Authors: William Oday
Tags: #Post-Apocalyptic | Infected
“Corpsman up! Corpsman up!” his rescuer shouted.
He was carried across the courtyard and to the perimeter wall. Someone laid him on the ground as the doctor kicked into gear.
“Sarge, can you hear me?” the corpsman shouted above the howling of the inferno.
Another face appeared. Miro’s.
“Damn Sarge! Thought we’d lost you!”
Miro had pulled him out of that burning wreck. Mason didn’t know whether to thank or condemn him.
Condemnation rang with greater truth. He’d been so close to escape. So close to surrender. To the darkness that promised an end.
Water washed over his face and into his eyes. Into the eye that wasn’t swollen completely shut, at least.
The first stars glittered in the darkening sky. Incandescent yellow and orange flickered off the faces above.
His body dragged him back inside, dragged him away from the promise of release. The anchoring brought back sensation. They weren’t good ones. His throat burned like he’d swallowed white-hot coals. He sucked in a breath and vomited.
“Sergeant West and several others need immediate evac,” the corpsman said.
“Lucky, call in evac at extraction point Charlie one-four,” Miro said.
“Copy that,” Lucky said.
“Doc,” Miro said, “we can’t stay here. This inferno is going to draw the muj like moths to a flame.”
“He’s beat up pretty bad, but he’ll make it. Help me get him up.”
The two soldiers pulled Mason to his feet. The agony of standing made clear that no part of his body agreed with the medic’s assessment. He took shallow breaths because anything more than a sip felt like a knife plunged into his chest. Burned lungs maybe. Probably a broken rib. His right foot was numb, which was probably a good thing because the shredded heel of his boot leaked blood out onto the dirt.
Miro wrapped an arm under his and took the majority of Mason’s weight on his six-six frame. “Sarge, you look like shit.”
With his left eye relatively clear of blood, soot, and smoke, Mason started to take in the aftermath of the encounter. The house was in full flame mode. Even across the courtyard against the perimeter wall, the heat was almost unbearable. A part of the roof collapsed and an immense whoosh sent out a searing blast of heat.
Lopes was in there.
His skin blackening and cammies burning.
On autopilot, Mason took a step toward the collapsing house, but Miro held him back. “We can’t get to him, Sarge. Not through that and not in our current condition.”
Mason looked around. Third squad was beat to hell. Nearly every surviving soldier required some kind of medical attention. Miro winced as he touched a gaping gash running across his forehead. He wiped at the blood trickling down into his eyes.
Slowly, the crushing weight of responsibility resumed its position on his shoulders. These were his men. They needed his leadership now more than ever. Now was not the time to quit. To surrender to selfish anguish.
Mason nodded. He took a huge gulp of offered water and sputtered and coughed as the icy liquid washed down his burning throat. He took another gulp and it went down like gravel.
“Doc, go help the others. Lucky, you’re on point. Miro, I’m going to need help walking.”
Doc and Lucky nodded and set to their tasks. Mason looked up at the column of black smoke drifting ever higher into the sky. They had to get moving. The smoke would be a giant beacon for the enemy. They were surely already on the way to investigate, and he didn’t want his banged up squad to be around when they arrived.
“Marines!” Mason shouted as loud as his voice allowed. “Let’s form up and move out!”
The extraction point was less than three blocks away—an intersection on a main road wide enough for the humvees to maneuver. Many of the smaller streets and alleys simply didn’t have sufficient width for the oversized vehicles. Three blocks shouldn’t have been too much of a hump.
But what should be and what is rarely come together in war.
Mason limped along with Miro at his side practically carrying him. They had all lost a lot of weight since that first assault on Fallujah. At least twenty-five pounds had melted off Mason’s six foot frame. But the fifty pounds of full battle rattle combined with his gaunt form made him a heavy load nonetheless.
“Damn, Sarge,” Miro said. “You’re heavier than a pregnant heifer.”
“Like your mama,” Lucky said as he and another marine continued up the road in a bounding overwatch. Two men advanced while two men provided cover for possible contact.
