Chapter 21: Demon’s Lair
“Connor, I hope to hell you know what you’re doing,” Scotty grated from Washington DC.
“So do I,” Caleb replied fervently, his footsteps dragging, while following the drone down the dilapidated building’s stairs in Iraq. “Right now, I’m trying to buy time and stay alive! We can sense too many of the drones to kill them all before they overwhelm us with this damn mist. We can’t try to wait them out, either. This constant, nagging, sense of dread will eventually wear us down. An airstrike may kill the drones, but Branch and the demon could escape. The only thing I can think of is to get close to Branch and the Demon. It will be a different set of circumstances, and maybe I can think of something!”
“Daddy,” Noah said, breaking into the conversation. His thoughts were oddly fuller, more resonant than their normal father-son mind-to-mind communications.
“Not now, son,” Caleb admonished gently. “Your job is to take care of Mommy. Remember?”
“Dad,” Noah said again, his thoughts subtly changing timbre. “We figured out a way to fight the fear,” the thoughts continued, and then morphed into a different person. “I am Syon, your son’s teacher, or the children’s student! My role seems to change from time to time,” Syon explained, grim humor coloring his thoughts. “The children are able to meld, the same as Companions. They were able to teach me to prepare to meld, and I was able to hold the fear at bay. I was able to think and react as if the miasma were not there, by blocking it at the quantum interface. After we defeated the Demon drones with the bomb, I was able to meld with the children. That is how I was able to reach you.”
“Is now a good time to be learning new techniques?” Caleb asked, while warily trying to watch in all directions.
His guide reached the bottom of the steps, and the black mist swirled around them, mere feet from their bodies.
“No, but neither is after you have succumbed to their weapons. It may give you an edge that you don’t have, now,” Syon pointed out. “You can only link with other Companion pairs to increase your power, now. Anchoring enhances your connection to your Companion, and prepares you to meld with other pairs. You will have access to your Companion’s senses, or how he interprets information through your senses. It will stave off the fear these monsters generate. Once anchored, you can meld with other human/Companion pairs. Melding increases the power of linking by orders of magnitude. Melding also allows the coordinated use of the multiple skill and knowledge sets that are present in the meld.”
“Okay! Let’s do the anchoring part first. What should I do?” Caleb queried, nervously eyeing the deadly, swirling mist that emanated terror.
“Are you aware of the structure in your mind that allows our quantum connection?” the Syon persona of the meld asked.
“Yes,” Caleb answered impatiently. His nerves were growing tighter with dread, as their open space moved through the mist.
“Focus inward,” Syon instructed. “Focus on that structure.”
“That is kind of hard to do, while I’m up to my ass in alligators,” Caleb mentally growled, clenching his teeth to help himself hold the terror at bay.
His guide turned a corner. The building that sheltered his platoon disappeared from view when Caleb followed him. He suddenly felt even more alone, more isolated, more vulnerable. The dread level rose in his mind.
“Find a reason to stop,” Syon ordered. “You need to focus, just for a moment. This is important! Your son is too young to lose his father!”
Caleb allowed his foot to land on a piece of rubble. His ankle turned, and he went to one knee, careful to stay in the clear space in the mist. He shook his head, trying to quell the panic that oozed from the mist. He focused inward.
“Okay, now what?” Caleb asked, his thoughts brittle under the strain.
“Anchor your awareness to that structure. It will work like a feedback loop, and will bring you into alignment with your Companion,” Syon explained, including an image of how he had accomplished it.
“What do you think, Al?” Caleb asked privately, his thoughts strained from the pressure on them. “Are you ready to be more closely aligned with me?”
“I don’t think it’s possible for us to be closer,” Al replied, worry clear in his thoughts. “We are already more tightly joined than I have ever been with a host!”
“Do you see another way out of this?” Caleb asked pensively.
“No,” Al admitted with a mental sigh. “Whatever made me think I was on a backward world with a primitive species as the highest form of life?” he asked rhetorically. “That stray dog for a host, that you continually threatened me with, is looking better and better! Being stuck with a defective human definitely has its downside.” He mentally sighed again, the wry humor obvious in his thoughts, before saying, “Go ahead and try it. I would say things can’t get worse, but I’m afraid that would jinx us and they would get worse. Damn! I’m even picking up human superstitions and profanities!”
Caleb chuckled mentally, while wrapping Al in all the warmth and love at his command. Then he followed Syon’s instructions.
Caleb’s perception of the world shattered like a fine wine glass dropped on a stone floor. What remained was like a butterfly that had just emerged from a cocoon. A more accurate description might be a phoenix emerging from the fire of its birth, because the emerging consciousness was certainly not delicate.
“Damn!” Caleb blurted aloud, the shock of the change forcing the expletive.
The drone turned, and its lips curved in the parody of a smile.
