Outward: Chapter 26: Line in the Sand

“That has to be another Mackinelly Device!” MSgt Abernathy said, staring at the grainy video stream being projected on the screen in the front of the briefing room.

“Are you sure?” Col Newmeyer asked.

“What else could it be? Same size, same shape. We know that whatever part of the alien survived is hiding out underground.”

“Now hang on just a minute,” COL Griggs interrupted. “I thought that whole dust-up last year was some kind of probe that landed. What’s all this about aliens?”

“We have reason to believe that the Mackinelly Device was either partly biological or contained one or more biological organisms, based on some recent discoveries we’ve made,” MSgt Abernathy replied.

“I hadn’t heard of that,” COL Griggs said.

“Until now, you didn’t have a need to know,” Col Newmeyer pointed out.

“Well what kind of threat is this thing to my base, then?” COL Griggs asked.

MSgt Abernathy looked at Col Newmeyer. “We aren’t entirely sure, sir,” she said.

“How can you not be sure? You’ve tangled with this thing before.”

“The thing is, Colonel,” Col Newmeyer said, “the technology this thing has got is way beyond ours, and we’re only starting to figure out what it’s been up to over the past year. I mean, this silo here, that’s something else. Wow. It’s an impressive piece of work.”

“Also,” added MSgt Abernathy, “it’s still unclear what it’s intentions are.”

“Unclear!” COL Griggs shouted, pounding his fist on the table. “It’s built a goddamn missile silo on my base, and you can’t see what it’s up to?”

“Sir, what I mean is, we have yet to see any real pattern of aggression from it. We don’t know what it’s trying to do here, but there isn’t enough to conclude definitively that it means us any harm.”

“What the Sergeant is trying to say,” added Col Newmeyer, “is that if it were going to attack us, it should’ve done it already. It’s had the opportunity.”

“The hell it hasn’t,” countered COL Griggs. “It’s invaded my base, and I intend to do something about it.”

“Colonel,” Col Newmeyer began, “under the terms of the National Security Act of 1947, as amended, operational control of activities–”

“And as commander of this base,” COL Griggs said, “I have authority over anything that happens here, including dealing with security breaches. I only brought you two here in the first place to figure out what I’m up against, and frankly, I can’t say it was worth the time. If AFEXOCOM knew what it was doing, it would’ve resolved this incursion a year ago, but instead, you’ve let it fester and develop until I find it putting silos right under my nose! You had your chance; now it’s my turn.”

COL Griggs stood up and marched to the phone at the back of the room. He lifted the receiver. “Young, this is Griggs. You are go.” He hung up.

“Now,” he addressed his two guests, “you’re going to see how we deal with alien insurgents, Army-style.”

“Sir?” MSgt Abernathy asked.

“When in doubt, C4.”

“But, sir! You’ll kill it!”

“That’s the idea, Sergeant.”

MSgt Abernathy looked to Col Newmeyer for support.

“Now look, Colonel,” Col Newmeyer said, “I’m not saying we shouldn’t be prepared for that eventuality. Heck, I’ve got air support on warm standby, and my men back at base are looking into what support MOJO can provide, but–”

“MOJO?” COL Griggs sneered. “That didn’t work the first time.”

“We’ve learned a few things since the first time.”

None of the three noticed the shadow that briefly moved across the video stream.

At the site, soldiers were busy wiring together blocks of C4. The plan was to line the walls of the silo with C4 charges, then detonate them all at once, destroying the structure and everything inside. To prevent anyone from having to physically go down into the silo, they were going to borrow the strategy used to lower the cameras down: mounting the charges along cables that would be lowered down along the sides.

All the soldiers near the hole were too busy preparing the charges to be watching the silo itself, so none of them heard the faint metal-on-metal noises coming from somewhere in the depths, or noticed as the sounds became louder as the source became closer.

Something crested the top of the silo. It was small, gray, and flat, with a rectangular body and a jointed leg at each corner. The two front legs grabbed the rim of the hole and flipped the rest of it up onto the surface.

And it was not alone.

The first soldier to notice was connecting a detonator wire to a block of C4 when the vaguely spider-like robot nimbly leaped on top of the block. The soldier jumped up with a shout, drawing the attention of the others. Then they saw dozens of the spiders climbing out of the silo and skittering forth in all directions.

Being unarmed, save for the explosives which were obviously unsuitable for close-quarters combat, the soldiers took the only available option. They fell back, and radioed for help.

Fort Blackstone’s emergency siren blared, interrupting the argument in the briefing room.

“Condition three, old artillery range,” thundered the voice of the PA system, “repeat, condition three, old artillery range. This is not a drill.”

“What does condition three mean?” Col Newmeyer asked.

“It means you can stop wondering if your alien buddy is hostile or not,” COL Griggs replied, heading for the door. “It’s launched its attack.”

CPT Young peered through his binoculars from behind the defensive line, assessing the situation at the silo. It was swarming with the little crawling machines, as well as several larger ones. Many of them were attacking the abandoned C4, severing the detonation wires and — he adjusted the focus and zoom to make sure he was seeing correctly — spraying something that was dissolving the C4 itself into puddles of goo. A few of the other machines were climbing up the support poles for the equipment that had been lowered into the hole and were tearing them down. And at the hole itself, the larger machines were doing something to the rim, widening it.

