Hecate and his people were tired. They were tired, hungry, filthy, and irritated. The woman that had stayed played him for a chump. The moment her friends were gone, they’d snatched an M4, a thermal imager, and some ammo and had vanished into the ether. He disliked losing a civilian, but he hated the loss of valuable equipment and weapons. He didn’t bother trying to track her even though she had a kid with her. His people were edgy, scared, and on the verge of splintering off on their own. Chasing her and the boy would have been a waste of precious morale. That above all else was in shorter supply than ammo and hot food. Besides, the smell of rotting flesh and decaying garbage was everywhere, and it covered her tracks more than effectively. Now, he had this goddamned traffic jam to navigate.
He had his lesser ranked dismounts on watch around the main mass of abandoned vehicles that were bottlenecked because a series of tractor trailers decided to try converging into one. What happened next was a mass killing of anything with a pulse. He hoped that any undead in the area had moved on. He hadn’t smelled any lycans in the area and that was a small mercy as far as he was concerned.
“School circle,” Hecate cried, waving his people and charges in. “The situation is as follows. We need wheels if we’re going to make any progress in linking up with the 115th. Last report put them forty miles northwest of here after they were forced to pull out. They said they’d wait-”
“Like they waited for us back in town, when was that? A week ago? Two weeks? Three days? Shit, I don’t even know what day it is anymore,” spat Ohkawa.
“Lock it up,” growled Weddington. “No one cares about what you think.”
Hecate glared at Ohkawa. It took tremendous discipline to keep from telling her to keep her fucking gob shut. “They said they would hold their ground and wait for as long as they could and if they had to pull stakes they’d let us know. That was eight days ago.” He decided to let the cat out of the bag. “No contact has come from them since then.”
Weddington shifted his foot and stepped on Ohkawa’s. He frowned at her before grimacing as he absently scratched his left tricep.
Hecate had noticed him favoring that arm as they were leaving town. He had tried to keep eyes on all his people, but there was only so much of his attention to go around, and so many of them plus two civilians. He wasn’t up for this. He wanted to run like Hell and not look back. But that wasn’t an option any more than it ever was. Still, he’d have to look in on Weddington’s wound, and soon.
“Your orders, sir?” said Delford before Weddington could open his mouth.
“Delford, Weddington, Ohkawa, Park. I want a perimeter seventy yards around this position. Weddington, Ohkawa, you two are going to watch over Ms. Nicks and her son. Ohkawa,” he stared at her intently. “You will watch them as you’d watch over your own mother, roger?” Ohkawa answered in the affirmative. “I and the others will look for something with wheels that works. If any of you know how to hotwire a car and need to, do it. I want several anythings that goes vroom-vroom in the next ten minutes. Let’s roll.”
Weddington gave a more enthusiastic Hoo-Ah, than the others, but each soldier set about their assignments with a serious if not weary zeal.
Five minutes into checking vehicles one of his soldiers called him over. The man’s name was Kimmler, a private that was fresh out of AIT and still full of grab ‘em by the nose and kick ‘em in the nuts repeatedly bravado that Army basic gives you. He was only 18 years, 5 months, two weeks, four days, and a handful of hours old. Hecate made it a point to memorize each man and woman’s birthday down to the hour. Kimmler was more than a child to him, but he was one of his kids.
“Whatcha got, Bobby?” he said, joining the soldier at a Staples box truck.
“This truck looks big enough to carry us all, sir. It’s got the keys in the ignition and I think it has close to three quarters of a tank.” Kimmler climbed the step and glanced in again. “Yep, it looks like it.”
“And the holdup is?” You got a winner so why isn’t it running yet.” Certainly one of his kids, but also got on his nerves for not taking the initiative when ordered to do so. Hecate grinned at him, but that grin was a bit strained.
“Door’s locked, sir,” answered Kimmler with a look of youthful bewilderment on his face.
“For the love of-. Get down. Watch me.” Hecate pulled him from the step, took Kimmler’s place, and smashed the driver’s side window. He unlocked the door and swung it open, quickly getting to work at sweeping the glass away with his gloved hand. “That’s how you do, son. Now get in.” He jumped down and held his hand to the open cab.
“Your find, your ride.” Hecate jumped down and wiped his face. “Now climb in and stand by. I’m calling the others in.” Hecate walked to the rear and was about to climb on the back step to call his people in when he noticed the narrow stream running where his left boot rested. He’d smelled gasoline the moment they’d arrived on site, but he brushed it off to various the collisions littering the area.
