Track 20: Gods of Hellfire

The next stage of the journey was getting into another military cargo plane. We’d be flying to Kansas City. Then, depending on the amount of groundfire, we’d either drive to Saint Louis or get back on the plane. Seeing as the choices were either C130, military Humvee, or MRAP, I didn’t really have a preference.

However, other people did. “I just think,” Watanabe said, “that going by plane is a really, really bad idea. If we get shot down like we did last time, I don’t think we’re going to be as lucky.”

“And driving’ll be better?” Eliza asked. “Sorry, mate, but the only dif between travelin’ by air and travelin’ by car’s that we’re going to be in the car for longer, and longer travel time means more chances for fuckery.”

“Doesn’t matter what you think,” Hicks said laconically. “Air National Guard wants us off their plane. We’re going to hitch a ride with a supply convoy, then play it by ear.”

Kansas City was chaos when we touched down. On the approach, Barton looked out the window and said, “Look at all the cars…” We crowded around. Below was Interstate Route 70. There was a long line of cars that seemed solid from Utah to Maryland on one side and completely devoid of traffic except for a convoy of tanks on trailers and two-ton trucks on the other.

When we landed on the terminal, we were greeted by four National Guard troopers wearing thermal goggles. After checking everyone to make sure they weren’t wearing masks (which, of course, involved being held at gunpoint) and that there were no stowaways, we were bundled into an MRAP and transported to the FBI office. This office was more heavily guarded. SWAT operators and Guardsmen were stationed around the building with every Guardsman and many SWAT operators equipped with some kind of thermal vision. We were pinched on the forehead multiple times. I also noticed that everyone there seemed to mainlining caffeine and many people I assumed were FBI agents were wearing traffic vests.

Eventually, we were taken to the building cafeteria. “Here,” the guide of the minute, a female FBI agent slightly older than Agent Hick, said. “Rest. I’m going to get coffee, then I’m going to direct traffic for another twelve hours.”

“But you’re on the anti-fraud task force,” Agent Barton said. “Shouldn’t you be chasing down the profiteers?”

Our guide shook her head and laughed ruefully. “Ha. I wish. We’ve already had a bunch of locals get shot because of panicky assholes and Dragon’s Teeth fifth columnists. We’re going insane trying to keep these people moving. Wish they’d stay where they were.”

“They’re afraid the Dragon’s Teeth are going to get them,” Barton said. “If my family were there, I’d be trying to get them out as well.”

“Yeah,” Hicks said, “but they aren’t helping.”

“Amen,” our guide said walking off. “Especially when they run people over trying to keep them out of the Army lane.”

“Jesus Christ,” Eliza said. “‘S’all gone mad, innit? The ‘ell ‘appened?”

“I guess we got used to having the most advanced tech and the baddest motherfuckers,” I said.

“We still have the Marines,” Hicks said. Eliza and I exchanged glances. “You ever fought with Marines?” Hicks asked.

“Look,” I said, “I know you were in the Corps, but right now, our only hope is that the Dragon’s Teeth has miscalculated and we’re the one they didn’t throw enough bodies at. They’ve got better guns, better training, and I’m not sure they’re mentally capable of giving up.”

“Are you saying we should give up?” Hicks asked.

“The exact opposite,” I said. “I’m saying we have to bleed them. The basic law of physics says that they can’t keep what they’re doing up forever. The more resources they spend taking us down, the less they can spend elsewhere. If the world has any chance of beating them, this country, and every country they invade, needs to either become Stalingrad or the Khyber Pass.”

“And if we can’t?” Barton asked. “If we don’t have the resources or the will?”

“I think,” I said, “it’s possible for the Dragon’s Teeth to take this country. Staying in it will be another thing. And it’s not just this country that’ll fight back after being taken. I can’t imagine the British just going quietly into the good night, the French resistance probably formed an hour before the surrender came in, and I can’t imagine any former colony being too thrilled about giving up their independence. The Dragon’s Teeth have legitimately taken on an impossible task.”

