My name is Franklin Jefferies. Private First Class, or so they tell me. A month in basic training, and then put on a boat and shipped off to fight an American city.
I was on one of the boats surrounding Domina. The flagship, the USS Puerto Rico. By sheer blind luck, I had ended up attached to General Hoshi as her aide. She had pointed at me and demanded I stick with her; that was it.
Don’t stand out, they had told me. Well, they should have mentioned my situation to Hoshi.
“New orders to all captains,” President Martinez said tiredly through the radio. “Weapons free. Support our men, and put some more holes in that wall. I want more landing sites.”
“Yes, Mister President,” Hoshi said without hesitation. She handed off the radio to me without even looking, then nodded to the captain.
The captain—I had never gotten his name—nodded in turn and grabbed his own radio. “Full order to the fleet! We’re giving the army boys artillery support! All ships except Hewlett and Jefferson, open fire on the wall. Hewlett, you’re firing at the enemy at South Gate, and Jefferson, you’re on East! Danger close, get those freaks off their backs!”
The ship groaned as massive guns turned towards their targets. Machines ground away to deliver their huge rounds to the waiting firing chambers.
Then they fired, and the whole ship shook.
There was a roar like a dragon, and I had to clap my hands over my ears like some greenhorn. I guess it worked out, since it made me look like the stupid little newbie I was pretending to be.
The guns only fired once, then fell silent. Even I thought that was odd.
“What’s going on?” the captain demanded. “What was that?”
I thought he meant why the ships stopped firing at first, but his own aide just shook his head. “No idea sir. Equipment malfunction?”
The captain scowled. “How could that be an equipment malfunction?” He grabbed his radio. “Fire again!”
The guns didn’t groan as much this time, as they were already in position, but the actual shooting was just as loud. This time I was ready for it, and was able to track the massive rounds as they whistled towards the city…
And slammed into a glowing blue forcefield, leaking blue mist, that appeared out of thin air.
Hoshi snatched the radio back from me. “Sir, the city is surrounded by some sort of… energy barrier. Our shots can’t punch through. Orders?”
There was only a brief pause on the other end. To his credit, the president didn’t waste any time trying to figure out what the hell was going on. I knew I was still in shock, and most of the soldiers on deck were too.
“Continue firing,” he ordered. “If they could keep that up indefinitely, we never would have landed. We’ll figure out where they got this thing later.”
“Sir,” Hoshi said slowly. “I’ve never heard of anyone suggesting shields were anything outside the realm of science fiction. Let alone actually making one work, and over an entire city, no less—”
“Later, Hoshi. Just keep firing. Our only hope is that they’ll run out of whatever is powering it before we run out of shells.”
“Yes, sir.” She looked a little unhappy, but nodded to the captain. He got on the radio and ordered the assault to continue. The guns started roaring again. The four of us—the general, the captain, and the two of us aides—walked back into the wheelhouse and closed the door. That deadened the roars of the guns to something that was at least manageable.
The sailors inside saluted the officers. “Captain! General! North Gate reports that the beast-men have retreated for now, but they’ll be back. The big ones take way too much ammo to put down, and they’re running low.”
“Have the nearest ship resupply them,” the general ordered. “Other than that, just hold the line. What of West Gate?”
“Bad, sir. Most recent report said something about their base camp being destroyed by giant icicles.”
That made all four of us sit up and take notice.
“Icicles?” Hoshi demanded, more bewildered than anything. “As in… what, thrown like spears? Tossed by catapults?”
“No, sir. They just burst right out of the ground, sir. The whole base was cut right in half, and it looks like the ones on the far side have had to surrender.”
The general glanced at the captain, but he just shrugged. “All right, tell them to get more men and materiel from their ships. How are the echoes doing on that gate?”
“They hadn’t even managed to offload them before everything happened.”
She grunted. “Of course. Tell them to put the echoes on barricade building. Hold the line.”
“And South Gate?”
“Orders haven’t changed.”
Hold the line. Hold the line. Hold the line.
That was all she was telling anyone. This was a war that was supposed to be a complete cakewalk. A genuine liberation of a city held in thrall to criminals. And yet it was all anyone to do not to be pushed back into the sea.
My phone rang. Five simple beeps.
Hoshi raised an eyebrow at me. “You brought your phone?”
