Three years ago David Thornton was in Iraq fighting for his life in a giant cemetery filled with crowded stone boxes that made him feel like some kind of American Godzilla in an Arab city. The little mausoleums, tombs or whatever they were, were all over and provided great cover for the insurgents hidden somewhere inside that all wanted to kill him.
Two hours before they had been briefed that a “death cult” was holding up in the cemetery preparing to strike against Coalition targets.
“These aren’t your typical Muslim insurgents. These men make your average Jihadi look like Mister Rogers,” their captain had said.
“Who are they, then?” One of the Platoon sergeants asked.
“We’re not sure exactly. We do know that they are called the “Soldiers of Heaven” and are targeting both Shiite and Sunni clerical leaders. These are bad men, gentlemen. Not even our Iraqi allies really know who these freaks are. Reports of animal and even human sacrifice are going around. Whatever the case, they have to be stopped. They’re amassing a large arsenal and are planning something big. We just got word that they’re in a cemetery fifteen clicks south of Najaf. They’re breaking into tombs. And don’t ask because I don’t know why.”
The whole mission had a strange feeling to it. Instead of the usual banter of jokes, sexual insults and impersonations of leadership, they were quiet as they loaded their magazines and checked their gear. Something was definitely in the air and David knew he didn't like it.
Their attack force consisted of three platoons, about ten contractors, four men in suits that no one would explain who they were or why they were there and about a half dozen Arab “interpreters.” The interpreters only talked to the men in suits and he only heard them speak Arabic. Not very good interpreters.
As news came down their sergeants gathered them in small groups as they prepared.
“We just found out that they have a small compound near the cemetery. It was a big farm of some kind. They killed the people living there and took it over. They may retreat there so we’re moving in to block their path of retreat,” Sgt. Alans said.
“So, when they start losing, they’re all going to come straight at us,” Spc. Brown said.
“That’s an accurate assessment,” Alans said.
"Wonderful," someone said from behind him.
“Do they have more men in the compound?” Spc. David Thornton asked.
He wasn’t eager to be sandwiched by two hostile forces.
“We don’t know but I think we can assume so.”
The answer turned out to be ‘yes,’ but not in the way they had imagined.
The assault on the forces in the cemetery started right on time for once. They moved in at 1900 and made their way through the twisting maze of the cemetery. David had his goggles on and his M4 shouldered and ready to rock. They could only move in lines and when they finally found a small open space they set up position. He ducked behind a tan mausoleum and kept his eyes open. His M4 was resting on top of the crypt, the red dot turned on and ready to go.
Somewhere up ahead he heard shouting in Aarabic and a second later gunfire erupted. It was a sudden explosion of dozens of guns going off at once. He could see the flashes, but not the people doing the shooting.
These guys weren’t like the typical insurgent that fired his AK-47 randomly over his head and then quickly ran for safety to call it a day. These guys seemed to be standing and fighting.
“They’re not budging. Let’s move in!” their lieutenant shouted.
It was a classic “L” shaped movement. Their two forces formed an “L” to prevent friendly fire. The made their way to battle and quickly became engaged.
These men didn’t fight like insurgents. Whoever they were had real training. He saw one of the bearded madmen reload his AK with a speed that would impress his old Drill Sergeant.
A bullet whizzed past his ear and he brought the glowing red dot on his carbine up and fired at one of the fanatics that was wearing a dark grey turban and a filthy red scarf. His shots found their target and the man jerked back. He looked down at the two wounds in his chest and then looked up and right into David’s eyes.
The look of hatred and furry in the fanatic’s eyes was almost inhuman. Then the man raised his AK to fire at him and David put two more rounds into his center of mass. This time he went down.
All around him people were shooting and shouting. He looked for another target and found one man with a light machine gun hiding behind a then slab of stone from a broken tomb. David fired through the stone and hit the machine gunner in the head.
Suddenly the fanatics all began chanting something in unison. Whatever it was, it didn’t sound like Arabic. As the fanatics continued to fight their chanting grew louder. He didn’t understand a word of it be he began to recognize that they were saying the same few phrases over and over again. It was a phrase that would be forever etched into his mind.
It was also starting to give him a headache.
"Ph'nglui mglw'nafh Cthulhu R'lyeh wgah'nagl fhtagn!"
