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C H A P T E R  T E N

 PAKISTAN 

CARAPACE

 3 MARCH, 1984     06:50

CHAPTERS

        Deep blue air floated high above. John stretched his fingers up to it, tracing a cloudless sky. Warm sand caressed his body, lightly stinging the back of his neck. 

        He’d been smiling.

        “You asked me if I had a favorite, remember?” said Nuria. “A favorite sunset.”

        John shifted, finding her beside him. Sunlight glinted off her freckled shoulders and pink knees. A strand of strawberry hair flipped between her fingers. It was her eyes, though, that stole his gaze, eyes that drank the sky.

        He had an answer. It bounced around in his head, unable to escape his lips. The sensation left him giddy, breaking a timid laugh through his grin. 

        She left him warmly numb. Unable to say a word, but that was okay. John just wanted to watch her twirl her hair.  

        Beside her in the sand was a pale blue box with rust peeling at its edges. It was unlatched. Open. The metal buckles of its lid twinkled in John’s eye, breaking his trance. 

        He’d seen this box before–the one that Nuria had taken from him and promised to hide. John found himself drawn to it, straining to peer inside. An uneasy twinge bent in his stomach as he sat up. 

        Why was it here?

        “This one,” Nuria muttered, staring down at what she held in her hand. “This is my favorite.”

        The sky darkened. Wind swept up in circles around them, carrying in a pungent scent of soot. John whirled around, watching embers stir from seemingly nowhere. They snatched at him as they frenzied. John flinched, batting at the embers as they bit his skin raw through his clothes.

        He hopped to his feet. The sun had fallen away, leaving them in swirling darkness. A single light emitted against the gale of black ash. It came from Nuria–from her hand. 

        Whatever she concealed was glowing.

        Curled fingers clutched the light to her chest as it grew hotter. Her skin became translucent and red in the erupting radiance. Her clothing crinkled at the seams with searing cinder. Her hair wisped in coils of sparkles.

        John reached for her, his desperation caught in his throat. In an instant, a flash burst from her, leaving in her place blackened bones hunched in the sand. They collapsed to charcoaled dust before John could touch her. 

        At once, the storm silenced, black ash fluttering to the earth to reveal the horror it had concealed. Remains of his village stretched out around him, a scorched grave of mutilated homes and crackling bone. 

        John’s breath staggered. 

        A voice struck into his head. It was soundless–voiceless, but he could feel it inside him. The words felt like knives slicing through the cords of his brain until they struck out against the inside of his skull. They scraped and carved to form the same letters over and over, forcing him to acknowledge the voice. It became all he could perceive. 

        I. See. You.

        John spun around.

        The shadow of a naked man birthed from the air before him, splitting between planes of darkness into a hazy shape stepping forward. Ashes from the air warped into it, giving it form. The haze peeled away in a wash of embers to reveal a figure made of muscle and bone.

        The phantom. He saw it clearly now.

Black ropes of fleshless sinew wrapped over its body. Teeth of obsidian and bone protruded like shrapnel along its limbs and shoulders. Its face was concealed by two clasped hands of swirling ivory and fragmented glass, morphing back over its scalp to form a halo of horns. It was eyeless, featureless. Its only human-like appearance was a set of human teeth exposed along its skinless jaws–teeth it proudly turned its head to show.

        It stretched its neck–relaxed its shoulders.

        Another step brought it closer.

        An outstretched hand raised inches from John.

        It wanted to touch him. No. It wanted John to touch it.

        John’s soul retreated into the hollow shell he had become. He was devoid of power, strength–a will to flee. Fear alone held him in place as the black carrion peered into his mind, imparting the words again.

        I. See. You.

        In an instant, the village transformed into a vast crater. Towering blades of abyssal glass clawed upwards from the crater’s rocky edge. They stood teetering at the precipice, an unwelcoming darkness pulling at him. It dragged his vision down–down into the basin of rock where an eerie fog pooled together. Like a weightless sea, it crashed against an unseen structure at its center.

