This is the fourth piece of my 50,000 words in 30 days challenge. It’s a completely unedited first draft written with the primary goal of getting out as many words as possible in a short time, so don’t expect too much from it. More parts will come each week as the challenge progresses. You can read the previous chapter here.
Chapter Four: Rough Landing
The boat ride back to England was short and awkward. Eli took advantage of the trip to study the people in whose hands he was being forced to place his own life. Sgt. Lewis kept to himself for most of the trip, refraining from making all but a few sarcastic remarks. Cpt. O’Donnell’s ebullient nature had slowly surfaced over the span of the afternoon in propitious smiles and failed attempts at light-hearted jokes.
It was strange to see someone appear to be in such good spirits so close to walking into what Eli regarded as suicide. He genuinely seemed at ease with the coming danger. At times the glint in his eye hinted at something else, something that worried Eli a bit – an eagerness for battle. His jokes having fallen flat, he humored Eli’s half-hearted attempts at small talk for a while but even he succumbed to the pall that lay over the group in their anticipation of the mission.
Maj. Hawkins and Agent Walker were like contrasting twin statues. Neither spoke a word the entire trip, though their mirrored stillness couldn’t have contrasted more in its mood. There was a feeling of steel about Maj. Hawkins. He exuded a sense of calm, dutiful command. It stirred Eli a little, if for no other reason that he recognized it was so different from his own nature. The tranquil seas of his eyes were entombed in features of solid stone. Words weren’t necessary. Eli only had to look to know that this was a man who would walk through the gates of Hell without hesitation if his honor demanded it of him. He would probably be wearing that same passive face the whole time he did it.
If Maj. Hawkins was tranquil seas and a steady rock to anchor on, then Agent Walker was an active volcano beset by a violent tempest. She sat as still as he did, but where there was an unfeeling calm gracing his countenance hers was cast in a cold mask of hatred. There was nothing in particular she did to give it away, but Eli could feel it. When her eyes chanced to meet his the hairs on his neck stood on end. He didn’t know why, or what it was directed at, but there was rage in her.
No matter how hard he fought to avoid it, Eli’s eyes always seemed to find their way back to her. Deep down, she genuinely frightened him. Of all the members of the team he was certain that if she was the one to find out he planned on deserting, she would kill him on the spot and be done with it. As much as he feared her, he couldn’t help but feel drawn to her. He felt like a child left unsupervised with a box of fireworks. She scared him, and he found that enticing. That scared him even more. Pushing those feelings away, he retreated into his own thoughts spending the rest of the boat ride plotting his escape.
Their arrival on British shores was followed by a truck ride to the air base they would be leaving from the following night. Brief tours were given and they were shown to their bunks. Maj. Hawkins told them they would be preparing their gear the following morning, then would be getting a few hours of sack time before the mission proceeded. They were free for that night to do as they pleased. Eli ate dinner alone after he had cleaned up a little in his room. He hadn’t showered or shaved since before the beach landing and he stared into the mirror, a little shocked at the changes the last few days had wrought in him.
His hair was a disheveled tangle of sorrel and ochre. A wild forest of matching stubble had sprouted over his jaw and clung to his sharp cheekbones. The burgeoning beard gave his square face a gaunt, shadowed look that accentuated the dark bags under his eyes. Stressful days and sleepless nights had quickly left their mark on him and left him looking haunted and feral. Swift strokes of his razor smoothed away the auburn shadow that clung to his jaw.
For all the damage the danger had done to his visage, his body was largely unaffected. His broad shoulders still flared out solidly, tapering to a tuck at his waist. His form was solid but not excessive. Sharp angles defined his compact muscles, in the foggy mirror his shirtless form looked as if it were carved from wood.
The bandage on his head proved to be unnecessary. The cut had bled a lot but it was tiny, an incision no bigger than a paper clip, and it was in no danger of reopening. The graze on his arm however he cleaned carefully before applying a fresh bandage. It was no more than a deep scratch itself, but he knew how bad it could get if an infection set in.
