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Chapter no 2

Forgotten Ruin

In the aftermath of the night slaughter along the riverbank, the orcs faded into what remained of the cold and mist out there on the other side of the dark, murmuring river. We weren’t the only ones to face down that horror. Other defensive positions along the Ranger line had been probed at various points across the island we’d found ourselves on. As PFC Tanner remarked right about the time Command Sergeant Major Stone and Chief Rapp showed up to assess the situation at our CP, “If that was a probe, I’m pretty sure I don’t wanna know what it feels like when they commit to a serious relationship.”

Nearby, while the wounded were attended to, Brumm, with a mouthful of dip and standing watch with the strapped 249, spit off into the damp woods. “More than enough Carl Gustaf to go around for anyone else who wanted to try.”

Brumm was like a Kurtz-in-training. He’d dare the suck to come at him just to see if it would blink. And then be happy when it did, because that meant something in Ranger Brain. I don’t know. Maybe they just train ’em that way.

Or find them under rocks.

Chief Rapp, a Special Forces medic assigned to assist the unit in getting patched up and the detachment commander regarding Special Operations docrine, went through the wounded who’d been pulled out of the pit. There was one with a serious slash to a forearm where the Ranger had managed to get his arm up to defend himself against a sword. Better than the way it could have gone. He took the cut there as opposed to getting hacked in the neck.

“The human body do love to defend itself no matter what else you try to make it do,” chuckled the good-natured Rapp. “Ain’t that the way Mike?”

Rapp called everyone by their first name or tag. Even the Command Sergeant Major. No one corrected him because he was a warrant, and chiefs held no allegiance to anyone but their own. And because he was also Special Forces, that made him an even higher order of the mystery operator voodoo.

But maybe that was just surface reasoning. Maybe the real reason no one ever corrected him was because he was six foot six, and built like a pro wrestler. If you’re asking me to pin it down I’d say it was because he was nice and Rangers don’t understand that strange and foreign emotion. I’d like to think that I do. I’ve found that Green Berets tended to be positive and upbeat while Rangers preferred a sort of enthusiastic fatalism that required tall odds and small hopes. So they either memory-holed his friendly behavior or evaded it with their version of HardMan/Asperger’s.

Corporal Brocker was also injured. No slashes to the arm, but he had been knocked clean out. A big old crack ran right down the center of his combat helmet where one of the orcs had tried to split it with an axe.

“He is concussed, as they say,” mused Chief Rapp in the pre-dawn darkness. He had the man led back to the rear for rest and observation.

As sunrise drew nearer, we started to get a better picture of all that had happened. Apparently Third’s two-forty had run dry after the eight hundred rounds of belted ammo was used up at an almost cyclic rate of fire as they tried to weather the oncoming orc wave rushing directly across the river and straight at them. No barrel change either—there’d been no time before the orcs were all over them. It was that close. And then the orcs were hacking and stabbing and the assistant gunner was trying to connect another linked belt to the two-forty as the rest of the team switched over to secondaries to engage at the last second.

Looking back, the attack had happened faster than I remembered it. Faster than I thought possible. In several places all at once along our island. But no one got hit as hard as Third Squad’s sector. Later I’d learn it didn’t just get close… it got downright weird, at several points. Strange things had happened. And that made everyone, even the Rangers, a little nervous.

But no less resolved.

It was dawn by the time Chief Rapp finished up with the injured. By that time, I’d been ordered by Sergeant Kurtz into the pit to take watch with him while the rest of the team either got patched up by Chief Rapp or ran back to the C-17 for more ammo. Kurtz got a full round of antibiotics and his arm wrapped. The arrow had taken a chunk of flesh, but the muscle and bone were intact. If it hurt, Kurtz didn’t bother to say.

I bet it hurt. It looked like it hurt.

Just before dawn, it was dark out there on the river. You could hardly

see anything because the moon had gone down by then. Sergeant Kurtz just sat there in the quiet with his NVGs on, scanning the other side of the river for any sign of the enemy. Like he still owed them something. As though he wasn’t just expecting them to come back; he, in fact, wanted them to come back. He had something for them.

I could feel it in the cold air between us.

The hostility that radiated from him felt dangerous, so I said nothing because he’d probably figure out a way to smoke me while we waited for the next attack. And that’s saying something for me, because I’ll usually try to make conversation with anyone. They call me Talker for more than one reason. But the Do Not Disturb sign was permanently hung out on the heavy weapons squad leader.

Kurtz was that way.

