The Mark

You approach from the south. The decimated airfield is deathly silent. Nothing moves. Heavy clouds block the starlight, blanketing the area in pitch. Conditions are optimal — your special ops team has practiced this scenario so many times that you don’t need light. Besides, you didn’t travel 250 miles to sightsee.

You came to kill.

Your team has taken up positions 30 yards from a large bunker rising out of the ground, circled by razor wire: the entrance to New Milwaukee, an underground city that was once your ally. Tall poles topped with glass globes are stationed every ten feet along the fence. You remember the fence from the photographs provided by intelligence. No one was sure what the globes were for.

You glance at your stopwatch just as the sound of a rough diesel engine reaches your ears. Dim, yellow headlights sweep over you and continue on, unaware of your presence. A flatbed truck turns away and slowly circles around the fence. It’s supposed to be a patrol, though your night vision goggles give you a clear view of two people inside and neither of them appear to be looking for anything.

Before the truck pulls around the fence and out of sight, its engine stalls. Brake lights flash and the truck comes to a halt. After a few failed attempts to restart the engine, the driver lays on the horn. You grab your binoculars for a better look.

The gate swings open. Two soldiers step out of the fenced enclosure and walk to the back of the truck. One peels back the tarp that’s strapped across the back while the other lowers the truck’s tailgate. Now the truck driver and passenger get out. All four soldiers are dressed the same, in fatigues and heavy boots. Surprisingly, each has only a simple firearm at their side. You can hardly believe how weakly armed they are.

The four gather at the truck’s tailgate and strain to drag out a hulking object. It’s hard to see between them to know what the cargo is. When leathery wings flop on the ground, you almost drop your binoculars: the cargo is a demon that’s been captured and sedated.

One of the soldiers disappears into the bunker and emerges again with a rolling cart bearing a mechanical device. They attach a cable to the sleeping demon, then to two posts on the fence. A soldier stands by each post. The device is turned on.

Static races across your skin and the globes atop the two posts pulse with a soft purple light. The static intensifies and the glow deepens to crimson. The two soldiers below are bathed in the bloody aura. As you watch, the soldiers’ bodies transform.

You notice it first in their legs — they squat like animals. Their thighs bulge, tearing long gashes in their trousers. Their shoulders broaden and sag forward, causing their arms to hang between their knees. Their boots tear in the front, giving way to elongated toes and razor-sharp talons. The transformed soldiers expand leathery wings and take to the air. They circle around the fence twice and take up positions atop the bunker on opposite sides.

The rumors are true: New Milwaukee is creating human-demon hybrids. No wonder the brass sent you. You’re here to take out the man responsible for these abominations.

The light fades and the globes return to their dormant state. The demon on the ground has been drained of all unlife and is left an indiscernible husk. The two remaining soldiers kick at the demon’s remains, scattering its ashes to the wind. They disappear inside the fence and close the gate.

You check your infrared. The soldiers have gone underground. The half-human, half-demon gargoyles aren’t visible on infrared. If the truck hadn’t broken down, you wouldn’t have known about the gargoyles until it was too late.

You weren’t prepared for this. Regardless, you have a job to do. You have to make a decision.



You decide to avoid the gargoyles and search for another way in. You signal your team to fall back another 30 yards. A few minutes later, the team gathers behind the wing of a 757 that protrudes from the ground like a shark fin. You pull a map of the city from your bag and point at a remote spot at the edge of the airfield.

No one looks happy, but they seem to understand that it’s your best chance to avoid more human-demon hybrids.

You jog to the east edge of the airfield. Scraps of planes, service vehicles, and towers lay heavy on the ground and give plenty of cover. Halfway to your entry point your nostrils twinge with a familiar foul scent. Directly below you is the maze of ventilation ducts of New Milwaukee’s processing plants that turn thousands of pounds of cow dung into electricity and fuel. The processing center is only reachable through a narrow, methane-filled passage. The team has small oxygen packs that are just enough for a one-way trip. You’ll have to move fast.

You reach the service grate and bash open the rusted latch with a rock. Metal rungs descend into the shaft. Small ducts appear opposite of the rungs. You climb in first. The smell of manure turns your stomach.

