When Lightfighters Get Some

July 18, 2018 2 comments

What I’d imagine the musical score would sound like when the 1/55th has finally had its fill of running away and turns around on the klowns to deliver some hot hate…like they do in The Retreat 5: Crucible.


The Retreat 5: Mission Essentials

Things are heating up for the 1/55th. As I post this, I wonder if Craig and Joe are gyrating in fury, as they haven’t seen this stuff before the rest of you?

As always, I offer the below unproofed and unedited, with no guarantee it will appear in the final product.


Inveigle was a two-platoon element numbering almost eighty soldiers led by Captain Hank Caruthers, who was new to the battalion and had just finished his mountaineer training before the unit was rotated into Boston. First Sergeant Weide Zhu had grown to know him during the evolution of that engagement and found him to be generally unflappable and trustworthy. But he was a closed-off sort, not the kind of leader to give inspirational speeches or react to pressure by barking out orders and getting shit done. He was the sort who studied a situation and responded accordingly—essentially the kind of officer the Army liked. In fact, he reminded Zhu of his own father, an immigrant from mainland China who was slow to act and always measured in his response. Zhu was quite certain his father was dead now, or among the laughing throngs sweeping through Alhambra, California. Zhu viewed that philosophically. Yes, his father was possibly a murderous klown, but at least he was finally having a good time.

The problem with serving under Caruthers, filial similarities aside, was that engaging the klowns always resulted in shit flying off the rails. Caruthers would really need to step outside of himself to get things done and preserve as much of Inveigle as possible. As insurance this happened, Zhu had been detailed to Inveigle by Turner to ensure that when the shit hit the fan, the lightfighters had a steady advocate who had seen his share of shit. While Zhu’s public reputation was that of being a steady hand—he was a favorite of the troops—Turner was well aware the Chinese NCO could turn on the heat when things started to pop at the seams. Zhu and Turner had come up together. As entry-level grunts, they’d faced the heat, sand storms, and camel spiders in Desert Storm, but weren’t finally blooded until Restore Hope in Somalia. Between the two of them, they embodied half a century of military experience. Turner was chained to Colonel Lee’s side, but he knew full well that an extremely senior NCO could make all the difference during an operation like Inveigle. And it wasn’t like Turner had to beg. Zhu was ready for doing more than checking up on the troops and acting as a chauffeur/bodyguard for the extraordinarily lame Major Walker.

Of course, meeting the klowns head on wasn’t something he looked forward to. Or did he? Zhu had inherited a great deal of his father’s caution, and while the life of a professional soldier wasn’t without bucket loads of risk from time to time, he had managed those risks fairly adroitly over his career. While he had been exposed to explosive, frenetic combat in the past, it wasn’t something he had courted in some years. But here he was, at what might very well be the end of the world, leaning forward in the foxhole and getting ready to spray hate at his enemies all day long. It wasn’t a hundred percent atypical for him, given his occupation, but that he found himself longing for it made Weide Zhu wonder just how much he had changed since getting the orders to deploy to Boston. The Chinese had a saying: Life is short and bitter. The phrase popped into his mind suddenly as he examined his rifle for the hundredth time. Despite his preparations, he had a sense of dread in the back of his mind. The adage might prove more correct than he had previously thought.

You’re fifty-one years old. For you, life might be bitter, but you cannot complain it was too short.

The plan called for Inveigle to attack a small assembly area at the southern edge of the base and hammer the shit out of it, then fade back and draw in more klowns to pursue them. Using battlefield deception tactics Inveigle would essentially make a lot of noise and do a token amount of damage, enough to keep the inflowing klown masses interested but the lightfighters would not close and destroy. They were to avoid becoming decisively engaged, and instead filter to the southwest. Once they’d shaken the klowns, they would push overland back to where Desperado would hit the post, near where Eyes had gone in. The general assumption was the klowns would be easy to pull off target, and while they were combing the pine barrens to the south searching for Inveigle, the unit would instead go to ground and provide covering fires for Desperado’s retreat. Backed by Thunder’s mortar tubes—and he hoped, some of the bigger guns he’d heard hammering away at the klowns from somewhere inside Fort Stewart proper—Zhu felt that Caruthers’s command might be successful in its mission.

