t was drizzling all over the city. Tributaries of light flow like a river of luminescence before me. Early morning commuters cross the Verrazzano-Narrows bridge in a predawn haze. The constant hum of the engine throttles up as I override the Cadillac’s auto-drive function. I take the exit towards Bay Street where the silhouettes of pedestrians pass me by, flat as three dimensions allow, before blurring to obscurity in the rain.
Down by a portside warehouse I park and wait for the Egregor. Past the armored windshield I peer at the squat skyline of North Capital City; brownstones skulking like jilted lovers behind a fog-wreathed Statue of Liberty. Bad joke with a worse punchline.
High above, the Canopy looms; an obscure spectre with holographic advertisements dancing dreamily through the mist along its sub basements. Nearby arc lamps lazily bumble like pale blue insects along the shoreline in search of contraband drone shipments.
Acoustic sensors light up and I squeeze my Tawiskaron's grip when from the darkness steps out the Egregor. Neon cyan plasma writhed against an ever-shifting chromorphous bomber jacket. Hanzi script trickles down in columns along the Egregor’s torso as they come to a silent stop, the light reflecting off them dancing across the Cadillac’s tinted windows.
I step out and try not to be intimidating. Hard to do when you’re a few inches shy of 7’. My relationship with the Egregor was always a shaky one. Never knew what would set them off. The fickleness of a collective thought form I suppose.
I hand them the wetware data drive and watch as they load the vial into a biojector. The holographic projection of its face flickers, cycling through billions of permutations to obscure the Egregor’s identity. A moment of confirmation after injection and it hands me a folded napkin. I open it up to reveal an address and time.
The rising sun is punctuated by the nimble whines of high-end racing cycles. With daylight comes the illusion of order as gangsters relinquish the streets to criminals with appetites they could never match. I shut down olfactory input as a garbage barge trudges by. Another wonderful morning in New York City.
Fluorescent lights in the hall grow dim as I stand in the doorway. Stifled coughs fill the cramped backroom of Luca’s Delicatessen. A crowd of nearly a dozen men surround a small table laden with cold cuts and carafes filled with coffee. A damp smell permeates the room. Small puddles from rain-heavy wool coats collect on grey linoleum tiles scuffed by generations of wear and tear.
The group turns, watching behind half-eaten sandwiches as electro-active myomers silently come to life. I make a show of navigating through the crowd towards the ring of folding chairs. My retinal prostheses emit frequency-modulated carrier waves as they cycle through a few presets. A high-res gestalt of shadowy figures beyond the walls fills my field of vision. They’re armed. A second later and their registrations show up in my visual display. Surgically-inset lenses retract into their zygomatic recesses.
I leave my coat on and take a seat nearest the spread. Cochlear implants pick up a nervous looking rail of a man mumbling under his breath to the Holy Knights of Terra representative near a side door. They whisper beneath a banner that reads STRONGER TOGETHER. The platinum brocade of knights surrounding the Earth on the translucent knot of his jade arboform ascot is a dead giveaway. Tacky. Probability says it's a gift from his doting wife.
“... used to be a cop…”
I purposefully ignore the words and wait for the meeting to begin. Leaning back, I pull a slice of bruschetta piled high with prosciutto and capicola from a tray with an audible groan from the chair. A minute passes and all seats fill except for one. The group noisily chew their food and slurp their coffee as they awkwardly eyeball the cybernetic giant in their midst.
Someone comes up from behind and places a hand on my shoulder. It’s Ascot. We meet eye to prosthetic implant. Pale blue stare, like bleached denim. Not sure which one of us is more lifeless.
Handsome, inscrutable features smile at me. Lips thinner than the ham caught between my teeth. He extends his free hand and I see the flash of a flex circuit embed in the shape of crown-topped shield. Albion Defense Group. My OPHIUCUS practically yelps at the sight. I take his hand in mine, dwarfing it.
“Good evening, fellas. Sorry I haven’t been by for the last couple meetings. Been working downtown on upgrading the Mainline Defensive Array. You know the life. But I’m here now and I’m seeing a few new faces. None as surprising as this one here. I’m mighty honored to meet you, Sergeant Oakes. Let’s get some support going for our guest. He’s a real war hero, y’all!” Ascot gives me a firm handshake then crosses the gap in the circle to his empty seat. Didn't take long for them to pull my dossier.
"Now, y'all are welcome to talk if that's what you want. If not, you can listen. No judgements here. Like the motto goes, we're all-" Ascot looked around the group that begrudgingly joined him, "stronger together. That's right."
In the lion's den, I decide to improvise. I lean forward in my seat and start talking.
“March 5th, 2008. I was nineteen. Finished basic a few months before it all went to shit. My battalion was stationed outta Colorado Springs. Got planted in a combat outpost 16 klicks away from Fort Carson.
California and Nevada were gone in under 48 hours. Wouldn’t know the full casualty count 'til weeks later. Lots of fine men and women were lost to give us the time and intel we needed to put up a fightin' chance. Mission command was simple: hold the line.
Nearly 8,000 of us were spread throughout the town and surrounding countryside. We'd set up our crew-serves on the roof of a Days Inn and split our platoon between there and the third story. We were overlooking I-25. I remember it was brick out. One of the last real sensations I had.
Salt Lake City and Denver had gone dark within the last two hours. Best estimates were we'd make contact with the enemy by day break. They weren't wrong.
It'd been a quiet winter night. I was watching the SE sector from my corner of the roof, manning my SAW. Loads of hand-warmers down my ACU jacket and I still couldn't get warm. Scanning across a strip mall's parking lot to the Loaf 'N Jug on the corner, I was just starting to think maybe our intel was wrong. Maybe whatever was coming for us had gone elsewhere.
A stillness had fallen over the town while a storm brewed on the horizon. I looked to the interstate and could see another platoon set up behind some jersey barriers. They were flanked by JLTVs and Bradleys mounted with M2's and Mk 19 belt-fed grenade launchers.
Wind started to pick up somethin' fierce. Drowned out the chatter from the SINCGARS Jimenez carried. Felt like my face was being cut by a thousand knives through my neck gaiter. Then five flavors of Hell broke loose.