General Branch’s gloating voice said, “I like seeing you on your knees, Connor. I think you should come the rest of the way to me, on your knees. It isn’t more than a few blocks to my current abode.”
“Go back to hell, asshole,” Caleb spat, rubbing his knee as if he had hurt it. He pretended to struggle slightly, getting to his feet with the aid of his rifle. “If you’re just going to kill me, you can do it now! Otherwise, let’s get this show on the road!”
“Fine!” the drone snapped angrily, its sneer gone. “You can leave your weapons here, though.”
“Are you nuts?” Caleb feigning shocked disbelief. “Why would I want to do that? Have you noticed where we are?” he demanded, gesturing to their surroundings and pretending astonishment. “Have you noticed how dangerous this place is? I’m not giving up my weapons or anything else!”
“I can make you give them up!” the drone snapped angrily.
“No-o-o ... you can kill me,” Caleb explained slowly, as if speaking to a young child. “That is different than making me give up my weapons.”
“You don’t have your men supporting you, Connor!” the drone snapped. “I don’t have to kill you! I can overwhelm you with bodies!” he warned.
“All of them big, strong, men, gathered roun’ little-ol-me?” Caleb asked innocently with a fake southern drawl. “Do you think one grenade would get them all?”
“You aren’t the type to suicide,” the drone decided, after a slight pause.
“Hell, no!” Caleb blurted. “This fancy new armor is supposed to be able to stand up to a grenade blast. I’ll take my chances! Either send them, or let’s get going,” he ordered, as if talking to a private: a very stupid private. “I’m getting bored, and you don’t want me bored. I get cranky!”
The drone stood, looking at him.
Caleb could see the jaws grinding so hard that he was surprised teeth weren’t snapping off. He wondered if there were a shred of memories remaining, of who this man used to be. He wondered if the man was aware of how General Robert Branch, controlled by the Demon, was wearing his body like a glove. He suppressed a shiver of revulsion.
“Let’s finish this charade,” the drone growled, and turned on its heel.
The drone’s angry stride forced Caleb to move quickly, but couldn’t stop his grim smile.
“Ghost,” Caleb broadcast to his platoon. “We’ve got a new tool in our toolbox. Well, not exactly a new tool,” he qualified. “More like a new operational level. Do this in the black, with your armor buttoned up, so no audio can escape. You won’t be able to stop a reaction, but try to suppress it. This is Syon,” Caleb continued, passing his mental connection off to his platoon. “He will show you how to do something he calls ‘anchoring’ and then meshing. This could be the edge we need.”
“But, Dad!” Noah interrupted. “We haven’t taught you how to meld yet!”
“You can show me later. Show the platoon, now! I need to focus on what I’m doing and I can’t delay again!” Caleb explained urgently, while carefully moving forward through the mist.
“Your Father is correct, Noah,” Syon agreed, understanding Caleb’s position.
“Okay,” Noah reluctantly agreed.
Caleb focused on their path through the rubble. He noted when they left the mist surrounding his men. Al, in the meantime, monitored the instructions Ghost One was receiving. He marveled at the continued ingenuity of these humans.
The next several minutes were interesting for Ghost One. Companions, since the beginning of time, had managed and controlled the connections to their hosts. The Companions in the Platoon may be new to this universe, but they were still symbiotes, and understood their place and function in the scheme of things. This transition resulted in their humans no longer simply being hosts. Their humans had become symbiotes in their own right! Humans gained equal access to their Companion’s skills, thoughts, and memories: just as Companions enjoyed with their humans!
The anchoring, and then the melding that had occurred in Ghost Platoon, between the humans and their Companions, had certainly begun with the children. Syon had transitioned, and he was in the process of coaching other individuals in transitioning. However, they were not a highly skilled, cohesive, military unit, trapped behind enemy lines. Al’s mind followed the progress of the platoon, and his grim satisfaction caused a corner of Caleb’s lips to twitch upward.
General Branch and the Demon believed they had the Ghost Platoon trapped. They didn’t know it yet, but the tables had just turned! The damned mist was still a problem, but the combined intellect of the Platoon’s men and Companions was formidable and deadly.
Caleb followed the drone around another corner, and approached the shell of a building that used to be a prominent mosque. Traces of the delicate filigree that had once detailed the soaring arches remained. The rest of the loving adornment to the house of worship lay as rubble in the street. A once fanciful minaret rose slightly higher than the building walls, and ended in a jagged accusing finger jabbing at the sky.
He knew the Demon and Branch weren’t the only cause of all the destruction. Fools determined to turn back the clock on human history had started it. They had plowed the field, and prepared fertile ground for the Demon and Branch to take root.
Caleb grimly steeled himself for whatever came next. He was determined that the obscenity of the Demon in this dimension would end, whatever the cost. He felt responsible for it being here.
