rex, Colt and Tanner all said basically the same thing, every one of them all but demanding to be allowed to proceed regardless of danger.
North Star took a long loud inhale. "Joshua, you have command authority to do whatever you think needs to be done. Sandstorm just put it best. We would much prefer to be cleaning up ten dead separatists than putting a bandage on a single cadet. Do I make myself clear? "
Battlement's voice came over the radios of all three hovercrafts. "BEARS 97, I am giving you priority Alpha clearance from USDT 19 command to retrieve the target by any and all means necessary. Joshua M. Stellman is now the onsite field commander with full USDT authority. Battlement out.
"Thank you, command!" Josh shouted, then switched frequencies so he could just talk to the other hovercraft without bothering USDT 19 command.
When Josh spoke again he was all business. "Rex, we are going to come in hard and fast. If they are who we think they are, they will certainly attack us. The second those idiots come after us, I want you to park and go into the back. You will see the large radio is on. Don't touch the settings as I have it configured to find the Senator's kid's cell phone, but I want you to press the transmit button and let go. If you have a good enough signal it should cause it to ring. When someone answers, find out where the kid is and move to protect him. You have got to prevent them from getting to him, no matter what!"
"You got it!"
Josh licked his lips for a few moments before continuing. "Logan, the second we take fire, I want you to open up the side opposite of the incoming.
"Tanner and Colt, I'll angle straight for them to give you both some cover. Use it to go airborne. You two need to take out the snowmobiles. Without them, they will be on foot, which cuts down on their ability to outmaneuver us. Also, everyone put on your headsets. Once the bullets start flying, there is no reason to worry about being tracked by our radio signals, and we will need to talk to each other. And guys, you heard what USDT said, we need to go into this ready to bust some heads."
"Fine with me," Colt growled. "It's time to pay these bastards back for what they did to Paul and the others from BEARS and COUGARS the last time Woodsman and his punk followers poked their heads out for the woods."
"This isn't about revenge, Colt…"
Josh closed his eyes as he couldn't help but remember the funeral of the kid who had been the cadet squadron leader when he had been bumped up to Squadron level. Less than two years later, that kid had been killed by the Woodsman's bunch when they first all but wiped out a training camp for advanced squadrons, killing over a dozen kids from the Canadian Organization Unseasoned Gifted Adolescent Resources Squadrons (COUGARS) and nine others from Montana and Idaho BEARS including Paul. The Woodsman's gang then made the mistake of sticking around so they could hit a Canadian military convoy. This had proven to be a serious miscalculation as the majority of the Woodsman's gang ended up getting pounded by a combination USDT and Red Leaf Defenders action.
Josh found himself clenching his fist as he remembered Paul's mom weeping during the funeral. "But you're right; it is time to show these jerks that BEARS 97 cadets are loyal to the living and the dead. We don't forget and payback is a real bitch."
Garret glanced over with a hopeful look as he spoke to Josh. "Maybe they'll run when they see us."
Josh shook his head, "Not likely. They hate the government and we have huge FEMA insignia on both sides of us. They aren't going to back down when we come out using augments either, at least not at first. They hate the BEST program and everything it stands for. They see us as being brainwashed by the thing they hate the most, the United States."
Suddenly the hovercraft Logan was piloting veered hard to the right, "I got an IR signature of a snowmobile with only a driver. Looks like he has a rifle on his back."
"Head straight for it!" Josh yelled. "All squadron members get ready to deploy!"
A few seconds later Tanner's voice came over the radio, "He's spotted us and is unslinging his rifle."
"Wait, we want him to pull more to us."
"They're on the way, Josh," Rex reported. "All three I can see all banked to the southeast at the same time, so they either have a telepath or radio communication."
"Give the radio a try now." Josh ordered. "We'll keep 'em busy long enough for you to make contact and get to the kid. Tanner, Colt, get airborne now and take out as many snowmobiles as you can."
Josh glanced nervously over at Garret as the others quickly reacted to Josh's commands, "This is not exactly the squadron initiation we all had planned for you."
Garret gulped as he pulled on the straps of the Kevlar vest to make it as snug as possible. As he pulled the parka back on, he responded with a bit of a grunt. "After getting to know you all, I think this might actually be easier to deal with."
Josh flashed a grin and cringed at the same time as the first bullet bounced off the side of the hovercraft with a metal-on-metal twang, "You're probably right."
Edited by D&B