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Siege Line

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Siege Line

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Author: Myke Cole
Publisher: Ace Books, 2017
Series: Shadow Ops: Book 6
Book Type: Novel
Genre: Science-Fiction
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Avg Member Rating:
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In Myke Cole's latest high-octane, action-packed military fantasy, the fate of undead Navy SEAL James Schweitzer will be decided--one way or another...

The Gemini Cell took everything from Jim Schweitzer: his family, his career as a Navy SEAL, even his life. Hounded across the country, Schweitzer knows the only way he can ever stop running, the only way his son can ever be safe, is to take the fight to the enemy and annihilate the Cell once and for all.

But the Cell won't be easily destroyed. Out of control and fighting a secret war with the government it once served, it has dispatched its shadowy Director to the far reaches of the subarctic in search of a secret magic that could tip the balance of power in its favor. Schweitzer must join with the elite warriors of both America and Canada in a desperate bid to get there first--and avert a disaster that could put the Cell in control.


Mankiller threw the spear.

Her grandpa had taught her to play snowsnake when she was six, and thirty-six years later, the motion was second nature. Two shuffling steps, the arm whipping low, gently. She gave a little hiss of air as she released the shaft, not because she needed to, but because she always had.

The spear did look like a snake, a thin brown line skipping through the unbroken snow, sending up white puffs that revealed the thick ice of the frozen lake beneath. There was a soft thud as it struck the hay bale dead center, sending a spray of yellow across the white. Grampy always pumped a fist when he got a bull's-eye, but Mankiller stood frozen in her throw. Moving too quickly after letting the spear go could alter its course if you weren't careful.

Joe Yakecan snorted hard enough to set the fur edges of his hood waving. "Weak. That'd been a caribou, he'd 'a jus' sniffed it and gone back to sleep."

"Ain't a caribou," Mankiller said, still not moving. "'S a hay bale."

"Ya think?"

Mankiller didn't answer, trying to take in the moment like Grampy told her. The sun reflecting off the smooth white surface of the snow. The sharp bite of the air against her nose. The spear pointing like a compass needle perfectly centered in the hay bale's side. Save the good ones, Wilma, Grampy always said. Remember 'em for the times when the sun won't come up.

Yakecan must have taken her silence for anger, because he added, "I'm just kiddin', Sheriff. It's a good shot."

"Great shot." Mankiller finally turned to look at him, giving the tiny quirk of her hard line of a mouth that passed for a smile.

Yakecan looked like God had come down from heaven and stapled half a dozen animals together. He was as big as a grizzly, had a face like a Saint Bernard. His wide cheeks hung down to his neck, chins overlapping just enough to tell the world that this was a man who liked beer, fried chicken, and chocolate. He was as furry as a beaver, and it didn't help that he was always cold despite all that blubber. He covered himself in even more furs until he looked like a walrus.

Yakecan had been her deputy since Mankiller came to Fort Resolution after her tour in Afghanistan. She'd read his file from the Army, knew what he'd done in Iraq. Their first job together had been putting cuffs on Albert Haida after he beat up his wife. Haida was even bigger than Joe, and a mean drunk to boot. Haida had resisted, and turned out to be more than Mankiller had bargained for. She knew that he'd have hurt her, maybe even killed her, if it hadn't been for Yakecan. He might be as big as a grizzly, but Joe was as fast as a striking eagle. Haida was on his back, knocked senseless, before Mankiller knew Yakecan had even moved. When the Yellowknife cops came to take custody of Haida, they'd asked Mankiller how she'd got so banged up. Yakecan could have said Haida'd gotten the drop on her, that she'd needed him to save her. But he only stood there, smiling. I've got you covered, that smile said.

She never forgot it.

Yakecan smiled his usual smile now, open and easy, the kind of smile that made you feel rested. "A great shot," he conceded. "Even harder jus' goin' over the open snow."

"But you think you can do better."

"Hell, I know I can." Yakecan's smile got so big, his cheeks disappeared inside his hood. "Watch thi--"

A howl split the air, long and mournful.

Yakecan's smile vanished. He glanced up at the bright sun, bent to retrieve the rifle where it lay propped against a small boulder of ice.

She put a hand on his elbow. "C'mon, Joe. You know that..."

