The last of his squad leaders had reported that the mopping-up had been completed. It had taken longer than expected, and Captain Swather didn't anticipate good news.
First Lieutenant Kellie Sedgewick obliged him. "All squads report some damage; Third Squad took 100%, but Fourth was able to recover their wounded and cover their objective. Three of the ten squads lost their leaders, but in all cases their seconds stepped into the breach. Total numbers: 20% dead, 50% wounded. That doesn't included walking wounded, of course."
Swather nodded. Nobody had escaped completely unscathed, not even Sedgewick or himself. Sedgewick had lost half of her uniform sleeve on one side when the medics had bandaged up a double gunshot wound there, and Swather himself had a dressing on one cheek where shrapnel had hit it.
He'd been skeptical when his clients, the Putnam Water League, had wanted to hire an entire company just for a simple reservoir job, but they had the money, and they insisted that it would be necessary. He hadn't gone off half-cocked; it was so unusual for a client to want to spend more money rather than less that he'd humoured them as much as possible. He'd been hoping for a cakewalk, but he'd prepared for the worst, or so he'd thought.
The forces guarding the Acton Reservoir had nonetheless been more competent than Swather had expected, paramilitary rather than the citizen's militia he was more used to encountering in his line of work. Admittedly, the North Ridge folks would have been getting nervous with the recent incursions that Putnam had been into their territory, so he'd have expected some beefing up, but this was far from the only water source in North Ridge territory, or even the largest, and he would've expected them to be rational and cut their losses.
Instead, they'd fought like professionals, almost the equal of Swather's own men--though Swather had still had enough of an edge to make his victory probable, if not entirely a given.
"Do we have the enemy commander?" he asked. A floodlight snapped on a dozen metres away on the shoreline, and he turned away to keep his night vision a little longer.
"We're still sorting out the detainees," Sedgewick said. "They've all been brought to the parkade."
Monica Otis, Chief Engineer, signaled Swather then. Her team had been setting up the pipes to drain the reservoir into the pipeline they'd been setting up surreptitiously over the preceding weeks, and the sooner their job was done, the sooner Swather and his troops could pull back to Putnam territory. Most of the Putnam reservoirs were at a fraction of their full capacity, the demands on them far outstripping the meagre rainfall that had become the norm over the last decade. "Go on ahead and supervise," he said. "I'll catch up after I'm done with Otis."
As soon as Swather arrived, he could see that the underground parkade had been the site of some of the most vicious fighting. Two of his armoured vehicles had broken through the doors, but one had been taken out and was half blocking the entrance; some of the engineers were debating what they could salvage from it. Many of the civilian vehicles were bullet-ridden, dented, or bloodied, and safety glass was strewn everywhere. The floor was cratered in several places, and the overhead lights were completely off in one corner.
An open space had been cleared, and the remains of two squads stood over about two dozen prisoners, on their knees with their hands cuffed behind them. None of Swather's people looked happy, but they had discipline drilled into them, and none of them were taking any undue action against the prisoners.
As Swather entered, one of the women lurched forward, trying to get to her feet. The nearest guard stepped back, raising his sidearm, and another pulled out a taser.
"Wait," Swather said. He didn't feel threatened by the woman, who was still cuffed, and he was confident that his guards would take care of her if she became any real threat. He'd wanted to talk to one of the prisoners in any case, and this one seemed to have volunteered herself.
Sedgewick nodded to the guards, and they stood down, though they kept the taser ready; one of the guards stripped off her weapons and prepared to act as the woman's handler. After the last time a prisoner had gotten his hands on a sidearm and killed three people before they could take him out, Swather had instituted additional precautions. The handler, Private Yolanda Chance, took the woman's arm, catching her from what would have been a painful face-first fall, and led her up to stand in front of Swather.
The woman was most likely one of the civilian staff at the reservoir, being on the far side of forty, somewhat stocky, with short blonde hair, dressed in a light blue business suit and skirt and currently barefoot. "Name?" Lt. Sedgewick asked.
"Mable Budz," the woman said. "Are you in charge here?" she asked Swather. "You're Captain Randall Swather, aren't you? I've seen your picture."
"I'll ask the questions," Swather said mildly. "Were you in charge of this installation?"
"I was the civilian monitor, yes," she said. "Please, you've got to stop what you're doing."
"I'm sure that you'd like me to do that," Swather said, voice still mild. "Unfortunately, these days it's every commonwealth for itself. My employers are likely not the only ones to be a little bit peeved about Acton Reservoir and how full you keep it, when everyone else is looking out tiny puddles. We've been hired to take that water for our employers, and that's what we're going to do. That's the way the world is, these days."
