Chapter 1: Marinah
The plane's engine rumbles beneath my feet and the white plastic walls shake like a 9.0 earthquake. All I can do is hold my stomach and fight the urge to vomit. Why me? I ask myself as I swallow back the sour taste of bile and inhale through my nose and exhale through my mouth. Somewhere, years ago, I read this relieves queasiness. Ha. Just another reason I don't miss the internet.
The cabin of the plane is a stripped-down passenger jet that's seen better days. Scratch that, this plane has lived through a world of hurt and somehow came out the other side. Its ability to stay in the air is questionable, yet somehow the pilot got it off the ground. The original rows of seats were pulled out and now there are only two rows facing each other from opposite sides of the center aisle. The old cracked vinyl of my seat pokes my bare skin below the stupid black skirt I'm wearing, making a miserable experience worse. The powers that be assured me the older aircraft offered the best chance of surviving the nearly three-hour flight from DC to Havana. The president's assistant told me that placing an aircraft at my disposal for this trip was an honor. He said it with a straight face too, the jerk.
Bursts of electromagnetic energy have increased during the past few months, signaling the return of our enemy. In my eyes, the electromagnetic activity also makes flying extremely dangerous. Seven years of war against creatures thought to be from hell all but decimated humans and left roughly ten percent alive to face the horrors of food shortages, disease, and general chaos.
While one paranormal door of terror opened, it led to another breed of monsters that came to our aid a few years into the war when we thought all was lost. The humans who survived have the latter monsters to thank.
I'm fortunate to be among the living only because of who my father was. Or am I? Why am I here? I'm a useless non-essential person in a world that needs soldiers, doctors, and mechanics. Oh, and politicians. We can't forget them. Not even a new world order could smite government windbags from our planet. Those blowhards are the ones who put us in our current situation and thrust a novice like me in the middle. Bottom line: The devil's monsters are regrouping and we have a thin to zero chance of surviving another war even with the help I'm on a mission to secure. It's been twenty-three months since the last major attack from hell's monsters and we've gained little ground in re-establishing anything but our government.
Millions died in the first year, billions in the following six. Communication with other countries outside North America and Canada stopped two years before the end of the war and analytically speaking, we're it. The last hope for the human race.
After another deep inhale, I glance over my shoulder and look out the window. The miles of blue water below offer no comfort. I picture sliding into the shark-infested ocean to become a mid-day snack. My vivid imagination holds the image of limbs torn from my body and muscles shredding between ginormous teeth as sharks devour me in painful, ripping bites. If we go down, there's no way I'm pulling the cord of my ridiculously clunky parachute that I got less than five minutes of instruction on how to use. I read somewhere years ago that falling from great heights into water was similar to hitting cement. With clenched teeth and an aching jaw, I'm banking on it.
My fingers are blue where they grip the armrests and I'm doing everything I can to hold back a full-on panic attack. It doesn't help that the parachute is uncomfortable to lean back against and my neck and shoulders are killing me.
All of this skitters through my head until I've had enough. With a deep inhale, I pry my fingers from the armrest, stretching them to regain circulation. After the pinpricks subside, I unbuckle the chest and waist straps, divesting myself of the moldy smelling canvas parachute. My loud sigh fills the cabin. I've taken back what little power I possess. The sharks will still get a snack if we crash, but I won't be alive to care.
I lean my head back and enjoy that I can finally slouch into the crunchy seat. Closing my eyes, I count slowly by threes. The first few hundred come easily. Then, like always, I slide back into the thoughts that set off panic bombs in my brain. What it comes down to is this: I'm not adaptable to the new world. I'd give anything to return to life before hell's doors opened and the monsters destroyed humans. I want to return to that innocent time. Go back to working at restaurants where my worst day included a customer complaining about their food being cold. I do not want to stay in present times when a bad day consists of rotting corpses, fear of attack, and good monsters verses bad.
Maybe they're all bad. Many people think so. I'm not one of them due to my father and that's possibly why I was chosen to go to the island where different scary monsters reside.
