CHAPTER TWO

At 7:00 o'clock the next morning Temple arrived at Andrews Air Force Base. As she got out of the car Gabriel walked up to her with another man close at hand. Two men opened the trunk to the car and began to remove Temple's bags.

"Right on time," said Gabriel. "That's a good sign."

"The sooner we get there the sooner we get the Genedrone," said Temple. "And that's my main priority."

"This is Lieutenant Paul Connors, my executive officer," Gabriel introduced.

"Doctor," said Connors. "Our men are moving your bags aboard the plane right now. We'll be taking off shortly."

"Thank you, Lieutenant," said Temple. "How soon before we leave?"

"Just as soon as everything's loaded," said Gabriel. "It's a long flight, Doctor. More than 14 hours. And it's not likely to be very comfortable. A C-17 isn't designed for comfort. It's designed to transport large amounts of cargo and personnel."

"I'll be fine, Colonel," said Temple.

Just then a man wearing an Air Force uniform and the rank of full Colonel approached the three. He glanced at Temple as Gabriel and Connors saluted him.

"Colonel Gabriel," said the man, "I'm Colonel Waters. I was instructed to give these to you." He handed several sealed envelopes to Gabriel. "You must have some very powerful friends, Colonel. There's no flight plan for your flight. When I called to check on it I was ordered not to be concerned with it."

"Thank you, Colonel," said Gabriel, handing the envelopes to Connors. "I trust all of our equipment was delivered."

"A Sergeant First Class Corbin checked the manifest and said he was satisfied everything was in order," said Waters. "When I asked him about it he told me to speak to you. You should speak to him, Colonel. He was practically insubordinate."

"He's got a lot to do and not a lot of time to do it, Colonel," said Gabriel. "I'm sure he meant no disrespect. But sometimes he can be quite single minded, especially when he's loading a plane for a mission."

"Your equipment should be loaded within the hour," said Waters.

"Thank you, Colonel," said Gabriel. "Now if you'll excuse me I need to see to the last minute preparations."

Colonel Waters looked at Gabriel and then at Temple. He looked as if he was about to say something then he turned and walked away without saying a word.

"He didn't seem happy," said Temple.

"I'm sure he's not," said Gabriel. "He's probably used to knowing what's going on. In this case all he knows is we're loading the plane and going to be taking off when it's loaded. And without a flight plan he has no idea where we're going. He can't be happy about that."

"Not to mention how Corbin must have treated him," said Connors, smiling slightly. "You know how he can get."

"Yeah I do," said Gabriel. "Paul, go make sure that everything is in order. We'll take off as soon as everything is loaded."

"Yes sir," said Corbin. "Doctor Temple."

"He seems efficient," said Temple as Corbin walked away.

"My entire unit is very efficient," said Gabriel. "I've handpicked each one of them for their expertise. I got Paul straight out of West Point. He's a natural born leader and when he has to take over for me I can rest assured he'll do exactly what I would do. That's important in an XO."

"I can imagine," said Temple. "Well, I suppose we should be heading for the plane."

Gabriel just smiled and led her to the C-17 that would be taking them to Antarctica. Temple had been told that the C-17 was the largest aircraft in the world. Still she wasn't prepared for the massive plane she saw on the tarmac. I dwarfed anything she had ever seen before. Gabriel saw the look on her face.

"The C-17 Globemaster III," he said. "It has a maximum payload capacity of 170,900 pounds but we won't be carrying nearly that much. This one is at our disposal whenever we need it. It's been specially modified for our uses. Normally the C-17 has an unrefueled range of approximately 5,200 nautical miles. But this one has been modified. Its unrefueled range is about 12,000 miles, give or take. From here we can reach any place in the world without refueling."

"It's impressive," said Temple. "I never realized just how big it is."

"We've also added a few amenities. While not the most comfortable beds in the world we do have cots that the passengers can use to get some sleep if they desire. There's also a small galley where you can prepare small meals if you want. We try to make our trips as comfortable as we can."

