Getting By
Chapter 23

Copyright© 2010 by Shakes Peer2B

"Let me speak to General Lee, please," I told the guy in the command center who picked up the sound-powered phone.

"One moment, sir," he answered.

"What's going on, Gav?" Lee's voice sounded worried.

"You need to find someone to relieve me, Jack," I told him.

"Relieve you? Why?"

"They've got Amanda, Jack," I answered, my voice trembling. "I don't think I can fulfill my assignment."

There was a long silence on the other end.

"Have Gunny do it," he said when he came back, "but you're his backup. If anything happens to him, you're it. I've got nobody else. We've had casualties, which was expected, but it doesn't leave us a lot of reserves, Gavin."

I thought about the aftermath - how Garcia would feel around me if he had to be the one to kill my wife and realized that I couldn't do that to him. As hard as it would be for me to push that button, I could not make my friend take on that burden. For that matter, in a community as close-knit as ours, I couldn't ask it of anyone. If anyone was going to live with the guilt it would have to be me.

"I guess I'll have to do it, Jack," I sighed. "I can't put this on anyone else."

"I know it's hard, Gav," Lee answered, "but you're probably right. I know I wouldn't want to face anyone after something like that. You can do it. We've had enough drills on this scenario. Don't think about anything but what you've trained to do."

"But it's Amanda, for God's sake! You know where he'll take her! I don't know if I can do it when she's in there!"

"If you don't push that button, Gavin, everything you've worked for is gone, and the one chance we all had to avoid a slide into barbarism is gone with it, not to mention the lives of all of us who have put our faith in you. You have to do it, Mr. Thompson. You have no other choice."

I had no one to blame but myself. In the long hours of planning for this scenario, we had come back, time and time again to the possibility that whoever held the compound might also have prisoners or hostages. In the 'best case' scenarios, the prisoners would be staked out in the sun as a way of demoralizing the rest of us. In the 'worst case' scenarios, one or more of the hostages would be women, and would be taken into the house to be used by the enemy.

In every one of those cases, the women we polled said they would rather die if it meant dealing a crushing blow to the enemy. When it came time to assign the job of blowing up the house, however, no one was eager to volunteer. I had thought long and hard about it then, and knew that the job had to be mine. In none of the scenarios we envisioned, however, had one of the hostages worn the name "Amanda."

I stood staring at the tool marks on the wall of the mineshaft after cradling the handset. Lee was right. I had to do it, but how could I? It's not everyone who gets to have two great loves in his life, and I had already lost one to the sickness. Could I take the action that would kill the other? I just couldn't see how.

Suddenly Grey Eagle was at my side, hand on my shoulder.

"Do not worry about your woman," he told me solemnly. "I will take care of her."

With that, he disappeared down one of the new tunnels.

Grey Eagle had been a little rusty in the desert when he first came to the Citadel, but in teaching desert craft to the rest of us, he had become just as silent and deadly as his ancestors - perhaps more so, since he had been taking our training, as well. If anyone could free Amanda from the clutches of the Russian, it was he.

So be it. It was the best I could hope for. Heading down another of the new tunnels, I came to where my assigned unit waited in the opening masked by the waterfall. This was the plan that General Lee had come up with at my request, and it had an excellent chance of succeeding - if I could bring myself to carry out my part.

The SeaBees and their work crews had worked tirelessly to expand the tunnel system until we had a network of new tunnels that riddled the mountains of the Citadel. The rock that made up the bulk of our berms had come from the excavation of the new tunnels. There were disguised outlets all around both valleys, as well as on the outer slopes of the mountains. We could literally go anywhere on the mountain unseen and undetected until we fell upon the unsuspecting enemy.

This particular outlet was one of the reasons we re-started the waterfall after increasing our water supply.

The call had already gone out to the workers on the dams and to the factory colony in the mountains to the east. The People, too, were gathering, unseen, in the canyons and washes of the nearby desert. All that remained was for the sun to go down - and for me to find a way to do the impossible.