“So the key thing’s bein’ alive to point and laugh when they fall flat on their fuckin’ faces?” Eliza asked.

“Basically, yeah,” I said.

We rested in the cafeteria as best we could. Eventually, I noticed that a bunch of people in costumes were coming in as well to get food, coffee and rest as well as FBI agents, police, and National Guard officers. When I pointed it out to Hicks, he said, “Local heroes and a few villains have been in the thick of it since it broke out. This is pretty much the only place that isn’t complete chaos at the moment.”

“Really?” I said. “Because every thirty minutes it sounds like they’re trying to repel a determined attack.”

“They are,” Barton said. “The invisible ones have made several attempts to get into the building.”

“When we get to safety,” I said, privately doubting that was even possible at this point, “what are you going to do with me?”

“Ask you not to leave the country,” Hicks said. “Then probably go out and direct traffic. I honestly have no idea.”

“Because I have a weapons factory,” I said. “And I make guns specifically designed to defeat Dragon’s Teeth armor.”

“Are you asking me for a deal?” Hicks asked.

“If the courts are still functioning,” I said, “talk to my lawyer. If they aren’t, well, I might as well give them away. Just give me the raw materials, and I’ll give you weapons and ammo.”

“I cannot promise you anything,” Hicks said.

Eventually, we got a ride. An army truck was heading East to pick up supplies and could give us and a bunch of wounded a ride to Saint Louis. We were pressed in towards the front of the cab with the injured soldiers near the front. In the center, there was enough room for stretchers. You could put two side by side and three top to bottom. The people on them were either suffering from hallucinogenic gas, horrifically burned but stable, or both. The other injuries included amputations, burns, paralysis, neurological damage, deafness, and blindness. They could sit on a bench in a bouncy truck for long hours without dying, but that was about the closest to physically being combat-ready they could be. A few were physically and mentally capable of holding a P90, MP5, MP5K, Tommy gun, or M3 that had been broken out of the reserves.  This made them feel like they could still fight.

I felt sick looking at them. The hodgepodge of museum pieces, military police weapons, and conscripted law enforcement equipment wasn’t given to them to assuage their ego. It had to be because they felt that there was no one else to guard the transports and even something as plentiful and basic as an assault rifle was desperately needed elsewhere. So here we were, with men almost literally scraped off the battlefield in pieces with a hastily assembled mish-mash of inadequate weaponry. If Dragon’s Teeth attacked us, a trained marksman at the top of their game with an MP5 or P90 might be able to hit them at two hundred meters reliably, but even a P90’s 5.7mm ammo wouldn’t have a prayer of piercing their armor. The charitable explanation was they weren’t there to stop the Teeth, but instead panicky, angry civilians who might think we’d be carrying supplies.

It happened almost as soon as Saint Louis came into view. I felt everything fall away from me. My seat, the truck, everything. Suddenly, I, and what seemed to be everyone else on Interstate 70, were now standing in infinite whiteness.

“Greetings!” a voice thundered. Towering above us was a giant. His race appeared to be Mediterranean or Arabic, but something told me he was Dragon’s Teeth. “I, Nero Mortus, am the commander of the Dragon’s Teeth in the Central US Heartland. By the bidding of my creators, I am told to give you a message. Surrender. What has already happened is child’s play. What shall happen next is a demonstration. If you have not surrendered after this, we shall continue to unleash hellfire upon you. You have been warned”

Instantly, I was back in the truck. I was lying on my legs, I ached all over, especially around my lap belt like I had been knocked around, and there was a strange dusty smell. Everyone else had been thrown around. The two medics, who hadn’t been seat-belted, were the worst off. One had landed against the backflap of the truck, her neck at a strange angle. The other had several compound fractures on one arm. His screams and the bones poking out through his formerly green fatigues were nightmarish to say the least. Several of the more damaged soldiers seemed to have external and internal wounds re-opened. From the cab, I could hear someone panicking.

