Authors: Jeremiah Knight
Tags: #Action & Adventure
Smoke clouded his vision as they neared the station. He pushed through, believing his son wise enough to avoid the smoke. As the last of the ash rose up over the windshield, the view became clear. For a moment, Peter’s voice caught in his throat, and then it exploded out, “Jakob!”
Jakob lay on the gas station parking lot, pinned by the female rider, who was larger than the males he’d just fought. Her hair smoked. Her body was singed and naked. Her face hovered inches from Jakob’s, the mouth working up and down, large enough to cleave his face away in one bite.
He hammered the brakes, announcing his arrival. He threw the truck into park before it had come to a stop and launched himself into the parking lot. To his surprise and relief, the female had already abandoned Jakob and was fleeing on all fours, into the corn. He fell by his son’s side. “Jakob!”
The boy was conscious, but dazed. “Are you okay? Are you hurt?”
Jakob just shook his head.
He’s in shock
, Peter decided, and scooped him up. He hurried back to the truck, as loud cries bellowed out around them. Some from the forest, some from the road leading back toward the highway. Ella opened the back door as he arrived, and he slid Jakob into the back seat. Anne moved over, gripped Jakob’s shirt and helped haul him inside.
“He’s okay,” Peter said to Ella, noting her concern, and then he motioned to the passenger’s side door as the sounds of reinforcements closed in. “Get in.” Peter ran to the driver’s side, dove behind the wheel, and said, “We’re getting the fuck out of here.” Gas pedal to the floor, he steered the truck onto the road, away from the highway and sped off, hoping it wasn’t true, but somehow knowing they now had an army hunting them.
The worst part about flying was the God-damned birds. There weren’t many left, because competition for the air, where rivals could be spotted many miles away and confrontation was always guaranteed, was fierce. But those that remained... Kenyon called them ‘Sky Tyrants,’ because of how they ruled the sky, plucking prey from the ground with ease. When all was said and done, and the planet’s evolving species ate themselves into oblivion, it would be a bird, he believed, one giant freaking bird, that would dominate the planet. Then it would eventually succumb to starvation, its skeleton confusing the hell out of some future or perhaps alien archeologist.
So when a bird was spotted, either by eye or by radar, the trio of helicopters tracking Ella Masse’s slow progress across the country hit dirt, stopped their engines and sat still, hoping the predator hadn’t ever eaten a giant wingless dragonfly, which the choppers resembled from above.
The helicopters weren’t defenseless. They were armed with machine guns and rocket pods still capable of dropping most living things, but birds of prey posed a serious threat. They were super-evolved for aerial speed, maneuverability and lethality—not to mention a hunger that blinded them to danger.
“Anything on the radar?” Kenyon asked. He sat in the back of the Black Hawk helicopter, trying to ignore the searing heat of the Midwestern summer day being absorbed by the vehicle’s dark blue shell.
“Nothing for ten minutes,” Mackenzie said. He was seated in the cockpit with the pilot. After landing, Kenyon had reorganized the team, putting the grunts, who generally smelled horrible, together in the other choppers, while he, Hutchins and Mackenzie stretched out in the spacious Black Hawk with one lucky pilot, to ‘strategize,’ which really meant partaking in one of the wild crops still consumable. Between the four of them, they shared a single joint, enough to relax without completely compromising their combat efficiency—an age-old trick of soldiers around the world. Not that there was anyone to judge them. Those who had seniority over Kenyon were thousands of miles away. This was his rodeo, and if a bird forced them to the grass, they might as well smoke it.
Kenyon wiped his arm across his forehead, smearing his blond hair. He’d let it get too long. Preferred the high-and-tight look. But he wasn’t about to let one of the men with him touch his hair. He wasn’t even sure who to see about his hair back at ExoGen. Ella had done the job for a long time, sloppy at first, but before they left she’d become a regular pro, trimming him up once a week. Now he felt like a shaggy dog.
Smoke swirled in the sealed chopper as Kenyon sat up and opened the side door. The cloud was caught by a breeze and swept up into the sky.
