The Coming End

The Coming End”

by Bryan Thomas Schmidt and Jonathan Miller

 

 In memory of H.G. Wells.

 

March 1989.

The pounding at their door came too early that day, the day the world changed forever.

“Reveille” was scheduled for 0530 hours, the same as every day at St. Peter’s Military Academy since its founding in 1887. When Vincent Carter groaned and rolled over that morning, he never imagined it would never sound again.

His squadron leader, Cadet Sergeant Kenneth Seymour burst into the room “Get yer asses up, Cadets!” Seymour ordered in his nasally whine, his red-freckled, chubby face scowling, his brown eyes narrowed in a cold glare.

“What the fuck, Seymour?” Vincent’s roommate Tim Harris mumbled and groaned then rolled back over toward the, wall same as always.

Seymour rushed over and kicked his bed. “Get the fuck up, now, Cadet Harris!”

Vincent sat up, the same antiseptic, clean smell greeting his waking nose, mixed with the staleness of the thin mattresses and wood frames and closets. He planted his fleet on the cold, tiled floor as he always,s did and sat up on the edge of the bed, rubbing his eyes. “Reveille isn’t ’til 0530,” Vincent said as he checked the clock on his night stand. It read 0400 clearly.

Seymour sneered. “Got a special job for you two.”

Tim groaned again. “Leave me alone.”

Seymour started over to kick the bed again, but Vincent stood, blinking his eyes and stepped between them. “I’ll get him.”

Seymour squared off with him a moment, his rancid breath warming Vincent’s face as their chests stopped bare inches apart. Vincent stood at least six inches taller than the Sergeant and held his stare, deliberately lowering his head slightly to stare down at him. Seymour was a bully. Always had been. They’d drawn the worst luck from day one being picked for his squad, but the seniors were off on their senior exercise for the weekend, which meant no one who knew better was there to look out for the juniors. The bullies had free reign. It was going to be a long weekend.

“Meet me outside in ten, PTUs, or you’ll each get demerits, Cadet,” Seymour said finally intimidated not in the least after a moment or two of cold staring, then whirled and disappeared out the door. Vincent stepped forward and offered his hand to Tim.

“Come on. Two more demerits this month and you’ll be facing a review board,” Vincent reminded him.

“Fuck,” Tim said and turned over, facing his roommate with squinty eyes. “I hate that bastard. And I hate you,” Tim grumbled, sitting up on his elbow and rubbing his eyes with a fist.

Vincent grinned. Tim said that every morning. “I hate you, too, now get your ass moving, Cadet!” Vincent headed for the wooden closet where he kept his towel and dopp kit as Tim moaned and rustled behind him, his bare feet slapping on the cold floor.

The same age at thirteen, Tim was slightly thinner and taller than Vincent, whose muscular form came from his father, a career Marine. Vincent came from one of the longest-standing African American families in the military; three generations, including his father and grandfather, had preceded him at St. Peter’s, and he bore the weight of that legacy every day. Unlike Vincent, Tim was the first in his family, poor white farmers from Northern Oklahoma, and he’d come to the Academy for disciplinary problems, including, he’d told Vincent, a run-in with local law officers in which he’d narrowly escaped jail time. Vincent had been nervous when he’d first learned he’d drawn a “loser” roommate his second year, but they soon discovered they had a lot in common, and Tim was like the brother Vincent had never had in a houseful of sisters. They’d quickly bonded and relied on each other to have each other’s back ever since.

In six minutes they’d slipped on their training uniforms and were headed together down the hallway for the stairs.

Seymour was waiting for them, the same scowl still disfiguring his face. Immediately, he whirled and started marching.

“Where we going, sir?” Tim asked.

“Shut up and follow. You’ll see.”

Tim started to respond but Vincent silenced him with a look. Much of the trouble his roommate faced had come from not knowing when to keep his mouth shut.

The morning air was cold but clear as they followed Seymour across the quad to the senior barracks, two rows over, and up the side fire escape to the third floor. Vincent even shivered a little on the stairs. Then Seymour continued down the deserted hall to the latrine. As they stepped inside, Vincent coughed, fighting an urge to vomit.

“Pipes backed up last night, just after the seniors left,” Seymour said, grinning. “Someone has to clean it up so it’s ready for them.”

“Jesus!” Tim said, tolerating the smell of the feces and urine overrunning the floor beneath several stalls better than Vincent. Years spent around manure on the farm might’ve prepared him for it. “This will take hours for two of us.” He looked at the sergeant with exasperation. The smell was overwhelming, the mess everywhere. This was no two-man job. It looked like a job for several squads at least.

“Then you better get started,” Seymour said, punctuating every word with a staccato intensity as he glared and motioned.

“Come on. How is this our problem?” Tim objected again. Tim and Vincent exchanged a look, frozen a moment as they took in the gross, daunting scene.

Seymour arched his chest out and charged toward Tim, stopping inches away, just trying to get a rise out of him. “It’s your problem if I say it is. You cadets have trouble following orders?”

Vincent tried not to breathe as he snapped to attention and saluted, “No, sergeant.” Only officers ranked salutes, but Seymour always demanded it when left alone with his troops.

Tim gritted his teeth, locking eyes with Seymour a moment as Vincent silently plead with him again. After a moment, he snapped to and saluted as well. “No, sergeant.”

Seymour smiled. “Good. I’ll be back to check on you every half hour ‘til it’s done. Get busy!” He stood there until they’d retrieved buckets and mops and taken them into the showers to fill, then whirled and disappeared.

“How are we gonna get out of this?” Vincent wondered aloud.

“We can’t. We’re just fucked,” Tim replied. And then they set to work.

Within ten minutes, they were sweat soaked, their shoes covered in human waste as they attempted to herd it toward the now-unplugged large drains in the center of the floors.

