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"Shut the hell up." he snapped, sheathing his bayonet with a sharp snap. "I'm sick of your whining."
McMullen shook his head, muttering "Whatever Aardvark.", turning away and opening the worn newspaper yet again, putting his feet up on a crate. The third occupant of the anti-aircraft bunker, Sharpy, was ritually scanning the horizon visible through the slot in the thick concrete walls. He put down the binoculars, and rotated twenty degrees to the right. His hand lifted and he ritually punched the buttons on the battery control panel. The orange light flashed, and the green light shone brightly. The lights went off again. He rotated to his left, and pressed some buttons on the radar display. It beeped, and went back to its steady whir. Arvin watched the whole procedure with detachment.
"I'm goin friggin nuts!" growled McMullen, folding the paper and tossing it on his bunk. Sharpy looked over at him, still holding the binoculars up. "I can't sit here!" Sharpy shrugged, and went back to his scan. Arvin sighed, and looked over at his precious pinup calendar of Brittany Spears, faded and scratched with age. A thick fold crossed her belly diagonally, but even though the scratches he could see how smooth her skin was, how symetrical.
"I'm going outside!" snapped McMullen, ceasing his hunched over pacing.
"Don't be stupid, Mull." growled Arvin, "Remember what happened to Stake."
Sargent Strake had been found four days previous, or what was left of him. He dragged himself to the entrance on deformed limbs, skin peeling off in bloody chunks. He begged them to put him out of his misery. Arvin did. They buried him, and then the orders came. Remain in shelter until further notice.
"Are you going to check in or do I have to?" Arvin stood up, shaking his arm to get the circulation back in it. He was short, about 5'6" to McMullen's six-four. The cieling of the bunker was six feet tall, claustrophobic at best, intolerable for the tallest of the three.
"I'll do it." growled McMullen, sitting down on the crate in front of the radio set. He snapped a switch and opened the code book. He dialed in some numbers, then lifted the mike.
"Battery three to shield central, do you copy." he spoke.
"Shield central, Battery Three, we copy." crackled the speaker.
"Routine checkin, all present and accounted for, weapons operational." he said boredly.
"Shield central acknowledged. Out." crackled the speaker. McMullen snapped the switch back and leaned back against the wall.
"Fuck." he said.
Sharpy swapped off with Arvin. Sharpy was continuing his usual methodical habit, sitting on his bunk. He took off each boot, removed his socks, and placed them into his laundry bag. He then retrieved two clean socks from his locker and put them on, before replacing his boots. He removed his BDU shirt, hanging it on the cot post, and proceeded to march back and forth across the back of the bunker, eyes unfocused.
McMullen shook his head. "He's frickin insane, Aardvark" he said to Arvin, indicating Sharpy. The soldier continued to march, showing no sign of recognition.
"Easier to get along with than you." said Arvin, staring at the radar screen's hypnotic sweep. "Maybe you should try it, get your blood flowing."
McMullen stretched on on his bunk, shoving the paper aside. "I can't even stand up in here!" he growled.
Arvin shrugged, still staring at the radar.
Sharpy finished his workout with a series of pushups and squats. He removed three MRE's from the top case, and placed them in a row on the table. He opened and lit the heat can, then drew water into a small pot and placed it on top. He methodically prepared all three MRE's and placed them at the small table. McMullen and Arvin grunted acknowledgement and ate the MRE's, McMullen choking his down with plenty of tabasco sauce.
"Goddamn MRE's." he grumbled, "Tastes like shit."
Arvin went back to scanning the horizon. Sharpy swept the floor with a makeshift broom, then lay down and closed his eyes. Three hours later, Sharpy sat up on his bunk, having remained motionless the entire time. He washed his face, changed his socks again, and relieved McMullen at the panels silently.
"I don't think I've ever heard Sharpy say a thing." he said to Arvin, who was carving a stick of wood with his bayonet.
Arvin shrugged. "I wish I never heard you say a thing." he said matter-of-factly.
McMullen sat, watching the sky slowly lighten. Fuck. Day eight. Eight days cramped in this hellhole. Most of the rations were gone. Communication with shield central had failed the evening before. The radio seemed to be working, but nobody was responding. As the sunshine angled into the shelter, he glanced over at the other soldiers. Arvin lay on his stomach, an arm and a leg dangling off the bunk, drool roping from his mouth. Sharpy was in his usual position, flat on his back, eyes closed.
True to form, Sharpy rose five minutes before his watch. He completed his ritual and stood to the side behind the operations chair, waiting. McMullen turned, and looked at Sharpy. He stood, looking the man in the eye. He'd never looked in Sharpy's eyes before. They were green, a deep green that didn't seem to belong in eyes. His neutral expression was in sharp contrast to the fire burning in his eyes, a hatred that seemed to bore into McMullen with incredible intensity.
