The Apache assumed a covering pattern as the three soldiers from Walinski’s Blackhawk dismounted to begin their search. Walinski waved to them before giving a smile and thumbs up. Tan returned both gestures before taking position behind Isling and Tan.
Tan disappeared into the brush with Isling and Zellar. Each held their rifle at the ready, prepared for any trouble as they searched for Dayton. Both women kept a safe distance between each other. Tan walked point, six feet in front and to the right of Zeller while Isling kept to the rear left.
Tan’s body tingled with nervous anticipation. She didn’t like the idea of their rear being covered by someone unfamiliar.
Isling had been quiet the whole trip, and only spoke when spoken to. He was very hard for either woman to read. He was aloof yet and kept to himself, but his attitude had changed once their boots had touched the ground. He became jumpy and irritated. It didn’t take long for Tan to grow impatient with him.
They walked down a small overgrown slope to another open field and Tan called a halt.
“Chief, we’ve got nothing on our end.” Tan spoke into her mic while shrugging at Zellar.
“Roger that,” answered Walinski. “Goose egg here as well. Search the area for another five and return if nothing pops up. Give me a radio check in two. Understood?”
“Understood, mother,” answered Tan.
“Maintain radio discipline at all times. Out.”
“Meow,” joked Zellar, joining Tan. “The bitch is back.”
Isling remained six feet behind them. He appeared more intent on watching the women than searching for anything.
“There’s nothing here.” Zellar looked to Isling as she spoke to Tan. “There’s got to be a mix up on the coordinates.”
“You sound pretty sure, Carla.”
Zellar shrugged. “You’d think so, right? I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the coordinates. I’ve never flown with Walinski, but she doesn’t strike me as someone that gets land zones wrong.” Zellar cast a look to the forested area. She was tired of being around trees and grass. The more she stood looking at the trees, the more she longed for city settings.
“Then why are we here? Hm?” Tan looked to Isling. He had been examining the area as Zellar had, but now he seemed more intent on keeping an eye on her and Zellar.
“Gloria, this stinks,’ said Zellar in a low voice. “You notice how Isling hasn’t joined us?”
“It’s a little hard to miss. He looks pissed.”
“Bring it in, guys.” Isling spoke in a forced throaty growl, approaching them. “I think we’re on a wild goose chase.”
“Chief says we look for another five, so that’s what we’ll do, Corporal.” Tan walked to him. “You’ve been antsy as shit since we touched down. What’s your deal?”
With deft hands Isling disconnected his rifle from its sling with one hand while backhanding Zellar with the other. Quickly he unsheathed his bayonet, intent on using it on Tan.
Tan moved to tackle Isling, but was thrown to the ground. Her rifle butt dug into her armor under the armpit and she heard, and felt, something crack. She flipped over, sharp pain shooting through her. She looked up to find Isling’s boot coming toward her head. She scrambled away from the stomp as it landed on the ground.
Nearby Zellar staggered to her feet. She saw Tan roll away from Isling, his attentions focused away from her and on Tan. Isling pursued her, bayonet still in hand. She aimed and pulled the trigger but her rifle jammed. “Shit,” She hissed through pain and anger.
Tan unsnapped her rifle from its harness as she scrambled to her feet. She drove the rifle butt into Isling’s left temple, making him stumble back. His hand refused to drop the bayonet. “Drop it,” bellowed Tan. “Fucking drop it!”
Zellar rushed up, rifle pointing at his head. “Why hasn’t our air cover spotted this shit?” She looked up, discovering that they had unwittingly moved under a stand of trees. “The Apache can’t see us,” she added grimly.
Tan flicked her eyes to Zellar. Isling saw her distraction and stepped forward, delivering into a kick into Tan’s groin. It had been years since she’d received such an injury and her thighs became jelly. She collapsed, rolling to her side. She didn’t want to vomit. What she wanted to do was cry after she killed Isling.
Tan’s stomach convulsed. She heard Zellar scream in anger as she forced herself to stand. The world was filled with brilliant pain and she was vaguely aware of Zellar straddling Isling, digging her thumbnails into his eyes sockets.
“Carla! Wait!” cried Tan over Isling’s shrieks.
“Fuck you,” screeched Zellar.
