It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.
Isabelle, sniper for the Israeli Defense Force, casually wondered why anyone would carry 'The Tale of Two Cities' with them on a mission, as she carefully turned a worn and fragile page. This planet was the final resting place of God only knew how many soldiers, criminals and people of every violent profession in between, but she didn't think that there were too many of them were people who studied classical literature.
She knew of soldiers who carried personal mementos, journals, pocket bibles and even comic books on missions, but a classic piece of literature was a new one for the Sniper. She might have thought it odd, if her current situation strain credibility.
Little over three weeks ago, she, along with seven men, were abducted from earth and dropped onto this jungle planet by alien hunters who then proceeded to pick them off one by one.
Every person in the group was a dangerous, experienced and ruthless killer (something that nearly cost Isabelle her life), their foes were only three, but in the end and thanks in no small part to dumb luck, of the original eight, and she and another man, Royce, remained.
Of course, every soldier knew the difference between winning a battle, and winning the war. They were still stranded on a planet that was little more than a game preserve for an entire society of alien killers, which meant being out in the open was the same as having a gun pointed at your head and with a hole in her shoulder, Isabelle knew she was a liability.
Luckily, Royce refused to abandon her, and was smart enough to actually listen to her.
So rather than risking staying out in the open, the two of them doubled back to the home of another former prey of the aliens, a scavenger bastard by the name of Noland. Royce thought that would be the first place that the hunters looked for them, but Isabelle knew better. In Israel, terrorists would often double back to positions after being forced out, thinking that because the location had already been discovered once, they wouldn't be expected there a second time. It worked more than Isabelle was comfortable admitting (and it failed even more than she wanted to admit, too).
The duo stepped over Noland's smoldering remains, found a good corner in front of an excellent choke point to hunker down in, and waited.
Forty eight hours passed in silence before they felt comfortable moving again, and another week passed before they managed to find the courage to fully explore their new home. When they were done, Isabelle felt differently about Noland, the man who tried to kill them.
He wasn't an insane son of a bitch, driven mad by decades of isolation. He was a cowardly, selfish bastard, driven insane by decades of isolation, who'd rather hide than fight back. For the first time since she'd been adducted, Isabelle was actually thankful to the aliens who'd abducted them, for killing Noland.
If she knew then what she knew now, Isabelle would have killed him over a period of three days, at least, using sharpened twigs, and would have gleefully lost a part of her soul in the process.
They found some dozens of guns, hundreds of rounds of ammunition, enough to army a small cell, blades of almost every kind and a ridiculous amount of claymores and explosives. The weapons alone were a God send, but it didn't end there. After some more exploring, they found a bathroom, some type of fridge and even soft beds. Compared to some assignments, this hole in the ground could be a mansion.
Looking back, it had been so obvious. Noland had said his home had once been a drill. So of course they'd have had quarters for workers, technology for food storage and provisions for hygiene.
That fucker locked us in the equivalent of an outdoor attic, and tried to asphyxiate us. Good riddance, Isabelle thought.
But once she and Royce got settled in, the Israeli Sniper felt a shiver down her spine when she felt she first finally understood Noland. Life inside this little drill was comfortable, safe, secure while outside was nothing but aliens, monsters, sociopaths or all of the above. It wasn't hard to see why someone would be willing to stay here forever in the face of that, and for a moment, Isabelle thought she might do the same.
Luckily, Royce, while not a moral man, was at least a man of strong conviction.
"Don't get comfortable, we won't be staying long."
He meant it, and that helped Isabelle believe it. It helped that they came within inches of actually escaping. If Noland had helped them attack the alien's camp, the six of them actually taking the fight to them instead of fighting a running battle, then…
Every time Isabelle thought about it, she always had to stop before she become too angry, and did something stupid. The rage in her heart burned hotter than the wound to her shoulder, and thinking about Noland would just cause a snowball effect about everything that had happened since being dropped on this planet. Hunted for sport, foreign terrain, vastly superior firepower and weapons…
Royce though, wasn't one to dwell on the negatives. Within days of getting settled in, he began to tinker with Noland's helmet and cloaking devise. The joy they felt when Royce disappeared was like what it must have been for Cavemen discovering fire, pure delight at finally finding a multi-purpose tool that could both keep them alive and be used to hurt their enemies.
Royce immediately set out into the preserve, looking for the alien's other victims. Humans, aliens, Royce said he'd recruit anyone who'd make a strong ally and she didn't doubt it. On earth, Isabelle would have killed half her original group just on principle. Here, anyone who wasn't an enemy was automatically a friend.
