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July, 1991

Somewhere over Sierra Gordo

The C-130 Hercules transport rumbled through the night sky over the jungles of Central America’s most unstable nation. Ten years of civil war, revolution and counter-revolution had left the country in a state of near constant warfare. Luckily for the international commando force known as Action Force, it also meant that Sierra Gordo had almost no air force and very few air defence systems.

On board the transport were several members of the SAS Force unit. As Sparrowhawk checked everyone’s parachutes, Eagle was conferring with Quickfire, who was leading this mission. Inside a special sealed compartment in the plane Wireless, one of Z Force’s communications experts, was working on a computer. Next to him was SAS Force’s radio operator, Playback. The German was testing the radio set whilst Quarrel, the Z Force intelligence specialist was watching a monitor with a feed from an unmanned air vehicle that the Hercules had launched earlier. The recon drone was now flying several thousand feet below, and ahead of, the Hercules.

Sparrowhawk finished his parachute checks before putting one hand to the headset he wore and then shouted, “One minute!” to the commando team.

Quickfire and Eagle exchanged salutes before the German led his team toward the plane’s cargo ramp. As the ramp began to whine down, Bodycount glanced at Shade. The Asian martial arts expert looked nervous, even with her face covered by an oxygen mask and goggles. He gave her a thumbs-up, which she returned.

Although Shade had been in SAS Force for several years and was HALO jump qualified, she’d never performed a combat drop before and this mission was also her first jungle warfare operation.

The four commandos jumped from the plane and dropped toward the rain forest below.

As the team fell, Shade’s mind flashed back to their mission briefing.

Two days ago

Eagle stood before the four commandos in a conference room in Action Force’s London base.

“We’ve received intelligence from an agent in Sierra Gordo that Changeling may be in the country. As you all know, he is Cobra Europe’s master of disguise and we’ve never been entirely sure what he looks like. So, I know what you’re all thinking: How the hell do we know it’s him?”

Boonie chuckled as Eagle posed the question.

“Simple,” Eagle went on. “One of the leaders of the current counter-revolution in Sierra Gordo went missing a week ago and was reportedly killed. Three days ago, he reappeared alive and well. You might think; well maybe he just survived. Not really. His convoy was attacked and our agent says he was badly injured in the attack.”

“You think Changeling’s replaced him?” Quickfire asked.

“That’s the assumption, yes. The part we haven’t figured out is why? Cobra Europe’s never had any interest in Sierra Gordo before; it’s been the American Cobras who’ve been more interested in causing trouble down there, between secret weapon labs, selling Terrordromes and cutting deals with various groups. But the whys and the wherefores can wait. Command wants us to bag Changeling and see what we can sweat out of him.”

“So, we’re going in to bag him, then?” Bodycount asked.

“Affirmative. You parachute in, tab across country to the town where we believe he’s currently holed up and snatch him. A helicopter out of Punta del Mucosa will extract you.”

Bodycount rolled his eyes at the news the team would tab across the countryside. Although he was a former British Army paratrooper and had done his share of long-distance field-marches during the Falklands War, he had to admit he much preferred riding into battle in a jeep or an ATC and not having to waste time and energy walking 

“Mission executes in two days,” Eagle concluded.

Now

The SAS Force commandos popped their parachutes as they reached one thousand feet above ground. Winds blowing across the jungle canopy caught Bodycount and Shade’s parachutes, pushing them further west. Both tried to steer back toward the drop-zone, before having to give up and descend into another clearing.

Shade tried not to panic as she dropped closer to the jungle canopy. She’d been blown off course, was in a completely alien environment and had no idea what to expect.

What she certainly didn’t expect was to crash through a tree’s upper branches and get caught up four feet above the ground.

Shade swore inside her oxygen mask as she set about trying to free herself. Working quickly, the young woman pulled out a combat knife and cut loose her kit bag before she hacked through her parachute lines and dropped toward the ground.

Shade hit the ground hard, rolled and groaned in pain as she heard something crack inside her web-gear. Pushing herself up, Shade pulled off her oxygen mask and goggles. She felt inside her web-gear for her radio beacon. Pulling it out, the martial arts expert found out what had cracked; the beacon was broken.

Stifling another curse, Shade reached into another pouch on her web-gear and pulled out her radio. She flicked it on and pressed the transmit key.

“Shade to Eagle, do you copy?”

After a pause, she tried again. Then she heard Eagle’s voice.

“Bodycount, this is Eagle. We don’t have Shade’s beacon on the UAV. Do you see her, over?”

Eagle, Bodycount. Stand by one.”

Shade moved away from the tree, picking up her kitbag as she did. Shade took out her MP5SWF sub-machine gun and looked around. She spotted Bodycount approaching her, his night-vision monocle hiding his face.

“Eagle, Bodycount, I’ve found Shade. She appears to be intact,” she heard the soldier report.

Copy that.”

Bodycount reached Shade and smiled at her as he lifted his night-vision monocle away from his face.

“What happened to you?” he asked her, cradling his M16SWF assault rifle.

Shade pulled the broken beacon out of her web-gear. “I crashed through that tree and broke my beacon when I fell. My radio seems to be damaged as well. I could hear you and Eagle talking, but when I tried calling him, he didn’t hear.”

Bodycount sighed and shook his head, “Not good,” he commented.

After setting down his kitbag and rifle, he pulled out his combat knife. “I’ll cut your chute down, you keep watch.”

Shade nodded and knelt down near the tree as Bodycount scrambled up its trunk. This was not how she’d ever thought she’d spend a mission…

1984

Tokyo, Japan

Aki Watsanabe sat next to her father, watching NHK’s evening news bulletin, in mounting horror.

“Tawaichu national radio and television are now off the air, following the announcement by Baron Ironblood. The Tawaichu ambassador to the United Nations has denounced the Baron’s claims, stating that the peaceful nation has no law and order problems and would never ask for Ironblood’s assistance. The ambassador went on to appeal to the General Assembly for assistance in repelling this invasion of his nation.”

Aki began to weep, muttering, “Mum, mum, mum,” as she did.

Her father put his arm around Aki, trying to comfort her, despite his own fears for his wife.

Whilst there has been widespread international condemnation of the invasion, the fact that the Tawaichu parliament has been taken hostage has led to many nations refusing to commit troops.”

Two days later

Aki was walking along the corridor toward the school dining hall, with her friends Keiko and Mie, when Seiji ran up to her. The boy was in several classes with Aki and seemed to have a crush on her.

“Aki, have you heard the news?!” he shouted, before grabbing her arm and half-leading, half-dragging her along the corridor to one of the language classes.

Inside, some of the other students were watching the TV set normally used for watching foreign shows. On the screen was NHK’s lunchtime news bulletin.

“…Commandos were able to liberate the Tawaichu parliament members who had been imprisoned in a slave camp. This was followed by a lightning advance by the tanks and infantry of Z Force from the Chinese border. Tawaichu’s capital city was liberated in a matter of hours as the Red Shadows were forced to surrender in the face of overwhelming firepower. Reports on the final fate of both Baron Ironblood and his chief lieutenant, the man known as the Black Major, are conflicted. Some claim Ironblood and his top operatives attempted to escape by sea before being killed in a confrontation with Q Force, but other reports claim the mad-man escaped the area.”