Defense sirens started that long, awful wail that echoed through the abandoned town. Overhead, the sky-shattering roars of F22 squadrons mobilize to meet a threat we couldn't see. I watched them fade into the darkness headed North towards Pike's Peak. That's when I saw it. Or part of it.
It came looming from behind the mountain range, a tempest in its wake. It was massive. Through freezing rain and cloud cover I could see it had these… fintacles. Scores of them like puppet strings swaying in the storm.
Distant pinpoints of light were quickly followed by the muted impact of JDAMs. The fintacles lashed violently and took the pinnacle of Pike's Peak clean off. The jets were coming around for another pass when the sky lit up, clear as day, with a sick green tinge.
Someone in the platoon cursed. Might have been me. Nothing was audible over wailing winds and an unearthly drone that shook the hotel to its foundation. No amount of training prepares you for the feeling of being prey.
Modern life is so far removed from the caves and woods we were molded by millennia ago. But the fear? The fear that kept us awake and alive through the darkness? It's still hiding in the back of our minds. Where instincts dwell, ready to sound the alarm.
Right then it was howling. At Leviathan. At Ahab's beast. Yet so much more. It looked like a whale's image twisted by a malicious mind. It's body wriggled through the air as enormous leathery wings furiously worked to keep it aloft. It swam through the twilit sky as bolts of green lightning arced from its hide. Then everything went dark as it sucked the lightning inside itself…"
Bio-force helixes upwards through the mass of ventral barbels in a surge of power. Thousands of apertures bleeding emerald light appear along its callous exterior. The atmosphere takes on an oppressive quality as the dreadnaught shudders violently.
From freshly excised flesh a scintillating volley of shimmering motes is launched; trails of burning viridian betraying their trajectory. They scream across the sky in terrific splendor, tearing through the fuselages of several F22's in explosive blooms of saffron and crimson.
The spheres burst through the wreckage unphased, completing their destructive course by crashing through the front line and pocking the battlefield with deep craters. The MBIT radio in Pvt. Oakes' pouch explodes in urgent exchanges of information across the CombatNet.-eared hot. All forces: cleared hot…
Need immediate cas-evac at…
… Grid Yankee Delta 76502102…
Message to observer…
…-questing close air support…
Seven-Three-Bravo to One-Zero-Alpha… Fire for effect…
… How copy?...
… Birds are outbound…
Oakes tucks his chin in reflexively as a 60mm mortar cartridge arcs skyward from the other end of the rooftop. Within seconds dozens more fill the air. They explode at the zenith of their parabola into miniature lambent suns suspended in darkness. The gaseous discharge from their launches spiral into coiling tunnels as a trio of AH-64 Apaches chuf past at 200 mph.
The shrill whirr of their M230 chainguns rattles his skull. A deluge of smoking brass sizzles as each spent cartridge lands on snow-flecked streets and rooves. Errant rounds are deflected by something impervious and careen off into the distance; phantasmic comets lost to the void. The scent of cordite burns into his nostrils. It all overwhelms Oakes.
His weapon swings upward on its bipod as he scrambles in terror, pressing his back flat against a sandbag reinforced outcropping. His breaths come short and ragged. Oakes struggles with the collar of his IOTV, fingers growing numb as the temperature continued to plummet.
Illuminated by the erratic strobe of gunfire, he sees SPC Chandresh approaching in a crouched run. The combat medic grabs Oakes by the shoulders and leans forward. Words crash against Oakes but their meaning is lost to him. On the third repetition understanding sinks in.
“ARE YOU HIT?!”
The combat medic inspects Oakes for a moment when he recognizes the glazed look in the grunt’s eyes. He reaches back and strikes the young soldier across the face. Brocken spectres flicker against starshell glory that fizzle into sudden- and momentary- darkness.
In a celadon flash the combat outpost’s vicinity floods with blinding light. Several troopers rush to the Northern gabion wall of HESCO blocks. Gas pumps across the plaza erupt at the Loaf ‘N Jug. A concussive wave shatters the hotel’s windows. It knocks the platoon off their feet.
Hellish plumes struggle to rise against sleeted gales. SSG Rondeaux is the first to recover. Glare colder than the winds, he yanks PFC Eastman upright and barks inaudible orders. The stocky ginger nods and loads a 40mm HE round into the M320 grenade launcher attached to his carbine. Eastman shoots up with a rallying yell. He slams the M4’s buttstock against his shoulder in preparation to fire when he freezes.
“What the Hell you waitin’ for, Private!”
Rondeaux roars, rising to follow his soldier’s line of sight. His face hardens into a grim mask, jaw clenched tight. Soldiers rise behind him and watch on in horror as a theropodian monstrosity thrashes violently, consumed by voracious flames.
A mournful, hollow note escapes its crumbling osseous snout. The bulbous end of its rigid tail swells as venom-filled osteoderms boil then burst in a shower of hypodermic spines. Large and twisted horns emit steam as deep cracks form along them; thin layers of scute curl off and become embers lost to a rising gust of superheated air.
Gnarled and gurgling silhouettes convulse beside the burning saurian. Their distorted shadows dance amid the conflagration's ever-shifting flamelight. Elongated caricatures are projected across the plaza's parking lot in a Faustian performance. The paroxysmal denouement comes to an anticlimactic and merciful end as ligaments and tendons fuse together.
Mortal terror becomes much more immediate as a chorus of shrieks pierce the oppressive winter environs. Through the confusion of explosions and burning monsters, the plaza was overrun; the invading horde poured out from damaged store fronts. Fleshy apertures contract rhythmically as air passes through chambers that hum with murderous intent only to escape flaring nostrils as the harrowing howls of damned souls. The soprano of reptilian fiends is joined by the guttural timbre from hundreds of avian abominations.DDDDDAAAAAAHHHHHHHHLLLLLLLLLL
Heavy skulls swung pendulously atop spindly necks as anisodactyl talons dug furiously into the wreckage from their crash landings. Vestigial arms flail lifelessly from their sides as they bristle visibly at their alien surroundings. Oversized beaks snap menacingly with the sound of grinding stone. Furious spats break out amongst their ranks, sending the rest into a frenzy as viscous blood splatters against densely-packed feathers.
