Enjoy the first chapter of the action, horror
novel Grave Diggers Two One
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Eight figures moved with tense caution through the gloom of the jungle. The thick canopy of trees towered eighty feet above them, trapping air and wetness like a lid on a simmering pot, creating a thick, fermented mist below. Where sunlight could find its way through the canopy, it looked like misty pillars of gold.
The uninitiated were exhausted after five miles, just from the effort of breathing. Sweating did nothing to cool them down, because the high humidity kept sweat from evaporating; dehydration could kill just as quickly as the scorpions, snakes, and spiders. The jungle was thick with the sounds of animals; monkeys, birds, frogs, bugs, all communicating over each other, making the rainforest anything but peaceful, and easily masking the sounds of approaching threats.
The eight figures moved in single file and stopped when the one in the lead brought up a clinched fist. The leader crouched, as the other seven did their best to move quietly into the nearest shadows.
Sergeant Lori Wesson knelt alone. Her pale green eyes scanned the surroundings. Almost everything looked normal. Almost.
The radio in her ear gave a short hiss. "What is it, Sergeant?"
Her mike boom was nearly close enough to touch her lips, making her whispered voice easy to hear. "One of our trip wires has been set off. I'm checking it out."
By confirmation, her radio hissed again. "Okay. Squad, keep your eyes open. Wesson will recon."
Wesson went forward a short distance, studying her surroundings, then stopped. With a final scan of the area, she bent down to examine the ground.
"Staff Sergeant," whispered Wesson. "I got tracks."
With a quiet grunt, Staff Sergeant Jack Tate shrugged off his combat pack, working his shoulders to ease the pain where the straps bit into his shoulders. Leaving the concealing shadows, he quietly joined Wesson.
Tate took off his worn boonie cap as he knelt next to Wesson, and examined the tracks she had found.
The camouflage of his Army Combat Uniform was faded and sweat-stained, but did the job of helping him blend into the surroundings.
He opened his canteen and dribbled some water onto his boonie cap to cool his head, even though the relief was only temporary.
He saw that the carpet of fallen leaves had been disturbed in a wide path that lead into the trees ahead. Tracks were expected, but still an unwelcome wrinkle.
"What do you think? How long since they were here?"
"A day, maybe two," said Wesson. She scraped away some dirt, exposing damp soil below. "This top soil has dried and it hasn't rained here for a few days." She pointed at a busy tail of fire ants. "You can see where these ants had to rebuild their path after it was disturbed." She moved up a few feet, then came back. "I can’t give an exact number, but judging by the tracks there’s more than five. Less than fifteen."
Sighing, Tate ran his fingers through his short, ash-blond hair and keyed up his mike.
"Team," he said, as he put on his cap and combat pack, "line up on me. We got signs of contact. Ten Victor Mikes, plus or minus."
The remaining six members gathered behind Tate.
The radioman looked around anxiously. All of his gear had that 'just out of the box' look, while the rest of the team’s were worn and faded.
He tapped the soldier in front of him, who looked over his shoulder, slightly annoyed. "What?"
"What's a Victor Mike?" asked the radioman.
The soldier frowned at him with disapproval, but said nothing.
"It's my first patrol," said the radioman, apologetically.
The soldier sighed in disgust. "Victor Mike. Victus mortuus. Latin for ‘living and dead’, stupid. Don't they teach you nothing at boot camp?"
"You don't call them Zombies?" asked the radioman.
"Don't be such a noob," grumbled the soldier. "Nobody says that anymore. Victor Mike, or Vix for short."
"Hey, quiet back there," crackled Tate's voice over the radio.
The soldier looked at the radioman like he was dirt. "Keep your hole shut, noob," said the soldier, and turned his back on him.
Wesson took up the point position and waved the patrol forward into the shadows.
After going a few miles further the patrol came to a break in the jungle that opened up to a wide, flat landscape, dotted with small clusters of trees and tall brown grass. Half a mile ahead was a small village.
Tate signaled the team to spread out and stay hidden in the tree line. Taking out his compact binoculars, he scanned the village.
Wesson did the same.
Tate swept his glasses to a cargo container a few hundred yards away from the village. The sun was on the opposite side of the container, casting a shadow on Tate's side, but he could still make out it was painted with a camo pattern, and had a radio antenna on top of it.
Heat waves rippled his view of the landscape, but he couldn't detect any other movement.
