Check out Tom Doyle’s thrilling debut, American Craftsmen, available May 6th from Tor Books!
US Army Captain Dale Morton is a magician soldier—a “craftsman.” After a black-ops mission gone wrong, Dale is cursed by a Persian sorcerer and haunted by his good and evil ancestors. Major Michael Endicott, a Puritan craftsman, finds gruesome evidence that the evil Mortons, formerly led by the twins Roderick and Madeline, have returned, and that Dale might be one of them.
Dale uncovers treason in the Pentagon’s highest covert ranks. He hunts for his enemies before they can murder him and Scherie, a new friend who knows nothing of his magic. Endicott pursues Dale, divided between his duty to capture a rogue soldier and his desire to protect Dale from his would-be assassins. They will discover that the demonic horrors that have corrupted American magic are not bound by family or even death itself.
As I hustled out from the hangar into the Persian Gulf twilight, my muscles tightened, and power flowed into my hands. Soon I would do what I did best. Soon I would kill a sorcerer.
The U.S. Army base tarmac gave off a blistering heat mirage as I scrambled across it. A helicopter’s blades rotated at ready; their wash blasted hot as I boarded. The door slammed behind me, and the copter, christened Valkyrie, took off.
The five men of my team saluted, then went back to checking their equipment. They showed no impatience at having waited on the pad for orders; they were used to the bullshit. I sat toward the front for quick off-headphone interaction with the pilot when we hit the spooky stuff.
For a silent aircraft, the Valkyrie made plenty of noise inside. Next to me, Cpl. “Vulture” Volant yelled my nom de guerre. “Casper. Is that like the friendly ghost, sir?”
“Not that friendly, Corporal.”
“A killing ghost, sir?” But, seeing that I was unamused, Vulture again inspected his sniper rifle, and I was grateful that I didn’t have to order him to shut the fuck up. It was my fault for choosing a shitty cryptonym, and not just because of the ghost reference. “Casper” gave a clue to my job. Casper, or Caspar, had been one of the Three Wise Men. A magus, or what Americans with knowledge called a craftsman. Why hide my identity only to give it away through the back door?
My father had written me a warning that “We Mortons are too practical about the craft, and too crafty about the practical.” Yeah, my real name was Morton, Captain Dale Morton. Other craftsmen tended to have strong opinions about my family. I didn’t blame them.
My men didn’t know about my family or magic, but they aimed uncomfortable glances at me. I didn’t blame them either. These five had trained together, a seamless whole, but not with me. I was too important a secret to expose to others for too much time. Our unit designation, MAC-66, appeared in no records. The Pentagon didn’t formally acknowledge Delta Force and SEAL Team Six but allowed their existence to be known. Craft ops were different; knowledge of their existence could be fatal.
Two of my five were boot camps, green as Uncle Sam’s toilet paper. Vulture and Lt. Shaheen were more experienced. Shaheen knew Arabic and regional detail and doubled as team medic, so he was Doc. And there was the old man, my NCO, Master Sergeant “Zee” Zanol.
All good men, but I couldn’t get too close. They were smart enough not to question the bullshit, but they would know the word from this land to describe me: assassin.
Hours before, I had stood in a prefab conference room shoved in a corner of the base hangar. The room served as an office for people who weren’t officially there. Colonel Hutchinson had explained my mission. She was my favorite officer, my favorite craftsperson, and my favorite living human being, all packed tight into a tall fortysomething mix of Kate Hepburn and triathlete.
“H-ring is calling it a snatch and grab, but you’ll assume your usual prejudice against the target,” she said in her easy rural New England way, as if she weren’t sentencing some stranger to death. “Intel says he’s a Farsi speaker, a Persian.” Persian—better than any existing nation’s name to describe ancient loyalties. Hutchinson pointed to a printout map. “He’s been farseen here, about fifty klicks southwest of the bridge.”
“A long ways from home, ma’am,” I said.
“He’s not such a wise man for a magus,” said Hutchinson. “We expect a go before sundown.”
“Isn’t Sword up next?” Code name Sword was the third craftsperson on base, though for security I was kept sequestered from him. I wanted this mission, but I had a gut suspicion of irregular assignments.
