Team Vanguard - Chapter One
 

TEAM VANGUARD

By

Joseph Buckmaster

CHAPTER ONE

CYBORGS AND SHURIKEN

 



"You know" quoth the Raven, " If it wasn’t for the fact that we are encased in a steel shipping crate, sweating our butts off, I’d say this was almost like old times."

Shadow Walker looked up from his task of meticulously carving symbols from the I Ching into the hood of a tractor. "What are you talking about, Katsuhiro? This is better than old times; this is for real." He retracted the steel claws into his gauntlets and adjusted his facemask. "I mean, yeah we’ve got a gang problem in Chicago, but it’s nothing like what Prefect Chang is up against here. Just about everyone that isn’t a Normal in this part of the world is a gangster, a government agent, or both." There was an ominous banging from outside the container, mixed with guttural whispers. Shadow Walker (known to his few good friends as Tatsunoko, or sometimes just plain Tom) looked across at Raven.

"Let’s give ‘em another couple of minutes. Sounds like they’re breaking open the next crate over." Tom checked that his throwing spikes were good and loose in their sheaths, ready to be flung through the first available target. "Anyhow, we both owe Chang for putting us onto that shipment of counterfeit yen that the Japanese Mafia was trying to pass."

"Yeah, I know. But this is payback, and then some." Raven slid off the hood and unlimbered his Cyberdyne Mk 6 plasma rifle, jacking the interface plug into the pale, dead flesh of his right hand, a faint hum audible as his systems came online. "We were supposed to be having some fun, not single-handedly cleaning up Kowloon Bay."

You could almost hear Shadow Walker smiling underneath the matte black ninja mask. "Are you saying that’s not fun?"

"You know what I mean...We were supposed to get away from this lifestyle for a while."

The ninja made a pistol out of his finger and pointed it at Raven. "Let us not beleaguer the fact that you may have arrived at an inopportune moment." He said in a gravelly voice. " The fact is...you’re here."

The banging outside the crate was getting louder. Raven shook his head. " It’s almost like these guys are asking to get caught; Chang could probably hear them in Victoria."

"I know it’s not much of a challenge, but just think of the looks on their faces when they find out the container that they were hoping contained t.v.s and vcr’s is actually full of whoop-ass." There was a loud whang! from outside as the would-be thieves struck off the customs seals. "You ready? This shouldn’t take too long."

Raven tested his targeting laser against the wall of the box. "Yeah, let’s go. At least Chang isn’t making us do the paperwork."

Shadow Walker and Raven settled back and waited. More banging from outside; muted whispers as the thieves argued about who would open the crate. With a loud bang and creak, the rusty hinges swung slowly open, revealing five inquisitive faces peering into the darkness as they attempted to make out what this particular box held.

Shadow Walker leapt like a tiger, lashing out at two crowbar wielding thugs, sending them both to the cold steel deck of the ship with a vicious scissors kick. He recovered from his leap and spun around just as Raven, leaving a streak of oaths and obscenities trailing behind, came bounding out of the box. Two other thugs were reaching under their cheap leather jackets; Raven blew out their kneecaps, the pale blue plasma bolts instantly cauterizing the flesh that they had vaporized split seconds before.

Shadow Walker reached the last thief just as he was about to go over the side of the ship, leaning out and snagging him by the back of the shirt before he could fall too far. He yanked him up onto the deck and dealt him a light tap to the side of the neck, like he was brushing off a fly. The man fell over unconscious.

Raven came over as Shadow Walker was collecting their I.D.’s. "Someday, you’re gonna have to teach me how to do that."

"What, that neck tap thing ? Oh, that’s an old family secret. Can’t teach it to anyone who isn’t part of the "Family".

"I hope they’ll make an exception for me." Raven looked around at the aftermath. "Well, you were right about one thing."

"That is ?"

"The look on their faces was priceless."

"Best two out of three."

