If habits die hard, training is damn near immortal. And Marlowe’s training engaged the moment they arrived at the EV plant. As soon as Poet turned onto the long gravel access road, she went to work assessing the situation.
“Slow down,” she ordered. “This is gravel. Keep the noise to a minimum. And kill the damn headlights.”
Poet complied, and the vehicle slowly wound down the dark driveway through a dense grove of “beautifying” artificial pine trees that obscured the plant from street-level view. They approached a locked gate in the middle of a tall chain-link fence topped with razor wire, spanning nearly half a mile in either direction. The glow of what was left of the moon, combined with a single pole-mounted omnidirectional light, illuminated the area around the gate. A sign on the chain link entryway warned that the barrier was electrified, and that the current was sufficiently strong to turn a small stick figure man on the left side of the sign into a pile of ashes on the right. Billowing clouds of steam rose from stacks that towered above the operations complex in the distance. About a hundred yards from the gate was a small concrete shed.
Poet brought the vehicle to a full stop. Before anyone could say anything, he hopped out of the vehicle and approached the gate. Poet’s entire childhood had been spent finding ways around old security systems in the Subs to “liberate” old items to sell for credits. And the older he got, the more silent and speedier he became. The group watched as he fumbled with the padlock holding the entrance fixed, waiting with bated breath for him to become a hunk of cooked meat. He pushed the gate open and returned to the vehicle.
“The sign said the fence was electrified,” Jacobs said. “How’d you know it wasn’t?”
“The fence is hot, but the gate can’t be electrified,” He replied as he entered the driver’s side door. “Too risky for the utility vehicles. And besides, it’s free-standing. Doesn’t actually connect to the fence.”
“Huh,” Jacobs said. “Been here before, I take it?”
Poet replied with a shrug and a smile. He put the car in drive and pulled it through the gateway, immediately turned right, and drove across a small patch of concrete to the tree line where several rusty out-of-service utility vehicles were parked. He pulled alongside the farthest one from the gate, parked the car, and killed the engine.
“Okay, here we go,” Marlowe barked. “The plant itself is covered in surveillance, but that utility shed on the east side looks promising. We don’t have coms, so we’re going to have to rely on signals. Everyone good with that?”
“I don’t need coms…I’ve got this,” Angel said, patting the scope of her rifle.
“Outstanding,” said Marlowe. “Find high ground and provide overwatch. Poet, I’m guessing from your work on the gate that you’re pretty handy with locks.”
“One of my many specialties,” he answered.
“Great. Once we get the all-clear, you’ll find us a way in. Jacobs, you’re on perimeter.”
“What the…” Jacobs said in disbelief. “Who the hell put you in charge?”
“You did,” Marlowe said, cocking her head and narrowing her eyes, “When you broke me out of the prison transport.”
“I’ve got tactical command on this op!” Jacobs argued.
“You made a house directly tied to you our safehouse,” Marlowe replied. “You suck. I’m taking over.”
“How are you going to lead us?” He asked. “You’re in shackles! You can’t even walk without our help!”
“Well, that disqualifies me from doing the perimeter sweep, doesn’t it? I guess that makes it your job.” She nodded her head sideways as she said, “Get to it.”
Jacobs gritted his teeth. He was beginning to understand the old adage of why you should never meet your heroes. “Fine,” he said, “But I’m not doing this because you’re in charge. I’m doing it because it’s the smart thing to do.”
“Of course,” Marlowe said dismissively. “Now go do it.”
Jacobs was so angry he missed the handle trying to open the car door. He was more successful on the second attempt, opening the door with a huff and slamming it shut behind him in aggravation.
“Christ…has that boy ever heard of covert ops?” Marlowe asked the group.
Poet chuckled. Angel simply opened her door, slid out of it, and stayed low as she began her search for high ground.
“Our turn,” Marlowe said to Poet. “Let’s find cover.”
Poet nodded, and then exited, moving to the rear to help Marlowe from the car. Together they moved to an outcropping of trees a few yards ahead of the vehicle.
“Okay, so what the hell is all this?” Marlowe whispered to Poet as they laid low. “Who are you people?” She looked Poet up and down, and followed up with, “And what the hell are you wearing?”
Poet chuckled. “This?” he asked, tugging at the material on his sleeve, which was patterned in strange squares that slightly resembled faces. “I made it myself. I call it V-Dazzle. It’s a digi-camo that tricks cameras into thinking there’s a thousand faces…screws with facial recognition.”
