Stories from the Swamp

Thank God, they’ve learned the bugs do have flaws.

The swampers have sent that along. Ivan’s people want to learn more about how they’re fighting back the bugs, and not always losing. Some of those people are distinctly odd.  They’re strange even by the standards of the former moonshiners in Ivan’s team, all of them born of rural folk without money for much dental care.  They certainly share a deep love for tall tales and keeping secrets like smuggling drops.  Ivan’s deep reconnaissance specialists are impressed by swamper skills. The area population is heavy on trappers and fishermen and shrimpers and retired military, so they have pretty good fighting skills to start with.  They have to, just to survive.  The bug raids have made it into a war zone. 

That’s why a few of Ivan’s adjunct civilian staff are disabled vets in chairs and on sticks.  One of the women vets is living down there, taping it all openly as “folk tales”.  The rest write up regular reports of all kinds of big whoppin’ Cajun tall tales.  They get paid for remembering their old military specialities and helping out the locals when mysterious raiders with bizarre white crab arms start knocking down shacks and grabbing people.

It’s no secret to the swampers where the bugs are ultimately coming from:  Those fenced lab compounds that the investment companies started building just after Hurricane Hugo came through.

That’s why the folklorists are not happy about all those big secretive installations on the sat photos.  For some of Ivan’s team, the swampers are as close to family as they have left, close as they will ever get.  Bug raids there are killing and kidnapping their people.

The good news on bug flaws came in as two moderately long vids.  They were emailed to one of the ex-Marine folklorists by an amazingly obsessive American Indian swamper named Harold Two Horses, aka Hal.  Hal Not-A-Seminole is a busy online activist based somewhere in the bayous back of Houma, Louisiana.  Mentioning his name makes the Coast Guard command there twitchy, but they won’t explain why.  Anything truly odd in the area can get blamed on the Deepwater oil spill disaster–and will be for years–but there’s no excuse for them to react like that in Hal’s case.  He was giving them fits long before that.

The folklorists heard about him first.  Hal appears to be a real person who will accost small groups of Coast Guard hands near their barracks or their offices.  In a perfectly clear local accent he will tell them where to go to rescue some of the bigger boats in trouble up the bayous before anybody’s got a distress signal.  Most times, because there will never be a proper distress signal– things happened too fast for that.

He might even chat with the hands awhile.  But he escapes before anybody can ask him the serious questions, such as, “How did he know?”

Hal’s evasion methods vary.  He seems to enjoy the chase, he laughs at them.  Sometimes he uses stage magic smoke bombs, sometimes he dodges pursuers among the buildings, outracing them.  The ratings tell totally solemn stories that he changes into an animal if they get too close to catching him.  Sometimes he shows up naked in the first place, sometimes he sheds a pile of clothes when he changes shape.

long-haired black horse rearing

“Goddamn phouka,” says the lead folklorist, disgusted, reviewing the stories about him.

Once, legend has it, they trapped him in an office about ten years ago, in human form.  The Coast Guard hands involved swore that he asked them to dump his clothes in one of their back storage sheds for pickup later.  Then he warned them to step back for their own safety, right before he changed into a horse.  He crashed out through a wall, galloped off unharmed, got clean away.

The pictures of the damage, the discarded clothes, and the unshod hoofprints outside, all got written off as a prank involving one of the scrubby local stallions left feral to graze the levees.  There’s no shortage of those, as the local papers confirm.

The hands got sullen talking about that one, some of them got busted down a rank for the damage.  But they did put his clothes where he’d asked them to, setting a trap for him.  He never showed.  But the clothes disappeared somehow, in spite of extra hands on watch.

The lead folklorist says this clothes-theft stunt would not be difficult.  A black dog showed up two days later at one of the barracks, trotting along carrying a bottle of mid-range liquor in his mouth.  He dropped it at the door, barked at the four hands who’d been complaining about the horse getting away, and then infuriatingly the dog vanished into town before they could catch him.

