The following story is by Cory Barnett and Jeremy Fumia.
It is part of The Defense of Reality.
“Thank you for coming, Ivan.”
Crossing the Veil was always disheartening for Ivan. It churned his stomach. It wasn’t the leap. That was as instantaneous as stepping through a doorway. It was the perspective that rattled him, like looking through a telescope lens through the wrong end.
Across the threshold, everything grew and became a ghost of itself. Tall trees became monstrous, transparent towers. Buildings grew to three times their size and lost their substance. Most unsettling was the people. The people who had been flesh and blood around him became giant hollow specters. They loamed over him and move passed him as if he were an invisible toddler.
If Ivan were honest with himself, a practice he did not enjoy, and therefore did not practice often, being small and unseen by his world was the most unsettling. In Reality he was a mountain. In Midian, he felt like a child. The ghostly mountains of men in Reality stood above him, unaware he could see their specters. He hated being ignored.
“Bashi insulted me,” Ivan grunted. “The Rothman doesn’t like being insulted. I should leave you here to handle your problems on your own. The Rothman owes you nothing.” Ivan could feel his blood burn with energy. He closed his eyes and soaked in the charge of power running through his veins. This was the only bonus of Midian. Here, he was twice as fast, twice as strong, and almost indestructible. Here he was a warrior of epic legend. Here he was close to a god.
Hyoi shot a disapproving eye at Bashi. “Not today, Bashi. For Ignors sake, not today.”
Bashi grinned in reply. The tall, slender, conculos’ crystal eyes beamed with playful mischief. Bashi nodded an apology to his commanding officer, bowed to Rothman, and produced from his grey tunic, two forearm length black rods with metal tips. He spun them in the air and then handed them to Rothman.
Rothman accepted the weapons and concealed them beneath his black robe.
“I tried to ask him to help us nicely,” Bashi said. His voice was high and piercing, an odd and surprising contrast to his powerful frame. “But he said he wasn’t in the mood to play with me today. So I took his toys and ran. I knew he would follow. This one loves his toys more than anything.”
Rothman watched a giant smoke like leaf fall from a transparent tree and land on the ground to his left. The raw energy throbbing in his body tempted him toward rage. He looked to the sky, hoping it would ground him, but the unmoving clouds of Midian hung like grey cotton balls tacked to a white wall. A chill shot up his spine. “I hate this cursed placed. Why have you brought the Rothman across the Veil?”
“I can imagine how disorienting it must be,” Hyoi said. His voice was smooth and soothing, like a mother’s lullaby. Despite the purple crystal of his eyes, he would pass for a pale human. He was tall and lean, like a twenty-something blue jean model who’d spent a long winter hiding indoors from the cold. “We wouldn’t have asked you here if it wasn’t important,” Hyoi continued apologetically. “What we need you for is, um, delicate? If my commanding officers were to discover it. Well,” Hyoi paused to laugh to himself. “Well, Bashi and I would be banished to live with the Tinker. Please know, we have not brought you across lightly.”
“Explain. What do you shinny-eyed demons need? And what does the Rothman get in return?”
“Our commanding officer will be here within the hour,” Hyoi explained with grave seriousness. “He has assigned Bashi and I to a mission we, um. Well, let’s just say, we do not believe should be allowable.”
“Good God man,” Ivan said with impatient disgust. “Get on with it.’
“Our squad has been assigned to interfere in your realm. They are afraid of one of yours, a potentially powerful Gracanjo. They plan to cross into Reality to assassinate him before his gifts are fully revealed.”
“Sicutinfernum!” Rothman interjected.
There was a distant shout. Hyoi turned toward a small hill. He felt anxiety run from his feet to his fingers. The fear filled his voice and words rushed from his mouth in urgent rambling. “That’s our squad now. We must meet them. If we don’t meet them, they will be suspicious. I’ve already spoken out to much against the action. I can’t miss the jump. That is why Bashi and I need you to intervene. Do you understand? We need you to intervene when the time is right. Before the Gracanjo is executed. You must intercede before he is killed. If they are successful, there will be no stopping them.” Hyoi turned back to Rothman. He looked the large man in the eye. “Our team will cross together. It will be best if you stop us before we jump through the Veil. You will not be capable of contending with us on your side. It must be here. You must catch us here.”
“We’ve set up a trap on the other side to mask our actions here. Do you understand? We will distract the Gracanjo on your side and then, execute him. You must put a stop to this. If we succeed today, there will be no end to it in the future. They will hunt every potential. Once a precedent is broken, it need not be restored. They will hunt every one. This is why you must attack before the jump. Before we jump. Instill fear. Teach us that we are not to meddle. Create a new precedent. The precedent of the Rothman, as is the precedent of Clovis. You will be legend. Your name will be in our nightmares. The Rothman who knows when we break precedent. The Rothman who will come. But you must attack on this side. If you come too late, every potential Gracanjo will be hunted and ambushed. Do you understand?”
Rothman grunted in affirmation. “Mighty big of you to break rank for a Gracanjo. Not like you Hyoi.”
Hyoi hung his head. “This is not something I do lightly, Ivan. Know that I break rank with deep despair. But precedent must be maintained. The way of things must be protected. If not, then are we any better than the Tinker?”
The distant shout repeated. Hyoi sighed. “We must go now. When the fighting begins, we will not claim you. We will not assist you. We will stand with our team. This is why, Ivan, you must attack before we jump. Remember, before we jump or all is lost. Precedent will be broken and never restored.”
Sharn looked over his command. The twelve warriors stood in loosely gathered clumps by race. They fidgeted quietly, restless with anticipation.
Sharn was muscular for a conculos. The muscles of his arms and legs were pushed against his grey skin. Like most of his race, his face was sharp and symmetrical. He was a perfectly chiseled rock, with no visible body fat. Except for the long scar across his cheek (a gash left by the horn of a rather nasty Egrat during the fourth raid on the Tinker’s fortification that would not leave him even in rebirth), he was perfectly crafted. With his hands grasped tightly behind his back, he surveyed his men with his crystal eyes. “The evidence planted in Reality,” he said with harsh command. “Has it been removed?”
“Yes sir,” replied a slink named Esh. His tail flicked back and forth with nervous energy.
“This is a critical moment,” Sharn said. “We’ve bled together. We’ve died together. But nothing we’ve done before is more important than what we are about to do now.”
