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TANZANIA

C H A P T E R  T W O

RUINATION

3 MAY, 1983

CHAPTERS

        Two minutes.

        Their footsteps fell to the beat of Captain Davy’s heart. Matching his gait to the right was Butler, a head shorter than him. Castillo remained with Whitaker and Dr. Abramov. Three steps ahead were their Soviet escorts, rifles clutched to their chests. He could feel the pair’s eyes pressing their peripherals to the limit, attempting to monitor him while fighting to maintain their forward posture.

        Davy’s eyes flicked forward. First hallway, right door, contact in five, he thought. 

        No, six. 

        Their pace was slowed by the guard’s lack of focus. Davy closed in by another step. Butler lowered his head, mimicking the motion. He met the sliver of white in the Soviet’s eye, startling him back into an appropriate speed. 

        The group pivoted in unison to the right, facing a weighty metal door set back into the wall. The two guards stepped to either side, glancing at one another. A momentary battle sprung between the two’s conflicting glares before the man on the left relented, looking in the general direction of Davy’s eyes beneath his mask.

        See you now,” the Russian mustered with spit on his lip, slamming his fist on the door with a resounding, hollow bang. Davy noticed sweat beading beneath his cap.

        Butler stepped forward, reaching for the door handle. The Soviet on the right, having some sudden recollection of responsibility, sprung a hand out in front of him. Davy eyed the man, then watched Butler tilt his attention to him.

        “Leave here,” the soldier’s words waned. The man’s stare shot between him and Butler. He looked to his compatriot, then said something in Russian to Davy, perhaps hoping he’d understand. 

        The seconds were burning.

        “Weapons,” the man finally broke the word from his mouth, lifting his rifle for added intent. 

        Without hesitation, Davy and Butler unslung their rifles, moving to hand them over. Butler paused, eyeing the Soviet’s occupied hands. He leaned his mask-covered glare inches from the Soviet who quickly realized his mistake. The Soviet suspended his rifle behind himself awkwardly, then took the firearm from Butler.

        Davy scrutinized the Soviet’s uniform – he was a Private. His behavior was appropriate enough. As Butler passed through the doorway, Davy stepped forward. He looked to the soldier on the left, also clinging to his rifle. Davy gently set his weapon down against the wall, then turned to face the man, removing his handgun from its holster. The Russian furrowed his brow as Davy slid the handgun into the soldier’s belt.

        Davy marched through the doorway before he could take in the look on the soldier’s face. The room was dimly lit and led deep into a separate darkened hallway. They stood in an exterior office space, likely used by the secretary of the wing. He cocked his gaze to the side where a formally dressed Soviet Captain stood, waiting for the two soldiers to make their way into the room after them. 

        The door closed on its own with a click. Davy watched the soldiers take a stance behind him and Butler, a renewed sense of confidence pursed on their lips. He turned, meeting the glint of Butler’s mask. He noted Butler pointedly tapping his wrist. Davy peered down, twisting his watch into view–

        “Gentlemen,” the Soviet Captain spoke clearly, head raised as to peer down at them from behind his crooked nose, “while your employer may have a cooperative sway with our Ambassador, this show of force comes as a trespass to our good faith.”

        The two Soviet guards rotated to either side of Davy and Butler, cocking their jaws out with looks of satisfaction. Davy ignored them.

        “We expect you to abide by our authority during your visit, and to understand that your employer and his assets are under no risk of harm,” the Soviet Captain rolled his words like marbles over his molars, planting his scrutiny on Davy.

        “There is only one rule I require you to pass along to your men, seeing as you are the superior of this band of wetworkers–” he paused, fixating on Davy’s watch–his eyes flicked up at him, “–no blood.”

Butler spun, cracking his fist into the guard’s nose beside him. The man’s head recoiled back against the cabinet behind him with a vacant clang. As the soldier’s head rebounded, Butler lifted the man’s rifle, slamming it lengthwise against his throat. The soldier dropped forward with a muted wheeze, but not before         Butler could remove the magazine from the rifle, swiftly connecting it with the back of the man’s head.         The soldier pitched forward, folding to the ground. 

        Davy lifted the other soldier aside with the force of his elbow pummeling into his gut. The soldier made a sound much like a toad. Davy stepped around him, locking the soldier’s neck between his bicep and forearm. The man’s neck popped three times as Davy straightened his posture, raising the man off the floor.         Air fizzled from the man’s puffed lips. Davy released him, flashing his eyes to the Soviet Captain as the man slumped to the floor.

        “Make it convincing,” the Soviet Captain purred, all hint of his accent now gone, “I want a promotion for this performance.” He smiled, handing over a baton to Davy. 

        Davy took it in hand, curling his arm back to swing. He waited for the informant to close his eyes, then walloped him over the head. The Informant twisted around from the force of the hit, crashing gracelessly into the desk’s chair and sprawling across the floor.

        “One minute,” Butler noted, toneless. He moved around Davy, grabbing one of the unconscious soldiers by the ankles and dragging him down the dark hallway. 

        Davy turned, leaving Butler to deal with the immobilized men. He cracked open the heavy door, listening for movement. He gambled on the next second, sliding out into the light of the main hallway. He locked onto a pair of Soviets that had just passed by, heading towards the doors to the lobby. 

        He snagged his rifle from beside the door and fell into a pressured march in the opposite direction. He rounded a corner at the end of the hallway which continued to the second flight of stairs heading down to the core generators. 

        A few scientists passed between rooms on either side of the hallway, but they seemed far too engrossed in their work to pay Davy any mind. The anticipation for tonight was too great to acknowledge one additional security detail. He watched as they fluttered past like a flock of white pigeons, the reports and data they carried flapping like wings. One scientist glanced up at him as he made his way around an arguing duo, but briskly ducked into a lab out of sight.

        Lavatory, left side, fifth door, the thoughts prodded him forward, his steps kept in perfect rhythm. The difficulty of his next task relied entirely on chance. As the door to the lavatory came into view along the wall, Davy surveyed the area around it, anticipating motion. To his luck, an elderly scientist exited the bathroom, pausing to roll his shoulders back with a yawn. 

        Davy checked over his shoulder for onlookers, then set himself into a collision course with the man. His shadow over-encompassed the scientist who barely had a chance to squint through his glasses at him before Davy clutched him by the arm, shoving him back into the bathroom. 

        The old man tripped backward, collapsing onto the tiled floor. Davy turned the lock above the handle, pivoted, and rammed the butt of his rifle into the scientist’s face, snapping his glasses in half. He fell seemingly unconscious immediately, blood spurting from his nose.

        Davy watched the blood soak into the scientist’s plain shirt. Next time, he thought. He knelt, flipping open the man’s lab coat. Searching his pockets he found what he was looking for–a key card. The cards were changed daily and redistributed under close supervision, requiring one to be obtained on-site. He turned it over in his hand, then slid it into his pocket. 

        Setting his rifle aside, he grabbed the scientist under his armpits and hoisted him up onto the toilet. The man’s head rolled to the side but otherwise remained still. Davy retrieved his rifle, unlocked the door, and withdrew from the bathroom. The flurry of activity continued in the hallway. 

        Thirty seconds.

        He jolted back into pace, making his way to the stairs. He was met by a crowd of scientists and workers whose faces began to bend with concern as he jostled through them. Davy knew he was moving too quickly.         He had to reach the target before what few seconds remained ran out. 

        At the base of the stairs was a large, glass door. It was almost within reach. A guard stood beside it, speaking with a man in a blue jumpsuit and hard hat. Davy ducked beneath their friendly banter with a group of scientists exiting the door. He felt a heightened sense of exhilaration spike over the back of his neck as he walked freely into the central core of the lab. At any moment he could be apprehended by the guard. Still, he kept forward. 

        No one pursued him. Breathing easily, he worked his way through the labyrinth of machines, metal tanks, and tubes running between them, all of which surrounded the two main generators. They were massive. He slid into their shadow, walking along a metal deck hidden beneath the observation window several stories above. Workers in jumpsuits tweaked bolts and checked electrical wiring along the way. Their devotion to their task allowed Davy to maneuver through them seamlessly. 

        The dark path cut into the facility was illuminated by a series of low walkway lights, guiding him between walls of server equipment. Soft, green stars twinkled from the rows of computer panels. He tread along the grated floor, a shadow, identical to those of the employees plugging away prudently in the darkness.

        He took himself along a path he had practiced routinely back at the base; turning, keeping forward, and turning again selectively until he reached an inner corridor. The corridor led to a set of metal stairs climbing up to a catwalk that halted between the two generators. Fixed at the end of the railed path was a terminal. 

        Davy retrieved the access card from his pocket, stepping across the catwalk and up to the terminal. He inserted the card into a slot beneath the terminal’s blocky keyboard. The slot clicked, locking the card into place. A bluish light buzzed to life from the terminal’s screen, revealing Davy’s stature from the shadows.         He watched as the card’s code was read across the terminal screen. A tone hummed and the card ejected from the slot. He moved to withdraw it, but froze, a hushed gasp cutting the air behind him.

        Davy turned. A woman in a white lab coat stared at him from behind circular glasses. Silently, he removed the card. He remained collected, facing her, and took a step forward. She was still, the collar of her buttoned shirt grasped tightly in her hand. She looked as though she were searching for words, eyeballing his looming form as he approached her, her mouth trembling. 

        Attempting to avoid further alarm, Davy raised a hand to his shoulder, gesturing to the trefoil patch he wore. He studied her expression. Her brow pressed together as she examined the badge in the low lighting, relaxing her shoulders. Unable to communicate his reassurance with the Soviet scientist further, he calmly gestured to her with an upraised thumb. It was all he could think to do to maintain the fragility of the situation. 

        She seemed to understand, or at least looked to be less perturbed. Her eyes wandered, trailing down to his side and to the card still held in his hand. Her expression vanished, mouth drooped. 

        Davy looked down. The card faced towards her, the owner’s image displayed just below Davy’s thumb. He turned the card away, tactfully replacing it in his pocket. 

        The woman smiled sheepishly and began to retreat, gradually stepping back onto the stairs of the catwalk. He stepped towards her, mindful of the echo clanking from his boots settling onto the metal. He locked eyes with her, watching her continue to stammer silently as she backed away. She took one step down, then another. Her footing slipped, and she let out a cry as she caught herself on the railing.

        During that time, Davy closed the distance to her. He stood above her, calculating. She shot a look of fear up at his sudden appearance, a scream beginning in her throat. He reached out, clasping her mouth shut. Quickly, he drew her to him, smothering her in the nook of his arm before she could react. He crouched down, restraining the scientist to the stairs to minimize the noise of the struggle. She twisted around, attempting to break free to no avail. 

        Her panic subsided for a moment, then she started stomping her feet onto the stairs and kicking toward anything she could connect her feet with. She managed several reverberating bangs with her shoes until Davy leaned back, lifting her onto him. The air was forced from her throat. A few hot breaths escaped her teeth against his gloved hand, then her eyes flitted up and shut. 

