The radio in the small bunker crackled to life with the sound of soldiers under fire. Down in the valley an American combat patrol had been ambushed by a machinegun and was pinned down, unable to move. The tension quickly mounted in the bunker as five field artillery soldiers stood waiting to take an enemy location sent by the soldiers in contact and turn it into firing data for the howitzers to hammer the enemy with 105mm high explosive artillery shells. The artillerymen did not have to wait very long.
“FIRE MISSION!” shouted the sergeant in response to the buzzing alarm of the battlefield computer in front of him.
“FIRE MISSION!” parroted back four soldiers, their voices loud in the cramped confines of the sandbag and plywood bunker they used as the fire direction center.
“Immediate suppression, Grid 336 511, elevation 1980, Machinegun in the open” said the sergeant reading the information sent by the soldiers in contact. He looked over at the young lieutenant who was hunched over a map pined to the sandbag wall. Behind him he heard one of his soldiers repeat the information as he entered it into the handheld “Centaur” computer used as an independent check of the firing solution. Though the sergeant was looking at the fire direction officer, part of his brain confirmed the information read back was correct.
There was a brief moment of quiet anticipation as everyone in the fire direction center (FDC) focused their attention on the lieutenant.
The lieutenant straightened slightly, then broke the silence, “Battery, High Angle, Two rounds, HE in effect, Lot MH, Charge 6.” The tense momentary pause exploded into frantic motion as the crew repeated the fire order and worked to quickly plug it into their respective computers.
One of the soldiers picked up the hand mike connected to the gun line and announced “Fire Mission!” to alert the crews standing by their howitzers that there was a mission on the way. The response from the gun line was a chorus of muffled cries as each of the gun crews shouted their own “Fire Mission” alerts.
“Deflection 2715” announced the sergeant the computer displayed the firing solution. “Deflection 2715, Check!” responded the soldier as he read the separate firing solution from his handheld computer.
“Charge 6, Quadrant 342” announced the sergeant again. Again the soldier responded “Charge 6, Quadrant 342, Check!” as he compared his firing data against the sergeants. The lieutenant peered over the sergeant’s shoulder at the computer screen giving the firing data a final check. “Send it.” He said and the sergeant pushed the button that sped the firing data into the waiting buffers on the gun line. In his mind’s eye the lieutenant could see each gun crew swing into action preparing their howitzers to fire in the intricate choreographed dance that ended with the howitzer spitting steel death in the direction that he pointed.
It had taken less than 60 seconds. In a very short time the guns would begin to fire. Quick, efficient, and (hopefully) on target.
The tension level in the FDC dropped a fraction as the soldiers waited on the guns. The only sound was the frantic crosstalk on the radio monitoring the internal frequency of the troops in contact that had called in the fire mission. The radio waves carried the fear and anger of the soldiers pinned down under hostile fire into the relative safety of the FDC. A thought floated through the lieutenant’s head; “Better them than me” and he felt instantly ashamed.
“Message to observer?” asked the sergeant. The lieutenant nodded his head and the sergeant pushed a button sending mission information back to the platoon waiting on the artillery support.
From outside the bunker came the flat dull not quite in unison thumps of the guns firing their first of two volleys. Two of the soldiers cried out “shot.” The lieutenant looked at the radio. “Hold on guys, help is on the way.”
The tension in the FDC began to change in response to the radio traffic. Over the radio the FDC crew could hear the impact of the artillery rounds, first one volley, and then the second. The enemy machinegun fire stopped. The platoon, no longer under fire began to move toward the enemy machinegun position. Minutes ticked by. The remaining tension drained completely away when the artillery observer with the platoon in contact finally remembered to send “End of Mission”.
“Did we do any good?” asked the lieutenant. “Sounds like they are talking about finding some blood trails” replied the sergeant. “Good enough for me. How about we call it a probable.” said the lieutenant, “Jeffers, put us a half hitch in the rope.”
Specialist Jeffers put down his handheld computer and reached up for the long knotted cord that hung from the ceiling. “Fuckin’ A, LT” he said as he added another half knot to the line of full and half knots already there.
As a kill board it wasn’t much, just a rope with some knots in it, but each one served as a reminder that they mattered. Each knot was some poor infantry bastard calling out for help and finding the artillery there to pull them out of a bad situation.
Time passed. The infantry platoon at the other end of the radio recovered from the failed ambush and continued their patrol. The adrenalin fueled tension in the FDC was replaced by dull boredom.
“I’m gonna poke my head outside for a second” said the lieutenant as he moved to the opening.
