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Original story: http://nothotbutspicy.com/para/50fa5
All credit goes to 50 Foot Ant of Something Awful.

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End of Winter

Prologue

Room 352, 144th Ord Barracks
144th Ordnance Company Area
Wildflicken Military Post, West Germany
July 1987

The whole room smelled of brewing coffee, which was nice and soothing on my nerves. I was feeling a little frazzled after the last four days of interviews, reports, and being screamed at. 144th was nice enough to let us stay even though we'd brought a whole bunch of heat down on us after the incident at Atlas, which was pretty cool of them all things considered. Captain Ward, their CO, had enough on his hands after what was being termed as a 'race riot' had torn through the lower part of the barracks, so I guess that meant we were small potatoes. 144th had given my crew five rooms up on the third floor at the far end and installed a pair of wall lockers in the room I used for our secure and sensitive items. Our deal was pretty simple: They give us a place to hang out when we weren't at Atlas; we get access to their motorpool to work on our PoS Chevy pickup truck; we get to use their chowhall; we don't show up to their formations, alerts, or training days; we don't tear up their barracks or get the MP's called on us; we leave their soldiers the fuck alone, and everyone's happy. It worked, in the weird cludgy way the 80's Army worked. Everyone left us alone, which suited us just fucking fine.

Which meant that we went to Wildflicken when we weren't at Atlas since it was easier to get to than fuck-off Alfenwehr from FSTS-317 AKA Atlas AKA Shithole Germany. Nobody in their right mind wanted to risk Dead Man's Curve in the dark, much less Indy's Instant Cliff, so it was a hell of a lot safer and easier to just hit up 144th for our TDY rooms than to go home. Of course, Chief Warrant Officer TWO (For best effect play the Stars and Stripes Forever at maximum volume over a stadium loudspeaker when reading the two in order to understand just how important it was) Henley was always lurking about the 2/19th barracks and he'd appear in a puff of brimstone and kimchi farts if we so much as stepped into the CQ Area and I'd gotten to the point of being ready to stab his fat ass if I saw him over the last summer. Another good reason to hang out with hammerheads of 144th rather than head back to our shitty barracks and the glacier at the top of the Alfenwehr that hung over our heads like the Sword of Damocles.

Which brought us back to the cozy little room where Bomber was sitting on the lower bunk bed, his head held in his hands, dressed in full BDU's with his battle rattle on the floor in front of him. He had a monster hangover, which served him right for trying to drink every goddamn bottle of booze in the Top of the Rock NCO Club. He kept flinching at the music, since I'd been a dick and threw in an Abba tape to amuse myself at his expense. Foster was sitting in the chair in front of the desk, looking over the dispatch for CUC-V 15 and shaking his head in between taking sips off of his cup of coffee. He was one of those masochistic psychos who drank his coffee black, which I didn't really get. I mean, why not just chew on the fucking coffee grounds?

I was kicked back on the top bunk, my boots resting on the footboard of the shitty bedframe that was probably made in 1938, reading a Hustler that Bomber had probably shoplifted from the Wildflicken Bookstore or snatched from poor sucker assigned to 144th. None of us really cared, we were supposed to have been at Atlas before dawn but the day before the 144th mechanics had noticed that we'd blown the front something or other in the Gypsy Wagon which meant we were grinding metal in there. They were busy pulling it apart and fixing it. Well, that or drinking beer and jerking off, it was a tossup either way.

Dancing Queen came on, prompting Bomber to make a noise to tell me I was a sadistic asshole, but before I could mock his hangover someone started pounding at the door. Foster looked at me curiously, like I was going to get down from my comfortable bunk and answer the fucking door or something useful. I grinned at him, tapped my rank, and he rolled his eyes and muttered something that was probably insulting to me as he heaved himself up. I went back to my Hustler, figuring it was probably one of the rest of my crew wondering why we were still hanging out.

