« Jacob † Willow »


Six Osprey helicopters flew into view, their rotors tilting upward as they came out of their plane-modes. They were flying in a Delta Formation as two broke off and the remaining four landed in the open parking lot, their left side to us. The beating of their propellers overpowered the distant fighting as an osprey circled overhead. Even at a glance, I could tell that it wasn’t an MV-22B Transport variant. It was a SAGS-22B, the Gunship variant our little operation had. 

SAGS models were a heavily modified version of an MV-22B. Outfitted with M230E1 Chain Gun, 38 Hellfire-70 missiles, and a rear .50 Caliber M2 machine gun. It was a Close Combat Attack heli on steroids. A normal Osprey didn’t have the capacity to operate as a gunship, mainly because it was designed for transport in mind. However, when a nation really wants people dead, money isn’t an issue. Unfortunately, each gunship had the cost of three Ospreys. Which was already a pretty penny compared to the conventional birds already in use, but they couldn’t keep up with an osprey. 

And the only two in existence was owned by our unit. 

The SAGS began to circle the area, their state of the art detection systems were already scanning the streets for targets. The transports weren’t normal either, yet, not as modified as a SAG. They placed emphasis on survivability rather than transport. Better engines, better armor, and better systems. Hell, we could probably take a few AA Missiles in those if needed. 

The ramps of the ospreys were already down and their ramp gunners eyeing the area as they waited for us. 

[“Hurry up.”] I heard my old man’s voice on the comms. 

“C’mon, Kian.” I called over my shoulder as I stepped out of our spot. I climbed up and over the short concrete rise onto the lot. I turned around only to see Kian hadn’t actually followed and knelt there, gawking at the SAGS as they circled. Fortunately, Preacher brought him along and I pulled him up. I could already feel the fatigue of today setting in. With gear pushing close to a hundred pounds and the loss of several friends, I needed this day to end. I was just hoping the universe wouldn’t make it happen with a bullet, though. 

The powerful gusts the helicopters made was cool on my face. The fresh polluted suburban air mixed with exhaust never felt so good as we walked towards the birds. I was about to ask which one we’d go on, that was until four marines burst out of the far front osprey and began to charge like mad beasts towards us. Medbags in hand. The closest front osprey also came to life as more of them came out of there… Along with our Dad… 

I already knew what was up when I looked back at Kian who was being shepherded by Preacher behind me. He looked conflicted, unconfident, and… Well… He was covered in blood. I stopped and so did Preacher, but Kian walked until he was next to me again. His hand found my forearm and gripped it for assurance. His face was pale to the point that I began to wonder if he was wounded. He wasn’t, but the amount of blood that had soaked into his carrier and pants looked like he was wearing all his blood. 

I didn’t stop the medics as they began to comb over him, no hair left unchecked. They didn’t try to strip him, probably on the man’s orders too. He didn’t like seeing Kian without his clothes on, despite the few times the old man and I had been naked in a few saunas in the past months discussing missions. The joy in the situation was the medics had to play charades with Kian over to the roar of the ospreys. It got to the point that he just stared at them blankly. Defeated over his inability to understand the medics.  

A few seconds later, the old General joined us. He stood in front of us, looked to me with a scowl before he looked to Kian. He still held the bloodied HK416 by the handguard as he held his arms up as the Medics felt him down, and boy, Dad did not look happy about that. He reached out and gingerly took the rifle from Kian. The kid looked confused before he took one of the medic’s rifles and switched them; handing the clean rifle to Kian. 

He leaned in and said something. It was loud enough for Kian to hear from what I could see. Our dad pointed to the rear osprey on the closest row. Once he was done, Kian bolted away like a scared rabbit and quickly boarded it. Dad only looked at me and gestured to follow like you would to a dog. His callused demeanor sucked whatever joy had been festering from being able to get out of this newly opened shit hole. 

He turned and walked back to his bird as Kian’s osprey took off and left with one of the SAGS escorting it. I watched it go for a moment then entered to see an almost loaded osprey. On the right-hand side, there were enough open seats for all of my team, not just the ones that had survived. When we sat, he only filled half of them. An even shittier situation was that I had to sit next to ole’ grumpy. I felt the cabin shudder and the familiar gut sinking motion of lift-off.  

