THE SQUAD – CENTIPEDES
LIEUTENANT (Voice Over) – For no other reason than that they did not kill me on sight, I have been given command of a squad of unstoppable killing machines, deathless masked murderers.
My security clearance tripled overnight. You want to know about the President’s prostate exam? What they really had down in Area 51? I could get you that. But for these bastards, I barely ranked. The files on the squad had so many black marks through it was like reading confetti.
The parts that I could read, the edited mission profiles, were like the nightmares of a psychotic witch doctor. Speculations about zombies, demon gods, avatars of death, alien. Sometimes wild ravings. I checked the General’s medical history. He was on so many anti-psychotic medications his piss glowed in the dark. He would ask for electroshock. He fought to get a lobotomy.
Afterwards, he wrote ‘It didn’t help.’ Mortality rate was 70% among the support crew, two thirds of that was suicide.
Only one thing is clear – whatever these things were, we have no idea. We don’t know what they were, or why they were or how they did it. We just know what they do. We are like monkeys with atom bombs. All we know is that we have them, and we can point them at things that might or might not be worse.
I had a mission. The parameters were fucked. Just a code name and a set of GPS coordinates. No objectives, no rules of engagement, no support. But I know deep down, that none of that was necessary. Their only rule, their only objective was kill. No survivors, that was the one constant from every mission.
The Helicopter is insanely loud. Its metallic skeleton, a dragonfly carrying a cargo container. The Lieutenant sits beside the pilot.
LIEUTENANT – Is this the target zone?
PILOT – We’ve just passed the quarantine perimeter.
LIEUTENANT – Any idea what we are facing? What’s the perimeter encountered?
PILOT – No idea. Quarantine perimeter is the zone outside contact. You’d want to talk to field Perimeter.
LIEUTENANT – What do they say?
PILOT – Nothing, they’re presumed dead.
LIEUTENANT – Where do we land?
PILOT – We don’t land. We just drop the container and they do the rest.
LIEUTENANT – We’re not high enough for the container parachute.
PILOT – There’s no parachute. They don’t like it when we go high.
LIEUTENANT – What?
PILOT – Bombs away.
LIEUTENANT – Wait!
The Pilot pulls a switch, the helicopter jerks as the cargo container lets go, begins tumbling through the air.
LIEUTENANT – Jesus Christ! That’s a thousand feet.
PILOT – Yeah, I feel better already. Hey, are you into woodworking?
LIEUTENANT – Fuck! What? Woodworking?
PILOT – Yeah, I do it to relax. Unwind from those things. I just bought this amazing table saw, 22 inch blade, got it from a sawmill. Knocked half the teeth out, so it does really rough cuts. Just mangles the wood.
LIEUTENANT – What are you talking about?
PILOT – More and more, I’ve been thinking how restful it would be to just turn it on and lay my forehead against it. You don’t think that’s screwy, do you?
LIEUTENANT – Jes/
Loud noise, metal grinding, a flash of light, a chemical stench like burning hair.
PILOT – We’re hit. We’re g—-
The Pilot’s head impaled on a metal rod. That’s the first thing the Lieutenant sees when she opens her eyes. Apart from the blood and the steel jutting through torn flesh, he looks very peaceful. The second thing she notices is that most of his body is missing. The third is the acid smell of burning rubber and plastic.
She thrashes, afraid to look down and see whether her own body is intact. Restraints bite into her shoulders. She is still wearing her safety belts, still strapped into the crash seat. She releases the buckles feeling them loosen.
She crawls away, staggers to her feet. Everything is intact. Miraculously, she has survived. Helicopter debris surrounds her.
In shock, she looks around, seeing a typical, normal Rockwell, middle-American town. The streets are empty, except for a man and woman who appear to be impaled on a double headed parking meter.
She stumbles toward them, staring. They are back to back, leaning against each other. Their faces are contorted in rictus of agony and terror. The man’s lower body is distended oddly, she thinks she can see the shape of the edge of the parking meter in his body. Their feet do not touch the ground, they dangle in the wind.
LIEUTENANT – What the fuck?
Her gaze drifts to their feet. Lower. There are pools of blood and guts beneath them, the remnants of their ruptured bodies. The blood still drips down.
This happened recently, the Lieutenant thinks. Perhaps minutes before the crash. Beginning nausea is swept away by a surge of terror. The Lieutenant, heart pounding, draws her sidearm and whirls around, circling twice, searching the landscape.
