Thursday, August 9, 2012

E/B:H -- Chapter Ten

When our wheels touched down at DFW, you would have never suspected the city was in the middle of an alien invasion. Yeah, I was comfortable calling it "alien" by that point. It's weird -- logically, we all kind of knew that's what was going on. All of us were aware that these things were coming down from space, but no one was using the word "alien." I have no idea why. I guess we thought if we didn't say it, it wasn't happening.

And in Dallas, it was hard to believe it *was* actually happening. Real humans -- obviously not aliens posing as humans -- met us at the plane. They were from the Federal Police Force, Dallas sector. They were all smiles when they saw heavily armed Marines pouring out of the transport.

"Finally," one of them said, beaming. "We've been waiting for reinforcements from Sam Houston for hours now."

The man who said this was young, maybe twenty-four. His shoulder rank insignia showed he was a watch Lieutenant, in command of at least a hundred other Federal Law Enforcement Agents.

"That's not us," Keller said, shaking the man's offered hand. "We were just at Hood."

"Oh," the Lieutenant said, frowning. "Hood's a no-go. Comms say we lost it hours ago."

"I can definitely confirm that we did," I said.

"Wait. I know you, right?"

It took me a second to realize the watch Lieutenant was talking to me. Even when I did, I wondered "how would he know me?"

Yeah. That's fucked up, right? One day of complete chaos had turned my brain into meat sludge. I hadn't forgotten who I was, exactly. I'd just forgotten that, more days than not, I was talking to the nation on the biggest news network in the whole damn country. To be fair, though, it had been a hell of a day.

"Dane Phoenix," I said, putting on the smile again. Felt like it had been ages. I had to actively think about how to *be* Dane Phoenix, how to act and talk and speak in the manner Dane Phoenix was known for. The reason was simple: I hadn't been Dane Phoenix since the cameras went off the air in Honolulu. I'd been someone else. Someone new. And this new person was someone I didn't really know -- or rather, a weird combination of two distinct people I didn't really know.

"Mr. Phoenix, sir. Welcome back to Dallas. I can arrange a ride to Global for you and your crew," the watch Lieutenant said.

I looked over at Keppler, who nodded.

"Looks like this is where we part ways," he said, reaching out his hand. I shook it.

"I'm going to hold you to that story you promised me," I told him, grinning. We both knew I was joking. My chances of that were slim.

The watch Lieutenant led us -- all of the Global employees, plus Jeb and the surfer kid -- to a waiting Federal Police transport. None of us talked much as the transport lifted off and slowly hovered away from the airport. We were all glued to the windows.

There was a sort of sick fascination that had taken hold of all of us -- we just had to see how bad Dallas had gotten it. Curiosity. Morbid curiosity. That was all it was. We'd seen Honolulu -- a huge, modern city -- reduced to rubble, then quickly abandoned. We had seen Fort Hood evacuated, ceded to the invading alien forces. So it was natural to wonder how fucked up Dallas would be.

Shocked doesn't begin to describe what I felt as we flew away from DFW along the old I-35 corridor. It wasn't the carnage or chaos. It wasn't dead bodies jammed along the roadway that surprised me. It was the complete and utter lack of anything along those lines.

The area surrounding the airport looked perfectly normal. It was past midnight, but there were still vehicles down on the roads. None of them seemed in a particular hurry to get anywhere, either -- traffic was light, moving along just fine. Just another day. No evidence of alien invasion, of metal spheres falling from the sky and unleashing hell. Light traffic. It was in-fucking-sane.

As we swooped low through the skyscrapers in Far North Dallas, I started to wonder about Ryan, and the whole phone-not-working thing. Dallas looked unscathed so far, but Ryan's phone had simply... well, stopped existing as far as the Umbra servers were concerned. Other phones in the area seemed work -- Jeremy had been able to get in contact with one of the twins before we got to Dallas.

So what was up with Ryan's phone? Last I heard from him, he was trying to keep me on the air before the Federal Police shut us down. When I hadn't been able to get him on the phone, I'd assumed they killed him... but Umbra's servers would have compensated then. They would have at least played a message saying the phone was no longer active. They hadn't. So what had gone down in Dallas?

As we approached downtown, it still looked like "nothing" was the answer to that question. Dealey Plaza looked just the same. Apart from the fact that it was dark out now, I didn't see anything different than I had when I'd been there two days before. Odd.

I wanted to ask the pilot some questions, but we were in a police transport, commonly used to detain and ferry criminals around. We were separated from the driver by armor plating and bulletproof glass. He could have talked to us on the transport's intercom. He didn't. We never saw anything but the back of his head. When we landed at Global, he just flipped the switch to open the door.

Once we were all out of the transport, he simply lifted off. We never once spoke to him, never even saw what he looked like. When the watch Lieutenant said he'd set us up with a ride back to Global News, he meant exactly that -- a ride. Nothing more.

The lobby doors at Global are secured -- of course -- but every one of us but Andrevich, Mischa, Jeb, or the kid could open them. Jeremy placed his palm against the sensor, and we heard the whirring and clicking of the door's locking system go to work. Easy. Just like it had a thousand other times, the door popped open.

Unlike every other time I'd been there, the lobby was dark. Empty. It was well past midnight, but normally, the office was up and running 24/7. Not so anymore -- there was no one around downstairs. There should have at least been security, so we waited for a few moments in case the guy was walking his rounds or something. Nope.

Elevators still worked fine, though. We crammed into one car and headed upstairs, bound for Ryan's office. No one said much. No one really even suggested we go upstairs to Ryan's office -- I think we just all understood that was where we should be going.

I'll admit it. With the empty, darkened lobby, and the fact that I couldn't get him on the phone... I expected Ryan to be dead. I figured we'd walk into his office and find a corpse, or worse, nothing at all. The whole night had taken on a horror-movie vibe.

It snapped back to an even weirder sense of normalcy when we cleared the door to Ryan's office, though. He was just sitting there. Same place as usual, behind his desk, going over whatever the hell it was he looked at on his computer all day. Strangest thing. When you've got yourself steeled for a dead body or a missing person, a guy sitting at his desk can freak you right the hell out.

"Oh, look. You've brought everyone in the world," Ryan said dryly, looking up from his desk.

I suppose we looked pretty odd. To be honest, though, I didn't care about how we *looked*. I just wanted to know what the fuck was going on around here. I said so.

"You're going to have to be more specific," Ryan answered, sighing. "Rather a lot has happened here in the last 24 hours or so."

"I tried to call you about a hundred times," I said, exaggerating to make my point.

"Yeah, that. Phone system fried itself. About half the phones in the state went tits-up when Umbra turned on its defense network," Ryan said.

"What defense network?"

"Maybe you've noticed, with your keen journalistic skills and all, but things here in Dallas are a little less chaotic," Ryan said. "Especially compared to the part of the world you've just come from. The city has Umbra Dynamics to thank for that."

Umbra. The huge mega-company that owned damn near everything. "If you have it, Umbra gave it to you," their ads constantly reminded us.

"How did Umbra manage to protect this city?" Andrevich asked, but only because he got to the question first. It was on my mind.

"No one's talking," Ryan said, shaking his head. "But I did some legwork. There are four other cities with major Umbra R&D facilities. Amsterdam, Shenzhen, Bogota, Mogadishu, and Dallas. None of them were hit, and electronics went crazy in all five. We saw lights. Way up in the sky, maybe 25,000 feet. But that's it."

"Some kind of shield," Jeb said. It wasn't a question. "I've read... things. Rumors about Umbra and directed-energy projects."

"Which network would carry that story?" Jeremy asked, raising an eyebrow.

"None that you'd be familiar with," Jeb told him, winking.

Undergrounds. ICPs --Independent Content Producers. I fucking knew it. I pegged Jeb for an illegal broadcaster the second Andrevich and I met him. Kid had a hell of a rebellious streak. Good for him.

So Dallas and a few other cities were safe, at least for the time being. But I wondered how Ryan had *really* come by that info. The guy wasn't a journalist, and never had been. He was a manager -- a good one, but still -- not a researcher or an investigator. I'd find out that answer soon enough.

"So, what are we supposed to do now?" I asked.

"Essentially nothing," Ryan told me. "We're off the air indefinitely. It's not just us -- all the networks are shut down."

Even then, that seemed like a horrible idea. People everywhere -- those of them still alive, anyway -- would need information. Would need to know what the fuck was going on. That was the media's job. That was our whole reason for existing.

"For now, we lay low. Go home," Ryan continued. "Wait for..."

He didn't know how to finish that sentence. I don't blame him. I wouldn't, either. He just trailed off, and it was briefly silent.

"Um, Ryan," Jeremy finally said. "None of us live here, boss."

"Yes, Jeremy, I have thought of that," Ryan said, sighing. "The network has a block of suites at the Hotel Palomar. I've gone ahead and set them aside for you folks. There aren't a ton. Some of you will have to double up."

And that was it. That was all he told us. Sure, we talked for a few minutes after that. But as far as any sort of useful information, that was all he gave us.

I wasn't one of the ones who had a roommate. Of course. That goes without saying. I was the talent, the number one network draw at that point. My suite was, accordingly, freaking huge. And I was all ready to put the king-size bed to use -- couldn't remember the last time I slept -- when there was a knock at my door. It was Jeb.

"Hey," he said when I let him in. He was grinning like a lemur. "What say we go get into some major, major trouble?"

* * *

Ten minutes later, we were in Jeb's car, cruising North. OK, we were in *a* car -- Jeb didn't own one, here or at home.

"It's stolen," he said before I asked, nodding his head in response to the unverbalized question. "Hotel parking garage."

"Jesus, Jeb," I said, shaking my head. "Why didn't you just check one out from the network?"

"Network vehicles have locators. If I wanted Umbra Dynamics to know where we were going, I'd have just called them up and told them."

"Umbra Dynamics?" I asked. "What do they have to do with anything?"

"Oh, you know. Not much. They just bought out Global News early this morning," he said.

"I don't believe that," I said, scowling.

"Not just Global, either. A handful of others, too. Lungshan bought the rest."

I had a hard time accepting that. Sure, the Networks were huge corporate entities, but they were supposed to be their own animals. If Umbra and Lungshan controlled all the news, how was any accurate information supposed to get out?

Then it hit me, and hard. Information *wasn't* supposed to get out. They'd bought the networks to shut them down, choke off the flow of news to the people.

I started to say something about it to Jeb, but he just nodded. He already knew what I'd just now figured out. He's a sharp guy.