Keiko and Mie hugged Aki and cheered as the bulletin went on. Aki struggled to hear more.

“Action Force troops are to remain in Tawaichu temporarily until the Red Shadow prisoners are deported from the country, which lacks sufficient detention facilities. It’s understood that they will also be providing some training for a newly reconstituted Tawaichu border force.”

Aki had never heard of Action Force before; her world as a fourteen-year-old girl had been mainly limited to her closest friends and her parents, but she knew now, she wanted to join Action Force.

1991

Sierra Gordo

Shade’s attention snapped back to the present as Bodycount climbed back down the tree, carrying her bundled up parachute. Working quickly, the commando stuffed the chute and the spent oxygen bottle and mask under a thickly growing bush before collecting his gear.

“Eagle, Bodycount, you read?” Bodycount asked as he looked up at the night sky. The faint starlight overhead left the area in darkness. Perfect for moving across the country.

Bodycount, Eagle. We’ve made contact with Quickfire and Boonie. They landed in the LZ and are moving out for rally-point blue. They will wait there for you to rendezvous with them.”

Bodycount pulled out a map of Sierra Gordo and stared at it as Shade peered over his shoulder. There were no markings on the map, nothing to give anything away in case they were captured. Bodycount looked at his compass before answering.

“Roger that, Eagle. Can you give me a steering for the RP?” Bodycount asked.

Ten miles north-east. Think you can make it?”

Bodycount snorted. “Yeah, sure. Might take a few hours in this terrain.”

Shade could still hear Eagle, but didn’t say anything as her radio was broke.

Shade, this is Eagle. You’re going to have to rely on Bodycount to communicate with us if your radio’s broken. If he gets incapacitated, you’ll have to take his radio and call us.”

“Gee, thanks for the vote of confidence, Eagle,” Bodycount said.

“I understand,” Shade said. The commando relayed the message before adding, “We’re moving out. I’ll get back to you if we have any troubles.”

Eagle acknowledged the reply and the radio went silent.

“Follow me and try to keep up.” Bodycount moved off at a fairly brisk pace, his suppressed assault rifle at the ready. Shade trotted after him. Once again, her mind drifted back in time.

1984

Japan

Aki threw a punch at her Ju-Jitsu instructor, who deftly blocked it.

“Better.”

Aki threw another, then tried a kick.

The sensei blocked both. “You’re definitely improving, Aki.”

Several months had passed since the invasion of Tawaichu, months Aki had spent improving her school grades and learning martial arts. Ju-Jitsu was her current focus, after spending several weeks attending a staff fighting class. When she wasn’t at school or studying, she was in martial arts classes. Her father was slightly worried about her, but had decided it was probably part of her way of coping with the scare she’d had; fearing her mother might die in the invasion of Tawaichu.

After another ten minutes, Aki’s class ended. She went in to the changing rooms to find Keiko sitting on one of the benches, apparently waiting for her.

“Hi, Keiko.”

“Hi, Aki.” Aki noticed Keiko didn’t look particularly happy.

“What’s wrong, Keiko?”

Keiko sighed. “You’ve been practicing martial arts all this time and we never spend any time together having fun. You didn’t turn up last weekend when we were supposed to go to the cinema together and you missed Dan’s birthday party last night.”

Aki shrugged. “I’ve been busy. You see me at school.”

Keiko looked sad, “Not as much as I used to. You’re always studying or rushing off to another martial arts class.”

“I’m training,” Aki said defensively.

Keiko rolled her eyes. “I know, you want to join Action Force,” Keiko said. “I suppose it’s good to have a goal in life, but you never have any fun.”

Aki glared at her friend. “Well, it wasn’t exactly fun for anyone when Baron Ironblood invaded, was it? I want to do my bit to protect my country and to stop Baron Ironblood and people like him.”

“You can do that when you’re older!” Keiko exclaimed. “You’re fourteen! Why don’t you worry about training and joining the army when you leave school?! Seiji was planning to ask you out last night, but now he’s out with Mie, because she was at the party last night, having fun with him!”

Aki’s expression grew darker. “Well, fine! She can keep him! I won’t have time for a boyfriend when I leave Japan and go home anyway! I don’t have time for any friends, so you might as well just leave!”

Keiko stared at Aki in horror, before running from the changing rooms, crying.

Now

Shade carefully picked her way through the undergrowth of the Sierra Gordo rainforest. Ahead of her, Bodycount was moving slowly, but steadily forward. He paused to look back at her.

Shade noticed he was frowning.

“You okay?” the British commando asked.

“Fine,” Shade replied tersely.

Bodycount’s frown deepened. “You sure? You look like you’re upset or angry.”

Shade glared at him as he stopped to look at her more closely.

“I was just thinking.”

“What about?” he asked, he sounded concerned.

“The past. Friends lost. Decisions I made.” She sighed. “It’s nothing.”

Bodycount looked like he was going to say something, before changing his mind and not speaking. He pulled out a canteen of water and drank some before offering it to Shade. She took it and drank a healthy amount before handing it back. Bodycount took another longer drink before speaking.

“If you want to talk about it, let me know. I’ve lost friends and regretted decisions I’ve made.”

Shade stared at him. “You regret joining Action Force?”

Bodycount shook his head. “No.” He looked at her as he handed the canteen to her. “Do you?”

She sighed, took the canteen and finished the water. “Sometimes.”

Bodycount took the empty canteen back and stuffed it back in his kitbag. “Well, if you want to unburden yourself when we get out of here, let me know.”

Shade shrugged. “Let’s get out of here first,” she said.

“Roger that,” Bodycount answered and moved off.

They made their way through the rainforest at a steady pace, Shade kept up with Bodycount, even though it was hard going sometimes.

Barely an hour after their brief stop, Bodycount halted Shade with a hand-signal. He then turned and waved her forward. Carefully she moved up to stand beside him.

“What’s up?” she asked.

He pointed forward. A sign was just visible ahead of them in the gloomy darkness.

Shade squinted behind her night-vision goggles. “I don’t speak Spanish,” she said. “What does it say?”

“I don’t speak Spanish either,” Bodycount replied. “But I can read a few words and one of the ones on that sign is ‘mines’. As in landmines.

Shade frowned. “What do we do?”

Bodycount pulled his radio beacon out of his webbing and handed it to her, then took out his radio and handed that over. “If I get blown up, call Eagle and tell him. Get the Hercules crew to steer you to a safe LZ and evac you.”

Shade took the beacon and the radio. “Are you going to try crossing it?”

“No,” Bodycount gave her a look that suggested he thought that was a stupid thing to say. “I’m going to try to find the edge of the field and see how big it is.”

As Shade watched, Bodycount moved cautiously forward, until he reached the sign. He carefully crept around the sign finding the edge of the tree line. Beyond the trees he could see that there was a wide expanse of open ground. Peering around warily, he found the field to be easily the size of four football fields combined.

He picked his way back to Shade and took the beacon and radio back off her. “It’s too big, we’ll have to go around it. Can’t risk crossing it.”

The pair struck off to the left of their original path, moving steadily through the undergrowth before turning back toward the direction they wanted and paralleling the minefield.

