This is the third part 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 3: A New Assignment
Eli’s knees gave out from under him as he watched the flaming rubble of the tower crash to the Earth. Pulling himself back together he crawled to the edge of the concrete and slid back down to the ground.
Sgt. Lewis swore in astonishment, “You are just full of surprises aren’t you Watts?”
Eli could only shake his head numbly. The shock of what he had just done washed over him and he started shaking again. A small squad of U.S. Soldiers swept through the tench past Eli and Sgt. Lewis. Setting his back against the trench wall, Eli slowly slid down into the dirt. Sidling up next to him, Sgt. Lewis held a strange looking cigarette in front of Eli. He slid down the wall into the dirt. “A present from Jerry,” he explained, wagging the cigarette. “Don’t think he’ll mind I borrowed it. Looks hand rolled.”
Eli stared blankly at the pilfered cigarette. Accepting his silence as a refusal, Sgt. Lewis shrugged and lit the cigarette himself. His eyes closed and his head lolled against the wall while tendrils of smoke wound their way around his head.
The effects of he adrenaline coursing through Eli and Sgt. Lewis slowly began to fade, replaced by a creeping fatigue that pressed down on them with an immovable weight. The two men sat against the trench wall as the battle continued around them. The destruction of the tower served as a rallying call to the U.S. soldiers. Demoralized, the Germans began to fall back trying desperately to rally.
The loss of the dinosaur soldiers proved too crushing a blow for the Germans. Eli and Sgt. Lewis were still sitting in the trench when the Sun finally sank below the horizon. The last pockets of German resistance were being rooted out and a staging area was being constructed on the beach. Long shadows flickered over the sand and surf as soldiers worked to clear the landing area under the harsh glare of stadium lights.
Eventually, a group of soldiers came to lead Eli and Sgt. Lewis to the main encampment. Eli had no idea what time it was and was only vaguely aware of the bright, full moon that hung in the night sky above them. He moved as if he were in a dream. They reached the camp and he watched numbly as Sgt. Lewis was led in a different direction from Eli. Guided by the soldiers that had come to collect them he blindly stumbled into a large tent set up in a field near the rubble of the destroyed tower. The fog in Eli’s mind cleared just enough for him to recognize that his guides had left him standing in front of a large cot, one of dozens in the dark tent.
Still shaking, he slid under the covers. The full weight of the day’s struggles rolled over him and despite the clamor around the tent he slipped off into a deep sleep.
While his exhausted body turned to lead in his slumber, Eli’s mined roiled in the darkness. He found himself standing at the front door of his parents’ house. The front door swung open about a foot, as if the last person who had gone in hadn’t bothered to close it. He shuddered. Something about it felt wrong. Eli wanted to turn and run but he watched as his hand reached out and pressed on the latch of the screen door. The familiar creak of the screen as it opened reminded Eli of his childhood for a moment and he pushed his way into the house.
He was standing in his parents’ bedroom. Eli’s brows creased in confusion when he didn’t see the living room that the front door opened into. He didn’t remember coming up the stairs. He glanced down at his parents’ bed in front of him and a cold fear washed the confusion from his mind. The sheets were pulled to the headboard.
Two long mounds swelled under the covers. They were soaked in blood. His mother’s hand hung loosely out over the edge of the bed from under the comforter, her wedding ring was stained red.
Every part of Eli wanted to run screaming from the house. He had no control as he again watched himself creep forward, step by step to the left side of the bed. His hand inched toward the edge of the blood-soaked comforter. He already knew what he wound find beneath them. He didn’t want to see it, but he couldn’t stop his hand. His fingers curled around the edge of the wet fabric. Just as he was about to rip the sheets from the bed a growl from behind him froze him in place.
Eli faced the doorway to his parents’ bedroom. He didn’t remember turning. Facing him in the door frame was a feathered creature. Its head bobbed inquisitively, hanging around level with Eli’s waist. Two feathered arms, like small deformed wings, were tucked in close to the creature’s body each ending in three sharp claws. Blood stained its jaws, long streaks of crimson clashing with bright white plumage of its throat. Crimson rivulets dripped slowly from the razors at the ends of its folded arms forming a sanguine pool around its feet. A single toe on each foot curved upward into a red scythe. Both of those terrible claws as soaked in blood as the rest of its talons.
