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  • All She Can Be

    Hi, new to the forums. I've posted this elsewhere, but not on a specifically BtVS forum. I hope people like it.

    *****
    The agent's breath misted in the cold air while she studied the crime scene. Around her, the crack of gunfire and the boom of cannon echoed around the desert landscape. A Marine Harrier jet banked overhead with a scream of jet engines. It was only in this small patch of the Twentynine Palms training range where the chaos of mock battle had ended. Years as a police detective and later training as a marshal told her the story. Blood on the Humvee to the right where the attack had begun. Footprints in the dirt--combat boots and bare feet--along with blood trails told the tale of desperate flight and battle. Just before her were the dead. She pulled cloth away from the battered face.

    Sierra Tango, she thought as she examined features best left in George Romero's imagination and eyes sewn shut with sinew. The official euphemism brought over from the original military component of CENTURION. The agent preferred the simpler, more direct term used by the US Marshals who served the CENTURION program under SCUTUM's banner: Delta or Victor. Demon. Vampire. Her comfortable assurance that such things could not exist had been shattered years ago. It had cost her her sanity, her father, the respect of her peers. Nearly her life on several occasions and definitely her career, until one day a man in a sober suit from a government program that didn't officially exist came to make her an offer. For the past two years she had investigated scenes just like this. The only consolation was that this time the Deltas were the corpses.

    Kate Lockley nodded to the lead forensic on her team. She left the crime scene to them to interview the knot of people standing at the edge of the spotlit area. Marine Corps CID and the base's NCIS agent guarding them avoided meeting her gaze. Kate did not mind. Once, she had thought her fellow LA cops stupid or blind. Now she knew it was a survival instinct for the mind and soul not to know what was out there. At least, as a marshal her relationship was somewhat more amicable with local police than that of the overbearing FBI. The cooperative nature of the Marshals Service--not to the unfortunate potential for Mulder and Scully jokes--had made it the host agency for SCUTUM rather than the Fibbies.

    Within their circle waited a squad of Marines dressed, incongruously, in the shalwar kameez and turbans of Afghanistan rebels. Bloodstained AK-47's fitted with MILES laser-training gear were being bagged as evidence by the CID boys. Like the rest of the weapons on the range, they could only fire blanks. Unfortunately for the unidentified Deltas an angry squad of experienced Marine Corps combat instructors armed with fists, boots, bayonets and (according to the markings on one body) teeth could never be accused of being "unarmed". One of them stood by a much younger Marine being tended to by a naval hospital corpsman. His camouflaged utilities blouse was off, leaving him in just an olive undershirt rucked up to allow the corpsman to suture the gash in his side. The softness of the Marine's features and the constellation of freckles on his cheeks made him seem little more than sixteen. Bright ginger hair cropped short gleamed under the spotlights. Only the bloodstained fighting knife clutched in a deathgrip betrayed that the baby-faced man had accounted for at least one Delta.

    "Hello." She smiled at him in the manner reserved for true victims. "I'm Deputy Marshal Lockley, assisting NCIS on this case. I'd like you to ask a few questions."

    "No problem, ma'am," the Marine answered. The words were accented by a Southern mountain twang strong as chicory coffee. "Pardon me for not getting to attention, but the staff sergeant here said he'd whup me one for being stupid enough to try it."
    "That's alright." Kate opened a small notebook. "The case was referred to me suddenly, so I don't know all the details. Your name?"

    "Lance-Corporal Agatha Putnam, ma'am."

    "Um." Kate blinked. His voice was far too high pitched. No, not him. Her. Kate attempted to regain a semblance of her professional demeanor. "Yes, thanks. Now, the officer who took your statement said you came out here to assist the observers?"

    "Yep, damn Hummer broke down." Putnam gestured with--thankfully--her free hand. "Knew it would, particular one was running rich. Told my lieutenant that, but you know how it goes. Pressure's always on during a Mojave Viper. Came out with a couple of others from the motor pool..."

    "It's alright." Lockley squeezed the Marine's shoulder. Putnam's breath huffed in short, panicked bursts. "Tell me at your own pace what happened next."

    "Came out've nowhere." Putnam shivered. "Quiet, fast, swarmed us. None us even had M16's loaded with blanks. We weren't part of the exercise. Sumbitches went after us with knives, never even said-- What are they?"

    "Fanatical Islamist sect ." The flimsy cover story had been concocted on the fly on the flight over. "They mutilate themselves and use daggers for assassination to prove their devotion to jihad. Very skilled in blind fighting."

    "Al-Qaeda, huh?" Putnam spat in their direction. "Why I joined up right after the Towers went down. So I sent a few of 'em to meet Allah, huh?"

    "Oorah," the sergeant rumbled. Even at rest, he loomed like a main battle tank. "Earned that green belt of yours. Two of them down before we got here. "

    "Aww," Putnam mumbled. Her ears flushed almost to match her hair. "I'd should done what you said to do when some crazy bastard comes at you with a blade: get the hell outta there."

    "'Advance in the opposite direction'," the sergeant corrected. He turned to face Lockley. "Look, I can give you the rest. Captain Masters, one of the observers, managed to get on the radio while the lance-coolie here was busy. We were out as insurgent OPFOR, shadowing a convoy the observers were judging. Got here as quick as we could."

    "And you..." Kate raised a brow at the devastation.

    "Like to think they died of natural causes." The NCO smiled, showing what Kate briefly thought were fangs. "Pissing us off being natural causes. Me and the boys haven't had that much fun since we mixed it up with shore patrol in Diego in '98."

    "The evidence bears that out." Inwardly, Kate rolled her eyes. Jarheads. She had met enough of the breed while liasing with Lieutenant-Colonel Ellis' GLADIUS unit. "Agatha, one last question. They seem to have concentrated on you rather than the others. Is there any reason to think you were a special target?"

    "Me?" Putnam asked, shocked. "Ma'am, I'm just a Marine doing her job. Nothing special. I figure the only reason they were after me was 'cause I was stupid enough to swing instead of hiding under...uh finding cover like the officers, under the Hummer."

    "Alright." Kate flipped her notepad closed. "From what we've seen, this is a clear case of self-defense against a terrorist attack. I don't expect any repercussions."

    "Aw, that's great." Putnam sighed in relief. "See, I'm shipping out to the 'Stan in a week. Finally getting in theatre. Doc here says the cut ain't too bad, so I don't have to spend much time in sick bay. You sure, ma'am? Don't have to talk to me later?"

    "I may ask the NCIS people in Okinawa for a follow-up interview when you pass through." Kate nodded. "Good night. Oh, and Lance-Corporal? You might want to let the nice detective take your knife as evidence."

    "Ooops!"

    Kate Lockley left Putnam and her fellow Marines to continue their lives. None of them seemed to suspect the unnatural nature of their enemy. Following up the possible threat was SCUTUM's job. Just another one to add to the huge pile the secret law-enforcement unit was already dealing with. It could be a random attack, a cult selecting Putnam based on some bizarre criteria, or the start of another damned apocalypse. You never really knew until someone in the intelligence analysis division put together the pieces. Kate made a mental note to ask Ellis to arrange protection for Agatha while deployed. The colonel was busy these days with the GLADIUS operation in Iraq, hunting down Saddam's weapons of mystical destruction caches. Still, he was protective of military victims. Ironically, the lance-corporal was probably safer on the tighter security of a field base. At least there she was only liable to face mortars or sniper fire.

    Pausing, Kate scribbled something else down in her pad. Two words: "potential Slayer". CENTURION took a particular interest in cases where women showed skill in combat against the supernatural. Kate had watched, awed, at the video taken of the current Slayer during the debacle of the Demonic Research Initiative's Project ADAM. The two known examples of the breed were still alive, as far as CENTURION knew. They still liked to keep tabs on possible successors. Though, in reality, Putnam was likely yet another unfortunate who had prevailed briefly against the occult. No sign of inhuman strength, merely a motor pool Marine with a good grasp of fighting and a lot of luck.

    Just like she had said. "Nothing special".

  • #2
    Chapter I

    "Think we should call it 'Frank'?'" Agatha commented. She slammed shut the engine compartment hatch on the MTVR. "I think we had to patch it up with every spare part we had."

    "Shall I pull ze svitch, mein Lance-Corporal?" Private Capelli replied. The beefy motor technician mimed clutching a lever. "Just one lightning bolt, and our creation will be ALIIII--"

    "Just start her up, Capelli," Agatha said. She stripped off rubber gloves covered with grease and oil. "And remember, clutch out and brakes on. We don't want you busted down to recruit for forgetting that."

    "One time," the New Jersey reservist muttered, clambering into the drivers cab of the six by six wheeled truck. "It was only one hole in the wall. And the Hummer wasn't even damaged."

