This is chapter 9 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 resulting economic depression.

When this war happens, Jonas Mills, the protagonist, 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.

Chapter 9

After returning to battalion, the chaotic planning only worsened.  

Gold was at the armorer, trying to get two more sets of MPACS. First Sergeant Innings had gotten permission to issue ammo, but was crisscrossing the base to gather the appropriate supply, with conflicting orders of priority for the companies. I helped Hammers and the squad sergeants get Second Platoon fitted with full packs and supplies, while providing them with all the info I had. Despite this, troopers constantly stopped me for more information.

Ronnie Chambers, a skuzzy, beady-eyed kid from Tacoma in Third Squad, came into the officer’s quarters, and tapped me on the shoulder as I threw my kit together.

“What kind of heat they holding, Sir?”

“Like I said, hunting rifles, pistols. Nothing the FBI shouldn’t be able to handle.”

“So we’re just backup?” he asked.

“Yes, Chambers.”

“Sir, we gonna–“

“Space, Shitbowl,” I said, using his nickname, while texting J-Pop, his squad sergeant, who I hadn’t yet seen among the scurrying troops. Chambers had gotten this name as a play on his last, and because his father was a plumber. I shook my head at the huge gaudy Husky tattoo on the side of his neck.

Billy Martellini, Shitbowl’s battle buddy, a grifty twenty-one-year old from Puyallup with slick, dark black hair, came behind hearing his questions.

“Lieutenant, if they got scoped rifles, shouldn’t we soften ‘em up before we land?” he asked. 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 announced an assembly in 20 minutes.

Fifteen minutes later, with two troopers still unaccounted for (one from my Platoon) 146 of us assembled in the downstairs auditorium. Mendéz and Gold stood at the front, working over their projector laptop, stony-faced, preparing their presentation.

After the briefing, and then outlining a plan with my squad leaders and the full platoon, we packed up and moved across base to assemble in a huge Quonset hut near McChord’s central airfield. The entire company was put 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.

Afternoon slipped into evening as we studied maps, photos of the camp, real time-video of the Elves, checked and rechecked our gear, reviewed plans, frequencies, passwords, and contingencies.

As it grew dark, and I assembled my squad leaders for a final briefing, I had three worries racing through my mind. One was 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. Nobody could get a hold of her, even her family. Two, J-pop had become nervous as hell, demanding I allow him to call his girlfriend and mother, which of course I denied. Even if it had been up to me, this operation was still secret. Worse, his squad had overheard some of this, and looked on with disdainful eyes.

The last worry was the operation itself. We were landing downhill from a woodened, 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? If they had night vision scopes, they could hit us as we came off the choppers. More than that, what would happen if they moved before we launched? Or destroyed the stealth drone and disappeared into the wilderness? I took a deep breath, and tried to put these worries away as I called over my team leaders.

J-Pop’s face was cagey and beaded with sweat, but Parks and Meginness appeared calm and eager. Hammers nodded at me and I started the last-minute briefing.

“The number one thing is to get everyone off the helos fast, form up on line along the edge of the creek, and keep cohesion. First Squad on the right, I’m in the middle with Second, Hammers on the left with Third.” Hopefully, I thought, he could keep an eye on J-Pop.

“Kunio,” I said, “keep your flank in with Third Platoon. Review call signs, and know your hand signals if our network goes down.” He nodded nervously in Kelly’s direction behind. “Parks, be prepared to swing right and flank around the group to connect with First.”

Hammers added: “Keep your fire discipline. Remember the ROE, and put your tracker rounds where you can reach ‘em. Watch for friendlies, especially those agents. If these motherfuckers make a break for it, we’ll catch ‘em eventually. But we can’t replace a trooper.”

The squad leaders dispersed to their teams, and Hammers pulled Kunio aside to try and calm him down. I sat on my pack, and flashed up the LZ map on my CNIDs, my body growing tenser while the minutes fell away.

A half hour later, I heard Hammers clear his throat, and looked up to see Webb and Trondner talking with Mendéz ringed by a fully-geared SWAT team of eight in black. 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 being used for any terrorists in arms against the U.S. Government. “No IDs yet?” I asked.

Webb shook his head. “Not on anyone major. As soon as we hit the lights.”