“Thank Christ we didn’t land in that,” Bodycount muttered.

The two soldiers kept on heading for their objective for another couple of hours before Bodycount called them to a halt. Both sat down and ate a couple of their ration packs’ energy bars before sharing a second canteen. Bodycount pulled out his radio an activated it.

“Eagle, this is Bodycount, do you copy?”

Bodycount, Eagle. Go ahead.”

“How’re we doing, boss?”

“You’re five miles from the objective. We expected you to be closer by now.”

“We had to detour around a minefield, chief. Kinda slowed us down a bit.”

Roger that.” There was a pause. “Boonie and Quickfire have just checked in. They’re four miles from Point Blue.”

“Copy that. We’re on the move, out.”

Bodycount tucked his radio back in his webbing gear.

“We’re five miles from Point Blue,” he told Shade.

“I heard.”

Bodycount nodded. “Right, well, we need to make up time. Follow me.”

They moved off at a much faster pace. As they did Bodycount asked, “So why’d Eagle pick you for this mission?”

Shade shrugged even though Bodycount couldn’t see her. “Beats me,” she replied. “I guess because he thought I needed more field experience. I’ve only been on a few missions.”

“Really?” Bodycount asked.

“Yeah, I’ve spent most of my time training Z Force infantrymen and SAS Force Attack Troopers hand-to-hand combat.”

Bodycount merely grunted in response.

As they continued, they came to a jungle trail. Bodycount took it since it was heading in their direction.

“It’s a risk,” he said to Shade, “But we need to make up time.”

The pair of SAS Force commandos were now actively running along the trail.

Suddenly, Bodycount halted near a curve in the trail and raised his hand. Shade halted next to him.

“Patrol up ahead,” he whispered. “Follow me.”

The two soldiers moved along the trail carefully, moving along the curve. Shade could now hear the soldiers’ conversing in Spanish. She couldn’t understand a word of it, however.

Rounding the bend in the trail, they saw four armed men ahead of them. They were dressed in black t-shirts and camo-pattern trousers. They were armed with a variety of weapons. Two had their backs to Shade and Bodycount. The other pair was standing facing each other.

“Shade, these Muppets have no idea we’re here,” Bodycount whispered. “Let’s take this nice and slow. You take the two on the right. On ‘three’. One… Two… Three…”

Bodycount fired his M16 dropping the first target with a single shot to the back of the head. The second gunman was turning toward the dead man as another single shot hit his right temple.

Shade fired her MP5 in burst mode, dropping her first target with three rounds in the back of the head. Her second target was faster turning, but took all three rounds in the face.

Bodycount had pivoted toward Shade’s targets as she fired her second burst. He lowered his rifle from its raised position in front of him. All four targets down in five seconds.

“Excellent.” Bodycount walked over to the dead gunmen. He knelt next to Shade’s targets. The bullet-holes in their heads were about the same size as a five pence piece.

“Nice shooting,” Bodycount said, as Shade approached. “I did wonder if you really knew how to use that thing,” he said waving his hand toward her weapon.

“Of course I do,” she replied, sounding offended.

“Well, you are a martial arts expert. No one told me you could shoot too.”

Shade smiled. “I was one of the best shots in my intake of recruits in the Tawaichu Army,” she said proudly.

Bodycount nodded, “Right. Let’s move.” He stood and began moving off down the trail and Shade ran to catch up to him. As she did, she thought back to her first days in the Army.

1988

Tawaichu

Aki Watsanabe had finished high school in Japan and returned to Tawaichu. She’d got top grades in English and Japanese language classes as well as maths, physics, chemistry and biology. She’d also spent the last four years mastering Japanese staff fighting, Ju-jitsu, Kendo and had also taken classes in Karate and Judo. Her father had almost disowned her when she told him she was returning to Tawaichu to join the Army.

Aki returned to Tawaichu and her mother supported her enlistment in the reformed Army of Tawaichu. Aki had gone through an orientation lecture, along with the other recruits, which had informed the seven women in the group that they could expect to be assigned to either the Signals Battalion or the Logistics Regiment. The men however, could expect assignment to either of those units, or to the three infantry regiments, the armoured regiment or to the Air Brigade. Aki was rather disappointed to hear that.

After several days of physical training, the recruits were finally given firearms training. Aki lay on her stomach on the firing line at the range. She lined up her target as the recruits had been instructed, then pulled the trigger of her M16A1 assault rifle and fired a single shot. The bullet punched a hole in the paper target, right through where a human heart would be. She fired off another four rounds, making the hole bigger as each hit.

The training sergeant was further down the line helping one of the other recruits to un-jam his rifle. Aki flipped the selector switch to semi-automatic fire, or burst mode, and fired off three bursts. The head of the target shape was ripped apart.

The instructor came over at that point and stared at Aki as she quickly flipped her rifle back to single-shot fire.

“Nice shooting Watsanabe. Come with me.”

Aki got up, a nervous expression plastered across her face.

The sergeant turned to the Corporal who was helping out and told him to carry on. The sergeant then led Aki across to a set of building shells. Bullet holes pocked several of the walls.

The sergeant had a vicious looking scar across his face, which made his smile look evil as he grinned at Aki when they reached the other range.

“Reload your rifle, Watsanabe, and pick up two mags,” the sergeant said, pointing to an ammunition box. Aki did as she was told.

“Once that gate opens, I want you to go in and start shooting the targets as they pop up. I’ll be up there in observation,” the sergeant pointed to a small box on stilts overlooking the range. “I’ll tell you what to do.”

Aki frowned as the sergeant walked off, but moved toward the gate.

The gate opened and Aki walked through, her M16 at the ready. As she turned toward the range, three targets popped up.

“Alright, Aki, start firing!” the sergeant’s voice rang out.

She quickly shot all three targets, firing from her shoulder, pivoting as she did.

“Area clear, move up!”

Aki ran forward to where one of the targets had been, as another five targets popped up. Three were Red Shadows. The other two were small children.

“Don’t hit the civilians!”

Aki fired, dropping each of the Red Shadows.

“Into the building!”

Aki ran forward, reloading her rifle as she ran, dropping the spent mag as she did. She entered the first building as more targets popped up. One civilian, three Red Shadows. She shot the correct targets.

“Up the stairs!” Aki ran across to a staircase that took her up to a higher level, where there were four moving targets on tracks. She managed to shoot two of the targets with one burst as they passed each other.

“Last area!” the sergeant’s voice boomed as she turned toward a large area where a window should’ve been.

“Jump down!”

Aki jumped down, hitting several sand bags, before quickly lining up her first target. Now there were six targets and four moving civilians.

She quickly shot the Red Shadow targets, hitting one civilian as she did.

“Sprint to the exit! Clock’s ticking!”

Aki dashed around the benches the targets were attached to and ran toward a gate with a green light over it.

She reached the gate and it opened, allowing her out.

“Sixty-two seconds,” the sergeant announced. “Not bad, but I bet you could do better. Reload and let’s go again.”

Aki reloaded the rifle and picked up another magazine. She stopped in front of the gate, took several deep breaths and then went through the gate.

Knowing what to expect, she shaved a full fifteen seconds off her first time. The sergeant made her run the course a third time and this time, she did it in thirty-eight seconds.