Tate took down his binoculars and wiped the sweat off his face.
He caught Wesson looking at him expectantly. "All right, let’s see if anyone's home." Tate keyed his mike. "Radio."
Down the line, the radio operator was staring, wide eyed, at the village. This was his first patrol, and it showed from his new gear to the white-knuckled death grip on his M203 grenade launcher.
When he didn't respond to Tate's call for the radio, the solider next to the new kid gave him a light slap on the back of the head.
"Hey, dipstick, the staff sergeant just called you."
The kid nodded and wiped the sweat from his face, then looked up and down the line, unsure where to go.
Sighing, the soldier pointed in Tate's direction. "No noise," he said, as the rookie moved past him.
Crouching low, the kid made his way to Tate, who wore an expression of tired impatience. He could see the new guy was nervous, and Tate softened his expression.
"What's your name, Private?"
"Egg Beater," blurted the private, then catching his mistake he tried again. "Uh, I mean that's my call sign, from boot camp."
Tate was still waiting, and the private wished he could disappear. "Paul. I mean Keeble, Staff Sergeant," he said. "Private Keeble."
Tate looked at him firmly, but without blame. "Private Keeble, look at this team and tell me what you see."
Keeble glanced at the squad members quickly, wanting to avoid eye contact. "Soldiers, Staff Sergeant?"
Tate chose to ignore Keeble’s reply was more a question than an answer. "That's right, Private. Soldiers who got the same training you did. They followed that training and it hasn't failed them. Follow your training, and it won't fail you."
"Yes, Staff Sergeant," said Keeble, his anxiety coming down several notches.
"Good," said Tate. "Now, get me that observation post on the radio, and let’s see what we're dealing with."
Keeble pulled out a list of frequencies related to their patrol area, and punched in the numbers. "OP Charlie, how copy, over?" He waited a few seconds for a reply, but got nothing. He tried again with the same results.
Wesson leaned in close to Tate. "That was nice of you, to take time with Keeble."
Tate scanned the area surrounding the observation post for a long time.
"Hoo-ah, Sergeant. As long as he believes it, maybe he'll live a little longer." He wiped the sweat off his neck and looked out at the observation post thoughtfully.
Wesson rolled her eyes and put away her binoculars. "The OP's not responding. I'm going to check it out." She gave Tate a disapproving look and keyed up her mike. "Yeler, you're with me."
"Hang on, Sergeant, I'll do it. Besides," said Tate, patting the spread of his stomach, "I need the exercise. Sergeant Wesson, you and the rest of the team will provide cover. Private Keeble, keep trying to raise the OP. If we run into any Vix use your grenade launcher and drop smoke rounds. That'll confuse them and buy us time to get out of there, got it?"
"Yes, copy, Staff Sergeant," said Keeble.
Wesson followed Tate as he unbuckled his pack and propped it against a tree. "I think I should go, Staff Sergeant."
Tate did a quick check of his battered M4 rifle, then slung it over his shoulder. "How would it look on my patrol report if my sergeant did all the work? The captain would accuse me of being, how did you put it, apathetic and disinterested?"
"You weren't supposed to see that report," said Wesson.
"I won't lie," said Tate. "That part about apathetic stung. I would have gone with cynical. Reports aren't your style. Let me guess, the captain was behind it, right?"
"He's reached his limit with you. It can't be a surprise. You're a staff sergeant, but you don't lead, you don't invest in your men. No disrespect, but I don't know why you're even here."
"This is quite a rare moment of candor for you, Sergeant Wesson," grinned Tate. Then he turned serious. "My situation's complicated. I'm here because... this is all I know." He looked like he was going to say more, but changed his mind and walked back to the edge of the tree line.
A moment later, Tate and Yeler left the trees into the tall grass. Tate turned the volume on his radio off and motioned to Yeler to do the same. Moving quietly, they stayed low with their heads just above the grass, both of them scanning for any danger.
The crunch of the dry grass made Tate wince, but even a ninja would have made noise here. He kept glancing at the cargo container for signs of movement, but nothing stirred, only the constant hum and clicks of insects.
In reality, the cargo container was a mobile observation post, made of honeycomb plastic walls to act as a sound buffer, so noise inside couldn't be heard from outside. It was light enough to be carried by a Black Hawk helicopter, and put down just about anywhere. Once in position, it could be covered in brush, or a camo net. Self-contained to house two soldiers whose assignment was to monitor and report, Tate's squad was there because the OP had missed their last three check-ins.
