“What the hell am I doing?”
The grey cliffs zip past the hatch of a not-quite-surplus Sikorsky UH-60 Blackhawk. You’re wearing your not-quite-surplus IMTV, ECH, ILBE, M16A4, Glock 19, and the other thousand pounds of bullshit you were sick of the Corps making you wear. You’re staring out at the arid mountains east of Kandahar that you were sick of the Corps making you march through.
Mitch looks up from his dozing. “What was that, Gunny?”
“Nothing,” you shout past the rotor noise, “go back to sleep, princess.”
Fifty-thousand for sixty days, that’s what I’m doing.
When you signed on to L-3, you were thinking it would be escorting drunk chicas through Buenos Aires for their drug-kingpin sugar daddys, not this. You’ve already done this. This is bullshit. You’ve come to know these mountains pretty well. Which is, of course, why Dennis wanted you on this op.
You shoot a glance over to Dennis. He’s in the same kit as the rest of you, lieutenant bars on his lapel. He’s not a lieutenant, in fact, you’re not totally sure he’s L-3. You have no idea where he came from, but the bars are an instantly-recognizable sigil for the squad, so for now it’ll be Lieutenant Dennis. Dennis is really anxious to visit a village named Tichi, up in the rocky hellscape near the border. He’s looking for something, and he feels like he needs a squad of ex-Marines to find it – which means he’s probably looking to take it away from someone. You’re starting to wonder if the VP of ops at L-3 knows what he’s up to.
Tits. Fruity cocktails with little umbrellas. Goddammit.
As the sun starts to set, you get a glimpse of another Blackhawk a mile or two away along with two Bell Viper gunships. There’s no such thing as a not-quite-surplus Viper gunship. You catch Dennis’ eye and nod your head out the window. He leans past the dozing Mitch, looks out the window, and nods.
“Alright everyone,” he shouts, “lean in.” The squad stirs from their reverie and huddles in the center of the cabin. “We’re ten minutes out from Tichi, population fuck-all and a goat. You are one fireteam of two, you’re Alpha, the other team is Bravo. Green Berets passed through here a few weeks ago, said there was a wild animal tearassing through the place, a lion or somesuch. Locals asked for help. Army boys didn’t have time, you do.”
Bullshit. What the hell are we doing out here?
“Alpha’s LZ is Main Street Tichi. I’ll make contact with the local boss and get intel while you gents secure the goat. Bravo’s setting down near some caves to the north of the village. Under cover of Marine Corps gunships, Sierras 79 and 68, both squads will search the area for whatever the hell is causing the havok.”
“Are we worried about the locals being hostile?” you ask.
Dennis shrugs, “No more than anyone else in these mountains, so who knows?”
Mitch can’t hold it in anymore, “So what…all this for a rabid cave bear? Costs half a million just to fuel those Vipers.”
“Well Mitch,” Dennis says,”we’re being paid a metric fuckton of money to find that rabid cave bear and – and this bit is important – bring it back alive if we can.”
There’s a collective moan in the cabin.
“We don’t generally do ‘alive’, Lieutenant,” quips Cage, who’s never encountered anything he’d not rather blow up.
“Well today you do, we’ve got gear in the back. Hooks, nets, tasers. So put your game faces on and let’s get this over with.”
The squad, trying to decide if they’re pissed or simply bemused, settles back into an irritable silence for the next few minutes until the pilots kill the lights and give the word to pull the doors.
The chopper drops you off just outside a circle of five large huts and, no shit, one bored-looking goat on a tether in the middle. The locals are giving you the same looks you figure you’d give if a heavily-armed squad of foreign mercenaries landed in your backyard for no reason. A cross between distrust, pissed, and slightly curious. Dennis rolls up on the angriest one and starts babbling in Arabic. After the Blackhawk lifts off to patrol, Mitch cracks open the cargo box and distributes a handful of tasers, tranquilizer pistols, and catch-poles to the squad. Cage and Mike put on their night-eyes and go to walk the perimeter while Big Smith and Little Smith go take a closer look at the locals to make sure none of them seem twitchy. You and Mitch guard the goat.
A familiar voice pops in over what amounts to your platoon channel, another L-3 grunt named Benny. “Bravo here, there’s not much to these caves, looks like someone’s been living in one of them though. Blanket, fire pit, some beat up old Russian gear. We’ll keep looking.”
“Watch out for bears, Benny,” you respond.
“Hey Cole – roger that, I’m ready to tranq a motherfucker.”
