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do i dare or do i dare? [userpic]

Chaos fic: The New Guy (3/4)

July 13th, 2014 (08:57 pm)
gloomy

feeling: gloomy

PART ONE
PART TWO
PART THREE
PART FOUR



-o-

Though decidedly more self aware, Rick’s still pretty weak. The short walk to the door has left him spent, and though his immediate impulse is to flee, he hardly has the energy.

Beside, it wouldn’t exactly be smart. The ODS throws together some ridiculous plans on the fly, but they always have a plan.

Rick needs a plan.

This is his mission. This is his plan.

This is his.

Wobbling, he makes his way back to the cot, half collapsing onto it. Panting, he can feel sweat beading on his forehead as he struggles to catch his breath.

This is bad.

This is very, very bad.

There’s risky and then there’s stupid. His team dragged him to the village and threw themselves at the mercy of a drug dealer. They probably compromised their cover and put the entire mission in jeopardy. In fact, there’s a decent chance that they’re already dead.

Then again, Rick’s still alive. For whatever reason, he was given the antivenom, which means there’s a possibility that their cover story is in order and that Hernandez has been taken in a rare moment of compassion.

If all is truly well, however, Rick suspects he wouldn’t be sitting in this room alone. No, the absence of his team is telling, and with armed men still patrolling the village, it’s very likely that this isn’t over yet.

To the contrary, Rick fears it’s just beginning.

Even with all this, Rick’s not sure what he can do. Physically, he’s drained. Emotionally, he’s all over the map. Most importantly, he simply doesn’t have the intelligence he needs to make an appropriate and informed decision.

He’s so transfixed with this predicament that he doesn’t hear the person at the door until the latch starts to slide. Surprised as he is, there’s not much time to prep himself, so he settles for a bleak, disarming look while the person enters.

Dressed in unassuming clothing, the woman bows her head toward him, stepping forward with a tray of food and a glass of water. She puts it on the small table by his cot and is moving out the door before Rick can think of anything to ask her. It feels a bit like a lost opportunity, but the girl is clearly not part of this operation. If anything, she’s a local. She deserves to be here less than Rick does.

It’s just as well, because as she ducks back out the door, two armed guards enter with Rodrigo Hernandez right behind.

-o-

Rodrigo Hernandez is not a particularly imposing man. He’s not the biggest or the most polished. In fact, next to the men with machine guns, he looks strangely diminutive, but Rick’s read his file.

Hell, Rick made his file.

He rose from the ranks from almost nowhere. His tenure has been short and furious, starting as a low level deputy five years ago and rising to the top within the last two. He’s a self-made man, brilliant and highly teachable. He’s learned the best from all his teachers -- before he had them killed.

Rodrigo Hernandez is evidence that age isn’t superior. He’s a shining example of how experience does not need to accumulate for years to mean something. He’s the new guy who overcame that position and became something better.

He’s impressive.

He’s terrifying.

For one second, Rick indulges that terror.

Then, he smiles. “I feel like I probably owe you a thank you,” he says, climbing back to his feet. “I’d introduce myself but I have a feeling you already know me a lot better than I know you.”

His approach is flawless; his execution is perfect. If Hernandez is going to have an equal, Rick’s going to play that part as best he can.

Hernandez inclines his head slightly, entering a few steps farther. “You have been quite ill, my friend.”

Rick lifts his arm sheepishly. “I never saw it coming.”

“No,” Hernandez muses. “I do not suppose you did. Most people do not.”

“Well,” Rick says with a smile. “I have to admit, that far out, I thought I was a goner.”

“You very nearly were,” Hernandez says. “Your friends brought you here, begging mercy.”

Rick sobers appropriately. “We can pay you,” he says. “Our company, we’re insured--”

Hernandez waves a hand through the air. “I do not seek such compensation,” he says. “I am here in my own time of need. Loss can make us kindred.”

Rick knows exactly what he’s talking about, but he’s not about to admit it. He shakes his head, feigning confusion. “I’m afraid I don’t understand.”

A small smile plays on Hernandez’s lips. “Tell me, my friend,” he says with a sincerity Rick almost believes. “Who are you? Why do you come so far out into the wilderness?”

This is a test, and Rick knows it. It’s possible that several days have passed, and even if it’s only been several hours, a man like Hernandez isn’t going to let four strangers wander into his camp without asking questions. His team has a cover story in place, and if Hernandez suspects anything, he’ll be looking for flaws in the delivery.

In short, Rick has to get all the details right. He has to put together the relevant facts from his venom-inspired hallucinations and hope to hell he gets it right.

If he gets it wrong, then all this is probably for nothing. He’ll be dead, and his team will be, too.

The only option, therefore, is just to get it right.

Rick smiles effortlessly. “Adam Helios,” he says, extending a hand. When Hernandez doesn’t take it, he lets it fall with a shrug. “Part of Last Chance Productions. We focus mostly on important environmental causes. Our biggest success was a documentary on the melting of the Arctic Circle.”

He’s pushing it, and he knows it. Too many details means there are plenty of things to get wrong. But Rick knows his team, and he knows how to sell a cover story out of absolutely nothing.

“Funny,” Hernandez says. “Your teammates told me of their shoot in Africa last year and called it their best work.”

Rick snorts. “Of course they did,” he says. “We made it big in Europe with that one, and it paid royalties. But the Arctic Circle -- that’s the one that made a difference. It may get picked up by Public Broadcasting back in the States.”

Hernandez nods idly. “Last Chance Productions?” he asks.

There’s a horrible second when Rick thinks he’s got it wrong. When he thinks he’s confused reality with hallucination and he’s just blown everything.

That just one second, though. In the midst of three years.

Rick nods soberly. “The way we use this earth and ignore the consequences. It’s like cutting trees from their roots and watching the whole thing die,” he says. “This is our last chance, I think. We just have to be smart enough to see it.”

“And smarter still to do something about it,” Hernandez muses.

“Are you an environmentalist?” Rick asks.

Hernandez chuckles. “Not in so many words,” he says. “I value nature, though, and respect the things it gives us. Nature is entirely honest, after all. It is the only thing we can trust. People, on the other hand, they are duplicitous and dark.”

