The ‘Cane Train

From my short story collection, Empty Quiver, based on my Crimson Son superhero universe. A word of warning – my comicbook characters provide little escapism. They are dark products of war and conflict, meant to offer a sobering look at ourselves and not a glimpse into a bright-eyed world of heroism. Reader discretion is advised…

And now, The ‘Cane Train…

1968. Long Range Recon Patrol Alpha based out of Pleiku. Deep in-country, east of the North Vietnam, Cambodian border.

“Okay, don’t move. Stay calm.”

Private Ingalls looked down. Nothing to see but his boot and a mat of trampled grass. Was it grass? No, grass could be cut with a push reel mower. This waist high brush was a job for a tractor or maybe a chainsaw.

“No problem with the first one, sir,” Ingalls replied. He licked his dry lips and wondered where all the moisture in the oppressive jungle air had gone. “But I’m way past the second part of that.”

“You’ll be fine.” The lieutenant’s voice was calm, insistent.

Ingalls had always felt uncertain at basic training and a month in Vietnam hadn’t changed that. His Drill Sargent back home had yelled at him like he’d signed up for this. Demanding to know why he wasn’t better at being a soldier. Always asking how he stayed so fat on military rations. Eventually he stopped listening but that voice never quite left his head.

The leader of Long Range Recon Alpha, a lieutenant everyone called Hound, wasn’t like that. You wanted to do exactly what he said. Right when he said it.

So when Hound had barked “Ingalls, stop!” he’d done precisely that.

Ingalls watched the rest of the patrol back away through the grass, getting their distance. Reggie, their point man, was the last one to go by. He gave a final nod … like a nice knowing ya, and faded away.

“You sure there’s something there, sir? I mean, I don’t see nothin’,” Ingalls called out. “Didn’t hear a click.”

Behind him, Hound gave more orders, directing the platoon through the clearing like they were blind sheep. Between commands, he heard him inhale through his nostrils. “Yeah, there’s something there alright. If you’d heard a click, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.”

He looked again. That damn thick bladed grass. A little dirt visible. A shitty black boot that always felt too tight. Nothing else. He really wanted Hound to be wrong.

But he wasn’t. Ever.

Hound was an Augment, part of a top secret super soldier program from WWII, but there was no keeping the lid on that program. Especially once those soldiers headed into battle. There were guys who could deflect bullets, bend tank cannons with their bare hands, or even walk away from a bomber downed from its perch thousands of feet in the air. Hell, there were rumors of guys who could fly formation with bombers—sans wings, engines and airframe.

Most of the Augments went freelance after that war. People thought governments shouldn’t have control of weapons like that. But Hound stayed on, flew under the radar with a more limited power set. He could smell stuff, and it was rumored he could hear dog whistles.

There’d been plenty of jokes on base. A few of the seasoned vets prided themselves on convincing new recruits that Hound would sniff their asses as part of inspection. That was one of the tamer ones. Out here, though, you came to appreciate what he could do.

Unless you were the one standing on the mine.

“How long do I have to stand here, sir?”

“Hang on. Let me think.”

Ingalls strained to hear the conversation behind him. The wind had picked up, thrashing the giant grass. He tensed and wondered if that was enough to set the mine off. He tried to remember all the different kinds they’d taught him about in basic. Antipersonnel. Antitank. Bouncing Bettys and claymores. Charlie’d even improvise and trigger antitanks with antipersonnel mines to blow up as many Yankees as they could. None of this training was helping him stay calm. Sweat streamed down his face, but his mouth stayed dry and swollen.

“Relax. It’ll be fine, son.” Hound again. The guy not standing on a DH 5. Or 10. Or whatever they were called.

Fuck that drill sergeant in Basic. He could hear him yelling now: Ingalls! Get your head out of your ass! You looking to have a Betty put it up there for you?

Fuck him. Got to relax. Like Hound says.

While the wind drowned out the anxious chatter, the radio call wasn’t completely masked. You couldn’t whisper into the handsets and hope to be heard. Everyone had tried it out here, where death waited up every tree and under every open field, but it was no use.

Calm, in control, Hound rattled off the grid coordinate of their location. Great, mark the map so nobody else dies. Was that a call for medivac on standby?

They don’t make these mines to kill you, dumbfuck! They want to cut you off at the waist so we spend precious resources getting your bloody stump home!

God, that’s right. There wasn’t any way out of this.

More jabbering on the radio and he could only make out every other word. The patrol must’ve all moved back beyond the tree line. He was their scarecrow, like he’d helped his mom make for their little suburban vegetable garden back home. Only here the crows weren’t the ones afraid.

He heard Hound’s commanding voice fire a few curses. Then he could’ve sworn he heard him mention R&R. Okinawa. Was that iron spined bastard planning his vacation?

Chatter fell silent. Ingalls heard Hound creep closer, inhaling and exhaling in short bursts while he moved.

“I’m dead, aren’t I.”

“Excuse me, private?”

“I’m dead, sir.”

“Son, if I talked to dead soldiers, I’d never have a minute of peace.” Hound came into view. He was low to the ground, nose twitching and his eyes roving the grass. “Truth be told, I’m surprised you’re here,” he muttered.

“What does that mean?”

Hound probed the ground with a stick, coming closer to Ingalls’ boots. His face scrunched and he held the stick up and sniffed the tip. He growled and shook his head.

“What?” First his chest, then his arms tensed as the word exploded from his lips and he only just stopped the tremor that ran down to his leg. Hound stood and gently touched his shoulder.

“Calm, remember?” The lieutenant took several measured breaths, and Ingalls tried to match his cadence. “Now, there ain’t any reason this mine hasn’t already exploded. A goddamn miracle.” Hound’s grip tightened and he locked on with his steely eyes set under tangled brows. “Could be a dud.”

