All Threats Within
All Threats Within
The runner approached down the mountain pass. A speck in the distance, winding between ruined cars on the shoulder. Then larger, out onto a stretch of Highway 6 where yellow lines split the mostly empty road, Sitka spruce on either side.
He was coming straight for her.
That was one of her boys. Which one, Sergeant Camille Martel couldn’t quite make out, even though the sun had been up an hour already. But this was how they did it now, sending runners back and forth. Communications equipment had fried out before they’d even left Fort Lewis a week ago. Vehicles, too. Everything had malfunctioned. Turned to stuttering crap.
And that was the least of it. The surveillance tools and satellite communication systems, busted. The audio cables, goosenecks, handsets, headsets. Every one of the navigation displays, rugged tablets, and mesh communication networks.
It didn’t matter. None of that added up to a damn compared with the ships and the troops behind them, not so many miles away. That right there was the real problem. Let the nerds and hackers worry about the sparkplugs that wouldn’t spark. Camille had at least one aircraft carrier to worry about. Chinese gunships. Russian marines or naval infantry or whatever the hell they were called, slapping salt at Tillamook Bay.
Behind her, far off down the pass, the crack of a rifle echoed. Camille was at the rear of her platoon. Every sound behind her belonged either to the Russians, or whatever hillbillies had gotten in their way. There weren’t any soldiers on the American side back that way, Camille was sure of that. No, the fighting was something else. Cold-blooded murder, maybe. Or else some kind of resistance from the locals.
Whatever the reason for the fighting, it was just one more problem added to all the rest. And all she knew was they had to get uphill from it. And fast.
The enemy troops that had gathered down at the beach had been pursuing her platoon up through the mountains. At least for a while. Now Camille wasn’t so sure. The invaders had slowed, maybe even stopped. But they’d come. And when they did there wasn’t much her boys could do to stop them.
“Wish this damn thing worked,” she growled, tapping her radio with frustration. A little thing. And while she was wishing, she might as well go bigger. Complete annihilation of the enemy. That and some talcum powder.
“Coming our way, Sarge,” Jones, the squad leader, called back.
The runner came at speed. Wet leaves puddled across the pavement, causing him to slip. But he didn’t slow. One of Camille’s boys for sure. American infantry had a way of tilting down a hill no Russki would ever match. Let them have chess and figure skating. Clambering down the coastal mountains still belonged to the backwoods boys from Birmingham and Bryson City.
Closer now, Camille marked the man’s combat helmet and fatigues. Then brown skin. And only when she recognized the hawkish, stern face did she lower her service weapon. You couldn’t be too careful.
Fifteen meters ahead, Jones flicked rain off the side of his face. “That’s Rifleman Jay Pham,” he shouted, breath sending motes into the November morning. “Passing him through to you, Sarge.”
Camille rubbed at the snot under her nose. “This would be a hell of a lot easier with electronics,” she grumbled. But the malfunctioning of her tactical gear was an old story, and like she’d tried to tell herself a hundred times, didn’t matter anyway. Not against everything else they’d seen this past week. Still, she missed the days when she could talk to the platoon leader without a go-between.
Seven days. Had it been so few since the lights went out and the war began?
In a way, time had collapsed into itself, or bent, like she’d heard it could in extreme gravity. The passage of hours had stopped meaning anything. All that mattered were the miles. The miles down I-5, a forced march with the rest of the 2nd Battalion. Then the miles of twisting Oregon coastal highway. And now the miles of uphill shame, through to the dawn, leaving fourteen other platoons to rack up Purple Hearts while C Company First Platoon secured a retreat.
Hell, not even that. They weren’t protecting any kind of fall back, because there would be none. Those seven-hundred men and women from 2nd Battalion who’d gone down to the beach would fight hard, but they’d never set living eyes on their medals.
This westward march could be called, at best, a last stand. A defense of the mountain pass to keep the Sino-Russian invasion from advancing inland. Maybe they’d slow it long enough to get word to other divisions. Not that she had any delusions that her single platoon of just forty-two soldiers would make much difference. But she’d rather punch back from behind a tree than face Russian tanks on the strand and Chinese salvos from the sea.