Feeling somewhat refreshed for the first time since he stepped on a boat bound for Normandy, Eli decided he would take what little free time he had to wander the base and collect his thoughts. There was no telling what he would be facing once they were dropped into Germany. Every scenario he could come up with played before his eyes as he walked aimlessly around the camp. He had no idea when the chance would present itself for him to escape, he had to be ready to take advantage of it at all times.
For a second, he considered trying to escape then. At least then he would be in an English speaking country. General Gerow’s thinly veiled threat whispered back through his ears and he discarded the thought. If he disappeared before the morning they would know he was somewhere in the U.K. – there would be men after him before noon. Eli didn’t know Gen. Gerow very well, but he could tell he wasn’t a man to let loose ends lie untied.
While his thoughts danced around the various opportunities he might have to make his escape, the faint sound of gunfire in the distance tickled his ears. Without his consent Eli’s feet pulled him to the source of the noise. A makeshift firing range had been constructed in the far corner of the airfield. A single person stood at the hay bales marking the firing line, pistol cracking rhythmically. Even in the dim gloaming Eli recognized the lithe form and vulpine hair.
The slide of her handgun locked back and she slid the empty clip free. Eli took the opportunity to step up next to her.
“Agent Walker… right?” he asked. “I’m Eli. Eli Watts.”
She looked over at him as a fresh clip clicked into place. After setting the weapon carefully on the hay bale, she pulled the thick ear protectors off her head. “What?”
Eli reintroduced himself quickly. She stared at him in silence. Though only a few seconds passed Eli felt as though her eyes bored into him for an eternity and he shifted uncomfortably.
“I don’t care who you are private,” she said, breaking the silence. “We have a job to do tomorrow. An important job. I don’t know why we’re being forced to babysit you in the middle of it but we are. I don’t expect you to help us tomorrow, I expect you to stay out of our way until we accomplish our mission. Now, do you have anything to tell me about the operation?”
“N-No. Nothing. I just thought…” Eli stammered, shocked by icy bluntness.
“Excellent,” she said flatly. “Then if you’ll excuse me…” She pulled the mufflers over her ears and snapped the weapon up from the bale. Eli jammed his fingers into his ears as she resumed her methodical firing. Even if it meant living in the dirt in the German countryside foraging for food to survive, Eli would be happy to get away from that woman. He stomped away in a huff, puzzled slightly by how annoyed he was at being cast off so rudely. Once he had gotten far enough away to pull his fingers from his ears he took one last glance back at the range.
The golden disk of the sun burned on the horizon silhouetting the target. In that black mass Eli could detect a small pinprick of light bursting through the void. It was a small hole, the only one in the target, right over the man’s heart.
Eli passed the night fitfully. He tossed and tumbled beneath his sheets, pursued by monsters he could never escape. Finally, dawn blossomed on the horizon, its long fingers brushing away the nightmares and dragging Eli from his restless sleep.
The sheets were cast thoughtlessly on the floor as he sat up in his bed. He wasn’t sure how long he sat there, head buried in his palms, before the knock on his door echoed through the room.
“Breakfast is in fifteen minutes,” a man’s voice called from the hall. “Maj. Hawkins wants you in the east barrack in one hour.”
Eli’s feet slid heavily to the floor and he trudged into the bathroom, getting ready as quickly as his foggy mind would allow. It took him thirty minutes to get to the cafeteria. He walked through the doors and scanned the rows of tables.
In the center of the room Sgt. Lewis sat with Cpt. O’Donnell. The captain’s tray was empty, spotted by only the last few vestiges of his meal. Sgt. Lewis on the other hand was still digging into an impressive mound of food. He glanced up between mouthfuls and caught eyes with Eli, nodding slightly in acknowledgment. In the far corner Eli recognized the lonely form of Agent Walker sitting alone in the corner, her back to the door Eli had entered through. His thoughts flitted back to the exchange at the firing range.
Eli decided he would join Sgt. Lewis.