        Then the structure moved.

        It was taller, much taller–standing high above the crater itself. A sculpted, god-like being swayed in the night. Twisted horns and splitting mandibles crowned its head. The being peered down at him, its gaze awash with a golden smolder. It blocked the moon and all the stars–sucking the light out of the sky into its darkly mauve skin. Fire broomed beneath its flesh.

        The being’s palms raised outwards.

        The world seemed to tear apart as all light drew into its open palms. Tendrils of shadow wrapped over all else around them, encasing them in a dome of darkness and fog. The light illuminated to a blinding strength.

        Then, at once, a brilliant flash of green tore him from the darkness.

        He shook awake.

        The green flash turned to sunlight in John’s crust-sealed eyes. The storm in his head turned to flapping canvas sheets and a motorized roar. The bellowing of the machinery shook the nerves in his body. An ache in his back whined as he became aware of the metal bench he slept against. Stretching back upright, he felt his boots stutter over a tread-plated floor.

        It was just a dream. Where am I?

        Morning air blew through the rips in his clothing, stirring a scent of damp sweat in his nose. The smell mixed with iron and thick, sinus burning fumes. It was inescapable.

        John rocked lethargically in his seat, his head slumping back to his lap. He wanted to curl to the floor and sate the hunger he still felt for sleep. Gravity enticed his begging body forward.

        A hand dug into his shoulder, keeping him from falling. He was promptly shoved back upright, his hair snagging on the rough canvas behind him.

        Oh. That’s right. He was a prisoner. 

        How long had they been moving? Hours–maybe days drifted by, morphing into living dreams that stretched on ceaselessly. 

        None of it was real. It couldn’t be.

        Nuria. Father.

        His chest became light. 

        A frail hammering fluttered in his heart.

        Breathing became difficult through the collection of dirt in his nasal passage. Desperate to open his mouth, he worked his lips to break the seal of dried spit and blood that had formed over them.

        With a sticky smack, John’s mouth opened and drew a deep breath that stung the inside of his throat. The rough air clawed down his lungs, scraping over his sore trachea.

        He swept his hand up to clear the gunk from his vision, but stopped unexpectedly. Something bound his wrists behind him. He turned about, groggily seeking a way to free himself.

        Something braced his chest and rammed him back into his seat. 

        He froze, startled by the unforeseen warden. A moment passed before the discomfort in his wrists drove him into distress. His fingers were buzzing from a loss of circulation that became increasingly uncomfortable. Regardless of his exhaustion and knowledge that he was being watched, he tried again to readjust his wrists, which now seared with pain.

        A blow to the stomach deflated his attempt. 

        Two hands snagged him by the collar and crammed him back against the bench. John retched hoarsely, his head dangling below his shoulders. Pain in his abdomen drummed through his nerves, filling him with a slow wave of queasiness. 

        John slunk back, defeated. 

        He felt hollow. Dead, but somehow alive. They kept him that way, despite his begging for it to end.

        Stinging tears shot into John’s eyes, helping them open to a burst of morning light. He hissed, turning his head away from the intrusive glare. 

        The light gradually dimmed as his eyes adjusted. He blinked rapidly, forcing his surroundings to come into focus. 

        He sat inside a canvas covered truck. The light to his left came from a flapping opening towards the back of the truck-bed. Looking down, he noticed dried mud caked the rusted floor beneath his boots. His boots were now frayed and split to expose the bloody rags that had once been his hiking socks. 

        On either side of the truck sat rows of soldiers armed with sleek rifles unlike anything John had seen before. Clean and black, they were decorated in ridiculous looking gear. Short scopes, grips, and what looked like snubbed pipes screwed on the ends of the barrels made the weapons look like guns from a science fiction movie.

