“It looks clear to me,” Mario said, peering through a small pair of binoculars.
“Fuck that, we just got here. We’re waiting a little longer,” Ben said. “This is some bullshit, you know. I cannot believe I got dragged into this shitshow of a plan. If we’re going to do this, we’re doing it right. I’m not about to get shot for George fucking Sharpe.”
Mario looked at Ben with an annoyed expression. “Why’d you agree to come if you’re just going to complain the whole time.”
Ben glanced at Mario. “You try saying ‘no’ to Abilene.”
It was two hours before sunrise, and the two men were parked in Ben’s car about seventy yards from a small, concrete building. It wasn’t much bigger than the average backyard shed, but this one was encircled by a chain link fence, its top adorned with barbed wire.
Not far beyond the building, the foreboding forest loomed like a wall of shadow.
“You brought the snips, right?” Ben said.
“Yes, if the fence is locked, I can cut us through.”
“What does the door to the building look like?” Ben asked.
“Hard to tell. Too dark. It looks solid, and I can’t tell if there is a lock on it. Either way, we got what we need to get in.”
“Okay, okay.” Ben let out a breath. “Five more minutes. If we don’t see anything weird, then we go in.”
They were smart to wait because not three minutes later, the two did in fact see something weird. The door to the building opened and a man walked out of the dimly lit interior. He took a long drink from a beer, and then threw the bottle over the fence where it shattered against a nearby tree - a normal tree, not an ancient magical forest tree. Then, the inebriated man pulled down his pants and proceeded to urinate for an obscenely long time.
Ben turned his attention to Mario who was still looking through the binoculars. “Hey Mario, whatcha looking at?”
“Same thing as you,” he replied.
“Are you enjoying the closeup?”
“Hey man, I’m not looking at this guy’s wang,” Mario said. “I’m doing what I should be doing; observing the situation.” He took his eyes from the binoculars. “Would you be interested in learning about what I’ve observed?”
“I would,” Ben said.
“Wang man is packing heat,” Mario said.
Ben almost gave away their position with a burst of laughter, but he managed to cover his mouth with a gloved hand in time to stifle the sound.
Mario’s tan face flushed red as he realized how his comment could be misinterpreted.
“Calm down,” Mario said, smiling at himself. “I meant that guy has a gun. Looks like an AR-15. It’s slung over his back, so I could only see the butt.”
Before Ben could say anything, Mario added, “The butt of the rifle, you prick.”
Ben took a few deep breaths to regain his composure. The funny moment was easy to overcome when he realized what this meant. “Keith knows about the entrance,” he said. “This complicates things.”
“It’s just a guard,” Mario said. “Perhaps there are more inside, but the building is small. Plus, that one was drunk. I don’t think they're taking the job of guarding this shed too seriously.”
“They have guns,” Ben said. “That’s serious enough for me.” He closed his eyes, exasperated. “I swear to God, if I get killed during this stupid mission, I’m going to come back as a ghost to haunt George until the day he dies.”
“Just don’t haunt me. I don’t want to be here either, but this is an unprecedented time man. The people who can, need to step up.”
Mario’s words helped bring Ben back into focus. Part of the reason Ben had accepted this mission was because he knew in his heart, he was one of the few people available who was trained for it. Mario was right, Ben needed to do this, not just because he could, but because it was the right thing to do.
That was only one part. The other reason was more vain. Ben missed the action. He enjoyed his time with the rangers, and when he got out, he found he missed that anticipation before a mission, and the pride that had come after completing it. He missed surviving side by side with a friend. A true friend, bonded over battle and shared trauma. Some of those true friends were sitting on a beach wondering where the hell Ben was right now. If the rest of the world was out there somewhere, then he hoped his friends were safe.
“So, have any insight on how to approach this situation?” Ben asked.
“It seems like they’ve been partying in there,” Mario said. “Maybe busting in and pointing guns at them will catch them off guard, and we can force them to surrender.”