"Where are we going?" I asked.

"The suburbs," he told me, winking. "There's someone there you need to meet. Someone insane." We drove along the old US75 route for a few minutes. I saw town names go by -- Richardson. Plano. We pulled off onto surface roads. The street signs went from blue to green, and the houses started getting lower. Older. Streetlights were few and far between.

"These houses must be a hundred years old," I said.

"One fifty, give or take," Jeb told me, nodding.

"Are we in the ghetto?"

"No, but you can probably see it from here if you squint hard enough."

The streets wound back for miles. Tons of low houses. Few vehicles. Old garages not wide enough to house the smallest commercially available transports. Not the ghetto -- but not far off.

"Town's called Garland," Jeb said. "Used to be middle class, then lower middle, now... this. Well inside Umbra's supposed shield. What do you think Umbra would want to protect out here?"

It sounded like a rhetorical question, so I didn't bother to answer. My silence didn't seem to bother Jeb at all. He just kept driving us deeper into the darkened neighborhood. Dark, but not abandoned. Several of the houses we passed had lights on, even at this late hour. There was no one outside on the sidewalks, though. Made sense. I can certainly say I wouldn't want to be out in this neighborhood after dark.

"We're here," Jeb announced, stopping the car.

We'd pulled up outside a house that, to me, looked no different than any other we'd passed on the drive. It was different, though. I could tell that as soon as I stepped out of the car -- it stank.

I don't know what the smell reminded me of, but it wasn't good. It was sharp and obviously unpleasant, but also familiar in a way I couldn't place.

If the smell bothered Jeb, he didn't let on. He just walked right on up to the front door and raised his hand to knock. Before he did, though, he turned back to face me.

"Don't make any sudden moves or loud noises around this guy," he warned. "He's jumpy, and I know for a fact he's armed. Heavily."

I nodded. I kept my hands out at my sides, palms facing in front of me, and slouched my shoulders a bit. Nonthreatening stance. I'd perfected it years back -- you never knew when you'd have to interview some nutjob dictator in a tiny South American country. Jeb went ahead and knocked on the door, which opened seconds later.

The guy definitely *looked* crazy. Like, textbook definition. Long black hair, long black beard, even *glasses*. In this day and age. The green eyes behind the glasses darted constantly, quickly. He looked jumpy, sure, but I got the definite feeling he was expecting us.

"Get in the house," he spat before Jeb could speak.

Somehow, I was prepared for the inside of the house to be completely different from the outside. I expected smooth, modern, clean. I expected decent lighting, computers tucked away in spotless corners, running scenarios and probabilities.

I got none of that. The front door opened up into a dirty living room. A third-hand couch was pushed up against one wall, and there was actual trash... well, everywhere. I hadn't seen papers since I was a kid, but there were piles of them just hanging around. I was slightly disgusted.

"Who's the cover boy?" the guy who answered the door asked. He was looking at me, but obviously talking to Jeb.

"Dane Phoenix. You remember -- the reporter I told you about."

"Network," the man scoffed. "Umbra drone."

I'd been about to offer my hand. I got the impression it wouldn't be a good move, so I just stood there.

"Dane, meet Richard Graves," Jeb said with a long sigh. "Weapons designer, and *former* Umbra drone, himself."

"Uh, hi." It was all I could think to say.

"You bugged?" Richard spat. His eyes stopped darting around and immediately locked in on mine, sizing me up. I saw his hands twitch at his sides.

*He's crazy. Paranoid at best,* I thought, keeping my palms out and open.

"Why would I be bugged?"

"Umbra owns your damn network now. They've been trying to get surveillance here for months. Tried everything else -- why not a quasi-celebrity?" Richard said, grinning.

"He's not bugged, Richard," Jeb said, sighing. "If you know Umbra bought his network, then you know he's off the air."

"Sure. *Currently,*" Richard said, sneering. "But you journalist types are all alike. I'm including you in that, Jeb."

"Look, " I said. "I don't even know what I'm doing here. You want me to leave? Fine with me. This neighborhood gives me the fucking creeps anyway."

Richard looked at me for a long moment, squinting his eyes as if he was performing some sort of microcellular analysis. After a few seconds, his eyes opened to a normal aperture, and he shrugged.

"Ah, fuck it. World's ending anyway, am I right? I assume you're here about the worms."

That got me paying attention. The field Lieutenant had said Dallas had been unaffected. Ryan had said the same -- nothing had landed here, just lights in the sky. So how did this guy in the ghetto know about the worms?

Richard might have been crazy, but he was perceptive. He noticed my surprise, smiled big and wide. He had awful teeth. Just awful. Near as I was aware, Umbra employees could get that fixed on their first day of work, if for some reason it wasn't corrected earlier. Simply put, no one had bad teeth anymore. Except this guy.

"Umbra told you about the shield, right? Protects the whole metro?"

I nodded.

"'Fraid not. I mean, there is one, but they didn't get it up in time to stop the worms. Or the big cat things. Not at first," Richard said. "Not until the aliens contacted them and *told* Umbra how to activate the shield for the first time."

"For the first time?" I asked.

"Shield was a prototype," Richard told me. "They'd never gotten it to work until today."
My mind was throwing up red flags everywhere. Aliens contacting a mega-corporation... to tell them how to thwart the alien invasion? Umbra making a power grab on a society that seemed headed down the tubes anyway? And a guy, very nearly a hobo, knew all this? When no one else did?

Richard might have been a borderline homeless drifter, but he was perceptive. He saw the doubt on my face.

"Yeah, yeah. Crazy guy doesn't know shit. Except this -- I can prove all of it."

I seriously doubted that, and I said so.

"Of course you doubt me. I might too, in your position. But I'm the guy who destroyed the initial worm infestation," he told me. "Right out there on the street behind you. And I can show you exactly how and why I knew what to do."

Friday, June 8, 2012

E/B:H -- Chapter Nine

In freakout mode, my brain has about a billion thoughts at once. Panic thoughts-- run, hide, fight, surrender, scream. They jumble together, the different commands contradicting each other, throwing my body into paralysis. I freeze right the hell up. In this case, that was the right thing to do.

*Don't react. They think they're passing. They'll fight if you tip your hand.* It was that other voice again, cutting through the maelstrom of panic thoughts.

Keppler looked over at me, eyebrow raised. He knew something was up. I shook my head slightly.

"Welcome to Hood!" one of the... I don't know... guys? Impostors? Aliens? Anyway, it was the tall one who said it. His voice was cheerful, which definitely seemed out of place.

"Please come with us."

It was the other one who spoke this time, his voice flat, grave.

I wasn't going to do anything, as per the voice in my head. From the way he looked over at me, I thought the voice might have been Keppler -- that he was the one in my brain, feeding me info. He disproved that almost immediately, though, by training his assault rifle on the tall one's forehead. His men backed his play. In the space of a few seconds, the two impostors had more than a hundred guns pointed at them.

The cheerful one smiled widely. The serious one raised an eyebrow, or would have if he'd had them.

That was when I noticed they didn't just have shaved heads. Neither of the two huge guys had any visible body hair whatsoever -- eyebrows, stubble, arm hair. Nothing. Like two shaved monkeys.

*They think they're passing,* the voice in my head had told me, but they weren't doing a very good job of it. From a distance... Maybe. But up close, though they had the right number of arms, legs, and heads, they still stuck out like pigeons among seagulls. The differences weren't completely alien, but they were enough to warn us these guys weren't who they said they were.

"All right. Answers or bullets, your choice," Keppler said. "Tell me who you are and what's going on around here."

A brief silence then. Cheerful and Serious looked at each other, their expressions locked. Then they looked back at Keppler. The Serious one spoke first.

"We need you to come with us, Colonel," he said. His pronunciation of "colonel" was off -- he said the "l"s, like it was written.

"Drop the act," Wong said, "or the *Major* will definitely make good on his promise to have us shoot you."

More odd silence. They looked at each other again. Cheerful spoke next.

"Welcome to Fort--"

"Wong, shoot this motherfucker," Keppler said.

Keppler had his Marines trained well -- Wong didn't hesitate for an instant. One round flew from the barrel of her assault rifle. It augered into the Cheerful one's skull just above the bridge of his nose. All of it took less than a second, but it seemed slower. I felt like I was watching the scene play out in slow motion, like the fight recaps Andrevich and I reviewed the night before.

I half-expected the bullet to have no effect. I was sure these guys were alien now, invaders that came down from *up there,* right? Both of the invading creatures we'd dealt with so far had shrugged off bullets like flies, so you can see my train of thought there.

I was wrong. The bullet did what you'd expect a bullet to do -- went in through the front and sprayed a red mess out the back. Cheerful crumpled to the Tarmac like any human would. But Serious didn't react like any normal human might -- not by a long shot. In fact, he didn't really react at all.

"I'm going to need you to come with us," he said, his tone exactly the same as before. Never mind that he'd just seen Wong obliterate his buddy's skull. Never mind that we *obviously* weren't buying any of this shit. Nope. To look at him, you'd think we just stepped off the transport, and nothing of any significance had happened in the interim.

"Your turn, big man. Who are you?" Keppler demanded, indicating with a small hand motion that Wong was to lock in on this guy now. She shifted her assault rifle slightly, the barrel now deadshot-aimed at the Serious one's forehead.

Serious didn't say a word. He just stood there, not moving, for what seemed like a really long time. Keppler sighed.

"Wong, kneecap," he ordered quietly.

Wong shifted again and let one round fly. Again, I expected something... well, I don't know. Different than what you'd expect. And again, just what you'd think would happen when a bullet hit the knee happened. A lot of blood, a guy hitting the pavement.

Well, not everything you'd expect to happen, actually. When a normal person gets a kneecap blown off, you hear screaming. Lots of it. This guy, though, apart from falling right down, didn't show any signs of pain. No screaming, no cursing -- no vocal sounds at all. He just stayed there on the ground, not really doing anything.

"Oh, fuck this," Keppler said, obviously exasperated. "Wong, Arch. You two stay here and babysit this motherfucker. He makes a wrong move, turn him off. Everyone else, fan out. Top-to-bottom search. I want a situation report on what's going in here in five minutes, clear?"

I stuck with Keppler. It was an easy choice, really. Keppler had already shown a willingness to kill the shit out of anyone who got in his way, and I wanted to be behind that guy. I ended up walking next to Henderson -- Hendo -- as we headed away from the airfield and into the base itself.