But Yakecan's eyes were scanning the horizon, the gun already at the low ready. "All right, Wilma. Can't be too careful..."

He only called her by her first name when he was frightened.

"Joe, look at me."

His eyes stopped scanning, met hers. She stared back. Her calming stare, "Sergeant's Eyes," her lieutenant had called them.

"Joe, they're howling in the middle of the day. You know what kind of wolves these are."

As if on cue, another howl sounded, closer this time. Yakecan's eyes snapped away, and Mankiller followed his gaze to a low line of stunted trees, jagged gray limbs struggling through the thick snow.

A small shape, gray as the dead growth around it, detached itself from the trees, slunk along the icy ridge, its head turned toward them. Two dots burned in the center, brighter than the shining snow around them. Twin dancing fires, silver threaded with lines of thin gold. Wilma looked into the wolf's eyes for a moment, and then it turned its head away, trotted along the ridge.

Mankiller gave the animal a tentative wave, felt her heart swell. She swallowed the emotion, kept her hand on Yakecan's elbow until he finally sighed, letting the rifle barrel dip to the ground. She couldn't resist crossing herself with her other hand.

It was a moment before she could speak. "Come on, Joe. It's your throw."

Yakecan didn't move, tracking the wolf's progress. "I don't like turnin' my back on 'em."

"You know they ain't gonna hurt you," Mankiller says. "Might be your grandma under that fur."

"Yeah," Yakecan said, setting the rifle down. "S'pose you're right. Might as well show you how the game is played, eh?" The smile was back, but there was no warmth in it now. "Need the spear." He nodded toward the brown line sticking out of the hay bale.

"That's right," Mankiller said. "So, go get it, Deputy."

Yakecan's laugh was genuine. "Aye, ma'am."

He trotted toward the spear, froze as another sound echoed toward them.

Not a howl this time. A low, rhythmic thudding. Distant but growing closer.

"What's that?" he asked.

"Helicopter?" Mankiller asked, but she already knew she was right.

"Yeah. We expectin' anybody?"

Mankiller shook her head. "Probably droppin' off hunters, or a research team."

Yakecan looked doubtful. "We'd have heard 'bout that."

Mankiller grunted. "Maybe they're jus'... passin' through."

"We're in the middle of fuckin' nowhere, boss. Nobody jus' passes through."

Mankiller grunted again. The rotors were much closer now, loud enough for the roaring of the turbines to be heard. "Sounds like a pretty big helo."

"Military," Yakecan said.

"Why would they be flyin'--"

"They wouldn't. At least, they never have before."

Mankiller nodded. "Think we better get out of sight."

Yakecan moved with his deceptive speed, snatching up spear and hay bale in a single smooth motion. Mankiller retrieved the rifle and led the way toward an icy gulch carved by the runoff of a day that passed for warm this far north. The melting snow had washed a sizeable pile of bracken down the slope, forming it into a makeshift lean-to when it refroze.

Yakecan fell in behind her instinctively, crouching his way down the slope, his tread surprisingly quiet despite the frozen crust over the snow. He held the hay bale easily in his huge arms, his breathing smooth and even. Ever since Afghanistan, Mankiller had always felt uncomfortable with her back exposed. On the few occasions she ate at Bullock's in Yellowknife, she always chose a chair with her back to the wall. Not when Yakecan was around. She kept her eyes front and scrambled under the frozen cover, felt Yakecan jostle her shoulder as he joined her.

The roar of the helo engine was even louder now, the dull whup whup whup of the rotors sounding like they were just over the ridge where she'd seen the wolf. Yakecan wedged his giant head up toward the icy cracks in the sticks overhead, his broad cheek pushing against her own with all the grace of a drunken bear.

"Move, you idiot," she whispered.

He ignored her, "I can't see it, boss. Sounds like it's right over us."

"Calm down," Mankiller said, grabbing a fistful of Yakecan's hood and pulling his head back. "Let me look."

The film of ice over the sticks refracted the light, a prismatic spray of color that danced at the edges of her vision, but Mankiller had been squinting practically since the day she was born. There was an art to it, a thing that every Dene mastered by the time they were a few years old, scrunching your eyes just enough to keep you from seeing stars, but not so much that you missed what you were after. Yakecan said it was bright like that in Iraq, only it was the sun shining off the sand instead of the snow.

