By Sean Patrick Hazlett
Artwork by Jose Baetas.
A cold December wind howled as Sergeant Willis Johnson's platoon shivered in the Mojave Desert's darkness. Most seemed too scared to acknowledge an obvious truth: Johnson would be dead by morning.
Wedged between two seventy-ton Abrams tanks, Johnson gazed upon the grim faces of the fifteen men flanking him. The vehicles were all that kept his innards from spilling onto the asphalt.
"Hang in there, Sergeant. We called your wife. She'll be here with your children soon," Lieutenant Roberts said in a tone booming with what Johnson took for a newly minted West Pointer's false bravado. Roberts clearly didn't know what the hell he was doing, but neither would Johnson if he found himself comforting a man so near death.
Gravity slowly sucked the vitality from Johnson's body, his blood pooling into his lower extremities. He'd only have a moment to say goodbye to Zoe and his two children. Then the soldiers would separate the tanks, and with them his bottom half from his torso. Dizzy from blood loss, Johnson struggled to compose his last words, but the disembodied voice in his head wouldn't let him.
"I'm sorry to bother you with this, but the investigating officer, Lieutenant Martinez, just arrived, and needs to ask you a few questions," Roberts said in a stilted "reassuring" tone like a nurse before she jabs you with something sharp and painful.
Johnson smiled. Even if he hadn't been so light-headed, no one would believe his story.
The crowd made way for Martinez as he approached. Dark rings circled the lieutenant's sunken eyes.
Martinez averted Johnson's gaze, instead rifling through his paperwork. Johnson couldn't blame Martinez for his reaction. The lieutenant likely needed time to process his horror. Moments later, Martinez looked up at Johnson and said, "S-S-Sergeant Johnson. Ah...can you tell me how this happened?"
Johnson opened his mouth to speak, but instead of finding his voice, choked up blood.
Martinez's face paled. Johnson imagined it matched his own deathly pallor. Watching Johnson gurgle, Martinez seemed locked in a moment of indecision. Warm blood slithered down Johnson's throat.
Shattering the stubborn silence, Roberts said, "Private Saunders, grab a rag and wipe up that blood." He hesitated, and then added an awkward, "For Mrs. Johnson."
Saunders, a hulking blonde Nebraskan, pulled a rag from his coveralls and wiped Johnson's throat from chest to mouth.
Again, Johnson tried to answer Martinez. He took a deep breath and said, "Earlier tonight, I was working on my tank. I heard the engine on Charlie One Four fire up. I just assumed Sergeant San Felipe was driving his tank to the wash rack, but it sounded like it was coming closer. I remember the smell of it most, the stench of rubber with a hint of jet fuel. Ain't nothing in the world smells like that but an M1."
"How'd you get pinned?" Martinez asked.
"Next thing I know, I turn 'round and it's coming right at me. Like it wants to kill me. Before I could move, the tank jammed me up against my own Abrams. It hurt something awful, then nothing. I couldn't feel nothing."
"Who was driving the tank?"
Johnson tried to answer, but only sputtered blood.
He tried again. "Sir, you wouldn't believe me."
"Nobody. Ain't nobody was driving that tank."
"Johnson," Roberts interrupted, "this is an official Fifteen Six investigation. You owe it to the Army to identify your killer."
"I meant what I said, sir. No one was in the driver's hole."
Roberts glared at Johnson. Then he turned to Martinez and said, "When the MPs get here, make sure they get prints from the other tank."
Martinez's brow furrowed. "I think I got it under control, butter bar."
Several soldiers snickered. Roberts's hostile glare stifled their laughter.
Martinez continued. "I need everyone to step back. Don't touch anything." He waited for the men to establish some distance, and then said, "Did anyone else see what happened?"
The men either shrugged or shook their heads. Martinez turned back to Johnson. "If nobody was driving the tank, how, in your estimation, did it get here?"
Oh what the hell. I'll be dead in an hour.
"It started in Nineveh."
"Nineveh. Modern day Mosul. Iraq."
