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A Lost Generation (xxx,ww,m/f)



A Lost Generation



While it was in progress, it would be called World War III. After it was all said and done, it would be called Armageddon. Whatever it was referred to as, it would go down in history as the bloodiest, costliest, most destructive event in human history. Though not a single nuclear or fusion weapon and not a single chemical warhead would be used during the ten long years of the war, more than six hundred million people would be killed as a result of the fighting.

It would also be the most unexpected war in human history. No conflict had ever been thrust upon the world with such shocking surprise, with such shocking speed. On December 31, 2012, the world was relatively at peace. Armed forces throughout the globe—those that were not to participate in the opening attacks anyway—were at the lowest level of alert possible. Twenty-four hours later, on New Year's Day, 2013, Chinese and Indian forces, in a surprise attack of staggering complexity, burst with lightening speed into the resource rich Siberian region of Russia and into the strategically located western Russian steppes. That the Asian Powers (as they would quickly become known) of China, Japan, India, Korea, and Vietnam had been planning the attack for nearly two decades would be apparent only after the massive invasion took place. The rest of the world was completely clueless about their intentions beforehand.

The primary reason the Asian Powers were able to penetrate so deeply into opposing territory in such a short period of time could perhaps be summed up in one word: underestimation. The Americans, the British, the French, the Germans, and especially the Russians, underestimated both the strength of the Asian countries and their ambition. They had allowed their own armed forces to be cut to the bone, to a staffing and equipment level that had not been seen since before the First World War. They had allowed the Asian Powers, whose numbers equaled more than a third of all human beings on earth, to amass an army, a navy, and an air force of staggering size right under their noses.

Most of the military hardware and weapons the Asian powers would use were old, outdated models of American and Russian equipment. The Russians had sold them the very tanks they used to smash across their border. The Americans had sold them the very planes they used to wipe out their carrier groups at the beginning of the war. They had sold them this equipment and had pocketed the currency, using it to beef up their own economies, all the while telling themselves that the outdated equipment would be ineffective over the high-tech, computerized and satellite guided weaponry they themselves possessed. They told themselves they were doing the old divide and conquer trick, getting China and Japan and India to engage in a military build up against each other and against their neighbors. This mistake would turn out to be the most deadly one ever made in the history of warfare.

For a period of more than ten years the three primary countries of the Asian Powers had seemed to be at each other's throats. Nobody, not the CIA, not the British Intelligence, not the Mossad, not the Russian intelligence, ever suspected the whole thing was just an act. The three powers would constantly chip at each other in UN sessions. There would be the occasional border skirmish or naval clash. There would be the occasional scuffle between opposing air forces. That the Asian Powers could keep such a massive secret for so long had been inconceivable. The Western powers and the Russians had simply watched in concealed amusement as the Asian countries went through their paces and kept buying up weapons, tanks, and planes.

Of course none of the western countries were foolish enough to sell the Asian Powers the sheer numbers of weapons they eventually amassed. Though they liked the hard currency they were receiving from the sales they were not about to arm up Asia with enough military might to actually become a threat. In intelligence files formulated just days before the outbreak of war, the total strength estimate of the Asian Powers' tank forces and air forces were listed at less than one fourth of what it actually turned out to be. Again, this was due to a vast underestimation of the enemy. While the Asian Powers had been pretending to chip at each other during those years, their factories, particularly those in Japan, had been turning out three tanks, three airplanes, three artillery pieces, and three bombs for each one they had been sold. They built these weapons from steel that they had purchased from the United States and Russia, and they stored them in secret hangers and staging areas.



On the eve of January 1, 2013, the Russians had no idea that they had more than four million soldiers sitting on their border ready to smash through and seize their country. They had no idea that thousands of attack planes were idling at Chinese air bases ready to take off and penetrate their airspace. Such a deception, had it been suggested prior to the war, would have been thought impossible to achieve. After all, satellites peered down upon the world constantly, monitoring every move that is made by any country's armed forces. But satellite passes are predictable and heavy combat equipment, as the Asian Powers showed, can be moved from place to place between passes a little at a time; it can be effectively camouflaged during the pass, letting the peering eyes see exactly what they expected to see. It took the better part of three years for this build up to happen, but the Asian Powers were nothing if not patient. Again, with hindsight it was easy to see the deceptions for what they were. It was easy for the NSA and CIA analysts to look back at those old satellite pictures and wonder how they had not known, how they had not seen what was about to occur. They had not seen because they had not been expecting to see and probably wouldn't have believed it even if they had.

The goal of the Asian Powers in this endeavor was a very grand and wide-reaching one. They were gambling everything that they had on their success, literally everything. After all, every one of the countries of the Asian Powers had extensive business holdings in the United States, in England, in South America, holdings that were frozen and confiscated by the first week of the war. Each of the Asian Powers countries also had thousands, in some cases millions, of their citizens living abroad, citizens that were arrested and confined to POW camps. That they were willing to sacrifice these things, some of their most valuable foreign possessions, some of their most influential and wealthy citizens, spoke volumes about the grand scale of their intentions. They were not just intending to take Russia and the resources of Siberia. Their goal was no more and no less than complete world domination. They planned to initiate a new world order of their own, to enforce the principals of world communism under a single government by force of arms.

Their plan, which was intended to require less than a year of fighting, was to seize the world's oil supplies as quickly as possible, thus making it impossible for any country to oppose them. They were counting on the sheer overwhelming numbers of their forces coupled with the lightening speed of their attacks to insure victory. Their planning was sound, well thought out, and very detailed. Their armed forces were well trained and well motivated. Despite all of this, things did not quite work out the way they had planned. Things rarely do in war.

It would be an underestimation of their own that would make the war so costly and so long and so bloody. They had assumed that the powers that they were fighting would not be able to guess their intentions and would not be able to react quickly enough to stop them. The Asian Powers had studied their history well and knew that the failings of other would-be world domination schemes had been in attacking too soon at a prepared enemy. They were attacking after years of planning at an unprepared enemy whose industries were gripped in a peacetime recession. They had thought that it would be enough. It very nearly had been. Historians after the war would realize that the difference between a quick Asian Powers victory and the bloody, decade long stalemate that killed hundreds of millions on three different fronts would turn out to be a single decision, a single lucky guess made on the part of the United States early in the war.

-------

Roseville, California

May 23, 2015

Saving Center Food and Drug was a large corporate owned store that anchored the suburban strip mall at Wood Oak Drive and Citrus Boulevard. Its parking lot, which had been designed in the late 1990's to hold more than three hundred cars, was now empty of any vehicle that contained an internal combustion engine. Between the faded white lines where minivans and SUVs and other yuppie vehicles had once waited for their owners to return from the Saving Center laden with groceries, were only a few bicycles, most of which had trailers attached to the back, and a few personal wheeled carts, called "walkers" by those that employed them. The days when people could just hop in a car to take care of their weekly shopping were gone, as vanished as the automobiles themselves.

The inside of the Saving Center was also vastly different than it had been in days gone by. Built in a time when the corporation was king and when huge inventories of every conceivable stock that the average family would desire were the ruling decree, the shelves on each one of its twenty aisles had brimmed with canned foods and fresh produce and dairy products and countless other food and consumer items. Now, many of the aisles were empty, the items once thought staples of modern life no longer available or affordable. Fresh produce was one casualty of the times. The refrigerated and lovingly maintained aisles where lettuces and carrots and onions and potatoes had been stacked by the hundreds now stood empty, their refrigeration units long since shut down. The only fresh vegetables available these days were those grown in the backyard victory gardens that nearly every American household maintained. Any food that had once come in cans had also disappeared from the modern grocery store. The metal that had been used to make the cans was now needed to make tanks, airplanes, missiles, and bombs. If a food could not be put into a glass jar with a reinforced cardboard lid, it could not be packaged and shipped. Likewise, any food or consumer item that had been packaged in plastic containers was no longer available since plastic was a byproduct of petroleum, perhaps the most precious resource in the western hemisphere these days.

The most startling difference inside of the impossibly huge grocery store was not the lack of stock however, but the lack of people shopping. The aisles had once been packed during the daylight hours of any given day of the week, crowded with housewives and businessmen and welfare recipients and people from all other walks of life picking out their daily or weekly shopping in the tradition of American capitalism. But that had been before the war, before the loss of the majority of the United States' oil supply to the Chinese, before what remained of that oil supply was desperately needed to fuel armored vehicles and aircraft at the front. No longer was it a simple matter of hopping in the family car and motoring to the Saving Center (or anywhere else for that matter, including work) when you needed or wanted to go. The standard ration card allowed only one gallon of gasoline per household per month. And at current prices that gallon would cost $130. For this reason it was not surprising that all but the very wealthy did not bother collecting the rations due them at all. Well over ninety-eight percent of the personal automobiles in the United States had been sold for pennies on the dollar as scrap metal. These days, you walked to the store or you biked to it and you only bought what you could carry home via these means of transportation.

However, not everyone was capable of walking to the store when they needed some vital item or items. The two groups of people most affected by this were the elderly and the single mothers, of which there were very many of in any given American city these days. The solution to this seemingly insurmountable problem was a resurgence of an occupation that had vanished many decades before: the bicycle delivery person. Nearly every grocery store and drug store chain now employed at least six of these people during their hours of operation. They were paid minimum wage, which had been fixed at fourteen dollars an hour at the beginning of the war, but were allowed to keep any tips they received. The vast majority of the bicycle delivery drivers, as had been the case in days gone by, were high school kids trying to keep busy and earn a few bucks. Most of these modern day delivery people did not stuff their salary and their tips into college funds. Most of them knew the moment they graduated from high school the draft would be waiting for them. As a result they tended to be much more fatalistic than their grandfathers had been in the same position. Instead of looking forward to dormitory life, future careers, future wives or husbands or children, they looked forward to basic training, military assignments, and, for the males among them, the significant possibility of being killed on the battlefield. After all, it didn't look like the war was going to be ending any time soon, at least not with a friendly victory anyway.

Mark Whiting was one such delivery boy. He had turned eighteen years of age a month before and was now one month away from high school graduation and the beginning of his draft eligibility period. His grade point average as of the last semester had been 3.4, which was fairly respectable but not quite the 3.8 required to qualify for college admission and the college deferment that went along with it. He, like nine out of ten others in his graduating class, was left with the savory choice of either waiting for the draft to catch up with him (which it was bound to do within four months according to Internet statistics) or to join up voluntarily with the service of his choice. A believer in championing his own fate, Mark was leaning quite heavily towards the latter option.

Like all of the delivery personnel for this particular chain, Mark was dressed in a red Saving Center T-shirt. He was a little shorter than was average—five foot, six inches with shoes on—and, as such, even the small sized shirt hung somewhat long on him making the corporate logo center at the bottom of his ribcage instead of over his heart. The shirt was tucked into a pair of camouflage-patterned shorts that hung nearly to his knees. Though short, Mark's legs were well muscled and toned, a result of biking more than thirty miles each workday with a load of groceries in the trailer behind him. His hair was an uninteresting shade of brown, as were his eyes, and his face was still occasionally marred with the last traces of adolescent acne.

It was Friday and school had just ended less than an hour before. Mark, along with his best friend Darren and two other delivery people, had just checked in for the afternoon shift and had been given their first orders of the day. They pushed carts up and down the aisles, grabbing jars of pasta and meat and just about anything else, checking each item off on their personal computers, or PCs, as they went. Mark had two orders to fill for his first trip, one a small order of less than ten jars, the other a moderate one of nearly thirty. An experienced loader now, he figured he would be able to fit both orders into his bike's trailer and pound them out at one time. That at least would save him a trip back to the store.

Once he had everything on the two lists he took them up to the front of the store, where a special check stand had been set up just for delivery personnel. Belinda Swensen, one of the prettier girls at Wood Oak High School, was staffing this particular station. Belinda, a cheerleader and a former homecoming queen, was somewhat stuck up, particularly around such average people as Mark Whiting. She hardly gave him a look as she ran her laser scanner over the items in his cart and added up the totals.

"Looks like $45.50 on the first order," she told him, her voice high and nasal, "and $163.33 on the second."

"Static," he replied, taking a moment to admire her silky legs in the cammie shorts she wore.

She caught him looking at her and let an expression of mild disgust filter across her face. "Your PC?" she asked.

He handed a small pocket computer across to her. It was not actually his PC, but Saving Center's. His own, a camouflage patterned one of course, was clipped to his waistband. She took it from him, seeming to make a point to avoid touching his hand as she did so. A small data probe attached to a piece of fiber optic cord protruded from her scanner. She plugged it into the back and a moment later the order itemizations and price summaries were downloaded to it. Once the transfer was complete she unplugged and set the PC down on the counter. She immediately turned her attention to Jennifer Smiles, the delivery girl in line behind him.

Mark pushed his cart toward the delivery access doors of the building, not glancing back at her as he went, unaffected by her attitude towards him. There had been a time not long ago when he would have been quite intimidated by her, but those days were now gone. He had learned much about women during his tenure as a Saving Center employee, much more than he was ever meant to know at his tender age. As a result, the only emotion that he could muster towards Belinda and others like her was a quiet contempt at their immaturity, an immaturity they had no idea they even displayed.

The delivery doors led him out into a sixty-foot square enclosure that was fenced in by chain link and topped with barbed wire. The employees parked their bikes out here and readied them for delivery. The security was due to the high theft rate of bicycles, which had topped the list of most common crimes against property nationwide. Mark's bike was a relatively inexpensive one that had been purchased from Wal-Mart shortly after the war had begun. It was a 21-speed that was painted in the winter camouflage scheme popular with adolescents. Attached to the seat post was a Saving Center two-wheeled delivery trailer capable of hauling fifteen bags of groceries in relative safety. Parked next to it was the more expensive bike that belonged to his best friend, Darren Caswell. Darren himself was loading his own massive load of groceries into an identical trailer.

"What's up, sarge?" Darren asked him, utilizing the term that had recently replaced "dude" as a generic salutation or descriptor. Military terms as slang had pervaded the speech of the young in recent years. Darren was three months older than Mark but much larger. A former varsity football linebacker, he was blessed with a handsome face, free of acne, and a thick growth of black hair. His body, which outweighed his smaller friend's by nearly sixty pounds, was well proportioned and well muscled. He had also mastered the facial expressions of boredom and contempt that were the staples of teenage society. The two of them had been friends for many years, since Darren's family had moved into the neighborhood back when they had been in sixth grade. Mark's father did not particularly care for Darren, considering him, rightly so, to be a bad influence upon his son. But he had never told him not to hang out with him, probably because he knew how useless such a command would be.

"Same old orders," Mark replied, utilizing yet another piece of military slang. "How 'bout you? How's it advancing?"

"That fuckin' prick Johnson has me pushed to the line with orders today," he said, shaking his head a little. "But on the bright side, I got three requests today." Requests were orders in which the person calling it in had asked for a particular delivery person by name. Usually the requests came from young war widows who had been without male companionship for quite some time. Darren, with his rugged good looks, got a lot of them.

"Oh yeah?" Mark said, grinning a little. "I only got one today. My second order. I'll hit her on this first trip though."

"Yeah? What's she look like?"

"Not too bad," he said analytically. "A little wide in the hips—she has two kids running around—but definitely doable."

"Close to landing her?"

"Maybe," Mark told him. "This'll be my third trip there and I think she's getting ready to make her move. She's a little shy."

"I hate the shy ones," Darren said, lifting one of his bags and putting it in his trailer.

"Makes it more challenging," Mark said. "They're so cute when they're shy. Besides, she tipped me thirty bullets on a hundred dollar order last time."

"Static," Darren said, impressed. "You gotta love that."

"That ain't propaganda," Mark agreed with a grin.

Darren loaded another bag, his last one, onto his cart. "Got any smokes?" he asked.

Mark did. He reached into his backpack and pulled out the red and white box he had purchased the day before at a liquor store in central Roseville for six dollars. He shot one out and handed it across to Darren. He then put one in his own mouth. They each pulled out matches—butane lighters were not available for purchase by the general public these days—and lit up, relishing the carcinogenic smoke as they inhaled.

"Fuckin' aye, that tastes good," Darren proclaimed, exhaling his hit through his nose.

"Goddamn right," Mark agreed, copying the technique.

Cigarette smoking in America, which had been nearly wiped out only three years before, had made a big comeback, especially among teenagers. The argument that smoking might kill you in forty years or so just did not seem to carry the same weight it once had. Most teenagers knew that if they managed to stay alive long enough to contract emphysema or lung cancer then they would already be way ahead of the game. Darren had been the one to introduce Mark to cigarettes. It was one of those bad influences that Jeff Whiting constantly worried about. Though Darren had been the teacher of smoking technique it was now Mark who supplied the bulk of the Marlboros they inhaled day after day. Darren, if asked why he did not buy his own, would always say that he was trying to quit and he just wanted one or two. He would continue saying that as he bummed half the pack in the course of a day. Mark knew he was being taken advantage of, that Darren was using their friendship as an excuse for free smokes, but he never complained. After all, Darren had pretty much kept him from being killed by bullies throughout their four years at Wood Oak High.

"Guess what," Darren said. "I got a line on some good buds. You want to go in with me?"

"I might," Mark replied, interested. Darren was of course talking about that most favorite of adolescent indulgences: marijuana, yet another one of those bad influences. "What's the specs?"

"My friend Paul just got in a fresh load from Humbolt," he said.

"Greenbud?" Mark asked hopefully. Humbolt County greenbud was still the best variety of cannabis available in California, though its supply was somewhat limited due to the lack of available means to transport it more than two hundred miles south. Most of the available herb in the Sacramento region, of which Roseville was a part, was homegrown that was produced in closet hothouses and backyard victory gardens.

"Fuckin' aye," Darren assured him. "The cost is a hundred an eighth. You got the account status to go in halves with me?"

Mark nodded. "For greenbud, I can spare it." He chuckled a little, in the fatalistic manner that many of his generation had adopted. "It ain't like I have to save up for a car or anything."

"You the commander," Darren said happily. "I'll head over there right after work and pick the shit up. I'll meet you at the tower at about eight or so."

"Why so long?" Mark wanted to know. They got off work at 6:30. And though he had never met the mysterious Paul whom Darren bought his illegal wares from, he knew he lived only a short ride from where they now sat. It certainly was not a long, torturous trip.

"He's kinda weird," Darren answered mysteriously. "You know how it is? He wants me to hang out with him for a while and bullshit. He's kinda nervous these days. He's going low profile you know."

"Yeah," Mark said, snorting a little, as was expected when one heard about someone going "low pro", which meant he was eligible for service but had not volunteered, that he was just waiting to be drafted. In popular culture going low pro was considered a pussy thing to do.

"Hey, to each his own," Darren said, obviously showing a little contempt of his own however. "His time is running out though. He's been eligible for six and half months now and his number hasn't come up yet. They'll pop him pretty soon and that'll be that."

"What's his rating?"

"1A," Darren said, smiling a little. "And he doesn't have any special skills or family deferments. He's gonna be on the line. No doubt about it."

"He squeams about that?" Mark asked, imparting a twinge of disgust into his voice.

"A little," Darren said seriously. "I mean, he's got as much balls as the rest of us but he gets scared sometimes." He shrugged. "Who knows? Maybe when my time starts to get near, I'll be scared too."

"If you get scared," Mark reminded him, "you don't have to go. Because of your brother, you can take a non-hazardous posting." Darren's brother, a former fuel transfer technician aboard a fast frigate, had been killed in the opening days of the war. As the only remaining son, this made Darren eligible for rear area assignment under the selective service rules.

"I'm not a fuckin' pussy," Darren said, showing genuine anger at the suggestion. "Only a fuckin' pussy would try to get a non-hazardous. Besides, it's because of my brother that I'm going right to where the shit is. I wanna get some payback for what they did to him. I'm gonna even the score for the Caswells."

"You gonna take out twelve thousand of them?" Mark asked, knowing that Darren wanted him to ask that. Twelve thousand was how many of Brett Caswell's comrades the Chinese had killed and Darren enjoyed making reference to that number when he talked of payback.

"At least," he replied toughly. "If I can take out twenty thousand I'll do that too. If they gave me a fuckin' nuke I'd personally carry it over to their side and cram it up Li Chang's faggot ass."

"Shit," Mark said, "you don't wanna do that. Chang would get off on it. He'd probably ask for one of the new anti-matter bombs they're working on to go up there with it."

Darren found this crudely funny. "Now that," he said, laughing, "would be an ass-fuck that that chink motherfucker would never forget."

They made a few more jokes, some even cruder, at the expense of the infamous General Li Chang, commander of the Chinese armies in North America. It was a politically correct thing to do. Finally they butted their smokes and climbed aboard their bikes, maneuvering them carefully through the keypad secured security gate and out into the parking lot. They paused outside long enough for Mark to transfer fifty dollars from his checking account into Darren's.

"Link up with you later," Darren hailed as he rode off to the south.

"You got it," Mark replied, heading in the opposite direction.

-------

When the initial attack came on January 1, 2013, the Russians, who were still trying to initiate a market economy and were suffering from runaway inflation, had been ill prepared for it. Before they even realized they were at war, the bulk of their air force was destroyed, the bulk of their border security was dead or captured, and Asian spearheads were more than two hundred kilometers inside their border in four distinct thrusts. The infamous Russian winter, which had defeated Napoleon and Hitler in previous conflicts, impeded the enemy not the slightest in this one. Moscow fell within two weeks. Russia was out of the war completely inside of a month, all of its mineral and petroleum rich land, all of its military equipment, and all of its nuclear warheads in Asian Power hands.

The Indian army had attacked to the west in Russia with more than two million men. The Chinese had attacked to the east into Siberia with another two million. The European Union had of course immediately mobilized their armies, navies, and air forces and had moved to counter the onrushing Indians. It was quite clear that the Middle East was their objective. The Americans, thinking themselves in no danger of invasion in their own country but greatly concerned about the threat to their oil supply, began to mobilize their army and navy and air force in preparation to assist in Europe.

The United States Navy had had three active aircraft carrier groups in the Pacific Ocean when the fighting started. One was just off the coast of Japan, one was on shore leave in Pearl Harbor, and one was in dry dock in San Diego. As the Asian Powers had predicted, the Americans immediately moved the group cruising near Japan towards the Yellow Sea in order to "show force". The Americans loved to show force during a crisis, loved to project power with their mighty carrier groups. Unfortunately they were foolishly overconfident in just how much force one of their carrier groups actually represented. So long had they used them to intimidate other nations that it never occurred to any of their high command that a nation would fail to be impressed by the movement of such a group to their shore. They had also been under the impression at the time that the Chinese would not dare deliberately draw the great United States into the conflict, would never risk war with America. How naïve of a view that would seem in retrospect. How neatly the trap set by the Asian Powers would spring shut upon the United States Navy.

Before the aircraft carrier group was even on station, American-designed F-111 bombers operating out of Shanghai attacked it. More than four hundred of the twin engine, supersonic medium-range bombers (a hundred more than the CIA had even believed the Chinese possessed) each carrying two Russian made Kingfish anti-ship missiles, swarmed upon the group in the early morning hours of January 3. The attack group was supported by more than two hundred MiG-29 and F-18 fighters carrying air-to-air missiles. The fighters plowed through the pitifully outnumbered combat air patrol that the carrier had placed aloft and the F-111s, though taking nearly thirty percent losses by the protective ring of frigates and high-tech Aegis cruisers, launched their missiles from near point-blank range. More than six hundred of the four thousand pound missiles streaked towards the fifteen ships of the carrier group at better than twelve hundred miles per hour. Ships began to explode and sink a few minutes later while the surviving attack aircraft withdrew. When the smoke cleared, the mighty, thought to be invulnerable United States aircraft carrier was on the bottom of the sea along with eight of its escorts. Of the remaining six ships still afloat, only one, a fleet oiler, was undamaged. A follow-up attack six hours later took care of these battered survivors. Less than two hundred of the twelve thousand sailors assigned to that carrier group were eventually fished from the water by the Japanese Navy.

The second American carrier group, which had immediately began speeding towards China from Hawaii once the war broke out, reached the coast of Japan a week later. At this point things were still quite confusing as far as which players were involved in the conflict and the United States was still under the impression that Japan was its ally. This illusion was shattered when the second carrier group was sank in three successive attacks by Chinese Backfire bombers and escorts operating out of Yokohama on the main Japanese island of Honshu. In less than two weeks a good portion of the Unites States Pacific Fleet had been destroyed and many of its highly trained crews were dead.

The Indian Army, meanwhile, had pushed westward through Russia where they dug in along a 1300-mile long front that stretched from St. Petersburg to the Black Sea. The European Union Forces—soon to be known as the Eastern Hemisphere Forces as the Australian, South African, and Egyptian armies joined in the struggle—would strike again and again at this line over the next seven years. Though they would occasionally manage, at horridly high cost, to push it temporarily back a few kilometers, they would not break through it.



Having secured their first objective: Russia, the Asian Powers then turned their attention to their next. For the Indians, it was the Middle East and all of its rich oil supplies. In a two-pronged attack their forces invaded the country of Iran from both sides of the Caspian Sea, driving south and west towards Iraq. Within two months the entire Arabian peninsula was under occupation and the Suez Canal was in their hands. Though the oil rich countries of Egypt, Sudan, and Libya would remain free of Indian forces, their oil supplies were kept from reaching the Eastern or the Western Hemisphere forces by Indian air superiority over the Mediterranean Sea and Persian Gulf. Any tanker attempting to leave a port was immediately attacked and sank by American-made, Indian-piloted P-3s staging out of Haifa, Israel.

While the Indians were digging in against the Europeans and securing the richest oil region on earth, the Chinese were concentrating their energies upon another very oil-rich region of the planet: Alaska.

Once again, underestimation of Chinese intentions and capabilities were the biggest contributor to what followed. To the Americans it was inconceivable that the Chinese could possibly invade American soil. Though they were massing troops on the Kamchatka peninsula in plain sight of the peering satellites, the Americans simply did not believe their enemy had the capabilities to launch a seaborne invasion. It was only when a huge armada of Chinese and Japanese naval ships escorting freighters, tankers, and more than sixty car-carrying ships belonging to Nissan, Toyota, and Mitsubishi was detected heading across the Bering Sea that the American forces began to realize what was about to happen. By then, it was far too late to counter it in any meaningful way. The American Air Force attempted to attack the armada with B-1 bombers armed with anti-ship missiles. A flight of more than sixty of the bombers took off from Seattle and streaked northward towards the formation. More than a hundred fighters from Elmendorf Air Force Base in Alaska met up with the force to provide air cover. The attack turned into one of the biggest disasters in USAF history. The attacking Americans were met by wave after wave of MiG-29s, F-14s, and F-15s while they were still more than three hundred miles out from their targets. The American aircraft that survived this onslaught were then hit by the Chinese and Japanese protective ships that were cruising sixty miles south of the main formation. When it was over, only two of the B1s remained aloft to limp their way to Alaska. Not a single B1 had managed to fire its missiles. Though a great many of the Chinese planes had been shot down during the battle, the fleet itself sailed on without damage.

Two days later the Chinese forces landed, almost without opposition, at Valdez, Alaska. For the first time since the War of 1812, large numbers of American citizens found themselves under occupation by a foreign power. Within a week the entire Alaskan peninsula was in enemy hands along with the United States' primary domestic oil supply. In addition, the Chinese now had an unbreakable supply line between Kamchatka and the North American mainland. It was a supply line that was unapproachable by aircraft or by surface craft and that was nearly suicidal to approach by submarine. The Chinese put this supply line to immediate use and began to amass troops, equipment, and aircraft on the Alaskan-Canadian border.



-------

Mark turned out of the parking lot and onto Wood Oaks Boulevard with only a careless glance to his right. In truth he was looking mostly for other bicycles bearing down upon him and not for cars. Though once a very heavily traveled boulevard through the western section of Roseville, Wood Oaks was now an almost deserted strip of asphalt that you could stand in the middle of for hours without ever having to make way for anything but a bike. All along its length, at every intersection, stood darkened traffic signals, the multicolored vertical lights now the nesting spots of sparrows and robins. To the younger members of society, those who did not remember crippling traffic jams and rush hours, the four lane roads and the six and eight lane freeways seemed an absurd case of overkill. They could not conceive that just a few years before those roads had been choked with cars and trucks stacked bumper to bumper for miles on end. The highways and freeways of America were now used more for bicycles and hydrogen powered commuter trams than they were for anything else.

The AM/PM mini-mart in the corner of the stripmall was also a victim of the times. Once a thriving gasoline station where men and women and even teenagers had pumped their tanks full for the impossibly low price of only three dollars a gallon, it was now a boarded up, decrepit building. Graffiti marred every wall and weeds were growing through the cracks in the asphalt parking lot. The gas pumps themselves were smashed and broken, a few of them missing entirely, most likely carted away by some person who wanted to possess a relic of another age. Mark remembered when the store had been open. He used to ride his bike there to buy sodas or baseball cards or comic books. His mother and father used to fuel their Japanese-made sport utility vehicle there. The store had always done a brisk business, with every gas pump constantly in use and a perpetual line before the two clerks that were on duty. In a way, looking at the ruins made him sadly nostalgic. Would things ever return to the way they had been? Could they?

He did not know, could not guess. And what was the point of speculating about it anyway? The world was what the world was. The now was what they had.

He rode on, his legs pumping the pedals up and down, a thin sheen of sweat beading up on his forehead from the late May heat of California's central valley. He passed the front entrance of Wood Oak High School, where the marquee in front of the administration building read: SUPPORT OUR TROOPS, BUY STUDENT WAR BONDS!! From there he turned off the main road and into a residential neighborhood full of twenty-year-old tract houses. An American flag hung from nearly every roof and yellow ribbons adorned nearly every tree. Children played with toys on front lawns and older kids played basketball or soldier games in the streets. Nearly all of them, boys and girls alike, were dressed in the camouflage-patterned clothes that were all of the rage. Conspicuously absent from the landscape were vehicles parked in driveways or men between the ages of eighteen and thirty-five.

His first delivery of the day was to Margaret Blancher, an eighty-year-old diabetic on social security. She lived by herself in a small three-bedroom house tucked away in a cul-de-sac. Mark, as well as most of the other delivery people, had been to her house many times before. She was a pleasantly feisty old lady who liked to chatter on about her garden and her grandson who had qualified for the college draft deferment but who had elected to go ahead and volunteer for the army anyway. He was currently serving as an infantryman at the front. Mrs. Blancher was fiercely proud of him and spent the majority of her days watching news coverage of the war.

"Good afternoon, young man," she told Mark as she answered the door for him. "My goodness, don't you look hot?"

"Yes ma'am," he said dutifully, picking up her two bags of groceries and hauling them into her tidy house. He followed her to the kitchen where he put them on the counter by the sink.

"Have you heard about those nasty chinks and their offensive?" she asked him as he pulled the Saving Center PC from his belt.

"Yes ma'am, I did," he told her. And he had. The offensive had been the talk of the school during the first half of the day. For a while there the news had not been encouraging and it had been feared that a break-through was imminent. If they managed to break through, how long would it be before they fell upon California, upon Roseville? Wouldn't the Sacramento area, with its major road junctions and its huge railhead be a primary objective for General Li Chan's troops? But by the second half of the day, the news that the lines were holding had filtered through and the talk had turned back to normal high school matters like girls and sex and drugs and alcohol.

"We held those dirty buggers back," she said with satisfaction, her hand actually clenching into a fist of victory. "I certainly hope we can start pushing them back where they came from now."

"Me too," Mark said absently, reading the screen on the PC. "That'll be $45.50 for this one, Mrs. Blancher."

She clucked a little at that. "My goodness how the price of groceries has gone up these last few years. Why I remember when I could get four bags of groceries for less than twenty dollars. And that was with fresh vegetables too, not those horrible jarred ones. Do you remember fresh vegetables?"

"I sure do," he said. "Corn on the cob was my favorite. My mom used to boil up a bunch whenever she made beef for dinner."

"Oh, that sounds just heavenly," she said nostalgically, picking up a large purse from beneath her telephone. "Those rotten chinks. Darn them for taking away our corn on the cob."

"I agree," Mark said with a smile.

She dug around in her purse for a moment and finally came out with a roll of bills. Mark internally sighed as he saw this. Many of the elderly still insisted upon using cash for their transactions, which created a royal pain in the ass for everyone involved. Why the hell couldn't they get with the times and use a PC or a debit card like everyone else?

"Here you go," she said, handing him a fifty-dollar bill. "The leftover is for you."

"Why thank you, ma'am," he said graciously, even though it was almost more trouble than it was worth to actually go down to the bank and deposit the $4.50 into his account.

Mrs. Blancher of course wanted him to stay for a glass of iced tea and a little conversation but he pleaded bicycle security and a tight schedule. With a few more comments about those rotten chinks and how she hoped her grandson was safe fighting them, he made his escape, mounting his bike once more and heading off deeper into the suburban neighborhood.

Diane Grommet was his next delivery. She was a thirty-year old widow who survived on the meager offerings of a military death pension. Her husband had been a fairly successful independent truck driver before the war. Once the supply of diesel fuel that was needed to work his trade had dried up he had entered a government lottery that had been held to pick those lucky few who would be allowed to continue delivering needed stocks around the country. He had lost that particular lottery—for some suspiciously bizarre reason it had been the employees of corporate trucking companies who were mostly picked—and had been forced to sell his truck for less than a tenth of what he had paid for it. Left with no other option he had joined the army and been assigned to the transportation division driving a supply truck. Eight weeks later he was killed in British Columbia when Chinese planes attacked the convoy he was a part of.

She was sitting on her porch swing when he wheeled up, sipping from a glass of ice water and fanning herself with a magazine. Dressed in a pair of blue jean shorts and a half shirt, her blonde hair tied into a ponytail, she looked at him nervously as he came to a stop before her. Mark was careful to keep an innocent expression upon his face. Diane, as she insisted he call her, was nearly ready to try to "seduce" him and he didn't want to screw it up. Though Darren preferred the direct approach, actually flirting with his conquests to speed up the process, Mark had always been on the hesitant side and let his target be the one to make the first move. He had gotten pretty good at guessing when that move was going to be made. Diane had already exhibited two of the three signs he looked for. She had asked him about his girlfriends on the previous visit and she was tipping much more than was customary for the service he provided. The third sign, which he was expecting very soon, was explaining how lonely she had been since her husband's death. That usually came right before the invitation to come over for dinner.

"Hi, Mark," she said softly, her eyes flitting back and forth as he dismounted. "I'm glad to see you this early. I was wondering if you'd bring me my groceries in time for me to start tonight's dinner."

"You were second on my list today," he told her gallantly. "They had you a little further up but I shifted it around a little to make sure you were early in the route." This was, of course, a lie. One did not mess with the boss's precious delivery schedule. But she had no way of knowing this and the impression that she was receiving special treatment was certainly helpful to his cause.

"You're such a dear," she said, offering him her smile. "I hope you don't mind my asking for you by name, but you're so polite, not like some of those other people."

"I don't mind at all," he said, glancing at her two boys, who were playing with a collection of wooden military models on the grass, completely oblivious to his presence. They were four and six years old and dressed in identical cammie overalls. The game they were playing with their tanks and APCs was something they called "kill the chinks".

"Well," she said, standing up and setting her glass down on a small table, "shall we get them inside?"

"I guess we should," he said, reaching down and grabbing two of the bags.

She grabbed the other two and led the way into the neat, two-story house. Her kitchen was sparkling clean, almost medically sterile, and the scent was of some citrus-based cleaning product. A bowl of tomatoes and onions from her victory garden sat on the table. He set the bags down on the counter and she put hers down next to them. Their hands briefly touched as they performed this motion. Diane did not seem too eager to pull hers away.

"Can I get you something to drink?" she asked him as she pulled a few jars from the first bag and carried them to the refrigerator.

Normally his policy was to turn down such offers, which nearly every customer made (and the vast majority of the customers, even the single mothers, were not trying to seduce him). He had his own bottle of ice water strapped to his bicycle and time was somewhat of a factor in the bicycle delivery business. However, with likely prospects such as Diane, he always accepted, whether he was thirsty or not. It was over such drinks that the important conversations, the ones that got him laid, took place. "Ice water would be nice," he said casually.

"One ice water, coming up," she said, abandoning the groceries for the moment and reaching into a cupboard above the sink. She withdrew a glass and carried it over to the refrigerator, which had an ice and water dispenser in the door. She dispensed some of both and handed the glass to Mark.

"Thank you," he said softly, putting a tone of shyness into his voice. "It's very hot out today."

"Yes, it is, isn't it?" she said, putting a hand to his forehead and wiping at the perspiration that had gathered there. "You're all sweaty. I don't know how you young men can hold up, hauling groceries around for us old women in this heat."

He enjoyed the touch of her soft hand against his forehead, and knew she was enjoying the contact as well. Yes, she was well on her way to making her move. He wondered how she would be in bed when she finally "enticed" him to it. He was starting to learn that the women's performance during coitus was directly linked to his own performance. When he was good, the woman tended to be good as well. He had now gained enough experience with the previous six war widows he had slept with to consider himself a decent lay. Those women had taught him much.

"You're not an old lady," he told her. "You can't be more than twenty-five, right?"

She laughed a little, giving his hair a playful tug. It was obvious she had enjoyed his compliment immensely. "You're a sweetheart," she said. "But you're not fooling me. I'm pretty sure I told you a few deliveries ago that I was thirty, didn't I?"

"I don't remember," he lied, manufacturing an embarrassed smile.

"Oh, you," she said, finally pulling her hand away. "Anyway, I thank you for saying that to me, even if it is a fib." She sighed a little. "It's so nice to have adult conversation once in while."

"Yeah?" he asked, sipping from his water.

"Oh yes," she said, grabbing a few more groceries from a bag and carrying them over to the cupboard. "I love my boys to death but sometimes I just feel like I'm going crazy in here, talking about nothing but television shows and Internet games and military toys." She shook her head a little. "I guess I just miss my husband a lot."

Bingo! Mark thought, suppressing a smile. There was sign number three, the final sign. "It must be rough," he said, quiet sympathy in his voice.

"I know it's been more than a year," she said, "and I should be over it by now. For the most part I am. But it's hard not having a man around the house sometimes. I guess you wouldn't understand."

"Well," he said, maintaining the sympathetic tone, "maybe not the man part. But I know what its like to lose someone to the war. My mom was a teacher at Thomas Jefferson School and ... well ... you know what happened there."

Her face immediately turned to syrupy sympathy. She did indeed know what happened there. Everyone in the Sacramento region knew what had happened there. "Oh, you poor dear," she said. "I'm sorry. I didn't know."

He shrugged a little, keeping his eyes cast downward, as if he were barely restraining tears. "Like you said, I'm mostly over it. You know when I miss her the most though?"

"When's that?" she asked.

"Dinnertime," he said. "My mom was the best cook. She used to make the best food, every night, even when she had lots of papers to correct from school. Even after the war started and we couldn't get vegetables or fresh meat anymore, she could still whip up some really static stuff. My dad tries to cook sometimes, but it's not even close. Mostly we just eat pizza and stuff we can put together out of jars."

He could see that his speech, which he had given to three other women to that point, was having the effect he intended. Diane's pretty face was puckered into an expression of pity and motherliness. "Well you know," she said softly, "I'm probably not up to your mother's standards, but I'm not too bad of a cook myself."

"I'm sure you're not," he said, as if he had no idea what she was hinting at.

"So maybe..." she said, blushing a little, " uh ... well, maybe you'd like to come over and let me make dinner for you some night."

Score! Mark's mind screamed triumphantly. It was now all over but the copulation. And he would get a free meal out of it as well. "Oh, I couldn't do that," he said, giving the token I-don't-want-to-impose-upon-you refusal. "Not with what groceries cost these days."

She slapped playfully at his shoulder. "Now don't you go worrying what groceries cost these days," she told him. "It would be a pleasure to cook for a man for once. It's been so long since I've been able to do that. I simply insist that you come over and let me feed you."

"Well..." he said, as if on unsure ground, "if you're really sure that..."

"I'm really sure," she insisted. "How does tomorrow night sound?"

"It sounds good," he told her, letting the shy smile come back to his face. "What time?"

"How about seven o'clock? I'll make you my famous burgundy beef stroganoff. My husband used to love it." And then, almost as an afterthought. "The boys love it too."

"That sounds very good, Diane," he replied. "I'll be here then."

"I'll be looking forward to it," she said, entirely truthfully, and for more reason than one.

-------

Once the Chinese began massing on the Alaskan-Canadian border, it finally came home to the Americans that they were really at war and that they were really in significant danger. This was not a foreign border skirmish, this was not a dispute over a few oil fields in the Middle East, this was not a small, ineffective country that needed to be bombed into submission for daring to threaten American business interests. This was the real thing, the worst nightmare of a nation come true. The Chinese were intending to invade the continental United States! And what was more, it looked like they just might be able to do it.

The American and Canadian armies immediately began shifting their equipment northward in anticipation of the coming invasion of Canada. The amount of tanks, aircraft, and other military equipment available at the time was recognized as being inadequate for the task of stopping the huge army that was building. The American factories were moving frantically to try to switch over to wartime production in order to produce the weapons needed to fight. Automobile factories in Detroit, Los Angeles, and other cities stopped producing cars and began gearing up to produce tanks and armored personnel carriers and artillery weapons and rocket launchers. The aircraft factories in Seattle and Los Angeles stopped making civilian airliners and began gearing up to make F-47s and F-22s and B1s and A-21s. The armed forces themselves quickly lobbied successfully for the reinstatement of the draft and began trying to sort through and train the hundreds of thousands of draftees and volunteers that were inducted. But all of this required time and it was recognized that the Chinese were not going to allow them much of that most precious commodity.



That was when the Western Hemisphere Military Alliance was formed. The United States pleaded for help from the very countries it had always looked down upon and derided as second class throughout its history: The Latin American nations. And the Latin Americans responded to the request with enthusiasm, giving all needed assistance. This was not due to any sense of friendliness towards the arrogant, bullying nation to their north, but rather a sense of self-protection. They knew if the United States fell to the Chinese, it would not be long before those tanks began to roll southward. The Mexicans, who would be the next to fall, were the first to send aid. They sent nearly every piece of armor and every soldier they had across the border into the United States. The bulk of the Central American and South American countries, some of which were bitter enemies of the US and each other, quickly followed suit. The biggest contributors were Brazil and Venezuela, each of whom possessed fairly modern armor and aircraft and, more importantly, large petroleum reserves with which to power the armor and aircraft.

The question now became where to make a stand against the invading Chinese. The WestHem forces were woefully outnumbered by the Chinese in all aspects of warfare: men, munitions, armor, artillery, and aircraft. The WestHems were also vastly inferior as far as command and control structure went. The forces assembling to repel the invasion were piecemeal groups of regular army, National Guard forces, and units from Latin American countries, most of whose soldiers did not even speak English. There was no time to try to figure out the best method of mixing these groups together. Instead, they were simply formed into two large armies with a shaky and often changing chain of command.

The majority of the generals and government military experts felt that the Chinese plan was to smash into Canada, moving east along the Arctic Circle and then to turn south and begin moving towards the heartland of the United States. They would have wide open plains in which to operate in and they could fall upon the cities of Detroit, Chicago, and Milwaukee in the Great Lakes region before splitting the country in two by smashing through the Great Plains. This seemed a logical course of warfare. The impact of such an invasion would be devastating upon the populace, destroying morale, disrupting transportation, and denying the US of many of its essential cities. The Great Plains invasion was the way for the Chinese to occupy the greatest amount of American soil in the shortest amount of time. It would also be the hardest for the American forces to counter. These generals and experts wanted to move the majority of the hastily assembling WestHem forces into defensive positions around the Great Lakes and send the rest into Canada to start assisting the Canadian Army.

But a much smaller group of military experts disagreed with this reasoning. While the Great Plains invasion would indeed be easy to accomplish and would indeed send American morale into turmoil, what, they asked, would be the real point of it? The Great Plains would be easy to capture but difficult and expensive to hold. The Chinese supply line would stretch for thousands of miles and would be vulnerable along nearly its entire length to counter-attack and severance. Occupation of the entire United States would take years, maybe a decade if it were attempted in this manner. Did that really go along with what the Asian Powers had done so far?



They thought not. They pointed out that every major attack that the Asian Powers had initiated had been for a specific goal. And what, in almost every instance, had that specific goal been? Oil. They had invaded Russian Siberia in which a great wealth of only recently exploited petroleum resources was located. They had invaded the Middle East, in which the world's greatest supply of petroleum was located. They had invaded Alaska, the primary oil supply for the United States. In Europe, where no significant petroleum was available, they had not invaded. They had simply dug in to prevent the Europeans from re-taking the conquered territory. There was a method, a frightfully clever method to their madness, these military experts argued. The Asian Powers were not intending to invade the entire United States or the entire world. They were only going to invade the areas in which oil was located. If they could deprive the WestHem and the EastHem forces of oil, they would not have to forcibly invade. All of the tanks, ships, and airplanes of their enemies would be nothing more than useless toys. The world would be theirs by default.



And they were so close to achieving that goal already! Already they had deprived both EastHem and WestHem of three-quarters of their former petroleum. This had resulted in unheard of rationing and had caused a virtual shutdown of all personal travel. The economies of the WestHem and EastHem countries were reeling as they tried to deal with getting people to work each day and to keep their populace fed without the use of gasoline or diesel fuel. Currently, California, Texas, Oklahoma, and South Dakota were supplying the majority of the domestic oil to fight the war. Mexico, Brazil, and Venezuela were supplying the majority of the foreign oil. This supply, with severe rationing, was perhaps enough to carry on. Perhaps. But if they lost any more oil fields...

Using a detailed relief map of the North American continent, these military experts advanced the opinion that the best way for the Chinese to end the war quickly was not to attack the Great Plains but to drive directly south from Alaska. By driving south, keeping to the coast, they would have a powerful spearhead that could push aside nearly everything in its path. Their flanks and their supply line would be protected by the Pacific Ocean on the west and by the towering mountain ranges that stretched from the Arctic Circle to central Mexico on the east. They could push down the Al-Can highway corridor of Canada and enter the United States north of Seattle. They could then drive down the Interstate 5 corridor, taking the major cities of Seattle and Portland on their way to California's Great Central Valley. From there, the San Francisco Bay Area and the Central Valley itself would be easily occupied. The oil fields of southern California would only be a two-day march from there. Once those were secured, a hook to the east would quickly take them through the open deserts of the southwest to Texas and Oklahoma. Or they could continue their drive to the south into Mexico, taking the oil fields there. Either way, the war would effectively be over at that point. Unable to run their war machines, there would be nothing left to do but surrender.

This group of military experts would be very much in the minority among their colleagues at the onset. But they managed to convince the people who made the real decisions that their theory was correct. The greatest gamble of all time was initiated. Instead of ordering the rag-tag WestHem armies to head for the Midwest and the Great Lakes region, they were ordered instead to head northwest, towards Western Canada.

Had the Chinese done as the majority predicted and headed east from Alaska and then south towards the American heartland, they would have met almost no opposition. But they didn't. Just as predicted they broke out of Alaska directly south, pushing aside the vastly outnumbered Canadian army with ease and driving towards the west coast of the continental United States at a rate of more than sixty kilometers a day.



-------

As a member of the United States government that was involved in what was termed: "critical wartime employment," Jeff Whiting, Mark's father, rated a Class A gasoline ration card which allowed him to purchase up to twenty gallons per month. This was a privilege usually granted to only the wealthy and those in power. Jeff fit into neither of these categories. In days gone by, before the war, he had been a simple customs agent assigned to Sacramento International Airport and tasked with checking the baggage of travelers entering the United States from Canada. He used to joke that he was the only thing standing between civility and the utter chaos that would erupt if the smuggling of Canadian goods were allowed to go unchecked.

Jeff Whiting did not joke much these days. The death of his wife a year before had taken the sense of humor right out of him. Nor did he inspect Canadian baggage at the airport anymore. There were no more Canadian travelers to the United States; there was no more personal air travel at all anymore. The days when you could simply hop aboard an airliner and travel to a distant city in a matter of hours had ended. If you were on an airliner these days, you were either in the war or on the way to it. Jeff, like many of the customs officers nationwide, had been absorbed into the FBI and given a new task by his government; a task he found decidedly distasteful but that his president and his congress found necessary during these troubled times.

What Jeff Whiting and most of the other former United States customs agents were doing these days was monitoring. What they were monitoring were US citizens of Asian descent. They did not monitor Chinese or Japanese nationals. People fitting that description had already been rounded up and imprisoned by the FBI. It was American citizens, some of whom were of the fourth and fifth generation in the United States, who were being watched for signs of collaboration with the enemy. It had been made legal by the US Congress, the US Senate, the US President, and the US Supreme Court in the Emergency War Powers Act of 2013 for government agents to ply through the computer and Internet records of "American Citizens of Asian descent" in search of "suspicious activities or transactions". Not even the ACLU had opposed the measure, which had been proposed, written, and passed nearly unanimously in the first three months of the war. The gist of the public opinion towards it seemed to be: "If they don't have anything to hide, then they shouldn't mind us looking them over."

That was what Jeff Whiting spent his days doing: going through lists of Asian citizens in the Northern California region and checking, by means of his home computer terminal, into the most private aspects of their lives. He poured through their checking and savings account records, through their grocery and personal purchases, through their Internet usage accounts and email. Mark knew that his father, as a life-long advocate of personal privacy laws, felt soiled doing such things, felt as if he were being asked to sacrifice his soul in order to support his family. If not for the fact that they desperately needed the money in order to survive, in order to stay one step ahead of bankruptcy, he would have quit in disgust long ago.

As a reward for performing this distasteful but supposedly necessary task, the government had given Jeff and his colleagues the coveted Class A ration card. It was an almost meaningless gesture. Jeff did not have a need to commute to work. He did most of his tasks from the computer terminal in his den. When he did need to go out and contact one of his "charges" as they were called, he had access to a government vehicle. Besides, at $130 a gallon, Jeff, on his middle-class salary, could hardly afford to buy more than a standard ration card would have allowed him anyway.

When Mark came into the house at 6:30 that evening, his father had just finished up his work for the day and was relaxing on the couch with a bottle of beer. The elder Whiting had been out to make contact with a charge today and was still dressed in his going-out clothes: a pair of slacks and a sports-coat that was long and bulky enough to hide the holstered 9mm pistol he wore. His hair, which was prematurely graying, was neatly styled but his face was drawn and pale, the way it had been for the last year. It was a face that made him look more than ten years older than the forty-five he actually was. Mark figured he must have just returned from wherever he had gone since the sport coat and the gun were still attached to his body. But he knew better than to ask any questions about it. His father did not enjoy talking about his work.

"How's it advancin', Dad?" he asked, unshouldering his school backpack and hanging it on a hook near the door.

"I'm fine," he answered mechanically, taking a sip out of his beer. Since the death of his wife, Jeff had been drinking a lot of beer. He was not a raving drunk by any means, but he did swill down four or five bottles a night after work. Mark, though he missed his mom just as much as his father did, worried about the depression the man seemed to be engulfed in. He had found himself hoping lately that his father would begin dating again. But he had not been out to so much as a party since that awful day when the news came to them. "I picked up a pizza on the way home," he told his son. "I hope you don't mind having it again but I really didn't feel like cooking tonight."

"That's static, Dad," Mark answered politely, although in truth he was actually quite tired of pizza. They had it at least three times a week, always from the same establishment, always picked up by his father at the end of the workday whether he had gone out or not. "I'll go grab some. You having any?"

"Not just yet," he said. "But I could use another beer if you're going that way."

"Sure, Dad," he said, suppressing a worried look. Two beers before he even changed out of his clothes? What was up with that?

Putting these thoughts aside, he walked into the kitchen. Though the house had been built back in the early nineties, the kitchen had since been remodeled and equipped with more modern appliances. Currently it was sparkling clean except for the grease-stained pizza box sitting on the tile kitchen island. He pulled a plate out and helped himself to two large pieces of the cheese and soy meat concoction. He then opened the refrigerator and pulled out a soda and a beer, both in bottles of course. When he returned and handed the icy bottle of Coors to his father, Jeff thanked him absently and then picked up the remote control. He flipped it to the local channel just as the opening theme of the nightly news came on.

"You heard about the new offensive?" Mark asked him, grabbing a seat on the couch and setting down his plate.

"Who hasn't heard about it?" Jeff replied, opening his fresh beer. "It's all anyone has been talking about all day." He grimaced a little. "I hear it's been pretty costly."

"But we're holding them," Mark put in enthusiastically. "Our guys held those chink fuckers back."

"Yeah," Jeff said, giving his son a strange, worrisome look. "We're holding them all right. And don't say 'chink'. You know I don't like that word."

"Sorry, Dad," he said, thinking that his father was perhaps the only citizen of the Western Hemisphere who took offense to that term, the only citizen who wasn't a chink anyway. Of course Mark said nothing about this. He simply picked up his pizza and took a bite, chewing slowly as the commercials ended and the news came on.

Though it was a local newscast, the spring offensive by the Chinese was the top story.

"Good evening," the stern-looking, solemn-voiced newscaster greeted from behind his podium. "On the domestic front today, the Chinese forces in the occupied area launched a broad offensive at the Western Hemisphere forces entrenched against them. The attack began in the pre-dawn hours with heavy air and artillery attacks all along the Idaho and Oregon fronts. At dawn, Chinese tanks and infantry carriers began to move against our troops in numbers not seen since the Battle of Viola. Casualties were regretfully high and our troops were forced to withdraw several kilometers in a few locations but, as of 6:00 PM, mountain time, the WestHem lines were holding strong and it appears that the worst of the initial enemy thrust has been halted. At this time there is still heavy fighting occurring at several points along the front, particularly artillery and tank battles, but our best information is that there is no immediate danger of a break-through. For more on this we have Annie Durant, our Channel 7 war correspondent, near the scene of the heaviest fighting today. We'll now go live to her. Annie?"

The scene switched from the news desk to a view of an attractive blonde newscaster standing outside in the fading daylight. Her hair was pulled back in a ponytail and her clothing was the green and brown summer camouflage uniform the soldiers wore. There was, of course, no earthly reason for her to have to camouflage herself. She was reporting from miles behind the lines and far from any danger that being camouflaged would protect her from, but television news, just as it had been before the war, was mostly about putting on a good show. She was standing on a small rise overlooking a green valley that was out of focus in the camera. Walking to and fro behind her, also slightly out of focus, were armed American soldiers, most in packs and carrying M-16 rifles slung over their shoulders.

"Good evening," Annie said as scripting on the screen identified her by name and proclaimed that the footage was LIVE. In the background the clatter of tracked vehicles rolling across the ground and the rhythmic thumping of nearby artillery weapons could be plainly heard. "This is Annie Durant and I'm reporting from one of the staging areas of the 103rd Armored Cavalry Division just outside of Caldwell, Idaho on the western edge of the active American front. The 103rd is responsible for a large section of this front and today they were hit very hard as Chinese forces attempted to break through the lines to the open desert beyond. This was but one section of the front that was attacked at dawn today in what seems a renewed major offensive by the Chinese Army. I spoke earlier to Lieutenant Colonel Ralph Hennesy, the public information officer for the 103rd, and he told me that after a massive air and artillery attack before sunrise this morning, Chinese tanks in large numbers began to roll on their positions. They were supported by attack helicopters and infantry troops with shoulder-fired anti-tank weapons. The Chinese were engaged by our own tanks and by entrenched infantry troops with AT-9 anti-tank weapons. As you are aware from previous major battles, these laser guided, shoulder-launched missiles in conjunction with our own tanks, were largely responsible for stopping the Chinese in place and preventing the breakthroughs both in Portland at the Columbia River and here on the currently active front. It seems these AT-9 crews have saved the day again. Let me show you what the battle area looks like at this moment."

Her cameraman panned off of her and into the valley beyond, zooming closely. Though the floor of the valley was some miles away, and though it was bathed in shadow due to the rapidly encroaching twilight, a number of bright orange sparks of light could be seen littering the interior. A haze of black smoke was rising from these points and spreading into the sky above.

"That low ground down there," Annie Durant's voice explained, "was the main battle area during the day. Our forces hold this side of the valley and the Chinese forces hold the other. Behind us, the apparent objective of the Chinese, is a strategic road junction in the small town of Mansing that has been in WestHem hands since the lines stabilized. Now all of those rolling hills you see on our side are filled with entrenched AT-9 crews and protective infantry. When the Chinese armor began to pour into that valley in an attempt to close on the WestHem positions, those crews opened up on them and destroyed many of their tanks before they could engage our own tanks. Though the crews themselves took a fierce pounding from Chinese artillery and air attacks, including, I'm told, the use of napalm, they held firm, not abandoning their positions until the loss of them became inevitable. By the time the main tank battle took place early this afternoon, the Chinese armored forces had already suffered heavy casualties and were unable to press their advantage when WestHem units were forced to pull back. Those sparks of light you see down there are Chinese tanks and APC's that are still burning from the last engagement. For every burning piece of Chinese armor that you see, there are at least five that have already burned themselves out. Colonel Hennesy estimated that the 103rd alone destroyed more than five hundred tanks and more than three hundred infantry carriers today. The 103rd was forced to withdraw two kilometers to the rear in order to avoid being overrun, but it was an orderly, fighting withdrawal to pre-planned positions and the Chinese were not able to insert any forces into their rear."

"How about friendly casualties?" the newscaster back in the studio asked her. "Reports are that they were heavy."

The cameraman cut back to Annie, whose face was looking properly sad for the occasion. "Unfortunately," she said, "casualties are an inevitable part of repelling an attack of this nature and they were somewhat high. According to Colonel Hennesy, the latest figures, theater-wide for friendly casualties, including air crews, is approximately five thousand killed and four thousand wounded."

"Jesus," Jeff Whiting proclaimed, staring at the screen and shaking his head.

"Dad?" Mark asked, looking at the troubled face of his father. "Are you okay?"

"Five thousand people killed," Jeff said softly. "Just on our side. And how many Chinese? Five times that many?"

"Dad," Mark said carefully, as if he were speaking to a madman, "they invaded our country. They're trying to take over the rest of it. What else can we do? We have to fight them and make them leave, don't we?"

"Yeah," he said, looking at his son with an expression of fear in his eyes. "I guess we do. I guess we do."

The newscast covered the spring offensive for the better part of ten minutes. Video clips and live shots were shown of a field hospital where wounded American, Mexican, Venezuelan, and Brazilian soldiers were stacked up outside in staggering numbers. They lay on litters and blankets on the ground, their breath rising into the chilly air. Weary looking nurses and doctors could be seen filtering through them while in the background the constant clatter of helicopter blades could be heard delivering more. They showed a few close-ups of soldiers who had relatively minor wounds. One had a bloody bandage wrapped around his forehead and arm; another was lying with a trauma dressing on his upper thigh. They did not show close-ups of the burn victims, those who had been inside the tanks when they had been struck by high-explosive rounds from Chinese tanks or by high-explosive warheads from anti-tank missiles. The media had done that a few times in the past and the public reaction had been outrage. The public did not want to see what was happening to its young men on the battlefield. Nor did they show a close-up of anyone who was dead or who even looked like they were going to die. In the past they had done such things and shocked mothers or wives, watching the television back home, had received the first news that their loved ones had been killed in this manner. It was a live and learn environment in the television war coverage business, just like in any other.

After the thread of the spring offensive was run out, the newscaster switched to more local issues. "An air-raid by a flight of Chinese F-15 Strike Eagles attempted to bomb Sacramento Executive Airport early this morning at about 3:30 AM. Executive Airport, as you know, is the base for the 314th Air Defense Wing of the California Air Guard. It is unknown just how many aircraft were in the strike but three were shot down by airport defenses and one was shot down during its egress by an F-16 of the Air Guard that had been on combat air patrol. Damage to the base was minimal as most of the anti-runway bombs that were employed landed harmlessly in the fields beside the runways. Of the planes that were shot down by the air defenses, two of them did unfortunately land in civilian areas surrounding the airport, destroying two houses in separate neighborhoods and damaging five others. Fifteen people were killed and eighteen were wounded from the crashing planes. There were six people injured at the airport from the bombing itself. Our military analysts advise that this attack on the runways of the air defense base is undoubtedly the precursor to a larger air attack that will possibly take place tonight or early this morning. So keep your ears open and be sure to head for your designated shelter when you hear the air raid sirens."