The bright white outside first wavered, then bent, then finally resolved as she got her eyes just the right degree of closed. She swept her gaze up, over the hill, unerringly tracking the echo of the rotors to their source in the ice-blue sky.

A huge rotor churned above a gray oval, no bigger than a football from this distance. It looked a little like a much larger version of the American Black Hawks that had shuttled her from hilltop to hilltop in the Korengal Valley, jammed shoulder to shoulder with soldiers from Montreal or Kansas or Tbilisi or any other of a legion of places she'd never see.

But the Army helos were green or, if they were one of the newer ones, that weird digital camouflage pattern that was so easy to see, it might as well have been hot pink. This one was a silk gray that matched the tenor of the sky. The angles of the airframe were different, softer and more numerous, a deft series of geometrical tweaks that made her eye want to slide right off it. Army Black Hawks flew rough, huge wheels dragging at the air, the shuddering cabin making all inside sore, tired, and vaguely sick after just a few minutes in the air. This helo was as smooth as a bullet. No lights. No weapon pods. No markings of any kind.

She could feel Yakecan digging in his pockets, jostling her as he searched. "Mighta left my field glasses in he--"

"Don't need 'em." Mankiller cut him off, elbowing him back. Just as there was an art to squinting, there was an art to seeing too, and the two were closely related. She squeezed her eyes shut more, shrinking the light down further. Her peripheral vision vanished, but in the tunnel that remained, all was made clear.

It took her a moment to reacquire the helo, but once she did, it looked much as she'd expected. The huge bay doors were open, a gunner hidden behind the hardpoint affixed to the airframe. Mankiller could see the telltale lined cylinder of a minigun barrel, the long cable of the ammunition feed snaking inside.

"Is it military?" Yakecan asked.

"Looks like a Black Hawk, only four times the size," Mankiller said. "Loaded for bear. They have twenty-mil cannons on your ride in Iraq?"

"Yeah," Yakecan said. "Vulcan or some shit. That what's on there?"

"I count two. Guns out. Barrel's moving a bit; someone's harnessed up and watching. Good thing we got cover."

"What, did a war break out in Canada?"

"Not as far as I know."

"Well, shit. Is it American?"

"How the hell am I supposed to know?"

Yakecan sounded frustrated. "Well, what flag's on the tailboom, boss?"

"No flag."

"There's always a flag."

"No flag. No number. No nothing."

"That's some spy shit."

The tenor of the rotors changed from a dull thudding to a higher-pitched whirring, the blades sounding almost frantic as they took on more load.

"It's comin' down," Mankiller said.

Yakecan crowded up toward the gap in the sticks again. "Why?"

"'S a transport," Mankiller said. "Probably lettin' folks off."

"Why the heck would they let folks off here?"

The helo sank lower and lower, so fast that Mankiller's stomach dropped a little, just as it would have had she been inside during so rapid a descent. It was a skilled pilot who could lower a bird that big that fast without crashing it, but it wasn't a pilot overly concerned with the comfort of their troops.

The pilot stopped the descent roughly fifty feet off the ground, jerking the airframe so hard that it practically bounced, making Mankiller wince. Ropes came flying out of the airframe, three to a side, thick black hawsers covered in some kind of fabric that she guessed would make them quiet as a whisper. A moment later, the first of the operators came down them. They were uniformly dressed in white, trousers bloused into combat boots, tactical vests and packs, carbines and pistols with enough mods and add-ons to make any holster-kisser drool. All were painted the exact color of the snow around them, slashed through with gray that mirrored the landscape. Even using her squinting trick, it was hard for Mankiller to focus on them.

Yakecan couldn't miss them now. "What the..."

The men reached the end of the ropes, dropping into the snow, guns coming up to the low ready, spreading out from the circle of the helo's rotor wash. She'd seen armed professionals execute the same maneuver every day in the war. These people knew their business. But the soldiers she knew had worn patches on their sleeves, flags of the nations that paid for all the expensive gear they carried. These operators were utterly unmarked, the gray-white surface of their parkas and tac vests marred only by the straps that held their ammunition and armor.