“Kimmler, wait one,” Hecate said, moving to the driver’s side. “You look like you’re leaking fuel.”
Hecate flattened himself on the ground and to examine the gas tank. Immediately he was greeted by two large red gas cans that looked like they’d been haphazardly flung under the truck.
Alarm bells went off in his head. IED, his mind screamed at him. IED, dumbass! RUN!
“Get out!” Hecate screamed as he grabbed Kimmler by his body armor. With every ounce of strength he threw Kimmler into the air as far as he could, all the while screaming into his microphone, “Cover! IED! It’s an ambush!”
Time slowed down for Hecate as his hearing picked up the first ring of a cell phone. And then the world went white, then dark, and then was filled with a creamy yellow light accompanied by long awaited peace.
Delford was keeping watch on her sector when PFC Quaker yelled that he’d found a couple of discarded gas cans.
She ignored his yells up until the time he called her out by name.
“Good for you,” she responded sarcastically, not bothering to take her eyes off forward. “I’ll be sure to recommend you for an Army Achievement Medal when this shit gets straightened out. Are they full?”
“No they’re empty.” He joined her, holding the cans up to her face. The smell of gas so close to her nose made her gag.
“Get that nasty mess away from me.” She slapped the nearest can out of his hand. It made hollow boing-boing noises against the ground as it bounced away. “What the hell is wrong with you?”
“It just seemed odd, Corporal,” Quaker answered spitefully. “There’s like fresh gas spilled around a minivan over there. I think someone was here recently.”
“What?” Delford’s eyes widened and she jerked turned to face the search area. “What do you mean, fresh gas?”
“Over there,” said Quaker, pointing to where he’d come. In that moment both soldiers saw a figure fly through the air as Hecate’s voice blasted from their headsets, “Cover! IED! It’s an ambush!”
Training kicked in for Delford. She flung Quaker to the ground, shielding him with her body. She’d always scoffed at the possibility that she would do something like that. It seemed too John Wayne for her and she usually left those actions to more hardcore troops. But she did it, and didn’t realize it.
She’d done two tours in Iraq, and never once had been involved in an IED. She considered herself lucky. She knew what happened to those that survived that, and that made her lucky and grateful.
This wasn’t like the daisy chained 155mm howitzer rounds that the Muj assholes in Iraq used. This didn’t have that type of power, thank God or whoever, but it was still devastating.
Fabled steel rain fell down around them. Chunks of metal and plastic this, that, and the other fell on and around them. Something with a decent amount of weight thumped on the back of her armor before falling off her. A second later something slammed into her helmet, forcing her face into the turf. The smell of dry earth mingled with that of melted plastic, burning steel and aluminum, and barbeque filled her nostrils. It was as close to the scent of Hell that Delford would ever want to get.
It wasn’t until Quaker started squirming underneath her that she realized that the rain had ended. And that’s when she realized what she’d done. She’d urinated on herself, and on Quaker.
They stood, looking at each other. She was certain she was yelling at him, asking what the fuck had happened, and that he was doing the same. It was the goddamned ringing and disorientation from the blast that made it hard to focus and even harder to hear.
She keyed her mic and called for a sitrep, but was unsure if anyone else was using the net as she was, or if anyone besides her and Quaker were still alive.
“I’m going to check for survivors,” she said, facing Quaker.
“What,” he screamed back, or she was sure he was screaming. She sure was.
“I’m…” She pointed to herself. “Going to…” She pointed to the blast zone. “Look…” She pointed to her eyes. “For survivors!” she pointed back up the gentle slope.
She saw Quaker’s mouth form the word okay, and then set off.
The explosion was more than she expected. Numerous vehicles were ablaze. The black smoke from melting rubber and plastic that would feed the infernos for who knew how long was acrid, thick, and nauseating.
Delford approached an overturned WTAV news van that was blazing merrily away. She saw the unmoving blackened body of a soldier, but she was damned if she could ID who it had been.
“We’ve got to go around,” whispered Quaker. He was actually yelling inches from Delford’s face, but he sounded too far off to pierce the ringing. He pointed to his right for emphasis on which way he thought they should go.
She nodded agreement and went to move away to continue searching when Quaker stopped her.
“Did you piss yourself,” he said, emphatically pointing to her crouch.
She looked at her pants, and then back to him.
“Did you piss on me?” His face looked unbelieving as he felt around the back of body armor. “You fucking peed on me!” he roared, pulling his hand back to front. He looked at it as if the thought was worse than the body of their charred companion was nothing in comparison.