    A cough, a roar, and the seven-ton came to life. ****ing her head, Agatha listened to the tone of the engine when it settled into idle. Years spent hanging around her Uncle Earl's garage and machine shop had taught her how to judge a car's health by ear. Every vehicle had its sweet spot, where air and spark and fuel came together in a happy mix. By the sound of it, Frank was back to walking wounded rather than wreck. A miracle, considering the damage one overconfident butterbar lieutenant could do by insisting he "knew how to drive one of these things". Waving a hand, she ordered Capelli to shut it down. Together she and the rest of her motor pool squad finished a full inspection of the truck. No leaks, mechanicals fine, electricals good. Ticking off the boxes, she signed off the inspection report for submission to the maintenance platoon sergeant.

    She cracked her back. She had been working since oh-dark-thirty fixing up a raft of Hummers and MTVR's. A landscape full of mines, RPG-bearing Taliban, and the odd idiot officer kept her squad busy. Noticing Capelli's puppy dog look, she jerked a thumb in the direction of the enlisted mess. Private Capelli almost raised dust heading for the chow hall. Agatha smirked. A gifted mechanic, but one day he'd get his fat butt quarter-decked by the gunny for the extra meat he had put on during the winter. At least he had remembered to grab his M16. The epic chewing out he had gotten from the company gunnery sergeant for neglecting that detail had nearly brought an avalanche down on the base. She herself donned her deuce gear, helmet, and rifle before leaving the confines of the motor pool. The captain had ratcheted up combat readiness even within the wire. The Taliban were a lot friskier these days after a winter's hibernation. They'd even taken to the odd shelling, although they couldn't aim their mortars worth for shit..

    She paused for a moment. The sun was going down behind the mountains surrounding Camp Iwo. The high Hindu Kush rising above the plateau was a ways more forbidding than the Appalachian hills she had roamed since birth. More like the Sierras she had seen on brief leaves stateside, although the crags and peaks seemed sharper than back in Cali. One thing they shared with the country around Tarquin, Tennessee: a fair number of hill people with a rifle and a serious grudge. Give some of the Pashtuns around here a Bible and jeans and a flannel shirt, Agatha thought, and they could stand in for some of the rougher folks back home. She hunched down a bit while she walked across the open ground. At least the people at home stuck with rock salt in a shotgun against trespassers. The jihadis preferred a more lethal reception. Just last week a grunt manning an Ma Deuce during a convoy had been hit in the throat by a sniper with an old--but damned accurate--Lee Enfield. Afghanistan's good old boys could shoot well if they chose.

    Even in the evening, Iwo was a busy place. Agatha couldn't help marvel at it. Super Cobra gunships revved up on the helo pad for night sweeps against infiltrators. A patrol of Humvees roared in through the gate. A Marine M240 team field-stripped and cleaned their weapon against the ever-present dust. On the far side of the parade deck, two groups of men in high-and-tights and desert-camouflage utilities sparred with each other in combatives practice. One squad from the Army Rangers mixing it up the Recon boys the regular line infantry company supported. She smirked as she watched the two rival units play with each other like Rottweilers and German Shepherds. Being a female Marine could be dirty, boring, and downright infuriating at times. Watching twenty brawny examples of US military physical conditioning was a heck of a perk.

    "Those Ranger boys are good, but raw," boomed a voice behind her. "Rather have my men behind me. At least they got a few years in divisional recon before coming to Force."

    "Ah--" Agatha stiffened. At a short inch below six feet, she was taller than all the women and a fair few of the men. The stocky black man who had come up behind her had her beat on sheer mass. What demanded her immediate attention was the crossed rifles, three chevrons, and bottom rocker on his collar insignia: the mark of a gunnery sergeant, damn near the voice of God Himself to an enlisted. Twin badges--parachute wings and a combatant diver pin--revealed he was the senior NCO of the Force Reconnaissance platoon.

    "At ease, Lance-Corporal," the gunnery sergeant said, never taking his eyes off the men. Lifting up his helmet, he wiped sweat off his brow with a corner of the brown-and-white checked shemagh wrapped around his neck. "Putnam, right? Staff Sergeant Hartigan told me about you. Asked me to check in on you when we rotated in."

    "He did, Gunnery Sergeant?" Agatha could not help a fond smile. "How is he?"

    "Still the cheating bastard at poker," the recon marine growled. "After he finished cleaning me out of a week's pay, he asked me to look in on his favorite motarded student."

    "Oh." Agatha's ears blushed. She hated that. "I didn't mean to pester him about MCAP training, Gunnery Sergeant. It was something to do aside from changing oil and repairing glow plugs."

    "No shame in that." He turned to her, features that wouldn't have been out of place on a Zulu impi commander about to have a motivational talk with the British at Isandlwhana. "I heard you gutted two hajis in Twenty Nine stumps. Good work--none of my boys ever managed that."

    "Just defending myself, Gunnery Sergeant," Agatha said, quietly. Memories she had been trying to keep nailed down stirred within her. "Not something I'm much proud of. Doing what had to be done."

    "Hmmmm." The recon man took something from his belt. A sheathed Ka-bar fighting knife. "Hartbreaker sent this along. He talked NCIS into releasing it once the investigation was finished."

    "Oh thanks!" Agatha beamed. "You know, this was my Grand-Uncle Mort's. Carried it going into Inchon and running out of Chosin."

    "Family tradition, the Corps?"

    "More like hiding from an angry husband chasing him clear across the county with a shotgun, gunny." Uh oh! Agatha gulped. A Marine never called a man of his grade like that without permission. "Right sorry, I didn't mean--"

    "It's fine," he said, ignoring the lapse into familiarity. "I like gunny better. Gunny Oliver Powell. Now, I have to break up those swinging dicks down there before someone gets hurt."

    Gunny Powell stalked off to break up a pair of men rolling around in the dirt. Agatha just stood dumbfounded for a minute. It had been akin to the Archangel Micheal with his flaming sword dropping by to chat in your parlour like he was a state senator pressing the flesh. Ordinarily, an E-3 like her getting the personal attention of an E-7 was more ominous than pleasant. After a bit the weight in her hand brought her back to the blade he had returned to her. The honed steel slid out if the leather sheathe with a hiss. She thoughtfully ran her finger along the edge. Knives like these had been made more for busting open spam cans than slitting throats. She supposed her late uncle Mort had done nothing more exciting than that despite surviving his stint in Korea. Still, the old Ka-bar had felt so...right in her hand that December night. Scared shitless, running from those things. In her nightmares she thought they were some kind of monster, silly notion that it was. Agatha had drawn it more in instinct than any conscious act to defend herself. Yet in the dark and terror there had been the echo of something--she didn't know what--rising within her. Something that set her teeth bared and her spine straight.

    The sun was behind the mountains. Agatha shuddered as the darkness descended on Camp Iwo. Hurrying on, she followed the rooster trail of dust Capelli had left behind to the mess and wamth and light.

    ++++

    Agatha felt better after a meal. Especially the comedy of watching Capelli chow down. She swore one day she'd see a seven-ton backing up to his table. She lounged on her rack in the enlisted women's barracks. The men on Camp Iwo were territorial like the service branches they belonged to. There was Marine country, Army territory, the forbidden zones of the various special forces units who temporarily called the base home. The small contingent of women on base, however, bunked together in their own little colony. The enlisted women's quarters were nothing special--hooches converted from shipping containers. Still, at least they were snug and free of the macho craziness of a bunch of young men revved up for combat. A place of their own, where a girl could secure her rifle beneath her rack and read, oh, a romance novel if she wanted.

    Agatha glanced sheepishly at the bare-chested man on the paperback in hand. She had meant to study up for the Corporal's Advancement Course, really...

    Dust-laden wind blew through the hooch. Squinting against the grit, Agatha saw it was her rack-mate of three months. Dik Soon Jae struggled to close the doors. The Army combat medic stood five foot nothing in her socks at the best of times. It was pure determination that got the doors closed before Agatha got up to help. The 68 Whiskey snarled in Korean while she ruffled Afghani soil out of her jet-black hair. That was an odd departure from her usual calm. One of the reasons Agatha got along with her as a roomie was her quiet nature. Concerned, Agatha helped her strip off the LBE webbing.

    "Bad day, huh, Dixie?" Agatha said. Dik Soon Jae's fate had been set the minute a Texas sergeant in the Army medical platoon had mispronounced her name a particular way.

    "Filthy, evil barbarians!" Tears tracked down Dixie's cheeks. "I hate this place, I hate these people. I should have stayed in Seoul."

    "Whoa there!" Agatha sat next to her friend on the rack. "What happened?"

    "I was--" Dixie sniffled. "I was with the men going to the village east of here, yes? Sergeant Dawson asked if I would help."

    "Oh, yeah." Agatha chuckled. "That'd be the Green Beret medic."

    "Yes," Dixie said. "He knows very much. We speak often about techniques."

    "Yeah." Agatha winked. "'Course, I bet you don't notice at all he has biceps out to here."

