Chapter 8

It was about ten minutes after fleeing the attack on the bus that Leo finally slowed his pace. As he came to a stop, the rest of the team followed suit. No one spoke; the only sound marring a pervasive stillness was that of ragged and heavy breathing as five beating hearts decelerated to their normal pulse.

Max unsnapped the catch on the straps of his combat helmet against his neck, pulling the helmet off in one clean, fluid motion. With his free hand, he drug his fingers through black curls now dampened by sweat.

"Damn," he breathed, surveying the faces of his team. Leo folded his arms, tensely, while Roxana looked up with wide eyes. Her hands clutched her knees as she bent over in an attempt to catch her breath. Natalya's eyes were tinted red at the edges; she'd obviously been crying while running. Max had heard some of her choking sobs as she struggled to keep pace with the trained and conditioned officers.

"That about sums it up," Lizzie remarked, also removing her helmet and re-adjusting the strap of her assault rifle over her shoulder.

"Let's keep moving," Leo remarked curtly. "Stun grenades won't keep our sniper away for long. When he wakes up, he's going to have a killer headache and a renewed desire to find us. I don't want to give him that chance."

With no further fanfare, Leo continued walking through the woods that paralleled the woods towards Prague. Roxana straightened up and sighed. As she turned to follow Leo, Max's face caught her eye. Shock mixed with horror and exhaustion, etched in dark circles surrounding his brown eyes. She placed a hand on his shoulder reassuringly as she passed him, walking to follow her commander.

"No one said this was easy, Max," she breathed.

Alaric awoke sometime later, groggy, disoriented, and angry. The last thing he remembered was the blonde Phoenix Rising officer throwing the grenade and the knife. Alaric had miscalculated, underestimated their numbers. It didn't really matter in the long term; they only had two, maybe three real fighters in the group. The two blonde girls were not a challenge, and the one that came onto the bus was next to useless. The two men were trained fighters, and the black-haired woman was a threat if she was engaged. Alaric could sense that she was a loose cannon, eager to prove herself; a desperate fool on the road to cracking. Maybe he was wrong. But Alaric was seldom wrong.

Before many passengers on the bus could also wake up, Alaric quickly picked himself up off the floor and began to walk towards Prague. "Those cowards," he muttered. "Running away like dogs with tails between their legs." He switched his communication link back on and switched to the channel that connected him to headquarters.

"I need a cleanup crew to the coordinates I am dispatching," he said, touching a button on his handheld computer. "I am pursuing the Phoenix Rising team into Prague. Pursuit will not cease until they are apprehended. For the New Reich!"

Alaric picked up his pace as he approached the city. He would stop at nothing to bring the Phoenix Rising team to a deadening halt. His loyalty to the New Reich and love for the game would provide him the strength to continue.

After all, it was a game Alaric would win.

Ideally, travel within the Axis of Unified Nations was supposed to be unrestricted and free. That was, for citizens with identification issued by the Axis of Unified Nations. On a child's twelfth birthday, a citizen was supposed to register for their identification, which was to be carried on their person at all times. The identification nullified a need for a census, as a vast computer network maintained all information on citizens as it became available. Dentists, doctors, motor vehicles, voting records… all had access to computers that could access the network and provide real-time updates. The only time when a citizen would have to update their file was when they needed a new picture, changed their name, or changed their place of residence.

However, if you were not a citizen of the Axis of Unified Nations, travel into their cities and nations was quite restrictive. In order to keep tabs on all people within the country, visitors had to register upon arriving at their destination city and receive a temporary identification to carry at all times. Of course, this identification was to be surrendered upon request to any soldier who asked for it.

"Leo, I don't think visiting Prague without forged identification is a good idea," Lizzie pointed out as Leo stopped to investigate a storm water management drain. "Suppose we're asked by a soldier to provide our visitor's cards! I'd much rather buy some time, however small it may be, by distracting them with a phony record."

"We just won't get caught," Leo said, grunting as he attempted to pry the drain open. "We can't leave a data trail. Even if we created false identities, they'd have our fingerprints and the ability to cross-reference them with other databases. I'm not taking that chance."

Leo continued to fight with the drain, but his attempts to open it were in vain. Max held up his rifle and grinned at Roxana, who sternly shook her head in response.

"Oh, come on, I wasn't actually going to shoot the drain," Max muttered as he slung the rifle over his shoulder once more.

