Chapter 5: South Dakota

Anna’s hatch pulled into the parking spot at the garage. It had been a long day and she was looking forward to seeing Maria. As she stepped out the car, she saw Hanska sitting with Robert Quickfoot in the office. The pair was in deep discussion. Hanska had certainly grown stronger over the last few weeks. The returning to the old ways had seen him regain some of the lustre of his youth and he was engaging with many of the other elders. Always in secret he never once told her what he was talking about. Although she was curious, she knew that when Hanska was ready to tell her, he would. She decided to leave the pair and headed to find Maria.

“They’ve been talking non stop for a while now.” Maria pulled herself out from underneath the old jeep. Covered in grease, the cleanest part of her was her mechanical leg. She pulled herself up and gave Anna a kiss. Though Anna was careful not to get any oil on her, she did find Maria very attractive when she had been working like this.

“Any idea what they’re talking about?” Anna followed her out the back as Maria removed her overalls.

“No. My Lakota is as good as your Spanish.” Maria, she smiled as she put the overalls into her locker. Maria had three brothers who were all into cars, their friends were into cars and she spent time around them. Her time in the Marines had allowed her to expand her practical experience and she found working around cars an enjoyable experience. It made her feel useful and Robert was too smart a businessman to turn down that much experience.

Anna started to recap the events of the day. Though Maria never stopped moving, Anna knew that she was listening. Maria stood before the washbasin at the back of the garage, removing the grease and oil from her hands. Scrubbing hard she watched Anna in the mirror. A smile on her face as Anna tried to recount the day’s activities in the most positive way that she could. Hope and optimism were important parts of Anna’s approach to life and Maria like that she would find a way to put a shine on almost anything. There were days when it had been a blessing.

Anna was so wrapped up in her story that it took a moment to realise that Maria was no longer listening, or washing her hands. Rather she was staring at the black shape in the mirror creeping towards the pair.

Maria was reacting before Anna was even certain what was happening. The giant cat like creature leapt towards her. Maria had pulled her from the creature’s path towards the door to the office, the force of her action nearly tearing Anna’s arm from her shoulder. The creature in mid flight unable to adjust its movement mid flight landing on the vacant spot that moments ago had been occupied by Anna. The pair moved as quickly as they could. Anna felt a nauseous feeling wash over her. A deep sickness that seemed to drain the energy from her, if it hadn’t been for Maria she would already been dead. She stumbled into the office as Maria forced the door closed behind her as the cat charged.

Inside Hanska and Robert had heard the noise and had come running towards the same door. Hanksa was a little older than Robert and was a little slow to reach the door. Robert though, instinctively braced the door with Maria as the cat creature slammed into it from the inside the garage. The force of the impact was strong enough to cause the doorframe to crack under the onslaught. Hanska added his weight to the door but after the third successive charge it was clear that the door would not hold for long. Anna tried to help but she stared to vomit. Like a toxic well had erupted inside of her, she felt awash in the filth. Instinctively she knew it was from the cat. Correction. Cats.

The window that overlooked the gas station shattered as a second cat leapt through the glass and the situation went from bad to worse very quickly. The door itself started to splinter from the impact of the animal in the garage. Anna pushed herself against the door. Sick as she was, she had no intention of doing nothing.

The extra body against the door gave Maria the moment that she needed. She abandoned her effort to hold the door, lunging for the shotgun that rested beneath the counter. It had been a while since it had been used but Maria, when she had taken the job, had made a point of returning the weapon to the best condition that she could. After all, no marine would ever let a weapon in his or her care, rust. It was an old twin barrelled weapon and she prayed it would be enough. The cat that had come through the window had been stunned a little from the impact and the confusion as the shelf that it had landed on collapsed beneath its weight. Maria made the decision, the counter providing marginal cover from the cat in the store, she screamed for the group to move from the door. Robert helped Anna out of the way as the cat charged once again, breaking through the unsupported door.

Maria fired twice as best as she could into the body of the creature. Far closer than one should ever use a shotgun, the recoil and heat from the blast caused her to flinch. Hanksa had been on the wrong side of the shotgun and Maria heard him grunt. She knew he had been hit but she prayed that it would only be a grazing. The creature dropped to the floor and Maria turned her attention to the cat on the other side of the counter. It had recovered and had proceeded to leap onto the counter. Maria would not have the time to reload. Instead she used the shotgun as a club and swung it at the head of the cat as hard as she could. It did practically nothing.

Outside, people were coming to see what was happening. The cat gave them no mind though, its attention focused on Maria it swung its paw slashing out at her. The counter was a little narrow and the cat, in an effort to maintain it’s balance was not able to extend fully, but still connected, it claws not in the right angle barely grazed her but the force of the blow knocked her across into the register and she fell to the floor. The cat ignored her and leapt again through the empty door where Hanska, Anna and Robert had fled. It landed gracefully, it’s eyes capturing the movement of Hanska and Robert moving behind the jeep that Maria had been working on.

Anna thrust the large screwdriver with all the force she could muster into the animal’s head. Pressed up against the edge of the door she had been holding her breath, hoping that their desperate plan might work. The cat howled in pain, turning to face it’s attacker. It was the first time that Anna had really looked at the creature. The crystal in its forehead, glowing a hot, red colour. Anna felt the nausea returning as she tried to get some distance. The screwdriver had gone in through the animal’s neck towards the brain but had clearly not gone deep enough. The creature would likely die, but not before it killed Anna. In the mirror’s reflection Anna could see what she thought was the police, running, armed towards where she was but there was no way they’d be there in time.

The cat lunged for Anna as the shotgun rang out again. Torn and bloody, and a little dazed, Maria stood in the door and fired the second shot at the creature. The first had been at the creature’s outstretched leg as it swung at Anna, stopping it clear of its intended target. The second shot, into the creature’s head, finishing the job that Anna had started. There was no mistake this time. The creature fell to the floor dead. Maria, stood in the doorway like a warrior of old, bloodied but victorious and for a moment Anna saw a time long ago. A similar scene, etched in her minds eye. She stood in a land of blood and fire.