    "Big as his head--" Dixie laughed. "Thank you, Aggs. I needed that. Is plain, I look at him?"

    "Don't worry, I'll hose you down afore you start humping his leg."

    "Gah. I'll have a cold shower next morning." Dixie sighed. "We were there for a heart and brain--wait, is that right? I have trouble with expressions, sometimes."

    "Hearts and minds, I think they call it," Agatha amended. "And don't worry about that either, you talk American better than half of Tarquin."

    "Yes, hearts and mind. Help the sick." Dixie leaned back, eyes haunted. "We come to one house, they try to stop us. The sergeant, he knows Pashto, he say they warn about curse. Demon. Superstition, yes? Only when he go in. Bad. Very bad."

    "What was it?" Agatha couldn't help feeling like when her cousins had told ghost stories, flashlights under their faces to creep her out.

    "A woman. Head cut off, heart cut out." Dixie hugged herself. "Why I come here, for people like this? At least you, you have country to serve. Reason for vengeance. I only join for money to send home, maybe get citizenship and send for my family."

    "Worse reasons." Agatha patted Dixie on the back.

    "I guess." Dixie leaned back. "Excuse, I have to sleep."

    "Might as well do the same myself."

    Getting under the blanket, Agatha switched off the single electric bulb in the ceiling. She lay back while listening to Dixie's breath slowing into the cadence of sleep. Vengeance and patriotism, Dixie had said. Well, yes. She'd joined up like so many others after that terrible day of watching fires burn and towers crumble. Truth was, though, during that summer between graduation and national tragedy there had been the sense that she was supposed to do something. She didn't know what. The hard weeks of training at Parris Island had seemed to fulfill that need. The pride and joy of surviving the Crucible and parading in front of her relatives in dress blues on Graduation was among her fondest memories. Still, that nagging little itch remained. She had worked her ass off to earn her MOS and get to a combat theatre. Maybe that was what she was supposed to do, even if it was just rotating tires and changing oil She had known going in that even in a base in theatre Congressional rules and Corps policy forbade her from active combat. Little jobs meant as much as big ones, as her dad always said.

    Her hand reached out to touch the Ka-bar. The one thing she was done with was that. The reality of ducking away from crazy bastards who wanted to gut you killed fantasies about combat right quick. Sticking cold steel into those terrorists hadn't been satisfying beyond the exhilaration of being alive after. Far as she was concerned, day she had to pick this up again in anger could stay away until the Last Trump.

    Her eyes fluttered closed. Maybe, she thought before tipping into sleep, I'll find out what I'm supposed to do when the time comes.

    In the darkness, her digital watch switched to 8:30 pm.

    And halfway across the planet, in a small town in California on the mouth of hell, the world changed yet again.

    Comment


    • #3
      Chapter II

      Agatha stumbles on the broken desert ground, hand to her side, the bastard actually stabbed me, oh momma that hurts, the hooded figures swirling out of her in the darkness, and

      They're coming, twisted things like Dracula had dipped himself in a nuclear reactor charging right at her, and she's not alone, women to the left, women to the right, and

      Block, twist, throw, boot to the head, boot to the balls, get that knife in, you won't kill me dammit you won't kill me and

      The power comes, beyond anything she ever imagined, beyond anything possible, strength and speed and skill and pure primal fury and

      She's yelling now, the attackers falling before her Ka-Bar like soldiers cut down like a machine gun and

      Got to hold the line

      Got to stop them from killing my Marines

      Got to

      Agatha lies on the floor of the desert. No, it is a cave. Boulders crowded around the walls, a soot stained ceiling high above. In the center crouches a hunched figure with skin dark as night. Filth-matted hair hides its face before it looks up. A skull is painted its features--no, her features, three simples swatches of white forming the death's head. She is both woman older than time and a young girl barely into her teens. She stares at Agatha before stalking over to the fallen woman. On the way, she contemptuously kicks aside a mass of chains bolted to the cave floor. As she approaches she changes: from African to European to Asian to Native American. All nations, all peoples, all times. For one moment she is a tiny blonde, then a buxom brunette, and then Herself again. She studies Agatha for a long time.

      And smiles.

      And offers a hand.

      "Are you ready to be strong?"

      From deep within Agatha's core, there is no other possible answer.

      "OOORRAAH!"

      +++++

      Agatha awoke on her hands and knees. Harsh pants burst from her lungs. Every muscle was knotted and tense. Distantly, she felt her right hand aching with a low throb. Looking down, she saw her hand gripping the unsheathed Ka-Bar almost hard enough to crush the leather-wrapped hilt to pulp. No amount of will would make her loosen her hold from the knife. Eventually she had to peel each finger off with her free hand. It felt like an eternity until her muscles relaxed enough to risk moving. She nearly collapsed from the release. Crawling, she curled up in the far corner of the container. Dixie slept, unaware of the commotion in her rack.

      Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, over? She had nightmares from time to time, especially since the attack in December. Nothing like the one that sent her catapulting out of bed. It was even weirder than the one she had the night before about a man covered with cheese. Agatha drew in one deep breath after another until her heart stopped racing like a pack of hounds after a bitch in heat. Probably nothing, she decided. Tuckered out from thirteen hours straight of being next to Capelli would turn any girl's mind a bit funny. Getting back the knife had just riled up sleeping rats hiding up in her attic. A shower and a cup of coffee would set her right. No, make that the entire damn urn.

      She fished out her other set of utilities from the footlocker by her bed. Clean, or at least cleaner than the mildly grease-stained ones from yesterday. Sheathing the knife, she tucked it into the far depths of the bag. Heirloom or not, she didn't need the troubles it stirred up right now. Donning the uniform grounded her. I am Agatha Putnam, Lance-Corporal, serving my country and my Corps in way-and-the-hell-gone, Afghanistan. I am not some crazy girl dreaming about caves and wild warrior women. She tucked a fresh pair of skivvies and T shirt along with her bath things. Her nose wrinkled when she finally smelled herself. The sweat raised by the dream and the grime from yesterday had made her a little ripe. Any raunchier and Dixie would have to put on MOPP gear.

      The early morning light blinded her. Startled, Agatha shaded her eyes against its intensity. The air was purer than she had ever seen before. Why, she could swear that she could make out every pebble on the mountain ten miles away. Passing boot steps echoed off the steel bulkheads of the barracks. She clapped her hands over her ears to stifle the onslaught of noise. What in Lord's name is happening to me? Agatha gritted her teeth, focusing on regaining her composure. Boot camp and training taught a Marine how to get past pain and fear to concentrate on the mission. It took everything she had to keep from curling up in a ball. I need a corpsman, she thought miserably amid the din and light. Wake Dixie up, something's wrong. Maybe a fever, that's what caused the dream, some disease around her nobody warned me about.

      A bugle sounded. It awakened her back to the world the way nothing else could. Agatha snapped to attention when the company bugler blew the call to morning colors. The captain was a traditionalist at heart. No recordings piped through scratchy speakers for him. The drill of standing to the colors had been branded into her soul. It had been the first glimpse the ritual that defined the core of the Corps, performed twice a day from first day at the depot on. Back ramrod straight, she turned to face the flagpole in the center of the parade deck. While the bugler played, the raising party carried the flag without ever letting it touch the ground. Agatha saluted while the national colors were raised. The brilliant hues of the Stars and Stripes glowed almost with an inner light. So fragile, yet untouchable upon its standard flying over a foreign land. This was what she had joined the Corps for: moments exactly like this.

      Calmed by the ritual, she shook off the maze of confusion. Colors meant eight in the morning. It also meant she was going to be late reporting for duty. Not too worrisome, as she had built up enough trust with her platoon's staff sergeant to skate a little. It did mean she had to hustle. Breakfast would be a cup of coffee and an energy bar today. Hurrying to the heads, she ducked into the common shower stall. Hope the water's warmed up a bit--

      *SNAP*

      Agatha stared at the sheared-off tap in her hand. Breathtakingly cold water streamed down her naked body.

      "Shitfire!"

      +++++

      "Capelli, not a goddamn word," Agatha snarled. Water from her sodden utilities pooled around her boots.

      "Uh--" Capelli gulped, squatting by the wheel well of a Hummer. "Aye aye, Lance-Corporal."

      "So you do have a survival instinct." Agatha forced herself to unclench her fists. Happy shiny thougts, girl. Capelli hasn't given you a reason to kill him. Yet. "What's the problem, Private?"

      "Wheel's stuck." He pointed at the lug nuts set in a magnetized pan by his knee. "Rim got bent in a bad pothole while on patrol, so I was going to take it off. Think we have to use a blowtorch?"

      "Naw, you just have the ease it off." She grabbed the tire. "Watch, you rock it back and forth, little bit of pressure at a time. Do it right and--"

      *CRACK*

      Horrified, Agatha held the wheel and the considerable portion of axle she had ripped off the Humvee.