A pile of food grew on Eli’s tray, respectable but lacking the grandeur of Sgt. Lewis’s creation, and once satisfied he set it down next to Sgt. Lewis across from Cpt. O’Donnell. The two men greeted him as he sat.
“Holden here has been filling me in on the fun you had at Omaha,” Cpt. O’Donnell said, smiling. “I wish I could’ve been up there with you guys. I have to say the satchel charge thing was pretty slick.”
“It was nothing, really,” Eli replied looking down at his meal. “I just kind of reacted. I didn’t know what else to do.”
“Well, you’ve earned your place here. What you did may have been what won us that beach in the end.”
Eli felt a touch of color rising to his cheeks and focused harder on his food. Looking to change the subject, he asked Cpt. O’Donnell if he had been fighting there on the beach that morning. Cpt. O’Donnell leaned back in his chair and grinned and he called up memories of the battle. Eli was relieved to have the conversation shift away from himself and listened as Cpt. O’Donnell began recounting his struggle on the sands.
He had been one of the later waves to make a landing, though not by choice he assured. By the time he had made it, the two Tyrannosaurs had been released onto the invasion force and were cutting a swath of destruction through the Allied ranks. Eli shuddered as he told how his gunner crew had been snapped up by one of the monsters. He barely escaped the jaws himself, but had lost his machine gun in the process. Scrambling over the beach he came across a bazooka in the sand, its previous owner long since having passed beyond the need for it. His arms raised to his shoulders as he pantomimed lining one of the beasts up in his sights.
“Psssshhhhhhh, boom!” Eli instinctively shielded his tray from the spittle sprayed by Cpt. O’Donnell’s sound effects. Having only one rocket, Cpt. O’Donnell explained he had abandoned the spent weapon and reclaimed his lost .30 caliber from where his crew had been devoured. Hefting it up himself, he opened up into the other monster as it charged him from across the beach until finally it fell at his feet.
The story was incredible. Eli had a hard time believing anyone could really operate a machine gun by themselves, let alone do it standing, but he figured if there were anyone who could do it the bear of a man regaling him with his adventures would be the one. There was a glint in Cpt. O’Donnell’s eye as he told of his exploits and the broad grin of accomplishment never faded from his face. Eli wanted to ask him more about what had happened, but before he got the chance Sgt. Lewis interceded tapping his watch in front of them. It was time to meet at the bunker.
The walk over was brief, but miserable. The bright morning sun had withdrawn behind a curtain of clouds releasing the first drops of a warm, sticky rain on to the camp. They trudged solemnly up to the concrete barrack and went inside. Maj. Hawkins was waiting for them.
“Good morning gentlemen,” he greeted them without smiling, “I trust you had a good breakfast.”
Only Cpt. O’Donnell nodded.
“This is not standard procedure,” he continued, “but as you know this is no standard operation. You are all experts in your fields and I trust you will be able to outfit yourself properly. You will proceed to the next room where you will be free to appropriate any of the provisions available.”
“Um… shouldn’t we wait for Agent Walker?” Eli chimed in. The instant he said it he wished he hadn’t.
“Agent Walker is being supplied by the agency she works for,” Maj. Hawkins replied in a tone that left no further room for questions. “You may proceed to the armory.”
They stepped through the second set of doors behind Maj. Hawkins and Eli’s jaw dropped. They stood in a room about the size of a high school gym, except instead of bleachers and awkward teenagers the room was lined with rows of tables and crates holding every kind of weapon the U.S. Military had to offer. In one corner were miscellaneous camping supplies, packs and other items Eli didn’t know the function of. Another corner held tables stocked with medical supplies, Sgt. Lewis immediately headed for it. In a third corner were crates of rations and stores of canteens with the last being piled with what looked like every kind of explosive device imaginable.
Cpt. O’Donnell whistled appreciatively and started towards the table of explosives, pausing only for a second to eye a gleaming .50 caliber machine gun he passed on his way. Eli didn’t know where to start. Maj. Hawkins noticed his apprehension and stepped up next to him.