“WE GOT MULTIPLE HOSTILES!"
"THEY'RE COMING OUTTA THE WALLS!"
"SECURE THE PERIMETER!"
"SEND THAT 40 MIKE-MIKE NOW, EASTMAN!”*THUNK*
The High Explosive grenade spirals through the air in a graceful arc towards a cluster surrounding one of the larger reptiles when it explodes upon contact with a mysterious, opaque emerald barrier. Watching through his ACOG scope as the smoke clears and the barrier flickered out of existence, Rondeaux observes a glowing and partially open frill forming a fading corona around the saurian and its brood.
Cartilaginous folds wrap themselves around the shattered remnants of a massive horn that now resembled a gnarled cornulum. The SSG yelled over his shoulder at his men as he opens fire with his Mk 14 EBR. 7.62 rounds tear through the advancing ornithological infantry that continue undeterred, scrambling over their fallen brethren.
"LIGHT 'EM UP!"
Twin M242 chain-guns create a sustained wall of fire from LAV-25's parked in the courtyard leading to the Days Inn. Pavement spalls into lacerating flechettes as 25mm rounds skip then tumble through xenotissue while gunners on co-ax mounted M240's fire in short bursts across the approaching horde.
The larger saurians sprint through teeming multitudes of gnashing beaks, tactically deploying their protective barrier when directly fired upon. Spent brass tinks softly as the pile of spent cartridges around the vehicles steadily grows.
SPC Chandresh gives a few supportive smacks to the kevlar helmet atop Oakes head while holding his right hand thumb up. The Private mimics the medic's gesture, takes up his SAW once more and tries his best to swallow the bile rising in his throat. Before him Colorado Springs unfolds into a subnivean hellscape.
The cold, white spectre of winter descends from the mountainside; one by one city blocks are lost to an invading wave of fog. Macabre smoke rises from death-pyres that rage across the city, dropping visibility to a scant few yards at street level.
A series of crimson blooms cut through the mist as a quartet of M1A2 Abrams fire their 120mm tank guns; a dismal sheen and distant rumble the only evidence of their violence.
A chitinous javelin pierces the vaporous veil and embeds itself between two platoons stationed along an overpass of I-25 with a resounding crack. The lance throbs with an emerald brilliance that begins to furiously strobe in response to the humans in its proximity. The light bursts into a wide pulse before explosively collapsing into the spike. The overpass goes silent as soldiers collapse into snow-drifts; bodies devoid of all life before they reach the ground.
A Bradley crashes its way through a row of jersey barriers, burying itself into a deep trench along the interstate. It explodes into a magnificent column of white phosphorus as HEI rounds perforate the fighting vehicle’s laminate armor with the familiar buzzing hum from an A-10’s autocannons. A squadron of them swiftly traverse the battlefield, twin chasms of 30mm death in their wake.
Overhead the titanic abomination’s tusked silhouette writhes against churning storm clouds. Within minutes it was nearly to the high plains east of the city. Flitting bands of chiropteran-winged wraiths defensively circle the leviathan. Rays of jade arc and crackle along their insectoid thoraxes.
Higher still twin AC-130 gunships bank into enantiomorphic pylon turns, training their weapons systems on the dreadnaught. Charred and grisly remnants plummet from the sky as 30mm autocannons and M102 howitzers puncture the fluttering, raptorial bulwark, creating an opening for the gunships' cache of Hellfire missiles and small-diameter bombs.
Viridian bolts flash along the gaps and overload the projectiles' internal circuitry. They penetrate deep into the dreadnaught's hide yet fail to detonate until a stray 40mm from a radome Bofors L/60 strikes true. Leaden tissue scorches and collapses into a charnel crater along the monstrosity's right flank. Excess hide sloughs over the smoking lesion, leaving nothing behind save a gore-slathered scar.
An earth-shattering howl escapes it's cavernous maw and splits the surrounding icefields with a thunderous crack. Cheyenne mountain's triple peaks give a resounding groan before erupting in a cascade of free-falling snow, ice and rock. Miniature crustaceous figures leap in a futile race against the hibernal deluge. Diaphanous wings are violently crushed under bulky sclerites punctured by rimy shrapnel.
Meanwhile massive quadrupeds blindly grabble in their descent, spatulate talons fragmenting from the force of their tumble. Inviscid ichor spills from squamous pustules as they feebly cry out. The fossorial aberrations are engulfed until only bulbous eimer organs protrude from the icewave’s aftermath. The avalanche spills across Fountain Creek and the Palmer Divide, cutting the city off from Denver to the North.
The spiralling ribbon of wraiths disperse, blanketing the sky in shrieking forms. The steady rasp of static begins to drown out radio chatter as their coruscating carapaces become blinding motes interwoven by bands of emerald, creating a latticework across the firmament. The web bursts into an effulgent haze that decimates communications and electronic systems across Colorado Springs and Fort Carson.
Complete engine failure causes the aircraft nearest the dreadnaught to hover lifeless for a moment before careening towards the earth. Crew members desperately eject only to be viciously rived and consumed in mid-air. Luminous hemispheres bleed through the gloomy horizon as the cityscape before Pvt. Oakes is wracked with explosions.
Numbed, the Private's shock is momentarily usurped by curiosity. He wipes frost off his ballistic goggles and gapes at kaleidoscopic, undulating buds. Thick actinomorphic petals unfurl, revealing hundreds of lotuses that languidly drift against powerful, wintry gales. His nostrils flare at the heady scent that coils around the foundation of his willpower.
Oakes thoughts drift away and for a moment he is lost to the past; flashes of lures bobbing along the banks of the Kaniatarakwà:ronte and running from rez dogs with Tawit. Tawit… The sudden recollection that his brother was somewhere in the city, fighting monsters worse than any Niagwaihegowa or Ohnyare their grandfather told them of during cold nights under starlit skies, bolsters his spirit.
A hypnic jerk releases Oakes from his fugue. As his head clears he sees the lotuses suspended within a nebulous miasma of semi-translucent spores that scatter over the frontline. A sudden chinook wind from the demolished Pike's Peak pushes the spore cloud in his platoon's direction.