Fine. That was probably for the best. I’m sure everyone was pretty wired by the fight and not getting hacked to death and all by things that until now had only been in games and old novels written by Oxford linguistics scholars. Monsters. Orcs. Axes and swords.

But part of me wondered…

What would have happened if they’d gotten through? What would they have done to the prisoners? Cannibalism, I’m betting. They’d eat us. But it wouldn’t be cannibalism because they’re not human. They’re orcs.

Does that make it any better?

These are the things I thought about in the dark waiting to get my throat cut by some misty night goblin or any of the other ridiculous imaginings PFC Kennedy had been freaking everyone out with. What might be here. Where we may have possibly ended up.

None of it made sense. And yet there we were. Watching our sectors and waiting for the next attack.

Ten minutes before dawn Kurtz looked over at me as though assessing my gear and finding every piece of it, and me as a whole, woefully lacking for a warrior who finds himself among the Army’s premier fighting force, the Rangers. He took my MK18 and stripped off some of the equipment I’d been issued as part of the SOPMOD upgrade package we’d been handed back at the Fifty-One armory. In the end, after going through the rest of the gear I’d been issued, he took off the Specter telescopic sight I’d been rather proud of getting attached and zeroed all by myself.

“Just use it this way,” he said not-so-angrily-as-he-looked and shoved it back into my hands.

Now I would use the holographic reflex sight. Like a pro Ranger, even!

We sat there in the dark for a little longer, and even though it had been a horrendous battle in the middle of the night and the bodies of the orcs were still floating slowly down the river or hung up on rocks or branches, or along the shore, the first birds of morning began to test their songs. Tentatively. Cautiously. Just a few notes. As if to say… We’re still here. You guys finished yet?

Vonnegut’s poo-tee-weet sprang to mind.

The sun was coming up in the east, but for now, along the river, it was all quiet and you could see a soft, forgiving, kind of light in the sky to the west. And the dark shadows along the near-silent river we were watching.

Maybe it was beautiful because we were still alive.

That’s me practicing at being a writer with this journal and Mont Blanc pen my mom gave me when I graduated Basic. Every so often I still try to figure out whether that was a nice gift, or a sarcastic one. A comment at me having turned my back on what I’d worked so hard to attain for something as mundane as serving one’s country. That had been her opinion.

Knowing her, it was sarcastic.

Sergeant Kurtz got a comm telling me to report back to the TOC. He told me to “shove off” with little fanfare even though we’d killed a bunch of bad guys together. Well, technically he killed them all. I was just there. Helping. By then Brumm and Tanner were back with more cans of ammo for the two-forty.

Later, when I got back to the C-17 that served as our tactical operations command post, barely clearing the river and setting down in a long field the pilot was some how able to get it down onto, the morning light among the thin, skeletal trees on the island was gray and wan. It was silent out in the woods and the field. All I could hear was the sound of my own boots snapping dry deadfall and tramping through the dewy grass.

I boarded the C-17 and found a full-blown meeting in progress with all the high muckety-mucks of detachment command and power in attendance. So, being a nobody, I sat in one of the seats and listened in. If they wanted to know how to say screwed in one of the languages I spoke, then maybe I could chime in and be helpful.

Command Sergeant Major Stone was busy briefing the captain of our detachment. The sergeant major was riding with us when we left Fifty-One. Our colonel and three other detachments were on other flights, parts of the larger overall joint task force. The plan had been for us to all link up wherever it was we were going when we got there. Instead we ended up here, wherever here was.

Information about the where we were supposed to have gone part had been woefully lacking in the week-long run-up to this operation. And since I’m a PFC linguist, no one is really obliged to tell me much of anything anyway. But still, I’m always curious. I knew it was something out of the ordinary when I’d signed on for two to five years in the future back at Fifty- One. But I was thinking Iran at the time. Not freaking Gondor.

The captain here on the ground was in what would normally be considered a Major slot for Ranger company command, and the command sergeant major with all his years of experience killing people overseas in exotic places was effectively acting as staff for the captain. Supply. Planning. Intel. Having the sergeant major was probably our luckiest break. Everything we didn’t know, he did. And he’d probably forgotten a lot we’d never know. That kind of guy. Y’know?

“… we won’t get hit, sir,” the sergeant major was saying. He had a deep voice and hadn’t quite managed to get rid of a Texas drawl. “At least not for the rest of the day. That’s my guess, sir. These… forces we’re facing… they’ve proved they’re night-fighters of some kind. I estimate we’ll have the day to prep, but they’ll be back after dark. Until then I suggest… in lieu of not being here altogether… we fortify, deploy the hi-ex, and get some Reaper teams together to respond asymmetrically. Something more creative than what those things saw last night. Rangers defend by offending, sir.