That was it for the story. There was no video, no further commentary. The newscaster simply switched to the next subject: the rounding up of draft dodgers in Sacramento County by a FBI task force.

"Isn't that amazing?" Jeff Whiting asked his son bitterly as he clicked off the television in disgust. "Two planes crash into the city, tearing up a neighborhood and killing fifteen people, and all it rates is ten seconds on the evening news."

"Are you sure you're gonna be all right, Dad?" Mark asked again. His father seemed particularly morose on this day. Was it the story about the planes crashing? Maybe. He could understand why such a thing would upset his father. After all, that was how his wife, Mark's mother, had died a little more than a year ago. That plane crash had certainly rated more than ten seconds on the news. No matter how callused the public had become to planes being shot out of the sky and crashing into their city, when a crippled Chinese A-6 Intruder loaded with two thousand pound bombs smashed into an elementary school, it was still big news.

The A-6 had been part of a flight of two that had been tasked with hitting the railroad bridge that crossed the American River near downtown Sacramento. Destroying this bridge would have impeded the flow of military supplies to the front. The Chinese pilots had taken a somewhat unconventional approach to their target by attacking during the daylight hours and by making their final run at the bridge from the east, which forced them to fly over the bulk of the metropolitan area. As they had gone screaming over the suburbs of Orangevale and Rancho Cordova at less than two hundred feet above the rooftops, a battery of infra-red guided 23mm anti-aircraft guns atop of the Sheraton Hotel had locked on just long enough to unleash thirty or so rounds at them. Two of these rounds had punched through the thin side of the cockpit of the lead plane, killing the pilot and sending the low-flying aircraft quickly to the ground where it slammed into Thomas Jefferson Elementary School at five hundred miles per hour. The school staff had been in the process of evacuating the students to the air-raid shelter in response to the siren that had just gone off. When the plane struck, its two bombs, which had just been armed in preparation for the attack, had exploded, leveling the school and killing more than two hundred children and twenty-eight teachers, including the beloved Mrs. Whiting who taught third grade.

"I'm all right, Mark," Jeff responded, offering a weak smile. "I just have a hard time adjusting sometimes to how much things have changed in the world the last few years." He took a sip of his beer, swallowing slowly, with an audible gulp. "Nostalgia I guess."

"Nostalgia?"

He nodded. "Nostalgia. To you, it probably seems like we've always been at war, doesn't it? I mean, you were only sixteen when this all started and I'm sure you remember what it was like to be at peace, but you're coming of age in this mess now. You're growing up surrounded by so much death and destruction that I'm afraid you'll think that's the way things are supposed to be."

"I'm surviving, Dad," Mark said, not quite grasping what his father was driving at. "Really, I'll be okay."

"Will you?" he asked. "You're still dead set on joining that buddy program with your friend Darren, aren't you?"

Mark sighed, not wanting to have this old argument again. "Dad," he said, "it's my duty to serve our country. I'm not gonna go low-pro and I don't want you to get your friends in the selective service to get me a non-hazardous posting. If they want to send me to the line, then I'll go to the line."

"It's not a question of if they want to send you to the line," Jeff told him. "You know as well as I do that your brother virtually guarantees you'll get hazardous posting."

Mark did know this. His older brother Matthew had just graduated from college with a degree in computer programming when the war had broken out. Though the army had almost immediately drafted him, his newly acquired skills had secured him an assignment in Texas where he worked on software for M2A battle tanks. Texas, which was far from the line, was considered a non-hazardous posting. Since Mark's only male sibling had been placed in non-hazardous, that made Mark a prime candidate for hazardous posting under current selective service rules. "Dad," he said seriously, with all the emotion that late adolescence could impart upon a person. "I want to go to the line. I want to help push those chinks back. Don't you understand that? I'm not a pussy."

"And what if you die at the line?" Jeff asked him. "I've already lost my wife to this war. I don't want to lose one of my sons as well."

"Hopefully I'll be smart enough to stay alive," he replied with a shrug. "Besides, maybe the war will be over by the time I get trained up and ready for action. The news says our own summer offensive is probably going to take back Spokane. If we get Spokane it's only a short hop to Seattle. If we take Seattle back, we'll push 'em out in no time."

"Do you really believe that, Mark?" his father asked pointedly. "I know you're only a kid, but surely you're smarter than that, aren't you?"

Slowly he nodded. "I guess I am," he said. And it was true. The Chinese forces were not going to be going anywhere anytime soon, nor were the Indian forces that were dug in in the Middle East and Europe.

"Just do me a favor," Jeff said, "and think about what you're doing before you leap. I've stopped asking my friends to pull strings for you at your request. I didn't like doing it, but you're eighteen now and you're an adult and I guess I have to honor your wishes, whether I like them or not."

"And I appreciate that," Mark said.

"But you need to realize that just because you're an adult legally, it doesn't mean you have the wisdom to make such an important decision well. Don't go rushing to the front just because your friends and the media and all of those horrible propaganda television shows you watch tell you that it's the right thing to do. The front is a horrible place to be, someplace where you can die. I know they make it sound like dying for your country is a great thing to do, but try to remember that you'll still be dead and that, as far as we know, you only have one life. I know your college deferment didn't work out."

"I tried, Dad," he said tiredly, hoping they weren't going to go into that subject again. Always a good student, with a keen interest in math and engineering skills, Mark's last two semester grades had been just low enough to guarantee he wouldn't make the coveted 3.8 GPA at graduation. Mark knew his father suspected he had deliberately thrown those grades so that he wouldn't qualify for the deferment and therefore have college as an option.

"I'm sure you did," Jeff said, his tone conveying the fact that he had his doubts. "But my point is that college is not the only option open to you. You can join the navy instead of the army. The navy is a little safer and there's a good chance they may put your engineering skills to task and give you a shore assignment in San Diego or Hawaii."

This again was an old argument and one that didn't have much power to sway Mark from the path he was heading down. Didn't deliberately attempting to avoid combat duty during a time when his country had been invaded by communist aggressors smack of cowardice? Wasn't it pussy to try to get a rear area assignment? Darren Caswell surely thought it did. Darren thought the whole idea of college deferment and naval shore assignments was the most pussy thing he had ever heard of.

"I just don't understand your old man," Darren would tell him when the subject came up. "I mean, those fuckin' chinks killed your mom, sarge! His wife! You'd think he'd be proud to have you go fight those slant-eyed motherfuckers! You'd think he'd be out there fightin' them himself."

"You would think," would be all Mark would reply during such times.

Darren's older brother, Jason, had joined the navy in 2011, two years before the fighting began. He had been an enlisted sailor aboard a fast frigate of the Pacific Fleet on January 1, 2013. His ship, an anti-submarine vessel, had been one of the escorts off of Japan on that fateful day. Like all of the other ships of the task force, it had sailed towards the Yellow Sea to show those Chinese that the Americans were not going to stand for an attack on Russia. His frigate had been struck by two Kingfish missiles during the first raid by the Chinese F-111s and had exploded and sank in less than five minutes, killing every person aboard. Jason Caswell had been given the dubious honor of being among the first American casualties of World War III.

The death of his brother had made Darren particularly receptive to the anti-Asian attitude and mentality that had swept through the nation like wildfire since the war started. Only five years before, out of control political correctness had been the driving force in the national attitude. Political correctness had become such a national obsession that it had actually managed to override the first amendment to the US constitution. Less than six months before the Asian Powers attack, congress had passed a federal law making it illegal to say any sort of racially or sexually offensive term in public. The law had included a list of more than one hundred terms such as: nigger, spic, cunt, faggot, dyke, and many others that were specifically outlawed. It also included a rider for any future terms along those lines that public sentiment decided were offensive. The penalty for violating this federal law was up to a year in federal prison for each offense. Now, however, the word "chink", which had been on the list of forbidden terms, could be heard every time a television was turned on. It was used in sit-coms, dramatic productions, even commercials; particularly those for armed forces enlistment and war bonds. This anti-Asian national view, fueled by the media and taking advantage of the human race's naturally occurring prejudices, was particularly fierce among the 13-18 population. In those who had lost family members to the fighting, it was almost an obsession. Darren simply could not wait until the day he graduated so he could enlist and go to the front and begin living his dream of killing as many Chinese as humanly possible. His fantasy job in the military was to be a squad machine gunner. "Imagine," he would say dreamily, his voice taking on the tones that other males utilized when discussing how they'd like to fuck the head cheerleader, "being able to mow down a row of chinks like a fuckin' lawnmower. Being able to walk up to their trenches and kill every one of them."

This fantasy was something that Mark had found strongly contagious and he had enthusiastically embraced it. After all, the Chinese had killed his mother and it was hard, especially for an eighteen-year-old, not to harbor a certain animosity towards them. And the media blitz, which his father referred to as "mind control" was also difficult to ignore and not respond to. Respected television anchormen and anchorwomen told him every day that the "chinks" were evil, twisted, inhuman would-be conquerors, bent on forcing all non-chinks into virtual slavery. They were said to be raping and killing everything with two legs in the areas that they had occupied so far. It was said that they had summarily executed every able-bodied man in Seattle after they took that city and that they were forcing all of the women to work in the aircraft factories by day and in the whorehouses for the rear-area Chinese troops at night. It was said that they were doing similar things in Alaska in the oil fields. Sometimes it seemed his father was the only counter-influence to this barrage and, as much as Mark respected and loved his dad, it became increasingly hard to take his views seriously.

"The Chinese soldiers don't want to fight this war any more than we do," his father would try to explain to him. "They're over on their side of the trenches dealing with the same misery, the same doubts, the same fears that we are. They watch their friends get killed and they dread every new offensive, just like we do. It's our leaders that have brought us to this, not the eighteen and nineteen year old soldiers that are carrying the guns."

This argument would seem to make sense while it was being articulated to him, but the power of its message would fade and die the next time he flipped on a television and watched an episode of Idaho Platoon, the dramatic, teen-targeted series that featured Lieutenant Smith and Sergeant Collins and the brave fighting men under their command. And when his father would try to explain to him that Idaho Platoon and other shows like it were nothing but American propaganda designed to glorify front-line duty and entice young men to sign up for it, Mark would find himself thinking that his dad was getting paranoid.

After all, what did he know? He was an old man.

"Sure, Dad," Mark said, as if he were seriously considering the option of naval service. "I'll think about that."

"You do that," Jeff said, knowing by the light in his son's eyes that he would do no such thing.

-------

The first major North American battle of World War III took place in British Columbia when the southward moving Chinese army met the piecemeal, ragtag, WestHem forces near the town of Terrace. Though there had been fighting on North American soil prior to Terrace, any military action that had taken place up to this point could not, in all fairness, be termed a battle. A rout would be a more accurate description. The Battle of Terrace was accorded with a name not for its glory, for it too was little better than a complete rout, but because it was the first time that a force in strength was able to engage the Chinese in anything more than a symbolic manner. Terrace, and its important bridgehead on the Skeena River, fell to the Chinese after less than eleven hours of desperate fighting, but this was ten hours more than any previous engagement had ever consumed. The WestHem forces, which had taken significant casualties in the battle, fell back bloodied and beaten to their next defensive position and began to ready themselves for another try the next day.



That was the beginning of the pattern that would develop over the next year. Throughout the spring and summer of 2013 the Chinese advanced steadily southward through Canada. They moved through the river valleys and lowlands, winding their spearhead this way and that, splitting into two or three spearheads when necessary, but steadily occupying the cities and towns between the ocean to the west and the Canadian Rockies to the east. At each mountain pass they left in their rear they would station a few battalions of reinforced infantry to guard against a flank attack from the other side. Mountain passes were easy to guard since they typically had only one road leading through them and were surrounded by impassable terrain. As the Chinese armies moved forward day by day, week by week, the WestHem forces tried to slow them down long enough for their own industries and armed forces to gear up for a counter-attack. This fighting withdrawal was nothing so organized as a trading space for time campaign such as the Soviets utilized in World War II. If the WestHem armor and infantry could keep the enemy from advancing more than twenty kilometers a day, if they could hold onto a bridgehead long enough to evacuate their own forces across it, if they lost less than a thousand tanks or less than ten thousand soldiers, then it was a considered a good day.

The Chinese enjoyed almost total air superiority both over the battlefield and for hundreds of kilometers beyond it. American-designed, Chinese-crewed AWACS aircraft would circle in overlapping coverage patterns a hundred miles behind the lines. Swarms of MiGs, F-15s, and F-14s were constantly aloft, just waiting for an attempt by WestHem to penetrate their airspace. Any WestHem pilot flying into Chinese territory was engaging in a sortie that was just one step above a suicide mission. Any airfield that WestHem air forces tried to set up was ruthlessly bombed until nothing but chunks of asphalt runway and the remains of burned out planes were left. Chinese attack aircraft would ceaselessly bomb the infantry troops at night, hitting them with cluster munitions and napalm. They would hit supply columns and convoys as they tried to move north to reinforce their beleaguered comrades. They would bomb bridges, both highway and railroad using crude, free-fall iron bombs that nevertheless hit with amazing accuracy. They would attack underground fuel storage depots with anti-runway bombs, burning up the precious petroleum needed to wage the war.

On the battlefield itself, the WestHem soldiers were having a very tough go. Chinese attack helicopters would sweep the battlefield in huge numbers, both before a battle and during it, blasting any armor or troops that were exposed to view. Chinese artillery would pound the WestHem infantry positions day and night using proximity-fused rounds that exploded ten meters above the ground, showering deadly fragments below. But it was the WestHem tank crews that were having the toughest go during these early battles.

Though the majority of the WestHem tanks were the M1-A4s, which were far superior to those the Chinese were using in terms of speed, maneuverability, gun accuracy, and armor, they were also hopelessly outnumbered. The WestHem tactic was the American tactic. The Americans had always been able to rely upon the greater range of their main guns to destroy enemy tanks before they even got close enough to fire back. It was a tactic that had worked well in Iraq in 1991 and 2003 when the enemy to friendly ratio had been closer to even and when the air superiority had been on the other foot. But in Canada the Chinese easily countered this advantage with sheer numbers. Each WestHem tank platoon stationed in the battle area, those that had survived the air attacks anyway, would find itself facing an entire battalion of fast moving Chinese tanks that would suddenly burst from cover and rush at them. The WestHem guns would roar in response, sending high-explosive rounds into their attackers and they would score hits, exploding the front ranks as they advanced. But it could never be enough. The loaders simply could not put fresh rounds in fast enough and the gunners could not acquire targets and shoot fast enough to stop them. If they did not disengage and pull back quickly, their positions would be overwhelmed and they would then be destroyed at close range by point-blank shots from the Chinese tanks.

Things appeared quite hopeless during these early days of the North American invasion. It seemed impossible to slow the Chinese enough to prevent them from reaching the central valley of California before American industry could produce enough armor and the WestHem armed forces could train enough soldiers to put up more than token resistance. Had the powers-that-be within the military command structure continued to blindly await more tanks, airplanes, and attack helicopters to use as counter-weapons, the war might very well have ended as the Asian Powers had planned. As it turned out however, the WestHems came up with an alternative. It was a device that could quickly, effectively destroy an onrushing tank from great range but that could easily be carried by a small team of soldiers in the field. It was a device that could be produced in large numbers, could be shipped by aircraft or train to the battle area, and that even the most moronic foot soldier could be trained to use with deadly accuracy. It was the device most responsible for the meat-grinder that eventually developed in the Pacific Northwest: the AT-9 anti-tank missile.

The AT-9 consisted of a shoulder-fired launcher with both an optical and an infrared sight that could direct a targeting laser onto an enemy tank or APC from more than five miles away, day or night, through clear, hazy, or smoky conditions. The launcher was only four feet in length, nine inches in diameter, and weighed less than twenty pounds, significantly less than a squad automatic weapon. The warheads were rocket-powered, laser-guided, shaped high-explosive charges with a range of nearly four miles and the ability to steer back and forth in flight as their target, and the targeting laser resting on it by the gunner, moved. Each warhead weighed only twenty pounds. This meant that the typical platoon of infantry designated as an anti-tank platoon could carry more than a hundred warheads and ten launchers to a piece of high ground overlooking the avenue of attack and wreck havoc on the Chinese armor when it broke from cover. When the AT-9s began to appear on the battlefield in large numbers, the rate of advance of the Chinese slowed dramatically, sometimes to less than three kilometers per day. Their commanders were forced to throw more of their tanks into each attack, taking frightful losses, in exchange for each one of those kilometers.



But the Chinese, with their unbreakable supply line and their staggering numerical advantage in all manner of war materials, continued southward regardless of the high losses. Though slowed, they could not be stopped, not completely, and day by day they drew closer and closer to the US border. It was during this portion of the war that bombs began to fall on American cities for the first time in history as the Chinese sent waves of strategic bombers after the factories that were producing war material and after the transportation network that delivered them. Aircraft factories in Seattle were hit. Automobile factories in Detroit, which were now producing armor, were hit. Bridges, rail yards, fuel storage facilities, and anything else even remotely of military value that was located anywhere in range of the Chinese planes was a potential target. Civil defense became not just a quaint concept that was taught in school and listed in the front of the telephone book, but an actual life or death concern. The production of anti-air defense weapons, something that the American armed forces were woefully short on, became a major priority.

On September 2, 2013, the Chinese battled their way through heavy defenses and swarms of AT-9 missiles and took the city of Vancouver, British Columbia. Two days later, despite nearly fanatical resistance by the WestHem forces, they crossed the northern border at Bellingham, Washington, and invaded the continental United States. Once in the state of Washington, the terrain in which to operate was both wider and flatter, with much more maneuverable real estate between the Cascades and the ocean. This made for a much larger scale to the battles and the advancement of the Chinese was slowed even further becoming more costly both in terms of tanks and soldiers. Subsequently, the WestHem troops, those still alive since the beginning, were now battle-hardened veterans with firm chains of command. They had learned from their year of retreat and were much more effective in impeding each new attack and limiting its effectiveness. They had learned just when and how to best blunt the onrushing tanks and they had learned just when they needed to pull back to safer positions. For the first time the WestHem command began to feel that they just might be able to stop the Chinese and keep the majority of the United States in their own hands.



But, though they were taking heavy losses, the Chinese pushed onward, moving further and further south. Hundreds of their armored vehicles were blown to pieces each day. Thousands, sometimes tens of thousands of their soldiers were killed in each new attack. But they maintained air superiority over the battlefield and, perhaps more importantly, they maintained the momentum. Their supply of manpower and equipment seemed unlimited. Fresh troops, fuel, vehicles, and supplies continued to come across the Bering Sea and down the coast to reinforce them. Seattle fell and then Tacoma and then Olympia, some of the citizens of these cities fleeing ahead of the fighting, many others choosing to stay under Chinese occupation.

As the Chinese began to approach the Oregon border, WestHem began to entrench troops along the south bank of the Columbia River, which formed that border. They stopped reinforcing their holding forces at the front as heavily as they had been and instead installed tank divisions and infantry divisions on ever piece of ground overlooking the wide river along a two hundred mile length of it. They stockpiled heavy artillery weapons and rocket launchers behind this. They wired every bridge that crossed the river with explosives. And they waited, knowing that the mighty Columbia would present a formidable obstacle.

The Battle of Portland officially began on January 12, 2014 with the retreat of the holding forces from the area north of Vancouver, Washington, a suburb of Portland. For forty-eight hours they streamed across every available bridge, a constant line of tanks, APC's, half-tracks, and trucks overfilled with bloodied WestHem soldiers. The Chinese forces, counting on capturing the Columbia bridgeheads intact, did not bomb the bridges to prevent this retreat but they did ceaselessly harass the columns themselves from the air, strafing them with planes and helicopters. When artillery shells began to fall on the south side of the river, indicating that the push for Portland and the lands south of the river was imminent, the WestHem forces detonated the bridges, sending them crashing into the water. This regretfully trapped thousands of their own men and machines on the wrong side but did insure that the enemy would not have an easy crossing.

For the next two days the Chinese artillery pounded the entrenched WestHem forces day and night, hour after hour. They unleashed thousands of tons of bombs and hundreds of thousands of gallons of napalm onto the hillsides. And then, on January 17, they attempted a river crossing in four places around the Portland area, using massed amphibious tanks and APC's supported by conventional tanks dug in on the Washington side of the river. Ignoring the support armor the WestHems concentrated their fire on the amphibious units, sending a wall of steel and explosives at them. The slow-moving armored vehicles that had been so effective in securing previous bridgeheads were slaughtered, most before they even reached the middle of their journey. Tanks and APC's, lumbering along in the choppy, icy waters exploded and sank to the bottom in such numbers that navigation of the river would be impossible on that stretch for long after the fighting stopped. If any Chinese armor did make it to the other side, tanks dug in on the opposite bank quickly and efficiently dispatched them. After three furious hours the Chinese were forced to abandon their attempt. For the first time in the war, an Asian Powers' advance had been successfully halted in place.

For the next three weeks the Chinese tried again and again to breach the Columbia. Each time they hurled more armor into the river and each time that armor was annihilated by a fury of AT-9 missiles and anti-tank rounds. After losing more than eight thousand vehicles and more than a hundred thousand men, the Chinese were forced to abandon their drive to the south. Portland, though blasted, bombed, devoid of power, water, and most of its citizens, would remain in WestHem hands.

The Chinese high command would be forced to quickly develop a new order of battle for seizing the American oil fields. Determined not to lose the initiative, they left a large force dug in along the Columbia to prevent a reverse crossing by the WestHem forces and they then shifted the bulk of their army back northward to Seattle to prepare to open a new front.



-------

The tower, where Mark was to meet Darren, was a large water tank that stood in an abandoned industrial complex just inside of the Roseville City limits. It was a round, one million-gallon storage and pressurization tank that sat more than two hundred feet in the air atop four steel legs. A large pipeline ran from the direct center of the bottom of the tank to the ground. The tank, the pipeline, and the legs were painted white although the last coat had been applied so long before that it was now a faded, brownish off-white color. Atop the peak of the tank's body were several cellular towers and radio communication towers. In the direct center of the top was a steel pole atop which a red, flashing light was mounted. This light, in days gone by, had been intended to warn helicopters and other low-flying craft away from the tower. The light was now darkened and had been since the beginning of the war. There were no more helicopters flying about and there was no sense in wasting precious electricity that did nothing but serve as a navigation beacon for attacking Chinese planes.

At the base of the tower were several small wooden buildings that contained pumping equipment and a leveled area of dry dirt that had been constantly treated with herbicide to impede vegetation growth. Despite the herbicide, large foxtails and bramble bushes dotted the area. Two or three times a day, at sporadic intervals, the electric whine of the machinery within the structures could be heard coming to life, pumping water from the underground pipes up into the body of the elevated tank.

Mark parked his bicycle behind one of the pumping structures, out of sight of the main road. He shouldered his backpack and then walked to one of the legs of the tower, a metal cylinder four feet in diameter that stretched into the sky and that was strong enough to support 250,000 gallons of water, or one fourth of the total weight. Attached to the outside of this cylinder was a ladder that extended from the ground to the maintenance catwalk on the tank two hundred and twenty feet up. The first fifteen feet of the ladder were covered by a locked piece of hinged steel that extended upward and prevented access to the rungs. Or at least that is what its designers thought that it did.

He sat down with his back against the support pole and his cammie-covered buttocks on the dirt ground. From around him came the sound of the chilly spring wind and little else. There were not many habitations near the tower and, though what had once been a main road was only thirty yards away, no traffic passed there. He reached into his backpack and pulled out a cigarette. He scooted around the support pole until the wind, which had kicked up considerably now that the sun was approaching the western horizon, was muted by its bulk and then he lit it with a wooden kitchen match.

At ten minutes after eight, just as Mark was starting to think that his friend was going to flake on him, he heard the familiar squeaking of Darren's brakes. A moment later he pedaled into the secluded enclave and brought his bike to a halt next to Mark's. His face was a little flushed from the wind.

"What up?" Darren said coolly, jerking his head a little in greeting. "I got the shit."

"Yeah?" Mark said, standing.

"Fuckin' aye." He reached into his backpack and pulled out two plastic sandwich baggies that were rolled up like a burrito. He handed them across to Mark.

Mark took them and unrolled both. This was part of the ritual of going in with Darren on some marijuana. Darren, in order to "prove" that he wasn't trying to screw his friend out of any of his share, would allow him to pick which bag he would take for his own. The contents in each bag would be pretty much equal. They always were. But Mark had no doubt that Darren had already removed a sizable portion of each bag back at his house and placed it in a third bag which was undoubtedly resting in a little accessed part of his room somewhere. Darren was not even smooth about it. When a week or so went by and they had smoked the contents of both of the official bags and had no money to buy more, Darren would suddenly turn up with the third bag, explaining its existence by saying that Paul had kicked loose a little out of pity. As if a drug dealer made a habit of doing such things.

As always, Mark kept his suspicions to himself. What would be the point of lodging a complaint? He took one of the bags and handed the other back to Darren. He then opened his and took a sniff of the green, sticky buds inside. The odor was pungent and very similar to that produced by an angry skunk. It was enough to make the eyes water. "God damn," he proclaimed happily. "This is some good bud."

"Fuckin' aye," Darren said with a cocky tone, as if nothing else could be expected. "Shall we retire to the smoking area?"

"I think we should," Mark agreed, pocketing his baggie.

He reached into his backpack and pulled out a rolled up safety ladder that was designed to help facilitate an emergency escape from a second floor bedroom in the event of a fire. Though the two friends did not actually need the ladder in order to ascend the tower, it certainly made things easier and faster. The first few times they had gone up they had simply shimmied up the sides of the security partition until they reached the rungs. It always took a few tries and a few spills to the ground but it was not a terribly difficult task for an adolescent boy to accomplish when he put his mind to it. It was only after Mark had fallen and nearly broken his arm during one ascension that they had begun to seek out a safer means of going up that first fifteen feet. Mark had been the one to come up with the idea of the safety ladder. Mark was the one that came up with most of the ideas when it came to how to accomplish some task. His mind just seemed to work that way. He had also been the one to shoplift the ladder from the local Home Depot, stuffing it into his pants after carefully removing the anti-theft tag from the packaging.

He unrolled the rope and plastic device, stretching its entire twelve-foot length out. At the top of it were two sturdy plastic hooks that were supposed to be hooked into the frame of the hypothetical second story window. The hooks had been modified by the addition of twenty-ounce deep sea fishing sinkers ingeniously attached with a drill and two bolts. The sinkers gave enough weight to the top of the ladder for it to be thrown into the air.

"Whoever hooks it, the other supplies the first missile?" Darren asked, tightening his backpack straps on his shoulder.

"Sounds good," Mark agreed, already knowing who was going to be the one to hook it and who was going to have to roll the first "missile" up on top. Though he was sharp as a tack when it came to thinking up things like the escape ladder or the counter-weights used to attach it, he was not terribly coordinated when it came to physical activities and competition. But he gave it his best effort nonetheless. He stepped back a few paces and eyed his target: the second rung above the security partition. Holding the ladder by the sinkers, he tossed it upward, throwing it the same way a basketball player shoots a free throw. It struck to the right and low, the sinkers making a hollow bonging noise against the steel before falling to the ground at their feet.

Darren smiled. "Not bad," he said. "You're getting better." He bent over and picked up the ladder by the sinkers. "But watch this." He took two steps back, gave a careless glance upward, and then took his shot almost absently. The sinkers sailed smoothly upward and dropped neatly around the second rung, allowing the rest of the ladder to trail down. "Thank you, thank you," Darren said, raising his clenched hands over his head and pumping them a few times, as if he had just made the game-winning point.

"Lucky shot," Mark muttered companionably, unable to keep himself from admiring it. Sometimes he felt he would gladly trade his intellect just for the ability to be good at things like sports and skateboarding instead of a clumsy fumbler. "Bet you couldn't do it again."

"I do it every fuckin' time," Darren reminded him.

"They're all lucky shots."

"Shee-it," he said, laughing and clapping him on the back. "Shall we head up? It's time to get high."

"Fuckin' aye," Mark agreed, reaching for the flimsy escape ladder.

It went without saying that neither young man's parent or parents knew that their children were spending a great many of their evenings climbing unsecured more than two hundred feet in the air to a flimsy, shaky catwalk that encircled a water tower. They would have been understandably horrified at the very thought. And though Darren was traditionally the instigator for most of the non-parentally approved activities that they engaged in, it had been Mark that had been the author of this most dangerous pursuit.

Mark's father, had he been told about this, would have been terrified at the thought, would have demanded it cease immediately, and may even have reinstated corporal punishment, but he would not have been surprised by his son's behavior. Since he was a child Mark had been fascinated with structures of all shapes, sizes, and purposes; the larger, the higher, the better. He had been building skyscrapers and drawbridges with his erector set by the age of four. He had been drawing and graphing crude blueprints for buildings, bridges, and dams on his computer since the age of six. He had twice won prizes in school engineering fairs for his complex and meticulous projects. One such prize had been for a working model of the very water tower that he was climbing. The project had been complete with a miniature pump and a miniature faucet to symbolize the city water supply. He had shown how the tower increased water pressure in the system and how it could be utilized as an emergency back up to the pump in the event of a power failure. The point about the tower that he had most stressed in his demonstration was the height and how important that height was to the tower's purpose. Mark liked tall structures, masterpieces of steel that stretched into the sky, towering above everything else. He liked the principals of architecture and engineering that led to such structures. He liked the processes of construction that built them. In his room he had actual textbooks of engineering and architecture that he had acquired and memorized over the years. He would rather peruse a blueprint of a new building, would rather read a synopsis of a construction technique than watch an episode of Idaho Platoon or read a war novel. For a teenage boy in that day and age, that was saying quite a lot.

The water tower had always held a particular fascination for him. It stood less than two miles from his suburban house and was, except for a few cellular towers, the tallest structure in Roseville. By the age of twelve he had tracked down on the Internet its exact specifications, purpose, and date of construction. From the time he had longed for anything he had longed to explore its surfaces, to ascend its body.

It was only since the war had started that he had been able to realize his dream of climbing it. Before the war, he would not have been able to get more than thirty feet up the ladder before some motorist passing by on Base Line Road would have called the police on a cellular telephone. But since the Chinese had effected a drastic reduction in gas consumption, there was no more traffic on Base Line and there was no one within seeing distance to report him. The first time he had gone up the tower it had been almost a sexual experience. When he stood on the shaky catwalk for the first time, able to see for miles in all directions, able to touch the thick steel of the elevated tank, able to examine the rivets and bolts and pressure points, he had been exalted. The water tower soon became his favorite place of seclusion; a place he had shared only with Darren, who had been quite horrified himself when Mark suggested for the first time that they go up.

Ironically it was a reversal of peer pressure that had led Darren up that first time. Though Mark loved heights—he would have gladly climbed a shaky ladder to an altitude six times higher than the Roseville water tower—Darren liked his feet to be firmly upon the ground. He squeamed, as the modern slang went, at the thought of being high enough that a fall would be lethal. But when Mark had enticed him out there that first time and had wormed his way up the secured ladder and began to climb, Darren had been unable to take the thought that his weaker, younger, more timid friend could do something that he himself would not. He had forced himself onto the ladder and, sweating with fear the entire way, had followed him up step by fearful step until he too had stood upon the grated steel walkway.

"There," he had said, with an unsteady voice, his pupils dilated with the adrenaline pumping through his body, his eyes refusing to take in the dizzying scenery around them. "I did it. Now let's get the fuck back down."

"C'mon, sarge," Mark had replied, leaning casually upon the waist-high railing. "Let's hang for a few. Have a smoke. Check out the scenery."

And so they had. By the time they had been up there fifteen minutes or so, Darren had calmed down and had actually began to enjoy himself a little. The next few times they had gone up he had been similarly reluctant but had always given in to the pressure. Gradually, perhaps in defense of the power his friend seemed to hold over him, he had adapted to the point that it was he who usually suggested they go for a climb.

Mark went up first this time. Using the flimsy escape ladder, he pulled himself up to the first actual rung. He then climbed up a few more feet and waited until Darren mounted the ladder below him. Keeping about six rungs between them, the two friends began to climb, their calf and thigh muscles bearing their weight as they pushed into the sky. There were one hundred and eighteen rungs on the ladder from the top of the security partition to the opening on the catwalk. Mark had counted them many times. The rungs were located exactly two feet apart and they flashed by his eyes one by one as the ground dropped away beneath them. They did not talk as they ascended, partially because the physical exertion of climbing required too much breath and partially because the wind, which was ripping by them at twenty miles an hour or so, would have made it nearly impossible to hear anyway.

The legs of the tower, including the one upon which the ladder was attached, were not perfectly perpendicular to the ground. They leaned inward at three-degree angles, with the feet of them at a wide stance. Mark knew that this made for better weight distribution, making it possible to use less steel to support the same amount of weight. It also meant that it was impossible to get to the catwalk, which encircled the tank's perimeter at its widest point, from the support leg by using a single ladder flush against the leg.

The leg mounted ladder ended at rung 96. A thirty-five foot section of heavier, unsupported ladder took over from that point. Its bottom edge was bolted to the support leg and its top edge was bolted both to the catwalk and to the side of the tank just below it. This section's angle was straight up and down, as compared to the three degree tilt of the support leg section and it had no comforting bulk of steel behind it to help cut the wind and lend a slight psychological easement of mind. When Mark reached this section he continued on without pausing, seeing space open between him and the support leg, feeling the icy wind increase by a factor of two at least. The entire section could be felt swaying back and forth in that wind, making harsh, metallic creaking noises at the attachment points.

"God damn!" Mark yelled downward at Darren, "this fuckin' wind is tryin' to blow me right off of here!"

"Don't be a pussy!" Darren yelled back up, not mentioning the fact that the open-air section of the climb still terrified him nearly to tears; especially when it was windy. "Just get your ass up there!"

"I ain't stopping!" Mark yelled back down, and indeed he was not. He actually found the wind pushing at him to be enjoyable. In truth, he had only said that to Darren because a cruel part of his mind knew that Darren hated the climb and had a desire to prod at that fear when the opportunity presented itself. It was not often that Darren was the one terrified of something and Mark was the fearless one. "Just be careful when you get to the open part!" he yelled. "It's a bitch today!"

Darren mumbled something in reply but it was lost as a particularly fierce gust blasted into Mark, making him clutch strongly against the rungs for a moment until it passed. He then continued up the ladder, now seeing the bulk of the tank curving towards him from the other side of it. At the precise center of the tank, its widest spot, his head pushed through the small opening that led to the three-foot wide catwalk. He pulled himself onto the rusty, grated surface by grabbing the safety railing, careful to keep his knees from bashing on the rough nubs. Panting a little, his eyes watering from the wind, he stood up and walked a few feet around the perimeter, clearing the opening so that Darren could come up.

Holding onto the rail and looking outward, he took in the sights off to the east, the direction this portion of the tank faced. No matter how many times he saw it, the view was still impressive, almost majestic. He could see Base Line Road, a black ribbon with a yellow line down the middle, stretching off into the housing developments, which were visible only as thousands of tiny tiled roofs arranged in geometric groupings. A little to the north he could see Dry Creek winding its way through greenbelts and under road bridges. Interstate 80, which had once carried hundreds of thousands of cars to and from Sacramento, could be seen cutting through the center of the suburb before continuing along on its path to the towering Sierra Nevada mountains to the east. A few cars could be seen here and there, some moving on the freeway, some on the surface streets near central Roseville. Those were either police cars, government vehicles of some sort, or wealthy elite types. In the residential areas he could make out the tiny figures of children playing on some of the front lawns or riding their bikes and skateboards here and there. He could see a few adults engaging in jogging for exercise. Though he could not make out exactly what sex they were, he intellectually knew that they would be mostly women since men that were young enough to jog were generally missing from the Roseville landscape these days.

He heard a grunt, followed by a curse of displeasure and he looked over to see that Darren had emerged from the opening. His face was somewhat flushed and he was panting perhaps a little more than the exertion alone could account for. He stood carefully, slowly, as if moving too suddenly would cause the bolts and welds that held the catwalk together to suddenly give out. As always he carefully kept his body as close to the tank side as possible. "Let's get out of this fucking wind," he said.

"Right," Mark agreed, adjusting his backpack a little and then moving forward, toward the southeast side of the tank, his feet clattering on the see-through grating, making it shake.

That shaking used to terrify Darren when they first started coming up here. Mark remembered, a little ashamedly, how he had taken advantage of that fear once when his friend had blurted it out. It had been the third or fourth trip up and he had not meant to scare him as badly as he had. They had been doing as they were doing now, walking around the perimeter to find the most wind-free spot.

"Sarge," Darren had barked, licking his lips nervously, "do you have to stomp so hard on this thing while you walk? They built this catwalk like thirty years ago. What if your stomping rips one of the sections loose?"

"That would be one on me, wouldn't it?" Mark had responded lightly.

"I'm serious," Darren had returned, putting on a tough, I'm-in-command-here expression. "Retreat with the stomping."

"C'mon, sarge," Mark had told him, concealing a smile. "You don't have to worry. You see these bolts that hold this thing in place?" He had pointed to the half-inch square heads at his feet that were located every fourteen inches along the tank side of the catwalk. "They may be old but there's a damn battalion of them holding each section up. What do you think the odds are that all of them in a particular section would break?"

"Yeah," Darren had said, nodding, a little comforted by this lecture. Though he was unquestionably the dominant member of the friendship, he knew instinctively that Mark's knowledge of how things were built was beyond reproach. "I guess so. It just squeams me a little to feel this thing move when we're two hundred feet up, you know?"

"Two hundred and twenty feet up," Mark had corrected. "And this old catwalk can really take a pounding. Check it out." With that he began to jump up and down, slamming his feet into the grating hard enough to make the entire section bang against the tank and send sharp, echoing clangs out into the air. It had sounded like somebody using a sledgehammer to drive a metal stake into the ground.

"Quit that shit!" Darren had yelled, grasping at the railing in a panic, terrified as he felt the surface beneath him pitching up and down like a ship in high seas.

"Just wanted to show you," Mark had said, stopping his actions and feeling immediately sorry for what he had done. He really hadn't expected that the catwalk would shake that much or scare Darren that badly.

That incident had never been mentioned again, and Mark had never repeated the action. It was doubtful that it would scare Darren anymore anyway. Since then, they had made the discovery that there were other man-made forces that could cause much more pitching of the catwalk than a one hundred and twenty pound boy bouncing on it. They had even learned to seek out, to enjoy the forces that caused this violent pitching.

As they worked their way around to the south side of the tank the high-rises of downtown Sacramento some thirty miles away and the wide, murky Sacramento River twisting its way past them came into view. One advantage of the war and the severe gasoline shortage it had produced was that urban smog had almost vanished. The Sacramento region, which was located in a huge valley, had once been one of the smoggiest places in the nation. An ugly, brownish haze used to hang over the area year-round, even during windstorms such as this one, making visibility of more than twenty miles or so next to impossible. But now the air was clear and sweet smelling and from the railing of the tank they could see all the way to Mount Diablo in the San Francisco Bay area more than ninety miles away.

Closer in, about four miles distant, the huge Roseville rail yard could be seen. The largest rail-switching yard west of the Mississippi River, it stretched literally for miles along the southern reaches of the city. There were miles and miles of track and sidings in the yard and thousands of tanker cars, boxcars, and equipment carriers stacked up in a seemingly random pattern. Unlike when they were looking at Roseville itself, when they looked at the rail yard there could be no doubt that they lived in a country at war. On most of the flatcars were M2 tanks, Bradley fighting vehicles, half-tracks, self-propelled artillery guns, self-propelled surface to air missile (SAM) launchers, Humvees, and Apache III attack helicopters. In most of the tanker cars would be diesel and jet fuel. In most of the boxcars would be artillery rounds, aircraft bombs, anti-tank missile reloads for the AT-9 launchers, and ammunition of all calibers.

Each train that entered or left the yard had a SAM launcher installed on a flat car somewhere near the middle and a 23mm gunner stationed at each end. Chinese pilots had been known to attack freight trains in transit when they blundered across them on their way to other targets. The yard itself had three fixed surface to air missile sites and nearly fifty fixed large and small caliber anti-aircraft guns. The guns and the SAM launchers were each entrenched three feet below the ground level and protected by a five-foot wall of sandbags. From above, Mark and Darren could see the stout barrels of the guns and the swiveling missile launchers of the SAMs protruding from their emplacements.

The train yard was a busy place. It was the primary switching yard for supplies heading either to the inactive western front along the Columbia River near Portland, or to the active front in eastern Oregon and southern Idaho. Workers could be seen moving here and there, coupling this section of cars to that locomotive, moving other cars from place to place. Trains moved in and out constantly, at all hours of the day and night. Trains heading north and east would have the new military equipment from the factories on their flatcars. Trains returning from the north and the east would be carrying the remains of the earlier generation of machines that had been destroyed in battle and were being shipped back to be recycled. One of their favorite activities after climbing the tower was to stare at these machines, both new and battle-smashed, through binoculars. Seeing the smashed and burned tanks or APCs did nothing to dampen their enthusiasm for going off to war. If anything, it seemed to strengthen their resolve.

The yard was naturally a frequent target of Chinese bombers trying to impede the flow of supplies to the front. Impact craters from bombs dotted the surface of the yard. Many of the administrative and storage buildings on the property had been destroyed in one air raid or another and those that had not were now surrounded with double rings of sandbags. Off to the east side of the yard, in what had once been a huge empty field, were piles of twisted steel that were the remains of train cars that had been blown apart during an attack and then hauled there until a recycling run could be made.

Because of these frequent air attacks much of the residential area immediately surrounding the yard had been cleared of inhabitants. The reason why could be plainly seen. Entire sections of those subdivisions were nothing but smashed rubble and blackened frames, the results of off-target Chinese bombs that had landed amid the houses and exploded. More than two hundred people had been killed in that area before the authorities had made the decision to condemn any dwelling located within three miles of the yard. This had led to a vicious battle between the residents of those houses, who were not eligible for any sort of compensation for their displacement, and the Roseville Police Department, who had been ordered to enforce the evacuation order. Three days of violent clashes between the two groups occurred. Sign-carrying middle-class homeowners, mostly women since the men were off at war, had been beaten, gassed, and shot by riot-gear clad cops, most of whom were also women or older men beyond service age. Before enforcement of the order was finally established, six protesters would be killed, scores more injured, and nearly a hundred would be arrested and tried under a wartime criminal code and sentenced to prison terms. The criminal justice system had little tolerance for organized civil disobedience these days.

"Look at that," Darren said, as they finally found a wind-free spot in which to settle. He pointed towards the yard and the mass of steel cars that sat in it. "You see them?" His voice was excited, as if he had just spotted a naked woman for the first time.

"See what?" Mark asked, having no idea what he was referring to. He reached into his backpack and pulled out a small pillow, which he put on the grating and then sat upon. They had learned quickly that you did not want to sit directly upon the grating for any length of time.

"Over by the west side of the tracking," he said, pointing again. "That train is carrying the new Bradley 3A's. You see 'em? I heard that they were going to start sending them up to the front pretty soon. That must be the first load!"

"Static," Mark said, peering out to take a look. He reached into his pocket and pulled out his baggie of marijuana and a pack of Zigzags. "What's the difference between those and the old Bradleys?" he asked, more to make conversation than out of any real desire to know.

"What's the difference?" Darren asked, shaking his head sadly at his friend's lack of knowledge about what was important. He reached into his pack and withdrew his own pillow and his beloved binoculars. "The 3A has thicker armor on the front and the new turbine engine. It can also carry four more troops than the 2C. I bet we won't see too many of the 3A's coming back on the flatcars." He sat down and let his legs hang over the edge of the railing. Once he was settled in, he put the binoculars to his eyes and began peering at the new infantry carriers, his fear of heights forgotten. "Damn," he said admiringly as he took in a close-up view of the shape. "I dig those 30mm cannons. I read they increased the rate of fire and the range on this model too."

Mark listened to the dissertation on the new infantry carrier with half an ear, nodding and giving a "really?" whenever it seemed appropriate. Most of his attention was spent trying to successfully crunch up and roll a missile without spilling any of the precious bud.

Darren dropped the binoculars, letting them hang from the cord around his neck. "I can't fuckin' wait, sarge," he said wistfully. "Just another couple of months and we'll be out there, killing those fuckin' chinks wholesale. You and me, buddy, we'll be a fuckin' chink elimination squad."

"Goddamn right," Mark said, grinning at the thought. In truth, if he was going to go to the line, he wanted it to be with Darren, his high school protector at his side.

"I wonder where they'll send us?" Darren said, slowly panning back and forth. "I hope it's to the real front and not fuckin Montana or Oregon. Can you imagine how boring it is being part of the holding force?"

"Brett Faxton went to Montana," Mark felt compelled to remind him. "Apparently he didn't find it all that boring. It was interesting enough to put him in the obits." Faxton, a former classmate of theirs, had dropped out of school to enlist on his eighteenth birthday back in February. He had been killed in the Rocky Mountain passes less than a week after being assigned there as an infantry soldier.

Darren dismissed this side issue of the Brett Faxton story as being beside the point. "Faxton was a moron," he said derisively. "I'm surprised he even made it through basic without getting his ass killed. I'm surprised he was even able to get on the right train to make it to basic. Imagine, getting killed in the fuckin mountain brigade. They're almost as pussy as the rear-echelon motherfuckers. All they have to do is keep the chinks out of the passes. They have a single fucking road to guard. How do you get killed doing that?"

"He found a way," Mark said, sealing the missile closed with saliva. As tradition dictated, he handed it across to Darren along with a box of kitchen matches.

"The stupid ones die easy," Darren said wisely, putting it in his mouth. "It ain't gonna be like that for us. If the chinks wanna take me or my bud out, they're gonna have to fuckin' work at it." He struck a light and applied the flame to the tip, inhaling deeply.

"What if they put us in tanks?" Mark asked him, articulating a fear that was in nearly every prospective armed services member. In this war it was the tank crews that were having the toughest go at it. They were the ones with the highest casualty rate and they were the ones who died the most horrible deaths. Even if they were merely injured, the injury would most likely be a severe burn.

Darren finished his hit and handed the missile over. He held in the smoke for a moment and then finally exhaled before answering. "They wouldn't do that to us," he assured him. "We're volunteers. They put the draftees in the tanks, those fuckin pussies that they have to go chase down to get them to serve."

"I heard that's just a myth," said Mark, who read obsessively and who had found an official armed services web site on his computer that proclaimed the draftees-to-the-tank-corps story to be nothing but an urban legend.

"Naww," Darren scoffed, with all the assuredness of someone who did not want to face an unpleasant truth. "That's really the way it works, sarge. The volunteers get the infantry and the holding positions. They get the armored cav and the airborne. The draftees go in the tanks. That's their fuckin punishment for not signing up on their own, I'm tellin' you."

"I guess that makes sense," Mark answered, still holding the smoldering joint between his fingers. He could have said a lot more, but he didn't, knowing that his friend would not be receptive to any observations or thoughts that might scare him. Instead he put the missile in his mouth and made it burn.

-------

While the American public, which had watched the entire Battle of Portland on television, was still celebrating the "victory" that had been achieved, the WestHem intelligence noted the massive pullback of forces to Seattle. It did not take a genius to figure out what the Chinese were up to but, in this case, realizing something and doing something about it were two distinctly different things.

WestHem shifted a large portion of their forces to the east as quickly as they could but there was no way they could possibly move them fast enough. On March 1, 2014 two complete Chinese armies left Seattle, following along the Interstate 90 corridor, and began to climb Snoqualmie Pass into the Cascade Mountains. The summit of the pass was held by Chinese troops placed there just to prevent WestHem forces from hitting their flanks from the other side. The east side of the pass, which led to the arid plains of central Washington, was held only by two reinforced battalions of WestHem infantry and one of armor that had been placed there to keep Chinese infiltrators from moving into their rear. The Chinese had never been expected to make such a madly bold move such as moving entire armies over the pass. These three battalions, which had lived through the war so far with only isolated skirmishes between platoon sized units, suddenly found themselves trying to accomplish the equivalent of stopping an onrushing forest fire with a shovel and a garden hose.

To give credit where it is due, they did their best. They positioned themselves strategically at the only exit from the pass and, braving devastating close-air support by attack helicopters and MiGs, chipped at the Chinese armor as it tried to make its descent out of the mountains. They managed to snarl the roads and delay the enemy for the better part of eight hours despite being outnumbered more than a hundred to one, but in the end the air attacks, the artillery attacks, and the counter-fire from the Chinese tanks took their toll. With a casualty rate of more than 85%, the Snoqualmie Defenders (as they came to be called) were forced to retreat. Their survivors would be haled as war heroes and their exploits would become the basis of the first "true" war movie of World War III.

After their retreat however, the Chinese armies poured out of the mountains and onto the rolling plains like a swarm of angry hornets leaving a nest. They quickly swallowed up all of the land north and west of the Columbia river, therefore forcing the WestHem forces to station troops all along the south and east banks of it instead of simply in the Portland area. They then sent their main spearhead due east, taking the strategic highway junctions at Kennewick, Yakima, and Spokane. Though Washington State was not completely occupied, this maneuver did deny the WestHem forces the ability to move mechanized troops into the state or to withdraw the military equipment already present away from it.

From Spokane the Chinese continued east, entering the panhandle of northern Idaho and taking the road junctions at Coeur d'Alene and Sandpoint, effectively sealing themselves in a protected bubble up against the Rocky Mountains on the Montana border. After reinforcing the newly captured mountain passes to keep from being hit on the flanks from the other side or from the north, they took a week to regroup and allow their supply line to catch up to them. Once their troops were rested, fed, and re-armed, they began once more to push south, this time towards the open plains of southern Idaho, eastern Oregon, and northern Nevada. If they could make it to this wide open ground before the WestHem forces could put up a defense and contain them, they would be unstoppable, able to fall on the Texas oilfields in a matter of weeks. They almost made it. Almost, but not quite.



A WestHem probe met a Chinese probe near the small one-stoplight town of Viola in central Idaho. Though the ensuing battle would stretch across a broad front more than three hundred miles wide, the name "Battle of Viola" would be what future school children would learn to call it. In less than twenty-four hours this meeting of two reconnaissance units developed into the largest unit action of the entire war to that date. It was a battle that would rage without let-up for more than two months and that would leave the town of Viola, as well as many others in the path of the combatants, a smoldering ruin full of dead civilians and bloated farm animals. Viola itself was soon far behind the lines as the Chinese, with numerical and air superiority slowly ground the WestHem forces backward, kilometer by costly kilometer. Entire divisions of infantry and armored cavalry bashed at one another on those plains, each side getting nearly constant reinforcements to throw into the fight wherever a hole threatened to open up. Twenty to thirty thousand would be killed or horribly wounded on each side, each and every day. On the WestHem side, more than a thousand of their soldiers would be captured each time a position was overrun.

The Battle of Viola would come to a close near the beginning of June, 2014 after more than three million deaths. Though historians would claim that WestHem had "won" the battle, in truth they won nothing. The WestHem armies were simply given enough time and favorable enough ground to dig in along a sturdy line that the Chinese could not blast their way through. This was a front that stretched from Vale, in south central Oregon to Dubois, in southeastern Idaho. It was a twisting, turning, bulging line protected by entrenched AT-9 crews on every hill and by tens of thousands of tanks from the former automobile factories in Detroit and Los Angeles. The official ending of the Battle of Viola was listed as the point when the rearward movement of the WestHem forces finally came to a halt. In actuality the Chinese continued to batter at this line, throwing tanks, planes, and men against it in ever increasing numbers, for the next three months. At last, with their supplies dwindling and badly in need of restock and with their soldiers, those that were still alive, in the midst of a morale problem that bordered on rebellion, they were forced to give up the effort. Like the WestHem forces opposing them, they dug in and entrenched themselves.

This was the beginning of the next stage of the war, a stage that would go on for quite some time. Though the people of the time, on both sides of the conflict, refused to call it a stalemate, that is exactly what it was. Neither side could force the other to retreat. The tanks could not attack in force because anti-tank missiles and enemy tank guns would explode them like clay pigeons on a skeet range as soon as they crossed into the open. Infantry troops could not clear the entrenched anti-tank crews because machine gun fire and mortars would cut them down as soon as they stepped into the open.

But this did not stop attacks from happening. Each side was under the delusion that if it simply built up enough of an attacking force before striking that it would be able to punch through. This approach led to long periods of inactivity in which nothing other than air attacks or artillery battles would be fought alternated with shorter periods of desperate, intense all-out fighting in which many were killed but in which nothing was accomplished.



In the United States the strategic bombing campaign would continue with vigor, but the surviving factories would continue to churn out more and more tanks and planes and other weapons. The army would continue to induct or enlist forty thousand young men each month. These young men would be trained and equipped with these new machines and then sent to the front. When enough were built-up, an offensive would be launched and would inevitably be cut to shreds by the Chinese.

On the Chinese side of the equation, the same thing occurred. Japanese and Chinese factories would churn out the weapons of war. The bureaucracy of conscription in Beijing would enlist and train more troops, sending them by aircraft and train to the front. They would cycle through a pattern of build up followed by a major attack along a broad length of the front; an attack that would be repulsed after two or three weeks of battering themselves against the WestHem lines, destroying all of the new machines and men.

In the ten short months between the Battle of Viola and the day that the new spring offensive began, more than two million WestHem soldiers and civilians were killed. In the same period of time the Chinese lost more than two million of their soldiers. In Europe, on the static lines in Russia, more than a million EastHem and Indian soldiers were killed along with countless European and Asian citizens. In this time period, with nearly seven million dead, with millions of weapons of war blown to shreds, with untold trillions of dollars in damage done, the lines did not move more than two kilometers in either direction on any front.

-------

At the beginning of the war, when American cities first found themselves under the threat and then the actuality of air attack, the Civil Defense Department had imposed nightly blackouts. This had only lasted a short time before it was pointed out that blacking out a city to prevent or impede bombing was an anachronistic and useless measure. Modern planes of war were equipped with infrared visualization equipment that allowed the pilots to see in the darkness and sight their targets with precision. It was now actually harder to find a target at night if the lights were left on since the residual illumination tended to blur the infrared image an attacking pilot would be using. Not that this had been a factor in allowing the power to continue flowing after dark. Angry and sometimes violent nationwide protests against the blackouts had finally been the death of them. The Americans had been able to put up with being bombed. They had been able to put up with aircraft and exploded missile fragments falling onto their houses and killing their children. But they had been not been able to put up with the inability to use their microwave ovens and televisions and computers after sunset.

Since the blackouts were a thing of the past, like carpools, police helicopters, and cheap petroleum jelly, Mark and Darren were treated to the inspirational sight of the city lights of Sacramento and Roseville coming to life once the sun gave up its command of the sky. From the catwalk of the water tower the bright pinpoints of orange and white light stretched almost as far as they could see, all the way to the Sierras to the east and all the way to the horizon to the south. The city lights gave the landscape a friendly, civilized, almost peaceful glow. All of the ugly scars on the landscape, all of the radar masts and air defense weapons, all of the smashed and burned subdivisions became invisible, indistinct amid that glow. You could almost believe you were looking at a world at peace when you looked at the world at night.

Of course it helped if, like the two teenagers, you were stoned to the eyeballs on high-grade marijuana.

"So what's the deal with this request you had today?" Darren asked. "Anything come of it?"

"I got the dinner invite from her," he said, giving a lascivious grin. "She's gonna cook me her burgundy beef stroganoff at 7:00 tomorrow night. It was almost too easy."

"Did you use that my-mom-used-to-make-great-dinners speech that I taught you?"

"Hell yeah," Mark said. "Worked like a charm, just like always. Twenty-four hours from now I'll be sliding my AT-9 right into her breach."

"You the commander, sarge," Darren told him, holding up his hand for a high-five, which Mark gladly provided.

"How about you?" Mark asked him. "You had three requests today. What's the status?"

"They're all in different stages," he replied, helping himself to one of Mark's cigarettes. "One of them is in the early stage, where she's still not sure she wants it yet. The other is in the I-can't-believe-I'm-flirting-with-this-delivery-boy stage. I'll probably squeak a dinner out of her on the next trip. But the third one, now she was a repeat performance."

"Oh yeah? Did she give it up right there?"

"She wouldn't go for an all-out attack today because her fuckin kids were home," he said. "But she did take me into the laundry room and clean my AT-9 for me."

"A blowjob? Right there in the laundry room?"

"Fuckin aye," he confirmed, lighting his smoke. "Wasn't the worst one I've ever had either."

"Goddamn," Mark said, impressed. "Ain't this a great time to be alive?"

"You got that shit right," Darren agreed.

Their conversation about breaches and AT-9s and what a great time it was to be alive was interrupted a moment later by the war. The high-pitched, drawn-out whine of the air-raid sirens suddenly pierced the night. The sound swelled up from nearby, a single siren at first that was soon joined by other, more distant sirens, one by one. They rose and fell in ten second waves; the closer sirens fading between cycles as the further ones were still winding up. Hearing this, both of them peered out over the darkened city knowing they would not be able to see the planes but looking anyway.

"A little early tonight," Darren remarked. "This should be a good one though."

"A good one? You think so?" Mark replied, knowing that when it came to the war and the mechanics of fighting it, Darren knew at least as much as the military experts on the evening newscasts.

"It only makes sense," he explained. "They hit Executive yesterday with anti-runway bombs. That meant they were trying to suppress the air cover. They only try to suppress the air cover if they're planning to come in with a big raid the next night. We're talking twenty, thirty planes maybe."

"Static," Mark said, pitching his cigarette over the side of the rail. He continued to scan the night sky, looking for the telltale signs of the approaching enemy. "What do you think they're going trying to hit tonight? The train yards again?"

"Probably," Darren said, standing up to get a better look. "That's the only thing around here worth hitting with a large raid. The airports are too hard to damage and the port is already wrecked to shit. But they can really fuck up the supply line if they put the rail yard out of action for a week. And now that they have an offensive going they're gonna really want to pound the supply line. They'll hit the train yards and all of the railroad bridges between here and Boise."

They sat in silence for about three minutes, each with their eyes peeled. The planes could come from any direction. When attacking the Sacramento area they typically approached the region by moving south through the Sierra Nevada Mountains, flying at low altitude from their bases in southern Washington and using the cover of the mountains to hide them from radar detection. Once they came within forty or fifty miles however, they would leave the safety of the mountains and scream along the floor of the valley, always coming at their target from an unpredictable angle. Sometimes they stayed in the mountains until they were far past Sacramento and they approached from the south. Sometimes they left the mountains before they got to the city and approached from the north. Sometimes, and this was very rare, they left the mountains directly across from their target and approached from the east. This was what the flight that had killed Mark's mother had done.

The sirens continued to whine up and down, rising and falling. They saw nothing but city lights and the occasional pair of headlights moving along the freeways. They both knew that there was a strong possibility that the sirens were simply a false alarm. At least half of the time an alarm was triggered by the detection of enemy planes in the area that were actually heading somewhere else. That was one of the reasons that people so seldom went to the shelters. Neither one of the young men ever considered for a second that they should climb down from the tower. There was no reason why the Chinese would attack the tower deliberately and the odds of it being hit accidentally by an off target bomb or a crashing plane were the same as the odds on the ground. They had been up on the catwalk many times during air raids in the past and actually found the experience exhilarating, particularly when the train yards were the target.

"Over there," Darren said, pointing off to the south. "Check it out!"

Mark looked that way, at first seeing nothing but the endless expanse of city lights but, after a second, spotting a few streams of red anti-aircraft tracers in the far distance stabbing upward like probing fingers. The first few were joined by a few more, and then a few more until thirty or forty were waving back and forth. "They're coming from the south," he said. "Maybe they're hitting Executive again, or maybe they're going after the fuel storage tanks at Miller Park."

