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Husband, father, and writer working on a short story project and submitting my novel, The Windsmith, to agents.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Scouts

The quiet stillness of the marshlands was interrupted by the sloshing of marching boots through the thick water. A group of six soldiers in long, heavy gray coats, with black belts and blue trousers were the owners of those boots, and looked just miserable as they slowly made their way through the muck and water. All of them carried rifles at the ready, though one had a sidearm in his holster.

“Why are we out here again, Sarge?” one of the men asked. His face was round, but hard, and had a large wooly beard covering his cheeks. He had lost his army hat, known as a kepi, last week, and had never received another one. He didn’t mind, though. There were boys back at camp that didn’t even have boots.

“Keep it down, Johansson,” a large man with a close cut beard and mustache in the front of the column said to the man that asked the question. He wore the same uniform as the others, kepi included to try and cover his bald head, but his jacket included three yellow chevrons on his sleeve.

“Aw, come on, Sarge,” Johansson said, waiving the bigger man off, “you and I both know ain’t no Yanks out in this swamp. Only thing can hear us is the ‘gators and the birds.”

The man called Sarge brought the group to a halt with a swift hand signal, bringing groans of relief from the other men. He then turned and marched to the back of the line to look Johansson in the eye.

“Now you listen here, boy,” he said through gritted teeth, jutting a finger straight into the other man’s chest. “We are but a few miles away from Baton Rouge, which as you well known is occupied by the enemy. We do NOT know if the Yanks are out here. That’s part of why we’re here. Now, keep quiet and march.”

Before Sarge could get back to his position at the head of the column, another man spoke up.

“He’s right, Sarge.” This man had a shock of bright red hair, and was clean-shaven. In fact, it looked like he was barley old enough to shave, not more than 17. “We’ve been marching through this muck for hours now. If there were Yanks about, we’da seen ‘em by now. Plus, we ain’t been marching no search patrol. We been goin’ in a straight line, as if we’re heading someplace particular. What are we doing out here, Sarge?”

The other men nodded their heads and mumbled their agreement with the boy’s statement. Sarge stopped and stared him hard in the eyes, but the kid did not flinch. He was fearless, which was actually one of the things that Sarge liked about him. He sighed and shook his head. When he looked back up, he tried to focus his face into the most angry he could, despite not actually feeling this way. These were good men, his men, and God above help him he loved them.

“Since when did you all become such lazy soldiers?” he asked, staring them all down. A few looked confused, but most looked ashamed right away. “We’re known as some of the best scouts this Confederate Army has, and look at y’all now. Gabbin’ at me as if I weren’t your sergeant, but your best friend. As if this wasn’t a war, but stroll in a country lane. Sorry lot you are.”

He sighed again, and looked the group up and down, slowly, quietly, letting them stew in the knowledge that he was not quite pissed yet, but that even a cough at this point could tip him over.

“Now, shut your yaps and get back in formation. We march for another hour, and then we set up camp. If you’re good little girls,” he said with a smirk, knowing that particular dig would hurt a couple of the more manly men in the group, “I will fill you in on our mission after camp is set up.”

No one replied, which was good enough for Sarge. He grunted and nodded, and then made his way back to the front of the column. With another signal, they continued their march. As Sarge promised, an hour later the group was looking for a campsite. It didn’t take long before Johansson found a large island of dry land. Well, relatively dry land. The group took off their packs and set up their blankets on the ground. Not counting their ammo, guns and some dry tack for rations, it was all the provisions they carried with them. Sarge commanded the kid, Private Buckley, or Buckeye as the group liked to call him, both as a parody of his name and due to his steady aim, to start a fire, while he sent two other men, Smith and Farley, to get something for dinner. A little less than an hour later, the group sat around the small fire, cooking the six lizards Smith and Farley had returned with.

“Okay, Sarge,” Buckeye said, breaching the silence even though Sarge hadn’t given him permission, as such. “We’ve set up camp, and even ate dinner, if you want to call it that. So, you gonna fill us in on our mission?”

Sarge had just lit up a large cigar, which he took a long drag on before exhaling a long trail of sweet smelling smoke before answering. He took a long look around at the assembled soldiers before him. They were good men, good scouts who were all loyal to him, even if they weren’t the most disciplined. He grunted and nodded, his typical form of approval.

