Lucas ate cold MRE beef stew by feel in the dark and thought. Two guys with a wounded buddy who was still unconscious, alone in Indian country… things were very bad. What the hell were they going to do?
Farro spoke up from where he was watching the path to the ledge and the valley below. He’d set up Johnson’s SAW on a short, flat rock, and was sitting crosslegged behind it. “I think Weller might have had a flare in his pack.”
“Yeah, he does. Using it would probably bring a horde of haj at us, though, plus whatever else is around here.” He ate another spoonful of stew. “We need to recover their shit, though. If we’re stuck out here, we’ll need the food and water at least.”
After a pause, he continued, “I’ll go get it in a minute. You stay here with Johnson, keep him alive.” He glanced over at where Johnson was propped against the rock face, his head lolling to the side slightly, supported by his armor neckguard. Lucas couldn’t explain Johnson’s unconsciousness from just a knife wound. His pulse was fine, but he needed water, and they didn’t have a good way to keep him hydrated if he couldn’t drink for himself. All the IV equipment was with the medic.
“Are you nuts?” Farro asked, glancing around. “You’re going to go in there alone? At night?”
Lucas snorted a laugh. “What’s the difference if it’s night? It’s dark as fuck in there no matter what. And I’d rather leave you two here in the dark than in the daytime, when some goatherder might wander by and call in an army to capture us.”
Farro just shook his head. “It’s still fuckin’ nuts.”
Yep, Lucas agreed, silently. I’m fucking nuts.
Twenty minutes after Lucas entered the cave, Farro was getting nervous. “No way it should take this long,” he muttered. It was no more than a couple hundred yards to the central chamber.
He jumped when Johnson coughed behind him, and croaked, “Water.”
Farro shook himself, and quietly said, “Damn, you scared me. You’ve got your camelback on.”
“Need… water.” Johnson repeated. He sounded pretty out of it.
“Alright man. Give me a sec.” He scooted back from the SAW and gently set the butt down so it wouldn’t clatter on the rock or fall over.
He knelt beside Johnson and pulled the other man’s drinking tube to his mouth. “Here you go.”
Johnson’s hand brushed Farro’s sleeve. Thinking Johnson wanted the tube, Farro guided his hand toward it. But Johnson didn’t take it.
His right hand clamped hard on Farro’s left forearm, and he grabbed Farro by the neck hard with his left hand. Farro saw stars as the big man’s hand closed on the back of his neck.
“What the fuck–” he said, struggling against Johnson’s strength as he was pulled off balance. Farro wasn’t a small man, but Johnson was a bear.
“I don’t want water after all,” Johnson rasped, in an alien voice. “Your friend is quite a fighter. But I’m in control now.”
Farro gave up on trying to pry Johnson’s hand from his neck, and hammered his right fist into the man’s armpit repeatedly to no effect as Johnson pulled him closer. His PVS-14 monocular was misaligned, blocking his left eye’s vision, but he could see a red glow in Johnson’s eyes with his right eye.
“Let go, you fuck,” he rasped, spraying spit in Johnson’s face.
Johnson chuckled, a disturbing gravelly sound. “I’m glad you have some fight in you, human. You’ll make another worthy servant. All it takes is one bite.” His mouth stretched open inches from Farro’s face.
Farro got one foot back on solid ground, and heaved against the other man’s strength. He lifted Johnson a few inches away from the wall, then fell as his foot slipped on the smooth stone.
The men crashed back down, and Farro slammed helmet-first into Johnson’s chin and throat. Johnson gave a choked scream, spasmed, and Farro felt something in his left forearm snap. He yelled in pain, and instinctively rolled away as Johnson released him.
Farro scrambled back away from Johnson, holding his broken arm to his chest, and drew his M9A1 with his good hand. He was shivering from adrenaline, but aimed it more-or-less at his friend’s head. Johnson had gone limp and slumped down on his side.
Still holding the pistol, Farro adjusted his helmet with his good hand to align his night vision monocular again. Johnson was definitely back out cold.
“What the fuck was that?” he muttered.
“Hey, Gonzo, where the hell is everyone?” Philip Dare said, sticking his head in the radio room in the Charlie company HQ. He spoke to a tall man watching a movie with the sound off, sitting in a camp chair at a makeshift desk made of plywood and MRE boxes.
“Welcome back, Mr. Dare. The whole platoon is out on missions.” Gonzalez replied. “The whole company is, actually. It’s just me, Kidd, and Sergeant Stibbons manning the fort.”
“Damn. Who’d you piss off to get stuck on the radio?” Dare asked, leaning in the doorway.
Gonzalez stuck his right foot out from under the desk and wiggled it. He was wearing a cast, and his swollen bare toes stuck out from the dark fiberglass.
“How’d you manage that?” Dare asked, raising his eyebrows. “Drop a weight on your ankle as an excuse to goldbrick for awhile?”
The PFC laughed and flipped Dare the bird. “Hell no! I wish I had. Some raghead kid threw a pipebomb at us and I tried to kick it away. Somebody screwed up making it, though, and instead of blowing my leg off the cap flew off like a bullet and broke my ankle.”
Dare shook his head in disbelief. “You’re one lucky bastard, Gonzo. So when are my guys getting back?”
“I really shouldn’t say…” Gonzalez said. It was an opsec violation to discuss mission details with people who weren’t actually involved in the missions or in the chain of command. And Dare was technically not in the chain of command, or even a soldier.
“Come on, man. You know I can just find out on my own. Save me the trouble, yeah?”
Gonzalez rolled his eyes, and said, “Alright, but shut the door, and you didn’t hear shit from me. Word is, Weller’s team went missing searching some tunnels up north. No sign of a fight, and Sarn’t Hartford thinks they’re just lost. Your section is coming back to refuel, then they’ll link up with the LT’s section and head back up there to search.”
SFC Hartford was the platoon sergeant, and he led the half of the platoon Dare usually worked with on missions when the platoon was split up.
“Fuckin’ Weller, man.” Dare muttered. “So, when are they getting here? Do I have time for a nap?”
The radioman shrugged. “Haven’t heard an update in a couple hours. The LT should be back in…” he checked his watch, “about an hour.”
Dare pulled the door open to leave and flipped Gonzalez a candy bar he’d pulled from his cargo pocket.
“Thanks, man. You earned it.”
Gonzalez rolled his eyes and said, “Gotta love the army. Can’t go anywhere without a gun, still get treated like a five year old.”