This is the rest of the story. Click here for the beginning
Scrub’s unit had dragged him off the officer at that point, and for that Scrub was eternally grateful. He had no clear memories of the assault, so he had no idea if he would have stopped before the officer was unconscious, or worse.
Despite being advised to stay silent at his court-martial Scrub had spoken, and he’d been both calm and rational. He’d accepted that his conduct had been substandard, and what he did to the lieutenant had been completely wrong.
But he argued that the suggestion of cowardice was uncalled for, and that after all he’d been through that day it had led to a temporary loss of control bordering on insanity.
To his lawyer’s surprise, that weighed in his favour. Instead of spending the next ten years in jail he’d been assigned to a penal unit for a minimum of three years but with the chance to return to a normal unit after that if his behaviour was exemplary.
Well, his behaviour might not have been fully exemplary, he certainly wouldn’t be becoming an officer again, but Sarge had never had any cause to write anything negative in his official record.
Besides, it wasn’t as if he would ever want to be an officer again. As a grunt he had no control, he did what he was told, went where he was told, and if he was badly hungover he got up and got on with the mission anyway. Like today. And that suited him just fine.
The roto-copter dropped suddenly, and for a moment Scrub was certain he was about to throw up, but then the roto-copter slammed into the ground. Hard!
“Out! All of you out!” bellowed Sarge.
Scrub was up and out almost immediately, instincts kicking in. He jumped to the ground, wincing as the impact shot through his body and into his head. Still, at least he was off the damned roto-copter!
* * *
Now that they were off their transport Scrub wondered what the mission would turn out to be. Sarge hadn’t given them any information on the way, but that was hardly unusual. She seemed to feel the less information they were given the fewer chances they had to screw up.
Scrub kind of agreed. The other two were also long-termers in the penal unit, which meant things worked best when they were all told exactly what to do at the moment they needed to do it, and nothing more.
Scrub looked around. They were in a clearing in the middle of a forest. Roads led off in three directions. Well, dirt tracks did. They looked well used though.
The forest around was well ordered, the trees planted at regular intervals and all had grown to similar heights. Everything suggested a well-managed forest. Then Scrub’s study of their surroundings was interrupted by Sarge.
“Listen up,” she said. “We’re here because a bunch of foresters have dropped off the grid. All contact with them was lost a week ago, with no warning and no unusual messages before it happened. It’s reached the point now where mechanical failure or a particular drunken party don’t explain the silence anymore. So we’ve been sent to go make sure they’re okay.”
“Seriously, Sarge?” said Drax. “You know as well as I do we’re going to find nothing worse than two of the locals having had a fight and smashed up the comms gear by accident. Tree hackers are normally mighty dumb, but they can look after themselves out here in the wild just fine. Why don’t we just camp out here for a day then go back and say we visited the foresters and everything is fine?”
“You know that’s never going to happen, Drax.”
“It would if Scrub was in charge,” muttered Drax quietly.
Not quietly enough. Sarge’s eyes flared wide and her voice cracked out.
“I heard that, private! You know damn well I will not have any discussion of the issues that led you to come under my command while on duty. One more wisecrack like that and you’ll be on report. Do I make myself clear?”
Drax nodded meekly.
“Yes, Sarge. Sorry, Sarge.”
Sarge nodded, the matter settled for her. She continued as if nothing had happened.
“Drax, you take point. Baggy, you bring up the rear. Scrub… you’re with me in the centre. Try not to pass out on us.”
That made the other two snigger. Scrub just nodded grimly. Sarge wouldn’t allow previous misdemeanours to be discussed, but she was more than happy to highlight any current failings.
“Which way do we go, Sarge?” asked Drax.
“We take the north-west path. We follow it for about three miles then we should be near the settlement.”
“I’m on it. We might have to leave Scrub here then collect him on the way back, though.”
“I’ll be fine,” snapped Scrub.
He turned sharply toward the path they were going to take. Too sharply. His stomach lurched, and a moment later he was emptying its contents onto the ground.
“Yeah, you’ll be fine!” said Baggy. “I’m just glad I’m behind you. At least I should be out of the line of fire.”
“Enough!” snapped Sarge. “Let’s get moving.”
For the next ten minutes Scrub wondered if he was going to be able to keep up. His head was thumping, his legs felt like lead, and he was certain Drax was deliberately setting a faster pace than normal. Finally, Sarge moved closer and slapped something into his hand.
“Rehydration salts,” she said. “I don’t suppose you had the brains to bring any yourself. Coming on a mission with a hangover I’ll overlook. Coming on a mission in a state where I can’t rely on you, that I won’t.”
Scrub opened his water bottle and downed the two tablets, then followed with a longer swig of water.
“Thanks, Sarge,” he said. “You’re right. I should have thought of it. I’m sorry.”
Sarge just nodded once, then moved away, opening up the space between the two of them to patrol normal.
* * *
The tablets helped. Ten minutes after taking them Scrub would still quite happily have curled up in a ball on the floor, but he at least felt the hike to the settlement wouldn’t be the death of him.
They saw and heard no sign of anyone. Not necessarily surprising, the foresters might be working off in a different direction, but Scrub didn’t like it. He’d far rather have stumbled across someone who could explain why the settlement had gone quiet, then been able to head back to the pickup point that much sooner.