A hand grabbed her and she returned instantly to the garage. She could hear the voices of the concerned officer but they were lost on her as she stared into the crystal in the cat’s forehead. Instead of the hot red, it was now like it’s host, lifeless.

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Chapter 4: Seattle

Xed pulled up when he saw the police cars. A crowd had formed on the sidewalk, looking at the house trying to get a glimpse of the gruesome sight that lay within. An officer flagged him to the side of the road and Xed stepped from his vehicle. He spoke briefly with the officer and was escorted under the taped off area. As he neared the house, Xed caught the distinct smell of vomit in the air. A few officers were standing around, clearly traumatised by what they had seen in the house.

Ronald met Xed, at the door to the house. An old friend from high school days, Ronald had become a homicide detective in Seattle and though they met up for drinks every so often, they had seen each other less and less, especially in light of the amount of time Xed was spending in the Cascades. He was surprised to get the call and even more surprised to ask him to immediately get his gear and come to a crime scene. Ronald explained the rules as he led Xed into the house. What greeted Xed was the worst sort of carnage that could be seen.

The entire family was dead. Torn apart by vicious animals. Far to frenzied to be any sort of dog, the animals had ensured that there was nothing left alive in the house. They had come in through the glass door that overlooked the jungle gym in the back garden. The glass had offered no protection from the animals. Xed looked at the bodies. He had been in war zones, seen friend blown to pieces and had become accustomed to scenes like this. Never from animals, though. Never like this. Ronald led Xed through the house to where the baby, or what was left of her remained in the bed. The animals had not eaten, just attacked. Xed left the house and headed to the back. Ronald spoke but Xed barely listened. It turns out in the Seattle region there had been three attacks in the last forty-eight hours. This was by far the worst though. An entire family wiped out in one swoop. Neighbours had reported screams early this morning but by the time anyone went to see, the killing was finished. Xed remembered hearing on the news about something like this happening in Missoula. He knelt and studied the tracks of the animals. They were feline, sort of, and like nothing he had seen before. Coming from the reserve at the back of the house. Xed climbed the fence and found the tracks on the other side. Ronald didn’t speak as Xed went about his work.

After the war, Xed returned home and had gotten a job assisting researchers keep track of animals within the Northern Cascades. He had grown up with a grandfather and father that loved to hunt and Xed had been tracking animals in the wilds since he could remember. Xed stopped at the edge of the stream and studied the tracks. There were three and all of them were large predators. Ronald had started talking again. Everyone handled violence in his or her own way. Ronald had seen enough and he found talking kept his nerves under control. Xed was half listening. It was clear he was here to track the animals but it was the last statement from Ronald that was the most clear. Find them and stop them. Four other police officers had joined Ronald and Xed. Xed recognized Mackie. He had seen him in the Cascades hunting once or twice. He wasn’t certain about the other three but all looked like they had spent time getting shot at. Either way, these men looked steady and not afraid of a little rough living.

They talked briefly and plans were made to follow the tracks whilst they could. There was an aerial search going on but that was more to make people feel better than to yield results. Xed headed back to his car to get his gear. As he unlocked his cage and removed his rifle, he made a verbal list of additional supplies that they would need. Xed would start tracking with one of the other men. The others were going to get supplies and would join them soon after. Mackie knew what would be useful and ensure that the others didn’t overpack. Xed travelled with most of his gear ready to go. He liked to slip away sometimes and just lose himself in the Cascades for a few days and his job was such that he could justify it easily enough.

Xed returned to the tracks and headed off into the reserve. It was highly unlikely that the creatures would still be in the area and suburbia was the worst place to track but the creatures were heading north-east. It looked like Xed was going to the Cascades sooner than he had planned.

Chapter 3: Nebraska

There are many nocturnal hunters that can be found in the Nebraska National Forrest. As the sun sets, life begins for these creatures, all searching for the meal that will see them through another day or if they are the unlucky ones, providing sustenance for another animal to survive. This night though, instead of their usual behavior, they were all silent and very still. A faint glow had just appeared electrifying the air. From the expanding glow came the smell of putrid air that grew stronger as the glow became a door from this other world. To the animals in the immediate vicinity, it wasn’t a door, it was just danger, and each creature did it’s best to ensure that it would be protected from whatever this new threat was. Out of the glowing door, strode several goblins, armed with bows and covered in animal skins. They spread out and created a perimeter just short of the Gold Rush Byway, save for one who remained near the door. They nestled into the bushes and became very still. There were human settlements nearby and they knew that their mission required anonymity. After a minute of quiet observation, one of the creatures made a strange shrill whistle. The goblin near the gate went back through the door only to return a moment later. The door began to grow, and the animals of the forest retreated further into the darkness.

It only took a moment for the door to reach the required size and several orcs came from within. Each one held a robust chain and at the end of each chain was a large cat like creature. The creatures, about the size of a tiger, had glowing red eyes and a small crystal nestled in their forehead. They were docile but at the same time they carried a feeling around them of menace. The handlers held the animals more firmly as an older orc arrived through the gate. The cats straight away perked up, more alert and agitated, they began to exude that menace more potently than before. The old orc spoke to them in a strange tongue that held the cat’s attention. In all there were fifteen of the creatures.

The shrill whistle was heard again and moments later the lights from a car on the road illuminated the sky. It only lasted a moment but every creature tensed for combat. The light shifted and disappeared again leaving them alone with the darkness. The old orc gestured and a red dust appeared to come from his hand, traveling on the slight evening breeze and settled over the animals. The cats settled as each handler removed the chain from their necks. The cats seemed to sink deeper into their menace for a moment and sprang from their handlers. They headed off into the darkness, moving into groups of three. The old orc stood and considered the animals briefly before heading back through the door. One of his subordinated made a counter call and headed through the portal, the rest of the group followed until those guarding the perimeter retreated from whence they came.

