"Hold on, Blake! Enemy fire coming in!"
Blake stared out the open side of the Blackhawk at the constantly shifting mass of jungle below. He could see gunfire, tracers spitting back and forth across the landscape. Soldiers from both sides of the conflict writhed beneath the thick canopy, locked in the intricate choreography of combat. Screaming came from below. Men dying, men shouting orders, men roaring at each other as they lost themselves to the bloodlust of warfare.
He looked back into the chopper. His team was seated around him, geared up, faces painted with dark smears of burnt cork ends, their eyes wild, wide and set. They were ready to do this. The chopper lurched to one side, then did it again. Blake's stomach tossed and turned, threatening vomit. Not here, not now, he'd gotten over this fear thing a long time ago. Or so he told himself. The men were staring at him, waiting for him to say something.
The chopper lurched on, pressing deeper into the combat zone.
Blake stared back at his men. He opened his mouth to say something, to outline the objective again, give them some words of encouragement, crack a joke...but suddenly, the knowledge of what he was doing, what was going on, abruptly slipped away.
He had no idea where he was, why he was there or what was even going on.
The chopper lurched again, violently, and he realized, a second too late, that he'd somehow forgotten to latch himself in.
He was up, out and over the side, and falling.
Blake snapped into the awareness that the feeling of falling was still present. He had just enough time to realize that he was in a helicopter. Reality was, for several seconds, a confusion of fear. Gray-white snow blew past the windshields ahead of him and the chopper seemed to be falling. The it stopped and they were gaining air again. He looked over at the pilot.
"Sorry!" the man shouted. "Bad turbulence!"
Blake just nodded, trying to make himself relax. Memories of the past day came back to him. Unhappy memories.
Blake was in Delta Force, one of the groups in the Special Forces segment of the United States Army. He was used to a lot of crazy things that most people weren't. When your job was rescuing hostages, trading bullets with insane guys in a variety of different environments and all manner of counter-terrorism, you learned to put up with a lot. Blake had been in the Army for five years before joining up with SFOD-D, or Special Forces Operational Detachment Delta, for an additional five years. He liked his work.
At thirty one, he was in the best shape of life, had more than enough money to retire on and had no intention of changing careers. He could see doing his job until the day he died, or the day he was no longer capable of dragging his ass out into the field. But that day was a long way off...he hoped. So what was he doing in a helicopter heading towards one of the worst, most isolated and lethal places on the face of the planet?
After a three month counter-terrorism op in the Middle East, Blake had finally earned some rest and relaxation. He'd been shipped back to the States and was staying at Fort Freeman in Virginia while he decided where he was going to go. He'd just made the decision to head to the opposite coast and relax in California when fresh orders came through in the form of a frowning pilot in blue sunglasses kindly asking him to get his ass on the chopper, no questions asked. He had the appropriate papers, so Blake was obligated to go.
They'd flown down without a word spoken between them to Florida, switched to a helicopter with extra, external fuel tanks and kept going south. Blake had had missions like these before, where he was whisked away in the middle of the night, or the middle of some well-deserved R & R, but never so far south. At first he thought they might have been going to South America, but for hours upon hours it had been nothing but ocean.
And now the ocean had turned largely to ice.
They'd made a single stop at a naval vessel for refueling, then kept going without a word. Blake hadn't even bothered asking where they were going. For a while he thought he was being relocated to some remote island for some strange kind of mission, but now their objective was clear. Antarctica. Or somewhere thereabouts.
What the hell could possibly be on Antarctica?
Blake had fought in some capacity on every other continent in his career. Granted, most of it was centered on either Europe, Asia or Africa, but he'd gone up against drug runners in Mexico, kidnappers in South America and gun smugglers in Australia. He never thought in a million years that he'd be able to cross 'fight on all seven continents' off his bucket list. His curiosity was peaked, and after ten years in the Army, that was saying something.
He managed to go another half hour before finally breaking down.
"How much longer?" he called, struggling to be heard over the shrieking of the winds and the roar of the engine.
