River Of Night – Snippet 43
Junior and Pascoe had the midnight to two watch. Situated at the edge of a small copse overlooking the crossroads, the pair lay behind Junior’s leetle fren’. Although he had been teaching Smith and Ralph the manual of arms for the weapon, Junior remained the most proficient gunner for the antique machine gun.
It wasn’t unusual to hear the occasional zombie wander within hearing distance. This night was no different. A single infected, as far as they could tell, had drifted across their front a few times. So far, they had elected to let it pass unmolested. Lacking both a keen sense of smell and night vision, zombies were ineffective night time hunters, cuing on movement and sound. Simply keeping your nerve and holding still allowed the survivors to defer encounters with individual infected as well as small groups.
However, the noise level was picking up. It sounded like a larger group this time.
“What do you think?” Junior whispered, nudging Pascoe as the crunching drew closer. “Are they on the trail?”
“Sounds like it,” Pascoe said with a worried look towards their little laager, just out of sight. “I hate to give away our position, but I don’t want to wrestle with a lot of zombies and the big gun will chop them up good. I’ll initiate and you can use the flash to aim in.”
As Pascoe began to aim towards the sound, there was a thump, an inarticulate but clearly querulous growl and finally a shout of alarm.
That wasn’t an infected.
Being woken from a sound sleep by the sound of nearby fully automatic fire is a very unpleasant experience. Even after the recent gunfights, and despite not being fully asleep, Tom still spasmed in alarm when he was roused. The heavy chugging of Junior’s weapon was distinctive, sounding like nothing else in the Fallen world.
He rolled over to see Ralph’s wide open eyes at close range.
“Start the truck!” Tom yelled. “Lights off, keep it running and be ready to punch it when we get back.”
Without waiting to acknowledge Fat Ralph’s shaky nod, Tom shrugged into his plate carrier and grabbed his rifle and ran for the short path that led to the observation post. Ahead, the bass timbre of the vintage machine gun had been joined by a growing rattle of what had to be return fire. As he pounded into direct line of sight of the firing position, the gunner finished his first belt. Absent the overwhelming bass of the thirty cal., Tom noted three things immediately: first, his tinnitus had once again been stimulated to a fine, fresh high pitched whine. Second, despite the strength of the tinnitus, he could still hear the sharp popping of several rifles. And over it all, the building sound of howling.
As Junior began to reload, Tom dove into a prone position and immediately starting shooting into the center of group that had been lit by the muzzle flash of the big gun. To his right, he could hear Pascoe cursing as he tried to neatly flake out a second belt. His hearing was too far gone for him to make out the clicking and racking sounds that Junior must have been making has he frantically tried to reload the gun under stress.
Tom knew that there were several qualities of infantry combat that could not be appreciated until they were experienced. Among them was a truism â€“ that in combat even simple things become very, very hard. Junior had likely been drilled on reloading and clearing malfunctions hundreds of times by his veteran father. He was good enough to have familiarized the others members of the team on the gun. None of that could prepare him for the shattering experience of shooting at men, being shot at, and still calmly, precisely reloading a finicky mechanism. It didn’t help that dark shapes, both howling infected and screaming men, loomed in the darkness.
“Get that gun up, Pascoe!” Tom yelled, adding “Changing mags!”
Before he could insert a fresh magazine in the well of his rifle, an infected, drawn by movement and sound, sprinted towards him. It stumbled short of its target, tripping into the gun pit and falling across Junior and Pascoe. Tom made a fast draw with his pistol and simultaneously jumped onto the infected’s back, pinning it with his knees. Despite his desperate haste, he very carefully placed his Sig-Sauer pistol in contact distance of the thrashing infected’s head, where it lay between Pascoe and Junior, before safely drilling a round through its skull and then into the dirt beneath.
The sound of incoming fire increased. Tom felt first a punch on his chest plate and then the now familiar impact of a bullet, accompanied immediately afterwards by a freezing sensation on his leg, as he absorbed another wound in his left thigh.
“It’s jammed!” cried Junior desperately, hammering at the feed tray.
“Leave it, run!” screamed Pascoe. He raised to one knee and fired single shots as rapidly as he could reacquire each subsequent sight picture.
Simultaneously a knot of infected ran into the pit.
Instantly Tom was in the zone. His pistol came up, the front sight post covered the zombie’s center of mass and Tom stroked the trigger four times before the target stumbled. Tom pivoted fractionally, delivering another series of rounds into the closest infected before it too dropped. The next infected closed all the way and bit Tom’s plate carrier, helpfully holding mostly still as Tom jammed his Sig against its chest, emptying the magazine.
“Tom, get the kid out of here!” Pascoe screamed, but Tom still had company.
He tore the RMJ hawk out of the Kydex sheath which he’d slung below his plate carrier. It came free in his hand and he began using short, economical strokes. He deliberately rejected the temptation to take a really big swing that might bury his weapon in a target for too long. The insulated handle stayed firm in his grip despite the blood that started to cover everything.
Another infected loomed out of the darkness and he tore out its throat with an efficient forehand stroke. A screaming man stumbled against his shin, hag-ridden by a zombie that tore at his neck. Tom hacked downwards, killing the man first with a blow to the back of the neck, and then spun the hawk to take the zombie in one eye with the spike. A sudden hot wetness splashed across his face, as the arterial blood from the gaping wounds briefly jetted in all directions.
“Tom, we ARE leaving!” Pascoe yelled, trying to tow the teenager away from the stubborn machine gun.
Tom joined him as they drug Junior backwards. As the boy finally lurched into a crouch, abandoning his father’s weapon, Tom heard Pascoe’s firing resume, but the despite the very large amount of enemy fire, surprisingly few rounds were actually striking near them.
“Pascoe, go dark!” Tom ordered.
It wasn’t Tom’s first rodeo and he knew how confusing nighttime engagements could be. Their best chance was to deny the numerically superior enemy an aiming point. The teen was already moving down the trail, as ordered.
The two of them stumbled after Junior, Pascoe running into every branch, and falling down more than once.
Tom’s M4 banged against his hips and back as it dangled on its sling. He held onto his tomahawk, but used his empty hand to grab Pascoe and half drag him the remaining distance to the truck despite the growing burning in his leg.
Behind them, firing continued as their assailants continued to shoot towards both zombies and their now departed prey. The screams from the injured men were nearly indistinguishable from those of the zombies.
Jason couldn’t hear or see anymore incoming fire.
“Cease fire!” he began repeating at the top of his lungs. He could barely hear his own voice over the ringing in his ears. “Cease fire! Cease fire!”
A mere two dozen repetitions were required to get most of the Gleaners to stop shooting, only to start again when one man shot a still mobile zombie. Jason had to repeat the drill, twice more, before silence finally reigned. Jason pulled the remaining men into a single line, spread in a shallow C shape across the front of place where the machine gun had been. After a few silent minutes, he made half the survivors slowly stand, and walk forward.
The gun was still there, as were several dead or mostly dead zombies, one their own men â€“ who was mostly definitely dead – a lot of blood.
And exactly zero enemy.