by Larry Correia
Sweothi City, Central African Republic.
December 15th, 1993.
The hotel had been evacuated since the government had collapsed and revolution had spilled over the countryside, but the lobby still stank of stale cigarette smoke and sweat. Random cries, crowd noise, and honking horns resonated through the windows as the seemingly endless mob of refugees surged through the streets.
The refugees did not know they were doomed. With the Mouvement pour la Libération du Centrafricain (MLC) rebels tearing up the Ubangi river basin, there was no escape. And from what I had seen in the last forty-eight hours, they didn’t take prisoners. The CAR Army was in shambles from the coup, with half of them joining the rebels, and the other half fleeing for the Congolese border.
The lobby had become our improvised command center. Furniture, debris, and even some of the planking from the walls had been stacked against the doors to deter adventurous looters. Ramirez was on the roof, armed with an ancient DP machinegun and a radio. So far the MLC hadn’t made a move against the city, but they were massing, and every escape route was blocked.
There were twenty men in the lobby, two separate groups forced together, uneasy allies with only one chance for survival. You could feel the anxiety in the air, a physical buzz, almost louder than the refugee train outside. All of them were filthy, armed to the teeth, exhausted, and aware that death was coming, and it was coming hard and fast.
SWITCHBLADE was headed by Decker, the dispassionate mercenary leader. Someone had scrounged up a chalkboard, probably stolen from the missionary school next door and he was busy drawing a rudimentary map of the city and the route that the rebel army was most likely going to use to assault it. O’s were the bad guys. X’s and arrows showed his plan. Each X was one of us. Each arrow was an order given in a cold, emotionless, voice.
There weren’t very many X’s on that map. There were a whole lot of O’s.
Hawk, the weathered gunslinger, was second in command. The man always made me think of those gun magazines I had read as a kid, with the stories about blazing sixguns on the border. He was seemingly unfazed, even in our current situation. Cuzak sat on a barstool, head wrapped in a blood stained rag, still in shock from the landmine that had splattered Irwin all over the rest of us. Areyh, the former Israeli commando, was squatting next to the board, memorizing the plans while he ran a bore brush frantically through a filthy Galil. Doc was our medic, and he was off to one side attending to one of the wounded Portuguese mercs. I had a feeling that Doc was going to have a long day.
And that was all that was left of the illustrious mercenary company called SWITCHBLADE.
F***ing Decker. F*** Decker and his f***ing mission. He should have listened to me. If he hadn’t been so damn sure of himself, so damn proud, Irwin, Slick, and Sam would still be alive.
I hid my emotions behind a mask of mud and dried blood, and went back to dispassionately cleaning the Yugoslavian RPK that I had stolen, listening to Decker’s defensive plans, but already making plans of my own.
The other half of our ragtag group of survivors was all that remained of the Portuguese mercenary company out of Angola. They had been hit worse than we were. Nobody had expected the rebels to be this well organized and equipped, but apparently the Montalban Diamond Exchange had brought in a large group of Cubans to train up the disorganized MLC. The Ports had lost most of their leadership in the last skirmish, and the only thing holding them together was a short, angry, hairball of a man named Sergeant Gomes.
“If we put up enough of a fight along these streets, then the rebels will commit their reserves. Currently that reserve is blocking here, and here. And as far as we can tell, those are the shock troops. The groups moving into the city now are the irregulars. With them out of the way, we can then retreat down Kahiba Road toward Manova-Gounda. Then it’s a straight shot, fifteen clicks, to the airfield,” Decker explained calmly. “The plane is fueled, and ready to go, but they will not wait for us if the rebels approach the airfield. We do not have much time.”
He was calm now. The Belgian was always calm. He was calm when he got us into this suicide mission. Calm when we overthrew a government and brought hell down on these people to placate a diamond company, and he would probably be calm when I put my knife in his throat. I snapped a fresh drum into the Yugo and worked the charging handle.
“It’ll be tight, but we can fit in the truck, all of us,” the leader of the Portuguese said, referring to the deuce and a half they had stashed in the hotel garage. His English sounded strange, and had probably been taught to him by an Afrikaner. “Who’s gonna cause enough problems to get a division of rebels to concentrate enough to let us slip out though?”
“We’ll need a diversion. Someone will need to cause enough resistance to stall the irregulars, here,” he gestured at the board, “long enough for them to call in the Cubans and the trained MLC. We’ll need someone who can fight, and then slip away once we escape, someone who can disappear, go to ground. Stealth will be their only chance to evade capture.” He looked right at me as he said it.
So he knew.
I should have kept my mouth shut after this operation went to hell. But I didn’t. I violated my own rule of always being the grey man, the one that didn’t draw attention, the thief in the background. I had let my emotions get the better of me. And Decker must have sensed my anger.
And over the last year, he had seen what happened to people who made me angry.
So this was how it was going to be.
“Ozzie,” he nodded toward me. “I think you would be the only person who would have a chance.” Decker was good, very good. He didn’t display any indication that he was disposing of me. Rather, he was just the good leader, picking the best man for the job. “We’re counting on you. Force them to pull their reserves, if not, we’ll have to try a frontal assault, and since they have those APCs, it would be suicide in the open.”
The only surviving radio in the room suddenly crackled with static. Every head in the room swiveled towards it. “This is Ramirez. Militia forces are moving into the south end of the city. Looks like they’re going to burn it all.”