Ingalls’ heart raced at the thought. Hound’s hand stayed firm.

“But don’t. Fucking. Move.”

He fought the urge to nod.

“A dud? Sir?”

“Maybe. All I’m sure of is that you’re standing on a mine that ain’t gone off yet. Best way to keep that from happening is to keep the situation static. Eyes forward, Private. Locked formation. You’re green but you’ve done this on the parade ground plenty of times.”

Yeah, plenty of times. That was another regular torture at Basic. He still had a scar from faceplanting on the asphalt on a sweltering summer day.

You can’t even stand right, soldier! How do you expect to make it out of a warzone without being on your back?

“I can’t do it, sir.”

“‘Course you can.”

“I really can’t, sir.” Tears mingled with his sweat. He hoped the lieutenant couldn’t tell the difference.

You miss your mommy? You want a blankie? Sorry fatass, Airborne can’t spare a parachute and your mommy said she don’t want to see you until you become a soldier.

He did miss his mom. He missed building that stupid scarecrow that fought away the demons. Twenty years old, and he wasn’t anything but an overgrown kid.

“Son, I’ll be standing right here until help arrives.” Hound sighed and checked his watch. “No more yappin’. Keep quiet so I can hear. War going on around here and all.”

The breeze picked up again. He thought he heard the thwump of a helicopter in the distance but it was lost in the rush and cry of the surrounding jungle. The sun beat down from a cloudless sky. It was hot, humid, exactly like that day on the parade ground when he’d eaten the pavement. His legs felt numb and heavy.

He wanted to wiggle his toes, a trick his bunkmate had taught him to keep the circulation going, but he didn’t dare. In his mind, he started to build that scarecrow. An old shirt stuffed with straw, topped by a pillowcase on which he’d drawn a face. The eyebrows took on a thick, scruffy look as he dug into the memory.

Want to know your new name Private Ingalls? P.F.C Liable. Do you know why? ‘Cause you’re fucking liable to get everyone around you killed.

Ingalls realized he didn’t know much about Hound. He didn’t even know his real name. A man standing there close enough to share whatever fate had in store. After being shuffled around from unit to unit, Ingalls’d finally ended up on a Long Range Recon patrol, all because he’d made the mistake of mentioning he’d done some hunting back on his grandparent’s land. Once he’d said it, Hound just walked up, glared at him from under his intense brow and said, “You.”

“I can’t hunt real good, sir.” Given the situation, Ingalls felt an urge to tell Hound the truth.

“Goddammit, what now?” Hound looked him up and down before returning to scan the horizon.

“I said I hunted out on my grandpa’s land. I wasn’t any good at it. I shouldn’t be out here.”

“That ain’t why you’re here.”

“Then why?”

Hound checked over his shoulder, back toward the rest of the platoon. “I’ll tell you later.”

Later. Was there even going to be a later? He was going to die here or be mutilated. He’d rather it be the first one. He risked a look at Hound again. Stoic. Ice in his veins. That was a real soldier.

Ingalls swallowed. “Head back to the group, sir. I’ll step off—”

Hound stared at him, his gaze piercing. “You givin’ orders now, Private?”

“No, sir, I just—”

“You what? Want to be a hero? There ain’t no heroes. Only dead soldiers and live soldiers. I keep my soldiers alive, understood?”

“Yes, sir.”

Wind shifted again. The grass bent flat to the earth. A deep percussive rumble filled the clearing.

Hound leaned into him. “Steady, son.”

Ingalls checked the sky, looking for jets but it remained empty. Frantic, he scanned the edge of the clearing. A tank? Chances were it was theirs, but who knew? As quick as it came, the sound was gone and the grass sprang up. A voice called out behind them.

“What kinda mess you got yourself in now?” The voice sounded happy. Relaxed. Like they were shooting the shit at basecamp. He wanted to see who the hell this guy was, but he couldn’t turn.

“‘Cane!” replied Hound. “‘Bout time you got your scrawny ass over here.”

“Yes, sir!” Whoever it was moved in closer and Hound’s hand left his shoulder. “You know those damn maps. Coordinates ain’t always on target. Had to make a few passes to find you.”

“Are you from the plane I heard? Did you drop in from Airborne?” Ingalls asked, staying eyes forward.

“Hell no. Ain’t no flights outta Japan to this LZ.”

Behind him, he heard a light smack. A pat on the back, maybe a handshake, and Hound muttered, “All yours.” Then help stepped into view.

He was skinny; the lieutenant was right about that and it was damn easy to see. His face looked drawn, skin pulled tight across his bones. He was wearing an open Hawaiian shirt, holes where the buttons should’ve been, and below that, a pair of black speedos. He was looking Ingalls up and down, his tongue peeking out between his lips. Behind his eyes was a crazy sort of look.

“Whatcha weigh?” he asked.

“Umm. I …”

“Don’t be shy, ain’t nobody judging here.” He wagged a finger. “I’d bet two and a dime.”

Ingalls nodded and ‘Cane’s face lit up. “Pretty close. Two-oh-five without all the gear … sir?”

“Naw, none of that.” He leaned in and brought a hand up to hide his lips. Ingalls smelled the ocean and a distinct aroma of Vicks VapoRub. “I ain’t technically here, if you get my drift.”

He didn’t.

The man knelt to check the ground. “Yep, Hound’s right. A damn miracle. You’re one lucky S.O.B. Triggering mechanism musta jammed.” He stood and spit a foamy white blob into his hands and rubbed them together. “So, on the count of three, we’re gonna do this.”

“Do what?”

“One …” The man leaned forward, splaying his arms out to the side and rubbing his fingers together in anticipation. The crazy on his face went to full blown mental patient, and Ingalls swallowed.

“The lieutenant said it might be a dud …”

“Two …”

“What exac—”

All the air left his lungs. The world changed. A moment that stretched and warped. A blur and the colors around him bled together and reversed.

