DOCUMENT 1: COMMUNIQUÉ
SENDER: Dr. C.-L. Ibarro, Medical Director, Advanced Soldier Enhancement and Survival Program (ASESP)
RECIPIENTS: Brigadier General Douglas Stern, Advanced Weapon Systems Research, Development and Engineering Center (AWSRDEC) / Clark Bernshaw, Assistant Deputy Under Secretary of Defense
I have completed assessments of the six surviving members of the ASESP.
The nanites now constitute between 2% and 3% of the men’s body weight. This represents an unanticipated 300-fold increase from initial dosage.
There is another complication. Each man was injected with a unique nanite model. Each man now hosts an identical hybrid model which appears to be the result of cross-contamination and replication.
I cannot explain the periods of prolonged silence reported among the program’s survivors.
I cannot predict what other side-effects may occur.
I will repeat that I warned that field testing could result in unexpected consequences.
I recommend the nanites be removed immediately.
* * *
DOCUMENT 2: COMMUNIQUÉ
SENDER: Brig. Gen. Stern, AWSRDEC
RECIPIENT: ADUSecDef Bernshaw
Dr. Ibarro was unable to remove the nanites. She is unsure how to proceed.
I’m worried by these men, who took on the nickname “The Pack” during their training. The few times I’ve talked to Sergeant Calabrese, it’s like he’s looking right through me.
I haven’t heard one laugh, seen one smile, get mad. When they’re together, they’ll go hours without saying a word. It’s eerie. Makes me wonder how far Dr. Ibarro went with having those things play with their brains.
The only outsider they retain any respect for seems to be Colonel Holding. If it wasn’t for him, I don’t think they’d follow chain of command. I have increased Holding’s security clearance. We will need him fully informed on the nature of the program if we are to have any hope of working with these men further.
Honestly, I think something happened to them in the desert.
* * *
DOCUMENT 3: COMMUNIQUÉ
SENDER: ADUSecDef Bernshaw
RECIPIENT: Brig. Gen. Stern
Doug: I know you opposed early discussions of extreme ASESP termination measures, but I ask you to look to the safety of your command and the American people. Consider the changed behaviour of these men and the capabilities this program was designed to instill. I have come to believe they could pose a significant danger.
The men volunteered. They were aware of the risks. It seems Dr. Ibarro’s technology did not undergo a thorough shakedown on their last mission; perhaps a more dangerous mission is called for.
* * *
DOCUMENT 4: TRANSCRIPT
(Audio file on cell phone recovered from ADUSecDef Bernshaw’s basement. The voice has been confirmed as Sergeant Calabrese.)
CALABRESE: Good, you’re awake. Didn’t mean to hit you so hard, but couldn’t have you screaming like that. It could draw attention in this nice Arlington suburb.
Stop struggling, Under Secretary. The straps are too tight. No one is coming to save you. Your bodyguards? Dead.
You know who we are, right?
BERNSHAW: Sergeant Calabrese. From—
CALABRESE: Good. Now, you’re going to tell us what the hell you did to us. Then, how to fix it. And I’m recording this in case anything happens to us.
BERNSHAW: Let me make a phone call. We can sort this out—
[SOUNDS OF A STRUGGLE; MUFFLED VOICE]
CALABRESE: No. No calls. Going to tell someone where we are? We’d just kill them, too.
[SEVERAL SECONDS OF SILENCE]
CALABRESE (cont’d): My friends say to kill you. But you’re going to understand, Under Secretary. What we’ve been through. What we’ve become.
Colonel Holding had three hundred volunteers that first day. Three hundred guys willing to put their lives on the line. We didn’t even know the risks. “Become better, stronger soldiers,” they told us. Win these damned wars and get our boys back home. And after guys got screened out or flunked out, you had ten of us. We put up with injections and drinking crap that looked and smelled like motor oil past its prime.
Some quick shakedown missions. Then the big one. Dropped deep behind enemy lines to hit a supply depot. We pulled it off, then waited for an evac chopper that never came. Heard about the double agent, the chopper getting shot down, in debrief. All we knew then was that we had strict radio silence orders and a fifty-klick march through hell.