“Would you like some help packing?” he asked.
The firm tone of authority hadn’t left his voice, but there was something else there along with it. A touch of kindness.
“Yes, sir,” Eli said. “I’ve never done this before. I’m not really sure what I need.”
Maj. Hawkins cracked a thin smile. “We’ll get you all set up.”
They began on the far left corner of the room, in the miscellaneous supplies. Maj. Hawkins chose a pack for Eli that wouldn’t get in the way of his parachute during the drop and began plucking items off the table to fit into it. He thought of things that Eli never would have remembered to include, enough supplies to keep him alive for weeks in the wilderness. He made a mental note that when he made his escape, he needed to make sure to take his bag.
Finally, once all the other essentials were packed, Maj. Hawkins led Eli over to the center of the room where the majority of the weapons were. They gleamed on the tables, wood and metal blended into efficient instruments of death. For a second, Eli wondered what had ever become of his rifle from the landing.
“So, what kind of weapon do you prefer?” Maj. Hawkins asked.
Eli shrugged. “I’m honestly not sure, sir. I was trained with a rifle. The M1 Garand.”
Maj. Hawkins chuckled. The sound nearly made Eli jump out of his skin it was so unexpected.
“Holden told me about your skill with the rifle, I prefer my men to be able to hit their targets, private. No, how about this instead.”
He picked a boxy weapon off the table by it’s stock and presented it to Eli. He recognized it at a glance, he thought only officers carried them.
“A Thompson?” He asked.
“It’s the closest thing we’ve got to that MP40 you used in the trenches, and a lot more reliable.”
Eli took the weapon from him reverently. He hefted the weight a little in his hands. For its size it felt about as heavy as his rifle had. Though he had only trained with the rifles the weight of it felt better to him somehow – more natural.
“I like it, sir.”
“Excellent choice, private. I don’t intend there to be much fighting while we’re in there. I want to get in, do what we have to and slip away before they know what’s happening. Any action we do see is likely going to be up close in personal.”
Eli understood. Accuracy didn’t matter as much when you were up close. Having more ammunition would be far more important.
“Since you’ve never used one of those before, I’d like to give you some pointers.” He gathered a small stack of clips from the nearby crates. “Follow me private.”
They walked out the doors on the other side of the bunker, past Sgt. Lewis who had moved on to eye the barrel of a long Springfield rifle, and out into the drizzling rain. Maj. Hawkins then led Eli over to the practice field where Agent Walker had been shooting the previous night. He instructed Eli in the workings of the weapon first, how to care for the mechanisms, load cleanly and clear jams. Then they moved on to target practice.
At the beginning, Eli was terrible. Slowly though, through Maj. Hawkins’s carefully tutoring, he began to show improvement. He was definitely no Sgt. Lewis, but for the first time he was actually feeling a little confident about his marksmanship. Maj. Hawkins’s lessons were excellent. He seemed to intuitively know every little correction Eli needed to make to his form. After about three hours of training, and several trips back to the arsenal for more ammunition, Eli was able to reliably place every single bullet in the target from any firing position.
Maj. Hawkins declared that they didn’t have the time for him to improve any further, and it would have to be good enough. They walked back toward the center of the base. Maj. Hawkins had scheduled a meeting to go over the details of the operation again before their final meal, and they had to hurry in order to not be late.
“You’re a fast learner, private,” Maj. Hawkins said over his shoulder as they slogged through the mud. “You’ve got a lot of potential.”
Eli was glad for the gloom as it obscured the bit of color rose in his cheeks. He wasn’t sure why he cared, but something about the complement struck a chord with him.
The briefing went quickly. With the exclusion of Eli the team had memorized the details completely. After the drop they would make their way southeast until they reached the laboratory outside of Hamburg. They would take the facilities, capture or kill Dr. Kessler and destroy the building and all the research with it. A short trip back to the evac point and they would be on their way home. Mission accomplished.