        He let go of his hold on her, letting her slide limply to the side. He stood, tramping down the stairs. He checked each pathway dividing from the terminal. If anyone heard the noise, they weren’t in a hurry to investigate. 

        Davy pivoted, taking two steps at a time up to the scientist. Now standing over her, he bent down and tucked his hand under her arms, gently lifting her. He stamped awkwardly back to the terminal, keeping from making any sound as best he could. Once back at the terminal, he relaxed her on the floor.

        He searched her coat and pockets, looking for another access card. It would be needed now. He nearly exhausted his search until he felt a similar rectangular bump in the woman’s back pocket. Another card. Sliding it free, Davy could see it was of identical color and format. Like the previous card, the identification details were displayed on one side and the assignee code on the other.

        He slipped the first card out from his pocket, taking it in his hands and forcing it to bend. It gave way and snapped in two. He tucked the remains away for now, returning to the terminal. 

        The screen was still alive with mellow light. He waited. Davy ground his teeth, waiting for the session to terminate. Footsteps and conversing voices could be heard drawing near.

        The display blackened, leaving him once more in the dark. Just then Davy heard multiple sets of footsteps walk by. They lingered, chatting in monotone, then continued on their way. Davy waited in the darkness for their conversation to grow distant, then realigned with the terminal. 

He placed the new card into the slot, recording the scientist’s time of access onto the machine. Her pixelated image read across the screen, staring up at Davy. The slot buzzed again, signaling he could reclaim the card.         He left it in the slot.

        Davy unzipped a pouch on his chest rig containing a small, protective case with a combination lock along its side. He thumbed the correct numbered code into place and pressed the release switch. Inside was a three-and-a-half-inch floppy disk. He attentively picked it out from its place and inserted it into the terminal. 

        Immediately, a series of coded data flashed over the screen in sporadic succession. As soon as the light show began, it ended. The terminal went black. 

        Davy knelt, pinching the floppy disk free. He returned it to the case and zipped it back into the pouch. He stood, observing the bustling, brightly lit lab from between the massive, sleek generators. A curtain of shadows separated him from the clamor. White-washed figures crossed the floor like chess pieces in a game in which he was the spectator.

        The woman stirred. He turned, examining her. She was alive. Unconscious, but alive. He considered his next actions carefully. He had made his appearance clear to her before. SNOW could not be implicated in this. The threat she now represented was substantial.

        He moved to his knees, bending over her. His hands moved around her neck, thumbs crossing one another. He hesitated, blood pumping in his ears. 

        Her eyes opened. They became wild with fear as her mouth gaped open for air. Her tongue clapped from her larynx, neck muscles straining against Davy’s hands.

        Davy’s grip wrung tightly. The sound of twisting rubber creaked from his gloved hands. She hardly managed to wrestle against him. The weight of his body now leaned against her, forcing his strength against her spasms.

        Her body twitched under him, her movements becoming faint. He held on, ensuring her end. A throbbing pulse had entered his ears as he sat there, pinning this woman’s body to the metal walkway. Her eyes quivered, falling still on the wall of green lights surrounding them. The muscles in her body loosened and she ceased struggling. Breath hissed from behind his teeth, fogging his mask. It wasn’t until he heard the return of footsteps that he regained his senses. 

        He relinquished his grip, letting the woman’s head rest back against the grate. He raised himself to his feet. His surroundings had vanished from him in the moment, and now his thoughts raced to reestablish himself. He extinguished his mind, his clarity and resolve returning to him. Sighing, he set his shoulders and marched down the walkway. 

        Figures shifted by at the base of the stairs. He entered the fray, slinging his rifle to his side to blend his silhouette in with the others. Someone spoke next to him, their voice directing. A hand padded his shoulder. He turned, the frame of a man in a hard hat was speaking to him, pointing down one of the sectioned halls. 

        Davy nodded, skirting around the worker. The person’s tone was assertive, but not challenging. He must have mistaken him for another engineer. He committed to the act, slumping away like one of the meandering workers. A fleeting look over the shoulder confirmed he was far enough from the group’s attention, setting his boots back into a determined march. 

        His head low, he brushed past multiple clusters of people before reentering the eye of the brilliant lab lights above. He stepped along the far wall, keeping at a minimally discernable distance from the bustling activity of the lab. 

        The exit was just ahead. Groups of scientists still exchanged positions through the glass door, but now the guard stood at full attention. Davy had no way to contact his team down here. He would have to improvise–or hope for luck. He couldn’t linger here, not with a dead body waiting to be discovered. He had to be through those doors now.

        He continued; perhaps he could merge with a group passing through. He shook the idea from his head, the door drawing nearer. The guard was distracted before; he would certainly notice his bulky frame now. 

        There were too many eyes on him. He was stuck. Still, he pressed forward, convincing himself it would be better to stage a confrontation than risk being pinned for the death of one of the Soviet Union’s scientists.         He urged forward. 

        Maybe if he could get through the doors before being seen. There might be a chance to play on the believability that he hadn’t entered the lab at all. He shook the absurd idea from his head. He would have to confront him.

        Davy kept unwavering attention on the guard as he approached the door. The guard’s head was turned, maintaining a watchful eye on the crowded stairs. Davy decided to use the distraction as a chance to cross the distance. He nearly broke into a jog, each step seemingly heavier than the last. 

        He moved away from the wall to follow a group of engineers heading for the door. His heart thudded in his chest. The guard, as if sensing his approach, broke his gaze from the stairs. A frown crossed the guard’s face and he started to turn towards the door. 

        Their eyes were about to meet when a Soviet soldier came skipping down the stairs, his expression animated. He said something to the guard in bewilderment, tearing away his attention. The two exchanged fervent words, then bolted up the stairs. 

        Davy held his breath, constraining his want to speed through the door. A moment later he emerged through the entryway, spotting the two soldiers clambering up the flight of stairs through parted groups of scientists. He measured his steps, beginning the climb. He wouldn’t risk rushing now, the opportunity was too great. Still, he allowed himself to skip several stairs at a time to not lose sight of the excited men. 

        The soldiers regained their demeanor at the top of the stairs, displaying their formality before passing the corner. Davy hurried on. When he reached the top, he peered around the corner. The soldiers were on their way to the lobby doors. Beside the entry stood Butler, hands clasped over the stock of his strapped rifle.         The Soviets paid him no consideration as they pushed through the doors. A commotion could be heard in the lobby.

        Butler remained motionless until Davy was within an appropriate speaking distance. He fell in line with Davy as he passed, pushing through the doors together. 

        “Two cards,” Davy reported. “This is the evidence.” He handed Butler the halves of the card from the elderly man. They paused, standing beside the observation room. “Two down, one in the washroom and one by the terminal.”

        As they spoke, Davy felt eyes on them. He fell silent, turning to the large windows of the observation room. He met Whitaker’s stare, a concerned look on her face as she and the others stood perplexed at the shouting happening in the lobby.

        “Understood, Captain” Butler replied, voice hushed.

        Davy straightened his back, nodding to Butler who spun on his heel and made for the group of Soviets and SNOW security personnel gathering in the lobby. He reasserted his bearing, turning to enter the observation room. Castillo held the door for him before exiting the room.

        He was met with a mix of troubled and annoyed looks from both Whitaker and Dr. Abramov, who stood amongst a group of transfixed scientists and observing officials. He placed himself beside the door, unbothered by their reactions, reclaiming his role. The silence dragged.

        “Captain?” Whitaker broke the silence.

        “Should we be worried?” Dr. Abramov inquired, his tone more concerned over the interruption than for the fracas outside. 

        “No, sir,” Davy answered, “security has been tightened, as requested by Mr. Kaneshiro.” He added the last words for good measure, which seemed to satisfy the doctor who gave a simple, yet irked sigh. 

        Dr. Abramov continued his presentation to the newcomers who had arrived while he was away. Davy was beyond earshot, although he found it hard to care for the lengthy prose Abramov gave anyway. The way Abramov carried his voice bore the assumption that it was a delicacy favored by all who listened. He had suffered enough of it on their short walk into the building. A moment’s peace would be welcomed. 

        That peace hummed with anxiety as he felt the lingering scrutiny of Whitaker. He could feel her gaze pressing on him. He kept his chin pronounced, eyes ahead.

        She looked at him as though what he’d just done was written over his clothes. He couldn’t shake whatever it was she saw, so he turned to face her. She blinked, turning away and reentering the discussion. He held his gaze for a moment longer. What was it she could see? He readjusted his grip on his rifle, setting his stature back in place.

        Finally, Dr. Abramov came to a flush crescendo in his speech, leading the group to the front of the observation room. Several men began to clap but were quieted by a gesture from the doctor. He directed them to the controls set alongside the overlooking, ceiling-high windows peering over the generators below.         The row of computer controls would communicate with the terminal downstairs and activate the generators. Davy remained at his post but observed the actions of Whitaker as she was led by Dr. Abramov to the main controls. She would be given the honor of being the one to launch the Soviet Union into new glory.

        The reasoning for the sabotage he had just enacted was of no concern to Davy, but he could entertain that Mr. Kaneshiro desired to continue a codependent relationship with his investors. Keeping himself at the forefront of Caelum-technology development meant holding a tight leash, and having the USSR believe they could succeed without him would undermine that relationship. Regardless, the setback would position SNOW to provide extended services to the facility for as long as Mr. Kaneshiro deemed necessary. 

        Whitaker approached the controls. Davy squinted, watching Abramov punch in a series of codes into the computer console. Green lights beamed in the corners of the room. The crowd gathered. Davy could make out a metal cover lift from the console, revealing a t-bar lever. Whitaker took it in hand, hesitantly smiling up at Dr. Abramov. The doctor made a quip he couldn’t quite hear. A few chuckles reverberated and then Whitaker pushed the lever up until it clunked into place. The building vibrated to life. Cheers and claps sprung together. If only the girl knew what mess she was about to find herself in.

        The drumming of the generators continued at a steady rumble. Davy lowered his brow. There were no signs of malfunction as he expected, nothing that would signify the data he uploaded functioned. He started forward, helpless to his curiosity. The door opened and Castillo entered the room.

        “Captain,” he called, stopping Davy in his tracks. He noticed Whitaker shoot a glance at them, the same expression on her face as before. He glared, then cocked his head to Castillo.

        “Mr. Kaneshiro would like to speak with you.”

        Davy faced him, a surge of frustration overcoming him. He scowled, peering at that vacant look of concern in Whitaker’s eyes once more. Castillo stood aside, bathed in a green light, his hands held behind his back. With a grunt, Davy shoved his way through the door, stomping around into the lobby.  

        Davy came upon what had caused the commotion. A circle of Soviet soldiers surrounded what looked like one of the facility’s board members and three of his men, Butler included. Now gagged and in handcuffs was their informant, the Soviet Captain, arm held in Butler’s grip.