Thats when she sees the thing. At first she’d taken it as part of the helicopter debris. But now that she looks…. this thing was part of no machine. The alien quality of it baffles her at first. Shining chitin, segments, claws. Some kind of …. insect. Was this thing the problem? The Mission?
It’s dead now.
A skitter behind her. Ahh, the Lieutenant thinks dispassionately. Mission not accomplished. More of them. Not insects. Their wobbling segmented bodies move towards her.
The Lieutenant is proud of how calm she is in that moment, how analytical she is, as she mentally catalogues a description. Can they see her she wonders? Or perhaps, like certain predators, they only see movement? In which case, being still would be best. Or maybe they see in other terms, see other spectrums? Maybe they see with sonar, or track with scent?
Whatever it is, the two things seem to register her presence. She watches as they stiffen and orient on her. Hundred yard range? Does their perception work beyond that?
They move decisively towards her. The Lieutenant wonders how fast they are at the same time that she turns to run.
The Lieutenant sprints like the wind, it’s the fastest she’s ever moved in her life, graceful as a gazelle, sure footed as a mountain goat. The ground is a blur beneath her feet. Some part of her feels elevated, flying on an instanteous runners high, every bit of adrenalin surging through her body. She would feel great, if she wasn’t shitting her pants in terror.
In that instant as she turns to run, as she breaks into her sprint, she sees them move in her peripheral vision, knew that on a straight away, they will run her down. So she heads around a corner, leaps a wrecked car, uses that to springboard onto a hanging sign and up on the roof. As she hears them skittering up the side of the building, she’s already on to the next building, leaps to a thankfully full dumpster, through an open door, and out the other side.
All it had done was attract more of them. Twistings and turnings, the best run of her life, and every glance from peripheral vision showed another joining the chase. She runs along a brick wall, turns a corner, and leaps into a store window, hoping for a back door, a basement, a heavy door that she could slam, a safe she could lock herself into.
Smack into something solid and unyielding. She almost bounces backward, but something catches her shoulder, steadying her.
LIEUTENANT – Holy shit.
It’s one of them. One of the squad. Her mind seizes up in paralysis. Then the training kicks in.
Sawyer, she remembers from the briefing. This is Sawyer. The heavy set one, sometimes childlike, sometimes aggressively sexual, traces of a potbelly, uniform rotting, his mask is made of human skin, and his weapon is a chain saw.
Sawyer stares at her, fascinated. He cocks his head, as if not quite recognizing her.
LIEUTENANT – It’s me. Remember the teddy bear? I gave you the teddy bear.
Sawyer cocks his head again the other way.
She feels warmth trickling down her legs. Behind her, she hears the skittering, the things are out there. Sawyer looks up. Then at her. He shakes his head as if to clear it, as if the mystery of her can wait until later.
Almost gently, he moves her out of the way, stepping past her. The things waver uncertainly. She does not turn, merely listens to Sawyer’s footsteps as he steps over the store window, glass crunching under his boots. She hears the rev of a chain saw.
She does not look. She doesn’t want to see.
There’s a lot of noise, she thinks that some of it is the sound of things screaming in high pitched chitin voices.
Then the chain saw shuts off. Patient footsteps walking away.
The Lieutenant is staring. In the mirror of what she now recognizes as a jewelry store, the walls smeared with blood, she sees herself, dressed in fight suit. The shattered remain of her crash helmet clings to her head. Her face is obscured by a mirrored visor.
CONTROL – Please describe the phenomena.
LIEUTENANT – I saw two people, I think it was a married couple, impaled on a parking meter.
CONTROL – That sounds like Hatfield. Not relevant.
LIEUTENANT – Wait? What? Hatfield?
CONTROL – Have you had direct contact with the phenomena?
LIEUTENANT – The enemy? You mean the things that are trying to kill us?
CONTROL – Designated term is phenomena.
LIEUTENANT – Okay, the phenomena seem to be giant centipedes. Approximately 10 to 15 feet in length, each segment is about a foot to foot and a half, with the upper segments larger. Each segment has one set of claws. It seems to anchor itself and walk about with the first four or five segments, the pinchers anchor into the ground. After that it rears up, and the pincers on the upper segments get huge. No apparent head, except that each segment might have two eyes.
CONTROL – We haven’t seen that before. Would you say the phenomena is extraterrestrial, extra-dimensional or supernatural?