As was their routine, the squad replied with a sharp ‘Huh!”
“We put down Azo’s forces at the battle of Vermanth.”
“We were there at the battles of Rome, and Antigua, and Miami.”
“We stormed the Tinker’s gates and reformed together in the Cavositas of Nativitate.”
“But now we do something that is yet to be done. Now we shape the course of our world. Now, we take things into our own hands. Now, we start a new day. Today, men. Today is the day that we write the history. They will add our names to the Book of Malacandra for what we do today. Because today, today we stomp out a threat before it arises. Today we prevent tragedy. Today, we strike first. Today we end the threat before it begins. Today is our day, gentlemen. Today, is our day.”
The squad replied with a celebratory cheer.
“We must cross today, gentlemen. Do not take it lightly. We will jump the Veil and return. No one lingers. More than a moment or two and you will burn out, your soul returned to home. Andregrunt,” Sharn said, pointing to the first creature in line. “You crossed at Miami. How long were you over?”
Andregrunt, a strong Mardock, head and shoulders above most other, licked his sharp teeth at the memory. “I was there for no more than a ten breaths, Sir,” he barked. “I passed out on breath ten and was pulled back through.”
“Zachariat?” Sharn pointed at the second man in line, another Mardock with giant shoulders that consumed his neck.
“I crossed in Rome,” he replied. His voice was scratchy and soft. “I was there until the Gra-, until we were forced back. Several hours in Reality, Sir. Several hours.”
A second slink, new to Sharn’s command, unwisely offered his thoughts without prompting, “I crossed in Rome too, Sir. Under the command of Genteria? I was not in combat though. We watched the perimeter. We jumped over in five minute rotations.”
Sharm moved silently to stand in front of the new recruit. “Did I ask you to recount you endeavors?”
The slink looked to his feet, shaking in silent with fear.
“Oh. Now when I address you, you decide not to speak.” Fluidly, Sharn slid his right foot and thrust his right fist into the slink. He struck the creature in its pointed nose, causing the slink’s black blood to flow from his snout. The new recruit crumpled to the ground. Sharn applied his foot to the soldier’s neck. “When I want to know your thoughts, I will ask for your thoughts. Until then, you have no thoughts. Until I ask you to say something, you only have ‘Yes, Sir.’ Is that clear?”
The veterans sneered with amusement. The two other new recruits shook with fear. “Yes, sir,” all eleven chimed in unison.
Sharn looked down at the bleeding slink, “Stay down there for the remainder of the battle or I will expedite your next rebirth. Is that clear?”
“Yes, sir. Yes, sir.” the slink replied, embarrassed and defeated.
Sharn looked to the end of the line where two other conculous stood. “Hyoi, you requested this mission. Have you jumped before?”
“Yes, sir,” Hyoi snapped, looking forward. “I was in Miami with a different unit, sir. I’ve also jumped often during my time in the Selinda, sir.”
Sharn walked slowly down the line until he was standing directly in front of Hyoi. He looked the conculous up and down, measuring his worth. Hyoi looked forward, unflinching. “I’ve heard the exploits of you Selinda. Sneaking around, whispering to one another. There will be no secret sharing on this mission, do you understand? We need warriors, not story tellers.”
“Yes, sir,” Hyoi said, firmly.
Sharn drew close. Hyoi could taste the commander’s breath. “If you disappointment me,” Sharn whispered with malice. “I’ll break both your legs and leave you on the other side for the humans to dissect. Don’t fail me. I won’t tolerate failure.”
“I won’t fail you, sir,” Bashi said with a smile.
“The sidekick speaks,” Sharn said, tilting his head in curiosity. “I’ve heard you aren’t right in the head? That you follow this one around like a dog?”
Bashi grinned. “Better a dog to a great leader than a lieutenant to a fool, sir. That’s what Andregrunt said last night anyway.”
Sharn’s eyes flared with rage. Channeling his fury, he struck at Bashi’s chest with his right fist To Sharn’s shock, unlike the slink before him, in harmony with Sharn’s hammer, Bashi stepped to the side, avoiding the punch complete. Then as Sharn’s strike recoiled, Bashi swiftly returned to his original stance.
Sharn bore his teeth. “You’re games are not amusing.”
“I am sorry, sir,” Bashi replied, his eyes fixed forward. “They say that I am not right in the head, and thus, must be forgiven for my foolish ways.”
Sharn spun on his heal and called to the group, “I will jump first. Zachariat after me. Then you three. The rest will guard our point of reentry. I will indicated the target. Stay focused on him. Keep interaction with the other humans to a minimum. Is that understood?”
The group again responded with a strong, “Huh!”
“Alright, listen up gents.” Captain Deely commanded the attention of his Marines. “This is your briefing for today’s mission.”
The dimple on his pronounced chin was framed with a defined jaw line, which encased his infectious smile. He had short dirty blonde hair and the confidence that Marines admired. His education at the Virginia Military Institute had paid off. He was well versed in combat tactics and warfare.
The Marines of 2nd Platoon were sitting on metal folding chairs on top of a plywood floor inside a large coyote tan canvas tent, awaiting their mission briefing. It was 0800hours (8am) and bitter cold.
Captain Deely played with a computer remote, smacking it on his hand. “Why does this shit never work the way it’s supposed to? Can somebody work the computer for me?”
Lance Corporal Jefferson from the intelligence platoon stood up and walked towards the laptop computer that was connected to a projector. “I’ll get it sir.”
“Thank you… Let’s get started. I think we’ve all been here long enough to realize that we aren’t being used for typical recon missions, so here’s what we’ve got today.” Captain Deely pointed the remote control at the computer, pressing the buttons sarcastically as it refused to cooperate. “Next slide, Lance Corporal. …there we are.
“I will be the convoy commander for this mission. Take a note of what vehicle’s you’re assigned to and your role in that vehicle. I will be in vehicle five. We’ll step off at 0900hrs. Lance Corporal, next. …thank you.
“This map shows the route we will take; down MSR Michigan, into town, where our objective will be to search this warehouse for weapon caches. Large ones.” He used the red laser pointer on the remote to circle around a structure on the map. “Our goal is to confirm or disprove this warehouse as a weapons storage location. We have intel that says this building is storing the big ones, as of three weeks ago.”
The captain pointed to Second Squad. “You guys are going to use the rooftop of the warehouse to provide a strong, elevated support position while we are inside.”