"GAS! GAS!" Oakes yells as his hands fumble to remove a C2 canister from a MOLLE pouch attached to his vest. "PUT YA DAMN MASKS ON!"
SPC Chandresh glances at Pvt Oakes slipping an M40 field protective mask over his broad features. For a brief moment the Specialist considers doing the same when his mind goes blank. In his final moments he evokes the warming aroma of his mother's vindaloo as a barbed tendril lashes itself around his throat. Arterial mist stains the snow-strewn rooftop with an abstract expressionist's hand. Necrotic nectar pumps through hypodermic thorns creating spasms that race up and down Chandresh's body as a manhole-sized lotus wraps its symmetrical, spotted petals around his head and torso.
Steam rises from seven .45 caliber sized perforations. Thick indigo mesophyll spurts from the ruptures then foams as it combines with Chandresh's blood. SSG Rondeaux loads a fresh magazine into his service pistol, DMR swinging from its sling. He steps over the convulsing medic's body, yelling "OFF THE ROOF!" through his mask’s voicemitter at the top of his lungs. Eastman, Jimenez, Frankfurter and Wilkes crouch as they sprint under Oakes’ skyward covering fire towards the rooftop access enclosure.
The SAW’s buttstock digs deep into the Private’s shoulder as he fires from a standing position. He adjusts his grip on the weapon’s folded bipod between controlled bursts. Airborne lotuses ignite into orange blossoms at the pyrotechnic qualities of Oakes’ M196 tracer rounds. Wilkes reaches for the door when he stumbles and slumps against the enclosure’s corner.
“FUCK! I’M HIT!”
Wilkes rolls over to reveal a cluster of spines embedded deep into his armor’s front SAPI plate. With shaking hands he tries to remove a spine from center mass when he harshly coughs blood. PFC Frankfurter grabs the drag handle on Wilkes’ IOTV and begins pulling him to safety.
Kicking the access door open, Frankfurter looks up to see a groping mass of mottled, spindly arms reach out from the darkened stairwell. Purulence seeps from viscera-covered claws that cut through muscle and bone with ease.
Frankfurter struggles to yell as a score of limbs fill his mouth and tear at his jaw until the flesh splits open. Blindly firing into the grotesque horde, the PFC’s eyes go wild with agony and he is pulled into the stairwell.
Blood pouring from his mouth, Wilkes shakily removes an MG7 grenade from his chest rig as he is dragged through the threshold. He exchanges a solemn look with Eastman and Jimenez. Summoning the last of his strength, Wilkes pushes the rooftop door shut with his boot.
“FRAG OUT!” Jimenez yells, turning away from the door as it is partially blown off its hinges. A thin column of smoke trickles out from the demolished threshold. Before they could begin to process or mourn the death of two comrades, Rondeaux steps past the two stunned soldiers with Oakes and CPL Nguyen in tow. He throws two more primed grenades down the stairwell, turns and points towards the rooftop fire escape. “MOVE! MOVE! DON’T YOU DARE STOP SHOOTIN’, OAKES!”
Metal grating clangs under heavy footfalls as the remaining soldiers stack up then descend the fire escape. Oakes shudders with adrenaline, waiting for the tap on his shoulder to break contact. His gaze travels past the M249's smoking barrel and across the wide steppe. The gargantuan cetacean continues on its eastward bound journey, winding its way through the squall that accompanies it.
A colossal cauda splits open at its extremity, revealing endless rows of towering, serrated teeth that jut out of its pulsating interior. Wispy strands of emerald condense, drawn into the beast’s puckering fluke. Oakes hairs stand on end, turning away as its caudal sphincter widens threateningly. A pulpous teal globule, violently gnashed by internal teeth, shifts anomalously through equiangular rotations; appearing as a shrinking sphere one moment, a widening paraboloid the next until collapsing into a beam, obliterating the heart of the city.
Oakes descends into the hiemal murk. The sounds of the battlefield muffle as he joins the remaining soldiers. Backs against the wall, they line up behind SSG Rondeaux. Diffuse haloes sweep their surroundings as they move towards the building’s edge. Inspecting his compass, Rondeaux curses at the wildly spinning needle.
“LAV’s are gone. Intastate’s too exposed. We’ll follow it best we can ‘til we hit open terrain.” Rondeaux replaces the magazine in his rifle. He peeks around the corner then turns back to the group. “Can’t see shit,” the SSG comments, removing the scope from his Mk 14. “Stay close. Don’t get each otha killed. Nguyen, you’re on point.”
The eerie tranquility that gripped the streets obscures the squad’s retreat. Oppressive silence distorts their sense of direction. On edge, they meet no resistance for blocks until muted bursts of gunfire boom to thunderous levels as they approach a fireteam dug in at an intersection.
"Forty meters! Up the road!"
Two grunts armed with M4 carbines fire into the mist from behind an overturned LMTV. Rounds snap at an advancing horde of swaying shadows in the fog. Behind them, a third soldier desperately tends to a wounded comrade face down on a stretcher. Panicked cries of teeth in the dark and eyes rising from the shadows fade to incoherent whispers with the hiss of a morphine auto-injector. Hands slick with blood fumble inside his trauma kit as the combat medic yells for aid into the gloom.
Haloes bob across shattered storefronts from rifle-mounted flashlights while Rondeaux and his men sprint to a covered bus stop. Oakes and Eastman provide covering fire for CPL Nguyen as he rushes into the crossing. He slides to a stop beside the medic and helps apply trauma pads to deep lacerations that run from shoulders to hips. The medic notes the chevrons on Nguyen’s sleeve, leans forward and struggles to be heard over the gunfire.
"SPC Borges with the 41st! Sir, we've got to get the fuck out of here!" Borges tears into an israeli bandage and motions for Nguyen to help with the mangled remains of the wounded soldier's left arm.
"Where's your CO?" Nguyen pulls the combat tourniquet's drawstring taut with a sympathetic wince. He holds the limb up while the medic unfurls a ribbon of flensed flesh, gristle smearing his sterile gloves. Borges quickly wraps the bandage around exposed bone and sinew, holding it in place as coagulants begin to stem the blood loss.
