View Full Version : Lobo Malo - Chapter 2 - Changing of The Guard

05-25-2019, 07:43 PM
Arlington National Cemetery
1145 EST

"The only difference between this place and Richmond," Gregory muttered to himself, "is the dead are properly buried here."

Between marching and the occasional bicycle assist, it had taken Paxton Gregory nine days to reach this point after his flight from Nags Head. Nine days of power bars and boiled water, of furious runs and agonizing waits for hostiles to pass him by, seeing just how truly devastating the Dollar Flu had been. He'd seen plenty of CERA quarantine areas in Durham, and more than a few mass graves as well, but nothing had truly been able to prepare him for Richmond. The former Confederate capitol, now a former state capitol really, and not a single living soul to be found within its city limits. For the first time, a sense of the absurd hit Gregory, the near-childish futility in pretending that there was a United States anymore. The ideal might still remain, but when you had state capitols completely devoid of human inhabitants, it was hard to really believe the nation still existed as a functioning entity anymore.

Perhaps that was why he'd come to Arlington. If there was a better reminder of what it cost to fight for one's country, he was hard pressed to think of one more conveniently located. He walked along the paths, seeing the headstones from the Civil War all the way up through Afghanistan and Iraq, oddly comforted that this one place was still considered sacrosanct despite the world burning down around them all. Eventually, Gregory found himself standing at the Tomb of the Unknowns.

Leaning against the crypt stood a body, still more or less upright despite all that decomposition and scavengers could do, wearing formal Army Dress Blues. Gregory realized it was a member of the Old Guard, the unit specifically tasked with watching over the Tomb of the Unknowns. He noted the lack of bullet holes on the uniform or the remains. Even at the height of the pandemic, at least one member of the unit had carried on the tradition as he was probably dying from Green Poison. Death is lighter than a feather, duty is heavier than the mountains, Gregory thought.

Bracing to attention, he saluted the remains. No doubt the Old Guard would have complained about the form, but they might well have appreciated the sentiment. "Rest easy, soldier," he said softly. "You've earned it. And you're in fine company." Gregory held the salute for a full minute, then turned and resumed his course. If one soldier could guard a crypt while dying of the worst disease ever to befall Mankind because that was his job, then Paxton Gregory could damned well fix a few lousy computers.

* * *

A light rain began to fall on Gregory's dark skin, beading on his close cropped hair, as his watch began to pulse slightly. He was getting close to his objective. As he moved, a radio message came in over the watch. It startled him a little since he hadn't heard any kind of comm chatter in the last nine days. The watch and his SHD node were clearly capable of receiving, and probably sending, but the radio silence had been so complete he hadn't even thought about it.

"Any JTF or Division agents in the vicinity. Be advised: the White House is currently under attack. Any personnel in the area, please assist. Do not use comms to reply."

Gregory's mind digested the information quickly. If anybody in the area was being told not to use comms, it could only mean the comm network was somehow compromised. And if that was the case, the White House wouldn't want to let the attackers know help was on the way. Better to send out open distress calls from a known location than allow enemy forces to possibly localize and intercept relief forces. Clearly, the situation was more dire than just a simple computer malfunction.

He unslung his rifle and proceeded north towards the White House. The sound of gunfire echoed ahead of him, still distant, but not so far away he couldn't tell it was a serious firefight. Certainly bigger than MacCrae's raid on Nags Head. As he moved, Gregory came up to what was supposed to have been a Christmas village. Between the bursts of distant gunfire, he heard a far more immediate sound: two human voices.

"I think he's dead already, man," said one voice.

"I don't care! He's getting everything he deserves!" replied the other. A dull, meaty thumping sound reached Gregory's ears as he came up beside a small red shack. The two men were both wearing grimy tank tops and Army surplus gas masks. One seemed highly interested in kicking a corpse into hamburger. The other stood watching, holding a somewhat battered looking M16 with the muzzle pointed skyward. Gregory knew there wasn't anything he could do to save the dead man on the ground, but he could certainly keep these two from helping their buddies further ahead.

