Chapter 16: Soulless
First Sergeant Ted Benson, US Marine Corps, Force Recon, picked his way carefully through the rubble. The second squad had point today, the point of the spear, and Ted was following the lead fire-team. The team was working their way through the broken city of Bazwala, an eastern suburb of Mosul.
A Navy Seal was leading the fire-team, and he moved like smoke. So did his team. Through the magic of linking their minds, the other three members of the team were as stealthy as their team leader, Chief Petty Officer Marion Drake. Their armor provided unheard of capabilities with invisibility and sound deadening, but that didn't make them undetectable.
Ted had always considered himself good in combat terrain. He was good! Marine Corps Force Recon may not have the press that Navy Seals commanded, but they didn't take second seat to anyone in skills. He had to admit, though, watching Drake and his team move was like watching artistry in motion. The entire team flowed through, around, and over debris in the ruined city. They also didn't assume they couldn't be seen, even though they should be invisible to the naked eye. Ted liked Drake's motto: 'Never assume!'
Ted reached with his mind and gently touched the team's link, like touching someone's shoulder so they can lead you through a dark place. His view of the terrain took on a different aspect, as he linked with the team. It was no longer broken walls, furniture, and toys ... images of the families lives destroyed by this war. It became a pathway through rubble that was constantly shifting and moving.
That rock is unstable; don't step next to it or it will move. Watch the angle on that window. It gives you a field of fire, but it also gives the enemy a field of fire. A broken board would be a logical place to step, so make two steps, and don't step on the board. Look for a door to a basement. We need to check it. A glass bowl is in the cupboard that had been ripped from the wall. The bowl wobbles in the slight breeze, so skirt that entire area. And on ... and on ... It was like a single entity with five sets of eyes, and all other senses. The entity was searching for the enemy, or traps the enemy may have left, and terrain details that could expose their position to the enemy.
Top Benson relaxed his mind, letting the point fire-team do its job. He shook his head in admiration. His Companion and the armor had been the greatest thing that had ever happened to him. Even so, the way the men adapted their new abilities, and used them in the field, absolutely amazed him. The way the men were holding up amazed him, too.
Ghost had been in the field longer than originally planned. Initially, the plan had been to stay in the field for thirty days, or maybe sixty. Their brief respite while staying at the US Embassy had been like a working vacation. The platoon had been resupplied twice since leaving Baghdad, the most recent after leaving the Kurds in Erbil, two days ago. Today marked their ninetieth day in country. The men were getting tired, and their nerves were taut. The Companions helped the men cope with the stress, but the stress was still showing.
Drake reached another intersection, and stopped. He and his team slowly moved sideways, and pressed against the remains of a wall.
"Top, something is wrong," Drake mentally alerted Ted. "I don't feel eyes like I would if someone were watching us, but something feels wrong about this intersection."
"What kind of wrong?" Ted asked, while passing the information to the Major.
"I don't know!" Drake replied, agitation clear in his thoughts. "I've never felt anything like it!"
"Hold in place," Major Connor ordered, breaking into the mental conversation. "I'm coming up."
Major Connor silently moved up the line of march, giving words of encouragement to the men as he passed.
"Are you enjoying your morning stroll, Top?" the Major asked when he reached Ted, the grim humor in the thoughts nearly as clear as a grin.
"Yes, sir, but I'm still anxious to get to that five star hotel you keep telling us about," Ted answered with the same humor.
The major chuckled, mentally, before saying, "Me too, Top. Me too," before moving on.
Ted liked that about the major. He always had a word of encouragement. He made light of the hardships, while enduring even more stresses than the average Ghost member. The Major also carried the weight of leadership for the unit, and Ted was proud to serve with him.
He watched wryly as the major moved towards Drake's position, even more stealthily than Drake had been. He chuckled silently to himself, vowing to get better.
"What do you have, Chief," Caleb asked, as he quietly settled into the rubble beside Drake.
"I'm not sure, but there is something wrong," Drake replied telepathically. "It isn't something that I can point to and say, 'that's it, ' but that doesn't mean that whatever it is, it isn't real," he concluded ruefully. "Can't you feel it, sir?"
Caleb opened his mind, and felt nothing, other than a sense of unease. He could have simply linked with the fire-team net to feel what they felt, but he wanted to see for himself.
"Are you still feeling whatever it is?" he asked Drake.
"Oh, yeah!" the Navy Seal replied with a shiver of revulsion.
"Show me," Caleb directed, as he linked with Drake and his team.
Drake's mind was in that unfocused state a person can achieve while meditating, and still being aware of everything around them. That state didn't usually include visual input, but input from the quantum world was common, if undefined. Drake's awareness included visual, and each of his senses seemed to be extended into the quantum realm. Driven by the combined power of the fire-team, their senses could reach much farther than a single person could.
Caleb felt what Drake was alarmed by, and understood his inability to define it. Caleb had encountered something similar, but much stronger than what Drake was feeling. He had killed a man with an emerging demon in his mind. The demon had mentally attacked him and his deputies, and something like this miasma had permeated the area around the creature. The corruption that infused the air in the intersection was close to what he had sensed from the demon, but not quite, and was much less powerful.