Some of the warrant officers regard Hal’s incursions as good law enforcement practice and better perimeter security tests.  Others refuse to tolerate gunfire aimed randomly by hands who claim they’re trying to shoot a silly harmless phantom–lucky for Hal.

The lead folklorist says dryly that Hal is not known to change into an alligator in front of people, although one credulous batch of hands opened a Hal trap-shed to find they were dealing with a scarred-up wild twelve-foot gator.  The animal was dressed up in Hal’s discarded, ripped-up clothes, and fighting mad.

head of alligator, pen illo by Sarah Esteje
zooming gator, pen illo by Sarah Esteje

Once taped and roped up, that creature got parked at a gator farm.  It has occupied a display pen for at least eighteen months afterward, without changing shape or disappearing.  The sailors call it Hulk when they visit, and feed it chickens.  The veteran gator is missing some teeth, its hide has odd narrow scars like burn marks, the head has a battered look unlike any of the farmed gators, and and it has a nasty attitude about handling by humans, which limits how they can display it for tourist shows.  A soft life full of chickens is probably not this gator’s idea of heaven, in spite of its gaining a good five inches in length at the farm.

Ivan’s folklorists all speculate instead that the gator experienced injuries from bug labs, and Hal rescued it for them, so the scar marks could be examined.

Swampers, the lead folklorist says, and shakes her head.  She sent along closeups of the weird burn scars on the alligator’s hide, for any use it may be in analyzing data on bug weapons.

She says she would really like to meet Hal.  She’s nosed about trying to find where Hal reportedly lives, but the guy proves as evasive as his reputation suggests.  There is a tribal elder who’s apparently related, but she’s planted pretty solidly in a remote area where they’d need a local guide to take the folklorist in, and without the elder’s say-so, nobody will.  So the folklorist has been working on local credibility to earn that right.  They’re not trusting.

Hal’s electronic trail is just about as elusive.  Somewhere he’s learned how to use anonymizing services and virtual data tunneling to mask where his local server is.  They’ve got it down to regional nodes, that’s all.

Whether he’s a stage magician or a talking dog, Hal has their attention because he hates bugs.  Also, Hal never gives up.  Hal would be considered an OCD nutjob whether he was right or wrong.  Generally he is right, as the Coast Guard has found out the hard way when they respond to his warnings.

Ivan’s folklorists are totally biased in Hals’ favor.  They find ways to get help for the people Hal indirectly tells them about; or they’ll figure out ways to give backup when he’s trying to get help from other agencies for swampers.  Hal probably knows exactly which folklorists are working on more than writing scholarly books, and what they’re looking for.  He loves to send them teasing emails that point them to more information.

They’ve all been waiting for the call to come bail Hal out of jail somewhere interesting– until they got the emails with his new bug raid vids.

The vids are riveting.  The communications analysts found plenty to work with, and they leapt on it.  The graphics team stayed up nights to help recheck time-stamps frame by frame, getting estimates on bug movement and reaction times.  The lab techs are almost panting, running about.  This stuff, they tell Ivan, is gold.

The vids look like regional pro level media work, possibly local news-trained broadcasters.  The techs tell him the footage was shot by somebody using a noisy old 1990s-era Betacam SX, based on the 10:1 temporal compression. Getting their shots took buglike reflexes, too, because they were running away from the bugs, making increasing distance from bugs running at full stretch, and still shooting footage. Godzilla, man.  Just from the lens distortions and the antique alternating MPEG formatting, they know what kind of lenses and camera body it has.  There’s not that many out there in the area to track down.  Hell, they’re tracing the chains of secondhand owners already.   Then more weirdness kicked in with a series of conversions that partly mask the original source.

Hal loaded those vids on an anonymous BitTorrent proxy server whose owner has no idea what their clients are doing, no intention of finding out, and a busy attorney who wins RIAA infringement cases.