“This mission has been called by Sphinx herself,” said Hutchinson, “and Sphinx doesn’t want Sword. She said something to the effect that if we didn’t send you on this mission, we could pack up Western civilization and shove it up our asses.”
“Me, ma’am?” As far as I knew, neither the Peepshow at Langley nor their top oracle Sphinx ever selected the individual for an assignment.
“Don’t let it go to your head, Morton. This bozo isn’t important. Must be a butterfly-effect scenario.”
“So I crush the butterfly,” I said.
“Right,” agreed Hutchinson.
I respected Hutchinson more than my rarely seen parents, and whatever Hutch said, I would execute, with my usual and extreme prejudice. But it was more than personal loyalty. I shared the sense of duty of my ancestors: Philip “Foggy” Morton who delayed the British with bad weather at Brooklyn Heights to save George Washington’s army, Richard “Dick” Morton, who calmed the storms over the English Channel for the D-Day invasion, and Joshua Morton, who gave the last full measure for the Union he loved. Like them, I would serve my country to the utmost.
I checked my watch. We’d be within forty klicks by now. We were coming in low and below radar, but I wasn’t worried about the conventional firepower of the locals. The target would strike soon. I kept my anticipation of the supernatural blow to myself.
The first sign of attack came as a gut-lurching, sideways drop, followed by another. The chopper shook as if an oversized child was pelting it with boulders. Yes, a probable SPACTAD—spooky action at a distance.
I clambered forward and crouched behind the pilot, Lt. Nguyen. She had “Born to Kill” on her helmet. “What’s that turbulence?” I asked.
“Sir, we need to turn back,” said Nguyen.
“Just because of some wind?”
“I’ve never seen anything go so high,” said Nguyen.
“Keep flying,” I said. “We’ll be fine.”
“That’s an order.”
“Yes, sir.” Fortunately, Nguyen had been thoroughly warned to follow my every order, no matter how apparently suicidal. But she didn’t sound happy, no ma’am.
I made a controlled tumble back into my seat, and held some laminated maps in front of my face. But my mind followed the storm. I felt the enemy craftwork behind it, craftwork that had been wreaking havoc on air and land traffic in this sector for months. I could try to fight the whole spell, but I wasn’t on my own ground, so that would drain me, and that was probably what the target wanted.
So I’d shield the copter. It would look strange, but what could the pilot say? I touched my hand to the wall of the aircraft, and rubbed and patted it like a horse. I felt the pulse of the life of the air beyond. “Calm air, calm air,” I murmured, and the air around the speeding copter flowed calmly by.
My headset crackled. “Sir,” said Nguyen, “the sand is blowing, but we seem to be in a clear pocket.”
“Roger that. Carry on, Lieutenant.”
Compulsively, I checked my weapons and gear again—way beyond the necessary. I carried a Heckler & Koch MP5 submachine gun with its clean first shot and a Sig Sauer P226 9mm pistol, because I didn’t want to adapt my father’s .45 with the electronic safeguards. My team’s equipment appeared standard for a Special Ops unit, but it had hidden features for craft-enhanced ops. The surest weapon in a craftsman’s hands is his opponent’s mind. Each weapon had a “Stonewall” chip that would prevent firing at a team member (including oneself) under any circumstances. I smiled at the chip’s name. As my ancestor Joshua Morton had illustrated to General Jackson at the end of an otherwise bad day at Chancellorsville, getting the enemy to shoot their own took very little craft.
After the mission, the team would be kept under 24/7 surveillance and quarantine for a month, in case any craft time bombs had been dropped into their psyches. I grimaced in sympathy, but their minds wouldn’t be great concerns if I eliminated the target quickly.
The men had technical explanations for these safeguards. Too much SciFi Channel had accustomed them to all kinds of nonsense—that they might be subject to chemical hallucinogens, microwave mind control, or perfect holographic projections. Like Dad had written, any sufficiently advanced magic is indistinguishable from technology.
For a long mission, another man might carry amphetamines or other stimulants. I carried only one pill: a black cyanide capsule. And in case I hesitated, there was an exception to the Stonewall chip. One man in the unit would have the order and the means to kill me rather than allow my capture. I bet it was Sergeant Zee.
I felt the gs as the copter veered right. “Sir,” said Nguyen on headset, “we’re about two klicks from the target location, approaching from due south.”