      "Like that, Lance-Corporal?"

      "Dammit!"

      +++++

      *POP*

      "God damn it, Lance-Corporal Putnam!" Gunnery-Sergeant Reyes shouted. "What the hell did you do?"

      "I--I--" Agatha juggled the two halves of her M16, snapped in half at the receiver. "Just cleaning it, Gunnery-Sergeant, when it...came apart."

      "These rifles don't 'come apart'," Reyes spat. He snatched the ruined rifle from her. "First I hear you bust a shower, then you turn a half-hours work on a Humvee into a circus, and now this! I'm docking you the cost of this from your pay. You're goddamn lucky I don't have you up before the skipper at office hours and bust you down a stripe."

      ++++

      "Maybe they're evil hands," Capelli suggested.

      "I do not think 'evil hands' is a diagnosis," Dixie said. She turned Agatha's hands over, palm up. "Do they feel evil, Aggs?"

      "They're goddamn annoying, is what they are!" Agatha snatched them away. Carefully, she slipped her sunglasses up to better cover her eyes. "And don't touch them, I don't know what they'll do. No sense in me doing more damage."

      "Superpowers!" Capelli waved a crowbar. "You could prove it. Bend this thing in half. Hey, Dixie, check her for, you know, a spider bite. Or a weird burn. Wait, did you find a ring? A green ring?"

      "Jesus Christ in a jumped-up handcar", Agatha swore. "What am I, a circus geek? Superpowers aren't possible."

      "Are there any other symptoms besides--" Dixie pondered. English being her second language, she often concentrated to find the proper word. "Random destruction?"

      "Eyes hurt." Agatha jabbed a thumb her Oakleys. "Not like I'm going blind. Opposite--everything gets intense. And I'm hearing things I shouldn't. Swear I could tell you what those Rangers at the other end of the mess are saying."

      "That is not good." Dixie frowned. "I only can think, maybe sudden adrenaline, out of control? And the problems with your vision and hearing might be-- You have to see someone better than me. A doctor."

      "C'mon, Dix", Agatha pleaded, "Gimme a no-shitter here. Cancer? I'm going crazy?"

      "I--" Dixie offered an apologetic shrug. "This is not my plain--no, field. I was trained for combat medicine. If you had a sucking chest would, I might help better."

      "Sucking chest wound would be more fun." Agatha sighed. "G'wan, shoo. I gotta brood for a while. Won't be fit company for either of you."

      Reluctantly, her two friends left. Agatha picked listelessly at the MRE spread out on the table. It was the only meal she considered safe to eat. Her one attempt to get a meal at the chow line ended with several shattered meal trays and broken cutlery. Her ears burned red when her erratically-sensitive hearing picked up a single word: "Taz". The base was small and the Marine contingent close-knit. It didn't take long for her to get a new nickname. News of her affliction would spread even faster. I'm going to get sidelined to a desk job, she thought. Or even sent back home. All that work, just to end up in sick bay and a flight home. It isn't fair. She could delay the inevitable by not going to the company aid clinic. Eventually, though, Gunny Reyes or her platoon sergeant would figure it out. Then, bye-bye.

      Resting her chin on her hand, she ate the MRE's bastardized version of a chocolate brownie. She idly watched the TV in the far corner of the mess. As usual, CNN was on. Soldiers drank news up faster than water in combat. CNN was the number-one choice of the US military to get word when something around the world went tits up. Nothing like a nice juicy disaster or civil war to get Marines panting at the screen like dogs over a case of Alpo. On rotation were the Los Angeles Cult Riots. They had been going on for the past two days. A lot of the Los Angeles area was up in flames over some crazy woman who had spread a cult like wildfire. Jasmine or some such thing. A third of the city was trying to commit suicide, a third was trying to stop them, and a third of them were behind the reporters doing stand-ups and flashing gang-signs. One small mercy was Camp Pendleton had avoided getting caught up in the trouble. Units from the 1st Marine Divison--along with half the nation's Guard units--had headed in to put down the disturbance. Almost as bad as the panic over the solar eclipse a few months ago.

      Now there was something about... Agatha's jaw dropped. An entire freaking *town* had dropped into the earth? Goddamn, she had signed up to fight terrorists overseas and they were putting craters back home! No, the anchor said Sunnydale was a natural disaster. No known deaths, either. Entire town had cleared out as if they had a mass premonition. The report said that a passing flight to San Francisco had seen the collapse live at nine thirty that morning. The world was up to all sorts of craziness, Agatha mused. My own troubles are a little drop in a big bucket.

      "I hear you have problems," growled Gunny Powell beside her.

      "HAH!" Brownie bits sprayed from Agatha's lips. "Gunny! How'd you--"

      "I'm Recon." Gunny stole a cracker from her MRE. "We're supposed to be sneaky. Now what's this about you having health problems?"

      "Heard that, Gunny?" Agatha mumbled.

      "Saw your tubby Private putting it away and got hypnotized," Powell explained. "Is that boy even human?"

      "He had a certificate somewhere saying that." Agatha smirked. "Got lost somewhere, so we have no idea."

      "Hmmmm." Powell's jaw ground the cracker to powder. "You're having control problems, distracted?"

      "Yeah, I do." Agatha bowed her head. "I know. I'll go to the clinic tonight. Can't bring down the company 'cause I want to stay."

      "Before you do that," Powell said, handing her a small container. "Put these in. Earplugs, we use them during chopper flights and on the range."

      "Thank you kindly." Agatha tucked them into a pocket. "But that won't stop the other stuff."


      "No," Gunny agreed. "On the other hand, I might be able to help you with controlling your reactions. Ever heard of tai ch'i?"


      "Never heard about it." Agatha ****ed her head. "That like, whatcha call it, yoga?"

      "Bit like that." The gunnery sergeant rose. "Meet me next morning by the west end of the parade deck, oh seven hundred sharp. That's an order."

      "Aye aye, Gunny." Agatha smiled up at him. "I right appreciate this, especially since I ain't under your command. You don't owe anything to me."

      "Corps needs solid Marines," Powell said before leaving. "And I promised Hartbreaker to sea-daddy you a bit. I keep my promises."

      Comment


      • #4
        Chapter III

        Agatha watches the women cook. The kitchen is a pleasant place. Not like the cozy one back at the home place, but intimate. People lived and laughed and ate here once upon a time. Now there's only the blonde woman and the brunette. The blonde is a tiny, slim thing. A Malibu beach bunny or a vapid LA party girl, the kind that made Agatha feel ugly and awkward during her few trips into LA on liberty. Yet there's humour in those hazel eyes. Sadness, a bit. Shadows of pain if you look hard enough. Her movements take Agatha's breath away: precise, powerful, shattering the very air as she moves. Her companion has an easier grace. A ripe body and sultry features promising the sin the radio preachers warned about. But the pink dress she wears gives her an innocence--care worn, but there--that lends warmth to her throaty laugh.

        "Whatcha doin'?" Agatha asks.

        "Baking cookies." The blonde tips the dough out of the mixing bowl.

        "Ring around the rosy, pocket full of posies, all fall down." The dark-haired siren rolls the dough flat. "Falling up now."

        Thunk. Thunk. The blonde stamps out rows with a cookie-cutter. Women. Dozens, hundreds, Agatha can't count.

        "Can I have one?" Agatha reaches out.

        "Hey!" The blonde swats the errant hand away with a wooden spoon. "You already had a taste of the bowl."

        "Here's you." The brunette shows Agatha a cookie-girl. Cinnamon for hair, red sprinkles for freckles. White and blue and red icing for dress blues. "And into the oven you'll go."

        "When will I be done?" Agatha asks. "What kind of cookie will I be?"

        The two women lean against one another. It is not sexual like lovers. It is not quite sisterly. It is a stance Agatha has seen before. She has shared it herself, exultant with her squadmates, coming through the march at the end of the Crucible that signals one has been accepted into the Corps, holding each other up with arms around their shoulders. They have been through the wars together, these two.

        The blonde leans close to whisper into Agatha's ear. The brunette follows suit. Their words chase Agatha's consciousness down through sleep and into the hinterlands of awareness.

        "You have no idea of what you will become."

        ++++++

        Agatha and Powell stood close together in a corner of the motor pool with arms entwined. At 0630, the garage was deserted. Each had their outside hands on each other's elbows, and their inside hands on the other's wrist. Agatha focused on Powell's black eyes, cold as a gunbarrel's muzzle. He stared impassively into her own bright blues. Pressure. Agatha fought down the urge to push back. Instead, she directed away the energy with a slight movement of the hand on his wrist. She redirected the energy into her own "attack". The power provided by Powell's maneuver flowed back through her into him. She guided it through her center rather than tightening her body to hit directly. The gunnery sergeant reacted with a subtle move that threatened to put her off balance. Parries and strikes--mere touches each--carried them through a slow ballet.