There were no people, but there was plenty of life in the surrounding forest. Scrub was a city boy, though thankfully not from the slums like Drax was, but he’d spent enough time out in the wilds to know that when the wildlife went silent it was time to worry. The noise of the wildlife was a comfort, though if the birds had chosen to sing a little more quietly he would have greatly appreciated it.
The wildlife might not be worried, but Sarge clearly was. Scrub had served under her long enough now to recognise the signs. She was worried, which meant so was Scrub.
Whatever Sarge had done to lumber her with this crappy command it had nothing to do with being bad at her job. He’d seldom seen her this worried, even on some epically bad missions. Which made him wonder just what they might be getting themselves into.
* * *
For the next couple of miles they saw no sign of activity, but the track remained well used. As time passed Scrub noticed that Sarge was paying closer and closer attention to her surroundings. He decided to tackle her.
“Sarge, what is this really about? I’m sure logging settlements drop off the grid all the time. Why have they sent us to this one?”
Sarge turned and stared at him for long seconds before nodding slightly.
“You know, if you kept your head out of the bottle you’d make a damn good soldier, Scrub. You’re right. This isn’t the sort of thing I’d expect us to be sent out to, which either means I’ve really pissed off someone in Command without realising it or there’s more to this than the settlement going quiet. Either way, I wasn’t given any more details than I’ve told you.”
“Do you have any ideas about it though?”
“Plenty. But they’re all guesses, and most likely they’re all totally wrong. All I know is that I don’t like it.”
That was sobering. Scrub wasn’t certain he’d ever heard Sarge open up like that before. Which meant she was really worried. He looked around, listened too, but the wildlife was still happily going about its business.
“It’s almost idyllic,” he said. “The sort of place you can’t imagine bad shit going down until the moment it does.”
“Keep that in mind.” She studied him. “You’re looking a lot better. If I stick you out on point are you up to it?”
Scrub went to say no, then paused, considering. Finally he nodded.
“I’m not feeling great, but I won’t let you down.”
“That’s what I’m counting on. Drax is too much of a city boy. He’s never really shaken that off. I’ve seen at least three things he should have paused and checked out, but he went straight past. Right now it doesn’t matter too much, but as we get closer to the settlement it could be a big problem.”
“The big pile of logs by the road. The dead tree leaning at an angle that was only just being held up by another tree. Then there was the pond a few minutes ago. Every other pond we’ve been past has been covered in algae. That one was clear. Turned out it’s because there’s a stream feeding into and out of it, but we had to be close to see that.”
“I’m impressed. Drax didn’t notice any of them, let alone look at them twice. None of them turned out to be a problem, but if they had been dangerous he would have let them slip past.”
Scrub nodded. On a normal patrol he wouldn’t have mentioned them, and he would have been happy to leave Drax on point. But if Sarge was right about the danger they needed someone on point who’d spot anything coming their way.
Scrub would happily coast along and take it easy when it didn’t matter, but if their lives depended on the person on point he was going to damn well make sure it was him and he did the best job he could.
* * *
Scrub paused and looked at the weather-worn sign hammered into the ground ahead of them. He couldn’t make out the name of the settlement on it, but the one-and-a-half click part still stood out clearly. He guessed the locals would know full well where they were going and never saw any reason to replace the sign.
So far he’d found no dangers since taking point, but he’d been double checking everything. Now he was particularly careful. This was exactly the sort of place that booby traps or an ambush were likely. Anyone approaching would be distracted by the sign, thinking about it and how close they were getting to the town. That meant they might not be paying close enough attention to the road or the forest to the sides.
Scrub checked everything carefully, but found no signs of danger. He lifted his arm to show it was clear.
“No dangers?” Sarge’s voice crackled through his earpiece. She’d insisted on switching to comms right after he’d taken point.
“Nothing I can see, Sarge,” he said, keeping his voice quiet. “I would have thought we’d be close enough to the settlement to hear something by now. Loggers at work. Engines. Voices. Something!”
“It is too damn quiet. All right, everyone close up to half distance. I don’t want to risk us being split from each other.”
Scrub waited as the others closed up, then set off again, the tranquil surroundings only making him more on edge.
The road grew more winding, seldom letting them see more than fifty metres. If they hadn’t tightened up then when Scrub turned round he would have had trouble seeing Baggy, but being closer made it easier for an attacker to target all of them at once.
And yet it stayed quiet. Wildlife kept chittering away, turn after turn on the road went past, and finally Scrub rounded a corner and saw houses ahead.
In fact, he figured he could see the entire settlement. There were forty or fifty buildings, most just one or two stories, and a large building in the centre. To one edge there were several large storage barns with a variety of vehicles and heavy equipment outside of them. And no people.
Scrub put his arm up as soon as the settlement came into view. He crouched down, lessening the chance of being spotted, though if anyone was watching the road carefully it would be too late already.
Then again, anyone keeping watch on the road from the trees on either side would have spotted the approaching squad well before now.
“I can see the town,” he said quietly over the comm. “No sign of any damage, but also no people. There’re vehicles around, but they’re all parked up neatly. Still no sounds except the animals.”
“All right,” said Sarge. “We’ll head in slowly. Very slowly. If this is a trap then right now we’re walking right into it.”
“Is it worth moving off into the trees?”
Sarge paused for a little while, then answered.
“No. At least out here we can tell if the road’s been disturbed recently. In amongst the trees we’d have no hope of spotting any traps.”
“Alright, Sarge. Moving out.”
Scrub’s heart was starting to beat faster and he could feel his hands becoming sweaty. This was the worst part about taking point. The time when you knew you could well be about to be attacked at any moment, but didn’t know it for sure.
