by Michael Kingswood
Kevlar and ballistic plating doesn’t help worth a damn against magic.
Sergeant John Singleton really wished he’d known the suspect was going to turn out to be a wizard. He would have called for Special Magics. Instead, SWAT showed up, and they never had a chance.
John’s police cruiser sat cross-ways across the two-lane suburban road in front of the house he and his men had cordoned off not so very long ago. It wasn’t a fancy neighborhood, and the house went with it: a single-story ranch with peeling red paint on the sides, a weed-encroached front yard, and a one-car carport on the right hand side that was sagging where the suspect’s getaway car had careened out of control into one of the yellowish-white pillars that supported the overhead.
He cringed behind the car, watching in helpless frustration as, one by one, the assault team who had just moments ago seemed imposing and undefeatable in their black fatigues, body armor, helmets, and rifles fell beneath the magical onslaught that erupted from the house’s front door.
Sparks of blue, red, and green shot out, each striking a trooper squarely in the chest.
The troopers fell to the ground, writhing, their cries of chagrin gradually rising in pitch as they shrank, going to the size of teenagers, then children, then toddlers, until they were left, equipment and all, little taller than the blades of grass that grew over-long in the yard.
“Jesus, Sarge, what are we gonna do now?” The voice came from behind the other cruiser blocking the street in front of the house, to John’s left. He turned and saw Mendoza crouching behind the forward wheel well of the car, his pistol in both hands, barrel up toward the sky and his dark eyes wide with shock and amazement.
He was a rookie, but even veterans had trouble dealing with the new reality of magical crimes that had begun cropping up five years ago.
John opened his mouth to talk, even though he was unsure what he was going to say, but a new commotion from the yard drew his attention back there.
The SWAT guys were retreating, their tiny forms struggling to get through the tangle of grass and weeds that was the house’s front yard to the street, then to their van which was parked a short ways down the street. They would have magical first aid equipment in there, as an emergency measure. But John doubted it would do much for the effects of this shrinking spell.
And was he seeing things, or were the SWAT guys not done shrinking?
Abruptly, one of the SWAT guys went down, hollering in a pitch so high John could barely hear all of it. But what he heard carried more than enough: surprise, followed by fear, then pain.
“Anthill!” a SWAT guy near the one who had fallen shouted, then he too started shrieking.
John shoved his own fears down and tried to put on a confident face. He looked back at Mendoza. “We gotta help the SWAT guys. Call Special Magics, then follow me.”
He drew a deep breath, held it, then ignoring Mendoza’s look of astonishment, he rose and rounded the front of his cruiser.
The SWAT team of eight had been going in by pairs, spread out along the length of the yard, separated by about eight to ten feet between each pair. The pair that was being accosted by ants was the furthest to the left of the group, about thirty feet from where John had been watching from behind his car.
Had they been normal sized, it would have been child’s play for the next SWAT pair to rush over to assist them. But shrunk as they now were, that eight to ten feet now was more like a mile equivalent, or more.
If someone not-shrunk didn’t move to help, there would be no help for the attacked pair. And being attacked by ants—or possibly even worse, fire ants—when you’re barely the size of a blade of grass is no picnic.
All that flashed through John’s mind in a second as he rounded his cruiser’s fender and began sprinting toward the area of the yard where the two SWAT guys had gone down. He distinctly did not listen to the soft voice that was screaming in the back of his head that he was being a fool, and get the hell back to cover.
“Don’t come any closer!” came the suspect’s voice from out of the house’s open—broken, really—front door. It was young, scared, and…female?
The surprise of that almost made John miss a beat, but he had to stay focused.
“They’re in trouble,” he shouted in response, though he knew as he said it the words were not sufficient.
But he was almost there. He could see the grass rustling around where the two SWAT guys were battling it out with the ants. Hear little pops as they fired their shrunken weapons at the insects. Smell faint whiffs of gunsmoke as a little cloud of it began to rise from that same area.
And then something struck him in the side, and he cried out. The world spun and whirled, and twisted around on itself, like the entire planet had been stuck inside a kaleidoscope that was being twisted by a particularly masochistic six-year old.
Green rose up all around him, and then the world stopped. And he was lying on his back, surrounded by shafts of green that were almost as thick as his thigh. The smell of earth was heavy in the air, and he knew immediately what had happened.
The wizard had hit him with the shrinking spell too.
“That’s just great,” he snarled. Then he cursed loudly, and added, “Idiot!” to himself.
