The man in the black fatigues seized his hand and shook firmly. “Your psych tests demonstrate an ability to accept the possibility of impossibilities. My name’s Dutch. On this assignment, to function as a successful team, we operate as equals.”
The Corporal knew he failed to disguise his bewilderment. “Yes Sir.”
“The good news about your reassignment is the pay increase. The bad news is the decreased odds of reaching retirement age, but since you signed your life over to the government upon enlistment, Uncle Sam appreciates your sacrifice.”
The Corporal flinched but issued another affirmative followed by a polite address.
Dutch grinned. “You have skills I need.” He tapped the video equipment in the shoulder pack. “Tonight we’re after confirmed reconnaissance of the subject, enough footage for computer analysts to simulate specs on our guy’s range of physical abilities.”
Dutifully unzipping the pack, the Corporal slipped the shoulder harness into place, strapped the camera in position and flipped on the record switch. “The subject has specialized training, Sir?”
“I’ve seen this bastard scale a sheer cliff like a mountain goat, leap across a river like a tiger and melt into the underbrush like a coyote. He’s a legend.” Dutch snorted out a grim laugh. “He moves like shadow in moonlight.”
The Corporal pivoted in a slow arc, filmed a test pattern across the black nightscape and tensed from the man’s suppressed amusement.
The strained expression on his Commanding Officer’s face, when he issued the immediate deployment orders had raised the Corporal’s hackles. Being fitted with specially requisitioned equipment was surreal, something that happened to other soldiers. The Corporal adjusted the camera settings and studied Dutch. The black BDUs indicated elite Special Forces, barren of rank or identity save for a subtle black-on-black embroidered shoulder patch, the design reminiscent of an ancient heraldic crest.
Noticing his interest, Dutch curled his lips. “Feeling clueless, Soldier?”
Voice resonating a hint of menace, the man tapped the insignia on his shoulder. “St. George tasked a select few with a challenge.”
Startled, the Corporal blurted the words out. “St. George fought a dragon.”
Dutch nodded curtly. “You know your history. The misinformation is understandable considering the attitude the public has toward unicorns.”
“Unicorns, Sir?” The Corporal stumbled over the word but his tone came out even and respectful.
“The subject of tonight’s objective, Corporal.” There was no sign of mirth on Dutch’s face now. “Forget that and you’ll be dead before sunrise.”
Corporal Evans gave good blank face.
Dutch rocked back on his heels and twisted a smile at him. “Questions, Corporal?”
“Yes Sir. Ah, what makes the, uh…unicorn so dangerous?”
“Astute question.” The black ops man nodded approvingly. “Fairy tales turned them into something soft and sweet but that’s public relations. In truth they’re vicious beasts. Evolution made them beautiful and lethal. Their hooves are natural weapons, sharp as chipped flint. The tail on an immature foal is whip-hard, the feathery wisps of hair capable of flaying skin to the bone with a single swipe. Mature males have venomous bites that cause instantaneous paralysis. Gestating females snort flames and the damned stuff is like napalm, sticky as jelly and burns like phosphorescence. They live for centuries and mate for life, are deadly protective of subadult offspring.”
“Deadly.” Corporal Evans repeated.
“Remember,” Dutch waited until the Corporal’s gaze steadied on his, “our adversaries have superior speed and agility, intelligence equal to our own, and deceptively lovely exteriors that shield the moral ambiguity of a shark.”
The Corporal pivoted and drew his firearm a full second before Dutch reacted to the soft snort. He sensed a ripple of movement and identified the shimmer of starlight reflecting off a sleek coat before his mind made sense of the visual.
The unicorn slid between the trunks of two massive trees. Steam issued in twin streams from velvety nostrils. Smoothly muscled, the stud danced forward in delicate steps on inky black cloven hooves. Shining eyes, round as dark moons, scanned the men. Hide glowing like the iridescence of fine Burmese pearls, the single horn protruded from his forehead and shone deep blue as polished steel, swirling ridges swept up to a tip sharp as a Falstaff. Fetlocks black as antique iron matched the creature’s mane and exuded a masculine beauty storybooks never captured.
“Halt.” The Corporal’s voice was even, husky, toneless.
The unicorn paused with head tilted to one side, considered him curiously. After a lengthy perusal the beast pawed the earth and flung its head. The long beard trailed beneath exposed strong white teeth. The sharp elongated canines of the stallion reflected in the dim light. A forked tongue slid out of the unicorn’s mouth and tested the air like a snake might.
Suppressing a shudder, the Corporal trained his firearm on the shining chest, but was caught unprepared when the beast charged. He flung his body sideways, knocked Dutch into the roadside ditch and discharged his gun into the sky. Pain splintered his left bicep. He hit ground and a silvery flash passed overhead. Rolling into the pain, he fingered the wound where the sharp horn punctured his flesh.
Dutch crowed with praise and grinned at the Corporal’s frown. “You’re the first one to survive the meet-and-greet.” He jerked his head toward the forest where the unicorn disappeared. “Dodging strikes is tough to do. You’ve got good reflexes.” Dutch grabbed a fistful of uniform and pulled the Corporal onto his feet. “The last guy got skewered through the groin.”
Clutching the black uniform, the wounded man staggered toward the vehicle. “That was a real unicorn Sir.” He slumped onto the seat and leaned back when the man slapped his forehead.
Dutch tightly wrapped the wound before climbing inside. “Welcome to the game Corporal Evans.” He jerked the vehicle into motion. “Just wait. Unicorns are nothing compared to a pissed off pixie.”