“Be not afraid for the terror by night…” In part 2 of the Indivisible series, the nation boils in economic collapse and sectarian violence. The president withdraws into his flying bunker to implement his Amero Plan to restore order. Maiden Lane finds herself in peril beyond the government’s zone of control. Marzan is separated from his company during a firefight and rescues an orphaned boy. Jess Clayton defends her home and young daughter from repossession and armed looters.
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“They take up arms against their ruler; but in this they deceive themselves, for experience will prove that they will have actually worsened their lot.”
—Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince
At 0300 hours. Bravo Company piled into three CH-47D Chinook helicopters and lifted off from the tarmac of Montrose Regional Airport, abandoning the friendly confines of Camp Constantine. The ensuing flight covered less than twenty miles, barely enough time for the pimply-faced conscripts of the Domestic Security Force to pray: “Thou shalt not be afraid for the terror by night; nor for the arrow that flieth by.” Their predawn mission signaled the beginning of Operation Uncompahgre III, the third official attempt by the Domestic Security Force and I Corps to capture and or degrade the leadership of the insurgency in the sector.
It was moonless and the ground below was as black as a dream, the void broken only by the reflection of starlight on the waters of spindly creeks and a lonely reservoir far below. Domestic combatants, or Doc, were down there. They controlled the wilderness. To the nineteen- and twenty-year-old privates fulfilling their national service requirement of one year of military service, Doc was a single entity, an evil wight, mysterious and ghostlike,, lurking in the woods and caves, living off air and dirt, existing only to hunt and kill DSF personnel. Many conscripts had made it through an entire yearlong tour and never got to see one alive in the wild. But anyone stationed near a forward operating base, like Camp Constantine, in the Rocky Mountain and Great Basin states would be subject to their wrath, manifested in the forms of roadside bombings, sniper fire, and sabotage. Rushed through an abbreviated, four-week boot camp, the recruits were inculcated with a heavy dose of fear and hatred of Doc; he was ruthless, cunning, battle-hardened, and worst of all– a traitor.
Bravo Company landed in the darkness, on a hastily constructed sandbag firebase atop Hill 301 called Camp Grit.Bravo Company’s mission was to advance into the wilderness to locate, engage, and annihilate the enemy. But they underestimated the ruggedness of the terrain and were forced to wait for sufficient light. They finally embarked at 0500. Second Platoon, nicknamed “The Skullcrushers,” marched south-southeast along the ridgeline that rose towards Sheep Mountain which burst upwards through the tree line eight klicks away.
The march was arduous and slow-paced as the platoon took great care not to bunch up at the obstacles or spread themselves too thin. The barely discernible trail meandered and climbed, flanked by firs, spruce, and aspen. Spires of tawny granite formed into ridgelines and thrust skyward in all directions. Some were still patched with snow that would not melt before winter. Evergreens clung to the high shelves of rock. The gulches and valleys were a Mirkwood of dark forest. The ridge occasionally provided a vantage point to glimpse the turbulent lands they invaded. The summer sun climbed and the temperature rose as the patrol pushed on. By midmorning, the ruckus of chirping birds that had accompanied them before daybreak had subsided into a din of breezes sweeping through the tree tops. The succulent, waxy aspen leaves flickered and danced.
The advance was halted briefly when the point spotted four objects in the cliffs across the valley which, from two thousand yards away, could not be ruled out as enemy combatants. The conscripts crouched and took cover, their young, fearful eyes widening. The sergeant examined the target with his field glasses. “Is it Doc?” asked the lieutenant. Sarge rolled the focusing wheel as he searched. The conscripts’ faces whitened as they waited for his verdict. “Sarge?”
The conscripts sighed in relief.
“Just bighorn sheep.”
Second Platoon continued on, under a canopy of blue sky and slow-moving splashes of white cloud. By 0900 they reached the point where Sheep Mountain rose upwards through the tree line just before them. They stopped to rest and hydrate and it was there that a specialist discovered a cairn. He called to Sarge who examined the pile up close, then began carefully removing the stones that did not appear to be concealing or holding or levering down wires or triggers of any kind. When he had removed about half the pile he discovered a canvas surface. He stopped at that point to consult with the lieutenant.
“What do you think it is?” Sarge asked.
“Dunno. Ammo cache. RPGs. Rifles. Frags. Have a private check it out.”
