His body and spirit mangled by a lifetime of combat, Shepherd, a retired Navy SEAL, has retreated to the desolate desert of New Mexico to heal his wounds and dodge his demons. All he wants now is peace and quiet.
Both are shattered one starry night, when an alien ship crashes nearby. Out of the ship crawls the last, dying member of a conquered civilization. It’s been shot down by an extraterrestrial enemy, the vanguard of a ravenous force hunting for a new homeland. With its last gasp, the wounded alien injects Shepherd with a high-tech serum that gives him near superhuman powers.
Now, with a new body but a soul as fractured as ever, Shepherd becomes the reluctant leader of the human resistance against the coming invasion. With enemies on all sides, the man who couldn’t bear the guilt of seeing one more friend die in battle now finds himself charged with protecting the entire planet.
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Ben Shepherd struggled up the hill, alone but for his jabber-mouthed demons. He glanced down at his small campsite. It seemed to have barely receded in the last hour.
A dying fire. An old tent. A pickup truck with more miles on it than Rand McNally. Home, or close enough.
You'll never make it. You're weak. Just lie down and die.
He was only about 75 feet above the desert floor but gulping for air like an asthmatic running a marathon. Finish line nowhere in sight. Sweat poked at his eyes, and his damaged right leg whined as he forced it to churn through the cold sand and pebbles.
Give up. The only thing in front of you is more pain.
The clear, cool night air swallowed his wheezed breaths as he inched up the slope. The stars rained down their billion-year-old photons on his back. A scrawny coyote loped by the bottom of the hill, sniffed, and jogged on.
Ben paused, his ragged panting the only sound for miles. Sweat trickled through his unkempt beard, making it itch. Most Special Forces guys grew their hair and beards long, partly to blend in with the local populations they moved through. It was also a thumb in the eye to high-and-tight regular military that looked on SpecOps with a mixture of disdain and envy. But Ben had to admit that his hair and beard had migrated past "special operations chic," through "unemployed," and were well on their way to "homeless." So what. He had more immediate concerns. For example, he was no longer sure if the warm liquid trickling down his leg was sweat or blood.
"Or maybe you just pissed yourself," he muttered. That would certainly complete my transformation into shambling derelict, he thought. And talking to myself is just the icing on the cake.
He wiped his brow with his shirt sleeve and ran his hand through his shaggy black hair in frustration. Once as fit as an Olympic decathlete, the long recovery had sapped his strength and endurance. His still-damaged leg had made it impossible to get any kind of serious exercise for weeks. He wasn't fat, exactly, although his flat stomach now sagged just a bit, to his disgust. His arms and shoulders were still strong, but he'd spent too much time recently on his back or his ass. His legs shivered under a strain that, six months ago, they would have borne without complaint.
Most of the other wounds had healed. The shrapnel buried in his right arm had been fished out, save for a sliver curled near the bone, too close to the nerves for surgeons to dig out. He had a laminated doctor's note to present at airport metal detectors. The spray of hot metal that had grazed the side of his head had left an impressive claw mark ("Like Wolverine took a swipe at you," his friend and teammate Eddie Dworsky had joked during Ben's initial treatment in Germany) and had come within a fraction of an inch of blinding him. Just scars now, though. Mementos. Like photos from a foreign vacation where you couldn't quite remember which cathedral that was in the background.
But the leg. The leg was still a mess. Less of a mess than it had been in the hospitals. Definitely less of a mess than when Ben had been sprawled in a swampy marsh just south of Karachi, with a terrorist who smelled like a goat's asshole in his left hand and a ruined HK416 assault rifle in his right. The mess was gone. Covered, at least, with scar tissue, unless he really had torn something again. The tired soldier leaned against a boulder on the hillside in the desert.
Everything had gone right. Right ... until it went wrong.
Satellite surveillance and thermal scans and human informants could only eliminate so much risk. You couldn't predict the path of every rocket-propelled grenade. All things considered, his team had been lucky to escape at all. Just depended how you defined "lucky." Three dead friends seemed well outside that definition. Ben struggled to push the memories away. Like the voices, they refused to go, like querulous drunks ignoring last call.
* * *
The initial stages of the assault had gone exactly as planned.
Gliding across the dark water under cover of night, the two Special Operations Craft-Riverine gunboats slipped through the shallow mangrove swamps outside the Pakistani coastal city of Karachi. The city itself was a disorganized hellhole of some 15 million people. Ruined shacks built on top of ruined shacks, the streets choked with garbage and human waste. Telephone and electrical poles spiderwebbed with homemade wiring used to steal service leaned precariously out into the streets and over homes. Kids played soccer around zigzagging cars and scooters, and the tantalizing aroma of grilled meat from shawarma vendors mingled with the stench of open latrines.
Ben had done business there before. So had most of his teammates. Tonight, though, they were heading south of the city.
Each SOC-R boat was loaded with an eight-man fire team of Navy SEALs based out of Dam Neck, Virginia, home to the Naval Special Warfare Development Group. Piloting each ship were four Special Warfare Combatant-craft Crewmen based out of Stennis, Mississippi. A midnight run a long way from home. That was the job, and they were good at it.
