Nobody could work out how Joe Donovan had managed to run the last fifty feet with his guts hanging out, the maroon mass cradled in his arms like a running back hustling for the drive, the snow in his wake speckled with cherry-blossom spatters of pink.
Polaris Squad stood at the hatch of the military compound, willing their comrade to make the last twenty feet to base.
“He’s not gonna make it,” Greg Marx grimaced, hunching over in sympathy.
“He’s made it this far. Why not all the way?” Liz ‘San’ Diego snapped.
“Because of that,” Greg answered grimly, pointing ahead.
It was difficult to see further than where Joe was slowing, his footsteps beginning to weave. This was due not only to the blinding sheets of ice and snow that covered the terrain but the plumes of steam that billowed out from the waterfall. Polaris base had been purposefully constructed beside the Havasu Falls, built with ferocious heat lamps that kept the sub-zero temperature at bay. It was the camp’s only source of running water, and while it couldn’t exactly be referred to as ‘fresh,’ having been recycled on a loop, it was as good as it got since the New Ice Age had struck earth. San squinted through the steam and saw vague movement in the distance. After a gurgling screech, the creature’s hulking white shape burst into view.
“Run Joe!” Bunce yelled, hopping up and down a little on his tiptoes. He turned to Greg and raised his pale eyebrows, the expression lengthening his doughy face. “Why can’t we go get him, boss?”
“Because you’re an idiot,” a few members of Polaris muttered. It was a stock-standard response to Bunce’s questions, of which he asked many each day. A shrapnel incident during the Rime War of sixty-three had left the soldier with no short-term memory, and a long-term memory that ceased at age seven. Because of the team’s now instinctive reply, Bunce rarely expanded his already limited knowledge.
“What the fuck are those things?” San breathed, shuddering. Yesterday’s debriefing had been clear; she watched the photos and videos of the Ningen and should have known exactly what to expect. But seeing them on the screen just wasn’t the same. She watched it gaining on Joe, a fifteen-foot white blob in the sauna-like haze.
The soldier almost came to a stop, his face twisted in hopeless agony. He must have been able to hear the creature gaining on him, felt the ice rumbling under his boots.
“Ah, fuck,” Greg muttered. “He’s a goner.”
The beast loomed over Joe, standing almost three times his size, its long neck craning up and over. Joe’s head tilted back, exposing his angular Adam’s apple, and the shock of the sight of the creature caused him to drop his guts. They unfurled, tumbling down the front of his grey and white issue khakis.
A gunshot rang out in San’s ear, jolting her out of her stunned awe. Joe spun to the side and hit the snow, the trail of his guts hidden under his dead body, the bullet having passed through his left eye and out the back of his head, a dark splodge against his stark grey hair.
Commander Rale lowered her rifle as the creature turned its attention from Joe to the cluster of living prey waiting at the hatch. “Everybody in. Now!”
They slipped through the concealable entrance, one of only three that existed around the three-mile complex. Tucked away in the caverns opposite the falls, Polaris base wasn’t the worst place San had ever been assigned to. The corridors were well-lit and spacious, and each soldier had their own modest quarters—a rare luxury. The heated falls provided a steady stream of water that was pumped to the wash-rooms and cafeteria, and each of the squad were allowed a three-minute shower and three small bottles of sanitized water each day. Compared to what she had in previous assignments, San felt as though she had finally made it.
The soldiers’ footsteps pounded down the slanted metal floor, the squad subdued after facing the onslaught. This had been their first experience of the beast, their objective to lure it to the falls and try to kill it in the process. The briefing had suggested the task might be beyond all possibility, but San and the others had held out a quiet confidence that they would get the job done without any need of the falls. Now, they knew; their optimism was unfounded.
San followed Greg into the great hall and stood, waiting for the whole team to return.
A distant clang echoed as the entrance hatch was closed and locked. San anxiously glanced at the four soldiers standing with her in the room. They waited.
Rale entered a moment later, moving to the wooden lectern, a futile gesture when there were so few people left to address. The previous day, there had been thirty soldiers sitting, listening to her instructions.
“Polaris. We’ve taken a severe and immeasurable hit today.”
“Wait, Commander,” Greg held up his palm, hesitantly. Nobody usually spoke when Rale was on the stand.
Surprising them all, she gave a small nod, allowing his question.
“Shouldn’t you wait for the others to get in?”
Rale’s eyes shot to the ground for a moment, her shoulders squaring as she composed herself to reply. Solemnly, her eyes skimmed the group before landing on Greg. “This is it, Sergeant. This is what’s left of Polaris.”