But shit always blew up when the klowns entered the fray. They were fearless, still intelligent despite their disease, and as unpredictable as any foe in the history of combat.

Yes, life might be bitter, indeed.

When he advanced through the pine barrens with Caruthers and the advance team to reconnoiter their intended target—what appeared to be a rear area encampment where the klowns could rest and reconstitute after attacking the defenses around Fort Stewart—Zhu had his first inkling he might have misjudged the twenty-eight year old captain he was supporting.

It wasn’t a bivouac they were targeting.

It was a center of torture.

For fifteen minutes, Zhu and the rest of the advance team watch as klowns, decorated with everything from freshly-hewn bone adornments, feathery scalps, and tribal tattoos to hundred thousand dollar diamonds, bespoke tailor-made suits, and Rolex watches slowly turned captured civilians and military officers and soldiers into klowns. They did it in a variety of ways. They did it by pissing in their faces, by stabbing them with infected lances, by hurling offal into open wounds.

And most horrifyingly, they did it by rape.

First Sergeant Weide Zhu considered himself to be a very reasonable, well-ordered senior soldier of the United States Army. And so did everyone who had ever profiled him over the course of his career; one of the adjectives that usually came up was “unflappable.” While he had an emotional range just like any other man, Zhu had been able to tamp it down, secure it, and leave it tied up while he dealt with whatever crises had to be attended to. He would release the emotions later, usually alone or in the company of close friends and colleagues, where they could be reviewed when lives were no longer on the line and decisions had already been made. Four times in his past, Zhu had openly wept in front of men for whom he had nothing but the greatest of respect. And they had wept with him, for some of the things a man had to do in uniformed service was absolutely soul-crushing, and they could not withstand that final report out, where the actual human cost was accounted for.

Every man, woman, and child who was raped was savaged first, so that whatever canal was to receive their unholy seed was already torn and bleeding. Then the klowns would line up and fuck the hell out of their target, delivering payload after payload of infected semen. Some pleaded for their lives, but most fought, even the children. Neither tactic worked. Once the right viral density was arrived at, the laughter would commence. It would start as giggles at first, then outright, uproarious laughter, along with exhortations for the rapists to redouble their efforts and give their best.

I will never survive this, Zhu told himself.

“Mortars.” Caruthers was stone-faced as he watched these goings-on from the hide site the twelve man advance team had carved out in the pine barrens. “We can use the mortars, neutralize all of them.”

“Fuck that, Captain,” said another soldier. “Call Wizard and have him put arty on target here. Wipe ‘em all out. Fucking end this shit, right here, right now.”

“Yeah,” Caruthers said.

“Not…not our mission,” Zhu said. He had to struggle to get the words out.

“What?” Caruthers didn’t look at Zhu, but his tone told the NCO everything he needed to know. The company grade officer was scandalized by the dissent. “How can this not be our mission?”

“It’s the right thing to do,” Zhu said, as a screaming preteen girl was brought into the zone and her clothes were ripped from her. Knives glittered in the Georgia sunlight as the klowns below set about their work, flaying, cutting, chipping at her most private of parts. “But it’s not the mission. We wipe them out, we accomplish nothing. We have to enrage them, bait them, bring them out of here to chase us.” He paused then to swallow what little spit was in his mouth. “We have to pull them away from here and give life to the rest of the plan, not try to save those we could never help anyway.”

“Are you fucking telling me we should turn away from this?” Caruthers snapped.

