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AIRSPACE OVER THE PACIFIC OCEAN
1500 HOURS, 1 AUGUST
The vicious-looking airCRaft shot aCRoss the sky at near supersonic speed.
It was a modified Hercules cargo plane, known as an MC-130 “Combat Talon,” the delivery vehicle of choice for U.S. Special Forces units.
This Combat Talon stayed high, very high, it was as if it was trying to avoid being seen by radar systems down at sea level. This was unusual, because there was nothing down there—according to the maps, the nearest land in this part of the Pacific was an atoll 500 klicks to the east.
Then the rear loading ramp of the Combat Talon rumbled open and several dozen tiny figures issued out from it in rapid sequence, spreading out into the sky behind the soaring plane.
The forty-strong flock of paratroopers plummeted to earth, men in high-altitude jumpsuits—full-face breathing masks; streamlined black bodysuits. They angled their bodies downward as they fell, so that they flew head-first, their masks pointed into the onrushing wind, becoming human spears, freefalling with serious intent.
It was a classic HALO drop—high-altitude, low-opening. You jumped from 37,000 feet, fell fast and hard, and then stopped dangerously close to the ground, right at your drop zone.
Curiously, however, the forty elite troops falling to earth today fell in identifiable subgroups, ten men to a group, as if they were trying to remain somehow separate.
Indeed, they were separate teams.
CRack teams. The best of the best from every corner of the U.S. armed forces.
One unit from the 82nd Airborne Division.
One SEAL team.
One Delta team, ever aloof and seCRetive.
And last of all, one team of Force Reconnaissance Marines.
They shot into the cloud layer—a dense band of dark thunderclouds—freefell through the haze.
Then after nearly a full minute of flying, they burst out of the clouds and emerged in the midst of a full-scale five-alarm ocean storm: rain lashed their facemasks; dark clouds hung low over the heaving ocean; giant waves rolled and CRashed.
And through the rain, their target came into view, a tiny island far below them, an island that did not appear on maps anymore, an island with an airCRaft carrier parked alongside it.
Leading the Marine team was Captain Shane M. Schofield, call-sign “ScareCRow.”
Behind his HALO mask, Schofield had a rugged CReased face, black hair and blue eyes. Slicing down aCRoss those eyes, however, were a pair of hideous vertical scars, one for eACH eye, wounds from a mission-gone-wrong and the source of his operational nickname. Once on the ground, he’d hide those eyes behind a pair of reflective wraparound anti-flash glasses.
Quiet, intense and when necessary deadly, Schofield had a unique reputation in the Marine Corps. He’d been involved in several missions that remained classified—but the Marine Corps (like any group of human beings) is filled with gossip and rumor. Someone always knew someone who was there, or who saw the medical report, or who cleaned up the aftermath.
The rumors about Schofield were many and varied, and sometimes simply too outrageous to be true.
One: he had been involved in a gigantic multiforce battle in Antarctica, a battle which, it was said, involved a bloody and brutal confrontation with two of America’s allies, France and Britain.
Two: he’d saved the President during an attempted military coup at a remote USAF base. It was said that during that misadventure, the ScareCRow—a former pilot—had flown an experimental space shuttle into low earth orbit, engaged an enemy shuttle, destroyed it, and then come back to earth to rescue the President.
Of course none of this could possibly be verified, and so it remained the stuff of legend; legends, however, that Schofield’s new unit were acutely aware of.
That said, there was one thing about Shane Schofield that they knew to be true: this was his first mission back after a long layover, four months of stress leave, in fact. On this occasion someone really had seen the medical report, and now all of his men on this mission knew about it.
They also knew the cause of his stress leave.
During his last mission out, Schofield had been taken to the very edge of his psychological endurance. Loved ones close to him had been captured . . . and executed. It was even said in hushed whispers that at one point on that mission he had tried to take his own life.
Which was why the other members of his team today were slightly less-than-confident in their leader.
Was he up to this mission? Was he a time-bomb waiting to explode? Was he a basketcase who would lose it at the first sign of trouble?
They were about to find out.
AS HE shot downward through the sky, Schofield recalled their mission briefing earlier that day.
Their target was Hell Island.
Actually, that wasn’t quite true.
Their target was the aging supercarrier parked at Hell Island, the USS Nimitz, CVN-68.
The problem: soon after it had arrived at the isolated island to pick up some special cargo, a devastating tsunami had struck from the north and all contact with the Nimitz had been lost.