The cats themselves, strong with purpose headed off on their gruesome missions. Around the planet at the same time, there were nine other groups off on similar missions. The hunt had begun.

Chapter 2: South Dakota

The buffalo charged forth in numbers so large, Anna couldn’t count. Their size and strength made the very earth tremble beneath their feet. Anna looked from atop a large red rock that dwarfed her and she felt happy as she watched the herd. Suddenly a large sandstorm rose up in the distance and moved towards the charging herd. The buffalo altered their direction to charge into the ever-growing sandstorm until the pair met. Anna’s heart felt plummeted with the sight of the buffalo being consumed in the storm and she wanted to run to their aid. Before she could respond Anna was pulled from her dream by the sound of the jeep spinning its wheels in the front yard and the youth’s screaming and howling as they rode around in the back of it. In moments the buffalo were distant memories and Anna sat up in a panic, feeling the warm vacant space in the bed beside her for Stephanie. The empty space beside her indicated that Stephanie had already decided to deal with the youths in the front yard. A concerned Anna was already moving from her bed, as the shotgun blast tore through the night, ugly in its report.

The noises from the youths ended abruptly and the sounds of the vehicle began retreating into the night. This was of little comfort to Anna as she ran from the house to look for Stephanie. She needn’t have been concerned though, as Stephanie stood calmly on their stoop with the shotgun, still smoking in her hand. “Relax, it was just rock salt.” She simply stated. “Assholes.” Anna wrapped her arms around Stephanie. Relieved more than anything else. “I wasn’t worried about them.” She kissed her on the cheek as they watched the last signs of the vehicle retreating into the night. Anna genuinely wasn’t worried for them. Stephanie had been a Marine supply sergeant in Afghanistan and over the years she had received more than her fair share of abuse and humiliation until that day her convoy had come under fire. With the gunner felled by a sniper, Stephanie had leapt to take his place and laid down covering fire whilst her squadron regrouped. They routed the attacking force and from that day onwards, no one had ever hazed Stephanie again. Drunk boys in pickup trucks were nothing in comparison. Stephanie was as tough a person as you could find and she did her time in the warzone, serving with distinction. She might have still be there if it hadn’t been for her third tour being was cut short by an IAD. Unlike so many others, Stephanie had been lucky enough to survive and she was shipped back home for treatment and rehabilitation.

It was at the hospital that Anna had met the stubborn and aggressive Stephanie. Anna was Lakota, of the Sioux people and having grown up on the Crow Creek reservation, she was no stranger to injured animals. She had seen it all before and no prickly, protective shell was going to get in the way of her helping another soldier with their rehabilitation. Anna was persistent, finding ways to move beyond Stephanie’s walls and helped her through her depression and anger. As time went on a real friendship grew, Stephanie’s mobility improved, as did their relationship. Seven months later they moved in together.

It was the first time either of them had found a real peace from their demons and for a time they were happy. After a while Anna started to become restless, something was missing for her and Stephanie could tell. Anna was disconnected from her life, from her people and the more it went on, the more it started to manifest in their relationship. This time it was Stephanie who could see something needed to be done. Stephanie knew Anna’s heritage and it was she that suggested that the pair move to the reservation. Anna was reluctant, whilst she knew her family might eventually be accepting of her lifestyle, she wasn’t certain about everyone else on the reservation. It was entirely possible that they wouldn’t want the pair around and would make their lives miserable. Stephanie was unfazed. “I was a Catholic, Lesbian, Marine in Afghanistan. No one wanted me around. And they had RPG’s. This will be a cakewalk.” Stephanie had a perspective.

The pair moved to Crow Creek Reservation a few months later, just in time to say farewell to Anna’s mother. Anna was able to reconcile with her mother before the end and her mother had accepted Stephanie with surprisingly little hesitation. As Anna had feared, other people, often the younger members of the tribe were less comfortable with their arrangement and over time, despite the open hostility that had given way to a cool aggression, they had received frequent night visits like tonight. Life in the Reservations wasn’t always easy, especially when everything suggested that the tribes that lived there were of a dying race. Once the Sioux Nation, and the other tribes were spread across the land but over time, and under the cruel boot of history, their numbers were dwindling. Almost every tribe told the same, sad story and the knowledge bred a frustration that could not easily be expressed, especially by the younger generations. Every so often the young men would get drunk and look for a way to vent their frustration. This was where Anna and Stephanie came in.

Anna could feel the tension melting away from Stephanie as the natural noises of the replaced the screams from earlier. She often wondered if things like this caused flashbacks for Stephanie but the rule had always been that Anna would never ask. Stephanie would only speak of her experiences, if and when she wanted to. She looked at the flickering fire on the other side of the road out the front of the old caravan. On the chair sleeping through the entire event was Hanska, Anna’s grandfather. There was a time that she would have suspected that he was drunk but in the last few weeks there had been some unusual changes in her grandfathers behaviour.

The first sign was the alcohol that she had witnessed him throwing into a fire. He always had a bottle or two stashed around the place but that first afternoon he had been methodical going about their property collecting every stash and throwing it into the fire. Anna was surprised to find a few of the bottles had even been about her own house. Hanska also started foraging for herbs and the elders, the very old elders, had also started visiting him with a greater frequency. After that first week there was a smile on his face and a spring in his step that Anna had never seen before. As though a great burden had been lifted. He had become a changed man but still he never spoke of why. Even when they invited him for dinner he politely refused and continued to purify himself. Clearly whatever had been happening for him had been quite profound, but tonight, tonight he was as she had often seen him before. Passed out in front of the fire. Stephanie could feel where Anna’s gaze had settled and she shifted her weight. “Let me grab my foot and we’ll move him into his trailer.”