“I’m telling you we have a plan to put in motion, Captain,” Zhu responded. To his ears, his voice was rational, calm, completely controlled. It was in no way a mirror of what he felt. The desire to attack, to kill, to savage was so overwhelming he marveled at how well he was able to hide it. He looked over the klown breeding ground, and he found he was full of a despair so deep and so dark that he feared there was no way back. His sanity had been fractured, and while he might be able to tape it all back together later, there was no chance he would go back to who he had been only fifteen minutes ago. He was damaged goods now. Section Eight Express all the way.

“The fuck you say,” Caruthers said. Zhu tore his eyes away from the blood-curdling vista below and looked at the officer. Caruthers’s own eyes were wide and full of fury, terror, and madness. He’d gone right off the deep end, and there was no coming back.

“Captain, you have a mission,” Zhu reminded him, and he called forth the voice of a senior non-commissioned officer of the United States Army, the voice that fully indicated you did not fuck with an institution that had hundreds of years of heritage of service behind it. “If you fail here, you fail the men who depend on you, the men of the battalion, and the nation that expects you to defend it against all enemies.”

Caruthers turned and looked at Zhu then. He glared at him with wild eyes, then barked a short laugh. “Chinamen…always able to serve up lo mien, but never guts.” He reached over to the RTO lying beside him and snatched up the handset to the field radio. “Wizard, Inveigle Six. Fire mission for Thunder, unless you can get us access to bigger guns. Over.”

“Coward.” Zhu spat out the word like a curse. Without waiting for a response, he pushed himself to his knees and shouldered his M4. Before anyone in the advance team could do anything to stop him, his finger worked the trigger. He blasted three rounds into the klown that was currently victimizing the young girl, then lowered the barrel slightly and fired another three into the girl herself. He raised it then and capped off another three into the klown who had been supervising the insemination, blasting off his jaw and hopefully separating his C1 and C2 vertebrae, leaving him at best a paraplegic for life. All three lay motionless on the ground within three seconds, courtesy of 5.56-millimeter ball ammunition delivered from a weapon that had been chosen first for its low production cost, and secondly for its ability to shoot and hit a target reliably over five hundred meters distant.

“What the fuck are you doing, First Sergeant?” Caruthers bellowed.

“Fulfilling mission requirements…you white piece of shit,” Zhu replied. “You are in charge of a military operation—complete it, Captain, and do it now!”

From the target area, a wave of laughter cascaded like a thundering waterfall. It was followed an instant later by a fusillade of bullets ripping through the pine trees. Zhu ripped off another three rounds and sent two infected to meet their maker.

Inveigle had executed phase one of their tasking. They had the klowns’s attention.

Now, they just had to survive it.

The Retreat 5: Getting Into The Game

“Divisional artillery?” Lee echoed after getting Cassidy’s report.

“Fuckin’ A,” Turner said.


“It’s a great spot, sir. Stewart used to house nuclear arty rounds. DIVARTY’s ASP is more secure than Fort Knox and the Federal Reserve put together. And the best part is, Eyes is essentially right next to it.” Turner stood over the map of Fort Stewart and pointed at it. “Right here. Cassidy has to cross about six hundred meters of open space to get there.”

“Walker, get us imagery please,” Lee said. “Also, verify the frequencies Cassidy sent, and get additional verification that friendlies are still on those channels. I’m not going to contact Stewart in the blind, I want a warm handoff.”

“On it.” Walker turned back to one of the radio operators who was in contact with Reynolds’s command in Florida. The Merlin was still under Florida control, so the request for specific imagery would have to be relayed south down to MacDill or Eglin or wherever the Merlin’s operators were before the system could slew its recce gear onto the point of interest.

“Sarmajor, if they used to store nuclear weapons in this supply point, can we be reasonably assured that it’s the next best thing to impregnable?” Lee asked.

“Yes, sir. It would take a hell of a lot of firepower to gain access. And that much firepower is going to do only one thing—destroy the structure entirely,” Turner said. “If the President wants this woman alive, then the klowns can’t logically attack and expect to deliver her.”