I shrugged helplessly. It was a holdover from my bodyguard days. So to speak. “Sorry, I’ll turn it off—”
She waved magnanimously. “Answer it. It could be important.”
A little hesitant, I did as ordered, holding it up to my ear. “Hello?”
“Is General Hoshi with you?” a pleasant female voice said far too loudly. I winced and pulled it away. It had been set to speakerphone somehow.
I stared at Hoshi, who looked just as confused as I felt. I had been a bodyguard for ten years—or I remembered being one, anyway—and no one had ever called me to get a hold of my employer.
Within moments, another voice came over the phone, also female, but this time short and curt. “General Hoshi. I understand you command the ships clogging up the waters of White-Cap Bay.”
“Who is this?” Hoshi demanded, glaring at my phone. “How did you get this number?”
“I am Admiral Janelle Ursler of Necessarius North Fleet, flagship NS Aquilo. I have called to discuss the circumstances under which you will immediately cease fire upon my city.”
Hoshi grinned, and I understood her enthusiasm. If the barrage wasn’t a threat, they wouldn’t be trying to make a deal. “What are you offering?”
“Your ships and your lives.”
Hoshi’s smile disappeared. “I’m not in the mood for pointless grandstanding.”
“Neither am I. This is quite simple: You can stop firing of your own accord, giving you the freedom to land your detestable troops on our shores. Eventually, your reserves will be exhausted and you limp will back to your country. Or, we kill you all.”
“That is a tiresome bluff, admiral.”
There was an explosion below decks, which reverberated throughout the entire ship.
Moments later, the ship groaned, tortured metal screaming and rending the air. The deck titled, and we slowly began to sink.
The captain opened the door to shout out some quick orders, but otherwise didn’t seem worried. Neither did the general, or the captain’s aide, or any of the sailors I could see. Was I the only one who cared that we were sinking?
Hoshi raised an eyebrow. “You smuggled explosives on the ship. Cute. But the loss of the flagship won’t cripple the fleet. All the sailors have those modified lungs to breathe underwater, and the rest of us can get to the lifeboats. We’re pretty good swimmers.”
“Not good enough.”
There was a scream on the deck.
Hoshi narrowed her eyes. “What was that?”
“Your death song, General. The Dagonites will sing you to your rest.”
Hoshi stared at the phone, more perplexed than scared.
There was another scream.
“Weapons free,” the general said, still just a bit confused. “Jefferies, you’re in front.”
I swallowed nervously, but nodded. I pocketed the phone and pulled out my sidearm, flipping off the safety as I did. It was the first thing they taught you in the Secret Service.
What I hadn’t been taught was what to do when I was on a sinking ship under enemy attack by who knows what. The deck was already listing away under my feet, and I could hear things sliding around belowdecks.
There was another scream.
Stealing myself, I stepped out onto the deck, gun raised.
Most of the sailors were running to and fro, trying desperately to get lifeboats down to the water. Some marines had their guns out, panicked expressions on their faces, and pointed at the ocean—which was noticeably closer than the last time I had checked. I didn’t actually see any enemies, though. Where were these Dagonites the Admiral had said were coming for us?
Another scream. I looked back, and realized that one of the marines was gone. His remaining friends fired into the water a few times, but if it had any effect, I didn’t see one. Water was better than a brick wall at blocking bullets, once you were more than a foot under the surface.
Water was lapping at my boots now. “General, we need to get to the lifeboats!”
She was still frowning, confused rather than scared. I was pretty sure she should be very scared. “This doesn’t make any sense. None of this makes any sense. The bombs, now this… is this all a terror tactic?”
Something tackled me, dragging me underwater.
I shook my head to clear it and opened my eyes, ignoring the burning in my lungs. Most of the sailors could breathe underwater, but I couldn’t. White-Cap Bay was known for crystal-clear waters on a calm day, but I still couldn’t see far—
There! Something moved! A shape, swimming far too fast to be a person, circling around and then charging straight at me—
It hit me like a freight train, nearly knocking what little wind I had left out of me and dragging me farther down. I did get a good look at it, though. A flat face, with pure black eyes, rows and rows of triangular shark teeth, and flapping gills on the neck.
And a large, powerful fish tail propelling both of us further into the depths.
A mermaid. A monstrous, horrific mermaid. Or some sort of merfolk, at least, as I wasn’t confident of the gender.
