Understandably, it took me a while to recover after the maneater in Wukong ripped off my arms and burned half my body. Sometimes I feel like I'm getting injured for a living - but I try not to think about it. I know my life expectancy, and it isn't much. Might as well do what I can in the meantime, to try and keep people safe, and to that end, they hooked me up with some very nice prosthetics, built off the Traveler tech that was used for our exoskeletons. I can never enter the civilian world again, given the five-fingered science experiments I now use to drink myself into alcohol poisoning, but I suppose I wasn't planning on it, and HQ isn't so bad, so long as Barry and the rest of the guys are still here. Honestly, the muscle spasms from getting stabbed in Blood Siren are a lot worse than this, and unlike with my arms, there's nothing they can do about it. It's funny how much the little things matter.
For this one, they were sending us out to the corn fields of rural Kansas. Our objective was to secure and evacuate a confidential informant - a farmer - who's been feeding us information. It was all regarding a strange phenomenon that had been occurring on his land. He had posted a video to the internet, showing a bunch of dead animals - just bones - picked clean and laying in the grass, and he was saying that this had been happening for a while. He didn't know why. He was asking for advice, but we quickly shut it down, and set up a regular contact line with him. He had a family out there - wife and daughter - along with two local boys that he paid to help out in the fields, and he started to get worried for their safety.
During our contact with him, he kept finding more animal bones in the woods out back of his property, all picked clean just the same, like anything organic had been stripped from their bodies. It was usually small stuff, like squirrels, but then, they got bigger, and it wasn't long before he started reporting something altogether different. He was on a low-priority line at the time, but he sure got our attention fast. He kept livestock as well - just not as much as the surrounding farms. He said it was mostly for his family. But then, one day, the animals started acting strange. The cows and hens would just stare at him, never moving. They didn't even register fear or concern of any kind, only a blank consciousness, like they'd been hollowed out. He led a cow inside to be slaughtered, but as soon as he put the bolt gun to its head, he felt a fear that he couldn't explain, like it had locked him in place. He said his fingers wouldn't even move, he'd just twitch like a deer in the headlights while this animal stared at him with its empty, black eyes. He said it cried, then. It cried blood, a couple red tears dripping down its cheek. He backed away, and understandably, got the fuck out of there.
A day passed, and he decided to let one of his farmhands take a crack at it: a sixteen-year-old boy named Jack, who had a good heart, but was a little slow on the uptake.
He never came back.
The informant grabbed his shotgun, and went out to the barn, but there was nothing there. Just the cow, staring right at him. A couple days later, and his daughter said she saw the boy out in the fields, just looking at her. She said there was something wrong with his face, but refused to elaborate. The informant went to find the other worker and let him go, but they were nowhere to be seen, and when he called their parents, they said the boy never came home. Ever since then, he barricaded his house, and kept his wife and daughter locked inside while we mobilized a team - our team - to get them out of there. He said he's been hearing sounds in the night that he can't describe, but he has the windows boarded up, so he can't look out and see, even if he wanted to. I would hear that sound, too, soon enough, and ever since, I can still hear it in my head, and in my dreams. I just wish it would stop.
It was myself, Jefferies, Barry, Tanner, and Sprite, who finally got back from R&D, much to the delight of Jefferies. They still couldn't crack the transmission that had been sent to it, presumably from the Travelers, but they figured it was safe enough to keep deploying Sprite on operations, given how effective it was at keeping us from dying, and in the meantime, they had the universe-destroying bomb on full lockdown. We were strapped into an osprey with an ancillary team, which would function as our mobile C&C for the op. I remember looking out the back, watching the fields and forests rush by underneath us while we flew low over the terrain, thinking that, in another life, I would've liked to live in a field. Any field, really. You could see everything around you, and it just seemed secure, in a cozy sort of way. I'm probably wrong, but it's nice to fantasize every now and again.
We slowed, and began to hover over a wooded area, tossing the ropes out the back, and quickly rappelling down into the forest. My boots hit the dirt, joining the others while Sprite drifted in overhead, and the osprey flew away to set up command a couple klicks off our position. Barry took out his gear to get us oriented, and we switched on our cloaking fields, my eyes scanning the broad sycamore trees that surrounded us as rays of golden sunlight shone down through the canopy.
"This way," said Barry, leading us forward through the trees. "We're about fifteen minutes out. Then we'll hit the farmhouse."
We followed closely behind, moving carefully across the grassy dirt. Apart from the wind rustling through the leaves, and the sound of twigs snapping beneath our boots, it was completely silent. In a place like that, there should've been songbirds moving through the foliage and chirping upon the air, squirrels scampering across the bark, but it was like the world around us had been abandoned by everything. We slowly approached an open glade, where something on the ground glinted in the light. It was the bones of a cow, utterly dry and gleaming in the sun, like they had been cleaned and preserved for an exhibit. Jefferies radioed in.