Foster came back with some guy who looked pretty confused. Most of 144th knew that the far end of the 3rd floor were used for TDY personnel, but didn't know too many details. I saw him glance at the open wall locker where my crew had thrown in over a dozen rifles, two M-60's, and that dumbass anti-material rifle they made us lug around and look confused. He probably wondered why we didn't put it in the arms room, but their armorer had not-so-politely told me where to jam the idea of having him woken up every time my group of 'wandering half-wits' showed up and needed to store our weapons. So wall locker it was.

"Corporal Stillwater?" He asked. He had on E-5 rank and a nametag but who gave a shit if he had a name, pets had names too and I couldn't give a shit less about their name either.

"That's him." I said, waving at Bomber.

"Don't be an asshole." Foster said.

"Fine. What?" I asked.

"There's a Chief Henley on the phone. He wants to know why you haven't deployed to your site." He told me.

I sighed loudly and theatrically and closed the Hustler. Goddamn Chief Henley could ruin anything at any distance. Somewhere a Private was trying to enjoy leave and be balls-deep in a cheerleader in the back of his Chevette and Chief Henley was somehow standing outside his car knocking on the window and asking him if he finished some dumbass report on the color of the cheerleader's panties that nobody gave a fuck about but his anal retentive ass. If he was enlisted the Army would have thrown his fat ass out, but rank hath its priveledges, and being a fat fucking douchebag was apparently one of them. Asshole hadn't been on a company run since I could remember and I hadn't seen him at PT unless he was at the back wearing his Class-A uniform and making snide remarks on everyone else's performance with his fat hands folded over his belly, which looked like either he was six months pregnant or stealing a fucking Foster Farms turkey.

"Tell him we already left." Bomber groaned.

"Ummm, I told him you hadn't left yet." The messenger, probably their CQ, said, managing to look offended at the thought we'd lie to an officer. Fuck it, we'd been lied to since we signed up, why should he be shocked we'd be willing to lie to a worthless fucking lifer like Henley?

"Fuck it, I'll handle it." I told Bomber, setting aside the porn mag and jumping down off the bunk. "Did he say what he wanted or did he just ask you come up here and take turns fucking us each in the ass?" I asked him while I pulled on my boots. They were shined, which was better than Foster and Bomber, but I suppose I had to look good, being the squad leader and all. Lead by example or some shit.

"He said it was vital that he speak to you immediately. Said there's been a status change in your area of responsibility." The guy told me.

That got an instant response. Bomber looked up, his eyes bloodshot, nodded at me and began pulling on his Kevlar and LBE. Foster drained his coffee and got up, grabbing the dispatches for the Growler and the Gypsy Wagon. I finished tying my boots and blousing my BDU pant legs then walked over to the locker and grabbed my XM-16E1. Unlike 144th our weapons had been pulled from 'should have been thrown in the dump' stocks and most of my squad packed weapons from Vietnam that had been test-bed weapons. Bomber's weapon had a forward assist while mine didn't, Bomber and I both had a chrome coated bolt while Foster's had a normal colored bolt but a shorter buttstock.

Army, Be All You Can Be: Outfitted by the lowest bidder who made the biggest kickbacks.

"Get everyone up, Bomber. Load up 'em up with a full combat load. Foster, see if the mechanics have started. If they haven't, pull the Gypsy Wagon, if they have, lean on them to hurry it up." I snapped, throwing my weapon's sling over my head to settle my weapon in what was referred to as a 'body sling'.

"Roger, roger." Bomber said, standing up and not wobbling too bad. Hell, he was probably still a little drunk.

"Tell Murch to make sure the detection equipment is ready." I told Bomber. He nodded, then winced. I grabbed the ammo-can full of keys, keycards, inventory listings, and my code-book, then turned to the messenger. "Let's go."

We headed into the barracks hallway. It reminded me a lot of the 2/19th area, just about 1/2 the size. The floorplan was basically the same, the tile was the same, the paint scheme was the same. It was kind of comfortable to be honest.

"Who are you guys with?" The messenger asked. I glanced at his nametag. If we were going to have a little chat I might as well find out what the Army named him. Tolliver. Lucky him.