Tate and Yeler reached the near side of the OP, and took a moment in the shade. Tate thought he could hear the hiss of a radio and both men confirmed it wasn’t theirs.
Each side of the OP had a non-reflective tinted window, making it impossible to see in from the outside.
They moved around to the access doors in the back, but they were locked.
"This is Tate," he said into his mike. "It's locked up tight and there's no sign of..."
Suddenly Tate and Yeler heard a crackle of static, and Private Keeble's voice.
"OP Charlie, please respond, over."
Puzzled, Tate and Yeler looked at each other, wondering where that just came from. It hadn't come over their radios.
"Radio silence," whispered Tate into his mike.
Back at the tree line, Wesson keyed her mike twice to acknowledge the message. Through her binoculars, Wesson could read the body language of the two men. Both of them had just cranked up their alertness.
The other squad members strained to see what was happening across the field.
"That was the OP radio," said Yeler, quietly. "We shouldn't have heard that through these soundproof walls, right?"
Tate nodded in agreement. "I think it came from the other side. Come on."
Everything about this was wrong, and Tate didn't like any of it. He didn't like the OP missing their check-in. He didn't like recon missions, because you never knew what dangers waited for you. He didn't like being out in the open with no cover for hundreds of yards. And he didn't like the apprehension that was crawling up his spine.
They moved around to the sunny side of the OP, and stopped cold. Both of them gripped their weapons and scanned the surrounding grass with renewed unease.
The side of the OP had been ripped open, leaving a gaping hole. Chunks and shards of the honeycombed wall laid scattered on the flattened grass in front of the nearly man-sized hole; now they knew why they could hear the radio inside.
"See that?" asked Tate, as he motioned to several bullet holes in the wrecked wall. "No bullet casings out here."
"Meaning all the shots were fired from inside the OP," said Yeler. "No signs of any Vix."
Tate brought up his rifle and softly pushed the safety off with his thumb. It was old, but reliable.
Yeler slung his SCAR 17S over his shoulder and drew his Glock.
With Tate watching the area around them, Yeler tried to see inside the OP. The stark pillar of light punching through the hole of the OP restricted Yeler's eyes from adjusting to the shadows deeper inside.
He moved his hat to shield the sun from his eyes, while pointing his pistol in the same direction he was looking.
"Can't see much," he said, leaning further through the hole into the OP. Grumbling in annoyance, he fumbled for his flashlight.
"Tick tock," said Tate, urging Yeler to speed up.
Yeler straightened up, offering his flashlight to Tate with a grin. "Hey, if you think you got better eyes for this, I'm more than happy to..."
Suddenly, a rotted hand flashed out of the darkened OP, grabbing Yeler by the face. The fingers punched through the flesh of his cheek and eye socket, and ripped away half of his face.
Yeler's scream died to a gurgle, as a gush of blood clogged his throat.
Time slowed to a crawl as Tate's mind tried to comprehend the horror in front of him.
Yeler staggered back, holding what was left of his face.
Tate could see each drop of blood in minute detail as it spurted between Yeler's fingers. With his other hand, Yeler was pulling the trigger of his pistol. Each flash of the gun looked like a slow bloom of fire, yet there was no sound.
Into this nightmare, something horrific appeared from the hole in the OP. Ripped flesh hung in ragged ribbons from its face. One shriveled eye swung from the socket.
In slow motion, it shoved the handful of Yeler's shattered face into its mouth and turned its gaze to Tate. Its remaining eye glowed with lustful menace, as it started to climb out of the hole.
The air was ripped as one of Yeler's shots narrowly missed Tate's head, and snapped him out of his trance; what had happened in seconds seemed like hours.
Instinct took over, and Tate yanked a grenade from his combat vest, pulled the pin and dropped it.
Without looking back, he ran around the other side of the OP and bolted for the tree line and his squad.
"Contact, contact! Single Vic," Tate yelled into his mike.
His voice electrified the squad.
They brought up their guns and panned the field, ready to annihilate any sign of movement.
A flash of light and crack of explosion rocked the OP, as the grenade went off.
Tate was half way across the field when a Vix rose up in the grass; then another, and another.