Mendéz dismissed us. I caught eyes with agent Trondner, and he stepped aside to answer my question.

“Lieutenant?”

“No chance any of these pers are 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 for sure. 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, the heavy weight of my pack on by shoulders, watching the helos warm up a hundred feet away. It was well after midnight, the moon hidden by the clouds, the sodium lights around the airfield pale and ghostly. We had yet to turn on our Night Vision (NVs), and the false light looked foreboding, like a stockyard about to go to slaughter, or a crime scene, just lit up by the apprehending police.

All around me, 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 behind schedule, due to delays in supply. Hammers was keeping a close eye on Kunio, and I’d given up on Rina Colts. An MP team had been assigned to investigate, and I wondered now if she’d gone over to some rebel group, or just was having second thoughts.

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.

Despite all my worries, I felt as sure as I could be under the circumstances. The platoon was steady, and I could trust all my subordinates but one. I had faith in Captain Mendéz. My suit and battery were tip-top, and I’d checked and rechecked my bag of gear. I had three days of rations and water, 300 rounds of M-33 ammo and propellent in racks along my chest, and a sidearm attached to my hip, with two spare clips alongside. I had zipties, tracker non-lethal rounds in a pouch on one side, and analog maps of the Park and surrounding area, and my first-aid kit in the other, as well as my shard of glass from 11/2 and Kim’s stone around my neck. My CNID was linked in to my platoon, the officers and noncom’s channels, as well as the FBI, our company drones, and the helo pilots. I had a map readout of the position of everyone in the company, and I could pull up the view on their CNID camera in an instant, in addition to detailed maps of almost anywhere in the world. In the upper left, I had a live link to the stealth observation drone circling the SD camp.

On that screen, the camp was dead, and silent. The group appeared to be resting after a long exertion. Earlier in the afternoon, three had traversed far north along the ridgeline and shot a deer with a silenced rifle, while others had gathered roots and huckleberries. Most slept, or casually talked. A few wrote in journals, or sketched, some played mumblety-peg or repaired clothing. That night, they’d built a large Dakota smokeless fire and roasted the deer carcass on it. After a prayer, they ate and talked quietly, then most slipped away to sleep. We noted that there were multiple couples in the group, and seemingly no conflicts, suspicions, or anxiety. We saw no computers, phones, or advanced weaponry. In realtime, on our drone’s NV cam, we could see they had two sentries out, fifty meters below the main camp. One appeared to be sleeping, the other whispering to himself. But that would all change, as soon as we approached.  

I looked in Mendéz’s direction, who was conferring with Gold, the FBI and the rest of the HQ group to my left. We were two hours past the departure time. It was nearing 0200.

“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.”

“Bravo Six, 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. In that moment, my faith and elation soared.

But I didn’t feel that way now. My stomach was sour, filled with an anxious bile, and I felt groggy and loopy from being on high alert for twelve-plus hours. More than that, everything felt unreal. The decision I’d made almost a year ago had come to ripening. The problem was, it wasn’t Kravchenko and his group of killers out there. It was another set, who looked so human, so normal. I knew they were misguided, and had killed others. But they were Americans, and I could see myself in their place, in another world, another timeline. That thought twisted my insides as much as thoughts of potential death did. The helo going down in a cross wind. 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 around me to a glittering intensity.

I couldn’t remember a time when I’d felt this nervous. I worried about my decisions getting someone killed. Of freezing, of fucking up, of letting someone down. Please god, or fate, or an indifferent universe, let the tiles fall in my favor tonight, I thought. Just get me through this without a fuck up.

It was time. First Platoon ran low across the airfield to their waiting three UH-84s. Twelve 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. He had other nicknames, being the only openly gay man in the platoon, but they certainly weren’t used in his presence, or mine, because he did his job well, and wouldn’t back down from a fight. 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 plexiglas 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 realtime video of the rebels on my CNIDs. Everyone asleep, no sound of the choppers yet on the stealth drone’s mic. A horned owl hoo-hooed somewhere in the distance.

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. The awake sentry, a bearded, gaunt face, eyes black holes in the eerie green of the NV, cocked his head, listening. The sleeping one 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 from Tacoma, who was sitting 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 pilot 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 demons in the faded grey/green of NV, their eyes dark hollows in the circles of their faces. 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 verses fifty desperate armed felons?