        Both were huffing when they broke stance. Bowing to each other, they about-faced to go through solo forms to cool down. Agatha quietly performed the intricate motions of Wu-style taijiquan. The gentle rhythm balanced the aggressive energies that had built up during the sparring. Finishing, she picked up the M4 resting by her deuce gear. She quelled the nervousness. It would just be another month's pay, after all. Snick, snick. Agatha field-stripped her rifle with deft precision. Fingers that lately had crushed tabletops in the mess and left dents in the door to her hooch dismantled the complex mechanism of the rifle. She cleaned the small bits of dirt and sand that blew into even a covered action in this land. Just as efficiently, she put the disassembled rifle back together. Powell inspected it closely.

        "Outstanding," he rumbled. He handed the M4 back to his student. "Here you go. Had the armorer sign this out for you. This should suit you better than the '16 you were toting before."

        "Right handier," she observed, adjusting the collapsible stock. "Whew, never did anything that intense before, at least standing up--er."

        "Ha!" Powell first drank from, then poured over his head the contents of a canteen. "Lighten up, we're on teacher time, not gunny and his obedient servant time. Recon discipline is a little less high-strung, anyway, when the brass aren't around."

        "Hey, we're supposed to uphold the honor of the Corps at all times." Agatha wiggled her fingers. "Do you think I have this beat? I haven't busted anything in the past couple of days."

        "You're five by five, kid." Powell rubbed a shoulder. "Damn, the energy coming off you was off the scale. Thought I was holding back a tsunami. And your forms are perfect. Never seen anyone progress that fast in a week."

        "Got the proper motivation, gunny." Agatha shouldered her new weapon. "Just flowed natural, I guess. You said this could be used for fighting?"

        "Stick to the Corps Martial Arts Program." He tapped the black rigger's belt at his waist, two red stripes by the buckle denoting a second degree black belt. "Taijiquan can be effective, but that's advanced training. Mick-slap's easier to learn and more suited to busting heads and kicking ass in the real world. I'll be happy to train you for your brown belt quals."

        "That's okay gunny." Agatha worried her lower lip with her front teeth. "Afraid to say, I've had enough learning how to kill as I can stomach. Know it's cowardly."

        "I don't teach cowards," Powell replied sharply. "Putnam, I once went through recon indoc. That's forty-eight hours of pure hell, where a man has to decide to stand up or fold. And I didn't have to face off in a knife fight to get through it. When the big moments come--and they do--it's what you do with what you got that matters. You made your decision in that moment like I did. All I'm offering is a few new tools to go in your kit."

        "In a little while, maybe." Agatha smirked. "'Sides, things the way they are now, I wouldn't want a court-martial for breaking my favorite gunny in half."

        "You wish." He clapped her on the back. "Scoot, lance-coolie. Get that M4 sighted in."

        The firing range was a flat area at the far end of the base. A berm on a natural rise seventy five meters from the firing line provided a backstop. Several people were there already practicing on the human-silhouette targets set at varying distances. As she went to the far end of the line, she saluted the recon platoon commander. Captain Barrow paused in his pistol practice to return her salute. He had become familiar with her by sight given the amount of time she had spent in Powell's company. "Gunny's pet", the recon platoon called her Taking the prone position, Agatha set the sights to their proper zero. She couldn't boresight it in properly. An M4 was usually used within a hundred yards, so that kind of precision wasn't needed. She racked the charging handle and aimed at a target twenty five meters away.

        CRACK. CRACK. CRACK. Agatha fired a five shot group into the silhouette's chest. Damn. Off a bit to the left and high. She adjusted the windage a couple of clicks. The carbine barked another five times. Much better, center of mass with one flyer. Pity she never shot better than Marksman in the yearly rifle qualifications. She switched to a kneeling position, one knee down and supporting herself on her right foot. A girl in the mountains of eastern Tennessee learned to shoot as a matter of course. Agatha had shot a cousin's BB gun or plinked cans off a fence with a .22 from time to time. Her momma disliked guns, though, so having one of her own wasn't in the cards. She was much better with a bow. Her dad had passed down his bowhunting hobby. Almost every day she was out loosing arrows at haybales with her youth-model fiberglass recurve. Nothing like the tension of hand and arm and bow. Nothing better except the solid slap of an arrowhead hitting a target in the bullseye. That one fall in her sixteenth year, he had handed her his compound bow for the first time. Taking that buck, skinning and butchering it with her dad--never had been so close to the man before--

        "Goodbye stakes, hello flying fatality!"

        Almost without thinking she shifted aim to a target fifty meters out. Time slowed as the cheerful voice echoed in the recesses in her mind.

        CRACK. CRACK

        The trigger was so sensitive. It must have been the exercise with the gunny. She could feel the opposing forces of pressure and tension in its mechanism.

        CRACK. CRACK.

        Always hit the heart. Never miss. Her sights rested on the seventy five meter target.

        CRACK CRACK CRACK CRACK

        "Cease fire!"

        Shaking off the reverie, Agatha safed her weapon. Around her was a cluster of men--Rangers, the SF medic Dawson, and Captain Barrow. They looked at her with the strangest expressions. She panicked. Damn, did I bust my weapon again? Then she saw the range office carrying back the targets. Numb, she looked upon them. In each of the ten rings, both in the chest and in the head, was a single circle where her five-round groups had punched a single ragged hole. A Ranger whistled low in admiration. His thumb easily covered the tears in each target. As the chorus of whoops and congratulatory back slapping began, she could only think one thing:

        What in hell am I?

        ++++

        "You're an angel of mercy," Agatha groaned, shoving her swollen hand into the bowl of ice.

        "This is what you suffer for firing weapons all day," Dixie admonished. "Is there not a saying in your language, 'just say no'?"

        "That's drugs, not shooting, and when a captain gives you an order, you jump." Ice cubes rattled. "M-16, M4, M240, M14--running out of M's I shot with. Barrow even gave me one of those fancy Colt .45's his people use. Never shot a pistol in my life before that, and I dinged that paper haji's bell after a couple of mags."

        "Capelli told me this was awful shooting--no," Dixie corrected herself. "'Awesome'. Also about winning and cake, which I do not understand, but then Capelli would bring up cake in any conversation."

        "Well, I didn't do as well as that first time." Agatha jerked a thumb at the three targets tacked above her rack. "Gunny Powell said that next time on the KD range, I'd score high Sharpshooter. Expert, even, by a couple points."

        "Ah, the gunnery-sergeant." Dixie smiled dreamily. "I have seen your sessions with him. So...intense."

        "Minx." Agatha tossed an ice cube at her friend's head. "Lured away by the gunny's biceps. Poor Dawson. Well, you know what they say, 'if ya go black--'"

        "I am not being unfaithful to Sergeant Dawson's impressive muscular structure!" Dixie exclaimed. "I am just, how you say, 'playing the field'.

        "Just remember the rules on fraternizing."

        "Yet, the rules do not forbid close yet very personal physical examinations," Dixie said. A hopeful note entered her voice. "You said he was rubbing his shoulder? It may be cancer. I must see him to be...sure. It could be serious."

        Agatha dumped the most of the contents of the bowl down the front of Dixie's shirt. Well, she had promised to cool the girl down. Her hand went back in among the remnants of the ice cubes as her friend whooped and flailed. The swelling was visibly going down. A mercy at least. She traced the outline of one shot grouping. It amazed her how well the shooting had gone. Every weapon she had held snapped in instantly, despite it being months since training on the less-used weapons like the M240 machine gun. That .45 of Barrow's fit in her hand like it was custom-made. She'd "killed" the tickets of dozens of fake terrorists. The firing range had assumed the air of a county fair; half the base had gathered to watch her do her stuff. Agatha secretly exulted at her new nickname: "Annie", as in Oakley.

        Maybe I should ask Gunny for those--

        A wave of horror engulfed her. Distracted, Dixie missed Agatha bolting upright. Teeth bared, she crushed the frame of her rack. Wrong, wrong. Something's in the wire, something bad. Forget ice cubes, her skin crawled with dozens of chilly spiders running up and down the surface. In a trice the Ka-bar was out of her footlocker and her M4 was set to her shoulder. Agatha charged into the night. A dust storm had once again stormed out of the mountains. In her T-shirt and skivvies, she slowly tracked her carbine in a two-seventy degree arc. The wind was deafening. Yet underneath it she heard a noise. Barely perceptible to even her ears, yet there. A shuffle to her left. A hiss. Her trigger finger itched to take the first pressure. She couldn't though. Not until she had a clear sight picture. Frustrated, she stalked the unseen presence through the storm half-blind. The terrible sensation intensified as she closed...and then faded.

        Whatever it was, it was gone.