In some ways charging down a machine-gun post involved less fear. At least then you knew where the enemy was, you could send shots their way to keep their heads down and had some clear idea where to focus your fear and anger.
This… this had his pulse pounding and his body ready to fight or flee, but the moment stretched on and on and on without anything happening.
As he neared the first houses on either side, he started to note tiny details. A few of the windows were open. Doors were closed, but didn’t look to be barred. Lights were on behind a couple of the windows, despite it being the middle of the day. He noticed a rodent squeezing out of one open window, a large chunk of cheese gripped in its teeth.
“Sarge, it looks as if everyone left the houses like it was a normal day, but I think that was a while ago. I just saw an animal grabbing food from one of the houses. And there’s some washing hanging behind the house to the south that looks pretty dirty. It’s been out at least a couple of days, I’d guess.”
“Right, hold it there,” said Sarge. “We’re moving up. I want to get a look inside one of the houses.”
Scrub waited as Sarge came closer. She gestured for Baggy to close up as well, though he still kept a good fifteen metres back.
“Drax,” said Sarge. “You and I are going into this house. Carefully! There could be civilians in there, either hurt or scared. We do not save people by shooting them!
“Scrub, Baggy, you hold here and keep your eyes open. The same goes for you, do not fire unless fired on by a significant force, and even then find cover instead of firing back if you can. If someone is hiding here and sees a bunch of armed troopers wandering through they might not realise we’re the good guys.”
Scrub moved to watch the house and street leading further into the settlement. Baggy continued to watch behind them. Sarge and Drax headed into the house.
“Door is unlocked,” said Drax. “Leads straight into the main living area. Clear, Sarge. Two doors, one to a kitchen is open, the other’s closed.”
“Coming in,” said Sarge.
Then it went quiet. Scrub could hear them moving around, and the occasional low comment, but that was all. It felt like they’d been in there for ten or fifteen minutes, but when he checked it been barely two. Soon after that, they reappeared.
“Nothing,” said Sarge. “It’s like the couple living there went off to do what they normally would but just never came back. It’s been a good few days, though. The bread in the kitchen was stale and a little mouldy. But there’s no sign of any struggle, or of anyone breaking in after the couple left. Hold your position, we’re going to check the other house.”
Sarge and Drax entered the house across the road and reported much the same. No sign of any foul play, but no sign of anyone having inhabited the building in days at least.
“All right,” said Sarge. “We’ll work our way toward the centre of the settlement, checking on houses as we go. Stay alert, but don’t get trigger happy. I’ve seen no signs of anything that could threaten us. Whatever happened to the civilians doesn’t seem to have involved violence.”
“They just marched off into the forest?” asked Drax.
“That might be exactly what happened. It’s a small settlement. They might all have decided to go have a great big party down by a river somewhere.”
Scrub frowned. He was certain that wasn’t it. If people were heading away then they’d have closed up their houses, or at least make them secure against wildlife. No… He didn’t think they’d expected to be away for anywhere near this long. But had no idea what had really happened.
* * *
By the time the squad reached the centre of the settlement they had checked out another twelve houses, all with the same results. No signs of violence. No signs of leaving in a hurry. And no people.
Scrub was still on point, so he’d been the one to check over the vehicles they passed. None seemed to have been moved in days, and as far as he could tell there weren’t a great number missing. There might even have been none missing, without a record to check against he couldn’t be sure.
“What now, Sarge?” he asked over the link.
“Apparently the comms gear is in the main building there. We’re going to go in and check it out. See if there’s anything wrong with it.”
Scrub was happy with that suggestion. The building was starting to look like a pub now he was close to it. He had no objection to spending time there.
He wasn’t surprised to find the building’s doors were unlocked, like the others in town. He eased his way inside, straight into a large common room which was dimly lit compared with the outside. A dozen rough wooden tables were scattered around the room, and against the far wall was a bar with bottles of spirits and wines behind it.
Scrub felt his pulse quicken slightly when he spotted the bottles, but he forced his instinct down. There was no way he was going to get a drink right then, no matter how badly he felt he needed one.
There was a door to the left of the bar, the opposite side to the opening which led behind the bar. That seemed like a poor design, meaning anyone working behind the bar had to walk right around it to get to the door.
On the right there was an open set of stairs leading up. Below them was another door with a sign showing it led to the toilets.
Scrub moved through the room carefully, checking everything. Once again there was no sign of any violence or people leaving in a hurry. Everything had been stacked away, the tables and floor were clean, and there was no one in sight.
“How does it look, Scrub?” asked Sarge.
“Just the same as the houses, Sarge. Clean. Ordered. And empty.”
“All right, we’re coming in.”
Sarge and Drax entered, moving away from the door, then Baggy followed them in.
“We sweep the building,” said Sarge. “Baggy, secure the entrance. Then you and Scrub sweep the downstairs. Lock up all the doors and windows. I want to know nothing is getting in here without us knowing about it. Drax, we’ll take the top floor.”
Scrub almost groaned. The Sarge was talking about a lock-in! A lock-in in a pub where the alcohol was off limits. Just his luck!
Baggy gestured for Scrub to move to go first. Scrub grimaced but moved toward the door in the far wall, walking uncomfortably close to the bottles behind the bar as he did.
