Leaders Taste Better
by Stephen Lawson
Rain pelted the poncho shelter over David Finch's head. To his left, Terrell Blake read a
Ranger Handbook with a red-lensed, crook-necked GI flashlight. They'd snapped their ponchos
together to make a larger shelter, which they'd tied to trees with 550 cord and propped up in the
middle with branches. He and his designated battle buddy now lay a foot apart under the driving
David had enjoyed the first week of Camp Challenge, Fort Knox's annual single-serving
ROTC camp for curious kids. He was seriously considering joining the program in the fall.
"I watched a TED talk the week before I came here," he said, raising his voice so that
Terrell could hear him over the rain. Terrell shone the red light directly into his eyes.
"That sounds fascinating," Terrell said.
"It was about leadership and biochemistry," David said. "Instructor Dooley made me
think about it today when he talked about being cool under pressure."
Terrell said nothing, but still shone the light in David's eyes.
"This chick on the video said that in primates, when a new alpha gets ready to take over,
his body naturally increases the testosterone in his bloodstream, and lowers the cortisol. It makes
him more aggressive and less stress-reactive."
"Maybe there's hope for you yet," Terrell said, "if some monkeys elect you as alpha."
"I'm excited about STX lanes tomorrow," David said. "I think--"
The ground shook, and they both fell silent. Terrell turned out his GI light.
"Was that an earthquake?" David whispered.
"Maybe an explosion," Terrell said. "Maybe Combat Engineers are doing--"
Something moved in the dark, just beyond the edge of their poncho hooch. They were
supposed to have a perimeter watch, but he'd abandoned his post once the rain started.
David had the sense of something moving closer to them in the darkness, though he
couldn't quite make out what it was. He only knew that it was big. The echoes of rainfall were
hushed in places that grew nearer and nearer their camp, as though great invisible legs were
walking through the clearing toward their tree line.
Red and white lights came on under other ponchos twenty and thirty yards away as the
remainder of their platoon searched for the disturbance.
The poncho over David's head disappeared in an instant, and rain poured down over his
sleeping bag, his clothes, and everything else he'd brought with him to the field. Blinking through
the downpour, he looked up into glowing yellow eyes.
They must be eighty feet in the air, he thought, and huge--the size of basketballs.
"Your leader," a voice rasped through the rain and darkness. "Where is your alpha male?"
"What do you--" Terrell started to ask, but a clawed hand reached down from the dark
and hurled him into the night. David thought he heard a scream, but it vanished too quickly to be
"Your leader," the voice rasped again. The sound of it crawled through him, like termites
through rotting wood or like the decay of time.
"I'm the platoon leader for the day," a voice said next to him. Jeremy Hargrave's hand
pushed David back, shielding him. Jeremy stepped forward, his high school quarterback frame
obscuring the thing's foot from David's view. Jeremy seemed not to notice the rain.
That foot though, David thought. It looked like--
"You are the alpha?" the voice asked. "You're so young."
"What do you want?" Jeremy asked. "I'm not afraid of you."
"Good," the voice said. "Less cortisol. I watched a TED talk last week and. . . oh never
mind. Amy Cuddy's brilliant though."
Jeremy was light on his feet and ready to dodge any attack, but the talons that plucked
him into the night were larger and faster than any threat he'd faced on a football field.
David heard the crunching of bones through the rain. He stood, rooted to the earth, unable
to form a single thought.
For a long moment, nothing moved. No one blinked.
"So much better when they're young, too," the voice said.
A scaled foot the size of his body and talons as big as his head stepped within an inch of
"Tell the rest of your herd about this," the voice rasped from somewhere above him. "Tell
them that the end is nigh."
Blue flames illuminated the darkness, and he saw the thing. It towered above their
camp--immense, and unspeakably powerful. An endless stream of fire poured out of its nostrils,
melting ponchos to children and setting wet trees aflame.
Later, David would remember the screams of his platoon most clearly--even more clearly
than the sound of Jeremy's bones snapping through the rainfall.