“Maybe we just go ahead, blow that fucker up, and move on.”
“Was I not clear?”
“Lieutenant, we ain’t got any techs and we got no blast suit.”
“We’re not debating this, sergeant. We’re deep in Doc’s turf and I got half a platoon filled with boy scouts. I won’t be drawing any extra attention to us. Get it checked out.”
“Yes, sir,” Sarge muttered as he turned and pointed to a specialist named Rogers. “Get over here.” Rogers approached. “I need you to go check out that pile of rocks over there. Tell me what’s under that canvas.”
“Fuck that, Sarge. That’s a booby trap if I’ve ever seen one.”
“It ain’t no booby trap, Rogers.”
“It sure enough looks like one to me.”
“The only booby trap that’s ever gonna get you is one that’s stuffed inside a basketball.”
“Man, you’re a racist motherfucker. Figures you’d pick a brother to get blowed up. There ain’t no way I’m poking around in that. It’s a trap.”
“That’s an order.”
“I’ll deal with you back at base.”
“I got something you can deal with,” answered Rogers as he grabbed his crotch.
“Get lost.” Sarge turned back to the other men. “Fouts! Where’s Fouts?”
“Right here, Sarge. And it’s Faust, sir.”
“Fouts, I need you to go check out that pile of rocks over there and tell me what’s under that canvas.”
“No way, Sarge. I’m single digit midget. I got seven more days of this bullshit.”
“You get over there and check it out. That’s a direct order.”
“What kind of fucking army is this?” grumbled Sarge.
The lieutenant grabbed Sarge by the shoulder and yanked him around. “Do not give orders that won’t be obeyed. These turds see that and they’ll lose respect.”
“You learn that at OCS school?” Sarge asked.
“Get one of them cherries to do it.”
Sarge turned back to the platoon and called one of the new conscripts forward. “Honey Tits, get over to that pile of rocks and check it out.”.”
Honey Tits, a private whose legal surname was Ochs, was a pasty-faced and fleshy draftee recently plucked from the melodramatic Madison Wisconsin emo and transgender subculture. He had sulked into his induction with his fingernails still polished black.
“Yes, sir,” he gulped, already panting.
“Drag your faggoty fat ass over there and check it out. Tell me what’s buried in there. And don’t get blowed up.”
Ochs tiptoed towards the cairn, setting his rifle down once he had reached it. He carefully examined the pile for protruding wires or anything resembling an IED. He had no clue what that might be, but he visually scoured the pile anyway. Once he was satisfied that there was no evidence of a buried bomb, he took a seat, Indian style. He wiped the sweat off his palms, then looked back once more at Sarge and the others some twenty yards off, as if to say “goodbye and nice knowing you.” He turned back to the pile and gulped in fixated anticipation. He reached his hand down and touched a stone. He moved it carefully, and when he realized that he had not been ‘blowed up,’ he set it on the ground to the side. He sighed, deeply. Then Ochs reached down and took another stone off. And when he found himself still intact after that, he took off another, and another, and another. Each stone came off quicker than the previous and after a couple dozen, he had most of the canvas exposed. He took out his knife and carefully poked a hole in the canvas and looked in. He glanced back at the platoon. All their eyes were upon him. He widened the hole and pulled it open and looked in again. He froze.
“What is it?” Sarge shouted.
Ochs didn’t respond.
“Honey Tits, what the fuck is it?”
Ochs looked back towards Sarge. His face was grim.
The soldiers watching raised their rifles and crouched lower behind cover.
“What the fuck is it, Ochs?” barked the sergeant.
Ochs’ lip quivered.
“Go check it out,” ordered the lieutenant.
Sarge growled, then jogged up to the catatonic Ochs.
“What’s wrong?” he asked
“Look,” Ochs mumbled as he pointed into the hole in the canvas.
Sarge looked in and saw what Ochs saw.
“Is that a face?” he asked.
“What the fuck is it?” shouted the lieutenant from the cover of a tree trunk.
“It looks like a corpse,” shouted Sarge. “Doc must have buried him here.” He turned back to Ochs. “Dig him out.”
“Sarge…?” he asked, looking scared.
“Don’t be a pussy. It’s just a dead body. Dig him out.”
The lieutenant ordered Rogers and Faust to the pile of stones to assist. Ochs sat with sweat rolling off his forehead, down his blotchy face and into his collar while the other two men removed the remaining stones and tore open the bag revealing the complete, decomposing body.
