“The target area is well defined and isolated. These buildings here, command post, barracks, small arms range, vehicle storage and what we believe is an explosives lab, or possibly a class room for explosives manufacturing or handling. The only other structure in the area is here, on the other side of this ridgeline...”

“Now, we haven’t been able to establish a direct connection between this structure and the camp. It may have no connection whatever. It may be an auxiliary command post, a secure storage for chemical or biological agents. It could just be an abandoned structure. Its size, much larger than any ordinary farm house or Shepherd’s hut—some seventeen meters wide and nearly forty meters long—argues that it must be for some use. We don’t know. But in the spirit of leaving no stone unturned, we will raid it along with the rest of the camp. Just so that we don’t find out five years down the road that Al-Qaeda’s senior leadership was sleeping there while we raided their kid’s scout camp.”

“And that’s our part in this mission. We will investigate this structure and take appropriate action while the rest of the battalion deals with the main camp...”

“Ok, fellas, this is a for-real deployment, so no fuck-ups. I want you each to check over your field gear. Then squad leaders get checked by the assistant squad leaders, then the two of them each check every man in the squad. We’re going to Sudan, not Vietnam, so no Bragg green anything. I want everything dressed in black and tan. Most of you did Iraq, this time do it right!” The Sergeant Major frowned at his troops, then nodded at the platoon sergeant.

“You heard the Sergeant Major! Now, get it done. Platoon leaders make sure all your men bring plenty of sunblock. SPF30 or better and yes, that means even the black guys! We folk of color burn under the sun as well as white folk, don’t let anybody tell you different. Make sure everyone has extra socks, socks save as many lives as ammo.”

“Hey, Smitty,” Private First Class Jones whispered to his assistant squad leader. “Why do we need sunblock for a night raid?”

“Because we’ll spend a whole day waiting to go in some sandy, sunny shithole with no shade—more if the op gets delayed. Then afterwards, if we are lucky they’ll fly us back to some other shitty sand pit and debrief us.”

“And if we’re unlucky,” put in Private Ortiz from the next bunk over, “they’ll fly us out to sea and debrief us on some stinking tin can like we was marines or something.”

“Ships aren’t that bad, Ortiz. Less bugs than a lot of places they could stick us. I hope it’s not a ship debriefing anyways. They’ll most likely pull us out to Kuwait or Oman. Liberty in Oman’s pretty nice, nice beaches.”

“How about women?” Jones asked. “They got nice women over there?”

“Hey, man, you want to find yourself a lady, you’d do better looking around here at Bragg,” the corporal answered. “They catch a woman over there fooling around with a bunch of GI’s, they stone her.”

Jones emptied out his pack and started to sort through utility uniforms. “Hell, Smitty, I got a woman here. Fact is I got a couple of ‘em. That don’t mean I don’t want to keep my eyes open for the opportunity where ever I go.”

“Jonesy, what you gonna do when your wife finds out about all them women you’re always making time with?” Ortiz tossed out a green poncho liner and began scrounging around in his pack for a replacement. “She’s gonna cut your nuts off some night, man.”

“Ain’t like that, man.” Jones replied, “We got it all worked out okay.”

“That being the case, Jonesy,” Sergeant Troubridge said as he came from across the room and started tossing bottles of sunblock and insect repellant from out of a box he was carrying, one each to a man. “If you don’t come back from this one, I’ll be sure to come around and comfort your widow.”

“Make sure you bring along a couple of the squad, sergeant. Judging from the way she is whenever I get back from a deployment, she’ll take a heap of comforting.” Jones replied with an easy smile on his face.

“Jesus, Jonesy! Talking about your woman like that!” Ortiz exclaimed.

“You got your Latin machismo, braw, and I got my thing.”

“You meet all kinds of freaks in the fucking army.” Ortiz concluded.

“Don’t ask, don’t tell, amigo,” put in Smitty.

“Fuck you, corporal.” Ortiz offered a two fingered salute.

“Jesus, it’s hotter than hell here!” Ortiz pulled at his BDU blouse to fan a little more of the hot desert air across his chest.

“I have it on good authority that hell is cold, private.” Sergeant Troubridge said. “You’ve never done a winter up on the DMZ in Korea, have you? There’s worse things than a little sunshine.”

“Sergeant!” Lieutenant Armstrong called over. “They’ll be bringing in the choppers any minute. Make sure everyone’s gear is ready, weapons checked; ammo distributed, and have the men geared up and ready to go in twenty minutes.”

“Right, sir.” The sergeant nodded, and then turned to the troops. “All right, you guys, we’re going out soon to earn our munificent pay.”

The incoming helicopters roared overhead.

