Several days after...that
The remains of Yuma, Arizona
The red McDonnel Douglas helicopter swung around, the pilot checking his bearings in a high desert wind. Bleow, the shadow of the chopper swept over dry canyons and scrub, while ahead, a mesa occluded his target. However, the pillar of black smoke rolling over the top of it and leaving a greasy smear across the otherwise clear blue sky told him his instruments were right and he was headed the right way. He checked the craft slightly to the left, mindful of what effects smoke from unknown fires could have on his engine. As it was the flight down from Phoenix had been a pain in his as and he did not want to set down for an emergency in the blistering heat of the southern half of the state, bad throughout the year but especially now, in the height of summer. His voice crackled over the radio to his two passengers in the back.
“Around ten minutes now, Agent Schmidt. Just over that mesa up ahead.”
The gruff tone from the woman's acknowledging grunt was all she gave him. She was...concerned was slightly less than she wanted. Behind them flew four more choppers, all of those military, diverted from the defense that should
by all rights, be taking their attention. On board was a whole platoon of Marines and an investigative team, but the Blackhawks were slower by weight if nothing else out here, and she wanted the first look anyway, so she had pushed her pilot the throttle as hard as he dared in the heat.
She flipped the file open again, staring at the information. Earlier in the week, right before the main attack, an invading ship had passed over Arizona, barely even noticed amongst the chaos of the initial assault, but for all anyone could tell it was just a scout, meandering over the desert out here in the asshole end of the asshole end of the country. She was surprised anyone even lived
out here, at least willingly. But shortly after that all contact from Yuma, AZ ceased. No phone calls, no radio contact. The local sheriff and the entire local police department could not be hailed. No one on CB, nothing. Usually, it would take weeks to notice this sort of thing, even as weird as it was, but with the whole of the country on assholes-and-elbows alert level, field ops had
noticed, and dutifully alerted headquarters that there might be an invasion force where no one had thought there would be. So the lowest ranking agent in the area (Schmidt) and the local night shift CSI B-team had been sent with some military backup to see what caused a sudden communications blackout in Yuma.
Just her fucking luck. Second week on independent field ops and she was sent to the hottest part of this hellhole. She hated Arizona. In fact, she hated most of the southwestern US, as a devout born-and-bred Easterner who couldn't stand the heat in the winter
down here. Oh well. She'd find out that there was some EMP blast or something and go back to the office in Phoenix. At least there the A/C could do
Ten minutes to the dot they could see exactly why that wasn't going to happen.
Second Lieutenant Mark Coleman was having a very shitty afternoon. He had thought
his platoon was on a routine babysitting mission, the sort they had done hundreds of times before, the sort his men and women yawned at. He knew how they felt. Sitting around and making sure civilians were securely doing their own jobs made his own seem like naptime, but he made sure, no matter what the mission, his Marines were bright and alert. They could complain after they got back to base. Unfortunately, this was not
one of those days.
From the Blackhawk he had seen the city of Yuma as the pilot circled to find a good landing spot and check for threats. Marines had suddenly gripped the handles of the machine guns on the bay doors a little tighter. The city looked like some of the worst drone strike-zones he had seen in Afghanistan, though without the telltale craters of ordinance exploding. But even from the air they could pick out the bodies of victims that had crawled from the flaming wreckage of buildings only to die in the street. The burnt out shells were still smoking, and the briefing had stated it had been days
since contact had been lost, but the second they had touched down his Marines moved with the precision he expected from them, clearing everything by the book.
Now he sat with the FBI agent from the local office in one of the very few buildings that wasn't a charnel house, around a stone table that had only cracked a little in the heat from the blaze that had taken the rest of the building. They were waiting on the CSI team to finish preliminary examinations of several corpses, and for backup and a refrigerated semi for the corpses to be transported. He looked up, blue eyes shining slightly with tears, at the agent, who looked like she was going to need several decades of therapy.