        The soldiers were dressed in dusty greens and tans similar to the Russians, but varying in detail. Their armor was light, with pads across the shoulders and high collars protecting their necks. Fabric covered their round helmets that looked far less domed than the Soviet’s, and were fitted with new, untattered goggles. Over their armor, they were strapped with harnesses laden with pouches, tools, and sheathed blades. They were far more supplied than any Soviet he encountered, even Moisey and his American backed troops.

        Moisey. John tasted bile. 

        His hatred was spent, his body diminished to screaming aches and a dull throbbing in his muscles. Gritting his teeth and swallowing the memory of betrayal was all he could muster.

        “Sir, he’s awake,” said the soldier across from him. He wore a black balaclava over his face. The others did too, John noticed. Only their eyes were visible. John could feel the contempt they had for him each time they shot a glance in his direction. 

        “Watch him, rendezvous’ just up ahead,” came a curt reply. John recognized the voice. Whoever just spoke had been there–in the interrogation room. He had dark hair–a sweat-stained shirt and tie. 

        Memories of the night before flashed behind his eyes. The questioning, the accusations–John was sure it would never end. Remembering the sickness–the embarrassment, it wore on his tender mind. He wanted to forget, to crawl into sleep and not wake up.

        The soldier leaned back with a nod, shooting a look at John. He made a show of his authority with a gesture to the rifle held in his lap. 

        John grimaced. Gross thoughts of death slipped into his thoughts. The sinking fatigue in his body, the haunting memories of those he lost, especially this endless ride into oblivion–he wanted all of it to end. Maybe pushing the limits of his captors was the answer. He could be free from the pain, one way or another.

        The truck whined to a stop. At once, the crew of soldiers rose to their feet. John was pinned down as his bindings were removed. With a twist of his arm, he was yanked to his feet and bound again at his wrists with a tightening series of metal clicks. 

        The cuffs cranked over his skin, squeezing down to the bone. John buckled, wincing. It took all his strength to not lose his footing. 

        Ahead, the soldiers shuffled for the exit, hopping out into the sunlight in sets of two. Gruff fingers clamped over John’s collarbone from behind, a thumb digging into the nape of his neck. The pressure flinched him forward. Another soldier wrung an arm under John’s, preventing him from collapsing. Together they made for the morning sun echoing through the opening.

        John came to the edge of the truck bed, the sun now blaring in his face. He scowled, tilting his head. Given no time to adjust, his escorts lifted him down to the ground. 

        His feet landed awkwardly, twisting at the ankle. He was snatched back to his feet by his escorts, but not before he bit into the coarse sand below. His mouth twitched, but he was too weak to stand by himself. Rough grains now pinched against his cheek.

        A snap of fire sparked and died in him just then. Realizing he could have taken the chance to run stuck him in the ribs. He cursed himself for letting the moment pass, but knew he probably had only enough strength to run so far before being tackled and restrained again. Still, a small part of him nurtured the idea.

        Escape–one way or another, he told himself. The thought soothed him a bit.

        John was hauled several steps onward, then stopped abruptly. John raised his head. A small square of men had formed around him. Each man faced eastward with straightened backs and weapons secured tight to their chests. They looked like pieces of a chess set.

        They stood in silence, time dragging on. 

        Anxiety pricked at the back of John’s neck. The longer they waited, the more unsure he became of his situation. What did his future look like? Would it be cut short, or would it continue to crawl on painfully for weeks to come? 

        He squinted, searching for a clue for what they might do with him. There was nothing but stretching desert between the cracks of all the soldiers and their gear. Endless nothing.

        A distant rumble lifted his ears. The thumping approached rapidly in the wind. That sound, he heard it before–that night.

        Helicopter.

        They were going to take him away. Escape became a dwindling hope as the thought of never seeing home again squeezed in. Thoughts of imprisonment and relentless torture quickened his breathing. Is that what they’d do to him? They’d take him to America–throw him in a cell, or hand him to the Russians to tear him apart. He heard stories from the deserters back home–he couldn’t let that happen to him. He wouldn’t suffer for something he didn’t do. 