        Agatha mumbled a sheepish apology to Dixie about panic attacks and hearing things. The medic did not seem to be convinced, though she talked about stress and the odd things one heard at night. Flopping on her bunk, Agatha cleaned her M4 of grit. The damn things did collect dirt in the action if you weren't careful. The Kalashnikovs the Taliban fielded could shoot after bathing in mud, though she wouldn't try to hit the broad side of a LAV with one. The ritual of scrubbing out the chamber and bolt with brushes and CLP dispelled the worst of the episode. Likely really was the last bit of worries about staying on. Nothing to get antsy about. Some sleep--the four or five she managed these nights, which still kept her bouncy in the days--would help.

        ++++

        The next morning, they found the two dead Rangers.

        Comment


        • #5
          Chapter IV

          The girl who haunts her dreams stands, mesmerized, in the monster's grip. Agatha has never wanted to kill anyone more than this yellow-eyed, bat-eared thing. Cruel fangs sink into her jugular. Blood trickles down the girl's neck to stain the lovely white dress she wears beneath her leather jacket. The girl's crossbow lies at her feet. She sways while the monster drinks her heart's blood.

          Hazel eyes open.

          "They're coming," she says. "Are you ready?"

          ++++

          The camp gathered on the parade deck, defying the storm, to mourn their dead. Agatha refused to shed tears as the dusty wind bore into her eyes. I will not cry, she told herself. I won't disgrace this uniform any more than I have. In the center of the formation was the Ranger company. The assembled men stood before two sets of empty boots. Between each pair was an M16 set muzzle down. K-pot helmets balanced on the stocks and dog tags clinked against the barrels. The Ranger captain called out roll call. Here, said one man. Here, said another. Twice, there was silence. A firing party marched out with bayonets fixed. A volley rang out, then another, then a third. She jerked with each one. She forced herself to ramrod attention when the bugler played "Taps".

          With a single "Dismiss", the lieutenant-colonel who commanded the base set them free. Agatha quietly escaped to the shelter of a building to weep. Stupid, she cursed herself. Stupid. You knew. You knew and you let them die. Wiping her eyes, she gathered herself together. Today wasn't time for a pity party. It was for the two dead men she had failed. This was different than any other memorial. Death had come to Camp Iwo before. The Marine shot by the sniper, a sergeant who died from an IED attack on a convoy. Never, though, had death reached into the heart of the camp. Everyone seemed more aware of its threat. Hands stayed a bit closer to weapons. People edged past shadows even in the daytime. A lot more crosses were worn in defiance of theater rules about openly showing Christian symbols.

          In the distance, she saw Dixie kneeling by the helicopter hangar wall. Nothing on earth could have made Agatha go near that spot. It was all too reminiscent of a patch of desert ground several thousand miles to the east and months back in time. Dix is taking it hard, she thought. Must have known Schmidt and Moran. I'll probably end up with a new bunkmate. If anyone will have me. Tugging up her collar against the wind, she went into the motor pool. It was deserted. Most people on base had gone to the messes to chat and deal with the loss. Truth to tell, sociability wasn't high on her list right now. There was a Hummer waiting for an overhaul. A few hours up to her wrists in grease and sweat would do her some--

          "Hi, Lance-Corporal," Capelli said by the open hood of the Humvee. "Thought you might need a hand."

          Damn.

          "Alright, Private." She dragged the toolchest close. "Let's get in here and see-- Whoa there! What've you been eating? Your breath's stronger than Dixie's after one of her kimchi binges."

          "Oh, yeah." Capelli cupped his mouth with a hand. He waved a small water bottle. "It's a new health drink. Um, garlic. Well, garlic powder I got from the mess. Garlic is very healthy and organic."

          "There ain't a bug that would stick around that, for sure." Agatha pinched her nose. "Mind pointing that somewhere else downrange? 'Least until we have to degrease the engine block."

          "Sure." Capelli got a socket wrench. "So, how did it go with the skipper?"

          "Don't want to talk about it," Agatha replied curtly. She bent to her work.

          "That bad, huh?" Capelli winced in sympathy.

          "Private, two men are dead." Will not cry, will not cry. "They're dead because I didn't tell the officer in charge that night. Marched right in and took full responsibility. No sense in Dix getting the splash from my screw up."

          "That's just not fair!" Capelli exclaimed. "It was the guards on perimeter who let it...I mean, the haji through. And you didn't actually see anything or really hear--"

          "I knew." Agatha closed her eyes. "Even a case of the williwaws, you report. Skipper was kind, though. I'm still in the Corps."

          "So, how bad?"

          "Month of standing night watch guard in the wire." Agatha shrugged. "Fair enough. Skipper asked what'd be a proper punishment be. I chose it. Might even do some good, since I was the only one who even knew someone was around. "

          "You're going to be dog tired after a week!"

          "I'll be fine. Need a lot less sleep these days," she said. "Now, you gonna work or jaw?"

          "Yeah, yeah." Metal clinked on metal. "Say, you're going to need a partner for guard duty. Mind if I put in for it the first few watches?"

          "Be still my beating heart," Agatha said. "You're volunteering?"

          "I know, I skate enough I should have my own rink." Capelli grinned. "Figured that if the haji comes back, you might need some back up."

          "Well, you'd make a dandy meat shield." Agatha laughed. "C'mon, let's get this finished. We both got a long night ahead of us."

          May have screwed up, Agatha decided, but at least Capelli and Dixie have my back. Why people fight. Not for country or for the uniform, but for their foxhole buddies. Although she hoped he got off this weird health kick. A month of close company with the nasal equivalent of the bottom of an Italian restaurant's cook pot was more punishment than she deserved. She continued the overhaul when Capelli excused himself for a trip[to the heads. When he left, she spotted a thick wad of papers by his workbench. The greasy thumbprints and curled edges told her it had seen a lot of reading. There was a second of amused disgust. Capelli leaving his porn lying around? Then she spotted the title on the top of one sheet. A familiar word: "Sunnydale".

          Curious, she took the papers. Print outs, by the look, from the Internet. Access to sites not on the NMCI or the Milnet was restricted at Camp Iwo. Email was fine. So was accessing military education sites or the occasional news site. He must have used the public net terminals at the mess, provided by the civilian contractors who ran the place. Must have paid a fair bit, since access fees were high. She raised her eyebrows at the stories he'd collected. A lot of woo-woo stuff, like the maniacs saying the Sunnydale Collapse was a weapons test of the sonic cannon Bush used to collapse the Towers. Although Sunnydale didn't exactly need help in the weirdness department. Engrossed, she read through reports about a death rate high as downtown Mogadishu. Epidemics of wild animal and barbecue fork attacks. The school had blown up at Graduation one year, for crissakes. How had people missed this for years?

          Near the bottom were news stories about the mass evacuation before the sinkhole. In one picture was one late-arriving refugee party, the supposed last out of town. Shellshocked young men and women limped off a school bus while a reporter pestered them. Agatha's heart skipped. Right at the edge of the frame, in the protective embrace of a tall brunette and a distinguished man wearing glasses. Her. That was her. The printout was in black and white. The woman was nearly out of frame. Yet it was unmistakably the woman who had haunted her dreams for over a week. And hiding in the bus--a familiar profile seen through a bus window. Dark hair and sultry features. Agatha flipped back through the stack. There she was again, in a copy of a yearbook page taken from the late Sunnydale High's archives. Buffy Anne Summers, just another blonde California girl. Nothing special.

          So why was the caption beneath her photo "Class Protector"?

          ++++

          Agatha and Capelli huddled in the shelter of the north wall of the mess. The night-vision goggles hanging around their necks were useless against the dust storm that had enveloped the base. Over the wind's howl and Capelli's moans, she listened to the muted chatter of the communications net through the radio at her belt. The storm had reduced visibility to nigh-zero. Forget a Taliban attack. They wouldn't have seen or heard a brass band and ten juggling elephants passing through the wire. Braving the fury of the storm, the pair had patrolled as best they could. No-one responded to the challenge of "Chesty" with the countersign of "Puller" aside from the other security patrols. No need for a curfew, Agatha realized. Nobody else is stupid enough to be out here besides us.

          A dust-devil swirled past them like a haunt from an old mountain tale. Startled, Capelli thrust something on a chain at it. Agatha couldn't help a little laugh. The crucifix he wore was the biggest and gaudiest she had ever seen. She half-expected him to mount it on the bayonet lug of his rifle. Minister back home would have the vapours over that kind of popery! Supporting him against the gales, she half-dragged him along the route assigned for the night's patrol area. They passed the refrigerated trailers behind the mess. She shivered as she passed by the third in line. The severity of the storm prevented choppers from flying. All Recon and Ranger missions had been canceled until the weather improved. It also meant Schmidt and Moran's bodies could not be transported to Bagram. One of the trailers had been emptied and turned into a temporary morgue. Creepy. Enough to make spiders run up and down your--

          She snapped the carbine stock to her shoulder. Out there it, it's out there. She squelched the radio mike transmit button several times in a pre-arranged alert signal. Alright you bastard, show yourself.

