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Released: THE RETREAT #5: CRUCIBLE

August 28, 2018 1 comment

This one was a bitch to write, but it’s done and has the blessing of my co-authors. It’s out on Amazon right now, so if you’re in the mood for cackling Killer Klowns versus the light infantrymen of the First Battalion, 55th Infantry Regiment…enjoy!

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The Retreat 5: No Country for Old Men

July 28, 2018 1 comment

Some new additions to the 1/55th: several ex-military guys who aged out of service but are still able to contribute, either through direct fires or by virtue of their experience and intellectual capital. Aside from a wide-ranging Muldoon, a reticent Walker, and another addition full of fire and spice named Campbell, LTC Harry Lee has to deal with a full colonel named Tackaberry who happens to be a fellow lightfighter…albeit with the storied Seventh Light, long since inactivated. But his battalion has been whittled away after multiple engagements with the klowns, and Lee had no choice but to accept the old colonel and his mish-mash of retired servicemen into the fighting ranks. Tackaberry himself has decade of functional experience over Lee, which of course provides its own dynamics, not really reflected here. But the Old Dogs stand up and do what any American fighting man would do under these circumstances: project red-hot hate into the enemy’s face.

As always, the below is presented unedited, and with no guarantee it will appear in the finished product.

“Dismounts in the barrens. Estimated size, sixty to seventy-five. They’re running screens on both sides of the road—have to assume an equal number of combatants on the other side.” Haynes’s report was delivered calmly and without a hitch. “We’ll give them a speed bump, but these people aren’t going to be bothered much by a few troops sending ordnance downrange. You definitely need to get the TOC and headquarters company relocated, Six.”

For the first time in years, Tackaberry was caught flat-footed. The finality of his friend’s transmission was obvious. If the klowns were coming through the thickets and brambles and wiregrass on foot, then they knew something was up. While the armored cav guys might be infected, laughing lunatics looking to get their kill on, they hadn’t forgotten their basic mission. They were cavalry. They were scouting.

The wiregrass…

“Haynes, lie low,” Tackaberry said. “Lie low and let them pass you by!” As he spoke, he spun around to look for Linton. The old Air Force NCO had heard the report, and he shot Tackaberry a thumbs up as he relayed the information to the lightfighters in the fighting position he was talking to.

“We can hold them up, Six. Maybe not for long, but we can give them something to think about. Over.”

“Negative—you’ll get yourselves killed. Find a place, lie low, cover up and wait—”

“Six, they’re going to be at your pos in less than ten minutes. Don’t worry about us. Get yourselves out of the danger close zone. This is a no bullshit situation, Colonel—even an Army rag like yourself has to know that. Over.”

“God damn it, Haynes, I know it!” Tackaberry snapped. “Go to ground, cover up, and hit these fuckers in the ass when I tell you to! That is a direct order! Do what I tell you, and you can fold up their advance! Over!”

There was a brief pause, and then: “Roger that, Six. Just so happens Esposito found a nice hide site. Going for it. Will update as soon as we can. If you hear a bunch of gunfire, it’ll probably be us and they have us. Over.”

“Roger. Break. Seven, you got that?” Tackaberry said, transmitting to Linton.

“Six, this is Seven. Got it all. Relaying now. Over.”

“All Geezers, this is Six. Come back in right now. Fall back inside the wire. Fall back, fall back, fall back!” Tackaberry was surprised to find he was suddenly having difficulty breathing. His heart hammered in his chest, and his breath was running short. Now would be a hell of a time to have a heart attack.

You wanted this, now deal with it, he told himself. It’s just a fucking panic attack, you old fool.

“Six, this is Waltrip. We’re not going to leave Haynes and his guys out here alone.” Waltrip was a veteran Navy guy, one of the progenitors of the SEALs, back when they were simply called BUDS. “You’re going to need a couple of dimensions to the fire fight. I can guarantee you at least two of ‘em. Over.”

Tackaberry was beside himself. “Wally, what the fuck? Direct order, come back in!”

