Chapter 22: Condemnation
Singer’s back was resting against Flan’s. Their rifles were raised, but both knew their weapons were useless against the mist.
“Disappear!” Flan silently ordered. “Like Jerome did!”
Singer closed his eyes briefly, his mind slipping into that nothingness he had felt from Jerome. ‘I’m not here.’ he repeated in his mind. He opened his eyes again. The mist was still there, but it wasn’t acting with the certainty it had been acting with a moment before. It was still waving in the air, searching for him, and it would find him soon. He may have bought a few minutes, but no more than that.
“Wow! It worked!” Singer told Flan, “but I think it only bought us a little time.”
“I don’t know if I’m doing it wrong, but it doesn’t seem to be slowing the mist coming from the sewer at all!” Flan answered, with a very brittle calm. “I’m not sure what else to do to stop it.”
“Throw a grenade in the sewer!” Singer suggested urgently, pressing back against Flans back harder as the tendril from the window waved closer. “They’ve got to be in the sewer and can see us to be able to direct it to trap us.”
Flan took a grenade from a pouch, pulled the pin, and threw it. He missed. Both men ducked when the grenade exploded in the street, close to the curb.
“Is that the best you can do, Flannigan?” Singer jibed, his thoughts shrill with anxiety.
Flan threw a second grenade, and it bounced into the sewer. A moment later, flame spouted from the sewer grate and the searching arms of mist collapsed. Both men rolled away from the window, just as its tendril of mist struck at Singer. It missed.
“We can’t use grenades against the drones in the warehouse because of the hostages!” Singer pointed out breathlessly. “Any ideas?”
“Yeah, but no good ones!” Flan replied.
“Well, I’m not going near that window again,” Singer stated with certainty. “How about we just start blowing a few doors off? At least then, the drones won’t know which one we’re coming through. There’s got to be a limit to how much mist these things can produce!”
“There’s danger to the hostages in that, too,” Flan pointed out.
“Top, did you bring that bomb robot with you?” Singer asked. “I’ve got an idea!”
“Oh, shit!” Flan commented.
“Yep,” the Master Sergeant replied. “Are you thinking of sending it in first?”
“Sort of!” Singer replied. “There’s danger to the hostages when we blow the doors. If we blow them all at once, and send the robot in one door immediately following the blast, we may give them too many things to react to. Men in full stealth going in another door a count after the robot will delay their response. We need an edge!”
Fifteen minutes later, all the doors had thin strips of explosive lining their edges. The robot was poised at a door with its speed set to high. The plan was for all the doors to be blown with a single command. The robot would go through one door a full count after the explosion, much like humans would attack after a door is blown. Singer would lead a team through a door at the opposite end of the warehouse on the second full count after the explosion, under full stealth. Singer’s team’s entrance was selected because it was nearest the last known location of the hostages.
“All ready?” Singer asked, and received affirmatives.
“Go!” Singer ordered.
Three personnel doors and two vehicle entrances exploded inward simultaneously.
“One thousand one!” Flan marked the time.
The robot raced through one of the vehicle entrances. A helmet was strapped on top and a police riot shield was on the front. It wouldn’t fool anyone into thinking it was a human, but in the darkness, smoke, and fire from the explosions, it would call for a second look.
“One thousand two!” Singer counted, and ten members of Ghost Two raced into the building from the opposite side.
The hostages were immediately visible to Singer. They were in an office with a large picture window overlooking the warehouse. An older woman was holding a boy and girl to her sides, and all three were screaming.
A man was standing behind the hostages, laughing maniacally. Black mist was pouring from the man’s mouth and hovering in the air above the mother and her children.
Singer raised his rifle, knowing it was a futile effort to save Jerome’s family. His stomach twisted as he acknowledged his failure even while his finger tightened on the trigger.
A primal scream suddenly ripped through Singer’s mind, and every other human/Companion pair on the operation! It didn’t stop, the way a dying man’s scream can be cut off. It didn’t fade, the way a man’s scream will as his last breath expires. The scream dwindled into an impossible distance, never losing its intensity or horror at its fate.
The black mist in the warehouse and in the office softly fell to the floor. The man standing behind the hostages was holding his head, and he was the one screaming, now. Two other screams could be heard, elsewhere in the warehouse.
Singer’s finger tightened a hair more on his trigger, and the man’s head exploded.
Shots rang out from Singer’s team, and the last two Soulless in the warehouse fell.
“Ghost Two! Hostages secure! Site secure!” Singer broadcast, breathing a deep sigh of relief.
“Ghost One,” Master Chief Marconi heard Caleb from their rooftop. “Attack, now!”
“On a two count,” Master Chief Marconi announced to the melded entity that had been Ghost One. The warning was meant for the drone handlers aboard the ship. “All together, now! One Thousand one. One Thousand two!”
Four hellfire missiles hissed from two drones, creating a virtual wall of flame when they hit buildings around the mosque. Eight more hellfire missiles flashed from four additional UAV’s, aimed at preselected targets around Ghost One.
Two mortars thumped, and every rifle in the platoon fired with three-round bursts. The awareness of the melded entity Ghost One had become, each mortar round and each burst fired found a target.
