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.