Seventeen-hour work days of white hot light. The sun had scorched corneas and eroded fair skin. Soldiers were frequently written up for not wearing shades or sun screen. “Damaging government property,” is what the Article 15s would say. The grunts thought darker guys were immune to such things, but eventually, we would all burn.
I couldn’t sleep if my life depended on it—so of course, it did. My life, and the lives of thirty mangy grunts per day—the platoon I was dispensed to—were inexplicably tied to my effectiveness as a “soldier/medic.” During yesterday’s company formation, my lips were pressed tight as everyone yelled “hooah” in response to something I could no longer stand hearing. But as the morning sun attacked my retinas, I was glad for no longer standing uselessly at attention in a 107º desert, I closed my eyes and covered my face with the stiff, fuzzy green blanket.
In my reluctant wakefulness I thought of Captain Dukakis and his lust for all things Army. The Phalanx shoots down about thirty “dangerous” airborne objects a month, he’d say. Certainly, all I’d known it to do was keep me up; the blaring sounded like the hull of a rickety spaceship. Every. Single. Day. After his first sentence he’d always sound like Charlie Brown’s teacher. The only thing the Phalanx ever really shot were our own surveillance drones. About a week ago, it shot a drone that crash landed in our living area—killing two nameless privates while they slept. The chaplain came around, soothing the sheep—in the middle of our downtime, told us they were in a better place.
Well that is great for them, I thought.
Disbelief was at an all time high ever since the Surin started seeping out of the ground. Saying they had been here for thousands of years. Saying that they “mean no harm.” And to no one’s surprise, mankind was unconvinced. And so we were sent to the source, to cull the herd.
I walked to the mission brief from my CHU with surprising gusto. Romero was back from his two weeks leave. The only guy in my adoptive platoon with a brain. I stopped at his unit on the way and banged on the thin metal door yelling “policía, policía!”
“It’s unlocked, just come in jackass,” said Romero from the inside.
I waltzed into the not so reformed shipping container and sat on Romero’s twin bed, started eating some of his Scooby Doo snacks from the night stand. His roommate, Gongora was in a lawn chair playing Call of Duty in his underwear, eyes glued to a 40” flat screen.
“How was it back home?” I asked, prompting the programmed response.
“I got more ass than toilet seats. You might be hooking me up with some penicillin soon Doc,” Romero replied proudly. He stood in front of his bed, pulling the arbitrarily camouflaged body armor over his head.
“I bet you did, and came back with that nasty ass mustache too, looks like it smells bad. How’s the Mona situation?”
“She still sends me nudes all the time, looks great,” Gongora started in without taking his eyes off the screen.
“Fuck you Gongora,” said Romero. He double laced his boots with a distant sigh. Never looking in Gongora’s direction.
“Seriously though, fuck you Gongora. Why aren’t you on mission today?” I asked. Now on my third pack of Scooby Doo snacks. Best care packages ever.
“None of your fucking business. Now have fun out there ladies,” said Gongora. He smirked and handed Romero an astoundingly clean M4. Right after, he grabbed his hard drive and plugged it into a laptop. The lotion was already on his nightstand and he made sure to lock the door behind us.
Romero and I paced ourselves to the TOC. Our boots crunched through gravel as we walked past other containers and concrete barriers around the base. Seven fully loaded magazines clanked around in each of our assault packs. Romero’s eyes led our path along the rocks.
“Hey man, did you finish reading the book?” I asked.
“Not yet, I’m at the part where Madison gets the telemarketing job in hell,” Romero grinned a little. “Shit is dope.”
We were silent for a few minutes. I focused on not twisting my ankle on that damn gravel.
“So, about your new step-child. Let’s flip a coin, heads it was immaculate conception; tails it’s a Surin baby.”
“That’s disgusting. You’re fucking disgusting. Everyone in the medical section is sick.” Romero smiled a little and shook his head before continuing in a smoother tone. “You haven’t even seen a Surin up close yet, have you Jackson?”