"That's not what I mean," she said. "I realize that, as a mercenary, you get paid well enough to forget about the civilians that you're dooming to death by thirst by your actions." Sedgewick hissed between her teeth, and Mable flinched, but Swather raised his hand and Sedgewick subsided.
"Given the mercenaries you yourself have employed to try to keep your excessive and showy hoard of water to yourselves, I'm not about to cede the moral high ground, but I assume that is not you main point," Swather said. "Go on."
There was a loud noise from outside the parkade, causing several of the guards and prisoners to flinch, and then the beginning of a loud gurling noise as the pumps began to work. Mable paled, and began to speak more rapidly.
"How much do you know about the Collapse?" she asked. Not waiting for an answer, she continued, "Probably the same as everybody else, the same story we heard on the news and on the Net, back when there was only one. A big asteroid hit the capital and destroyed the government, and somehow shifted climate change into high gear. Well, that's only partly true."
"This could be entertaining," Swather said. "Do you go along with the theory that it was China who was really behind it, or India? Maybe Liechtenstein?"
She shook her head irritably. "No, no, it wasn't anyone on Earth. Please, can you just get them to stop the pumping until I'm done? Just a few minutes, I swear."
"Can't do that," Swather said. "We've got a job to do. If I didn't have capable people that I trusted to do theirs for half an hour without be riding their asses, I wouldn't even be talking to you, so be thankful. So, make it snappy."
"Right. So--it wasn't just an asteroid. That hit the capital. It made a crater when it struck, true, but then things began to come out of the crater, and they caused the majority of the damage. Communications were so disrupted that none of the information got out at first, and later it was actively suppressed."
"So, aliens, then?" Swather said with a grin. Some of the guards chuckled, though not enough for his taste. The times were crazy enough without stupid stories like this beginning to get around. "Sounds like you been playing too many of those first-person shooters."
"That wasn't the only one, though," Mable said. "Right now we don't really have the chance to pay much attention to the rest of the world, but there's others, and there have been others in the past. A lot of unexplained deaths near a lot of mysterious craters. Craters like Acton Reservoir."
Swather began to get a cold feeling trickling down his spine. "Acton's been around since before the Collapse, though," he said. He tried to remember what little he knew about the reservoir. It wasn't perfectly round like a crater, though it did have a rounded arc to it, and he was sure he'd seen it on the pre-Collapse maps of the area that he'd skimmed when planning the mission.
"The object that struck here landed in an existing lake," Mable said. "It changed the shoreline, and it blocked the previous outflow, the Putnam River that flowed south into your territory. So it's never been exposed to actual air up to now. And we've been trying hard to keep it that way. Not just us North Ridgers; there's a whole network of us watching out for these objects--Eggs, we call them. If you keep draining the reservoir enough to expose this Egg, then it's going to hatch, and you're not going to want to be around."
Swather was beginning to get uncomfortable--either this woman was genuinely crazy, or he was about to make a big mistake. He could hear the gurgling of the water flowing into the pipes in the silence left after Mable stopped speaking. "I'm afraid I'm going to need a little more than your word to go on, Ms. Budz," he said. "You have any proof you can offer? Like, can you show us this Egg that you're talking about?"
"Captain Swather", Mable said, "you may not have been informed about this, but we've been scrambling to try to find more water to put in the reservoir for the last week. Last I heard, it was only about ten feet below the waterline."
Swather did some rapid calculations in his head, then cursed. "Get me Otis," he barked at Lt. Sedgewick. She hurriedly punched in the codes on her handphone, and handed it to him. "Otis, you there?"
"Captain Swather?" Monica Otis said. "We're making good progress, just got the second pump online. I was just going to call you; something odd showing up on the water's edge. Looked like some kind of bomb or something, we may want a demolitions team to look at it."
Swather cursed. "Muster all the squads at the engineer's location," he said to Sedgewick. "Contact the backup troops and see if they can get here a little earlier than planned. As in, five minutes ago." He turned back to the handphone. "Otis, you still there?"
Silence, apart from a few high-pitched noises--shrieking metal, or shrieking humans?--then Otis said, "Oh my god! There's something--" Her voice was cut off, but he could still hear the shrieking, as if she'd dropped the handphone.
"Too late, Captain," Mable called to him as he began to run towards the parkade exit. "Too late for all of us."
First story of 2012, for what I have decided will be called Story Hebdo, in a somewhat franglais attempt to keep from being too cliché. This is somewhat inspired by the guidelines for an anthology called Blood And Water that I saw recently, about conflict over basic resources like water. Originally the thing in the water was a little more Cthulhuoid than alien, but ideas change in the writing. If you're curious, the story is over now; everybody dies. Move along.