Seymour was good as his word, coming back every twenty-eight minutes to gloat and be sure they were working as ordered. Outside, through the window, they heard “reveille,” and soon the other cadets assembled in their squads as usual on the lawn, the cool morning air rushing over their freshly washed bodies and neatly pressed light blue uniforms. The golden buttons sparkled in the sunlight as they stood at attention, hoping they’d all gotten the routine right this time. It was always the occasional slacker or two who messed it up for everyone. Tim was one of those screw-ups and he knew it. Fish out of water, median intelligence. Not a legacy like Vincent.

After the junior commander addressed them, they were dismissed and the cadets scrambled, as they always did, racing off to their various assignments.

Seymour alternated between supervising his squad and marching back to check on his conscripted janitors. With even the large drains continuing to get clogged, Tim and Vincent were soon streaked with the stuff they’d been ordered to clean up—their uniforms, boots, and hands. Fortunately, the smell was so strong, they couldn’t smell each other.

They’d just refilled buckets and rolled them back out to the cleanup area by the stalls when the building rocked from an explosion, almost knocking them off their feet. Vincent grabbed a stall wall to stead himself but Tim lost his footing and fell on his ass in the middle of a waste puddle, cursing as he tried to roll free in a panic.

“What the hell?” Tim shouted as he steadied himself and waved his arms to fling speckled feces off his skin.

Vincent grimaced then glanced toward the window. “That was an explosion. Close too.”

Tim held out a hand, and Vincent sighed, pulling him to his feet as they both headed for the windows. Smoke rose in plumes from the direction of Cedarville to the south. St. Peter’s was on the northern outskirts of town.

“That’s not a good sign,” Tim said about the smoke.

Vincent nodded and then the ground shook again with more violent explosions, a rumble rising in the air so loud, they couldn’t hear themselves yelling as they called to each other. This time neither cadet managed to stay standing. Instead, Tim leaned into the fall so he landed comfortably on his side as Vincent tried for another metal stall wall and wound up slamming into it then sliding down onto the floor.

The ground shook a few more times and then it got quiet—eerily quiet. The kind of quiet that never portended anything good.

Within seconds of each other, both Tim and Vincent were racing for the dorms, mops and buckets as forgotten as their stinky appearance. Other cadets stumbled and ran around them, most too scared to talk or comment beyond a few curses.

A few upperclassmen not on field exercises appeared to shout orders. A few of these projected a measure of calm, but Vincent saw the uncertainty and fear in many of their eyes as well. That was most unsettling. Upperclassmen never showed weakness. That was how they’d made it to upperclassmen. Tim had often doubted he’d ever reach upper class, but they were human, too. Hmmm.

A palpable blanket of fear covered the barracks as Tim led Vincent up the stairs to their room.

Seymour was doing little to quell the younger students’ panic. “In your rooms until further notice!” he shouted as he physically pushed boys down the hall and into their rooms. Looking at Vincent and Tim, he grunted, “You two change but stay in your rooms.”

Tim looked down at their filthy cammo. “You’re crazy, Seymour. I’m not putting another uniform on without a shower first.” Cadets hurrying around them scrunched their faces or held their noses and mumbled with agreement.

Seymour’s face got beat red as he grabbed Tim by the arm and muscled him into his own room after Vincent. “It’s Sergeant Seymour during duty hours, you little shit. And you’ll follow orders like the worthless cowardly farm boy you are, or I’ll write you up for insubordination.” He scowled as he realized what he’d gotten on himself in the process then grabbed a towel from a counter beside the door and wiped himself off.

Vincent rubbed his eye with his middle finger. Seymour did a double take, glared, and said, “And that’s why you two will never be cut out for leadership. Strong men like me will always be your betters. So do what you’re told and get to it!” Then he turned and slammed their door behind him.

The boys stripped off their dirty uniforms. Another explosion rocked the entire campus, cracking plaster from the wall.

“Dude, that’s not some Reservists training.” Tim looked out at the window at the rising column of smoke to the south.

“You figure that out yourself, genius?” Vincent was pulling items from his duffel bag. “Man, I wish we had a TV, or even a radio.”

They each took a towel and wiped at their arms and faces as best they could.

“We’ll show him some day. We’ll be twenty times the leaders he is,” Tim said as he finished.

Vincent grunted. “Fuck ‘im. Had another brilliant thought, Sherlock.” Vincent held up his ALICE gear, an Army green harness with ammo pouches, a combat knife, canteens, and a med kit. “I’m going full battle rattle.”

Tim grinned. “Shit yeah! Full battle rattle.”

The boys dressed and geared up, then heard glass rattling and hurried to the window. Tim carefully pulled up the wooden frame, wincing as it screeched open. Two sky-blue F-15 fighter jets roared overhead, heading toward town. Tim wrenched the window open, and the boys climbed out and dropped the few feet to the ground.

“Where did those come from?” Tim picked himself up.

“I don’t know. There aren’t any fighter jets at the Reserve base.” They had both been there many times for rifle training and field exercises. “I don’t even think there’s a runway.”

“This is bad. Is it commies?”

Vincent just pursed his lips and shook his head. “I don’t know, man.”

The school was built like a small stone fortress with a short stubby tower on each corner as living quarters. A stone wall connected them. The parade field sat in the middle, near the front gate. The four-story stone headquarters, where the boys had classes, sat against the back wall. They called it “The Keep.”

They made their way around the wall to the front of the school. Vincent held up a hand in a closed fist “stop” signal as they approached the front gate.

Just inside the wrought iron gate, which was open, was the CQ shack. Someone was always pulling duty in the little room, monitoring a radio that was connected to the nearby Reservist base. Now, there were several people inside. The radio blared a static hiss, and incoherent voices. Vincent beckoned Tim forward, and they both crawled up to the CQ shack’s window.

“That just doesn’t make any sense. Why would the Russians attack here?” The voice was the school’s commandant, a retired Air Force colonel, Commandant Herschel.

