By Geoffrey C Porter
Ben turned the corner onto his street after a long run and found two men in brown leather jackets, white shirts, and tan pants standing around outside of his apartment. One was black skinned the other white. As Ben got closer, he noticed two things. The men had bulges under their armpits that surely implied they were armed, and a black sedan was parked in the lot with government plates he didn’t recognize.
Being a nineteen-year-old black man in a mostly white neighborhood, Ben suspected the worst. His fears were soon realized when one of the men said, “Benjamin Meyers?”
Ben looked these men in the eyes. Neither man was frowning or mad, rather they seemed happy.
“What can I do for you?” Ben asked.
The left man, the black guy, said, “We’d like you to meet somebody.”
The other man said, “We want to offer you a golden opportunity.”
“Sounds like crap,” Ben said. “I got shit to do.”
“You do have things you need to do, very important things. Please come with us.”
“Hell no. I plan to fill a kiddie pool with jello and get naked.”
“We’re not going to hurt you or force you into anything,” the black guy said. “We just want you to meet our boss. She’s a real nice lady.”
“What are your names?” Ben asked.
The white guy said, “Jon.”
“Mohammad,” the black guy said.
Is he lying? Is he Muslim? “You are Muslim?”
Mohammad laughed. “You were born with a Christian name, but you were adopted by a Muslim couple. Do you pray?”
How did he know so much! “I don’t pray. In my heart, Islam is the best religion, that’s all.”
“How do you feel about women?” Jon asked.
“Women are our equals in many ways.”
“Great,” Mohammad said. “We can’t use you if you believe in Sharia Law. We employ a lot of women.”
A lot of women? Maybe he should go with these men.
The men looked at Ben with questions in their eyes.
Ben nodded. “How far is it?”
“The facility is on the outskirts of downtown,” Mohammad said. “On the East side.”
“My mom is going to need dinner and a shot in two hours.”
“It’s a fifteen-minute drive. On my honor, you’ll be back to take care of your mom.”
Ben moved to the back door of the government sedan.
“Ride in front,” Jon said. “I like being able to stretch out.”
Dammit, that was Ben’s entire plan. He climbed in the front. Mohammad drove. He drove very carefully, focusing on the road. Jon seemed to be trying to nap. They were there in fifteen minutes.
They parked in an underground garage and rode an elevator up three floors. An older woman was waiting, with mostly gray hair, and thick glasses. She wore a neat and tidy combination of a jacket over a white shirt, with a blue skirt on. Ben’s instinct was to bow to her, and he did.
“You’re so big and healthy,” the older woman said. “What do you think about heavy weapons assignment?”
“I don’t even know what this is about,” Ben said. “I don’t know your name.”
“My name is Nancy. You’ll report directly to me if you enlist. We only recruit orphans. We’re a crime fighting agency, and we face off against the most notorious of criminals. A man named Centurian, who has ties to off world aliens.”
Ben stopped dead in his tracks. Off world? Off world! “What?”
“Aliens have been in contact with us for a long time, Archangel. Some help us, some want to enslave us.”
“Did you just call me Archangel?” Ben asked.
“That’s your new name,” Nancy said. “Forget Ben.”
“I like it,” he said.
Wait, aliens? Interstellar travel? “Advanced technology?”
“Would you like to meet our martial arts bot?” Nancy asked. “I think that is likely the most interesting technology we use in training.”
“You’re interested in a heavy weapons assignment?”
“Yes, yes, that’s fine.”
Nancy smiled a big grandmotherly smile. She turned down the hallway, pressed a few buttons on a control panel. “It’s on level 20. Step inside, hit the bot like you’re trying to kill it. They won’t do more than bruise you, but this is the highest level. This is the heavy weapons beginning.”
Archangel stepped into the room. A man appeared in a set of dirty coveralls. Except a second ago, the room was empty. The man threw a punch. Archangel knocked it out of the way at the wrist. Another punch, harder. Nancy spoke across the intercom, “It’s artificial, smash it.”
The figure became kind of pixelated for a moment, then rematerialized. Archangel clobbered it in the face, and it disintegrated into nothing more than a pile of dots. Another man appeared. Archangel was quick to smash this one. The third man to appear was Asian, and he dodged Archangel’s clumsy blow. Then the bot clocked him on the side of the neck. Pain danced for a moment, and he threw a solid punch with more precision than before.