Terrible claws, Eli’s thoughts echoed through the room, Deinonychus antirrhopus.
Staring into the monster’s cold, reptilian eyes he knew the thing was responsible for the horror that lay beneath the covers behind him. He stood frozen as another blood soaked head bobbed into view behind the first. Then another, and another. Eli’s heart began to race but his legs were cemented in place. The lead Deinonychus dipped its shoulders and growled, then lunged forward at Eli.
Eli’s feet pounded the soft dirt as he ran. Over the heaving of his breath and the drumming of his heart he could just make out the sound of the Deinonychus pack behind him. The world around him was a blur of mottled green and brown. Branches clawed at his face and roots tangled his feet but he never slowed, never dared to look back. He could hear them slipping through the brush behind him, unhindered by the overgrowth. They were built for this. Eli could practically feel the breath of the pack as they inched closer and closer to him. Shafts of bright light cut through the forest ahead of him. He drove himself as hard as he could toward the light.
Bursting through the verdant wall of plants he instinctively covered his eyes as he left the shadows of the woods and found himself in a bright, open field. A tremor shook the ground beneath his feet and in front of him, the Tyrannosaur he had killed turned and lowered its head to look into Eli’s eyes. He shuddered uncontrollably as he met its gaze. Its cold, glassy eyes were milky white – clouded over in the veil of death. The gaping hole in its throat where the grenades had fulfilled their grisly purpose was dripping with congealed blood and gore. The decaying beast opened its massive jaws and roared, the stench of rotting flesh billowing from its throat.
He bolted straight up in his cot, practically flinging the blanket to the floor. His clothes were drenched in sweat and he had to fight to catch his breath. When his pounding heart finally came back under his control, he noticed his arm and head had been cleaned and bandaged at some point during the night. He swung his legs over the edge of the cot and his head sunk into his hands. Dinosaurs, he turned the word over in his mind. How can they have dinosaurs? He shivered again as vestiges of his nightmares still danced in his vision. No matter how he thought about it, it just didn’t make any sense. Under any other circumstances Eli knew he would be marveling over the opportunity to get even a glimpse of a real, living dinosaur. Now I’ll be happier to never see another one again, he reflected bitterly.
Taking a deep, controlled breath Eli began to collect his thoughts. The previous day’s fighting had been his first taste of real combat. He had been terrified before it began. Now that he had actually experienced it, he was determined to never have to experience it again. Seeing men torn to mangled shreds by gunfire and shrapnel was horrifying enough, the thought of facing more of those monsters on top of it was just too much. He had to get out somehow.
How can I though, he wondered, I can’t just swim back across the English channel. His mind raced through each possible scenario. He knew from the briefings that the overall plan once the landing areas had been secured was for each zone to meet up and then to push further into France. If he stayed he would be back on the front lines soon. There would be no telling when, but he knew it would be inevitable. No, he had to get away somehow.
Finding transport back to the U.S. or the U.K. would be impossible. Escaping into the nearest town was feasible, but Eli spoke neither French nor German and if the occupying forces found out he was an Allied soldier he might as well just drown himself in the sea and save them the pleasure of torturing him. He might be able to get sent back if he could prove he were unfit to serve, but that posed new problems. If he acted insane he might get sent home, but it would likely mean being thrown in a mental institution for who knows how long. He could also wound himself, but he knew after the carnage of the previous day and the close victory they had won it would have to be a very serious injury to warrant sending him back stateside. Eli resolved that he was willing to lose a limb if it came to it, if that was what it took to avoid being pushed back into the maelstrom, but it was definitely a last resort.
My best option is to get away from here he decided. He had been trained in rudimentary wilderness survival in basic training, if he could slip off into the countryside he might be able to scrap together a meager existence until the Allied forces were able to move on and reclaim the rest of France. At least that way he would be able to stay in friendly territory. The punishment for soldiers who went AWOL was grim but, compared to death by artillery shell or between the teeth of a monster, a firing squad seemed merciful.
Eli resolved himself on the proposition. He would slip out of the camp at his first chance and get as far into the country as he could then set up camp and wait it out. The thought of struggling to keep alive off the land wasn’t a pleasant prospect, but of all his options it looked like the one most likely to get him out of the most danger. Hopefully, by the time they noticed he was missing they would just assuming he was resting at the bottom of the sea. Besides, he reasoned, if I do get caught I can tell them I was lost or something.