“Yeah, negative—in real life, Navy beats the shit out of Army in football, so I’m taking my cues from that. I’ll have my two guys go to ground and cover up, and if we can figure out the pattern of advance we’ll adjust to provide harassment fire. I’ll go high and keep an eye on things. Over.”

Tackaberry was nonplussed. “Go high? What, you’re going to light a joint? Over.”

“Climbing a tree, Six—climbing a tree. Have to get up high to see what’s going on. Even a grunt should know the value of the high ground.”

Tackaberry was taken aback, trying to picture a seventy-year-old man scaling a pine tree just so he could get a birds-eye view of an enemy recon force pushing into the zone. He was at once flabbergasted and swollen with pride. These were men who were considered historical artifacts, relegated to society’s distant memory. An inconvenience to their families, an embarrassing cue to the young of what lay in store for them one day. But here he was, septuagenarian CPO3 John Waltrip, USN Retired, Vietnam veteran and a member of the Tonkin Gulf Yacht Club, scaling a tree so he could go eyes-on an enemy advance…at seventy years of age.

What a man, Tackaberry thought. Who knew such courage existed in the Navy?

“Wally, you get caught in a tree, you’re a dead man,” he said. “Japs tried that in World War II. They got killed every time. Over.”

“I’m seventy and Charlie’s Angels went off the air in 1981, Six. What have I got to live for, really?” As he spoke, Tackaberry heard the old Navy NCO grunting with exertion. Was he really climbing a tree? Really?

“Let me know when you’re in position, and make sure your guys are secure,” Tackaberry said. He saw someone emerge from the TOC rig, look around the area, and zero in on Tackaberry. He recognized the slab-sided shape of Command Sergeant Major Turner, and marveled at how fast Turner could move as he ran directly toward him.

Ah, to be young again, he thought, even though Turner had to be around fifty.

“Roger that, Six,” Waltrip replied. “Can tell you now, have eyes on forty- to seventy-plus bad guys. All in uniform to one degree or another, providing you call extra body parts uniform. It’s going to be messy. Over.”

“Roger,” Tackaberry said as Turner pounded up, encased it what looked to be an extra hundred pounds of gear. “Sarmajor, how’s it hanging?”

“The usual, fourteen inches limp,” Turner said, and without being out of breath at that. “Status of your teams, sir?”

“Most are falling back inside the wire, have two hanging tough to provide intel on enemy movements,” Tackaberry said. “As far as we can tell, they don’t know we’re here, but there’s about seventy enemy coming in through the pine barrens. Maybe they’re blind and they’ll miss us, but I doubt it. Can you dial in arty fires?”

“Hooah, sir. But they’re already refocusing on the main element. We can get mortars on line in two minutes, as soon as Colonel Lee coordinates the shift.”

Tackaberry spread his hands. “Meaningless to me, Turner—have no idea what the mortar team’s original tasking is. What does Lee need to know in order to facilitate that? Got seventy klowns inbound and the only thing between them and us are six old men. Maybe you can expedite that shit, huh?”

“I’ll see what I can do, sir,” Turner said. “How far out are they?”

“Half a mile, tops,” Tackaberry said. “We need to give them a little surprise, Sarmajor. And in a hurry.”

“Already arranged, sir.” And no sooner had the words left Turner’s mouth, Tackaberry heard the shriek of banshees. Artillery rounds zooming past overhead, at less than four hundred meters altitude. That he could hear them told him two things: one, they had already flown past, as they flew faster than the speed of sound. Two, the breech creatures crewing the guns had put quarters in each shell’s fuse housing—a little special something to strike fear in the hearts of those who had advanced beyond the arty fire’s engagement radius. Under normal circumstances, it would have worked. But for the klowns?

It would just make them laugh.

“Those rounds are too fucking high!” Tackaberry said. The explosions came an instant later, great thunder that struck him in the chest like a physical blow. Artillery, doing its job, making things far away blow up.

“That’s because we didn’t want to turn your old guys outside the wire into explody-dopes,” Turner said. “I mean listen, we took your team’s best interests to heart here, Colonel.”

Tackaberry reached for his radio transceiver. “Haynes, call the BDA!”

