Jack lounged against the pitted leg of his armor, enjoying his first MRE in months despite the stink of unwashed men and scorched coolant. His team was finally rotating back to the States, and they had even scored a flight back to the ship instead of having to hump it. Jack could have stayed in the shit for another year, but his Marines needed the break. Some of them managed to have families that they wanted to see.
The men were all taking care of themselves and their gear. Fluids were being topped off, socks were being replaced, and weapons were being cleaned. Doc slid through the cramped cargo bay to his side. “Master guns, I hate to be the asshole, but we’re going to need to quarantine everyone and put them on meds for parasites before they can be released.”
“It’s alright, Doc, I’ll tell them. As long as the quarantine has showers and hot chow, I think the boys will be ok for a few days.”
“Twenty-one days, master guns.”
Jack gave an exaggerated grimace. “Ok, they might try to kill me. But it’s better than one of them giving his wife a giant brain worm.”
As Jack stood up to deliver the bad news, the tilt-wing transport lurched hard, and everything went black. Not even the emergency lights were on. Jack heard the pilot from the cockpit.
“I’ve lost power! Use the emergency release and get out the ramp, I’ll glide her as long as I can.”
Jack yelled back to his men. “Get in your armor and jump! Form up on Mendoza when we’re on the ground.” Mendoza was the team’s radio man, and his extra comm gear would make his suit easy to find. Jack scanned the Marines, making sure everyone was up and getting suited. Chem lights and instruments dotted the hold as the Marines fired up their armor. Except for one guy, pushing his way forward. The new kid, canine handler. “Damn it, get in your suit Sweeny!”
“I have to get Blaze!”
“I’ll get the damned dog, you get dressed and jump!” Jack was not a dog lover, but he wasn’t about to leave the poor creature locked in his kennel. “Perkins, send them, now! I’ll be right behind you.” Jack grabbed the genetically enhanced german shepherd from his cage, effortlessly lifting the hundred pound animal into the open suit, and crawled in behind him. It was going to be crowded.
Daylight spilled into the cargo bay as Jack’s suit came online; his men were on their way out. From the ramp, Perkins awkwardly turned to look towards the cockpit. Jack gave him a thumbs up, and the hulking man immediately spun his armor and leapt. Jack shuffled to the cockpit door. “Get clear and find us. I’m on channel eight, no encryption!” Hopefully the pilot could walk back their flight path without needing the radio, but it was best to be prepared. Jack checked his suit’s seals, and squared up on the open ramp.
The transport was rocked again, throwing Jack from the ramp. Blaze whined as they flipped uncontrollably, his furry bulk in the way of the controls. The parachute wouldn’t deploy if they didn’t get steady. Jack pushed and strained, fighting the dog and the momentum of the spin to reach the stick and pedals. Warning lights burned red, and alarms were buzzing in his ear. They were getting dangerously low. Jack’s vision started to tunnel. Hauling on the controls, he managed to pull out of the somersault, and the suit suddenly snapped up. The parachute was out. Jack gulped air and looked up through the overhead glass, pushing the panting dog out of his face. The lines were free, time to get his bearings and find a place to put down.
His unplanned exit had cost him a lot of altitude. Jack put the low, jagged mountains at his back, and looked for somewhere clear and flat enough to stand on. There, downhill, a spot with no trees and minimal boulders. Glad that his own ancient knees no longer needed to absorb the force of a landing, Jack brought the suit down as gently as he could. Metal groaned underneath him as the abused armor touched down. Suddenly, the right leg buckled, and his suit toppled to the ground. Great. What else could go wrong today?
Jack felt warm liquid splash against his chest, and Blaze looked at him sheepishly. Things just kept getting better. Well, sitting here soaking in dog piss wasn’t going to improve anything. Jack popped the hatch and crawled free to take stock of his situation.
The leg was beyond repair, bent and warped after the suspension gave way. Jack inventoried his gear: Immobilized armor, two full bladders of water with built in filters, half an MRE. Emergency first aid kit with supplies for anything from gunshots to nerve gas. A sidearm with seven mags, a detachable stock, and an optic. Three self-launching flares. Knife, multitool, and hatchet. Binoculars. Locator beacon that would alert everyone in a hundred miles. A backpack for all of it. A tribe of angry locals. Bloodthirsty young Chinese loking for glory. Not fun, but hardly alarming, he’d been in worse situations before. Jack pulled the removable radio and battery pack from the control console.
“Rattler five, Rattler one, radio check, over.” Hissing static. Didn’t mean anything. “Rattler five, Rattler one, over.” Nothing. “Any Rattler unit, Rattler one, how copy?” Still nothing. The setting sun behind the burning wreckage hinted at why. The transport had been flying east of the small mountain range, but he was definitely west of it now. The others were probably on the other side of millions of tons of rock, and even the semblance of a pass looked far too dangerous to try going over the top. Jack began to wonder if he had somehow offended God.
All his usable equipment salvaged, Jack punched the self destruct command into the armor. He hustled away, Blaze at his heels, as thermite fire spread throughout the suit. It was a shame, she had been a good ride, even for a guy who preferred his own legs. Best not to linger. The fire would be visible to anyone on this side of the mountain, and he had just spent nearly two years out here trying to kill many of them. Jack snapped his sidearm into the stock, looped the sling around himself, and took off at a steady jog down the mountain. He would work his way towards the south end of the range and hopefully a spot where he could contact either his team or the ship.
About an hour later the sun had completely set. Jack could see lights on the mountainside, and hear men shouting to each other. Shouting and lights were good, they meant he was being hunted by men who could neither casually talk on radio, nor see him on infrared. Blaze growled softly beside him; Jack immediately knelt in the heavy brush and froze. The lights were too far away to get that reaction, this was something else.
Seconds turned into minutes. Nothing was moving, but Blaze still had his hackles up, and Jack trusted the dog’s ears and nose far more than his own. His weapon rested comfortably against his shoulder as he scanned the underbrush, moving only his eyes. Shame Blaze couldn’t tell him what he was looking for. Then he heard them. Two voices, speaking a singsong local dialect similar to that of the people who had been helping them here. It sounded like two young boys arguing softly. Jack decided to risk it.