Thumbing the fire selector to semi-auto, Gregory lined up his sight picture on the man with the visible weapon. Slowly, he exhaled, then squeezed the trigger, feeling the break at three pounds. The man with the M16 dropped like a marionette whose strings had just been cut. The second man looked up, confused at the interruption, trying to find the threat and taking just a moment too long. Gregory thumbed the selector back to full auto and ripped a short burst through the hostile. After making sure the area was clear, Gregory went over to the body they'd been kicking and found his wallet in the left hip pocket. The driver's license was Maryland issue, identifying the man as Jeroboham Blixstein, a man only a month past his 46th birthday. Gregory took the license and slipped it into a pouch on his tactical vest, then continued north. If there was a memorial wall, he'd put it there after the immediate crisis had passed.

Continuing towards the White House, Gregory saw more of the tank top wearing hostiles. As muggy as it was, he could see the utility of wearing the cut down shirts, but it still brought the image of meth abusing trailer trash firmly to mind. One of them seemed to be carrying a messenger bag slung over one shoulder, its narrow form distended with several bulbous shapes, as the owner casually juggled a fragmentation grenade with the pin still in place. The others were keeping a laughable watch out for incoming threats. Gregory wouldn't have put much money down them noticing anything more subtle than a brass band playing Sousa's greatest hits. He crabbed over behind a low wooden wall at the edge of the Christmas village, then picked his targets. The grenade carrier first. And he needed to make sure the others were properly distracted.

It might be a little bit of overkill, but five or six rounds should do the trick. Gregory quickly put his sights on the messenger bag and stroked the trigger. The third round hit one of the grenades and set it off. Almost immediately, the other grenades detonated sympathetically, killing the grenade thrower instantly and wounding two of the other hostiles. Between shrapnel and the massive concussion of the grenades going off, their situational awareness and combat effectiveness were almost completely eliminated. But Gregory felt no pity for them as he cut them down. They wore the colors, they would have to accept the consequences.

Moving past the ambush, he heard his watch chirp as it recognized an incoming radio broadcast. "Heads up! Looks like we've got a Division agent coming in from the south." Gregory wondered briefly how anybody could know he was coming in without his own comm signal, then restrained himself from smacking his forehead. There were watchtowers which had a clear line of sight down to his current position. They had to have seen his attack and the watch on his arm was as distinctive as a knight's war banner. Well, if he was the only relief around at the moment, it was up to him to relieve the defenders.

He trotted forward, the sound of gunfire getting louder, and the cries of the attackers mixing along with it. Below the southern edge of the White House grounds was a depression filled with scattered Jersey barriers and dead vehicles. At the edge of the depression stood a pair of short guard towers, both empty. Slinking his way up into one of the towers, Gregory quickly evaluated the situation. The good news, such as it was, was the White House's defenders were holding their own. The bad news was the haphazard attacks the tank top gang members were executing would wear the defenders down, given enough time and ammo, if only because there would be no good way to know who might be making the next thrust.

Gregory slapped a fresh magazine into his rifle, then quickly scanned the battlefield for targets. Finding a grenade carrier, he repeated the trick from his earlier ambush and aimed for the messenger bag. The results were a little more impressive than the first go-round, but it didn't convince the gang members to break off their attack. Crouched behind cover, Gregory serviced targets, putting the gang members squarely in a cross-fire. Trapped between him and the JTF troops on the opposite side of the depression, the hostiles were quickly wiped out in a few minutes. It reminded Gregory all too much of chickens running around with their heads cut off.

When he was certain the last of the gang members had been killed, Gregory climbed down off the guard tower and made his way towards the gate, watching as JTF troops used fire extinguishers to put out lingering fires. The expressions on the soldiers' faces made him feel acutely uncomfortable. Not because they were hostile, but because they were looking at him with unreserved gratitude. He was one guy, and not even one who had any training beyond what they had. Probably less, really. National Guard units had the traditional one weekend a month and two weeks a year, assuming they weren't being deployed. Division agents had to make do with civilian facilities, and do so without drawing much attention to themselves. Gregory knew from his time at the Ranch there'd been long and bitter wrangling for dedicated training facilities to help agents keep their skills up, but the Powers That Be had decreed it was too much of a risk. Besides, agents would be expected to make do with what remained after a mass casualty event, so having them make do with what was currently available while they were deactivated made sense.

