The air smelt of burnt cordite.

The squad leader, a solid square of a man named Sgt. Jamison, had shouted “Contact!”

He and SAW gunner PFC Karlajic let loose counter ambush fire.

The gunfire had physical force reverberating off the concrete.

There underground.

A hell of a place to discharge 5.56mm.

Down there in Hell.

It was there waiting for them. Sgt. Jamison saw it first concealed in shadow, shrouded in a black hoodie.

In the squad’s NVDs, the thing stood out against the background of somber stone rendered green.

Then it was gone.

“Form a skirmish line!” Sgt. Jamison ordered and scanned forward.

PFC Karlajic hustled and pumped another burst downrange. “He’s retreating.”

Sgt. Jamison asked, “You get a headshot?”

“No, too damn fast,” PFC Karlajic answered.

The squad moved forward, bounding from pillar to pillar.

Splashing through the inch-deep water covering the basement floor, they converged on the thing.

From their front, a pistol shot rang out.

124 grains of copper glad lead ricocheted off a pillar in front of Pvt. Gonzales.

“Fuck!” Pvt. Gonzales cursed and fired a string of single shots at the muzzle flash.

The squad joined in.

Sgt. Jamison shouted, “Let’s take him.”

Pvt. Gonzales took the lead; bursts of fire beat the air in rolling waves.

“I’ve got another, three o’clock!” PFC Karlajic said as he lit up the interloper with his infrared laser. Another black-clad figure shimmering in the green darkness. Karlajic steadied his breathing; tracking good, it raised a hand, loosed a shot, time slowed. Karlajic walked the bright dot up the torso to the head and squeezed the trigger, reciting the SAW gunner’s mantra in his head: Die, motherfucker! Die!

A burst of 5.56 lead flew to the target, coring its skull.

He released the trigger.

It slammed sideways against a wall, dropping stone still.

“Enemy down,” he alerted the squad.


Invisible flashlight beams illuminated a hole in the basement wall. The squad checked the area, each soldier stealing a glance into the black entrance.

Sgt. Jamison said, “The closest building in that direction is 20 yards across the street.”

Pvt. Gonzales, dark eyes peering, held his weapon out front. “Yeah man, not a sewer line, they must’ve tunneled through a void under the street. But check it out, the air smells…fresh.”

Gonzales thought he could hear someone chattering, breathless, fast, close yet so far. He slowly backed away to turn around and check the dark to the rear.

Two of his teammates noted Gonzales’ actions and followed suit.

“You hear that guys?” Pvt. Gonzales asked. “Someone’s here.”

Corporal Pulaski, on tail-gunner, turned his attention to Gonzales. “Nothing back here, man.” Cpl. Pulaski turned up his IR illumination to its brightest setting and panned section by section out to 60 yards. “I know my job.”

Pvt. Gonzales heard a fading gibberish. Harsh and desperate.

Sgt. Jamison silenced his men. “It’s whatever. We’ll pop smoke and set a charge. Get an idea of where else it leads. Yo, Slater! Satchel charge.”

Pvt. Slater handed a satchel charge to Sgt. Jamison. Sgt. Jamison took out two large cylindrical smoke bombs from a cargo pocket on his leg.

Measuring two lengths of safety fuse, he set the timer on the satchel charge, then lit the smoke bombs. “Okay, boys, two minutes. Let’s haul ass.”

The squad made a hasty exit in file formation. As they mounted the stairs, a massive boom cut through the stillness.

As they mounted the stairs to ground level, Sgt. Jamison radioed the chalk, “Smoke out.”

Outside, in the sunlight, they reconnected with the rest of the chalk to wait.

They stood Screaming Eagles, hunting among the glass and steel canyons.

In ten minutes, the red smoke appeared, coming up from sewer grates, from building fronts, manhole covers, basement loading doors.

For two blocks.

“You’ve got to be fucking shitting me.” PFC Karlajic said.

“My thoughts exactly, my thoughts exactly,” Sgt. Jamison replied.


Late afternoon sun glinted off skyscraper glass, reflecting a false sunshine onto the streets.

The chalk waited, the captain observed, weapons were checked, eyes searched.

Then the red clouds dissipated.

“There,” Sgt. Jamison said, “sewer grate in front of First National Bank. Smoke still coming out. Must be something big below ground level.”

“Alright, Sergeant, ready your men,” Captain Wagner said, “I’ll radio for more support.”

The shadows grew longer; a second chalk converged on First National Bank. Men dismounted and formed up in ranks.

Pvt. Gonzales fell in. The gibbering voice in the dark, at first still a whisper in the back of his mind, grew to a whisper at his elbow.

He turned sweating to Karlajic. “Hey Karl, I gotta ask you something.”

PFC Karlajic replied, “Yeah, what?”

“Do you hear anything?” Gonzales said.

PFC Karlajic turned an ear. Above and behind the subdued chatter of the men and the Humvee’s engines, he could hear the wind uttering a mocking dirge.

“Nah. Nothing, bro. Why?” he said.

Gonzales hesitated. “Must be my ears still ringing.”

Karlajic looked closer; Gonzales’ olive complexion was pale. “Don’t forget your EarPro. And stay frosty, mi hermano.”

Gonzales put in his ear plugs, licking his lips. “Icy, let’s get some.”

With his ears plugged, the gibbering grew distinct; there were many voices now, just at that threshold.


In the baroque marble clad bank lobby, Cpt. Pulaski bitched. “Of course the fucking power has to be out.”

Pvt. Gonzales once more took point. Sgt. Jamison, with the rest of the squad, followed him down one level into the vaults. Once more, the world was plunged into a green, twilit hell.