Then he was standing at the edge of the clearing. That crazy face still right in front of him. The man held the same position. Waiting, anticipating this time, not spring-loaded for action. Ingalls felt the ground spin beneath him and the hands grabbed his upper arms, holding him steady.

In the clearing, a ball of fire plumed into the air. Heat and sound washed over them. The thick canopies surrounding the field came alive and unseen flocks took to the sky, their white bodies stark outside the shadows where they’d hidden. Ingalls could only stare. The man released his arms.

“Three.”

He stayed watching the clearing as the man stepped around him. A procession of hands clasped his shoulders and smacked his helmet, but he didn’t turn. A silent cheer from his platoon. He was vaguely aware of voices.

“Woohoo! That was a doozy. Musta been a goddamn bomb they rigged along with that AP. Y’all get on out of here. I’ll run interference.”

“Thanks, ‘Cane. I owe ya one.”

“One? That all? Psssh. Stop by Okinawa and buy me a beer sometime.”

“You got it.”

Another thump resonated through his chest and the wind rushed past, fanning the grass at the edge of the clearing. Hound issued hushed commands. His ears ringing, Ingalls heard them as a faraway buzz. A hand tapped his shoulder.

“Gotta move, Private.”

He mumbled agreement and took in the crater where he’d been standing one last time. The empty space belched a line of black smoke into the air. Everything else seemed clear and vibrant. He saw movement at the far side; Charlie coming to check out the commotion. He traced the trails in the grass where they’d first entered, saw where he’d wandered outside the footsteps of the man who’d gone ahead of him. He’d fucked up and been given a second chance.

“You said you’d tell me why, sir. Why you picked me.”

Hound didn’t turn around as they fell in with the patrol. “Son, you’ve been on the verge of doing something stupid ever since the first time I laid eyes on you. You needed to wake the fuck up. You’ll be okay now.”

Ingalls believed him.

***

1974. Transcript of an interview with Toshiko Aratani, survivor of the Augment Assault on Hiroshima, August 6, 1945. His account varies from official documents, which record only two members of Augment Force Zero taking part in the operation: Hurricane and Fat Boy. Both had been transported by the Augment B-52, who returned to Nagasaki days later with Tomahawk and Minuteman. Several times, the survivor is interrupted by an unknown interviewer, their voice muffled and difficult to hear.

Of every day in my life, this one is the clearest. Age doesn’t cloud it. They fell from the sky like ghosts on black wings.

I used to sleep with the doors open to the hallway and the courtyard beyond. The drone of the cicadas would put me to sleep. They were my friends—I never hunted them like the other boys. I let them have the courtyard as their sanctuary, and they gifted me with sleep.

None of the boys had time to hunt cicadas that year. We spent most of the day at school. The rest, we tore down houses. They said it would help stop the fires if bombs ever came to us. The cicadas called long and deep into those nights.

That night, I lay awake, hoping for the gift the cicadas used to bring, but it never came. They sounded urgent. There were so many more of them. Maybe they were lonely and uncomfortable, waiting to shed their robes until the boys could chase them again.

Our city dark to hide from planes and bombs, I thought I saw three stars floating to the ground. I crept out to the hall and watched them in the sky. Falling like leaves, I saw their black wings spread above them.

I ran to the courtyard to watch. It was late. My grandfather was asleep and I was supposed to be as well, but the cicadas wouldn’t let me. They wanted me to see this.

I climbed onto the top of the wall; there was a maple I could shimmy up which bent toward the ledge. There I sat, wondering why the three ghosts were here. When the ghosts disappeared behind the rooftops in the center of town, the cicadas fell silent. Orange light flared among the buildings.

Interviewer interrupts.

I understand. But when I say these were ghosts or spirits or demons, or that they spoke words men cannot comprehend, that is what I mean. That is what they were then, in that moment. That is what they are to me, even now.

I can’t say why, but I dropped to the path outside our home. Grandfather would be furious if he knew I’d left. His ghost is angry to this very day about how disobedient I was. My father had bade him look after me before he’d left to be a pilot in the war two years before. He never came home. My mother had recently killed herself. I was Grandfather’s responsibility. It was wrong of me to be so selfish.

Halfway to the city square, the orange light filled the night sky. You could no longer see the stars. I felt a heat on my skin, so intense, like sitting near the fire in winter. Hotter than the summer could ever be.

I ran toward the heat. All the work we had done. The soldiers had said it would keep the fire away, but here, there was fire, and I’d heard no bombs. No planes.

Flames whipped along the buildings, pulsing in an odd breeze. The orange glow worked down the streets quickly, almost faster than I could run. Shouts and screams came from all around, and I heard the wasted cry of a warning siren.

An explosion ripped the air, followed by laughter, and the light from the burning buildings paused where the narrow streets opened into the market. Fire spiraled skyward in a giant column and then struck down. Another shrill laugh pierced the roar of flames.

I don’t know why I didn’t run. People were fleeing on all sides. Those who ran by me were blackened. Many could only shuffle, their faces melted in terror, their clothes burnt from their bodies. I pressed into the heat and ran to the corner of a building. The cicadas hadn’t let me sleep. They wanted me to see this.

In the market stood two of the ghosts. The one at the center was large, like an elephant. He moved his shoulders and his head moved with them. Each step he took was cautious and deliberate. Sweat poured from his body and stained his skintight white suit. His eyes burned hotter than the fire.

Beside him the other ghost fed the inferno with his very hands. Flames streamed from his fingers at a fine, white point and blossomed into an orange head big enough to swallow buildings. His face shone in the intense heat, featureless except white teeth and jubilant eyes. He was the source of both the fire and the laughter.

Interviewer inquires about the third ghost.

I did not see the third. Yet.