The conversation is taking a turn, and Hernandez is revealing something. This is no longer a roundabout interrogation. Hernandez has asked his questions, and Rick’s given his answers.

Which means it’s time for a reckoning.

Rick swallows, shifting awkwardly.

Something settles in Hernandez’s face, and his smile soften ominously. “Your friends have told me much the same story,” he says.

“Well, we’ve been together for a while,” Rick says. “Three years, actually. It’s not exactly a business where you make a lot of friends, doing what we do. So I can say how grateful I am, how grateful we all are, really.”

“Three years,” Hernandez says with a slow nod. “They are friends indeed, then.”

“You have no idea,” Rick replies.

Hernandez offers him a cold smile. “Friendship is not so difficult. Friends are merely enemies you have impressed. I have many friends, Senor Helios.”

Rick lets himself stiffen, reminding himself that a little fear would be appropriate for a wayward film crew lost in the Amazon. “If there’s anything I can do--”

“You have given your answers,” Hernandez says. “I believe it is my turn.”

“Your turn?” Rick hedges.

“Friends are honest with each other, Senor Helios,” Hernandez says. “I have given you the benefit of the doubt and given you a cure and shelter, but my kindness is not exhaustive and it is not without its needs. If we are to part ways as friends, I must be sure that you are worthy of the title.”

“Um,” Rick says. “Okay--”

Hernandez lets out a small laugh. “You need not fear,” he says. “I would not hurt a recovering man.”

“Can I see my friends maybe?” Rick asks.

“Your friends are not recovering,” Hernandez replies. “Did you know that I buried my mother today?”

Rick lets his face register surprise. “Oh, I’m so sorry--”

Hernandez nods. “It was difficult for me. I loved my mother very much. I did not enjoy her funeral,” he explains.

“Of course not--”

Hernandez doesn’t let him finish. “Her funeral was difficult,” he continues heedlessly. “Another one -- another four, even -- would not be. I do not grieve for friends the way I do family. As for enemies -- well, I do not grieve for them at all.”

Rick blinks, and reminds himself that the cold terror running through his veins is entirely natural. He’s being threatened, and no matter if he’s a filmmaker or a spy, this is reason to be scared. “If I could just get my things--”

“Rest well, Senor Helios,” Hernandez says with no further debate as he heads to the door. “If you think of something else I should know, feel free to let me know.”

With that, Hernandez is gone, leaving one of the armed men behind. Rick stares for a moment, but the man doesn’t so much as look at him.

Awkwardly, Rick sits back down on the bed. The food and water is still there, but he’s not hungry anymore.

Now is no time to eat.

No, Rick thinks as he looks at the man by the door, now is the time to plan.

-o-

The good news is that Rick has time to think.

He’s recovering from a near fatal snake bite, so while he’s under the watch of an armed guard, there seems to be no immediate demands on his time or attention. Someone checks his wounds and listens to his heart -- a doctor, Rick presumes, making note of the face and other important physical features -- and he finally lets himself eat and drink as much as they will feed him before laying back on his bed, presumably to rest.

Rick doesn’t sleep, though.

There’s too much to consider.

And that’s really where the bad news starts.

And pretty much doesn’t stop.

Hernandez is suspicious. This is to be expected, given his profession. This is also why Rick had planned this mission to avoid a direct confrontation with the man or any of his contemporaries. Infiltrating this type of operation is a multi-year process, and without complete knowledge of the command structure, even attempting it would probably be suicide. Rick had always suspected that any kind of actual contact with Hernandez would end in disaster because a man in his position doesn’t stay in his position by being unassuming with chance encounters.

In short, Hernandez is going to think everyone is out to get him. Whether he thinks they’re spies or plants from the competition, it’s pretty hard to say, but ultimately it doesn’t matter. It’s pretty clear what Hernandez will do with enemies.

It’s also probably pretty clear why that cemetery in a remote village is so damn full.

Although that’s disconcerting, the likelihood that Hernandez wants to kill them isn’t actually the biggest problem. The problem also isn’t the fact that their cover isn’t going to hold.

And it’s not going to hold. There’s no way it can hold. CIA covers are made with the utmost care and precision. It’s not just about everyone telling the same lie with such ease that people want to believe you; it’s about having verifiable facts to back up those lies. That’s why there are entire departments dedicated to taking cover phone calls. Because criminals and terrorists don’t generally take your word for anything. They like to make sure.

Rick’s planned extensively for his mission, but every detail he’s put in place has not been for a team of filmmakers. There is no record with the CIA of a team of filmmakers called Last Chance Productions. Even if Michael has done something genius and passed along Fay’s private number or Adele’s, there’s no way Hernandez is going to be stupid enough to provide enough information on an initial call to corroborate the story. Plus, there’s no fictional anything. There’s no website, there’s no listing of their past titles on IMdb.

There’s nothing there to back up their story because it’s not a story they prepared for. It won’t take much to confirm Hernandez’s doubts, and it probably won’t take long.

In fact, Rick’s slowly putting together the passage of time and has mostly deduced that at least several days have passed. It hasn’t been a week, as best he can tell, but given the amount of weight he’s lost and the healing on the bites, it’s safe to say he’s been out of it for a while.

Which means that his team has been milking this cover story for as long as they can. Chances are, they’ve given out defunct phone numbers, which is a great way to prolong things since it confirms and denies nothing. However, it does seed more doubt.

That probably explains why Hernandez was so passive aggressive. He’s been asking questions and getting answers he can’t back up. The threats are veiled to Rick, but he suspects they’re a bit more than that with the rest of his team. Hernandez had been explicit about not hurting a recovering man.

So three men spinning stories?

Rick’s too aware that this likely implies his teammates are undergoing a more aggressive interrogation. He remembers vague snippets of punches and gunshots, but there’s no way to know if those things actually happened or not.

Regardless, even if his team is currently safe, they won’t stay that way long. The lies will be confirmed soon enough, and then the mission will be over.

Rick always planned this mission to be his last with the ODS. Now it stands to possibly be the last mission for the ODS -- period.

