Taylor M. Shirley
“It has been said that ‘time heals all wounds.’ I do not agree. The wounds remain. In time, the mind, protecting its sanity, covers them with scar tissue and the pain lessens. But it is never gone.”
Date: December 1, 2027
Location: The Pentagon, Arlington County, Virginia
Hearing regarding the destruction of New York City, 2025.
Monitored by General of the Army Phillip Duncan, Lieutenant General Matthew Allen, Colonel Saul Jones, and Major William Wilson.
Please Note: While this is a hearing, this is also a psychological evaluation of Captain Ira Byrne’s mental fortitude, and his ability to lead Operation: Aether, per General Allen’s request.
Ira sat in the middle of the dark room alone. With the hanging floodlight beaming down on him and the table, he could not see much else; however, the air smelled foul, like rubber that had been burned to a crisp and left out to rot. The cold chill caused his breath to hang in the air. Goosebumps ran up his arms but he disregarded his senses.
Gazing down at his own, weather beaten, scarred, and dry hands, Ira vividly recalled the destruction of Meryl’s home, of how he found her, her eyes closed, ashen faced as if she were merely sleeping.
He, however, knew that she was dead. Dead, and never coming back.
The images he envisioned in his hands turned to his and his team’s long campaign in New York City and for what?
To be burned away?
How could they have stopped a missile attack?
For three days, Ira and his remaining men had travelled through the grimy pipes beneath the city, trying to head south, towards Washington, D.C. When they finally extricated themselves from the stench of the underground, New York City had a large, gaping hole on the southern part of the island.
“Captain Byrne.” A disembodied, intimidating voice pulled him from his thoughts. “You have an impressive record, only twenty-nine and you are already a captain? You became one in haste, when your previous captain passed away?”
“Yes, sir,” Ira stated flatly. He knew why he was here and he was going to prove that he could still fight. “I was promoted from first lieutenant to captain after the late Captain Arthur Collins… committed suicide, in June of 2025.”
“Do you know why he committed such an atrocious act?”
“The day before, he had received word about his wife and daughter; they were killed while flying back to Washington, D.C. It was a drone strike, one of our own. Someone had hacked the system and forced it to collide with the plane midflight. It killed all two hundred people and they never saw it coming.” Ira’s voice turned to iron as he stated the facts.
“So you think you are able to lead these men into battle?”
Knowing that this was a trick question, the captain said, “I think I am capable of leading a group of my most trusted men.”
“Despite your disadvantages.”
“Disadvantages?” Ira’s head tilted slightly, unsure of what he was talking about.
“Tell me about your parents?”
Taken aback, scarcely showing emotion even though that memory was horrible in and of itself, Ira stated, “It was a week after I had enlisted in the army before the war started. My parents were driving home when a semi turned a sharp corner and hit their car. My mother was killed on impact and my father was hospitalized; he passed away a week later.”
“What of your friend, a woman named Meryl Renée Grigori?”
Expecting this question, Ira was stunned that they spoke her name in that cold, hard fashion, clearly using it against him. His cheeks flushed but still he answered in a cool, aloof tone, “We went to the same high school. We were next door neighbors, and we were best friends.”
“According to an anonymous source,” the voice stated challengingly, “you two were more than just ‘friends’. Moreover, when she was found, by you, among the rubble, you wept for her loss. Care to change your answer?”
“Forgive me sir.” Ira grit his teeth, but hastily calmed himself, “While there was an interest in more than friendship between us, we never went further than being friends. She and I wanted different things in life. And as for weeping, she was my best friend. Have you wept for the loss of someone so close?”
Silence followed his subtle remark.
Then, there was a strange murmuring coming through the speakers. Ira heard four different tones of voice until it was cut out with a few short clicks.
Unable to hear anything now except his own breathing, Ira felt the room grow colder. The tense anticipation mounted as he felt shivers course through his spine like lightning.
“Tell me,” the voice picked up. “What can you recall about the events in New York City, in October of 2025? You lost five of your men: Russell Brady, Stanley Brady, Victor Adams, Scott Shepard, and Samuel Hunter.”
Ira inhaled deeply, hearing the names of his deceased comrades did not make this any easier. While he did not know them as well as he knew Meryl, there was still a stinging ache in his chest.
Leaning forward on the desk, Ira’s dog tags slipped from behind the shirt, and two rings shimmered softly in the light; ignoring the wedding bands, Ira stated the facts, all of them:
A cool fog had fallen over New York City. The chilly night air told anyone left that a cold, brutal winter was on its way.
It had been a few years since the start of the war, and this is where the battles had moved: New York. The moment Wall Street was hit, the city had turned into a madhouse. People ran, abandoning their cars that littered the streets, fleeing with nothing except their families, trying to escape before they lost everything they held most dear.
Unable to see the stars or the moon due to the grey clouds slinking across the sky, Ira peeked through a window that was still intact, looking out into the abandoned street.
He and his men were hidden on the first floor of an old office building. Paper and workplace debris were scattered and littered the lobby. Lounge chairs were overturned; the entire structure, much like the rest of the southern part of the island, was in utter disarray.
