[TW: references to violence]
Ketia pulled the pin from the grenade in her shaking, blood-stained hand. She closed her eyes in the moonlight. The beast with twelve legs lunged for her. Better late than never, she thought. The explosive went off between them. Its sound carried for miles on the crisp air. Visceral matter blew away in all directions. Caspian lowered his monocular. Fuck, another one lost. That makes six. She was so close to the gates and offered so much potential. He climbed down from the observation tower and buzzed his radio.
“Command, this is Caspian. Private Ketia is dead outside the walls.”
“Noted. Get to her remains when the sun comes up. Bury what you can and salvage whatever gear survived.”
Vice-Captain Caspian wrote the protocol that had registered within his headset. He decided that making rounds within the operations post would be more soothing than sitting on his bunk until his next shift. She was so close, so goddam close to getting inside. She had been the sixth recruit to die this month, the thirtieth this year. The razorpedes were killing them faster than Command could round up and force training onto conscripts. He hadn't been familiar with fighting without air support, air control, or anything else that could provide overwatch lately. The days of airborne operations had been erased since the slickbirds had dominated the sky weeks ago. Anything moving above seventy feet became immediately swarmed and attacked with unprecedented violence. They were the few rare creatures who could move in the daylight. Anyone outside the walled citadels became fair game to the numerous monstrosities that controlled the land after sunset.
Caspian walked within the perimeter, checking on the troops in his command. This garrison had been one of the lucky ones with ample food and supplies. His daily comforts increased by being close to the main officer hub and a personal friend to General Thompson. He had hoped Ketia would have survived the failed mission to destroy the razorpede nest. Her belly laughter had made the deployment that much better. Their private rendezvouses helped his morale as well. At least I don't have to worry about being found out any more, he quietly justified through suppressed grief.
Caspian looked in on the failed mission’s officer-in-charge. They shared some small talk before the inevitable question.
“What went wrong, Lt Jasper?”
“It’s these goddamn conscripts. We had planted the C4 about the nest as you had trained us. One of them lost grip of the explosives detonator,” he looked at his bare feet on the concrete slab, “then… then it fell deep among the eggs. I told them to get out before we woke the mother. We should have sent more qualified troops.”
“We’re out of qualified troops.” Caspian offered with candor.
“We’re out of time soon enough.” Lt Jasper looked up. “Once those eggs hatch, we won’t be able to conduct any missions at night in this sector ever again. We already lost the skies and the seas. The night is one more bar of the zoo cage quickly closing around humanity.”
“How many more days until they hatch?”
“Fuck, Captain, I don’t know. Two, maybe four if the weather remains as cold.” He paused before asking the next question. “Ketia? Did she make it back?”
“No, but she took one of those demon spawn with her.” The commanding officer said with veteran stoicism.
Lt Jasper put his face in his hands. His body trembled as he cried. Caspian sat on the occupied bunk and rubbed the grieving officer’s back. He found his own tears trailing.
"Look, we need to get back to the nest and finish the job. I need you to get your head in the game tomorrow. We all liked Ketia, but her death will mean so much more with a destroyed egg clutch attached to her loss." Vice-Captain Caspian stood up and brushed off his uniform. "You have tonight to get right, get some sleep, and be prepared to finish this mission at sunrise."
Lt Jasper looked up with red eyes and flushed cheeks. “This one will be for her.”
“This one will definitely be for her.” Caspian exited the tent fighting his own tears. He made a series of inspections before attending to his final task.
An overhanging light illuminated Private Ketia's bunk. Long shadows filled the tent’s edges and corners. Her sleeping bag was laid out with a butt impression on the middle of it from before she left. He looked over everything that she used to own. Ketia, how I wish we could have explored how deep our love would have taken us. He sat on the opposite bunk, looking at her stowed gear that would be recycled for another to use. All but the most personal of effects became supply property and even those private items found their way into the underground black market more often than not. He weighed his decision to take a memento of their illicit relationship. His shaking hand hesitated. Caspian decided to liberate a family picture from her hanging display, knowing that doing so could see him on the fatal end of a rifle for theft. He secured the photo into his inner uniform pocket. The tent flaps opened, bringing in a surprise of winter air. Sergeant Cooper startled backward.
“Oh, sir, I’m sorry to bother you.”