"Sierra, this is Sierra One," he said. "Are you online? Over."
"This is Sierra," said command. "Go ahead Sierra One. Over."
"We've got bones outside the exclusion zone. Recommend setting up a perimeter with HQ - we may have a containment breach. Over."
"Acknowledged, we'll bounce your request. Over."
"Roger out," said Jefferies, kneeling to examine the bones more closely. He prodded them with the muzzle of his railgun, though found nothing of interest. Rising to his feet, he motioned Barry onward, and we continued into the depths of the wood, the silence beginning to slowly unnerve me. A minute later, and Tanner pointed at something half-buried in the soil.
"Squirrel," he said, looking down at the frail skeleton. We moved past it, and it wasn't long before the trees began to break, and we saw the old, white farmhouse across the yard, its windows boarded shut, and its paint peeling away from the wood. It stood next to a massive cornfield, the golden stalks swaying in the gentle breeze as the silhouettes of three crucified scarecrows loomed in the distance. A brown, wooden barn and several fenced enclosures flanked it, one of them containing a chicken coop. All the gates were hanging open, and I couldn't hear any animals.
"Ah, shit," said Jefferies, motioning for us to crouch down in cover. I turned to see him looking at the yard in front of the farmhouse, and immediately realized what was wrong. Next to two red pickups and a bike laying on its side, a local police cruiser was parked. Jefferies turned on his radio.
"Sierra, this is Sierra One," he said. "We've got a visual on the house, but the guy called the cops. There's a car out front. Over."
"Sierra One, this is Sierra," said command. "You're free to engage. Evac any law enforcement on site. We'll get in contact with the local PD. Over."
"Roger out," said Jefferies. "Tanner, take point. Sprite, circle around back and make sure we're clear." Tanner crawled to his feet, and we followed closely behind him, moving toward the farmhouse as Sprite drifted ahead, and flew up into the sky, where I could no longer see it through its cloaking field. Coming up to the house, we took our positions behind the wall while Tanner knocked on the door. No answer. He knocked again, waiting a while longer before trying the knob. It was unlocked, and unbarricaded. Tanner quickly pushed the door open, and angled inside, the rest of us rushing in behind him. There was nobody inside - as far as I could see. To our left, the house opened up into a living room and kitchen, while directly in front of us, a staircase led up to the second floor. Framed pictures of the farmer, with his smiling wife and daughter, hung from the wall and sat on the old, lacquered cabinets. Several coats dangled from the nearby rack, with a row of shoes and boots lined beneath them. It didn't seem like the family went anywhere.
"Tanner, Barry, secure this floor," said Jefferies. "Thane, on me."
Tanner and Barry left for the kitchen, while Jefferies and I kept eyes on the stairs. Everything was completely silent. My vision wavered to a large, paper diorama seated on the cabinet next to the staircase, colored with crayons, and depicting a smiling man in overalls driving a red harvester over a cornfield, while several poorly drawn cows grinned in the background. His daughter must have put it together for school.
"Clear," said Tanner, him and Barry rejoining us at the stairs.
"There was some old breakfast sitting out in the kitchen," said Barry. "Looked like they were interrupted by something." A robotic beep sounded from behind, and the cloaked outline of Sprite drifted in next to us. Jefferies patted it, looking back up the stairs.
"Hello?" he called out. "This is Sergeant Jefferies, op code Dagon. We're here to evacuate you and your family." No response. "Sir, are you home?" Something shifted from upstairs, like somebody was just waking up.
"Hey there!" yelled a man's voice. "Thank you so much for coming, I don't know what I was gonna' ... make yourself comfortable. I'll put on some tea." He sounded strangely upbeat, though something was off, like he was trying to hide the fact that he was worried.
"Sir, that isn't necessary," said Jefferies. "Can you please come downstairs? We need to speak with you."
"Sir, I would make to speak with yourself, put on some tea," said the man, his words beginning to slur. "No, it's just - I'm fine. Headache?" We looked at each other in confusion. A distant skittering sounded from all around us, like something was crawling through the walls. We immediately raised our weapons, a cold chill running down my spine. Jefferies motioned us onward, and Tanner moved up the stairs, leading us onto the second floor, and across the balcony. We entered the adjoining hallway, passing by two open bedrooms and a bathroom, all of them empty. A single closed door remained at the end of the corridor. "There were two bodies, daughter," said the voice from behind the door. He was starting to sound increasingly deranged, altering the pitch and cadence of his speech like he had forgotten how to talk. "Oh, don't mind my - I swear, they were right officer, sir, we need to speak with you." Jefferies counted us down, and on one, Tanner kicked open the door, aiming his railgun into the room - though he didn't fire, only paused as several flies buzzed out into the hall. We drew closer, and for the first time, I saw what had become of the family.
