Sharp Contact [A Laura Axle E-Single (Liberatchik.com exclusive)]

 

Sharp Contact

[A Laura Axle E-Single (Liberatchik.com exclusive)]

This is a work of fiction. Characters, institutions, products and organizations mentioned in this series are either the product of the author’s imagination or, if real, used fictitiously without any attempt to describe actual conduct or usage.

Copyright © 2013 by Craig S. Brantley

 

By Craig S. Brantley

 

 

2:00 AM

Agra Station

Indian States

 

“Two thousand Caliphate Pounds, no less!” insisted the Syrian in heavily-accented Arabic. “Look at this wench! Blonde, American. You don’t think she’s worth it?!” He grasped the woman firmly by the arm, and then patted her on the head, like a prized pony.

 

The Egyptian mercenary, Ishan Fawzi, frowned as he looked over the woman. “I can’t see anything under that hijab. She could have the face of a camel and body of a pig. Over two hundred North American women were seized when we drove the Asia Union and Russians out of this place. We’ve got 18 on the next train and half of them don’t like look anything special. I need a better look at what you’re selling.”

 

“Pay, and then you can see anything you like. Not before then.”

 

A station voice announced in Urdu, Farsi, and Arabic, “The Zafar Express is now approaching.” Ishan smiled at the announcement. Zafar meant “victory” in Urdu, and he was about to get his right now.

 

“You don’t have much time to close a deal, my friend,” said the Egyptian. “I won’t pay a single pound until I see what’s under that hijab.”

 

The train was indeed coming and the Syrian needed to close a deal–for his own reasons.

 

“Just a peek, then!” snapped the Syrian. He snatched away the face veil. Then, he lifted the hijab, briefly. To the Egyptian’s immense disappointment, the woman was fully clothed under it, in jeans,  T-shirt and running shoes. Still, he could see she was slender and stunningly pretty.” The Syrian  smoothed the hijab back and replaced the face veil. “Good enough? Now pay, and she’s yours.”

 

The American woman seemingly could not follow the Arabic conversation but cowered at seeing the men were obviously bartering over her.

 

The Egyptian was still skeptical. “And you say she’s American, eh? Prove it. Have her say something in English– American English.”

 

The Syrian grimaced with exasperation. The Egyptian was a master trader. He was looking for more excuses, burning  up precious time  as the train neared. Only a few minutes away now.

 

“Say something, wench!” snapped the Syrian in English. The woman started to stutter, so the Syrian slapped her–hard. “And the American Voice was so loud at one time! Speak now, woman!” The Syrian slapped her again. “OK, OK, just don’t hit me,” she pleaded, “Just don’t hit me again!”

 

“See, perfect American English,” said the Syrian, shrugging.   “Now pay.”

 

“1,500 pounds no more,” replied the Egyptian coolly. The Zafar Express, a high-speed maglev train, was pulling into the station. There was no more time.

 

Exasperated, the Syrian finally relented. “Agreed. Cash, right here, right now.” In response, the Egyptian reached into his vest and pulled out a wad of bills. The Syrian realized–too late–that the Egyptian would probably have paid up to 5,000 Caliphate Pounds.

 

The American woman was led off toward the maglev, which had now stopped for a 10-minute docking. The Egyptian, his eyes roaming hungrily over her body, shoved, pushed and pulled her along. She was resisting more now–and  he noticed a steady flow of tears behind the veil.

 

He led the American woman forward, giving her two more hard shoves as she wavered at the hatch. Finally, with another hard shove, he pushed her through. The hatch slid closed behind the two figures. A minute later, the Zafar Express pulled out of the station with a high whine.
The Syrian felt his heart sink at the sight. He made his way slowly toward the Agra Station entrance, his mind filled with foreboding for the miserable American girl.

 

Ishan’s eyes greedily drank in the infidel woman as he led her inside. Blonde, slim, a hint of curve–and American. She even smelled good!  She would fetch a good price at auction in Islamabad, Tehran, Riyadh, Cairo or another major Caliphate city. If he had the money, he would have purchased her himself. But a mercenary’s salary only went so far. He had used funds from his employer–Maghreb Security Solutions (MSS) –to buy this woman from the Syrian who had suddenly shown up at the station. He would have to give back any remaining money –or face the consequences. No, he couldn’t buy an American woman on today’s salary. But maybe one day…

 

As they entered the next compartment , the woman stiffened, eyes wide with fear at the three other MSS mercs . Ishan gave the American woman another hard shove forward. “Keep moving, wench. There’s plenty of company for you inside!”

Still the woman hesitated. Ishan readied his hand to deliver a crushing blow from behind. He was overcome with a furious combination of rage and lust.