"That's possible," Darren said, continuing to stare intently. "Look! A SAM launch!"

Mark did not need to have that pointed out to him; he was able to see the streak of white light flashing into the sky for himself. The surface to air missile did not hit anything. They saw the white glare of its rocket engine turn sharply to the west in pursuit of an unseen aircraft and then there was a brief flash as the missile exploded. There was no secondary explosion.

"Missed," Darren said, shaking his head. "Those fuckin' chinks fly so low it's hard for the SAMs to lock onto 'em." He sounded like he thought that the Chinese, in the interests of fairness, should fly a little higher in order to give the anti-air defenses a decent shot at them.

Mark said nothing. He simply watched as the tracer streams grew closer and closer to them, effectively marking the position of the attacking planes as each gunner or automatic system tried to bring them down. Watching such a thing while stoned was a very surreal experience.

"They're moving this way," Darren said. "I bet they are hitting the rail yard!"

"Looks like it," Mark agreed, leaning outward a little to get a better view. "Not a very smart approach though, is it?"

"No," Darren said. "They have to fly all the way over the city and all of the AA guns. They should be hitting it from the north or the west. That's mostly open ground."

"Maybe they're afraid of becoming predictable."

"Maybe," he allowed. "Or maybe they're just a bunch of dumb chinks who don't know any better."

The bursts of tracer fire marched closer and closer, rapidly homing in on the southern Roseville area. When they were about ten miles away one of the streams contacted a plane, causing a bright spark to flash. A half a second later a tremendous fireball lit up the night to the south of them as the plane went down and exploded.

"Yes!" Darren yelled, pumping his fist in victory. "Took that motherfucker out!"

Mark was not as enthusiastic. Such occurrences hit a little too close to home for him. He knew that the crashing bomber had more than likely just wiped out a sizable portion of a residential area of Sacramento, or maybe a strip mall, or maybe an apartment complex.

As the planes closed in and began to climb to bombing altitude, the rail yard defenses started to react. From the south side of the yard there was a sudden flash of light as a SAM left one of the sandbagged launchers. Two others joined it over the next three seconds. They sped off towards the planes, keeping low above the rooftops, heading in the direction of the tracer streams, the glow of their engines bright enough to hurt Mark and Darren's eyes if they stared at them. No sooner had they left their launchers than four bright streaks appeared from where the planes were. These were smaller, faster moving streaks of light heading directly back towards the train yard.

"Anti-radar missiles," Darren said, pointing at them. "They're trying to hit the fire control radar before the SAMs hit the planes."

It was difficult to tell which set of missiles won that particular race. Two of the anti-radars seemed to go wild. They went twisting off in crazy circles before finally exploding in mid-air. The other two came speeding in like bolts of lightning, detonating just above the ground over the train yards. Two of the SAMs then instantly exploded in flight, offering no secondary explosions for their effort. The third SAM however, did produce a secondary fireball as it crippled an attacking plane. The fireball sank quickly to the ground and grew to tremendous size as the plane exploded on impact.

"Yes!" Darren screamed, actually jumping up and down on the catwalk he was so excited.

Sounds began to reach them now although with the relatively vast distance between themselves and the sources of the sounds, they did not coordinate with the action very well. At just over four miles away from the train yard, it took a sound wave more than twenty seconds to reach them on the water tower. Although they heard the launch of the SAMs as a series of dull roars, and though they heard the sharp cracks of the anti-radar missiles exploding, they did not hear them until long after the missiles themselves had disappeared from view.

As the planes came closer to the rail yard one more SAM was launched. It streaked out and exploded harmlessly three seconds later without ever correcting its course. The yard's batteries of large caliber anti-aircraft artillery guns then began to fire, each one pumping two shots a second into the sky until the night to the south of them was lit up by a wall of exploding flak shells that burst like blooming orange flowers. Two more planes fell to this barrage, one exploding in mid-air about three miles out and raining burning debris down, the other spinning directly into the ground, sending up another of the great fireballs.

"What are those planes gonna be armed with?" Mark asked as the hollow thumping of the AAA guns finally began to reach them.

"For the rail yard," Darren answered, "they'll each have eight or ten five hundred pound high explosive bombs that they'll try to spread out all over parked trains."

Just as the sound of the flak shells bursting reached their ears the flak guns themselves stopped firing. The smaller caliber guns, the 23 and 30 millimeter rapid fires; the last line of defense for the yard, opened up one by one until more than thirty were firing at once from all points around the yard. The tracer streams moved back and forth, up and down, sometimes crossing each other as they sought out the Chinese aircraft. Most moved with the jerky motions that bespoke of a human hand guiding them. A few moved with the smooth, rapid precision of radar or infrared guidance.

"This is fuckin awesome!" Darren yelled happily, his eyes transfixed by the sight.

"Hell yeah!" Mark agreed.

The attack itself took less than five seconds. They only had the briefest impression of the outline of the planes as they shot over the yard at more than five hundred miles per hour. One of them, hit by a tracer stream, spun in and crashed along the road just short of the security fence. The surviving planes flashed by in an instant, continuing over the city of Roseville to the north, a SAM and multiple tracer streams chasing after them. They never saw the bombs at all, at least not while they were in flight.

But when those bombs began to land and explode, they could look at nothing else. Each plane's load was marked by a line of explosions a half a second apart marching forward from the first as the bombs impacted one by one. Five such loads landed at once, about an eighth of a mile apart and stretching across the northern portion of the coupling area. Six more marched across the south portion. When the explosions hit train cars they burst apart, sending metal and other shrapnel through the air. Some of the cars, obviously containing items like AT-9 rounds or artillery shells, went up in spectacular secondary explosions ten and twenty times the size of the primary explosion. The concussions from these impacts, when they reached the tower twenty to thirty seconds later, would shake and jolt the entire structure, thrilling Mark and Darren to no end. To an adult it would have seemed a terrifying and foolishly dangerous manner of entertainment, but to teenagers, who thought themselves immortal, it was more thrilling than a rollercoaster ride.

The first of the concussions from the attack was still on its way to the tower when one of the lines of falling bombs stretched across a group of thirty or so tanker cars that contained either jet or diesel fuel. Usually large numbers of flammable liquid cars were not stored together but apparently the yard workers had not had a chance to separate this particular batch yet. The reason why such cars were kept separate became dramatically visible a moment later. The secondary explosion consisted of the entire line of tankers going up at once. The flash was so bright that night was momentarily turned to day, even four miles away. Every rail car within a hundred yards was obliterated instantly, sending tons of metal fragments outward at lethal speed for more than a mile in all directions. The fireball reached a thousand feet in the air and multiple third and forth generation explosions resulted as boxcars and one SAM site went up.

"Oh shit!" Darren yelled fearfully, sitting back down and grabbing the railing of the catwalk. "I think we'd better hang on for this one!"

"Right," Mark said, assuming the same position. He grabbed onto the rail for dear life and braced himself. They had never seen an explosion near as big and had no way to predict what the results of it would be. Would it be able to knock the tower down? Would it be able to jar the catwalk loose, sending them downward to their deaths?

A few seconds later the tower began to rock gently as the sound and the displaced air of the first concussions hammered into them. They could feel each explosion like a blow to the chest, could feel the catwalk rattling back and forth. In their ears the soundtrack of what they had just witnessed caught up to them. The dull thuds of the exploding bombs and the larger, secondary explosions of the boxcars assaulted their eardrums, almost, but not quite painfully. This was all expected, something that they had been through many times before, something that they usually did not even bother sitting down for.

"Any second now!" Darren screamed over the noise, his knuckles white upon the metal rail.

Mark did not answer. He simply closed his eyes and prepared to be hit by the blast wave.

It struck them like a speeding freight train, with such power that the entire catwalk was wrenched violently up and down with a hideous screech of tortured metal. The breath was forced out of their lungs in a whoosh as the blast of air pressure struck them. Despite the fact that they were hanging on to the rail, they were driven backward against the metal of the tank and bounced more than two feet in the air, crashing down painfully on their butts. They felt their eyeballs actually pushed back in their heads from the pressure, felt their teeth jar in their mouth. The noise, which hit them simultaneously with the concussion, was a sharp, biting crack that produced an immediate stabbing pain in their ears and temporarily deafened them. For a moment, with their heads reeling, their eardrums sending knives of pain through them, and their lungs unable to draw breath, both thought that they had been killed.

As the third and fourth generation concussions began to reach them, feeling a little like the playful taps of a child in comparison to what they had just experienced, they looked at each other with wide eyes.

"Jesus," Darren said, shaking his head to clear it a little. He found that the pillow he had been sitting upon was missing, probably tossed over the edge of the catwalk while he had been in mid-bounce. "That was some shit."

Mark's ears were ringing, making it sound as if Darren's voice was coming from a vast distance. "No kidding," he said, touching his nose. His finger came away bloody. "I thought the whole fuckin' tower was coming down."

"That threw me backward like I was a damn rag doll. It ripped that railing right out of my hands."

Mark nodded, noticing that his own pillow was missing as well. He looked out over the train yards where utter chaos was now taking place. The entire south side of the facility was ablaze as burning fuel from the tankers continued to ignite and explode boxcars and other tankers. Flames shot into the air with each new explosion hurtling more debris violently outward. Hundreds of smaller fires were burning around the periphery of the yard and two of the storage buildings were also ablaze. The tiny figures of people could be seen rushing here and there around the yard, trying to get out of areas that were being consumed by fire or that were in danger of being leveled by another explosion.

"How's your nose?" Darren asked, looking for the cigarette pack and finally finding it beneath Mark's backpack. He helped himself to one.

"Hurt's a little," Mark told him, grabbing a cigarette of his own. "That was one fuck of a concussion."

"Yeah," Darren agreed. "The chinks got lucky and hit a whole line of tankers. I bet that broke some windows in our neighborhood."

"Damn near broke my eardrums and my neck too." Mark said, searching for and finally finding his matches.

They took a moment to light their cigarettes, drawing deeply and blowing the smoke out over the railing, letting their heartbeats return to normal. Below them, at the train yard, explosions continued to occur every fifteen or twenty seconds. Most of them were the relatively small bombs or crates of AT-9 warheads, but every few minutes or so another tanker would blow up, ignited by the destruction of a nearby boxcar. In the distance they could see the emergency lights of fire engines, trucks, water tenders, and police cars heading for the scene of the attack. Not that they would be able to do anything until the explosions stopped. As they watched them approach and begin to fan out into pre-planned staging locations, the concussions continued to batter at them, rattling the catwalk and hammering into their chests, though not with the force that they had experienced a few minutes before. By the time they finished their cigarettes and pitched them over the edge, a perimeter was nearly formed around the yards and most of the people seemed to have moved away from the danger area.

"That'll disrupt the supply line a little, won't it?" Mark asked, sitting back down and letting his legs hang over the edge once more.

"Yep," Darren said sadly. "It'll probably take 'em a week or two to clean that one up. Fuckin' chinks."

"War is hell they say," Mark agreed. He looked over at his friend. "Why don't you roll us another missile? That'll help put this into perspective."

"Sounds like a mission," Darren said, reaching into his pocket and pulling out his baggie.

They settled back against the tank once more to smoke some more marijuana and watch the show.



-------

Chapter 2


Saturday dawned hot and sunny, a typical late May day in the Sacramento Valley. Mark spent most of it at work, hauling loads of groceries to all corners of the western Roseville area for a variety of customers. As he worked, the stiffness in his back that he had awakened with—stiffness that was a result of being slammed into the side of the water tank during the explosion the night before—gradually worked its way from an annoying pain to a dull, almost pleasant throb. He had noticed an area of bruising over his kidney region when he'd gotten dressed and was forced to wonder if sitting on the tower during air raids on the train yard was really such a smart thing to do. Maybe they should at least go around to the other side.

Soon however, the thoughts of what he was going to be doing that night drove thoughts of personal safety from his mind. Knowing that he had a dinner date for the night he kept his food intake at a minimum, wanting to be good and hungry by the time he made it to Diane's house. The young widows were very much impressed when the young delivery boy they were trying to seduce gorged himself on their food. The drawback of this however was that by the time he pulled his bike into the garage of his house at 5:00 PM, he was nearly ravenous with hunger. He was also very much in need of a shower.

He found his father perched before his computer screen in the den, going over his own financial figures for once instead of those belonging to an Asian-American. He didn't seem particularly happy by what he was seeing there.

"How's it looking, Dad?" Mark asked him, eyeing the four empty beer bottles sitting on the desk near the printer.

Jeff looked at his son expressionlessly for a moment before taking a swig out of his latest beer. "About what you'd expect," he said. "We're keeping our heads just above the waterline. The money from you and your brother helps a lot."

Mark knew that the money he and his brother Jacob contributed to the household was more than just helping, it was absolutely necessary. The Whiting clan these days was constantly teetering on the edge of losing their house to foreclosure. It was an expensive house in a nice suburb that had been purchased during much happier times. It was also a house that had relied upon the income of two full-time jobs in order to make the payments. When his mother had died they received no monetary compensation of any kind for her death. Though a $500,000 term life insurance policy had been in effect and currently paid up at the time the A-6 had made its fatal plunge into the schoolyard, they had never received a penny of that money. Mary Whiting's death had been caused by an act of war and acts of war were specifically excluded in the terms and conditions of both life insurance policies and homeowner's policies. It was a little portion of the contracts people signed that, if they bothered to read at all, they used to chuckle over, perhaps shaking their head a bit at how strange that sounded. Not covered if the result of an act of war? What moron put that in? But the insurance companies had not been dumb. They had known that in this world we call home, just about anything could happen. Those little exclusions had saved them untold billions of dollars in claims since the war's outbreak.

"I had a pretty good week," Mark told his father. "I should be able to give you most of my check and live off my tips until next payday."

"Thank you, Mark," he said a little sadly. "That should help a lot. The electricity and the internet bills are coming due as well as the mortgage payment."

"No problem Dad. Glad to help out."

His dad shook his head a little. "I'm sorry that you have to give your money to me," he told him. "It shouldn't be that way. You should be able to do whatever you want with your money, spend it on girls, on cars, on college, but this damn war is screwing everything up for you."

Mark didn't like it when his father became morose like this, something that was happening with increasing frequency these days. "No flak, Dad," he said dismissively. "The opposition is what the opposition is, right?"

"That's what they say I guess," he said, taking another swig. "What should we do for dinner tonight? Money's a little tight for pizza again. Maybe I could put together some spaghetti out of what's in the pantry."

"Well, actually," Mark told him, "I have a date tonight. I'll grab some dinner while I'm out."

"Another date?" he asked, perhaps a little suspiciously. "Who is it with?"

"Just a girl from school," Mark lied. "It ain't no big offensive or nothing. We're gonna go catch a movie or something. I shouldn't be out too late."

Jeff looked at him for a moment, as if debating whether or not to say something. Mark suspected that his father suspected what he was really up to on his dates, and knew instinctively that he would disapprove of the activity if it were confirmed. But finally his father turned his attention back to the computer screen, dismissing the subject.

"I'm gonna go shower up and start getting ready," Mark said. "Catch you on the resupply."

"Right," his father said. "On the resupply."

Mark showered in the upstairs bathroom, taking a long, luxuriant soak that completely drained the hot water tank of its bounty. He scrubbed his body clean of the sweat and grime that riding around on a bicycle all day produced and double washed his short hair, adding a dose of conditioner just for good measure. He dried off and shaved his face as smooth as he possibly could, knowing that the more baby-faced and innocent he looked for the widows, the more of a thrill it seemed to give them. Finally, his laundry stowed in the hamper and a towel wrapped around his waist, he exited the steamy bathroom and made his way to his bedroom.

It was typically messy for an eighteen-year-old boy's living quarters. The twin bed was unmade, the covers tossed back near the foot in a heap. Two days worth of laundry littered the floor along with a few glass soda bottles. The desk, where his main computer terminal/television set was mounted, was covered with CD cases, loose discs, a few more soda bottles, and two pairs of socks. On the walls of the room however, were some atypical decorations for someone his age. Instead of posters of military equipment or rock stars, he had posters of buildings and other structures and printouts of some of his favorite blueprints. The shelves contained a variety of his engineering concoctions, including his mock-up of the water tower.

With a sigh he cleared off his desk a little, tossing the soda bottles to the floor and the socks to a semi-permanent pile near the door. He looked at the terminal. "Power on," he told it.

Instantly the voice recognition software activated the machine and sent it through its series of self-checks. At last the screen displayed his wallpaper; a high-resolution digital photograph of the now abandoned International Space Station.

"Bring up net-radio," he told it next.

"Net radio on line," the computer's female voice told him a second later.

"Station three," he said.

From the speakers came the sound of the rock group Annihilation singing their popular ballad Train Ride, which was about leaving the woman you loved behind while you went off to war.

As I gaze from the window



You disappear from sight

The face that I've known

That face so warm and bright

But don't worry darling

It has to be all right

It's time for me to go now



It's time for me to fight

Mark smiled a little at the words, his foot tapping on the carpet to the rhythm. He sang along with the chorus, thinking that if he didn't have to fork over too much of his next paycheck to his father, he might be able to break loose enough funds to download the CD. He had meant to do that this weekend but the acquisition of the marijuana had cut a little too heavily into his account status.

After adjusting the volume on his computer to a suitable level he reached up onto one of his shelves and removed a replica of a two-story house that he had built with Popsicle sticks and glue a year before. The model was nearly two feet tall and had required more than eight hundred of the small, wooden sticks for its construction. He carried it to his bed and set it down, sliding his fingers up beneath the eaves of the roof and triggering a hidden lever. With a pull he opened the model up sideways, swinging it apart on interior wooden hinges. Inside of it was the bag of marijuana that Darren had bought for him and a bizarre concoction that Mark had designed and built himself. It was a contraption made from a piece of half inch PVC pipe and some plumbing fixtures that he had scavenged from a bombed out house near the rail yard. Mounted to it were parts from an electric toothbrush, a remote control car, and an old blow dryer that had belonged to his mother. The power supply consisted of two D cell batteries. He pulled his device and his smoke out of the Popsicle stick house and set them on his bed. He unrolled the baggie of marijuana and took a very small pinch from it. This he placed in a copper plumbing fixture on top of the device, tamping it down and then closing a small metal lid with tiny holes drilled in it.

Like anything else he enjoyed in life, Mark had sought out and discovered the best possible method of using marijuana. From writings on the internet he had learned that almost a third of the active ingredient in the drug was wasted when it was smoked in the conventional fashion, since burning the buds was an inefficient means of releasing the THC. With that thought in mind he had devised a way to inhale the THC without actually burning it with flame, therefore achieving almost perfect THC utilization. If marijuana ever became a legal intoxicant he intended to patent his device and make billions from it.

He put the end of the PVC pipe to his lips and then pushed a small button mounted near the bowl. Electricity coursed into the insulated copper of the bowl, quickly heating it up to a temperature that was just below the combustion point of the bud. The THC boiled out of the plant and was sucked down the pipe into Mark's lungs. The plant material itself shriveled up into a compact, dried-out ball. Unlike with burning the marijuana, there was no smoke with this method, only the strong taste of acrid steam. For this reason there was no smell to leak into his room, therefore alerting his father. And since heating was much more efficient of a usage, it only took two hits before Mark felt the familiar sensation of marijuana intoxication surging through his brain.

Smiling, his eyelids already drooping, his mouth already drying out, he cleaned out his device and stowed it back where it belonged along with the baggie. He cranked up his tunes a little and then dropped the towel to the floor. After digging around in his dresser for a moment he finally found a pair of plain blue jeans and a simple, non-camouflage patterned T-shirt. Singing to the music, he got dressed for his date.

Once he was presentable he checked his watch and saw that he still had well over an hour before it was time to leave. He killed this time by watching a television show on the development of the F-22 fighter. In between sections of the show he was exposed to five armed services recruitment commercials. Three of them were the standard ads that simply aimed for the younger generation, encouraging them to join the military for the good of their country. These featured catchy modern music and handsome, M-16 toting young men in cammies riding on tanks or APCs in the battle zone. These images were meshed with other pictures of the young men's proud parents looking at photographs of them in their class-A uniforms back home. There were of course no references to the fact that four out of ten of these young men would be killed their first month in the combat zone or that another two out of the remaining six would be killed before their two-year tour of combat duty was up. That information, had it been imparted to the viewers, certainly would not help the voluntary recruitment rate. The other two however were the ads pushing the armed services' buddy program.

These commercials were played on every show that the 15-18 year old market was likely to watch. The most common one showed two handsome young men, one Caucasian, one African-American, dressed in their high school graduation caps and gowns, presumably just after the ceremony. They discussed how they had been best friends since grammar school and how, since they were both signing up for enlistment (of course), that it was a shame that they would probably not get to see each other until it was over.

"Wouldn't it be static," the African-American then asked the Caucasian, "if there was some way that we could serve our country together?"

"Yeah," the Caucasian would then say, dejection at the thought of losing touch with his friend for the duration of the war clearly showing on his face. "But I guess that's just impossible."

"Wrong," a voice-over would then cut in, catching both of the young men's attention. "Now, with the armed forces buddy program, there is a way for you both to serve together."

"There is?" they would ask in unison, their eyes showing exaggerated interest.

The voice then went on to explain just how the buddy program worked. Any two people that met the service qualifications could declare themselves "buddies" to the recruiter. Provided both passed the physical requirements, the armed forces would then guarantee in writing that the two buddies would attend basic training together and be assigned to the same platoon together once they graduated.

Having had this explained to them, the two friends would then break into huge grins and put their arms around each other. "Looks like we're going to serve together, buddy," the Caucasian would say happily. The next shot would show them in their camouflage gear with their weapons, climbing onto a C-130 for transport to some unmentioned posting. Another voice-over would then spend a moment summarizing the buddy program for those that had been too stupid to follow the plot of the commercial. Just before the fade, while patriotic music was playing and the aircraft was being sealed up, small print at the bottom of the screen, hardly noticeable unless you strained to see it, would then point out that: "some restrictions apply."

Though both Mark and Darren had seen these commercials a thousand times or more, neither had ever thought to wonder just what those restrictions might be.

By the time the F-22 program was over and the next one—a biography of the M2 battle tank—began, it was 6:30, time for him to fly.

"Shut all programs down," he told his computer, "and power off."

He then picked up his PC and headed out the door.

-------

The dinner that night went almost exactly as he had expected it would. Diane answered the door dressed in a knee length summer dress that showed off her legs quite nicely while hiding the slight widening of her hips. She served him a burgundy beef stroganoff that was just short of divine and he hungrily devoured two helping of it, washing it down with the wine she served.

After dinner and a few more glasses of wine, she sent the children to bed and began her seduction. Mark played his part well, behaving just like a shy young man who is gradually realizing what his hostess has on her not-so-innocent mind. By nine o'clock she had enticed him to her bedroom where they spent the better part of an hour copulating in various positions. She was very good in bed, her passion fueled both by the extended length of its restraint and by the growing skill of her seductee, who was definitely not as innocent as she'd suspected.

"My god," she breathed on more than one occasion, her face sweaty, her eyes gazed with surprised lust, "where did you learn to do that?"

"I read a lot," he would reply to her, and then continue with his work.

Afterward he found that she was one of those that felt guilt over what she had done. About half of the widows turned out to be this type. Naked, the sweat still drying on her skin, her body still flushed from the four orgasms she'd experienced, she broke into sorrowful tears at the corruption that she'd heaped upon the young lad who had come to her house expecting nothing but dinner.

"It's all right," he told her soothingly, stroking her shoulder, and then launching into a pre-planned speech that Darren had taught him for just such occasions. By the end of it he had her smiling once again, reassured that she hadn't corrupted him too badly and even open to the possibilities of having him over again some day before he went off to fight the war.

He left her at 10:30, biking his way slowly home, his body aching pleasantly, his mind satiated in the way that only comes from sexual release.

-------

An hour later he was up in his bedroom, still too keyed up to sleep. He was sitting at his computer terminal, reading through an electronic book that he had owned for more than two years now and had already read start to finish no less than ten times. It was a comprehensive beginners guide to the principals of electrical engineering as it related to the operation of municipal water systems. Not exactly one of the staples of teenage popular literature, true, but it was one of Mark's favorites for the sheer informational value it presented. As he paged through the text, looking at circuit diagrams and pump operation schematics, the net radio was playing in the background at a moderate volume. He was pleasantly stoned as he sat there, having just taken a few hits of his still ample marijuana supply, and was sipping from a bottle of his father's beer he had swiped from the refrigerator.

His computer terminal suddenly began to buzz, indicating an incoming call. Automatically his textbook was dropped into the background and the communications software took its place. The caller identification window informed him it was Darren Caswell ringing in, but he didn't really have to look to know that. Darren was pretty much the only person that called him at all, let alone this late at night.

"Answer," he told his computer, scooting closer to the screen.

"Coming on line," the computer's voice shot right back. The web cam on his desk activated, a green light illuminating atop it. At the same time the screen lit up with Darren's face, the image taken from his web cam back at his house. Mark could tell just by looking at his eyes that Darren was stoned too.

"What's up, sarge?" Darren asked him casually, giving the customary nod of greeting. "I figured you'd still be awake."

"Oh yeah," Mark replied. "Smoked a little bud earlier and I'm just mellowing out. Just got home a little while ago."

Darren grinned knowingly. "So how'd your dinner date go? Did you tap her?"

"Several times," he assured him, grinning back. "She was nasty in the bedroom, I'm here to tell you."

"You the commander," he said, giving him a thumbs up. "So let's hear it. Give me the briefing."

He gave him the briefing. It was a long-standing tradition with them that they share every detail of their sexual conquests. They had in fact been doing that even before there had been sexual conquests to share, having made up spectacular and sometimes physically impossible exploits back in their pre-experience days. But now the stories were much more interesting because both knew they were real. Mark described his encounter with Diane in a crude, step-by-step dissertation while Darren listened raptly.

"She was one of the guilty ones huh?" Darren said sadly after the tale reached its end. "That's a retreat. Did the speech work on her?"

"Like a charm," he replied. "She went from crying to being proud to serve one of our future fighting men in his time of need."

"Goddamn," Darren said proudly, "sometimes I amaze even myself." He paused, taking a drag from a cigarette. "So you want to play some Infantry Attack? I'm in the mood to kill some chinks."

Mark thought it over for a second or two and decided that a nice game of Infantry Attack—a virtual reality combat game—would go down pretty good about now. "Let's do it," he said.

"Static," Darren said. "Get it set up and I'll meet you on the battlefield. You call me."

"Got it," he answered, pushing his finger to the hang-up tab on his screen.

Darren's face blanked off and the communications software dropped back to the background once again, recalling the textbook. Mark instructed the computer to close all active programs and links and to put the communications program in notify mode. He then reached into one of his desk drawers and pulled out a pair of virtual reality goggles. They were not the best VR glasses available, just the standard set that came with the computer, equipped with only forty-five degrees of peripheral view, but they served their purpose. He plugged them into the terminal and then set them down on the desk. Next he reached beneath the desk and removed the two hand controls that were part of the game hardware. They were attached to a sanded one meter length of 1x3 inch lumber, situated far enough apart to simulate the hand grips on an M-16 rifle. The contraption looked nothing like an M-16 rifle but that was irrelevant once the game was rolling. He plugged this into the computer as well.

"Computer," he said, "bring up program Infantry Attack and activate."

"Program loading," the computer replied.

As the nine hundred gigabyte hard drive of his computer began to whir and spin, recalling the seventy-six gigs of information that was required to run the game, Mark picked up the VR glasses and put them on. They fit snugly to his head and he spent a moment adjusting them until the two screens within lined up perfectly, allowing him to see the red and white test pattern in near perfect 3-D. He then adjusted the two earpieces, shifting them until they were comfortable. The last step was to bend the microphone piece down to his mouth. By the time he was done with all of this, the hard drive had given up its bits and bytes and the opening scene of the program was floating before his eyes, making it appear that he was outside of a barracks building on an army base. In his ears the simulated whistle of the wind could be heard beneath the faint patriotic music that set the soundtrack. Using foot pedals on the floor beneath his desk, he moved to the building marked: ONLINE GAME and went inside.

"Good afternoon, Private," a very attractive blonde computer secretary dressed in cammies addressed him. She was sitting behind a desk and smiling up at him with her slightly grainy face. "Where would you like to fight today?"

"Connect with Caswell," he told her, speaking into the microphone.

"Very good, Private," she replied, leaning down and tapping a simulated computer keyboard on her desk. "Attempting to locate now."

Mark waited without speaking, without moving. He had long since grown bored with trying to touch the computer secretary or engage her with sexual slurs. All she would say in return was: "Please, I'm a married woman, Private."

"Connecting," she said a moment later, again offering her simulated smile. "Awaiting confirmation."

"Static," he mumbled.

"Connection made. Please stand by."

A second later Darren came walking into the tent from the opposite door. Of course it wasn't really Darren, it was just a simulated computer character that was being controlled by Darren. The face of the character was a tough looking, though very generic representation of a Caucasian male. It was without expression, the eyes non-blinking and fixed in place. The computer Darren wore a complete camouflage uniform and pack. A helmet rested upon his head and an M-16 rifle was slung over his shoulder. It turned its head and looked at Mark, following the movements of its master two streets over. When it talked, it was with Darren's voice though the mouth only moved a little. "You ready?" it asked.

"Hell yeah," Mark replied. "Let's do it." He reached forward and grabbed the hand controls on his desk by feel since he couldn't actually see them. As he picked up the piece of lumber and put his fingers on the controls, a simulated M-16 barrel swung out before him, the sights sticking up. He moved it back and forth a few times, making sure the movements coordinated well. When he swung the stick to the left, the barrel swung neatly to the left. When he moved it up, it followed almost exactly in that direction as well.

"Let's do an offensive operation," Darren suggested, his own M-16 swinging up into firing position as he picked up his own lumber back at his house. It swung back and forth a few times as he got the feel of the motions.

"You want to do the tank snipe mission?" Mark asked, stepping forward a few feet.

"Yeah," Darren replied. "That's a cool one for warm-up." He spun around towards the secretary and leveled his rifle on her. She ignored it completely. "Hey, baby," he said to her. "How about a little head?"

"Please," she said, looking up at him. "I'm a married woman, Private."

"Bitch," Darren mumbled, lowering the rifle barrel. He knew better than to shoot her. While it was true that the rifle would fire in this portion of the game and would successfully cause her head to fly apart in a spray of simulated blood, the computer would then court martial your character and force you to go to all the trouble of creating a new one.

"C'mon, sarge," Mark said, using his foot pedals to walk to the door of the tent. "Let's go kill some chinks."

"Right behind you, brother," Darren replied.

Mark walked out of the tent and turned right, walking through a row of similar tents, each of which was labeled with a different mission. He walked into the one that read TANK SNIPERS and found himself facing a computer simulation of a lieutenant. He looked up at them as they entered.

"So," he said, his voice tough and condescending. "You two think you can handle this mission?"

"Override description," Mark said. "Go directly to battle."

"Fuckin aye," Darren said next to him.

Had they let him, the computer lieutenant would have explained that their mission was to carry their AT-9 missiles and warheads through enemy territory to a hill overlooking the avenue of advance. From there they were to each take out four tanks and then fight their way back. They would also be subject to air attack both from helicopters and attack aircraft. For this they were given two anti-air missiles apiece, which could be fired from their AT-9 launchers. Though the mission was not a very realistic one—after all, the army was not in the habit of sending two soldiers to do such a thing, especially carrying nearly twice as much weight as they could physically handle—it was still fun.

Since Mark had overridden the instruction phase, the scene immediately dissolved before them and they found themselves standing on a hill overlooking a grove of trees. On the other side of the trees was a rise with more trees upon it. A trail led through this forest, branching out once it got inside. The graphics were not terribly realistic up close. When you got close to a tree or looked directly at the ground, the pixels that made up the animation could be easily seen. Though they were immersed in the virtual world of the battlefield, it was a far cry from being mistaken for reality. In their ears however, the sound was almost perfect. The whistle of the wind and the far off thumping of artillery could be heard. Occasional bursts of automatic weapons fire—AK-47s and M-16s—were also part of the background. The soft crunching of leaves beneath their feet and the muted clank of steel weapons being shifted accompanied each step they took.

"I'll take the point," Darren said, raising his rifle and beginning to head towards the tree line.

"All yours," Mark answered back, raising his own weapon. They had long since learned that they stood a much better chance of surviving their mission if Darren was in front.

They began to move towards their objective. As they walked and trotted, alternating between pieces of cover and concealment, the tree line grew bigger before them. Mark twisted the crouch lever on the back handpiece with his thumb a little, causing his character to put his head down. Though they had run this mission of the game perhaps fifty times before, the enemy were programmed to be in different places every time. Their success rate with it was about seventy-five percent.

"So how much of the buds do you have left?" Darren asked as they split up around a rock formation and closed in on a mound of earth.

"I smoked a lot of it," he replied, turning his head back and forth, looking for the faint silhouettes of the Chinese computer soldiers. "But I still have enough for a few joints."

"Mine's almost gone," he said. "I fuckin' spilled some of it when my dad came home from work early."

"No shit?" Mark asked, as if he believed him. He knew that Darren was just trying to establish that he was out of pot and wanted to smoke his.

"Yep," he said, twisting a little to the right and holding. "I think there's a chink over there about ten o'clock."

"Got it," Mark said, twisting the crouch button a little more and lowering his character. He aimed the end of his rifle in that direction. "Looks like we got good cover here."

"Let's do him and see what kinda shit pops up," Darren suggested.

"Right."

The default setting for their simulated rifles was for three round bursts. They pushed the primary firing button on their hand controls causing their characters to each fire a single burst into the tree line where Darren had spotted the telltale movement. The reports were loud in their ears, the ends of their rifle muzzles flashing red, the animated ejected shell casings flying out of view to their right. The only thing missing was the sensation of recoil. From the tree line came answering fire in the form of muzzle flashes, followed a second later by the distinctive chatter of AK-47 rifles. Computer generated dust began to puff up in front of them. They fired back, knocking out two of the unseen enemy within five seconds. The third made a dash back into the forest, a small, vaguely Chinese figure carrying a rifle. They opened up on it and it jittered and twisted, blood flying into the air before it fell.

"Fuck yeah!" Darren cried enthusiastically, making his character stand back up. "Three dead chinks. Only a billion or so to go."

"Off to a good start," Mark agreed enthusiastically. As many times as he had played it, Infantry Attack still got his blood pumping.

"C'mon," Darren said, gesturing forward with his rifle. "Let's go kill some more." With that he began to trot across the open ground, keeping low. Mark stayed where he was for the moment, covering him. Occasionally the computer enemy would attempt to pick them off as they made the dash. This time they didn't. "It's clear," Darren said when he made it across. "Come on up."

"On my way," he replied, twisting his thumb on the dial and making his computer image stand. He manipulated the foot pedals, putting him into a trot. A few seconds later the computer trees loomed around him and he was in the forest. Darren's character was standing by, pointing its rifle out over the area.

They began the process of moving through the dense forest to the other side. When they had first started playing this game they had had tremendous difficulty with this portion, inevitably getting blown away by the many computer enemy soldiers that hid within. But by now they had the transition down to a well-drilled science. First one would dash forward thirty or forty feet (such as they were in the VR world) and then the other would leapfrog around him. The one who was not moving would provide fire support to the one who was. They would parallel the trail but not actually walk upon it. Past experience had taught them that the trail was mined. So routine was this portion of the game to them that they did not even have to give it their full attention. They continued to chat with each other as they advanced.

"So you wanna cruise out to the tower tomorrow after work?" Darren asked as he made the first dash, moving from one tree to another, the barrel of his rifle moving back and forth. "Smoke some buds and watch 'em rebuild the train yard?" He took up position and aimed forward, ready to fire.

"Maybe," Mark said, making his own dash. He circled around to Darren's right and made a crouching trot to a small mound of dirt about ten yards beyond him. "I gotta study for finals at some point though."

"Fuckin finals," he said with contempt. "What the hell's the point? We're joining the army in a few weeks."

"I promised my dad that I'd graduate," he replied, continuing his advance, his rifle swinging back and forth, looking for enemies. "My grades have slipped quite a bit this year. If I flunk a couple of finals then I might not have enough credits for the diploma."

"Yeah, I hear you," Darren told him, opening up on a sniper that he spotted trying to take aim at Mark from about a hundred yards away. The sniper's head exploded into blood and gore before his body fell out of the tree he had been hiding in.

"Good shot," Mark commented. He finally reached the mound and took up a covering position. He made a quick scan of the area and then waved Darren forward.

"Thanks," Darren said, beginning his own dash, his movements a little smoother and better coordinated than Mark's. "Anyway, I'm down with what you're saying. My old man's been nagging me about my fuckin grades too, as if it really matters whether or not I have a goddamn diploma on the line."

"There's always after the war," Mark told him, blasting a sniper of his own with a well-placed burst to the chest. "We'll have to get jobs and shit then you know."

"I'll worry about after the war, after the war," he replied. "God only knows how long that's gonna be. Besides, what if the fuckin chinks win? Then we'll all be in a goddamn POW camp getting tortured anyway."

"You never know what's gonna happen," Mark said, unconsciously echoing the words of his father. "I'll burn a few hours studying now if it means I'm sitting good once the war's over. I still want to go to college someday, learn to be an engineer. Maybe they'll have some sort of GI bill for the veterans after it's all said and done."

"Anything's possible I suppose," he replied, his character trotting by Mark and taking up position behind a group of trees. "Come on up."

Mark began to move again. "What's the briefing on our recruitment appointments?" he asked next. "Did you call them today?"

"Fuckin aye I did," Darren told him righteously. "Get down!"

Mark made his character hit the dirt while Darren fired at a group of computer Chinese that were breaking from the trees in their direction. Before he could even train his rifle on them, Darren had mowed all three down.

"Nice shooting," Mark commented.

"Just looking out for you, sarge," Darren replied. "We make a pretty good team, you know that?"

"Yeah," he said, bringing his character back to his feet and rushing forward once again. "We do, don't we?"

"Hell yeah. Anyway, I called them this afternoon and got us in with the group that's testing the day after grad day."

"No shit?" Mark said, blasting at a couple of Chinese soldiers that had popped over a ridge in front of him. He knocked both of them out and then hit the dirt once more to let Darren advance. Three more came out of a tree line and he shot them down as well. "I thought it took a month or two to get an appointment to enlist during graduation season."

"It would if we were in a Sacramento school, but the Roseville schools get out two weeks earlier. That puts us at the front of the fuckin line."

"Static," Mark said, projecting more enthusiasm than he actually felt. The day after graduation was only nine days away. Having an actual day set to go and sign up for the armed forces brought a little of the fear home to him.

"That's what I said," Darren told him. "Just think, in less than a month we can be heading off to basic. Two months after that, we'll be on our way to the line and we'll be doing this shit for real."

"You tell your mom and dad yet?" Mark asked.

"Not yet," he replied a little sourly. "You know how they get every time I start talking about signing up. They start in on that non-hazardous posting shit again. I swear to God, sometimes I think they're fucking chink sympathizers."

"They're just worried about you," Mark told him. "They don't want to lose both their sons."

"Shit," Darren said, dismissing his parent's worry with a wave of his simulated rifle, "how many times I gotta tell you? If the chinks wanna smoke me they're gonna have to fuckin work at it."

-------

As the month of May turned to June, the offensive by the Chinese continued on with particular ferocity. Each day the news reports carried stories of intense fighting all along the active front. Pictures and still frame images of burning tanks (always Chinese), of dead soldiers (always Chinese or Vietnamese or Japanese or Korean), and of slightly wounded, brave fighting men (usually Americans, occasionally Latin American, but never Asians) crowding the field hospitals were flashed across the various media. Each day's reports assured the viewing public that the lines, though they sometimes moved back a kilometer or two when the fighting was particularly vicious, were holding, preventing a break-through. The casualty lists in the metro section of the local internet news service grew exponentially, up from a usual five to ten Sacramento area names each day during the static periods to more than fifty.

As graduation day approached for Wood Oak High School, five more portraits of former students were put up in the cafeteria, each one representing a member of previous classes who had been killed in action while in the service of his country. These five brought the grand total of portraits to 96, although that did not include some 38 young men who were officially classified as missing in action and presumed dead. Nor did it include an additional 57 who were reportedly prisoners of war in some Chinese camp. Nor did it include the 684 who had been wounded in battle seriously enough to be discharged from their country's service and placed on a lifetime pension.

The members of the class of 2015 did not dwell much on those black-framed photographs. They looked at them a single time when they were initially placed, just enough to see if they recognized the name or not, and then they forgot about them, almost to a person telling themselves that their picture could never hang there because they were immortal. After all, when you're eighteen years old and just beginning your life, you can't possibly die can you? Somebody else could, even someone your own age, but not you personally. Besides, those that got killed on the line were the dumb ones weren't they? That's what everyone said.

The final classes of the year came on June 7th. Mark managed to pass all of his finals with a C or better and his overall grade point average was a 3.48. Darren just managed to squeak by as well, actually flunking an important final but the instructor cut him just a little bit of slack, knowing what his young student's fate was sure to be. His grade point average ended up 1.77.

The night of June 8th, a Friday night, the two friends donned caps and gowns and joined the other 411 graduating seniors for the official ceremony on the school's football field. Parents filled the bleachers where football fans had once sat, watching as the class valedictorian—an eerily bright young man who had earned a solid 4.0 but who planned to waive his college deferment so he could serve—gave an inspiring speech on good old American values and the need to pull together during these dark times. The joy that should have been on the faces of these parents was absent in many cases. No longer was high school graduation the mile marker it had once been, no longer was it a particularly happy occasion. Of the 210 girls of the Class of 2015, 168 of them would either enlist or be drafted into service for support positions in the war. They would be trained as radar operators, logistics personnel, maintenance technicians, and a hundred other such jobs. Of the 201 boys that were graduating, 193 would be on their way to the war within two months, well over three quarters of that number bound, in one way or another, for hazardous duty assignment.

Jeff Whiting sat near the front of the crowd, his face unsmiling, his hands not clapping as he watched his son march across the stage and receive his diploma. He could feel nothing but fear at the sight, fear of what was soon to come.

-------

Mark and Darren were both quite hung over the next morning as they rode their bikes through the streets of Roseville towards the light rail station in the southern part of the suburb. They had attended a graduation party after the ceremony and both had made ten or twelve more trips to the keg than they probably should have.

"Sarge," Darren groaned as they waited for the electric tram to arrive for the trip to downtown Sacramento, "I don't even remember getting home last night. I woke up about six in the morning with my head in the fuckin toilet. I must've barfed my goddamned stomach out."

"I remember making it home," Mark told him as he puffed listlessly on a cigarette and rubbed his bloodshot eyes. "And I remember laying in bed while the room spun around at about a hundred RPMs."

"Damn, sarge, I ain't never gonna drink again, I swear to God."

"Yes you will," Mark told him. "The next time someone gives you a beer you'll be swilling it down. Don't even say you won't."

Darren groaned again, knowing that his friend was right but not wanting to admit it just yet. "I just hope I'm not too fucked up to pass the physical. What if I barf on the doctor?"

"I don't have anything left in my stomach to barf out," Mark said. "Maybe going the day after the graduation party wasn't such a good idea."

"It was either that or wait another three weeks," he reminded him. "They'll probably understand if our blood pressure and shit's a little off. Hell, they don't turn many people down."

"And at least we don't have to worry about the drug testing anymore."

"That's right," Darren said with a little laugh. "It's too fucking expensive to test us, isn't it?"

Mark joined him in cynical laughter over the drug testing issue, which had been a huge controversy back when the war had really started rolling and the volunteers and draftees had come pouring into their country's service. The official armed services position, of course, was that it tolerated no drug use among its potential recruits and that testing positive for marijuana or methamphetamine or any other illegal drug would immediately remove a candidate from further consideration in the recruitment process. However when sixty-four percent of their first few batches of inductees were disqualified on this basis, it suddenly became "too expensive" to test everyone and the drug testing came to a screeching halt. Now the recruits were merely asked if they had imbibed in illegal drugs in the last thirty days and the recruiters relied upon their honesty in answering this question.

The six-car light rail train rolled into the station at 9:05, only ten minutes behind schedule. Darren and Mark showed their tickets—which they had paid ten dollars for—to the guard who controlled access to the vehicle. A late forties female who looked mean enough to take on a platoon of Chinese soldiers single handed, she gave them a nod and stepped aside, allowing them to enter. They found seats near the rear, amid a group of middle-aged men and women and a few teenagers such as themselves. The doors slid shut a moment later and the train jerked into motion, pulling them towards their destination.

The trip to downtown took thirty minutes. They passed through the suburbs of Citrus Heights and North Highlands and into the city of Sacramento through the northern ghettos. The train stopped every few miles to let passengers embark or disembark and then ground on to the next stop. After crossing the American River they soon found themselves in the downtown area amid the high rises. All of the tall buildings had armed security guards out front and anti-aircraft guns installed upon their roofs. The state capital building was the most impressive as far as security went. For some reason the state bureaucrats, including the governor herself, were convinced that the Chinese were just itching to attack them, either by air or by suicide commando squad. The entire granite domed building was surrounded by sandbagged trenches and patrolled by a full company of M-16 toting National Guard troops. A mobile SAM launcher sat on the lawn near the west steps and three fixed AAA sites were dug into the parkland on the east side. From the dome of the building itself, two 23mm guns protruded, able to track anything in the sky from any angle. The fact that no Chinese had ever bombed or otherwise molested the building was credited to the security that it boasted and not to the fact that the Chinese didn't give a rat's ass about the governor or the state senate.

Darren and Mark disembarked from the train at 8th and F Street, six blocks away from the Sacramento Community Center, where the regional armed services testing and recruitment process took place. When they arrived at the large, one square block, three story building they found a line of teenagers stretching from the front doors all the way around the perimeter to the other side. Most of the people in line were boys but there was a fair representation of the female sex as well. For the most part everyone seemed cheerful, almost festive as they waited their turn to sign their names on the line. They chatted amicably with each other, many of them smoking cigarettes or sipping out of paper coffee cups. The two friends found the end of the line and claimed their spot, both pulling out smokes of their own and sparking up. Other teenagers continued to show up and take their own places and soon the end of the line was out of their sight, around the next corner.

Though the testing was supposed to begin promptly at 10:00 AM, it was nearly 11:30 before Mark and Darren even saw the front door. The line moved slowly forward, inch-by-inch, as the armed National Guard MPs at the entrance processed each person. The guards, like many of the rear area troops, were both female. They looked at Mark and Darren when they finally made it to the front, their eyes bored. "Your appointment cards?" one of them asked with the air of someone who had already muttered that statement a thousand times this day.

Mark and Darren both showed them admission passes they had printed from their computer terminals after visiting the appointment confirmation web page. She looked at them for a moment and then nodded. "Looks good," she said. "Are you two signing up for the buddy program?"

"Yes," Darren replied. "We're..."

"Go to the terminal on the left then," she interrupted, uninterested in what he had to say. She waved them inside. She was already checking the person behind them by the time they made it through the doorway.

"She was friendly," Mark commented as they made their way across the carpeted lobby towards another line that had formed, this one before a card table full of computer terminals and uniformed men and women. A sign above the table read: BUDDY PROGRAM CANDIDATES, REPORT HERE.

"Probably a dyke," Darren said matter-of-factly. "I bet she's frustrated because they won't let her go to the line so she takes it out on those of us who can."

It took another ten minutes before they were able to reach the front of this latest line. "Good morning, gentlemen," a smiling, middle-aged man in a class A army uniform greeted them. "Are you two declaring yourselves buddies for enlistment?"

"Yes sir," Darren said. Mark echoed the sentiment.

"Very good," the recruiter said. "If I may see your identification cards please?"

They both dug out their PCs and removed the identification cards that powered them. These were small plastic cards that every citizen of the United States was issued. They were printed with nothing but a name, date of birth, and social security number, but they contained a computer chip upon which was stored everything about the person, including a current photograph and fingerprint. Both handed the cards over and the recruiter plugged them into his computer terminal.

"Mr. Caswell and Mr. Whiting," he said, reading from his screen. He punched in a few commands and suddenly their entire history was before him. "If you'll both put your thumbs on the pad for confirmation?"

They did so, each of them pressing down so the computer could get a good scan. It blinked green in both instances, satisfied that the possessors of the cards were really who they said they were.

"Very good, gentlemen," the recruiter said. "Now you both understand that the buddy program is only valid for hazardous posting assignments?"

"Yes sir," Mark said, nodding.

"Yes sir," Darren echoed. "We want to kill some chinks, sir."

"Well there's a lot of them to be killed out there," he said, his smile widening a bit. He looked at Darren. "Mr. Caswell, your records show that you're entitled to a non-hazardous posting under section 48a of the selective service code. That is to say, that you've had your only male sibling killed in battle. Is it your wish to waive this entitlement?"

"You bet your ass, sir," Darren said proudly.

"That's the kind of attitude we like around here, son," the recruiter told him. He pushed a button on his keyboard and a second later a laser printer was churning out a form for him. He pulled it off and presented it to Darren along with a pen. "If you'll just sign the waiver form."

Darren signed where told and the recruiter made the form disappear. "Very good," he said, reaching down into a file case and pulling out another form, this one two pages long and covered with very small print. "Now this, gentlemen, is the buddy program declaration form. It states that you will be guaranteed basic training at the same installation and posting within the same platoon dependent on graduation, physical ability, and a few other factors. If you'll just initial the first page and then sign on the next, we'll get you into the testing room."

"It takes two pages to say all that?" Mark asked, picking up the pen that he was handed.

The recruiter scowled a little bit, apparently not used to being questioned. "You know how form makers like to rattle on and on," he said. "You'll be given copies of it and you can peruse it at your leisure later. Now, if you'll just initial and sign?"

They initialed and signed, neither one of them reading the print first.

"Very good," the recruiter said again. "Congratulations, you've just joined the armed forces. You will have to pass all of the testing of course before its official, so if you'll step into the auditorium there, you'll be given the ASVAB test and your journey will begin." He handed them copies of what they had signed, took his pens back, shook their hands, and then pointed them to a doorway across the room.

The auditorium was the largest part of the building, a room where concerts had once been performed, where basketball and volleyball tournaments had once been held. Now the basketball hoops were folded up into the storage positions and large cafeteria tables covered nearly every square foot of floor space. Computer terminals were spaced every three feet or so on both sides of each table and young men and women sat before them, outlining their answers to various questions with the mice. Electrical and fiber optic internet cables stretched across the floor underneath each of these tables and led to some sort of central power and switching station in the corner. The sound in the room was unnaturally quiet for the number of people that were in it, sort of like a library sound carried a few steps further. Yet another MP guarded the entrance. This one was a middle aged male, too old for active service. His uniform was ill fitting and the gun strapped to his waist seemed more of a joke than a dangerous weapon.

"Buddy program?" he asked, his voice bored.

"Yes," Darren and Mark replied in unison, both of them leaving off the "sir" at the end for this character.

"Okay," the guard said, consulted a PC that he held. "You," he pointed to Darren, "proceed to Table 18 over on the right side of the room. You'll find two empty terminals over there. Grab one of them. And you," he pointed to Mark, "head for Table 26 on the left side of the room. There are three empty terminals over there. The instructions to begin the test will be on the screen."

They looked at each other for a moment. "Uh," Darren finally said, "is there anyway that we can both go to the same table?"

"Afraid not," the guard said sternly. "We've found it best over the years if our buddy program participants sat apart from each other during the testing process. Sometimes the temptation to whisper answers and so forth among themselves is a little too great. We wouldn't want that since it throws off the testing process."

"We wouldn't do that," Darren protested, although he'd planned to do exactly that. He was not much of a test taker and not much of a reader. Throughout their high school years Mark had whispered many an answer and completed many an assignment on his behalf.

"Sorry, my friend," the guard said, without a hint of apology in his tone. "That's just the way it is. Move along now. You're holding up the line."

They moved along, each of them heading in different directions. Darren considered doubling back and joining Mark anyway but the guard, apparently wise to this particular trick, was keeping a sharp eye on him.

Mark went to the table that he'd been directed to and found an empty terminal near the end. The screen was showing the US armed forces logo with a particularly fierce looking eagle. Beneath this were the directions: PLEASE INSERT IDENTIFICATION CARD INTO SLOT. He pulled out his card and put it in the receptacle. Immediately the screen changed.

WELCOME RECRUIT MARK WILLIAM WHITING TO THE ARMED SERVICES VOCATIONAL ASSESSMENT BATTERY.

PLEASE VERIFY YOUR IDENTITY BY PUTTING YOUR FINGERPRINT ON THE TAB

Mark put his finger there and, after the computer decided he really was who he said he was, an instruction screen for the testing came up.

THIS TEST IS A COMPREHENSIVE ASSESSMENT OF YOUR RELATIVE STRENGTHS AND WEAKNESSES AS A PERSON AND IT IS NOT A PASS OR FAIL EXAM. YOU WILL HAVE ONE HOUR AND FORTY-FIVE MINUTES TO COMPLETE THIS PORTION OF THE EXAM. PLEASE ANSWER ALL QUESTIONS TO THE BEST OF YOUR ABILITY. YOUR TIME WILL BEGIN WHEN YOU LEFT CLICK WITH THE MOUSE ON THE "BEGIN TEST" TAB.

There was more to the instruction screen, directions on what to do if he had to go to the restroom for instance, and what the penalty for being caught cheating was. Mark browsed over this part and then left clicked on the tab. A small countdown clock in the lower right hand corner appeared, as did the first section of the test: Mathematics.

The problems started out with simple arithmetic and progressed into algebra, geometry, and even beginning calculus. A natural test taker and a whiz at math, Mark breezed through this section with ease, using the scratch paper that was provided and only working the problems until the multiple choice answer became clear by process of elimination.

The next section was spatial relationships. He was shown a series of diagrams of wheels and cogs and asked which wheel would turn what way. He was shown unfolded shapes, and various other medium that he was supposed to figure out what they made when assembled. He was shown water flow diagrams and other simple machines and asked various questions about the operations. Again, he breezed through this section, thanks mostly to his keen interest in engineering.

Spatial relations was followed by reading comprehension. A series of one page essays, all of them written in as simple of English as possible, at perhaps third grade level, were presented for him to look over. He was then asked a series of questions about what he had just read. This again was something that he excelled at since he spent no less than twenty hours of any given week just reading.

Next came English and grammar, although what that had to do with fighting chinks was beyond Mark. This section took him a little longer than the other since this was not exactly his best subject. Still, the questions were fairly simple and he was pretty sure by the end of the section that he had gotten most of them correct.

With that, the first portion of the ASVAB came to an end and the clock in the corner came to a halt with one hour and five minutes still showing on it. Mark shook his head in amazement. Did it really take some people the entire hour and forty-five minutes to finish that?

While he was contemplating that question, the computer screen changed and the next portion of the testing process began: the psychiatric assessment exam. The directions informed him that he had two hours to complete this portion and that he should answer each question carefully and with his first impression. Mark clicked on the NEXT tab to begin and what followed was a series of some of the most bizarre questions that he had ever encountered. Are you afraid of contracting germs from doorknobs? Did you enjoy the book Alice in Wonderland? Was your mother a good person? Would you like to be just like your father? Do you enjoy disassembling furniture? There were hundreds of others equally bizarre, many of them reworded duplicates of previous questions. He didn't know, could not even begin to fathom how the computer was going to assemble a psychological profile of him based on these inane enquiries, nor could he imagine why you had to be psychologically fit in order to pick up a rifle and kill chinks, but he did as the instructions commanded and answered each one honestly. When he finished up, the clock in the corner of the screen stopped with fifty-six minutes still left upon it.

Based on the tales of older friends who had gone through ASVAB testing before him (some of them now dead, their portraits hanging in the Wood Oak High cafeteria), Mark thought he was finished with the computer examination portion and ready to move on to the physical exam in the next room. He looked at the screen expecting to find instructions to do just that, but instead, another exam had popped up. This one was called the: SPATIAL ORIENTATION AND REFLEX EXAM. He scratched his head a little. He had never heard of this portion before. Curious, he read the description.

THIS EXAMINATION WILL EVALUATE YOUR HAND-EYE MOTOR SKILLS AS THEY RELATE TO COMPUTER IMAGERY. PLEASE CLICK ON THE TAB TO BEGIN AND FOLLOW THE DIRECTIONS ON EACH INDIVIDUAL TESTING STATION. THIS PORTION OF THE EXAM IS BRIEF AND THERE IS NO TIME LIMIT.

Odd, he thought, giving a shrug and clicking on the tab. What followed was very much like a video game, albeit a simple and not terribly exciting one. A three dimensional graphic appeared on the screen, displaying a box with three lines stretching horizontally across it. The instructions directed him to use the arrow keys on the keyboard and attempt to keep the center line between the top and bottom as the simulation went through a series of dips and turns. He was not quite sure what that meant until he pushed the first arrow and the line began to drift rapidly to the top of the screen. He pushed the down arrow to attempt to arrest the climb but instead of slowing the ascent, it went faster.

"What the fuck?" he muttered, pushing downward again. The line picked up even more speed in the wrong direction. At last he realized that it was like an airplane's controls, where the opposite arrow was used. He pushed the up arrow a few times and the line slowed, coming to a stop just before the top and then starting down the other side. After some fiddling of up and down, he was finally able to center the thing back where it had started. No sooner had that happened however, than the motion began again, much stronger and much touchier to the manipulations. He pushed the arrows up and down frantically, watching as the line moved up and down in response. Several times it got alarmingly close to either the top or the bottom line, but he was always able to keep it in place. Soon, he had it centered once more. And again, the motion began anew, and once again, it was even touchier than before.

He did this for the better part of five minutes, going through three levels of difficulty until finally he was unable to control it anymore and it hit the bottom.

THANK YOU, the computer text told him, the display vanishing from the screen. Soon it was replaced by another box, this one with solid dashes of varying color scattered randomly throughout it and something that looked like a targeting rectical in the center. This time he was instructed to use the motions that he had learned in the previous section to center the circle on the red dashes for a minimum of three seconds. When he pushed the arrow, the dashes all began to move in different directions, some sideways, some up, some diagonally, some downward. They moved slowly at first and it was no problem to center the circle over the red ones and hold it there. It was a simple matter of intercepting them as they went. But as he captured each dash within the circle, the others began to move faster, and in more unpredictable patterns. The circle itself also became harder to control, its movements touchier to his manipulations. Still, he was a quick learner and despite the increasing speed of the game, he was able to keep up for the better part of five minutes before it became far too fast for him and the "THANK YOU" screen returned.

The computer put him through two more similar simple graphic type games. One seemed to be a turn and bank type of simulation, very much like the first one he had done but utilizing the left and right arrow keys instead of the up and down. The last game was culmination of the three previous, with a targeting rectical moving through a field of simple hills and valleys, his task to keep it from crashing into them as the speed gradually increased. With both of these games he did fairly well, spending about five minutes apiece on them before he crashed into a sketched out hill on the last.

THANK YOU RECRUIT MARK WILLIAM WHITING. THIS CONCLUDES THE COMPUTER PORTION OF THE ASVAB EXAM. PLEASE PROCEED TO THE TESTING AREA MARKED "PHYSICAL EXAM" AND YOU WILL BE GIVEN FURTHER INSTRUCTIONS.

He got up from his chair and walked slowly towards the back of the room, where a sign hanging above a set of double doorways proclaimed: PHYSICAL EXAM — FORM A LINE HERE. The line was about ten people long at the moment, stretching along the wall. As he joined the back of it he looked around the room, wondering how far Darren had progressed in his testing process. Would he be done yet? Probably not, he figured. Darren was not a fast test taker. Sure enough, he spotted him still in his seat before his terminal, staring intently at his monitor, a look of frustrated but intense concentration upon his face. After a moment he clicked something with the mouse and then renewed the look as the next question came up.

It took the better part of twenty minutes before Mark worked his way to the front of the line. By that time an additional twenty or thirty people had formed up behind him. Darren was not one of them. He was still working away at his computer.