        “–found attempting to gain access to the facility’s security system,” Butler was explaining to the board member, “he assaulted a scientist, but damaged his access card in the altercation.” 

        He observed the group as he passed. The informant lifted his bowed head, recognizing Davy. He fought against the gag, mumbling something with a venomous look set on him. The men restrained him, his gag tightened until he could only choke. Butler nodded to Davy, handing the broken card over to the board member.

        He carried on and headed towards Porter, who held a blocky personal radio in his outstretched hand. Davy clutched the radio, swinging it to his ear. He waited, listening to its buzz.

        “I’m here,” he stated. 

        There was a pause, then an unfamiliar voice replied.

        “Mr. Kaneshiro will be landing shortly,” the voice hummed. The call went dead. Davy lowered the radio. 

        Kaneshiro?

        He turned. His men had gone about their duties and the informant had been removed as planned. He squinted, handing the radio back to Porter. 

        A feeling held him in place. Nerves pricked along his neck, but he couldn’t piece together what was so peculiar to him. Had Kaneshiro changed his mind? 

        He walked through the entrance of the building and out into the cool night air. He looked around, his thoughts swimming in circles. A Soviet guard eyed him from afar, standing under a wash of artificial light that attracted a halo of moths over his head. They stared at one another, scrutinizing their peculiar positions.         Eventually, Davy bid a curt farewell to the man and stepped down the front steps of the building onto the gravel road. With no other directions, he thought it best to head for the landing zone at the bottom of the hill.

        His boots crunched over the gravel as he looked around. No vehicles were waiting on the circled road. The flat expanse of the facility grounds was nearly empty. He spotted a lone guard patrolling the fenced perimeter before he, too, disappeared from beneath one of the few cones of light that lined the edge of the facility. 

        Davy longed for a cigarette to pass the time. He longed even more to be able to remove this mask he wore. He could feel his hair becoming damp with cool sweat. Now that the plans had changed, he was unsure of when he’d get the chance to breathe the fresh air around him, to feel the African breeze on his skin. He still carried the recycled air from the plane his team had taken into the country. It left a stale feeling that coated his skin.

        The guard post was ahead and beside the entrance gate. The gate itself was left ajar. 

        Peculiar. 

        Davy marched towards the gatehouse, reviving the possibility of summoning a ride to meet Mr. Kaneshiro. As he drew closer, he noticed the windows were dimmed. Puzzled, he picked up his pace. He stepped onto the post’s concrete base, moving to get a look through the window. The room was dark and he could only make out the silhouettes of empty furniture. He shook his head, stepping back from the window. 

        Fine, he would walk. 

        He tread around the gate, pushing it lightly as he passed. It swung with a low creak. Davy gave one more look around, seeking anyone that might be on patrol or passing by. Silence. 

        He was alone. 

        He turned down the road to the village, holding his rifle. The village lay quiet, cradled by the night. The power from the generators hadn’t supplied the homes with electricity yet. Another peculiarity. He looked back at the facility. The main building was still glowing with sterile light. Nothing stirred, no signs of alert or that anything was wrong.

        Except for the growing sound of distant footsteps clattering through the gravel.

        His eyebrow raised, and he looked for the source of the sound, which seemed to come from the facility grounds. As he returned to the gate, the small frame of a woman emerged from behind its bars. She stumbled, barely managing to catch herself from crashing to the ground. Davy approached her and reached down, taking hold of the woman’s hand and supporting her with the other. The light revealed her face as she rose.

        “Whitaker?” he said, surprised. She looked at him, half startled. Her expression grew into a look of worry. What the hell was she doing out here?

        “I needed some air,” she said, seeming to anticipate his next question.

        “Return to the facility,” Davy said.

        “I only just left.” 

        Davy grit his teeth.

        “Alright.” He took her firmly by the arm and began to lead her back towards the building.

        “Ow-ow,” she protested, trying to pry his fingers apart. 

        Davy’s grip remained firm as he pulled her along beside him, making sure that his stride was long enough that she stumbled to keep up. He would have a word with Castillo later for allowing her out of his sight long enough for her to slip out of the facility unnoticed. Piss-poor conduct for an operation of this significance.

        After traveling several meters he stopped suddenly, causing her to pitch forward from the change in momentum. She righted herself and scowled. Davy looked down at her.

        “I can take you the rest of the way or you can continue on your own,” he said, still holding her arm tightly enough that he could feel her pulse.

        “Listen,” she said, huffing as Davy finally released his hold and she wrenched her arm away. “I just want to know what’s going on.” 

        “There’s nothing-”

        “Who was that in there, a–a spy? That’s nothing?” She massaged her upper arm. “Do I need to worry about… I don't know, someone trying to kill me?”

        Davy glanced back towards the village, each passing second pressing on the back of his mind more than the last. Kaneshiro would be landing soon and, as far as he could tell, the generators had remained unresponsive to his interference. He was beginning to feel the heat of irritation rising in his chest.

        "There's no threat to you or anyone else here," he said impatiently, hoping his words would cue her to continue on her way.

        She didn't seem convinced. 

        "Then why are you here?"

        Davy exhaled. Christ. He looked back down at her, trying to muster enough composure to keep his tone even.

        “Mr. Kaneshiro had reason to believe that someone was going to try to sabotage the system. We identified and removed the agent according to plan. There is no threat to you or Dr. Abramov,” he repeated with finality. “Please return to the facility.”

        Whitaker studied him for a moment but ultimately seemed satisfied with his response. She readjusted the strap of her purse over her shoulder and straightened up. 

        “Alright, but I’m-”

        The earth suddenly shook. Lights swung above their heads, and the gate racked to the side, colliding with a concrete post. A low groan resonated from the ground. Davy held fast, keeping Whitaker from falling.         He watched the facility’s lights flicker until the rumbling subsided.

        Whitaker whirled around, her hand hovering in front of her mouth. Davy looked to the lab’s entrance. There was no apparent damage to the building or grounds. The guard posted must have retreated inside. No alarm rang and no sign of an evacuation began. The generators?

        Whitaker looked up at him, her lips shaping her next words. She was cut off by a brassy whine crying out from the facility. The sound grew shrill, followed by an electrical surge that bloomed each light of the facility into a sunlight torch. They turned from the blinding light, arms over their faces. Bulbs that dangled throughout the village sprang to life, the hum of generators stirred with groaning voices, and the village people began to emerge from their homes. Looks of confusion and joy welcomed the coursing energy that streamed from the Soviet base. 

        The whine eclipsed into a piercing wail, causing Davy and Whitaker to fall to their knees, covering their ears. Davy tightened his jaw. His eardrums felt like they were going to pop. Whitaker held her head between her legs, clamping her ears with clenched hands. Davy watched as villagers ducked into their homes, sheltering themselves from the blistering cry.

        He turned, catching the sight of the windows running along the facility beginning to bloat and shake. His eyes widened and he dove onto Whitaker, covering her. The windows burst outwards, sending spinning shards of glass tearing over the facility grounds. Lights burned brighter than possible, then boiled into molten glass. The village lights popped in waves down to the last structure. Flames peeled through homes over the wires thread between them. People fled from the fires only to be blinded by the splintering glass hailing from above.

        Davy shut his eyes. The radiance of the power surge bled through his eyelids. Ripples of color creased over his darkened vision as the last lights died. He remained still for a moment, covering Whitaker from peppering bits of glass. 

        Davy opened his eyes, blinking to adjust to the gloom of the night. He staggered to his feet, his arm still outstretched over Whitaker’s form. He turned slowly, gathering his surroundings. Whitaker looked up from the crook of her arm and slowly rose, wobbling slightly. Davy clenched his eyes, squashing the remaining trails of false light that seemed to loiter in his retina. 

        Shadows of the people below scurried through the alleys. They ran from their firelit homes to get water to extinguish the flames. Others sat beside the road, removing glass from their air and skin. Wailing screams called out from the village.

        “Stay here,” Davy said, turning to Whitaker. Her head was low as she dusted flecks of glass from her cheeks and hair.

        “Dr. Abramov…” she managed.

        Stay,” he responded firmly, pointing to the ground. He turned, taking a step forward.

        Something moved in the corner of his eye. Dark blobs appeared from the broken doorway and empty windows. People started flooding from the building. Some crawled. Davy’s gut sank. Their clothes were covered in ash and blood. Scientists, Soviets, and finally the broad outlines of his men tripped free from the teeth of the building’s façade. He raised a halting hand to Whitaker, then stormed forward.

        A ball of light swelled from inside and suddenly the air kicked, sending Davy onto the ground as an explosion erupted from the building. He heard Whitaker scream. Chunks of debris launched into the darkness above them, illuminated briefly by the warped ball of fire. 

        Davy’s head slacked back against the road. For a moment he was ensnared by the brilliant night sky. Trillions of stars stared back at him. Their brilliance vanished behind the dark shapes of debris returning to the earth. Davy rolled to his side, clambering to his feet as blocks of stone and plates of metal cartwheeled into the ground around them. Whistling rubble pummeled the earth. He took Whitaker by the back of her jacket and pushed her ahead of him, taking shelter behind the guard post. He could hear shrieks of pain coming from the courtyard.

        A shower of dirt and dried tar followed, raining over them. Whitaker covered her hair as the dusting clattered over the side of the guard post. Davy stood, checking around the corner. Everything was dark. He could hear scattered moans and yelling. Russians cried and roared in a cacophony of mutilated exchanges. He felt behind him for Whitaker, who grabbed onto his sleeve.

        “Are you hurt?” he asked, still scanning the shadowed carnage.

        “I don’t think so,” she muttered from behind him, shaken. 

        “Keep close.”

        He stepped out carefully, examining the destruction. “Butler!” he called. “Porter! Morris! Castillo! Walsh–”

        “Abramov!” Whitaker blurted, suddenly brushing past him and running ahead.

        “Whitaker, hold–” Davy ordered, his foot snagging on something tangled beneath him. 

        A voice echoed. Someone appeared in a torn lab coat trampling over the cluttered turf, calling back. Dr. Abramov. The man swung his arms, trying to keep his balance. Davy could see a trail of blood running down one side of his face. 

Whitaker!” Davy belted. “Stay where you are!”

        She froze, facing him with a baffled expression. He held a hand up at her as he pieced his way through the debris, rifle held close. The situation had completely unfolded. His mind raced as he pieced together a contingency plan.

        “Keep still,” he ordered, looking around for any indication of his men. “We’re leaving.” 

        Someone jogged towards him. Porter. The man appeared unscathed, though his mask had a long crack running diagonally over it. Davy gestured for his radio. Porter retrieved it from its pouch and held it out to Davy. He took it, lifting it to his ear. Static. 

        Dammit. He reached behind him and slid the radio into his rear pack, looking around. A substantial crowd began pouring out from the building, making it difficult to spot his men.