“Okay, Private,” he said, pointing the butt end of his cigar at the kid, “you got it. One debriefing. As you know, General Breckinridge plans on re-taking Baton Rouge from those damn Northerners. We’ve been marching west from Camp Moore, planning on coming up on the city from the east.”

“Yeah,” Johansson said, interrupting. “We know alla that. What does any of that have to do with us being here?”

“Johansson, so help me,” Sarge growled, “if you interrupt me one more time, I’ll take you down myself, and leave you for the Union soldiers to take.”

Johansson closed his mouth with an audible clip noise, which was really more shenanigans and less Johansson following orders, but Sarge would take it.

“That’s more like it,” he growled. “Listen up, girls. Here’s the tail. A few nights ago, we spotted something flying through the night sky. It looked like a ball of fire, and it appeared to fly from Baton Rouge, cut across the sky, and then land out here somewhere, in the swamp.” He paused for a moment, letting what he had said so far to sink in. “Our job is simple. We’re to follow the trajectory of that object, and find out exactly what it is. Preferably quickly, so we can report back to General Breckinridge before he launches the attack.”

“What was it?” Smith asked. “A new weapon, being tested by the Yanks?”

Sarge nodded. “That’s what command seems to think, at any rate.”

“If it is,” Buckeye said, “the whole Confederate Army is in some serious shit. And if it isn’t, the shit would be limited to just us.”

“Correct again,” Sarge nodded. Sometimes, the kid was oddly well spoken. “But, butter a group of expendable scouts like ourselves than good men like Breckinridge. At least, so says command, and I ain’t one to argue with ‘em.”

There was a moments silence, as Sarge expected, before anyone spoke up. To his surprise, it was Corporal Whitney. Whitney was a thin, short man, who, like Sarge himself, was bald, though in Whitney’s case, it was because he shaved it off, along with all the rest of the hair on his head. His almost comically square head held two small blue eyes, which were boring straight into Sarge right now. Whitney was normally a quiet man, one who didn’t waits time with words when actions would do, and usually followed orders without question. When Whitney spoke, Sarge listened.

So, when the man did speak up, and said, “That’s it?” it left Sarge somewhat dumfounded.

“What do you mean, ‘that’s it?’” Sarge asked in return. “Of course that’s it. What did you expect, Corporal?”

“I mean,” Whitney continued, the anger evident in his tone, “we’re seriously out here chasing a fireball from the sky? It cold have been anything. Sounds like command has us out here chasing our tails.”

“What are you saying, Whitney?” This time it was Johansson who responded to the corporal. “That someone wanted us out of the way and sent us on a wild goose chase?”

“That’s what it feels like,” Whitney replied.

“I don’t buy it,” Johansson said after pondering it for a few seconds. He paused for a moment to take a bite out of his charged lizard, chewing it down as if it were the finest porterhouse stake. Still chewing, he continued. “Who would someone want us out of a big battle like the one the old man is planning? And why? Like Sarge said, we’re some of the best scouts the army’s got. Be a shame not to put us to use. And even if someone did want us specifically out of the way, why use something so strange? Why not just order us to sit this one out? Wouldn’t be the first time we got that order, would it Sarge?”

Sarge only grunted in response. He was thinking. It wouldn’t be the first time. He’d always felt like something of an outside, even in the army, and especially when the army commanders didn’t want him and his participating in a big battle. But, this felt different. No, something real was out there, and it was important that he and the boys here find it.

“I don’t believe it,” he said at last, cutting through the conversation happening by the fire. The others looked at him, confused about what he was saying.

“Sarge?” Smith asked.

“I don’t believe for a hot second that the brass put us out here on a wild goose chase. I don’t believe that they want us out of the coming battle. I believe ‘em about this being for real, and that we need to find out if this is a new Yank weapon.”

There was a few moments of silence, where only the crackling of the fire could be heard. Then, everyone verbalized their agreement with Sarge’s statement. All but Buckeye, that is.

“What’s up, kid?” Johansson said, jabbing his fellow soldier in the ribs and bringing him back to reality.

“Do you hear that?” Buckeye said, still not looking Johansson in the eyes.