Except, there’s one point left, and it may be the best news yet: this mission’s not over yet.

Rick’s alive and recovering. His team’s alive.

All he needs to do is escape, mount a rescue, all while in a remote village occupied by a drug cartel.

And it all starts with Rick.

-o-

As far as plans go, Rick’s really not having his best mission. His original plan, which had been good, hadn’t turned out at all. His secondary plan, which really should have worked, had ended with him being bit by a poisonous snake.

For his third plan, he’s scraping the bottom of the barrel. He’s got no leverage, no backup, and no idea what he’s actually dealing with. All things considered, it’s just about par for the course.

Except for the part where Rick has no idea how he’s going to pull it off.

He just knows he’s going to.

The alternative simply isn’t acceptable.

So his plan is this: disable the guard, sneak out of his hut, explore the village, find his team, break his team out, and leave together.

This plan is, of course, contingent on a number of factors. First, he has to knock out an armed guard without causing a scene. Then, somehow he has to sneak out and move around a village filled with armed guards in order to find his team. He has to hope his team is being held together, and he has no way of knowing their condition. Then, he has to somehow get them all out of the village and into the jungle where they have to hope for rescue.

Rick makes a mental note. He has to somehow steal a phone, too. Otherwise it’s going to be a long walk back.

If he makes too much noise overthrowing his guard, he’ll have the whole village on him. If he is seen by anyone outside, he’ll be subdued within minutes. If his team is too spread out or too hurt, someone will probably notice he’s missing before he can successfully secure them all. If he can’t get them out of the village unnoticed, they’ll be overrun within minutes even if they make it to the rainforest.

It’s ambitious.

But Rick’s been doing this for three years. He’s good at this kind of thing.

At least, he thinks so.

It’s probably about time to find out.

-o-

The first thing he needs to do is disable the guard.

As far as things go, that’s pretty straightforward. Except for the fact that the man has a gun and is significantly larger than Rick. Rick is also recovering from a near fatal snake bite, and every time he gets up, the blood rushing to his head makes him dizzy.

He thinks about what Casey would do. Casey doesn’t have size on his side, and while he’s quick and surprisingly strong, he’s also not stupid. There’s no way to sneak up on a man with his back to the door, which means the best way to get the advantage is to make one.

Rick doesn’t have much, but he does have a pathetic, sickly disposition, and he is recovering after almost dying. Approaching the guard in any form will likely set off alarms, but if he can get the guard to approach him--

Well, that’s the sort of thing that would make the ODS proud.

It takes planning, like Michael. It takes finesse, like Billy. And it takes sheer strength, like Casey.

Fortunately, Rick has all three.

On top of that, he’s the new guy -- and he looks like it. A bit of doe eyed need can go a long way.

He shuffles on the bed, making no secret of trying to get up. He moans, flailing blindly, as if looking for the glass of water he knows is empty. When he lifts it, he lets his hand shake, and he whimpers pathetically as he tries to put it back on the side table. With uncoordinated movement, he jars his hand, sending the glass to the ground. It clatters, skittering away, and Rick stifles a cry and tries to sit up.

As he reaches forward, he throws his balance off, sending himself head first off the cot. The force is enough to tip the small bed, until he’s in a mess on the floor.

It’s quite the act -- a bit too much, if Rick had to say so himself, but he’s learned that it’s pretty hard to oversell this sort of thing. He has to appear completely helpless and pathetic to motivated an armed guard to momentarily abandon his post.

Looking up, he groans again. When he sees that the man is still hesitating in the entryway, Rick grits his teeth and takes it to the next level. Propping himself up on his hands and knees, he attempts to stand before curling in on himself with a mewl of agony. Desperate, he flings himself back, contorting his body in rigid angles while letting his stricken face stay plainly visible.

If pathetic won’t do it, abject pain very well could. The man may not have much compassion, but he does care if Rick lives or dies because Rick’s well being is partly his objective at the time being. Rick’s banking on the idea that the man probably doesn’t want to explain to his boss, the violent criminal, why a captive has died under his watch.

And it pays off.

He hears the shuffle of the man’s feet, and when he glimpses through slitted eyes, he sees the man has slung his gun behind him with both hands out to help as he bends over.

Which is the only opening Rick’s going to need.

It’s also the only opening he needs.

With quick movements, Rick flings himself up, grabbing the man’s outstretched hand and yanking him to the ground. He hits with an oof face first, and Rick rotates quickly, pressing himself on top of the other man and wrapping an arm around his throat as efficiently as possible. The man makes a strangled noise and bucks, but Rick has the leverage now and he bears down with unrelenting pressure. Within seconds, the man starts to weaken, and Rick holds on long enough for the other man to go completely limp.

Breathless, he released the hold and staggers up. The man beneath him doesn’t move, which is good since Rick feels more than a little light headed after the exertion. Still, he has the presence of mind to take two zip ties out of the man’s pocket -- meant for Rick, no doubt, in case of emergency -- and quickly applies them to the man’s wrists and ankles, looping one to the sole working water pipe that is coming out of the ground in the center of the room. He rips a makeshift gag from a bed sheet, stuffing enough inside his mouth to mute him without choking him.

Standing back, it looks good. The man won’t be out long from a simple blood choke, but hopefully with the extra measures, Rick has bought himself a few minutes. A half hour, if he’s extremely lucky. The man won’t be able to go anywhere, and he won’t be able to call for help, which means someone will have to come by and check before they figure out what’s happened.

That could be minutes, but it is usually at least an hour between visitors, sometimes more. Rick can only hope that with the mid-afternoon lull, he’ll be expected to rest without interruption. That way, he’ll have enough time to search the compound and find his team before things get dicey.

At least, that’s the plan as it currently stands.

If it doesn’t work out--

Well, it’s too late to think about that now.

Now, it’s time to act.

And that’s just what Rick intends to do.

-o-

After securing the guard, Rick moves as quickly as he can to the door. Peeking out the front, he ducks back down immediately. The village is small, and worse than that, it’s crowded. Whatever entourage Hernandez has brought with him, it’s clearly maxed out the village’s normal capacity for guests. On the one hand, this means there aren’t a lot of places to keep the rest of the ODS. On the other, it means Rick’s not exactly going to have an easy time blending in.