“Nope, and the idea of it doesn’t excite me one bit.” I was so unexcited in fact, that we decided to take the scenic route to the TOC for mission prep. Hands in pockets, weapons slung and all.
“What? A nerd like you has no interest in seeing the alien race up close? I’m calling bullshit on that,” Romero looked serious, but then said. “Where is your sense of adventure?”
“That’s not why I got in the game son, all you shoot em’ up types can risk life, limb and eyesight for the red, white and blue. I’ll stand back, patch shit up and collect a check.”
“You’re not afraid right?”
“As afraid as any sane person might be about armed combat. Sure.” I straightened and turned my head towards him, walking a little slower. “I have heard they’re cannibals though.”
“That so? You happen to read that in a book or are you half Surin or something? Afraid you’ll be eaten? That would explain that charcoal you call skin, plus—”
I offered a blank stare, my eyes glaring down at him above the frames of my glasses.
“Some hearsay, some reading, but shit I’m a medic not an alien anthropologist—my Surin life history is a little shallow.”
“No shit, I’m just so glad you don’t let that lack of knowledge limit your commentary.”
We walked and talked bout our families, the Surin and of course—women. His ex-girl Mona mostly. She emptied his bank account in Vegas, partying with “the girls,” one of whom apparently got her pregnant. She delivered the news as expected, told him the baby was his. Except we had been in the Sahara for nine months and she was six months pregnant. Romero declined to humor the pre-filled hurt feelings reports waiting for him when he returned. Several soldiers completed the “whiner’s name, date and sex” boxes for him. In the narrative under “tell us in your own sissy words why your feelings were hurt” portion, they simply wrote: girl + deployment. I prodded him a little to talk about it in a serious manner—even though it honestly made me uncomfortable to think about—but all he kept saying was “yea, fuck her, it’s all good.” I told him I would help out with money until he was straight again. It wouldn’t be the first time.
The barriers around the TOC were much taller than those near the troop quarters. There was one opening with a Nigerian guard where we had to show identification and clear our weapons in a little red barrel. A round got jammed in my Beretta and as I tried to shake it out, the gun went off. A small pop, and the bullet discharged into the clearing barrel. The guard took a rapid, single step towards me with his arm out, ready to hem me up, but Romero swatted the guard’s hand down as if it were a mosquito carrying a neon sign that said Malaria!.
“Relax man, there was a round jammed in his weapon, he had it pointed in the clearing barrel anyway,” Romero said.
Romero was usually calmer than I, especially when it came to firearms. The guard backed off slowly, wide eyed and silent taking deep breaths. He let us pass and we barreled into the TOC as if it were a frat party.
“What up motherfuckers!” Romero yelled.
The crowded little room had a big computer screen on the wall for briefings at the end of a plastic table with six folding chairs. Most people stood up. The squad leaders and platoon sergeant sat in the chairs, always. Lieutenant Krysinski would pace and give instructions, on cruise control through a set of PowerPoints. The platoon was zombified by monotony until Romero burst in with his contagious enthusiasm.
“Look at these two butt buddies walking into the mission brief all late, you little faggots get stuck together like dogs or something?” Sergeant Mason said. We often joked that he had been the leader of second squad since the Army’s inception. Guy was older than the damn wine Jesus made in the New Testament.
“Mason I get it; you’re upset that no one is fucking your Crypt Keeper lookin’ ass. But that’s no way to treat your future son-in-law. Has anyone else seen Mason’s daughter? God damn she can get it,” Romero said almost instantly. He toured the room, shaking hands and patting backs. Plenty of “Welcome back” and “Glad you didn’t go AWOL man” went around. A few of the guys made short jokes about the Mona thing.
“You’re just a little shit anyways, she wouldn’t go near you,” Mason said, while giving Romero a handshake. He didn’t leave his chair or stretch out too far.
“Okay, okay, cut out all the grab ass so I can hand out the mail and we can actually leave on time,” Sergeant Crowfoot said. He was probably the most tranquil platoon sergeant in the entire battalion. The kind of guy who never yelled, even when some idiot accidentally flagged him with their weapon. He lifted a white plastic box on to the table and started pulling out letters.