But almost without fail, Royce would return empty handed. Sometimes he said he was too late, that all the humans were already killed. Other times he'd explain that the dogs got them first, or flat out said they weren't good enough.
After a while, Isabelle wondered if Royce wasn't just pretending to look for help, stringing her along before surrendering to life on this rock. All things considered, Royce was nice, but she sure as hell didn't want to play Eve to his Adam.
Just as that thought flew through her mind, Isabelle heard boot stomping on metal, and she slammed her book shut and grabbed her barrette.
The room had only one entrance, a heavy metal door with an improved metal bar serving as a lock, and a jury rigged landmine to serve as a doorbell for any potential intruders.
Three knocks, followed by ten seconds, and then two more.
Isabelle sighed. She knew the pattern by heart now, and grew sick of it the second time she heard it.
She got up, unraveled the string that would have detonated the landmine if the door was forced open, unlocked it and let Royce inside. The moment he was in, the door was again secured and armed.
"Three to the dogs, one to an UAA and four to TMAs," Royce said like he was reading off sports stats.
Isabelle nodded. UAA meant 'Un-Aligned Alien'. The monsters who were hunting them had a slight preference for humans it seemed, but were by no means exclusive. It was hard not to get so wrapped up in their ordeal that they forgot there were other victims out there. Angry, deadly and with no means of communicating, there hadn't been one yet Royce felt comfortable approaching, but on this death planet, Isabelle felt it was at least important to remember they were victims too.
It was doubtlessly a cold comfort to them when their corpses hit the ground because Royce didn't or couldn't warn them about the hunters cloaked three meters away, or put them down himself because they were threatening him, but it was still something Isabelle clung to, something that still made her feel human.
"No one worth saving then?" Isabelle already knew the answer.
"They look like they came from the same unit, but things broke down when the dogs attacked," Royce stripped off the stolen armor, and gently set it down, "it took them ten minutes after that to notice their missing man. On earth, they might have been hot shit, but here they were barely a workout for those monsters."
"We can't get off this planet alone," Isabelle said without thinking.
Royce froze, and gave her a look that could melt ice, "You think I don't know that? I don't go outside for the weather, or for the who fucking knows what out there!"
"Sorry, I'm just…," Isabelle trailed off, "are they any better? Any new tactics?"
"They seem to pick off the leaders quicker," Royce said, "beyond that, they're still the same sadistic bastards that nearly killed us. They whittle the groups down one by one. Same technology as the ones we killed, and use the dogs too."
"But they're getting smarter," Isabelle hissed, "if we wait too long…"
"They're not pieces of software," Royce countered, "we killed three of them who'd been hunting for who knows how long, and we'll kill these too."
"For every one we killed, they killed two," Isabelle countered.
The statement hung in the air for a moment. As experienced soldiers, they knew the dangers in talking up the enemy. But at the same time, they also knew the dangers of ignoring the obvious, and the sheer power of the creatures was tough to ignore.
"They still leaving the weapons when they're done?" Isabelle asked, though she hated herself for thinking like a scavenger, like a vulture.
"Yeah," Royce said without missing a beat, "I'll collect them in a day or two, when I'm sure they're not interested in more trophies."
"…we're never getting out of here," Isabelle rubbed her as she thought about living the rest of her life like this, hiding from invisible monsters, struggling to both survive and hold onto her sanity…
"We're getting home," Royce said with rock like certainty. He clenched his fist, then relaxed, "…soon as we find some soldiers who don't lose their nerve simply because they're on another planet, being hunted by invisible aliens for sport."
Isabelle gave Royce a look. If she didn't know any better, the Israeli Sniper might have thought she'd just heard Royce tell his first joke.
"Even if we do find a team," Isabelle warned, "we'll only have one shot at getting off this rock."
"Operators like us? One shot is all we need."
Danny Moreno tried his best to relax as he stretched out in his small apartment. It wasn't an easy thing to do, as he knew violence was in his future, but he managed anyways, like always.
Standing at five foot seven and one hundred and sixty pounds, Danny at first glance didn't match the image most held in their mind of gang enforcer. But a closer look would reveal sculpted, well defined muscles. And an inspection of his jacket would reveal more throwing knives than should be possible to hide in a leather jacket, and just a glance at his scarred hands would tell the story of a hundred fights. His bare chest would show a network of hard earned tattoos, denoting his ability as an enforcer.
