Val couldn’t speak. The forest around her wasn’t silent. There were bird calls and the burbling of a nearby stream. In the far distance, she could hear a raucous band of men firing off their guns to punctuate their cheers and chants. Plenty of noise surrounded her, but lives depended on her refusing to let even a single word escape her lips.
When she was in Army, she’d gone through the finest training program the US Government could find the budget to pay for. She’d learned a lot during her abbreviated tour of duty. More than just new methods of killing people too. Those were simple. She’d learned repair skills, and teamwork, and how to do without nonessential things like sleep, and food, and (in a pinch) air.
Unfortunately she hadn’t been given any classes in wilderness tracking, and without that she could feel every second slipping through her grasp. Judging from the sounds of the men in the distance, the child she was trying to find hadn’t been located yet, but she knew it wouldn’t be long. The one thing the Scarlet Freedom Brotherhood wouldn’t allow their captives was any chance to escape the area they controlled.
Val wanted to curse. Or even better hit someone while cursing. The only problem was someone would hear her. Even out in the middle of wilderness, surrounded by a mix of tall pines and vibrant autumn leaf deciduous trees, with no people in sight, there were a thousand electronic ears listening specifically for the sound of a human voice.
Tam had detailed that particularly joyful twist on their mission after Charlene gave the associates the high level briefing.
Val shook her head at the thought of the scenario that was laid out before them.
A group of children, most of Mexican descent, had been kidnapped after boarding what their parents thought was their usual schoolbus. By an hour after the school day started, what should have been an ordinary morning had become a nightmare.
The bus was found in an abandoned warehouse, empty of the children but still containing their backpacks and school supplies. A statewide manhunt had been undertaken but Charlene had somehow known that wouldn’t be enough.
How she knew where to dispatch Anna, Tam, and Val to, or how she knew the identity of the kidnappers was a mystery to Val, but then it wasn’t hard to imagine that there were members of the club Charlene could draw on for expertise who would not be available to take calls from anyone else.
Normally, once they were armed with that knowledge, all that would have been required in a kidnapping situation would be to inform the local authorities of the kidnapper’s location and who they had kidnapped. The kidnappers in questions, Scarlet Freedom Brotherhood, however were not ‘normal’ kidnappers.
Many kidnappers are parents who have lost custody of their children and kidnap their kids to take them away from their ex’s. Others are far worse than that, but few had the sort of resources the Brotherhood possessed.
Starting with their compound, the Brotherhood had a parcel of land tucked at the end of a mile long dirt road in the middle of nowhere. Signs leading to the compound proclaimed that trespassers would be shot and then shot again, in case anyone made the mistake of thinking the Brotherhood members were rational adults.
The compound’s isolation wasn’t the primary obstacle to freeing the kidnapped child though. Nor were the guys running around with guns. The thing that could spell both Val and the children’s doom were the microphones which blanketed the area around the Brotherhood’s headquarters.
Tam had gone into more technical detail than Val could remember about the Brotherhood’s setup. The short form Val could recall was that in an incredibly wide radius around their compound, the Brotherhood had planted an enormous number of wide range listening devices to give them ears on anyone who tried to sneak into their domain.
“Ears” seemed like an odd choice for surveillance devices when they could have planted cameras instead, but it turned out there were some practical considerations that drove the decision of why the Brotherhood hadn’t gone with video feeds instead.
In addition to the greater ease of use and lower cost, the network of listening devices could be fed into a system that did voice analysis in real time. Since the vast majority of the time, there would be no useful input from any of the devices, using a human to monitor them was both impractical and doomed to failure. Computers on the other hand are happy to wait ages for an input and only then raise a red flag.
The listening devices were connected to a voice recognition engine for another reason though. Out in the deep woods, there are lots of sounds and lots of creatures who make them. If the microphones sent an alert every time they heard anything, they would be reporting false alerts on intruders around the clock.
There were additional surveillance defenses closer to the main base, ones which could detect the presence of intruders who were smart enough to approach silently, but a hunt that took place directly around the Brotherhood’s base wasn’t the sort of thing that would excite any of the members.
Instead they gave each child a head start. Then they started their own version of “The Most Dangerous Game” substituting young kids who fit their profile of hate instead of risking a confrontation with an actual adult.
Val and the rest had flown in and rode hell bent for leather once they knew where the kids had been taken. They’d formed their plans on the go, yelling ideas into their helmet cell phones until they got close enough to the compound’s borders that they had to go silent.
From there, everything was up to each of them accomplishing their missions flawlessly. Any mistakes and a child, or all the children, could wind up dead. The authorities would prosecute the Brotherhood for the death – there was no chance the organization would exist by the end of the next day as it was – but jail time and dissolving the Brotherhood’s finances to pay restitution to the grieving families was a far cry from bringing their small loved ones back home alive. Val had to find child the Brotherhood was hunting. The price of failure was simply too high.