He pushed the door open slowly, and immediately had to fight not to gag. Something smelt awful. It stank of rotting flesh. He eased into the room, a kitchen it turned out, his body tensed and ready to fight. And a feeling he was about to find out what had happened… and he wasn’t going to like it.
Baggy had moved close enough to the door that the smell hit him too. Scrub could hear him trying not to gag.
“What the hell is that stench?” Baggy asked.
“I’m trying to find out.”
“I’m not sure I want to know!”
“What’s going on?” demanded Sarge over the comm.
“I’m in the kitchen, Sarge,” replied Scrub. “Something in here stinks like rotting flesh.”
“Alright. Be careful. Let me know as soon as you know what it is.”
There was something in her voice which tweaked at Scrub’s attention. She’d told him she knew nothing more when they’d talked about this mission, but how true was that? He eased forward, moving past spotlessly clean stainless-steel benches without finding the source of the smell.
The closer to the back of the kitchen he got, the more it stank. Behind him Baggy sounded as if he was getting ready to throw up. Scrub forced himself to stay focused. He glanced around the room, realising that he’d been so focused on the smell he had missed other details.
There was a door in the back wall, not far from where the sinks were, which led outside. Scrub could see daylight through the tight metal grid that was screwed into the back of the door.
In the right wall was another door with a sign on it saying freezer, as if the type of handle wasn’t a giveaway. That door was closed, which pretty much ruled it out as the source of the stink.
Some of the metal benches had enclosed cupboards below them, giving possible hiding places, but with Baggy’s help Scrub soon checked each of them out without finding anything significant.
Other than that, there was just the usual kitchen paraphernalia. Of course much of that would make a pretty effective weapon, but there was no one around to make use of it.
The closer Scrub got to the sink the worse the stink was. He stepped close enough to see into the sink and came very close to losing his guts. Only having thrown up earlier in the day saved him.
For a moment he was certain he was looking at part of a body, chopped up and mutilated then left in the sink. Bile rose in his throat again… then it eased right off as he realised what he was looking at. He let out a short laugh.
“What’s so funny?” asked Baggy.
“We are! We got all jumpy because someone stuck a few shoulders of beef in the sink to defrost, and then ended up leaving them there.”
“That’s what the smell is?”
“Yeah! I’d say it’s been here a few days. It would probably be covered in flies if it wasn’t for that zapper just above it.”
“I’m glad you got that sorted out,” said Sarge over the comm. “Have you finished your sweep?”
“No, Sarge. We’ll keep going.”
“Don’t forget to lock everything down. I want to give us a secure base to operate from if we need to.”
Once again, this wasn’t normal. Usually they’d be in and out, leaving holding actions to larger squads. Scrub glanced at Baggy who shrugged, then gestured towards the freezer.
Scrub sighed. He could have made something of it, could have insisted that Baggy went first this time, but truth be told he’d rather do it himself. Baggy was far from diligent. If there were any dangers Scrub knew he was more likely to spot them.
He moved the few steps it took to reach the outside door, and confirm it was already locked and bolted. Then he walked over to the freezer door. There were no bolts or locks, just a latch which was used to pull the door open.
A wave of cool, fresh, air flowed over him. He took a deep breath, enjoying not smelling rotting meat, for a few seconds at least.
It was a big freezer, three metres wide and five deep, and well-stocked. Several sides of beef hung on hooks in the ceiling, and out of the 10 hooks along the back wall seven had chickens hanging from them.
There were also boxes stacked around the room. A couple were open and partially filled with frozen vegetables. Other than that, there was nothing in the room.
“The freezer is clear,” said Scrub. “Plenty of food, but nothing else.”
“Let’s go check out the toilets, then,” said Baggy.
Once again Scrub found himself taking the lead, though this time he really wasn’t looking forward to what he’d find. But to his surprise the toilets were perfectly clean. Almost exceptionally so. He double checked that the windows were all locked, which they were.
“Sarge, downstairs secured,” Scrub said. “I think whatever happened must have hit when the pub was closed. Everything is clean, except the meat in the sink. No other signs of food prep. No clues as to where everyone has gone.”
“And you secured all the entrances? The windows too?”
“Yes, Sarge. The doors and windows are locked down, they’ve all got bars on the inside. We’re safe as houses in here.”
“Good! Upstairs is clear too. I found the comm unit. It was on but not actively sending. The messages that have come in were stacked up in it, so no one has checked it for a few days at least. I’m sending Drax down to you. I need to use the comm unit to check in with command, find out what they want us to do next.”
Scrub frowned. Use the comm unit to speak to Command?
“But your unit links up to command,” he said.
“It should, but something about it has been on the fritz since we left the roto-copter.”
Scrub shook his head. Their own comms units were generally only rated for short range. They relied on Sarge being in touch with Command. Having a comm unit stop working was damn unusual. And it fit a little too well with the whole pattern of the mission for Scrub’s liking.
“This might take some time,” said Sarge. “Whatever happens, we won’t be moving out for a while yet. We need a rest. This is the safest place we’re going to find.”
Safest? Scrub was certain something wasn’t right. Sarge had said safest, not safe. That meant she thought there might be something around that could get through the locked entry points. That thought wasn’t comforting!
Sarge was still talking.
“You can each have one drink,” she said. “And I do mean one. Scrub, that means you!”
Drax appeared on the stairs. He looked as worried as Scrub felt. By contrast, Baggy was already at the bar, grabbing a bottle of spirits which had been left neatly tucked away at the end.
“I’m not sure that’s such a good idea,” said Scrub.