The Asian bot drifted to nothingness, and two new opponents appeared.
“No fair.” But Archangel smiled wide and went to work.
The machine in him kicked on, and he defeated the bots.
Nancy clapped her hands. Jon and Mohammad had disappeared.
“We need to get you home,” Nancy said.
“Can you drive a motorcycle? We have helmets that should fit you.”
“I’d been planning to get one,” Archangel said. “I know how to ride it.”
“Then I don’t see any reason why we can’t send you home on a motorcycle. You need to be able to get to and from our facility at least twice a day.”
He wanted to kiss Nancy in the worst way.
“If it’s raining, we’ll send a car to fetch you.”
This was southern Cali, and it never rains. She showed him to the garage, the helmets, and the bike. The bike was an 1100, and Archangel couldn’t have been happier.
He climbed on, and the machine purred to life. The helmet fit, and Archangel was off for home. How was he going to explain this to Mom? Maybe she wouldn’t notice the bike, but if he went in, to what? The agency? Did they call it that or was he calling it that? He didn’t know. He had seen a sign maybe. A GPS panel came to life on the bike, but he switched it off. He knew his way home.
He walked into their apartment. Mom was parked on the couch in front of the TV. She spoke in a raspy voice, “You never came home from your run. What happened?”
“I need to start dinner, and you need your morphine.”
She pointed her clawed right hand at him. “Answer my question first. Did you meet a girl?”
He couldn’t lie to her. “I’m really not sure what happened to me today.” It all might as well have been a dream, but he had a helmet in his hands.
“Did you get a bike?”
“I did, Mom, I did.”
“Is it nice?”
“I’m not sure that I can afford to keep it, but it’s what I want.”
He went into the kitchen. It looked like a good night for a frozen pizza, so he turned the oven on. He went back into the living room. His mom was looking out the window. “That’s a brand-new bike. How?”
“It’s really complex, Mom. I promise it’s nothing illegal.”
“It’s something wrong though.”
She got real quiet, and Archangel knew that meant she was getting angry. They ate pizza in silence. He gave her a shot of morphine for the cancer. Their phone rang, which was odd. Mom was closer, and she got to it first. She said, “Mmmmhmmm…” several times, then handed the phone to Archangel.
Nancy’s voice came through, “You made it home ok? In time?”
“What did you tell my mother?”
“I explained that I’m the source for your new bike, and that we’re a government agency through and through. You’re signed up for three classes, and two of them are starting tonight. You can come back down, yes?”
Archangel knew the way. Mom would be good until late in the evening. He had no reason to say no. “I’ll be there.”
He hung up the phone. Mom looked at him with a smile. “This new job is important?”
“Very. I’ll be home later.”
“Make me proud.”
He went back down to the bike and started it. Nancy was waiting for him with a sheet of paper and a tablet computer. “The paper is your training schedule. The tablet has all your textbooks on it.” The motorcycle had saddlebags, so he could transport the tablet. Perfect.
He looked at the paper. “Long range rifles and Gremlins tonight?”
“Heavy weapons classes. In the morning, you exercise. Afternoon is driving, martial arts, and the range. Evening is danger room and classes.”
The gremlins class was first. The woman teaching it pushed a button and a life-sized monster appeared above a table. It wore brown pants over otherwise green and black skin. It wasn’t especially muscular, but it has claws and teeth that shined like metal. Looked like Titanium.
“They breathe Nitrogen. We’re not sure what they exhale. They do poop, but it’s not like Earth poop. We don’t think they pee. Their idea of fats, protein, and carbohydrates is our idea of dirt, wood, and metal.”
The teacher let all that sink in.
“We’ve only captured them a couple of times, and our containment efforts have never been successful. They absorb metal and hard plastics through their skin. Every cage we’ve built for them has been a waste.”
Archangel looked at the other two members of the class. One was a big black guy, easily six four and well built. The other guy was Spanish, and constructed like a brick tank.
The teacher smiled at them. “I’m sorry, in my haste, I forgot to introduce everyone. Stand and state your name.”