“I don’t feel like killing anybody today, so disarming them would be the best option. I just hope we don’t crack that egg and find a bunch of drunk, trigger-happy rednecks inside.”
“Only one way to find out,” Mario said.
“Fine,” Ben said. He checked his handgun and confirmed a round was chambered. Ben was carrying the gun Abilene had given him, and Mario had his service pistol. Anything bigger than that would be a hindrance. He tightened his tactical vest and confirmed everything he needed was where it belonged. “Ready when you are.”
The shed was only about forty yards away from the eastern side of the seam. The fenced in building looked meager amongst the backdrop of the forest.
Ben approached from the north side. He was dressed in jeans, a dark blue long sleeve shirt, and the bulletproof tactical vest George had so kindly given him.
Mario approached from the south. He was wearing his brown deputy’s uniform, but left the cowboy hat and boots behind, opting instead for sneakers.
Their stealthy approach didn’t matter in the end as whoever had come out of the building to relieve themselves had remained inside after.
They met at the wire fence. The gate was locked, so Mario went to work with the snips. True to his word, he had a clean line cut through in no time. Both men passed smoothly through the fence and approached the front door of the building.
Listening closely, Ben could hear muffled laughter coming from inside. With a hand motion, Ben signaled for Mario to wait and stay alert.
Ben reached to something clipped to the front of his tactical vest and held the flashbang for Mario to see. This was a very special gift, and this time, the gift did not come from George. In fact, George didn’t know quite what to say when he saw Abilene bring a flashbang grenade out of her basement, holding it as casually as she would a sock.
Ben almost laughed out loud again at the memory but contained himself. He took a deep breath and focused. This was real. He was back in the shit again, and he needed to perform. He didn’t want to hurt anybody, but he would do what was necessary. If this mission really worked and the science team was rescued, it would all be worth the price of having to hold a gun and fight one more time.
Mario saw what Ben was holding, gave a wicked grin, and nodded his head.
The pair squeezed closer to the door, which Ben hoped was still unlocked, and prepared themselves for the breach. Mario leaned over and put his hand on the door handle. Ben nodded. Mario turned the handle and gently, but swiftly pushed the door open about a foot. Ben tossed the flashbang in, and Mario quickly shut the door behind it.
There were shouts of surprise and confusion. Then a muffled thump followed by screaming. Mario slammed the door open, and Ben went in, gun leading the way.
“Drop your weapons and get on the ground,” he yelled. “Now or I’ll shoot.”
Two blind, confused, and scared men complied without hesitation.
Ben and Mario didn’t waste any time. Ben kicked a weapon away from the man closest to him and helped him get his hands behind his back, so he could wrap them tightly with duct tape. He did the same for the man’s mouth and legs.
Mario had his man subdued but left the duct tape off the mouth for now. Mario looked to Ben, waiting.
Ben walked over to the bound man who was lying prone on the ground. Ben squatted near his face. “Whatcha doing here?”
The man’s eyes were wide with fear, and he was stammering. Ben guessed he wasn’t even 21 yet.
“Calm down man, we aren’t going to kill you,” Ben said. “Just answer the question.”
“We, we were told to guard this building. If we did, our family was promised food for the next month. There’s nothing in here man. It’s just a bunch of empty metal racks and a sealed door.”
“What door?” Ben said.
Squinting, his vision slightly returning, the kid pointed toward a wall with a heavy steel door in the middle.
“Who hired you?” Ben said.
“Mr. Owens. I worked for him at the plant. It was a good job. Keith had word get out to all his employees that he would personally see that they were taken care of during this time. They just had to reach out to him.”
“There’s something wrong with this guy,” Mario said.
“Me?” the kid said, sounding like a distraught puppy.
“No, dumbass, Keith Owens,” Mario said. “Man’s got a god complex or something.”