"Raven, c’mon... you lost fair and square. Besides, you got the shower first last night." Shadow Walker set down his black duffel and flicked the keycard out of his wallet. He looked around at the hotel hallway; not the finest hotel in Hong Kong, to be sure; but when you were a member of Vanguard, Chicago’s premiere super hero team, you really couldn’t afford to be flash. Being a ninja and traveling with a person who was supposedly dead but inexplicably was still walking and talking didn’t help much either. The ninja slotted the card home and walked in.

The interior of the room matched the general drabness of the hotel - the plain fixtures and minimal decor betraying the fact that this was a place where people stayed a night, maybe two, and got the hell out. They had been here almost two months, and almost daily Tom wondered how many transient businessmen had flopped down on his bed at night after a hard night of drinking.

As if reading his mind, Raven grabbed a Tsingtao for each of them from the small, utilitarian fridge and collapsed on the other bed in the room, turning on the television while he waited his turn for the shower. Tom drained half his bottle while he undid his bootlaces, glancing up occasionally to see what was on. Finally, Raven settled on a program about military aircraft and new developments in the industry.

"Why do you like that stuff so much, Katsuhiro ?"

Raven took a swig of the bitter Chinese beer. " The interface between man and machine is at its purest in the cockpit of a jet. I learned that watching the pilots at the airbase in Japan when I was growing up. Have you ever read "High Flight" ?"

"No, I’m not too familiar with American poetry."

Raven closed his human eye and recited:

"I have slipped the surly bonds of earth,

and danced on laughter - silvered wings;

flung my eager craft through footless halls of mirth,

and done a thousand things

you have not dreamed of."

"That’s how it’s supposed to be. Technology is supposed to make you free, not tie you to the earth when you should be gone."

Tom couldn’t help but notice the bitterness in his friend’s voice as he spoke. He looked Raven over as he sat there watching the rollout of the prototype Advanced Tactical Fighter. The delicate tracery of cables and circuits was visible under his pale, blue tinged skin; puckered scar tissue erupted from the surface where he was shot countless times covering his wounded partner in a gang jihad last year. Raven swung his head around and looked at Tom; one eye belying the humanity in him, while his cybereye covered in a mirrored lexan shield mounted into the orbital ridge made a mockery of it.

"Don’t get to feeling sorry for me, Tom. I knew what I was doing when I ran in there to save my friend. I just didn’t know what the consequences would be."

Tom got up and headed for the shower. "Would you have done it if you did know what was going to happen to you ?"

"In a heartbeat."

Tom shook his head and smiled, walking into the closet that passed for a bathroom in this particular part of Hong Kong. He started up the hot water and stripped off his black turtleneck, exposing the livid white scars running up and down his chest. As the room filled up with steam, he trailed his fingers down and across the scar his brother Hiro gave him in their last battle, where he came within an ace of having his guts spilled out on the cold streets of Chicago. He had to kill him; in a way, it was an act of mercy, a way of saving his soul before he did anything worse than killing their father. He wiped the steam from the mirror, thinking about what Raven said. The scar ended just where the hard muscles of his stomach tucked themselves into his groin. One good thing about Vanguard, he thought - their health coverage kicks butt, and with a surgeon on the team, you can be sure someone’s gonna put the pieces together again.

"I guess people like us are just destined to be heroes." he sighed to his reflection as he got into the shower.

Night in Kowloon city, Raven reflected as he walked down the howling, narrow streets with Shadow Walker, is a great deal like Mardi Gras in the middle of a hurricane - people running around, laughing, shouting, jostling one another as they ran after the next drink, the next woman, the next dose of sensation.

Shadow Walker, still dressed as a slightly menacing tourist in his black turtleneck, black BDU trousers and boots, pulled up short near a dilapidated storefront that advertised, among other things, the quality of the girls working there and the current drinks specials. They both gave a quick glance at the bouncer outside: he was almost a meter across the shoulders, with the height to match it. Clearly not someone to mess with; he was busy turning away the prospective clientele with no more than a glance and a snarl.