        “Porter, double back. Find and extract any of our guys. I’ll search this crowd. We’re pulling out.” 

        “Captain,” Porter acknowledged, dashing back towards the stairs. Davy’s stomach tightened as he watched him vanish into the dark building. He’d be quick. 

        “Alright, Whitaker,” he directed to her. “Take Dr. Abramov with you, we’ll meet at the landing zone. Remember where that is?”

        She nodded.

        “Good. Go, I’ll be right behind you. My men and–” he fell silent, looking to the facility’s roof.

        A faint pillar of light opened into the sky, sending dancing shadows over the courtyard. Davy gawked. The yellowish light rose from the basement of the building, touching distant wisps of clouds above. Fingers of fog played around the light, giving it an occasional blue hue.

        “Doctor, what is that?” Davy asked.

        “Ah–the…” Abramov dragged, jaw loose, “the generators. They must be damaged. Exposed. I don’t know what would cause such a…”

        “Radiation?”

        “Possibly,” Abramov said, sullen.

        As if in response to his query, the Geiger counter that was strapped to Davy’s shoulder crackled to life. It pulsed in angry waves of ticks. Whitaker and Abramov exchanged a solemn look. 

        “Move!” Davy barked. He hopped over tubular wreckage, prodding Whitaker on. He waved Dr. Abramov to them as they started for the gate. The moon breached from the clouds above, casting a ghostly shine over the edge of the courtyard. The moonlit area revealed hunks of concrete and talons of reinforcing steel protruding outward. Bodies lay amongst the debris. 

        Davy held his eyes forward, guiding Whitaker around the broken masses. Leaping images of people ran along his peripherals. Men stumbled over the rubble, leaving rifles and coats snagged on the hooked metal concealed in the dark. Several soldiers tripped to distribute what protection they had on hand. One or two gas masks were about the best each could offer. 

        Whitaker tugged free, calling back to Abramov. The scientist stood where he was, captivated by the pillar of light, his lab coat fluttering in the breeze. Davy pulled Whitaker back, finding his own eyes lured by the ghostly beam. The Geiger counter continued to tick steadily, strengthening its pulse in waves.

        “Keep to the road,” Davy yelled. “I’ll get Abramov. Go!” He pushed her. She started forward but froze, a look of horror on her face. Davy’s brow narrowed, turning back to the light.

        A deep, sonorous bellow–the sound of a thousand molten horns–ruptured the air. The earth trembled under their feet with the outstretching yawn of the trumpeted bass. Reverberating tones of thundering brass-like groans chorused over one another into an increasingly screaming pitch, each wave of sound layering over the last. The air seemed to pry itself asunder, deforming around the pillar of light. 

        The sound shook Davy’s teeth. What the hell is happening? He moved into a bracing stance, ready to evade another wave of destruction. Flocks of ash-covered scientists streamed in all directions, pushing past him or throwing themselves down the hillside over toppled fences. Soldiers held their caps to their heads as they ran alongside the terrified crowd. A few stumbled back up the cracked stairs, yanking wanderers stuck in shock from the toothy frame of the facility.

        Fog thickened at the light pillar’s base, seeping upwards. Its delicate, caressing rings lifted to the stars. The light was consumed by a tower of fog.

        A bleating chime banished the roar of sound. The ground ceased shaking. Davy held his footing, feet apart, entranced. 

        They all were. 

        A cluster of people remained throughout the rubble, staring up at the fog. Soviets loosely held their rifles, swaying in the breeze as though having surrendered to the spectacle. A cluster of soldiers ran towards them.

        Hey!” Davy called, his voice breaking the reverence. One by one, his men came into view, their shadows flickering over the grass. Four, five, six. That was nearly everyone. 

        A strand of rich green light suddenly shot upward from the roof, tearing erratically through the tower of fog, fading beyond its visible height. Then, as if an invisible barrier had been flayed apart, the fog began to spill outward. It plumed down, spreading weightlessly over the roof of the facility. The pillar of light was gone.

        All sound died over the valley. No birds trilled, no insects chattered, and even the wounded had hushed.         His men cantered, coming to a halt and looking back to the roof. Davy’s breath lifted lightly in the back of his throat. His Geiger counter fell silent.

        Reefs of umber glow pulsed throughout the collapsing fog; a silent thunderstorm that fought to rupture free. Thick reds and vibrant pinks twined through the forming orange light. As the light culminated, it swam upward from the roof and took shape in the downfall of brume.

        With a great sigh, the fog dissipated. A face surfaced. Coiled horns caressed a lipless visage, teeth streaming liquid-like fog. Smoldering orange ignited from beneath its dark, mauve skin. A tongue tasting the air from its mouth allowed the glowing heat to breathe. A crown of broadly split jaws flared from behind its head of sculptured, shale hair.

        It stood, body swaying, its palms feeling the night. The magnitude of it. Davy watched, blankly. It loomed over a hundred feet tall, listlessly. 

        “Jesus fuck!” he heard Morris yell. His men spun on their heels, running towards Davy. 

        “Eyes up, eyes up!”

        Flares–open the sky!” Butler barked amongst them. Red, burning streaks popped up into the air, painting the imposing personage in a bloody wash of color.

        “Captain! Sir–” Someone yelled to Davy. “Do we engage?”

        A ringing tinned in Davy’s ears, growing louder. Soviet soldiers, dispelled by the terror before them, skipped backward, raising their rifles and firing wildly. A woman hollered from somewhere among the wreckage. Someone bellowed words Davy couldn’t make out. Woeful bawling and shouting ripped through the tranquility that had blanketed the remaining crowd. Davy felt someone crash against him to get by.

        The being’s head rolled back, jaw parting, inhaling deeply. Its disfigured, naked rib cage pulled apart as it relaxed its muscular shoulders. Bursting embers roared from the separated ribs as oxygen threaded through its body. The embers singed the air, flickering their light over rows of draconic horns that spread from the edges of its chest like unclasped hands. 

        My God,” Whitaker whispered. 

        The ringing in Davy’s ears numbed his senses. He was fully entranced by the rising form before him. His legs were locked, his vision coning. He didn’t know if it was his men running past him or more Soviets. His hand buzzed from gripping his rifle so tightly. 

        “We…” Whitaker trailed. “Captain–”

        The fog unfolded, leaving the entire stature of the being exposed. It had a male form, its powerful limbs and broad shoulders effortlessly holding the creature’s statuesque structure up. Much of its body was covered in swirled, cracked markings as if made of thick clay. Formless, plated marrow covered its collar and hips, all entwined with spiraling, ringed antlers. 

        Something crackled beside Davy. A voice fizzled to life, chattering a myriad of words between another droning voice. The radio. Davy reached for the device, taking it from the pouch on the back of his belt and holding it to his ear. The voices crackled faintly in the heavy hum of static, but he could hear them. He held the button down.

        “This is Captain Davy,” he spat quickly. “Do you read?”

        The voices carried on with their oblivious conversation. Muted tones spoke dryly between one another.

        “I repeat, this is Captain Davy of SNOW! Do you read me? We’ve–there’s been…” He choked on the words, or lack thereof. It didn’t matter; the mumbling voices ignored him. He wasn’t getting through.

        Davy turned. His men now fixed their weapons on the being, backing away in a reversed semi-circle. They hadn’t fled. Butler looked at him over his shoulder. 

        He needed to make a choice.

        The being’s eyes opened. Scorching white light lifted the darkness from the being’s eyes, a richly golden glow pooling from its irises. The being beheld the landscape, tilting its head to each side. It seemed unaware–or uncaring–of the scene of terror at its feet.

        A familiar voice came clearly through the radio. Kaneshiro. Davy pressed the device to his ear, praying to hear it again. The static continued for a time, the rambling of warbled voices straining his patience.

        Bring us around…” Kaneshiro’s voice surfaced briefly from the crumbling tones groaning in Davy’s ear. 

        Davy shouted into the radio, “This is Captain Davy–!” He broke off. The sound of helicopter blades tore through the air. He looked to see a blinding spotlight break over the tree line. 

        The dark body of a Black Hawk thundered into view. Davy stepped back. His men spread apart, lowering their rifles as the vehicle flew overhead. Castillo cracked a handheld flare, stepping over refuse and waving his arms.

        Something wasn’t right. 

        The helicopter decelerated at the edge of the courtyard, keeping at bay from the being. It remained there, gradually coasting up above. Kaneshiro’s voice crackled from the radio again.

        –a closer look…” the radio hummed.

        The helicopter beamed its spotlight onto the being, curving a path around it. The creature paid the helicopter no mind, indifferent to the piercing light that targeted its face and body. Davy watched, astonished, as Kaneshiro’s helicopter pounded above them, ignoring them. He made one last, desperate attempt.

        “Kaneshiro!” Davy snarled into the radio. “This is Captain Davy! We need extraction now!

        He marched over to Castillo and took his spoiling green flare. He tossed it into the most open area of the courtyard, then cut his arm through the air in a sharp wave at the cockpit of the cruising helicopter. 

        “Captain?” Castillo said, a hint of trepidation in his voice.

        Davy stormed back to Whitaker, taking her jacket into his fist at her shoulder and bringing her forward, towards the light of the flare. The helicopter veered abruptly, tearing around the staggering being. They all watched, breath held, as Kaneshiro’s helicopter bayed into a steep course away from the facility. Its raging blades dampened their bellow as it passed into the night. The helicopter vanished over the tree line. They were left alone, standing in a cast of dying red and green light from their flares.

        Davy’s men slowly turned their heads to him, the glints of the whites of their eyes shining through their cracked and ash-covered masks. He thought quickly.

        “Get back to the landing zone,” he said, trying not to let his voice falter. A ringing pinched at his eardrums again. His men, scrambled, fell in line, tearing their gaze away from either the tree line or the horror standing above them. The men hopped into a run, one by one, keeping what composure they could among the stragglers still fleeing.

        Davy turned to Abramov, opening his mouth to call to him. He froze. 

        The being began to move.

        Its palms circled outwards, long hooked nails cutting through the air. One of its clawed hands began to rise from its side. Its head tilted forward, a sharpened expression narrowing on its face, its golden-soaked eyes the center of a contorting glare.

        A fire spread through Davy’s chest. The ringing in his ear peaked into a striking pulse of alertness. Looking about himself and straining to gain some lucidity, he took hold of Whitaker. Her bewitched eyes reflected the boiling orange spilling over the facility. He tugged her forward, shaking her out of her stupor. She blinked, tears sliding down her cheeks. 

        Whitaker!” Davy demanded her focus. “Stay with me!” 

For a moment her eyes continued to dart over the scene above them, then her hazel irises dropped, leveling with his.

        “You need to run–” 

        “No. No, no–” Whitaker shook her head, her lower lip beginning to tremble.

        “I’ll be right behind you.” Davy looked back over his shoulder.

        The being had raised its hand to its chest. 

        Go!” Davy yelled. 

