An excerpt from the journals of Combat Search & Rescue Consultant Lana McGee, as provided by Myna Chang
Art by Luke Spooner
Don’t call me a mercenary. Those guys are pricks. Kidnappers and murderers, the lot of them. I’m not like that. Sure, I get paid for my work, and yeah, I love a good explosion. Who doesn’t? But my job is to save people. Pull them out of bad situations. Bring them home safe.
I’m not an asshole.
“I didn’t think you were, Ma’am.”
Oh shit, did I say all that out loud?
“Yes, Ma’am, you did.”
Wow, this pilot doesn’t look old enough to shave, let alone fly a chopper.
“I shave, Ma’am.”
“You heard that, too?”
“Yes, Ma’am. My CO warned me this might happen.”
“Name’s Lana, not Ma’am. So, they told you about my disability?” Their word, not mine.
“They said you got a piece of shrapnel in your head. War souvenir. Said you blurt out whatever crosses your mind.”
“Yep,” I nod. “Frontal Lobe Disinhibition. Basically, if I think it, I say it. That’s why I’m freelancing now.”
“Yes, Ma’am. Not a merc. Got it.”
Pilot’s quick. And he does shave. Sexy stubble. Yum. Like to run my tongue up that jawline and–
“Due respect, Ma’am, I’m authorized to tell you to shut up.”
I bite my rogue tongue hard enough to draw blood. Damn it, Lana. Stop scaring the cute flyboy.
He flicks his eyes toward me and grins. “Truth is, Ma’am, I don’t scare easy.”
Oh. Well, then. I smile and shift in the seat. “Just to be clear … You wouldn’t mind–”
“Approaching the drop zone, Ma’am.”
I chuckle. His smile turns to a blush. Tease. “Fine, kick me out of your helicopter. Come on, Diamond, we’ve got people to rescue.”
My German Shepherd sits while I attach a jump harness to her K-9 armor. Takes about three seconds. We’ve done hundreds of these short jumps, and it never gets old. She woofs, ready to go.
“You talking to me or the dog?”
“Both of you, Ma’am.”
He maneuvers the chopper over the moonlit compound and flashes a cheeky grin at me again. I try to keep my mouth shut, but as usual, the words tumble out.
“I’m probably gonna lick your stubbly jaw when this mission’s over, Pilot. Diamond might, too.”
“Countin’ on it, Ma’am.”
I laugh and step into the air.
The research facility sits on a swath of blacktop, devoid of plant life, a big wart on a bald head. The gate hangs open. I toss a handful of debris at the razor-wire fence, but it doesn’t spark. Looks like the power’s out. Not a good sign.
I was hoping this job would be a quickie: rescue the dashing scientist, secure his peculiar research, get home in time for dinner. Guess I should’ve known better. Anything involving Chase Mathews isn’t going to be easy.
“At least the compound hasn’t been bombed yet, huh girl?”
Diamond doesn’t respond. She’s good like that.
A Jeep sits abandoned near the fence. Wet-looking handprints smear the windshield, and a case of medical supplies has toppled onto the asphalt.
We skirt it, watching for movement, hoping for some sign of life as we approach the entrance. Nothing stirs. I tighten my grip on the MTAR submachine gun strapped across my chest, and we enter the facility.
Lobby’s dark, except for orange warning lights at the guard’s terminal. My NVGs flare in time with the flashes, so I pull them off. Diamond’s night vision is more reliable than the goggles, anyway. She’s the most capable combat partner I’ve worked with; I trust her with my life.
She nudges me. I nod, and she ghosts away, into the darkness. Nothing will get past her. A low growl, five yards to the right, alerts me to an enemy combatant. I bring my MTAR to bear, just in time. Two quick bursts, and the bad guy goes down.
I love this fucking gun. Compact and efficient, with a little kick. Kind of like me.
Diamond circles the lobby, vigilant, then returns to my side. I prod the body splayed in front of me. Scrawny dude, white lab coat. Blisters all over his face.
Or are those pustules? Jesus, that’s nasty looking. Diamond keens and backs away. I follow her lead. A blister-thing quavers and ruptures, spurting out thick goo. Hard to tell in the darkness, but I think it’s green.
I’ll never eat lime Jell-O again. Diamond rubs her head on my thigh; she won’t either.
“Come on, girl. Our dashing scientist isn’t going to rescue himself.”
She snorts her disapproval. Diamond had never liked Chase. She’d peed on his shoes every chance she got. My dog’s smart. I should have listened.
We creep down the hallway behind the guard station. Emergency lights flicker, strobing the corridor in snapshots of weirdness.
Flash. Body on the floor.
Flash. Smear of blood.
Flash. Heap of clothing, soaked with green sludge.
I wish the freakin’ light would either stay on or go dark. Vertigo pulses with every disco blink.
Diamond lets out a cautionary rumble, and I pull up my gun, ready to fire. A woman covered in angry boils slumps on the floor, back against the wall. She reaches out blindly, hands grasping air.
