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?"
"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?"
"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."