“Who do you think he is?” asked Sarge.
“Dead Doc,” answered Faust.
“That’s what they look like?” asked Ochs.
“What’d you think they looked like? Fucking leprechauns or something?”
“Check him for tags. Find his wallet,” Sarge ordered.
Rogers knelt down and rolled the stiff body exposing the moist, decomposing underside. The smell knocked them back and they pulled their t-shirts up and over their noses. Rogers gagged as he reached into the corpse’s back pocket and found his soggy wallet. He let the body fall back and held the wallet out for the sergeant who snatched it from him and thumbed through it, taking out an ID.
“It says here this is…holy shit…,” Sarge collected himself and continued. “It says: Captain Alan A. Rick, U.S. Army.” He turned and shouted. “Hey lieutenant, we found us the infamous Captain Rick. He got himself dead.”
The lieutenant scrambled up to the grave arriving just as Faust had begun to urinate on the corpse.
“Knock that shit off,” Sarge ordered.
Faust aimed in another direction. “Why so grumpy, Sarge?”
“Shut up, Fouts,” Sarge ordered. “Show some respect.”
“You mind if I go back to the unit, sir?” Ochs mumbled.
“Go. Beat it.”
Ochs sulked back to the platoon while the four remaining men stared down at the sunken eye sockets and brown, mummified face of the dead man.
“What do you want to do with it?” asked Sarge. “Want us to bag him?”
“No. Leave him. I’ll call in the coordinates.” The lieutenant knelt down and set the dead man’s hand on a rock. He took out his knife and with a succession of chops he removed the dead man’s index finger at the second joint and put it in his pocket. “For DNA ID,” he explained.
“Captain Rick’s dead,” Sarge commented. “Guess we can all head back to Camp Grit. Mission accomplished.”
“You’re a funny guy, Sarge. We’re moving out in five.””
The platoon marched onwards towards Sheep Mountain, now looming large before them. The midday sun surrendered to the boiling gray clouds that rolled in from the west. Then it rained. The storm didn’t qualify as a deluge, but the dampness, coupled with the cool high altitude air, increased the misery index of the platoon. Thunder boomed, echoing up the slopes from below, but the lightning bolts were obscured in the haze. The trail turned to mud. The cold drizzle seeped into their clothes, mixed with their warm sweat and ran in rivulets down their skin into their boots, soaking their socks and chilling their toes. Visibility dropped to a few yards. Between the clasps of thunder and beyond the patter of raindrops and slogging footfalls was a thickening silence, as if the mist itself had swallowed up the sounds of the rest of the world.
After two hours, the clouds began to disperse and the sun reappeared, although lower and less intense than before. The blue-green hues of the forest, the taupe and gray of the granite escarpments and the blues and whites of the sky intensified as if cleansed and polished by the rain. The air was washed of dust and pollen and smelled only of clean pine and sweet ozone. Insectivorous birds flitted and darted between the trees, plucking their meals off the bark and stone. The deer were coming out, grazing on the rain-softened grasses.
With the clearing of the haze returned the sounds of the world. The frump, frump, frump, of heavy ordnance permeated the cool air, coming from perhaps two miles away. First Platoon must have spotted the enemy and had called in the mortars. Rogers and Faust and Ochs scanned through the trees to the far ridges for the source of conflict as they trudged along. Their hands gripped their cool rifles. Their wet clothes clung to their skin; the declining sun was insufficient to dry them. The ravens appeared, cawing and click-clacking and squawking in the tree tops. Then the birds scattered. Soon after, the Kiowa helicopters, relics from bygone days, desperately de-mothballed and placed back into service, crossed the sky overhead flying towards the sound of battle. They were scanning the canopy with their thermal imaging. Moments later, their M134s would be shredding the enemy terrain with a hundred rounds of 7.62 per second. The snare roll of distant Gatlin guns boosted the spirits of The Skullcrushers of Second Platoon as they climbed toward Sheep Mountain.
The trail led them into the trees where the shadows were now long and deep. The woods closed in, enveloping them. Their pace slowed. Their chatter ceased. The distant battle stopped and the thick silence returned. Suddenly, the point halted their advance. The platoon crouched down into the brambles and tree trunks. Sarge hunched over and made his way to the point.
“At what?” Sarge asked.