San sat at her desk and waited for the presentation to begin. The screensaver on the huge cinema screen showed old photographs of the world Before. The sun rising over the Grand Canyon. A Hawaiian beach filled with bikini-clad revelers drinking cocktails from straws that poked out between brightly colored umbrellas. A Dutch windmill in autumn, the trees behind it bursting with leaves of red and gold.
San averted her gaze, staring down at her clasped hands and trying to dispel a wave of panic. She was usually fine. She could cope with the freezing cold and the barren landscape. She didn’t mind the endless repetition of a life that consisted of keeping warm and surviving, but she had the kind of personality that always wanted what it couldn’t have. And when she was shown images of women striding down sunlit streets in pretty dresses, or sinking into a bubble bath with an ice-cold glass of wine in their hands, she felt her loss as suddenly and savagely as if the New Ice Age had come yesterday, and not ten years prior to her birth. She consciously slowed her breathing, and gradually felt her heart settle into a regular beat.
Commander Janus Rale stepped up to the wooden podium and tapped the microphone. “You all hear me okay?”
The room mumbled the affirmative.
Rale nodded, then hunched over for a moment, her hands gripping the lectern as she gathered her thoughts. Eventually, she lifted her head, her red bobbed hair tumbling back into place. “Look, I know you’re all wanting to know why you’re here. You’ve heard talk of the creatures. Probably disbelieved the rumors. But I’m here to tell you that we are now facing a threat the like of which we hadn’t seen prior to the New Ice Age. The altered climate brought with it something we could never have foreseen. The creatures only came to light eight days ago. They have spread far and fast. America is well and truly under attack. The recording that you are about to watch came directly from the White House. It is an official issue. It is accurate. It may not be what any of you want to hear, but it’s happening, and I need you all to pay attention.”
At the woman’s nod, the lights dimmed, and Rogers flicked the switch on the projector.
The screen filled with a standard confidentiality warning. It faded to black. A photograph appeared, from a long time Before. San could tell from the way the people in the image were dressed. Although, from their surroundings, they could just have easily been in the current ice age. They were flanked by glaciers, the ship moored in the snow, its hull coated with a crust of ice. The man at the head of the picture looked proudly into the lens, his beard spattered with icicles, a stream of frozen snot making tunnels from his nostrils to his upper lip. He gestured with a gloved hand to two men behind him who were carrying a large crate towards the boat.
A voice-over began, an English accent that enunciated each word with careful precision. “Antarctic, the year Nineteen Fifteen.”
Cox spun in her chair and caught San’s eye, knitting her eyebrows in confusion.
San shrugged a shoulder. “Watch and find out,” she mouthed to her oldest friend, hoping she could see her well enough in the dim room. Lacey Cox was the only squad member wearing short sleeves, her skin somehow insulated against the freezing temperatures. She was renowned for wearing vests when the rest of Polaris swaddled themselves in padded foil parkas. She wore her long black hair in a plait, which swung back and forth as she turned her attention back to the screen.
“Explorer and archaeologist Duke Monroe headed a small team of twelve men at the behest of King George. Their mission: To find the elusive Ningen and return with a specimen for the London Zoo.”
Another black and white image flashed up on screen, this time showing a smudged pale blob against a black background.
“The team had already captured one adult Ningen on film the previous year, as you can see in this photograph.”
There was a snort at the back of the room, followed by a few titters from other soldiers. San turned to see Joe Donovan covering his smirk with his hand and sinking lower in his chair so that Rale couldn’t see him laughing. She understood being skeptical of the photo—it could have been anything. But Rale had told them this was no joke. She believed her.
“During their second mission, the adult Ningen remained in the freezing waters and did not engage onshore. Monroe found the creatures to be much larger than first anticipated, and almost conceded defeat, set to return home with their already secret mission a not entirely unexpected failure.”
The image switched again.
“Imagine the team’s surprise when they came across a cluster of egg-like pods in a nest at the base of one of the glacial mountains. Monroe was overjoyed. The mission was deemed a success. They would take the eggs home to hatch at London Zoo, which would then sell multiple Ningen to the highest bidders. King George would be thrilled.”
The photo—black and white and with the same grainy smudges as the others—showed nothing more than a case of white balls. They could have been anything, San thought, but the slide changed to another, more recent image of the eggs. The photo had been taken Before, she noted, sunlight cutting through a window behind the box, the museum specimen room illuminated with natural light. The sight of the golden haze took her breath away.