“I’m not going to hurt you.”
“Oy, right yer not!” So they spoke English. Promising. “Yer gonna come wit us ta see da man, and he gonna decide what ta do wit ya.”
Those were terms Jack could live with. He slowly stood with his hands up. Two young boys stood downhill; he thought they looked about fourteen, but after a hundred years everyone looked young to him. Both were tall and thin, with bright eyes beneath their camouflage face paint. They wore too-large fatigues in a pattern Jack had not seen in decades, and carried equally vintage rifles. Still, the weapons were in good condition, and they held them like they knew how to use them. One boy jumped back as Blaze came to heel, the other laughed and said something in their language. Jack thought he caught the word “hound.” He wished in vain that he hadn’t relied so much on his armor’s translation software when working with the local rebels.
The bigger boy stepped behind him and pointed a rifle at his back, while the other walked up front. Either they didn’t take prisoners often, or these kids were confident in their ability to shoot him quickly. They hadn’t even bothered to ask for his weapon. Except for the gun pointed at him, this could be a pleasant stroll.
They walked for hours without lights or night vision, picking their way silently through the dark terrain. A sentry called out as they approached the base of the mountain. The boy behind him answered, and put a hand on his arm to halt him. More question and answer. Several young men strode into view, equipped much like his captors. Jack kept his hands well away from his own weapon, and followed the boys’ lead. They walked him into a well concealed camp tucked against the base of the mountain, covered from above in what looked like makeshift IR-deflecting mesh. An older boy, barrel chested and taller than Jack’s six feet, was waiting.
“What’s all this, then?” He preferred English. Interesting.
“Caught ‘im leavin’ tha crash. Gave up when ‘ee saw us.”
“Ya, you lot are right terrifying. Grab some chow and go back on patrol.”
“So, you, dog man. Guessing you’re American. Thanks for not shootin’ me boys, they don’t know no better. Name’s Frankie, I’m the man round ‘ere.”
“Pleasure to meet you, Frankie. Master Gunnery Sergeant Jack Cunningham, United States Marine Corps. Since you’re not shooting me, I’m guessing we’re friends.”
“You got a low bar for friends, Yank. But yeah, we shoot the same direction.”
“Impressive little operation you’ve got going here.”
“No, it’s not. I’m young, not stupid. We’re the ones who ran when the Jackals came, been runnin’ ever since. The men stayed and fought for our land. They’re dead, now. Same as them that stopped runnin’. Without the Chinamen here holdin’ the leash, the Jackals are comin’, and we ain’t got much more places to run.”
“Wait, the Chinese left?”
“You didn’t know? Big bad Yank, caught with his dick in his hand. Yeah, Chinamen left all sudden-like. That was them what knocked down your plane. Guess they didn’t want you watchin’.”
“I suppose we won. Hurray for our side.”
“Maybe you did, but we didn’t. The Chinamen was keepin’ the Jackals busy diggin’. If Jackals kill you, they eat you. If they catch you before they kill you, best hope they just eat you. They like to play with their food. The girls…” Frankie trailed off. “Our mums used to be here, with us. Some boys shot they own mums, so the Jackals couldn’t do nothin’. Ya understand?”
“Yeah, I understand.” Jack was fairly certain Frankie was talking about himself. “Not my first run-in with monsters. You did what you had to.” Jack was impressed, this kid had kept it together when most grown men would have broken.
“Don’t suppose you Yanks brought tanks? Could use some.”
“No, no tanks. I’ve got some friends on the other side of the mountains, though, and they’re going to be running to get to our ship. It’s better than any tank.”
“Yeah, for you. Don’t do much for us, though. Jackals have armor for workin’ the mines, Russian stuff. Fallin’ apart, but we got none. You sail off, we’re supper.”
Jack had explicit orders: no refugees. But they hadn’t contemplated this change in circumstances. The Chinese, for all their faults, had indeed been preventing genocide. He couldn’t leave these kids to be eaten by savages.
“You won’t be staying. How many of you are there?”
“Twenty three, with them girls that’s left.”
“Ok, we can work with that. They’ll send big landing craft for our armor, we can fit you all onboard and get you to the ship.”
“And then what? They just gonna let us move to Texas, become cowboys?”
“Maybe. I think you’d make great cowboys.”
“You sound like every CIA man ever. Ya think we’re stupid? They gonna send us right back here, gift wrapped for the Jackals.”
“Alright, look. I’ve got a lot of friends. Friends who can get things done. When we make port, I can have them disappear you, give you new lives.”
“Sounds swell. But what do you get outa this? Yer friends… they’re not inta boys, are they? California types?”
“No, no, nothing like that. Guy makes cars, motorcycles, guns. He also moves other things on the side. Knows how to get papers that will even pass scan. He owes me.”
“Still smells, but I guess I trust you, or we stay for breakfast with the Jackals. I’ll wake everyone, we’ll move at sunrise.”
Jack looked around the thinning forest. “Won’t that make us visible?”
“Yeah, but Jackals won’t be awake ta see us. Even the Chinamen couldn’t get them up in the morning. ‘Sides, their camp is over the hills. Grab some stew, let the dog eat his fill. Can’t bring it wit us.”
Blaze perked up at that. Jack rubbed his ears. “Come on, boy, best offer we’re going to get today.”
The camp was broken down remarkably quickly. Jack awoke from a short nap to find most of it gone, either rolled into packs or dumped out of sight. Blaze bumped him and whined plaintively, he wanted permission to solicit scratches and snacks from the kids who were overseeing the last of the food.
“Go, you filthy attention whore.”
Blaze took off with his tail wagging, bounding towards a likely mark: a slight blonde with her hair in braids. She laughed and bent down to pet him. Success, another helpless victim. Jack looked around for Frankie; his red hair and large frame were easy to spot, even with his face now painted up.
“We ready to move?”
“In five. Talk ta ya?”
Frankie walked a short way out of camp. “Tha’ two boys what found you last night, Jaco and Bast? They didn’t come in. I’m worried.”
“Can we send anyone to look?”
“Too much ground ta cover, no boys, no time.”
“Blaze can track them, if you’ve got something he can go off of. I move fast.”
“Got bed rolls.”