I didn’t look up from my equipment. “Keep flying north, full speed.”
“But the target is…”
“He’ll run,” I said. I moved forward again for a face-to-face.
“But we’re coming in quiet,” said Nguyen.
“He knows that we’re coming.” The pilot looked at me, horrified at this hint of a security breach.
I viewed the ground through the copter’s night-vision screen. Sure enough, far ahead on the lone road leading out of the village, a jeep raced toward the north. In night vision, the jeep glowed bright green with heat, but in my vision, the target burned red with craft. Perhaps if the target had tried to flee quietly without throwing sand in our faces, he would have made it, but that wasn’t magi style. “That’s our man. Try not to lose him.”
If the target was talented enough, he would shake us with some sorcerer stealth unless I could guess where he was heading. That’s why I was here, and not some Predator drone—this chase required craft and intuition.
Where will he run to? My objectives liked old ground. Any other place, I could just pick out the nearest ruin, but here in the Near East ancient sites with occult potential dotted the landscape. Wait, there on the map, straight down the road, a familiar name. Drones had seen some recent small-unit activity in the area, but that wasn’t what concerned me. I stepped back to show the map to Doc. “Isn’t there an archeological site here?”
“Yes, sir, an Assyrian settlement near the town. Looters have been digging pits during the recent unpleasantness.”
“Pilot, head to MC 9146 4211.”
“Roger, wilco—wait a minute. He’s off the scope, sir.”
“Understood. Circle the point where you last saw him for ten minutes. Then, head to MC 9146 4211 on a curved vector, veering thirty degrees west of true until midpoint.” I didn’t want the target to see us pursuing in a straight line behind him, and I didn’t want to beat the target to the site.
I called up maps and photos of the dig on my handheld. Yes, an old tunnel excavation into a nasty temple to Assur-Marduk—the target would like that. And something more organized than looting had been going on in the last two years, with the maze of tunnels opened up to the surface, then covered from view with a series of tarpaulins.
I turned to Sergeant Zee and pointed at my map. “Let’s run through the mission. We’ll insert a few kilometers downwind of the town, here.” It was a small town with a long Arabic name, and before that a Greek name, and before that something in Assyrian. And something else before all that. Every place they sent me was like that. Small towns with large history lessons.
“Don’t make me pronounce it right, sir,” said Zee. “I just forget them all afterwards.”
“Doesn’t matter,” I said. “Our objective won’t go to the modern town. The drones have spotted activity just to the west in the excavated mound.”
“What kind of activity, sir?”
“Hostile activity.” Zee didn’t need to know about the other aberrant sandstorms and equipment failures. Like me and many of my ancestors, my target was a weatherman. “Vulture will clear the entrance to the dig. Then, you’ll all cover the town and any approaching bad guys.” Any conventional bad guys.
“You’re going into the tell alone, sir?”
“That’s correct.” Odd that Zee knew the word tell.
“An ancient city? Hmm.” He narrowed his eyes at me. “I’ve seen some strange missions, sir. A crypt in the bottom of a mine in Bosnia, a temple older than the Mayans in Central America. I don’t like that kind of strangeness, but it doesn’t frighten me.”
“I hear you, Sergeant.” The man was saying that he understood something about craft ops—that I could rely on him not to panic in the face of magic and to keep his mouth shut afterwards. That I could talk to him. That I didn’t have to go into those ruins alone. But craft was different from most military secrets. Besides, I preferred to hit the target myself. A mundane soldier was just somebody I’d have to protect.
“We’ll talk afterwards,” I continued. “So we understand each other, no one else is to enter the ruins under any circumstances. You understand my orders, Sergeant?”
Having completed my checklist, I prepared my most important weapon—my craft. I focused on my breathing to find my center. I hit the mute button on my senses. The chopper engines, the camouflage colors, the smells of fuel, equipment, and sweat—all perceived through foam insulation. Very internal, intimate time, turn the lights down low, baby. Some of this quiet bubble was common to most elite soldiers before a mission, but some of it was the peculiar meditation needed for my power.
Ritual and formula were just two possible focal points for magic. The essence of craft was to hold two exact images in one’s mind at once—the thing as it was and the thing as it would be. Then, still holding the images, the craftsman placed the word of action between them. To do all this instantaneously required talent, practice, and energy.
