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Fallen Soldiers

In the post-Fall world, there is no justice, but the justice you make.  

Broken Creed

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Broken Creed 3 AF (After Fall) 

    Sergeant Finley Perez missed the era when hunting during nighttime hours remained a more option. Goddamn the Fall. He missed McDonald’s fries, big gas-guzzling trucks and night vision goggles. Rangers cleaned and repaired their guns, knew them in and out, including the ammunition, but the technology of night vision transcended even their acumen, and candles or torches just made them targets to his quarry. No question Ranger HQ would have approved their use, but Finley knew the target, knew Dustin, too well.

    Finley wanted to be the first to speak with Dusty, but the duty of command overruled personal preferences. He needed to see events unfold from every possible angle. He needed distance and perspective.

    Christ, he needed perspective. He remembered when Dustin joined his crew, a spunky private who couldn’t miss a target with a broken hand and his eyes closed. Stalwart, present for every morning roll call, on time from day one till… well, till he betrayed them all. Playing spotter for the sniper at his side was as close as he could get to perspective. 

Sniper, Vince? What was his name? Christ, Fin realized he had only called the sniper Specialist since meeting him. Burke maybe?

    “Nothing yet,” Finley whispered.

    “Roger.”

    The sniper didn’t complain like the rest of the group had, but then, the sniper didn’t know Dustin. Dustin wasn’t just another target. Digs, Beecher, and Bailey had served with Dustin for years. Their bitch session resonated in Fin’s mind, and he couldn’t deny some points rung true. He didn’t want to hunt Dusty either, but Dustin had broken the Ranger’s oath. He left men behind, and abandoned his troops. It didn’t matter his reason; he would stand trial. 

Finley dropped his binoculars to his chest and looked east, where purple of morning rushed past green to a band of red and orange creeping over the scrub brush and low trees of the Texas outback. He had a clear line of sight to the house, and hopefully their target inside, and he knew where to look for his own approaching squad.

    They understood their orders and each possessed a half-decade military experience with the Texas Rangers, half of it after the Fall. He trusted to that. He and his sniper, they were for the worst-case scenario only.

    Moving steadily and symmetrically, Beecher and Bailey pincered the cabin.

    “Hundred feet,” he whispered down.

    “Hundred feet, mark,” the specialist at his feet said, prone in the dust and grass, with just the scope and barrel over the top of the ridge, Fin knelt, his crouch more a giveaway than the gunman.

    Two gunshots rang out on the morning air, clear and far away. They echoed, sound coming to him from several directions at once, and he turned his head scanning quickly between binoculars and his naked eyes to find the source. Too complex. His ears couldn’t guide him. He focused on the two soldiers. Beecher took a knee, frozen, Bailey disappeared into a crack where run off and wind had eroded deep scars into the earth.

    Two more cracks rattled out in the morning air. M3 by its sound, the standard issue of every ranger in the troop, which said Dustin fired on them or vice versa. Two puffs of smoke popped up from the sand and dust near the cabin’s front door.

    “Who the hell opened fire? Shit.”

    Two more cracks, and two more puffs of smoke. One bullet went through the door, sending splinters flying away.

    “No target,” the man at his feet said calmly.

    “What the hell do they see?” And why the hell are they shooting at it? He wanted Dustin alive.

    Fin continued to scan, and then Beecher and Bailey both popped heads out over their respective hideaways and looked for one another at the same time as another pair of controlled pops went off, this time from a more oblique angle, sending shards of the wood off the cabin at a wider slant. The shooter had moved, at an angle far off to the west of the building.

    “Shit,” Fin said.

    Both of the boys got up and moved in low stances toward the building from opposite sides, concurrently. His pride swelled up at their professional posture while under fire from an old friend, their elbows tucked tight, guns controlled and smoothly trained on their target. But they couldn’t see what he could see. The target wasn’t in the cabin, and they hadn’t started the firefight.

    “Non-lethal force,” he repeated to the specialist and abandoned his own job as sniper’s spotter. A sniper could still operate somewhat effectively alone. That’s what he told himself. He forced the obvious comparison to Dustin aside. Dustin’s abandonment was different. Dustin went rogue. He killed, went after new targets without orders, and he left them in a firefight. There’s a difference between interpretation of the scenario and abandoning a post, and Dustin landed on the wrong side.

    Fin circled wide to the west, away from the sniper nest. Dustin played them already. Nobody had fired on Dustin’s home, he fired on it himself to draw them out in confusion.

    Beecher went feet up just as Fin moved, and his scream cut through the morning air. Fin stopped his run, hit the ground too hard with a knee, and winced as he looked to where the branch of a tree shook. Even without binoculars he could see the soldier fifteen feet up in a snare trap. Best to leave him there. Dustin had been the shooter and Fin had a rough triangulation on his position the others lacked. Dustin wouldn’t use lethal force; Fin knew him that well, at least. Beecher would be embarrassed, not wounded, and could cut himself down carefully enough.