Very, very quiet. That's what I remember thinking as we walked down the darkened streets, the Marines deployed four across as we moved forward. There wasn't anyone moving -- it was like a ghost town. Keppler told me that this was beyond unusual, which I had already guessed.

"Maybe an evacuation? Like the one we saw back in Hawaii?" I suggested.

"Beacon doesn't fit with that," Keppler told me. "Evacuate, then turn on the beacon telling airborne forces to land here?"

"Unless the military didn't turn on the beacon," I said. "Those guys back there might have. You know, to wipe out the possibility of reinforcements."

"I don't like that idea one bit. That would mean we've already walked into a trap, and are just walking further," he said, toggling for his radio. "All positions. Report in now."

I checked the screen on my forearm. It had gone dark. I thought for a second the feed had been disconnected. That Sanchez had finally realized his mistake and shut off my access to the Marines' intel. Turned out, that wasn't the case. Keppler and his people apparently weren't getting any intel at all. Keppler's radio call went unanswered, too. Something was wrong.

It wasn't like all the power was dead -- my screen was still functional when I tapped it. It just couldn't send or receive. That made it basicslly useless --every function the screen had was based on its ability to connect to larger networks, Umbra servers. Best I could do with it now was amp the brightness and contrast all the way up and use it as an awkwardly placed flashlight. Great.

The Marines seemed to be in worse shape, though, and I guess I understand that. They're used to having multiple data streams. Take those away, and they're going to be pretty confused.

For a moment.

"Harden up, Marines," Keppler barked at them. "You've trained without peripherals. Search pattern back to the transport. Once they realize they're in the dark, the others will--"

Gunfire -- a lot of it -- interrupted him. I couldn't tell where it was coming from, but it sounded pretty goddamn close to me. The Marines, though, were able to lock in on it even without their technological advantage. At a wave from the Major, they took off. I had to run to keep up, and I didn't have the huge pack each Marine carried to weigh me down. These dudes were fucking *quick*.

The gunfire was pretty close by, just two streets over. When we got there, we were confused by what we saw. OK, I was confused. I can't say for sure that the Marines didn't know what was going on, but... well, I don't see how they could. It didn't make sense.

It was Sanchez's team, and they were taking cover from -- and firing on -- well, it looked like they were fighting with nothing. A few of them would pop up, empty the magazines in their rifles, and dive back behind parked transports. Then a few more, same deal. It was obvious what they were doing -- giving the other guys a chance to reload -- but it was still really confusing from my POV. That was mainly because, no matter where I looked, I still couldn't see *what the fuck they were shooting at.*

I wasn't alone. Even with their night-vision goggles, the Marines didn't seem to see anything.

"Switch to thermal," Keppler ordered quietly.

"Still seeing nothing, boss," one of the Marines -- no idea what her name was -- said to the group. I could have told her that. I thought maybe Sanchez's team had all gone insane, until Keppler finally yelled over at them.

"Sanchez! What the fuck, Sergeant?"

"Get down, sir!" Sanchez yelled. I felt someone tackle me to the ground from behind. It was Andrevich, and his timing was spot-on. I felt something fly over my head, something insanely hot. Luckily, no one was right behind me -- I'd had my back against a building. The wall of said building collapsed, burning as it did so.

"Cover!" Keppler yelled, and the Marines scattered in every direction. They took positions behind ground transports, ducked into buildings, hit the ground. Andrevich dragged me behind a large transport. I took a look back at the building that had taken the hit from.... whatever that was... instead of me. The whole thing was in flames. I kind of wondered what kind of cover these huge, olive-drab transports could really provide from whatever weapon had done that.

"'Chez!" Keppler yelled from a transport just down the street from us. "You see who the fuck is shooting at us?"

"Negative, boss! Shit just started blowing up!"

"Then what the fuck are you shooting at? Stop wasting ammo until you get a target!"

Made sense. I can't say I would have reacted any differently than Sanchez, but I wasn't a trained Marine. But his response seemed logical to me. Something's firing on you and your team, you shoot back. Maybe you'll get lucky and hit something.

The transport sat pretty low. There was just about six inches between the bottom of its armor plating and the street, but if I lay flat on the ground, I could see. I scanned up the street, in the direction Sanchez and his crew had fired their weapons. I didn't see anything up there, either. Not at first. Not until that voice in my head came back, that same weird, transplanted thought process I'd been dealing with all day.

They weren't easy to see, of course. I mean, if they were, the Marines would have already started killing the shit out of them. They hadn't, though, for two very simple reasons, the first being what I just said -- they were hard to see. The second reason -- and the most important -- they were looking in the wrong place.

I imagine, when you're getting shot at, the process is simple. You look in the direction the shots are coming from, wait for some movement, and fire back. It makes sense, at least normally.

Nothing about today had been normal. We assumed whoever was shooting had to do it the way we did -- aim down a straight line. Nope. I looked up the street and between two buildings -- barracks, maybe? -- the the left, and saw a quick white flash. It wasn't fire. He -- or it -- would move, and then, a second later, something would blow up *around the corner*.

*Indirect fire,* the voice said. Or maybe that one was my own thoughts. I'm not too sure at this point.

I motioned for Keppler to come over to where I was. Keppler crawled over to my position fast, keeping his head and body down below the line of transports.

"Over there," I told him. I pointed, under the transport, to the alleyway where I'd seen the movement. Just as he got on my eyeline, another white flash.

"Looks like a dog," Keppler said, his voice marginally louder than a whisper.

"That's a damn big dog," I said. "Just wait. He's about to do something no dog could do."

And he did. The white-silver flash moved fast, and another explosion erupted near us.

"Holy shit," Keppler muttered, flattening himself on the ground and adjusting his goggles.

"Yeah," I said. "Pretty wild. Firing around a corner."

"Not that," he said. "Don't pull the trigger, just look through the scope."

He passed me his rifle. I guess what I saw through the scope mirrored what he was seeing with his goggles. And "holy shit" was pretty goddamn accurate.

The white-silver flash... well, the silver part was armor, much like the stuff the cat had back in Honolulu. There was more of it. This armor covered the thing pretty much from head to toe. But the white part...

Well, that was the thing's face, behind a shield. Kind of like a helmet visor or a faceplate... but I could just make out the face. It... it did kind of look like a dog, I suppose. It was covered in white fur, and I could see two eyes and a mouth -- but the facial structure didn't match that of a dog, really. It looked more or less like one of our faces, yours or mine, but covered in thick, white fur.

Like I said -- holy shit was right.

It took Keppler a lot less time than me to process what we were seeing. I was still trying to reconcile the image in the scope. Keppler was already formulating a plan.

"So the motherfucker can fire around corners. Good for him," he growled. "Sergeant Green. Over here, now."

One of the Marines -- one I hadn't met yet -- lumbered over. The guy was huge, which was fortunate for him. He had a ton of gear to carry.

"Set up the Indigo system. Faster the better."

"Indigo?" I asked.

"Yeah. Some new shit. Computer-controlled indirect targeting system. It links in to several weapons systems we have."

I didn't necessarily get it. My confusion must have showed.

"He's not the only one who can fire around corners, or through walls, or up a flight of stairs."

Green was setting up during this short explanation, putting down a solid tripod base and a tiny camera. It looked like Jeb's. This one, though, didn't just record and transmit -- as I looked on the panel at the base of the tripod, I saw how much more it did. It had locked in on not only an infrared version of the thing around the corner, but had found four more behind that same building.

"Targets are painted, sir," Green said. "I'm up on three launchers and two fifties."

"Good man. Kill the fuck out of 'em."

Green didn't need to be told twice. He hit a single button, and it sounded like the world was coming to an abrupt, firey end.

"God and Thunder," he said, winking at me. I had no idea what he meant.

I watched through the assault rifle's infrared scope. I could still see the -- I think it's safe to call him a humanoid at this point -- down the alley, and he saw the rockets coming. I could tell by his reaction. He turned to run, but he wasn't nearly fast enough. The explosion blanked out the scope for a second.

When the image flickered back on, I could see the humanoid was down for the count. He was facedown in the concrete alley. Dead.

Or so I thought. As you probably know, since you survived long enough to hear me tell this whole story, he wasn't actually dead. He was hurting, I'm sure -- it had to have been like getting hit by a car -- but the rockets didn't kill him. He slowly got up.

"Movement, sir," Green said, pointing to the screen. All four of the figures were getting shakily to their feet. Unbeleiveable.

"Well, fuck me. Hit them again," Keppler ordered.

"Right away, sir."

Same munitions, same results. Knocked down, not out. Thing is, we couldn't really tell if we were even doing any damage. They'd get hit, fall down, and get back up a second later. They could be totally fine, or they could be bleeding internally from just the impact. There was simply no way for us to know which.

"Major? What's next?"

"We fall back to the transport. Green, see if you can get on with Texas ANG," Keppler ordered.

"Radio's still down, sir," Green said after a minute.

"We might have some better luck at the transport," Keppler told me. "Bigger transmitter there, and maybe out of range of whatever's jamming us. Green, get everyone ready to move."

"But," I started. "Your other teams. Without radio, how will they know we're going back to the plane?"

"They'll figure it out," Keppler assured me. "Probably already have. Once they realized the net was down, the team leaders would've given the order to regroup. They'll be fine."

I wasn't so sure about that -- what if they were under fire, like us? But Keppler seemed to know what he was talking about. He waved over to Sanchez and made some motions with his hands. Sanchez apparently understood, gave the thumbs-up, and started moving. The team I was rolling with merged with Sanchez and his people, and after another barrage from Green's system, we got out of there.

I expected the enemy... humanoid... things to shoot at us as we retreated. They did, but not for very long, maybe thirty seconds. I doubt it's because we moved out of range -- if they could fire around corners, they obviously had better weapons than we did. But we weren't too far away when the incoming fire dropped off.

We weren't going to stop, though. Keppler had us move double-time. I know Keppler wanted to call it a strategic retreat or something, but it sure as hell felt a lot more like "running the fuck away."

The transport was just as we left it, and Archer and Wong were still guarding the fake Army guy. He looked as passive as ever. He must have been aware of the firefight a few blocks down -- it wasn't quiet -- but he looked calm and serious. Unfazed. Zenlike.

I could see his disposition annoyed the hell out of Keppler. The Major was angry, and I don't blame him a bit. I wasn't angry -- just confused. But Keppler, like a lot of his Marines, had unlearned most of their emotions. Confusion often manifested as anger.

"Wong, have any of the other teams reported in?" Keppler asked, glaring at his downed prisoner.