“Ideal. I’ll get him, you bring the bedding.”
Minutes later, Jack and Blaze were headed out of camp the way they had come in, blanket scraps in hand. Frankie would move his people south and east, following the base of the mountains. They would camp the night in the shadow of the southmost hills, keeping the ridge line between themselves and the Jackal camp. With any luck, tomorrow they would be able to get in range of the ship’s guns and have a leisurely walk on the beach. Jack made excellent time behind Blaze, who led him confidently along the boys’ patrol route. As they crested a hilltop, Jack tried the radio.
“Rattler five, Rattler one, radio check, over.”
“Rattler one, Rattler five, good copy. Heard you were dead, Top.”
“It didn’t take. How we doing?”
“Rattler one, Rattler two.” Perkins. “We’re all up, save for you and the pilot. Pickup at rally delta, how soon can you get there?”
“Sunset tomorrow. And I’ve, um, made some friends.”
“Rattler one, say again? I thought I heard you say you have captured prisoners?” Clearly Perkins thought the Wasp could hear them.
“Twenty three, with sensitive and perishable intel.”
“Gotcha Rattler one, I’ll call ahead and have them prep the bay to hold sensitive intel sequestered from the rest of the ship.” This wasn’t their first rodeo, sneaking things onto navy ships was a proud Marine tradition going back to the age of sail.
“I’ll stay on this channel. Rattler one, out.”
Jack pressed on behind Blaze, following the dog south along the ridgeline as it dropped towards the sea. Below, on the east side of the hills, there was an ugly, concrete mess. A large camp, or small town. Jack called the dog back to heel, and pulled his binoculars from his pack.
The camp was filthy, full of garbage and abandoned equipment. Sentries patrolled in boxy armor. Some suits were missing plates, and others had been hastily repaired with scrap metal, as though they had been remilitarized by tack welding on whatever trash seemed heaviest. Still, their miniature fission reactors worked; the Russians had built them to need no field maintenance. Jack saw more than a hundred men, many riding in trucks with heavy weapons, and the gate sentries sat beside an old anti-tank rocket. More than his squad could attack head-on, even if they had been fresh.
There, near the center of the camp, cages. And three of them were in use. Jack could make out two green clad figures, and one in the brown flight suit of a SOAR pilot slumped in a corner. That looked like everyone, time to regroup and see what he could do about it.
Blaze alerted as he turned south to leave, showing fangs. Jack scrambled behind some nearby boulders and readied his weapon. He could hear voices approaching.
Four men, a patrol by the looks of them. So much for the Jackals sleeping in. Jack waited silently in the rocks for them to pass, but they stopped not fifty feet away. Three men lit rancid cigarettes as the fourth began scanning west with a pair of binoculars. The smoking men lounged comfortably as they talked, arms resting on slung rifles. Jack settled in to wait them out.
The man with the binoculars started pointing and jabbering excitedly. Shit. He’d probably seen the kids. Jack couldn’t let him call it in; he put the reticle of his little scope dead center on the man’s chest, and squeezed repeatedly.
The three smoking men shouted in confusion, scattering and pointing towards Jack’s boulder. Rounds snapped and whistled off the rocks as Jack crept around the other side. Blaze was nowhere to be seen. Jack popped out from behind his cover and snapped off three shots through the face of the nearest man. Blood soaked the dirt as the rounds exited his skull. Jack ducked back behind the boulders as the last two men sprayed where he had been standing. He had to keep them away from binocular man’s radio.
Against his better judgement, Jack popped out from the same spot again, and tried to get a shot off. No luck, he couldn’t find a target before having to duck back. More rounds whizzed by. This was getting him nowhere.
A flash of inspiration hit Jack, and he scrambled up the boulders he had been using for cover. Staying as flat as he could, Jack slid forward, trying to spot the men before they spotted him. They had split up; one was aimed in on the spot he had been shooting from, while the other circled around the other side of the boulders. Jack centered the stationary man in his sights, let out a breath, and squeezed off a shot. It caught the man in the hip, and he went down screaming. Jack flipped onto his back, and tried to acquire the other man before he was seen.
Shit. He was looking down a rifle barrel.
A blur of fur and teeth hit the man from behind, knocking him to the ground. Blaze immediately went for the throat, silencing him as Jack slid down the boulder to his side.
“Good boy,” Jack whispered gratefully. Gathering himself, Jack inserted a fresh magazine and stalked around his cover to look for the wounded man. He could hear whimpering coming from a nearby bush, and the smear of blood and shit in the dirt said that the last man wasn’t long for this world. Still, best to be sure. The man’s rifle lay where he had fallen, forgotten as he writhed in agony. Jack put a round through his head as he would a wounded animal’s, and turned to look for the binocular man’s radio. Seeing it where it had fallen, unused, Jack let out the breath he had been holding. Apparently God hadn’t completely abandoned him. He quickly went through the men’s pockets, taking a lighter, the best of the decrepit rifles, all the ammo, and the radio, and called to Blaze. He had to move, this patrol would be missed soon, and the kids were out in the open. Jack took a moment to drag the bodies off the edge, no need to make it easy for the search party.
He picked up an easy run and headed for the planned rendezvous, Blaze following closely behind.
“I’m going,” growled Frankie. “We bring ’em back, or we give ’em a quick death, but I won’t leave those boys.”
“I wouldn’t ask you to. But your people here need you, isn’t there anyone else you can send?”
Frankie gestured towards the ragtag gang of teens. “You see any soldiers? I’m their best chance. I’m going.”
“My man is there, too. I’ll go, you get your people to the ship. You wouldn’t happen to have anything more suitable for long range, would you?” Jack hefted his sidearm. “It’s not really built for what I have planned.”
Frankie stared at him silently for a moment, before reaching for his pack. He unrolled a bundle from the side. Two rifles were wrapped within, beautifully preserved like museum pieces. Eyes tearing up, he handed one to Jack.
“This was me mum’s, and her da’s, and his da’s. You take it, you make them pay. For her.” Jack marveled at the ancient weapon, a British Lee-Enfield Number 4(T), complete with a small scope. The second caught his eye, a Mauser. “I would be honored, but would you rather I took that one? I might not come back from this.”