Not all of the machines were content to destroy the soldiers’ handiwork. Many of them were spreading out in circles from the silo. The riflemen at the front of the defensive line were keeping their sights trained on the slowly advancing machines, waiting for the signal to fire.

“Report!” COL Griggs shouted as he approached, followed by Col Newmeyer, who was talking into his phone, and MSgt Abernathy.

“These… machine things that crawled out of the silo have overrun the silo and surrounding area,” CPT Young replied.

“Casualties?”

“None yet. The soldiers reported the machines went after the explosives instead of them. But they are marching on our position here.”

“Spiders,” MSgt Abernathy said.

“What?” COL Griggs replied.

“We’ve been calling them ‘spiders’.”

CPT Young checked his binoculars. “But they only have four legs,” he protested.

“I don’t give a crap,” COL Griggs said. “How long until they reach our position?”

“At their present rate, ten, fifteen minutes,” CPT Young replied.

They watched nervously as the front line of spiders crawled forward. After a few minutes, however, they stopped, standing still in an arc around the silo’s position.

“We’re in luck,” Col Newmeyer said. “MOJO-4 passes directly overhead the silo. We’ll be able to use it to straight down inside.”

“And when that doesn’t work?” COL Griggs asked.

“Failing that, the other satellites can concentrate fire at the top of the silo and try to work their way down a bit, but that’ll really tear up the field. We’re also launching bombers as we speak. They should be able to drop something down the silo.”

“We’ll do all of them,” COL Griggs said.

“Isn’t that a bit overkill?”

“There is no overkill,” CPT Young replied. “There is only ‘open fire’ and ‘I need to reload.’”

“Is that the Army training manual?” Col Newmeyer.

“No, sir, but it should be. Schlock Mercenary.”

MSgt Abernathy was ignoring the discussion and watching the spiders. They definitely weren’t advancing any more. They were forming their own defensive line, of a sort, bunching tightly around an invisible circumference centered on the silo, with fewer, larger spiders ambling in the field within. They hadn’t attacked the soldiers themselves, only the explosives they had been preparing.

They weren’t attacking. They were acting in self-defense.

MSgt Abernathy grabbed the radio out of her uniform and slowly stepped forward. If there was another Mackinelly Device down there, and it was controlling the spiders, and it was intelligent, and it was non-hostile, there was a chance the situation could be defused before it escalated further.

“What is it, Sergeant?” Col Newmeyer asked.

“I have an idea, sir,” she replied. She kept moving forward.

“What is it?”

“I’m going to make contact and ask it to stand down. Let it know we don’t mean it any harm.”

“The hell we don’t,” COL Griggs said.

“It’s intelligent,” MSgt Abernathy said calmly and deliberately. “Our response has always been to study it or attack it. We haven’t tried diplomacy.”

“You can’t expect to be able to talk to–” Col Newmeyer began.

“Halt, Sergeant!” COL Griggs barked. “That’s an order.”

Col Newmeyer remembered MSgt Abernathy’s after-action report from the previous incident. It was a long shot, but it wasn’t completely crazy. “Proceed as you see fit, Sergeant,” he said. “That’s an order.”

“Yes, sir,” MSgt Abernathy replied. She continued towards the defensive line.

“What are you–” COL Griggs shouted, furious.

“I am her commanding officer, and I am in command of all operations dealing with alien entities, and I am giving her the go-ahead, Colonel,” Col Newmeyer replied. “You can defend your base, but this call is up to me. There’s only two people who can tell me otherwise, and they’re both in Washington. You will let her through.”

The two colonels stared at each other, waiting for the other to blink first.

“Let the Sergeant through,” COL Griggs relented. “And if those things advance, open fire.”

MSgt Abernathy squeezed through the defensive line and began hear approach to the spiders’ own defensive line. She took one slow step at a time. With her radio, she tapped out numbers using the transmit button. Once. Twice. Thrice. Four times. Five times.

Silence.

She kept trying as she approached, waiting for some reply to come through, hoping the Mackinelly Device was paying attention to the frequency. If it hadn’t noticed her, the spiders certainly did. The outermost were holding their position, but the ones immediately behind them had reared up on their hind legs. The larger spiders behind the line had also stopped milling about and were moving forward.

MSgt Abernathy held out her arms, keeping her thumb on the radio’s transmit button. She stood only a few feet away from their line. “See?” she said quietly. “I’m not going to hurt you.”

Still no response over the radio. Her approach now brought her directly in front of the line. The spiders in front would be easy enough to step over, even if they reared up as well. But that might be seen as aggression. They obviously wouldn’t understand her words. She needed to show we wasn’t going to hurt them.

Slowly, she crouched down in front of the spiders. Even more slowly, she set the still-silent radio down on the grass next to her. With the newly freed hand, she slowly reached forward to touch the closest spider.

They lunged.


Chapter word count: 1,933 (+266)
Total word count: 46,217 / 50,000 (92.434%)

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