This was what we had finally realized in preparing for the defense of our valley: It could not be effectively defended against a large, determined force; therefore, we had to turn the tables when attacked. With the enemy in control of the upper valley, we allowed ourselves to be driven into the mine. As far as the enemy knew, we were trapped. Now, however, the 'victors' of this afternoon's battle occupied an even less defensible position than we had, while we prepared to attack from high ground on all sides.

Two things should be working in our favor: The enemy, unlike us, could not escape into the mine as long as we held it, and they would not be expecting an attack from anywhere but the mine. They had blocked the only other exit they knew about, so as far as the Russian was concerned, we were his prisoners.

God I hoped we were right. The plan, its execution, the fighting, all of that had been practiced so much that it was almost second nature. What the practice didn't prepare us for was the waiting.

The stores we had left in the house consisted mostly of our supply of booze - both scavenged and homemade - and we hoped that the invaders would find it and take advantage of it as we waited for the sun to go down.

All communication, now, was through the sound-powered phones or encrypted radios, but instead of the squawk box normally used to signify an incoming call on the SP phones when used on a ship, we had installed lights on the cradles that flashed silently when someone rang the station.

"Station One Seven Echo," I answered, when the light on our phone blinked. I kept my voice low in spite of the noise of the falling water. The water might have masked some fairly loud noises, but with what we had riding on this, I didn't want to chance it.

"They've brought the bus into the compound and offloaded a bunch of women under guard. Looks like they've found the booze, too. Just so you know, the Russian just went into the house dragging Amanda."

"Station One Seven Echo out."

That was exactly the news I had been dreading.

I slithered up to the opening on my belly and slowly poked a long tube through the falling water. The sun was almost down behind the western ridge. I carefully scanned the compound. There were sentries posted around the valley, especially near the mine entrance, and the three remaining tanks had at least one man each on board, apparently to man the machine gun on the turret. Lights were on in the house, and I could see men coming out with bottles in their hands. Suddenly, a shadowy figure darted from behind a small Joshua tree to lose itself in the shadows at the north end of the building.

Grey Eagle. It had to be. I crossed my fingers and sent a silent prayer to whatever gods watched over him, praying that his medicine was as strong as it needed to be. If it wasn't, I could lose my wife and my mentor at the same time.

It was almost dark, now, and we had to move as soon as the light began to fail, before drunken gunrunners decided to use the waterfall for a shower.

I slid the tube back inside and stood to have a whispered conversation with Gunny as the light waned outside the curtain of water. Suddenly, there was a splash and the sound of laughter outside our cave that even the sound of falling water couldn't hide. Everyone instantly flattened against the walls of the tunnel, out of sight of anyone who might chance to poke his head through the waterfall. I moved to a spot where a bush grew alongside the opening and slowly poked my spy-tube through again.

Two men, two women, clothing left on the rocks. I left the tube where it was and turned to Gunny and communicated what I saw in a low voice.

He quickly stripped down to his BVDs and I did the same. I posted Matt and one other as backup, then, on our bellies, Gunny and I slipped into the water of the pool. We surfaced once, beneath the falling water, to get our bearings, and then swam quickly beneath the surface, knives in hand, to where the couples were intertwined with each other. The view in the fading light was anything but clear, but I found the couple who were my target. I carefully slipped around behind the larger of the two bodies, rehearsing my attack in my head.

There was a commotion nearby and I struck as the couple began to react. The guy's exclamation was cut off by my blade across his windpipe and carotids. As his hot blood spouted across the woman's face and breasts, she sucked in a lungful of air, preparatory to screaming. I clamped my left hand across her mouth before she could.

"Shh," I whispered urgently in her ear. "If you are quiet, you will not be hurt!"

Wild eyes turned in my direction but she nodded and relaxed a little. Experimentally, I released her mouth while keeping a firm grip on her.