“Logic isn’t exactly a klown strong suit, Sarmajor.”

Turner shrugged. “Understood, sir. But they’re not stupid. If they’ve followed President Gray’s orders this far, they can continue to roll out the line. They can’t hammer the shit out of the ASP and expect to get what Gray wants.”

Lee nodded and looked at the map again. He needed real-time graphics, not something that a cartographer had drawn up years ago. He pushed the map toward Turner.
“Any changes here that you might be aware of?”

Turner nodded. “Yes, sir. But nothing that’s of any tactical significance. A DFAC moved here, the AAFES moved there, that kind of stuff. The ASP is still where it’s marked on the map. We can roll with what we have.”

“No,” Lee said. “Not good enough. We can get better data than this.”

“Clock’s running out, Colonel,” Turner said. It didn’t take a lot for Lee to see the old warfighter was starting to rise in the older man. Turner was done running away from the klowns. He wanted to get his pound of flesh.

“Almost there, Doug. Almost there,” he said. “Just a little longer, then the gloves come off.”

Turner nodded. “Yes, sir.”

“Colonel, the Merlin is being retasked,” Walker announced. “New imagery in two minutes or so, I’m told.”

“Verification of the freqs and the respondents?” Lee asked.

Walker held up a hand as he listened to the voices coming over his headset. After a moment, he motioned for patience as he continued listening to the exchange. Lee nodded and checked the transmission notes taken during Cassidy’s report. The overall site commander was the garrison commander, a Colonel Barker, designation Raptor. A colonel was pretty far down the food chain to be the primary point of contact for tactical matters at the installation level, but Lee had seen what the klowns had done to Fort Drum. That Stewart had fared even worse was no surprise. Lee’s plan was to contact Raptor, get the details of their current situation, and arrange for a coordinated movement to transfer Moreau to his control. After that, he planned on having the remaining forces at Stewart fall back and form up on the battalion. They would march as one unit to Florida.

Lee wasn’t going to leave the remains of the Third Infantry to face the meat grinder by themselves. He would do whatever he could to get them out of Stewart and on the road with whatever they could carry. From what little he knew, dependents were still on post; it would take a lot of last-minute action to get them all in a column heading south, but certain death was a powerful motivator. It would happen, and it would happen quickly.

Or it wouldn’t happen at all.

“New imagery coming in,” Walker said. “Merlin is scanning the target now.”

Lee looked at the single display that framed the results of the UAV operators’ work. At first, nothing changed. The imagery was being processed aboard the MQ-4 Merlin before being transmitted over the secure link to the TOC, and it took some time. But when the first images arrived, Lee was surprised by what he saw.

The artillery ASP was almost completely unguarded, save for a squad of soldiers in two sandbag revetments positioned on either side of the feeder road leading to it.
“How the fuck could they leave it open like that?” Turner wondered aloud. “I mean, it’s inviting attack—the main door is still open!”

That was true, Lee saw. The gigantic door that led to the ASP’s interior was wide open. There were signs of ongoing activity; a score of tactical trucks were arranged around the structure, which was essentially a bunker buried into a hillside. Lee knew the trucks were transports that would rush artillery ammunition to the field arty batteries that were still functional. In fact, one of those trucks was in the process of being loaded, which told him that the forces in control of Stewart were preparing to shell enemy formations with concentration fire. Stewart had a sizeable artillery presence, and those elements hadn’t been deployed to the cities in their sector of responsibility. He recalled that Drum’s hadn’t either.

And that they hadn’t been enough to hold back the klowns. Artillery, the so-called King of Battle, had its limitations. It could only kill what it hit. And as he watched the troops around the ASP preparing to roll out more stock, he suddenly became worried his own elements could be collateral damage.

“We’re going to need to tell them we’re here, sir,” Turner said, as if reading his mind. “If one of our teams gets caught up in a concentration fire barrage—”

“I know, Sarmajor. I know.” He looked back at the video. “Open doors…it’s almost like they’re trying to convince the klowns there’s nothing other to hide but a bunch of artillery shells. You ever been inside there, Turner?”