Oh yes, the folklorists spent a lot of time arguing about the subject:  bugs on full display.  One vid shows them early on, and later with bugs who have ‘aged’.  One vid showed blurry shots of fast-moving bugs, newly-hatched.  The other showed slower, lingering shots of ‘older’ bugs.

The text captions state that the ‘later’ shots were taken after the bugs had been continuously raiding and fighting in the swamp for four days.  The older bugs wander around blindly, acting brain-damaged.  Crab-arms show tremors.  They’re dribbling oily bubbles, legs shaking so badly they fall over things.  They don’t look very human, by then, but there’s enough left of the original parts to attempt some identification on who their bodies came from, who they used to be, before they were kidnapped and implanted with bug parts and turned into zombie troops under hive-like command.  The new Doc down in the lab has already got started on that.

Something happens to the bugs, walking around out there in the rain.

Via the text captions, Hal asserts that the bugs need to stay bone-dry or they fall apart very fast.  He points out that the weird part is that bug labs sites are all perched right on the water, with industrial sized pipes and pumps sucking up huge supplies in and draining out of the lab buildings, with lots of stinking contaminants.

Hal’s right about that, too.  Sat pix always locate those mysterious compounds on large sources of water.  Those compounds suck in all the water they can grab.  The buildings run hot, blazing away at 80 and 90 degrees Fahrenheit when infrared pictures are taken in routine survey overflights and satellite sequences.

Hal wants somebody to figure out what happens to the bugs in the swamp.  Possibly it’s the swamp microbiology that happens to them.

There seems to be no similar 4-day sell-by stamp on bugs marching in the dry mountains of Afghanistan, they last for weeks.  Other desert places in the world are turning into bug nests, too.  There’s some very strange fenced compounds hogging water supplies in the Asian deserts, while others are chopped into higher elevation jungle towns off the Mekong River in Laos.  These days, there’s no shortage of drunken tourists partying there for anonymous kidnap victims.

Those places, the locals fight them in the same way the American swampers do.  But the authorities over there in Laos are protecting those investments so carefully that nobody can say who owns the land, who’s running those places.

Chinese sources swear that the bug microwave command signal can be sourced, can be recorded, can be blocked, with difficulty, but nobody’s got proof.  Nobody even knows what data convinced the Chinese military about that.  Ivan’s buddies in other services send Ivan reports about the Red Army executing intel project commanders for failure.   Even Hal comments on rumors that Chinese units keep disappearing in the Taklamakan Desert.   He’s right on that, too.

Ivan’s MSOT was assigned its current duty because somebody noticed the Red Army kept pouring in troops and researchers on the problem.

It is understood that Beijing authorities are unhappy with the idea of regional warlords adapting bugs for their own private enforcement armies.  But somebody else is defying them, quietly.  Local authorities want the labs there.  They are benefiting from the stuff coming out of those labs, same as with the labs in all the American swamps.  Ivan has the same suspicions about midlevel Chinese officials as his own, among the political types.

So far nobody else seems to be making any technical progress.

Once they got the sat photo and IF signature confirmations, Ivan’s team started by looking at what goes in and out of the facilities:  satellite surveillance, street views when they had it, water tests, and invoices for known trucked-in supplies.  Dock invoices for equipment up and down the Gulf coast show the American compounds must be some bizarre cross between survivalist camps and waste-water treatment plants.

Because they do have massive processing equipment for heavy wastes, it’s downright weird how dirty their effluent is.  Their effluent is so contaminated that they cause algae blooms visible from the air.  Samples caught by the folklorists and by Ivan’s recon platoon reveal the effluent has heavy metals, microbial loads as high as industrial-scale pig farms, a weird balance of ag nutrients way lower than it ought to be on phosphorus and potassium for the fertilizer inputs they’re shoveling into those places, and a complex mix of odd light hydrocarbons.

collecting water samples at Karluk Lake

Hal talks to them via emails about that effluent.  He’s taking samples to friends in veterinary labs who usually check on feedlots.  This is worse than feedlot effluents.  Stats on the pollution keep pouring in from the activist’s night-time internet connection.  Hal also does amateur epidemiology stats by collecting aggregate data from medical clinics scattered around the bayous.  He gets it from the doctors, who must know him personally, and who won’t talk to Ivan’s folklorists about Hal.