"144th Ordnance Company." I told him with a straight face, keeping to our cover.

"What, no you aren't. I'm in 144th and I've never seen you before." Tolliver said.

"That's what V Corps said we're with. Take it up with them." I said.

"How come you guys don't wear unit patches?" He asked. "What, you SF?"

That made me laugh. "Fuck no. Do I look like some snake eating moron?" I asked. He looked offended at that. "I'm an ammo-rat with 144th, I work up at ASP 3."

This time he looked a little angry. "I work there. I've never seen you there."

"Might wanna see the optometrist about that." I told him, grinning. My favorite sport, needling my fellow service members. What can I say, I'm kind of a dick. "Sorry, but V Corps said we're in 144th and work up at ASP 3, take it up with them."

"I don't think your line of bullshit is funny." He sounded pissed. How fucking thick was this guy? Even those dumbass Rangers from 108th MI figured shit out about the second time we repeated it to them. Well, as long as we went nice and slow and used small words. Anything more than three syllables caused Rangers to shoot sparks out their ears and wander around in circles buzzing 'does not compute, error, error, error' or at least the equivalent. Christ, 144th had their own semi-covert operations going on with their own FSTS sites, why was this hammerhead busting my chops over the same thing?

Oh, yeah, the Cold War. We might be Spetznas out to steal their... ummm... shit, I don't know, but we might be dangerous Russian soldiers out to destabilize democracy in Western Europe by pretending to be in another unit.

"Look, Sergeant, take it up with Captain Ward, V Corps, or the MP's. We're with 144th, we work at ASP 3, and that's all you're going to get out of me." I told him. We went into the stairwell and the expected screaming of damned souls I was used to didn't make an appearance. Goddamn, 144th had nice barracks. Not for the first time, or the last, I wished I actually was stationed with 144th rather than the shithole that they made 2/19th live in.

"So why don't you wear nametags if you aren't SOG?" He asked me, referring to Special Operations Group. I'd heard it had some new hot shit name probably dreamed up by a Wall Street ad agency, but who gave a shit what they called each other?

"OPSEC." Was all I said. He nodded, satisfied, which surprised me. When we'd gone to chow last night to have dinner we'd been accosted by some strak asshole of a Colonel who'd actually threatened to call the MP's on us and have us arrested for some shit that only existed in his own brain because we weren't wearing nametags or unit patches and refused to tell him what unit we were in after some dipshit in the chow line told him that we weren't actually in 144th. Again.

Sometimes I wondered just how fucking thick headed some of the people who were stuck in Wildflicken were, then I remembered they were stuck there and figured they'd probably drank so much they were legally brain dead. God knew I tried.

Weirdly enough 144th had the same female only section on the first floor, which the female soldiers in 2/19th called "Titty Territory", so we had call out "Males coming through!" as we went through the double-doors leading to their section. Unlike 2/19th 144th didn't bother painting the windows black for their Titty Territory, which struck me as odd.

"We had to get the XO up here to find out that you were really here. Captain Ward is holding a staff meeting." Tolliver told me. I just grunted and nodded. "How long have you been here?"

"About a week." I told him.

"Why?"

"Because God hates me."

He gave me a weird look at that as we shoved through the double doors and into the CQ Area. Once again it struck me as odd how parallel the 144th barracks were to our own. There was a First Lieutenant standing at the CQ Area, his arms folded across his chest, his foot tapping impatiently, and an irritated look on his face. I couldn't see his nametag, but I sure as shit could see his nicely polished silver rank. Fucking shiner.

"It's about time you got here, Corporal." He said. He startled me with a smile as he waved at the phone. "I wouldn't want to answer any phonecall that asshole made. He's got a real goddamn attitude problem."

"Yeah, well, Henley, you know." I offered lamely. He just nodded, clapped me on the shoulder, and walked off. I picked up the phone. "144th Ordnance Company, Corporal Stillwater speaking, how may I..."

