Silence had reigned at the Chatanika lodge for nearly two years since the winter of 2011 drove the owners south. The war had killed almost all memories of its existence. The cracked weather-worn red paint on the sagging eaves fluttering in the wind and the soft brushing of long untended grasses against the rusting hulks of old battered RVs had been the melody to which the endless empty days had progressed.
Now, a splintering thud of boots on wood sends the birds gathered in the trees lining the shattered asphalt lot into the air with a musical cacophony of protest. A second crash ends with the sound of splintering wood as the old battered door gives way and the large man in battered fatigues steps into the abandoned dining room.
Hardship and blowing cold have lined his face before its time and his beard grows thick and full, but his voice still holds some of the joy from years ago. “I was here a couple times back in the early 2000s. The owner’s wife, Shirley, made a mean batch of chili that could blow the frostbite right out of your fingers” he says almost to himself as his eyes scan the room and his memories add the sounds of clinking glasses and friendly voices. “They used to have a sled race here in the spring where people would race outhouses on skis down the hill. It was a gas.”
Glass and wood splinters grind together on the vinyl floor as the man’s companions enter the dim dining room. The man’s companions were both younger men. One was tall, dark haired and thin with a thick beard. He wore a battered leather jacket and answered to Uriel. The other who went by the name Egil was a tall and blonde, clean shaven but for a few days’ growth and bore rugged good looks that had served him well in another world. His toned, efficient movement spoke of his athletic training and his accent marked him a man far from home. Holding a compact but deadly looking submachine gun in one hand, Uriel pulled a flashlight from his belt as he walked through the shattered doorway. He spoke as he began to scan the room; “Unless you are going to make me a pot of chili I wish you’d just keep details like that to yourself Bernard. The owners must have left before the invasion. Look,” he said pointing to the empty tables, ”all the dishes are gone and everything is packed up orderly like they might come back some day.”
“They didn’t take everything, look there” said the blonde pointing to a cluster of small cylinders grouped on the bar that dominated the center of the darkened dining room. He strode across the dusty floor towards the objects, taking several of them in turn and shaking them lightly. “Salt and pepper. Mostly full, takke Gud.” He turned to the man in the battered fatigues; “When you were here before did you ever see a first aid kit or a medicine cabinet?”
“They had camping kits for sale in the general store through that door and I think they had a metal kit down here” the grizzled man replied as he leaned over the bar and fumbled with an unseen item behind the counter. “It’s mostly empty, just a box of aspirin.” “I’ll take whatever we can find” Egil said with a grim look on his face as the small box sailed through the air to his waiting grasp. He quickly unslung his backpack; it had cost him a fortune in the years before the war and his wife had chided him about the expense, but over the last year it had carried all the remnants of his former life in its cavernous interior and he had been glad for it.
Uriel continued through the dining room and into the darkness of the kitchen, the stab of light from his flashlight illuminating a narrow corridor as he advanced. Cautiously, he advanced into the unknown. His ears were open for any sound though he heard nothing but the occasional scuff of furniture as his companions searched the restaurant. His flashlight panned over the long abandoned prep line and across the dusty range and he wondered to himself if the kitchen used public natural gas or an on-site tank. He turned each of the knobs on the range and was rewarded by a gentle hiss. “Not at full pressure but maybe some we could siphon off” he thought to himself as the odor of rot caught in his nose. He quickly checked the refrigerator and found it empty before creeping towards the office door. Curled in front of a small potbellied stove was a desiccated corpse dressed in digital camouflage. Looking closely Uriel found a shoulder patch identifying the dead man as a member of the 297th Battlefield Surveillance Brigade of the Alaska National Guard.
Uriel rolled the corpse onto its back with his offhand revealing a severely corroded M4 carbine. The room told the story of the soldier’s demise to those who had eyes for it, and Uriel’s eyes were keen indeed. The soldier was wounded in the leg; a tourniquet around the leg had failed to stem the flow of blood from the wound as the faint outline of a stain in the dark carpet attested. Following the stain back to the broken window, Uriel could see that during the winter there had been a significant accumulation of snow and ice in the room judging from the mold and stains on the walls and floor. “Must have been here since before the main fighting stopped” he mused aloud as he removed the dog tags from the brittle corpse. “Specialist William Behner” he said softly as he turned the tags over in his hand. He tucked the tags into his pocket and went to work removing the dead soldier’s tactical body armor and boots. “Sorry Will, we’re gonna need these more than you.”
Piling up the vest and rotting boots he went to work on the M4, slamming the butt of the weapon against the ground to loosen the rusted receivers before pushing out the takedown pins and removing the bolt and buffer from inside the upper receiver and stuffing them into a leg pouch. He moved to the desk in the corner of the room, pulling the drawers open and rifling through their contents until the distant rumble of a diesel engine caught his attention. Running to the window, he stared out to the north quickly making out the outline of troop truck heading south towards the lodge. “Oh shit” he mumbled as he ran from the window and scooped the pile of salvage from the floor. He ran through the darkened kitchen towards the dim light of the restaurant.
“Well, there’s good news and bad news” said Uriel as his companions looked up at his hasty entrance. “The good news is I found Egil some body armor” he said as he dumped the armor to the ground in front of the blonde man. “The bad news is there is a Russian transport coming down the road and we are probably about to die.”