“Hear what?” the older man said, straining his ears. “I don’t hear nothing.”

“Exactly,” Buckeye said.

Johansson looked at the younger man as if he had lost his mind. Then, Whitney spoke up again. “No, he’s right. Listen.”

“I told you, I don’t hear nothin’,” Johansson said, getting irritated. He was sure that the two were making fun of him.

“They’re not making fun of you, Johansson,” Sarge said, catching on. “There’s nothing to hear. There should be something going on out here. Birds, crocs, some kinda noise. Ain’t nothin’.”

Johansson listened again. This time, he understood, and shivered at the though. “That ain’t natural,” he said at last.

“Sure ain’t,” Smith said. “It reminds me of when Farley and I were hunting. We couldn’t find nothing except those lizards, and we were a good mile or two away from here before we found that. What do you make of it, Sarge?”

“I don’t know,” Sarge said, looking around, trying to find any kind of animal.

Finally, Farley spoke up. “Maybe it’s the fireball. Whatever it was, maybe it scared off the animals.”

“That would mean we’re pretty close,” Buckeye said in almost a cheerful tone, as if proximity to their goal was something exciting. Which, Sarge though, it was, because it meant they were that much closer to getting out of this God forsaken swamp.

“In that case,” Sarge said, “we should get ready for tomorrow. We’ll set up watches, and everyone not on watch will sleep. Clear?”

Everyone nodded, and the camp settled down for the night. Farley and Buckeye drew first watch, and settled in next to a tree. Buckeye kept shifting his weight, scaning the area and the sky, as if expecting another fireball to drop on them during the night.

“What’s going on with you, Buckley?” Farley was the only man in the group that didn’t call him Buckeye. “You look like you got rattlers in your pants.”

“Nervous,” Buckeye said. “Ain’t never been in a place with no animals at all. Even after a battle, there’s crows. Here… nothing. Ain’t natural.”

“Yeah, I get that,” Farley said, a smirk on his face. “Personally, I’m looking forward to a quiet night, where nothing happens on our watch.”

True to Farley’s wish, the night passed uneventfully. Buckeye slept fitfully, and was joined in that state by Smith and Johansson. A cup of coffee later, however, and the three were up and running again. It wouldn’t be the first time they had been forced to work without sleep during this war. While sitting around the camp fire eating the hard tack they had for breakfast, Farley could be heard humming.

“What’s that you’re humming over there, Farley? Is that the birthday song?” Johansson asked. “Well, shoot, how did you know that today was my birthday?”

Farley stopped and looked Johansson up and down, trying to determine if the loud mouthed soldier was joking or not.

“I didn’t,” he said after coming to the conclusion that Johansson wasn’t teasing. “It’s my birthday today. August Fourth, year of our Lord Eighteen Hundred and Sixty Two.”

“No foolin’?” Johansson asked, “We share a birthday?”

“Hey, me too,” Smith added, throwing the remainder of his coffee on the fire.

“Yeah,” Buckeye said a moment later, “it’s my birthday today too.”

The four of them looked at each other in shocked silence, then turned to look at Sarge and Whitney. Whitney only nodded, having heard the whole conversation. It took some convincing, but eventually Sarge admitted to this day being his birthday as well.

“You mean to say that all six of us share a birthday?” Johansson said after everyone was silent for a moment. “That’s down right creepy.”

“What’s so creepy about it?” Sarge stated, standing up in that forceful manor that indicated he wanted everyone working instead of sitting. “So, we all share a birthday. Who cares? We got a job to do, and we’re going to do it. Break camp!”

He said that last bit at a yell, and everyone stood to attention when he did. “Yes, Sergeant!” they all said in unison. Working as the well-oiled machine they were, the camp was taken down and packed away, the fire was out, and most signs that they were even there were cleaned away, all within a few minutes. Not long after that, they were marching through the swamp again.

The quite was noticeable now, almost like a thick fog, and it felt to all six soldiers that they were marching through it as well as the swamp. With no animals in site, the only companions the men had were the cypress trees, who all seemed to be bent away from them no matter what direction they were headed in. Even Sarge didn’t have an answer to that. So, instead, they continued to move on.