“Nobody’s said anything about the Reds.” The other voice was their own platoon leader, Sergeant First Class Franks.

Vincent felt a wave of calm. Sergeant Franks was real military. He’d been some kind of commando in Vietnam or something. Well, all the TAC officers were regular Army, but Franks was the only one who had seen combat.

“Let me take a jeep and go scout this thing out.” Franks said.

“Absolutely not. Until we have an idea of what’s going on, everyone is staying right here.”

“At least give me the key to the armory. We might need—

“You are jumping to conclusions, Sergeant. Until we get word, we will stand down.” The Commandant’s voice shook. His tone reminded Tim a lot of how Seymour was acting.

“Yes, sir. Hey, Private, did you get that ham radio going yet?”

Tim rose up into a low crouch and dared a peak into the shack. Sergeant Franks was pacing, arms crossed. The Commandant was sitting, wiping his forehead feverishly. Lucas DiMarco, another freshman, was wearing headphones and fiddling with the dials on the old ham radio that usually collected dust in the corner of the shack.

“Uh, yes, sir—er—I mean, Sergeant.” Lucas was a squirrely little guy who loved playing with circuit boards and vacuum tubes. “Something is interfering, but people are talking.”

“Put it on the speaker box.” Sergeant Franks glanced over at the window.

Tim dropped down. “Oh, shit,” he hissed.

“What?” Vincent asked.

“Private! Get in here,” Franks bellowed.

Tim groaned, his face going white as he and Vincent slowly climbed to their feet and shuffled into the shack.

Commandant Herschel looked horrified to see them, as if they were somehow the cause of whatever was going on. “What are you boys doing here? All cadets are supposed to be in their quarters.” He just shook his head, confounded.

Franks just looked them over, squinted, then turned back to Lucas at the radio. “Come on, let’s hear it, Highspeed.”

Lucas pulled off his headphones and flipped a switch. The room filled with a piercing screech. Vincent and Tim covered their ears. The Commandant nearly fell out of his chair.

“Uh … sorry, I—uh, here we go.” Lucas turned some knobs and the screech faded and voices could be heard.

“… down at the following coordinates …nine, six … delta six …” The screeching drowned out the voice, and then another voice broke in.

“Please send help, we’re down at the Maculroy farm. There are about a dozen—” Then the sound of screaming in the background, then just the hiss of static and the screeching sound.

The Commandant rose to his feet. “You boys have to go back to your quarters this instant. You shouldn’t be here.”

Sergeant Franks shook his head. “You want them spreading this around the barracks?”

“… I spot three of them coming down the railroad tracks leading out of Cedarville,” a man’s voice broke through the static.

“Are they the big ones or the little ones?” another voice answered.

Sergeant Franks leaned over the radio.

“I think they’re the big ones, they’re silver. Oh, shit, I’m too close!”

And then static.

Another voice came through that sent chills up Tim’s spine. “Hello?” A young child, a girl? “Hello? Is there any police listening? My dad is hurt. Can you send an abulence, please?”

“Shit.” Vincent gasped.

Franks grabbed the headset from Lucas and held it to his ear, adjusting the microphone to his mouth. “Hey there, darling. Can you tell me where you are?”

“I’m … in the garage.”

“Who hurt your daddy?”

The voice just started crying.

Franks swallowed hard. “It’s going to be okay, darling. What’s your name?”

“My daddy is a colonel, he’s hurt. Can you—?” A piercing scream came from the radio, then static.

Franks handed the radio back to Lucas and turned to the Commandant. “A colonel? That could be on the base.”

The Commandant just rubbed his temples and mumbled to himself.

“We’ve got to get a squad together and scout this thing out,” Franks said.

That brought the Commandant out of his stupor. “What? No, we have procedures. We’ll have order, and we’ll get this situation back under control.” He lifted himself from his chair and straightened his rumpled uniform.

“Control? Procedure? We don’t have a clue what we’re dealing with, what procedure? Just let me take—“

“Sergeant, that’s enough. You’ll do your duty and guard this post.” He turned to Vincent. “Private, find me a senior cadet, tell him to assemble the entire battalion in the quad, immediately.”

Vincent looked over at Sergeant Franks who bit his lip and then gave a slight nod. “Yes, sir,” Vincent said, then he and Tim jogged out.

The ground shook several more times with explosions, each increasing in intensity, before the cadets and instructors finished forming up in the quad. Though the sky itself remained clear, the smell of smoke drifted on the wind, making Tim wonder why he couldn’t see but a few plumes in the distance. What the hell was going on?

The commandant stood stiffly before them, eyes as intense as Tim had ever seen them, panning the faces, choosing his words. When he finally spoke, every word seemed intentional. “I know you all are concerned about what appears to be transpiring beyond these walls, men. I’m concerned, too.” He looked at the other instructors, standing at attention to his left. “We all are.” He swallowed before continuing, “But it is times like these when we must be most dedicated to our responsibilities, our duties as both soldiers and men. And our duty is to guard this post at all costs. Whatever comes. This is our sacred ground; our home. And we will defend it with our lives if necessary.”

At the mention of their lives, several cadets’ faces fell and they shifted uncomfortably. Others managed to maintain composure. But the commandant took notice.

“I know. It is daunting to think about. But we don’t know for sure what is happening. Our safest place is here. We are not about to leave this post on some foolhardy quest. The town is not our responsibility, this academy is. And so, my orders to you all are to man your posts and guard this ground. Until further notice, expect no change. Am I understood?”

Tim struggled to process the orders. Was he ordering them to be cowards? To hide here and forget any duty to serve? This commandant did not seem like the legendary retired officer he’d been in awe of the day he arrived at St. Peters. Tim’s knees felt weak, his pulse pounding, even as his stomach jittered and he struggled to remain standing at attention. And the little girl’s voice replayed over and over in his mind: “My daddy is a colonel, he’s hurt. My daddy is a colonel, he’s hurt.”