“How the fuck they take out a stealth drone?” Abel called out.

“With fucking NVs and an Echo,” Mac growled. “How else?” Mac regripped his rifle held between his knees, his jaw set in a tight grimace. It was true. Rewatching the last few minutes of video, we’d seen a team pull out a military-grade, low sound, echo-location scope, along with two pairs of NVs. What else did they have hidden?

“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. We had an hour, give or take, before we’d have to change out our batteries.

“First Platoon’s inserting,” Mendéz called over the comm. Out the window, I watched their helos separate and move north from the group. 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 grey, drawn, some waxy and perspiring, teeth exposed in strange grins. Webb demanded apprehension of the shooter, and for the plan to continue with the FBI in charge.

The helo buoyed itself up as it slowed to a landing position. The walls were buffeted by the nearby prop wash of the other choppers. Thunks 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, the Mowich creek roared and 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 insertion choppers roared up from the top of the hill, pounding above and over 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 made it out of their chopper, and 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, searching for targets. Another round cracked above my head. I looked left, saw the helos were rising, the pilot calling out on the comms, “We’re taking fire, we’re gone.”

I felt a sudden strange confusion, like the moment after being shot at at UW. I put my hand down to a cold wet rock, to steady myself. Ahead and to the left, I saw the SWAT team had all taken cover, rounds sparking off the river stones around them. Another thunked into the departing helo behind me. A clear, burning resentment coursed through me. The fuckers were trying to kill us! After all our planning, all our preparation. A burning anger and a desire to snuff out these interlopers overwhelmed me. Without thinking about FBI command, I prepared to give the order to find targets, and return fire, when 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. Sticking out from under his right shoulder was a crushed alder seedling.

I screamed for Lambert, our platoon medic, who was already besides me, though part of me knew there was no need. Lambert leapt to his side, and pulling up his mask with latexed hands, revealed that the bullet had entered in 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 he was dead. All of Second Squad’s eyes were riveted on Trucker, 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 someone 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. Blocked it.”

Webb was moaning, holding his shoulder, rolling on his back. “Lambert,” I said, “check out the Captain, collar might be broken.” I looked up, saw Trondner crawl towards me.

“Sir?” I said. “We gotta move.”

He flinched as more shots cracked overhead, took a squatting position. He shouted, “It’s your show. Save us some to interrogate.”

While we spoke, Mendéz took command, 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. My other team leaders and Hammers were waiting for orders. Mendéz voice cut through the confusion.

“Second Platoon on line?” He asked. He was yelling, so I could hear him on the comms, with an echo of his real voice coming down the creek after.

“Yes, Sir. One pulvy, two minor shredders.”

A drop in his voice.

“Cover and mark him and get ready to move out. Dough’s on the Medevac.”

Just as the company was set to move, 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. “Second Platoon, form skirmishers, move out.”

The platoon looked back at me as if I was crazy. Parks was cursing at his squad to move. I swiveled my head around, saw the other platoons were crouched all along the rocks, staring up, 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 entire Company stood up and darted into the woods. I could see Mendéz a hundred yards away, rotating his right arm forward in a circle in the hand signal for “advance”. 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 leapt forward across the streambed, then into the shrubbery, the platoon bounding around me uphill. Suits at max exertion, we leapt 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 sudden dark I slipped, landed flat on my face, wet ferns slapping my facemask, rich hummus smell in my nose. 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 rebel 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 six large holes through the helicopter’s fuselage. He was immediately cut down as he fled, when Araujo’s first team landed. They’d found no other SDs, and after consolidating the LZ, First Platoon was now perfectly 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. The two snipers had perched awkwardly on the branches of a dead tree to get the angle. Ragged men aiming deer rifles, suddenly enveloped in puffs of explosions, their garments 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 own company drones, 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 our NVs, they appeared as green and black shadows, dodging and diving through the forest. On my 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 the 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. Glimpses of a puffy jacket arm, or a waved hand, or a bobbing hairy head. I thought I could smell them too: BO, woodsmoke, the stink of dried offal, rifle grease.

On the map, I could see that Araujo had stopped his 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 his 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 a dozen M-33’s 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, and impacted below far south from the landing site.

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 from their pierced bodies 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. It sounded like a child being cruelly put to death, or an innocent man being executed.