He studied what the Chief was feeling, letting his own senses relax into the sensory web the team had extended into the intersection. The added power caused by joining their link allowed their senses to spread farther, but their range was still limited.
"Ghost," Caleb alerted his men. "Ghost, count off. Even numbers, guard. Odd numbers link with me, just like we trained," He ordered.
Moments later, the power of the link flared, as fourteen minds added their energy. The sensory web exploded with the sudden surge, and the shattered structures along the street were flooded with awareness. They could see the source of the miasma, as it tainted the very air with evil. Six men were spread out along the roof tops, watching the street ahead. They were clearly prepared to ambush someone.
"Why do I feel like they're waiting for us?" Caleb quietly thought on an open channel.
He could feel an uncomfortable agreement from some of the men. That sixth-sense that a man in combat sometime feels, a sense of imminent danger, was stronger in the men that silently agreed with him.
"Sir," Petty Officer Second Class Santiago questioned. "We've been detecting ambushes as a team, for a few months now. We can sense where the enemy soldiers are. Do you know what these ... things ... are? They don't feel like anything we've ever felt before."
"Are those demons?" Chief Drake asked, voicing the question that was on everyone's mind, while fighting to prevent his mental retching from turning into physical retching. The wrongness that radiated from these men ... things ... mentally felt like a dead body smelled, after a week in the sun.
"No, Chief," Caleb replied, after a moment's hesitation, but on an open frequency so the men could hear, too. "The Demon is worse. Much worse! These are creatures of the Demon, though. They're like shadows, or empty imitations, of the Demon. Feel them to see what I mean," he ordered, wanting the men to better understand what they were facing.
"If they were human, even a very bad human, what you would feel? Think about it! There would still be the bright flame of life!" he answered himself. "There would be an indication through our quantum connections that a living, human soul is buried in that evil. These things still have an open quantum connection, but that flame is gone. There is no soul. Can you imagine living, or your children living, in a world controlled by such evil? This is why we're fighting."
The web of consciousness, shared by Ghost, was quiet. The stillness of their web was palpable, as the truth of Caleb's words, sank into the minds and souls of the men. The silent declaration had a primal finality to it that focused the men, uniting their purpose. The tension grew on the web, until it was almost unbearable.
"Maybe I went a little too far," Caleb privately thought to Al.
"Soulless ... and the Demon is worse," Chief Drake mentally repeated, chuckling across the platoon net. "'Join the Navy! See the world!' my girlfriend's Dad told me. The more I think about it, the more I think he was just trying to get rid of me!" He mentally said into the link, and including an image of him ruefully shaking his head.
A mental chuckle ran through the troops in the link.
"Why would you say that, Chief?" Caleb asked, including an image of a very innocent, naive major.
"Because her dad married her off, almost immediately after I enlisted," the Chief complained.
"How long is 'almost immediately, ' Chief?" Caleb wondered, including an image of a very doubtful Major.
"Oh, I couldn't have been in the Navy more than eight or nine years, before he married her off," The Chief complained indignantly.
Throughout the exchange, images had been included with the thoughts of an innocent, clueless major, and a heartbroken, betrayed Navy Chief. A snort was heard from someone in the platoon, as one of the men lost control for a moment. The mental hilarity sweeping through the platoon had overcome one of the men. It was a small price to pay for the release of tension in the platoon.
Caleb allowed the mental laughter to run its course before announcing to the platoon, "Okay! Listen up! The good news is, Demons die when you shoot them. I can't imagine that these things ... Soulless ... or whatever you want to call them, are any harder to kill than a Demon. The greatest danger from a Demon is its mental attack. Everyone go into a loose link and pay attention to your own shield. If someone is attacked mentally, team members link up with them and help strengthen their shield. Fire-teams, add your strength to a team-mate's shield. If that's not enough, squads, add your strength. Meantime, let's give them something else to worry about."
Throughout their trek, Ghost had simply avoided ambushes, for the most part. It was easy enough, but because individual military actions weren't their primary goals. Their attacks had been geared much more towards the psychological battles than by using bullets. Their goal was to break the will of the enemy, not necessarily to kill them, on the way to killing the demon. One enemy spreading stories of angels damning the murder of unbelievers, and demons praising what the Imams were preaching, was worth a hundred enemy dead by shooting them.
However, these creatures were a different case. They must be captured, or destroyed.
First and third squads were sent out in flanking maneuvers. Their job was to approach from behind, while the second squad tried to hold the attention of the creatures.
Caleb gave the signal, when the other squads were in position, and Drake's team quickly started across the road. The other two fire-teams in the squad moved up to supply covering fire for Drake's team, if they needed it.
Drake was past the midway point when two of the creatures moved. Each of them reached a corner of the buildings bracketing the road. Drake stopped, freezing in place. He should be invisible, but the Major admitted that he didn't know the capabilities of these creatures.
"Never assume," Drake thought silently to himself.
"And never underestimate the capabilities of the enemy," his Companion answered back.
Nothing happened, but the feeling of dismay had increased. Drake began moving forward again, carefully. His team followed his lead, an extension of him in a very real sense. They reached the wall, two men at the corner to cover the roof across the street, and the other two farther back to cover the roof over their heads.