“We got maybe a hundred of ’em. And no casualties. I call that a win.” Pethoukis took a swig from his canteen.
Evans grimaced when Lewis looked over at him. “We’re still running, sir. And the wrong way at that.”
Lewis looked around at his command group of two sergeants and Corporal Evans. All the other officers were dead. “We’ve come another 10 klicks south and west. More west than south.” The beat up excuse for a road they’d followed west from the last fight barely deserved the name. And here they were in another tiny village. This one had a gas station. He’d bought a coke before telling the villagers they’d best run for the hills. Some had. Others milled around on the street.
“That regiment coming out from the east probably stayed on the road. Now they’ve likely joined up with the assholes that’ve been chasing us since Ramadi. There’s no more roads east. And now, no road south. We’d be taking the back, back roads and bushwhacking if we try to head east.”
“Frying pan, fire,” Evans said.
“Exactly. So I say we make a speed run down, west and south, cross the border into Saudi and try and catch the highway at Badanah. It’s out of our way, but we’d be heading away from the goblins and toward a good road. If we go east, we can come up into Kuwait from the south, assuming that it’s still there when we arrive. Or if we go west, maybe we can get to Israel. There’s not much between here and Badanah – nothing should slow us down and we’ve already lost the truck. Any vehicle breaks down, we ditch it and keep going.”
“Spread the word. It’s not much of a plan, but it’ll do until we get a real one…” he paused as the door pushed open. Private Chen stepped into the hut.
“Captain, we’ve got movement to the south.”
Lewis jumped up on a humvee. “Show me.”
He grabbed his binoculars and looked out to the south. He saw a cloud of dust. He hated clouds of dust. Chen pointed behind and to the right of the cloud. The setting sun painted the dust in roses and pinks. The fading sunlight glinted off the edges of swords. “How the hell did they get up so far? They’re on foot, for chrissakes!” he muttered. He turned to his sergeant. “Break out the night vision, sergeant. We’re going to make someone uncomfortable this evening.”
“Yes!” Pethoukis grunted. He set down the radio and turned to Lewis. “I got us a strike package. Tonight they’re putting a hit on a, and I quote, ‘huge frickin’ goblin army’, and they’re gonna save a little love for us.”
“Somewhere around zero-three. Two 18’s, one for each camp.”
“Alright then. We’re on. Prep the mortar teams – I’m sure those bastards don’t realize they’re in range of our mortars. After the planes hit, lay it on them, as fast as you can – and concentrate on the near side of the south camp. The other bastards know us. We need to introduce ourselves to the new arrivals. We’ll hit them on foot from the far side.”
Lewis looked to the north. As the light died, the aurora brightened. Two weeks ago, it was a strange meteorological anomoly. Back at the FOB, he’d heard that it was some strange solar storm. Satellites damaged, communications degraded. It was weird to see the aurora borealis so far south – Ramadi was on the same latitude as Atlanta, not Alaska. The early reports had it that the phenomenon was worldwide. North America, Europe, China, and another band south from India to Australia.
The colors were almost indescribable, then and now. Blues and reds, greens and yellows, in subtle hues he couldn’t begin to name. Sometimes they held steady for an hour or more. Other times, like now, they shifted madly like a brilliant neon flag in a strong wind. The light was bright enough to read by most nights.
And then, a week ago, goblins and who knows what else poured out of it. Lewis couldn’t imagine that – but he’d talked to one Iraqi who said he saw the aurora form on the ground and the first goblins march right out of it. Lewis couldn’t decide whether he was high or insane, or just an honest reporter of a world gone sideways. He looked up at the aurora again. Probably the latter, he concluded.
Lewis thought. Air support. He’d been dreaming of this ever since the goblins appeared out of that colorful fucking mirage and started chasing and killing his men. He wanted blood. And the Navy was going to make it real. Most of the Air Force was already back home, bombing Ohio. Navy and Marine planes had stayed behind to cover the retreat to the Gulf. He had heard that the Navy was losing planes by the dozen every time they flew over the main body of the enemy. But here, on the outskirts of nowhere, a few JDAMs in the right place would brighten his day considerably. At little risk – they hadn’t seen a dragon in days. And while their minds were occupied by 500-lb bombs, he’d sneak up from behind and….
“Pethoukis, after you straighten out the mortars, get with the locals. Take Thomas and Gamez, and convince them to pitch in with the defenses. If they’re not going to run, they need to be part of the solution.”
“Aye aye, sir!”
The desert glowed green before him. Ahead, he could see the goblin sentries pacing. He and a platoon of Marines were hunkered down in a shallow ravine about 150 m from the goblin encampment. It had taken them two hours of skulking to get in position; and in fifteen minutes, God willing and the creek don’t rise, a Marine F/A 18D fighter bomber would drop a world of hurt right into the hornets’ nest. And then he would charge into what was left with a big can of Raid.
Evans was stretched out prone beside him, waiting. With the night vision scope he hoped to engage the sentries. Lewis had detailed four of the company’s best marksmen to Evans, who would call the shots. The four would take their best shot, and that should overwhelm the…whatever it was that kept bullets from hitting. Their mojo. And Evans’ shot should take them down.
