From the Slushpile: Some Kind of Way Out of Here (Part Four)

And now for the punchline…

Alabama logo_1958

### Part Four ###

The sergeant had admitted to being a member of a tribe that had worshipped at this site in antiquity. Had they sought to placate this alien god with sacrifices? If so, had he brought us here to feed the beast, this alabaster being smiling down at us?

“Those are serious charges,” Minh said as he stepped between me and Thanh. “You better have evidence to back up these wild allegations, Corporal. Otherwise, you’ll face a court-martial.”

Taking several breaths to center myself, I steadied my voice before responding. Lien urged me to tell him everything, but relying on the word of a dead woman would make me look unhinged. Of course, I was relying on the word of one, so there might have been some truth to that characterization.

“His hat is foreign. It depicts an American sports team, I think.”

“Alabama to be exact,” Thanh admitted. He took a drag off his cigarette and then blew out a cloud of blue smoke before elaborating. “A missionary who came to my village gave it to me. He wanted me to have something to remember him by, since he taught me so much. I kept it because I like elephants.”

“Perfectly reasonable explanation,” Minh concluded. He explained, “American sports grew in popularity among the populace after their units were stationed here during the Second World War. Our radio stations rebroadcast games and matches to keep up morale. Part of my training as a political officer involves countering this type of propaganda, but I don’t normally arrest a man for his taste in sports. I’m a communist, not a fascist.”

I couldn’t argue with anything the lieutenant said. He proved an effective lawyer for the defendant. And Thanh’s story sounded plausible enough. Perhaps I was wrong after all. Maybe I was unhinged, unable to accept the awful reality that Quan had killed Hien and fled.

Tears blurred my vision as I looked from Minh to Thanh and finally to Lien. My breath caught in my throat. She looked like she had in the last moments of her life. Chunks of shrapnel had punched bloody holes in both legs and her abdomen, but it was the knife in her chest had killed her. No, not that knife, I thought. I’d stabbed Lien with my combat knife, the one still on my belt, but she had the golden kila with the fist-sized ruby pommel buried between her breasts.

“He can lie about the hat but not the dagger,” I cried. “I bet he has it!”

As the officer turned toward the sergeant, Thanh blew a cloud of smoke in Minh’s face. The lieutenant coughed once and then twice before his breath caught in his throat. I’d missed the gunshot initially, but its sharp report echoed off the cavern walls.

Minh tried to cover the wound in his throat but blood spurted everywhere. The second shot hit him in the temple. He landed face down in the clamshell-shaped pool. His blood mixed with its contents, leaving the water looking as rusty as it tasted.

Chuckling, the sergeant leveled the tiny pistol at me. His Tokarev didn’t look intimidating but proved quite lethal. We were too close to each other to reach my submachine gun. I’d be dead before I took a step toward it.

“You’re quite the troublemaker, Ba,” Thanh said. “I was sure you’d buy my story and follow me on another fool’s errand to find a way out. Then I’d dispose of you as easily as I pushed Quan over the edge and cut Hien from ear to ear.

“If I could revive Ganesha’s dark twin in the process, so be it. With the kila removed from its chest, Chaugnar Faugn’s bloodlust will return, awakening it from its dormant state. Once more, it will feed on the living instead of relying on the magic of the blood-ruby in this dagger for sustenance.

“It has slept too long. Mankind has grown arrogant and irreverent; Great Old Ones, like the one seated here, will restore the cosmic order. They will destroy the ability of humans to inflict cruelty and carry conflict to the four corners of the world. That is the provenance of the Great Old Ones, of beings like Chaugnar Faugn, not mostly hairless killer apes.”

Lien stood behind the scout sergeant. She wept tears of blood, but a smile touched her lips. She said, “Who is he to presume to tell me what I am to do with my life? He is neither follower nor supplicant, only a petty tyrant born of pain and betrayal. Whatever his original intentions were, like mankind, he has gone too far.”

Acting as her medium, I repeated her questions to Thanh directly, “What gives you the right to dictate the actions of a Great Old One, a being that predates human existence? What makes you arrogant enough to assume you’re special or chosen? You’re nothing but a mouthy feast for a mighty beast.”

Thanh took a step closer and jammed the barrel of the Tokarev under my chin. I expected to meet Lien in the afterlife, but he did not fire. Instead, he tapped the logo on the cap with his free hand. “This,” he said, “this is how I know. I am special. I am chosen. When the Americans came to my village for recruits, I went with them. I trained under a Green Beret, a straight-shooting, slow-talking good-ole-boy from Alabama.