"I guess that’s Chang’s new boy." Shadow Walker said as he hefted the duffel over his shoulder into a more comfortable spot.

"Why the hell would she set up shop in the cheapest, sleaziest bordello in Hong Kong ?"

"Trust me, Raven. This isn’t the cheapest or the sleaziest whorehouse in Hong Kong. I’ve been in worse."

Raven started walking towards the bouncer. "Some things are better left unsaid, man. I worry about you."

Shadow Walker stepped up next to the slab of meat that guarded the door, and automatically sized up the guard for what he was: Big but slow, an easy target for a nerve strike; but God help the man who got into the range of those immense crushers that passed for hands. He looked like he could snap bricks in half with the slightest turn of his wrists.

The bouncer glared down at Tommy and Raven like they were two amusing insects on the ground at his feet.

Tom looked up at the man. " We’re here to see Miss Chang."

A deep voice seemed to struggle up from somewhere in the guards’ chest. "You two don’t look like her regular clientele."

"We’re from Chicago." Sign and countersign, just like in the old spy movies, Raven thought. Kim Chang must be pretty damn worried if she went through all this ritual just for a safe house.

You could almost see the wheels slowly turning in the spaces behind the bouncers eyes. Something clicked into place, and he cracked a crooked smile. " Go on inside. Knock at the first door on the left and stand on the x on the floor; she’ll buzz you in."

Tommy and Raven maneuvered themselves around the huge man and walked into a dirty, ill-lit hallway. Empty beer bottles and torn open sacks of garbage littered the passage; the whole place smelled like a urinal.

There was a spot scraped clean of refuse in front of the first left hand door; someone had made a big X with silver duct tape. They both stood on the spot and knocked, looking up at the lens of the security camera hidden in the shadows above the doorway.

A click as an intercom switched on; "Oooh; Hello, boys!" said a voice, feminine and sultry, the greeting of madams the world over.

"C’mon, Kim; open up." Shadow Walker said. "This place isn’t smelling any nicer."

The door buzzed and a loud metallic snap indicated that the huge deadbolts had been drawn back. Raven pushed the door open and let Tom walk in first.

If it wasn’t obvious from the outside that this place was once a house of pleasure, the interior of Kim’s temporary office left no room for doubt. Thick scarlet curtains hung from the windows. Red velvet couches and chairs were scattered about the room. Behind a monstrosity of a desk at the back of the room sat Kim Chang, Prefect of Police; her face lit by the glow of a computer screen.

"Have a seat, guys; let me just finish this report." Raven looked over at her; about five foot nothing, black hair cut in a bob; smooth, perfect skin and the cutest nose he had ever seen on a woman. She looked more like a supermodel than the type of person to order someone’s legs broken because they had overstepped the bounds of what, in Hong Kong, was called "commerce".

Shadow Walker pulled up on the garish red couch nearest to her desk, while Raven wandered about the room, wondering what some of the more outlandish devices hanging from the walls were for. He decided that there were some things he really didn’t want to know and shlumped down on the couch next to the ninja.

Kim finished her typing, pressed a few more keys to save her work, and turned to face her visitors. She was dressed in a black bodysuit with the symbol of the Kowloon P.D. sewn over the left breast; pouches and holsters containing cuffs, binders and sundry police supplies hung from a utility belt at her waist. Kim Chang was all business.

"Well, thanks to you guys, we now have an "in" with the Kai Tak gang. Smuggling, extortion, highjacking shipments - small time stuff, really; but those thugs you rousted last night rolled over on their friends, so it’s only a matter of time before we can turn the Docklands inside out and shake these lowlifes off." Kim leaned across her desk and pulled a cigarette out of a silver case, lighting it with a gaudy apparatus that was obviously part of the room before she got here. "O.K., next problem. Have either of you ever heard of a group called Jin Bu Zin ?"

"Sorry, not my language." Raven looked at Shadow Walker. "How ‘bout you?"

Shadow Walker tilted his head back and searched his memory. "Jin Bu Zin...Enter the darkness ? Is that it ?"