Another gunshot reverberated from down the mountain. She flinched, adrenaline spiking. It would be better just to turn and fight. An improvement over taking a spray of Kalashnikov bullets to the back anyway.
Rifleman Pham jogged past Jones and slowed in front of Camille. Beads of rain collected at the tip of that avian nose—a feature that made the man look even more severe. “Sergeant Martel,” he said, brusque, rocking back on his heels as he came to a stop. “Lieutenant Afrax wants you up on the ridge. Says the men can drop ruck above that gulley—” he pointed up off the highway a quarter-mile away “—then rotate for chow.”
Camille squinted into the distance. A good place as any to stop, if they had to. Brambled and wooded. Steep on all sides.
Behind them, a mortar exploded, miles to the east. Camille set her teeth, trying to swallow down the dry that crusted her mouth. That the echo of the blast made it up the mountains this far told her the Russians were closing in. Not much longer now.
Pham glanced back toward the source of the sound. Then nervously ran his tongue along his gums. “Lieutenant requires to see you up there.”
Camille bristled a bit; did her best not to show it. Requires to see you.
Lieutenant Afrax, fresh from West Point. Smart, capable, still in diapers. Camille, on the other hand, was the oldest member of the platoon. Twenty years of service. Dark hair graying at the temples, blue rings under her chestnut eyes.
Men always commented on her dark looks first. Well, second, after they had it out about a woman as sergeant. There weren’t many like her in the U.S. Army. The very few who got to know her real well always came to realize there was only one like her at all.
And when it came to the lieutenant, she was the adult in the relationship. Afrax, just a baby boy. A baby boy who happened to be her superior.
In many ways, even accounting for her gender, theirs was the typical relationship between platoon leader and sergeant, separated by experience and education. Afrax thought he knew best because he’d cracked thirty books in his military prep school, whereas Camille had knuckled through her second tour of duty before the platoon leader had hit puberty.
Even so, there was no reason to take her frustration out on Pham. “That’s fine, Rifleman. Are you attached to us, or heading back up to the rally point?”
Jay Pham tucked himself in under his helmet. “I’m to fall in with you, ma’am.”
“Alright. Drop back and join Alpha team.” They could use an extra pair of eyes. The enemy wouldn’t have made it this far into the mountains. But then again, the echoes of fighting were drawing nearer. Maybe they had.
Camille left the man dripping in the rain and hiked on, toward the ridge where Lieutenant Maxamed Afrax required her. It wouldn’t be a fun conversation. They never were. But hopefully Camille could curb some of the more headstrong impulses of her college-boy leader.
If she didn’t, he’d likely as not get them all killed.
The squelch of her boots splashing over the asphalt and the drizzle of droplets through the Douglas firs filled the early morning. Chickadees trilled. Down the column came the echo of Pham explaining himself to the fireteam leader, though the words ran together and dissipated in the wind.
Only twenty minutes to the top of the ridge, Camille figured. It would feel good to rest. Not that she allowed herself to dwell on the blisters on her heels and the ache in her lower back.
“Observation point ten o’clock,” Private Longshear called from up ahead. Peter “Pumpkin” Longshear, the auto rifleman on Bravo team, had the highest magazine capacity of any of them. No one laid down cover fire like Pumpkin. The man had been with Camille through a tour in Afghanistan and had shown himself to be exactly the kind of animal she needed. Not too bright, but fierce; willing to break rules when they got in the way.
“I see it.” Camille squinted at the ridge where the first two squads had already established a patrol base. “Okay, boys. File up. When we crest her, half of you tuck into dinner or breakfast. Whatever you want to call it.” They hadn’t had time to stop during the night march. “Menu today is dicks-of-death.”
A little groan. Not that one meal-ready-to-eat tasted better than any other. But those beef links and beans had a way of settling into a stomach that made the man in front harder to follow.