At the 19th duct, you stop and hoist yourself across. The methane is thicker here, making you light-headed. You activate your oxygen pack and don the mask. Almost instantly, your head begins to clear.

You crawl deeper into the duct. While you wait for your team, you hear a skittering sound ahead, but you can’t tell if it’s coming from inside your duct. You remove your night-vision goggles, grab your flashlight, and shine it into the passage. About fifty feet ahead the passage turns left. The way is clear. You stash the flashlight back in your pocket and put your goggles back on.

The trek through the ducts is quick; you’ll even have a few minutes of oxygen to spare. As you near the end, the temperature rises dramatically, threatening to bake you in your body armor. The metal beneath you bends more easily under your weight. You must be over one of the processing tanks.

You signal your team to space out to keep from putting too much weight on the ducts. The soldiers in the rear hang back. As you crawl forward, the duct beneath you lurches. You realize you’re putting too much pressure on a seam between the panels. You start scrambling past when the panel beneath you gives way. You feel yourself fall through the air for a few terrible seconds, then splash into a large vat of thick and slimy material. Instinctively you grab your rifle and scramble to your feet. You hold the rifle over your head. An unlucky teammate is doing the same thing.

You’re both standing in waist-high manure. The walls are sheer metal except for a three-foot pipe that gushes manure into the tank on one side. The rest of your team is looking down at you from the mangled duct fifteen feet up.

You have enough oxygen to last another 25 minutes. Your team could haul you both out, but that would take a lot of time and most of your oxygen. Instead, you could crawl through the pipe of manure, though you aren’t sure where it leads. Either way, you could run out of oxygen before you make it to safety.



Your gut says not to split up your team but you decide it’s best to find a way through the tunnels. You order the team above to carry on. You’ll try to rendezvous with them later.

You and your teammate strap the rifles high on your backs and wade to the mouth of the pipe. You take the flashlight from your pocket and shine it inside. You can’t see the end.

You reach in and plunge one hand into the thick waste. Chunks of matter squish through your fingers and jam under your nails. You press down until you can feel the metal at the bottom. You climb inside. The sewage comes up to your chest and the barrel of your rifle bumps against the top of the passage. The weapon looked clean when you held it above your head — you can only hope it stays above the sewage. You pause and give a reassuring pat to the hunting knife strapped at your side. As long as you have that, you can make the best of any situation.

You hope.

You both crawl forward as fast as you can. The sewage is thick and flows heavily against you, slowing your progress. You can’t help but wonder about the sludge you’re submerged in. Animal manure is typically harder. It doesn’t flow like a liquid. If this stuff doesn’t come from an animal, then what?

Ten minutes later, the pipe widens slightly and curves to the right. The manure recedes a few inches. As you crawl around the corner, you hear a gentle scraping. It doesn’t sound mechanical — some scrapes are longer than others and they’re at random intervals. You shine the flashlight ahead but see nothing of interest.

The sound gets closer. Within minutes it’s right next to you. You press your hand down and hit something scaly. Startled, you pull away and grab for your knife. The thick manure impedes your movement. Before you can get to your weapon, something shoves you against the pipe wall. The sound echoes in every direction. Behind you, your teammate shouts. You twist around and shine the flashlight at him. He has his hunting knife in his hand, poised above the surface of the sewage. You’re finally able to grab your knife, too. You both stop and listen.

The scraping sound is gone but you know you’re not alone.

Your teammate drops his free hand into the sludge and searches around him. You feel a slight vibration in the pipe and the scraping starts again.

Your teammate lets out a blood-curdling scream and snaps back, as if trying to yank his arm away. He starts thrashing and stabbing his knife wildly into the sewage. You rush forward with your flashlight and knife raised, trying to figure out what’s happening.

Your teammate finally gets free but he’s still screaming. He holds up his arm. Wet manure and blood drip from the stub where his hand used to be.

In the space between you, two small, curved horns break the surface of the sewage. You strike at the spot between the horns but they submerge too quickly. Whatever the creature is, it moves faster in the sludge than you do. You follow the scraping sounds and stab again. A sharp pain shoots through your side and you think you’ve been bitten. You plunge your knife hard into the muck around you, desperate to keep your limbs attached.