“That one was me da’s, last thing he gave me. Told me I was the man now, to look after ma. It stays with me.”
“Fair enough. I can’t guarantee I’ll bring it back, but it will have blood.”
Frankie pushed several waterproof boxes of ammo into Jack’s hands. “Kill them all. I’m trustin’ you more than me own boys, Yank.”
Jack handed him the sidearm and magazine pouches. “Here, take mine. Hope you won’t need it.”
“So what’s the plan?”
“I’ll sneak in, try to get your boys out along with my man. We leave camp the way I came in, and run south to the water. With any luck, we can then follow the shore east to the pickup site. You move tonight all the way to the southern tip of the range. As soon as the sun comes up, you run straight to the water, then east. My friends will move their armor between you and the Jackals, and as soon as I’m clear we call the ship to lay down fire. We get on the landing craft, and pop open a cold one.”
“Just like that?”
“Just like that.”
Jack got on the radio to tell his team about the change in plans. The sun would be setting soon, and he wanted to be ready to move.
Jack weighed whether or not to zero the old rifle while he still had light, and decided he had to. Using the medical tape from the first aid kit, he put together a small grid of one inch squares on a spare blanket, and hung it on a tree. Frankie came up behind him as he loaded the magazine.
Clack clack. The bolt ran like buttered glass. “Yeah?”
“Why you doin’ this?”
“I hate monsters. Never could make a normal life back home. But out here, putting evil men in the ground? I’m good at that. I enjoy it.” Jack pulled the rifle into his shoulder, and got behind the sights.
“You ever worry you’re a monster, too?”
Inhale. Exhale. Slow, steady squeeze. CRACK.
Clack clack. “I did, once. Long time ago. But look at Blaze. He looks like a wolf, right? Strong? Big, sharp fangs? But he’s not. Difference between dogs and wolves; even big, violent dogs. The dog will protect the helpless, the wolf would kill them.” CRACK
“What about rabies? Or dogs taught to hunt kids?”
Clack clack. “Only thing you can do with a dangerous dog is put him down. It’s sad, not his fault he’s sick, or his master is evil, but you gotta do it.” CRACK
“You ever worry someone else will put you down? Just another dog?”
“Nah. There’s plenty of people trying. But I’m old, I’ve done a lot of good. If it happens, it happens, and I’ll give them the fight of their lives first.”
Frankie sat silently while Jack walked up the makeshift range to check his target. Tight group, very slightly high and right. This was a rifle he could trust. Jack pulled down the target, and walked back to Frankie. They sat for a minute as Jack loaded his ammo into a bandolier.
“Used to be elephants here,” Frankie said out of nowhere. “Ma, she brought me ta see them. Said they trusted us, were our responsibility. Ain’t no elephants no more.” He stared off into the distance, tears in his eyes.
“I can’t bring them back. But maybe some of the people responsible will answer today.”
“Thanks, Yank. Yer alright.”
High praise indeed.
Jack crept towards the Jackal camp, moving quickly and silently through the brush. This was what he lived for, the ninja shit that he almost never got a chance to do anymore. It never got old; no matter how much his beloved Corps fucked with him, he stayed. Other guys had come and gone, either getting out entirely or bouncing around the special operations community, but Jack felt like he owed the younger Marines the kind of guidance he had come up with. A living connection to how things had been done before.
When the new Marine special operations power armor units had been rolled out, he had jumped at the chance to take the fight to the Chinese. That had been a mistake. The battalion commander was a woman on the fast track, trying to get her first star, and she had immediately marked him as a problem. After a year of butting heads in training, they had arrived at a mutually agreeable solution: he went into the bush with a squad of Marines and no officers, and she left him there incommunicado for as long as possible.
It had all been going so well, up until the ride home.
Jack paused in the brush, watching the sentries through his binos, looking for a pattern. The pattern appeared to be “random and slovenly.” Jack would have preferred mechanical precision, but he could work with this. The night vision kicked on automatically as the sun set. Jack debated for a moment, wishing for even an old night vision monocle, and then killed the night vision mode. Time to adapt.
He settled into his hide to observe, and to wait for the Jackals to get sloppier, if that was possible.
Full dark, time to move. The guards all used flood lights at the gates, and big flashlights on their rifles. One or two had scavenged night vision on their helmets, but they were all flipped up. Batteries must be too scarce to use them to patrol all the time. They would all be completely blind outside the lights.
Jack scuttled towards the chain link fence around the compound, Blaze trotting along behind. He clipped a small hole at a spot that was out of sight in a ditch, and crawled through. Jack crawled up just high enough to look out of the ditch. A motor pool and a couple of long shacks stood between him and the cages. Quietly, patiently, he moved between the vehicles. As he did, he saw that the weapons in back were kept loaded. That could come in handy if shit went sideways.
Motor pool cleared, Jack moved up to the first metal hut. The stink of rotting garbage and human waste was overwhelming. Snoring echoed within. Still no guards, this was almost too easy.
The final hut before the cages presented more of a challenge. Jack could hear raucous laughter and loud voices, and smell more of the foul local cigarettes. So this was where the watch hung out when they should have been watching. One man outside cradled a rifle and watched the prisoners while the others drank and gambled around a gas lamp, it looked like they were throwing dice.
Jack hung back in the shadow of the sleeping hut. He could try to slip past them all, but the one outside would definitely see him if he approached the cages. And he was complaining too frequently for the others not to notice if he suddenly stopped. The hard way, then.
Jack commanded Blaze to stay, tucked the Enfield into a dark spot against the sleeping shed, and waited for the inevitable when men sit around drinking. It didn’t take long, one of the guards got up and walked outside while undoing his belt. As he stepped into the shadows to piss against the wall, Jack crept up behind him and shoved his knife through the base of the man’s skull. He crumpled instantly, and Jack rode him to the ground. Hell of a way to go.
Jack left the body where it lay, and slid back into the shadows near the sleeping hut again. Sure enough, after a couple of minutes another man came out to check on him. He slurred what sounded like a question, and getting no response, proceeded around the building as well. As he bent over to shake his comrade, Jack put the small spike on his hatchet through the top of the man’s head. Two more inside, one out. Time to handle the more alert one. He moved to the far side of the gambling hut. No door on this side, good.