“Hey, Smith,” Johansson whispered to the man in front of him during the march. “What do you make of it?”

Smith never turned around. “Make of what?”

“The birthday thing.”

“I don’t know,” Smith said, finally turning to look at his fellow scout. “It’s been bugging me since we found out, though. How is it that we didn’t know this already? I mean, how long have we all known each other?”

“Since the start of the war, I think,” replied Johansson, trying to think. “It feels like forever, but I can’t remember any of you before the war.”

“Yeah, me neither,” Smith replied. “And that’s bugging me too. I’ve been trying real hard to remember anything outside the war, and other than a few vague memories of my life, I can’t. Can you?”

Johansson thought for a few minutes, his tongue sticking out in concentration, before replying. “No. Not really, I mean. I got some memories of my dog when I was a kid, and my girl back home, but… I can’t even remember her name, now you mention it.”

“Something you boys want to share back there?” Sarge said from the front of the column.

“No, Sarge,” they both said in unison, and then returned to marching in silence. About an hour later, they all stopped without Sarge’s having to tell them, and stared at the damndest sight they had ever seen.

“I think we’re here,” Buckeye said.

Before them was more swamp, but this time, all the trees and the foliage on the ground was burnt black. The smell in the air was that of burning swamp gas, and made Farley and Whitney gag slightly. The devastation seemed to go on for miles, making it hard to tell where the center of it was, but when they took a closer look at the edge they had reached, it was obvious it was circular.

“It’s like, it just burned to here, then stopped,” Smith said, looking at the foliage at the edge of the burn zone. “It’s a perfect circle of burn, Sarge. I never seen anything like it.”

None of them had. “If this is a new weapon of the Union, we might as well surrender now,” Sarge said, echoing the thoughts of every one there.

They all just stood and stared for some time before Sarge shook them out of their thoughts. “Well, we still gotta figure out what caused this, and whatever that is, it’s in the center of this burn zone. So, let’s get a move on.”

“Sarge,” Buckeye said, “I got a bad feeling about this. Like we ain’t gonna come outa there.”

Sarge turned to the boy, and then nodding to Whitney, pulled the boy aside while the Corporal made sure everyone’s gear was ready for whatever they were about to experience.

“Look, boy,” Sarge said to the obviously frightened private, “I ain’t gonna lie to you. I don’t like the feel of this place neither. But, we’re Confederate soldiers, and we got us an assignment, from General Breckinridge hisself. I don’t plan on letting the old man down, and I don’t plan on letting you let him down neither. I know you’re scared. Hell, I’d be shocked if you weren’t. But pull yourself together, act like a soldier, and get marchin’. Am I clear, private?”

“Yes, Sergeant!” Buckeye replied. He didn’t look less scared, but he did look relieved to be reminded that he was simply a private following orders. Following orders was easy.

With that taken care of, Sarge returned to the front of the line and lead his scouts into the burn zone. He hesitated slightly before taking his first step, but once he had his foot in the mud on the other side of the char line, walking in was easy. The others followed suit without any hesitation, and he nodded. These were good men.

Once they got inside the burn zone, the air itself seemed to close in on them. The burned trees, unlike the ones before, seemed to lean in at them, as if trying to grab them in sharp clawed hands. The mud here was even thicker than outside, and at several points, someone’s boot gut stuck and had to be pulled out before the march could continue. Then, Buckeye saw it. A faint blue glow, coming from the center of the zone. It didn’t seem to move, but it was pretty bright, especially the closer they got to it.

“Everyone, spread out,” Sarge said in an instinctive whisper. The column broke apart as the six men moved away from Sarge and started forming a half circle of their own. They hadn’t gone far, though, before Farley jerked his rifle to his shoulder, aiming at something in the blackened Cyprus trees, ready to fire. He panned back and forth, looking for whatever it was that caught his eye. Everyone else stopped moving, raised their own rifles, and started scanning the area themselves.

“What did you see, Farley?” Sarge asked after a few seconds of not seeing anything.

“I don’t know, Sarge,” the man replied, lowering his rifle, but still scanning the area. Sarge recognized this look. He was hunting. He had caught wind of his prey, and it took a lot to shake Farley out of his hunt once he had a quarry.