The black guy stood up. “Tank is my name.”
The Spanish guy went next. “I’m Jesus.” He pronounced it Hay-Soos.
Archangel stood up. “I’m Archangel. Why are gremlins so important to heavy weapons? Where do they come from?”
“Their favorite food is ammunition. Gunpowder and explosives,” the teacher said. “They come from a mineral rich planet about sixty light years from us. We really don’t know how intelligent they are, or how they got here, but they’re here.”
“How do you kill them?” Tank asked.
“They can be smashed, or shot, or knifed. They can bleed out, but their skeletons, their bones, are made of metal, whatever metals they grew up around. Titanium are the most dangerous. Gremlins born in our desert regions on Earth are mostly silicon from the sand.”
“So they’re aliens?” Jesus asked.
“Very much so.”
“Can they talk?” Archangel said.
“Yes and no,” the teacher said. “When they make noise, they broadcast on radio frequencies. It’ll really throw your cell phones for a loop. Other gremlins miles away seem to be able to understand them. One reason they seem to like our deserts is a lack of radio stations. Gremlins hate it inside our cities. Too much noise.”
Archangel looked at Jesus and Tank. The two seemed content.
The teacher pushed a few buttons. “You now have a quiz to take in your tablets. After that we will review everything again.”
Boring! Still the men got the quizzes right, hell they had just gone over this stuff. Then the teacher reviewed everything again. After that class, Archangel made his way to a second classroom. Tank and Jesus followed him. The long-range rifles class was just the three of them again.
They talked about, guess what, long range rifles. Taking down a target at 500m was their discussion. They talked about fifty caliber rifles and what kind of damage that could do, as well as different kinds of bullets ranging from Teflon to Tungsten and explosive tips. There was no quiz, no review afterwards. Archangel headed back to the garage.
Tank shouted after him. “Have a beer with us!”
“I have to go home,” Archangel said with a sigh.
“Do you have interstellar law tomorrow until eight?” Jesus asked.
It was nine-thirty now. Archangel said, “Yes.”
“Beer, tomorrow!” Tank said.
“I’ll have a beer with you, tomorrow.”
Wait, he was only 19. “I’m only 19.”
Tank and Jesus laughed. “Heavy weapons is special rules,” Tank said. “We have the most dangerous job in the game, and we can get beer.”
Archangel rode the bike home. There was an envelope taped to his door. He opened it. Prepaid credit card with a note attached to it, $500. A membership card to a gym eight kilometers away. A hand written note, “Run to the gym tomorrow. Don’t take the bike. Lift your ass off. The card is in case you have any expenses. Nancy.”
Archangel gave his mom a shot of painkillers and kissed her on the forehead for goodnight. The cards for the gym and money went into his wallet.
He lay awake all night. By sunup he began to doubt his sanity. Everything seemed as real as the day before. He cooked up a batch of oatmeal for them. He put on his shorts and a shirt.
Running to the gym was no problem. Jesus and Tank showed up at the same time. All three of them were sweating and grinning. Tank spoke first, “Are we going to see who’s strongest?”
“It’s not my heavy day. I did a heavy day two days ago,” Jesus said. “Eight to twelve reps for me today.”
“I haven’t been in a gym in long time,” Archangel said.
“But you’re so damn big!”
“I have some gear at home. I lift.”
“I bet I’m stronger,” Tank said.
Archangel still wasn’t sure if all this was real. Just one long, incredibly real dream. Maybe he was dead or in a coma somewhere. “That’s ok with me if you are.”
“You’ll do a heavy day?”
“I never do heavy days. I never have a spotter.”
Tank started jumping up and down. “You’ve got a spotter today! Let’s see how much you can lift.”
They hit the weights. Archangel was strongest at curls, but Tank could out bench him by a lot. Hard to do benches with no spotter.
They took off running in opposite directions. Archangel floated home. He stopped at a grocer and picked up cooked shrimp with cocktail sauce. The credit card worked fine, but he was careful to save the receipt. He surprised Mom with the shrimp.
“I’m not even hungry,” she said.
“You’re going to eat a few, no matter. You’re wasting away. Your body needs fuel to fight the cancer.”
She frowned. “There’s no fighting this cancer, you know that. I’m on borrowed time.”