"May I, commander?" Natalya's timid voice came from behind. Leo looked at her, puzzled. Natalya was triumphantly holding a small screwdriver in her left hand, beaming proudly. Leo sighed. He moved back and motioned to the drain, though he seriously doubted that the screwdriver would be able to…

"Got it!" Natalya cried as the drain popped open. Leo shook his head in disbelief.

"Wonderful," he snapped. "Now, let's go. We can't stay here for much longer. Too conspicuous."

With that, Leo jumped down into the storm water management drain, a squishy mess of refuse and foul-smelling water awaiting him at the bottom. He tried not to think of it as the cold water began to seep into his boots. The others jumped down, following one by one. Natalya, however, hesitated.

"Isn't going through the sewer just a little old-fashioned?" she questioned, calling down into the darkness below. "Won't they expect this?"

Max reached his hands upward to ease Natalya down as she too, jumped into the drain. He greeted her with a smile at the bottom.

"Nah," he shrugged. "That only happens in books and movies. Besides, they wouldn't want to get their pants dirty."

Leo resisted the urge to roll his eyes.

The team was only able to walk for a few feet, at which point, the ceiling collapsed to a width typical of a water drain. At most, the drain was only three feet high. Assuming a crawling position held up out of the water by his knees and elbows, Leo motioned to the right.

"Water flow comes towards us from this drain," he explained. "Probably headed out from a concentrated area."

"Like a city," Lizzie supplied, following Leo and crawling forward on her knees and elbows. They crawled for what seemed like miles, careful not to make any sounds as they went. They didn't know how far underground they were, or if their voice would carry to any nearby drains. After a seeming eternity, Leo signaled for the team to stop. He looked above to a manhole cover just above their heads. Placing a finger to his lips, he could barely make out the faces of the team in the near blackness.

Gingerly, Leo pressed his ear against the manhole cover. Unable to hear anything, he reached for his pistol with one hand and lifted the manhole cover with the other. The street view was that of a back alleyway cluttered with garbage and completely vacated of people. Surrounded on both sides by buildings, the natural cover was likely provided by the backs of shops owned by private citizens.

Leo pushed the manhole cover up onto the street and pushed himself up and out of the drain. Covered in dirt and stained by the putrid water of the drain, he probably looked like a typical water management laborer just off the clock for his shift. Max followed, and the two men helped lift the women out of the drain. Replacing the manhole cover, Leo surveyed the alley for a general direction. He began to walk in what he could best determine was a position to the east.

"Leo?" Lizzie questioned. Leo halted and slowly turned back to his team. Lizzie had pulled out her handheld computer and was surveying a map of Prague.

"I believe there's a safehouse nearby," she began.

"How would it be marked?" Max asked. "The signal is agreed upon in Allied nations, but it'd have to be a pretty inconspicuous marking in an Axis country."

Leo shot Max a stern look to remind him to lower his voice. "Lead the way," he motioned to Lizzie.

A short time later, the team arrived outside a dress shop. The green paint on the sign was cracked and peeling, while dust and dirt collected in the corners of the windowpanes. A few dresses hung limply on mannequins, their ornaments of bright ribbons and ruffles providing stark contrast to the setting around them.

"I don't see anything," Natalya began. Roxana shook her head and pointed to the windowpane.

"There," she whispered. In the lower left corner of the windowpane was a faded yellow program from the Prague Philharmonic Orchestra. The program was dated, as years displayed in the sun had forced the corners to curl and the pages to crinkle. However, there could be no mistaking that this was the sign. Displayed in the center of the program was a picture of a bird engulfed in flames, followed with the words "Igor Stravinsky's Firebird Suite, July 29, 1992, 7 pm."

"Seriously?" Max questioned quietly, his eyebrows raised as he considered the program. A forty-five year old program from the Prague Philharmonic Orchestra couldn't possibly be an approved signal.

Before Max could protest, Leo knocked on the door. An older gentleman around the age of sixty opened the door. His hair was grayed and unkempt, and his tired eyes were framed by flimsy wire-rimmed glasses. He focused on Leo, tired eyes seeming to plead him to just go away.

"Sir, forgive me for knocking," Leo began. "I couldn't help but notice the program in the corner of your window. Do you have an affinity for the works of Stravinsky?"

The man nodded, slowly. "Yes," his voice crackled to life. "While some may prefer Le Sacre du Pritempts, I have always loved the Firebird Suite."

"Both are notable ballets, for sure," Leo conceded. "Perhaps my friends and I could join you and discuss them inside over a cup of tea?"

At this, the man looked at the group, surveyed Leo's face closely, and then motioned for the team to walk inside. Leo breathed a sigh of relief. It had been a gamble, but he'd gotten it right.