Mitch sighs loudly and stares at the sky. “At least it’s a nice night. Full moon.”
“Spent plenty of nights in the Hindu Kush, Mitch,” you growl, ”didn’t much want to spend any more.”
“Yet here you are…”
You and Mitch crawl out of your skins and just about take the speaker’s head off when you spin around. It’s a good thing you don’t, because she’s pretty hot. Gorgeous. You can’t tell if she’s an Afghan or Pakistani, but her accent is South African without a hint of the local derp-derp. She’s wearing a drab wool sari and her eyes are the color of fire.
“Damn lady,” you manage, taking a step back out of shiv range, “you should know better than to creep up on guys like us.”
She gives you the kind of smile that men start wars over. “I apologize, sometimes I forget myself.” She eyes Mitch’s catch-pole. “Big game hunters?”
“Word has it you folks needed someone to take care of a wild animal problem.” It sounds pretty ridiculous coming out of your mouth.
She chuckles, it’s almost musical. “Is that what Lieutenant Jones told you?”
“He’s really a Lieutenant?”
She eyes you both curiously. “You’re not Division?”
“Lady, I don’t even know what that is. We’re just a handful of grunts from L-3.”
She glances over her shoulder at Dennis, who’s having a much calmer conversation with the village Angry Old Guy than he was earlier. She leans in and lowers her voice a bit. She smells like morning dew and cloves – which sets you on edge more than anything else. Even the babes in this part of the world smell like BO and turmeric.
“The Lieutenant is trying to capture a beast to be sure, but he wasn’t invited. I’m not sure if Fariq will betray his prodigal son to you.”
Mitch finally finds his tongue, “Wait, what? Son?”
You’re interrupted by the sound of squealing metal echoing across the bluffs. The platoon channel explodes with voices.
“Sierra, what the hell was that?” Dennis calls out.
“CO, Sierra 68, Hawk 2 just came apart in the air and is down. I didn’t see him taking fire, it’s like he hit a tree, but there’s nothing up here. Rolling in to get eyes on the ground.”
You switch over to the squad channel, ”Okay boys, that was Hawk 2 going down for no good reason, meet me at the goat.”
Dennis has ditched the old guy and rejoins the squad. You start looking around for something defensible, but there’s not much but dirt, clay huts, and the goat. The babe vanished as quietly as she arrived.
“CO, Sierra 68, Hawk 2 is crushed, no way the crew survived that.”
“CO, Bravo,” pipes in Benny, “we can be at the crash site in five minutes.”
“Bravo, CO, double-time it. Sierra 68, CO, eyes on Bravo.”
“CO, Sierra 68, eyes on Bravo.”
You hate standing around with your dick in your hands, but Benny is three miles away. You hear the reassuring rotor sounds of your Blackhawk and Sierra 79 off to the south.
“CO, Sierra 68, I’ve got motion in the rocks 50 yards north of the crash site.”
“That’s it,” Dennis growls. “Gunny, let’s mount up and get out there.”
Hawk 1 comes in and you load up for a quick hop to the crash site. The flight only takes a few minutes. You’re dropped off at the wreckage of the other Blackhawk about the same time Benny’s squad arrives. The Viper driver wasn’t kidding, a boulder the size of a refrigerator went through the canopy, the flight crew, and the turbine.
Little Smith comes up next to you and eyes the boulder. “Whaddya think, Gunny? Rabid cave bear with a catapult?”
You give him the most withering look you can muster in the twilight. “Will you kindly fuck right off and go create a perimeter?” Little Smith throws a sloppy salute and trots off. He’s replaced by Dennis.
“What the hell are we doing here, Lieutenant?”
“Capturing a werewolf for a secret quasi-governmental agency.”
“Fuck you, Dennis.”
The other man gives you a “whatever” shrug and strolls off to check on Benny.
You set your squad up with their backs to the wreckage, with Benny’s team covering the other side. Dennis is chatting up Sierra on a private frequency, but your bet is he’s going to have them try to flush out whatever’s hiding up in the crags. As twilight turns to full dark, everyone straps on their night vision.
Mitch is crouched next to you, his SAW on a bipod. You stare at it a minute and chuckle.
“What’s so funny, sarge?”
You pat Mitch on the helmet. “I’m not sure that weapon is rated for ‘bring back alive’.”
“Yeah well, cave bears don’t have catapults either.”