The room was silent, then broken by a fit of coughing from one of the wounded mercs who’d caught shrapnel in the lung.
“Do you mind if we have a word about this, in private?” I asked, perfectly calm.
Decker made a show of looking at his watch. “Certainly.” He gave an imperceptible nod toward Hawk. They had been around, and knew what was happening. “But we’d best hurry.”
“No s***,” Sergeant Gomes said, as a mortar shell exploded somewhere in the city.
“It didn’t have to be like this,” Decker said, as he strolled into the side room. He had his back to me. The spot between his shoulder blades and the ALICE suspenders was an inviting target, and I could feel the heavy weight of the combat knife on my hip. But Hawk was trailing behind me, and as fast as I was, I knew that Hawk was that much faster with that big magnum revolver.
“It is what it is,” I replied, too damn tired to try to put on any sort of act. “We killed the president. We caused this. The diamond exchange used us, and you let them.”
“How long have you been with SWITCHBLADE?” he asked, already knowing the answer. “A year, yes, a year. And honestly...” he finally turned to face me, his eyes sad, his spirit injured by the events of the last two days. “I saw great things in your future. You were nothing but a common thief when you joined us...”
“I was an exceptional thief.”
He ignored that. “But I saw a leader, a man that could make a difference. I could see you taking over, and running this organization.” Decker was sincere, at least. That I could tell, but sincerity doesn’t make a rattlesnake any less venomous.
“If you haven’t noticed, half your organization’s dead, because you screwed up.”
“I know...” Decker said, his voice cracking, the pain obvious. “This is the end of SWITCHBLADE. Even if we make it out, the diamond exchange will have us hunted down like dogs. I’m sorry about the men. They… they were like family to me.” I could hear the creak of gun leather as Hawk shifted behind me.
Also true, but it didn’t make me hate him any less right then.
“And I know that’s why you’re going to do your best to slow down these rebels. Because I know that Ramirez, and Doc, and Cuzak are like brothers to you, and you won’t let them down,” Decker said simply.
“True,” I answered.
“You had better hurry.” Decker put his hand on my shoulder. “I’m sorry,” he said. And I believed him.
And that was the only reason I decided not to kill him.
The refugees were panicking now, turning from individuals, into a deadly entity, discarding and crushing bits of itself underfoot. Screams filled the air. In the distance could be heard the boom of mortars and sporadic automatic weapons fire. The boards that had been blocking the front door flew into the street in a spray of dust as I booted them hard and pushed my way into the street.
It was hot. Muggy, sticky hot, and sweat rolled down my back and soaked my camouflage. The air stank of oil and smoke and fear.
The group had been low on ammo after two days of furious combat and retreat, but I had still commandeered every piece of hardware that I could carry. I had the RPK in hand, our last RPG slung over one shoulder, Cuzak’s Ithaca 37 over the other shoulder (he was in no shape to fight anyway), a Browning Hi-Power on my belt, and every spare round of ammo and frag grenade that I could scrape up. Any more munitions and I wouldn’t be able to move. Tsetse flies kept landing on my face to probe the dried blood patches.
Doc had tried to stop me. He understood what was happening, that I was a threat to Decker, and therefore expendable. I had just shook my head, and made him promise to get the wounded to safety. Cuzak hadn’t said a word, but he shook my hand solemnly, knowing what I was about to do. If I had one weakness, it was that when I occasionally made a friend, I was too damn loyal.
And it was about to kill me.
Decker gave me a brief nod. Hawk tipped his hat in my direction. Areyh spit on the floor.
So this was the end of SWITCHBLADE.
The others exited, fanning out, forming a perimeter around the hotel, where they would hold until Ramirez, acting as our spotter, could see that the road was clear. If I failed, their only choice was to attack straight into the Cubans and try to break through to the airfield. They would never make it. I walked away, the deadly mob of women, children, and old men parting before me like water, leaving the last year of my life behind, and knowing that I was probably going to perish in the next few minutes. The terrified Africans moved out of my way, my anger like an invisible plow.
The CAR was a blighted land. Torn by war for generations, poor beyond all comprehension, and I knew that probably half of these refugees would be dead in the next ten years from AIDS even if they managed to somehow survive the machetes of the approaching rebels. And we had come here, paid in blood money, to topple their corrupt government, and install another corrupt government that the diamond exchange liked better. And even then, the exchange had sold us out.
What a waste.
Then there was someone pushing forward with me. Sergeant Gomes, the Portuguese mercenary, appeared at my side, his burly form cradling the Port’s PKM machine gun. A stubby Steyr Aug was tied around him with a discarded web belt serving as a sling. His oddball camouflage was ripped, blood stained, and every exposed patch of skin was covered in caked on mud. He looked hideous.
But happy. “Let’s kill us a bunch of these rebel sons of bitches,” he grinned, his beady eyes narrowing dangerously.
“What’re you doing?” I shouted over the chaos.
“My men? They’re in no shape to fight. So I figure, nothing I can do for them,” he shrugged. “You could use the help. Might as well go fight.”
I couldn’t argue with that.
He stuck out his hand. It was calloused and strong. “Call me Carl.”