They hadn’t encountered anything since leaving the burning house, but they were under no illusion that they were safe. Every building could hold a sniper in the dark depths of the blown out windows. Every structure could have a muj machine gun waiting around the corner. Hell, every inch of the road itself could have a buried IED waiting to be detonated.
No. They were anything but safe. And they were in no condition to engage the enemy. With their bodies beat to hell and their ammo depleted, running into a sustained firefight was not something they needed right now. Besides, they had to get the computers back to the CP for analysis. One of the men had managed to snatch them from the house before it became a death trap. Who knew how valuable the intel might be? How many lives it might save?
Mason didn’t know, but he did know there were some lives it couldn’t save. He hoped the intel was worth something considering the sacrifice to get it.
Still, Mason wished his men had grabbed some ammo along with the damn heavy and immediately worthless machines. Because the possibility of useful intel wouldn’t matter if they couldn’t survive long enough to deliver it.
Up ahead, Lucky approached an intersection. He hugged the wall of a building on the corner as he scooted forward. He peeked around the corner and then dropped back into cover. He and another marine ran across the open space to cover across the intersection.
Crossing big open spaces like that was damn nervy business. There were just too many things that could go wrong during the interval of exposure.
Another pair of marines made it across. The squad proceeded in twos to cover the deadly ground. They’d all made it across without incident when Miro and Mason pulled up to make their crossing. With two more marines guarding their six, it was just the four of them left. If their luck held for another couple of minutes, they’d have one block left to cover to get to the extraction point.
It was dangerous to start feeling lucky. For everyone but Private Benjamin Hicks, the minute you started feeling lucky usually coincided with the minute the shit hit the fan.
Not that Mason felt lucky in the least. He’d just accidentally killed a fellow marine. His best friend. He’d thrown up thick fucking walls around that shit show. Compartmentalized the hell out of it because to crack the lid on that would invite utter ruin to him and his remaining men.
They needed a leader right now. Not a raving lunatic.
He knew he didn’t deserve their trust, but what else could he do? Squad morale tiptoed on a razor edge. He could see in their faces how tightly wound each man was. They needed rest. Hot chow, a hot shower, and a few hours of uninterrupted sleep to strengthen their precarious hold on sanity.
And as shitty of a leader as he absolutely knew himself to be, Mason sure as hell wasn’t going to fail them if he could help it.
“Sarge?” Miro said. “You ready?”
Mason looked up at the taller man. Jesus. He looked like shit. His normally prominent cheekbones looked absolutely skeletal with the weight loss and the coating of white dust that clung to his skin.
“Admiring my handsome mug again?” Miro said with a smirk.
“Admiring how much it resembles a donkey’s ass.”
“So you have a thing for donkey asses, huh?”
Mason wanted to laugh but the sensation didn’t make it out of his chest. There was too much weight to allow the levity to bleed through.
“Stop trying to flirt with me,” Mason said, “and get us to the other side.”
“Hee-haw hee-haw,” Miro said with a grin.
They took two steps into the intersection when the keening whistle of incoming indirect fire stopped them cold.
“Get back!” Mason shouted.
They stumbled back out of the intersection.
The unique pitch of danger close incoming fire ended with an explosion that knocked them off their feet. The explosion was the first of many. Steel rain came down hard and fast.
Mason crawled into cover behind a nearby burned out vehicle. Miro joined him a moment later. They crouched behind the charred metal as more artillery fire plastered the intersection. The muj had clearly sighted the space and had been waiting to unload on it.
The air filled with dust and smoke. They couldn’t see across to the rest of third squad through the wall of billowing particulate matter.
CRACK. CRACK. CRACK.
Gunfire erupted behind them. M16s banging away.
Mason glanced back and saw his two men on rear guard behind cover and firing at several tangos that had arrived further back down the street. One went down as his men hit their mark.
An enemy round snapped by Mason’s face and punched a hole in the metal next to his head. Sparks showered into his ear singeing the skin. He dove away to the ground.
