Hide And Seek
South of Huron, South Dakota
Thursday November 15, 1951
The snow-clad hill didn’t look like much, but the granite that lay just a few feet below the topsoil had been strong enough to hold its own against a retreating glacier thousands of years before, and was likely to be there for millennia to come. But to the men hidden on top of the snowy rise, the hill’s durability was less significant than the vantage point it provided–their current position enabling them to watch enemy troop movements, and, God willing, ably defend themselves if attacked.
The current temperature was at least ten degrees lower than normal, a grim reminder of the ever-growing Chimeran threat now facing humanity. The alien race had somehow altered Earth’s atmosphere, and now Lieutenant Nathan Hale’s breath fogged the air as he lay on his belly, training a pair of binoculars on the highway below. He wore a winter white parka and matching pants over a wool uniform and thermal underwear, and despite all this he was still
Hale ignored his discomfort as he studied the scene in front of him.
He remembered with longing the white ribbon of road as the one that he and his family had traveled each year on their way to the South Dakota State Fair in Huron. Even though he’d been back in the United States for months, Hale hadn’t been allowed to contact his foster parents or his sister. Had they fled south into Nebraska, or remained on the ranch? Three generations of his family had weathered the elements, the economy, and the land itself, but the invasion would be too much, even for them.
If still on the ranch they were in terrible danger. Having conquered most of Asia and Europe, the Chimera had now turned their attentions to North America. Chicago had fallen to the invaders in October, quickly followed by important strategic locations in Wisconsin and North Dakota. Now, as the enemy continued to move south, the Army and the Marine Corps had been forced to pull back into an ever shrinking “Fortress America.”
As Hale peered through a thin veil of steadily falling snow he knew that a ring of defense towers were being built to the south, constructed with the goal of blocking the Chimeran advance. But would they be enough? Hale had his doubts. He’d been a member of the ill-fated 3rd Ranger Regiment, and had seen first hand the atrocities that had happened in England. No matter how many defense towers the government put up, the Chimera would keep coming.
Hale’s thoughts were interrupted by Sergeant Marvin Kawecki. “We have company, sir…. Ten o’clock.”
Kawecki was directly to Hale’s left, his right eye at the scope of a L23 Fareye 10X. Particles of dry snow continued to accumulate on the back of his parka. As Hale put the binoculars up to his face and panned to the left, three Chimeran drones emerged from the veil of snow, flying roughly six feet off the ground. The drones darted about like hunting dogs in search of a scent.
Even though most of the civilian population had fled south, Hale knew that non-military resistance groups like Freedom First continued to operate behind Chimeran lines, where they had met with some success. The arrival of the drones told Hale that the stinks were concerned about the possibility of an ambush.
The presence of Chimera on Highway 281 was exactly the sort of Intel that Hale, Kawecki, and Private Jim Jasper had been ordered to gather.
Hale felt his stomach muscles tighten as one of the drones left the edge of the road and came straight at him. Flying about four feet off the ground, it seemed determined to reach the top of the hill, snow sleeting down through the beam of light that swept the area in front of it. Had their cover been blown?
“I have it.” Kawecki’s voice sounded tight. “Just say the word.”
Hale didn’t want
to say the word, because if Kawecki brought the drone down, all hell would break loose. The team was three miles inside the gray zone, and escape would be risky enough already. But as the construct continued up the hill towards their position, there seemed to be very little choice.
Hale had already opened his mouth to give the order when a white-tailed jack rabbit broke from cover, bringing the drone to an abrupt stop. The unlucky animal hadn’t traveled more than ten feet before a single shot rang out and the rabbit tumbled head-over-heels through the air, coming to rest at the bottom of the hill.
The Chimeran scout hovered menacingly for a moment, then pivoted towards the road and followed the slope back downhill. Hale released his breath, surprised to learn that he’d been holding it. “Jasper,” he said softly. “How’s the back door? We may need to pull out soon.”