I took my helmet off and rested it on my lap. The cool air that assaulted my matted head was godly, and again, Dad couldn’t give me a moment of bliss. 

“Private channel!” He yelled by my ear. I held back the urge to frown and simply put my helmet back on. My headset was apart of my kevlar helmet. It was a new design to limit the number of things that had to be thrown on in a rush. At this moment, I wished that they had been separate pieces. 

I brought up my OTAD, flicked through a few menus and found the channel my dad was on. It wasn’t hard. Our family only had one private channel that him and I used exclusively with the hardest, and expensive, encryptions. 

[“What?”] I said coldly into the microphone. 

[“What happened to Kian?”] He asked just as coldly. 

[“My guy died, fell on him, and bled on him. Why didn’t you bring Kian with us?”] I asked back.

[“He’s going to a safe zone with my personal guards. How did he die?”] He just didn’t want to let that go did he? At least I knew Kian would be safe, or at the very minimum, someone would have to go through a lot of effort to get him. Small victories are better than none. 

[“Why didn’t you see that coming?”] He growled. I felt my anger boiling in response. As much as the man never saw my little brother, he was quite an unreasonable asshole when it came to his safety. 

[“How would-!”] He cut me off. 

[“Don’t give me your fucking excuses. You should have at the very least, expected that they would do something like that. He shouldn’t have had to go through that! What if he had been injured!? Worse, killed!?”] He fumed. I kept my eyes straight on the marine in front of me, who in turn, kept his newfound interest in his hands. I could feel my dad’s eyes burning holes into the side of my head and I wasn’t going to fight it this time. Because it was true. I was too focused on getting Kian out that I should have expected something to be placed on an intersection.

We could have crossed somewhere else, but I had decided to go for the easiest route because Kian was not a soldier. Easy routes normally mean the deadliest in my profession. 

That still didn’t stop the anger from boiling over. [“You don’t have to care about my well being, nor that of my men. But I’ll tell you, I did not intend for him to die and he didn’t. We got him out. We got him here. I lost men to do that, and if I had to, I would have given myself too. Even if you don’t hold me in high regard, I hold my brother higher than my life.”] I snarled back but kept myself from looking back at him. A staredown wasn’t what I needed. 

Silence fell over the comms for a few minutes and I felt odd about that. I finally gave in to my curiosity and found my dad just smiling at me. It was a warm smile, not one of those pleasant ones he gave when he knew he was right. He turned away and rested his head against the cabin wall. 

[“I hold you in high regard.”] He confessed. [“And… I was just scared I was about to lose Kian.”]

My eyes went wide at that.

I wanted to say something to that, but the warm feeling of knowing he did care was the most foreign feeling I had ever experienced. It was like a dog that chases cars. He wanted it, and he’d run and run until he got it, but the dog wouldn’t know what to do with the fucking thing if he got it. That was how I could best describe it. 

And just like everything else today, the universe deemed it not to last.

 The cabin brightened as if someone had installed flood lights inside. The color fell away, replaced with blinding white light and inky black shadows. The light died away half a second later, replaced with the most deafening explosion I had ever heard. Even with my state of the art headset that helmet had, it rattled my very being. My head swiveled around just in time to see the largest mushroom cloud I had ever seen, followed with a rippling shock wave that ripped across the land like a tidal wave. 

I felt the searing heat before I felt the concussive wave. I felt my skin prick and fizzle on contact, then I felt the heavyweight of the concussive wave hit us. There was no warning sounds or flashing lights like in the movies. Half of me hoped there would have been, but not even the sound of the rotors reached me. The only sound I heard was that of the atomic wind blowing. 

As if the sudden explosion of a nuke wasn’t enough, more mushroom clouds appeared in the distance. My mind stalled, as did everything else on the bird as we saw the fallout as the bright blue sky replaced it. And we all felt the shift in the G-forces.

“Mayday! Mayday! We lost all power!” I could hear the pilots now without the assistance of radio, though those were gone too. I didn’t feel afraid. Not like when Kian had been in danger. I felt calm, composed. The whole situation was serene as none of the troops spoke. We only held onto our rifles and watched the sky grow larger through the open bay door. 