The dust from the helicopter as it lifted off scarcely differed from that already filling the dead-dry desert valley as chilly wind blew down the valley, carrying almost as much crap as the chopper had kicked up. The target, a dilapidated mud-brick building that looked as if it had been here since Moses led the Jews out of Egypt, was eighty meters up the narrowing valley and around the bend.

At the Ell-tee’s hand signal, Martinez and Smitty set out along the flattish scar the op planners had taken for a road. From up close it was a sorry excuse for a goat path and the platoon noted no signs of any vehicle traffic whatsoever.

As far as Lt. Parker was concerned, that was all to the good. Maybe that meant there’d be no one to shoot at them this time. Not to mention no nerve agents to deal with. Or booby traps.

Scratch that, there are always booby traps in these desolate shit hole places. Even when there are no people. And thinking any other way will get my people killed.

On his signal the platoon moved out in good order. Night vision showed no one on the way in, and no sentries, although it was impossible to see if the building hid any occupants. Mud brick, no windows. Huge structure really, shaped like a half buried brick, doors in the middle of the long side and the short side facing them.

The building looked as old as the desert, but it still had doors. In most places, abandoned structures had such things looted. First squad fell out to form a security perimeter as per plan and second squad crouched along the short end of the building to either side of the door. Lt. Parker joined second squad, leaving the first in the competent hands of his platoon sergeant. A quick pass with a metal detector wand revealed only metal hinges. The door had a rope pull latch.

On the Lieutenant’s signal, the squad entered like a hurricane coming ashore. The building’s interior was black as pitch. No light whatsoever. Infrared projectors on the sides of their helmets illuminated small circles of empty dirty rooms through the goggles each squad member wore. Just like an effing science fiction movie, Lt Parker thought, which is where the army got the idea.

The scopes didn’t show dick in the first few rooms, but Parker held out for a full sweep of the first floor before allowing the men to employ flashlights and glow sticks, double checking with real light. A whole lot of nothing. Just dirt, totally abandoned.

Parker got to the center of the building. Smitty had his goggles on and his weapon pointed into a dark, narrow doorway, his body mostly behind the wall. In a half whisper, Parker asked, “What do you got, Corporal?”

“Stairs going up, Sir.”

On the encrypted squad circuit Parker asked, “Anyone else have any stairs? Count off and report.”

“One, no stairs, no nothing.”

“Two, all clear, no stairs.”

It took only thirty seconds. “Looks like you got the only way up, Smitty. Hold on.” Parker switched back to platoon push. “Sergeant Troubridge, what’s your status?”

“All clear here, sir. We can hear the rest of the company out here. They’re making a hell of a racket.”

“This place looks empty so far, Sergeant, but it’s built like a fortress. I want to knock it down anyway. You get the demo charges set up, all of them, both in here and outside. And make sure they are tamped in right. I’m taking the squad upstairs.”

“Roger sir. You check out the upstairs, we set up the demo.”

Parker tapped Peters and Smitty, sending them up first, then followed with the rest of the squad, less Jonesy who stayed at the bottom of the stairway. He was nominally the comm tech, and usually stayed right by Lt. Parker’s side, but he was a good man and Parker wanted one watching the exit. And to keep communications running—the radio was picking up interference as they climbed the stairs.

Smitty stopped at the top of the stairs, and looked for a moment, then pulled his goggles up and looked again. He signaled for the Lieutenant. Parker came up and followed his pointing hand. With the night vision goggles on, the entire side of the room looked like interference, snow, like a TV not tuned to a station. What Parker saw when he took off his goggles was a weird green glow that dimly lit the entire space, coming out from an open door in the center of the wall.

Parker checked the rest of the space. It was roughly a third the size of the building and as empty as the downstairs. Another door stood opposite the glowing one.

Parker sent Peters and Wilson to check on the other door. They were out of sight for a second when his ear piece spoke in Peters’ voice drowned in static. Parker walked down the steps a few feet and keyed his microphone. “Say again, Peters.”

“Lieutenant, we got signs of habitation. Sleeping pallet, old clothes, and signs of cooking. It’s recent, but not very. I’d say earlier in the week.”

“Ok, Peters. Finish your sweep and come back us up. We’re going to check out the lights.”

“Roger, sir. Be there in a minute.”

Lt. Parker waited until the two men emerged from the door, then tapped Smitty. The two of them sprinted quietly to either side of the glowing doorway, goggles off. The lieutenant slung his rifle and pulled his side arm, a nine millimeter Berretta. He signaled the corporal to go in first. Smitty nodded and charged through the doorway.

At first, nothing happened. No firing, nothing. Then Parker heard something, something wrong. He darted into the room, his automatic held stiff-armed in front of him.

Inside he found a scene from some pulp writer’s vision of hell. Smitty stood frozen in front of a stone table. On the table sat a huge book, like an atlas, its pages covered with weird diagrams that seemed to be the source of the glow.