Clearly, a direct escape is basically suicide.

Chewing his lip, he makes his way to the back of the hut. There’s no door or window, so he moves into the added on bathroom, which is little more than a spigot and a hole in the ground. He takes a moment to peek through the cracks, noting with some amount of relief that there’s nothing back there -- just open space before the start of the treeline.

Rick feels along the walls at the back, pressing against them experimentally. This room is clearly a recent addition, and it’s not like the construction of any of the house is all that impressive. No doubt, this is a quick lean-to built by Hernandez’s team to accommodate the influx of people for the burial.

With that working assumption, Rick takes a breath and kicks. The sound of his boot against the wood is painfully loud, but he refuses to be deterred. He kicks again, a bit harder now, and the wood starts to give. With a third kick, it splinters. After a fourth, there’s a small hole, just big enough to crawl out.

It’s not exactly an impressive escape -- Rick’s basically crawling out the back of a toilet -- but he’ll take what he can get. Besides, he’s been around Billy long enough to know a thing or two about embellishment. A few choice words and a creative retelling, and this will be one hell of a story to tell his teammates when they get back home.

First things first, though.

Rick has to find them.

-o-

Rick makes it about ten feet before he remembers just how much his body has been through. He’s underfed, probably a little dehydrated, and the effects of the venom can still be felt lacing through his muscles. He’s weak, and he’s easily winded, and he’s already overpowered one guard and kicked his way out of his room.

Needless to say, Rick’s a little tired.

Better put, Rick’s exhausted. He wants to sleep more than he can articulate, and it seems like he hasn’t had a chance to rest in the entire three years he’s been with the ODS.

Given the fact that he’s an escaped quasi-prisoner with a very narrow window of opportunity, that rest is going to have to wait.

He moves as fast as he can, trying to keep his feet light as he sneaks from one building to the next. He pauses at corners, a little to catch his breath, but also to scope out the rest of the scene as best he can.

The village is even smaller than he thought, and from his vantage point outside the hut, it’s clear there’s not many places to actually hide. Armed guards are milling about, and those who seem to be local scurry about without looking up. A few kids dare to chase a ball through the streets, but their mothers hush them back into the house.

It takes a few minutes, but Rick’s able to get a lay of the land pretty quickly. The west part of the village is clearly the older part with houses that look more organic and well cared for. Those are the people who actually live in the village. The eastern half, which is better organized and more efficiently laid out, has clapboard shakes and rudimentary signs of running water. The men are more heavily concentrated to this side, but it’s pretty clear those are the buildings Hernandez has added.

It becomes clear that this is not some slipshod production put on by Hernandez. This isn’t just where he wants to bury his mother or even where he was born. This is actually Hernandez’s home base, as best Rick can tell. The scope of the infrastructure is too expansive to be solely for a funeral, and it’s not exactly brand new.

Hernandez never forgot his roots, he’s just been building something entirely new on top of them.

Which means, well, this is huge. This discovery is huge. They’ve been trying -- and failing -- to pin down Hernandez for months, and he’s here. He’s been here all along. Literally building himself from nothing in his own backyard. Production is likely occurring elsewhere, but this is probably the business hub of the operation.

And Rick’s found it.

He spares a moment for giddy relief -- and pure exhaustion. As much as he’d like to wallow in this victory by taking a good nap, he still has to get out of here if the intel is going to be worth anything at all.

Narrowing his eyes, he looks over the grounds once more, focusing his attention on the east half of the village. Most of the buildings seem to be well occupied, with people coming and going. Some have open doors; others have open windows.

Except one.

There’s one near the graveyard, on the far side of the road. The door is closed, and there are no windows. A pair of guards flank the door.

Either Hernandez is really concerned about his paperwork, or there’s something inside that hut that he doesn’t want people to get into.

Or, more accurately, that he doesn’t want to see get out.

Like three hostages of unknown origin.

Of course, they could be in separate locations, but none of the other huts fit the bill. No, that’s the only one that makes any sense, and Rick feels good about his logic.

That’s the one.

Rick takes a breath, and lets it out.

That’s the next place he needs to go.

And he needs to go there now.

Before he gets caught or passes out.

Now.

-o-

He moves before he has a chance to really think about it. If he stops, he may never start again -- the desire to sleep is pretty damn strong at this point. It doesn’t even have to be sleep. Rick would be pretty satisfied just sprawling out on the dirt and staring at the sky.

But that would probably get him killed, so rest is probably not the best idea.

Not that moving through the village is really all that much smarter. He moves as far as he can behind the rows of houses, approaching the building he’s identified from the back. It takes longer this way, but it seems like the best approach in terms of not getting caught.

Still, he knows there’s a man who’s probably coming to back in his own building, and Rick’s time is limited before he gets loose or someone finds him there.

Rick pushes himself, moving his legs as fast as he’s able, pulling to a stop behind each building and peeking around the edge to make sure the coast is clear before he bolts again. It goes surprisingly well, really. The guards are alert, but they’re not exactly looking for an escaped man. For most of them, this is probably just another day in the office. Rick knows what happens when you work for someone who is a paranoid bastard: you either stop caring or you care too much.

For Rick, it was the latter.

For these men -- hired guns without many other prospects -- it’s probably the former.

This doesn’t bode well for their career advancement, but it does increase Rick’s probability of not dying a horrific and painful death within the next ten minutes.

Assuming he doesn’t die from a heart attack first.

The village isn’t large, but his jog around the exterior is taking its toll. He’s sweating through his shirt, and his heart is pounding so loud that he can barely hear anything else. Breathing is more than a little difficult because it feels like there’s a vice around his chest.

Apparently snake venom can be pretty hard to recover from.

Rick doesn’t have time for that, though. The muscles in his legs are burning, and his vision is a little hazy as he makes his way around the last couple of buildings. He has to wait for a few men to walk by before he finally stumbles his way to the building in question.

