Prose Header

X-Squad: Stay Dead

by O. J. Anderson

Part 1 appears
in this issue.

* * *

The forest is dark and dense, with a lot of ground foliage and deadfall. The trees are enormous; make the squad look tiny. Lots of cover and places to hide. Not such a good area for a gun fight though: low visibility, congested fields of fire. Firing the M-79s in here will be like setting off bottle rockets in a phone booth.

Jack’s on point, followed by the heavily laden assault team. Will has the rear, stumbling along, tripping over everything and making a lot of noise. Jack throws up a flat hand: listening halt. Everyone takes a knee, hoping to hear some signs of life from the recon team. After three minutes, nothing. Jack calls the ATL up to his position. Tells him:

“Have your team spread out. We’ll move in five hundred meters and set the demo on the way back. When we find our boys, have two of your men drop ruck and evac them pronto.”

“Right,” Rivers says. “And what about the woodpeckers?”

Looking back at Will, who is untangling himself from branches, Jack says, “I don’t know. We’ll fire a few rounds before we leave. Scare ’em off.” Jack then sees Rivers jerk his M-79 up and take quick aim. Spins around and sees a ninja clinging to the side of a tree about fifty meters to their front. “Hold your fire!” he says.

Rivers lowers his muzzle. Spits.

“He’s baiting us,” Jack says, standing. “We’ve been made, men. No one fires a round until we find Smith and Jones. Let’s move.”

As they pick up and continue on, the ninja disappears behind the tree.

One thing that is noticeably absent from the wildlife preserve is the sound of wood being pecked. Not one knock since they’ve been there. If fact, there have been no signs of wild life at all; no birds of any kind, or squirrels, or deer; neither does there appear to be any bugs, or mosquitoes even. Nothing.

When they reach the general vicinity where the recon team sent its last transmission, Jack finds the two men crumpled on the ground, unconscious. He checks their pulses. Good to go. Signals Rivers for the evac team, then has the rest of the men form 360 degree security.

Two brawny squad members, Stone and Simms, drop ruck and shoulder the two men. Once they both have Smith and Jones situated in a good fireman’s carry, they go trotting off to the clearing and back to the vans. Jack radios back to the support team that they’ve got friendlies coming out.

“Right,” Jack says. “Let’s set some demo. Take it out another three hundred meters to the front, two fifty on each side. That ought to do it well enough.”

They cover the first half of the zone quickly and efficiently; less than twenty minutes and the entire ATL reports back to Jack’s position ready to move out and set the rest of the P-10 charges on their way back to the clearing. No contact with the ninjas, but Jack knows that they’re here somewhere, he can feel it. But the operation is going smoothly, and Will can’t find any endangered birds to relocate.

“I don’t get it,” Will says. “Where are all the woodpeckers?”

Signaling the team to move, Jack tells the kid, “There’s a lot of supernatural energy here. They probably moved out as soon as the ghost ninjas showed up. It’s common. Animals are very in tune with that sort of thing.”

“But what if they’re hiding? They could be way up in the trees too scared to move!”

“I don’t think so, kid. Let’s move out.” Gives Will a push on the shoulder.

“We have to be sure.” Will stumbles forward a bit, then bows up in front of Jack. “We have to do something!”

“Oh, for crying out loud, you little brat!” Knocking Will out of his way, he tells Rivers, “Throw a round up into the trees to shut this kid up, will ya.”

“Gladly.” Rivers aims high up into the trees.

“And try not to hurt any endangered birds.”

Will shouts, “Noooooooo!” and dives for the team leader’s weapon.

The M-79's thoop echoes throughout the forest until the immediate follow-up ka-boom about a hundred feet up. Bad move. Before the severed leaves, branches, and chunks of bark even fall completely to the ground ninjas come jumping out from secret doors cut into trees, the earth, and seemingly out of nowhere. Little black pajamas everywhere bearing swords, staffs, and all sorts of other exotic weapons. Apparently the ghost ninjas have interpreted the explosion as an act of hostility.