The floorboards were smeared with blood and filth, clouds of flies humming through the air. A woman's bones laid sprawled upon the ground, like she was trying to get away from something, bits of rotting flesh still clinging to her skeleton, while in the corner of the room, the decaying corpse of a little girl laid curled up in a ball, pools of vomit smeared beneath her. Most of her skin and organs were missing, and it looked like something had been eating her. Upon the bed, a bloated shape squirmed beneath the blood-soaked blankets, the arm of a man hanging down over the side as he began to gurgle and moan with pain. What little flesh we could see was horribly bruised, like it was bleeding underneath.
"What's ... that sound," he murmured through his spit, muffled by the blankets that obscured his form. As soon as we stepped forward, a wet, tearing sound echoed throughout the room, and the man's dangling arm dropped free from the whole, hitting the ground with an awful smack. Blood and pus gushed from the severed limb while several black, otherworldly centipedes began to crawl out of it, their forms twisting and collapsing into themselves like they existed within an angle that my mind could not perceive. They had so many legs that they breached the realms of physical impossibility, and were covered in a scourge of black, soulless eyes that shifted across their bodies like liquid, paralyzing every muscle in my body with their maddening, alien gaze. The adrenaline quickly overwhelmed the fear, and I raised my electrical cannon, aiming at the writhing mass of insects that was slowly unfurling beneath the covers of the bed. I pulled the trigger, and the weapon kicked back against my shoulder, throwing off an electrical shockwave that vaporized everything in front of me in a cloud of blood and acrid smoke. The ruins of the bed had been knocked back against the wall, and within the flames that now swallowed the entire room, I could see the surviving insects writhe, burning to death as they loosed a screeching, soul-destroying whine that needled through every sense I had.
"We're leaving," said Jefferies. "Tanner, take point. Double-time it." We followed Tanner back down the hall as the sound of skittering shifted from all around us, coursing through the walls that groaned and strained with the insectile horrors that now pulsed within them.
"Contact right!" yelled Tanner, aiming down from the balcony at a middle-aged man in a police uniform, who stared up at us with a vacant expression. His skin was heavily bruised, and he seemed to be stumbling.
"Sierra insert, op code Dagon," yelled Jefferies. "Identify yourself!" The officer gurgled, like something was caught in his throat.
"Identify coffee, officer," he slurred. "What the fuck is that love, yourself - no, thank you - run away Sheri, get your mother and go."
Jefferies fired his railgun at the man with a deafening bang, blowing off his shoulder and half his face. The officer only stumbled back, centipedes writhing free from the shattered gore of his injuries. His arm fell from the tattered scraps of his shoulder, and he loosed a haunting, chittering wail that burned through my mind with a numbing pain, overwhelming me with a sense of raw, existential fear.
"Don't ... look back," he slurred, continuing to stumble toward us. Sprite lashed his lasers across the few insects that tried to get closer, slicing them in two in a flash of sparks.
"Hold your fire!" yelled Jefferies. "Thane, clear it!" Snapping back to reality, I shouldered my electrical cannon, and fired at the officer, the shockwave disintegrating his body in an explosion of flaming gore. "Move up. Thane, check our six." Tanner rushed down the stairs, and we followed close behind, the screaming aberrations flailing in the blood-drenched fire all around us. A snapping sounded from behind, and I briefly turned to see the wall at the top of the stairs crack open, a wave of centipedes pouring out onto the floor. I fired another shockwave to cover our escape, burning them back if only for a moment, and we quickly fled from the house, running out onto the sunlit yard. That's when I looked out at the cornfields, and realized that two of the scarecrows were missing.
"We've got more of them," I said, pointing out at the field. "The scarecrows, two are gone." Jefferies swore, turning on his radio just as the body of a teenage boy slithered free from the corn, his mutilated corpse twisting across the ground like a bloated snake. Sprite immediately fired at him, slicing his body in half with its lasers, but the boy only wailed upon the ground as several new, insectile legs cracked free from his severed torso.
"Saw it in the fields," he slurred, choking on something in his throat. "Crawled inside."