LIEUTENANT – What the fuck?
CONTROL – Please answer the question.
LIEUTENANT – How should I know?
CONTROL – Any sign of clothing, badges, symbols, tool use, weapons, transport vehicles, any apparent technology at all?
LIEUTENANT – No. No they just run around on their own. Naked. Like M. Night Shyamalan aliens in signs. Not even pants.
Something bubbles up within the Lieutenant. It could be hysterical laughter. She locks down on it physically.
CONTROL – Probably not extraterrestrial then. Are there any unusual properties? Do they float? Glow? Are they decaying unusually fast?
LIEUTENANT – No, I don’t think so. I saw a dismembered specimen. The body parts just seem to sit there.
CONTROL – Sounds like a transdimensional incursion though. Seems manageable. Any sign of a wormhole?
LIEUTENANT – What?
CONTROL – Don’t worry, if you come across it, you’ll know what it is. Sit tight, we’ll do a sweep when they finish.
LIEUTENANT – In the meantime, what should I do? Should I look for survivors?
CONTROL – There won’t be any survivors.
LIEUTENANT (VOICE OVER) – This was hell come to earth. I had no idea why I was here. I had no idea why any of this was happening. Twenty-three hours ago, there was a distress call from the local police, calling for the Army, the National Guard, the Air Force. That wasn’t everything.
Psychics started vomiting blood. People were randomly going catatonic. Animals were tearing themselves apart. In San Francisco, seismometers went wild. NASA’s satellites went off their orbits, as if gravity had changed. The message was clear. Something had come into the world. We just didn’t know what. By the time we figured out where, the whole town had gone dark.
They cordoned off the town and waited for the refugees. There were none. Local chain of command sent regular troops in. Then they spent a couple of hours listening to them screaming on the radio. Some of them are still screaming.
Then they sent us. They could have dropped a nuke. But they said they wanted to make sure.
The Lieutenant is hunkered down behind the remains of a wall. With her are two children. She’s decided that her mission is to keep them alive. She needs a mission, because if she doesn’t have one, and if it’s not keeping these kids alive, then she’s just here. Seeing the things she’s seen, hearing what she’s heard, and it’s just mindless chaos. So keep the kids alive, and maybe there’s a point to existing.
She lights a match. She’s been doing it regularly. The little stick of wood flares brightly like magnesium. When she reported it, control told her that the proportion of oxygen in the air was high. The flame is greenish, which she’s told is aerosolized copper, which makes no sense. Sometimes its brighter, sometimes its greener. Wherever the things are from, the rules are slightly different there, and they’re spilling over here.
Control keeps telling her to lose the children. She stops listening after a while, though she still reports.
The boy is thirteen, he’s almost catatonic, unresponsive. His eyes are wider than anyone else’s she’s ever seen in her life. Circles of white, with irises narrowed to pinpricks. In the scant hour she’s been with him, she hasn’t seen him blink once. But he answers when he’s asked a question, and he does what he’s told, so she thinks he’s not too far gone.
Or maybe he is.
She thinks there’s a scream in him. Waiting. She thinks that if it gets out, then she’ll just scream for the rest of his life. That’s all he’ll ever do, that’s going to be all that’s left of him, just a scream, going on and on.
The girl is better. She’s fourteen. She’s carrying the Lieutenants side arm. It seems to make her feel better, safer. Whatever.
The Lieutenant has an assault rifle. It’s not hers. She found it near the ruins of a marine. She wiped the bits off it, and it seemed serviceable. There was a finger jammed up in the trigger guard, but she’d managed to work it out. It’s useless, she knows, the things eat bullets. But like the girl, it makes her feel better. She wishes she had something sharp, something to pry between the chitinous plates of a centipede. She imagines the sound it would make as she worked the blade in and twisted it. She smiles, she can hear it screaming in her head.
Abruptly, she realizes its not her imagination. Carefully, motioning the children to silence, she creeps to the edge of the ruined wall.
A centipede is screaming. Alien as it is, she can feel its panic. Raw terror exudes from it, it feels like its fear seeps into her pores, it’s so pervasive. It’s running, out in the open, its multiple limbs churning.
Michaels is behind it, walking calmly, approaching steadily, his mannequin mask devoid of all expression. His dark blue overalls are drenched with green gore.