        Whitaker turned away and began to run. Davy took one final look behind him, trying not to let his gaze linger on the few unfortunate souls that still tried to pull themselves from the smoking rubble of the facility.

        With startling ardor, its palm struck forward, arm extending with a might that snapped the air, its massive hand spread wide.

        Like the open sea, strokes of the earth became a crashing liquid of soil erupting into the sky. The ground lifted free, the facility was erased, and the very landscape was parted by seething waves of rock and dirt. The courtyard split in front of Davy, hewn into shifting chunks, throwing his balance. 

        He turned and ran, searching for Whitaker among the chaos ahead as others fled alongside him, some falling behind and disappearing into the churning bellows of smoke and soot that bit at his heels.

        The slab of earth beneath them rose, tilting forward. His eyes locked onto the form of Whitaker just ahead. She had halted at the precipice that had suddenly formed at her feet, looking helplessly in both directions for a way across. Davy burst into a sprint to catch up with her. He reached out and pulled her against him, using his momentum to carry them both across the yawning gap just as the ground they had been standing on began to slide down the hillside. They landed just before where the gate had been. It had been torn away, leaving a deep, growing gulch in the road. Davy took hold of Whitaker by the waist, throwing her across. She landed on the other side and stumbled, her ankle twisting. She caught herself before she could fall to the ground and turned, looking back toward Davy. Boulders hurled overhead, disappearing from sight with deep booms as they smashed the valley floor. 

        Davy took a running jump, landing on the crumbling edge and losing his footing. Whitaker took his sleeve and pulled him forward. The exertion, as small as it was, was enough to keep him from falling back into the dark tear in the ground behind him.

        He straightened up and looked ahead. The village was lost in darkness, and Davy found himself wondering if it was still there at all.

        Whitaker suddenly let go of him and took a step back in the direction they had just come from.

        “Abramov!

        Davy whirled around. Dr. Abramov jumbled over the rising cliffs of rock, hopping onto the path. He landed awkwardly, holding his calf, but righted himself quickly. Davy bit his cheek. Come on, come on!

        More people began throwing themselves over the twisted fences that had once surrounded the courtyard. Soldiers rushed over the newly formed canyons, only to be eaten whole by plows of loam and shooting spires of bedrock casting up from underneath their feet. Davy tried to spot his men, but could hardly make out the blurs of people through the constant explosions of dirt. 

        An ear-splitting crack ripped the path apart between them and Abramov. Spines of bedrock fanned upwards, kicking into the air. The scientist stumbled back. The section of earth the man stood on shook as blasting debris ate at its foundation. Abramov nearly collapsed, his wrists catching the shock of his fall.

        Davy cursed. He couldn’t save him.

        “Jump!” Whitaker cried, slumping to her knees. She bared her teeth in a grimace, tears streaming down her cheeks. “Get up!”

        The doctor shakily stood, only to be knocked over by another spray of dirt as the surrounding planes fractured from one another. Abramov sunk his fingers into the gravel, holding on as the ground tilted away from them. The doctor mouthed something to them that they couldn’t hear.

        Jump!” Whitaker yelled.

        “Get up!” Davy took her wrist, yanking her to her feet. 

        “Captain, please! You have to–”

        Davy pulled her backward, bringing her face to face with him. Her eyes were glazed over with terror.

        “We need to go!”

        Please,” she sobbed. “He’s still–”

        Davy kept his grip on her wrist and pulled her along behind him as he turned to continue down the road. She fought against him, digging her heels into the ground. Screams of incomprehensible pleas tore from her throat in Abramov’s direction. 

        The air rippled around them. Gravel on the road ceased rattling. A silence fell upon them, calling the haunting ring back into Davy’s ears. There was a sense of immense motion behind them, and they became shrouded in darkness. The Geiger counter on his shoulder screamed.

        One heartbeat struck in his ears. He turned to look behind them once more. Above them stood the being. It looked down on them, molten eyes expressionless. It stood as if it had always been there, at ease and omnipotent.

        Davy’s heart thudded again. Embers breathed slowly from the being’s teeth, circling outward like orbiting suns. Their glow traced fingers of light over its split, ebony ribs. Flitting up, they rested among the stars that looked to rest upon the being’s curled horns.

        A third heartbeat pounded against the endless ringing in Davy’s ears. The world caught up with the being’s sudden appearance behind them. The entire hilltop morphed into a rupturing orb of earthly carnage. All that had been there on that tortured hillside was transformed into a skyward wake of wreckage that was propelled away into the valley around them. The shock of its movement had torn the landscape asunder.

        Davy watched the sky cower under the cloak of debris that unfurled behind the being. Everyone that had not crossed the line of earth he and Whitaker now stood on was gone. Dr. Abramov had disappeared, either beneath the being's settled feet or washed away in the sea of bedrock. 

        The air left his lungs. The sound of falling stones clattered over the road. The landslides stopped. The Geiger counter fell silent.

        They stared up in silence, and it gazed back. 

        Davy’s racing mind fell quiet as all coherent thoughts escaped him. This thing, this impossibility before him plucked at the final threads of bearing he clung to. This nightmare isn’t real. His mind contorted, bending each action and reaction he would take. He knew every move, every calculated step leading to this moment, and how he could carry himself from disaster. But standing here, staring up at the creature that loomed over them, bled every thought from him. 

        It saw them, watched them. Its gaze was unwavering, as if it was waiting for something. 

        Davy’s brow was slick with sweat. The ringing in his ears dulled everything. A thousand questions leached his dwindling thoughts, planting his feet where they were. He found himself unable to move under the weight of its gaze. The fingers of Whitaker’s free hand dug into his arm.

        The blare of rumbling brass roared again, vibrating the ground. It echoed poignantly in the empty night.         Shadow churned at the being's feet. Darkness began to froth from the air, coiling around its legs. The smog pointed into tendrils of shadow that spiraled upwards. They twisted out like a blossoming flower, its petals the heads of faceless snakes.

        He found the fortitude to turn away, his eyes meeting Whitaker’s.

        Run. 

        As if she had heard his silent appeal, she turned on her heel and set off. Without a final glance in the being’s direction, he, too, broke into a run. He closed the distance between them, willing her to pick up her pace. She visibly struggled against the constraint of her heeled shoes as she sprinted as fast as she could manage along the uneven road.

        Davy’s vision fogged over as his heavy breathing coated the inside of the mask. He kept forward, continuing towards the village. He could only hope it was still there.

        The moonlight guided them as they escaped the being’s great shadow. The contours of buildings began to emerge in the dark as they drew near. Davy’s heart pounded. 

        Thank God. 

        The sound of chaos approached as they ran past the first homes. Fires still smoldered over the rubble. Huddled families clustered outside the remains of their homes. Huge boulders protruded from the road and alleyways. Wandering injured shambled across the scarred earth, lost in the dark like phantoms.

        It became harder to see, his rising body heat fuming up into his visor. The need to tear off his mask curled over the back of his head. He fought the urge. One step too slow could mean death. 

        He had to keep going. 

        Whitaker held up in front of him, though from his position he could see pain and exhaustion beginning to affect her movement. It wouldn’t be long before her legs gave out from under her. He would only be able to carry her so far before it impacted his chances of being able to make it out alive. 

        Something boomed behind them. Davy’s neck prickled with anticipation, but he forced himself to keep forward. They ran faster, regardless of how hopeless it felt. Seconds later a forceful blast bucked them both into the air, sending them tumbling over the rocky path. 

        Davy skidded over the gravel, sliding into a gutter beside a half-toppled house. He glimpsed Whitaker roll under an overgrown bush on the opposite side of the road. The dark tendrils tore past, carving the path in two. A sickening wave of air thumped him onto his side as he lifted himself from the dugout. He flipped onto his back, watching as more snake-like surges of darkness zipped overhead, shredding the roof off of one of the homes. Plaster and brick scattered from above, the pebbles plinking off of his mask.

        He fought against the desire to remain there, nestled in the dusty hollow. He shoved the feeling down, digging his hands into the earth and hoisting himself up onto the side of the road. He peered across the gravel path, eyes scanning for Whitaker. He spotted her messy snarl of auburn hair tangled in the foliage. 

        Urgency leapt into his chest. He scrambled to his feet, crossing over the road and sliding into the ravine she had fallen into. He found her, mud and leaves splashed over her clothes. She tilted her head towards him, visibly shaken. There were no visible injuries other than a few shallow scratches on her cheek. She managed to stand with a steadying hand from Davy. He watched her for a moment, ensuring she wasn't afflicted by any injuries. He didn’t want to have to make the choice between her life and his own. Not yet.

        With a halting gesture, he climbed to the top of the road first, looking down its length. Whatever the hell had plowed through the village was gone. It was baffling. The Geiger counter continued to pick up radiation in the area, but it was minimal now. It was as if the radiation was removed, physically pulled away, like a stormy wave ripping the shore back out to the sea. 

        Davy’s eyes twitched from the device on his shoulder, falling to his muddied boots. He struggled to catch his breath. He couldn’t bring himself to look back up the road, as though meeting the eyes of that thing again might suddenly forfeit his life. He fought the desire to look, his jittering eyes catching only the distortion of black fog that had dispersed from its feet. He could sense it still waiting, watching. He shook himself free from curiosity’s pull. 

        The road ahead was empty. He beckoned Whitaker forward, extending his hand to her. She slid once but latched onto his grip as he tugged her up to his side. She started forward but bent suddenly. With a pained sigh, she plucked the shoes from her feet and threw them into the ditch behind them. Her nylons were already marked with holes and tears. She straightened up once more, seeming to fight her own urge to look back at the being behind them.

        “Nearly there,” Davy lied. In truth, he was unsure of how much farther they had to go. The village had become alien in its destruction. All he could trust was that the landing zone still lay just beyond the outskirts. Keep forward, he told himself. Whitaker looked at him, an unreadable expression on her face. 

        They moved at a much slower pace now as Whitaker carefully padded over the gravel. Davy kept one step ahead of her, trying to keep a decent speed. His nerves tensed, constricting the breath in his chest. Whitaker had become a weight that tugged against the adrenaline still pumping through his body. His legs carried him with anxious energy, ready to spring. 

        The road ahead was clear of wreckage. If they followed its winding turns, it would lead them to the edge of the village. It was promising, but an uneasiness still ate at him. It would take much longer to meander along the path. Cutting through the alleys of the homes would save time and keep them from being out in the open.

        The sound of whirling wind sighed in the air. Sweat trickled down Davy’s face, solidifying his decision.         He ducked right, pulling Whitaker into an alley as the way behind them roared with the sound of churning earth and bricks. He crouched for cover, peering back at another wave of tendrils that knotted through the village. The sky was full of them–dark vipers of running black fog. They encircled the buildings, coiling down and diving into the rubble. His Geiger counter kicked to life with each pass they made. 