Mercifully, it’s on the perimeter, which means Rick doesn’t have to risk leap frogging into any of the interior spaces. He’s so relieved that he half collapses to the ground, just barely keeping himself from thunking heavily against the backside.

As it is, he still needs a minute to catch his breath.

Maybe more.

On his knees, he lets his head drop to the ground and almost cries because he’s so tired. He’s done some crazy things before, but this--

This is probably the craziest. It’s a remote village surrounded by the rainforest, occupied by a drug dealer who is probably hours away from deeming their cover a complete a total fraud. Rick’s overpowered his guard and is attempting to break out three men from under observation all while trying -- and somewhat failing -- to recover from a near lethal snake bite.

This has to be his last mission with the ODS; there’s no way he can top it.

Assuming, of course, he survives.

Either way, it’s the last mission.

He’s still breathing so heavily that he almost misses the hush of voices coming from the other side of the clapboard walls.

Almost.

Alert again, he sits up, leaning closer to try to listen more clearly. The voices are low -- clearly meant to be private -- so it’s hard to make out. But the words, the cadence -- it’s not Spanish.

It’s English.

Hernandez speaks English, and presumably so would some of his deputies, but conversational English in private? Rick doubts that.

No, this is where the ODS is being held.

Rick’s found them.

Rick’s found his team.

He almost laughs, just barely choking it back into a small grunt of joy.

That’s when he hears the unmistakable sound of a gun’s safety being unlocked.

Rick freezes, turning his head back until he sees the armed man, coming in from the treeline.

With a gun pointed straight at Rick.

-o-

There always seems to be a point, in every mission, when someone is being held at gunpoint. It doesn’t seem to matter where they go or what they are doing -- tripping up some type of local security is practically a given. Rick should have expected it.

Except he’s been so busy not passing out that he let himself get distracted. It’s not his fault; he got bitten by a snake, not that anyone will care if he ends up dead.

Dying isn’t the plan, though.

Rescuing his team is the plan. He’s so close now -- he’s not going to let one guard stop him.

The man barks at him in Spanish, and Rick only has a split second to decide his best course of action. He has to play to his strengths.

Rather, at the moment, his weaknesses.

He exaggerates his breathing, trying to get to his feet. He stumbles, and blinks his eyes, letting his head roll loosely on his neck. “Where am I--” he slurs, trying to look sufficiently dazed. “I don’t--”

As he gets closer to the man, he takes a chance and starts to flop forward, hoping against hope that the man has an ounce of compassion and spares him from a face plant.

There’s a curse in Spanish, and Rick’s downward momentum is thwarted right before he hits the ground. It’s still an awkward fall, and he flutters his eyelids, catching a glimpse of the man, looking especially put out. But he’s holding Rick with both hands, which means the gun has been put to the side.

On the ground, in a holster, on the back -- Rick doesn’t know. All that matters is that it’s not pointed at his head.

Rick tries not to smile as he opens his eyes and springs into an attack.

He’s not up to full strength or speed, but the element of surprise is certainly in his favor. He rams himself upward, slamming his head beneath the man’s chin. The force topples them both, and the man lands solidly on the ground. Rick gets to his feet with a stagger -- it’s not act this time -- and he’s blinking away the spots in his vision when his legs are swiped out from under him.

It’s his turn to hit the ground hard, and the jarring impact blackens his vision for a moment. Even dazed, though, he’s aware that he’s under attack, and he kicks out with all he has.

And for once in this mission, he gets lucky. He makes contact, not too high, not too low.

Just where it needs to be.

The man grunts and wheezes, toppling forward in obvious pain. Rick’s vision is starting to clear, just in time to see the man’s red face in his line of vision.

Perfectly poised for one last hit across the face. Rick balls his fist and rears back, aiming just the way Casey taught him to optimize the force of the impact and induce immediate and lasting unconsciousness--

And he lands the punch.

It’s flawlessly placed, if a little weak, but it’s more than a enough for the man’s face to go blank before he slumps to the ground.

Panting, Rick tries to catch his breath, listening keenly for sounds of anyone approaching. But it’s still quiet, the normal sounds of the village over the noise from the jungle nearby. On the ground, the man is sprawled and unconscious.

Success, Rick thinks.

Not that it’s enough.

With the ODS, nothing is ever enough.

-o-

As much as Rick would like to pass out, he figures finishing this mission is probably a better option. He’s gotten this far, so leaving his team behind would be pretty stupid.

Bent over the guard, he takes the gun before moving back to the hut. Leaning close, he wills his heart to stop pounding so he can listen for any sound. It’s quieter now -- the hushed voices have stopped -- and there’s nothing but eerie silence from within.

There are two possibilities -- at least, two likely possibilities. First, it’s possible that in the time it’s taken Rick to not die, his team has been moved. Second, his team may have heard the scuffle and, for lack of information, have decided to be quiet and try to learn more.

Rick’s banking on the second option pretty hard. At this point, if that’s not the case, then the whole thing is completely screwed.

Rick closes his eyes and takes a moment to breath. Things would be more screwed. Because it’s not like things have gone so well so far.

Still, Rick hesitates, mentally confirming that guards had been stationed outside the room. This means there are probably none positioned inside as well.

At least, that’s what Rick hopes as he taps a light message in morse code at the back of the hut. ODS.

He waits a moment, holding his breath as more sweat collects on his brow line. He considers tapping again, but then he hears a small shuffling before there’s a muted tapped reply. Rick.

Rick grins, and then taps again. Clear?

This time, there’s no delay. Do it.

It figures that they’re giving him an order, when he’s the one doing the rescuing. Rick’s a bit too relieved to care at the moment, and the prospect of chewing them out via morse code simply seems impractical.

Besides, he’s faced with a more daunting task: getting his team out.

He’s identified the hut; he’s subdued the guard; he’s made contact.

But his team is still in a guarded hut and Rick has no convenient entry point. Any noise would likely be noticed -- the guards on the outside are surely not that inept -- and so Rick has to find some way to get them out without attracting attention.

All of which is easier said than done.

He has to think.

He just has to think.

He’s a good spy. He’s a really good spy. He can do this.