Four corpses turned towards Tate and charged. Two were badly decayed and very slow, but the other two were lethally fast.
Tate was putting everything he had into running flat-out, and didn't look around to see how many there were; the only important thing was not slowing down, but twenty extra pounds and being out of shape was already affecting him. Speed and his squad were the only things keeping him alive.
In the tree line, the squad members began firing. The two slower corpses were easy targets and went down quickly, but they weren't the problem since the staff sergeant was easily outdistancing them. The other dead were madly sprinting towards Tate from his left, and closing.
"Smoke," yelled Tate. "Smoke!" It felt like an eternity until he heard the distant thunk sound of Private Keeble's grenade launcher.
Any second there'd be a plume of smoke he could run into and make his escape.
An instant later, the ground ahead of him exploded in a fountain of dirt and shrapnel. In his panic, Keeble hadn't switched a grenade shell for a smoke round, and just fired it off. Hot metal peppered Tate's face and chest like burning needles, but he couldn't dare slow down.
He heard a crack from a rifle, and saw from the corner of his eye a chunk blown off of one of the Vix, spinning it around. It disappeared into the grass.
An instant later it was back up, and racing after Tate, bone and goo flapping from a gaping wound where its arm used to be.
Tate’s breath was ragged and his legs were starting to feel like they were filled with sand. Blood ran down his face, blurring his left eye as he bent his will to dig deep and push himself to keep pumping his legs.
The squad was shooting the instant they had a target, but the Vix were fast and their movements erratic. The best they could do was pour on the firepower and hope they hit something. Among the squad, there was one soldier who hadn't fired a shot.
Kasey Ota looked down the scope of his beloved Dragunov SVD, breathing slowly in and out. Through the scope, he could see the strain carved into Tate's face, but he didn't care.
Ota moved the crosshairs and found the Vic nearing Tate. Through the lens he watched as something yellow dribbled from the Vix’s mouth, and its hands clawed at the air as it tried to reach Tate, but Ota didn't care.
All he cared about was his breathing. He focused on the sound of the air as it flowed through his nostrils and out of his mouth. The numbing roar of gunfire around him didn't exist.
His mind was void of right or wrong, time or need. He drifted his sights slightly ahead of the dashing corpse and counted his breathing.
Tate could feel his body failing him. He wasn't the young man he used to be, and the end of his energy was about to give out as abruptly as the tug of a hangman's rope.
Gunfire from the tree line was tapering off, which told him the Vix were so close now that many of his team were afraid of hitting him.
He reached for his pistol. In the next second, he'd either use it on the Vix or himself.
Suddenly his shoulder was yanked, as the hissing corpse latched onto his web gear.
The Vix's mouth gaped open as it pulled itself to Tate.
He raised his pistol, but fate was making the gun feel too heavy; too slow. He'd be dead before he ever pulled the trigger. He could hear the thing's teeth snapping next to his ear with perfect clarity, and knew it was over.
Tate flinched as something slapped air right next to his face, with a stinging buzz.
The entire top of the Vix’s head vanished in a fine mist, and it crumpled to the ground.
Before Tate could react to the second corpse, it was blown off its feet, spraying skull fragments behind it.
Ota pulled back the bolt of his rifle, spinning the spent cartridge into the air, aware of the looks of amazement from the rest of his team.
A moment later, Tate staggered into the tree line, rejoining his team. His legs trembled as he bent over, gasping for air.
Wesson handed him a canteen, which he poured over his head, washing off dust, blood, and ooze. Drenched in sweat and water, he motioned for the radioman.
Riddled with guilt, Keeble began to explain. "I'm sorry, Staff Sergeant. The grenade... I panicked..."
With a surprising resource of energy, Tate slammed Keeble across the jaw with a sledgehammer blow.
The Private rag-dolled to the ground, unconscious.
"Keep him out of my sight," gasped Tate, "for the rest of the patrol... or I'll kill him... where he stands."
Ota walked past the inert private with mild curiosity, and handed Tate his backpack. "Can we go home now, Staff Sergeant?"
SEE WHAT HAPPENS NEXT
Copyright © 2016 by Christopher Fritschi. All rights reserved. This material or parts thereof may not be reproduced in any form, stored in any retrieval system, or transmitted in any form by any means—electronic, mechanical, photocopy, recording, or otherwise—without prior written permission of the publisher, except as provided by United States of America copyright law.