          "Lance-Corporal!" screamed Capelli, in her ear. "There! Someone's under there!"

          "What?" she screamed back. In horror, she spotted the two pairs of boots protruding beneath the trailer. Not fast enough, never fast enough. "Shit, let's get him--Oh God! Dix!"

          "Aggs?" Dixie moaned, her hand pressed to her neck. "G--get out, run, he...hungry, so hungry..."

          "Shhhh." Agatha scrabbled for a pressure dressing from the medic kit Dixie always carried. "Don't move, you'll make it worse. You just lie there. Iwo One, do you read? We have a woman down, lost a lot of blood. Confirmed intruder in the wire."

          "Look look at that!" Capelli said, horror in his face, at the twin puncture wounds on Dixie's neck. "Putnam, we have to get the hell out of here. Those are just like those on Schmidt and Moran."

          "Pipe down and keep watch!" Agatha ordered. "Iwo One, repeat, we need a stretcher party and corpsman here like yesterday. It's Private First Class Dik Soon Jae, stab wounds to the neck, just missed the artery. Bleeding like a stuck pig!"

          "Why--" Dixie coughed, eyes fluttering. "Not enough blood where they were. Too little left there, would have bled too much. Stupid, Aggs, I am sorry, I came here alone to see, did not believe even me--"

          "Where's that ****ing evac?" Agatha screamed into the radio, any sense of decorum lost. "Repeat, we have a--"

          The horrifying sensation of insects scurrying beneath her skin changed became a rush of cold that chilled her to the core. It was the only warning she had before it came out of the storm. Shrieking, Capelli loosed a half-magazine's worth into the charging figure. An almost solid stream of red--tracer, Agatha realized, he loaded his mag with all tracer, why?--tore into him. It. Snarling, the thing cringed against a burst that should have cut a man in half. A fist sent Capelli flying. For all his chowhounding, Capelli still had the build and much of the muscle of the linebacker he had been in high school. The punche knocked him into the trailer's side hard enough to leave a Marine-shaped dent. I'm going to die, Agatha thought in dreamy horror as it came. I am going to die and Dix is going to die and it's all wrong.

          Moran. Impossible. He's dead. This is wrong. His face is all wrong.

          Twisted. Bumpy.

          Fangs.

          Agatha, said a voice deep within her, are you ready?

          Her answer came with a buttstroke to the attacker's jaw that didn't just shatter the M4's stock. It vaporized it almost down to its component atoms. The thing flew almost twenty feet before crumpling in pain. It cursed in English through a broken jaw. From the hip, she hosed it down from the hip with all thirty rounds from her rifle. Only the strike of the one-in-four tracer rounds she had loaded as standard practise had any noticeable effect. There was a sickening sizzle of burning flesh when those hit. Lurching, it staggered away. Agatha snarled. Oh no you don't, you son-of-a-bitch! Her Ka-Bar cleared its sheath in a second. Moran--this insane, the last rational fragment of her mind said through the red haze of rage--shrieked when the blade tore into his back.

          He struck back with a ferocity that should have terrified her. His blows were sledgehammers made flesh. A single one should have cracked ribs, torn out her spine, sent daggers of bone shards through her body. Agatha repaid the thing that wore the face of a compatriot with strikes of equal force. There was no fear. There was no anger. There was only the urge to remove this abomination from Hell from the face of the earth. Ducking a roundhouse punch, she side-kicked into its knee. The joint folded with a crack of snapping ligaments and bone. An outflung arm provided her the leverage to throw it to the ground. The earth shook when Moran slammed into the deck. Assuming the high mount, she pinned the writhing creature-that-had-once-been-man beneath her. Kill it, goddamn it, DIE!

          Liquid splashed into its face. Moran uttered a keening wail as flesh bubbled and burned. Wobbly, Capelli stood beside her with the empty garlic health-drink bottle in hand. He looked down on Moran with horror...but not surprise. He knew, Agatha realized. Capelli knew. Sickened, he held out a long piece of wood to her. The end had been sharpened to a fine point. A hilt of 550 cord wrapped around the lower third and secured with a monkey's fist knot steadied her sweaty grip. She held the...the stake with a strange familiarity. Vaguely, she heard others running through the storm. Some of the voices were recognizable as Rangers who had backslapped her yesterday on the range. The now-pitiable figure beneath her muttered obscenities through a mouth filled with blood and loose teeth.

          What had been Moran exploded to dust when the stake punched into its heart.

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          • #6
            Chapter V

            Lines of fire blazed all over her body. Agatha slumped on the examination table while the corpsman cleaned several cuts. In the heat of the battle, she had not noticed the claws that had torn through the kevlar Interceptor vest; ballistic cloth made to resist pistol bullets and shrapnel had been shredded to pieces. Even the metal SAPI plate that protected her chest had been dented by the creature's blows. The corpsman clucked while he stitched up her many wounds. On another table, a doctor with captain's bars examined Capelli's pupils with a penlight. His skull had been spared a fracture. His ribs had not been so lucky. Bandages wound tight around his lower body.

            Dixie lay on a table. A heart monitor beeped beside the IV pole hung with several bags of blood. So pale, Agatha thought. One more minute and she would have bled to death in the dust. Or Moran-- She pushed away the memory of his last agonized cry. Of the impossibility of a burly Ranger dissolving into nothingness. Waving away the attendant, she limped over to her friend's bedside. She took the comatose woman's hand in her own. Another corpsman helped Capelli over to them. Neither spoke. Eventually, the sick bay personnel retreated to give the pair some privacy with their injured comrade. Taking her friend's hand, Agatha stroked the knuckles.

            "Ahhh," Dixie groaned, hand going to the huge bandage on her neck. "Aggs, Capelli, where--"

            "Don't worry," Agatha said. "You're okay. Dumbass!"

            "Um, is not traditional," Dixie ventured, "that fallen warriors awake to sympathy?"

            "No, they get up to an asskicking," Agatha grumped. "Are you crazy, going in there without back up? Sure, I might have laughed if you'd said that you thought Moran was a--uh,--a--"

            There was a brief moment of silence around Dixie's bed.

            "Vampire," Capelli said. "Come on, don't look at me like that. He was a fricking vampire!"

            "Perhaps there is rational explanation." Dixie winced as she touched the gauze covering her wounds. "During training, there were lessons on catalepsy. Bee stings. Paralysis."

            "Pay up, Lance-Corporal." Capelli held out an open palm. "I called it, one minute before she said that. Why do they always say that?"

            "They're real," Agatha replied. "You knew, right off, didn't you, private?"

            "Ever see my footlocker?" Capelli said. "Entire run of Fangoria. Hell, back when I was running with both the Nerd Herd and the football team in Plainsboro, we'd all get together and do horror movie marathons. Kick back and blaze up. Er, I mean blaze up some popcorn in the microwave."

            "Don't ask, don't tell," Agatha said.

            "Used to run a homebrew roleplaying campaign," Capelli continued. "We'd work out exactly what to do when the Zombie Apocalypse came. Although holy crap, Moran had a shitload more hit dice than I expected for a new riser."

            "It was not Moran." Dixie shuddered. "He-- I know him a little bit. Nice man, quiet, family in Montana. When he rise-- I try to fight, little bit of hapkido uncle taught me. He just threw me down. Said awful things. Say I tease, mama-san, sucky sucky for one--"

            "He's gone," Agatha told her. "Gone and dust."

            "But not the one who made him!" Dixie barely kept her voice to a stage whisper. "Is not how it is in movies? How I suspected, two little holes in neck, like woman in the village. She had those just above the cut. Before he rise, I see little bit of blood in his mouth. Never expect to be real, had to be sure-- "

            "Woman?" Capelli asked. He gasped when told of the mutilated corpse Dawson had seen. "Classic way of preventing a vampire rising. Chop off the head, cut out the heart. Same legends talk about using garlic or holy water. Although, weird, stakes are only used to pin a corpse inside its coffin. And traditionally, vamps are black or red from being bloated with blood."

            "They hop." Dixie shrugged at the puzzled glances from her comrades. She fished out a handful of rice from her utilites "Old legends, the gangshi. Hopping ghosts. You toss rice before them, they have to count each grain. That work not so well, I think, with Christians. Moran said thanks for providing side dish."

            "Cross worked better." Capelli clutched his ribs. "Not that well, though. Ow. I don't know if it was the garlic or the holy water I scammed from the padre that did the melty thing."

            "What's gonna work better," Agatha said, "is siccing an ANGLICO on it and letting the gun bunnies take care of it."

            "You're going to tell the brass?" Capelli gulped. "I mean, I'll back you up. But look at how Dixie reacted when we said 'vampire' even when she saw Moran had been turned. Or those idiots in Sunnydale. I bet the entire town was a Salem's Lot and nobody admitted it. Skipper'll think we've all gone high and right."