Tan hobbled to Zellar as fast as her wavering legs could carry her. She grabbed at Zellar’s body armor to pull her away.
“I said fuck you, Gloria. This bitch dies,” roared Zellar, knocking Tan back while not taking her eyes from Isling.
Zellar tore away Isling’s body armor before standing. She pulled her own bayonet from its sheath and fell on him. He screamed and clawed blindly as Zellar’s blade tore through unprotected fabric and flesh.
Tan grabbed Zellar by the neck of her armor, struggling to pull Zellar off Isling. Zellar turned enough to elbow Tan in the face. She stumbled backwards. The pain screamed at her to stop and give in, but she rushed forward again.
She grappled Zellar by her flak jacket. It took strength she didn’t realize she possessed to separate Zellar from the dead man. Finally she pulled Zellar off and flung her to the ground.
Zellar landed some feet away, stunned by the fall.
“He’s a poodle,” Zellar screamed. “We have to make sure he’s dead!” She rolled to her feet and charged once more to the body.
Tan intercepted Zellar in a bear hug. “I don’t think he’s getting up again, Carla. I don’t even think he was ever a poodle. He’s human. That’s all!”
Zellar’s raging expression eased into confusion. “Human? He fought us… he acted like them. He’s not a muppet!”
“He’s a… a… muppet, that’s all.” Tan tightened her hold. Her shoulder protested at the strain, but Tan held firm. “He’s human, Carla. He’s human and he’s dead. All right?”
Zellar blinked at her friend. “I’m okay,” she said almost breathlessly. “Get off me. I’m fine.” The rage was still in her eyes and heart, but she’d regained control.
Tan released her though she kept her hands on Zellar’s shoulders. “Come on. Let’s get back to the helo. We need to let the others know.”
“Right.” Zellar shrugged Tan’s hands from her.
They collected their fallen gear and rearranged themselves. Tan took a moment to spit on Isling’s body before striding up the hill.
Clearing the brush they came into full view of the waiting Blackhawk. Both saw Cotton and Walinski but their attention became distracted by the sound of two approaching helicopters.
Their Apache broke its covering pattern, turning toward them. The pilot wasn’t asleep at the wheel. He dove and turned quickly, barely escaping an air-to-air missile.
The two new arrivals were Marine Corps Cobra attack helicopters. The Cobra crews were Aberration and flew to challenge the lone Apache.
The Apache driver was almost as good as Walinski. He dove and jinked the gunship into position behind one whose pilot wasn’t as good as the Apache’s.
The Apache’s 30mm cannon belched fire on the Cobra’s tail, sending it to the ground.
Tan and Zellar came within sight of their Blackhawk in time to see Cotton strike Walinski.
Cotton unbuckled himself from his seat and opened the door. With a kick, Walinski tumbled from the helicopter, landing face first in the grass.
“Hostile at twelve o’clock!” screamed Zellar. They rushed forward raising their rifles. The Blackhawk engine’s thrummed loudly as it rose into the air. The noise drowned out the battle between the remaining Cobra and the Apache.
The warring attack helicopters had taken the battle a few miles away. The Apache was wounded but hung in, firing its rockets in a last ditch effort that paid off.
One missile missed while the other slammed into the Cobra’s tail boom, sending it into the ground.
A few moments later, the Apache crew, whether wounded or unable to keep their bird in the air, followed the Cobra into the ground. The helicopters’ impacts with the earth, followed by their explosions, shook the night.
Tan and Zellar didn’t give the distant crashes and explosions a second thought. They were focused on keeping their Blackhawk from leaving the area.
“Take out the engines,” ordered Tan. “Shoot for the turbines!”
“I know how to take a helicopter,” argued Zellar as she repeatedly squeezed her rifle’s trigger.
Black oil jetted from the impacts of their projectiles. The helicopter fought for more altitude, but was too severely wounded. It thumped back to the ground, its shocks sagging hard under the impact.
The rotors whined as they ground to a stop. Cotton leaped from the cockpit. He turned, firing over his shoulder at Zellar and Tan with his MP5 submachine gun. The shots went wild.
He took a few more steps before falling to face them in a prone position. His shots came closer to them with every squeeze of his trigger. They returned fire, stopping only to reload.
They crouched low and advanced. Tan held her left hand up, calling for a halt. Neither was surprised to see Cotton stand, transformed.
