Square One

by The Cowl Editor on April 4, 2019


Police cars racing to the crime scene
Photos courtesy of pixabay.com

by Julia Zygiel ’19

The shrill cry of the alarm dispelled Tessa’s shade of sleep as her sock-covered feet hit the linoleum floor. She danced awkwardly across the room and swiped her smartphone’s notification bar to the side. She already knew it was 10 in the morning, that it was cloudy with a 60 percent chance of thunderstorms, and that her phone had woken her up four hours too late.

The traffic en route to the station was predictably awful. Construction on I-90 had been dragging on for months, and everyone else had finally caught on to her idea of taking back roads instead. She found herself surrounded by civilians in three-year-old sedans who had either had too much or too little coffee, though, at this point her arrival time didn’t matter.

Tessa grimaced as she choked the steering wheel. She was not looking forward to the smug grin Roberts would be wearing as she explained why she was late. The man was about as endearing as a three-day-old corn chip left on the wet floor of a truck in mid-winter, and almost as soggy.

Roberts didn’t make eye contact as Tessa swiped her badge and entered the prep room; he was too busy throwing together a briefing. She couldn’t help but notice the word “Top Secret” stamped across the top. Before he could slap the folder shut she noticed an alarming number of black bars on the sheets. She had picked the wrong day to mix up her alarms.

“Signals in Cleveland, Topeka, and Chicago,” Roberts grunted, kindly declining to comment on her tardiness.

“Same type of activity as before?” She asked, yanking her locker open with perhaps too much force.

“A bit more intense. Some shared information from Langley gave us the tip, and Secretary Valentine signed off on our part. We’re rolling out as soon as you gear up.”

“What kind of opposition are we anticipating? And is this a force op, something quiet, a raid, what?”

“This is worse. Heavy armor, hollow points. And bring the caduceus.”

Swearing under her breath, Tessa holstered her piece and threw on her liquid nanite jacket. The five-pointed star on the breast pocket glowed for an instant and then faded as she reached for the long, thin staff resting against the wall of the locker. A wave of goosebumps traversed her body as she strapped it to her back. As much as she hated to wonder what warranted its use, she couldn’t wait to see it in action.

“Do we have confirmation that this is a Broken Arrow incident?” she asked flatly.

Roberts sighed, and his shoulders slouched for a moment, his Sumerian ornamented rifle dipping closer to the floor.

“Yeah. Intercepted in transit somewhere in the midwest. Probably Kansas. We don’t really know where or how.”

“Jesus. First Atomwaffen, now these guys. Who guards these things, the Chicago Cubs?”

Roberts shrugged and got the door for her as they made for the garage. Their eyes met, and she felt her stomach turn. She didn’t want to think about if they would both survive to walk through these doors again.

By the time their team arrived, the suspects had been trapped in a decrepit warehouse by an FBI SWAT team for three hours already. They had been ordered to stand down while awaiting the team’s arrival, and as their SUV pulled up and the four of them hopped out of the back, the SWAT commander greeted them dryly.

“Pack it in boys, Dumbledore’s Army is here to save the day.”

“Can it. What’s the situation?” Tessa barked at the diminutive agent.

“Four confirmed hostiles. Two possibly armed, two holding the device. At least one of them is,” he paused and his upper lip wrinkled in disgust, “of your kind.”

“What’s the catch?” Roberts asked, barreling past the commander’s expression. Best not to let politics get in the way of national security.

“Local PD noticed the unusual activity, and two boys got capped. Once they realized there’d be more coming, they rigged the place up. It’s a death trap for anyone who doesn’t have your capabilities,” the commander stated darkly.

Tessa studied the facade of the warehouse. Covered in rust and without a single unbroken window, it seemed lacking as a battleground for the fate of the nation. She caught Roberts’ eye and, not wanting to acknowledge the despair in his eyes, unclipped the caduceus from her back. Now was a time for action, not feelings.

The front door and the lobby proved unremarkable, and even as they ventured further into the heart of the warehouse they encountered only a few easily disarmed IEDs. Each row of mildew and dust covered boxes they passed without incident only intensified Tessa’s anxiety. No way it could be this easy. The way Roberts had built it up, this was supposed to be their D-Day.

As if the universe had set out to punish her for failing to knock on wood, she heard the unmistakable click of a pistol hammer drawing back about five feet behind her. She saw Roberts’ eyes widen in dismay, but before he could get his mouth to produce more than a sputter, she had whipped around, the staff leading the arc of her motion into a connecting blow with the faceless gunman’s neck.

The sound of a log in a hydraulic press and the ghost of a scream echoed throughout the warehouse. An agent behind her gagged and stuttered, “That sound… were those his bones?” She couldn’t answer for sure; she knew from her training to avert her eyes, and there was nothing left of the man to examine.

She cleared her throat to suppress the tremor in her voice, “That’ll show the bastard.”

Straightening her back and squaring her shoulders, she signaled to Roberts to continue leading forward. No one spoke as they approached the last reported position of the hostiles.

The group’s unease at the lack of encounters was palpable, though none of them wanted to acknowledge the possibility of having gone to the wrong location. The last thing they needed was to consider the implications of bad intel in a possibly nuclear situation.

As they cleared the last row of the warehouse, Tessa turned to Roberts for reassurance that the sinking feeling in her stomach was misplaced. She found no solace in his eyes, which had practically glassed over as he looked at the bodies of the two young officers on the ground, their killers long gone. Roberts removed his helmet without a word, his hands growing unsteady, and suddenly whipped it into a pile of boxes with a tormented scream.

“If it’s not here, then…” one of the agents said, suddenly connecting the dots. Roberts tapped his earpiece, “Overwatch, this is Square One. Circle Opposition Forces unaccounted for, Broken Arrow has not been located. One enemy KIA, two friendlies confirmed KIA as well. Is there a secondary location, do we have anything to go on?”

He waited a moment before trying again, Tessa’s anxiety mounting for what felt like the 50th time that day.

“Overwatch, this is Square One.” After a pause, his voice tinged with desperation, “Do you copy?”

As was protocol, another officer began to hail command as well and pulled out his communications device to ensure it wasn’t malfunctioning. Suddenly his hand was clapped over his mouth, his eyes welling with tears, though they seemed devoid of emotion.

Tessa felt her heart plummet to the floor of her stomach. She’d seen that face before. Then Roberts put his hand to his ear suddenly, and as he listened, his whole body seemed to deflate. The anxiety that had picked up the moment they left station was a calcified lump in Tessa’s chest.

Roberts was quite a long time. “Understood,” he mumbled as he removed the earpiece and let it fall out of his hand.

“We lost this one,” his face screwed up in pain. “We lost a whole lot.”