Because, yeah, he was a freaking idiot, running out like that. He was really in the thick of it now.
He sat up, and considered the ironic truthfulness of that thought as he could see only the grass shafts everywhere he looked, restricting his visibility to only ten or twelve feet in any direction.
Well. No use moaning about it. The SWAT guys still needed help. He needed to get up and get to it.
As though in answer to that thought, he heard more gunfire from ahead and to his right. It was louder now than it had been when he was big; no surprise there. And from the sound of it, they SWAT guys were only a hundred or so yards away.
John already had his pistol drawn. He checked to make sure his two spare magazines had made the transition with him. They had.
Then he took off running, shoving the grass shafts aside as he went.
That was harder than he thought it would be. The shafts were thick, and tough, and after only a few paces he found himself more moving forward briskly and having to use his shoulders to press between the grass shafts.
More gunshots from ahead, and now in between John heard voices. One stronger, the other haggard-sounding, and both fearful.
John pushed through a few last shafts and came to a halt in a clearing, of sorts. Grass grew up on all sides, and above it he could see the rising stalks of some of the weeds and creepers that infested the yard. But here, the grass had been at least partly shoved aside in favor of a mound of earth that reached to just above waist height.
It was loose, and lighter in shade than the soil beneath his feet, and there were ants coming up out of the top.
A lot of ants.
They would have been tiny, hardly an issue, at his normal size. Now, each had a body almost as long as John’s forearm, and pincher mandibles the size of his thumbs. But worse, their carapaces were bright red, and they gave off a smell that was almost cinnamon.
Son of a bitch.
They hadn’t cued on him yet, they were making a beeline—antline?—to his right. John turned his head in that direction, and saw the two SWAT guys.
They had somehow managed to bend one of the grass shafts over double, and then hauled themselves up onto the elbow the bend had created.
But the two men were looking quite the worse for wear. Their helmets were gone, and their fatigues were torn in multiple places. The guy on the left, an African American officer who John recognized but could not put a name too right that second, looked the stronger of the two. The other guy was blond, had several obvious wounds, and was slumping. His face was puffy and red, and he was gritting his teeth like a man enduring something horrible.
And no wonder. Fire ant bites burn like a sonofabitch, and that’s on a full-sized human.
John didn’t want to think about how even one bite from those things would feel now that he was tiny.
The blond guy was carrying on, though. For the moment at least. As John watched, he aimed and fired with his rifle at a pair of ants that were leading the line toward the two men’s bent shaft.
He hit, and the ants carapaces shattered.
Still, their position was untenable, and they knew it. So did John.
“Hey!” he shouted, and the black guy’s eyes zeroed in on him.
He blinked. “Singleton? What the hell are you doing here?”
John shrugged. “What can I say, I’m an idiot. Here to help.”
He glanced toward the top of the anthill, where another of the fire ant soldiers had stuck its head out and began moving toward the two trapped SWAT men. For the moment at least, John was still in the clear. But that couldn’t last.
“Glad to have you,” said the SWAT man, and his voice clicked something in John’s mind. He remembered where he knew the guy—Barnes he thought was his name—from. A bank holdout a year or so ago. They had been on the midnight shift together on the perimeter during the two days the negotiators had taken to talk the perps into releasing their hostages and surrendering.
“Got any bright ideas?” Barnes added, drawing John out of his memories.
Still eyeing the top of the anthill, John had an idea. “Got any flash-bangs?”
“Think that’ll just piss them off more,” Barnes said.
“Maybe, but it’ll also stun them for a bit, let us get out of here.”
More shots, as Barnes and the blond guy took out another pair of ants.
“Got any better ideas?” John asked, looking back at Barnes.
The SWAT man paused, shrugged, then dug into a pouch on his tactical vest. He tossed a black object toward John. It hit the ground a few feet away, and John went to retrieve it.
He picked it up in his left hand.
It had been a while since John used one of these. They’d all had training on it, but in the normal course of patrol duties the need for a flash bang never really came up. Still, he remembered how it went. Pull the pin, count to –
He rounded back on the anthill, and saw that another ant had emerged. But this one was heading toward him.
“Crap.” John sighted in on the ant’s head as it skittered toward him.
The ant took the hit, and kept on coming. Maybe its carapace was cracked, but that didn’t seem to be affecting it much.
John’s M&P fired 9mm bullets. Which was fine for confronting a gang banger. But those don’t have the muzzle velocity, or impact, of a rifle round. And looked like that was going to make a huge difference here.
John backed up, and shot again.
