“Moving into position.” Loomis’s voice came loud and clear over the headset Shelby was wearing. “Two go.”
“Two moving.” Shelby acknowledged as her squad moved up. She had taken over second squad, but that had nothing to do with her call sign. Everyone in both squads were designated ‘1’ or ‘2’, half of them moved up at once, then were leap-frogged by the other half. The goal was to advance the line by 10 meters each jump, depending on cover. They were back at the old school and it looked quiet.
“There ain’t shit here. Ain’t no way they aren’t on guard.” A voice called out.
“Shitfinger, so help me God if you break radio silence one more time I will…” Lopez began.
“There’s no one here, Sarge.” Loomis said. “It’s a bust, they move back.”
“One advance, by the numbers. Ten more jumps and we’ll pow-wow. Until then stay off the line unless you make contact!” Lopez said in a quiet, yet forceful whisper.
They made ten more advances and by that time were beyond the west side of the building, well clear of the objective.
“What’s with this shit, Sarge?” Shitfinger asked.
“You’re lucky I don’t break your goddamn mouth! You never jump on the radio, it’s the basics, man! The basics! You fuck up doing the routine stuff and you’ll get someone killed. If it ain’t you that buys the farm, you’ll carry that with you the rest of your life, if it is you, then all the gambling debts you owe us will never be repaid!”
Shitfinger looked down and away, before glancing up, “Sorry, Sarge, it won’t happen again.”
“Good. That said you were right, you just had a bad sense of timing. Use your goddamn head, shitty!”
“Do we clear the building?” Theresa asked.
“Yes.” Shelby said, “Who wants it?”
“Newest sergeant in the platoon.” Quipped one of the men.
“Damn right.” Shelby said, “Loomis, pick half the squad, you take high, I’ll lead the rest low. We’ll do a south to north sweep, we don’t need to find every doodle the teens left on the desks, but I want to know there isn’t anyone in here waiting to jump out at us as soon as our back’s are turned. Let’s move people!”
The people in her squad groaned at the thought of doing a room by room and Shelby switched to a private channel, “What are you moaning about? The place is empty, and you know who won’t be sweeping the next three buildings? Us. On the bounce soldiers.”
Her troopers picked up the pace after that and the building was cleared in ten minutes with not even a single booby-trap or hostile found.
When she met up with the rest of the platoon, Lopez shook her head, “Damn, that’s not fair. I say you have to sweep until you actually find something that needs to be swept, FF.”
‘FF’ was the nickname Lopez was trying to hang on Shelby, for ‘Friendly Fire’, so far it wasn’t gaining any traction among the troops.
“Nope. We’ll do our one in four, someone else should have volunteered for this cake job. Besides, I really thought we might hit a trap, so we got lucky. What do we do now?”
Lopez the senior non-commissioned officer present, after her promotion from the last outing. Shelby was right were she was supposed to be, leading a squad, but the position was technically a step down from her duties as Draper’s assistant.
Lopez would be giving up her squad as soon as suitable replacement was available, realistically that meant not any time soon. Little ‘F’ers had to meet a certain set of stringent criteria or be placed there by Draper himself, like Shelby.
“We proceed west until we find out how far the enemy has fallen back.”
“Shit. What if they went home? Do we go all the way to California?”
“Yes, Shitfinger we keep marching until we hit ocean. First squad take point with a two-minute lead. Then, by the numbers behind, spread out, use the road as a dividing line. If I see any squad grouping, they will be on point next.”
Lopez was with first squad, so she marched ahead with her troops, but triggered the nco line, “Despite Shitfinger’s concerns I only plan to proceed as far as North Bend, and I’ll check in when we hit this next bump in the road, Ames, hardly more than a church and a few houses from what our people told me. It might be an easy night yet, people.”
“Sure, we only have to walk thirty k.” Shelby heard sergeant Vander of four, say.
“I’d rather walk thirty kilometers than fight my way through a hundred meters.” Smith from three said.
“Hear, hear. Keep your eyes and ears open and discourage chatter.” Lopez told them.
It was a moot point; the troops were veterans and not prone to giving away their positions by chatting each other up. In the end, outside of North Bend, it was their noses that told them the had found the Californians. The unmistakable smell of spent powder, fire and torn apart bowels let them know a fight had been had up ahead.
“Hold up, Shelby.” Lopez told squad two, who was in the lead. “I want to spread out a little before we see what we’re in for. You veer south. Three head north, four split and move up centered on the road, I’ll keep one in reserve.”
The squads moved like wraiths through the rising ground fog of the pre-dawn light, no one making a sound and using the terrain to maximum advantage.
“No resistance, Sarge, I’m going over a ditch that borders the field, perfect place for three guys to hold off an army. Nothing is moving.” This was from three. Shelby wasn’t running into anything, in fact after she had crossed the rail road tracks, it looked like she wasn’t going to hit any buildings at all.