“Huh…” Marlowe said, taking a closer look. “Looks like a bunch of square smileys.”
“Yep,” Poet replied, “And it works, too. For now, anyway. And as for who we are and what we’re about, The Judge will be able to explain it better than me. But basically, we’re a group of patriots who believe that the United American State has lost its path. We are individuals who believe in sovereign citizenship. Hence the name, Sovereign.”
“Sovereign citizenship?” Marlowe asked. “What the fuck does that mean?”
“We don’t answer to Imagen, or their puppet-president Cook,” Poet said. “We want to grow our own food…make our own products. Run our own lives. We want to return America to its core principles, the way the Founding Fathers intended.”
“Huh…” Marlowe said. “What’s it got to do with me? I’m a soldier, not a farmer. How the hell am I supposed to help you grow your own food?”
“You’re a celebrity. You’re highly respected by tens of millions of people. With you, they will listen to us. They will hear our message.”
“So you want to use me as some figurehead for your idealistic bullshit movement? No fucking thanks. I’d rather be in prison.”
“No, that’s not…” Poet said. He sighed. “Look, I’m not any good at this. The Judge will explain it better when we rendezvous with him. I think it might resonate with you.”
Before Marlowe could retort, Jacobs approached from behind them. He crouched down and gave a hearty thumbs up. “All clear,” he said.
“Fine, let’s move. Poet, you get us in that shed. Follow the tree line and loop back; approach from the South. Jacobs, cover him.”
Poet adopted a low stance and sprinted to the utility shed with Jacobs watching from the tree line and Angel keeping an eye out from on high. While the evaporation plant itself was modern in every sense, the stand-alone utility building was decidedly low-tech.
There had been a tremendous investment by Imagen Corporation to modernize utilities in the United American State to accommodate for the conditions of the time. Potable water, atmosphere generation, and power required significant technological investment and security. However, the buildings that held wrenches, hammers, spanners, and screwdrivers required only concrete walls and steel doors, safeguarded by old manual deadbolts and padlocks. After all, terrorists rarely attacked tool sheds, and there wasn’t much of a market for hand-held tools in a society that didn’t need them.
It took Poet longer to run to the door than to pick the two padlocks and deadbolt that secured it. The smell of ozone and old wood and shaved metal seeped from the cracked-open door as he slowly pulled it open. He slipped inside and performed a quick but thorough scouting of the small building’s interior. Satisfied that it was secured, he hung his head out of the door and gave the signal to move in.
Jacobs helped Marlowe to her feet. He placed his hand on her shoulder and crouched down.
“What are you doing?!?” Marlowe asked as he leaned into her.
“It’s going to be way faster if I carry you,” he replied. “Hold still.”
“You won’t make it twenty yards,” she protested, trying her best to resist being carried. It was no use. He laid her across his shoulders and strained as he attempted to stand.
“Wow, how much do you weigh?!?” He gasped as he finally struggled out of his squat.
“Don’t you know it’s impolite to ask a lady that question?”
“Is it impolite to ask what this lady has been eating? Because it feels like you’ve got two hundred pounds of lead in your belly.”
“Metal muscles aren’t light,” said Marlowe. “And these shackles don’t help much, either. Put me down. We’re walking.”
“Not a chance,” He replied. “We’ve got a hundred yards of open terrain to cover, and you’re slow. Trust me, I got this.”
Jacobs began jogging as quickly as he could, which wasn’t very fast at all. But his ego drove him step by step across the open field to the utility house. Marlowe would have been impressed if she wasn’t so exasperated by the situation. She didn’t like feeling helpless, and she liked actually being helpless even less. Still, with her head and feet bobbing across his shoulders with each stride they took, she couldn’t help but laugh to herself. Thinking back to her professional football days, this was without question the slowest she’d ever covered the length of a football field.
Nearly a minute later, they reached the building. “Okay, what have we got?” Marlowe asked as soon as she and Jacobs entered the doorway.
“Three rooms, all clear,” Poet responded. “No windows, no cameras, so we’re blind. There are tools and equipment, and a cot in one of the back rooms. Someone sleeps here.”
“Great,” Marlowe said. “Not optimal…but it’s what we got. We’ll need to keep our eyes open. I’d prefer some camera coverage, but we can manage for now. Jacobs…”
“Huh?” He said through his gasps and wheezes.
“…Put me down?”
“Oh…yeah, sorry…” He responded, lowering her gently and placing her on her feet.
“What’s our tool situation?” She asked. “Anything we can use to get these damn shackles off?”
