OK, just to let everyone know, I don't use spell-check, and tend to edit as I go. This is my first attempt at fiction, so I'd appreciate any feedback that can be given. I know there is already at least one other book by this title, as I found out after I'd started it, but that's the least of my worries right now. Finding the time to actually write is a challenge for me right now...so for better or worse here is Chapter 1, hope you like it... ****************************************************************************************** Chapter 1 He stood on the upper deck of the firewatch tower looking out over the lush, verdant green panorama that surrounded him. Snow-capped moun tain tops ringed the horizon, the sun was a huge orange disk that hung low over the peaks to his right, bathing the valley in a pinkish golden light, replete with blue-grey shadows from the surrounding peaks. A large eagle circled above the valley, perhaps a couple miles from him, looking for his breakfast. With a shriek, it tucked in its wings and plummeted earthward with astonishing speed. At the last second, it spread its wings to brake itself before splashing into the river and hauling out a large fish. Nice catch, he thought. At least one of us would be eating well today, he mused. Off to the left, near the bottom of the treeline, a grey loop of roadway snaked its way along the valley perimeter, weaving in and out of the trees like a giant grey python. Further out, maybe eight or ten miles, lay today’s recon target. The small hamlet of Mountain Glen stood glistening in the morning dew, looking like some peaceful little village straight out of the mind of the American painter Thomas Kincade. But he knew that death and danger abounded there, as it had fallen to the Blue Occupiers last October. The villagers had fought valiantly, but the airstrikes from the drones proved to be too much. Their small-arms fire had brought down two of the drones, one a recon drone, the second a couple days later was one of the attack drones. The infantry had flanked the village and killed off many of the citizens, taking the rest prisoner and shipping them off in convoys to one of the “camps” in the desert some ninety-odd miles east. Only after a few of the Resistance fighters had managed to escape had the word gotten out what atrocities were being perpetrated against the prisoners. Shaking off a sudden chill, he took one last look around the beautiful vista laid out before him, and prepared the last of his rations. He poured the snowmelt from his canteen into the mylar pouch, sealed it, and massaged it gently. In better times, he would not have even considered freeze-dried teriyaki chicken and rice a breakfast food, let alone eaten it cold, but he was glad that it had enough calories to keep him going just one more day. Just one more day, he repeated in his mind, that’s all I can ask for. He thought about all the challenges facing him this day, worrying over his plans. The “what ifs” ranged from simple navigation mistakes to discovery of his team before the mission was complete. It made his head spin. Instead of worrying, he said a quick prayer and devoured his meal. The sun had shrunk and brightened to a blinding white orb. Clouds were visible to the west, forming near the peaks of the mountains, but still wispy. No rain today, he thought. Probably a good thing, as his team wasn’t equipped for it, and the temperatures should only reach the high fifties, even with the sun. It’ll be a good day today, he assured himself. A really good day. A successful mission would make it a great day, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves, he thought. As he slurped down the last bit of his chicken and rice, he heard the creak of his relief climbing up the tower. After the requisite knock and counter-knock, he unlatched the lock, slid the heavy bar from its brackets, and lifted the door open. “Morning, Tom. Anyone moving down there?” he greeted his relief. “Just the usual early risers- the kitchen crew and the maid” he joked in reply. This mountain camp had come to be known as “Hotel Sierra” due to the series of three small caves, actually more like fissures, that afforded some sense of privacy, as well as protection from the elements. Warm it was not, but out of the rain and the sometimes bitter cold. The women had their own little space, between the men’s caves. They wouldn’t have even known about the middle cave had it not been for little Anna’s penchant for exploring. Only nine years old, he had initially resisted taking their family with them, but they had proved to be very valuable to the group. Anna may have been little, but she was wise beyond her years, having been born after The Fall, and growing up in the aftermath. She was also fearless, and quite strong for her size. Her mother, a nurse, had taught her skills, and she was quite accomplished with things like sewing, cooking, and even first aid. Her father, an ex-military man, had taught her as much as he knew about hand-to-hand combat, and how to protect herself against the Occupiers if they should try to get hold of her. How to break free from their grip, where to kick them if they grabbed her, how to kill them if they didn’t let go. She had her very own survival knife strapped to her thigh, just beneath the camo T-shirt she wore as a sort of tunic over her jeans. She had become quite good at using it, and could field-dress small game in the blink of an eye, her blade running effortlessly through and around the carcasses. It was because of this ability that she earned the nickname of “The Butcher”. He couldn’t help but think that there was a deeper, more sinister connotation to that moniker as well, but time would tell. Jeez, she was only nine, after all! For now, though, she would stay back in camp, with most of the women and the men that weren’t on the mission. They would pack up, and break camp as the mission took place, ready to either scatter and run if it went bad, or to meet the team at town’s edge if it went well. With any luck at all, they’d be sleeping in a real bed tonight, perhaps