With the unwilling assistance of SANG Major Abdullah, Lewis had the rest of the company of border guards taken under guard and relieved of their weapons. Lewis could see them now huddled under the overpass, guarded by a squad of his Marines.
“What the fuck were the Saudis thinking?” Pethoukis asked. “You’d think they’d realize that they’d be begging for our help as soon as the goblins got here.”
“No clue. Interning Americans is danger stupid, under normal conditions. Which these obviously aren’t. Maybe they thought they could make a play with us preoccupied. Or maybe it’s infighting in the royal family. I’m thinking that it doesn’t really matter what the reason is. What matters is what they’ll do next,” Lewis said.
“What bothers me is that we get to the border and there’s one half-strength company of mouth-breathers standing watch. I didn’t expect the red carpet, but where’s the rest of their fucking army?” said Pethoukis.
Pethoukis rubbed his chin. “It must be family politics. Otherwise, they’d have moved at least something up here. That major, he’s got the smell of political connections. Hell, he probably even knows how to use Powerpoint.”
Lewis smiled. “If we can get across to Kuwait before they sort out their shit, I will light a candle for them every year in church.”
“Jesus, sir, now they’re gonna pull it together and get organized. I want nothing more than to get on a ship, a raft or a fucking canoe and wave my ass at this godforsaken shithole as I sail off into the sunset.”
“Sunrise. We’d be sailing east.”
“Sunrise, sunset, as long as it’s getting the fuck out. I am done.”
Off to the right of the road, past the guard station but before the overpass, a small compound covered about an acre of ground. A lonely strand of concertina wire ran a lazy spiral along the top of the fence. This place was no Fort Knox, but there was a small raised platform at the corner where a Saudi border guard had watched under the shade of a tarp, armed with a light machine gun.
There were several rows of tents, easily twice as many as were needed to house the hundred or so prisoners he’d been told were here. The guard stood over by the major looking sullen, and the activity had drawn the attention of the soon-to-be-ex-prisoners.
Lewis had the major open the gate, and he and Pethoukis strode through. Lewis approached the growing crowd, helmet held in the crook of his arm. Three men stepped forward; two Army, one Marine. All wore Lieutenant’s tabs on their collars. They gave Lewis a salute.
“Good afternoon, gentlemen. The Marine Corps have arrived and cut short your unseemly vacation.”
The three looked chagrined. If they had a comment about his armor, they held their tongues. “I am Captain Thomas Lewis, 1/9 Marines. This is First Sergeant Michael Pethoukis. Who’s in charge of this ratfuck?”
The two Army lieutenants looked to the Marine, clearly expecting him to deal with the problem. The Marine lieutenant was short, trim, with ash blond hair cropped close but getting a little shaggy.
“First Lieutenant Peter van Buskirk, 3rd of the 9th. My corporal and I were south of the lakes on our way back to Ramadi when we got the word to bug out. We were about the first snatched. No excuse, sir, but we really didn’t imagine the Saudis would turn on us that fast.”
“They got a lot of us by ones and twos as we came up to the border. After we started piling up, they started getting sneaky. When Lieutenants Burke and Random, here, showed up with two platoons of Strykers I thought we were golden, but that fancy SANG Major offered them a gas and grub, then stuck the knife in. They had them tied up under tarps for a day while they built this little resort for us.”
The taller of the two Army lieutenants spoke up. He was skinny; of average height with a prominent adam’s apple. “Second Lieutenant Jamie Burke, sir. We’re both from 2nd Batt, 23rd Infantry. We were patrolling the triangle west of Ramadi when the shit started.”
“The aurora were real close and low to the ground over the triangle. It was screwing with the comms and a lot of our electronics were out, EMP I guess. When the monsters came pouring out, we were in it before we knew what was happening. Dragons lit up half the company and we got separated from what was left when the giants came up. They cut my platoon sergeant’s vehicle open like it was a melon.”