“You heard Sarge!” Said Baggy, grabbing four large glasses down and filling each from the bottle.
Scrub muted the microphone on his comm so Sarge wouldn’t hear what he said.
“How come we got permission from Sarge to drink?”
“Who cares?” asked Drax, having muted his own mic for a few seconds. He took his glass and sat one of the tables.
“Sarge, will you join us in a drink?” asked Baggy, still on the comm.
“Yeah. I will. I’m still preparing a report for Command.”
Now Scrub was really worried. Sarge drinking on a patrol? Just what the hell was going on?
“Well, I’m not waiting for Sarge to change her mind,” said Drax.
He knocked back a slug of his drink, then let out a satisfied sigh. Then he started to slowly sip the rest. Scrub left his sitting on the bar.
Baggy disappeared up the stairs with the glass for Sarge. Scrub continued to have doubts. This didn’t feel right. None of it felt right. He had an uneasy feeling, one he couldn’t put his finger on. But a part of him really wanted that drink.
Baggy was coming back downstairs again almost as soon as he’d reached the top.
“Sarge knocked hers straight back!” he said. “She told me she’s ready to report to Command, and that if we need anything before she’s done we need to use the override. She won’t be on our channel.”
“See, Scrub,” said Drax. “Even Sarge had a drink. Don’t you want yours?”
Scrub grimaced. He actually didn’t.
“I’m not waiting for you,” said Baggy.
He picked his own drink up, and started drinking it. Not as quickly as Drax had, but quickly enough.
Scrub sighed. With everything that had happened, one drink might be just what he needed to clear his head a bit. It might help him shake that strange feeling. He walked over to the bar, picked up his glass, then paused. Something about the spirits smelt… familiar. And not in a good way. What was it?
Then he recognised it. Sack. The drug was often used to spike drinks. He’d had that done to him at least three times. By the third he’d learnt the smell well enough to avoid being caught out by it.
This drink stank of it. It was at that moment that the feeling he had finally clicked. It was the feeling of being watched, and watched by unfriendly eyes. If he was right about the drug then the members of his unit would be unconscious within a couple of minutes.
And if he didn’t drink what was in his glass he would tip off whoever was watching that he knew what was going on. And that might quickly prove to be a fatal move. But if he did he’d be unconscious, at the mercy of the watchers, along with the rest of his squad.
He only had one choice really. He brought the glass to his lips, tilted it back, and knocked the whole drink down in one. He coughed, spraying a little of the liquid across the bar, but not enough to make a difference to the effect of the drug.
The other two laughed at him as he switched the glass to his left hand without lowering his right arm, then wiped his mouth with his right hand. That gave the liquid in his sleeve long enough to finish running down the inside and then down the side of his body.
It was hard not to shiver at the cold of the liquid, especially as it started to evaporate, but he’d managed what he needed to. He gave silent thanks that he’d been involved in far too many drinking games down the years. That had taught him… well, how to cheat if he was honest. But he’d never expected his life to depend on those tricks.
“Hey Baggy,” said Drax. “You’d think Scrub would be able to handle his drink with all the practice he gets!”
Baggy chuckled at that. Scrub scowled, and moved sideways along the bar, swinging around the end and moving behind it.
“That stuff was dire!” he said. “I’m going to find the good stuff.”
“Don’t be stupid, Scrub,” said Baggy. “You know Sarge said just one drink.”
Scrub made a show of examining the drinks.
“I’m just having one decent drink. Besides, are you sure you should tell her? Do you really want her in that bad a mood?”
“Dammit, Scrub, she’ll know! Tell him, Drax. Drax?”
Scrub glanced over. Drax was slumped down across the table.
“Now who can’t hold their drink?” Scrub asked.
He had to try to keep his voice light, fighting the worry inside. That was fast. He hoped there wasn’t enough of the drug to have done more than knock Drax unconscious, and that the small amount that had got into his own mouth wouldn’t prove to be a problem.
“Drax, stop messing around!” said Baggy. “This isn’t funny!”
Baggy went over to Drax and started shaking his shoulder.
“Something’s wrong,” he said. “Drax isn’t faking. He’s right out.”
Moments later Scrub heard a bump from above them. Not enough for Baggy to notice, but Scrub had been listening for it. Sarge was out of action too. Scrub hoped she’d been sitting down and hadn’t hurt herself when she fell. He was worried about when Baggy went too, but he couldn’t see how to say anything that wouldn’t tip off the hidden watchers.
“He’ll be fine,” said Scrub. “I’m getting another drink.”
He turned around and was busy examining bottles when he heard Baggy go down. It was a double thump, as if Baggy had struck the table first and then the floor.
Scrub didn’t react. He kept looking through the bottles while counting silently in his head to get the timing right. He pulled a bottle of the shelf.
“This one looks good!”
He deliberately fumbled it, half caught it, then let it drop onto the floor. Reaching down for it left him mostly bent over, and a second later he allowed himself to slump to the floor, hoping his acting was good enough to fool the watchers.
Scrub had chosen how he fell carefully. He ended up laying on his side, his hand by the handle of his knife where it rested in its sheaf. He kept his eyes closed but his ears open.
He didn’t have to wait long. Less than a minute later he heard voices.
“Aaron, Jaquan, you take the two out here. Cadamus and I will get the woman from upstairs. Then Aaron you come back and get the one behind the bar.”