"Next," a bored looking middle-aged woman in an army corporal's uniform told him. She waved him into a sterile, medicinal smelling room. Large partitions formed from plastic frames that held gray curtains up made up one side of the room. There were ten such partitions, each one numbered in large black numerals. "Go to curtain six," he was told. "There will be a form to fill out there. Answer all questions honestly and then disrobe to your underwear. The doctor will be in shortly after that."

"Right," Mark said, walking across the room to the one marked with a six.

Inside was a standard looking examination table with a roll of white paper on it to prevent soiling. Next to this was a small desk, upon which sat a portable computer terminal hooked to fiber optic lines that snaked beneath the rear of the curtain. A sign read: INSERT IDENTIFICATION CARD INTO COMPUTER TERMINAL AND COMPLETE THE MEDICAL HISTORY EXAM. THE DOCTOR WILL NOT EXAM YOU UNTIL THIS PORTION IS COMPLETE.

He did as he was told, inserting his ID card and activating the medical screening program. He was addressed by name once again and then asked a series of questions relating to past physical, mental, or substance abuse problems, what sort of medicines he took regularly, and if he had any physical or mental factors that would bar him from serving in the United States military service. He answered most of the questions honestly, the only exceptions being the ones related to drug and alcohol use. He told the official governmental medical computer system, with a straight face and absolutely no twinge to his conscious, that he had never smoked marijuana in his life and that, moreover, he had never indulged in the consumption of alcoholic beverages.

Once the question and answer period was complete, he removed all of his clothing except his underwear and then sat on the exam table, shivering lightly in the air conditioning. After about fifteen minutes, a balding, middle-aged doctor of Arabian descent finally pushed through the curtain. He carried a clipboard with a computer printout in his hand. Mark quickly found out that the printout contained a summary of the answers he had just provided to the computer.

"Good afternoon, Recruit Whiting," he said pleasantly. "I'm Doctor Haziz. How are you feeling today?"

"Umm, a little under the weather," Mark told him. "I kind of feel like I've got the flu."

"Yes," Haziz said with a knowing smile. "A lot of our recruits have been feeling ill today. I guess there must be an epidemic going around. It couldn't have anything to do with last night being graduation night since none of you report drinking alcohol."

"I guess," Mark said, averting his glance.

Haziz simply chuckled a little. "But that's neither here nor there," he said. "My job is to see if you are fit to serve in the military. So let's begin, shall we?"

They began. Haziz accessed the terminal and punched in a special command that changed the screen over to a medical charting program. He used a digital scale in the corner to measure Mark's weight and height. He hooked him up to an automatic blood pressure cuff and took a reading of that. He put electrodes on his chest and ran an EKG. He then had him run in place for three minutes to see what that did to his heart rate. He then listened to his lungs, his heart, and his stomach with a stethoscope. He donned gloves and then had him drop his shorts so he could check him for hernias and venereal disease. He then checked his eyes and ears with a portable machine that he wheeled in from outside. All of these results he transcribed into the computer.

"Very good," Haziz proclaimed at last. "You look very fit. A definite 1A rating."

"Thank you, sir," Mark said proudly.

Haziz looked at his chart again, tapping something with his fingers. "Just a few more questions for you," he said. "And this time, please be completely honest. I'm not saying that anyone fudges a little bit on the drug and alcohol questions, but, unlike those questions, these ones are very important, okay?"

"Uh ... sure," Mark said.

"Very good," Haziz said. "Are you afraid of heights?"

"Heights?' Mark said, puzzled. "No, not at all."

"You're sure?" he prodded. "They don't bother you even a little bit?"

"Not even a little bit. In fact, I really like heights. My friend and I climb up to the top of an old water tower all the time and it doesn't phase us."

"Good enough," the doctor said. "How about vertigo and dizziness? Are you prone to either one of those?"

"Not as far as I know."

"How about motion sickness? Are you prone to that? Do you get sick on the light rail, or on a boat, or on a roller coaster?"

"No," Mark said honestly. "And I even rode the big one in Santa Cruz before the war."

"I see," Haziz said, making a few notations in the computer. He then looked up at Mark. "That'll be all then," he told him. "You can get dressed now and head out to sign the final paperwork. You'll then be given an appointment to talk to your final recruiter for your skills assessment. Good luck to you."

"Thank you," Mark said. Before he could say further, Haziz was gone, out through the curtain and on to exam his next recruit.

Mark pulled his clothes back on and then left the cubicle, heading to a sign on the far end of the room that read: FINALIZATION PAPERWORK — FORM A LINE HERE. He found the end of the line and waited for another fifteen minutes before he found himself at another desk before a smiling recruiter behind a computer terminal. He inserted his identification card once more.

"Recruit Whiting," the recruiter said, reading from his display. "Congratulations. You are 1A in all categories. I'll print up your induction papers for you and get you an appointment to visit with your skills assignment recruiter."

"Thank you, sir," Mark said as the laser printer began to churn out the paperwork. "I'm with the buddy program. Will my buddy be at the same appointment with me?"

He looked at his screen for a moment and a strange, almost guarded expression came across his face. "Well," he said carefully, "that is usually what happens, but it is not necessarily the case. It depends on scheduling and so forth. So don't be alarmed if your buddy gets a different date, okay? Sometimes that happens."

"I see," Mark said, not liking the way that he'd said that a bit. "But what about..."

"If you'll just sign the induction papers," the recruiter interrupted, pulling it off the printer and setting it before him.

"Uh ... sure," Mark told him, taking the offered pen. He signed his name in four different places, the papers being shuffled and twisted so fast that he didn't have a chance to read what it was that he was agreeing to. He supposed that he could have demanded that he be allowed to examine the papers first but that would have meant being rude to a member of the U.S. military. And a sergeant at that. That was not something that he felt comfortable doing.

"Excellent," the recruiter told him once the final signature was affixed. "Your appointment will be June 18th, right here in this building, at 2:30 PM."

"Yes sir," Mark said, taking his copies of the paperwork.

"And remember," the recruiter warned, "you're officially in the armed services as of this moment. Showing up late or missing the appointment is not acceptable or allowed. If you do so, you'll be subjected to discipline, including being charged with AWOL, do you understand?"

Mark felt a little shudder go through him at these words. Nevertheless he said, "Yes sir, I understand."

-------

Mark waited patiently on a brick planter outside the building, smoking cigarettes and watching the throngs of young men and women coming out. It was another two hours before Darren finally emerged, his own sheaf of paperwork in hand.

"Sarge," he said, shaking his friend's hand. "I'm in. I passed everything and they've given me a fuckin' 1A."

"You the commander," Mark told him, returning the shake. "I'm 1A too. Signed my name on the line and everything."

"Static," Darren told him. "I was little worried during that fuckin written test. You know, like they weren't gonna let me in the army if I didn't do good on it. That was totally a retreat, not letting you sit by me and all."

"Yeah," Mark agreed, giving him a cigarette and a pack of matches without being asked. "But you must've done okay without me."

"I did shitty on it," he declared with a shake of the head. "More than half of them fuckin' questions I didn't know. Hell, one section of it I didn't even finish—that fuckin' reading comprehension part. Damn I hate that shit."

"Hmm," Mark said, feeling pity for his friend. "Well, they said it wasn't pass or fail. Maybe they don't even check to see if you passed or not. Maybe it's just some bureaucratic propaganda that they have to do from the old days. You know, like asking us if we smoke pot and all that."

"Maybe," Darren said, lighting his smoke and taking a thoughtful drag. "What's your appointment date with the recruiter? The sarge told me that they might not be able to get us in at the same time, although he couldn't tell me why the hell not."

"June 18th," Mark told him. "At 2:30."

Darren's face fell. "Awww man. Mine's on June 15th." He shook his head angrily. "That's a fuckin retreat, ain't it? We're in the damn buddy program. Why the hell couldn't they have us come in for assignment briefing together?"

"Oh well," Mark said. "That's the government for you. Probably makes too much sense."

"Probably," Darren said. "Oh well, at least we're in! A few weeks and we'll be on our way to Texas for basic." He held out his hand for a high five. "Chinks, you'd better watch the fuck out."

"Hell yeah," Mark said, slapping palms with him.

They started walking back towards the light rail station, their unspoken plan to go roll a joint when they got home and smoke it. As they went they talked more about the testing process, comparing notes. They spent the most time making fun of the psychiatric exam questions and repeating ones to each other that they found particularly bizarre.

"So what was up with that spatial orientation test at the end of the first part?" Mark asked after this subject was run into the ground. "None of the guys I've talked to before ever said anything about that."

Darren looked puzzled. "Spatial orientation test?" he said. "What part was that?"

"You know?" he said. "The part with the three lines, where you had to keep the middle line from hitting the top or the bottom. And the part with the little target circle, where you had to center it on the dashes. It was the last thing before the physical."

Darren's look of puzzlement increased. "I didn't have anything like that on my test," he said.

"It was kind of like a cheap-ass flight simulator," he told him. "A real cheap one. It was right at the end. Are you sure you didn't do that?"

"Sarge," he said, exasperated, "I'm not fuckin stoned or anything. I think I'd remember playing a goddamn flight simulator on the fuckin ASVAB. Maybe it was after that section that I didn't finish or something."

"No," Mark said, looking a little puzzled himself now, "it was a completely separate part of the test, after the psych exam, on a completely different timer."

Darren shook his head. "Are you sure you ain't the one that's stoned?" he asked. "Nobody I ever talked to ever said nothing about no flight sim test either."

"No, sarge, it was there," Mark told him.

They reached the light rail station. There were no trains in it at the moment, though there were several people milling around waiting for one to arrive. They spent a few minutes using their PCs to purchase return tickets from a machine and then found a bench to sit down on. They left the subject of the flight simulator portion of the test alone, Darren half-convinced that Mark was making it up, Mark half convinced that Darren had taken that portion and forgotten about it. Soon their talk turned to the physical examination itself.

"I don't think that doctor believed me when I told him I'd never smoked grass before," Mark said jokingly.

"Yeah, mine wasn't buying that shit either," Darren replied. "She was this dyke looking bitch. She didn't ask me about it or nothing, but she kept making these little remarks." He shrugged. "Fuck her. It ain't none of their business anyway. It won't matter how much shit I smoked once they give me that rifle and put me in front of the chinks." He mimed the act of aiming and firing a rifle, making a little "pow" sound at the end for effect.

"Goddamn right," Mark said toughly, holding out his hand for another high-five, which he received. "My doctor did almost say I was lying when he asked them questions at the end though. He told me to be honest, not like I was with the marijuana part."

"Questions at the end?" Darren said. "What questions at the end?"

Mark looked up him slowly. "The questions about whether you're afraid of heights and if you get dizzy and all that?"

Darren shook his head. "She didn't ask me any shit like that."

"She didn't ask you if you like to ride the roller coaster and if you're afraid of heights and if you get motion sickness?"

Darren was now looking at him funny again. "No," he said slowly. "And I never heard Jack or Stu or any of the other guys say anything about that either. What the hell does any of that have to do with shooting chinks?"

"About the same as whether or not you're afraid of doorknobs," Mark said. "But don't you think it's kind of funny that I got asked all this shit and that I got the flight sim bit when no one else did? What's up with that?"

"I don't know," Darren said, scratching his head. "It's pretty fuckin weird you ask me."

"I wonder," Mark said thoughtfully, "if it has anything to do with our different appointment dates."

"What do you mean?"

"When you asked the recruiter—the one who made you the appointment—when you asked him about if your buddy was going to get the same appointment, did he seem kind of section eight about it?"

Darren thought about that for a moment. "Now that you mention it," he said, "he never did give me any real reason for it. He just changed the subject and put these papers in front of me."

"That's what mine did too," Mark said. "He told not to worry about it and then told me to sign the papers. He tried to make it seem like it was no big deal, that it happened all the time, but he looked kinda ... I don't know ... funny when he did it, like he was hiding something."

"What would he be hiding?"

"Maybe they're trying to screw us out of the buddy program," Mark suggested.

"Why would they do that?" Darren asked. "Besides, we signed fuckin papers when we first went in. We're guaranteed the buddy program, remember? They can't screw us out it now. We'll be able to sue them!"

"But maybe they slipped something into the paperwork," Mark said. "We never did get to read it before we signed it." He pulled his copies, which were already tattered and ripped in several places, from his pocket and unfolded them, going directly to the buddy program sheet. "Let me take a look at this," he said. He began scanning through the rows and paragraphs of very tiny text on the paper, wading through the legalese. Towards the bottom of the page, right above where they had signed, a section marked: RESTRICTIONS jumped out at him. "Hmmm," he said, frowning as he read it over.

"What?" Darren asked. "Did you find something?"

"Listen to this," he said, and then quoted from the form: "Parallel posting applies only to those assignments classified as hazardous, such as infantry, armor, or armored cavalry."

"Well no shit," Darren told him. "We already knew that."

"But there's more," Mark told him, and then continued: "Parallel posting is also dependent upon compatible ASVAB testing for the above mentioned hazardous posting assignments. In the event that one of the co-applicants to the buddy program, based on ASVAB scoring or other factors related to ASVAB placement, merits assignment to other branches of the armed forces or non-hazardous posting, the United States Armed Forces Placement Center reserves the exclusive right to assign said applicants as it sees fit."

The puzzled look returned to Darren's face. "What the fuck does that mean?" he asked.

"It means," Mark interpreted, "that if they decide that both of us shouldn't go to the line, that they can move one of us if they want."

"Move us where?"

Mark shrugged. "Anywhere they want apparently," he said.

"Well that's pretty flanked," he said angrily. "Do you think that's what they're doing? Are they gonna move you somewhere else? Or are they gonna move me?"

"I don't know," he replied. "But if they do, that little clause means that they can do it."

"Those fuckers," he said, outraged. "I knew we should've read that shit before we signed it. Do you think that's what they're trying to do? Move one of us?"

"I don't know," Mark told him. "I guess we'll find out when we go to our appointments."

"Yeah," Darren said, "and you can bet your AT-9 that I'm gonna grill my fuckin recruiter about this shit. They'd better not try to put us in different places."

"Goddamn right," Mark answered righteously, although he was already starting to have his doubts.

-------

June 15th came and Darren got up early to report to his skills assignment appointment. He dressed in his best pair of cammie jeans and a freshly laundered cammie T-shirt, and rode the light rail train back to the Sacramento Community Center downtown, arriving twenty minutes before his scheduled time.

Staff sergeant Bill Nichols was the recruiter that had been assigned to his case. Nichols was a tall, good-looking man, thirty-two years old, and one of the top recruiters in the northern California sector. He had never been in combat before or in fact within three hundred miles of the front line by virtue of the fact that his younger brother, Stan, had been killed in the earliest days of the war in the Battle of Terrace. With his hazardous posting deferment in hand and his past history as a car salesman in his personnel file, Nichols became a natural choice for the "Induction Counseling" branch of the army, as the recruitment ranks were called. As his own ASVAB had assured his superiors that he would, he had excelled at the position. To date he had signed up well over three thousand young men and women.

Nichols was halfway through an eight-hour day at the office when the pool secretary sent him an instant message on the center's intranet that Darren Caswell, his one o'clock, was waiting outside. He read it over, yawned a little, farted, and then sent her back a reply that she should give him three minutes and then send him in. He then pulled up the computer file to see what sort of person and assignment that he would be dealing with next.



CASWELL, DARREN ROBERT

613-27-8012

D.O.B. - 01-06-1997 (18 y/o)

STATUS: 1A — HP prime - Voluntarily deferred NHP rights under section 276.a

ASVAB SUMMARY: Reading skills poor, grammatical skills poor, mathematics skills below average, spatial relations skills average. No particular strong points academically, should not attempt to train in complex tasks. Medical exam shows above average fitness and strength. Psychiatric assessment indicates rudimentary leadership qualities but poor attention span and subordinate qualities. No phobias or other HP disqualifiers. Best prospects are armored cav or ground infantry position, hazardous posting.



Nichols nodded thoughtfully as he read the summary. In other words, he thought, this grunt is a highly expendable asset, cannon fodder to be thrown into the meat grinder. There were hundreds just like him that came through every month, kids with more brawn than brains, kids with only rudimentary life skills. They could be trained to pick up a gun and shoot it with accuracy, or they could be taught how to load, aim, and shoot an AT-9 at an advancing Chinese tank, and that was about it. Luckily for Nichols, this Caswell grunt had voluntarily given up his right to a non-hazardous posting assignment. Had he not done that, it would have been much harder to find him a place where he could be useful.

He accessed his current openings screen on his terminal and paged through several sub menus. The Pentagon maintained a database of personnel needs in both combat and non-combat positions and, from this database, sent recommendations to all of its recruitment stations to insure that needs were filled to the best of the nation's abilities. Nichols saw that of the two categories that Caswell fit into, armored cav was the one that was showing the greatest anticipation for replacements over the next recruitment cycle. That meant that a renewed WestHem offensive was being planned. The armored cav were the spearheads of any advance into enemy territory and they always took a fearsome pounding. He made a few clicks with his mouse and just like that, Darren's next two months were written into the official record, becoming as inevitable as the tides.

A minute later the grunt in question entered his cubicle. "Recruit Caswell," Nichols said, placing his best car salesman smile upon his face and standing. "Welcome to your assignment station. I'm Sergeant Nichols. I'll be your recruiter for this portion of your service." He held out his hand for a shake.

The grunt shook it with a palm that was sweaty. Nichols didn't mind. He was used to that.

"Sit down," Nichols invited, waving towards a chair before his desk. "At ease. Make yourself comfortable."

Caswell did and they got down to business.

"So I see by your initial application," Nichols said, tapping on some text on his computer screen, "that you requested hazardous posting in the infantry, is that correct?"

"Yes sir," he told him with a nod. "I want to kill lots of chinks, sir."

Nichols chuckled as if he hadn't heard that line a thousand times before. "That's the spirit," he said. "In any case, let me be the one to congratulate you. It took a little doing, but I've managed to get you exactly the assignment that you asked for."

"The infantry, sir?" he asked, his face taking on a hopeful look.

What a fool, Nichols thought without a trace of sadness. Doesn't he have the slightest idea what he's signing up for? No, he didn't. None of them ever did. They came in here all full of patriotic fervor, ready to do and die for good old Uncle Sam. And that was perfectly all right with Nichols. It made his job so much easier to do. "The infantry," he confirmed to his latest charge. "And not just any infantry either. You're going to be a member of the elite."

"The elite?"

"Yes indeed," he said. "I'm talking about the armored cavalry."

The grunt's eyes lit up like pinball machines as he heard this. "The cav," he whispered, relishing the words as they came out of his mouth.

"That's right," he said. "It took a little finagling, and I had to step on a few toes, but I made sure that your request would be honored in light of your voluntarily giving up your non-hazardous posting rights."

"I'm not no pussy, sir," he said proudly.

"You certainly aren't."

"So that means I won't end up in the mountain division or along the Columbia River?" he asked.

"That's exactly what that means," Nichols assured him. "The armored cav doesn't operate as a holding force. It is strictly offensive in nature. As long as you do well in basic—and I don't see any reason why you shouldn't—you'll be right where you want to be in a few months: in Idaho or Eastern Oregon, right in the shit."

"That's really static, sir," he said, now looking almost orgasmic. "Thank you."

"I was glad to help you out, my friend."

"But what about my buddy, sir?" the grunt asked next. "Will he be going to the armored cav too?"

"Your buddy?" Nichols said slowly. "Are you part of the buddy program?"

"Yes sir," the grunt replied. "They didn't give Mark an appointment on the same day for some reason, but he wants to go to the cav just as much as I do. And we signed the papers, sir."

"Well let me just look into that," he said smoothly, already knowing what the significance of the grunt's buddy being given a different appointment meant. Usually the buddy program enlistments were easy to honor. After all, grunts who were tossed into the front line positions were usually buddies with someone just like themselves. But occasionally the ASVABs on the buddies found that they were incompatible. When that happened the armed forces did not hesitate to invoke its veto power, which was undoubtedly the case with this grunt's buddy. Just to make sure however—sometimes mistakes were made—he delved deeper into the personnel file to make sure.

With a few clicks of the mouse he had what he needed.

BUDDY PROGRAM STATUS: DENIED UNDER SECTION 654.3 — Recruit Whiting classified 1A — High AF potential and assigned to appropriate counselor.

"Has your buddy had his assignment appointment yet?" Nichols asked, hoping that he hadn't. That way the other grunt's recruiter would get to be the one to break the news.

"No sir," the grunt told him. "His appointment is on Thursday."

"I see," Nichols said, suppressing a smile. So he would be allowed to skate on it. "Well I'm not sure why your friend wasn't given an appointment with you. Sometimes these things happen you know. The counselor that he's assigned with will be able to answer any questions about this little snafu."

"So he'll still be assigned with me then? We were a little worried about all of that compatible ASVAB testing stuff in the papers we signed."

"I have nothing to indicate either way," he said smoothly. "I'm sure that everything will work out though."

"I see," the grunt said doubtfully.

"In any case," Nichols said, rapidly changing the subject, "how about we get you your ship-out date and do the rest of the paperwork? How does that sound?"

"Very good, sir," he said, smiling again, obviously anxious to hear his ship-out date.

-------

"July 2nd," Darren told Mark a few minutes later, looking at the small screen on his PC as he sat on the bench awaiting the light rail train. "We're going to be reporting to the train station downtown at 9:00 AM and we'll board to go to Texas."

"Static," Mark's image told him. "So he said that I'd be in the buddy program with you still?"

"Well..." he replied, a little doubtfully, "he didn't exactly say that, but he told me that it was probably some sort of fuck-up on the army's part."

"A fuck up?"

Darren shrugged, although the gesture was not picked up by his PC's small camera. "That's what he said; that these things happen sometimes and that he didn't have any reason to think that wasn't what was up here."

"Did he seem like he was telling the truth?" Mark wanted to know. He had had a bad feeling ever since their testing date.

"He seemed pretty static," Darren told him, giving his best assessment. "I can't think of any reason why he'd lie. I mean, what's it to him where we end up?"

"True," Mark said, obviously not convinced.

"So anyway," Darren told him, "I should be back in about forty-five minutes or so. You got any buds left?"

"Enough for a few joints."

"How about we meet over at the tower then and we'll celebrate our kick-off date?"

"You got it," Mark said. "I'll meet you there in an hour."

-------

The following Thursday it was Mark's turn to ride the light rail to downtown Sacramento for his appointment. He knew as soon as he entered the cubicle that something was not right. The man sitting behind the small desk—a mid-thirties, former surfer looking gentleman—was not an army recruiter, as Darren had talked to. Instead he was dressed in the class-a uniform of the United States Air Force.

"Recruit Whiting," he said with a large grin, standing and offering his right hand for a shake. "I'm Airman Stephens, your skills recruiter. How are you today?"

"I'm uh ... fine," Mark said slowly, "but has there been some sort of mistake? I'm supposed to be joining the army. The armored cav."

The smile faded on his face a little. "There's been no mistake, recruit," Stephens told him. "You're exactly where you're supposed to be. Why don't you have a seat and we'll talk about it?"

Mark continued to offer a look that was almost a glare for a moment, but finally he sat in the small chair. "Is there a problem with me joining the cav, sir?" he asked.

"You seem a very perceptive young man," Stephens told him. "That's just what your ASVAB suggested you would be."

"Thank you," Mark replied carefully. "So, is there a problem?"

"Well," he said, "in a theoretical sense, there is absolutely no problem with you joining the cav. Your ASVAB suggests to us that you would be outstanding as a line soldier, that you would in fact be pretty good at just about anything that you were assigned to."

"So I'll be in then?" Mark asked hopefully. "I'm part of the buddy program you know and my friend Darren is assigned to cav training. He leaves for Texas on July 2. I'd like to be with him, sir."

Stephens sighed a little. "I know," he said. "I read through your file and his before the meeting."

"So I can do that then?"

Another sigh. "Mr. Whiting," Stephens told him, "when a recruit's ASVAB suggests that he is a quick learner, has above average intelligence, and would be suited for training in complex tasks, we don't generally like to ship him off to the infantry. It's somewhat of a waste of talent you see."

"But that's what I want to do," Mark insisted. "I want to go to the line with my buddy and kill chinks."

"Oh, you'll be given the opportunity to kill lots of chinks," he said. "You see, in addition to the broad aspects of your personality that the ASVAB identified, it also gave us some very specific information about what you would be extremely good at."

"What's that?"

"Flying," Stephens said.

"Flying?" Mark said in amazement.

"Flying," he confirmed. "You see, you tested very high in the mathematics and spatial relationships aspect of the ASVAB. Your psychological profile suggests that you have the personality type of a combat pilot—that is to say you're cautiously aggressive and not prone to panicking in extreme situations. Once these things were identified in the first portion of the exam, the computer automatically singled you out for further testing. The spatial orientation test was then given to you."

"The thing with the lines and the circles?"

"Right," Stephens said with a nod. "That was an assessment of your basic reaction skills in regards to aircraft orientation, control, and targeting. You passed very high on them, not exactly a record or anything, but much higher than the general population."

"So your computer thinks I would make a good pilot?" He wasn't sure whether to believe that or not. True, he had always enjoyed flight simulator games (but Darren didn't, because Mark always beat him at them), and true, he had always enjoyed heights, but he had never considered taking pilot's training before. He had never really considered that it was an option available to him.

"It's not the computer that thinks that," Stephens told him. "Don't make the mistake of thinking that is the case. The computer is just the method of extracting the information from you. The ASVAB is a very comprehensive test that was designed by psychologists, educators, doctors, and other professionals and it does a very good job of telling us how people tick and what skills they would be good at. It is a reliable indicator of your strengths and weaknesses. And in addition to the ASVAB, you were also given a medical exam, as you'll recall. You fit the parameters of a pilot very well in that regard too."

"I do?" he asked, surprised.

"You do. You're below average in height and weight, which means that you'll fit in the cockpit of our planes and it also means that your center of gravity is somewhat lower, making you less prone to the effects of high G-forces."

"Wow," Mark said wonderingly. All of his life he had always been too short or too small to do things. He couldn't play basketball or football, he couldn't fight very well, he couldn't attract the attention of girls—at least not until the lonely war widows came on the scene. It had never occurred to him that his lack of stature could be desirable for anything other than horse racing. And for such a manly occupation as flying no less! In the war movies the pilots were always portrayed by tall, handsome actors with bulging muscles and huge bodies.

"And that's not all," Stephens told him. "Your eyesight and your hearing are both well above average as well. You also have no predisposition to motion sickness or height phobia. Everything that we learned about you, Mr. Whiting, tells us that you would be successful in pilot training. And as you probably know, since the war started and our demand for pilots has gone through the roof, we no longer require a college education for enlistment into this training. We in fact no longer take two years to train our pilots. They are now put through an extensive, seven-month course at one of our training facilities and then they are assigned to active combat squadrons within eight months of enlistment. If you want to kill chinks, young man, this is the place to do it. You'll be able to kill them a hundred at a time with an A-12 or an A-21 strapped to you. Or you'll be able to kill their pilots if you are assigned to an F-22 or one of the new F-26s."

Mark couldn't help but be impressed by Stephens' speech. After all, who didn't like to be told that they had excelled in their testing? Who wouldn't want to be asked into one of the elite forces of the armed services? He felt himself beaming with pride in himself as he heard the man talk. But at the same time, he owed some loyalty to his best friend, didn't he? Hadn't he and Darren sworn a blood oath to each other that they would join the buddy program and go fight on the line together? Hadn't Darren delayed his own enlistment just so they could be together? Darren could have joined up months ago, on the day of his eighteenth birthday. But he had not because he had wanted to sign up for the buddy program.

"I'm sorry, sir," Mark told the recruiter, "this is very flattering and all, but if it's all the same to you, I'd rather just stay with my buddy and go to the armored cav."

It wasn't all the same to Stephens. "Mr. Whiting," he said, his voice almost pleading, "you'll forgive me for saying that you're making a very rash decision here. On the line you might get killed on your first day. You're a potentially valuable asset to your country and we really need you in the position that we're offering."

"I understand, sir," Mark said, "and I'm sorry. But I want to stay with my buddy. We've been through a lot together and we want to go to war together." He considered for a moment, as something occurred to him. "But maybe Darren would want to join the Air Force too," he suggested. "If you want to have me in pilot school, how about sending him with me? I'm sure he'd go for that."

Stephens was shaking his head even before Mark finished articulating this thought. "I'm afraid that's simply not possible," he said. "As I said, I looked up your friend's ASVAB scores and medical exam as well. He simply does not fit the profile of what we consider to be pilot material."

"Why not?" Mark asked.

"I can't go into his shortcomings on the exam," Stephens said. "It's confidential information. But be assured that your friend is being sent to the place where he will do his country the most good, just as we are trying to do to you."

Mark shook his head. "I'm sorry then, sir," he said. "I'll have to turn down the Air Force. I really owe it to Darren to stick by him."

Stephens sighed again, frowning a little. "Mr. Whiting," he said firmly, "I don't think you quite understand what is going on here. You have been assigned to the Air Force."

"Pilot training is voluntary," Mark told him. "You can't force me to go into it." Hell, everyone knew that. What was this dumb wing-wiper trying to pull on him?

"That is true," Stephens said. "You cannot be forced to go into pilot training. And in truth, we wouldn't want to force anyone into it. That would make for a very poor pilot at the end. But you have been assigned to the Air Force. That part is not voluntary."

"What do you mean?"

"What I mean," he said, "is that no matter what you decide about the pilot training, you are a recruit now and we reserve the right to assign you where we see fit. It has been decided that you're going to be in the Air Force and that is final. You won't be serving with your buddy no matter what."

A look of outrage came onto Mark's face. "You fucked us," he said softly, holding onto his temper only barely.

"I disagree with your assessment," Stephens said. "We are simply using our national resources where they are best assigned. It was in the paperwork that you signed. The buddy program is dependent upon compatible ASVAB scores and compatible fitness for duty. You and your friend are simply not compatible with each other. I sorry you see it as some sort of betrayal, but it was not meant in that manner."

"So just because I tested better than Darren did, you're going to send us off to different places? After we signed up for the buddy program? After Darren waited five months just so he could sign up with me? How can you do that?"

"It's out of my hands," he said with a tone of apology that sounded almost sincere. "These decisions are made according to long-standing selective service protocol. I wish I could help you out but my orders are clear. You have been assigned to the Air Force and your friend has been assigned to the army and there's nothing that any of us can do about it."

Mark sighed, slumping in his seat. "What a retreat," he said dejectedly.

Stephens let him fume for a moment and then looked at him sincerely. "I understand how you feel," he said at last. "But since you seem to be stuck with us, we would really like it if you volunteered for the pilot training."

"And what if I don't?" he asked defiantly.

"Then you'll be assigned to some other type of skilled training program. My guess would be that they'd put you in the aircraft mechanics section and you'd end up far back in the rear, servicing the planes for the men and women who did go through the pilot training. Quite frankly, Mark, that doesn't strike me as what you really want to do. Mechanics don't kill chinks."

And of course Stephens knew exactly what strings he was pulling with this statement. He was telling Mark that he would be a rear-echelon motherfucker, or REMF as the slang went. To the fifteen to nineteen year old crowd, this was perhaps the vilest insult imaginable, worse than being called a fag or a chink. And he was talking about making him an actual REMF, not just a theoretical one.

"All right," Mark told him. "I see where you're coming from."

Stephens offered his grin once more. "Then you'll volunteer for pilot training?" he asked.

"Yes," he replied, already feeling a small twinge of pride beneath the disappointment of not going to the infantry. If this was inevitable, then there was no sense in not enjoying it, was there?

"Most excellent," Stephens told him, reaching across the desk to pat him on the shoulder. "You've made a very wise decision."

"Sure," Mark said, sulking a little.

"Why don't we get the necessary papers signed and then we'll get you your ship out date, okay?"

-------

That evening, as the sun was going down, Mark and Darren were once more atop the water tower, staring out to the southeast, over the train yards and the northern suburbs of Sacramento. They had no marijuana with them as both had run out a few days before and they were still two days from payday, but they did have a twelve pack of beer that their boss, in the spirit of supporting future fighting men, had graciously donated to them. The twelver was already half gone, the empty bottles nothing more than glass fragments on the ground 220 feet below. Both of them were buzzing quite strongly.

"That's just a fuckin retreat," Darren said for perhaps the tenth time in the last hour. "I can't believe they fucked us like that."

"I know," Mark said, taking a drag from his cigarette and then chasing it with a warm swallow of beer.

"I mean the United States government fucked us. That's what I can't get over. Our own government did it."

"I know," Mark repeated, offering his friend another one of his smokes.

Darren took it, firing it up with a match and then dropping the burned out stick over the side. He took a deep drag and stared out over the train yards, to the small portion of tracking that the railroad had managed to restore to operational status after the mammoth explosions of a few weeks ago. The sight of the tanks and the APCs atop of the flatcars seemed to soothe him a little. "So your ship-out date is when?" he finally asked. Mark had already told him this information once but it had been lost in the outrage at what had happened to them.

"June 28th," Mark said. "Troop train from downtown Sac to Las Vegas. Basic flight school starts there."

"And then what?"

"It depends," he said with a shrug. "At least that's what that conniving REMF recruiter told me. If I flunk out or something, they'll send me to another base to learn a new skill, something like aircraft mechanics or some bullshit like that. REMF shit, just like what he threatened me with if I didn't take the flight training."

"And what if you don't flunk out?"

"He said that where they send me next depends on what kind of aircraft they feel I would be qualified to fly. If it's fighters then they'll keep me in Nevada. If its bombers then they'll ship me somewhere else. He said each type of aircraft has its own training base."

"So you won't get to kill any chinks for almost a year?" Darren said, shaking his head a little. "That's a fuckin retreat too."

Mark tossed his empty beer bottle over the side and grabbed another from the twelve pack. "At least I'll get to kill some eventually," he said, twisting the cap open. "You know I really tried to get him to assign me back to the infantry don't you? I even tried to get him to sign you up for flight training if he couldn't do that."

"I know, sarge," Darren told him. "It's just the way things work out. Their little computer tells them what to do and they fuckin do it."

"Fuckin REMFs," Mark grunted. "What the hell do they know about this shit anyway?"

They drank in silence for a few minutes, each of them staring at the trains slowly working their way through the rail yard, past the mounds of debris left over from the bombing.

"We need to keep in touch after we leave," Darren said at last. "We need to email each other at least once a week so we know how things are going."

"You know it," Mark promised.

"I'll keep a tally of how many chinks I kill," he said. "And when you start killing them, you keep one too. Winner has to buy the loser a fuckin drink after the war, okay?"

"Okay," Mark agreed enthusiastically. "It sounds like a bet."

They stayed up there for another hour, polishing off the rest of the beer. By then it was fully dark outside and both of them were strongly intoxicated. Still they mounted the ladder and began to climb down without a second thought. After all, they were immortal weren't they? Anyone else could die, but they couldn't.



-------

Chapter 3


Fort Baker, Texas

July 15, 2015

Fort Baker was a sprawling piece of real estate forty miles outside the suburbs of Dallas. It was but one of fifteen basic training bases the United States army was operating these days to keep up with the constant demand for manpower, both at the front and behind it. Unlike most of the other such bases, which had simply taken over already existing military property, Fort Baker had been built from scratch out of the scrub brush that made up the desert region here. It was strictly a training base for those recruits destined for hazardous duty assignment and it concentrated only upon teaching those basic skills that made for a good infantryman. Those soldiers who would be manning the artillery guns or driving tanks were trained elsewhere.

Darren's train arrived at Fort Baker just ahead of the sunrise. He and the other 250 recruits who made up this particular training rotation—all of them males between the ages of 18 and 20—were immediately marched off by shouting assistant drill instructors and led to the uniform distribution area. Within an hour every last one of them had been issued two sets of summer camouflage BDUs. From there they were put through the second ritual of basic training: that of shaving their hair off. Twenty barbers were on duty for the occasion and more than two hundred pounds of hair was shaved, bagged, and thrown in the trash before another hour had gone by. From there the 250 young men were divided up into platoons of fifty and assigned a drill instructor.

Darren was assigned to Baker Platoon and he was easily the largest, most intimidating person in it. He hardly noticed, so excited was he to be starting his first day. Not even the fatigue that was pulling strongly at him—fatigue caused by two uncomfortable days spent in a cramped troop train seat—could quell this excitement. He was here at last! At the most distinguished basic training facility that the army had to offer. Fort Baker was where all of the bad asses started their career. Its image had been used in no less than ten war movies produced over the last few years, and was where the fabled Lieutenant Smith of Idaho Platoon had started his career as well. And now he was here, here to train with the best of the best, to learn his lessons from actual combat veterans. The only thing that took away from the experience was the absence of Mark, who was now in Nevada somewhere, embarking on his first days of flight school. Mark should have been there with him.

He was standing at attention in the second rank of his platoon, his hands tucked firmly into his chest, his head itching madly from the recent shaving, and rivulets of sweat dripping down his face from the thick summer heat of Texas. His brand new combat boots felt like two bricks tied to his feet, not having been broken in yet. He had a feeling that they would soon be as worn and sprung as a ten year old pair. Basic was notorious for the physical regiment that the recruits were put through.

Their assistant drill instructor had formed them up out here in the heat so that they could finally meet their true DI. So far they had been standing there twenty minutes and no such person had appeared. The sharply formed ranks were starting to waver a little, with recruits wobbling in place, or trying to surreptitiously stretch their legs a little to keep them from cramping.

At last a door opened on a nearby barracks building and a tall, average looking man of about twenty-five came strolling out, heading for them. He was dressed in a pair of BDUs identical to that which the recruits wore. There were no rank markings upon them but there were sergeant's stripes stenciled in white on the front of his kevlar helmet. He wore a pistol in a holster upon his hip and carried a rifle over his shoulder, though the rifle, Darren noted with some confusion, was not an M-16 but rather an AK-74 like what the Chinese carried.

He approached to about fifty feet in front of the first rank, his eyes tracking over them emotionlessly, giving no hint to whether he liked what he saw or not. Suddenly he stopped and hefted the rifle, socking it into his shoulder and pointing it almost directly at the formation of recruits. Without saying a word, without giving anyone a chance to process what he was doing, he fired. The muzzle winked red at them and the air was filled with the distinctive chattering of the weapon on full automatic. Darren clearly heard the whizzing of projectiles flashing by just above his head.

A collective gasp came from the ranks of recruits as he raked the weapon back and forth over them. Darren ducked slightly, purely out of terrified instinct, his body flooding with adrenaline. He was not the only one; almost everyone else performed a similar maneuver.

The sergeant's rifle locked open on an empty chamber, the last shot echoing off in the distance. He slowly lowered it, a look of contempt forming on his face. "Pathetic," he shouted. "Absolutely fucking pathetic!"

Everyone simply stared at him in shock. What the hell was the matter with this idiot? Darren wondered. Where did he get off firing a rifle directly at a bunch of recruits? And with live ammunition as well! Was he insane? Was he suffering from post-traumatic stress?

The sergeant stepped forward angrily, stopping about ten feet away from the center of the front rank. There was now a large scar visible on his face. It ran from the corner of his right eye all the way down to the side of his ear. "You morons are all dead!" he yelled. "If I had been shooting this thing directly at you instead of two feet over your heads, every last motherfucking one of you would have been mowed down like grass!" He hefted to rifle up in the air again, not aiming it, but simply holding it up for them to see. "This, for those of you morons who have been in a fucking monastery these past four years, is an AK-74, fully automatic assault rifle. It is the primary weapon of the chink ground forces in the battle zone. The very first thing you need to learn in this training assignment is to get your stupid asses on the ground when you hear one of these fucking things firing! I'm not talking about ducking like most of you did. I'm not talking about crouching like you learned playing fucking Infantry Attack on your goddamn computers. I'm talking about getting down on the fucking ground, as low as you can possibly get, no matter what kind of terrain you happen to be moving across when you hear it. You need to learn this first and foremost because if you don't, you're gonna be some dead fucking grunts real quick once you get out in the shit! Does everyone understand that?"

"Yes sir!" everyone yelled automatically. By now that habit had been nicely instilled upon them by the assistant DI's.

The sergeant popped the magazine out and dropped it to the ground, where it landed with a clatter on the cement. He reached into his belt and pulled out another one, slamming it into the rifle. He pulled back the action and then, in one quick motion, put it to his shoulder and fired once again. This time the clattering was much louder, ear shattering almost. Darren, who was standing less than fifteen feet away, was able to smell the gun smoke. "Get down, you fucking puke sacks!" the sergeant screamed at them over the sound of the gunfire. "Get the fuck down!"

Darren, along with everyone else in the ranks, threw himself to the cement, landing hard enough to drive much of the air from his lungs. The cement was hot beneath him, hot enough to singe his skin.

"That was still fucking pathetic!" the sergeant told them once the second magazine had been fired empty. "Why don't I just save us all a little time and expense and shoot every last motherfucking one of you right now so we don't have to bother sending you to the front to get your asses shot off?"

Nobody said anything, they simply continued to lay on the smoldering pavement.

"Everyone, give me twenty push-ups for that display of military inefficiency. Count them out, now!"

They counted them out, the entire rank pounding out the first of what would be many push-ups throughout the course of their tenure there. When they were done the sergeant ordered them back to their feet and called them back to attention.

He handed the AK-74 to the assistant DI, who carried it off to the corner of the barracks building. He then resumed his position near the middle of the first rank. "Welcome to the army, morons," he addressed them. "I am Sergeant Black and I will be your drill instructor for your stay here. My job will be to teach you how to stay alive at the front. My qualifications to teach you this are two years spent in the 214th infantry regiment. I served on the front line in the Battle of Viola and then in the trenches of western Idaho. I started out a puke-green piece of shit moron just like all of you and I lived long enough to command a squad through several major offenses by the Chinese. I've seen thousands of our people shot to pieces and blown to pieces on that battlefield and yet I managed to live through it. I'm here to try to teach you how to do the same thing."

He paced back and forth along the front rank for a moment. His voice softened a tad. "What I've just demonstrated to you morons is the very first and the most important lesson that you will learn. When you hear gunfire, when you hear explosions, when you hear anything out of the ordinary, you get your asses on the fucking ground. This is a lesson that I will go over and over again during your stay here. I will fire that fucking gun at you whenever it strikes my fancy. I'll shoot it at you during chow time, I'll shoot it at you while you're running PT, I'll shoot it at you in the middle of the fucking night while you're sleeping. And whenever you hear me do that, you will dive immediately to the ground no matter what the fuck else is going on. I don't give a shit if you're carrying your tray to your table in the mess. I don't give a shit if General Callahan himself is inspecting you at the moment. You get down and you get down before my magazine is empty or you're going to be doing fifty fucking pushups with my goddamn boot stuck up your ass! Is that understood?"

"Yes sir!" the platoon shouted out.

He nodded, halting his pacing and turning towards them. "I'm glad we understand each other then. Now that we've got that little bit of military knowledge covered, let us move on to the most important pieces of equipment that you morons will possess in the battle area. First squad," he stared at the front row, the row in which Darren was situated, "double time your asses over to the supply building over there." He pointed at a low concrete building about a quarter mile away. "You will pick up one helmet and one M-16 rifle there. Sign the paperwork and get your asses back here at fucking triple time! If you are not all back in this rank in exactly ten minutes you're going to be giving me fifty, is that clear?"

"Yes sir!" Darren and the rest of first rank shouted back.

"Then get moving," Black said mildly, just loud enough for all of them to hear. "The clock is running."

Darren and the others ran in a disorganized fashion across the parade ground, passing another group of recruits, obviously further along in their training, that were marching under the watchful eye of their DI. They scrambled into the building, finding themselves in a large room that connected to a gated, secured window. A large sign told them to line up for equipment hand out. A bored looking corporal was on the other side of the window. He was smoking a cigarette and watching something on a computer screen behind him.

"New morons?" he asked, seemingly put out that he was going to have to do his job.

"Yes sir!" Darren and the other nine recruits of the squad shouted out.

"Jesus fucking Christ," the corporal said, rubbing his temples. "Don't yell that shit at me. My name is Steve. Line up and I'll give you your shit."

"Yes sir!" everyone barked again despite his admonishments.

Darren, as the largest of the group, took his place at the front of the line out of instinct. It was something that he had done throughout his school years. When there was a line to be formed, the biggest person got to be in the front, right? That was the natural law accorded to the bad motherfuckers of the world. It was something that he would shortly regret doing in this setting.

Moving with agonizing slowness, Corporal Steve removed an M-16 and two empty magazines from a shelf behind him. The weapon was brand new, its black surfaces shining in the light, hardly a fingerprint marring its surface. He used a laser scanner to record the serial number on a computer terminal and then asked for Darren's social security number. Darren rattled it off impatiently and then was asked to put his thumbprint on the screen, acknowledging receipt of the weapon. He did this as well and the weapon was handed through the bars to him.

Despite more than six hundred hours to his credit at the game of Infantry Attack, he had never actually held an M-16 in his hands before, or in fact any kind of firearm. He found it was heavier than he'd imagined it would be, even without the ammunition in it. He hefted it a little, liking the way it felt. This was his chink killing machine, the embodiment of death for those commie yellow bastards. "Thank you, sir," he said sharply.

"It's Steve goddammit," he said resignedly. "I'm just a moron like you guys. Oh fuck it. What size hat you wear?"

"Extra large," Darren told him, taking a glance back at the other recruits that had come in with him. They were agitated, obviously worried about the amount of time this was taking. Well at least he would be able to get back before Black's ten minute deadline. And that was what was important, wasn't it? He figured the best thing to do was to make as little impression on the DI's as possible. And if you did have to make an impression, make sure it was a good one.

Steve reached behind him and pulled a Kevlar helmet from the shelf. It too was brand new. "Try this one on," he told Darren, handing it over. "You might have to adjust the band a little."

The helmet, in contrast to the rifle, was lighter than he'd envisioned. He placed it on his head and found that, although it was not a perfect fit, a little minor adjustment would undoubtedly make it so. "This'll work," he said hastily, picking up his two magazines and stepping aside to let the next recruit in. "Thank you, sir."

"Yeah, yeah," Steve said, dismissing him as he turned to get the next rifle.

Darren forced his way back through the other recruits and back out the door. Slinging his new rifle over his shoulder and holding tightly to the two magazines, he began running as fast as he could back across the parade ground towards where the rest of his training platoon were still standing at attention. He made it there reasonably quickly, well ahead of the ten-minute time clock he was sure. Sergeant Black was standing at the front of the remaining ranks as he came running up, yelling at two of them for something. They were on the ground pumping out push-ups. He stopped in mid-yell as Darren returned to his spot and assumed his attentive stance.

Black walked directly over to him, his eyes murderous, making Darren instantly know he'd done something very wrong. He came over until he was standing chest to chest with him, close enough so that Darren could smell eggs and salsa on his breath. "I don't believe my fucking eyeballs," he told him. "I just don't fucking believe it! What's your name, moron?"

Darren swallowed nervously, wondering what he had done to deserve this. "Sir! Recruit Caswell, sir!" he responded, as he had been taught.

"Recruit Caswell," Black said contemplatively, as if mulling that name over. He looked him up and down, obviously not liking what he saw. "You're a big motherfucker, aren't you?"

"Yes sir!" Darren agreed.

"Probably about as dumb as a fuckin retarded chink too, ain't you?"

"No sir!" he said.

"Don't you fucking disagree with me, moron!" Black screamed at him, his spittle flying into his face. "If I say you're a dumb motherfucker then you fucking agree with me, do you get it?"

"Yes sir!" he said, his terror growing.

"Are you a dumb motherfucker?"

"Yes sir!"

Black nodded. "I'm glad we established that," he said in a lower, almost reasonable tone. "Now tell me something, you big dumb motherfucker, when you went over to the armory, did you go over there by yourself?"

"No sir!" Darren told him.

"No, you didn't, did you? You went over there with nine other morons like yourself. That was your squad Caswell. Your team." He started to shout again. "And you just left your fucking squad behind! You got what you needed and you just fucking left them there to fend for themselves, didn't you?"

"Uh..." Darren stammered, "I didn't mean ... I mean..."

"You answer me with a fucking yes sir or a fucking no sir, moron!" Black screamed. "You just left your goddamn team behind in the armory didn't you?"

"Yes sir!" he responded, surprised to find tears wanting to leak from his eyes. What the hell was the big deal? Why did this asshole seem to get off on yelling at people?

"You just figured, hell, I got my shit and I can get back before the ten minute deadline. Fuck those other people. Isn't that what you thought, Caswell?"

"No sir!" he responded weakly, although that was exactly what he had thought.

"You lowlife, scum sucking, chink fucking, piece of shit!" Black yelled in his face. "Don't give me that shit. That's exactly what the fuck you were thinking! Don't you fucking dare try to tell me that it wasn't! Do you know what happens in combat, Caswell, when people start thinking like you just did? When the rest of the team can't fucking rely on you to stick with them until the job is done?"

"No sir!"

"The whole fucking team dies!" he yelled. "And if all of the fucking teams that we send out there to fight the chinks dies, then we lose this fucking war and those of us that are left alive will have to learn to speak fucking Chinese while those commie asswipes are fucking our sisters! Now you get your ass back to that building at quadruple time!" He smacked him on the back hard enough to knock the wind out of him. "Move!"

Coughing and choking, trying to refill his lungs with air, he moved, putting his feet in front of him and sprinting back across the parade ground. He arrived back at the armory just in time to intercept the next person, a freckled, stupid-looking redhead that was almost as large as him, as he exited the doorway, new rifle in hand, new helmet on head. He briefly considered just letting him go. After all, why shouldn't someone else get to experience the same persecution that he had just endured? But another part of his mind warned that Black would probably be even more infuriated with him for doing that.

"Don't go back," he gasped, trying to talk and catch his breath at the same time.

"What?" the recruit asked. "What do you mean?"

"He just ... just ... reamed my ... ass for coming back without the rest of the squad," he said. "We have to go back together."

"Together?" he said, distressed. "But there's no way that we'll make it back in ten that way."

He took a few more deep breaths. "I'm just passing on the message," he said.

It took the better part of fifteen minutes for everyone in the squad to get outfitted with a rifle and a helmet. The next few to emerge wanted to run back on their own but Darren managed to convince them that that was a very bad idea. At last they assembled once more into their disorganized formation and began to run back. They arrived in an out of breath heap, quickly resuming their places in the line.

"Fifteen goddamn minutes," Black yelled at them once they were at attention. "I told you to be back here in ten, didn't I?"

"Yes sir!" they all yelled.

"So can anyone tell me why it took fifteen for you to get back?" He looked up and down the line. No one answered him. He walked back up to Darren. "How about you, you dumbshit, chink fucking, squad abandoning motherfucker?" he demanded of him. "Can you tell me why it took so fucking long for you and these other morons to get back?"

Darren wasn't sure how he was expected to answer. He decided on the spur of the moment to take a chance and try the truth. "Sir!" he said. "It took that long for the corporal to give us all our equipment, sir!"

Black took a step backward, his eyes continuing to bore into Darren's. "So you're saying," he asked, "that Corporal Jenkins was not able to pass out your supplies in the time that I allotted to you?"

"Yes sir!" he agreed.

He seemed to consider this for a moment. "So," he said, "by that logic, I gave you an impossible task then, didn't I?"

"Yes sir," he said, a little less conviction this time.

Black nodded slowly, his face animating thoughtfully, as if a startling realization was just coming home to him. And then he seemed to shake it off. He shrugged disinterestedly. "Oh well," he said dismissively. "What can you do? It won't be the last time that some fucking idiot orders you to do something impossible and then punishes you for not getting it done. All ten of you, get down and give me fifty. Right now!"

They dropped and began to count off.

"Second squad," Black shouted. "To the armory for weapons and helmets. You have ten minutes! Ten fucking minutes!"

Nearly forty-five minutes later, the entire platoon was freshly outfitted with their weapons and helmets. None of the squads had even come close to the ten-minute deadline for their return.

"All right, morons," Black told them after the last group finished up their fifty push-ups, "you now have in your possession the two most important pieces of equipment that you will ever carry into the battle zone. You have a standard M-16, 5.56 millimeter, fully automatic assault weapon and you have your helmet. Your rifle is your lover, your best friend, the only fucking thing you can depend on in this shitty war. You are absolutely fucking worthless without it. Your helmet is your protector. It will keep shell fragments or badly aimed bullets from scrambling what little brains you have. From this point out, you will carry these pieces of equipment with you everywhere. And I mean fucking everywhere! When you march from one place to another, you will have your helmet upon your head and your weapon upon your person. When we exercise at PT, you will have them with you. When we sit in the classroom to teach you how to die like men, you will have them with you. When you go to the latrine to take a shit, you will have your weapon and your helmet within arm's reach of you. When you go to the shower to clean the filth off of your disgusting body, you will have them within arm's reach of you. When you are asleep in your bunk at night, you will sleep with your helmet on your head and your weapon strap around your arm. If you are caught at any point without either of these objects in your possession, I will have you running laps on the track until you drop from heat exhaustion. If I catch you twice, you will fail this course and recycle during the next rotation. Is that clear, morons?"

"Yes sir!" they shouted as one.

"Very good," he said almost conversationally. "Now we are going to start our lessons today with the rifle. Since it is the most important piece of equipment that you own, you will need to become as familiar with it as you are your own cocks. Before we start to teach you how to march, how to run, how to put on your packs, how to take a shit in the presence of nine other morons, you're going to learn how to assemble, disassemble, load, and fire that weapon. In fact, you will learn these things today, before you even eat breakfast. This platoon will have no food or water until every last motherfucker in here can flawlessly do those four tasks I just outlined. Have I made myself understood?"

"Yes sir!"

"Then let's head to the firing range, shall we? Follow behind me and keep up. Anyone falling behind will be doing pushups until their goddamn arms fall off. Let's move out!"

And with that, he and the assistant DI turned and began running to the west. The platoon hesitated for the briefest of seconds and then started off behind them.

None of the men of Baker Platoon would eat a scrap of food or drink a drop of water until nearly 3:30 that afternoon. Five of them would come close enough to heat exhaustion and dehydration to require medical attention. But when they finally did sit down to a meal of stale bologna sandwiches and warm distilled water, every last one of them knew how to assemble, disassemble, load, and fire their M-16 with impressive precision.

-------

Kensington Air Force Base, Nevada

July 21, 2015

Kensington Air Force Base was located thirty miles northwest of Las Vegas. It was a barren, hot, miserable place to be in any month of the year but it was particularly miserable in July. Heat waves shimmered endlessly off of the concrete runways and the desert sands surrounding them, making it difficult to see anything clearly beyond a range of half a mile or so. Rows of jet aircraft—the vast majority of them obsolete F-16s that had been relegated to training status—sat in sandbagged storage stalls on the tarmac. Surrounding the parked aircraft were a few anti-aircraft emplacements and a solitary fixed SAM launcher, token defenses to be sure because, though the base was well within range of Chinese air power, they had never bothered to send their bombers after the training facility.

Rolling along the taxiway towards the head of runway 27 was one of the base's F-16T aircraft, a specially modified trainer version that featured two seats instead of the usual one. In the rear seat, the command seat, sat Lieutenant Tyler Pratt, one of the flight instructors for the facility. In the front seat, the student's seat, sat recruit Mark Whiting, who was about to embark upon his first flight since the time his mother and father had taken him to Hawaii when he was eleven years old. And this was no gentle civilian airliner that he was strapped into.

His class of student pilots consisted of 50 recruits, 42 men and 8 women (the Air Force and Navy were the two services where the fairer sex was allowed to participate in combat operations), every last one of them, just like in Darren's class, between the ages of 18 and 20 years old. They were a mixed variety of various ethnic backgrounds that was fairly representative of the United States as a whole. The majority were Caucasians, followed a close second by African-Americans, Hispanics, Arabians, and one Native American of Cherokee descent. The armed services didn't give a shit what color you were or where your parents had come from (with the obvious exception of those of Asian heritage, they were the one category that was absent of representation), anyone had the equal opportunity to die in an air battle for their country.

Mark, along with the rest of his class, had discovered that their recruiters had been entirely honest when they'd proclaimed the training to be intense and specific towards the goal of getting people flight qualified in the shortest amount of time possible. They had been on the base for three weeks now, twenty-one straight days without a weekend pass or even a day off. There had been no basic military training of any kind. There was no marching, no drill instructors and the mind games that went along with them, no fastidiousness over uniform conditions or bed making, no inspections. Their hair had not been shaved off of their scalps, nor was there much of a physical training program save the two mile, loosely monitored runs every morning before breakfast, and that was only so they would meet the minimum physical fitness standards for maintaining flight status.

Their very first day at Kensington had been marked by uniform and flight gear fittings and then they had gone directly to the classrooms where they had begun to learn the basic principals of flight. They had started with gravity vs. lift and thrust vs. drag, covering all of the concepts of that in a grueling eleven hours. For the next two weeks, things had been pretty much the same. They went for the morning run, they had breakfast in the cafeteria, and then they headed to the classrooms where they spent the hours from 0800 to 2000 listening to lectures on flight principals and aircraft systems given by a variety of early to mid-twenties Air Force instructors, all of them combat veterans that had managed to live through at least two years on the line in a conflict where the enemy had overwhelming air parity. They would break for lunch at 1300 and be back in the classrooms by 1330 and they would then go straight through until the end of the day. Dinner, which usually was not all that bad here, would be served in the cafeteria at 2030.

It was only in the last week that the routine had changed somewhat. It was then that they had been introduced to the flight simulators where they could start to put some of their newly gained knowledge to semi-practical use. The sims, as they were called, were located in a huge warehouse building adjacent to the classroom complex. Each one consisted of an exact replica of the F-16 cockpit contained within a barrel shaped, windowless steel cylinder that sat upon hydraulically operated gimbals. Advanced supercomputers controlled every aspect of what went on there, projecting impressively realistic three dimensional images on a 360 degree screen that surrounded the student in his or her simulated ejection seat. Movement of the simulated controls would create movement of the entire simulator atop the gimbal, thus imparting simulated centrifugal motion for the student. The lecture period of each day now ended

at 1530. Simulator time was scheduled for the hours between 1600 and 2000 now. So far Mark, like all of his classmates, had spent fifteen complete flight hours in the sims learning the basics of the control and display layouts and how to turn, bank, ascend, descend, and, most important of all, how to maintain straight and level flight.

At first it had been maddeningly frustrating. The simulators were touted as being almost completely realistic representations of the actual flight characteristics of the F-16 and, as such, there was no "easy" mode as there had always been on the commercial computer games that Mark had played in the past. It had taken him the better part of six hours just to be able to keep from spinning out and crashing every time he took the controls. Nor was he the only one that had problems. Two of their class had been dismissed already because of their inability to grasp the concepts of the flight controls. But finally he had been able to coordinate his movements with the stick, rudder, and throttle well enough to keep his sim flying on a reasonably straight and level course. From there he had worked on his turns, ascents, and descents, eventually working his way to the point that he could fix his pretend aircraft at a particular altitude and turn it to a particular compass heading. The controls of the aircraft now felt almost comfortable in his hands instead of instruments that seemed to serve no other purpose than to send him to a spinning, crashing death. The heads up display on the windscreen was now a useful source of flight information instead of a bunch of numbers, lines, and circles that bounced and whirred.

And now, with the first module of ground training completed, it was time for the real test: that of actual flight in an actual aircraft.

Mark was dressed in a fire-resistant flight suit, light blue in color, which indicated that it was a student pilot's. Beneath the flight suit, squeezed tightly around his legs and lower abdomen, was a rubber G-suit that was designed to squeeze the blood out of his lower extremities during high-G maneuvers. His feet were encased in standard steel-toed combat boots which were just starting to get broken in. Upon his head was a flight helmet, bright pink in color (once he earned his wings he would be given a lavender helmet, when and if he graduated the class, he would earn a white one) with a digital radio headset installed within it. On his face, pulled down at the moment, was a synthetic rubber oxygen mask. He was strapped tightly into the ejection seat, so tightly that his body could hardly move. His eyes tracked over the heads-up display, watching the throttle setting and the compass heading as they bumped and bounced along the tired pavement of the base.

