Sunday, February 19, 2012

E/B:H -- Chapter Five

U.S. Military forces are pretty damned easy to pick out of a crowd these days -- full body armor, tech uniforms. But easiest by far -- and the sure way to tell they're American forces -- is the small black tattoo below each soldier's right eye. There are two parts to the tattoo-- a rank insignia and a 3D barcode. Scan a soldier's face, and you have his entire military record. Well, the unclassified stuff, anyway.

The guy who was standing outside the helicopter door when we opened it was a Sergeant. Of some kind, I guess. I know there are a lot of them, but he had four stripes and a chevron tattooed under his eye, so... Sergeant.

"I'm going to have to ask that you shut your rotors down, step out of the vehicle, and come with us, please," the Sergeant said. His voice was polite, level. I didn't doubt, though, if we refused to do as he said, his tone would suddenly change significantly.

I stepped out first, holding my hand out to the young Sergeant. Well, kind of young, anyway. He was about my age.

"Hiya. Dane Phoenix, Global News. How can I help you, Sergeant?" I said. A smile was pasted on my face -- it usually was in cases like this. It usually worked, too, but not on the Marine in front of me. He simply blinked, looked to see if the rotors were powering down. When they stopped moving, he looked at me again and repeated himself.

"If you would all come with me, please."

Still polite. I figured it would be in our best interests to do what he said, and to not test the limits of his calm, emotionless courtesy.

I haven't dealt with the American military too much before. Used to be a time when reporters and the DoD were tight, but no more. Around the beginning of the China War, support for stuff like imbedded reporters died out completely. It was a total media shutout. Nowadays, even getting a press release out of those guys was like pulling teeth barehanded.

Also, they were scary as fuck. Especially the Marines that met us at the airport. Every one of them was as muscled-up as Andrevich, if not more, and they had guns. Not those crappy, non-lethal guns, either -- real, honest-to-crap automatic weapons that could shred a person from 500 yards away. Even if it had just been one of those guys, not about 20 like there were, I probably would have done what he said. Yeah... I know. I'm not exactly a model of bravery and manliness, but you've no doubt noticed that already.

The Marines herded us into a hangar. Inside were more Marines, and a ton of tech equipment. It looked like they had taken over the hangar and set up a sort of home base.

"Wait here, please," the Sergeant said.

As he walked away, I looked behind me at Andrevich. I didn't want a repeat of earlier. I mean, he'd kicked the *shit* out of the Coal Creek guys, but we were extremely outnumbered here, and more than a little outgunned. Andrevich still looked calm for the moment, though, but he did flag down a passing Marine.

"We have injured with us," he said. I'd forgotten about the surfer kid. "Do you have a medic in your unit?"

The Marine nodded slowly.

"Corpsman!" he yelled.

Another Marine came over, and he and Andrevich tended to the surfer kid, who was still out cold.

"Mr. Phoenix," I heard. I turned around.

Standing in front of me was a bigger, scarier version of the Sergeant from before, but with a different tattoo. I wasn't too up on Marine ranks, but I guessed he was an officer.

"Call me Dane," I said, holding out my hand and smiling wide. That smile had gotten me out of hundreds of scrapes before, and in this type of situation, it was the only move I had in my arsenal. He ignored me completely.

"Mr. Phoenix," he repeated, "Major Keppler, commanding, 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit."

I nodded. I guessed from his body language all of that was supposed to mean something to me, and that I was supposed to be impressed by it. I played along. Satisfied that I was showing respect, Keppler continued.

"I'm going to need to debrief you. All of your footage. Your data. I'm going to need copies of all of it."

I didn't see the harm in it, not logically. But I still bristled at the order. Maybe it was something about the way he said it, or maybe it was some throwback to the whole outdated freedom of the press thing.

"I don't think you can legally take that," Jeb piped up behind me. I almost told him to shut up, but... well, he was kinda right. And what he'd just said wasn't so far off from what I'd been thinking.

"Under normal circumstances, you would be correct, sir. But I'm going to let you in on a little secret," Keppler said, the faintest grin creeping to his face. "Breaking news, as it happens. Within the hour, the President will declare martial law. I'll be able to take the data regardless of your perceived legal rights."

I don't know where the next words came from, but I certainly didn't think the whole thing out. If I had, this story would end. Right there, in the hangar. For me, anyway, because I would have just handed over everything I had and gotten the hell out of Hawaii. But that's not what happened.

