by Molly N. Moss | 3,478 words
Glacier National Park, Montana
“I thought what happened in Matamoros was classified, so secret even God couldn’t view those files, Ms.—?”
“Delacruz,” I reminded him. USMC Retired Sergeant Nash had been drinking bourbon when I’d knocked on the door of his cabin, and I’d seen several prescription bottles of Valium on his kitchen table. “I don’t know about the files. But I’ve just been in Matamoros, and I heard rumors.”
He studied me, or tried to, his gray eyes not quite focused. Dark, sagging circles under his eyes were the only loose skin on him.
Nash looked away first, as I knew he would. Courtesy is drilled into a Marine from their first day of training, and this Marine had served in Force Recon. David Nash could bravely charge into a hailstorm of bullets, but he couldn’t rudely stare.
I went out and sat down on the porch he’d built himself, cedar planks unvarnished but sanded smooth as marble, and I beckoned him to join me. Far below us, at the timberline, crossbill finches and blue grouse flitted in and out of gnarled whitebark pines. At this altitude the wind blew chilly even in June. So I relished Nash’s body heat as I laid a hand on his bony shoulder.
“Keeping the secret is killing you, Sergeant.”
I never knew a person could laugh in slow-motion, until Nash did it. “It’s not the keeping that’s eating me away, ma’am,” he said, “it’s the secret.”
“They say the truth will set you free.”
“Yeah. They say a lot of shit.” He pulled a cigar from the chest pocket of his flannel shirt and lit it. After pulling a deep drag, he blew smoke into the winds swirling through the Beartooth Mountains. Then he faced me. “Herrera got me smoking these, the day we graduated boot camp. Said after a good job or a good lay, a man should smoke a good cigar.”
I’d noticed the wedding band that kept trying to fall off his ring finger. But I’d also noticed that in spite of his thinness, Nash was a handsome man, and his cabin lacked any indicators of female occupation. I wouldn’t mind sleeping with him, I decided. And because I’m a dedicated journalist, if seducing him helped me get his story, so much the better. So I grinned and asked, “Which is this going to be? A good job, or a good lay?”
Nash watched himself push his wedding band back into place. “Herrera was more than a fellow Marine, ma’am. More than a buddy, too.”
I wondered if Nash was going to tell me he was gay, and Herrera was his husband. But then he continued, “Herrera was like a brother. My wife Laura … Herrera found her for me, after my girlfriend since middle school emailed me to tell me she’d met someone else. He picked her out in a crowded bar, chatted her up, introduced her to me, and six months later Laura and I got married. Herrera was our best man.”
I wanted to remind him I’d asked him about Matamoros, but instinct warned me to keep quiet. Contrary to his special ops training, Nash was talking to me. We’d talk about Matamoros after he’d told me everything he needed me to know about Herrera, or so I hoped.
“Herrera and me, we were both oldest sons of career Marine men, both Catholic, both liked woodworking, both fans of horror movies and stories. We even both could recite Poe’s ‘The Raven’ from memory.”
Nash shut his eyes, and after a deep breath he murmured:
Deep into that darkness peering,
long I stood there wondering, fearing,
Doubting, dreaming dreams no mortals
ever dared to dream before…
“Was Herrera killed in Matamoros?” As I asked, I gave his shoulder a gentle, hopefully comforting, little squeeze.
“Yes, ma’am.” Eyes still shut, he told me, “It’s never felt right to me, keeping what happened to him a secret. He’d want people to have a warning.”
“A warning about what?” My heart galloping in my chest, I started my digital minicam, designed to look like a bangle earring. This story is going to be world-shaking, I can feel it!
Nash thought about that. Finally he answered, voice hushed, “Human limits. We have them for a reason.” His gray eyes opened and pierced mine, and they seemed to expand to fill the whole world. “If we know more than we should, it destroys us.”
