The creature is woven from pure nightmare. Rearing up out of the pool, the thing’s head towers twenty feet above us. It resembles nothing so much as some kind of giant centipede crossed with a sea monster, the segmented sections of its body protected by a shiny carapace. Dozens of squirming legs protrude from its sides, each tipped with serrated blades. Near the base of its neck, two enormous tentacles like those of a giant squid flail about. The thing’s head is the size of a small car. Despite this, its open mouth is simply… wrong; too wide, too many shark-like teeth. Its multifaceted eyes stare at us with a keen intelligence and an almost human malevolence. Time stops as I make these observations in the fleeting instant before hell erupts around me.
Sergeant Brown acts instantly, raising his carbine to his shoulder and dropping to a knee in one smooth motion, peppering the creature’s face and neck with sharp, controlled bursts.
“Smitty, put a 203 grenade down that ugly f****r’s throat! Cortines, you have two seconds to get the SAW rocking! Barnes and Cook, alternate your fire and aim for the eyes!” The squad leader’s calm control does the trick. The monster roars again as it is enveloped in a storm of gunfire that goes on for the better part of thirty seconds. At some point I realize I’ve gotten down beside Sergeant Brown and added my own instrument to our deadly symphony. I’m mindless of the sharp hisses passing close by as the cave is filled with deadly ricochets from the solid stone walls. Dust from hundreds of impacts fills the air and through my night vision the beast is lost in a haze of green powder. At last, the weapons run dry and the firing stops. I dive behind a two foot high rock to my right to try and get some kind of cover, slapping a fresh magazine into my rifle. Around me I hear the men of second squad quickly and professionally begin to reload their expended weapons. They are nowhere near fast enough.
To my left, Cortines is struggling to load a drum into his SAW. From out of the haze the creature’s tentacles whip out too quick to follow. One slaps the machine gun out of his hands while the other envelopes his head and neck. His yell is muffled as he briefly struggles to remove the hideous limb from his face before the second tentacle wraps around his waist and yanks him out of sight into the cloud. Now accompanied by wet, ripping sounds, Cortines’ screams grow higher in pitch until they are abruptly cut off.
I can see Sergeant Brown and Barnes a few feet to my right where they have taken cover in a similar position to my own. Barnes jumps to his feet and sprints towards the machine gun lying on the cavern floor.
Brown tries to grab him by the back of his body armor but misses. “Barnes don’t… dammit! Smitty get another grenade ready, that f****r’s still out there! Cook, help me cover that idiot.”
Barnes slides up to the SAW like a runner stealing second and ratchets the new belt into the weapon.
“Barnes, get your a*s back here behind cover NOW!” screams Sergeant Brown.
“Roger, I’m…” without warning the creature roars out of the cloud, its maw snapping shut around Barnes’ head and shoulders. As it lifts him bodily into the air, Barnes squeezes the trigger spastically. With Barnes being jerked around like a rat caught by a terrier, the SAW in his hands spits death at a rate of two hundred bullets a minute. I try to make myself as small as possible behind my rock, fatal hisses and pops sounding all around me. Sergeant Brown grunts as a wayward round catches him in the lower leg. Specialist Smith, raising to a knee to fire his grenade, drops without a sound in a spray of blood. From where I lay sprawled I can see his unmoving form, a dark pool slowly collecting around his head.
The firing finally stops. Looking up, I see the creature has tipped its head back and is using its tentacles to push Barnes’ still body down its gullet, body armor and all, its neck convulsing like a snake swallowing its prey. I realize we need to get out of here, and fast.
Pumped on adrenaline my own body armor feels almost weightless. I roll from behind my rock, hop to my feet and take two steps before diving down next to Sergeant Brown. He’s managed to get his combat tourniquet around his leg but from the blood still pulsing out of the wound its obviously not tight enough.
“We’re tightening this tourniquet, then we are gone, Sergeant.”
“Dammit, sir, leave me. Get Cook outta here. I’m just gonna slow you up with this leg.”
“Not a f*****g chance, Soldier. Now try to hold still, this is going to hurt like hell.”
I grip the two ends of the windless and twist. I hear Brown’s breath catch in his throat beside me and his hand gripping my arm contracts hard enough to leave bruises, but to his credit he doesn’t scream. When I can’t twist any more, I secure the windless and throw his arm over my shoulder. Glancing up at the creature, all that is left of Barnes is from the knees down.
“All right, back up the tunnel, before ugly notices us. Cook! You’ve got rear security. Let’s move!”
We stagger to our feet and begin hobbling back the way we came, away from the horrors of the cavern. Cook trails a short way behind us and throws furtive glances over his shoulder. Sergeant Brown tries to help as much as possible but is severely hampered by his wounded leg and our progress is slow. Far too slow. We’ve made it perhaps two hundred yards when the creature lets out a howl and I hear the unmistakable sounds of its enormous mass exiting the cavern pool. We stumble into the first of the tunnel intersections and my stomach drops when I realize the path is unmarked. Three openings beckon from the far side of the intersection. I set Sergeant Brown to the ground as easily as I can and frantically search for any sign of our previous passage that might suggest which way to take, but find none.