Turning away from the flickering street lamps, the plastic bags whisking away with the breeze, and the rusted cars lining the streets, Captain Ira Byrne glanced toward his men and suggested an irrational idea.
“We need to get to higher ground,” Ira hoarsely whispered to his nine companions. “We’ll never get anywhere from this vantage point, and this building is just about ready to fall on itself.”
“Raven,” Alec Parry was the voice of reason. “We don’t know where they are. If we run out now then we’ll be easy targets.”
“But if we stay here, we’ll be sitting ducks.” Pirate Victor Adams, contradicted.
Ira looked across the street through the shattered windowpanes. There was the door on the opposite side. It was tempting and the building was not as damaged. The skeleton pipes were still intact and sturdy, more so than the building that they had currently stationed themselves in.
The more time passed, the louder the argument grew. Finally, Ira had shut them all up, reminding them that they were still in dangerous territory. Immediately, they fell into silence.
“We need to move, we are not completely protected… It’s now or never.”
The men’s breathing seemed to stop; there was no movement, nothing, save for their own beating hearts.
Alec halfheartedly nodded, “You’re the boss. All right. Let’s do it.”
Taking the lead, Ira stepped out onto the darkened street. Around him, there was nothing, nothing except the few street lamps, feebly trying to provide light but failing in the process.
He exhaled calmly. The chill air caught his breath and it suspended without support. It was now or never.
“C’mon,” Ira ordered through clenched teeth, and sprinted like a fox towards the other side of the street.
He and his men slunk in the shadows, trying to hide their numbers, trying to survive to fight another day. As soon as Pirate, the last to follow was in the middle of the street, a single shot echoed off the crumbling buildings.
Victor Adams grunted audibly. His boot toe scuffed the pavement and he fell to the ground, motionless.
The hailstorm of bullets soon rained down upon the men.
Immediately taking cover wherever they could, the team only caught a glimpse of Pirate’s lifeless body in the middle of the street before they hid again from the gunfire aimed at them from the tops of the ruined buildings. Only curse words escaped from Hunter, Omega, Shadow and Titan; they hid behind an old car. The rest had taken cover behind three Jersey barriers stacked alongside each other, only two feet of exposed air separated them.
“I…Ira… We have to move…” Cyan’s words were broken with fear. He was not looking at the men who fired at them, but the opposite side, towards the east.
“You have got to be kidding me!” Ira shouted as a missile split the sky like a burning asteroid thousands of miles away, and it was drawing closer.
The captain looked towards the street; there, a few yards from them, was an exposed manhole. “Guys!” Ira pointed to their only way out.
“GO!” Titan screamed at them as he stood and directed the gunfire towards the abandoned car.
Noble, Oak, Cyan, and Pie sprinted towards the mouth and slid in one by one, tactfully so they would not be hit.
Ira had not moved from his spot.
Titan exposed his position to take down two, then three, men from the rooftops.
There was another fire cracking sound that rippled through the night sky. The sniper’s aim was true, and deadly.
Omega dropped his gun and immediately went to Titan’s aid. He tried to stop the bleeding in his chest, his fingers drenched in his brother’s blood. “Shit, shit! Russ, don’t you give up on me!”
Shaking violently, Titan gazed at his brother with a weak, dying smile, “Love you… Stan…”
Anguish turned to fury, Omega grabbed his brother’s grenades from his belt, pulled the pins and threw them towards the guards. He immediately grabbed his assault rifle and fired at any and every of the fleeing enemy. Although a few bullets struck him, he still fired, grunting yet ignoring the pain.
It took twenty bullets to take Omega down.
Omega fell backward onto the cracked asphalt. As he lay dying, his bloody fingers found his brother’s wrist; he grasped tightly.
Even in death, they would not part.
“RAVEN GET THE HELL OUTTA HERE!” Shadow ordered out of turn, seeing that Ira had not moved from his spot.
“I’m not leaving you guys! We have time!” Ira opposed as he felt beads of sweat slide past his temples, his chest hammering treacherously. Wanting to save his team, he drew the gunfire upon himself. He could barely hear the adversaries dying cries over the sound of the assault rifles cracking.
Taking cover, Hunter gazed at his captain with saddened blue eyes, “You need to get out of here. We are doing this for you. There’s no time left!”
“C’mon!” Ira ordered; the impending doom drew closer still.
“GO!” both Hunter, Sam Hunter, and Shadow, Scott Shepard, yelled back.
Reluctantly, unwillingly, Ira ran towards the pipeline entrance.
Upon falling in, the stench that hit him smelled of bile and a trash heap. Grime and slime littered the walls. Rats scurried along the ramparts, running from the danger they sensed. The sludge water, murky and pasty, went up to the men’s ankles; rippling and splashing with every step they took.
Unable to see the events unfolding, Ira heard both Hunter and Shadow cry out in anger and pain until their voices were drowned out as the missile hit the skyscraper, the same skyscraper that the ten had originally planned to use as their temporary base.