"Why the fuck aren't you at your site, you malingering little shit?" Henley interrupted the usual spiel with all the grace and tact of a gorilla loaded up with thorazine trying to do ballet. "Do you think the Army pays you to hang out in our cover unit's barracks, jerking your little dick and collecting a paycheck you don't deserve? You should have been out there two days ago, I should have you fucking shot, you little..."

Oh wunderbar! He was in rare form. Probably looked in the mirror and realized he hadn't seen his dick under his gut in the last year. He kept yelling at me and I set down the phone on the counter and lit a cigarette. I could hear his stream of profanity and stupidity just fine without holding it up to my ear. The people behind the CQ desk, including Tolliver, looked surprised that I wasn't listening attentively while standing at attention and waving a flag, but I just ignored them and went back to kind of paying attention to what Chief Henley was yelling.

Incompetent. Check. Stupid. Yup. Calling my mother a whore. That train's never late. Threatening to have me shot/hung/flogged/Article 15'd/Court Martialed. Same verse same as the first. Shouldn't even be a Private. Yuppers. Drunk and stupid. Doublecheck. Lazy. Uh-huh. Arrogant. Yup. Malingering. Gotcha. Profile riding shamming little shit. OK, he's winding down now.

"...done screwing off out at your place of duty the trucks I ordered should already be there. I expect them fully offloaded and the material properly stored by close of business tonight." He snarled.

"Yes, sir, Chief Henley, sir." I snapped, rolling my eyes and making a jerk-off motion.

"It's Chief Warrant Officer Two, you brain dead little moron, how many times do I have to tell you that?" He practically screamed in my ear. "Now get to your site before I have chaptered out of the military, which could only improve this unit's performance and maybe I'll get someone with half a fucking brain who can carry out a simple..."

I just hung up on him.

"Tell him I left." I said, turning away and heading toward the stairwell. I heard the phone ringing before the door closed behind me and grinned. Henley had probably mashed his pudgy little fingers on the phone furiously to call me back to scream at me for hanging up on him. I'd just claim the line cut off or I thought he'd hung up on me if I really really had to answer the phone, otherwise I'd just ignore him and let him yell at me out at Atlas.

I'd heard rumors that not all Chief Warrant Officers acted like Henley but I'd be goddamned if I had ever met one who didn't act like that.

Bomber was coming down the hallway with my gear, followed by my gaggle of faithful troops. All of them were loaded down with detection gear, their weapons, their rucks, and whatever some genius in TRADOC figured we could carry into battle without compromising the combat ability of said equipment. We were little more than mobile meat platforms who's only job was to pack that gear as far as TRADOC and the geniuses up at DoD were concerned, and we all knew, mainly because Henley screamed it at us at least once a week, that as soon as DARPA came up with a robot that could carry it we'd all be flipping burgers or sucking dick to make a living.

"What did fat-ass want?" Bomber asked, stopping and handing me my gear so I could pull it on. Boom, instant 50 pound weight gain.

"The usual. Get to our sites. Get to work. Stop being stupid. Get a real job. He'll have us shot. You know how he is."

Bomber just nodded. I'd been out of action for 2 weeks after I broke my hand, well, after the chunk of steel that hit my hand broke it, but according to Chief Henley it had been my fault for being an incompetent loser that the chunk of steel broke my hand. That meant Bomber had taken my position and put up with Chief Henley calling him every two hours, pulling him from downrange to answer the phone, so he knew good and well what kind of special asshole Henley was.

We used the middle stairwell door, heading out into the heat and sunshine of a beautiful Wildflicken day. It was almost uncanny how the 144th motorpool was directly across the street from the barracks, and you just headed down the street, just past the 168th Armor barracks, took a left, walked up the hill, and got to the gate of the motorpool. With the exception of the 168th barracks it was pretty much the same as our own little mini-post on Alfenwehr. Sometimes it really threw me off. I bet of the DoA could get its way every single post on the face of the entire planet would be exactly the same right down the inch.

Sometimes those fuckers took dress right dress and conformity to extremes.

As we were walking up the hill to where the 144th motorpool gate was hanging wide open without even any guards SPC Nagle moved up next to me, thumping my shoulder with hers to get my attention.

