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.
I stare at the door, my heart in my throat, all pretense of being the tough Marine completely thrown out the window. The screaming stops after a couple seconds, and I listen carefully for any sign of movement, any clue that will give away the intentions of these…things. I notice the XO has her pistol out, and is glaring at the door with a cool and controlled expression. Her eyebrows are scrunched in concentration, and she holds her free hand out, urging us back behind her. She takes two cautious steps towards the door, maintaining her grip on the pistol, and reaches out a hand to the doorknob.
The next few moments are nothing but a blur. The XO's hand is millimeters away from the knob when the door blasts open with a BANG and the sound of ripping metal, and she falls to the ground in a bloody heap. The other officers in the room blindly open fire with their own sidearms, peppering the entire wall with gunfire. Even over the sporadic crack of their weapons, though, I still hear a deep roar, something powerful and unearthly. I almost trip backwards over myself in an effort to escape, barely managing to catch myself on the desk behind me. My fingers make contact with something wet, something sticky, and I pull my hand back to find it coated in blood.
I hardly register the voice, barely hearing it over the gunfire and the sheer magnitude of my heartbeat. There's a pull on my body armor and I'm dragged away from the carnage, screams and splatters of blood following me the whole way. In a matter of seconds, I'm through the rear entrance, back out into the bitter evening air, watching as the trailer flashes with each pull of a trigger. Then, the flashes stop and a heavy silence rests over the airbase.
"Lukas, come on!"
Emma pulls on me even harder, and I turn to follow behind her, making the impossible effort to keep my head on straight. We flee across the tarmac, every step feeling like I’ve got a fifty pound weight strapped to each leg, just like in my worst nightmares, the ones where it feels like I’m running in place without actually getting anywhere. I don't know if anyone—or anything—is following us, but I don't pause long enough to find out. Right now it's all about survival, about escaping, but where do we escape to? Where is safe? These things, whatever they are, seem to be all over the island.
My foot suddenly catches on something soft, and before I can find my balance, the ground drops out from underneath me and I find myself in free fall. I'm sure that in reality it's only a few seconds, but in the moment the plummet seems to last an eternity. Finally, my fall is broken by the icy maws of the ocean, and I have to force my muscles—seized up from the sudden chill of the water—to carry me back up to the surface.
After wiping the water from my eyes, I take my bearings and look around me. I'm in some sort of cave under the surface, a dark, unwelcoming cavern with slimy, closed-in walls. The faintest of features are hardly illuminated by the most miniscule of ambient light poking through the hole from which I fell and the oceanside entrance a short distance off. Ocean water sloshes in and out of the enclave with each swell, causing me to bob up and down in regular intervals.
"Hey, Lukas! Are you okay?" Emma shouts down from above.
I strain my head upwards, struggling to tread water at the same time. "Yeah," I call back, my voice wavering from the cold. I take another look at the cave's exit. The only way out is through that opening, so I flip myself onto my back and begin propelling my way towards the open sea with long, powerful strokes. "Meet me by the shore. I'm coming out."
Hopefully these beasts aren’t aquatic.
I grab my shirt from the bottom and pull it away from my skin with a fwop-like sound. Despite being saturated, it manages to come off of my body without much effort on my part, mostly due to its design for maritime warfighters, but also because I’m shivering so hard that my movements have become aggressive and exaggerated. I place it on a rock next to the fire Emma has whipped together, making sure to keep it off the sand. Technically, it’s quite taboo to light a fire in an active combat zone, but we’re in survival mode, and it seems like the enemy has been avoiding this island like the plague, anyways. Besides, at this point, we’d be happy to be rescued by anyone on either side of the war.
“Animals don’t like fire, right?”
Emma has her rifle pointed outwards away from our little encampment along the beach, her eyes searching the darkness for anomalies. “Animals don’t like fire, they’re scared of it, aren’t they?”
I shrug my shoulders and focus on removing my utility pants so that I’m left wearing only my undershorts. The fire feels amazing on my bare skin, but I feel overwhelmingly vulnerable without my armor on, not that the armor did much against these creatures anyways. “I guess. I’d still keep an eye open, though.”
Emma snorts and pulls back the firing pin on her rifle to ensure a round is in the chamber. She looks fierce and determined, per her usual aura, but for the first time since I’ve known her, I see a hint of something else creeping across her chestnut-toned face, a nervous expression that puts worried folds along her forehead. I have to admit, it’s not very encouraging. But what is, recently?
“Do you think Lena and Boot are okay?” I ask, instantly regretting it as I do so. A shadow passes over Emma’s face, and I can tell she shares my same fears, but has been keeping herself from verbalizing them. She doesn’t answer, but shakes her head once in dismissal, keeping her focus trained on the trail that winds its way up the mesa. I abandon the effort and drop the issue, though I can’t stop thinking about Lena and her two kids, her husband waiting anxiously for her return. I pray that she’s okay, wishing that I could do more to help them, but knowing I’d be as good as dead if I tried.
I stare at Emma’s finger hovering over the trigger guard, watching it curl back and forth anxiously, when something over to her left suddenly catches my eye.
“Emma!” I call out softly.
She turns to me, then looks over to where I’m pointing. There’s something glinting in the firelight, something small but animate. It creeps slowly towards the fire between the two of us, but stops in its tracks when Emma whips her rifle around. Now that it has come a bit closer, I can see its features a little better. It looks similar to a fox, with smooth, iron gray fur with amber streaks and tall pointed ears, but it can’t be any bigger than a house cat. It stares at us with one paw frozen in the air, its eyes jumping between the two of us in turn.
“I’m not the only one that sees it, right?” Emma asks.
“I see it.”
“I thought the island was supposed to be barren.”
“Clearly that’s not the case.”