"Half an hour," the pilot yelled back.
Blake nodded and folded his arms across his chest, leaning back into his chair and trying as hard as he could not to piss his pants.
He really had to go.
Outside, beyond the windshields, the snow continued to swirl madly by.
Gray-white snow finally gave way to something else almost forty five minutes later. Blake was nearly nodding off again when he noticed a classic descent in speed and altitude. The chopper was coming in for a landing. A few moments later, he spied the makings of a couple dozen dark buildings, wreathed in ice and fog, lit only by some powerful aquamarine lights. The helicopter came down for a landing on one of the landing pads, snowy mist billowing around them. The pilot shut down the engine and sat back in his chair for a moment.
"Holy crap," he muttered. "Might be one of my longest flights."
"Definitely mine," Blake replied.
The man popped his neck and slowly stood, groaning as he did. "God, let's go. I need a very long nap," he said.
Blake stood and followed him out of the cramped cockpit as the engines fully shut down. He checked his watch as they made their way through the cabin. He'd been in the air for a little over eighteen hours. He'd been asleep for probably half of that time. Any lingering lethargy was immediately blown away as the pilot opened the door. Frigid winds and snow shrieked into the cabin as the pilot hopped out.
Blake quickly followed him and hopped onto the landing pad, his legs slightly unsteady. The pilot slammed the door shut and immediately turned back around, rubbing his hands together furiously, looking around.
"What are we waiting for? And where are we?" Blake asked, shouting to be heard over the winds now.
"Carpenter Station!" the pilot replied. "We're waiting for someone to brief you on whatever the hell they want you for and to show me to a warm bed!"
Blake was thinking of something to say back when a figure bundled in bright red cold weather gear appeared from the mist. He motioned for the pair of them to follow. They did so without a word. The trio stepped off the landing pad into ankle-deep snow. Blake shivered violently, horrified by how cold it was. He'd been to Alaska before, and he thought that was cold. It seemed like a vacation compared to this. How far below zero was it? He imagined that if he didn't get inside soon, he would seriously have to worry about frostbite.
They made one stop at one of the buildings where their guide patted the pilot on the shoulder and pointed towards the door. The man thanked him and hurried off, disappearing into the building. Leaving Blake alone with his mysterious guide. They trundled on through the snow for another five minutes, which felt maddening in the horrible weather. Blake shot glances up at the dead gray skies overhead, wondering what time it was locally. He supposed it didn't matter. It was dark, which meant it was going to be dark for a long time.
Finally, mercifully, Blake was brought into one of the buildings. The pair of them stood there for a moment in the reception area, which was little more than a room with a few tables and chairs, totally void of life.
"You got a bathroom around here?" Blake asked, seriously beginning to worry about his bladder bursting.
"Yeah, but try to make it fast, Colonel Whitley wants to see you immediately," the man replied as he pulled a hat and goggles off.
Blake hesitated slightly as the man began walking down a corridor ahead of them. Whitley? The name sounded immediately familiar. He shrugged it off for the moment, hurrying down the corridor after the man, who had stopped in front of one of the doors. Blake pushed it open and found a communal bathroom inside.
Praising all that was good, he hurried over to the nearest urinal, unzipped and let fly. For a very long moment, what felt like it might have been ages, he relieved himself. When he was finished, he washed his hands and headed back out into the corridor. The man led him deeper into the building, which looked like some kind of office building. Finally, he was shown to a door at the end of a long corridor.
"Good luck," his guide said as Blake stepped into the room.
Now that he could actually think, Blake recalled who Whitley was as he studied the room he'd been ushered into. It looked like a simple office: a wood and metal desk to the right with a pair of foldout metal chairs facing it. Two filing cabinets on the opposite wall, a potted plant and water cooler. No pictures, nothing on the wall, no personality at all.
No one in the room, either.
