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Chapter no 3

Forgotten Ruin

I probably need to stop right there and tell you how exactly we got here, wherever here is. Surrounded by orcs. Trust me, an explanation of what Captain Knife Hand had to say next will sound a lot more rational and sane if I give you that much. Otherwise it would all just sound crazy.

And believe it or not, things still weren’t as crazy as they were gonna get. Crazy was gonna be an easy and good day in comparison to what was coming for us.

So there I am before I join the army. I just wrapped my sixth master’s degree in language, this time in Farsi. It took me seven degrees to finally realize that I hate academia and… I’ve got this crazy desire to be a soldier. I want to have an adventure. A real adventure. Not just travel to another country, take a few selfies, eat the local food, and record it all on Instagram.

I want to do something with my life before the day comes when I can’t do anything but wish I’d done something. So I start talking to the recruiters, and yeah, when they find out I speak a lot of languages they’re excited and offer me all kinds of fun things that may or may not be true. Bonuses. Choice of station… “How’d you like to go to Hawaii?” None of which really matter to me. I don’t think the recruiters really understood what they had in me. What I can really do with languages. They just get me into Basic Training and then I’m off to the Defense Language Institute at Monterey.

It wasn’t until Monterey that someone figured me out. I showed up at the Chinese School, an eighteen-month course, and tested out two days later. To be honest, it wasn’t fair. I already knew Chinese. Then we played a fun game where I ran through most of the other languages they offered and tested right through those, too.

It became kind of a game-show atmosphere for a couple of weeks after that. A general even showed up to watch. I should have known something was up then. The guy was from SOCOM and covered in badges and tabs and he looked like Captain Knife Hand’s older, angrier brother.

I’d already been to Jump School after Basic. And after the teachers at DLI were told in no uncertain terms they could not have me, I was sent off to learn how to Ranger on the introductory level at an abbreviated three- week RASP course designed especially for me and a few other intel

monkeys who were needed late in the game. Then a two-week intel school that was completely off-book. It was basically me and a guy who told me I could call him John but that that wasn’t his real name. I kid you not. It was in an airport Best Western out in Las Vegas. And not the good part of town. Then he drove me to Area 51 and dropped me off at the Ranger detachment’s temporary headquarters along the airfield.

And though I’d been in an isolation bubble of training for the previous six months, I knew a little bit about what was going on out in the world. Things were coming apart at the seams, and you could tell it was for real this time because the news networks weren’t saying a lot. It was their guy in the White House and they didn’t want him to look bad.

But thanks to Twitter and the internet you can source your own news if you don’t mind digging around and you follow the right people.

Strange stuff was happening outside my little military bubble. Everywhere, but mainly out in the third world along the edges. If you weren’t curious, you wouldn’t have connected the dots at all. But I’m good at pattern recognition and I was curious. Something wasn’t quite adding up for me as I began to look at the whole.

Machines were starting to come apart in China. And not from the usual shoddy manufacturing from the state-run factories. Cars. Airplanes. Brand- new airplanes, too, just crashing or disappearing out to sea with all lives lost. The Indians and the Pakis had gone to war but managed not to use nukes on each other. In fact, there was an early video of the two forces attacking one another with clubs and swords and one guy even using a bow and arrows. All of it during a border flare-up in Kashmir. There were lots of unexplained murders everywhere. And then there were the Mothman, Bigfoot, and aliens-type sightings and conspiracies. Oh, and blood-sucker cults. Stuff that sounded crazy and honestly too weird to be true. The kind of stuff that has been in tabloids, late night radio, and whispered over campfires for years. And sure, there were videos, but there’s also Deep Fake and people with too much time on their hands who get a thrill out of hoaxing other people. So what was true? And what wasn’t? Everything had to be taken with a grain of salt. Or just disbelief. Or… not wanting the pandemic to be what it was clearly shaping up to be. Something worse.

There was a collective creepy factor happening, though. People were starting to use the word monsters to describe what other humans were

driven to do.

In the US for the most part, things were still pretty cool. But not what you’d call normal. There was a general low-grade anxiety going around. Violent crimes were way up, and there were reports of those small towns in the northwest just going ghost. The people disappearing and someone showing up after two weeks to find a modern-day Roanoke Colony. If you don’t know what that means, look it up. It’s a slice of Americana that’s been memory-holed. But then again, anyone reading this probably has no idea how to look anything up anymore. That level of civilization is no longer available at this time. Please try again.

Markets were tanking and rich people were suddenly jetting off to private islands and pulling up the runway behind them. Movie productions slowed to a crawl. In other words, people were getting out of Dodge. Celebrities didn’t have time to make movies. They were aboard those planes heading toward those islands no one who wasn’t someone could get to.

It was clear the powers that be knew something was headed straight toward them. Toward all of us. A civilization-killer. They just didn’t know what it was. And they didn’t care about the rest of us if they did.