Bernard rushed to the window as Egil bent to pick up the offered armor. “Ugh” he said as he brought the armor to his face. “This smells like an abattoir, is it even safe to wear?”
“It’s probably best that you don’t know where I got it from and instead just put it on Sven. The Russians won’t stop shooting you because your armor stinks” Uriel replied.
“Ah shit… they’re slowing down” cursed Bernard as the whine of the diesel engine became louder and the crunch of gravel announced the truck’s turn into the parking lot of the Lodge. “Shit shit shit!” he said as he ran crouched from the boarded window. “We need to get out of here, NOW. “
The men ducked and began moving towards the darkened rear of the building. Outside, the slam of a tailgate and the staccato beat of boots landing one after the other lent urgency to their movements. They ran into the kitchen crouched and with as much silence as the old wooden floor of the dining room would allow. Each creak and groan of the floor amplified a thousand times in their ears. Afraid that their flashlights would give them away, they felt their way through the gloom using only the meager light flowing from the boarded windows.
“There used to be a back door…. Ah shit here it is..they nailed it shut.” Bernard regarded the door with hard look that even the darkness could not fully mask. “What now?” Asked Egil. “Now I’m going to have to knock it down… we won’t have long before they’re on top of us… Egil help me with this, Uriel I need you to make sure they don’t make it to us before we are able to smash this open.
Uriel slung his new boots over his shoulder and lifted his battle worn MP5-SD6 into his shoulder. “I’m not going to hold them all off with this thing but I’ll give them something to think about.”
“On three” said Bernard as he looked intently at Egil and squared his shoulder to the door. The Blonde doctor nodded and readied himself, his athlete’s muscles corded and primed for action. He closed his eyes for a moment and cast his thoughts far away across the land and sea. When they opened again there was nothing in them but the task at hand.
The two men smashed into the door, the boards creaked and the jam splintered as the deadbolt tried to smash through the ancient wood. A commotion from the front of the building signaled the alarm of the Russian troops.
“Again! Hit it again!” Cried Bernard, all pretense of stealth vanished. He pulled his companion back and they readied themselves for a second desperate attempt.
Uriel flinched at the noise of the door but his eyes remained fixed on the entrance to the lodge. Outside he saw movement but he knew the small caliber of his weapon required him to wait for just the right moment to engage. Shadows crisscrossed outside the door they had opened only minutes before. Suddenly a man’s form rushed through the opening. Uriel tracked the form and found his mark. The silenced submachine gun clicked rapidly in a short burst and the form went down heavily. A second man was pushing through the doorway but a long burst from his weapon sent him scrambling for cover. “This is gonna get bad real fast guys.” he stated flatly.
“Now!” screamed Bernard and the two men charged the door again. With a smash, the door gave way and they burst into the light behind the lodge and tumbled to the ground surrounded by the wreckage of the door. From behind they heard a shout: “GRENADE!” and Uriel’s dark form darted through the now open doorway.
Though the blast was contained by the walls of the lodge, sound was overwhelming and the pressure wave rolled over them while bits of detritus pelted their backs. The sound of the detonation still ringing in their ears, they scrambled to their feet and ran towards the tree line after Uriel.
From behind them, the sound of weapons fire and suddenly the air was alive with the snap of live rounds passing them by inches. As they ran Uriel pointed to an off-white cylinder on the tree line in front of them. “It’s still got gas!” he shouted as he angled away from it. Bernard quickly changed his course and slid to a stop behind one of the cylinder’ stubby concrete legs, shucking his pack as he came.
“Keep them down for just a second!” he shouted as he rummaged through the backpack.
“Are you fucking insane?!” shouted Uriel “You are sitting under a bomb!"
“That’s why he needs us to cover him” stated Egil, as he brought his stolen assault rifle into his shoulder and took a single steadying breath as his body fell into its old routines. CLACK! CLACK! CLACK! The old rifle’s stamped parts worked with crude effectiveness and though it bucked like a mule each time, Egil’s trained hand guided it back to his point of aim at the edge of the lodge, blowing chunks from the wall and sending the pursuing troops into cover.
“Now! Go!” shouted Bernard as he stood and ran for the tree line, his companions in close pursuit. Just as the men cleared the trees, the harassing fire came again thick like a swarm of angry hornets and they ran like the devil himself was after them. “Go! Go! Go! Don’t stop! Shouted Bernard as they crashed through the bushes.
A snap and a spray of red shot from Uriel as he stumbled and then tumbled to the ground. His comrades lifted him and he weakly ran between them clearly favoring one leg.
Behind, a deafening thud announced the fruits of Bernard’s handy work as the cluster of pipe bombs he had jammed beneath the compressed natural gas cylinder detonated and showered the area with lethal fragments of metal.
The men ran and ran till they collapsed with exhaustion. Egil rolled Uriel onto his side and probed the wound with his finger as Uriel hissed in pain. “You’re lucky I’m almost dead or I’d murder you for that.
“You are not dying, stop making sounds like a woman” Egil replied. “It’s through and through and it missed the big artery by an inch or so” he said as he busied himself attaching a field dressing to the wound.
“No time to rest now“ Bernard grumbled as he pulled himself back to his feet. We have to get back to base and let the Captain know that the reds are back on the patrol. That little shitstorm we just caused is gonna have them swarming like ants on a picnic around here.