“We need to get out of here,” I said, fumbling with my seat belt.

“No. Safest place to be in an accident is a car,” Barton said. “If we get hit again-”

“Agent Barton,” I said, looking pleadingly into his eyes, “as the person with the most knowledge on the Dragon’s Teeth, I am begging you to help me get everyone out of this truck.”

“Why?” Hicks asked.

“Instinct,” I said. I truly had no idea why I thought this. I had no idea what about that hallucination told me that staying in the truck was a bad idea, I just knew.

Not even taking a moment to consider my reasoning, Hicks barked out, “You heard the kid! Everybody out of the damn truck!”

“And if you’re able to walk,” I said, “we need all the civvies out of their cars and off the highway!”

Where we were was not ideal. We were in what was essentially a dirt field. Around us were the crop fields that you typically associate with the heartland, but we were in the only barren one for what had to be hundreds of miles. For what seemed to be hundreds of miles of highway, cars, trucks and armored vehicles had crashed. Most had been going under five miles an hour, so most people were realatively unhurt. Further from where we were, I saw an obvious exception where a Bradley APC with a smashed turret had run over several civilian vehicles.

The only people in the truck who were physically capable of aiding the evacuation were Hicks, Barton, Watanabe, one of the drivers, and me. Luckily, most of the nearby civilians and five Marines in a nearby Humvee were able to help. The marines hadn’t needed our prompting, their leader, an elderly colonel, had the exact same idea as I did. “Move those people farther from the road!” I yelled as I helped an elderly woman out of a Jeep and over all the cars.

“Larson! Daniels!” the colonel yelled in a voice that had obviously been subjected to a pack of cigarettes a day for the past forty years, as he, Hicks, and the second-highest ranking Marine (a corporal) were passing young children out of a school bus and over cars, “I want an air raid trench! Give that lawyer with the stupid hat an entrenching tool and make him useful!”

Then, from the direction of Saint Louis, there was a flash of bluish-white light and the temperature had to have increased from ninety degrees Fahrenheit to a hundred and twenty. I knew what that meant. “WE’RE OUT OF TIME!” I screamed. “OFF THE ROAD! OFF THE ROAD!”

Everyone panicked. People started running, the temperature kept rising, and the light got brighter. “DON’T GO INTO THE CORNFIELDS!” I yelled, dragging the old woman towards the barren field. “STAY ON THE DIRT! STAY ON THE-”

Then there was a roaring sound and the wheat field behind the dirt farm we were on went up in blue flame. A wave of heat hit me hit me like I’d opened an oven that had been broiling for an hour People screamed in terror and everyone began panicking.

“Young man,” the old woman I was helping along said, “please, save your-”

Then blinding bluish-white light and intense heat washed over us.


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Track 17: Badlands

“So,” I asked, as we boarded a military plane, “why are we leaving?” Several families and individuals, maybe other people in witness protection, maybe families of military brass, and some soldiers and FBI agents were also crammed in with us.

“Did you see the traffic on the way?” Barton asked.

“Kind of hard to miss it,” Eliza said. “We were bloody in it on the way to the police station.”

“Exactly,” Barton said. “It’s going to get a lot worse. Everybody on the west coast is going to want to get to the east coast.”

“Which is going to be a problem,” Hicks said, “because the army’s going to want to get here as fast as possible.”

“Yeah,” Barton said, a haunted look in his eyes, “that’ll be a nightmare.”

“So,” Watanabe asked, seemingly trying to hold back his barf, “where are you going to keep my clients?”

“Can I make a suggestion?” I asked. Hicks made a grunting noise and nodded, which I assumed he’d listen, if not follow it. “My company’s factory has been experimenting with automated defenses for a while.”

“That shouldn’t be necessary,” Hicks said. “But New England might be a good place to lay low.”