Burke shuddered. “It was fucked up, sir. We bugged out, as ordered, but there was no easy way out. We cut cross-country trying to pick up a road to anywhere but it’s all fucking sand. We headed for the border, ’cause it was the only thing we could think of to do. We bounced our pursuit, finally, but we were running on fumes by the time we got here. We should have been more cautious, I guess, but we thought we’d finally gotten somewhere at least a little safe.”
“Giants? Serious?” Pethoukis asked. “We saw dragons up by Ramadi, but all the rest was the short mean fuckers.”
“We saw those, too. Ran over more than a few shaking loose. No, these are different. Swear to god, sir, they’re 12 feet tall. I was manning the .50 up top, and the fucker was looking down at me. He had a sword longer than you are. I shot one point-blank with the 105, killed him; but there were a dozen more. One cut the barrel off my sergeant’s main gun, and another peeled open the side like he was opening a tin can.”
“Jesus Christ,” Pethoukis exclaimed. “Like goblins and dragons weren’t enough? What the fuck else is there?”
The other LT chipped in. “Second Lieutenant Chris Random, sir. We didn’t see anything else, no; but what we saw was enough.”
Lewis gazed at the two Army Lieutenants. “I’d say that surviving an attack like that only to get caught napping by a bunch of Saudis is just typically…Army. But we were in the same bind. We were damn near wiped out by goblins, but we got lucky. Some good things came out of the hole.”
Lewis gave them a precis of what he had learned from the Crusaders, and the need to get the embassy to Kuwait.
“So there it is. I’ve cleared the path for the moment, but who knows what else the Saudis are going to do if we go charging across their northern highway? For that reason and others we need to move fast. The Crusaders say the enemy likely has a bead on them, and that’s going to attract attention we don’t want.”
“What’s your situation here?”
The second Army lieutenant spoke up. Random looked worn out, emotionally exhausted. There were dark circles under his light eyes, and his fair skin was burnt by the Arabian sun. “Well sir, what’s left of our company is parked over there. Burke’s got three big gun Strykers. I’ve got three regular Strykers, and we collected a mortar carrier on the way out of the furball. Their 120 mm mortar got toasted along with the gunners. Dragon got it with a glancing hit, but they still have the 60 mm. Our company sniper team’s been riding in there since. I’ve got 21 infantry, half what I had a week ago. Burke’s got a full complement for the trucks he has left.”
Burke continued, “Sir, Random and I know each other, our men have worked and trained together for years. We’ve taken a hit, but we’re still coherent. As for the rest, the others are from at least a couple dozen units. They made it here only to get roped in one or two at a time. Buskirk rounded up about a dozen Marines, they’re well in hand. There’s another dozen or so Air Force, mostly mechanics from the air base.”
“Honestly, sir, Random and I are the only ones to blame. We could have fought back, but didn’t,” Burke said. He looked embarrassed.
“Belay that, Lieutenant. You were backstabbed. This last week has been worse than any of us could have imagined. Except for Pethoukis; nothing is ever worse than he imagines.”
“Damn straight, sir.”
“What we need to do now is figure out everything we can possibly do to unfuck the situation.” Lewis thought for a moment. Deciding, he looked at the two Army Lieutenants and said, “As you say, you’re at the head of still-functioning units. You keep them, and draw from the other army personnel to fill out your ranks as needed.”
“I already have a list,” Burke said.
“Outstanding.” He turned to the Marine lieutenant. “Van Buskirk, you’re my only other officer. You will take everyone else. Organize the Air force types into a maintenance crew, or push them to the front line if they’re willing to hold a gun or a sword. We have armor and weapons we acquired from some goblins who no longer needed it. We’ll fit out a short company from the dribs and drabs, and you’re in charge of it. It’s not command of a Marine company, but better than nothing.”
“It’ll be a couple days to Kuwait. It’s not enough for training, but we can make a start on familiarization. We don’t know what we’re going to run into, or when; and I don’t want to lay back and think of England while I get fucked again.”