Pointing at Third Squad. “You gents will secure the entrances and windows on the first floor.”
“First and Fourth Squads will be with me, conducting the search. Vehicle gunners will remain in their turrets to secure the vehicles, machine guns, and radios. Our usual call sign will be ‘Snake Eyes’ and headquarters is still ‘Dark Horse’.” Captain Deely looked around at his Marines. “Are there any questions?”
Sargent Chris Parker stood up. “Sir, is the building that we are searching already secured, or are we clearing it when we get there?”
“Good question sergeant. The building has not been secured. Upon our arrival, Second squad will clear it on the way up to the roof and ensure that it’s safe for the rest of us.”
Corporal Faulk spoke up. “Sir, are we ever gonna get a real god-damn mission? We all put in a lot of effort and training to come to this shit hole and fuck shit up and all we’ve done so far are these bullshit hide and seek missions.”
“Look, I know this is boring shit gentlemen. But we’ve been tasked with it, so we’re gonna get it done. I’m sure at some point we’ll get tasked with something a little more up our alley. Until then, I want all of you to keep your head on a swivel and remember, complacency kills.”
Captain Deely tossed the remote to Lance Corporal Jefferson. “If there aren’t any more questions, let’s mount up and be ready to roll at 0900.”
The Marines filed out of the tent, into the bright sun and walked across the dirt lot to finish preparing their vehicles and equipment for the mission. Smalls picked up his pace to a slight joh to catch up to Chris. “Jose,” Smalls yelled after his friend.
Chris turned to face Smalls, but continued to walk backwards so as not to slow his pace. “Hose B?” Chris chuckled in response.
“You’re a jerk,” Smalls laughed. “That’s what we decided on. We’re naming our boy Jose.”
“Not bad. It’s a classic. Can’t go wrong with a solid, classic like that. I mean, it’s no ‘Chris.’ But it’s alright.”
“Yeah, asshole. Like I’d name a kid after desert trash like you. It was her dad’s name, so it has some sentimental value and stuff.”
The two friends separated and proceeded to their respective trucks. The trucks were lined up in the order of their assignment for the convoy. The six, boxy, four wheel drive, high mobility, multipurpose, giant wheeled monsters, or “Humvees” for short, looked ready for action. The Humvees were stout trucks with high clearance above the ground, but a large amount of interior space. They came primarily in two colors. Standard olive and tan. These were all coyote tan to match the desert environment.
Chris bent low as he walked to see below the massive tires of his vehicle. “So, are you going to stay in the middle of nowhere,” he yelled, “or are you going to raise the kid someplace normal?”
“Normal? Normal like Philly or Baltimore? You mean that kind of normal?” Smalls laughed as he made final equipment checks on his vehicle.
“True,” Chris laughed. “I just mean, a place where they teach things other than growing corn and country music.”
“Well, we’ve been thinking about it. Al has some relatives in Baltimore.”
“See there. That was easy. You didn’t need to give me all that lip. You could have just said, ‘Yes Chris, we are going to raise the kid in your hometown because no other place would be good enough for him.’”
“Yeah, but its Baltimore. Murder capital, unemployment, blue flashing lights on the street corners.”
Chris rolled under his Humvee and walked over to stand in front of Smalls. “Is that really all you know about my town?”
“Look,” Smalls said, not turning away from his equipment. “We need to focus. I don’t feel like having this conversation right now. Talking about my wife and kids doesn’t blend will with driving through shit filled, desert canyons looking for things that don’t exist.”
Chris nodded his head in understanding. They separated again to finish the vehicle preparation. Chris loaded into his Humvee. The engine roared. Standing on his seat to see over the cab, he yelled one more comment to his friend. “Jose. Can’t wait to meet that little guy!”
Smalls nodded his head and screamed back, “Me too, man. Me too.” Then he loaded into his truck.
Each Humvee was occupied by five Marines; a driver, the vehicle commander in the front passenger seat, a passenger on both sides in the rear. In the very center, one man would stand in a turret mounted to the frame of the Humvee. The Humvees were traditional military issue. They lacked armor and only donned either a canvas top or a fiberglass roof. They were incredible off road machines, but the need for additional armor wouldn’t be fully realized for several more years.
Vehicles one, two, five, and six had 240G turret mounted machine guns. They fired fifteen bullets a second, each about the size of standard crayon.
Vehicle three had an M2 fifty caliber turret mounted machine gun. Each of its bullets were the size of a man’s index finger. The gun has the capability to send out ten bullets every second. There are not many walls, vehicles, or structures that this beast would not penetrate.
The fourth vehicle’s turret carried an MK19 grenade launcher. It weighed over 70 lbs. and launched grenades over one half mile, raining down a relentless barrage of explosions.
The fifth and sixth vehicles also carried 240G turret mounted machine guns.
In a standard convoy, the first and last vehicles (in this case, vehicle one and six) included an AT4, a shoulder fired rocket launcher. AT stood for anti-tank, and would only be used in dire circumstances. The AT4 had a sling for carrying purposes that marines used to hang the weapon on the outside of the turret until it was needed.
Captain Deely’s voice crackled over the radio. “Attention on the net. This is Snake Eyes Actual. Begin radio checks, over.”
“Snake Eyes Actual, this is Snake Eyes One. I read you lima charlie, over.” Corporal Barnum responded over the radio.
Corporal Faulk in vehicle two looked at his driver, Lance Corporal Proach. “Shit, Barnum is vic one commander. Nobody can understand his retarded accent on the damn radio!” Keying up his radio, Corporal Faulk replied to the radio check. “This is Snake Eyes Two, lima charlie, over.” Looking back at his driver, “seriously, does anybody know what the hell he just said?”
Chris keyed up his radio. “Snake Eyes Actual, this is Snake Eyes Three. Lima charlie, over.”
“This is Snake Eyes Four, I read you lima charlie, over.” Smalls replied to the radio check, then announced to the occupants of his vehicle. “I’ve got five bucks that says Faulk curses on the radio at least once at some point today.” The other marines in vehicle four laughed.
Corporal Vandertrip responded. “This is Snake Eyes Six, lima charlie, over.”
“All vics, this is Snake Eyes Actual. That’s a solid copy from all vics. Prepare to go oscar mike, over.” Captain Deely looked at his driver, but asked all of the marines in his vehicle “you guys good to go?”
The marines all gave a unanimous “yes sir!”