"That's nice to know," said Temple. She noticed several men and women, all dressed in military uniforms, loading crates onto the plane. "Is that your crew?"

"That's them," said Gabriel, beaming from ear to ear. "We always load our own equipment. That way there's no chance of forgetting anything. Let me introduce you to them."

They walked over to where the crew was loading the equipment. As Gabriel approached most of them simply nodded to him. Temple found this odd. She didn't know much about the military but she did know that enlisted personnel were required to salute officers.

"We're very informal," said Gabriel. "All the military protocol and sometimes get in the way of the job. So when it's just us we dispense with certain protocols." He pointed to an Asian man that seemed to be directing the loading. "This is Sergeant First Class Sam Corbin. He's a bit gruff but I couldn't run the unit without him."

"Ma'am," said the Serageant, nodding to her. "Colonel we'll be loaded soon. Everything's here."

"Good job as usual, Corbin," said Gabriel. "Get everyone on board as soon as it is."

"Will do, sir," said Corbin.

"These," said Gabriel, indicating two black men that were obviously identical twins, "are Corporals Ryan and Tyler Cable. Ryan is a trained sniper. Tyler is our explosives expert. Between them they make quite a formidable pair."

"Well, anyone can blow things up," said one of the men. "It takes real finesse to pick off an opponent at over a thousand yards."

"You aren't still harping on that are you?" questioned the other man. "We've had this discussion. You take out one target and everyone knows you're there. Then it's just a matter of finding you and taking you out. Now with an explosive you take out everyone at one time. No chance of anyone coming after you."

"You're an idiot," said the first man. "What if the explosive malfunctions? Then you haven't killed anyone and you don't get a second chance. I get as many chances as I need with my rifle. Keep it maintained properly and it won't malfunction on you."

"No wonder mom liked you best," said the second man. "As stupid as you are you needed the extra attention just so you wouldn't feel like the loser you are."

"Look who's talking," said the first man. "At least I graduated first in sniper school. You only graduate second from the explosive ordinance school. That makes me top gun. You're just second rate."

"Gentlemen," Gabriel interrupted, "can we get the plane loaded before we're scheduled to take off? We do have a schedule to keep."

"Sure thing, Colonel," said the first man. "We'll be loaded in plenty of time."

As Gabriel and Temple walked away the two men went back to arguing with each other. Temple just looked at them wondering if they'd kill each other before they ever took off.

"Don't mind them," said Gabriel smiling. "They fight like that all the time. It never becomes physical but they can never agree on anything. But don't get between them. As much as they argue with each other they're just as protective of each other when faced with a mutual opponent. And you won't find a better sniper or explosive ordinance man anywhere in the world."

"They sound like they're going to kill each other," said Temple.

"You'll get used to it. Here," Gabriel indicated a white female who was currently checking over what looked to be medical supplies, "is Private Leslie Potter. She's our medtech. I dare say her medical skills are damned near as good as any doctor I've ever seen."

"Well, you guys do give me every opportunity to practice," said Potter.

"Nice to meet you, Private," said Temple. "I'm a medical doctor. If you need any help just let me know. I'll be glad to help in any way I can."

"I appreciate that, ma'am," said Potter. "And please, call me Les. I really hate being addressed by my rank."

"Very well, Les, I'm Ann. I think we'll get along just fine."

"Everything in order, Potter?" Gabriel asked.

"Yes, sir," said Potter. "Full complement of supplies as usual."

"Good," said Gabriel. "Carry on."

Potter just smiled as Gabriel and Temple walked away. Gabriel took her over to two men who were currently going over what looked to be some electronic equipment. They both nodded to Gabriel and Temple as they approached.

"This is Private Simon Cooper, our computer and security expert," said Gabriel indicating one of the men, "and this is Private Jack Logan. Jack is our mechanical expert. If it has wheels he can drive it. And he can fix just about anything with an engine."

"Grew up in Nashville, ma'am," said Logan with a distinct southern accent. "Could drive practically before I could walk. My dad was a racer for Nascar but never did real well. But he did teach me everything I needed to know about cars and such."