The 33-foot boats were weapons, too. Ben's craft, SOC-R 1, was decked out with twin GAU-17/A six-barrel miniguns on the forward mounts, M240B light machine guns at the mid-mounts, and a thunderous aft-mounted M2HB .50 caliber heavy machine gun capable of vaporizing a rhino at 2,000 yards. SOCR 2 was nearly identical, but with 40mm grenade launchers instead of machine guns at the port and starboard, about halfway down the hull. It was enough firepower to turn a city block into rubble and then grind the rubble to dust.
For now, though, silence was golden. The water jet propulsion system kept the boats free of the roots and rocks just inches below the surface (too shallow for a submersible insertion), and newly installed electric motors whispered softer than the ocean breeze. The original 440-horsepower diesel engines were there if needed, ready to drop back down into the water at the flip of a switch. Everyone on the team had chuckled when Ben had pointed out that they now drove hybrids to the office.
After twenty-three minutes of navigating the winding littoral maze, a spark of campfire appeared on one of the tiny, temporary islands scattered in the mangroves. The island was the shape of a lima bean and about the size of a football field. It came and went at the pleasure of the tides and storms.
Months of scouting and surveillance had brought Ben and his team to this backwater.
Asir flitted through this part of the world like a rumor of a ghost. The CIA had never before been able to calculate his location in real time; they were always weeks or months behind. He set his bombs or, worse, trained more bomb-makers, and disappeared into the shadows. A paid informant had finally paid off, and the terrorist had been traced to this spit of land.
Ben had no qualms about the nature of the men he hunted. They were terrorists. The sentiment back home that the US needed to pull back, stay home, power down the drones, and retreat into its fortress was wishful thinking. A fantasy. He'd picked up too many shredded body parts and catalogued too many mass graves to think of the men he hunted as anything but evil. They weren't cowards. They'd stand and fight when cornered, and Ben and his men had been in some knock-down slugfests that had only ended when every man on the other side had stopped breathing. Physical courage or not, they were a scourge. Every member of Ben's team was itching to finally bring Asir in.
The reports said Asir would spend the night on this slice of sand and vines before moving on in the morning. Ben's team stationed in the region had received just a 30-minute briefing after being transported out to the nearest Navy ship via V-22 tilt rotor aircraft. That had been plenty of time, though. They all knew Asir's face.
The SEALs lowered their night-vision goggles into place with a soft click as their craft approached the island. They could see six fighters huddled around the fire. Ben scanned the tangled greenery with the thermal detection technology of his goggles to check for additional targets loitering out of visible range, then toggled to live surveillance video being beamed from an RQ170 Sentinel drone 20,000 feet above. The same video was visible on a six-inch flexible OLED screen on his wrist, but that screen turned off during insertion. Too bright. Six fighters it was. He gave a thumbs-up to his teammates, who were all doing similar surveillance. Thumbs-up back.
Thirty seconds to landfall.
The firelight from the camp was dim enough that both gunboats could land at the opposite end of the beach without being seen. The boats eased onto the sand with a sigh, and the SEALs slithered off, rifles raised with sound-suppressors and laser sights attached. The infrared laser beams, invisible to the naked eye, were clear through the SEALs' eyepieces. The sharp lines cut through the warm air toward the target. They could easily have killed Asir from here, but orders were to take him alive.
The sixteen commandos crept forward on the thin slice of sand. They were more exposed on the beach, but the marshy interior was a slow, noisy slog under even the best of conditions; landing on the opposite side of the island had been ruled out almost as soon as it was suggested.
Asir was easy to pick out among the five other ragged fighters with AK-47s scattered at their feet. He was taller, with a shorter beard. The smell of cooking fish wafted from the fire, and the men laughed at something Asir said as he waved his hands in the air.
Ten feet to the edge of the light and attack. Ben gripped his rifle tight.
Half a dozen flares shot into the sky from the mangrove forest and surrounding swamp. Automatic weapons fire burst from the tree line and Asir bolted into the jungle as his remaining men dove for their guns.
Trap, Ben's mind registered, even as his body reacted. He dropped one of the guards with a pair of shots. They only needed Asir alive. The other SEALs were also moving and firing. They cut down the remaining guards before they could open fire and then swiveled to the barrage coming from the jungle.
Ben, Dworsky, and the rest of his team peppered the forest with machine-gun fire and grenades, marching forward in trained unison into the sprung trap without a word. Hunkering on the open beach would be suicide, and retreating back to the boats would be failure. They caught only occasional glimpses of figures appearing and disappearing behind the roots and leaves, but Ben and his team knew from experience that the wall of lead they were dumping into the underbrush was having both a physical and psychological effect. They'd keep their heads down or they'd lose them. But Asir was running, and they didn't have much time before he slipped away again.
The gunboats roared as their pilots brought them online, their big diesel engines taking over, the need for stealth gone. Enemy boats were also coming to life on nearby islands, floodlights stabbing the darkness, searching for Ben's team, passengers firing wildly, hoping to get lucky.
In seconds, it was complete chaos.