So there I was, along with the rest of the Ranger battalion and all the other elements that made up the JTF, Joint Task Force, along with several other special operations groups consisting of almost every branch you could think of. We were all gathered in one of those massive super-secret hangars out in the desert at Area 51. Yeah, that Area 51.

It was getting so surreal it just started to seem real.

Then we got the truth. With both barrels. Whether we liked it or not. There was a plague sweeping the world. There was no way to stop it.

So we were going forward in time.

Yup.

Forward in time with Forges and science teams to re-establish the government.

“How long?” someone asked.

“Indeterminate. We’re aiming for two to three years.” “How?” someone else asked.

“It’s called a quantum singularity tachyon gate. QST for short. We’re going through that into the near future.”

“Does it work?”

“It works… ish,” said the briefing lady in charge. The Baroness was up there next to her. She was part of that team. “We know it goes somewhere and we’re able to get a safety signal before the singularity window collapses on the other side. There’s no way to come back after that.” She didn’t try to soft-pedal it. It was a one-way trip. “But if you stay here, you’ll likely become a victim of the plague.”

“What exactly is this plague, anyway?”

“It’s a nano-plague. It destroys machinery and technology. It can also alter DNA, or even kill.”

“What do you mean by… alter DNA?”

Monsters.

“Classified.”

“What about our families? What if we don’t want to go?”

“Then you don’t go. You stay here and face the music. But if you want to save this country and everything it stands for, then we need you to go forward and re-establish the government and the rule of law. Because that’s precisely what you’ll have to do. We estimate that in six months, the world will be a lawless ruin. Being able to re-establish there, on the other side of the plague, may be the only chance your family and loved ones will have, if they’ve survived that long. The same goes for this country and the world. This is the only chance they’ll have for a better tomorrow. The only chance.”

C’mon, lady. Don’t make it easy on anyone.

“You are capable of performing this mission. But it’s your choice. Stay and face the consequences. Go and try to save what’s left. Either way the plague is coming, and there’s nothing that can be done to stop it or we would have already done so.”

“Will the plague be over in two years?” “Our top people say yes.”

Everyone in the hangar who was wearing a uniform was the type who really believed in that sort of stuff. The self-sacrifice and service to your country stuff. And they didn’t only believe… they lived it. I could tell. Normal people would have started crying, getting angry, blaming everyone, denying that all this was really happening to them. I believed it too, though the lay-your-life-down-for-your-country element had never been required of

me so far. At least, I was pretty sure I believed in it, and now I knew why they wanted a linguist who knew a lot of languages to go with them. Space was limited going through the QST. They wouldn’t want to waste it on a bunch of linguists when they could just bring one who knew a lot of languages along for the ride. Plus, a lot of spec ops types have excellent language training already. I was most likely a redundant catch-all.

And I was surrounded by people of the been there, done that type. The saved countless lives, if not the world, type. This was just Tuesday for them. Granted… it was a pretty big Tuesday. But they were the kind of people who go where normal, safety-loving, non-risk-taking people don’t want to go. The kind that gets dropped off by little black helicopters on garbage-strewn streets outnumbered but determined to try to pull some downed pilot back to safety. Heading toward the gunfire, when everyone else is running away.

I’m sure they all thought that way.

But later, one of the high-speed low-drag operator types explained it to me a little bit differently. He said it was the “Addiction of the Edge.” A kind of lure. Once you got to that level of operator operating, you were always looking for a new edge to jump off of. Or just any edge, because you were kind of addicted to it now. To the jumping.

It sounded cool. Except it was a problem. Because what happened when you weren’t required to save the world anymore and you still found yourself opening the hotel balcony door late in the night and standing on the railing? Looking at the drop and daring yourself to just jump, not because you wanted to kill yourself, but because that too was a kind of edge regardless of whether you had a parachute or not.

You’d been trained to jump off edges. For your country. So you’re always looking…

There are all kinds of edges in civilian life. Addictions. Crime. Law and order. Revenge. Relationships you shouldn’t be in and places you have no business being at. Edges abound if you’re always looking.

Places to jump from.

He told me he had to be careful around cliffs. Because there was this haunting siren call to just go for it. A voice inside telling him to jump. To take that first and last step into the void to see… to see if there’s an other side. Something waiting that no one’s found yet. I guess jumping out of

enough planes makes you think this way after a while.

Door kickers call it the fatal funnel. You might live, you might not. The feeling of making it to the other side is something no pharmacy can match.

And this was the biggest edge of all. The sharpest edge, the sheerest of drops, the potentially fatalist of funnels. The super-secret Area 51 hangar briefing couldn’t undersell that point enough to the junkies standing all around me. The edge of all edges. Go forward in time and save a ruined Earth. I don’t think anyone in the room hesitated for a second in that deep- down-inside super-raving lunatic self we all are that no one else knows about. That place where you’re completely honest with yourself about all the completely nutty stuff you want to do. Most of the highly trained and highly motivated people in the briefing were just trying to figure out how they were gonna tell their wives they were going.