20 February 2020
Residents and visitors crowded the streets, celebrating Charro Days in honor of the history and culture Matamoros shared with Brownsville, Texas. Nash winced at the laughing children clothed in cowboy costumes and gaudy huipil gowns, chasing each other along narrow sidewalks and between food stands selling beer and burritos. He thought of his two small daughters back home in North Carolina, and he whispered a prayer that no harm would come to any of these little ones.
«Be easy, amigo.» Herrera’s mind-signature: easy-going and steady. «None of us are gonna pull the trigger with chamacos in the line of fire.»
«Status report, Nash.» Lieutenant Ingram: ever the taskmaster.
Per their first shirt’s command, Nash glanced around, sharing his perceptions with the platoon. Shadows thickened with the approach of night. On a grassy patch at the corner of Calle Santos Degollado and Guatemala, Mexican rockabilly band Rebel Cats thrilled the crowd with “Para Nada.” Their upright bass player sounded eerily like Elvis as he sang lead vocals.
«¡Viva el Rey!» Everyone felt Herrera’s grinning salute.
«Stay focused, Marines. Nash, what else you got?»
East from the flaking, graffiti-covered terra cotta wall stood the platoon’s target: the gated Casamata Museum of Regional History. From outside, the one and a half floors of the former fort looked as worn and dusty as everything else in Matamoros seemed. Inside, they knew from reconnaissance that the structure was brightly lit and kept spotless. A plaza hosted several Tex-Mex food vendors, a chili contest, and a Tejano quintet struggling to make itself heard over the Rebel Cats.
Somewhere in the museum, Carlos “Cutthroat” Cardenas and his top officers in the Gulf Cartel were meeting with drug lords from around the world, making deals to expand his organization’s power. True to his epithet, Cutthroat routinely took tourists as hostages and tortured or killed them if governments tried to interfere with his cartel. In the past two years he’d ventured into military conquest. The Gulf Cartel now ruled Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, Arizona, and New Mexico, and they’d seized control of parts of Louisiana and Colorado.
Its economy and morale broken by two lengthy recent wars in the Middle East, and desperate to avoid another at home, the United States of America had only two choices: surrender to Cutthroat Cardenas, or use their superior special ops to capture or kill him. To attempt the latter, the President had deployed the new Sixth Force Recon Company: special ops Marines with tech-enhanced psychic ability, as well as experimental light-bending battlesuits and flechette carbines. Nash and Herrera, the strongest telepaths of their platoon, were assigned point and rear guard, respectively.
Centered in their formation was Yoshida, first woman admitted to USMC combat duty and endowed with the keenest danger sense in SixComp. When Nash finished his preliminary surveillance of the museum grounds, Yoshida mind-spoke to the platoon: «No sign of the Mexican Army or the Federales. I don’t like it.»
That got the first shirt’s attention, all right. «Is that an official warning?»
Foreboding. Skepticism. Uncertainty. Yoshida warred with herself, her emotions leaking into the heads of her platoon-mates. Nash felt suffocated in his HUDhat, as Yoshida’s inner conflict spilled into his own psyche.
«Not yet, sir.» Shame. Grim determination. Yoshida shivering as her heavy sweat cooled. «I’m … just nervous, I guess.»
«We can’t afford nerves.» Sympathy underlay Ingram’s words. Marines understood protocols and tactics; they trusted reactions trained to be second nature, not magnetically amplified “second sight.” «But you may get better intel closer to our target. Nash, your fireteam sweep the plaza. Yoshida, your team flank the gate. Everyone else, find cover along Santos Degollado, Guatemala, and Panama. Let’s move.»
To HUDhat optics, Force Recon light-bending battlesuits showed as burgundy-colored humanoid outlines. From their heights and builds Nash recognized Salazar, Clark, and Tran as each did a slow zigzag toward the gate, dodging civilians to whom they were invisible. They trotted into the plaza and spread out, each patrolling a quadrant of the square.
«Hold positions while I report that intel to Captain Grimes.»