“Unfortunately for Monroe, but luckily for humanity, the eggs remained static. No matter what techniques were attempted, science was unable to find a solution. Some even suggested foul play—that the eggs were nothing more than manipulated jellyfish. A Barnum-inspired sideshow trick. The box was shipped from country to country at the turn of the twenty-first century, where science identified that the tissue belonged to a cryptid—a creature as yet unknown to science. But still, the eggs lay dormant. The box was eventually forgotten, dumped in a storage facility at The Museum of Natural History. But then the New Ice Age hit Earth.”
The screen reverted to a crude cartoon, showing the cluster of eggs in warm temperatures in the year 2025. San watched the sketched thermometer dropping with the advancing ice age, the eggs enduring the gradually lowering climate until the ‘magic temperature’ hit. The eggs began to glow yellow. The creatures hatched.
The video flicked through a range of rapid CCTV clips, taken from the abandoned museum. Small white creatures the size of cats frolicked through the rotting exhibits. The cameras flicked from room to room, showing the white marshmallow-like bipeds growing as they destroyed cabinets and smashed trays of precious specimens housing samples of life Before. The final image captured one of the creatures in the Egytian exhibit, its face submerged in the bandaged dried jerky flesh of a mummy. It let out a screech and leapt through the window into the snow outside.
The voiceover spoke in an ominous tone. “The creatures rampaged far and wide, making monumental ground. Every ice settlement they came upon has been completely decimated. America’s population has declined by 50 percent in the last week.”
“Fifty?” Greg called out as the room erupted in gasps. “How can that be?”
“Eyes on the tape!” Rale barked.
More CCTV, this time the huge creatures traipsing up to campsites, tearing tents and the occupants to shreds before treading casually through the snow and ice, the terrain a perfect camouflage.
Bunce spoke up, “I still don’t understand why it got so cold. I thought climate change was meant to make it all hot? How come it’s so cold?”
“Because you’re an idiot,” Greg sighed through a roomful of hissed shushes.
San sat up in her chair when the footage grew more violent. The Ningen attacked the heavily fortified settlement at Chicago, tearing through the solar camp and ripping civilians to shreds. The snow melted into raspberry slush at the monsters’ clawed feet.
The voice-over dropped an octave, and somber music started to play over a still of one of the beasts at full height, standing and ripping a soldier in half. “We are in negotiations with Mexico to allow us to send our President and hopefully a number of civilians through the wall. As far as we can see at this time, Mexico is the only safe place.”
Cox whipped round in her chair and grinned, her eyes alight with ironic mirth. San couldn’t help but laugh at the irony, along with a number of the other soldiers in the room.
“Settle,” Rale snapped.
Comments on the political movements of the past fifty years were strictly prohibited in the compounds. San knew better than to say anything out loud. But still, she took a little pleasure in the fact that the wall was keeping civilians in relative safety. And that those who had supported its construction were in imminent danger on the other side of its parameters.
San shuffled on her seat, trying to get the blood flowing to her numbed ass. On the screen, the picture displayed a fully grown Ningen. “The Ningen are fifteen to twenty feet tall. There were rumours that those originally seen in the Arctic were thirty feet. Perhaps given enough time, the hatchlings will also reach this height, but we do not intend to allow them to grow. It is no mistake that the army has been placed at the sites of the largest artificial water systems in the country. The Ningen seem almost impervious to bullets, but heat appears to be their nemesis. You will now turn your attention to your commander for a full debriefing.”
Rale re-took the stand. Hands shot up into the air around the room, but she ignored them. She rarely had time for anything other than her own agenda. “As you know, the water systems in the falls consist of gentle heaters that make the water just warm enough to prevent ice form. We have installed new, high-performance heaters powerful enough to boil the falls. Our mission is to draw the Ningen to the falls and watch it boil.”
“How will the Ningen know to go to the water?” Cox asked in a clear voice, not bothering with her hand.
“Research has shown that bodies of falling water are the Ningen’s chosen habitat. We do not yet know why, but we do intend to exploit the fact. The first step in this mission will be to draw the beast to the falls.”
“But that’s crazy – the falls are right next to the compound.” Greg sputtered.
“Won’t that be convenient for coming battles?” Rale gave the Sergeant a tight smile.
“Alright, that’s enough information for one day. Tomorrow, we strike. In bocca al lupo!”
At the good luck chant, the squad lifted punching fists and gave their bellowed response: “May the wolf die!”