We reported minimal enemy contact. But that’s bullshit. We got hit on the third day.
Small arms fire and mortars. We’d been holed up, catching some sleep. Had some of our gear off. Shrapnel cut Bailey across the middle, guts spilling out. Screaming, thrashing. I held him down and Gündersen got a pressure bandage on. Over Bailey’s screaming, Gündersen said he felt something moving. I told him to shut up and dug for a fentanyl tab in my kit. But Gündersen lifted the bandage.
The rip in Bailey’s skin looked like scorched, ragged lips pulled back over a mouth of blood-smeared meat. But the bleeding had stopped. And I thought I was seeing things, but the organs were shifting, putting themselves back where they belonged. Should’ve shit my pants. Or puked. Or something. Instead, I put the tab in Bailey’s mouth, calm as can be. Knocked him out a few seconds later. The organs kept moving. Then two feet of ripped-up bowel got shoved out of the wound. And I’ll be damned if the skin didn’t pull together on its own.
Next second, a mortar threw me into a rock, head first. I didn’t have my helmet on. Just remember the sound of my skull breaking.
When I came to, the enemy had broken off. Gündersen was down. Caught five rounds in the chest.
Five rounds I saw get pushed back out of the entry wounds.
The next day, the three of us were up like nothing had happened. We knew the program would make us tough, but this? I felt like nothing could stop Bailey, Gündersen and me. We were tight. And I don’t mean because we’d been through the shit together. We acted as one. Like we knew what each other was thinking.
Two days later, an RPG took Nawaz’s arm and half of Pratt’s face. And then they were Pack, too.
Soon we all were.
But we lost people. Whatever you did can’t fix an artillery shell taking your head off.
Or Danielson. Cut in half by an IED. Chest level. Could see the bottom of his lungs inflating. Still alive, dragging himself through the sand and rocks, begging for us to kill him. But we couldn’t do it. Knew we had to, but couldn’t. He finally offed himself.
Ever lose anyone close, Under Secretary? A parent? A child, maybe? That’s nothing. Imagine your happiest memories torn away. A healthy tooth ripped out of your jaw. A ragged, bloody wound that will never heal.
And then those things we did to the locals. Soldier, revolutionary, counter-revolutionary. Even civilians. Cutting them, beating them, killing one while another watched.
It wasn’t payback. It just needed to be done. We needed the intelligence: enemy size and location, passable routes, places where we could get food and water.
I figured we were getting frosty.
But the truth is, I could murder a hundred infants with my bare hands. To protect the Pack. You bastard, what did you do to us?
Damn it, a good soldier needs to know when to stop.
So after three weeks, six of us walked out of that desert. All Pack. Even Depardieu, who hadn’t been hit. And with Lieutenant Carter dead, I was its leader.
We lied to Holding during the debriefing, of course. Didn’t tell him we’d survived shit that should have killed us. He’s a good officer, but we lied to his face. Figured if we didn’t, you might start poking and prodding us. Maybe split us up.
And we couldn’t handle that.
Wasn’t a surprise when Colonel Holding told us we had a new mission. More dangerous than the first. We knew a suicide mission when we heard it.
So we tied Holding like we got you tied. Worked him over. Following orders, he said. Came down through a General, but started near the top. You.
Don’t know why we let Holding live.
So we got off the base. Quick, clean. When six men work as one there’s not much we can’t do. But our pictures were all over the news within hours. So we cut up our faces. Used hammers on our jaw and cheek bones. Just enough to not be recognized. It healed, of course, so we’d do it again.
Day after day.
Think about the pain, Under Secretary.
Now do you get it? We didn’t volunteer for this. To be dead inside. You made us, so you’re going to fix it. Turn us back into the men — the soldiers — we used ...
One of my friends has found something. He’s ...
This is you.
[To Recorder] Colonel Holding: If you’re looking for us, we’re going back to the desert. Call off the search. We’re not a threat. We understand now that we can never go back to our lives. But we can make peace.