 

“Ishan! What are you doing?!,” a voice boomed. “We’re being paid to bring in these infidel wenches intact. You bloody this one up and we all take a pay cut!” It was Muhib, the Sudanese.

 

The hard tones jarred Ishan back to his senses. That, and the sheer bulk of the African. At 2.5 meters tall with arms seemingly the size of tree trunks, jet-black skin and a fierce visage he was the embodiment of some sort of evil dragon. Plus,  he was the leader of this MSS crew.

 

With a grunt of irritation, avoiding Muhib’s glare, Ishan pushed the blonde forward again.   “Move, wench! Stop dawdling!” He turned to one of his colleagues, “Open up, Wael.”  The Libyan punched in an access code and  the last train compartment hatch opened with a puff of air.  From inside came the unmistakable sound of female whimpers. By now, the blonde was adding hers. She began bawling, curling up in a semi-ball on the floor. “Please! Please! Please! Please! Please!

 

This caused all the mercenaries in the compartment to burst out laughing. “What are you doing?” joked one. “You’ll have plenty of time on your back in Addis Abba!” This brought another roar of laughter. Even the normally stoic  Muhib couldn’t stifle a chuckle. Then he stopped, reached down one huge black arm to lift the American captive. “Get up woman, “ he said almost gently. “Accept your fate.”

 

Eyes somewhat calmer now, the woman appeared to do just that, coming to her knees, trying to wipe tears away, and reaching out one hand to he be grasped by Muhib’s– which was large enough to engulf hers completely. He gave an almost fatherly smiled as he pulled her up…

 

…but missed the blinding speed with which the blonde reached out, unsheathed his Counter Point combat knife from his combat belt, and then slashed it across his jugular vein. Blood sprayed the walls and men nearby as the black giant toppled forward, already dead.

 

The other mercs froze at the sight–and that cost them everything. The blonde spun quickly behind Wael, jamming the blade into the back of his neck, a quick twist to scramble the brains, and then forward again, to get another startled merc, Amir, slashing through his jugular like a butcher through tender meat. The last man in the car—Ishan, her first captor–was now fumbling with his KH2002 Iranian-made assault rifle, which was slung over his back instead of being handy around his front. He got out a shout–unheard over the high whine of the maglev train–before the woman covered his mouth and slashed open his carotid artery, spraying her face in his blood. She kept her hand pressed over his mouth as she cut deep with the Counter Point. “Goodbye, dummy,” she whispered as the life drained from his eyes.

 

She then grabbed one of the weapons—an MP5A5 submachine gun– off Muhib’s corpse and shouted into the next compartment.

 

“Deng Jing Lei, identify yourself!”

[24 hours ago, CIA Special Operations Section, Langley, VA]

 

So you see the situation we’re in,” said Carmen Lopez, Deputy Operations Director. “This guy wants us to get his daughter back–and we’ve got one shot: Srinagar Station, at the northwest edge of the Indian States. The next stop after that is Islamabad, in the Caliphate proper. It’ll be impossible to do anything after that, since all 18 women will be dispersed to the major Caliphate… markets….  ”

 

Sitting across from her, Smith frowned. “We don’t have any local assets that could pull something like this off. It’d have to be one of ours, a specialist. And you’ll have to fund it.”

 

This time it was Lopez’s turn to frown. “You know everything  is self-funded since the Collapse. Besides, you seem to always get hold of money when you have to.”

 

“Sure, so I know there’s money sitting right across from me.”

 

Lopez smirked, “How do you figure that?”

 

“One of the Asia Union’s richest men– Deng Ai Guo — is willing to pay to free his daughter. But he only called us because he didn’t want to use his connections in the Asia Union Security Bureau to get it done. He doesn’t want to be indebted that way. He have can have us do it cheaper.

 

“And if we fail, no big deal. She’s just a daughter–and a disobedient one at that, working at some agricultural situation in Jaipur to prove her ‘commitment to the masses’– instead of lounging off her daddy’s money. But that’s neither here nor there. Fact is,  he probably gave  you a deposit of at least 10 million in hard currency for his operation. You can easily cut me a check for 5 to give this operation any real chance.”

 

 

 

The Hispanic  woman leaned back in her office chair. Smith,  shrewd as a street rat, had sussed the real circumstances.  In fact, the Agency had demanded 40 million in hard currency, 20 million upfront, and the rest afterwards. The amount demanded  had been wired to the Agency as fast as if it had been pocket money.

 

“OK,” she relented, “I’ll sign off on 2 million.

 

“I said I need 5.”