Hal must be pretty persuasive, given that numbers from small clinics are not exactly anonymous.  His mortality and morbidity stats show that people die at higher rates of heart and lung disorders and virulent cancers at clinics near the fenced compounds.  The drug-resistant tuberculosis rates are five times normal for the region.  There are much higher rates for stillborn births and birth defects.  Nearly everything a normal swamper clinic would see becomes more severe within two miles around the bug labs, from children’s asthma to drug-resistant strains of staph.

Then there’s his counts on the bodies of rotting bugs, which he claims are human victims of the labs:  Perfectly ordinary people kidnapped and transformed into bug soldiers.  Ivan’s forensics lab staff agrees with him.  The crumbling remains left in the swamp by dying bugs are still partly human.  Their skulls sometimes reveal dental work durable enough to identify who they used to be.  But the bones are eaten away unnaturally fast by molds, and when the bodies are retrieved by families, the more resistant shells left by crab-type arms often get thrown into the bayou by whoever found them.  Almost none of the remains have been identified or investigated as murders.

On his own, Hal has managed to get clinic doctors to look at newly-abandoned bug carcasses, to report them and get them counted as murder-kidnap victims.  He’s even got some of the victims traced back to their original kidnapping locations.  He developed maps with clusters of known assaults, attacks and disappearances, as compared to where their bodies were eventually found.

But none of Hal’s stats appear in official sources on the area.  State epidemiology has somehow been editing their morbidity numbers on increasingly shaky excuses, to avoid triggering investigations by other official agencies.  Somebody is keeping officially provable facts thin on the ground.

It doesn’t help that the rural doctors won’t talk about it.  They won’t directly confirm their different numbers.  They won’t talk to anybody about Hal.  Hal helps their indigent patients so much that none of the doctors will reveal anything significant about him.  There aren’t that many doctors working out there, and they keep secrets.  Lots of odd responses there which need further investigating.

Ivan’s superiors agree that somebody should go peel open those fenced compounds and study what they find inside those places, take apart a few of those mysterious corroded sewage fittings that get discarded miles away at sea; to find out why the locals call them bug labs.

Oh yes, and somebody should catch Hal and have a nice long talk with him.  Ivan has argued sometimes that Hal is far more useful roaming around loose, taking pictures, collecting numbers, harassing the Coast Guard, and stirring up trouble for the bug labs.  Ivan has been asked, acidly, why the same guy who can run rings round Coast Guard personnel hasn’t been able to march up into bug labs for a look.

But just try to sneak into those places for a look.

Hal tells them, via angry emails, that he’d have to take a mid-size army battalion to crash his way in and ever have a hope of getting out again.

When Ivan’s law enforcement liasons dared to visit, trotting around playing dumb in the entourage of local politicians, they found guard towers and armed security personnel on the gates–but the tower guns point inward.   They were kept secure in small briefing rooms and sent away again without seeing anything unusual.  It was afterward that some of the visitors disappeared.  Only two ever turned up again, months later, two states away along the Gulf, nothing left of them but dental work and bug arms.  They know that much only because Hal found out about the remains and told them where to look.

It’s impossible to approach regular bug facility employees in the usual ways, either; they don’t socialize, and what few living relatives they have are terrified of outsiders.  Judging by the payrolls that go into these places, and the very few grim mercenaries who drive out to pick up supplies, nobody is kicking back having beer.  Hal says they stink because they’re all bug-implanted anyway, it just won’t show until they’re provoked.  Hal is a firm believer in urban covert bugs, who look human until they attack.  Hal doesn’t have proof of it– yet.