Again the commandant panned the faces of everyone assembled around him—one by one, to a man.

Finally, a few cadets shifted. One or two cleared their throats. Others shushed them, including the few upperclassmen of rank remaining among them.

“You may speak freely,” the commandant said then.

“Sir, we have all heard the radio,” Vincent said. “People may be hurt, in need of help. Don’t we have a responsibility—”

“To whom? We are not the National Guard, we are an educational institution,” the commandant replied. “None of you are active duty.”

“But what about our duty to protect the public?” Tim asked as Vincent seemed to shrink under their leader’s intensity. Again, he heard the little girl’s words: “My daddy is a colonel, he’s hurt.” She was just an innocent young child, for God’s sake. How many more were there out there like her? He might be the poor farm boy but his daddy hadn’t raised him to run or cower when people were in trouble, especially children. He had doubts whether he had what it took to be a soldier, but there was no doubt about that.

The commandant’s eyes locked on his. “That is a sacred duty of the armed forces of this great country. Forces in which many of your faculty and myself have served. But you have not. And you will not until you graduate and take that oath.”

“But Commandant,” Franks said from the commandant’s left.

The commandant stiffened and glared at him. “Our duty and responsibility are to protect our students, ourselves, and this property in that order.” He glared at Franks for emphasis.

“We are willing to fight,” Lucas said boldly.

“Yes!” Several other cadets agreed.

“We have weapons, equipment—” Franks added, eyes doubting their leader for the first time in full view of the cadets.

“NO!”

They all stiffened. Tim couldn’t remember the last time the commandant had yelled at them, especially with faculty present. And then the words just burst out of him, “But what about that little girl, sir?!” For a moment, Tim didn’t dare to breathe as the commandant’s eyes slowly rotated in his direction, finally locking on his. Tim waited, cringing for the onslaught. But none came.

Instead of losing his cool again, the commandant recovered and tried to conceal it, saying, “My orders remain the same. We cannot do any more without further information. I have duties myself to your parents, the board…” His voice trailed off as he panned their faces again, waiting for more outbursts.

No one said a word.

“Then you have your orders, men,” he said firmly. “Get to it!” He saluted them and said, “Dissssmisssed!” Then he nodded to the instructors, turned, and marched back toward his office.

“Squads one and two report to the armory,” Franks ordered.

“Squads three and four, come with me to supply, for sandbags,” instructed Major Ashgrove, the history instructor. “We have emplacements to build.”

As other faculty and ranked cadets called out further orders, the assembly broke up, with everyone scrambling to obey them as fast as they could.

My daddy is a colonel, he’s hurt. Tim heard again and again as he ran.

***

More explosions rocked the armory as Vincent and Tim stood in line outside. The boys huddled for a second as dust from the concrete ceiling showered down on them.

“All right, keep moving.” The armorer, Garton, an elderly retired marine gunnery sergeant read off serial numbers as he handed M16s to the boys. “Four magazines each, that’s it. Keep moving.”

Vincent pulled back the charging handle on his weapon, inspected the barrel and slapped a magazine into his weapon. The muscle memory action helped calm him. He slung the weapon over his shoulder.

Tim was doing the same to his weapon when Sergeant Franks shouldered his way through the line of boys. “Hey, Gunny, give me a prick-77, some extra batteries, and the M21.”

“You’re not going out there, are you Franks?” The older man squinted at Franks.

“We’ve got to get eyes out there. I’m still a soldier last time I checked.”

Garton grunted and handed Franks the heavy backpack radio and the sniper rifle along with a bandoleer of ammo and another heavy pack. “You might need some boom if things get hairy.”

“Thanks, Gunny.” Franks turned and saw Vincent and Tim. “You boys make sure somebody is on that radio no matter what, understand?”

“We could go with you,” Tim said.

Franks turned back and grabbed an M16, motioning to Garton, who handed him more ammo. “Just make sure that radio is turned up and tuned in, you got that, Highspeed? I’ll be back in two shakes.” He clipped on the manpack radio and slung the weapons over his shoulders and loped off down the corridor leading to the motor pool.

Vincent and Tim double-timed back out to the quad. A group of cadets shoveled dirt into sandbags, two older boys were digging a shallow trench in front of the now-closed iron gate.

Seymour waved them over to a human chain of cadets slapping sandbags down against the iron gate. “You two get in here.” Gone were both the scowl and his attitude. He barely seemed to register who they were.

The roar of an engine interrupted him. The olive-drab, ragtop jeep tore across the quad toward the front gate. “Open the gate!” Franks yelled from the driver’s seat.

Tim loped over to the gate, threw up the iron bar that latched it and swung it open. The two boys digging jumped out of the way as Franks drove through the gate.

The commandant came running out of the CQ shack. “Franks! Get your ass back here! Franks!” But the jeep was long gone. The commandant looked around, then gained his composure. “Men, we have a job to do, no matter what. You’re trained for this, and you will perform your duties like true soldiers. Soldier on, cadets.”

Vincent looked around; no one said anything. Everyone looked scared, uncertain. He breathed in deep and yelled a hoarse “Hooah!”

The other boys joined in, some fists clenched, hearty nods, and a chorus of “Hooahs!” Even Seymour bobbed his head, his brow furrowed. “Hooah.”

Tim grabbed a sandbag in each hand and jogged over, slamming it onto the other bags in the makeshift barricade. In moments, Vincent and the others had joined him.

The radio squawked. The Commandant ducked back into the CQ shack, ordering Lucas to move the radios to his office, as the cadets continued feverishly worked on fortifying their little fortress.

Tim and Vincent had been on duty near the front gate for what seemed like forever. But when Tim checked his watch it read: 1400. Three hours. And the last hour had been silent except for the occasional sound of the commandant’s voice over the manpack radio Tim wore on his back, hailing Franks.