Poet scanned the room. “There’s a lot here, but I’m not sure how much of it is useful…hammers, vice grips, a shovel. Maybe we can whack them off with this?” He said, holding up a huge pipe wrench.
“Pretty sure none of that is useful,” Marlowe said.
“Look there,” Jacobs said through his panting. “In the corner. Looks like a torch…maybe we can cut through the cuffs?”
Jacobs shuffled over to the torch and lifted the nozzle, examining it. He twisted the regulator knob and looked puzzled as nothing happened. Poet came over and tapped on the tanks holding the oxygen and acetylene.
“Ah, yeah that’s right,” Jacobs said. As he reached out to open the valve on one of the tanks, he was interrupted by a noise outside.
He lifted his fist, signaling to the other soldiers to hold their positions and remain silent. The sound of tires on gravel grew louder.
Poet ducked behind the edge of the workbench. Jacobs grabbed Marlowe and shuffled her to the left side of the door to obscure her. He then took cover on the opposite side. The engine stopped running. A small clicking sound could be heard, followed by the creak of a rusty door. It slammed shut with a thud.
Boots crunched on gravel, getting louder as someone approached. Jacobs caught sight of a hammer on the workbench just beside him. He grabbed it and wielded it just above his head.
“What the…” A man’s voice grunted from the other side of the door.
Silence. Then the sound of whispering.
The doorknob twisted. The door swung open. A silhouette spilled across the floor from the lights outside. No one entered.
“He’s secured,” Angel called in from the doorway. “We’re coming in.”
Jacobs lowered his hammer halfway and Poet rose from behind the workbench as an elderly man walked through the door with his hands up; the muzzle of a long-barrel rifle was being pushed into the back of his head. Angel followed behind.
“He’s alone,” she said. “No one else in the vicinity.”
“Who are you?” Marlowe demanded as she shuffled forward from behind the door.
“I would ask you the same thing,” the man replied. “Except, I know who you are. Been watching you for years. Question is, what the hell are you doing in my tool shed?”
“If you know who I am, then you know why we’re here,” she replied. “Now, who are you?”
“William Rudd,” he said, extending his hand. “Pleasure.”
Angel pushed the barrel of her rifle against the back of William’s head as Jacobs and Poet both tensed.
“Stand down!” Marlowe ordered. The squad reluctantly complied.
“Nice to meet you, William,” Marlowe said, attempting to keep the situation calm. She extended her shackled hands as far as they would go, which wasn’t far at all. “We’re fugitives from the law, and we’re going to have to commandeer your tool house here.”
William lowered his hand to hers and shook it. “Well, if you’re gonna shoot me, I’d ask that you do it outside. I like to keep a tidy workshop.”
“Let’s not let it come to that. But we are going to have to secure you.”
Marlowe nodded to Jacobs, who grabbed William and pushed him toward a chair. “Sit,” he demanded.
“You don’t gotta push, son,” he answered as he took a seat. ”I know how to sit in a chair, and I don’t like being shot all that much.”
Poet threw a roll of duct tape to Jacobs, who used it to bind William’s wrists and ankles. He looped a few bands of tape around his torso to the back of the chair, and grabbed a small rag on a desk beside them to gag the old man.
“Aww man, not my snot rag,” William said just before Jacobs stuffed it in his mouth.
Angel held her rifle on the old man as Jacobs went back to work trying to get the torch lit. Marlowe sighed, lamenting the fact that all of her training and life experience had come down to a moment where her freedom and survival depended on stuffing a poor old man’s snot back into his mouth.
Jacobs opened the valve on one tank as far as it would go. A pungent aroma filled the air as acetylene gas hissed from the nozzle of the torch. Poet grabbed the flint striker from the side of the tanks and sparked it a few times, secretly delighting in the shimmering sparkles that poured from the sides. He handed it to Jacobs, who began trying to light the potent gas hissing from the nozzle.
“Come on, Jacobs,” Poet said. “Can’t you figure out a simple torch?”
“I’m not a damn engineer!” He snapped. “You’re so smart, you do it!”
A muffled noise came from behind the rag tied around William’s mouth. The squad looked over at the elderly maintenance man who was trying to communicate something. Marlowe nodded at Poet, who walked over to him and pulled the rag from his mouth.
“Mixture’s too rich,” the old man said.
“They call it an oxy-acetylene torch for a reason, son. There’s two tanks there. You can’t just throw gas out and expect it to catch. You gotta bring the O2 up a bit.”