“You see that wire there, running up out of the ground into the trees?”
“There. See it?”
“Right there. Look where I’m pointing. By that stump.”
Sarge, who saw nothing but trees, feigned seeing it and jogged back to the lieutenant. “They got the trail wired,” he advised.
“All right,” the lieutenant grumbled. “So what do you think we should do?”
Sarge took the lieutenant’s topographical map and ran his finger along the contours. He pondered until the lieutenant pressed him. “I say we veer right, off this trail, go down along the face, here, then back up at this spur…right here. We can get back on the trail there.”
“You think there’s an ambush ahead? What military genius sets an ambush on top of a ridge?”
“Everything Doc does is unorthodox, Lieutenant.”
The lieutenant pondered for a moment, rubbing his chin stubble, then nodded in approval. But then changed his mind. “Wait. No. I think we don’t go so far down. Look, we can cross here. It’s a shorter distance in the open.”
“I don’t know, Sarge. That looks like a steep face. It could be a scramble.”
“I’ve already decided.”
Sarge sighed as he folded the map. He made his way back to the point, hunched at the waist. The point was ducking behind a thick tree trunk.
“We’re going to veer right, here,” Sarge explained as he pointed to the map. “Scramble across the face of this slope, here, then back up, and pick the trail up over here.”
“You think that’s a good idea, Sarge?”
“Lieutenant seems to think so.”
“Why don’t you just send Honey Tits ahead to check it out? If he gets blowed up, then we know it’s not safe.”
“Why don’t I just send you?”
“Not happening, Sarge.”
“Right. So take us that way.”
The platoon veered right, off the trail and downhill. The slope was steep and wet and treacherous. They stumbled along, bracing themselves on limbs and boulders as they descended, boot treads slipping on the soft ground of wet and decomposing pine needles. Their knees and ankles throbbed. Ochs sounded as if he was having an asthma attack. The trees gave way to a precarious hillside of gray boulders sloping steeply downwards three hundred yards. The platoon halted their advance in the cover of the trees just before it. It was completely silent, no birds, no thumping of mortars or Kiowas. Even the breeze had ceased.
Sarge scampered up to the point who had taken cover once again, this time behind a house-sized boulder.
“All right,” he said as he caught his breath. “You see that big, upturned rock right before the trees out there?”
“On the other side, Sarge?”
“Yeah. We’re heading for that.”
“We’ll be totally exposed, Sarge. What is that, a hundred yards out in the open?”
“It’s a scramble over those rocks, too. I know. But I don’t think Doc expects us to come this way. Just move fast and get to the trees at the other side. We’re all coming up behind you.”
“I don’t think so, sir.”
“That’s an order.”
“Order someone else, Sarge.”
Sarge drew his M9.
“Whoa. No need to go there, Sarge. I’ll do it,” he replied. He sighed, then started off through the rocks. Sarge waved the next trooper up and on, and then the next. In a few moments, ten of them, including the sergeant, were scrambling in the open over the field of boulders. It wasn’t until three had reached the trees on the other side that the first rounds of sniper fire found Ochs and knocked him off his feet and facedown into the rocks. He shouted unintelligibly, grabbing at his hip. The troopers caught in the open ducked for cover while the ones closer to the far edge ran for their lives into the trees. They could not locate the source of the sniper fire and some of the conscripts fired wildly into the tree line above in an arc that spanned nearly four hundred yards. Another trooper trapped out in the open was hit. He dragged himself behind a large boulder, set his rifle down, and curled up silently. The lieutenant, who had not yet entered the open, called for air support from the cover of the trees. The Kiowas were dispatched. Sarge, who was stuck in the middle, crouched behind the stones, held his rifle up and fired blindly uphill until his magazine was empty. He ordered for covering fire then charged across the last fifty yards of rocks until he reached the far tree line. The platoon was cut in half. The sniper fire stopped.
“Why aren’t they shooting anymore?” Faust asked the sergeant.
“They hear the Kiowas. They don’t want to get chopped up.”
“They got us split in two. My guess is they’ll attack one half with everything they got.”
“What are we gonna do, Sarge?”
“Can’t stay here. We’ve got to move or we’re dead. We’ve got to head back up that slope to the ridge. Get to high ground.”
