Aurora Awards Submissions – The Squad

THE SQUAD

D.G. Valdron

 

An armoured limousine drives through the desert across an empty dirt road. A cloud of billowing dust rises up behind it.  In the distance a series of guard towers loom.  As we get closer we see that they’re connected by three layers of cyclone fences and barbed wire.  Ominous signs appear: “Trespassers will be executed.”  “Minefields Active.”  Powerful stadium lights illuminate the landscape beyond.

Cut to the inside of the armoured car.  There are two people. The driver is ranked as a General.  He’s smoking a cigar.  He’s in his late fifties, prematurely gray and wrinkled. His passenger is a Lieutenant, clean cut, crisp, by the book, female and stern.

GENERAL -This is all just for show. They throw money at us; we have to spend it on something.  Worst goddamned duty in the service as far as I’m concerned, sitting in those towers waiting to be killed. Pushing paper at Checkpoint Charley. The real protection is distance. We’ve got another sixty miles to go. Sixty miles of the most godforsaken, desolate territory on the face of the earth.  No water, no plants, not even a lizard can live here. We made sure of that. We got a geosynchronous satellite up there permanently stationed right over us, watching. I can’t tell you what that cost us.  A bird flies over this place, we know it.  We got traps and deadfalls, minefields everywhere.   Set a man down in here, and he’s dead within a day.

The Lieutenant looks doubtful.

GENERAL – Distance is what it is. This car is wired to explode if anything happens.  Those sons of bitches will have to walk out. They’re a lot faster than they look, don’t be fooled. But even they, take em most of a day to get out this far, takes them even longer to get anywhere. By that time, we can organize a response.

LIEUTENANT -Sounds like a tough set up.

GENERAL – Not tough enough. We almost had a break out in 1999. They decided to go for a walk, the whole bunch of em. Cut right through the fences as if it wasn’t there, the minefields, the towers, didn’t matter more than swatting flies.

LIEUTENANT – Briefing report says that they’re all just psychopathic criminals. But my dossier doesn’t tell me anything, just names and bullshit. Like this: “Likes teddy bears.” What does that even mean? There’s no psychological profiles, no personality assessments, just random notations.  I expected the dirty dozen, but this…. There’s no specialties identified, there’s no history for any of them. I can’t believe they’re regular army.

GENERAL – They’re not.

LIEUTENANT – Permission to speak freely sir?

GENERAL – There’s just us here.

LIEUTENANT – This is fucked, Sir. What the hell am I supposed to be doing?

GENERAL – You lead them, Lieutenant. You take them out into the field, and you maybe try to point them, and then after, you try to get them to stop.

LIEUTENANT – Why me?

GENERAL – You’re a woman. You fit a profile.

LIEUTENANT – So…  What? They don’t kill women?

GENERAL – They kill everyone and everything. Men, women, children, dogs, cattle. There ain’t anything they don’t kill. But sometimes, it looks like maybe they don’t like to kill certain women. Or at least, they don’t try as hard. Or maybe they can’t. We’re not sure.

LIEUTENANT – Who are these men?

GENERAL – They’re not men.

LIEUTENANT – Then what? Martians? Aliens? Werewolves? Vampires? Genetic experiments?

GENERAL – No one really knows. They started showing up in the Eighties. Or at least, that’s when we started noticing them. Then, the historians poked around, and whatever they are, that goes way back. But we’re not sure. We don’t know much about them. We know names, but that doesn’t tell us anything.  We know where each of them came from, sort of. We know what they’ve done. But what are they? You tell me after you meet them.

LIEUTENANT – What’s the point of this?

GENERAL – You know the Iraq War, how Baghdad just fell apart? You heard of the Chinese Border incident, though we hushed that one up pretty good. That mess in Africa? Scottsboro? That’s them. It’s what they do. When things are really bad, alien invasion, vampire infestation, zombie outbreak, we send them in. And then…

LIEUTENANT – And then…

GENERAL – And then, Lieutenant? We pray.

LIEUTENANT – That they succeed?

GENERAL – No, Lieutenant. We pray that sooner or later, they stop.

The Lieutenant looks out the window. There’s no answer. The car proceeds in silence through the sterile and endless desert. They pass by a human skeleton half buried by the side of the road. The Lieutenant watches it as they go past.

* * *

The building looks like it was a gas station in the 1950’s. The old fashioned gas pumps are still there, covered with dust. There is a drive through around the back. The General pulls up to the window. No one appears.

GENERAL – Checkpoint Charlie. The last stop before them.

There’s an emphasis on the word ‘them.’ The Lieutenant doesn’t respond. The General fishes out a clipboard and pen from the dash and makes a few notes. They wait. After a few minutes, the General honks the horn. Nothing. The General peers at the Clipboard.

GENERAL- They’re on a nine day rotation. In, then out. After that, counselling, suicide watch, medication, whatever it takes. They’re only six days in, should be fine.

Nothing. Abruptly the General guns the engine, pulls out to the front of the station and parks. For a moment, the motor idles, then he shuts it off.

LIEUTENANT – We’re not supposed to exit the vehicle, Sir.