San woke up with the sick feeling of survivor guilt in her gut. She knew it well. The ice wars had raged on for years, but their dwindling population had faced nothing like this.
Just one Ningen had ripped through Polaris and almost eradicated them. Five left. It felt like a sick joke. And there was no chance of calling for cavalry. All soldiers were positioned at various bases across America, each squadron with one goal in mind: driving the Ningen in their area to bodies of rigged water and hoping that they boil.
Joe and the others hadn’t lost their lives in vain the previous day, at least. Once the hatch to the compound had been closed, the Ningen paced the perimeter for twenty minutes before losing interest. Nobody was sure whether it would approach the water of its own accord. After all, those things were so new—so alien—surely any kind of scientific assumption was based on nothing more than a hunch. But the CCTV had picked up the creature slowly ambling to the falls, striding purposefully through the streaming water.
As far as they could tell, it was staying put. Just where they wanted it. A sitting duck.
San strolled into the canteen and balked at the unusual quiet. The remaining squad sat hunched over meager plates, picking at their breakfast in somber silence. She ladled a spoonful of eggs and grabbed a hunk of stale toast, then carried her tray over to where Cox and Greg sat opposite each other. They nodded as she slid into place beside Greg and poured a mug of tepid coffee.
“Too damn quiet, right?” he asked her, pushing his plate away.
Bunce leaned over from the table behind them. “You don’t want that, boss?”
“Knock yourself out.”
The private grinned and switched tables, pulling Greg’s discarded tray towards him and devouring his leftovers. If there was one good thing about Bunce’s lingering head injuries, it was his incapacity to dwell on the dire states they got themselves into. He was always cheerful, and although the squad acted like he was an irritant, he was considered by each with the fondness of a hapless younger sibling.
Cox sipped her coffee and leaned back, nudging San’s shin with her toe. As usual, she was comfortable in just a T-shirt, her abnormally thick skin not even speckled with goose-flesh in the sub-zero temperatures. “How are you feeling about today?”
“Yeah. Yesterday was a disaster, but at least we got the fish in the barrel, right?”
Greg pulled the team’s hand-held tech from his belt and tinkered with an electronic map of the falls. The heaters glowed yellow on screen. “It should work. I don’t see why it wouldn’t. Provided the water heats up quickly enough, there’s no reason why we can’t nail that sucker where he stands.”
Cox grinned. “In bocca al lupo, right?”
“May the wolf die.”
Bunce wiped his mouth and dropped his fork on the empty plate. “Hey, why do we say that about the wolf again?”
“Because you’re an idiot,” Greg and Cox chimed together.
Bunce let out a chuckle, never one to take heart at his allocated catchphrase. He sat up straight and raised his hand to his brow in a salute, and San turned to see Commander Rale stalk into the cafeteria.
“We move out in five, people. You’d better finish up. Those of you who haven’t had a chance to eat yet—tough. Get your asses out to the entrance, or I’ll throw you into the boiling falls myself.”
San stood beside Greg and watched him key in the code to increase the voltage to the extra heaters. A warning popped up on the screen, and he swiped it away. Within moments, a rumbling sound cut through the drone of the falling water, and the still surface in the outer pool began to shimmy, bubbles pluming up from the depths.
Polaris erupted into whoops and cheers as the water began to boil, thick steam pouring out over the canyon.
From somewhere deep in the caves behind the sheet of tumbling water, something screamed.
They snapped from their reverie and lifted their rifles, training them on the falls.
Rale pulled her binoculars from her belt and scanned the area. “Okay, team. We know the Ningen isn’t gonna like this one bit. It’s likely to come on the attack, but hopefully, the heat will have weakened it sufficiently enough to—hey, what the hell?”
The commander lowered her binoculars, no longer needing them as the vapor suddenly vanished, and the air switched to ice-cold once more. The bubbling water fell calm, and sheets of ice began to form in the shallow pools around the rocks.
Greg swore, checking the scanner. “The heater’s generator lost power. It looks like it’s blocked.”
“So, what do we do now?” San asked, straining to listen for signs of the creature. Everything was quiet behind the gently tumbling falls.
“Someone’s got to go in and unblock it,” Greg said, grimly.
“No, he’s right,” Rale confirmed, in her no-nonsense tone. “It’s the only way.”
“Could we think on it a little longer? There may be something else we could try.”
“There’s no time. Getting the falls to boil is our one shot against these creatures. We are here to do a job, Sergeant Diego.”