"All but one, sir," she said. "They got a few miles out into the base, past whatever was jamming our comms. They're on the way back right now."

"Good," he said.

Keppler looked down at our prisoner, sneering at him.

"Wrap this motherfucker up to go," he said. "We're taking him with us."

"Taking him where, sir?" Wong asked, zip-tying the prisoner's hands behind his back.

"We'll figure that out in the air. This place is a write-off," Keppler said. "And the beacon was just meant to draw us in so those things could take us out."

I'd mentioned that to him earlier, and I guess now he agreed. Jeremy stuck his head out of the transport -- I hadn't realized he was in there. He waved a hand to get my attention.

"Jeremy? What's up?" I asked.

"I finally got someone back at the home office," he said.

"Your home office is in Dallas, correct?" Keppler asked.

I nodded.

"Then that's where we're going."

Friday, May 11, 2012

E/B:H -- Chapter Eight

The plane Archer and Henderson found was an thirty-year-old Russian airliner, complete with pilot and flight crew. They'd taken cover in the plane when the spheres started hitting, and as the passengers were either dead or running, they were free. It hadn't taken much convincing to get the pilot to take us to a safe location. He probably wanted to get out of there more than us.

The Marines filed in first, and they were all loaded up in a matter of seconds. My fellow civilians and I took longer, of course. We were running on adrenaline, moving what we thought was fast -- but we didn't have anything on the Marines and their discipline.

I ended up sitting next to Jeremy, across from Mischa and Andrevich. Andrevich was still covered in the cat's watery, dark blood. As the plane taxied toward the runway, one of the stewardesses gave him a pile of those hot towels that usually serve no purpose.

"That thing really bled all over you," Jeremy said.

"This? This isn't blood, I think," Andrevich told us as he cleaned up. "There was a... sort of a bag around the beast, under its armor. It was filled with this stuff. And it was very cold. I think it was a coolant."

Coolant. That was interesting. And it also was a little frightening -- I'd assumed it was blood. I'd based my whole "it's an animal, we can kill it," on the premise that it was bleeding like an animal. It had worked out, I guess. But that realization let me know that I was making stupid logic leaps in dangerous situations, and I could have gotten us all killed.

Andrevich's tattoos were slowly turning back to blue. If I had done a fraction of the fighting he had, I'd be damn near dead. It seemed the big New Soviet, though, only needed a few minutes off his feet to start recovering. The guy was truly impressive.

Mischa said something to him in Russian, and though I used to speak a bit of the language, I didn't catch it -- it was too quiet. Andrevich waved his hand dismissively -- I'm guessing Mischa asked if he was all right, and Andrevich indicated he was five by five.

"So what was inside that thing's head, anyway?" Jeremy asked Andrevich as the plane started to level off at its cruising altitude.

"I'm not a biologist, but I was sure it was the thing's brain," Andrevich said, accepting a bottle of water from a passing Marine. "But between the chunks the Marines here and I took out of it, it couldn't have been. So, I'm not sure."

Andrevich shrugged. He took a swig of his water and looked out the window.

"Now, what do you make of that?" he asked, pointing out and slightly down.

I looked out the window and followed Andrevich's indicated line of sight. We were flying rather low, well below the cloud layer. The plane was passing over a wide field, a cow pasture. I didn't even know Hawaii had cattle, but I saw them, dozens, below us. But that wasn't the interesting bit -- they weren't alone in the field. There was a cat making his way through the pasture, as well. But even the cat wasn't the interesting part -- the fact that it was nearly tiptoeing around the cows was the important bit.

The cat was moving carefully, not like the rip and hack and slash we'd seen back at the airport. I couldn't guess at the motivation. All I could be sure of was what my eyes were telling me -- that big beast was *avoiding* the goddamn cows.

"Are you seeing this?" I yelled across the plane to Keppler. He looked out the window, crossing the aisle to get a better view.

"Huh. Now, that's odd." Keppler said, shaking his head. "Get some video on this, Arch. CENTCOM will want any data we can get."

"On it, sir," Archer said. It was the first time I had seen him. He didn't look like the rest of the Marines. He was shorter than me or Jeb, and skinny as hell. Something in my head immediately assigned a nickname to him -- "The Littlest Marine." That name stuck in my head until... well, now.

"Why do you think it's doing that?" Jeremy asked.

Thanks to my missed assumption about the cat earlier, I was slightly wary. I didn't really want to hazard a guess, but my mouth started talking before I could really think to stop it.

"My guess?" I said. They're not interested in killing cows, or birds, or anything... except for humans."

"Because we fought the thing?" Archer asked.

"No, it was killing people in the airport pretty much indiscriminately," Mischa said.

"Right," I said. "It's after humans."

We didn't have too much time to study the cat traipsing through the fields, though. We were flying low, but not really slow. We'd passed over the pasture in under 90 seconds, and were now winging our way towards Pearl Harbor.

It was quiet in the plane. Apart from the civilians, no one was really talking much, but the Marines seemed plenty busy, kind of off in their own little worlds. It was then that I remembered Sanchez had linked my screen into their data feed earlier, and I wondered if the link was still active.

It was. And the screen was crowded with a confusing jumble of information, stuff that I'd need special training to figure out. I remembered Meg telling me that the Marines were trained to sort through all of this information and process it simultaneously. I had no such training, but I was able to pick out bits of info here and there anyway.

First, there was video. Lots of video. Quick clips popped up of worms attacking large groups of people, cats tearing through crowded shopping malls. Brutal, violent stuff. There was a map overlaid on all of it, one of those flattened-out world maps, with hundreds of spots all over the world lit up. I guessed the dots represented cities under attack -- Africa was the lightest by far.

*Coolant,* I thought. *Africa's too hot.*

I was doing that thing again, jumping right to conclusions with minimal data, or worse, data I didn't actually understand yet. I knew it was a bad idea, but it was hard not to -- a human mind, I guess, wants to make sense of things, wants to figure stuff out. I needed to put some order to the events of the last couple of hours, to feel like I had some handle on the insane stuff happening. Of course, I had no handle on anything, no real idea what was going on, except for one thing -- invasion.

That was obvious, right? That had to be what was going on. They weren't going after livestock, because cows weren't a threat. They were smart predators. They knew humans would fight back, and cows would just sit there and fucking be cows.

My mind was racing a mile a second again. Fortunately, before I'd convinced myself I had the whole situation figured out (I wasn't even that close, really), Keppler spoke up.

"We're approaching Pearl Harbor," he said to the cabin at large in a loud, commanding voice. He seemed to have leveled out. He was back in his element, landing at a military base, commanding his troops. No insane, armored alien cats to deal with right now. Now it was just more of the usual -- get your troops where they need to be, get your orders, act on orders. Simple. Comforting.

It was about to get a whole lot less comforting, though. The base was in chaos when we landed, uniformed soldiers running all over. A scrawny kid in a Navy Ensign's uniform ran over to the plane as the hydraulics dropped the door to ground level.

"2-6 MEU?" he asked, his voice shaking.

"That's us, Ensign," Keppler said.

Like I mentioned earlier, I was getting so I could read him. His expression didn't change much, but I could tell Keppler was confused. It wasn't that such a junior officer was meeting the plane. That was no big deal. But the chaos around the base -- the breakdown of military discipline -- that was what really bothered him.

"You came back from Japan?" the Ensign continued. I noticed his uniform didn't have his name on it anywhere. That was odd.

"We did," Keppler said. His tone of voice let the Ensign (and me) know he was losing his patience with the 20 questions routine.

"Transport there, sir. Runway 3. You're going to Texas," the Ensign said, turning to leave.

"Hold on, Ensign," Keppler growled. "What's the situation here? What are our orders in Texas?"

"Fuck if I know, sir," the departing Ensign called over his shoulder. "We're in the middle of an evacuation. I've just been ordered to make sure people know what planes to get on."

Evacuation. Shit. An evacuation meant all sorts of things, none of them good. First, it meant they were treating Hawaii as something of a lost cause. That meant that the U.S. Military felt they were losing, and the best course of action available to them was a hasty retreat.

I flashed back to a history class in college, one that focused on the skirmishes of the 21st Century. The teacher was ancient. He was teaching the class possibly because he'd lived through every one of the wars he talked about, from Iraq to China and beyond. The common thread in his lectures, at least the ones concerning the U.S. Military, was they didn't retreat, even when they should. In the China War, they'd started losing almost immediately, but they kept with it. They made some sacrifices to civil liberties. And though they were outnumbered almost ten to one, eventually, they pushed through and managed to win... sort of. I'm no historian. I just know America's victory in that particular conflict is a matter open for debate, as my grandfather often told me.

So, yeah. Evacuation, retreat -- these were extremely uncomfortable words to be thrown around within the vicinity of heavily armed Marines. And the hurried manner with which the evacuation was being carried out, the breakdown of discipline and order -- also damned scary.

But the chaos and lack of orders wasn't our only problem. I could see it in Keppler's face as he turned to address his troops. He still had that vaguely unsure look about him, and I figured out why before he said it.

"Marines, load up on that transport. Civilians..."

He trailed off, but he didn't need to say the words. We all got the message. *I have no idea what to do with you.*

It was obvious just by looking at him that he didn't want to leave us there, even though I didn't know much about him personally. I could tell he was a good Marine, and in addition, a good human. He didn't relish leaving us in a place the military had forsaken.

"Transport got room for a few more?" Jeremy finally asked, breaking the uncomfortable silence.

"Fuck it. We'll make room. Your home office is in Dallas, yes?" Keppler asked.

"That's correct," Jeremy said.

"I don't know where in Texas we're going. Still, anywhere there is closer than anywhere here. 'Chez, these civilians are your personal responsibility, we clear on that?"

"Five by five, sir," Sanchez said. "Come with me, folks. Let's find you a place to sit."

I was glad to be getting out of there. But I didn't even think *why* Keppler had bothered to keep us on. It wasn't just that he was a good guy -- I mean, of course he was. But more than that, he'd later tell me, it was because of me. I'd shown myself to be useful. I seemed to figure things out quickly. Never mind that I was either pulling it out of my ass or someone was implanting it in my brain -- I was earning my keep either way.

There was no scenery to watch out the window this time. And since we were crammed in all over, I had no one to really talk to. Jeremy was on the other side of the plane, Andrevich was chatting to some Marines near the cockpit... I was near some sleeping guys. So I had plenty of time to think, which would've been nice if my brain hadn't decided to play a long, loud tone instead of thoughts.

