By Sean Patrick Hazlett
Artwork by Jose Baetas.
Violent gusts of wind punctuated the steady hum of diesel generators in the cold desert gloom. The faint glow of mobile stadium lights cast foggy rays into the night sky only to be devoured by the deep dark. Sergeant Thomas Winters assembled his squad in a dusty wash at the mouth of Coyote Canyon, awaiting further instructions.
His orders had been cryptic: “Four soldiers to report for classified work detail; full environmental gear required.”
Like a confident lion stalking his prey, Sergeant First Class Jackson strutted toward Winters and motioned for him to step forward. “Hope you’re enjoying your evening, sergeant.” Jackson’s voice oozed with sarcasm. “Get your squad in MOPP 4 ASAP. They’ll be loading some cargo onto those five-tons.” He pointed at two nearby trucks.
“MOPP 4?” Winters said.
“What we’re moving ain’t exactly slime-free.”
“And what’s that?”
“That’s classified. Just make sure your boys are zipped up nice and tight. Ain’t worth dying on some random work detail.” Jackson patted Winters on the back, then moved on.
Winters didn’t like it. Not one bit. As squad leader, he was responsible for his men’s lives. Even worse, he’d have to answer to his wife, Agnes.
He returned to his squad, uncomfortable with having so little information about his assignment. From the sound of it, his men didn’t share his trepidation.
“Naw, you’re full of shit,” Private Turner said. “Ain’t no way Lieutenant Malozzi’s banging that supply clerk. That’s fraternization.”
“That blonde with the big tits?” said Private Groves. “What’s her name? Oh yeah, Private Collins.”
“I shit you not,” Corporal Baker interjected. “I seen them eating pizza together all the time.”
“That don’t mean they’re screwing. Plus, ain’t the L-T married?” Turner said.
“Sheeet,” Baker replied, “Since when did that ever matter? Those two are fucking. I just know it,”
“Quit smoking and joking,” Winters interrupted. “Get your MOPP gear on. We’ve got some HAZMAT to load onto those five-tons,” Winters waved his arm toward the trucks.
“Time to take another one from the big green weenie,” Baker grumbled.
After donning their cumbersome, charcoal-lined chemical suits, boots, gloves, and gas masks, the three men followed Winters into a shadowy ditch extending to the canyon’s southern wall. The men lumbered forward until a soldier in MOPP gear and the name “Zollinger” stamped on his chest signaled them to stop.
Two more pairs of soldiers huddled toward the squad, each group carrying a ten-foot-long wooden crate. They carefully lowered the crates to the ground, then left.
Zollinger motioned for Winters and Turner to step forward. The man put his hand on Winters’ chest. “Careful with the cargo. If it drops, alert me immediately, then evacuate to the decontamination tent.” He jutted his chin toward an olive drab tent about two hundred meters away. “There’s also a string of M88 detection units on the perimeter. You hear one go off, lower your crate and assemble at the decontamination tent. We clear?”
Winters and Turner nodded. They lifted the bulky crate and carried it toward the five-tons. For something so unwieldy, it was surprisingly light.
Winters glanced back and watched as Baker and Groves began hauling the other crate.
“I’m telling you, they’re fucking,” Baker said to Groves.
“Quit horsing around!” Winters yelled.
“Yes, sergeant,” Baker said before whispering to Groves and then laughing.
“I said: Stop. Dicking. Around!” Winters hollered. “You two need to take this shit serio...”
A monstrous groan echoed through the canyon like an oak bowed by a hurricane.
“You all right, Groves?” Baker shouted, panic in his voice.
With all the patience he could muster, Winters balled up his fists, stormed over to Baker and Groves, and let loose. “What the fuck’s going on? I told you all that jaw jacking would get you in trouble. Now I’m gonna rip you a new...”
Then Winters saw it.
The crate had shattered. A thick black liquid had spattered all over Groves’ MOPP suit. Groves lay in the dirt, cradling his leg. Baker averted Winters’ glare. Winters spotted something that glinted in moonlight. When he took a closer look, his heart nearly stopped. A silvery metallic shard etched with strange writing rested unnaturally in the sand.
“To the decon tent!” Winters ordered.
Baker and Turner sprang into action. Private Groves clutched his leg, rocking back and forth. A ragged tear in his MOPP suit exposed skin marred with some kind of a burn. His eyes were as wide as pancakes.
Winters slung Groves over his shoulder in a fireman’s carry. He hustled toward the decontamination tent, praying Groves would be okay.