Pethoukis thought this was insane, he knew. But he’d disregarded the first sergeant’s counsel. They needed info, sure. His Marines had bags and tarps ready to gather goblin arms and weapons. And he hoped to take a prisoner. More than anything, though, they needed to put the hurt on them. You don’t fuck with Marines and not pay the price. Every dead goblin tonight is one goblin that won’t be coming at us tomorrow, he mused. And at night, he hoped, they’d have the advantage. Maybe they’re not sleeping in their armor. Maybe their mojo didn’t work at night. Night battles throughout history were nightmares for commanders until the invention of night vision systems and radios. The goblins had camped within range of the Marines’ light mortars. For all that the bastards’ armor was impossibly good and their swords implausibly sharp – they’re using swords and armor. Some things should still be true. We own the night. And we’re going to own them.
Risk. Reward. We’ll see which it is.
Click, click. The radio signal from Pethoukis that the strike was inbound. Lewis didn’t hear anything. You never did. The bombs always arrived before the sound of the plane.
Lewis rose up to a crouch and signaled the men with him. They began ghosting quietly toward the camp. The goblins’ night vision, hopefully, would be well and truly screwed when the bombs hit….
Jackson had point, and another 16 men and Lewis followed behind. The sentries seemed oblivious – they wandered aimlessly around the perimeter of the camp as they had for the last hour. The camp through Lewis’ night vision gear was all contrast and sharp edges – the triangular tents set in orderly rows beneath a blank greenish sky.
Jackson stopped suddenly. The two Marines behind him stopped as well and crouched lower. Jackson seemed to struggle, his feet scrabbling in the dust. Jackson pushed forward like he was leaning into a wind, though the night was still.
The sentries looked their way and shouted. Lewis looked back at Jackson and he was glowing somehow. Lewis shouted and ran forward. He got even with Jackson and hit…nothing. It bounced him down, stunned to the desert floor.
Shit, he thought. It’s fucking magic. I’m in the middle of the desert and I just hit an invisible wall.
Click, click. Lewis shouted, “Down!” and he and the Marines crouched down and looked away from the camp. The flash of the JDAMs would overload their goggles and leave them blinded. He saw his hand on his M4. It was glowing.
He didn’t even hear the explosion of the Navy strike package hitting the goblin camp. Even looking the other way, the flash of the explosion was painfully bright in his NVGs. A fraction of a second later, the pressure wave punched him in the gut and he felt queasy. Screams from the camp, and he was up and running. He tensed, but the invisible wall was gone. His hand wasn’t glowing anymore.
The two sentries dropped, neat round holes right in the middle of the visor slot of their helmets. Thank, you, Evans.
The goblin war horns started up, and mortar shells fell with a crump on the opposite side of the camp. He heard the rattle of several light machine guns as well – Pethoukis’ work.
The plan was essentially a gigantic panty raid with 500-lb bombs. The Marines had observed the goblins set up the camp and wondered at the lack of fortifications for something that a Roman legion would have been proud of. Jackson had discovered that apparently goblins didn’t need piles of dirt for walls. That magic wall was the reason for the complacency, but he thought, not proof against a JDAM. Maybe the magic wall didn’t have a roof.
Lewis could see fire on the far north side of the camp. Goblins were running around madly, like ants whose nest had been turned over. Huge ugly ants with swords. Most were running toward the fire, struggling to put on armor as they ran. In the darkness and confusion, none saw Lewis and his men sneak into the camp.
The twenty Marines broke into three groups as soon as they hit the edge of camp. Sgt. Ellis led ten Marines up the middle along one of the camp streets. They were the assault team. Lewis and four Marines went right. Jackson and four others went to the left. They were the snatch teams.
Lewis went a few meters and turned, entering the narrow alley between two rows of tents. He stopped a couple tents into the alley and held up his left hand. The tent looked like it was made of leather. That would be one heavy tent to pack, he thought. He signaled Pvt. Haulk forward. He looked like a malevolent, if skinny, bug with his body armor and night vision goggles.
Haulk crept up to the back of the tent and used his M4 to twitch the door of the tent to the side. He signalled all clear and ducked in. He was back out in a second. “Empty, sir.” Screams and guttural goblin shouting filled the night. Lewis could see goblins running wildly down the camp street on the other side of the line of tents, but here in the darkness, his Marines were invisible. For now.
Lewis wanted gear, and he wanted prisoners. He needed intel. He moved down to the next tent. Haulk was just about to repeat the process when an armored form stumbled out of the back of the tent.
Haulk was crouched down, preparing to peek into the tent when the goblin knocked him flat on his ass. Lewis, next in line, slammed him in the head with the butt of his M4. Silly goblin, no helmet. Lewis felt a crunch as bones in the goblin’s face shattered with the blow. The goblin dropped as Haulk scrambled back to his feet.
“Zip ties, now!” Lewis whispered, holding his open hand back. Someone slapped a couple plastic strips into his hand. Lewis handed one to Haulk and they bound the goblin hand and foot. Haulk pulled a bandana from his pocket and improvised a gag to keep their captive quiet.
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Continue on to Part Three.