Up ahead, he saw a doorway set up with a UV entry tent. The sentry in front of the door nodded as he approached, not saluting, but certainly smiling at him. "Good work out there, agent," she said. "I was starting to get a little worried. You should head inside, talk to Manny. He's the guy keeping this place running."

"Thank you," Gregory replied. He slung his rifle, made sure his sidearm was fully secured, then walked through the tent and into a foyer. A scrawny looking man in civilian clothes stood behind a makeshift counter, a few Pelican cases and odd storage boxes stacked against a wall, and gestured him over. "Welcome to the White House, agent. Coop Dennison, Base of Operations logistics officer. As you can see," he said, gesturing to the cases, "we don't have much in the way of logistics."

"Paxton Gregory, Analytics Branch," Gregory said, extending his hand. Dennison shook it firmly, the hands old and heavily callused. "I'm supposed to talk to Manny, whoever he is."

"Manny Ortega, a guy from the Maryland National Guard. He's in Signals Corps, and he's so far down the chain of command, it'd be terrifying if he wasn't so damned good at the four or five jobs he's holding down." The older man looked Gregory over closely for a couple of moments, then nodded. "Think you two will get along just fine. If nothing else, you'll have at least one thing in common."

"What's that?"

"You've both been thrown off a cliff to see how well you can fly."

* * *

Manny Ortega looked intently at the map, trying not to curl up in a ball from despair. Despite the use of toy figures as a visual and subtle psychological aid, it was hard not to feel like he was waiting for the floor to drop away. Up until what he had taken to calling "the blackout," he'd been feeling a little anxious but ultimately confident. There were problems, yes, and there were threats which could prove fatal if not properly handed. But overall, Ortega believed he was top of things. It was going to be a long and bloody campaign, and he was prepared to fight it out to its inevitable and victorious conclusion.

Then nine days ago, his confidence had taken a body blow. Being involved with a communications unit, Ortega knew how absolutely vital it was for Division agents and the JTF to be able to talk to each other beyond visual range. Technically, they had still had the ability to do that, but those lines of communication were unsecured. Any sort of signal from JTF units, Division agents, or even civilian militia groups patrolling around their respective settlements would effectively be holding up neon signs saying, "Kill me right here and now!" The White House might be able to send information of a general sort, basic intelligence that wouldn't raise any kind of suspicions or suggest to the various factions in the city that JTF was making a move. But beyond being able to tell field forces the sky was blue, the command-and-control capabilities of the White House were now effectively non-existent. Having the Division's ISAC system handle the encryption and scramble duties was one of those things that sounded good at the time, but Ortega was wishing a different choice had been made. Of course, he'd just been a grunt then. If a general tells you, "Hey, Manny, go patch our comms into this highly classified computer controlled telecom system you never knew existed," you patch it in like a good little Signals troop.

A knock at the door interrupted his train of thought. "Come on in," he said. The door opened and a man with a SHD watch on his wrist stepped through. Ortega took a moment to look the newcomer over. A couple inches shy of six feet, black, dark brown eyes, hair cropped so close he was almost bald, almost greyhound lean, but not soft in the slightest. This agent didn't have the cold forged menace Alani Kelso unconsciously projected. If anything, he struck Ortega as the sort of person who was more comfortable playing with computers. A kindred spirit, he was certain. Ortega came over and stuck out his hand. "Manny Ortega, currently running the circus that is Washington D.C. right now."

The agent took his hand and shook it firmly, though the gloves he wore seemed a little damp for some reason. "Paxton Gregory, Strategic Homeland Division, Analytics Branch."

