Amanda had mixed feelings standing in front of Crone again, but she had a job to do and she would be damned if she wasn’t going to carry it out to completion.
“I told them I’d bring in a team of hunters to track down whatever did this,” Amanda said.
“Very good, Captain Rann,” Crone said pushing a small jewelry box across the table toward her. Silver captain’s bars gleamed on top of black velvet.
“I don’t understand, sir,” Amanda said, but she did and she wasn’t sure she liked it.
“I’m promoting you, which as you know comes with the obligatory raise in pay grade,” Crone said and then smiled. “Congratulations Captain.”
“You’re putting me in charge of a team?”
“Yes, you’re going to be commanding a small infiltration team of five men…”
“Men, sir?” Amanda asked. “I’m going to be commanding a team of male soldiers?”
“That is correct and they won’t like it either. But you are the only one I have at my disposal that I feel is capable to pull off this mission. Besides, I don’t think we have time to pull in an experienced team from California.”
“These men have never done special ops?”
“Oh, they’ve done special ops. They just haven’t done paranormal ops. I guess there’s a first time for everything.”
Amanda didn’t like the sound of that. Tackling unknown Papas (code from the NATO phonetic alphabet for paranormal creatures, just like Tangos were used to signify terrorists) was tough enough, doing it with an inexperienced team was just next of suicide.
“I know what you’re thinking, and you’re right,” Crone added. “You’re bound to take casualties. But these men know they’re expendable and they’re willing to do what it takes to protect us and this great nation.”
“Hoo-Rah,” Amanda called out automatically. It had been drilled into her and it gave her strength just saying it. And she needed all the strength she could muster.
Crone didn’t waste any time. He drove her personally by Humvee to a once abandoned aircraft hanger, now a hulk of weather-darkened steel. The airstrip hadn’t held up as well. Dead weeds waited for resurrection in the cracks of the tarmac. A test awaited her in the cool confines of the hanger. She knew the men also waited. And she was ready.
She entered the hanger ahead of Crone, her stride and her breathing matching her determination. She felt completely in the moment, in her element. All thoughts of family, of strife, disappeared and she felt prepared to do her job for God and for country.
“Colonel on the deck!” Spittle sprayed as Amanda barked the command.
The team snapped to attention.
“At ease gentlemen,” Crone said as he walked in and stood next to Amanda. “Meet Captain Amanda Rann. She will be your commanding officer on this mission.”
One soldier, with lieutenant’s bars, smirked.
“I think the Captain has a few words for you before we begin,” Crone barked.
Amanda took a breath and stepped forward.
“I see you all like wearing pussy-puke grins on your faces. I know you think you’re above being commanded by a woman,” Amanda said. “I’m here to tell you that you are wrong. And as a gesture of my goodwill you may all speak freely before it’s time to shut the fuck up and get the job done. Who’s first?”
No one spoke. Her verbal violence of action had created an awkward silence. Then the Lieutenant took a step forward.
“Where are you from, ma’am?” the soldier asked.
“That’s Lieutenant Skakes just so you know, Captain,” Crone interjected.
“I’m originally from Indiana, Lieutenant,” Amanda replied.
“And I can speak freely without fear of reprisal?”
“Have at it, Lieutenant,” Amanda said.
“I think I speak for the rest of the team when I say we don’t like being led by no popcorn Captain,” Lt. Skakes said.
Laughter burst from the team. Crone’s steely stare brought them back to composure.
“Popcorn Captain? Why don’t you explain what you mean by that,” Amanda said, keeping her face expressionless. The Lieutenant hesitated but quickly regained his confidence.
“Ma’am, I hate to offend your delicate ears, but I know I popped a lot of corn when I was stationed in Indiana. If you know what I mean,” Skakes said, his grin growing wide. The smirks returned to the faces of the team.
“You look like a pretty big man, Lieutenant. I have a proposition for you.”
“You’re propositioning me?” He looked back at his team incredulously, and that elicited more laughter.
“That’s right,” Amanda said, slipping out of her bomber jacket. “You’re in line for a promotion. I’ll give you a chance on getting it quicker than you expected. Come take the command from me.”
“I don’t think that would be right, Ma’am, seeing you’re much smaller than me. And female.”
“Take the command from me or be led by me. It’s your choice.”
Skakes looked to his team and then to Crone as if pleading with someone to tell him what to do. He had allowed her to drag him into a no-win situation. If he won, how much respect would he gain by beating up a woman? But if he lost…
“Okay, but I’ll go easy on you,” Skakes said.