The oldest of America’s twelve Nimitz-class carriers, the Nimitz had been heading home for decommissioning, with only a skeleton CRew of 500 aboard—down from its regular 6,000. Likewise, its Carrier Battle Group, the cluster of destroyers, subs, supply ships and frigates that normally accompanied it around the globe, had been trimmed to just two CRuisers.
Contact with the two escort boats and the island’s communications center had also been lost.
Unfortunately, the unexpected tidal wave wasn’t the only hostile entity in play here: a North Korean nuclear submarine had been spotted a day earlier coming out of the Bering Sea. Its whereabouts were currently unknown, its presence in this area suspicious.
And so a mystery.
Equally suspicious to Schofield, however, was the presence of the other special operations units on this mission: the 82nd, the SEALs and Delta.
This was exceedingly odd. You never mixed and matched special ops units. They all had different specialties, different approACHes to mission situations, and could easily trip over eACH other. In short, it just wasn’t done.
You added all that up, Schofield thought, and this smelled suspiciously like an exercise.
Except for one thing.
They were all carrying live ammunition.
Hurtling toward the world, freefalling at terminal velocity, bursting out of the cloudband . . .
. . . to behold the Pacific Ocean stretching away in every direction, the only imperfection in its surface: the small dot of land that was Hell Island.
A gigantic rectangular gray object lay at its western end, the Nimitz. Not far from the carrier, the island featured some big gun emplacements facing south and east, while at the northeastern tip there was a hill that looked like a mini-volcano.
A voice came through Schofield’s earpiece. “All team leaders, this is Delta Six. We’re going for the eastern end of the island and we’ll work our way backto the boat. Your DZ is the flight deck: Airborne, the bow; SEALs, aft; Marines, mid-section.”
Just like we were told in the briefing, Schofield thought.
This was typical of Delta. They were born show-ponies. Great soldiers, sure, but glory-seekers all. No matter who they were working with—even today, alongside three of the best special forces units in the world—they always assumed they were in charge.
“Roger that, Delta leader,” came the SEAL leader’s voice.
“Copy, Delta Six,” came the Airborne response.
Schofield didn’t reply.
The Delta leader said, “Marine Six? ScareCRow? You copy?”
Schofield sighed. “I was at the mission briefing, too, Delta Six. And last I noticed, I don’t have any short-term memory problems. I know the mission plan.”
“Cut the attitude, ScareCRow,” the Delta leader said. His name was Hugh Gordon, so naturally his call-sign was “Flash.” “We’re all on the same team here.”
“What? Your team?” Schofield said. “How about this: how about you don’t break radio silence until you’ve got something important to say. ScareCRow, out.”
It was more important than that. Even a frequency-hopping enCRypted radio signal could be caught these days, so if you transmitted, you had to assume someone was listening.
Worse, the new French-made Signet-5 radio-wave decoder—sold by the French to Russia, Iran, North Korea, Syria and other fine upstanding global citizens—was specifically designed to seek out and locate the American AN/PRC-119 tactical radio when it was broadcasting, the very radio their four teams were using today. No one had yet thought to ask the French why they had built a locater whose only use was to pinpoint American tactical radios.
Schofield switched to his team’s private channel. “Marines. Switch off your tac radios. Listening mode only. Go to short-wave UHF if you want to talk to me.”
A few of his Marines hesitated before obeying, but obey they did. They flicked off their radios.
The four clusters of parACHutists plummeted through the storm toward the world, zeroing in on the Nimitz, until a thousand feet above it, they yanked on their ripcords and their chutes opened.
Their superfast falls were abruptly arrested and they now floated in toward the carrier. The Delta team landed on the island itself, while the other three teams touched down lightly and gracefully on the flight deck of the supercarrier right in their assigned positions—fore, mid and aft—guns up.
They had just arrived in Hell.
RAIN HAMMERED down on the flight deck.
Schofield’s team landed one after the other, unclipping their chutes before the great mushroom-shaped canopies had even hit the ground. The chutes were whipped away by the wind, leaving the ten Marines standing in the slashing rain on the flight deck, holding their MP-7s pointed outwards.
One after the other, they ripped off their face-masks, scanned the deck warily.
Schofield shucked his facemask and donned his signature silver wraparound glasses, masking his eyes. He beheld the deck around them.
The entire flight deck was deserted.
Except for the other teams that had just landed on it, not a soul could be seen. A few planes sat parked on the runways, some Tomcats and Hornets, and one chunky CH-53 Super Stallion helicopter.
There were star-shaped blood splatters on all of them, and also on the deck itself. But no bodies. Not one.
“Mother,” Schofield said to his number two, “what do you think?”