    Keeping low and his weapon safety on, Fin chewed up the ground, covering several hundred yards at a sprint before he stopped on a small ridge to look for Bailey. He panted in the Texas heat, which never abated, even in the predawn light. Bailey, almost at the cabin door, patiently waited for Digs, who had circled around widest to come up from the south to offer support.

    Smart boy.

    Fin considered joining them, but Dustin wasn’t in that building.

    Another shot rang out. More wood chips flew off the front of the cabin but a second shot went wide and blew bark and soft wood off the tree several yards from Bailey.

Fin’s experienced gaze spun toward where the shot must have come from. Merging sound with line of sight, he caught the motion of khaki-colored clothes and a tan striped gun lowering as his quarry bolted for the relative safety of one of the deep ravines. To his right, Bailey, smart enough to figure out the same thing, stopped focusing on the house and moved west, keeping cover between himself and the point of origin.

    Sergeant Finley waited at the mouth of the ravine, his gun pointed down into the cut of earth. Fin’s thumb flicked the safety off, and he heard as much as felt the steps of his PFC behind him. With hand signals only, he pointed down, and indicated for Bailey to move forward into the cut, while he would stay on the ridge to the west, and follow from above.

Fin looked back to where his sniper lay in the brown grasses. He pointed down and signed their intent. He trusted to the gunman to know best what to do with the knowledge. 

    They moved together, matching the other, step for step. The junior soldier down below set the pace. Footprints in the dust bit deeply into the soft earth, leaving obvious tracks for anyone to follow. The gulley ran a straight cut from the wet seasons, with soft crumbling earth sides running a vertical fifteen feet up to the parched dirt overhead. The slash in the earth stood open to the sky from front to back, and Dustin couldn’t crawl out without being spotted.

    Bailey stopped moving. He signaled up that he lost the trail, and Fin moved closer to the edge looking down to verify the tracks stopped.

    Panic took a brief hold. He scanned the ground behind them, and all around. No scratch marks marred the walls, and no boot prints showed on the Martian-like surface. He considered briefly their orders and positions. They lost their target. Digs would come up soon, and no doubt their sniper had the ravine and his soldiers covered. Dustin had to be down there. They controlled the situation.

    Fin took a moment and looked back, finding a place where the edge of the ravine gave him at least a half step down. Sixty feet behind his position a reasonable descent presented itself. He signaled the PFC to hold his position and wait, and he back peddled, jumping down as quietly as he could to the dust and rock eroded surface.

     Wind, the rustle of trees, the movement of bushes and critters retreated fifteen feet and a world away above him. His breath screamed loud in his ears. Sound didn’t travel, caught instead by the soft earth around him, which muffled everything. His own heartbeat felt cacophonous, and he forced even breaths as he looked down at the tracks.

Bailey was a good soldier. He hadn’t stepped directly over the tracks and Fin scanned them forward and back.

    “How did you do it so fast?” he asked.

    The tracks weren’t the tracks of a running man. They were deep, deliberate, and when looked at closely, retread. Dustin had retreated the way he had come.

Fin turned and slowly followed the steps back, paying attention to the pattern. Not more than another fifteen feet away the pattern switched back to being heavy in the heel, where the impact showed a pronounced tread. Dustin had stopped here.

    “Don’t look up.”

A light shift of a heel in grit and the sound of a rifle barrel being leveled came from somewhere just off his back right.

    “A fucking blind?”

    “Don’t tell me you don’t have traps on your land. I’ve seen them,” Dustin said.

    “Over a few beers and some wings last time you visited. A month ago, before you betrayed your team. Us.”

    “We aren’t talking this through again.”

    Another slight shift in weight behind him, and Fin dared to glance backward, keeping his gun trained low. Dustin looked past him and then back up the ravine the way Bailey had gone.

    “Sniper with you, I assume?”

    “You know the policy for apprehension,” Fin answered, turning ever so slightly.

    “He going to shoot me in the leg or something?”

    “Or something,” Fin answered. Gun still low, and turned another few degrees, he shifted the weight on his foot so he could pivot.

    “Don’t be an ass, Fin. You turn to get your voice to carry so Bailey comes from behind me. You force me to shoot you or him in the fucking ass, I’m going to be pissed at you. Let me walk.”

    “Can’t do that.”

    “Bullshit. You protect, you serve. I…”

    “Bullshit? Is that how you address a senior officer? What happened to ‘My courtesy to superior officers, and public whom I defend?’ Or did that go out the window with ‘I will never fail my comrades?’”

    Fin fought down a sneer.