The plane reached the end of the taxiway and Pratt brought it to a halt, throttling the engine back to a soft idle. Mark, whose headset was patched into the radio communications, heard him ask for final take-off clearance from the control tower. A bored sounding female voice granted it, telling them that the winds were coming from a compass heading of nine-three degrees at two-zero miles per hour and that they should turn to a heading of zero-zero-zero degrees upon take-off and climb to FL-two-five-zero.

"Roger that," Pratt replied, his voice almost as bored in tone. "Turn to zero and ascend to angels two-five." He keyed off the radio link and then spoke to Mark via the intercom that they shared. "You ready, hatch?" he asked, using the term in these parts for a student pilot. It was a diminutive of hatchling, which was what the most basic students were called. Once they had soloed and earned their wings they would be called chicks.

"Yes sir," Mark said, trying to keep the nervousness from his voice. He still couldn't believe that he was actually sitting in a high performance jet aircraft, about to be launched into the sky. Once up there he would practice those turns and banks for real. He still couldn't believe that he was really here, really doing this, that they wanted him as a pilot. What if he couldn't cut it? What if he froze up? What if he spun them out of control and into a lethal dive? True he had acquired the skills to avoid this in the sims, but this was a real motherfucking airplane, not a computer. Would it react the same?

Pratt throttled up a little, imparting motion to the aircraft once more. "Well let's get it on then," he said, turning onto the runway.

Mark watched the compass heading on the HUD as it spun around and stopped at 270, almost directly into the prevailing east wind. The runway stretched out before them, seemingly for miles, its faded white line marching off and becoming dim and indistinct in the heat shimmer.

"What's the stall speed on this aircraft, hatch?" Pratt asked him.

"105 knots with this fuel load and absent of external payload, sir," he answered.

"Very good. And how long will it take me to reach stall speed on full burner?"

"About six seconds, sir," he replied, the very sound of that both exhilarating and terrifying.

"Six seconds, exactly right. So are you ready for those six seconds?"

"I'm ready, sir," he said.

"Good enough. The puke bag is located in the front of your seat, near the ejection handle. Use it if you need it. There's no shame in puking on your first ride but don't do it in the aircraft. If you do, you'll be spending the next two days scrubbing every part in this thing with a toothbrush, you got it?"

"I got it, sir," he said, marking the location in his mind.

"Okay then," Pratt told him. "Off we go. This will be a combat lift-off, just like the majority of them will be here. That means we get our asses into the air as quickly as possible. Brakes are set, throttling up."

The entire aircraft began to shake and shudder as the powerful jet engine wound up from idle to full thrust. The roar of it was deafening even through the insulation of the helmet and the earpieces inside of it. Mark braced himself as he had been taught, putting his head tight against the seat-back to prevent whiplash.

"Afterburner lit," Pratt said, imparting even more vibration and sound. A green light flashed on the HUD, indicating its fuel-wasting usage. The plane now seemed to be straining mightily for release. And release is what it got.

He released the brakes and they shot down the runway at suicidal speed. Mark felt himself pushed backwards as the white line on the runway blurred into motion, as the lights on the sides whizzed past, accelerating. The speed indicator wound rapidly upward, passing 40 knots, then 50, then 60, 70, 80, 90, 100. Just before 110, Pratt pulled back on the stick and they literally leapt free of the ground and into the sky. The altimeter now began to wind upward as well as the ground disappeared from view. Their angle of attack indicator showed that they were climbing at an angle of twenty degrees.

"Afterburner off," Pratt said, calling out the steps as he performed them for his student's benefit. "Gear up."

As they continued to climb into the sky, the whirring of machinery came from below them as the tricycle landing gear were retracted.

"Banking right to zero degrees," Pratt said, and suddenly they were nearly sideways. Mark felt a fresh surge of adrenaline dumping into his blood stream as he looked to his right and saw the base far below them.

"How's my gear looking, hatch?" Mark was asked in the middle of the turn.

He tore his gaze away from the ground and looked down at the cockpit instruments, quickly finding the indicator that showed landing gear status. All three of the lights were out. "Three outs on the gear, sir," he said with a voice that wasn't quite steady.

The compass wound its way to the mid-300s and suddenly the bank straightened out, putting them exactly on a heading of 000. Once again Mark could see nothing but the blue desert sky before him.

"I copy three outs on the gear," Pratt said. "Throttling down to eighty percent, decreasing angle of attack. What's my proper climb-out?"

"Three-zero degrees sir," Mark said as the engine noise subsided a little and the nose dropped down.

"Three-zero degrees it is," Pratt agreed. "We'll be up to angels two-five in about two and half minutes."

Exactly three minutes later they were steady at 25,000 feet above sea level and cruising along at 450 knots, the small fighter bouncing gently along in the mildly turbulent air. Mark, who had indeed been feeling the slightest bit queasy on the climb-out, now looked around in delight. The cockpit of the F-16 was set high on the aircraft and the canopy was of the bubble type, allowing a panoramic view. The flat desert stretched out around them, seemingly to infinity to the east, to the towering Sierra Nevada Mountains on the west. Behind them, to the south, the airbase could be plainly seen and behind that, the expanse of the Las Vegas metropolitan area.

"Quite a view, isn't it, hatch?" Pratt asked him.

"Yes sir," he said.

"You think you've enjoyed it enough now?"

"Yes sir."

"Good," he told him. "Then let's have you do some turns and banks, shall we? That is what we're up here for."

"Yes sir."

"Grab the controls but keep them neutral until I tell you 'student's aircraft'."

The F-16, like most modern high-performance aircraft, had the hand controls located on either side of the seat instead of putting the control stick between the pilot's legs. Mark's left hand found the throttle and his right found the stick, both comfortably at upper thigh level, in the recess where his hands naturally rested. They were small controls, not unlike a video game's joysticks. Each one of them had a number of different shaped knobs and dials protruding from them—controls, designed to be utilized by feel alone—that commanded other aircraft systems such as the radar or the weapons system or the displays. He ignored all of these, was not even sure what most of them were for yet. Once he had the controls firmly in hand he put his feet on the two rudder pedals, sliding the toes of his boots into mechanisms designed to keep them in place during maneuvering.

"You all set?" Pratt asked him.

"Yes sir," he said, an obvious tremor to his voice, his hands sweating freely.

"Okay, it's just like in the sim. I'll turn off the autopilot and you'll have the aircraft. Keep it straight and level. You should be able to do that using only the stick and the rudders. Got it?"

"Yes sir."

He flipped a switch on his panel. "Student's aircraft then," he said mildly.

Mark felt the plane immediately trying to pull to the left. The wing started to dip and his artificial horizon on the HUD began to tilt. At the same time the nose began to come up, making the altimeter wind upward as well. As he had done in the simulators time and time again, he gently nudged the stick to the right and pushed it forward just a hair while his feet manipulated the rudder pedals. The aircraft reacted a little more quickly to his movements in reality than it had in the sims and he was forced to pull back and left to correct for his over correction. Once again he spun past the neutral.

"Easy with it," Pratt told him. "As you can see, it's just a little touchier than the sim. With the fly by wire system you basically just think about the course correction and your hands will automatically do them."

"Yes sir," he said, feeling sweat running down his face as the wings wagged back and forth and the nose dipped up and down. He took a deep breath of the rubbery tasting oxygen from his mask and commanded himself to just think about what he was doing. Gradually, after perhaps a minute of decreasingly jerking motion, he had the plane flying straight and level once more, although six hundred feet higher than it had been and five degrees off course.

"Not bad," Pratt said. "I didn't have to take over once. Usually with new hatchlings I have to pull us out of at least one spin or one dive."

"Thank you, sir," Mark said with a mouth that was dry from tension. He was actually flying a jet aircraft! He was flying it!

"Now let's try a left turn, shall we? For this first one I want a gentle one, no more than twenty degrees bank. Bring us around to two-seven-zero and level back out. What's going to happen to the aircraft when you start to turn?"

"Turning will affect lift, sir," Mark told him. "The nose will drop and I'll have to compensate for it by increased thrust and elevator."

"And when the turn is complete?"

"I will have to decompensate again, sir."

"Correct," Pratt said. "Go ahead and do it when you're ready."

"Yes sir," he said, taking another deep breath. Ever so gently he pushed the stick to the left, simultaneously easing down on the left rudder pedal. The aircraft banked in that direction obediently, the compass spinning lazily to the west. When the nose tried to dip down in response to the decreased lift on the wing surfaces, he pulled up a little and added just a hair of throttle.

"Too much compensation, hatch," Pratt told him calmly as the nose jerked upwards.

He pushed back down on the stick and throttled down, again, too much on both corrections. The bank steepened alarmingly and the nose dipped towards the earth far below.

"You're passing twenty degrees bank," Pratt said. "Neutralize your controls."

"Yes sir," Mark said, swallowing nervously, feeling as if the aircraft were on the very verge of spinning out of control. Why the hell wouldn't it react like the simulator? He allowed the stick and the rudders to return to the neutral position, which kept the aircraft from banking further but kept it in the tight turn that it was in while the nose continued to drop further and further. Their altitude passed 20,000 and continued to fall.

"You're coming up on your heading, hatch," Pratt warned him. "Get this aircraft under control."

"Yes sir," he repeated, pushing the stick and the rudder pedals back to the right and pulling up.

It took him a few moments of frantic corrections and overcorrections, during which the plane banked back and forth, bobbed up and down, but finally Mark was able to bring them back to straight and level flight once more. He was nearly panting with the exertion, sweat dripping off of his face, his hands and fingers going numb from the overload of pure oxygen.

"Well, you kept us from spinning out and crashing," Pratt observed dryly. "I'll give you that. But you'll notice that we're nearly a thousand feet below our assigned altitude and that we're twenty degrees off course."

"Yes sir," Mark told him shamefully. "I'm sorry, sir."

"Don't sweat it," Pratt said helpfully. "Nobody flies this thing like they do the sims when they first get their hands on it. Most of them lose control and I have to take over. At least you didn't do that."

"So that was normal, sir?" he asked.

"A little above average," he assured him. "Most of the new hatchlings can't bring us back to straight and level once they fuck up the turn. It handles quite differently than the sim, doesn't it?"

"Yes sir, quite a bit differently."

"The sims are good for basic control drills and situational drills but not much else," Pratt opined. "That's why we get you hatchlings up in the real thing as quickly as possible. Now then, let's continue the lesson. How about you bring us back up to our assigned altitude and then put us back on course. Do one at a time. Once you get us there, we'll do some more turns."

"Yes sir," he breathed, putting on a little throttle and pulling up.

It took him the better part of five minutes just to get them back to exactly 20,000 feet. He crossed above and below that particular marker no less than six times before he was able to arrest the aircraft's descent or ascent perfectly on it. After that it took him another ten minutes to get them back on a course of 270, during which he once again lost more than five hundred feet of altitude and had to go through another two minutes of fine tuning to get them back up. By that time they were approaching the California state line and the end of their airspace. The peaks of the Sierras were much larger before them.

"Still no control losses," Pratt said, stifling a yawn. "I'm impressed. Now turn us back around to a heading of nine-zero degrees and try to maintain your altitude."

"Yes sir," Mark said, banking to the left once more.

In all, he spent more than two hours criss-crossing the large exercise area, turning and banking, ascending and descending the fighter jet, getting the feel of the machine's responsiveness to his hands and feet. Gradually he began to learn to control it. Though he was still far from comfortable and still quite a ways from being able to engage in a dog fight, he did get to the point where he could turn without losing or gaining altitude and where he could put them on any particular heading to within a degree or two. As his skill with the controls improved, Pratt had him make sharper and sharper banks during the turns, decreasing the airspace required to complete them and increasing the G-forces upon them. Each progression took a little more getting used to but by the end of the two-hour period he was fairly proficient at anything up to a forty-five degree bank.

"Not bad, hatch," Pratt told him as he put them back to level flight once more, this time right on the 25,000 foot mark and right at the compass heading of 270 that he'd been given. "I won't go so far as to say that you're a natural at this, but you're not a slouch either."

"Thank you, sir," Mark replied, unsure whether that had been a compliment or not. He took a moment to look around outside again, the view something he didn't think he could ever grow bored with. His sharp eyes picked out the streaking forms of other trainer aircraft in the distance, all of them doing the same thing that he and Pratt had been doing. There were ten of them up at the moment he knew, with the other members of the class doing time in the sims. He was able to count four of them within his view.

"Now then," Pratt said, "if you would be so kind as to relinquish control of the aircraft back to me?"

"Yes sir," Mark told him. "Instructor's aircraft." He let go of the controls and removed his feet from the pedals.

"Thank you," Pratt said. "Now how about we get on with the next portion of today's flight."

"The next portion, sir?" he asked, wondering if he was referring to landing procedures, which they had yet to go over either in lecture or the sims.

"A little something we like to do with our hatchlings on their first flight," Pratt said. "You see, sometimes we get quite a ways into the program with some of our students only to find that they are terrified of pulling high-G maneuvers and doing all the twists and dives that go along with being a fighter or bomber pilot. We've found it best to try to discover those individuals early if we can so that we can ... well ... redirect their career path before we spend too much money training them. Are you following me, hatch?"

Mark swallowed nervously. "I think so, sir," he said.

"Good," Pratt replied. "On that note then..." He suddenly banked them ninety degrees to the left, putting them sideways. He then pulled up sharply on the stick, bringing them into a 5g turn.

"Unnggg," Mark had time to mutter before he felt himself slammed downward in his seat. His head, his hands, his legs, suddenly weighed five times what they normally did. He felt the G-suit constrict almost painfully on his legs as the blood in his head and chest tried to obey the rules of centrifugal force and flee to his legs.

Pratt pulled them out of the turn and straightened out, the entire thing happening so fast that Mark hardly had time to feel fear over it. "How was that?" he asked.

"Pretty intense, sir," Mark told him a little breathlessly.

"At least you didn't scream. About half of the new hatchlings do. You ready for some more?"

He wasn't of course, but he sure as hell wasn't going to tell his instructor that. "Yes sir," he replied dutifully.

"Fuckin liar," Pratt told him with a chuckle. "Not that it matters though, because more is what you're gonna get. Let me show you how you evade a SAM at high altitude. You wait until it gets as close as possible to you, close enough that you can almost smell it, and then you do this..." He put them into a steep dive, forcing the nose directly towards the earth far below.

Mark felt the blood trying to slam upward this time, to drain out of his legs and chest and into his head, possibly popping a few blood vessels. Again the G-suit prevented the worst of this. As they dove downward, eventually the G-forces equaled out and they were weightless.

"You'll learn all of this next month when we get into air-combat maneuvering," Pratt said calmly, continuing to let the aircraft fall out of the sky, seemingly completely out of control. "The principal is that the SAM, while much faster, cannot maneuver as sharply as an aircraft. The closer that you let it get to you, the better this maneuver works. Usually it'll pass right over the top of you and then self-destruct, or it'll take out some other poor slob. But either way, you'll be safe and sometimes that's all you can shoot for out there."

"Yes sir," Mark said, trying desperately to keep the fear out of his voice as he watched the altimeter on his HUD wind rapidly downward. It was passing through 12,000 feet now.

"Okay," Pratt said, "enough of that." He pulled up, bringing them back to level flight at 11,000 feet. "Let's show you some air combat maneuvers now, shall we?"

"Yes sir."

"This is a basic over-the-top maneuver," he said, throttling up a little and increasing their airspeed. "I'm going to pull up and over, like I'm doing a loop, only when I get to the top of the loop I'm going to roll us over and level out. This is the fastest way to reverse your direction in flight. Note my compass heading is at 180 right now. It'll be exactly at opposition in less than six seconds. You ready?"

Without waiting for an answer, he pulled up, imparting more downward G-force and making the ground disappear. Just as the ground reappeared above them, they rolled sharply over to the left, transferring the view back to sky and transferring the G-force back to that of a dive. The plane leveled out once again, snapping sharply back into place. The compass heading now stood at 000.

"That takes about a thousand feet of altitude," Pratt explained, "and it eats up about 200 knots of airspeed. Be sure to throttle up when you try it."

"Yes sir," Mark muttered, feeling his stomach become very unsettled now.

"How you doing, hatch?"

"I'm okay, sir," he replied.

"Ready for some more maneuvers?"

"Yes sir," he said, wiping a little of the nervous sweat from his brow.

"Let's try something a little more complex then, shall we?"

They went through a split-S maneuver, a couple of high-G turns, two stalls, and then a reverse of the over-the-top maneuver. It was during this last one, as Pratt put them into a steep dive, bringing them upside down and then rolling them back to horizontal, that Mark's stomach, which had been becoming steadily more unstable with each turn and dive, finally gave up the fight to keep his lunch down. He frantically reached down between his legs and pulled up the waxed paper bag that had been stuffed near the ejection handle. He pulled down his oxygen mask and got the bag to his lips barely in time to catch the cheeseburger and fries as they made a return engagement to the atmosphere.

"You okay, hatch?" Pratt asked him once the last hitch and hiccup had died away.

He took the bag from his face, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand, dimly noting that they were flying straight and level once more. "Yes sir," he said, pulling his mask back up and taking a few deep breaths of the oxygen. "I'm sorry, sir. I really tried not to do that." He took a few more breaths. "Does this mean ... well ... that I'm out of the program, sir?" He was surprised by the sharp pang of regret that shot through him as he contemplated this. He didn't want to be kicked out of the pilot program.

"Not at all," Pratt told him, checking his watch. "You made it eleven minutes before I got you to puke. Not quite a record, but well into the ninetieth percentile. Maybe enough to win me the beer after work tonight though."

"Sir?" he said, confused.

"Everyone pukes his or her first time hatchling," Pratt explained to him. "It's our job to make you do it. We need to know how long its gonna take and how you react otherwise. You did just fine."

"I did?"

"You did," he said. "Now how about we get ourselves back on the ground? I've got one more hatchling to take up before the end of the day."

"Yes sir," he said, holding onto his vomit bag and feeling strangely proud of himself.

-------

Fort Baker, Texas

July 23, 2015

By the end of his first week of basic training Darren pretty much had the routine of the place down. You did what the DI's told you to do in exactly the manner in which they told you to do it and you answered every question that they imposed upon you with exactly what they wanted to hear in as few syllables as possible. By following these basic rules he had managed to achieve the status in their eyes that he had hoped for: that of an anonymous presence, someone who was there but that rarely did anything to attract attention. Being singled out on his first day, his first hour had taught him that their attention was not something that he wished to have.

This was a lesson that several of the other members of his training platoon were either too dumb or too stubborn to take to heart. Recruit Bennet—the large redheaded kid who had been about to rush back to the line after receiving his rifle, thus repeating Darren's mistake—was one such person. A former high school football player in Bend, Oregon, Bennet was a bullying, abrasive person who had a bit of an anger management problem. He seemed to take every assignment, every yell, every scream by a DI as a personal affront against his manhood. He had never done anything so stupid as trying to strike a DI or even mouth off to them when they were yelling at him, but he had been spotted more than once shooting them contemptuous looks and had been overheard muttering vague threats under his breath to other recruits. Resentment could be felt radiating off of him in waves at times. It was just a little thing but it had been quite enough to attract the unwanted presence of Sergeant Black in his face at nearly every opportunity, an attraction that only served to make his problem worse.

Such attention was taking place with Bennet now, as they were halfway through their daily march to the rifle range for shooting practice. Black had just fired off his AK-74 into the air over their heads, as he did no less than ten times every day. By now, after having it fired in the cafeteria, in the middle of the night, and, on one memorable occasion, during the Sunday church service, nearly every recruit had achieved the effect that Black was trying to instill in them: namely, they got their asses on the ground out of pure instinct. Bennet was the one recruit who had still not quite gotten that though. Instead of diving into the mud, or onto the concrete, or onto whatever surface they happened to be walking or running across at the moment, he still hesitated every time, looking to see what all of the noise was before putting himself down. This time was no different. While the rest of the platoon was already flat on their bellies, Bennet was almost leisurely easing himself down.

"Goddammit, Bennet, you fucking goofy-ass moron!" Black screamed at him as he stomped over. "What in the fuck is your problem? Why in the fuck can't you learn to get down when someone is shooting at you?"

"I got down, sir!" Bennet yelled back, a slight hint of whining protestation in his voice.

"Oh you got down all right!" Black told him, hovering just over the top of him. "You got down nice and gentle, like you were getting ready to fuck one of those sheep or pigs or whatever it is that you assholes from Oregon do! What's the matter with you? Don't want to hurt those pretty little knees or elbows? You wouldn't be able to kneel down and take it up the ass anymore if you did that, right!"

"No sir!" he shouted, the waves of resentment starting to radiate. Darren, who was proned on the ground less than four feet from him, could feel them clearly.

"It's not often that I find someone who is so fucking worthless that they are not even worthwhile to send to the front to serve as chink bait, but goddamned if you aren't. You are a completely incompetent piece of shit, you know that, Bennet?"

"No sir!" he yelled, his fists clenching a little.

"You say yes sir to me when I ask you that, you fuckhead!" Black screamed at him. "Do you understand me?"

"Yes sir," he mumbled.

"What?!"

"I said yes sir!" he said defiantly.

"Fifty push-ups! Start counting 'em out!"

He started counting them out, his large arms pumping him up and down nearly effortlessly, at least until Black put his boot in the small of his back and pushed down on him. It took him the better part of ten minutes to finish them all.

"Platoon, back to your feet!" Black told them, shouldering his AK-74 again. "We've got ten fucking minutes to make up for thanks to our sheep fucker here."

They ran at triple time to the rifle range, all of them out of breath and panting in the summer heat by the time they got there. Once there they took their assigned positions on the firing line where they stood at attention, awaiting Black's orders. Every recruit had his M-16 with him of course. As promised on the first day, they carried them everywhere they went, always with a full magazine of ammunition in them, never, not even during bathroom or shower activities, more than a step away. One of the recruits, a dunce named Tyler Hendel, had made the mistake a few nights before of leaving his in his bunk when he got up to take a leak. He had spent the next two hours running naked around the exercise track holding the weapon up over his head.

"Single fire drill from prone position!" Black yelled at them. "Set your targets for two hundred yards."

Darren, like each of the other recruits, shouldered his rifle and picked up one of the paper targets from the holder in front of his firing line. It was a man-shaped silhouette, five feet, seven inches tall, which was reputed to be the average height of a Chinese soldier. He attached it to a clip on the target carrier before him and then pushed one of the buttons on the control panel. The target rushed outward, pulled along by a small cable, and jerked to a halt at precisely two hundred yards.

"Platoon, assume firing positions!" Black told them when all of the targets were downrange.

Darren lay down on his stomach on the ground, pointing his rifle out over the landscape, centering the silhouette in the raised sights. By now the weapon felt very comfortable in his hands and he had gotten to be a pretty good shot with it as well.

"Fire at will!" Black yelled and the pops of rifle-fire began to echo up and down the line.

Darren squeezed off his shots smoothly, one after the other, not jerking the trigger, quickly resettling the sight after each shot. It kicked harshly against his shoulder with each trigger pull, a flash of white fire blasting from the muzzle, a sharp crack thumping into his eardrums. He could not see the rounds landing but he knew that they were on target. He fired until his action locked open and then he automatically ejected the magazine and pulled out another from his web gear. He slammed this one into place and then closed the action again. He didn't fire. The standard drill was to shoot one thirty round magazine and then stop.

Gradually the cracking of gunfire died off, leaving only one weapon still shooting. That one belonged to Recruit Griffith, the smallest member of the training platoon and the one who had the most trouble with his marksmanship. Naturally he drew the attention of Black.

"Griffith!" he screamed at him, "you worthless piece of cow shit! Why in the fuck are you always the last one to finish your mag? Why, Griffith?"

"I don't know, sir!" he responded sharply, with just the right tone and inflection.

"You don't fucking know? Well I'll tell you why, Griffith, it's because you're a piss-poor shot with that thing! This is the infantry you're training for, not the goddamned motor pool!"

"Yes sir!" Griffith told him. "I'll try harder, sir!"

"You goddamned well better," he was told. "If you don't learn to pick up the pace with that weapon, I'm gonna have you out here on your fucking lunch hour, do you understand?"

"Yes sir!"

"Good," he said mildly. He then turned to the rest of the platoon. "On your feet and retrieve your targets!" he shouted. "Let's get 'em counted up and get those push-ups done."

"Yes sir!" the platoon shouted as one.

The rule on marksmanship at the two hundred yard range, which was considered quite easy for the M-16, was ten push ups for every missing bullet hole in the silhouette. After the target came whirring back to the front of the line, Darren counted his holes, finding exactly thirty of them. He suppressed a smile of satisfaction as the majority of the others dropped down and began pounding out their punishment, most only doing twenty to thirty, a few sad sacks like Griffith doing nearly a hundred. Black went up and down the line while they did this, randomly auditing a few targets to keep the troops honest. The penalty for fudging on the count was quite severe.

After the 200-yard drill they moved onto the 300 and then the 350-yard drill, all from the prone position, which Black assured them would be the most common way they fired their rifles at the front. Darren scored another perfect score on the 300 but had to pump out ten push-ups for the 350 since two of his bullet holes were below the waist, which was not considered the kill zone.

"All right, morons," Black told them. "That was a good warm-up exercise. Now let's do some shooting. Burst drill, targets at four hundred. Does everyone have the magazines for it?"

No one answered, indicating that everyone had enough loaded magazines in their possession to complete the drill. Even Griffith and Bennet knew better than to come to the firing line with anything less than six loaded magazines in their pack.

For the next hour they practiced with their weapons, all of them firing off more than five hundred rounds. Griffith, as usual, was a little behind in both his marksmanship and his speed and was forced to do push-ups at every rotation. It took another thirty minutes to police the thousands of brass shell casings that littered the firing line. By then it was time for lunch.

"Remember," Black warned them as they marched towards the main part of the base, "don't let me catch you eating before you do an ammo re-supply! A soldier without ammunition is as worthless as a cock on a cow."

They were dismissed in front of the dormitory complex and all fifty of them made their way inside. This was a large room with metal framed bunk beds set in geometrically perfect rows and columns from one side to the other. Darren's bunk was a bottom one near the center of the room. He went to it and pulled his footlocker from beneath, opening it up with the key he carried and pulling out boxes of 5.56-millimeter ammunition. He set his rifle down on his bed and then took the empty magazines from his pack. Meticulously he began to open the cardboard boxes of bullets and put them in the magazines. His bunkmate, a tall, gangly looking guy from San Diego, pulled out his own footlocker and began doing the same, as did nearly every other member of the platoon.

Two bunks over, Recruit Bennet was sitting dejectedly with his own bunkmate, bitching about the treatment he had received at Black's hands. "I'm telling you," he told no one in particular, "that motherfucker is gonna push me too far pretty soon and he'd just better watch his ass when that happens."

Nobody around him offered a response to this threat, more out of fear of being overheard by Black than out of any fear towards Bennet himself.

"I mean, where does he get off? Screaming at me at all the time. Just 'cause I don't go throwin' myself down on the fucking ground as fast as he wants me too, he's always harassing me. I have half a mind to get myself a lawyer and sue his ass."

Again no one responded to him, although there were more than a few snickers behind cupped hands at the thought of a basic training recruit trying to sue a DI.

Darren continued to shove shells into the magazine, hardly hearing Bennet's ramblings. Though the hulking redhead seemed to enjoy bullying people, particularly when the harassment by Black had been particularly bad, he never approached or challenged Darren in any way since Darren was two inches taller and outweighed him by at least fifteen pounds. No, Bennet preferred to pick on the smaller members of the platoon. And it wasn't long until he found himself a target for the day.

"Hey, Groovy," he said, hailing Griffith on the next bunk, utilizing the nickname that had been imparted upon the diminutive soldier-to-be, "you done loading your mags?"

Griffith, though perhaps the worst and slowest shot in the platoon, was ironically the fastest at re-loading. His small fingers were able to manipulate the small shells with a machinelike precision that his larger classmates were not capable of. "Yeah," he said nervously as he stowed his remaining ammo boxes back in his footlocker.

"Come over here and do some of mine for me," Bennet commanded. "I don't see why the fuck we gotta have six of these fuckin' things anyway."

"I need to get over to the lunch line," he said.

"You can have lunch after you do these fucking mags for me, you little shithead," he told him angrily. "Now get your ass over here and do it before I use you as a goddamned mop."

Griffith, who had probably been picked on and harassed by Bennet-types all of his life, frowned a little but got up and started heading over, obviously intending to do just what he was told. Most of the other platoon members within earshot simply went about their business, undoubtedly grateful that it had not been they who were singled out.

Darren however, looked up sharply, his eyes boring into Bennet. Though he generally kept to himself, part of his plan to maintain as low of a profile as possible, he had been growing increasingly annoyed with Bennet over the past few days. Having spent much of his high school days protecting Mark from the Bennets of Wood Oak High, Darren harbored both a fierce protective instinct for those that were helpless and a terminal dislike of those that they needed to be protected from. Griffith, as the smallest and meekest of the recruits, had taken more than his share of shit from Bennet and a few others. It was time do something about it.

"Why don't you load your own fucking magazines?" Darren said softly, though with a hint of menace in his voice.

"What?" Bennet thundered, looking around to see who had dared challenge him. When his eyes locked onto the source of the defiant words however, his expression rapidly changed to one of uncertainty.

"You heard me," Darren told him. "Load your own mags." He turned to Griffith. "Go get your lunch, Groovy. Bennet was just kidding about you helping him, weren't you, Bennet?"

Fury on his face, his hands clenched into angry fists, Bennet nevertheless folded and folded quickly. "Sure," he said, glaring. "I was just kidding."

Griffith looked at his two monstrous classmates for a moment, his gaze passing back and forth, unsure what to do.

"Go on," Darren told him, keeping his gaze locked on Bennet's face. "He ain't gonna bother you."

Bennet swallowed and then picked up his rifle and headed for the door, walking quickly. Darren and Bennet continued to stare at each other for a moment. Finally Bennet dropped his eyes and went back to loading his own magazines. He would still be performing this task after everyone else had left for the chow line.

Lunch that day consisted of canned spaghetti and stale French bread, cuisine worse than the Wood Oak High cafeteria staff could ever dream of producing. Darren grabbed his plate and his glass of powdered lemonade and carried them over to where Griffith was sitting, alone as always. He sat across from him, setting his rifle down across his knees as they had been taught. Griffith gave him a fearful look and then went back to eating.

"Where you from, Groovy?" Darren asked between bites of his food.

He looked up at him, seemed to debate whether to answer for a moment, and then finally said, "Tucson, Arizona."

Darren nodded thoughtfully. "So you're used to all this fuckin' heat then. I'm telling you, sarge, I used to think it got hot back in Sacramento. That wasn't shit compared to this place."

"Yeah," he muttered. "I guess so."

They ate in silence for a minute.

"You didn't have to do that back in the dorm," Griffith said finally.

"No," Darren agreed, "I didn't. But I got tired of seeing him push you around just because you're smaller. I hate pricks like that."

Griffith shrugged. "You get used to it," he said. "I've been dealing with that since I was in the sixth grade."

"But you don't like it, do you? You're not one of those fuckin' weirdoes that gets off on shit like that, right?"

He smiled a little. "No," he admitted. "I don't like it. I'm just used to it."

"Well fuck that propaganda," Darren told him. "I used to have a friend back in Sac, his name was Mark, he was a small guy like you. Assholes like Bennet would've picked on him all the fuckin' time but I made sure they didn't. I don't go in for that kinda crap."

Griffith looked at him thoughtfully, taking in his large form. "What happened to him?" he asked.

"We tried to sign up for the buddy program together," he said. "They wouldn't let us. They decided Mark would make a better pilot so they shipped him off to the fuckin Air Force."

"Really?" he asked. "I tried to join the Air Force when I signed up. My eyesight wasn't good enough for them so they put me in the infantry."

"Ain't that a fuckin' retreat?" Darren asked, shaking his head. "They just put people wherever the hell they want them. It just don't matter what they hell they want. Mark begged them to let him go into the army instead but they wouldn't let him. Told him that if he didn't take the pilot training they'd just make him a REMF who worked on planes or something."

"That is a retreat," Griffith agreed, now seemingly glad to be having this conversation. "Have you heard from him?"

"Just a couple of times. He's been there about three weeks or so now. He sent me an email a couple days ago telling me that he's almost ready to start flying with an instructor. I guess he's doing okay. I still wish he was here though. He was my best friend, you know what I mean?"

"I know what you mean," he said, although he really didn't. He had never really had a best friend before.

"So anyway," Darren told him, "that's why I helped you out in there. I don't go in for that bullying shit. If that asshole gives you anymore problems, you let me know and I'll take care of it for you."

Griffith smiled. "Thanks," he said gratefully. "I'll do that."

-------

Kensington Air Force Base, Nevada

August 12, 2017

The old military policy of "don't ask — don't tell" in regards to homosexuals within the ranks had lasted less than thirty days under the test of wartime. Chinese troops had yet to even invade Alaska when "don't ask — don't tell" was modified to "we don't give a shit what you are, you're going to serve" due to the large numbers of men claiming to be gay to avoid military service. It was perhaps the fastest integration of a fringe group into the ranks of the armed services in the history of the institution. It was because of this policy that four of the eight women in Mark's pilot training class were admitted, hard-core, butch lesbians.

Strangely enough Mark ended up a study partner and then a fairly close acquaintance to the hardest of the hardcores. Mindy Meachum was nineteen years old and a year out of high school. She was short and stocky, with bulging arm and leg muscles, and several tattoos adorning her biceps. Her hair was a dark brown that was almost black and was cut severely short, shorter even than military standards. She could out-cuss and out-sleaze nearly every other hatchling in the class and was well on her way to out-flying them as well. She, like all of the women in the class, had volunteered specifically for flight training since flying in aircraft was the only place in this war that women were allowed to participate directly in combat operations.

When Mark had been assigned to a study group with her during their first month of training he had been terrified of her at first, his terror compounded by the fact that he had never socialized or even talked to an actual lesbian before. But to his surprise he quickly found out that she was an eerily smart and witty companion, very easy to talk to on any subject, up to and including her sex life. She was brutally honest, capable of spouting off anything that happened to cross her mind, qualities that Mark had a great deal of respect for. By the end of their second month of flight training she and Mark were in the habit of eating together during meal periods, of running together during PT, and of sitting together during the class room portions. If not for the sex thing, Mark thought he might have asked her to marry him.

"Would you check out the ass on Castle?" she asked him a mile into their three-mile, pre-breakfast run one morning. They were cruising in the middle of the pack, trotting along at a nice, measured pace on the exercise track outside the classroom complexes. "Wouldn't you just love to bury your face between those fucking cheeks?"

Recruit Ashley Castle, one of the non-lesbian women of the class, was indeed a sight to behold. She had honey blonde hair, a body worthy of an internet pornography site, and smooth, well-muscled legs that bulged with runner's muscle. Mark, like every other male in the class, had lusted after her from day one. "I wouldn't turn down the invitation," he said. "But somehow I don't think she's gonna offer it to me. She seems all hung up on Stinson and Long." Stinson and Long, who were her constant running, studying, and eating partners, were the two largest males in a group of short, small statured people. They, of all the members of the class, were the two that were closest to the stereotypical macho fighter pilots that the movies so loved to portray. Impossibly good-looking and brutally self-assured, they seemed to exude testosterone from their very pores. Castle had gravitated to them from the very first day of training. No one was quite sure what the relationship between the three of them was but there were plenty of rumors flying about.

"You've talked to her a few times, haven't you?"

"Just in passing," he said. "She was polite to me, but she sure as hell didn't seem interested."

"Don't give up all hope yet," Mindy said shrewdly. "I bet if she lets one of those two pretty boys hose her she'll be sadly disappointed. Guys like that are never good in bed. They're too hung up on themselves to put any effort into it."

"How the hell do you know that?" he asked. "You're a muff diver, remember?"

"I've fucked my share of guys," she told him. "It's a phase that we lesbians go through in our teens, when we're still trying to come to grips with what we are. I was pretty hot too. You should see me with long hair and a dress. You would've been begging to get in my panties."

"No shit?" Mark said, looking at her to see if she was kidding. She didn't seem to be.

"I'll show you the pictures," she promised. "I still have a few stashed in my PC."

Mark tried to equate the masculine, muscled woman that now jogged beside him with a feminine, alluring presence in a dress and failed miserably. The image just wouldn't come.

"So you ready for your solo today?" Mindy asked him while he was pondering that. Today was the day that ten of the top pilots, Mindy and Mark were among them, were finally going to be allowed to solo an aircraft for the first time, thus earning their pilot's wings and their lavender flight helmet.

"Yeah," he said dismissively, as if he hadn't been worried about it for the past two days. "It shouldn't be much of anything."

"Right," she said knowingly. "No big thing. Except we won't have the instructor to take over for us anymore if we fuck something up. I'm freakin terrified."

"All we have to do is take it up, circle the exercise area, and then land. It shouldn't take more than a half hour. And its all stuff we've done before."

"I suppose," she said. "But we have less than fifty hours of stick time. That would've been unheard of in the old days. They don't give us enough training for what we're doing out here. It used to take them two fucking years to train a pilot, now they've got us soloing in two months. Two months!"

"I won't crash," Mark said with faked confidence. "I'm still a little green, but I think I can fly it around and bring it back down again."

"I'm sure no one is going to crash," she said. "That's not my point. My point is that they're pushing us through this program too fast. We're going to be flying combat missions in another seven months, Whiting. Do you think that you're ready to do that?"

"Not now," he admitted. "But by the time we get our aircraft assignments, I'm sure I will be."

"We'll be trained just enough to go in and get our asses shot off," she prophesized. "Have you seen the stats on new pilot fatalities?"

"No," he replied. "I didn't know that anyone was keeping any."

"They're available on the internet if you know where to look for them," she said. "They don't go advertising them or anything because they're too fucking scary. More than four out of every ten new pilots from this training program will be shot down in their first thirty days on the line. Three of those four will be killed or captured from that shoot-down. We're fucking lambs being led to the slaughter."

Mark contemplated that for a second and then fell back on what was conventional wisdom about the war casualties from all branches of the service. "They say that the stupid ones are who get killed right away," he told her. "I don't think I'm very stupid."

"Neither did all of those who were killed I'm sure," she replied.

-------

Later that day, just as scheduled, Mark strapped into one of the standard F-16 models—the kind that only had one seat—and roared into the sky above the base. He performed everything reasonably well, which was to say that he remembered to retract the gear and to throttle down and to do everything else on the take-off procedures list. He ascended to 26,000 feet and then leveled out, heading for the far west side of the training airspace. Once there he banked to the north and used his fledgling navigation skills to skirt the entire perimeter. His route took him nearly sixty miles out over the wastelands of Nevada and then back to within twenty miles of the Las Vegas skyline. Soon he was back over the runways of the base, circling in the landing pattern. He brought the aircraft down to earth once again, his wheels squeaking gently on the paved surface of the main runway. He taxied back to the fueling area and just like that, he was a pilot.

He dismounted from the aircraft, a huge grin on his face, his nervousness replaced by pride in his accomplishment. Lieutenant Pratt, his main flight instructor, was waiting for him, his face expressionless and bored as usual.

"Good job," he told him. "You're now a chick."

"Thank you, sir," he said.

With no pomp or ceremony of any kind, with no more care than he would have used to give him a cigarette, he handed over the silver wings. "Here, put these on," he said, "and then go to supply and exchange that pink helmet for a lavender one."

"Yes sir," he said, taking the wings and gazing at them wonderingly. He was now a pilot! A pilot!

"And," Pratt said, "in keeping with a long-standing tradition here, you now have liberty until PT Tuesday morning. That's thirty-eight hours away from this place, chick, so use it wisely. Since there's not a whole lot to do here on the base, I'd suggest that you and the other new chicks head into Vegas. The Hydro-Bus stops every two hours at the main gait."

The grin that he'd been sporting suddenly got a lot wider. "Thank you, sir," he said.

"Be sure to wear your uniform," he was told. "The drinking age in Nevada is still twenty-one, but the casinos and the bars will serve to anyone in uniform without question and the cops won't hassle you as long as you stay out of trouble. A little unwritten rule that's been developed over the years, you know. But don't drink too much. You have your normal classroom schedule Tuesday and then we're wheels-up in the sims at 1300 to start ACM training, okay?"

"Yes sir!"

-------

All ten of the recruits scheduled for their solo flights that day completed them without incident and received their wings. At 5:00 PM the entire bunch of them, resplendent in their light blue recruit uniforms and sporting their brand new wings proudly upon their chests, climbed into the hydrogen powered commuter bus at the main gate for the forty minute trip into Las Vegas. The bus, which was capable of holding sixty in comfort, was crowded to overfull with base personnel heading home for the day. The recruits, as military courtesy demanded, stood near the rear, allowing those higher in rank to have the seats. Mark stood near Mindy, the two of them companionably chatting and occasionally bumping into each other as they held on to the handrail attached to the roof. Immediately behind them were the inseparable trio of Castle, Stinson, and Long. The voluptuous Castle stood in the middle, the two Adonis figures acting as bookends for her.

"This is gonna be fuckin' static," Stinson was saying to anyone who would listen. "We're set free on Vegas for a day and half with two months worth of pay in our accounts. I'm gonna get so fucked up that they'll have to call an ambulance to get my ass back to base."

"Hell yeah," Long agreed, grinning wildly, holding up a hand for a high-five, which he received. "I'm gonna gamble, drink, drink some more, and then gamble some more. I don't even know why we're getting a room, I don't plan to ever be in the fucker."

"You three are sharing a room?" Mindy asked them politely, just to make sure that her later gossip would be correct.

"We have to," Castle said with a giggle. "Have you looked into how much even a cheap one is there? If we didn't share we'd go broke trying to stay there overnight."

Mindy and Mark looked at each other in alarm. They had both planned to secure rooms by themselves. "How much are they?" Mark finally asked.

"I've been on the net on my PC all day," Castle replied. "The cheapest I could find is three hundred dollars a night, and that was for a fleabag ten miles from the strip. The average price of the casino rooms is about six hundred."

"Damn," Mindy said. "I didn't know it was that much."

"Yep," Castle said, smiling. "Why the hell else do you think I'm willing to risk the rumors that are going to fly by staying with these two assholes?" She gave them an affectionate look while they feigned shock at her words.

"Yeah," Mindy said. "Good point." She turned to Mark. "All right, Whiting," she told him, "it looks like you and I are gonna have to risk some rumors too. What do you say? You up to sharing a room with me?"

He nodded without hesitation. "Damn right," he replied. After all, he didn't really think of Mindy as a girl. "Rumors be damned if it'll save me three hundred bucks."

"I don't think you have to worry too much about the rumors," Stinson said with a grin. "Mindy's not gonna rape you, are you Mind?"

"She might share her woman with you when she's done though," Long added.

The five of them cracked up, Mindy included. Jokes about her sexual orientation, as long as they were not vicious or hateful, bothered her not a bit. "Shit," she said, "there wouldn't be nothin' to share. After she's had me, no man would ever do it for her again."

A chorus of oohs met this statement. "Those are strong words," Stinson told her.

"Send one of yours my way sometime," she challenged. "I'll bet she never goes back."

"Give her your sister, sarge," Long piped up. "I'd pay money to see that."

The banter continued as the bus rolled down the otherwise deserted Interstate towards Sin City. Mark listened to it, laughed in all of the appropriate places, but, as was his nature, contributed little. Nevertheless he felt the strong pull of camaraderie burning within him, the feeling of closeness with his classmates, those who had gone through their solo flight with him, who understood what it had been like.

Soon the desert landscape gave way to the residential neighborhoods. The bus began to stop every quarter mile or so, mostly to disgorge passengers and allow them to walk home to their domiciles, occasionally to pick someone up. After fifteen or so such stops, enough seats were empty so that the recruits could sit down. It was nearly another forty minutes before they arrived on the fabled strip.

The strip was not what it had once been before the war. There were still crowds of people rushing this way and that for Las Vegas was still a popular vacation destination for those who lived nearby or who could afford the train or bus tickets. But there were no cars traveling up and down the wide boulevards between the glittering casino buildings. And the buildings themselves did not really glitter anymore since the electricity required to run all of the flashing and pulsing lights was just a little too precious to waste in that manner. There were also the double-A and triple-A guns mounted on the roofs of many of the structures. Though the management of the casinos had gone to great lengths to disguise or conceal them, most were still visible poking their deadly snouts out.

All ten of the new pilots exited the bus near the middle of the strip, stepping out into the summer heat just outside one of the theme casinos. From there the clichés and groups that had formed headed in different directions. Mindy and Mark, figuring that one place was as good as another, simply stepped into the nearest doorway, into the blessedly cool air-conditioned comfort of the casino. Inside, a thousand slot machines, most patriotic themed, were jingling and jangling noisily away. Scantily clad cocktail waitresses walked to and fro with trays of drinks in their hands, passing amid more conservatively dressed, armed security guards.

"Let's go get a room first," Mindy suggested. "And then we'll come down and commence with our intoxication."

"You got it," Mark agreed, following after her.

They paid two hundred and seventy dollars apiece for a simple sixth floor room with twin beds. Once the computer terminals were thumbprinted and the money subtracted from their checking accounts, they waded into the depths of the casino, making their first stop the bar near the elevators.

-------

Las Vegas, Nevada

August 13, 2015

Mark woke up at 8:30 the next morning, his head pounding sickeningly, his mouth as dry as the desert outside, and his stomach burning as if someone had poured a can of drain cleaner into it. He groaned a little, hardly aware that he was even doing it, and softly creaked his eyes open to find that he was lying entirely naked atop of the covers on his hotel bed.

"Oh, God," he mumbled softly as he realized that his crotch was slimy with sex secretions and that the odor of strong feminine musk was rising sickeningly into the air around him. Several used condoms, their necks tied neatly into knots, were standing sentinel on the nightstand next to the bed.

He looked over at the other bed, wanting to confirm that his disjointed memories of the previous night were correct. Sure enough, Mindy was lying entirely naked atop her own bed, proned on her stomach, her smooth butt sticking slightly up into the air, her small breasts flattened against the stained and rumpled bedspread. She was snoring softly, her respiration slow and ragged.

"Christ," he said, slowly pulling himself to his feet. His clothing was scattered all over the floor at the foot of the bed, much of it mixed in with Mindy's. He stepped carefully over it, making his way to the small bathroom on the other side of the two beds. He opened the door, stepped inside, and closed it behind him. His bladder was straining almost painfully. He lifted up the toilet seat, aimed his withered and abused penis towards the water, and let loose a torrent.

By the time he finished up, washed his hands, and emerged from the bathroom once more, Mindy was awake and groaning on her bed. She had rolled over on her back and was lying there, completely naked and apparently unashamed, her fit body on display for him, including her belly-button ring, her neatly trimmed pubic bush, and the tattoos on her stomach and upper thigh. Several hickeys were also apparent on and below her breasts.

Mark felt momentarily bashful about standing naked in front of her but he made no move to cover himself up. After all, she had not only seen him naked in all his glory the night before, she had seen him in action as well, as he had seen her.

They had gambled and drank beer until nearly midnight, both of them becoming outrageously drunk. They had then scored a fifty-dollar bag of pot from a tough looking sixteen-year-old who had been hanging out, suspiciously unchallenged by the security troops, in the front lobby of the casino. After smoking a joint out in the empty and deserted parking structure, the talk had turned to sex, and how much the both of them missed it. From there, at Mindy's suggestion, they had gone to the bell captain who, after a hundred dollar tip, had been able to arrange for two semi-classy prostitutes to meet the two young pilots in their hotel room. The cost had been a thousand dollars apiece, an amount that, under the drunken, stoned, horny circumstances, had not seemed all that excessive. One of the girls had been a blonde, one a brunette, both very young, both reasonably thin and attractive. Mark and Mindy had spent the better part of two hours taking turns with them on their respective beds, passing them back and forth like the joint they had smoked earlier, each partaking in the particular sex acts that they were into. It was Mark's first experience with prostitution and now, in the light of a new day, he wasn't quite sure how he felt about it. Nor was he quite sure how he felt about having had his lesbian friend share in the experience with him.

"Morning," Mindy groaned, reaching for a pack of cigarettes on the nightstand. She shook one out and lit up with a pack of matches, blowing the acrid smoke out into the room.

"Morning," Mark returned, walking back over to his bed. He helped himself to one of the cigarettes as well and then lay back down, not bothering to cover his nudity. What would be the point?

"Some night last night," she said, passing the matches over to him. "This place truly is Sin City, ain't it?"

"That ain't propaganda," Mark agreed, striking a light and inhaling some smoke. He blew it back out and then reached down to give his testicles a small scratch. He turned his head back to Mindy. "You ever done anything like that before?" he asked her.

"What, fuck a girl? I'm a lesbian, remember?"

"Very funny," he said. "I mean buying hookers."

"Nope," she said. "I was always pretty straight laced back in Concord, at least as straight-laced as a lesbo can be. I was more into long, meaningful relationships instead of one-night stands. My last girlfriend I dated for almost a year exclusively. We broke up the week before I hopped on the train to Kensington. How about you? You ever done the hooker thing before?"

He shook his head. "Nope," he said. "The extent of my sexual experience is the lonely war widows I told you about. Those two last night were probably the youngest women I've ever had."

"You and the war widows," she said with a respectful smile. "I wish I could've got into something like that. It's different when you're gay though. It adds another layer to the will-she-or-won't-she process. I probably would've wasted more time than anything."

"I suppose," Mark said, taking another drag, not sure what else to say in response to that.

"They must've taught you a thing or two though," she said slyly. "You had all the moves down, sarge. I swear that some of them moans those whores were doing were real. I think you turned them on."

"Get the fuck out of here," he said, blushing a little though absurdly proud at her words.

"Naw, sarge, really," she said, chuckling. "You were the shit. You had that little white butt of yours moving up and down like a goddamn piston, and that move where you got her from behind... " She whistled appreciatively. "That was a goddamned work of art. You do your sex proud, I'm tellin' you. Lay five on me." She held her hand across the gap between the two beds.

Chuckling at her words, he gave her a high five, their palms slapping together loud enough to hurt their hungover ears.

They smoked in silence for a few minutes, both of them lying there in the nude, occasionally tapping their ashes into a glass ashtray on the nightstand between the beds.

"So what do you wanna do today?" he finally asked, breaking the silence. "I think at least a month and a half of my pay is gone now, but I still have a little left."

"Me too," she said. "I say we smoke the rest of our pot, get cleaned up, and then head downstairs and start drinking and gambling again. We're going to war soon, and who knows what'll happen there. Besides, God only knows how long it'll be before we get another liberty."

He thought about that for a moment and then nodded. "I find you make a good argument," he told her. "Where's the pot?"

-------

Fort Baker, Texas

September 2, 2015

They were out in the very back fringes of the base property, among the rolling hills and the scrubrush that were the dominating features for this part of the base. The temperature was in the low nineties as was the humidity. All ten of them were loaded down with sixty-pound packs in addition to their standard load-out of weapons and ammunition.

Darren had been named squad leader for the practice mission, his third time doing such a thing. He had them spread out into a simple diamond formation with Hathaway, the most agile of the squad, on point. Bennett, whose reputation as a bully had been tempered these past three weeks by Darren's intervention in the Groovy affair, was acting as rear guard. Groovy himself, as Griffith was now pretty much universally known, was just behind the point man, packing the squad automatic weapon, or SAW. Each of the ten had tactical radios tuned to the same frequency. The microphones were part of the earpiece, actually able to pick up voice sounds as they traveled through the ear canal and ear bones, much the same way that a person hears the sound of his own voice. Darren had had them set them to constant transmit, which meant that everyone's every utterance could be plainly heard by the entire squad. They would have heard the breathing as well had not the software in the radio pack been programmed to filter that out.

"How we looking back there, Bennett?" Darren asked, speaking softly but knowing that Bennett, more than twenty yards away, would hear him plainly.

"Don't see a goddamned thing," Bennett said.

"Keep a sharp eye out," he told him. "They're gonna hit us somewhere out here, and you know how Black likes to sneak in from the rear."

"Yeah yeah," Bennett said sourly, not daring to say anymore.

They were now in their final two weeks of basic infantry training. All ten of them, even Groovy, had now qualified as expert with their M-16s, a basic training graduation requirement. They had also been qualified in the use of the standard grenades, the 7.62 millimeter SAW, the 60mm mortar, the grenade launcher, the AT-9 anti-tank missile, the SA-9 anti-aircraft missile, and several other pieces of military weaponry. They had been taught the basics of treating battlefield injuries before the arrival of a medic. They had been extensively drilled in maneuvering on foot techniques, small unit action, flanking maneuvers, and many other aspects of ground warfare at the squad and platoon level. Now, as basic moved towards a conclusion, they were learning how to put all of that knowledge together. Every day was now spent out in the wastelands, performing simulated missions against the training staff of the base.

For Darren, this portion of the training was the most enjoyable. Though Black was just as hard assed on everyone as ever, and though it was physically exhausting to go packing sixty pounds of shit around in the Texas summer heat, the missions were usually intensely fun. There were like a very realistic game of Infantry Attack, a game in which the bullets being fired at them were real (although the instructors would aim over the top of them so as not to actually hit anyone). Though he arrived back at the barracks sweaty, miserable, sore, and exhausted each day, he was having the time of his life. He especially liked it when he was put in charge of the squad, something that happened once every third day or so. True, he had royally fucked up his first attempt at leading the men (he had set up a left flank attack that had been repulsed with absurd ease by Black and his squad of instructors, costing him an estimated eighty percent casualty rate), his second one had gone much better. He planned to kick some serious ass on this one.

Their present mission sounded simple on the surface. Move from one grid on the map to another in a certain amount of time and set up positions there. The recruits had learned however, that the more simple a mission sounded, the more intense it was bound to be. Since it was purely a movement drill instead of an attack drill, Darren knew that his squad was going to be ambushed somewhere in transit. That was what the movement drills were all about.

They continued to move between the hills and through the scrubrush, their boots, which were now well worn and comfortable, stomping lightly over the powdery soil. Though there were foot trails and a few dirt roads leading through this portion of the base, they knew not to walk on or near them. They were mined with paint mines, which simulated the real thing, and the opposition force that was seeking them would stick to those avenues in hopes of finding easy prey.

Darren gripped his M-16 firmly, keeping it trained out before him, the safety off, a blank, training round jacked into the chamber. The weapon was now more familiar in his hands than his own penis. He was to the point that he felt naked if it wasn't with him. He looked around them carefully, his brown eyes searching for anything that might give away the location of Black and his assistant DI's with their AK-74s. The best way to avoid an ambush was to detect the members of it before they got into position. He saw nothing out of the ordinary, which didn't really mean anything. All of the opposition force were hardened veterans of actual combat and wouldn't be seen unless they wanted to be. Or so the theory went.

Darren checked his map computer, which was linked to the GPS network. A small red dot showed exactly where he and his men were, accurate to within two meters. He had taken a chance and led the squad on a roundabout course to their objective, hoping that maybe he could avoid detection by Black and company. After all, Black didn't know which way he would go. Was there a chance that he could maybe avoid them altogether? Perhaps, he started to think.

This notion was shattered less than five minutes later. The first indication that they were under attack was the sound of bullets whizzing over their heads. A second or two later the sound of automatic weapons fire—the distinctive chattering of multiple AK-74s—came from their left.

"Down!" Darren yelled, throwing himself into the dirt. His words were unnecessary. By now the lesson of hitting the dirt when the rifles went off was well ingrained into all of them. Everyone in the squad was on their bellies within two seconds, their eyes and rifle barrels searching for the flashes of the attacking weapons.

"They're on the left flank!" yelled a voice over the tactical net, a voice that Darren recognized as Horowitz. "About ten o'clock, on the hilltop!"

Darren looked that way and immediately saw the flashes winking at them. "Take cover," he barked into his ear microphone, shuffling around to hide himself behind a large rock even as he said it. "Get some fire on them! Groovy, get that SAW going!"

"Getting it!" Groovy responded, throwing the machine gun down and extending the bi-pod that supported it.

Darren began to fire three-round bursts up towards the attackers, his rifle cracking in his hands. All around him the other members of the squad began to do the same, the noise almost drowning out the radio. Groovy aimed his weapon upward and began to squeeze off longer bursts with the SAW, raking his fire over the entire area where the opposing force was situated. The cracks from this weapon were both louder and deeper.

No sooner had they settled into a pattern of fire than the sharp whistling of mortar rounds came echoing up from the west of them.

"Incoming!" several people yelled at once.

The mortars were sixty millimeters, fired from a fixed position just outside of the training grounds. Though the cases of them were made of cellulose instead of steel and though the gunners were deliberately dropping them away from the formation of recruits, they were still filled with high explosive and could still do a lot of damage to a human body if one landed within fifteen feet or so. The week before, two recruits from another platoon had been killed and four had been injured when their squad leader had made a mistake and ordered a hasty retreat from the area of the attack.

The explosions were thundering booms, red fire that obliterated scrubrush and sent dust flying into the air. They hit every three seconds or so, in groups of three, paused for about fifteen seconds, and then started up again. As they exploded around them, Darren and his squad continued to fire back at the flashes on the hillside while the bullets continued to whiz overhead.

Darren stopped pulling his trigger, letting the other squad members keep up the fire, and switched the channel on his radio to that of the command net. He keyed up the button on his belt. "Moron base, this is Moron 3," he said. "We're under attack at..." he consulted his map PC, " ... grid 47-19 by squad strength enemy units at..." another pause while he tried to identify the hilltop, " ... uh... 46-17. Receiving small arms fire with mortar support. Requesting artillery strike!"

The voice of Sergeant Black responded to him a moment later, the sound of AK-74 fire echoing in his background. "No artillery support available," he said tonelessly. "They're all committed to the battle at 56-12."

Darren nodded. He had known that that was going to be the case—it always was in the training scenarios—but he was expected to ask anyway. He was also expected to ask the next question. "Copy no arty available," he told Black. "Request air strike on 46-17."

"No air assets available at this time," Black responded. "They're all sitting in the bar smoking pot and waxing their pickles."

"Copy," Darren responded as the bullets continued to fly. "We're going to hold in place until the mortars stop and then we're going to withdraw."

"Copy that, morons," Black told him. "Good luck. But be careful, the enemy are pretty good shots."

"Yes sir!" he said, closing the link. He switched back to the tactical frequency. "No arty or air assets available," he told the rest of the squad, informing them of nothing that they hadn't already known. "Keep the fire on them. Horowitz, Bennett, Smith, Jacobs, and Kendall, get ready to move. When the mortars stop, withdraw to the east and set up a covering position behind that hill at three o'clock!"

The mortars stopped a minute later. The five recruits that Darren had tasked began to crawl to safety while the rest of them kept up covering fire. Once they were in position, Darren told everyone remaining except for himself and Groovy to follow them over. As they started to move, the original five began laying down a pattern of fire to cover their retreat. Once they were gone, he and Groovy fired a few more shots and then began to go after them, snaking along on hands and knees, dragging their weapons behind them.

"Good job," Groovy said as they passed around the nearest hill. "I think you got us out of this mess."

"Let's hope," Darren replied, getting to his feet and starting to run in a crouch.

Five minutes later, the battle was over, the entire squad safely on the other side of a series of hills, well out of the range of the original position. Darren had them set up a defensive position there, all of them spread out in a north-south orientation to protect against a renewed attack. No such attack came. After ten minutes they moved out once again, reaching their objective unmolested twenty minutes later. Sergeant Black and his men were waiting there for them.

"Well," Black told them, with only a small measure of disgust in his voice, "that wasn't the shittiest performance I've ever seen. By my estimates, only four of you got killed, two during the initial barrage." He sighed. "I guess I'll have to give you a passing grade."

"Thank you, sir," all of them said in unison.

"Don't let it go to your heads," he responded. "Let's march back to the chow line for lunch. Bennett, you'll be up for the next mission."

