This is a science fiction short that I originally published on Virtual Mirage in January 2016 in three parts. It’s reprinted here in its entirety for your reading during the Pandemic, should you wish to wade through it.
A US Army Special Forces Team in Iceland ran into something that they weren’t prepared to deal with.
How often have I lain beneath rain on a strange
roof, thinking of home. – William Faulkner
In spartan room with bare bunk-beds, Alan Frazier, 28, sits on a lower bunk, shirtless. Rain pounds on a window that looks out into a stormy sky over the godforsaken ruins of what must have been a very nice town. He can’t recall how he got where he is or precisely who he is. There is a worn OD green duffle bag by his feet. There is a name, FRAZIER, A; SSG; XXX-45-5277; ODA5116; US Army, and it is hand stenciled, maybe by using a template and a sharpie. He knows what ODA5116 means. He understands that it means that he’s assigned to the First Battalion, Fifth Special Forces Group, based at Fort Campbell, Kentucky. He lives off base in a small, poorly furnished bungalow and has a dog named Rex that his girlfriend is taking care of while he is deployed.
Looking away from the rain on the window that has hypnotized him, there is a mirror hanging from a wall and he stares at an unshaved man that he doesn’t recognize, all the time suspecting that he’s looking at himself. There are scars and bruises of varying age. Fresh, unstitched cuts stretch from his hairline all the way down to the bottom of his ear. They are not deep, but they bled a lot are still weeping. There is another cut, lower on his face, stitched. It distorts his lip slightly. Other scars, much older form an inkless tattoo carved crudely onto the flesh his upper chest, ‘de oppresso liber’. He knows what it means and in probing his memory he realizes that he does not speak Latin. He suspects that he may have carved it into his own chest. He turns in the mirror to see an ink tattoo on his shoulder. Crossed arrows. He knows what that represents as well. The details of how, who, where and when that remain fuzzy. You can’t survive certain experiences. But sometimes despite the odds, you do and afterward you don’t fully exist precisely because you failed to die.
Death brings with it a sense of authenticity that Alan Frazier does not feel. He is disturbed because in a strange way he is inauthentic. That lack of sense of self embraces him coldly.
He’s not the only man in the room. There are others, wearing t-shirts, BDU’s, and there are plate carriers spread here and there. Some of the armor appears to have been hit more than once and is in a state of disrepair. Their firearms are on the bunks, very close at hand. Many have green tape here or there on them to perform some personalized function. A man sitting on a bunk across from Frazier is methodically field stripping his rifle, and then reassembling the component parts, oiling, wiping off oil, stripping oil, swabbing the bore. There is a small mountain of cleaning rags around him and he smells of solvent and oil.
“Patrick, knock that shit off.” Patrick ignores him and begins to tear down his rifle for the eighth or twentieth time. Frazier doesn’t know how many times.
He realizes that he knows that the man’s name is Patrick.
The rain plays in sheets across the glass of the only window in the room that serves as a temporary barracks. The others either stare into space or they watch the rain beating on the windowpane. Patrick is the exception and it has become unclear to Alan whether he is a robot or SFC Patrick O’Donnell, 18B, Special Forces Weapons Sergeant. Doc Coulter, SSG Malcolm Douglas Coulter, 18D, Special Forces Medical Sergeant should help if it’s a human problem, not a robotic issue, but he is watching the rain on the goddamned window along with everyone else. Coulter is not completely motionless. He’s dragging a plastic safety razor over his bald scalp – again. That inattention to Patrick O., further underscores his concern that Patrick is a robot and not an authentic human being.
There is thunder in the distance and flashes of light play across the window. Frazier, Alan R, can’t tell whether it is artillery or thunder, but as he resolves what he just heard against his memory, it is thunder and lightning. It lacks the high order crack of military explosives or demolitions such as C-4. The flash of lightning is different too with its flickering intensity.
Nobody flinches when a big door opens and pale light streams in. Her shadow precedes Olga, a woman of thirty-five who is attractive, but not in a glamorous way. Hers is a natural beauty, worn with intelligence and dignity.
Blank eyes turn toward her.
“We need you all to gear up and go back into the cauldron.”
Rain slashes Alan’s face as he runs, his eyes staring vacantly ahead as his legs pump evenly, his feet chopping through mud, jumping over rocks, solid footing despite the landscape. His uniform looks as though he climbed through razor wire. His armor has taken hits and we can see through the camouflage fabric into the ballistic plate below. He carries his rifle with a practiced ease and slides one magazine out, replacing it by rote. He runs toward the threat without fear or rancor, slinging the rifle, sliding a hand grenade out of its pouch. He pulls the pin as he runs, allows the spoon to release, counts one-two, throws and drops. BANG!