I had been going by Ozzie for the last year, but I knew that I couldn’t go back. Even if I lived through this battle, it would be best if I disappeared. I knew that the diamond exchange could not afford to allow any of SWITCHBLADE to survive, knowing the things that we knew. And if they didn’t get me, then Decker might very well try, just to tie up loose ends. It was time to start over, to disappear, to become grey again.
I said the first name that popped into my head.
“Lorenzo... My name is Lorenzo.”
Sweothi City, Central African Republic.
December 15th, 1993.
The crowd thinned out enough for the two of us to break into a run, counter intuitively, toward the sound of gunfire. Normally I was the type that liked to plan, but there was no time for that.
This part of Sweothi City was rougher than the rest. Half the buildings were the stacked mud brick type, but compressed between them was a maze of shanties built out of things like chicken wire, packing crates, and old tires. Some of them were already burning.
Carl grabbed me by the arm and pointed down the street into the emptying marketplace. Black smoke was rising from the neighborhood behind it. “The irregulars will come through here.”
“How do you know?”
“I’ve been fighting in Africa since my people lost Mozambique. They’ll come through here because they’re stupid rabble and it’s obvious. They’ll want to loot the shops, rape the stragglers.” He swept his hand to the right, and pointed down the other intersection. “When the Cubans come, they’ll move up this street, and then try to flank us through the shanties on the north. That’s how those commie bastards will do it.”
I nodded quickly, trying to burn the layout into my mind.
“Stick and move. Don’t let them pin you down. Most of these s*** birds can’t shoot, but they shoot a lot.” Carl hefted the massive PK. “Always attack. Make them react. Got it?”
My pulse was pounding in my head as I turned and headed into the market and toward the rising smoke plumes of black tire-fueled smoke. The 75 round drum in the RPK was heavy and pendulous at the balance point as I let the muzzle lead the way. I moved in a crouch, Carl slightly behind me, gun shifting toward every sudden flash of movement. Several scrawny dogs ran past, tails between their legs.
Then I saw the first of the rebels. I raised my fist, signaling contact. We both crouched low and moved into the shadows beneath a meat stand. A thick black cloud of flies covered the hanging goats and chickens. A can of generic bug spray was under foot, surely used to spray the meat down to keep the flies off.
The first of the MLC were making their way through the bazaar, kicking over stands, and picking up anything left that looked shiny. They really were rabble. Nothing like the disciplined troops we had fought earlier. Most of them were scrawny, malnourished, conscripts wide-eyed with fear, or barely coherent on khat. I hunkered down, waiting for more of them to come into view before I opened fire.
Then there was a scream to the side. A woman. Carl and I both jerked toward the noise, just in time to see two of the rebels dragging a young girl by the hair from one of the brick houses into the street. She was hysterical, with tears running down her dark cheeks.
Carl’s machinegun shifted toward the two men, but I grabbed his arm and shook my head. The rebels hadn’t seen us yet. I jerked my thumb toward myself, made a slashing motion across my throat, and then pointed at the two would be rapists. Carl nodded, and trained his weapon back at the rebels collecting in the market. We only had one belt for the machine gun, and needed to make the most use of it.
I put the RPG, RPK, and Ithaca on the ground, as quietly as possible, and drew the Vietnam-era Air Force knife from my belt. I slid under the booth, and crawled through the dirt, brushing between hanging meat and half gutted chickens, using every shadow and piece of cover. Luckily my Rhodesian camouflage was so crusted with filth that I was the same color as the earth. I covered the thirty feet to the first rebel in a matter of seconds. This was my element. No one could move quieter or faster than I could.
The men were distracted. The first had shoved the girl down and was trying to rip her clothes off as she thrashed and screamed. He was obviously inexperienced at this whole pillaging thing, and the girl was wailing on him.
The second man got tired of waiting, lowered his machete, and pushed the younger man aside. “Ashti sangha m’baka, dummy.”
I moved in a blur, my knife humming through the air. I hit the first man in the base of the neck. The knife jabbed in under his ear, and out in a flash of red. The second man had time to turn, shock registering on his face, just as I kicked his knee cap backward. He went down on top of the girl. I grabbed him by the hair, jerked his head back, and slashed him across the jugular.
Neither man was making noise now, but both were thrashing, spraying arterial fluids everywhere. They would be dead in seconds. The girl looked up at me in shock as I grabbed the rags that served as her assailant’s shirt and hauled him off of her.
She heeded my suggestion, leapt to her feet, and bolted, trying to hold her torn clothing closed. I heard motion coming from the open door of her house, and quickly moved against the hot brick wall. Dripping knife held in a reverse grip, close to my chin.
Another rebel walked out of the house, AK in one hand, dangling useless, the other hand was holding some gaudy, cheap, necklace up to the sunlight. He was grinning from ear to ear, pleased with his plunder.
Enjoy it, mother-f***er.
He paused, realizing that his two friends were the source of all that blood, just as I grabbed him by the top of the head, jerked it back, and rammed the combat knife straight down, just above the junction of his neck and sternum. I used the knife against his ribs like a lever to force him to his knees as I sawed through his aorta. I yanked the blade out and let him thud lifeless to the ground. I wiped the knife on his pants, sheathed it, and grabbed his AK. The whole thing had taken less than twenty seconds.
Carl was staring at me in slack-jawed wonderment as I slithered back through the hanging meats.