"That's good to know," said Temple. "I'm afraid I'm not much of a driver."

"Oh, I can teach you, ma'am," said Logan. "Taught my sisters. All 5 of them. Also taught a lot of my cousins. I'm a good teacher. Can have you driving like a pro in no time at all. Just let me know if you're interested."

"I'll do that Private," said Temple.

"Carry on, men," said Gabriel.

"Yes sir," replied Cooper.

"Cooper doesn't talk much does he?" Temple asked as the two headed for the hanger offices.

"Not much. He never has. But he can crack any computer code and any security measures designed. I've never seen anyone with his knack for computers. If he were on the outside he could make a fortune."

"So what's he doing in the military?"

"A little agreement he had with a judge. He spends some time in the military and they don't lock him up until he's eligible for social security. Cooper hacked several very high security computer networks. He said he only did it for the challenge but I don't think the judge totally believed him. With the charges he had against him he was looking at about 50 years in prison."

"Sounds like he made the right choice."

"I like to think he did. Anyway he keeps to himself most of the time. Now Logan is a different matter. That boy goes on and on about almost anything at all. Sometimes you can't shut him up. But it's a small price to pay for his mechanical skills. And for some odd reason he and Logan are best friends."

"Opposites attract," said Temple.

"Well, here we are," said Gabriel, opening the door to the offices. "You can wait in here until we're ready to lift off. I need to check and make sure that everything is in order. There's a pot of coffee over there if you're interested. I'll send someone to get you when we're ready."

"Okay, Mike. I guess for a lot of this trip I'm just going to be a passenger."

"Just relax. We'll be in the air before you know it."

A little less than an hour later the huge aircraft lifted off from Andrews. They headed east for about an hour and then turned south. Gabriel explained to Temple that they did that so no one would know their true heading. Nothing was left to chance.

Despite what Gabriel had said Temple found the plane to be quite comfortable. For its huge size it was unusually smooth flying. There were small cubicles partitioned off so that each of the team could have someplace private to spend time if they wanted, as well as the galley Gabriel had mentioned. And there was a single communal toilet. In addition there was a large area that looked very reminiscent of a conference room. Just after they turned south Gabriel had everyone assemble in the conference room.

"Okay everyone you've all been briefed on our assignment. This is a routine hook and bag but our target is a bit unusual. It's a rogue Genedrone that apparently killed one of its handlers and several security contingent. This is Dr. Annabelle Temple. She's the head of the Genedrone Project and probably the world's leading authority on Genedrones."

"So, Doc," said Private Logan, "are you a real doctor or is it like a Ph.D. or something?"

"First let me say I'm not overly fond of the term 'Doc'," said Temple. "You can call me doctor or Ann. In answer to your question, it's both. I'm a medical doctor by profession and I also have a Ph.D. in biogenetic engineering."

"Okay, that's cool," said Logan.

"Colonel, you said it was a hook and bag," said Sergeant Corbin. "Does that mean we'll be taking it alive?"

"I've classified it as a Cat 3 priority," said Gabriel.

"Cat 3?" questioned Temple.

"A lot of what we do we have our own terminology for," explained Lieutenant Connors. "Each situation has a category assigned to it that lets the team know what's expected. Category 3 means it's to be taken alive if possible but that deadly force is authorized if necessary."

"How many categories are there?" Temple asked.

"Seven total," said Gabriel. "Cat 1 is a simple termination. We get in, terminate the target, and get out. Cat 2 is retrieval of the target at all costs. Cat 4 is retrieval of a target if possible, but retrieval of information at all costs. Cat 5 is retrieval of information only: no human targets involved. Cat 6 is where we simply observe and report on a specified location or subject. Cat 7 is extermination of a large force or installation."

"Extermination?" questioned Temple.

"Kill," interjected Ryan Cable, the sniper. "Usually some place that's a problem for the American government. It could be a terrorist training camp or an installation working on bioweps or something like that. Oh, sorry Colonel. I just assumed she had been cleared."