“What if they win?” Watanabe asked, instantly sucking all the air out of the room. “There’s a good chance that the Dragon’s Teeth will win. They’ve already steamrollered most of Europe, including France, Germany and England. Russia won’t last the month. China’s already admitted it’s lost more people than it can replace, and India isn’t looking too good either.”

“Well,” I said eventually, “that’s actually somewhat reassuring. Hopefully, they’re spent. I mean, do you have any idea how much manpower all this is taking? Since the US spends more money on defense than Russia and China combined, we might be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.” That seemed to cheer up Watanabe and some of the people we were flying with.

“Do you really believe that?” Eliza asked in a disbelieving monotone.

“I don’t believe my theory is impossible,” I said, hedging. “I mean, it makes sense, doesn’t it?” The people became less consoled. A baby started crying. Even Hicks looked a little sick, and something told me it wasn’t because of the plane ride.

Watanabe, head in his hands, said, “Nathan, you realize you aren’t in a courtroom and can’t be sued for perjury as such?”

I shrugged. “Not like I can lie now. Anyone know where we are?”

“Probably around the Grand Canyon,” Hicks said. “Unless the Dragon’s Teeth are trickier than we thought, we-”

Suddenly, there was a loud thump and the sound of screeching metal. The plane began to fall out of the sky as warning lights blared. I would have said something snarky, but I didn’t think anyone could hear me above the new ambient noise. Also, most of the younger children were screaming now. Now was neither the time nor the place.

The plane, after what seemed like a millennia of plummeting to the ground, finally hit the ground with a crunch. One person, a weaseley man who’d been screaming louder than any of the children, hadn’t been buckled in and hit the ceiling of the plane with his head. As the plane skidded along, he turned into a projectile, narrowly missing a family, slamming his spine into someone’s knee, and breaking his neck when his head hit a soldier’s plate at a weird angle. Meanwhile, people were getting shaken up and loose items were being tossed around. I, like many other people, had my head slam into the wall. Then, while I was trying to get my bearings, a soldier’s M4 flew into my face so hard I could feel that the receiver and handguard left an imprint.

Then everything in the cabin became very, very still. After a prolonged silence, the children began crying, adults began panicking, and the FBI agents and soldiers who had their shit together began trying to restore order. Naturally, Barton and Hicks were part of that last category.

After our two FBI friends had wandered off, Watanabe asked, “You going to help them?”

“No,” I said dully, as a massive headache set in.

“Yeah,” Eliza slurred as she clutched the back of her head, blood leaking through her fingertips, “we’re just going to sit down ‘ere for a bit an’ let the professionals do their job for a bloody change.”

As we were talking, one of the pilots stumbled out of the cabin. I think he might have been the captain. “Listen up!” he yelled. We all turned to look at him. “You’ve probably figured it out already, but that wasn’t mechanical failure. We’ve called in to the Arizona Air National Guard, and it seems that something’s attempting to shoot down planes between the Sierra Nevada and the Rockies. We’re one of the unlucky ones they hit.”

“Who are ‘they?’” someone asked.

“We’re unsure,” the captain said. “Still, all we need to do is sit tight and wait for the National Guard to pick us up.” I rolled my eyes at the lie. If multiple planes were going down, then there was no chance it was anything other than Dragon’s Teeth. The only question I had was how? If it was via air-to-air, I had no idea how it had gotten here. If it was surface-to-air, then we could be in serious trouble.

“Hey, Hicks?” I asked

“What is it?” He asked softly, having just been comforting a sobbing child. For once I was glad I was in the mercenary and weapons business. There weren’t many screaming children, at least not the way I did it.

“Shouldn’t someone go scout around a bit?” I asked. “Just… to make sure things are alright? You know, get a good idea of where we are.”

Hicks considered this for a moment, then said, “Yeah, that’d be a good idea.” He got up, and, indicating the child and her mom, said, “Take care of them, ok?” He then left me alone for a few minutes of awkward conversation. I eventually ended up having to talk about how I appeared so calm. That involved lying about how I was still loopy from my head injuries and instead saying something about how panic wouldn’t help.