Danny was barely twenty five, but he was already a legend in MS13. They were his family, the reason why he made it to his teenage years in his Mexican hometown when his mom ODed and his father drowned himself in booze. When the cops were so crooked they walked with a limp, the only option for survival was to join a gang that slightly gave a damn about you, and that's just what Danny did.
In time, he took to violence like a duck to water. Though he was never proud of it, Danny recognized his own skill. Some people had a gift at singing, others had an eye for art. Danny could recognize the slight limp of a man trying to protect an injured leg, and was able to keep enough of his wits about him in a fight to attack open wounds.
And knowing it would be the only thing he'd ever be good at, Danny studied. He memorized the work ethos of Bruce Lee, studied medicine books about vulnerable points and when his friends were hurt in the fights for turf, Danny made mental notes of where wounds were the most fatal or crippling. The young man had never finished High School, and was by no means a sadist, but when it came to hurting someone, he had it down to a science and art.
And he knew that if any member of his former gang saw him again, they'd be on him like a dog on a bone.
In a way, Danny was actually relieved. He still loved his gang overall, despite what it had come to, and didn't want any rivals getting cred for his death. Something like this, it was better kept in the family.
Danny was half way through his stretches when he heard the chime of a bell (that he'd installed only last night), followed a string of profanity in Spanish and a stampede up the stairs.
It was time.
Danny threw on his gun holster, threw his modified leather jacket on and was just buckling his belt slash fanny pack by the time he was at his fire escape window.
A glance down told Danny what he already knew, that his 'boys' had the building surrounded. Several of them saw him stick his head out the window, and started firing.
The young Street Fighter sped up the fire escape like a cat after a mouse, bullets flying all around. Not a one struck him, there was too much metal and no good angle, but Danny still breathed a sigh of relief when he reached the roof.
As a matter of principle, he didn't like guns. They were too easy to misuse, gave false courage to cowards and did too much unintentional hurt. A bullet that cut down some punk ass dealer would keep on flying no matter what, even if a little kid got in the way.
Danny reached the roof, and sprinted towards the stairwell door. He leapt, grabbed hold of the top and pulled himself up in one fluid motion. He crouched down, placed his hands on the knives on his belt, and waited for company.
The wait wasn't long. Four young men and one old bastard, people Danny recognized instantly. Vega's crew, five bastards who should have been smothered in their cribs, and all of a sudden, any guilt over fighting family to survive disappeared. All his life he wanted an excuse to take this band of thugs out, and self preservation worked just as well as any other.
Danny reached down for his trench knives, said a silent prayer, and moved into action.
As a general rule, knives were Danny's weapons of choice. They never caused collateral, they were silent, never needed to be reloaded and most importantly, allowed you to feel your kill. Danny didn't like to kill, but would if the situation demanded it, and he wouldn't bulk from the responsibility. You always knew who you killed with a knife, it took real stupidity to kill accidently and they made you take responsibility. Not like a gun, that could throw death around and distanced you from the kill, from responsibility.
How knives ever got a reputation as a psycho's weapon, Danny simply couldn't fathom. They were the ultimate weapons in terms of reliability and function, and his trench knives were the perfect expression of Danny's passion for blades.
Two years ago, Danny had managed to save the life of a well connected arms dealer during a buy that went bad, mostly though blind luck and the fact that the people trying to hijack the deal thought that a five foot Hispanic kid from the projects wasn't a threat. The arms dealer was so grateful that he promised to give Danny any weapon he wanted, and on a lark, Danny described the perfect combat knife.
The dealer just smiled and nodded, and at the time Danny was sure the man thought he was loco.
Three weeks later, a pair was personally delivered to his home. They were five and a half inches long, double sided with edged hand guards and a slight hook at the end, common in survival knives, and a spiked pummel. Made of four forty surgical steel and scalpel sharp, they never rusted and would never dull if used properly. As hand to hand combat weapons went, Danny couldn't think of anything deadlier.
He held the knife in his left hand in a reverse grip, the one in his right in a traditional hold, and leapt down off the stairwell behind the five men.
He punched the closest man in the back of the head before he could even turn around, flesh and hair tearing, and sent him crashing into his friend. The second man at the rear was quick enough to level his gun at Danny, but the young gang enforcer swung the blade in his left hand, sinking it deep into the man's wrist. With a twist, the gun was released and the man pulled his arm free and scampered away.
A third man had enough presence to try to back up, but Danny was too swift for him. He kicked the kid in the stomach, and as he fell backwards, his flailing arms smacked into the two remaining members of the gang, throwing them off balance.