“While I was in the jungle completing my training, Viet Cong, like you, came and killed everyone, even the children, because we cooperated with the Americans. Had I stayed behind, I’d have been killed along with my parents, my wife, and our little boy. Instead, a man bearing this elephant had come halfway around the world to train me to defeat those who would slaughter my people.

“After my village burned, I infiltrated the VC forces here and fed information to ARVN and the Americans. If it hadn’t been for me, you and your stupid whore would have played deejay, but I made sure most of the tapes were seized and your contacts at the radio station arrested before Tet. You walked right into my trap.”

Confronted by the man who’d taken Lien from me, my screams filled the cavern as my emotions boiled to the surface. I slammed a forearm into his wrist to force the pistol away. Its report deafened me, muting my screams and disorienting me. I clung to his shirt for balance, but he swept my leg out from under me.

We fell in a heap onto the back of the dead officer. His pistol disappeared into the basin of bloody water. My enemy disarmed, I reached for my knife. As the blade cleared its sheath, he bashed his forehead into my nose. While I blinked fresh tears from my eyes, the mad sergeant pulled the kila from his satchel. He raised its golden blade high, but I came in low. I stabbed him in the stomach and lungs as I sought his heart. Thanh slashed downward but missed me by more than a meter.

The distance between us tripled before I realized what was happening. When I came to comprehend what unfolded before my eyes, my sanity sank as my screams rose to a crescendo. One of Chaugnar Faugn’s tentacles had risen from the pool and wound itself around the sergeant’s torso. As I watched, the other snaked around his legs and squeezed until his bones snapped. The end of the entity’s trunk unfurled like a lotus in bloom. Row upon row of teeth lined the rim of the flowery appendage. It stretched wide like the jaws of a serpent, enveloped Thanh’s head, and shut with enough force to decapitate him.

Instead of going limp, the doomed sergeant’s body thrashed wildly. The kila dropped from his hand, bounced off the lip of the basin, and clattered to a halt at my feet. But I couldn’t tear my eyes from the horrific scene before them. The Great Old One raised the sergeant’s body above its head. With a sharp snap of its appendages, Chaugnar Faugn pulled Thanh apart before my very eyes. Blood and gore crashed like a crimson tide onto the deity’s bloated body.

“Now, Ba, it’s now or never!” Lien called. “Before I lose control, take the knife and free me from a life of bloodshed and suffering.”

Though I could no longer see her, the words she’d said in the sewers beneath Qui Nhon City rang clearer than ever. I hefted the kila and approached the deity as it bathed in the traitorous sergeant’s blood. Caught in its sanguine orgy, it did not note my presence until I stepped into the pool.

The toothy maw at the end of its trunk rushed toward my face, but it spurred me forward rather than backward. I stepped onto the dais, lunged forward, and jammed the dagger deep into the Great Old One’s bosom.

Energy rushed through my body with the force of a lightning bolt. Warmth flooded my groin as the electricity made me piss my pants. I staggered away and fell beside the basin. My body contorted and shook until I lost consciousness.

I’m not sure how long I laid there covered in blood and urine. The sun had yet to set, but the cavern grew dimmer by the moment. Once sense and sensation returned to me, I dragged myself upright.

As I struggled to regain my balance, I kept a watchful eye on the Great Old One, but it had returned to its former statuesque state. Not a drop of blood marred its richly decorated exterior.

“I wish things could have turned out differently,” Lien said. Turning toward her, I saw that she had resumed her earlier, less ghastly appearance but an eternity of sadness lingered at the corners of her smile.

“Me too. I’ll never forget you.” It was cliché, but I meant it.

“Nor I you. You have done horrible things in this war, but you are a good man. Keep that in mind on your journey, for there is only one kind of way out of here now. I don’t know if you’ll survive it. You’ve been through so much already.”

We stood less than a hand’s span apart. Her ethereal glow warmed my heart but not my body. I wanted to be with her forever. “I don’t have to go.”

“Yes, you do. Unless you want to wait here with me in the dark until gnawing hunger kills you. For some of us, that takes an eternity. For you, it’ll just feel like one.”

“Tell me then,” I pleaded. “How do I get out of here?”

“Come to me, lover, and I will show you.”

Lien spread her arms and welcomed me into her embrace. Stepping forward, I plunged through the specter of my dead lover and toppled over the edge. As I tumbled into the dark heart of the abyss, I wondered if I would see her on the other side.