I didn't really make the connection, but I was more asleep than I was awake at that point. I'd had too much input for 24 hours. My mind had retreated to a place where it didn't have to think, didn't have to process what had been going on all day. Shut down. I guess it was a post-traumatic stress response, but it felt more like I was sleeping with my eyes open. It was an odd sensation. It also didn't last very long -- maybe half the flight, or about an hour.

When I finally came around, my brain was hyper-aware. I could feel the transport vibrating slightly under me as we cut across the Pacific, hear the Marine passed out next to me breathing. I decided, since my brain was not only functioning now but sort of mega-functioning, to try and make sense of the Marine intel. Sanchez still hadn't turned off the feed to my screen -- he'd probably forgotten -- so I had streams of information pouring in. And though my brain felt sharper, my thoughts clearer now, I still wasn't making a whole lot of sense out of the data I was seeing.

Understandable fragments would pop up here and there. Seattle -- reports of large creatures on the ground, wreaking havoc. Omaha -- the Air Force bombed the living shit out of a suburb with thermite plasma to contain the worms running rampant there. Reports of fighting in all sizes of cities, all over the country, and rumors from the rest of the world -- all going about the same. There were little victories here and there -- worm advances stopped, lucky shots on battle cats like the one we had in Honolulu. But mostly, the battles were going exceedingly badly.

I also got the impression that various forces were trying to share intel. The Americans had broken off diplomatic relations with the New Soviets 60 years ago, but now the two nations were talking again. Or trying to, anyway. The impression I got was that kind of international cooperation was mostly like the evacuation at Pearl Harbor. Chaotic. Undisciplined. Disjointed and confusing.

I decided to try my phone -- to be honest, I'd just remembered I still had it. Maybe I could call back to the office -- maybe they'd have better information, know more definitively what was going on.

Nope. I called Ryan, but I didn't get a response at first. There was no ring on the other end, no voicemail -- just silence. It was odd. I thought about running a quick check to make sure my phone was working, but I didn't want to move the Marine Intel off the screen. I could dial all I wanted -- that was a passive part of the screen -- but running the diagnostic would mean switching applications. I wasn't sure I could get the intel feed back if I minimized it.

So, instead, I tried dialing Jeremy's number. That should work. It went through, and Jeremy answered it immediately. I could see him across the transport, but could only hear him through the phone.

"Dane? What's up?" he asked. I could see him mouth the words.

"Tried to get in touch with Ryan. I got nothing."

"Odd. Did it just ring until it went to voicemail?"

"It didn't ring at all."

The thing is, our phones never really get turned off. They're incapable of it, as they run off the same power source as our screens -- the electrical energy the human body puts off. If you're going to sleep or something, you can set it to silent, and the phone will just ring and go to voicemail without waking you. But I'd never dialed another phone and gotten nothing at all when my phone was working. Even a dead or broken phone wouldn't do that. Theoretically, when the power source stopped (the owner died), the phone server at Umbra would detect that and take over instantly. If Ryan had died or broken his phone, I should have at least gotten a boilerplate message from the servers saying the phone was dead.

"What's that mean?" Jeremy asked. I could hear concern in his voice -- he'd probably never gotten no response like that either.

"No idea," I said, "but it can't be anything good."

"I'll try to raise one of his assistants," Jeremy said. I remembered them. The twins. The ones I thought were clones. I'd only seen them a couple of days ago, but it seemed like over a month. Time dialation. When shit really hits the fan -- and that's all it had been doing all day -- time seems to slow down. The coffee shop with Andrevich? Meeting Jeb for the first time? Seemed like weeks ago, not earlier that morning.

We crossed into Texas airspace after dark. Normally, you know when you're hitting Texas airspace, as a computer voice comes on the speakers in the plane and tells you so. Not this time. It was completely silent in the cabin -- the only reason I knew we were in Texas is because I glanced at my screen. The Marine intel feed flashed up a map of Texas with Ft. Hood dotted out -- our landing spot -- and the plane graphically represented. I happened to catch the screen just as the tiny animated graphic representing our transport crossed over the border into Texas. Otherwise, I wouldn't have known for a few more minutes.

Keppler had apparently forgotten about the intel feed going to my screen. He came over to tell me that we were headed for Fort Hood, and we had just crossed into Texas. I decided to play dumb -- not hard.

"I didn't hear the announcement over the speakers that we'd entered Texas' airspace," I said. "Military transports not get that?"

"We do, normally. Not this time. The beacon that sends out that signal isn't transmitting," he said. "Reasons currently unknown."

They might not have had any confirmation as to why the beacon was down, but I'm sure we all had a pretty accurate fucking guess.

"There's something else," Keppler told me, dropping his voice so low I had to strain to hear, "something I need you to keep quiet. At least until I can figure out what it means."

I nodded. Whatever he had to tell me, I got the impression I wouldn't like it.

"We've been ordered to Fort Hood, but the order came in from an automated system."

"Like the Texas airspace beacon?" I asked.

"Similar. It's a military channel."

"Why is that one still up if the State's is down?"

"Tougher system. It's in a bunker. Nothing short of a direct nuclear strike would take it out. Problem is, it shouldn't be active right now," Keppler said, frowning. "There should be someone at the base relaying orders, a Combat Controller, or at least a communications duty officer."

I nodded. "So what does that mean? Could it just be chaos, like at Pearl Harbor?"

"There were people at Pearl Harbor handing out orders. People who had almost no clue what was going on, sure. But people nonetheless," Keppler told me. "This beacon shouldn't be live. Not unless..."

I caught up to him then. I knew what he was going to say, and I said it first.

"Unless everyone there is dead."

Keppler didn't say anything. He just nodded slowly.

"I could be wrong," he finally said after a long moment. "I hope I am."

I hoped he was wrong too, but the way things had been going for us that day (shitty), it didn't seem a likely possibility.

Kepler left to tell a couple of his closest people -- Sanchez, Archer, Henderson, and Wong -- what he'd already discussed with me. I was a little disturbed that he told me before he told his people, but I was getting the impression I was a kind of good luck charm. I could see that, I guess -- I'd managed to stumble my way into two life-saving solutions in the space of a couple of hours.

Yeah, no pressure there.

Keppler confirmed my good-luck-charm hypothesis when the transport landed and we got ready to deboard. Along with those four clutch Marines, I was next to Keppler -- first out the door and onto the Tarmac. Turned out to be a good move.

We were met by two fucking *huge* guys in Army battle dress. And I mean they were big -- I guessed between 6'10 and 7 feet each. Their uniforms barely fit them, and both had pale skin, shaved heads, and ridiculously large hands and feet. Both were sweating. And not just a little -- they were drenched in sweat, though it was night and maybe only 90 degrees out, tops.

Something was... well, wrong is an understatement. Something was completely fucked. It wasn't just their odd appearance -- it was more than that. The thoughts that were not my own, that other voice in my brain, let me know in no uncertain terms that these guys were not Army. Moreover, I got the distinct feeling the voice was telling me something else -- *these guys weren't even human.*

I freaked out.

Monday, April 9, 2012

E/B:H -- Chapter Seven

I'm going to back up for a moment, because in the flow of telling you what happened, I had to leave information out. I didn't know at the time what I know now, so there are gaps I need to fill in before things get too confusing. OK, *more* confusing.

The way Meg had explained the Marine's combat network to me, I thought they were only in contact with each other on the ground. Not that she was keeping anything from me -- that's how she understood it, too. And Keppler's plan to make a report jived with that. I thought we were still operating alone, in the dark, with no one but us aware of what was happening in the streets of Honolulu.

Turns out, that wasn't correct. The report was a formality, really. A commander's analysis of information his bosses already had. Keppler and his men weren't just connected to each other -- they were connected to CENTCOM, the U.S. Central Command, at all times. Somewhere in a basement at MacDill Air Force Base in Florida, a server was routing their video and audio to all interested personnel. Which, as it turned out, there was quite a lot.

There was more I wasn't aware of yet, information the Marines had and I didn't. Because not only were they connected to their bosses at CENTCOM-- the connection went both ways. The Marines got any important intel. There was quite a lot of that, too, as it happened. Like the fact that Hawaii, China, and Japan weren't the only areas hit by pods. The Marines had been informed that pods had landed all over the place -- Eastern and Western Europe, the U.S., Mexico. Everywhere.

Information transfer wasn't instantaneous, though. If it was, the Marines would've known about the fire trick before I told them. Apparently, some nutbag in Texas had figured it out first, though no one wanted to give him credit for it, since he was a criminal. Or he would've been a criminal, anyway, if laws meant anything by then.

Apparently, he was a guy living in the Dallas subburbs. His name was Marcus Stahl, and he was a chem weapons designer laid off by Umbra Dynamics years before. He was a shut-in, a hermit. He'd been brewing batches of Napalm-B in his garage for reasons no one had really been too eager to discover. When the pods landed... well, Stahl was hell on the creepy-crawlies inside. Those plastic vats of diesel-soaked polystyrene cooked the worms off beautifully. Stahl saved his whole neighborhood, and the local Federal authorities conveniently forgot about the many felonies in his garage.

The Marines knew all of this before we touched down outside their makeshift headquarters in the auxiliary hangar at the airport. They even had Stahl's recipe for Napalm-B -- but all the Napalm-B in the world wouldn't help us with what we found at the airport.

Calling the worms "worms" had been an easy decision, as the little things looked pretty much like a terrestrial worm species. Nobody knew what the fuck to call the thing we found rampaging around the Honolulu airport, at least not at first. Names came later. Initially, the thing was simply classified as E/B:H.2 -- Extraterrestrial/Biological: Hostile #2. The worms, of course, were #1.

The second creature was much larger than the first -- nearly five meters long and three meters high -- and it was frankly horrifying. Initially, I only saw a quick glimpse of it as we landed. The thing moved fast, but I saw a massive, dark shape dart into a hangar. I wasn't the only one who saw it -- Keppler did, too. And he had no intention of meeting whatever it was up close, at least not yet.

"Wong, get in there and secure our people. Get us something we can put in the air," he ordered. "I need to see what's out there. Have Taylor get on the line to CENTCOM. Advise for further orders."

"Right away, boss."

"Well, Mr. Phoenix? What've you got?" Keppler asked me, leaning up against the skimmer's bulkhead. He was trying to convey that same sense of battlefield calm as before. This time, though, it wasn't working as well. I could see something in his eyes -- apprehension, perhaps all-out fear. It worried me.

