Admiral Dale Bridges had been having one of those days that started out badly and, instead of improving, got progressively worse.
It had begun with being hauled into the Oval Office for a chat with the President. It wasn’t the first time in his career he’d been called to speak directly to the leader of the free world, but it was the first time he’d been called in for what, ultimately, was a dressing down.
“Admiral, I just want to be clear that I understand what happened here,” the President had said, pinching the bridge of his nose between his thumb and forefinger. “You got a lead on this man, this Antichrist, this god – whatever the hell he is – and he was in an apartment building with his sister?”
The President had paused there, waiting for a response. Bridges held out as long as politeness allowed before giving it, and even then he kept it to just a simple, “Yessir,” because that was what you said when the President asked you a question – even if it was for a question you had already answered.
“And, upon getting this information, without consulting this office, you decided to engage the target?”
The Admiral had to fight back the urge to roll his eyes. The man behind the desk, like so many of his predecessors, had not been a soldier. Expecting him to understand the need for rapid response was, clearly, too much.
Instead of voicing that, however, he stuck with what had worked so far. “Yessir.”
At that, the President of the United States of America, the leader of the free world, had slammed his hand on the desk like a teacher trying to get the attention of a particularly thick student. “You unilaterally authorized a strike on US civilians on US soil?!”
“Yessir.” It was amazing how politely insolent two syllables could sound with enough practice.
Even polite insolence could have serious repercussions for his career down the line, he knew. Admiral Bridges didn’t care. Project Myrmidon was his baby, and in the middle of a war for the fate of America and the world, relieving him from duty would be disastrous. The President might court martial him when this was all over, but Admiral Bridges didn’t care.
The only thing that mattered was stopping the Antichrist. Anything else – his career, his life, his president…maybe even his country – could be sacrificed in pursuit of that goal. That included his dignity, as he endured being taken to task by a man who would never truly understand what it meant to be at war.
Still, his temper had been frayed by the time he’d gotten back to the base. Then, on top of that, Doctor Parvathi had intercepted him. “Admiral, a moment please?”
Seeing the worried look in her eyes, hearing her tone, the Admiral wanted to take out his frustrations with the President out on her. Doing so would be childish, foolish, and above all else, reduce efficiency. His own feelings were among the things that could be sacrificed to save the world. Instead, he nodded for her to go ahead.
“The Black Stone had recently undergone a rapid unexpected chromatic metamorphosis, including a manifestation of an auditory abnormality. We’re not sure what it means, or what impact it could have.”
The Admiral had to take a moment to process it, and decided to ignore the fact that she’d made him stop to think through what she said. “So it changed color and started making a noise?.”
Doctor Parvathi nodded. “If you wish. To be even more accurate, it turned a deep red.”
“And the noise?”
“Well…sir, to be perfectly frank? It sounds like a heartbeat.”
As she said that, Admiral Bridges became aware of a sound that had been at the edge of hearing since he’d arrived back at the base. A deep, bass noise that was felt as much as heard.
Lub-dub. Lub-dub. Lub-dub.
“I see,” he said, although mostly what he saw was a puzzle without any useful answers. But now that he was aware of the sound, it was rapidly grating on his nerves. “Any change to the subject?”
The Doctor shook her head. “I’ve sent someone down to check. We’re having some interference on our comm- hey!”
But the Admiral was already moving, heading to the center of Operations. Several heads snapped to attention as he threw open the door. “Initiate lockdown! Now. The entire base!”
There was a half-second hesitation as the men and women in Operations took a moment to recognize who was giving the order, followed by a flurry of movement to carry it out. Buttons were pushed, switches were flipped, and all across the base doors and windows were sealed by steel shutters. Every interior door locked itself and would require high level access to open. The base switched to its own internal generator, and air filtration systems activated. They were completely cut off from the outside world. I’m so sorry I didn’t bother consulting you, Mr. President. he thought with an admittedly puerile sense of smugness.
“Admiral!” Doctor Parvathi said – she had the clearance to open doors, and used it to follow him into the room. “Don’t you think you’re overreacting? We still don’t know what the cause is, and have no reason to believe the subject is anything other than contained.”
