Read Return From the Inferno Online

Authors: Mack Maloney

Tags: #Suspense

Return From the Inferno

Prologue

The clattering of horses' hooves galloping at full charge cracked like thunder against the asphalt of the abandoned highway.

There were twenty horsemen in all. Ten riding at top speed in front of the rumbling tractor trailer truck; ten behind. There were also three battered HumVees in the strange caravan. All of them were at the rear of the column, their gunners firing .50 caliber heavy machine guns wildly at the army of pursuers less than a quarter mile behind.

Captain "Crunch" O'Malley was behind the wheel of the last HumVee in line.

More accustomed to piloting his famous F-4X Super Phantom than this four-wheel monster without shock absorbers, O'Malley was doing all he could just to keep the truck steady on the cratered, unlit highway. It was the dead of night and the only illumination was coming from the frightening flare of Katyusha rockets exploding all around them, plus the larger explosions off to O'Malley's right which told him that the enemy was zeroing in on them with long-range 122-mm artillery.

"Goddamn, are we going to make it?" he yelled up at his gunner.

The gunner-a sergeant in the now defunct Pacific American militia-slapped another belt of ammunition into his big .50 and kept right on firing.

"Not if we don't reach the bridge damn quick!" he yelled back.

The bridge was a mile ahead of them. The lead men on horseback, remnants from the Pacific American militia's single cavalry unit, would reach it in a matter of minutes. Could they deploy

their explosive charges in enough time for the trailer truck, the HumVees and the rest of the horsemen to cross the span, and then destroy it before their well-equipped, ruthless enemies finally caught up with them?

O'Malley looked in his rearview mirror and knew it would be very, very close.

/ wish the old Wingman was still around, he thought. We could sure use him now. . . .

If they were lucky at all, it was because their pursuers were driving armored personnel carriers and light-armored vehicles, making their top speed only slightly less than that of the overloaded trailer truck and the winded, but determined, cavalry horses.

More 122-mm shells came crashing down in front of them as the ragged, harried procession rounded a long bend on what used to be California State Highway 15.

By the flash of these explosions, "Crunch" could see the charge of enemy APCs and LAVs closing in on his tail.

Once again, a desperate thought crossed his mind. What would Hawk do?

Major Hashi Nushi Three was the commander of the hundred-man, fifteen-vehicle mechanized column pursuing the ragged Pacific American soldiers.

He was new to the California theater of action, having come in on the third invasion wave which had landed just two weeks before on the beaches of Ventura. At the time, Nushi had been upset at his commanders. He considered it an insult to be kept in one of the invasion ships for so long before finally being allowed to land and join the conquest. This was especially grating as his grand uncle, Hashi Nushi One, was the Imperial Commander of all the Asian Forces.

By the time his unit hit the beach, much of the fighting on the West Coast of America was over. The much weakened Pacific American Army, depleted by the wars in the eastern part of the country, proved to be little match for the invading armies of the Combined Greater East Asia Divine Warriors'

Association. Indeed, much of the Pacific American Army surrendered lest the overwhelming Asian Forces make good on their promise to destroy one major city along the West Coast and immolate their populations in the process.

It was no idle threat. The Asian Forces had happily provided information to the Pacific American Army on two Fire Bats submarines which were on station in the Gulf of Santa Catalina. Each one carried a nuclear-tipped, ballistic missile in its launch chamber.

With the fight for California nearly over, Nushi was pleased to get the assignment to hunt down and liquidate the last remaining enemy armed force inside the newly claimed territory.

He knew very little about this ragtag band of soldiers, just that they numbered less than thirty, they were lightly armed, and were relying mostly on horses for transport. They'd been slowly moving eastward since the first days of the Asian Forces' invasion, committing various acts of sabotage along the way. This included destroying many of the main power stations around Los Angeles, which was now the, site of the Asian Forces' main headquarters for the conquered portion of southwest America. Now it appeared as if the small enemy unit was making a break for the San Bernardino mountains to the east-and the unsettled, yet unconquered lands beyond.

Nushi's orders were to stop them and he'd been attempting that since early morning. But the enemy soldiers were doing strange things, not the least of which was driving the tractor-trailer truck. The large rig had been slowing them down all day. If they had stuck to the horses and their small combat vehicles they would have been in the mountains hours ago.

Nushi didn't know what was inside the truck-nor did he care much. He had little respect for the enemy or their stupid antics, therefore they were not worthy of his examination. Nushi just assumed that when he finally caught up with the elusive Americans the mystery of why they would sacrifice time and speed for the truck's cargo would be revealed.

The enemy was just a half mile ahead now, right around the bend in the highway. Nushi's LAV was in the lead, its gunner firing nonstop at the fleeing Americans, while his radio man was calling in the big 122-mm artillery rounds from a mobile firebase five miles to the south.

Nushi confidently ordered his second radio man to call back to the main headquarters to tell them that their quarry was in sight and would soon be destroyed.

Less than a minute later, Nushi's column roared around the bend in the highway to find the 150-foot bridge which spanned a wide dry gorge was still intact.

But not for long.

Suddenly three 122-mm shells flashed out of the sky and came crashing down dead center on the bridge. There was a huge explosion that was so sudden and violent that all of the drivers in Nushi's column instinctively slammed on their brakes.

Nushi was almost ejected from his turret by the screeching stop. Once he regained his balance, he peered through the smoke, dust, and flame to see that most of the bridge was gone.

He was stunned by this sudden turn of events. Kicking his driver on the back of his head, he indicated he wanted to move right up to the edge of the ruptured span. The rest of the column followed.

Beyond the separated bridge, the hills began. But where were the Pacific Americans? There was no way they had time to cross the span before his artillerymen had dropped it. So where were they?