Anna let go of Stephanie. Having lost her right leg below the knee had been a blow to her independence and much as Anna wanted to help her into the house, she had learned that treating Stephanie as an invalid hurt her more than the injury. Anna went to put on her dressing gown. The sound of Stephanie’s hydraulic leg accepting the pressure of her weight signaled she was ready to go. Anna had wanted to get her one with the electrical servers but Stephanie gruffly declined. “All the damn dust up here would just stop it working.” Besides, Stephanie knew enough about hydraulics to make her own adjustments when need be and that was preferable to having to go through the VA. “They have enough real issues to deal with.” Anna smiled to herself. Only Stephanie would consider having one leg to be a minor inconvenience.

The pair walked over to Hanska, still lying back quietly in his chair. Surprisingly he didn’t smell of alcohol but rather but rather a combination of burnt herbs and there was a thin paste that had been rubbed just beneath his nose. She didn’t recognize it. Whatever it was, it was probably responsible for his current state. They lifted him and guided him from the fire back into his caravan. Unhooking the door, they lifted Hanska into his darkened trailer. Anna groped around for the light switch as Stephanie held Hanska. When she finally managed to flick the switch, a surprising sight greeted her.

It had been a while since she had been inside Hanska’s caravan and it appeared that he had been busy. The place was less cluttered but at the same time, he had apparently been busy collecting herbs and such from the area. Most of it she knew from growing up on the reservation, and she knew many of their uses but others she hadn’t seen before. Clearly Hanska had returned to the old ways. On the one hand Anna felt relieved that the change in his behaviour was positive but at the same time she was a little concerned by this sudden change. Maybe it was because he was getting older, and just sign of his mortality? Perhaps Hanska was just getting his affairs in order? Stephanie, less acquainted with Anna’s grandfather’s habits simply moved him over towards his bed. “He’s not drunk is he?” She had seen her share of drunk people and Hanska wasn’t that. Anna picked up a dusty medicine bag she did not recall seeing before. “I think he’s travelling.”

As she pulled back the sheets she found lots of drawings all scattered on the bed. They were all striking similar in design too. She carefully moved them aside as they placed him on the bed. Anna removed his shoes and placing them where he could easily find them when he awoke. Stephanie looked at the drawings, a quiet bemusement on her face whilst Anna tucked her grandfather in and placed a kiss on his forehead. Stephanie was turning the loose pages around, hoping that a different angle might reveal an answer. “He’s a little obsessed isn’t he?”

Anna studied one of the pictures and it felt familiar. “I’ve seen this place.”

Stephanie put the pages down respectfully on Hanska’s table. “Around here?”

Anna had a guilty smile. “I’ve seen it in my dreams a lot lately.”

Stephanie returned her smile. “But not in the real world?”

“Not that I remember.”

Stephanie shrugged. She didn’t question Anna in matters such as these. If Anna had seen it in her dreams, she had, and that was enough for Stephanie. Though she had always been pretty practical, time on the reservation had started to open her mind to lots of things she had previously not considered. For the most part she seemed fine was fine with it, but she knew that Anna was still sometimes censoring herself. They left Hanska to his traveling and slipped out of his trailer.

The pair walked from his caravan past the glowing fire towards the house. Stephanie looked over at the flames and stopped. Anna finding herself not out of step stopped and looked at the fire where Stephanie was gazing. “Don’t worry. It’ll be fine.”

“Australia.” was Stephanie’s reply.

Now it was time for Anna to be confused. “What about Australia?”

“That’s what Hanska is drawing. It’s some place in Australia. I remember seeing it on a bunch of post cards. It’s a big red rock in the middle of the desert, but it’s famous.”

Anna looked to the flames, trying to see what Stephanie had seen.

“Maybe he saw it on a commercial or something, but that’s definitely what Hanska is drawing.” Pleased with herself for unravelling the mystery, Stephanie turned back to Anna who was now lost in the red embers.

Anna pulled her gaze from the coals. “I wonder why?”

Stephanie leaned over and kissed her, breaking her reverie. “You can ask him when he comes back to earth, but in the meantime, let’s go inside. I’m getting a chill and I want some sleep in case those idiots decide to come back.” The pair resumed their walk but Anna’s mind was still clearly lost in the burning red embers of her dream.

Chapter 1: Columbia

Jungles have a smell. Each one is distinct. Fletcher had spent many years in jungles like this and had gotten to know them, intimately. People talked about jungles being the heart of darkness and all that rubbish but like most anything, do it long enough you get used to it. Fletcher had spent enough years in jungles like this to know and feel comfortable in them.  This is why when he started to feel uneasy it was such a surprise. He had been here before. Not in this exact area, but certainly in this jungle and this time something was different. He was uncomfortable, and neither was it because of the stinking heat nor the rains that had saturated everything he and his men had brought. For the last few days, they had crawled, slept and shat their way through the jungle. For most people this would have been unbearable but not for him, not for his men. This is what they did. This is what they loved. Normally the jungle smells like an armpit. When the rain has soaked in and the vegetable matter decomposes around you, all you can seem to smell is that armpit. It’s damp, moldy and more important it’s what he knew. Today though it was different. Today there was a smell in the air that wasn’t the usual smells. There was a strong acidic taste in the air. You could taste it on your lips as the sweat trickled into your mouth. It smelt like blood.