2nd Lieutenant Archie Fehr stepped out of the bunker into the bright sunlight and blinked. He inhaled the sickly sweet odor of burnt cordite that lay heavy in the air and listened to the back and forth of his FDC section.
“Smell that?” asked Jeffers, mugging for the two other privates in the FDC, “That’s Wolf Pussy … when a real artilleryman smells that; it gets his dick rock hard! Ain’t that right sergeant?”
“Jeffers, all your gonna smell is shit burning in the morning if you don’t clean up that mess” Staff Sergeant Timmerman replied referring to the small pile of cardboard and plastic that seemed to spring up around Jeffers feet whenever he ate, “This is not your Momma’s house, no one is going to clean up after you and wipe your ass”.
“Yes sergeant” said Jeffers in a voice much subdued.
Fehr listened to the round of put downs and smack talk that followed. He smiled and thought about his soldiers.
The “twins” as he thought of them arrived at the unit just a few weeks after he was had. Private Dan Sokoloski, a large fair haired farm boy from some Podunk town in Iowa, and Private Damarcus E. Williams, a wiry fast talking player from Montgomery Alabama made an unlikely pair that somehow just seemed to fit together. Like salt and pepper. The bond that those two shared in coming to a new unit together had only deepened with the deployment. Even with effort he could not remember seeing one of them without the other close by.
The ever irrepressible Specialist Adrian Jeffers was at once the source of humor and turmoil in the section. Although a steady and competent artilleryman when performing his job, those qualities seemed to disappear when he was off duty. Jeffers was near the end of his first (and only) enlistment and full of the wisdom of those soldiers slated to never wear sergeant stripes.
The heart of the section was Staff Sergeant Brian Timmerman. Staff Sergeant Timmerman, with 10 years in and two combat tours under his belt, had terrified Fehr when, fresh out of the Field Artillery Officer Basic Course, he was assigned to the section as the 2nd platoon fire direction officer. The idea of not living up to the expectation of the older combat tested section leader haunted their early relationship taking the form of exact and proper correctness when dealing with the sergeant. That stilted correctness had softened considerably as they learned to trust and rely on each other. The relationship had deepened into a friendship, not the casual relationship Timmerman shared with the other Non Commissioned Officers (NCOs), but still a solid friendship based on mutual respect. He knew he could count on this man in a pinch.
Fehr scanned the area around his forward operating base and saw … brown. Brown dirt that seemed to get into everything, brown plywood and sandbag bunkers at odd intervals, and brown reinforced containers filled with dirt (called Hescos after the British company that made them) that marked the perimeter of the base. The brown of the base was just the beginning; out beyond the wire began the brown scrub that covered the brown mountains in the largely brown land that was Afghanistan. Only the grand expanse of robin egg blue sky offered any contrast.
He remembered the excitement and trepidation of learning that his battalion would be deployed, the newness of coming to an exotic faraway land. The sights, sounds, and smells that spoke of a place far away from everything he knew back at home.
All of the fresh excitement of the grand adventure that was a deployment to Afghanistan dissolved into the mind numbing routine of everyday life stuck in this boring brown hell of a forward operating base (FOB). The duty cycle of 24 hours on, 24 hours off, 7 days a week blurred the days together. The days of the week had no meaning anymore. Monday, Friday, Saturday, they were all the same. On duty days were spent chained to the FDC listening to the patrols on the radio, processing the occasional (very occasional recently) fire mission. Off duty days were filled with the mundane tasks of army life, details and taskers that were important enough to need an officer but too routine or boring not to be snatched up by someone of a higher rank.
With the boredom came a faint sense of guilt. He enviously listened to the stories of other soldiers going outside the wire, putting themselves in harm’s way daily while he sat in the relative safety of the FOB. Technically he was a combat veteran; after all he had been under fire, mortar fire, twice while he was here. And he was a part of a combat system that was wounding and killing the enemy, but somehow it did not seem enough.
He sighed again.
“War is Hell” he thought, “A long boring brown hell”.
He looked up to see 1st Lieutenant John Castillo making his way toward him. John Castillo was the platoon leader, the acting battery executive officer, and technically his boss, though he did not lord it over any of the younger officers. As John put it, “There is no rank among lieutenants”. Still all of the officers in the battery seemed to listen when he spoke.
“We do any good?” John asked.
“Some blood trails” Archie replied.
“Good enough” John said, “At least we got a piece of them. Would you make sure that gets down to the guns?” Archie nodded.
“You heard the news?” John asked, then without waiting for reply, “Intel found a valley near the border Hadji has been using to move supplies. They are going to send an infantry company down there to plug up the hole. They are sending some artillery as well”.
Archie perked up, “The whole battery?” Excitement began to grow in his chest.