That was the name of a Colonel he'd worked with several times over the past five years. A man that sent chills down his spine for a reason he'd never quite been able to pinpoint. What the hell was he doing all the way down here? And what did he want with Blake? For that matter...where was the man? Blake sighed softly, unusually frustrated with the cloak-and-daggers routine. He looked out one of the few windows in the room, but that was no help. Nothing but an eerie blue-lit snowfall that cut visibility down to a few feet.
There was the sound of a toilet flushing from behind the only other door in the room, along the back wall. A second later there was the sound of running water from a faucet, then, finally the door opened. Colonel Virgil Whitley stepped out and stopped, looking over at Blake. The man was just as Blake remembered him: tall and thin, somewhere in his late forties or early fifties. He had cool gray eyes and short-cropped brown hair.
And his smile...there was something creepy about it.
Here, he smiled and crossed the room, offering Blake his hand. "Captain Blake, I'm glad you made it down here," he said.
Blake snapped the man a quick salute, then offered his hand. "Colonel," he said curtly.
Whitley's smiled widened and he crossed to the desk. "A military man to the end, huh Blake?"
"Yes, Colonel. The Army's been good to me," Blake replied, following him.
"You've been good to us, Blake. Please, have a seat," Whitley said, doing so himself and motioning to the pair of foldout chairs.
"Yes, Colonel," Blake replied, sitting down.
For a moment, neither man spoke. Blake was waiting for Whitley to explain the situation, explain why he'd been dragged out of bed and hauled halfway across the world, but Whitley just seemed interested in studying him. Finally, he let out a small puff of air, what might have been a sigh, and straightened up in his chair.
"Everything I'm about to tell you is to be considered top secret. Do you understand me, Captain?" he asked, suddenly all business.
"Yes, Colonel," Blake replied sharply. So it was serious.
"Good. Admittedly, I'm not entire sure where to begin. It's been a bit of a clusterfuck down here so far..." Whitley said, trailing off for a moment. That unsettled Blake. Military men, especially Colonels, especially Whitley, always knew where to begin.
"The biggest problem we're facing here is a lack of intelligence. It all started when a supply copter heading out for a routine checkup of one of our outposts. US Outpost Thirty One. They're a small research base, about a dozen personnel. The supply team reported back to McMurdo Station and said the base was blown to hell. Massive explosives damage. They thought it was an accident but...then some of our other outposts stopped reporting in. We were willing to chalk it up to bad weather, but then we heard that the other nations were having trouble getting in touch with some of their outposts. The Norwegians, the Japanese, the Australians...obviously, something is going on. It was when we picked up a reference to an unidentified flying object buried in the ice that we really sat up and took notice," Whitley said, stopping and staring intently at Blake.
"This is a First Contact situation?" he asked finally, his mind reeling. Aliens? Here, down in Antarctica of all places?
"We're not sure," Whitley said. "We've had no other reports, but the President was concerned and interested enough to give me operational discretion. I've spent the last week having a command outpost built and getting some of you D-Force boys brought down to help me with this. This is what I need from you Blake. I'm assembling several teams to investigate some of the outposts officially. You get Outpost Thirty One. I need boots on the ground. I need you and your team to figure out what the hell happened there."
"Yes, Colonel. I'll get right on it," Blake replied, standing up.
Whitley smiled. "I knew I found the right man for the job. Your designation is Delta Team. Your three men are gearing up in the hangar. Also, I thought you might like to know your old friend Pierce is here. He's commanding Alpha Team."
"Pierce is here?" Blake asked.
Blake frowned, considering that. It had been a long time since he'd spoken to Neil Pierce...they hadn't exactly split on the best of terms. Hopefully they wouldn't have to talk to each other, or, if they did, they wouldn't let old wounds get in the way of work.
"Come on. I'll show you to the team."
Blake was finally beginning to approach something like warm as Whitley led him through the installation, past several more offices and to an underground tunnel that connected the building to the hangar. Whitley said nothing along the way and Blake was left to his own thoughts. First contact...it was something he'd thought about from time to time. Just one of those random questions that popped up when he was falling asleep or after he'd seen a movie. When it came to first contact, it seemed like everyone assumed it would be like the little weird-looking guy from E.T. But, in Blake's opinion, it would be closer to that horror movie, Alien.