Laughter bubbles up and spills into the empty cabin. The pilot, if he hears me over the sound of the chugging engines, doesn't turn around. That's a good thing because he would think me crazy. He'd be right. My father, the defense secretary up until his death two and a half years ago, would agree. The last thing he'd want is his daughter going on this insane mission. Of course, he would never have imagined that I'd walk in his shoes. Me, the sweet girl with ambitions of becoming an actress. I look back and think how stupid that sounds now, but acting, even in school plays, took me outside myself so I could be someone else and not the shy, scared girl I really was. My school days ended abruptly when hell attacked. One day I was studying theater and performing arts as a freshman at UC Berkley and the next I was staring at the television in my dorm, watching the beginning of the destruction of the world.
It wasn't monsters that took us down at first. Many countries thought the early electromagnetic pulses were the detonation of nuclear weapons. Of course it was easy to see why. We lived in a world where it was only a matter of time before a terrorist group got its hands on a nuclear cache. When the electromagnetic pulses began, several countries jumped in and took out the majority of the Middle East.
The domino effect continued. All the monsters had to do was provide a few large bursts of electromagnetic power to begin the end. Before the radioactive dust settled, hell hit us with their ungodly hounds. Having no idea what the hounds actually are-they're ugly dog-like creatures with razor-sharp teeth and five-inch claws that carry a fatal poison-I've adopted the military vernacular of "hellhounds" like everyone else. We also have no idea if they really come from hell. The religious fanatics used biblical translations and agreed with the military's name for them. Or maybe it was the other way around and the fanatics named them first. It doesn't matter. Hellhounds killed in waves, leaving hundreds of thousands of dead after each attack, and humans had no idea how to fight back because the darn things were almost impossible to kill.
I, unlike most humans who survived, never learned the physical art of war. The government put my brain to work instead. Though I was enmeshed in artistic studies in college, I minored in analytics because it came easy to me. The U.S. Federation required me to make charts to show our chances for survival and create optional scenarios to assess human casualties along with analyzing every scrap of data they could provide on human survivors around the world. I have no idea what they do with all this data and my job is not to ask those questions so I don't. I also have no illusions about why I received the analyst job. My father was the man in charge of managing our military forces and he worked best knowing his only child was safe. I was one of the lucky ones due to my father's position and I'll never forget that.
My father died three months before the end of the war. I was one of a handful of people trained in foretelling the probability and location of the next hellhound attack and surprisingly kept my job even after his funeral. For more than two years I've wondered when my safety gig would be up and I would be wearing a red stripe on my uniform signaling I was little more than fodder if we were attacked again.
You could have slapped me upside the head with a calculator when the new president, as smarmy as most politicians, asked me to take over my father's position. The president started as a synthetic biologist and agricultural scientist of all things and I'm not sure if his "smarmy" was in place before his presidential bid or if he put on the political mask when he ran for office. The country needs food, so a man with advanced agriculture knowledge won the election.
The president approached me twenty-four hours ago about this mission. Wearing a gray three-piece suit, shiny shoes that have no place in the new world, and a Rolex watch hanging on his thin wrist, the president swore me in this morning as defense secretary-a twenty-four-year-old woman with no experience in war outside of analytic figures. Add in my lack of diplomatic skills and the fact that I barely like people and my analysis of this situation's chances for success is two point three on a scale of one hundred. I'm the third defense secretary since my father's death. Having his title doesn't bode well. My personal chance for survival is slightly higher than the mission's chance of success at two point eight out of a hundred. That comforts me. Not!
The Shadow Warriors I'm heading to meet terrify me to the point of unreasonable behavior. Think jumping into a pit of crocodiles, whipping out an umbrella, and whistling "My Humps' by the Black Eyed Peas while flailing to the beat of snapping jaws. Crazy, right? And now that darn song will be stuck in my head again. I start humming it under my breath while my brain does memory acrobatics.