Fletcher and his team had been dropped into this remote part of jungle. It was an unremarkable patch save for the fact that tucked away in a small valley was a processing plant. This plant produced cocaine. Lots of it. Fletcher and his team had known this for sometime. They had allowed it keep operating because it was always easier to track shipments when you knew the point of origin. It was also easier to bug a place that you knew was unlikely to change too much. This factory had been refining cocaine for a few years and they hand managed to farm it for good intel by simply listening in and pretending that it didn’t exist. Until now. Someone, somewhere, probably in an office as far from the jungle as one could possibly get, had decided that Francisco Alfonso was going to be here and with only a fraction of his usual bodyguard. Someone had decided that killing him in the midst of his friends, in a remote location that their enemy knew nothing about, where he felt safe, would create suspicion amongst his lieutenants and cause a power struggle that would shake up the cartel. Someone had decided that this was a good thing. Fletcher didn’t know if they were right. He didn’t care if they knew what they were talking about, or if some guy somewhere had just decided it would be no worse than the situation they had to deal with now. All Fletcher knew was that the order had been given and he and his team were dispatched to ensure that Francisco did not leave this area alive. Even if it cost them everything, it would get done. When you gave a task to the Delta’s that’s what happened. The job got done.

Fletcher was Delta Force and Delta men did the jobs they were given. His team had worked quickly. They worked out the best insertion point and determined that three days of crawling through the jungle would be the best chance of getting close without them being seen. Now that the third day had arrived, he could feel his team was anxious to get the job done. Anxious to get the job done did not mean rushing though. His men knew that patience was an essential part of a good soldier’s weaponry. You kept the initiative but balanced it with thought and planning. Fletcher was very good at this. Anxious men made mistakes and this was one time when no mistakes would be tolerated. There could be nothing to suggest that Americans were involved. They would be in quick, and surgically take care of the business. If they did it right, extraction would be easy enough and he and his men had trained to make certain that they did it right.

The only talking that had been done in the previous three days had been at pre-arranged communication periods. The last one had been thirty-seven minutes ago and the signal had been patchy. Patchy was not something that should have happened. This operation had enough advanced warning that the satellites had been given enough time to adjust their orbit to maintain the best possible contact and yet at last contact, the signal was patchy. That was the first sign for him that something was amiss. Every good solider knew not to rely too much on tech. A soldier relied on himself and the man next to him. His team was all tested and Fletcher knew that if the shit hit the fan that they would not buckle. Now though, the tech was patchy and there was a smell of blood in the air. Something was not right. He wasn’t certain what was happening but he was mentally preparing fallback optons.

Even before they had reached the last rise, they could hear the sounds of battle. Having been in more than a few incidents in their time, his team had instinctively reacted to this sound. Straight away his team shifted into recon mode. They needed to know exactly what was happening. Fletcher looked at Christian, a flick of the eyes and Christian was pulling back a bit to find a safe place to establish comms. Vance hung back to cover Christian and Cordoza, the mission sniper would find himself a place to nest. The entire mission had deviated from the initial brief substantially already and they would have to reassess the situation and decide what would be needed. Comms were essential and if there were something to report, getting the info back to where it was needed would be vital. Besides, if the target was already engaged it might make their job even easier. Everyone had studied their target and studied him well.  Alfonso had to be killed. That was the mission, how or by who was less of an issue.

The trick with camouflage was to take your time. Snipers had this drilled into them. Movement drew attention. Gradual movement was far less likely to. People who moved fast created noise and visual disturbances that would draw attention. Fletcher’s men could have covered the entire distance from the drop zone to the target in less than a day if they had wanted but they were taking their time, and now that they were so close a little more time wasn’t going to hurt. Besides, you never go into a situation without having some idea of what is there, if you can help it. Intelligence was always useful and this was an excellent opportunity to gather, especially if there were new players in the field. That would be vital to adjusting future strategy.

Fletcher made his way through what was, at some time, a tree and also probably a corpse of some bird. It had been trapped in the fractured branches that he was using as cover. He could see maggots devouring what remained. It didn’t bother him though, sniper training school had them all crawling through the worst kind of shit anyone could imagine. The instructors took great delight in telling you what was in the mixture. Fletcher remembered vomiting at least once after swimming through it all. The instructors laughed and pushed him back in. They had used it as a means of desensitizing you to things like that. It taught you to crawl through anything to get into position to get that shot, but a rotting corpse, even one of a bird still gave Fletcher a moment’s reflection. One day that would probably be him, but it wouldn’t be today. He had a mission at the first step in that was knowing exactly what was going on in the valley below. Fletcher managed to get to a break in the tree and move to the edge of the rise. He knew, when he saw what was happening below, if he survived this, his life would never be the same.

SOCOM headquarters was a cool place to work. There was no denying the moment that he had first stepped into the war room he had received the biggest buzz of his life. Jayke had been sitting at his terminal for several hours now, running support for the insertion team. They all knew that the operational timetable had dictated that the wet team had to engage shortly or risk missing the target. Once the initial insertion had begun the staff had been in virtual lockdown. No comms in or out. Anyone associated with this mission had been kept in lockdown to eliminate the possibility of the action being revealed to anyone outside the chain of command. They even had a pastor on hand to hold a mass for those believers so they would be able to continue their devotions without leaving lockdown. Jayke wondered what sort of confessions the pastor had heard and absolved in his lifetime. He also wondered if the NSA had a tail on someone like that. Certainly the pastor probably knew far more than he should have and the sanctity of the confessional was not going to be a defence against interrogation. Jayke himself was not a church going man. That’s not to say that he didn’t have faith, he just didn’t like the way most religions seemed so “organized”. He had worked out really early on that one could be spiritual though thoughts and actions, rather than having to rock up to church every Sunday for the purpose of showing everyone he was devoted.

This put him at odds with the military. They were big believers in organised – well, everything. Luckily for guys like Jayke, they were needed and the career progression meant that many of them had missed out on most of the grunt training in the rush to get them operational. Especially the part of grunt training that involved beating organization into them. Jayke didn’t mind that part of it, though he wished he had been allowed to complete basic training. Skipping over it all had certainly had it’s benefits, however in the eyes of most of the military establishment, they were lesser people, there only because they were unable to get a “real soldier” to do the job. Jayke was kind of annoyed at that. He understood the importance of maintaining a certain level of fitness, and took it seriously, making certain that he did what he could, when his job allowed. He had planned to finish basic when they would allow him but these days with so many covert operations being run around the globe, they had found it hard to let him go, even for a few weeks. Perhaps he would speak to his CO about it when this mission was all over.