“No, sir. I haven’t.” Turner paused for a long moment, considering the scene. “But…I’d imagine they kept the nukes separate from the usual high explosive rounds. Probably not just logically, but physically, as well.”

“A vault inside a vault,” Lee said.

“My guess also, sir. Seems to me that if the klowns were to knock over the place, they wouldn’t be too curious about what’s really inside.”

Lee stroked the bristles that were forming on his chin. The constant movement had certainly eroded the Army’s usual grooming standards, if what he felt was any indication. “Nice ruse, acting like the ASP is just another ammo dump. But a big ass risk.”

“We do need to get in there, sir,” Turner said with a nod. “If Moreau is there, we need to extract her ASAP. But a daylight raid worries me.”

“What, isn’t that what you guys did in Vietnam?”

Turner frowned and gave Lee a scandalized glare. “Sir, how old do you think I am?”

Lee smiled. “Not a day over forty-five thousand years, Sarmajor.”

Turner harrumphed. “Insolent whelp.”

Lee snorted and turned to Walker. “Any day now, Major. Unless you need me to do the talking?”

Walker turned back to him. If he was irritated by the needling, it didn’t show. Lee figured Walker had suffered a lot more under Colonel Prince. “Freqs and POCs are good to go, sir.”

“Then light up the airwaves, lightfighter. Have Florida let the Third Infantry know that Tenth Mountain is about to get into the game, then hand me off to them.”

“Roger that, sir.”

The Retreat 5: Muldoon’s Small Step for Man

“Tenth Mountain!” Cassidy yelled again, just as a crackle of gunfire erupted to the south. That was where Fort Stewart proper lay, and Muldoon felt the little hairs on the back of his neck stand up. He stumbled then, tripping over one of the corpses. It was a still in rigor mortis, which meant it hadn’t been dead all that long. He tried to step around it, but his big boot landed on the bloated belly of another klown which had been dead for a while, and the pressure of his weight forced it to exhale a cloud of foul-smelling gas that erupted from the body’s mouth like one of Satan’s snores.

“God job there, Duke,” Nutter complained. “You’re killing us with klown farts!”

Muldoon was just forming a suitably saucy retort when another corpse in the field of the dead to his right suddenly stirred. With a hitching giggle, it reached toward him as flies erupted from it, their primitive nervous systems startled by the sudden movement. Maggots already crawled over the man; in fact, one ear was essentially overrun by a squirming white mass of larvae that were making a meal of the blood-encrusted appendage. Before Muldoon could do much of anything, the klown snatched a hold of his ankle. Blood oozed from its mouth as it released a gurgling cackle.

Campbell jostled him as she shouldered up to him and fired a single round into the klown’s face, stilling it for all eternity. The grotesquerie shuddered a few times, making a hacking noise before it fell silent.

“Shit, John Wayne. I thought you knew how to do this stuff,” Campbell said.

The Retreat 5: Fucking Art

The Bushmasters caught the klown element in a slanting engagement from their rear quarter. There were only twenty to thirty of the enemy in the woods firing on the Army revetments across the rail tracks, and they’d had absolutely no rear guards posted. When Cassidy gave the orders to roll up and start dispensing hot hate, the klowns had been caught totally off guard. A lot of that was due to the tenacity of the troops manning the fighting positions they were attacking. But a good deal of that was due to the fact the lightfighters knew how to do their job, and Muldoon made sure everyone was up and on a rifle before the bullets began to fly.