“All vics, all vics, this is Snake Eyes Actual, we are oscar mike.”
With the command given, the six Humvees rolled out of the camp and down the dirt road in a single file, kicking up a trail of dust behind them.
Esh ran to Sharn, the slink’s tail dragging the ground, leaving a light trail in the sand in behind him. “Commander,” he reported breathlessly. “It’s time.”
Sharn grinned and looked around. There was nothing but sand, hills, and the massive ghostly clouds of the world the world they were about to enter. Sharn gave careful attention to the massive, foggy structure before him. He’d watched it for days, trying to understand what he would encounter on the other side. It was never what he expected. The commander had grown accustom to the unknown.
“Soldiers, form a circle around me and Zacharias. Mish will open a jump site with the Lamina. Timing will be critical and sensitive. Do your jobs, and we will all feast and laugh together tonight, warm in front of the fires of Malacandra.”
“Huh!” the troops replied with nervous energy.
“Mish, please validate our entry point once more, and place the coin where we need to enter.”
The morning drive through the wasteland passed quickly. Clearing the final hill, they continued through a ravine that ended as the first buildings in a small village. The rough buildings of the village stood between them and the warehouse building.
“Snake Eyes Actual, this is Snake Eyes One, over.”
“This is Snake Eyes Actual, send it, over.”
“Where are all the people? This place is a ghost town, over.”
“Just keep pushing through and stay vigilant, over.”
The pot holes and narrow roads slowed the convoy as they reached the entrance to the village. Brick and mortar structures lined each side of the street. The back of each house almost touched the hills that rose behind them, to create a natural valley that channeled the road toward the warehouse.
Corporal Faulk scanned the area with his eyes, “This place is fuckin creepy.”
“Hey, there’s a guy up there, eleven o’clock.” Lance Corporal Proach said, pointing to the first rooftop on the left side of the road.
The dirty brown, two story building had a flat roof with a small parapet surrounding the frame. One lone figure could be seen moving toward the front corner of the roof.
Corporal Faulk keyed up his radio, “Snake Eyes One, this is Snake Eyes Two, there’s a military aged male on the rooftop to your ten-o’clock. Keep your eyes…”
Rothman squinted toward the ghostly the town. He crouched behind a collection rocks, atop the hill that separated him from the Malacandrian soldiers. He could barely make out the foggy shape of a figure moving along a roof of the first building in Reality. The man picked up a long barrel shape, held it to his shoulder, and jerked backwards as a plume of smoke erupted from the back of the barrel.
“It’s beginning,” he said to himself, as he gripped tightly with each hands the murderous bars, his weapons of choice. He crouched, preparing to pounce.
Sharn shouted. “Prepare yourselves.” His mouth watered in anticipation. He stood directly in front of a small silver disc lying on the ground. The disk cast a shimmer above it that looked like heat waves radiating from sun baked asphalt. He drew long straight sword from a sheath on his back and held it in front of him at the ready.
The disk began to spin, kicking up a small cloud of dust around it.
“Hold! Hold!” Sharn commanded.
It spun faster and faster. The air was pierced by a blinding light shooting in a beam from the disc.
Through the shimmering air, there was a blinding burst of light.
“Hold! Hold!” Sharn yelled again.
Corporal Faulk keyed up his radio, “Snake Eyes One, this is Snake Eyes Two, there’s a military aged male on the rooftop to your ten-o’clock. Keep your eyes.” Faulk’s voice stopped mid-sentence. He was rendered silent as his mind fought to comprehend the rapidly changing environment around him.
A large ball of flame is erupting from under vehicle one. It soared into the air doing a backflip. There was an explosion. Pieces of the Humvee shredded off and flew in all directions.
Lance Corporal Johnson shot out of the gun turret like a ball from a canon.
Debris flipped end over end, coming toward the front of Faulk’s vehicle.
“I need to turn away. I need to turn away,” his mind raced.
A shockwave just sent him sideways.
Debris slammed into the front of our vehicle.
“We won’t be able to move. We won’t be able to move,” Faulk’s mind screamed. The world slowed around him. It felt that minutes passed before he could comprehend that his vehicle had also been hit with an explosive and they were under attack.
Men seemed to have appeared from nowhere on all sides of the convoy. Some fired the standard wooden stocked, machine gun of the terrorists. Their AK47 let out a steady “thump thump thump” as shells leaving the gun smacked against the sides of the vehicles they were tearing to ribbons. Others men stood erect with the long tube shaped RPGs. These took careful aim before pulling their triggers. Trails of smoke burst from behind the tubes as the explosive tips rocketed toward the Humvees.
The air filled with violent sounds of destruction, the snapping of bullets, and the whiz of projectiles in the air. Explosions filled the small village. Screams from injured men sent chills down the spines of the living.
Rothman breathed in sharply at the wavy images of war and death below. The wispy trail of the projectile sent from the tube hit the ground under the first metal wheeled carriage, an explosion sending it skyward. “Unnecessary violence. Killing without purpose. Is this all the efforts of Sharn?” he mumbled to himself.
A beam of life shot through the sky and Rothman knew it was time.
Regaining his composure, Corporal Faulk continued with his radio transmission, “…all vics, all vics, Snake Eyes One is down. Shit! Repeat. Snake Eyes One is down and blocking the roadway. We are taking RPG and small arms fire. It’s a fucking ambush, over! A fucking ambush!”
“This is Snake Eyes Actual. All vics, back up and…” Captain Deely was interrupted as an invisible wave of sound rattled his teeth.
Lance Corporal Krinler shouted down to Captain Deely from the machine gun turret, in between bursts of his 240G, “vehicle six is down, sir! We’re blocked in!”
“Fuck!” Captain Deely screamed. He knew the kill zone had been set. He needed to get out. They needed to escape the blockade or they’d all be dead. He looked left and right, searching for a hole in the chaos, a place to exit the trap. Then he saw it, a home, the second building on the left. It appeared sturdy. He snatched the radio and transmitted, “All vics dismount! I say again, dismount and regroup in the brown building at the convoy’s nine-o’clock!”
Lance Corporal Krinler dropped from the turret onto the floor of the Humvee. “Krinler, let’s g…” Captain Deely stopped shouting when he saw the bullet hole just below Krinler’s left eye. “Move out!” Deely continued shouting as he jumped out of the Humvee and began running towards the brown building.