Amanda knew she would have to put the fight into him before she finished him. If she didn’t, she would never earn the respect of the team. Still, he was a big guy, if he connected…
Skakes tentatively stepped forward, while the other four men fanned out creating a semi-circle. Amanda took a step forward with confidence.
Skakes put his hands up like a boxer and walked clockwise following her movement. Amanda kept her hands down and her mind in a relaxed state of awareness. She could tell Skakes was eager to get this over with.
Skakes’s nervous energy finally got the better of him and he stepped toward her with a right hook, his hand open as if to slap her down.
Amanda lifted her left arm exposing the ulna bone by turning her wrist outward. Her arm intercepted his strike. He winced when the soft portion of his lower arm slammed into the unyielding bone. She knew he wouldn’t want to do that again.
Amanda immediately twisted her hips and thrust her arm out hitting the bridge of his nose with the heel of her palm.
Blood exploded from the Lieutenant’s nose, and he grabbed it as he took a step back.
Fury burned his cheeks. Skakes rocketed at her, blood flying from his nostrils, teeth gritting. Adrenaline dumped into her system as his fist made a straight line for her face.
Waiting until the last second before impact, Amanda stepped in diagonally past his punch, allowing his fist to fly over her right shoulder as she used her body momentum to hit his lower sternum. He sucked wind. Then she raised her knee and stamped down diagonally through his knee joint. A sickening crunch echoed in the hangar. The force of the impact drove his knee along with his body to the floor. Skakes screamed.
She could have easily stopped, let the medics take him away. That, of course, wouldn’t have been enough of a demonstration.
She stomped him with her boots breaking ribs, spraying more blood, dislodging teeth.
Crone took out a cell phone and called for the medics. Everyone stood in silence as they came and carted away Skakes’s twitching body.
“Who’s the next in command?” Amanda asked when the medics were out of earshot.
They pushed a hardened soldier out of the group who had suddenly lost his nerve.
“What’s your name soldier?”
“Master Sgt. Doggel, Captain.”
“Well Master Sgt., congratulations. You’ve just been promoted to Lieutenant,” Amanda said never taking her eyes off him.
“Lieutenant Doggel, why don’t you introduce the team,” Amanda said after Crone had left her to her business.
“Yes ma’am. The man to my left is Private First Class Duncan Clarke. When he played football in high school, they called him Icebox. We call him the same.”
Icebox nodded and gave her a wide grin.
“Ma’am,” he said, his deep voice filling the hanger.
“The man on the other side of Icebox is Sgt. Robert Garcia, as you can tell the ladies find him easy on the eyes so we call him Diamond, you know, after the girls’ best friend.”
Diamond winked at Doggel and shrugged his shoulders. This brought on light laughter from the team.
To my left you’ll find Shooter Jackson. He’s got a cool name so we just call him Shooter. I almost named him Toothpick because he’s always sucking on one of those things and it’s driving me up the wall. Man has an oral fixation or something.”
Shooter gave a two-fingered Cub Scout salute.
“And what do they call you?” Amanda asked.
“They call me Lieutenant,” he said.
“Good answer,” Amanda said, her lips upturning into a smile. “I think I’ll call you Dog, Lieutenant. Any problem with that?”
“Not a one, Ma’am.”
“Good. Now that we have the preliminaries out of the way, we need to get into the thick of it. The things I’m about to tell you are above Top Secret. They’re so far above Top Secret the President has to have a need to know.
“You are now part of a paranormal elimination team.”
“Like Ghostbusters?” Shooter asked. More laughter from the team.
“No. Not quite. I’m talking about parasitic entities, entities that are made up of non-corporeal energy, that have attached themselves to a host. In this instance, they’ve possessed dead dogs. They’ve already killed one victim. There will be more unless we stop them.”
“That’s like some serious Exorcist shit there,” Icebox said.
“You can’t be serious,” Shooter said, his toothpick bobbing over his lip as he spoke.
“I know many of you will have trouble believing this right now,” Amanda said. “You’ll believe soon enough. If you don’t wrap your head around it, you’ll die out in the field.”
She had seen it happen before. A paranormal event could create panic or instill shock, destroying unit integrity. That’s all it took for someone to get killed.
“All we need to know is how do we kill them,” Icebox said.
“You can’t kill them with ordinary ammunition. We have ammunition that’s been able to put down creatures like this.”