They broke for a late lunch after the briefing. Eli, Sgt. Lewis and Cpt. O’Donnell found seats together. Eli offered a place to Agent Walker as she walked by but she declined politely and found a seat by herself to dine alone. Looking around Eli realized that he hadn’t seen Maj. Hawkins come in with them.
“Maj. Hawkins doesn’t eat,” Sgt. Lewis explained.
“Sometimes, I think he’s secretly a robot,” Cpt. O’Donnell added.
Over their food they discussed the equipment they had chosen. Most of the conversation flew well above Eli’s head, though they became interested when he told them about his choice and the crash course in marksmanship. Time slipped by quickly as they ate and talked, and soon it was time for them to get some shut-eye. The drop would take place under the cover of night. There was still no guarantee they would be able to slip in undetected, but that was when they stood their best chance. It was important to get some rest while they could.
Eli began peeling his soggy uniform off before his door had even had time to click shut. He shuffled over to his bed and flopped into it heavily. The shooting practice had been more tiring than he would’ve expected and his arms ached from attempting to control the bucking firearm. Despite the fatigue that clung to his muscles, his mind was alive and burning. The time was almost there. By the next morning he would be in Germany and he could make his bid for freedom.
He tried to ignore the thought that he would have to fly over Germany’s network of anti-aircraft guns and then dive out of a plane to get there.
Time crawled as he tossed and turned in his bed, straining to force his subconscious to submit to sleep. Eventually, the struggle itself proved mentally tiring enough to overcome his anxiety and he quietly slipped into a silent, dreamless slumber.
A loud knock wrenched Eli back to the waking world. The voice of the man from that morning called through the door, informing him that he needed to prepare his gear and report to the airfield in one hour. He numbly slid from the bed and cleaned himself up, then headed off to the bunker to retrieve his pack.
His mostly assembled pack was where he had left it. He added in the last handful of items, as well as things that would be carried on his uniform, ammunition, grenades, a knife and his weapon. Almost as a second thought, he stopped and strapped on a sidearm. He had never practiced with a pistol before, but he figured it couldn’t hurt to have one. Taking one last glance around the room, he decided that was all he could carry and headed out to the airfield.
The light drizzle had turned into a heavy rain. Thick thunderclouds blacked out the night sky into a solemn, starless sheet of Stygian darkness. Lit by harsh lights the rest of his group stood by an enormous four engine plane, its engines already rumbling in anticipation for a flight through the stormy skies. Eli jogged over to them, though he was in no hurry to board.
Maj. Hawkins looked up at him as he approached. “Glad you could make it private. It’s time to go.”
With that, they climbed aboard. Eli had a feeling, as he climbed up into the enormous aircraft that it was one of the last things he would ever do.
The group strapped themselves into the seats lining the wall of the rear of the aircraft. Over the low rumble of the idling engines sheets of rain could be heard pounding on the roof of the plane. Eli felt a little like he was sitting inside a giant tin can. It happened that Maj. Hawkins, Cpt. O’Donnell and Sgt. Lewis were strapped in across from Eli, with Agent Walker seated by his side.
He considered trying to start a conversation with her, but he realized that this might not be the best time, particularly given his track record in that department. With a shout back from the pilot the engines roared on the sides of the massive plane and they lurched forward down the runway. Eli’s heart began pounding even harder. This was it. He was really on his way into Germany. He was on his way to Germany to destroy a secret laboratory that was somehow producing dinosaurs. He decided it was best not to try to wrap his mind around it.
The plane shuddered as the bounced and bumped through a thick patch of turbulence. The pilot called back their ETA, but Eli couldn’t tell if anyone other than the major had heard it. He leaned forward as much as he could in his straps and, bellowing to be heard over the engines, began going over the details of their mission one final time.
The flight dragged on for what felt like forever. Outside the thin wall of metal that held them aloft, Eli could hear the violence of the storm and the roar of the winds rushing past. They were forced to fly low to avoid radar detection, but it put them right in the middle of the thunderstorm. Faintly, Eli began to hear a new sound through the fragile walls.
