As soon as we entered the hall the girls came running.
“Do you guys want to take a walk?”
“Are we going to see birds?”
“I hope we do.” Sarah was usually keen on seeing new birds but I had not taken our bird guide. This was going to be interesting.
Although the kids and spouses had only recently meet the kids seem to have become fast friends. Several kids wanted to join us on our walk. The count had gotten to 6 kids when I started to feel like I was a tour guide. The only problem with that was that I did not know where I was going. This was going to be an adventure. We loaded into the elevator and made our way to the surface. The sun was high in the sky but the temp felt perfect. I looked at my watch and documented the time so we would not be out too late. At the same time Sarah went about introducing the kids. She reminded me of my oldest brother. She was not the oldest but she was a born leader. Watching her reminded me of why this project was important.
As the leader of an important project I received many visitors. I had on many occasions taken consortium members on tours so tour guide was often my title. Tour guide to my kids felt good. However, this was a little different. The kids were better listeners or maybe not. It seemed as if they asked about every plant and noise. During college I spend almost all my weekends birding, hiking or snorkeling. Nature was my escape from the carnage that was the Pale war. I missed those days, nature not the carnage. The beauty of the forest around us was a vivid reminder of how much we had lost. As we walked beneath the overhangs of magnificent trees I felt sad for our loss, but I was like a grade school teacher. The kids should not see me grief. They asked so many questions that I was looking for a reason to return to the house. I kept walking because I loved walking in nature and the many questions distracted me from what tomorrow would bring. The chirp of birds everywhere was soothing and stimulating simultaneous. The smell of trees and the distant sound of water kept me walking. Before we had noticed the sun was fast approaching the horizon. Sharon was enjoying the experience as well and I suspected it reminded her of our long weekend hikes in college and the early years of our life together. I had proposed to her while we were on a weekend hike. She did not appreciate the timing. Gladly she overlooked my bad timing.
“Mike I think it is time we turned around.” As usual Sharon always knew just the right time. That was my cue to get the kids together.
Sarah was the furthest away from us and I shouted for her and she instantly understood. She immediately lead the kids that were with her towards us. Sharon was always nervous about leaving anyone behind and so counted. They were all accounted for and we started the walk back. The sun was racing toward the horizon and without any street light the beauty of the setting sun was inspiring. The rapidity of the approaching darkness was sped up my the shad of the towering trees around us. We picked up the pace and all arrived back at base slightly sweaty. We were met by worried looking staff.
“Mr Gold, I am Mildred, and I am responsible for your safety. Please no unattended walks.”
“We just took a walk, what’s the problem.”
“The problem is that we are not alone.”
“What do you mean?”
“Have you ever seen a bear in the wild?”
“Please be careful. I’d like everyone to be in doors before sundown every day.”
“Thanks for the heads up.”
I walked away and did not intend on conforming to her request. Sharon and I both instantly understood each other. We both walk away with Sarah and Samantha following.
“Mike I see that look in your eyes. You don’t plan on complying, do you?”
“Great minds think alike.”
“That is what I thought.”
It was dinner time and I had not seen our work space. We were directed to the cafeteria and enjoyed a wonderful meal. The food was too good.
After dinner I was too tired to go looking for the new workspace. We all when to out quarters.
I was roused by my alarm, it was 6am and I did not remember going to bed. It was Saturday morning and I had nothing planned. I rolled over and went back to sleep. It had been more than 5 years since I last slept in. Sleep was wonderful and refreshing. I was jarred back to reality by Samantha pulling on my leg and calling me to come to breakfast. As I stumbled out of bed I felt the cool floor. It was a wonderful felling. The smell of fried dumplings filled my nose and brought me back to my childhood. My eyes finally adjusted to the light as we got to the table and I was treated to the beauty of a plate of ackee and salt fish with fired dumplings. It was at least 20 years since I had any of this. I had a smile on my face as I sat.
Sarah noticed, “Daddy why are you laughing?”
“Honey, Daddy is happy to have breakfast with you guys and mommy.”
“Thanks for staying home Daddy.”
Having meals with the girls was such a rare occurrence that I could not remember the last time. They enjoyed the food but had many questions. I was surprised that I could answer. For a moment I forgot how greatly the world was about to change. As I remember it, when I signed up for the project they had asked me about my favorite meal from my childhood. Now it makes sense. My other team members and their families would be having a similar experience. For just long enough we were happy. We had nowhere to be.
“Sharon, did you make this?” She started to laugh hysterically. Between the laughter she said no.
“Breakfast was delivered and the table set by our wonderful staff.”
I didn’t realize that this was the level of service that was going to be provided. As we ate I could feel the tension in the air. Sharon wanted to know more. She had been patient with me but she wanted answers. She was a remarkable woman who had given up her career for the life of a suburban housewife. She did it very well and I continue to love her just as much as the day we meet. But the time had come.
“Lets take a walk and chat after we are done here. Just us.”
“Thanks, I need the air.”
“Like the old days?”
I smiled. The old days where a distant but very pleasant memory.
Before we could finish eating there was loud wailing of a what seemed like an alarm tone. A voice come over the intercom informing us that this was not a test. It just all became real. I hugged the girls tightly and I was suddenly overwhelmed by the burden of what would be happening. I sat the girls down and they instinctively started to cry. I looked up and Sharon was crying too.
“Guys, it will be ok.”
As I tried to comfort them the reality was setting in on me. Our life as we know it was over.