Nash stood motionless between the fort smithy and the south bulwark. He reached out with his mind, seeking the thoughts of Cutthroat Cardenas. In drills and VR combat simulations Yoshida never failed to detect imminent peril, but the exact nature of the threat usually eluded her. Cutthroat would certainly know what danger awaited them. But many minds surrounded Nash, and only those of Sixth Force Recon Company were boosted. Trying to find a specific mind in the crowd was like trying to find a particular bee in a hive.
«Me too, amigo.» Nervous, unusual for Herrera. «I feel a lot of people … waiting. That’s all.»
«Waiting for us, you think?» Nash flexed his fingers around the grip of his carbine and scanned the crowd again.
«Yes.» Certain now, Yoshida reeled her focus back in to the platoon. «The Gulf Cartel knows we’re here.»
«Makes no difference. Captain says we’re go. He says this op is too critical to abort for a vague premonition.» Anger swelled beneath Lieutenant Ingram’s telepathy.
«Bohica.» Bend over, here it comes again.
Usually Ingram would’ve reprimanded Herrera for such a rude comment. This time a pang of fear escaped him, and he replied, «I’m afraid you’re right.»
They waited while Ingram considered tactics. «Squads one and two, secure museum points of entry. Three and four, tie a noose around the perimeter. Five, you’re in reserve, take cover near the gate.»
Nash, nearest the south door, crouch-walked to the external brick stairway that led from ground level to the roof. He positioned himself in a narrow space between the stairway and the wall, so near the Tejano quintet he could’ve tapped their drummer’s shoulder with his carbine. Salazar joined him, while Clark and Tran knelt behind bushes at the building’s corners.
The other four members of OneSquad, and all eight members of TwoSquad, took up similar positions at the north, west, and east bulwarks. Another sixteen Marines spaced themselves evenly around the city block where the museum was located.
Ingram and Yoshida stepped inside the gate. Back to back and crouching, they slipped from one to another of the palm trees ringed around the fortress bulwarks, visually confirming that all of OnePlat’s personnel were in position to infiltrate the museum.
Nash observed a museum employee signal the Tejano quintet to take a break. The guitarist flashed a toothy grin and sang an abbreviated final chorus. After bowing to the applauding crowd, the musicians picked up bowls of chili from the cook-off and wandered into the street to hear the Rebel Cats perform “Inadaptado.” In couples and groups, the crowd followed the Tejano quintet’s example. By the song’s end the museum grounds were empty except for OnePlat personnel.
A fusillade of machine-gun fire erupted. Bullets bounced off bricks and stones, punching out shards and launching them in all directions. Salazar cursed aloud when a shard tore through his battlesuit and buried deep in his thigh. Many members of the platoon winced as they literally felt Salazar’s pain.
His heart hammering, Nash groped for the unboosted minds of the attackers, desperate to identify their locations. They seemed to be everywhere. Blindly returning fire wasn’t an option because he might hit a fellow Marine. «We’re fish in a fucking barrel, here! Call in reinforcements, Lieutenant!»
Something struck Nash’s head and he fell on his hands and knees, his carbine sliding away on the paving stones. He couldn’t see. Dimly, he was aware his platoon-mates were suffering the same effects.
«Man down!» Yoshida’s nausea swept through them all. «Lieutenant Ingram is down!»
«FiveSquad coming in.» Herrera’s decisiveness replaced his earlier nervousness. «Use grenade attachments. Aim for the rooftops, that’s where the machine-gunners are.»
His sight returning, Nash started looking around for his carbine. Realization stopped him for a moment: Herrera’s telepathy must be much stronger than mine.
«Si.» Amazingly, Herrera silently laughed. «You oughtta know mine is bigger than yours, compadre.»
«Asshole.» Nash couldn’t help but grin.
«MOVE IN, FIVERS!»
It was the most beautiful sight Nash ever witnessed, even lovelier than Laura on their wedding day. Eight burgundy-outlined human shapes raced through the gate, promptly splitting into four-person fireteams. They unloaded a barrage of grenades onto two rooftops at a time. Screams and Spanish curses ripped through the night.