Archangel wanted to cry, but he’d cried himself to sleep enough times since the diagnosis. All people must die. “Please eat. I got them special, thinking they were your favorite.”
“They are.” She started eating, and once she started, she ate a lot. It made Archangel happy. They destroyed a half kilo of shrimp between them.
Archangel took the bike down to the Agency. Jon and Mohammad, from the previous day, greeted him in the garage.
“Nancy had to fly home last night,” Mohammad said. “You got the credit card? Jesus and Tank reported that you showed up at the gym.”
“I have the money,” Archangel said.
“Good. There are limits, but let us know if you need us to refill it.”
“Your schedule is simple,” Jon said, “three hours a week at the firing range, four hours a week driving, six hours a week on the martial arts bot, and four hours in our danger room. We only have a skeleton group of trainees here, so the equipment is mostly free all the time.”
Mohammad must have recognized the look on his face. “You have coaches, first Jon and me, but there will be other teachers too. Some of it, like the driving, you simply need to play with the simulator. It needs to become muscle memory. The danger room, you need to schedule with Jesus and Tank. They’re full time students, so they should have no problems accommodating your schedule.”
Archangel decided the driving simulator was most appealing. The device looked like a racing video game. Driving it was out of this world. G-Forces pulled on him through every curve. Jon watched, and repeated a chant, “Drive faster. Drive faster. The clock is ticking.”
Archangel biked home to fix dinner. Simple peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, but after the first one, Mom said she wanted a second, and he smiled wide. She was thin as a rail, and that couldn’t be good.
He attended a rather lengthy discussion group on interstellar law back at the agency. It seemed like the laws were set up far more in favor of the tyrannical Razdorans than Humans or Chor’Tan. It was clear from their discussion of history that the Razdorans harvest worlds for their natural resources, and they had their eye on Earth. Chor’Tan were doing everything within the law to help humankind, but there were limits. Why the Chor’Tan helped wasn’t made entirely clear in the lecture, enough that they helped.
Razdorans stood three to four meters tall, and had two sets of arms, one that had evolved as super strong appendages for smashing enemies, and another pair that had fine delicate hands. They considered creatures with four limbs to be less intelligent than them, and oftentimes were considered food.
The lecture ended, and Archangel was assigned chapters to read. Tank patted him on the back. “Time to drink!”
“I’ll drink with you,” Archangel said, “but I’ll be drinking root beer. Islam forbids alcohol.”
Jesus put his hands on his hips. “If you’re drinking root beer, I’ll drink a nice lemon lime soda.”
“Cola for me,” Tank said. “I could use some calories after today.”
Archangel looked from one to the other and realized they were being serious. When was he going to wake up? This dream had to come crashing down. How long could it last?
They drank their sodas and talked for an hour. Archangel had to get home to take care of his mother. He curled up in a ball on his bed and drifted off to the most blessed sleep he’d ever known. He woke up with the Sun. The credit card was still in his wallet. The bike sat in the parking lot, waiting on him.
Oatmeal for breakfast again, then a run to the gym for a leg workout. He talked to Jesus and Tank, and they agreed, time for a danger room session that afternoon. Neither would tell Archangel what happens in a danger room session.
The room was easy to find. It was on the lowest level of the building, below the parking garage, and essentially just one huge room with padded walls, ceiling, and floor. It spanned the whole complex. Mohammad was waiting for them. He spoke in a quiet tone. “You’ll be firing blanks. Keep moving. Standing still will get you killed.”
Easy enough. The three young men grabbed pistols and extra magazines, making sure the rounds were crimped over instead of a bullet. Tank pointed at Archangel. “You can go first.”
“I’ve never done this before,” Archangel replied.
“It’s easy. Shoot everybody. There are no friendlies except me and Jesus.”
Archangel ran headfirst into the danger room. A pixelated man appeared, and Archangel put a round in his chest. Blood flowed, but clearly a computer animation. They raced through room after room, gunning down opponents. It really wasn’t that hard, but the three young men had fast reflexes trained by countless hours at video game consoles.
They reached the end, and Mohammad clapped a bit for them. “Next time a higher difficulty level.”
“Turn it all the way up,” Tank said. “We’re ready!”
