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."