In honor of Veteran’s Day, I’m posting a war story from the slushpile. I wrote this story specifically for Chaosium’s “Summer of Lovecraft” anthology, but due to technical circumstances beyond the editor’s control, it was never read. By the time I realized it was buried in their spam folder, the stories for the anthology had already been selected. I submitted it a few other places, but it has never found a home. So, I’ll publish it in installments here during the week of Veteran’s Day to remind us that war is hell and that there are veterans on all sides of a conflict.
I thank them all for their service, for they were mostly poor, unfortunate souls fighting in rich men’s wars. And in Vietnam, it was definitely a politician’s war with brave men and women on both sides caught in the madness of the Cold War era. During my research, I found out how much American pop culture began to affect Vietnam after our soldiers helped push the Japanese out during WW2. So, you’ll see that Vietnamese men and women, patriots of their homeland, were not so different from American youths who were drafted to fight them, in the case of the VC and NVA, or fight alongside them, in the case of the South’s ARVN.
I was inspired to write this story by North Vietnamese Army Veteran Bao Ninh, for his “Sorrow of War”, much like Mark Twain’s “War Prayer” taught me that there are humans on both sides of a conflict, regardless of what propagandists would have you believe. It is heavily steeped in the Cthulhu Mythos, created by H.P. Lovecraft and elaborated on by Frank Belknap Long with his introduction of one of the deities featured in this story. There is also a heavy influence by Jimi Hendrix, if you didn’t realize that from the title. What can I say? I love the classics, especially rock from the Vietnam Era. It really inspired me here.
I chose a real event as my inciting incident. During the Tet Offensive of 1968, the radio station in Qui Nhon City, located in South Vietnam, was attacked by VC insurgents seeking to play propaganda reels over the air to incite the masses to rise. Without spoiling anything, I will show you how it played out and a speculative fate for some of those involved if the Cthulhu Mythos was real.
Without further preamble, I bring you the first part of “Some Kind of Way Out of Here.”
Qui Nhon Radio Station after the Tet attack of 1968. This photo was on the cover of Time Magazine.
### Part One ###
My hands did not shake as the knife penetrated her skin. Her inky eyes opened wide as the blade slipped between her breasts. She thanked me with her last breath. Despite our problems, she loved me still. Lien had told me so on countless occasions. She’d said it earlier tonight, when she dedicated a song to us; it was the last to play on Qui Nhon radio station before the start of Tet.
Like many of the Viet Cong recruits from Qui Nhon City or its outlying farms and villages, Lien and I had known each other since before the war. Our fathers had died fighting the Viet Minh, French colonialists, back in the Fifties. We grew up in the same neighborhood, one pockmarked by a succession of wars against an ever-changing cast of colonial powers.
Lien and I had lain together under the stars and listened to the radio play our favorite American and British rock bands. We formed a short-lived band in our teens with some second-hand instruments. And we sang together. Badly, I admit, but we tried our best.
Passing Qui Nhon radio station not-too-many years before that hellish night, we made a pledge while drunk on cheap cassava wine. We’d convince the radio station to play our music. We’d storm the booth and make them if necessary. We never made it as far as recording a demo. But a few hours before I’d cut my beloved’s life short, we did storm the station.
Our goal had been to force them to play the North’s call to arms, part of Hanoi’s nationwide appeal to our people to rise like a tide on Tet to drown the invaders and their Saigon puppets in blood. But we failed. When the call went largely unheard in Qui Nhon City, most of us ended up choking on our own blood or covered in that of our comrades.
Members of our battalion had been betrayed by an unknown source and caught in possession of copies of our propaganda tapes. With our forces spread thin throughout the city and on orders to maintain radio silence until the Party message ran, the operation could not be aborted. Thanks to a last minute tip from the police, the station’s technicians thwarted us; they sabotaged the equipment before we secured the building.
Across South Vietnam, commands from the North to crack the sky and shake the earth had played over the airwaves but failed to stir the populace. With a broken transmitter, our propaganda failed to play across Bin Dinh province. Using the employees as human shields, we stalled for time to repair it.
Our officers underestimated the impatience of the Republic of Korea’s commandos, fierce foes stationed in the city. We were on the verge of fixing the problem when their rockets and recoilless rifle fire penetrated the station. Countless rounds of small arms fire pockmarked the building in support of the heavy ordinance. Shrapnel blew several of my comrades apart and peppered my beloved’s torso and legs.