"Filho da Puta…”
“Yeah. I get that a lot,” I muttered as I slung the RPG tube and the shotgun. I now had a Kalashnikov in each hand. This was getting kind of extreme.
“Contact right,” Carl hissed.
Sure enough, there was the main body of the irregulars. Now they were clustered in the marketplace, fighting like dogs over the scraps of a ruined civilization. There were at least thirty of them, armed with everything from meat cleavers to grenade launchers, and they were not in the least bit worried about resistance.
“On three,” his voice was a whisper as he slowly extended the PKM’s bipod. “One mag, then run like hell back to the intersection.”
“One.” I proned out behind the AK, using the magazine as a monopod, and centered it on a knot of men. They were less than one hundred meters away.
“Two,” Carl hissed as he took up slack on the trigger.
“Three,” I moved the selector to full.
The PKM was horrendously loud as it cut a swath through flesh and bone. Whole knots of the rebels disintegrated in clouds of red as the 7.62x54R tore into them in great piercing blows. As Carl was swinging the reaper’s scythe, I tried to pick out anything he was missing. I centered the front sight on a running rebel, and cranked off a burst.
The wall three feet to his side exploded under the impact.
The sights on this thing were so far off that aiming was useless. I held the trigger down and swept the muzzle across the market, emptying the magazine in one burst. I let go of the AK and let it flop to its side. I was to Carl’s left, and the steel cases from the PK hit me with brutal impacts. I scooped up the RPK and prepared to cover his withdrawal.
Carl was saying something repetitive in Portuguese with every burst. In seconds, our hundred-round belt was gone. “Moving!” Carl shouted as he jumped up from behind the smoking beast.
“Move!” I answered as I scanned for threats. Carl ran for the intersection while pulling the Aug from its makeshift sling. The market was a mess, with the dead and dying spread everywhere. The rebels were in disarray, but that wouldn’t last long. Already there was movement as more came in from the south. I sighted in on one charging man, and stroked the trigger. The Yugo barked, and the man pitched forward into the street. At least this one was sighted in.
“Go!” Carl shouted as he took up position behind a brick wall.
I sprang to my feet, and leapfrogged past him, sliding into a position behind a bank of broken cinderblocks. The RPG on my back made it hard to maneuver, and damn near impossible to get low.
Several of the very brave, or very stupid, moved out into the open. In African warfare, you could often get away with this, as the fundamentals of marksmanship were not really known or taught by very many people here. For Carl and me, however, marksmanship was apparently not a problem. The rebels went down in a quick hail of gunfire.
The street was silent.
We had bloodied them, but I didn’t know what it was going to take to get those Cuban’s attention and get them off that damn road.
“Give them a minute, to get puffed up, get over the shock, and then they’re gonna charge. Then it won’t stop until we’re dead, or they’re dead. So let the dumb ones get popped in the open, and then we’ll fall back into the houses and alleys,” he jerked with his head in one direction, “and counterattack. When we hear the commie’s vehicles, move so we can hit the intersection.”
And then it was on. Rebels poured through the marketplace. Some ran straight at us, firing from the hip, others hung their guns around corners and blazed away. It was chaos. None of them could shoot worth a damn, but they made up for it in volume. Bullets tried to fill all the empty spaces. The cinderblocks around me exploded into powder and clouds of dust, and I swear some of those guys must have been shooting black powder from all the smoke. I fired at everything that moved and put rounds through anything that looked suspicious.
“Reloading!” Carl shouted as I hammered a line of impacts through some shanties. “Move to the buildings! Go! Go!”
The whole world had gone insane. I was up and moving as fast as I could, hot lead all around me, sounding like angry bees. The RPK sparked hard and spun from my hands, torn nearly in half. The hot muzzle smashed me in the face and my feet flew out from under me. I crashed into the gravel as gouts of flame tore all around.
“Technical!” Carl shouted as he lumbered past me, grabbing me by the straps of my LBV and pulling me up. This particular technical was a red Toyota pickup with a massive 12.7 DhSK machine gun mounted on the back. I hadn’t heard it roll up behind us in the intersection.
The huge gun tracked over us, spitting bullets past, and into the soldiers on their own side. Carl shoved me through an open doorway and into the cool darkness.
I lay on the floor, breath coming in ragged gasps. It was actually quiet. Or I think it was quiet. It was hard to tell over the ringing in my ears.
“Are you hit?” Carl shouted as he quickly poked his head through the door.
“I don’t think so,” I answered.
“Good.” Carl pulled back, just as the doorway exploded into mud fragments. The DhSK was seeking us again, probing for us with bullets bigger than my pinky finger. “Fodas!”
Now it was brighter as sunshine streamed through the fresh new holes in the wall. This home was a simple, one-room dwelling. There was a backdoor. I crawled toward it, rolled over, yanked Cuzak’s 12 gauge, and kicked the simple plywood door open. Leaning out, I could see that the door led into an alley. I scanned the other direction and—
“Damn it!” I screamed as the bullet flew through the plywood and past my face. I fell into the dirt alley, right at the feet of a rebel. He looked down at me in surprise as he tried to work the bolt on his Mosin Nagant. I smashed the Ithaca’s steel buttplate into his groin. He stumbled back as I rose and smashed his skull with another butt stroke. I brought it down twice more in rapid succession, each impact a meaty thud. He slid slowly down the wall.
