This is chapter 11 my novel, tentatively titled, Sibling Rebellions. The work is set in a dystopian America which falls into a second civil war brought on by ecological collapse and the resulting economic depression.
When this war happens, Jonas Mills leaves his undergrad at the University of Washington to join the US Army, and is soon involved in operations hunting down “Outsiders” and “Elves” in the Cascade Mountains. This chapter followers his first operation as a platoon commander, attacking a group of Voluntary Human Extinction Project (VHEPs) radicals camped near Mount Rainier.
After returning to battalion, we watched the friction of war undermine our planning.
First Sergeant Innings had received permission to issue ammo, but was crisscrossing the base to gather the appropriate supply, with conflicting orders of priority for the companies. Gold was at the armorer, trying to get two more sets of MPACS. Rumors circulated that hundreds of VHEPs had gathered in expectation of the operation, and that they’d hacked the FBI surveillance feed, hiding their numbers. While dispelling this and providing accurate info, I tried to help Hammers and the squad sergeants get Second Platoon fitted with full packs and supplies. While we worked, troopers constantly stopped me for more information.
Private Ronnie Chambers, nicknamed “Shitbowl,” as a play on his last name, came into the officer’s quarters, and tapped me on the shoulder as I threw my own kit together.
“What kind of heat they holding, Sir?”
“Like I said in the briefing, hunting rifles, pistols. Nothing the FBI shouldn’t be able to handle.”
“So we’re just backup?” he asked.
“Sir, we gonna–“
“Space, Shitbowl,” I said, while texting J-Pop, his squad sergeant, who I hadn’t yet seen among the scurrying troops.
Billy Martellini, Shitbowl’s battle buddy, a grifty twenty-one-year-old from Puyallup with a gaudy tattoo of a husky on his neck, came behind hearing his questions.
“Lieutenant, if they got scoped rifles, and there’s more coming, shouldn’t we soften ‘em up before we land?”
Martellini was known as “Cuck Trucker” because he’d driven truck before being autoed out, and was in a polyamorous relationship with two women.
“Fuck, Trucker,” I said, exasperated. “Are you both kitted up?”
As they nodded, attention was called out, and Gold stepped in to announce an assembly in 20 minutes.
Thirty minutes later, with two troopers unaccounted for (one from my Platoon), 128 of us assembled in a Quonset hut near McChord’s central airfield. The entire company was squeezed into a basketball court-sized space, and we were soon stepping over piles of gear and moving around tense and giddy troopers.
Two hundred yards south, ground crews from the Aviation Assault battalion did final checks on their UH-84 “Swift” helicopters. Above their dark, sausage-shaped fuselages, their rotors drooped, waiting for their warm-up. The weather had turned overcast and cold, an off day for late July, but there was no fog, rain, or low cloud cover to impact insertion or air supply.
I assembled my squad leaders for a final briefing as it grew dark. While I spoke, I suppressed my three worries: one, Rina Colts, of Third Squad, who’d gone AWOL, and could get charged with desertion unless she was deathly sick or had suddenly lost a limb. Two, J-pop, who’d become nervous as hell, demanding I allow him to call his girlfriend and mother, which of course was impossible. Three, the operation itself. We were landing downhill from a wooded, overgrown ridgeline, and we had incomplete info on the Elves’ capabilities. Did they have RPGs in a cache? Booby traps planted? Hackers who could shut down our network?
But if Hammers and my squad leaders detected my fear, they were smart enough to not mention it. As the meeting ended, I looked up to see Webb and Trondner talking with Mendéz, ringed by an MPACed SWAT team. I stood and walked over, saw Araujo and Kelly doing the same. Bryant was already by the Captain’s side, next to Gold.
“Good news, gentlemen,” Mendéz said. “No movement from the SDs, and we’re all set to launch. Jonas, Agent Webb and his team will be landing in Second Platoon’s LZ, so you’ll need to stretch your lines left.”
“No problem, Sir,” I said. SDs, Seditious Dissenters. The new title used for any terrorists in arms against the U.S. Government. “No IDs yet?” I asked.
Webb shook his head. “Not on anyone major.”
I caught eyes with agent Trondner, and he stepped aside to answer my question.
“Any of these pers Central Processing?”
He grinned. “You’re Jonas Mills, right?”
“You know agent Martinez?”
“Same field office. No, Lieutenant, I’m sorry. These guys are VHEPs, death elves. They may even force you to fire a few rounds before going down. Or all commit suicide together. But look on the bright side. Rats nest together. One leads to the other.”
“Happy to be an exterminator,” I said, and returned to my platoon.