“And as I said, we need to move and keep moving. How quickly can you three herd this gagglefuck into vehicles and onto the road?”
“It’s a fucking miracle, Captain,” Pethoukis said.
“I can’t say that you’re wrong,” said Lewis. Two hours after his frank exchange of views with Major Abdullah, they were pulling out.
“I can’t believe I’m actually saying this, but we may have found useful lieutenants.”
Burke and Random, but especially the Marine van Buskirk, had done some serious jailhouse planning. They’d organized the internees, and there’d been shockingly little confusion or grab-assing once Lewis had sprung the gate. The three had known or figured where most of the Saudi’s gear and stores were kept, and had already assigned crews to the vehicles they had planned on stealing. Most of the delay had actually come from Lewis’ company, as they cross-loaded gear to new vehicles.
The former border control point-cum-internment camp fell off behind them. The two platoons of Strykers – the big, 8-wheeled armored vehicles – led the way. Three of them were “MGS” or mobile gun system variants. He’d ridden in one a year back when he was doing jointness training with an Army unit back in Ft. Lewis. Actually, that was the home base of the 23rd Infantry, he remembered. He was probably there at the same time as these guys. The MGS had a 105 mm cannon. A big tank gun, same as the one from the old M60 tanks. The light armor of a Stryker wouldn’t protect it from a real tank, but it was good against anything up to machine gun fire. And goblin swords.
“Did you see the gouges on the front of Random’s Stryker?” Lewis asked.
“Christ, yes, sir. They were half an inch deep, at least. If Random hadn’t been running the fucks over, they would have been in there with him.”
The mortar carrier was blackened along one side, an ugly scar surrounded with bubbled paint where dragon fire had killed the mortar crew.
“You hear what Burke said?”
“Dragons taking out Abrams? Yeah. I saw what they did to the humvees and helos back in Ramadi, but the Abrams is armored. Shit, even other Abrams can’t hardly take them out. If dragons can light up our armor, we’re going to be mildly fucked.”
Lewis let Pethoukis drive for a moment. The terrain was flat and dusty, no surprise. The maps showed nothing between here and Arar, where they’d turn east for Kuwait. Following the Strykers, it almost seemed like a regular military convoy. They’d put some distance between them and the border, and then set up camp around sundown. “How well did the scrounging go?”
Pethoukis looked relieved at the change of subject to an area of his expertise. “We’re set for food, ammo, and gas. They had a shit-huge pile of MREs and ammo out the ass. Nice of them to stockpile that for us. We’re good for the mortars, machine guns, personal weapons. We’ve got grenades for the thumpers, too. No joy on rounds for Burke’s MGS guns, though. They shot their wad just getting here and the Saudis don’t use 105.”
“We got vehicles. I ditched all the shitty Toyotas and the more beat up humvees. I threw in a few more humvees and MRAPs ’cause they looked lonely. Between what we came in with, what our POWs had, and what I liberated from the Saudis we’ve got everything we need. Oh, and I found an ambulance. My fingers were already itchy, so I took it and gave it to the doc and he about wet himself.”
“I tanked up everything, and filled up the fuel bowser. We’re good for a while.”
“You leave the good major a receipt?” Lewis asked.
“Oh sure. I wished him luck trying to present that at the Pentagon.” Pethoukis laughed. “They’d pay it if he ever gets it there. Somehow, I doubt it. The next guests at the border aren’t going to be nice like we were.”
“Did you find any horse trailers?”
“No, and I asked about camel trailers too. He told me to fuck off. I don’t think he believed I was serious. And I had my serious face on and everything.”
“How much room left in the panel trucks?”
“Fair bit, why?”
“When we stop tonight, tell Father Pietr that we can load up some of their baggage if it will help their horses move faster, longer.”
He glanced over at Pethoukis. “Mike, things are looking halfway good.”
“Aye, aye, sir. It always does, just before it goes sideways.”
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Continue on to Chapter Fifteen.