None of the men move except for SFC Patrick O’Donnell, who stands and looks for more cleaning rags, ignoring Olga completely. Doc Coulter has moved his razor from his scalp to his cleanly shaved face.
Olga now faces WO2 Jason Miles, 180A, Assistant Detachment Commander. Something in Frazier’s memory triggers. CAPT Carlos Sanchez, 18A, Operational Detachment Commander, had his head blown from his shoulders. Frazier’s brain recorded the event from behind Carlos. There was a loud pop and the captain’s head burst like a balloon. It happened in the caldera, that Olga is calling the cauldron. That means that Jason is now the boss.
But Jason’s attention turned from Olga back to the rain on the window.
“Warrant Officer Miles, I’m addressing you directly. Your men need to gear up and recon that target site again. We need to know what’s going on and you are the only ones who can do it.” Olga isn’t in Jason Miles’ chain of command. She’s a spook, CIA case officer. Even if she was the Army Chief of Staff, it wouldn’t have had much impact on Jason.
The warrant officer’s hand moved from his knee to the zipper of his trousers and he reached in, pulling out his meat and began to pound it softly, in an absent, almost asexual way — watching the rain.
Pat O’Donnell has found more cleaning rags and he’s back on his bottom bunk hard at work.
Staff Sergeant Frazier, Alan R., has returned his gaze to the window and the rhythmic sheeting rain.
“They say that it’s raining, Mr. Lawson.” Olga Shearing told the boss as he stepped out of the OV-22 Osprey with no markings, that had just landed. “They’re combat ineffective.”
Lawson folded the briefing papers that Olga cabled to him earlier in the day. He put them in his pocket and looked up at the clear, blue sky through dark aviator sunglasses, absently running his fingers through his thinning white hair. “Raining?”
“That’s what they say.”
“All of ’em?”
Olga shrugged a ‘yes’. Bryce Lawson had been around The Company for a long, long time. Rumors abounded that it was Lawson himself who’d deflowered the Virgin Mary. Others suggested that he’d held the cloaks of the Romans while they pounded the nails into Jesus-on-the-cross. Some said that he pounded the nails himself giving the Roman executioners tips while doing so. A lot of people feared Bryce Lawson but she didn’t know anyone who understood him beyond the legend that grew up around him. He looked so normal, just an old guy — but still the guy who gave advice to Eve in the Garden.
Olga had never met him before and the man she walked next to didn’t impress her with any of those allegedly well-deserved reputations, but there was something about him that she couldn’t quite put her finger on. Maybe it was confidence? In a world of uncertain people, Lawson screamed certainty.
Olga worked with one of his ex-wives, also a Virginia Farm Girl, when she was state-side assigned to Global Targets Division. Sylvia Lawson, the ex, never said a single word about him. Not even when she was drunk on grapa and raving. Olga asked whether or not Sylvia’s refusal to comment was due to fear. Sylvia, a Rhodes Scholar and former Miss Florida said, “no, it’s respect.”
Olga followed in Lawson’s wake as he spoke to a few of the Agency’s contractors, who provided security now that the egg heads who created the pig-fuck by sending in the Army had departed. She fervently hoped that she would not be held accountable for a NASA decision.
There was the natural worry that Lawson would simply make a phone call and have her relieved short of tour and sent back to headquarters, where there would be a desk, and the trite, meaningless tasks as a cog in the great machine. That’s how it happened when things went horribly wrong. There would be the inevitable whispers and gossip within the bureaucracy, but her career would be finished. Lawson had the power to do that to her with nothing more than a grunt and a sideways glance. Her recourse, given the nature of what happened, consisted of resignation, suicide or both.
It had been one of those incredibly strange things and Olga didn’t know quite how the sequence of events had landed her there. Iceland called NASA, and the NASA people were mostly ex-Air Force. One of their people encountered ‘something’ in the steaming, burning caldera and they panicked, grabbing the Special Forces A-Team who was training on the other side of the nation-island. It had nothing to do with her, nothing to do with the Agency.
And as with so many things which had happen in the course of screw-ups, it defaulted to the Central Intelligence Agency to try and determine what-in-the-heck was going on. As the ‘nation’s first line of defense’, it had that role, even in Iceland if the Icelanders, and Denmark, had handed it off to the US to deal with. The director sent his favorite fireman, the ancient of days, Bryce Lawson.