Three hours later, I stood on the damp, cold tarmac, watching the helos warm up a hundred feet away. My pack and gear weighed on shoulders, on top of the burden of my un-powered MPACS.
All around me, in the dim running lights of the airfield, Second Platoon adjusted packs, and did final checks on MPACS, rifles, and comms. Hammers and the squad sergeants went from trooper to trooper, checking everyone over. We were two hours behind schedule, due to delays in supply. Hammers kept a close eye on Kunio, and I’d given up on Rina Colts.
The FBI agents waited in a little circle, their own helicopter–smaller and all in black–warming up like the rest of our larger UH-84 Swifts. I wondered if it had the stealth capabilities or the speed of our Swifts, but realized it probably would make no difference on this op.
I looked in Mendéz’s direction, who was conferring with Gold, the FBI, and the rest of the HQ group to my left.
“Two Actual? Set?” he said over the comm.
I did a quick check with Mac, Parks, Kunio, and Hammers. They all gave me a thumbs up.
“Two Actual. Set, Sir.”
“Marauder Bravo, standby.”
I thought of a few hours earlier, when the brigade and battalion commander had moved among the platoons, pulling an Eisenhower with paratroops, as we’d encamped along the airfield. They’d shook my hand, said we were lucky to be among the first Army units to get revenge for 11/2. Their attention felt good, and their confidence infectious.
But I didn’t feel that way now. My stomach was sour, filled with anxious bile from being on high alert for twelve-plus hours. I worried about my decisions getting someone killed. Of freezing, of fucking up, of letting someone down. That thought twisted my insides as much as thoughts of potential death did. The helo going down in a crosswind. Catching a rifle bullet to the eye as soon as we landed. Considering all the ways I could die took my breath and sharpened reality to a glittering intensity.
It was time. First Platoon ran low across the airfield to their waiting three UH-84s. Ten troopers each disappeared into rear hatches and moments later they were airborne, pounding up in a wide circle around the field. I signaled to Parks, then Kunio and Hammers, counting off the troopers as they boarded. Then I was running with Meginness’ squad, Mac beside me.
We strapped into the cold plastic seats of the chopper, Meginness and I at the back, first to get off. His first fire team leader, Sandy Friauf, sat across from him. Sandy was nicknamed “Pretty Boy” because of his blond hair, sculpted physique, and androgynous teeny-bopper good looks. Next to him sat Raleigh, her face serious, looking over her team and away from Mac.
The hybrid engines whined, then there came the steady pull of gravity, overlaid with the pounding rush of the rotors, and we lifted up. Some of the troopers gave little whoops of excitement, others grinned, most stoically cradled their rifles.
I craned around to the plexiglass window behind my head. The chopper banked south, and I could see the lights of Tacoma in a grid below. Beautiful, reminding me of past flights, past homecomings, so distant in contrast to where I was now. I thought of my mother, sleeping, the rotor blades cutting into her uneasy dreams.
After two circles of the airfield, the remaining choppers joined those airborne and formed up into a staggered diamond formation moving southeast, steadily gaining altitude.
I turned back to the real-time video of the rebels on my CNID HUD. Earlier that evening, I’d watched them pray before sharing a roasted deer carcass and a handful of huckleberries. As the sun went down, a few wrote in journals, or sketched, or repaired clothing. We noted that there were multiple couples in the group, but no conflicts, suspicions, or arguments. Now, everyone was asleep, except for two sentries.
Looking out the window again, I saw that Tacoma had faded, transformed into lines of lights following the roads out to the suburbs. The towns of Graham and Orting were tiny clusters along the dark Green River valley. The metal floor of the chopper felt cold through my boots, and a sharp breeze was whistling through some gap in the rear hatch.
I listened to the video. Almost imperceptibly, our approach started to come up on the drone. One of the sentries, eyes black holes in the eerie green of the camera’s night vision (NV) cocked his head, listening. The other, who’d been sleeping, opened his eyes, startled.
“Fuck,” I whispered.
Mac nodded his head towards me, his eyebrows raised, seeing the same thing on his cam. Abel Hanson, a short, curly-haired kid next to Pretty Boy, nudged him.
“What’s happening?” he asked, barely audible over the noise.
Regular troopers didn’t have connects to the drones, to keep them from “drone-vision” and stay focused on their surroundings. I had to be careful of it too.
Pretty Boy told him, and I watched it play out. The first sentry hissed for the other to stay put, and he dodged among the downed logs back into the camp. The other sentry started checking his rifle, and watching the sky, his head rapidly scanning back and forth. The noise of the choppers got louder. “Five minutes to LZ,” the autopilot texted. I did a last look out the window. A few dots of lights followed the Puyallup River to the south of us, surrounded by black, empty foothills.