“Tell me what you do see,” Sarge said, essentially giving Farley permission to actually hunt. Farley didn’t need to be told twice. He crouched down and started scanning the ground. He examined everything. Mud, rocks, tree branches, everything.

“Someone defiantly moved through here,” he said after a few minutes.

“Some one?” Sarge asked, emphasizing the word ‘one.’

“Yes, sir.” Farley said. “Broken twigs and branches on this tree would indicate someone about five and a half feet tall, and a very light foot print indicates that it was a person, not an animal. Though,” he paused, pointing to the ground. Sarge could only barely make out the foot print, and only after Farley had pointed it out to him. It was faint, and had a tread unlike any boot he’d ever seen. “I’ve never seen anything like this before. Whoever left this is very good at keeping himself concealed.”

“Indian?” Smith asked.

“Not likely,” Farley said, “this foot print is obviously a heavy boot, though I’ve never seen treads like that before. My guess is its military.”

“Noted,” Sarge nodded, then turned to the rest of the group. “Everyone keep a sharp eye out. Do not fire unless you have a clear shot, let’s not waste ammo. In the mean time, we keep moving towards that glow.”

The group continued moving slowly forward, though everyone was actively scanning the trees for any signs of movement. It was painstakingly slow, but no one wanted to rush it in the least. As they got closer, the light started to form into a shape. No, Sarge realized, it wasn’t changing shape. As he got closer to it, his perspective changed. He realized that it wasn’t just one light, but several. And they appeared to be attached to something.

It was long and cylindrical, almost cigar shaped. He could swear that he saw fins on the back of it, and that it was standing on some short, stubby legs or feet. And the whole thing had a metallic cast to it. It was like some kind of building. Before he could study it any further, though, there came a cry.

Buckeye let out a scream, followed by the firing of his rifle. Everyone turned to face where he was, but when they did, he wasn’t there. It was as if he had just vanished into thin air.

“What the hell just happened?” Sarge asked, still holding his rifle up and moving it from side to side, looking for the attacker.

“I don’t know,” came the reply from Johansson, the man nearest where Buckeye was. “I was lookin’ right at him. Somethin’ gray and blurry came from that tree, and before I could move my rife in his direction, the kid was gone.”

“Circle up, back to back,” Sarge said, and everyone moved to form a circle by him, with their guns aiming out. They looked like some kind of great, gray porcupine. “Farley, what do you see?”

Farley lowered his rifle, broke the formation, and kneeled down at the site where Buckeye disappeared.

“More tracks,” he said, “this time, a lot of them. Who ever this was, attacking Buckley took effort away from their stealth. The prints are deeper. I’d still say this was one person, though. It looks like they took Buckeye, and headed back towards the light. Wait, what’s this?”

“What?” Sarge asked. He hadn’t looked down since Buckeye screamed. He was still scanning the trees. He felt like he was being watched, and he suspected that it came from that metallic building. He was ready to order a retreat.

“It looks like blood. Buckeye must have hit him when he fired. It’s leaving a trail of blood back towards the source of the light.”

“Blood? That means who ever this is can be killed,” Smith said. Sarge hadn’t realized it, but, like Smith must have, he had been thinking of whoever this was as being more than a man. A ghost or something. But blood made him realize this wasn’t true. But, blood or no blood, who ever this was, he was quicker than lightning, and could take them at a moment’s notice. And take them back to the lights. That was the source, the lights.

“Form a firing line,” Sarge said, “Aim for the light.”

The men formed two lines, one of two and a second of three, including himself. The two in front, Smith and Johansson, kneeled. Sarge couldn’t help but notice the missing Buckley in that formation.

“Ready! Aim! Line one, fire!”

The two rifles discharged to a loud booming noise and clouds of smoke. Before the smoke could dissipate, he continued giving orders.

“Reload! Line 2, fire!”

He saw the rifles of the first line pull in and the men reach for the pouches carried over their shoulders. He and the other two men raised their rifles and fired in unison. The thunder was louder, and the smoke was thicker.

“Keep firing!” he shouted, and the two lines continued to do so, for three more rounds. Then, he heard the buzzing. He couldn’t see much behind the smoke, but he saw that the lights on the building were still glowing their blue radiance. What was causing the buzzing noise, he couldn’t see. But, it was getting louder.

