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EARTHFALL 2: Life, Finally

September 20, 2018 1 comment

Usual disclaimers apply. Andrews, Mulligan, Leona, and Winters are on their way to Oregon. We also find out that Mulligan’s old nickname was Sam, short for Scott Alexander Mulligan. He hates it. Come to think of it, so do I.

The next four days saw SCEV Four finally cross the California/Oregon border. They had to make a wide deviation to avoid the Interstate 5 bridge over Shasta Lake, which despite the apparent rupture of the tall dam to the west was still a massive body of water. It took two days just to navigate around the lake and ford the rivers that fed it. Despite the rough terrain and the fast-running water, the rig performed like a champ. Even when pushing through water that came up almost to the forward viewports, the Self-Contained Exploration Vehicle did exactly what it had been designed to do.

Almost as importantly, Leona was able to harvest samples of the water thanks to the spray the SCEV kicked up. While the sample probe was located atop the SCEV’s mission equipment pod, it was still able to vacuum up enough material to analyze. While the water was clearly contaminated by fallout and other pollutants, she reported that it wasn’t as lethal as bodies of water in the center of the nation around Harmony. In fact, the further north they went, the overall effect of the nuclear war seemed to diminish. While a vast number of trees had died and their rotting husks lay about in great deadfalls, there was substantial new growth. Some of the new trees already stood dozens of feet tall, and while many were stunted or misshapen, more were mostly straight and vertical. But after almost five years of nuclear winter and the continual reduction of the ozone layer, the biosphere was slowly recovering.

“So the habitat can support plant life,” Mulligan said. “I wonder about animal life? We should keep our eyes open. Might see some birds, at least.”

“If we had time, we could take samples of the water itself,” Leona said.

“You mean like fish? With what, my trusty spinning rod? Which I don’t actually have?” Mulligan asked from the right seat.

Andrews could practically hear Leona rolling her eyes as she spoke. “I mean water samples, as in from the body itself. We’re just capturing vapor right now, which is good, but a more substantive collection would give us insights into the chemical and biological balance of the lake itself. And yeah, we could probably tell if there are fish living in it, depending on the phosphate level.”

“Shoot, we should just stop here for the night and watch. If there’s any fish out here, they’re probably still glowing. We might be able to see them jumping out of the water.”

At this rate, we might have to. Andrews checked the course on the digital map. They were making worse time than before.

“Nothing actually glows after it’s been irradiated, and especially vertebrate life,” Leona said. “Bioluminescence is pretty much a chemical reaction reserved for lower life forms, like jellyfish and some insects. Though some fish do have bioluminescent ability, I think they’re all deep sea animals. Saltwater, not freshwater.”

Andrews and Mulligan exchanged a wry look. The things Leona knew.

“If you say so, professor,” Mulligan said. He glanced at the display before him. One quadrant displayed the local meteorological information, including the Sievert level. “Air quality isn’t bad, either. Radiation count is low enough to support at least some animal life, I’d bet.”

“Maybe some animals, but for long term human habitation? It would still reduce your lifespan and give rise to a substantially higher cancer rate,” Leona told him. “You go outside unprotected, you’ll be getting the equivalent of a chest x-ray every ten seconds. Yeah, it’s a lot better than what’s around Harmony, or even San Jose. But there’s still substantial potential to corrupt chromosomes and inhibit or degrade cellular reproduction. You see some of the newer trees are obviously deformed. Right?”

“Damn Lee, you’re really bringing us down up here,” Andrews said as he maneuvered the rig over a rocky ridgeline. The rig swayed from side to side as old, fallen trees were crushed into dust beneath its tires. Overhead, the sky was starting to fill with clouds. Mulligan leaned forward in his seat and examined the cloud cover as it rolled in.

“Huh. Might get some rain.” He leaned back and looked at Andrews. “With our luck, the wiper motors will fail. Should I have Winters suit and get a squeegee ready?”

Andrews ignored the levity. “Yeah, we’re not exactly making up a ton of time here. I sure hope Jim doesn’t try and take that bridge.”