-------

Fort Baker, Texas

September 14, 2015

It was graduation day for 216 of the 250 recruits that had arrived at Fort Baker eight weeks before. Of the thirty-four that would not be graduating, twenty, including the infamously stupid Bennett, were being recycled through the next class to correct various incompetancies, five had been found unfit for combat either through mental or physical shortcomings, five had been injured bad enough to require discharge, and four of them, those involved in the mortar fiasco on the training ground, had been killed. Darren and Groovy, who had become inseparable since the incident with Bennett and the magazine loading, were both among the graduates. They stood proudly next to each other in the line, their private stripes newly sewn upon their summer camouflage fatigues, their cleaned and polished rifles slung neatly over their shoulders.

The graduation ceremony was brief and to the point. It consisted of a short speech by General Callahan, commander of the base, a final review by their drill instructors, and then a handing out of assignments for the next phase of their army career. About half of the class were being sent directly to infantry assignments, either in the trenches of the active front, to the mountain division to help plug the holes in the passes, or to the inactive front along the Columbia River near Portland. The other half of the class, the half that Darren and Groovy were in, were being sent to one of two armored cavalry training facilities for another six weeks of instruction. Darren had hoped that he and his new friend would get to stay together. It was a wish that was granted. They were both assigned to Steiner Barracks in Oklahoma.

"I just have one last thing to say to you morons and then you can go about your business," Sergeant Black told them after the ceremony. "Some of you will be heading to Indianapolis tomorrow for deployment and you'll be on the line within a week, some of you will be heading to cav school, and you'll be on the line within two months, but all of you will be on the line eventually. It's a dangerous place, the line, a place where you'll see some of your buddies get killed, where you may get killed yourself. If you remember what I taught you here these last two months, if you abide by the lessons that you've learned, if you aren't stupid out there, then you stand a good chance of making it through your two years. God be with all of you and I hope that someday you'll realize why I was so hard on you here." He paced up and down for a moment, taking one last look at them. "That's all I have," he said. "You have your train assignments for tomorrow evening. You are all on liberty until then. Put your weapons in your lockers and hop on a hydro-bus to Dallas. Have yourselves a good time and spend some of that money we've been paying you. You've earned it. Just be sure to wear your uniform while you're in town if you want to drink. Have a safe war, guys. Dismissed!"

The platoon gave an enthusiastic cheer and quickly fell out of rank. They started walking to the barracks to stow their rifles and packs, nearly all of them intent upon doing just as Black had suggested.

"Come on, Groove," Darren told his friend, clapping him on the back, "Dallas is waiting for us. I've got two months of pay that I'm just dying to blow."

"I don't want to go to Dallas," Groovy said, shaking his head a little. "There's nothing for me to do there."

"Nothing for you to do there?" he asked. "What the fuck are you talking about? Didn't you hear the man? As long as we got our uniforms on they'll let us drink. They have an arrangement."

"I don't drink," he said. "I'm a Mormon, remember?"

Darren scoffed at this. "Fuckin Mormon my ass," he said. "We're going off to war, Groove! Don't give me that no drinking shit. We're going out to get shitfaced."

"But..."

"No buts," Darren said. "We've been pinned up in this fucking place for eight weeks and now we're free. You're going, sarge, and you're gonna have a good time even if I have to pour the shit down your throat myself. Now come on, let's get these rifles stowed."

Groovy wavered. After all, his parents and his Bishop were a thousand miles away, weren't they? And just trying the forbidden vice once wouldn't really hurt, would it? Besides, he didn't want to make Darren mad after all he'd done for him. "Well," he finally said, "maybe I'll try it a little."

"You the commander," Darren told him. "And maybe we can score some buds while we're there too."

Three hours later, both of them were smashed to the gills in a sleazy North Dallas bar that catered to servicemen from the various training facilities in the area. The bar was packed to overflowing with fresh privates from Fort Baker and fresh Marines from Camp Lexington. Already several fights had broken out between the two groups as various members tried to out-macho each other. Modern music pounded from the jukebox while harried cocktail waitresses were forced to put up with the drunken gropes from young men who had not seen a woman in more than two months. Darren had started his friend off with Tom Collins', a concoction of gin, lemon juice, sugar, and soda water that went down as easily as lemonade. From there they had worked their way to tequila shooters and beer. Groovy was now leaning heavily against the bar from his position on the stool, talking loudly and with more profanity than Darren had ever heard him use.

"So what the fuck?" he was saying, his words heavily slurred. "I mean, God put booze on the earth for us, didn't he? Who the fuck are we to say we're not supposed to drink it? At least that's what I figure, you know."

"I know, Groove," Darren told him companionably, dragging on a cigarette. "That's what I've been telling you."

"You're a goddamn good man, Caswell," he said, clapping him on the back and nearly falling off his stool from the effort. "Gimmee one of them cigarettes," he said suddenly. "I wanna try that too."

"You're going to straight to hell, Groovy," Darren said with a laugh. Nevertheless, he handed over a smoke and a pack of matches.

"Probably," he responded, unconcerned at the moment. He then spent the better part of two minutes trying to find enough coordination to strike a match and apply it to the end of the cigarette. When he finally did, he inhaled deeply and nearly passed out from the coughing.

"It takes a while to get used to," Darren said helpfully.

"I'll get it," he vowed, taking a smaller drag this time and only choking a little.

They each had another drink of tequila, chasing it with swigs from their beer, and then Darren turned to him. "So tell me, Groove," he said. "You ever been laid?"

"You mean sex?" he said sadly. He seemed to debate telling a lie for a moment and then decided to go with the truth. "Never," he admitted. "Sarah Young let me feel her ... you know ... her breasts one time, but I never got to ... you know?"

"Fuck her?" Darren suggested.

"Right," he said with a thick nod. "I never got to fuck her."

"She a Mormon too?"

"Yep," he confirmed. "She said it was a sin to do it before marriage."

"I know where you're coming from," Darren commiserated. "Those Mormons are almost as hard to get into as Catholics."

"That ain't propaganda," Groovy agreed. "Especially not when you're a little guy like me. Did you friend Mark have trouble getting it too?"

"He did until we got jobs as bicycle delivery boys," Darren said. He then spent about twenty minutes explaining the fringe benefits of that job.

"Wow," Groovy said enviously. "Why didn't I get in on something like that? No wonder all my classmates were so anxious to work at the grocery store."

"Oh well, too little, too fuckin late," Darren told him. "But in the meantime, we need to get you some pussy. I refuse to go off to war with someone who hasn't been laid."

Groovy looked around the bar with his bleary eyes. "Who am I gonna lay?" he asked. "There ain't no women in here except the cocktail waitresses, and I don't think that they're gonna give me any."

"Where there's a will there's a way," Darren said. "And of course, where there's two months of pay, there's a way too."

"You mean hookers?" he said, fear and distaste in his voice.

"I mean hookers," he confirmed.

"I'm not sure I really want to do that," he said doubtfully, his religious upbringing cutting right through the drunken haze. "I mean ... it's wrong."

Darren laughed so hard that he spilled his beer over the bar, prompting a scowl from the bartender on duty at that section. "Sorry," he said apologetically to the frowning, middle-aged man. "But my friend just said something really hilarious."

"I'm sure he did," the bartender said dryly, wiping up the mess with a towel. "Another one?"

"Bet your ass," Darren confirmed. "And there's something else you can do for me too."

"What's that?"

"Tell us where we can get some pussy in this town."

The bartender glared at him. "I wouldn't know anything about that," he said stiffly. "Another Budweiser?"

"Yeah," Darren said, "and put an extra twenty bullets on the tab as a tip why don't you?"

The bartender looked him up and down for a moment and then nodded. He returned to his tap, filled another glass with beer, and then scratched something on a piece of paper with a pen. He set both down in front of Darren. The piece of paper had an address listed on it. "This is a massage parlor down the street," he said. "About six blocks down to the right from the doorway and two over to the left. You head over there and they'll give you a real good massage."

Darren took the piece of paper and stuffed it in his pocket. "Thanks, sarge," he told the bartender. "And sorry about the beer."

Ten minutes later they were walking through the dangerous streets towards the massage parlor. Groovy, who was having more than a little trouble walking in a straight line, was plainly anxious about their current mission.

"Sarge," he said, "I'm not sure about this."

"Nothing to be sure of," Darren told him. "It's time to get laid. I'm tired of polishing my AT-9 in the fuckin' shitter while I look at porn on my PC. I need some real pussy."

"But hookers?" he said, almost pleaded. "What about ... you know ... diseases and stuff like that."

"They got condoms in those joints," Darren assured him. "You put the cover on and you're free and clear. Trust me on this."

"But..."

"Goddammit, Groove," Darren told him, whacking him on the shoulder nearly hard enough to knock him over, "you're going in there and you're going to fuck one of those whores. That is final. If you don't, I'm gonna tell everyone that you're a freakin' faggot that tried to suck my dick."

Groovy looked appalled and more than a little scared at this threat.

"Just kidding," Darren told him, giving him another whack. "But relax a little. Getting laid is fun. Probably the most fun you could have. You'll enjoy it. I promise."

Reluctantly he fell back into step with him. "This is a bad idea," he said doubtfully.

"So is going to war, but we're doing that, ain't we?"

Even Groovy was forced to agree with that logic.

Five minutes later they arrived at the massage parlor. It cost them three hundred dollars apiece for a straight lay but they both had a good time.

-------

Twenty-eight hours later the two of them, hung-over, vomiting every thirty minutes or so, and, though they didn't realize it just yet, infected with pubic crabs, boarded a train for Oklahoma and their new assignment. They stowed their rifles in the overhead compartment, safed and unloaded as per military regulations, and slept in their seats for the next nine hours.

-------

Kensington Air Force Base, Nevada

September 16, 2015

"Goddammit, Whiting, get around behind her! This bitch is all over my ass!" yelled the voice of Stinson in his headset. "She's gonna have a shot on me in a second!"

"I'm trying!" Mark groaned back at him, his voice strained by the five G's of force pushing down upon him. His aircraft was banked ninety degrees to the left, his throttle punched to the red line, his right hand pulling frantically upward on the stick, imparting a teeth jarring change of direction upon him. The desert sand was nearly 30,000 feet below, giving him a lot of room to maneuver, but he was losing altitude fast since the wings were not in a position to provide lift.

He was on an air combat maneuvering exercise, acting as Stinson's wingman against the formidable team of Chad Long and Destiny Rogers, the two top ACM pilots of the class. He and Stinson had actually started out with the advantage in the duel. They were the attackers, and had been directed to their targets by the ground radar controllers, approaching them from above and with the sun at their backs. The duel should have been over rather quickly, with both of their enemies killed by simulated infrared homing missiles from a range of less than two miles, but somehow, with a seemingly unnatural awareness, they had been spotted and the advantage had quickly gone to Long and Rogers as they spun around and ended up behind them. Now it was all that they could do to keep from being shot down themselves. Rogers was hugging Stinson's ass like a second skin, easily matching every evasive maneuver he tried while Long was circling around to try to get into position behind Mark.

Mark pulled out of his bank and his nose came up, regaining some lost altitude. Ahead of him and slightly to the left, about two miles distant, he saw the tiny forms of the two aircraft crossing before him, their white hot exhaust clearly showing on the infrared enhancement provided by the HUD system. His targeting radar was probing outward and he banked again, trying to bring it to bear on the rear plane. If he could maintain a lock for ten seconds it would be marked as a kill and Rogers would be officially out of the game. He banked left, using his rudder pedals to move the nose back and forth, trying desperately to center the targeting circle on the HUD on Rogers' plane while simultaneously trying to keep an eye out to his six o'clock position to watch for Long. Suddenly she was in his sights. In his headset the warbling tone that indicated a radar lock began to sound.

"I got tone on her!" he told Stinson. "Hold course, don't make her turn!"

"She's got tone on me!" Stinson responded. "I gotta break! Banking hard left! Stay on her ass!"

"Shit," Mark muttered, watching helplessly as the front aircraft suddenly hooked to the left and dove downward. Rogers followed his evasive maneuver once more, sliding neatly out of Mark's view and breaking the lock he had on her. He jerked his own stick to the left and down, trying to keep on her tail and regain the lock but his skills were no match for hers.

"I can't get loose from her!" Stinson warned. "She's got tone on me!"

"Over the top!" Mark told him. "Pull up and over and draw her into me."

He tried this, pulling into a steep climb, trying to shake her off but to no avail. She stayed right there, in perfect missile firing position. It was enough to put him out of the game. "Dammit!" Stinson said, disgusted. "She's got me! I'm a kill!"

"Fuck!" Mark barked as his partner leveled out and began to head back to base. He continued to pull his turn, desperately trying to get back on Rogers' six o'clock to even the odds back up. It was an exercise in futility. She twisted and turned, climbed and dived, rolled and banked, finally disappearing completely from his view. He took a quick look behind and above just in time to see her shooting by over the top of him, her aircraft inverted. Even worse, he could see Long's aircraft sliding into a kill position behind him.

He leveled out and then quickly pushed down on the stick, going into a screaming dive, bringing the aircraft into a reverse loop and then rolling back to vertical at the bottom of it, not even bothering to reflect that this very action had once caused him to puke into a paper bag. His days of airsickness were long since past. He pulled up to level once again, his eyes tracking back and forth, looking for the elusive Rogers. He caught just the barest glimpse of her as she was halfway through a split-S that sent her screaming past him on the right.

"Goddamn she's good," he muttered, looking over his shoulder long enough to get a fix on Long, who had duplicated his under and over move and was coming up on his six once again.

"Either that, or we both suck," said Stinson who, though he was out of the battle, was still monitoring the frequency.

"I prefer to think it's the former," Mark said, pulling into yet another high-G turn to try to get his positioning back.

The simulated battle lasted another three minutes before Long was able to place himself firmly on Mark's ass and establish a radar lock that he was unable to break. The piercing warning tone sounded in his headset for the established ten seconds and that was it. The training software installed in the computer marked him as a kill and then shut down.

"Damn," Mark said dejectedly, pulling out of the turn that he'd been in and leveling off, his hands and feet making the adjustments to the controls with hardly any conscious thought. He throttled down, made a quick check of his instruments, and then leveled off at 31,000 feet.

"Not bad, Whiting," Rogers' voice told him over the guard frequency. "You made us work a little for that one."

"Oh fuck off," he said, mostly good-naturedly but with more than a dash of frustration thrown in. "You got lucky."

"That's what they all say," Long said. "You can't beat the masters."

"I got something for you to master," Mark shot back.

"Okay, enough of the unprofessional talk," came the voice of Lieutenant Pratt, who was monitoring the simulated battles from the control tower of the base. "We're marking that as one kill for Rogers and one kill for Long. Our brave defenders have been forced to eject, their aircraft are nothing but rubble, and the enemy are now attacking the Sentry which will open up an air corridor for an attack force and eventually cause a fracture in the front lines. Good job, guys."

"Thank you, sir," Long and Rogers answered about two seconds apart.

"Now let's get those aircraft back on the ground so we can run another bunch through the course today, shall we?"

Mark touched down twenty minutes later, bringing the aircraft to a gentle halt in the fueling area where the maintenance crew—themselves all students to the process as well—would fuel it up, run a diagnostic on it, and then park it over in its stall for the next student. He opened the canopy and unplugged his communications cords and oxygen mask from the console. His helmet still atop his head and his survival pack hanging just below his buttocks, he climbed carefully down from the cockpit. After a quick report to the student crew chief that would be taking care of the plane, he turned and walked towards the locker room to change out of his flight gear. Mindy, dressed in her own gear, her lavender helmet in her hands, was standing near the entrance, smoking a cigarette.

"How was it today?" she asked him. "I saw Stinson go tromping through here a couple minutes ago and he didn't seem to be happy."

"They smoked us," he said simply.

She shrugged a little. "They smoke everyone," she said. "Nothing to get upset about. Those assholes are good. They're on their way to Glenn for sure." Glenn Air Force Base in southern California was where those students selected to fly the F-22 or the F-25, the two workhorses of WestHem's high altitude fighter forces, were trained. Fighters were what every student pilot hoped to be assigned to since that was where the glory was. There had never been a bomber or recon pilot who had made ace. Nor had there ever been a television show, internet special, or movie made about one.

"We were given the advantage," Mark told her, reaching into the front pocket of her flight suit and pulling out her pack of cigarettes. "We were vectored right in on them and hit them from sunward but they still squeaked away and took us out."

"Okay," Mindy said with a crooked grin, "maybe you do have something to be upset about."

"Oh fuck off," he said, shaking one of the smokes out and putting it in his mouth. He held out his hand for her lit cigarette, which she handed to him. He used it to ignite his own cancer stick before handing it back. "Are you on deck?"

"Yep," she confirmed. "Me and Brown are going up in thirty minutes to do battle. When's your next flight?"

"Four o'clock," he replied. "Gonna do another low-level drill out on the north side of the base."

She nodded. "I like the low levels," she said. "It's fun to go screaming along the ground at four hundred feet. In a way it's more intense than dogfighting."

"It's a lot more intense than dogfighting," Mark opined. "It kind of squeams me a little though after what happened to Bradford." Bradford, one of the more promising student pilots in the class, had been performing a low level drill just a week before and had not pulled up in time when encountering a rise in the land. He had struck the hillside at just over four hundred knots, obliterating his plane and himself and leaving a crater more than ten feet deep. He was the first fatality of the training class and his death had sobered everyone a little. Lieutenant Pratt, who was nothing if not a realist, had explained simply that Bradford would not be the last colleague that they would lose in their career, nor would he likely even be the last in training. The current average was for the school to lose three to crashes in each class, most during low level training since that was the most dangerous, least forgiving thing that pilots did.

"It squeams me too," she said, "but I'll probably need to get used to it. My ACM skills aren't all that great. I have a feeling that I'll be driving an attack plane when it's all said and done."

"And I'll be driving one right next to you. My ACM is even worse than yours." He took a deep drag, letting the smoke slowly exit from his lungs. "Maybe we'll get to train together."

"Shee-it," she said, grinning. "Are you telling me I might not be rid of your skinny little ass when this part is over? You might follow me to advanced training too?"

"Me follow you?" he asked. "I believe it will be the other way around, my dear."

"That'll be the fuckin day," she scoffed.

"You're just jealous because I got a dick and you don't."

She smiled sweetly. "Why would I want that little thing? This crack of mine has had more pussy than you've even seen on internet porn."

He laughed, shaking his head a little. "Good one," he told her. "I'm afraid I can't top it at the moment. I'll have to come up with something later and email it to you."

"You do that," she said, field stripping her cigarette butt and sticking the remains in a plastic container on the ground near the door. "And speaking of private parts, how's the rhoid doing? That medicine that the doc gave you helping?"

He nodded gratefully. One of the non-glamorous sides of flying high performance jets was that the high G-forces, which were usually enacted upon a pilot in a downward direction, created horrendous hemorrhoids. Yet another thing that the movies and internet never mentioned. A loose poll of the students revealed that of the 41 remaining out of the original 50 in the class, 35 of them were suffering from this malady to varying degrees of bad. With Mark it had been bad enough to cause him to scream in pain several times during ACM drills. It had been this that had finally driven him to the base medical building. It was hard to lock your radar onto an enemy jet when your ass felt like someone had lit a blowtorch in it. "Worked like a charm," he confirmed. "Thanks for clueing me in about it."

"It doesn't make them go away," she said. "I'm still shitting red every time I sit down on the can. But at least it numbs them up."

"They can't be good for us," Mark opined. "I'll bet you that we'll all end up with fuckin colon cancer or something after the war."

"Hopefully we'll live long enough to worry about that," she told him. "Well, gotta go get my ass kicked around the sky some more. Catch you on the resupply."

He returned her sentiment and then watched as she headed off for the flight line.

-------

4:30 that afternoon found Mark once more strapped into the cockpit of an F-16 and flying at 5000 feet above the desert, Pratt in another F-16 holding position above and to the rear of him. They were approaching the low level training portion of the exercise area, a landscape tucked along the western edges where the desert met the rolling hills and canyons that marked the eastern slope of the Sierras. Mark had spent more than an hour before the flight plotting a course through this area by using detailed terrain maps. His objective was a small pedestrian bridge that spanned a river in what had once been a state park. His goal was to keep low enough to avoid being detected by a radar transmitter on the bridge that was linked to the base control tower. The signals from this radar set were downlinked via communications satellite to Pratt's plane.

"Coming up on your coast-in," Pratt's voice said in his headset. "You did pretty good last time but remember, you were detected six times on your approach, more than enough for the chinks to figure out where you were headed and get ready for you there. This time I want you to keep your aircraft below three hundred feet AGL at all times, do you understand?"

"Less than three hundred AGL," Mark said firmly, hiding the spike of fear that wormed into him at the very words.

"You got it," Pratt told him. "Now go ahead and get it done and don't do something stupid like smashing your ass into the hills, okay? Those planes cost a lot of money, not to mention that I'll have to do about two hours worth of paperwork if you get yourself killed."

"Yes sir," Mark agreed, his fingers tightening just a bit on the controls. "I'm choking the chicken now." Choking the chicken was the phrase for shutting off all lights and electronic emissions from the aircraft, the better to sneak up unannounced on the enemy, which was the purpose for a low altitude run. He flipped off the anti-collision lights, the transponder, and all of the various radars. The only electronic device that continued to emit radiation of any kind was the ground laser system, which would send a tight, undetectable beam downward for the purpose of providing him with a constant display of his altitude above the ground. In low-level flying, this information was much more important than the display provided by the barometric altimeter, which measured height above sea level.

He throttled down and put the plane into a shallow dive, pulling up five hundred feet above the hills to get his bearings. He made a quick check of his navigational screen, confirming that he was on course to the start of the run. He was. On the top of his heads-up display was a small pointer, called a carrot, which would guide him throughout the path that he had programmed in to the navigational system. By keeping it in the center of the HUD, he would remain on course to his target. He checked his airspeed, settling it at 420 knots, which was considered optimum for maneuverability at low altitude.

"Starting the approach run," Mark said, transmitting his words to Pratt.

"I copy that you're on the run," Pratt responded. "Looking good on navigation. Remember, three hundred AGL or less."

"Yes sir," Mark dutifully replied. Gently he lowered the aircraft until he was maintaining two hundred and eighty feet above a shallow valley between some of the larger hills. The terrain below him was hilly, with a greatly variable topography. This meant that two hundred and eighty AGL was a constantly changing value in relation to actual elevation above sea level. He constantly pulled up and then dove back down, turned left and right, his hands and feet reacting purely on instinct now as the earth rose and fell before him.

There had been a time when such maneuvers had been entirely controlled by computer. That had been back before the war, when aircraft systems engineers had been much more naïve about the realities of combat. Terrain-following radar had been used to map the ground before a low-flying aircraft and feed the information into the auto-pilot, which would automatically make the pitch and roll adjustments much faster and with much more precision than a human being was thought capable of. In the previous American conflicts with Iraq, Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, and Libya, countries with only marginally effective air defenses, TFR had been thought to be the best thing since sliced bread, allowing deep penetration raids into mostly empty lands where virtually undefended targets would be bombed. In the current conflict, however, it had quickly proven to be one of the most useless and dangerous aircraft components ever built. The radar signal could be picked up by enemy ESM gear from miles away, drawing enemy fighters like flies to dogshit. But even that wasn't the worst of the problems. The builders apparently hadn't taken into account the fact that anti-aircraft weapons could be arrayed in and about the vicinity of a bomber's target. TFR would not jink the plane away from a sudden stream of tracers, or lower the plane when a SAM radar tried to lock on, or raise the plane when a flak shell was heading for it. Many pilots were wiped out of the sky at the beginning of the war because they'd either been shot down without evading or the pilot made a quick reaction to evade, taking over the plane without situational awareness of where he was, and smashed into something. TFR had been pretty much abandoned before the Chinese had even broken out of Alaska. Now pilots were taught how to low-level the old fashioned way: by using their eyes, hands, feet, and instincts.

Mark was in the bubble now, the entire focus of his being concentrated on keeping the aircraft on course and within a narrow range of altitude. Too high and he would be detected. Too low and he would smash into the ground and die. He kept his eyes glued forward, watching and reacting as each hill loomed before him, as his carrot moved left and right, prompting him to follow the twisting, turning path through the hills to the target. Brown terrain flashed by on both sides of him, the occasional river or stream shooting beneath, and once, for just the briefest second, he caught a glimpse of a herd of range cattle grazing placidly along a small pond as he barreled over the top of them, do doubt inciting them stampede. He pulled up and pushed down on his stick, throttled up and then back down again, turned and banked left and then back to the right, his nose dipping up and down, his wings rotating. The radar altimeter display on his HUD ticked up and down by fifteen or twenty feet at a time, the numbers a blur, but it stayed well below the three hundred feet mark.

"You're doing good, chick," Pratt told him reassuringly. "Stay in the bubble and you'll take that bridge."

He didn't answer, not wanting to let his concentration lapse for even the briefest second. He knew that Pratt would understand. His carrot suddenly swung sharply to the right, indicating the next leg of his trek was upon him. He banked hard that way, spinning around the base of one of the hills and then leveling out over a shallow streambed and the valley it had created. The carrot centered once more and he flew on for fifteen seconds before pulling up over the top of a steep rise at the end of it. At the top of his climb he heard a solid bass tone in his headset. That was his ESM gear, which was listening passively for enemy radar. It had caught a signal from the bridge, not enough for detection but enough to let him know that it was there. The sound faded out once more as he dove back into another gap between hills.

He continued on his journey, twisting and diving, banking and turning his way towards the bridge. Four times he came up a little too high passing over a hillside. Twice he was allowed to get away with it but the other two times the stern voice of Pratt, who was still cruising above him, announced that he'd been painted with enough energy to send back a return.

"They know you're in the area," Pratt warned him. "That cuts down on their reaction time once you get to target. If they paint you a few more times they're going to know exactly where you're heading and you won't get any reaction time at all."

"Yes sir," he managed to grunt as he cut sharply to the left to avoid a set of high-tension wires that had not been noted on his maps.

Finally, after what seemed hours but which was actually only twelve minutes, his carrot swung to the left and he banked into the final leg of the run, called the initial point or IP. He was paralleling the stream that bridge crossed now, flashing back and forth over the top of it as it wound its way through the narrow gully. The bass tone of the search radar system that guarded the bridge was now a constant, rhythmic rumble in his ears, though apparently he was low enough to keep it from getting a good return since Pratt remained silent. On the upper right hand corner of the HUD, just above his airspeed indicator marks, a numeric display slowly counted down the nautical miles to his target. It was almost time.

Using his thumb on the control stick and finding the proper switches entirely by feel, he powered up his weapon delivery software and armed up his simulated bombs. A targeting recticle appeared in the center of the HUD and began to jitter around with the changes in speed and altitude, occasionally disappearing completely only to reappear again a moment later. This recticle showed where his bombs would hit if he released them at that particular moment.

"Chick one," he transmitted, breaking his emission silence, "approaching target. Going in hot."

"I copy that, chick," Pratt responded. "They still don't have you."

He pulled up and added throttle, bringing his speed up to 500 knots and his altitude up to 1000 feet AGL. The bridge appeared before him, right where he expected it to be, less than two miles away. The bass tone of the search radar suddenly became much louder, almost booming in his ears.

"They've got a good return on you now," Pratt announced. "You have less than twenty seconds before they launch a SAM at your ass. And you can bet your ass that they're already throwing double-A and triple-A at you."

He didn't answer. He aimed the aircraft directly at the small, wooden bridge and centered it in his sights. The targeting recticle had slid off of the HUD when he'd pulled up. It now slowly worked its way forward, heading back to the center. When it flashed over the span of the bridge he pushed the pickle button on his stick, releasing his simulated bombs. And just like that, the run was over. The computer would decide if he'd hit or not.

He flashed over the bridge and banked hard to the right, shooting over the hills that guarded the valley and then diving back down to less than two hundred feet above a plateau on the other side. The ESM fell silent once more, indicating that he'd successfully evaded the search radar.

"Goddamn, chick," Pratt's voice praised. "Now that's the way to come off target. They had you painted for fourteen seconds, probably long enough to get a SAM in the air but not long enough for it to smoke you. Now let's see how you do your egress."

"Yes sir," he grunted, still in the bubble, too focused on keeping low and getting the hell out to be more than distantly pleased by Pratt's words.

It only took him three minutes to wind his way far enough away from the site of his attack that he no longer had to worry too much about the radar detection. He pulled up to 2500 AGL, well above the top of even the highest of the hills, and punched up the afterburner.

Flame shot from the rear of the jet and his airspeed rapidly climbed to just under supersonic. He was pushed backwards in his seat as he felt the thrill of acceleration. The landscape below him quickly became a blur. Within two minutes he was out over the open desert once again.

"And you are safe," Pratt announced at this point. "Good job, chick. This will be termination of the exercise. Go ahead and climb to angels one-five and head back to base."

"Yes sir," Mark said, a grin on his face. The bubble collapsed around him as he pulled up and a wave of giddiness overtook him. He had survived the mission and had done well on it, well enough to earn rare praise from Pratt. God he loved flying.

-------

"It looks like you took out that bridge," Pratt told him an hour later in his office. They had just watched the digital video of his attack run, footage taken from the targeting system on his plane. It had clearly shown that his release was right on the mark, more than close enough to put the two simulated two thousand pound bombs on target. "Congratulations. You've denied the chinks the use of that footbridge for at least two days, maybe as much as four, depending upon how fast their engineering crews can throw up another one."

"Thank you, sir," Mark said proudly, trying not to bask in the praise for modesty's sake but doing a poor job of it.

Pratt turned stern in an instant however. "Your air-to-air skills on the other hand..." he scowled.

"Could use a little improvement?" he suggested meekly.

"They suck the big one," Pratt said. "I'm not gonna fault you for letting Rogers and Long take you out, even though you did have the advantage in that engagement. Those two are pretty damn good and it's already been decided that they'll be going to Glenn upon graduation. But you also let Costigan and Brewer take you out the other day and those two are borderline incompetent. What's the problem with you and ACM anyway?"

"I don't know, sir," he said humbly. "I just can't seem to ... you know..."

"You can't get in the bubble up there," Pratt said. "That's what your problem is. You won't push the aircraft to the edge of the envelope because you're too afraid of pushing it too far."

Mark's eyes widened as he heard his instructor say the very thing that he had been worried about during the high altitude engagements. Yes, though he was calm and cool as ice during low altitude penetration, where all maneuvers had to be performed smoothly and instinctively, his demeanor was quite different during a dogfight. At low altitude there was but one thing to think about: keep the aircraft from crashing into the ground or drifting too high. At altitude, during ACM, there were ten different things to think about, all of them widely variable in importance depending upon the situation at hand. Where was the primary enemy? Where was his or her wingman? Where is my wingman? What maneuver should be used to counter the enemy's maneuver? What maneuver should be used to go on the offensive against the enemy? If I push too hard will I spin out of control? If I don't push hard enough will I get smoked? How much was too much? How much was not enough?

"Could it be that I've hit the target with my supposition?" Pratt asked him, seeing the look of wonder in his eyes.

"Yes sir," he said, "that's exactly what's wrong. There are too many things to think about up there and I can't seem to organize them in my head fast enough to react. And when I do react, I'm afraid that I'm going to push the aircraft too hard and lose control of it, or black out from too many G's, or collide with someone." He shook his head. "I'm trying, sir, and I think I'm getting better, but..."

"You are getting better at it," Pratt told him. "You just aren't getting better fast enough and I'm not sure that you'll ever be good enough to go head to head with the chinks at the line. You might be able to smoke one of their hatchlings or one of their chicks, but what about when you face off with a couple of their veterans? They'll make mincemeat out of you."

"Yes sir," he said quietly, wanting to protest but unable to since he knew that Pratt was right.

"We only have six more weeks until you guys graduate and head off to advanced training on the aircraft that you'll be assigned to. That's less than a hundred more hours of stick time that we've got to make you chicks into something that'll be able to survive more than two missions." He shook his head sadly. "We don't give you enough training before we throw you out there. I'll be the first to admit it. We've crammed what used to be a two-year program into seven months, including survival school and advanced training. It's intense but it's just not enough stick time, wouldn't you agree?"

"Yes sir," he said dutifully, although to him it seemed like it was taking forever.

"So here's what we do at about this point in the program," Pratt explained. "With most of you chicks, we've identified your strong and weak points in the aircraft and we can be reasonably sure what sort of advanced training you're going to get. We will now start concentrating on those strong points and simply forget about the weak points."

"Forget about them, sir?" he asked doubtfully. Wasn't that the opposite of what you were supposed to do in a teaching situation?

"Forget about them," he confirmed. "With Long, Stinson, Rogers, and a few others, it's pretty obvious that air-to-air is what they're best at so they'll be sent off to Glenn when this is over to learn how to fly the F-22 or the F-25. With you, Meachum, Castle, and a few of the others, low-level stuff is what you're good at. You are particularly good at that Whiting and I'm pretty sure that I'm going to recommend that you be sent to Horner in Colorado after you graduate here."

"Really?" he said, surprised. Horner Air Force Base, just outside of Pueblo, was where those pilots that would be flying the A-21 Owl were trained. The A-21 was one of the newer medium range attack planes in the WestHem inventory. With two powerful engines and a semi-stealthy radar cross section, it crewed two and was capable of hauling 10,000 pounds of bombs more than a thousand miles into enemy territory at low altitude and then, once the drop was made, come streaking back out at mach two.

"That's right," Pratt said. "You're Owl material if I've ever seen it, suited for long periods at low altitude, sneaking up on bridges and tank columns. So, with that in mind, we're going to have you stop practicing ACM entirely at this point. You won't be engaging in it during the war so there's really no further point in having you work on it. You know enough to get by in an emergency. From this point on you'll be spending all of your stick time, both night and day, performing more low-altitude drills. You're going to bomb every fucking structure within a hundred miles of this place and then you're going to bomb them again. Furthermore, all of your sim time with be in low altitude as well. If you manage to live through all of that, then I think you'll be in pretty good shape for Horner come December, what do you think?"

Mark felt mixed emotions at this revelation. On the one hand, he was disappointed that he had been washed out of the air-to-air cadre, which were really the elite of the flying service. But on the other hand, the Owl was considered the elite of the bombing cadre. He could have just as easily been assigned to A-9s, the small, stubby-winged close attack aircraft that directly supported the infantry. Despite his mixed emotions, he answered as he was expected to. "I think it's a fine idea, sir," he said. "Thank you."

"I'm just doing what I think will keep you alive the longest, chick," Pratt told him. "You get somewhat jaded doing this after a while and knowing that a good portion of your students are going to be dead or captured soon, but I'm not so jaded that I don't do everything in my power to put you where you belong." He stood up. "That's all I have for you. Go hit the sim before dinner. I want you to log at least two hours of low-level night runs before you put a bite of food in your mouth."

"Yes sir," he said, turning to leave.

A short time later, recruit Castle, the attractive companion of Stinson and Long, was called into his office for the exact same discussion. A short time after that, Mindy was called in as well.



-------

Chapter 4


Somewhere over Wyoming

November 21, 2015

This was Darren's first experience with flying in an aircraft and he was not finding it to be much to his liking. It was a Boeing 767, a former commercial airliner that had once belonged to United or American or one of the other airlines but that was now the property of the WestHem armed forces. The seats were comfortable and spacious, the most comfortable in fact that he'd sat in in quite some time. So it wasn't the aircraft itself that made him nervous. What squeamed him was the fact that they were flying into territory that Chinese jets routinely operated in, some of them fighters armed with air-to-air missiles. If a Chinese fighter pilot escorting a raid on one of the many military targets in the vicinity happened to see a nice fat airliner, loaded with fresh troops bound for the battlefield, wouldn't he abandon his primary mission long enough to pot it out of the sky? Darren did not think that that scenario was very far-fetched, particularly since such things had happened several times in the past. Darren couldn't think of a more hideous way to die than spinning to the ground in a crippled jetliner from 30,000 feet.

Around him were 220 other young men and women, all of them freshly trained troops of one kind or another, all of them bound for assignments in and around the eastern edge of the front, which was the most active portion. Of course not all of them were combat troops. Most, actually, were not. Many would be going to serve their time in Boise, which was located some thirty miles from the front, fixing vehicles or running computers or loading trucks. They were future REMFs and they were easy to spot since they had carried no rifles onto the aircraft like the troops bound for the line had. Darren's M-16 rifle, the same one that he had been issued on his first day of basic training and that he had carried through eight weeks of armored cavalry training, was currently stowed in the overhead bin where carry-on luggage had once gone. His duffel bag, which contained all of his personal items, was stowed in the belly of the plane and would be unloaded when they reached the airport in Boise, or so the aircraft masters had promised.

Darren, like all of the combat troops on board, was sitting near the front of the plane, close to the doors. By virtue of being one of the largest of them, he had secured himself a window seat on the right side and he had spent a great deal of the flight from Indianapolis staring out of it to the ground below. Though he had seen no enemy planes bent on shooting them out of the sky, he had seen a great deal of the countryside from five miles up. Sitting next to him was Groovy, who, along with three others from his cavalry training class, were the only ones that he knew on the aircraft. Groovy was dozing lightly in his seat, the victim of a severe hangover from two nights ago when they'd gone to a combination bar and whorehouse in Oklahoma City. Darren himself was mostly recovered from that event but only because of his larger size and greater experience with the demon drink, not because of his lack of indulgence.

The aircraft bounced a few times as they encountered some rough air and then smoothed out. Darren lit a cigarette and then pulled out his PC, calling up his email software. He and Mark had maintained a sporadic exchange rate since leaving Sacramento for their respective training courses. It was hardly the once a week rate that they'd promised each other in the beginning, but at least they had kept in touch. Darren knew his friend was still in the pilot training and had more than two hundred hours of stick time under his belt now. He knew he had been pegged as a low-altitude specialist and would be going to Colorado soon to learn to fly Owls. Darren thought that was too damn bad. Mark would have to settle for bombing bridges and other inanimate objects instead of shooting chinks out of the sky. The Owls, Darren knew from his extensive study of all things war-related back in high school, didn't even carry air-to-air weapons. They went virtually undefended into the battle-area. What was up with that propaganda? Oh well, he couldn't let his sadness at his friend's situation take away from the excitement that he himself felt about finally getting to the front. He was almost there! In less than an hour they would land and then he and Groovy would be transported to the staging area of the 314th Armored Cavalry Regiment in Caldwell. Within a week he would be killing chinks. A week!

"Compose email to Mark Whiting," Darren told his machine, activating its voice recognition software.

"Email recorder on stand-by," replied the female voice that he favored his computer to have. "Record when ready."

"Record," he said, watching as the green light came on and the small camera above the screen activated. He looked into it. "What's up, sarge?" he asked his friend. "How's it advancing out there in Nevada? You scored any more puss in Las Vegas? At a thousand bucks a pop I hope you tore it up. Goddamn I miss the lonely widows sometimes. Oh well, anyway, you'll never guess where I am right now. I'm on an airplane 30,000 feet above Wyoming somewhere. We graduated from cav school three days ago, had ourselves a bitchin party in Oklahoma City, and now we're on our way to Boise where we'll ship out to our assignments. I should be getting my first kill in the next couple of days and I can't fuckin wait.

"My friend Groovy that I told you about is still hangin' with me. We asked the captain that was in charge of assignments back in school if we could serve together and he made it happen. He said that they like friends to serve together, that it helps with unit cohesion or some bullshit like that. Sure, it's okay to do it now, but they couldn't do it back when it counted and we signed up for the fuckin buddy program." He shrugged, knowing that the camera wouldn't pick it up but doing it anyway. "Oh well, that's fuel through the engines I guess. I'm still pissed off about it but at least they let Groovy and I stay together." He turned the camera towards his sleeping friend. "There he is now. Isn't he a small motherfucker? He's even smaller than you are." He turned it back to his own face. "He's a little hungover from our party the other night. Ever since I introduced him to booze and pussy, he's been fucking unstoppable. Motherfucker spent almost all of his accumulated pay on hookers and then he had to make up some bullshit story for his mother about where it was going. She was expecting him to send some of that home for her and his six brothers and sisters." He laughed, shaking his head. "I wonder what old mom would think if she really knew what he'd done with it?"

He turned more serious now, his expression hardening some. "Anyway, this might be the last email I can send you for awhile. They tell us that once we get to the front we'll have to leave our PCs back at the staging area. It's some security bullshit or something like that. Besides, all the fuckin cell towers have been blown up by the chinks anyway. So I'll send you another one when I can, but until then, be careful in them airplanes and don't crash and stay away from the chicks with crabs, I'm here to tell you about that one. My fuckin pubic hair is just now starting to grow back after they shaved it off. Catch you later, sarge, and I'll keep track of how many chinks I kill. End recording."

"Recording complete," the computer told him. "Would you like to review it for editing?"

"No," he said. "Send recording."

The computer obediently locked its signal onto the nearest cellular antenna, which in this case was installed in the aircraft itself. Once the connection was made, Darren's recording was digitized and sent off across the internet where it quickly found Mark's server address and was stored in a file for retrieval the next time he checked his email. The entire process took less than two seconds, although Mark himself would not receive the recording for another six days. Currently his PC was resting in his locker and Mark himself was being shot out of the top of a specially modified C-130 aircraft moving at three hundred knots ten thousand feet above the most rugged part of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. This was a simulated combat ejection, the first part of his escape and evasion drill. After landing, he would have to work his way through the mountains and back to the desert subsisting on nothing but the supplies in his survival pack.

Darren, knowing nothing about this, simply looked at his computer for a moment and then, with a slight sigh, said, "Compose email to Bob and Darlene Caswell."

"Email recorder on stand-by. Record when ready."

He continued to look at the screen blankly, knowing that he owed his parents an update on his progress, but unable to think of a single thing to say. It had been more than two months since he had last contacted them in any way, though they had sent him multiple emails since then. He didn't know why he had so much trouble facing his parents these days, even over the relatively benign and faceless medium of email recordings, but trouble he was definitely having.

"Cancel email recording," he finally said, watching with a little guilt as the screen went blank. He would send them something later, once he was settled in a bit. He was sure that they would understand.

-------

The plane bounced and bumped roughly as it flew through the unstable air above the Rocky Mountains. The ride smoothed out temporarily on the other side but quickly became rough once more when they descended to less than five thousand feet above the salt flats of northern Utah. The pilot announced over the intercom that they were now in what was considered hazardous airspace and that they would maintain that altitude, which would keep them well below the circling combat air patrol that protected them, until they entered the landing pattern at Boise. Conversation in the cabin, which had been rather boisterous and loud until that point, suddenly became subdued as everyone realized that they were really entering the war zone.

Soon they were circling over Boise itself, waiting their turn to land at what was now the busiest (and most often attacked) air terminal in the United States. Darren looked out his window and beheld a small city that looked like it had been through quite a bit in the last few years. Entire sections of housing had been smashed flat and burned out. The downtown skyscrapers were all darkened and, except for the anti-aircraft emplacements atop a few of them, utterly deserted. Most had large sections of window glass that had been shattered and never replaced. Several had gaping holes in them where off-target bombs or crashing planes had struck. To the north of downtown, a huge industrial area that had once contained warehouses and factories had been bombed flat, some of the debris still smoking in places. Nearly every highway and freeway bridge throughout the city's transportation network was fractured in one way or another. Some of them, those that were vital to the movement of supplies, had been rebuilt into makeshift structures but most were nothing more than piles of rubble rotting away. In the residential areas that were still standing, many of the houses were damaged, some with the scattered debris of crashed aircraft still strewn about, the vast majority unoccupied since the residents of Boise had long since moved elsewhere. Closer in, near the airport itself, a huge staging area of military trucks, APCs, tanks, halftracks, artillery pieces, and other vehicles could be seen, hundreds, if not thousands of soldiers plainly visible moving about and working in the vicinity. A seemingly endless convoy of trucks stretched out towards the north and west, snaking its way through the buildings and the network of roads and bridges. And everywhere the snouts of anti-aircraft weapons of all shapes, sizes, and caliber, could be seen poking upward into the sky, some fixed within sandbagged emplacements, some mobile and mounted on trucks.

"Damn," Darren whispered, awestruck as he took in the sights of a city destroyed by years of warfare.

They touched down at the airport a few minutes later, the aircraft bumping and bouncing almost violently over a runway that had been cratered by anti-runway bombs and then repaired many times over. Pushed off to the sides in several places were the remains of crashed aircraft—a burned out F-22 here, a broken and battered C-11 there, all of them appearing to be rather recently strewn there, all of them appearing to have been simply bulldozed off of the runway to allow operations to continue. More anti-aircraft emplacements were installed near the taxiways, all of them manned by teams of Air Force personnel. Darren noted that several of these teams were quite openly drinking bottles of beer and smoking marijuana.

The aircraft came to a halt a few minutes later. "Okay, morons," the pilot said over the intercom system, "the longer that I'm on the ground here, the more likely it is that some chink will come along and blow my ass up, so let's get you all unloaded as quickly as possible. Get your gear from the overheads and move to the front exit in an orderly fashion."

Everyone stood up and started grabbing for their gear, no one liking the idea of being trapped inside of an aircraft full of fuel while Chinese bombers came in for a low level attack. Darren, along with the other combat troops, grabbed his rifle and slung it over his shoulder. He eased his way down the aisle and was one of the first out the door.

The air was quite brisk and a light snow was falling as he emerged from the aircraft. They were parked on a taxiway about one hundred yards from what had once been a terminal building. It was now partially collapsed on one side, partially burned on another. Concrete barricades with KEEP OUT signs circled its perimeter. Set up to one side of it were several large tents that were surrounded by double layers of sandbags, stacked ten high with doorway openings on each wall. Beneath the plane a group of airmen were opening up the cargo compartment and tossing bags out onto the ground. A flimsy looking set of steps had been set up against the doorway. It rocked alarmingly as Darren stepped onto its platform and started down.

Another airman, this one with a PC in his hand, was waiting at the bottom of the stairs. "Assemble over there," he said mechanically, pointing towards the far edge of the taxiway. "Once the gear is unloaded and the plane moves away, you can get your stuff."

Darren went where he was told, shifting his weapon on his shoulder a little. He waited.

Within five minutes all of the passengers were off of the aircraft. Within ten minutes all of the bags had been tossed out and the cargo doors sealed back up. Less than a minute after that the jet engines wound up once more and the plane began rolling towards the head of the runway once again. During this time period three more planes had parked further down and were beginning the same process.

Darren and the others sorted through the unruly pile of bags for a few minutes until everyone had found the one belonging to him or her.

"Combat troops," said the airman who seemed to be in charge of the operation, "assemble together and march to tent 9-A, that's nine-alpha, over there on the edge of the old terminal building. The rest of you, follow me for processing."

The men with the guns all formed up into a loose formation out of instinct born in basic training. There were about fifty of them in all and they almost strutted as they made their way to tent 9-A, which turned out to be a small processing center staffed by four army sergeants and one lieutenant.

"Name?" demanded one of the sergeants when Darren made his way up to the desk.

"Private Caswell," Darren told him proudly.

The sergeant checked his name on a computer screen and pushed a few buttons. "You're bound for the 314th ACR, correct?"

"Yes sir," Darren said.

"I'm a sergeant, don't call me sir," he said tonelessly. "Take your shit and go out that door behind me there. Hang a left. There will be a deuce and a half parked in space number eighteen. That's your ride."

"Thank you, sir ... uh sergeant," he said, hefting his bag and his rifle up once again.

The two and a half ton truck, or deuce and a half as it was known, was the standard transport truck of the armed forces. Painted the white and brown winter camouflage scheme, the back covered in canvas of the same design, it sat silently in an outlined parking spot along the tent. A .50 caliber machine gun was mounted just behind the cab and stuck upwards through a flap in the canvas. A gangly looking corporal smoking a cigarette greeted Darren at the back. "314th?" he asked.

"Yes," Darren confirmed.

"Hop in the back and settle in. The trip will take about an hour or so."

In all, twelve of the group climbed in the back with him. Including Groovy, eight of them had just come from the armored cav class in Oklahoma. They exchanged a few pleasantries with each other beneath the canvas cover and settled in. Soon, the corporal that had been outside climbed in and manned the machine gun, leaning against it silently and lighting another cigarette. Several of the new members tried to engage him in conversation—he had the look of someone who had spent time in the trenches—but he ignored them completely, not even acknowledging their presence. Finally, the diesel engine fired up and they began lurching along towards their destination.

The 314th Armored Cavalry Regiment was based in Caldwell, a small town located on Interstate 84, less than thirty miles from Boise. The lanes of the interstate were heavily congested with military equipment of all shapes, forms, and purpose. The deuce and a half trucks were the staple of the vehicular traffic, all of them loaded up with food supplies, ammunition, soldiers, and every other light supply needed to fight the war, all of them with manned .50 caliber machine guns sticking up towards the sky. Interspersed among them were tank transporters with M2A4 tanks upon them, flatbeds hauling Bradley infantry carriers and artillery weapons, and larger, trailer trucks hauling God knew what. All of this traffic moved along at forty miles per hour at best and often was forced to a complete standstill for minutes at a time. All along both sides of the freeway were the charred remains of vehicles that had been blown to pieces from the air while making this same trip. Darren looked at these forgotten vehicles nervously through a gap in the canvas of the truck.

Finally they bounced into Caldwell itself. It had once been a fairly fashionable suburb of Boise, the place where the doctors and lawyers and real estate developers had lived. Now it was a collection of bombed out houses, shattered streets, and flattened strip malls. Nearly all of the real estate in the town was now abandoned and unlivable but as they got closer towards the northern stretches, Darren began to see signs of life. Here the buildings had been shored up and sandbagged. Soldiers, most of them packing their rifles, were walking to and fro, some engaged in work details, some just passing the time with each other. A few vehicles could also be seen driving from one place to another, most of them Humvees, a few of them deuce and a halfs. Nowhere however, did he see any tanks or APCs, which were the fighting vehicles of an armored cavalry regiment. Where were they? Were they hidden somewhere?

They came to a stop in front of a large lot that had probably once contained a shopping mall or a commercial building complex. Now the buildings were all gone and had been replaced by a collection of sandbagged tents of varying size. A mobile SAM launcher and several anti-aircraft emplacements were set up around the outside of this area, all of the positions manned. There was a lot of pedestrian activity here as well, with groups of soldiers working on sandbags, repairing tents, or fixing vehicles.

"Everyone out," the corporal manning the gun announced. "Assemble out front with your shit and someone will be out to put you where you belong momentarily."

One by one they filed out onto the wet asphalt, lining up and standing at parade rest. The corporal and the two privates that had been in the cab of the truck all disappeared towards the largest collection of tents, leaving them alone.

They stood there for the better part of five minutes before a man of about twenty-five came strolling up to them. He was wearing a camouflage parka over his BDUs and his helmet. He had no rank markings of any kind upon him. His face had not been shaved for perhaps three days and his eyes looked the collection of privates up and down emotionlessly, as if he were taking in a collection of fence posts or tires to be installed. He stopped before them.

"I'm Captain Mead," he said, stifling a yawn. "I'm in charge of Alpha Company of the 2nd infantry Battalion of the 314th. All of you newbies have been assigned to my company to replace all of the other newbies that got killed in the last offensive. Welcome to Caldwell."

"Thank you, sir," they said in unison, all of them answering as they would have back in training.

"You don't have to do that yes-sir, no-sir shit to me," Mead said. "This is the front, gentlemen and we do things different here than we do in training. Don't address me or any officer or NCO under my command unless we have addressed you personally. Don't salute us at any time, especially not in the forward areas. I know they taught you all kinds of neat little things about leading squads and fire teams in training. You can just forget all of that shit. You won't be doing it here. Your job is to do what you're told, when you're told to do it, no matter what it is you've been told to do. That's all you need to know. If you live long enough, you'll figure out the rest as we go along."

Everyone in the line itched to say "yes sir" to him. Everyone managed to restrain themselves however.

"Okay," Mead said. "That's my inspiring speech for you." He walked over to the center of the line, to the two soldiers that were standing there. He inserted his hand between them and pushed one to the left and one to the right, forcing a break in the line. "This half," he said, pointing to his left, "will be assigned to Lieutenant Fender of 2nd Platoon." He then pointed to his right. "This half, you'll go to Lieutenant Washington of 4th Platoon. Everyone remember that? Good. Now let's have those of you assigned to 2nd Platoon head over there to tent seven and those of you assigned to 4th head over to tent eleven. Line up outside and your lieutenants will be out shortly." With that, Mead turned and walked away, strolling back to his tent.

Darren and Groovy had both been in the group assigned to 2nd Platoon. They turned and marched along the wet ground in the direction that Mead had pointed, passing three of the sandbagged tents before coming to one that had a large 7 stenciled on it. The rest of the group followed behind them. No sooner had they lined up before it than the flap opened and a prematurely balding man of about twenty-three walked out. He was dressed the same as Mead had been, the same in fact as everyone seemed to be around here. His speech was even shorter than Mead's had been. He simply divided them up into three different groups and sent them further down the chain to meet their squad sergeants. Groovy and Darren were kept together for this further division and were sent to assemble before tent 24, which was were they were told they would find Sergeant Maxwell.

Maxwell was sitting in a chair outside of the tent, smoking a cigarette and browsing through something on his PC. He too was dressed in his winter parka and was without rank markings. His hair was dirty blonde and his complexion pockmarked with a few outbreaks of acne. He was only about twenty years old in appearance but his eyes seemed much older, ancient even, as they flitted over the two new recruits.

"You two my newbies?" he asked listlessly, taking a drag and spitting a wad of phlegm on the ground.

"Yes sir," Darren said.

"Don't call me sir," he said. "This isn't training. This is reality. My name is sergeant or sarge, got it?"

"Yes, sergeant," Darren corrected.

"Yes, sergeant," Groovy piped up as well.

He spent another moment or two looking them over before shaking his head sadly. "Let me guess," he said at last. "You two are volunteers aren't you?"

They both agreed that they had in fact volunteered. "I'm not no pussy, sarge," Darren added.

He shook his head again, chuckling in sad amusement. "So you bought into all that crap on TV and internet about serving your country and driving back those fascist chinks, right? They told you how great it was to serve your fucking country, what a goddamn honor it was, and you bought into it."

Neither Darren nor Mark was quite sure how to respond to this seemingly seditious statement by their new sergeant, but Maxwell didn't seem to require an answer.

"Yep," he said, slowly getting up from his chair, "that's why you signed up all right. Did either of you morons waive a non-hazardous to get here?"

"I did, sergeant," Darren admitted, for some reason not feeling as proud of this as he usually was.

Maxwell walked up to him, taking another drag from his cigarette and letting the smoke drift into his face. "Well you truly are a moron then," he informed him lightly. "Soon you'll discover that that was the dumbest thing you've ever done. Mark my words, newbie, you fucked up and you fucked up big time. This place is hell on earth, my man, have no doubt about it."

"Are you a draftee, sergeant?" Darren asked him, figuring that he was bitter about being forced into the role that he was now playing.

He shook his head, shooting that theory right into the dust. "Nope," he said. "I was just as stupid as you back in '13. I signed up right after high school, all gung-ho to go out and kill me some chinks." He spat again. "Well I've killed me plenty of chinks now, and let me tell you, I wish I would've sucked some captain's dick back then and got myself assigned as a REMF somewhere."

Darren and Groovy cast a look at each other, both of them silently cursing their bad luck at having been assigned to such a cowardly sergeant. He wished he were a REMF? Would he try to keep them out of the action? Darren wondered with alarm. He sure seemed like the type that would rather run from a fight than respond to it.

"So anyway," Maxwell told them, casting his cigarette away and immediately lighting another one, "you are now part of second squad, second platoon, Alpha Company of the 2nd battalion of the 314th Armored Cavalry Regiment. Remember all of that, okay? That way you'll be able to spout it off and impress people if you manage to live through the war."

"Yes, sergeant," they both said in unison, earning them a foul look.

"What are your names?" he asked them next.

"Private Caswell," Darren said.

"Private Griffith," Groovy piped up. "Most people just call me Groovy."

"Wrong," Maxwell said, shaking his head sternly. "Your names, both of your names, are newbie. That's all people are going to call you around here until you live long enough for them to want to know your name. And I'm here to tell you that we don't want to know you, don't want to know anything about you right now because the odds are that both of you are going to be killed during your first month here. Don't take it personally, we just don't like to get attached to our newbies since we lose so many of them."

The two privates shared another brief look with each other, a look that Maxwell interpreted for what it was.

"You two are standing there thinking that I'm wrong about you, aren't you?" he asked them. "You've never been near the front before, the only thing you know about it is what you've seen on TV shows and movies like The Snoqualmie Defenders, but all the same, you're telling yourselves that I couldn't possibly be right about that. You two are too smart to die at the front, aren't you? Only the stupid ones get killed. Isn't that what they always say?"

"That's what they say, sergeant," Darren offered doubtfully.

"What they say is bullshit," he told them mildly. "Everyone dies out here, a lot of the time in ways that don't have nothing to do with smart, dumb, experienced, or inexperienced. When a fuckin chink arty shell lands right on your trench and shreds you like a wood chipper, there ain't too much that your smarts could've done to prevent it. But the ones who die the most are not the stupid ones like everyone says, at least not in a manner of speaking, but the new ones, the ones who haven't learned how to live out here yet. And its not stupidity that keeps them from learning what they need to know most of the time, its death. They get their asses blown up before they have a chance to learn. That's why we lose more than half of all of our replacements out here and that's why I can almost guarantee that one of you is going to die in the next thirty days and that more than likely both of you will."

While they digested that disturbing information, Maxwell took an especially deep drag off his smoke. "So," he said, almost cheerfully, "with that in mind, let's have you two follow me to the briefing room and I'll show you just what we're up against out here. How's that?"

"Yes, sergeant," both of them mumbled.

He led them across the asphalt surface of the former mall parking lot, weaving his way in and out between several rows of sandbagged tents. They passed several other soldiers on the way, most of whom gave friendly waves or nods to Maxwell, none of whom the sergeant bothered to introduce. They passed one of the anti-aircraft emplacements where a young soldier was dozing behind the handles of the 23mm gun. The odor of stale alcohol was so strong about him that they could smell it from eight feet away. Maxwell ignored this and continued the trek, finally leading them to a tent that was somewhat larger than the others. An MP with an M-16 and a pistol was guarding the entrance.

"How you doing, sarge?" the MP asked as they approached the opening.

"Not too bad, Smitty," he replied. "Gonna show a couple of my newbies the schematics. Anyone using the computer at the moment?"

"Nope," Smitty said. "Everyone's already seen all that shit before. Go ahead and go in."

"Thanks," he said, heading through the flap in the tent and waving his charges to follow.

The inside of the tent was set up as a conference or briefing room. Metal tables were arranged geometrically across the floor surface, set-up to provide the maximum amount of seating space for the floor area available for it. Each table had a row of plastic chairs before it, all of them placed a precise distance from each other. Near the front of the room sat a computer terminal on a small lectern. A large projection screen, easily ten feet square, was mounted on the wall behind it. The room was empty at the moment and looked as if it had been for quite some time since dust was gathered on the tables and cobwebs were stretched across all of the corners. Maxwell led them across the room to the first table where he told them to grab a seat. They did so gladly, putting down their heavy packs and weapons.

"All right," Maxwell said, going to the computer and flipping on a switch, "let's show you what we're all about out here." He waited for a few seconds while the machine went through a series of self-checks and then he directed it to project its image onto the screen. A full-color topographical map appeared before them, showing the southern Idaho geography complete in relief detail. A large red line, which snaked in and around a series of hills, marked the location of the current front.