“Let’s see here, a package for Crittenden, three letters for Mr. Popular Romero and a bottle of Listerine for—” Sergeant Crowfoot began to grin. He glanced across the room while twirling the one-pint bottle of fresh burst Listerine in his huge hands. There was a half roll of duct tape around the cap. The liquid inside was suspiciously clear, leaking through the mountain of tape. Crowfoot took a quick whiff of the bottle. “Well that’s obviously vodka. Samson, was this seriously the best you could do? You need to take your silly ass to AA.”
I recalled the day a few months ago, when my younger brother was killed back home, some drug related nonsense. The natural next step after dropping out of the 9th grade. That day I found out, Samson came over with Romero, a fifth of Tito’s and some very sound logic as to why I should not try to get sent home. Dead is done, “what the hell are you gonna do bring him back to life, dumbass?” They said. Valid point.
A few guys chuckled. Samson turned his eyes to a corner of the room without moving his head. It was possible that he had enough contraband to last the whole year anyway. Small loss. No major loss when it was tossed in the trash. Crowfoot then pulled out a brown box addressed to sergeant Crittenden. Bets were placed on whether it was a pocket pussy or Viagra to make use of the older, communal, less attractive pocket pussy that he once reluctantly shared with his entire squad. Crittenden sliced open the box with his trademark, unnecessarily large knife. His fat sausage fingers were surprisingly dexterous. The box was filled with all manner of treats that were unavailable in the desert like fruit roll ups, cup noodles, Twizzlers, home made deer jerky and of course Scooby Doo snacks. Crittenden then dumped the box on the table and a sea of hands picked off snacks as they landed. A slight smile interrupted his mottled cheeks when he secured the deer jerky for himself.
Crowfoot handed the three letters to Romero, but they went directly to the shredder without passing go or collecting $200.
“You’re good to go LT,” said sergeant Crowfoot.
LT Krysinski made it clear that it was time for silence by turning on the screen to start the mission brief. The first of three slides was always a color coded area map and general updates.
“As of today, the cause of emergence is still unknown. Yesterday we lost two soldiers on route Monkey.”
The medical section already knew about that. One had a heart attack and the other suffered a heat stroke while carrying the first one back to base. Not surprising since Popeyes and Cinnabon were the primary food establishments around here. I doubted he would mention the causes of death though.
“The funerals will be Friday and Saturday. Also, everyone should have gotten new body armor and turned in the recalled stuff.”
“Another note of general business, make sure you check the expiration date on your MRE before you eat it, a bunch of the boxes from supply were expired.”
The LT pushed up his glasses and went to the next slide titled “Mission.”
“Ok, so today we’re doing a walking patrol on route Seahorse from east to west for 35 clicks, then we take Vernon south for 12 clicks, then we finish on Asad for 10 clicks, coming back in through the western gate.” The LT looked around the room, scanning for drooping eyelids. “As usual, weapons on red, 240 rounds per person, shoot to kill, not maim. Center mass, double tap. And do not attempt to communicate with, or bring any little Surin pets home.”
I whispered to Romero, “double tap, like homeboy did to Mona.”
Without diverting his gaze, or changing his expression, Romero turned my cargo pocket inside out, emptying all of my snacks on to the floor.
A soldier behind me whispered, “what ever happened to taking enemies alive?”
“I hear they need dead mostly cuz they spread diseases we can catch,” said some newly minted private. He probably finished basic training when the LT finished college. His hair was way the fuck out of regulation, one of those cool guy Captain America jobs a lot of the young white dudes had. Definitely the type of guy lured into enlistment by the prospect of combatting the great Surin threat. Certainly, they were coming up with some super hero-inspiring enlistment posters outside of the recruiting stations these days: Crush The Surin, your mother will sleep soundly tonight!
The LT went to the next slide titled “Support.”
“As usual doc will be in the center of the patrol with the aid and litter team. If he goes down, Romero will be the acting medic,” said the LT. When he said the piece about Romero, several guys made a cross gesture with one hand as if kneeling in front of an altar. “You got anything to add doc?”