        He’d only defended himself–tried to protect his family.

        Another memory flashed in his head. The dead Russian in his home. The brutal murders–the dead he added to the earth. 

        He killed them.

        Desperation spurned a stomach-tilting choice in his head. He could throw himself from the helicopter, sparing him the agony of prolonged abuse and the torment of his memories.

        What if he lived? A new thought bloomed. 

        He recalled the miracle he experienced the night before. He was executed at gunpoint. He should have died, but he didn’t–he came back. Somehow. Maybe he could do it again.

        Imagining the plunge from the sky sent a shiver through his core, though. The idea stagnated.

        Wind beat against them with waves of dust as the helicopter was suddenly upon them. Blotting the sun, the fish-shaped aircraft banked powerfully through the air, circling down to the desert floor. Rising sunbeams from the horizon rebounded from its silver body, striking light down on them like lightning from a singular stormcloud.

        The soldiers around him maintained their composure, tilting their helmets only slightly to combat the sting of dust. John twisted in his escort’s grip, straining to turn from the biting sand.

        Under his brow, John spotted black-clad persons exit the helicopter as its feet settled onto the ground. He couldn’t tell how many there were, only that their outlines resembled the men around him.

        More Americans.

        Someone outside the group stepped toward the newcomers. He wore no helmet. His dark, brown hair blew with the rush of wind. 

        He was the one from the interrogation–the one who had spoken before. 

        John noticed some of the men around him eyeing each other. He bent his head to glance at one of his escorts. The soldier’s squinted eyes were darting over the scene. 

        What was taking so long? They looked nervous.

        No one spoke; no introductions, no salutes, or any other exchange of conversion. The only sound was the ever-slowing thud of the helicopter’s blades. 

        Tension grew amongst the group. Whatever was happening wasn’t planned.

        The blades eventually came to a stop, leaving a dull hum in John’s ears. A moment later, he heard a pair of feet step out onto the field of sand and rock. The steps continued, crunching closer over the sandstone.

        “Mr. Nolan Horne?” a silken voice greeted the man from the interrogation. “It is a pleasure.”

        “Transfer was supposed to be with a Lieutenant Moore,” Nolan stated.

        “The Lieutenant’s team has been reassigned. I will fulfill the transfer, as approved by the Associate Deputy Director, Mr. Morgan Read–your boss.”

        The stranger spoke with a tart satisfaction. John could feel the smile on his face. His skin pricked up.

        “Our boss,” replied Nolan.

        “Just so. The approval’s here, in writing–or perhaps you’d prefer to call Mr. Read. I can establish a discrete line of communication inside–”

        “That…won’t be necessary.”

        “Of course not,” said the stranger. His voice seemed to lift and fall with an assuredness that put Nolan on edge. Nolan’s responses were starting to falter.

        “Where is he? Where is the boy?”

        “He’s…” Nolan’s voice trailed. John’s brow raised. Nolan cleared his throat, snapping his fingers. 

        The wall of soldiers parted, opening to the two conversing men. On the right was Nolan Horne, a well-groomed man with combed hair swept back. He seemed slightly out of place dressed in the same gear as the soldiers around him. His attire seemed to think so too, appearing like a wolf’s maw swallowing the head of a man who had wandered into its den. His freshly-shaved jaw peaked out over the collar of his armored vest, a stoic call for help just as the teeth started to sink in.

        To Nolan’s left was an uncanny personage. Like death himself, the lanky stranger cocked his head at John with an unblinking fascination, spelling his fate with a look. He had shoulder-length blonde hair slicked behind oval ears, gaunt cheeks, a skewed jaw, and a set of pale blue eyes the size of scarabs. They were the kind of eyes that were unreasonably comfortable with staring. 