"Right here is Caldwell," Maxwell told them, moving the pointer over that city with the mouse. "This is our base camp but, as you can see, we're more than thirty miles from the front here. The only chinks we see here are the ones in aircraft, and believe me, we see a lot of them that way. They fly F-16s, F-15s, F-18s, MiG-23s, and MiG-25s out of their air base at Weiser and pound the shit of us constantly, just for the sheer harassment value since our armor is all kept in hardened, camouflaged shelters. We average three air-attacks per week here in the rear, so be expectant of them. The air-raid siren will sound if a raid has been detected approaching our positions but occasionally we don't get any warning until the bombs start to fall. Behind your tents you will find sandbagged foxholes to hide in when we do get warning. Take your rifles out there with you and shoot at any aircraft you see during the raid. You probably won't hit anything but every once in a while we get lucky and manage to get a golden bullet through."

He clicked the mouse a few times and the view changed to a close-up relief map of the southwestern corner of the state. "This is the area that the 314th will primarily be operating in," he told them. "Right along the front line here between Route 55 and the Snake River on the border of Oregon. We hold the bridgehead along the Snake River at Ontario." He moved the pointer over to that particular spot, where the interstate crossed the state border into Oregon. "The chinks hold the bridgehead up here at the Oxbow Dam." He moved it over to that area, which was about forty miles to the north. "As you can see, the front line twists and turns it way eastward and northwestward from there. What we do is keep the chinks from pushing that little red line further to the south, and what they do is keep us from pushing it to the north. And that, newbies, is the war in a nutshell.

"Our deployment here is by battalion. At any given moment, four of the five infantry battalions of the 314th are in the forward area and the other one is in the rear, resting up. When we're out on deployment we will be further divided up into the four companies. Three will man fixed positions and one will hold back as the reserve. At the end of a week, the reserve will move forward and one of the other companies will pull back and become the reserve. If you're shitty at math, that means you'll spend one week in Caldwell, one week in the reserve position, and three weeks directly on the line. This is all during normal operations I might add, which means that there isn't an active, large-scale offensive underway on either side of the line. When that happens, everyone is usually on the line being plugged into holes that form. Do you understand so far?"

"Yes, sergeant," they both answered.

"Good," he said, turning away from the board and facing them. "Now as you're aware, an armored cavalry regiment is supposed to be an offensive unit only. We have tanks, APCs, and mobile field guns that we're supposed to use to punch holes in the enemy defenses and advance to contact with them." He shook his head. "Wartime changes a lot of things, and our doctrine is one of them. Most of the time we spend doing exactly what the regular grunts do: sitting in trenches with our guns to keep the chinks from moving on us. Our particular platoon is tasked at forward defense against dismounted infantry. That means that when we're spending our three weeks on the line, we're way out in the front protecting the AT-9 gunners from Chinese assault. If the chinks are able to clear the hills of AT-9 crews, then their tanks will be able to move on our tanks with only tank guns as opposition. And so, knowing this as well as we do, the chinks will plaster our positions with heavy artillery, light artillery, and napalm attacks with annoying frequency. When they have a major attack underway, they will throw hoards of their dismounted infantry at us, usually with sixty and eighty millimeter mortar support. Sometimes we'll be able to fight them off, sometimes we'll have to retreat to the rear to keep from being overrun. Either way, we'll usually take heavy casualties."

"So we don't do any offensive operations at all?" Darren asked, wondering why they had bothered giving them all of the advanced training if they weren't going to be using it.

"Oh, we'll do some of that as well," Maxwell promised ominously. "Whenever the generals whip up a new offensive against the chinks, whether it's a probe at their lines or a full-fledged breakthrough attempt, the armored cav units are always out in front." He frowned sadly. "It's no great honor, let me tell you that. Over the course of a year, the majority of our casualties will come from that. It's the same deal as when the chinks attack our prepared positions, we'll be tasked with clearing the supporting infantry and their anti-tank crews from their positions, exactly the same except we're the ones on the receiving end of the machine guns and the rifle fire, and you newbies will be the ones out in front."

Darren and Groovy exchanged another look with each other, a nervous look this time.

"Like I told you," Maxwell said, "you're gonna find that signing up here was the worst, possibly the last mistake of your life." He sighed a little. "I'm gonna give you my standard speech that I give all of the newbies," he told them. "I've given it dozens of times now and the words have lost all meaning for me, but listen to them anyway and maybe you'll learn something that'll keep you alive. The key to staying alive out there is staying invisible whenever you can and making yourself as small a target as you can when the bullets and the arty start to fly. All that shit that they taught you in basic about getting down, do they still do that? Use an AK-74 and mortar rounds to teach you when to get in the dirt?"

"Yes," Darren confirmed. "Our DI did that five or six times a day at least."

"Good," Maxwell said. "That was the best possible lesson he could have given you. Follow it religiously. When you hear a loud noise, when you hear a soft noise, when you hear anything that doesn't belong in the environment that you're in, get your ass into the mud and figure out what it is later. If you keep standing, you're gonna get smoked. Crawl everywhere in the forward area. If you manage to live through your first rotation out there, you'll have calluses on your knees and elbows. Learn to piss and shit lying down. The closer your head is to the ground, the more chance you'll have of keeping it attached to your body." He looked Darren up and down again. "That goes especially for you," he told him. "You're a big motherfucker and you're gonna attract their fire like a pile of shit attracts flies, and those bullets don't give a shit how bad-ass of a motherfucker you were back in high school. Learn to make yourself smaller, get it?"

"Yes, sergeant," Darren told him.

"Keep your helmets on at all times out there, when you're sleeping, shitting, jacking off, whatever. That helmet won't protect you from a direct head shot, but it will deflect a bullet that's a glancing blow and it will keep shell fragments from penetrating to a certain extent. At night, keep your low light goggles handy at all times. The chinks have them too and they love to sneak around and pop a few of us off just for the sport of it. And most important of all, don't salute or do anything else to a superior that could let the chinks know from a distance that he's in charge. They have snipers all over the place out there who just love to smoke a lieutenant or a sergeant. That's why none of us wear our pistols on the outside of our clothes and why none of us have any rank markings. We work hard to look like any other grunt to the chinks and we don't want some stupid fucking newbies spoiling that illusion for us."

He flipped off the computer, eliminating the map view from the screen. "That's about all I have for you. We deploy again in three days and we'll go over the standard load out then. In the meantime, I'll get someone to show you around the camp and fill you in on mess times and all that. Each rotation back in the rear, everyone will get one two day pass to Boise, where there's bars and a couple of whorehouses. The rest of the time, there will be work details and other things to do here. Since you're the bottom of the shitheap, you two will be cleaning out latrines for a while." He shrugged. "A nasty job, that is, so maybe it'll be worthwhile to get yourself killed on the first deployment. If you manage to stick around for a while, you'll gradually get more pleasant assignments. Any questions? No? Good. Why don't you guys wait outside of this tent and I'll scrape up someone to show you around."

"Yes, sergeant," they both answered.

-------

Section Bravo Five East — American Front

November 24, 2015

They set out just before dawn, every one of the 658 men of 2nd Battalion. They gathered their packs, their weapons, their ammo and then started off on the three mile march to the staging areas, where their armored vehicles were squeezed into camouflaged, hardened shelters that had been built years before by combat engineers.

Darren and Groovy, the newest members of 2nd Platoon, marched along back in the rear, their feet trudging through the light crust of snow that had fallen the night before as the sky gradually lightened to the east. They had full equipment packs upon their backs, adding another seventy pounds of weight on top of their rifle, extra magazines, grenades, and radio sets. Their packs contained their sleeping bags, a first aid kit, extra cigarettes, extra batteries, extra boxes of ammunition, enough MRE's to last a week, and several other necessary supplies. In addition, Darren, since he was "a big motherfucker", had been given three AT-9 rounds to carry for the platoon's single launcher. This added another twenty pounds to his load. He was sweating despite the frigid air.

There was very little discipline in the ranks as they made the march. A constant and extremely profane banter was tossed back and forth between most of the platoon members, including Lieutenant Fender and the four squad sergeants. The most common topic of conversation seemed to be the various sexual exploits each had engaged in with the whores in Boise during their week in the rear. The second most common topic was how much everyone hated having to go back to the line so fucking soon. Darren and Groovy were mostly ignored by the others, treated as nothing more than excess baggage. The only person who said anything to them at all, that acknowledged their presence in any way, was a black corporal named Cooper, who was carrying a squad automatic weapon. He struck up a brief conversation with Darren.

"Y'all get to experience the action post first," he told him as they rounded a bend in the old highway. "Five east is usually a first contact point. We get all kinds of skirmishes with the chinks up there."

"Really?" Darren asked, hopeful at the thought of finally getting to kill a chink.

"That ain't no shit, newbie," Cooper assured him. "It sticks right out over the approach zone. We got two platoons of AT-9 crews two hundred yards above us there that are able to snipe on the Chinese tanks when they try to move on the left flank of our armor positions. The chinks are hot to put five-east out of business, let me tell you. They've taken it from us twice in the six months that I've been here and we've taken it right back from them. We lose a lot of our newbies there, a lot of our experienced people too."

"From arty?" Darren asked nervously. Though he was anxious to mix it up with the Chinese infantry forces, he feared artillery greatly. Having 155-millimeter shells bursting over the top of you and raining deadly shrapnel down was so impersonal, and there was little that you could do to defend against it.

Cooper shrugged a little, shifting the heavy SAW from one shoulder to the other. "Some from arty, some from mortars, some from close action. We get into it a lot on patrols from that section too. The chinks send recon teams forward and we're always running into them."

Darren nodded wisely. "Bring 'em on," he said toughly, thinking his words would impress Cooper.

They didn't. The big corporal just chuckled. "You newbies and your enthusiasm," he said. "Just wait 'til you finish your first rotation and see how you feel. This ain't no fuckin boy scout camp out here." He gave him a shrewd look. "You know, most of the guys are bettin' on you because you're so fuckin big, but myself, I'm putting my money on your friend over there." He nodded towards Groovy, who was out of earshot at the moment. "He's a little fuck and that makes some of the guys think he's got what it takes, but he's kind of a spaz, ain't he? A spaz won't last long around here."

Darren had no idea what he was talking about. "Betting?" he said. "What do you mean?"

Cooper chuckled again. "On which one of you is gonna get smoked first," he said. "The platoon has a pool every time we get some fresh meat in here. I got twenty riding on this, so don't be takin' any rounds before that little fuck, okay?"

Darren was horrified. "You're betting on whether or not we'll get killed?" he asked angrily.

"No," Cooper said, "not whether or not you get killed—we pretty much write off all of our newbies as gone the minute they get here—just which one of you will get it first." He smiled. "I'm the platoon champion so far. I got an eye for it, I'm telling you. Won me the pot four times so far."

"You people are fucking sick," Darren cried, disgusted. They were having a pool on their lives? What kind of morbid, twisted people was he serving with anyway?

"Don't take it personally," Cooper said, unfazed by his tone. "We gotta bet on something, don't we? If you manage to make it long enough to get a name, you'll be doing the same thing."

"I will not," he said indignantly. "That's the most disgusting thing I've ever heard of."

Cooper simply shrugged again. "That's war for you," he opined. "Like I said, don't take it personally."

A thought occurred to Darren, a cynical thought that made him shiver in fear. "How do I know someone won't shoot me in the back just to win the money?" he asked. After all, if they were callous enough to bet on someone's life, they would be callous enough to take action to further their cause, wouldn't they?

"That's against the rules of the game," Cooper explained lightly. "Apparently there were some problems with that back in early days. Now, it has to be a genuine, unquestionable KIA for the bet to be valid. And the el-tee and the sergeants ain't allowed to get in on it since they have the power to send you into some shit that'll be sure to kill you. So you see, newbie, we ain't uncivilized about it."

Darren shook his head angrily. "You're a bunch of sick fucks," he said.

"It's a sick fuckin world," Cooper told him. "Don't you know that yet?"

Darren quickly distanced himself from his squad's machine gunner and found his way back to Groovy. The rest of the march passed in relative peace. He did not tell his friend that the others were betting on their lives. As Cooper had pointed out, Groovy was somewhat of a spaz and the information would do nothing but make him more nervous than he already was.

The edge of the staging area had once been an exclusive golf course according to the sign that marked the outside of it. Now the greens and fairways were overgrown and choked with brown weeds that were covered with a layer of late autumn snow. The outside of the golf course was marked by a thick concentration of anti-air emplacements manned by sleepy looking soldiers. All of the emplacements were under thermal insulated camouflage netting that made them difficult to spot even from ground level. Darren couldn't help but note that there were easily five times as many guns protecting the battalion's armor as there were protecting its actual men. Did that mean the army found the tanks and APCs more valuable than those who manned them? He tried to come to some other conclusion and failed.

Lieutenant Fender led them through a security checkpoint and onto the grounds of the golf course itself. Here, beneath the canopy of sycamore and oak trees, sloped pits had been dug by engineers and lined with concrete. Parked in each one of these was a Bradley armored personnel carrier, their thirty millimeter guns pointing forward, their rear access doors standing open. All were painted in the same winter scheme of white and brown that decorated the troops' BDUs. The crews who drove them had already marched out earlier and were performing final checks on the engines and armament, getting them ready for deployment. 2nd Platoon stopped near a stand of elms adjacent to what had once been the tee-off box for the fifth hole.

"It looks like our ride is ready," Lieutenant Fender told them. "Let's get mounted up. We've got a war to fight and democracy to save and all that shit."

Sergeant Maxwell led his squad over to one of the APCs and directed everyone inside. Darren and Groovy were instructed to board last. "That way," Maxwell said, "you'll be the first out. If there's any fire coming in at the dismount point, you'll be able to let the rest of us know."

"Let you know?" Groovy asked.

"By the fact that you get blown to pieces by it," Cooper said. "That way, we'll know not to step out right there, won't we?"

"Just don't let your blood and brains spray all over me," a young private added. "I hate that."

While the rest of the squad laughed at this humor, Darren directed an angry look at his new teammates. None of them noticed it, or at least they pretended not to. He stepped up onto the ramp and boarded the APC, squeezing himself in next to Cooper. Groovy followed him in and took up position on the other side.

Soon the doors were sealed shut and the vehicle began rumbling along, bouncing up and down over the badly maintained surface. The body heat of ten men in the back soon made it stifling hot and everyone began to perspire. There were no outside references and the environment was perfect for inducing motion sickness. Darren felt a slight queasiness in his stomach but he had grown somewhat used to riding in these things in training and managed to keep his breakfast down.

As they bounced and bumped along, gradually picking up speed on the highway towards the active front, much of the joking and chatter died down as, one by one, the men of Maxwell's squad drifted off to sleep. Soon the sound of the engine and the clatter of the treads on the asphalt were almost drowned out by the sound of snores.

"How do they sleep in these things?" Groovy whispered, looking from face to face in nervous amazement.

"Cause we know we won't be getting much sleep once we're deployed," Maxwell grunted at them testily. "Now shut the fuck up before you wake someone up. It's about an hour's drive to the deployment area. If you were smart, which you're probably not, you'd do what everyone else is doing. Sleep while you can."

They shut the fuck up, but neither one of them could sleep, not while they were heading to the battle area for the first time. They sat rigidly upright in silence, both of them starting to wonder just what they had gotten themselves into.

-------

As promised, the APC ground to a halt about an hour later. Maxwell and the others snapped instantly awake, their eyes flying open as if they were shutters. Maxwell conferred a moment with the driver by means of an intercom and then turned to his men.

"All right, boys," he said, "we're in chink country. Let's lock and load and get up to the trenches."

Everyone flipped the safeties off on their weapons and jacked a round into the chamber. Darren and Groovy hesitated for a moment and then did the same, keeping the barrels pointed upward.

"Be careful with them things, newbies," Maxwell told them. "Let's not have any friendly fire incidents, shall we? I have to fill out a bunch of paperwork when that happens."

The metal ramp of the APC swung open, letting in a blast of blessedly frigid air that instantly displaced the damp heat that had built up during the ride. It was chilling to the skin and made goose bumps rise up on Darren's face and hands.

"Out, newbies," Maxwell barked at them. "When the ramp comes down, that means you get the fuck out. Didn't they teach you anything in cav school?"

Darren flushed a little at his words but rose to his feet and stepped out, his eyes searching in all directions for signs of chinks. He saw none, only the other three APCs of the platoon lined up adjacent to them, disgorging their own troops. The other men held their weapons upward, their eyes looking around cautiously but not terribly concerned. They ambled away from the armored vehicles and began to form up by squad. It appeared there was no action to be had right here, although it was brutally obvious that action had taken place here in the past. The landscape had once been covered with trees and brush, but now the trees were all smashed to splinters, only the trunks on some of the larger ones still intact, and the brush had all been shredded and burned. Impact craters from the artillery rounds that had plastered this piece of ground time and time again were everywhere. Darren promptly stepped in one of them and nearly fell on his face as he tried to clear the area of the ramp. Groovy did fall down when he stepped into and it was only because his finger was not resting on the trigger of his weapon that he did not have an accidental discharge.

Darren helped him to his feet as the other members of the squad fanned out and formed a loose semi-circle about ten feet away from the ramp, which was already closing back up.

"Goddammit, newbies," Maxwell said, "watch where the fuck you're stepping and get your asses into formation."

They quickly scrambled around and formed up in the proper places, their weapons held at port-arms position since that was what everyone else seemed to be doing. The other three squads of the platoon trotted over and formed up with them, widening the semi-circle somewhat. Darren, who was still looking around, searching for a Chinese platoon on the attack, found himself standing next to Cooper once again.

"Don't worry, we ain't gonna get attacked right here," the corporal told him. "We're behind hill 1123, which we hold with a company of infantry and tank support on the flanks." He pointed to the north, where a steeply inclined slope rose several hundred feet above them. "That's it there. Our positions are on the opposite slope of it. Behind us, on that rise past the tree trunks, are more troops and a reinforced mortar position. The only chinks that could be in here would be a suicide squad that managed to sneak over in the middle of the night for an ambush. If they'd been here, they would've hit us while we were coming down the ramps and were all bunched together."

Darren looked from one hill to the other, trying to spot some sign of the soldiers that were deployed there and seeing nothing. Both hills looked utterly desolate and deserted. "Has that happened before?" he asked.

"Everything's happened before," Cooper responded. "But it ain't happening now, and that's all that's important."

While Darren pondered these words of wisdom, Lieutenant Fender, carrying his own rifle and his own sixty-pound pack, trotted up and stood near Maxwell.

"Looks pretty good out here, el-tee," the sergeant told his boss. "It's nice to climb out of these fuckin things without someone popping rounds at you."

"That ain't propaganda," Fender replied, looking up at the hill. "Let's get our asses up there and in the trenches before the chinks decide to send some arty our way, shall we?"

"Fuckin' aye," Maxwell agreed.

"Your squad's on the point," Fender said. "Let's move it out."

Maxwell turned to his men. "All right, people," he said, "you heard the el-tee. We're on the point. Let's get up that fuckin hill double time." He turned to a Hispanic private and clapped him on the shoulder. "Mendez, you take point."

"Right, sarge," Mendez said, bringing his rifle a little lower. He walked to the front of the formation and then began to head for the base of the hill. The rest of the platoon, Darren and Groovy included, settled into a rough diamond formation and began to follow behind him.

The hill was steep, but not nearly as steep as some that they had been forced to climb in training. Darren, whose legs and body were in the best shape they had ever been in, hardly broke a sweat as they marched up the slope through the shattered trees and brush. The only thing that hampered him were the impact craters, which were everywhere.

"These are all from our arty," Cooper told him after he'd tripped in the third hole. "The chinks can't hit this side of the hill with their guns."

"Our arty?" he asked, wondering why their own guns would be ripping up the ground behind where the troops were positioned.

"This hill has changed hands about six times in the last two years," Cooper explained. "Where we're walkin' right now was occupied territory four months ago. Every major offensive that they launch, the chinks push us out of here and back about a klick. And every major offensive that we have, we push them right back off of it." He shook his head a little. "It seems kind of pointless from our perspective, but I guess it's our job, right?"

"Do we ever push them back?" Darren asked. "From where they are now I mean."

Cooper nodded. "We've pushed them back a half a klick or so on a couple of occasions. There's another hill just like this one on the other side of the gully that we've stood on a time or two. 1138 it's called."

"But no further?"

He shook his head. "No further," he confirmed. "Not since the Battle of Viola ended anyway, which was way before my time here. When we try to push further in there's a series of hills over there that are just lousy with tanks and machine guns. We can't dislodge 'em from there. Every time we try, we get massacred worse than the time before. It's hard enough just to take 1138 away from them. We have to pound them with arty and air strikes for days just to do that."

"We'll get 'em one of these days," Darren said confidently. "We'll push those motherfuckers all the way back to Beijing."

Cooper barked out a cynical laugh. "You go ahead and do that, newbie," he said. "Of course the rest of us would rather just be static out here. That's the best way to stay alive you see, by not fighting in the first place."

"That's pussy," Darren told him. "No wonder we're not getting anywhere if no one wants to fight those fuckers. You ever think of that?"

Cooper offered a small chuckle. "We fight when they tell us to fight," he said. "What else can we do? The penalty for desertion or insubordination in battle is a court martial and a bullet to the head. That's a great motivator, ain't it? But we ain't pushed 'em further than 1138 in three years of trying now. All we've done is smoked a lot of poor slobs like you and me, a couple million now I hear, and we're still standing in virtually the same place we were three years ago. And it's the same place we'll be standing ten years from now if something doesn't happen to change the equation a little bit."

"Something happen?"

Cooper shrugged. "Tactical nukes, chemical warfare, some new kind of weapon. I don't know. But somebody is going to have to do something, because we're not going to push them out of here by charging into their guns with our tanks and they're not going to be able to push us back by doing the same thing. All that's doing is depopulating the planet and making a bunch of fuckin' defense contractors rich."

They continued their climb up the hill, Darren thinking about what he had just heard. Cooper and the rest of them, especially Maxwell, their sergeant, seemed to have been infected with a horribly negative attitude. Where had that come from? How had he ended up in a platoon where almost everyone seemed so fatalistic and negative? It seemed grossly unfair that he had been put here. Why couldn't they have put him in some company where the men knew what they were out there for and where they acted like soldiers instead of whiny, cowardly babies?

Soon they came to a checkpoint of sorts dug into the backside of the hill. It was a trench, about ten feet long, five feet deep, and shored up with sandbags, stacked in such a way so that firing ports had been formed in several places. Two grimy faces stared out at them as they approached.

"It's about goddamned time," one of the men grumbled, though loud enough for everyone in the relief platoon to hear.

"And good morning to you too," Maxwell said sarcastically. "Are we clear up to the entrance?"

"Bet your ass," one of them said, lighting a cigarette. "I'll radio the el-tee that you're coming."

"Thank you, private," Maxwell said. He ordered the men onward.

As they passed the trench Darren took a look inside. The two men were absolutely filthy, every inch of their skin and clothing covered with dirt and grime. They both had at least a week's worth of stubble on their faces and their hair was long and clumped with dirt. The odor of stale sweat was strong enough to smell even from twenty feet away. Both men had their M-16s slung over their backs. Between them was an M-71 machine gun mounted on a swivel and aimed backwards down the hill. Empty MRE containers and cigarette butts littered the bottom of the trench.

One of the men saw Darren staring at them. "You lookin at something, shithead?" he asked in a challenging tone.

Darren quickly averted his gaze and followed along with the rest of the squad.

Instead of going up and over the top of the hill, they cut to the left about halfway up and circled around the middle of it. The going became a little bit easier as the ground leveled out just a bit in this section and soon they were on the northwestern face, looking out over a broad gully that stretched towards another series of hills about a half-mile away.

"That's chink country over there," Cooper told Darren, pointing at the hills. "Their infantry and anti-tank units hold the hills and their tanks are dug in between them. They have an extensive trench network over there, just like we do."

Darren looked at the hills more closely now, fascinated by the thought that there were actual chinks on them. He had never actually seen a chink before, not a real one anyway, although there had been several students of Japanese and Chinese descent at Wood Oak High School (they had been horribly ostracized and persecuted by the other students of course). He tried to spot some sign of them but he saw nothing but another hill that had once been covered with trees and brush but that was now barren and desolate, the victim of years of artillery and air strikes.

An entrance to the friendly trench network appeared before them a minute later. It was an opening between two rows of mud-covered sandbags. Rows of razor wire were stretched about ten feet in front of it with only a small gap of open ground available to move through. Guarding the entrance to the trench was a four-man team of soldiers led by a corporal. They had a SAW and their personal weapons pointed outward through firing ports in the sandbags. All four of them were as filthy and smelly as the two back at the checkpoint trench.

"Hi honey, we're home," Mendez greeted them, ignoring the general order that demanded password exchange at such encounters. "Can we come in?"

"Fuckin aye," the corporal told him. "I haven't had a decent blowjob in weeks."

There were a few dutiful laughs at the remarks and then Maxwell's squad began working their way through the gap in the razor wire one by one. Mendez went first, keeping low as he walked up to the opening in the sandbags. He stepped over and down, his head dropping until it was just poking up over the edge. He moved aside and let the next man through. When it was Darren's turn, he winced as he got a close-up blast of the odor that the team of soldiers they were relieving was exuding. It was so strong that his stomach turned sickeningly, threatening to expel his breakfast. Nobody else, with the exception of Groovy, who seemed to turn a little green as well, even seemed to notice. He passed between the men as quickly as possible, holding his breath as he went.

The bottom of the trench was covered with a film of muddy, stagnant water that exuded its own foul odor. Cigarette butts floated in this muck. The trench itself was only about three feet wide at the top, although at the bottom, on the side facing the Chinese positions, it had been dug out an additional two feet or so to allow a soldier to hunker up during artillery or air attack and keep from having shrapnel rain down upon him. This section of trench stretched downhill for about fifty yards and then took a sharp turn to the right, so that it was across the north face of the hill. Darren followed behind Cooper, stepping carefully through the mud, which was already coating his boots.

"Hey, newbies," Maxwell yelled at them angrily. "Are you trying to get your fucking heads blown off in your first ten minutes here?"

"No, sergeant," they both answered, both unsure what he was referring to. They were in the trench weren't they? Supposedly the trench was the safest place to be at the front—much safer in fact, than being inside of an armored vehicle.

"Keep your goddamn heads below the top of the trench," Maxwell said. "For Christ sake, there are snipers out there that are probably drawing a bead on your stupid asses right now."

For the first time Darren noticed that everyone else was hunched over so that the tops of their helmets were well below the top sandbag. He immediately imitated them, alarmed at the possibility that some chink sniper was looking at him through a riflescope.

"Aww, sarge," one of the other men said. "Why'd you have to tell them that? I bet they would've popped that big dumb one in a minute or so and I would've won the pool."

Darren flushed at the laughter this caused, a surge of anger flaring through him. But he vowed never to put his head up above the trench line again. The chinks weren't going to get him that easily.

They continued to move along, edging their way forward step by step, their packs occasionally scraping on the walls. At the point where the trench turned the corner, the space was somewhat wider, forming a turret of sorts. Another of the filthy soldiers was stationed here, keeping half an eye out through the firing port. He was smoking a cigarette listlessly, which served to mask a little bit of his pungent aroma. He looked at them as they passed, occasionally nodding to someone that he knew. He ignored Darren and Groovy completely, his eyes not even passing over them. Further down this section of the trench they began to encounter more and more soldiers, all of them looking alike except for minute differences in size or stature. They were spaced out in sections, one or two of them covering a firing and observation port. Some had binoculars with them, some were manning SAWs or M-71s. All were filthy and horribly ripe smelling. About every fifty feet, other trenches branched off from the main one, half of them leading uphill, the other half leading down. Mendez stayed in the main channel.

Sergeant Maxwell found what seemed to be the lieutenant of the platoon in occupancy. He was sitting on an ammunition box going over a map on his command PC. Like Fender and the other lieutenants Darren had seen in Alpha company, he had no rank markings or sidearm visible on him. Darren only knew he was the boss when Maxwell addressed him as "el-tee".

Fender came forward at that point and sat down next to him. "Sorry it took us so long," he said. "The road in was pretty congested today."

"Yep," the off-going lieutenant grunted. "I hear their massing us up again. Don't know if it's because they want to attack or because they're expecting one. The intel fucks haven't been telling us shit."

"Ain't that the way it always is?" Fender asked. "Haven't heard shit from my end either."

"What can you do but die?" the lieutenant said, repeating a phrase that Darren had heard several times since his arrival in Caldwell.

"What can you do?" Fender agreed. "So how was it out here this time?"

He shrugged. "They've been probing us a lot this rotation," he said. "A battalion sized force hit us four days ago but they didn't seem too serious about it. No arty or air support and they pulled back after less than an hour."

"Hit you hard?"

He shook his head. "Smoked a couple of our newbies and one of our experienced guys. Sent two more out on med-evac. Not too bad. They really clobbered us the week before with arty though. Wiped out a whole squad over in section five when one of the rounds landed on target. Lost one of my best sergeants there."

Fender nodded a little. "That's a retreat," he said with light sympathy—about the same amount one would use to commiserate the loss of someone's favorite hat. "Did you get the trench fixed back up?"

"All repaired over there, but we have a few sections of sandbags that need to be replaced over in eleven from the small arms fire the other night. We ran out of bags."

"I'll get some guys on that later today," Fender said. "How's the ammo for the 71's?"

"Got about five thousand rounds left," he said. "And the gun over in sixteen got damaged from a sixty round during the firefight. We rigged it back up but it still jams every twenty rounds or so."

"Great," Fender said. He turned to his squad sergeants, who had all worked their way up to where the meeting was taking place. "Let's get deployed," he told them. "Max, you take your guys down to eleven and set up shop down there. Once you get settled in, send some people back up for a supply run down to the APCs. We're gonna need ammo for the 71's and some sandbags in addition to all the normal shit. After you're done with that, see what you can do about fixing the place up some."

"You got it, el-tee," Maxwell replied. While Fender began giving orders to the others, Maxwell told Mendez to lead them off. "We're in the front today, boys. Let's get moving."

-------

Section eleven of the trench network was about a hundred yards downhill from the main trench. It was accessed by walking through one of the narrow offshoots of the network and then twisting through several other lengths, both downhill and cross-hill. About twenty yards long, it faced out over a dropout in the hill and, through the firing ports and observation openings, it commanded a panoramic view of the eastern section of the gully that separated their hill from the Chinese positions. Darren saw that directly in the middle of the trench an entire section of the sandbags that provided protection for them had been shredded, the dirt spilling out and giving them a deflated look. He stared wonderingly for a moment, awed that that had been caused by Chinese bullets, probably from a 7.62-millimeter machine gun. He was really at the front! He was really going to be battling the chinks soon. Would he get his first kill today?

The off-going squad that had been in residence at eleven hardly said a word to their relief as they shouldered their weapons and packs and headed off up the hill towards their exit from the front and their week-off period. No sooner were they gone than Maxwell began to assign positions to the men. "Mendez," he told the soldier who had been on point on the march up, "you're on the 71. Get me an ammo count right away."

"Right, sarge," Mendez said, walking over to the mounted machine gun, which was set up in a gap between sandbags.

"Cooper," he said next, "get your SAW set up over here." He pointed to a firing port next to the damaged section.

Cooper didn't answer, he just moved to where he was told. Maxwell directed the other members to other firing ports in the trench, imparting each with a particular sector of responsibility for the ground below. In the event of an attack, each person would try to engage only those targets in his zone.

Finally, the sergeant turned to Darren and Groovy, who were both anxious to be given their sector. "Newbies," he told them, "I want you to set up on either side of Cooper here. Your zone of responsibility will be to engage any targets that are concentrating their fire on his position."

"Yes, sergeant," they both said, neither realizing that they had been allocated to a nothing assignment. After all, it sounded important didn't it? They were protecting the SAW gunner.

"But before you do that," he said, "we've got ammo, food stocks, and sandbags that need to be lugged up from the other side of the hill. Cooper, why don't you take our new warriors down with you and show them how to go about doing that. I'll cover your gun while you're gone."

"Right, sarge," Cooper said, somewhat dejected. He turned to his two charges. "C'mon, fresh meat. Let me show you what the war's really all about. Throw your packs down there by your positions and let's go. Bring your rifles with you."

In all they ended up making four trips back to the APCs and then back up to the main trench. Each time they lugged nearly ninety pounds of ammunition boxes or water jugs or boxes of empty canvas sacks that would be filled with dirt and converted into sandbags. By the time they finished the last load, Darren's legs were screaming at him for relief and his boots and lower legs were caked with mud.

It was just as they were setting the last load down near Fender and one of the other sergeants that the low rumbling of explosions came to them from the southwest. Darren and Groovy both turned their heads that way, gripping their weapons a little tighter. No one else seemed to pay any attention to it.

"Chinese arty impacting," Cooper said, noting their alarm. "Sounds like 155's."

"How often do they do that?" Groovy asked, a hint of fear in his voice.

"Constantly," he replied. "They'll blast the shit out of something for a while and then stop to move their guns before we can counter-battery them. Our arty does the same thing. All fuckin day, all fuckin night."

The rumbling went on for nearly a minute and then was answered by the louder thumps of WestHem guns responding to their fire with some of their own.

"There's the counter-battery fire," Cooper said. "It'll be followed in a minute by more fire from the chinks and then another round of fire from our guys. Sometimes they'll do that shit for an hour or more at a time. Just ignore it. It's nothing to worry about unless they start shooting at us."

"Right," Darren said, nodding wisely. "But how will we know when they start shooting at us?"

Cooper and everyone else in earshot laughed at his words, embarrassing him.

"Newbie," Cooper said, "you'll know when they're shooting at us. There won't be any mistaking it for anything else. Trust me."

Now that all of the supplies were carried up, Lieutenant Fender—still chuckling over Darren's question—proposed that it would be a good idea for the newbies to learn the layout of the trench network by delivering said supplies to the various positions that needed them. And so for the next ninety minutes, with the assistance of Cooper, who was grumbling about being stuck babysitting, they hauled jugs of water and boxes of ammunition up and down through the trench network and dropped them off to ungrateful, grunting soldiers. Darren, in making all of these trips, only became familiar enough with the trench to realize how vast it really was. It stretched everywhere across the face of the hill, up and down, left and right. Many sections of it were empty and abandoned, used only during actual battle, but all of it was filled with a river of nearly liquid mud at the bottom, old cigarette butts, the occasional pile of empty shell casings, and wadded up MRE wrappers.

It was nearly 3:00 PM before they returned to their assigned positions, but before they could man them, Maxwell grabbed them by the shoulders. "They teach you newbies how to build sandbags in basic?" he asked them pleasantly.

"Yes, sergeant," Darren responded, fighting not to sigh at the words.

"Good," he told them. "You'll find a couple of shovels over there by the water jugs. I want that whole section of shot-up bags replaced before you eat dinner, so get working on it.

And so Darren and Groovy's first day at the front was spent not killing chinks but lugging supplies around and filling sandbags with dirt.

-------

By the time they finished the job the sun was approaching the horizon in the west. The clouds that had been spitting flurries of snow on them all day had blown away and an icy north wind had taken their place. The rumble and thump of artillery, more distant now, continued to the west of them. They sat down with the MRE's that were their dinner ration and tore into them, swallowing up the processed beef and stale bread greedily.

It was after stowing his MRE wrapper in a place that seemed to have been designated as trash storage that Darren felt a rumbling in his bowels. He held out for a few minutes before he finally gathered the courage to ask Cooper where he should go about relieving himself.

"End of the trench and hang a right," Cooper said, pointing eastward, past all of the manned positions. "Follow that branch to the end and make a left. There's a latrine dug over there. Just follow your nose."

"Thanks," he said, picking up his rifle and, walking hunched over, starting that way.

"Be sure and let the sarge know you're stepping out," Cooper told him. "He gets mighty pissed when people disappear without telling him."

"Right."

He found Maxwell, who was talking to someone on the command channel of his radio near the M-71 position.

"I gotta go use the latrine, sergeant," he told him.

"Knock yourself out," Maxwell said absently before going back to his conversation, which seemed to consist entirely of numbers and grid coordinates.

Darren edged past all of the other squad members, having to squeeze to get behind them. They all ignored him, just as they had since his first day. He turned the corner of the trench and began moving along the uphill section, which was empty of all but garbage. At the first branch to his left he was able to catch the strong odor of feces and urine wafting out. Now he knew what Cooper had meant by following his nose. As he moved along the section the odor grew stronger until he was only able to breathe through his mouth without gagging.

The latrine itself was a hole in the bottom of the trench, about six feet deep, with a piece of plywood resting over it. The plywood had a hole cut in the middle of it and that was it. No toilet seat or toilet paper or anything else. Flies buzzed busily around the opening despite the cool air and the lateness of the season. They darted in and out through the hole, landing and taking off on a huge pile of old and new feces that had to have been accumulating for the past several months at least.

"Disgusting," Darren said, feeling his stomach turning again. But, left with nothing else to do, he unbuckled his belt, dropped his pants, and sat down over the hole, feeling the plywood bend alarmingly under his weight. He took care of his business as quickly as possible and then, without any toilet paper or reasonable substitute for it, was forced to go without. He vowed to defecate as little as possible during his tour out here.

By the time he made it back to his position, full darkness had conquered the land and the stars were shining brilliantly overhead. Darren looked out of his firing port and saw nothing but blackness.

"Should we put on our night goggles?" he asked Cooper, who was leaning back against the bottom of the trench, smoking.

"Naww," he said. "Keep them on your helmets just in case we get into it, but just stand by your positions for now. We have to conserve batteries on those things. There's a rotating schedule about who stands lookout at night."

"I see," Darren said. "So we just stare out into nothing then?"

"You could do that," Cooper told them. "Or you could sit down for a bit until something happens. We get long stretches out here where there's a whole lot of nothing going on. Learn to like them."

Darren and Groovy sat down, cradling their loaded rifles against them. They were too far away to talk to each other and conversation seemed to be discouraged during the night hours in any case. They waited for something to happen but nothing did. Their radio sets, which were on stand-by mode, set to the squad tactical channel, remained silent. The hours went slowly by with nothing but the occasional thumping of artillery battles or the distant clatter of helicopter blades breaking the silence. Darren smoked occasionally, as did Groovy, who had developed somewhat of a taste for cigarettes since graduating from basic training. They were chastised by Cooper to keep their hands over the ends of their smokes when they took a puff.

"The flare will show up on the chinks' low-light goggles if you don't shield it," he said. "They know we're here of course but there's no sense letting them know exactly where we are."

They took the lesson to heart and continued to wait and do nothing.

Cooper was directed by Maxwell to stand a lookout at about 9:00 PM. He put out his latest cigarette and then donned his goggles. He put his face to the firing port and looked out through the corner of it, humming a little under his breath. Darren and Groovy sat on either side of him in the faint moonlight, both of them bored out of their minds.

At 10:00 PM Maxwell announced over the radio net that all those except the three watch-standers were free to catch some sleep. "Mendez, Callahan, and Zender, you guys have second watch at midnight. Newbie number one, the big fucker, you stand watch with them just to get used to the schedule. Put your goggles on then and look out through your position but keep your fucking mouth shut otherwise. If something's out there, you won't be the first one to see it."

"Right, sergeant," Darren responded after squeezing the transmit button on his set.

"Other newbie, Maxwell said, "the little fuck. You out there?"

"Yes, sergeant," Darren heard Groovy's voice respond.

"You do the same thing on third watch at 0300 with Rourke, Jackson, and Herrera."

"Yes, sergeant."

"Sleep well, guys," Maxwell told them. "Hopefully our Chinese friends will be on vacation for our lovely week out here."

Darren pulled his sleeping bag from his pack and unrolled it in the forward part of the trench just under his firing position. He took off his combat boots, which were zippered instead of laced, and set them to the side where he could easily reach them. He then spent a few minutes scraping the mud from his pant legs with a stick that he'd found earlier. When he was as clean as he thought he could make himself, he climbed in, feeling the blessed warmth of the arctic, waterproof covering engulfing him. He set his rifle against the wall of the trench and then lay his head down, squirming a bit to get comfortable.

Though he was exhausted by his first long day at the front and though he had never had much trouble drifting off during deployments in training, sleep refused to take him. He tossed and turned back and forth but his mind would not shut down. For the next two hours he simply laid there, listening to the occasional burst of distant artillery or the occasional fart from one of his squad mates. He smelled cigarette smoke drifting over him when Cooper lit up and he heard the sound of someone heading off towards the latrine every once in a while. He willed himself to go to sleep but it was to no avail. Finally, midnight came and Cooper gave him a soft kick in the side.

"You're on the watch, newbie," he told him. "Up and at 'em."

"Thanks," he said, pulling himself slowly out of his sleeping bag.

He put his boots back on and picked up his rifle. He slid his night goggles down over his eyes and then turned on the switch, imparting the darkness with a ghostly green glow. He saw Groovy lying fifteen feet away in his sleeping bag, obviously still awake as well. He saw the other members of the watch, Mendez, Callahan, and Zender, already manning their positions. Feeling excited to finally be doing something, he put his face to the firing port and looked out over the landscape.

He saw the shapes of the rises and falls in the ground, all outlined in shades of green. Broken tree trunks and piles of smashed tree limbs were scattered everywhere, offering thousands of places for chinks to hide and use as firing positions. He saw the outline of the Chinese held hill in the distance. Other than that, he saw no living being. Nor did anyone else for the entire watch.

Nor did anyone for the watch that came after it.

-------

Dawn brought the return of the clouds and the snow flurries. Darren had finally managed to drift off into a fitful sleep that lasted less than an hour before Maxwell's commanding voice over the radio circuit brought everyone to their feet.

"The sun's up, gentlemen," he told his men. "Let's start our workday, shall we?"

For Darren and Groovy, the workday consisted mostly of a series of work details. After breakfast, which consisted of another of the drab MRE's, Maxwell ordered them over to section nineteen to help repair and replace sandbags that were becoming worn. They did this until well after lunch before the sergeant of third squad released them to return to their own positions. They were allowed to eat lunch and use the latrine and then they were put right back to work gathering all of the trash that had been strewn about the trench. After that they made two trips down to the APCs to haul up some more boxes of ammunition.

"I'm telling you, Groove," Darren said angrily as they worked their way back through the trench network after this latest errand, "this wasn't quite what I had in mind when I signed up for the cav."

Groovy, rubbing his sore arms, agreed wholeheartedly. "They're using us as their maids," he said. "I could've stayed home and done this."

Their squad was at its normal state of daytime readiness when they got back, half of them standing watch, the other half lounging around, bored. Maxwell and Cooper, the two senior members, were both dozing beneath their firing holes, the latter snoring loudly.

Corporal Easton, the squad's medic, was sitting near Maxwell going over something on a PC. He was a tall, skinny man of about twenty-five, a little older than everyone else in the squad. Darren had heard that he was a draftee instead of a volunteer and that he had once been a paramedic in Denver. He saw them approaching and waved them over. "Yo, newbies," he called. "Come here a sec."

They walked over. "Yes, corporal?" Darren asked, thrilled that someone other than Maxwell or Cooper was finally talking to him.

"Call me doc," Easton said absently. "You guys drink your water ration today?"

"Our water ration?" Groovy asked.

"Half a gallon a day is the ration for winter conditions," he said. "If you don't keep up with it and get yourself dehydrated, they ride my ass about it, so be sure to drink up, okay?"

"Okay ... uh ... doc," Darren said. "Uh ... how much ... uh..."

He let a disgusted look cross his face, as if were cursed to have to deal with such morons. "Two canteens full," he told them. "One, two. Double it if you should happen to get the shits. If the shits get really bad, and I'm talking really bad, like more than twice an hour, come see me and I'll give you something to stop you up."

"Okay," they both agreed.

He looked them up and down for a minute. "Did you change your socks this morning?"

They looked at each other and both admitted that they hadn't.

"Christ," he said, disgusted. "Didn't they teach you morons anything in basic? Change your socks at least twice a day. Put the old ones up high in your position somewhere so they'll dry out. You're gonna get trench foot no matter what, but at least it won't be as bad if you make some effort to keep dry."

"Right," Darren said, making a note to do that right away.

"Couple other things," Easton said. "When you get lice—and believe me, you will—don't bother coming to me and whining about it. It's part of life out here and there's nothing we can do about it but get deloused when we come off the line. If you get bit by a rat however, do come and see me and I'll give you a rabies shot. Trust me, you don't want to get the rabies."

"Has that happened before?" Groovy asked, horrified at the thought.

"Everything's happened before out here," he replied. "Now go back to your positions and get your socks changed and drink some water."

"Okay, doc," they both replied, turning away.

"And for what its worth," he called after them, "I hope you two make it."

They were both touched by his words. Both gushed thank you's at him.

Easton grinned. "I put my money on that fat fucker in third squad," he said. "So at least make it until after he gets smoked, all right? You can die after that."

-------

The day wound onward and nothing continued to happen except the occasional burst of artillery fire which, as Cooper had noted the day before, was more or less a constant feature. Darren and Groovy stood watch whenever Cooper did, staring out into the barren wasteland between their hill and the Chinese positions and seeing nothing moving. The snow came and went in intermittent flurries and an occasional brief dusting. As sunset approached the clouds once more broke up and the wind kicked into gear, dropping the temperature dramatically.

It was as they were chowing down on their evening MRE's that a break in the routine finally occurred. From the north, in the direction of the Chinese held hills, the echo of gunfire suddenly drifted over. It was the sound of heavy machine guns on full automatic, only a few at first, but then a whole symphony of them.

"Everybody in positions," Maxwell's voice commanded over the radio. "Somebody woke up our friends across the way."

Darren grabbed his rifle and quickly stood next to his firing port. Around him, all of the others that had been off watch did the same. He looked out and saw the same nothing that he'd seen for the past two days. The gunfire from the north picked up in intensity and was then drowned out momentarily by the sound of two large explosions.

"Probably an air raid," Maxwell told his men, "but keep a sharp eye out anyway."

They continued to stare outward. A few moments later Cooper suddenly spoke up, keying his transmit button. "Aircraft approaching," he said. "On the deck at ten o'clock."

Everyone tensed up and started looking in that direction. Darren saw the shape of two planes emerging from behind the Chinese held hills. They were seemingly only feet above the gully and were moving fast, too fast for his eyes to track on them.

"They're friendlies, sarge," someone else's voice—it sounded like Mendez but Darren wasn't familiar enough to be sure—suddenly cut in. "Looks like tank smashers."

"I concur," Maxwell's voice said. "Hold your fire, people. Looks like the good guys."

The two aircraft continued their dash across the flat ground and then pulled up as they approached the American positions. Darren was now able to see enough detail to recognize them as A-11 ground attack craft—twin engine, stubby-winged, close support planes that specialized in blasting armored vehicles with their 30mm cannon. They were also good for dropping napalm or cluster bombs on enemy formations. One of them was trailing smoke from its right side engine. They continued to ascend and shot over the top of the hill, the roar of their jet engines loud enough to hurt the eardrums.

Maxwell had everyone hold in position for a few minutes in case some Chinese planes followed them out. None did. He ordered a stand-down to normal alert and everyone quickly went back to what they were doing.

"Well that was exciting, wasn't it?" Cooper said with a yawn and a fart as he tore back into his MRE.

"Yeah," Darren said miserably, "I'm not sure I can take much more."

"Don't be so eager, newbie," Cooper told him. "When something really exciting happens around here, people die. And usually it's overenthusiastic newbies like you that get it. Be grateful for the lulls. Learn to love them."

"I want to kill some chinks," Darren said. "Is that too much to ask?"

"For the time being, apparently so," Cooper told him. He looked over Darren's unfinished meal. "You gonna eat that cornbread, or what?"

-------

Just before ten o'clock that night Darren, who had been told he would be on the midnight watch once again, was sitting against the back of the trench, smoking reflectively and waiting for it to be time to sack out. The moon was high, shining brilliantly upon them and imparting the landscape with an almost eerie glow. Cooper was sitting next to him, smoking as well, although he had been uncommunicative for the past hour. Groovy was off relieving his bowels, which had been quite upset by the diet of dehydrated food.

Suddenly, to the north of them, five bright points of light appeared over the hills. Brilliant white, several times brighter than Venus at its best, they moved slowly upward, heading almost lazily in their general direction. Darren waited for someone to cry an alarm at them but either no one noticed or no one cared.

"Cooper," he whispered, a tinge of fear in his voice. "What are those?"

Cooper glanced up and chuckled a little. "Those?" he said. "You wasn't worried about those were you?"

"I wasn't worried about them," he said somewhat defensively. "I was just wondering what they were."

"Artillery rockets," Cooper said, taking a drag. "Probably a counter-battery against some of our arty. The chinks launch them things all the time. Pretty nasty if they shoot 'em at us since they drop sub-munitions all over the place, but those ones are heading behind us."

"How can you tell?" Darren asked, watching as they climbed to the top of their arc. One by one they winked out as their rocket motors burned out, but he knew they were still up there, following the ballistic path that they had been set upon.

"The angle," he told him. "Believe me, after you had them things shot at you a few times, you get very tuned in to what it looks like when they're heading your way. Keep listening. You'll hear them impact in a minute or so."

Darren listened and sure enough, about forty seconds later, a faint series of cracks came drifting over, as if someone had set off an entire pack of firecrackers.

"Must've been a miss," Cooper said. "Didn't hear any secondary explosions."

Less than a minute later ten more lights lit up the sky, this time from the south.

"Uh oh," Cooper said. "Looks like they done pissed our boys off. They're firing rockets back at them now."

The exchange went on for quite some time. Rockets would arc into the sky from the Chinese side of the line and would be answered a few minutes later by another barrage from the WestHem side. The cracks of impact would follow soon after in varying levels of faintness. Darren stayed awake to watch the display even though it was after sack time and he had to be up at midnight. He found the light show to be strangely beautiful and coldly frightening at the same time.

Finally however, he grew bored with the sight and felt fatigue pulling at him, reminding him that he had been almost constantly awake since deploying the previous morning. Around him came the snores and grunts of others sleeping soundly beneath the stars and the moon. Just as he was about to crawl into his sleeping bag however, the sound of AK-74s being fired echoed up from the west of them.

Instinctively Darren flinched at the sound, so instilled was the habit from basic training. Nor was he the only one. The other members of the squad, Maxwell included, came rolling out of their sleeping bags and picked up their rifles. Those already standing guard duty tensed up as well.

Now the AK-74 fire was answered by the pops of M-16s on single fire and the short bursts of a couple of SAWs.

"It sounds like five west is mixing it up," Cooper said over the radio net.

"Sounds like it," Maxwell agreed. "Everybody into position. It's probably only a probe at their hill but it might be a general attack. I'll see if the el-tee knows anything."

At his words, everyone that wasn't already at a firing port quickly found one and donned their low-light goggles. Darren pulled his down from their resting spot atop his helmet and clicked them on. He stared out over the hill approaches, expecting and anticipating hordes of chinks moving in on them. There was nothing—at least nothing he could see.

"Looks clear from my angle, sarge," Cooper reported as he panned the barrel of the SAW back and forth.

"Looks clear over here too," Mendez piped up.

"Let's hope it stays that way," Maxwell told them. "Keep sharp."

From the hilltop to their west, the sound of battle continued, with the M-16 fire picking up in intensity. Soon the hollow thump of mortars being launched and the louder cracks of their impact were heard.

"Are those our mortars or theirs?" Darren asked Cooper.

"Hard to tell," he replied absently. "Probably ours though."

"Okay, guys," Maxwell said a moment later, "here's what the el-tee knows. Five west is in contact with a platoon-sized force three hundred yards down from their hill. They popped up without warning and started moving in on them. Intentions unknown. They have concentrated fire on them and are hitting them with mortars right now."

"Sounds like a probe to contact," someone suggested.

"But they opened up first," Cooper said. "That means they already knew where they were."

"Let's keep the link clear, guys," Maxwell admonished. "We might have chinks down there."

The talk died down as the gun battle a kilometer to the west continued to rage. Darren felt his adrenaline surging as he continued to scan over the landscape. There might be chinks down there right now! They might pop up any second! He could be only moments away from that first kill! He was nearly drooling at the thought.

But alas, the gunfire slacked off a few minutes later and then died out completely. The thump and bang of the mortars soon followed. No chinks showed themselves in Darren's gun sight. The battle, it seemed, was over.

Maxwell came back on the radio. "The chinks have pulled back from contact," he announced. "They think they knocked out about half of them. No friendly casualties."

"Just a harassment attack," Cooper said. "Fuckin chinks. They do that shit to keep us from sleeping."

"And it worked," Maxwell said. "The el-tee wants us on full alert for the next three hours."

The groans of displeasure were not transmitted across the radio link but they were plainly heard nevertheless.

And so, for the next three hours, everyone kept their positions manned and stared out through their goggles. No one spotted anything that even remotely resembled an enemy soldier.

-------

Darren managed to get into his sleeping bag at about 4:00 AM. By this time the fatigue was almost a living presence, sitting atop his head. He fell almost instantly into a deep sleep that lasted until 6:25 when Maxwell's voice slammed into his earpiece.

"Everyone on alert!" he yelled. "We have aircraft reported moving in on us!"

Darren thought he was dreaming for a moment but quickly realized he was not when he saw the rest of the squad grabbing their weapons and searching the sky. They were moving faster than he had ever seen them move so far. Cooper and Mendez had repositioned their machine guns so they were pointing over the top of the sandbags. Callahan, one of the other privates, had put his M-16 down and was loading their AT-9 launcher with an infrared homing surface to air missile. Darren, not wanting to miss out on the action, shook off the fatigue as best he could. He got up and manned his position, not bothering to put his boots on first. His socks instantly became saturated with the frigid water that lined the bottom of the trench.

"What's the word, sarge?" Cooper asked, his finger caressing the trigger guard.

"Radar station reports two fast movers coming in on the deck from behind the hills," he replied. "They only got a quick paint of them but they said it looks like they're heading either here or to six west."

They were not heading for six west, the position two kilometers to the east of them. Mendez was the first to spot them emerging through a gap in the Chinese held hills. "Aircraft on the deck!" he said calmly. "Ten o'clock low. Heading right for us!"

Darren looked to his left and, after a moment of searching, spotted two blurry shapes darting towards them. Though he couldn't identify the type of aircraft, he was able to clearly see the cylindrical ordinance hanging from the wings.

"F-16s," Cooper said. "Looks like they got nape hanging."

Napalm! And the jets carrying it were heading right towards them! Darren shuddered at the thought of having jellied gasoline set alight and dumped over the top of him. For the first time he had the thought that maybe he really could die out here. This was followed by the thought that he might be dying in about ten seconds, which was about how long it was going to take those two jets to get to them.

"Hold fire until they're close enough," came Maxwell's voice. "Callahan, you getting a lock?"

"I'm trying, sarge," Callahan said frantically, panning back and forth with the AT-9 launcher. "Can't find 'em through the fuckin viewer!"

"Try harder, goddammit!" There was obvious fear in their sergeant's voice now.

The two aircraft banked slightly, sharpening up their course towards the hill. They suddenly pulled up, rising into the dim morning sky to make their drop run. As they did so a barrage of anti-aircraft fire erupted from the flat ground between the two hills—the area where the tanks and other armor were dug in. 37-millimeter shells shot out and burst in front of the jets, throwing a virtual curtain of flak up in their path. They flew right through it, seemingly unaffected.

"Open fire!" Maxwell ordered.

Darren pointed his rifle in the general direction and prepared to release a barrage. Before he could pull the trigger even once, the sound of eight other weapons—six M-16s and two machine guns—roared to life around him, deafening him. From further up the hill, more weapons began to fire as the rest of Alpha Company joined in the effort. Darren pulled the trigger and started shooting three round bursts. The rifle kicked harshly against his shoulder and flame shot out the barrel but was pretty sure that his bullets were going nowhere near the planes. They were simply too high and moving too fast for him to be able to lead them with any accuracy.

There was a hollow bang as Callahan fired off the SAM from his launcher. It shot out about twenty yards and then its rocket motor ignited, sending it streaking towards the planes and radiating out a wave of heat that rolled over Darren's face. Flares dropped from the back of the attacking aircraft, shining brighter than the sun as they slid into the slipstream and fell towards the ground. Meant to serve as a more attractive target to the infrared homing missile, they did their job admirably. The missile immediately changed course and headed for them instead. It passed under the aircraft and exploded well behind and below its intended target.

"Goddammit!" Callahan swore. "You fuckin chink motherfuckers!"

"They're dropping on us!" someone yelled over the radio net, the fear and panic in the voice loud enough to be heard over the sound of the gunfire.

Darren saw the canisters separate from the aircraft and start to drop. It looked to him like they were going to fall directly atop them. He kept tracking the planes with his gun, firing bursts at them, knowing that he was about to be burned to death before he even got to kill his first chink. He was going to be one of those statistics about replacements at the front—just another newbie dead on his first deployment. But eyes that were better trained then his contradicted these thoughts almost before they could be fully formed.

"They're gonna hit higher up!" Cooper said. "They're hitting the top of the hill."

And sure enough, the canisters, following their own ballistic path, passed directly over the top of them, still moving better than 400 mph and still more than a thousand feet in the air.

"Get down!" Maxwell yelled.

He didn't have to say it twice. Darren threw himself down into the mud only to find that everyone else was already there. A second or two later there was a series of flashes that turned the morning light into noon-like daylight. The flashes were followed by the thunderous roar of the napalm igniting. A violent wind was suddenly blowing over the top of them as air was sucked in to feed the tremendous fire that had been unleashed.

"Up!" Maxwell yelled. "Check for more aircraft!"

Darren got back up, still gripping his rifle, and moved back to his firing port. He couldn't resist looking up the hill first to see where the napalm had landed. He saw thick black smoke rising into the sky from the top of the hill. Had anyone been hit by it? The AT-9 crews were up there. Was that the main target of the attack?

"More aircraft," someone yelled over the net. "Ten o'clock low!"

He whipped around and put his face to the firing hole once more, just in time to spot another pair of F-16s emerging from the gap between the hills. This group however did not seem to be heading for them.

"They're heading for five west," Cooper announced.

"Looks like it," Maxwell agreed. "Hold your fire."

The two F-16s pulled up and began their firing run on the next hill over, the scene of the battle that had taken place the previous night. Once again the barrage of anti-aircraft fire from the tank positions opened up, putting another curtain of flak up and once again the planes seemed to fly directly through it without damage. Two missiles then shot out from the hidden trenches on the hill itself but one failed to achieve a lock and a flare duped the other. Both exploded well behind the aircraft just as they dropped their napalm canisters. There was another series of flashes as the napalm ignited near the top of the hill and another plume of thick black smoke rose into the sky. The aircraft both dove down over the far side of the hill and disappeared.

"Keep your eyes out for chinks on the ground," Maxwell ordered, his voice calmer now that the crisis had passed. "It's probably just a harassment attack against the anti-tank crews but you never know what those slant-eyed fucks are doing."

A harassment attack? Darren thought wonderingly. They had just blown the top of two hills up and it was considered nothing more than harassment?

No chinks were spotted on the ground. Maxwell talked on the command channel for a few minutes, a conversation that could not be heard by his men, and then he grabbed Easton by the shoulder. "Doc," he told him, "the el-tee says that position thirty-six got hit with the nape. They need some bodies up there to help with the triage and the evac. Grab your bag and head on up."

"Right, sarge," the medic said, picking up his equipment bag.

"Take the two newbies with you," Maxwell added, almost as an afterthought. "They can help with the hauling."

"Right," he said unenthusiastically. He turned to Darren and Groovy, who were still searching the ground below for chinks. "Come on, fresh meat," he said. "Let's go save some lives."

Darren paused long enough to put his saturated muddy feet back in his boots and then followed the medic and Groovy through the trenches. They wound through several of the cross trenches until they found a main branch that led straight up the hill. As they plodded upward the smell of burned petroleum began to reach them. Soon after that, they began to hear screams.

"Over this way," Easton told them, taking a side trench.