Still the ant kept on coming. At the top of the hill, the antennas of another ant were beginning to poke out.
The attacking ant was almost close enough to attack. Its mandibles opened wide.
And then its head exploded at the same time as a report from a rifle shot came from John’s right. He looked over and saw Barnes lowering his smoking barrel.
Their eyes met, and Barnes gestured toward the anthill.
John nodded, and pulled the pin. Then he sprinted forward.
The second ant was emerging from the hole, and pointing in John’s direction.
His shoes slid on the loose earth of the anthill’s side, but he didn’t let that stop him. He released the sprong on the flash-bang and leapt upward, above the probing antennas of the emerging ant.
As he passed over the hole, and the emerging ant, he dropped the grenade.
He hit the ground on the other side of the hill and lost his footing, sliding down the loose dirt and drawing a lot of dust and pebbles down with him.
Then the flash-bang went off, and the concussion of sound swept over him, knocking him flat for a second.
He was just pushing himself up onto his hands and knees when something landed beside him with a crunch that he could just barely hear.
He looked to the right and recoiled.
But a heartbeat later, he saw it was dead. Carapace broken and holed in half a dozen places, the legs broken off.
What the – ?
“Oh man, that was awesome!” Barnes’ voice drew John’s eyes upwards, and he saw the SWAT guy, his blond companion leaning on his for support, hurrying across from his grass shaft toward where John sat. “That thing,” he gestured with his right hand—he had his left around the blond guy’s shoulder, letting his rifle drop on its tactical sling—toward the dead ant, “shot straight up out of the mound. Must have been thirty feet!”
“Great.” John pushed himself to his feet and dusted himself off. He eyed the top of the anthill warily.
The hole on top was more a crater now, and he thought he could hear skittering sounds—lots of them—from within.
“We’d better get out of here.”
Barnes followed his look toward the hole and nodded agreement. “Can you run, Eddie?” he said to the blond guy.
Eddie shook his head. “Don’t think so. This burns like a – ” He shifted a little and let out a gasp, then a groan, and his left hand pressed to his side. John could see blood flowing freely there.
But much as that must hurt, he knew the ant venom would make it worse.
All the same, good thing he’d been wearing Kevlar. If he hadn’t, he might already be dead, from the look of things.
John glanced back at the hole again, then holstered his pistol and slipped his right arm over Eddie’s shoulder, on the opposite side from Barnes.
He met Barnes’ eyes from overtop Eddie’s slumping head. The SWAT guy nodded understanding.
All but carrying Eddie between them, they began hoofing it, as fast as they could.
Which was nowhere fast enough for John. As much trouble as he’d had pushing his way past the grass shafts before, they had more since they were, together, so much larger than he had been alone.
And then it got worse.
They were just getting past a particularly tough clump of shafts when John heard it. The skittering.
It had been there in the background behind them, but all of a sudden it rose in a crescendo. He looked back, and felt his stomach drop through his feet.
There was movement back through the grass shafts behind them. Lots of movement.
Lots of red movement.
“They’re coming!” he said, and pushed forward with renewed vigor.
And stepped on the head of an ant that burrowed out of the ground directly in front of them.
“Son of a bitch!” Barnes shouted, and stomped down hard.
Stamping in unison, they managed to crush the ant’s head before it could do any harm.
But the skittering from behind was louder now, and looking to the left, John saw another ant burrowing upward.
“Move!” Barnes said.
But It was hopeless. They were not going fast enough; John glanced over his shoulder again and could clearly see the skittering monsters now, growing closer by the second.
If they weren’t carrying Eddie, maybe –
He quashed that thought. Hard. Then he redoubled his efforts at running and shoving shafts aside, despite the burning in his lungs—too many damn cigarettes—and the protests from his things—not enough running the last couple years.
“Look for someplace we can hole up,” John said between gasping breaths. “High ground, where we can make a stand.” He didn’t say that would only delay the inevitable.
He didn’t have to.
The ground shook, and John stumbled forward. Eddie and Barnes went with him, and the three of them almost fell in a heap.
Instead they crashed into a grass shaft, and managed to use it to steady themselves.
“What was – ” Barnes began.
But his words were overwhelmed by a thundering noise that came from everywhere and nowhere all at once.
Just as quickly as it came, the thunder faded, but for a second there something about it rang a bell in John’s mind.
He and Barnes met each others eyes again. He could see the confusion, the disorientation in the SWAT guy’s face. It must surely match his own.
But there wasn’t time to wonder over this latest whaterver-it-was. The ants were coming.