"What's that got to do with anything? Focus, sergeant," Roberts said, making Johnson want to do anything but focus.
"Goddammit! You're not listening," Johnson gasped and then coughed up more phlegm and blood. "It was dusk when they attacked. An RPG knocked out the main gun on my Stryker. Then the mortars started exploding all around me. That's when I saw the mace, bronze studs embedded in bone, glistening in the twilight."
"The mace. It'd been buried under the surface for God knows how long. The instant I saw it, the shelling stopped. It got all quiet like. Scared the piss outta me.
"Next thing I know, I'm carrying this thing across the Old Bridge over the Tigris River and toward Nineveh's ruins."
Seemingly undeterred by the gore, Roberts grabbed Johnson by the collar, "Get your shit together, man! You don't have much time left."
Johnson didn't appreciate being reminded of his imminent demise. He glared at Roberts for thirty uncomfortable seconds and then said, "You done, sir?"
Roberts went ballistic. Martinez cut him off. "Roberts, you're interfering with my investigation. One more outburst and I'm including you in my report."
Roberts fumed, but kept his mouth shut.
Martinez shifted his attention back to Johnson. "Go on."
"That's when I heard the whisperers in the darkness. I saw shadow men whose eyes glowed red. Massive feral dogs with glowing red eyes followed in their wake. You know, the kind over there that rip heads off German shepherds. You've heard the stories."
Several soldiers nodded.
"Okay Sergeant. That'll be enough. Thank you for your cooperation. My sympathies go out to you and your family." Martinez turned and walked away.
A foul wind blew in from the desert, reeking of rot and sulfur. Its noxious miasma swept through the motorpool like cancer. Martinez put his hand over his stomach, frowned, then dropped his clipboard. Roberts bent over and vomited. More soldiers emptied their stomachs.
A solitary coyote's howl pierced the tomblike silence. The yips and yelps of a pack followed. Their yowls drew closer.
"What the hell's happening?" Roberts said, his voice unsteady.
"Lieutenant Martinez, come closer," Johnson pleaded, each word weakened by wheezing.
Martinez regarded the dying man, hesitated, then approached. Johnson put his hand on Martinez's shoulder and whispered, "It's coming. Send my wife, Zoe, back home when she gets here. Tell her to bring the artifact." Johnson paused to catch his breath, and then said, "Tell her not to bring the children."
"The artifact?" Martinez said, his face contorted in confusion.
"Yes. Please. She'll know."
Martinez nodded. "I'll call her now."Johnson shook his head. Through labored breaths, he murmured, "Won't work." Pulling out his mobile phone, Martinez said, "What's her number?" Johnson gave him Zoe's digits, knowing it was pointless. Martinez dialed and waited. He clenched his jaw. "I...I can't get a damn signal." The dying man nodded. He didn't have much energy left to talk. His head buzzed, black patches occluded his vision.
"I'll stop her in the parking lot," Martinez said. "She should be here soon." He spun on his heels and left the motorpool toward the howling gloom.
Fifteen minutes after Martinez had returned, Zoe arrived, carrying a meter-long object wrapped in burlap. Despite his warning, Johnson's two doe-eyed children were in tow. When Zoe saw Johnson, she screamed. The children huddled around her, their eyes wide with terror. Johnson's three-year-old son Tyler wailed. His nine-year daughter, Hannah, stared blankly at Johnson as if beholding an illusion.
Zoe handed the bundle to Martinez, ran past the stunned soldiers and cradled Johnson's head in her arms, sobbing. "Not you too!" she shrieked.
Johnson regretted smuggling the artifact into the States, but Specialist Lewis had goaded him into it. They'd hidden the ancient weapon in their tank's ammunition ready rack before the vehicle shipped home. Now Lewis was dead. Torn apart by wild animals, they'd claimed. But Johnson knew it had been something far worse.
"Mace," Johnson muttered. "Bring. It."
Martinez laid the bundle before Johnson. The dying man unwrapped it with great effort. When his fingers touched the beautifully wrought weapon of carved bone studded with bronze spikes, the foul wind blew again. Dozens of glowing red eyes closed in from the murky perimeter.