“We'll have some basic rations soon. You should eat. I know you don't want to, but it'll help.” His bass voice rumbled over her, startling her out of her shock.
“Uh! Yeah um. Food. God, maybe.” She looked up at the officer, horror in their eyes seeming to match. “Was this them?” she breathed out, barely a whisper.
“Not sure.” Coleman reverted to his professional attitude to avoid emotion choking his voice. “No rockets, no explosive damage except from things like propane tanks catching fire. Looks like someone came through with a bunch of flamethrowers or willy pete and nothing else. No one looked shot. Several fights, but it looks like locals only, maybe looters afterwards? Or executions. Not alien tech, though, good ol' ballistics.”
The woman shook her head, short brown hair shifting ever so slightly with the motion. “Too much damage to be looters. I want
to say a metahuman but no one we have records on can do this. There was one up north but she's been quiet and this isn't her style.”
Coleman grunted, nodding. “Yeah, could be a meta. Not sure. I haven't dealt with them before. Rest assured though, Agent Schmidt. We will get these fuckers. And we will make sure they never do this aga-”
He was cut off by a shout from outside the perimeter of the ruin they were sitting in. Two of the nerds came running up, flanked by a pair of Marines escorting them. The wiry girl with the glasses and the attitude of a mouse was unusually excited. The two of them sat back on the makeshift stools of supply crates as the four slowed and stood in front of the de facto command here.
The woman's voice was several octaves too high for Coleman's taste, but he swiftly forgot that as she went on, brushing a fringe of hair out of her eyes. “Okay, preliminary reports suggest no additional trauma aside from heat and smoke inhalation but
the levels of heat necessary to cause this sort of damage are....incredible. Like, off the charts, we don't-have-bombs-that-do-this levels.”
Her partner picked up. The dude looked like he could have passed PT with Coleman's platoon, and his buzzcut told the lieutenant that he might've tried. “Based on what we can see, we're guessing temperatures between several hundred and tens of thousands
of degrees were present. There's no discernible pattern like you'd see with devices at a bombing site. The overlaps seem almost random, and sometimes doubled up. We'd need a full lab set up to tell you more on that, but
The chick picked up again, “We found something that we can't...I don't....you have to see this shit.”
Five minutes later, Coleman had been bombarded by observations and scientific principles he wasn't sure he completely understood, but what they had showed him was
a clear pattern, at least to him. A trail of glass entered the city on the east side, and they told him this was the entry point for whatever had laid waste to Yuma. They pointed to blast patterns he hadn't seen because they were not in his scope, and they followed the now obvious trail of bubbled and glassed asphalt and sand around the town through a methodical path that seemed like someone looking for something. And then the trail of glass left the city, after doubling back several times. IT had actually vapourised
the asphalt of the US 95 heading up through the desert, up beyond where he could see through the heat haze.
Coleman's face twisted into a snarl as he snatched the radio from his belt loop, hammering the button and growling into the microphone, “Fifty-first, form up on the choppers. We have a fucking target.”
The chopper set down just a few hundred metres from the RV they had flagged down. The ground vehicle was a terrible thing. Several soot scars marked the outside, and parts of it had been sloppily painted red and orange. Underneath the meth-head paint job, it hadn't been in good shape to begin with. And Schmidt didn't like the looks of the group that had piled out of the thing, either. They looked..."rag tag" was a little light. Most of them were obviously either former or current drug addicts. Several had the "collected" fashion of the homeless. But she especially didn't like the look of the man in front, dressed in a Catholic priest's coat and pants. And of course
it was him who was coming out of the group of...jesus, fifteen
of them? To meet her halfway between the still spun-up rotors of the chopper and the vehicle. She waved behind her as she walked out for the pilot to cut the engines. The Marines with her group and the Blackhawks still in the area would be easy enough to cover her ass.