I was a little surprised at the question. Why the hell was he asking me? And for that matter, just what was he asking me anyway? Normally, I'd hate looking like I didn't know exactly what was going on, but I was well past that now.

"Um... what?" I asked.

"Thing is, you're the closest thing we have to an expert about any of this... whatever it is. You're the one showing awareness. So I figured I'd get your opinion on that thing you and I both saw head behind the main terminal building," Keppler said, pointing.

I couldn't fault his logic, I guess. I mean, he was wrong about me having any sort of awereness on the situation. I'd been lucky. Simple as that.

But then I remembered something. My grandfather, as I've said, was American. Military man, through and through. And he'd once told me a story -- not sure if he made it up or not -- about invaders in ancient times using battle animals. Elephants? That sounded absurd, but also what I remembered him saying.

"Battle elephants," I mumbled, only half-aware I was speaking aloud.

Keppler froze and looked directly at me. Though there was no one else in the skimmer with us just then, he dropped his voice low.

"Did you just say..."

"Yeah, sorry. I was thinking out loud," I said. I might have smiled to cover up how stupid I felt.

"Jesus, Phoenix. Jesus. You're either a psychic or a genius," Keppler said, shaking his head. "Like Hannibal crossing the Alps."

So I said something right, I guess. But before Keppler could say anything else, Sanchez hurried into the skimmer's passenger area.

["Found an old UAV, boss. Still works. Wong's getting it to talk to our setup now."

"UAV?" I asked.

"Probably the airport's. They bought a fuckton of decommissioned Air Force drones to help with traffic control," Keppler told me. "How long until it's up?"

"Coming online now, sir," Sanchez said.

"Patch it through to Phoenix's screen, too."

I don't know how Sanchez got access. Probably had something to do with the wicked-cool tech the Marines seemed to have standard issue, but I didn't see him do anything. The image simply popped up on the screen in my forearm a second after Keppler gave the order.

And it was a fucking horrible image. I don't mean the quality -- that was fine. But what the drone was showing turned my stomach.

It didn't look like an elephant. It had four legs, but that was the only similarity. If anything, it resembled a dog skeleton. That was the first thing I thought of. It wasn't a skeleton, of course, but the shape was similar -- high, arched back; long, thin, jointed legs. A narrow, pointed skull. Its jaws were wide open, and glistening red. I saw what I'm pretty sure was a human torso impaled on one long, jagged, sharp tooth.

At that time, I knew nothing of its physiology. I didn't know if the metallic-looking plates all over it's body were biological. My first thought was that they weren't -- that it was armor. It turned out I was right there. And it was some damn tough armor, too. Later analysis would reveal that the armor plating was made of the same material as the pods that had carried the beasts to Earth. That meant it could stand up to the heat and pressure of atmospheric entry, and it could ablate the shock of crashing to the ground. The Marines were heavily armed, but nothing they had with them could even scratch that stuff. We found that out pretty damn quick.

We watched the thing tear through the rest of the hangar building, which was packed with people trying to board small planes. I noticed that the beast (someone at Fort Carson would later call them "cats," and the name stuck) wasn't eating any of the people. I'd assumed from the human torso in its jaws that it was feeding, but that wasn't so. It was simply killing, and doing so quickly. It wasn't just using its jaws, either -- it had a massive, metal spike on each foot, and it could impale and stomp at the same time. It was making quite a mess three hangars over, and I was pretty sure we were on its short list of people to turn into little chunks.

"OK," I said, not looking up from my screen. "That's just about the most awful thing I've ever seen. What do we do?"

"We go. Orders are coming in from CENTCOM -- we're to rally at the Pearl Harbor Naval Station," Keppler said.

I looked at my screen. As Keppler spoke, I noticed several lines of data running the length of my forearm, almost transparent over the images from the UAV. I could just make out the words "MCAS Pearl Harbor" in one of the lines. Sanchez hadn't just jacked me in to the UAV feed, it seemed. He'd connected my screen to the same network the Marines used to communicate with each other. I decided not to mention it to anyone. I might need the access later.

"Leave in this thing? I asked, waving one arm to indicate the skimmer.

"Negative," Keppler said. "Too low, too small, and too slow. I have 190 Marines to worry about, plus you and your crew. We need a plane. And we've got one."

A tiny line on my screen read "A-26: Obtained transpo." I guessed that was what Keppler was talking about.

"Where?" I asked. A map was already popping up on my screen, but it didn't mean much to me.

"That's the bad news, I'm afraid," Keppler told me. "It's on the other side of the airfield. That thing is between us and our ride out if here."

Well, that sucked. And I said so. And Keppler agreed.

"But saying it sucks ain't going to get us to that plane," he said, sighing. "Arch, Hendo, come back."

I could see their data, make out some of it even with my untrained eye, but I couldn't hear their radio conversations. Unfortunate. I would have liked to have been kept in the loop as much as possible.

"We're moving. Data enroute. Get the civilians over here. We'll put them in the skimmer, then walk it through the hot zone," Keppler said to his men. "Everyone tool up heavy. We move in 90."

Keppler turned to me and pulled out his sidearm.

"Your people are going to stay inside the skimmer. Your guy can fly it, yes?" He meant Jeb. I nodded.

"I'll post ten of my men inside the skimmer here with you, fully armed. The rest of us will be outside."

"And we're all just going to mosey over to the airplane your guy found?"

"Pretty much the plan. That thing gets near us... Well, we'll rain down hellfire of ammo and munitions at the thing. It's an animal, which means something has to be able to kill it."

He seemed pretty confident in that statement, but I wasn't so sure. Even then, I was thinking the plates were some kind of armor. Our own technology had armor that could stop bullets and small rockets -- and whatever this thing had was more advanced, definitely. I mean, it had to be more advanced, right? These things cruised our whole solar system in a matter of, like, a week or something. Last I checked, we couldn't do that.

Keppler's Marines were assembled in a minute flat. My crew took a little longer to pile in. Andrevich smiled wide when he saw me.

"Dane! Was watching you on the Marines' data feed. Hell of a trick you pulled, young man."

"Agreed. I didn't know--" Jeremy started, but the sudden lurch of the skimmer getting underway cut him off. I looked outside. Through the huge tour windows, I could see the massive black-uniformed Marine force walking below us, weapons up and at the ready. I felt much safer knowing they were there, but it turned out we were about as safe as if we'd decided to run across the runway naked. As we got near the cat's hangar...

Here's the thing. If I said "all hell broke loose," that would be correct. But the words... they lack something. They fail to convey just how fucked we found out we were, and just how fast we found out.

First, nothing. No movement from the hangar. No indication we were going to have any trouble. Then we got around the back side of the building. The corrugated steel of the back wall exploded outward, and a huge, silvery blur rushed out.

The guys on point never had a chance. I didn't even clearly see the cat take them out. One second, they were there, keeping their weapons ready, scanning for trouble. The next second...

Well, they weren't so much *gone.* But they were definitely dead. I can say that without any uncertainty. People can't live through getting flattened, spread out on the tarmac, and forcibly dismembered.

I didn't even catch the attack. The cat was moving too fast for that, so I didn't see if it bit them, ripped them with its claws, stomped them -- it just ended them. I don't know that I even had time to register shock.

I didn't know how many we'd lost, but it felt -- and looked -- like a lot. The survivors were quick, though, unleashing every bit of ordinance hey had at the beast. I couldn't see clearly from all the smoke. Couldn't hear over the roar of gunfire and shoulder-fired rockets. [P] But the smoke didn't last long. And when it cleared, we saw... well, we saw just how fucked we really were.

Not a scratch on the thing. I'd expected to see it dead on the tarmac, but no luck. It was just standing there, looking at the skimmer.

I couldn't see its face clearly through the armor, couldn't see its eyes. But I got the impression that we slowed it down for a moment, but not by damaging it. I definitely felt like... like we *amused* it.

I looked over at Keppler, who was standing near the front of the skimmer, next to Lt. Wong. He wasn't one for facial expressions. Still, by that point, I'd somehow figured out how to read the Major. And I realized, with horror, that he had no idea what to do.

That realization shouldn't have surprised me, rationally. He was used to killing any enemy by throwing enough firepower at it. It was his one move, and it hadn't worked. And this wasn't a rational situation, so I was surprised that he was out of ideas.

Fortunately, someone else did have a plan. OK, I'm using the word plan pretty damn loosely. But someone else decided to take action.

"Chto za huy," I heard someone mumble next to me. I turned and saw Andrevich rolling his shoulders. He caught my eye and winked. Then, he was on the move.

He grabbed a Ka-bar -- the standard-issue Marine combat knife -- from one of the Marines' boot sheath. As he made his way to the front of the skimmer, he stole another. He leaned over Jeb's shoulder and spoke calmly.

"Go higher."

Jeb was in the same boat as the rest of us -- no idea what to do -- so he did it. I imagine "higher" seemed a good idea to him. Higher meant further away from that thing. Higher was good.

We were all in some form of shock, I guess. No one was moving much. And no one moved to stop Andrevich when he opened the boarding door and jumped right out of the slimmer, a knife in each hand.

I wouldn't have believed it if I hadn't seen it myself. Andrevich didn't say anything, didn't preface his move. He just fucking dove. No one moved to stop him, partially because (I think) no one actually thought he was going to do something so balls-out insane.

He landed directly on the top of the thing's neck, but didn't stay there long. Quickly, he scrabbled up to the back of its head. There was that strange armor plating covering both sides of its face and the crown of its skull, but it wasn't a single metal piece. There were little breaks in the armor, little seams that formed the whole helmet-face-shield combo. That's where Andrevich started. He dug one of the knives into the seam between the top piece and the left-side bit and worked the blade violently from side to side.

At the very least, he got the thing to stop wiping out Marines. It was solely focused on its uninvited, stabby passenger now. The cat tried to shake the muscular New Soviet off, flinging its head around like a wet dog. But Andrevich hung on, seemingly easily. I couldn't tell his he'd managed to gain such a solid foothold on the thing's head, but he wasn't going anywhere. He kept working. And his knifework paid off --after about a half a minute, we all saw him pry away the top piece of the cat's skull armor and toss it.

Andrevich didn't stop at stripping the cat of a vital piece of its armor, either. He obviously wasn't content to leave it at that. He could have jumped off or taken cover, let the 20-odd Marines on the skimmer shoot the hell out of the weak spot. But he didn't. He just kept right on hacking away at the cat with his knives, tearing into its flesh, which I could now see was a purple-black hue.