Either way his own personal desires were secondary to the mission today. Jayke was one of the men tasked with keeping communications tasked on a small piece of jungle that would hopefully be the final resting place of a certain drug tzar. Communications were proving difficult, at last report they had started getting an unusual interference. The signal was growing weaker. The rate of disruption was unusual because it was growing at a disproportionate rate to the speed in which the team was moving. It was expanding in an outward fashion. Growing stronger whilst the team had been stationary during the insertion team’s report. Moving into a valley it should have been at a gradual rate, but this was considerably faster and that had Jayke worried.

Jayke knew that they would be counting on him to make certain that the signal was as strong as possible. A bad signal could mean a problem with the extraction and a perfect mission could rapidly become a failure where the team were left to die in the jungle. He didn’t have the physicality or training to be a Delta but dammed if he didn’t feel some days like he was part of the team. Today was one of those days. He tried to tweak the angle of the satellite. Though an expensive process that took a while to do, SOCOM’s ones were a generation or two ahead of everything else in the sky and it could be done. He also decided to see if he could identify what might be causing the problem. He tasked the camera to shoot through the spectrums from space at maximum magnification. If it were some tech, it would be important to be able to advise the wet team of what was causing it. Though not his primary mission, SOCOM was a little different from the traditional armed forces in that everyone had to be able to both follow orders, and be a bit creative. The military was an organisation steeped in tradition and modern tech was sometimes slow to be adapted to in the modern warfare arena. SOCOM knew this and staffed their operational teams with the sort of people who were up on this ever-changing world and would be able to deal with the rapid pace in which it evolved. Jayke started receiving images. There was definitely something going on in the valley. The infrared photos were incredibly hot, and the EMI readings were going mental. He switched to a standard view to see what could be causing it.

A signal was coming in from the team. One of the other guys in the centre would be decrypting and punching it up on the main screen. It was patchy and Jayke had to leave the photo work to it’s own devices as he tried to boost the incoming signal. Finally they were able to see the jungle. It was a scratchy picture, but clear enough. Jayke started cycling through the frequencies to try and boost the signal. The pictures were coming up on the main monitor now. Most of the team was no longer transmitting feed, which made it easier for Jayke, giving him less to focus on. He took what feed they were receiving and did what he could. When they finally got an image of the valley, what they saw left them staggered.

Fletcher always felt that carnage was a word that got thrown around all too often in the media. Certainly he had been in war zones and when he used the word, he knew what he was talking about. This time it would have been appropriate. What was left of the cartel was being wiped out by… something. He wanted to call them men they clearly weren’t. They were massive. For any man they would have been massive. Plated in a strange kind of armour. They had no modern weaponry but what they lacked in that, they made up for in sheer brutality. They also had, Fletcher decided, the mother of all skin conditions. The men (and Fletcher used that term in it’s loosest possible sense), were green and leathery, like they were infected. He wasn’t certain his camera was still working but he tried to keep his camera focused on the main groups to try and catalogue as much of what was happening as possible. These men were obviously new players and whatever the future, sooner or later he was going to have to deal with them. He was certain of this. Since getting involved was now a moot point, his team would do best observing them and studying them for weaknesses.

He felt bad for the men below though. This battle was over, they just didn’t know it yet. He gestured to his men to stay under cover document what they could. Intel was clearly the new mission. Fletcher noticed a faint shimmering in the background. At first he thought it was the heat from the fires but after a while he realised it was something else. Again, it may have been important and they would need to know what it was. He tried to call Christian but his comms were dead. That tech, over this distance going bad was very unusual. The gear they had been issued with, had been tested in the worst areas, for it all to be completely dead was strange to say the least. He was starting to wonder how much of his camera broadcast was getting through.

As if reading his mind, Vance had crept up to him. “Comms are down across the board. Christian and Cordoza have the only functioning gear and Christian is barely able to get a signal out. He told me to tell you that the nest wants to know exactly who is down there.”

“How much of what is broadcast is getting through?”

“The nest is getting some audio and patchy video feed from Christian and Cordoza’s cams. Christian has his hands full just to ensure we get something out. We get too close, everything dies. They must be using something, but we haven’t been able to work out what.”

Fletcher was even more concerned. If it had been activated only recently that would suggest that they were expected, if it was the new enemy, then it was another thing to be concerned about. “Have Cordoza run his gear for full range and have Christian fall back a bit further. We can’t risk his gear dying. Have him focus on broadcasting Cordoza’s feed. You hang back here with Miles and cover us. We get sprung, we piggy back to extraction point Hotel. Tell Christian to have them get the bird in the air for a quick extraction but tell them to stay the hell away from the valley. The rest of us are going to try and get eyes on scene.”

The orders given, Vance melted back into the jungle as Fletcher gestured his instructions to his men. The group split. Fletcher hoped Cordoza would be able to shoot some footage worth a damn but if everything failed they could still give a report the old fashioned way. Besides, maybe the recording mechanism would be working even if they couldn’t broadcast. That was the trouble with all the new stuff. You didn’t have time to understand it all or how to make repairs when needed and that was becoming a clear weakness in a modern army. Certainly the brutes in the valley had no such issues with their gear. Vance and Miles would watch their back and for now, Fletcher and his remaining men would try and get whatever they could on the strange creatures and that unusual shimmer. They moved faster now. With all eyes focused on the battle and the carnage, it would likely keep everyone’s eyes on where it was all happening rather than these hills.