“No, just one platoon, us.” John said, a big smile crossing his face, “don’t say anything until it is official. We got an orders group at 1900, at the CP. Look nice, the Battalion Commander will be there.”
“Well Hell” thought Fehr as the other officer walked away, “Things might be looking up”.
The dual rotors from the Chinook helicopter sent the dirt into his face and eyes blinding Fehr as he made his way to the partially sandbagged hole that would become the new fire direction center, his new home in this new, smaller base. “Thank God that is the last one” he thought when he stopped outside the hole and watched a gaggle of soldiers wrestle the final pallet of artillery ammunition off of the helicopter and start breaking it down, distributing the cardboard canisters among the three gun positions. He was soon joined by Timmerman climbing out of the chest deep hole by a set of crude wooden stairs.
“Where is everyone?” asked Fehr. Timmerman answered, “I sent Jeffers to get an accurate ammo count from that last pallet. Soks and Williams are filling sandbags. How was your meet with the new boss?”
“About what you would figure” said the lieutenant, “Infantry yahoos have already started some local patrols before we got here. The Captain was pleased with how smooth the occupation went. Said he was surprised how quick we were laid and ready to fire. Kudos to us for not screwing up in front of our new boss.” He said with a chuckle. “They are going to kick out patrols pretty regular and we have to send a rep for each patrol order. That will probably be either Castillo or me but I want you in on a couple of them.” He paused to look at a small notebook then continued, “Castillo and the infantry company fire support officer are putting together a fire support plan for this FOB and the patrol routes in the valley, and they should get it to us soon. No Met data here for the foreseeable future, Castillo wants to register the guns in the morning and at noon for the next few days. I think he just wants to settle the guns in and work the crews a little, we will see how long that lasts. At least we will be able to calibrate the ammo lots, you know, the five requirements and all.”
He looked up at Timmerman with a smirk then continued, “Some other stuff here, mostly nit noid stuff, everyone wears full battle rattle when moving around the FOB, routine new FOB/new boss kind of stuff, how did your meet and greet with our new First Sergeant go?”
The sergeant brought out his own small green notebook.
“First Sergeant seems like a good guy, for an infantry puke. We’re gonna be eating MREs for a while. Command post has a satellite hookup but there won’t be internet access, that sucks. Mail and laundry runs once a week on Tuesday. Top said he is gonna go light on us for details but we all have to do our share until this place is 100%. FDC should be done by sundown if I can get the tin and wood Top promised. Sleeping hootches will probably be tomorrow. I also got the same nit noid stuff you got from the commander about battle rattle, and that is about it”.
Timmerman paused for a moment then asked, “Is it true they had to get translators from Kabul, the local guys back at the FOB wouldn’t come?”
“Yes”, said Fehr, “Word was they were scared, superstitious about this place”.
Timmerman pondered for a moment, “First Sergeant said something in his meeting that bothered me. He said the Qalats that make up the village at the bottom of this hill are stout. High walls, and thick too. No goats and stuff running around, everything locked away. The Captain took a patrol down there for a ‘Shura’ to talk with the local village elders. He said that they wouldn’t even meet with him, they just sent word for him to go away.” He paused again. “Scared translators, elders that do not want to talk; it sounds to me like Hadji has this valley buttoned up. I’ve seen this before my first time around … it don’t bode well for the home team. This might be tougher than we thought.”
Before Fehr could reply Jeffers jogged up and handed the sergeant a piece of paper.
“Here is the ammo count, Sergeant” Jeffers said with a grin, “Man, those gun bunnies can’t count; I had to hold their hand the whole way”.
Timmerman looked back to the pallet of ammunition still being broken down. He did some quick calculations on the paper, and then asked Jeffers, “Do they have any extra fuses on the gun line?”
The grin began to run off of Jeffers face. “No, Sergeant” he said.
“Why do I see six more fuses than projectiles? And why don’t I see the lot numbers from that last pallet?” Timmerman asked.
“Let me call down to the gun line and work it out” suggested Jeffers in a glum voice.
“No” said Timmerman, “I think you are going to shag your ass down to the gun line and work it out”.
“Yes sergeant” said Jeffers taking the paper from Timmerman.
“And do not forget the lot numbers this time”.
“And wear your battle rattle don’t just carry it”.
“And hurry your ass up, I don’t have all day just to sit around and wait on you”.
“Yes sergeant” Jeffers shrugged on his gear and trotted dejectedly toward the gun line.
After Jeffers had moved out of earshot Fehr looked at Timmerman.
“Sergeant Timmerman” he said pausing for effect, “you are an asshole.”
Both men grinned at each other.
