by Bryan Cole
The man in camouflage crouched next to the jungle tree. Height was important. Most human beings instinctively look within a foot of their own head level when scanning for people. In the jungle, the eye gravitates to patterns that don’t fit the native foliage. The camouflage that the man wore had been specially designed and tested to guarantee that, if used properly, it would never betray the wearer’s outline. ‘If used properly’ was always the key phrase, Hatcher wryly noted to himself as he listened for movement in the stillness of the jungle. Hearing none beyond the normal bush cacophony he gingerly stepped forward, creeping from the cover of the tree in a slow deliberate movement to the next patch of shadow.
He was close now. Close enough to hear the movement of his target’s clothes as he breathed.
Hatcher slowly moved the 14mm pistol down to his belt, still keeping it at the ready as his left hand unsheathed the polymer-edged combat knife. If the rabbit bolted, Hatcher would have to shoot him to stop him. As the point man for this excursion, Hatcher’s primary responsibility was to be the eyes and ears for his team, and secondly to remove those obstacles that could not be circumvented, such as this sentry. Hatcher switched the pistol to safe and let it glide back into the holster. The blade moved over to his right hand, his augmented arm would give him the needed strength to penetrate the target’s rib cage and puncture the lung.
Hatcher’s left hand came up and around the guerrilla’s bandolier, using it as a noose for the man’s neck. Pulling him back and to the left, he exposed the right kidney and, when the man’s right arm came up to fight the choke, the right side of his rib cage. A quick and distinct ‘snap’ later, and Hatcher’s knife had found its way through the rib cage and into the lung, breaking two ribs in the process. Extracting the blade, Hatcher then made another stab into the right armpit of the sentry to sever the brachial artery, then a final stab into the femoral artery of the sentry’s right leg. Accelerated blood loss coupled with a collapsing lung would be messy, but it would also decrease the time Hatcher had to wait for the sentry’s demise. After a moment of gurgled struggle, the sentry lay still.
The camouflaged man pulled the sentry’s body carefully into the jungle’s undergrowth. The firing pin was removed from his weapon, to be kept in Hatcher’s pocket, while the weapon itself was to be hidden later during the march in a different patch of undergrowth. The rebels would scavenge every weapon they could in their struggle. Sometimes partially hidden weapons were boobytrapped to pick off the unwary, but the guerrillas had become smart about such ‘discoveries,’ and so the unofficially-sanctioned tactic had been discarded from the routine.
As Hatcher finished hiding the body, he glanced down at his arm. A caterpillar had crawled onto him during his tidying up of the kill site. He looked at the caterpillar, which would never know of the struggle raging around it, and let it crawl for a few centimeters before he reached for it to gently put it back onto the jungle floor.
Doing so, Hatcher noticed a cut on his arm, probably from the struggle with the sentry. The caterpillar had crawled through it, and had left a tiny smear with its tracks. Hatcher half smirked at a thought that he could not finish. As he watched, the caterpillar began to writhe uncontrollably, twisting and turning like a water hose that could not withstand the pressure of its contents. Within seconds, the healthy green of the caterpillar’s skin turned an ashen grey, and then it crumbled into dust and ichor.
Having no time to react, Hatcher could only look at the scene with curiosity and disgust. The cut, now coated in the remnants of the caterpillar, appeared to defy this gruesome bandage and a drop of blood spilled onto the jungle floor. Instinctively, Hatcher clamped his augmented hand over the cut to staunch the bleeding. But before he could, he heard a sound so horrible his mind screamed at him to tear off his ears, to somehow stop it at any cost, but he was dumbstruck. His mouth dropped and his eyes widened as he looked around in horror, the jungle was dissolving into ash.
* * *
His eyes opened as the sunlight played into the window of the train’s carriage. He sat up and rubbed his face for a second. Checking around the cabin he occupied, he could spot nothing out of the ordinary, certainly nothing that looked threatening. He unscrewed the cap off of the water bottle he had bought at the train station in Moscow and downed it within seconds. Through repetition he had trained himself to block out the horror of his dreams. Luckily, the really vivid ones that stuck with him seemed to only happen every few months, but Hatcher secretly wondered if the ones he couldn’t remember were worse in their content.
Collecting his thoughts and double checking his papers as the automated conductor announced their impending arrival, Hatcher stretched his back and legs and walked around the cabin to finish waking up. The overhead storage bin came open with a cursory grab of the handle and Hatcher reached in to grab his git bag but was unable to stop it from falling onto the floor of the cabin. Reaching to pick it up, he began to go over in his mind his security routine for exiting the Madrid train terminal. He heard the snap as he shouldered the git bag and knew that the scan-defeating mesh had finally stressed its last.
Ducking into a bathroom as soon as the train had stopped moving, Hatcher occupied one of the stalls long enough to remove the remaining mesh lest it start cracking and tearing while he was in public, possibly drawing unwanted attention. He tore it into manageable chunks and inserted them into the toilet for their watery send-off.
Shuffling with the rest of the passengers towards the train exit, Hatcher stepped into the warm, Spanish sunlight and donned his imitation Oakley-Chiba thermonuclear resistant polarized sunglasses. Hatched had bought the glasses simply because that bit of marketing nonsense had made him laugh. A brief walk through the terminal and he found himself outside trying to hail a cab.
He wondered how Dragon would look after all this time.