Groves’ breathing grew shallower by the second. Winters was feet from the decontamination station when the piercing whine of M88 detection systems reverberated throughout the canyon.
God knows what Groves had been exposed to, but the man’s wheezing made Winters nervous.
Winters laid Groves at the foot of the tent. A decon team whisked him away before Winters had a chance to ask about Groves’ medical status.
Lieutenant Malozzi soon arrived, and Winters expected to be relieved on the spot.
The officer listened patiently to Winters’ after action review, not asking a single question or stating an opinion. When Winters had finished, Malozzi lowered his head, then looked up and said, “We’ll deal with this tomorrow. Take your men back to quarters and get some sleep.” Then he left without fanfare.
That night, Winters slept fitfully while explosions in the distance disrupted his slumber.
Sergeant Winters arrived thirty minutes before his platoon’s morning formation, anxious to find out what had happened to Groves. Over the next fifteen minutes, his soldiers straggled in. Most seemed as spent as he was. Baker shuffled in five minutes before formation, leaving all but Groves present and accounted for.
Winters grabbed Baker by the arm. “Where’s Groves?”
Baker shrugged. “They confined him to quarters. The medics gave him a once over last night. Said his vitals were good to go. But ol’ Grovesy still whined and complained until a doc put him on profile and prescribed some Motrin.”
Winters rolled his eyes. Motrin was the Army medical establishment’s remedy for anything a doctor couldn’t diagnose. “Between you and me,” Winters said, sotto voce, “you think the docs know what’s wrong with him?”
Baker fidgeted, then shifted his eyes. “They don’t have a damn clue. To be perfectly honest, I think the doctor was scared. Like he was holding something back and it didn’t sit right with him.”
“Thanks for giving me the straight dope. I’ll check on Groves first thing this afternoon.”
Baker smiled. “Roger, sergeant. And thanks. Appreciate your concern.”
Moments later, Lieutenant Malozzi approached Winters. “A word, sergeant?”
This was it. Winters braced himself for a sound drubbing. He nodded and followed Malozzi into company headquarters, out of earshot.
Malozzi grasped Winters’ arm. “Sergeant, there’s nothing you could’ve done for Private Groves. I don’t blame you one iota for what happened.”
Winters raised his eyebrows in surprise. “Ah...thank you, sir. Will there be an investigation?”
Malozzi shook his head. “I doubt it, as long as you keep your mouth shut.”
Confused, Winters said, “I promise not to say a word about what I saw in those crates.”
“I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about Groves. From now on, anyone asks, Groves was never in your squad. Got it?”
Winters hesitated. Something was off. Way off. But for the moment, he just nodded.
“Good. Now that we’re clear, get in formation.”
Malozzi’s words bothered the hell out of Winters. And the lieutenant’s thinly veiled threat only encouraged the sergeant to press even harder for answers. As soon as he had a chance, Winters drove to Groves’ quarters, a sandstone condo with a red Spanish tile roof.
Winters wrapped on the door.
When he knocked again, a heavyset woman opened the door of the neighboring unit.
“They left early this morning,” she said matter-of-factly. Glancing discreetly over her shoulder, she covered her hand over her mouth and whispered, “There was a lot of commotion. Hooded men in black jumpsuits escorted Mrs. Groves out of her home. She was real upset. Crying and making a big fuss.”
“Did you see Private Groves leave?”
She shook her head.
“So he could still be here?”
She shrugged. “Don’t think so, but I don’t know for sure.”
Winters nodded, then pounded on the door.
The woman reached into her pocket, fished out a key, and handed it to him. “You can use their spare.”
“Appreciate it.” Winters took the key and unlocked the door.
“Groves?” he said, crossing the threshold.
The two-bedroom condo was cleaner than Winters expected for a private’s quarters. Nothing was out of place. He climbed the stairs and searched the bedroom, finding no sign of Groves. It seemed as if the place had been wiped clean.
A firm knock startled Winters. He descended the stairs and opened the front door. Two hooded men waited on the doorstop. Their black hoods made their heads seem unnaturally large. Their skin was pale, almost white.
“You’re not authorized to be here,” one said.
“I’m checking on one of my men. Who the hell are you?”
“You need to leave,” said the other man.
“Why?” Winters pushed. “And you still haven’t answered my question.”
The men whispered to one another. Without warning, one pulled out a Glock and aimed it at the sergeant. “You have thirty seconds.”