        Clutter erupted into the alley, followed by a gaunt man, loosely covered in dusty clothes, tripping from the back door of one of the homes. He jumped at the sight of Davy and Whitaker, bounding down the alley away from them. The man toppled over his footing, falling out into the open. His dark skin was caught in the moonlight, his eyes widely staring back into the night’s great eye.

        “Wait!” Whitaker yelled, her voice breaking.

        Davy got up before she could, moving towards the man. He slung his rifle around to his back, sidestepping through the trash-filled alley. His gear snagged on exposed metal rods sticking out from the broken walls. The man scrambled away upon seeing Davy approach. He shouted at Davy, eyes vast with fear. 

        “Stop!” Davy demanded, reaching out to him.

        The man lifted himself on the broken remains of a well pump, regaining his footing. As he turned to flee, the rolling cry in the air returned.

        “Get to cover!” Davy shouted.

        Whitaker cried.

        A tendril punched from the side, striking through the man. It passed directly through him with a piercing shriek, carrying his guttural scream with it. His body splashed into black liquid, hardening instantly into an obsidian, glass formation. 

        Davy’s mouth hung open.

        The man’s body was flayed clean. All that remained were his bones, held in the image of his final struggle. The body hung in a caressing hand of black glass. A warm glow thumped slowly at its core, dissipating with each beat before dying completely.

        Davy’s diaphragm beat his lungs for air. His chest locked. Whitaker screamed behind him. His extended hand shook, just inches from the crystalized figure. His feet shifted awkwardly, the weight of his body catching against the wall. He barely heard the clicking of the Geiger counter reawakening.

        His hand just hung there, reaching out. His tongue trembled at the back of his throat, sending stuttered breaths into his begging lungs. Eyes unblinking, his vision grew dark around its edges. 

It was the complete lack of sound that filled his stomach with nausea. It was the manner in which the man’s last cry had been torn from his lungs and carried away with the breeze as if he had never existed at all, leaving nothing but silence. Davy tightened his abdomen against the sickening feeling that rose within him.

        The burning in his chest tugged for air. He drew a deep breath, pressing his other hand to the wall to keep himself from buckling. He blinked, inhaling again. His eyes fluttered forward, past the exposed bones of the man.

        He stretched himself the rest of the way through the narrow alley, stepping out into the small area. He turned with heavy feet, his eyes flitting towards Whitaker. She sat, hands covering her mouth, shaking as tears rolled down her cheeks and over her fingers. An empty feeling seeped between Davy’s ribs as he put his back to the glass-encased body. The hand left outstretched to the man was turned to Whitaker. The feeling of emptiness in it grew disgustingly apparent. He gave a stern shake with his open palm towards her. Each second they remained here was one more foot towards their waiting grave. His muscles tensed, listening to the clicks of the Geiger counter draw out.

        Whitaker felt with her fingers, clutching at prodding debris beside her to help lift her. Her gaze looked straight through Davy at the dead man he attempted to block from her view. He shifted his stance as if he could shoulder himself in front of anything she saw. It was a futile gesture.

        Her fingers slid into his palm. He closed his hand over them and guided her forward. As she stepped from the alley, he circled her around him. His eyes kept on her mortified stare. They moved into the clearing and towards the broken well at its center.

        He allowed himself to look now. The man’s skull was partially exposed from the tips of the dagger-like glass. A single blade of obsidian lanced through an empty eye socket. He could picture the man’s face, meat and all, screaming in his last moment before liquifying. He shook the thought away, pulling his rifle back around into his hands. Holding onto it felt like holding onto a lifeline. They looked a moment longer. The sound of distant screams continued to fall to the drumming wind.

He finally led Whitaker away, helping her over a small wall of fallen bricks. Her stare was broken as she placed her feet over the muddy stones, carefully sliding them to the other side onto the dirt floor. Davy followed, using his body to close off the sight behind them. Whitaker watched him, shuffling down the next alley. 

        He had to remove whatever he felt now, whatever fear or bewilderment that had started to creep over him. He cut out the image of the petrified man. Davy looked forward now, his hands tightening on the textured grips of his rifle.

        They emerged onto the main road. The light of fire threw waving shadows over the faces of the buildings lining the way. The fire emitted from a large, burning truck. It seemed to have rammed into a dwelling down in a turn in the road, cutting off the corner. People moved about its billowing, flame-engulfed carcass.

        Soviets.

        Davy hesitated. At least four soldiers were yelling at one another. They were standing over broken bodies clad in muddied, white coats and civilian wear. The soldiers turned, noticing Davy as he exited the alley behind Whitaker. Looks of surprise and disdain marked their faces. Each of them hurried to raise their rifles. One Russian barked an incomprehensible order at them. 

        Davy stepped around Whitaker. His eyes darted over the soldiers, flicking between their readied weapons. He raised a hand slowly, lowering his slung rifle to the side with the other.

        The soldier in front of the group stepped forward, rifle held steady. He continued sputtering Russian at Davy. Davy remained still, hands held open at shoulder height.

        As the soldier came closer, his expression changed. The Russian’s eyes opened knowingly. Davy’s mouth lowered into a frown. It was the soldier he had sat across from in Petrovich’s car. This time the man’s fervent glare was unbroken.

        You,” the Russian spat.

        Davy lowered his chin, observing him carefully.

        “What have you done?!” the soldier pressed, his expression wrought with anger and pain. He continued forward. He was mere feet away.

        “Everyone–all dead! You–”

        “Captain,” Whitaker’s voice trembled behind him.

        “–brought hell to us! You and this bitch!”

        Davy’s fingertips buzzed with energy. Air drew steadily into his nose and out from his mouth. The soldier pointed the barrel of his rifle directly at Davy’s head. The moment to act had to come; he waited for it. The soldier shouldered his Kalashnikov, resituating his grasp on its wooden frame. Sweat and tears rolled over the man’s reddened face.

        “What did you–”

        Down!” a voice hollered from behind. Whitaker dropped to her knees and Davy twisted into a crouch, his eyes connecting with the sight of Butler leaping over a pile of concrete. He landed, firing from his rifle.

        The Russian sputtered, his jaw parting in two as one of the shots pulled his teeth through the back of his throat. He bent over his locked knees, spinning onto the gravel. Davy blinked, snapping his hands to his rifle. He fired from his knelt position, connecting pairs of shots to the astonished soldiers below. Whitaker kept her head down, her hands clasped over the back of her skull as she huddled to the ground behind him.

        Cracks of gunfire erupted too late from the Russian’s rifles, twanging off chunks of brick and debris around them. Plumes of dust hawked upwards as bullets struck at their feet. Davy heard Whitaker yelp, clutching at his harness from behind. Butler dove to the ground beside them, firing his rifle collectively back at the soldiers. Each man fell in succession, peppered with accurately placed shots. A maroon spray ripped from their torsos. The Soviets’ bodies disappeared amongst the strewn entanglement of corpses on the road. 

        “The others?” Davy asked breathlessly, scanning his rifle over the dead.

        “Separated,” Butler replied. He lifted himself to his knee beside Davy, looking over the scene below. Davy’s men were dead. He could hear it in Butler’s voice.

        “On me,” said Davy.

        He rose to his feet, Whitaker still holding on tightly from behind. He kept his rifle readied as he marched forward. Butler moved alongside, circling outward as they approached the turn in the road. Davy noted the grooves in the gravel cut by the truck. The driver must have attempted to escape in the vehicle among a crowd of fleeing civilians. The abnormally contorted figures discarded on the road had been run over by the driver before they lost control, crashing into one of the homes. It was impossible to tell who had driven the vehicle, their body now lost in the roiling flames.

        Whitaker made a choked sound behind them as they came upon the bodies near the burning truck. The outline of charcoaled remains sat fused to the bed of the vehicle. Davy marched on, pressing through a cloud of black smoke blocking their way. 

        The rushing roar of fire had muted the cacophony ahead of them. They emerged onto a wide road, another weaving into it from the left. Davy’s rifle was knocked to the side as a group of blood and dirt-covered people sprinted past, hands swimming in the air in desperation. Flashes of gunfire split the night. Shadowed figures bounded to each side, dodging unseen danger. Davy skipped to the side, narrowly avoiding colliding with a woman tripping down the road that forked into their path. The dark shapes of the crowd parted for a car consumed in a ball of fire freely careening towards them. Its skeletal body bounced by, just feet away from Davy, into a wall before splashing the neighboring homes with streaks of embers and lit gasoline. 

        The striking ping of gunfire snapped against the wall next to Davy’s head. He raised his rifle, bordering the crowd. He searched, unsure if the shot had been a misfire or if they were being targeted. The bustling forms of people scurrying over the road were indiscernible. Each shape of a person resembled the next in this darkness. Davy flicked the aim of his rifle in building succession, seeking uniforms, weapons, anything that might give him some grasp on where the shot came from.

        Butler appeared at his side, opening fire. A pale face blinked into view, the shape of a rifle swinging toward them. The face grimaced, then fell into the darkness as Butler spat two more shots from his rifle. 

The glint of metal from a firearm betrayed a figure’s form just ahead. Davy fired. A voice cried out as the figure flung to the ground beneath the crowd’s feet. Davy snapped his rifle to another target, pops of gunfire lighting their location. 

        froze. The gunfire was directed upwards. More soldiers revealed themselves down the road, punches of fire spraying from their rifles into the sky. The wind wailed with haunting familiarity. 

        “Get off the road!” Davy shouted, waving his arm across his body toward the fleeing civilians. It was too late. The dark, spear-like fingers of smog ripped down from above, pounding the earth and cleaving the homes into clouds of debris. The ground became loose as thick dirt blew into the air in front of him. He recoiled back, catching himself from toppling on a block of concrete. Cries of panic were suddenly silenced in a multitude. Those too slow or left trampled under the crowd begged for help until they, too, were abruptly hushed.

        Davy brushed the dirt from his visor. Just before him, black glass formations sprouted from the earth. Hopeless, skeletal hands stretched out to the stars above. Embers trickled upwards from their petrified bones. 

        The Geiger counter began to howl.

        Davy burst forward, clutching Whitaker’s sleeve behind him. They weaved between the garden of obsidian, thorny claws, their blades waiting for them in the dark. There were others still fleeing alongside them. They darted between the taloned hands of the crystals. The startled eyes of a man glinted at them as the unfortunate villager rammed into the hidden sword of glass projecting from the ribs of an ensnared body.         A final, choking cry left the man’s lungs. Davy grasped his rifle in his free hand, holding it in front of him as they ran together, weaving through the blades. The Geiger counter would peak with rolling clicks each time he almost collided with the sprawled, black brambles.

        The tendrils banked down again, slicing the air. A group ahead of them tumbled over as one ruptured upward with a gut-churning groan. The person’s torso flayed out in a wave of obsidian. Their flesh rapidly ripped into embers, billowing out onto the screaming people below. A child shrieked amongst them. A woman lifted the child into her arms, dashing to keep up with the group. Davy jumped to the side, maneuvering around the scuttering family. 