THE END

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.

 If you don’t like these terms of agreement, go check yourself. You’re complaining about a #FREE story.

From the Slushpile: Some Kind of Way Out of Here (Part Two)

Happy Veteran’s Day. Thanks to all those who have served, in whatever capacity, at home or abroad.

mcgovern quote

On with the next installment…

### Part Two ###

When my beloved came to me, she appeared as she had in the days of our happier youth, before this latest Vietnam War. She beckoned me, curling one finger like she had the first time she urged me to slip from my home to accompany her on a nocturnal adventure. We had enjoyed many such rendezvous over the years. Our latest had proven to be our last, outside of the realm of dreams anyway.

Hot tears rolled down my cheeks. There had been no time to mourn her earlier. Now, I could not help myself. I bawled like a babe in its mother’s arms. I ached to rest my head on her chest and let her heartbeat lull me to blissful sleep.

Wordlessly, Lien led me through the temple, gliding with ease across its rubble-strewn floor. We traversed a series of oddly proportioned hallways and antechambers until at last we emerged into a grand chamber beneath a high-peaked ceiling. She paused in the center of the room to turn, raise her arms to the heavens, and stick out her tongue, as she was wont to do as a mischievous child.

Lien’s pose reminded me of icons of the Hindu gods depicted in Cham temples on the city’s outskirts. Spinning away like a top, she crossed to the far side of the room, stopped at a set of stairs leading below, and glanced back at me. A sad smile touched her lips before she slipped through the portal. Though she had disappeared from sight, her angelic voice sang in my brain, “To ascend, you must first descend. But be forewarned, my love, those burdened by too much sin will never see home again.”

Thunder rolled as if to punctuate her warning. It faded to a dull roar that did not stop, even after I returned from the land of dreams. Blinking back tears, I forced myself to focus on my surroundings. The harsh light of day stabbed at my sensitive orbs, which turned the ache in my head to a fire in my brain. I stared up at a shaft of sunlight. Streaming through a natural skylight in the domed ceiling, the narrow opening served as the cavern’s sole source of illumination.

I stifled a scream as my gaze fell upon a multi-armed elephantine beast seated on a raised dais in the center of a pool of water. My heart slowed once I realized it was a statue and not some otherworldly beast. Despite its monstrous appearance, the statue’s face was serene. Its eyes were closed, and two of its arms were poised as if in a meditative state. In stark contrast, its lower set of arms held grisly items. A human heart of polished obsidian rested in a dish in its upturned left hand. The right held aloft an axe with a shiny blade.

Bangles and jewels adorning the bloated figure sparkled in the single ray of sunlight. The largest of them was a fist-sized ruby inset into the handle of a golden kila, a ritual dagger common throughout Southeast Asia. The position of the kila gave the god the appearance of having a stake through its heart. A series of smaller rubies around the entry wound trailed downward toward the its distended belly in a grotesque albeit glittering representation of flowing blood.

As I scrambled backward from the horrid icon, unseen hands grabbed me from the darkness beyond the circle of light. My scream shattered the quiet and echoed back to me. I struggled against my unknown attackers, only to be slapped across the mouth with enough force to stop my screaming.

“Keep quiet, you fool,” Thanh hissed in my ear. “There could be a patrol up there.”

“If you get us caught,” Quan said, “I’ll chuck you into the abyss myself.”

“The same goes for you,” the sergeant warned the bully. “So shut it.”

As my eyes adjusted to the dimness, I saw an array of familiar faces. By some miracle, Lieutenant Minh and mud-covered Hien had survived the temple’s collapse along with the scout and the thief. My panic waned. At least I wasn’t alone in the dark with that thing.

“Abyss?” I asked, unable to decipher Quan’s threat.

“That’s why we grabbed you, fool,” he replied, “to keep you from pitching over the side of the platform.”

The private thumbed the stud on his Soviet-style signal light. I gasped when I saw how close I’d come to plummeting to my demise. The wan beam of light diffused a dozen or so meters below our precarious position on the island of stone in the center of the cavern. Never a fan of heights, I scrambled away from the pit’s edge and collided with the sergeant. He grabbed me by the collar and shook me.

“Take it easy on the corporal,” Minh cautioned him. Addressing me, the lieutenant said, “You were out for a while. Have you ever had seizures before?”

“Seizures? Not to my knowledge. Why do you ask?”

“You convulsed for several minutes and then started snoring. You might have a concussion or a skull fracture.”

