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Chapter no 17

Forgotten Ruin

The distances we’re talking about here aren’t long. I’m not on a twelve-mile road march into unfamiliar territory. This river island is only about three thousand meters long and a thousand wide. Over the last three days since we arrived, I’ve walked most of it. There’s the big field we barely managed to come down in, ringed by spindly trees on the east, west, and north. Poplars, I think. The center of the island is covered by clumps and stands of other trees with a few small dry streambeds running through it all. The northern end of the island is a tall and steep hill. I’m not good with elevation, but up there the island’s highest point reaches about as tall as a six-story building.

As I leave the aircraft to link up with Sergeant Jasper’s section, the one that’s out of comm contact, the entire Ranger force is falling back. The perimeter security SAW gunners are getting ready to lead the civilians and flight crew along with the company’s two senior NCOs back to the hill. Everyone is humping ammo. As much as they can. A lot of the available ammunition and explosives have already been shifted up to the top of Sniper Hill, but not everything. There wasn’t enough time. So they’re carrying what can be taken. We’re leaving a lot behind.

Volman looks none too happy about having to carry a crate of grenades. He’d returned suddenly from his “important” mission. But it’s been made clear to him that if he wishes to survive, then everyone needs to pull their weight right now. Immediately. The Baroness has two stretchers under her arm and a computer notebook slung in a messenger bag across her shoulder. She regards me for an instant with that quirky sexy smile as I take off into the dark and look back over my shoulder toward the plane. Wondering if I’ll see it again. Trying to convince myself I’m not heading toward my death.

It’s not dark-dark. But dark enough.

The forest is filled with small fires that can’t quite catch because if this really is France, the Loire Valley as Chief McCluskey indicated, then it’s winter or late spring here and the woods are wet from the rains. But fires still smolder and the air is filled with that drifting gray haze wet wood produces.

Therein lies the extent of my woodcraft. Wet wood will burn gray

smoke.

The sound of Rangers fighting with automatic weapons and explosives to my south in the field we landed in, pulling back from the collapsing line, is erratic. Sudden explosions rock the forest and echo like large things moving out there in the dark. The detonations drown out the sounds of the enemy’s shrieking tribal horns and advancing thundering drums. Amid the battle roar, their ground forces bark and call to one another as they swarm forward.

It feels real easy to get caught in the wrong place at the wrong moment right now.

I enter the woods just as the Rangers down there use a Carl Gustaf on one of the big trolls. The round cracks off, hissing away into the trees and slamming into a dark looming figure in the background. I have no time to pay attention to the effect. I just need to reach Sergeant Jasper’s team and get them up on comms, and also make sure the phase line doesn’t get behind me.

Because that would be bad.

It would mean I’m forward of anyone on my side. It would mean I’m currently inside enemy-held territory. Right in the middle of a bunch of monsters who would probably just as soon eat me. Regardless of how many languages I can speak. No amount of talking was gonna talk me out of that situation. I was sure about that. So best not to get caught.

I see the dark river ahead, and the heavy weapons section off to the right of Sergeant Jasper’s team is intermittently engaging dark figures out there in the water and across the bank. More orcs trying to cross the river there. Tracer rounds streak off into the forest on the other side of the water, illuminating the tree-lined halls of the dark forest and the faces of the snarling beasts swarming down toward the bank. The enemy numbers on this side, the western side of the island, are nowhere near those hitting the southern bank, but it’s enough to keep the two-forty busy and working.

The real question of the hour is… Why isn’t Jasper’s team hitting the enemy elements coming from the south along the western bank? Why aren’t the two-forties “talking” to coordinate their defensive fire? Covering the Rangers at the center as they pull back to reach Phase Line Charlie. The second line of the Ranger defenses.

I take a knee in the woods and scan the riverbank ahead. In the dark

I’m having trouble finding Sergeant Jasper’s team’s pit. I switch over to night vision, bumping my head forward and letting my NVGs fall down over my eyes. Neat trick Tanner taught me. That way I can keep my hands on my weapon.