"No problem, Ryan," said Gabriel. "As a matter of fact, she has been cleared. She has the highest security clearance. But Dr. Temple I must impress upon you that everything you may learn on this mission is classified top secret. You can't tell anyone about it without proper clearance from me."

"I'm well aware of the security constraints, Colonel," said Temple. "I do head one of the most important and most secured government programs. And don't worry. Your secrets are safe with me."

"Good," said Gabriel. "Now, about the mission. We've all read the specs on the Genedrone. But to be honest, Doctor, a lot of it was very hard to understand. I was wondering if you could explain it to us so that we can understand what we're up against."

"I'll try," said Temple. "Well, the Genedrones were originally conceived by my father, Dr. Phillip Temple in 2027. The Genedrone Project was established and Genedrones have been produced ever since for use in high risk government areas.

"Genedrone stands for GENetically Engineered DRONES. They're genetically engineered for specific functions. The one we're going after is designed for the extreme cold conditions found conditions found in the Antarctic. This one is 8' tall and a uniform gray all over. It has an exoskeleton that is extremely thick and tough which helps protects it from the extreme sub-zero temperatures in the Antarctic.

"Technically this Genedrone is cold-blooded but its blood is a natural type of anti-freeze so it doesn't suffer the same effects from low temperatures that most cold-blooded creatures do. It only needs to rest for about 4 hours a day but requires no sleep. Its eyesight is superior to that of most cats giving it the ability to see extremely well in low light. They are able to survive on less oxygen than most animals. It can survive in areas that have as little as 11% of the normal oxygen found at sea level."

"What about offensive capabilities?" asked Sergeant Corbin. "What can we expect from this thing?"

"They are extremely strong," said Temple. "Something on the order of 6 or 8 times that of a human. It also has three razor sharp bones that it can extend from the top of its wrists that are about 3 feet long. It uses these protusions to cut through the thick ice in the Antarctic. Both of its hands also have 3 fingers with normal type claws. While not as dangerous as the bone protrusions they can still be quite dangerous.

"In addition it has an incredible regenerative ability. Most injuries will heal within a matter of minutes to a matter of hours. Even injuries that might kill one of us will normally heal within a few hours. You have to remember that it was specifically engineered for the harsh weather conditions in the Antarctic."

"How smart is this thing?" Private Cooper asked.

"It has a minimal intelligence," said Temple. "It's smart enough to understand the simple instructions give to it by its handlers. I'd estimate that it's probably about as smart as your average pet dog."

"Most pet dogs don't decapitate their owners," said Tyler Cable. "According to the information we got this thing just suddenly turned on its handler and decapitated it with one swipe of its claws."

"That's what we've been told," said Temple. "It's one of the reasons we're going down there. Genedrones are specifically engineered to be non-aggressive. In the 25 years since they've been used by the government there hasn't been a single incident of a Genedrone harming a human. I have to believe that our information from the station down there is inaccurate."

"According to the report," said Lt. Connors, "this creature killed not only its handler but 7 of the 10 security personnel assigned to the station. That doesn't sound very non-aggressive to me, Doctor."

"Now you know why we've been tagged to get this thing," said Gabriel. "Right now it's contained in one of the lower levels of the complex. But it appears that it's too much for regular security forces to handle. Our mission is to locate it and retrieve it alive if possible. But I don't want anyone taking any unnecessary risks. If we can take it alive we will. But if we have to frag this thing, we won't hesitate."

"Colonel, if it does become necessary to kill the Genedrone we'll still need to retrieve the body. Whatever caused this creature to go rogue we need to find out what it is. Optimally having the Genedrone alive would better facilitate that. But even dead there is a lot it can tell us."

"Understood, Doctor. Once we arrive at the complex I've been ordered to take command of the situation. Dr. Temple is in charge of the scientific end of the mission. In that regard if she gives any of you an order I will expect you to follow that order as if I had given it.

