They were supposed to be greeted by bombs and bullets as soon as they hit the shore, but what they found instead was something no one could have predicted. With their ship sunk and no rescue crews forthcoming, the only way off the island is to venture deeper into a mystery from the past, a mystery that might have the power to change the whole war. If they can escape, that is.
The evening wind howls as it passes in-between the crevices in the hill, sending shivers down my back that have nothing to do with the cold. There are no more jokes. No more games. No one's talking anymore. There's just the omnipresent chill, the biting apprehension and anxiety of waiting for someone, something, to pop out of nowhere, unseen and hostile. Our platoon is scattered across the perimeter of the research facility—a bit too spaced out for my comfort—lying in our own rapidly constructed defenses. We were told to stay the night and keep guard, make sure that no one gains access to the research center, but I can't help but look behind me every few moments, back at the laboratory building, convinced that the real threat isn't outside the facility's fence, but within.
Some of the others in the platoon have drifted off to sleep, the ones that have no clue what kind of experiments took place on these forsaken grounds. I haven't been able to sleep a wink. I don't frighten at much, but the thought of being attacked by an unseen enemy, no chance to prepare, no chance to fight back, stirs something deep inside me, something primitive. Every rustle of leaves, every click of a Marine's rifle being shuffled around, every cough from the other side of the compound sends my finger flying to the trigger.
Kind of wish I had joined the cyber corps now.
I pull a couple strips of cured meat from my jacket pocket and begin chewing one with rapid, nervous bites. It's a recipe from my hometown back in Germany—a mix of pepper, cumin, and chili flakes—and I was saving it for a special occasion, but I need a little home comfort right now. I need to feel like I'm not alone on this waste of an island.
I startle and nearly flip out of my hasty scrape, turning around onto my back to see Emma crouched down beside me, staring at me with a bayonet in her hand.
"Jeez, mother of Moses. What the hell?"
"Easy, Marine. Stand down. I just came over to let you know the XO is thinking about pulling us all back. Get your gear squared away so that you're ready to move if the order comes in."
I exhale and stuff the meat back in my pocket. I'm relieved, if not surprised. "What, does she not care about holding the ground we've already taken?" I ask harshly, my mouth still full of half chewed meat.
"I don't think we're taking the island anymore. I think she's just concerned about getting the survivors safely off. Makes sense. Not much vegetation or wildlife for food, and I can't imagine the rations from the rafts will last us all that long. Probably wants us to conserve the energy we have and not waste it traipsing around the island."
"Well, that's a depressing thought. You think we'll be here for that long?" I ask.
Emma pulls me up by the hand once I've gathered my gear together and turns to stare out at the mainland with crossed arms. The fighting has continued non-stop in the city, and there's still the occasional blast of anti-ship missiles firing. "I think we should be prepared to wait for quite a while longer. I'm guessing the enemy's Iron Dome is still active, so no rescue by air until the landing party has taken more ground in the city, and I don't think we'd risk any more losses at sea, like with us. Our naval power is too important at this stage in the war."
"Huh," I chuckle. "You've really thought this through."
Emma shrugs. "My father was a colonel. He'd always talk strategy when—"
She's suddenly cut short by a long scream from somewhere behind us. It seems to rip the air in two, its pitch high and primal. We both turn to the sound and, without a second thought, begin running at top speed in its direction. My blood has turned to ice, and I feel adrenaline freeze my heart as it pumps though. That wasn't a scream of fear, or of pain. It was a scream I've heard many times over the past few months. It's a scream of outright terror, a desperate cry for help that comes right before death.
The screaming has stopped, but there are the hurried shouts of others in the platoon coming to investigate. We all congregate on a spot about halfway down the southern perimeter, and I look around the group to find my own anxiety mirrored in their faces. Then, I look down, and my heart nearly comes to a stop. There's a shallow hasty scrape carved out of the hardened dirt, and gathered at the bottom of it is a thick pool of blood. No body, no sign of a struggle, just a trail of crimson leading somewhere off into the night.
Tuttles appears at our side and peers down into the pit with a white face. I can see his mind working, churning, trying to process what he's looking at. "Who was here? Who are we missing?"
"This is where Nate was, sir," says a girl who's crouched down beside the hasty scrape, brushing her fingers along the dirt by the blood. Even in the dark I can see the tears on her cheeks and hear the wavering in her voice. I don't know Nate well—he's in a different squad—but I know he's well liked.
"Hurry and get your squad together and we'll track him down. Everyone else, keep your eyes open. I want you to stick in groups no smaller than your fire teams. Active defense."
I haven't seen Tuttles like this before. His voice is rattly and urgent, almost, well…panicked I'd dare to say. He and the rest of Nate's squad assemble, then rush out into the dark, quickly disappearing into the ocean fog, which has been gathering steadily for hours, and is now as thick as a blanket.
Emma takes me by the shoulder. "Come on, let's go get Lena and Boot," she says as we jog lightly back in the direction of the rest of the crew.