“Group hug guys”
I squeezed them tightly. We were still hugging when there was a knock at the door. I opened the door but did not immediately see anyone. I stepped out into the hallway and then notice Jenny. She was walking from door to door knocking. We were soon all in the hallway. Jenny was dressed in fatigues with a pistol on her left hip.
“Ladies and gentlemen I have some news. We will have to move our plans up. Instead of Monday we will be deployed today. You will be provided gear and all team members need to be top side at 1300.”
On cue 2 big guys pushing large carts delivered our gear. By this time the families were all in the hallway. The spouses looked bewildered and the team was business like. We all took our gear and retreated into our space. There was another knock on my door and Sharon answered. It was Jenny.
“Hello, Mrs Gold, I need to speak with you and your husband.”
“Come in please.”
She sat us down and as she began to speak I drifted off into the ether. I could not believe that we were here. I had been preparing for this for my entire professional life, but never really thought of how I would handle it. I just did not want my kids to experience the same trauma I had growing up. I wanted them to have both their parents for as long as our life lasted. I had been working toward this day but never really addressed the many possible out comes. I just lost the chance to explain to Sharon what was going on and lost the chance to just hangout with the girls. A tear rolled down my left cheek. I tried to wipe it away without the ladies noticing but failed.
“It’s ok honey.” Sharon was trying to comfort me, but her tears were welling up and flowing out. I lost all control of my emotions. Sarah put on her bug sister act, “Daddy, it’s ok.”
Jenny reach over and held my had and I was surprisingly reassured.
“Mikey, it’s going to be ok. We are prepared.”
I wiped by face and Jenny continued to explain to Sharon what was happening.
“Will all the spouses get things explained?”
“Yes, everyone is being briefed as we speak.”
Sharon was looking straight into my eyes as Jenny explained what has been happening and what the next steps will be. I really wanted to be the one to explain all this to her, but I had lost my chance. She took it remarkably well. Jenny left and I started to get prepare to leave. The girls were watching TV while I got dressed. They looked so happy and content. I drew strength from their demeanor. I knew they did not understand what was to befall them but they were my reason to be strong. I was doing all this so they could have a better life. I looked up and the girls were watching me. I pulled my backpack on and gave them each a kiss. As I turned to Sharon we heard the alarm tone again. This time it was coming from the TV. This is not a test, this is not a test, shouted the voice from the TV. The volume seemed to me at maximum. It had started. We were now officially at war.
“This is not going as planned. We should have struck first.” As the words came out of my mouth I realized that someone must have known something.
It was all coming together. We had been pushed to speed up our work. We did meet the revised deadline, but we were not mentally prepared.
“Give daddy a hug.” I tried to remember the warmth of the girls. I kissed Sharon and walked out as quickly as possible. The entire team was in the hallway. All 10 of us. We did not look the part. We were all back packs and a single side arm. The light weight dress will come in handy for the next stage.
“Said your goodbyes?” All around the answer was the same. We were all ready.
“Got enough sleep?” That was a question with only one answer. As a group we made sure we got at least 8 hours of sleep every night. Most of us had been doing that from day one. We had to be prepared for the inevitable. A well rested runner was always the best. We packed into the elevator and made it top side. Once outside we meet our protection detail. I assumed that they had come in overnight. They didn’t look worse for the wear. These guys definitely knew what the mission was. They were carrying weapons designed by our team. Lightweight and programmable with biometric signatures. The alloy was top-secret and could not be used without a unanimous vote of the consortium. Jenny was dressed but it was obvious that she was not going to be apart of this mission. We listened as Jenny gave final instructions. She did not address why the mission was being fast tracked. She assured us that we had all the necessary skills to complete a successful mission. The consortium had a way of being super confident, but they might have underestimated this endeavor. I examined our all female security team and was not sure if this was the correct team. In total we were going to be 15 people on this mission.
“I am Kathy and I am going to be in charge until we reach our objective. No one falls behind unless I say so.”
Her voice seemed so mellow, but I knew better. The consortium chose all female security teams for a reason. They were better shots, more instinctive and ultimately a lot more violent to the enemy. We all put out ear pieces in and followed the instructions. We lined up with a partner. Kathy and I would be in the lead. I noticed the inscription on her jacket “You’ll never walk alone”. I asked her if she was a Liverpool FC fan. “My dad was. I am here in his memory.” We synchronized our watches and we started the run. An hour into it and I was happy that I had not been a stranger to running in the forest. It was therapeutic and distracting. The music in my earpiece was just loud enough with the perfect tempo to allow for a comfortable run. None of us knew our destination. We were following the instructions in our earpiece. Two hours in and it was time for a rest. This was a very fit group, so after only 10 minutes we were ready to continue. As we started off again we could see the difference between us lab rats and the professionals. After a 4 hour run we were instructed to make camp for the night and await further instruction. Combat meals were nothing to write home about, but the necessary calories were present. I fell asleep wondering what the girls would be doing.
The warmth of the sun on my check was enough to awaken me and as I opened my eyes I notice that I was the last one up. I packed up and was given my breakfast ration. Kathy did seen pleased.
“Guys, we are behind today. We have at least 6 hours of daylight to work with. Lets make it count.” The pace was brisk and remarkably quiet. I was surprised at the discipline of the team. The pace sped up as we went along. We made up a remarkable amount of distance and got to our target within 4.5 hours. The area covered was truly amazing, but I should not have been surprised. My entire team had been preparing for this one mission for at least 2 years. We were all the fittest people we knew. The security detail was expected to keep up. I started to chat to Kathy about how great we did and she reminded me that this was just one leg of a long and dangerous process. Her face was stern and betrayed her disrespect for me and my team.