He took off his sun glasses and looked at Olga, “Ms. Shearer, shall we go in?” Bryce Lawson tried to be polite. She trailed Lawson as he sauntered slowly into the Containerized Housing Unit (CHU) and looked at what remained of ODA5116. “Frazier. Staff Sergeant Frazier.”
Frazier turned his gaze from the window to Lawson. Lawson turned to Olga. “He’s the one who carried the decapitated captain out? Fireman’s carry?” Olga nodded. “That’s why he’s drenched in blood?” Olga nodded again. “Walk him into the shower, strip off his clothes yourself, then take yours off and wash him down. He needs a woman’s naked body next to him under hot water.”
Olga’s eyes bugged and she wanted to say something, but she didn’t. She did precisely what Lawson asked because he was Bryce-fucking-Lawson, and his will was too great for her to resist. That and he spoke with such great compassion that she wanted to do what he directed her to do.
The scalding water cascaded over them in the shower and Alan Frazer sensed that he was being washed. All of him. The fog lifted ever so slowly, as her nipples touched his back and she gently scrubbed his hair and massaged his scalp. He became aroused and she stroked and pulled until he released. More hot water, more soap and he opened his eyes as she led him from the shower and handed him a towel.
Seeing Olga almost for the first time, toweling off next to him, Alan covered himself and blushed. “Where the fuck am I?”
“Here, sergeant, let me put some bandages on your face.” Olga sat him down on a wooden bench and unashamedly dressed his wounds.
Alan Frazier presented himself to Lawson who sat on a crate in the cargo bay of the Ov-22, eating a tuna sandwich and drinking from a dark amber bottle. Frazier wore clean, pressed khaki clothing that Olga handed him, and felt very different from the way he had an hour before. His memory of the stupor he’d been in faded to the point where he wasn’t all together sure that he’d been in a stupor at all. “Who are you and where’s the bus that hit me—–sir?” He looked back outside and said, “isn’t there a destroyed village out there? There’s nothing as far as the horizon except the CHU and that command trailer with the NASA logo on it.”
“Are you hungry?”
“Oh God, Yes.” Olga told him that the old man’s name was Bryce Lawson and that he wanted to speak to him. Nothing more.
He pointed to a blue and white plastic flip top cooler lashed down to a palate with other equipment in the cargo bay. “There’s a bowl of tuna, green onion and pickles, light mayo, a bit heavy on the mustard and pepper. Throw that between a couple slices of bread, grab a beer and some chips.” He pointed to one of the canvas sling chairs attached to the aircraft’s bulkhead. “Then sit and we can talk. You’re feeling weak aren’t you?”
Frazier nodded. Then he assembled a sandwich, sat on the cooler instead of the sling-chair and took a bite. “It’s good.” The beer, Nøgne Ø Imperial Stout, was a brand he’d never seen before. He sampled it and said, “That’s good too.”
“I made the tuna this morning, though I must confess, when I did, I never thought that I’d end up here today. The beer is a Norwegian. I was there — in Norway, this morning.”
He took another bite, chugged half of the bottle. Then he took another bite, tore open the bag of potato chips and ate a few of those. Alan finished the beer and felt ready to talk.
“It’s Loki’s fire.” Lawson pointed off in the distance to the plume of smoke. “The Norse attributed what you experienced to the god, Loki, the trickster and lord of fire. Fire can warm you, save you, cook your food, comfort you and burn you to death in your house with all of your children around you screaming. All from the same pile of sticks burning in front of you. When it happened in antiquity, they attributed it to Loki and his unpredictability.”
“You believe that, Mr. Lawson?”
“Of course. They did think that it was Loki.”
“Are you pulling my chain?”
“Certainly. Have another beer and toss me one while you’re at it.”
Alan Frazier dug through the crushed ice in the chest and retrieved two bottles. He tossed one to Lawson and opened the other.
“We are aware of other times that this situation that you found yourself in has happened. The Chinese or the Russians may have had encounters like yours but they buried it just the way that we did, so there’s no knowing there.
“The first that we have a solid record of involved an encounter with the Delaware State Police in 1928, who responded to a phenomenon at the seashore. They killed themselves afterward and the only accounts we have are all contemporaneous to the event but I’m convinced that they faced the same thing that you did. There was another situation in Alaska with an oil drilling crew. Only one of them survived. A young man who’d just returned from combat in Vietnam with the Marine Corps up on the DMZ. He’d been wounded near Phu Bai and when he left the Corps, he gravitated to roughnecking. After the encounter, he found other work. And then there is you, here in Iceland.”
“We’re in Iceland? No shit?”