“No, it’s me who should apologize, Sergeant. I wanted to see what Private Ketia left behind for redistribution.”
"Private Ketia was a good soldier and a wonderful bunkmate. She will be missed."
"That she will." He cleared his throat. "Sergeant Cooper, tomorrow we are going back to the nest. I’m also here to ask for your assistance. It's of vital importance that the clutch is destroyed if we are to have any reasonable chance for success in this fight. I need someone to go with me and Lt Jasper to ensure the eggs are destroyed. Would you join us on this mission?"
“It would be my honor, sir.”
“Good, we’ll exit the post at daybreak. I’ll need you to gather ten troops, mostly for security, as we recover a lost detonator and fire off the explosives.”
“Roger that, sir. I’ll get the best troops I can find.”
“Good, have them and yourself ready to go.” Caspian left the tent with the photo near his heart. Better late than never, he thought.
Lieutenant Jasper, Sergeant Cooper, and a mix of enlisted conscripts waited in full combat gear near the front gates. The sky became painted with an array of mango orange-red reaching over them. A morning horn sounded that the nocturnal threats had fully retreated from the sun's incoming rays. Everyone in the group breathed a sigh of relief. The precious daylight hours became the most lucrative advantage in a new world where humans had been demoted down the apex predator hierarchy. Rumors circulated about the beasts of the night mutating into becoming daylight resistant. The horn reminded them all that the rumor was untrue for at least one more day.
Vice-Captain Caspian arrived to his group in full battle attire. A battered rifle in his gloved hands.
“Lt Jasper, are your troops in good order and ready to get the job done?”
“They are in good order as expected and ready to kill or be killed for the mission.”
“Good man, you know where we need to go. Move out.”
The team exited the base under the cover of raised perimeter towers. A two-person team went forward to confirm that no threats, inhuman or human, stood in their path. The mission had been made clear that they must get to the site, blow the eggs, and return before the last sun rays crossed the chilled air. A work detail recovered Private Ketia's gear in the distance. Caspian looked away from the painful scene.
The task force took a secured break three miles in. They refreshed themselves with water and ate snacks together. White-spotted deer and anxious rabbits moved along in the distance. The new day smelled of fragile innocence. They took back to following the last mission's footprints further down its path. A lumbering sun rose overhead. The forward, two-man team indicated for the rest to stop and take a knee as they looked atop a small hill.
“What do you see, Collins?” His walkie-talkie buzzed quietly.
“Sergeant, we have some local yokels at the clutch site. Looks like about eight men and women with small arms and hunting rifles. They look to be trying to dismantle the charges.”
“Looks to be right, Sergeant. What’s the play?”
“Let me inform the captain. Stay out of sight and don’t engage unless fired upon.”
Sergeant Cooper relayed the update to Vice-Captain Caspian.
“This is unacceptable. We need to neutralize the locals, re-establish the connections, and detonate this whole clutch.”
“Sir, killing locals won’t go over well with Command.”
“Only if Command knows about it. Do we have a problem, Sergeant Cooper?”
She hesitated. They stared each other down. “No. Sir.” Each word hung like a noose from the gallows. “Mission before anything else.”
“Mission before anything else. Get your people into position. I want this done quickly and as quietly as possible. We don’t wake the mother.”
Sergeant Cooper divided her troops far around the backs of the interlopers, with each person assigned a different target. The locals became too involved with their personal tasks to notice the camouflaged troops moving around to their rear.
“Do it.” His voice held no emotion.
Simultaneous shots killed all but one aduLt A terrified woman rose from out of the large earthen depression. A friend’s blood coated her face and hunting jacket.
“Don’t shoot. Don’t shoot. I surrender.” Her words ran like race cars as she shook with her arms in the air. “I give u-”
The Vice-Captain looked through his scope. An upward winding smoke trail wafted from his rifle's end. No witnesses, he said to himself. Not a one. The soldiers met at the pit’s edge.
“Lt Jasper, take any identification from the bodies and secure any intelligence to find out who these souls were. Bring them to me once they’re collected.”
“Sergeant Cooper, I want the dead policed up into a burn pile, their usable gear collected, and the explosives triple checked. We blow and go in one hour.”