She checked the map Tam had given her of the forest around the Brotherhood’s compound. To the northwest, tall mountains rose. That’s the direction she would have run in. Plenty of places to hide for an ambush, plenty of places to force her pursuers to come at her in a single file. Or she could have just climbed the mountain. That alone would have forced half the Brotherhood’s hunters to turn back, given their relative lack of fitness.
A run to the mountains required crossing over an open plain though. That would leave someone who was being pursued feeling very exposed, so she knew it wasn’t the direction the child had gone. Instead, she took off heading south instead.
They’d entered the Brotherhood’s lands from the west. Val had split with Anna and Tam when they saw the Brotherhood’s hunting parties starting to head out. Val’s job was to sae the one in immediate peril. She had to have faith in Tam and Anna that they could save the rest.
From what Val had overheard as the initial hunting parties headed out, the Brotherhood members who were driving ATVs were the ‘Elites’, at least in terms of seniority and influence. They were taking the first hunt as a measure of their status, and, probably, to convince the members who were less certain about committing violence against children that giving in to their hate was the natural and proper thing to do or, more precisely, that it was the required thing to do whether you could feel that hatred or not when looking at someone so young. Otherwise you didn’t belong in their movement and, in their world, people who didn’t belong in their movement belonged in the ground.
The path to the south lead into deeper trees, a part of the forest that was covered in shadows even while the sun was shining.
That was perfect from Val’s point of view. The darkness would have looked like a sanctuary to someone trying to get lost, and the path itself had a slight downward angle, letting someone who was fleeing for their life to run just a little bit faster.
Val was so intent on trying to find any positive signs of the child’s passage that she barely stopped herself in time when she heard a clatter of feet rushing on the other side of the hill from her.
A man gave a sharp yell of pain as he apparently smacked into a tree. Val froze where she was, placing a tree between herself and the man who came stumbling down a game trail which ran around the forested hill she’d been running beside.
She’d wondered, earlier, if she would find any allies in her quest, but if so, this man was not one of them.
He wore a heavy camouflage suit and carried a scoped rifle in his hands like a well worn extension of his body. He was rubbing his shoulder from where he’d bumped the tree and mumbling about not missing the Early Bird prize again this year. He thought he was in the lead. That he would be the one to “bag himself a body first”.
He passed by the tree Val was hidden behind and then felt his body below his neck go numb.
Charlene didn’t like her associates killing people, but that didn’t mean Val felt the need to leave people like the Brotherhood members particularly intact. Not when a single cry from them would be enough to bring the far spread group of hunters together onto the point where she was standing.
The blow to the man’s head had rendered him unconscious and likely given him a severe concussion. That wouldn’t leave him unconscious for long though. Movies lie about that all the time. In reality damaging someone’s brain enough that they lose consciousness is dangerous and a long term loss of consciousness can easily be fatal.
In the few seconds before he woke, Val was able to lash the man to tree with his own zip ties and then used his socks as a makeshift gag so that he wouldn’t be able to utter any words that were articulate enough for the voice recognition system to pick up.
The real treasure she found was the map the man was carrying. It had game trails marked on it, ones which her own topographic maps didn’t indicate. Since it was a safe bet the other Brotherhood members had access to the same information, she knew where they would be traveling in their search for their quarry.
So she began setting traps.
The next band of child-hunters were brothers. Intense and coordinated. They were so busy moving between what they thought were likely hiding holes that other hunters might have missed that they didn’t consider someone might be stalking them.
The elder brother saw Val first. One moment she was fifty feet away from him glaring like an angry war god. The next she was stepping from behind a tree right beside him. He never regained consciousness. Not because Val hit him excessively hard, but because his brother was quick on the trigger but rotten with his aim when he was panicked.
The younger brother lost the use of both hands, both knees and his jaw when Val made him eat the butt of the gun that he’d just killed his brother with.
Her day didn’t get kinder from there. Not until she found a small, clear waterfall where she could wash off the blood she was covered in.
She let the frosty stream run over her, chilling away the rage that surged in her heart. She’d hurt a lot of people, but it wasn’t enough. She had to keep crushing them. To remove the blight they spread on the world.
There was a small, suppressed squeak from behind the waterfall.
And suddenly she had something much more important to do that leave a wake of shattered evil doers in her wake.
Without speaking, Val knelt down beside the child who had been hunted for hours.
She put her hands up to show she offered the boy no harm, then placed a finger to her lips.
They had to be quiet.
She gestured to him and then herself and then away from the waterfall.
They had to go.
He shook his head.
It was too scary.
She nodded. Understanding. She gestured beyond the waterfall. All those guys? She punch her fist quietly into her palm and then indicated the blood stains that remained on her, gesturing beyond the waterfall again. She could handle them.
She smiled and opened her arms. He was safe with her.
The boy choked back a sob and collapsed into her embrace.