It was faint, filtered through the anger of the storm. Somewhere between a ‘pop’ and a ‘boom’. He knew it wasn’t thunder, but he couldn’t quite place it. Then it dawned on him with a shudder. It was anti-aircraft fire.
A flashing red light flicked on in the back and Eli faintly heard a shout from the direction of the cabin. They were nearing the drop zone. Almost as one, everyone unbuckled themselves and was on their feet. Everyone except Eli, who had to struggle to figure out how to release himself from his harness. Once free he joined his team and one of the members of the flight crew outfitted him with a parachute.
He had been given several crash courses in parachuting during the briefings, but this would be his first actual drop. He reflected on how awful of a term that was, crash course. Frantically, he raced through everything he had been taught. Most people don’t have their first jump at low altitude in the middle of a thunderstorm. Of course most people don’t have flak guns to worry about either.
At the touch of a button the rear cargo hatch of the plane slowly began to lower, providing a window to the churning, inky skies. Eli realized, staring into the black maw in front of him, that he couldn’t do it. There was no way he could jump. He looked over to Maj. Hawkins, scrambling for an excuse for why he had to stay on the plane. Maj. Hawkins looked back at him and smiled a little as if he understood that it was just impossible for Eli to jump.
The man from the flight crew yelled one last time to indicate they had reached the drop zone and before Eli could react, Maj. Hawkins grabbed him by the collar. With a strength he couldn’t have imagined was in him, he flung Eli from the back of the plane into the rolling nothingness. Eli had no time to react. He was tumbling through the air. Ground filled his view, then black clouds, then ground then clouds. A detached part of him recognized the sound of his own hoarse screaming through the roll of the storm.
The same firm grip that had cast him into the void dug into his shoulder, stopping his spin. He frantically looked over to find Maj. Hawkins descending next to him. A slight smile cracked over the one corner of his mouth, and he released Eli’s shoulder snaking his hand to his chest. Eli saw the major’s hand snap back from his chest and the breath rushed out of him as a gigantic force ripped him back upward by his shoulders. No, not upward. He was still falling, but slower now, more controlled. He looked up and saw that his parachute was open above him, shielding him slightly from the pounding rain.
Maj. Hawkins and the rest of the team had deployed their chutes as well and he could see them gliding down around him toward the ground. He realized that the major must have pulled Eli’s cord before pulling his own. He didn’t know whether he owed him his life for pulling his cord, or should punch him in the face for throwing him out of the back of a moving plane. He decided he would ponder that later. For right now he had bigger concerns, the onrushing ground for instance.
The dark mass of Earth rose swiftly up to meet him. Below Eli was a rapidly approaching ring of tall pine trees, jutting up from the ground like pikes. Within the ring he could just make out the wide clearing that had been selected as their drop zone through the dark sheets of rain. Panic jolted Eli as he realized the strong winds were pushing him away into the verdant spear points of the forest. He fumbled for the cable on the right side of his chute and tugged hard, twirling himself back over the safety of the clearing.
Despite the storm and winds, the other members of his team had guided their parachutes expertly and were set to land in a tight group in the center of the clearing.
Eli was not so skilled. He had avoided impalement, but the section of clearing that was racing to meet his feet was on the far left edge away from the rest of the group. He looked down at the dark grass below. His parachute slowed him, but not by a lot. This was not going to be a soft landing. He thrust his legs out at the very last second like he had been taught, buckling them as soon as they made contact with the muddy grass. He rolled to absorb as much of the force as he could, but it still jarred his bones and clattered his jaw together.
For a second, Eli just laid there. The parachute flapped behind him, tugging him for a moment toward the trees then relenting as it was caught and released by the capricious winds. The cables of the chute had bound Eli when he rolled, and their embrace tightened and relaxed with each pull. The rain that fell on him had a chill to it now, though the mud that caked him had a comforting warmth to it. He considered just staying there. Rolling over slightly he looked up at the trees that had nearly skewered him. Reflecting on how close they were.