Eventually, Hicks came back. “You were pretty good,” he said.

“Yeah,” I said. I thought I was talking utter shit. “Anyway, what’s the situation?”

“Marines are going to form a perimeter,” Hicks said. “I’d like us to go up a hill, get a better look.”

“Ok,” I said.

The ramp at the rear of the plane opened and we began to leave the plane. The Marines headed out first, their weapons loaded, but hanging from their slings. Hicks, Barton, Eliza, Watanabe, and I continued up a hill. By the time we were at the first lip, the sun was starting to set. From there, we could see that several over planes had come down in the area. We seemed to be the only survivors.

“So,” Watanabe asked, completely out of breath, “what… what’s happening?” As he talked, we could hear an airplane flying overhead. I turned to look at it. At the height it was flying, I couldn’t really tell what kind of plane it was, other than some kind of jet. It looked big, but again, I couldn’t really tell from the ground.

“Good question,” Hicks said. “The people on-site don’t seem to-”

“Wait,” I said, pointing to the plane, “why’s that plane falling?”

“Oh fuck,” Eliza said. “That’s what I ‘eard.” I turned to her, and she said, answering my unasked question, “I ‘eard a bit of brrrt sound. Must’ve been gunfire.” She then pointed at the sky. “Think it was air-to-air. Look.”

I followed her finger. She was pointing to the plane’s contrails. There, much fainter, ran a parallel line. At a certain point, the falling jet’s contrails began to dip, but the other set continued on. As I studied it, I heard a large thump. Turning to the source, I saw a cloud of dust and debris rise up from behind a mountain. A few seconds later, I felt some clumps of dirt hit me and saw large chunks of metal fall within a few hundred meters of the plane we’d been on.

“So,” I said. “That was air-to-air with one plane being invisible.”

“Yeah,” Eliza said. “That’s… disturbing, innit? I mean, where the ‘ell did that come from? Either it’s got a big enough range and a fast enough engine to fly all the way out from the Pacific to shoot down a single jet liner, or it’s launched from somewhere much closer.”

“I hope it’s from one of the carriers in the Pacific,” I said. “Because if it’s land-based, there’s a much higher chance of us getting company soon.”

“Does that answer your question?” Watanabe asked, pointing. In the distance, heading towards the downed plane, were several trails of dust. Squinting, I could see what appeared to be solid darkness speeding towards the planes.


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Track 16: The Person on the News

“So,” Hicks said, rubbing his temples, “why, exactly, was this friend of a friend digging in national wildlife reservation at three am on a Monday?”

Before I could answer, Ken Watanabe, the Boston lawyer that Jen had sent us, cut in. “Mr. Hicks,” he said in his mostly Texas accent (with a creeping intrusion of Boston Townie,) “I fail to see how this is relevant to the conversation in any way.” Ken Watanabe was a slightly comical man with Asian facial features, short stature, and a penchant for cowboy clothing mixed with expensive suits. He was also Jennifer Kagemoto’s lawyer, which made me wonder how ridiculous he actually was.

“I’m just wondering,” Hicks said, “because that particular reservation isn’t open to the public at that point.”

“And that,” Watanabe said, “is why our friends wish to remain anonymous. Y’all are gonna harass them over minor infractions, despite the fact that they’ve been very helpful to us.”

“Much as I doubt that’s they were doing was minor,” Agent Barton said.

“Without any evidence,” Watanabe muttered under his breath.

“We have more important things to do,” Barton said, pointedly ignoring Watanabe. “And we need to contact these people. There’s a lot of very disturbing things that they’ve seen and we need to find a way to collect and collate the information, assuming it isn’t too late already.”

“I understand the gravity of the situation,” Watanabe said, “but I need to do what’s best for my client. That’s my job.”