Jacobs reached over and opened the green tank’s valve. He struck the flint on the igniter. The torch began to roar as a bright yellow and red flame poured forth.
“There ya go,” William said. “Now, tighten the valve on the nozzle until a tight blue flame…that’s it!”
Jacobs grinned boyishly. He waved Marlowe over. As she shuffled toward him, William asked, “You don’t intend to use that to cut them shackles off, do you?”
“Yeah, I am,” Jacobs retorted. “Now why don’t you shut up and let me work?”
“You didn’t even know how to light the damn thing. I’m pretty sure you don’t wanna be using it on a person like that.”
“I’ll be careful.”
“Won’t matter how careful you are, you’re gonna hurt the lady.”
“Enough,” Jacobs said. “Poet, gag him again.”
“Hold on,” Marlowe said as Poet began to place the rag back in William’s mouth. “What’s the issue?”
“Whelp, them shackles are made of forged steel, looks like,” he said. “Steel conducts heat. And they’re wrapped around your arms, which are made of flesh. Flesh melts…after it burns.”
The room was silent except for the sound of the torch burning, as the team considered the implications of William’s comments. He decided their silence meant that they weren’t quite grasping the situation, so he clarified. “You might get them bracelets off, but you’ll probably take her hands and feet with ’em.”
“Well, shit!” Jacobs shouted.
“Yeah, I’m not a fan of that idea,” Marlowe said. “Is there anything else in this building we could use?”
“My saws are back at the job site,” William said. “But if you give me an awl, a hammer, and about half a minute, I could sort you out.”
“What good is banging on steel shackles with a hammer?” Jacobs asked.
“That’s why I mentioned the awl, son,” William said. “Wouldn’t take but a few good whacks to bust out the pins holding the hinges between each set of them cuffs together.”
“Huh…that could work,” Marlowe said. “Jacobs?”
“On it,” Jacobs said. He walked over to the workbench and considered the vast array of tools, scratching his head and biting his bottom lip.
“You don’t know what an awl is, do you, boy?” William asked with a chuckle.
Jacobs whipped his head around, shouting, “Shut up, old man!”
“Have it your way…” William said with a shrug. “Good luck with your search.”
Jacobs turned back to the bench and began picking up just about anything that looked to him like it could be an awl. He picked up several screwdrivers, one of which he brought to Marlowe to see if it was the same circumference as the pin that held the left shackle to the right. With a groan, he threw the overlarge tool to the ground and returned to his search.
“This is going to take forever,” Marlowe said. She looked at Poet and nodded toward William. “Free him.”
“I can find it!” Jacobs said from over his shoulder, tossing tools hither and yon.
“Let it go,” Marlowe said as Poet cut away the tape holding William to the chair. “He’s going to help us. Aren’t you, William?”
“Well, it’s that or sit with my own snot in my mouth,” he replied. “Neither option tastes very good, but I reckon helping you is a damn sight better than having my workshop torn apart.”
“We greatly appreciate it,” Marlowe said as the last of William’s binds were cut away. The old man stood and rubbed his chafed wrists, and made his way over to the workbench. He pulled open a drawer on the left and produced a long, thin, pointed piece of forged steel with a bulb-shaped handle at the end.
“Why didn’t you just tell me it was in the drawer?” Jacobs asked with a snarl.
“You done did enough damage to my things,” William said. “And I just reorganized that drawer.”
“Alright, let’s get this over with,” Marlowe said. “Angel, cover him.”
Angel lifted the barrel of her rifle and trained it on the man’s head.
“I don’t know why you gotta keep a gun on me,” William remarked to Marlowe.
“We don’t like taking chances,” she answered.
“I mean, if it makes you feel better, go on ahead–”
“–It does,” she interjected. “Are you going to help me or not?”
William shook his head, sighed, and waved her over to where he stood. “Put your hands right here on this vise,” he ordered as she approached.
With a loud CLANG, she placed her bound wrists on top of the gigantic iron bench vise. William twirled the handle on the vise’s tension screw until the jaws opened fully. The top and bottom edges of the massive cuffs just barely slid into the opening between the jaws.
“Tight fit,” he said. “But I think it’s gonna work. Now, lift up just a teeny bit…that’s it. Don’t want you to get pinched up in this here thing.”
“How considerate,” Marlowe said drily as William twisted the vise closed as tight as it would fit against the cuffs. He pushed Marlowe’s shoulder and leaned her over as far as she could go. Reaching over her outstretched arms, he placed the tip of the awl against the small binding bolt holding the cuffs together.
