"… and then, fifteen minutes later, the Strike Team breached and entered," Bullfrog concluded. "And that was that."
"Was it?" the woman in the blue sweater asked.
The big man stared down at the cup of coffee in his hands for a long, silent moment.
"Agent," the woman said. "I want you and your team back in here tomorrow morning for another debriefing session. Until then, I'm taking you off the active roster."
"If you feel it's necessary."
"I do. And Agent?"
The woman in the blue sweater sighed. "Try to get some rest."
Bullfrog drove straight home to his apartment after the debriefing, walking wearily up the stairs with his kit bag over one shoulder. He unlocked the door and stepped inside, to find himself surrounded by candlelight. The scent of perfume was redolent in the air, which was permeated by gentle sounds of smooth jazz music.
There was a beautiful, diminutive redhead woman sitting on the couch. Fox grinned at him as she stretched her arms out over her head. "Hey, big guy!" she said, cheekily, sauntering up and taking hold of his tie. "I've got a week off, so I thought I'd surprise you!"
She reached up and tenderly kissed him.
Bullfrog felt the bile rise. He pushed her away, raced into the bathroom, and threw up in the toilet.
"… sorry," he said later, after Fox had snuffed all the candles, turned on the lights, and put on some more sensible clothes.
"Apology accepted," the Strike team leader said, "provided you tell me what the shit is going on, Bull."
"I don't want to talk about it," Bullfrog insisted. "It's work-related. Security clearances and all. Need-to-know basis."
"Bull," Fox said sternly. "It's me. Kate. I've got the same security clearance you've got. And considering that I've flown twelve hours from Ireland, not to mention shaving and trimming myself for tonight… I think I've got a bit of need-to-know."
"And more than that, Jerry… you look like you've got a serious need-to-tell," Fox said, picking up her teacup and taking a sip. "So talk."
There was a long moment of silence before Bullfrog spoke once more. "You know I just got back from the field, right?"
"Yesterday, yeah. Some op downtown? I didn't hear the details, but the front-desk guy told me your team had it rough. Which was why I thought you could use some cheering up."
"Yeah. Downtown," Bullfrog muttered. "Luxury hotel. Fancy place. We got the call after PALISADE interrupted a really weird 911 call by the concierge. They scrambled us, put us in isolation suits, and sent us in. The first thing that happened was that this old fat dude came after me with a beach umbrella… "
"Jesus Christ!" Bullfrog shouted, as the old-timer lunged at him with the heavy piece of pool furniture. "Calm down! We're the good guys!"
"Get the hell away from me, you commie bastard!" the toothless old man screamed. He continued to swing the umbrella at them wildly, his shriveled dick swaying gently back and forth with each swing. "You'll never take me alive, Ivan!"
"Skunkboy, tackle him!" Bullfrog shouted.
"Screw you! You do it! I ain't grabbing that guy!"
Kitten calmly walked up to the naked old man, caught the umbrella in one hand, and casually reached out to punch him in the jaw, hard.
"Jesus, Kitten! You coulda killed him!"
Kitten looked down at the unconscious naked old man in her arms, checked him for a pulse, and shrugged. "He'll live."
"Wonder what the hell that was about?" Skunkboy asked.
"Maybe he had a bad night at the bingo hall," Bullfrog quipped.
The team stopped laughing when they found the main ballroom.
"Is this hell?"
"If it's not, it's about as close to it as we're ever going to get," Bullfrog grimaced. He leaned down and ran his fingers over the eyes of the naked man lying on the floor of the ballroom. His skin had been peeled back from every inch of his body and was staked to the carpet with sharpened pencils. A severed penis and testicles rested next to his head. The bullet wound in the middle of the forehead hadn't been there when the team entered the room: Bullfrog had done that the moment he realized that the man was still alive (as well as removing the man's severed genitalia from his mouth).
"Skunkboy, toxin analysis?"
"Nothing I can see." The young man waved the sampling wand in the air and studied the readout on his screen. "No psychoactives. Lots of adrenaline, blood, shit, urine, saliva… that's expected given what we're seeing here.
Bullfrog looked up at the rest of the conference room. The entire place was filled with them: hundreds, if not thousands, of men, women, and children in brightly colored vacation garb slumped over in death. Here, a young man had grabbed a young blonde woman by the throat and throttled her to death before being stabbed in the back by another woman with a penknife, who lay on the ground lifelessly staring into oblivion, her eyes glased over in death, the hem of her skirt stained with shit and piss. There, a forty year-old woman had punched a grey-haired man's face before smashing in his head with a bar blender. Over there, a young boy sat huddled in the corner of the room. His severed arm lay in his lap.
"Well, if it's not a toxin… Spider, Thaum analysis?"