My first-aid kit’s in my pack, but I’m not ready to take my finger off the trigger guard; Diamond’s hackles are still up. The woman’s mouth opens and tainted saliva gushes out. Looks like pond scum.
I don’t think my emergency band-aids will do you much good, lady.
She jerks toward my voice, moaning. Spit froths on her lips. Several of her boils burst, popping like firecrackers, loud enough I can hear them over my thundering heartbeat. Syrupy goop, smelling of burnt licorice, oozes from the sores. Her body cants sideways and her shoulder hits the floor.
Nothing I can do will help her now. Maybe we’ll find a miracle cure in the lab. Diamond and I hug the far side of the hallway, avoiding her still-seeking arms. The thick fluids pooling around her body seem to throb in time with the emergency lights, and the cloying odor intensifies as we pass.
I’m not sure what we’ve gotten ourselves into, but I sure hope this bug isn’t airborne. Our combat armor should protect us from physical contaminants, but it doesn’t do anything to block out the stink.
We come to a junction. I remember the blueprints and hang a left. The bulb in this hallway’s dim, but at least it’s not blinking. Unfortunately, the path is blocked by a mass of writhing bodies.
All naked–explains the abandoned clothes back there–dotted with throbbing cysts. Many have already ruptured, leaving curdled trails of emerald slime. I stare, fascinated. The people are fusing together; everywhere the goo touches, their skin melds. Limbs, feet, heads, all merging into one giant blob.
Diamond paws the floor. One of the faces snaps up, focusing its attention on her. We back away. A distorted jaw juts out, leering. It trembles, and a body begins to emerge from the fused clump of flesh, first a shoulder, then a torso. Straining to reach us, it makes a squelching slurp and tears free–an arm, two legs.
The legs don’t match.
My stomach turns. The newly assembled monster stumbles and lurches at Diamond.
I shoot it in the head. It stops, but doesn’t fall, so I pop it again, center mass, where a heart and lungs should be. It totters for a split second before collapsing.
Diamond whines; the rest of the entangled mound of creatures squirms toward us. Maybe the gunfire got its–their?–attention. They stretch and heave, inching closer. Unnatural liquids gurgle and flesh splits as they rip themselves apart, rubbery appendages groping relentlessly in Diamond’s direction.
I flip the toggle on my MTAR to full auto and spray the clusterfuck. No way in hell those abominations are gonna get sticky with my pup. I let up on the trigger and watch for movement, then give them another blast, just to be sure.
I guess a full magazine was enough to do the job, which is good because, damn, that’s a scary pile of monsters. But now the hallway’s coated in weird-colored gore. Not gonna risk going through that mess. Doesn’t matter, though. According to the map, all hallways lead to the inner lab, where the research stuff should be stored.
And Chase. Can’t forget him, the handsome, charming scientist. My ex.
The electronic lock is toast and the lab door won’t open. Something’s wedged it shut. I kick it, hard, but that only hurts my foot.
“Chase? Are you in there?” Hope he’s not glued to the mishmash back in the hallway.
Diamond watches my back while I pound on the reinforced steel.
“Lana? Is that you?”
“Yeah, and I wanna see if you still turn me on.” Damn it.
“Are you infected?”
“I can still talk, can’t I?” Of course I can. It’s my biggest problem.
The door cracks open. He squints at me.
“Why’d they send you?”
“No one else’d take the job.” True story.
Diamond and I squeeze through the door and shove it closed again.
“Did you bring a platoon of Marines to save me?” Chase demands.
I spread my arms. “Just us.”
Not as charming as I remember.
“If you’re all they sent,” he says, “they’re going to nuke the whole island, aren’t they?”
“Probably. I figure we’ve got another hour before the bombing starts.”
“No, no, no, it’s too valuable,” he mutters, already ignoring me.
Feels like old times.
His motions are jerky. He grabs a backpack and shoves miniature computer drives and scraps of paper into it.
Definitely not a turn-on anymore. Looks like hell, all bug-eyed and twitchy. Kinda soft around the edges.
He stops and glares at me.
“Still the motor-mouthed bitch.”
Oops. “I didn’t mean–”
“Yeah, you did. You’ve always been an asshole. The piece of shrapnel just makes it more obvious.”
That hurts. Gotta admit it. A muffled thud from the hallway preempts my snarky response. Diamond snarls, low and intense. The warning tone sends goosebumps up my spine.
“Chase, what happened to those people?”
He shrugs. “Sample got out. Spread a lot faster than I expected.”
“Sample? The research I’m supposed to retrieve?”
“Thought you were here to rescue me.”
“Yeah, but boss-man said you’re low priority. ‘Get the research,’ he said. ‘Grab the scientist, too, if you can.’ That’s what he said.”
“God, I hate the military,” Chase spits.
I have to agree, at least a little. CO didn’t mention the rest of the research staff. Guess the woman in the hall is zero-priority in his book. I call bullshit on that–I’ll save whoever I can.
“Is there a cure, or an antidote?”
“Why?” he asks, backing away from me. “Did you get any of the transfer medium on you?”
“You mean the green goo? No. But maybe some of the others are still alive.”