Your teammate’s screams intensify. You shine the light just in time to see the horns reappear at your teammate’s side.

You reach for your teammate’s jacket but his body lurches away from you. You grasp air and fall forward, leading with the knife. You scrape metal and skin and muscle. The scratching sounds become frenzied. You jump up and reach again for your teammate, grabbing a tentative hold on his sleeve.

The horns submerge. Your teammate is ripped from your fingers and dragged backward. This time, he doesn’t stop — he picks up speed. Sewage sprays in his wake. His screams grow faint.

You can’t help him now. You just have to get the hell out of here. You scramble ahead on your hands and knees, panicked by what you just saw. The pipe twists and turns. After a couple of minutes, you reach a T. To the right, the pipe inclines and you see a flashing white light that exposes a ladder. To the left, the pipe declines and you hear human voices, but you can’t see more than 15 feet.

From behind, you hear the scraping sound again.



You want to get out of the creature’s reach so you head to the ladder. Your head is pounding with a migraine. You glance at the oxygen level in your tank.

It just hit zero. You’re minutes from suffocation.

You climb as fast as you can. Black spots dot your vision and you start to feel dizzy.

At the top of the ladder, the passage narrows. A metal hatch with a release wheel hangs overhead. The oxygen deprivation is causing severe fatigue. You guess you’re at about half your normal strength. You try tugging on the wheel but it doesn’t move. In your head, you repeatedly order yourself to turn the damn wheel.

The black dots clouding your vision are getting larger.

You pull.

Your heart feels as if it might explode.

You pull.

Nausea and dizziness weigh you down, threatening to knock you from your perch.

You pull.

The release wheel groans and gives way. You hear a loud hiss, as if a seal has been broken. You spin the wheel then throw your shoulder against the hatch. It’s heavy and it doesn’t move easily. The metal hinges groan.

You can’t open the hatch all the way in your weakened state so you wiggle through the opening as best you can. As soon as you’ve cleared it, the lid bangs down. You rip off your oxygen mask and gulp large, ragged breaths. The cool metal floor feels good against your skin. You can’t see yourself in the dark, but you can feel yourself shaking uncontrollably. Your energy is gone and your body craves sleep. But sleep is a luxury you can’t afford.

“Get up, soldier,” you growl at yourself. “Get your ass up.”

You grab your flashlight and hunting knife and roll onto your stomach. You shine the light around to get some idea of your surroundings.

You’re in an access tunnel that’s tall enough to stand in. According to the compass on the handle of your knife, the passage runs northeast to southwest. Your team was heading west. You estimate that they’ve already entered the city and you’ll have to move quickly to meet up with them.

You drag yourself to your feet and give yourself a quick inspection. You’re covered in muck and sewage and stink to high heaven, but at least you’re alive. You jog southwest. Your steps are dogged until your strength starts to return. Five minutes later, you reach a metal door with a small round window. As you near it, you hear the constant whirring sounds of machinery and fans. You peek through the glass. It looks like the boiler room.

You step away from the window and press yourself against a wall. Intelligence warned you that this room was heavily guarded. You’re lucky to have missed the patrol. You definitely won’t get through the room without a confrontation. It takes you less than a minute to pick the lock. You slip inside the room and duck behind a water heater.

The room is expansive; three stories of tanks, piping, and machinery are crammed together. Red ladders run from top to bottom. You also see security cameras but they appear to be off. All of the other exits are on the upper floors. You stay close to the wall and head to the nearest ladder. As you duck under a pipe, something black near the floor catches your eye. It’s a black boot poking out from a duct. You unholster your manure-caked Glock and take a look.

A dead guard has been hidden inside. Blood has pooled around his torso, but it’s still fresh. Your team has obviously been through here very recently. If you move fast, you can catch up.

At the same time, you’re painfully aware of your current condition. You’re caked in shit. The heavy scent will compromise your attempts to remain covert. The dead guard’s clothing might help…

You slide the body out. You relieve it of a rifle and some goggles that look better than your night-vision set. You switch the goggles on and press them to your face but you see nothing other than the room. Maybe they’re broken?