Black tendrils danced across the hull and I heard something like lightning. Then everything went black. 

Then light reappeared, but in the form of moonlight. We could see the glistening waves through the doorway and… that was it. We were so far up that the scene that we saw through it could have been some angelic painting.  

“What the-” I heard one of the pilots. I felt the serene atmosphere pop by their panicked voices. I’m sure the rest of the men felt the same as we all looked to the cockpit entrance. “Doesn’t matter! Try and get the controls online!” The other screamed. 

Then I heard a soft humming in my ear. Not like static or when you get shell-shocked. Literal humming. A girl’s humming. Angelic and sweet. It followed a simple melody. It went on and it was oddly calming. “You guys hearing this?” I turned and asked Preacher. 

“Yeah.” He nodded without breaking his glare on the pilots. “Fucking fly boys can’t even keep calm.” That answered that question. 

Then after a few more seconds, I recognized the melody. It was oddly like “Will the Circle Remain Unbroken.” There weren’t any words so I couldn’t tell which version. I began to hum along to the tune, because why not? It was most likely that I had finally cracked and the humming was just a figment of my imagination.

And it was alright. 

{“Ah, so you know that song?”} The voice asked sweetly and unrushed. I nodded my head and I was rewarded with a beautiful chorus of laughter. 

{“Since you can hear me, how are you?”} She asked. 

“Fine, despite the fact that me and the rest of us are falling to our deaths.” I huffed out loud and everyone looked at me like I had gone crazy. To be honest, I was sure I had. 

{“Ah. That is true. I guess they’re finally messing with the world now…”} The girl sighed tiredly. {“I’ll fix that, no strings attached.”} 

“Yeah, if you can fix it. Go for it.” I said and everyone knew I had lost it. However, to my surprise, a thin wave of golden light washed over us. To be more specific, across the cabin walls and down the bird. 

{“Done!”} The sweet voice chirped. The rotors roared to life and I felt the G-forces shift again and I could hear cheering run through the cabin before it was drowned in the sweet, sweet, chorus of beating propellers. The radios came to life as the rest of the birds checked in. Everyone with us. 

[“System rebooted. Warning, cannot connect to Battlenet. System switching to localized mode.”] And the joy was killed again. All the cheers died away as I was sure we all got the same warning. While our team were the only ones with OTADs, regular marines had a cheaper and simplified version that just helped with communications, calculations, and tracking. All of them were connected to the Battlenet. If none of us could connect to the largest and most advanced network in the world… We may not be in our world anymore. 

“Hey, you there?” I asked. No one responded. “The one who was just humming.” 

{“Ah, me. Yes, sorry. Thought you were talking to someone else.”} She giggled. {“How can I help you? Its been a while since I last talked to someone since…. Nevermind. What can I do you for?”} 

I had a bad feeling about this, but… 

“Could you tell me where I am?” I asked.

{“Don’t know. The land changed while I’d been asleep.”} She said just as chirpy. 

“I mean, am I on Earth?” I asked as I turned to the bay door just in time to see the sea began to shrink as it was replaced by sandy beaches and grasslands. 

{“Oh! You’re from Earth?! So – Wait, no. Question first.”} She laughed. I felt whatever this voice was, it may not have been a stable one. {“You’re not on Earth. You’re on my world now. The names for it change a lot, so just think of it as ‘Not-Earth’. Kay? Kay.”} The voice chuckled before the humming returned. 

“So-” I was about to ask another question before she stopped. 

{“Oh, and you guys just disturbed a dragon. Annnnd-“} I didn’t get to hear the rest as a large roar filled the air as the osprey banked. Warnings blared from the cockpit and as a large wall of bright red scales crossed the open bay. The pilots cursed loud and finally, the marines spurred themselves into action. Each put them rifles to the ready and the gunner on the ramp opened up on the HMG at whatever that was.

Another roar sounded. Fire burned across the rear and the gunner was gone. The pilots cursed even louder as the osprey shuddered. There was a loud explosion. The bird rocked and shuddered before it I felt the  G-forces shift again. 

“Hey, can you help us?!” I screamed. 

{“No.”} She replied soft, but not with the mirth she had before. {“Not for free that is. The first time was to fix someone else’s fuck up.”} 

“Fine!” I roared. “I’ll give you whatever or do whatever! Get us on the ground alive!”