"Stravinsky?" Max questioned. "A ballet was the sign?"

"The Firebird Suite was one of Stravinsky's most famous works," Roxana began. "You'd probably like it, Max. It tells the story of a phoenix… a firebird."

"That's why I knew I could chance it," Leo said, not considering Max's shocked expression. The older gentleman motioned for the group to sit in chairs surrounding a table in the kitchen at the back of the shop.

"So, you're from Phoenix Rising?" the gentleman asked, taking a pot of water that had just begun to whistle off one of the stove burners. Leo nodded once.

"We were supposed to investigate a factory in Skalitz, but we were ambushed," Leo explained. "We're now attempting to track down a package that was shipped from that same factory." The gentleman sat down with a steaming mug of hot water and plopped a tea bag into the mug, bobbing it up and down with its string. Leo felt uneasy as the man continued to steep his tea, not talking or making eye contact. Finally, the man looked up.

"I suppose you assume its nuclear materials?" he asked. Leo nodded again.

"Nuclear weapons would certainly give the upper hand," the man surmised, taking a long sip of tea. "Where are you headed next?"

"An unlisted airfield," Lizzie remarked, placing her computer on the table with the map displayed. A pulsing red dot indicated the location of the airfield. "We can pull it up on maps, but cannot find it listed in any databases, confidential or public listing."

"You're not going to," the man said, taking another sip. "It's private. The land has belonged to the Merriam family, but when General Merriam died, his widow took over."

"Who's his widow?" Max asked quietly. The man frowned and took another long sip of tea. Max could feel his impatience burning within him.

"Juliana Weiss," the man finally spoke. "The black widow took all of her husband's assets, including acting command of Germany's unmanned combat air systems development squadron."

"I thought Germany had given up on unmanned combat aviation," Lizzie mused. The man's eyes twinkled as he set his tea mug down on the oak table.

"That's what they wanted you to think," he remarked. "They've stopped spending time on an unmanned system that can launch from an aircraft carrier. The Americans can handle that. Germany is focusing on enlisting computer specialists to break American codes and corrupt software programming for the carrier-based systems."

"Hackers," Max spat. "They could re-write mission programming and cause the planes to crash. It wouldn't cause a loss of pilots, but it would cause a loss of time and resources."

"Not to mention they're capable of housing a weapons bay comparable to any jet," Roxana pointed out. "They could easily re-write the programming and cause the system to bomb its own base."

Natalya was highly confused. First, the team had assumed nuclear weapons were being shipped to Berlin. Then, a sniper had attacked for no apparent reason. Now, they were talking about the possibility of an attack on the United States from its own unmanned combat fleet. It was almost too much to follow.

"Sir," Natalya finally spoke. "How do you know all this?" The man looked at her sternly; eyebrows knotted in thought, and then replied.

"My name is Thomas Zeller," the man began, staring at the nearly drained brown liquid in his mug. "I served in the Czechoslovakian army from the time I was eighteen years old. While I originally intended to become a fighter pilot, I was trained in field reconnaissance."

This sent Natalya into a near panic attack. She didn't know a lot about military organization or activity, but she knew enough to understand what field reconnaissance meant. She stood up quickly, heart pounding in her throat.

"You mean to say that you're…" Natalya's voice trailed off. She didn't want to finish the question. Thomas smiled.

"Yes," he supplied. "I was a spy."

"I don't understand," Natalya quickly replied.

"My father was an infantry commander in the army and helped me enlist at eighteen," Thomas explained. "I hated him for it. I didn't want to serve the Axis cause. So, I secretly enlisted in Phoenix Rising's civilian reconnaissance program. I enlisted on July 28, 1992, a few weeks after my twentieth birthday."

That explained the significance of the program in the window, Max supposed. A man celebrating his chance to become a phoenix enjoying music written for a phoenix… it seemed to fit. It also explained the safehouse.

"So, you want to chase down whatever was shipped to Juliana Weiss' airfield?"
the man said, reaching behind to the counter where he grabbed a box filled with cigars. Selecting one from the box, he lit it and took a puff.

"That's the idea," Leo remarked. Thomas stood and looked out the kitchen window framed by pastel yellow drapes. After exhaling another breath of curling blue smoke, he turned slowly towards Leo and smiled.

"You aren't going to get on that airfield without a valid military reason why," he supplied. "That's going to require identification from the Axis of Unified Nations." Lizzie quietly elbowed Leo and smiled sweetly.

"I have mine," Natalya offered and began to reach into her pocket to produce her identification card. Thomas shook his head, holding his cigar between two fingers and motioning towards Natalya.