He glanced around the tent he had woken in. It was lined with cots like his own from end to end. On each end loose flaps hung obscuring the openings out onto the cliff tops. All but three of the cots were empty – the three that were occupied held slumbering soldiers, all of them bandaged far more heavily than Eli. Looking around his cot, he found that all of his weapons and equipment had been taken from him. He had also been stripped of the top of his uniform so that his arm could be tended to. Each cot had a metal trunk at its foot.
Eli pulled himself to his feet. His muscled ached from the previous day’s fighting, but he pushed the pain to the back of his mind and went to his trunk. It creaked loudly as he opened it and he instinctively glanced at the sleeping men. When he was sure none of them had stirred he pulled a fresh uniform out of the trunk and dressed himself as quietly as possible. His trunk had only contained clothing. Eli was unsure if he should be pleased or concerned that the replacement uniform they had provided had his name on it. He surveyed the tent again and his eyes fixed on on the belt of one of the wounded soldiers. His bayonet had been left in its sheath on his belt. Eli crept over and carefully removed it along with the sheath and affixed it to his own belt. The quartermaster would supply another one, and a knife would be essential to his survival.
Fighting the simultaneous urges to sneak or run Eli pulled in another long breath to calm his nerves and strode casually out into the daylight.
The bright Sun still sat low over the Eastern horizon, the long shadows of the morning stretching out over the camp. They had obviously been busy overnight, as a forward base of operations had taken solid shape. There was still much work to be done however, and soldiers scrambled about busily each absorbed in the task he’d been assigned. There would be no better time than now for Eli to slip away unnoticed. Once the camp settled down it would be much easier for him to be noticed or his absence missed.
The tent he had been led to was roughly in the middle of where the Allies had been setting up camp. To his far right at the top of the cliff was the only service road leading out of the area. Trucks, armor and soldiers all streamed down it out of the camp, but it was heavily guarded. Even if he slipped in with one of the groups leaving if he couldn’t get away from them he just be carried off to the front lines again. Far to Eli’s left a large group of soldiers was collecting bodies, both German and American. Past them was a thick stand of trees overgrown with underbrush. If he could get into there unnoticed he could disappear without a problem.
Slipping through the buzzing groups of soldiers scrambling around the camp he made his way as casually as possible toward the makeshift morgue. With each step he could feel his pulse quicken and a slick sheen of sweat began to coat his palms. He knew he had to act as normal as possible or he’d never even make it to the edge of the camp. After what seemed like hours of walking, but was really no more than ten minutes, Eli stood at the edge of a growing collection of bodies. Bile rose in his throat as the smell overtook him.
Keeping watch on the men working to collect, identify and organize the dead, Eli crept around the piles of bodies toward the woods. There were no guards around the perimeter. Twenty more feet and he could slip away to live in relative peace until this whole mess had passed. With the mounds of corpses between him and the workers he realized the coast was clear. He strode quickly toward the lush green border between freedom and death. I’m going to make it, he shouted in his head.
“Private Elijah Watts!” a deep, commanding voice called from behind him.
Eli froze where he stood, struggling not to panic. The urge to just run welled up inside him but he knew it would be useless, they would just send someone in after him. They even knew me by name Eli thought. Visions of a firing squad flashed in his head and he knew his fate was sealed. He scrambled to come up with excuses for where he was going, frantically clinging to the hope that since he hadn’t crossed the camp’s boundaries yet they may not try him as a deserter.
“Private Elijah Watts!” the voice called again from behind him, sounding impatient and irritated.
Eli turned slowly, fear making the motion jerky and stiff. Three men strode toward him. In the center was a tall, broad shouldered man in a crisp uniform. The gleaming decorations on his uniform declared in no uncertain terms that this was a man of high rank. Flanking him were two stern MPs. The men strode up to Eli and he saluted, struggling to keep his hand from shaking at his brow. The shining eagle on the man’s uniform showed him to be a colonel.
“Private Watts?” the colonel barked again, more of a statement than a question as he fixed his eyes on Eli’s name tag.
“Y-Yes sir,” Eli stammered back.