Jack whistled Blaze’s release command, and the guard whipped around towards him. The guard said something (probably “halt,” but it could have just as easily been “what the fuck?”) as Jack fell back around the corner. It wouldn’t be long until…
The surprised guard was flat on his face, with Blaze clamped firmly to his thigh. Jack sprinted into the open, and drove his hatchet between the man’s eyes as he tried to roll over. It stuck, but not before the man let out a confused cry. Shit, shit, shit, shit.
Jack left the hatchet, and sprinted for the doorway with knife in hand. As he got there, the other two guards were piling out. Jack slammed the knife up under the chin of the first man, let it go, and grabbed the man’s rifle. Legs still pumping, he swung it by the barrel like a bat, aiming for the second man’s head. This one was quicker, he got his own rifle up to block, but took the hit on the hand. Jack kept coming, ferociously pressing in close and bashing repeatedly with the buttstock. The man was overwhelmed, reeling, and fell backwards. Jack dove after him, not letting up for a second. He kept slamming the buttstock down until he felt mush instead of skull underneath.
Breathing heavily, Jack turned for the door and shouldered the rifle, certain he was about to have a shootout with the entire camp. But no one came except Blaze, calmly, like he owned the place. Jack silently thanked God for forgiving whatever horrible sin had gotten him into this mess, and made a mental note to donate a full paycheck in thanks for the divine intervention.
Breathing under control, Jack recovered his weapons and searched the guards. Keys, excellent. Hopefully they opened the cages. Jack walked towards the prisoners, scanning the camp as he did so. They were wide awake and had been watching intently.
“Oy, dog man, yer ’bout tha last one I ‘spected. Guessin’ yer ‘ere fer ‘im?” The taller boy, Jaco, gestured towards the pilot sprawled on the floor of his cage.
“I’m here for all of you. Frankie sent me, you’re getting on my ship and we’re all getting out of here.”
“Aweh! Don’t think ‘ee’s goin’ nowhere, though.”
Jack unlocked the cages, and knelt beside the pilot. He hadn’t even gotten the man’s name. Chief warrant officer tabs on his collar. Jack shook him lightly. “On your feet, mister, we’re getting the fuck out of Dodge.”
The pilot moaned softly. “Leave me here. I’m all busted up inside, I’ll never make it out.”
“Not gonna happen. Here…” Jack fumbled with his medkit for a second, and pulled out two autoinjectors. “This one…” Jack stabbed him in the butt, “will numb you out, and this one…” he jabbed the other cheek, ” will keep you aware and moving. Now, you two,” Jack gestured to the two boys, “come pick him up. We’re leaving, to the west.”
“Tha’s not a good idea, dogman. Most of tha Jackals is west of ‘ere lookin’ fer us.”
That explained why it had been so easy so far. Time to improvise again. “East it is, then. Fortunately, I have friends in that neighborhood.” Jack pulled out the radio. “Rattler two, Rattler one.”
“Go ahead Rattler one.”
“Change of breakfast plans…”
Jack saw the boys to the edge of the camp, with Draper, the pilot, supported between them. They took a water bladder, flare, and three scavenged rifles with them. As they disappeared into the brush, Jack turned back towards the camp. The Jackals were already out hunting the kids, he had to get their attention.
Jack scavenged all the ordnance he could carry from the motor pool. A few Chinese knockoff claymore mines, and an RPG with a spare round. He looked longingly at the mortar on one truck, but the ammo looked sketchy at best, and he wasn’t about to drop it danger close on himself. Satisfied that he had as many party favors as he could manage, he climbed into the back of one of the trucks, and charged the pintle mounted grenade launcher there.
He fired a burst at the front gate, then turned the gun on the sleeping shed. The once-quiet night became a hellscape of lurid smoke and flames, with screams of pain echoing over the concrete camp. Jack pumped rounds into every building he could see until the gun ran dry. It had depressingly little ammo, but this should get their attention.
Flares lit the sky, and shouts of command began to mix with those of pain and surprise. Time to leave. On his way past, Jack lit a parting gift: several of the vehicles he had soaked in fuel. Gunfire snapped overhead as he sprinted for the ditch he had used on his way in. Blaze slid through ahead of him, it took a moment to push the pack and RPG through before sliding through himself. No time to waste, this was not somewhere Jack wanted to try to make a stand.
Jack stuck to the heavier brush, the fire light and the flares overhead made moving quickly and in the open too risky. Blaze stayed tight against his leg, a reliable early warning should someone approach. There was no need, the armored suits crashing down the nesrby hillside could be heard for miles, along with the shouts of men searching for him. Jack found a comfortable spot to sit and catch his breath while watching the Jackals form their search. The suits were equipped with floodlights, and they were beginning to move in a more organized fashion. Jack could easily avoid them, but keeping them away from the kids was his priority.
Gathering himself, he scrambled straight up the rocks, half crawling and half climbing up the steep face. Blaze whined, unsure of his footing, and Jack adjusted his path to a switchback along the hillside. It was slower, but less likely to result in either of them ending up broken on the bottom of the hills.
Jack crested the small slope, and decided that it was time to get the Jackals’ attention again. Hefting the RPG, he took aim at the center of the search line. The most important guy was probably there. Jack looked to make sure Blaze was out of the back blast, put the searchlight in the middle of the crude sight, and fired.
The rocket ripped into the the suit’s torso, knocking it over and lighting up the night. Jack scrambled to put the hill between himself and the search line as flares went up again and machine guns raked the rocks. Clearly the Jackals had had some success rearming their suits. Jack ran flat out, using the light of the flares and trusting the slope to hide him. The kids were to the south, so he went north.
The line of power armor was struggling to get up the hill, with suits tilting drunkenly and sliding on the rocks. Seeing a tight cluster of lights, Jack decided to take his last RPG shot. It flew true, striking the legs of one suit and sending the burning wreckage tumbling into another. Again machine gun fire tracked him, closer this time. He had to hurry. They knew he was moving north, now it was time to string them out and loop around the camp to the east so that he could make his rendezvous.