“S**t. Cook, this is a terrible plan, but I’ve got no better ideas. We have to find Sergeant Troy and make sure that somebody gets out of here alive so we can alert higher about this thing. You take the left tunnel, Sergeant Brown and I will take the middle. That gives us a two in three chance of picking the right one. If you find the platoon sergeant, priority is making it out to get reinforcements, then worry about coming back for us, got it?”
“Roger, sir, I won’t let you down.”
“Ok. Get going, fast but careful and quiet.”
Cook takes off down the left fork at a jog. I look over to my wounded charge.
“Looks like it’s just you and me, Sergeant Brown. Let’s make ugly work for the rest of his dinner.” I throw his arm over my shoulder and we again stagger to our feet.
Brown grimaces as we begin to stumble up the middle path. “Unfortunately, sir, I don’t think he’s gonna have to work all that hard.” The man is shaking. Now that his initial rush of adrenaline has worn off, it’s only a matter of time before shock sets in. If I don’t get Sergeant Brown out of here quickly, he’s going to be dead whether the monster finds us or not.
We haven’t gone far when I hear a strange rolling sound, like far off thunder, issuing from back the way we came. It can only be the noise of the creature’s passage. I set Sergeant Brown down behind a slight outcropping of the wall and drop to a knee as the sound gets closer. For all the good it will do I raise my weapon and wait with my finger poised on the trigger. My hands are shaking and I realize how terrified I am. The noise grows until it seems that the thing must be right on top of us. Every moment I expect it’s grotesque maw to appear down the tunnel, ready to devour us whole. Like Barnes.
Abruptly the sound begins to diminish. The monster must have chosen a different fork to pursue us. I struggle to get Sergeant Brown back to his feet again and we continue our slow crawl up the passageway. Each time it’s harder to get him up, and each time he’s able to help me stagger along a little bit less. After perhaps two minutes I hear the unmistakable sound of gunfire issue a few sporadic reports before going silent. The thing must have found Cook. It will surely be coming for us next.
As the last of the echoes from the gunshots die away, Sergeant Brown’s wounded leg buckles and he falls, dragging me to the ground with him. I rest for a brief moment before fighting to my knees and attempting to stand, but I stumble, both of us falling to the ground again. Groaning, Brown struggles to a sitting position, his back against the wall of the tunnel.
“It’s no good, sir. Round musta hit a damn artery. Lucky I made it this far.”
“Well, we’ve got a lot farther to get you, sergeant, so we’d best be going.”
He shakes his head.
“No, sir, I reckon that’s not gonna happen. We both know I’m not making it out of this cave alive either way. And Troy told me about the deal he was gonna make with you before coming in here and made me agree to back him up on it.”
He grips my arm.
“We need you to get out of here, sir. It’s like you told Cook, this thing needs killing at all costs and that’s more important than you, me, or anyone else. You’re the only one who’s seen this thing that even has a shot of making it, and you’re sure as hell the only one that has any kind of chance of convincing higher that it’s real. I went to the commander with this story and he’d have the MPs cart me off for sampling the local drug market.”
“I’ve got my rifle and some grenades. I’ll keep him off you as long as I can, see if I can’t give that sonuvabitch the mother of all indigestion. But you’ve got to make it out, sir. For Barnes and Cook, for Smitty and Cortines. For those local kids. Someone needs to know and we need to stop this godforsaken thing.”
He lets go of my arm and sinks back against the wall for a moment before sitting up and beginning to prepare his weapons. Lining up his grenades and taking out a handful of parachute cord from his pocket he starts to jury rig them so that one solid tug will pull the safety pins from all five grenades. I stand unable to speak, knowing that the man is right but feeling like I need to change that simple fact. There has to be some way I can change it. Not looking at me, my squad leader ties knots and continues to talk. A part of me dimly registers that the rumbling sound has started again, and is getting slowly but steadily louder.
“And one other thing, sir, for me. There’s a letter in the side pouch of my ruck sack. It’s for my ex-wife and the kids just… if you get out could ya make sure they get it? And don’t tell them what happened. Just that I was thinking about them, and that I love them. Even that crazy woman. Tell her I shoulda tried harder.” He pauses for a moment and looks up. “Please.”
My voice hitches. “Yeah. Yeah, absolutely, sergeant.”
He returns to his preparations. “Appreciate it. It’s been a pleasure serving with ya, sir. Now no intended disrespect, but get the f**k outta here.”
I stand there for a long moment, unable to move, unable to speak, able only to look at my friend quietly preparing himself for death. Then, before I can change my mind, before I can truly think about what leaving one of my men says about me as a as a leader, and as a soldier, and as a man, I turn and begin making my way up the tunnel, the rumbling sound echoing and making my head pound in time to my racing pulse. All too soon, an explosion rocks the tunnel behind me, the creature’s roar of rage so loud it threatens to shatter my ear drums.