Kim blew out an immense puff of smoke. "Yeah, that’s it. Enter the Darkness. It’s a pseudo- religious group, usually seen in airports handing out flowers. Publicly, they’re pacifistic; never had any trouble out of them... Nice, quiet people. They’re a biggish group, we estimate that their total membership is slightly upwards of thirty thousand spread out all over the Orient. They have temples in every major city; Friday is their holy day, you can sometimes see them streaming in wearing their white robes."

"So they’re a mildly annoying, if harmless group. What’s the big deal ?" said Raven, helping himself to one of Kim’s smokes.

"We’re worried about a couple of things." She continued. "First, they’re run like a secret society; there’s the Outer circle, the ones who hand out literature, ask for donations, and pester people to join them. And then there is the Inner Circle. These guys are practically unknown to us; they make all the decisions, send their disciples here and there on errands, and stay so perfectly anonymous that we haven’t got above 3 pictures and a handful of contact reports on them. The leader of the "cult" is a gent named Yun Shou, and we know damn all about him, aside from the facts that he’s around 35, has several wives, and he’s charismatic as hell. I’ve heard a tape of him; give him about fifteen minutes, he could talk a group of nuns into becoming crack whores."

"Secondly, we’ve become a lot more sensitive lately to the fringe religious groups that spring up now and again in this part of the world. We used to have this impression that they were all pretty harmless, but Aum Shinryoko proved us wrong."

"That was the group that used nerve agents on the Tokyo subway, right ?" Shadow Walker leaned forward from the couch.

"You got it. I mean, who would have guessed that a bunch of old Japanese hippies, who believe in levitation and reincarnation and God knows what else, would have been capable of killing a couple of thousand people because they thought it was time to "clear the earth"? The death toll would have been a lot higher, but we got lucky."

"How so ?"

"Because Aum Shinryoko had a lot of people who liked to believe some pretty strange things, but none of them were "Professional". If they had a couple of good chemistry students in their ranks, maybe someone who worked in the industry, they would have wound up killing a lot more people. Jin Bu Zin is a totally different animal - they deliberately recruit professionals, college grads and the like into their organization. We have a partial member list stolen from their temple in Seoul, and not one of the names on that list made less than forty five thousand, American, per year. These are people who have the brains and facilities to do things."

"Third, the head of the Maritime office in Kowloon Bay sends me a list every morning of who’s at anchor and what their cargo is."

Raven snorted. "How much does that cost you ?"

Kim lit another cigarette from the end of the first. " Let’s put it this way; he’s got four kids, and they’re all going to college. But it’s well worth it to know who’s holding what when you have shipments being hijacked on a regular basis. Anyhow; this morning there was a listing for a small container ship, the Tinian Maru, 4000 tons. The registry has its cargo marked as "Agricultural supplies", bound for Vancouver, B.C. The owner of the ship’s parent corporation is one Tae Jong Il whose company makes, among other things, lab equipment and supplies for government biochemical laboratories.

"This morning, several men were reported leaving the ship with freshly shaven heads and white robes."

"Man, I keep telling you, I’m not designed for this type of action." Raven and Shadow Walker were in the back of a nondescript van parked at the end of the wharf; the sun had already set behind Beacon Hill, and the last frayed edges of light were glittering on the water a few meters from the vans back door. Tommy was busily pulling on a wetsuit and strapping his gear to his arms and legs. Raven looked at his wetsuit grimly. " Seawater plays hell with my systems...I mean, I won’t seize up or anything, but mixing water and electricity has always been a bad idea."

"Look, don’t make this any more difficult than it has to be. Kim had a hard enough time getting us these wetsuits from the SEAL base; there was no time to arrange a Zodiac boat." The ninja grimaced at his friend. " We volunteered for this, so there’s no use complaining now. We’re gonna get wet one way or the other; if you don’t like the damn wetsuit, go naked for all I care."

