Chapter 2: The Pack Assembled
Rick in blissful oblivion as he wandered the genetic memories of his lycanthropic predecessors, as each infectee passed instincts and memories of their experiences to those they infected. He crossed the biting sands and frigid nights of the Sumerian desert as Ur-Nin, an exiled priestess of antiquity. He remembered himself as Romulus Titus, a defender of the doomed Roman Republic. He felt the splatter of warm blood upon his claws as the last of the Norse pagans, Ulfur Erikson. He sprinted across the Mongolian steppes as the warrior woman, Borte Chinua. He felt himself bound over the ramparts of the Dutch stronghold with Koxinga's men behind him as a former Shaolin monk, Lu Langzai. He recalled thousands of years in a matter of slumbering hours, and subconsciously savored his fortune to be born in the present.
Rick recovered from near-hypothermia orders of magnitude before any human, but he bore the pangs of hunger as a result. Gorging himself on a private stash of chocolate caramel bars, he arranged a meeting of his fellow lycanthropes aboard the vessel. As the most leader of a powerful pack of history's most powerful lycanthropes, even he knew when he needed to delegate responsibilities.
Rick dressed in his favorite outfit, jean shorts with a brown leather vest the same color as his hair. He knew his lean, lanky frame hid more strength than the trained soldiers and sailors he passed in the hallway, but their errant assumptions were something he had no reason to challenge. The soldiers gave him a certain difference in the hallway, as they saw the way their superior officer treated Rick. Rick never personally asked Major Lawrence Wang of the Singapore Armed Forces if he had ordered his subordinates to show him respect, but his discomfort around all things military meant he rarely saw them anyway.
Rick did not eat in the mess with the rest of the crew. Instead, he found himself spending time on what passed for the officers' dining quarters, a more formal eating arrangement reminiscent of a high school cafeteria. He grabbed a plastic tray and slid it along a metal bar, as a pair of servers in plastic gloves offered to give him different foods along the way. Settling on fruit, yogurt, eggs, chocolate milk, and a muffin, he sat down beside a tan-skinned Singaporean-Chinese man in a military uniform. As he ate a hearty breakfast, he typed on a rubber-framed laptop.
"Hi, Larry," Rick said, sticking with his informal nickname for Lu Langzai's modern SAF persona. "So what's up today?"
"Just getting ready for the online conference with Anne and Grimm. Have you seen Martin?"
"Right here," said Martin Delgado as he entered the room. For the human form of an albino lycanthrope aged over two millennia, Rick instinctually underestimated the unassuming guise worn by none other than Romulus Titus himself. Dressed in a workman's worn jumpsuit and with his face smudged in grease, he looked the part of a weary engineer. He placed a laptop on the table and leaned against the wall, crossing his hands. Rick reminded himself to address his compatriots by their modern personas, as it made things easier if someone overheard them.
The Major started the teleconference, and Rick saw the two primary supporters of his expedition behind him. Rick saw a black woman with her hair pulled into dreadlocks did not lose any of the power she radiated when she wore less formal garb than the conservative jacket she wore as Prime Minister of her homeland. For an instant, he almost thought that Anne Rackham had never been a dreaded pirate captain.
On the other laptop was a bearded and ragged man that looked like a bear shoved into a business suit. The CEO of Gungnir Energy was officially named Grimm Gunnarson, but was unofficially a Norse berserker named Ulfur Erikson. The manner in which he obliterated his competition was marginally less bloodless in the current era, a fact that did little to quell his unceasingly lust for battle.
"Hi, everyone," Rick said to his pack. "We're about a day out, so it's almost show time. We had a little excitement last night, but nothing too bad. How are things on the homefront?"
"Nothing from the big countries, but stock well-wishes and a pittance of resources from the international organizations," the exasperated stateswoman said. "Tanifa is too small and remote for anyone to care, to say nothing of how ramshackle the support we do have is."
"What about the other Pacific nations we talked about?"
"The new Fijian government wants nothing to do with this because of the similar tensions between native Tanifans and Indo-Tanifans. Samoa and Tonga have economic woes of their own, and everyone else is too small to help."
"But what about Indonesia? The Aussies? The kiwis?"
"Indonesia, Australia, and New Zealand are too far from Tanifa to care, although New Zealand's Cook Islanders and Maori unsuccessfully tried to raise our issue in their Parliament. That said, the kiwis are concerned about some aid workers that went missing."