Miro grabbed his vest and dragged him into a nearby alley.
“Help me up!” Mason shouted. He hobbled to the corner and looked out at the two marines pinned down by enemy fire. RPGs whistled down the street impacting around their position. They weren’t going to last long out there. More mujahideen flooded into the street beyond. A few of the more doped up ones stood in the middle of the street like they were impervious to bullets.
One collapsed in a heap. But the objective proof didn’t seem to deter the others because several more took his place.
“Get fire on those assholes!”
Miro leaned out around him and went cyclic with his M16.
Mason screamed for his men to retreat but his voice was smothered by the report of small arms fire and exploding RPGs. He sighted the M203 grenade launcher attached to his M16 and launched a grenade.
It exploded in a building face right of their position.
He was about to adjust aim when he noticed a mortar team setup behind the enemy lines. A moment later a round exploded between their position in the alley and the two marines pinned down in the street.
They glanced back and Mason waved frantically for them to get their asses back to safety. He and Miro laid on the suppressive fire as the men scrambled into a crouched run. They made it halfway when another mortar round whistled in and impacted in the middle of the street. The explosion killed both marines instantly.
The muj further down the street cheered wildly and broke into a run. All their firepower now directed to the corner of the alley. Bits of concrete blasted off the walls nearby as the enemy drew near.
“Sarge!” Miro shouted, “We’ve gotta beat feet!”
And leave the bodies of marines behind? Where the muj could recover them?
Miro pulled him deeper into the alley. “Getting our asses shot off ain’t gonna help those two!”
Mason felt madness clawing at his brain. The unreasoning fury that could make a man strap a bomb to his chest and blow himself up if it meant he could take out a few of the enemy too.
In that sickening second, he understood the other side like never before. And he didn’t like the newfound knowledge.
He wrapped his arm over Miro’s shoulder. “Let’s go.”
The Present Day
ended another transmission and squeezed the handheld radio so hard the tendons in his fingers creaked. While he was grateful it didn’t crumple into a useless hunk of plastic, crushing it to bits would’ve been so satisfying. And besides, the damn thing wasn’t making any difference. It was one-way communication. That wasn’t even communication. That was broadcasting.
And broadcasting wasn’t doing shit.
“That’s it,” he said to Beth at his side. “I’m finished waiting.”
Beth squeezed his arm as if that might offer some measure of reassurance. It was a thoughtful gesture, but it achieved no more than the radio.
“Honey,” she said, “I know—“
“Stop. We’ve been through this and I get it. There are hundreds of ways they could’ve taken and we don’t even know for sure where they were headed. But I’m not sitting around here wasting more time droning on when we don’t even know they’re receiving the transmissions.”
Beth stared into his eyes and nodded. “I agree. It’s time.”
The handheld squawked.
“Mason, this is Juice. Come in.”
“Juice, this is Mason. Go ahead.”
“I’m picking up a weak signal on the walkie-talkie frequency. Give me a minute to dial it in and I’ll get it patched over to you. Over.”
“Roger that. Over.”
Mason’s heart jumped into his throat. Could it be them? Or was it another set of walkie-talkies using the same frequency? It was a generic set of walkie-talkies. Something anyone could’ve bought and received two days later.
It wasn’t unthinkable that someone else in a city of millions were using the same model. Still, it was the first ray of hope he’d felt since discovering Theresa and Elio had left last night.
The key, he found, was to put a lid on your expectations. It was too easy to allow your spirits to soar at the possibility. And he knew all too well that flying so high could result in a spectacular crash if things didn’t turn out like he hoped. It was how the mind worked. Sanity and stability required him to keep his hopes firmly tethered to the ground.
“… about a mile away.”
It was Elio!
“We should be home soon. Say something if you heard this.”
Mason mashed the transmit button and spoke in even words as his body spiked with joy and fury in equal measures. “Elio, this is Mason. We received your message. Is everyone okay? Over.”