* * *
DOCUMENT 5: COMMUNIQUÉ
SENDER: Col. R.C. Holding
RECIPIENT: Brig. Gen. Stern
Sir. Thank you for forwarding me that transcript. I’ve found their trail. Ramstein, then Blackjack Air Base. Looks like transport was authorized by ADUSecDef Bernshaw himself. It seems the Pack took him with them.
I’m healed up and ready to go. Arthur Neech can assume command while I’m gone.
* * *
DOCUMENT 6: COMMUNIQUÉ
SENDER: Dr. Ibarro
RECIPIENT: Brig. Gen. Stern
I have reviewed Colonel Holding’s medical files from the exam following his interrogation by Sergeant Calabrese.
He has nanites in his blood at levels comparable to those in the program. I believe he is now a member of the Pack. This would explain his rapid recovery.
I believe the transmission vector is simple exposure. Hospital conditions allow containment, but outside those the nanites might spread. I believe that when a serious wound is inflicted, the nanites replicate at an accelerated rate to repair the wound. Anyone so exposed will be Pack.
I have also reviewed the audio file from Under Secretary Bernshaw’s basement.
We must first assume Under Secretary Bernshaw has become infected given the head injury inflicted by Sergeant Calabrese that rendered Bernshaw unconscious.
I also believe Sergeant Calabrese’s reported lack of emotion is caused by the nanites’ modifications to the amygdala. The modifications’ original purpose to reduce stress reactions caused by critical injuries has become amplified. Members of the Pack may be incapable of emotional reactions or attachments, similar to psychopaths. They do, however, possess a strong bond with one another.
I am further beginning to suspect the shared hybrid model allows some form of wordless communications. The recording and Colonel Holding’s reports include moments of prolonged silence. Each nanite model communicates using a unique wireless network. This hybrid model would have a single network. This network may allow the only emotional attachment these men can feel. Further study will be required.
I recommend Colonel Holding be found and detained immediately.
* * *
DOCUMENT 7: COMMUNIQUÉ
SENDER: Brig. Gen. D. Stern
RECIPIENT: Maj. A. Neech, Officer Commanding (Acting), ASESP
We tracked Holding to Forward Air Base Blackjack, but lost him. We’ve got reports he headed into the desert. We think he’s going to join Calabrese and the Pack. Fighting is down in that sector, so I want you to find Holding, Under Secretary Bernshaw and all surviving members of ASESP. Neutralize them. Ibarro thinks killing the host will cause the nanites to shut down.
We’ve got to contain this, Arthur. There’s no way to know what’ll happen if this gets out of hand.
— General Stern
* * *
DOCUMENT 8: COMMUNIQUÉ
SENDER: Lt. Col. A. Neech
RECIPIENT: Brig. Gen. D. Stern
General Stern: This will be the last communiqué you’ll receive from me.
Despite daily patrols these last few weeks, there’s no sign of Bernshaw, Holding, Dr. Ibarro or any other member of the Pack.
We’ve had no enemy contact, either. In fact, there’s been no fighting across eighteen sectors for five weeks.
It must be the Pack. They’re spreading. These heartless killers are spreading peace. Just by their presence. Just by being here.
But desertion rates have passed 35%. Men are wandering off from patrols or in the middle of the night. Somehow the Pack has breached our walls, the infection spreading.
I imagine the deserters are feeling the pull of the Pack the way Holding must have, despite being tortured by them. The way Calabrese must have, realizing some of the people he’d tortured had become Pack and he’d left them behind.
They can’t stand being away from those like them. To feel like you belong instead of the slow stripping of anger and joy and fear. To be at peace.
And General, I want it, too. Dear God, I don’t think I can fight it anymore.
Matt Moore is a science fiction and horror writer with short fiction in several print, electronic and audio markets including On Spec, Leading Edge, Cast Macabre and the Tesseracts anthologies. His stories “Touch the Sky, They Say” (a 2011 Aurora Award nominee) and “Ascension” have been published by AE.