With a click, the belly of the airframe swung open, issuing a grinding roar almost as loud as the turbines spinning the rotors. Military transport helicopters usually offloaded from the ramp in the back, and Mankiller watched in shock as a giant metal cage lowered directly out from the bottom of the airframe, sinking slowly earthward on a thick metal cable. Somewhere in the cabin, there had to be a capstan, a winch, and one hell of a motor.

She looked at the helo's modified airframe, the gear on the operators moving out beneath it. The metal winch and cable. All customizations off aftermarket military hardware. Whoever outfitted this mission had an awful lot of money.

The cage thudded into the snow, the cable detaching and hauling skyward.

Yakecan didn't even bother speaking now. He stared, jaw open so wide, his chin disappeared below the parka's zipper.

The operators had turned. They were pointing their weapons inward now, at the cage.

She did her squinting trick, brought it into better focus.

It writhed.

For a moment, she had the crazy idea that it was filled with fat, gray snakes, giant pale worms, sliding and crawling over one another, but a moment later, her vision came into full focus and she saw they weren't worms. They were people.

The cage was packed with people straining and clawing at the bars.

"Jesus," Yakecan crossed himself. "Are they naked?"

"Yeah," Mankiller said. "All of 'em."

"They'll freeze. Ten minutes tops."

"No," Mankiller said. "I don't think they will."

The people in the cage were naked, but their skin was the color of old fish, the dirty gray of the snow on a well-used highway.

Their eyes burned. Like the wolf.

A shape appeared in the cabin door, leaning on the gun hardpoint. Now that Yakecan was looking at the cage and the ring of operators around it, he found the helo easily, eyes tracking up as the last of the cable winched in and disappeared inside the cabin. His eyes were wide enough already, but they looked like they were going to pop out of his head when they settled on what Mankiller was seeing.

"Is that a... a guy in a suit?"

"Yup," Mankiller said.

"His head looks like a lightbulb."

"He's got a white hood on, or a mask or somethin'. It's stretched over his face."

"Wilma, what the hell is going on? This is the weirdest damn thing I've ever seen in my life."

Mankiller nodded, put her hand out for the rifle. "We're going back to town. We'll come back for the ATV later. I don't want to be throwin' up that much noise now. We'll walk."

Yakecan looked grateful for the chance to put distance between himself and the spectacle outside their crude shelter. He immediately turned to scramble out from beneath the woven canopy of broken branches and ice, crouching as he made his way up the gulch's far side. "You think they see us?" He whispered.

If they do, there ain't much we'll be able to do about it, Mankiller thought, but she said nothing. They hadn't brought snowshoes, relying instead on the ATV's broad tires. Now, hurrying on foot, they crunched and plunged through the crust on the surface of the snow with each step, making so much noise that it seemed to Mankiller they'd be heard even over the rotors. Her shoulders tensed with every step, waiting for a shot to ring out, to hear footsteps coming behind her.

But in the end, there was nothing, and before long, the rotors were fading in the distance and she and Yakecan entered a stand of stunted trees, following a winding logging trail that would see them back to Fort Resolution in an hour or so.

Mankiller plunged on in silence. There was a rhythm to labor, a drumbeat that reminded her of drum gatherings, or the beats they played at hand games. Following that beat let her lose herself in work, feeling only the steady pulsing of her feet crunching on the snow, rather than her aching legs, or the cold nipping at her nose.

But Yakecan had no ear for that rhythm. Fast and strong as he was, he didn't like hard work, and Mankiller could always tell when he was avoiding it. It was the same when he was frightened, or hurting, or almost anything else. He talked. He talked and talked and never stopped.

"Boss." Yakecan sounded winded, the snow sucking at his boots, sapping his strength as much as it did hers. "What the hell just happened?"

"I don't know."

"Yeah, but..." Yakecan began. There was more to the stuttering cadence of his speech. He wasn't just winded; he was hesitant, timid. He was deeply frightened.

Mankiller didn't blame him. So was she.

"Who were they? What do they want?"

"Nothing good," Mankiller said. The light sputtered in the trees around them. The sun was going down, and it wouldn't be long before the temperature plunged. "Come on."

Copyright © 2017 by Myke Cole


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