I snapped back the charging handle of my M4 carbine with a rapid pull, locking the first 5.56 mm round into the firing chamber. The distinctive “lock and load” clatter reverberated across the hillside where my platoon had set up our ambush as the action was repeated by a hundred other men. I looked down to my radio operator, a sergeant from Des Moines, and told him to inform the Brigade Command Post that we were in position and ready to go hot.
He spat out a cheek-full of tobacco juice, then leaned his head toward his right shoulder and spoke into the mic fastened to his body armor.
As he gave me the thumbs up that the CP had acknowledged the message, I heard my platoon sergeant’s gravelly Southern voice. He was perched about three feet higher up the hillside than where I was, so his view of the kill zone was unobstructed.
“Craziest thing in the world, Cap’n Vance. Never thought I’d ever be settin’ up to fight outside of my own home town. Even crazier we’re gettin’ ready to throw down right outside the friggin’ base.”
I nodded, but chose not to answer. First Sergeant Mallory had seen action in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Somalia over the past fifteen years. I figured the last thing he wanted to hear was words of wisdom from a brand new captain who hadn’t yet deployed outside of the National Training Center. Still, I had an advantage over the battle-seasoned sergeant: I finally understood the threat that was getting ready to rip through our position.
I pulled myself up beside him and pointed my weapon down the green slope of the ridge that lined State Road 42. There was nothing moving there. Well, at least, nothing moving there here. But they’ll be here any second.
“HQ hasn’t noticed that you moved the ambush point, sir” Sergeant Mallory said, as he set his weapon at the ready. “Have to admit, between you, me and nobody else, I think we’ve given up the best spot to attack. Why are we here, and not on the higher part of the ridge line? We’re partly exposed here.”
I didn’t look at him, but glanced down the road at where the moderately rocky hills we had fortified rose on either side to form a daunting funnel. I really didn’t want to answer him, because all I could say was that it felt right.
“Damn,” said Mallory. “Eyes are watering. Here they come.”
The eyes always watered before the rift opened. It’s a go. I had barely given the command to open fire when the air below us was shredded and a blitzkrieg of super-fast tanks punched through. Advanced M1 Abrams variants, of a kind we probably wouldn’t see for a decade, rumbled out of thin air like a metallic earthquake. Right on top of them, screaming out of the nothingness and into our airspace, fighter-bombers – successors to the F22 Raptor by the looks of them – squeezed out of the low rift, then took on altitude with insanely fast climbs. Only a few seconds behind them were the armored personnel carriers and shock troops, blazing away at everything surrounding them.
But we were ready this time, and we lit them up. Unlike when the invasions started a few weeks ago, we finally had a chance to fight. I flicked the safety off and let loose with my weapon.
* * *
The difference between this war and the all the wars humans have fought in the past was that there wasn’t any way to see this one coming. Our negligence in preparing for the invasion was largely because of how we perceived threats. Throughout human history the greatest enabler of hostile forces has always been the ability to conquer distance. The largest military in the world is useless if it can’t cross a mountain, a sea, or an ocean to reach the enemy. Of all the weapons of war ever devised, none have been so carefully watched by neighbors as those advances that can carry forces across borders or to another’s shores.
World governments have spent trillions of dollars to interdict an enemy’s ability to reach their respective homelands. Some secret programs have even invested in experimental defenses against unseen enemies that might one day leap across the cold gulfs of space to threaten our world. So in a way, we can be forgiven for not considering threats that exist in the same place as we do. Or more accurately, a threat that existed in the same place, but on a separate plane.
Fringe scientists had postulated for the better part of a century about the theoretical existence of alternate planes of reality. These planes could be completely unlike anything we know of as “real” in our plane, or they could be nearly identical to our own. Recent history has more or less now confirmed the latter theory. These planes exist not in some far flung solar system somewhere, but right on top of each other. Think of these realities like this: imagine someone made thousands of copies of a document, stacked one on top of the other. Each document is exactly like the one on top of it, except for one letter or flaw that makes it unique. If you were to flip through all of them, you probably wouldn’t notice a difference. In the same way, our world – our plane – sits right on top of other planes; we just can’t see them because their physical laws are slightly different than ours. The idea that anyone would be able to jump between these planes was even more far-fetched than the theory of alternate realities itself.
Far-fetched, maybe, but not impossible. The first fissures were blown through the planes on December 12, 2013, and the world was suddenly at war with itself. Some geek at the Central Intelligence Agency coined the conflict (WW)2, which signified a Worlds War, with the exponent indicating the double reality. Whatever. The thing is, all over the planet, major military powers were being attacked by their mirror-nations from the alien plane. Somehow, they figured out how to make the jump, and we found ourselves suddenly on the verge of extinction.
The United States reeled from savagely effective strikes by the aggressor reality United States. In England, Union Jack flew against Union Jack as highly advanced British soldiers assaulted our Earth’s British soldiers. The Chinese Government was nearly extinguished when a well-executed assault obliterated three of the most modern units of the People’s Liberation Army.
In short, it was impossible to defend against an enemy that knew everything about us because they were us in every way except one – their blood lust. Regardless of what alternate-reality nation was invading, the operational model was always the same: strike fast, and show no mercy. No opportunity for dialogue was ever offered, no request for parley ever given. The invaders had one mission: extermination. We just didn’t know why.