He was fifteen feet from the entrance when his body shook in a spasm and he collapsed to the ground in confusion. “Why’d I stop? Why won’t my legs move?” his mind raced.
The marines from vehicle three had dismounted and began making their way towards the brown building. They crouched low, scuttling between points of cover. Chris watched Captain Deely run to the door. A pink mist puffed out of his lower abdomen and he collapsed to the ground. Chris’ view was interrupted as Smalls jumped out of his vehicle and ran to the captain, bent down to a knee and used his brute strength to left the Captain from the ground.
The other four marines from Smalls vehicle stacked up at the front door of the brown building, preparing to make entry. The first marine drew back his knee and thrust it forward, shattering the door.
A ball of fire erupted, consuming the pieces of his body as they flew into the street. The three other marines were hit with enough force that their lives ended before they could register that they were in danger.
Chris crouched behind his Humvee and scanned the buildings for movement. An Iraqi man on the roof of the building behind Smalls was taking aim. Probably the same man that had shot Deely. The gun steadied in a direct line with Smalls back.
“Smalls, behind you!” Chris screamed.
Smalls was weighed down by Captain Deely and could not maneuver to free up his rifle. Chris saw the man on the roof take aim. Chris moved, leaving cover, running toward the building, screaming. Chris took aim and fired at the building, but he had no angle. His bullets pelted the wall meaninglessly.
The moment would live in Chris’ mind forever: Smalls’ body jerking uncontrollably as bullets tore through him, the expression of recognition and terror on his face, the red mist bursting from his body.
Chris screamed in agony. His eyes burned with tears. He reached helplessly for his friend as he ran.
Smalls fell to his knees. The bullets continued to riddle him. The massive man fell backward on top of the Captain. Then it was still. The bullets turned toward another victim. Smalls lay in the blood soaked dirt, peaceful and unmoving despite the horrors still going on around him.
Chris pressed his back against the building. He looked at his fallen friend. Tears mixed with sweat burned his eyes. He felt a sudden need to be present. He needed to break from the pain. He needed to gain control of the chaos around him. He took a deep breath, pushed his sorrow down, and calmed his nerves. A cold rage filled his heart. He gripped his weapon and assessed the scene. His senses came alive as they never had before. He dropped to one knee, raised his riffle to his shoulder, exhaled slowly, placed his finger on the trigger, and whispered to himself a single word, “Smalls.”
Sharn stood still, focused on the actions in the large ghostly town around him. More specifically, he watched one man in the town.
The shimmering air that normally indicated the existence of the veil had completely disappeared around one individual. Sharn moved closer to look through the foggy wall, through the house, until he was even with the smoky front wall. He watched Chris intently. Sharn saw the human drop to a knee, the human’s shoulders even with Sharn’s eyes. The commander ran his hand through the side of the man he intended to kill, his hand pushing through the fog but touching nothing. “This is him. This is the one. Everyone take a good look. He is the one who must not live.”
“Huh!” replied the circle of men.
Sharn moved back to the coin. He crouched, preparing to leap into the light. “On my mark we prepare to jump. Steady men. Steady.”
And then, with a guttural roar, and the whiz of steal weapons piercing the air, the clarity that surrounded the Malacandrians dissipated.
Captain Deely watched in awe at the rapid movement of his sergeant. Chris was targeting, firing, and then targeting again before the previous victim had hit the ground. In seconds, the soldier cleared ten combatants without hesitation.
Deely’s legs throbbed. The shock was passing and his body was experiencing the pain of his injuries for the first time. He breathed deeply, sucking back the agony. Bracing his shoulders against the ground, he pushed up hard. The body of Sergeant Smalls rolled from on top of him. To his shock, Sergeant Parker was already there. In a solid motion, Chris swept down, threw Deely over his shoulder, and backed toward the house, all while continuing to drop terrorists. Deely had never seen anything like it. The Sergeant’s speed and power were inhuman.
Chris backed the two of them toward the door of the house. In the seven steps it took to get to the safety of the shattered door, Deely thought he heard Chris drop eight more enemies.
Pausing at the door of the building, Chris barked orders to the four marines from vehicle three, “Clear this building!”
The four marines snapped into action. They entered the building with riffles raised. The sound of gunfire echoed out of the doorway.
Seconds later a voice came from the roof top, “Sergeant, the building is clear!” Deely looked up to see the marine’s torso spin as bullets from separate angles pierced his body, launching his body off the roof.
Chris didn’t pause at the site of the man. He stepped into the building and propped Captain Deely in a corner. The Sergeant retrieved his side arm and handed it to the Captain.
Deely was still in shock at the efficiency of his soldier. He breathed and took in the room. The feeling of safety was quickly washed away by the feeling of sorrow, as Deely saw the other three marines from vehicle three lying dead on the steps to the second floor. The safety of the building had been bought with a bloody shootout and more men had been lost.
Deely looked to his legs. Both ankles were twisted in odd directions. A piece of Humvee protruded from the left one.
More Marines entered the room. “Keep it together,” Deely whispered to himself. He swallowed back his pain, fighting to stay conscious. He saw Sergeant Parker in the doorway, again firing one round per target with terrifying precision. “You three,” Deely yelled with all his might to the three who were catching their breath. “Secure the roof. Provide elevated fire.”
“Yes, sir!” the three remaining Lance Corporals from vehicle five acknowledged.
“…and keep a low profile!” Deely warned.
Two more Marines entered the house, provided safety by Sergeant Parker’s cover fire. “Who are we missing? I need a sitrep,” Captain Deely said with a painful groan. “Everyone from vehicle six was KIA.”
A young man stood in front of the Captain. Deely’s vision was fading. He couldn’t make out the man’s face. He couldn’t place it. His mind was blacking out. He forced himself back to the present.
“Vehicle one looked like it was hit pretty hard, sir,” the young soldier reported. “And probably all KIA, but I couldn’t see it very well past vehicle two.”
“Okay, we can’t lose focus,” Captain Deely said. “As far as we know, they were diverted and found a different building for cover.” He retrieved a map and a handheld radio from the pouch on his side, he switched radio channels and began to transmit, “Dark Horse, Dark Horse, this is Snake Eyes, over.”
Sergeant Parker’s firing went silent. The blond haired man stayed on alert, ready to attack again at the sight of a combatant. The room waited for a long eight seconds, then the radio began crackling with a reply, “Snake Eyes, this is Dark Horse. Send it, over.”