But with my power running high, one of my natural gifts showed itself without effort. The team’s auras flickered around me; the small letters of their sins, scarlet a’s of petty fornications and k’s of military duty, tried to distract me. I ignored them. In my bubble, I waited. I was alone; nothing else existed. I felt the craft energies flow up and down my spine. More than enough juice for one sorcerer. I was ready.
Nguyen signaled: two minutes. I resurfaced. I mumbled a prayer to an absent God that, this time, my team would just face flesh and bullets, leaving the more powerful horrors to me.
“Get ready.” The copter slowed to a hover. “Move out!”
The metal door flew open with a slide-slam and we were down the ropes and fanning out through clouds of dust in a scattered deployment. Better for this sort of op that, until it was done, the aircraft not touch the ground, or stick around too long. The pilot swooped away like a bat copter from hell. My night-vision goggles gave the world a greenish hue. Unlike most Special Operations Forces, this unit had no video equipment. No recording of a craft op would ever be made; no amount of operation review could justify the inevitable leak that would endanger all practitioners.
“Let’s move.” We started jogging toward the tell. I loved the desert at night. Human beings seemed like a blot on its purity. Cumin, nutmeg, cardamom, lamb, exhaust. Sure enough, the inevitable smell of Middle Eastern cuisine mixed with diesel wafted over from the town, making me hungry and queasy at the same time. I hoped the civilians would, unlike their smells, stay at home. Home, and safe from me and my team.
We found cover behind the piles of moved earth. An all-weather tarpaulin, the first of many over the dig, made a tentlike roof to the mound entrance; its loose corners wagged or flapped in the wind. Someone had organized the digging and the tarps, creating a flimsy yet safer ceiling for their ancient home.
Two bad guys stood guard at the entrance, talking, one in a burnoose, the other in a deracinated uniform. Doc listened with a parabolic mike (a craft op standard) and sent me their text. “Heard chopper. Concerned.” Not concerned enough by half. They were lighting cigarettes, which glowed like flares in my night vision. But the guards didn’t glow with craft. Vulture lined them up in his silencer’s sight. Conventional means for conventional people. Always better to take life with a bullet, as the law of karmic return was more lenient and indirect with nonmagical action.
Two bullets snapped. Unavoidable sounds, but they didn’t matter. Any target worth his craft would be tipped off at this point.
I let go of the breath I had held. “Thanks, Vulture.” Then I turned to Doc. “Keep the site sequestered. Talk any civilians out of coming near. We want zero casualties for us and them. I’m going in. Sixty minutes. Mark.” No craft duel had ever lasted longer than an hour, if the craftspeople meant business. Simply not enough energy in one person to go longer at full throttle. A battle with multiple practitioners relieving each other in shifts could go on longer, but that didn’t happen very often. If I wasn’t back in an hour, I was dead, or a danger to my own team, or something worse.
Outside the hangar, Colonel Hutchinson shook her head at her other favorite killer, code name Sword. In contrast to Morton’s dark features, Native American cheekbones, and expressive mien, Major Sword’s blond hair and nor’easter gray eyes framed a long angular face of iron. That face had just gotten harder. Poor boy was understandably pissed.
Sword pointed at the red horizon, eyes on Hutchinson. “Was that my mission that just took off, Colonel?”
“No,” said Hutchinson, “that was Casper’s mission that just took off, Major.”
The major’s real name was Michael Endicott. If he had known Casper’s real name, he would have been more pissed. The major’s ancestors were the Endicotts of Salem. Sure, he could serve under her, a Hutchinson, descended from that notorious heretic woman—hell, the boy actually seemed to like and respect her. But she doubted he could extend that tolerance to Captain Morton. The pagan Mortons with their “craft” were anathema to the Puritan Endicotts and their “gifts of the Spirit.” A shame, because she was fond of both Dale and Michael, and would have loved to see them fight together against enemies foreign and domestic. But ever since 1628, when John Endicott and his men had attacked Thomas Morton’s colonial settlement, the two Families had feuded, and had even tried to exclude each other from the secret covenant that George Washington had made with all the craft Families in return for their service during the Revolution. Then the Left-Hand Mortons had scared the shit out of everyone, and the Endicotts had never let the later generations of Mortons forget it.