"SOC-R 1, cover north," Ben barked into his headset. The boat zoomed off to the north side of the island, the direction in which Asir had fled. Its guns roared and belched as it sped off, and one of the enemy skiffs was torn apart like it had driven into an industrial shredder.
Ben and his squad fanned out into the dense jungle while the remaining SEALs doused the campfire with a quick scoop of sand and set up defensive positions against the incoming boats. It wasn't a long-term solution. They had minutes, maybe, before the makeshift armada of rickety dinghies and fishing vessels overwhelmed them. They had to find Asir, and fast. Ben's green vision was now teaming with incandescent activity.
The CIA and ONI — the Office of Naval Intelligence — had been scoping this island for almost two days. The terrorists must have taken cover before then, hiding under insulating blankets under the hot sun. In a corner of his mind, Ben admired the dedication. They were certainly patient and ruthless. They were still poorly trained, sloppy fighters, though, and that time crouched in the hot muck had probably slowed their reflexes further. The SEALs were efficient, calm, and deadly, picking off the terrorists as they popped up, conserving their ammo and anticipating each other's actions, the product of thousands of hours together on training grounds and battlefields.
Ben shoved through the vines and roots, his rifle sweeping with his gaze back and forth, knowing without looking that his men were doing the same.
The opposite side of the minuscule island was soon in sight and Ben knew he'd have to abandon the search. If Asir beat the SEALs to the water, the canals in many places were no more than 20 yards wide. He could be dog-paddling to freedom right now. All their training. All their million-dollar equipment. All for nothing.
His radio crackled in his ear.
"What do you think, boss?" Dworsky, a Master Chief Petty Officer, whispered.
"Fuck, that's what I think."
A patch of vines about five meters ahead swayed slightly against the breeze. Ben took two large steps forward, raising the butt of his rifle in stride. He brought it down on the jumble with a crunch, and a man's voice cried out. Ben swung his rifle on his back and drew a machete from a scabbard at his side. He sliced through the vines, reached in, and yanked out the bleeding, yelling Asir from the small bog in which he'd been trying to conceal his body heat.
He flipped Asir on his stomach, bound his wrists with plastic zip ties, yanked a strip of duct tape over his mouth, pulled a hood over his head, and lifted him to his feet. "All teams, Caliban is secure. Rally home."
Dworsky grinned in the darkness. Ben nodded back.
He sheathed his machete and swung his rifle back into his hand. There was no beach on the north side of the island from which to quickly board the gunboats, so the SEALs turned around and double-timed it back south.
A figure popped out from behind a tree, the barrel of an AK-47 rising. None of the Americans carried that weapon, so anyone toting it was an enemy.
Ben kicked Asir's legs out, dropping him to the ground. As he dropped to one knee, three 7.62mm bullets tore over his head. Asir squirmed, trying to scramble away. Ben lunged sideways, landing on the terrorist's back and pancaking him into the mud. Asir was stunned for a moment and Ben drew a bead on the fighter who had just ambushed him. The silenced rifle barked twice and the attacker fell dead. Ben reloaded, stood up, pulled his prisoner to his feet, and resumed their march to the beach.
The beach was a maelstrom, like the most violent rave party ever staged. The second fire team was already loaded on SOC-R 2 and was now pouring a wall of lead into the approaching enemy ships. The pop-pop-pop of small arms fire was punctuated by the concussive boom of grenades. Smoke swirled across the scorched and cratered sand. The explosives had also set off a few small fires in the trees, and two or three enemy boats were on fire as well. It was too wet for anything here to burn for long, but for the moment, it was hell on earth. The thermal goggles were useless now, and Ben yanked his up. More flares snapped into the air. Shadows leaped like dancing devils, spawned from gunpowder and phosphorus.
Ben dropped Asir again, knelt on his back, and from behind a tree snapped off several shots against incoming enemy boats. Almost impossible to think, to plan, in the chaos. Bullets whizzed and snapped through the trees. The flashing light from the explosions and fires was as confusing as it was illuminating. There wasn't much time left to get out of this. He had to get control of the situation, direct his men, if they had any hope of getting out alive.
Two other SEALs, Jimmy Bradford and Dexter Bryant, emerged from the thick tangle of vines about 20 feet to Ben's left.
"Jimmy, Dex, set up a position on the beach so we can exfil Caliban."
The two men obeyed without hesitation, sprinting to the cover of a pile of driftwood on the shore that the terrorists had been using as benches before the team had arrived. They fired as they moved, their rapid, controlled shots punching at the flurry of ships buzzing through the small bay.
Once they were in position and SOC-R 1 was heading toward the beach, Ben stood up, hoisted Asir, and stepped from the tree line. As he did, two enemy ships zoomed in. One of the ships held half a dozen men, all carrying AK-47 rifles. The other boat looked empty.
A flare shot up out of the full boat, and Ben was exposed in the white glare. The fighters spotted him and his hooded prisoner and immediately opened fire, trying to kill Asir rather than have him taken alive.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The First Protectors"
Copyright © 2018 Victor Godinez.
Excerpted by permission of Skyhorse Publishing.
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