{“Deal accepted~!”} She sang. {“But just know you already have a lot of dead. The dragon just took out two of your fancy helicopters.”} Accompanied with that heads up were explosions and the pilots calling out the loss of our gunship, and the MV by it. 

I could only see the starry night out the back and turned my eyes to the cockpit where I could slightly see the incoming trees. The quickly incoming trees. I began to curse myself for putting my hopes on a voice inside my head just as the helicopter angled upward slightly and we hit the ground.  

I felt my stomach go through my asshole as metal screamed and the whole world jerked downward. Then it rolled as the metal of the hull protested as I saw the metal ripped away. I didn’t have the ability to see what was going on as I held onto my rifle and the harness as my body was being flung around within its grasp. I saw bark, bits of grass, but most of all; light. While the world was a blur, I was together enough to notice that dim light was all around us. 

After what seemed like an eternity, the osprey finally rolled to a stop on its belly. My vision was still blurred and I felt like I was still swaying. I was about to throw up when I felt a warm sensation wash over me and everything returned to normal. 

{“Done! Two fancy military helicopters landed, all souls onboard and not harvested by an angry dragon.”} She laughed before adding. {“And I dealt with your bodily states while I was at it. Because I don’t like seeing people throw up. That’s disgusting. Consider it a free service.”} 

Now that my vision was back, I could see the framework of the osprey bent and beaten. It was intact without most of its outer plates and its wings, but it was intact. I looked up and down, saw all the soldiers alive. Hell, even the door gunner stood frozen as he clutched onto his HMG on the, strangely, untouched ramp. 

{“I’ll leave you alone for a few.”} The voice returned. {Things to do and things to seriously clean. Ciao.”} 

I got out of my harness and seat and checked on the pilots. They were fine. Scared as hell, but they were unharmed. I checked on everyone else, and sure enough, they were all unharmed. I helped the gunner sit down and unhook himself from the safety cords. We filed out of the wreckage. I turned to look at the mangled Osprey… 

It all felt so surreal and… casual? I knew I had been in danger but I felt disconnected from it all. It was only now that I was feeling weak in my knees. I clutched my rifle and turned away with a deep, shuddering, breath. This was a lot. I probably did snap. 

“You okay?” I heard my dad. I turned around to see him looking at me with concern. 

“Yeah, why?” I felt that may have been downplaying the fact we just crash landed on a world that wasn’t Earth, after being attacked by a “dragon” but what the hell. It was the truth. 

“Same.” He nodded. “And that’s exactly the problem here.” He turned to look at the wreckage as he stood next to me. “We should have died. That was not a survivable crash landing. We all should have died.” He pointed to the long scars that cut across a long field. It was then that I noticed that the other osprey had crashed not three hundred meters away.  

“And you were talking to yourself.” He turned to me. “What happened? While I’d normally say you went crazy, but something did happen after you spoke. So, you going to fill me in?” 

His eyes weren’t hard, nor angry. If anything, they looked fearful. I feel him on that. This definitely was fucking crazy on all accounts. 

“I may have sold my soul to the devil.” I sighed as I rolled my shoulders. All the emotions that had been suppressed in the air began to seep in. “I… Don’t know how to say it so give me some time, but… I think she’s the one who saved us.”  I looked at him, pleading not to ask. We just survived a crash that, in any scenario, would have left us in pieces.  

“Okay.” He nodded. I noticed he was also slightly shaking. “Let me know when you want to talk about it.” He walked away, fidgeting with his uniform as he spoke with the other soldiers. The pilots had fainted after they were pulled from their seats so they were laid out on the grass. 

I looked around. On the left and right were tall mountains that made up a valley with tall pine trees covering their faces. We crashed in a valley. Plains basked in the moonlight, but the night visibility was limited because of it. A better assessment would have to come on first light. I heard the rustling of gear and saw the other group jogging towards us with their gear. A quick headcount told me the voice had been right when she said all lives were saved. I felt stupid for not trusting the voice, then stupid for believing I should have believed what I thought was a figment of my imagination. 

I felt thoughts twist slightly and shook the thoughts away. It was going to be a long night.

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