"LT Roberts is right here. We got to move him.” Borges removes the gloves and grabs one end of the stretcher. Just as Nguyen takes hold of the other end, one of the soldiers by the overturned truck is dragged away by an unseen force.
"CAMPBELL!" The remaining soldier struggles to fire his stovepiped carbine while Campbell's agonized yells bubble to a choked silence. He pulls back on the M4's charging handle as a flanged beak collides against his right leg. The femur splinters from the impact and he topples over into a ravenous horde of nightmarish avifauna.
The incapacitated form of Lt Roberts jostles as he's carried to the bus stop turned defensive fighting position. Nguyen leaves Borges to tend to the Lieutenant. He passes Eastman while the PFC loads his last High Explosive 40mm grenade and sends it towards the LMTV. Visceral shrapnel coats the street in the aftermath of the transport vehicle's explosion. Dozens of guttural bellows erupt in voracious rapture before gnashing and tearing at charred tissue. C-... South… O… -tel… FRV…
The Corporal takes position between Rondeaux and Jimenez, readying his M16. The latter presses the receiver of his radio flat against his ear, straining to make sense of the garbled communications. Jimenez yells into the transmitter, watching Oakes drop to one knee as he feeds a fresh belt of black-tipped 5.56 ammunition into his M249. “THIS IS RED WARRIORS DELTA 7, SAY AGAIN ALL AFTER “SOUTH” OVER!”
Fits of static interrupt dead air. Jimenez looks up at Rondeaux and gives a frustrated shake of his head, pushing the SINCGARS backpack away. Determined not to suffer further casualties, Rondeaux motions for Oakes to follow him across the road. They form a defensive line, weapons trained and ready for whatever comes through the burning wreckage up the street.
SSG Rondeaux’s gaze sharpens as shimmering emerald specks bleed through the conflagration’s haze. He raises his fist, signalling the others to freeze while turning to Oakes. Side by side, Rondeaux speaks into the Private’s ear. “I want you to pin that bouzen down as soon as that fucka’s exposed.”
Motes swell, luminous panels curving into the flame-licked spheroid of another light-projecting saurian. Falling snow sizzles within the orb’s proximity, creating an impenetrable patch of fog. The theropod’s barrier dissipates with a series of intense flickers, forcing the wintry brume to rush into the lacuna created by the shield’s dispersion.
A soul-piercing screech rings from deep within the murk. The hellish tone sends a chill wave of terror over the troops. Rondeaux does not waver. He moves to the brick entrance of a bank, waiting to give the command to fire. Oakes marvels at the SSG’s courage while leaping into the bed of a Dodge RAM. Bracing his weapon’s bipod with the open tailgate, he scans the street in anticipation from a prone firing position.
The shriek drops in pitch until it's nothing more than a croaky hiss, tingling the back of the Private’s skull. Charging, the theropod’s hooked talons skate along verglas; ice yelps at its flaying by honed edges. It dashes through the misty veil’s border, broad barbed tail swaying to maintain balance. The beast cranes its muscular neck forward, frills flattened backwards to reveal a jagged, osseous spearhead. Through the lens of his scope, Oakes stares deep into it’s saurian eyes and is confronted with an overwhelming, bottomless malice.
Rondeaux sweeps his arm in a wide, low arc several times from behind cover. Squeezing the trigger, Oakes watches his rounds ricochet off mottled anterior scales. Focusing on breathing evenly, he keeps his bursts to two second intervals. Adapting to the theropod’s defenses, Oakes shifts his aim towards its outstretched skull. The monstrosity weaves its tapered reptilian head through the hail of M995. His vision narrows to a point; fleshy apertures contract along the abomination’s muzzle as the reticle of his scope sways in unison with its movements.
Oakes exhales and takes his shot. Dozens of rounds speed through the air at 3,000 feet per second. Tungsten penetrating cores fragment on impact against the saurian’s cornulum. White hot shrapnel pierces deep into the soft tissue of its eyes, frill and snout. Viridian gore splatters across the road, glowing dreamily through the creeping gloom.
It topples over blindly, a fine web of cracks forming under its jaw that smashes into the verglas. Thick gushes of emerald blood pour from its ruined muzzle as it struggles to upright itself. Violent strokes of its thrashing tail crush the frame of a parked sedan. Oakes clambers to his feet, spent cases tinkling against the truck bed. He hops off the tailgate, zeroed in on the theropodian nightmare. The Private leans forward to compensate for recoil, ice crunching underfoot as he advances on the intersection.
Impact after impact strike the saurian, keeping it off-balance. Stray armor piercing rounds perforate the scaled seam along the center of its underbelly. A yowl of agony wells up from the panting beast, cornulum digging into a crumpled car door as its haunches splay out pitifully on icy asphalt.
Dry clicks from an empty weapon snap Oakes out of his battle trance. With a clatter, the spent box magazine falls at his feet. He drops to one knee, retrieving his final box of M995 from a side pouch. The compensator on his M249’s barrel sizzles on contact with the frost laden curbside.
Oakes shifts his gaze away from the theropod’s death spasms, oblivious to grimalkin pawprints approaching along snow-capped car roofs. Hands shaking with adrenaline, he struggles to feed the fresh belt into his weapon’s chamber. Harsh, bestial snuffling sends a wave of terror through him. Hammering the round in place with a fist, Oakes slams the feed tray shut, pulls back on the SAW’s cocking handle and turns towards the sound’s source.
Brows furrow in confusion at the sight of a gently rocking Jeep Cherokee across the intersection. Oakes gasps, taking a step back when a column of shifting flames from the nearby LMTV reveals the tessellated contours of a massive, pouncing feline. Light passes uneasily through its spectral frame, reflecting the surrounding wintry cityspace like endless broken mirrors. Twin jewels of gleaming amethyst spring into existence, staring deep into Oakes’ soul. Only the slavering fangs that lined its gaping maw seemed real, although a strange smoky patina clung to them.