Shelbie’s squad was making its way along a line of trees and heavy brush when first contact was made to the north.
“I got something.” Came three, “Two blocks north of the highway. Somethings crawling on the street.”
“Shambler?” Lopez asked.
“Negative. Living, I think. Male. Lopez, I don’t like this.” Vander said.
“He keeps looking back.”
“You gotta see it. He is crawling right into us, doesn’t even see us. And he keeps looking over his shoulder.”
“Okay everyone, prepare to engage, hold steady where you are right now until Vander’s squad brings this guy in. Anyone else see anything?”
Shelby’s squad didn’t need her to tell them to prepare firing positions, their only handicap was that they were split by the trees. Instinctively they tried to use the trees for cover.
“Loomis, stretch out that line, move ahead of Sanders by another ten meters and take Wilkes with you. The rest of you, look around, if you can touch your buddy you’re too damned close together.” Her squad loosened up their ranks a little, not as much as she would have liked, but Shelby let it go; the action was going to be in town, not on the outskirts where she was.
“You got him, Vander?”
“Almost. Roping him in now.”
There was silence for a long moment. Shelby shifted uncomfortably in her position. Scoping out the streets as the horizon grew brighter. It looked like there was a junk yard between her and Vander’s squad. “Loomis, move up by that building to the north of you. Sanders, you follow after a five count, everyone else when you see Sander’s move give him a five count and follow, we’ll move up to the highway to better be in a position to assist.”
On the NCO channel she told Lopez what she was doing, “Fine. Don’t cross the highway, remember Smith’s squad is right there. I’ll tell him you’re moving.”
A scream broke out from a few blocks ahead of her squad, “No, no, no! Get back! Get back! They are coming! They are coming!” The screaming grew incoherent after that and eventually died back to a fitful background noise rising in volume every so often.
“Loomis, you see anything?” Shelby asked.
“Nothing moving, just people. Californians. Dead. Ripped apart. Limbs everywhere. It’s bad, Shelby.”
“I’m moving up.”
“Wait.” Loomis said, “Something’s moving.”
“Fuck. Don’t draw their attention.” Shelby said. Loomis was backed up by Wilks, but the two of them were on the other side of a long, shed like building. “Sanders, cover me, I’m moving up.”
“So, you’ll draw them out?” Loomis said, “Seriously, Sarge, just give me thirty seconds and I’ll be able to tell you what it is.”
Shelby continued forward.
“Fuck me, that’s one ugly, one fugly…I…it’s a melted man. There’s another one!”
Shelby reached Loomis and took cover beside her, the other woman pointed up the street past a gas station called the ‘Frontier Coop’ something was moving, two something. The gas station parking lot was filled with chunks of garbage and debris, as the light rose Shelby saw that the lumps were arms and legs and bits of torso, with a head or two among the parts.
“What the fuck is that? You were Draper’s aide, you probably know all about this classified shit.” Loomis said pointing at the figures drifting among the dead. The two beings were gliding steadily north, toward the now quieter cries of the man Vander had captured.
One of them stopped and picked up a bit of torso, something with an arm and head still on it, as she watched, it twisted its tentacle like arm, laden with suckers akin to an octopus and slowly twisted until the flesh dropped in three parts, it then lifted one skirt like foot and stomped on the pieces before grunting and following the other creature north.
“I never heard of anything like this. Some sort of mutant zombie?” Shelby told Loomis. “Just be ready to go if Vander fires, we’ll take it from behind.”
“Yeah, sure we will. Because it didn’t just kill all these people.” Loomis said.
“Well these people weren’t little ‘f’ers.” Shelby said, “I wonder how they stand up to flame?”
“Good thought, you gonna call up Lopez?”
“Doing it now.” Shelby confirmed switching channels to private, “Shelby here, Lopez is your flamer ready to burn? I have eyes on whatever it is that killed the Californians and it looks…flammable. They look like melted men. Stand about 2 meters high, they have vague arms and legs, but not like anything I’ve ever seen before.”
“Is there a reason that you think bullets won’t do the job?”
“Yeah, I’m looking at the pieces of about forty reasons.” Shelby said.
Over the common line, Lopez said, “Vander, hostiles are heading your way, it looks like traditional weapons may not affect them. Pull back with the prisoner, move through Smith and keep going until you hit Omaha, get that prisoner somewhere he can be debriefed so we know what were up against. One move forward to engage, three you stay in place to cover us. Two, when we’ve engaged you hit them from behind hard.”
Shelby waited with Loomis and Wilkes, grouped too close together by circumstances, her only options to put some distance between them were to move out into the street and out of cover or to retreat between the two long buildings.
“Blows the doctrine against grouping up, doesn’t it?” Loomis said, off mic.