Some part of me, probably inherited from my father, went into salesman mode. The smile appeared. The voice dropped to a near whisper. And I found myself leaning in closer to the hulking, terrifying Marine officer in front of me.

"Tell you what," I said quietly. "I'll make you a deal. You feed me some info here, and I'll hand over everything. The data. The video footage. Put you in touch with the scientists who made the discovery. All of it. Just keep me hooked up on the story."

I could see Keppler didn't like the idea, but he didn't give me an immediate "no." He motioned for me to follow him, so I did. He led me away from my crew, away from the Marines huddled over machines.

"I'm going to level with you," he said. "I dislike... No, let's be honest. I despise journalists."

So, that conversation wasn't getting off to the start I'd hoped. Keppler continued.

"Here's the situation, though. My men and I were on our way back from training in Japan when we got the order to land in Hawaii. Your broadcast had put all American forces on alert, and we were ordered to secure the airport and get data on the situation."

That tracked. He wasn't telling me much that was new, except that he wasn't originally supposed to be here. I knew when to be quiet. That was one of those times, so I shut up and let the Major talk.

"We can get your data, but we really need to get on the ground. The equipment you see here is all we had on the plane. What we really need is a helicopter, and a pilot."

"And I've got both."

"Correct. Now, I could commandeer the chopper, but we have no one who can fly it -- at least not well. Who's your pilot?"

"Name's Meg. Former Israeli Army. I've seen her fly that chopper like you wouldn't believe," I said, the reporter smile returning.

"You talk her into flying a couple of observation runs with my men, and give us any data you have, and I'll keep you in the loop."

That was an offer that was too good to pass up. I nodded and went over to convince Meg to step back into the role of combat pilot.

Convincing Meg took less time than I would have thought. I only had to mention the Major's proposal, and she agreed instantly. She wasn't surprised at all that they needed her to fly the helicopter, either.

"Think about it, boss. Most of these kids are 18. Even the Major can't be much older than 35. None of them have probably even ridden in one of these old buckets before," she told me. "Whereas we're still using them back home. Much better than those damn patrol skimmers for watching the borders."

It made sense. What didn't make sense was why a former Israeli chopper pilot was doing hair and makeup for the Network, but I didn't ask about that. Probably should have.

Major Keppler's deal was pretty clear-cut. Me, Meg, and one other could go on the chopper with the Marines. The rest would have to stay back at the hangar -- I had an idea about that. As the Marines were loading up, I pulled Andrevich aside.

"You've done some broadcast work, right?" I asked him. I knew he had -- I'd learned that in my earlier research.

"A little. Hosted a show for a Network years ago during the off season. 'Asia's Next World Champion.' It only lasted the one year," he said.

"I know it would be asking a lot, and you've been great so far... but if anything happens here, anything significant, could you --"

"Cover it for your Network?"

I could swear that big New Soviet knew how to read minds. It wasn't the last time I'd think that.

So Andrevich was set. I decided to leave Jeremy and the "A" crew with him -- they'd be able to walk him through any problems. Hair and makeup weren't a problem -- Andrevich had a shaved head, and I dare anyone to try to convince a guy like him to wear makeup. Jeb would be my ridealong, as he was accustomed to being a one-man show. I had him steal the "A" unit's backup camera and uplink.

We were ready, and we left immediately. With Meg at the controls and the the Major next to her to provide direction, we took off. I expected a fair amount of chaos in the the city we'd just fled, but I wasn't prepared for the scope of it. Not even a little bit.

The first thing I noticed were the fires. They were hard to miss -- I could see the black smoke the second we got some altitude. I nudged Jeb to start filming, but that turned out to be unnecessary -- he'd seen the plumes of smoke as well, and had the camera up.

"Head for downtown," Keppler said. It was easy to hear him -- it was fully, deathly quiet inside the chopper. No one was talking. I could hear the Marine next to me breathing, and it's not like he was loud.

"Lance Corporal May! Open up the doors back there! Let's get a good picture of what we're looking at!" Keppler yelled from the front of the chopper.

A Marine reached for the door. The air, finally getting hot as we moved into the midmorning sun, blew into the chopper in a gust. I fell back into my seat a bit. Jeb didn't move -- he was steady, shooting out of the now-open door as we hovered over the highway into town at two hundred feet.

The highway, was, of course, jammed. And as happened when everyone was trying to go one place at one time, nothing was moving. Instead of waiting in their cars, though, we could see that most of the drivers had abandoned them and were running down the street. I think they were heading for the airport -- the very same one we had just left -- and all of a sudden I felt monumentally stupid. These people were making the smart move -- getting the fuck out of the city -- and I was leaving a safe area to go into the chaos. And I hadn't remembered to call Ryan and tell him what was up.

That didn't turn out to be a problem. My phone chimed just then. Ryan was on the line, and in all the time I'd known him, I'd never heard him sound worried -- until that call.

"Dane! Jesus, man! Is everyone OK? What's going on?"

That's when I remembered Jeb crashing through his equipment and cutting us off in a live feed.

"All alive for the moment. I'm with --"

"Two-six MEU. Jeremy called me. Can you go live in one minute?"

I asked Jeb. He gave me a thumbs-up and a wink.

"We're good to go over here," I told Ryan.

"Free reign, Dane. Tell us everything you see. No delay, no censoring. Other objects have been sighted in Asia -- we're putting you on all the Networks. People need to know wh--"

I thought the call had gone dead, but Ryan had just stopped talking in mid-syllable. I could hear him breathing.


"Live in ten seconds. Make it count -- the Feds just said they're shutting us down. I'll keep you on the air as long as I can."

The line really did go dead this time, but I didn't have time to process what he'd said. Jeb tapped me on the shoulder -- go time.

Jeb was shooting out the window, so I just started talking. "Dane Phoenix from Global News reporting from Honolulu," I said. "The city is in chaos. Less than an hour ago, a... projectile slammed into the Big Island Mall, collapsing much of the structure. The projectile contained... life forms of some sort."

Jeb focused in on one of the downtown skyscrapers -- Lungshan's, I think. There were fires raging on a few of the upper floors, spitting flames out what was left of the window frames.

"These... beings. They resemble worms -- short, black worms," I continued. "They're extremely dangerous. Contact with them is fatal. If you see them --"

I was interrupted by an explosion -- a large one. It was the nearby Lungshan Building -- the fires had hit something really volatile. We were close enough that I could feel the heat, was blinded by the flash. As I blinked to clear my vision, the chopper bucked hard.

"We're hit!" Meg yelled.

"How bad?" Major Keppler asked.

"Shit! It ain't good," she said.

The chopper bucked again.

"Bet you we're gonna crash," Jeb said, his voice even, a small, flat grin widening his features.

"Oh, Christ. I hope not."

"Think he might be right," the Lance Corporal next to me said. "You might wanna hold on to something, guys. This is gonna suck."

Closest I'd ever been to a crash before that moment was two years before, when a patrol skimmer I was riding in lost all power. We were only about fifty feet up at the time, and the cop driving (it was for a story on prototype Federal Police forces) was a pro. He deployed the emergency glider wings immediately and guided us to a safe, soft water landing.

This wasn't like that. At all. The chopper shuddered one final time, and all of a sudden, we were spinning. Fast. The city outside whipped by in a nauseating blur. I had a firm hold on one of the handles by the doorway, but not everyone was so lucky. A Marine flew by me, sliding toward the door. Jeb reached out and caught his body armor under one shoulder harness, but he only managed to work two fingers into the neoprene strap. I couldn't reach the Marine -- at least, not with my arms. I hooked one boot under the armor strap near the guy's ribcage.

"Pull!" I heard Jeb yell, but that was easier said than done. The chopper was spinning even faster now, and I'm not a real strong guy anyway. Fighting the centrifugal force was beyond my capabilities -- the best I could do was hold on, keep my foot jammed in his ribcage.

Fortunately, it was enough. The Lance Corporal who had spoken to me earlier was finally able to make his way over to us to help. Working at odd angles and against the still-spinning helicopter, we managed to pull the Marine back inside and hold him to the deck.

It seemed like we were up there, spinning, for a really long time. It felt like we would never hit the ground -- and then we did. The avenue in front of the Lungshan Building was almost wide enough for the chopper to set down -- almost. We hit at a slight angle. It didn't sound like much, but Meg had wrestled the controls to make it happen that way -- otherwise, we would have hit the building. This, she assured me later, would have been a Very Bad Thing -- we would have no doubt ruptured the fuel lines and caught fire. At the least, we would have had a lot more shrapnel to deal with when the blades sliced into the first couple floors of the building.