“What do I think?” the bulky female Marine to his right replied. “I think this is seriously fucked up. I was planning on spending this weekend watching David Hasselhoff DVDs. No one takes me away from the Hoff.”
Gena Newman was her real name, Gunnery Sergeant was her rank, but “Mother” was her call-sign and it didn’t relate to any overtly maternal traits. It was short for a slightly longer word starting with “Mother.”
At six-feet-two, 200 pounds, and with a fully-shaven head, Mother cut a mean figure. Tough, no-nonsense and fiercely loyal, she had accompanied Schofield on many missions, including the bad ones. She was also arguably the best Gunny in the Corps—once she had even been offered her pick of assignments outside Schofield’s command. She’d looked the Commandant of the Marine Corps in the eye and said, “I’m staying with the ScareCRow, sir.”
Mother gazed at the blood splatters on a nearby plane. “No, this was way suspect from the start. I mean, why are we here with D-boys, Airbornes and slithery SEALs? I’d rather just work with swordsmen.”
Swordsman was her word for a Marine: a reference to the swords they wore with their full-dress uniforms.
“Marines,” Schofield called, “the tower. Let’s move.”
Since they’d been assigned the mid-section of the supercarrier, Schofield’s Marines had the task of investigating the carrier’s six-story-high command tower, known as “the Island.” But since this mission also involved a real island, it was being referred to today as “the tower.”
They moved quickly through the rain, CRossed the wide flight deck, arrived at the base of the tower—to find the main door there covered in blood and about a million bullet holes. It hung askew, its hinges blasted.
Looking up, Schofield saw that every single antenna and radar array atop the command tower had been broken or destroyed. The main antenna mast was broken in the middle and now lay tilted over.
“What in God’s name happened here?” one of Schofield’s Marines asked softly. He was a big guy, broad-shouldered, with a super solid footballer’s neck. His name: Corporal Harold “Hulk” Hogan.
“Not a tsunami, that’s for sure,” Sergeant Paulo “Pancho” Sanchez said. Older and more senior than Hulk, he was a sly sarcastic type. “Tsunamis don’t shoot you in the head.”
The voice of the SEAL leader came through their earpieces: “All units, this is Gator, Starboard Elevator Three has been disabled. We’re taking the stairs, heading for the main hangar bay below the flight deck.”
“This is Condor,” the Airborne leader called in. “I got evidence of a firefight in the SAM launcher bay up at the bow. Lot of blood, but not a single body . . .”
“Delta Six here. We’re on the island proper. No sign of anything yet . . .”
Schofield didn’t send out any report.
“Sir,” Sanchez said to him. “You gonna call in?”
Sanchez exchanged a quick look with the Marine next to him, a tall guy named Bigfoot. Sanchez was one of the men who’d been dubious about Schofield’s mental state and his ability to lead this mission.
“Not even to tell the others where we are?”
“But what about—”
“Sergeant,” Schofield said sharply, “did you ask your previous commander to explain everything to you?”
“So don’t start doing it now. Focus on the mission at hand.”
Sanchez bit his lip and nodded. “Yes, sir.”
“Now, if no one else has anything to say, let’s take this tower. Move.”
Hurdling the twisted steel door, they charged into the darkness of the supercarrier’s command tower.
UP A series of tight ladders that formed the spine of the command tower, moving quickly. Blood on the rungs.
Still no bodies.
Schofield’s team came to the bridge, the middle of three glass-enclosed lookout levels on the tower.
They were granted a superb view of the flight deck outside . . . albeit through CRacked and smashed wraparound windows.
Nearly every window overlooking the flight deck had been destroyed. Blood dripped off what glass remained. Thousands of spent rounds littered the floor. Also, a few guns lay about: mainly M-16s, plus a few M-4 Colt Commandos, the short-barreled version of the M-16 used by special forces teams worldwide.
Mother led a sub-team upstairs, to the uppermost bridge: the flight control bridge. She returned a few minutes later.
“Same deal,” she reported. “Bucketloads of blood, no bodies. All windows smashed, and an armory’s worth of spent ammo left on the floor. A hell of a firefight took place here, ScareCRow.”
“A firefight that was cleaned up afterward,” Schofield said.
Just then, something caught his eye: one of the abandoned rifles on the floor, one of the M-4s.
He picked it up, examined it.
From a distance it looked like a regular M-4, but it wasn’t. It had been modified slightly.
The gun’s trigger-guard was different: it had been elongated, as if to accommodate a longer index finger that wrapped itself around the gun’s trigger.
