Semper Fidelis

by Jonas Kyratzes

I suppose the reason I ended up here is more or less my own stubbornness, so I can't complain too much. But I figured it would be good to explain a few things before I pull the trigger. Hell, maybe telling my own story will finally help me make sense of the whole thing myself.

Where I come from, you had two options. Either you went to work in the coal mines, or you joined the military. Seeing as half my family had died in the mines by the time I was twenty, I figured the military was the safer choice. And there was something about the idea of working with other people, serving a cause, that appealed to me. I'm not that smart, definitely not that ambitious, and by the way I ain't apologizing for that, just stating facts. Anyway, I may not be the smartest cookie in the jar, but I figured out early on that only doing things for yourself just ain't satisfying. I guess that's the one thing I have in common with everybody who ended up in the Phoenix Project.

So, I became a marine. Semper Fi and all that. And there were parts of it that felt really right for me. The camaraderie, you know? And the whole attitude. The dedication. It meant something. Or it seemed to, at first. After a while, I started wondering what I was fighting for, cause it sure as hell didn't seem to be the principles our country was supposed to stand for. I loved all the people who were out there with me on the battlefield, but the people giving the orders... well, I didn't feel they loved us a whole lot. And then I started wondering about the people we were fighting, and whether they were also just following orders given by people who didn't love them, and I just... I couldn't do it anymore.

Anyhow, after some twists and turns, I ended up with the Phoenix Project. By the time I signed up, it already wasn't what it used to be. On my first assignment, checking out some ruins in the Amazon with this crazy Argentinian scientist, I had to get there in a regular passenger plane. Economy class, of course. Not exactly what you'd expect from a secret organization dedicated to saving humanity. Can't say I wasn't proud, though. In fact, I loved it. Maybe too much. There were some things I'd done in the military that I wasn't too proud of, and I guess the Phoenix Project felt like... I don't know, penance? Salvation?

I'll never forget the moment the existence of the Phoenix Project was revealed to the public. I was in a hotel room in Beijing on a mission, and I'd just come out of the shower, where I'd banged my toe hard enough for it to bruise. My first thought when I saw they were talking about us on the TV was - I swear this is true - wow, maybe now that people know, we'll get more funding. It did not occur to me in that moment that we would be seen as a joke.  Or a Russian plot, for that matter. I never thought the potential of such a threat to humanity would end up being material for late-night comedy shows and crazy rants on the radio. I've never really understood politics, but in that moment I realized why people got so mad. I wanted to scream at the TV. But I couldn't stop watching.

It started becoming unpleasantly clear to me that we were going to get our asses kicked. The UN didn't give us a whole lot of funding to begin with, but now things were gonna change. I knew none of us were gonna give up, but without funding, without official support... the Phoenix Project would have to find a new approach. This would mean that certain types of missions just wouldn't be possible anymore. So I needed to act quickly.

You see, I was in Beijing to talk to a contact in the Chinese government. That makes me sound like a spy, but it was official business. She was the liaison to the Phoenix Project. Smart lady. She picked up on some weird chatter coming out of a base in Antarctica, which they were keeping an eye on because it was run by a company called EnyoSec. They'd had some trouble in the past with that company ignoring their regulations, causing a bit of a scandal, which they didn't take kindly to. It sounded like they'd found something in the ice.

I called HQ and strongly suggested an immediate mission to the EnyoSec base, but they were in full damage control mode, trying to keep the media from eating them alive. They told me we were stretched too thin, and there had been a bomb scare, and the organization just wasn't up to sending a bunch of people to, and I quote, the frozen butt of the world. I was angry, though I guess I wasn't angry at them, cause I understood the situation they were in. I didn't have anything solid, and if EnyoSec ended up taking us to court... well, it wouldn't be pretty.

But I was real mad. Oh boy. I could've punched straight through a wall. A lot of it was pride. I wanted to do something, find something. Proof, I guess. That there was something out there. Or maybe just that there were still people who cared, unlike these politicians who were going on TV to condemn us for wasting the public's money, when they spent more money on the furniture in their offices than we spent trying to protect the whole planet. I don't know... maybe I'd just read too much science fiction and I wanted to be the hero just once before they shut us down. In any case, I called in a bunch of favors and made the mission happen. A one-man mission to Antarctica. Probably just about the dumbest thing I've ever done.

If I've made it sound like I was all gung-ho about the mission, the truth is that by the time I arrived at McMurdo Station, from where I was going to head out to the EnyoSec facility, I mostly just felt tired. The Phoenix Project controversy had already dropped out of the news, replaced by celebrity gossip and the latest round of bickering between the leaders of our glorious nations. I felt like I didn't know what I was doing, or why.

McMurdo Station had a couple of surprises in store for me. The first was that all contact had been lost with the EnyoSec facility. They assured me it was probably just a technical problem, but I could feel in my gut that it was more than that. The second surprise was that I wasn't going there on my own. A company called Vanadium was sending a team, and I was hitching a ride.

Can't say I was pleased about this turn of events. I'd worked with some Vanadium troops when I was a marine, and let me tell you, they were a reckless, violent bunch who gave the locals a whole new set of reasons to hate us. This group, though, seemed a lot more professional. In fact, their attitude reminded me of some black ops guys I used to know. Gave me the creeps. The guy in charge, a tall, hard-looking man called Turner, explained that Vanadium had recently acquired a controlling interest in EnyoSec, and as some of the paperwork had contained errors, they had been sent in to check out the situation. He told me this ridiculous story with a straight face, and honestly I ain't entirely sure he didn't actually believe it on some level. That's how seriously he took his orders.