 I slowly stood up with my platoon, and could see the rest of the SDs had raised their hands, thrown their rifles away. Most were sobbing, or hysterically screaming not to be killed. Some yelled for help for their friends, who I guessed were well beyond help. When Araujo stopped calling out for a cease fire, it was so quiet I could hear the shot SDs gurgling their last breaths and moaning. A breeze snaked down the hillside, rustling the trees.

“One, Actual,” I called over to Araujo. “What the fuck?”

“Shit,” he grunted, breathing hard. “You guys OK? Fucking sorry, Jonas.”

“Yeah,” I said, checking my CNIDS. “We’re OK. But what the fuck was that? I think I mighta pissed myself a little.”

“Conarrubis? Jaxon?” Araujo screamed at his squad and fireteam leader on the left. “Hold your goddamn fire.”

“You ceased, Jaime? Fuck man, that was close.”

“We’re good. You want us to take ‘em down?”

“We got ‘em. Just don’t waste me.”

“Right.” Araujo said, sighing into his mic. His voice was airy, one long exhale, pushing out a tangible fear at the repercussions of his fuckup. Not only had his platoon almost caused blue-on-blue casualties, but he’d just violated the ROE, killing six fleeing U.S. citizens. Seditious Dissenters or not, would this trigger a court martial, a civil lawsuit? And what nightmares of guilt, even if we got off? What intelligence had we just lost?

I moved my platoon closer to the SDs. Switching off my NVs, in the moonlight I could see the group huddled in the greenery. Dirty puffy parkas, heavy tan carharts, overalls, leather jackets. Thrown away around them, a mix of hunting rifles, some in scabbards, and holstered pistols.

I ordered them to stand, hands on their heads, and to move towards us slowly. They staggered over, hands up, shaking, faces covered in tears and snot and mud. Some had soiled themselves. On top of this, the thick sweat 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 since the attack had started, cooled. They were delusional amateurs. Why had they even fired? Why did Trucker have to die?

As they got within a dozen feet, I turned left.

“Kunio,” I said, “Third Squad will collect. Move ’em down to LZ Street. Split ’em up, let the FBI process when you get there.”

As the Elves came into our lines, I studied their faces. All were dirty, with grime and rifle grease in their pores and the creases of their eyes. Some had the blood of their comrades splattered on their clothes. 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 had taken on a look of almost relief as they came in, seeing how close they’d been to being killed. 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 catalogued. 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.

Kunio’s squad finished tying the prisoners and started moving them downhill. The grim, apparent leader struggled against being led away.

“Move, goddamn you,” Kunio shouted, 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, hurt look. All of his squad were looking 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.

“Feeling the pressure, I guess. We got 31.”

“Right.”

As the prisoners were led away by the FBI, First Platoon left cover and moved downhill in a skirmish line towards us. A row of smiling relaxed faces, some waving and calling out greetings and apologies. Second platoon yelled back insults, asked them to lay down so we could shoot target practice overhead.

 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. They looked like children who’d found a dead dog in an alley. 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 his 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. Wilson, First Platoon’s Sergeant, for one, sank back, seeing the bodies, a look of horror on his face. Conarrubis looked blank and confused. Araujo’s face turned to a mask of rage.

“Shut the fuck up,” he growled to Lezzie and Axe, and pushed his way forward to the group around the bodies.

“Get the fuck back, and back on line.” He shoved troopers towards their places, while Lezzie and Axe dodged around him, smiling. Araujo turned to Trondner.

“I didn’t give the order. Neither did Sergeant Conarrubis.”

“It’s all on cam, Lieutenant.”

Araujo opened his mouth to speak, thought better of it. Good call, I thought. Don’t push your luck, Jaime. Already a big enough helping of shit on your plate. Even if the agents had fucked the whole operation.

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, and he’d be fine. The wounded mortarman in Weapons, Jerome Tinkerman, had taken a rifle bullet in the guts, but the suit had slowed it, and he 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 of course we could all converse over the CNIDs.

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, Jaime,” 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 or ingress or egress routes, 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. Probably the battalion commander, or one of the agents. He turned to Jaime.