Most of our remaining defenders died in the final assault. A handful of our original force escaped into the sewers. Lien had been too wounded to make the trip from the sewers to our bunker complex in the Phu Cat Mountains; so she asked me to perform one final act of love, the kindness of killing her. Those who died during our failed operation turned out to be the lucky ones. The six survivors had no idea of the fresh hells that awaited us.
As we watched from a storm drain, soldiers with submachine guns and policemen leading trained dogs searched a residential neighborhood, while Sergeant Thanh, a scout for the sappers, argued with Lieutenant Minh, a NVA political officer attached to our battalion. Since neither was our direct superior, I abstained from the debate. My squad mates in the regional infantry, both privates, a joker named Hien and a thug called Quan, followed my lead. The sixth man, another sapper who clung to his RPG as if it was his paddle on this river of shit, hung close to Thanh, and didn’t speak to me or my men.
Unfortunately, Quan, rumored to have joined the war effort to legitimize his criminal activities, had his own idea on how to proceed. When the private pulled a grenade from his belt, I had to admit he had initiative, even if it were only for mayhem. He crossed the stream of waste, primed the explosive device, and pitched it out of the drain. The grenade bounced against the airfield fence and exploded between two police jeeps parked by the roadside, triggering secondary explosions, flipping the vehicles and setting them afire. Cops and soldiers abandoned their search and headed for the airfield.
Quan lobbed another grenade and said, “Run!”
We ran for the sewer exit at the base of the roadbed. The sun crested the horizon as we emerged into a drainage ditch. The combination of its rays and airfield floodlights plunged the houses ahead of us into shadow.
As we reached the last row of houses, the northern lieutenant asked, “Sergeant, can you recommend a safe way out of the city?”
“We could have stolen one of those jeeps back there,” Thanh mused, rubbing his stubble-covered chin, “but someone went and blew them up.” His round, wide-set eyes and ruddy skin marked him as a tribesman of the Central Highlands, many of whom had originated on the coast only to be pushed inland by invasion after invasion.
Averting his gaze from the fish-eyed sergeant, Quan said, “It beat standing in shit while you two measured your cocks with a chopstick. If you’d kept chattering like monkeys, we’d all be dead.”
Thanh crossed the distance between them before I blinked. He jabbed the butt of his rifle into the private’s stomach. Quan doubled over as the air left his lungs. He lunged forward and slammed into the sergeant, knocking the red cap from his head, but the stout tribesman held his ground.
“Enough,” I said. “I won’t have you hitting my men.” I regretted defending the squad bully, but he was our bully.
“Your men,” Thanh laughed. “You sound like a captain instead of a corporal.”
“He’ll make it there faster than either of you,” Minh interjected. “At least he’s focusing on the mission instead of fighting with subordinates.”
“The mission? Your Tet Offensive has been doomed from its inception.”
“Careful there, Sergeant” the political officer cautioned. “There’s a fine line between free and seditious speech during a time of war.”
Thanh’s turn came to drop his gaze, but he did not lower his guard. The other sapper retrieved his sergeant’s hat and returned it. The crimson ball cap featured a gray and white elephant, likely the logo of an American sports team.
Lieutenant Minh asked, “If you’re done scuffling like school boys, does anyone have a preferred route? If not, we’ll skirt Nui Ba Hoa to the west and try to find a ride.”
“That won’t work now,” Thanh replied. “We’ll never make it through the checkpoints. Our paperwork and uniforms won’t hold up to close scrutiny. Our best chance is the mountain itself. There is a ruined temple near the summit that should make good shelter until nightfall. Under the cover of darkness, we can head to the river, steal a boat, and then go north to the fallback point.”
“That’s a lot of climbing,” Hien lamented. “I didn’t join the army to become a mountaineer; I joined it for the high wages and safe working environment.”
“You and me both,” Quan added with a grunt. “I’m no mountain goat. Why don’t we hide in one of these apartment buildings until the heat dies down? Then we can slip out of town.”
“What if they search house-to-house?” I asked. “Do we fight off the police, ARVN, Korean commandos, and the Americans?”
“I see Corporal Ba is thinking ahead,” Minh said. “I don’t relish the idea of being trapped, surrounded by the enemy, with no way out.”