Night vision comes on and it doesn’t disorient me anymore like it used to. I’m comfortable here in it now. We’re supposed to conserve battery power and so I don’t activate the targeting laser or the illuminator. I focus out toward engaging distant targets, instead of working more up-close like in CQB. Not that I’d ever be involved in room clearing. But I might have to follow a group in and talk to captured bad guys. I trained enough in RASP to understand the basic concept.

Now, via night vision, I can see the trail to the fighting position where I should see Jasper’s team. I see tracers streaking across the river and down in front of their position coming from another team. The weapons section farther up the bank is attempting to cover this portion of the river. The rounds are hitting the water and the dark figures moving through it. The plumes of outgoing rounds hitting the water are iridescent and white in the NVGs. The two-forty shuts down and I can hear someone calling out for a barrel change. Five seconds later the M32O gunners are dropping grenades into the water and along the far bank to cover the gunner and his AG.

Then one of the bushes ahead turns and looks in my direction. Bright eyes glitter within its mass in the dark of night vision and I realize I’m looking at a hunched orc directly ahead of me and along the sandy little trail leading to Sergeant Jasper’s squad.

Without moving I switch from safe to semi as I bring up my MK18 and press down with my left thumb on the forward pressure pad that activates the IR laser. I can see a lot of other lasers dancing across the field and out along the river ahead. But because I’m not with too many others it’s just my laser revealed in night vision here along the trail.

The orc spots the laser immediately. He stares at me inside night vision and cranes his lumpy head forward, fanged jaw opening and closing as he tries to figure out what he’s seeing. Following the laser right to me. He stands up, throwing out his chest and weapon-carrying arms wielding two daggers, and begins to bellow some warning to others of his kind that I can’t see yet. The targeting laser dances on his chest over a necklace made of small bones. Center mass.

The orc bellows a war cry and I squeeze off three shots in rapid succession. I know I hit him in the chest with at least one because he drops the dagger he’s carrying in one hand and sinks to his knees. I close quickly, following the laser and pulling the trigger on him several times more. At the time, I don’t know how many shots I’ve fired. Later I’d tell you I fired at least five more times before I was satisfied the clump in the bushes was just a dead orc. But I was caught up and engaging. I was surprised I was getting the important parts right while at the same time knowing I was missing some steps.

I can hear the sergeant major telling me to “be meaner than it” because there’s a part of me that’s telling myself that if this orc is behind the pit I’m headed toward, then that fighting position has been overrun. And that means I’m walking into an area the enemy is already all over. In other words… I’m in it now. Common civilian sense, the thing I used to measure every action by, is telling me to back off and go get someone competent to help me deal with this emergency situation. Y’know… maybe call the police or something.

“Hi, I’d like to report a suspicious band of orcs in the neighborhood. Yes, you heard me correctly. Orcs, officer. Mean ones. They look like they’re up to no good. You’ll send a car around? Great. I’ll just stay inside and peek through the curtains occasionally. Thanks, officer.”

But that isn’t now. That isn’t here. Right now isn’t just an emergency… it’s war. And I’m here as a soldier even if I am just along for the ride as a linguist hanging out with a bunch of Rangers. I’ve been sent out here to find out what’s happened to some of the Rangers I’m hanging around with. Clearly, by the looks of the situation, something is not good.

I keep my weapon on the dead orc, lowering it to stay on target as I approach and thread through the bushes to see the hill twenty meters off where Sergeant Jasper’s team dug their fighting position. It’s not so much a hill as it is a simple rise along the riverbank. They probably placed it there for elevation and a greater field of fire.

Other orcs are there around the fighting position and they’re dragging the bodies of Rangers out of the pit and I don’t know if anyone is dead or alive. There are three orcs lugging one of the Rangers with their claws. Or they were, except now that they’ve heard the bark of their sentry and the gunfire, they’re frozen. As if waiting for something to happen. Wide-flared

nostrils twitching and tasting the air. They’re using their other senses to find the danger. To find me.