Eli snapped into action as he made the connection, struggling to reach his knife. His fingers finally entwining around the hilt he pulled it free and cut himself from the bonds of his parachute. As if it were pleased to be emancipated it leapt into the wind and fluttered off to be tangled in the trees Eli now stood to face.
The woods were right there. Now was the best chance he could possibly ask for. He glanced back toward the rest of the group, knowing they were in the center of the field. They had all landed as well, and he could faintly see four dark shapes rising from the mud. Eli didn’t know if they had seen him land or not, but between the dark of night and the curtain of rain there would be no finer opportunity for escape than now.
He slipped his empty parachute pack from his shoulders and sheathed his knife. He took special care to quickly go over his supplies. Thankfully, everything he had packed was still with him. Surviving in the wilderness would be a breeze with all this equipment. Finally, Eli thought, I’m safe.
He dashed toward the tree line, eager to slip into his sanctuary of freedom but still trying to be careful not to fall in the rain slick mud. With a quick glance back as he slipped through the tree line he confirmed that the team didn’t seem to see him. Four dark shifting shapes still stood out from the blackness of the distant center of the field. For a second, just a second, a sharp twinge of regret struck Eli’s heart. He shook it off as quickly as it had come. Those people weren’t his friends. Even if they were, he resolved, I wouldn’t be about to throw my life away just for some stupid mission.
Eli’s eyes were slow to adjust to the new blackness of the forest. The rain soaked field behind him had been dark, but the forest was sheer void. The trees and plants were cut from obsidian, and invisible hands stretched out to scratch and claw at Eli’s face and clothes as he blindly pushed his way deeper into the woods. Eventually, as he stumbled forward he began to pick out new shapes, to notice branches which he previously would have found with his forehead. As his vision cleared he picked up his speed.
The temptation to reach for his flashlight was strong but he knew better. If they decided to come looking for him it would be like a beacon drawing them right to him. There was also no way of knowing if there were any German soldiers nearby. Eli wasn’t terribly interested in being found by anyone that night, so the flashlight stayed off.
An invisible force reached out and clung to Eli’s right ankle dragging him down face first to the forest floor. He scrambled to pull it free, visions of some creeping monster flashing in his eyes but calmed down when he realized he had just snagged his foot in an exposed root. The root struggled to hold him but he wrenched his foot free and sat there for a moment laughing at his lack of nerve. There aren’t any monsters out here…
Even Eli’s thoughts fell silent as he heard the sound behind him. It was gone as quickly as it had come, replaced again by the soft patter of the rain through the pines. Fleeting as it was the sound was unmistakable. The snapping of a trodden on twig.
Slowly he pushed himself up to his feet, taking care to be as silent as possible. His ears were perked, scanning for any out of place sound amid the whispering of the wind and rain in the boughs. There was nothing but the familiar hush. He wondered if he had imagined the whole thing. Perhaps it had just been his nerves, still jarred from his fall. Maybe it was just a deer.
Eli’s head snapped to his left. It was the same sound, the snap of a twig. This time it had come from the side. The furious beat of Eli’s pulse filled his ears, threatening to drown out even the rain. His right hand instinctively slid down to find his submachine gun. The urge rose in him to run back the way he had come, but he would just be running back to the field where his team was. They must have realized I’m missing by now, he thought, they may still be looking for me.
He peered into the blackness, squinting in an effort to peel back the dark veil in front of him. Slowly he could see a shape shifting ahead of him. A shadow slithered in the space between the trees. It dipped and bobbed a little as it moved, advancing toward Eli methodically. Each footstep was placed carefully, like a cat unsure if the prey it’s stalking has noticed its presence. With a bob it gently stepped close enough for Eli to see it clearly in the dark, and instantly Eli wished he had stayed with the group.
