Outside of Markandeh

tears or sweat on face of soldier in helmet
Don't Say It

When Cesar opens his eyes, he’s flat on his back on lumpy ground, staring up at a canopy of leaves way too thick for there to be any chance of seeing the sky. It’s humid, the air thick enough that he can taste the water on his tongue, and it’s dark. Though he’s spent enough time in jungles over the years to know that it’s daylight out, probably mid-afternoon or mid-morning – the darkness is because of the trees hiding the sky.

He rolls over onto his stomach, hands and knees braced in decades’ worth of decaying plant matter. He expects everything to hurt, to ache, but it doesn’t. He feels fine.

He’s also pretty damn sure that this is not the desert of Afghanistan – and if it is, there are some very happy environmentalists out there somewhere, throwing a party about the new rainforest that’s just popped up in the heart of the cradle of civilization.

“Sergeant?”

He recognizes the voice, turns his head and sees Corporal DeWitt sitting maybe ten feet away, rubbing his head and looking around with wide eyes. He’s wearing boots, and fatigues, but no weapons. He looks clean, which makes the alarm bells ringing in Cesar’s head kick it over into high gear.

He also looks, as he lurches up to his feet and uncurls, like he’s gained a bit of weight. Not fat, though. Muscle. His uniform is a bit tight. He comes over to Cesar, pulls him up as well. “What’s going on, Sergeant? Last I remember-” And DeWitt’s voice hitches, trails off

Yeah, Cesar remembers, too. Routine in-and-out mission. Go into some little backwoods village in the Koh-e Baba Range outside of Markandeh, clear out the caves behind the main water supply there, and get out. Probable presence of armed insurgents, numbers estimated at around ten to twenty of them. Nothing two squads can’t handle, assuming it’s a gloves-off kind of thing, which it is.

Except for the part where they tear into the caves, no resistance, village is already empty. And they get down into the main cavern, find it all nice and hollowed out and reinforced with big wooden beams, perfect hiding place for damned fucking anyone, crates of ammo and piles of guns and – there’s no one there.

At least, there’s no one there until something comes out of one of the side caves, faster than a bat out of hell, and two big pincer things like a camel spider on steroids come together and slice Sergeant Sanchez’s head clear off, one snip, just like that. It happens so fast that the thing has spun around and stuck a leg – big long limb like a spider or an ant or something, with too many joints and a thing like a bone saw on the end of it – through Private Hurley’s stomach, picked him up and slammed him screaming into the ceiling a few times, before anyone even opens fire on it.

After that, it’s like a scene out of that movie with the bug aliens. Stormship Troopers, yeah, that’s the one. Lots of dying. He’s pretty sure, thinking about it, that they killed one of the things – because there were more, that first one was just the opening salvo, so to speak. Didn’t do them any good, though. Last thing Cesar remembers is looking up into a face no mother could ever love, pinned to the rock floor of the cave by two big too-many-joints-legs right through his thighs, his M-16 nothing but a twisted hunk of metal on the other side of the cavern, and wondering why the fuck it has human hands coming out of its thorax or abdomen or whatever the hell you call the body of a bug-spider-thing the size of a cow.

There’s a bit after that, flashes of things, really. Tubes. Needles, maybe. What looks like some really fucking expensive scientific stuff, way better than the supplies they used to get in high school Chem class.

And pain. Pain and screaming.

lower feet and claws of a bat
bat claws

He looks at DeWitt’s face, and sees that he’s not the only one who’s confused as hell. And, yeah, maybe a bit scared, too.

Cesar hears movement, and he and Corporal DeWitt turn as one and watch others come stumbling into their little clearing. He recognizes all of them. Seven total, not including himself. Olivier. McNaugh. Slevin. Hardy. Grant. Carson. DeWitt.

There’s something in the back of Cesar’s head, whispering. Not words, but a feeling, an urge. He wants to walk west, suddenly – though how he knows it’s west, he’s not really sure. He blinks. Makes himself ignore the feeling, focuses on the here and now. He and DeWitt and Carson are the only officers left, assuming there’s no one else out there in the woods. He takes stock, looks everyone over.