“Truly the great ones will be pleased with us today. We had only just finished the sacrifices to them when these four arrived. In fact, the great ones must have led them here. Rejoice in the light of the great ones.”
“Rejoice!” answered three voices.
Scrub heard footsteps, then the sound of something heavy being dragged and at the same time footsteps on the stairs. He forced himself to stay motionless.
Wonderful! They were dealing with some kind of cult. Cults sprang up from time to time and were generally tolerated as long as they didn’t get too extreme, but this one had clearly gone way off the deep end.
Scrub was certain the sacrifices the cultists had spoken about would be the rest of those living in the settlement. Now he and his unit were next on the list. Well, not if he could do anything about it.
He had to be careful, and he worried that the one called Aaron would come back for him before the two who’d gone to get Sarge had passed through. He didn’t want to have to deal with three at once, especially when he couldn’t protect the rest of his unit.
He breathed a little easier when he heard footsteps on the stairs and muttering about the Sarge’s size. He listened as they reached the bottom of the stairs then started to move across the room, but before they left one of the others returned.
“Those two are safely downstairs,” said the voice. Aaron, Scrub guessed. “We secured them, just in case they recover early.”
“Very good. Get the one from behind the bar.”
Scrub tensed. He really wanted the other two out of the room before he made his move, but it was going to be close. Damn close. He slipped the knife out of its sheath, hiding it under his left arm while still keeping hold of it with his right hand. And then he waited as he heard the steps coming closer and closer.
Aaron stepped around the bar, then stopped. Scrub waited half a second, then his eyes flashed open to find a pale looking man leaning over him. Scrub’s arm lashed out, slashing the knife across the cultist’s throat even as his other hand grabbed the man’s jacket and pulled him down.
The cultist thrashed for several seconds, but he was unable to make any noise. Scrub forced himself to think of his victim that way. The cultist. No name. And so no chance for Scrub to feel empathy.
Blood seeped over Scrub’s uniform but he ignored it. His adrenaline was flowing. His heart was hammering. The fight was on! All he was focused on was his survival and that of his unit.
Once the cultist was still, Scrub let him go, pushing the body to the floor and then checking it over. He found a pistol strapped to the cultist’s waist. Scrub had to assume the others were similarly armed. He would need to be quick… and quiet.
Other than that, the cultist had nothing of interest, though the robes he wore were extremely strange. They were made of a shimmering material which felt slippery to the touch, and which the blood of the cultist was simply running off.
Scrub eased himself to his knees, keeping his head well below the level of the bar, cleaned his knife and put it away. He pulled out his pistol and picked up his rifle in the other hand. He didn’t expect to use the rifle, not unless the cultists had headed outside, which seemed unlikely as the building had been secured. No, he was expecting a close quarters fight.
Scrub paused, listening carefully. He didn’t hear anyone coming, and the sense of being watched had gone. He eased himself higher until his eyes were above the level of the bar and confirmed the room was empty. Now he needed to find out where the cultists had been hiding.
The footsteps had definitely led into the kitchen rather than the toilets. He stood and moved across the room, taking care to keep his steps silent, then paused by the kitchen door, listening intently.
He heard nothing so he eased the door slightly open. There was still no reaction, and no one in the part of the kitchen he could see. Rather than try and squeeze through the small gap he kept pushing until the door was fully open and he could see the whole room. There was no one in it that he could see, but the door to the freezer stood open.
Were Sarge and the others hung up in the freezer? That didn’t seem right. Their attackers had to have come from somewhere and they certainly hadn’t been hiding anywhere in the freezer. Scrub figured it must somehow lead somewhere else.
He crept across the room, not wanting to tip off anyone who might be waiting. He had to smile at himself though, one set of footsteps would be expected. The footsteps of the one he had killed.
Despite that, he couldn’t help but creep. Anything else felt wrong. He made it far enough through the kitchen to confirm no one was hiding in the room, then quietly moved over to the freezer. Still there was no sign he’d been noticed.
When he glanced into the freezer he saw a chunk of the wall had been shoved open, revealing stairs which led downwards. No wonder he and Baggy hadn’t found it. He would never have thought to look for secret passageways!
Seeing the stairs where the attackers must have appeared from confirmed Scrub’s feelings that whoever had run the pub was in some way behind the disappearance of the foresters. The drink had been spiked which had suggested foul play by someone at the pub, but wasn’t proof. The fact there was a secret staircase, that was much more of a clincher.
Scrub moved to the stairway and glanced down. The staircase was illuminated by a dim electric light, though the area at the bottom looked brighter.
Scrub thought he could make out an opening at the bottom which would lead back under the building. And he could hear voices echoing up from the below. Not many as far as he could tell, but he still had no idea how many cultists he had to deal with.
Scrub moved down the stairs cautiously, and found he was able to reach the bottom without coming into view of the room beyond the doorway. He edged toward it, crouched down, then peered round, moving his head slowly. In training he’d been taught that sharp movements were much more likely to attract attention than slow ones. He followed that training even though every instinct screamed at him to dart his head out and pull it back again.
The room beyond was large and seemed to be the size of the kitchen and main room above combined. Eye-wateringly impossible intricate geometric diagrams covered much of the walls, while angular writing using characters he didn’t recognise covered the rest.
Scrub forced his eyes away from the diagrams and writing and saw Sarge, Baggy, and Drax slumped against the far side with their hands shackled to the wall above their heads. All three were still unconscious, but he would have been amazed if they’d started to recover from the drug so soon. He figured they’d be out for several more hours at least.