McMullen scrambled back, vacating the chair as Sharpy sat down as if nothing happened, turning and tapping the buttons on the battery controls, then the radar, then scanning with the binoculars. McMullen's heart still beat fast in his chest. He looked over at Arvin, who snored softly now.
"That's it." he muttered, turning to the door. He spun the wheel, retracting the bar with a sharp clang. He pulled the door open, and looked back. Arvin continued to snore. Sharpy was looking at him. He looked a little sad. He raised one hand in a wave, a half-smile forming on his lips. McMullen turned without a word.
He climbed into the dawn, his boots shuffling through the leaves that covered the usually well-used supply road. He turned off the road after a few hundred feet and climbed to the top of the ridge that hid the bunker. He walked to the edge of the cliff, and leaned on the trunk of the tree that somehow tenuously held onto life on the very edge of the precipitous drop. He looked down. Two hundred feet straight down to the stream, looking so small below. He had been there, though. It was a rushing torrent, a killer.
He sat on the edge of the cliff, watching the bright morning come to life around him. An eagle caught an early morning thermal up the face of the cliff, rising with powerful beats of its wings. There were worse mornings to die on.
McMullen happened to be looking due south when the jet appeared. It popped over the ridge, glinting in the morning sunlight, catching his eye. He watched the glint with fascination, its shape slowly resolving as it rocketed across the valley. It wasn't real. Real things made sound. He listened to his breathing, reaching down to slide his fingers through the gravel. He picked up a few stones and tossed them over the side of the cliff, close so they bounced off the rock face a few times, their clacks echoing from somewhere. He watched the stones fall, one by one, even as the growl of the battery coming to life made the very stones of the cliff vibrate. The battery launched a missile, its thundering hiss drowning out all other noise as it accelerated up towards the jet.
He looked up again in time to see the SA-12 narrowly miss the jet, exploding harmlessly in a cloud of chafe. A HARM missile separated from the jet. A smoke trail lanced out behind it, driving it down towards the cliff.
"Turn off the radar, Sharpy." he muttered.
The thunder-hiss of another SA-12 launching made him shake his head. "Fucking death wish." he sighed, wrapping an arm around the trunk of the tree as the HARM impacted the radar tracker half a mile from him, shaking the ground. A piece of radar dish flew over his head, fluttering down into the canyon below. The active missile simultaneously went wide, curving in a broad arc to explode spectactularly in the trees near the bottom of the top of the ridge several miles to the south.
The jet peeled in a sharp turn overhead, afterburners flaring. It lept into reality as its thunder impacted his ears like a jackhammer, abruptly cut off as it swung over the east ridge, its sound eclipsed by the terrain.
"You pissed him off." McMullen muttered, "Now he's going to blow you up." He picked up some more gravel and tossed the pieces, one by one, over the cliff. When he finished with the handful, he looked up and saluted the jet as it popped over the south ridge again, gleaming in the morning sun. Two beats later twin missile streamers dropped from its wings, streaking towards the bunker. "So long Aardvark. Good riddance Sharpy." he said, one side of his mouth quirking in a smile. He collected another handful of gravel, and tossed the pieces off, one by one, watching the missiles sliding in slow motion towards the hillside.
McMullen walked down to the bunker. It was nothing more than a smoking squarish hole in the ground now. There wasn't enough left of either soldier to send home in a baggie. He found the binoculars laying on the ground nearby, apparently unharmed. He picked them up and peered down at the battery. It was blown to hell too. He toed the stones that marked Stake's grave thoughtfully.
"What now, Stake?" he muttered, tossing the binoculars onto the pile.
His head snapped around as he heard a whir in the brush. A small vehicle rolled out on fat tires, a turret swiveling over a compact chassis. He'd been briefed on these. SAVs. Semi-autonomous Anti-personell Vehicles. One of them is probably what took out Stake. He had babbled about getting shot.
McMullen stood stock still, his heart racing. The vehicle zipped to the smoking crater, its turret rotating as if it was studying the devastation. Probably on remote control. He tried to take a quiet step, his boots crunching on the gravel. With a sharp whirr, the turret rotated towards him. He held his breath, not moving, but he could see a pinpoint of red light flickering on the turret. Laser scanner, it had him for sure. He ducked and rolled, throwing himself down behind a log. There was a sharp pop as he came down, and he saw a dart thunk into the log as he fell down behind it. Deadly aim. Damn computers.