“This ain’t gonna give us much room to work,” he said, “So don’t be wigglin’ around or nothing. I don’t wanna hit you.”
“Just get it done,” she answered.
He grabbed a small sledgehammer from where it hung on the pegboard in front of the bench. He slowly traced the arc of where the hammer needed to swing, exhibiting the awkwardness of the angle. Suddenly, he reared back and swung wide, striking the base of the awl with a solid PING. And then another. And another.
PING after PING, the awl sunk deeper and deeper into the slot of the hinges as the bolt began to slide out, and then a loud KA-CHINK echoed through the workshop. The bolt bounced onto the workbench, and the chain holding the wrist cuffs to the ankle shackles clattered to the floor.
Marlowe heaved a heavy sigh of relief as William extracted the awl from the bolt hole. With a few twists of the vise, her wrists came free.
“THANK YOU!” Marlowe bellowed as she swung her arms around, gloriously stretching out her tight shoulders. The momentum of the heavy cuffs carried her arms forward, and then back, pulling the kinks from her muscles.
“Okay, now the hard part,” William said. He wagged his finger back and forth between Poet and Jacobs. “You big, strong boys are gonna have to hold her up so I can get at them ankle cuffs.”
“What,” Angel said. “You don’t think a girl can do it?”
“Not while holding that there gun at my head,” William said without so much as a blink.
“Good point,” she replied.
“Careful,” Jacobs said to Poet. “She’s a lot heavier than she looks.”
“Well, yeah,” Poet said, “Her entire muscular system is augmented. That’s not light.”
“See? He gets it,” Marlowe said with a smirk.
“Shut up,” Jacobs said, flinging Marlowe’s right arm over his shoulder. Poet grabbed her left arm and positioned himself under her armpit. Together, the men hoisted Marlowe into the air. She lifted both of her legs as high as she could to reach the anvil. With a little assistance from William, her ankles landed with the same loud CLANG.
The veteran engineer followed the same procedure he had performed on her wrists, and in short order, the pin was jettisoned and the cuffs were separated. William freed Marlowe’s ankles from the vise, and Jacobs and Poet lowered her back to the ground.
Marlowe bent over and stretched her back and legs, breathing a heavy sigh of relief. She was free, albeit still cuffed on each appendage by nearly ten pounds each of banded steel. As she massaged her arms and legs, she reflected that out of everything she’d ever accomplished: Youngest NFL MVP, multiple “Next Top Soldier” wins, MilSec Hall Of Fame inductee…no other moment from her twenty-nine years of life could compare. This was undoubtedly the best feeling she’d ever experienced.
She stood straight, rolled her shoulders a few times, and sighed. She unzipped the prison jumpsuit and pulled each of her arms out of the sleeves; the cuffs on each wrist barely sliding through the baggy fabric. She tied the sleeves around her waist and straightened the tank top she was wearing. A welcome chill ran through her as the frigid winter air cooled her exposed arms.
“Okay,” she said with authority. “If we’re going to hold up here, we need eyes outside. MilSec is likely going to scour every inch of Atlanta and this place will be on their radar sooner rather than later, so we need to see them coming. There’s a proximity sensor and rear-view camera on the vehicle we came in, correct?”
“Yeah,” Poet said. “I think I get where you’re going with this.”
“Good,” she replied. “Get busy scouring this place for anything we can use to rig up a makeshift surveillance system. Jacobs, you get that torch prepped, we’re going to need it. Angel, secure William in the back room. And be nice about it, he’s a good man.”
“Wouldn’t I be more useful on overwatch?” Angel asked.
“You’re on overwatch of our prisoner, who represents a far greater risk than an enemy we can hear coming. And we’re short on time, don’t waste any of it questioning my orders, got me? Now all of you — move. Let’s go!”
They all nodded and set about their tasks. Marlowe grabbed the car keys from the workbench where Poet left them and exited the building, softly closing the heavy steel door behind her. She scanned the grounds and found the opened padlocks that Poet had picked. She placed them in each of the latch hooks and locked them with a satisfying click.
Confused voices rang out as the team inside began banging on the door. Marlowe casually strolled over to the maintenance truck that William had driven up in, reached inside, and put the vehicle in neutral. It was far more difficult than it should have been for her to get it rolling, but eventually she was able to push the truck up so that the front bumper rested against the door. She kicked a small mound of gravel into a heap behind the front left tire, then reached in and pulled up the emergency brake, fixing the truck in place in front of the building.
With a smile and a light toss-and-catch of the car keys, she began jogging to the car she was brought in.