“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 his men. Mendéz was feeding him 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 gutpunch 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, masochistic, even, especially since I already felt guilty enough. As I looked, I remembered Oats 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’s body, but it had been so fast. Now, looking over the images of the 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. I stared at the torn neck. A ragged hole where the throat had been, the white of the broken spinal cord, the whole surface layered in clotted blood. The other bodies were in no better shape, most with eight to twelve heavy bullet holes through their chest and heads. Blood had pooled among the leaf-litter and ferns. 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 up for the Platoon. Standing there, watching the Platoon ready itself to move, I felt a sickly exhaustion. I looked uphill at the half-klick or more 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. Time to pull it together.

#

A half hour later, we reached the top of the ridge and watched a gray pre-dawn turn to sunrise up over the Mountain. I caught my breath. This was the most beautiful sunrise I’d ever seen.

South of Mt. Rainier, and directly across from us, was a high stony ledge–Ptarmigan Ridge. Below it was a valley floor, filled with gray rotting logs and rock debris from the eruption. The North Mowich creek flowed through this devastation, new trees and shrubs sprouting along its banks. South, the valley rose into the re-forming North Mowich Glacier. A long crenulated slug of pure white, glistening in the soft light, reaching up to the snow-covered rim line of Rainier. A cold wind was in our faces. Soon the Mountain glowed white and gold, dark shadows cast across its valleys. High cirrus clouds drifted in thin fingers towards the west.

During the eruption all the trees on this ridge and across the valley had been blown down, then torched by pyroclastic flows. Charred, worn stumps dotted the eastern face. The ridgeline was also scattered with igneous boulders. In a few places huge black stones were imbedded at the bottom of shallow craters; ejecta from the eruption. Scanning the ridge opposite for movement, I spotted a mountain goat carefully traversing its way across, which then disappeared over the crest.

I looked over the platoon spread on both sides of me, just below the crest. Lambert was moving through the squads, checking everyone’s bruises and scrapes. On the right, Parks was retelling 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 Bryant’s flank, Kunio was telling his squad about roughing up the VHEP leader, all of which who looked bored or annoyed. He didn’t seem to notice.

“Beautiful fucking morning, huh?” Hammers said, stepping up beside me.

“Jesus. Sometimes that real-real is like wow.”

“Mm-hmm.”

“But fuck am I pissed at the FB and I.” I said, off mic. 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. Crime scene,” Hammers said.

I looked at him. “You think they’ll put charges up on Araujo or Conarrubis?”

He shook his head, brown eyes calm and assured. “Nope.”

“Lezzie or Axe?”

“Nah, LT. For one, this is all still secret. Two, sure, they didn’t have to shoot ’em. But them dumb fuckers were armed, and they didn’t have to run either.”

“Yeah,” I said. “It’s still fucked. It didn’t have to happen. And wait till those VHEP’s families get it into civil court.”

Hammers snorted in disbelief. 

I looked down the ridge, to where Kunio’s Third Squad hunched below a huge fallen tree, trying to ignore his story.

“What?”

“Fucking J-Pop.”

Hammers snorted again, scratched at his face.

“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 had my choice, I’d have promoted Raleigh to E-6 and put her in charge of Third Squad. She was competent enough, though I worried about her and Mac being the same rank, and some of the older 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 I sure as shit couldn’t get anyone promoted for this little attack. I was stuck with a shitty squad leader, just like I was stuck with the guilt of having the only platoon to have a KIA.  

A message flashed across my view.

“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 (the M2029 Mounted Utility Logistic Equipment System) were delivered: four-legged robots that could silently carry over 400 pounds of supplies, respond to enemy threats, and mirror the behavior of the troopers around them.

Using their olfactory sensors, we found 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 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.

We listened as helos came and went on the other side of the ridge, FBI agents processing the prisoners. They had no definite intel yet from their preliminary 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. We took the northwest corner, A the northeast, and C and D the south. We received a hearty 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 a VHEP from 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.

There was no mention of legal action, and in his briefing after, Mendéz told us he’d gotten nothing but congrats from battalion and brigade. But we all knew Araujo’s team had made a mistake. As had the FBI. Now the ROE was updated: if we made contact with armed insurrectionist, we could immediately return fire if fired upon.

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, pale-faced brooding second-generation Ukrainian kid.