“I was just thinking that. Not much we can do; I’m not leaving you two alone up here, not with whatever the hell those things are.” Shelby said, pointing at the receding melted men.
“I’ve got ‘em in my sights, when the killing starts, those two will go down fast.” Wilkes said.
“Good. Just don’t be surprised if they don’t go down that easy. I mean, look around Wilkes, these guys had guns too.”
“I’ll keep that in mind, Sarg.”
“Prisoner is secure, we’re over the ditch, heading back now, staggered on 30.” Came Vander’s voice, ‘30’ was the highway they had followed into town.
“First is in position. I see them, I got eyes on three. Shitfinger, do your stuff.” Lopez said.
“We’re leading with that?” Shitfinger replied, “Yes, ma’am!”
“Lead with what?” Shelby asked Loomis.
“Shitfinger, he spews out gas. Don’t know how, don’t know why, but it’s flammable. That’s why Lopez has the flamer, he spits it out, she lights it up..”
“Oh, fuck!” Came Shitfinger over the radio.
“That got their attention.” Lopez said, followed immediately by rifle fire.
Only one of the Melted men were in sight now and Wilkes fired before it, too, was gone. His bullets struck it unerringly in the ‘head’ region and didn’t slow it a beat. It did, however raise one fleshy shrouded arm at Wilkes.
“Down!” Shelby screamed pushing Loomis away and tackling Wilkes. They both rolled and heard a hissing sound from above them, then scrambled away as drops of liquid began to splash toward them.
“Fuck, roll, roll!” She pulled Wilkes back, further between the two buildings and Loomis crawled after them.
“What was that? What was it?” Wilkes yelled clutching at his helmet. Finally, he wrested it off and stared at it. “Huh?”
He showed it to Loomis and Shelby, his helmet was wet, that was all. Shelby grunted and said, “I thought it was acid or something.”
“Good reflexes.” Loomis said, “Better safe than sorry. I guess they just pissed all over you Wilkes.”
The rest of the squad came up behind them, gun drawn, looking for targets. A couple blocks away the gun fire continued, “Fall back! Back.” Lopez said, “Two, disengage, get out, now! Three cover four, but run like your ass is on fire. Do not engage!”
A huge ball of flame went up a few houses away, followed by a squealing sound.
“Ho! That’ sounds like a pig has its testicles in a vise!” Wilkes said.
“Okay, people you hear the Sargent, we fall….”
At the head of the ally there came a crash as one of the melted men slammed into the shed and began tearing it apart, twisting the supports and metal like tissue paper. Another joined it before they could react.
“No!” Screamed Shelby as Loomis raised her gun, Loomis paused, but someone else from the squad hit the two things with full auto fire. The bullets tore into the things, almost without effect.
“Do it!” Shelby said, knowing it was too late to back out quietly now. “Light ‘em up!”
The squad unleashed on the creatures and the combined fire power started pushing them back. “Keep the pressure on!”
Both of the melted men hit the ground and lay there, steaming in the morning light, slowly they started to shudder and began moving again.
“Reload!” Shelby said, “Somebody get ready with a grenade!”
She saw Wilkes slam another magazine home into his gun. Instead of firing he started fumbling around in his fatigues. Wilke’s helmet bounced off the wall as he tried to clear a lane for his comrades to fire past him.
With their magazines again empty and the creatures down, Shelby shouted, “Now Wilkes!” and strode forward until she was right on top of the creatures. She pulled the pin from her grenade and tossed it into the thing’s perforated body. Wilkes did the same, getting his into the vaguely mouth like head. They both turned and ran back the way they came, followed by two explosions that went off so close together that they sounded like one.
When Shelby looked back the creatures were in chunks, she had to blink her eyes, when a split second later, two more of them appeared, then a third.
“Back!” She said, quietly, “Slowly.”
They all started beating a slow retreat and watched as two of the melted men began to attack the building again, the third started to come down the alley. Its ‘head’ was up and tilted to one side, before wavering a little.
“Steady. Keep on moving, is our route clear?” Shelby asked.
“Yeah.” One of her squaddies answered, “I’m making for the tree line, if that’s okay?”
“Do it. Wilkes and I will come last.”
The rest of the squad made for the trees and set up in a cover position while Shelby and Wilkes paused to watch the creatures. The one coming down the alley stopped at the wet splotch left from where Wilkes’ wet helmet had struck the wall, it lashed out with one massive melted arm and swatted a hole through the building.
“Shit. Wilkes, you better...” Shelby heard a thump as something dropped on the ground at their feet.
“Way ahead of you, sarg.”
“Good let’s get the hell out of here, I hope we didn’t get any other splatter on us.” They both retreated, leaving Wilkes’ helmet on the ground behind them.
Only when they reached the trees did they notice there wasn’t any more gunfire or bursts of flame coming from the north.