“Come with me,” the colonel ordered then spun quickly on his heel and marched back toward the camp.
There was no choice but for Eli to follow behind him and the MPs as they silently led him through the tangle of tents and fortifications. He tried his best to steel himself as they marched toward what he expected to be the camp prison. For a second he wondered if maybe they would just skip all that and take him right to the firing squad. The colonel and MPs took him down one of the steep paths leading from the cliff to the beach. Eli marveled at the transformation. Where yesterday there had been nothing but death, blood and carnage a fully functional harbor had been constructed. Fresh troops, vehicles and supplies were being unloaded onto the beach by a steady stream of transport ships.
He didn’t have long to marvel at the differences before the colonel and his escorts directed him to a medium sized tent erected in the center of the beach just past the shingle. There were multiple guards stationed around the tent. It’s settled then, Eli concluded, they’re going to lock me up until I can be tried. As they approached the tent, Eli noticed the banner hanging above the guarded entrance read ‘Command’. Before he could think about why they would be leading him to the command tent the two guards saluted the colonel and stepped to the side holding the flaps open. The colonel and his two escorts also stepped to the side and he gestured for Eli to go on ahead into the tent.
Eli hesitated for a moment, then cautiously stepped through the dark opening. He squinted for a moment as his eyes adjusted to the dim lighting inside the tent. A large round table sat in the sand in the center of the tent, hanging lanterns casting a red-orange glow on the maps and papers spread on top of it. A small group of people were seated around the table huddled over the documents. The man seated directly across the table from Eli looked up from studying the maps and smiled.
“Ah, Private Watts,” he said, “we’ve been expecting you.” Short gray hair sat parted cleanly atop the man’s head. His long face radiated a sense of stern command masked slightly by the warmth of his eyes. He peered down his aquiline nose at Eli. The large square of colored bars on his chest glinted in the dim light of the command tent.
Eli’s eyes widened and he snapped into a stiff salute as he realized who sat before him. “General Gerow! Sir!” he nearly shouted in surprise. The room swam a little as the drumming of his pulse in his temples started again. He thought he might faint, and had to fight the urge to shake his head to focus. They had brought him before the general! He was done for and he knew it. The only reason he could think of to bring him there was to order his immediate execution.
“At ease private. Have a seat.” General Gerow gestured toward a folding chair at the table in front of Eli.
Eli stepped forward and sank down into the chair before his mind could fully process the request. Only once he was seated did he pay attention to the other people in the room. One man sat at the general’s right hand, and three others to his left. A dull red glow flared over the leftmost man’s face as he took a heavy draw off of his cigarette casting sharp shadows over his dark, angular face. Eli’s jaw dropped open.
“Lewis!?” he blurted, forgetting for a moment where he was.
“Sergeant Lewis,” he corrected, “good to see you Watts.”
General Gerow cast a sidelong glance at Sgt. Lewis as the colonel who had brought Eli circled around the table and bent to whisper in his ear. As he spoke, both men glanced back at Eli. The colonel straightened back up and took a step backward into the shadows of the tent and another smile slowly blossomed over Gen. Gerow’s face.
The general’s gaze bored into Eli as he spoke with a deliberate slowness, “It seems we found you at just the right time Pvt. Watts. The colonel here tells me he brought you from over by the body collectors. Is that where you were assigned private?”
“N-No sir.” As hard as he fought to conceal them Eli’s nerves stammered through in his voice.
“I see,” Gen. Gerow continued. “Why, come to think of it, that area is right by the far edge of camp isn’t it? Funny, I can’t seem to figure out what you would have been doing way over there if you were assigned to it…”
Eli forced himself to swallow the heavy lump that had settled in his throat. The general was looking at him innocently, as if he was waiting for Eli to chime in and explain but Eli couldn’t bring himself to speak.
Finally, after a few minutes of thick, painful silence the general resumed speaking. “No matter, Pvt. Watts. No matter, because I’ve got a new assignment for you. I hand-picked you for it myself.” The general paused to beam at Eli again as if he should be honored, but Eli’s face was petrified in the shocked expression he had held since he entered the tent. “You saw them,” he continued. “The dinosaurs. The wires have been buzzing all night – these weren’t the only ones. They are proving a little… difficult to handle.”
