Authors: Anthony Decosmo
By Anthony DeCosmo
"I wonder if I've been changed in the night? Let me think: was I the same when I got up this morning? I almost think I can remember feeling a little different. But if I'm not the same, the next question is 'Who in the world am I?' Ah, that's the great puzzle!'"
Alice in Wonderland
Nina lay naked and alone on a steel table. It felt cold and sterile.
Darkness surrounded her. She felt no breeze, smelled nothing in the air, heard no sounds. A solitary light hovered above.
A circle of people emerged from the blackness and swarmed toward her. Faceless, emotionless. She fidgeted; squirmed as they surrounded her, as they reached to touch her. First one hand from anonymous eyes, feeling her flesh and caressing…sliding over the rigid muscles of her strong body. Then another hand stroking her cheek.
Her exhales changed to sighs.
Then another. And another. Reaching for her ankles and calves. Sliding along her thighs and ribs…teasing her chest and feeling her bare shoulders. Hands and palms grasping her legs and tugging them open.
With the hands came lips. She closed her eyes and felt firm kisses on her neck and legs and….a sigh became a moan, her body tingled from head to toe.
She sensed their desire for her. It felt like
More probing and welcomed invasion. Lips and fingers and hands and now more across her whole person. A swarm of caresses; an onslaught.
Her breath grew rapid. She felt a mass inside building toward critical as her body rocked atop the metal slab. Her head slid back and over the edge baring her throat to the besiegers.
She sensed their desire for her. It felt like
The horde grew heavy, pressing against her: legs in iron holds, arms pinned.
So many reaching for her, wanting her; yet the table still felt cold. No matter how many came, they could not warm her. A crowd around her, yet loneliness remained.
Her exhale became a shuddered groan, even as she felt trapped.
They covered every inch of her body. She felt them on top and under, inside and around. Pressing and pushing.
They did not listen. They would not stop.
Nina opened her eyes as the mass reached critical and saw Trevor Stone standing alongside the table. He watched the swarm work her without mercy. He wore a perverse grin, enjoying her struggle; finding sweet music in the sound of her sighs as they changed to cries.
She sensed his desire for her. It felt like
The mass inside exploded. Her entire body rippled. A moan of both release and panic trembled from her lips…
…Nina jerked awake.
She lay not on a metal table but a military cot. Smoldering embers inside a portable coal stove radiated a soft, hazy glow from the center of the tent. The three other members of the Dark Wolves team shared the tent. They were awake now. It had been difficult to sleep with the…the
coming from her bunk.
They sat in their cots staring at her with disbelief, wonder, and something else. She did not want to know what that something else was.
"What?" She scowled even as she struggled to find her breath, even as her heart raced.
"Um, I ah," Carl Bly stuttered. "I have to hit the latrine," he stood quickly and—slightly hunched over—grabbed his coat and walked outside.
"Time for a shower," Oliver Maddock said bravely in his Welsh accent. "Yes that’s it. A cold one at that," and he too marched away after grabbing a heavy jacket.
Vince Caesar stared silently at her for a moment longer and then exited the tent as well.
Nina collapsed to the cot, puffing an exhale of frustration in the process.
She never dreamt like that before. Weirder still, it had not felt as if it were
dream. More like…more like someone else’s dream; someone else’s nightmare.
Captain Forest emerged from her quarters to another overcast January morning, inhaling flavorless cold air that stung her lungs as she pulled her blond hair into a short ponytail and then zipped tight a green parka. Nina worked her way through the maze of tents and temporary shelters comprising the headquarters unit for Army Group North.
Soldiers—dressed in clothes ranging from smart-looking Arctic gear to eclectic bundles of sweaters, jeans, jackets, and cargo pants—crisscrossed the grounds mumbling about the weather or cursing whatever passed for breakfast. If not for the rifles and salutes the group would more resemble refugees than an army.
In any case, the headquarters unit sat atop dead farmland adjacent to the Sugar Creek Baptist Church off old US 35 near Washington Court House, Ohio.
In the sixteen months since the destruction of the Hivvan forces at Columbia, South Carolina, Nina Forest and her Dark Wolves commandos shuffled north, south, east, and west. Sixteen months of fighting reptilian aliens in Georgia and Alabama, giant snakes in Florida, monsters infesting New York City, and human pirates ambushing supply convoys in Connecticut.
For the last four of those months, her unit supported "Army Group North" and its role in the massive "Fall" offensive.
While Army Group South knocked the Hivvan remnants across Mississippi and Army Group Center pushed through lower Kentucky and Tennessee, General William Hoth's force began a blitzkrieg to cross Ohio and thrust into Indiana. It all kicked off in late September—one year after the carnage at New Winnabow and the liberation of Columbia, South Carolina--and planned to meet all objectives before winter set in.
So much for grand plans.
Winter had, in fact, set in; weeks ago. While the other two prongs of the attack achieved their aims, Army Group North measured progress in fractions of miles.