The radio cracked and then spoke, “Bandit 26 this is Bandit 22, check point 3”. Fehr noted the location of the eight man patrol on his map then turned his attention back to Jeffers and the story he was telling.
“… So they see this Hadji fucker walking toward them, and he is looking all raggedy and shit, and he don’t say a word, he just strolls up to this Simmons kid and bites him on the arm. But like hard. And Simmons is bleeding and freaking out and shit, and he capps the fucker, right in the face. Just fucking lays his ass out. The sergeant don’t know what to do so they just patch Simmons up, call it in, and leave Hadji laying there. Probably some poor bastard goathearder, I mean the guy didn’t even have a gun or anything. They didn’t have to kill him. That’s fucked up. I heard Simmons is getting sent back to the rear and they are going to give him a purple heart … can you believe that shit, fucker is getting a medal for getting bit by Hadji. Ain’t that right LT?”
All eyes swiveled to focus on the young lieutenant with expectation.
Fehr considered what he would say for a moment, and then breathing a sigh said, “Hell, Jeffers, I wasn’t out there, and neither were you. I do know that this guy was acting really weird and wouldn’t stop. It wasn’t like we chased this guy down, the way I hear he came at our guy, and we didn’t do anything until the Hadji jumped Simmons. He took a chunk out of Simmons arm. They flew him back to the battalion aid station because it looked like it was infected and Simmons was running a fever.”
Jeffers piped up, “Probably got some kind of Hadji rabies VD ….”
The crackle of the radio breaking squelch cut Jeffers off. Everyone in the FDC fell silent. “Contact! … They are everywhere … Oh My God! …“The radio poured fear and adrenaline into the FDC in one brief transmission. The soldiers in the FDC stood ready, listening for more information, another radio message with an update to clarify the situation. None came, just the plaintive worry filled voice calling out in a vain attempt to contact the patrol, “Bandit 22 this is Bandit 26, over … Bandit 22, Bandit 26 respond, over”. Across the valley floated the distant sound of intense automatic gunfire. Then it stopped.
Castillo and Fehr sat outside of the FDC eating an MRE and discussing the events of the day. The mood was somber.
John rubbed his jaw and let out a weary breath, and continued his story “… then the captain kicked out the rest of the platoon as a relief force, but when they got to the area of the last transmission they didn’t find a thing, no patrol, no bodies, just a hell of a lot of blood. The Captain is pissed. Tomorrow morning he is taking a platoon down to the village and crack open a couple of those houses. He says he is going to bag and tag a couple of those villagers and knock some heads until he gets answers. Battalion Commander will be here at first light to monitor the operation from the CP. I think our Battery Commander will be here as well. Patrol order is tonight at 2100. We both need to be there. “He looked down into the pouch of half eaten mush labeled cheese tortellini, then having lost his appetite, set it aside. “Get some sleep tonight; I think it is going to be a rough couple of days”.
Archie nodded. The two artillery leaders sat in silence and watched the sun go down.
The dark moonless night shrouded the figures that stepped out of the scrub and began a slow climb up the hill toward the FOB. Slowly but surely the army of the dead emerged from the wilderness. What had been American soldiers now shuffled side by side up the hill with what used to be their enemy. Only in death had both sides, American and Taliban, put aside their fight. Now they were both united by an insatiable hunger, the need to attack the living and further spread their condition. This army of just under two hundred was largely made of the walking remains of Pashtu tribesmen that inhabited this region, former followers of local warlords, the Taliban, or just outright smugglers and bandits, but among its decaying ranks could also be found occasional foreigners; Arab jihadists who came to fight the great Satan and found a greater horror, Chechen fighters prized by the Taliban for their ruthlessness who learned in death the true meaning of ruthless, other dark skinned warriors who found their way into Afghanistan for war and profit but learned a darker secret. Among the oldest of the wizened and desiccated dead was the unfortunate crew of a Soviet helicopter gunship that crashed in the valley, the green dappled combat smocks in tatters but still identifiable on their shriveled frames. An army of dead warriors gathered from many differing nationalities and allegiances, now moving with one purpose up the hill to the unsuspecting soldiers at the top.
The first warning of the approaching shambling horde occurred as several animated corpses attempted to walk through the triple strand concertina wire entanglements surrounding the FOB and became caught in the wire. Automatic weapons lashed out at them awakening the entire FOB to the danger. Automatic weapons firing from fixed emplacements and triple strand concertina would easily have been enough to resist the onslaught of this dead army except for the unfortunate happenings at the gate.
