Chapter 14

Marie had learned very quickly that nearly everything she ever did was a test. It had taken her much longer to learn how to cheat at the tests. It wasn't in her nature to cheat, but to instead try and beat them head on, matching her strength against the test's strength to find out which was stronger. Hayden knew this and, looking back, she realized that some of the tests were just to see if she would cheat, if he could get her to give up in frustration and take the easy way out. When she had refused to cooperate and had again and again failed a particular test, he had finally deigned to comment on it.

"You need to look at it differently," he said. "You don't need to attack from the front."

"But attacking from behind is cheating. It's not fair."

"Life isn't fair," he told her. "I thought you knew this by now."

This was before her leg had been scarred, and the words took on new meaning after her accident. Before, however, it was simply a frustrating thing that he would say to manipulate her thinking. She had resisted it for a long time.

"Not everyone is going to play by the rules," he told her. "Sometimes there aren't even any rules at all. You can't go imposing rules on situations like that because someone will always break them. The point is to be the first person to break them."

She had resisted, stubbornly refused, for a long time, until every test seemed to be begging her to cheat. Once, it was as simple as a math test he had handed her and then given her the answer key. When she had immediately thrown the answer key on the floor and set to work on the math test, he had grown angry. It was one of the few times he had been anything but calm.

"What are you trying to prove?" he had demanded. "Sometimes you will not know the answers or have any idea how to get the answers. If the opportunity is there to cheat, use it. You won't impress anyone with your honesty if you get all the answers wrong."

"I'm not trying to impress anyone," she had said angrily as she filled out answer after answer. He seemed surprised to have her talk back to him even in the face of his fury.

"What are you doing then? Trying to prove me wrong?"

"No," Marie replied angrily, just she reached a problem she didn't immediately know the answer to. He waited impatiently s she tapped her pencil on the surface of the table she was sitting at for a moment befre scribbling down the answer. Then she looked up at him, glaring right into his eyes/

"I don't want to cheat because I don't want to depend on cheating. I want to know if I can get the answer right on my own before I depend on potentially false information."

He had calmed himself down at least outwardly by then. They stared at each other for a long moment, her angrily, him impassively. Finally she turned and resumed her test. He just stood and silently watched her the whole time. When she had completely finished, she reached down and picked up the answer key and scanned it. She wrote down exactly one answer on her test, then handed it to him. He didn't read it. He just looked at her.

"Sometimes you will not have to time to try and salve it on your own," he told her. "Sometimes you will have to cheat."

o - o - o

Marie surveyed the expanse of volunteers that had gathered in the atrium. They hadn't seen her yet as she stood on the catwalk and she didn't call down to them. She was going to address them in person down in the atrium, but she looked down on them from the catwalk and felt pride? pity? that they would all volunteer for a mission with so little information, just because she had asked.

o - o - o

"Aren't you coming?" Salem asked Cracker Jack as she headed for the door. He shook his head.

"No, I'm not."

"Why not? Don't you care about helping Snake? He's your friend, isn't he?"

"Mars, the Queen herself said that people need to stay here. I'm more of a use here than I am in the field, okay?"

Salem, her lips tight, just nodded and ducked out the door. She didn't say anything to him. She was sure that if she did, she would say something unkind. He was probably right. She was just not willing to listen to anyone who wasn't going to go directly to Wilson's aid.

o - o - o

Wilson waited until the van had been still for nearly fifteen minutes. No one came around to unload it. He peered out the rear windows and there was no one he could see in the garage. Cautiously, he opened a door and dropped to the ground. Still no one. He sprinted out the nearest door and shed his gloves and mask quickly.

"Duke, you there?" he muttered into his earpiece.

"Right here," the man answered.

"I'm out. Where are you?"

A truck pulled up alongside Wilson as he walked as quickly as casually possible towards the woods. Duke leaned towards the open passenger window.

"Right here," he said, his voice coming from the car and Wilson's earpiece simultaneously. Wilson grinned and got into the car.

"Buckle up," Duke said, punching the accelerator with his foot. The truck leaped forward with a growl and Wilson quickly reached for his seat belt.

"The Queen's got some sort of plan," Duke told him. "She said she's going to meet us at headquarters."

Wilson blinked and stared out the windshield eagerly.

o - o - o

The Dirt Queen sat on one of the makeshift desks in the trailers, typing at a laptop as she spoke into her headset. Her leg hurt.