“Maybe,” I said, “we should take a break?” We weren’t in an interrogation room, thankfully. Instead, we were in a little suite of apartments in what appeared to be a hotel. However, something about the perky female receptionist who’d had one hand under the desk when we’d checked in and the man at the bar who drank nothing but water seemed to suggest that the clientele wasn’t exactly normal.

“Yeah,” Hicks said. “Sounds like a good idea.”

“Ok,” I said to Watanabe as soon as Hicks and Barton were gone, “How likely is it that Hicks is going to nail someone if I give him the opportunity?”

“Hundred percent,” Watanabe said. “Maybe not immediately, but it’s in his nature. Barton’s too. You want to protect your friends-”

“Who are also yer clients,” Eliza said. “Or do business with yer clients.”

“That has no bearing on the situation,” Watanabe said. “If you’ll excuse me, I need to make a few phone calls.”

“Sure thing,” I said. He stood up, we shook hands. “I’ll see you later, I guess.” As soon as he had left, I said, “He’s going to call Jen, isn’t he?”

“Possibly not,” Eliza said. “They’re probably bugging him.”

“Like he doesn’t know that,” I said. We considered our problem. “Calling Jen was a mistake, wasn’t it?”

“Well,” Eliza said, starting to count off options, “we could’ve decided not to ‘ave a lawyer. That’d be just as dumb. We could have hired another lawyer and stonewalled, but time’s of the essence. We also don’t know any other lawyers in this country. We might be able to hire a lawyer for a second opinion, but I got a sneakin’ suspicion ‘e’ll end up with a bullet in the back of his head. Also, we don’t know any bloody lawyers in this bloody country.”

After a few silent moments of me considering Eliza’s wisdom, I said, “Fuck, you’re right.” Eliza mad a noise of agreement, then there were a few more moments of silence. Finally, I said, “So, you want to watch the news?”

“No,” Eliza said, “but it’d probably be better than worrying about what the hell will happen next.”

We turned on the news and began watching one of the major networks. There were several stories about missing journalists, a new defensive pact including US, Mexico, Canada, and several other countries, and a few scientists talking about how close a space object was getting and arguing whether or not it was a spaceship that contained life or an asteroid. Of course, the thing they mostly talked about was how Hawaii was under Dragon’s Teeth control and how nobody had heard anything about it since the invasion. I estimated ninety percent of the conversation was pure speculation.

Then, during a piece on the seedy world of super hero/super villain fight betting and fixing (I noticed that some Massachusetts heroes were mentioned, much to my distaste) when it was announced. “We interrupt this segment for an important message,” one of the anchors said. “We’re just getting word that two fleets of warships are heading towards the US coast. We now have footage.”

When it came on, my heart sank. “Shit,” I said. “I recognize those ships.”

“Yeah,” Eliza said. “Those carriers and landing ships were at Pearl Harbor, weren’t they? And there’s some English, Australian and Indian ships as well.”

“No,” I said. “I mean, I’m sure you’re right, but that ship the camera person is getting close to? That’s a ship that was at that Russian port.” I squinted. “And yep, those are Deets on deck. You can sail away now, camera person. I really don’t want to see you die.”

The anchors, who had seen the Dragon’s Teeth a second after me, and realized what they were only a few seconds later, had the exact reaction. As they clamored and begged for the sailor with the shitty phone and a streaming service to get closer, I began to realize I hated them. Then the close-in weapons system opened up. Despite being a hundred and fifty meters away from the ship, the roar from what appeared to be three six-barreled 20mm turrets was loud enough to cause the microphone on the camera to crackle. I saw a brief glimpse of red tracers, the deck splintering and the water going from calm green to roiling, frenzied-piranha white, then the feed cut.

One of the anchors said, “We apologize for the disturbing footage. We.. we will be back after the break.” As the camera switched to an overhead view, I heard what I assumed the producer shouting and the anchor say, “Dammit, I know! I know Rob! But I can’t. I just can’t.”

Then the door opened. In walked Hicks and Barton. “We’re leaving.” Barton said. “Now.”

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