Scrub could only see three other people in the room, all of them men. Two were dressed in the same strange robes as the man Scrub had killed. The third had similar robes but they were a deep purple colour. That cultist was sharpening a large knife.
The hilt of the knife was carved out of a dark material so black it seemed to suck in the light, and the blade had more of the strange geometric patterns etched into it. Scrub was in no doubt that was a bad sign. So was the fact all three men had pistols strapped to their belts.
The cultist with the knife spoke.
“Truly the great ones walk among us. They shall see that we are dedicated and devout, and they shall reward us. They have told me so. With these extra sacrifices they will bestow even greater gifts upon us.”
“I long to gaze upon one of the great ones again, Master,” said one of the others.
“As soon as Aaron is with us we will sacrifice the first of these interlopers,” said the master cultist. “Then you will get your chance once more.”
“He seems to be taking a long time, Master. Should I go and help him?”
“Yes! We must not keep the great ones waiting!”
Scrub had already eased his way back out of sight, which was just as well as he was sure at least some of the cultists would be looking toward the doorway now.
He could feel his heartbeat increase, but it didn’t race. He forced himself into the calm state of impending action and stood up with his pistol held just in front of his chest, then he waited.
He heard the footsteps of the man coming closer and tensed. As the man stepped through the doorway his eyes widened and his mouth opened. He never got the chance to call out. Scrub shoved his pistol under the man’s chin and pulled the trigger twice.
Blood and brains sprayed out into the room beyond. Scrub shoved the body back into the room and raced in after it. He still faced two armed men, one of them holding a large knife and standing far too close to Scrub’s squad-mates for comfort.
Scrub knew it would take a few moments for the two cultists to process what was happening. He had to make full use of that time.
As he moved into the room he already had his pistol lined up on the man with the knife. He fired, but the man reacted much faster than Scrub had expected. The shot took the cultist in the shoulder, spinning him around, but he managed to drop down behind a solid metal unit before Scrub could fire again.
Scrub cursed and switched his aim to the other cultist. This one was reacting far more slowly. His mouth was open, asking a question, and his hand hadn’t even started to move towards his gun.
Scrub fired twice, the first shot striking the man’s head, the second the centre of his chest. Then Scrub charged into the room, desperately trying to get into a position to protect Sarge, Baggy, and Drax.
“The great ones will not be denied!” shouted the man that Scrub had wounded. “Sacrifices must take place!”
Scrub continued to charge ahead, not bothering to reply. He threw himself forwards, landing on his left side and sliding along the floor. He came to a halt with his head almost hitting Sarge and caught sight of the wounded cultist scuttling around the metal unit he’d been hiding behind, pistol raised.
Scrub was certain the cultist’s target would have been Sarge and the others, but now he was in the line of fire. He was also ready for the cultist.
He fired, and fired, and fired. The man’s body jerked repeatedly. His hand must have convulsed on his pistol, a shot flew past Scrub’s ear so close he could hear it crackle through the air.
Then the cultist collapsed to the floor, bleeding out but still chuckling for several seconds before the breath choked in his throat and he fell still. Scrub frowned, then realised the cultist was now looking at his own hand where a small metal sphere rolled free.
“Shit!” Shouted Scrub. This was bad. It was a praxon grenade. Depending on its grade, it could be more than powerful enough to kill everyone in the room. Scrub had no idea how long the fuse was set to. It might already be too late for him to escape the explosion even if he tried to run to cover, and Sarge and the others would be sure to be killed.
He pushed himself halfway to standing, then launched himself toward the grenade. He expected agonising pain and heat at any moment as his leap closed the gap.
To his surprise he landed before any explosion came. He was almost on top of the grenade and with one movement he scooped it up and shoved it under the body of the cultist who’d activated it. Then Scrub threw himself on top of the body.
There was a fair chance he’d still be killed, but at least this way he could hope the Sarge and the others would be able to survive. He grimaced as he realised that survival would mean waking up chained to the wall and unable to free themselves, but it was too late to change anything. There was a loud crump, a wave of pressure, and Scrub felt himself rising into the air.
Moments later Scrub slammed back down, partly onto the dead body and partly the floor. He lay there in a daze, fighting his spasming muscles to draw a breath. Finally he rolled off of the cultist’s body and in doing so managed to gasp down some air.
He found himself laughing. Whoever had sold the grenade to the cultists had clearly not told them how to set it properly, or had sold them a near-dud. Either way, the blast had been far less powerful than it might have been, and because of that Scrub was still alive.
After a couple of minutes he managed to get his laughter under control, laughter which he was sure was more down to just having survived than anything else. He checked on the other three. All of them were breathing fine, and none seemed to be any the worse for wear.
Then Scrub managed to force himself to stand, confirming that he wasn’t bleeding though he did have several ribs which were bruised at the very least.
He started looking around the room and soon found a large set of keys. He picked them up and was pleased to find they fit the manacles. The rest of his unit were now free… if still deeply unconscious.
There was little that Scrub could do for them. He wasn’t certain whether anything within his med-pack would bring them around sooner, and he couldn’t be certain anything he tried wouldn’t cause more harm than good. The drug would wear off in time, until then the best thing to do was let the others sleep.
He looked around the room properly now the danger was gone. It was as spotlessly clean as the kitchen upstairs had been. He guessed that wasn’t surprising if the cultists had expected to meet their gods.
