Strawman ch3: Strong Souls

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Classified Log: -redacted-

The personal notes of Agent Grace McCallum.

The truth was worse than any of us could have imagined. Not the military, not the government; if the public got wind of this, we’d all be locked up in straight jackets. (Or, more likely, secretly killed with our bodies incinerated.)

That’s why I’m grateful for the classified nature of this digital medium. 

I’m reminded of an old joke (maybe from Dr. Who?) I’d seen it in a meme, a while ago. Basically, one character says, “We’ve got four followers.” The other character asks, “Is that a lot?” And then the first person says; “On social media, no. Down a dark alley, absolutely.”

That sums up my initial feelings about the news Lt Col. Brett Thomas managed to glean from his confidential sources.

Out of the hundreds of nuclear missiles in the various sites across the desolate northern plains, there was notable damage to four of them. Yes, four. That is very, VERY bad. I’m talking end of the world scenario level of bad.

Lt Col. Thomas managed to send his classified message over the SIPRNet (Secret Internet Protocol Router Network, for any civilians or members of the media who may have the chance to read this in the distant future.) This just meant the information had to be printed out and given to me to read while in the presence of two soldiers.

One was a young airman from the tech support department. In any other situation, he would seem confident, strong. He probably had solid grades in school. And he was likely in the uniform for a chance at college money. Never in a thousand years did he think he would be reading off evidence with a gun pressed to his back.

The second soldier wore a distinctly different camo uniform. It took me a second to find the ‘USMC’ logo. He meant business. After reading the report we (the Airman and I) were both instructed to sign a non-disclosure agreement on (what I assume) was a SIPRNet Ipad.

Anyway, back to the relevant information. the report did not list the locations of said missiles, only that the damage was consistent with seismic activity. Overlaying a record of radiation levels, I could see a partial path. the four locations seemed to be leaking in the direction of Mt Rushmore, (separated by hundreds of miles, of course.)

There was no way of proving where they all met up (or if the radiation faded out long before reaching Mt. Rushmore.) I would need to head to ground zero to get the detailed readings for myself. Now came the issue of security clearance. I knew for a fact; I would not be allowed to do this, at least not without an escort.

17 hours later:

-Classified log addendum-

After much pleading, I was able to secure an escort from the local bomb squad. My superiors were not happy. If anyone asks, I am supposed to say there is evidence of undetonated explosives (from whatever foreign power attacked our pretty little mountain.)

We arrived at the site at 04:00 hours. The sky was shrouded in darkness, without any visible stars. This felt wrong. “When does the sunrise?” I asked no one in particular.

“Certainly not at four in the morning,” said a female officer, looking calm and relaxed in her body armor.

This resulted in a chorus of laughs until one officer gave an actual answer, possibly out of pity. “Sunrise is around eight, but we should see some light before then.”

I glanced around, attempting to identify my savior. He wasn’t the driver or the involuntary leader of this mission, Lt. Adam Beach. I had met with Lt. Beach to inquire about using their equipment. I was prepared to offer proof of my ability to operate the various transmitters and Geiger counters. I had field accreditations, attached to my permanent file, but he still looked at me like a small child he was being forced to babysit.

“Thank you,” I said to whoever had spoken. “Just so you know I’m not afraid of the dark. I haven’t needed my Micky Mouse nightlight for at least a year.”

A man wearing full armor, including a face mask, leaned forward in his seat doubling over with laughter.

“We’re here!” shouted Lt Beach. “We’re going to break off into teams of two.” He went down the list of all ten names, paring people off and assigning directions.

I watched as people left, claiming piece after piece of equipment. Soon there was nothing left (as far as I could see.) I started to walk towards the back of the vehicle. Hopefully, there would be some flashlights buried under the various black tarps.

“McCallum!”

I nearly jumped out of my skin. I don’t know why I was so afraid of pissing him off.  There was nothing he could do to me, other than report me to his boss (which may or may not result in a firm disciplinary letter.) “Yes, sir?”

“You’re going to be shadowing Razor.”

“Razor?” I looked around to see the only potential partner remaining was my heavily armored new friend.

He approached me, holding out his hand. “The name’s Reynaldo Ramone, my teammates call me Razor.”

“Razor Ramone,” I said with a smile. I knew the name from my late father’s passion for retro-era pro-wrestling. “I’m Grace.” I nervously shook his hand. In full armor, he looked like something out of a videogame. “People call me Grace.”

“Not Agent Grace or Officer Grace?”

“I prefer just Grace.”

“Well then, hail Mary, full of grace. Our Lord is with thee.” Spoken with his calm, tranquil voice, the words actually seemed sincere. (As opposed to him mocking my name.)

“Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus,” I added. I knew the prayer by heart.

“You a Christian?” Razor asked. Not even his armor could hold back his joy.

“Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death.” I recited the most relevant part of the prayer while at the same time securing a flashlight to my backpack, and subtly slipping my smartphone (along with a portable charger) into a hidden pocket in my notebook. As far as Lt. Beach (and Lt. Col Tomas) were concerned I was just carrying pens, paper, along with a small amount of food and medical supplies. If anyone knew about my plans to photograph and record, I would likely get kicked all the way back to Alabama. Thankfully, it seemed like Razor was someone I could trust. “Amen.”

Lt Beach seemed annoyed. “Now that you two are done getting to know each other, head west towards the meetup point. If you find anything of note, radio in so I know that you’re working, and not trapped someplace requiring aid. You understand?”

He was addressing my new partner, but I had one reasonably important question, “So, where’s my protective gear?”

The glare Lt. Beach shot me sent a shiver down my spine. “As I said,” his voice was hedging on the edge of anger, “If you find anything worthy of further exploration, you are to radio for backup.” He had the tone of a high school principal, or maybe a gym teacher; a stoic, no-nonsense, SOB power tripping on whatever authority he had at his disposal.

“Yes, sir!” Razor stood at attention, saluting like a soldier. “I’ll handle it.” He lifted his pack and motioned for me to follow him. Once we were out of earshot, he patted my back. “Don’t worry we can share my equipment.”

“That sounded kind of dirty.” I, of course, meant it as a joke. In the five seconds, it took him to laugh, I saw my life flash before my eyes. I just met this guy and now I was probably going to get kicked off the case and charged with sexual harassment.

Razor took a seat on a rock, looking up at the moonless sky as he removed his helmet. I could see enough of his face to know he was smiling, and not about to comment on my lack of professionalism. “How old are you? I know it’s not right to ask a woman her age but, really? Are you one of those genius kids who graduated college before you can even drink?”

“Are you asking if I graduated before the age of 21? I mean I did.” Did I really want to tell him my age? I was old enough to have earned my position while young enough to have never (well, you know. Not exactly appropriate for this log, but possibly relevant to what happened over the next few hours.)

He looked at me with his wide-set eyes. Something about him was exotic, like a bird or a dragon. “Some of us weren’t so blessed.” He ran his fingers through his shoulder-length hair.  He had facial hair like a pirate, with the smile of a rockstar. “Here, take this.”

He handed me the Geiger counter. I was a little surprised but not entirely shocked. We had multiple flashlights, but this was our only Geiger counter. For himself, Razor chose to focus on the GPS.

We traveled for a while, following a well-plotted map that I was not allowed to hold or even see.

One by one the stars came out. The area was known for fog (once the sun rose, it would likely fade away on its own,) but what happened next seemed like something out of a Disney movie. Looking up, I could see shapes, colors; a pink star, a green leaf, a yellow heart with an arrow. These lights had to be manmade. The question was why (and from where?) Razor was moving ahead of me. I waited for him to get a good twenty feet away before I made a run for it. Guided by starlight, there was a clear direction the lights wanted me to go, something they wanted me to see.

I had been heading east, in the direction of where the door to the vault might have been (back when it was part of Lincoln’s head,) when I felt a hand on my shoulder.

“What the Hell are you doing?” Razor had caught up to me. He spoke in a calm whisper (as opposed to a threat.) I took that to mean, part of him wanted to believe in me and my plan.

‘Did I have a plan?’ I got on my knees and started to search for an opening. There had to be an opening. “Can I borrow your helmet?” Before he could answer I grabbed it from him. I started ramming into the smaller chunks of rock until I found the beginning of a (potential) tunnel. I struggled forward like a fish, widening the passageway enough to crawl through. The stone was loose and could have collapsed at any time, but I was determined. I rammed my head like a small child pretending to be a dinosaur. In my mind, the worst-case scenario was getting my precious helmet stuck. (And to escape that all I would need to do was pull my head out.)

Yes, in that darkness, I had the mind of a small child. So, it came as no surprise when I nearly screamed, hitting my head, all upon feeling Razor’s hand on my shoulder.

“Grace,” he spoke softly, gripping my arm with enough pressure to cause me to freeze in my tracks. “We have no business being here.”

He was right. I needed to maintain my professionalism and call it in. ‘Stop being an idiot!’ No words came out of my mouth. ‘Say something! Let him put you in handcuffs and drag you out of here!’ I wanted so badly to ask for help. I needed him to knock me unconscious and save me from myself. But that’s not what happened.

“Come on,” I spoke in a voice that was not my own. This was a deeper, seductive voice; something akin to a reality star giving their best Marylin Monroe impression.  “Have a little faith.”

“Faith?” he replied. His voice was kind, compassionate.

‘No! Stop listening to her!’ I reached out my hand, for the first time seeing how badly my fingers were cut up from my attempt at caving. My fingertips stroked his face, down his jaw, to his lips. “Have a little faith in me.”