The battlefield awareness of the melded platoon was beyond anything Master Chief Marconi had imagined possible. He was aware of everything the men in the platoon were aware of, and able to react to all of it. Each movement of the enemy was available to his senses. Of particular interest was the black wave of mist growing from the surrounding neighborhoods.
Sources of the black arms of mist were identified and destroyed with an efficiency the Master Chief knew was far beyond the capabilities of a unit of this size. As sources were destroyed, ‘dead’ mist would settle to the ground. There was so much ‘dead’ mist, that it looked like a black snow storm, but the ‘live’ mist didn’t slow. The writhing mass rose above the walls, towering over the men on the rooftop.
The four UAV’s over the platoon, each fired their last two missiles into preselected secondary targets.
The wave crested, and began falling towards the platoon.
“NO WAY!!” Sal Marconi screamed in denial at the black mist from hell. Master Chief Marconi, formally a member of Seal Team Six, mentally grabbed the Adrenalin driven anger of the melded platoon. He faced that wall of falling death, coming at HIS platoon from all directions. He screamed in defiance, and released a white hot flash of pure WILL!
The leading edge of the black mist crystallized, and then shattered on the shield created by the power generated by the platoon. The wave of black mist continued falling, suffering the same fate as its leading edge. A cascade of black powder showered the streets around the building, unable to conquer the will of Master Chief Marconi! It seemed to last forever, but finally the wave shuddered to a stop and began withdrawing.
Chief Marconi shakily fell to one knee, his head in his hands. His brain felt like someone had scrubbed it with steel-wool. His body felt like it had been drained of energy. The platoon’s meld collapsed.
“Master Chief!” First Sergeant Benson called anxiously. “Are you okay? I think that mist is getting ready to come back again!”
“I ... I can’t do that ... again,” Master Chief Marconi gasped. “Top ... Benson! You’re up ... to bat! Get the platoon melded again. I need to ... rest...”
Master Chief Marconi collapsed.
“Oh, shit!” Top Benson exclaimed aloud. “Form up,” he mentally commanded, not knowing what other command to give. This melding business was brand new. He didn’t know what its capabilities were, but he knew that what the Master Chief just went through was a non-starter.
The minds of the platoon and their Companions flowed together in a mesh like they had been doing it all their lives.
“Good job!” Top Benson sent approvingly, marveling at the increase in battle situational awareness. “We know what to do now!” he continued, communicating his confidence in their ability to win this battle. “This time we’ll use a more focused defense, so we don’t have to expend so much energy. I think that spike, that the Master Chief focused alone, wore him out!”
The undulating sea of black gathered itself for another assault. It swelled, and began rising.
“The next wing of UAVs are inbound! ETA at your location is three minutes,” Command reported from the carrier. “The wing that just left will rearm at a Kurdish supply point. They will rearm and should return to your location in twenty minutes.”
“Thanks Command! We’ll see if we can hold things together here for three more minutes!” Top Benson replied. To the platoon he calmly considered, “We just need a shield from the mist. We don’t need to fight it. We only need to keep it away from us.”
Rifles and mortars continued targeting locations where soulless could be hiding, and ‘dead’ mist continued to fall. The rising wave was noticeably thinning, but there was no way Ghost could avoid another blow.
The mist crested, and then fell!
Top Benson held up his hand like a stop sign! He grunted from the pressure, as the brunt of the blow landed on his focus. The mist slid from the shield. It roiled briefly, trying to reach the men, and then flowed back over the edge of the building.
One man looked over the edge and called out, “It looks like it’s going to try again!”
“Persistent assholes!” Top Benson muttered, panting from the exertion. “Ghost One,” he mentally commanded. “I can handle one more like that. Gunny Bindle, you’re next up. As soon as it begins pulling back, you take over the meld. Meantime, keep taking shots when you have them.”
Mortars continued firing, and rifle bursts continued, targeted at any opening that seemed to be a source of black mist.
The mist began rising in a wave again, but it was noticeably thinner than when it started. Individual arms of the mist were clearly discernible. That didn’t mean the wave reaching for its crest was any less dangerous.
“UAV’s ETA; 20 seconds,” Command reported. “Targets identified. Preparing to fire.”
“Come on! Come on! Come on!” Top Benson said aloud, watching the mist crest, and then begin to fall.
“Ghost!” Top Benson screamed, thrusting his hand out again, commanding the mist to stop.
“Missiles fired,” Command reported.
Four more missiles slammed into the neighborhoods around the mosque, followed immediately by four more. One of the UAVs was hit just as its missiles were released. The programmed flight path changed and the pair of missiles hissed towards the mosque.
Eight missiles hit around the platoon, and eight more were in the air while the first group was still exploding.
The mist crashed into the shield Top Benson was creating with the power of the melded platoon. The mist’s attack had changed. The mist was thinner, but it had compensated. Instead of hammering at their whole perimeter, the mist was initiating focused attacks at multiple locations in their perimeter.
“HANG ON!” Top Benson screamed, desperately trying to adjust to the new attack, and losing ground badly. He could feel the shield weakening as the shielded area shrank. He could feel his body weakening as power flowed through him. He gritted his teeth and fell to one knee, refusing to quit fighting!