Danny spun the knife in his left hand into a traditional position, and then lunged forward, and sank his knives into their livers with an experienced hand. He then proceeded to yank the knives out, and then plunged both into the neck of the middle man.
From start to finish it had been less than two minutes, but in that time Danny had disabled an experienced, five man MS-13 hit squad.
"You have ten minutes to get to a hospital," Danny was certain that a stab wound to the liver would prove fatal, but he wasn't going to tell them that. The young gang banger heard the click of a hammer, and swallowed.
"You son of a bitch, you think you can just walk away?"
Danny turned around, and saw Vega, the man he'd punched in the back of the head, holding left hand to the wound, and a gun in his right.
Mentally, Danny kicked himself for not taking the time to identify Vega's location before taking his crew apart. At fifty years old, Vega was an old man by anyone's definition, and no one who survived that long on the wrong side of the law did it by being a push-over.
Of course, Vegas was a mean son of a bitch too, which Danny saw as a weakness. If Danny had been in the other man's position, he would have just pulled the trigger and then maybe talked smack to the cooling corpse. But some people, bastards to the core, wanted to see their victims twist before they ended it.
"Oh God, please…" Danny held his fingers out straight in his right hand, and his trench knife slid out of his grip until he caught by the end spike. Danny began to shake, his body blocking Vega's ability to see his second knife, "Vega, don't…"
"Yeah, beg you little…"
Danny sprang into action. Side stepping to his right as he spun around and threw his knife with all his strength. Vega managed to squeeze a shot off, but he was shooting where his target was, and was too startled by Danny's sudden change in demeanor and the fact that he'd thrown his knife to aim properly.
The knife hit Vega's throat perfectly, neatly slicing through flesh and cartilage. Vega foolishly dropped his gun to clutch at the knife, but once again Danny was too fast for him. The Hispanic Youth stabbed Vega in the stomach with his second knife and grabbed the first by the handle before Vega could get a grip, and tore it free sideways, sending blood flying.
"I told you bastards, you keep pushing me around, and I'll push back," Danny once again used the pants leg of his enemy to clean his weapon, "I love the organization, but I told you, there are some things I won't do. That don't make me a traitor."
Danny knew he was talking to a corpse, but it still felt good to vent, especially given the fact that he wasn't hopeful about his survival past the next ten minutes. Vegas' crew were just the tip of a very long, and very sharp stick. And while Danny thought knives were the superior weapon morally, he knew they didn't hold a candle to the effectiveness of a gun.
Danny was still debating his options when he heard the crunch of gravel, and he spun around, braced for a fight.
But when he scanned the rooftop, all he saw were the bodies he'd made, and they weren't moving. Danny heard the tell-tale crunches again, and his heart began pounding. He didn't think he was facing an invisible enemy, but he was terrified that just before the fight of his life, he might be losing his mind and his nerves.
His mind, looking for any explanation, noticed foot like grooves on the roof gravel…fast approaching.
Danny's world exploded in a haze of pain.
The once Gang Enforcer slash hitman felt as if he was drifting away from his body. He heard an animalistic growl, and saw a hulking, transparent form standing over him.
To Danny, it felt like he was dreaming, but when he awoke it would be to a nightmare.
And he would never see his native Mexico again.
Iraq, Green Zone
"I don't have to tell you guys this, but this mission is one of the most important missions we've run yet. We only have the man's first name, Ayhum, and where he's going to be in the next hour. We were lucky to get this intercept, but given the limited time frame, exploiting it may cause us some bad luck."
"Hey, fortune favors the bold," said Peter Garret, twelve year veteran of Special Forces.
"Yeah, but no plan survives contact with the enemy," Sam, commanding officer, deadpanned, "but you guys are good at adapting. Now here's what we know…"
Sixteen Delta Force Commandos, stood at attention in a way most people would have mistaken for casual slouching. The man delivering the briefing, known to the Commandos only as 'Sam' (it was the name of an old friend who worked military, so it worked as well as any other) wasn't fooled or offended. He'd worked with enough teams to know the professionals from the slackers, and as it so happened, had specifically asked for this team during his assignment in Iraq.
As a freelance spy (freelance in the sense that he changed agency as needed. CIA, FBI, Sam worked with all and was a member of none. Early on, his superiors recognized that it wouldn't be wise to limit his abilities to one agency), Sam valued intelligence and restraint above all else. And while those traits were more common in Special Forces than any civilian would recognize, only rarely did they get any emphasize by team leaders.
Sam's handpicked Commandos were different. They bragged more about captures, drilled breaching tactics more than combat and at least half a dozen members won Purple Heart awards because they placed themselves in more danger simply to capture their enemies alive.