There was an hour to go before sunset but it seemed to him that the sky was darkening. The sound of gunfire began to fade away, not decrease, just that the sound was fading away as the chanting grew louder and louder.
One of the chanting fanatics charged at him with a curved sword raised above his head. Who the hell still used swords?
He raised his weapon but his arms weren’t responding. It was as if he were underwater and everything but the cultist was moving too slow.
The fanatic brought his scimitar down and struck his M4, knocking it out of his hands and to his surprise, cutting a large gash through the receiver.
Spc. Brown stepped up and fired his SAW light machine gun right into the fanatic’s belly. The muzzle flash was like a strobe light going off in his face and all he saw was the enraged, tattooed face of the cultist and the glint of flying brass from the SAW.
The fanatic fell away with blood and smoke pouring from his stomach and Brown reached down to help him up. He was carrying a lot of gear so even if his knees hadn't felt weak after the brush with death, he probably would have needed help.
"Thanks, man," he said weakly.
The chanting had ceased and so had the gun fire. The fanatics were all dead. None of them had tried to run. They all gathered in the clearing where the fanatics had been digging. David didn't know what the hell was going on. Whoever these freaks were, they were not ordinary insurgents.
“What were they looking for?” David asked.
The men in suits and their “interpreters” moved in and they were ordered to immediately attack the compound while the suits and interpreters stayed behind.
They used a Bradely IFV to smash down the front gate of the compound. Its 25mm chain gun opened fire on the compound’s main building as the troops rushed in behind it. Alpha and Bravo platoons went in to secure the main building once the Bradely was done with it and his Charlie Platoon moved in to secure a side building with boarded up windows.
It was night and everything had the glowing, gray-green look of night vision. Since his M4 had been destroyed he was using a captured RPK which was basically an AK turned into a machine gun.
David lined up beside the front door as number two man. He’d be the second one in. Once they were all in position, Avery, with the shotgun, blasted the door’s lock and they rushed in. Johnson moved right so David moved left. His corner was clear and he heard the others say “clear.”
While remaining on alert he began to scan the rest of the room. It was a large, open, tiled room with pillars running down each side like a church. On the far side was a thick curtain.
The curtain covered a door and the door led down to a basement.
Memories of what they found in the basement woke David up with a jolt. He scrambled to sit up and realized that his heart was pounding a like a death metal drummer.
He found himself in the small apartment just off Miskitonic University's campus. It was cheap and he got the place to himself. He had a car, a black Dodge Magnum, but gas wasn’t cheap so if he could walk he’d walk.
The clock said 5:46am. Three hours until his first day of class. Orientation was pointless. Just give him his map and schedule and he was good to go. Maybe all that was for the students who had never been away from home before.
He had seen one girl bawling her eyes out. It wasn’t like she was being sent off to a hellish desert where tattooed freaks were trying to kill her. What a soft bellied wussy civilian.
Still, even he had to admit that this was strange. No one was here to yell at him or wake him up before dawn. If he messed up it wouldn’t cost lives. There were no more mandatory inventories to do or inspections of his living space. He was free and he was loving it.
To celebrate his freedom he had grown out a goatee and let his hair grow out long. (Well, long for army standards.) Why? Because he freaking could.
He had only been out of the Army for three weeks. After eight years he was finally free and it felt odd. It was weird to be back home with mom and dad, but now he was in a new place where he’d be surrounded by people his age that wanted to learn and party with equal energy.
David wasn’t sure how this was really going to be. He moved in yesterday, set up his TV and X-box, went to a Wendy’s and spent the night playing video games. He knew where his classes were and he had his lap top ready to go, but he didn't know what to really expect from students and professors.
Breakfast. He was awake so he needed something to eat. His fridge was empty and all the kitchen stuff was still packed away in the few boxes he had brought.
He took a shower and dressed in blue jeans, a Rob Zombie T-shirt and a black jacket. The University didn’t allow him to carry on campus, so he left his 9mm Beretta in his apartment and went to the Mexican place he saw down the road.
As he ate a Chorizo breakfast burrito he got on his laptop and looked for a wireless signal. He needed a good place to eat, do homework and relax, but he didn’t want an overpriced, trendy coffee shop full of people with jeans two sizes too small and angsty piercing on their face.
He thought piercings were cool, he just didn’t like people who did trendy things to be different just like everyone else. A person should know who they are before all else. If you didn’t know that you didn’t know anything.