“He’s pissed,” called Zellar. Her bloody hands slid along the hand guards.
Cotton took advantage of Zellar’s attempts to aim correctly. He’d seen her hands, and could smell the blood on them, and knew that she’d be unable to fire correctly. He charged at them, running on all fours, foam dripping from his mouth, and rage filled screams emanating from his mouth. Words flew out, but neither Zellar nor Tan could understand what he shouted as they opened fire.
“I’m out,” Zellar sang out, reaching for another magazine. “Reloading!”
With the first few shots from Zellar’s rifle, Cotton finally collapsed. It was none too soon for Tan. Her weapon had run dry as well. She dropped the empty and loaded a fresh one.
“Careful,” Tan said, slapping the bolt home. “He could be faking it.”
They took steady steps to where Cotton had fallen. He was undeniably dead. His body was transforming back to human. He’d taken more shots than either cared to count.
Tan poked Cotton’s body with the muzzle of her weapon before fixing her bayonet. She jammed it into Cotton’s head while squeezing a burst. “You can never be too sure,” she said, pulling the bayonet from the mess she’d made.
For the first time since her escape from Tripler Army Hospital, Zellar vomited the contents of her stomach.
“I’m going to check on Brenda,” said Tan, patting Zellar’s back.
“I’m okay. Go,” muttered Zellar, wiping her mouth.
Zellar didn’t know how Tan felt but her legs were like weighted putty as she walked to the crippled helicopter.
“Did you understand anything he was shouting at us?” asked Tan over her shoulder. She sounded matter of fact in her question.
“Sounded like, I don’t know, German maybe? I couldn’t understand a word.” Zellar drank from her CamelBak, attempting to wash the vomit taste away.
“I heard ‘shitze’ and I know that’s shit, but other than that it’s beyond me.”
Walinski lay unmoving in the grass. Tan knelt beside her. “No pulse,” she said, urgently. “She’s got no pulse and she’s not breathing.”
Zellar took a knee opposite Tan and angled Walinski’s head back as Tan unzipped Walinski’s flight vest and flight suit. “I’ll handle mouth to mouth, you do chest compressions.”
Zellar pinched Walinski’s nose and began blowing air into Walinski’s lungs.
Tan pressed on Walinski’s chest, silently beseeching whatever passed for God to not take her friend away. She paused, pressing an ear to Walinski’s chest before counting off chest compressions again.
With a great inhalation of air, followed by a sputtering series of coughs, Walinski sputtered. Her eyes fluttered open, and then closed, before her body grew still again.
For a moment both thought they’d lost Walinski again until she muttered something about taking a bus the next time she had to travel. Dolly’s voice fluttered past Walinski’s lips in agreement.
“She’s breathing. Her pulse is getting stronger.” Tan stood, sighing in relief.
“Get a blanket,” urged Zellar, double checking Tan’s observations.
Tan found one in the Blackhawk and covered Walinski with it. “What a fucking shit storm.”
Zellar looked up at Tan, and noticed her shoulder injury. “You’re wounded.” She reached to touch the bloody, drying fabric.
“So are you, but I don’t hear you complaining.”
“Maybe, but I’m going to look at it anyway.”
“What about your side?” Tan sat beside Walinski.
“It’s nothing major. He grazed the bone, but I can deal with it. Undo your shirt.”
“Screw that. You’re side’s gotta be worse. You undo your shirt.”
Zellar scoffed as she unbuckled her belt and unbuttoned her pants to free the shirt bottom. Raising her arms to take it off was as painful as the initial strike. “Easy now,” she said, wincing as Tan pulled up her cut sports bra.
“You might need stitches. I don’t know. It’s clotted though so that’s good. He got you pretty good. You should’ve shot his ass.”
“That would’ve let Cotton know that things had gone south. If we’d shot him then Brenda would’ve been dead before we could’ve done anything. I’m pretty sure we would’ve been screwed, too.”
Tan laughed. “Yeah, buddy. Those assholes straight up skipped foreplay, didn’t they?”
“No doubt,” agreed Zellar.
Zellar tended to Tan’s wounds. Tan broke the silence, asking what she meant by calling Isling a ‘muppet’.
“What? I’ve never used that around you?”