He will.

His eyes widen, and he turns. The man is still unconscious on the ground, and Rick goes back to him. Even stripped of his gun, Rick highly doubts the man is unarmed. He finds another gun in a holster at his hip, but a further search reveals a blade tucked next to it. Hastily, Rick pulls it out, holding it up. It’s not too big, but it’s definitely not small. The blade is thick and sturdy with thick striations grooved into the metal.

Rick glances back toward the hut, remembering the thin walls of his own such hut. The wood isn’t exactly high quality, which means it broke easily under Rick’s pressure.

Which means it should, in theory, cut decently, too.

Hurrying back, Rick gives the hut a quick look over, noting that this one doesn’t even have a makeshift bathroom. No doubt, his friends have been kept in significantly worse conditions than he had. This means there’s no private entry point, so Rick shifts to the farthest corner and primes himself.

This is a necessary part of the rescue, but it’s also going to be one of the noisiest. His own escape was risky, but this is more so. With guards right outside -- plus, Rick’s up against the clock. He’s not entirely sure how much time has passed -- his sense of things is a bit blurred given his current state of exhaustion -- but he knows it’s been at least ten minutes, which means the likelihood of his escape being discovered is growing with every passing second.

For a moment, he considers running. It’s not entirely selfish -- if he escapes successfully, he’d be better poised to mount a rescue. A full scale rescue would be more effective, especially given the fact that Rick’s vision still occasionally doubles and his heart palpitations are worrisome.

But if he leaves, if he goes without his team, there’s a good chance by the time he gets back, there’d be no one to rescue. The village would be deconstructed or up in flames, and if they ever found the rest of the ODS, it would only be their corpses. Rick would be responsible for their deaths and the loss of the entire village.

No, Rick’s going with his team.

Or he’s not going at all.

Gritting his teeth, he lifts the knife. Quickly, he judges the space and puts the tip between two boards at about the level of his chest. Then, with no further hesitation, he starts to saw.

It’s painfully loud to his ears, but he refuses to stop. The gentle gnawing would be easy to place with any number of village activities or rainforest sounds.

At least, that’s what Rick hopes.

The first board seems to take forever, and Rick’s arm is aching by the time he almost cuts his way across the top. He frowns, finding portions have not cut all the way through, and he stifles a curse as he goes back and hacks with new vigor. The board is starting to come loose, and Rick is making progress when suddenly there’s a force from the inside.

Just like that, the board snaps off toward Rick, leaving a significant hole. Rick sees the flash of a hand -- Michael’s by the size and age of it -- and feels tension start to unfurl in his chest.

With renewed motivation, he starts on the next board, cutting as fast as he can. It goes faster this time, and Michael is already wrenching it free before Rick’s even finished the sawing process.

The gap is wider, but not quite wide enough, so Rick starts on the third, ignoring the persistent throb in his arm. He’s lucky he was bit in his left arm or the task in front of him would be impossible.

Even as it is, Rick’s heart is racing by the time he finishes, and there’s a fresh sheen of sweat all down his back and chest when Michael pushes the last board out and bends down to peer out the hole.

Michael’s face is bruised, with dried blood around a split lip and a gash on his cheek. He offers Rick a quizzical look. “So this is your idea of a rescue?”

Rick snorts, tucking the knife into his belt. “Better than the one you guys planned.”

“Hey, you’re alive, right?” Michael asks.

“Yeah,” Rick says. “But we’re in a village controlled by drug dealers and your cover is about to be blown. So I wouldn’t exactly brag about it.”

Michael chuckles with a wince. “Touche,” he says. “But the same could be said for you.”

“Not for long,” Rick says. “Because we’re leaving. Now.”

Michael nods. “I won’t argue with that.”

“Well, then,” Rick mutters. “There’s a first for everything.”

-o-

It’s not that easy, of course.

This is the ODS. Nothing is ever easy with the ODS.

But honestly, Rick hadn’t expected it to be quite this bad.

Casey crawls through first, which seems normal enough until Rick realizes that Casey’s leg has been splinted. “Wait,” Rick says. “Your leg--”

Casey grunts, settling himself heavily on the ground. He looks about as gaunt as Rick feels. “--is broken, yes,” he says.

“And you’re still moving?” Rick asks in due incredulity.

“You survived a toxic snake bite,” Casey counters. “This is nothing.”

“Can you walk?” Rick hisses.

Casey allows himself a sheepish shrug. “This is almost nothing. But trust me, we’ve got bigger problems.”

Rick’s about to ask what could possibly make this any worse, when Billy starts to crawl out. He only makes it part way before he needs to rest, and Casey’s right there, grabbing him under his armpits and dragging him free. They collapse together in a heap of limbs, and Rick sees the bigger problem.

He breathes a curse. “Have you been--?”

“--shot?” Billy asks with a wheeze. His face is ghostly white, and there are lines of pain etched into his forehead. The bandage around his shoulder is pathetic at best, ragged and completely soaked through. “Thought you were conscious for that bit.”

“I thought I was hallucinating,” Rick says.

“Ah, well,” Billy murmurs, still breathing heavily. “Couldn’t let you blokes have all the fun, eh?”

Rick’s about to ask Billy to clarify his definition of fun when Michael pulls himself through the opening. Bruised and battered as he is, he’s the fittest among them. So when he staggers a step to his feet, Rick is feeling less and less optimistic about their odds.

“So,” Michael says. “Have you got a plan?”

Rick looks at him. He looks at Casey with his broken leg and Billy with his gunshot.

“I’ll be honest, the plan worked a whole lot better when you three could run,” he says.

“Your plan was to run into the forest and hope for the best, wasn’t it?” Michael asks

“Um,” Rick says. “Yes?”

“That’s not a plan,” Michael argues in a hushed tone.

“Yes, it is!” Rick whispers back vehemently.

“Well, it’s a bad plan,” Michael says.

“We already discussed how my plan is still better than your plan,” Rick says.

“As fun as this is,” Casey interjects. “Aren’t we kind of short on time?”

“And everything else, for that matter,” Billy adds.