“This was a probe. Clear and simple. They’ll be back tonight like they mean it. You’re the ranking ground force commander, Captain, and you have my recommendation. It’s your call. I’m just here to make sure they shave and don’t roll their sleeves up too high, sir.”

Then the command sergeant major sat down and picked up a paper cup full of coffee to indicate he was done with everyone. He had a Kindle on his knee, but he wasn’t reading it. His stare was so downrange you couldn’t tell if he was here or somewhere in Iraq twenty years ago killing everyone.

The platoon leaders were there too. The captain was there. The first sergeant was there. And so were the Baroness and the Deep State guy. And the Forge technician. I hadn’t caught his name yet. The pilot of the C-17 was around. But his first officer, a really cute LT with a blond ponytail, wasn’t. Which was too bad. I’d gotten a smile out of her a day ago and I was looking to improve my position with some witty turns of phrase in Italian.

I locked eyes with the pilot instead. If anyone felt more useless than me, it was probably him. Getting us on the ground alive was the extent of what he could meaningfully contribute to our situation. We’d smashed a landing gear coming in, and the fact that the plane wasn’t spread all over the river rocks and burning in pieces in the tree line was to his credit. There was no getting off this small river island in the C-17. This was home for now. The Forge weighed about six thousand pounds, so until we figured out a way to move it without the plane, we were stuck here.

The captain is someone I have no idea about. He’s always busy and he looks like his stomach is upset all the time. His hair has gone prematurely gray, but he’s tabbed and has a Ranger combat scroll on his right shoulder, and that makes him somebody around here.

The scroll, according to Sergeant Thor, is a way of life and a culture of success, every day, at all things—it never ends. Every day is a selection in the regiment. The easiest day in the regiment, as explained to me, is the day you graduate RASP; after that it gets real hard to keep up. If you don’t produce results, you are fired. For junior enlisted, going to Ranger School and getting your tab is the standard—if you fail, you’re out. Sergeant Thor told me his young studs were great kids, but until they were tabbed, they were just “renting space.” You cannot be a “landowner” until you get your tab. After that you can take your first junior leadership spot as a gun team leader, and then, again according to Thor, “They start to figure out what this stuff is really all about.”

Everyone who’s been through the various Ranger orientation programs, throughout the ages, is a Ranger. But if you earned the Ranger tab then you’re considered Ranger-qualified. Tabbed. And like I said, that’s something.

But the captain was more than something. He was an officer, had a combat scroll, and was in command of a company-sized element, in a slot

usually reserved for majors. And if that’s not enough, let me just add this. Company commanders can only be officers who have already had successful tours as platoon leaders in the regiment—a very small pool. If fifty guys are successful platoon leaders in the Ranger regiment (and that in itself is like .OOO1 percent of the infantry platoon leaders in the Army) then less than ten of those will be asked to come back and be a company commander. There are less Ranger company commanders than there are NFL quarterbacks.

In short, to be a company commander means someone is literally as good as the Army can produce.

The captain thanked the command sergeant major for his assessment and was about to issue orders when the Deep State guy in his L.L.Bean adventure-golfer-I’m-not-CIA-no-really gear stood up to speak.

“Hey, Captain Harwood,” began Deep State. “Go ahead, Volman,” Harwood said.

“I’d like to jump in here right now and just… y’know… contribute a few things before we get started. Just some… contributions. I hope I can improve the overall atmosphere and synergy we need to achieve in this next phase of the… ah, well… the operation here on the ground and all. I think we’ve gotten off to a bad start with a… ahem… the locals. One of yours, a PFC Kennedy I believe, one of your Rangers, told me he thinks these are… orcs.”

“PFC Kennedy,” interrupted the command sergeant major, “is a wretched child who I will turn into a first-class killing machine unless it destroys him in the process.” Statement of fact. More like an ancient truth carved in granite.

In the short time I had been part of the detachment, I knew as gospel that whatever came out of the command sergeant major’s mouth was like some unbreakable code written in granite law that was the basis of all our existences. Even the Deep State guy, Volman, seemed to flinch as the senior-most NCO in the detachment interrupted him and began to fire words like the slow sure boom of distant artillery headed your way. Falling on your head directly. Meteors falling from the heavens. Giant space rocks that could crush you flat.

Stone was a good last name for the command sergeant major because it

was him. A hard ass thing that was there before you showed up with all

your agendas and ideas. And would be there long after he kicked the dirt over your shallow grave on the other side of the firefight you just got yourself killed in. The one your fancy ideas and agendas got torched in by the cold reality of expended brass, timing, preparation, and just plain old bad luck.