Vice-Captain Caspian hated killing unarmed civilians. He hated what would emerge from the hatching eggs even more. His service years had taught him that armed amateurs in groups created inflated egos. Inflated egos created casualties in his ranks and he would end up killing the civilians regardless. Witnesses did even worse to morale when back at headquarters. He long established the personal ideology of “no witness, no problem” after nearly being court-martialled for doing his job. Better late than never, he thought to himself.
The hour passed with his conscripts bitching and moaning as most soldiers do when presented with an unpleasant job like stacking blood-soaked civilians to burn. Lt Jasper found a high-value map and several pieces of arcane identification once called driver's licenses. Sgt. Cooper confirmed the explosives and recovered the detonator. Specialist Second Class Hernandez suggested the bodies should be added to the eggs for destruction. She had been quickly reminded that additional bodies required extra C4 they didn't bring. The team gathered at a waypoint near the detonator's wireless range. A stack of bodies burned near the clutch downwind from their location. Its dark smoke an affront to the winter serenity.
The commanding officer handed the remote to Sgt Cooper. “This one’s for Ketia. Make her proud, Sergeant.”
She placed her gloved thumb on the awaiting button."Better late than never, Ketia." The button depressed. An earth jarring explosion rocked the afternoon. Each person reset their footing on the shaken, icy ground. Egg fragments blew outward in all directions alongside sections of their brood queen. Angry colors painted a chilling mosaic around the pit. The sun pulled over them into its downward arc.
“Mission accomplished, sir.” Sgt Cooper looked at her commanding officer. She handed him back the device.
Caspian smiled back at her with a nod. “Move out,” he declared. Lt Jasper updated the citadel with their status.
The team raced against the aging day for safe high walls and a warm meal. The progress became hampered by the weight of additional rifles and equipment along with the mission’s general fatigue. Two of the newer soldiers lagged from the column formation.
"Get your asses slung back up here or you won't have asses to care about anymore." Caspian barked from his command position alongside the group. The two men jogged back to formation, only to fall out of line after a few minutes. The commander offered the group an expensive ten-minute break to make sure two exhausted troops didn't turn into three and then four stragglers requiring a longer intermission. He kept an eagle's eye on the surroundings as the others drank water and took snack bites. His watch read ten minutes.
“Up and we don’t stop or slow for anyone. If you fall behind from here on out, you will live or die by the night on your own.” His words reflected a reality he hoped wouldn’t actually happen. He hoped the motivation would be enough for the troops to push themselves through to the gates. The team took to their feet. They buddy checked one another to make sure each remained in good marching order.
Caspian could see the citadel through his monocular. Thank goodness, he thought as his body fought its own exhaustion. Two slickbirds rested on a thick tree branch with their massive wings tucked aside their large bodies. They squawked to one another with no concern for the passing group. He brought his attention back to the mission's conclusion. He felt pride about a job well done. The eggs and mother are finally destroyed. Better late, than never, he thought. He moved to the front of the line.
A single gunshot rang out. The group raised their rifles and scanned the perimeter. Caspian tracked a slickbird’s final descent to the hard ground. He looked to the back of the line. Recruit Johansen had a rifle pointed up at the tree. Oh, no, the Vice-Captain thought in panic.
"Everyone down, now," Caspian screamed as he took cover with his front to the icy ground. The veteran soldiers dropped onto the snow. Johansen and the other recruits looked at him with confusion. The remaining slickbird had already finalized its terminal descent. Its flat, razor beak and wings cut through Johansen as easily as the air around them. The upper section of his body bounced around the wide flat wing as the creature lifted higher. His gear became entangled upon a series of back spines. Free-flowing blood poured off of the beast's tail like a crimson waterfall spotting the cottony snow below. His screams filled the afternoon air. Terrified cries that would haunt the others forever. He bobbled against the reptilian back as the animal attempted to break free of the unintended obstruction. Private Johansen passed out atop the creature before his life drained below.
The armed group rose to their feet. Several of them stood covered in blood. The slickbird and Johansen’s corpse took to the cloudless sky before anyone could consider shooting. Caspian called for Sgt Cooper to mark the spot for retrieval at the next sunrise. She burdened herself with mission sensitive gear. The group hustled across the icy distance as the sun teased several inches off the ground. They reached their base as the horizon hid half the sun. The remnants of its light shone upon opening, steel doors with four white words written in a hand-painted fashion. Better Late Than Never.