As we approached the facility in a massive Vanadium helicopter, some new model I'd never seen in the field before, we picked up a transmission. It was the voice of a man trying to speak, but somehow unable to form words. He groaned and it sounded like his throat was full of water. Turner looked at me like he expected me to know what we were hearing. I wondered how I'd ended up flying with these guys - clearly somebody pulled some strings, but why... I guess I'll never find out.

We tried to communicate with the person on the radio, but although he responded to questions, or seemed to anyway, it was never anything more than moaning and a kind of weird babbling, like he'd regressed to being an infant. After a while there was a sound that made us think he'd vomited on the microphone, and after that there was silence.

You would think, given these extraordinary and mysterious events, that I would be tense, readying for a fight. But it wasn't so. Instead, I was overcome by a kind of weariness, as if I already knew what was coming. And I suppose I did.

That part of the story's too long to tell in detail now, but one of the reasons I ended up joining the Phoenix Project, or even hearing about it, was a certain love of the unexplained. Although my understanding of science is limited - like I said, I ain't that bright - I could never resist a good UFO tale, or a ghost story, or any of that stuff. And I wasn't the only soldier who maybe secretly hoped we'd stumble into Area 51 or the next Roswell or something. I devoured science fiction and horror, books and movies especially, to the point where I ended up having a bit of a reputation.

But now that I was walking into a situation straight out of one of those stories, like something dreamed up by H.P. Lovecraft or John Carpenter, what I felt was that we'd screwed it all up. All these artists had been trying to warn us, show us the real dangers out there, and we'd ignored them, and now we were being punished by having to play out a distorted version of their stories. An old coal-mining friend of mine, a union man, once mentioned a quote that really got stuck in my head: history repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce.

That's what this was, I suddenly thought. A farce. The Phoenix Project was already dead. Humanity, most likely, was already dead. These were the end times, but we were so used to a world full of horror that we hadn't even noticed. All my strength left me, and I think the only reason I kept going was inertia. Or maybe it was faith. Sometimes I think those two are one and the same.

When we arrived at the facility, we found its doors open, the inside slowly freezing. I followed the others, but I was barely present. The men seemed to think we might find survivors, but I think Turner knew the moment he saw the open doors. In the mess hall, we found three bodies, two women and one man. One of the women had shot the other two, then herself. It didn't look like there had been a struggle. The lab was another story. It looked like something had clawed its way out of some kind of containment chamber, slicing several EnyoSec scientists into pieces. It reminded me of things I'd seen as a marine: soldiers torn apart by an IED, civilians blown to pieces by one of our bombs. Human beings all look pretty much the same when you take them apart.

We found the radio operator, or what was left of him. Far as I could tell, he'd melted, and something had grown out of the goo. Almost looked like coral. One of his hands was still whole, resting on the table next to the radio. His fingers were webbed. Whatever it was that they'd found in the ice, it treated human beings like Play-Doh.

The creature fell on us while we were examining the remains. Must have been hiding somewhere. It was like one of these shootouts that just come out of nowhere, just mayhem for a few seconds, and then it's over, and it takes your brain hours to even process what just happened. I think the creature used to be human, probably someone working at the facility. It still had a more or less human shape, except for the hands, which were claws. The skin was thick, like an insect's, or a lobster or something. I believe they call it an exoskeleton. It ripped through Turner's men like they were made of paper-mache before Turner blew its head off with a shotgun.

Meanwhile, it started getting misty inside the facility. We were wearing hazmat suits, of course. I forgot to mention that, and it's important. Regular hazmat suits don't do diddly squat. Well, maybe they do a little, but not enough.

I don't know where the mist was coming from, but it almost seemed to be following us. We tried to avoid it, but it was already too late. It starts as a kind of itching sensation, and then the skin hardens and slowly, you start feeling your insides changing, like your skin is a shell and your flesh is turning to liquid. I think it's happening a lot more slowly for us than for the EnyoSec folks. Maybe the mist is not as strong anymore, or as pure. Or maybe the filters in the suits are helping.

Anyway, I have to admit I half expected Turner to tell me that Vanadium had bought EnyoSec to weaponize this stuff. But as it turns out, his boss ain't so big on germs, and the helicopter had enough bombs and napalm in it to burn this whole place to a crisp, just in case.

Ah, I gotta hurry up a bit, Turner's done setting it up. Funny, I just remembered something. Back when I was thinking about quitting the military, I saw this documentary that really helped me make up my mind. It was about firefighters, and it showed this guy run into a burning building to save some people. There was a wall of flame, I mean, it was like staring at the face of hell. I'd been shot at, even seen a car get hit by a rocket launcher once, but that wall of flame, that was something else. And the guy didn't run away from it, didn't look for cover, he ran straight at it. To save lives. I thought in that moment, despite all my training, despite all my combat experience, that I really didn't know if I could do that. Facing the fire like that, the pure element. It was like facing God.

Have I atoned for my sins? Have I lived a good life? To be honest, I don't know. But I will walk in there, and I'll stand side by side with Turner, and I will pull that trigger. I guess it's an appropriate end for a member of the Phoenix Project, although I sure as hell hope I don't rise from the ashes. If you find this recording... well, that's up to you, but I just want to say that I don't feel as hopeless as I did before. Sure, maybe we're reliving all of our stories as a farce, a sick joke, but even then, we still get to write our own endings. And this is mine.

Semper Fi.