“All good things must come to an end,” Hutchins mused. The man had an almost impish look about his face, looking cheerful even when he wasn’t. He took one last drag on the withered blunt and flicked the tiny stub of paper out the open door. He blew out the smoke, asking, “What’s the plan?”
“Where’d that bird go?” Kenyon asked.
“Last seen headed north, sir,” the pilot said. His last name was Ford, and his first name was a mystery. Of the six pilots among them, he was the best and the most trusted, which was why he got to take part in the fish bowl, though he wasn’t actually permitted to smoke. He had to fly after all, and the man needed his wits about him even more than the rest.
“Get us back in the air. We still have daylight to burn. Due east.”
“Still chasing your hard on?” Mackenzie said.
Kenyon craned his head toward the younger military man, an eyebrow raised. “I’m going to let that go because you’re baked.”
“I’m being serious,” Mackenzie said. “We all know this isn’t just about ExoGen. The odds of her surviving out here are slim to none. We could just let her go and be done with it.”
“She made it this far,” Kenyon said, his buzz burning away like a forest fire, crackling with horrible energy.
The two men stared at each other for a moment. Mackenzie cracked, smiling and waving his hand. “I’m just yanking your chain.”
Kenyon didn’t believe that for a second. He knew the men. They were risking their lives every second they were out in the wilderness, facing the freakish terrors the company they served had unleashed. They all wanted to go home. If Kenyon was honest, so did he. But not without her. And God help anyone who stood in his way. He didn’t have to say it. They all knew it. Mutiny was prevented by one simple fact. The gates of the ExoGen biodome wouldn’t open to them without a code known only to Kenyon and Hutchins, whose loyalties were unquestionable. The code would allow them inside the quarantine zone, after which a series of blood samples would prove they had not consumed any of ExoGen’s handiwork. And though all the men on the team could pass that test, none would get the chance without Kenyon or Hutchins opening the outer door. And if they tried, they’d be treated like hostiles. And that was assuming they survived the mutiny.
“You won’t have to yank it for much longer,” Kenyon said. “We’re close.”
“I hope so,” Mackenzie said, facing forward and buckling up. He plucked up the radio receiver and toggled the transmit button. “Wake up, ladies. Wheels up in two minutes. Resume previous course, due east. We’ll take point, so just follow the leader.”
“Copy that,” a pilot replied.
“Affimatory,” said the second, in a faux, very exaggerated southern accent.
At least some of them still have a sense of humor
. His thoughts were drowned out by the whine of the helicopter’s engine, slowly spinning the rotor blades. The sound grew louder, becoming a roar, and two minutes later they were airborne and cruising over the treeline, staying low to avoid any eagle-eyed predators.
It was only a minute into the rhythmic, choppy flight that the pilot, now speaking into a headset, said, “Sir, we have smoke in the distance. Single column.”
The already-fading effects of their recreational respite dissolved. Smoke could mean many things, many of which were natural, but a single column of smoke meant a human source. Kenyon sat forward and looked through the cockpit window. It wasn’t just a single column of smoke, it was a towering, black behemoth, the kind generated by burning fuel. “Get us there. Now.”
The chopper leaned forward, the rotor blades hacking at the air, beating a drum that everything for miles around would hear. But that was always a risk. And worthwhile.
I’m almost there, Ella.
As the helicopters ate up the distance, Kenyon grew more nervous. The smoke was a beacon, but an ominous one. Where there was smoke, there was death. Parties didn’t limp away from fights anymore. Life or death was the rule of the land, and sometimes everyone died.
“Here we go,” Ford said, maneuvering the chopper around in a tight circle so they could see out the side window.
Kenyon closed his eyes, seeing Ella’s body, feeling that loss. He feared the moment that everyone but him believed was inevitable. It wasn’t until Hutchins said, “Fucking hell. What a mess,” that he opened his eyes to the destruction below.
Smoke and fire billowed from what looked like a crater in the ground, identifiable as a gasoline reservoir only because the small service station and its pumps had not yet burned to the ground. Not far from the station, also on fire, was a large creature. Some kind of ExoGen predator with a slab of concrete in its side.