"Grimm, can't you through your cash around? I mean, you do have one of the world's biggest energy companies, and you're bound to have political contacts."
"The market's not doing so well, and everyone knows the Republic of Tanifa has no resources, so I can't make a pitch. Or lie convincingly about it," the Norseman said, his words seething.
"There's not much support back home for this little endeavor as well, although the Singaporean government is glad to raise its international profile," Wang said." So for now, no reinforcements or backup."
"So one cargo ship and a few hundred soldiers against an international crisis on an island nation of a hundred and fifty thousand people," Rick admitted. "Still no word from the island?"
"No one's responding to our broadcasts, and there's nothing being broadcast from the island but white noise," Wang said. "The signal techs don't like it, so we'll be doing recon before landing."
"So we're going in blind," Rick said, sighing. "I'm liking this less and less. Is it really worth it?"
Rick turned his head around when Martin whistled. He attached a portable hard drive to his laptop and opened a new window under Grimm's face. He pointed at it, and Rick found himself watching the video file displayed in blurry black and white graphics. Almost immediately, he recognized it from the prior month.
The video opened with a security camera recording of a crowd gathered before a South Pacific souk. A gaggle of tourists meandered through a crowd of dark-skinned locals while observing the fruit, fish, and flotsam undoubtedly for sale. For a moment, Rick vainly hoped the feed would terminate on the picture of daily routine. He vividly recalled what happened next, but it still caused him to silently gasp.
The trio of attackers was simultaneously not quite human and not quite beast. Rick first imagined them as massive gorillas, but their reflective eyes and extended claws marked them as being all too familiar. They weaved through the crowd with their massive talons, striking with chaotic movements in all directions. Three more burst forth from behind the stalls, cleaving the panicking crowd in twain like a headsman's axe.
The mass of teeming humanity was corralled like livestock before the slaughter. Rick saw the riven groups carved into smaller ones, while the beasts attacking them guarded the perimeter. Curiously, he saw the head of one creature track a man nursing a shoulder wound, but let him pass within claw's reach to get to the relative safety of a nearby side-street. As the beasts ran amok, Rick could not help but see a mechanistic, tactical progress at work as the creatures worked like a pack of hirsute reapers. Strangely, they left the wounded alive on the ground. As the crowd thinned, the creatures left the camera view before the power died.
"The timestamp on the video correlates to the exact moment before power was lost on the island. For the next hour, all scattered broadcasts told of infections spreading. A half hour after that, General Frank Tito sent out a broadcast went out declaring martial law due to quarantine and outbreak. And after that, all communication with the island ceased," Martin said. "Once is chance, twice is coincidence, thrice is conspiracy, and fourth is enemy action. That is why we are going."
"I can understand that, but who's the enemy?" Rick asked.
"In my two millennia of life, Rick, I have never heard of a pack of lycanthropes brazen enough to attack in broad daylight."
"We've always hypothesized there could be other lineages than yours. Maybe this is one of them?"
"I've seen others, Rick, but they're smart enough to hide in the shadows and control themselves. Whatever's happening here is either a mutation we must study, a lineage that's gone feral, or something else."
"And studying it will not be easy," Wang said. "All electronic communications went dark, including satellite communications."
"Jamming satellite phones? How'd they manage that?"
"There are many ways, but there is plenty more amiss here," Wang replied. "I'd have thought that their military would be setting up some kind of emergency radio, for instance."
"That's why I paid for that cargo ship and all those weapons aboard," Grimm said. "You've got enough hardware to make a Viking like me jealous."
"I am just impressed you managed to make the ship look decrepit enough to be the real thing," Anne said. "I hope you're past your seasickness, Rick. You've always been a landlubber."
"I'd rather not talk about that, Anne."
"Rick, next time someone goes overboard, it would help to follow the proper rescue procedure," Martin said. "Don't let tunnel-vision blind you."
"Oh, what's this, Rick?" Anne asked. "Another maritime mishap?"
"Rick had to be rescued himself after he tried saving a sailor that fell overboard. Fortunately, Martin was there to rescue both of them," Wang said with a sigh.
"You really are a landlubber, you know?" Anne said with a sigh. "If I didn't have this political drama to deal with, I'd be down there with you."
"I know, Anne, but you got us every scrap of support you could."