“I wouldn’t argue with you,” Ben said. He then applied the duct tape over the kids face. “We’ll be sure to get you untied eventually. It may be a few hours though, so try to take a nap if you can. Unfortunately, I can’t risk letting either of you go right now. But, hey, you’re not dead, eh?”
The blond-haired kid muffled something unintelligible
Ben tapped him on the shoulder. “Sit tight.”
Mario groaned when he discovered the heavy steel door was welded shut. “Man, we have to go get the equipment from the truck.”
“Damn,” Ben said. “At least we came prepared for this.”
“You two don’t go anywhere while we’re gone, okay?” Ben said as they exited the building. They hiked back to the truck and drove it closer. Ben was happy to save a few steps because he was in for a marathon.
They parked and grabbed what they needed from the bed of the truck – a hydrogen tank and cutting torch. Like the fence, they were going to cut their way through.
The two captives muffled uselessly at them as Ben and Mario went to work on the door. The plasma torch burned hot and cut through the door like butter. Ben had to be mindful of the little droplets of molten level falling about his feet. It took them less than ten minutes to create an opening large enough for them to fit through.
Ben crouched, preparing to creep through the opening.
“Careful,” Mario said. “Those edges are hotter than my grandmother’s salsa.”
“I got it.” Ben slid through the opening smoothly, not touching any side.
Mario shoved the hydrogen tank and plasma cutter at the hole, and Ben pulled it through.
Mario followed, and although he was thicker than Ben, he made it through just fine.
The room they had entered was almost a perfect square. Empty iron shelves lined the walls, and in the back of the room, a spiral staircase led downwards into darkness.
“Guess we head down,” Ben said, shining his flashlight toward the staircase.
“Lead the way amigo,” Mario said.
The corrugated iron stairs wound themselves downward for about thirty steps. At the bottom, they exited to a new room. To Ben’s surprise, a single yellow light bulb shone dimly through a mass of spider webs. Somehow, this room had electricity. Deteriorating boxes were strewn across the room. The floors and walls were all concrete, and at the end of the room, not twenty feet away, an industrial elevator shaft disappeared into the depths. Abilene’s guess was right, but there was one problem. There was no elevator.
Ben walked over to what he thought was a command console for the elevator. The thing had a lever on it, so he figured it was what he was looking for. Perhaps the elevator was at the bottom of the shaft and could be recalled. He engaged the lever. Nothing happened. He looked around the console for something else. There was a switch on the backside. Ben turned the switch and tried the lever again. Still nothing happened.
“Strange, the room has power, but the elevator seems to be out of commission,” Ben said.
“I doubt it’s been used in thirty years,” Mario said. “Maybe it's just broken.”
Ben sighed. “I guess we will move on with plan B.”
Ben walked back to the truck and came back with a black backpack from which he pulled out a long roll of climbing rope. It seemed like a reasonable thing to bring from the knowledge they had. Abilene had warned them that there may not be a functioning elevator. So, they packed climbing gear in case they had to repel down the shaft.
Ben walked up to the shaft. It was lined with steel as far as Ben could see before darkness consumed the scant light from above. Apparently, lights weren’t installed in the shaft, or they had burned out long ago.
“Abilene said one hundred feet,” Ben peered into the darkness. “What do you think?”
Mario peaked down the hole. “I think I should have brought more underwear.”
“When was the last time you repelled?” Ben asked.
“Man, like twenty years ago when I was in basic.”
“It’s just like riding a bike,” Ben said. “I think.”
Ben felt like he was in a dream as he stood next to Mario staring down into the depths of the earth. The last few days were so far beyond what his imagination could conjure that he still had moments where he found himself questioning if any of this was real. He should be on the beach right now, drinking margaritas with his ass in the sand. Instead, he was about to repel into the bowels of the earth to rescue some asshole scientists who sent them back in time.
“Who first?” Ben asked.
“You of course,” Mario said.
“So, you can catch me if I fall,” Mario said.