A tank, one I knew to be a Chi Nu, defender of our homeland, sat blistered and smoking on the street across from them. This would be where the column of flame had lashed out. Why they had slowed. Soldiers had tried to fight back. But you don’t fight ghosts with tanks.

They stood across from the tank and spoke. I could not understand what they said. The smaller one spread his arms and fired flame from both palms high into the air. He laughed the laugh of demons and shouted a challenge to the city.

More tanks rumbled and creaked in the distance. The wind died, and the large one peered down the street where the tanks could be heard coming from.

He lifted a foot, high to his chest, and brought it to the ground like a sumo warding off spirits. But instead of driving them away, he’d called to the dead in the earth and they answered.

I watched the street split apart. It swallowed the smoking husk of the tank, and the fissure raced into the darkness. Buildings along the street crumbled. The faraway tanks fell silent. This ghost had no need of an iron club. He was the club.

The fire ghost cackled and shouted. He blasted a storefront only one building from where I crouched and the facade burst into flames. Glass dripped from the empty window. A figure ran from the doorway, a woman. I saw her hair shrivel under a cloak of flame. A joyous look overcame the fire ghost and he waved a hand. The fire became blinding white and when I could see again, she was gone. I never heard a scream.

He laughed and walked toward the building, pointing excitedly. The earth ghost at the center shook his head and kept his eyes on the streets.

Interviewer poses a question.

Many times I think back and try to understand how his intense gaze never saw me.

From out of the wind, the third ghost appeared. He was thin and covered in soot. Hands on his knees, he stood bent, taking in labored breaths. The earth ghost glared at him, impatient.

The fire ghost kept waving excitedly at the place where the woman had been. At first, I couldn’t see why he was pointing. He danced up and down then froze and placed his hands in the air, a mocking look of fear on his face. He doubled over again in laughter. When he did, I saw the blackened shadow on the wall behind him. She had not completely disappeared.

For the first time, I wanted to run. Fear kept me rooted. Fear and what happened next.

The wind ghost stood upright. He vanished and then was next to the fire ghost in the same instant, his fist connecting with the grinning face. The fire ghost fell to the ground. Blood and one of his white teeth dropped to the blackened street. When he looked up, the laughter was gone. Flames from the storefront shot high into the night. He rose and the wind ghost crouched.

Then the earth shook.

The earth ghost was looking their way, tapping his foot on the ground in a measured beat. Beneath us, the earth rose and fell like the waves on the ocean. The others struggled to remain standing and I fell to my knees against the corner of the building.

The earth ghost shouted and the anger in his eyes filled his voice. He pointed to the fire ghost who spit more blood and stalked away, lighting buildings with a flick of his wrist as he went.

The earth ghost then stomped toward the wind ghost, never letting the ground beneath him rest. The wind ghost did his best to stand straight and tall.

Stabbing with his meaty finger, earth ghost shouted above the roaring flames and the cackling in the square. Spit flew into the wind ghost’s face and he didn’t flinch. When the reprimand was finished, the wind ghost saluted. Saluted and was gone.

Interviewer interrupts.

I could no longer see him, but the pulsing wind was back and the flames in the square rose higher and higher, devouring buildings in a hellish vortex. The front of the building where I hid burst into flames. Bricks cracked and I stumbled away. A sheet of flame cut me off from my escape and I fell. The fire was so hot the air became a weight, pressing down against my chest. Stones in the street popped and melted. I thought I heard the cicadas cry, but the roar of the fire was deafening.

Then the scorching wind stopped. Beside me, the wind ghost bent, coughing and sputtering again. He was blackened, head to toe. Fire on this side of the wall of flame had chased away all shadows. I lay there, in plain sight, unable to move.

He saw me.

It was as though he was the one who’d seen a ghost. And maybe that is what I was. My skin was reddened and flecked with ash. My clothes had swept away on the burning wind. I could smell my hair wilting in the intense heat. Everything was heat and flame and I knew I was going to die.

Then I was beneath a maple.

Not the tree at home in the garden. That one was kept trim and narrow. This one arced above and blotted out the sky.

Interviewer inquires about the location. Details.

I was on a hill. The wind was cold on my skin. Cicadas called in their steady song.

The wind ghost was there. Across the bay, the orange light of the burning city reflected off the ocean. From here, the smell wasn’t of death. A fire on a hearth, that was all.

He waited, watching me and looking over his shoulder. Our eyes met and he nodded. I asked him to go and get my grandfather, and he tilted his head and gave me the most sorrowful smile. I still see it, sometimes.

Through the night, the fires spread. Gunshots and artillery roared defiantly but were quickly silenced. I watched the fire grow and could see the outlines where it expanded around the firebreaks my friends and I had built. Homes demolished to be spared the burning.

More people showed up, as suddenly as I had. Two, then three. I caught fleeting glimpses of the wind ghost as he dropped them off and tore back down the hill, bending the maple in his wake. By morning there were fifteen of us on the hill. On the coast, nothing but a black and empty shell.

***

1982. Pentagon. Joint Special Operations Command Task Force.

Brigadier General Garren Rousch reclined in his desk chair. A local station belted out big band classics from the radio on the shelf behind him. Count Basie was enough before Rousch’s time that the guys he served with in ‘Nam had given him plenty of grief for his taste in music. The songs of that war screeched out of an uncomfortable, electric atmosphere that he’d never understood. But he’d always appreciated the simple innocence of the music of a bygone era. An era he was about to reconnect with, any second now.

A gale of air blasted his office. Behind a screen of falling papers that had once been neatly stacked on his desk, he saw him. Rousch cricked his neck and let the papers settle before turning off the radio.

There stood the legend himself, Hurricane. Average height. Thin. His skin had an almost glossy look; it clung to his face like plastic wrap, tight across his cheek bones and brow but crinkled in his jowls. His face seemed frozen in a permanent smile.