There was no sabotage. No spies on our boats. These… Dagonites had put the bombs on the underside of our ships from the outside.
For years, there had been rumors of something keeping unwanted ships away from Domina City. We had assumed bribes, careful usage of rumor, and perhaps torpedoes and divers at worst. But this…
There were more of them around, dozens if not more, judging by the swirling shapes around me. Most of them were dragging their prizes to the depths, like some monstrous sea creatures returning food to a nest. Others were playing with their food, circling struggling sailors and swimming in only to nip at them and dodge away again. And why shouldn’t they? Everyone was completely outmatched. Most of the sailors weren’t even armed.
But I was.
I still had a death grip on my gun. I managed to bring it around to the thing’s chest, even as the pressure built up, making it feel like my head was going to crack like an egg. With the last of my strength, I pulled the trigger.
Well, of course not. The stupid thing wouldn’t work underwater.
The Dagonite grinned with those shark teeth, and pulled something out of its belt—a garment which seemed to be made of the same material as wetsuits. It took me a moment to realize that the object was a gun, built with a much larger grip and no trigger guard. It seemed like it was designed to accommodate hands with webbed fingers.
The Dagonite turned, peered up at the surface, and fired its gun with a dull whumph I could feel in the water. Something spun out of it, trailing a line—it was a harpoon. A tiny little harpoon gun.
The Dagonite turned back to me, grinned, and winked. Then it pressed a button on the gun, reeling in the line and swimming up to meet its prey.
Leaving me behind. Like a small fish tossed back into the lake.
I didn’t have time to feel sorry for myself. I still had some air left, and I could see light, far above. Far, yes, but not impossibly far. It was close enough that I could see the splashes where the Dagonites were dragging their hapless victims down.
I kicked off my boots and swam up with all my might, shrugging off my jacket between strokes. I dropped my gun in the process, but it was little more than a paperweight at the moment anyway.
Dagonites passed by me, close enough that I could feel my wake, but they ignored me. Did they really think I was no threat, or did they just think it would be more fun to kill me just when I thought I was free?
No, no thinking, only swimming. Just keep swimming.
I burst through the surface with what I was sure was the last stroke of my life. I gasped in a breath so hard it actually hurt, then I did another and another, both as hard. I settled down quickly, taking more normal-sized breaths, and looked around.
The flagship was half-sunk. Most of its lifeboats had launched, but those were torn to shreds except for one or two. All of those were on the opposite side of the sinking ship from me, of course. I’d never get to them. Just being this close might tow me under again. The ship itself was mostly empty, with just a few splatters of blood to mark some particularly energetic resistance.
There were a few sailors on the surface, but not many. I didn’t see General Hoshi anywhere.
And the rest of the fleet…
I couldn’t see more than a handful, but I could tell that most of them were in trouble. I saw one ship sinking, another on fire—there was a secondary explosion as its ammo magazine went up—and another seemed to be missing entirely. It had probably already disappeared completely beneath the waves.
I didn’t see a single ship unharmed.
I looked down. The water was too choppy to see much, but I could see dark shapes flitting around. They looked just like fish from here, as harmless as trout, but I knew better than to underestimate them.
I looked up again, this time at the city. Every few seconds, that blue dome-shield would flash into visibility again. I had to assume someone was still shelling the city. Someone had managed to keep their ship afloat. But with our firepower so drastically reduced, would we be able to make a dent in it? Hell, we didn’t even know if the whole fleet could have made a dent.
We had completely misunderstood the threat we were facing. It wasn’t like fighting gang-bangers and having them pull out automatic weapons. It was like fighting spear-wielding natives and having them pull out laser rifles.
Which, apparently, the Dominites actually had, judging by the reports from East Gate. Lasers and energy shields. What was next? A black-hole bomb? Shape-shifting spies? Truth serums and brainwashing and God-damned spaceships?
This was not my world any more. It might not have ever been my world. My only consolation was that I was going to be dead in a week anyway. I wouldn’t have to see the aftermath of this debacle.
I felt a strong webbed hand grab my ankle, and then I was pulled down below the waves.
Behind the Scenes (scene 285)
I’ve had the Dagonite reveal on my mind for a long time. I’m curious how many people saw this coming. At least some, I’m sure.