“You’ve done this before?” Dog asked.
“That is correct,” Amanda said. And she had, but in truth, this wasn’t like facing a common enemy. Paranormal creatures were all unique and what destroyed one wouldn’t necessarily annihilate another.
“Hoo-Ra, then, Captain,” Icebox said.
Amanda gave the rest of the situation report providing them with detailed maps of Wellington along with a thick packet of information on what had worked on other missions.
“If there are no other questions,” Amanda said. “It’s time for us to get our asses in gear and train.”
“My name is Ralph Edinhart III, PhD. I am well aware that trilobites of your ilk call me the Geek.” The Geek wore a rumpled suit a size too big, a couple days worth of scruff stood out in unsightly patches on his face. “I’m fine with that. It’s my job to provide you with the state of the art weaponry and systems that you need to complete your mission.”
Amanda and her team stood inside the hangar; soon it would be converted to a training area designed to let them practice real world scenarios while also creating unit integrity, a bonding that the team would need to perform as a single unit, a spear to lance the enemy.
They wore the best armor system the United States military had to offer.
The process began by donning sweat-whisking undergarments. On top of that they wore standard issue black Battle Dress Uniforms (BDUs), similar in construction to that of SWAT teams. They slipped comfortably into a computerized armor system that protected the outer potion of their limbs, along with their chest, abdomen, and groin, while also enhancing their strength and agility. A computerized helmet and visor allowed for real-time heads-up monitoring of vitals, GPS mapping, and infrared and thermal displays of the surrounding areas. A backpack provided a CPU and batteries that monitored and powered the cooling system and electronic armor features. A small ration of water, contained in the backpack, supplemented a sweat and urine recovery system that provided continuous hydration through a straw underneath the lip-mike. The gun system also connected to the CPU.
“I don’t like this,” Amanda said.
“What’s not to like,” the Geek asked befuddled.
“I’m a KISS girl,” Amanda said.
The Geek furrowed his eyebrows.
“Keep It Simple Stupid,” Icebox said.
“How do we know this thing won’t break down in the field? If the system short circuits, the exoskeleton will freeze up and render us immobile. And the weapon system will be useless.”
The team looked at one another, nodding their heads in agreement.
“There’s nothing to worry about. Even in the unlikely event of a malfunction, you’ll be able to hit the fail-safe. That’s the plunger right there. Hit that and you’ll be able to leave the armor. With this equipment, statistically speaking, we’re talking about a 90% less casualty rate. The suit will even carry a wounded soldier 50 meters through use of the exoskeleton alone. We’re talking twelve hundred pounds of tensile strength so you should be well protected. You’ll also be carrying a computerized assault rifle with auto targeting that shoots 9mm silver tipped bullets.”
“I hear ya, Doc. But I still don’t like it.” Still, she had to acquiesce, she couldn’t argue with the possibility of lower casualties. She’d have to carry her Glock just in case.
“Wait a minute,” Icebox said. “Silver bullets? Like the Lone Ranger?”
“Just like in legend, we’ve found that paranormal creatures can’t be hurt by much, but they can be hurt by silver,” the Geek said. “We believe it has something to do with the subatomic structure of the silver interacting with the subatomic structure of the creature. Only a small amount of silver is practical in the manufacturing of the ammunition. The core of the bullet is lead.”
“That means we may have to hit these things multiple times to take them down,” Amanda said.
They spent the rest of the day learning to work as a team, clearing rooms, and engaging virtual paranormal wolf creatures that the Geek seamlessly integrated into the surrounding environment through their visors. The technology wouldn’t see civilian use for another twenty years. He monitored the missions from an observatory room jutting from the side of the hanger.
After executing the program over, and over again,, they had effectively won every situation without a scratch.
That bothered her. They had gone up and down this application looking at a host of scenarios and every single time the mission went right by the numbers. No one was injured, everything went according to plan. That just didn’t speak to reality. Shit always happened in the field and she couldn’t believe these things would be so easy to kill, even with special ammo.
She wanted to run it again, run the damn thing into the ground. But the team needed rest. In the morning, they would head to Wellington and begin their hunt.
“Hey Doc,” she called to the Geek through her lip mike. “The good news is we’re done for the night. The bad news is you’re coming with us.”
“I didn’t sign on for that,” the Geek said, voice cracking. “Why do you want me? I’ll only be in the way.”
“There’s only five of us. We’ll do all the heavy lifting. All I need you to do is babysit in the command van.”
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