She didn’t need perfect hearing to know that was what he was saying. Her only answer was, “Shut up.” The little ingrate should be thankful that she hadn’t also shit on both of them.
“Anybody receiving me, over?” Delford released the button and looked around for any sign of anyone left standing. She pulled her helmet off and pressed the headset further into her ear. She heard nothing but open air over the comm. “Does anyone read me? Over.” More dead air.
Another explosion sent a sedan of some kind several feet into the air. It landed on top of a pick up’s hood and wobbled before coming to a rest.
“Fuck me,” she said, flinching away from the blast. She switched radio frequencies. “Any station this net. Any station this net.” Juliet Three has…” She stopped and considered what she was doing. There was a chance there was no one to receive her situation report. As far it was looking so far, she and Private Nitwit were the last troops standing.
“Hey. Hey, Corp. Look.” Quaker pulled hard at her arm as he pointed into the flames. “Over there. Eleven o’clock. Movement.”
Delford looked up and saw a figure staggering around trying to find a way past flaming wreckage. The figure weaved in and out of her line of sight as it sought an exit.
“Come on,” she said, reaching for Quaker. To her surprise he was already ahead of her and closing fast on the survivor.
She sprinted after Quaker and nearly ran into him as he rounded the far side of the blast wreckage.
From the debris came Weddington. Most of his face and upper body was as charred and red as the metal that he’d fought his way through. His uniform and armor had reached its heat resistant point and beyond. What didn’t melt had melded with his skin. His right arm hung from thick ropey muscle and his left arm reached out to them. The hand was beseeching and held palm up. His eyes were sorrowful and his mouth kept opening and closing. This was wrong. That much damage should’ve incapacitated him, but here he was moving toward them.
“Sergeant,” called Quaker. He sprinted toward Weddington. Delford made a grab for him, but missed.
“No!” she cried out. She’d noticed him rubbing at the area of the arm below the armpit, and didn’t give it much thought. If Weddington had been bitten, he’d have told them. She thought he would have.
With speed that didn’t match his wounds, Weddington lunged forward, dragging Quaker by his body armor toward his open mouth. Even as Weddington tore out his throat Delford could hear the scream that ended in a bubbling gurgle.
“Weddington!” she called as Weddington feasted on the struggling soldier. Quaker’s movements became less and less. “Weddington!”
Delford shouldered her carbine and sighted in as Weddington looked up to her. He chewed thoughtfully, head cocked to the side, and stood. He walked slowly toward her, Quaker meat hanging from his burned away mouth as he chewed ferociously at the mouthful. Delford closed her eyes for a second, breathed deeply, and then out. The shot happened and the left side of Weddington’s head geysered out. Weddington took an extra step before collapsing face first into the road. Delford blinked. The shot hadn’t come from her.
“I’ve waited for a long time to do that,” said Ohkawa, rising to her feet twenty some odd feet away. “Self-righteous dick.” Ohkawa, sweaty and obviously feeling proud of herself, joined her. “You okay?”
“The fuck? Ohkawa, you- What the hell?” Delford reached for her mic, and Ohkawa’s headset. “Comm check,” she said briskly, holding the headset as close to her ear as her helmet allowed. The ringing had faded some, allowing her to hear the echo of her voice from Ohkawa’s headset. She slammed it against Ohkawa’s chest, pushing her away. “You fucking moron. You stupid fucking shitty excuse for a person. Why didn’t you answer when I called? Huh?”
“Didn’t feel like it at the time.” Ohkawa’s bottom lip stuck out in a pout. It infuriated Delford more.
“You arrogant, spoiled-”
“Corporal Delford,” said an unknown voice behind them. The voice had a thick sound to it, and a resonating base that jarred Delford’s being in all the wrong ways. The sound of the voice alone caused Delford to not shove Ohkawa. Her hands were pressed flat against Ohkawa’s body armor.
Delford lowered her hands and she turned her body to face the same direction as her head. Ohkawa gasped and jerked her rifle up to face the eight foot tall lycan. Ohkawa was a full second slower than Delford. Neither woman knew it, but they were face to face with Drexler. Drexler’s muzzle was parted in a fiendishly sweet smile as she stared at the two women.
“My name is Margaret Drexler, and I’d love to play a game with you.”
“Light it up,” cried Drexler moving away from Ohkawa. The human women moved in opposite directions, firing as they moved in a slight crouch.
Drexler began to dodge most of the shots. A few impacted uselessly against her thickened hide, but she didn’t mind. Drexler loved a challenge.