“Ok,” he responded. He was in just as much of a trance. “Lead the way.”

We started to crawl, abandoning pieces of equipment, until we reached a perfectly preserved metal door (the top part, anyway.) I used my arms to scoot forward until I could see the actual end of the tunnel. there was a drop directly in front of the door, just large enough for a medium-large size human to stand in. Given my lack of height, I figured I would be able to drop down headfirst while still having the space to turn around. I carefully maneuvered myself into the hole. When my feet were underneath me, I took a leap of faith.

Standing up, there was a decaying piece of paper with a message written in what looked like blood. “Please present your sacrifice?” I read aloud. The paper covered a light source. and I needed to know why. I reached for the paper, through the paper.

What happened next occurred in a fraction of a second. WOOSH, crash, crack, ending with a low gurgle. I hit my head hard on the rock, if I had not been wearing the helmet I would have possibly been impaled. I knew this because when I finally opened my eyes, I was curled in the fetal position, holding the broken faceplate in my arms. Next to me was a body; Razor standing in front of the door. There was a long, tall sliver of light. The door was open.

“Grace?” Razor asked in a trembling whisper. “Are you ok?” He reached his hand, but his upper body stayed in place.

“Razor?” I don’t know why I took hold of his hand. The moment I applied even slight pressure I could hear the sound of flesh tearing. “Are you pinned to the wall?” I needed my flashlight. ‘Wait, no, I don’t.’ All I had to do was open the door. But to do that I needed to get to the other side of Razor’s body.

I moved slowly, carefully, through the minimal space between Razor’s chest and the metal door. I could feel his blood dripping; a warm consistent stream akin to a leaky faucet or an animal sent to the slaughter. His muscles were shivering, trembling with uncontrollable spasms. He was going to bleed out no matter what I did.

Razor sucked in his stomach muscles, allowing me as much room as possible. In his current position, he held his arm up, blocking his chest. Stabbed through his wrist (possibly into his shoulder) was a massive spike. “I think,” he said struggling for air. “I think I can pull it out.”

I was not sure I believed him. The piece looked to be made of metal or perhaps stone. “We’ll cross that bridge when we get there.”

“You know I lost my leg during my second deployment.”

“As a bomb diffuser?” I paused when passing his legs, curious to discover which one was a prosthetic.

“On my way to the chow hall,” he said with a forced chuckle.

“Funny.”

“I try.”

“Why did you save me?” I wanted to ask how he moved so quickly. He had been behind me, there was no way he even knew about the note (or the trap.)

“I wasn’t about to let you die in a hole.” From the ray of light, I could see fresh blood coming out of his mouth as he struggled for air. “Screw it. Truth is, I was going to dive down here no matter what, even if it was just to recover your body. So do me a favor and get that door open.”

This was the equivalent to someone telling an animal to run; ‘leave me, I never cared about you.’ statements spoken in an effort to give the pitiful creature a reason to turn away. “Yeah, let’s get this over with.” With all the strength in my shoulder, I gave the door a shove. This only allowed for another few inches of light. I knew I needed to try harder, but my body felt weak, sick. this had to be radiation; we were both going to die and it was all my fault.

‘Just give it one more try. Focus on how badly you don’t want to die down here.’ I rammed myself over and over, making sure to always feel pain. If there was no discomfort; I wasn’t trying hard enough. Eventually, the door opened enough to allow Razor’s body to fall forward with the force of gravity. He was still pinned to the wall, but now I could see that the blade appeared to be part of a pickaxe.

We locked eyes, united in a very cruel realization; if he wasn’t able to free himself I would have to climb his dying body to have any chance at finding my way back to the cavern entrance. His eyes remained focused on mine as he jerked his shoulder.

I turned away, but I could still hear the sounds of flesh tearing and bone breaking. He was making the wound larger.

After what felt like forever, I heard the sound of a wet, sticky slurp, followed by the distinct clang of metal on stone. I turned in time to see Razor collapse to the floor. With his one good arm, he rolled onto his back. “Get the Celox.”

“You have Celox?” I had only seen the magic blood clotting powder in movies.

“It’s the green packet under my chest plate.”

“I have to take off your armor?” That was the last thing I wanted to do. The moment I touched him; I could picture his organs falling out, or maybe just a geyser of blood. Needless to say, I flinched (or rather froze like a frightened child.) “Sorry. Just give me a second.”

Instead of trying to convince me, Razor reached for the straps and removed the piece himself. Sure enough, taped to his stomach was a dark green plastic package of Celox. “It’ll be enough,” he added, possibly reading my mind. “It works like the white stuff inside of diapers. You know, that fake snow crap.”