“He’s a dope sometimes, but he’s not stupid.” Mulligan paused. “Wait, did I say that out loud? And if so, was I convincing?”

“You’re becoming quite the card, Sarmajor.” The SCEV approached a clearing, and Andrews accelerated a bit. The big machine bumped along as it fairly raced through the clearing at twenty-five miles an hour.

They spent the next two nights in the remnants of the Shasta-Trinity National Forest, and the days were sullen and gray. By the time they managed to parallel Interstate 5 again, they found the highway was almost completely empty. There were stranded cars and trucks of course, but it wasn’t a river of decaying metal and fiberglass as it had been to the south. Up here, there was no real traffic to begin with so the electromagnetic pulses that had savaged the nation’s power grid and every other sensitive piece of equipment, such as computer-controlled vehicles and like pretty much ensured the highways would remain empty for the foreseeable future. The pavement was chipped and cracked, and in some areas great seams had formed from both water runoff and tectonic activity. None of these mattered to the SCEV, and it simply rolled over all of them without any trouble. To the rig’s right, the gigantic edifice known as Mount Shasta loomed, its crown covered with snow that looked filthy. It was still a lovely sight, and Andrews found he was awed by its stark beauty as it towered above the pine forests that struggled to survive.

In the early afternoon of the fourth day, they made it to the interchange with US-97. CJ was piloting the rig with Leona in the copilot’s seat, and Andrews left the engineering station to peer out the viewports.

“Sarmajor, you mind watching things for a moment?” Mulligan sat at the command intelligence station without much to do other than ensure the timed measurement tasks Leona had configured ran as scheduled.

“Sure,” Mulligan said. He was obviously happy to do it; he was more at home watching things like N1 and T5 readouts and performance graphs than counting millibars of pressure and worrying over external humidity. Andrews unbuckled his harness and knelt down in the cockpit doorway, grabbing onto a handhold as he watched CJ slowly maneuver the rig onto the new route. She moved the rig slowly and deliberately, sitting up straight in her seat and craning her neck trying to see everything at once. Leona did the same and helped guide her around a dead fuel tanker. As the rig rolled past it, Andrews saw the truck’s cab was wide open. Everything had been removed from inside, even the seats and the floor mats.

“Thing was looted,” he said. “Means people weren’t killed immediately. They still had time to scrounge.” He looked at the millimeter wave radar returns framed on the multifunction display in front of CJ. Even though it was mostly designed for ground navigation and avoidance, it also tracked moving objects. It was sensitive enough to pick up a person walking for instance, and it would automatically bracket the information on the display and track it as long as the object was in range. There was nothing. The rig was passing through the remains of Weed, California as it rolled onto its new course, and there wasn’t much to see. The town had died a slow, miserable death. It was aptly named, for now great clumps of yellow-green weeds had sprung up everywhere, standing from four to six feet tall. The houses looked filthy and desolate, with missing roof shingles and broken windows. Andrews looked at the environmental window on Leona’s MFD. The radiation count was lower here than it had been in the Shasta-Trinity National Forest, but not remarkably so. If the rig departed the highway and descended into the city proper, the radiation count would doubtless increase. Structures tended to hold onto radioactive particles longer than plant forms did, though the rains might have diluted the residue substantially. For a crazy moment, Andrews thought of ordering the rig to halt and leaning on the air horn for a few minutes. But the rig made enough racket all by itself. Gas turbine engines were hardly quiet, so if there had been anyone who was interested in inspecting the strange noise they heard, they’d already be doing so. Another check of the MMR display told him no one was out there.

Ah, well.

“Okay, what am I doing here?” CJ asked suddenly. “Am I going around, or what?”

Andrews looked through the viewports. Ahead, several cars lay in a tangled heap on the ramp. Someone was probably speeding down its length when the EMP hit and fried its systems, and the driver had lost control. Three other cars had been caught up in the incident as well. Again, doors were open, and as the rig drew nearer, Andrews could see the vehicles had been pillaged.

“No room to go around,” Leona said. The off-ramp was buttressed by cement jersey barriers that conspired to make the exit more like a chute.

“Push through them, girlfriend,” Andrews said. “Nice and easy. If they won’t move, go ahead and roll right over them. We’ve done this before.”

You’ve done this before, I haven’t,” CJ said.

“Don’t worry about it, you’ll be fine. The rig’s suspension will adjust automatically, so if you want to turn off the stabilization system so you can feel if we might roll over, go right ahead.”

CJ did that, reaching down and flipping a protected switch on the center console as she slowed the SCEV to a crawl. The first car she rolled up on was small, and the rig’s slanted nose went right over it. A moment later, the heavy vehicle shuddered slightly as it moved forward. From beneath them, the distant squeal of crushing metal was heard above the whine of the engines. CJ added a bit of power, and the rig swayed slightly as it pressed on, flattening the cars beneath its tall, knobby tires.

“How’s it feel to crush your enemies?” Andrews asked.

“Not so bad, but it would suck if we were really moving when we hit these things,” CJ replied. The vehicle shuddered again, and a crashing cacophony rose up beneath it. “Oh, are we dragging one?”

“It’s okay, it’ll fall away. Keep going,” Leona said. “Add a little more power. The wreckage’ll drift backward and the rear tire set will yank it free.”

CJ did as instructed, and sure enough there was a bumping bounce as the SCEV threw the remains of the mangled car out from beneath it. Free of any encumbrance, the vehicle began to slowly accelerate. CJ guided it down the ramp and onto US-97, a two-lane rural highway. There were dead vehicles scattered about so occasionally she had to wend her way around them, but it wasn’t terribly difficult. The disabled traffic began to thin out as the rig left the town of Weed behind.

“Okay, good job, CJ,” Andrews said. “According to the maps, we’ll be passing through what used to be agricultural land for the next couple of hours. Everything should be mostly flat and stable, so open it up a bit when you have stretches of clear road.”

“Roger that,” the crew chief replied. “I know how you guys like to drive fast and all.”

Andrews snorted and returned to the second compartment. Mulligan looked up at him forlornly from the engineering station and started unbuckling his harness, but Andrews waved him down.

“I know you’re a gear head at heart, Sarmajor. You can stay on the engineering station.”

Mulligan inclined his head. “Every day is Christmas when you’re around, sir.”

Ten minutes later, the two men looked toward the cockpit when they heard a tone sound. Through the open door, Andrews could see the MMR had bracketed a moving target. Before he or Mulligan could inquire, Leona said, “Slow down, slow down—it’s a bird!”

“It’s a plane!” Mulligan said as the rig immediately slowed. It had been moving at a good forty miles per hour, tires whirring across the pavement. Andrews was puzzled. What the hell was Mulligan talking about?

“No Sarmajor, it’s definitely a bird,” CJ said from the left seat.

Mulligan threw his hands in the air. “Jesus, what a waste. Damned kids don’t even know who Superman was.”

Andrews unbuckled his harness and raced toward the cockpit as CJ brought the rig to a crawl. He dropped down to his knees and squatted between the seats, mindful of the center console. “Where?”

Leona pointed to the right, and Andrews leaned forward, peering through the side port. Sure enough, a black winged shape descended into a large field of swaying weeds and disappeared from view. He only caught a glimpse of it, but there was no mistaking it for what it was. A fair-sized black bird.

“God damn,” he said. “Where did it come from, do you know?”

Leona pointed at the radar display. “According to the track, it took off in this field and flew about five hundred yards. Made a max altitude of two hundred and seven feet, at a speed of thirty-seven miles per hour. Fast sucker.”

“How big?”

“Not big. Seven, eight inches long maybe. But still a surprise!” Leona was excited by the discovery.

Mulligan cleared his throat from the second compartment. “I won’t say I told you so.”

“You were right, old man. At least one bird survived,” Leona said, “but just to set expectations, it’s not glowing.”

“Well, damn. Now that would have been a discovery,” Mulligan said.

“Do we need to go EVA and check it out?” Andrews asked.

Leona chuckled. “No, no. We just need to mark the site and time. We didn’t get a great look at it, so we can’t be sure of the species. It looked black, but it could be brown or dark gray, so it could be anything. But it didn’t seem to be a bird of prey, more like a lark or a starling.”

“Are you sure it couldn’t have been a parrot?” Mulligan asked. “Or maybe, the rare Northwestern toucan?”

Leona laughed. “It wasn’t anything exotic, Sam.”

“Stop calling me that. And how do you know? Thing’s been exposed to severe radiation at some point in its lifecycle. It could have two heads, twelve beaks, and seven wings at this point. It could not only be exotic, it could be a verifiable freak. I say we all suit and go chasing it through the field,” Mulligan said. “Actually, you guys go. I’ll stay with the rig. And the burritos.”

“Dear God, no more burritos. Please,” Andrews said. He continued looking out into the field, but the bird was apparently lying low. “All right. Let’s make the appropriate hacks in the log, and get underway. Let’s roll, CJ.”

CJ advanced the control column and the SCEV’s engines picked up. As the sound increased, the field to their right suddenly exploded. Hundreds, perhaps more than a thousand birds erupted from the tall weeds and took flight. Everyone in the cockpit gasped in surprise, and CJ braked the rig to a gentle halt.

“Wow, look at that!” she exclaimed. Her voice was pitched high with excitement. Andrews leaned forward and watched as the birds came together in a large trailing flock, whipping first left, then toward the right as if of one mind. Together, the flock looked to him like some amorphous beast, rippling and rustling across the gray sky.

“God, we need to capture this!” Leona said.

“I already am,” Mulligan said from the back. “I have the FLIR tracking the flock. Recording in both video and infrared. Congratulations, you’ve all found a flock of starlings. Your discovery will doubtless lead to many a distinguished commendation, not to mention the formation of a local car wash…since starlings generally shit all over any vehicle they can find.”

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EARTHFALL 2: The Only Easy Day Was Yesterday

September 17, 2018 1 comment

In the sequel to Earthfall, the recon of the Pacific Northwest is finally underway. SCEV 4 has been rebuilt and returned to Captain Mike Andrews’s command. The first leg of the mission is to transport the crew of the destroyed SCEV 5 to a replenishment site outside of Sacramento, California. There, Captain Jim Laird and three members of his crew are transferred to the site where they’ll activate one of four Self-Contained Exploration Vehicles contained inside. As they do that, Andrews, CSM Scott Mulligan, 1LT Leona Eklund, and SGT Winters, the new crew chief, will conduct a circuit of the terrain surrounding Bend, Oregon. They’ll link up with SCEV 5 at a predesignated rally point for the return trip to Harmony Base.

In this excerpt, SCEV 4 is parked outside the replenishment site. Laird and the others have already transferred across and have begun their weeks-long work of removing a rig from storage and certifying it for duty. As Four is shut down for the night, Andrews and crew take a break for the first face-to-face dinner they’ve had since leaving Harmony almost nine days ago. Everything’s going well, and everyone is eager and anxious to finally commence the first recon of the northwest–it’s all roses and champagne at this point.

Except for Mulligan, anyway.

In the end, he had the spaghetti and meatballs, and it wasn’t bad. CJ ate her casserole at the command intelligence station, which had more desk space than her engineering console afforded and she didn’t seem at all put out by it. Andrews sat across from Mulligan and Leona and tried not to watch them as they ate, but he found himself regarding them anyway. If Mulligan noticed, he gave no indication. Leona wasn’t as subtle about being examined, however. She looked at him directly, catching him in the act.

“Mike, you want to ask something, go right ahead,” she said.

“What? Oh no, I’m cool,” Andrews said as a bolt of embarrassment coursed through him.

“My intentions are entirely dishonorable, if it means anything to you,” Mulligan said as he twirled up some spaghetti on his fork.

Leona turned to him. “I’d thought as much.”

CJ burst out laughing, then looked embarrassed when they turned toward her. “Oh, I’m so sorry,” she said.

“About what, Winters?” Mulligan asked. “Everyone plays grab-ass on an SCEV. Figuratively speaking, of course. Anyway, don’t worry about it. If you can’t laugh at the people you’re crewing with, it’s going to be a dark and bitter life. Trust me, I know all about that.”

“Heavy, Sarmajor,” CJ said.

“You get a philosopher’s stone with all those chevrons and rockers, Mulligan?” Andrews asked.

Mulligan blinked. “Son, you even know what the philosopher’s stone was?”

Andrews considered it for a moment. “Ah…something to do with philosophy?”

“Alchemy,” Leona said.

“What?”

“Alchemy,” Mulligan repeated. “The philosopher’s stone was supposed to be able to turn base metals into gold. It was the holy grail of alchemists through the middle ages. Of course, just like pay equality and free health care, it never existed. And unless greed is the cornerstone of philosophy, it has nothing to do with what it’s named after.”

“Well, shit. Do me a favor and stop teaching lessons, Sarmajor?”

Mulligan shook his head. “No can do. That’s what the chevrons and rockers are for, my boy.”

“Wow, the stuff you can learn over chow in an SCEV,” CJ said.

Mulligan inclined his head toward the young crew chief. “Happy to continue educating the masses whenever and wherever I can. Just remember: Do as I say, not as I do.”

“All right, all right.” Andrews speared a meatball. “Sorry if I was staring, guys. But the two of you do make an oddball couple.”

Mulligan stirred a bit in the dinette. “She doesn’t like burritos. It’s hell.”

“I love burritos, but I hate your farts,” Leona said. “Can’t have one without the other when you’re around.”

Mulligan shook his head. “I repeat: It’s hell. Anyway, Captain. We all squared away for departure tomorrow?”

“Unless this thing doesn’t start, we’re good to go. Short shifts for everyone—we’ll only travel twelve hours a day, and spend the remainder resting and doing maintenance. Be the easiest run I’ve ever been on.”

“Easy?” Mulligan looked at Andrews with a stern expression, then peered at Leona and CJ. “Easy? You guys think this is going to be an easy run, no problems, no issues? A Sunday drive? Didn’t San Jose teach anyone anything? If we happen to find survivors, they might be like Law and his group—it’s been more than a decade since things came to a halt, and anyone who’s alive today has been through hell and back. They’re probably predators themselves now, because it’s the only way to survive. Don’t think that anyone we come across is going to greet us with open arms. And the things those people had to do and the things they had to learn to stay alive aren’t going to go away—they’ll definitely want what we can give them, and if that means killing us for it, they’ll do it. But even if they don’t try and take everything from us, will they deserve what we can do for them? Just because they were vicious enough to survive in the aftermath of a nuclear war? These are questions we’ve occasionally asked at the command level after making contact with Law’s people, but those questions have never really answered. So what are we doing now in San Jose? We’re essentially sponsoring a band of thugs, criminals, murderers and cannibals. They had to do things that way, with or without Law’s leadership. And as bat-shit crazy as that fucker was, he probably saved all of them by taking things straight to ground level and living like a predator. Sustaining people who adapted that way probably wasn’t what folks had in mind when they came up with the charter for Harmony Base.” His gaze returned to Andrews once again, and he could see the old Mulligan he once knew still lurked in the depths of that hard, brown-eyed stare. The command sergeant major might have experienced an emotional reawakening as of late, but that didn’t mean he’d abandoned decades of training and practical experience just to stop and smell the roses every now and then.

Mulligan’s voice was a low, ominous rumble when he continued. “The only easy day was yesterday. And tomorrow’s going to be a hundred times harder than today. You troops would do well to remember that.”

Usual disclaimers apply–work in progress, text is unedited and poor first-draft quality, and no guarantee that what you read here will be in the final product. (One change that’s going to happen: CJ Winters will be changed to DD Winters or something similar, as CJ was Rachel Andrews’s mother’s name. Oops!)

Released: THE RETREAT #5: CRUCIBLE

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!

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.