“What do you call our situation then?” Hien asked.
“I call it salvageable,” the lieutenant replied. “Sergeant, lead the way.”
Thanh nodded curtly, but I noted a slight grin on his mustachioed lips as he turned toward the mountain. He set a brisk pace, one that would have been impossible in the same low area during the wet season. The ground proved spongy but did not devour my already sodden shoes. However, Hien’s luck did not hold.
He tripped over his own feet and landed face first in the muck. Ever the clown, he sprang to his feet, hooted, and cavorted for our amusement. I laughed at the muddy buffoon’s antics despite my shock and exhaustion. We all did, even the dour scout sergeant. But our mirth did not last.
A menacing, mechanical whop-whop-whop, a noise that had come to fill my nightmares, cut through our laughter. My head snapped toward the rising clamor. A pair of Huey gunships rounded the southern slopes of Nui Ba Hoa on a path toward the smoke rising from the airfield.
“Run!” I’m not sure who issued the order first, but we all echoed it.
Hien slogged across the marsh but was weighed down by mud. I willed myself to wait for the hapless fool; my legs fought me, but I held my ground, wavering like a man trying not to piss himself. The sappers remained alongside me.
Minh followed Quan toward the undergrowth at the base of the mountain. The lieutenant shouted over the whop-whop-whop of the rotor blades, “Head for the trees.”
“He’s got the right idea,” Thanh urged. “C’mon.” He grabbed the sapper by the shoulder, but the other soldier refused to budge. Instead, he aimed the RPG.
The unnamed sapper waited until Hien passed us before firing. The rocket-propelled grenade streaked away and struck the lead helicopter. The Huey spun out of control as smoke poured from its ruined tail section. It struck the ground, flipped, and exploded close enough to me to feel the heat.
The remaining Huey altered course to pursue us. Its door gunner rattled off white hot rounds from a machine gun. I lost count of how many struck the sapper, but lead filled the air like rain. As we ran for our lives, tracers streaked by close enough to reach out and touch.
Had Lord Buddha not wanted me to experience greater suffering, I would have died alongside the sapper instead of reaching the wood line. Although trees splintered all around me from incoming fire, I waded through the flying shrapnel untouched, as if I had become one of the immortals.
“Follow me!” Thanh cried over the din of battle.
Sprinting through the forest, as if he’d been raised in it, the sergeant passed Minh and then Quan. The terrain changed ahead of us, and the slope took on a manicured appearance, as if it had been terraced in ages past. I noticed pieces of fallen columns bigger around than the trees. Glyphs and figures decorated some of them, but I had no time for sightseeing. I ran for my life.
Despite my fervent prayers, the Huey had not given up pursuit. The sound of the chopper blades followed us as we dodged through the foliage. Luckily, the helicopter’s shots went wide and its rockets flew over our heads to explode in the canopy.
Near the summit, a temple of stone loomed out of the undergrowth. Its dark, gaping opening appeared obscene, representing the opening of a woman or a lotus flower, perhaps both. The entire building broadcast an ominous vibe that prickled the hair on the back of my neck. For some reason, I feared the unknown beyond that doorway more than the Huey on my heels. But, as the Yankees would say, beggars could not choose their port in a storm. So, I dashed in after my comrades.
A barrage of the gunship’s rockets sought out the structure and collapsed the opening behind me. Stones rumbled like thunder as they shifted above me, but I did not let the absence of light stop my forward progression. I barreled headlong into someone and collapsed in a tangle of floundering limbs. Moments later, the temple came down on top of us. I surrendered to the darkness and fell into the land of dreams, which for me had become a place of nightmares since the start of the war in the South. This occasion proved no different, despite seeing Lien again.
### To Be Continued ###
This story was written by Jeremy Hicks. It is his original content and cannot be used anywhere else without his expressed written consent. However, this blog may be shared, reblogged, etc. on social media for the purposes of promoting the author, his blog, and his other creative works.
Any resemblance to persons living or dead, events real or imagined, etc. is entirely intentional. This is a work of fiction but draws on real events and references the real world at times. Any reference, product placement, or pop culture quote is not intended to impinge on any trademark, patent, and/or copyright; rather it is flavor text for the dialogue of characters raised within the context of our pop culture.
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