The three marines exchanged gunfire on the rooftop and their voices echoed down the stairwell, “Contact from the tan building, nine-o’clock! …reloading!”
“Dark Horse, we need QRF to our pos for a platoon sized hostile force with small arms and RPG’s, break-, – and casevac for approximately 12 packs. Prepare for coordinates, over.”
“Ready to copy, Snake Eyes. Send it.”
“Our pos is 33.405, 43.917. How copy, over?”
“That’s a solid copy Snake Eyes. QRF has a fifteen mike ETA and casevac will stand by until a non-hostile LZ is established, over.”
“Roger, Snake Eyes out.” Captain Deely looked up at Chris. “We need to make contact with somebody from vehicle two,” the Captain called. “Check for other survivors, and prepare to evacuate the area.” Switching his radio back to their channel, he keyed up the microphone once more, “Snake Eyes Two, this is Snake Eyes Actual, come in, over.”
The radio stayed frustratingly silent. The snap of gunfire continued to echo from building to building. Sergeant Parker fired off more deliberate rounds.
Another marine knelt in front of the Captain. “Sir, we need to get you patched up,” he said as he bent down and began opening the captain’s first aid kit.
Deely could feel himself losing consciousness again. He pushed the marine’s hands away. “No. No,” he said. “Take Sergeant Parker and find the others.”
“Captain, we can’t just leave you,” the marine said.
“That’s an order!” Captain Deely barked.
Chris stopped what he was doing, stood up, and took a few steps back. “Marines, we’re moving out!” he commanded. “No one gets left behind. Let’s go.”
The two marines complied and, following Chris’ lead, low-crawled to the front door.
“We’re gonna go find the rest of our guys and get the hell out of here. Check your ammo and prepare to move out.” Chris instructed.
One of the three Lance Corporals began to speak, “I’m running low on ammo, does -.”
A small thump on the dirt floor interrupted the marine. Before Chris could look down to see what it was, Captain Deely screamed, “Grenade!” Chris wrapped his arms around the two marines, and with all the power he could muster, he picked them up, and with unbelievable speed, launched himself and them up the stairway, knowing he would catch the blast, but they would be saved.
Sharn was on his back. The human had leapt into the center of their circle and put the commander on his but with a powerful kick. Sharn screamed in furry, “Now! Now! Now! The Gracanjo dies now!”
But his troops could not respond. They were caught in a whirl wind of metal and pain, entangled in battle with the large human at the center of the circle. The man brought his steal rod down on the head of a lunging Mardock, crumpling its skull. Before the Mardock hit the ground and liquefied, the human swung low and took the legs from under a slink. As the slink fell to his back, and the warrior monk in all black rammed a steal rod through his forehead.
Sharn screamed in rage as his troops liquefied before him. Another Mardock died as the human jammed the steel rod in his left hand through the Mardock’s chin. The rod burst through the back of the Mardocks head and then slid back and found its way to the slinks jaw.
Sharn rose to one knee. He looked up and mumbled with recognition, “The Rothman? Why is the Rothman here?” Two more of his troops melted into black sludge, their spirts returning to be reborn. Half his force gone in the blink of an eye.
Sharn watched Zachariat ran forward, but Rothman didn’t move his feet. His right hand swept forward. With a shimmer of black steal, Zacharias’ head snapped sideways, his body following in a twirl, his eyes closing in immediate ending to his existence in Midian.
Sharn pressed himself up off the ground. “Rothman!” he screamed. “Face me!”
Rothman locked eyes with Sharn and smiled. The thick, black life of the fallen was splattered across his face. His dark eyes were wide and wild. “It will be like it was in Pompeii, Anzac Cove, and Berlin. I have sent you to rebirth many times, Sharn, and I shall do it again today, and one day you might learn to run when the Rothman arrives.”
Sharn hesitated for one second, “That was you?”
Sharn drew his long sword, gripping the hilt with both hands. “It is a shame you humans only live once. I would enjoy killing you over and over. Today is your final day! Leave now and I will permit you to live.”
Rothman laughed. “I never grow tired of your bravado. Good. Good for you. Let us finish this.” He spun his rods in his hands, and with a shake of his arms, double edged blades extended from each of the smooth black rods.
The remaining four soldiers stepped back to give the warriors room.
Sharn lunged forward, swiping down with his blade. Rothman dodged to the left, spun his body, and stopped to face Sharn head on. He pushed forward with his left and right legs, jumping forward toward Sharn. Sharn jumped backwards into a roll and landed outside the circle of men surrounding Rothman.
Both Bashi and Hyoi saw Rothman’s assault on Sharn, but they were not focused on battle in Midian. Instead they watched the large, foggy figures in reality. They saw a breaded man approach the door. The man pulled a round object from his jacket. They both recognized the smoky grenade as it bounced across the floor.
Bashi knew he had to act quickly. He took two strides and leaped feet first into the beam of light extending from the coin. The sound of Hyoi screaming, “No!” faded behind him.
Hyoi and Andregrunt, the giant Mardock, made eye contact. They raced to the light together, both hoping to stop the other from crossing the Veil. Hyoi moved as quickly as he could, but Andregrunt’s long strides won out. The Mardock leaped into the light behind Bashi. Hyoi pulled up short of the light, unsure where he would be most useful, deciding to wait and see what transpired.
The grenade should have exploded. It should have torn Sergeant Parker and Captain Deely to shreds. It should have destroyed everything in the room, but instead of the deafening blast, the air was sucked from the room with a deep inhaling sound.
Deely watched in horror as a grey circle of light appeared in the middle of the room. From the circle came a beautiful, pale man with purple eyes. He was like a person, but seemed more than a person. Later, in interviews that would result in Captain Deely being declared unfit for duty, Deely would describe the figure as a beautiful angel who’d descended from Heaven to save them from the grenade.
The purple eyed man grabbed the grenade and tossed it, underhand, through the grey, shinning circle in the ceiling. He then turned to Sergeant Parker and smiled.
He paused to smile. Why did he pause to smile? At Sergeant Parker? The question would haunt Deely for the rest of his life. A small mystery that relentlessly bore itself into his brain. Maybe, if the angel hadn’t of paused to smile, he would have seen the monster behind him. Maybe.