GENERAL – Whatever.

He puffs his cigar.

GENERAL – What are they going to do? Court martial us?

The General steps out of the vehicle, and the Lieutenant, impelled by some random feeling of solidarity, gets out with them. They walk over to the bay doors of the old garage. The windows are caked with decades of dust. The General wipes as best he can and stares in. Then he proceeds to the front door. The Lieutenant follows, but as he turns, she glimpses, over his shoulder, four hanging bodies. The General strides through the front door, there’s a counter, and beyond it, desks, telephones, piles of paper, all the detritus of a normal office. The General pounds on the counter and bellows.

Eventually an MP comes out from the back. He’s got dried blood on his uniform, across his left shoulder, and spattering down the front of his shirt. He’s got a crude bandage wrapped inexpertly around his temple. He is dishevelled, shirt untucked, buttons missing, fly unzipped. His eyes are a little wild.

GENERAL – Paperwork.

MP – Ah, yes.

The MP takes the clipboard, and starts leafing through it.

GENERAL – There should be five men on station. Where are the others?

MP – They’re around.

GENERAL – I saw them. What happened to you?

MP – Light fixture, Sir.

GENERAL – (nodding) – They can’t take the weight. Maybe you were counting on getting electrocuted?

MP – Belts and suspenders, Sir. Make sure. Important to make sure. They wouldn’t let us have guns. Not allowed anything sharp.

The General grunts. The MP stamps a page.

MP – Papers are in order, Sir.

GENERAL – Where were you when we came?

MP – Bathroom, Sir.

The General shook his head.

GENERAL – You’re going to wreck the plumbing.

MP – The plumbing doesn’t work, Sir. Nothing works. It’s all just here. You can feel it every day. You can feel them from here. Like a stain. Like you’re drowning in it.

GENERAL – You have three days left, Soldier, before relief.

MP – Yes, Sir.

GENERAL – Until you are relieved, you are not to kill yourself. Do you understand? That is an order.

MP – But General!

GENERAL – THAT’S AN ORDER! Not until you are relieved.

The MP looks like he’s about to break down and cry, a tear trickles down his cheek. He trembles, but in the end he salutes.

***

The armoured car pulls up on a ramshackle sprawling building. Shingles are peeled off the roof. The windows are broken. A door barely clings to its hinges.

GENERAL – Used to be a residential compound for the Prometheus Project. This is all that’s left.

LIEUTENANT – Prometheus?

GENERAL – Classified.  Biological warfare. The next generation of superbugs, back when the world was simple and we knew who the bad guys were.  Communists, blacks, hippies, that sort. Something got out, everyone died. I hear it was pretty messy. We dropped a neutron bomb to try and sterilize the place. We think we got most of it. At least, it hasn’t spread much since then.

LIEUTENANT – So this is a biowarfare and a radiation hazard zone? And you station men here?

GENERAL – I told you before, they’re not men…. We’re here.

The vehicle stops, in front of the building. A wind stirs through, but there’s no motion.  The windows are black. There’s no sign of life. The General and the Lieutenant step out of the car. The Lieutenant looks around.

LIEUTENANT – No sign of life. Maybe they’re all dead, considering the place.

GENERAL – That’s one theory to explain them.

He hesitates.

GENERAL – No sense wasting time, let’s go in.

The Lieutenant grabs her briefcase. The two proceed into the building. There is a large central hall, possibly a cafeteria. Tables and chairs are shattered or pushed to the side, light fixtures dangle from the ceiling. There are strange red splatters on the floor and walls. The place is empty. The two stand in the centre.

LIEUTENANT – Where are they?  They must have heard us coming?  Were they informed?

GENERAL – Patience.

From a darkened corridor, there’s a series of heavy footsteps approaching closer and closer.

GENERAL – It’s them.

The footsteps slow and heavy come louder and louder, but they can’t see into the darkness. The Lieutenant draws closer to the General. Movement catches her eye; she looks behind them and screams. A hulking shape looms over them, a pale manikin’s face atop military fatigues. Suddenly, they’re surrounded by hulking, masked figures all around, bearing primitive weapons. Axes, machetes, knives and clubs. All of them unnaturally still and silent.

GENERAL – Lieutenant, let me introduce you to your command: Michaels, Jackson, Sawyer, Vernon, Hatcher, Beane, Monk, Otis, Ed and Hatfield. Can’t kill em, so we enlisted them.

The Lieutenant turns around and around, staring at the hulking passive figures, their attention focused on her. As she moves their heads track her.

LIEUTENANT – They’re all wearing masks.

GENERAL – Because they’re all so damned ugly. Actually, some of them, Michaels, Vernon, they look human. They could pass. But they all like masks, it’s some sort of pathology. They cover their faces, even when there’s no one to look. It’s one of the little mysteries.

The figures begin to gather, closing in on her.

LIEUTENANT – Do they speak?

GENERAL – Sometimes one of them will say a word, so they can speak. But they don’t.  The best you can hope for mostly is that they’ll listen sometimes.

One of them, Vernon, reaches out a hand to touch the Lieutenants hair. Trying not to show fear she moves away and bumps into Hatcher. She retreats.