They cut through the klowns with a practiced efficiency that made even Muldoon proud. The newbies like the girl Campbell were as proficient as the most seasoned of the lightfighters, and that left the hulking sergeant with a case of the warm glows. His people were ready, they were experienced, they were fucking killers. When the enemy lay before them, they did not hesitate. They weren’t bound up by emotion or thought. It didn’t matter if the person they were snuffing out had been a gold star dad, a movie star, a renowned scientist who was within an eighth of an inch of discovering a cure for cancer, the first woman CEO to lead a Fortune 20 company, an activist who managed to capture the attention of the media for a nanosecond, a fucking Kardashian. They hosed them all, and did so with discipline and an economy of force that told Muldoon they weren’t just thinking about this engagement, they were thinking about the next one, and the one after that.

Warriors, all.

Muldoon was impressed.

Even the old fucker Boats was a juggernaut, slashing through the infected like a total force of nature. There was no holding him back. He stood and delivered, up to and including war howls that Muldoon was certain would have raised and hairs on the back of even the hardiest mujahedin’s neck. For an old guy—hell, even for a young guy—Boats gave hell like no other, cutting a deep swath into the enemy ranks through which the rest of the lightfighters poured, raining hell on anyone who opposed them. It was beautiful.

It was fucking art.

THE RETREAT 5: The Profound and the Profane

June 13, 2018 1 comment


“God damn it, why us?” Nutter said. “We’re always in the shit! This makes my balls retract, man!”

“Hadn’t noticed they’d dropped, sweetheart,” Campbell said.

“Campbell, shut the fuck up,” Nutter snapped as the rest of the troops climbed aboard the truck.

“Hey, take it easy there, Colonel,” Muldoon said. “You know you’re in the Army, right? We’re lightfighters, we always get the shit duty.”

Nutter looked across the truck bed at Muldoon. “It’s getting kinda old, Duke,” he said. His eyes looked hollow, and that worried Muldoon a bit.

“Can’t promise you nothing bad’s going to happen,” Muldoon said. “But I can’t promise you anything good is gonna go down either, so there’s that.”

Nutter slumped back against the truck’s side rail. “You’re a bright beam of sunlight in the darkness of my eternal night, Duke.”

“Damn. That sounded profound.”

“That’s because I forgot to add ‘motherfucker’ at the end to make it profane.”

The Retreat 5: Shrooms

Sandra Rawlings watched as Muldoon harassed his lightfighters and the other troops supporting them. Three five ton trucks sat at the edge of a small clearing, their empty beds pointed toward the field, heavy tail gates lowered. The small collection was guarded by one of the remaining Stryker combat vehicles that stood off fifty yards or so, its diesel engine idling. The eight-wheeled infantry combat vehicle was adorned with a GAU-19 .50-caliber Gatling gun mounted in a remote controlled Protector turret, one of two that remained in service with the battalion. Rawlings didn’t care much for the Stryker as a platform in general—it was a bitch to work on, and as a former wrench turner she hated shit that was difficult to care for—but the tri-barreled GAU-19 was another matter entirely. The weapon was a wonder of engineering, and the amount of lead that thing could emit was truly terrifying.

Except to the Klowns, she reminded herself.

She hefted her M4 and watched as Muldoon walked over to Nutter, who was busily spooning food into his mouth from a glass jar. That was an oddity; Army chow rarely if ever came packaged in glass, so she surmised it was something he’d rat-fucked from the dining facility in High Point. Muldoon approached from behind, so Nutter didn’t see him coming. And even though the grass was tall in this meadow she stood in, Rawlings didn’t hear Muldoon make a sound. Despite his size, he moved with the grace of a ninja.

“Colonel Nutter, sir!” Muldoon barked.

Nutter kind of choked at the sound of Muldoon’s voice and turned toward him, a stricken expression on his face. As Muldoon shot the smaller man a jaunty salute—right from his crotch—all Nutter did was quickly chew and swallow whatever was in his mouth.

“Oh hey, Duke,” he said.

“Whatcha eatin’ there, Slick? Buffalo balls, or something?”

“Um—no, they’re not buffalo balls, Duke.”