“Not really, just don’t be a fucking tough guy, let me know if you’re about to go down before it happens,” I said. My anticipation was that somebody, as always, would slow the patrol down because they needed mole skin for their blisters, or some equally unimportant shit that could have been handled on base.
Everyone started for the door, but the LT halted us with a smirk on his smooth, dimpled face. There was a surprise slide at the end. It was a cartoonish depiction of a Surin trying to emerge from the ground and a soldier crushing its black claw under an oversized boot. The soldier was super buff and blonde, with both sleeves rolled up. He had a rifle trained on the Surin’s head and there were tears streaming from it’s white eyes. The balloon caption from it’s mouth said “Pwease, wet me jus expwain you!” I didn’t exactly get it.
A roar of laughter swept across the room while soldiers grasped their stomachs and keeled over in unbearable delight. A few had laughed themselves to tears. Still, I didn’t really get it. Chairs were shuffled and magazines were crammed into camouflaged assault packs. I looked to Romero, but he wasn’t laughing either. He definitely did get it though. He had to, he was one of them. I was just support. But he just cut his eyes at me, and then the floor without saying a word. I flicked off the light and closed the door.
The desert was mostly an empty, wavy horizon. There had been more earthquakes since the emergence, but none in the past few days. We walked on route Vernon in a staggered column, but close enough to hear each other talk. Most people were arguing about sports, fawning over Kobe Bryant and some other players who were supposedly better than him. Snacks were tossed from soldier to soldier through well-negotiated trades. Route Vernon, while narrow, was one of the few paved roads in our area. We traveled on cracked cement, with sand looming in on us from every direction in intricate, seemingly hand-crafted patterns. The sparse, sun-dried mud brick houses were set back about 20 meters, facing the road. We were told the poor lived there, mostly civilian laborers before the evacuation. Some had wooden doors that hung open, shifting with the wind. The sunlight glaring down at us from the south dared not enter any of the windowless homes. Sergeant Crowfoot reminded us that Surin often took up residence in the old domiciles after emerging. For some reason, they never went back underground.
At the head of our formation, Sergeant Crowfoot paused, raised his hand above his head in a closed fist. Everyone mirrored his signal and took a knee. An empty can of pork and beans came rolling out of a door, clanging from the southwest. Crowfoot pointed to the door, tapped his helmet twice and four soldiers sprinted over and stacked up on the wall beside it; Mason and Samson among them and that new private eager to perform. Sergeant Crittenden brought up the rear. The door was still hanging open, no need to kick it in, so the young private up front tapped the leg of the soldier behind him and tossed in a flare. In a domino-like fashion the leg tap was passed back to the last man and forward again—they crept into the house, knees bent, rifles up, Crittenden first and yelling “get the fuck on the ground, show me your hands!” The young private hesitated at the door and never entered.
Shots were fired, muffling the high pitched Surin screams trapped inside the house. There seemed to be a female begging for her life under the heat and yelling. Someone said, “it’s still moving!” More shots were fired until the trigger squeezes trickled to a halt, and magazines were reloaded. Sergeant Crittenden came to the door and signaled that it was safe for more of us to enter, and for the LT to do his assessment. Romero, myself, and a few more privates piled in. That same young private, came in wearily after us. Everyone else remained outside to pull security.
The interior of the home was a collage of Surin flesh and blue blood that smelled like the bottom of a burn pit. There was one tattered couch with old brown stains on it and an old fashioned, grimy gas stove in the corner. The pork and beans were still warm in a small pot. Sergeant Crittenden told one of the privates to turn that shit off. It was my duty to check for “signs of life,” which simply meant to ensure deadness. Shit, I had never even seen these things alive, how would I know one dead? Some of them were so mangled that it was redundant to check for pulses. Nothing but detritus, the remains that even these dogs left behind. The soldiers stood smirking with their rifles perched on their shoulders. All I felt compelled to do was just circle the tiny room and stare at the Surin, with their tarry skin and petite frames. The teeth were much more human-like than I had imagined. I nodded to the LT as I walked past each one. There were four, or five of them I couldn’t be positive. Romero stared at me the entire time, but without smiling or speaking.