I’m not liking this. Not one bit. I was conscripted and trained to be a spearpoint, a hammer blasting through beachfronts with sheer firepower, not a hunter looking for some invisible enemy. I’ve fought all sorts of weird crap on the path from Havana all the way to Baja—drone swarms, directed energy weapons, some kind of toxin-tipped bullet that turns a person’s legs to mush—but this takes the cake. This is next level.
We arrive back at the west perimeter to the compound, but something puts me off again. I take a look around to try and figure out what it is, but I can’t shake the feeling.
“Where the hell is everyone,” Emma says with a dark tone, and I realize what it is that has me off balance. The defenses all along the border of the research facility are empty. There’s no one left. No one in the hasty scrape, no one manning the bunkers, the gunner's nests. I raise my rifle and scan the area, searching for…I don't even know what. But there got to be something out there; something's making my pits and back sweat.
Emma pushes around the dirt inside one of the hasty scrapes with her boot, exposing something small and shiny. She leans down and picks it up. After examining it, she holds her hand out for me to take a look. It’s a ten credit coin, a relic from the previous century with images of Europe and an important-looking lady engraved on it. We haven’t used physical currency for decades, but a lot of Marines hold onto a coin or two for good luck, a symbolic attitude that some things just never die.
At least, that’s the theory.
"Lukas?” Emma says softly, almost in a whisper.
“I think we should go find Sergeant Wu.”
“I think he was supposed to be here, on the west perimeter.”
“But he’s not here…”
Her voice trails off into the night as we survey the empty defenses, still trying to piece together the reality of what’s going on. Try as we might, though, the threat still seems so…invisible.
There’s suddenly a low rumble to our right and I whip my rifle up, aiming it in the direction of the sound.
“What was that?” I croak. My chest throbs in pain with each pounding beat of my heart. I feel like ripping off my jacket to relieve the pressure, to cool myself down from the unquenchable heat boiling up to the surface of my skin.
There’s another rumble, this time behind me, back in the direction of the research center. No, not a rumble. It’s more like a…well, a growl. “Emma let’s get back to—”
This time it’s a roar, no more than a few feet in front of me. I yell and pull the trigger, sending bullets flying in every direction, my muzzle alight with the flash of gunpowder. Emma takes a few steps back and nearly falls right into the hasty scrape. Moments later, there’s a yelp and a thud, then a thin trail of something fluid appears on the ground at my feet, glinting in the moonlight. I kneel and run my fingers through it.
I follow the trail to where it starts and feel something in-between my fingers, something soft and warm. It almost feels like…fur. Some sort of animal? It’s strange, seeing my hand work its way through the air, seemingly empty, when all of my other senses tell me there’s definitely something in my grasp, something that was once living, something big.
“Hey! What’s happening?”
I lift my head and see one of the other squad leaders standing about fifteen meters out, his rifle at the ready. His face is scrunched in apprehension, and I can tell he’s just as thrown off balance as the rest of us feel. I come to my feet and am about to explain when a piece of him suddenly disappears, a chunk, a bite out of his right side, and he cries out in pain. I watch, petrified with horror as he drops to the ground and gets tossed about by some unseen beast. His rifle goes off, shooting bullets indiscriminately around us, but for all the trouble, not a single one seems to find his target. After nearly a minute of being rooted to the spot, Emma finally grabs me by the hand and drags me off.
“Run!” she shouts.
I shake my head clear and begin sprinting back up the road, following Emma as we make our escape towards the airbase. I ignore the continuing agonized screams of the Marine and direct my energy towards putting one foot in front of the other as fast as I can possibly muster. There’s definitely more growling on either side of me now, or maybe I’m just imagining it? I can’t tell. Instinct has entirely overcome my brain, fueling my every action, my every sense. More gunshots ring out behind us, their crackle echoing of the cliff sides and disappearing into the ocean. I ignore that, too, and try not to imagine the horror we’ve just left behind.
It took a little over half an hour to get to the research facility from the airbase this morning, but the journey back takes us less, maybe twelve minutes, though it feels like an eternity in the moment. We fly past the Marines guarding the entrance, disregarding their confused shouts, and make our way towards the trailer being used as a temporary command post. Once there, we blow past another set of guards and burst through the door to find ourselves standing almost nose to nose with the executive officer from the ship.
"Sweet heaven above, Marines. What's got—"
"Ma’am! We're under attack. We lost the research center. The enemy, they’re invisible, or animal. I don’t know. Multiple casualties—”
“Hey, slow down!” she barks, cutting me short. All the better; I can hardly breathe anyways.
“Where’s the enemy at? What’s their strength?”
“Ma’am, that’s what we don’t know,” Emma says, gasping for air. “No clue where they’re at.”
“No one could put eyes on a single one?”
“That’s what we’re trying to say, ma’am. They’re—”
There’s a deafening bang from the door and the entire building rattles ominously from floor to ceiling. We whip around, only to find that the door has been dented inwards, its window stained by a splatter of blood.
The screaming begins again.