Now the sleepy sentry had retreated into the camp, and all were loading rifles and hefting up packs and gear. They looked like ghosts in the faded grey/green of the NV. The chopper noise had become a steady pounding on the mic. Five men stood in the middle of the camp, rifles skyward, searching.
“They’re getting ready to bounce,” I said on the Platoon channel. “Tell your drone op to pull back,” I said to agent Webb.
Webb was on the comm with Mendéz, passing orders, and I watched the drone camera bank and wobble as it pulled up and away from the site. In the bottom corner, I could see two of the men pointing, another taking aim. A muzzle flashed in the right-hand corner of the cam, then the cam was dropping, the sky and dead tree trunks rushing up parallel, a crunch as the picture cut. I could hear the rifle shot echoing in the hills over the rotor blast.
“Second Platoon, observation drone taken out. If command shifts, target snipers on touchdown,” I said.
“They haven’t fired on us yet,” Webb said steadily. “This is under FBI command.”
“Yes, Sir,” I said, wondering how long that would last. A SWAT team of eight versus fifty desperate armed felons?
“How the fuck they take out a stealth drone?” Abel called out.
“With a fucking Echo,” Mac growled. “How else?” Mac regripped his rifle held between his knees, his jaw set in a tight grimace.
“Touchdown in two,” I said. Ahead, the FBI chopper started blasting surrender demands on a loudspeaker, then dropped two drones with spotlights targeted on the group.
Everyone straightened up, and I called and texted: “Suit’s up, NVs on adjust, targeting on.”
The chopper filled with a low crinkling as everyone fired up their MPACS. As our network synched, I rapidly flipped through my platoon’s CNID cameras. In the upper left of my vision was a bar with our suit juice.
“First Platoon’s inserting,” Mendéz called over the comm. Out the window, I watched their helos separate and move north, towards the ridge above the VHEPs. Six quick pistol shots rang out in the darkness and the squad tensed.
Araujo’s voice on the comm. “First Platoon taking ground fire.” A moment later, “One shredder, minor shredder.” Shredder was our current brevity code for wounded, while Pulvy stood for killed, and Dipso for missing. All character names from the game Empires of War. Looking up, I saw an electric shock of fear had passed through the squad. Everyone’s face was drawn, waxy, and perspiring. Webb demanded apprehension of the shooter, and for the plan to continue with the FBI in charge.
The helo buoyed itself up and slowed to a landing position. The walls were buffeted by the nearby prop wash of the other choppers. Knocks against the hull had troopers calling out that we were under fire. But there was no sign of penetration or a following echo of a shot.
“It’s debris from the prop blast,” I said. The ramp started to come down, before we’d landed. “Everyone off,” I yelled as I stood up.
The landing site was a wide streambed, scattered with driftwood near the water’s edge. As I jumped off the helo, I almost turned an ankle on the loose, fist-sized rocks. The chopper shifted and groaned as it settled onto the river stones. A dozen meters behind us, Mowich creek gurgled. Twenty meters ahead, a line of teenage alder and cottonwood grew along the creek line. Above them, the valley rose steeply, and gave way to conifers.
I arched my neck up to see the VHEP camp, but even with the spotlights signaling its location, I couldn’t see anything through the wall of trees. First Platoon’s choppers roared above and back towards McChord.
As Mac spread Second Squad out around me, I saw the line of choppers stretching 150 meters down the river valley. Nearer on my left, Hammers and Kunio had brought their squad into line and were tying in with Bryant and Mac. The FBI chopper had landed a dozen meters away, Webb had fallen exiting, while his SWAT squad moved toward the treeline. I looked right, saw that Parks was on line, ready to move. A dozen sharp cracks rang out. I yelled stupidly, “Who’s firing? Cease firing.”
I heard a thunk against the fuselage of the FBI helo and instinctively brought my rifle up, following the CNID targeting as it triangulated the shooter. Another round cracked above my head. I looked left, saw the helos were rising.
My vision swam in sudden confusion, the spotlights dazzling, the trees looming out of a blanket of shadow. I put my hand down on a cold, wet rock, to steady myself. Ahead, I saw the SWAT team had taken cover, rounds sparking off the river stones around them. My focus came back, and a clear burning resentment coursed through me. The fuckers were shooting at us! Trying to kill us! After all our planning, all our preparation. A desire to snuff out these interlopers overwhelmed me. At that moment, I saw that Trucker was down.