"Civilian identification won't work," he supplied. "You need identification and a form filled out on your behalf explaining a need to be on the airfield. Military identification waives the form. Although, I seriously doubt you'd have a military card." Natalya hung her head, shaking it as she replaced her identification.

"The good thing is," Thomas stopped and took another puff of the cigar, "Retired military receives identification that will also get you on the airfield. Restock whatever supplies you need, and we'll get going."

General Hans Stein drove through the gates of Eisenach Re-Education camp outside Berlin as the sun continued to rise in the eastern sky. The package had safely made its way to the facility and Hans was commanded to meet it there. The sniper that had been dispatched to intercept the Phoenix Rising team was on schedule, reporting having seen them at a bus stop just outside of Prague. Hans expected a favorable report within the hour. Despite the allegations against him, Alaric Westing was truly the best operative the German army could have dispatched.

Hans arrived at the building in the camp where the package was being housed. It was a simple, concrete building, only one story high, sandwiched in between two larger gray concrete buildings. The building on the right had a high watchtower positioned with a view overlooking the eastern fence. While many civilian barracked were housed on the western side of the camp, there were a few barracks on the eastern side as well. Clients knew that if you wanted to find favor in the eyes of the Axis government, you wanted to stay in the western side barracks. Transferring to the eastern side was the final step before being transferred to a different facility.

Hans parked his olive-colored military car and climbed out into the light. The few clients milling about the camp between work or class assignments stared at Hans' military uniform with a sense of respect comingled with fear and hatred. Hans was the reason for their suffering, but he was also a key to their eventual liberation and re-assimilation into German society. Mostly men filled the street where Hans now stood. A man clutching a violin with only three strings walked past with a tired, resigned look in his eyes. Hans did not change his expression; musicians were usually the worst kind of trouble, stirring up all sorts of political ideas through music, hoping that government officials were too stupid or too busy to notice their rebellion.

Hans walked into the one-story concrete building and offered his identification to the young girl working the front desk. She was likely to be released within the year and receive a positive review, now that she held a government responsible work assignment. If, however, she granted access to an individual who was not approved, it was certain immediate transfer to a less favorable education facility. Hans walked with heavy, commanding footfall behind two sliding metal doors that automatically locked behind him.

A tall man with shaggy brown hair in a white lab coat greeted him with a salute upon his entrance. Hans rigidly saluted back.

"Sir, the packaged has arrived successfully," the man spoke. "All units accounted for." Hans nodded slowly, considering the man's shaking hands that clutched a clipboard with whitened knuckles.

"Are the subjects ready?" Hans asked, his deep voice booming in comparison to the man in the lab coat. The man released one hand from its death grip on the clipboard and gestured to the large panes of one-way glass over a variety of knobs and controls. Men between the ages of eighteen and thirty-five were stripped down to their undergarments, standing rigidly in a large, tile chamber. They had been transferred to the eastern barracks for unfavorable actions in work or class assignments; they were also repeat offenders.

"It's a shame, sir," the man in the lab coat said as he began to set dials and twist knobs, the control panel blinking in timely response. Hans studied the man.

"The camp string quartet now has an opening for a cellist," the man continued. Hans switched on his communication link and sent a wave to Juliana Weiss. The package had been successfully delivered, results to follow shortly.

A pale, colored gas began to fill the chamber. Some men struggled at holding their breath, while others just simply stood and allowed their lungs to fill with the noxious chemicals, resigning themselves to the only freedom they could now achieve.

After exchanging clothes with the stash Thomas' wife had prepared and hidden in the attic, the team stored their combat jackets in their bags and weapons in secure locations. Wearing street clothes, they would have blended right in. Pulling up to the gate of the airfield in Thomas' old car, Natalya could feel her pulse pounding against her temples. If her fellow teammates felt nervous, their faces certainly did not betray their emotions.

The air was thick in the car and no one dared to breathe when Thomas rolled down the window to greet the guard at the gate of the airfield. He reached his arm out the window to offer his identification card.

"Escorting a few analyst recruits, sir," he greeted cheerily. The guard scanned the card to report Thomas' information. Field Reconnaissance, honorable discharge. Max swallowed his anger at being disguised as a hacker to take down unmanned combat systems. The guard handed Thomas his identification and saluted. Thomas saluted in return and drove through the gates as they rolled open. Leo surveyed the planes sitting on the runway as they drove past. All the crafts were short range private jets, nothing capable of transporting a package unless it was small. Lizzie's reports had indicated that the package couldn't possibly have fit on one of the smaller jets.

