Chapter 18: Demon’s Trap
Caleb raced up the stairs to the second story roof. He was trying to focus on the danger to his men and himself, but the events in Washington, D.C kept pulling at his attention.
“Are you okay, honey?” Caleb telepathically asked his wife anxiously, while taking the steps two at a time.
“I’m fine,” JJ answered with a kiss ... or at least, the emotional aspect of the kiss. “We’ll take care of business, here. You need to take care of business there. We can talk when we can relax. Let me know when you get some breathing space, and we’ll talk then. I love you!”
“I love you, too,” Caleb replied. “Later,” he promised, wrapping the thoughts with all the love for her that his heart could hold.
The contact faded as he reached the top of the stairs. He shuddered to a halt!
A firestorm of bullets had swept the rooftop. Caleb had expected to see mayhem, as he had on every other battlefield where he’d fought. Five dead bodies, and one about to die, would not be a pretty sight. It would at least be normal. What he got was four bodies in advanced stages of decomposition. The fifth dead body seemed to be normal, if the carnage of the aftermath of a battle can be called normal. Judging by the amount of blood, their one prisoner shouldn’t be alive.
The desiccated bodies smelled like they should have been buried weeks ago.
Caleb fought his gag reflex for several moments before gasping aloud, “What the hell?”
“Yeah! That’s pretty close to what I asked, when I first got up here!” Master Chief Marconi replied telepathically, his thoughts eloquently projecting his own revulsion.
The senior enlisted man in the unit shivered. He had felt like Alice going down the rabbit hole more than a few times, since he had volunteered for Ghost. Bodies instantly decomposing, after being killed, took that feeling to a whole new level.
“What happened to them?” Caleb asked, moving forward warily.
“We don’t know,” the Master Chief replied, trying not to breathe.
The stench was growing so strong they could taste it in the air. Breathing through their nostrils was nearly unbearable, but still better than breathing through their mouths. It was almost better not to breathe at all.
“The armor should filter the stench,” Al complained in disgust.
“Yeah. It should,” Caleb answered, briefly wondering why it wasn’t.
“Third squad was first on the roof,” the Master Chief continued. “They said those four were already beginning to rot, when they got up here. Their rate of decay seems to be increasing! It’s like a bad horror flick, but I didn’t get my popcorn!”
“What’s the difference between the four that are rotting, and the other dead guy?” Caleb asked, gesturing towards the five bodies. “Are you sure he’s dead?”
“Doc checked him and said he was dead,” Chief Marconi answered with a nod. “That’s the first thing I thought of, too. He’s dead, Major. One leg was shattered by bullets, and one arm was blown off below his elbow. He was hit four times in the chest; twice through the heart. The only difference I can see is the normal dead guy wasn’t hit in the head. The four rotting dead guys were hit in the head. Our 7.62’s popped their heads like melons.”
“Thanks, Chief,” Caleb said drily. “I’ll never eat melon again!”
“The live one is the one that scares me!” the Chief continued with a shudder, ignoring Caleb’s rejoinder. “Major, that guy shouldn’t be alive, much less conscious. He was hit in the chest multiple times, and one was a pretty messy ricochet. He’s a mess, but he’s calm, and he’s asking for our commander! Major, his chest bubbles when he talks!” he finished, his thoughts flooded with a tightly leashed terror that would send most men running and screaming.
“At least his fear is caused by fear of the unknown instead of whatever these creatures were projecting,” Al observed privately to Caleb. “The fear permeating the air is harder to fight! It disappeared after the battle, but it feels like it’s coming back!”
Caleb mentally agreed before grimly telling the Chief, “Let’s see what he wants, then,” while walking towards the cluster of men around one prone man.
Caleb’s armor morphed from invisibility to the visible image of a future combat soldier’s armored vest and gear. The helmet was the most futuristic looking of his outfit. It was angular, with a raised face-shield that would seal the helmet when lowered. The Chief’s armor morphed to the same configuration as they walked.
The display of futuristic normality had been adopted by the entire platoon, when they were visible. It provided a reasonable technological explanation of their stealth capabilities that had nothing to do with their Companions.
Three of the men around the prone man were visible, while four others stood back, invisible, their rifles trained on the wounded man.
Caleb stopped beside the man, and stared at his chest, appalled at the sight. The Chief had been right. This man shouldn’t be alive. He could see the man’s heart beating!
“How in the hell are you still alive?” Caleb asked rhetorically, the question startled out of him.
The man’s eyes snapped open, and his head swiveled toward Caleb. His eyes were solid black, empty, and Caleb felt a chill when the gaze from those vacant orbs speared him. The terror that had dissipated at the end of the fire-fight had been slowly returning. The prisoner’s attention caused the fear to return ten-fold! Each man involuntarily took a step back. The chill went bone-deep when the man smiled at Caleb, his white teeth rimmed with blood.
“The human body is very resilient, with the right encouragement and modifications, Conner,” a vaguely familiar voice answered from the prone man.
Caleb struggled with visual and auditory memories that clashed. He knew he had never met this man. The man was obviously Arabic. Caleb would have remembered the large, hooked nose, and the thick eyebrows that nearly met in the middle of his forehead. The cadence, accent, and tone of the voice coalesced, and then he remembered where he had heard it before.