“Okay, okay,” Rick says, all in a rush while he tries to get his thoughts together. It’d probably be easier if he didn’t feel like passing out so much. He blinks, swallows, nods. “Okay. New plan.”

“Is it better than the old one?” Michael asks.

“Well,” Rick says, “I’m not sure it could get any worse.”

-o-

Moving is harder now. Though both Casey and Billy get gamely to their feet, they’re slow and cumbersome, tipped against each other as they hobble around. Rick’s first move is to the treeline, where he picks a dense spot and nods.

“Okay,” he says. “You guys stay here--”

His team looks at him with varying degrees of disbelief.

Rick rolls his eyes. “I’m literally just going to scope things out,” he says. “Believe it or not, I wasn’t expecting this village to be a cover for his drug operation. I was focused on getting you guys out, not mapping it.”

“So reconnaissance,” Michael says.

“What a novel idea,” Billy muses.

“Aren’t you supposed to do that before you plan a mission?” Casey asks.

“Hey, we were never supposed to be in the village,” Rick shoots back. “That’s on you, not me.”

“Well, you were sort of dying at the time,” Michael reminds him.

“And we did entirely save your life,” Casey says.

“Do you want a thank you?” Rick asks. “Is that what you want? Someone to stroke your egos?”

Billy shrugs. “Wouldn’t be all bad--”

Rick groans. “I’ll be right back,” he says, shaking his head.

At their looks of concern, Rick rolls his eyes again.

“I promise.

Michael gets to his feet. He still looks a little woozy, but he does a remarkably good job of keeping it from showing. “I’m going with you.”

“Oh, come on,” Rick says. “It’s not exactly a two-man job--”

“Martinez, this is a village run by a drug cartel,” Michael reminds him. “What will soon be a very angry drug cartel once they realize we’ve escaped. I’m coming with you.

Rick glares at him. “Fine,” he says tersely. “Just...keep up.” He turns to leave with one last look at Casey and Billy. “And you two, try not to make things worse.”

“I will do my utmost,” Billy pledges.

“What, like get bit by a poisonous snake?” Casey asks.

Rick is not amused.

“He has a point,” Michael starts.

Rick just shakes his head and heads back toward the village.

-o-

Despite his bravado, Rick gets about two steps before he realizes two things.

1. He’s still woozy himself. The heat is unrelenting, and the weakness from his brush with death is continuing to be pervasive.

2. This is a whole lot more dangerous than he’s admitting. Once their escape is discovered, it’s likely the entire place will be on lockdown with a shoot-first-ask-questions-never sort of mentality. Rick’s playing with time he may not honestly have.

Which is the point, of course. His team isn’t just driving him crazy because it’s fun. They’re driving him crazy because they want to distract him from the reality of the situation. If Rick’s pissed off at their antics, he’s not focused on how he’s probably going to die.

Probably is a funny word as far the ODS is concern. Sometimes it means nothing.

Other times, it means everything.

When he gets back to the hut, he presses along the side. Michael falls in step behind him, and when Rick goes low to peek around, Michael stays high, affording them both a partial view of the village around them.

“All the cartel operations seem to be on this half,” Rick says, but then he nods across to the far side. “But their air strip is over there.”

“Best I can figure, most of the buildings here are actually quarters for the personnel,” Michael says. “They’ve taken us in several for...questioning.”

Rick lets the euphemism go. Instead, he studies the layout. “Offices are probably centralized,” he says. “Which means the product…”

“Over there,” Michael concludes, nodding to a building in the middle of the village. It has guards on every side, and it’s the only structure that looks reinforced with an actual foundation.

“Perfect,” Rick says.

Michael gives him a critical look. “How is that perfect?”

“It’s centrally located, which means it’s far away from the landing strip,” Rick says.

“Yeah, which means any approach will attract attention,” Michael says. “Besides, taking out the drugs has never been our primary focus.”

“It’s not my primary focus now, either,” Rick replies.

Michael shakes his head. “So you want to approach the most heavily guarded building in the village because we haven’t had enough go wrong on this mission?”

“No, I want to approach the most heavily guarded building in the village because we need a distraction,” Rick says. “We need something to preoccupy them long enough to steal a plane and take off without incident. And there’s no better way to get a cartel worked up than to go after their drugs.”

“That’s still a bad plan,” Michael says bluntly.

“It’s exactly the kind of plan you’d come up with,” Rick counters. “You’re probably just jealous you didn’t think of it first.”

“That’s stupid.”

“That’s legitimate,” Rick says. “And irrelevant. We’re doing this.”

“If we’re doing anything, we’re doing it together,” Michael says.

Rick pulls back, a little away from the building for some pretense of increased privacy. “Together? How? Billy’s been shot. Casey’s got a broken leg. And you -- you’ve got a concussion by the looks of things. None of you are in any shape to make a run at the drugs.”

“And you are?” Michael returns. “You were bit by a snake--”

“And I’m better now,” Rick concludes. “It has to be me.”

Michael bolsters himself, puffing up his chest. “I go with you.”

“No,” Rick says, refusing to entertain the notion. “I’ve been resting for the last few days. You’ve been, what, tortured?”

“Aggressively interrogated,” Michael amends.

“Besides, who’s going to get Casey and Billy all the way to the landing strip?” Rick points out. “We need to separate.”

Michael’s expression is tight, and the arguments are written all over his face. But so is his inevitable acquiescence. Because Rick’s right -- and they both know it.

“Damn it,” Michael mutters. “We brought you here to save you.”

“And you did,” Rick says. “Now it’s my turn.”

Michael lets out a hot breath. “You’re too--”

“Young?” Rick asks. “Inexperienced? I swear to God, if you call me the new guy--”

“But you are,” Michael insists.

“No, not anymore,” Rick says. “I broke out. I got you free. I started this. I’m going to finish it. And you are going to let me.”

Rick’s been with this team long enough to know what it takes. Sometimes he’s polite, but the fact is, they’re past that. He’s past that. He outgrew it two years ago, and he’s never really looked back. The fact that Michael still looks surprised--

Well, that’s why Rick needs to leave the ODS.