Stripped of its armor, the cat seemed to start bleeding at the slightest provocation. Andrevich was covered in very short order. The thing's blood was watery and thin, though -- I could still see his fight tattoos, glowing dark blue, under the purple-black mess. But even though the cat seemed to be bleeding profusely, it wasn't slowing down, not even a little. It still thrashed violently. It still tried as hard as it could to toss Andrevich off the back of its head, and he still stayed clamped to the damn thing's skull. As I watched him hack away like a prep cook on methamphetamine, I saw how he was keeping himself locked onto the cat's massive skull. It was a variation of the brutal leg lock he'd perfected years ago in the ring, using the power of his massive legs, crushing inward. And it was also taking his toll. As I watched, I was sure I could see his fight tattoos getting darker, trending toward red. Danger.

I knew we had to help him. OK, to be more accurate, I knew I had to help him, as no one else was making any moves to do so. First, I needed to get the guy out of there before he gassed out, fell from his perch, and smashed his head open on the black Tarmac. I started looking around the skimmer's interior for a rope, some cord, anything we could throw down to Andrevich to get him away. Finding nothing, I waved to get Keppler's attention.

"Rope," I said the second his eyes met mine.

"'Chez. Hook the man up."

"Roger that, sir," Sanchez said, pulling off his pack and grabbing a coiled, thin black nylon cord from inside.

"Pretty thin. Will it hold Andrevich's weight?" I asked.

"Shit, sir. Might pull that thing out there up with him," Sanchez said, smiling faintly.

Without having to say much at all, Sanchez quickly put together a team of himself plus five to pull. I took one end of the cord. Bracing myself against the skimmer's doorframe, I threw my end of the rope hard. It landed squarely on Andrevich's left shoulder. If he noticed the rope at all, he ignored it.

"Vladimir!" I yelled. "Grab the fucking rope, man!"

Andrevich didn't look up. Instead, he waved one of his knives quickly in my direction. I'm sure he was annoyed I was interrupting him.

"Nyet!" he yelled.

"Shit. He's gotta know it's hopeless," Sanchez mumbled next to me. He didn't sound annoyed, though. His tone was more of respect. Andrevich was fighting what looked to us to be an unwinnable fight, but still, he kept fighting. Marines like that sort of thing.

But it wasn't long before we saw the point behind his continuing assault, the reason he'd shrugged off the rescue we offered. To him, he wasn't fighting an impossible battle -- he was giving us an opening.

After one final, huge stab, he made his move. Andrevich stuck the knives in his belt, then jammed his hands deep inside the network of deep cuts he'd made in the huge cat's head. A roar loud enough for all of us to hear, a wordless shout of exertion, as he pulled his arms apart. The cat's skull came with it.

Or, at least, part of the skull did. Andrevich held onto a piece of black bone with one hand and grabbed the rope with the other. Sanchez and his crew hauled the big New Soviet up fast -- he was on the floor of the skimmer next to me in seconds.

"Come on. What are you waiting for?" he panted, rolling over onto his back. "Shoot it in its fucking brain, already!"

Keppler gave the nod. As one, the Marines took up firing positions at the open door and the large windows. The noise of their assault rifles was deafening.

I'd moved back to let the Marines through for a clear shot, so I was relegated to a couple windows back. Still, I saw well enough. I could see that Sanchez and his boys were definitely hitting what they aimed at -- sure, a few shots went wild as the cat thrashed. But from what I could tell, the lion's share of their fire was right on target in the small area Andrevich opened up for them to hit.

On target or not, the effect was pretty underwhelming. They were certainly doing damage -- chunks of flesh flew almost everywhere. But as far as slowing the thing down... Nope. Not even a bit. All we did was piss it off, focus its attention on us in the skimmer. I can safely say that wasn't the outcome any of us was hoping for.

I had a thought then -- why assume its brain was in its head? This was an alien creature, after all. Its brain could be anywhere, assuming it had a brain as we think of it.

But it was alive. I was pretty sure of that. It wasn't a machine. It bled. It had armor to protect its softer, fleshier parts.

If it was alive... Well, that meant we had to be able to kill it, didn't it?

I started running through ways to kill anything living in my mind. Shooting -- hadn't worked. Nuclear bomb -- no, that was stupid. Running it over -- not a vehicle big enough. Electrocution -- wait. There was something there, maybe. If it was a living thing anything at all like we were, electrical signals controlled its actions. Thoughts became commands became signals to its musculature. Electricity, all of it. Add more, and we could disrupt the whole system. Add enough, and maybe we could kill it.

"Major!" I yelled, pushing past the somewhat dumbfounded fire team near the skimmer door. "I need something that can deliver a lot of voltage to a tiny area!"

Keppler caught on quick, or could read minds, as I suspected. He thought for a split second, then grabbed Sanchez by the shoulder.

"Large-field UP system!" he yelled. "Bring it up here!"

Sanchez covered the length of the skimmer in a couple of seconds, returning with a case about four feet long under his right arm. Inside was something that didn't really look like a weapon, a long box with "Urban Pacification System 442" stenciled on its side. Sanchez pulled it out of the box and attached a control unit to its side.

"Large-area tazer," Keppler explained. "Old, but..."

"Showing full charge, boss!" Sanchez said.

"Aim all of them right at the spot Andrevich opened up for us," Keppler ordered. "Juice the fuck out of that thing."

Sanchez set the box longways at the doorframe and fiddled with the control unit for a moment. I heard a few short beeps from the weapon, but I didn't know of they meant something was going right or something was malfunctioning. I found out soon enough, though.

As soon as the beeping ended, the weapon fired. There was no real noise, just a quiet "whoosh." A lot of projectiles -- I would guess about a hundred -- burst out of the front of the device and flew in a tight cluster at the cat. All of the projectiles were attached to thin, long wires.

The projectiles hit where they were supposed to, for the most part. It was a small area, about a foot square, so a couple bounced off the adjacent armor plating. Again, there wasn't a lot of noise. I was vaguely aware of a high-frequency hum from the weapon, but I think I felt that more than I heard it.

The cat sure felt it. Immediately, the monster stopped thrashing about and froze in place. Then, a second later, it started to seize, jerking wildly. The seizure continued for a good ten seconds, and then the cat crashed to the Tarmac, pulling the weapon from the skimmer as it fell.

None of us said anything for a good thirty seconds. We just hovered there in the skimmer, staring down at the motionless beast. I think we were all waiting for it to jump up and kill us all. I know I was.

But it didn't. It just lay there, completely still.

"Someone poke it with a stick," Jeb suggested unhelpfully.

No one jumped on that idea.

"Did you kill it?" Andrevich asked.

No one was sure how to answer that question. OK, I assume that's the case, as everyone was still quiet, and I didn't know myself. Didn't matter how long we stared at the thing, though -- it wasn't moving.

"Shouldn't we just get the fuck out of here?" I asked.

"We need to confirm we killed it," Keppler told me. "If we did, then we just figured out *how* to kill them. Useful information. Wouldn't you agree?"

I had to admit, he had a point there. But I also didn't want to stick around in case the thing wasn't dead. "How would we even judge if it's alive or not?" I asked. "We don't know. Can't you, I don't know, leave a camera or something?"

"Monitor it from the air," Keppler said, nodding. "I like the way you think. 'Chez, get us into any cameras are still operational. Airport security, whatever we got. Assign one of your boys to keep an eye on the feed."

"Roger that, sir," Sanchez said, nodding. He started messing with the screen on his forearm.

"Arch, Hendo? Where are we at on my plane?" Keppler said. I checked my screen. I could see two lights pop up next to designation numbers at the extreme left side -- I guessed that meant radios went active.

"I copy. Tell the pilot to hold on. We're there in two minutes," Keppler said after a moment. He turned to me.

"So, electricity. How the hell did you come up with that one?"

I wished I had an answer for him, but the best I could manage was a confused shrug.

It seemed to me that I had reasoned it out, but when he asked me, I couldn't for the life of me figure out how I'd done that. It'd made perfect sense at the time, when my brain was kicking away a mile a second -- but now, as the skimmer landed, I was unsure. How had I come up with that? It felt like I hand't really had the thought myself. I was running through options, and then just...

Stopped. But I felt like it wasn't me who had stopped my brain on the right option. It felt like the suggestion to stop came from... outside, somehow. Like someone had helped me along. I can't describe why I felt that to be the case, only that I was now sure of it.

Someone else had been in my mind. Or I'd been in someone else's.

I decided not to say anything about that as we landed.

I mean, obviously.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

E/B:H -- Chapter Six

As it turned out, what I could do to help was stay out of everyone's fucking way.

The Marines were damn efficient. They moved fast, coordinated, barely speaking as they moved. Meg was one of them as she helped find and drain the chopper's fuel. Three other soldiers methodically took apart the hydration systems from their uniforms, filling the reservoirs with aviation fuel. We were lucky again to have such an old vehicle that ran on volatile chemicals -- most modern skimmers were solar or rechargeable. If we'd had one of those instead, we'd be stuck burning uniform jackets on some sticks as our only defense.

Marines improvise. I'd heard that saying somewhere before, I think from my grandfather. He was an American citizen in his youth, and in the military. Army, I think. I know he served in the China War. Regardless, even after he moved to The Netherlands, he told us his war stories. And he had huge respect for the Marines, and their talent to do more with less.

And these Marines were improvisational geniuses. In just about five minutes, they used three hydration systems, two rifles, and some fuel to improvise some fucking flamethrowers.

"Wong and her team are still working on the skimmer," Keppler eventually told me. Good. At least he still remembered I was there. "We're going to move to them, cover them while they work. Hope you're right about this fire thing, Phoenix."

I hoped so, too.

Then, we were moving. Sanchez took point, and I just sort of fell in next to Meg as we walked.

"How do they know where to go?" I asked. Everyone just started moving -- neither Sanchez nor Keppler gave any order, any directions.

"I had to guess?" Meg said. "BattleNet, or something like it. They're connected via audio and video to all of their guys on the ground. It's those cool goggles."

"So they all see what the other soldiers see?"

"They can. Or the goggles can just pop up signposts," Meg explained. "Turn. Stop. 300 feet that way. That kind of thing."

"And how do they process that information and keep a lookout for worms and stuff?"

"Specialized training. Your brain would go nuts if you tried it. Hell, mine too, probably. We had a version of this back home. But I'd imagine it's primitive compared to what these guys have."

"Yeah, I've been meaning to ask --"

But Sanchez cut me off. He held up a hand, and everyone stopped.

"Movement. 500 meters west," he said.