He shook his head. “Better overreact and be wrong. Can someone raise whoever went down to check on the subject?”
Communication was still spotty. For several tense seconds, the radio belonging to the man sent down to the subject’s containment room – Sargent Mike Howard, Bridges gathered as they tried to reach him – was silent.
Then it crackled to life, and Bridges knew he’d made the right call. It was a woman’s voice on the other end, and although he’d never heard Bast speak, it contained exactly the arrogance he had expected from the monster in his basement. “I’m sorry; the Sargent can’t come to the phone right now. Please leave a message after the agonized scream.”
It’s a common claim that the sounds made by a man in extreme pain are somehow inhuman. Admiral Dale Bridges never really subscribed to that notion, and he’d heard men die too many times to count. But the sounds that Sargent Mike Howard made over the radio still chilled him to his core. There was a helplessness to his screams that wasn’t quite like anything the Admiral had heard before.
Silence reigned in Operations. Finally, the radio crackled to life again. “You were supposed to leave a message,” Bast said, her voice almost warm. Like they were two friends laughing over an inside joke.
He grabbed the radio. “This is Admiral Dale Bridges, United States Navy. Over.”
“Admiral. I had you pegged for a General. But thank you for your name.” The line went silent for a moment before coming back on for a single word. “Over.” The way she spat that word, you’d think it was a curse.
“Bast. We’re willing to listen to your demands. Perhaps we can reach an accommodation. Over.”
“My demands, Admiral?” Her tone gained harsh notes, unadulterated hatred layering over her voice. “You locked me down, prevented me from knowing even the most basic comforts. For weeks. Maybe even months. For so long I don’t even know time anymore.” Bast chuckled into the radio for a moment before continuing. “I don’t have demands, Admiral Dale Bridges. United States Navy. I have a story. Over.”
“Stay off comms,” he said before pushing the button to respond. “I want the Myrmidons taken and suited up. Now, go!” People began to move rapidly as he turned back to the radio and pushed the button so he would broadcast. “Very well,” he said, doing his best to keep his voice level. He was in charge, he was in control, and everyone needed to know it. “And what is this story? Over.”
Everyone not moving to activate the Myrmidon soldiers was staring now at the speaker, waiting for her response. It took a few more seconds, then her voice came through again.
“Long ago, my people were given an ultimatum by a vengeful angel. Maybe he was acting on God’s orders, maybe he wasn’t. I didn’t exactly ask. But it was a story I’m sure you know, Admiral. Every first born son would die, but he would pass over the houses that had been painted with the blood of a lamb, for that was how he’d know they were Hebrews. Do you know the story?”
It seemed she wasn’t going to say ‘over’ this time. The Admiral found himself nodding like she was there, a habit he’d never quite managed to break. “Yes, Bast. To free His chosen people from bondage, part of the plagues upon the pagans of Egypt. Over.”
“Spoken like a true believer, Admiral. Well, here’s my offer to you. I’m going to kill everyone in this base, one by one. There’s a few I might spare for my own reasons, but I’ll also spare anyone in a room that has a lambs blood painted over the door.” This time, she didn’t spit the final word, but purred it like cat batting at a mouse. “Over.”
The Admiral took a deep breath before responding. “The base is in lockdown. We don’t have any lambs here. Over.”
Her response was immediate and even more satisfied than that last word had been. “Well, isn’t that a shame.” Instead of ending the call, there was a squawking sound as the radio she held was destroyed.
The Admiral felt his own heart rate accelerate. He turned to Operations, making sure to include the entire room. “When we found this monster, she’d been stabbed to death. She may be ancient, she may be powerful, but we’ve made gods bleed already. We can kill her, and by God, we will.”
His tone seemed to give the men and women courage, and movement resumed. With Bast’s radio crushed, they could resume coordinating that way, even with the interference they were getting.
But beneath it all, underscoring the movement and the surge of confidence, still throbbed that omnipresent sound, the anomaly that had happened at the start of this all.
Lub-dub. Lub-dub. Lub-dub.