A bright light lit the sky as the explosion burst forth from the impact. Time slowed tortuously. Ira and the remaining men backed away from the entrance to avoid the rubble, plaster, cement, and glass that rained down upon the almost abandoned city.
Screams of agony were barely heard over the constant outbursts of explosions and buildings falling on each other.
Ira and his remaining team tried to shut out the noise, hoping that is was not their friends who suffered because of their sacrifice to save them.
Chest aching, head pounding, Ira wished greatly that someone else was the leader of this squad.
“It took us three days to find our way out of the sewers. We finally made it to the East River, near the Brooklyn Bridge. And there was just a gaping hole on the south side of the island,” Ira concluded, taking long, slow breaths to calm his chest; some part of him could still hear the screams, the shatters; he could still see Stanley reaching for his brother.
Recalling those moments, watching his friends die was something no one should face.
White noise filled the room as the ethereal voice spoke. He sounded sickly. “So, you put your men in harm’s way, losing five in the process, just to get to higher ground?”
“While I recognize that my decision was not the smartest, had we not moved in the first place, Staff Sergeant Howell would have never seen that missile headed towards us. Yes, I made a rash, foolhardy and idiotic mistake, but we would have all been killed, had we not moved.”
A sharp, cold voice nearly made the captain jump. “Captain Byrne, what you did was more than idiotic, it was suicidal! You-”
“Jones,” another voice called in the background and the mic switched off.
Moments later, the gentle voice that cut off Colonel Jones spoke. “Ira, I know the decision to move or not move was hard to make. I know you have suffered through those mistakes. But I also know that you are the best man for this mission, and I need to know that you are willing to go through with it, whatever the cost may be.”
“Yes, sir. My men and I have mourned for our friends and our families, but when we are in combat, we are giving our fullest.” The captain sat straighter, proving that he could execute what was expected of him.
“Good. I will give you the details on Operation Aether when we are ready. In less than a month, you and your men will be sent to London. There, we will discuss further details.”
April 6, 2028,
Another year come and gone, even though it’s like one long day and the weather doesn’t help the situation. It has been raining, non-stop for… a week?
You would think that after six years of being imprisoned that I would forget the months, the weeks, the days, that I would slowly descend into insanity and lose all sense of who I am…
However, I have not. I remember myself, my name, where I am. I remember who bound me to this lonely tower and left me to my horrid fate.
I remember this day; they day he brought me back, when everything I knew, everything I held most dear, went to hell.
Oh yes, and World War III is occurring in the outside world.
Five long years, well, six if you count the first shot.
Not only that, but it has also been five, years since the United States wrongfully declared war on an enemy with whom alliances had already been unstable.
That despicable beast, my enemy, had torn apart cities and families; some of the hardest hit were Denver, and New York City. Then, to top that off, he attacked major cities in Russia. He started this war, plunged the world into despair, pitting country against country.
It’s terrifying to think how many have suffered for all that has been done. All those lives lost… and for what, revenge?
Grandmother, please forgive me for breaking this promise. I know you told me never to repeat the names of the dead, but if I am to die here, then whoever finds this journal must know the truth, well, part of the truth.
My parents passed away in two thousand and twenty-three. It was not even a year after he bombed downtown Denver and some of the surrounding area.
Hawk and Dove, Dragon and Duck are dead and gone from this world. I watched as their coffins were buried beneath the ground next to Falcon, and I am glad of this – even though I wish I could have joined them.
Every day, since that tragic event, I have thought longingly about my home and my family.
Sometimes, I am afraid to fall asleep. Every time I close my eyes, I see the shocked expressions on their blank faces, the faded blue eyes. I could still see the blood. I smelled it.
Even though there’s nothing there, I still felt the fresh, warm gore stained on my shaking hands as I tried to stem the flow.
And I failed to save them.
I tried to fight him, to make him pay for the damage he inflicted, but I could not. Instead of ending my life with a bullet, he brandished the knife against me as he shot my parents then wounded, no, mutilated, me. That was the last thing I remember.
I need to stop this. Remembering the pain will get me nowhere. I need to think about my family in a good light. They lived their lives well; my family was kind and loving to everyone and they were charitable and God fearing.
The only good thing about their death is that they did not have to see what I have seen, suffer as I have suffered. They would never be burdened, never witness the blood my enemy and I had to spill. They would not have to see my enemy drag me from my home or the morgue, or to pay a ransom for my life.
Of course, the mad man that ordered my imprisonment would never let me go, nor would he kill me. Why kill someone who knows too much?
I have often wondered why he kept me alive, why he did not just let me die like the rest of my family.
At least they are safe in their graves. That one part of my memory keeps me alive, gives me the strength to fight back. However, it reminds me of the torture I suffered, and I will never forget, not until my dying breath.
Which I hope is soon.
Right now, I am stuck here in my tower until I finally perish or he ends this torment by killing me.
I am prisoner Watchful Blackbird, and my temporary home, more a prison, is the tower cell of Vallø Castle, Denmark. My enemy is my blood.
I am a damned and deranged citizen with no country to call home.