Mortar fire exploded on the hillside ahead. Fuck. It wasn’t particularly close, but even a monkey could walk in rounds eventually. Jack had to get out of sight of any spotters, and quickly. Out of options, he half ran and half slid down the western slope, with Blaze nervously skidding down beside him. It looked like they would be taking the long way back to the ship.
Jack jogged through the thin trees, trying to put some distance between himself and the men hunting him. They had reached the top of the hill, and had clearly lost him. That wouldn’t do at all, Jack had to remind them that he was their biggest problem right now. He unslung the old Enfield, sat back on his foot and brought the rifle to his shoulder. Bracing his left tricep against the front of his forward knee, Jack looked through the scope.
The reticle wasn’t vintage, whoever had built this had clearly intended it for competition shooting. Jack used the rangefinding hashes and tried to remember how tall the Russian armor was. The light helpfully marked center mass. Grunting, he made a small adjustment for the slope of the hill. It was a guess, but his guesses were usually pretty close.
Inhale. Exhale. Slow, steady squeeze.
The round splashed into the visor of his target, causing the man to flail wildly in panic. He needn’t have worried, the Russian suits were more durable than that, but it was his attention Jack wanted. They knew he was out here and shooting at them, but they couldn’t see him beyond the brief muzzle flash. Jack stayed still, as did Blaze behind him. Movement would only draw attention.
In the distance, over the heads of the armored men, a single green star shot into the sky. Jaco and Bast had reached Doc, he would hopefully stabilize the pilot and get them all to the ship.
The suits turned, and in the floodlights Jack could see a man pointing east towards the flare. Probably the man in charge. Four suits continued their search to the east for Jack, while the others turned west back towards camp.
Shit. Jack hoped the radio would work from this far below the ridgeline.
“Rattler five, Rattler one.” Hissing static. Popping, maybe someone trying to answer. Not good. “Any Rattler unit, Rattler one.” Still no response.
Sighing, Jack pulled a flare of his own from his pack. This was going to make his life loads of fun. He shook his tingling leg out and got ready to run, low kneel wasn’t exactly a great position for the mobility he was about to need. He took a sip of water, pointed the flare at the sky, and pulled the launch cord. A red star shot into the air over his head, the prearranged signal to start their assault early. Jack hoped that Frankie was smart enough to start running when he heard shooting, the kids didn’t have a radio for Jack to tell them what was going on.
Machine gun fire tore through the brush, too close for comfort. Jack took off at a dead sprint to the northwest, down the hill and away from the kids. The gunfire behind him stopped as his pursuers navigated the hill themselves. The chase was on.
Jack was utterly exhausted, and Blaze didn’t look any better. What should have been an easy walk to the beach had turned into a night of running their asses off. Their pursuers had lost the trail again, so they paused for a quick breather. Jack shared his water and the last remnants of his MRE with Blaze, and pulled out his binoculars to pick out a path.
There wasn’t a lot of cover between Jack and the rocky beach, but hopefully he could get far enough east that his squad could engage anyone who tried to run him down. Jack started off at a light jog, shaking off the stiffness that had begun to set in from just those few minutes sitting on the ground. His anti-aging treatments had been the best medical science could offer, but they weren’t perfect, and he was feeling every minute of his long career right now. Best to save a little gas in the tank in case a sprint became necessary again.
Passing the hill line once again, Jack tried the radio.
“Rattler five, Rattler one, how copy?”
“Rattler one, Rattler five, it’s getting hairy out here.” Mendoza was not his usual easygoing self. “Doc and his fire team are at rally delta with the package intact. Please tell me you’re here soon.”
“Rattler five, I’m a ways out. Is your line where we planned?”
“Rattler one, close enough for government work.”
“Copy that Rattler five. Inbound balls out.”
Jack opened up his stride. Blaze gave him a look, but kept pace. He was a good dog.
Jack could see the action now. The distinctive sound of the 20mm guns on his squad’s armor came sporadically, they were clearly conserving their limited ammo. The fire in response was haphazard but heavy: machine guns, rockets, and mortars fired in ragged, poorly aimed bursts. The Marines’ armor would brush off most small arms and shrapnel, only a direct impact from an anti armor round or an unlucky break would put them down.
Jack made for the beach; his squad could shrug off near misses from mortar fire, but he and Blaze certainly couldn’t. Jack saw one of the Marines turn and acknowledge him with a quick wave.
“Rattler one, Rattler twelve on direct.” Sweeny. “I’ve got your back, Master guns, get to the pickup.”
“Thanks for bringing Blaze, Master guns. Let’s go h–”
He never got to finish. A rocket struck his suit square in the cockpit, knocking him onto his back. Jack felt like the wind had been knocked out of him. There was nothing left of the visor glass, the entire thing was a smoking ruin. Jack started towards it, hoping against all odds that Sweeny had somehow survived that hit, when the suit’s automatic self destruct engaged. White hot thermite fire formed a makeshift funeral pyre for the young Marine. Numb, Jack turned back towards the beach and looked for cover he could use. Some low rocks on the downslope, not much but it would work if he got low behind it. Jack ran with everything he had left, and dove.
Blaze tucked in next to him as he caught his breath. Maybe they had been so focused on Sweeny that they missed him. Jack poked his head up, and saw two trucks pulling up alongside the suit that had launched the rocket. They were working to reload the makeshift launcher on his shoulder. A second suit stood watch over them, scanning with its machine gun. Suddenly, it ripped a burst in his direction. Jack flattened himself behind the rocks again, letting loose a long stream of curses.
He looked around for better cover, but there was nothing nearby. This was a horrible place to be pinned. Hopefully the radio still worked.
“Any Rattler unit, Rattler one.”
“Rattler one, go for Rattler two.” Perkins was up. Thank God.
“Rattler two, I’m pinned on your left flank. Any chance for some relief?”
There was a brief silence on the line.
“Rattler one, stand by and be ready to run.”
“Understood, Rattler two.” Perkins was about to do something stupid.
Right on cue, withering fire erupted from the center of the Marine line. The reloading truck was torn completely in half, the other one fishtailed as the driver punched the gas. The suit with the rocket launcher fell to its knees as the machine gunner turned to engage the new threat.