"We get a new medic yet?" She asked. Short and to the point.

"Nope."

"Why the fuck not? What, because the Soviets shot out previous medic we don't need one now?"

I shrugged. "Henley says we're still operational without our medic."

"Someone should tell him that our medic is more important then his next slice of cheescake and piece of underage pussy, the fat bastard." Nancy hated him ever since he'd told her that women were ruining the Army and the military should have kept the WAC's, which Henley claimed meant Whores And Cunts. Coming from a man who hadn't done a PT test since he'd gotten to the unit, hearing that women were weaker then men and not able to meet the standards of the Army and all sucked dick to get past the regulations didn't exactly endear the Chief to the female members of my squad.

I just shrugged again. "Whatever. You went to Combat Lifesaver, so according to Henley that means you are perfectly capable of being out medic. Hell, Stokes is acting as her crew's medic now even though she's Special Weapons now."

"Me? I don't know shit about being medic. How the hell am I supposed to handle the kind of injuries you retards get all the time?"

I stopped just inside the motorpool gate and stared at her. "Look, I don't fucking know, OK. Henley's given us our orders and I have to just suck it up and drive on, just like you. We all have to deal with whatever Cold War Bullshit gets thrown at us." I threw up my hands in exasperation. "You've been in the fucking Army like three times as long as I have, you got any better idea? Because I'd sure as shit like to hear it."

She glared at me for a moment, then shook her head.

"Dammit, I was going to let you run the crew." I told her. She laughed and smiled at me and suddenly everything was all right between us again.

I could see the Gypsy Wagon sitting next to the Growler. There was a bunch of chalk numbers drawn on the hood and Foster was sitting on the hood of the pickup truck with a paper cup I knew would be full of coffee. That meant that the 144th mechanics had finished fixing my scrap yard CUC-V, which was a silver lining.

"Well, let's get out there and see what kind of wonderful things Chief Henley has arranged for us to experience." I said with false cheerfulness. "We get drunker before 9 AM..."

"Before most people do all day." A few of my crew, including Bomber and Nancy, chorused behind me.

Fuck it. I had my friends, I had people to watch my back. I had my weapon and ammo. It doesn't really get better than that in the Army.

Chapter 1

FSTS-317 AKA "ATLAS"
Secure Area, Western Germany
On the 1K Zone
July, 1987

As soon as we'd pulled in through the gate the German guards were nice enough to open for us I knew we were up shit creek. The road was full of semi-trailers and trucks, and I knew that it was a half mile to the locked gate leading down onto the bunker portion of the site and that the entire way would be packed with trucks. I could even see trucks packed into the deployment and loading area, a 3 acre area that in case of all out war we'd be having the tankers hold out in while we loaded up a steady line downrange.

My suspicions were confirmed when a 1st Lieutenant came striding over toward my vehicle, obviously pissed off. He had a Master Sergeant, probably the convoy NCOIC, following along behind him. I jumped out of the back of the pickup, sweating in the summer heat, and my boots had barely hit the ground before both of them came to a stop.

"You fucking Stillwater?" The LT snapped.

"He's in the truck." I told him. I shouldered my ruck and headed for The Fort. The cinderblock little fortress that the Army Corps of Engineers built for us. An impressive little building with firing shutters, positive air pressure system, emergency decon showers, an arms room and secure item storage, a commo room, a room for the female soldiers that they almost never used, a tiny kitchen, and a bathroom so we weren't shitting in the woods any more. Oh, yeah, and my little office. The three satellite dishes sat next to The Fort. Way to be covert, assholes. Thirty foot wide sat-dishes won't clue in anyone that the place is important. Johnson, our commo dwonk, had figured out how to get Swedish Erotica and a few other channels off the sats at certain times of the day, so I guess we were getting some use out of it. The radio or whatever the fuck it was that was supposed to be hooked into it had never arrived, just a box full of rocks with a note on top that read "FUCK YOU, ARMY!" on it. We figured that maybe the radio was sent by the Marine Corps. I kept telling them it was probably the Navy or Air Force, since it had correct spelling and punctuation, which automatically discounted the fucking jarheads. Bomber claimed it couldn't be the Navy because it wasn't packed full of pre-sucked cock. Nancy said it couldn't be the Air Force or it would explode as soon as the Army got near it.