“You don’t think…?”
I chuckle nervously. “What, that this thing ate half the company?”
Emma makes a weak attempt at a laugh, but then gulps. I can tell she’s not ruling out the possibility. After a few moments, the creature continues on, taking cautious, tentative steps towards the fire. Emma follows it with her rifle, but refrains from pulling the trigger. Once it’s within arm’s length of the fire, it lowers itself to the sand and curls up into a ball, though it keeps its gaze on Emma.
I know I shouldn’t, but for some reason I’m drawn from my spot on the opposite side of the fire to the creature, which turns to look at me as I move. It’s hard for me to imagine this tiny little thing causing so much chaos; plus, the eerie feeling from earlier is completely absent as I take in the creature’s appearance. Should I trust it? I’m not sure, but it’s relieving to see something living for once, something other than a Marine. I slowly reach a hand out towards it, making sure not to make any sudden movements. My hand makes contact with its plush-like fur and I stroke it gently down its back. It makes a soft, low-toned grumble and leans its head towards me, and I smile involuntarily.
This is nothing like what I felt before, that one creature Emma shot way back at the research center. That thing was massive and had coarse fur with sticks and bits and pieces of underbrush stuck in it. That thing gave off a sense of untamed power and ferocity. This creature is the exact opposite of that. This one seems to be an entirely different species, if I had to guess. It certainly seems more docile than whatever was chasing us.
Then, from out of nowhere, I see one, then two, then more than ten of these creatures pop out of the shadows and join the first by the fire. They seem to have gained a measure of courage from their fuzzy friend, because, with the exception of one particularly tiny one, they all walk brazenly past Emma without so much as a missed step. She chuckles quietly and lowers her rifle, then drops down beside me and gestures to the bashful one.
"Hey bud, come here. I won't hurt you," she says in a sing-songy voice. The creature—no more than the size of a fist—pokes its head out from behind a rock and stumbles confidently through the sand over to Emma. She picks it up and brings it over to the fire, then places it next to the others with great care, making sure to appear as benign as possible, a tough feat for a Marine, especially Emma.
"How come we haven't seen these things before now?" I ask as one approaches me and begins pawing at my foot. "It's like they just appeared out of nowhere." Emma shakes her head, a wide grin on her face. "Must be something about the fire. They seem to like it."
"They seem to like you," I say with a laugh, watching as four more work their way in-between her legs. For a second, I’m almost tempted to allow myself to forget where we are, to let this brief moment of warmth overcome my mental exhaustion and fatigued body, to get lost in this strange phenomenon that’s juxtaposed against the last few horrifying moments, but there’s still that familiar heavy feeling in the pit of my stomach. A reminder that there are still wild animals out there that have killed and are waiting to kill again, unseen beasts that clearly defy nature and reason. It would be so easy to succumb, to just sit back and smile, but I know I can't. I know I haven't earned that privilege yet.
I'm startled awake by the sound and smell of engine exhaust. My sudden twitching sends the creatures lying around me flying into the darkness. They vanish from sight as soon as they're beyond the perimeter of the dying fire's light, invisible, even though I can still hear the pitter, pitter of their feet. The sky is a warm, light blue. A dim blanket covering the ocean and the archipelago hugging the California coast. It must be early in the morning, which means…
"Emma!" I whisper hoarsely, hurrying to grab my gear and clothes. She starts, too, and lifts herself up from the seat she's dug herself in the sand. She swears and grabs her rifle.
"How long have I been asleep?"
"Long enough. Aircraft on approach."
The sound gets louder and louder until finally the nose of a European Wyvern pops around the corner. It's a mid-sized troop transporter with heavy armaments and room for a squad, not including the door gunners. I lift my arms and shout—scaring off the last remaining friends we've attracted—hoping that somehow we'll be seen in the dark, early morning light. Emma joins me as the ship draws near, and together we put up a fuss that's sure to be heard across the whole island. But then the aircraft continues on, skimming the surface of the ocean as it passes by.
My heart sinks. Did they not see us? Or did they not care? I nearly throw up at the idea of having to stay here any longer. I don't think we'll survive another night like this one; I doubt we can convince these creatures' bigger buddies to snuggle up by a fire with us. Something deep in me, something desperate, crawls its way to the surface and convinces my hand to grab Emma's rifle, then fire a grenade in the aircraft's direction. It zips to the left and collides with the cliffside, sending dirt and rubble blasting out towards the sea.
The aircraft pauses and turns to face us.
My hand is sweaty, but I grip the railing on the side of the aircraft so tight that we could do a barrel roll and I'd still be seated firmly in place where I'm resting along the edge of the doorway. I look down at the island fading away into the morning mist beneath us, watching as the laces of my boots fly frantically in the air. I wonder if similar aircraft will come back for Boot or for Lena. I wonder if they're still alive. A dark part of me hopes they're not, for their sakes.
There are a lot of questions bouncing around my head, most of them ones that people much smarter and more powerful than me will have to answer. But one question keeps popping back up, pulling my attention away from all the others.
How can I ever trust my eyes again?
It doesn't seem like any important research made it off this island, but how can I ever hear the crack of a twig or see a passing shadow again without my mind fearing the worst. I'm starting to think the dead are the lucky ones; at least they've been given their rest. I'll never have another night’s sleep with both eyes closed, and even if I could, I'd only dream of things too horrifying to repeat, even in writing. I may be the last survivor of this other-worldly attack, but the truth is, the last living piece of me got left behind on that island. No. I'm not the lucky one. The lucky ones are long gone.
I pull the ten credit coin from my pocket, the one I found in the hasty scrape back at the research facility, and look it over, flipping it over in my hand, back and forth. After observing it for a few more moments, I chuckle sardonically to myself, then toss it into the ocean without another thought.