Slowly Eli forced his teeth back together and began to collect himself. He didn’t want to believe there could be more of those monsters out there.
Gen. Gerow folded his hands on the table. “We first suspected something was wrong when the 101st went in the night before the beach landing. They were supposed to secure the causeways for our landing, destroy the artillery at Saint-Martin-de-Varreville and hold key objectives until the arrival of the main invasion force.” He sighed heavily as his gaze fell to the table, staring through it more than at it.
“There was nothing but silence after the drops. Whole battalions unaccounted for. An hour before we launched the landing operation we received the first and only radio transmission for the 101st. Only one word came through.” He locked eyes with Eli again.
Another heavy silence draped itself over the room. Eli was transfixed by the general’s piercing stare.
“We didn’t know what to make of it, but had no choice but to proceed with the operation. Now we understand. For all we know the Nazis have an entire army of those… things.” Gen. Gerow shook his head slowly. “If they do, we don’t stand a chance. Head-to-head we barely stand a chance against the monsters we’ve already seen and we have no idea what other horrors they might be saving for us. No, we have to cut these things off at the source.”
The general’s logic was sound to Eli. Just the handful of dinosaurs fielded yesterday had nearly crippled the entire invasion force, if there were a whole army of them they would be nearly unstoppable. He still didn’t understand where he came in on all of this.
“We have received intelligence,” the general said turning slightly to look at the man to his right, “that there is currently only a single laboratory producing these monsters. This research facility is also the only location with the information on how the dinosaurs are being created. The scientist responsible is very… protective of his work and won’t allow the data to be stored elsewhere. We intend to send a team in to destroy the lab and all of the research that led to these abominations.”
The general refolded his hands and looked back at Eli. Both brows raised slightly. “Any questions?” he asked.
“Um… only one, sir,” Eli began hesitantly. “What does all of this have to do with me?”
Gen. Gerow’s head cocked slightly to the side as though Eli had just asked what color the sky was. “Your new assignment, private. Word got around about what you did yesterday. You’re something of a hero, son – and you’re going to destroy that lab.”
A pallor flooded over Eli’s face as the blood drained away. Him? He would be going? He was going to be sent to the very doorstep of the beasts.
The general’s eyes read the look in Eli’s pale face and the shaking of his hands like a book. “Of course,” he said, “if you don’t want to go I would understand. Instead we could always discuss precisely what you were doing at the edge of camp this morning. I’m still very curious about that.”
The threat was clear. Eli had two choices. He could agree to go on the mission or he could be held as a deserter and face the firing squad. Something in the general’s cold smile told Eli that if he refused there would be no trial. He got the feeling he wouldn’t even make it to lunch, he’d just be dragged out to the surf and shot. No one would question the general’s orders. At least if he agreed to the mission there was a slim chance he could find an opportunity to slip away. Eli nodded in a nervous motion far more jerky than he intended.
“I’ll do it.”
“I thought you would. Allow me then to introduce you to your team.” He turned his attention to the men at his left. “I believe you’re already acquainted with Sergeant Holden Lewis,” he said nodding to him at the end of the group, “he will be filling the roles of sniper and team medic.” He gestured to the man seated next to Sgt. Lewis.
“And this is Captain Nick O’Donnell.”
Cpt. O’Donnell smiled at Eli and inclined his head slightly in acknowledgment. It was hard to tell while he was seated, but he looked shorter than the other men. He made up for the lack of height in thickness, his uniform swelled with muscle and the seams of his sleeves looked ready to burst whenever his biceps flexed. A thick, sinewy neck sprouted from his broad shoulders to support the cinder block of flesh that composed his head. His hair and eyes were both the deep brown of freshly tilled soil.
“Cpt. O’Donnell will be the demolitions and heavy weapons expert for your team. He’s proved himself quite adept at destroying things in the past, he’ll be the one in charge of making sure the laboratory is completely destroyed. Next is your squad leader, Major Leon Hawkins.” He indicated the man seated directly to his left. “Once in the field, Maj. Hawkins is in control of the operation.”