Dennis’ voice comes in over everyone’s radio, “Okay gents, Sierra is going to make some passes and see if they can flush out our quarry. Everyone get your tranqs and tasers ready.”
Mitch noisily cycles a cartridge through the SAW.
A few minutes later, the Vipers swoop down and the night is filled with the noise of their rotary cannons as they each take a pass across the rocks above. As their turbine sounds fade into the distance, the unit holds its breath and looks out into the night for movement.
“CO, Hawk 1, I caught some movement, but whatever’s up there knows how to stay out of sight. Sierra’s munitions fouled FLIR.”
“Sierra, CO, make another run.”
“CO, Sierra 79, rolling in hot.”
The gunship swoops down the ridge and opens up with its cannon. It’s hard to see through the glare, but you can’t miss the massive length of pipe tossed like a spear from a cluster of rocks a few yards off 79’s attack run. It crashes through the Viper’s turbine and shreds the rotor. The gunship drops like a rock and explodes against the ground a hundred yards up the ridge.
“What the fuck was that?” shouts the Hawk pilot over the radio. “CO, what the fuck is that thing?”
“Hawk 1, CO, steer clear and hold fast.”
The unit’s got their game faces on now, and no one in your squad is holding a taser anymore.
Benny was the first to die.
The 12-foot tall, thousand-pound, fur-coated razorblade came out of the glare of the explosion, tore Benny’s face off with its massive jaws and disemboweled the two Bravo grunts next to him in a single motion, then leapt over the Blackhawk wreckage into your squad, landing on Mike, crushing him. Mitch, who will hereinafter be known as a steely-eyed billy badass, kept his cool enough to stitch the bastard up through its jump over the wreckage, but that doesn’t stop it from tearing Big Smith in half from crotch-to-shoulder before leaping back out into the rocks. You notice two pink fluffy darts sticking out of the thing’s butt before it leaps, you guess Dennis didn’t freeze up either.
One of the two guys left in Bravo pops a 40mm grenade into the rocks, but all it does is add to the chaos and blind everyone again, allowing the beast another run at you. A boulder comes flying in and takes off the head of grenade-boy before embedding itself in the chest of his buddy. The monster follows it in through a hail of gunfire from you and your three. You’re slowing it down, and you’re turning the thing into a bullet sponge, but that doesn’t stop it from tearing Little Smith in half, twisting Cage’s head off, and kicking Mitch so hard he flies through the air and leaves a dent in the side of the chopper.
You empty your magazine into the thing as it leaps at you on all fours and bites into your shoulder. While you’ve got the thing where you want it, you grab at your belt with your left hand, looking for your knife, but you come up with the butt of your flare gun. Instinct takes over and you pull the trigger, launching a burning flare into the thing. It roars and whips its head, flinging you a few yards and taking most of the flesh off your forearm.
Dennis is firing tranq dart after tranq dart into the thing, and somehow Mitch has held on to his SAW and he starts firing into the thing as soon as you’re clear. The monster leaps back out into the rocks, but it’s fur is on fire and it’s blowing green smoke. You punch down on your radio before you pass out from blood loss.
“Sierra 68, Alpha, bogey’s burning with green smoke, light the fucker up!”
“Alpha, I have orders not to engage directly.”
“You asshole, ten marines are dead, kill this motherfucker!”
There’s a pause.
“Alpha, Sierra 68, heads down.”
You try to claw your way back to the wreck, but the world is closing in around you. The smoldering thing climbs out from behind the rocks and stalks towards you, the burning flare stuck in its chest and sputtering out. It snarls and takes two very deliberate “I’m going to kill this little shit” steps towards you, then explodes as a zillion 50mm rounds from Sierra 68’s nose gun tear into it.
After the gunship roars off into the night, it gets real quiet. But maybe it’s just because you’re bleeding out into the goddamn Afghanistan dirt.
Mitch stumbles over to you and starts pulling shit out of your trauma kit muttering to himself in shock, and Dennis walks over the the remains, kneels down, and pokes at it in a few spots. He sighs heavily, stands, and comes over to look down on the two of you. He seems real interested in your shredded arm. You try to say something, but you don’t have it in you.
Without batting an eye, Dennis draws his sidearm and puts a bullet into Mitch’s temple. The kid didn’t even register it, just collapses to the dirt with the same concerned look on his face he had while he was trying to stop your bleeding. You try to move, but your body’s made of cold lead.
Dennis sighs again.
“I guess you’ll have to do,” he says. Then everything goes black.