He stared at a roly bug crossing beneath him, oblivious to the drama. His ears could hear the whir of the SAV moving around. He was dead meat. Then he heard a similar noise from the other direction. He rotated his head a fraction, just enough to see a flash of movement to his left in the greenery. There was another sharp pop, and he a dart thumped into his side. He lept to his feet, sprinting into the woods and yanking the dart out of him, throwing it aside in his panic. There were several more sharp pops from behind him, but the thick undergrowth that tore at his BDUs kept them from striking home. He saw brightness ahead, and he was falling. The cliff slid by him with sickening speed. This was it, he thought. This is how I die. The water below rushed up at him and he closed his eyes, putting his hands over his head and holding his breath. He plunged deep, the pressure closing in around him. The bottom of the river impacted his feet, and he found himself crouching on the bottom of the river. He opened his eyes and for a surreal moment, watched a large trout swim past, the morning sun shimmering through the clear water. He kicked hard against the bottom, shooting upwards. Long seconds passed, the surface of the water impossibly far overhead. He swam, lungs feeling like they were going to burst. He burst from the river's surface, gasping breath desperately. His side hurt. He located the nearest shore through water-blurred eyes and swam. The bottom touched his boots, and he staggered from the river, collapsing in a heap beneath a tree. He panted heavily.
His side hurt. Damn, they got him for sure. He removed his shirt and undershirt, peering at the wound. It was a pinprick, swollen and tender already, the flesh darkening even as he stared. Then it spread suddenly, burning through his veins, filling his body and head with fire. He had to kill himself, there was nobody here to do it for him. He reached for his .45, fingers feeling suddenly fat and clumbsy. He unsnapped the safety and lifted its weight. He strained to pull the slide, his finger feeling like putty. He had racked this gun thousands of times. What was wrong with him? His eyes widened as he noticed the skin of his hands darkening, swelling. The gun fell from his hands as he started to twitch, helplessly writhing. Pain burned through him, his body shuddering, thrashing. He could think, he could see, but his body moved, out of control.
His arm thrashed against the truck of a tree, his blackened skin tearing away in bloody chunks. This was what happened to Stake! He struggled to get control of himself, coughing, his throat suddenly clogged. His throat ripped painfully as he hacked up a chunk of flesh, gasping breath, a surprisingly deep snarl of pain and anger issuing forth. The pain that wracked him burned his face, his swelling, blackening flesh obscuring his vision. He couldn't see, he couldn't feel anything but pain. He couldn't tell how long it lasted, how long before he sunk into merciful unconciousness.
He awoke. He was alive. And he itched. God, he itched. He scratched an arm. He could move! It felt so good! He scratched harder, feeling his nails sink into the itching substance, pulling it off, cool air contacting his flesh. He choked on something in his mouth, and coughed, spitting out slimey masses. He coughed, every hacking spew of slime making him feel better. He eagerly stripped off the itching substance, first his left arm, then his face. The thick, rubbery substance came away, and he could see. He looked around even as he continued to claw the stuff off him. Claw? He held up a hand. It was short-fingered, tipped with curved, blunt claws. They poked from the black gunk that covered him, itching powerfully. He recommenced stripping it from him, shedding the substance. Soon he found he he could bite it. His muzzled face allowed him to slash it off in strips, pulling it off his body. It actually tasted pretty good, and he started eating it, gulping it down as fast as he could rip it off himself.
Most of the itch sated, he waded into the river, rolling on his back, working the last of the gunk out of his fur. Fuck, that felt good. Fur?
The creature sat up in the stream and looked around as if for the first time. A royal mess lay beneath a tree on the shore. A pair of boots mostly intact, BDUs ripped apart and strewn about. And that black gunk, all over everything. He felt calm. That was leftovers of who he was before. What was he now?
He looked down, seeing his muddled reflection in the smooth flow of the stream. The moon lit a shortish, wide muzzle that filled the front of his face, his eyes framed in a furred face beneath large, swivelling ears. He had a high forehead, covered with short, smooth fur. He was soaking wet, his fur matted and clotted with more of the black substance. "What the fuck?" he asked. It came out as a warbling query, the sounds new to his ears, but the meaning plain.
He studied his hands. He still had a thumb. Thin pads graced his fingers, thick, curved claws tipped them. He flexed his hands, turning them over. He didn't even know the backs of his own hands. The moonlight didn't reveal much of his color, but his paws looked darker than his forearms. He stood up, and shook. It felt good, his fur fluffing up. "Grrf." he vocalized, and bathed in ernest, working the gunk out of his fur. Finally satisfied, he stepped out of the stream, his back to the remnants of McMullen. Somehow, none of that mattered any more.
The night sounds of the forest filled his ears and his sensitive nose caught the scent of ripe berries. He moved quietly through the thick underbrush, crouching at the berry bush. He ate the berries, eyes and ears scanning the forest around him.
A small, whirring creature came into hearing, then vision. For some reason it made him uneasy. He knew he had seen one before. He hunkered down lower, watching it cautiously. It was still a safe distance away. It looked over at him, flashing a red light. Then continued on its way. His ears tracked it until its sound dissappeared in the night. Somewhere go to. Where was he going to go?
An image came to him in a flash. Over two ridges to the north, up the westward-flowing stream for three trots, was a place of safety and companionship. He belonged there. He found a large leaf, and used it to wrap up as many berries as would fit. Companions would like them too. Carrying the bundle loosely in his paw, he loped north.
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