 

“You’ll take the 2 and like it.”

 

A thick silence blossomed in the air.

 

“I’ll need it in my ops account in the next 10 minutes,” said Smith, conceding and rising to leave the room.

 

As he left the office, he placed a secure app comm call to an apartment in Omaha. A sleepy female voice answered on the third buzz. “Speak,” it said.

 

“Laura, is Trace with you?” Smith could hear deep male snoring, so before she could answer, Smith said, “He is. I need both of you at the Epply Aerobub in an hour. An ops plan will be waiting for you there. Trace’s cover will be Syrian trader. ”

 

“Weapons kit?”

 

“Your brain and two hands.”

 

The line clicked close.

LauraBlackLeather_Crouch

[Present]

 

“Deng Jing Lei! Identify yourself!” Laura shouted again, keeping her weapon warily pointed at the other women, who in turn kept their distance. “Raise your hand!”

 

Sheepishly, one wide-eyed,  doll-like Chinese woman at the back raised hers. “To the front, now!” snapped Laura. The Asian woman hesitated. “Now!,” snapped Laura. “If I were going to shoot you I would have done it already.”

 

The Asian girl came forward. Laura looked her over. She looked like the image she had been shown earlier. But to be certain…

 

“Extend your thumb. Do it, now. ” The Asian woman complied hesitantly, extending her thumb forward. Laura then pressed a captured merc’s bioprint scanner against it, keeping her weapon  and one eye fixed on the other women.

 

The scanner verified the Asian woman as Deng Jing Lei. “Okay,” said Laura. “Follow me.”

 

The train was slowing as it neared Srinagar Station. “Where are we going?” asked Jing Lei.

 

Laura turned toward the woman with an icy stare. “Don’t ask questions, don’t say anything. Just do what I say, when I say.”

 

Jing Lei’s eyes flared. “You don’t…!”

 

“I do. Last time: do what I say, when I say.  Otherwise, you can stay on this train and look forward to being the plaything of some Arab or African sheikh or general for the rest of your life.”

Jing Lei started to say something but caught herself.

 

“Like I said, just keep quiet.”

 

The extraction was going as planned so far. There would be a local asset waiting for her and Jing Lei at Srinagar. He would have two hijabs. They would immediately be thrown over Laura and Jing Lei at the platform and both would walk out behind the Pakistani man, ostensibly his “wives.” He would drive them to a rickety freighter at the Port of Karachi, where they would set sail for Houston. Once ashore, Jing Lei’s father  would pay the rest of the money and his daughter would be released.

 

“What about us?” It was a voice  from the last compartment. With the mercs dead, the women had cautiously crept forward.

 

“You’re welcome to get off at Srinagar,” answered Laura. “It’s up to you. But you’re not with us. Get too close, and I’ll drop you.” Laura nodded briefly at the MP5A5.

 

“If this is a rescue, we need to go with you,” said a woman that Laura recognized from the ops file as Cindy Markham. “You can’t leave us alone in Srinagar Station. How far are we going to get on our own? We’ll be put right back on this train in an hour. You sound like an American. You have to help us. You can’t let us be recaptured.”

 

“That’s her plan,” sneered another woman in the group. Tall, dark-haired. “That’s the plan, right? We’re the distraction while you take this one away. While the Islamic Security Police or MSS mercs are rounding us up, these two get away.”

 

Indeed, the plan had been exactly that. Laura was startled the women had intuited it so rapidly. Her mood darkened.

“Who are you?,” asked the tall woman. “Mercenary? Military? CIA?”

 

“It doesn’t matter who I am, Avital” replied Laura.

 

The woman stiffened. “So you know my name. So what?”

 

Laura had memorized her file with all the rest of the captured women: Avital Weiss. American, born in Bloomington, Minnesota, daughter of Israeli refugees.   Captured along with the rest of the women in the Indian States: like 95% of North Americans desperate for hard currency since the Collapse, she had accepted the job at the  agricultural project in the war-torn Indian States–a region constantly changing hands among the Asia Union, Russian Federation and Caliphate. The women were safe as long as they remained areas controlled by either the Russians or the Asia Union. But whenever and wherever Caliphate forces took control—as they had in a recent lightning strike across the subcontinent—it  was all bets off for foreign women.

 

“Listen to me, Avital,” explained Laura.  You can’t come with us. That’s that.”

 

But Avital had already dismissed Laura with a wave of the hand. “Go on, Malibu Barbie,” she said derisively. “Take your Chinese  Princess and go.”

 

With that, Avital began checking one of the weapons–a Bulgarian-made Arsenal Shipka 9 mm submachine gun– of the dead mercs. She then  turned to the other Western women and saying,  “We’re on our own, girls, but that doesn’t mean we have to give up.”

 

Another woman, a brown-haired Canadian Laura recognized as Jessie Paulson, joined Avital. “I’ve never used a weapon before,” she said. “Can you show me how?” Avital nodded, and began a brief, expert instruction on the weapons. Like all children of Israeli refugees, she had had extensive training—for some distant day these families planned to retake Israel. The refugees even kept alive the ancient saying “Next Year in Jerusalem,” a patent impossibility in Laura’s mind since the Israeli nation, its population killed or expelled,  had been absorbed by the nuclear-armed Caliphate.

 

Still, here was Avital, determined, fearless…..

 

“This is not right.”

And  time slowed down. Froze.

“This is not right,” the soft voice repeated.

The voice that belonged to Helene, Laura’s sister–a sister

who had been killed in bitter fighting when the Caliphate had  seized and held Charleston for a few months.

 

“None of you can get off at Srinagar,” the dead woman continued.  “Take this train on to  Islamabad. Contact Langley. Have someone meet there you with a vehicle large enough to carry all of these women.”

 

“When we reach Islamabad, the mercs will come back here,” Laura  mentally argued with her dead sister.

 

“That’s why you have to kill the mercs before you get there and…” the dead sister replied.

 

“No,” said Laura said mentally. “I’m not tasked to do that. I’m not a charity worker.”

“You will do this, Laura.  You will do this to retain my love.”

 

Within Laura’s consciousness, this silent conversation had taken only milliseconds.

 

Reality then swam back into view. Did I just talk to my dead sister? Or am I going insane?, Laura thought.

Even so, she clicked the throat mike on her app comm. “I’m making a redirect. I’ll need a pickup at Islamabad Station.” Laura then immediately clicked the line closed, before hearing the fury she knew would erupt back in Virginia.

 

[ Operations Center, Langley]

 

Lopez was livid. “What’s your girl doing, Smith? She was supposed to get off Srinagar!”

 

“I didn’t ask questions,” replied Smith.  “This is going down in real-time and she’s the one on the ground. We have three assets in Islamabad: secret Pakistani Christians. I dispatched one.”

 

Lopez’s fury did not abate. “OK,” she said sarcastically,  “Imagine this  probability: we lose Jing Lei, the second half of the commission from her dad, Laura, and the last of our Islamabad network!”

 

Smith sat silently across from his boss. Lopez’s assistants fidgeted uncomfortably or looked down at their laps as she raged.

 

“I said, imagine this!” She glared at Smith, who sat emotionless under the tirade. If she was having any impact on him, it didn’t show.

 

Then, one Lopez’s aides, a mousy young man of about 24 who had been typing away on his holographic keyboard, cleared his voice and said in a weak imitation of optimism,  “Considering these new variables and a still-fluid situation, my models estimate a 16.72 percent chance of mission success.”

 

Lopez turned to him, staring daggers. Cowed, the young man returned to looking down at his keyboard.

 

Lopez finally turned away from Smith and toward the satellite display holograph on the table. On it, the Zafar Express continued toward Islamabad at an incredibly high rate of speed.

 

—–

 

“Every target we put down, you pick up his weapon and engage the enemy. No hesitation. You need to kill every merc in the next compartment.”

 

Laura was going over the plan of attack again with the captive women. There are 19 of us, weapons for four. But all of us will participate in the assault.  If you are unarmed and see a target go down, take his weapon.

 

“One of us goes down, you pick up our weapon and continue the assault.  Our goal is seizing the control compartment. We get that, we slingshot out of  Caliphate territory into the AU. There’ll be a pickup for us there. Keep focused on that goal.”

 

“And Jing Lei,” Laura continued. “You stay here. Don’t move from this compartment unless I say so.”

Jing Lei shrugged, “No problem. I’m a pacifist, anyway.”

 

Becky, one of the Canadians, objected. “Why does ‘Ms. Pacifist’ get to stay here while we risk…”

 

“Because I said so, that’s why,” snapped Laura. “And never question my orders again.” Becky started to open her mouth but Avital cut her off.

 

“Jing Lei’s a billionaire’s daughter and an obvious payday for somebody. We’re expendable, she’s not.”

 

Laura shot Avital a look, then snapped,  “And no  more commentary.”  Avital’s face remained a mask, but she gave a slight bow as if in acknowledgement of Laura as leader.

 

 

One of the women, a North Dakotan  Laura remembered as Karen, seemed on the verge of breaking down from fright. Laura couldn’t permit that. It would demoralize the entire group.

 

“Look,” said Laura, placing a calming hand on her shoulder. “I know you’re scared. “I’m scared, too. Only psychos are fearless. But I need you to act despite your fear. That’s what courage is all about. And this is going to happen fast: sharp contact.  In a minute or less, one way or another, this is all going to be over.”

 

“Let’s go,” said Chantel, one of two Black American women in the group.  “I’m ready to put some hajis down. Sure ain’t gonna be no man’s sex slave in Riyadh or something.” She hefted the MAC-10 she had appropriated from one of the dead mercs. “Always wondered what it would be like to be a gangsta chick instead of a farm techie.” This brought a round of  nervous giggles from some of the other women.

 

Avital took a Magden David–Star of David–necklace out of her pocket and affixed it around her neck. She had hidden it when captured with the rest of the women, but wore it proudly now. “For good luck,” she said to Chantel.

 

“And this is  for good killing,” replied Chantel, nodding at her weapon.

 

Laura nodded. “Let’s go then. On 3…”

 

Laura opened the hatch to the next compartment…

——

 

…and the stunned mercs inside lost precious seconds in comprehending  the danger. Laura and Avital rapidly capitalized by shooting two of them before they could bring their weapons into play. Another merc was faster, though, and returned fire, stitching  a line right across Chantel’s waist. The black woman screamed and collapsed but kept firing even as she hit the floor, hitting nothing but drawing more return fire. This time, it literally chopped her to pieces. Instinctively remembering Laura’s instructions, one of the women, a freckle-faced teenaged Tennessean  named Dawn, rushed forward to try to grasp Chantel’s MAC-10. She was also shot to pieces. Avital cut down two more of the mercs, Laura three.

 

One of the American women, Haley, picked up Chantel’s weapon, aimed, fired wildly, hit nothing, but momentarily gained the attention of one of the mercs, who put a dozen rounds into her chest– just before fire from Laura’s MP5A5 ripped through his head and neck like hot nails shot through a watermelon.

 

The firefight rose to an insane crescendo as bullets chewed up chairs, ricocheted off the compartment—killing another American, Courtney—and missed or impacted human flesh.

 

Through it all, the Zafar Express raced deeper into the Caliphate.

 

 

[37.4 seconds Later]

There was no sound in the compartment now, except nervous and exhausted breathing. The compartment was filled with  gunsmoke and empty shell casings littered the floor. Twelve  North American women had survived the firefight. None of the mercs had.

 

“Get those weapons,” ordered Laura, nodding to the bodies of the mercs. All of the women were armed now. That was something, at least.

 

———

Startled passengers,  Caliphate businessmen, families, and tourists gaped at the sight of the bloodied, heavily armed Western women entering the next compartments. Then a human volcano of astonished talk, accusations and rage begun to erupt. One passenger, a robed mullah, rose, pointing and cursing in a mix of Urdu and Arabic at the infidel women. He grew apoplectic  when he saw the Star of David around Avital’s neck.

 

Laura immediately put two bullets into him. There were more screams, before Laura ordered in Urdu,  “Choop raho! Baith jao!” Shut up! Sit down!

 

A bull of a Pakistani man rose,  pointing  at Avital, issuing a long stream of Urdu invective. Then he switched to English, shouting shrilly again and again, “Jew! Jew!”

 

Avital stared at the shouter for a few moments,  then put three rounds from her Arsenal Shipka  into his center body mass.  He toppled back into his chair, blood spraying all those around him.

 

 

 

“Choop raho!” Shut up! Avital ordered in nearly accentless Urdu.

 

This time, the passengers shut up.

 

 

“Everyone stay seated and you won’t be hurt,” said Laura, knowing it was almost certainly a lie. She and the other women pressed on toward the control compartment.

 

Laura repeated the order to “shut up, sit down!” in Urdu, Farsi  and Arabic in each compartment as they made their way toward the control cabin. After hearing the shots from the rear compartments, those in the front compartments  complied. They stayed silent. But many of them began sending urgent texts through their app comms

 

Avital noticed that, whispering to Laura, “They’re calling for help.”

 

Laura nodded, “Doesn’t matter. The drivers have already done that. We need to get hold of them. We have to reroute this train.”

———

The women finally reached the control compartment.

 

 

As expected, its hatch car was sealed, and none of the guns the women were armed with could shoot through it.

 

Laura tapped on it with her MP5A5, then shouted through to the drivers in passable Urdu. “Your mercs  are dead. Open up and we won’t hurt you. We just need you to change the destination.”

 

As if in response, Laura could feel the train subtly pick up speed. They were accelerating toward  Islamabad. No doubt, the driver had radioed ahead. There would be a much larger group of mercs there. The Western women’s “buyers” had lost some of their female cargo but were still ahead, financially, since they didn’t have to pay these dead mercs on the train.

 

“Last chance,” Laura shouted through the sealed hatch. There was a barrage of curses in Urdu, with one of the men angrily repeating,   “La Mazhab Rundi!” Infidel whores!

 

 

Laura shrugged, “Suit yourself, hajis.”

————-

 

 

“You sure this will work?” asked Avital.

 

“Not sure of anything this crazy day,” answered Laura.

 

The Austrian-made Arges Type HG 84 grenades taken off the dead mercs had been stacked against the control compartment hatch. Some of the passengers, seeing this, began chattering. Several rose, making to leave the compartment.

 

Laura instantly rose, leveling her weapon at them, ordering in Urdu. “Shut up. Sit down.”Slowly, they did.

 

———-

With the last grenades stacked, Laura turned to the Western women.  “You all move to the last compartment, the one you were held in. That puts six compartments between you and what’s coming.

 

“Islamabad Station, five minutes out,” said Becky, who was reading the information on an app comm confiscated from one of the dead mercs.

 

 

“Now or never,” said Avital. “Once we reach Islamabad, it’s game over.”

 

“Get going,” Laura ordered. “If I’m not there in 30 seconds, close the hatch and don’t open it for anything.”

 

Avital put her hand on Laura’s shoulder, squeezing it in a firm but  sisterly way.  Then she was gone, herding the surviving women behind her into the last compartment.

 

 

20 seconds  later, Laura pulled a pin.

 

Her race began.

————-

Time slowed down as Laura sprinted. Two Algerians, instinctively recognizing the imminent danger,   abandoned their wives and children–after all, they were easy enough to replace–and bolted right after Laura.

 

Laura ran faster, opening up the gap between her and the Algerians. In the movies, people “outraced” flames and explosions. Laura knew that was impossible.

Fragments would travel faster than the speed of sound, shredding her.

 

She opened one hatch.

Compartment 1

Then another…

Compartment 2

And another…

Compartment 3

And another….

Compartment 4

 

Got to run faster, her mind–or the shade of her sister– screamed at her.

Arms and legs pumped. Lungs burned with the exertion.

Compartment 5

 

Faster, her sister—was she going insane ? — screamed again. Her mind was playing tricks again, or she could almost see the shade of her sister now. Run! came the mental urging again.

Compartment 6

 

“Run!” It was her sister–no– it was Avital at the compartment door.

 

“Run!” Avital shouted again. Becky held the door partly open, anxiously keeping her eyes on her digital countdown.

 

With a final burst of speed, Laura lunged through the hatch. Becky slammed it shut behind her. A second  later, the two Algerians  reached the hatch and began pounding frantically on it, screaming in English, “Let us in! Let us in! Let us—”

 

The Zafar Express reached Islamabad Station.

 

Back in Compartment 1, the grenades went off.

 

The pounding on the hatch stopped.

 

——-

The  explosion obliterated the engine, control compartment,  the  47-man mercenary crew awaiting the maglev train on the platform, and 216  morning commuters.

 

Fragments from the train became deadly shrapnel and huge tongues of fire filled the platform area and raced up stairwells.

Commuters, partially or fully aflame, ran up exit staircases—or tried— stumbling, falling, burning, screaming in indescribable pain.

 

Fire spread throughout the Platforms 3-7. Extinguisher systems immediately kicked in, but the flames had already reached the ticketing area and   furniture heated to 500 Celsius –flashover–and ignited, incinerating dozens more people and causing plate glass to explode outward. Dozens more pedestrians were killed on the sidewalks  just outside.

 

Inside the maglev train, the first four compartments suffered the same fate as the driving compartment. The fifth became a burning hulk, the sixth as well.

 

Laura and the other women in the last compartment watched anxiously as the hatch separating them from the inferno on the other side heated up rapidly, smoking, becoming a deep, evil  crimson.

 

“It’s not going to hold,” muttered one of the women, Christine,  frightened out of her mind.

 

Laura said nothing. Either the hatch would hold or it wouldn’t.

 

There was nothing they could do to make it hold.

 

The hatch buckled inward under the enormous heat and pressure on the other side.

 

Another woman, Julie, fell to her knees and screamed.

 

“I just hope it’s quick,” muttered LaToya, the last black woman.

 

The hatch buckled again.

 

Laura imagined she would be talking with her dead sister again very soon.

The hatch buckled even more…

 

Then stopped.

 

The extinguisher system had finally overwhelmed the spreading fires.

 

The women let out a collective sigh of relief.

 

 

 

———-

As the women made their way up into the ticketing area, Islamabad Station was a burning  nightmare of steel, cement and glass wreckage . Amid this, the siren wails of Caliphate first-responders could already be heard.

 

“Quick,” Laura whispered to the other women. They picked their way carefully through the chaos of the station. There were dead or horribly burned passengers everywhere, some screaming or writhing in agony.

 

“Help me! Help me!” wailed one, a middle-aged Saudi man,  in a mix of Urdu, Arabic, and even English. That caused Karen to pause and turn toward the pitiful cries.   “Don’t stop!” Laura hissed.

 

Karen, as if in trance from the cries, moved toward  the Saudi. She could see now he was horrifically burned, his face literally hanging off him like melted wax.  “Don’t stop!” Avital  snapped, angrily turning and grabbing her hair, literally dragging her forward.

 

The ruined station entrance loomed now. Outside was the local Agency asset, the Pakistani Christian with a beaten-up fruit truck covered by tarp. He had identified himself by wearing a red kerchief in his left shirt pocket.

 

Saying nothing, he got into the driver compartment as the women approached and then got into the cargo space. “Hurry! Hurry!” Laura hissed from under her veil. The first-responder sirens were seconds away. Once they arrived, they would seal off the streets.

 

After the last woman clambered  aboard, Laura climbed in after her, closed the rear flap, walked forward and pounded twice on the panel separating them from the driver. The truck then got into gear, its tired engine groaning in complaint. Just behind them, police were sealing off the station. They would rigorously interrogate everyone in their net.

 

 

————–

As the truck bounced along the road, Jing Lei turned toward Laura, narrowing her eyes. “What is your name?”

 

“My name is Your Rescuer,” Laura responded coolly, “and I need you to stay silent.”

 

“I will not stay silent! You are a murderer, a racist, an Islamophobe, an agent of a government or a mercenary. You serve Western patriarchy! I will…”

 

Laura held up a finger, “Last warning.”

 

“Or what? I know my father is paying you…or your masters… to bring me home in one piece. And I don’t know why, since I didn’t need his capitalist help. I went to India in the first pace to escape him. And you! There was no need for such murder and violence! I would eventually have shown our kidnappers their errors. I….”

 

Laura exploded from her haunches. She was a blur of motion has she  straddled and pummeled the Chinese woman with a mix of open-palm strikes and elbows.

 

When Laura rose, Jing Lei’s face was bloody mess.

 

No one made any move to intervene.

The rest of the ride was in silence.

 

[Outside Hyderabad]

The  unmarked  Sikorsky X2 helicopter  waited, twin rotors still twirling, ready to get airborne in seconds.  Four Asian mercs spilled out of it, heavily armed, wearing full body armor.  Avital and Laura waited outside the fruit truck, Laura with the MP5A5, Avital with the Arsenal Shipka, and Becky  with the dead Chantel’s MAC-10.

 

 

 

“Let’s see the package,” snapped one of the mercs, his visor down.

 

Laura motioned to the rear of the truck. Unceremoniously, Jing Lei was shoved out the rear truck tarp onto the ground like a small sack of potatoes.  She did not move.

 

“She’s dead!” accused  the merc, menacingly sliding his trigger finger into his AKSU-74 assault rifle.

 

Laura shrugged. “She’s still breathing. Check.”

 

The merc started forward. Laura raised the MP5A5 and ordered, “without the AK.” The merc started to argue, then simply handed over his weapon to a comrade.

 

He then hurried over to the still body of the Asian woman.   No doubt worried about his commission, thought Laura.

 

“She’s beat up pretty bad, “ the merc snapped angrily. “How did it happen?”

 

“Look, you want her or not?” snapped Laura. “If not…” Laura leveled her weapon down at the still form of  Jing Lei.

 

“Stop!” said the merc. He opened his own app comm line to his employer, Jing Lei’s father. “Package is…package is secure,” he said hesitantly. He then made to pick up the Chinese woman.

 

“Wait!” said Laura. She was still waiting for word from Langley on her app comm that the other half of the commission  had been paid. If it hadn’t, she was to execute both Jing Lei and these mercs. As a bonus, she had no doubt Avital would lend deadly accurate supporting fire.

 

But in the next moment, Laura got payment confirmation from Langley, from a young operations officer who said, “chips are cashed.”

 

Laura nodded toward the Asian woman on the ground. “Take her and get lost.”

 

One of the men carefully lifted Jing Lei, supporting her from under her shoulders. Another merc took her legs. This was their payday. They had to get her to an AU hospital as fast as possible.  Seconds later, flying nap-of-the-earth under Caliphate radar, the Sikorsky  raced for the safety of the Asia Union.