“Scatter!” he cried, not wanting wait for whatever attack was coming. No one else needed to be told twice, and everyone ran in different directions, trying to reach the trees for cover. As the buzzing reached it’s peak, Sarge saw where it was coming from. There was some kind of gun now sticking out of the top of the building. It fired, with no noise but the buzzing, which stopped as soon as the weapon discharged. Lightning flew from the muzzle of the gun and across the swamp, until it slammed into Smith’s back as the man tried to reach cover. Smith flew through the air and landed hard, face first, in the mud and muck of the burnt swamp. His eyes were wide, staring at the smoking hole in the back of Smith’s jacket. There was no way they could stop this thing.

“Retreat!” he cried, seeing that Johansson and Whitney were already doing just that. He ran after them, not bothering to see if the others were following. He was terrified, his only thought was to flee from this hell he found himself in and back to the rational world. He heard to buzzing building up behind him, and ran all the harder. But, it wasn’t enough. The lightning flew out from the gun again, and this time, he knew, it came straight for him. When it hit, he felt an electric fire course through his body, and every fiber of his nerves were light up in pain. His body seized up as he flew through the air from the impact, muscles freezing up. Thankfully, he passed out before he hit the ground. He prayed for death just before blanking out.

When he awoke, lying on his back staring at bright white lights, he thought that was what had happened to him, and maybe the lights were heaven. Then, a voice that sounded like thousands of bees brought him back to the nightmare hell he had hoped he had escaped from.

“Ah, you are awake,” the voice said, “good.”

Sarge’s head burst into a red pain, as if hundreds of tiny men with pick axes were trying to cut into his skull. He shut his eyes and groaned in pain. The voice continued, and he heard it clearly through the pain.

“I apologize,” the thousand bee’s said as one. “I did not realize that my mind touch would cause you pain. I shall switch to verbal communication.”

And with that, the pain ended. Sarge fell back on the hard platform he was laying on, and gasped for air. He felt cold sweat trickle down his forehead and neck. He attempted to open his eyes, but re-closed them when the lights caused him pain. Guess whatever the bee-voice did to him wasn’t completely gone.

“Who…” he gasped, but all that came out was a raspy gasp.

“Take your time,” the voice said again, only this time, it seemed to be coming from across the room rather than in his head. “You are still recovering from the shock of the stun blast.”

Sarge took a deep breath and swallowed, trying to moisturize his dry throat. He spoke again. “Who…” it was still raspy, but at least understandable. “Who are you,” he finally got out.

“Ah, a basic question. Good, it means you are still able to reason. I had feared that I had injured you when you fell.”

Sarge heard the creature take a deep breath and sigh before continuing to speak. It seemed an oddly human gesture from such an inhuman voice, and that simple action comforted Sarge.

“My name is N’tall, but I suspect that is not the answer you were searching for with your question,” the voice continued. “I am from a race that calls ourselves the F’ress, which simply means ‘People of the Soil.’ I am from another world, one orbiting a star that is, in fact, in the constellation that you call Orion.”

“Another world?” Sarge gasped. “Orion?” He opened his eyes and witnessed a demon from hell itself.

The creature that had been speaking to him wasn’t very tall, about 5 feet, but it was thin and muscular. Those muscles, however, were kept under skin that was the color of ash and smoke. It wore what appeared to be a skirt or kilt, made of a shiny black material that almost looked metallic. Over its otherwise bare chest was a utility strap that had all kind of weird, unknowable alien tools. It’s head, however, was what made it look the most inhuman. It was slightly oversized, and oval shaped, and it was dominated by two large, saucer shaped, black, multi-faceted orbs that he could only guess were eyes.

It didn’t appear to have a nose, but its mouth was the most horrific feature. It was round, half the size of the eyes, and covered by hundreds of tiny, sharp mandible-like protrusions, that were continually moving, even when it wasn’t speaking. And when it did speak, it moved in an undulating pattern that caused Sarge to feel dizzy with nausea. He closed his eyes again and tried to get off the table he was on, wanting nothing more at that point than to run away. But he found he was bound to the table, his arms and legs tied down.

“You have been bound for your own protection,” the thing said.