“No.” Tan grimaced as Zellar placed gauze over the knife wound. “You used it twice like I should’ve known what it meant.”
Zellar grunted. “Muppet is a combination of meat and puppet.”
“Uh-huh, meat puppet. Muppet.”
“Hmm. I like it. It’s kinda catchy.”
“Well, that’s all we are to Aberration, right?”
“Yeah.” Tan pulled her blouse back on, and zipped it to her neck.
“See what I mean? They’re meat and being controlled by Vance like puppets. Meat puppets. Muppets.” Zellar smiled as she stood, stretching her back.
“Muppets,” mused Tan again. She loved the way it sounded.
Walinski “awoke” to find herself in Clarice’s house, which was Clarice’s mental projection of her section of Walinski’s mind. It was no longer the homey serene place of comfort it had once been. The house stood dark, and a foreboding atmosphere filled the June Cleaver looking living room and the comfortable couch that Walinski lay on was now stiff under her back. Even with her eyes closed she could tell that it reflected her current real world situation.
“What happened,” she murmured, sitting up.
“Sumbitch clocked us is what happened. I have a feeling that he didn’t pull his punch either.” Dolly sat in a Lazy Boy rubbing her temples. “He rocked our worlds.”
“You think?” asked Walinski sardonically. Even in her headspace, her head hurt. “Why are you dressed like that?”
Dolly wore one of Clarice’s immaculate polka dotted dresses and her hair was made up in the 1950’s hairstyle that Clarice usually wore. If it weren’t for her movements and attitude, Walinski would have mistaken Dolly for Clarice.
“Hell if I know.” Dolly looked down at herself. “I woke up like this. Pisses me off even more than him hitting us.” She let loose an evil chuckle. “You’re not going to believe how Clarice is dressed though. Even I wouldn’t been seen out with what she’s wearing.”
Walinski looked around the dimly lit home. The vibrant colors were faded and that alarmed her more than she cared to admit.
“Where is Ms. Thing?”
“Hey Clarice,” bellowed Dolly. “Get your rocking ass out here. Let Brenda get a look at you.” She laughed again.
“No!” wailed Clarice from the kitchen. “I absolutely will not let Brenda see this monstrosity. I look…” Clarice paused, searching for the right word. “I look horrible!”
“What’s she wearing?” Walinski’s curiosity grew by the second.
“Wait for it.” Dolly sat erect, and rubbed her temples. “Come on out, girl!” She winced at her yell, massaging her temples harder.
A set of clumping footsteps could be heard on the kitchen linoleum. From around the corner came Clarice.
Walinski couldn’t laugh; she was too shocked. Her eyes widened at the sight of a punk rocker that could have been Clarice, but looked more like a total stranger.
Clarice wore a red and black checkered mini-skirt that was torn in several areas, a black baby tee-shirt that looked like it was painted on, exposing her bare stomach, exposing an uncharacteristic belly button ring.
Most horrific of all was Clarice’s make up and hair. The lipstick, mascara, and eyeliner were all exclusively black and her face was plastered with a pale foundation. A thin chain linked her left nostril to her left ear. Her hair had been cut short by the right ear while the rest had been gelled into spikes.
Any other time Clarice’s new look would have been funny to Walinski, but she was horrified by her alter ego’s new look. Dolly on the other hand didn’t suffer from a lack of laughter.
“Ha, ha, ha,” scowled Clarice. “Just go ahead and laugh, Dolly Walinski. You’re the one that looks like you should be packing the Beaver’s lunch.”
“If that skirt were any shorter we’d be seeing Beaver’s lunch.” Dolly guffawed at her own horrid joke.
Dolly and Clarice had retained their individual personalities but Cotton’s attack had done something to their appearance. Walinski hoped that it was a temporary issue and not a permanent one. She wasn’t sure she could associate with them as they were. To her, it was unholy.
Suddenly the house shook violently. From nowhere rain clouds dropped a typhoon on exterior.
“What the hell?” called Dolly and Walinski in simultaneous dismay. It felt like a tornado was approaching and for a moment Walinski wondered if the mental construct had a basement.
“It’s nothing,” said Clarice, arms folded across her chest. “It’s Zellar and Tan trying to wake us up.”
“How do you know that?” asked Walinski.