Winters raised his hands. “This some kind of robbery? Where’s Private Groves?”
The man tightened his grip on the pistol. “Twenty-five seconds.”
“Okay. Okay.” Winters hustled past the two men, his hands held high. But he just couldn’t let it go. He faced the two men. “Let me see some ID. For all I know, you could be criminals.”
The man holding the pistol scowled. “If we were robbing you, you’d be dead by now. The fact that I’m pointing a weapon at you, in the open, on a U.S. military installation should tell you everything. Fifteen seconds.”
“All right,” Winters said, making his way onto the lawn and back to his Ford F-150. As he drove away from the scene, he called the MPs to report the incident.
The corporal who answered his call was helpful enough. She wrote down his report, asking a few questions about the men. Winters hung up, confident someone would follow up.
Ten minutes later, his phone rang.
“Sergeant Winters?” said a gruff male voice.
“This is Colonel Kaminsky, commander of the Fort Irwin military police garrison.”
“Thanks for getting back to me, sir. Did you send anyone to Private Groves’ apartment?”
There was a brief pause. “I have no record of a Private Groves. I’m following up on your recent call about 5170 Paradise Mountain Loop.”
“That’s right.” Winters scratched his head. The whole conversation was surreal. Then he remembered Lieutenant Malozzi’s orders to deny Groves had ever been in his squad.
“Well, if you ever return to that address or interfere with those agents again, you’ll be court-martialed.”
“Sir, one of ‘em pointed a loaded gun at me. I did nothing wrong. What the heck would you charge me with, anyway?” Winters said, annoyed.
“Interfering with an official government investigation.”
Winters pressed, “What investigation?”
Kaminsky grunted. “That’s classified. You have your orders. This call is over.”
Now Winters was ready to panic. He wanted answers, and the only person who might have them was Malozzi.
Winters paced outside Malozzi’s office. It had been almost twenty-four hours since the incident at Groves’ condo, and Winters was getting angrier by the minute.
“Sergeant Winters,” Malozzi’s gravelly voice boomed. “Enter.”
Winters made a beeline straight to Malozzi’s desk, snapped to attention, and rendered a crisp salute. The lieutenant lazily returned it. “At ease. What’s on your mind?”
“Where’s Groves, sir?”
“You gotta be kidding me, sir. Private Groves. You know: short, pasty white guy. Straw blonde hair.”
“Sorry, sergeant. I don’t have a clue who you’re talking about.”
Clenching his fists, Winters stifled an intense urge to throttle the lieutenant. “This is bullshit.”
Malozzi sprung up from his desk. “Excuse me, sergeant?”
Now that Winters had crossed the Rubicon, he doubled down. “You heard what I said.”
There was an uncomfortable silence. The two glared at each other until Malozzi finally looked away.
Taking a deep breath, the lieutenant said, “Remember what I said earlier? This is serious business. If one man can disappear, so can another.”
“You threatening me, sir?”
“I’m warning you, but call it whatever you want.”
“Sir, what’s in Coyote Canyon, and why’s it more important than Groves’ life?”
“That’s need-to-know, sergeant, and, frankly, you don’t need to know.”
“Don’t you take that tone with me, sergeant.”
Winters was at an impasse. If he pushed any further, he could end up stripped of his rank or worse. He had to try a different approach.
“Sir, if you don’t tell me what happened to Groves and what’s in Coyote Canyon, I’m gonna tell your wife about Private Collins.”
Malozzi blushed. His lower lip quivered. “Bullshit.”
“What’s bullshit, the affair or me telling your wife about it?”
“What, sir, nothing to say?”
The lieutenant slowly settled back into his chair. He slumped over his desk, sighing. “Sergeant, I swear to Christ if you repeat this, we’re both dead.”
“A few weeks back, engineers from the First Cavalry Division were digging trenches in Coyote Canyon when they uncovered black ooze near the southern wall.”
“The same stuff that was on Groves?”
“Sounds like oil to me,” Winters said, not because he believed it, but because he was terrified of the alternative.
“Like you, they thought it was oil. But overnight, the fluid had seeped into their vehicles, making it impossible for them to drive away from the area. Several eyewitnesses swore they’d seen the substance creeping uphill.”
“What the hell?”
“It gets worse. Soon after, three engineers disappeared. There were rumors that the muck had consumed them. The Army quarantined the area, and the remaining engineers began excavating the site. There, they stumbled upon strange artifacts covered in glyphs and made of a metal harder than diamond but more flexible than tin foil.”
“What does all this have to do with Groves?”
Malozzi shrugged. “Look, I’ve already said too much.”
“You know where he is, don’t you?” Winters glowered.
Malozzi averted Winters’ gaze.
“Dammit, sir! Take me to him. Otherwise, I’ve gotta a story your wife’s gonna love.”
Malozzi exhaled. “Fine. Meet me on the Weed Army Hospital tarmac at midnight.”
A chill desert wind pummeled Winters as he waited near four Blackhawk helicopters resting on the tarmac. Even though it was September, temperatures had dropped rapidly from a scorching one-hundred-ten degrees to sixty degrees Fahrenheit.
A BMW turned into the hospital parking lot. The lights cut out and a solitary figure approached Winters.
“Follow me,” Malozzi said, leading Winters into the hospital. The lieutenant flashed a badge at the clerk manning the front desk. Winters followed Malozzi down a hallway that led to a set of double doors. Two men in black jump suits guarded the entrance.
“Who the hell are they?” Winters mumbled, not recognizing the uniforms.
“Your guess is as good as mine,” Malozzi whispered.
Malozzi handed over his badge.
The guard checked it. “You’re clear.” He turned toward Winters. “Badge?”
Winters’ heart raced. The dirt he had on Malozzi wouldn’t make a rat’s ass of a difference to these men. He tried to think fast, but all that came out of his mouth was, “I’m with him.” He jerked his thumb toward Malozzi.
“Don’t matter. No card, no access.”
“C’mon, it’s not like he’s trying to smuggle in his girlfriend,” Winters said, in a not-so-subtle reminder about his leverage over Malozzi.”
The lieutenant stepped forward. “I need my sergeant with me. He’s still going through the clearance process, but, as you know, that takes forever. And I don’t have forever. How can I get him access tonight?”
The guard folded his arms and stared at Malozzi for several awkward seconds. “Do you take full responsibility for this man?”
“Well, L-T, I’m gonna need you to sign a statement attesting to that. I’ll also need to hold onto this sergeant’s military ID until he returns.”
Malozzi hesitated. His face turned ashen.
The guard smiled. “Oh, now that we’re making it all official, you’re having second thoughts, aren’t you?”
“Yeah, he thinks I’m his girlfriend,” Winters quipped, then playfully elbowed the lieutenant. “Right, sir?”
Malozzi blushed, then seemed to force a smile. “Exactly. Do you have any paper?”
Shrugging, the guard handed Malozzi a clipboard. “Here you go.”
The lieutenant took an uncomfortable amount of time writing his statement before handing the clipboard back to the guard.
The guard examined it, then said, “Please surrender all your electronic devices.”
Winters and Malozzi complied, then passed through the doors. A dimly lit hallway led to a second set of double doors. As they drew closer, Winters heard wailing beyond the threshold. Malozzi stiffened.
“What’s wrong, sir?”
“Aside from the prospect of me spending the rest of my life in Leavenworth, I’ve never been comfortable in that room.” Malozzi shuddered.
“See for yourself.”
Winters pushed open the doors.
It was a circus of corruption. Men whimpered and screamed. The air stank of bile and decay. Winters stifled an urge to vomit.
Along the walls, rotting men shivered in shallow flesh husks that had once been in prime physical condition. Black and red sores ravaged their skin. Their skeletal frames were maimed and twisted.
One man sat on his bed, methodically ripping clumps of hair from his scalp. He stared into space, humming some deranged dirge. Another shivered as he lay on soiled sheets, muttering incoherently as he picked at bloody, pus-filled scabs.
Turning away, Winters said, “What is this place?”
“This is where they take the exposed to die.”
Malozzi pointed toward the back of the room.
“Are...are they contagious?” Winters asked, ashamed.
“Don’t think so.” Malozzi seemed unconvinced.
“I see.” Girding himself, Winters took a deep breath and plunged into the room.
A ruin of a man lay in a mound of decaying flesh, muscle, and bone. He rested on a putrid pile of his own filth. His hair was a riotous patchwork of hair tufts and pallid skin, like a chessboard warped by some distorted dimension. His body was pockmarked with bubbly lesions. He smelled like a rotten onion dipped in pigshit.
“Groves,” Winters’ voice trembled, “that you?”
The flesh heap stirred. A skeletal hand reached out, startling Winters with its suddenness. “Serg...gent?” the thing said, as if it had long-forgotten how to use its tongue.