A grin stole over Ortega's face. "The Fairy Godmother Department actually got one of my requests?" he asked playfully. "You have no idea how badly we've been looking for one of you guys!" His expression sobered somewhat. "I'm guessing you were notified about the blackout?"

"Yeah. Lousy timing, far as I'm concerned. I was down at Nags Head working on a repeater, just fixed it when we got attacked by...somebody. Definitely not your run-of-the-mill raiders. An emergency message gave the coordinates for here in D.C. Guessing it did for pretty much every Division agent out there. But they're all in the dark for right now till we can get that node back up."

"Well, that's going to be a challenge. The node's not here in the White House. Kind of wish it had been, but I got no idea what your bosses figured was sensible."

"Neither do I, truth be told," Gregory said with a faint grimace. "But what's done is done. We gotta work with the situation as it is now. So, care to brief me on how screwed we are?"

"Gladly." Ortega guided Paxton over to the map table. Gregory glanced at the toys, their whimsy odd given the severity of the situation. "Basically, we've got three major factions vying for control of D.C. The White House is the last structure they have to get control of for that to happen. So far, we've been holding out, but it's only a matter of time before somebody decides to get serious about storming this place. The Hyenas, you probably met outside the gates. The local criminal element. Thankfully not nearly so well organized as the Mafia, but they're starting to get their act together, and that's bad news. Their leadership is headquartered over at District Union Arena," he said, gesturing to a vinyl figure of Cerberus. Ortega then pointed to a toy witch perched on the western end of the city. "The Outcasts are based out of the quarantine zone on Roosevelt Island. All the fanaticism of the Taliban, but thankfully only about a fraction of the resources. They're still bad juju, though. I get why they're angry at the government, but they're fighting in a way which completely negates any sympathy they might have built up." Pointing to a small wooden nutcracker placed on top of the Capitol Building, Ortega scowled heavily. "And then there's the True Sons. 'General' Antwon Ridgeway's bully boys, traitors every last one of them."

Gregory didn't miss the caustic scorn Ortega used to emphasize Ridgeway's rank. "What's their motivation?"

"Power, plain and simple. I knew Ridgeway by reputation. Different units, but still the same Guard. Bastard's trying to set up a military dictatorship with him in charge. He'll blither on about security and restoring America through propaganda broadcasts, and I want to cut his lying tongue out just to shut him up. His idea of 'hearts and minds' is to blow people's brains out in front of their families." Ortega shook his head slowly. "I know the Dollar Flu and everything that came after has made some people a little crazy, but Ridgeway has just gone full bore psycho. I'd think there's a part of him that knows he can't win in the mental state he's in, but maybe he can't see that, or won't let himself see it."

"If you would truly test a man's character, give him power," Gregory said solemnly, his eyes scanning the table, absorbing the high level overview the toys provided.

"Abraham Lincoln," said Ortega, a smile returning to his face as he recognized the quote. "I'm already feeling better about this." Gregory leaned over, picking up a bobble-head knight and examining it closely before Ortega plucked it out of his hands. "That's Kelso. She's a Division agent, Tactical Branch. One of the last ones still in the city. She's camping out over at the Theater right now, trying to keep a lid on the Hyenas. Might want to head over there and introduce yourself, start letting people know there's a new sheriff in town."

"A black sheriff?" asked Gregory with a faintly raised eyebrow.

"Worked out pretty well in Blazing Saddles," replied Ortega, the grin now in full force. Gregory laughed, then nodded.

"All right. I'll make my way over there, meet the locals, then get with Kelso and start thinking about how to get down to the ISAC node."

"Before you go, got any thoughts on how to get our comms encrypted again?"

"Not yet, but I'll mull on it, see if anybody has any good ideas."

"All right. Be careful out there." Gregory nodded, then left the office. Ortega smiled as the man left, then reached over to a small box of toys and action figures on the desk, pulling out a cowboy with a large star on the left breast of his duster and setting it down on the White House.

05-25-2019, 11:34 PM
Keep up the good writing! :cool:

- Scottie