Prologue: The Marine
Soft starlight pattered down over the landscape, providing light for her to see without squinting into a bright moon. It was why they’d gone in tonight. The New Moon was a day old, and they always went on the second day of the phase.
She listened for the normal radio squelch, light chatter relaying movement, casualties, enemies killed. She listened for the Commander’s hated voice, ordering her team around. She listened for Richardson, waiting for his irreverent and insubordinate replies. Listened for the crew clearing the area of evidence of their presence, securing their gear, humping out of the caves toward the Landing Zone.
There was none of that. Only the sound of wind stirring sand and dirt, herding the grains before it, crawling every which way with a susurrus of the tiny grains moving over, under, and around each other.
Her first effort to rise to her feet failed. Something held her down. She tried again. No, she was stuck.
Paul? She called in the no-voice communication they always conversed in.
They all had the Ability, to a degree, but only the Bonded shared a link deep enough to keep it on their “own channel.”
She relaxed, knowing Paul would be here soon. She waited for his reply.
And waited. Waited longer.
She opened her senses and broadcast wider, still privately for Paul, only, but in a longer range. She shouldn’t have had to. She’d always found him, in the next room or halfway around the world.
Paul, where the hell are you? Where did you guys go?
Pushing against the ground, she felt a strange surface under her palms. Somewhat smooth, but gritty, with frozen bubbles, lumps, and dips and cracks. She pushed harder and the odd…coating? It crackled under her hands as a patch of skin pulled away from her back, held in the ground’s grasp as she tried to get up. Her breath hissed through her nose as the skin was ripped away and left a raw place between her shoulder blades. She waited for the sting of it to dissipate, like a skinned knee or palms, but it persisted.
Not only persisted. Grew to the agony of a burning brand sinking into her back.
Having gained her feet, she arched, as if she could escape the brand in the middle of her back. She turned in a circle, trying to turn into the wind and gain a bit of relief. But in those few moments, the wind picked up and whipped a handful of sand into her face and scrubbed into her back when she turned to save her eyes, nose, and mouth from filling with the tiny remnants of rock. She spit out a grainy mouthful of saliva and bent forward, her hands on her knees.
Her bare knees. Bent above bare feet.
She looked all over her body and the burn became background noise. Not gone, no, nor the pain any less. It just wasn’t important anymore.
Not a stitch of her clothing, not a piece of her gear remained on or near her. Shocked, she put her hands to her head to try to think, but she only received another shock.
Her scalp was bare. Smooth except for the omnipresent dirt and grit out here. She grasped all over her head, but her unruly blond hair, usually perpetually stuck straight up in insolent spikes, was gone.
In fact, after judiciously checking, she found all her hair was gone.
She spun in place, searching for a possible radio dropped in the middle of bugging out. A flare gun. At least a shirt or pants hanging off a bush…Of course not. Her crew was top-end. Not even the rookie in the squad would make such a rookie mistake as losing a piece of equipment. Even with the damned Major trying to FUBAR every mission she went out on. There was nothing here.
Well, what about the enemy? She looked around, taking in her surroundings for the first time, and her breath hitched.
She’d expected to see dead jihadists all around her. She remembered them boiling out of the cave, screaming at the top of their lungs.
And that was the last memory in her mind. That unsettled her. She could always remember every bullet fired, every order shouted, every enemy that fell.
But now she stood in the middle of a barren patch of—what was this? Again she turned, getting the scope of it. What her brain processed for her made no sense.
She’d been lying in a patch of blasted sand…blasted into dark glass. Black, rough, pitted with burst bubbles with savage, sharp edges. And she’d been lying in the middle of this patch…twelve feet in diameter. Lying there for how long? And left a hunk of skin and more behind from her back.
Now, along with the wind in the sand, she heard a tiny, crystalline sound.
Coming from all around the blasted area.
Tink! Tink! Tink!
Coming from beneath her feet and beyond the blast-plain in front of the cave. From smaller pools of the black glass, spread out at random, which she hadn’t seen before.
The sound of heated glass cooling. Superheated glass cooling too quickly.
Yes, she expected to see dead around the area. There were no bodies. No wounded. Not one sign of one human being. But there were…patches of that black, pitted glass.
She walked off the glass in front of the cave, trying to ignore the sounds (Crraaack! Tink! Pop!) and the rough surface knifing into her feet and knelt next to a small patch. Well, it really wasn’t small, only when compared to…
She shook her head and directed her senses to record everything she could. Her attention was taken by small bits of a foreign substance scattered over the glass, infused into it. She leaned closer, her nose almost touching it, trying to make out the pieces in the dim light.
She lurched to her feet, flailing her arms for balance, crying out in shock. Air flowed through her nose, in-out, rapidly as she tried to control it.
Finally, she couldn’t get enough air. She panted, putting her hands on her knees. She hardly had any warning and she lurched away, vomiting. When she straightened, she barely registered the bloody handprint on her kneecap.
“What the hell happened?” She turned in a tight circle, looking at the other pools of glass. “You can’t all be—no this isn’t real!” She retched again, and between every gasp and hitch her eyes strayed to the odd glass surrounding this killing ground.
The odd pools surrounding one giant pool.
A blasted space where she’d awoken, seemingly embedded herself.
No. That’s impossible. Whatever happened, we’ll find out. We’ll find an explanation. Paul will help.
Still, she stared at the inconsistent pieces of debris in this glass pool. Bone and teeth were all that was left of a man at least six feet tall and weighing possibly two-hundred fifty pounds or more. The understanding that this was all that was left of every jihadi here kept her stomach emptying itself until there was nothing more to bring up but her stomach lining.
Paul? I need some help here…
She made herself check each flat pool of glass. Some had only a few bits of bone. Others seemed to have retained a full set of teeth. Most of them were blackened. But there was no doubt. They’d died horribly, and there was virtually nothing left of them.
Paul, for God’s sake—
At that moment, the light that she carried inside, the light that was Paul, went out.
“NOOO!” A second before she hit her knees, she swore something pulled her heart out of her chest. Her hands fluttered over her sternum, trying to get hold of the escaping organ.
There was no hole, no blood. Her heart still beat in her chest, but she felt something impaling it. The bundle of muscle in her body continued to contract, tearing more with every beat. Tears spilled out of her eyes, clearing tracks through the dirt on her face.
“Paul! PAUL! Come back to me! DON’T LEAVE ME!”
Her voice carried far out into the desert, with no answer coming back to her.