I say "a lot more shrapnel," because there was still plenty when we hit. The rotors on the right side of the chopper hit first. It was the side opposite our door, and we could see the rotors gouge into the street before breaking off and flying four stories up. They sliced through the windows of the Lungshan Building, showering tons of broken glass in through the open door. I covered my eyes. When I didn't feel chunks of glass hitting my face anymore, I moved my arm away from my eyes.

The helicopter was on its side. Apart from the rotors breaking off and the tail cracking in half, it was still mostly intact. I was at the top of a pile of bodies. Jeb was next to me, and there was a leg sticking out of the pile between us.

"Sound off, 2-6!" the Major bellowed from my left.

"Sanchez, good to go!" I heard from under me. The other Marines called out in turn -- it seemed we hadn't lost anyone. Not yet.

It took a little doing for all of us to get untangled. Masters, the one who'd almost fallen out, had a dislocated shoulder. Otherwise, we were in remarkably good shape -- a few cuts and bruises here and there. I had a bit of a headache, but that was it.

"Archer, Henderson. Find us some transport," Keppler ordered. As the two Marines set off at a run, he turned to face me. "Phoenix. I need a no-bullshit answer here. What are we dealing with?"

"Worms," I told him. "They're small, and they're really fucking fast. From what I've seen, if one of them latches on to you, you're dead in a few seconds."

Keppler thought for a second, then nodded.

"Understood. How do we kill them?"

Good question. And one I realized I didn't have any kind of answer for. I thought hard. All I'd seen was the worms chowing down on citizens. They'd seemed unstoppable at the time.

"No idea. Your guns, maybe. But..."

"They'd be really hard to hit," Jeb piped up. "Unless every one of your guys can shoot a bullet out of the air, that is."

"My guys are good, but not that good," Keppler said to Jeb. The two of them kept talking, strategizing. But not me. I tuned out.

It wasn't so much an idea that was forming in my head, not yet. It started more simply than that, as a rather big observation. One that, in the chaos of the crash, I hadn't really realized.

It had been perhaps an hour since the first pod fell, maybe less. Even in that short time, Honolulu had gone into full-scale meltdown. That couldn't just be from the worms, I remember thinking. Even if multiple pods had fallen, the things were only a couple inches long -- they shouldn't be able to cause this much destruction.

*That's because the worms didn't do all this,* I thought. *People did.*

I suppose some of the destruction could be accidental. A candle left burning knocked over in the haste of escape, a crashed car burning out of control. But not this level of devestation. This was intentional. [P] "Fire," I blurted, interrupting the Major in the middle of a word.

"What's that, Phoenix?" Keppler said.

"Fire, Major. Look around -- we haven't been out of the city that long," I said, "and nearly everything in sight is burning.

"Yeah? So?" Sanchez said.

"So civilians set them on purpose. Maybe it kills them, or slows them down," Keppler said. "Nice work."

Keppler might have smiled at me -- it was so quick I couldn't be sure. He pressed the left side of his helmet, and I heard a chirp.

"Arch, Hendo, where are we on transport?" he asked. He listened for a short moment, then: "Copy that. See what you can do. Out."

"They find something?" Meg asked.

"Tour skimmer. Big enough for everyone, but there's some damage. They're not sure it'll fly. Don't suppose skimmer repair is in your bag of tricks?"

"No luck there, sir. Israeli Police has a few skimmers, but not the Army. Brass hated them," Meg said.

"I've done some skimmer work, back in college," Jeb piped up.

"You're on, then. Lt. Wong?"

"On it, boss. Follow me, Chief," a short, female Marine said, shouldering her rifle. "Try and keep up. I move fast."

"Dane?" Jeb asked, cocking an eyebrow at me.

"Do whatever you can," I said, frankly surprised he even asked me. I was his boss, kind of. But I guess we'd all just taken to following the Major's orders as if we were his troops. Well, most of us.

"All right, people. Let's see what we can do about producing some fire for Mr. Phoenix, here," the Major said. I definitely saw him smile that time. It took me a second to get it -- fire, Phoenix. In another situation, I'd have laughed, as horrible and unfunny as the pun had been. Now, though, I didn't.

"Tell me what I can do to help," I said. "I very much doubt we have a lot of time."