As she came out the last gate, the sergeant met her.

“That’s one of the best times I’ve seen a recruit do. I think I need to take you to see Colonel Choi.”

Colonel Choi, Aki soon discovered, was the head of the nascent Tawaichu Special Operations Battalion. The Spec Ops Battalion was going to be the elite arm of the Army of Tawaichu when it was fully stood up, Choi explained. It would be the only combat unit women could join. The battalion would be trained in demolitions, bomb disposal, sabotage, espionage, recon and close-quarter battle tactics. In the event of another invasion, the Spec Ops Battalion would be responsible for harassing an enemy force and doing its damnedest to make the invaders lives hell.

Once Aki agreed to joining the SO Battalion, she was returned to her recruit cadre. She spent the rest of the course learning basic infantry tactics, care and maintenance of her rifle, survival techniques for living off the land, first aid and land navigation both with and without maps or other aids.

Once the twenty-six week course ended, Aki and two male recruits were sent for SO training, whilst the majority of the other thirty-three recruits joined the infantry regiments.

At SO Battalion training, Aki discovered the course was being run by three foreigners. One was a former British Royal Marine; one was a former member of the US Army’s Special Forces whilst the third was an ex-French Foreign Legion member. All three had been hired by the Tawaichu government to help train the prospective commandos. They underwent training in setting up demolitions charges, bomb disposal, sabotage of vehicles, trains and infrastructure, like power-lines, bridges and tunnels. Recon training taught them to enhance their observational skills to be able to create maps and diagrams of installations. Their marksmanship was honed, whilst also learning sniper skills. The commandos also learned to operate in conjunction with air support, including helicopter assault tactics and calling fire support.

After ten weeks, the soldiers in Aki’s group were told they were flying to Britain for airborne training. Aki was excited by the news, as she’d never travelled to Europe before.

1989

Britain

Parachute training took the twenty prospective commandos another five weeks, as they learned static-line low-altitude, low-opening techniques, high-altitude high opening and high-altitude low-opening techniques. Before their return to Tawaichu, the commandos were invited to visit Action Force’s Birmingham operations base.

Eagle personally escorted the Tawaichu soldiers around the base, showing them the command room; the hangar facility where several Z Force and SAS Force helicopters were parked, along with a Q Force Sea Raven rescue helicopter; the garage where dozens of vehicles were parked, including Armadillo mini-tanks, Rapid-Fire bikes, Battle Tanks, Wolverine missile tanks, ATCs, Panthers and assorted other jeeps. Next came the medical facility and then the gym.

Aki stopped to look down into the main auditorium of the gym where a group of Action Force personnel were watching two others sparring.

Eagle noticed her, pausing to comment, “You a martial artist, Private?”

Aki nodded, “Yes, sir.” She looked down at the two commandos grappling in what she recognised as a Judo hold.

“I could probably kick both of their butts, since they’re doing that hold wrong,” she added.

Eagle looked down at the two men. “Well, they are new members. Sergeant Samson is probably teaching the beginners.”

A large muscular man was standing watching the two grapplers, shaking his head.

“Want to try yourself?” Eagle added. Aki nodded.

Five minutes later, changed into a black gi suit like the SAS Force members were wearing, Aki walked out into the gym. The watching Action Force troops were wearing a mix of black, green, yellow and grey gi suits. As Aki reached the edge of the kneeling students, she noticed a logo on the right breast of the jackets. Her gi had a dagger with the letters SAS through it. The green-clad members had a stylised red Z on theirs; the group in yellow had a stylised red Q whilst the group in grey wore an orange stylised lightning bolt on their jackets.

Samson was wearing a green gi. He looked strong, so Aki decided his designator was a codename not a real name, likely referring to the Biblical strongman she remembered hearing about.

“This is Sergeant Samson,” Eagle introduced him once more. “Former British Army heavy-weight boxing champion.”

“A boxer?” Aki asked. “So why are you teaching martial arts?”

Samson grinned, showing a couple of missing teeth and one broken one. “Cuz I’m the only ex-Army PT instructor Action Force has got.”

Aki nodded. “So, am I fighting you?” Samson easily weighed at least half as much again as Aki and was about six inches taller than her.

Samson shook his head. “Nope, I’m going to officiate. You’ll be fighting those guys,” he pointed to a pair of SAS Force soldiers, a Z Force trooper and a Q Force member.

“Each of them has a black belt in either Tae Kwan Doe, Judo, Jujitsu or Muay Thai Kickboxing,” Samson went on.

Aki nodded, “Okay.”

“What’s your black belt in?” Samson asked.

Aki laced her fingers, cracked her knuckles and then said, “Ass kicking, sergeant.”

Samson laughed as Aki walked forward, stepping past two of the other soldiers to enter the square ‘arena’ of padded mats.

Aki bowed to the four men, keeping her eyes on them as she did. They each returned the bow.

The Q Force member called out to Samson, “Hey, Sarge, what’s the rules?”

Samson laughed and then replied, “Last one standing wins. You go down, you’re out.”

“Cool,” the blonde haired man answered. He danced on his feet a bit, and then charged toward Aki. She dodged backward, watching his face. He threw a series of fast punches, which she blocked with ease. Jujitsu, she noted. Good.

Aki threw two feinting punches then hit him with a fast combination of a punch, a kick and a second punch. As he reeled back, she leapt into a kick and hit him in the stomach.

Aki hit the mat, sprang up and dodged aside as the Z Force soldier attacked. The Q Force guy was down. Aki blocked attacks from the burly black guy. He gave a wordless snarl as he grabbed her arm as she threw a punch.

Reacting quickly, Aki span into his chest and turned his momentum into a throw, dropping him on his back.

Now it was the two SAS Force commandos. The first to attack her was a guy with dark hair and intense eyes. He came at her with a series of moves that she either dodged or blocked. He didn’t let up and Aki spent a good minute fending him off, before she managed to duck under a punch and sweep his legs from under him.

The last guy was clearly the kick-boxer.

Aki had never fought a kick-boxer before and wasn’t sure what to expect. The red-haired guy attacked her with a roundhouse kick she leaped away from, before she darted back at him, hit him in the stomach and then grabbed him and threw him over her shoulder in a Judo throw.

Aki stepped away and bowed to Samson. Some of the other Action Force troops were applauding, but as Aki straightened up, she saw a blonde woman in a Z Force gi approaching.

“Aki Watsanabe, it’s a pleasure to meet you.” The woman had a German-sounding accent. “I am Quarrel.”

Aki nodded to her.

Quarrel stepped through the audience to face Aki. They bowed, keeping their eyes on one another, but as they straightened up, a voice hollered down from the gallery above the auditorium.

“Quarrel! Skip needs you in the command room, immediately!”

Quarrel turned to look up. “I’ll be right up.”

She turned back to Aki. “Another time, perhaps.

Aki nodded. “Indeed.”

Quarrel hurried off and Aki turned to see Eagle was conversing intently with Sergeant Wells, the former Royal Marine who’d accompanied the trainees.

Aki wondered what that was about, but headed for the changing rooms.