You set them atop a pipe and change your clothes. You toss your soiled gear into the duct, then slide in the body and the extra rifle.

As you’re strapping on your pack, you hear a heavy door slam shut. You slide in feet-first next to the bloody, naked body.

Voices and footsteps near your hiding spot. A pair of black boots step into view and stop. And that’s when you realize you’ve forgotten the dead guard’s goggles. You aim the Glock at the boots and wait.

“He already made his rounds. See? The idiot forgot his hybrid goggles. He probably went for a beer.”

Hybrid-vision goggles? You can’t believe you left them behind.

The guards walk away, taking the goggles with them. You slide out just enough that you can watch them ascend a ladder.

Your team would have gone north into the complex. If you hurry, you can catch up with them. On the other hand, the hybrid goggles would be very useful, but they’re heading south.



You decide to go after the goggles. As soon as the guards disappear through the door, you pull yourself out of the duct and race to the ladder. You climb to the third level. Through a small window on the door, you can see a narrow hallway. The guards are walking away from you. Thirty feet away, they stop, nod at each other, and enter doors on either side of the hall. The guard with the goggles takes the door on the right.

All of your senses come alive, fueled by adrenaline. Your heart is pounding. Luckily, you’ve been trained to ignore it.

You slide your knife from its sheath and step into the hallway. It’s quiet. Muffled sounds of city life float in the air. You sneak quickly to the door on the right. Every squeak of your damp boots echoes off of the concrete floor and walls and sets you on edge. You stop at the door and press your ear against it. You hear shuffling sounds on the other side… and a strange growl.

You tell yourself it’s just nerves getting the best of you and crack open the door. You peek inside. Red light and hot air wash over you. The room is narrow and long with a high vaulted ceiling. Massive heat lamps are chained overhead. Large cages are built into the stone walls and stacked, two high, to the ceiling. They’re all empty. More cages are stacked in the center of the room, creating a maze. There’s no sign of the guard. You slip inside and quietly shut the door.

At first glance, you aren’t sure what the room is for. The cages are large enough to hold demons but the room doesn’t look like a containment center.

You hear heavy boots on the other side of the crates. You take a deep breath and walk to the corner. Very slowly, you inch your head out until you can see the guard. His back is to you. He’s checking his weapon, oblivious to your presence. The goggles are sitting off to the side atop a crate.

You raise the knife and step behind him. You reach around and clap your hand over his mouth. He rears suddenly, startled at the attack, and throws his weight into you. This reaction is nothing new to you. You step back with him and jerk his chin upward. You reach around with the knife and slice through his left internal jugular and carotid artery.

His lower body goes limp almost instantly. You keep your hand on his mouth and wait a few seconds for the blood to drain from the brain. Then you release the body, allowing it to drop to the floor.

As you bend and wipe your knife blade clean, you hear the door. The other guard is coming through.

“Hackley? You still in here?”

You duck out of sight between two cages and watch the guard round the corner. When he sees his companion on the floor, he screams out a curse and rushes to the body. He bends over the fallen form, turning his back to you. You step out from your hiding place. Within seconds, the guard has met the same fate as his companion.

It’s like taking candy from a baby.

You clean your knife again and stand. You grab the goggles. You slip them on, fasten them securely, and turn them on. The room comes alive in shades of purple. The stone wall at the back of the cages seems to pulse. The glasses define features in the stone that make it seem almost alive — you make out feet, claws, wings…

Eyes.

Hundreds of unblinking eyes stare at you from the cages. Fear seizes you, nearly rooting you to the floor. You realize the walls aren’t just stone; there are gargoyles, two or three to a cage, settled into the stone. The room is an incubator for demonic hybrids.

You take off running for the door. You hear the metallic squeal of cage doors pushing open and the rush of many, many wings.

Luckily, your prized goggles let you watch the gargoyles rip you limb from limb.


YOU LOSE.




Epilogue

Undermanned and leaderless, your team is easily captured and turned into mindless demon-human hybrids. The Mark, Evangeline Ryder, begins to recruit other surviving cities into creating more hybrids. She plans to mount an offensive against the very people you failed.