"And I didn't?" Grimm asked sarcastically. "Purchasing a ship hull and refitting it as a military transport was expensive enough, especially on short order. And that's before the disguise Wang insisted on. Who, in there right mind, would want a state-of-the-art ship looking like a garbage scow?"
"Given the unknown political scenario on the island, it is in our interests to-"
"Will everyone calm down?" Rick said, suddenly interrupting. "Whatever happened, happened, but we've got a good hand. The RSS Sea Wolf is a magnificent boat, but Larry's right. We need to know more about what we're getting into."
"Rick, the Sea Wolf is a ship, not a boat. Remember what I told you? A ship can carry a boat, but I boat can't carry a ship."
"Anne, I can appreciate your nautical insights, but for now, I'm trusting Larry with all the military stuff. Now, what's the next step?"
"Allow me to demonstrate," Larry said, hanging out pairs of augmented reality goggles to Martin and Rex. "Before you is a map of Tanifa Island, the most populous island in the Republic of Tanifa."
"I'll read the minutes later, as I've got some business to attend to," Grimm said as he logged off.
"I also have to go, but Rick, you better come back in one piece," Anne said.
Sliding on the goggles, Rick saw a digital model of the island before him. A pair of hills like demonic horns topped the northeastern part of the landmass. The western half of the island were rolling green hills of dense, verdant jungle. The southern portion of the island was a flat, but rough badlands of volcanic boulders and cliffs that cut through the earth like tectonic battle scars. Settled in between the hills and sea was the island's major city, Uru. It houses were little more than single-story shacks more open to the elements, juxtaposed by the ornate mansions by the waterfront. A glass dome housed the National Parliament, which was right beside the Gothic manor where the Tanifan President resided. Towards the city limits were a small airport and port, where a farm of oil tanks sat beside the sea.
"As you can see, the capital of Uru is at a very strategic location: bordered on the north by Observatory Hill, the east by the sea, the south by the cliffs, and the west by a narrow road into the jungle. The main strategic sites include the airport, the port, and the hills."
Rick held his breath as he watched the vivid model rescale itself. The scale changed as an unseen eye lifted away from Tanifa, showing it sitting in the middle of the Pacific like a capsized boat. A yellow dot marked the Sea Wolf's position as it steamed towards the island. Farther to the west, an angry massing of clouds gathered upon the sea.
"We've sent out a UAV towards the island-"
"Hold on, Larry. You said communications are being jammed around the island, but how far out? Why not just send out the UAV on a preprogrammed route to scout and return to us?"
"That's exactly what we tried, but it stopped responding about three kilometers out. So, we called in a few favors, and requested satellite imagery."
The island resized itself, once more dominating the display. Red blobs covered the island like a virulent pox, but Rick's instincts noted they were clustered around the same sites Wang had mentioned. They bore a grid-like precision, as they clearly surrounded Uru like a fisherman's net.
"That's the army's quarantine. Curiously, they've also commandeered construction equipment to various sites around the island. We think they're fortifying."
"Or burying something," Rick said. "If there's no communications, how are they coordinating?"
"Perhaps runners or bike messengers or semaphores. The Tanifan military is not as high-tech as we are, but they are well-trained and resourceful. They were able to pull of four coups in the last thirty years, after all."
"I'm not liking where this is going, Major," the previously silent Martin said. "But what's the plan? Sail right into the city at the center of that quarantine?"
"No, they've scuttled a ship at the port's mouth. We'll anchor offshore to the west, and send out manned scout patrols by helicopter and boat to make contact."
"Major, are you sure that's a good idea? The Tanifan military doesn't seem like they want anyone leaving. What makes you think they want our help?"
"They may not want it, but attacking UN or Red Cross colors is a war crime. If you, or any of my troops, comes under attack, you are permitted to defend yourselves. Rick, your thoughts?"
"I want to investigate this personally," Rick said. "Larry, I'll be taking one of your choppers."
Rick preternaturally turned to sense a sailor running for the Major. The uniformed man ran towards the commanding officer and hurriedly saluted. He whispered something to the Major, which caused his eyes to widen. He removed his augmented reality goggles, and gestured for the others to do the same. His eyes ached for a moment as they readjusted to reality.
"Looks like they found the UAV," the Major said with a grin. "They'll be retrieving it on deck soon. Let's watch."
With that, Rick followed the Major outside, uncertain of what their mechanical spy would tell them.