Rale turned to the remaining squadron and barked a stiff order to fall in line.
San joined her ever-thinning team, a squad that only the day before stood to attention in five rows of five, but now stood in one forlorn gang of four.
“The heater’s generator has been compromised. Debris of some kind is blocking the line. I need one of you to go in there and remove the obstruction.”
Bunce held his hand up. “I’ll go.”
Cox jabbed him in the ribs with her bare elbow and shook her head, tightly.
“What?” Bunce looked confused.
Rale wasted no time and strode forward, standing close to Bunce and peering into his eyes.
“Private, you understand that this is a dangerous mission. You need to enter the water. The Ningen will be very close to you. As soon as the pipe is unblocked, the water will begin to boil. Do you understand the implications of the mission you are undertaking?”
“Alright, Private Bunce. I am entrusting you with this task. I have faith that you will succeed. For Polaris!”
“For Polaris!” the group echoed.
Greg moved from the line and clapped a hand on Bunce’s shoulder, showing him the map.
“Okay, buddy. This is the blocked pipe. You need to enter the front left quadrant, swim ten feet, and make your way to Tunnel B. You got that?”
Bunce frowned, concentrating hard on the map. “I got it.”
“Okay, I’ll be here on the com, but you’re gonna want to stay as quiet as you can or the Ningen will hear. If you get stuck, you can speak. But if not, stay quiet. Okay?”
“Okay, Greg. I got it.”
Bunce gave the group a lopsided smile and raised a hand. “Okay, you guys. Wish me luck.”
Polaris murmured their best wishes. Cox grinned, “In bocca al lupo…”
“May the wolf die!” the others chorused.
Bunce looked puzzled. “Hey, why do we even say that again?”
For once, the team remained silent, the usual insult forgotten. Greg nudged a fist into Bunce’s chest. “Don’t worry about it, buddy. You go get ’em, now.”
“Oh. Okay,” Bunce turned and began striding through the snow towards the falls.
Polaris kept their guns trained on their comrade, back-up in case of a sudden attack. They knew that their weapons were almost useless against their arctic foe but hoped their bullets might prove to be enough of a distraction to allow Bunce to run to safety should he need to.
San kept her sights on the falls, waiting for a looming white figure to appear behind the gushing water. Nothing moved but the torrent of warmed water.
Bunce approached the eastern bank and crouched, gingerly inching his booted foot into the lapping water. He glanced back at the troupe and grinned. Then he pushed himself off the embankment and slipped into the waist-high water.
Greg adjusted his headset, holding the digital map close, ready to instruct the hapless soldier should he get lost. With Bunce, there was a fine chance of that. Hell, San thought, he might forget what he’s doing entirely and head in the wrong direction. She was grateful for the trackers fitted to their sternums, the faint fleck of blue on the screen telling Greg where Bunce would be at all times. “Glad you’ve got the tracker on him.”
“It’s a shame we can’t get trackers into the damned Ningen,” Greg muttered with a wry smile.
“Would make our lives a hell of a lot easier.”
“Are you volunteering to undertake that task?” Rale asked, sharply.
“Didn’t think so. And I also think that if you can’t work out where a Ningen is without being shown on a screen, you’ve got a serious eyesight issue.”
Greg dipped his head and suppressed a surprised laugh, his eyebrows flickering towards his hairline. The usually grim commander was uncharacteristically perky, the worst of situations bringing out the best of her humor. He opened his mouth to give a tentative reply when his mic gave a bursting fizz as Bunce breathed into the open line.
“Greg? Hey Greg…” Bunce spoke.
“Ssh! Don’t forget to keep your voice down in there, buddy,” Greg hissed.
“Right, right…” Bunce lowered his volume to a mumble, and San could hear the echoing sound of the soldier wading through the water, the steady churn of the falls behind him. “I just got to thinkin’ I might be a little lost.”
“No, you’re doing good.” Greg peered down at the monitor. “The pipe is straight up ahead. When you get to a hole in the side wall, that’s where the heater is situated.”
San huddled closer to Greg, listening intently as Bunce shuffled through the depths, his arms causing splashes as they cut the surface. “He really needs to cool it with the noise,” she warned.
“I know.” Greg nodded and lifted his mic, whispering, “Bunce, go slower through the water. Those splashes sound pretty loud. Remember, those assholes can hear.”
The noises eased until the only sound was the static rumble of the falls echoing around the caverns. A few moments later, the blue light on the monitor reached the yellow dot that indicated the blocked heater. Bunce’s voice sounded once more. “Okay, I’m at the entrance to the generator. I’m gonna reach in.”