 

 

 

The Western women re-boarded the fruit truck. It would still be a long, bouncing ride down to the Port of Karachi. Until they left the Caliphate, they were still in incredible danger.

 

 

Epilogue:

 

 

Fu Wei Hospital

Beijing

Asia Union

 

Deng Ai Guo was furious as he paced the hospital hallways. Some American woman had put hands on his daughter? Broken one arm, one hand, three ribs and damaged her face so badly she needed  reconstructive surgery. He had actually expected the Americans to fail. He was shocked that they had actually rescued Jing Lei. But brought back in this condition? It was an intolerable insult.

 

He would find out who this Yankee wench was. He would find out who she was. And he would deal with her.

 

Dubai

Caliphate

 

Mohammed Koury stewed bitterly in his apartment overlooking the high-tech city, financial and technological heart of a Caliphate which spanned the entire Middle East and Africa. With the loss of his job as director of Maghreb Security Solutions, he would soon have to give up this spacious place. Worse, he would have a hard time finding new employment. In this industry, reputation was everything. And he had suffered the worst lost of reputation. Not only had he failed to deliver the promised Western female cargo to the Riyadh buyers, they had somehow escaped (with, he deeply suspected, some sort of outside help), killed all his men, destroyed a maglev train, and a good part of Islamabad Station.

 

The only reason he was quietly fired and blacklisted instead of turned over to the Islamic Security Police is because the authorities wanted the whole thing to go away, not get into  public headlines. The destruction of Islamabad Station was officially an “accident” and the Caliphate secret police and censorship boards had ensured that the official story stuck.

 

But Mohammed had still lost his job. He could not afford this penthouse apartment without it, And he would not be able to find another job, at least not easily. Add how could he keep his four wives and thirteen  sons? Most likely, he would have to rent himself out as a merc or bodyguard, toting a gun to keep some sheikh or Saudi oil magnate safe. It would be like a general demoted to the rank of private! He seethed at the thought!

 

[Somewhere on the Texas Gulf Coast]

 

“Who’s this Avital Weiss guy?” Trace frowned as he scrolled through the mission data on the app com in the luxurious beach house.

 

“Gal, not guy,” Laura corrected. “Learn some Hebrew.”

 

“Anyway, who is she?”

 

“Someone worth knowing. Good in a fight, thinks on her feet. Speaks Arabic, Urdu and Farsi almost like a native. And a Minnesota girl, so I trust her.”

 

“But…” Trace was appalled at the loss of life at Srinagar Station. Hundreds. Apart from the mercs, mostly innocent passengers and bystanders. It was one reason he hated Agency work. He had argued with Laura about this many times before, but in the end she had always waved him away dismissively, saying, “Hard times, hard choices.”

And it wasn’t just an Agency saying. Since the Collapse, the saying was on every American’s  lips, from the last few CEOs to the masses of homeless to American expats seeking jobs overseas for precious hard currency. “Hard times, hard choices.” It was almost a national slogan. And maybe it was the truth.  With the nation now reduced to a Third-world, technological backwater with a worthless currency, there was nothing left but “hard choices.”

 

“But…” Trace repeated.

 

But Laura was impishly beckoning him with a finger.  In her Missoni Pechino knit bikini, she was gorgeous. And she was pointing.

 

Down to beach.

 

[Some hours later. ]

The lithe, bikini-clad blonde rested comfortably in Trace’s arms. Nuzzled against his lean, tan, sculpted body she felt perfectly at peace, perfectly in love.

 

And they had this beach all to themselves.

 

“Mm…..that was some welcome back,” she purred.

 

Trace, looked around, “Where’d you get the cash for this kind of place? Something else off the books?”

 

“Nope. This was one of Deng’s properties. Apparently, he had to hand it over as part of the payment to get his daughter back. The Agency will probably turn it into some sort of safehouse or training facility. But while they decide, it’s mine—ours– for at least the next few weeks.”

 

“Unless you’re called away.” Trace looked wistful. “And I can’t stay here that long. You know I have to be back in New York. As far as the Russians know, I’m their man, not ours. Plus…”

 

 

“First,” Laura interrupted, “you’re nobody’s man but mine. Secondly, stop talking shop and enjoy that sunset, enjoy this time, enjoy…us.”

Trace turned to look at into her eyes; they were oceans he could swim through for an eternity.  He was lost in her beauty, adrift in her soul…and mad from her beauty. He pressed his lips fiercely  against hers.

 

And  she melted into his passion.

 

 

 

 

[END]

 

 

 

 

 

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