“Casper went under your orders, Colonel?”
Hutchinson knew where this was going. “My orders came from higher up, Major.”
Endicott looked about to shrapnel. “Permission to speak freely, ma’am?”
“What the hell is it, Michael?”
“Hutch, don’t these sudden changes in assignment bother you?”
“They sure seem to bother you,” said Hutchinson. “But you never ap preciate assignment by farsight.”
“This is different.” Endicott lowered his voice. “If the Peepshow and our PRECOG can’t agree, it means something powerful is blocking one of their farsights. The general says it could be a sign that they are back.”
Hutch snorted. Michael’s father, General Oliver C. Endicott, had never liked Sphinx or her Peepshow, kissed Pentagon farsight ass, and was close-to-discharge insane about the imminent return of the LeftHand Mortons.
“OK, Michael. Never mind that those evil kin-fuckers have all been exterminated. Let’s hold that branch of ancient history over the heads of the modern Mortons like a cudgel, make them keep toeing the line, never let them above the active rank of captain, because God knows they haven’t saved our asses enough to trust them again.”
Endicott’s face cracked into a small grimace. “It’s not like that, Hutch. Just don’t be surprised if something goes wrong.”
Hutchinson’s tough heart skipped a beat. Dread, then anger, used up her remaining patience with all things Endicott. “That had better not be an oracle, Major.”
“Good. Then get packing, soldier. You’re due in Prague tomorrow.”
“Prague?” Poor boy sounded positively wounded by the new assignment; Hutchinson tried not to chuckle.
“Yes, Prague. I’ll brief you in the conference room in one hour.” She hesitated, trying to separate the threads of command instinct from an almost maternal concern, until she found they agreed. “But I’m keeping you here tonight.” Because she refused to be surprised if something went wrong.
At the entrance to the dig, my feet came to an unordered halt. A ward, very formal and fancy pants. If I broke the ward’s craft circuit, it would trip an alarm back to its maker. I said “break.” That would certainly get the target’s attention, even if his mundane guards hadn’t.
I stepped under the tarp and scrambled into the maze of passages. Glowing LEDs that hung irregularly along the broken walls gave me a twilight view without the night-vision device. The lights were on, so someone was home.
Why the hell did my duty always seem to take me to confined spaces, sometimes far, far underground? At least the dirt was no longer overhead. My family had reason to fear live burial.
The tell was not large in conventional space. But ruins that had been around this long had aeons of unconventional space to move through. Over the crumbling mix of stone and mud brick, ghosts of buildings shimmered with gold, lapis, and tapestries in my peripheral vision. I ignored most of the lavish details, focusing on those bits of translucent décor that might guide me through the maze to a former temple, palace, or crypt.
Then, out of the ether, two horrendous Assyrian genii blocked my way. Blood dripped from their eyes, gore from their teeth. My heart hammered for fight or flight.
After a second, my pulse continued to race with self-disgust. Obvious fakes. Nonhuman spirits, if they existed, must be rare. I stepped forward, then froze—what could these images be distracting me from? Ah, there, behind the one on the right, a trigger that would probably cave in this portion of the dig. But no trap that I could sense beyond that. If this was designed to make me waste energy, I wouldn’t bite. OK, we’ll be trapped for a while together—some nice intimate time to exchange craft secrets.
I ran through. The walls collapsed behind me. But the cave-in was a shit job, and I would still be able to squeeze through or climb out, if it didn’t get any worse.
Little enemy probes of my power prickled my nerves, but like gunfire, they also guided me to their point of origin. A voice in my head: “Allahu akbar… ?” Then, “Greetings friend, in the name of Allah, the compassionate and merciful.” Shit, the fucker could think in panglossic, and with an annoying British accent. I preferred not to have much time for talk.
“Pretty pagan surroundings for ‘Allah,’ friend.”
“Necessary for my little trap.”
“You’d better spring it soon. I’m just about there.” I cocked the hammers of three spells in my mind: a parry, an external thrust, and an internal one. I would have to improvise the specifics.
“We practitioners should not kill each other,” said the sorcerer. “We should stay in our own land, our own power.”