He lay twenty feet away, his back arched awkwardly on his pack, his helmet askew. A white hole in his facemask, at eye level. His rifle lay next to him across a boulder.
I screamed for Lambert, our platoon medic, who was already leaping to his side. He pulled up his mask with latexed hands, revealing that the bullet had entered his right eye. Lambert lifted Trucker’s face, saw it had exploded the back of his head inside the helmet. He looked back at me, horrified. My mind blinked in shock that Trucker was dead. All of Second Squad’s eyes were riveted on him, and Mac was screaming, “stay on line,” to keep them in place.
A dozen feet behind Trucker, Pretty Boy called out he was hit, and agent Webb too, along with one of the SWAT team. Pretty Boy was on his ass, Webb on his back. I crawled over to them, and Parks screamed on the comms, “What the fuck are we doing?” Out of my peripheral vision, I could see Kunio standing straight up, frozen, arms at his side, gazing up at the hillside.
“Sergeant?” I asked, reaching Pretty Boy.
He groaned. “I’m all right, Sir. Suit deflected it.” He struggled to a knee, showed a neat hole in the left breast of his uniform, the bright gold of the suit showing through.
“Webb got one too, in the shoulder.”
Webb was moaning, holding his shoulder, rolling on his back. I ordered Lambert to check him over. I looked up, saw Trondner crawl towards me. He flinched as more shots cracked overhead and shouted that we were to take over.
While we spoke, Mendéz ordered return fire, and a volley of rapid M-33 fire rang out around us. A glance at my CNID revealed two rebel snipers had just been shot. Pretty Boy had recovered, was taking control of his fireteam. Hammers and my squad leaders were shouting orders. Mendéz’s voice cut through the confusion.
“Second Platoon on line?” he yelled.
“Then move out.”
“Sir, we’ve got one pulvy, two minor shredders.”
A drop in his voice.
“Cover and mark him and then move. Dough’s on the MEDEVAC.”
More shots rang out, and another was wounded in Weapons Platoon. Mendéz called again for us to advance. The orders came through clear and textbook across our comms. I stood up and pointed uphill, ordered the platoon to move out.
Hammers repeated the order, and the platoon looked back at us as if we were crazy. Parks was cursing at his immobile squad. I swiveled my head around, saw the other platoons were crouched all along the rocks, exposed in the streambed.
More frantic yelling for a medic came from Weapons Platoon. Suddenly, pounding into our comms, bruising our ears, Mendéz was screaming:
“Get off those rocks and into those fucking trees! Kill the bastards! First Platoon’s gonna get crushed if you don’t move your asses.”
Like we’d all been slapped, the Company stood up and darted into the woods. It was so uncharacteristic of him to yell, to scream, that it was like a wire holding us had been cut. I felt a juvenal, primal fear of letting down a respected father.
I leaped forward across the streambed, then into the shrubbery, the platoon bounding by fireteams around me uphill. Suits at max exertion, we leaped over rocks and fallen logs, the rot crumbling under our boots, jumping half a dozen feet at a time. Suddenly the two spotlights went out, shot down by a VHEP sniper, and in the dark I slipped and landed flat on my face. I cursed, my NVs flipping on as I got back on my feet before anyone could move to help me up. I saw others struggling through the growth, slapping the teenage trees away and thick strands of spider webs.
As we moved, a dozen images and pieces of information flashed across my vision: First Platoon had landed on top of a lone VHEP in the grove. Seeing the helos barrel down on him, he’d opened up with a .50 caliber Desert Eagle, wounded one trooper, and punched seven large holes through the helicopter’s fuselage. He was immediately cut down when Araujo’s first squad landed. They’d found no other SDs, and after consolidating the LZ, First Platoon was now spread across a seventy-five-yard front, moving south towards us.
The two rebel snipers with NVs had been shot down by Parks and Nguyen. I watched the second-long clips from their cams. Ragged men aiming deer rifles, tracked by roving rifle barrels, a burst of fire, the target’s chests transformed into aerosols of fabric and gore, hit by multiple 8.6mm rounds. Four others nearby had shot out the lights, but scattered into the trees when the first two were hit.
A glance at our four RQ-30B Sparrows, which were now aloft and shadowing the group, showed the entire mass fleeing northward, bounding between the trees in panic. None attempted now to shoot down our drones, or return fire, but heaved themselves uphill.
On my CNID map, I saw they were moving directly into Araujo’s line of blue dots, while our own came up behind. Below us, I could hear helos coming back to pick up the wounded and Trucker.