“What the hell is that?” Hulk said, seeing it. “Some kind of super gun?”
“ScareCRow,” Mother said, coming over. “Most of these blood splatters are the result of bullet impacts. But some aren’t. They’re . . . well . . . thicker. More like arterial flow. As if some of the dead had entire limbs cut off.”
Schofield’s earpiece squawked.
“All units, this is Gator. My SEAL team has just arrived at the main hangar deck and holy shit, people, have we got something to show you. We aren’t the first force to have got here. And the guys before us didn’t fare well at all. I have a visual on at least two hundred pairs of hands all stacked up in a neat pile down here.”
Sanchez whispered, “Did he just say—?”
Gator anticipated this. “Yes, you heard me right. Hands. Human hands. Cut off and stacked in a great big heap. What in God’s name have we walked into here?”
WHILE THE rest of their team listened in horror to Gator’s gruesome report, Schofield and Mother strode into the command center, the inner section of the bridge. It too was largely wrecked, but not totally.
“Mother, do a power-grid check, all grids, all levels, even externals. I’m gonna look for ATOs.”
Mother sat down at an undamaged console while Schofield went to the Captain’s desk and attACHed some C-2 low-expansion plastic explosive to the commanding officer’s safe.
A muffled boom later and he had the Nimitz’s last fourteen ATOs—Air Tasking Orders, the ship’s daily orders received from Pacific Command at Pearl Harbor.
It was mainly routine stuff as the Nimitz hop-scotched her way back from the Indian Ocean to Hawaii, dropping in at Singapore and the Philippines on the way . . .
Until ten days ago . . .
. . . when the Nimitz was ordered to divert to the Japanese island of Okinawa and pick up three companies of U.S. Marines there, a force of about 600 men.
She was to ferry the Marines—not CRack Recon troops, but rather just regular men—aCRoss the northern Pacific and drop them off at a set of coordinates that Schofield knew to be Hell Island.
After unloading the Marines, the ship was then instructed to:
PICK UP DARPA SCIENCE TEAM FROM LOCATION:
KNOX, MALCOLM C.
PENNEBAKER, ZACHARY B.
JOHNSON, SIMON W.
HENDRICKS, JAMES F.
RYAN, HARPER R.
HOGAN, SHANE M.
LIEBMANN, BEN C.
PERSONNEL ARE ALL SECURITY-CLEARED TO “TOP SECRET.” THEY WILL HAVE CARGO WHICH IS NOT TO BE SEEN BY CREW OFnimitz.
So. The Nimitz had been sent here to drop off a sizeable force of Marines and also pick up some scientists who had been at work here.
Again, it bore all the hallmarks of an exercise—Marines being unloaded on a seCRet island where DARPA scientists had been at work.
DARPA was the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the genius-level scientists who made high-tech weaponry for the U.S. military. After inventing the Internet and stealth technology, rumor had it that DARPA had recently been at work on ultra-high-tensile, low-weight body armor and, notoriously, a fourth-generation thermonuclear weapon called a Supernova, the most powerful nuke ever devised.
“ScareCRow,” Mother said from her console. “I got a power drain in grid 14.2, the starboard-side router, going to an EXTernal destination, location unknown. Something on the island is draining power from the Nimitz’s reactor. Beyond that, all other electrical systems on the boat have been shut down: lights, air-conditioning, everything.”
Schofield thought about that.
“And another thing,” Mother said. “I fired up the ship’s internal spectrum analyzer. I’m picking up a weird radio signal being transmitted inside the Nimitz.”
“Why’s it weird?”
“Because it’s not a voice signal. It sounds, well, like a digital signal, a binary beep sequence. Fact, sounds like my old dial-up modem.”
Schofield frowned. A power drain going off the ship. Digital radio signals inside the ship. A seCRet DARPA presence. And a gruesome stack of severed hands down in the hangar deck.
This didn’t make sense at all.
“Mother,” he said, “you got a portable AXS on you?” An AXS was an AXS-9 radio spectrum analyzer, a portable unit that picked up radio transmissions, a bug detector.
“Multi-channel or single channel,” she said.
“Good,” Schofield said. “Tune it in to those beeps. Stay on them. And just be ready to jam them.”
Gator’s voice continued to come over his earpiece. The SEAL leader was desCRibing the scene in the hangar bay:
“. . . looks like the entire hangar has been configured for an exercise of some sort. It’s like an indoor battlefield. I got artificial trenches, some low terrain, even a field tower set up inside the hangar. Moving toward the nearest trench now—hey, what was that. . . ? Holy—”
Gunfire rang out. Sustained automatic gunfire.