Ivan has never got a report back from agents who tried interrupting truck deliveries in or out of the labs.

A few trained personnel have tried to get inside, of course.  One agent’s pocket recorder revealed that he was told bluntly, “You don’t smell right,” before somebody hit him with an electrical crackling noise, possibly a taser of some kind.  The agent was found eight months after he’d disappeared–his implanted body was shot down as a bug during a raid.  One of the swamper doctors examining the remains recovered the little recorder from the pocket of the agent’s shirt, covered in fungi and slime molds and the batteries eaten out of it faster than the plastic case itself was being broken down.  The biologists were very interested in that difference.

By then, the agent’s shirt was a bit of a wreck, the crab arm implants were rotting rapidly away, and the remaining human skin on his body didn’t show a single red mark from the taser burn that had scorched the cloth.  A great deal of his skin was no longer human-looking.  Hal sent along pictures of the remains, along with the recorder, to a drop-box used by one of Ivan’s folklorists.

Ivan figured out a way to thank Hal for that–he had an anonymous source send along  a rack of three heavy-duty, reliable computer servers to replace the aging unreliable one that was standing in a boat shop pretty deep along one of the bayous behind Houma.

Hal replied in kind by sending them pictures, all scans of bizarre bills of lading copied from dock records in various small ports west of New Orleans.  This is all a long way away from Hal’s usual stomping ground near Houma, but Ivan will take whatever he can get if Hal is willing to do the legwork.  It shows the same three companies are bringing odd stuff into small ports up and down the coast.

The contents of those bills of lading intrigue Ivan’s biologists and biochemists.  They’d like to figure out what those bug labs are doing with all those strange choices in lab-grade reagents.  Really, Ivan’s people didn’t need to get  poked by Hal about that.  They’ve already got stacks of reports on drums of powdered micronutrients which made local cops and Coast Guard inspectors suspicious.  The cops add blunt notes in their reports:  “Doesn’t fit any drug lab profile, but reported use is not credible.  No farmer on earth would pay for potassium nitrate this fancy.”

No matter how persuasive Hal is, he says he can’t get any local law enforcement to talk to the DEA, or ATF, or to anybody else who might organize a decent-sized army big enough march into those fenced compounds.  It’s unclear what jobs humans are still doing, besides playing doorguard inside those places.  Nobody seems to know.  Bugs create more of themselves in there, or so the swampers tell it to the folklorists.  Not just labs.  More like hives.

Part of the blanket of silence is fed by fear, but a bigger part is about local politics and local jobs.  The local politicians and epidemiology people act like it’s bringing lots of money to the area.  Hal may be suspicious, but he has no proof of how they’re making money off the bug labs.

Ivan has warned him about that part.  A select few of the labs in other areas, up in the Dismal Swamp, down into the Okeefenokee, are selling high-purity lines of various street drugs.  Somebody is shipping out barrels of mysterious dry goods from the Louisiana bug labs.

Assigning the bug war studies to Ivan and his unit is not the kind of big official notice that will support his regiment, MSOR, reporting across agency lines to the DEA to shut down those fenced compounds.  None of the usual suspects or their regular political tools want their spiffy reliable new sources disrupted.

The swampers in that area are strange too.  They could get their hands on all kinds of stuff to bomb those compounds and stop the bugs raiding them in their homes.  They’ve got access to all kinds of drilling and blasting supplies.   They could probably get their hands on rocket launchers, easy.  But what are they using against the bugs?  Grenades.  Or hunting rifles.  Semi-automatic rifles and pistols, when they can.   Dog packs, sometimes.

The folklorists get stories that bugs cause problems with conventional ordinance.  They’ve been warned that anything fancier than grenades or rifle shells will receive some weird bug signal and explode in place, right before a raid hits a house or a store or a school.  They’ve found two survivors of such an event, but it’s still no good.  The circumstances were doubtful enough that lack of maintenance in the swamp could be the culprit, no mystery radio signals needed.   Bugs move so damn fast anyway.