My platoon redoubled its speed, pushing through the growth, fueled by the assurance that their prey was harmless and on the run.
We could hear the yells and shifting undergrowth of the SDs only a few hundred meters ahead, but it was almost impossible to see them due to the understory and fallen logs. But now I could smell them and the camp: BO, woodsmoke, the stink of dried offal, rifle grease.
On the map, Araujo had stopped her Platoon in covered positions, directly in front of them, at almost a perfect 45-degree angle, northwest to southeast. The SDs had no idea they were there. Above us, the booming voice of Lieutenant Trondner rang out, projecting from his newly on-station drone speaker:
“Lay down your weapons and put your hands on your heads. This is the FBI. You’re under arrest for first-degree murder, and for seditious activities against the U.S. government. Lay down your weapons and you will not be harmed . . .”
The SDs ignored this and kept running. I switched to Araujo’s cam, seeing the panicked SDs approach through the trees. When they got within thirty yards, Araujo called out, “Halt! Lay down your arms! Hands on your heads.”
Instead, the SDs skirted right, away from her voice, heading for the crest. Seeing this, I yelled for Second Platoon to keep pushing uphill and close the distance. We almost had them in a complete circle when two 255s barked automatic, sending a pounding roar of bullets over our heads.
“Cover!” I screamed, and Second Platoon melted into the undergrowth. Due to the steepness of the hill, and the deflection angle, the rounds passed safely above us, impacting across the river.
Flipping rapidly through cams, I could see five or six SDs on the southwest end of the group had gone down. One instant they were running, the next, the far-left squad of Araujo’s Platoon opened fire, and their bodies were torn into pieces, blood squirting onto the tops of the young trees. One had cried out, as he was shot, “No, no, no!” in a high-pitched wail, syrupy with despair. It sent a shiver through me.
I slowly stood up with my platoon. The rest of the SDs had raised their hands, thrown their rifles away. They were sobbing, or hysterically screaming not to be killed. Some yelled for help for their friends. When Araujo stopped calling out cease fire, it was so quiet I could hear the shot SDs gurgling their last breaths. A breeze snaked down the hillside, rustling the trees.
“One, Actual,” I called over to Araujo. “What the fuck?”
“Shit,” she grunted, breathing hard. “Goddamn it. You guys, OK?”
“Yeah,” I said, checking my CNIDS. “We’re OK. But what the fuck was that? I think I mighta pissed myself.”
“Conarrubis? Jaxon?” Araujo screamed at her squad and fireteam leader on the left. “Hold your goddamn fire, you stupid motherfuckers.”
“You ceased, Jamie?” I asked.
“Yeah, take ‘em down.” Her voice was airy, one long exhale, pushing out a tangible fear at the repercussions of his fuckup. Not only had her platoon almost caused blue-on-blue casualties, but she’d just violated the ROE, killing six U.S. citizens. Fleeing Seditious Dissenters or not, would this trigger a court-martial, a civil lawsuit? And what nightmares of guilt?
My platoon closed with the SDs. Switching off my NVs, in the moonlight I could see the group huddled in the greenery. I ordered them to stand, hands on their heads, and to move towards us slowly. They staggered over, shaking, faces covered in tears and snot and mud. Some had soiled themselves. On top of this, the thick sweet smell of coppery blood in the air drifted downhill from the nearby bodies and turned my stomach. They looked fucking pitiful, and the burning hate I’d felt cooled. Why had they even fired? Why did Trucker have to die?
As they got within a dozen feet, I texted Kunio:
“Third Squad will collect. Move ’em down to LZ Street. Split ’em up, let the FBI process when you get there.”
As the VEHPs came into our lines, I studied their faces. One, a kid no more than 16, was shaking violently with fear. He startled at every bush he bumped into in the dark. The rest looked relieved to be alive. One, older, more rugged-looking than the rest, gave us a hard, hateful stare. Stupid, I thought, to tag yourself as a leader like that. Our CNIDs flashed mug shots and IDs, past history from the FBI database, all quickly cataloged. None of them were Kravchenko, or listed as having affiliations with Central Processing.
As they came into the clutches of Kunio’s squad, Shitbowl barked, “You stupid motherfuckers. Was it worth it? Pulling this shit?” The apparent leader looked at him, eyes full of hate.
“Turn around,” Shitbowl said, and roughly ziptied the man. Kunio stalked up, whispered something into his ear. The man stiffened, but said nothing. As Kunio’s squad started moving them downhill, the grim, apparent leader struggled against being led away.
“Move, goddamn you,” Kunio said, and push-kicked the man in the back. He landed face-down on a fallen branch and groaned as his breath was knocked out.