"Alright already, Tom. You know me; I ain’t happy unless I can complain about something." Raven started pulling on the tight neoprene suit, taking care to leave room around his interface plugs. "So... basically, all Kim wants us to do is get on board and nose around, right ?"

Tom stood in the cramped space of the van to zip himself up. "You got it; a simple sneak and peek. Avoid contact." He started attaching weapons to various points on his suit; a small utility belt went around his waist, laden with matte black throwing stars, weighted chains and the like. Across his back he strapped a small SCUBA cylinder, with a scabbard rigged to the side to hold a short ninja-to.

Raven looked him over; Shadow Walker appeared to be a man - shaped mass of black rubber and sharp weapons, something that could conceivably bounce around and slice things up- sort of like a superball with razors sticking out.

"Well, I can see you’re not taking chances." Raven said archly. "Hand me a few of those stun grenades."

Shadow Walker tossed over a pair of the small spheres. "You’re not planning on actually using those things, are you ?"

Raven hooked them onto his harness and stood up. "Only if I have to. I mean, seeing as how I’m not a shadow warrior who can cut peoples’ heads off and have them still wondering what happened when they hit the ground, I may have to resort to stunning them stupid before I strike."

Shadow Walker shook his head. "Ready ? The sooner we get this done, the sooner we’re out. This time for sure."

"Geez, where have I heard that one before ? At least the water here should be warm."

Shadow Walker gave a cursory look out the one way windows mounted on the van’s back door. It was full twilight, no one around except for a few workers straggling down the street a few hundred yards distant. The Tinian Maru was riding at anchor out in the bay, no more than a half mile out.

"Ready...." The ninja put his hand on the latch; he could feel Raven tensing up beside him, the air already whooshing from his respirator.

"GO!" He twisted the latches and flung the doors wide open; Shadow Walker and Raven leapt into the warm saltwater at the foot of the wharf, bobbing up and down for a few seconds while they got their bearings.

Shadow Walker waved his hand at Raven, pointing first at the ship, and then down: no surface swimming, underwater to the target. Raven seemed to be having some trouble with his mask; it didn’t seal properly around his face because of all the implants in his skull. Finally he waved back at the ninja and duck - dived under.

Shadow Walker turned around looked behind; Raven was swimming deeper than he was, and lagging behind. He waited for a few seconds to let him catch up. Raven gave him the O.K. sign and they started to go again, smooth movement through the tepid water of the bay.

The ninja marveled at the sights around him - the shimmering schools of fish, darting away at their approach; the graceful flying motion of skates and rays along the bottom. This was totally different from the combat swimming lessons he received as part of his ninja training, where the emphasis was on controlling your breath and reaching the target; this was freedom, immersing yourself in a warm, wet alien world of darkness while creatures you had only seen in books and on T.V. flitted past.

Raven was still thrashing away next to him, his face under the mask grimacing or grinning; Shadow walker couldn’t tell. He looked at his watch; they couldn’t risk bringing a waterproof flashlight, so they had to swim by dead reckoning. The bottom was quickly dropping off; about another 200 yards - presuming they hadn’t gotten turned around.

They heard the loud, insistent buzz of an outboard motor coming up from the left. Without any light it was hard to tell. Raven shook Shadow Walker’s arm and pointed down: no sense getting cut up by the prop. They swam deeper until they heard the boat pass right overhead; Shadow Walker pointed and shook his head indicating that he would go up and risk a look.

The ninja poked his head above the surface, bobbing up and down while he took a quick look around. Lights from the other boats in the bay cast flickering shadows across the small chop. Dead ahead lay the Tinian Maru, a small landing stage fastened to the lee side of the ship; the craft that had passed by was heading off down the bay. He dove again, back down to Raven.

They both swam up, aiming for the landing; it was a simple construction, basically a wooden platform lashed to a pair of empty 55 gallon drums, a jointed metal ladder reaching up into the side of the ship. Treading water, Raven and Shadow Walker stripped off the air cylinders and lashed them to the side of the drums. Crawling slowly up onto the stage, they stopped for a moment in the partial shadow of the ladder.