No weapons on any of them. All clean as if they were about to go through inspection on some base back home. All of them look heavier, fatigues a bit too tight. He can tell he’s put on some muscle, too – his pants are too snug around the hips, the thighs, his shirt stretches and strains when he moves his arms.

As he’s thinking this through, Grant and Olivier and McNaugh turn, not saying a word, and start walking west. Something cold and unhappy starts to coil around in Cesar’s gut, and little hairs stand up on the back of his neck, all down his spine. He’s about to call them back, hesitates.

Slevin is rubbing his head like it hurts, making funny faces. Corporal Carson shakes his head like a dog, then looks at Cesar. “Sergeant Montenegro, looks like you’re ranking officer. What the hell is going on here?”

Grant has stopped walking, is looking back at all of them with something on his face that isn’t really a frown, but sure gets the fact that he’s not pleased by something across. The little niggling feeling in the back of Cesar’s head pushes harder, sharp angry jabs instead of that soft nudging from before, and he narrows his eyes, pushes back on instinct.

No. I don’t want to go west. Fuck you.

Grant’s face…twitches.

“Sergeant Montenegro?”

“Corporal Carson,” Cesar says slowly, watching Private Grant’s mouth open, watching something start to move in the back of his throat, unfolding and coming up and out, stretching his lips wide, “DeWitt, boys…I think we’re about to have a fight on our hands.”

He’s rather proud of the fact that his voice is rock-steady, almost lazy-sounding and not shaky at all.

The others start to turn, and it’s Hardy who reacts first, swearing like a sailor and jumping back away from Grant and the things that are starting to come out of his mouth. DeWitt is a lot calmer, or maybe he’s just as suicidal-crazy as Slevin’s always claimed, because he doesn’t hesitate, jumps forward and punches Grant in those uncoiling mouthparts, tearing his knuckles open on them, and he hits him hard enough that Grant goes down, knocked backwards, and then things are coming out of Grant’s stomach, things just like the ones that pinned Cesar to the floor of that cave outside of Markandeh.

Carson and Slevin dive in, land on top of the thing’s flailing legs before it can get back up onto its feet, and DeWitt starts stomping on its – on Grant’s – head, bringing his booted heel down on top of it again and again until it cracks open like a fucking melon, which takes way longer than it should for any human head. The bug-limbs keep moving, though. They just don’t seem to have any aim after that, and everyone backs away from it, watches it thrash. DeWitt’s boot is covered is blood. His hands are clenched into fists, and Cesar glances down at the one that hit Grant, sees something dark and shiny glinting underneath the torn skin. Something that’s not blood, that’s not bone. It’s the same color as those mandible-things that came out of Grant’s head, the same color as the legs waving around over there.

Cesar raises his eyes to DeWitt’s face. The Corporal’s gritting his teeth, breathing hard through his nose. He’s opening and closing his hands, something’s moving under the skin of his wrists, and finally he looks at Cesar and says, quietly, “Something wrong with my arms, Sergeant.”

No shit.

They hear crashing in the woods, turn as a group, automatically making a circle with their backs together, and then Olivier and McNaugh come out of the jungle, mandibles gnashing and scissoring and way too many long hard limbs slicing around, and they find out exactly what it is that they’ve become.

DeWitt isn’t the only one who has problems with his arms, turns out. And there are other body parts involved, too.

Turns out the fact that they don’t have weapons, any of them, doesn’t really matter anymore.

The Captain

nonUS soldier with AK47
Not Fast Enough

“Oh yeah, I hear you. We’re working on those wrappers and identifying the girls in the pictures.” Ivan listens for some time. “How’s the partner? So Mary’s not looking restless? How’s he playing? Are the solos okay? You’d have to tell me. That’s why you’re in the field, risking your neck going to ritzy concerts and wearing swanky suits and eating fabulous food–wait a minute, here, what have I been doing wrong all these years?” He waits for the expected laughter to die down. “Yeah? Mary’s challenging the conductor? Well, hell. Don’t know whose bright idea it was to stuff the Maestro into that mix.”

Ivan listens to a crisp precis of the Metro Symphony’s Board recent politics. Ivan rubs his eyes. “Yeah, where’d you hear that?  Uh huh.  That camera wasn’t fast enough to catch Mary dodging in that interrogation room. Seriously. If he’s suspicious of la migra, I don’t blame him.”