Perkins came in hard and fast, pushing his armor as quickly as it could move. Disregarding the guns, he plowed into the machine gunner with his shoulder, taking them both to the ground. Jack was up and running the moment the machine gun lowered. Lungs burning, he leapt for the next, larger rock formation, Blaze skidding in tight behind him. Jack immediately flipped around and brought the rifle to his shoulder.
Perkins had ripped the enemy suit apart and was chasing the reloading crew with the dismembered leg as a club. His back was to the rocket launcher suit struggling to aim at him with its one remaining arm.
Jack forced himself to be calm. At this distance, there was no need to hold for range. The wind was straight at his back off the ocean. He put the reticle right on a gap exposed by the missing arm.
Inhale. Exhale. Slow, steady squeeze.
Blood flew, and the suit twisted, sending the rocket spiraling ineffectively into the distance.
Clack clack. One of the reloading crew was pointing his way excitedly. Jack put the crosshairs in the middle of his chest.
The man fell, but not before his friends got the gist. Rifle fire skipped off the rocks, and Jack was forced to tuck in tight. As he was raising the radio to his lips, the beach exploded, pelting him from behind with sand and broken rock. Fuck.
“Rattler two, Rattler one. We gotta get that mortar.”
“Rattler one, I don’t have counter battery. We can punch through, but it’s going to take all of us.”
“Understood, Rattler two. I can hold out here if you take out that mortar.”
“Give them Hell, Top. Rattler squad, first fire team prepare to rush… RUSH!”
Three Marines charged the hill where the mortar fire had originated, while their comrades laid down all the fire they could. Jack added few rounds, catching one mystified assailant who had turned to watch the armored assault. Ducking back into cover as rounds zipped by again, Jack decided to prepare for the worst. He tossed his pack to the ground, and fished out the pilfered claymore mines. Carefully, he wired them to the clacker, glad that the Chinese had stolen the American design. Jack couldn’t read the lettering, but assumed it was Chinese for “Front Towards Enemy.” He positioned the mines on either side of the rocks, covering both possible approaches. They might come for him here, but the first ones wouldn’t enjoy it.
Being pinned forced Jack to shoot slowly, popping out of cover in different places to snap shots off before tucking in again. Even so, he was starting to run low on ammo, the bandolier was getting very light. At least the mortar fire had stopped. Blaze looked agitated, he wasn’t good at forced inaction. Jack reached over and rubbed the dog’s ears, noticing the blood running down his arm for the first time. Something must have caught him. It didn’t look too serious.
“Rattler one, Rattler two. Objective achieved, Top.”
“Roger that Rattler two. How we doing?”
“Five of us black on ammo, two injured but up, Mendoza’s suit is down and detonated but he’s up with a sidearm. You ready for pickup, Top?”
“I thought you’d never ask, Rattler two.” Even without their guns, the suits were formidable against unarmored enemies, as Perkins had already demonstrated.
“Rattler one, Rattler nine.” Doc. “The transport ain’t here, bossman. They refuse to approach without fire support.”
“Rattler nine, they understand that we are at bad breath distance here, yes?”
“Rattler one, they didn’t seem too torn up about it. The transport is offshore and awaiting covering fire.”
Jack popped back out to have a look at the enemy, and what he saw wasn’t good. More trucks were arriving with fresh men and supplies. Fresh armor was just behind them. Fuck fuck fuck fuck. It was time to do something really stupid.
“Rattler two, belay my last. Proceed to rally delta and call for fire. I’ll evac to the south, you make sure they come and pick me up.”
“Rattler one, say again? You’re going south?” Perkins clearly thought he had lost his mind.
“Affirm, Rattler two, headed due south. Watch for my beacon. Moving as soon as the guns start.”
A long pause. Probably Perkins staring at his microphone with that look, the one that said “don’t you do it, you crazy fucker.” It hadn’t worked yet.
“Good copy, Rattler one. Godspeed, Top. Rattler two, out.”
Jack gave Blaze a bit of water, and then finished the bladder. No sense in waiting for the Jackals to plan how they were going to come at him. He slid his rifle over the top of the rocks and lifted his head to the scope for a peek.
These suits were nicer. Better kept, armor intact, one even had its original smoothbore gun. Jack had upset someone important. He decided to shake them up a bit. One of the men on the loading crew was doing a lot of talking and pointing. Jack lined him up in the crosshairs.
Jack didn’t stay up long enough to spot his shot. As expected, a torrent of gunfire raged around him. He had their attention again. Suddenly, it stopped. Jack waited, knowing men could come around his rock any second. Instead, he heard a voice shouting over a PA system.
“AMERICANS! You fight well! Very strong, very brave, not like yellow men! We will tell of your fight as I eat your hearts! A meal for a king!”
Well, it was nice to be recognized. Jack popped his head up again. The enemy suits were shuffling towards him, trucks carrying infantry spreading to both flanks cut off any hope of escape. Crude, but effective. He looked over at Blaze. “Well, boy, this may be it. You’ve been a good dog. Let’s make them work for it.”
Blaze glanced up and showed teeth.
The ground exploded.
Even prone and sheltered from the blast, it had been close enough to hurt. Jack pulled the radio out and furiously searched for the Wasp’s channel. He could hear Perkins calling for fire at the rally point. They had made it. The next shots would clear their end of the beach.
One of the truck crews had decided to rush in, rather than tempt another shot from the Wasp. Jack picked up the claymore clacker, and hoped that everything was still connected. Closer.
A sheet of fire and ball bearings swept through the approaching men, and Jack was immediately up and shooting at them. Furiously working the bolt, he fired again and again. Some were still coming. Jack ducked back down to load his final clip. He was just pressing the rounds into the magazine when a man came over the hill, not twenty feet away. Jack closed the bolt, intending to fire from the hip, but the other man already had his rifle up. Blaze rushed past his leg and jumped, fangs bared.
He was almost fast enough.
The round caught him in midair, sending blood flying. Blaze yelped, and crumpled to the ground. Jack put a round through the man’s head, and rushed to the dog’s side. He was breathing. Jack stood, planning to deal with the last of the Jackals from the trucks, but they were running towards their camp. Maybe they were afraid he had more claymores. It didn’t matter, Jack had a moment before any of the armor could reach him. He opened the first aid kit, and dug out a dressing and clotting powder.