"Tending hard Flat, intensity around one hundred kilocaspers… hue Sapphire, Tight weave," Spider reported. "Not sure if this is because of the sheer number of dead people around here, or what caused it. Just to be safe, I recommend we all keep buttoned up. Just in case this thing turns out to be cognito or memetic."
"No arguments there. Kitten? You've been quiet," Bullfrog said.
"… I say we leave and burn this place down," Kitten said curtly. She looked down at a young man slumped in the corner with his arms and legs all blown off, checked him for a pulse, then casually, coldly, put a bullet in his head. "It's the only way to be sure."
"It might be better if we just do that. There's no way that any level of steam cleaning is going to ever get these carpets sanitary," Skunkboy pointed out. "You know what they say about the smell of dead bodies." He shifted his weight on the sodden carpet. It squelched under his feet.
"So that's two votes for burning the building down. Spider? Your opinion?"
"Wait one." Spider said. She stared into her computer screen, swallowing hard, as she fiddled with her monitor. "Bull? I've uh… I've got a lot of VERITAS signatures on the top floor penthouse suite," she said. "Looks like we could have a bunch of civilians or hostages hiding out there."
"All right. Let's go rescue them," Bullfrog said. "Find an override, and let's get into that penthouse suite."
"Hey, Bull?" Skunkboy asked on the elevator ride up.
"Doesn't this place get a lot of Japanese tourists?"
"What are you, a fucking racist? Apologize to Spider."
"Shit, sorry, Spider, it's not that. It's just that… well, this place gets a lot of Japanese tourists this time of year, right?"
"I think so. Guest register had a lot of Tanakas and Kims in it, yeah."
"But half the dead guys in that ballroom weren't, right?" Skunkboy pointed out. "In fact, I think most of them were white or black or hispanic. Isn't that a bit weird?"
Bullfrog frowned as he rubbed his chin in thought. The reinforced glove of his iso suit made a hard, metallic clink against the faceplate of his suit. "Spider?"
"Show me that ARAD reading again."
Spider passed the tablet computer to her team leader, who cocked his head to one side for a moment and stared at the pattern of colors and lines on the screen. Suddenly, Bullfrog swore, dropped the computer, and thumbed his comms circuit open.
"Central, this is Sparkplug!" he practically shouted into his mic. "We're going weapons free and assaulting the penthouse suite! Case Bixby, I say again, Case Bixby!"
"Fuck!" Skunkboy shouted. He fumbled with his DMR as he attempted to rack a round into the chamber. "Fucking shit!"
"Oh gods," Spider whispered. She began scrabbling through her tactical webbing.
There was a cheerful ding! sound, and the elevator doors opened onto…
The starshells exploded overhead, casting the entire jungle in hard white light. Jeremiah felt the cold, hard knotting in the pit of his stomach as he saw the gooks in their black pajamas crawling through the wire.
"CARTER!" his lieutenant screamed. "Get that Sixty up!"
He fumbled with the charging rod of his machine gun, finally managed to get the weapon locked and loaded. He raised himself to the lip of the trench and opened fire, screaming in terror and rage. The weapon chattered and scattered hot brass and steel all over the red jungle mud as the muzzle flashes lit up the night.
He could see the gooks falling, he could see them dying, and he wanted to laugh at the sight. "Get some, you stupid fucking slopeheads!" he screamed. "COME AND GET SOME, YOU FUCKING GOOK BASTARDS!"
He saw the second set of starshells go up, and he saw his lieutenant rise up from the trenches, pistol raised over his head, grey-bearded face twisted in fury. "ASSAULT THROUGH!" the lieutenant was screaming. "We got them on the run! Get em'! Put the steel to them! Kill those fuckers!"
Jeremiah rose to his feet and screamed in triumph as he continued to fire his machine gun from the hip. He could see his brother marines rising up from the trenches, cutting down the fucking VC like wheat before the scythe. The machine gun's bolt slammed back as the belt ran out: he handed the weapon to his A-gunner and drew the .45 from his belt. He fired into the mass of the fleeing, black-clad bastards, fury rising in his heart. How dare they! How dare they drag Ma Carter's little boy out of his home and take him to this fucking stinking jungle? How dare they?
One of the gooks was screaming at him. He put two into his chest and the pistol locked back on an empty chamber. He could see two more of his men holding the fucking chink down. He thought about reloading his pistol, but it would take too much time. He smacked the fucker across the face with the hilt of his gun, knocking that stupid straw hat off his face, was surprised to see that the goddamn slanthead was a girl. Fucking bitch. Fucking VC whore.