The first two walking corpses arriving at the closed and barred gate of the FOB wore the uniforms of American soldiers. Sergeant Ralph Pipkin looked down from one of the two low earthen towers that flanked the gate and hearing automatic fire from the positions south of him misjudged the situation. Believing that the vacant eyed figures at the gate were survivors of the “lost patrol” that had been pursued back to the FOB, he grabbed a combat lifesaver medical kit and yelled at Specialist Ramon Ybarra to follow him. Both soldiers hurried down the dirt slope and opened the gate.
Unfortunately for Sergeant Pipkin the soldier he went to help had in death shifted his allegiance. Pipkin did not fully realize his mistake until dead hands gripped him pulling him into a deadly embrace. He only managed one muffled yelp of surprise before the snapping teeth of his onetime comrade in arms tore out his throat.
Ybarra did not comprehend what happened as he watched his sergeant pulled into an embrace by one of the soldiers he had come to help. He looked from his sergeant to the second soldier and the horror of what he saw paralyzed him.
Ramon Ybarra’s parents had come to America from Mexico before he was born. Although they were proud to be American (And very proud of their son for serving as an American soldier) they still fiercely clung to their Mexican heritage. Ramon’s parents, especially his mother, were also devout Catholics. The walls and shelves of their house were filled with crucifixes, plaster saints, votive candles, and pictures of Jesus and the Blessed Mother Mary. Among the elaborate religious paraphernalia were what amounted to four shrines, one for the Blessed Virgin Mary, one each for his grandparents who had died before he was born, and an especially ornate shrine for his older brother Esteban, who died when he was six. Ramon remembered his mother lighting candles daily at the shrines and speaking to them as if they were still alive. “They may be dead, mijo, but they are still here watching over you.” The words and actions that gave her great solace had a different effect on her remaining son. Nothing caused more fear and horror in his young life than the idea of his dead brother coming back to ‘watch over’ him. Thoughts of his dead brother returning to his house were the source of his worst nightmares.
Specialist Ramon Ybarra, on his second tour in Afghanistan, recipient of the Bronze Star with V device for valor under fire and the Purple Heart for wounds sustained was no stranger to the horrors of combat, but what stood before him was more than his mind could bear. All of his childhood fears welled up inside of him at once. He felt his bladder go, the piss running warm down his thigh. His legs buckled and he sank to his knees. He looked up into the face of what had been a friend. The face no longer had a lower jaw. His worst fear had become reality. “Ay Dios Mio” escaped his lips before his former friend silenced him forever.
Private Shaun Kelmer was the newest and the youngest soldier in the infantry company. Fresh out of basic training he almost arrived too late for the deployment. Kelmer walked down the gentle slope from the watch tower to man the gate when he saw the sergeant and Ybarra go out to greet the two figures in American uniforms. He knew something was wrong as he saw the ‘American’ soldiers attack Pipkin and Ybarra. At the same time he watched them go down he saw other figures emerging from the gloom of night moving through the serpentine obstacles that blocked the road to the gate. His heart racing Kelmer raised his rifle and began to fire at the approaching figures. His marksmanship instructors from basic training would have been proud of the way he methodically engaged the targets in front of him. He expended an entire magazine, smoothly changed magazines, and continued to fire; exactly as he had been trained. He hit every target he fired at, center mass; exactly as he had been trained… with no visible effect. Kelmer continued to fire, backing through the gate until he backed into a Hesco wall and had to stop. Dead men with new smoking craters in their chest pulled the screaming, terrified boy to the ground.
The last soldier defending the gate remained in the tower manning the M240B machine gun. Private First Class Dravon Kearney was not sure what to do as he saw two ‘American’ soldiers embrace Sergeant Pipkin and Ybarra. That changed as he saw Kelmer raise his M4 and begin firing.
Kearney clicked his weapon off safety and fired a long burst at the figures moving through the serpentine obstacles on the road/trail in front of the gate. He swiveled the machine gun through a preset arc that sent his bullets grazing just over the obstacles. The figures closest to the gate were knocked down like bowling pins as the machine gun fire scythed across them. Satisfied, Kearney unlocked the tripod and began sending five round bursts down the road at images emerging from the gloom. The hammering of the machine gun in his ears and the pump of adrenalin through his veins narrowed his focus to the targets downrange. He did not see all but one of the walking dead in front of the gate stagger back to their feet and begin their lumbering advance into the FOB nor did he hear the screams of Kelmer as the dead dragged him to the ground.
Out of the corner of his eye Kearney caught the movement of someone entering the tower. “Get that other can of that ammo and feed me, Newbie!” he shouted at what he thought was his partner. He turned to look. It wasn’t Kelmer.
The demise of Kearney left the gate and the only way into and out of the FOB open and undefended. Like water seeking out the path of least resistance the dead flowed up the hill and through the open gate into the FOB.
