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Corporal Bradley Gardner did not see the lone Chodrecai soldier, at least not until the damned thing was ready to frag his ass.
“Gardner! On your nine!”
Reacting to the warning from somewhere behind him, Gardner spun to his left in time to see the wounded alien warrior rising from beneath smoldering wreckage, bringing up the pulse rifle it carried in its bulky, muscled arms. Its pale gray skin was darkened with ash and soot. Shreds of burned skin and muscle hung from its left arm, injuries no doubt resulting from the fuel-air bombs that had blanketed the area less than thirty minutes earlier. It appeared to Gardner that the alien’s molded body armor had melted in places, perhaps even fusing to the Chodrecai’s exposed, scorched skin. How the thing managed to stay on its feet was beyond him.
Then none of that mattered as the gaping muzzle of the soldier’s pulse rifle rose to point in his direction.
Gardner fired without really aiming, the oversized Plysserian weapon bucking in his hands as it belched energy. The air whined in his ears and a bolt of displaced air crossed the space separating him from the Chodrecai, striking the wounded alien in its broad chest and sending it staggering backward. It tripped over a piece of flame-riddled debris and fell, toppling to the blackened ground.
“Get down!” another voice shouted, this time from somewhere to Gardner’s right, and the corporal dropped instinctively to one knee as figures rushed past him. Leveling his pulse rifle at the fallen Chodrecai, he watched as fellow Marines closed on its position, training their own weapons on it. Someone yelled at the soldier in its native language, ordering the alien to remain still and offer no resistance.
“Nice shot, Gardner,” a gravelly voice said from behind him, and Gardner looked up to see Gunnery Sergeant Kelley Owens, his platoon leader. The imposing African-American man’s eyes bored into him from beneath the brim of his floppy green camouflage boonie hat. “Almost makes up for you sleepwalking through the area. You looking to get your ticket punched, or what?”
Rising to his feet, Gardner felt his face flush in embarrassment as he watched fellow Marines take the wounded Chodrecai soldier into custody. “Sorry, Gunny. I was too busy looking for anything we might salvage. I screwed up.” It had been a boot mistake, the kind of error Gardner might have made what seemed like a lifetime ago, when he was nothing more than a full-time hospital payroll administrator back in Kansas City and a part-time Marine reservist.
A lifetime ago, before the war had come.
From somewhere off to his right, Gardner heard more weapons fire and turned to see other Marines—some wielding pulse rifles like his own while others carried M4A1 carbines—converging on another Chodrecai warrior, this one appearing uninjured as it lunged from behind the burnt-out shell of a collapsible shelter. The alien was firing on the run, lumbering toward the protective cover of the forest surrounding the glade where the Chodrecai had made their encampment. Gardner flinched as one Marine caught the full brunt of the alien’s weapon, everything above his waist disintegrating in a cloud of blood, skin, bone, and clothing fragments. What remained of the man fell to the ground as his companions pressed forward, catching the Chodrecai in a cross fire until the alien soldier collapsed in the onslaught.
“Damn it,” Owens said, shaking his head as he and Gardner made their way over to the fallen Marine. Gardner’s stomach lurched at the sight, one he had already seen far too many times in the months that had passed since the arrival of the Plysserians and their enemies, the Chodrecai. Using the muzzle of his pulse rifle to turn the dead Marine’s largely uninjured lower body onto its front, Owens reached down and moved aside a piece of shredded camouflage uniform to read the name tape stitched above one back pocket. “Meade,” he read. “Shit.” Looking to Gardner, he asked, “Did you know him?”
Gardner replied, “Not well. We played poker a few times.” It was a reality of the life he now lived that he did not form close friendships with most of the people with whom he came in contact. That was a consequence of his frequent transfers from unit to unit around the country, as well as occasional trips abroad, thanks to the rather specialized knowledge he mostly by accident had come to possess.
Yeah. Lucky me.
Owens was walking across the scorched ground looking around the glade and the burnt remains of what had been the Chodrecai encampment. Wreckage still smoldered here and there, but some of the Marines already were seeing to the small fires, some kicking dirt on the flames while others used entrenching tools—military folding shovels—to take care of the larger fires. “Doesn’t look like the Air Force left much of anything,” the gunny said.
“Probably not,” Gardner conceded, reaching up to wipe sweat from his forehead. The pair of B-2 stealth bombers dispatched to sanitize this target had done so with their usual effectiveness, all but obliterating the encampment with surgical precision.
“Recognize anything that might be a portal generator?” Owens asked.
Gardner shook his head. Very little of whatever equipment and materiel staged at this location had survived the B-2 bombardment. He pointed toward a larger, curved structure, similar in design to the old Quonset huts he remembered from boot camp at the recruit training base in San Diego. Only a portion of one curved wall still stood, the rest of the structure having been consumed by fire. “That looks like it was the only thing large enough to house it,” Gardner said, “but it got hammered pretty good. I’ll be surprised if there’s anything salvageable in there.”
The camp’s location had been pinpointed less than a day earlier, deep in an expansive, largely uninhabited area of Pacific Northwest forest in Oregon. Orbiting satellites had detected the energy output of what was believed to be the power source for yet another in a series of portals that had been opened between Earth and Jontashreena.