Both from the SEALs and from an unknown enemy force. The SEALs’ silenced MP-5SNs made a chilling slit-slit-slit-slit-slit-slit when they fired. Their enemies’ guns made a different noise altogether, the distinct puncture-like clatter of M-4 Colt Commando assault rifles.
The SEALs starting shouting to eACH other:
“—they’re coming out of the nearest trench—”
“—what the fuck is that . . .”
“—it looks like a Goddamn go—”
Sprack! The speaker never finished his sentence. The sound of a bullet slamming into his skull echoed through his radio-mike.
Then Gator’s voice: “Fire! Open fire! Mow ’em down!”
In response to the order, the level of SEAL gunfire intensified. But the SEALs’ voices became more desperate.
“—Jesus, they just keep coming! There are too many of them!”
“—Get back to the stairs! Get back to the—”
“—Shit! There are more back there! They’re cutting us off! They’ve got us surrounded!”
A pained sCReam.
“—Gator’s down! Oh, fuck, ah—”
The speaker’s voice was abruptly cut off by a guttural grunting sound that all but ate his radiomike. The man sCReamed, a terrified shriek that was muffled by rough scuffling noises over his mike. He panted desperately as if struggling with some great beast. Indeed it sounded as if some kind of frenzied CReature had barreled into him full-tilt and started eating his face.
Then blam! a gunshot boomed and there were no more sCReams. Schofield couldn’t tell if it was the man who had fired or the thing that had attacked him.
And suddenly it was over.
Silence on the airwaves.
In the bridge of the supercarrier, the members of Schofield’s team swapped glances.
Sanchez reACHed for the radio—only for Schofield to swat his hand away.
“I said no signals.”
Sanchez scowled, but obeyed.
One of the other teams, however, came over the line: “SEAL team, this is Condor. What’s going on? Come in!”
Schofield waited for a reply.
But then after thirty seconds or so, another rough scuffling sound could be heard, someone—or something—grabbing one of the SEAL team’s radiomikes.
Then a terrifying sound shot through the radio.
A horrific animal roar.
SEAL TEAM, I repeat! This is Condor! Come in!” the Airborne commander kept saying over the radio.
“ScareCRow!” Mother exclaimed. “I got something here . . .”
“What?” Schofield hurried over to her console.
“Those binary beeps just went off the charts. It’s like a thousand fax mACHines all dialed up at once. There was a jump thirty seconds ago as well, just after Condor called the SEALs the first time.”
“Shit . . .” Schofield said. “Quickly, Mother. Find the ship’s dry-dock security systems. Initiate the motion sensors.”
Every American warship had standard security features for use when they were in dry-dock. One was an infrared motion sensor array positioned throughout the ship’s main corridors—to detect intruders who might enter the boat when it was deserted. The USS Nimitz possessed just such a system.
“Got it,” Mother said.
“Initialize,” Schofield said.
A wire-frame image of the Nimitz appeared on a big freestanding glass sCReen in the center of the control room, a CRoss-section shown from the right-hand side.
“Holy shit . . .” Hulk said, seeing the sCReen.
“Mama mia . . .” Sanchez breathed.
A veritable river of red dots was flowing out from the main hangar bay, heading toward the bow of the carrier . . . where a far smaller cluster of ten dots stood stationary: Condor’s Airborne team.
EACH dot represented an individual moving past the infrared sensors. There were perhaps 400 dots on the sCReen right now. And they were moving at inCRedible speed, practically leap-frogging eACH other in their frenzy to get forward.
For Schofield, things were starting to make sense.
The binary beeps were the enCRypted digital communications of his enemy, spiking whenever they radioed eACH other. He also now knew for sure that they had Signet-5 radio tracers. Damn.
“SEAL team! Come in!” Condor said again over the airwaves.
“Another spike in the digital chatter,” Mother reported.
The dots on the glass sCReen picked up their pace.
“Christ. He’s got to get off the air,” Schofield said. “He’s bringing them right to him.”
“We have to tell him, warn him . . .” Sanchez said.
“How?” Mother demanded. “If we call him on our radios, we’ll only be giving away our own position.”
“We can’t just leave him there, with all those things on the way!”
“Wanna bet?” Mother said.
“The Airborne guys know their job,” Schofield interrupted. “As do we. And our job is not to babysit them. We have to trust they know what they’re doing. We also have our own mission: to find out what’s been happening here and to end it. Which is why we’re going down to the main hangar right now.”