They started moving down into the small valley, creeping around the outskirts. The team was making certain the path would be workable for a quick retreat should they end up making contact with either enemy. This wasn’t a movie; they were out gunned and the only thing initiating contact would do, would be to get them all killed. Fletcher wasn’t going to die on this mission.

He paused a moment to get the layout of the disrupted camp and it was then that he saw Francesco. Sure enough, the creatures had done the job for them. One of them appeared to be devouring Francesco’s brains. At least he would be able to confirm that he was most certainly dead and no one would ever blame them. Now leaderless, the cartel had taken a defensive position. Trying to recover from the initial onslaught, they were managing covering fire as they regrouped. Fletcher watched the new enemy move, curious to see how they would deal with this. They had a variety of primitive weapons and he noted that some of the shields the creatures had, seemed to stop the bullets. He wondered what kind of ammunition the cartel was using. They creatures themselves were not so disciplined, but he was slowly starting to make out a command structure. There was one big guy that had a necklace of strange pointed ears hanging from his neck, Trophy, Fletcher labeled him, barking orders. A very bloody axe in his hand indicated that clearly he was the sort of leader that led from the front. Near him stood two other men of his, much slighter build than the warriors, each had a burly with them. The burley’s seemed to be there for protection, but their expressions indicated they would rather have been in the fray instead of watching it. Fletcher was wrong. They did have some discipline.

Common sense told Fletcher that you didn’t waste men in battle protecting what wasn’t important. He noted that with the slighter creatures, their garbs were different also. They wore strange robes and each carried a staff though some had blades, they were sheathed. They moved, rocking a little in a strange motion. He couldn’t hear what they were saying but they seemed very focused. Suddenly his attention was drawn from the creatures to the screams from the cartel. From above them, the air crackled with angry red flames, raining down a hellish fire. Localised and directed at the creatures enemies. Fletcher and his team were dumbstruck. Never had they seen, or even heard about what they were seeing before them now. The men in the circle were burning from the rain. The heat was setting off some of the ammunition causing all manner of chaos and sending their defensive posture into chaos. The whole thing only lasted about thirty seconds as the enemy waited on the cartel to die.

Fletcher was conscious that he and his men had become focused on the scenes of death and had forgotten their mission. He pressed on. Focus. Retake the initiative. The mission matters now. Nothing else. He was starting to realise just how vital intel was going to be. These new players were something else and they would need to be prepared. They pushed on through the jungle till they had come to the side of the camp. They could see a large shimmering door about twice the size of a normal house door. It stood upright like a door too and the burleys seemed to be taking whatever they could carry back through the door. It was definitely an important point to note. He realised that there were two more robed – things – chanting before the door. Victims and gear were being moved through the gate, some of the people still alive. His natural inclination was to try and help them but this wasn’t the mission. An explosion shifted focus for everyone.

He knew that sound. Apparently all the cartel members weren’t dead yet and someone had found a store of grenades. They were pushing back. The creatures responded quickly but they had been so confident in their victory that they had lost some of the initiative. He could tell that the explosions had thrown them. They would recover quickly and finish the job but Fletcher had seen an opportunity to test a theory. He motioned for his men to start falling back. They had all that they could get safely and too much time here increased the likelihood that they would be discovered. Before sinking away though, Fletcher took careful aim.

He had been watching the creatures for a while now, formulating ideas based on how they moved and the way they wore their armour. Since they moved upright like men, there was a good chance that they shared some of the same anatomical characteristics such as the neck would likely provide blood to the brain. Either way, if you applied a bullet to the jugular, something would likely happen. They had been packing soft point ammunition as the hot jungles tended to discourage the wearing of body armour and Fletcher was hoping that their skin was not so thick as to stop his round. He selected his target, one of the robed creatures and he fired just once, watching the exit wound erupt from the things neck in a very satisfying manner. He almost missed the shimmer at the glowing door had it not been for, one of the creatures walking through it screaming in pain. It fell to the earth. Or rather, half of it fell to earth. The other half had disappeared through the door to wherever it went. Fletcher’s men had gone completely still. Anyone looking over in their direction would be scanning the hills for movement. Hopefully their stillness would provide the cover they needed. After a moment the creatures had assumed it was the ongoing fire fight and though a few scanned the hills, they had focused their attention back on the remnants of the cartel that were desperately trying to escape from the battlefield. The creatures intensified their effort and Fletcher noticed one of the robed things move to take the fallen members place near the door, no one would go near the door till the chanting had begun again.

Fletcher’s team began to melt back to where they had come from. A withdrawal like this was done methodically, with cover given as they retreated. The sounds of battle were beginning to diminish as Fletcher and his team reached Vance and Miles on their ridge, when a scream was heard from close by.

A man, badly bleeding was staggering towards their position and pursuing the man was two of the creatures. Fletcher’s men held their positions. Though all of them would want to intervene, unless Fletcher made the call they would hold. The mission took priority over everything. The man was moving straight at the perch where Vance had been offering cover for their scouting activities and if he didn’t stop soon Vance’s position would be exposed. Luckily for the Deltas, the fleeing man made the decision for them, stumbling and falling short of Vance’s position. The creatures were making a strange audible growl and Fletcher couldn’t tell if they were talking or just enjoying themselves. A strange horn bellowed out in the distance. A recall siren, maybe? Fletcher thought to himself. It caused the two creatures to pause. Either way he would never be sure. Before the last reverberations of the horn had died out, Fletcher made the call. “Take ‘em.”

Vance dropped one for certain and later on both Miles and Cordoza would both take credit for the other. The autopsy would never be able to give a clear answer on who was right but either way, both creatures took the dirt nap in an instant. Fletcher looked back toward the valley for any signs the others had noticed. “Bag ‘em. They’re coming with us. The survivor too. Whatever he can tell us about what happened here, we need to know. His survival is priority one now.” The prisoner was going to offer no resistance. For the rest of his life, his dreams would be visited by the horrors of today and the only refuge from that would be the faces of the men that had saved him. He would offer his rescuers no excuse to abandon him to the nightmares. Miles had moved over to check on the man’s injuries and to make certain he would be able to travel the distance. “Christian?”