Franks gave no answer.

The smoke had gotten thicker, and occasionally they’d seen flames in the distance, heard crunching, creaking, even tearing of metal as structures collapsed. But they’d still gotten no sign of what was out there. It was too quiet. The soldier in Tim stayed at his post, ready, weapon tightly gripped, while the boy in him grew weak in the knees, images of impending doom flashing through his mind as he fought the urge to run.

Then a humming sound came from the distance.

“You hear that?” Vincent asked.

Tim nodded. “Sounds like a car.”

They both squinted, looking through the gate toward the distance as the humming grew louder. Then it was joined by yelling—someone cursing followed by machine gun fire.

“You sons of bitches!” a scream finally echoed through the smoke.

“That sounds like Franks,” Vincent said.

Tim thought so, too.

“Fuck you!” another yell then more gunfire as an engine gunned and tires clacked on pavement. Then the jeep appeared, racing toward them, accelerating. But there was no sign of Franks.

“What the fuck?” Tim said aloud, speaking his thoughts. Then he stiffened as he realized the jeep wasn’t going to stop and grabbed Vincent’s shoulder. “Come on!”

They ran together, away from the gate.

With a loud crash, engine revving to a squeal, tires thumping faster and faster, then metal crunching and tearing against metal, the jeep crashed into the gate and stopped—bending the gate even as the wheels kept turning.

“Sergeant Franks?” Tim yelled as they ran toward it.

When they got there, they froze, Tim’s jaw clenching as Vincent made choking sounds then turned, moaning, and began retching into the grass. Tim’s eyes turned spotty as he stared at what was left of Franks behind the wheel of the jeep, hands locked on the steering wheel, the upper part of his body ripped off jaggedly, almost as if a giant shark or something had grabbed hold and torn it off. Bloody flesh, bone, ripped clothes. What had happened to him?

Running footsteps approached and then Seymour, and two other cadets—McGoran and Alten—were there.

“Jesus Christ!” Alten said as the others gasped. Vincent was gasping for air now as Seymour turned and wretched beside him.

“What the fuck is that?” McGoran asked.

“Franks,” Tim choked out, body tense, his voice shrill.

Seymour scowled, lips and chin trembling. “How-how do you know?”

“We heard him yelling, shooting,” Vincent said and spat bile out of his mouth as he made a disgusted face.

“Holy shit!” Alten yelled and they all looked up to see three giant, ten-legged, spider-like beings approaching, the ground vibrating with every synchronized step they took toward the academy.

“What are they?” McGoran said.

Seymour’s body shook as he looked, losing all semblance of rank. “We have to get outta here.” Their squad leader was totally falling apart.

“Commandant gave orders,” Tim reminded him.

“Screw that! I don’t wanna die!” It was almost a shriek, then Seymour turned and left them, fleeing faster than Tim had ever seen him run, every breath a labored gasp.

Someone had to lead them. Tim stood taller, shoulders stiffening. “Weapons ready!” he ordered, and the remaining five cadets took up positions at the fence, M16s aimed toward the approaching creatures.

“Hold for my signal,” Tim said. “Commandant!” he called into the radio handset hanging from his shoulder. “At the fence!”

“Say again, soldier?” The commandant’s voice came back.

“We have contact,” Tim repeated.

“Contact with what?” the commandant demanded. “Contact with the enemy?”

“Yes, sir,” Tim said, whispering now as if the creatures might understand. He didn’t know what to think. “Request reinforcements.”

“How many, soldier?”

“Everyone,” Tim said, the creatures looming over them now, two yards or less from the fence.

“Say again?”

“Tim!” Vincent yelled.

“Open fire!” Tim ordered and the others did, letting loose barrages from their M16s at the creatures, the streams of bullets seemingly having no effect.

“Send everyone, now!” Tim yelled into the radio and then he began firing too, the noise of his weapon drowning out any response over the radio.

But the creatures just kept coming.

They were at least twenty feet tall with a silver, round, pod-like body rising above the spindly legs. They bobbed slowly up and down as they moved, as if swooping toward the boys, and emitted high-pitched screeches.

Tim paused for a second and aimed carefully at the body of the nearest creature. His rounds struck the target, and he thought he saw some flashes that looked like sparks. The creature didn’t seem to notice.

Tim heard yelling from off to his right. A squad of reinforcements was running along the wall from one of the other emplacements. They saw the creature looming over the gate and opened fire themselves. Tim noticed a flinch of a leg as a round ricocheted off one of its legs.

“Come on, boys!” The reinforcements were led by one of the cadre, Major Ashgrove, their military history teacher. “Focus fire on—” A spindly leg stepped over the wall, lightning quick, skewering him through his skull, straight through his torso. The rest of the monster emerged over the wall just over the reinforcements. The boys screamed and broke rank, scattering. Ashgrove’s body stayed impaled on the creature’s leg as it crawled into the compound.

Tim looked over at Vincent, who said, “We’ve got to fall back.” The creatures’ height made the fortification of the wall meaningless.

Tim nodded and yelled. “Fall back! Everyone back to The Keep!”

Tim saw the pack that Sergeant Franks had taken lying on the ground next to the jeep with an M21. He crawled over and reached for it. A spear of a leg whipped down toward him. He felt an agonizing pain, like a sledgehammer on his back, knocking him to the ground.

“Tim!” Vincent screamed.

Tim tried to move and found that he could. The spider raised its leg, and Tim was pulled up in the air by the straps on his shoulder. The radio! It must have deflected the blow, and he was now caught. He jerked and thrashed, tearing the backpack free from the leg, and fell to the ground. He scrambled against the jeep. The creature moved on, inside the compound, kicking the gate aside like a piece of trash in its way.

He reached for the pack, slinging it over his shoulder, and dropped down to slide under the jeep, grabbing the M21 as he did. He needed cover while he figured out what to do next.