            "Not if I show them." Agatha made a fist. "Figure juggling a couple engine blocks should get them aboard right quick."

            "And cue the mysterious government agency," Capelli intoned. "And there's always one showing up. You'll end up on a slab at Area 51 or something."

            "I agree," Dixie said. "There are stories of bad days before democracy in Korea, from my father and mother. Governments can do evil things."

            What am I going to do? Agatha thought. Marines don't lie. They just don't. Diddybob, maybe. Lollygag when they could. Lying, especially to a superior officer, was a sin just below supporting Army over Navy. Might be some wiggle room. Didn't get a clear look at the haji in the storm. Face all screwed up like he was on drugs. Heh. Maybe I can say he got away like dust in the-- She snapped to attention. Gunny Reyes and Captain Snyder had strode into the sick bay. The senior officer and NCO in her command motioned for her to come with them. Report time. No time. No time. What do I do?

            Agatha squared her shoulders.

            I am a Marine.

            Marines don't lie.

            And I'm gonna need a crowbar for this.

            ++++

            The line of soldiers and Marines stretched on other side of her. Two men from the Force Recon platoon flanked her, with Gunny Powell himself pacing behind, on the modified FOD Walk drill. Everyone kept their gazes trained to the ground. Every so often, the line would stop before what might be a section of disturbed earth. Retreating a place, EOD men would carefully probe with wire and bayonet the sight of the "suspected mine". Or what might be the daylight haven of a vampire burrowed away from the sun. Wandering close, Agatha concentrated for the spiders-and-chills sensation she had got both times encountering the vampires. A hand was always close to the stake concealed in the waist of her utilities, in the small of her back. Slowly, the search line swept the length of Camp Iwo.

            Agatha produced a probe of twisted commo wire in the shape of a Y when she and Powell ducked behind the firing range backstop. Nothing, not a twitch that she had seen when the water witches back home had gone dowsing for wells. Grunting, Powell dismissed her two guards. The lance-corporal and her gunner-sergeant escort performed one final sweep of the hooches and buildings for any sign of the supernatural. Outside the wire, Capelli helped a group pounding new aiming stakes for the perimeter. They appeared suspiciously like crucifixes. The wire was already strung with tiny crosses formed from scrap metal from the motor pool and machine shop. No one said anything. No one had to. As one, the camp obeyed both orders and their guts.

            Force Recon had their own small camp set slightly apart from the rest of the base. Sandbags heaped head high, topped with concertina wire, kept curious onlookers at bay. Within, the quarters were far more spartan than that of the line company. Two large tents with covered slit trenches behind them for shelter during mortar and rocket attacks provided accomodations. The twenty-odd members of the platoon paused in the midst of a PT routine when Agatha came through the gate. Recon was among the last bastions of all-male units in the Corps. A Molly Marine, especially a pogue, was unusual within the hallowed confines of their quarters. Being personally escorted by their gunny was even stranger. Powell ignored the incredulous looks darted their way. Leading her into one tent, he went to a corner set apart by blankets hung from the supports. Within was a tiny office--a folding desk, two chairs for himself and visitors, a rack just to the side.

            "At ease," Powell rumbled. He fished a small silver flask and two shot glasses from his foot locker, pouring a small measure in each. "Medicinal, of course. Had the corpsmen sign off."

            "Yut!" Agatha sipped the bourbon. "Smooth, gunny. Almost as good as the 'shine my uncle Harper brews up."

            "Ask him to send a keg of it over." Powell lifted up the solid tool-steel crowbar on his desk, twisted into a pretzel. "Most hilarious thing I ever saw. Thought I heard a sonic boom when your skipper sucked his skivvies up his ass."

            "Only way, gunny,"Agatha explained. "He didn't believe, more chance for that thing to get back in the wire."

            "You took a risk." Powell polished off the shot with one swallow.

            "I can't let another Marine die," Agatha said. "I know I might end up underneath Eighth and I wired up like a lab rat, but-- Are Capelli and Dixie clear?"

            "All squared away." Powell peered past the blankets, ensuring their privacy. "You and the private fought off the haji, and we're keeping the lack of Moran's body quiet. Let's just say the morgue trailer's going to 'accidentally' get hit by a stray Taliban mortar round tonight before the choppers come."

            "Recon's very sneaky." Agatha managed a faint grin. "So, guess I'm on night watch duty from now to hell-and-gone. Don't worry, it won't get back in, gunny."

            "That's because we're going to hunt down and kill it. Congrats, Lance-Corporal. You just made Recon."

            "What?" Agatha gaped. "Pardon, gunny, that's impossible. Rules are rules. No woman's allowed out into combat."

            "World's changed," Powell explained. "Now, your skipper, he agreed with you. Keep you inside, on alert. Our own ginger-haired guard dog. Only that keeps the vampire--and hell's frozen over when I can say that without laughing--inside our OODA loop. Marines don't do defensive. We assault, attack, and over-goddamn-come."

            "So how can I work with you?" Agatha asked.

            "Searcher," Powell said. "We've been getting a lot of flak from the hippies stateside. 'Violating culture' when our raid teams corner women with the men. New program, training women to act as guards to handle female prisoners and detainees. Officially, you will be on secondary duty as a searcher, training with my boys and the Marine Special Purpose platoon in the line company."

            "Capelli and Dixie, too, gunny, when they've healed up," Agatha added. "Only others who've seen a vamp. They'll know what to look for, too."

            "Good idea." Powell stowed the flask and glasses away. "Unofficially, if we get an idea of where the 'Victor' is hiding, you'll come out with Captain Barrow and me on a very quiet night patrol. Hopefully we can dump a load of Willy Pete on its ass from a Harrier, but we need you along to sniff it out."

            "Aye aye, gunny!" Combat. Actual combat!

            "Understand this," Powell growled. "This is close-hold. The half-bird in charge of this base or God forbid an embed gets wind of us chasing ghosts and ghouls, this entire operation will be shut down. We also can't afford a panic if the 'jokes' about monsters floating around camp seem real."

            "Lips are dogged tight, gunny." Agatha sprang up. "When do we start?"

            "Now," Powell barked. "Grab your deuce gear and a new M4 from our platoon armorer. Dismiss!"

            Exultant, Agatha hurried out to her hooch. Dust spiraled up as she allowed a little of her newfound strength to show. This was why she was here. This was her purpose. She didn't know where her powers had come from. She didn't know why she was chosen. But here and now, for once in a long time, she understood exactly what she was and exactly what she had to do. Find the enemy. Destroy it. Don't let her Marines down. She glanced out at the mountains looming over the camp. Somewhere out there might be a creature from hell, buried in the earth. A terror that thought it could come into my camp, my home. Kill my people. No. Hell no. I'll get you.

            Get you if it's the last thing I ever do.

            +++++

            Muzahir studied, puzzled, the actions of the American soldiers far below. He had come here while tracking the ghul. Its attacks brought the pattern of its path close by this base, striking at village after village from where it had been sired. He did not dare come too close to the base, of course. Afghanis who got close to the foreign invaders often ended up kneeling, bound and blindfolded, at Bagram for a trip across the seas. Traitors within the umma would sell out even a man innocent of any contact with the jihadi for money or the chance to avenge a feud in the name of "badal". It was why he traveled alone. One man alone might be left alone. Two or three Rakib travelling together might bring fire and death from the planes that roamed Afghanistan's skies.

            Grief clutched his heart. He was alone, no matter what. The last of the Rakib, the Watchers of the Faithful, left in this land. Perhaps the last left alive in the world. All the women gone-- Damn Iblis and its sightless abominations. Unlike the other sheiks of the Jirga Rakib, he had had no adopted daughters from whom the Sayadatoo 'l-Ghul might be chosen by Allah. The last potential he had trained, who he had married as custom when she passed the age of Calling, had died of fever during the chaos when the mujahedin had sparred among each other before the Taliban's rise. He had not the heart to become father or husband to another. He had taught, of course. Pursued his duties as both scholar of the Ulemma and hunter of afrit. It had been a long, fulfilling life far different than he had ever imagined before his father had packed him off to the Madrassa in Quetta.

            Now all his friends and the girls they taught according to the secret Hadith of the Prophet were dead. Slaughtered, leaving an old grey-haired scholar to bury them according to the rites of the Faith.

            No matter. Muzahir spurred You Little Bastard, his donkey, down the path to the next village. He was Rakib, pledged to Watch the faithful. A curved pulwar of fine steel forged in the time of the Mughals swung from his saddle. A Lee-Enfield loaded with silver bullets was slung across his back. Wooden stakes were tucked into a bandolier fashioned from surplus Russian webbing. In his saddebags were charms and the few books of lore he had managed to save from the rampaging Harbingers of Shaitan. There was a ghul, a devil feigning the flesh of a living being, to find. It would die by his hand.

            He would destroy it if it was the last thing he would ever do.

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