After the initial invasions across the globe, the CIA pooled every resource and every Black program they had to figure out what was going on. Miraculously, within three weeks, they had determined a pattern of attacks that pointed to our Fort as being the next likely target. The Intel guys were dead on, for once. This time, outside our base in northern Georgia, the enemy hadn’t expected a prepared defense.
* * *
When they emerged into our Reality this time, they zeroed in immediately on where our ambush was supposed to have been set up. Ha! Bastards! Before they knew what was happening, 240mm artillery rained down in front of the rift. A hellstorm of heat washed over us, and I closed my eyes reflexively. Even with the devastation unleashed in front of me, I prayed we were able to penetrate their advanced armor.
The enemy fighters tried to gain altitude as soon as they cleared the rift in order to drop their bombs, but found themselves already locked on by the base’s newly installed PATRIOTs. It wasn’t a pretty defense. We detonated the entire sky for miles around, and it pulverized the enemy air forces.
The ground convulsed under waves of sound and blistering heat from the kill-zone. Line after line of armor-piercing string mines detonated in a vicious choreography, so densely packed that even their advanced armor quickly started smoldering. The armored columns adjusted their direction with bewildering speed, but we had rigged practically the entire area between the ridges on either side of the road. It wasn’t long before both the only entrance and exit of the zone was choked with incapacitated tanks. All that was left was the killing of the soldiers.
* * *
I sat on the side of the road, trying to catch fresh air through the rolling clouds of burning metal and flesh. The occasional sound of a secondary explosion would echo through the ridges, now choked with useless military hardware and corpses.
Berserkers, I thought. What could possibly drive these men, who were prepared to do nothing but kill or die?
When my platoon sergeant told me we had a prisoner, I knew the Agency would be by within the hour to snatch him up. I needed to see him first. Despite the bone-deep exhaustion that only combat brings, I sprinted to the makeshift CP we had set up. It wasn’t a building of any sort, but rather a HUMVEE with a tent extension jutting out of the rear of the vehicle.
The prisoner was dressed like us, down to the American flag on the shoulder. With his short cropped hair and unit insignia, he looked like he could have been assigned to my unit. I walked over to the bound soldier, who was sitting on the asphalt of the parking lot where our tactical CP had been erected, and squatted down so I could look at his face.
The soldier looked at me, and I could see madness behind those eyes. If he hadn’t been restrained, I knew he would have been on me in a moment, ready to break my neck. I leaned closer to him.
“Why?” I asked. His muscles tensed, and I could sense his mind burning through methods to break his bonds.
The rapid sounds of a helicopter engine rocked the sky, though it was obscured by the tent. The Agency was here. I would never see this soldier again.
“Why?” I repeated.
He strained once more, his crazy eyes pleading for a chance to kill me. Then he stopped. He shook his head furiously.
“You have to die. There’s no room.”
Three CIA men swept in like a flash flood. Nothing was said, nothing was signed. They simply hefted the prisoner in between two of them and dragged him out. I really didn’t care. I leaned up against the HUMVEE, exhausted.
Before they vanished, one of the agents turned back and strode over to me. A big guy, decked out in khakis and black body armor, he stretched out his hand. There was a cell phone in it.
“You’re going to get a call, Captain Vance,” he said. “You need to take it. You’re the first to win an engagement in any way. We’re going to want to know how you did it, and fast.”
I nodded. I hope whoever calls has an open mind.
The agent hopped onto the black helicopter and the side door slid closed behind him. As the hot wash of the helo’s take off swept over me, I thought about their prisoner.
The soldier’s eyes, his voice. It’s clear that we’re looking down the throat of an enemy that seeks to do nothing but consume. They’re not trying to conquer us. They want to destroy us.
Sergeant Mallory walked up then. His face – smeared with camouflage paint and soot from the burning detritus of combat – was unreadable.
“Permission to slouch with you?” he asked.
He leaned back, and we stood there for who knows how many minutes, just the two of us and the CP radio operator. We watched the columns of smoke as they rose into the sky. A formation of four AH-64 Apaches swept across our narrow field of view through the open flap of the tent, while reinforcements from the base began to arrive. My men would be allowed to rest while the Intel guys tried to figure out where the next assault will take place.
“We found your body… the body of a guy who looks a helluva lot like you,” the sergeant said. “And that prisoner, he looks like a squad leader I know that belongs to Charlie Company.” He shook his head slowly, like he was trying to get it all to make sense. At length he sighed, apparently deciding that he didn’t have time to do so. He squinted as he peered through the hazy air outside the tent. “I’m betting we don’t have a lot of time to recoup. I’ve got the squad leaders assembling the men now. We should get back to garrison. I’m sure they’re going to be back, and soon.”
The hair on the back of my neck stood on end, despite how hot I felt. Yeah. They would be back soon. A lot faster than we’re expecting. I cleared my throat.
“Sergeant, get the men some rest,” I said. “But get our kit refitted and reloaded now. We have to assume they’ll try again, and I don’t expect they’re going to wait too long.”