Even out of distance of what was going, comms were still dead. Whatever had caused it was permanent. He gestured to where he knew Cordoza would be able to see him. Immediate evac. Fletcher was taking as few chances as possible. Calling in the bird to the closest extraction point would be risky enough but it sounded like the enemy had done what they came to do and they were falling back to wherever they had come from. Fletcher’s attention was drawn to the sound in the air. Or lack of it. Logic dictated that the creatures had likely left, but there was no guarantee that they hadn’t left any surprises behind.

It had been tense at SOCOM. The main signal feed had been coming from only the sniper’s camera. It wasn’t much help either, the footage they had seen was too outrageous to be real and then with all the interference they would have to process it again to be certain. They could see the cartel engaged in a battle with some sort of enemy but with what was up for debate. Jayke had been frantically trying to keep some sort of broadcast going and he hadn’t had a chance to really look at the footage. The team would have specialists trying to get what they could from the feed. He could tell people were annoyed but there was nothing that could be done from here.

Earlier, when Jayke had reported that something was causing interference, they hadn’t liked it but they didn’t argue. You had to trust your team, even if you didn’t understand everything they did. Jayke was certain though that the General in charge had been mumbling something under his breath about Jayke’s performance. If this mission went pear shaped the General would be the one held responsible so he was naturally going to be grumpy. Jayke didn’t really care, he had a mission, and that was to establish a clear comms link with the team on the ground using whatever gear was still available to him. All of a sudden the signal jumped back to normal strength, the pictures and sound, from the remaining functioning gear came through very clearly now. Jayke had his eyes glued to his screen trying to determine what had happened and if it would happen again. He heard Christian’s voice on the speaker requesting immediate extraction plus three cargo. Extraction wasn’t his area, but he paid enough attention to know that the location specified was as close to the target area one could get without sitting in range of a shoulder mounted missile. Finally Christian’s comms were streaming properly. “Hawk’s nest, are you getting these images?” Jayke was starting to relax, whatever had been causing the interference was definitely gone. He assumed that they had disabled the device and Jayke really wanted to know if they had found what has caused the interference. They would need to start working on counter measures in case it occurred again. Jayke suddenly became conscious of the fact that no one in the room was talking. He looked up to one of the many monitors that peppered the room. What he saw on the screen let him speechless as well.

They were replaying the cleaned up footage from the sniper cam. Two very dead creatures straight out of a fantasy epic were lying on the jungle ground. The bodies had on them, what Jayke surmised from all the books he had read over the years, to be clan signs as well as their own customisation of their armour.

The general was the first one to find his voice. “What the fuck are they?”

Jayke looked over to Marvin. Like him, Marvin wasn’t straight military. He had been recruited for his computer skills and had what many would have described as limited social skills. He had, like Jayke read many of the same books, played many of the same games and Marvin had jumped to the exact same conclusion that Jayke had. The General’s question had been met with more silence. Frustrated the General grabbed a microphone.

“Scalpel, this is Hawk’s nest. Were you able to secure a live target?” The question hung in the air waiting for it to cross the thousands of miles to the team.

The radio crackled to life. “Negative Hawk’s Nest. Not possible. We do have one live regular cargo and two terminated irregulars. How copy?”

“Solid copy. Get yourselves and cargo back here. How copy?”

The General handed back his headset not even waiting for their response. Everyone could tell that his mind was racing. How was he going to report this? In Jayke’s experience, General’s tended to have little imagination and this, on the screen, had been a surprise to everyone. Jayke’s own emotions had been a mixture of fear and anticipation.

“General.” Jayke had been the first person outside of the General to speak and every single eye was now squarely focused on him. The General too had shifted his entire focus to a situation he was comfortable with.

“What have you got?”

“General, the um… The irregulars, that scalpel had taken.”

“You’ve seen them before?” The General was curious but a little incredulous.

“Mostly in books and games, General.”

“What books?”

Jayke bit the bullet. “It looks a lot like an Orc, Sir.”

He may as well have been speaking Greek for all of the General’s response. Jayke pressed on. “They’re commonly found in fantasy literature. Lord of the Rings, that kind of stuff. Those two things, the irregular cargo, had similar markings on the left arm. Tribal scarification. You know, like um… denoting the same tribe…”

Jakye started to wilt under the Generals steady gaze. “This ain’t a book, son.”

Jayke could tell his idea was being given less consideration as he went on, but he pressed. “No General, but I’ve read more than my fair share of literature and that is almost exactly how they are described. They are represented very similar in movies and games that way too.”

“Excuse me General, but I concur.” Marvin had spoken up, coming to Jayke’s assistance. A few other of the non-soldier soldiers had murmured their agreement with Jayke’s assessment and the General was now completely on the back foot. Though not entirely believing what he was being told, the General knew he would be asked a lot of questions and he would have to have some answers. Leadership was all about initiative and he knew what needed to be done. He looked squarely at Jayke.

“What’s your name son?”

“Jayke, General.”

The General looked back at the screen. “I need a full briefing on those things in one hour. Two page summary including references and addition sources if we need them. Where they come from. What they want. Whatever you’ve got.”

“Different materials have different idea’s about them.”

The General looked up at the monitor showing the two creatures. “When scalpel is extracted you get their reports. Add notes that are consistent with what they report. Look at the footage we were able to get again and see what you can determine. At the moment we’re flying blind but that doesn’t mean slinging fairy bullshit. You give me crap and I’ll shred it, then you. Understand?”

“Yes, General.” Jayke had already started writing the report in his head.

The General though had already moved on to strategy in his head and how they were going to have to deal with these creatures. Whatever the hell those things were, the battleground was shifting and the General knew were going to need to get ready.