        Nausea bent in his stomach once more. The air split as another tendril warped past him, lunging into the clustered family. The child wailed. Davy caught a glimpse over his shoulder, damning himself for looking.         The woman struck up above them in a spire of crystal, limbs shuddered apart. The child was morphed into the black branch, flesh peeling into glowing embers.

        “Captain!” Butler shouted.

        Davy turned. A squad of soldiers perched on the rubble ahead began to open fire on the crowd. Davy dropped, sliding onto the ground with Whitaker beside him. Bodies thumped to the earth around them. He fumbled for his rifle. The sling snagged on something next to them.

        A soldier looked down on him, teeth gritting. The Soviet pointed his rifle.

        Davy clenched his jaw. 

        Red mist suddenly exploded from the Russian’s chest, and he fell back over the stacks of brick. Butler lurched over Davy. Davy looked up at him, noticing a long crack spidering down his mask. Butler offered his hand. It was slick with blood. 

        Davy grabbed his forearm, pulling himself up. The other soldiers now saw them. Davy wrenched his rifle free, spinning towards them. He squeezed the trigger back, hard. The gun thundered wildly from his hip. A scatter of bullets rebounded from both sides, reflecting off stones and brick in all directions. He saw someone collapse. His arm whipped backward and he dropped the rifle. He grabbed at his arm, feeling for a wound. His rifle glared up at him from below, illuminated by firelight. A hole was gored in its side. He snagged it off the ground.

        He ran forward, hurling the rifle into the nearest soldier. He then lunged for the body of a fallen Soviet, wrestling for his gun. The air hummed around them. 

        “Get down!” a voice echoed in his ear. 

        The rubble perch lifted into the air, sending the Soviets tumbling beneath a blanket of debris. Davy flung back, the wind knocked out of his lungs. He rolled until he slammed into something stiff. He coughed, turning onto his stomach. He saw Butler running towards him. An explosion suddenly erupted from the smoke behind him. Butler turned.

        A loud crack split the air. Butler faltered, tipping on his feet. He spun around, a blade of crystal jutting out from his mask. He fell listlessly. A shroud of raining earth washed him from view. Coiling fingers of darkness sought over him in the dark. 

        Butler!

        Davy fought against the spray of dirt hurling over him. He felt someone grab him. Bits of rock pelted his body. He managed to lift a hand to cover his mask. The sting of striking pebbles screamed over his arm. A voice yelled in his ear. 

        He let the rain of rubble subside, lying there. The clouds of dust dissipated, revealing the night sky. He breathed hard, looking at the silhouette looming in the distance. His body begged him to remain, urging him to give up his fight. It was futile. A dim, orange glow bloomed from the chest of the being presiding over the mutilated hillside, watching.

        Fuck you. 

        He was being shaken. He tore his gaze away. Whitaker was beside him, her face wet, mouth twisting with words he couldn’t hear. The deafening silence in his ears fell into a high-pitch din. Whitaker’s begging broke through. He inhaled suddenly, clutching the earth around him. His fingers wrapped around the edges of a concrete wall. He leaned his weight onto it, prying himself from the ground. 

        Whitaker’s hands gripped his rig. She was shaking him. He saw her, saw the dread in her eyes, but he could only breathe. She yanked him around and they broke into a run. They charged into the blackness, with no guidance of fires or peppering gunfire to lead them. They simply ran. Davy’s head swam with a fog that both numbed him and narrowed his attention to one purpose–to run. The drum of their feet and pounding breaths chorused together over the expanding road. 

        He was unsure if they had passed the landing zone. There had been no sign of helicopters or people waiting beyond the village. There was nothing–nothing but an approaching treeline. Whitaker kept ahead of him for a time, putting every last piece of herself into this run. Her feet glistened with blood.

        He wasn’t sure when the road had ended. They now ran through tall grass and thick brush. Ahead, a wall of stubby bushes guarded the entrance to the fortress of trees. The stalky trunks banded together in a dark mass, drinking the light of the stars. It was the border of darkness they headed for.

        Whatever bits of clarity he had left were swept away with each crashing footstep that carried him. He just needed to reach the tree line.

        The ground began to tilt up into an unforeseen hill. The last wings of vigor within them burned as they clambered up the slope. Whitaker slacked forward, reaching with her hands to pull herself along. She was overcome by a deep, choking cough. Davy stooped beside her, throwing her arm over his shoulder. He raised her to his side, shouldering her weight. 

        He could no longer see. Sweat stung his eyes shut and condensation had begun to bead along the inside of his visor. He was blind, but it didn’t matter. He continued forward.

        Whitaker’s legs quit as the earth leveled out at the top of the hill. They both dropped, sprawling onto the grass. Whitaker continued to cough. Davy wheezed, his mask choking him.

        He lifted his head and sat up, his fingers searching the sides of his hood for the clasps that secured his mask. He cursed, getting to his feet, the struggle for fresh air carving at his insides. Sweat from his hands smushed the grip of his gloves sluggishly to the side as his fingers finally found the clasps. With pinched fingertips, he managed to release them. Crisp air oozed into the seam of exposed skin as the mask loosened its grip on his face.

        His fingers traveled over the rim of the mask and pulled. There was a momentary feeling of suction caused by the moisture between it and his skin, then it peeled free. A blissful touch of open air kissed his face. He drank deeply, filling his lungs fully with fresh air. He held the breath for a time, letting the oxygen burn inside him. Eyes closed, he released the breath from his mouth. The tensions in his muscles seemed to melt away. He could feel his matted hair curl onto his face, cool and drenched with sweat. 

        His eyelids fluttered open and he was greeted by a heaven of stars overhead. They seemed far brighter now as they pierced through the pitch-blackness of space above them. Davy committed himself solely to breathing, just for a moment, captivated by the sight.

        He turned, looking towards Whitaker. His brow pressed together. She was staring at him. He couldn’t place the expression. She simply sat there in the grass, her chest heaving with every cracked breath. He watched as a range of emotions crossed her face, scrutinizing him beneath her mess of hair.

        He swallowed, unable to speak. His mouth felt hot and his throat scraped with a craving for water. The air was still, the night silent. 

        “I’m sorry,” she said finally, her voice barely above a whisper.

        He knew that her timid apology was an attempt to empathize with the loss of his men. His friends. Her apology was not an admittance of wrongdoing, of any part in what had transpired. The glazed-over, desolate look in her eyes told him more than words ever could. She had lost everything, too. 

        Nonetheless, Davy felt a burning, inexplicable anger rising in his chest upon hearing her meek plea.

        A breeze started to pull over the hill. They both turned, looking back over the valley to the village. A quilt of fire lined over the scattered homes. Plumes of smoke rose throughout the hillside. Atop the hill, standing over the crater that entombed the facility, was the statuesque being. With its broad shoulders set back, chest rising with an amber glow, the being held its hands at a distance from one another. A faint light blossomed between its palms. 

        Davy looked down. The blades of grass were swaying in the direction of the village. Behind him, the trees began to groan, leaves shaking in the drawing breeze. All across the valley, the sea of grass rolled in waves with the wind towards the being. The dark smog that had settled over the village glided up the hill to its feet. The breeze was light but gradually grew into a pull that rocked Davy on his feet. He reaffirmed his footing, watching with an aching feeling of distress building within him. 

        Despite the growing unease, he didn’t turn to run. Whitaker, perhaps sharing the same feeling, remained where she was, tired eyes regarding the being’s movement. They surrendered to the moment. 

        The warping light between the being’s palms began to pulse and stretch in random directions as the fog swarmed around its legs. The smog wisped around the being, rising into the sky. A low hum vibrated through the air. The sound lifted into a rising cry, and as it grew, so did the swarm of matter and smog until it encased the horned form of the being. Its striking visage, awash with golden light, vanished behind the churn of fog. 

        The breeze held still and weightlessness fell over the valley. Then a flash of brilliant green light blinded the sky. Davy grimaced, covering his eyes. A vociferous boom shook the earth. Davy peered through his hand, shocked at the sight. A coursing storm of green lightning sundered the sky. The skyward-reaching arm of lightning burst with a beam of brilliance, an entrancing malachite glow that engulfed the valley floor. The unstable, magnificent bands of thick lightning ripped toward the stars. 

        A final shockwave of light dispelled the splitting fulmination. The force of the wave knocked Davy to the ground, sending his mask from his hands. His head thumped against the earth. As he struggled to recapture his breath, his eyes traced over the night sky once more, now teaming with ribbons of auroras. The spectacle carried colors of vibrant blues, purples, and bleeding shades of green merging between the mirage of light. The trails searched outwards, slinking over the cloudless sky, eventually fading into the horizon.

        Davy bent his chin to his chest, cocking his gaze to his shoulder. The Geiger counter was unresponsive.         He clenched his abdomen, exhaling as he sat up. His brow lowered, puzzled. There was only darkness ahead. He got to his knees, peering over the hill. Under the light of the moon, all that could be seen of the valley was a massive crater. The entire hillside, facility grounds, and village were obliterated. The being was gone. Nothing remained.

        Davy heard a choking sound next to him. He turned to see Whitaker twist away and heave on her hands and knees, retching over the grass. Nothing but bile came up. She coughed, remaining in a slumped position. 

        Davy stood. He fumbled with the buckle on one of his pouches and reached inside, withdrawing a small, square-shaped packet. He crossed over to Whitaker, kneeling at her side just as she retched dryly once more. 

        “Here.” He held the packet out to her. 

        She looked up. Her face was strikingly pale and her eyes were bloodshot. A string of saliva hung from her bottom lip as she squinted to read the text on the foil square in front of her face.

        “Iodine tablet,” he said, saving her the trouble.

        She scoffed, wiping her mouth on her sleeve and shaking her head. Her voice wavered.

        “That’s not going to do a damn thing.”

        She slowly sat up, tilting her head back towards the sky and closing her eyes. Davy looked down at the packet in his fingers, turning it over once before hesitantly returning it to its pouch. He rose, the grass crunching under his feet as he stepped back to look out over the valley, hoping that there would be a chance the village would miraculously reappear, perhaps only merely shrouded in smoke. The heart of the blackness below drew him in. It was as if the sudden absence of all that had been there mere moments ago left a void in the air. All was silent and still, except for the sound of quiet weeping behind him. Davy turned.

        Whitaker’s shoulders began to shake with her cries, which she no longer attempted to stifle as Davy slowly approached from behind her. He watched her for a moment. 

        “I don’t want to die,” she hiccuped between sobs. “I..”

        “You’re not going to.”

        She turned her head to face him. Thick blood beaded down from her nostrils and over her lips, dripping from her chin along with the fresh tears that cascaded down her cheeks. Davy felt his breath catch in his throat. His brief, involuntary display of shock was enough to send her into another fit of sobs as she covered her eyes with her blood-streaked hands. 