Tawaichu

Two weeks later

The first cadre of Special Operations Battalion troops graduated from training and was given their new green berets by Colonel Choi in a ceremony at the training camp. Aki wore her’s with pride as she entered Choi’s office two days after the ceremony. The shine hadn’t worn off the cap-badge on the front, despite Aki staring at it each night since. The badge was a simple one of two crossed M16s overlaid with a gold star.

“Colonel, you wished to see me?” Aki said, saluting.

“Yes. Eagle has requested you travel to Britain for Action Force’s new selection class. It seems Sergeant Wells spoke very highly of you to Eagle and he was impressed with your martial arts skills.”

Aki gaped at the Colonel before recovering and saying, “Yes, sir. Thank you sir.”

Choi smiled, “Don’t thank me, Private. You’ve done very well in your training, but Action Force’s training and selection is notoriously hard.”

Aki nodded, “Yes sir. I shall try to do my country proud.”

Choi nodded, “Of that, I have no doubt. Good luck, Lance Corporal Watsanabe.”

Aki looked confused as Choi stood, holding out two white chevrons.

“Sir?”

“SAS Force normally requires candidates to be a Sergeant. Eagle’s willing to accept a Lance Corporal. You’re being promoted forthwith.”

Aki took the chevrons and saluted. Choi returned the salute with a smile.

Sierra Gordo

Now.

Shade halted as Bodycount brought his hand up to signal her to stop. She carefully moved up next to him.

Light was visible over a small hill ahead. Bodycount turned to Shade.

“Let’s move up slowly and carefully. There’s nothing on the map to indicate what that light might be,” he whispered.

Shade nodded and they carefully made their way forward, crawling the last few feet to the brow of the hill.

Peering over the hill’s top, they could see a large farm straddling the trail below them.

Bodycount pulled out his radio.

“Eagle, this is Bodycount, do you copy?”

Bodycount, Eagle. Go ahead.”

“Eagle, our intel was off, there’s a farm straddling the trail Shade and I have been moving along. It looks occupied by a small force of unidentified troops.”

Stand by, the UAV’s en route to your position.”

Bodycount carefully peered through his scope as he went on. “I see dog patrols, soldiers with automatic weapons and what looks like medium or heavy machine guns.”

UAV is on-line. Stand by.” There was a pause as Eagle was obviously studying the feed from the aerial drone.

Looks like at least four perimeter patrols, each with at least one dog among them. Gun nest on the roof of the farm-house and one in the hay-loft of the barn.” Eagle paused before going on. “You don’t stand a chance in a fight against these guys. You need to go around them. Be careful.”

“Roger that, boss. Shame we didn’t bring any air support besides the damn drone.”

There was another longer pause, then Eagle said, “That’s a good idea, Bodycount. I’ll speak to Lightning when we get back about trying to arm the drone.”

Shade remembered Lightning was one of the members of the Special Weapons Force, Action Force’s R&D branch.

“Wait, what? I was thinking more along the lines of a Hawk or a Dragonfly,” Bodycount said.

Just get moving. Eagle out.”

Bodycount rolled his eyes as he turned to Shade. “I know you’re supposed to be a ninja, but follow me and don’t do anything stupid.”

Shade frowned but only replied, “I’m not a ninja.”

Bodycount ignored the comment and carefully got to his feet and began creeping forward, crouched down, staying close to the edge of the trail. Shade followed him.

They reached the area where the rain forest had been cut back and cleared, the trail becoming the edge of the farmyard.

Bodycount peered around, scooping out the locations of the patrols.

“Wait for my go,” he whispered. Then he dashed across the open ground to a small wall, dropping to one knee and hiding in its shadow. A patrol of two gunmen came around the corner of the farmhouse and walked past him, completely oblivious to his presence.

Again, the commando looked around, then turned back to Shade and waved her forward.

She sprinted across to the wall and dropped next to him. Again, he carefully peered around, before cursing under his breath and flipping his night-vision monocle away from his face.

“Goddamn lights,” he muttered.

Bodycount looked around. “There’s more cover if we go around the back. Keep a low profile and hold your fire. Try not make any sudden movements,” he whispered.

With that, he quickly scrambled over the wall and darted across to the side of the farmhouse. Shade followed him.

They slowly and carefully moved around the back of the farmhouse, crouching and moving delicately between a chicken house, a pigsty and scattered farm equipment. They finally reached another low wall, near a stable-block.

“Wait here, don’t move,” Bodycount said, He carefully edged his way along the wall and peeped around the end.

“It’s a bloody convention out here,” he muttered. “About eight guys. All standing around.”

Shade sidled her way along the wall to reach him. “What do we do?” she asked, barely making a noise.

“Patience, don’t do anything stupid,” Bodycount said, looking around carefully. “Hold here, we’ll wait for them to move.”

A few minutes past, as Bodycount carefully watched the group who were standing around talking and smoking. Finally they split up and started walking away.

“Okay, they’re splitting up. Good. Concentrate on the ones going north. We follow them quietly and pick them off if we need to.”

Shade nodded as Bodycount stood and began moving carefully after the two gunmen. She followed him.

The pair were halfway to the other side of the farm, when one of the gunmen stopped and turned around.

“We’re spotted, take them out!” Bodycount snapped. He brought his M16 up and shot the gunman. Shade shot the other.

A searchlight suddenly swung toward them as several voices shouted.

“Dammit,” Bodycount swore, switching his M16 to full automatic.

He turned, dropped to one knee and opened fire, cutting down several of the gunmen. Shade dropped next to him and began firing her MP5, dropping more.

“Brace yourself, Shade,” Bodycount said. She heard the ‘ping’ of a grenade being primed and then heard a brief grunt from Bodycount as he hurled it.

“Frag out,” he said as bullets whipped past them like angry birds. He threw a second.

Explosions lit the farmyard as the grenades detonated, sending several of the running gunmen flying.

Bodycount fired another two bursts, then quickly yanked out his magazine. “Cover me, I’m reloading.”

Shade fired two more bursts as Bodycount slapped the new magazine home and pulled the charging handle. He opened fire again as Shade announced, “I’m out, changing mag.”

She reloaded as Bodycount kept firing. He briefly stopped, primed and threw another grenade and then said, “Let’s move!”

They quickly stood up, turned and ran. The pair ran along the muddy track that their trail had been enlarged into before Bodycount led Shade into the undergrowth and slowed down.

The radio crackled. “Bodycount, Eagle.”

“Go ahead, Eagle,” Bodycount answered.

What the hell just happened?”

“We got spotted trying to get past the farm. We had to open a can of fire-fight to get away.” Bodycount stopped to look back toward the farm. “What’s the status of our pursuit?”

Your butts are clear,” Eagle answered. “They’re too busy trying to deal with their wounded.”

“Good, I think I probably killed at least twenty of them and injured another dozen or more. Looked like Shade got at least half that.” Bodycount looked at her, but she didn’t return his smile. “Enough casualties to give them second thoughts about following us, at any rate.”

Roger that,” Eagle replied. “You’re about a mile from rally point blue. Get moving. Quickfire and Boonie are already there.”

“Copy, out.” Bodycount took out his third canteen and drank some of the water, before offering it to Shade. She took it and drank a large amount of the water before handing it back.

“What’s with you and this body count business any way?” she asked.

The commando took another long drink before answering, “I’ll tell you when we’re back in Britain.”