Behind him, Salazar had tied a tourniquet around his injured thigh. Wielding his carbine, he laid down covering fire while Nash retrieved his weapon. Nash issued orders to his squad as he took temporary cover under the stairway again. «Attach grenade launchers, Ones! We’re backing up the Fivers! Move west.»
Squads one and five separated, the ones launching grenades onto rooftops of the western buildings and the fives doing the same to the eastern. They fired as they ran from place to place of cover. Meanwhile squad two prepped shaped-charge explosives to blast open bulwark doors. Yoshida called in her fireteam to carry Ingram to safety and render first aid.
It was while they laid explosives that Nash felt as if he’d been punched in the chest. Herrera’s mind-signature dropped out of his awareness. They all felt the stinging tears of Blake, assistant rifleman of Herrera’s fireteam, as he reported, «Man down! Herrera’s been hit!»
«HERRERA! Can you hear me, buddy?» Weak, Nash leaned against the west bulwark door frame.
No response. «Romero Herrera, answer me!»
A fresh gale of machine-gun fire sent squads one, two, and five diving for cover. Snipers shot at the Marines through the bulwark embrasures. Nash put a precise volley of flechettes through the nearest embrasure, and was rewarded by a strangled shriek and the cessation of fire from that source. Fellow Marines followed his example, soon silencing the enemy again.
«Shit! Herrera’s gone!»
Duty forgotten, Nash raced to the east bulwark door. Seeing the bloodstain that marked where Herrera fell robbed him of breath. But Herrera had vanished.
«Where are you, Herrera, idioto?»
«Easy, amigo.» Herrera’s mind-signature, but somehow … changed. His telepathy “sounded” as if Herrera were speaking from inside a tunnel. «I found Cutthroat.»
«Good for you. Now where are you?»
«You got a job to do.» A hollow chuckle. «I’ll keep.»
«Damn it, Herrera! Report your location for extraction!»
«Negative.» Captain Grimes. «Herrera says he’s stable. We’re here to get Cutthroat, and that’s what we’re gonna do now. Nash, I want OnePlat to hold the ground you’ve taken. Herrera, give me Cutthroat’s location, I’m sending TwoPlat in after him.»
«Yes, sir.» Herrera, who hated Grimes, flashed an image of himself saluting with only three fingers. Nash could almost hear his buddy say, “Read between the lines, fuckhead.” «Intel incoming, sir!»
Hours seemed to pass, but it was less than a minute later when four of TwoPlat’s five squads marched through the gate. They entered the north bulwark. Nash watched them pull out a glass case, displaying a life-sized crucified Christ, as if to move it away from the wall it stood against. But the wall pulled out too, revealing a secret tunnel.
«Probably why Casamata was such a successful fortress.» Salazar stood by, ready to cover Nash’s back if fighting broke out again. Fascinated by military history, he grinned, thrilled at seeing a genuine secret tunnel. «If faced by superior forces, a squad could sneak out, double back, and attack from a direction the enemy didn’t expect.»
«Interesting, but let’s find Herrera.» Nash about-faced and jogged toward the east bulwark. «Clark, Tran, rendezvous.»
They gathered at the bulwark door where Herrera was last seen. Nash took point, Clark and Tran flanks, Salazar rear guard. Gulf Cartel snipers lay dead beneath the embrasures, their throats and upper chests a bloody mess from Marine flechettes. They too had HUDhats. Nash felt a swell of rage surge from Salazar, quickly shared by Clark and Tran, as the team realized that SixComp’s mission here had been a trap set for them by the Gulf Cartel, the Mexican Army, and the Federales.
A trail of blood led across the brick floor to a thick wood door. «I don’t hear any minds chattering in there,» Nash reported, «but better safe than sorry.» Salazar and Clark leveled their carbines at whatever waited beyond the door. Tran readied his paramedic kit, while Nash tried the handle.
With a faint creaking, the door swung open. Herrera lay slumped against a wall, unmoving, a bullet hole in his chest seeping blood.