Someone else appeared around the corner, and I raised the shotgun without thinking, front bead centering on his head. I froze, as the unarmed old man raised his open hands and begged for his life. My trembling finger had almost pulled the trigger.
“Get down!” I shouted at the old man as the DhSK raked through the house again, with the bullets passing through multiple walls and into the alley. The old man vanished back around the corner.
I had to take out that machine gun. Now. I sprinted down the alley in the direction of the noise. I could hear Carl breathing hard as he tore after me. The alley was long, and twisty, with each mud house having a backdoor. “Watch our back!” I shouted as I thought about all those openings behind us.
The Aug barked twice. “On it!” Carl answered.
There was movement ahead, one of the plywood doors flew open, and the muzzle of an SKS snaked through. The rebel stepped through the doorway and I blasted him in the face with a round of double aught, pumped it, and swung around the door. The little house was packed with soldiers. Packed.
They looked at me. I looked at them. That one second stretched into eternity.
Then everybody moved.
Cuzak’s gun was the old style with no disconnector, so you just held down the trigger and pumped and it kept shooting, it also had an extended magazine, but I didn’t stop to think about those facts at the time.
BOOM BOOM BOOM BOOM BOOM BOOM click
“Meu Deus,” Carl gasped as he viewed over my shoulder.
I reached one shaking hand into my pocket, pulled out some more buckshot, and started feeding them into the loading port.
“We’ve got to keep moving.”
Sweothi City, Central African Republic.
December 15th, 1993.
“We need to kill that technical!” Carl shouted into my ear as the walls exploded around us from heavy machinegun fire. Whoever was manning that DhSK was just working it back and forth across the houses. They didn’t know which house we were hiding in, or we would already be dead.
“Ya think?” I screamed back.
This was the third home we had leapfrogged into after the shotgun massacre. The area was covered in rebels now, shooting at anybody who didn’t look like they were from around these parts. Carl and I sure didn’t look like locals.
“You gonna use that thing--” he gestured at the end of the RPG launcher sticking above my shoulder like a psychotic blunderbuss. “Or just carry it around all day?”
I flipped him the bird, and pulled the heavy tube around in front of me. “Head for the alley so the back blast don’t kill you.”
He nodded once, rolled over, and low crawled for the back door. I knew once I opened that front door, I would have a clean shot at the intersection, but every scumbag in a three block radius was going to zero right in on us. I wouldn’t have much time.
I made sure the rocket was fully seated, the hammer cocked on the launcher, and push button safety deactivated. This was it. I stood, risked a quick peek through one of the approximately fifty-caliber holes through the wall, and spotted that damn little Toyota, parked in the middle of the road about ninety meters away. The tube settled heavy on my shoulder.
The plywood door flew open with a bang, powered by my boot and a whole lot of adrenalin. I centered the front sight through the lowest aperture, focused on it, with the Toyota a blur behind.
But then something caught my attention. I don’t know if it was the rumble of the heavy engines, or the crunching of debris under its tires. The RPG dipped slightly as I turned toward the lumbering thing coming from the direction, that sure enough, Carl had predicted the Cubans would use.
“BTR!” I screamed, as I pivoted toward the massive Soviet armored personnel carrier. It was all angles and armor, ugly, and swarming with Cubans. I aimed the RPG at the new, deadlier threat, and yanked the trigger. The tube boomed against my face and years of dust billowed from every surface inside the tiny African home. The rocket streaked to its target. It was deafening and awe inspiring.
The front of the BTR seemed to shiver for a brief instant before the grey steel tub belched flames in every direction. Several quick, massive blasts shuddered through the hulk, and I could see figures tossed, wind-milling, and spinning through the air.
I had not seen the second BTR enter the intersection. But it had seen me. Its cannon swiveled toward me. I turned and dove back into the house.
Suddenly the world was white. Brilliant flashing white. Up was down, and the ground was somehow now far below. It came up to meet me, very quickly.
Bob looked grim when he walked out of the hospital room and into the hallway. His eyes were red, puffy from crying, and at that moment he looked aged far beyond his seventeen years. My heart broke when I saw him, because Bob was our rock.
“Mom’s on her way,” I said quickly. She had been hysterical on the phone.
My older brother put one massive hand on my shoulder, using me to steady himself on wobbly legs. He towered over me, intimidating in his size and mass, though he never meant to be. “Dad wants to talk to you,” he croaked. Bob then let go of me, and seemed to melt, as he slid down into one of the waiting-room chairs. “You better hurry.” He put his head down and started to sob.
Several members of the hospital staff were clustered nearby, watching us. It was a small town, and everybody knew my foster father. They were all stunned by the senseless act of violence that had ripped our little community. I gathered up my courage, and headed for the door.
There was only one bed in the room. A bank of archaic instruments were beeping and clicking behind it. Doctor Smith nodded at me, placed his clipboard down on a small table, and silently left the room. The doctors had done everything they could, but the thugs that had attacked my father had been thorough. If Gideon Lorenzo lived it would be a miracle. Tubes and mysterious bags descended from the ceiling. Through the tangle, I could make out my father.
“Hector…” he wheezed. His bandaged head tilted slightly in acknowledgement.