With that, he stuffed the canteen back in his bag and moved off.

London, 1990

Shade crept along the narrow ledge at the side of the main sewer beneath the corporate headquarters of the Argent Corporation. She was grateful for the mask she wore over her face, since it blocked some of the foul stench of the sewer. Her all-black outfit made her nearly invisible in the darkness.

She stopped and pulled back her left sleeve, revealing a compass. She seemed to be in the right place. Shade took a small pen-sized torch from her pocket and shone it around. The door she needed was a foot away from her. She walked toward it, but stopped when the water rippled.

A Cobra Eel frogman exploded from the muck. Shade ducked, turning her face away, to avoid the splash of water and who-knew-what-else.

The Eel pulled off his rebreather mask as he levelled his spear gun at her.

“Nice day,” he commented.

Shade didn’t bother to answer; she simply leaped at him, kicking him in the chest. Landing on the opposite side of the sewer, she pivoted and kicked the Eel in the back, sending him stumbling forward. He tripped and fell face first in to the sewage.

Shade coughed and leaped back across the sewer and opened the door. Inside was a small maintenance room. She climbed into a narrow pipe and then up to a grate. Shoving the grate aside, Shade emerged into the women’s toilets.

Shade paused long enough to remove her mask temporarily and take a deep breath of fresh air. She pulled the mask back on and strode to the door.

Peering out, she saw a receptionist sitting at her desk, reading a magazine.

Shade strode across to the desk as though she owned the building. She drew her katana and slapped the woman’s magazine aside with the flat of the blade.

“Who the devil are you?” the woman demanded, trying to reach toward a panic button.

“The person who’s going to slice your arm off if you touch that button,” Shade replied. “Now, tell me where I find the offices I want and I don’t kill you.”

The woman stared at Shade as she asked for her destination. The receptionist was convinced the strangely accented black clad woman would do it. She told Shade where she needed to go.

Shade knocked the woman out with the butt of the sword’s handle and headed off.

Shade walked along the corridor toward the lifts and stopped as an alarm began to sound. Laser beams flashed briefly through the air, creating a net across the hallway.

Behind her, Shade could hear running feet and a voice shout, “Cobras! That’s the alarm for the executive elevators!”

Shade sighed and began making her way across the net of lasers, ducking, hopping, and dodging around the beams.

She reached the doors to the lift and hit the call button as four Cobra troopers rounded the corner.

“Cut the laser net! I want a clear shot at her!” the squad leader shouted.

Shade turned to look back at the Cobras as the doors slid open. She stepped in, hit the button for her floor and waved at the Cobra trooper as he levelled his AK47 at her.

The doors shut as he fired.

The lift took its time climbing the twenty floors to the top level.

The doors slid open and eight Cobra troopers blazed automatic fire into the lift. Nothing could stand the onslaught.

Certainly not the elevator car’s interior, which was riddled with bullet holes.

As the smoke cleared, the Cobras were startled to hear a clatter, and then Shade flew out of the darkness. She had dropped off the top of the lift car and immediately sprang into a flying kick.

The Cobra trooper’s jaw cracked loudly as Shade’s boot connected with it. The soldier went down screaming through his broken mouth. Shade didn’t waste any time, spinning into a kick that dropped another Cobra as the others hastily scrambled to reload their weapons. A fist in the face dropped a third Cobra as two managed to bring their rifles to bear and Shade dropped to the floor, rolling clear as the pair fired and shot two of their comrades 

Shade was back on her feet in seconds, cat-like reflexes allowing her to duck a wild lunge from one of the survivors’ bayonet. She slammed her sword hilt into his face, dropping him, before pivoting on one foot and slicing her razor sharp sword through the barrels of two Kalashnikovs. Shade grabbed the two disarmed soldiers and slammed their faces together, knocking them out.

One of the last two Cobras stared at her as she turned toward him and his fellow trooper.

“Sod this!” he threw down his AK47 and ran away. Shade smiled behind her mask.

The lone trooper screamed a wordless yell and leaped at her. Shade sidestepped him, grabbed his arm and span him around to slam face-first into the wall.

Making her way down the corridor, Shade came to a T-junction. One sign indicated the office of Sebastian Blaine, CEO of the Argent Corporation. The other indicated the accounts department.

As she started to turn, a voice called out to her.

“Just hold still, pint-size. I’d say this won’t hurt a bit, but I’d be lyin’.”

Shade found herself facing a hulking mountain of a man. He wore red boxing gloves, blue trousers, red boots, red spiked bandoleers across his chest and a silver metal helmet.

“I’m gonna make this hurt, a lot!” Big Boa snarled.

Shade had been briefed on Big Boa. Former heavyweight boxer turned bare-knuckle fighter. Thrown out of professional boxing, found work as a physical training instructor for Cobra.

He lunged at her, not bothering with finesse or skill, simply looking to grab her.

“Sayonara squirt! RRRRRRRAAAAAAHHH!!"

Shade leaped, landed on Big Boa’s shoulders, grabbed the helmet and wrenched it around. The helmet twisted to face-back to front, blinding Big Boa.

Shade kicked in the door of her destination as behind her, Big Boa staggered around, yelling, “I can’t see! I can’t see!” like an idiot.

“There must be a mistake, miss,” a woman in a prim outfit said to Shade as she looked around. “This is the accounts department.”

Shade pulled her mask off. “Oh, I don’t think so,” she answered. “I want to see your tax records.”

Behind her, Big Boa crashed into the wall and swore.

Two accountants handed over a pair of large ledgers with the tax records in.

Shade tucked them under her arm and walked toward a large window at the side of the office. As she reached it, a large green and black camouflaged helicopter dropped into view, its back pointed toward the building.

“What’s that?” asked one of the accountants.

“A Z Force Trojan supply helicopter,” Shade answered as opened the window. “My lift.”

She turned back to face the room, “Give my regards to Major Blaine. And may all your profit margins be tax deductible.”

Shade climbed out the window and leaped across to the rear ramp of the helicopter.

The loadmaster caught her arm and guided her in as the helicopter flew away. Skip took the ledgers from Shade as Eagle handed her a drink bottle.

“How’d it go?” Eagle asked.

“Easy enough,” Shade replied. “So much for hai finance.”

Eagle groaned at the pun, as Skip commented, “I just hope it was worth it. If we can’t capture Hades on terrorism charges or gun-running, tax evasion may be our best shot.”

Sierra Gordo

Rally-point blue

Bodycount and Shade stopped several metres from the rally point and Bodycount activated his radio.

“Quickfire, this Bodycount, how copy?”

“Bodycount, Quickfire. I copy five by five.”

“We’re about twenty metres from point blue, south of the position.”

There was a pause and then Shade heard Quickfire reply, “I have you in sight, come on in.”

The two soldiers moved up to the rally point where they could now see Quickfire and Boonie waiting. They dropped their kit bags and collapsed on to the ground.

“What happened to you?” Boonie asked as he kept watch.

Bodycount explained about their difficult journey.

Quickfire checked his watch. The team had been dropped off just after midnight local time. It was now nearly five o’clock.

“You two going to be able to carry on?” Quickfire asked, “You look awfully tired.”