The scene of the napalm drop was still smoking when they arrived although all of the fires that had resulted had burned out. It was a huge circular area that encompassed the very top of the hill. Most of the material had dropped on the hillside itself but two lengths of trench had been directly engulfed and one of the lengths had been filled with a platoon of AT-9 gunners on the lookout for Chinese armor. Here, much of the sandbags had been burned away, leaving charred canvas and misshapen, blackened piles of dirt. The bodies of those that had been caught in the conflagration were still sitting where they had died, smoke rising into the air from their blackened forms. One lay on his side, clutching the exploded remains of his M-16, his mouth frozen open in a perpetual scream of horror. Another had actually been blown into several pieces, apparently by the explosion of some of the AT-9 rounds that were stockpiled near him. Yet another, a SAW gunner, was still sitting at his firing port, his charred hands gripping the weapon he had been firing. Darren and Groovy stared at these dead forms, their mouths gaping as they tried to comprehend what they were seeing.

Even worse than the dead were the wounded. Easton led them over to a casualty collection point, just outside of the zone of impact, where more than twenty soldiers were laid out in the trench, all with burns of varying degrees of severity, many of them screaming in agony. Several other medics were moving frantically among them, cutting off charred BDUs and administering shots of morphine.

"Easton," one of the others yelled when they spotted them, "give us a hand here. Those three over there haven't been checked yet."

"Right," Easton said, opening his pack and pulling out scissors. "We got med-evac on the way?"

"Two choppers are ten minutes out," the other medic answered. "We'll get the worst of them shot up and we'll start hauling them over."

Easton went to work, pulling a pair of trauma scissors from his pack. His first patient had been burned all over his torso and upper legs. His fists were clenched tightly and his face was a mask of misery. "How bad is it, doc?" he grunted, refusing to open his eyes and look.

"You'll be all right," Easton said soothingly as he began to cut the charred, smoking clothes free of his chest. "I'm gonna shoot you up with the good stuff here in a moment and then you'll be just fine."

He pulled the parka and the heavy shirt beneath it free. Beneath, the skin of the man's chest and abdomen was sloughing off in layers. The pants didn't need to be cut away, they simply crumbled into dust as soon as they were touched. Darren saw that his pubic region had taken the brunt of the burning. The GI underwear he wore were melted into the flesh of his upper thighs and genitals. When Easton pulled the underwear away more than half of the man's penis, including the head, simply peeled off with it, leaving only a bloody stump.

"How bad?" the man kept asking and Easton kept assuring him that he would be all right. He pulled a bandage out of his pack and covered up the remains of the man's sexual organ, probably so it couldn't be seen instead of out of any therapeutic value. Finally he pulled a morphine syringe from his pack and put it into the man's upper arm. He turned to the other medic. "He's an immediate," he told him. "Third degree over about forty percent."

"Right," was the reply. "We'll get him out in the first wave."

The second of the patients was termed "expectant", which Darren quickly figured out meant that he was going to die soon. His head, neck, upper chest, and both arms were covered with third degree burns. All of his hair was gone, his eyes were both clouded over and sightless, and his breathing was thick and ragged. He was too far gone to even scream. Easton shot him up with several syringes full of morphine, more than twice what he had given the first patient.

"About all I can do for him," he said, leaving him and moving to the third patient that he'd been assigned. "He'll quiet down in a few minutes and just stop breathing."

The third patient was termed "delayed", which meant he could wait awhile. His right arm and right leg had second and third degree burns and his face had been peppered by shrapnel from an AT-9 round that had exploded. He was moaning pathetically but smoking a cigarette with his good hand.

"Hang in there, guy," Easton told him, pulling out another syringe. "You won't be one of the first out but I'll give you some good dope to rest on."

"Thanks, doc," the man grunted.

From behind the hill came the clatter of helicopter blades.

"Dust offs are here," one of the medics said. "Let's start getting the priorities moved over."

Darren and Groovy, along with more than twenty other soldiers from the surrounding platoons, were employed to help carry the wounded from the collection point to the landing zone on the backside of the hill. Using collapsible litters, they rolled the moaning, smoking bodies onto them and then picked up an end for the trip through the trench network. They then walked down the steep hillside to an area of flat ground where two Blackhawk helicopters were idling. The choppers had large red crosses on the sides and a gunner manning a 7.62-millimeter machine gun in each doorway. A team of flight medics was waiting inside for the casualties. They pulled them in and quickly went to work on them. The worst of the burn patients were loaded up within fifteen minutes and the first chopper lifted into the sky and headed off to the south, presumably to the MASH unit near Caldwell.

After loading all of the worst cases into the helicopters, they then helped the more stable patients down to where two deuce and a half trucks with large red crosses on the side had pulled up. These patients were loaded into here and placed on wooden benches. Soon they too pulled off.

Next came the removal of the dead from the trench. Darren and Groovy were employed to help with this as well. They were given a body bag and pointed towards the machine gunner, the man who had died gripping his weapon.

"I've never seen any shit like this before," Groovy said softly, his face pale, his hands trembling.

"Me either," Darren said, quite shaken himself. He could not get the image of the burned man's penis peeling off in his shorts.

"The smell is horrible," Groovy said. "I feel like I'm gonna puke."

"No you won't," Darren told him, although he was struggling with his gorge himself. "Let's get it done so we can get out of here."

Darren pried the dead man's hands away from the burned out weapon and forced them down to his side. Several layers of skin crumbled and sloughed off in his hands from this action alone. Disgusted, he wiped them on the side of the trench. He then took the open end of the body bag and pushed it over the man's head. He was just about to pull it down over the rest of the body when Easton, who had been watching, suddenly came over.

"Wait," he said. "Don't forget his dog tags."

"His dog tags?" Darren asked.

"Pull them off of his neck and then put them in the pocket of the bag after you get him in there," Easton said. "They have the ID chip in his chest but if they have the dog tags available it makes things a lot easier."

Wincing in disgust, Darren grabbed the chain from around the man's neck and tried to lift it off. It was burned into his skin and several large chunks came free with it. He dropped them to the ground for the moment and then went back to loading the body. Soon they had the man safely encased and zipped up and the dog tags stowed in a pocket on the side.

"Let's haul it down," Easton told them, coming over to lend a hand with this part.

And so they hauled another body down to the front of the hill. Darren didn't have to ask what the fate of the body would be. The dog tags and other effects would be sent home to the family but the body itself would be buried in a mass grave several miles behind the lines. There simply was not enough fuel available to transport them all back to their hometowns for burial. It was promised by the government that after the war was over monuments would be erected on the site of each grave with the names of all those entombed within. Only the most naïve believed that that was really going to happen.

-------

Neither Darren nor Groovy had much appetite at lunch that day. They picked at their food but ended up giving most of it away to other squad members. After, they sat beside each other and smoked, both thinking about the sights that they had seen that morning.

"What a fuckin horrible way to go," Darren said with a sigh. "Getting burned alive with napalm. Did you see that guy's dick come off when the doc pulled his shorts away? That was most disgusting thing I've ever seen."

Groovy shook his head. "If they're gonna kill me out here, I hope it's quick," he said. "I don't want to end up in no burn ward without my cock. Hell, I just now learned how to use it."

"That ain't propaganda," Darren agreed, taking an especially large drag. He had to stifle a yawn as he exhaled it. "I don't think I've ever been this tired before."

"Now I know why they were sleeping on the way in," Groovy said.

Darren looked at him. "This place isn't quite what I thought it was gonna be back in Sacramento," he said. "I thought it was gonna be like Infantry Attack, where we sit up here and blow away a bunch of chinks. They didn't say nothin' about getting napalmed in the trench."

"They didn't say nothing about shitting in a hole in the ground while you sit on a piece of plywood either."

"Nope," Darren said sadly, "I don't believe I ever had to do that when I was on my computer."

They laughed for a moment, a sad, whimsical laugh that was nothing like normal.

"You sorry you turned down the non-hazardous?" Groovy asked him.

He thought about it for a moment. "No," he said, firmness in his voice. "It's not what I expected out here but I still think this is where I belong, where I'm doing the most good for the country. These people are kind of harsh out here, but this is still where I'll get to kill the most chinks. I still wanna make those fuckers pay for what they did to my brother; and for what they did to those poor fuckers up there too."

"But we ain't even seen any chinks yet," Groovy said. "At least not in person."

"We will," Darren said. "They'll show themselves soon and then I'll get to pop a few off. I think that'll make me feel a lot better, once I got some kills under my belt."

"You think?"

"I know," he said with conviction.

-------

It was 9:48 PM, just twelve minutes from the time that Darren would be allowed to sack out and catch a few hours of sleep before his midnight watch. He was watching the time intently, anxious to crawl in his sleeping bag and rest his eyes for a little bit. To the southwest of them, the artillery was rumbling and booming in its endless duel with the Chinese gunners. The sound was occasionally intermixed with the lights of rockets flying in one direction or another. It was fairly quiet otherwise, with no enemy action seen or heard since the napalm attack that morning.

Suddenly that changed.

"Take your positions!" Maxwell suddenly barked over the radio. "Goggles on! Eleven reports movement to the front!"

Once again everyone who had not been on watch picked up their rifles, flipped on their night vision equipment, and manned their positions. Darren pulled himself to the hole and looked out. He saw the same landscape that he'd always seen, with no sign of any enemy troops.

"What do we got, sarge?" Cooper, who had already been on watch, wanted to know.

"They spotted several forms moving in from half a klick out," Maxwell reported. "About two o'clock relative to us."

Darren looked to the right and down to the floor of the gully, trying to spot the reported movement. He saw nothing but tree stumps and rocks, all imparted with the green glow caused by the night goggles.

"I got 'em!" Mendez, who was manning the M-71 reported. "Two figures, two o'clock, about six hundred yards, moving left to right and using the stumps as cover."

"I got 'em too," Cooper said.

Three other squad members piped up that they had them as well.

"I don't see shit!" Darren cried in frustration, his eyes and his rifle sight scanning frantically over that piece of ground. He was ignored.

"The el-tee says to hold fire," Maxwell told them. "They're probably a position probe. We're gonna see what we're up against first and then try to drive them out with mortars. You hear that, newbies? Don't go shooting off them fuckin rifles or you'll give us away and bring their arty down on top of us!"

"Yes, sergeant," Darren responded, still searching, still not seeing anything.

"Yes, sergeant," echoed Groovy, who didn't see them either.

Everyone continued to look down on the piece of ground where the enemy was allegedly moving in on them. Apparently everyone else was seeing them plainly and a discussion occurred over the radio waves.

"How many you got, Coop?" Maxwell asked. "I saw three of them."

"I only saw two, sarge," Cooper responded. "Anybody see more than that?"

"I'm pretty sure I saw four," Mendez reported. "Diamond formation. Spread out about ten yards apart."

Darren was just starting to think that they were making the entire thing up as some sort of sick joke to play on the newbies when he caught the barest glimpse of something round poking momentarily up over a tree stump. It was vaguely the shape of a soldier's helmet and it appeared for only a second or two before disappearing again. He continued to stare at that spot and was rewarded a second later by a fleeting glimpse of a humanoid shape crawling quickly through a small open gap between that trunk and the next one.

"I see one!" he yelled excitedly.

"Good for you, fresh meat," Maxwell told him dryly. "Now shut the fuck up unless you got something new to add."

Darren was too excited to be offended by the rebuff. Here, at long last, he was looking at actual enemy soldiers! Chinks were moving in on his position! He sighted his rifle in on the spot, his finger caressing the trigger guard, just itching for the command to fire. Six hundred yards was pretty close to the maximum range of the M-16 but he was pretty sure that with a couple of three-round bursts he could take the chink down. If only the lieutenant would allow them to fire.

"The other positions are reporting four chinks too," Maxwell told them. "They're gonna lob some mortars over. Keep a sharp eye out to the flanks in case there's more of them."

A few seconds later, the soft hum of sixty-millimeter rounds passing overhead reached their ears. The sound faded and then there was a flash down in the gully, about twenty yards to the east of where Darren had spotted the movement. Another landed right after it, flashing just to the right about five yards. The sound of the explosions took another five seconds to reach them. They came as hollow cracks that echoed back and forth.

"Oh, good shooting, you fuckin morons," Mendez said, disgusted.

"Were lucky those assholes were able to hit the ground on the first shot," Callahan put in.

"They're adjusting fire," Maxwell, who was listening to the command frequency reported patiently. "Give the boys a chance. Here comes the next set now."

Two more hums passed overhead. This time the flashes came almost directly atop where the movement had been.

"There we go," Cooper said. "Have a little faith in our mortar crews. They're not complete REMFs, just partial ones."

"You ever seen a mortar guy with a dirty uniform?" Callahan asked, obviously unimpressed.

"On target has been reported," Maxwell said, ignoring the banter. "They're gonna pound them now."

"About as hard as I pound my cock," Mendez grunted.

More rounds began to fly over, the hums coming in groups of four. The flashes ignited one to two seconds apart, lighting up the night like a photographer's flashbulb, making the goggles flare as the sensors were momentarily overwhelmed. The concussions bounced back and forth between the hills, echoing and re-echoing several times. It went on for the better part of a minute, with more than thirty rounds being landed. Chunks of wood from the stumps and fallen branches flew into the air. Clouds of dust and smoke billowed upwards. Darren watched in awe, unable to take his eyes off it, convinced that nothing could possibly live through that. Those chinks would be nothing more than shredded flesh after that.

But as the sound of the last explosion faded away, he watched in disbelief as four figures suddenly darted from cover and ran towards a larger a rise just behind them.

"They're moving," Mendez reported. "All four of them."

"Yep," Maxwell agreed. "Looks like we chased them off."

"Shouldn't we fire at them now?" Groovy asked, his rifle halfway out through the firing port. He too was anxious to get on the scoreboard.

"Don't you be shooting that fucking rifle, dickweed," Mendez told him. "Them chinks are going in exactly the right direction and they still don't know where the fuck we are."

"If we fire at them, they'll know exactly where we're at," Cooper explained. "That was what they probed us for in the first place."

"But how in the hell did they live through that?" Darren asked. "Those sixty rounds were hitting right on them!"

"Sixty rounds ain't all that much," Cooper said. "Any ground pounder that's lived long enough to get a name knows how to put himself into a hole and close it up behind him when they start to fall. Now if we'd a had some eighties to hit them with, or if we would've been able to call some arty down on them, that might've been different."

"So what happens now?" Darren wanted to know.

Maxwell answered that one for him. "Now," he said, "we stand full watch for awhile until we're sure they're not coming back."

-------

Darren stayed at his position, keeping watch on the ground below. No more enemy infiltrators were spotted moving in on them. As he sat there, weapon aimed outward, struggling to remain awake, his eyes kept returning to the patch of ground that the mortar rounds had torn up repelling the probe. He still couldn't believe that more than thirty high-explosive rounds, each more than two inches thick, had dropped right on top of the chinks and that they had just walked away from it. Infantry Attack had had mortar rounds in it and they had always killed the enemy. And when the movies had portrayed the use of such weapons, they had always shown the chinks being blown through the air, their arms and legs flying off. Why hadn't that happened in real life?

As the night wound onward, he found it increasingly difficult to keep his eyes open. He would be looking at the landscape, trying to focus, and his mind would start to drift, trying desperately to pull him down into the land of slumber. Twice he caught himself actually dozing as he stood there and had to snap himself awake by shaking his head. He had never imagined fatigue like this before, had never thought that a human body could go for so long on so little sleep.

They were held at watch until 3:00 AM, at which point Lieutenant Fender sent word through Maxwell that they could stand down and resume normal watch routine.

"Those of you that were scheduled for midnight watch, go ahead and sack out," the sergeant told them. "We'll wake you back up in two hours and you can stand in so the rest can get some more sleep."

"Thank God," Darren muttered, pulling himself away from his firing position for the first time in five hours. His bladder was moderately full and he debated walking to the latrine to relieve himself before hitting the sack but finally decided that he just didn't have the energy. It could wait until 5:00 when they woke him back up.

Two hours of blessed sleep! It seemed like an eternity. And he knew that he'd have no trouble dropping off this time.

He reached down to unzip his boots when a low-pitched humming sound suddenly swelled up from the northwest. It sounded like fabric being slowly ripped in half. He knew, even without being told, that it was artillery rounds flying through the air, coming from the Chinese side of the line. Adrenaline burst through him, driving back the fatigue. He crouched down in the trench, prepared to burrow up under the overhanging dirt before he noticed that nobody else was bothering to do this. Apparently the rounds were not coming near them—or at least not near enough to cause concern among the veterans.

Trusting in their judgement, he stood back up. As he regained his feet, a series of bright flashes exploded above the crest of the hill to their west; the hill which had been probed the night before.

"Okay then," Maxwell said with a tired sigh. "I guess we can belay that order to stand down. Looks like our friends want to play a little tonight. Everybody back to positions."

"Great," Mendez said. He had been halfway into his sleeping bag. He stood back up and put his hands on the M-71.

"I ever mention how much I love this fucking war?" Callahan grumbled.

Darren resumed his firing port, arriving there just as the first concussions from the detonating artillery rounds reached them. They were authoritative booms, very sharp, sharp enough to rattle the chest a little, absolutely nothing like the wimpy pops of the sixty-millimeter mortars.

"155's," Cooper said, panning his SAW back and forth as he searched the ground below. "The main arty that sides use. If one of them shells lands within five feet of your trench, that's your ass."

"You won't even know what the fuck hit you," Mendez said, lighting a cigarette.

"You ask me," Callahan opined, "that's the way to go, if you have to go that is."

"Hell yeah," said Easton, who was manning his own position since there weren't any wounded to look after. "A lot better to get smoked nice and quick then end up like those poor fucks this morning that got naped."

"How long will they shell them?" Darren asked as the next wave of concussions came rolling in.

"Depends on what they're planning to do," he said. "If it's just harassment, they'll cut it out in a few minutes. But you notice how they're hitting the top of the hill?"

"Yeah," Darren said, looking over just as another group of flashes impacted, spraying dirt, smoke, and other debris into the sky.

"That's where the anti-tank crews are dug in. The same positions they naped earlier. My guess is they're planning to roll some tanks towards our line and they're trying to soften up the resistance a little. If that's what they're doing, it could go on for an hour or so."

"An hour?" he asked, half incredulous, half horrified as he imagined being beneath a barrage of artillery for an hour or more.

"And don't be surprised if they shift and start hitting our hill too," Cooper said. "And if they do that, there's a pretty good chance that they may send some ground pounders after us as well. After all, they were probing our position too. You may just get your chance to kill you some chinks here pretty soon. If they don't kill your ass first that is."

As if saying that had made it so, the ripping fabric sound welled up from the north again, only this time it was much louder. Instead of fading away in a Doppler effect as it did when the other hill was the target, it only got louder.

"Incoming!" someone yelled.

Before the words were even out of his mouth, everyone was ducking down under the dirt overhang. Darren and Groovy both stared in shock for a moment as the sound continued to swell up.

"Get your asses down, newbies!" Cooper barked at them.

Neither had to be told twice. They dove down into the trench and burrowed in just as flashes lit up the hillside. This time there was less than a second of delay between the flash and the explosion. And this time the concussion was a physical thing. It slammed into them, rattling the trench and nearly driving the air from their chests.

"Holy shit!" Darren yelled, terrified, convinced that he was dead.

It went on and on, flash after flash, concussion after concussion. Pebbles jumped and dirt caved in in parts of the trench. A loose sandbag shook free and fell down, spilling its contents out. His ears started to ring as the battering of sound waves and air pressure overwhelmed them. He had never imagined that war could be so loud.

"They're hitting our AT crews," Maxwell said over the radio. "It looks like they're serious tonight."

"Fuckin aye!" someone responded.

Another group of shells came flying in. They impacted one after the other, in close succession, imparting a strobe light effect to the night. Darren pushed himself as tightly against the forward part of the trench as he could, willing himself to burrow into the dirt itself. And these shells were not even hitting their positions; they were hitting more than four hundred yards up the hill. What it would be like when they were going off directly outside?

"The el-tee says there are chink tanks rolling from cover," Maxwell reported. "Battalion strength, moving in on the line. The AT crews are engaging them as much as they can."

"No ground pounders, sarge?" Cooper asked.

"No APCs or dismounts spotted," he confirmed. "But that don't mean they ain't out there. Let's man our positions and keep an eye out. The arty seems to be concentrated up top for now."

Darren looked at the sergeant as if he were mad. Get up and man a position while artillery was blasting overhead? He had to be joking. He absolutely had to be.

But apparently he was not, or at least the rest of the squad didn't seem to think he was. They were jumping to their feet and heading back for their firing holes.

"Cooper," Darren said to the man who had become the closest thing to an advisor that he had, "isn't this a little bit dangerous?"

Another round of concussions slammed into them, knocking over another sandbag and partially collapsing an entire section of trench towards the latrine. Darren nearly screamed in terror. Cooper hardly seemed to notice. "It's a dangerous job we're in, newbie," he said. "Now get your ass up and stick your face in that hole."

He got his ass up and stuck his face in the hole, turning on his goggles once again. The explosions blasted from behind him, the concussions slamming into his back, jarring his teeth and making his head ache sickeningly. He didn't turn around to look at them. He only prayed that none of those shells fell short of their target.

From above came the screaming of WestHem shells passing overhead, on their way to counter-battery and armor suppression missions. Darren looked to the northwest, down in the flatlands between the Chinese held hills, about two miles distant. He could see the outlines of Chinese tanks, rolling one after the other from cover, heading in zigzagging courses towards the WestHem lines. Several of them had already been hit and were burning furiously, thick black smoke rising into the sky. From behind them came the flashes of heavy guns as other, dug in tanks supported them by blasting shells at their opponents. The shells from these guns could be seen clearly in the night vision goggles as they flew rapidly across the gap. They showed up as bright white streaks, glowing from the heat. Other shells, fired from the WestHem tanks, passed them in flight, heading towards the advancing column.

A loud roar from directly overhead made Darren flinch. It passed over the top of him and a wave of heat washed over. He looked up and saw the bright glow of a rocket engine on full burn less than a hundred feet over his head. It was an AT-9 round, fired from one of the anti-tank positions up the hill. It streaked out towards the tanks, still accelerating, cutting slightly to the left as the gunner tried to adjust it onto a target. The roar was quickly followed by another, and then another. Down in the column of tanks, two of them suddenly went up in flames, exploding with a double flash and then starting to billow smoke.

"You gotta hand it to those dumb fuck AT crews," Cooper said. "They got balls, firing them things while arty is dropping on them."

"And they say that we're the idiots," Maxwell said.

The battle of the tanks went on for more than forty minutes. Darren watched in fascination as it unfolded, actually forgetting about the booms and explosions behind him. The artillery continued to pound on both hills while the tanks advanced forward before a barrage of supporting fire from behind. They cut left and right in groups of three or four, moving from one piece of low ground to the next, one section dashing, another providing covering fire from their main guns. Return fire from the WestHem tanks streaked back at them, occasionally hitting one of the tanks and putting it out of commission but mostly falling harmlessly short or passing overhead. It was obvious that this was a less than desirable method of repelling the enemy from that distance.

The missiles however, were quite a different story. Despite the shells exploding within their midst, the AT-9 crews were able to send a continuous stream of them downrange into the fracas. They steered them in with impressive accuracy and Darren watched the double flash of impact more than thirty times. He cheered each time a Chinese tank turret went flying into the air, each time the cataclysmic fire consumed a vehicle, relishing the fact that four chinks were burning to death in each one.

Finally, as the front elements of the Chinese attack reached a point about halfway across the flat ground, the WestHem tank shells began to hit with more accuracy. Three of the lead tanks suddenly went up at once as they were struck. Two more quickly followed. This seemed to take the steam out of the advance. With more than forty of their tanks burning, the remainder of the Chinese suddenly turned and headed back to their lines, keeping up the zigzag pattern but putting on speed.

"They're retreating," Cooper said nonchalantly. "Thank God for them missiles."

"Fuck them missiles," Maxwell said. "If it wasn't for them, this war would have been over years ago, while I was still in fucking high school."

"And we'd all be speaking Chinese about now," Mendez pointed out.

"We'd be speaking Chinese," Maxwell said, "but we wouldn't be sitting in a slimy trench wondering if we're gonna be alive in ten minutes, would we?"

Nobody disputed this point, although Darren thought it was borderline treasonous.

Soon the remaining tanks disappeared back between the hills. The barrage of missiles from above came to an end as the targets went out of range. The bangs of the tank guns firing echoed away. The artillery exploded a few more times atop the hill and then it too stopped. The quiet that overtook them seemed almost eerie in contrast.

"Think they'll be back, sarge?" Callahan asked.

"I can almost guarantee it," Maxwell answered. "They never give up after just one push. They'll regroup and try to hit again before the AT crews have a chance to resupply what they shot off. Everybody remain on alert."

They remained on alert, everyone manning their holes, watching the ground before them. In the gully, the stricken tanks burned on and on, the smoke rising into the sky and drifting with the southerly wind. The word was passed that the AT-9 crews that they protected had taken thirty casualties from the artillery barrage, twenty-one wounded and nine dead.

"Do they need any help up there, sarge?" Easton asked, obviously hoping that they didn't.

"They didn't ask for any and I'm sure as shit not going to volunteer you," he replied. "Who knows when they're gonna start pounding on those positions again."

"Those are my thoughts on the matter," the medic replied gratefully.

"Send up that big dumb fuck newbie," a voice spoke up. "The lottery is still outstanding you know and I still got my money on him."

Everyone except Darren and Groovy had a laugh at this.

-------

To the east, the sky began to lighten with the coming of dawn. The stars began to dim one by one, and the moon slipped below the western horizon.

Darren, who had been fully adrenalized during the battle, slowly felt the fatigue settle back into his bones, willing him towards sleep as the rush wore off. Once again it became difficult to keep his eyes open, to keep his mind focused on what he was doing. He gripped his rifle loosely, yawns escaping his mouth with predictable regularity. He wanted nothing more than sink down into his sleeping bag and shut his eyes. To pull that warm cloth over his body and rest would feel finer than slipping his cock into a nice warm vagina, would be more fulfilling than the orgasm that resulted.

Cooper noticed his sagging consciousness. He reached into his pack, which was stored below his firing position, and pulled something out. "Here, newbie," he said, tossing a small paper packet to him. "You look like you could use some of this."

Darren caught it, seeing that it was a packet of instant coffee—Maxwell House coffee no less, which was advertised on television as being "the official instant coffee of the WestHem armed forces".

"Pour it in your canteen and drink up," Cooper advised. "We're probably in for a long haul here."

"How do I heat it up?" he asked.

Cooper laughed. "What the fuck you think this is?" he asked. "The goddamn Waldorf Astoria? Do you want a nice relaxing beverage to sip during conversation or do you want something that's gonna keep you from falling asleep on your feet?"

"I don't think it'll really help much," he said, fingering the package. "I'm pretty whipped."

"That shit has four times the caffeine as normal coffee. Trust me, you'll stay awake."

"Four times the normal caffeine?" he said. "Is that legal?"

"They don't mention that part on the commercials," Cooper said, "but it's what they give us to drink so I guess it must be legal, huh?"

"Where'd you get it?"

"From doc. He's got boxes of the shit in his supplies. You need more, just ask him for it." He turned to Groovy. "How about you, other newbie?" he asked him. "You look like you could use a little pick-up too."

"My religion forbids caffeine," Groovy told him.

"Ain't that nice?" Cooper said. "So you want some or what?"

"Yeah," he said. "Let me have it."

Darren pulled his canteen from his belt and opened it up. It was about three quarters full of stale water that came from the jugs he'd helped haul up from the APCs. He tore the top of the package open and dumped it inside. After replacing the lid, shaking it a few times, and then opening it back up, he took a drink. It tasted only vaguely like real coffee and had a bite hard enough to make his tongue tingle. His throat tried to close up in protest.

"Learn to love it," Cooper advised him. "That's the only sleep you're gonna be getting for a while."

He gagged the entire canteen full down in about ten minutes. The caffeine coursed through his veins, making him tremble in an unpleasant way. His forehead broke out in a sheen of perspiration and his heart began to hammer almost alarmingly in his chest. But the fatigue and the aching in his muscles were pushed back considerably and his eyelids ceased trying to close of their own accord.

"Not bad, eh?" Cooper asked him. "One of those will keep you going for damn near four hours. Of course you crash pretty hard once it wears off, so be sure and drink another one if we're still on alert."

"Right," he said, wiping the sweat away and starting to feel a rumbling in his bowels.

Maxwell allowed him to leave his station to go relieve himself in the latrine. By the time he returned, the sun had broached the eastern horizon, lighting up the sky. He took off his night goggles and stowed them back in his web gear, making a mental note to change the batteries before the next night period. He stood back before his firing port and trembled uncomfortably.

Before the sun made it more than two degrees upward the roar of artillery shells screaming in returned. This time Darren was down in the trench before the cries of "incoming!" sounded. They began exploding against the side of the hill, much closer this time than before. The concussions felt like hammer blows to the chest, enough to momentarily take the breath away. More sandbags fell in and another section of trench collapsed on itself.

"They're trying to hit us this time!" Maxwell yelled. "Keep down!"

"They don't have our position," Cooper responded. "They're hitting on the west side of the network!"

There was a momentary silence and then another group of shells came in, rattling the entire trench as if an earthquake had hit. Dust, dirt, and pebbles came flying in, raining over the top of them, plunking into the standing water at the bottom of the trench.

"They're gonna send ground pounders after us!" Maxwell said over the radio net. "Mendez, Cooper, Callahan, get the periscopes out and keep an eye on the approaches!"

All three acknowledged their order and picked up wooden cases that had been stored beneath the lip of the trench. They opened them and pulled out extendable periscopes. These were electronic devices with small cameras at the top. They used digital imaging to send a picture to the operator. After unfolding them to their full length, they stuck them up over the top of the trench, which allowed them to look out over the gully without having to stick their heads up.

"Nothing, sarge!" Cooper reported as he twisted the instrument left and right.

"Same here!" Callahan and Mendez confirmed.

"El-tee reports the same," Maxwell said. "That'll change. They wouldn't be hitting the infantry if they weren't planning to attack us."

The barrage went on, the shells landing every few seconds and rattling them violently. Darren remained hunkered in the bottom of the trench, feeling every blast and praying for it to be over. All I wanted to do was kill some chinks, he thought desperately. I didn't sign up for this artillery shit!

For twenty horrible minutes it went on. Most of the shells were hitting about fifty yards to their left and a little further up the hill, a result of the Chinese gunners not knowing which part of the hill was occupied at the moment, but, knowing that they didn't know that, they apparently decided to spread the pattern around and hit a little bit of everywhere just to be sure. The first close hit was less than ten yards downhill from the center of their trench. An entire section of sandbags exploded in a spray of dirt as the shrapnel and the concussion ripped into it. Easton and Groovy, who had been cowered under that particular section, had to crawl down the trench to an unexposed position. Another close impact destroyed Callahan's periscope, ripping it from his hand and tearing the entire top portion off.

"Fuck me!" he yelled, checking his hands and arms for damage.

And then, quite suddenly, the fire shifted and the shells began to land on the top of the hill once more, up where the AT-9 crews were stationed. Darren breathed a sigh of relief, thanking God that it was over, that some other poor slobs were now on the receiving end.

His relief was short lived however.

"They're going after the AT crews again," Maxwell said. "Everyone up! Man your positions! They'll be sending in the APCs in a minute!"

Darren scrambled to his feet. Just as he put his face to his firing port, Easton yelled: "Tanks! Breaking from cover down in the gap!"

"I got 'em," Maxwell said. "Unknown strength. They'll be the cover for the APCs."

Darren looked downward, into the gully and saw the lines of Chinese armor moving in once more. Two columns had already shown themselves and more were emerging. Their guns were firing, engaging the dug-in WestHem armored forces. From above came the roar and the blast of heat that marked the launch of the first AT-9 missile at them. Two more quickly followed.

"They can't hit us up here with tanks, can they?" Darren asked Cooper, envisioning the horror of going against a heavily armored Chinese tank.

"No," he said, "but they'll keep the AT-9 crews busy while the APCs move in on us and unload ground troops."

"Can't the AT crews just shoot the APCs instead?"

"They have to engage the tanks first," Cooper replied. "We can't let heavy armor close to our tank positions or they'll be able to overwhelm them and break through the line. The chinks know that and that's why they send them out when they're making a ground attack."

"The tanks are just missile bait?" he asked, contemplating the madness of that.

"That's how it's done. Our guys do the same thing when we attack a hill. It's the only way to get the APCs to the unload point without half of them getting slaughtered."

The tanks continued to roll out of the gap between the hills, zigzagging back and forth as they had done before. The missiles were finding marks, exploding them as they advanced, but there were so many of them that it hardly seemed to make a difference.

"What's the word on getting some tank busters in here to hit the APCs?" asked Mendez, who had just stowed the periscope back in its storage area and was now manning the M-71 once again.

"The el-tee is checking on that now," Maxwell said. "I wouldn't go holding your breath though. You know how those Air Force pussies are about flying over the battlefield."

"Yeah," Callahan snorted in disgust, "we wouldn't want to scratch up those precious planes of theirs. Those things cost a lot of fucking money."

"Here come the APCs," Cooper said.

"Yep," Maxwell said. "Get ready for the fun part, guys. They're moving in."

Darren looked down in the gap and saw lines of APCs were now emerging into the open. They were tracked vehicles, similar in appearance to the tanks but taller and less broad. They sported thirty-millimeter cannons in their turrets instead of the heavy main guns and each could hold twelve fully loaded Chinese troops. They came out in nice, even lines, their zigzags cursory and predictable. Darren tried to count them and lost track when he reached forty. Half of them headed for position five west and half headed directly towards the base of their hill. As Cooper had said, the AT-9 crews, who were continuing to fire missile after missile, concentrated only on the tanks, leaving the APCs untouched.

"Looks like two battalions," Maxwell said. "Splitting into two elements, one for each flank position."

Battalion strength? Darren thought with a shudder. That was more than six hundred troops! Six hundred chinks were heading directly for them!

"Relax, newbie," Cooper said calmly. "We should be able to handle them."

"We should?" he asked. "We're only a company holding the hill."

"That makes it a four to one ratio, don't it? Those are betting odds for a dug in defender. We'll chop 'em up a little with our mortars before they even get close. And if we can whistle up some air support, then we'll really knock 'em down to size."

"What about arty?" Darren asked. "Can't we hit them with our heavy guns?"

"Heavy guns won't damage the APCs unless they hit directly on top of them," he said. "And they can't shoot into the unload points because it's the backside of a hill from their perspective. The mortar crews have every inch of that ground down there pre-sighted though. We'll tear 'em up a little."

The armored vehicles spread out as they advanced closer, traveling in groups of three and four. Their turrets rotated around so that their cannons were facing the hill.

"When they offload their troops," Cooper advised, "they're gonna cover them with their thirties and their heavy machine guns. Try to duck down away from your firing hole every so often for a couple seconds so they don't sight in on you."

"Right," Darren said nervously, his finger now in the trigger guard.

Maxwell then came on the radio to offer some last minute instructions. "Remember your zones of fire, people," he said. "Keep the pressure on them and try to clear your own zone before you go helping someone else in theirs. Machine gunners, I want a good volume of fire on the groups. Try to suppress their cover positions and take the teeth out of their advance. Newbies, since you two don't have zones to cover, just hit the stragglers if you can. Controlled bursts. Conserve your ammo but make your shots effective. Displace when I tell you to. I'll use you two to help cover a zone if it starts getting overwhelmed."

The APCs crawled closer and closer, taking a course towards the base of the hill directly in front of them. Their cannons continued to track on the slope of the hill as they moved in but they held their fire, conserving their ammunition for the time when the troops were moving in.

"Mortar crews are standing by to engage," Maxwell announced. "No air cover available for twenty minutes."

"Fucking typical," Mendez said. "Those Air Force bitches are probably finishing off a few bong hits before they come up."

"Well, we can't rush our friends in blue now, can we," Maxwell told them. "If we need to fall back, we egress through section twelve and fifteen. That's through the trench that leads to the shitter newbies. That is, however, subject to change depending on what the fuck's going on."

The APCs, now widely spread out, were approaching the front of the hill, about five hundred yards distant. They began to run out of ground they could drive on. One by one they formed up into lines, three and four abreast, fronts facing the hill.

"They're unloading," Maxwell said. "Mortar crews are firing."

The whine of the sixty millimeter mortars passing overhead was lost in the continued barrage of the artillery exploding further up the hill. The flashes when they impacted however, were plainly visible. Groups of three and four landed directly amid the parked APCs. The concussions of the impacts, weak compared to the artillery rounds, reached them a moment later.

"On target!" Maxwell said. "They're firing for effect. Get ready to open fire as soon as the chinks show themselves."

They couldn't see the ramps coming down in the rear of the APCs but they began to see the figures of the soldiers rushing away from them and diving to the ground amid the mortar explosions.

"Open up, guys!" Maxwell ordered. "Let's take these fuckers down!"

Cooper was the first to fire, his SAW barking out bullets, ejected shell casings flying into the trench behind him. He put an extended burst right across a group that was moving from one of the vehicles towards a pile of shattered lumber. Red tracer rounds lanced through them, knocking two of them down. Mendez fired next, sending a burst of heavier bullets down with the M-71, the cracks from this weapon deeper and more authoritative. He too had tracer rounds in his weapon and he marched them across another group that was crawling forward from one piece of cover to the next. Darren saw three of them slump forward and lie still. From above and to the sides, in the platoon's higher positions, other tracer streams from SAWs and M-71s reached out and began to strike groups of deploying Chinese as they scrambled to form up. More of the soldiers fell or just stopped moving while the others scrambled around on their bellies, desperately trying to get out of the danger zone. The chattering of individual rifles joined in with the machine guns.

Darren sighted in on a group of three Chinese that were dashing across a small piece of open ground, crouched over, their weapons tucked in against their bodies. They were unidentifiable as Chinese soldiers from this range. All he could tell about them was that they were wearing whitish brown fatigues that blended in well with the surrounding ground. He covered them with his sight, giving them some lead, and squeezed the trigger, sending a three-round burst down after them. They kept moving, diving into cover and disappearing a moment later behind a mound of earth, untouched. He panned and found another target, this one a two-person team that was crouching and running in the other direction. Another sight-in, another lead, another three-round burst and another clean miss. They too dove behind a piece of cover and disappeared.

"Goddamn it," he muttered, looking for something else to shoot at.

Down below, the APCs, seeing the flashes of the weapons firing at their troops, began to engage with their weapons. All along the line the thirty millimeter and the mounted heavy machine guns began to flash red. Red tracers flew back at them, pummeling back and forth, up and down. The smaller bullets from the machine guns whizzed overhead with a buzzing sound. The larger thirty millimeter rounds came in with a low-pitched, evil sounding growl. Both projectiles peppered the sandbags that protected the trench, tearing into them and slowly eroding them away. Dirt flew into the air and a few of the bullets somehow managed to find their way inside, where they plunked into the back of the trench itself. An extended burst of machine gun fire hit almost directly in front of Darren's position, stitching through the mud outside and then working up into the bags. One of the thirty millimeter rounds hit right after it, blowing the entire top of the sandbag off and hurling it five feet.

"Fuck me," he said, pulling his head away from the firing port. He took a few breaths and tried to calm himself. The chinks were actually shooting at him! With real bullets! Sure, he had known that they were going to do that, but to actually experience it, to actually have chunks of lead slamming into his position was shocking.

"What the fuck are you doing, newbie?" Maxwell's voice screamed in his ear over the radio. "Put your goddamn rifle back out there and shoot it!"

Shaking with fear, he put his rifle back out and started looking for more targets. By now, the chinks had all left the APCs and were starting to move in. About half of them were firing from cover positions, their AK-74 rounds adding to the hail of lead that was slamming in all around. The other half, meanwhile, was dashing forward, heading for other areas further up the hill. He sighted in on a group of three making the dash but before he could pull the trigger a tracer stream, probably from Mendez's weapon, stitched across them, cutting them down. They fell forward undramatically, simply dropping to the ground atop their weapons, no blood or other gore visible. He sighted in on another group just as a mortar round exploded in front of them. When the smoke cleared two of them were down and the third had disappeared somewhere. He then managed to actually shoot at two other groups but didn't hit anybody. All the while the bullets continued to whiz overhead and slam into the sandbags all around him.

Something suddenly exploded twenty feet in front of him, the concussion rippling into his face, dirt spraying out over the trench. It was a heavy mortar round, it's distinctive approach whine covered by the clattering of weapons and the booming of artillery up the hill.

"Mortars!" Cooper yelled over the radio. "They're lobbing eighties at us!"

Two more exploded in close proximity, one behind them and another to the right of them. More dirt sprayed out and the acrid smell of chemical smoke burned his nose. The next one landed less than ten feet in front of the trench, close enough to shred a couple of sandbags.

"They're sighted in," Maxwell said. "Keep as low as you can. It's gonna get noisy over here."

The mortar rounds began to drop with regularity, exploding all around them, their concussions blasting into the line, their shrapnel cutting into the sandbags. One hit about four feet in front of one of the firing positions, blowing it wide open. There was a scream.

"Doc," someone yelled over radio. "Paxton's down. Get over here."

"On the way," Easton said, shouldering his rifle and picking up his bag. He began to move down the trench, his head low, squeezing behind those who were still shooting at the advancing Chinese.

Darren tried his best to ignore this as he sighted in on yet another group of soldiers moving forward. By now, most of the group that had advanced first were in covering positions, firing up at them while those behind leapfrogged around them. He squeezed his trigger twice, firing two bursts down at his targets, and again none of them fell. They dove down into an impact crater and began to shoot up the hill.

One of the mortar rounds landed almost on top of a section of the trench about fifty feet away. Six feet of sandbags exploded in a spray of dust, mud, and rocks. Burning pieces of canvas came flittering down lazily. No one had been positioned behind that particular piece of trench but Darren knew that if they had, their heads would have been taken neatly off. He shuddered as he thought of the same thing happening directly in front of him, knowing that there was no way to predict it or avoid it.

He fired a few more bursts down the hill, sighting from target to target and missing every time as the leapfrog advance continued to inch closer. Other groups of soldiers were cut down by the massed volume of fire or were blown down by exploding sixty rounds hitting near them, but Darren could not seem to hit a single chink. He fired his first magazine empty and then popped it free, grabbing another.

As he reloaded his weapon the mortar fire that had been pummeling them shifted further up the hill, to the other trenches held by members of his platoon. With a sigh of relief, Darren aimed his rifle back through the port and tried to find a chink to kill. He spotted one almost immediately, a lone soldier running frantically forward from a cover position behind a group of logs to another about ten yards away. He was not crouched down as far as the other chinks and he was not zigzagging back and forth as they did. In short, he was making himself almost a perfect target. Darren covered him with the sight, gave him a little lead, and began to fire. The first and second bursts missed cleanly, the rounds kicking up mud in front of the running man. Still, he did not dive down or adjust his course. Though Darren would never know it, this eighteen-year-old Chinese kid from the city of Qingdao on the Yellow Sea was experiencing his first day in battle as well and had not yet learned the survival skills vital to such an environment. Darren fired more than half of his magazine at him, the stock kicking against his shoulder, the gunsmoke burning his nostrils, the shell casings falling into the mud at his feet, and finally the chink twisted and fell, his rifle flying out before him, his hands going to his legs.

"Yes!" Darren yelled triumphantly, no longer firing his rifle, his eyes glued to the spot where his enemy had fallen. "Fuck you, chink! I fuckin got you! That's for my brother, dickwad!" He wanted to stand up and dance, wanted to let the whole world know that he had just shot his first chink, had just logged his first kill.

And then, as he continued to look at his fallen foe, another Chinese soldier suddenly dashed from cover and dove down next to him. He grabbed him around the shoulders and pulled him partially to his feet, his movements quick and frantic. He stood in a crouch and began pulling the man down the hill, towards the mound of earth that he'd shot out from.

Without really thinking about what he was doing, Darren sighted in on them and began to squeeze the trigger. Rounds exploded out of his rifle and after only two bursts the two figures crumpled to the ground. It had been an easy shot since they weren't zigzagging or crawling. Now he had two on the scoreboard! Two chinks dead by his hand!

It only took a moment's reflection however, before he realized that the second chink had been a medic trying to drag away a wounded soldier. It had not occurred to him that the chinks even had medics to care for their wounded. And now he had killed one of them. He had just committed an atrocity! A war crime under the Geneva Convention! Had anyone noticed it? Would he be arrested for it and imprisoned? He looked around the trench, expecting to see everyone staring at him in horror. They weren't. Cooper was changing out the drum on his SAW, Mendez was blasting away with the M-71, Callahan, and even Groovy were sending bursts down the hill with their M-16s. Maxwell was kneeling down, talking on the radio and looking at the map program on his PC, presumably helping to direct the mortar fire. He looked up for a moment and spotted Darren doing nothing. His face took on an irritated cast.

"Goddamn it, newbie!" he yelled at him. "What the fuck are you doing? Jerking off? Fire that goddamned rifle! We have chinks advancing on our fucking position in case you haven't noticed!"

"Sorry," Darren said, hefting his weapon again and putting his face back to the firing port. He began scanning the landscape below once more, searching for more targets. It wasn't hard to find them. They were everywhere, and growing closer by the minute, entire groups of Chinese soldiers edging up the hill despite the murderous fire that was being poured down upon them and the mortar rounds that were exploding among them. The closest of them were now only three hundred or so yards away and their numbers hardly seemed to have been reduced by the defense that had been put up so far. His fear of war crimes trials and being branded a war criminal was quickly overridden by the fear of death or capture. The chinks were closing with them fast. Would they be able to take the hill? What would happen when they got close enough to start lobbing grenades into the trenches?

He sighted on a pair of soldiers crawling from one place to another. They were among the closest of the enemy to his position, their presence so far ignored by the machine gunners and the other riflemen. He opened fire, plinking bullets all around them and expending the rest of his magazine but finally hitting one, leaving him motionless in the mud. The other soldier managed to make it behind a group of rocks that provided cover. A moment later however, a mortar round landed directly atop him, blasting him several feet into the air. This time Darren was able to see some gore. He clearly saw the chink's arm go flying off through the air in a spray of blood. The similarity to Infantry Attack did not thrill him very much however. He was too scared to be thrilled.

He changed his magazine again and fired the new one empty in less than a minute, hitting two more chinks for the thirty bullets. Meanwhile, the mortar fire shifted back to their position and the eighty millimeter shells began to fall around their trench once more, cracking the air with explosions and smoke and littering them with dirt and rocks. Twice Darren felt the impact of shell fragments glancing off his helmet and he shuddered, knowing that his skull would have been ripped open if not for the protective layer of Kevlar.

As the enemy made it to within two hundred yards, more of them began to fall as the gunfire became more accurate. They countered this by moving in shorter dashes, with more of their comrades providing covering fire for each advance. The volume of bullets slamming into the sandbags and the ground around them picked up considerably. And then a group of more than a hundred Chinese suddenly separated from the main body and was spotted moving off to the western slope of the hill.

"They're trying to flank us, sarge," Cooper reported as he fired his SAW into a squad sized unit that was breaking from cover. At least four of the ten were mowed down, the rest diving back into the hole from which they'd come.

"The el-tee says the captain's on it," Maxwell replied. "He's sending third platoon over to position 25 to watch our left flank. They oughtta be able to keep 'em in check over there."

"They fuckin' well better," Mendez said, his hands busy on the M-71. "That's our avenue of retreat. They cut us off over there and we're fucked like a whore."

"They'll hold," Maxwell said. "And we ain't gonna be retreating anyway. We've got these fuckers pinned down now and our air cover is only ten minutes out."

"They get much closer," Callahan said, "and the Air Force pukes won't be able to drop on 'em. I don't want those assholes throwing down napalm less than a hundred-fifty yards from me. I seen 'em miss by a lot more than that."

"We'll keep 'em pinned," Maxwell repeated, continuing to scan over his mapping program. "Just keep the pressure on 'em."

They kept the pressure on, firing down into the massed Chinese madly, until the bottom of the trench was littered with brass shell casings and expended magazines. As Maxwell had predicted, the advance against them was stalled in place. Every time a group would try to dash forward, overlapping fields of fire from all over the hill quickly and efficiently gunned them down. Darren was able to add five more kills to his count though he used up two more of his loaded magazines in doing so.

Suddenly another mortar round landed close to the trench near the west end, right in front of Zender and Callahan's position. There was a flash of fire, a sharp concussion, and five feet of sandbags suddenly exploded into dirt and dust. Zender and Callahan were both thrown backwards into the trench wall, their helmets flying off their heads, their weapons flying free. They lay still, blood pouring down onto their chests.

"Shit," Maxwell said, looking at them. "Doc, get over here! Zender and Callahan are down!"

"On my way," came Easton's voice over the radio. "Paxton's okay over here. Just a flesh wound. He's back on his zone."

"Copy that," Maxwell said. He looked over at Darren. "Newbie," he said, "go over and see what you can do for them until doc gets here. Take the other newbie with you."

Darren swallowed nervously and shouldered his rifle. "Right, sarge," he said, moving off towards the hole and the two casualties. Groovy did the same, edging behind Cooper to follow him.

He reached them a moment later and felt vomit trying to edge up his throat at what he saw. Callahan was simply dazed, bleeding from a few cuts on his forehead and from his nose. But Zender ... Zender was quite another story. A good portion of his face was missing, torn away from his skull by the shrapnel that had ripped into his head. His right eye was completely gone, as was the flesh surrounding it, the eye socket plainly visible and filled with blood, pink tissue, and severed tendons. Similarly his entire right cheek had been peeled away, baring the jawbones and a few shattered teeth. His right ear was still there but hanging only by a flap. Blood was pouring down onto his shoulder and the front of his BDUs. His left eye was open, tracking slowly back and forth while a pathetic moaning sound issued from his vocal cords.

"Oh my God," Darren gasped, looking at Groovy, who was just as horrified by the sight. "What the hell do we do about this?"

"Put a bandage on it," Groovy said, unable to take his eyes away from the sight.

"Put a bandage on what?" Darren asked. "Half his fuckin face is gone!"

Zender moaned again, a drawn out sound that was audible even over the continued chatter of gunfire. His good eye rotated and fixed on Darren's face. His destroyed mouth opened and a glut of blood gurgled out along with something that might have been speech.

"Whu ... whu ... what?" Darren asked, forcing himself to lean closer.

The gurgle came again, more blood pouring out. It was the same sound as before but Darren still didn't understand it.

"He said, 'how bad?'" croaked Callahan from next to him. "He ... he wants to know how bad he's hit."

Darren swallowed, wondering what he was supposed to say. Was he supposed to tell Zender that most of his face had been blown off? Was he supposed to lie to him and tell him it wasn't that bad?

Callahan took the decision out of his hands however. Blinking blood out of his own eyes, he leaned over and took Zender's hand in his. "You'll be okay, Zend," he told him. "You caught a little shrapnel in the face but the doc'll fix you up."

Another gurgling sound came out, this time with a different arrangement of syllables. To Darren, it sounded like he said: "arrgh ha hine?"

But Callahan understood him. "You bet your ass you're off the line," he told him. "You'll be in Boise in no time, sleeping in a real fuckin bed and having some nurse wax your pickle for you."

Zender said something else, another arrangement of gurgled syllables, and Callahan agreed with him wholeheartedly, even clapping him on the shoulder. "That ain't propaganda, my man," he said, and then looked over at Darren. "Get some of those bandages out and put them on the bleeding parts. Fuckin hold 'em until doc gets here."

"Right," he said slowly, reaching for the small first aid pack that was attached to his web gear. He opened it up with trembling hands and pulled out two large trauma dressings wrapped in sterile packaging. He ripped them open and, fighting his gorge all the way, leaned towards Zender. "Here, Zender," he said, trying to make his voice soothing. "Let me cover up your ... uh ... your wound." He applied the bandage, which resembled a very large maxi pad, to the side of his face, holding it with his left hand while his right applied gentle pressure by pushing on the uninjured side of his head. It almost immediately soaked through with warm blood.

"Push harder," Callahan told him. "It might hurt him a little but you gotta get the bleeding to stop."

He pushed harder, feeling the unnatural grinding of broken bones beneath his hands. Zender flinched, something that resembled a scream coming from his mouth. Another large spray of blood ejected from his mouth, landing in his lap.

Just then Easton came trotting over, his large pack in his hand. Darren was never so glad to see someone in his life. He started to edge away to let the medic in.

"No," Easton told him, pushing him back into place while his eyes tracked up and down Zender's body. "You're doin' just fine. Keep holding pressure."

"Right," Darren said weakly.

"How you doing, Callahan?" Easton asked, opening up his pack and pulling out some more bandaging material.

"I'm okay. Just got my bell rung is all. Take care of Zender there. He needs to get to Boise."

"That's what I'm thinking," Easton agreed with a nod. He turned to Darren. "Lift up on the bandage for a second and let me see what we're dealing with."

Darren did so, not looking at the injury. He didn't want to see it anymore. Instead, he looked at the medic's face, expecting to see the same horror that he'd felt displayed there. He didn't. Easton simply nodded and directed him to put the bandage back in place. He then handed him a few roller bandages.

"Hold the bandage with your left hand there," he told Darren, "and wrap it in place with this stuff. Go from his good ear to under his jaw, over his head, and back to where you started. Make it tight, but not tight enough to cut off his breathing, get it?"

"Got it," Darren said, picking up the first roll. While he went about the task that had been assigned to him, Easton pulled out a syringe of morphine and began assembling it.

"Fifteen milligrams for you, Zend," he told him cheerfully. "This oughtta get you to Boise in style." He used his scissors to cut away the sleeve of Zender's BDUs and then jabbed it into the exposed flesh. He then keyed up his radio link. "Hey, sarge, Zender's gonna need med-evac. They got a casualty collection point set up?"

"The usual place," Maxwell's voice replied. "Can he wait until after the fast movers are done? We're expecting them in about two minutes."

"He can wait," Easton said. "I'll use the newbies again to help me get him there."

"Sounds good. Have one of them cover Zender's position in the meantime. We could use a little more pressure on that side."

"Right," Easton said. He looked over at Darren, who was still wrapping the bandage around and around with his bloody hands. He then looked at Groovy, who was just sitting there, watching. "Little newbie," he told him. "You heard the sarge. Slip by us there and put some fire down the hill until the planes get here. As soon as they drop the nape, get back over here and help us carry Zender down."

"Okay," Groovy said, hefting his rifle up. He stood up into the crouch that was the normal method of ambulation in the trenches and began to move past them. He squeezed behind Darren and was suddenly directly in front of the hole that had been blown in the sandbags, crouching, but not far enough to take into account the missing cover.

Easton's eyes grew wide in alarm as he saw this. "Newbie, get the fuck down!" he yelled.

Groovy heard him and tried to react but it was far too late. Bullets had been whizzing and thudding sporadically in the entire time they'd been there. Now, with a target in their sights, several Chinese gunners opened up at one time, sending a barrage of lead into the hole. There were several meaty thuds as bullets hit flesh and blood flew at them, spraying over the back of the trench. Groovy made a single grunt, more of surprise than pain, and dropped ungracefully to the muddy floor in a heap.

"Groovy!" Darren yelled in horror, dropping the bandage into Zender's lap and diving over to his friend's side.

"Goddammit!" Easton yelled behind him, his words barely audible as bullets continued to slam into the back of the trench.

It took Darren less than two seconds to reach him. He was lying face-down, his arms and rifle tucked beneath him. Blood was soaking through the back of his BDUs in several places. Darren saw a few bone fragments and some spongy material protruding through the holes. He grabbed his shoulder and pulled, rolling him over enough so he could see his face. His eyes were open and staring lifelessly upward, the expression blank, unknowing, unseeing. He looked lower and saw that at least one of the bullets had hit him in the throat, leaving a large, mushy wound that oozed blood.

"Let me see," Easton said, pushing him out of the way and edging in.

Darren let go of him without a struggle, backing up a little, feeling tears of loss and fear trying to form in his eyes.

It took Easton less than two seconds to make his diagnoses. "He's gone," he told Darren. "Took six, seven rounds in the chest, one in the neck. Heart and lungs blown to shit. He never had a chance."

Darren continued to stare at him, his eyes locked onto his dead face, trying to comprehend that his friend had been alive less than a minute before, trying to comprehend that he was now dead because he had made a simple mistake. But there were no simple mistakes out here. Only deadly ones. That could just as easily have been me, he thought with a shudder. I wouldn't have thought to duck below that spot either. I know I wouldn't have. I'm alive because I got to Zender first and was stuck bandaging him.

Easton pulled back away from the corpse that Groovy had become and returned to Zender to finish the bandaging job. Around them, the mortars continued to crash in every few seconds and the bullets continued to fly. The rest of the squad was still busy shooting their guns.

"Sarge, this is doc," Easton said over the radio link. "One of the newbies just got smoked. He walked in front of the open part of the trench and they nailed him."

Maxwell, who was looking out of a firing port and shooting his own rifle now, didn't even glance in that direction. "Which one was it?" he asked between bursts. "The big fucker or the little fucker?"

"The little fucker," Easton replied.

"Okay," Maxwell said casually. "Mark down the time, would you? We probably lost a few newbies in the other squads too and we want to make sure the pool is accurate."

"I told you," Cooper's voice cut in, actually sounding happy. "Bet on a spaz before a big fuck every time. Didn't I tell you?"

"Shut the fuck up, you black motherfucker," Mendez's voice cut in. "Don't be a goddamn sore winner."

-------

The air cover arrived a few minutes later, two pairs of A-11s, screaming in from the east and passing low over the battlefield amid a fury of anti-aircraft fire from the Chinese armored positions. One of the planes took a direct hit from a flak shell, blowing its left wing off and sending it spinning into the ground at the base of the hill in a tremendous fireball. The pilot never had a chance to eject, not that he would have lived long even if he had since he would have come down right atop the Chinese infantry positions. The other three planes all dropped their napalm canisters, one right after the other, in overlapping patterns, covering the hillside with orange fire and sending a heat blast outward that was nearly hot enough to blister skin two hundred yards away.

After that, the remaining Chinese soldiers began to pull back to their APCs, conceding the battlefield for the moment. The company's gunfire and mortars chased and harassed them all the way.

Darren missed most of the action after the napalm drop. He and Easton, using one of the collapsible litters, carried Zender through the trench network to the casualty collection point on the back side of the hill, the same place where they had assembled the burn victims the previous day.

Here Darren saw the results of the battle that he had just participated in. More than thirty men were lying on the ground, some screaming, some stoically silent, all victims of the high explosive shells that had rained down upon the hill. Several of them were missing arms or legs, some were burned, others had their faces disfigured like Zender, others still had bloody bandages on their chests or stomachs. Medics circulated among them, checking wounds and administering morphine while other soldiers carried the most serious toward the waiting helicopters at the base of the hill.

They left Zender here, putting him into an area where those labeled "priority" were being watched over. He was given a triage tag and doped up with some more morphine to relax him during the wait. Easton stuck around for a few minutes, helping out the other medics with treatment and Darren sat on a pile of logs just outside the collection zone, watching numbly. He lit a cigarette and smoked tiredly, feeling the fatigue trying to pull him back down despite the hefty dose of caffeine that was still coursing through him. He kept seeing Groovy's dead face before him as he puffed, kept hearing the lethal thud of bullets slamming into his friend's body, kept reflecting how easily it could have been him lying dead in the trench instead. He thought also of Zender, his face blown off by a random mortar shell that just happened to land next to him. He thought of those unnamed soldiers burned to a crisp in their trench by a napalm drop. He looked at the soldiers in the triage area, their limbs blown off, their faces disfigured, their chests blasted open.

"I can die out here," he whispered to himself, unaware that he had spoken aloud. "I can die out here."

It was strange how he had never really considered that before. Sure, he had known that people died in the war, had known that all of these things occurred, but he had never thought that it would, that it could happen to him. Not to Darren Caswell, who had once scored over six hundred thousand on Infantry Attack, who was here to avenge his brother's death. Darren Caswell couldn't die, could he? Of course not.

Except that now he was finding out that he could die, and that he could die very easily, by something as simple as a missed step, by something as random as where a four inch piece of steel stuffed with high explosives happened to come down. For the first time in his life he began to realize why people said that war was hell and why they wished not to be involved in it.

Keys: xxx ww m/f

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