I moved to his side. He looked bad, with great dark circles around eyes so laced with blood that I couldn’t help but blink in sympathy. Always an amazingly strong man, it was shocking to see him in this state. I felt like someone had punched me in the throat. He was a good man, an honorable man. The idea of him being mortal had never entered my mind.
“I’ve got to tell you something…”
I waited, hot tears streaming down my face. This was the man that had taken me off the streets. This was the judge that sent the miserable wretch that had been my real father to prison. The Lorenzos had taken me in, welcomed me into their happy home, let me know what real family and loyalty was like. And now he was dying.
“I’m worried about you...” His voice was barely a whisper. “I see things... in your future. Bad things.” I wiped my running nose on the back of my hand, and leaned in close. His red eyes were open wide, staring right through me. “You have a streak in you. You’re good, but you have... an evil inside. Don’t let it out. Please, whatever you do, don’t let it out.”
I flinched involuntarily as his hand clamped onto my arm, suddenly strong.
“Don’t avenge me. Leave it to the law, boy,” he hissed. “Don’t let the evil out...”
Then he was gone.
I stumbled back, crashing hard into the wall, instruments scattering across the floor, the strength gone from my legs. The machines began to scream and nurses rushed into the room. The wall was hard against my back, and the floor was cold beneath my legs. Bob was a hulking shadow in the doorway. A doctor began to pump his hands up and down on my father’s chest. I heard a wailing as Mom arrived, her hands pressed to her mouth, but the noise still coming through. I wanted to move to help her, but my body wouldn’t respond. Her scream was the word no, over and over.
My ears were ringing.
My ears were ringing.
Where am I?
“Lorenzo! Come on!” Someone slapped me in the face. Hard. “Move, damn it!”
I woke up, and everything hurt. I was on my back, at an awkward angle, the Ithaca under me, stabbing me in the kidneys. It was hard to breath and the air was choked with dust and smoke. I raised my shaking hands in front of my face and saw that they were covered in blood and I had no idea if it was mine.
“What the hell was that?” I blurted, sitting up, and feeling something grate unnaturally in my chest.
“The Cubans are dropping mortar rounds right ahead of their advance.”
“They can do that?” I quavered as Carl pulled me up.
“Apparently. Good thing they missed. Can you move?”
“I think so.” Pain was shooting through me, but everything seemed to be connected. The house that I had been hiding in was... gone. “That was a miss?”
The area was now overlaid in swirling dust and smoke from the burning BTR. That mortar round had raised a mess. I could see flashes of movement through the fog, but I was lucky to see ten feet. This was our chance. We had accomplished our mission and gotten the Cubans to abandon their post. “Carl, head for where the technical was. Let’s hitch a ride.”
“Good idea,” he coughed as he inhaled a lungful of particulate. He pulled a black bandana out of his pocket and quickly tied it around his face like some bandito. Nice. I started toward where I thought the intersection was. Carl grabbed me by the shoulder, turned me 180 degrees, and shoved. I had really gotten turned around.
It hurt to move. It hurt more to breath. I was confused and disoriented, but I would be damned if I was going to die in this forsaken hell-hole. I hefted the shotgun and ran through the rubble and over the occasional body. This dust screen was going to settle fast.
It was like something out of a nightmare. Shapes appeared only to fade away through the haze. I slashed my leg open on a protruding piece of jagged rebar, scattering red droplets that disappeared into the ground like it was covered in sawdust, but I couldn’t even think of slowing down. A rebel materialized in front of me, and I instantly shot him through the heart with the 12 gauge. More men were moving to the side, and I fired at them as I sprinted past until the firing pin landed on an empty chamber.
Then we were out of the cloud, but we were in the open, running down the middle of a dirt street. My eyes gritted in their sockets, locking onto the technical, now only twenty meters away. A rebel was charging straight at me, a machete held high overhead, spittle flying from his lips. He was screaming something.
I tossed him the Ithaca. He caught it, looked at it in surprise, and then I crashed into him with my shoulder, bowling both of us to the ground. My combat knife was already coming out of the sheath as we hit. He screamed as I drove it between his ribs, but he still struggled to bring the machete into play.
Carl stepped past me, Aug shouldered, and opened fire on the Toyota. There were two men in the back, and both of them shook as the angry Portagee put bullets into them. The driver’s window shattered as Carl shifted targets.
The rebel and I rolled across the ground, locked in a dance to the death. I blocked the machete with my forearm. It cut deep, but he didn’t have the room to swing it. I pulled the knife out, and slammed it in again, and again, and again. Finally, he quit moving.
“Lorenzo, quit screwing around!” Carl shouted, as he scanned the wall of dust and flames. “We’ve got to go.”
I rose, panting, and sheathed the still bloody knife. Angry bullets whined past my head as more rebels saw us. “I’ll drive.”
“No, I drive. Nobody can catch me.” Carl answered as he opened the Toyota’s door, grabbed the dead driver, and hurled him out. “Get on that gun!”
I vaulted over the side of the pickup bed, landing on a pile of hot 12.7 brass. Carl revved the engine. Then the smoke wall opened and a great screaming beast roared through, muzzle flashes erupting from its machinegun.
“BTR!” I screamed as the APC rolled over a knot of rebels. But Carl was fast. He slammed the Toyota into gear and put pedal to metal. I slipped on the brass, and bounced off the truck bed walls as Carl cranked the wheel and took us through the rubble. I looked up in time to see an unlucky rebel bounce off the front fender and fly through a scrap-wood shanty.