LIEUTENANT – Get back! General, tell them to step back!

The figures continue to close in on her.

GENERAL – I said “sometimes” they listen. Sometimes. You’re on your own, Lieutenant. Consider this your test.

The Lieutenant continues to back away, turning from one to the other as they close in on her. Then she stops and visibly gathers herself.

LIEUTENANT – I have something in my briefcase. (Announcing, clear commanding voice)

They stop, expectant. Not so much dissuaded as curious. A couple of them tilt their heads. Finally, one shrugs and they advance. The Lieutenant holds up her briefcase and snaps the lock, opening it towards her. Again, they hesitate for a second. She spins the briefcase around, so it faces them.

It contains a teddy bear.

LIEUTENANT – I brought this all this way. Who wants it?

She lowers the briefcase, which is otherwise empty, and holds the bear out. A broad heavy shape wearing a leather mask made of human skin, Sawyer, shambles forward.  It reaches out.

LIEUTENANT – You want this?

She pulls the bear away from Sawyer. She stares directly at him. Sawyer is still. The others watch. The two stare at each other. Finally, Sawyer nods. The Lieutenant holds the teddy bear out to him. Sawyer takes it, and clutching it to him protectively, shambles off.

Jackson, the largest of them, advances towards her. But suddenly, Michaels the tallest, is in his path. Jackson pauses and tilts his head. Michaels tilts his head as if in answer. For a second, the moment hangs. And then, as if there was nothing, Jackson and Michaels walk off smoothly in different directions. In an instant, the rest of them have vanished. Not disappeared, but just… it’s as if they’d all just casually walked away while she wasn’t paying attention. But she had been watching.

GENERAL – Congratulations.

LIEUTENANT – I passed a test?

GENERAL – They let you live. Come on, let’s get out of here. The place gives me the creeps.

They walk out to the car. The Lieutenant gets in, slams the door shut, she’s shaking visibly.

LIEUTENANT – My god, what are they!

GENERAL – I’ve got the papers for your first mission here. Read it, we’ve got the evac chopper coming. I’ll be driving back.

LIEUTENANT – What are they?

GENERAL – There’s some sort of outbreak over on the pacific coast. We’ve got a perimeter, but nothing we’ve sent in comes out. You’re going to have to take them in.

LIEUTENANT – I SAID WHAT THE HELL ARE THEY???

GENERAL – I DON’T KNOW. NO ONE DOES!

LIEUTENANT – I thought they were going to kill me.

GENERAL – It was possible.

LIEUTENANT – And if they had?

GENERAL – Then I’d have brought someone else and hoped for the best.

LIEUTENANT – I’m not the first am I

GENERAL – You’ve got a mission coming up fast. You need to get your head around that.

LIEUTENANT – How many?

There was a long pause.

GENERAL – Six.

LIEUTENANT – Six?

The General doesn’t reply. The Lieutenant shoves him.

LIEUTENANT – You brought six others? I’m the seventh?

GENERAL – Yes. One at a time.

LIEUTENANT – And?

GENERAL (shrugs) – They killed them. Each of them. It wasn’t pretty. They like to take their time.

LIEUTENANT – And me…

GENERAL – You were the one. The one we were looking for.

LIEUTENANT – Why?

GENERAL – Because they let you live. You were the one. We don’t know why. We don’t know how they think. We don’t know if they do think. We don’t know why they do what they do. We don’t know why they kill. We don’t know why they let some live. We don’t know how to kill them. We don’t know how to stop them. If we did, we’d stop them. If we could, we’d kill them. But we can’t. We can’t even contain them for long. The best we can do is find someone they won’t kill on sight and sort of direct them… point them at something that needs killing and then try and get out of the way.

LIEUTENANT – My God.

GENERAL – God has nothing to do with it. Here’s how it is, they let you live, so they are yours now, and you are theirs. That’s all. Now you’ve got your mission, get prepared.

LIEUTENANT – What about you? They let you live.

GENERAL – I was the last person they let live, until you came along.

LIEUTENANT – So why me?

The General stares at her. Finally, he looks out the window.

GENERAL – T-Cell Lymphoma. Inoperable. No treatment. I have maybe another month or two.

LIEUTENANT – So…  I’m your replacement.

The General nods.

GENERAL – We had to find someone they wouldn’t kill. I’m sorry, it’s a nightmare. But they’re our nightmares, and there’s others out there, bad things. We need-“

The bulletproof glass on the driver’s side shatters, and Michaels and Vernon pull the General screaming out through the broken window. He kicks wildly, screaming in terror. The Lieutenant shouts, grabbing his feet. Her face is already flecked with his blood. They drag the General off.

The Lieutenant jumps out of the armoured car, shouting. She pulls her sidearm and empties it into Michaels and Vernon, but they don’t seem to notice. She follows a half dozen steps. As the General vanishes into the darkness of the building, her nerve breaks and she runs back to the car, slamming the door, futilely locking it. Praying to herself.

Inside the building, the General’s screams go on and on and on….

On the seat beside her, the mission papers are scattered around.

 

The End