Schofield’s team hustled out of the bridge, sliding down the drop-ladders.
Last to leave was Sanchez, covering the rear.
With a final glare at Schofield, he pulled out his radio, selected the Airborne team’s private channel, and started talking.
Then he took off after the others.
Descending through the tower, the Marines came level with the flight deck, but instead of going outside, they kept climbing down, heading belowdecks.
Through some tight passageways, lighting the way with their helmet- and barrel-mounted flashlights.
Blood smears lined the walls.
All was dark and grim.
But still no bodies, no nothing.
Then over the main radio network came the sound of gunfire: Condor’s Airborne team had engaged the enemy.
Desperate shouts, sCReams, sustained fire. Men dying, one by one, just as had happened to the SEAL team.
Listening in, Mother stopped briefly at a security checkpoint—a small computer console sunk into the corridor’s wall. These consoles were linked to the Nimitz’s security system and on them she could bring up the digital CRoss-section of the ship, showing where the motion sensors had been triggered.
Right now—to the sound of the Airborne team’s desperate shouts—she could see the large swarm of red dots at the right-hand end of the image overwhelming the Airborne team.
In the center of the digital Nimitz was her own team, heading for the hangar.
But then there was a sudden change in the image.
A subset of the 400-strong swarm of dots—a subgroup of perhaps forty dots—abruptly broke away from the main group at the bow and started heading back toward the hangar.
“ScareCRow . . .” Mother called, “I got hostiles coming back from the bow. Coming back toward us.”
“How many?” And how did they know . . . ?
“Thirty, maybe forty.”
“We can handle forty of anything. Come on.”
They continued running as the final transmission from the Airborne team came in. Condor shouting, “Jesus, there are just too ma—Ahhh!”
The Marine team kept moving.
At the rear in the team, Sanchez came alongside the youngest member of Schofield’s unit, a 21-year-old corporal named Sean Miller. Fresh-faced, fit and a science-fiction movie nut, his call-sign was Astro.
“Yo, Astro, you digging this?”
Astro ignored him, just kept peering left and right as he moved.
Sanchez persisted. “I’m telling you, kid, the skip’s gone Section Eight. Lost it.”
Astro turned briefly. “Hey. Pancho. Until you go undefeated at R7, I’ll follow the Cap’n.”
R7 stood for Relampago Rojo-7, the special forces exercises that had been run in conjunction with the huge all-forces Joint Task Force Exercise in Florida in 2004.
Sanchez said, “Hey, hey, hey. The ScareCRow wasn’t the only guy to go undefeated at R7. The Buck also did.”
The Buck was Captain William Broyles, “the Buccaneer,” a brilliant warrior and the former leader of what was acknowledged to be the best Marine Force Reconnaissance Unit, Unit 1.
Sanchez went on: “Fact is, the Buck won the overall exercise on points, because he beat the other teams faster than the ScareCRow did. Shit, the only reason the ScareCRow got a draw with the Buck was because he evaded the Buck’s team till the entire exercise timed out.”
“A draw’s a draw,” Astro shrugged. “And, er, didn’t you used to be in the Buck’s unit?”
“Damn straight,” Sanchez said. “So was Biggie. But they disbanded Unit 1 a few months ago and we’ve been shuffled from team to team ever since, ending up with you guys for this catastrophe.”
“So you’re biased.”
“So I’m cautious. And you should be, too, ’cause we might just be working under a boss who’s not firing on all cylinders.”
“I’ll take that under advisement. Now shut up, we’re here.”
Sanchez looked forward, and paused.
They’d arrived at the main hangar deck.
SHANE SCHOFIELD stepped out onto a catwalk suspended from the ceiling of the main hangar deck of the USS Nimitz. It was an ultra-long catwalk that ran for the entire length of the hangar in a north-south direction, hanging a hundred feet above the floor.
An indoor space the size of two football fields lay beneath him, stretching away to the left and right. Normally it would have been filled with assorted jets, planes, Humvees and trucks.
But not today.
Today it was very, very different.
Schofield recalled Gator’s desCRiption of the hangar deck:
“It’s like an indoor battlefield. I got artificial trenches, some low terrain, even a field tower set up inside the hangar.”
It was true.
The hangar deck had indeed been converted into a mock battlefield.
However it had been done, it had been a gargantuan effort, involving the transplanting of several million tons of earth. The end result: something that looked like the Somme in World War I—a great muddy field, featuring four parallel trenches, low undulating hills and one high steel-legged tower that rose sixty feet off the ground right in the center of the enormous space.