At least he was going in armed.
But something wasn't adding up. If Whitley really thought this was a First Contact situation, then he wouldn't just be sending in guys with guns. There'd be men in bio-hazard suits, geniuses in lab coats, smooth-talkers in suits to act as negotiators with whatever intelligence mankind might be meeting with for the first time. Why just send in a few Special Forces teams? Did it mean that Whitley didn't take the idea seriously and brought it up...for his own personal reasons? But then why the top-secret deal? Something definitely wasn't right.
Blake decided to just do what he always did: his job. To the best of his ability. The pair climbed a stairwell and came out into a broad, open hangar. All manner of workbenches, repair stations and vehicles in various states of assembly were scattered across the huge room. Whitley directed him towards a trio of men off to one side, gathered around a table. They turned to face the pair as they approached.
Blake recognized two of them. William Burrows was an aging Special Forces engineer in his early forties. He was a heavyset man, his bulk hiding how muscular he really was, who came from New York. Blake had worked with him maybe half a dozen times on all sorts of missions. He was an engineer who was surprisingly good with his hands and all sorts of technical things. What made it was surprising was his apparent ineptitude. Blake had always thought the make a little slow on the uptake, but he'd eventually learned that he just didn't really care about social graces. He did his job, liked to drink and let people think whatever they wanted about him.
The other man he recognized was a tall, fit black man named Tyrone North. He was a soldier through and through. He struck Blake as very comfortable on the battlefield. They'd only worked together once before, but it was memorable. They'd been part of a squad tasked with infiltrating an enemy location and recovering some critical intel. They'd been discovered, things had nearly gone belly-up, but North, Blake and a few others had shot their way to the intel and out again. North had never broken a sweat, figuratively.
If anything, he seemed to be enjoying himself.
A good man to have your back in a firefight.
The final man was young, skinny and pale. He looked fidgety and introduced himself as Weldon. He was to be their medic. Blake frowned as he studied the man. He couldn't be older than twenty five and he had an air of worry about him. Finally, he decided that it didn't matter. You didn't get to be in the Special Forces if you were a worrier.
"Blake is your Captain," Whitley said. "I apologize for this quick-and-dirty style briefing, but honestly, we don't have a lot to go on. You'll want to dress even warmer, Blake. It's forty below out there and hypothermia is a real concern."
Blake nodded for him to continue as he began pulling on a heavier coat, pants and a new set of boots, as well as an extra layer of socks.
"Outpost Thirty One has twelve personnel. The initial team did a search and found no one alive. Honestly, at this point, there shouldn't be anyone alive there. Search for survivors, but also for information. We need to learn anything we can about what happened," Whitley said.
"Yes, Colonel," Blake replied, finishing getting dressed.
"I'll leave you to it and be in touch via radio. There's a helicopter waiting just outside for you as soon as you're ready. Good luck."
Whitley left Blake staring at the equipment table they'd set up for the team. "Hello, Delta Squad," Blake said as he opened up a backpack and fed several bits of supplies into it. Namely, an extra suit of clothing, several bottles of waters and a few MREs. "I'm Captain John Blake. Two of you I've worked with before. One of you, I haven't."
"I guess that's me," Weldon said.
"Yep. You going to be all right on this op?" Blake asked, shrugging into the pack.
"Yes, Captain," Weldon replied curtly.
"Good. Why don't you three make for the chopper? I'll be there in a moment," Blake said.
The trio nodded and left him to it. Blake spent a moment checking out the MP-5 they'd given him. It was a nice, black submachine gun that he was very familiar with. Blake checked the sights, the weight, the feel. He loaded it up, flipped on the safety and shrugged into the shoulder strap. He grabbed four flares and three magazines for the MP-5. There was nothing else on the table. Blake would've liked a sidearm, but apparently, time was short.
He left the hangar and made for the helicopter.