More comments. Ivan replies, “Put them in that cafe window seat, we’ll monitor from the glass, no electronic crap to set anybody off. Oh come on, don’t be shy. You love having an audience, you’re always trying to freak my tech guys. Just let me know next time you’re gonna have an evening in with your cute little medical kink, we’d hate to surprise anybody.” He puts on a silly voice. “Will the bride wear a gown made of latex gloves, a simple spray job, or a wetsuit? Hell yeah, we’ll send a complete set of surgical scalpels, forceps, and spools of nice silk suture to your wedding. Only the best for you!”

He grimaces, holding the phone away from his ear to the roar of laughter. Finally he signs off and scrubs his fingers down his scalp.

“How do you wash out your brain with soap, sir?” asks his XO, grimly flipping through images on his computer, snatching fragments of bruised corpses in his Photoshop cuts.

“Catch the bad guys, I find that works nicely.”

The XO adjusts his computer glasses. “Right.”

Ivan says, “Chatted with the new Doc cussing about supplies in Forensics. Got a mouth on her, funny as hell. Ripped into somebody in Translation getting sloppy on those autopsies in Romanian. She doesn’t think the dark marks on the bodies are all impact bruising. She goes, ‘So where are the corpses so we can get them exhumed for decent autopsy in person, sir, Captain Kaschelvich, sir?'”

The XO’s mouth quirks. “Intel says a few of the vics so far are Polish, Byelorussian, or Romanian, but mostly Moldovan. Does she get to fly over there? Do we even have the budget?”

“Hate to tell her, but I’m expecting fresh ones. Somebody gets paid this next month.” Ivan points at the opium brick wrappers visible on the XO’s monitor. “My best buddy at ATF pinpointed this stuff to eight villages in the Afghan mountains. Inventory control by the distributor, hey, the latest thing. Seasonal goods. This goes over the hill, and more damned Soviet surplus ammo pays for return caravans. Plus the annual euro shopping trip and hooker bash.”

“Literally.”

Ivan grunts in agreement.

“Are we cleared to talk to ATF about any of this, sir? You know them, they always have more questions.”

“No, you aren’t, neither is Forensics. Of course she could fly in alone, but it’d be a helluva schmooze job to get anything done. Better cover if she lets my ATF buddies pay for it, let them fly the plane. And doesn’t talk much.”

two men collecting river samples for analysis
contaminant analysis

His XO snorts. They’ve had coroners and forensic examiners with a sense of humor before. They may be chatty folks, but never on luncheon-suitable topics. The XO saves another file of clips, forwards it via email, and comments, “Getting Moldavan authorities to dig up the right bodies that got buried a month ago, I bet that’s gonna cost money, sir. Does your buddy think we’ll pay for it?”

“Nope. This one is used to disappointment. He reminded me nicely about that Marine base down in our area of authorized domestic interest–the one that’s always losing cases of grenades.”

The XO says dryly, “Gators swallow the damndest things.”

Ivan grins. “Well, I reminded him it’s also very strange that his bunch won’t roust those giant compounds on our sat photos. After that we kind of called it a draw.”

“Crazy damn swampers. If it was me, I wouldn’t bother with grenades, going after those damn– things down there.”

“You and me both,” Ivan says. He doesn’t bring up the rhetorical question, what the hell else will work?

2 bugs tattooed on arm
Find Me That Bug Raid Survivor

It’s his job to run the unit which will damn well find out what works against those damned things that crawl out of those untouchable compounds down there.  Bug labs, as the swampers say.  Call it research, but in fact it is forward reconnaissance in an undeclared war.  And he can only ask for routine help from his regiment, nothing that sends up flags, certainly nothing like asking for help on those damn autopsies.

Ivan learned young to fine-tune his trust in other MSOTs, other military branches, other types of public service. Also, to keep backup documentation in undisclosed locations. Ivan’s immediate superiors really want to know more about the bug problems and how to fight them, but questions relayed downward from on high are skewed wrong.  Clearly, all wrong.  He’s not sure if the political types above them are eager for targeting intel, or data on flaws to be worked out.