“Kunio,” I said, rushing up and grabbing him by his ammo harness. “Don’t assault my prisoners. Just get them the fuck out of here.”
J-pop gave me a petulant look. All of his squad glared at him, angry and embarrassed. Just then, the SWAT team and Trondner appeared, marching up from the river.
“For fuck sake,” I said under my breath.
Hammers came up, and we exchanged a look. He shrugged and texted: “Feeling the pressure, I guess. We got 31.”
As the prisoners were led away by the FBI, First Platoon left cover and moved downhill in a skirmish line towards us. Second Platoon yelled out insults, asked them to lay down so we could shoot target practice over their heads.
This banter vanished when First Platoon reached the bodies of the killed SDs. On the left side of the platoon, a crowd started to form, with troopers leaving their places to see them. Tromping uphill, FBI Lieutenant Trondner waved them away.
“Get back, move away from those bodies,” he called out. He shouted to Araujo, who was walking behind the center of the line with Sergeant Wilson and her CP group.
“Move your men back, this is a crime scene. Clear this whole area.”
The group around the bodies glared at Trondner, and none moved. No one seemed concerned that the “crime” was attached to them. On the video, it was clear that Araujo’s Third Squad, led by Staff Sergeant Miguel Conarrubis, had done the firing. Conarrubis was a short, quiet man, not known for bloodthirst or fanaticism. The fire had started with his two 255 medium machine gunners, apparently without order. One of them, Georgia Stubbs, was a hulking woman, six-foot and 200 pounds, with a plain doughy face. Nicknamed Lezzie, because of her open queerness, she threw shade at Trondner and said flatly,
“I think we all know what happened.”
Jaxon “Axe” Pallance, a similarly huge man and a fellow machine-gunner, gave her a high-five, adding,
“We shredded those SD fuckers.”
I winced, seeing this, but some of First Platoon laughed along with them. A few were stony-faced, others obviously ill at the sight and smell of the corpses. Conarrubis looked blank and confused. Araujo’s face turned to a mask of rage.
“Shut the fuck up,” she growled to Lezzie and Axe, and pushed her way forward to the group around the bodies.
“Get the fuck back, and back on line.” She shoved troopers towards their places, while Lezzie and Axe dodged around her, smiling. Araujo turned to Trondner.
“I didn’t give the order. Neither did Sergeant Conarrubis.”
“It’s all on cam, Lieutenant.”
Araujo opened her mouth to speak, thought better of it. Good call, I thought. Don’t push your luck, Jamie. Already a big enough helping of shit on your plate.
As our platoons linked up, with glad-handing and whispered inquiries about Trucker and the wounded, Mendéz jogged up from behind Weapons. First’s wounded, a former Empire addict named Jordan Rogers, had a minor flesh wound in the arm. The wounded mortarman in Weapons, Jerome Tinkerman, had taken a rifle bullet in the guts, but was stable. Pretty Boy was fine, as was the SWAT team member, both only a little bruised.
Bryant and Kelly jogged over to meet Mendéz. Though we could all converse on the CNIDs, we felt a natural desire to huddle after the action was over.
Behind his face shield, the Captain’s face was slick with perspiration. His dark eyes immediately scanned in judgement, looking for fear or hesitation. He stood in a patch of moonlight, the three-quarters globe shining a spot on his face shield.
“Jonas, Jamie,” he said, still breathing hard. “We’ve got to clear out, the FBI’s got another team coming in. Move Second to the right, edge on the far streamlet, and First straight up to the ridgeline. Look for any signs of SDs, ingress or egress routes, and report any weapons or supplies. Third will stay on the left flank, edge on the opposite creek route. Weapons stays in the middle.” He paused, listened to something on his own comms. He turned to Jamie.
“They were all armed, trying to flee. They disobeyed multiple orders to disarm. Were still a viable threat.”
From the strained, tight-jawed look that Araujo gave back to him, we could all see this was a lie, and a cover for losing control of her troops. Mendéz was feeding her lines to tell the board of inquiry that surely would be coming. I felt a mix of comfort that Mendéz wanted to protect us, and shame that he would lie about a war crime.
Mendéz turned to me.
“Not your fault about Trucker. I should have had them do a recce pass, then suppressed the camp.”
“Yes, Sir.” I said, a gut punch of guilt in my stomach. Regrets raced through my head: why hadn’t I ordered them to take cover on touchdown? Or specifically assigned counter-snipers? But the fucking FBI had been so adamant in their expectation that they would back down. And I hated them for that.