"I see it," Keppler said.

"Civilians?" The question came from me.

"Negative. Ground level. Crawling, moving fast," Sanchez reported.

"Your worms," Keppler told me. "And it looks like they wanna say hello."

I was sweating already, but I think I started to sweat more. My jaw clamped tightly. It looked as though we were about to find out if my logic leap had been sound, or if I'd had a stupid idea that would kill us all.

"'Chez, fire that thing up," Keppler said to Sanchez.

"Rog. Say a prayer that I don't burst into flames, boss," Sanchez said.

Sanchez twisted open the valve at the barrel of his rifle. It had originally been a drinking spout, but Marines were resourceful. I'd seen them fit the valve with an atomizer, a thing that would make the fuel come out in a spray rather than a hot, volatile mess. After taking a deep breath, Sanchez flicked open his lighter near the end of the spout, and flames immediately shot straight up.

"You got any attitude control on that thing?" Masters, the injured Marine, yelled from behind me.

"Yeah. Isn't working, though. This is what we got," Sanchez said.

The flames were shooting a good eight feet out of the barrel -- not much of a kill radius. Still, better than nothing.

"I got 'em," Keppler said, pointing just downrange. "Goddamn, they're fast. Be here in seconds."

"I'm locked on," Sanchez said.

The Marines sounded so fucking *calm.* I was doing my best not to shit myself. Yes, I'm very brave. And that was when they came into view, like a quick, slithering black carpet. There had to be hundreds of them. Maybe thousands. More pods must have fallen, or these things could breed really quickly -- neither possibility was comforting.

"Anytime, 'Chez." Keppler's voice was calm, just loud enough to be heard.

"Lightin' em' up, sir."

Sanchez turned the barrel to the creeping mass. It looked for a second like they were just going to plow right through the stream of flames Sanchez was pouring into them, but no. They stopped, moved back a bit, then split into two masses, trying to go around the column of fire.

"Use a hand up here, Leo."

"On it," the Marine at the back of the formation said, rushing forward with his makeshift flamethrower and opening the valve. Leo moved fast, lighting his weapon off of the flames Sanchez was already shooting. Together, they managed to scatter the mass more. I even saw several of the worms... well not really explode. More like... pop. When the flames hit them, they just burst into pieces.

"How much time do we have with those things?" Meg asked.

"Couple-few minutes," Keppler replied. He sounded almost... bored?

I couldn't understand how these Marines could be so cool under fire. I mean, sure, they're more used to life and death scenarios. Being a reporter rarely puts my life in danger, so they've got the advantage there. But Keppler basically told me we'd be dead soon. In a few minutes, even -- but that didn't seem to bother him at all.

It bothered the hell out of me. And I was going to do...

OK, to be honest, I didn't know what I was going to do. I just started running back to the wrecked helicopter as fast as I could go. No one bothered to stop me. They probably thought I was running away, if they noticed I was gone. I couldn't blame them for that. I hadn't been a paragon of bravery up to that point.

As it turned out, though, I wasn't. My brain was working ahead of me then. I had a plan before I realized I had a plan, which was an odd sensation when said plan finally crystallized in my conscious mind.

Meg and the Marines hadn't drained even a fraction of the chopper's fuel. It carried some pretty volatile stuff in its mixture -- diesel, benzine, alcohol. In the age of solar and hydrogen power, you had to get special government dispensation to use the stuff. That meant it was somewhat rare, and I wasnt sure if the polycarbonate water jugs I'd seen in the back of the chopper could hold it. I planned to find out, though.

The hoses Meg has used to drain the chopper fuel were still in place and working, so I used them. I did a better job of getting it all over my hands than I did into the four-liter jug, but I still managed to fill up pretty fast. I'd dropped the cap somewhere, but I didn't have time to look for it. Open jug in my left hand, I started to rub back into the chaos.

The Marines were pretty much as I left them, calmly shooting flames into the masses of black worms, still keeping them at bay. I charged up in between Sanchez and Leo, throwing the jug as hard as I could underhand into the crawling dark horde in front of them. Fuel spilled out of the bottle as it tumbled end over end. It flew further than I thought it would, landing dead-center of the mass.

Sanchez turned to me and raised an eyebrow. I think he laughed a little.

"Shoot the damn bottle!" I yelled at him.


"Eh. Sure, Chez. Why not?" Keppler said, shrugging.

Sanchez turned his flamethrower on the jug, and it went up immediately. The jug itself, now a quarter empty, exploded at ground level. I could feel the sudden rush of heat a it blew -- it was intense. The quarter or so of the liquid that had spilled out sent tendrils of flame through the rest of the mass of worms, popping a bunch.

I turned around to look at the Marines -- let's be honest, I turned around to see and hear them praise my brilliant idea, really. But that didn't happen. They still looked damnably calm, bored almost to the point of falling asleep on their combat-booted feet. I was understandably a bit on the confused side.

"Well, that certainly was an impressive explosion," Keppler said. He sounded...

You know when you want to show a kid how impressed you are by some mundane shit he did? Tying his shoes, not pissing himself? That's the tone Keppler had. And a second later, I saw why.

Behind him, the tour skimmer came in for a silent, soft landing. Those fucking Marines had known the thing was on its way for probably the last five minutes. They just hadn't bothered to share. That's why they'd been so fucking calm. Why they hadn't worried that the flamethrowers would run out on us. Fucking assholes.

They'd let me run off and possibly get myself killed for nothing more than... what? Cheap entertainment value? My vision turned red. Before I could fully realize what I was doing, I lunged at the Major. That action surprised even me -- I've never reacted that way. And even as I dove at him, some part of me realized how incredibly stupid the move was -- Major Keppler was easily twice my size.

Keppler wasn't in any danger of getting hit, though. He'd already figured out what was coming, and he reacted at light speed. In one quick motion, he twisted his body to the left and stuck out his right hand, driving two fingers into my solar plexus.

Now, I want to be very clear about this. Keppler didn't hit me -- he merely reacted, stopped me from hitting him without injuring me. Essentially, I ran into his hand and knocked the wind out of *myself.*

I completely understand how nonviolent he was toward me. Well, I understand it *now.* Back then, all I really understood was that I was on the pavement, struggling to draw in a breath.

Keppler motioned to his Marines, who picked me up as if I weighed nothing, loaded me into the waiting skimmer, and strapped me in. The rest of the group loaded up in seconds, and we took off. Slowly, the shooting pain in my torso subsided, and I could breathe. Keppler walked to the back of the skimmer and crouched down next to my chair.

"Calmed down now, Mr. Phoenix?" he asked, smiling.

I wasn't sure I had regained the ability to speak yet, so I just nodded once -- a short, quick bob of my head. Affirmative, sir.

"Good. Now, I'm sorry I had to put you on the ground back there. There wasn't time, and I couldn't risk a freakout. We good?"

I answered this with another quick nod.

"Good. I should have let you and the girl know that we were in no danger. My fault." I answered this with another quick nod.

"Good. I should have let you and the girl know that we were in no danger. My fault." Keppler bounced a bit on his toes, stretching his legs. "I'm just not used to working with civilians. I tend to forget you're..."

"Disconnected?" I said. The word was barely identifiable as language -- it was more of a polysyllabic croak.

"Exactly. Right. We're in constant contact with each other, and I end up forgetting that you folks aren't. My apologies."

It was a weird situation. This Marine, slightly smaller than the skimmer we were in, was apologizing to me -- and the thing was, he sounded totally sincere. I realized that I couldn't be mad at him -- he could've knocked the shit out of me and no one would have called him on it. He didn't.

"'S OK," I managed to mutter.

"That thing with the IED -- the makeshift bomb. That was pretty impressive, Mr. Phoenix."

"Unnecessary," I said. My voice was coming back.

"But inventive. And you didn't know it was unnecessary. Share a secret?"

I nodded.

"General feeling among my people was you'd go to pieces on us at the first sign of trouble. You didn't. You took action."

I couldn't say I was flattered that the Marines had a running bet on how long it would take me to fall apart, and it wasn't long.

I couldn't say I was flattered that the Marines had a running bet on how long it would take me to fall apart, and it wasn't long. But I understood it, and, truth be told, probably would have thought the same thing in their situation.

"So what now?" I asked. "Seems like your mission out here was a bit of a... well, I don't want to say failure, but..."

"Quite the opposite," Keppler said. "We needed to do a flyover to determine the situation inside the city of Honolulu. The situation is, politely, fucked. Back to base. We get on DefNet, make our report, and wait for orders."

"Base is the airport?"

"That's affirmative."

"Is that smart?" I asked. "We saw how fast those things could move. How long is the airport going to be safe?"

"Thanks to you, we know what to do. Fortify. Put up walls of fire, and we'll be fine. For an alien invasion, this ain't shit," Keppler said.

"Boss!" It was Wong. Fortify. Put up walls of fire, and we'll be fine. For an alien invasion, this ain't shit," Keppler said.

"Boss!" It was Wong.

"What's up, LT?" Keppler yelled back. These Marines sure were loud.

"We got a proximity alarm. Check that -- multiple alarms."


"Above us, about three miles up and closing fast."

"More pods?" I asked, unstrapping myself and standing up. I walked over to the nearest window -- as this was a sightseeing skimmer, they were huge, and gave a good view of the blue sky above.

"If they are, they ain't the same type," Wong said. "They're measuring five meters in diameter. Each."

"How many?" Meg said.

"Many many," Wong replied. From her face, I could guess she didn't like answering civilian questions, but she did it anyway.

"I count at least 40," Jeb told me, looking up from his controls and tapping the large screen between the two front seats.

"Can we evade?" Keppler said.

"Sure. I can make sure we don't get hit by one," Jeb said. "That's easy. Not what worries me."

"Well? Talk, kid," Wong said after a minute, blowing out an exasperated breath.

"Anyone else wonder what the toy surprise is?"

"What the fuck are you talking about?" Sanchez asked, frowning.

"The Kinder Surprise," Jeb said. I knew I'd nailed his accent. South Africa. We called them Kindereier in Holland when I was growing up, but I knew what he meant -- little hollow chocolate eggs.When you broke them open, there was a shitty toy inside -- kind of like when those littler pods had broken open to reveal the worms.

"I get it," Keppler said. "If there were those bug things in the smaller vehicles, what's in these things?"

"We'll find out. Soon," Wong said, pointing again to the monitor. "Looks like we got about 20 seconds before the first one hits."

"Where?" I asked.

"That's the bad news. The airport."