Muldoon stopped in front of Muldoon and looked down at him, a half-smile on his face, hands on his hips even though they should have been around his M4. Rawlings knew Muldoon was making a statement with his easy stance. Everything was cool. The big NCO’s eyes were unreadable behind his sunglasses.

“Well, if they’re not buffalo balls…what are they?”

“Uh, they’re marinated mushrooms.” Nutter cleared his throat. “You, ah, want some?”

“Mushrooms?” Muldoon took half a step back and grinned. “Mushrooms? Hey Rawlings, you hear this shit, ba—” At the very last moment, Muldoon censured himself. The last thing Rawlings wanted to hear was a man like Muldoon call her “babe”.

“I can hear fine from where I am,” Rawlings replied. “Guarding my lane and all.”

Muldoon snorted and looked back at Nutter. “So, Colonel. Where did you get marinated mushrooms from? Are they funny mushrooms? Laced with PCP or something?”

“No, no. Just plain old marinated mushrooms, Duke.”

“I think the bigger question here leads us to matters of class, Nutter. Why are you eating marinated mushrooms? Were you short of like the rest of the salad they should garnish? I mean, really, you have to admit. A soldier eating marinated mushrooms in a combat zone is some pretty weird shit, right?”

“Come on, Duke. They taste great. Not like something we’d get in an MRE.” Nutter paused. “Well, except for maybe the jalapeno cheese, but no one will trade me for any of that stuff. It’s like the currency of a new nation, you know? So a man has to make due with what a man has. Am I right?”

“I’ve honestly never had a marinated mushroom that I can recall,” Muldoon said. “Am I missing out on some great delicacy, Colonel? Were you going to slalom all those down you little gibbon monkey neck without offering any to the rest of us?”

Nutter shifted about on his feet for a moment. “Well, listen. I’d be happy to give you one, Duke.” With that, Nutter poked his fork into the jar, speared a glistening mushroom, and held it out to Muldoon. The big NCO regarded it like it was an alien life form for a long moment, then snatched the entire jar out of Nutter’s hand in a flash.

“Hey—!” was all Nutter could say.

Muldoon lifted the jar to his mouth and chugged back its entire contents. Rawlings made a sound of disgust. He didn’t even chew the mushrooms, he just shotgunned them down like he was knocking back a beer. Nutter made a sound of his own, though it was infinitely more mournful as vinegar-laced fluid disappeared down Muldoon’s apparently endless gullet in a single stream. If there was a single chug to the sequence, Rawlings couldn’t see it from where she stood.

Muldoon finished up, cleared his throat, and handed the empty vessel back to Nutter. Nutter looked at it, eyes sad, mouth curled downward in a crestfallen frown.

Muldoon smacked his lips. “A little too much vinegar for me, but—oh, hold on…” The big man paused for a moment, then released a cavernous fart that even the driver in the Stryker a hundred feet away heard. “Yeah, that’s gonna be fire later. Thanks for the warning, Colonel.”

“Damn, Duke.” Nutter looked at the empty jar in his hand. “I mean…ain’t even a stem left.”

Muldoon leaned forward and poked Nutter in his chest protector. “I want you on your fucking rifle, paying attention to what the fuck is going on in your lane. I do not want you stuffing your hillbilly face with mushrooms or artichokes or lima beans or whatever the fuck you find in the Underground Hotel, you get me? You’re here to shoot Klowns, and that means you need to have your shit in your hands, not hanging around your neck by its patrol strap. You read me on this, Colonel?”

“Yeah. Yeah, loud and clear, Duke. Shit.”

Muldoon leaned in even closer. “Then drop that jar and get on your fucking rifle!” he thundered, voice so loud that no one in the field could miss it. Rawlings cocked her head to one side. All the running, all the fighting, all the waiting for the Klowns, all the killing. It was finally getting to Muldoon, and unfortunately for Nutter, it was coming right at him. Rawlings found that curious. Curious as hell, actually. It meant Muldoon was as human as the rest of the unit, and even he was starting to unwind a bit.