«Herrera!» Nash tossed his carbine aside. He swatted Herrera’s face while Tran felt the fallen Marine’s neck for a pulse.
«Nash … he’s gone.»
«The hell he is. He just needs to be revived.» Nash pulled the HUDhat off Herrera’s head. Herrera’s blue eyes stared unseeing at him.
“Do your fucking job, Marine!” Nash’s shout echoed from the brick walls.
Tran prepped an injection and delivered it to Herrera’s aorta. Nash was dimly aware of Marines somewhere northwest and down communicating telepathically with each other and exchanging fire with the Gulf Cartel. He watched as Tran administered CPR and mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, and he prayed for Herrera’s life.
When Grimes found them sometime later, Nash’s prayer had not been answered. Grimes waved an exhausted Tran away from the body.
“Your buddy died a hero, Nash. His intel about the tunnels made our mission a success. Cutthroat is dead and his cartel is broken.”
A choking knot in his throat kept Nash from speaking. He scooped up Herrera’s body in his arms.
Grimes whistled at the sight of the gaping exit wound in Herrera’s back. “Tough bastard, he had to be losing blood by the bucket. How the hell did he hold on until we finished with Cutthroat five minutes ago?”
Nash turned to face his commanding officer. “I know you didn’t like Herrera, Captain, but that’s a sick fucking joke.”
Grimes clenched his hands into fists. “Don’t you dare talk to me that way, Marine!”
“Sir.” Tran’s normally bronze-colored face had turned milk-white. “Herrera couldn’t have been giving you intel five minutes ago. We found him twenty minutes ago, and he was already dead.”
Glacier National Park, Montana
“When we got back to Fort Worth, a medical examiner confirmed Herrera died before the time Grimes reported as when he stopped receiving telepathic messages from him.”
“Spooky.” I realized I was trembling, and took a deep breath. “No wonder the government wants to keep details of the Matamoros mission secret.”
“That’s not what they’re hiding, ma’am.” Nash did his odd slow-motion laugh again. “Except me, Grimes and everyone from OnePlat is in a psych hospital or dead of suicide. And the reason is, the Matamoros mission ended but Herrera’s telepathic contacts didn’t. Everyone linked to him that day got a copy of him stuck in their head.” Nash’s cigar had burned out. He re-lit it and sucked deep of it. “Grimes killed himself a month after Herrera died, left a note saying he couldn’t take any more of Herrera’s intel. One by one, nobody could cope.”
Nash stood and stretched, and trudged to his jeep. I watched him, trying to decide whether I believed his story. He moved the jeep next to my rental car and climbed out holding a pair of jumper cables.
“What are you doing?”
Nash shrugged his thin shoulders. “Herrera just told me your car’s got a weak battery. You’re gonna need it jumped off before you can go.”
Skeptical, I slid into the car and turned the key in the ignition. All I got for my efforts was the click of a dead battery.
While Nash jumped the battery I gripped the steering wheel to keep my hands from shaking. But then I swallowed hard and asked what I found myself desperately needing to know.
“How?” Nash laid the jumper cables back inside his jeep and then gazed at me. “Even with booze and Valium, how can you cope with a dead person living in your head?”
“Remember I told you, Herrera and me both love horror stories? Seems fitting we’re in a real one together, sharing a body until it shuts down and we both die. It’s like something out of Poe, but instead of Nevermore it’s Evermore. Or like the Marine Corps’ motto.” He showed me a tattoo on his right arm. “Semper fidelis. That’s Herrera and me. Always faithful.”
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© Molly N. Moss 2013
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About the Author
Molly N. Moss lives in Georgia, but hopes to escape to the Pacific NW. She is a proud crazy cat lady, an avid reader and writer of all forms of speculative fiction (fantasy, horror, and science fiction), and an incurable nerd. Her fiction has also been published by Big Pulp, Silver Blade, and The World of Myth. You’re invited to follow her Facebook author’s page at http://www.facebook.com/MollyNMoss.