The eyes of the Deinonychus glinted even in the dim light. The colors of its plumage weren’t as bright as Eli had imagined, but rather a mossy, brownish green. It saw that Eli had noticed it and it froze, one terrible foot hung mid-step in the air, tucked carefully to its belly.
Struggling to keep his hands from shaking Eli gradually lifted his Thompson to his shoulder being extra careful not to make any sudden movements that might spur the raptor to charge. His training the other day had made him confident he could hit his target from this distance. He wasn’t happy about the noise it would make, but that would be something to worry about later – when he wasn’t about to be disemboweled. He peered down the iron sights of the weapon. Taking a deep breath, he prepared to squeeze the trigger.
A shifting to his right froze his finger in place. He peered from the corner of his eyes and could just make out another dark shape, crouching in the shadows to his right. Waiting. A soft rustle wafted from his left where he had heard the second twig snap and realized he was being surrounded.
Dropping his weapon to dangle from its strap at his shoulder he turned as fast as could and dove back the way he came. Tearing through the branches and bramble that had reached out to caress him on his escape into the woods. Behind him he heard a trill. It had a gurgling quality like the gobble of a turkey, but was strangely melodic – almost like a songbird. The first trill was joined by another, then another, each adding another key until they combined into a haunting chord.
Eli would have found it to be a beautiful sound if he didn’t recognize it for what it was. A hunting call. The warbling trills cut silent in unison and the even more terrifying sound of three agile, muscular bodies sliding through the underbrush met Eli’s ears. The sound drove him faster, rivulets of blood running down his cheeks from tolls the pine branches were taking as they whipped past.
He wasn’t going to make it. He could hear their footfalls now, slapping rhythmically in the mud and roots. This was where he was going to die.
A much thicker wall of brush rose in front of him and he crashed through it blindly. The brush ripped at his eyes as he tore through it and he snapped them shut tightly, refusing to stop in his blindness. His feet no longer felt the uneven tangle of roots, and he thought he heard the faint jingle of metal moving in front of him. His feet slid out from under him on the new, slick surface and fell forward into the muck.
“Private Watts!” a familiar woman’s voiced called out in surprise.
Eli heard the sound of the tree line erupt behind him in a symphony of growls and snarls. Another familiar voice swore in the darkness and the world around Eli exploded in the sound of gunfire. Then, there was silence.
A firm grip wrapped itself around the back of Eli’s collar and hoisted him up from the mud. Coughing and choking, as much from the mud he had swallowed from the tightness of his collar, Eli looked around him and realized where he was.
He had run right back to the landing zone. Cpt. O’Donnell held Eli upright until he was sure he could stand on his own, patting him on the back as he coughed. Ahead of him in the field Maj. Hawkins stood in the rain between Sgt. Lewis and Agent Walker. All three had their weapons out, held at their waists. Thin wisps of smoke coiled up from the barrels of Sgt. Lewis’s Springfield and Agent Walker’s M3.
Eli glanced behind him as they sloshed through the mud over to him. The pack of Deinonychus lay broken in the mud. The two to the left of Eli were riddled with bullet holes. The one to his right looked almost untouched, except for the single crimson blossom between its cold eyes.
“What happened?” Maj. Hawkins demanded as he stepped up to Eli. “Where were you?”
“I… I was in the woods. I was lost.”
He narrowed his eyes slightly at Eli. Agent Walker stepped up holding a muddy brown mess in her hand.
“We found your parachute here in the field,” she said. “How did you get in the woods?”
Eli opened his mouth to answer but no sound came out. He scoured his mind for some plausible excuse.
Mis mind froze again when another familiar sound came from the distance in the trees Eli had just escaped from. A chorus of trills and hoots riding on the winds of the storm.
“Can we discuss this later?” Sgt. Lewis suggested.
Maj. Hawkins nodded. “Let’s go.”
Cpt. O’Donnell brushed past Eli and the four broke into a run toward the far line of trees. Eli had no choice but to follow them. The calls of their hunters taunting him from the forest behind.
Photo Credit: Tim Norris
Continue to the final installment of the 50,000 word challenge.