Bodycount sat up and turned to Shade, “Pass a canteen would you?”

The Tawaichu soldier sat up and opened her kit bag to remove one of her three canteens. She handed it over. Bodycount drank half and then handed it to her. He closed his eyes and began taking slow, deep breathes until he seemed to regain his equilibrium. Shade drank the other half of the canteen and then closed her eyes and held her breath for ten seconds before letting it out and opening her eyes.

Bodycount looked at her, a question clear on his face.

“I’m ready,” she said.

“Let’s move,” Bodycount said, standing up and picking up his bag.

Quickfire nodded and turned to Boonie, “Take point, I’ve got our six. Move out.”

The four commandos moved out at a steady jog, heading off to the next rally point, ‘red’, before heading on to rally-points gold and white.

It was nearly six thirty when they reached the final rally point, ‘black’, which was a quarter of a mile from a small town, on top of a hill overlooking it.

Quickfire studied the village in the early light of dawn.

“Not much to look at,” he muttered.

Bodycount crawled up next to him to look down on the town. “They call that a town?” he asked. “It’s smaller than the village I grew up in.”

Quickfire snorted, “Ja. Our contact in the counter-revolutionaries said Changeling’s located in that big house over on the edge of town.”

Bodycount looked in the direction Quickfire indicated. A large two-storey house with a balcony over a veranda at the back was the target in question. The building was facing away from the sun and had several outside lights on it.

Quickfire looked down the hill to Shade and Boonie, “Let’s go.”

The team made their way carefully down the hill and into the village. Not many people were about, so the team avoided those who were and crossed toward the target house.

As they approached, Quickfire turned to Boonie, “Go around the back and cut the power. Bodycount, cover him.”

The pair trotted off around the back of the house, Shade stayed with Quickfire.

“Get ready,” Quickfire muttered, pulling his night-vision goggles into place. Shade copied him. “Boonie, cut the power.”

Seconds later, the outside lights went out, as did a few interior ones.

Quickfire carefully tried the front door, it was unlocked. He eased it open and Shade moved inside past him, turning left as she did into a small hall. A counter-revolutionary was standing in the hall, a pistol in his hand.

“¿Eh? ¿Qué pasó con la electricidad? Diego! Se cortó la electricidad!”

Shade shot him. She carefully opened the door into the kitchen, which was empty, she moved back to the front door, where Quickfire was standing, his own M16SWF in his hands.

“Kitchen clear,” she reported in a whisper.

“Lounge clear,” Quickfire replied.

Bodycount came along the hallway, “Study and dining room clear. Two hostiles down.”

“One down in the hall,” Shade replied.

“Move upstairs, Shade take point,” Quickfire ordered.

Shade led the way up the stairs. She entered a bedroom with an en-suite bathroom; a soldier was just coming out of the bathroom.

“Miguel...? ¿Está usted aquí? Miguel...?” the man asked as he rubbed his face.

“Miguel’s dead, honey,” Shade replied sotto voce, before shooting him.

“Tango down,” she reported as she came back out of the room.

Ahead of them, another bedroom door was opened and the barrel of an AK47 appeared. Bodycount stepped past Shade, firing his assault rifle from the hip.

The soldier behind the door collapsed into the door, pushing it shut.

“Damn,” Bodycount muttered. He walked over and shoved the door open against the dead weight of the gunman.

Inside, a man in a counter-revolutionary’s uniform was tied to a chair. He looked like he’d been badly beaten, Shade thought.

“That’s our contact,” Quickfire said, leaning around the door. “Raul.”

“Looks like they’ve found out he was talking to us and leaned on him,” Bodycount said.

“Cut him free, we’ll take him with us,” Quickfire said. “Changeling’s not here. He must’ve bugged out when they uncovered Raul.”

Shade pulled out the katana strapped to her back and cut the rope holding Raul to the chair. Bodycount helped him out of the chair, but it was plain the informant was barely conscious.

Boonie entered the room from the balcony. He pushed past Bodycount and lifted Raul into a fireman’s carry.

Quickfire was out on the landing, on his radio as Shade stepped out of the large bedroom.

“Eagle, this is Quickfire. We’re at the target building but Changeling’s not here. We’ve found Raul, badly beaten. Looks like they found out he was talking to someone and then beat him for information.

Shade heard Eagle over her radio.

Roger that, Quickfire. Bring him out with you. We’re not leaving him behind. Tomahawk’s on route, ETA ten minutes.”

“Roger that, Eagle. We’re heading to LZ One.”

Quickfire cut the radio link and turned to Bodycount.

“Take point, LZ One. West of the village.”

Bodycount nodded and led the group out the bedroom on to the balcony, down a staircase and across the gardens toward a back gate.

After a quick check out the gate, Bodycount ran across the street. He signalled Shade and she followed him.

The distinctive heavy thud of a Tomahawk’s rotors could now be heard in the distance. People were starting to come out of the houses around the village.

“Move it!” Bodycount snarled at Quickfire and Boonie, before turning and running off westwards.

The four SAS Force troops ran through the village, simply ignoring anyone they encountered on the way, sometimes simply barrelling into them and knocking them down before the locals could react.

They quickly reached the LZ and Quickfire pulled out a smoke grenade and activated his radio.

“Fennec, this is Quickfire, I am popping smoke at the LZ.”

The German quickly pulled the pin and tossed the grenade.

Quickfire, Fennec, I see blue smoke. Am inbound, ninety seconds. Report temperature of LZ.” The French helicopter pilot’s accent was a contrast to the German’s, Shade thought.

LZ is about to get hot,” Bodycount cut in, “We have multiple hostiles closing in on our six.”

Shade turned around to see Bodycount crouched by the hedge at the edge of the field, his M16SWF at the ready.

Shade turned back to Quickfire as the Tomahawk lumbered into sight over the tree line.

“Go cover Bodycount!” Quickfire yelled.

Shade ran across to Bodycount, passing Boonie who was struggling across the field toward Quickfire.

As the martial artist reached Bodycount, he opened fire with his assault rifle, picking off a guy charging along the track toward the field with an RPD in his hands.

Shade dropped to one knee next to Bodycount and fired a burst at the group of gunmen running toward them.

Bodycount didn’t even look at her as he said, “Nice shot. You hit the guy with the Strela SAM.”

Shade aimed down her iron sights and fired again as Bodycount fired more sustained bursts.

“That was lucky,” she answered. “I didn’t even see him.”

Bodycount laughed as he fired another burst, dropping a gunman trying to pick up the shoulder-fired anti-aircraft rocket.

“Get ready to run!” Bodycount yelled. Shade saw him pulling out two grenades from the corner of her eye as she fired, dropping another gunman.

Bodycount threw one of the grenades, which detonated in the midst of the group, before throwing the second, which began spewing out red smoke.

“Move!” he snapped, pivoting on one foot and then running off. Shade hurried after him.

The Z Force Tomahawk was hovering inches above the grass of the field; Quickfire was crouched in the open side-door, a Z Force gunner next to him on the minigun.

Quickfire grabbed Shade’s arm and hauled her into the helicopter. Bodycount simply threw himself into the helicopter, crashing into an undignified heap as he did.

The door gunner opened fire, blazing a hail of bullets at the entrance to the field, even as he shouted to the pilot to lift off.

