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Chapter no 5

Forgotten Ruin

The briefing cleared and the sergeant major made straight for me. I should have known better than to stand around looking like I had nothing to do.

“Come with me, son,” he muttered, not breaking his long-legged, mile- eating stride for a second.

We left the C-17 and made for the hill at the north end of the island. He moved through deadfall and wet grass near silently. Me, not so much. Once we were out of earshot, he let me know what we were about.

“Talker, you’re goin’ Reapin’ tonight, son. Sergeant Odinson will be taking a squad out beyond the perimeter after dark. They’re going after a high-value target. I’m sending you along because you’re my only intelligence asset, and when they hit that target, I need you to collect anything you find and bring it right back to me. Roger?”

“Roger,” I managed.

Eight hours later, me and the six other rangers that formed the sergeant major’s Reaper Team would slip into the dark waters of the river and cross to the eastern shore. It would be dusky and quiet and the woods along the water would be a black tangle that felt like swimming in a nest of snakes.

Sergeant Thor the sniper, or Sergeant Odinson as he was officially known, led our team of personnel pulls from various squads. Each squad had given up someone for our little Reaper Team. The only person I knew among them was Brumm. The other four were Sergeant Kang, Specialist Lucke, and Privates Brasher and Gomez.

But I’m going to rewind three hours before that, when we did the op order and briefing around a sand table Sergeant Thor had put together from various MRE wrappers and eating utensils. The afternoon sun was just beginning to sink down toward the high trees, and strange and forlorn birds called out through the forest, agitated at something. We could hear faraway drums rolling out in the distance, and there was that strange tribal horn sounding intermittently.

Urooo Urooo. UrUroooooooooo.

Our enemy was preparing for war.

Sergeant Thor had helped me get ready, going through my gear and making sure I was down with basic patrolling, verifying my gear was quiet

and that I could move in it without making too much noise. We ran a refresher course on patrolling techniques and hand signals. And now, with the full team formed up on top of the hill where the snipers had set up their observation points and hides, Thor ran through how we’d approach the target and the actions on the objective once we got there. Rally points and command and signal.

And then he told us about the target.

Remember when I said things were getting crazier? Here’s where they really began to finger-fiddle their lips like the lunatic in the padded cell next to yours…

I probably need go rewind a little bit more. I should explain that the night before, I had been sent out to the Third Squad pit because in the minutes leading up to the attack, the command post had lost contact with the heavy weapons section along the line at that specific point. The sergeant major ordered me to go out there, find Sergeant Kurtz, and tell them they had bad comm. Then I showed up and of course everything went pear- shaped as the orcs tried to cross the river and cut everyone’s throats.

So how the hell did we lose comms in the first place? Good question. It seemed that our HVT was somehow responsible for jamming our comms in those moments just before the attack. Or so everyone believed enough to send a Reaper team out to nab them.

Because apparently, when the enemy probe orc-swarm was hitting the Bravo pit along the eastern edge of our defensive line, one of our drones— not a hunter-killer but really just a tactical high-speed model airplane the air crew was handling—picked up something interesting out there in the dark. The air crew and the sergeant major had been shown the video capture. What they saw was strange enough that the decision was made to show it to PFC Kennedy, the only one who seemed to know what was going on, or at least had an idea of what to call things. .

And then we saw it too, on Sergeant Thor’s smartphone. It was taken from the drone’s thermal feed and showed the main enemy force attacking across the river as the drone redirected and circled out over the forest beyond the bank where the enemy was attacking from. It even picked up the giant whose carcass was by now no doubt starting to stink up the eastern bank.

The drone circled out over the forest, and as it did it picked up a single

figure out in a lonely clearing well away from the main assault. The figure was waving his hands and almost seemed to be throwing something at the island. Something invisible. The way a football crazed kid tosses touchdown passes with an imaginary football in the living room. For a moment the thermal feed scrambled as these invisible balls left the lone figure’s hands and pitched off toward the island where our defenses were.

The figure danced around in circles, holding up his arms in an almost ceremonial fashion, and then began to gesticulate even more wildly as he summoned more… who knew what… that when thrown, disturbed the drone’s thermal feed at points. Each time the HVT waved his hands, and they were clearly the hands of a human, not orcish and misshapen in some monster-like way, each time he scrambled the feed for just a few frames. So slight that if you weren’t paying close attention you wouldn’t even notice it happening.

According to Thor, this coincided with the jamming bursts along the line at Alpha and Bravo pits.

“Now watch this,” he said as we all gathered closer around his phone atop Sniper Hill. By now it all had the distinct feel of listening to frightening stories by a campfire. What in the world was out there?

The video started over, this time showing the night-vision feed. The gray-green of the forest was pretty clear and the resolution on the images was a cut above anything I’d seen in night-vision mode previously. Leaves and tree trunks had separate textures. The ground could be identified as either dirt or grass. When the drone circled over the orc horde crossing the water you could even see the ripples on the surface, and the beast’s gear visibly stood out. Daggers and axes. The twisted masks of their snarling faces looked even more frightening in night-vision hues than they had up close. Seeing it now from this angle I was surprised at how many of them there had been out there and coming for us last night. The bright tracer rounds from Corporal Brocker’s two-forty streaked across the water, slamming into recoiling monsters or skipping off to the far side of the river to get lost in the trees there. The drone’s night-vision feed again caught the giant hunkering in the darkness with another force. Ready to move forward and get killed all over again.

And then the drone was over more trees. Trees shifting gently in the gray-green and black of the image. Drifting in the night’s cold breath. Like I

said, the resolution was epically good. Then the clearing in the woods came into view. Where the lone figure waving like a madman and playing a game of invisible catch with no one else… should have been.