Fehr awoke at the sound of gunfire. “What the hell!?!” he groggily thought. The sound of a long burst of machinegun fire snapped him out of his grogginess. He rolled out of his rack, checked, donned, and quickly laced up his boots, and shrugging on his gear, ran the few meters to the FDC.
Timmerman and the twins were already manning the FDC when he arrived. Before he could ask for a situation update, Jeffers, half dressed and carrying his battle rattle and weapon, clattered into the FDC and asked in a loud and terrified voice, “Does anyone know what the fuck is going on?”
The tightly controlled anger in Timmerman’s voice sliced into Jeffers. “Shut up and pull your shit together, Jeffers. Lace up your damn boots, get your gear on and watch the damn entrance.” Then turning back to Fehr said, “Hadji is hitting the FOB. Things are a little confused.” He pointed to the radio.
“Any word from Castillo?” asked LT Fehr.
“Nothing yet” came the reply.
The soldiers in the FDC listened to the confused crosstalk on the radio. Fehr and Timmerman looked at each other with eyes wide as they both came to the same conclusion about what was happening.
“Oh God,” exclaimed Fehr, “They have overrun the gate, Hadji is inside the FOB!”
“Damn,” exclaimed Timmerman. Then, “Alright, we button this place up and hunker down, Soks, Williams, clear those sandbags away from the firing ports. With one outside the door and one in each of the two firing slits we should have 360 degree coverage.”
He looked at Fehr. “LT, you OK with this?”
Fehr tried to swallow, his mouth suddenly dry. He responded to the question and was surprised at how steady his voice sounded, “Sounds good.” Then added to the entire section, “Lock and load but do not fire unless you are sure your target is a bad guy. It is going to be really confusing out there.”
He turned to Jeffers, “Jeffers, you got the front door, you good?”
“I’m … OK.” Replied Jeffers in a shaky voice as he started toward the fighting position built into the FDC entrance.
Fehr and Timmerman locked eyes with each other after Jeffers left. The look wordlessly communicated the fear that each man felt well up within them. It was at once a fear for personal safety and a fear for the safety of the men in the section, a fear of failing them and each other. The unspoken communication lasted only a moment.
The young lieutenant felt an odd sense of comfort from the realization that his sergeant was as afraid as he was.
“You good, LT?” asked Timmerman.
“Yeah, I’m good.” said Fehr, then “I’m going to settle Jeffers down out front. The computer and radio are yours.” Timmerman nodded and turned away to set the ‘twins’ into their respective firing slots covering the rear arc of the FDC.
Fehr could not tell his sergeant that the real reason for wanting to step out of the FDC was an insane curiosity to see with his own eyes what was going on. This sudden curiosity overwhelmed even his fear for personal safety.
He nodded to Jeffers as he came up and took up a position against the sandbags on the other side of the entrance. Fehr peered out into the darkness and was initially disappointed that he saw nothing.
In the dark of the moonless night the men of B Company and their accompanying artillery support learned the lessons of a different war against a new deadly enemy. They learned that this new enemy would only be stopped with a shot to the head that destroyed the brain. They learned that the uniform worn, prior allegiances and even friendships have no hold on the walking dead. They learned that they could not trust a comrade that had been killed to stay dead without shooting him in the head. Above all they learned that monsters once thought only to exist in movies or books were real. Each lesson was paid for in blood.
Fehr heard the call for illumination come into the FDC from the company command post. He heard Timmerman clattering on the keyboard pulling up preplotted targets from the FOB defense fireplan. The digital radio traffic screeched faintly as Timmerman sent the firing data to the gun line.
Fehr could hear almost frantic activity from the direction of the gun line. Then the guns fired, one gun trailing the other two by almost ten seconds.
After what seemed like an eternity he heard the faint pop of the illumination rounds ejecting their load. Three white hot suns blazed into existence above the FOB. Three bright magnesium flares smoked, sputtered, and drifted slowly down in lazy circles as they hung beneath their parachutes. The flares bathed the base in a flickering ghostly white light.
Looking across the compound, Fehr saw groups of the shuffling figures moving down the line of perimeter bunkers. He watched another group of slow moving figures shambling from the gate toward the gun line. He watched in fascination as the group approached a gun position oblivious to the small arms fire directed at them from unbelieving artillerymen attempting to defend their position. Over half of the shambling horde fell as they were peppered with small arms fire. Only a very few remained on the ground for very long, the majority of those knocked down pulling themselves to their feet and continuing forward toward the gun position and forming a new rank in the rear of the group. As the group reached the edge of the gun position several of the staggering figures appeared to essentially fall over the sandbag wall and into the position itself. Fehr could hear the screams of surprise that quickly morphed into pain. The small arms fire from the gun position dwindled and then stopped.