She flashed her badge as the two met, grimacing at his appearance. He had all the warning signs of a cult leader: full, thick blonde hair, artfully out of place, with a gruff beard forming; eyes shining with a fervent light showing a fanatic devotion to...something; confident, arrogant pose and stride, easy movements but with purpose. She instantly disliked everything about him. He, for his part, gave her a nod and an easy smile, then glanced at her identification, holding out a hand so he could examine it more closely.
"Ah, Agent Schmidt," he said, handing it back to her and standing uncomfortably close to do so. "What can my humble flock do for you?"
"Don't bullshit me, preacher. Who are you and why are you following a terrorist?" She couldn't keep the growl out of her voice.
"If you are asking my name, I am simply Roger. Or Father Roger if you need formalities, but I prefer to do away with them. And as to what we are doing, we are not following a 'terrorist', as you say." He leaned down to match heights with her, giving him an even more condescending air. "We are following a messenger of God."
"I'm sorry, what? Were...were you in Yuma
The man leaned back, beatific smile beaming for the world at large but her in particular. "Yes indeed, madam! I witnessed firsthand as the Wrath of God Himself, Lord of All Hosts, was visited upon the town I was born in! I watched in awe as the flock I had strove to break of its sinful habits was suddenly smote like as unto Sodom of old! And yea, I was unscathed as the figure of fire walked past me with nary a glance! So I followed, as did those of us who felt her gaze and yet were untouched by flame, those who were without sin!"
"So you're telling me that you watched all this and now you're...wait, 'she'? Singular person?"
"Yes, Agent Schmidt, for the Lord saw fit that his vengeance would be cast into the form of an avenging angel and that its form would be that of a woman. Fitting, is it not, that the form which led Adam astray now corrects his mistake?"
"You watched while people burned to death
The smile faded, a solemn look on the preacher's features now. "The town was purged of sin."
The matter-of-fact way the man said that caused a shiver to go through Schmidt's small frame. She had seen interviews with fanatics before, but it had been transcriptions. To hear someone so casually describe the death of thousands as if it were necessary was something she found herself mentally unprepared for. As the wind from the helicopter's rotors died off, her attention was grabbed by the figure which had appeared at the preacher's side.
The woman was utterly shapeless, hunched over by hardship and age and sun-weathered, covered still in the Arizona desert heat by layers upon layers of cloth. She smiled at Schmidt warmly, but the weathered face gave her only further unease.
"Ah," said Roger. "Mim, could you see to the Agent's other questions? I must see to the flock."
The wide face beamed at him and nodded, then turned to the officer. She could see the woman's grey eyes were kindly, but something was...off. She was just about to start with a further line of questioning when an explosion on the near horizon stole both their attentions. A wall of flame, probably thirty feet high, was barely visible.
"Oh dear," said the old woman. "It seems your friends riled her up."
Schmidt bolted for the chopper, which the pilot was already starting up. The four Marines inside looked tense, and she could catch some chatter over their earpieces. Mostly it was screaming.
Schmidt huddled inside the wreckage of the McDonnel Douglas, shivering despite the heat. The groans of the dying and the sizzle of the dead did not drown out the sounds from her memory. The roar of flames and the screaming rage of the woman behind them haunted her on repeat, and would not stop. Marines had fired round after round at her. The machine guns on the Blackhawks had not done anything, bullets turning into glowing stars around the frame of the impossibly bright destroyer killing their friends. Schmidt hadn't even gotten their in time to hear Coleman die, though she had seen the other choppers blown out of the sky like toys.
Hands pried open the door facing the sky, and she realised with a start that she was alive. Somehow, she had survived the blast and the wreck. She moved her head slightly to the right and saw the semi-skeletal remains of her pilot, still smoking where he had been fried to his seat. The Marines that had been with her were nowhere to be seen. But over the edge of the door frame came two faces she knew, though she wasn't exactly sure how. A voice came over her, from the man.
"Unburned! Brothers and Sisters, we have an Unburned! Quickly, bring some water!"
And then the pain smacked her from her arm and her ribs, and she was pulled into the blackness of unconsciousness.