Jones, at the front of the file, hopped the guardrail and started snaking up the side of the ravine, the rest of his squad following, Camille last. A few slipped, but they didn’t complain. Sure, every Joe was tired of climbing. Lugging kit wore them out, and she wouldn’t blame them if they were thinking of quitting right now. Walking up the side of a mountain with a full combat load would send the heartiest of them to daydreaming about the months left in their deployment.
“Rollyyyyyy!” the grenadier called from above as a rock squelched free and lurched down the ravine.
Camille dove into the mud, just as the rock swept by, missing her by no more than a few feet.
The stone had tumbled close enough to send a wake of sludge spitting up toward her face. It splattered against her ear, eyelid, and the flank of her uniform. But she kept on with as much vigor as any of the younger men. The new muck blended with a crust already there.
Behind, more gunshots. No doubt about it, they were getting more frequent.
Camille forced herself not to panic at the approaching army. They were far, still. And she would know what to do when the time came.
It would be what none of them expected.
“Watch where you’re stepping, dammit,” she shouted up the slope, wiping at her uniform without effect. “None of us gets to kill Russians if we snuff each other first.”
Grime seeped everywhere. From her boots to her Sergeant First Class chevrons, filth over filth. It plastered her clothes, soaked to her skin. She hadn’t bathed since she left base. Hadn’t changed her underwear since crossing into Oregon. Unless this war ended as fast as it began, she suspected her next shower would come no time soon.
“Alright, everyone,” Camille said when they’d summited the long, narrow hilltop. “Good work this morning. Keep an eye on your squad leader. I’ll see you after chow. I’m off on a date with the lieutenant.”
Normally, a line like that would be an open invitation for whistles and catcalls to the tune of “Just because he buys you lunch doesn’t mean you owe him anything,” or “Army rules is missionary only, Sarge.” But, tired as they were, the men said nothing. So she left them, hunkered in the driving rain. Off to seek out the platoon leader.
The path toward the center of the hill curved slightly upward, scraggly with blackberry bushes but clear enough to afford a sightline down to the highway. Below the ridge, on the face of the mountain, sentries formed a triangle, the beginnings of a patrol base. Orderly. But as soon as she moved through their ranks she found the regular disarray of soldiers hunched under rain gear, trying to shove warm food into their bellies and maybe catch a minute or two of sleep.
To her left, one man filled sandbags with wet dirt while another formed them into a nest. Others wiped down their weapons, stropped their knives, or spit tobacco into empty water bottles. More just stared off into the distance. Probably thinking about girls back home, or parents, or friends. Not one of these boys would have heard anything in the past week since they’d left Joint Base Lewis McChord. And those with sweethearts off-base wouldn’t have gotten so much as a text message since the lights went out and the calls from the Pentagon stopped entirely.
Camille wondered about her mother back in South Dakota. How was she holding up with the lights off and every store likely shuttered? Was she fed? Was she warm enough?
Some neighbor had helped install an electric furnace a few years back. It might be holding up if the generator still worked. Not that any of the generators she’d seen over the past week could so much as fire up a toaster. But maybe it was different up on the mesa.
Camille sure hoped it was. Mom never did like the cold. It wasn’t in her blood. Why she’d ever stayed in the Dakotas Camille couldn’t figure. Especially after Dad was dead and buried.
She hadn’t talked to her mother in some months. Not since she’d told her about the decision she’d made and the new path she followed. Camille still couldn’t guess if her mother approved. Would she lash out? Would she slip up and say something?
It was hard to know. Camille and her mother had never been close.
No, that was an understatement. Some days Camille wondered if her mother looked forward to that knock on the door. The folded flag.
She had thought a lot about her mom over the past week. Mostly, though, she thought about Desmond. She’d pushed that pain down a long time ago. But for a reason she couldn’t explain, it had bubbled up. Maybe because of the days of marching without distraction. Maybe because November had been his birth month. He’d be twelve if he were alive.
Miles back down the highway, an explosion reverberated. Maybe a tank shell, maybe a rocket. Hard to tell. Either way, it sent another wash of bile from her stomach to her throat. Soon there’d be the part with the fighting and the dying. Both too soon and not soon enough.