        Davy could only stand there, his mouth agape ever so slightly, as he tried to piece together the situation before him and how he would continue forward now. He was surprised to find that the bitter anger he had held for this young, wide-eyed scientist a moment ago had begun to fade. It didn’t make sense. He had risked his life–his men had given their lives–to get her this far. 

        Only for it to end like this. 

        He wanted to feel angry, he wanted to be overcome with rage, but as the girl wept at his feet he felt nothing but pity. She seemed to be well aware of the cost of her life, as fleeting as it now was. That guilt alone was more than enough to bear.

        A rasping sound rattled from her lungs and she succumbed to a fit of coughing, doubling over once more. Davy grit his teeth and looked ahead, scanning over the tops of the trees as he waited for her coughs to subside.

         “How long do you have?” He instantly regretted how callous the words sounded as they fell from his mouth.

        She was silent for a moment, her back still rising and falling with her ragged breathing. Her fingers curled as she gripped the grass on either side of her with whitened, shaking hands.

        “I don’t know,” she rasped, her breaths hitching as another wave of anguish gripped her. Her sobs quickly mounted into feeble wails. She shook her head, unable to muster further words.

        It was a pathetic sight to behold. 

        Davy was no stranger to the fear of death. It was not something he had ever experienced himself, but he wasn’t presumptuous enough to assume that he was above succumbing to it in his own final moments. He had seen hardened, callous men utterly overtaken by the most primal of terrors when faced with their death, reduced to tears and whimpers, begging for their maker’s forgiveness in frantic denial. He had seen men abandon every last ounce of their humanity and pride in their end. There was nothing messier, nothing more undignified than a soul not at peace with its departure. 

        He could only imagine the weight of the horrific suffering that hung over the girl’s head now as she waited for the inevitable. 

        His hand brushed over the handgun holstered at his hip. He hesitated, asking himself what he would want if he found himself faced with the same fate. He swept the thought aside as he looked down upon her cowering form, her body racked with hoarse cries as she grappled with her fate. Blood spattered over her knees with every cough. Davy frowned.

        They were not the same.

        He drew his gun, smoothly and quietly racking the slide. She didn’t notice, she only continued to lament the imminence of her end, the horrors she had only just narrowly evaded, and the wasted lives that had brought her this far. Davy aimed the gun at the back of her head, his hand steady.

        There was never so complex a concept as that of mercy.

        It was not a concept Davy lived by; he had hardly come to know it at all in his past endeavors. There were only two modes of existence: those meant to stay alive, and those meant to die. He took no role in determining who was bound to follow either path, he simply bore the knowledge of who was destined for what and acted accordingly. This approach had yet to fail him–until now. This young woman had been his only instance of misjudgment. There was no denying now that this was where her life was meant to end, the only choice that remained was whether or not she would suffer.

        Davy weighed her sins.

        He recalled the day he was given her file, the single page that detailed her life, work, and contacts. He remembered it standing out to him at the time; it was the shortest dossier that had ever found itself in his hands. Twenty-one years old. She had barely lived at all.

        He slid his finger lightly onto the trigger, the tendons in his hand aching as they braced against the imminent shock.

        There was a digital chirp in Davy’s rear pouch and he sharply exhaled the breath he didn’t realize he was holding through clenched teeth, lowering the gun. A bead of sweat trickled down his brow. 

        The radio squawked behind him. In the garble of barely-comprehensible words and numbers, he recognized a SNOW callsign. A spark of hope lighting in his chest, he quickly holstered his gun and reached into his back pouch for the radio, bringing it to his ear. 

        “SNOW, do you read? This is Captain Davy,” he spoke into it. “I have Whitaker with me–”

        There was a resounding crack that split through the calm air around them, and a single red flare shot into the sky above the trees ahead. Davy allowed himself a sigh of relief. 

        “Time to go,” he said to Whitaker, bending to help her up. She looked up, disoriented, mesmerized by the red light that hung in the sky. The streams of blood and tears on her face had dried, but her pallor was whiter than it had been only a moment ago. She took his outstretched hand and rose with his assistance, wobbling slightly.

        “We need to get to the top of the hill,” Davy said, starting to guide her toward the tree line.

        Her despondency suddenly returned and her lips curled into a grimace.

        “I can’t–” Her red eyes grew glassy as she faltered. “I’m so tired,” she said simply.

        “Come on,” Davy said, pulling her arm across his back and bearing the brunt of her weight. “They’ll have something for you on the helicopter.” He could only hope. Otherwise, he had made his greatest mistake yet by not pulling the trigger when he had the chance.

        She seemed to gather her strength under her in one final push, straightening up in time to see the glistening tops of the trees in front of them awash with brilliant light. It was as though a red, angry sun had risen prematurely, horrified by what had transpired in this cursed valley in its absence and returning to enact vengeance on whoever–whatever–was responsible. Shadows pulled and stretched the yellow stalks of grass and scraggly brush around them as they made their way to the edge of the trees and entered the forest’s protective embrace.

        The light had not yet breached the canopy of leaves above their heads. Their footing was treacherous in the darkness, and Davy tried his best to guide Whitaker around the jutting roots and fallen branches that seemed to reach out in the blackness to ensnare them. She stumbled along, half-dragging her bare, bleeding feet as he pulled her over the uneven ground. She fought against heavy eyelids and Davy periodically gave her a firm shake to keep her from slipping into a feverish sleep. He could only assume that it would be one she wouldn’t wake from.

        Whitaker’s foot caught on something immovable and she pitched forward, her arm yanked out of Davy’s grip as she fell. She hit the ground hard, the shock of her fall causing another fit of persistent coughs. Even in the darkness, Davy could see bloody saliva flecking the ground under her and hanging from her mouth as she heaved. She clutched at her chest as if she intended to rip her lungs from her ribs with her bare hands. 

        Davy swallowed, hesitating to help her up this time.

        Her mouth hung open as she tried to drink up the air her lungs craved, her efforts hindered by the blood coating her throat. She began to cry once more.

        Davy found himself unable to watch her suffer any further.

        He quickly drew his handgun and racked the slide again, this time making no effort to dull the sound. She looked up in time for her gaze to meet the barrel of his gun mere inches away. Her widening eyes glinted against the dim light, her brow knit as her wheezing breaths grew shallow. 

        Davy moved his finger to the trigger, his eyes meeting hers. He allowed her a moment to make what peace she could.

        The red light of the flare dipped below the top of the canopy, shrouding them in complete darkness. Davy balked, looking up. All was eerily silent save for the sound of Whitaker’s hushed whimpers. No. It was cruel to make her wait.

        Suddenly the forest was illuminated with blazing red light as the flare emerged from the underside of the canopy just ahead, catching the familiar reflective faces of a dozen gas masks just ahead of them, as well as the gleaming barrels of a dozen rifles at the ready.

        SNOW.

        Engage!” someone shouted.

        Davy’s heart skipped as he faltered for one second too long.

        The trees lit up with gunfire. Something tore through Davy’s extended arm. His gun was flung from his grip as his arm flew to the side. He pulled himself out of the shock that threatened to spider over his body and cement him in place. He acted quickly and stooped to gather Whitaker into his other arm before turning and running parallel to the fanned-out soldiers that blocked their way. The gunfire followed them, as expected. Davy cursed, his mind racing to make sense of the situation that was unfolding around him, trying to determine the best course of action.

        Whitaker, bewildered and barely cognizant, lurched along just behind him. He would help her only for as long as she could move unassisted. Bullets pecked the trees around them, showering them with splinters of wood. Davy held his wounded arm over his eyes as he ran, keeping his head low. He dared not to assess the damage yet as he felt warmth oozing from his forearm to his shoulder under the thick material of his suit.

        He bounded over fallen trees, dipping behind outcrops of exposed stone here and there as bullets pinged to his left and right. Shouts followed them, echoing through the trees and seeming to surround them from all sides. 

        There was no time to think. As his boots pounded over the uneven ground all he could set his mind to was continuing forward until he couldn’t any longer. His hearing became muffled as his heartbeat thudded in his ears, dulling his senses and shutting down every other sense in his body to give him the energy he needed. 

        He heard a scream rise from the trees to his right. He looked in the direction it had come from, then over his shoulder. Whitaker was no longer behind him. 

Swearing, he altered his course in the direction of the sound. While he had managed to outrun the spray of bullets, the shouts behind him were close and it was only a matter of time until they spotted him once more.

        His next step met nothing but air and his stomach dropped as he began to skid down a slick, leaf-covered slope. 

        Fuck!

        He fought to keep himself upright as he dug his heels into the soft layer of decaying leaves, but his legs quickly slid out from under him and he fell backward. The dark shapes of trees spun around him and he began to tumble down the steep drop.

        The mere split-second of the sound of roaring water that he caught was the only time he had to prepare himself for what met him at the base of the slope. He held what breath he had in his lungs as he was flung over the side of a muddy bluff and plunged into icy, churning rapids.

        The deep rumble of the water he was submerged in pressed against his eardrums as he fought to get back to the surface. The undercurrent somersaulted him, pulling him down against the rocks at the bottom of the river. He pushed off with his feet, sending himself back upwards. He broke the surface, gasping for air to fill his lungs. He tried to gather his bearings as he bobbed, the rough waters threatening to pull him back under once more at any moment. Pain began to knot the nerves in his arm.

        Over the crashing of the water, he heard another cry, just ahead of him downriver.

        “Whitaker!” he shouted, spitting water out of his mouth. He began to swim forward, making his strokes as solid and strong as he could as he grit his teeth against the screaming pain that now throbbed in his forearm.

        In the moonlight’s reflection on the broken surface of the water, he caught the sight of a head of auburn hair several meters ahead of him. Her arms flailed as she tried to keep her head up, roiling water crashing over her. 

        Whitaker!” he called again. “You’ll wear yourself ou–” 

        She disappeared below the water. He held his breath and dove under, opening his eyes against the bubbling, agitated current. He couldn’t see anything. Not a shape, not a shadow. He rose again. He was fighting harder to stay afloat; water had started seeping into the neck of his suit, filling it enough that surfacing was becoming considerably more challenging. He swam forward, his arm blindly extended underwater as the rapids curled violently all around him. 

        Something bumped against his hand and he took hold, summoning the strength to bring it to the surface. 

        It was Whitaker. 

        She gasped, her breaths short and erratic as she clutched wildly to the straps of his rig. 

        “Riverbank,” Davy managed, panting with the effort to keep his head above the water as they were pulled along at alarming speed. He nodded in the direction of the bank opposite the side they had fallen in on. It was scattered with small, smooth rocks. Possibly shallow enough to pull themselves out if they could make it. 

        Whitaker nodded and Davy pushed her in the direction of the riverbank. He turned his head just in time to see a collection of boulders jutting up from the rapids. 

        Go!

        He had no time to react before the current crashed him against them. The back of his head struck solidly against something hard, and the world went black.

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