“I see that you’re slumming it again, Gen-er-al” Caleb taunted the drone.
The drone’s shoulders hunched, and its legs stiffened.
Caleb smiled and sent, “Okay, Ghost. The target is in sight. Has everyone shaken off that fear cloud?”
“Everyone’s fine here, Major,” the Master Chief reported, grim satisfaction shading his thoughts.
“Are the UAVs on station, and tracking me?” Caleb asked Command.
The “Affirmative,” reply came from the aircraft carrier.
“Good! Master Chief, coordinate with Command for targets. Fire teams meld and identify your targets. Start with the closest tangos to the platoon, then work your way outward. Wait until I say ‘go’,” he ordered. “I’ll be doing something to keep Branch busy. I’m thinking the drones won’t be quite so versatile, or quick to react, without the Demon directing them. Immediately upon securing your vicinity, come and get me. I’ll probably need your help.”
“Aye, Sir,” Master Chief Marconi replied dubiously. “You be careful, Sir,” the Chief continued on their private link.
“I will, Chief,” Caleb replied. “Take good care of the men!” he directed brusquely.
“That I will do, Sir,” the Master Chief acknowledged quietly.
The drone stopped at the remains of the mosque’s main entrance. One ornate door hung where elaborate double doors had existed in better times. Some of the splinters of the other door were scattered across the stairs. A fire ring built from rubble could be seen through the door, where someone had built a fire for cooking or for warmth.
The Soulless turned to face Caleb and said, “Another will escort you to the Master.”
“Why can’t you take me?” Caleb demanded.
The drone’s expression didn’t change, nor its stance, but a level of animation seemed to have left it. The Soulless didn’t reply.
“Because I try to conserve my pets,” Branch’s voice reverberated from the shadows beyond the doorway.
Caleb jumped in surprise, swinging towards the voice, his rifle aimed towards the opening. His nerves were wound tight! He needed to get control of himself!
Another Soulless stepped from the shadows, but its body was twisted into a caricature of a human. Its shoulders were hunched. The arms and legs weren’t the same length, and they connected to the drone’s body in an odd way. The eyes were the same empty, dead black as the other drones.
“My pets tend to ... change ... if they spend very much time around me,” the drone continued, its lips trying to smile, but achieving only a twisted grimace. “Walk this way,” the drone commanded before it turned and shambled away.
“Do you know how many jokes have been made with that line, Gen-er-al?” Caleb asked derisively, as he stepped through the shattered door.
The hall was filled with irregular shadows, interspersed with jagged patches of dim light. Holes in the walls ranged from the size of fifty-caliber full metal jacket rounds, to the gaping ruin caused by recoilless rifle and mortar rounds.
The drone’s twisted body shuffled away, snarling over its shoulder, “Joke now, Connor! In a few moments, you will never be able to joke again.”
Caleb suppressed a shiver of dread. He examined the feeling to determine if it was the normal terror a soldier feels, just before joining battle, or was caused by his proximity to the Demon. He was almost relieved when he discovered that it was normal terror, and mentally laughed at himself. He followed the drone when it disappeared through a shadowy opening.
The drone turned, stepping through a hole in the wall, next to where a door used to be. Caleb followed, stepping into the Sahn, or the courtyard bordering the mosque’s prayer hall.
Several more of the twisted shapes of drones were scattered in the shadows along the walls. Some nearly looked human, and held rifles. Others were the stuff of nightmares. Their bodies were so twisted they couldn’t have fired weapons, but they carried swords, spears, or great spiked clubs.
Caleb could feel the mounting pressure on his mind. This wasn’t the overpowering fear the platoon had experienced earlier, though that was still present. He could still sense it, but could nearly ignore it with his more complete integration with Al. The new pressure was just that: simply pressure. It was an insistence that he open his mind and accept his fate. He clung tighter to that anchor in his mind, instinctively knowing his anchor was the only way for his mind to remain his own.
He slowed as he approached the broken entrance to the prayer hall. He glanced at the sky, and said a brief prayer.
“Are you ready, Al,” Caleb asked.
“Hell, no!” his Companion snapped. “That mangy stray dog is looking better and better, all the time,” he confided, sounding almost wistful.
“You and me both, buddy! You and me both,” Caleb replied sincerely.
“Let’s get it done!” Al ordered impatiently.
Caleb took another deep breath, and adjusted his rifle on its sling so the barrel was aimed slightly forward, close to a firing position. He ensured the safety was off and his selector was on full automatic. He rested his finger on the trigger, took another deep breath, and stepped through the shattered doors.
More twisted shapes lined the walls. If anything, these were worse than the drones in the courtyard. Misshapen limbs, faces, and bodies were everywhere he looked.