John looked back, and blanched.
The ants were here.
They were swarming everywhere, skittering across the ground. Climbing over and around the grass shafts. And unerringly heading straight toward the three of them.
The ants were maybe thirty feet away, and closing quickly.
But it was futile, and they all knew it. Still, they started forward again.
And again, the earth rocked.
The thunder came again, but this time John caught its content better, and his eyebrows rose high as he understood what it was.
Mendoza! John had told Mendoza to follow him, and he must have obeyed.
Better late than never.
But he wasn’t shrunken down. If he and Barnes could find him –
Another quake, and several shafts up ahead a short ways bent double.
“Over there!” John shouted, and Barnes didn’t hesitate but to head in that direction.
They heaved Eddie up over a broken shaft.
And came up against a wall. A black wall that ran left and right as far as they could see past the grass shafts, which admittedly wasn’t far. It had a ledge about chest high running parallel to the ground, then curved up and away from them.
John followed it up, and saw that it continued to rise higher, becoming navy blue and straight after a short distance –
It suddenly struck him what he was looking at. This was Mendoza’s shoe, and he was looking up Mendoza’s pants leg.
John had visited New York City once, and gone to the Liberty Tower. Staring up at the Rookie, he was struck by the saw sense of awe as he had when he looked up the side of that huge building.
He snapped out of it when Barnes said, “Get up on the shoe,” and began boosting Eddie up.
Eddie was very weak, but he managed to force himself up, then Barnes followed suit.
John took a second to look back and found himself eye-to-eyes with an ant that had climbed up the grass shaft they had just clambered over.
Shouting in surprise, John swatted at it, and was shocked when his backhand knocked the thing off the grass shaft.
But there were a hundred more behind it, and they were not stopping.
The shoe began to shift behind him, and John realized Mendoza was about to take a step. If he missed this chance, the ants would get him.
He turned and leapt, grabbing desperately at the ledge of the shoe. Barnes grabbed onto his clutching hands as the shoe rose into the air.
John had a glimpse of the fire ants, swarming amongst the grass below in obvious frustration, and then they were gone, lost amidst the endless green of the lawn, and Barnes pulled him the rest of the way onto the ledge.
The sat there, spent, for what seemed an hour as Mendoza continued to walk around and call out for John.
But it could only have really been a half a minute or so before Barnes shook his head in annoyance and lifted his rifle. He shot a long burst out to the side, and Mendoza stopped.
Above them, miles away seemingly, the tower that was the rookie shifted, then moved, and slowly his face—gargantuan in proportions so John could make out his every pore, came into focus above them.
“Sarge?” he said, and it was like a thunderclap, but less so now that he at least wasn’t shouting.
John stood up on the shoe and gestured for him to come closer.
Instead, Mendoza shifted again, and the open palm of his hand came down next to them. John and Barnes helped Eddie move over onto it, then followed suit. A second later the bottom fell out of John’s stomach as the fastest elevator in existence rocketed them up to Mendoza’s full height and they stood on his hand in front of his face.
Feeling extremely queasy, John took a second to steady himself then stood and pointed toward Eddie. He shouted, to be sure Mendoza could hear.
“He’s badly wounded. Call for an ambulance. Get us to the SWAT van.”
Mendoza nodded, and it was like a mountain shifting. Then his hand closed gently around them and he began to run.
John lost his lunch.
* * * * *
Special Magics were already on scene when Mendoza got them to the SWAT van, and they wasted no time in restoring John, Eddie, and Barnes to their normal size.
And despite John’s assurances that he was fine, they insisted he accompany the SWAT guys in the ambulance to the hospital and get fully checked out. No telling what the side effects could be from such a spell.
So he slumped down next to Barnes in the back of the ambulance as its wailing siren cleared the way for the paramedic drivers up forward. Eddie was strapped to a gurney on the other side of the van, with an IV running. He was unconscious, but the paramedics didn’t think he was in immediate danger.
Beside him, Barnes shook his head and let out a chuckle that was half amusement, half astonishment.
“This is going to be the king of all “There I was” stories,” he said. “Never gonna match it.”
“Oh I don’t know,” John said. “Next time there might be a giant and a beanstalk.”
Barnes’ chuckle became a full-on laugh. He held out his hand toward John. “You sir, are one crazy, stupid son of a bitch.” He grinned. “I owe you a tall one.”
John returned the grin and shook hands with him. “Any time, brother.”
A collection of Michael Kingswood’s stories were published and are available here: