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Chapter no 16

Forgotten Ruin

The battle we’d fight that night would be a retrograde. The Rangers were tired of being where they were supposed to be and just taking it from the enemy. The swarming orcs and other messed-up beasts and monsters that made up the OPFOR hitting us whenever, and wherever, they wanted.

OPFOR. Opposing Force.

As Captain Knife Hand said, that wasn’t the Ranger way. If Chief McCluskey had gone over to the other side, and again we had no idea what that side was exactly, other than that they’d just shown up and decided to relentlessly attack our positions every night, then chances were they were here for something specific. And the only thing specific they could possibly be after was me and my vast knowledge of languages. Obviously. I was an incredible treasure trove of most likely dead languages. C’mon… what’s not to covet?

Just kidding.

Had to be the Forge. McCluskey and whatever cabal he’d established here in the fantastical future knew the value of a Perpetual Taco Machine that could churn out endless amounts of explosives, weapons, and tech. It had templates for everything. I’d even asked Penderly if it could make a nuke.

He’d just nodded, not looking very happy about it.

So the captain had decided to let the enemy horde pay the heavy price of getting onto the island. We’d even let them actually take the C-17 close to dawn. The Rangers would cede ground grudgingly, falling back by squads to pre-established phase lines, setting off claymores and other explosive devices dreamed up by the Ranger master breachers in the face of the hordes. Indirect fire support from the mortars would make the dark army pay a dear price just to get close. The Rangers would then turtle around Sniper Hill and detonate body bags filled with chlorine gas the Forge had cooked up. With the enemy having only one avenue of approach to assault from the south, and the gas… and then add in all Ranger elements firing into the kill zone at the base of the hill, overwhelming firepower concentrated in a tight space… well, it was hoped, by Captain Knife Hand, that the enemy would be severely weakened. There were a whole bunch of

other dirty tricks we could get up to, but time was of the essence and the Forge didn’t crank stuff out particularly fast. Filling the gas bags had been a tricky operation for a group of Rangers in MOPP gear already.

The issue of night attacks, or the enemy’s sole usage of them, would also come into play. Maybe the orcs were only good at night fighting. Maybe, like bats, they were also blind during the day. Or weakened somehow, like the vampire McCluskey. Twice now they’d withdrawn in the predawn hours, ceasing their attacks. If we forced them to commit to holding the objective, the Forge, then once they got weak we’d have a combat multiplier. At dawn tomorrow, the Rangers would counterattack and sweep the island, pushing the orcs back into a wall of walking mortar fire starting at the southern end of the island. The island and fighting positions would be retaken, and the Rangers would live to fight another night. The Forge once more back in possession of the home team.

There was no way an attacking force could get that massive chunk of equipment off the island without heavy equipment. So the Perpetual Taco Machine’s excessive weight mitigated some of the risk of letting it fall into enemy hands for a brief few hours.

Night fell. Two hours later the drums in the forest beyond the river reached a fevered thunder pitch. It was clear some kind of final conclusion had been arrived at by the swarming masses out there in the shadow lands beyond the body-bloated river. Like some blessing or permission to attack us had been given. We could see them moving toward the river like a dark mass that wouldn’t stop multiplying and spreading. Ever.

The end decreed. The means justified.

Then the night sky was filled with falling flaming stars. The enemy out there in the darkness was putting up walls of fire arrows that arched up and then fell fast down onto the island and all across our fortified positions.

I went inside the aircraft to shelter from the rain of fire arrows that fell along the outskirts of the island’s defenses out there. It looked like the captain was right: the majority of the flaming missiles fell on the southern portions of our defenses. They’d hit us there in the next few. The comm went live with reports and then fell silent as the Rangers prepared to repel the expected assault.

The drone feed, or what the Rangers called “Kill TV,” captured what

happened next.

As the rain of fire continued in the gray-green night vision of the drone’s camera, the first enemy troops came across the swift waters at the southern end of the island from two points along the far bank. These first two surges were orc warriors. Curved and gleaming scimitars in the moon’s silver light. Spears with long leaf-shaped blades, dangling with small skulls and feathers, stabbing up and down as they waded out, and then rushed, through the current. Heavier armor for these. These orcs were heavy assault troops. They entered the shallow crossing points and were promptly torn to pieces by command-detonated SLAM mines ignited from the firing pits. Massive water plumes sent the shredded bodies of the orcs in every direction. Tossed in the spray and the bare moonlight out there.

I was listening to the comm coming back at the CP when the captain, who was forward, told the mortars to hold their fire even as more orcs swarmed into the river, crossing shallows to take the place of those who’d been devastated by the submerged explosives.

The first Rangers to open up with their weapons were on the left-hand side of the southern edge. The orcs were halfway across when tracer fire streaked into the front ranks. A few bursts. Then the pit on the right flank opened fire. Tearing into that flank. This wasn’t two-forty fire. These were SAW gunners and riflemen. Someone was firing from their grenade launcher, dropping rounds back along the bank as more orcs poured into the water to sustain the momentum of their assault.

The drone feed circled out over the island and we got an expanded view of what the Rangers on the line were facing. I’m not good at estimating crowd size, but in that first wave it looked to be in the high hundreds. The pilot, who was watching the drone feed while the co-pilot flew it from the handheld controls she was operating, said it was well over a thousand. At the top of the drone’s circling flight path over the action we saw the ogres coming next.

At that moment we didn’t know they were ogres, but later that was the generally accepted term for these heavier combat types now entering the battle against us. And of course, the name was blessed by the ever-wise-in- geekdom-lore PFC Kennedy, who asserted, “Oh yeah, definitely ogres.”.

The ogres stormed out of the trees and into the roiling body-laden waters. Pushing aside the trunks of stout trees or hacking at them with

vicious double-bladed battle axes. Single impossible strokes slashing through the meat of trees along the riverbanks. There was no stealth in these angry behemoths. They had come to war and battle. Even via drone feed it was pretty awe-inspiring. Impossible to believe such gigantic brutes seething with rage were real. Fangs gnashed. Broad muscled chests heaved like bellows, head and shoulders above the orcs and ten times more frighteningly vicious.

But it was time to believe in all of it. It was real, and real wanted to kill us all dead. There was no other choice now.

As I write all this down it’s important to note something my mind has since tried to forget. The smell. Two nights of carnage and heavy enemy losses had left a reeking stink across the tiny river island. The waters were choked with bodies and drifting gore. Bloating orc corpses had created small dams along the western side of the island. Along the eastern bank the bodies had collected on the far shore, but their stink still contributed to the general miasma that had become pervasive in every inhalation. For much of that last day before the last night of the battle, Rangers had taken to wearing their shemaghs up around their faces just to keep out the wretched stink of the enemy dead. Vicks VapoRub was being used with abandon and had even attained a traded commodity status at some point. Ten thousand years in the future and the Ranger economy was now based on dip and Vicks. Candy bar futures were trading lower, but they were still trading. A base PX would have been a treasure trove of endless wonders here in this unholy far future front of madness and darkness.

I had none of these things: dip, Vaporub, or candy. I was looking to quietly corner the instant coffee market during most of my contacts throughout the day. I knew there was a shortage coming. I didn’t want to get rich because of it; I just didn’t want to be on the wrong side. The wanting side. I wanted coffee and I would do anything to get it. Anything. As a fellow caffeine junkie once said to me, Coffee will get you through a time of no money. But money will never get you through a time of no coffee.

True. And I was afraid of what that meant in the coming days. Very afraid.

He’d said this worked for all other addictions too.

So the smell was bad, and that was from the carnage of the previous two days of fighting. And already, within the first few minutes of the third

night of fighting for Ranger Alamo, the numbers the enemy were putting up to dislodge us were looking to put the previous two nights to shame.

This is another important point: there wasn’t an unlimited supply of ammo. The Forge made stuff, but it didn’t make it fast. And it was at that moment, watching the massive ogres charge into the river, that I realized there was a very real chance the enemy could wear us out on sheer numbers alone. Run us dry on ammunition and get close enough to hack us all into a thousand pieces. Had McCluskey’s recon been enough to provide that much intel? I didn’t know and I bet no one else did either. In the quiet of the afternoon when he was supposed to be sleeping and avoiding sunlight… had the SEAL overheard even one of the SAW gunners mentioning his ammo count during an ACE report conducted by one of the NCOs? Or had he heard the blue sky reports coming in to the first sergeant at the CP that told him exactly what we had and where we were committing it?

Because if McCluskey was this King Triton, then he knew he could wear us out on sheer numbers. He knew where to hit us. And that if he kept hitting us, we’d soon be dry on ammo.

Especially with the howling nightmares that were these giant ogres pushing forward out onto the river. What did we have that could put them down? These things made the giant from night one seem small. Like we were too hasty in labeling it that. Here were the real giants.

I was fascinated as I studied the ogres via drone feed. They were basically larger, giant versions of the standard orc foot soldier we’d been facing. Huge heads and saber-tooth fangs. Massive bulging muscles over green scarred skin. Not just the patchwork leather and occasional beaten armor of the orcs, but finely worked cuirasses like old Roman legionnaires might have once worn. Except made of dark metal. Battered and unpolished. Sometimes covered in black grease. We could see there were designs in relief, stamped into their armor, but in the drone feed, to see the details of these designs was asking too much. They carried their impossibly huge battle axes with one hand as they thundered forward, spears like vault poles in the other fist.

And I mean they thundered forward. They moved fast like rolling thunder on a hot August night loose in the hills. For things so huge they were incredibly fast. Enormous strides, their swollen bodies rippling with muscle and fat pulling their bulk through the dark waters as they trampled

the bodies of the smaller savage orcs to reach the near shore as fast as possible, hissing and bellowing murder.

If the outgoing fire was doing anything, it was only telling on the orcs, who were being cut down in clusters by explosive bursts of Ranger gunfire from the heavies down there in the fighting positions. Misshapen heads exploding and bodies flung away into the water to drift a dead man’s float down the river and away from this battle. But the ogres, and I could see the ghostly streak of tracer fire hitting them, they didn’t seem to mind the incoming at all. I saw one ogre take a tracer round right in the head and keep moving. Either it had been a graze that would leave a hot trail in the side of the thing’s lumpy skull, or the ogre continued on fury and madness alone. It was incredible.

The ogres, who were now less than a thousand meters from the aircraft, launched giant spears into the first Ranger defenses along the riverbank. The drone was now circling to the south and all we could see was river for a few seconds. We had no idea if the spears found their targets among the defending Rangers in the right-flank pit. But the captain was already ordering that pit to pull back and for the left-flank pit to provide cover fire in the interim. Then the drone came back over our portions of the defenses and I could see outgoing fire from the center, the captain’s squad, and the left-flank pit. Ghostly white Rangers were evacuating the right flank in the drone’s feed as the hot white glowing ogres, made that way by night vision and thermal overlay, swept up onto the riverbank and charged the fighting pit, giant axes pulled back to strike. Fire arrows were still burning in the trees and along the sands of the beach all around. Glowing and phosphorescent as they gushed clouds of oily black smoke.

And then suddenly, someone said something over the comm to the effect of “firing,” and an entire pit about to be overrun and cleared of Rangers belched a gout of flame out across the swarming ogres and into the river, covering more of the orcs following on to support the assault. The flaming fuel spread like iridescent vomit across the enemy front.

Apparently a few of the Master Breacher–qualified Rangers, with the help of the C-17’s crew chief, had mixed up some avgas and other industrial fluids to create the gel that, when ignited, turned into a living unquenchable spreading fire. Napalm. And when the shape charge was detonated on the improvised napalm canister, the ogres were covered in burning fuel that

crawled greedily across their armor. Melting it and roasting the scarred skin beneath.

One of the burning ogres swung a flaming axe and crushed the overhead protection of the fighting position.

But the greedy gel-ignite fire that couldn’t be put out easily made any living thing rethink its personal motivation to do harm. To do anything at all other than to transform its state of “on fire” to “off fire.”

Right?

Wrong.

Not when it came to the ogres. Mindlessly, covered in living fire, they continued to swarm fighting positions, hacking and slashing at the defenses with their massive axes even as they burned alive. No wonder the outgoing fire hadn’t stopped them. They were crazed. Berserk, I think the term is. They were hit and burning and maybe even some were dying, but their rage and anger kept them slashing and hacking in hopes of taking some Ranger off to Ogre Valhalla.

One finally collapsed as the flames crawled over and consumed it. Probably strangling it through sheer oxygen deprivation. The others gradually lost steam and were raked by fire from the Ranger center, until one of the Rangers finished off the initial ogre assault with a well-placed grenade. But the fighting pit had been destroyed. It was covered in burning napalm and roasting ogre carcasses.

“More entering the river,” announced the co-pilot operating the drone. I looked over at her. Her mouth was open beneath the VR goggles. And it was true, more wild ogres were indeed hitting the water with no less fury than the first. More orcs too. Weapons waving and dancing wildly, just looking for someone’s body to serve as a resting place for their axe. I had no doubt death would be very unpleasant at the hands of these vicious and stabby things. There would be no quarter. No surrender. No prisoners of war. No mercy. Just hacked into pieces and stabbed to death more times than were probably needed. Or maybe it was the other way around. Stabbed and then hacked into pieces.

And in the next instant something… somethings… even taller than the orcs and the ogres, though not as bulky and not armed with any weapons, joined the assault. Later Kennedy would tell us these were called trolls in his imaginary game world. In the real world they were freaking walking

nightmares with a guaranteed bonus round of night terrors for the rest of your life.

The right flank group of Rangers, a rifle squad, had already pulled back to the next phase line in the retrograde that would bring us all back to the hill. Now the left flank was being pulled back while the captain and his squad hit the collapsing front from the center. Tracer fire went in a semicircle, outbound in every direction. Tearing up orcs, raking ogres, and doing nothing to the advancing terrible trolls, looming up in the smoke and firelight. Someone in the captain’s squad was carrying a two-forty, and this opened up on the orcs who were holding the shoreline along the river’s edge for the moment. The sudden burst of fire found the huddling orcs and tore them to pieces.

By the drone’s feed we could see the enemy covering and lobbing hand axes at the Rangers not more than twenty meters ahead of them. More orcs were coming through the waters as the next wave of ogres swarmed for the evacuating left pit and got the fresh and patient attention of the Ranger gunners. One ogre went down and the rest pushed on. The two-forty could hurt them, but the blitzkrieg of the ogres advancing was so fast, faster than we’d expected or could be expected to have expected, that the two-forty team was already being pushed back.

Blitz is German for lightning.

Krieg means war.

And these monsters were the living embodiment of that concept in ways the Nazis could have only ever dreamed of.

Even from inside the aircraft, the explosion was deafening as another napalm canister cooked off and detonated, spreading more burning fuel across the river waters and the swarming orc horde trying to force its way onshore.

Some of the ogres were hit, and a lot of the orcs were covered in greedy flames, but more ogres made the shoreline to support the beachhead. One deployed a massive bow and began firing at the Rangers just ahead of it. The bow was the size of a man and the ogre flexed and fired arrows the size of rebar poles into the forest and the Rangers.

“Pulling back,” said the captain calmly over the comm. “Weapons sections, shift fire and cover as we establish the next line to our rear.”

Captain Knife Hand’s calm matter-of-factness was the opposite of

every muscle in my body. Coiled and rusty-tight. I was holding my breath as I watched the swift enemy assault overwhelming our front line just hundreds of meters away. Out there, up front, it had to be pure, barely managed chaos. With gunfire and explosives and monsters that wanted to hack you to pieces in the dark. It was like…

… there is nothing I can compare it to. A living nightmare. Maybe you could compare it to that. Something that should only have been a bad dream. But wasn’t.

I was glad the captain was in charge of it all.

The weapons sections who had the eastern and western side of the island would get ready to pour fire into the advancing horde as the other elements passed through the next phase line. From the comm in the CP I could tell they were engaged with enemies coming into their sectors. Small bands hitting the river from different points along the other banks. We were getting it everywhere all at once. But the southern front was the enemy’s focus. That was clear.

Meanwhile, the captain ordered detonation of the claymores that had been planted just a few meters in from the southern beach. A string of them tore the clustering orcs and ogres staging there, still thrashing at the pits they’d overrun and launching spears and arrows at the retreating Rangers, transforming the attackers into fleshy bits flying in every direction. The deafening puffs of explosions ruined the attackers. More pressed onshore and into the bushes.

At this point the easternmost weapons section, run by Sergeant Kurtz, opened fire toward the south, raking that end of the island with fire. But the western weapons team didn’t fire at all. The command sergeant major was on the comm and trying to get through to them, but they weren’t answering. And that was when I started to get a bad feeling in my stomach.

Someone would have to leave the CP and go out there to find out what was going on. And that someone was almost certainly me. My hand found the high-value target’s ring. The invisibility ring.