In the far corner, blocked by the couch was a closet door that started to jut open as if blown by a strong wind. The soldiers immediately brought their weapons to the ready and trained them on the door. Romero backed up a little, but Samson leaned in and put his ear on the closet door. Sergeant Crittenden instructed a private to move the couch. Romero was still staring at me, but Samson was pure G.I. Joe now, stiffened in shooting position towards the door. The LT and I were nudged back towards the exit, for protection I suppose. One private moved the couch while another placed a hand on the knob, other hand on his shotgun. All eyes were fixed on Sergeant Crittenden as he fingered a countdown. Before he even got to one, the private sprung open the door and several muzzles at once were all trained on a Surin child.
The kid was in the fetal position, crying and struggling to stay silent. But the teeth, those human-like teeth were chattering and grinding and moving so loudly that I couldn’t stand it. I assumed that with it’s poor vision, it had no idea what it was up against. I expected it to lunge, to scratch and scream and bite or something, but the creature’s claws had yet to sharpen, and when someone nudged their muzzle up against it’s forehead, it pissed itself. The group began to laugh.
“Holy shit, this is way better than that cartoon, we should make a new one!” said the shotgun wielding private who opened the door. The crowd of soldiers circled around and the laughter deepened. They took turns poking it with their muzzles, trying to elicit different responses. It whimpered. It kept trying to scuttle back further into the corner, pressing its back against the wall. I looked back at Romero. He wasn’t laughing.
Sergeant Crittenden looked over his shoulder at that really young private who hesitated earlier, who was missing out on all the action. The kid was struggling to look cool, kept his shades on and everything. Even held his rifle in one hand, but he hadn’t said a word outside of his forced laugh.
“Hey you, come take care of this,” Crittenden said casually.
It took a second for me to register the fact that “take care of this,” did not mean adopt, or comfort, or coddle. The kid was trembling a little, it was slight, but definitely trembling. When the young private hesitated again, Crittenden lost it. He snatched the boy’s shades off and tossed them on the floor, then he grabbed the boy’s rifle and inspected it. The gun was on safe.
“What the fuck? You were on safe the whole fucking time?” Crittenden snapped.
There was a low rumble of laughter in the background. Even the soldiers with their weapons trained on the child turned their heads slightly to enjoy the show and let out a chuckle.
“Looks like we have another fucking Gongora over here fellas. I bet he wants to take his bitch ass back to base right now. We know whose faggot ass ain’t coming out next mission—”
“Alright, enough,” the LT said calmly.
With mild relief the young private picked up his shades and scurried out of the door, joining the rest of the platoon on security.
“Let’s get the hell out of here, we have timelines to keep. How about we act like proper soldiers for once?” said the LT. He was scribbling in a notebook and didn’t look up. Dropping his shades back down over his eyes, he stepped out of the door and into the sand and sunlight. The room full of privates, as well as myself all stared at Sergeant Crittenden, who shot a glance at Romero. Without saying a word, Romero spread apart the rifles trained on the Surin child and put the creature’s head under his boot. It let out a high pitched squeal that made the privates giddy. My eyes widened and I stepped forward but Samson stood in front of me, put his hand up towards my chest with a facial expression that clearly meant no. Once the head was completely under his heel, Romero leaned in harder until it crunched like the shell of a blue crab. Spurts of blood landed inside the closet wall. Brain matter, not dissimilar to that of a human cadaver, spread out on the floor like jelly. Romero lifted his boot and stomped on the body a few more times for good measure.
“The LT said double tap right?” he laughed. A bunch of soldiers all chuckled again. Romero grew tired and shouldered his rifle. He approached me slowly as the other soldiers joked and filed out of the door. Someone had won two packs of Scooby Doo snacks on betting that the youngest private wouldn’t handle the kid. I stood calm and still, staring at the closet, Romero by my side. He let out a sigh, like the one from earlier when tying his boots. We glanced at each other, and then down at the floor. I flicked off the light and closed the door.