"How... ?" she started to whisper, but I cut her off with a finger across my lips. Gunny had given up on calming the other girl and clipped her on the chin with his fist, knocking her unconscious. As he floated her across the pool, back to the waterfall, I followed, leading the one I had captured.

Inside the mine I spoke to the conscious girl in urgent whispers as the guys started easing out around the base of the fall. "I'm sorry, but we have to tie you up until we know we can trust you."

She nodded and didn't resist as Matt efficiently bound her hands and feet and gagged her, then did the same for the unconscious girl that Gunny had carried in.

"We'll be back for you soon," I told them as Gunny and I got our clothes and gear back on.

There was a narrow space between the falling water and the wall of the cliff that allowed us to slip out without getting more than a little damp. In the gathering gloom, we moved stealthily further into the valley, encountering no one. We took up position on the side of a berm near the stables and waited for full dark. There would be a moon, later, but once the sun completed its westward journey, there would be an hour or two when we had only starlight to see by.

The noise in the vicinity of the house was getting louder as the alcohol and the release of tension started to take their toll on the enemy. As the time approached to start our own party, my pulse raced and my palms began to sweat. Could I do what must be done?

"It's time, Gav," Gunny whispered from the darkness to my left.

I nodded, still unsure, and raised my head above the berm to take one last look at the house. I found the stone that we had used as a marker, and uncovered the remote firing key, steeling myself to push the button.

"Gav," Gunny prompted in an urgent whisper.

Just then, a huge figure emerged from the front door of the house to yell at a group of men who were fighting over one of the women from the bus. Crap! I needed him to be in the house. I held up a hand to Gunny and pointed. He eased up, saw the Russian, and nodded. Maybe the Russian would stay outside and I would have an excuse not to...

No, of course not. He turned and slammed the door as he went back inside. God I hoped Grey Eagle had done as he promised. Steeling myself, I thumbed the switch, not giving myself time to think about the consequences.

All hell broke loose. The explosion triggered by the button under my thumb instantly turned Archie's house to toothpicks. With the explosion as the starting signal, from every hillside around the valley erupted a storm of gunfire the likes of which I never hope to see again. From the slopes above the valley, Metal Storms laid down solid curtains of fire, sweeping the compound with a hellish maelstrom of mixed high explosive and anti-personnel rounds, all unleashed with unbelievable ferocity and uncanny accuracy.

Shoulder fired rockets took out all three tanks and the remaining enemy trucks in mere seconds as M16s and machine guns opened up from every hillside and the tops of every berm. Snipers rained deadly accurate fire on every enemy combatant that came under their crosshairs.

Miraculously, from the smoke and ruins of the house, an enormous figure staggered, giving orders to the few men who remained. They took cover where they could, but we had ranged the entire compound and made sure that we had clear lines of fire to every point in it. Even the berms that were designed to protect us against artillery had slopes that were too gentle to provide cover from sharpshooters on the hillsides. It was bloody, unadulterated slaughter.

I know I hit the Russian at least three times with rounds from my M-16, but he would not go down. The legend of Rasputin came to mind as he staggered under the impacts of my bullets, but my more rational mind said 'body armor'.

I thumbed my mic and over the cacophony shouted, "Somebody with a .50 caliber rifle, shoot that Russian!"

It was apparently an order that the snipers in the hills were happy to carry out. At least five of the heavy half-inch slugs tore through the big guy's body, flinging chunks of Kevlar and flesh in all directions. It might have been more satisfying for me, personally, to stick a knife in him, but I wasn't fool enough to risk everything on an attempt that might have sold tickets to a movie, but could have gotten me killed without accomplishing my purpose.

When the firing from the compound dwindled and died, Lee gave the order to mop up. With a vengeance, our people, men and women, went around and shot the wounded. We had no place to hold prisoners of war, and only one way to ensure that they would no longer be a threat. Lee had ordered us not to target the women, but some had been caught by stray rounds or shrapnel, and lay either dead or writhing in agony. I was relieved to see the wounded women being loaded on stretchers instead of being shot with the others.

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