That it was just another Tuesday, babe.

Also, there was PFC Tanner and probably a whole bunch more like him. He said that neither of the two strippers he’d married and had been divorced by in the last year would miss him much if he went. And there was a DUI pending at Joint Base Lewis-McChord that the command sergeant major was “pretty hacked off about.” So… why not?

We were all going. No one asked me if I wanted to go or not. Maybe that’s how clever they were about telling all of us there in the hangar. There was no one you could report to in the back of the room and say, Hey, this isn’t for meI just signed up for some college money and to maybe see the world. Good luck with the future and all. Hope it works out. I’ll just take off and let you guys get to saving future Earth without me holding you back. Thanks for the offer.

Again, this was not that kind of people.

Not even the air crews. They were highly trained too and had learned a lot of fun stuff. The cute co-pilot assured me of that.

There were fifty teams of this kind of people. Fifty C-17s going forward in time to restart the government. How? I’ll tell you about all that in a moment. It’s fairly underwhelming until you understand that you’ve violated mass, energy, and time. Somehow.

For the next week, I drew gear, got shots, trained with the Rangers, and got assigned to the command sergeant major who asked me, “What is it, exactly, that you do, PFC?” He had my thin little records jacket in front of

him. I told him I was just a linguist. He nodded. Then said in his gravelly, quiet drawl while picking up his Kindle to go back to his reading, “Try not to get in anyone’s way, son.”

He turned me over to Sergeant Kurtz for a day, who smoked me and the rest of his team by running the airfield three times just to show everyone that he hated everyone equally. And the day after that I went to the snipers to get to know them, and they were pretty chill about things. They didn’t think running fast made you a better shot. Sergeant Thor told me about surfing in Patagonia. I think the command sergeant major was sending me around to the rest of the sections to get familiarized with them when it came time to work with them two years in the future, doing whatever it was we were supposed to be doing when we arrived there tomorrow night.

And what was it we were supposed to be doing? We didn’t know. But if you had fighting an orc horde to the death on the Doomsday Bingo Board… well then, you turned out to be the grand prize winner.

There would be no grand prize winner. Not even that geek PFC Kennedy had predicted that one.

The next night all fifty C-17s were on the tarmac and we were loading in, ready to go. To me, this was what an invasion looked like. D-Day or something. And way down at the end of the longest runway was what, for all intents and purposes, was a stargate. Like the one in that movie, Stargate. Except this one was merely some arrays that interconnected and then there was nothing in between them. And I mean nothing. No night sky. Just null space. It actually hurt your brain to try and look at it directly. So you didn’t. Eventually we were hustled inside and then we couldn’t. Apparently, we were going to take off and fly right into it. And then arrive two years from now less than a second later.

Tanner was next to me inside the C-17. We were in Tier 4 posture with our overloaded rucks between our knees. That meant every Ranger was wearing their tactical carrying system, ESAPI armor plates, soft armor inserts, ballistic combat shirt, shoulder pads, and combat helmet, with weapons and magazines loaded with all the ammunition we could ever wish for. And then some. We were going forward in time, and we were going to take as much as we could. There was not an ounce of room left in the aircraft. Of course, the Forge took up a lot of it.

We’d gotten a briefing on the Forge and what it could do. Mostly, it

could make a lot of things on the other side. Tanner called it a “perpetual taco machine.” Still, we took what we could. Captain Knife Hand decided to take a lot of ammunition for every weapon system we had. He felt killing things might be immediately important once we got to the future, and he didn’t want to come up short in that department. The killing everything department.

I felt good about his choice.

I felt even better about it later. We all did.

We were taxiing toward takeoff, warm and comfortable and imprisoned within our gear, when Tanner said to me, “I saw a test of the QST last night. They sent the first bird through with a SEAL team. It just faded into nothing as soon as it went through.”

One of the other Rangers asked how come the SEALs got to go first. “Their publicity agent probably arranged it for the film deal with a tie-

in motivational speaking book tour,” Tanner quipped.

Everyone laughed. Because it was true.

Going through the gate after the takeoff roll was… nothing. Like literally. We were maybe only just wheels off the ground in the middle of night when there was a sudden strobe light flash that seemed to go right through your whole body down to your very cells, and then it was harsh daylight coming in from the windows, where there were windows. Of course, none of us could get up and look out those windows. But we knew. We knew that whatever we had just done… we had thoroughly done it.

We flew for about six hours and then they told us we were making a soft field landing and that it was going to be tricky.

The engines constantly changing in pitch and urgency was the most unsettling part about almost getting killed trying to land. Then we were down and it was rough. My guess is we landed on an exposed part of the riverbed before rolling onto the island and coming to a stop in a field lined by trees. There was one massive jolt when, apparently, we smashed the landing gear probably for forever. But we’d made it. We were here.

Wherever here was.

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