Jesus chimed in. “Yeah.”
“I’m not ready,” Archangel said.
“Go to the range,” Mohammad said.
They went and shot their pistols for an hour. Then they watched a video on how to disassemble them and clean them. They did as they were told. The powder solvent and oil smelled good to Archangel. Smelled like home.
Days passed into weeks. Archangel was focused like never before. Cook meals, morphine injections for Mom, bike to the agency for training or exercise. No time for a woman if he could even find one to marry. He got Sundays off from agency work.
One Friday morning, his mother didn’t wake up. He called an ambulance and wept. They buried her on Monday. Jon, Mohammad, Nancy, Jesus, and Tank all attended the funeral. Some of Mom’s friends and family attended too. Archangel wore a black suit and tie. Tears streamed down his face as they lowered the casket into the ground.
Archangel trained like never before. He buried himself in it. A few months passed, and Nancy summoned him to his office. Jesus and Tank were there.
Nancy offered them coffee which they declined. “We need to relocate you three to Phoenix.”
“What’s in Phoenix?” Tank asked.
“It’s our main training facility. There are three active teams there, and each one needs a heavy weapons expert. You’re those experts.”
“I feel like I’m still a noob,” Archangel said.
“You’ve all beaten the danger room simulations to the highest levels. You’re ready.”
Jesus clapped his hands together once. “When do we leave?”
Nancy pushed a few buttons on her keyboard. “Tomorrow morning. You don’t need to bring a lot of clothes, bring only what you truly need. The agency will provide clothes.”
Archangel went home. He went through the picture albums and decided he needed all the pictures. He hated to leave everything else behind, but the apartment just reminded him of his mother. Pots and pans, furniture, none of it mattered. All that mattered was the pictures.
He stowed those in his backpack and slept. He was up with the sun, and he rode down to the agency. The flight to Phoenix was quick, and the sun burned bright stepping out of the plane. Jesus and Tank both had duffel bags. A new man, Simon, drove them to the agency facility. The place was huge. Four-meter-tall walls with weapon nests on every corner. Multiple buildings, and a running track around the inside of the wall.
Simon pulled the car into a parking garage. Nancy was there. She said, “There is one final test you must achieve before becoming true heavy weapons experts.”
“Name it,” Tank said.
“Archangel will go first. You must navigate twelve kilometers of desert, take out two human sized targets, and destroy two targets with rockets. You’ll have to take water, extra rockets, a 50-caliber sniper rifle, and a double-barreled shotgun in case of snakes.”
“Snakes?” Archangel asked.
Nancy nodded. “There might be snakes.”
“Yes, Archangel can go first,” Jesus said.
“I’m ready,” Archangel said. “Do I get a GPS phone?”
Nancy reached in her pocket and pulled out a phone. “The target location and this facility are marked in the GPS already. Your gear is waiting by the gate.”
Archangel handed his backpack to Tank. “Don’t lose my bag.”
“Don’t lose your life,” Tank said. “I’ve got a bad feeling about this.”
“Don’t even start. A little run in the desert.”
Nancy said, “Let’s go.”
They went to the main entrance. A 50-caliber rifle waited, plus a canteen, 4 rockets in a backpack, a sawed-off double barrel shotgun, plus a belt with shotgun shells in it. Archangel started putting everything on. They gave him 20 shotgun shells, 2 extra magazines of 50 caliber ammo, four rockets, and three liters of water. He held the cellphone in his left hand. His other hand fingered the stock of the shotgun in the holster on his right.
Archangel took off in a run into the desert.
He had never before really been in a desert, and he jogged past rock outcroppings and cacti. Some of the cacti looked more dangerous than other varieties, but he figured all of them would do damage. He came across a dried-out streambed and checked his phone. Although not a direct route, the streambed would bring him close to his target zone. He followed the route, dodging scorpions and big tarantulas. The spiders were bigger than anything he had seen before. He watched carefully for rattlers and other potentially poisonous snakes. Off to the side, one of the snakes slithered up the side of the streambed, but Archangel simply ran past.
The sun baked him, and he stopped for water and to check the cell. He was two kilometers or so from the targets. He drank a full liter of water and upped his pace. The sweat evaporated off his skin almost the instant it formed. If he was short on water, he wouldn’t have done it, but he stopped to take a leak. He peed right on an ant hill. Karma will get him for that later he was sure.