Prepared for death, Oakes is stunned at the unexpected sensation of being pulled from behind. Stumbling backwards, he is yanked to safety by Rondeaux just as a Cougar 6x6 MRAP barrels through the intersection with an audible thump. It skids to a halt. The gunner on its tower-mounted M2 whoops with manic laughter; .50 cal rounds trail a filmy emerald coma through the gloom. Rear double doors swing open as the vehicle reverses. Inside a heavily bandaged trooper waves them in with the bloody stump of an arm. Voice hoarse from smoke inhalation, he yells at the gawking pair.
“C’MON! IN! IN!”
Ordering the Private to protect the troop compartment, Rondeaux departs into the fog only to return within seconds with the last of the platoon in tow. Eastman and Jimenez file past the towering Oakes, visibly relieved at the compartment’s protection. They quickly move towards the front of the cabin, making room for Nguyen and Borges as they pile in with the stretcher bearing the injured Lieutenant.
“AY! WE GOT COMPANY! HURRY THE FUCK UP!” Oakes freezes, looking towards the familiar voice as the M2 gunner pivots to face him. The soldier’s eyes grow wide beneath his ballistic goggles. Pulling his neck gaiter down, the smooth, handsome features of Tawit Oakes beam down at his fraternal twin.
“SÓSE, I LOVE YA BUT GET. THE FUCK. IN!”
A cocktail of glutamates and monoamines flood the neural-weave of my amygdala. Subroutines initiate and I’m grateful. Who knows how far back I’d set aug rights if I have a traumatic episode and tear through the vets in the room like a box of fried bread.
Thinking about Tawit always does this to me. No amount of therapy can fix that wound. Good thing the techies figured a way around my emotions early on. Dissociating at will has gotten me through more than one hell.
Cursor hovering over the weeping emote that appears, I play the odds and bank on vulnerability being key. Thick synthetic tears trickle down ceramsteel protrusions along my cheekbones, salting the mycofabric of my gunmetal vest.
With a dramatic sob, I look around the room at solemn faces nodding with understanding. The Rail from earlier wipes away snot with the sleeve of his Mets sweater. Ascot is nowhere to be seen.
Too distracted by the past. Sloppy. The room's activity replays itself at double-speed in the periphery of my awareness. I see him slip through the side door with a flash of his flex circuit in the middle of my monologue. What an asshole.
I prod the door's security console with tight-band microwave signals from my OPHIUCUS. Monitoring network activity transmissions, the hacking implant picks up on dormant intrusion detection systems. Better to back off before anything notices me snooping around. The warm static of neuroinhibitors keep me speaking.
"Tawit… Tawit was a wild son of a bitch, but he was my brother. Always had my back, especially after talkin' me into trouble.
A measly five minutes older but by the way he acted, you'd think otherwise. Tawit, always tryin' to slay giants. He was like that with everyone growin' up. I.. I miss him."
Another dose of chems and my consciousness sinks into dissociative tranquility.
"Movin' up to the crew cabin, Rondeaux pulls rank and has Eastman relieve Tawit from the gunner's tower and gives me the briefest of nods. Hell of a Staff Sergeant, no two ways about it. We never woulda made it off that hotel roof without him. I keep in touch with his family; least I could do after everything that happened.
Anyway, Tawit takes a seat next to me and is… Buzzin'. Like we were kids eatin’ fry bread with berries and honey, y'know? Just fuckin' giddy, even though he fought through the same Hell we did. I thought he mighta been in shock at first but the more we talked, the more questions I had."
Tawit pulls off his neck gaiter and stuffs it into his sweat-lined high cut ballistic helmet. Emptying a canteen with eager gulps, he turns in his seat to face Sóse. Flashing a toothy grin, he begins to excitedly ramble. The babel of radio chatter and impromptu surgery fades into the background.
"Holy shit Só, can you fuckin’ believe what’s out there? Stryker Brigade I was with was gettin’ it when shit popped off. You remember when Rakshótha would take us to the beach? When we were little? You’d cry when he’d chase you with horseshoe crabs in both hands? Imagine one seven fuckin’ feet tall turning your CO to jelly. Shit, with that sour-ass look on your face you already know what it is.
Yo, swear to Sky-Holder that avalanche was gonna be it. We tried buggin’ out then that fuckin’ spacewhale shit out a laser?! You see what that shit did? Whole damn blocks was gone. Poof. Nothin’. Fuck outta here! Whole damn blocks, Só!?” Tawit pokes his chin at the silent figure nearest the door. Expressionless, the soldier’s sunken eyes watch as Borges struggles to keep Lt. Roberts alive.
“We picked up the one-armed jarhead fightin’ one of those creepy-ass dodos. Beat the brakes off the damn thing with his e-tool. He was at ground zero when the laser hit.
Not sure how much of him is left in there. There uh… ain’t too many of us left out there... But I got somethin’ for that alien ass.”
Sóse pauses for the briefest of moments, then fits the rest of a fresh belt of linked ammunition into the box magazine on his lap. Staring deep into his brother’s eyes, He turns away in recognition of the tell-tale emerald simmering beneath Tawit’s gaze. “You-uh, you okay?”
“I’m good. I mean… Yeah, I’m good. I just… I feel like I’m thriving out here. It’s fucked up. But ever since the shit started I could… I could just feel this raw energy buzzin’ in the air. I never felt nothin’ like it.
So warm and… shit had me geekin’. Felt like I was about to explode. Then this piece of shit velociraptor comes at me and I unload my whole mag except my fuckin’ hands start glowin’ and I turned that Jurassic Park bitch into spaghetti sauce.
Straight up, thought I was trippin’. But then my CO asks me if I’m Hal fuckin’ Jordan and well, I been fuckin’ them up ever since. Thought it was just me, but I feel better knowin’ you feel somethin’ too.”
Finding no comfort in watching Borges deal with a collapsed lung, Sóse looks back at his twin with a curious expression. “Fuck you mean?”
“You serious? Bein’ next to you feels like I’m standin’ on the sun. You tellin’ me you haven’t felt different? Nothin’?”
Before Sóse could reflect on the sensation he'd considered an adrenaline rush up to that moment, Eastman began to holler from his position at the gunner’s tower as their vehicle swerves to dodge a runaway HMMWV. “MOTHERFUCKER! THERE’S A GOD DAMNED HULK! DRIVER SIDE! 75 METERS! ENGAGING!”
