The Magic Gumball Machine, Pt XIX
By Wil Forbis
Reginald Washington squeezed the trigger of his automatic rifle and watched as his target - a middle-aged woman in an oil drenched red dress - was torn apart by the barrage of bullets. Washington smiled, saw something out of the corner of his eye, turned in that direction and fired. This time it was teenage boy wearing coveralls ripped apart by the onslaught. As the bullets pierced flesh, chunks of blackened mucous shot forward spattering against the ground.
"Commander Washington!" crackled a voice through the earpiece built into Reginald's helmet. It was Private Tenneson, one of the team of soldiers Washington was leading to clean out the now mutant-infested town of Honey Bluff. The static-laden voice was followed immediately by a rifle shot several yards behind Washington. He heard a sour scream directly behind him and felt a pulpy liquid spatter on his flak jacket. He whirled around just to see the middle aged man that had been coming up behind him fall to the ground, his head resembling a burst watermelon.
Tenneson, a 24 year old freckled redhead from the south jogged up to Washington. "Don't know if he was a mutie, sir. But he was coming up at you."
"You know the orders, Tenneson," Washington replied. "Mutant or not, we've got to clear this place out. Good shooting soldier."
Tenneson eyes twinkled bashfully. He was proud to receive a compliment from his commanding officer. Like most of the men in the squadrons under the leadership of General Blake, he had an infinite respect for Commander Reginald Washington. Everyone knew Washington had been the only survivor of the military's first brush with the mutant menace that had been invading various small towns in America. Reginald was one of the few who's been infected with the hideous disease and somehow survived. Was it pure force of will, of military gung ho attitude? Would I, Tenneson wondered, be able to reject the alien disease that invaded people's bodies and turned them into half mad homicidal zombies. He hoped he'd never have to find out.
The mission was clear. The small town of Honey Bluff, barely a blip on the state map, had been hit with an infestation to a greater degree of any area yet. In previous exercises it was simply a matter of clearing out a couple farmhouses or a gas station whose inhabitants had been transformed. But for the first time, the whole damned town had been turned. Tenneson and the grunts had no idea what was causing the disease but they took strength from the fact that Washington and the others who worked directly with General Blake seemed to have a handle on it.
With no clear assailants, gunfire ebbed and the ten members of Washington's squad gathered around to survey their surroundings. They'd helicoptered to just outside of town less than thirty minutes previous. Under Washington's command the team had moved into the town and blasted at least thirty of the mutant subspecies into oblivion with no losses to their own. Now they stood near the vacant police station on Mackinaw Avenue surrounded by a wreckage of abandoned cars that had been caught in the crossfire and the scattered body parts of mutants that had crossed their path. The barest trace of the setting sun still illuminated part of the sky but most of the men pulled down their night vision goggles to better track the mutant hoards. The streetlights were dead, victim of a power outage that had felled the town days before.
Washington looked over his team. They were god men - he felt the barest hint of guilt over the fact they couldn't be told the truth of what they were doing. There were times Washington doubted the veracity of General Blake's schemes, feeling they approached a certain form of madness. And there was the nagging effect of Washington's youth spent in Baptist Church that led him to suspect no man should play God with this life force they had uncovered. What he'd seen during his time undercover in the town of Honey Bluff implied that whatever they were dealing with had its own goals, and would not quietly consent to being merely a weapon for the United States military.
Still, Washington had also never expected to rise to the degree of power and strength he now had in the white man's army. This had been exclusively due to the trust granted him by the wild-eyed General Blake. If Blake's plan worked, crowning their nation with the status of an unconquerable omni-power, Blake would rise high into the towers of government. And Washington would not be fall behind.
After this brief pause, the squad again began their march forward. There was no need to talk of the plan; each man had been well versed before hand. Five squadrons of ten men each were flown to various points on the outskirts of town. Each team would work their way inwards, clearing away whatever manifestation of mutated humanity they came across.
Suddenly, another gunshot rang throughout the air but the men instantly knew if had not been fired by the squad. "Tom?", Washington wondered, synapses firing to see if he recognized the sound as belonging to the type of 45 handgun he'd passed on to the ice cream owner in a moment of weakness. No, this was heavier, like a shotgun. The team turned in the direction of the sound. It was just off the road, from behind a a beaten down grey Ford pickup. Through their night vision goggles the men could make out the moving shape of a man wearing a cowboy hay and holding a rifle. The men dropped to the ground and raised their rifles.
"You cocksuckers!" called out Farmer Dan Whitman. "Who the hell do you think you are to-"
Each member of the squadron squeezed the trigger on his rifle, firing off a series of short, controlled bursts. The windows of the Ford shattered, the tires blew out under the onslaught. The old worn plastic covered seats burst open spilling their contents into the interior of the vehicle. And Dan Whitman felt only the first of the bullets wrack his body before a hot sensation passed up through his spine and he submitted to the lure of sleep for the last time in his life.
"Geeze," said Private Gubner. "Who the fuck was that old coot?"