According to the satellite mapping on his cell, there should be a rock outcropping on his left soon, and there it was. He turned out of the streambed and jogged in a straight line. A wooden structure that had signs. Two silhouettes were set up 500 meters away, and two burned out husks of vehicles were 200 meters away on the right and left.
Archangel unslung his rifle and chambered a round. One shot to the heart on the left target. Then he worked the bolt action, then a shot to the heart on the right. One shot one kill. Perfect.
He pulled a two-part rocket assembly out of his backpack. One part was a tube with a shoulder rest, and he stuck the rocket in the end of that. He lined the device up on the first burned out vehicle and squeezed the trigger. Swooosh… Boom! One happy Archangel. A strange beeping sounded, but he wasn’t sure where it came from. He attached the second rocket to the launcher, and swoosh, boom. Archangel did a quick heel-toe dance move that would surely get him laid if a woman saw.
He checked his phone. It was beeping, and it showed only static.
Movement caught his eye. Short, 1/8th meter tall figure, covered in green and black skin, with sharp metal claws and teeth. Hell no. Gremlins. Archangel started jogging. Three of the little bastards were in front of him. He pulled his double barrel and blasted the right one, then the center one. The left one leapt at him before he could reload. The gremlin slashed at the strap holding his rifle in place, and the claws cut into Archangel’s gut. The rifle fell to the ground, and the gremlin fled with it.
“A flesh wound,” Archangel said as he slid two new shells into the breach.
He looked around. Three gremlins were staring him down. He ran for home. He ran fast. Two more gremlins dodged in front of him. Archangel blasted them with the shotgun, and slipped two more shells into the gun as he ran.
Must conserve ammo, raced through his mind. He reached the streambed and followed it. In a heartbeat, a gremlin stood in front of him. He didn’t shoot it. He intended to simply run past it. The thing reached out and clawed Archangel’s leg on the calf. The wound on his front had stopped bleeding, but now he bled on his leg, and every step he took hurt.
He looked behind him. There was distance in the way, but a small army of sharply clawed, green and black skinned monsters chased him.
While running, he pulled his backpack off, and readied a rocket. He turned and launched it at the closest gremlins. Body parts flew, but there were too many of them. He dumped all the water bottles out of the backpack and ran on.
Another pair of sharp-toothed monsters dodged in front of him. Archangel blasted them with the shotgun. He dropped one shell as he reloaded. No going back for that. He ran at his best pace. His mind drifted above the pain in his calf, above the thirst in his throat. The only thing that mattered was keeping away from those gremlins.
The agency complex shimmered in the distance. Archangel looked back. He had distanced those little bastards. Then one poked its head around a bend, then an army.
He ran with all his strength at the gate. “Open up!”
The gates slid out of the way. He jumped inside and shouted, “Close the gate!”
Some asshole said, “What’s the rush?”
Two of the little bastards made it through the gate, and both met up with the business end of Archangel’s twelve gauge.
Nancy came walking out of the complex, with Jesus and Tank.
The 50 caliber machine gun nests above the gate cranked to life spitting fire and hot lead at the army of gremlins.
“You brought ammo back?” Nancy asked.
“One rocket,” Archangel said, “two 50 caliber magazines, and a couple of shotgun shells.”
“You’re supposed to dump the ammo when the gremlins show up.”
That had never occurred to Archangel. To drop the ammo when faced with an enemy. It made no sense.
“We need to get you to medical,” Nancy said. “You’re now heavy weapons, full blooded.”
“You know you ran that course in record time?” Jesus said.
“I’m going to do it faster,” Tank said, “but I’m not bringing any ammo home.”
Archangel examined the cuts on him. “Yeah, yeah.”
They stitched him up at medical. Nancy showed him three pictures, two males, and one female. “This is Bear. The guy with the red hair is RedCat, and the female is Zen.”
“This is my new team?”
“We could have a formal introduction, or you could join them for a meal tomorrow. Tell them you’re their new sniper.”
Archangel grinned. “I’m their new sniper?”
“I’ll look for them in the cafeteria.”