Behind the table was…Parker didn’t have a name to go with the thing. It was moving, slopping like a huge sack of rotting gelatin. Dripping clear, plasma-like fluid, it shifted and reared upward. Translucent, watery eyes and swollen, obscene suckers unevenly covered its surface. It stank like rancid butter and rotting meat. Inside it, clearly visible, a withered naked man sat in lotus, his yellow skin and milky eyes showing through the…thing.

Training took over, and the lieutenant leveled his pistol toward the thing’s center of mass and fired as fast as he could pull the trigger. A second later, Peters was at his side, firing on full auto, raking the thing from one side to the other. The mass toppled over backwards.

Parker’s pistol locked back, empty, and he shoved it into its holster. Grabbing Smitty by the harness, he reached past him and flung the book shut, shouting “Out! Out! Out!” Peters backed through the door, out of the now-dark room. Parker was on his heels, dragging Smitty in one hand with the book clutched in the other.

From inside the room came a loud slithering as if a horde of slugs was descending upon some defenseless garden. “Grenade!” Parker shouted. “Now!”

Wilson pulled the pin off a standard high explosive grenade and tossed it under handed into the room. The concussion knocked the squad off their feet and filled the room with a fog of dirt from the ceiling. The lieutenant listened for half a second before he realized he could no longer hear.

Looking over the squad, he remembered that Smitty was carrying the pyrotechnics, normally used to destroy enemy munitions. The corporal was still staring blindly where he’d been left. The other men had their flashlights out. Parker pulled the white phosphorus grenade from Smitty’s harness, pulled the pin and threw it like a football through the door where that thing was.

“Out, out, out! Clear the building,” he shouted as it detonated, casting the men’s shadows against the wall with its piercing white light. Parker scooped up the book and turned to herd the men downstairs when an eerie, high pitched shriek came out of the other room, cutting through the deafness left by the grenade and sounding like ten thousand crickets crying out in pain. The men were going down, dragging Smitty with them. Parker followed at a run.

On the level below he thought to key his microphone, “Clear the building! Clear the building! Sergeant Troubridge, are the charges set?”

“We’re set and ready to blow, sir.”

“Squad leaders, count heads. Get your people back to the perimeter; make sure everyone’s accounted for.”

“First squad, all accounted for and clear to perimeter.”

“Second squad, reply. Dammit!” Smitty had second squad. “Sergeant Troubridge, get a count on second squad!”

“Second squad accounted for and clear, sir.”

“Blow the damned building!”

The bottom floor of the building turned to dust under the well placed influence of Composition Four. Sgt. Troubridge got the company in order and moving to the pick up point. Lt. Parker went to check on Smitty.

Smitty was standing on his own, but seemed unaware of anything around him. Gomez, the medic, was leading him. He shambled along, staring ahead and drooling, barely able to keep pace with the platoon.

“He’s in shock, sir,” Gomez explained. “They’ll be able to bring him around, as soon as we get him to a real hospital.”

Lt. Parker wasn’t so sure about that. He still held the book clenched in his hand. He’d hand it over to the Intel guys. He wondered what they’d make of it.

“What the hell happened in there, sir?” Sgt. Troubridge asked.

“I’m not sure, Sergeant. We’ll go over it all in the debriefing. Let’s just get our men to the LZ and get them the hell out of here.”

As the troops filed out of the valley, Private Ortiz fell back to walk next to the lieutenant. “Jesus, sir. What happened to Smitty? He’s walking around like a zombie from a bad movie.”

“He’s just in shock, Ortiz. You’re a buddy of his, help him keep up. Lead him along, don’t let him fall back. He’ll be alright once we get him to the docs.” I hope, Lieutenant Armstrong added to himself.

“What the hell was all that, sir?” Jonesy asked, “I’ve seen some shit, here and there. But what the fuck was that?”

“Save it for the debrief, private. I’m going to tell it straight, turn this in, “He held up the book still clutched in his left hand, “and kick the whole ball of turds upstairs. This whole thing is way above my pay grade, but just between you and me, Jonesy, I think we done stuck our noses in some shit where they do not belong. You tell them straight up what you saw, then you don’t say shit until higher on tells you too, and then you say what they tell you. Because frankly, I do not think we really want to know just what the hell went down here, really.”

As the troops in front of them rounded the last bend and the waiting helicopter, the Lieutenant added, “But I can’t wait to find out what those weenies at Intel make out of all this.”


# # #

What Smitty Saw by Michael D. Turner
originally published April 13, 2009



Michael D. Turner is a writer from Colorado Springs, Colorado. His writing has appeared multiple times in Big Pulp, and in Aberrant Dreams, AlienSkin, Between Kisses, Flashing Swords, Every Day Fiction, and Tales of the Talisman.

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visit his Big Pulp author page


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