It had reached the 70’s during the day, but the forecast was to drop into the low 40’s during the night. We were at 5000 feet, so it was twenty degrees colder than at Lewis, or in Seattle. The air was damp, rich with moss and the pine scent of young evergreens. Songbirds called out among the trees as night fell, and an owl began hooting as it turned dark. We could hear squirrels in some of the remaining trees chittering and dropping spent cones.

Mendéz had positioned Second Platoon on the northeast side of the circle, with First to the south, and Third to the northwest. Weapon’s heavy MGs had been mixed in with our platoons, its mortars stowed due to the overhead tree cover.

After announcing my movement on the company CNIDs, I left my ranger grave dug against a downed log across from Hammer’s, and moved towards Third Squad’s section.

I didn’t really know what I would say. Vitaly was mildly Eastern Orthodox, Shitbowl an atheist, Trucker a Wiccan, so there was no point in mentioning god. I thought of everything I knew about Trucker: two wives, no kids, no drinking as he’d almost been shitcanned out of the Army for going overboard. He had a weird love of apple juice, which he drank by the gallon in the DFAC until it became unavailable this summer. He constantly showed pics of his two shorthair tabby cats–one for each wife–to uninterested and dismissive troopers. He often told tales from the trucking life: bad accidents he’d seen, hallucinations on long hauls fueled by uppers, the sordid life of sex workers at truck stops.

Kunio saw me and started to rise from his hole in the middle, but I waved him down and moved towards the left, into Shitbowl and Vitaly’s hole.

“Hello, Sir,” they said glumly, as I slid in between them. Like me, they’d dug in behind a yard-wide tree trunk, to serve as a fire step. They didn’t seem surprised by my visit.

Vitaly was stocky, round-faced, just turned nineteen. He never seemed happy, and I’d heard him gripe more than once that he’d rather be working the family roofing business than be in the army. But they’d fallen on hard times with the most recent release of construction robots.

“A shit day, huh?” I said.

“Yes, Sir.”

I paused for effect, then continued. “You both did good. I miss the hell out of Trucker right now. Hard to believe we won’t get to see him chugging apple juice when we get back to Lewis, or hear another truckstop story.”

Two frowns, glaring back at me, shifts of uncomfort.

“You think they’ll be more tonight, Lieutenant?” Vitaly asked, in his soft accent.

“No, I don’t. But don’t let me catch you slacking off.”

“No, Sir.”

“Well,” I said, feeling lame and out of touch, “I just wanted you to know you did OK. That there wasn’t anything any of us could do.”

“Why didn’t we hump in, Sir?” Chambers asked. “Ambush them?”

Here we go.

“We had to take them down quick. Couldn’t risk them getting away.”

“That’s why Trucker had to die?” Shitbowl asked, his voice rising in hysteria.

“Shit, Chambers, there isn’t a reason, OK? Maybe we could have hiked in, and they’d have got you, or Vitaly, or me. Or they could have bounced, and we’d have to do this all over again in a week and lose more people. Just stay sharp, and let’s take it to the bastards.”

“Sir.”

I climbed back up, said a few comforting words to Kunio, then moved back to Hammers, 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 training, which had almost killed him, and had killed the Sergeant driving the TV.

He finished putting the rifle back together.

“Just sleep on it, Lieutenant, and I’ll wake you when it’s your watch.”

“I thought I’d feel . . . Something different.”

“What? An epiphany? It ain’t like books, Sir. It’s dirt and blood. No other way to describe it. 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 he maybe knew me better than I thought. I’d devoed some grandiose ideas about combat. That it would enlighten me in some way, bring me to some higher sense of reality. And certainly, the adrenaline, and the foggy intensity of my memories of the night before had an element of that. But more, it was a montage of extreme churning sensations. Constricting, intense fear on landing, my bowels watery, then a surge of horror at seeing Trucker die, and wanting to crawl out of my own skin. The pumping animal joy at being on the attack, the sucking exhaustion after, my lungs empty, my stomach a bitter walnut, the beauty of the sunrise cut by nausea and spaceyness. And now this pool of sadness, a sticky spray of guilt and shame. Like I’d shit on my hands and had no way to wash them. Blood and dirt was right.

“Those books fucked me up,” I said.

“New education, now, huh?” He clicked a set of propellent and ammo in.

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. But I was also somehow glad it had happened.

“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, and that I wasn’t fully responsible for all the deaths that day.