Protocol X – Chapter 1

One Foot In Front of the Other

Late Winter 2005, Superstition Mountains, Arizona

My feet thudded on the dirt trail below me, dry and dusty. I was trail running in the Superstition Mountains east of Phoenix, but the Sonoran Desert surroundings were pretty much lost to me. I was focusing on one foot at a time, one breath at a time, and had attention for little else.

Endurance training. Actually my life since the “Incident at Yellowstone” (as it was commonly called) had become one big training session. A crashed alien spaceship, corpses of aliens, and working alien energy weapons had changed things.

And Licia, she had changed things too.

One foot in front of the other, one breath at a time.

Even as tired as my body was, even as focused as I had to be, I couldn’t keep the thoughts of Licia out of my mind. I hadn’t seen her in six weeks. Colonel Williams had decided to train us separately for a while. I had to wonder if that wasn’t by her request, because it certainly wasn’t what I wanted. I figured I was being paranoid, but given what I had experienced in the last few months I was becoming a staunch believer in paranoia—in fact, I think as a q-morph it is a job requirement.

And if I never saw her, how was I going to get her back? This training was taking up nearly all my time. They had even dispensed with the pretense of me working as a janitor at Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station. I was busy with them all day, every day. I had tried calling her and texting her that first week after she had broken it off. But she didn’t answer, and she didn’t return my messages.

One foot in front of the other, one breath at a time.

The military had decided that I needed to do endurance training. I ran cross-country for a few years in high school, so running it was. The trail running had been my idea. I wasn’t going to run circles on some damn military base. I wanted to get out into the desert. Let nature do its work, let it take some of this tension away.

Well, tension isn’t the right word. Trauma is. And they had me seeing a therapist for that. I really preferred running and sweating in the beauty of the Arizona desert to sitting in a room with my torturer—err, therapist—talking about how I felt about killing the aliens. Did they think that I wasn’t supposed to be traumatized? Did they think I could go through all that and come away with a laugh and a smile?

It’s just not that simple.

These thoughts, Licia, trauma, and the aliens, kept floating up in my mind. And the running and breathing chased them out. My runs were getting longer and longer, and I was finding them to be the only time my mind shut up. You might think sleeping would be good, but I kept dreaming about that blond-haired alien with the hole in his chest.

One foot in front of the other, one breath at a time.


He had shockingly red and white skin strewn with freckles. Nestled in his oval face were playful green eyes and he was wearing a big smile when I saw him.

I was on mile twelve of my run, my body worn and past the point where it longed to stop and rest. I rounded a corner and there he was sitting on a rock. The trailhead, and my car, were about a mile farther. It was late afternoon on a Wednesday and I hadn’t seen anyone on the trail at all.

He was dressed to run, but he didn’t look like much of a runner. Too short, too happy. As I rounded a corner, he waved at me. I gave him a brief nod and kept running. I knew who he was, but I wasn’t going to say anything.

I heard his feet behind me, the rhythm of his feet faster than mine because of his shorter stature.

“Hey, fella,” he began. “How’s it goin’?” His voice was high with the distinct lilt of an Irish accent.

I was too far into the run to want to talk. I was at that point when the world closed in around me, and all I could see was the trail in front of me. I didn’t want to talk. I didn’t want to interact. I just wanted to keep running.

“Fine,” I answered.

“Nice form there, friend. Ya been runnin’ long?” He spoke in short, rushed sentences, the words exploding from his mouth.

I ignored him. I thought about increasing my pace, but I didn’t really have enough energy left for that. I took a drink from the tube that led to the water bladder in the little pack on my back. Dehydration was something I had to avoid. I needed to be ready to change to Neutrinoman at any moment, and starting out dehydrated wasn’t smart.

“You know,” he continued, “I heard ya were a rather decent fella. Kind to strangers. Ready to rescue cats out of trees for little old ladies at the drop of a hat. A real Boy Scout. But I guess not. Too busy running to talk to one of your own.”

I was mad. This was my time. This was what I needed to do for me. Now, I understand why he approached me here, it was one of the only times I wasn’t surrounded by military. And I had been expecting this. Williams had briefed me to expect a recruitment pitch. But still I was angry and I really didn’t have a problem letting it show.

“What do you want?” I asked as I kept my pace up.

“Ya know. Just a few minutes of your time, Mr. Nichols.”

“What for, Mr. Lucky?” I said. I knew he didn’t like being called that.

“Hey!” he yelled. I got why he didn’t like that name—after seeing him with his red hair perched on the boulder it was obvious. Dress him in a little green suit and shiny black shoes and you’d have yourself a leprechaun. Not that I thought the name Chaosboy was any more dignified.

I looked down and saw that one of my shoes was untied. I grumbled and came to a slow stop, putting my foot on a rock and slowly tying it.

“Lucky break, that,” Chaosboy said as he stopped next to me, his breath coming in ragged gasps. He really wasn’t a runner.

“You did this?” I asked as I finished tying it.

He shrugged. “I just need a few minutes.”

I started walking and took a big drink. I had to cool my body off. After a run that long it wouldn’t do to just stop. “So start talking,” I said with a sigh. My legs were jelly and it did feel good to be just walking. I was wearing shorts and the little backpack, no shirt, letting my body soak up as much sun as possible. I was in the reactor every day or so at this point, but I always loved the little boost the Arizona sun gave me. My skin was pale, despite all the sun. Radiation and me, we have a unique relationship.

“Toxic, he wants to talk to ya,” Chaosboy began. “He’s impressed by ya. He thinks you would be just the addition we need at LoVE.”

“Love?” I asked.

“Yeah. League of Villains, Extraordinaire. L-O-V-E.”

I groaned in response.

“It was you’re idea, ya know. Toxic said ya gave him the idea when you asked him if we were ‘a league of villains, or something.’”

I groaned again.

“Come on. It’s a great name. Ya know, who can argue against love?”

“I’m sorry, what was the point? I got lost in all that blabbering.” I felt bad when I said it. Actually, I felt more embarrassed than anything. It was the kind of thing Toxicwasteman would say.

I heard him stop, so I stopped, turned, and faced him. His arms were crossed and he was looking me up and down.

“What?” I asked.

“Toxic, he was right. He said the Battle at Yellowstone and losing your girl would change ya. He said there was a good chance ya would come in. I didn’t believe him. But I kinda do now.”

I shrugged, turned my back on him, and kept walking. The grumpy tact was proving effective so I decided to keep it up. Besides, I had a lot to be grumpy about.

“So ya gonna come in? Ya gonna hear what he has to say?”

“Why should I?” I kept walking and he trotted up and was now walking besides me.

“Survival, lad. The military has its head so far up their own arses they can’t even breathe. Gotta be nimble with this. Military is anything but. We want the same thing. We want those alien bastards dead and gone. Our goals are your goals.”

Keep reading