When Vincent saw Tim struck by the spider’s leg, he’d started running toward him, but was knocked to the ground. Lucas lay on top of him as the gate flew over their heads.

“Get off me!” He bucked Lucas off.

“It’s too late.” Lucas grabbed for his BDU top. “We have to fall back.”

Vincent looked out for Tim and saw nothing. The creature was directly over them, its body seemingly hovering. Vincent’s survival instincts kicked in. He and Lucas stood up and bolted back across the parade field toward The Keep.

The spiders had seemed almost lumbering, but as the boys scattered, the spiders lowered their bodies, bending their legs at what seemed like a dozen joints and started racing across the field.

The earth shook as the spiders’ legs pistoned into the ground. It sounded like locomotives passing behind Vincent. He turned his head to look back. Two of the boys who had run up to help had been run they wer e flies being swatted.

“Come on!” Alten stood at the main doors to The Keep, firing back at the monsters. Vincent and Lucas were only a few yards away when a whistle and a blur whizzed past Vincent. Alten spasmed, a bright red spurt of blood fountaining out of his chest. He fell to his knees, and his body dragged toward Vincent.

Vincent ran up to him, grabbing for him. Alten was still alive and making gurgling whoofing sounds as he slid across the ground on his knees. Vincent held on and started being dragged, too. Then, Vincent saw the blood from his chest form a straight line out in the direction he was moving. The blood was dripping down a transparent wire. Vincent reached for the wire and gasped as it slashed his palms. Lucas grabbed onto Alten. Things started crunching and cracking inside Alten’s chest. He fell over and started sliding across the ground faster.

The creature was waving two legs in front of an open orifice in the front of its body. It was reeling him in.

Another spider raced toward them. “Come on.” Vincent grabbed Lucas’s arm and they ran into The Keep. He’d find a way to help Tim, but first they had to regroup.

Tim ruffled through Frank’s pack as he lay under the jeep; he found some satchel charges of C4 and a couple grenades. He peered back out from beneath the jeep and saw the legs of a spider to his right a few yards away, moving toward the academy’s fence. Soon it would just literally step across.

His friends were in trouble. He had to do something.

He hefted the pack of explosives as an idea popped into his head. Explosions rumbled the ground and debris flew as a piece of the fence disintegrated and a spider stepped forward. Without any further thought, Tim rolled out from under the jeep and leapt to his feet, running toward it.

The creature moved slowly enough, as he studied its cadence. Using a sleeve to wipe sweat and mud from his face, Tim bolted through the hole in the fence and dodged a yard ahead of the creature. He ignited the fuse and slung a satchel charge near where one of its feet should land. Twisting fuses as he ran zig-zagging across the field, dodging spider legs, he flung satchel after satchel in the spider’s path.

He stumbled as laser fire from the creature burned the ground near his feet.

Shit. That was too close.

He dodged back toward the spider, getting out of range of its lasers in its own shadow, and then waited as it moved forward, painfully aware of the fuses burning down in the explosives all around him.

Then the spider took a step forward, and another, and another. Ten legs, ten steps. And it should reach the mines with a step or two more forward. Tim turned and ran back behind it, headed the opposite way—all the while praying his training hadn’t failed.

As soon as he got back to the fence, he dove down behind one of the stone pillars, lying flat on the ground and pulling the M21 off his shoulder.

The creature raised a spindly leg and stepped, setting its foot right down on one of the explosives. The satchel charge exploded, destroying that leg. The creature wobbled and let out a high-pitched shrieking noise, but kept moving. Then another charge went off near another leg, and then the next.

Down three legs, it was wobbly but could still walk. Two more charges lay on the ground, unexploded. In his rush, he must have failed to ignite the fuses properly.

Tim realized he had to set them off with the rifle. Fuck. He wasn’t a bad sniper, but with sweat stinging his eyes and his adrenaline rush…. He wiped his eyes again with the swipe of a uniform sleeve, then aimed the rifle, lining up the shot.

Just as the creature’s leg went down near another charge, he fired twice. The first rounds tore up dirt near the canvas satchel, but the second hit it and it exploded, along with the creature’s leg. He fired again, exploding the last charge. The creature screamed louder, then started careening forward toward the ground.

Tim felt like John McClane in the previous holiday season’s big movie hit, Die Hard. “Yippee kayay, motherfucker!” he yelled then sprung to his feet, slinging the M21 over his shoulder and digging in the bag for a grenade as he ran.

Laser fire tore up the ground behind him as he turned to see another spider responding to its companion’s screams, but Tim’s boots kept pounding the grass, and he stayed ahead of its aim.

Reaching the fallen creature, he examined its body as several legs wriggled, and ran around to where the damaged legs were, so he could avoid being kicked. The body looked metal, but it had some kind of creases—places it appeared where perhaps armor pieces had been put together. The laser fire from the other creature had halted, perhaps for fear of hitting its companion. Tim had one chance, so he ran forward, drawing his knife, and jammed the blade as hard as he could into one of the creases, then twisted it.

The creature screamed with agony and kicked more. When he’d created a hole big enough, Tim pulled the grenade’s pin and jammed it inside, then turned and ran away as fast as he could, diving behind a large oak just as the wounded creature exploded with a final scream.

Tim stared in awe at the carcass that remained, unmoving, some kind of gooey, greenish blood and pulp raining down around it from the explosion.

The creatures could be killed. He’d found a way to take them out. He had to find the others.

He heard yelling from The Keep and glanced over, then remembered Vincent yelling for everyone to go “to The Keep.” Reaching for the radio pack, he said a prayer and keyed the mic.

Inside The Keep, Vincent, a dozen other cadets, and a couple cadre members had barricaded the two oak doors in the front of The Keep. Vincent and Lucas wrestled a marble statue of Civil War General William Tecumseh Sherman against the door.