Looking back on this, as I write it all down, I realize orcs must have some kind of natural night vision that dips down into the IR spectrum, letting them see our lasers. But right now, the dancing beam of my laser is covered by the dense brush I’m just barely trying to push through, scanning ahead with the NVGs to see all three, along with a fourth who’s standing over the pit making motions with his hands like someone trying to calm down a bunch of drunks at a comedy show. That sort of soft bounce with both hands out, urging everyone to calm down now for the next act. Be quiet. Get ready for tonight’s special guest coming on the main stage.

This one, the one trying to quiet everyone, isn’t a warrior. No scimitar or other hacking weapon. No spear or bow to stab either from close or far away. This one has a short gnarled staff. Instead of armor it wears a crude kaftan like a Taliban mullah might.

In the gray-green of night vision all their eyes glitter evilly. The three others searching the dark for me are like hunting animals scenting prey. Wide nostrils continuing to twitch, tasting their air with their other senses, trying desperately to find me so they can start baying for the kill. But the fourth, and let’s just call him the orc equivalent of the high-value-target sorcerer we hit out in the woods, maybe a tribal shaman type, his eyes are pure malevolence as he glares into the darkness like it’s an old and very familiar friend.

There are three Rangers lying on the ground outside the pit that was Sergeant Jasper’s fighting position. Again, I don’t know if they’re dead or alive.

I fire on the shaman because he’s the only one I can shoot without maybe hitting one of the Rangers. I’m operating on the assumption they’re not dead until I can confirm that.

The torrent of fire hits the shaman and ragdolls his kaftan-wrapped body away from me along the fresh dirt of the riverbank. He twists and tries to stumble for the river to get away from me, hit in the gut and doing the orc snarl equivalent of gagging as he clutches his blood-soaked belly.

The other three see me fire and drop the Ranger they’re trying to pull out of the fighting position. I eject the mag and get a new one in, hit the bolt release and fire at the leader who has decided to rush me. Axe upraised. I’m

still on full auto and I drag the weapon up the length of his body, spraying rounds into his misshapen face at the last second.

Then I feel the bolt lock back to the rear, empty. I just blew the whole magazine.

My breathing is fast. And my chest feels tight. One of the orcs has run off and the other is circling me to the left, axe out and running through the bushes to get behind me. Predator hunting party tactics. These things are pack hunters on some basic animal level. One charged me. One circled to drag me down from behind. The other ran for help.

I can see the remaining orc clear as daylight for a moment, but he doesn’t know that. I didn’t know that at the time. It’s just now in the hindsight of writing it all down that it’s revealed to me that I had the advantage of night vision. But then again, these things have a kind of night vision too if they can see the targeting laser in the dark.

And there’s one other thing.

The mistake that’s easy to make is to think they knew what modern weapons are. They didn’t. Reviewing everything I’d seen so far, and would see that night, the enemy at times had no idea what kind of impossible magic was being hurled at them from out of our barrels.

The one circling had no idea that if he had just rushed trigger-happy me, I’d be wearing his axe in my chest. Circling gave me all the time in the world to eject the spent mag, get a fresh one out, slam it home, and release the bolt, loading another round into the chamber, ready to fire. Even time to flick back to semi. Except I’d lost him in the dark of the bushes that clustered along his route.

I didn’t switch from full auto to semi though. I was still wired.

And if all that sounds like I did it the way I just wrote it down… forget it. My breathing was rapid, my fingers were trembling and numb, and the magazine didn’t go in smooth. Under night vision it’s harder. You don’t realize how much you use your eyes until you don’t have them. Because the night vision is dialed up for ranged engagement, close-at-hand work is just a blur.

I activated the illuminator on my barrel and caught sight of my target. Now he was charging straight at me, small axe raised and ready to swing down into my chest. I fired. Not everything in the mag. But enough to put

that one down too. In RASP the instructors said, “Shoot them until they change shape, or catch fire.”

I stood there knowing I should chase the one that had run off back down to the river. I was breathing hard and feeling, honestly, like I was gonna have a heart attack right there.