Maj. Hawkins continued to eye Eli as he was introduced but otherwise remained motionless. The sharp lines of his jaw bent upward to meet his short buzzed blond hair at his temples. The right angles of his hairline neatly framed the cold, intelligent blue eyes that were fixed on Eli. Though his face was expressionless, he knew Maj. Hawkins was silently appraising him. Deciding just how much of a burden Eli was going to be. The name was fitting. There was an aura of regal pride about the man and Eli suspected if he grew his golden mane out he would look very much like a lion.
The general appeared to be finished with his introductions when a quiet but firm “ahem” came from the shadows behind the man to Gen. Gerow’s right. Eli glanced up, startled slightly by the sound and realized a woman had been silently standing there the entire time. An involuntary gasp broke from his mouth and he quickly clamped it shut as he looked into her eyes. The umbrous outfit hugging her lithe, athletic form melted into the dark of the tent where she stood. Hair the color of glowing embers cascaded around her shoulders. The flicker of the lanterns made it look like a halo of fire danced around her face. Set amid the wild conflagration of her hair were two clear, green emeralds for eyes.
“Ah, yes,” Gen. Gerow continued looking over his shoulder at the woman, “I nearly forgot. Special Agent Rose Walker here will also be joining you on the operation.”
Like Maj. Hawkins, Agent Walker remained motionless through her introduction, standing like a marble statue with her hands clasped behind her back.
“Well then,” Gen. Gerow placed his palms on the table and stood. He gestured to the man seated to his right. “I’ll allow my friend here to handle your briefing. Good luck.” Everyone but the man the general had indicated stood and saluted as he walked around the table and ducked out of the tent, the colonel close behind him. Once he was gone, the men returned to their seats while Agent Walker resumed her statuesque pose.
All eyes turned to the man who was seated to the right of where the general had been. His short jet black hair sat in start contrast to the blueish pallor of the man’s rectangular face. He looked like he had never seen even a hint of sunlight, the only color to his face a tinge of purple resting in the puffy bags beneath his eyes. Instead of a military uniform a dark blue suit complete with matching tie was fitted tidily to his slender frame. The man slowly looked at each member of the squad and Eli shivered when the man’s scrutinizing glare finally fell on him. There was a mesmerizing quality to his sterile gray irises sunk deep into the cavernous sockets of his gaunt visage that stirred some deep and primal fear in Eli.
“Let’s begin,” the man’s voice had a lilting quality to it suggesting English was not the language he had spoken as a child, though Eli couldn’t place the accent. “As the general graciously pointed out, our agents have pinpointed the location of the laboratory responsible for producing the dinosaurs here, just outside of Hamburg.” He placed a thin white finger on a point in the north of a map of Germany.
Cpt. O’Donnell learned forward over the table. “How were you able to find this place so quickly?”
The man in the suit didn’t bother looking up. “We’ve known for some time that the Germans had been developing weapons in this lab-”
“You knew!?” Eli exclaimed leaning forward. “Why didn’t you warn anyone!?”
The chill of the man’s wintry eyes washed back over him. “We knew they were developing something. We didn’t know what that something was.” He slid another photograph from beneath the pile and laid it in the center of the table. “This is the man responsible for developing the dinosaurs, Dr. Nikolai Kessler.”
The photo itself was a grainy black and white shot, Eli squinted in the dim light of the tent but couldn’t get a good idea of what this Dr. Kessler looked like.
“You will be dropped under cover of darkness the night following tomorrow thirty miles to the northwest of Hamburg. You must then find your way to the laboratory without being detected. Once you have infiltrated the lab Agent Walker will ensure the research data is properly erased and Cpt. O’Donnell will plant the explosives necessary to destroy the facility. Evac will take place at the drop point five days following the start of the operation. Do not be late.”
For the following hour he man in the suit poured over the fine details of their mission. Eli struggled to memorize the specifics of the mission. The remainder of the team followed along in a disinterested, businesslike fashion. Occasionally a member of the group would interject with a question, which the man in the suit would address before moving on.
Finally, he pushed himself up from his seat. “I will leave the remainder of the preparations to Maj. Hawkins over the next two days. Good luck.”
He stood stiffly and began to leave the tent. “Wait,” Eli protested, “I still don’t understand why I’m involved in all of this. What I did on the beach, that was just luck, I…”
The man in the suit froze, his hand hung parting the curtain to the beach. Bright sunlight reflected off his ashen face. He spoke without turning. “Mr. Watts. The right man in the wrong place can make all the difference in the world.” In a flash of bright sunlight he fluttered through the tent opening and was gone.