Winters hovered closer to the filthy bed. Against all his instincts, he clutched Groves’ hand with both of his.
“You’re gonna be all right,” Winters lied. “Just tell me how I can help you. Anything. Anything at all.”
Groves’ shriveling hand pulled Winters closer. The man’s eyes appeared infinitely distant in sunken sockets set in an emaciated skull. When Winters was inches from Groves’ toothless mouth, the man whispered, “Kill me. Kill me. Kill me,” in raspy and belabored breaths.
Winters wiped away his tears. “I’m sorry, buddy. I’m so sorry.”
Malozzi walked up to Winters. “It’s time to go.” He grabbed Winters by the elbow and escorted him from the room.
Winters couldn’t sleep, so he kissed his sleeping wife on the cheek and then pulled a slender metal box from beneath his bed where he kept his unregistered Glock.
He loaded the pistol, filled his rucksack with his MOPP suit and all the ammunition he had, and left. Climbing into his pickup, he headed down Barstow Road toward Coyote Canyon.
He left his headlights off, using the full moon’s ambient light to see. He kept checking his rearview mirror, terrified someone would discover him driving into a restricted area.
As he turned toward Coyote Canyon, he couldn’t decide whether to be relieved or terrified that lights no longer illuminated it. In the moonlight, something about the landscape looked different.
He parked his truck in a wadi, grabbed his Glock and a flashlight, put on his MOPP gear, and trekked toward the laager site.
The canyon was as quiet as a monastery. Winters wandered in darkness until he was sure the area was deserted, then he flipped on his flashlight.
Scorch marks pitted and blackened the earth, reminding him of the aftermath of an intense bombing raid in Iraq.
Wending his way through the desert, he returned to the ditch where Groves had been exposed. He climbed into the trench and worked his way toward the canyon’s southern wall.
The path led to a man-sized hole bored into the canyonside. Winters crawled into the dark shaft. As he drew deeper, the tunnel opened into a large chamber carved into the bedrock.
Three ten-foot slabs stood side-by-side in the chamber’s center. Circular shapes and symbols dominated the artificial cavity’s sinuous architecture. Winters continued to press forward, his curiosity only slightly outweighing his fear.
As Winters drew deeper into the chamber, what he had originally assumed were slabs, were more like sarcophagi. Two held humanoid forms suspended in a translucent amber fluid. The beings were long-limbed and slender with hard, angular features. Winters estimated their height at over nine feet.
The third sarcophagus had been cracked open. There, Winters found a rotting ruin of alien remains. It was as if something had ripped it apart from the inside out. That the government had left the carcass here made Winters wonder if the Army was still in control.
Winters snapped some photos of the scene. He then sent them to Agnes with a terse message: “If you don’t hear from me, tell the media I took these photos in Coyote Canyon.”
“You’re not supposed to be here,” a voice grated from the shadows.
Winters spun on his heel and fired two slugs into the dark. A dull thud told him he’d hit his target. He crept forward, his Glock aligned with his flashlight.
“Who’s there?” Winters said.
A flash of light washed out the darkness. Winters’ stomach roiled. When he looked down, his left arm was gone. He blindly fired two more shots, then passed out.
Winters opened his eyes and winced. An overhead lamp blinded him. Straps bound him to a hospital bed. He could see nothing in the blackness beyond. Drenched in sweat, he struggled to breathe.
“Ah, Sergeant Winters,” a voice said from the darkness. “We thought we’d lost you. You’ve been very busy.”
“Where am I?” Winters struggled against the straps.
“We have much to thank your species for, most especially, reviving us from the long sleep. Our hosts could not withstand the conditions here, so we’ve been waiting a very long time.”
Winters felt the blood drain from his face. His heartbeat quickened. Fear curdled in his gut.
The voice continued. “Rescind your call for help. Reach out to the outside world and tell them it was a hoax.”
A balding middle-aged man emerged from the darkness. His face was a cadaverous white, much like those of the two hooded men. Six pulsing black tendrils extended from the back of his head, burrowing into the edges of his face - an unholy halo born of parasitic corruption. A purple bulbous brain throbbed behind his face.
Winters had only one response: “Go fuck yourself.”
The man-thing smiled. “We thought you’d say that, so we brought your friends along to help you change your mind.”
Agnes and Groves stepped into the light, massive purple-lobed brains throbbing in eerie synchronicity, their hands covered in black ooze that Winters knew hungered for him.