Fehr finally remembered his weapon. Just as he raised it to his shoulder to fire into the group moving past the silenced gun position a shadow fell over him. He looked up and to his right and saw his death.
Looming over him just on the other side of a sandbag wall was a thing from nightmares. It wore an American uniform. Fehr recognized it as one of the members of the ‘lost patrol’. One eye, the nose, and most of the left cheek were missing. He could see teeth gnashing together through the hole in the dead soldier’s face. One arm was chewed to the bone in places and hung uselessly at its side. The other arm reached out and grabbed him in an iron grip. Fehr froze as his mind tried to make sense of something that should not be.
The walking corpse leaned forward bringing its snapping jaws closer to him. The smell of rotting flesh washed over him. His mind held the young lieutenant transfixed even as it registered details. The crushing grip on his arm was far stronger than anything he had ever felt from a man. The front teeth of the former soldier were broken and jagged and had shredded dead lips from the inside. Blood, not from the creature, but fresh blood showed wet and slick down the chest plate of the body armor it still wore.
Loud concussions from the left side of his head forced Fehr to wince away in pain. He saw the face of the horror explode in a fount of bone and blackish gore. The crushing grip faded away to nothing as the creature, propelled backward by the force of 5.56 bullets tearing its head apart teetered for a moment then fell backward.
Fehr half turned to see Timmerman, half out of the bunker lower his weapon.
“What the Hell, LT?!?” Timmerman half yelled, “Were you just gonna let that thing get at you?”
Fehr was a little taken aback at the hurt in his sergeant’s voice, as if almost getting eaten by a walking corpse was a personal intentional affront to him. He looked at Timmerman.
“Bandit 6 actual was just on the horn. The Captain put out some crazy information,” Timmerman paused for a moment, “Well, maybe not that crazy. He said the only way to put these things down was a headshot. He also said that anyone dead also gets a shot to the head, even our own. Now I understand why.” He waved his hand in the direction of the once again corpse on the other side of the sandbag wall.
Timmerman continued, “The infantry yahoos have put together a Quick Reaction Force (QRF) and are gonna sweep the FOB to the gate. We just have to hunker down and let the infantry do their job. One thing is clear, we aint fighting Hadji, this is something else. “
Fehr opened his mouth to reply but was cut off by a blood curdling scream. Jeffers, distracted by Fehr and Timmerman, did not see the brown wizened thing that crawled toward him until it grabbed his leg and pulled itself up his thigh. Jeffers screamed again, fell backward against the sandbagged bunker, and beat ineffectually at the thing as it bit into the meat of his leg.
Both the sergeant and the lieutenant raised their weapons but it was Fehr that fired first. The bullet tore through the head of the thing gnawing at Jeffers leg, creased his thigh and imbedded itself in a sandbag. The thing collapsed like a puppet with its strings cut.
“You shot me, you fuckin shot me” a shocked Jeffers screamed, “You’re not supposed to shoot your own men!”
“Shut the Hell up, Jeffers, The LT probably saved your damn life.” Timmerman replied in a voice both commanding and bemused.
Jeffers shot Timmerman a reproachful look and said again in a voice much subdued, “He isn’t supposed to shoot his own men.” The sergeant just shook his head.
Timmerman moved the ancient corpse away from Jeffers with his foot. He was amazed at how light it felt. He studied it for a moment. He could see that it was old, but how old he could not tell. It seemed to be nothing more than tough leather like skin stretched over bones. He could identify the tatters of clothing it wore as common garb worn by most rural Afghans. A blackish substance oozed from the head wound and also from gunshot wounds that had shattered the pelvis and both legs. “This thing had both legs shot up and still kept coming.” He pointed out to the lieutenant, “What the hell are these things?” Fehr shrugged and turned to scan the area in front of the FDC for more threats.
Timmerman turned to Jeffers who was examining the bite marks and bullet crease on his thigh through holes in his pants. “Come on, Jeffers,” he said, “Let’s get you fixed up.” then with a smartass gleam in his eye said “Maybe you will get a medal for getting bit by Hadji, Hero.”
Jeffers hobbled down the steps into the FDC. Timmerman turned to follow. “You gonna be OK up here, LT?” he asked. Fehr answered, “Yes, I am fine now. It was just the shock of seeing …” his voice trailed off. He started again, “Yes I am Ok now, I will be fine, you go get Jeffers cleaned up.” He paused for a moment then asked, “I didn’t shoot him up too bad did I? It did not look that bad.” Timmerman chuckled, “I’ve had shaving cuts worse than that. Jeffers is gonna be just fine, I’ll clean it up a bit and slap a bandage on it. We will have a medic look at it in the morning.”