Eli sat in stunned silence as the flap fluttered shut, his eyes struggling to readjust to the softly luminescent lanterns. He fought hard to come to terms with what had just transpired, to make some sense of it all. It was vitally important for him to remember the details of the briefing – his survival depended on it – but he still felt as if this all was just some long and twisted nightmare. A pain shot up his thigh bringing the realization that he had absentmindedly pinched himself just to be certain.
Escape. Freedom. Safety. They had all been just yards away. Now, far from finding freedom and safety he was commanded to march directly into the jaws of his nightmares. It’s just as light change in plans, he reasoned to himself. I’ll wait until the operation begins then slip away into Germany. They won’t abandon the mission just to come find me. At least, he hoped not.
He knew it wasn’t an ideal plan, but it was the only chance he could see. His earlier resolve to face a firing squad rather than combat had melted away in the face of that becoming a very real threat. Eli wasn’t ashamed of feeling like a coward, he could accept that in the knowledge that he was being as pragmatic as possible.
Maj. Hawkins was the one to break the silence, snapping Eli from his introspective reverie. “Effective immediately you are all under my command. You have one hour to eat then I expect you at dock Charlie at 1300 hours. Dismissed.”
With that he stood and marched from the tent. Agent Walker flipped a stray tongue of fiery hair back over he shoulder and strode out after him. Cpt. O’Donnell was last to leave. He nodded slowly in his seat, as if he was still processing the briefing, then looked to Eli and Sgt. Lewis as he rose.
“See you at the dock,” he said, and walked out.
The butt of Sgt. Lewis’s last cigarette tumbled into the sand softly at his feet amid the sizable pile that had accumulated there during the briefing. His features seemed to twist and shift as the smoke twirled lazily around his face. He savored that last draw, then opened his eyes to look at Eli.
“Come on Watts,” he said, “let’s get some chow.”
Without waiting for a reply he strode casually through the tent flaps into the blinding daylight beyond. The next few moments felt like hours for Eli. He close his eyes in the shadows of the command tent and drew in a deep, slow breath. Bit by bit he wrestled and fought the stress and fear of the situation, pulling it from the reaches of his consciousness, gathering it together, compressing it. Bundled and secure, he forced it into the deep recesses of his being. A change in plans, he repeated in his thoughts. I won’t let this stop me. Over and over he repeated it. Each time the words become stronger, more concrete. Finally, his eyes snapped open, finally adjusted to the dim tent. He knew what he had to do, and he was ready to do it.
He slipped into the blinding daylight and squinted to find the shape of Sgt. Lewis striding off to the mess tent. Eli hurried after him. Sgt. Lewis had just reached the dining area by the time Eli caught up with him. He acknowledged Eli with a glance and then stepped into the tent. The makeshift cafeteria was housed in a large circular tent, if it weren’t for the olive drab exterior it almost could’ve passed for a circus tent. Inside two long rows of tables were set up framed by low benches on each side. On the left side of the tent a series of tables had been strung together to form a serving area. Stacks of trays bookended long rows of warming dishes keeping the available food as presentable as possible.
Even though it had to be around noon, there were surprisingly few soldiers eating. No one was in line at the serving table. The few others that occupied the tent sat huddled in staggered groups at the tables, their trays holding varying amounts of food. Sgt. Lewis slid a try off the top of the top of the stack.
“I’m only going to say this once Watts,” he said without looking away from the food. “That was impressive what you did yesterday.”
Eli was stunned by the compliment. “Um… thank you,” he replied.
Sgt. Lewis began his strafing run of the warming dishes, indiscriminately scooping large portions of each offering into a growing heap on his tray. Eli slipped a tray from the stack and followed suit, though he was more discerning in his food choices. When the order to eat had been given the last thing Eli could have ever thought of was forcing food down. Being told you had to either go on a suicide mission or be executed on the spot had a way of killing one’s appetite.
Now that his fate was sealed and he had once again settled himself into his resolve of escaping, a gnawing hunger had slowly begun to creep into Eli’s stomach. The food was hardly gourmet fare, but as the combined smells washed over him he realized he hadn’t eaten a bite since the previous morning, and that gnawing growl of his stomach steadily grew into a ravenous roar to be fed. By the end of the line of dishes he had become as indiscriminate as Sgt. Lewis.