The command sergeant major made you feel temporary. Unless. Unless you adhered and knew wisdom. And then… maybe. Just maybe. You might see the sun rise tomorrow.

Maybe.

The Deep Statie barely recovered from the command sergeant major’s sudden destabilizing verbal attack. Allowing emotions to cross his presidential appointee face that had been beaten out of the rest of us during Basic. Drill Sergeant Ward would have smoked this guy like a cheap cigar until Ward got tired. Just for nothing more than letting his face react the way it did to what the command sergeant major had said.

And as Drill Sergeant Ward was fond of telling us, “I don’t tire easily.”

Nonetheless, Volman persisted, despite seeming completely unaware of the situation and the kind of people he was dealing with. He continued, a sick smile, but a smile nonetheless, pasted on his sallow civilian face. Like he was gonna turn all this around and close the deal on a brand-new BMW. He just needed you to sign on the dotted line. Will you be financing at twenty-four percent interest?

“Be that as it may,” continued snake oil salesman of the month Deep State Volman. “They… whatever they are… let’s call them orcs. They’re the locals and we’re here as guests. In their territory. Don’t you think we should try to… you know… talk to them first, Captain Harwood?” He was speaking to the captain directly now. Not playing to the crowd as had been his first instinct until the sergeant major tactfully rained down verbal fire on his rhetorical position and caused him to doubt the footing of his not-so- firm foundation.

The captain just stared at the Deep State man like some town sheriff might regard a local village idiot who’s just gotten himself up to some new drunken indiscretion involving pants down around ankles. Raving that two plus two was steak and that he, the village idiot, was indeed the Grand Czar Nicholas the Second’s long lost great-great-grandson while the deputies got ready to cuff another lunatic for the drive out to the mental asylum.

Volman opted to nod to himself in a long-suffering saintly fashion when he realized his grand play to manipulate the low IQ losers he thought we all were didn’t go over like he’d planned. Rangers are screened for motivation and aggressiveness. They also, like all Special Forces, test high on the military’s intelligence test, the ASVAB. They just prefer to act stupid because they think it’s tougher. And tough is a kind of cool regardless of what some beta-male website says about letting other men sleep with your girlfriend.

Then, and for me this was the fun part, the high point of the whole trip, Volman decided to try, active word try, to pull rank. On a Ranger captain.

Oof.

“Listen, Captain,” said Volman anew. “I don’t want to go over your head. But the calls you’re making here, right now, in this situation. Armed soldiers out there on the line… out there playing with explosives and indiscriminately killing anyone who comes near them. Locals. Most likely a minority or even a victim group of some kind. We don’t know. And here your guys are, acting like they’re making up the rules of engagement as they go. And forcing the… the uh… the kid who runs the Forge to start making more bullets. That’s your first call on the ground, Captain Harwood? Correct me if I’m wrong. But we don’t know… orcs or whatever those things are… we don’t know if they started out as enemies or if you just turned them into enemies when they came out to communicate with us. And now we’ll probably never know thanks to you and your Rangers.

“But maybe… maybe… maybe we still have a chance to do like I said and try some parley. Encounter them on their level. Get to know the leaders. See what they need. See what we can give them to be our friends and allies. No different than how Lewis and Clark won the favor of the Native Americans. This kind of thing worked in Afghanistan and Iraq, and it can work here. We are guests in their country, wherever this country is. And to be brutally honest… I’m a direct appointee from your commander-in-chief. So you should just consider that, Captain. In other words… what I say…”

I think he was about to say… goes.

But the captain had had enough at that point.

He held up his hand and looked like he was fighting down sudden indigestion. The hand held up was knife-edged, and you had the feeling as you watched it come up and stay there that it could probably slam a carotid

artery and just kill you right there on the spot. And that it wouldn’t be the knife hand’s first rodeo in carotid artery slamming.

“I’m going to stop you right there, Mister Volman,” said the captain, using concise clipped speech. The rage was controlled. “This is a military operation. No Tomorrow Rules in effect. So until a lawful government is established… am the government. I am your commander-in-chief. The one you’re referring to… that commander-in-chief, Mr. Volman, sir… he died about ten thousand years ago if our pilot is correct in his celestial navigation calculations regarding our current position and how many years we’ve gone forward.”

Deep State’s face drained of all color.

The captain put his knife hand down and came around the desk he’d set up near the C-17’s rear cargo deck door.

“So, here’s the situation…”

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