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.