There was no time for them to mourn. The light quickly retracted from Ryder’s body, reforming itself. It now took on an appearance resembling a ghostly hand. Without hesitation, the blight promptly slithered towards Odour like a snake. Till made an attempt to push Odour away, but the light quickly expanded, swallowing them both.
His skin was subjected to the burning grip of the beaming spectacle. The experience was different from before. The sweet euphoria that had melted his heart earlier beyond measure was not present this time. Instead, there was an excruciating pain like a fire was searing his face and arms. He could literally feel his skin being singed off his bones.
In response, his mouth opened to scream out his agony but his voice was absent – stolen from him. Instead, he felt his lungs consumed in a fiery haze of heated needles jabbing at all angles. He could feel his eyes start to roll back against his will.
From there, a rapid image appeared in his mind and then it dissipated. It was too quick to comprehend, but then it appeared again. Then again for another second, but he was able to see it this time. More flashes came after, each slowly meshing together providing a full distorted picture.
He found himself kneeling in a chamber glowing in the familiar bleachy color he now grew to loathe. He was not alone though. He was surrounded by strange figures. Their forms were dark and obscured by the light, almost teasing an illusion of their presence, but they were there indeed.
Although their faces were empty, he could feel their unseen gazes upon him. It was like they were glaring at him, detesting him. It felt like their raw emotions had taken form. He could literally feel the embodiment of their hate – feeling like talons slowly drag across his skin.
Although no words were spoken by the beings, he could perceive their thoughts within his own. They were reeling his mind with images. He was subjected to horrendous sights – he saw people, many screaming frantically and in agony as metallic instruments penetrated or carved without mercy into their flesh. He saw images of Somalian officials in suits gazing into their own spectacle of lights from orbs above.
There were images of soldiers attacking villages – some transporting children and women into warehouses. Another set revealed a strange metallic case opening up in a claw-like manner – inside were stacks of oddly shaped armaments being taken by soldiers. The images escalated in rate, all the while, the illumination around grew brighter, consuming everything.
Till had lost all notion of anything else around. He could feel his very essence reeling from his form. What was to become of him? Would he now only exist in a vast pool of nothingness, an imprisonment orchestrated by his bright tormentors until his very form ceased to exist? He did not know. Regardless, he was powerless.
Unexpectedly, the white blindness was torn from around him as his sight reverted back to the dark jungles. He found himself on the ground with an arm gripping his shoulder. Upon rendering a confused gaze, he recognized its owner to be Tinsley. The rest of Tinsley was laying over an unconscious Odour. The way they were on the ground suggested he must have tackled them and somehow the notion was enough to release them.
The perpetrating ray of light made a snake-like retract upward until it faded with the orb. At that moment, Till felt a fire erupt within him. He immediately rolled to the side and began vomiting uncontrollably. This notion brought him minor relief. Afterwards, he began to feel the pain surging across his face and arms. It felt as if he had been shoved into an oven and roasted alive.
“Joe, are you alright?” Snow asked running up to him.
Till felt very weak. His eyes shifted over to the grinning face of Tinsley.
“Sorry, Sarge. I couldn’t let them take you too,” he said.
Till returned a feeble smile back, but their celebration was cut short due to the enemy soldiers still firing around their area. Their numbers appeared to have increased and they began to push forward now that their “aerial support” had abandoned them.
Till could barely stand after Snow helped him off the ground.
“We are leaving now!” Snow ordered.
“What about him?” Tinsley gestured to the unconscious Odour.
“Is he alive?” Till asked weakly.
Tinsley gave a quick pulse check. “Yeah, unfortunately.”
“Then bring him. We don’t leave anyone behind.”
Tinsley picked up the man, slinging him over his shoulder. Immediately after, they retreated from the site. Their pursers remained vigilant, trailing them and firing blindly. Till passed out a few times along the way until eventually blacking out for good.
When Till slowly opened his eyes, he found himself lying in a bed. The steady rhythm of a beep was lingering in the background. His eyes traced around the room. It was fairly small, showcasing only a single chair. The walls even the ceiling was a bland white color.
White, he thought. Why did it have to be f*****g white?
He noticed his arms had been heavily bandaged. The tight constriction around his face gave the assumption that it too was in the same predicament.
The door to the room opened, revealing a middle-aged man with thin spectacles and neatly combed hair. He was sporting a white lab coat and held a clipboard in his hand.
“Good afternoon, SFC Till,” he said with a warm smile.
“Afternoon? It’s the middle of the night,” Till managed to cough up.
“Indeed it was when they brought you in. You slept most into the next day, today that is,” the man replied, checking the clipboard at the end of the bed. He began jotting notes onto it.
“Where am I? Who are you?”
He attempted to sit up, but was met with a sharp pain that seemed to pulse everywhere without a clear origin.
“You shouldn’t move,” the man brought up. “Here, try this.”
He pulled out a remote from his pocket and clicked a button. In response, the bed’s higher portion began to rise. About a quarter way up, it halted.
“I’m Dr. Keller and you’re safe,” he finally answered. “We’re at McCarthy-Eisenhower Base.”
Safe? Till thought. Immediately his mind sparked with worry. “Where’s Snow and Tinsley?!”
The doctor held up a hand. “Relax, they’re here as well, recovering just the same.”
He gave off a sigh of relief. “What happened? How did we get here?”
At that moment, the door opened again, this time entering was a man fully dressed in uniform. The man wore a sharp suit, crisp in its edges. His chest was decorated with ribbons and metals that met to his shoulder – the shoulders themselves held three golden stars across them.
He had silky gray hair neatly combed to the side. His beady eyes almost sunk within his wrinkling face. They lightened up as he drew closer.