Gonzales shouldered his M4 snugly, gliding like oil on water, checking forward.

The vault rooms were abandoned in a hurry. A security desk in disarray, file folders scattered across the floor.

Behind a locked grate, safety deposit boxes had been left flung open.

Soft-soled tactical boots made muted footfalls on the marble floor.

More men from a second squad followed behind.

Sgt. Jamison radioed the team assembled before the main vault. “Clear. Squad two hold here; we’re heading down to the basement and sewer access areas. Maintain radio contact and relays between us and the surface. Sgt. Jamison out.”

Squad Two’s sergeant approached Sgt. Jamison. “Take three of my men as reinforcement.”

“Okay, who you got?”

“Privates Hawkins, Buono, and Lee,” Two’s sergeant said, turning to his men. “Yo, Hawkins, Buono, Lee, go with One.”


The first basement was a forest of pillars; ribbed vaulting soared overhead. Old file cabinets and desks littered the space.

PFC Karlajic alerted Sgt. Jamison, “Sarge, got something.”

Sgt. Jamison looked at a dark pool on the floor highlighted by Karlajic’s IR illuminator.

Sgt. Jamison flipped his NVDs up and retracted the IR filter on his flashlight; a brilliant white split the gloom, then blacked out again.

“Yep. Red,” he said.

“Looks fresh,” Karlajic said.

“Smells it, too. It trails to the west,” Sgt. Jamison said.

“Sarge, that’s where the elevators and stairs are to the sub-basements.”

“Yeah, I don’t like it either.” Sgt. Jamison radioed the rest of the team, “Form a skirmish line. Gonzales, take right flank, Karlajic, left.”

In five minutes, Squad One swept the basement. The sweep went by the book until Gonzales spotted the piles in front of the elevator banks.

“Yo, got something, Sarge!” he called out.

The two soldiers checked and checked again.

Gonzales used his boot toe to give it a tentative nudge.

There was a dry rattling sound.


Dozens of teeth, some broken off, some with roots and pulpy bits still attached, and some dry and polished.

Pvt. Gonzales let out a quiet, tired whimper. Sgt. Jamison gave him a brief glance.

Gonzales asked, “How many levels does the basement have?”

“Two more. The blood trail leads down. Keep it together, Gonzales.”


“The trail leads down past B2,” PFC Karlajic noted at the B2 landing, “but get this; motherfucker was walking on all fours.”

Sgt. Jamison looked. “Yeah. Check out the size of its hands.” He put his size 12 boots next to the prints. “Huge and has six fingers, too.”

“Freeeaaaky,” PFC Karlajic gulped.

“Squad Two, this is Squad One. We’ve got signs of Target Prime activity on B1. Squad one continuing to B2,” Sgt. Jamison radioed.

“Squad One, read you loud and clear. Squad Two moving into position.”

Squad One exited the stairwell, dispersing along the west wall of B2 to form a skirmish line. B2 was more claustrophobic; lower ceilings, packed with old computers and server banks.

“Man, this stuff must date back to the 70’s,” Cpl. Pulaski noted as he checked an old IBM the size of a refrigerator.

The line crossed halfway across B2 when Slater motioned to his ear. Sgt. Jamison halted the line. Slater pointed to his left. Lee and Buono raised their weapons.

“Hear that?” Slater whispered.

“No,” Sgt. Jamison said.

“Wait, I hear it. Rustling.,” Gonzales added.

“Yeah, I do too,” Lee said.

“Definitely,” Buono agreed.

The skirmish line listened to rustling, faint and growing louder, closer.

It expanded to the whole front before them. A chorus of rattling from the old machinery joined in.

PFC Karlajic saw it first; thousands of small, beady eyes glowing green.

“Rats!” he shouted and fired a burst.

The little bastards didn’t blink, didn’t hesitate; a squeaking, chattering mass surged forward. Karlajic and Gonzales’ fire illuminated the rodent hoard.

“Cease fire,” Sgt. Jamison barked out orders. “Deploy pepper spray and fall back to the stairwell. Karlajic, Lee, cover us.”

The squad, except for Karlajic and Lee, slung their weapons and grabbed pepper spray canisters from their rigs. Some of the men took precise aim and nailed clusters of rodents; others fanned out an arc to their front as they backed away.

Slater screamed like a girl; Sgt. Jamison turned to him.  He was punching at his legs and chest.

A dozen rats crawling over him.

Big fuckers.

“Fuck, fuck, fuck,” Slater cursed.

Jamison hollered at him, “Hold still, I’ve got you,” and aimed the nozzle of his canister at the furry blotches on Slater.

A rat burst out of a server bank onto Karlajic’s arm and bit down. Karlajic slammed his arm into the side of the server.

The rat’s back broke with a satisfying crunch.

The squad scurried back into the stairs and slammed the door shut. Pulaski whipped out a roll of tape at 100 miles an hour and sealed the door.

“Uh, Squad Two,” Sgt. Jamison keyed his radio, “we’re bypassing B2. It’s full of rats. Moving on to B3.”

“Read you loud and clear, Squad One, bringing up CS canisters, relay is good. Over.”

A rat lighted past Jamison; he stomped it under his boot, sending its guts shooting out its ass.

Slater guffawed.

Sgt. Jamison snarled, “Alright, fuck the sweep and clear shit. Follow the blood trail. Let’s get this shit over with and bag at least one freak.”

“I can’t believe I got busted down twice to do this exterminator shit,” PFC Karlajic muttered under his breath.


For all installments of “Milites Noctis,” click here.