        His narrow shape was hidden beneath folded layers of black; a tailored suit, overcoat, over-polished shoes, and a set of black leather gloves. The only color to his ghostly garb was a lavender-patterned tie, leading from his pasty neck to his burial’s ensemble. He had the resemblance of a demoiselle crane. 

        “Remarkable,” the stranger mused.

        John was led forward, halting at the edge of Nolan’s cluster of men. John’s mouth twitched, finding the energy to glare up at the wiry figure. The stranger’s gaze nauseated him, but John refused to turn away. 

        “Saether,” said Nolan.

        The stranger flicked his gaze from John, crooking his bird-like neck towards Nolan. His jaw was slow to follow. 

        “You’re Mr. Saether,” Nolan added. “I remember you. Saw your name on an assignment in Berlin.”

        “And here I thought we’d crossed paths,” the stranger smiled, clicking his teeth. “Shame, but now I can formally introduce myself. Ambrose Saether–” he stretched a slender, gloved hand to Nolan.

        John wrung his wrists in his cuffs, watching his captor so easily commune with this creature. Jaw clenched, he glowered at them under his matted hair. Disgust broiled within him.

        “Didn’t expect to meet you all the way out here,” Nolan said, chewing at the tension emanating from the situation.

        “Priorities changed,” said Ambrose, turning back to John.

        John met his eyes. He huffed harshly through his nose and mouth. Heat hummed in his fingertips. He refused to be anywhere near Ambrose. He wouldn’t be taken by him. 

        John would decide his own fate. He wanted to fight–one last time.

        “Right, let’s get the detainee set–clock’s ticking,” Horne motioned to his men.

        “No need, Mr. Horne,” Ambrose said with a hand held towards John’s escorts. “My men will take him from here.”

        Nolan paused, shifting his weight to the other foot. 

        His escort stuttered in place, waiting for Nolan’s command. John kept his eyes centered on Ambrose, waiting for his moment. He saw it coming–right at the exchange. He would fight then–he’d muster the strength.

        “Understand this is purely out of precaution for the mission,” Ambrose added with an upward curl of his lips. He raised a leather bound finger, curling it in gesture to a group of four waiting by the helicopter.

        These gunmen wore the same issued equipment as Nolan’s soldiers, but entirely in black. Their identities were hidden under wool masks and tinted desert goggles, concealing them entirely. The two centermost soldiers marched towards John at Ambrose’s signal, slinging their rifles behind them.

        Nolan waved his men down. In the moment of confusion, the escorts holding John relinquished their grip. John nearly missed it as his feet began carrying him directly for the silver shadow that was Ambrose.

        This was it. His chance. 

        Hate filled his belly. He wasn’t a prisoner–he would never subjugate himself to them. Especially to this Ambrose. John would die here–fighting.

        A presence seeped into his mind, breathing life to the fire inside him.  

        This would be the beginning. This is where he would kill them all.

        “Come John, there’s so much for you to show me,” Ambrose beamed, exposing wide rows of pure-white teeth. He extended a hand to him.

        John shuddered, planting his feet in his path.

        What?

        “Pardon?” said Nolan.

        The air whirled. 

        An impact exploded into John’s chest. Red mist sprayed out in a cloud. An ear-splitting boom cracked over the horizon, echoing into the sky.

        John lifted off his feet, head flinging back over his shoulders. He saw the sky heave over into the dirt as he crashed downward. Unimaginable waves of motion ruptured through his body, ceasing his ability to breathe.

        “Sniper!”

        Gunshots erupted, their drumming punching into John’s rushing eardrums. He rolled over, his tongue pressed back into his throat. He felt his flesh pulled through his body, his ribs tracing the cool air.

        Control slipped from him. His limbs fell loose, his feet kicked out slow–helpless.

        John’s eyes rolled back, relinquishing his sight to blindness. Through the sound of pumping blood in his ears, he heard screaming, gunfire, the roar of engines and swooping metal cutting the air. 

        There was a burst of orange in John’s retinas, then nothing.

        Nothing. 

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