A sudden scream ripped through the minds of the men of Ghost One like barbed wire through flesh. The meld was shattered and men fell. Their shield dissipated, but it was no longer needed. The mist fell to the ground like dust.
The scream faded in a direction that had no relation to earth’s cardinal points. The men of Ghost One would remember the scream for a very long time, still reverberating in their minds, in their quiet times.
Top Benson was down, sprawled beside Master Chief Marconi. His nose and ears were bleeding, but the growing puddle of blood under him proved that he was still alive. Corpses don’t pump blood!
Explosions ripped through the city! The second wave of missiles hit and spewed smoke, fire, and the wreckage of untold lives into the air!
“Corpsman! Check Top Benson and the Master Chief,” Gunny Bindle ordered. “Command, cease fire! Cease fire! All enemy actions ceased with that weird scream!”
“What was that, Gunny?” Command asked.
“No idea,” Gunny Bindle answered, as he anxiously looked out over the city, searching for movement. That is when he saw part of the dome of the mosque collapse.
“Major Connor! Are you okay?” he mentally called, but he didn’t get an immediate answer.
A long moment later, another mental signature answered, saying, “I am Syon. The Major is knocked out, but he seems to be fine other than some internal trauma. A building fell on him. He may need some help digging himself out.”
“He’ll be fine, Gunny!” Al reported, sounding worried nonetheless. “His mind was protected in a meld. Getting hit in the head physically shouldn’t stop him for more than a few minutes. It’s the hardest part of him. I should know. I’ve been dealing with his hard head since I got stranded on this rock!”
Gunny Bindle breathed a sigh of relief, and murmured a silent prayer of thanks.
Everyone in the platoon was aware of the running battle between the Major and his Companion. They also knew the two were completely devoted to each other. If Al reported that his human counterpart was okay, then he was.
The Gunny chuckled to himself as he detailed a squad to begin digging the Major from the rubble.
The journey from the periphery of the planetary system had been tedious, but was a low risk journey. The giant outer planets had shielded their presence from their target, the third planet of the system. They were in a stationary orbit beside a moon circling the fifth planet, the last giant planet they could use to shield their approach. They would stay behind the moon, as it circled the giant planet, until they reached the closest position to make a dash to their next objective. The only screen they would have for the rest of the journey was the fourth planet, a small barren world.
An unknown danger awaited them at the third planet that had already claimed one of their ships. Regulations required the Captain to record the opinions of the other hosts on the ship, and of their Companions, prior to approaching possible danger.
The Captain had the final say in any decision, except if all three Companions disagreed with him. He could still issue orders in opposition. However, if he was wrong, the Captain would lose his command and his Companion, upon return to the nearest base. Politics was an inherent part of being a Captain, as was having a Companion. The Captain welcomed the burden. He was proud of being the Captain of an Exploration ship, but being selected to be a host for a Companion was an even greater honor.
Everything they had discovered, and the recorded views of all hosts and their Companions, would be sent. The records would be sent in an FTL drone to the nearest base, about two-hundred light years away. A burst transmission would also be sent with the same information. Other scientific expeditions in near space, (thirty to fifty light years, also responding to the initial warning) would receive the broadcast and be aware of the suspected danger in this system and their plan. Both procedures were standard practice before an expedition ship went into a dangerous situation. The last step of the process remained: recording the views and advice of any hosts on the ship and their Companions. They hadn’t figured out how to officially record a Companion’s views directly. The host always spoke for his Companion in official, recorded meetings.
The Captain gravely considered his subordinates before starting the meeting. Both the Science Officer and the Medical Officer looked concerned, but the Science Officer also looked angry. The Captain knew why, but he still needed to ensure the officer’s views were officially recorded.
“Start official recording,” the Captain ordered, signaling the start of the meeting. “Science Officer, report your conclusions, based on the third planet’s electronic emissions,” he ordered.
“Yes, Sir,” the Science Officer replied. “The dominant species, on the third planet, is war-like in the extreme. They dominate all other planetary species, to the point of extinction. They fight wars to dominate others of their own species without regard for the cost to the species’ potential, due to the loss of life. In addition to their constant wars, these beasts are also destroying their planet’s ecosystem. Their species will not survive!”
“How about their technological status?” the Captain asked testily when the Science Officer didn’t continue.
“Rudimentary, but they do have a fledgling space program,” the Science Officer replied.
“Are they sufficiently advanced to pose a danger to one of our ships?” the Captain asked, beginning to get frustrated with the Science Officer.
“Yes, Sir,” the Science Officer answered sullenly. “The dominant species, they call themselves humans, are a clear danger to our ships. That is obvious, since they have already destroyed one of our ships, along with three Companions!” he concluded forcefully.
“What is your Companion’s opinion?” the Captain demanded, has voice rising nearly an octave, his species equivalent to a growl.
The Science Officer was silent for a moment, reluctant to answer. Finally he admitted, “My Companion disagrees with my assessment of the danger. He thinks the technology could be a danger, if we allowed them to get very close, and they surprised us. He also believes they are not a danger to us, because we are forewarned.”