Everything was happening all at once and I couldn’t tear my eyes away from the drone feed as one of the tall lurching trolls with long claws and a flat, almost Frankenstein head attacked the phase line and a group of Rangers firing at it with everything they had available. Nothing stopped it in the least as it suddenly picked a Ranger up and flung him off into the

river. It swiped wide with its long demonic claws and knocked two more Rangers down. One of the team sergeants was firing point-blank into the twisted thing as it bore down on him. Later we’d find out that 5.56 did nothing to trolls.

Almost zero penetration.

At the same time one of the snipers from the hill fired, the spotter informing the CP they were engaging. I think it was Sergeant Thor and Mjölnir who took the shot. Mjölnir was an M1O7 anti-materiel sniper rifle. A deadly weapon that fired heavy fifty-caliber rounds at extreme ranges.

Again, we’re watching a twisted lurching thing that looked a little like an ugly tree swiping and hammering at the Rangers trying to get out of its way. It’s humanoid. But only just. It’s lean, and rangy, and very tall. Greedy and hungry eyes glow in the night vision like a deadly animal’s might while out hunting. It feels sickening to even look at the thing over drone feed. Like it’s got too many joints where it shouldn’t have any at all. The Rangers who can get back are firing burst, dumping ineffective rounds into the horror at near point-blank range. Nothing is slowing this monstrosity down in the least.

Until Thor fires Mjölnir.

Maybe the fast-moving round appears in the feed, it’s moving at roughly 28OO feet per second. The bullet has broken the sound barrier. The shot is like a streak of sudden heat lightning. The sergeant major can’t help but whisper to all involved that the sniper is using the Raufoss Mk 211 round. One of the SAW gunners standing at the back tells me that’s an expensive armor-piercing incendiary tracer munition used against bunkers. It’s a fifty-caliber round that’s explosive, with a tungsten penetrator core. And it’s incendiary to boot. It has a little dollop of explosive in it that makes things “interesting.” His word.

The rampaging troll has warranted the extra-special attention.

We can’t see details, but the round knocks the troll down onto one misshapen and oddly jointed knee. The hit flared in the night vision when the round struck. I can tell Sergeant Thor fires again because there’s a second flare right in the troll’s huge flat skull, and then the menace flops over, clearly dead. What it had for brains leaks out into the dirt. The brains are on fire.

The Rangers have enough room and distance to fall back to the next

phase line as someone pops smoke to cover their retreat.

“Talker!” shouts the sergeant major, who’s been trying to get through to the team that’s out of communication on the western bank.

“Roger, Sergeant Major.”

I tell my stomach to shut up. I’m needed to do a thing.

He stands and tells the first sergeant to take over as he walks me toward the rear cargo ramp. Just as we do, the drone feed goes wild and for a moment we see every angle of the battle, and then—a vulture’s horny claws and the half-naked torso of a woman, a shrew, a hag, a harridan, screeching into the camera as the drone is destroyed. We hear her cawing like a crow with a slashed throat.

“Son,” says the sergeant major, focusing me away from the incomprehensible terror we’ve just witnessed, a horrid, flying bird-woman who knocked out our drone intel. “Son, I need you to get out to Sergeant Jasper’s team. They’re not responding. Could be enemy interference again. Get in contact with them and tell them we’re pulling back to Phase Line Charlie. Don’t come back here. We’re pulling out. Stay with them and link up at Charlie. Then connect with me on the hill. Copy, Talker?”

I copied and got myself ready, checking my MK18 and making sure I had a mag loaded and a round chambered. Keeping the safety on.

“Talker,” he said to me as I turned to exit the cargo deck.

I turned back to the sergeant major, sure I was white as a ghost despite the war paint we’d applied to break up our outlines.

“Son, you don’t know everything about combat there is to know. Not even by half. Sorry about that. This ain’t your thing. But in the Rangers, everyone’s a killer. This is current events and I need ya right now, out there, where it’s all going down. So here’s a piece of advice from one soldier to another, Talker. You get into a fight with anything out there…”

He paused to make sure I got this part. Because this was the important part. Not the getting into a fight part. Any idiot can do that in a bar most nights of the week. But this part, this was the part that might let me survive if I listened and knew wisdom.

“Be meaner than it, Talker.”

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