Part of the problem came from home. Newspaper editors wrote that the already-fragile economy deteriorated with the introduction of an official Imperial currency. Even Nina—who lacked a head for economics—realized that was when the supply problems started anew; problems revolving around work stoppages, transportation issues, and political squabbling.
Then came a surprise from in front of the army. It seemed Intelligence underestimated the numbers and capabilities of the "Plats" or "Platypuses", so nicknamed because the three-legged uglies sported humorous duckbills where a mouth should be. The plasma rifles they carried, however, did not elicit chuckles.
Things became even less amusing when the Plats revealed their own war vehicles; wooden, wheeled boats armed with a high-powered energy cannon.
The Plats' "War Skiffs" nearly destroyed two brigades of infantry outside of Chillicothe in November. Only General Hoth’s skillful deployment of an armored reserve saved the day.
Fortunately, the Platypuses lacked the numbers and organization of the Hivvans. By Thanksgiving, the 2
Armored Division annihilated every enemy formation east of the Scioto River, destroying nearly five thousand Platypus fighters and a hundred vehicles during two weeks of pitched battles.
Alas, bad news followed the good as scouts found Columbus, Cleveland, and Cincinnati entirely infested with new, alien ecosystems full of dangerous extraterrestrial animals. No humans could possibly survive in such environments and Hunter-Killer teams would require armor and infantry support to clear those places.
Instead of becoming bogged down in urban pacification operations, Hoth bypassed those cities with the aim of wiping out the Plats first. Supply shortages, bad weather, a horrendous wave of flu in the ranks, and stiffening enemy resolve conspired to undermine his strategy.
So on Wednesday, January 19, as Nina walked from her tent in search of General Hoth, Army Group North sat idle east of Interstate 71 some forty miles southwest of Columbus. Horrible progress—or lack thereof--for an offensive that began last September.
On the other side of Interstate 71 waited a few more Plat War Skiffs and scattered infantry formations, probably the last the enemy had to offer but an obstacle that could not be tackled until the supply situation and weather improved.
Nina’s boots crunched on the frozen ground of what had once been a farmer’s field. Military trucks, tents, crates, fuel drums, and horse-drawn wagons turned that field into an encampment.
A freezing wind whipped across the porch of the upscale farmhouse serving as the General’s headquarters, causing a banner depicting a hand wielding a hammer to flutter violently. Nina moved between two shivering sentries and walked through the main entrance.
A wood burning furnace heated the interior filling the inside with a pleasant, almost maple aroma. Lighting came from lamps filled with whale oil harvested hundreds of miles away off the eastern seaboard and shipped via steam locomotives.
The farmhouse bustled with activity, no doubt because people preferred working inside as opposed to doing nothing outside in the cold, even if that meant dealing with General Hoth.
While others found the man short-mannered and overly stoic, Nina held him in high regard.
Like thousands of others, William Hoth vanished hours before the alien invasion began only to reappear years later encased in a blob of green goo, a phenomena now known as "riding the ark." In his case, Hoth had been teaching a summer course at West Point when the world took that sudden left turn.
A man of few words and even fewer facial expressions, Hoth wore broad shoulders and a wide frame. From a distance, he appeared a few pounds overweight. Closer inspection revealed a big-boned and solid fifty-something officer who could cut lesser men in half with a glare.
She walked into a large parlor where a billiards table served as the centerpiece of Army Group North’s operations room and a roaring Rumford fireplace cast flashes of light on a mounted moose head, dusty velvet curtains, and long-neglected antique furniture.
The folding tables, chairs, lap top computers, and communications gear from the military interlopers contrasted sharply with the home's original garish furnishings creating a strange mishmash of styles.
General Hoth stood near the billiards table dressed in woodland BDUs over a black turtle neck. At his side hovered General Casey Fink, commander of the newly-formed 4
Mechanized Infantry Division.
A large, muscular man, Fink could easily pass for a professional wrestler or a linebacker yet Hoth's presence loomed larger, regardless of a disadvantage in size.
Nina knew Fink had been career Army prior to the end-of-the-world. She also knew his post-Armageddon credits included inspired fighting during the Battle of Five Armies as well as an equally impressive performance as part of Jon Brewer's expedition more than sixteen months ago to capture the mysterious 'runes' at the top of the world.
Fink studied documents and maps while Hoth carried on a conversation via a radio headset. After finishing that conversation with a curt "understood," Hoth said to Fink, "He confirmed contact. Estimates five hundred Roachbots around Cincinnati."
stood at attention in front of her two superior officers. Hoth glanced at her saying, "At ease, Captain."
Fink said to Hoth, "They're about fifty miles to our southern flank."
Nina understood that five hundred of those SUV-sized robots equated to a substantial fighting force. She asked, "Are they approaching?"
General Hoth answered, "Not yet, but the book says they will attack once they are aware of our presence."
Fink, who squared off against those psychotic, six-legged mechanical monstrosities during the Battle of Five Armies nearly five and a half years ago added, "They can't resist a chance to harvest human brains. Must be a couple of assembly lines down there by Cincy."