“Careful, now. We don’t know what’s in there, remember.”
“I got my fingers on something…it feels like material.”
“Material?” Rale queried, with a frown. “Why would there be material down there?”
“I’m gonna give it a tug.”
The group listened to the sounds of Bunce yanking at the blockage, groaning with exertion.
“It’s coming…I got it. It’s AGH!”
Greg nearly dropped the monitor at Bunce’s piercing cry. “Shit, what is it?”
“It’s Joe! It’s Donovan’s chest with no arms or legs!”
Cox shook her head. “Get him out of there, Greg. If that thing didn’t hear him scream, I’ll eat my own fucking head.”
“Get out of there, buddy! Water temp is rising.”
“I know, I can feel it.”
The group listened as Bunce began to swim, the choppy kicks of a bumbling front crawl.
“Remember to keep quiet…” Greg hissed.
“Negative, Sergeant!” Bunce cried, panting. “The enemy has me in its sights anyway.”
“Oh, shit!” Cox hissed. “How far is he from the edge?”
“Just a click.”
Bunce’s voice came over the speaker. “Dang, Sarg, it’s getting hotter than a whore’s armpit down here.”
“You’re almost out, Bunce. Where is the Ningen?”
“I dunno. I think he’s in the water with me. Ouch, my god, this water’s startin’ to sting!”
“The good news is that there’s plenty of ice out here to help your burns, Private.”
“Hah! I hear that! Okay, I’m almost out, I can see the edge.” They listened as a burst of static cut through the com, followed by a muffled cry.
Greg’s back grew stiff. “Bunce?”
The team craned their necks as a collective, as though straining to hear their comrade would make his voice magically appear down the coms line.
“Shit!” Cox blurted, kicking at the frozen ground.
They stared at the falls, the water now churning and bubbling, the great blanket of thick steam re-emerging and floating towards them.
Behind the tumult, an inhuman screech rang out. The Ningen.
Rale stepped forward, raising her pistol. “Okay, it’s working. That was a scream of pain.”
“Or anger,” San mumbled, unease creeping through her system.
Rale lifted an arm, motioning for the team to stay put, and trotted forward a few paces. “I think I see something.”
The mist was thickening, the water rumbling to fervent temperatures. San squinted, trying to visualize the falls as the sheet of white closed it off. Through the murk, a black speck became visible. It grew larger as it hurtled towards them.
Rale flew back three feet and landed sprawled on the ice, hit by a missile that had been thrown from the falls with inhuman force. The object pinned her to the ground. San realized with sudden sick clarity that it was Bunce’s torso, limbs shorn away, his boiled skin blistering and pink all over, his hair hanging from a slack scalp and dripping into Rale’s mouth.
Greg lurched forward and grabbed the corpse’s shoulder, lifting it away from the commander. One of Bunce’s eyes plopped from its shattered housing and draped over Rale’s cheek, dangling from the optic nerve.
“Get it off me!” The usually stoic commander barked, and San dashed forward to help Greg. It wasn’t that Bunce’s chest was particularly heavy. It was just impossible to find enough purchase to grip, the bubbling skin slippery and blubberlike in their hands. Together, they wrestled the hunk of flesh to the side, and Rale clambered to her feet, visibly shaken.
Greg moved to comfort her and found himself on the receiving end of a sharp slap.
“Don’t you dare touch me, Sergeant!” Rale bit, then whipped her head in the direction of the falls as the Ningen shrieked again.
San had heard that cry out on the field.
A battle cry.
A gentle gust of wind whipped eerily through the canyon, carrying the brunt of the mist with it and giving Polaris a sudden clear view of the waterfall.
The Ningen burst through the sheet of water and stood for a moment, the blistering stream coursing down its back. It clenched its hands at its sides, lifted its head, and roared, sending an avalanche of both real and artificial rock tumbling down around it. Snorting, it pitched forwards and began to race towards them.
“Hold your ground, Polaris!” Rale yelled.
San’s hands quivered as she lifted her rifle, took aim, and fired at the Ningen’s bulbous head. She aimed as best as she could towards what appeared to be the creature’s eyes, but she couldn’t be sure. It was like fighting a giant marshmallow.
The Ningen pounded over the ground toward them, and suddenly the wind dropped, the cavern filling with mist once more and plunging the air into silence.