Behind the angel came a demon. A massive, muscular, sharp toothed, man like, demon with grey, colorless skin, and black swirling pools for eyes. Deely watched in terror as the demon grabbed the angel from behind by the head, and, with one hand, flung the beautiful purple eyed creature back through the glowing circle of light in the ceiling.
Deely screamed in horror. He watched, helpless, as the giant beast took two long steps toward the stairs, grabbed Sergeant Parker under the arms as if the Sergeant were a small child, and moved back toward the circle of light in the ceiling. Deely scrambled for the firearm Sergeant Parker had given him. He raised it toward the monster, his hand shaking with fear. He pulled back on the trigger. Shot after shot after shot rang out, but he was to unsteady. His bullets went wide, breaking holes through the wall around the beast.
The monster crouched and then jumped toward the light, with Sergeant Parker still under his arm.
Chris waited on the stairs, every muscle tense, shielding his men. He waited for the blast of the grenade, for the explosion to shatter his ears and pierce his flesh, but the blast didn’t come. In its place, Chris found himself floating backwards. He watched the captain fire his pistol from his seated position in the corner. He saw the looks of utter horror on his men’s faces. He saw the powerful, rippled, muscular arm around his chest. He felt warm, acid breath on the back of his neck.
He squirmed and fought to escape, but it was useless. He couldn’t break his captors grasp. He strained to turn and look his captor in the face. What he saw sent him limp with fear. Two rows of jagged, sharp, white teeth in the mouth of a man. A dark, black, unending pit of swirling tar when the creature’s eye should have been. A horrible, proud, smile of victory.
Then he was moving up. Up with rapid speed, toward the ceiling. But where the ceiling should have been was ground. Chris emerged from a hole in the dirt. Like an elevator traveling up with open doors, he saw the threshold of dirt pass before his eyes. Strange bodies lay all around. A pair of black boots and powerful, tan legs were in front of him.
Everything looked strange. More than the black robed warrior. The sunlight cast a strange glow that illuminated the rocks, the dirt, and everything else. Clouds stirred in violent sweeping spirals directly above him.
He counted the bodies that fell at the mad warrior’s feet. Six, eight, ten. Ten men lying still, two struggling to stand up, and one with a vice grip around his body. The carnage was incredible, the smell of explosives hung in the air.
The creature that was holding Chris was now crawling, dragging the rest of Chris’ body through the portal. Chris thrashed, frantic to be released. Panic filled his chest and vomit filled his mouth. He fought and kicked.
Then there was a voice and strange words. The dark monk spoke in a deep, distinct voice, directly to the beast that was trying to drag him through the portal, “Quos ego faciamhinc.”
Hyoi watched the grenade transform from mist to solid material as it passed through the Veil portal.
Rothman pivoted on his right foot to move out of the path of a powerful downward thrust from Sharn. The grenade rolled between the two warriors. Neither noticed the small black ball.
Knowing there couldn’t be more than a second left before the ball exploded, Hyoi sprung into action. In one fluid motion, Hyoi grabbed Rothman by shoulders and yanked the giant man back, and he kicked the grenade in the air toward Sharn.
Reflexively, the commander caught and cradled the strange object against his chest in celebration. “I now have a relic from Reali-.” His sentence was cut short by the massive blast. Heat and shock knocked Hyoi backward, but he managed to land in a crouch.
Hyoi had only regained his footing for a moment when Bashi flew through the portal in the ground, and collided into his friend.
Rothman burst into heavy, think laughter at the two conculus entangled on the ground, but the warrior’s laughter was cut short by the sight of Andregrunt’s vicious, pale face grinning, dragging the Gracanjo through the portal in the ground. With snapping reflexes, Rothman caught the Mardock by the neck before the beast’s body emerged into Midian.
Squeezing tight on Andregrunt’s neck, Rothman leaned close to the Mardock’s ear. The stench of death and suffering on the monster’s breath made Rothman want to vomit. Rothman whispered to his prey, “Quos ego faciamhinc” as he choked the life from the beast.
The monster’s grip loosened after he heard the monk speak to the beast. Chris began to fall. The strange land rose quickly out of view. He passed through the ceiling and landed on his butt in the middle of the room. Above him came a rush of air as a circle of light spiraled to a close. Chris looked around the room. He saw Captain Deely fighting to remain conscious in the corner. The two remaining Marines on the stairs, raced toward the door and fell just as quickly to enemy fire.
Deely held the pistol with a white knuckled grip and sent rounds through the doorway of the house as militants attempted to run through the entrance.
Crumbled bodies were piling up at the entrance of the room, then Chris heard the bleak click of an empty ammunition magazine as the Captain continued to pull the trigger without result.
This is it, Chris thought to himself. This is where we die. He rose to his feet, preparing to face what ever came through the door.
A brief glance into the street showed another group of men running towards the building. Chris glance back at his Captain in the corner. Chris’ vision blurred with grief as he saw Captain Deely’s hand drop his weapon into the crimson pool of blood in the dirt growing larger as he helplessly bled out from his wound.
Hyoi stood still, looking down at Bashi. “Did any escape?”
“No, sir,” Bashi replied, still laying in the dirt.
“Where’s the Lamina?”
“Rothman took it. He is gone.” Bashi pointed toward the rocks. “He went that way.”
Hyoi brushed the dirt off his clothes. “Let him have it,” he said. “He needs to get home somehow.”
“Hyoi, look at this,” Bashi said, his finger pointed at the giant, smokey figure of Chris.
Sorrow and frustration slowly transformed into determination. Chris inhaled a long breath. Calmness passed over him in a warm wave. Time slowed. Every movement seemed to hang in the air. Motes of dust slowly drifted through the open window. Enemy soldiers took slow steps across the threshold.
Chris crouched and launched toward the intruders with his arms thrust forward. He became a blur of motion. His fists collided with the insurgents chests. They flew backward with the same force of the initial explosion that had opened the doorway. Their lives ended before they hit the street behind them.
As Chris landed on his feet outside the doorway, Captain Deely’s eyes opened enough for him to watch Chris move away into a mirage like shifting wave of motion.
Deely pressed a hand to his side and pulled it away covered in blood. He saw the men piled upon men in the doorway. He used his good arm to pull himself up to the window sill, and he scanned the town for signs of Chris.
Across the street, where the shots had originated that had ripped his men apart, he found Sergeant Parker.
An arm sweep across the neck of the sniper and broke the vertebrae. Instead of releasing his arm from the neck, he used his momentum to turn his body into a horizontal scythe. His boot made contact with the second sniper on the roof, the man’s body collapsed in a heap.