The Oakes brothers lean across the center platform to peek out of the compartment’s bullet-proof windows as the gnarled, osseous pauldron of an enormous, leaden behemoth smashes through the slatted rear armor of an M1 Abrams with a horrendous crash. Nearly tipping over from the impact, its tracks futilely dig into montane shrubland as the massive brute positions itself beneath the tank.
.50 cal rounds harmlessly bounce off sallow plates of dense bone that run along its immense torso. With a guttural bellow the Abrams flips through the air before striking the ground with an eruption of ice, soil and metal. Turning in the direction of it’s latest annoyance, the Oakes twins shudder in unison at its savage, twisted countenance.
Cloudy, malicious beads suspended in atramentous pools glare at them from sockets sunken deep into its grotesque and cadaverous skull. Respiratory slits flare above a mouth full of crooked, shattered teeth as it takes in their scent with ravenous gulps. Thews grow visibly taut beneath waxen flesh as it begins to slowly squat.Oh shit.
In an eerie display of fraternal telepathy, the Oakes brothers rush to secure the restraints on their seats as they warn the others to do the same. “SEATBELTS! NOW!” With a forceful swing of its brawny limbs, the hulking abomination vaults into the mist. Incredible momentum causes its massive frame to burst through the exploding fuselage of a Kiowa providing close air support to the decimated tank platoon.
The colossus comes to a deafening halt as it collides with a 300 foot spire of snow-capped sienna. Sandstone shrapnel pelts the armored glass windshield as the Cougar's diesel engine revs up to a roar, steadily lurching towards it max speed of 65 mph.
Eastman ducks back down into the troop compartment, eyes wide with fear. That look remains on his face as the soldiers’ bodies hover weightlessly for the briefest of moments. He disappears through the gunner tower’s aperture as the MRAP’s crew cabin is crushed beneath adamantine kneecaps.
Broad, serrated bones protrude from dessicated fingers and mangle armor plates into composite metal ribbons as the enraged behemoth lifts the remaining portion of the vehicle high above the misshapen slab of its head. Rondeaux’s body jostles then snaps at grotesque angles as the Cougar tumbles through rows of juniper shrubs. A white fir splinters with a resounding crack, showering the MRAP in a cascade of pine needles and bark.
Having lost consciousness at some point after the fourth roll over, Sóse awakens with a jolt as the dust inside the compartment begins to settle. His vision swims in and out of focus as he searches for Tawit. Head ringing, he tries to yell when coughs thick with blood cause his agonized body to clench.
Freeing himself from the seat with a struggle, Sóse crumples to the floor with a fractured femur. He crawls along the blood-slick interior, fighting the urge to retch as he passes the shattered heap of SSG Guiscard Rondeaux. Fingers tear at sparse grass and with a desperate tug he pulls himself out of the jagged remnants of the troop compartment.
Sóse props himself up against one of the Cougar's tires shorn off during the crash. His chest shudders with ragged gasps and with a choked yell he straightens his damaged leg.
He nearly swoons. Scanning the immediate proximity for anything he might use to fashion a splint, Sóse is shocked into momentary catatonia. Frozen, he looks upon the slowly brightening horizon and two disparate figures locked in battle.
Tawit, wreathed in the emerald flames of vitality, dances around the behemoth's flailing limbs. Each missed attempt by the abomination is met with the resounding smack of a bio-force enriched crankshaft bouncing against the hulking monstrosity's skull. Bone spalls upon contact with the steel rod that bends with each strike and yet the juggernaut mindlessly persisted.
A well-timed parrying blow sends Tawit flying through a thicket of pines while the crankshaft penetrates inches deep into a sandstone formation in the other direction. The emerald flames momentarily flicker as the older Oakes brother picks himself up out of the crushed front end of a Stryker. Tawit smiles, spitting out fragments of several teeth before charging at the behemoth.
Watching his brother fight alone and injured, Sóse feels something terrifying in its scope awaken inside of him. His eyes grow wide with a surge of power that envelops him in neon jade light. Bellowing coughs clear airways full of blood. Dislocated ribs snap into place. His femoral bone grinds as it resets itself. Tissue mends with a deep burning sensation while Tawit is once more knocked away.
Sóse’s body lurches as he unsteadily pushes himself upright. He bounds into an uneven sprint, shedding his ruined IOTV with a shrug. Each muscle of his herculean shoulders and back swell with emerald vigor, bracing for impact. He throws himself at full-force against the titan as it leaps for a second, murderous pounce.
Propelled off course, the behemoth’s interrupted lunge instead sees it’s mandible furrow through yards of rocky terrain. It grinds to a sudden stop, slamming into a sandstone monolith. Plumes of dust rise from the impact crater. With a telluric groan the rock formation collapses.
Tawit hobbles over to Sóse, removing a dagger of twisted metal from his side with an emphatic grunt. Crimson and steam gush from the puncture, marring what little snow remained in their presence. The shrapnel falls with a heavy thud. Leaning on his crouched younger brother for support, Tawit bursts into excited laughter as a positive feedback loop forms between the two.
“Feels good to be you, doesn’t it?” Tawit exclaims, the wound in his side sealing with no residual scar tissue. A jade patina envelops them, turning the air electric. Rising in unison, the brothers take in their surroundings.
In a small clearing oriented towards the East, they see the first rays of sunlight framed through the hogback ridges of the Lyons Sandstone. Beams peek through the thinning blanket of arcus clouds at the retreating storm’s outskirts. Reflecting off snow-capped sandstone, the area is slowly bathed in a crimson tinge.
To the West, through dense clusters of towering Ponderosa pines and Gambel oak shrubs they see the smoking wreckage of the devastated tank platoon. Engines of war turned to visceral fodder for the juggernaut’s rage. Broad strokes of gore and entrails ooze to the ground from the rent composite armor.
Wedged in a copse of white firs to the South is the ruined hull of the Cougar 6x6. The massacre within thankfully obscured by a mantle of fallen snow and mist. Through the fog they observe the faint outline of a mostly unscathed HMMWV along the treeline. The faint clatter of crumbling stone steers them North to the collapsed monolith.