“What do you want?” Sarge said through gritted teeth.

“My people have been watching this world for many years now,” N’tall said. “We were gratified to find a world with intelligent life, and so we narrowed our focus to humans. As we became more curious about humanity, we sent in observers. Scouts, if you will. We surgically altered them to look like humans, but our cultures are so different that the scouts were discovered and killed, usually as foreign spies of some kind or another.”

My God, Sarge thought. That meant there were others like this thing wandering around the world, causing who knows what kind of mischief. Maybe they were responsible for the war!

“We decided to change our tactics,” the creature continued. “A scientist of some renown among our people had a new surgical practice that might aid in our observations. We gathered some recently deceased humans, and, using this new technique, transferred the minds of some of our best spies and soldiers into the bodies of the humans. We were able to extract some of the memories of these recently dead humans, and merge them with those of the soldier taking the body.”

Sarge opened his eyes again, staring at the demon that called himself N’tall. It had moved closer to him, and appeared to be pacing as it told its story, even waiving an arm in another unnervingly human like gesture. He wasn’t quite sure he understood what it was the creature was describing, but it sounded like demon possession.

“Through a combination of surgery and hypnotic techniques, we were able to convince these brave volunteers that they were human. The process wasn’t perfect, of course, most of their memories were vague or missing, but it was enough. They could pass as recent survivors of a tragedy. In one specific case, we were able to make it appear that our scouts were soldiers that had survived the opening battle of a war.”

Sarge groaned. His first real memory was right after the battle of Bull Run. He and the other guys in his scout troop had woken up in a hospital tent. He only had a bare fraction of his memory, and the doctor said he had amnesia. They all did. A horrible suspicion began to creep up his spine and into the base of his brain.

“I see you begin to suspect where my story is going,” N’tall continued. “This is then a perfect opportunity to re-introduce you to the men that had served under you.”

Sarge looked on in terror as the inhuman thing pushed a button on the wall, and then the wall itself split in two. The two halves moved backwards and receded into the remaining wall, as if it were nothing more than a big door. Sarge watched as five gray coats and blue trousers came into the room. In each uniform was a gray horror, similar to N’tall, though each with subtle differences. This one had smaller eyes, that one had a larger mouth, and this other one was shorter than the others. Sarge could even see which ones were who among his men, simply by the way they stood.

“What kind of sick game is this?” Sarge demanded, bile rising in his throat at seeing those demons in the uniforms of his men. He knew the truth, that these demons were his men, but part of his mind refused to acknowledge it.

“The uniforms?” N’tall asked, “Yes, it does seem to be twisted, I grant you. The process of returning a mind to its correct body is difficult, and there is always some adjustment. Our scientists and doctors felt it would be beneficial to these scouts if they wore familiar clothing.”

N’tall turned to Sarge then, and moved across the floor to get next to the man. It was the closest that he had come, and Sarge could smell something that reminded him of raw fish.

“And now,” N’tall said, “To you.”

“What are you going to do?” Sarge demanded, “Turn me into one of those things? Return me to my demon body? I won’t allow it, damnit! I’m not a demon, I’m human!”

“Return…?” N’tall asked, pulling back some in surprise at Sarge’s outburst. Then a noise escaped his mouth that sounded like the bees making up his voice were jerking back and fourth. The other five demons in the room joined in. It sounded to Sarge like they were laughing. What was so damn funny?

“You misunderstand, Sarge,” said another buzzing voice that had the faint similarity to Whitney.

“Yes, indeed,” N’tall continued. “You are, as you say, perfectly human. You have always been.”

“What?” Sarge said, “But… the amnesia, the working with your… scouts. We all even have the same birthday!”

“Yes, you’re birthday,” N’tall said, and his round mouth contorted into an oval shape. Sarge suspected it was a smile. “You were convenient, a leader for my scouts to follow. And now, you will serve them another purpose.”

Sarge’s eyes opened wide as the five demons that were once his men moved across the room.

“You see,” N’tall said, “the transference process uses up a lot of energy. My scouts need to replenish. And humans,” his voice turned low, as if he were whispering a secret to Sarge, “are an excellent source of nutrition for my kind.”

Sarge screamed.

The End

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