"I'm in command of the security aspect of the mission. We aren't going to do anything that will put either ourselves or the staff at the station in undue risk. The rules of engagement on this job are simple. If you have to engage the creature you are to shoot to wound only. Deadly force is authorized only as a last resort. If you have to make a decision between safe-guarding the staff or engaging the creature you are to safe-guard the staff.

"One last thing, people. If Dr. Temple and I determine that we can't capture or eliminate the creature, our orders are clear. We're to evacuate the complex and trigger the self-destruct mechanism. With the creature contained on one of the lower levels of the complex the self-destruct will destroy it keeping it from being a danger to any inhabited areas."

"Wait a minute," said Temple. "No one told me about that."

"It's a standard procedure in cases like this, Doctor. This Genedrone is specifically designed to withstand even the harshest winters in the Antarctic. If it should escape it could – no matter how remote the possibility – make its way to an inhabited area. If that happens it could kill a lot of people. If an armed security force was no match for it then a town full of unarmed civilians would be like sitting ducks. The self-destruct contingency is only as an absolute last resort."

"I'm not sure it did go rogue," said Temple. "All we have is a garbled message from Dr. Stone at the complex. We really have no idea what the situation is down there."

Gabriel moved over to video monitor that was built into the conference room. He put a DVD in the machine and pressed the play button. After a moment a scene appeared on the screen. It showed what looked to be some kind of recreation area. In the area was the Genedrone looking exactly as Temple had described it.

Also in the area was a man about 40 years old. The man was only seen from the waist up and the Genedrone towered over him like a child. Suddenly the Genedrone swung out with one of its hands, the three boney ridges that Temple had described extended. Almost instantly the man was decapitated and his body fell to the ground convulsing in spasms. The DVD ended.

"As you can see, Doctor, there's no question the Genedrone killed its handler. You just saw it for yourself. As hard as I find it to believe it's obvious this Genedrone has gone rogue. And that makes it a danger to anyone that comes into contact with it until and unless we can find out why it suddenly decided to kill its handler for no apparent reason."

"So if this thing is so tough, how are we supposed to capture it?" Private Cooper asked. "Is there a drug or something we're going to use to knock it out or something?"

"Unfortunately it would be very difficult to penetrate the skin of this particular Genedrone. Getting a drug into its system is problematical at best. Frankly, I'm not sure how we're supposed to capture it."

"That's my job," said Gabriel. "It's one of the reasons we were tapped for this mission. Once we're on site I'll evaluate the situation and decide how best to proceed. I'm hoping Dr. Stone might have some ideas in that area. He's been working with them for the past 7 years since the project started."

"Assuming we have to take it out," said Connors, "how do you propose we kill this thing? If its hide is as thick as you say and it can regenerate damage done to it just how the hell do we kill it?"

"Our first priority is to try and capture it alive," said Temple. "So that we can try and find out what made it go rogue."

"I understand that, Doctor," said Connors. "And if the Colonel says we try to capture it alive that's exactly what we'll do. I'm just saying what if we have to kill it? How do we kill something that can do the things this thing can do?"

"It can be killed just like any other animal," said Temple. "If you do enough damage to it its regenerative ability won't be able to repair it fast enough. It's also possible to us some kind of poison gas. It has to breathe like any animal. Poison gas will affect it just like any other animal."

"Okay, people, this one is by the book. As soon as we get there find out what security precautions they've all ready taken. Potter, I want you and Doctor Temple to help their doctor in any way you can. Cooper, I want to see any footage they have on the Genedrone since the attack. I want to see what it's been up to. Once we're settled I'll talk to Dr. Stone the administrator of the facility and formulate a plan. Everyone get plenty of rest. Get something to eat if you want. Let's just take it easy until we get there. I want everyone at 100% once we arrived. Dismissed."

Everyone filed out of the room as Temple stood next to the table. While the others were leaving the room Gabriel turned to her.

"You handled yourself pretty well," he said. "And I've all ready informed everyone that we take the Genedrone alive if at all possible. Now, let me show you to your cubicle so you can rest up. I have a feeling we're going to be pretty busy once we get to the complex.

Temple followed Gabriel out of the room to get prepared for their mission ahead.