The two men nodded at each other. Timmerman disappeared into the FDC. The artillery guns fired again, though this time only two new white suns blossomed in the night sky. Across the compound Fehr could hear the sound of gunfire pick up as the infantry began its sweep. The walking dead seemed to be attracted to the sound and he watched groups of ten and twenty move toward the gunfire only to be whittled down to nothing. He watched soldiers retake and close the gate. They completed their sweep of the base and soon everything quieted down.
The night was long. Occasionally the silence was broken as soldiers fired at threats; sometimes real, sometimes imagined just beyond the wire. Several times soldiers called for illumination. Twice the burning magnesium flares revealed a cluster of walking corpses that were quickly dealt with. Helicopter gunships finally arriving on station only managed to circle the compound without finding anything even with the aid of the Forward Looking Infrared (FLIR) night vision equipment. They were only able to remain on station for a very short time due to fuel constraints.
Finally, mercifully the long night came to a close. With the dawn came a flurry of activity. NCOs did the work that NCOs through the ages have always done in returning a shaken unit to combat readiness. Equipment, ammunition, and people were cross-leveled. The wounded were triaged and treated. The dead were identified and collected.
The infantry Battalion Commander and part of his staff flew in to observe firsthand exactly what caused the ‘crazy’ reports from the previous night. After a quick tour of the FOB and some time conferring with the Company Commander they flew out again.
The patrol to question the villagers about the fate of the ‘lost patrol’ was cancelled, the question about what happened answered by recent events. There was no need even to search for the bodies as all Americans on the ‘lost patrol’ were accounted for. The lost patrol had come home in the night. The only member of the patrol not accounted for was the Afghan translator. He would be listed as just another Afghan casualty on a long list of Afghan casualties.
Fehr stood looking at a growing pile of corpses. The First Sergeant had ordered all dead in the FOB to be gathered. The American dead were laying in three neat rows of body bags awaiting a helicopter to start them on their long journey back to their loved ones in the United States for burial. All other dead were to be burned. Soldiers wearing protective gear and gas masks tossed another corpse on the pile. The air stank of death and diesel fuel.
Fehr was soon joined by Castillo returning from a meeting with the infantry Captain.
“Gun 3 is up.” Castillo said in a dull voice, “Had to cross-level from the other sections.”
“I heard” Fehr replied. He looked into the tired bloodshot eyes of the field artillery leader. He could see the burden of loosing men hung heavy on Castillo.
The crunch of approaching footsteps caused both men to quickly turn. Timmerman joined the two lieutenants. “The Captain is on the radio for you.” He said to Fehr.
Soldiers in protective clothing dumped another body on the pile. Timmerman inclined his head toward the pile. “Anyone figure out what those things are?” He asked.
Castillo spoke, “No one is willing to use the ‘Z’ word. The Captain is calling them the ‘infected’.”
Timmerman snorted and stared a challenge at Castillo. “Well, His ass wasn’t out here dealing with these things.”
Fehr noted a spark of anger in Castillo’s eye. The older lieutenant paused for a moment before speaking. His voice was flat and cold. “Two of those things broke in to the CP and chewed up one of his soldiers pretty bad. It was the Captain who put them down … with the handle of a pickaxe. Then when his soldier died and came back he had to put his own man down as well. I think the Captain had his fair share of ‘dealing’ with these things.”
SSG Timmerman broke his gaze and looked down, subdued. “Shit,” he said, “Just … shit.”
“The Captain is probably calling to let you know we are pulling out of here. You can consider this your warning order. Orders group at the CP in one hour.” Castillo softened his tone a little “It was a rough night for everybody.” The three men stood not speaking for a moment. Another corpse was added to the pile. Castillo patted Fehr on the shoulder and he watched as the older lieutenant turned and walked heavily toward the gun line.
Timmerman and Fehr looked at the growing pile of desiccated corpses.”I didn’t know” said Timmerman shaking his head.
“Well, at least we are not staying here. That is some good news.” said Timmerman, “Thank God this thing is over.” He turned and began walking back to the FDC.
Fehr stood alone for a moment. His thoughts wandered back to the wounded that were medevaced earlier. He remembered how quickly Jeffers slipped into delirium from what had appeared to be a minor bite wound. He remembered the medic’s frustration as the bitten soldiers grew weaker and weaker. His stomach went a little queasy. “I have a feeling that this is just the beginning.” He murmured to no one in particular.
He turned wearily and followed his sergeant back to the FDC.