“Where are you?” Caleb demanded, shifting the rifle slung from his shoulder, so the barrel was centered between the man’s eyes.
He did recognize the voice. The voice belonged to Brigadier General Robert Branch, but this man was not the General. Therefore, the man before him was nothing more than a puppet! A very dangerous puppet of a demon!
“Oh, come now, Connor,” the voice purred with a chuckle, made obscene by his bubbling chest as he uttered each word. “Is that any way to greet an old friend?” the voice continued.
“We were never friends,” Cable replied levelly. “Where are you?” he demanded again.
“I should have let those troopers shoot you the night we found you in the desert!” the voice hissed, and blood sprayed from his chest with his vehemence. “I should have locked you up under a prison!” the voice continued venomously. “I had the power! No one would have...”
The voice stopped mid-sentence, as the last of the creature’s blood dribbled from his chest, and it slumped in death. The body began rotting. Caleb exchanged wide-eyed stares with the Master Chief. He started to say something, but he was interrupted.
“No one would have stopped me!” the same voice said from behind them.
They whirled to confront the new threat, and the normal dead man that Doc had declared dead, was smiling back at them, blood sluggishly pumping from his chest.
“I should have known that you would be involved with these fools!” the voice growled, and his smile turned into a snarl. “They will all die, but I want you for myself.” The snarl changed back to a smile, a very broad smile, as it coaxed, “Come to me, and maybe you can convince me to spare your men!”
“You might find that killing these men would be a bit difficult,” Caleb answered lightly, while mentally telling the Master Chief, “Pull the perimeter in tight.”
“Already done,” the Master Chief replied grimly. “One team left on the other side of the road. That black mist is filling the road and they’re cut off!”
Caleb rapidly cycled through several links in the platoon, getting views and analyzing the situation from multiple perspectives. There were far too many drone soulless, located in the surrounding buildings, for them to eliminate quickly.
“Command,” Caleb sent to the Ghost contingent on an aircraft carrier in the Mediterranean. “I need whatever you have at my location, ASAP.”
“UAVs were scrambled at first contact, Major,” Master Sergeant Bill Ellis answered briskly. “A flight of six UAV will be at your location within ten minutes; all with hellfire missiles. A flight of Osprey will be on station within twenty minutes, accompanied by a Spectre gunship.”
“We look forward to the company,” Caleb acknowledged.
“You are surrounded,” the Branch’s voice from the dead man continued flatly. “You and your men have no defense against the weapon my pets are using. Your men will die when I decide they will die! Look for yourself,” the creature said, pointed at the edge of the roof with his damaged arm, bare bone protruding from a wrist where a hand should have been.
“He doesn’t hear us!” Caleb sent telepathically.
Caleb cautiously looked over the parapet, as if he hadn’t already viewed the situation through other’s eyes. Black mist roiled in the streets surrounding the building: questing, searching, black mist! There was no one in sight to fight, but the location of the soulless had already been identified.
“We can still find them, just like we did when they were waiting to ambush us. I don’t think these Soulless, or Drones, or whatever we want to call these things, are as invincible as he wants us to believe,” Caleb noted to the entire platoon. “However, I don’t think now would be a good time to remind them about their weaknesses,” he continued with grim humor.
He reached out with his mind to find the trapped team. They were across the intersection, in a building without a roof.
“Major, this mist acts like it knows where we are, and is keeping us here on purpose!” Gunnery Sergeant Duke Durand reported, worry clear in his thoughts.
“Ghost,” Caleb ordered telepathically, “Link with Gunny Durand and his team! Gunny, I’ll try to get a path opened for you. Until then, don’t touch that black mist!”
“Aye, Sir,” the Gunny answered, nervously watching the swirling tendrils. “It does seem to know where we are,” he repeated. “It’s like it’s watching us, but can’t exactly see us. It’s like a bunch of nearsighted snakes.”
Caleb grimly turned back to the dead man, and asked, “How do you propose I come to you, with all that mist out there? I know I would die if that mist touched me,” he admitted dourly.”
“I will open a path for you through the Breath of Death,” the oily voice assured Caleb.
“Breath of Death?” Caleb rhetorically asked the platoon. “I think the General has been watching too much late night television!”
“Let me get this straight. You will not attack my men until we conclude our business?” Caleb asked the dead man, pressing the issue.
“Of course they will not be attacked,” the voice purred. “I want to enjoy every moment we are face to face. I want no distractions! Your men will be safe enough, until you and I have concluded our ... ahem ... our business. Then I will decide their fate: death, or service to me.”
“I don’t believe that you have the control over the mist that you claim you have,” Caleb spat dismissively.
Caleb saw the waves of black mist convulse in the street at his words.
“Easy to anger,” Caleb sent to the Ghost platoon. “That’s another weakness. There must be a way to take advantage of that.”
“Prove you have control of the mist,” Caleb angrily challenged the dead man. “Open a path for my team across the street to join the rest of us! If they get safe passage, I’ll know you can do what you say. Then, I’ll come to you!”
“I have a better idea!” the voice snarled. “Why don’t I kill your team, one by one, until you come to me, to prove that I have control?”