According to his service records, he’d be sixty years old in two months, so a few wrinkles weren’t odd. What was odd was where the wrinkles were. He looked like an obese man that had lost a lot of weight, fast, but the same records showed he’d consistently checked in at one hundred and forty seven pounds from his first day in the service at age nineteen.

Then there was the kilt. A kilt and a tattered shirt. Rousch didn’t care how much of a legend the man was, that wouldn’t do. He ignored Hurricane’s extended hand.

“You’re out of uniform, soldier,” Rousch said, as he began sorting and stacking the papers that had fallen within reach.

Hurricane gritted his teeth. “Sorry, sir. Been a while since I had this kind of meeting.” He saluted and disappeared. The windowed office door slammed behind him as the air sucked out of the room. Frosted glass showered the floor. Rousch dove atop his paperwork like he was falling on a grenade.

“Motherf…”

Before the last piece of Brigadier General Rousch’s stenciled name hit the floor, the door swung open.

“Reporting for duty, sir!”

Hurricane stood in the doorway at full attention. His dress uniform pressed, his insignia, nameplate, service ribbons and badges all in place. He raised an arm in salute and his shoe crunched the glass under his feet. Chagrin crossed his eyes and Rousch watched him fight off the urge to look down.

“You don’t want to look. But if you did, you’d see your fly’s down, soldier.”

The uncomfortable look returned, but to his credit, Hurricane didn’t flinch. Rousch decided he’d let him sweat it out. He gathered his papers from the floor and returned to his chair.

Once back at his desk he straightened his blazer, tugging at the sleeves to place them within one inch of his wrists as regulations required. He smoothed the lapel and sat up straight. He then set about reorganizing the papers and placing Hurricane’s personnel folder back atop the stack. Only when that was done did he stare down one of the most dangerous weapons ever created.

He looked like any other soldier. His salute was picture perfect. Maintained eye contact. Despite his entrance, there was genuine respect there. Rousch needed to know exactly how much.

Rousch had been given the questionable honor of providing his input on which direction to take the Augment program. Personally, he credited men like Hurricane with ending that last great war. As far as he was concerned, he was looking at a bona fide hero.

That was a time when reducing cities to ash meant victory. Not anymore. Rousch hadn’t been too bothered by Cuba like the rest of the world. Those Communists had gotten what was coming to them, trying to set up strike teams in spitting distance of the Everglades.

No, the problem was everything that came after the outrage surrounding Cuba: skulking in shadows and the covert wars nobody won. For many of these Augments, all the subterfuge had eroded their discipline—or so the program review claimed. Weapons were meant to be used on the battlefield, not wielded in back alleys. Rousch needed to assess the damage. He owed this hero a chance.

“At ease.” He pointed to a chair across from him.

“Sorry, sir, had to change in the hallway there. Uniform wouldn’t have made the trip.” Hurricane turned away while he carefully zipped his pants. “Ever had a polyblend melt to your thighs? I don’t recommend it.” He cringed as glass crackled under his feet again. His eyes dropped to the floor. “I could—”

“Have a seat.”

“Yes, sir.”

Rousch tapped a finger on his desk. He opened the top folder to a newspaper clipping, “Hurricane Battles Namesake”, dated only two days ago. A major atmospheric event had occurred in the South China Sea. Worldwide weather bureaus had been watching the situation for days. So had a high altitude surveillance plane. Rousch held up the clipping.

Hurricane squinted.

“You realize that hurricane would have hit Zhanjiang Harbor?”

“Oh yeah. Lots of people there.”

“And a naval base.”

Hurricane popped his neck. He propped his elbows on the arms of the chair and scooted closer, squinting one eye and glancing over his shoulder at the jagged hole in the door. “We at war with China, sir?”

“No,” said Rousch. “But we could be one day.” He set the clipping down and tapped his finger on the desk.

“Phew!” Hurricane slouched into the chair. “Can’t say I fancy any more wars in or around Asia, sir. Think I’ve had my fill.”

There was no sense in drawing this out. Rousch had a dozen other reports all from the last week, Hurricane’s name prominent in each. “The United States government needs you to reel in your freelance activities.”

Hurricane pursed his lips, and his eye, still squinted, twitched. “Not sure I understand, sir. Ain’t that what I’m supposed to be doin’?”

Rousch started to feel like he was giving orders to the wind. “These activities aren’t in the strategic interests of the United States. Take China. They don’t have Augments. There’s no reason to deploy you there for their benefit.”

“Well, if we ain’t at war, can’t I keep people alive so we can kill ’em later, sir?”

“We need to let nature take its course, and right now, God has blessed the United States military—”

“HOORAH!”

“…has blessed us with the best fighting force on the planet. We tried to comfort the hippies by telling them the Augment program was done. I need you to keep out of the limelight while they believe that. The only freelancing you need to be doing should come straight from Langley.”

Exuberance faded from the stretched face and his brow knitted without managing to form any wrinkles. “I can’t say I like them spooks much, sir. If I can say that.”

“You did and duly noted.” Rousch sighed. “Hell, I don’t like them either. But that’s what needs to be done. Your cover is freelancing. But they call the shots. All of them. Speaking of which, they’ll be in touch soon. Their normal methods.”

“Yes, sir.” Hurricane gave a sharp nod. He held perched on the edge of his chair and chewed his lip. That one eye seemed permanently squinted now. There was a macabre look in the grin plastered on his face. The more Rousch looked, the more he felt something wasn’t quite right.

Here sat a living weapon. A man who’d gone in with a small strike force and leveled an entire city in minutes. A retiree who had figured out how to reverse the winds of a hurricane. To utterly spoil God’s will. A shiver ran up his spine.

Rousch checked his fear.

No, this man was a hero. Not a broken arrow, but a soldier. He’d gotten a bit eccentric in his old age, maybe, but he would be perfectly willing to follow orders from a military man and not the shadow-loving spooks. Rousch leaned forward. “I need you to do this. For God, your country, and yourself.”

Hurricane stood and saluted, slow and deliberately. His odd face scrunched in determination. “Yes, sir!”

“Dismissed.”

Then he was gone. The door stayed open this time. Fragments of the glass pane had been swept neatly into a pile. Rousch breathed a sigh and picked up the phone to call base maintenance to see about a new office door.

He settled back into his work, thankful to clear his desk and move on to more mundane matters. He flicked on the radio and tried to let the blaring trumpet notes and snappy beats focus his mind. Fifteen minutes later, a newscaster interrupted a Glenn Miller classic.

“Mitch Jefferson reporting live from the 304 Causeway, where a man has been miraculously saved after a failed suicide attempt. Firefighters and local police had unsuccessfully tried to talk the man down. With daylight disappearing, they raised a ladder and the man jumped. Here’s witness Audra Coyle.”

“I saw the whole thing!” came a woman’s voice. “He was falling, straight toward the river. Then I felt a rush of wind and he was gone. It wasn’t quite dark yet, but I could see a glowing trail running straight down the support he’d jumped off !”

Rousch propped his elbows on his desk and rested his chin against folded hands. The reporter interrupted the woman.

“Glowing?”

“Yeah, like a stove burner. Straight down the beam there. I think he caught the guy about halfway.”

“Who?”

“Looked like he was in a military uniform of some kind but it was all torn up. He dropped the man off by the firetrucks and he was all hopping around, his pants smoking. While they were treating some burns, I heard him say, ‘Call me Tornado or you’re gonna get me in trouble’. But that was Hurricane, I’d bet on it!”

Brigadier General Rousch turned off the radio. He scribbled an entry into the folder that had been open on his desk minutes ago. He worked in silence late into the night.

***

1987. 305 Causeway.

Five years later and I don’t understand why I’m here. I come every year. They’ve got a barrier along the pedestrian walk now, not that it would stop a determined person. Someone wanting to die, not just seeking attention—they’ve got the drive to make it happen.

I reach out and place a hand on the bridge support. Five years. I’m thankful every day.

When the firetruck put the ladder up, I knew I didn’t want to face them. That I’d waited too long. I stepped off and suddenly realized I would hit the concrete foundation at the base of the support. All this time I’d had ideas of dying on the water. At this height, the river might as well be concrete, but with the wind rushing by and my life over, that detail mattered for that long moment.

Enough to make me want to stop the freefall. To try again. Not the jump, but everything else.

My failed marriage. My midlevel management job, lost to overseas restructuring. My daughter and her coke habit.

“That’s where he grabbed me.” I press against the chain link and point to a spot along the beam. I could count the rivets and know.

My daughter squeezes my arm when I lean forward. She’s too far back to actually see. “That’s amazing, Daddy.”

I’ve never brought her here before. Her mom and I never reconciled, but I like to think I helped turn my little girl’s life around once I got mine back in order. She made it through rehab. College. She’s got a good job. We both do. She’ll be getting married next week, and for reasons I can’t explain, I wanted to share this with her.

“He changed me and I never knew him,” I say.

“Do you think you’ll ever get to meet Hurricane? He’s always showing up somewhere or another.”

I scuff my shoe on the walkway and tear my eyes off the beam. That point where he redirected my life. He must’ve timed everything perfectly. Running fast enough to defy gravity and slowing down at the precise fraction of a second to pluck me from the air without breaking my neck.

“I hope so,” I say. “I know people fear these Augments, I get why. But I want to thank him one day.”

I pull her tight and turn to leave. Now that she’s seen this place that we never speak about, the space between us feels strange. I want to ask about the wedding and talk about her plans. Bother her about grandkids and listen to her go on and on about dresses and flowers and invitations. Her eyes get wide when she talks about the upcoming day and she looks exactly like she used to at Christmas.

But everything goes black.

She screams and the cry is distant and after that a sharp report breaks above the sound of cars and buses streaming by. A backfire? A gunshot? I’m falling. The only thing I think this time is that this is how people die.

***

1988. Outside Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

One dollar and twenty five cent gas was going to put him right out of business. The van drank gallons of the stuff, but he’d chosen to live out in the country for some peace and quiet. Ingalls paid the store owner, Frank, and headed back out to the pump.

His time overseas had gifted him with a newfound appreciation of the things that kept getting paved over. Sure, the brush in ‘Nam had hidden untold dangers, but it had also hidden him and his patrol. Nature itself was rarely the threat to worry about. People were what killed you.

He unhooked the nozzle and flipped the lever. The lettering on the side of his paneled van had faded over the years. “Ingalls Electric” had gone from a glossy yellow to the dull pastel shade of an Easter egg. Everything was legible, so it wasn’t a concern, but the faded American flag next to the phone number bugged him the most. He’d need to get that touched up. Maybe next week. The gallons and dollars ticked by on the pump.

Even the suburbs had gotten too crowded for his tastes. That surprised him when he’d come home from ‘Nam. When he first got out there, all he wanted to do was get back home. When he finally did, the tightly-packed houses with their little white fences might as well have been an alien planet. The broad streets offered no cover, same with the carpetlike grass, the very stuff he used to trim at his mom’s house. In the jungle, that shit grew wild until they decided it was a nuisance and burned it the fuck away from low altitude.

People burned too.

“Shit.”

He’d overfilled the tank. Gas belched out around the nozzle, splashing his hand. He released the handle and stooped. As he bent, a wave of pressure zipped across his scalp and a sharp crack sounded from the woods across the street. He fell flat, gas fumes burning his throat.

Fifty caliber. Seven or eight hundred yards. He scrambled under his van.

How many years again since the jungle? Since he put his foot on a defective landmine? However long, it all melted away.

Frank appeared at the glass door of the convenience store. All Ingalls could see were the man’s tattered jeans and steel toed boots.

“Get down!” Ingalls shouted.

Glass shattered and Ingalls caught a glimpse of Frank’s plaid shirt, spattered with blood, as the man crumpled, the stretched coils of a phone receiver held taut near his body.

Metal ricocheted in the engine compartment of the van, followed by the gurgle of a hose and fluid dripping to the pavement. Then he heard the crack of the shot, catching up to the supersonic rounds.

Man down. Evac disabled. He envisioned a field of four foot high brush and a wiry browed scarecrow, plain as day. He’d survived then and learned to keep on living.

No more rounds incoming. Ingalls knew he was being stalked. If he stayed pinned down, he was as good as dead. He needed to call for support.

He scooted out from under the van at the back, away from the direction of fire. He shimmied into a crouch and pressed close to the rear bumper. The building offered his only real cover. The phone was there and he knew Frank well enough to know he had a twelve gauge squirreled away behind the counter.

Biggest problem was the distance. Ten yards of open pavement. If he was lucky, the shooter was on the move, trying to close in and finish him off. Unlucky, and a more patient sniper would be waiting to put a bullet in him.

You needed to wake the fuck up. You’ll be okay now.

“I’ll be okay.” He huffed and rose on the balls of his feet, one hand on the bumper. He breathed again, sharp and hard. “I can do this.”

He let his hand slip from the cool chrome. His eyes fixed on the shattered door. He could see himself, leaping through the dangling remnants of glass, grabbing the receiver cord and sliding toward the counter where a solid brick wall blocked off the outside. A round that caliber might penetrate the wall, but it would be a blind shot. No way anyone could make a shot like that.

He launched into a sprint, trying to channel that speed he’d been a part of so long ago, which had whipped him to safety across a broad jungle plain.

Ingalls never made it to the door.

***

1989. Mount Misen, across the bay from Hiroshima.

For obvious reasons the last one was the hardest to pin down. No matter. Balor knew this was a tortoise and hare kind of thing. In time, the hare always loses.

He shimmied into position on the ridge. No cross wind. Visibility was crystal clear. Today he’d make up for that bullshit in Central America.

Little Boy had burned himself out in the jungles there, added a smack addiction to his unhealthy fascination with fire. Bastard had wound up dead in a steaming pile of excrement in a whorehouse in Nicaragua. The ladies he’d hired were there too. Police didn’t bother with the chalk outlines. That was his final mission for the U. S. of A.

Figuring out that Little Boy was even part of Augment Force Zero had taken Balor two years. Nobody knew that shit. Story was, he’d been such a psychopath that any mention of him had been scrubbed from official records.

Balor should’ve been satisfied, but it felt wrong to know he hadn’t been there. Hadn’t pulled the trigger, like with Fat Man. Plus, he didn’t get a dime if they offed themselves.

He settled into the rifle and centered the tree in the sights. He focused his eye, and the distance melted away. Maybe eight hundred yards out. If the conditions held, the shot itself wouldn’t be a problem. He’d dropped targets at twice that range, but if he missed, the extra distance didn’t matter. His hare was too damn fast. This close, though, his quarry would drop dead before the sound of the shot told the speedster to move.

The Augment program was supposed to be a gentleman’s game, and that’s how they’d played it since Cuba. A dance or a sideshow to draw attention away from the obvious fact that these broken former people were still on active duty. But almost overnight, all of those rules had changed.

The tree in his sights was a veiny thing holding up an umbrella of leaves. A Japanese maple, right on top of a hill. The primordial forest offered the dense kind of concealment that was a sniper’s dream and the field of view around the hilltop was uncluttered. He’d think this was too easy if not for all the work it had taken to get this far.

Hurricane traveled a lot. One minute he’d be in the Eastern U.S., and the next he was in Eastern Europe. Trying to catch up to him was pointless.

Balor really did think the old codger was legit. A freelancer who sat around watching the news, waiting for places to swoop in and help. Maybe the only one of these guys that could actually pull off the superhero schtick. For the others, unless that breaking news was in their backyard, all they could do was help pick up the pieces.

That was, if they were ignoring their Agency handlers.

Too many were, nowadays.

Even so, he’d been surprised when his own handler recommended his current Chinese employer. He’d been even more surprised by the job.

They wanted him to find them all—all six of the members of Augment Force Zero. At first he wasn’t sure if his handler understood what the Chinese were asking. He never tried to verify though, the money was too good.

From what he could tell, the People’s Republic was jealous. They didn’t have any Augments, and even though the world powers swore no more had been created, it probably didn’t help that the procedure had slowed the aging process for the ones in circulation. That must’ve been like salt in the wound.

Balor wasn’t sure how he felt about that little antiaging perk either. There was a chance his nest egg could stretch thin. One more shot, though, and he’d retire. Disappear before the sights were on him.

To find them all, he’d kept a record of Augment Force Zero’s former team member’s movements. He had even considered one of those insanity maps, where you plaster clippings on the wall and tie them all together with colored string. That was too much work. In the end, he’d made a simple list. Only one place kept showing up over and over for Hurricane: Japan.

Made sense he’d come back. Balor had killed a lot of people, one hundred and twelve to be exact, and people called him cold, heartless. In the space of a few hours, the mighty Hurricane had ended more lives than Balor could ever hope to snuff out. And that son of a bitch had done it for free. A genuine hero-type might even feel guilty.

Movement caught his eye and he focused again, drawing the world closer. Balor knew being able to telescope his vision wasn’t something that made him too wildly different from everybody else. Augments are people, he reminded himself. People are animals. All it would take to draw his hare out was a piece of bait.

A man climbed the hill, working his way up a game trail toward the maple. He was old and bent but moved steadily enough. Balor watched him stop and stare out toward the harbor before continuing his climb. When he reached the top, he parted the drooping limbs and worked his way to the trunk of the tree, where he sat. Balor kept him firmly in the sights.

Not everyone had died in Hiroshima that night. About a dozen people had reported being carried away. All but seven were dead now, six as of twenty-four hours ago.

Nobody ever believed the survivors’ stories when the government finally allowed people to talk about that day in Hiroshima. But Balor had studied those stories. Tracked down survivors and even posed as a reporter to interview them. Then he’d hiked every damn trail on Mount Misen. He’d found a lone tree and a hill with an unobstructed view of the city across the bay where the sun rose directly behind him.

Hurricane was good at keeping things unpredictable. He always came back to Japan, but never at the same time. He might’ve lived there long term, even, but his trail would always disappear like so much wind. However, this place and the man under the maple tree were a certainty.

The two hadn’t met in several months, but with the body count rising, it was only a matter of time. They’d feel safe here, the secret place where they’d met all these years. Less than a second of conversation. Balor knew that was all he needed.

Hare, meet the tortoise.

The wind shifted. Slight, but enough to make Balor readjust for the shot. The variables had become second nature to him, and he always wondered if that too weren’t a gift of the Augmentation process. As soon as he thought he had everything dialed in, the wind changed again.

He stared at the hillside. A dozen crosswinds picked up, all going different directions. They shook the trees and ferns in violent bursts, working outward in a spiral from the maple.

With each pass, the wind grew closer. It was a typical search pattern; a platoon could scour the surrounding forest that way in a few hours. Hurricane could do it in a few seconds. Balor had hoped the speedster would be too anxious to take such precautions. Now he could only hope his ghillie suit did the trick.

As soon as it started, the wind stopped. Balor scanned the hillside. The old man was looking about too, but he stayed seated under the tree. Balor watched his eyes for a sign that he’d found something so he could follow his gaze.

Then he heard a cough and a wheeze off his right shoulder.

Balor held his breath. Focused to slow his heart rate. All good things when taking a shot and even better when his target wasn’t more than a few yards away.

He couldn’t hope to wheel the heavy rifle fast enough to get a shot off. That would be suicide. This man could move faster than anyone could think. He needed his target downrange.

Another sputtering cough then the wet sound of phlegm, hacked up and spit. He felt it land near his elbow. All it would take was the Augment’s eyes idly following the trail of spit and seeing the outline of his form, or more likely, the barrel of his fifty. Sure, every inch of his gun and his ghillie suit, had been camouflaged using the native plant life. The tricks he knew worked for hiding from enemies at range, and in sniper school he’d gotten within ten yards of his instructor over the span of a day spent inching his way across an open field.

This was closer.

Camo wouldn’t save him. None of his so-called powers. He’d barely gotten anything out of the Augmentation. But Hurricane…

Best news was, his death would be quick and painless. Hurricane wasn’t ruthless, but as a soldier he’d perfected his technique. Balor’d seen footage of the bodies, enemy soldiers lying on their backs with their heads twisted into the dirt. Entire squads in one go.

No, the thing behind him wasn’t a man at all.

He heard a hiss and a sharp intake of breath which rattled out after a long pause. Footsteps, slow and measured, crunched closer toward the ridge. He’d be spotted soon. He couldn’t die with his eyes in the dirt.

He lined up the old man beneath the tree and pulled the trigger.

A gasp and flash of movement erupted beside him. Two explosive bursts of sound flattened the brush in successive waves, the larger one fractions of a second behind the other. A small object tumbled toward the ground where Hurricane had stood.

Balor flicked the bolt upward.

Air shattered around the wake of the bullet, forming a trail like hot sun off desert sand. Back and to the left of the spiraling shot, a spearhead of dirt and ferns raced along the uneven, rugged terrain.

Balor slid the bolt back.

An empty casing twirled from the rifle. It struck the ground next to the tumbling object Hurricane had dropped. The asthma inhaler canister and the hollow brass collided with a metallic ring. Balor barely registered the oddity.

He chambered a second round.

The bullet trace neared the hill. The old man sat unaware, deaf yet to the reaping wind. At the base of the hill, Hurricane, a streak of dust and color, exploded upward, the distance from the hypersonic bullet closing faster now that the terrain offered a straight path of interception.

Balor reached for the trigger.

Under the maple there was a sudden blur of dust and men. He thought, in that fraction of a second, he saw Hurricane pause and scoop the man up, unable to collide with him at the fantastic rate of speed that had carried him up the hill ahead of the bullet. Then the tree canopy reeled in like a collapsed lung, sheltering the scene. Blood sprayed into the air. Branches sprung out and the twin outbursts of sound, Augment and bullet, finally echoed across the valley.

The old man was gone. Something fleshy and rigid, like a fallen branch, tumbled to the ground.

Balor reached out with his sight. No, not a branch but a limb. A calf and foot pumping blood into the earth beneath the tree.

A shadow twitched behind the tree trunk. An anguished cry filled the valley and quieted. More shadows danced frantically and Balor knew the two, Augment and man, were pinned down behind the tree. He sighted for the distance and waited. The tortoise wins.

The ground erupted beside the trunk. Balor fired his shot but realized he was shooting too high. The cloud of dirt and debris tore low across the valley floor toward him. He chambered another round, but the wave of movement washed over him first. He fired, and the shot buried into the ground in front of him.

Hurricane was there, his hand pushing the rifle away. His taut face looked drained. Stems and twigs perforated his cheeks and chest. His front half was bathed in soil, head to toe, his forearms and hands torn into raw meat. Blood pulsed from his shattered leg. The man on the hill, so far away, rose from behind the tree and rushed toward them along a trail of blood and flattened brush.

For a split second, Balor saw dirt, then darkness.

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