“Ok, boy, this is going to hurt. Try not to rip my face off.” Jack applied the clotting powder. The wound was nasty, in through the upper chest and out the shoulder. Blaze snarled, but stayed obediently still as Jack wrapped him in a dressing to keep pressure on it. There were probably broken bones in there, in addition to the mess the clotting agent would make of the wound. It couldn’t be helped.
Another round from the Wasp shook the approaching Jackal armor. Jack poked his head up. They were too scattered for that to have gotten all of them, but there was enough confusion to start moving. Jack slung the rifle, stood over Blaze, and brought the radio up.
“Wasp FDC, Rattler one. Adjust fire, drop five zero, immediate suppression, danger close, over.”
“Roger, drop five zero, immediate suppression, danger close, over.”
Jack bent down and tucked an arm under Blaze.
Agonizing seconds. The call came. “Shot, over.”
“Shot out.” Jack dropped the radio, grabbed Blaze, and ran all out towards the water. He hit the surf, and swam as quickly as he could while pulling Blaze behind him. Fortunately, the emergency pack was buoyant, designed to double as flotation in the event of a suit going overboard. He got out past the breakers and was swimming smoothly when the rounds hit the shore, engulfing everything just ahead of where he had been pinned. The shots kept coming, blanketing the entire beach, like the wrath of God. Even at this distance, Jack could feel the heat and pressure washing over him.
He kept swimming. They had to get out far enough that no one from shore would take pot shots at them after the artillery stopped.
Jack floated listlessly, checking the beacon yet again to make sure it was working. The salt water burned in all the cuts and scrapes he had accumulated. He had been out here for hours, too exhausted to keep swimming. Blaze was draped over the pack on his chest, breathing quickly, tongue lolling out. They were both in bad shape, and there were no boats in sight.
“Well, boy,” Jack croaked, “we went out on a high note, huh? It was a good run.”
Blaze whined and tried to raise his head. Something was bothering him. Sharks? Probably, it had been that kind of day. Jack turned slowly to look around.
There, a disruption in the water. Something big was moving below the surface. Maybe a whale? Jack had never been whale watching. It wasn’t what he would have picked as a last request, but there were worse things.
The disruption slowed, and began to break the surface. Not a whale. Whales didn’t have periscopes. Jack said the most sincere prayer of thanks he had ever uttered, and waited for their divers to reach him. At this point, he didn’t even care if they were friendly.
Flat on the deck, strapped to a backboard, Jack marveled at the spaciousness of the sub. She was massive, and looked almost comfortable compared to others he had seen. A set of legs strode into view, an officer’s uniform. He helpfully circled around so that Jack could see him. Tall and wiry, with a square jaw and steel grey hair above the insignia of a full bird Captain, he looked like a Navy recruiting poster.
“Permission to come aboard, sir?” Jack managed to say through bleeding and sunburned lips.
“Permission granted. Welcome aboard the USS Hyman G. Rickover.”
Jack stood on the pier, watching the Wasp drop her gangway. He caught sight of a familiar, blonde head of hair, just shy of touching the Colonel’s insignia on her collar. As usual, she looked angry, but it turned to confusion when she spotted him. Shoving Navy officers out of her way, she stormed down the ramp and got inches from his face.
“What in the ever loving fuck are you doing here? You’re going to wish you died on that beach. Do you have any idea how badly you fucked up this time? Multiple suits destroyed. A dead Marine. Calling for fire on locals. All to bring aboard people you were told to leave behind. I may never pick up rank now. I’ll be lucky if they don’t relieve me. I am going to bust you down to private and have you painting gravel for the rest of your natural life. And WHY THE FUCK ARE YOU OUT OF UNIFORM AND NOT AT ATTENTION?”
“Fuck off, I’m retired.”
The Colonel did a double take.
“General Mays owed me a favor. Signed the papers over a round of golf while you were at the prepositioning ship. Now if you’ll excuse me, there are some people I’m here to see.”
Jack pushed past her, and towards the ragtag gang of kids who were hanging off his Marines. Perkins had an eye patch on. Because he hadn’t been intimidating enough before. The giant man had a huge grin as he shook Jack’s hand. “We held a ceremony for you and everything. It was very touching. Doc mentioned your tight ass.”
“Sorry to disappoint.”
“Did the dog make it?”
“Yeah. He’s getting fitted for a prosthetic, lost a leg. Since Sweeny isn’t here for him to retire with, I figured I’d take him home.”
“You, a pet owner? You can’t keep fake plants alive.”
“I’m retired now, too. Need someone else around the house.
“Aww, shit. You’re gonna marry a stripper this weekend, aren’t you?”
Frankie shoved some of the kids aside to get to Jack. “Oy, dog man! Yer alive! You, ah, remember your friend you mentioned? We gonna need him soon. They already talkin’ ’bout sendin’ us back.”
Jack grinned at the young man. “Already arranged.” He turned, and waved to another man who had been standing back from the crowd. As the man approached, Frankie noticed that his legs were both metal.
“Vic, these are kids I mentioned. How fast can we leave town?”
“I’ve got my whole crew here with cars, we can disappear right now. Where to, kid? Jack tells me you used to be farmers, we can set you up on some land out west.”
“Nah, no land. Land can’t run. Dogma… Jack said you do motorcycles?”
“Yeah, I can do motorcycles. We’ll take you back to my shop, get you set up. Plenty of space to crash and plan your next move.” They walked across the parking lot, scattering the kids among several vehicles.
“Thanks. I know he said you owe him, but why you doin’ this?”
“He helped me put my life back together. Told me to repay him by doing the same for others. I’ll tell you about the parts I can remember on the way.”
“The parts you can remember?” Frankie climbed into the back of the old sports car. Jack got in up front.
Jack looked back between the seats. “Vic has a Navy Cross that he won’t mention, but it came with a medical coma. He only knows about what happened that day because he read the citation. I’ll tell the story, I was there.”
Vic started the car. The mighty engine purred to life, and they were leaving the pier before anyone thought to ask who the kids were and where they were going. By the time the Colonel got anyone to check on them, they were almost to the West Virginia line.