It turned out that the Mexican joint did not have wi-fi. Lame. He’d have to look elsewhere.
So, instead he watched Venture Bros. until it was time for class.
First on schedule was American History I. It was a core class, but since he was also a history major it was the first step to getting his degree.
All over he saw college students with back packs, skateboards, iPods and too tight or too loose clothing. It all looked so fake, shallow and trivial.
He grabbed a Mountain Dew on one of the campus’s shops and went to class. He was the first one there so he went and sat in the back. He hated the feeling of having people behind him that he didn’t know.
The room wasn’t like the brightly lit theater looking deals that the movies always showed. It was a wooden room with old fashioned metal and wood desks. It had white boards, a rack of maps, globes, a projector and that was about it. Well, MU was an old school so he shouldn’t be surprised that they were old school.
He opened his laptop and got the school’s wi-fi. He browsed around for awhile until the first student besides himself arrived.
It was a girl. She was small, reed thin and pale, almost white skin. She had large grey eyes that scanned the room taking every detail in. Her hair was either platinum blond or outright white and it was simply parted in the middle and left to hang down, running over her shoulders like water. Her simple clothes looked out of place, like from a slightly different time period but they’d probably be out of fashion then as well. Beneath her ankle length gray dress were two black boots. Her face had a kind of sickly, elfish look to it. He half expected her to have pointy ears.
The mousy girl looked around until her silver eyes landed on him and for a second she looked almost startled.
He gave her a slight wave and she looked down to the ground. Apparently she wasn’t a people person.
The strange, out of place girl walked to one of the desks in the back row in the corner. She was a back-rower as well. He could respect that.
David went back to looking up what bands were coming to concert in the area while other students trickled in. Five minutes before the start of class a tall, middle aged man with glasses and a suit came in and began setting up at a lectern at the front of the class.
At one minute before, the rest of the class poured in and found seats. When the bell rang the professor closed the door and introduced himself. He began telling the basic rules of the class in a dry, almost monotone voice and then continued on to hand out the class’s syllabus and he explained that as well. The course would start with American Indians before Columbus and end with the assassination of Lincoln.
David’s mother’s family was all from Virginia and he had lived in Richmond most of his life. The Civil War was in his blood. He had grown up with the names of Lee, Sherman, Grant, Longstreet, Burnside and Picket. They were his childhood friends.
Everyone had their laptops out except the out-of-place girl. She used a notebook and pencil.
When the bell rung everyone got up and began shuffling out of class. He wasn’t surprised to see that the pale girl was still seated and intently studying a piece of paper in her hand.
David had explored the campus fully when he had come up to find an apartment last month and basically knew his way around already. He doubted very much if this girl knew where anything was.
He was a sucker for a damsel in distress. It wasn’t a horny 'he wanted to get laid' kind of thing, he just hated seeing women in any kind of trouble.
David walked over and the girl didn’t notice him until he spoke which caused her to startle.
“Hello, I’m David. Need any help there? Lost?” He said and held out his hand.
For a second the girl looked at his hand as if she didn’t know what to do with it, then slowly offered her own. Her hand was skinny and a little cold.
“Gretchen Marsh,” she said with a slight and odd sort of accent. It was barely perceptible, but it was there.
“Trying to figure out where to go next?” He asked.
She nodded while avoiding eye contact.Yeah, this girl needed some help.
“Let me see,” he said and she handed her schedule over.
“Your next class is astronomy and it is two buildings down.”
He pointed in the general direction.
Then he looked at her schedule a little closer. She had some art classes, swimming, and she had the same “Western Lit I” class that he did. That was on odd days and today was even.
“We have Western Lit together, he said.”
“Oh? It appears that we do,” she said quietly.
“Good luck with everything. I’ll see you around.”
“I do have one more question, sir. Where might I find the cafeteria?”
He took out his map and showed her where they were and showed her where the cafeteria and the Student Union were.
“If you get lost, use the Student Union as a land mark.”
“Thank you, sir,” she said with a shy smile.
Then he went off to his next class. He had two classes back to back, an hour off, another class, an hour for lunch and then two classes in the after noon. It was a heavy work load but they were all intro classes and such so he could handle it.
The rain from yesterday was now more of a drizzle. The sky was overcast and dark and would probably rain again. That was okay. After the cloudless skies of Iraq, he didn’t mind some clouds now and then.