A shuriken sinks into Jack’s shoulder, just inside his armored plate. Stings. He pulls it out, then pops two HC white smoke grenades and shouts, “Break contact!” The high concentrate smoke billows furiously creating an expedient wall of concealment from which to maneuver.

More smoke grenades sizzle through the air and pop. The team opens up with the M-79s, careful to aim high and have a tree as a backstop so they don’t hit any of the charges. Explosions all around send chunks of wood and fine splinters ripping every which way through the forest, like being inside the funnel of a tornado as it tears through a chopstick factory.

Jack drags Will by his collar.

The 40-mm frags decimate the ninjas’ uniforms and wreck their weapons. But there are so many ghost ninjas that they keep coming at the team in waves. A broken sword twirls through the air with no obvious agenda. Spinning. Slicing. Then dropping to the ground. Maybe having trouble coming to terms with the anachronisms of this battle.

A salvo of blow guns from somewhere high up sends over a dozen darts into Rivers’ back plate, turning him into a pin cushion. Harmless though. He keeps moving.

Myers is going hand-to-hand with one of the unarmed ninjas, this one missing both his hood and pants, so that it looks like Myers is fighting with a shirt. But the shirt is winning, flipping Myers to the ground and throwing a wicked arm lock on him.

Jack hurries over and delivers a double-boot drop kick to the ninja’s kidney area. Pulls Myers up. They continue to break contact and set demo while laying down a steady rate of suppressive fire.

The fighting continues all the way back to the edge of the forest. Where Jack takes a knee and counts his men as they scurry out into the clearing. Still holding Will by the collar, who flops down onto his back totally out of breath.

Looking up at the blue sky, blurry eyes, he sees something small and black sail out from the treeline. It goes about fifty feet, turns, and glides back into the tree top. Then back out again. Same pattern.

As the assault team members file out one by one, Will wipes his eyes and squints. It’s a bird. It’s a Red Cockaded Woodpecker. He is sure of it. Unable to speak, he lifts an arm and points to the sky.

Rivers is the last man out, his neck and face all scratched up and bloody, like he was wrestling with a bobcat. Thumbs up. Demo’s set. All men are clear.

“Let’s move!” Jack says.

Straining, Will manages to say, “Wait. Wait! It’s a wood... pecker!”

As Jack stands and reaches down to grab Will’s collar again, he sees him pointing upward. Slowly he turns for a look, already knowing what he’ll find. The bird flaps its way out into a loop, squawks, then glides back into the tree.

Will says, “It’s a female. She can’t leave the nest without the chicks. We have to help her!”

“Chicks, huh?”

Shaking his head, Will sits up, “I’m not leaving without them.”

But Jack’s already peeling off his gear prepping for the climb. “Yeah, I figured you’d say that, kid.” Heading to the base of the tree, he says, “Rivers, cover me.”

* * *

A safe distance away: “Two eggs,” Jack says. “Two eggs!”

“And the mother,” Will adds. He holds the nest containing the eggs close to his chest, nurturing them until he can find a new tree for them. The mother is somewhere nearby.

“Maybe we should fry ’em up over the camp stove.” Jack asks the squad, “Anybody hungry?”

Several voices: “Mm-hm.”

Will hunches over the nest. “You wouldn’t dare.”

“Oh, I’d dare,” Jack says. “Do you have any idea how much danger you put my men in for three lousy woodpeckers? You’re lucky no one was injured back there. Because you would have hell to pay, my friend... hell to pay. And do you have any idea how much forty mike-mike we expended because of your three woodpeckers? Stuff ain’t cheap.”

“I don’t care how much they cost. You can’t just go out and buy more Red Cockaded Woodpeckers. Once they’re all gone, that’s it.”

The kid’s got a point, and no one was hurt. But Jack Creed isn’t about to admit it; he bites down on his toothpick and squeezes the remote detonator. Behind him, over the graying horizon, rises up a dark column laced with orange and yellow streaks. Like a volcanic eruption. Silently, for a moment. The column begins to form a cap, spreading out as the column still rises. It soon turns into a perfect mushroom cloud. Textbook.

Copyright © 2006 by O. J. Anderson

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