San heard nothing but her own rapid breathing, the fogging exhalations trailing her gun through the white. Even the muzzle of the gun was swept up in the steam. The fog stung her eyes. She blinked through tears and struggled to listen for the creature. With the fall of the sudden mist, the Ningen’s pounding footsteps had halted.
“Where the fuck is it?” Greg cried.
Cox sent a burst of shots ringing into the white.
“You see it?”
“No, but it’s worth a shot.”
As one, the team began to fire in the direction of where the Ningen had been charging towards them. It made no sense that it had come to a stop before finishing its assault. “Why isn’t it attacking?” San yelled.
Rale blasted her pistol into the ether. “I think it’s as confused by the mist as we are.”
San ceased fire and waited. For all they knew, their shots had done the trick, even if the boiling water hadn’t.
Following her lead, the team lowered their weapons and waited. The mist curling around their faces and limbs and giving them a peculiar ghostly appearance. San didn’t much care for that thought and tried to push it from her mind.
Cox looked over at her, her face almost obscured. “Do you think we killed it?”
The words were only just out of her mouth when a giant white fist sledgehammered down through the steam and smashed into the top of her head, pulverizing her into the ice. The mist around her grew pink, and the splashback of her blood exploding through her bursting skin dappled San’s face.
The wind gusted again, dissipating the steam, and San looked up to find the monster looming over them, gore from Cox’s disintegrated body streaking its right arm. It screamed in delight at finding its prey and reached down to pluck Rale up in its fist.
Greg began to fire at the hand, but his bullets were like gnat bites.
Rale tried to raise her pistol, but the monster squeezed, and her spine snapped and crunched, the pistol slipping from her paralyzed fingers and tumbling ten feet to the ground. The Ningen lifted her doll-like body to its face, opened its slit of a mouth, and bit off her head.
“God damnit!” Greg yelled, pulling out his machete and rushing to the creature’s feet. He leaped into the air and drove the knife down, the blade disappearing into the strange luminescent flesh.
Unperturbed, the Ningen tossed Rale’s body to the side and spat her head from its mouth, launching it like a cannonball.
San dodged the tumbling head and ran around the side of the creature, scanning its body and looking for weakness. Catching a glimpse of its back, she blinked up and felt a flicker of hope before the mist once more closed in on the scene. Where the scalding falls had tumbled down the monster’s back, the shimmering white flesh had turned a mottled grey, some of the skin hanging torn and singed, revealing pink inner flesh beneath. Their plan was good, after all. They had to get it back into the falls.
San wanted to yell out to Greg but needed to get into a better position before attracting the Ningen’s attention. She pumped through the snow and ice, her feet sliding, losing traction in the sludge created by the heat from the newly boiling falls. She made her way through the steam, slowing when the noise from the water grew closer. The last thing she needed was to fall in and boil to death before she’d even got the Ningen to attack.
Once positioned at the side of the falls, San tugged a flare from her belt and set it blaring, tossing it at her feet. She could hear gunshots and the roar of the monster coming from the direction of the attack. She wished she could see what was going on and willed the wind to gust through the canyon once more.
All fell silent, except for the steady thrum of the bubbling falls to her right. The vapor billowed, growing thicker. She could feel it in the back of her throat when she breathed, and her eyes streamed hot liquid over her cheeks whenever she blinked. The flare burnt itself out. All remained quiet.
Everything was white. The white of the earth at her feet. The white of the steam and the white of the bleak, cloud-covered sky. The white of the Ningen. How ironic, she thought, that she had one foe in this battle, and it had become completely camouflaged by the very weapon they had chosen to use against it.
She waited, blinking in the mist.
As gently as she could, San reached for her second flare, then froze. She could have sworn she heard a grunting sound coming from the mist in front of her. She abandoned the flare and reached instead for her pistol, lifting it from its holster and holding it steady in front of her chest.
A shape loomed in front of her. Her finger fluttered over the trigger, ready. But the visage was dark and human-height, and as it inched closer, she could see that it was Greg.
“Jesus, man,” she hissed, lowering the weapon. “You scared me half to death.”
Through the vapor, Greg’s head tilted to one side, dropping toward his shoulder.
“It’s me…it’s San.” She strode forward.
Greg moved closer at the same time, his movements eerily smooth. The steam parted around his features when he came near enough for San to reach out and touch him. His eyes were open, but the lids drooped at the edges. His mouth twisted down in an exaggerated sneer, and his skin had a blueish tinge. Still, he stepped forward. Or, more accurately, he glided. The tracking device dropped from his fingers and landed at her feet.