“I shit you not.”
“And the woman who, uh, showered with me.”
“Olga. She resurrected you, yes, she works for the same alphabet agency that I work for. She is very good at what she does, but she doesn’t know why she is. Don’t worry about that. She did her job.”
“It was raining.” Frazier looked at the clear sky.
“You think so? Go back into the CHU and the men in there, your friends, will claim that it still is.”
“Dead. Same with sergeants Broadmoore and Kelly. If you walked into that CHU, you’d swear that Sergeant Tarrell is there sitting on a bunk, looking at the rain, but he’s not. He’s dead too, laid out in a body bag in the shade between Sanchez and Kelly.”
“Were we attacked?”
“You mean, ‘by what?’ Now that is the question isn’t it? Do you remember the encounter?”
“No. I don’t recall much. The last thing that I remember we were in Kentucky — Fort Campbell, and there was a training evolution we had geared up for. The details are — I don’t remember much of even that. What will happen to the rest of them, my friends?”
“They’re insane now. I expect that they will remain like that. Maybe in the psych ward at Walter Reid, eating pudding, looking at the rain on the windows. You are different because you picked up your captain and carried him out. They panicked and ran.”
“How do you know that they panicked and I didn’t?”
“You’re here talking to me and they are still in there.” Lawson shifted subjects, “Iceland has a bureau that deals with volcanoes because they have a lot of them and they study them. They’re very good at what they do, so when they saw that caldera forming,” Lawson pointed to the plume of smoke, “they sent a team, but it wasn’t like any volcano that they’d ever seen. They thought that it might have been a meteor strike, so they called NASA. NASA thought that it didn’t look right. They were correct.
“NASA came, screwed around with it, panicked, called your team which happened to be handy, and when things went to pot with you all, they split. Somebody called me, and here we are.”
“And who exactly are you,” Frazier asked? “But I must admit that you blend up a good tuna salad.”
“It really doesn’t matter who I am. What does matter is that you’re going back there and this time I’m going with you.”
Olga Shearer handed Staff Sergeant Alan Frazier a sheaf of papers that required his signature. When he began examining the small print, Bryce Lawson said, “sign on the tabs and let’s get this show on the road. You’re separating from the US Army under honorable circumstances, you will receive a $100,000.00 separation bonus from the US Government for unspecified services, should you survive the next six hours, and you are being read-in to a special access program that even the President, our Commander-in-Chief doesn’t know the specifics of. Nobody trusts a politician with things like this. Technically he would have access if anyone told him about it, but the handful of people involved don’t tell him.”
“And if I don’t sign?”
“Walk back into the CHU and look at the rain on the window with your friends. You can lapse back at this point if you work at it, and you’ll never truly wake up. Or charges will be filed alleging violations, of the Uniform Code of Military Justice. The Security detail will take you into custody, you’ll have your day before a military tribunal, you will be convicted and you will spend the rest of your life in prison in solitary confinement. You can’t be left running around knowing what you now know, spreading panic.”
“I don’t know that much.”
“What we are offering is an alternative career path for you, money, and a good life if you accept it. Or we’ll put you on ice as humanely as possible.”
Frazier likes the offer and is intrigued by the totality of what he has experienced, but just signing without reading goes against his instincts. That reluctance notwithstanding, he signs.
Lawson and Frazier put on heavy hard-shell armored suits with reflective surfaces, aided by the helpful Olga, who had to sign much the same paperwork as Frazier did. Frazier thinks of them as Space suits designed for exceptional heat and he’s not far from wrong. Lawson has given him a crash course on lava, magma and the Earth’s crust.
“When lava first erupts from these particular volcanic vents, the temperature is between 1,300 (F) and 1,600 (F). The vent lava has different thixotropic characteristics. In a nut shell, that means that it is even less viscous than the lava one would find in a volcano’s caldera. More like heavy soup in consistency than molten rock.” Even though Frazier’s suit doesn’t quite fit him, the seals are solid and it’s functionally good-to-go.
They will not touch the lava because it is not necessary to do that. They are on a different sort of mission, and it’s something that Frazier had never considered possible. The suits are designed to keep them alive and comfortable in the immediate presence of red mist.
“Their first weapon of choice is psychotropic, and it’s effective once. You saw work on your friends, but it won’t work on you again because you brain adapted, and the copper mesh layer of the suit helps defeat the weapon.” Lawson’s confidence calmed Frazier. “The second weapon in their bag of tricks is a type of magnetic force projection. That’s what hit your captain. It also throws rocks and lava out when it discharges, and rocks what tore up your armor plate.”