    “You would have done the same thing in my place if it were Lauren instead of Caroline, and you know it.”

    “I would have finished the mission, and then I would have asked for the help of my brothers, who would have helped me save her. What do you have instead? How did it all work out for you Dusty? You don’t have us and you don’t have her.”

    They were nearly facing each other now, with Dustin’s M3 pointing at Fin’s midsection, and Fin’s at the ground. A calm passed over Dustin’s face Fin only saw when he took a shot, and he feared, for an instant, that he had said too much. It passed just as quickly.

    “I have my mission,” Dustin said. “I’m going to kill every one of them.”

    “This doesn’t have to be a death sentence. Come back, stand trial, we will all vouch for you. There is a way out of this, Dusty.”

    “You ever seen the captain be lenient?”

    The corners of his mouth turned up a hint and Fin shared a small smile back. His eyes flickered for just an instant behind Dustin, confirming the movement he thought he had seen, and that flicker was too much.

    Dustin’s brown eyes watched Fin like a hawk, saw the motion and moved to his side with alacrity. He slammed his back to the wall as Bailey and Digs came around the bend, guns trained on their target.

    “Shit,” Dustin said, and fired.

    The pain rushed up Fin’s arm, slammed into his brain and he tried to aim or pull the trigger, but he wasn’t holding his gun anymore. A bullet had planted itself firmly into the meat of his right shoulder and his hand let go, his arm hanging useless at his side. He registered the possibility of permanent damage and pushed it to the side as he watched the proverbial shit hit the fan.

    The PFCs waited too long, took one too many steps toward their man, and Dustin didn’t give them a second chance. He pivoted, and dropped his large shouldered rifle, letting it swing free on the shoulder strap across his chest. Reaching with a practiced hand, he drew his pistol and shot from the hip. One shot went wide, the second took Digs in the leg, and he stumbled to the ground in a controlled manner.

    Then Bailey and Dustin stood, guns pointed at each other, both doing as they were trained, with the barrels of their respective weapons pointed at the center of their target’s chest.

“Drop your gun, Digs,” Dustin said to the man at his feet.

The man had gone down but he had kept his wits and was already starting to take aim at the ex-corporal. The susurrus of grinding dirt as he shifted alerted Dustin to his intentions to stay in the fight.

    “I’ll shoot Bailey somewhere that will end his career. I promise,” Dustin added.

    Digs dropped his rifle and left his hands wide, one high the other half propping him off the ground where he collapsed.

    Dustin laid his patented stare into Bailey. He couldn’t see it from his angle, but Fin had been on the receiving side of it in enough card games to know its effectiveness. Bailey tried to meet it, but the kid didn’t have the experience. He blinked, looked to Fin for orders, and in that instant Dustin moved off his line of fire, took an explosive lunge forward, held the pistol up beside Bailey’s ear, and pulled the trigger.

    Fin knew the boys from the moment they had joined the Rangers. They were disciplined, good kids, but some things were too much to ask a man to push through. Bailey dropped his weapon and grabbed his head with both hands. The terrific blast of sound tore through his head, and Fin was thankful enough when Bailey rolled to the ground but didn’t gush blood. At least his eardrum might survive.

    Dustin shuffled away from Bailey and back pedaled toward Fin. He reached down, pulled Fin’s hand away from the shoulder wound, and looked at the blood and angle of impact, while keeping wary attention on Digs.

    “Broke your shoulder,” Dustin said. “I think.”

    “They will hunt you down,” Fin answered him.

    Dustin sighed and looked at Fin and then stared at the ground in the middle distance, taking all three of them in as he spoke.

    “Energetically will I meet my enemies. I will defeat them on the field of battle for I am better trained and will not fear them. Surrender is not a Ranger’s option,” he said. “I’m not your enemy. I knew you would come hunt me. I just wish I had been able to get out before you showed up last night. I knew you would track me.”

    Dustin’s intense stare kept Fin focused on him.

    “I’m sorry. I didn’t want this… Be a good solider Fin. Keep the code, and look after Lauren. Christ, retire. Have kids. Tell them not to come after me. After this, I don’t shoot for the legs and shoulders.”

    “Where will you go?” Fin asked.

    He could feel the terrible mix of emotion in him, mingled with the growing throbbing pain in his shoulder as the adrenaline spike dropped and his body informed him of the damage. He was so angry he could slug Dustin and loved him so terribly he could hug him.

    “North,” Dustin answered. “Keep the Home Star safe.”

    He rested a hand on Fin’s good shoulder, and Fin reached up and gripped him back, for just a second. It was a goodbye between friends. Dustin walked off, back the way they had come. He would be able to avoid the sniper. He didn’t know how, but Dustin always had a plan. No doubt the captain would send another squad to look for him but Dustin would have a few days lead by then. They wouldn’t find him.

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