What’s that click? How long have I been sitting here? Did I imagine it? No. I definitely hear footsteps.
“Hey! Where have you guys-” I am cut off midsentence as I spin around to find myself staring down the barrel of an assault rifle. At the other end of the weapon is a man, distinguishable as male only by his bulk, clad in black tactical gear complete with body armor, a helmet, and a face shielding balaclava.
“On your knees. Put your hands behind your head,” he barks.
I’m not inclined to argue with the gentleman and I drop to the floor. My eyes drift to the door, where I see a doppelganger securing the hallway.
“Eyes forward.” He is forceful and authoritative, but he does not yell. “Ma’am, do you have any weapons on you?”
I shake my head. What the hell is going on here?
“Ma’am, do you have any weapons on you? Yes or no.”
“No.” My voice is not my own. It is weak. Had the word been longer, I’m sure it would have cracked.
“Squirrel, get in here. Check her.”
“Yes sir,” a female voice calls from the hall.
Squirrel appears before me. “Ma’am, stand up, spread your legs, and spread your arms with your palms down.” She is slight, shorter than me, but the weapon slung on her back tells me that she is no less deadly than her boss. I do as I am told.
She pats me down and when she is satisfied that there is nothing to be found she steps back. “Clear.”
The man nods approvingly. “Ma’am, please lower your arms and take a seat.”
I sit, folding my hands neatly in my lap. It’s all I can manage to keep my breath even. My mind is racing. So much for there not being any sign of cops or evacuation teams. These guys are clearly SWAT or some sort of special ops. There are at least three of them and who knows how many more are hiding out in the passageway or outside the building. These guys look like they are hunting hostiles, not survivors or victims. What the hell is going on?
He lowers his rifle and his eyes soften. “Thank you for your cooperation, Ma’am.”
Like I had a choice.
“It would be appreciated if you could answer a few questions for me.” His voice is smooth and rehearsed.
“I’ll do my best. I . . . I don’t suppose you have any identification . . . or anything that would let me know that you are legitimate law enforcement and not just terrorists?”
I nod, not liking my options. At least they have the wrong girl if they are looking to get anything technical. I’m just a finance weenie.
“What’s your name? Do you have any identification?”
Easy enough. “Leigh Fischer. In there,” I say as I point to my purse hanging next to the door.
He nods to Squirrel and she pulls it from the hook and begins rummaging through.
“What are you doing here?”
“What? I work here. What else would I be doing here?”
He ignores my confusion and pushes on. “What time did you arrive?”
“And you live outside the city?”
“What? How did you know that?”
“She lives in Iron Cross, Sir.” Squirrel had located my driver’s license.
“So you probably take Route 121 and miss most of the morning rush hour,” the man continues.
“Yes.” What does this have to do with anything? How did this guy know I live in the boondocks? Why does he even care?
“Have you seen anyone else since you arrived?”
“No.” Finally some questioning that might be relevant.
“You didn’t find that odd?”
“Well . . . not at first. I showed up late. I was trying to lay low. It took me a while to notice that everyone in this block was missing. I was in the process of starting to freak out when you guys showed up to confirm my suspicions that something is messed up.” I pause, fealing a little more daring now that there is no longer a gun pointed at me. “What’s going on?”
His silence seems to indicate that he is debating what he should do with me or how much he should tell me. Hopefully, whatever he decides, doesn’t involve a body bag.
He cocks his head to one side. “Dragon to base . . . . . Red team has located a friendly native. She is unaffected. I repeat she is unaffected . . . Sir, shall we extract her or proceed? She could help us gain access to the Dungeon . . . . . . . . . . . .Roger. Dragon out.”
The vague one-way conversation between Dragon and some unknown entity about me helping them get into the Dungeon was enough to raise my hackles and before I knew it, I was standing up with my arms crossed in front of my chest, staring him down.
“Look, Mr. Dragon, I don’t know who the hell you guys are, but you had better extract me or put a bullet in me or cough up some ID, because you are off your rocker if you think I’m gonna let you into the Dungeon without it. You guys are real scary with your guns and all, but letting you into the Dungeon would be tantamount to treason and I’m not really interested in a life sentence or a trip to the gallows.”
“Aren’t you a feisty one? Glad you’re on our side,” Dragon says with a hint of shock in his voice.
“Our side?” I am skeptical and fired up. My patriotism, adrenaline, and training have gone into overdrive, overshadowing my fear or need for self-preservation.
“Our side,” he confirms. “Will this provide adequate clearance?” he asks as he retrieves an object from a pocket on his arm and hands it to me.
It is a plastic ID badge with a vertical orientation. There is a bar code and an identification number across the top of the badge. In the middle, where his picture and name should be, there is a blacked-out square. And on the bottom there are three gold stars and the Defense Ministry’s seal.
With the exception of the missing photograph and name, his badge looks just like mine. Well that and the stars. I have one gold star and two black ones. Long story short, my stars indicate that I can access my office space and lower security blocks whenever I want to with no questions asked. I can access high and top security blocks during working hours or with written direction from a senior manager. Dragon’s three gold stars mean he can go wherever, whenever. Just like his gun and uniform, his badge says don’t fuck with me.
“So . . . you want to go to the Dungeon?” I say, trying to be more casual after my outburst.
“Yes. Where have you been today?”
“Just this block. The offices along this hallway, that stairway, and the bathroom.”
“And you saw no one?”
He nods toward the doorway and I lead him a Squirrel into the hall.
“I’m Dragon,” he says putting his thumb to his chest. “Squirrel,” he points to the female. “Ox.” The guy I had seen from the office grunts. “And Otter.”Another figure in black is standing guard at the door to the stairway.
“Ox, take point. Otter, left flank. Squirrel, right flank. I’ll take up the rear. Ms. Fischer, if you would be so kind as to give directions from the center. Under no circumstances should you leave Squirrel’s side.”
“Can I just go home instead?”
“Didn’t think so. Well, since you guys are all animals, you might as well call me Fish, my friends all do.”