His eyes were drawn to the Mihrab, the deep niche in the wall of every Mosque’s prayer hall that points toward Mecca. The depths of the Mihrab were dark, but a dim glimmer of lesser shadow revealed the legs of a great, heavy chair. The feet of the chair’s occupant were hinted at in the dimness, but they seemed wrong. Caleb could feel the weight of the occupant’s gaze, like a burden on his soul.
Caleb forced himself to take a step towards the Mihrab. Taking that one step was one of the hardest things he had ever done.
“S’op!” a garbled voice ordered from the Mihrab, sounding curiously muffled, as if the mouth wasn’t designed for human speech.
He took another step.
“Stop!” a drone more resembling a human ordered in Branch’s voice.
Caleb did not ... could not ... take another step! It seemed like the drone’s command had bypassed his conscious mind, going directly to his body’s motor control. He tried to raise his rifle barrel further, so it would be aimed directly at the figure in the Mihrab. He couldn’t! The rifle remained aimed at the floor between him and the shadowy figure.
“What happened to you, Gen-er-al? Caleb taunted, forcing a smile.
He knew taunts at this point were foolish. However, he had just proved his voice still worked, and he had some control of his facial muscles. What other parts of his body could be persuaded to cooperate, he wondered. His trigger finger twitched slightly, to his grim satisfaction. It was something to work with. Besides, ricochets could be more effective than direct hits. He just needed to ensure the figure was the Demon and Branch, before he did anything. They could not be allowed to escape.
“You can’t speak for yourself? You’re afraid to step into the light? Is having a Demon for a passenger a little more than you bargained for, Gen-er-al?” Caleb continued with the same derisive tone.
Rage swirled around Caleb. He felt it, but it was a distant sensation, like watching storm winds whip a window with rain. Several of the more twisted drones convulsed with the Demon’s anger.
He reassured himself that his anchor was still holding, knowing that losing that hold would spell his death. The pressure on his mind increased. It felt how he imagined it would if something was trying to pry his finger tips from a ledge, while he hung over a bottomless gulf.
Caleb steeled himself, and mocked, “Why don’t you step from the shadows, Gen-er-al? Don’t tell me that you’re afraid of me, frozen the way I am, and surrounded by your drones!”
The rage became a tangible force in the prayer hall. Some of the more grotesque drones fell, writhing, to the floor. Others began keening in distress. The shape in the shadows ponderously stepped forward.
Caleb would have stepped back, if his legs would have obeyed him. This creature was much different than the distinguished looking Army General that Caleb remembered. The creature’s height, a little over six feet, was the only physical trait it had in common with General Robert Branch.
The creature was thick. Its arms, legs, torso and neck were nearly twice as thick as a normal human. The arms were long, ending in hands that reached its ankles. The fingers were long, out of proportion with the hands, and they ended with fingernails that had turned into claws. The hands were closer to a bird of prey’s talons than anything human. It wore no shoes, because no cobbler in the world had ever made shoes for such a beast. The feet were wide, and seemed more prehensile than human. The legs were like tree trunks, and the bare arms weren’t far behind. The creature’s neck bore more resemblance to a bull’s neck than a human’s. The muscles moving under the skin were like great, angry snakes, writhing and twisting. Splotchy patches of coarse black hair adorned the torso, arms, and legs, but the head was bald.
The head was the reason Caleb wanted to take a step back! General Branch’s jaw had lengthened, and there were so many razor sharp teeth sticking out at odd angles, that the jaws couldn’t be completely closed. Drool bubbled from between its teeth, as a growl erupted from deep within its chest. Its ears still looked vaguely human, but had grown, and become more mobile. Presently, they were laid back against the creature’s skull. A ridge had formed across the top of the skull from front to back, and veins pulsed just under the skin. A ridge across the brows cast the eyes in shadow, but a malevolent glare could still be seen from red, bloodshot eyes.
“Damn, Branch!” Caleb blurted. “You’ve really messed yourself up!”
“Do you think you can make me kill you, human?” the nearly normal drone beside it snarled. “That will not happen. You resist me now, but you can’t forever. You ... will ... serve ... me!”
“ou ill erve ee,” the ruined beast repeated, nearly unintelligible, and accompanied by a deeper growl.
“Yeah, yeah,” Caleb replied. “I understand all the threats, but what happened to you, man? I mean, why would the Demon stay in such a corrupted body?” he asked, feigning curiosity while trying desperately to move some part of his own body.
The creature cocked its head, glaring at Caleb, as if trying to decide if it should answer.
“Come on, Branch,” Caleb urged, trying to buy time. “You’re going to kill me, or make me serve you, or whatever. How often do you get a chance to talk to someone that isn’t a puppet? You sure can’t have a conversation with these things. That’s like talking to yourself!” he pointed out, looking towards the drones along the walls. His eyes were the only bodily part he could gesture with.