The helicopter shot straight up, before pivoting and racing away from the village.

Punta del Mucosa

Three hours later

Shade found Bodycount sitting in a corner of the base cafeteria after her debriefing was completed. The commandos had been flown to a Punta del Mucosa Army Aviation base from Sierra Gordo before being debriefed by Eagle and Sparrowhawk. As Shade approached, she saw he was eating a meal and writing notes in a book.

“Mind if I sit down?” she asked.

Bodycount looked up at her and smiled, “No, go ahead.”

She had to admit, he did look good smiling. Shade took the seat opposite him, watching as he closed the book and set it aside.

“I just wanted to thank you for helping me get through that mission,” Shade told him. “I didn’t know if I was going to cope until you appeared and I heard you on the radio with Eagle. I was trying not to panic when I landed in that tree.”

Bodycount smiled again, “No worries, glad to have helped.” He paused before going on, “You seemed to space out a bit a couple of times when I looked back at you, as though you were miles away.”

Shade smiled herself, “Yeah, I was thinking back on how I came to join the Army and to join Action Force and wondering if it was really worth losing my friends in high school for.”

Bodycount nodded, “And was it?”

Shade shrugged. “I don’t know. I wanted to join up to get back at the Red Shadows for invading Tawaichu, but by the time I was old enough to leave school and enlist, Ironblood had been captured after Resolution 909 and no one had seen the Red Shadows in two years.”

Bodycount stared at her for a moment before saying, “I know what you mean. I joined Action Force two years ago. I wanted to get in the Force to avenge my comrades and friends who died when our helicopters were attacked by the Shads in 1984. Instead I got to spend the last couple of years fighting Cobra and waiting for the Shadows to make a comeback.” He sighed. “I wonder if they ever will.”

“You’ve got friends though haven’t you?” Shade asked. “I feel like the only friend I have is Samson, I’ve spent so much time with him drilling recruits in hand-to-hand combat.”

Bodycount shrugged again. “Most of the SAS Force guys don’t seem to like me,” he replied. “They either think I’m a glory-hound or a smart-ass know-it-all who thinks he’s better than them. They don’t know what I’m really like. The closest to a friend is Double-Tap because we joined together. Quarrel flirts with me and it’s nothing more than that, flirting.”

Shade smiled, “Well, maybe we should be friends.”

Bodycount smiled, “Sure.”

Shade leaned toward him, “So, seeing as we’re friends, what’s in the book?”

Bodycount sighed, flipped the book over and pushed it toward her.

On the front written on a white sticker were the words ‘The Body Count’. Shade picked it up and opened it. Inside on the first page was a date in 1982. Following that was ‘Falklands. Unknown number of Argentines. No more than 6.’ Underneath was a date in the summer of 1984. Next to it were the words ‘Two Roboskulls. Poss. 4 Red Shadows.’

Shade looked at Bodycount. “Is this a record of all your kills?” she asked.

Bodycount nodded. “I don’t record them to gloat or boast,” he said, sounding slightly annoyed at the thought. “I record them to remind me of who I’ve killed.”

Shade flipped on through the book, aside from two dates, one in 1986 and one in 1988, most had come after 1989 and Bodycount joining Action Force. Several dates were listed in 1989 as well as 1990 and this year. A lot of the recent dates were from December 1990 to March 1991.

Shade frowned, recognising the name ‘Operation Cheetah’ at the top of each entry in that period.

“Wasn’t Operation Cheetah that big deal in Africa?” she asked Bodycount. “I heard a few stories about it.”

“Yeah, Cobra Europe moved into a central African country and we deployed to Natanga to help fight them off.” Bodycount took a drink before carrying on, “Unfortunately, some wise-guy in the defence ministry decided to cut a deal with Destro’s Iron Grenadiers to kick them out. We weren’t told until it was over and the Iron Grenadiers didn’t know we were there. All three factions ended fighting a two-front war. It was that mess which stopped Action Force from getting involved in the Benzheen War the Joes were in.”

Shade nodded. “I remember loads of Z Force and SAS Force troops were deployed, along with half of Space Force’s Skystrikers and Conquest X-30s.” She looked through the pages, “You racked up some kills there.”

Bodycount nodded, “Yeah, well, it was pretty fierce fighting and I did end up manning the guns on a HAVOC at one stage.”

Shade handed the book back after reading the last page: today’s date, followed by ‘Sierra Gordo: at least twenty unidentified gunmen of unknown factions.’

“So do you record them to confess to your priest?” she asked.

Bodycount snorted, “Hardly. I don’t believe in God, so I don’t seek absolution. I do it because I pity the poor sods.”

Shade’s eyebrows rose.

“Don’t look shocked. A lot of these guys probably deserve it. Some probably don’t. I maybe a soldier, but I’m still a murderer.”

Shade shook her head, “No you’re not.”

Bodycount frowned, “Sometimes I feel like one.”

“Well, you shouldn’t.” Shade stared at him. “Have you tried talking to someone about this? Maybe you’re not cut out for being a soldier.”

Bodycount looked at her incredulously, “I’ve been a soldier for thirteen years, it’s a bit late to say that to me. I mentioned how I felt to Eagle. He spoke to Doc Inglesen, who said what I was doing was a defence mechanism or something and was perfectly fine.”

Once Bodycount finished eating, he and Shade left the cafeteria and headed for the ready room the Action Force personnel were using. Inside, Bodycount produced a deck of cards from his kitbag and they sat down to play cards until it was time to leave for the flight home.

As the C-130 took off, Shade was sitting next to Bodycount and she reflected that it was nice to have found a friend. She leaned against Bodycount and drifted off to sleep as he read a paperback novel, trying to concentrate over the engine noise his earplugs didn’t fully block.

This mission was over, but Action Force would soon be back on operations once more and no doubt SAS Force would be in the thick of it.

Notes

This story adapts parts of missions from Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare and COD: Modern Warfare 2. The beginning of Shade and Bodycount on the ground is lifted from the MW2 mission ‘Contingency’. Parts of them sneaking through the jungle are based on the same mission, on the MW mission ‘All Ghillied Up’ and the MW2 mission ‘Cliffhanger’. The attack on the house is based on the MW mission ‘Blackout’. The training course Shade completes in Tawaichu is based on the course in MW2 in the mission ‘S.S.D.D.’. Tawaichu is from a story in a BAF holiday special called ‘Operation Spearhead’. The aftermath is my invention. The story also adapts ‘Hai Finance!’ from the 1992 Marvel UK ‘GI Joe Annual’, with Shade replacing Jinx. This story, like Codename Bodycount, was supposed to be part of a series of stories exploring the background of characters, in much the same way Battle Action Force stories like 'Codename Shark', 'Codename Stakeout' or 'Top-Sergeant Duke' did. Instead, I ended up doing other stories and never went back to the idea. Shade is named after my dearly beloved cat, who departed this world for the next in 2010. Shade was also the name I gave to a South Korean character in my first AF fan-fic where I expanded the roster considerably. I changed her background to fit the comics continuity and expanded it. I copied several other characters over in this way, some were altered, others weren't. The Triton and Sea Raven helicopters are customs by BFTB member 'Red Baron'.

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