Bullets puckered through our technical as we tore down the street and right through the militia. The remaining windows shattered. Carl bellowed in rage and pain as something struck him. I crawled up to the DhSK, but it was empty, with the feed tray cover locked open. I yanked the Browning 9mm from my holster and fired at the rebels one handed, the other holding onto the rollbar to keep from being tossed out.
We seemed to be going unbelievably fast.
The BTR was right behind us. For being so big, damn that thing was quick.
“Get on that gun or we’re gonna die!” Carl yelled, as he cranked the wheel and we took a corner far too fast.
The 37mm cannon round flew past and most of the marketplace disappeared. The shockwave rocked the little technical onto two wheels, and then back. I spotted a big, green ammo-can and opened it. There were the huge 12.7 rounds, linked in a rusty, metal belt. I hoisted it out, put the belt in place, slammed the cover down, and yanked back on the charging handle.
I swiveled the DhSK around, but the BTR hadn’t followed us around the corner.
But there were plenty of other targets.
I opened fire on random MLC rebels as we drove by. The muzzle blast from the big Russian was like a mushroom cloud. The recoil shook the Toyota down to its suspension. Carl took another corner, trying to head south, out of the city, but the streets were a maze.
Suddenly the brakes locked up, and we slid to a halt. I had the gun trained to the rear, and craned my neck around to see what the problem was.
The road was on fire.
For a good thirty feet, the road was nothing but a blazing oil slick, with flames taller than I was. This had been the source of the great pillar of smoke that we had homed in on to get to the marketplace. It must have been some sort of gas station before the rebels had blown it up. There was no other way past.
I turned back. The way we came from was swarming with rebels, looking like ants. A bullet sparked off the Toyota’s tailgate. Ants with AK-47s.
The tail lights lit up, signaling that we were in reverse. Another bullet smashed one of the lights. We started back toward the pile of rebels.
“Carl? What are you doing?” The only remaining taillight shattered. Another round cut a chunk from my ear.
“We need a running start.”
“You’ve got to be kidding me...” I laid on the DhSK like it was the hammer of Thor, sweeping it across the street. It ain’t pretty what one of these things does to a human being. I held the trigger down, the concussion so deep that I could feel it vibrating the jelly in my eyes.
Carl stopped, ground the transmission, and floored it.
I dropped down, threw my arms over my head, and tried to think happy thoughts.
Fire. Everywhere. Holy s***.
It was hard to explain. I opened me eyes, and could see it, like it was a living thing, coming up over the edge of the truck, leering down at me, hungry and angry. The heat hit like a sledgehammer, evaporating all of the moisture from my skin. I held my breath, but could feel the poison crowding up my nostrils. It wanted to eat me.
Then we were through.
I jumped back up. The DhSK’s wooden spade grips were on fire. I smothered them with my shirt. The Toyota’s paint was burning, the wind quickly beat it out.
Carl turned back around and looked at me through the shattered rear window, beady eyes gleaming through a layer of soot over his bandito mask, and said, “Hey, Lorenzo, your hair’s on fire.”
Well f*** me. I rubbed it out.
This road seemed to lead to the edge of town. I could see down it, a straight shot, and in the distance was open country and room to run or hide. Carl shifted gears and we continued to accelerate.
Then I saw it.
The BTR was running parallel to us. It was one street over to the right, separated from us by a single row of mud houses and shacks. The grey hulk was going to intercept us. The Cubans inside opened up through their firing ports. Most of the rounds smashed into the buildings, but at each gap, some passed through. Tracers stabbed a dotted line across the road.
Two could play that game. I grabbed the smoking handles and swiveled the DhSK.
“BTR on our right. Will 12.7 pierce their armor?”
“Hell yeah! They’re light plate.”
I wasn’t going to try to time it between the houses. We were almost out of town, and I didn’t want to square off with this thing in the open. I mashed the butterfly trigger down.
The DhSK roared. Homes disintegrated as we played tag to the death with the Cubans at fifty miles an hour. The mighty 12.7 rounds crashed into the monstrosity, zipping right through the armor and through the crew inside.
The BTR swerved hard toward us, smashed through a house, actually got some air, and careened onto our street. I kept the DhSK on it the whole time, stitching it from end to end, opening it like a teenager shooting a pop can with a .22. The BTR continued on at an angle and smashed through another house and disappeared onto another street.
“I think I got him!”
“No.” Carl pointed out the window. The BTR was now traveling down the street to our left. The 37mm cannon was rotating toward us. I cranked the DhSK back around and opened fire, bouncing wildly as the Toyota careened down the rutted road. Carl stomped on the brakes. I flew forward and smashed into the cab as the cannon bloomed flame. The round narrowly missed us and a pile of shanties exploded into flames and shrapnel.
I spit a mouthful of blood onto the roof and shoved myself back onto the machinegun. The BTR was slightly ahead of us on the next street over. Carl suddenly accelerated. Somehow I knew exactly what he was doing. I cranked the DhSK around toward the front.
Carl swerved, crashing us through a fence made of sticks and cardboard. A pile of chickens fell victim to the Toyota, and suddenly birds and feathers were flying everywhere. We seemed to be airborne for a brief second, then the tires struck earth, and we were behind the speeding BTR.