“Right,” I said. The tarp rippled in the night breeze. I came to an L in the maze, turned right, and found myself at the lintel. I used a small mirror to peer into the room beyond.
Through the doorway was a long hall that had once been a temple. The sorcerer sat in a beat-up lawn chair where the altar to Assur-Marduk should have been. His head was framed by a back wall bas-relief of the god’s bull horns, symbols of the long gone Taurean Age. Amidst priceless objects, the sorcerer wore a Red Sox jersey and shorts. His teeth were mostly gone, his eyes stared up at the sky and seemed half-blind. Unarmed? Probably preferred craft-on-craft action.
I raised the MP5, prepared to turn and shoot.
A cold hand of craft squeezed at my lungs. “Break hand,” I said, using my first spell.
Another hand of force reached for me and made my gun feel too heavy to aim. With the MP5 dangling from my right arm, I spun around the corner and drew a circle around the sorcerer with my left forefinger. “Move air.”
The laws of thermodynamics are funny things. They don’t forbid most of the air from moving away from one’s head; they just say that it’s more likely the universe will expire before that happens randomly. A weatherman can put a spin on the forces and probabilities of nature. I was good at tweaking the improbabilities and making them happen.
The sorcerer gasped, but he could still think up mischief. I pointed my left hand straight between my target’s eyes. “Short sharp shock.” The sorcerer jerked rigid. A lot of these backwoods magi had trouble thinking of their minds as mechanisms. They wasted time on hallucinations and ignored the raw synapses.
I moved closer to the sorcerer. That hadn’t been too bad. Now to kill him.
I could not take him prisoner. Confining such a man, much less putting him on trial, was prohibitively difficult. My orders might violate the law, but the law didn’t know about the craft, which was a damned good thing, given what the law used to do to craftspeople.
I held my MP5 inches from the old man’s head.
The sorcerer ceased convulsing and sat bolt upright, eyes fixed on me. I sought a protection to employ. The sorcerer cackled at me like a dirty old farmer at Internet porn.
I didn’t shoot. No further malevolent energies sought me; I could afford to grant a few seconds. “If you’ve got any prayers to say, say them now.”
The sorcerer closed his eyes and spread his arms wide, palms out. “You are here to take me out. Fine, I am old and ready. But I am going to take you out too. Not kill, just stop.”
Threats were not the prayers I had in mind. I leveled my gun and shot the sorcerer between the eyes.
The report echoed down the ancient hallways; in a red burst of craft, the sorcerer’s spirit left. Mission accomplished, I considered my exit.
No exit. The cool night air rustled the tarp, carrying the sound of automatic weapons fire and a crushing sense of dread. My gun shook in my hand as I waved it in the dead sorcerer’s face. “What have you done?”
A voice like a recorded message played in my mind. Feel that, ferangi? We know your family, your country. Your Left-Hand ancestors were an abomination before God. You can violate our land, parade your filth in front of us, even take our lives, but you will not take our magic. You will not take our souls. Feel it, ferangi.
I felt it. Successive explosions of fear, then pain, then a gaping, aching nothing.
A bearded man, hands outstretched, stands as a human shield in front of his house and a veiled woman; then hands and body are ripped with agony, and both man and woman fall into the dusty doorway.
A mangy dog bares its teeth, then whines in final, crippled terror.
A little girl wearing only a “Hello Kitty” T-shirt runs and screams down the street, then her heart bursts as two rounds pierce her chest, and my own heart screams.
I felt the curse. Driven by the power of the sorcerer’s self-sacrifice, my team saw enemies everywhere, and killed every man, woman, and child they saw. The sorcerer’s own death spared him the karmic consequences of his heinous magic. Each murder instead became a cancerous part of my own mind.
In the dungeon of my skull, a voice like my own laughed at the curse, and the murders. The voice of the Left Hand, trying to get out.
Part of a wall tumbled stones at my feet. The dig started to slowly cave in—a dead man’s craft switch. Nothing that I couldn’t have outrun, if I cared to. I didn’t care. I was dying inside, over and over again.
A rip like a Little Bird’s guns. At the other end of the room, the point of a KA-BAR slashed open the tarp. A soldier peered through the newly created gap. “Captain. Where are you?” It was Master Sergeant Zanol.