"Well, that wasn’t so bad..."Raven whispered. "What next ?"

"We go in and have a look around. But first..." Tommy knelt down on the rough wooden planks and closed his eyes. Breathing slowly, he began twisting his hands and fingers into the eighty - one positions of meditation, allowing him to free his mind from his body and liberate his senses. It was like feeling a silk ribbon slip out from somewhere in him; suddenly, he saw himself with his mind, kneeling in the darkness under the ladder, still breathing and contorting his hands. His mind flew upward, clinging to the side of the ship until it reached the rails.

The deck of the ship was made small by the clusters of steel shipping crates lashed to the floor with chains. His mind could see a few men walking the deck, the weak light of the crescent moon glinting off their bald heads and the barrels of the assault rifles they were carrying. Three walking the deck, while another five commanded the high ground around the bridge of the ship. From somewhere beneath the deck, he thought he could hear chanting and singing. His mind flew back down; it was dangerous to leave the body for more than a few minutes at a time.

Shadow Walker’s head rocked back as if from an immense blow, just as he reached the eighty first posture. He still knelt there with his eyes closed while his mind reassimilated itself into his body.

"Man, there’s some things about you that really creep me out sometimes. What was that all

about ?" Said Raven, trying to make himself smaller against the side of the ship.

Shadow Walker let out a deep breath. This kind of thing took a lot out of you, he reflected. "I was taking a look around with my mind. There doesn’t seem to be but eight sentries visible, topside. I heard a lot of chanting going on belowdecks, but that’s about it. Through the side hatch is our best bet."

"Well, here we go..." Raven muttered, clicking the fire selector switch on his rifle.

The ninja got up from where he was crouched and walked swiftly and silently to the jointed metal ladder. " You first. I did the scouting." he said to Raven.

Raven slung his rifle over his shoulder and started to climb. Fortunately, the person who built it had the foresight to pad the ladder so it wouldn’t scrape the paint off the side of the hull. Shadow Walker watched the railing up top while Raven climbed; he could hear the slow scuffle of feet from up there as the sentries walked their rounds.

Just as he was reaching for the top rung, Raven looked back down the ladder to see why Tommy wasn’t climbing. As he turned, the butt of his rifle clanged softly against the hull. The shuffling feet stopped; there was the ominous sound of a charging handle being drawn back as the sentry prepared to have a look.

Shadow Walker was already pulling his kaginawa from his belt, twirling the short grappling hook on its cord when the guard peeked over the edge. The inquisitive look on his face turned to shocked surprise as he flung the hook around the sentries neck, and with a sharp yank, pulled him over the side. The man had vanished from the deck as if he had stepped into a hole.

He caught the guard before he could hit the platform; the man’s rifle sling had gotten twisted in his robes. Snaking his arm around the sentries’ neck, he gave him a sharp blow to the side of the head; the sentry fell limp in his arms. Shadow Walker rolled the man under the ladder, and started to climb.

Raven was already crouched down in the dim passageway when the ninja glided in, silent as a ghost. They looked at each other and shook their heads.

Raven pointed down the hallway towards where he guessed the main hold would be. Shadow Walker made the hand sign for running overwatch, that peculiar, dancelike system of movement taught to police the world over. Weapons at the ready, the pair of them weaved and pirouetted down the hallway towards a heavy steel hatch at the end.

While Raven kept watch, Shadow Walker shook the latch: locked, of course. He inspected the steel frame to make sure there were no alarms attached, then flipped out a small bundle of picks from his belt. Bypassing the lock only took a minute, but any delay made him nervous; the sentries were armed and they probably wouldn’t be too well disposed to having a couple of strangers sneaking around their ship.

The lock gave with a click that sounded a lot louder than it actually was in the steel corridor. Shadow Walker waved for Raven to come back and get ready to go in, but Raven gave the signal to wait; he wanted to scan the area first.