Because Rick’s an equal player here. He’s one of them, through and through. And if they haven’t seen it before, they will see it now.

He unslings the gun from his shoulder, handing it to Michael. “Get Billy and Casey to the airstrip,” he says. “I’ll meet you there.”

Michael doesn’t take the gun. “This is a bad plan,” he says flatly.

Rick grins. “Yeah,” he says. “It is. Now take the gun.”

Cowed, Michael does. “Just be careful,” he says, as though it’s an order.

Rick tilts his head before moving back toward the village. “Yes, sir.”

-o-

It feels pretty good to get the last word in. It feels even better to be right.

It all feels a bit less good when he realizes what he’s actually doing.

He’s going to walk up to the drugs and light them on fire.

As if it’s actually that easy.

He really has become one of the ODS. Much longer on this team, and he’ll be as completely crazy as the rest of them.

All drama aside, Rick knows there’s still a job to be done, and he’s the one to do it. He jogs from building to building, watching carefully for any signs of disturbance. No one seems to notice him yet, though, and it’s some kind of luck that their escape hasn’t been detected just yet. Luck is precarious, but Rick will take it as he picks up his pace, rounding the village to where he started from.

From this location, he’s got a straight shot to the drugs. Better still, he can approach from behind, which will give him the element of surprise. It’s a small element, but consider the fact that Rick’s unarmed, he figures it’s still worth something.

Trying to steady his breathing, he squints across the compound, watching along the treeline to catch a glimpse of the others. He sees a rustle in the trees, but it’s gone as fast as it appears. A few yards forward, there’s another rustle, in the general direction of the airstrip.

That’s about as much as Rick can hope for. Michael will get Billy and Casey there.

Now, it’s up to Rick.

With a deep breath, he summons his strength and his courage, setting his eyes on the building.

And then, before he can move, all hell breaks loose.

-o-

At first, it’s yelling, close by.

Then, it’s lots of yelling.

Rick’s Spanish is as good as his English, but it doesn’t take a native speaker to know what they’re yelling about. Rick’s escape has been noticed.

More yelling erupts across the village.

And the rest of the ODS has been discovered missing.

Rick’s still reeling from this sudden shift, when an armed man comes around at him behind the hut. There’s a moment when it’s hard to tell who’s more surprised -- him or the guard -- but then the man lifts his gun, and Rick lunges.

So much for the element of surprise.

But, what the hell. Surprise isn’t what defines the ODS.

No, that’s chaos.

And Rick can work with chaos.

-o-

Rick can plan like Michael, and he can charm like Billy.

He can also fight like Casey.

There’s no thinking; there’s no finesse; there’s just winning. He’s not even sure what moves he’s using; he just knows that they’re working. A kick, a punch, and Rick grabs the gun. Wrenching it forward, the man is off balance and Rick finishes him with a chop to the neck. The man goes down, and Rick takes the gun, turning just in time to duck the gunfire from another man.

He rolls, coming up on his knees and firing. The man goes down, and another after that. With this much noise, there’s no point in stopping, so Rick doesn’t.

Rick doesn’t stop.

Rick doesn’t look back.

Rick doesn’t hesitate.

He charges ahead, letting no one stand in his way. When he gets to the secure building, one guard gets off a shot. Rick disarms him as the other fires, too. Using the first guard to block the shot, Rick knocks them both down, using his gun to blow the lock clean off.

Throwing the door open, he doesn’t have time for pretenses. He dives gracelessly inside, ducking as fresh gunfire hits the door behind him. For safety reasons, he scrambles farther inside, keeping himself low in some vain attempt to shield himself. He doesn’t stop until he finds cover, curling in on himself while his heart race and the gunfire picks up outside.

He needs a minute -- he needs more than a minute, but a minute is all he takes for himself -- to catch his breath and regain his bearings. It’s something of a heady feeling, knowing he made it this far.

Then he looks up and sees what he’s taken cover behind.

The drugs.

This is what he came for.

Suddenly, he finds himself grinning. Maybe it was time to have a little fun.

-o-

Rick’s short on time -- no one has stormed the building yet, but Rick knows it’s just a matter of time. Plus, if Michael’s going to get Casey and Billy safely to the airstrip, Rick’s got to live up to his end of the bargain.

He promised a distraction.

He intends to provide a distraction.

The drugs will light quickly, but Rick would still be better off with an accelerant. Unfortunately, in his hasty approach he hadn’t thought to snag any gasoline, and somehow he doubts that someone as meticulous as Hernandez has some conveniently stored alongside his drug supply.

On the bright side, however, the room is packed with drugs. The building doesn’t have the largest footprint, but Hernandez has utilized the space well. Which means, once it gets started, it’s really going to start going.

Mentally, Rick considers the possible complications from this, and tries to remember how much wind there is today. Settled amongst the trees, there’s not going to be much for a cross breeze, which is good. Rick doesn’t want to destroy the village, and he certainly doesn’t want to accidentally set the rainforest ablaze.

But given the size of the building and the space around it, it should be a safe bet. Just enough smoke and flame to start freaking people out without doing any actual damage to anything except Hernandez’s bottom line and overall operation. No doubt he’ll have to relocate, which will make their job back home harder, but still, with the positive IDs and the slowdown of the operation, it’s probably more a win than anything else.

That’s what Rick decides, anyway, in the two seconds he spares to consider the consequences of his next move.

Reaching in his pocket, he’s grateful that Hernandez doesn’t consider a cigarette lighter to be a weapon. Because it’s not, but Rick’s been carrying one ever since he joined the ODS. Because a cigarette lighter can be your salvation if you know how to use it correctly.

After three years, Rick knows how to use it correctly.

Before he starts, he rips open several containers, tearing his fingers through the packaging as best he can on as many pallets as possible. Then, starting at the back, he starts to light the exposed drugs, running from one to the next to the next. When the last one has taken, Rick can feel the smoke in the back of his throat, and he doesn’t hesitate to run out the front door as fast as he can.

Sure, that makes him an easy target.

For about two seconds.

Which is about how long it takes for the fire to collect and take off -- and the whole thing combusts.