Till recognized the man. “General Irons. Afternoon, Sir,” he said, issuing a weak salute.
“As you were, son,” the man said in a firm voice. “SFC Till, I understand you and your men went through quite an ordeal out there and I’m glad you were able to return to us safely.”
“Thank you, sir. I’m sorry to say that the mission was a failure.”
“Don’t worry about it,” the General said. “There will be plenty of missions in the future. Right now, I think it’s important you just get your rest.” His face held a false wrinkle smile.
“If you don’t mind me asking, sir? What happened out there?” Till inquired.
“Why, your men, SSG Snow and SSG Tinsley, was it?” the man answered. “They were able to haul you over to a neighboring Kenyan village. The villagers hid you there where it was possible to call in a MEDEVAC. We came as soon as we could.”
“What about Odour?” Till brought up.
“Who?” the General inquired with a confused face.
“There was an unconscious Somalian in our company,” Till clarified. “He was helping us.”
“Oh?” the General replied, rendering a quizzing glance to the doctor.
“Yes, the Somalian I’m afraid did not make it,” the doctor spoke up. “He suffered from massive three-degree burns and severe cerebral trauma. He died an hour after bringing him here. I’m sorry.”
“Yes, that is very tragic,” the General added. “I understand that along with Sierra Five team that we lost two fine soldiers from your team as well.”
Till felt his eyes fall to the bed. He was hoping their deaths had been a part of some twisted nightmare – that they were alright and recovering in another room like the others.
“Well, I’ll let you rest now,” the General said, heading for the door.
“There’s just one more thing, sir.”
He halted, returning a subtle face of irritation.
“What happened out there?” Till asked again.
The elderly eyes of the man squinted hard. “I just told you what happened. What’s the confusion, Sergeant?”
“Not about that, sir. I meant… we saw something out there, something unnatural,” Till started. “Whatever it was, it did something to me, to all of us. And the weapons we saw, they – they weren’t of this world.”
The General’s eyes lit softly before easing into an annoyed look. “Son, I think you should really rest up now.”
“No, sir, I’ve rested enough! Our intel was wrong!” Till barked. “The ‘Extremists’ aren’t the enemies, the Somalian government is! They’re somehow in league with some… some unknown beings, not of this world. I don’t know. Look, I know how this sounds, but you have to believe me, sir!”
“SFC Till, do you have any idea how idiotic you sound right now?” the General replied. His eyes seem to conjoin with his words both cutting deep without remorse. “Would you believe you? I’m going to pretend these crazy accusations are in response to your medications,” he continued. “Hell, you should be more concerned with your condition, son. Then–”
His words abruptly fell flat when he noticed the confused look upon Till’s face.
“You do know of your condition, right?” he inquired. “You didn’t tell him yet?!” he shot at the doctor, startling him.
“I-I was going to, General, before you arrived,” the doctor replied weakly.
“Tell me what?” Till asked, feeling an eerie chill fall down his spine.
The doctor cleared his throat before answering, “I’m sorry, Sergeant but you have cancer.”
Till stared blankly at the man for a moment.
“I have w-what?” he asked, his voice cracking a bit. His eyes remained fixated on the doctor’s.
“Cancer, Sergeant,” the doctor answered solemnly. “Terminal, I’m afraid.”
“I h-have cancer?” Till repeated.
“Yes,” the doctor confirmed again. “In fact, you all do. Although, SSG Snow and SSG Tinsley don’t have it as bad. You, I’m afraid have skin, lung and a large mass in your frontal lobe. Not to mention, you suffered from two-degree burns covering over seventy-five percent of your body.”
The doctor’s words seem to fade into a dull ringing, welcoming a soft numbing in his head. Till slowly let his head fall back into the pillow, closing his eyes. The word “cancer” lingered in his mind, echoing like a void cavern. An unwavering chill began to envelope his body, gradually consuming his form with every passing second.
“Sergeant?” a muffled voice called out. “Sergeant?”
The voice tore Till away from his trance. He immediately opened his eyes, now filled with a fire. The sorrow was draining from him. In its place something else was slowly brewing – anger.
“How long–” he started softly. He bit his lip, rendering a deep breath before continuing. “How long do I have?”
“I’m afraid I don’t know. Could be months, could be weeks. We’ll need your permission, but with it, we can start the chemo-therapy now and hope for the best.”
Hope for the best? That was his f*****g response? Those words never sounded so f*****g empty. So that was it? After everything he had been through – after all the missions, all the encounters where he barely avoided the icy clutches of death, she would have him now – of all things, f*****g cancer.
Till turned to face the General again, but he was gone. The b*****d managed to squeeze-out without another word – no f*****g surprise though.
When Till mentioned the “beings” and the weapons, he recalled the expression of the General. It was the same subtle expression Odour had given before. He wasn’t fooling anyone. The f****r knew what was going on – the amount he knew or for how long was undetermined. There was also the words he spoke earlier – ‘there will be plenty of missions in the future.’
He said them without a second-thought – like dismissing a broken cup, knowing there’s another to replace it. How many lives did it take before he became numb to it all?
Out there, a foreign nation was offering their people to being experimented on in exchange for advanced technology. The American government whether they were involved or not, caught wind of this trade-off. They opted to gain these weapons and God knows what else for themselves. No surprise for the good ole U.S of f*****g A. We never did like to concede to second-place, to being out-classed.
Till and his men were mere pawns in a bigger unseen game. His team was not the first to being used in this game, and they certainly would not be the last. There would be plenty of Hot Shots, plenty of fresh bodies to fill their place, all willing do to their job without asking questions.