He goes back to rifling through the science junk on his desk. “I only make the contagions. Cures are someone else’s department.”
Seriously? “So you’re a full-on mad scientist now?”
“I prefer bioweapon engineer.”
I stare at him. Has he always been this cold-hearted?
Diamond barks, two short yips. That’s a yes.
Chase rolls his eyes and I realize I’ve spoken out loud again. He glares at Diamond.
“You talking to me or the dog?”
“What do you think?” He shoulders past me, opening a biohazard safe. Polished steel containers crowd the shelf. They look like those expensive vacuum insulated tumbler thingies. He yanks one out.
“You keep your weaponized slime in a fancy coffee cup?”
He sneers and shoves the container into the backpack. “I can’t believe they sent a brain damaged mercenary to rescue me.”
That’s ‘value-priced consultant’ to you, jerkface. Diamond snarls, exposing her fangs.
“Can you both shut up?” His hands shake.
Wait. Faster than he expected? How did the sample get out?
“A test,” he answers. “Proof of concept for the buyer.”
“You infected those people on purpose? So you can sell that stuff?”
He laughs. “You weren’t very smart, even before the shrapnel.” He zips his pack and turns.
Something’s wrong with his face.
Diamond’s growl modulates into a high-pitched howl–her extreme danger signal. Almost too late, I realize why: Chase is infected. I didn’t see it before. Hard to miss now.
I raise my MTAR. A smudge of emerald gel shimmers on the edge of the safe behind him. “Don’t move.”
He gapes at me, incredulous. “Put the gun down, Lana.”
I shake my head. “You must’ve gotten sloppy with your death jelly.”
“How dare you?” He frowns and scratches at a freshly blossoming pustule on his right cheek. His fingers drip green. “No!”
Diamond moves into a defensive position, guarding me. Chase stares dumbly at his stained hand. He raises frightened eyes to mine.
“Lana, help me.”
My gun barrel wavers. Diamond barks, short and sharp, warning him to stay back, reminding me to follow protocol. Chase reaches out to me.
“Please–” His voice devolves into a mewl. Sanity, whatever’s left of it, drains from his eyes. His face morphs, cheeks melting in a slurry of jade-colored paste. Pus drips from his scalp. He screams and launches himself at me, and for the first time in my professional career, I freeze.
But Diamond doesn’t.
She meets him mid-air, bashing into him with her shoulder. She ricochets off his body, crashing to the floor a few feet from where he lands. Teeth bared, she’s up in an instant, but he’s already charging toward her, crablike, faster than I’ve ever seen him move.
Diamond! Don’t bite him!
I don’t know if I’ve screamed or if she’s read my mind, but she keeps her mouth off him. We slide into a familiar rhythm of charge and retreat, strike and evade. She dodges, giving me a clear shot. I squeeze the trigger. Chase’s head explodes.
Clabbered wet tissue splatters across his desk. Ears ringing, I inch closer and nudge the slack body, but it doesn’t move. His entire head is gone. I doubt anything could survive that, but I give him a double tap, two to the chest, to be safe. Then I drop the gun and rush to Diamond.
You stupid dog. Did the goo splash you? I run my hands over her armor, up and down her legs, check her mouth and her teeth. After examining her doggie armpits for the second time, my panic dissipates. She’s okay; the K-9 gear did its job. She nuzzles my face, and I realize she’s cleaning up my tears. I wrap my arms around her, trembling. Good girl.
I call for evac and wait for the thump of chopper blades to split the air.
On a normal mission, I’d feel rotten about failing to bring my target home alive. This time, not so much. I drag a clean duffel behind me. It’s filled with Chase’s notes and computer drives, but not the bio sample. I left that crap behind for the bombs to take care of.
The chopper circles. I flash my light, three quick blinks, and it lands.
“Look, Diamond, it’s the yummy pilot.”
She woofs and thumps her tail.
“Oh, you approve of this one?”
She barks twice; that’s a yes.
“Okay then, let’s go give him a lick.”
Combat Search & Rescue Consultant Lana McGee specializes in the retrieval of personnel and property from high-risk environments. McGee is assisted by a Hero-Class German Shepherd named Diamond. McGee has recently raised her consultation fees, and now charges a premium for any “mad scientist bullshit.”
Myna Chang writes flash and short stories. Her work has been featured in Daily Science Fiction, The Copperfield Review, Defenestration, and Dead Housekeeping, among others. Find her @MynaChang or read more at mynachang.com.
Luke Spooner, a.k.a. ‘Carrion House,’ currently lives and works in the South of England. Having recently graduated from the University of Portsmouth with a first class degree, he is now a full time illustrator for just about any project that piques his interest. Despite regular forays into children’s books and fairy tales, his true love lies in anything macabre, melancholy, or dark in nature and essence. He believes that the job of putting someone else’s words into a visual form, to accompany and support their text, is a massive responsibility, as well as being something he truly treasures. You can visit his web site at www.carrionhouse.com.
“Disinhibited” is © 2019 Myna Chang
Art accompanying story is © 2019 Luke Spooner