The squad’s weapons were stacked in one corner of the room. Scrub picked them up and brought them over, putting them by the side of the others just in case something happened to him. Then he poked around some more, this time looking for signs of any more secret passageways.
He didn’t find any, but he did find a section of wall that hinged away revealing a drop down to a large pit with ash at the bottom. It was still radiating warmth, but that wasn’t what caught Scrub’s attention. Several bones were sticking out of the ash, including a skull that could only be human.
Scrub fought not to be sick as he slammed the doorway closed again. The few doubts he’d had about what had happened to the rest of the settlement were well and truly gone now.
Scrub found no other hidden areas to the room so he checked his pistol, making sure it was ready for use and that he’d reloaded it, then moved back towards the stairs.
He was careful, quiet and slow. If anyone else was hidden within the building, and he couldn’t rule out the possibility, then the gunfire and explosion of the grenade would certainly have tipped them off that something was wrong.
The stairs were clear, as was the freezer room when Scrub reached it. He glanced into the kitchen to make sure it was still empty, then moved around pushing and prodding at things to see if there were any other hidden secrets.
He found none, though he did find that one of the hooks in the freezer controlled the door to the hidden stairs. He made sure to open it again, not wanting to risk trapping his unit down there.
He moved into the kitchen and repeated the same steps after confirming the door and the windows were barred. He didn’t want to risk someone with a key finding their way in.
He moved into the main room. His first check was that the man he’d killed was dead. It wasn’t as if anyone with a throat cut open like that could possibly have survived, but it had been one of those days. Sure enough, the cultist was well and truly dead.
Scrub moved out of the room and checked the toilets. Again, there was nothing hidden, but he hadn’t expected there to be. He was building a mental map in his head of the overall size of the building and any possible locations for hidden rooms. He was pretty sure there wasn’t space for anything else to be hidden downstairs.
He was struck again by just how incredibly clean all of the rooms were. Maybe that should have been something that tipped him off, it was cleaner than any pub he’d ever been in, but he could hardly have made the leap from that to there being a cult hiding in the basement.
As he moved back into the main room his eyes were drawn to the drinks behind the bar. He really felt like he needed a drink, and surely he’d done enough to deserve one? It seemed unlikely anyone else was hiding in the building.
He sighed and shook his head. This was not the time to do half a job. He’d confirmed that the ground floor was now completely secure. That meant he just needed to check the top floor. Then he could have a drink.
The upper floor turned out to be a lot smaller and to have just four rooms. He found the room with comms equipment in, considered calling base and decided it wasn’t time to do that yet. He had to be sure things were safe first.
He moved on and checked the other rooms. This time it was much easier to be sure there were no secret passageways. All the rooms had windows which opened, allowed him to confirm the outer walls matched the inner.
Soon enough he was certain the building was secure and safe. It was time for him to go and grab his drink.
Part of Scrub still wondered if he should try and call Command, but his head was aching intolerably. Partly because of the explosion, but mostly because of his hangover.
He had no doubt that calling Command would not only mean a lot of explaining, but also having to repeat the same information many times. No, he was going to get a drink. When the Sarge woke up she could deal with Command.
When he got back to the bar he hesitated. Sarge and the other two would be out for a long time, but they would wake up. Right now, the first any of them would see was an underground room with eye watering geometric symbols scrawled on the walls, two more of their squad either deeply asleep or dead, and at least one dead cultist.
Scrub sighed. He really, really didn’t want to do anything else before getting a drink, but he couldn’t leave them down there. Then he glanced at the body behind the bar.
Well, if he was going down to the basement anyway…
* * *
Scrub let out a sigh of relief as he propped Sarge up against the wall near the bar. She was the last, and she had been the most difficult. Where the other two were fairly lean, Sarge packed in one hell of a lot of muscle. It helped make her a formidable squad leader, but also a pain in the arse to drag up so many stairs. Still, it was done. Now, finally, he could get a drink!
He moved along the bottles, pulling many down, opening them, then sniffing them cautiously. He found three more that smelled of the knockout drug. Most people wouldn’t even notice, but he’d learnt to recognise it.
The other bottles seemed to be fine. It made sense, it would take a massive amount of the drug to contaminate every bottle. In the end he had a number of bottles of beer, a bottle of wine, and two bottles of spirits on the bar in front of him.
He thought they were all safe to drink. If he was wrong and the drinks were spiked then he’d recover again. The worst-case scenario was that Sarge would wake up in a few hours and find Scrub unconscious because of the drug. The best was that she’d wake up and find him absolutely shit-faced.
That was fine by him. After everything he’d done he deserved a bit of slack, even if it meant she wrote it up on his record. Besides, she was the one who was going to have to make contact with Command and explain all this. He figured that would keep her busy for a long time!
* * *
It was nearly three hours before the first signs that one of the others was coming round. Scrub wasn’t surprised that it was Sarge. She was damn tough. Her leg started twitching and she snorted a couple of times. Before too much longer she would be waking up.
But Scrub… Scrub was well on his way to being comatose after all that he’d drunk. In fact, he found his eyes closing, his mind drifting.
But just before he fell asleep, a thought struck him. What had that cultist meant about wanting to see the great ones again? That seemed to suggest that the great ones had appeared at the sacrifices. In that case did that mean they were close? And if so, just what were they?
Both felt like critically important questions, but neither kept his eyes from closing again, and his body falling into a deep sleep. Questions could wait till tomorrow… if he could even remember them!