It turns to look back, at Michaels, and its mouth parts clatter wildly, she can tell it’s a squeal. It turns putting on a new burst of speed as it tries to get away. But its limbs tangle over each other and it stumbles. Michaels keeps coming closer. It scrabbles around a corner, Michaels following.
After a moment, there’s a wild chitinous screeching. The sound of air being forced through a hundred spiracles, a chain of hearts bursting like a row of firecrackers, segmented limbs torn loose, plates clattering, alien ganglion lighting up with distilled fear.
She turns to the children.
LIEUTENANT – Time to go.
But she has no idea where. Just away. Away from the monsters,
GIRL – Your face.
For a second, the Lieutenant has no idea what she’s talking about. But then she flips the reflective visor of her helmet up. It keeps slipping down. She smiles at the children. But they’re not reassured.
As they crawl through the remains of the town, there are bodies everywhere. She’s never seen so many bodies in her life. There is nothing natural or peaceful to any of them, they are torn, mutilated, the corpses are posed. A row of heads adorn a picket fence.
Once crossing the street, they pass the body of a little old lady that had been carefully dissected, first clothes cut away, then skin, muscles and bones exquisitely sectioned, intestines and organs laid out. They try not to look, but they can’t help it. As they pass, the body turns its head, the jaw works, but there were no lips or tongue. Whatever it wanted to say, the Lieutenant did not know. It doesn’t matter anyway.
They startle a small flock of birds which take wing, struggling into the air, then falling to the ground, flopping about. The air is wrong, they couldn’t breathe properly.
An automobile caught fire and burns spontaneously, the flame an intense green. They were coming closer, she thought. She should turn around, lead them in the opposite direction.
Or maybe it was just getting stronger.
GENERAL – We had a mission in Bakersfield. No big deal. Nest of Vampires. They went in and cleaned it out, like they always do. They killed everyone, of course. There was a group of survivors holed up in the church, it had gotten that bad. Sawyer took the door down with his chain saw. I remember, he stood there a moment. Then he walked in. The saw started up again… And there was just screaming and screaming.
The Lieutenant knows the General is dead. She’s proud of her sanity, in the middle of this insane slaughterhouse, as the sky above the centre of town seems to turn a different colour, amidst the bodies and the monsters and the screaming, she’s sane. The General is dead. He’s not quite a hallucination, he’s more than a memory. The children pay no attention, so she tries not to.
GENERAL – They killed the Vampires of course. They killed everyone. That was what they did. After a while, as it was going on, it was as if some of the Vampires were trying to save people. It was strange. It didn’t matter, they all died.
The Lieutenant creeps up to a car. There is a large building in front of a park. City Hall. She is surprised, she had expected a Church, or perhaps some exotic physics lab or power station. There is no cover. Green light shines from the windows. Centipedes are scuttling in and out of the building. They seem uncertain and full of nervousness.
GENERAL – I was there of course. I made a mistake. This Nosferatu-looking bastard caught me. Corpse skin, rodent incisors, you know that look that they get when they’ve been too long, they forget what being human is, it slips away from them. Nosferatu, and he grabbed me with those spidery claw fingers. I thought I was dead. But all he did was say “What have you done? Do you know what you’ve done? Do you know what you’ve done?” Over and over, until Vernon killed him. They kill everyone. No one gets away. Nothing stops them. Nothing matters.
Frustrated, the Lieutenant turns, looking back at the memory.
LIEUTENANT – What’s the point? What’s the point of this? Why are you here? Why am I here?
GENERAL – You’re here to witness. That’s your job. You want to save someone, but that’s not your job. You won’t save anyone.
The Lieutenant wants to swear at the General, but then she catches the girl looking at her, watching the one sided conversation. She freezes.
She realized the boy was missing.
The boy steps around the corner. He stops, just at the edge. The Lieutenant watched carefully. The boy went up on his tip toes, and then down flat, his knees bend and straighten. His face has no expression, his eyes wide and staring. He waggles his hips, his arms swinging back and forth. For a moment, he seems to be dancing.
Then his head tilts, his mouth falls open, and blood trickles out. He isn’t breathing. He isn’t seeing. Vernon, with his doll’s mask, steps out, and lets the boy’s body slide off the crowbar he’d used to puppet the corpse.
The Lieutenant swears. The girl cowers behind her, but when the Lieutenant reached back to hold her wrist, the girl slipped back a little. Vernon, bored, was already moving on. With effort, she lifts the visor of her helmet so the girl can see she’s all right.