“Are you saying that we were attacked by extra-terrestrials, Mr. Lawson?”
“Call me Bryce.”
“Well, Bryce? What gives?”
“No they’re not ET’s. As near as we can tell, which means as nearly as they can tell, they are originally from Earth. They live deep beneath the surface in the magma. A very few of their number are explorers and scientists who make their way to the surface through faults and fissures in the surface and the tunnels that they construct are filled with lava. It’s similar to us being in our atmosphere. Deep in the planet where pressures are formidable, they have a more substantial presence. They prefer to explore vents in the deep ocean where pressure is intense but as you’d expect, they don’t learn the same things. When they explore here, they look a bit like concentrated red mist held together by magnetic fields that are projected up the pipe or vent. How did you do in math and physics?”
“Solid C-. This body is built for sex and violence, not science, Mr. Lawson — Bryce.”
“You’ll learn. A magnetic field at any given point is specified by both a direction and a magnitude or strength. The term is used for two distinct but closely related fields denoted by the symbols B and H, where H is measured in units of amperes per meter. B is measured in teslas and newtons per meter per ampere. B is the Lorentz force that it exerts on moving electric charges.”
“You lost me at B.”
Lawson lifted an armored hand and shook his head. “Schools focus more on diversity than learning these days. Magnetic fields can be produced by moving electric charges and the intrinsic magnetic moments of elementary particles associated with their spin. In Einstein’s Theory of Special Relativity, electric and magnetic fields are two interrelated aspects of a single object, called the electromagnetic tensor. These beings need the electromagnetic field to keep their bodies, for want of a better word, intact and together in the low pressure environment that we live in normally. We don’t think that they can’t go far from the vent, which is their conduit to the power to keep things together. Under pressure they swim in liquid rock after–a fashion.”
“And you know this how?”
“We communicate with them — with some of them. We have no common language but we both use mathematics to find that joint playing field. It works well enough now and we get more kinks out of the process all the time. It’s important that we don’t misconstrue or misinterpret. They have factions just as we do. Their politics can be contentious. We don’t chat with all of them, which is why this incident happened. They viewed you as a threat. The grenade that you lobbed must have destroyed a few of them. They’re very vulnerable on the surface. And they are waiting for us to communicate again despite the unfortunate encounter. I know this because the vent over there has not closed up.”
“But they scrambled our brains.”
“They learned to do that hundreds of thousands of years ago when they first came to the surface. It’s learned behavior. The magnetic force weapons are a recent development as they measure time.”
“Back to the whole communication thing?”
“They are most concerned with underground nuclear weapons testing. It’s why there are strict international rules about announcing those sorts of things. When a nation lights one off, if they’re not well clear, it can kill millions of them. The electromagnetic pulse that the nukes generate disintegrates them. For now, the best thing for you to do is to jump in the deep end of the pool. We’ll go to their cauldron and let them talk to us. I have to warn you that it’s weird.”
“Bryce, my weird-o-meter is pegged.”
“They may employ their psychotropic weapon if they don’t like what we say. They can be capricious. This time it won’t be the shock that it was the first time, and you will be in hard armor insulated against it. It attacks the limbic system, the portion of the brain that controls basic human emotions and drives. It’s not the most primitive portion of the brain, but it’s been part of homo sapiens make-up from the beginning. I have no idea how they developed their capabilities, but these entities are advanced and they are clever.”
“Do you talk to them all the time, like this? I wanted to say face to face, but I don’t think they have faces.”
“Oh, no. That’s not what I do for the CIA. Not usually. We have the suits available just in case and I’m lucky that it fit you. I’m a problem solver. In this case, the red mist problem is our problem because we’re here and so are they. You and I have to go to the vent and find out what they want from us. They’re going outside normal channels of communications that we have established though hydrothermal vents in the ocean floor. That means that it must be important.”
“But you have spoken with them before? In person?”
“On three occasions before this one, and spoken is not the word one would use. You’re going to need to un-shield the helmet with this lever.” Bryce pulled on a toggle on the side of the helmet.” So that they can communicate. It’s like having a rat claw its way out from the middle of your brain. It’s unpleasant but it leaves a rare and precious gift behind. You’ll see. You’re going to fit right in at CIA.”
“The computer will translate what we say. I have disabled your ability to speak to them, but you will be able to hear both sides of the conversation.”
“And that rat clawing from the inside of my brain?”
“You don’t need to experience it, but it’s something not to be missed. It will change how you process information. You’ll go from using 10% of your brain to something over 23% of your brain in a few seconds.”