“Right.” I understood, once I poured the powder the substance would grow to fill the wound. (At least that was the idea.) The bag had one of those ‘easy open’, resealable lips, similar to a package of shredded cheese. Much like when I try to open cheese, I could not get the resealable lip to open. I pulled and tugged on the bag, attempting to break the seal, but the thick plastic slides refused to split. I dared not look at Razor. (Not until I could figure out how to get the damn thing open.)

I turned toward my bag, violently dumping out the contents. I knew I didn’t have a knife, but hopefully, I could get the package open using a pen. I went to work. stabbing at the thick plastic until I had a decent pouring spout. After taking a moment to regain my composure I made my way to Razor’s body. I poured the powder the way I’d seen it done in war movies. On-screen this stuff was meant to save a soldier from a bullet wound. “We need to get out of here.”

He nodded. “Well, we can’t exactly climb back out the way we came.”

That was very true. There was no way I could make it out on my own, especially without the helmet. “You still have the radio!”

“For all the good that does.” He pulled the com off his belt, sliding it to me. The device was producing a cloud of thick black smoke. It wasn’t on fire, it was decaying; crumbling at a cellular level, leaving behind gravel-like particles. It took a moment for the pain to kick in. I wiped my hand on the ground, but the debris left behind what felt like second-degree burns in the form of speckles, constellations.

I bit down on my lower lip until I drew blood. Anything was preferable to the scream welling up in my throat. He was right. we had no choice but to continue forward into the room. There were cracks of neon rocks lighting the way, tracing an intricate design that fully defined the space. I looked around to see if the Geiger counter was still working. There was a high level of radiation present but not from the walls or the floor.

“It’s not radiation,” I stated. The radiation had been siphoned to create something. And this ‘something’ was located deeper in the tunnels.

I scooted towards the middle of the room. Hidden in shadows was a nest made of (what appeared to be) burnt wood (or maybe charred stone.) “Is it just me or does it look like something hatched in here?” I didn’t even know if Razor was still conscious enough to reply. With no concern for my own safety, I made a grab for my phone. I needed a capture.

I hit record. With only my phone’s flashlight for illumination, I went about documenting the contents of the nest. ‘Charred wood, possible radiation plus,” I paused in my words, as a bubble of vomit was making its way up my throat. “That’s blood, possible human DNA, and pork bones?” The bones looked like something from a to-go order of barbecue ribs.

Razor had gone quiet. When I pointed my phone light at his face, I could see the lifeless whites of his eyes. He needed water. I searched through our remaining supplies. ‘Why was there no water?’

I wanted to cry. There was no clean source of water, at least not in the immediate area. My hand reached out to Razor. He was shivering but his fingers were, in fact, moving. “Razor? You still here?”

“Could you talk to me?” his teeth were chattering. “Just about anything.”

“Sure,” I blinked back tears. There was only one question I could think of. “Are we friends?”

He nodded, and spoke words I will carry to my grave. “You remind me of my daughter.”

“Your daughter? You don’t look old enough to have a kid.”

“A teenager can have a kid.”

That was an odd response. His choice of words led me to believe this had been an unintended pregnancy. (Likely with a partner he was no longer romantically involved with.) “Where is she now?”

“She lives with her mother.”

“In South Dakota?”

“New York.”

Again, another strange response. “Does she call you Dad, Father, Papa?”

“She calls me Rey.”

That made sense. He seemed like a ‘cool dad’ type of person. “Does your mother call you Rey?” I was hoping that he had positive memories of his mother; something that could ease the physical, emotional pain.

“She did. God willing, I might hear her voice again someday.”

“When did she leave?”

“Ran off with my uncle when I was six.”

“Oh, I’m sorry.” I felt my cheeks flush with embarrassment. Comforting people had never been my strong suit.

“I’m kidding,” Razor said with a genuine smile. “I lost her to cancer about ten years ago. My baby girl never met her, but she has her name.”

“Maria.”

The tears in his eyes proved I was correct. “The blessed queen, the holy mother.”

“You need to rest. I’m going to look around.”

He nodded, his mouth trembling as he forced a smile. “Don’t go too far.”

“I won’t. I promise.” The room was the size of a studio apartment. Using my phone, I was able to cast a beam of light, searching for any possible exits.

“Hi!” A tiny voice, came from a nearby hole. I assumed it was just a toy; possibly a doll with a pressure plate that coaxes out prerecorded phrases.  

“Hello?”

“Hello!” This was accompanied by the sound of tiny hooves. Whatever was in that hole walked on four legs and was moving towards me.

“What do you want?”

“I am a collector of strong souls. He’s going to die anyway. You might as well finish what he started.”

“What he started?”  Razor had offered himself as a sacrifice to open the door, that was why this toy-like entity wanted him so badly. “What if I refuse?”

-end of log-

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next: Strawman ch4: Basic Instinct

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