“That won’t hold them long.” Vincent gripped his M16. The foyer of The Keep was a wide, marble-floored room. The way creatures crouched down, they might be able to maneuver in there if they broke through the door. But maybe not in the tighter halls of the inner building.

“We should fall back into the building. Maybe that will slow them down,” one of the cadre suggested, echoing his thought.

The door shook as something cracked against it. A sound, like metal grating on stone, moved from the door across the front wall of The Keep. Then a spider-like leg exploded through one of the high barred windows. Cadets screamed and scrambled back. The leg thrashed, grabbing at the stone wall.

“Back! Farther back!” Vincent yelled. He and the others retreated up the large staircase leading back into the building.

The arm retracted, and pounding on the door resumed. The wood visibly started to give way, splintering, until, with a final crack, a leg broke through. It tore at the splintered door, and the spider’s body started pushing through the opening.

Vincent kept running up the stairs, then felt a stab of pain in his left calf, and his leg flew out from under him. He started sliding back down the stairs, dragged by his leg. He flailed around onto his back.

The spider’s body was an open maw, black, gooey, spinnerets pulsed as the creature used its front legs to pull him toward it. Hands grabbed for him. He heard the chatter of M16 fire behind him and saw the creature flinch as rounds impacted. An explosion of pain in his hip and knee joints happened as the spider yanked. He grabbed for his knife, pulling it from the sheathe and slashing at the nearly invisible wire. His knife sparked off it as he tried to saw through it. The boys trying to hold him back started tumbling down the stairs as they were all dragged down.

Vincent gritted his teeth. “AAAAH!” He drove the point of his knife into his calf, digging at the barb deep in his flesh. He felt things tearing as he drove the knife deeper. With a sickening pop, the barb pulled out of his leg. The creature fell backward and screeched, then shoved its body against the barricade, working its way through the debris.

“Come on!” Lucas threw Vincent’s arm up over his shoulder, pulling him to his feet. Vincent struggled up the steps, aware of blood flowing freely from his torn leg.

And then the spider was through. It seemed to make a show of smashing the last of the debris to either side. It stalked forward as the boys ran. Then, a quick succession of explosions, not distant like the others. These came from directly outside. The spider wheeled about, and scurried back through the broken doorway.

The cadets retreated up the stairs and into the hallways of The Keep.

“Put me down.” Vincent pulled his arm free of Lucas and stumbled to the floor.

“A tourniquet—that’s what we need, like a tourniquet.” Lucas knelt at his side.

Vincent just tapped his med kit on his ALICE gear. Lucas pulled out the tourniquet and bound up the leg.

“The Commandant’s office, right?” McGoran asked no one in particular.

“Yeah, he’s got the radio. And it has roof access, so we won’t be trapped.” Vincent took out his canteen. For some reason, his thirst was more painful than his leg. Then, McGoran and Lucas helped him to his feet and they pressed on.

Another nearby explosion rocked The Keep. Reinforcements? Commandant Herschel was standing at the window in his office, one hand holding the radio mic, the other a 1911 pistol. A voice crackled over the radio.

“Yes. I say again, their legs are vulnerable, and they have literal chinks in their armor. I killed the slow one.”

“Tim? Is that Tim?” Vincent called out.

The Commandant seemed puzzled. “Can you put Sergeant Franks on?”

“He’s dead.” Vincent staggered into the office. “So are Major Ashgrove, and Alten, and …”

The radio crackled, “I’m coming up the east side of The Keep. I still have some explosives, but one is right on me!” Tim sounded like he was running.

Commandant Herschel handed the microphone to an exhausted Lucas. “See if you can make anything of this, Private. This cadet isn’t making any sense.” He was clearly in a state of shock. Lucas accepted the radio and looked at Vincent, equally unsure.

From outside the window came the thumping of a running spider. Vincent limped over to the window. He saw Tim running full tilt along the side of the Keep, holding a rifle and a backpack. Fifty yards behind him a spider scurried after him.

“Tim!” Vincent yelled and shoved his M16 through the glass. He opened fire on the spider. It turned its body slightly, but didn’t seem to slow down. Instead, a laser shot out from the body toward Tim, missing him by feet, blasting a hole in the rear stone wall.

“Lasers? Really?” There was no way they were going to stop these creatures.

“Guys—where is the other one?” Lucas peered out the window.

A slow, dragging screech filled the hallway outside the room. The Commandant walked over to the door and looked out. His face went white and he raised his 1911. Then his head disappeared in a blinding flash of red. The scent of burned flesh immediately filled the air. The Commandant’s body fell to its knees, firing the 1911 blindly.

Then the spider dragged its way to the office door. Two legs slid inside, then two more, grasping out at the floor, trying to pull its body through the narrow door.

“Fuck you!” Vincent screamed and raised his rifle. Ignoring the pain in his leg, he advanced. He squeezed the trigger, short controlled bursts, hitting the thing dead center. The legs flailed for him, just out of reach. The orifice opened, and Vincent twisted to one side as the creature spat a barb at him, missing him by inches. He took aim at the open orifice and squeezed the trigger. Dark green goo squirted out as the rounds impacted; pieces of spinneret flew apart. The creature screeched and lunged hard against the door frame, cracking it. Its legs stabbed into the granite floor for purchase.

“The legs! Go for the legs!” Tim yelled over the radio.

“The legs!” Vincent realized and the cadets reacted by unleashing rounds on the legs. They concentrated fire at close range and damaged the legs. Joints buckled, and one leg broke loose from the body, writhing on the ground.

McGoran was too close, and the writhing appendage whipped at his legs, severing them at the knees. “AAAARRGH!”

Vincent kept moving forward. He saw a glow from inside the orifice and aimed directly for it. His rounds struck the glow just as the spider unleashed a laser torrent. The beam went wide, slicing part of its own body and three of the legs. The spider gurgled and slumped.