The regular residents of the hangar lay parked at the stern end of the hangar: two F-14 Tomcats, an Osprey, some of the other leftover planes of the Nimitz, and some trucks.
The tower was connected to Schofield’s ceiling catwalk via a thin steeply-slanted gangway-bridge also suspended from the ceiling.
Schofield said, “Astro and Bigfoot, cover the catwalk to the north of this bridge. Sanchez and Hulk, you got the south side. Call me on the UHF the second you see anything.”
Accompanied by the rest of his team, Schofield then CRossed the gangway-bridge, came to the observation platform at the top of the field tower.
Broken computers and torn printouts littered the platform. Blood was everywhere.
“What the hell was this place?” Hulk asked.
“An observation post. From here, the big kahunas watched the exercises down on the hangar floor,” Mother said.
“But the exercises, it seems, went seriously wrong . . .” Schofield said, examining a printout. Like most of the other material lying around, it was headed:
“Stormtrooper . . .” he read aloud.
Movement out of the corner of his eye.
Schofield spun—just as an attacker came bursting out of a cabinet at the back of the observation platform.
Six guns swirled as one, locking onto the attacker. But not a single one fired—since the “attacker” had fallen to his knees, sobbing.
He was a young man, about thirty, dressed in a lab-coat and wearing horn-rimmed glasses. A computer nerd, but dirty, disheveled and terrified.
“Don’t shoot! Please don’t shoot! Oh my God, I’m so glad you’re here! You have to help me! We lost control! They wouldn’t obey us anymore! And then they—”
“Hold it, hold it,” Schofield said, stepping forward. “Calm down. Start again. What’s your name?”
“My n-name is . . . Pennebaker. Zak Pennebaker.” He peered around fearfully.
Schofield saw that the name matched the one on the man’s pocket-mounted ID badge. The ID badge also featured clearance levels and a silver disc at its base—an odd addition to a nametag. Schofield had never seen one before. Radiation meter, perhaps?
“I’m DARPA. High-end project. Please, you gotta get me outta here, off this boat, before they come back.”
“Not until you tell us what this project was.”
“Let me put it another way: you tell us about the project or we leave you here.”
Zak Pennebaker didn’t need three degrees to figure out that one. It came out in a blurting flurry.
“It started out as a super-soldier project, special ops stuff involving ‘Go’ drugs, amphetamines, biomechanics and brain-chip grafting. All on human subjects. But the human subjects didn’t work out. The ape subjects, however, worked very, very well.”
“Ape subjects?” Mother said in disbelief.
“Yes, apes. Gorillas. African mountain gorillas to be precise. They’re twice as strong as human beings and the grafting technology worked perfectly with them.”
“Not quite perfectly,” Hulk said, indicating the state of the observation platform.
“Well, no, no, not in the end,” Pennebaker mumbled. “But when the apes took so well to the tech, the project morphed from a special-forces operation to a frontline troop replacement project.”
“What do you mean?” Schofield asked.
“The ultimate frontline trooper—lethal, vicious, remorseless, yet totally obedient. And best of all, totally expendable. No more letters from a grateful nation to grieving parents. No more one-legged veterans protesting in D.C. Hell, no more veterans full-stop—the government would save billions in entitlements alone. Imagine you’re a general, facing a frontal assault, it’s a lot easier to send a thousand purpose-bred apes to their deaths than fresh-faced farm boys from Idaho.
“And that’s the best part, we bred the gorillas ourselves in labs, so we aren’t even thinning the natural population, committing some CRime against nature. They are the first custom-made artificially-produced armed force in the history of mankind. You could send them into hostile territory and they’d never question the order, you could send them on complete suicide missions and they’d never complain.”
“How the hell do you manage that?” Hulk asked.
“The grafting technology,” Schofield answered.
Pennebaker seemed surprised that Schofield would know about this. “Yes. That’s correct.”
“What’s grafting technology?” Mother asked.
Schofield said, “You attACH—or graft—a miCRochip to the brain of your subject. The chip is biomechanical, semi-organic, so it attACHes to the brain and becomes part of it. Grafting technology has allowed quadriplegics to communicate via computers. Their brain engages with the chip and the chip sends a signal to the computer. But . . . I’ve heard it can also work the other way around . . .”
“That’s right,” Pennebaker said. “When an outside agent uses a grafted miCRochip to control the subject.”
“Jesus, Mary and Joseph,” Mother sighed. “PoindEXTer, you musta read a million books in college filled with words I couldn’t even understand, but didn’t you just once think about reading Frankenstein?”