The two men settled into a table near the far end of the tent, away from the other groups of dining soldiers. It hadn’t needed to be stated that their mission was on a strict need to know basis. The last thing they needed was to be near a gaggle of inquisitive eavesdroppers. They silently began digging in once they were seated, ravenously forking globs of mixed morsels into their mouths. As he watched Sgt. Lewis shovel down the mountain on is tray Eli realized he must not have eaten since the previous morning either.
Once the greedy fires of their bellies had been tempered somewhat they began to slow down, allowing themselves to breathe between bites.
“So what do you think about this special mission business?” Sgt. Lewis muttered through bulging cheeks.
Eli considered the question for a minute across the table. He couldn’t tell Sgt. Lewis about his plans to desert, that would be like marching himself off to the firing range and pulling the trigger himself. At the same time, something made him cringe at the thought of lying to him. He barely knew Sgt. Lewis, and he couldn’t call him a friend, but Eli was aware the shared danger of the previous day had connected them somehow.
“I don’t like it.” Eli shook his head slowly, his plastic fork stabbed upright into the remains of his meal. “I don’t even know what I’m doing here. I’m not cut out for this.”
Sgt. Lewis struggled to swallow his massive mouthful. “You were useful enough yesterday,” he replied bluntly. “Besides, you said you’re a paleontologist, right?”
Eli nodded slightly. He was surprised he remembered.
“Well, then you’re just about as perfect for this assignment as anyone. We’re hunting dinosaurs Watts. Dinosaurs. What’s your specialty?”
“Dinosaurs,” Eli grumbled.
“That’s right. I can shoot a rat in the eye from a mile away, not to mention patch you up if you get in trouble. Nick can find a way to blow up just about anything, believe me, and Maj. Hawkins… don’t even get me started. He’s the best there is. If anyone can figure out a way to get into Krautville cause a ruckus then get out without a scrape, it’s him. On top of that we’ve got you, our resident dino dictionary. Relax.”
“You forgot someone,” Eli said, “Agent Walker.”
“You’re right…” Sgt. Lewis’s fork clattered down onto his barren tray as he leaned back in his chair. His eyes narrowed in contemplation. “Who knows what she’s capable of. I don’t like it though. She’s not army. Maybe CIA, but not army.” He paused and placed a hand on his slightly distended belly, taking a deep breath before he continued. “I don’t trust her. Besides, who sends a woman on a mission like this?”
Eli held his tongue. The inclusion of the woman had surprised him but there was something he had seen in her standing in the gloom of the command tent. There was a control in her step, a firmness that blended gracefully into the easy fluidity of her movements. Eli was no soldier, but he didn’t need to be to see it. It was a primal feeling, a tingle on the back of his neck whispering that a predator was near. Watching her stroll from the tent had been like watching a panther stalk by his chair.
Even more striking was the cold fire that had roared behind her viridian eyes. There was a frozen fury there, violent but calculating. Eli knew that she would kill without the slightest hesitation, and suspected that if she did it wouldn’t be the first time. Of all the team, he felt she was the most dangerous and probably the most qualified.
Eli considered asking how he knew Cpt. O’Donnell. He tried to force some small talk, but his heart wasn’t in it and he and Sgt. Lewis sat in silence for a time. His thoughts kept returning to the dangerous woman cloaked in shadow and crowned in flames. Something else stirred in him beside the primal chill she had sent shivering down his spine. An apprehension was curled there too, an excitement. She genuinely frightened him, but at the same time he was looking forward to being in the same group. He shook the thought from his head.
Sgt. Lewis yawned loudly and peeled his sleeve back exposing his watch. “Well, looks like its time to get to the boat. Let’s go Watts.” He stood from the table, groaning slightly as the large meal shifted in his gut. Eli slowly stood along with him, and the two men walked solemnly to the docks. With each step Eli repeated his mantra from the tent, but unlike then it failed to comfort him. He couldn’t seem to shake the feeling that the boat he was treading towards was there to deliver him to the jaws of death.
Photo Credit: Dunechaser
Continue reading the next installment in the 50,000 word challenge.