Before we moved back to our platoons, Kelly stepped next to me, put a hand on my shoulder.
“He’s right, you know,” he whispered.
“I know,” I lied.
“You did good man, real real.”
I sucked at my teeth, embarrassed by Wayne’s concern. This was my fucking job. I wasn’t on the verge of breakdown. It could have been much worse.
“Enough, Money,” I said, shaking off his hand.
“Shit, don’t take it like a shutcon, bro.”
He turned away, slipping around the dark boles of trees back to his platoon. As I moved back to Second, I flipped through the images troopers had snapped of the SD’s bodies.
It was stupid and masochistic, since I already felt guilty. As I looked, I remembered Oat’s words, when we’d talked after I graduated from AIT: “You’ll probably see some terrible things before this is over. Wounds, death, bodies. You have to mentally prepare yourself for that moment. Ready yourself for the shock. It’s not easy.”
I’d already seen Trucker, but it had been so fast. Now, seeing the images of the VHEP corpses, I shuddered, but I couldn’t stop looking.
One lay against a log, its arm and head torn off by the rifle fire. Yellow hunks of fat and blood were splattered against the moss and wet wood of the log. The arm lay nearby, the cotton of the torn parka soaked to saturation with blood. On the forest floor lay pieces of skull, dark matted hair, grey pieces of brain among the leaves and needles. The other bodies were in no better shape, most with eight to twelve heavy bullet holes through their chest and heads. Someone was tapping me on the shoulder.
“Sir?” It was Hammers. I took a deep breath.
“You aight?” he asked.
“Yeah. Platoon, OK?”
He nodded. “Patrol order?”
I mapped it out, flashed the route. Standing there, watching the Platoon ready itself to move, I felt a sickly exhaustion. I looked uphill at the half-klick to the ridgeline and sighed. The adrenaline from the attack had worn off, and I was post-fuck tired. But I couldn’t show any signs of weariness or weakness in front of the troops.
A half-hour later, we reached the top of the ridge and I spread the platoon out below its crest. Hammers and I crawled up to reconnoiter. The opposite side of the ridge was a wasteland of charred, rotting stumps intermixed with igneous boulders in shallow craters. The North Mowich river valley lay below this and was bordered by a high stony ledge–Ptarmigan Ridge. To the south of this, the Mountain glowed white and gold, dark shadows cast across its valleys in the rising sunlight.
A cold wind blew in our faces. I caught my breath. It was the most beautiful sunrise I’d ever seen.
After nesting one of our drones in a nearby tree, we scooted back down out of sight, looked over the resting platoon. Lambert was moving through the squads, checking everyone’s bruises and scrapes. On the right, Parks was replaying his killing of one of the snipers to his hero-worshiping squad. On the left, Pretty Boy was showing everyone his suit scar, while Mac calmly looked on. On the far left, up against Araujo’s flank, Kunio was telling his squad about roughing up the VHEP leader, all of which looked bored or annoyed. He didn’t seem to notice.
“Beautiful fucking morning, huh?” Hammers texted.
“Jesus,” I said out loud. “Sometimes that real-real is like wow.”
“But fuck am I pissed at the FB and I.” I said, shutting my mic off. The agents were all down at their CP on the river, or had flown back to Lewis for interrogations. They’d documented the site of those VHEPs killed, and removed the bodies.
“Shit. Thought they just gonna back down at some loudspeakers?”
I looked at Hammers. “You think they’ll put charges up on Araujo or Conarrubis?”
He shook his head, brown eyes calm and assured.
“Lezzie or Axe?”
“Nah, LT. Look, it’s a damn shame, and it didn’t have to happen. But those dumb fuckers were armed, and they could’ve stopped running. The FBI ain’t gonna say shit, because they fucked it up in the first place. Mendéz might Article 15 the two stupid asses, but we need gunners.”
“Yeah,” I said. “It’s still fucked. And wait till those VHEP’s families get it into civil court.”
Hammers snorted in disbelief. “It’ll be a while. This’ll stay secret until we round up the rest of ’em.”
I looked down the ridge, to where Kunio’s Third Squad hunched below a huge fallen tree, trying to ignore his story.
Hammers snorted again, raised his face shield to scratch his cheek.
“Yeah. Kiddo ain’t cut out for it. Don’t know how the fuck he got through BLC in the first place. But ain’t a damn thing we can do about it.”
“That’s right,” I said.
I felt like storming over and slapping Kunio, screaming at him that a man in his squad was dead, and nobody gave a fuck that he’d kicked a prisoner. But nothing would make his squad trust him again.