San gently pressed her palm into his chest, and his body rocked against her touch.
She blinked, taking in the peculiar tilt of his head, his unfocused stare, and the way his body swayed as though it was dangling from a thread, puppet-like.
A smooth white spike protruded from Greg’s neck, a trickle of rapidly drying blood streaking down under his collar. Above San, the Ningen sniffed the air, disturbing the steam enough for her to make out its looming white shape. It had stuck its fingertip through Greg’s neck and was pushing him along. A lure.
San rolled backward, dodging the strike just in time.
The Ningen lifted its hand to the side and swung it back, Greg’s body a pendulum in the space where she had just been standing.
San scrambled to her feet and grabbed the tracker, shoving it into her belt. She dashed towards the wall of rocks, hooking her fingers around the jutting handholds and hauling herself up the rock face. To her left, the bubbling falls steamed, splashes of scalding water dappling her clothing. She braced herself against the sudden shock of the burns against her skin and flung herself sideways, behind the flow of the falls.
It was like a sauna, the thundering noise of the tumbling water enveloping her senses, the hot steam scalding her lungs and sending droplets of sweat cascading from her pores.
She heard the Ningen erupt into a scream of frustration at losing her. It was primed for attack. Now was her best chance at getting it to give chase.
San rested back into a crevasse, leaning hard into her backside and pressing her feet against the solid rock beneath her. She lifted the second flare from her belt and struck it, sparking it to life. She held it out in front of her, the red shine illuminating the water and making her feel as though she was sitting in an erupting volcano.
The Ningen burst through the falls, the red water tumbling down its shoulders. It stood for a moment under the torrent, its slit-like eyes screwed up hard against its smooth, marshmallow face. San raised her machine gun, holding off on using it. She didn’t want to push the creature back out of the falls before it had sustained significant injury.
The monster seemed puzzled. It stood frozen under the scalding flow, watching her watching him. It let out a small screech, and white blubber-like flesh began to sluice from its shoulders, revealing pink matter below. It turned its head to peer at one of its stripped shoulders, and the stream caught its cheek. Its face eroded, white flesh tumbling into its neck.
It was working.
Seeing her chance, San trained the machine gun on the exposed pink under-flesh and shot a quick-fire round of bullets into its face.
The Ningen dropped to its knees, shaking the falls. Rocks scattered down the mountain face around her and San flung her elbow back into the crevasse to steady herself. Secured, she fired again, her bullets trailing over the sides of the monster where the water was coursing, tearing layer after layer of skin from its body. Chunks of pink matter exploded from the creature’s diminished frame. It gave a bemused-sounding groan, pitched forward, and landed half-face first in the bubbling basin of the waterfall.
San waited a few moments, watching the scalding stream eat through its back, cutting the creature’s body in two. Like a fatty chicken carcass dissolving in the stew pot, soon, all that remained of the Ningen were floating blobs of decimated and ragged white flesh. It was dead.
But at what cost? Her elation quickly dampened. The rest of Polaris had been wiped out.
San took the electronic tracker from her belt and typed in her code. Recalling the steps Greg had taught her in debriefing, she disabled the secondary heaters, ensuring the primary warmers were still engaged so that she would have fresh water in the complex while she waited for extraction.
She scrambled out from behind the falls and retreated down the rock face, dropping into the sludgy snow. The cessation of the heaters caused the steam to dissipate. It was hazy, but clear enough to get her general bearings. San set off striding towards the entrance to the mission base. She wiped sweat from her face with her sleeve and blinked a few times, adjusting to her surroundings now that the thick blanket of white was beginning to lift.
She was almost at the camp when she found the spatters of blood indicating where Cox had fallen. She stopped and gave a momentary thought to her friend. Rale lay a few meters away, her headless corpse twisted, limbs tangled and squeezed.
The hairs on San’s neck bristled as she suddenly felt eyes on her, the heart-sinking sensation of being watched. She spun on her heels.
A second Ningen stepped out of the thinning mist, no more than two meters away from her. It let out a horrifying scream, another battle cry.
Flexing its fingers, revealing five-inch talons as white as the ground at her feet, it stepped forward and swiped before San had time to think about lifting her gun. Not that it would have made much difference, she knew.
She saw her own chest rising up to meet her face, her view skimming all the way down the front of her torso and thighs as her head and shoulders pitched into an extreme forward bend. She would have touched her toes, but her arms hung loose, all signals to her brain severed at the spine.
San’s face and shoulders landed in the snow, and for a few seconds, all she could see was white.