“Because I’m the only one paying attention,” Clarice shot back sarcastically.
“I can hear ‘em a little over the headache,” muttered Dolly. “Am I the only one with a goddamn headache?”
“Yes you are,” growled Clarice. “Brenda’s sending it to you exclusively because you’re an ass.”
“It’s your damn fault we’re in this situation.” Dolly looked at Clarice and Walinski furiously. “If you’d shot him when Hughes and I said to, we wouldn’t be here. It’s your damn fault, Brenda! We’re at war and both of you hesitated like bitches!”
“Bullshit, Dolly,” hissed Walinski. “There was no way of knowing that transmission was authentic.”
The sound of Zellar and Tan’s voices rose in her ears. Before she could say more she was snapped back to reality with a large splash of cold water.
“Wha… what?” gasped Walinski. Light from a flashlight flooded her eyes. In moments her nose picked up the faint smell of a fire. The oily odor smelled like it was everywhere. She looked around, but the flashes from the flashlight flickered before her eyes.
“Welcome back, Brenda,” said Tan, brushing Walinski’s hair from her eyes. “We lost you there for a second.”
“What do you mean lost me?” Walinski wrestled up to a sitting position.
She looked around and found the Blackhawk sitting where it had landed. Next to it, laid out neatly were two blanket covered lumps.
“Is that…” she said, pointing to the lumps.
“Damn right it is,” answered Tan angrily.
“Why didn’t they tell us what they were before we took off? I would’ve shot them before we even got into the air,” groused Zellar. Her uniform jacket was still off and a white bandage under her sports bra shown against the gloom of night.
“I guess the old man didn’t want us tipping them off, even by accident.” Walinski pointed to Zellar’s bandages. “You’re wounded.”
“It’s nothing. It didn’t crack a rib or anything, but it hurts like a bitch.” Zellar’s hand went to the bandage, touching a tiny spot of drying redness. “Besides, you were the one with the major problems. We don’t know what he did to you, but he got you pretty good. Your heart stopped.”
“Scared the hell out of us.” Tan offered Walinski a canteen of water. “We did CPR and brought you back, thank God. There would have been a lot of pissed off people if you had died.”
“So that’s what was shaking the house,” grumbled Walinski.
Zellar and Tan looked at each other quizzically, and then Zellar spoke up, “Don’t know anything about a house, but we gave your heart a couple of good thumps.”
“Yeah, the water was my idea. It seemed like a good idea at the time.” Tan raised her canteen in mock salute.
“What happened? I mean how did it all go south so quickly?” Walinski tried to stand, but was urged stay seated by both women.
“You tell her, Carla,” said Tan. “You’re the one that realized it first.”
Zellar nodded. “Isling tried to kill us. He was a muppet. He acted all poodle, but never changed. He went to butt stroke Gloria but ended up getting his balls turned into peanut butter instead. He went down and then got up like it was nothing. The fight lasted longer than I would’ve liked or would’ve thought so we figure he was juiced up on something serious. Tan tackled him and he threw her off like she was nothing. He pulled out his bayonet, stabbed Tan in the arm and that’s when I went ballistic.”
“Hell yeah she went ballistic,” Tan said with a chuckle. “She threw herself at him and beat his face in before stabbing his noodle with her bayonet. What a freaking mess that was.”
“It wasn’t hard deducing that Cotton was a traitor after that.” Zellar spoke matter of factly. “Especially when we saw him knock you around. He gave you a push out the door and tried to take off but we stopped him. We took out the rotor engine or something before he tried to run off. He pulled out his piece and tried to fight, but we got him.”
“Wait…you shot up my ride?” yelled Walinski. “Why in the hell did you do that?”
Zellar felt betrayed by Walinski’s attitude toward downing the helicopter. “We were in danger of losing it anyway. Either he took it and got away or we shoot it out from under him and get him too. Come on, man! We’d be stranded behind the lines regardless and probably dead to boot. It doesn’t matter. He didn’t get that far off ground and we got the bad guy.”
“Yeah. You did just that.” Walinski rose unsteadily. “Was there any fire or just smoke?” She didn’t wait for an answer, and took careful steps to her wounded bird.
“I didn’t notice flames. You see anything, Gloria?”