He remembered poor Hawkins. Good kid. Just turned 18. Hired a hooker for his eighteenth birthday. Hooker brought a grenade into the tank where they fucked, left it behind. Blew his fucking guts out all over the inside of the entire vehicle. Good fucking kid. Nice guy, everyone liked him, and he died in the middle of a fucking Saigon street because he wanted to get his dick wet for the first time. Fucking waste. Fucking gook whores. He'd get this bitch for him. He'd do it for Hawkins.
He could feel the other gooks trying to pull him off. He fought them off of him and continued punching the fucking whore in the face. He was screaming, he could see the bruises rise… and then she swung something at his face, and he could see that it was some kind of rabbit foot on a chain…
And then Bullfrog found himself laying on the floor of the penthouse suite, and he was grabbing Spider by the throat. Her face was covered in blood and bruises, and her left hand clutched the rabbit's foot on a chain she always wore around her neck.
And Bullfrog screamed even louder.
There was a sudden scream of alarm, and he spun around to see Kitten coldly, methodically, and violently grabbing an old, grey-haired man in camouflage by the face and slamming his head back against a granite countertop. Her face was a mask of fury as she smashed the man's head into a pulp.
Bullfrog looked around silently at the bloody room, at the men and women and children laying in broken, bloody piles on the carpet, at the bullet holes riddling the walls and spidering the glass, at his broken, bruised, and bloodied teammate, and at the empty box magazine of his weapon.
It seemed to him that it would be a good idea to just go away.
So he did. It took four large men to carry him out of the room.
"… Jesus," Fox whispered. Her tea had gone cold, as she sat at the breakfast nook, watching Bullfrog tell his story.
"Yeah," the big man said. He laughed bitterly. "My team is a fucking mess. Spider's in the hospital with two broken cheekbones and a whole mess of smashed teeth. She's lucky to be alive. Kitten went… mechanical. Just kept pounding the guy against the countertop. There wasn't nothing left of his head by the end. They had to sedate her. About the only one who seemed to get through it okay was Skunkboy… at least, that's what I thought before he tried to punch me in the face."
"Lance took a swing at you?"
"Cussed me out, too," Bullfrog admitted. "Called me every fucking name in the book. Said I'd nearly gotten them all killed. And the thing is, he was right."
"No. Don't interrupt me, Kate. I fucked it up." The big man smacked his fist into his open palm. "Racial profiling in the targets. That meant that whatever the hell was doing this was filtering by race. That implies agency. Sapient controller, not an autonomous effect. And then there was the VERITAS pattern."
"I should have checked the pattern before we got in that damn elevator," Bullfrog went on. "Spider's a newbie. She doesn't have the experience in reading VERITAS signatures like I do… like Beagle did! She's barely been on the team for a year! She doesn't know how to pick out a mindbender. If I'd known there was one up there, we would never have gotten in that damn elevator!"
"And THEN!" Bullfrog shouted. "Me, the fucking DUMBASS, decided to breach that fucking room with FOUR Assessment guys! The moment I realized we were walking into a fucking mindbender's lair, I should have stopped the fucking elevator: slammed the emergency stop, called it in, and sent in Strike… but no! I had to BREACH! And I sent all four of us in to become that goddamn psychopath's playthings!"
Fox just clutched her mug more tightly as Bullfrog's tirade continued. "And the most FUCKED UP THING?" the big man concluded. "Even more fucked up than that… that sick bastard using me to nearly kill my own teammate? The most fucked up thing is that in the end, that fucking newbie saved all our asses! If she hadn't gone for her ward… if she hadn't broken the effect on me and the others, we would have killed each other just like those poor bastards down in the ballroom! Jesus Christ!"
Bullfrog collapsed onto the couch and buried his face in his hands, letting out a loud scream of frustration, muffled in his own hands.
Fox sat down and put her arm around his shoulders. The big man flinched… then settled in and rested his head on her chest. It took a long time for his breathing to finally slow.
"Remember what you told me after the Alaska op?"
"It's not the same thing."
"It's exactly the same thing, Jer," Fox said. "And I'm going to tell you the same thing you told me."
"You're fucked up," Fox went on. "And rightfully so. And you're gonna stay fucked up for a while. Shit like this doesn't go away fast. Bits of it never go away. But the raw, jagged edges… they'll get smoothed over. We'll help you do it. And in the end… it won't cut you as deep. It will still hurt… but you'll be able to take it."
Bullfrog nodded in silence as he rubbed his forehead, staring off into nothingness. But his shoulders weren't as tense, and his eyes weren't as haunted. That was something, at least.
"You should get some sleep," Fox said. "If I know the Coalition, they're going to want you in for therapy bright and early."
"Eight in the morning," Bullfrog admitted. "All-day therapy and debriefing with the team."
"All right," Fox said. "Ready to go to bed?"
"… no. But I'll try."