"Well, the enemy won't survive contact with us, so it balances out," boasted Cory, the second in command.
Of course, that wasn't to say that there wasn't an overflow of testosterone.
"Lets hope not," Sam commented dryly, "Ayhum is a major player in the Iraq insurgence. He's a legacy who worked under Saddam's and has been the most slippery man in the country. We'll only get one shot at this, and we need to make it count."
Brent Jackson flexed his fingers, trying to get the tension out. Though he always volunteered to man the Browning 50 cal machine gun, it was a far cry to say that he was comfortable in it. Not a patrol went by that he didn't imagine himself being picked off by a sniper, or a hail of bullets. But growing up the son of a carpenter, he had an eye for detail. At age seven he safely navigated the casual dangers of a construction project, at age fourteen, he was writing Punch Lists and now at age thirty six, he examined the road ahead of them for IEDs, concealed gunmen and ideal ambush points. It was nerve wracking, but important and something he was good at.
To his credit, Brent didn't jump when he heard an explosion a half block behind him, even though he instinctively knew that it was an IED that his team had just narrowly avoided.
Brent smirked, knowing that his team had just avoided a potentially crippling attack not because of luck, but because of their spy friend 'Sam'. The guy was a regular MacGyver, able to whip up a radio jammer with just a few odd parts from the shop, and using it to block the cell phone signals most insurgents used to detonate their homemade explosives.
The Commando looked back where the IED had exploded, casually wondering if he'd predicted its placement, when he saw something peculiar. Standing in the dust and smoke kicked up by the explosion, seemed to be a glass figure…that moved quicker than anything its size should.
Brent's eyes went wide as he swung the gun turret around. In the span of a single second, a Special Forces camp fire story became reality. It was as if Satan himself had just stepped out of hell in front of the soldier. Too terrified to even lose bowel control, he depressed the trigger while screaming, "Guatemala! Guatemala!"
Bullets tore up the ground, but the illusive figure managed to stay ahead of them just long enough to let loose a bolt of energy. The surge of energy ripped through Jackson's chest like it was tin-foil, bone and muscle turned to ash in less time than it took to tell.
Down below, Sam and the Delta Force Commandos gave each other a baffled look as they heard Jackson firing, but before anyone could make a move, something slammed into the side of the armored vehicle and it pitched over on its side. Sam barely had time to protect his face as he was pitched into the side of the heavily armored transport. His vision went white, and as he struggled to collect his wits, Sam heard the Delta Force Commandos scramble out, followed by an animalistic growl that didn't sound like it belonged to any animal on earth, automatic fire and terrified screaming. Then, only thirty seconds after it started, the screaming stopped.
Sam felt his stomach drop as he listened to the silence. The men he was working with were some of the finest soldiers he'd ever met, and the hardened spy simply couldn't believe that they were killed so easily. In the back of his mind, he thought that maybe his senses were playing tricks on him, or maybe they'd established a stand-off.
So the Spy leveled his M4 Carbine at the rear hatch with both hands, and stalked towards the exit. He noted the smell of gun powder, burned flesh, fresh urine and electricity that saturated the air, and remembered Jackson's last words.
But there had to be another explanation. Sam read the un-redacted file himself, and thought it was little more than creative bullshit to cover up…something. Maybe those teams went native, or were coked out of their mind, and got picked off by very creative rebels, or the soldiers did the mutilations themselves before turning on one another, and aliens were thought up as a distraction.
Sam stepped outside, and saw his men scattered across the ground, the dirt beneath them soaked with blood.
As a spy, Sam learned early on how to compartmentalize information. So while his heart was pounding in fear, his mind made note of the holes burned through the soldier's torsos, how the fabric around the half dozen severed limbs was too cleanly cut, and how for over a dozen men, the ground didn't have nearly enough shells.
Compartmentalizing information was a vital skill for a spy, but that didn't mean that the information always added up. Nothing about what he saw indicated that the men were killed by insurgents, it was over too fast, the weapons and methodology didn't match, but it was the only logical conclusion.
That, or the devil is actually real, Sam thought to himself. He looked around, and everything he saw felt wrong. His men were dead in the street, their armored carrier overturned, but there wasn't a single insurgent be seen. If this was an ambush, just where the hell were they? And what on earth could make this street a ghost town?
Sam heard a growl that didn't belong to any animal on earth, and found his answer only seconds before his vision was overwhelmed in a searing white light.
Next: We meet all the players, as they struggle to figure out where they are, and what to do with the information.