If I’d had my choice, I’d have promoted Raleigh to E-6 and put her in charge of Third Squad. She was competent, though I worried about some of the guys giving her womanshit. But I couldn’t demote or transfer anyone for pushing prisoners around, or wanting to call their mom on the verge of tears before an op. And sure as shit nobody was getting promoted for this fucking operation.
A message flashed across my HUD.
“Game’s back on,” I said. “New patrol order.”
After a hurried breakfast, the Company split into two, patrolling north and south along the opposite sides of the ridge. Two MULES were delivered, and we used their olfactory sensors to find recently buried excrement and offal from deer the SDs had taken. But there were no traces of scent trails beside those from the group we’d just destroyed, or any other gear, or comm equipment. The FBI had found only the one obsolete Echo, and the two sets of NVs, all of them recently stolen. We had nothing leading us to the other VHEP groups we knew must be operating nearby.
The FBI had no definite intel from their preliminary prisoner interrogations, so Mendéz received longer patrol orders for the next 72 hours, and each company in the battalion was given a section of the park to sweep. Mendéz relayed a recorded thank you from the governor, and the president, which we all scoffed at, but secretly felt proud of.
That night, we dug in and camouflaged in a circle on the east side of the ridge, on top of were the VHEPs had camped. The FBI hoped that another group would walk into the camp, or someone who’d been away would come back and get captured. Webb was in the hospital with a broken shoulder, and I listened with simmering anger at that night’s briefing as Trondner reminded us to fire tracker rounds, or otherwise incapacitate incoming SDs–and not shoot them.
Though of course there would be an official Army investigation, Mendéz told us it was perfunctory, and he’d gotten nothing but congrats from battalion and brigade. But we all knew Araujo’s team had made a mistake, and that the S2s were keeping a close lid on our CNID footage of the event.
That night, I filled out the paperwork for Trucker’s death, and wrote an email to his family, to be sent when outside comms were allowed. The only consolation I could come up with was that it appeared he’d been killed trying to help agent Webb. It was difficult to tell on the CNID footage, but it looked as if Trucker had shifted towards Webb’s position when he was shot. Trucker going to his rescue became real in my mind as I wrote. I wanted it to be true. When I finished, I went to go sit with Third Squad, and visit with Trucker’s two best friends, Shitbowl, and Vitaly Ermolenko, a dark-haired, brooding first-generation Ukrainian kid.
It did not go well.
Neither one wanted to hear my platitudes about how they’d done a good job, and nothing could have prevented Trucker’s death. When I brought up what I missed about him, Shitbowl lashed out at me, demanding to know why’d we carried out this fucked operation with both thumbs up our asses. I mumbled through the answers I’d been given, and slunk back to Hammer’s hole, trying to hide my embarrassment, feeling like a total piece of shit.
I slumped down next to him. He was cleaning his M-33, the bullpup with its attached grenade launcher all disassembled.
“Words won’t do it, huh?”
I nodded. He slipped the M-33’s rotary bolt back into its place below the sear with a soft click.
“What I tell my wife, sometimes. On those bad days.” This was Hammer’s first day in combat too, but he’d cleaned up dead families after the Mississippi had flooded two years before, inundating most of Minneapolis. And been in a car accident during BLC, which had almost killed him, and had killed the Sergeant driving the TV.
He finished putting the rifle back together.
“I’ll keep an eye on ’em, LT. They’ll be all right. Just sleep on it, and I’ll wake you when it’s your watch.”
“I thought I’d feel . . . Something different.”
“What? It ain’t like books, Sir. It’s dirt and blood. But it wasn’t no newbie-crush first day. Shit, we coulda lost ten, or lost Trucker and let them get away.”
Hearing Hammers speak like this surprised me, made me realize how well he understood me. He’d recognized I’d thought combat and revenge would enlighten me, bring me to some higher sense of reality. And there was a half-truth to that thought. The adrenaline, the burning necessity, the max of emotion and experience had felt like a kind of epiphany. But he seen well ahead of time what I hadn’t; that this came with a comedown. A shit spray of combined guilt and shame, with no way to wash it off. Blood and dirt was right.
“Those books fucked me up,” I said.
“New education, now, huh?” He clicked in a set of propellent and ammo.
I looked at him, realizing just how far I’d come, and how much farther I had to go. Our first day of combat. Fuck ups and successes, all mixed in a big pot of life chili. I was glad it was over.
“Get some sleep, Sir,” Hammers said. “Got another finals tomorrow.”
I climbed out of his slit trench, slipped over into mine, and fell into a heavy sleep, thanking the universe that I had a decent Platoon Sergeant.