Pennebaker responded, “You have to believe me. The results were astonishing, at least at the start. The apes were perfectly obedient and shockingly effective. We taught them how to use weapons. We even CReated modified M-4 assault rifles for them, to accommodate their bigger hands. But even when they lost their guns, they were still hyper-effective—they could CRush a man’s head with their bare hands or bite his whole face off.”
As Pennebaker spoke, Schofield stole a glance at his four men guarding the north-south catwalk. None of them had moved.
He keyed his UHF channel: “Astro? Hulk? Any contacts?”
“Not a thing from the north, sir.”
“Ditto the south, sir. It’s too quiet here.”
Schofield turned back to Pennebaker. “You’re saying you tested these things against human troops?”
Pennebaker bowed his head. “Yes. Against three companies of Marines that we had brought here from Okinawa. What are you guys?”
“Marines,” Mother growled.
Pennebaker swallowed. “The apes annihilated them. Down on the battlefield and also on the island proper. Five hundred gorillas versus 600 Marines. It was a hell of a fight. The gorillas lost heaps in the opening exchange, but they just weathered the losses without a backward step. The chips in their heads don’t allow for ineffective emotions like fear. So the apes just kept coming, climbing over the piles of their dead, until the Marines were toast.”
Mother pushed her face—and pistol—into Pennebaker’s. “You call a Marine toast again, fuck-nut, and I’ll waste you right now.”
Schofield said softly, “And fear is not an ineffective emotion, Mr. Pennebaker.”
Pennebaker shrugged. “Whatever. You see, it was then the apes started doing . . . unexpected . . . things. Independent strategic thinking; killing their own wounded. And then there were the more unseemly things, like cutting the hands off their vanquished enemies and piling them up.”
“Yeah, heard about that,” Mother said. “Charming.”
“And then they turned on you,” Schofield said.
“And then they turned on us. The most unexpected thing of all. While we were looking the other way, observing the exercise, they sent a sub-team to take this tower. Took us by surprise. They’re smart, tactical. They out-thought us and now they own this ship and the island. Marines, welcome to the end of your lives.”
“We’re not dead yet,” Schofield said.
“Oh, yes you are. You’re completely sCRewed,” Pennebaker said. “You have to understand: you can’t beat these things. They are stronger than you are. They are faster. Christ, they’ve been bred to fight for longer, to stay awake for ninety-six hours at a time—four days—so if they don’t kill you straight away, they’ll just wait you out and get you later, like they did with the last few regular Marines. Add to that, their technological advantages—Signet-5 radio-locaters, surgically-implanted digital headsets—and your headstones are practically engraved. These things are the evolution of the modern soldier, Captain, and they’re so damned good, even their makers couldn’t control them.”
Mother shook her head. “How do you geniuses manage to keep doing things like this—?”
Without warning, a voice exploded in Schofield’s earpiece: Astro’s voice.
“Oh God no, we missed them! Shit! Captain! Duck!”
Standing with his back to the main hangar, Schofield didn’t turn to verify Astro’s warning.
He just obeyed, trusting his man, and dived to the floor—a bare instant before a black man-sized CReature came swooping in over his head and slammed to the floor right where he’d been standing.
Had Schofield remained standing for even a nanosecond longer, the K-Bar knife in the CReature’s hand would have slashed his throat.
The CReature now stood before him and for the briefest of moments Schofield got a look at it.
It was indeed an ape, perhaps five-and-a-half feet tall, with straggly black hair. But this was no ordinary jungle gorilla. It wore a lightweight helmet, from the front of which hung an orange visor that covered the animal’s eyes. On the helmet’s rear were some stubby antennas. Kevlar body armor covered its chest and shoulders. Wrist guards protected its arms. And in a holster on its back was a modified M-4.
But that was all Schofield got to see, for right then the ape bared its jaws and launched itself at him—just as it was shot to bits, about a million bits, as Mother and Hulk nailed it with their MP-7s.
Then Astro yelled: “Marines! Look sharp! They’re not coming in via the catwalk! They’re coming at you from aCRoss the ceiling!”
Only now did Schofield stand and spin to check the ceiling of the hangar near his tower.
Coming aCRoss it, using the complex array of pipes, lights, pulleys and rails that lined the hangar’s ceiling, was a phalanx of about forty black gorillas, all dressed like the dead one and moving aCRoss the super-high ceiling with ease.
And then Schofield’s horror became complete as the nearest ape—hanging upside-down from three of its four limbs, raised its free hand, leveled an M-4 at the tower and opened fire.
© 2010 Karanadon Entertainment Pty Ltd