“Nope. I saw spray of something black, but that was it. He got like twenty or thirty feet off the ground, and then ditched once he saw he wasn’t going anywhere. He tried to run, but I got him. You’ll need his dog tags to ID him now.” Tan spoke with no small amount of pride in her marksmanship. “Wanna see?”
“Not really,” answered Walinski. She didn’t know why she resented them doing what they’d done to the helicopter, but she did. She regretted the feeling because if it had been her on the ground, she would’ve done the same thing. “It’s the radio I’m concerned about.” Walinski didn’t have to investigate to know that the bird had more than likely suffered catastrophic hydraulic damage. “We need to request immediate evac and fast.” She looked up at the night sky as she continued to the Blackhawk. “What happened to the Apache?”
Zellar and Tan looked at each other and their glances spoke volumes about the bad news that neither wanted to deliver.
“They had air support,” answered Zellar timidly. “Two gunships appeared out of nowhere. Good news is the Apache brought one down without a problem. The second was a bitch. The Apache got it, but not before it took serious hits. It crashed about five klicks northeast of here.
Walinski looked around. She could see three separate greasy lines of smoke staining the sky, but no flames. There should have been flames. “How long was I out?”
“Five hours,” answered Zellar.
“Five hours? I was out for five hours?”
“Yep,” said Tan her voice more level than a moment ago. “We couldn’t move you. You didn’t have a heartbeat when we got to you, and it stopped again a few moments before you came to. It seemed like a better idea to keep you in one place.”
Walinski sighed. “You did the right thing. It’s my fault anyway. Hughes radioed me with orders to kill Cotton. I should’ve done it right off. Dolly was going to, but Clarice and I blinked. Stupid hesitation is what happened, and he got us. Now, let’s see what we can do about leaving.”
The radio in the helicopter was functional, but the main engine hydraulics was shot. Five seconds into starting the turbines, the engine whined and screamed in protest. The onboard warning systems lit up with multiple warnings of engine and hydraulic failure.
Walinski shut everything down, and then went to auxiliary power. She slipped her helmet on and tuned the radio to Detrick’s communications net. “Sand Trap, Sand Trap, Raptor Three Six, Over.” The radio crackled with static. Walinski tried the secondary frequency and was rewarded with an answer.
“Raptor Three Six, Sand Trap command. Stand by for Detrick Actual on previously secured frequency.”
Walinski blinked in confusion and then remembered the receiver that had been sneaked into her helmet. “Standing by, Sand Trap.”
She didn’t have long to wait before she heard Hughes’ distant voice over the hidden earpiece.
“Chief, Detrick Actual. If anyone’s listening they’ll hear only your transmissions. What’s your sitrep? Over.”
“Claw Two One is down. Two hostile birds engaged us. Both are no longer on the board. Two hostiles that accompanied us are also no longer a problem. My bird’s down. Am requesting immediate evac at previously established coordinates. I have two walking wounded, but are able to move out. Over”
“Negative, Chief. Area’s too hot. Make your way to map coordinates three five one, Charlie eight seven.” Friendlies will be in the area to evac you out. You have four hours to make it to dust off. Do not say coordinates, only acknowledge transmission. Over.”
Walinski hurriedly fished a pen and pad from her flight suit and asked Hughes to say his last transmission again. He obliged and recommended she destroy her notes before proceeding to the evacuation site.
“Received and understood, sir. Moving out now,” answered Walinski, verifying what she’d copied.
“Roger that, Chief. Good luck, Godspeed and see you in a few. Detrick Actual, out.”
Walinski removed her helmet, and let it fall to the floor. “Memorize these coordinates,” she said, handing the notepad to Tan. Both women had been standing outside the pilot’s door, intently trying to listen in on the conversation.
Walinski retrieved the map case from Cotton’s seat and climbed from the helicopter. “We need to make it to those coordinates by,” she paused, checking her watch, “…by 0720 if we’re to make evac. Are you two up for it?”
“Got no choice,” answered Tan.
“I’ll take point,” volunteered Zellar. “I’ve got the most experience on poodle escape and evasion.”
“Really now?” grinned Tan.
“Damn right I do. You’re in my arena now, bitches. Let’s get going.”
All content is copyrighted 2011-1014 by Jason McKinney Reproduction is prohibited unless otherwise authorized by the author.