Except he wasn’t.

I swear on everything. He wasn’t there. Thor stopped the feed. “Pretty cool, huh?” “He’s… invisible?” I asked.

Thor shrugged. “Whatever he is, you can’t see him without thermal. Anyway, the captain and the sergeant major along with the air crew think this target is the indig equivalent of a jamming device. That’s why we lost comm right before the attack. So Sergeant Major wants us to go out there and hit this guy tonight when the attack begins. Rest up. We leave just before dark.”

In the quiet afternoon silence that followed, Private Brasher forlornly said to no one, “PFC Kennedy says it’s a wizard. Probably casting spells.”

“What? Like Harry Potter?” asked Kang.

“That’s what I asked. He said worse than that.”We got two hours of sleep and time to eat an MRE. Sergeant Thor decided to hold a pagan ceremony before moving out. He wanted to know if I or anyone else wanted to participate. I opted out, and I suspect the privates only participated because he was their sergeant. Over a small fire—mortars and snipers got to have a fire—he made cakes out of some of his MREs, mainly the chocolate and peanut butter mixed with creamer, and then baked them on a piece of dry smoking dead wood he’d found. While they ate the “cakes”—they were essentially cookies—Thor held both of his tomahawks up to the darkening sky and inhaled the smoke of the tiny fire like he was performing some ancient cleansing ritual. Afterward he came over to his ruck and began to assemble the rifle he’d need for tonight.

I watched as he attached a CNVD-T thermal optic to his MK11 and checked the suppressor.

“Thermal sights are good up to three hundred meters, but I’m thinkin’ I gotta use this thing up close,” he said, talking to himself happily as he played with his gear. He was tabbed, but unlike every other Ranger he seemed to enjoy himself no matter what he was doing.

“You think that’s crazy, don’tcha, Talker,” he said after a moment, nodding toward the smoking board over the firepit and the couple of

cookies still waiting there.

“I officially have no opinions about anyone’s religion, Sar’nt,” I replied.

Normally I couldn’t pass up a cookie, but I had a little case of the nerves. We were heading out beyond the wire, the defensive perimeter. Where Rangers lived, right there in the heart of the enemy. As a linguist I was best suited for staying here on this side of the line and shouting through a megaphone that they, the enemy, might want to rethink their position before some Rangers went over there, broke their stuff, and killed them. But now I was going out there with the Rangers to do exactly that. There was an impending realism to all this, along with a question I’d been concerned with since the day I’d walked into the recruiter’s office.

Could I hang?

Embrace it, I reminded myself, and I tried to push nerves away that wouldn’t easily go. It was turning into a not-so-fun game you couldn’t win.

“I officially have no opinions about anyone’s religion, Sar’nt.” That’s what I said and how I said it. I’d started saying Sergeant like the Rangers said it sometime about the middle of RASP. But only to E-7s and below. I had no idea why. Sometimes I don’t think I understand things or know as much as the tests indicate I should. Sometimes I think I just act like I know things. Even things I actually know.

Leaving the defenses that night had me questioning everything.

Sergeant Thor looked around. When he was satisfied no one was listening to us, he leaned in close.

“Back there… y’know, before Fifty-One and the Gate… I only did it, became a pagan, so they’d let me grow a beard. Was just somethin’ to do. A laugh that, if I played it straight, they’d let me get away with, right? So I looked up all kinds of Viking crap and made them think it was my thing. Even changed my name last name to Odinson. And they had to let me. Listen, chicks dig the beard, Talker. No way am I gonna pass up the trifecta of being a Ranger, a sniper, and having what all would agree is the most epic operator beard ever. No way. So I converted. Makes sense, right, man?”

I agreed it did make a certain kind of sense.

“Except… this place…” And Sergeant Thor Odinson looked up from his work on the rifle he’d carry out into the dark to kill things with. He

stared out across the darkening gloom of the forest below and the late afternoon shadows we’d be going out into. “This place is… me. I don’t know… how. But…”

He inhaled deeply and shook his head. There was a pleasant, satisfied smile on his face like he didn’t need to fully articulate how he felt. It was good enough for him that he knew it. Like it was something new and unexpected, but familiar all the same.

He put the rifle down on his poncho and picked up the two tomahawks he’d used in his ceremony.

“This place is something older than anything we’ve ever known. I know it’s supposed to be the future, Talker, but it’s like a lost age of legends and myths and… and heroes. Know what I mean?”

When the blue-eyed killer with two tomahawks in his hands and dozens of notches indicating kills on the anti-materiel rifle he called Mjölnir… when he asks if you know what he means…

The answer is, “Yes. Yes, I do.”

You’re the new guy, you remind yourself. What’d the command sergeant major say? Try not to get in anyone’s way, son.

I’m trying.

Later, as darkness came on, we made our way down to the river carrying the poncho rafts we’d constructed. We were going into a deeper part of the slow-moving currents north of the island. The main over-water access points were now mined and no doubt watched by enemy scouts out there in the murky gloom of the woods, but north, the river was heavily forested on both sides. It was a quick, cold paddle, pushing our poncho rafts across the river, and then we unpacked our gear, broke down the rafts, and had mission-essential items distributed and comms checks completed.

As we sat in the dark tangle of trees and branches where we’d come ashore, we could already smell the smoke of their fires and torches drifting through the near-dark forest. The drums were reaching a fever pitch, and the tribal horns were ringing out from every corner of the forest.

They were coming.

We sat there, acclimatizing and listening to the hostile environment we were about to move through. Then Sergeant Thor nodded, and without a sound we were off in a patrol column, heading toward our hit. Sergeant Kang bringing up the rear. Specialist Lucke on point.

Eyes wide open in the dark and looking for monsters to slay.

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