Thomas pulled the car to a halt in front of the modular building adjacent from the hangar. The team got out of the car and followed him into the building. Thomas swiped his card and began to speak rapidly to the team.

"All flight records are stored on the airfield's private network, which is backed up to the Unified Nations Airfield Interchange Network once every two weeks," he explained. "If you're looking for your mystery plane, it's likely to be stored there."

"Assuming it hasn't already been moved," Max muttered. Wasting no time, Lizzie took point as they proceeded down the hallway, following the signs that marked the way to Information Processing. Natalya surveyed the building in wonder. What kind of private airfield would have guards and clerks to manage information and flights?

Thomas swiped his card again and the team moved into a room filled with filing cabinets, computers and large screens. Lizzie hurried to a computer that had been left on, its glowing screen broadcasting for the world to see. She typed frantically on the keyboard, searching for the recent flight logs.

"It's going to be a long shot," she muttered. Roxana leaned over her shoulder and began to survey the screen.

"There," Roxana said, pointing. "It's the only record to Berlin." Lizzie nodded and looked down at her handheld computer.

"The date's a match, too," she pointed out.

"They wouldn't fly directly to Berlin, though," Max interjected. "It's similar to the situation with the factory in Skalitz. They wouldn't actually chance a nuclear mishap in a densely populated area."

"There's enough area near Berlin that isn't accessible by plane where they could have the material stored," Roxana stated. "Suburbs don't really exist in Germany. There's the haves and the have-nots. You either live in the city or you're on your own. It would take a simple run in a truck. They probably sent it somewhere not too far away."

"Likely a re-education camp," Thomas said to Roxana. "They're secured enough facilities, but the German military doesn't really concern themselves with clients of the camp." Roxana felt an involuntarily shudder crawl its way up her spine. Lizzie downloaded the data of the flight report onto a memory stick and dropped the stick into her pocket.

"Got it," she said, standing up quickly. "Let's get out of here."

Alaric Westing had received his orders. The adversary was running straight into the lion's mouth. This time, there was no way they would make it out alive. Alaric would see to that himself.

"We need a positive identification, Alaric," Juliana Weiss had snapped at him on his communication link to Berlin. "You are not authorized to kill until ordered to do so."

His fun had been dampened by his superior's orders, but he was not to defy the command of Merriam's surviving acting commander or his general. Quite frankly, Alaric should have been second in command to Juliana. Instead, she had recruited Hans Stein, a sorry excuse for a commander if there ever was one. Alaric liked to believe it was because Stein was a pawn, and Weiss knew that Alaric would not be such a foolish buffoon, a performing monkey to execute her every whim. But Alaric liked to entertain the image of slowly murdering Hans Stein even more, being able to watch the life slowly drain from his body. Although he preferred the cleanliness of his sniper rifles and advanced weapons, there was immense pleasure in playing the game.

It didn't matter at the current moment. Alaric would have plenty of time to deal with the acting commander and her dunce after the game at hand was complete.

He had managed to make a positive identification of the squad when he tapped into Prague's surveillance system. They had crawled through the storm water management system, a novice mistake. The Axis of Unified Nations had invested thousands of dollars to install surveillance in the most unlikely places to ensure that people stayed where they were intended. The video was too dark to send to Berlin for database processing, but Alaric could plainly see that they were the group he had attempted to capture at the bus stop.

Speeding into the city, he parked the car along the street close to the manhole where the group had entered into the streets. Stepping out into the sunlight, he felt the warmth of the sun's rays bathing his pale skin in light. He took a deep breath and began walking up the street. His trained eyes scanned the streets and storefronts for anything out of place that might clue him to the group's whereabouts.

That's when it caught his eye, a program from a musical performance perched in the corner of a dress shop window.

"Stravinsky's Firebird," he snarled. Of course. He ascended the three steps to the landing and knocked on the door. An older woman, pleasantly plump with rosy cheeks, answered the door.

"Good afternoon, m'am," Alaric greeted. "I am from the army of the Axis of Unified Nations. I was wondering if you could inform me as to your husband's current whereabouts?"

Author's Note: I haven't updated in forever. And I apologize. I meant to get around to editing this chapter and posting since the beginning of September. But one thing lead to another - recital hearing, pre-student teaching, senior recital, student teaching, applying for certification... - and now, I'm finally a college graduate! With no excuse to not write. Whoops. Please review! I have a sinking suspicion this chapter was particularly shoddy and could use all the revision it can get... thanks for reading!