“Six, BDA appears to be effective at the longer range,” came the immediate response. “I can see fire and smoke now, looks like the cav’s main body took the strike right on the chin”—more rounds screamed past overhead, and again, they were too high for Tackaberry’s liking but he couldn’t call in to adjust fire—“and yeah, that last salvo probably rang their bells pretty good. But the dismounts are pushing forward. Revised contact estimate, you guys are going to be danger close in about three minutes. Over.”

“All Geezers, fall back right now,” Tackaberry said. “Haynes, that means you too.”

“No can do, Six. Already danger close. Besides, you know the Aerosmith song…‘Haynesie Has a Gun’.”

“Haynes!” Tackaberry fairly shouted, but it was too late. As another salvo of artillery rounds screamed past overhead, he heard an eruption of small arms fire somewhere in the forest. And mixed in with it was the heavy bam-bam-bam of Haynes’s 7.62-millimeter rifle. The gunfire reached a fever pitch before the explosions from the artillery barrage drowned it out. Downrange, several of his men emerged from the forest, their faces long and grim. The hammer was swinging their way, and they knew it.

“You have something to report here, sir?” Turner asked as Linton hurried over.

“Got a ground element heading our way. I have six or seven guys in a stand-up with them now, but they’re not going to last long,” Tackaberry told him. “We’ll never get out of here in time, so you’d better get ready to fight a bit, Sarmajor.”

Turner grinned. “Hell, sir. Fighting is what I’m all about.” He turned away and started speaking into his Peltor headset’s boom microphone, relaying the information to Wizard. As he spoke, the troops manning the fighting positions came alive. A tri-barrelled GAU-19 in a Humvee’s cupola opened up, sending a fusillade of fifty-caliber fire ripping through the trees. At first, Tackaberry was afraid his men were the ones taking fire. Then he saw the shapes struggling against the big machinegun’s fire. They were all in various stages of undress, and were rolling up already mutilated in some tribal fashion that he frankly found horrifying. He raised his rifle to his shoulder and added his own fires to the conflagration, even though they were ridiculously puny compared to what the lightfighter in the Humvee was pumping out. It was stupid, standing out in the open and firing on inbound goblins, but he was too far away from any credible cover, and his only thought was to give Turner some protection while the burly command sergeant major made his report. He dropped a klown as she blundered out of the brush, holding a machete high above her head while releasing an ululating scream, her pale eyes standing out in stark contrast against the dried blood that had been smeared across her entire face. One of his rounds slammed right into her forehead, causing her to drop like a sack of wheat in midstep.

Then a hand clamped onto his shoulder and pulled him away. It was Linton, holding his big man-killer AR in his right hand while pulling Tackaberry away with his left. His dark skin was wet with perspiration, and his eyes were wide as he tried to look everywhere at once, head on a swivel.

“We got to get under some cover, Colonel!” he shouted. “Sarmajor, come with us!”

Turner continued speaking into his microphone as he followed, pausing only to drill six rounds into the pine barrens. Two figures fell, Tackaberry saw. Then bullets began ripping past him, snapping like firecrackers. He heard them slapping into the Humvee where the gunner was still ripping away with the GAU-19. Tackaberry stopped looking and began running along with Linton.

It was going to be a long day.

The Retreat 5: When MOPP Isn’t a Just a Four-Letter Word

As the klowns pass through the lines and mount an attack against the 1/55th’s tactical operations center…

“Aw hey, Foster! You’re in luck!” Murphy said while manning his M4. “You don’t have balls, so you’ll get a free pass!”

“It’s all right, your sister’s a lesbian and she goes down on me every night,” Foster shot back.

“That was his sister? Man, I know the women in Murphy’s family are ugly, but I coulda sworn that was his dad going down on you, dude,” Sienkiewicz said.

Foster shook his head. “I’m about to die, and to think that’s going to be the last thing I heard.”

“Nah, it’ll be this,” Murphy said. He then ripped off a long, loud fart. “You heard it here first, folks.”

“Well. Thank God for MOPP,” Lee said, “though that’ll probably be the last time I say that.”

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.

TWENTY-FOUR.

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.

“Sarmajor?”

“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.