“According to the satellite imagery they gave us,” Owens said, “whatever generator they had here could only have been operational for thirteen or fourteen hours. Still plenty of time to move troops and equipment through.” Giving the area another look, he added, “And I have to say, I don’t see that much stuff lying around here.”
“If they stuck to usual Gray tactics, they’ve scattered,” Gardner replied, using the nickname bestowed upon the Chodrecai during his first encounter in southwestern Missouri with members of the alien race, in response to their pallid skin pigmentation. He waved his left hand to indicate the surrounding Oregonian forest. “They could be anywhere out there. Besides us and maybe Bigfoot, there’s nobody for miles.”
From behind him, a deep voice said, “We must also remember that the Chodrecai who built the generator here had to have arrived via another portal.”
Gardner and Owens turned to see the towering figure of Makoquolax, a Plysserian soldier. He was dressed in a formfitting dark uniform, over which he wore a vest comprised of interconnected armor plates, along with an equipment harness. Large, oval-shaped black eyes peered out from beneath a protruding brow, and small holes occupied the locations where ears or a nose would be on a human head. The pale gray skin of his exposed arms and bald head were covered with an intricate series of patterns and lines rendered in dark blue ink. Many Plysserian soldiers followed this same practice, as Makoquolax had explained to him, with each of the glyphs representing a significant battle in which the individual soldier had fought, or some other major life event the wearer wished to commemorate. Seeing the tattoos on various Plysserians had given Gardner cause to christen their newfound, unlikely friends as “Blues.”
“Hey, Max,” Gardner said, invoking the moniker he had given to the Plysserian. Indicating the destroyed camp with a nod of his head, he asked, “You thinking what I’m thinking?”
Nodding his large, oblong head in greeting, Max said, “I have surveyed the area and found nothing of use, but the size of this encampment suggests a larger contingent somewhere nearby.”
That other camp, Gardner knew, likely had been the insertion point for a portal that had originated on Jontashreena . As they seemed to have been doing with increasing frequency during the past several weeks, Gray scouting parties had come to Earth and immediately set to the task of erecting a portal generation site. Once completed, it would serve as an anchor point for a stronger, more reliable conduit, one that would not have to be powered down due to the energy demands of maintaining a portal powered from only one end.
“Month after month of little to no activity,” Gunny Owens said, “and now all of a sudden the Grays are on the move again? Why now? If the reports we’ve been getting are right, they’re still rebuilding and reorganizing after their last big offensive, and we’ve heard nothing that says they’re ready to try again.”
Folding his muscled arms across his broad chest, Max replied, “Given the sporadic and often incomplete intelligence reports we have received from sympathetic sources on Jontashreena, it is entirely possible that at least some Chodrecai rebuilding and rearming efforts have been carried out in relative secret. However, with the threat of ever-dwindling resources on my home planet, such initiatives—covert or otherwise—would be plagued with difficulty.”
Max’s grasp of English was even better than Gardner’s understanding of the Plysserian’s native language, thanks to a wondrous translator device the alien had shown him during their first encounter. A band worn around the head, it interfaced directly with the wearer’s brain, accelerating cognitive functions with respect to speech and language. Gardner had no clue how it worked, but had come to rely on the device as an unparalleled communications and learning tool.
Gardner had heard some variation of Max’s explanation more than once. In short, the only reason Chodrecai forces did not keep pouring through countless portal locations across the world was the simple fact that Gray personnel and equipment, already stretched thin after the protracted war on their own world, were not sufficient to expand the campaign to Earth for any extended period. Chodrecai leaders had gambled on a massive three-pronged attack, targeting Moscow, Beijing, and Washington, D.C., in the hope of crippling three of Earth’s major military powers. Only fortunate happenstance had made it possible for sympathizers on Jontashreena to get information about the coming assaults, providing just enough time for American, Russian, and Chinese forces—working in concert with Blue allies—to ready a counteroffensive. Though the Chodrecai campaign had failed, the battle had been costly for all sides. Forces on Earth were still recovering and attempting to prepare for what many experts believed would be a renewed campaign.
And who the hell knows what the Grays are really doing?
“This is the fifth instance of a portal opening in three weeks,” Gardner said after a moment, “and the third one we’ve been able to confirm is due to Gray activity. I think it’s safe to say they’re on the move again.”
Owens nodded. “If they’re not ready to kick in the door, they’re at least sniffing around.”
Pausing a moment as though attempting to decipher the Marine’s words, Max finally replied, “Agreed. We should pass this information on to your superiors and mine as well. I believe any respite we may have enjoyed to this point is coming to an end, and we still have many preparations to make.”
“I’ll see about getting us transport,” Owens said. Looking to Gardner, he added, “Take another sweep, see if there’s anything worth taking with us. Otherwise, we’re out of here in fifteen minutes.”
“Aye, aye, Gunny,” Gardner said, shifting the pulse rifle so that it rested more comfortably in the crook of his right arm. The weight of the weapon now seeming more pronounced to him.
“I knew it,” he mused aloud, releasing a small, humorless grunt.
“I do not understand,” Max said, regarding him with what Gardner had long ago learned to recognize as an expression of confusion. “Something amuses you?”
Shaking his head, Gardner sighed. “It was all too good to last.”
© 2010 Dayton Ward