"Alpha Two, you are for a go," she said into the microphone.

"Roger, your majesty," the voice came back over the headset. Then the connection was gone and Marie pressed her fingers to her forehead gently for a moment. She looked up when Duke and Wilson approached the trailer.

"Welcome back, Snake Eyes," she told Wilson. He just nodded and grinned a little.

"Here's the deal," the Queen said, speaking to Wilson and Duke, as well as Slap Shot and Casablanca. "Oedipus knows about our infiltrates."

"No way," Slap Shot burst out, but Duke laid a hand on her shoulder to quiet her and she bit her lip to silence herself. The Queen kept talking.

"He hasn't done anything to them yet as far as we know, but it is likely that he is not going to let them keep roaming around free. So we're going to strike before he does."

She tapped her headset.

"We have three helicopters of people that are waiting to come in right this minute. I need all of you to come with me and help out. Do you have any way to contact the infiltrates?" She had left them to their own devices on this mission, allowing them to set up as they saw fit.

"They check in four times a day or if there is something to report, but we can't call in to them," Duke said. "Didn't want someone else to pick up and find them out."

The Queen nodded. "When is the next designated call time?"

Duke consulted his watch. "Two and a half hours from now. The last one was about an hour and a half ago."

The Queen chewed on her lip for a moment, considering.

"We're not going to wait that long," she said. "It's unclear when exactly Oedipus found out about the infiltrates. It could have been weeks ago and he was just biding his time, or it could have been less than three hours ago and he is simply preparing to move. Either way, we're not going to delay any longer." She stood up. Her leg twinged painfully. "Keep the line open with them. If any of them call, let them know that we are coming in to get them. Otherwise, they'll find out when we're knocking in the front door, won't they?" She smiled at little at the apprehensive yet eager faces.

"This is what we're going to do," she began.

o - o - o

Salem was crammed in between two people that she hadn't know two hours ago, but who now could have been her best friends. One was Elvis, his strange hair covered by his full face helmet and the other was a woman called Granny, who couldn't have been older than twenty and who had a three foot braid tucked down the back of her shirt to keep it from swinging loose. The three of them were sitting on a bench seat and clinging to their overhead straps, part of a group that was filling a battered-looking helicopter to its limits. The helicopter's blades were spinning overhead, ready to take off at a moment's notice. The noise killed most chances of a shouted conversation, but someone somewhere was singing, probably at the top of their lungs, though it barely made it all the way into Salem's ears what with the chopper's engine running and the helmet and earpiece that were effectively plugging whatever hearing she had left.

They had been sitting for fifteen minutes if that much, but it felt for all the world as if they had been there all day. The Queen had disappeared as soon as she had outlined the plans and then everything seemed to have gone into slow motion. They had all been armed and prepared and ready to move out within an hour, but it had seemed to take days. Salem was impatient to go help Wilson, she knew that, and realized that it was making it hard for her to be patient, but it wasn't just her. It seemed everyone was feeling as anxious and impatient as she was. Everyone had noticed that thing seemed to be moving so much slower than they were in real life.

Suddenly the faint singing stopped and everyone simultaneously sat up at attention when a voice crackled in over their earpieces. It was the Dirt Queen and her words were hard to make out over the chopping of the helicopter blades, but it was what everyone had been waiting to here.

"All right, people," she said in the earpiece's tiny speaker in a voice that sounded enormous, "let's do this."

With that, the helicopter and its neighbors lifted off with a jerk. Everyone looked at one another, some silently cheering, some looking apprehensive. Elvis did a fist pump into the air with his free hand and clapped Salem on the shoulder familiarly. Granny just smiled, her lips pressed together grimly, and reached back to check her braid where it was tucked in. She had a small arc of it loose at her neck so that it didn't pull her head back. She looked at Salem and nodded. Salem just nodded back, then stared out the helicopter's window at the ground as it dropped away and fell behind them. They were going to get their people.

o - o - o

Marie looked over at the others in the trailer.

"They're on their way," she said. "Now all we have to do is wait."

A/N: As you read this, I should be furiously at work on the last chapters of the story. Hopefully I'll be completely done by tonight.

In other news, the flashback at the beginning of this chapter wasn't supposed to exist at all. I was supposed to stop writing flashbacks. But I was behind in my daily wordcount and I wanted to write a flashback, so by golly, I did. It turned out to be my favorite (I think) of my flashbacks in this novel.