He looked at the door, his cybereye glowing behind its lexan shield as the nitrogen coolant hissed over the surface; inside Raven’s brain, image processors were switching over to the infrared spectrum. He was surrounded by cool blue walls, the electrical conduits and pipes showing a pale pink glow behind them. He could see Shadow Walker crouching by the doorway, emitting waves of heat from his red body; beyond him was the hatch, and all he could see behind it was row on row of cold, blue steel boxes. Raven switched back to normal sight and the images faded into their regular shapes and coloring.

"We’re clear." He said in a hoarse whisper.

Shadow Walker nodded and squeezed some oil from a small tube on his belt onto the hinges; no sense in making noise if you don’t have to. He pushed the hatch open and stepped inside, Raven following close behind.

They were in the main hold, or one of its levels; immense steel containers, designed to be rolled on boxcars, were stacked floor to ceiling, white letters on the sides declaring them the property of Jong Il Agricultural supply, Inc.

"Jeeze...There must be at least a hundred containers in here." Raven whispered.

"We don’t have to check them all... Let’s get to it."

Shadow Walker stepped over to the nearest crate and used the edge of a stout throwing star to pry off the customs seal. "At least we don’t have to worry about replacing the seals - we’re just here to look."

"Yeah, it’s not like we’re stealing." Raven looked at the placard on the door of the crate. "According to this, what we got here is a Metsubo model 1100 Tractor. What’s really behind door number one ?"

"Cute." Shadow Walker said as he sprayed more oil onto the hinges, swinging them open.

In the dim light from the bulbs on the ceiling they saw boxes marked "Fragile- Glassware" stacked on pallets. Tommy stepped inside and tore an invoice off the top of a stack.

"Let’s see now... flasks, 1000ml, 500 count; Vacuum pumps, 5 each; vinyl tubing, 300 yards, with clamps..."

Raven looked over his shoulder at the list. "Nope... Doesn’t look like you could build a tractor with that stuff. Let’s check another one and get the hell out. I’m not liking this place too much."

They walked over to the next crate and broke off the seal. The placard said it was full of "Fertilizer, nitrogen based 30%" but inside they found cases of petri dishes and culture incubation equipment. "Seen enough ?" said Raven archly.

Shadow Walker bowed his head for a moment. "No. This actually proves nothing. This equipment could be used in cross - fertilization experiments, improving breeding stock; developing new strains of corn, for instance. The crates are mismarked, sure, but it doesn’t actually mean anything. We have to have proof."

"Let’s take a look further down the line, see if we can dig up something more interesting than glassware." Raven shook his head. "I still say it looks bad."

They walked further into the hold, away from the doors, and stopped by a container marked with a biohazard symbol; a refrigeration unit was hooked up to it. The placard said it contained frozen sperm and embryos, Bovine.

"This looks promising..." Shadow Walker broke off the seal and swung the crate open.

Inside, row on row of frost - coated boxes marked with the legend "Live Viral Culture - Level Four Hazard".

"Level four... Isn’t that like, Ebola ? That kind of thing ?" said Raven.

They were still staring at the red hooks of the biohazard symbol when the lights started clicking on above them.

"Oh, hell... This is what we’ve been waitin’ for..." Raven muttered, bringing up his rifle.

"Be silent. Maybe we can flank them and get out quick... this place is like a big maze."

"Yeah, but they’ve been in this maze before; we haven’t."

Shadow Walker put his finger to his lips and adjusted his mask. He waved Raven forward around the edge of the crate. Suddenly, he pulled him back. He could hear the tramp of feet clanging down the ramp that led to the hold; whispered orders in Chinese.

"They must have missed that sentry; we were in here too long. They’re probably looking for him. Can’t you do that mind thing again and see what’s going on ?"

"That would take too long... Quiet!" Shadow Walker noiselessly pulled his ninja-to from its scabbard and crept to the edge of the crate, waiting. Raven came up behind him, targeting laser flashing on the floor as he stood ready to fire.