Chris landed, planting his feet on the roof top, never releasing the insurgent’s neck. He located four insurgents creeping down the street to search the empty Humvees. With his feet anchored, he snapped the dead body over his head, releasing it at the apex, sending it flying down the street. He ran forward and jumped from the rooftop, toward the Humvees. Overhead, the limp body still drifted in a lazy arc toward the vehicles. Chris ran at the group, his legs pumping furiously. He was in the center of the gang before the were aware of his approach. The moment of recognition barely had a chance to register on their faces before their fate was sealed.
Deely drew his knees under him to support his weight as he watched through the open window.
Chris stopped moving in the center of the soldiers just in time to catch the falling body by the feet. Using the momentum of the corpse, Chris caught the body by the feet and spun in a circle. The four attackers were bashed with the corp’s head. The men went flying in four directions. Two bodies slammed against the burning hulk of a Humvee. Another became airborne, soaring in a flopping tangle and landing in a barren tree, branches piercing the body in five places. The fourth body slammed into the smoldering doorway, tearing in half, the waist and legs to stop at the captain’s feet.
With precision and efficiency, Deely watched the blur of Sergeant Parker continue to from house to house, leaving bodies in a trail of gore and death behind him, until finally, there was no movement in the village.
Chris stood alone next to the line of abandon Humvees searching for survivors. His racing heart pounded with pain in his chest. His arms and legs cried in pain. The world was still around him. He closed his burning eyes tight, held them for a moment, and then opened them again. He looked down at his hands. They were soaked in the blood of countless combatants. The horrors he’d committed over the past five minutes were a haze in his foggy mind. He felt as through the world had grown centuries older.
He walked back toward Smalls. He looked down at his friend. His eyes stung and filled with tears. He sat in the dust, collapsing to the ground like an exhausted child. He wrapped his arms around his friend’s motionless body and cradled Small’s head to his chest. Tears streamed down his cheeks. He wept softly and freely. Exhaustion and grief began to overtake him. The flow of tears grew heavy and uncontrolled. His chest heaved with spasms as he tried to catch a breath. Moans began to escape his lips. They rolled from him in waves of pain.
He began to fade. His lids grew heavy. As he drifted into the sleep from over exertion, he caught a glimpse of two dusty small men watching him to his left. They were knee high ghosts. He recognized them. He stared for a moment, trying to comprehend, but his exhaustion overtook him
Hyoi and Bashi watched in frozen awe as Chris wept.
“I still don’t understand the depth of loss that they experience,” Bashi said.
“In Reality, life without rebirth. Life with an end, a terminal point. It does add passion to living.”
“Where do we go with this next?”
“I’m not sure. Others will wonder what happened here. Who knows how much Sharn and his crew will retain when they return.”
“Hopefully very little.”
“Either way, we will have to give account to Mikael.”
The sounds of marines filtered into the room from outside. “Vehicle clear! The area is all clear!”
A young marine approached the entrance to the brown building and saw Sergeant Parker collapsed, paths of tear smudged dirt drying on his face. Smalls’ body limp beside him. He quickly turned around and shouted “I found one! I found a survivor!”
Seconds later, a group of marines approached Chris and began shaking him, trying to ask questions to no avail.
“Are you injured?”
“Is there anybody else?”
“Where is the rest of your team?”
“Can you walk?”
The questions kept flowing and Chris couldn’t answer.
From inside the bullet riddled house, Captain Deely was attempting to answer, but everything he responded with seemed ridiculous. “There was an angel with purple eyes! Then a demon with pointy teeth! The demon took Sergeant Parker through a hole in the ceiling, but only half way. And then Sergeant Parker flung a body from a roof and used it as a weapon!”
Eventually, still shrouded in silence, Chris stood up and stumbled to follow the marines back to their Humvee for evacuation.
Before they departed the small town, Chris had a glimmer of hope and shouted to the vehicle commander. “Did you guys find corporal Faulk and his fire-team? Are they okay?”
Deely shook his head. A brief silence filled the inside of the Humvee and only the diesel engine was heard.
The vehicle commander responded with a somber tone. “Yeah, we found them.” After another brief pause he continued. “It wasn’t good.”
Chris’ slipped back into silence.
The ride back to base seemed to last an eternity and Chris remembered the horrific incident over and over in his head. He wondered what had happened towards the end. Why was I pulled away? If I didn’t get pulled away, would it have mattered? Who pulled me away? Why did I get to live? I wish the grenade had taken me from this sorrow. He was tormented by his own questions and doubts.
After arriving at the base, Captain Deely and Seargant Parker went through the debriefing at the headquarters building. They attempted to answer all of the questions that were asked. From majors to generals, they all believed the story of the ambush. They had to listen without comment when hearing about Deely’s demon and Chris’ “out of body experience.” They chalked that up to post traumatic stress, until-.
Captain Deely lay in the hospital bed as men pummeled him with questions.
He answered them all with precise accuracy. The soldiers asking questions often would exchange glances, usually at the most unbelievable parts.
Deely held up his hand. “Stop. I’ve have had enough of this. Have you talked to Chris?”
“Yes,” one officer answered.
“And I am going to guess that our stories matched up, perfectly.” He paused. “No, you don’t even have to tell me, I know that answer, because I know what I saw, and I know Chris.
“So here is what you are going to do. You are going to confirm each casualty on that battle field, and you will verify that the enemies’ dead were in fact killed in action, exactly the way I have described. Only someone moving at the speed of a blur could have cause the carnage that you will find.
“Then, and only then, will I answer any more of your questions.”
When the debriefing was finished Chris walked back to the barracks, where he approached the door to his room. He slowly opened the door, proceeded to his bottom bunk and sat down.
His eyes wondered around the room and things started to sink in, one observation at a time. He looked at the other three empty beds. Faulk, Barnum, and Smalls were gone and they would never lay in these beds again.
Scanning the room with his eyes, he looked at each marine’s personal space. They had been adorned with pictures of loved ones and items sent with love in the mail.
Faulk had a pair of pink fuzzy handcuffs on his desk that his girlfriend had sent him. Barnum had several stuffed animals on his bed from his wife. Smalls had a picture of Alessandra and a sonogram photo on the wall by his bed.
“Jose” Chris said quietly and the uncontrollable weeping continued.