Recoiling, his jaw unhinged from his skull, and he vomited a stream of shrieking centipedes at us. We all dove out of the way, scrambling across the grass while we tried to get clear. Sprite fired again, decapitating the creature, whose body began to rapidly swell and expand with gas, before exploding with a thundering bang, throwing hundreds of centipedes through the air. Two of them landed on me, and I immediately tore one of them off while I pried the second away from my face mask, its writhing tendrils trying to get inside. Ripping it free, I crushed it in my fist, only to watch in horror as thousands of smaller centipedes gushed from its body. Panicking, I tossed it to the ground, and fired my weapon at the swarming mound, burning it clear before regrouping with the others, who were struggling to remove the parasites that crawled and scampered across their armor. I ran over to Tanner, prying two of the insects off his back while he tore one away from his face.
"On me, let's go!" yelled Jefferies. We quickly followed behind him while Sprite covered us, raking its lasers across the earth in streaks of billowing fire. "Sierra, this is Sierra One, we've got a serious containment breach. The informant is dead. Hostile is a swarming parasite that infiltrates the host body. Requesting airstrike on the exclusion zone, authorization Mercury. Over."
"Sierra One, this is Sierra," said command. "Airstrike is inbound, clear the area. Over."
"Quarantine every farm in a five-mile radius, and sweep the woods with thermal. Nothing gets in or out. Over."
"Acknowledged," said command. "Evac coordinates have been forwarded to your navigator. Over."
"Roger out," said Jefferies, disabling his cloaking field while the rest of us followed suit. "Barry, get us out of here." Barry took out his nav equipment while Sprite and Tanner held back another wave of parasites, which were beginning to spill out from the front door of the house.
"This way," said Barry, running ahead. We quickly followed him to the treeline, and entered the woods just as a sonic boom cracked overhead with the roar of a jet engine. A B-1 Lancer tore through the clouds above us, a cluster of bombs falling in its wake that detonated above the cornfield in a cascade of brilliant explosions, and showered it with a thousand trails of white phosphorous, ghostly ribbons of smoke shooting into the sky behind us. I could hear the screams of those things - so many that they fused together in a horrific, wailing shriek that carried upon the air, and threatened to annihilate any shred of sanity I still had left. Barry led us further into the woods, and another sonic boom cracked through the sky, followed by a series of shuddering explosions as the farmhouse and yard were reduced to rubble, streaks of white smoke erupting over the forest canopy.
"Contact!" yelled Tanner, firing at something I couldn't see. The rotten corpse of a cow unfurled from above, its hooves wrapped around one of the branches like prehensile limbs as its entire body split open down the middle, unfurling to reveal a gaping sphincter of flesh that vomited a giant, thrashing centipede. As it lashed toward us, the others opened fire with their railguns, blasting it back in a spatter of gore. It fell from the tree, only to immediately upright itself with a monstrous elasticity, and stand up on its back hooves, like the flailing parasite was using the bovine corpse as a pair of legs. The others backed up, and I fired at it, vaporizing the upper half of its body and splattering the trees with dripping viscera. Its shredded lower half collapsed to the ground, and swarms of smaller insects immediately slithered free from it, creeping toward us through the grass.
"Ignore them. Keep going," said Jefferies. Barry continued forward while Sprite lashed its lasers across the ground in our wake, creating a fiery barrier to cover our escape. Soon, we heard the sound of the osprey overhead, and we quickly ran over to where it was hovering. The M240 gunner tossed the ropes out the back, and we grabbed hold, pulling ourselves up into the aircraft as fast as we could, and piling inside. As soon as Sprite joined us, Jefferies gave the go ahead, and we started to fly away. While we strapped ourselves in, I looked back to see the wall of pale smoke that had consumed the farm. Another bomber tore through the sky behind us, loosing another payload that burst upon the air, and bathed the woods in streaks of white phosphorous.
"I hate bugs," I said.
When we arrived back at HQ, we were immediately met by a hazmat team, and everyone on the osprey was quarantined until they figured out that we were all clean. BREACH locked down the area as best they could, though we're honestly not sure if any of the parasites got out in advance, and the fact that they could hijack the central nervous system and ride around like a regular person for a while was rather disconcerting. Every nearby town is being closely monitored in the meantime, but thankfully, no new cases have popped up. Where they came from originally, on the other hand, we have no earthly clue - we have to assume it's the other universe that was severed from us, but there had to be a breach somewhere for that to happen, and we don't know where that would be.
We haven't heard anything from the Travelers, and our search of the Atlantic still hasn't found any legionnaires. Turns out the ocean is rather large. We know we're looking in the right place, though, because we've been getting a ton of reports about missing sea life, and tangles of bloody meat washing up on shorelines. Hopefully, whatever they're doing isn't taking place underwater, because if it is, then we're shit out of luck in terms of detection.
The next one in the pipeline, Operation Bushido, is sending us to Japan, believe it or not. Barry says we're taking out a necromancer, whatever the hell that's supposed to mean in real life - he refused to elaborate. Until then, stay safe, and remember - they're not hallucinations. They're trying to communicate.