But she’s not. This is hell, and they are in it.
They are in the municipal building. The girl clings to her wrist. The interior is a wreck, gutted. The remains of walls and floors poking from the building’s shell. There isn’t anything there though.
The Lieutenant had expected something, a wormhole, a glowing portal, a gateway into an other universe, but there was … nothing. There isn’t even a void or some gaping black hole. It is just a kind of non-descript nothingness, an absence that seemed unremarkable. She can’t see into it, but it isn’t opaque, or diffuse, it isn’t light or dark. It just isn’t, or it just is, but in an unintrusive way. A casual observer might glance at it, let his eyes linger for a second, and then turn to focus on anything that might be more interesting to look at, because anything was more interesting.
More interesting, like the centipede parts everywhere she looks. They mingle with rotting human corpses. There was an archeological layering in places, ruined and torn human flesh, bodies so thoroughly dismembered they’d lost all significance. And atop them, segmented limbs, chitinous plates, lumps and strips of green gunk, maggot-like worms, a few still squirming, many curled up and dead, or bleeding green
Whatever was on the other side, it finds this world sour and hateful, unpalatable and repulsive. It loathes this awful place so cold and sour, and yet, it is still unbearably hungry.
They are all there, gathering, Vernon and Michaels, Jackson, Sawyer, Bub, the Smiler, the rest of the men with the masks. Some simply standing, others arriving at their casual unhurried pace.
The girl is gone. What had happened to her? The Lieutenant knew she’d been holding onto her wrist, the grip so tight the Lieutenant’s flesh had whitened. Had she? Or had she fled? She had been there. But now she wasn’t. Had there been a scream?
The Lieutenant is confused. Time wasn’t right. She slides the visor down on her helmet, presenting a red speckled, cracked, reflecting mirror to the world. Somehow it makes her feel right.
A segmented limb advances from the centre of the room, she can’t quite see from where. It is narrow and barbed, twisting back on itself in a mantis like claw. It continues to extend, segment after segment after segment, elbows bending this way and that, dozens of twisting segments long, reaching for the men in the masks.
A hooked claw strikes Jackson shaking his massive form. More claws snake and twitch out to the others. Jackson looks down at the claw embedded in his chest, curious. Hairs from the segmented arm beat against his body, wrapped against their forms, sensing, tasting, perhaps seeing in some primitive way.
Jackson snaps the claw off and flings it aside, dismissively. The segmented limbs shiver and writhe in confusion, some of them withdrawing.
Michaels hold his limb, his fist wrapping around a chitinous segment. It jerks in his hand, as if trying to free itself, at first tentatively, and then frantically. The segmented limbs boil suddenly, on flexing convulsive motion. The Lieutenant has the sudden sense that it is trying to get away, as if it is suddenly afraid. As if it has touched something awful.
But it is too late. Michaels holds it in his grip, is walking forward, following it as it shrinks. So is Sawyer, Vernon, all of them walking towards the absence.
Then it is gone. The building is just a gutted building. The light is different, normal, even the air is different, the otherworldliness dissipating like mist. The Men in the Masks, or whatever it was that they were, were gone too. Gone to wherever the other side was.
On her earpiece, control is saying something. It didn’t matter. She walks away.
A couple of days later, the pre-positioned satellite registered activity at the Compound. Seismic sensors registered footsteps. The passive devices ticked over.
The Men in the Masks are back from wherever they had been. No one knew where they had been or how they had returned. They were just there.
The Lieutenant sits patiently through debriefing several times. Each round, she finds she has less and less to say. Her responses become monosyllabic. Eventually, she decides she is bored and stops speaking. Sometime after that, she just walks away. She goes home. No one stops her.
Late that night, she can’t sleep. She wakes up, wandering aimlessly around her apartment until the battered flight helmet catches her attention. She picks it up, staring at it, noticing the bloodstains, the flecks of green ichor, the dust and scrapes, the crack along the mirrored visor.
She realizes she is standing naked in front of a mirror, holding it. How had she gotten there? She stares at her face, as if she doesn’t recognize it. She looks down at the helmet, and stares at her reflection in the mirrored visor. It looks better there, it looks like it belongs.
She lifts the helmet, and lowers it onto her head, the visor falling into place, reflecting into the mirror, reflecting back, emptiness falling.
It is good.