Jasper was lying in the prone position five feet behind the other two men. He was facing west, his M5A2 Folsom Carbine at the ready, providing security for Hale and Kawecki. “The back door’s wide open, sir,” Jasper replied. “We’re good to go.”
Hale was about to acknowledge the report when he felt the ground tremble beneath his chest. “Holy shit,” Kawecki swore. “What the hell was that
Hale adjusted his glasses as a phalanx of forward-leaning Steelheads emerged from the curtain of swirling snow to his left. But something far worse was right on the creatures’ heels.
The thing was a giant smudge at first, an amorphous mass that could barely be seen through the swirling snow. Moments later, the Mauler came into focus. The beast stood thirty feet tall, each step spanning twenty feet of highway, shaking the very earth as each of its enormous three-toed feet hit the ground. Hale knew the grotesquerie could spew something akin to napalm, as well as corrosive pods that exploded on contact.
Fortunately, the huge pack strapped to the Mauler’s back indicated that the creature was currently being used to transport supplies. The observation gave Hale a brief moment of relief. While a couple of well-placed rounds from a rocket launcher might bring the beast down, the lightly armed recon team wasn’t carrying that kind of firepower.
There was no way to know what was in the packs or where the Chimera were headed. But those were questions for Intel to answer. Two additional Maulers appeared behind the first. Their sloped backs were covered with snow, and jets of lung-warmed air shot out of their nostrils as they followed the first leviathan south.
Hale put the binoculars down to take notes. He was careful to jot down the time, the direction that the Chimera were traveling in, and how many of each form there were. Then, as the last of the stinks disappeared into the white haze, he buttoned the book into his breast pocket.
“Okay,” he said loud enough for both men to hear. “I don’t know about you, but I could use a hot shower, and some of that slop they serve in the mess hall. So let’s get out of here. But remember….those bastards have six eyes–so don’t break the horizon.”
Kawecki had seen lots of action, and knew Hale’s comment was directed at Jasper, who had been in a dust-up or two but was relatively inexperienced for a Sentinel. Most members of the elite combat organization were ex-Army or Marine Corps ground pounders with lots of special ops experience, Hale being an excellent example. But while the serum developed by the Special Research Projects Administration (SRPA) often enabled Sentinels to recover from what would have otherwise been fatal wounds, the bug juice–as some of the men called it–certainly couldn’t counter the effects of a direct hit from a Chimeran mortar. So casualty rates remained high, and newbies like Jasper were increasingly common, and frequently had plenty to learn.
Jasper was fully aware of the fact that the veterans were watching him closely as he elbowed his way forward and slid head first down the slope. Snow came in through his open collar and chilled his skin as he brought his feet around and used them to brake. Reaching the bottom of the incline, Jasper took cover behind a group of snow-capped rocks. A quick look around told him the horizon was clear, and he raised a thumb.
Kawecki descended the hill next, quickly followed by Hale. The team traced their own barely visible footsteps from earlier down into a dry ravine, with Hale on point, Kawecki in the two-slot, and Jasper bringing up the rear. Walking drag was a tough job that required Jasper to pause from time to time in order to eye the trail behind them before running to catch-up.
Though dry in November, the ravine would be half-filled with runoff come spring–if there was another spring. It led Hale to a half-frozen stream. Running water could be seen through holes in the ice, producing a cheerful gurgling
sound, which served as a suitable accompaniment to the crunch, crunch, crunch
made by their boots, and the occasional crackle
of broken ice.
The landing zone was still a good two miles to the south, but Hale knew it would take the pick-up plane time to get there. He triggered his radio. “Bravo-Six to Echo-Three…. Do you read? Over.”
“This is three,” came the immediate reply. “I read you five-by-five.”
“We’re about forty-five minutes out,” Hale responded. “And we’re tired of walking.”
“Say no more,” Echo-Three replied cheerfully. “Marilyn and I are on the way.”
Hale grinned as he jumped from one sheet of ice to the next. Echo-Three’s much-patched VTOL bore a beautifully rendered likeness of a scantily clad Marilyn Monroe on the left side of the fuselage...