“We can’t fight that thing forever,” Sóse shouts over the coarse sound of grinding stones, “Shit, I'm not sure we can even take it head on!”
“I got a plan,” Tawit yells back as terrestrial shrapnel explodes from the sandstone mound. He points to the damaged vehicle, “First we need to get me to that Stryker I smashed into. GL looked like it’s still operational.” He then gestures towards the Humvee with a nod.
“After that you gotta get on that TOW. Put everything you got into it, Só! You hear me?” His question is punctuated by a second earthen eruption that showers the area in craggy debris.
Spindly pennons of dust momentarily enspiral the hulking outline before dispersing in a revealing gust. Viridian ichor dribbles from jagged lacerations that converge across the behemoth’s seething frame. Its jaw hangs in horrid display from tattered strands of ligament.
Its throat swells with guttural utterances, an inarticulate expression of its rage. Massive fists grasp its fragmented mandible and pendulously swaying tongue. With a frenzied yank the juggernaut removes them.
Lost in its lust for battle, the berserker lunges for the Oakes brothers. The two leap away as it bounds through the air. Missing its mark, the titan careens into the wrecked 6x6. Tawit turns to sprint towards the Stryker when he is knocked off-balance by the dismembered torso of CPL Nguyen. The carcass ruptures upon contact.
Rolling forward with the impact, Tawit narrowly ducks beneath a gargantuan paw. He scrambles to his feet when the brute slams both fists into the ground. The terrain warps, unable to withstand the blow’s might. Tawit claws at crumbling soil, sinking further into a widening crater.
Focused on the struggling form at the hollow’s edge, the behemoth is caught unaware when Sóse locks his wrists around its abdomen. The patina that surrounds him scintillates, magnifying his strength. He lifts the fiend high above, rolling their combined weight backwards until momentum takes over and Sóse relinquishes his grip.
Snow cascades from quaking boughs as a horrific shockwave ripples through the clearing. Deep fissures gouge the nivean landscape. Jagged karsts rise from crevasses, tearing at the sunrise.
Sliding down the crater’s slope, Tawit skids to a stop at his brother’s side. Borrowing from Sóse’s fount, the older Oakes brother’s aura begins to crackle. They leer at the juggernaut’s rising form, tumbling clods of marl scattering in the aftermath. Its right arm hangs limp at its side, thews pierced by the fractured end of a monstrous humerus.
The abomination rams through towers of shattering limestone as it lurches forward, rushing across the meters-wide crater at the Oakes brothers. Its charge comes to an abrupt stop when it stumbles into a foiba midway. Sóse turns to his twin as the beast partially disappears into the chasmic void.
“GO!” He yells, sprinting towards the hamstrung goliath. Tawit abides, streams of emerald trailing him as he leaps out of the crater. Sóse bounds along a toppled karst, gaining momentum. He propels himself into the air. With a brutal crack a winding trench splinters the limestone platform.
A viridian column engulfs man and monster when Sóse’s knee strikes at the heart of the behemoth’s plated chest. Scree caught within the luminous pillar begins to slowly ascend. Time slows to a crawl for the suspended combatants until a nexus of gossamer fractures spread along the osseous bulwark.
Immeasurable pain elicits a hoarse howl from Sóse as he pushes himself beyond the brink. His knee sinks further, cracks forming into craggy ridges along the juggernaut’s reinforced chest. The emerald column collapses into a coruscating point before erupting in a devastating display of power.
Sanguine mist fills the air. In a flash the flesh of Sóse’s leg strips away. Bones and nerves atomize into a fine slurry that obliviates in the ambient energy. Tawit observes Sóse’s unconscious form careen towards the South from his position atop the Stryker. He falls in a smoking, crumpled heap yards away from the Humvee.
A sonorous rumbling intensifies Tawit’s concern. The grisly visage of the juggernaut shambles out of the pit. A faint, flickering glow emerges from the gaping cavity in its chest from Sóse’s final blow. A gore-slick scar snakes away from the wound, revealing dangling knots of viscera.
“YOU. PIECE. OF. SHIT.”
The goliath turns towards its remaining target when a triplet of jade-wreathed 40mm grenades rain down on it. Cadaverous flesh ripples sickeningly before mangling from the augmented explosives as it hobbles towards Tawit’s blazing silhouette.
Volley after volley detonate against the monstrosity. A well-aimed series of grenades flense its mighty legs, stopping its advance entirely. Tawit leans heavily against the Mk 19 grenade launcher, struggling to catch his breath. Currents of blood trickle from half-healed wounds. An incredulous laugh escapes him as the broken behemoth crawls towards him with its final working limb.
The older Oakes brother’s vision swims in and out of focus. He pauses, reflecting on the surrealness of his last moments as his gaze ambles over to Sóse’s stirring form. Steeling himself, Tawit steadies his aim while pouring the last of his reserves into the Mk 19.
The words rouse Sóse to consciousness. Luminous motes hover around his injured form as one final explosion rattles the landscape. His mind wades through the mire of trauma, struggling to correlate all he’d lost that fateful morning. Watching the sun settle high above the Garden of the Gods, tears begin to stream down Sóse’s cheeks.
Sun’s already setting by the time I leave Luca’s. Slow as apology I part seas of twisting human trees, walking the couple of blocks to my parked Cadillac. Thoughts lost to the past. To synthesized emotions.
Stopping at a bodega on the corner, I ignore drifting hologram advertisements for MÜD and go straight for the liquor. Browsing nearly empty shelves flanking empty aisles I pick up a few things for the office. The holo-projector at the register was a higher-end model, easily capable of showing disappointment at my scant purchases.
“That all?” The ‘cashier’ asked, already over my presence. I swipe my hand over the scanner and wait for payment confirmation. The words INSUFFICIENT FUNDS manifest in mid-air as a crimson chyron scrolling in front of me. Running a quick scan of my accounts, I find them frozen.
“That bacon-lipped son of a bitch!”
The projector’s LCD’s flash rapidly at my comment. I don’t presume to understand its body language, but I suspect it found that pretty funny.