Coyotes bayed. Out of the abyss two coyotes struck, ripping Saunders's guts out. He screamed. Other soldiers panicked, scrambling onto the tanks despite the fact that the Abrams carried no ammunition.
A surge of power rippled through Johnson's body. His pain faded. The voice in his head became stronger, more assertive. Tell them.
"Gather the men around the weapon. Sharur will protect us," Johnson said, his voice amplified by an eerie metallic ring.
Martinez's mouth gaped open. "Sharur? What are you talking about?"
"The weapon," Johnson said without pain. "It will protect us from Asag." Johnson could see terror and confusion on Martinez's face. The dying man had only seconds to impart his knowledge. "Please. Listen carefully. We were not the first, nor will we be the last. Those who came before left behind items to protect us, to keep the dark entities that lurk in spectral dimensions from passing into ours."
"You're making no sense," Martinez said.
The coyotes tore into Specialist Kim's calves, yanking him off one of the tanks. The wiry New Yorker fought back against his mangy attackers, but their onslaught wore him down until he lay prostrate on the bloodstained asphalt.
More coyotes circled, slavering, their demonic eyes aglow with an unnatural intelligence. Roberts swung a mattock at the mad canines. "Quick, men!" he yelled. "Grab anything you can find and brain these bastards."
Martinez seemed lost in the chaos around him. Johnson was losing the man's attention. "Listen!" Johnson yelled, his voice magnified by the ancient weapon. "Take Sharur. Kill them," Johnson pointed at the coyotes. "The shards of Asag's spirit can only possess lower life forms. Destroy them, and you may still have time."
"What then?" Martinez said. A coyote lunged at Roberts's throat, narrowly missing the West Pointer. The junior lieutenant drove his mattock into its skull.
"Then, you need to return Sharur to Nineveh," Johnson continued, "closer to its power source. If you don't, more people will die until Asag takes possession of the weapon."
"What happens then?"
"I don't know."
Another coyote tore a chunk out of Roberts's Achilles tendon. He swore and swung the mattock wildly, before a second coyote tackled him and ripped out his throat.
Martinez grabbed the mace. Johnson felt light-headed as its power and influence left his broken body. He gagged and then vomited froth-corrupted blood.
Taking control of the weapon, Martinez exuded an aura of power. He strode into the pack of American jackals, wielding the mace. Each successive strike atomized its target, leaving a spark of lightning and wisp of smoke in its wake.
Johnson's family huddled around him and watched as Martinez dispatched Asag's hosts. Darkness began to overtake Johnson. His vision faded, then oblivion.
A sting of white light jolted Johnson from the abyss. "He's still alive!" a male voice announced. It was still dark and cold, but Johnson's family and the eleven surviving members of his platoon provided some warmth. Martinez was gone, but so were the coyotes.
"What happened?" Johnson said, forcing his words out as he struggled for oxygen.
A tear rolled down Zoe's cheek. "You were right, Willis. The mace saved us all. Lieutenant Martinez is finding a way to get it back to Iraq."
Johnson smiled. Zoe hugged him. Hannah climbed on the tank and kissed him on the cheek. "I love you, dad," she said with a stoicism that made her father proud.
"Take. Care. Of Mom," he stammered.
She nodded, her moist eyes betraying her sorrow.
Johnson grinned at Tyler. The boy cowered, burying his face into Zoe's side. "I love...you, Ty-ler." Johnson choked up more blood. He jerked his head at Sergeant San Felipe, signaling the end.
With sad eyes, San Felipe nodded.
Two soldiers climbed into the drivers' holes of both tanks and started the engines.
"Say your last goodbye," San Felipe said as he escorted Zoe and her children away from the tanks. "I love you," Johnson said. He shuddered as a warm tear trickled down his face. The tanks separated. The last sound he ever heard was the dead thump of his disembodied legs hitting the pavement.
Vision fading, Tyler's glowing eyes were the last thing Johnson ever saw.