The reaction-speed estimates from the vids have them all worried.  Conventional troops will need a variety of tools to counter bug troops, including some way to cope with humans being too damn slow.

What scares Ivan and his XO is how far behind they are.  The labs are expanding rapidly, raids are increasing.  They still, after months of work, barely have an idea of what the bug military capabilities might be, what numbers they could muster, and who controls them.  None of the units who know anything about it are actually ready for outright bug combat.  Nowhere near.  They’re not ready to commit to raids on those fenced compounds, and everybody in Ivan’s chain of command knows it, by now.

What Ivan has been told, repeatedly, is that the odd little guy under surveillance at the Metro Symphony, Subject Mary, is somehow supposed to be the answer to all this.  Higher-ups claim that subject Mary is supposed to be a big potential anti-bug resource, but they won’t say how, and they won’t reveal what Ivan’s unit is supposed to watching Mary for. Or preventing Mary from doing, or else who they’re protecting him from.   Ivan was firmly tasked to observe only, not to provoke him, not to set up tests, not to interfere.

Until recently, they had little to show about Mary’s odd  abilities, due to the poor quality of the surveillance room camera at the Immigration building where various agency reps interrogated Mary and Immigration agents actually slapped at him, the dumb shits.  If they could have caught that on decent video, they’d have better proof of how odd Subject Mary really is.  What they’ve recorded out in the street is not that unusual.  Hell, all of Ivan’s Marines can run fast enough to go sideways up brick walls and somersault, that’s nothing special.  Some of Mary’s other friends seem to think he’s a combat veteran like his partner, although there’s no record of him ever serving, either in the US or in South Korea.

What he does in the dojo doesn’t match anything he would have been taught as a regular recruit in the South Korean forces, unless he was in an elite unit, plus studying privately.  It doesn’t look like kuk sul won, judo, Krav Maga, judo, or various schools of karate.  There’s no Wing Chun equipment, but he appears to use their theories, keeping his mass totally centered, relying on his speed to defend his center line, working up close to his sparring partners, using all the advantages of a small, fast-moving fighter. When Ivan requested an assessment from another unit’s Wing Chun expert, they described him as ‘peculiar’ and ‘very sticky’.  They couldn’t get rid of him.  He seemed to be more interested in learning about his sparring partners, probing for many weaknesses, rather than in driving into the first one found and instantly ending the match.  Playing at it, they reported, in frustration.

It’s exactly like a cat and mouse game to Subject Mary, and he loves sparring with people as skilled as that.  The Wing Chun expert was so disturbed that afterward they insisted on studying tapes of Subject Mary’s practices and sparring in the dojo to figure out what looked so weird about him.   He kept trying difficult new moves, and failing at it, often enough, so he’s very much a work in progress.   Toward what, was the question worrying their expert.

The expert pointed out to Ivan that Mary totally freaked out opponents because he had a strange center of gravity somewhere in the hips, like a woman, instead of up in his chest, where his appearance would place it.  “He’s got lead in his ass to anchor him on this move, and look at this, he’s sticking like a fly when he ought to be flying off the ceiling here.”

But it’s pretty subtle stuff, and Ivan hasn’t tried to share that with his chain of command.   Speculating on what the bug labs could do with Subject Mary’s body comes up all the time, much as Ivan hates the whole topic.  But Ivan had nothing big enough to justify their costs in surveillance on Subject Mary until his unit received the disturbing pictures of Moldovan hookers in hotel rooms in East Germany, apparently murdered by somebody who could be Mary’s twin.  Scary thought, especially since Subject Mary thinks he’s an only son.  Ivan doesn’t mind sparing some resources to keep an eye on him.  For one thing, Subject Mary seems perfectly willing to risk his hands, or his neck, in fights to protect other people from harm.

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