“Sergeant, I ordered—”
Zee jumped down to the floor. He dashed toward me and pushed me out of the way of another cascading stone. “I don’t give a fuck, sir.” Zee pointed his rifle at me. “They’re… I… you’ve got to help them.”
After that, my memory was a jumbled slide show. Zee gave me a lift up and out of the excavation, then scrambled up after as I ran across the tell for the town. I hurtled down the mound’s side and screamed into the snap-snap of bullets, “Cease fire! Cease fire! Goddamnit, cease fire!”
Far too fucking late. Night vision showed me the cooling bodies of women and children everywhere. My team was staggering around, covered in the sacrificial blood, starting to realize what they had done. I couldn’t let that realization sink in. “Valkyrie, immediate pickup. That’s ASAP. Over.”
Like someone half-asleep, Doc protested on the com. “Captain, I think there’s some wounded civvies here. Should I treat?”
“Negative, repeat negative. Withdraw.”
“You heard him,” yelled Zee, voice nearly breaking with rage and despair. “Move out!”
We jogged to the pickup point. We climbed back in our groundhovering copter and started home.
I grabbed the chopper’s transmitter. Duty still compelled me; I mouthed the necessary words to base. “Ike, this is MAC-66. We need immediate steam vac, MC 9146 4211.”
“MAC-66, this is Ike. We’ll need to clear that with Mamie.” “Negative, Ike,” I said. “I’m calling this, priority Alfa, Last Best Hope.” “Roger that, 66. Wilco. Over and out.” It would be easier to explain a
mistake from the air than what we had done. I would be destroying a town and ten thousand years of history to do it. I didn’t care.
I clamped my jaw shut until it ached. Each death exploded in my head. If I opened my mouth without something to say, I’d start screaming and never ever stop again.
I had to maintain appearances, if only for my men. But they wouldn’t leave me alone. “Captain, what happened back there?” asked Doc.
“Nothing. Understand? Nothing happened,” I said. “You fired at some bad guys. We withdrew. That’s your report. You’ll speak of this to no one else.”
But it would have taken more craft than I had left to convince my sergeant. Zee’s face was in his hands. He was sobbing.
We landed back at the base. Dawn was coming up over the dead land like an interrogator’s lamp on my soul.
As we left the copter, Colonel Hutchinson was already on the tarmac and moving right into my face. “Captain, what the hell is going on? Where do you get off calling in an air strike? We aren’t even supposed to be there!”
I gestured over my shoulder, like a drunk at a bar passing the bill. “Colonel, my team…”
“Oh, of course.” One of Hutch’s supernatural talents was to calm and reassure in a crisis. “Good work, men. Get your gear stowed. I’ll debrief you myself at 0800.”
But my team didn’t look calm or reassured as they left me. Some looked back at me with silent questions and confusion. Sergeant Zee’s red eyes never left the tarmac as he crossed it.
The colonel spoke in a low voice. “Now, Morton, what the fuck happened out there?”
I held at attention, silent and steady, until the last member of my team was out of sight in the hangar. Then, my legs buckled, and I crumbled to the ground, retching, trying to be sick, but nothing was coming up.
Hutchinson put her arm on my shoulder. “Dale, I’m sorry.” But her craft couldn’t reach me. “Dale? Captain Morton!”
The dungeon voice in my mind said, Kill her. Kill them all.
I struggled back to my feet. We know your family. Cease fire! “I’m stopped,” I said, my mouth like a computer reading a speech. “Done.”
“Good. Now, what happened?”
“No, ma’am, I’m done with this. All this. The military. Life. Done.”
Hutchinson smiled, shook her head. “Some R & R…”
“Done done done.”
“We’ll talk about it later.”
“No, right this fucking minute.” Cold fire flew out from my hands. “I resign. Discharge me now.”
Hutchinson said, “Sword.” As if they were expecting this, two men ran across the tarmac and tackled me. The craft fizzled in my hands. With nothing more to say, I screamed into the face of one of the men. I hated that face, but had forgotten why.
Hutchinson nodded, a sedative went in. I roared, but didn’t care enough to fight it. Being knocked out just made it official. I was done.
All the way back to the U.S., every time I woke up, I screamed until they knocked me out again.
American Craftsmen © Tom Doyle, 2014