This was CQB.

Yeah. I’d done range time and assault courses in Basic and RASP. But Basic was always with a bunch of other people who’d end up being truckers, cooks, and telephone repair people. Some of them were pretty good. Skills learned back on the block or out in the woods “getting their buck” the year before. But most soldiers in Basic were clueless, and that was good because you learned the army way of shooting, moving, and communicating, with good marksmanship to boot, from scratch. No bad habits to get rid of. That was me.

I’d never seriously expected to be in what is known as close-quarters battle. CQB. I got the introductory course at the Shoot House in RASP. I remember thinking I’d never get to do it again. The real Rangers would do that stuff. I’d just talk to the captures. Sure, I’d imagined being in it. Imagined being attached to an infantry unit and ending up close enough to a fight to actually start needing to engage because it was that close. But even then all my fantasies included me and forty of my heavily armed best friends, properly trained infantry who did it for a living, covering my butt.

I’d certainly never imagined being out here and in it all by myself.

Be meaner than it, Talker.

“Yeah,” I mumbled, shaking in the darkness.

I could feel sweat breaking out all over my body. The battle was raging across the island now. More explosions and chattering heavy-weapons fire to the south and closer than it had been just a moment before. Mortar strikes landing out in the water, this side and to the south where some new enemy force was trying to flank and come ashore. The pit off to my right firing everything they had into the dark shapes out there on the water. Star-shells falling through the forest in other sectors. Dancing illumination shells, the dying light they made causing the shadows of the trees to move like living things all around me.

I flipped my NVGs and just stood there. Trying to control what seemed uncontrollable. Impossible. My heart, and my breathing. Knowing I had

stuff to do.

And then… it all just stopped and I felt myself take a big breath. And let it go. My fingers were ejecting the magazine in my MK18 and getting a new one out of my carrier. Smooth. Easy. This was the next step. This is what was done and I was fine with that now.

This was what I was supposed to do.

I felt calm and I knew the answer then. I didn’t need to think about it and figure it out later to put it down in this record no one will probably ever read.

Ever since I’d walked away from those Ivory Towers of Education that would have become fusty old prisons I’d grow doddering and old in, I’d wondered about this moment. Even if I hadn’t known it. CQB. Wondered if I could really Ranger. Ranger—it’s a noun, a verb, a personality trait, a thought process, et cetera. No one had ever said I couldn’t. They’d been too busy being bewildered by the fact that I was walking away from everything I’d worked so hard for to do something they considered beneath…

… beneath me?

No. Beneath them. They’d thought that way. In their ignorance.

My reasons are my own for why I joined the Army and got my chance to hang with the Rangers. Maybe I’ll write them, those reasons, down someday. Here. But I never considered that being a soldier was beneath anyone. If anything, I’d always considered myself beneath what it took to become one. And I wondered if that was true. If I could. Until this moment, with dead orcs all around me, I’d wondered if this was just some little game I was playing at that I wouldn’t be able to pay for when the bill came due. When it came time to put all my chips on the table and go all in. When it really came time to pay with my life. When the lives of others were on the line. When it wasn’t just assault lanes and warrior faces. When it wasn’t me and forty of my heavily armed best friends supported by an M1 Abrams tank, artillery on demand, and air cav in the skies all around.

In other words… when other people were expected to do the fighting that needed to be done. Not just me contributing with a few rounds downrange and where the enemy might maybe be.

But CQB. In it.

Be meaner than it, Talker.

Running into a room with nothing but a weapon and the training you

had and the attitude that you were gonna be the winner today.

Because that’s what a fight is. Winners and the dead. There are no participation awards.

There are just winners. And the dead.

I was breathing normal now. The sweat felt good. Cleansing. Like I was sweating out all the doubt that had been with me from the day I walked into a recruiter’s office just to see if I could.

I won this one, I told myself.

Okay… rinse and repeat, as Drill Sergeant Ward liked to say. Do it again.

Just like the sun. Every day.

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