He ordered his driver to stop completely as soon as they reached the edge of the wrecked and smoking bridge.

"Ssshh!" he hissed to his men.

Suddenly it was very quiet. There was no noise-no engines, no horses' hooves, no whispered voices.

Where could they be?

That was when he heard it.

The strain of a truck engine, not too far off. He turned his vehicle's powerful spotlight to his right and discovered a narrow service road which led down into the dry riverbed. Lifting the beam up slightly, he caught the reflection of the rear of the tractor-trailer truck about a quarter mile away.

He had them.

Cautiously, he directed his column down the service road and out onto the dry riverbed. All the while he kept the Americans captured in the searchlight. It was rather a pathetic scene. Many of the horsemen had dismounted and the gang of

8

Americans were desperately trying to push the squealing, skidding tractor trailer up the sharp incline of the far bank.

He laughed once and checked his watch. It was exactly midnight. Perfect, he thought. He would begin this glorious day by annihilating the last pocket of enemy resistance in the newly conquered land.

That was when the ground beneath his vehicle started shaking.

He turned left and right, trying frantically to find the source of the increasingly violent rumbling.

Suddenly one of his junior officers cried out, "Tsunami!"

Nushi spun around and saw to his horror an immense wall of water bearing down on them from the opposite end of the wash.

"The gods no!" Nushi screamed. The gigantic rush of water had appeared so suddenly, it didn't look real somehow.

But it was too late to escape, too late to scream anything else. Too late to do anything but await the deadly wave of rushing water.

In his last instant of life, the terrified Nushi knew he would spend eternity wondering from where did the tidal wave come.

The Pacific American column continued on into the night, reaching the rugged hills around Soda Lake by 4 AM.

Only then did they stop to rest.

The horses were brought down into a shallow ravine, where they were fed and lightly watered. The truck was backed into a rocky blind and quickly covered with desert camouflage netting as were the HumVees. A watch was posted and the rest of the men sacked out for what could only be a three-hour sleep until it was light and time to move again.

"Crunch" didn't even bother to bed down. He hadn't slept in days and didn't figure to start now. Instead he climbed the tallest hill and sat next to the young Pacific American soldier on watch and stared out toward the west.

He had no idea what had happened back at the dry river; no idea where the massive wave of water had come from. What he did know was it had saved their lives and vanquished their enemies. But strange as it was, "Crunch" realized it was only a very temporary victory. He'd been in too many wars to think of it as

anything else. The Asians would be after them again by sunrise, with their vicious combination of massive numbers and fanatical determination.

Sometimes it seemed that there was no stopping them.

"Crunch's" small band of cavalry and mismatched soldiers had taken out about six hundred of the enemy in the past few weeks and still they kept on coming at them. Like one long human wave, streaming over the Pacific, an endless line. Invading his country.

That was why "Crunch" couldn't sleep. No matter how bad it was awake, he couldn't bear to dream about it as well.

He and the others were heading east-to where? The Asian Forces controlled just about everything to the Nevada border and, at the rate of their conquest, they'd be over the Rockies within a month. Even if "Crunch" and the others made it across what used to be Kansas and into Missouri, then what? On the other side of the Mississippi waited an enemy that was even larger, even more barbaric than the Asian Forces.

These were the forces of the Fourth Reich-the other half of the combined Second Axis. When the vanguard of Norse invaders attacked the East Coast months before, little did anyone know that it was just a feint of what was to come. That was, the massive, coordinated two-prong invasion of the American continent by a new, enormous enemy: the Second Axis.

Like a bad nightmare from the early 1940s, the Second Axis combined the strengths of two massive mercenary armies. One was made up almost exclusively of renegade Asian military sects, the other nothing less than the rebirth of the fascist Germanic state. It was only after the Norse invaders were stopped in a titanic pinnacle battle on the eastern coast of Florida that the United American Armed Forces realized that the Norse invasion had been simply a way of deflecting the UAAF from what really lay out beyond the horizon. The UAAF

was a clever, highly skilled group. They had won several wars and had finally succeeded in reuniting a fractured America. The Norse invasion was a bold ruse indeed to have tricked such a hearty alliance. No sooner had the Norse amphibious force been stopped when the power of the Fourth Reich showed itself, in the form of a massive air strike launched from somewhere out at sea, presumably from an aircraft carrier.

In one bold stroke, the Fourth Reich fascists wiped out most of what was left of the United Americans' small but respected air force, and thus immobilized most of its ground forces. Already battered and bleeding from the bloodcurdling Norse onslaught, the East Coast was totally unprepared for the massive sea and air blitzkrieg carried out by the Fourth Reich. Just like the coordinated Asian invasion of the West Coast, much of the fighting was quick and brutal. The American armies on the East Coast surrendered in light of a threat to destroy a major city and incinerate hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians via a sub-launched nuclear weapon.

It had all happened so quickly. That was what bothered "Crunch" the most. They didn't even have a chance to fight. And in the process, he'd lost at least two of his best friends. One was Elvis, his longtime partner in the fighter-bomber unit for hire known as "The Ace Wrecking Company." Elvis was last seen taking off for a reconnaissance mission over an area west of Hawaii to check out rumors of a massive invasion force sailing eastward. The rumors were true: the invaders turned out to be the Asian Forces. Elvis was never heard from again.

His second friend lost was Hawk Hunter. The Wingman. The one person more than any other who had been responsible for pulling the shattered American nation together once again. After the air strike by the mysterious carrier force off Florida, Hunter had taken off in his Harrier jump jet with several weapons strapped underneath and headed out to find the floating airfield.

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