There was the shuffle of feet around the corner; suddenly, Shadow Walker was out among the screams of the guards, his short sword flashing faster than the eye could see. Two robed sentries fell at his feet, their heads traveling on a few meters before they fetched up against the side of a crate. Raven charged around the corner and let fly a couple of shots at the fleeing guards; he noticed that one of their arms had come off at the shoulder, blood spraying from the stump.

"Let’s get out of here, man!" Raven said over his shoulder as he zipped past, heading for the ramp. Alarms were sounding all over the ship, the trample of feet getting louder.

Shadow Walker shook his head, looking at the corpses he made. He flicked the blood off his sword with a snap of his wrist and leapt up the ramp. He saw Raven crouched down near the hatchway, a hail of bullets zipping past his head, him firing back and cursing.

The ninja threw himself to the ground next to his friend; Raven had taken cover behind the body of the sentry that had lost his arm. A knot of guards was down the hallway, firing their rifles; he saw reinforcements coming up from behind.

"Alright, sweetheart, what now ?" Raven said, firing at the sentries.

"Easy..." Bullets were thudding into the body, turning it into ground chuck. "We escape. You still got those stun grenades ?"

Raven ripped them off the harness. "Yeah..."

Shadow Walker was unrolling a black, flexible strip from his belt. "When I say go, you throw those suckers." He formed the strip into a loop and attached a brass tube with a pull fuse to the bottom.

Shadow Walker squatted down next to the body, legs tensing for a spring. "GO!!!"

Raven dropped his rifle and stood up, pins hanging from his teeth as he threw the grenades at the guards. They went off with a deafening bang and eye searing flash. Shadow Walker leapt forward and slapped the loop on the steel hull next to him, yanking the fuse as he jumped back down.

The guards were thrashing around on the floor clutching their eyes; more white - robed thugs were running down the hallway toward Raven and Shadow Walker. The thermite loop went off when they were five meters away, but the concussion blew them over to the other side of the passageway. Shadow Walker jumped up and ran to the deeply pitted circle on the steel wall and struck it hard with an open palm; with a creaking tear, the steel plate dropped out of the hull, revealing open water 15 feet below.

Raven picked up his rifle and ran to the opening, leaping through in a long dive. Bullets were cracking and whining down the hall as the few guards still able to hold rifles regrouped. Shadow Walker followed Raven through the hole, his body arcing out into the air.

Down in the water, Raven was pulling towards shore with fast powerful strokes. Shadow Walker was running a close second; searchlights were skimming out over the surface, trying to hold them in their glare while the guards fired. Bullets started splashing in the water next to them, hurrying them towards the docks; but soon they were out of range. They splashed on for a few minute more.

"Hey... let’s catch our...breath for a second....Whew!" Raven wheezed.

Shadow Walker treaded water next to his friend. "You O.K. man ? You gotta stop smoking so much."

Raven reached into his wetsuit and pulled out a sodden pack of cigarettes; he tossed them away disgustedly. "So much for that... let’s get to shore and report to Chang."

Shadow Walker glanced around; he couldn’t hear any boats coming after them, but that didn’t mean that there wasn’t going to be any soon. " Let’s go, bud. We got a long night ahead of us." Tommy started swimming again. "You know, I’ll bet we’re gonna see the Tinian Maru again real soon."

Raven nodded his head as he swam next to Tom. "Hey.. I need a favor..."

Shadow Walker couldn’t help a laugh. "You’re asking me now ? Can’t it wait till we get to

shore ?"

" No, man, it can’t. I need to hear it now, while we are still in imminent danger to life and limb."

"Anything; just name it already !"

Raven smiled. "Next time, I get to pick where we go on vacation."


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joebuck
Novel / Novella
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Team Vanguard...Keeping insurance rates sky - high since 1991!
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Synopsis
Team Vanguard Chapter One - Raven and Shadow Walker, on vacation in Hong Kong, stumble across the threads of a plot to infect the world's food supply with a virus that would decimate the earth....
Published Date
4/15/2003 12:00:00 AM
Published In
a defunct website called RFI - West
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