“Maybe both,” Thanh interjected. “Too bad we lost our medic back at the radio station. We bound the wound on your scalp the best we could before carrying you down.”

“Ba will be fine,” Hien interjected. “He’s as thick-headed as a water buffalo and twice as tough, only without the grace and good looks.”

“Thanks,” I replied with a weak grin. “At least, we didn’t lose you or your sense of humor when the walls came crashing down.”

“The war effort would never recover,” the joker retorted, laughing at his own comeback. “Corporals are a dozen for a dong, but good comedians are as worth as much as the shiny on that statue!”

“Speaking of that monstrosity,” I said, “what is it? And where are we? Last thing I remember was rushing into the temple and then darkness. Well, that and Lien.”

“You must have a concussion,” Quan concluded. “Lien’s dead. Don’t you remember knifing her in the sewers?”

I winced as I recalled the light dying in her eyes. But I had seen her in the temple. Had it been a dream? It had seemed too real. And what of her warning?

“All too well,” I replied. “I guess I confused my dreams with reality. In them, she led me to a barred door in a room filled with shrines. She said I had to descend to ascend, but if I had too much sin, I wouldn’t make it home again.”

Now, it was Thanh’s turn to laugh. However, his menacing chuckle sounded shrill, even inhuman. Shaking his head, the scout sergeant said, “You must have overheard our conversation in the shrine room. We found a door behind one of the idols, an icon of Kali, the Dark Mother of the Cham. The base of her statue contained a similar inscription. Once we unbarred the door, we found a set of stairs. They led to this cavern, a temple of Ganesha, the elephant-headed god known as the Remover of Obstacles. Trust in him; he’ll aid our escape.”

The sergeant’s eyes blazed with an intensity I’d not seen in them before he mentioned the ancient Cham deities.

“How do you know all of this?” I asked, frightened by the idea of placing my trust in anyone other than Buddha.

“Long before the Cham brought their Hindu gods to what came to be known as Vietnam,” Thanh said, “my people lived at the base of these mountains, fished in the primordial sea, and enjoyed a peace few know.

“Nothing would be the same after the arrival of these invaders and their alien gods. We tried to coexist and adopt their ways as our own, but my tribe was persecuted and driven inland to eke out a living in the highlands. Some of us came to pay homage to their deities; after all, they served the Cham better than our gods protected us.”

“Enough superstitious nonsense, Sergeant,” Minh ordered. “Fairy tales won’t help us find a way back to the surface.”

“But they aren’t fairy tales.”

“Bullshit is more like it,” Quan added as he drew his bayonet. “The only thing this statue is good for is filling my pockets with a small fortune.”

“Don’t you dare!” Thanh barked. “You’ll get us killed if you defile it.”

“The sergeant is right,” Minh seconded. “It’s liable to be booby-trapped. You might end up bringing the ceiling down.”

“Again,” Thanh added with a grimace.

“I wasn’t the one who shot down the Huey,” Quan whined, “or led us to this hellhole.”

“No, but you set the wheel of dharma into motion,” I ventured as I struggled to stand. “From now on, you follow the orders of your superiors or risk the consequences of insubordination and court martial.”

“Look whose balls dropped,” Quan quipped. “If all it took was a good lick to the head, I’d have volunteered to administer it ages ago.”

“Shut it!” I barked. And for once, the bully listened.

Taking advantage of the silence, Thanh said, “Lieutenant, with your permission, we should split up and look for another exit.”

“If there is one,” Quan muttered.

“There’s bound to be some kind of way out of here,” I said. “I doubt the laborers who built this complex used a single staircase.”

“Now, you’re thinking,” the sergeant said, clapping me on the back hard enough to send my head spinning. I took two drunken steps before I had to sit.

“Maybe I’ll wait here and catch my breath.”

Minh agreed it a wise decision and volunteered to stay behind with me. I had reservations about sending Thanh and Quan into the darkness with only Hien to keep them from each other’s throats. Then again, if the troublemakers killed one another, I wouldn’t have to listen to them bicker like roosters vying for the sole hen in the coop.

So, I agreed with their plan of action and steeled myself for an extended fight with exhaustion. The cool, dark confines of the cavern lulled me to the edge of sleep. I wanted to heed its silence call to slumber, hoping that I’d see 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.

 If you don’t like these terms of agreement, go check yourself. You’re complaining about a #FREE story.

From the Slushpile: Some Kind of Way Out of Here (Part One)

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.

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. 

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