“Bodies to the north,” came the voice of a man from one of the other choppers, circling further away. “ExoGen, but the closest thing to still human I’ve seen.”
Kenyon squinted at the scene below. Finding a variety of dead ExoGens in one area wasn’t uncommon. They slaughtered each other regularly, but from what he could see, the creature below hadn’t been eaten. “How did they die?” he asked.
There was a pause, and then the man’s voice returned. “Uh, looks like they were shot, sir. Blast pattern suggests a shotgun. Close range. It’s a real mess.”
“I want boots on the ground. Three minutes tops. Find out what you can and get airborne.” Kenyon turned to Mackenzie. “Have two of your men rendezvous with us at the station.” Then to Ford: “Take us down, and keep the engine hot.”
This was the second time they’d be setting down on a still fresh scene, danger lurking behind the walls of corn and trees now shuddering under the chopper’s rotor wash. No one liked it, and he wouldn’t get away with taking these kinds of risks much longer. Access to ExoGen or not, once the men were sure he was going to get them killed, they’d probably decide to take their chances, maybe cordon off a town. Eke out a living like some of the other poor human souls holding out in the wilderness.
Kenyon jumped from the open chopper door before the landing struts even touched down. As usual, his only weapons were a long knife sheathed on one hip, and a .50 caliber Magnum on the other. He drew neither weapon, showing confidence in his own ability to defend himself, and his men’s ability to do their job. He was tempted to draw the gun as he strode down the road, toward the fallen beast. But he resisted, and focused on his surroundings, which showed signs of a recent battle.
He pieced together the confrontation, or a rough approximation of it, and he felt confident that Ella had not only been here, but was still alive. There were no human bodies that he could see, and the road—he knelt down—told how the fight had come to an end. A trail of black tires, peeling away at speed, headed south. They’d fallen into a trap, but had managed to escape, most likely thanks to the reservoir’s explosion.
Her companions are adept at blowing things up. Perhaps I’ll recruit them.
His hand hovered over the revolver when he heard scraping footfalls on the pavement. Then two soldiers, weapons up, rounded the smoldering behemoth that looked part rhino, part something else...
Was this thing a beaver?
“Just the three dead back there, sir,” one of the men said. “Big fucking mess. Two with a shotgun, but the other was cut up. A professional job.”
That caught Kenyon’s attention. “What do you mean, professional?”
“Better than any of us could do,” the man said. “Special Ops for sure.”
As Kenyon turned to leave, something about the creature caught his attention. He stepped closer, looking at the object clutched in the thing’s mouth, attached to a...
Is that...? Holy shit
Before Kenyon could voice his discovery, someone—Mackenzie he thought—shouted, “Incoming!”
He heard them before he saw them, the loud rattling sound barely audible over the helicopter. The helicopter above must have seen them moving between the trees.
“Let’s move!” Kenyon shouted, running toward the chopper. The two men followed close behind. But not close enough.
Kenyon spun at the loud warbling sound, but never stopped running. It saved his life. The two men behind him knew what the cry meant and turned around to open fire. They never got the chance. A phalanx of Rattletails, nine in total, swept out of the forest, where they had been concealed by the corn. The gray-skinned creatures’ plated backs carved through the air like shark fins in those old horror movies. They were led by the large female that they’d seen only once before, her twenty-foot length dwarfing the others. The Rattletails were annoyingly persistent, still tracking Ella after all this time.
Kenyon considered stopping. His magnum could take down a few, but he’d be sacrificing the chopper and the men inside.
And Ella. And that wasn’t acceptable.
The two soldiers opened fire, but it was too little, too late. Without breaking stride, the female leapt up, caught both men in her hind claws, landed atop them, breaking ribs, and then ran while clinging to them like they were floppy slippers, staining the ground with their blood with each step.
The helicopter rose up even as Kenyon leapt in. In seconds, they were a hundred feet up and out of reach. He took one last look down as the horde of predators descended on the men still on the ground. Then he closed the door, turned to Ford and said, “South.”