Washington didn't answer. He stood up only to get a jolt again hearing the frightened call of one of his men.
"Commander Washington," called out Private South. "They get Tenneson."
Washington turned to see South kneeled over the horizontal, jerking body of Tenneson. He rushed over to see Tenneson had caught the majority of the shotgun blast in his neck. The young Private was making a quick, wheezing sound and a miniature geyser of blood was erupting out of his mouth each time he exhaled. Washington kneeled down and Tenneson grabbed his arm. He started to speak. "R-Reggie." he stammered. "I-I'm sor. sorry." Then the geysers stopped and Tenneson's head fell limp.
"Jesus," muttered Private Stevenson. "That old bastard."
Washington stepped back and looked at his team. "I told you people, we're not fucking around here! Every one of your lives is in the hands of the men around you. We've got to do better than this!"
The men moved Tenneson's body to the side of the road and continued forward. Whereas there had been a feeling of ready confidence before, now the squad could feel their palms dampen as they gripped their rifles. The reality of the situation sunk in. They continued the march down Mackinaw.
Private Gubner caught site of a moving shape hiding behind a post office box. He fired off several rounds and the hissing moaning creature fell to the ground, a pool of black ooze forming a puddle near its body.
"Got one," Gubner said in an exited whisper. "Got one of these-"
He was cut short by a flying, repitilian figure that sailed down from a tree and slammed him in the chest, knocking him to the ground. Washington, hearing Gubner's voice cut out, turned and recognized the assailant. It was the same sort of the thing Stan Hughes had turned into, the most dangerous iteration of the mutant evolution. Washington knew not to fuck with it. "Take it out!" he yelled. "Cut it down!"
The creature was atop the prone form of Gubner, and was hit from several sides as the squad emptied their magazines. It literally exploded onto the frightened Private, covering him in the black ooze, drenching his mouth and ears.
Damn," Washington muttered, knowing Gubner was now doomed to the infection. He retrieved his 45 handgun and walked over to the fallen comrade. "I'm sorry man," he said. Then he fired the gun point blank into Gubner's skull.
The other men watched in awe. They'd been warned that were they to be in any risk of infection they would be eliminated on the spot. But they were shocked at the efficiency with which Washington had carried out the command.
Private South looked up. "Commander Washington," he said, motioning skyward. "More of them!"
The entire teamed looked in the direction South was pointing. A flock of at least twenty of the creatures were heading right towards them, no more than forty feet away.
"Shit!" Washington exclaimed. This was supposed to be a cakewalk. But the things kept evolving at different rates.
Then men raised their guns and fired. Their ears blanched at the high-pitched squeals the things made when they were felled by the bullets. But there were too many of them. Two of the creatures swooped down and grabbed Private South by his arms and legs. Taking him skyward the squad watched in horror as the creatures literally ripped him apart, each beast flying off with a different part of the man's torso. Another reptilian demon slammed into Private Byron, teeth chomping into his neck, nearly removing his head from his shoulders.
"Move forward!" Washington shouted. "We've got to get cover!" The men ran, keeping their heads looking at the sky, firing at any of the creatures that became visible in their night goggles. And then Reginald's earpiece crackled to life with shouted reports from the other squads. They had all come under simultaneous attack. These things - whatever they were - were cunning. The attack was timed perfectly, as if they had a master Napoleon somewhere moving the pieces on the chessboard.
Suddenly Reginald caught site of a shadow coming across his vision. He fired, trying to the track the beast in his field of fire, but acutely aware that his reflexes couldn't quite keep up with his attacker. He felt a blow to his chest and heard the whoosh of air and his lungs emptied and he was carried aloft. His rifle clattered against the earth. One of the creatures had him from above, grabbing him by wrapping a pair of green skinned arms about his chest. "Shoot me!" screamed into his helmet microphone. "Shoot me!"
He was unsure the men heard him. Bullets seemed to race through the airspace he was accelerating in but it was impossible to tell whether the Privates were aiming at his captor or just firing in random desperation. The winged creature had him a good fifty feet in the air and was traveling over the general route of Mackinaw Avenue. Then it turned and Washington could just catch site of Main Street below him. The thing started to fly in low, dropping ten, twenty, thirty feet. And suddenly, Reginald was free. He tumbled through the air, dropping like a lead weight and hitting the ground with an impact that definitely cracked ribs.
Reginald lay on cement for a few minutes in a confused consciousness. His vision was blurry but by the absence of sound he could tell nothing was around him. The communication system in the helmet had not survived the fall. As clarity returned to his brain he began to mentally review what had happened. The mutant had grabbed him, picking him out of the crowd, but not killing him. Then it had flown, like a homing pigeon, to this spot and dropped him down. But where was he?
Reginald sat up on the dark cement, his vision started to clear. He looked to his left, and saw a series of shops with broken widows and destroyed product. Then he turned to his left. There was Tom Humphries 'Good Ship Lollipop.' Its windows were shattered and its bowels clearly in disarray. And Reginald knew it was not chance that he had ended up here.
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