I mashed the spade grips, the sight lined up on the rear end of the BTR. The muzzle brake reverberated painfully off the Toyota’s roof. Carl stuck his fingers into his ears, and steered with his knees. Round after round ripped through the armored vehicle from end to end, and it careened wildly to the side and crashed into a ditch, flames suddenly licking out of its ports.
Carl pulled his fingers out of his ears, put one on the wheel, and one on the gear shift, and hammered the little Toyota forward. We zipped past the now burning BTR and toward freedom. A hot wind struck my back as it exploded behind us. Another black, oily, cloud was rising above Sweothi City as we sped onto the highway and past the sign pointing toward the Congolese border.
The man looked up at me in fear, as he thrashed against the duct tape that held his wrists to the heavy chair. The old warehouse was deserted and I knew that nobody would hear him scream. “Please, come on, man, don’t do it!”
I held the syringe up to the flickering fluorescent light. “You know what this is?”
“No please, come on, I’m begging you.”
Did my father beg? No, of course not.
“It’s heroin. Mostly. The rest is drain cleaner. The heroin is to make this plausible. You’re just another scumbag junkie, got some bad stuff, had an overdose. There won’t even be an investigation. The drain cleaner is so this will hurt. A lot.”
“You can’t do this. T-Bone will kill you. He’ll kill you, man!” the thug screamed.
Did my father threaten violence? No. I’m sure he hadn’t. He was a man of peace and justice.
“T-Bone’s dead. I got him already. He fell out his apartment window. Landed on one of those pointy fences. Real nasty.” I gave a fake shudder. “The others are dead too. Ice got shot in a drive by shooting this morning. Little Mike is floating in the river. He fell in, couldn’t swim. Especially with those cinderblocks I tied to his legs.”
His eyes were wide. I could smell the fear. “Who are you!”
“A year ago, you were passing through a little place outside Georgetown. You beat a man to death. He was a good man. Why? Why did you do it?”
“I don’t know man! I don’t remember... He had a nice watch, or something. Come on, man, he was just some dude! We didn’t mean to kill him. Just mess him up, take his s***.”
I stabbed the needle into his arm and smashed the plunger down. I tossed the now empty syringe aside. He began to convulse as I cut the tape and stuffed the evidence into my pocket. He fell to the floor as I walked away. I shut the lights off on the way out and left him in the dark to twitch and foam. I started walking, and didn’t look back. I was sixteen years old.
The thing is, when you let the evil out, it’s hard to put it back.
10 Kilometers east of Banti-Guonda, Congo
December 16th, 1993
Dreams of home. So very long ago.
I woke up sore when I heard the sound of the airplane. The stitches on my arm, back, and legs were tight and itchy. Carl did good work. He was already awake, cleaning his Aug while leaning in the shade beneath a crumpled tree. He had a bandage wrapped around his torso, over the carpet of black hair that was his body. The ruined Toyota was hidden in the bushes.
He squinted at me with beady eyes. “Bush plane’s coming in. You think we can trust this guy?”
I yawned. “Yeah. He’s good people... Phil specializes in helping people move valuable things. He owes me a favor. So, Carl, you think about what you’re going to do now?”
“I don’t know.” He shrugged. “My company’s gone. Most of us died in the coup. I don’t even know if my men made it out.”
“They’re with Decker. They made it.” I answered truthfully. As much as I hated the man, he was extremely good at what he did. “You know, I’m now out of work myself.” I pulled a black bag out of my pocket and tossed it to Carl.
He caught it absently, opened the drawstring, and shook some of its contents into the palm of his hand. He whistled.
“SWITCHBLADE had a few simple rules. The leader always got a double share, and he was the only one that has access to the Swiss bank account. Since the diamond exchange crossed us, I’m pretty sure nobody got paid. So we looted some of the treasury while we were in the palace. The six still gets a double share.”
Carl’s hand was filled with diamonds.
“I took the liberty of lifting Decker’s shares. And to think he called me a common thief. I’m pretty sure he’ll be massively pissed when he finds out. Good thing he thinks I’m dead.” I knew that was for the best. I would gain nothing by tracking Decker down. It was time for the evil to be put away once and for all.
“Not a bad haul,” Carl said, as he poured the diamonds back into the bag. He started to hand it back.
“No, that’s your share. I’ve got mine.”
“Yeah, I’ve been thinking...” I said as the bush plane approached the runway, landing gear extended. “I’m going to go on my own, form my own team. Be my own boss. But I’m going to need help. Have you ever thought of stealing stuff for a living?”
“Can’t say I have,” he answered. “Unless you count twenty years of plundering Africa, but I’m sick of this place.”
“Well, I’m thinking about only robbing bad people. They’ve got all the money anyway, and screwing with them is a lot more fun.”
The little plane touched down with a squeak of tires. Carl chewed his lip for a moment, then extended his hand.
I shook it. “Carl, I think this could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”
Copyright © 2013 by Larry Correia
Larry Correia is the author of the New York Times best-selling Monster Hunter series, and the magic-noir Grimnoir Chronicles. He is also the coauthor, with Mike Kupari, of military action adventure novels Dead Six and Swords of Exodus. This story is set within the world of Dead Six and Swords of Exodus.