Vincent roared and charged forward, shoving his rifle into the creature’s maw, holding the trigger down, emptying his magazine into the beast. Still it struggled.

Vincent saw the chink in the underside of the body. He dropped down and pulled his knife free, stabbing into the body, prying it apart.

“Come on!” Lucas yelled and stuck his rifle into that opening. Other cadets joined him, unleashing a deafening barrage of bullets directly into the monster. It spasmed, then slumped, green goo pouring freely from the opening.

Vincent slumped to the floor, dropping his empty M16.

“Guys these things can climb. You better have something ready,” Tim called over the radio.

Lucas ran over to the window. “Uh—guys—they’re coming up here.”

Vincent struggled to his feet, his leg throbbing numbly. Outside he heard a clank clank clank. Tim was clambering up the escape ladder on the side of The Keep, and the last spider was following him, slamming its legs directly into the stone wall.

“Come on, if you’ve got ammo left, we’ve got to help him.” Lucas crawled out of the window onto the escape ladder and climbed up to the roof. Four other boys still had ammo. They followed and started shooting down at the spider.

“Be careful!” Bullets whizzed past Tim’s head. But the spider was much faster than Tim. It was almost on him. Vincent watched helplessly.

Tim fumbled with something in his bag. A hand grenade. He popped the pin and released the spoon and dropped it down onto the spider. It exploded against the creature’s body, knocking it to a side. It gave Tim a chance to reach the window.

“Hey, roomie.” Tim panted as he reached up to hand Vincent the pack through the window.

“Man, it’s good to see you, buddy.” Vincent pulled the pack through the window. He reached out a hand, grabbing for Tim’s wrist. But the ladder lurched, breaking free from the stone masonry, and Tim’s hand slipped free. The spider had ripped the ladder off the wall. Tim grasped the ladder as it bent, pulling away from the wall, lowering slowly toward the spider.

“Tim!” Vincent reached out the window, but Tim was much too low, clinging on for dear life. He reached for his rifle, but remembered he had no ammo. He opened the pack Tim had handed him. A satchel charge. He primed it and ignited the timed fuse. He took a deep breath and pulled himself through the window. He fell past Tim landing with a thud on the spider’s body. The maw opened and he could feel the wet stickiness of its insides. It screeched and tried to shake him off. He held on with one hand, and, with the other, shoved the satchel into the maw. With his good leg, he stomped the charge into the opening.

“Hooah!” The charge exploded.

Tim watched his best friend explode with the spider, the percussion of the blast throwing him back into the room on his ass, as his voice rose and rose in a scream of protest. “Noooooo!” It couldn’t be Vincent. Vincent was the strong one. Tim was the screw up. Vincent was legacy. “Vincent!”

Then Lucas was shaking him. “Tim!”

“Son of bitch! I can’t—”  Tim fought to breathe.

“We have to get up and go out there,” Lucas said. “Make sure there’s not any more.”

He was right and Tim knew it, but he had to take deep breaths and gather himself while it sank in. His chest was so tight, he could barely breathe, but after a few seconds began to relax.

To their right, Seymour appeared, straightening his hair and uniform and assuming his arrogant command look. “Soldiers! On your feet! We have duties!”

“Are you kidding me?” Tim said, as Lucas helped him to his feet.

“Did I stutter, farm boy?” Seymour said, getting in his face.

Tim stepped forward so they were chest to chest, glaring, even as tears for Vincent flowed down his face. “Fuck you, Seymour. You lost any sense of rank when you were cowering in the corner while a legacy and a farm boy led your men!”

“I never cowered!” Seymour protested.

“We all saw you!” Tim said. “So get your gear and come with us. Our friends and teachers gave their lives for us, but there may be more of those things out there, and we’re not done ’til they are.”

Seymour shrunk back, looking both surprised and shamed at the power of the strong leader standing before him. This wasn’t a farm boy anymore, and certainly no coward. And the eyes of the other cadets assured him they’d follow Tim, not Seymour, and he had better get in line.

He remained silent as Tim watched him a moment, then Tim used a sleeve to wipe the tears from his cheeks. “Cadets! Weapons and ammo! We leave in five! Form up downstairs!”

As the other cadets shouted in affirmation then scrambled off to obey, Tim stood at attention, staring down Seymour, who quickly melted and fell in with the others. This was for Vincent. For Alten. For McGoran. For Franks. He would die before he let them down, before he let any of them do that.

After a few moments of their faces flashing through his head, Tim turned, gathered his weapon and any spare ammo he could find and headed for the stairs. As he reached the top and looked down at the gathered cadets waiting below, he raised his head angrily and said, “This is for Vincent!”

“For Vincent!” They all shouted back.

And then he was marching down the stairs and leading them out into the smoke and debris of the academy that had once been their home. Whatever was left out there, they’d face it bravely. They had a duty to perform. And for the first time in his life, Tim knew for sure he had what it took to take it on.

_______________

Bryan Thomas Schmidt is a Hugo-nominated editor and the national bestselling author of numerous novels and short stories including The Saga of Davi Rhii space opera trilogy and The John Simon Thrillers. His latest Novel, Common Source (John Simon Thrillers 3) released in early June 2020 (see our review in this issue of A&A – Ed.) , and his next novel, the near-future hard science fiction thriller Shortcut will be out this Fall. Shortcut has been optioned for film by Roserock Films. His debut novel, The Worker Prince received Honorable Mention on Barnes and Noble’s Year’s Best Science Fiction of 2011. He is also a screenwriter, songwriter, and musician and lives in Ottawa, KS with his beloved dogs and cats. He can be found online at www.bryanthomasschmidt.net.

Jonathan Miller is an Army veteran who lives with his wife outside of Atlanta. This is his first paid writing gig. He started writing war stories for collegiate magazines and won a few awards for his fiction and nonfiction. His day job is at an aquarium. His night job is editing books for an indie press. He still listens to Sugar Ray.

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