A second after the sound of the closing gunship rotors echoed through the woods, the area came alive with small arms fire. The sergeant ordered his men up the wooded mountainside. With burning legs and bursting lungs, they climbed. Then the Kiowas came. Their M134s opened up, concentrating on the far tree line, not comprehending that the thermal images they were targeting were those of half of Second Platoon. The friendly fire blitzed the forest, permeating it with thousands of leaden rounds honed by the orange glow of tracers. They unleashed a confetti of airborne bark and stone.
Sarge urged his men upwards. One stumbled and fell. Faust turned to help him but Sarge urged him on. There was nothing they could do. Burst after burst tore through the trees. The surviving men gasped for air, hearts pounding. Another fell, a conscript, and the Kiowa guns zeroed in on him, riddling him with bullets. Only three survivors reached the top of the ridge just as the Kiowas veered off. They ducked behind the trees and boulders and caught their breath.
“What now?” asked Faust.
Sarge looked around, clutching his rifle. “We follow the trail back…get back to the rest of the platoon.”
Sarge turned to Faust. “Look at this.”
“What is it?”
Splotches of red led off into the trees in the opposite direction of the platoon. They still heard Ochs screaming down below.
“Let’s go get this motherfucker,” Faust said.
Sarge signaled Faust to the right and Rogers to the left and they silently followed the trail. It led a hundred yards into the woods, to three dilapidated log cabins with collapsed roofs. One cabin had a forty-foot pine tree growing up from the middle of it. Another’s walls leaned, bending its weathered windows and door jambs into trapezoids. The blood trail led into the third. Sarge signaled Rogers and Faust to the flanks. The trio took firing positions from opposing sides. A breeze blew up from southwest, bowing the tops of the pines. Mosquitos buzzed in their ears and bit their exposed flesh. Rogers reached for a grenade, but Sarge signaled for him to hold off.
“We know you’re in there,” Sarge shouted from the cover of a tree. The wind whispered, carrying the odor of ammonia. A squirrel chattered. Faust slapped a mosquito on his neck. “There’s no escape. Come on out of there.”
Rogers spat as he aimed his M4. On the other side, Faust scanned the trees and listened for anyone else approaching. A Black Hawk was closing in, coming to extract Second Platoon’s wounded and dead.
“This is your last chance. Come out or you’re gonna get dead.” Sarge nodded to Rogers and he reached for his grenade, again. Faust aimed his carbine into the window of the cabin. Rogers put his finger into the ring of the pin. Faust adjusted his grip on the rail of his rifle. They watched and listened. The Black Hawk approached.
“Come out or you’re fucking dead,” shouted Sarge.
Rogers cocked his arm to throw. Faust steadied his breathing. Sarge checked the time on his watch.
“This is your last chance.”
Sarge scanned the woods for other Doc that might be closing in.
“I’m wounded,” groaned a voice from inside.
“You come on out of there and we’ll get you treatment,” answered Sarge.
“Fuck that, Sarge,” argued Faust. “Let’s smoke him.”
Sarge scowled at him.
“You come on out, unarmed. Nice and slow. No sudden movements.”
Rogers readied to lob his grenade. Faust switched his aim to the doorway. Sarge aimed his rifle as well.
“We ain’t waiting here all day. You got thirty seconds. Then we light you up.”
Rogers glanced at Faust. Faust winced. They both looked at Sarge.
“All right. I’m coming out,” groaned the voice.
They heard shuffling inside and then a man appeared in the doorway on all fours. He crawled out of the cabin and fell flat onto the ground with his arms extended. Sarge motioned for Rogers to check him out but Rogers gave him the finger.
“Goddamn it,” Sarge muttered. He approached the wounded Doc carefully, with his rifle aimed, finger on the trigger and ready to fire. The Doc was dressed in civilian clothes. He looked like a vagrant. “Roll over.” Sarge ordered. The Doc rolled onto his side. He was filthy and thin. His hair was long and matted and he had a thick beard. He clutched at his side and winced. “Don’t move.” Sarge kneeled down beside him and went through his pockets. “Who are you?”
The Doc didn’t answer.
Sarge removed his wallet and thumbed through the contents, taking out the black card and sticking it in his own pocket. “No ID?”
The Doc didn’t answer.
The Black Hawk drew closer, likely looking for a place to land on the ridge a couple hundred yards behind them.
“Let’s smoke him, Sarge. I’ll do it,” Faust said.
“Don’t worry, Doc,” Sarge said. “We’ll take real good care of you.”