at a motel in town. He briefed his relief on his observations from the night watch, the night interrupted by only two vehicles. The first was a truck that rattled and belched its way into Mountain Glen around 11pm, and a motorcycle that left out the back gate at 2am sharp- more than likely the weekly dispatch of the courier to the Regional Command Center. What was in the truck was not known, it looked to be an old Navistar flatbed, but with a canvas cover over the front half of the bed, roughly forming a cube about eight feet tall and wide. He had been unable to see much more detail than that, but it was odd that a truck would be making its way into the town at 11 at night. Most cargo was shipped in via convoys, almost always on Tuesdays at 11am, with second shipments only every other week, arriving like clockwork at 3:45pm. This was now Thursday morning, not a usual time nor day. He felt a slight sense of foreboding about it, but what could they do now? Was it worth calling off the mission, after all their careful planning? What was in the truck, and why was it driving at night, without an armed escort? Hell, it wasn't even one of the Chinese-made hard-sided trucks...it looked more like a farmer's truck that was used to bring crops to market than a supply truck, or troop transport. Baffled, he confided in Tom about his unsettled feeling about it. "We've seen vehicles go into town late at night before, usually state cars carrying diplomats from the Federal Congress going to monthly meetings. They usually have an escort, too, one of the armored personnel carriers. Awfully dangerous being out on the road solo, that late, with the marauders out there." Tom nodded in agreement. Could it be something military in nature, a weapon, perhaps? Or was it something less sinister, machine parts, or even medical supplies? The truck hadn't left, he was sure of that. Whatever it was, they'd have to find out tonight, it would be put on the agenda at the pre-mission briefing later on this morning. "I'll keep a sharp eye out for the truck today," said Tom, "and signal if it leaves. Now get outta here, you need some shuteye." As he descended the worn steel steps of the old fire tower, he heard Tom slide the heavy bar into its bracket. Fatigue was making itself known, his legs were feeling a bit rubbery by the time he reached the last landing. He walked quickly down the trail in the relative safety of the woods, out of direct view from the valley. Nearly a mile and a half away was his bedroll, calling to him from the dark confines of the cave. He could hardly wait to drift off to sleep. He decided to pick up the pace a bit, and broke into a light jog. A few hundred yards later, he stopped and checked his surroundings. Satisfied that there was nobody around, he resumed his jog, stopping just before the bend in the trail where there was a piece of faded red plaid flannel stuck to a bush. He pulled it free, and pocketed it. Reaching into the inner pocket of his camo jacket, he pulled out a small bit of worn, ragged denim. This he affixed to another bush on the opposite side of the trail. He continued down the rock-strewn path, this time at a walk. The perimeter guard would have him in view now, from high up in the pine trees. They had taken notice of the habits of the Blue Bastards moving along the trails, running and hiding from the troops that were hunting down pockets of resistance, the small groups such as theirs. The troops were foreign, and took no notice of anything much above eye level, accustomed as they had become in the Middle East conflicts of looking for IED’s and roadside bombs. His group had leveraged the troops’ ignorance of the terrain, the flora and fauna in the area, and adapted their own methods of operation to capitalize on this. Even now, after nearly a year of patrols, the soldiers tended to keep their heads down. So, with the troops keeping their attention on the trails, the guards had simply done the opposite- they went up. Not a little bit up, but far up in the tall trees, building observation nests that blended well with the foliage. From the ground, unless you knew exactly where to look, you’d see nothing out of the ordinary. As he passed near the guard’s position, he touched the brim of his cap, adjusting it slightly. From high up in the trees, seemingly from everywhere all at once, he heard the chirping of a chickadee. He smiled and continued on. He knew that particular birdcall, it was his sign that he had been spotted, identified, and was clear to pass. Another two hundred yards and he was in the camp. Several of the group were doing chores, tidying up from breakfast. One of the men stopped what he was doing long enough to greet him. “Hey Scott, want some breakfast? How was the watch?” “Nah, had a delicious meal just a little bit ago. Cold chicken and rice, who would’ve thought that freeze-dried would ever taste so good?” he chuckled, deliberately avoiding the second question. “Really looking forward to a nap about now. Seen Billy anywhere, or is he sleeping in again?” “He went out a couple hours ago to try to find some fresh veggies. Should be back in a little bit. Want me to have him wake you?” “No, I’ll only sleep a couple hours anyway, might as well use every minute of it. I should be up by around lunch, if I’m not, come get me.” Scott headed toward the bushes in front of the rock face, sliding behind them and slipping into the cave. He felt along the right wall and eased on back, moving slowly and letting his eyes adjust to the dim light. His foot bumped against someone’s pack, and he instinctively reached down to catch it before it fell. He heard a muffled “Thanks”, and kept moving a little further back in the cave. He felt the wall lean in a little, signifying the narrowing of the fissure, as he got to the back of the usable part of the cave, where he kept his own bedroll. Laying down and stretching out felt incredibly good, and he wasted no time in laying claim to his forty winks. The cool darkness enveloped him, and he put aside his worries, at least for the next two or three hours.