Up ahead, Lieutenant Maxamed Afrax squatted beside the radio and communications specialist. They’d scrounged up a Vietnam-era radio back in Fort Lewis, though the damned thing only clicked and sputtered.
“Sergeant Martel,” Afrax said, waving away the radio specialist. “Good to see you. Supplies still holding up?” He squinted up with a boyish smile. The war might have fallen apart like a soup sandwich, but the platoon leader still managed to grin.
Camille crouched next to the platoon leader. “We’re at full combat load, sir.” They hadn’t come face-to-face with an enemy soldier since that hasty escape through Tillamook. Rounds fired backward at the advancing invaders, but too far away. Probably a few cows died.
“That’s good,” Afrax said in a slight Minnesota accent that the instructors at Hudson High hadn’t managed to fully erase. “Better to conserve what we’ve got for the fight ahead.”
Camille nodded. “We’ll give ’em hell. An improvised combat outpost. Interlocking fields of fire. They won’t get through.”
“They’re getting closer.”
Camille shrugged. “Nothing to do about it.”
“Give our best. That’s all we can do.” Afrax’s smile melted away, revealing the fatigue beneath. “They’ve slowed, though. How much longer do you think?”
“A few days at most,” Camille said, not really believing it would even take that long.
“I agree. That’s what I’m counting on.”
Camille arched an eyebrow.
“New orders, Sergeant,” Afrax continued. “I’ve given it a lot of thought. Here’s the warning order, so it’s official.” He handed Camille a hand-written note. “Read it later. I’ll give you the gist now.”
Camille couldn’t keep herself from peeking down at the paper. Raindrops splattered across the page. She brought her eyes back up to the lieutenant. “This says you’re sending me away.”
“I am. Meanwhile, I’ll dig us in here. A defensive position. If the enemy comes up the highway like we think they’ll have to, then we’ll blow ’em up or slow ’em up. It’s a good fortification point. Good as it can be, anyway.”
Camille only frowned. It was her job to keep the young officer in line, but it was already too late. The lieutenant had made up his mind.
“Got a special job for you, Sergeant.” Afrax flicked mud off his sleeve.
A concussive blast shook the air, followed by more gunshots. It wouldn’t be three days. Two would be lucky.
She didn’t say any of that, though. Instead she wiped water from her face and bobbed her head. “Can’t be worse than sleeping in the mud.”
It was her best attempt at sounding offhand. At hoping the platoon leader couldn’t hear the disappointment in her voice. Off the line meant more retreat. And her orders, from a different chain of command than Afrax’s, had been clear. Stay where the fighting was hottest. That’s where she could have the biggest impact.
Afrax canted his head. “I can tell you’d rather not leave.”
Camille shrugged, trying to ignore a new rivulet of rainwater that gurgled down her back. Her fist balled, face reddened. She wanted to be part of the fight, not just because of her orders, but because that’s what she’d been trained to do. Hit hard, hit fast. Never run. “Where do you want me, sir?” Nothing else to say. She forced her hand to loosen.
“Into the valley. Portland, more specifically.”
Camille grimaced. This day was getting worse and worse. She couldn’t make any kind of an impact in a third-rate city. San Francisco would be better. There were thirty-two bases in California. Now that would be something if those got hit! Oregon had nothing of strategic value, as far as she could see. Just an easy landing for the armada. “What’s in Portland?”
“Reinforcements. That’s what. Take Jones and two men from his Bravo team. Hit the streets. See if there’s military, or anyone who can hold a sharp stick. Police. Vets. National guard. Heck, send me sorority girls if they’re able to defend the pass with us. Provision them, hand them a bang-bang, and march them up here. You’ve got to be fast. Maybe if your conscripts shoot straight enough we can keep Armata tanks from rolling into their fair city.”
The rain began to fall heavier. Sleet now as much as rain.
“When do we leave?”
Afrax stood and motioned Camille to do the same. “If you don’t leave now, Sergeant, none of us is going to make it through this war.”