"Which one of you is fucking Stillwater?" The LT asked the truck. His question was met with a bunch of "Not me's!" from my crew.

They knew the drill when someone acted like the LT was.

I unlocked the door to The Fort. It still had some dimples where the concrete cored door had stopped a few Soviet bullets.

"Which one of you is fucking Stillwater?" The LT yelled at the rest of my crew getting out of Growler.

"I am, sir!" Nancy called out in a cheery voice.

"Why aren't my trucks being unloaded and what took you assholes so long? We've been here since noon!" The LT screamed. I left the door open and walked to my office, mainly so I could listen to what I knew was going to happen.

It never got old.

"I don't know, sir. Maybe you should ask Corporal Stillwater, sir?" Nancy asked sweetly as I unlocked the door to my office and hit the lightswitch. The bottle of Wild Turkey was sitting on my desk half-finished next to the bunch of paperwork I had planned on finishing before Westlin had taken one through the stomach. I'd been worried about a few more things than some shitty paperwork that the Army wanted me to do so it could throw it in a file cabinet and ignore and then have Chief Henley scream at me for the answers.

"I thought you said you were Stillwater!" The LT yelled. OK, so he was a yeller and a cock. I wondered just how big of a pain in the ass he was going to be. I'd learned there were two kinds of officers. Ones who yelled every command and were total dicks, and ones who told you what to do and got the fuck out of your way so you could do it. Sadly the former outnumbered the latter. It was bonus points if they mentioned West Point or shined their West Point ring on the leg of their BDU's all the time.

The only thing dumber than a West Point graduate was an Orderly Room clerk.

"No, you asked who was fucking Stillwater, sir. That would be me." Nancy said, walking into The Fort. I heard some laughter from outside at that and I grinned at her and dropped my ammo can. My office was considered a secure area for some goddamn reason, as long as I locked the door. Still, the keys went on my belt, the keycards went in my top right pocket, the codebook and the Red Card went in my right cargo pocket, and then I usually made whichever Private was on my shitlist carry around the empty can and act as sniper bait.

"Goddamn it, which one of your fucking lazy morons is goddamn Stillwater?" The LT yelled as I was stuffing my pockets.

"He's in The Fort, sir." Dewley told him.

"Where the fuck is that?" he half screamed.

"Right there, sir." Bradley told him, hitching up her LBE.

I could hear the LT coming up and saw Bomber move over to the door. "I'm sorry, sir, but this is a secure area. Authorized personnel only." He told the LT.

"Tell that asshole Stillwater to get the fuck out here right now or I'll have his ass court martialled." The LT said. I rolled my eyes. Yup, he was going to be one of those guys.

Despite what he might think, what I was doing by getting my shit together actually took precedence over whatever the hell he wanted. Without getting my shit together I couldn't do anything, and trying to do it with him yapping at me would take a hell of a lot longer. Besides, I had to call V Corps within fifteen minutes of unlocking The Fort or I got in big fucking trouble.

"Whatever you need to tell him, I can handle it right now, sir." Bomber said. "I'm the assistant squad leader."

"I want to talk to Stillwater." The LT grated. I was busy dialing numbers. I really didn't want to give some Air Force pilot an excuse to bomb us because we didn't call in. Hell, that pilot was probably furiously jerking off right that second just watching the clock.

"I'm sorry, sir, but Corporal Stillwater is currently detained." Bomber tried.

"Get out of my way, you inbred asshole." The LT tried.

"Sir, if you attempt to access this facility I am authorized to use lethal force to defend it." Bomber's voice grew hard. "Even from allied or American personnel, as per DoD directives." I heard the charging handle snap on his weapon and shook my head, sighing as I punched in the number.

"Go ahead three one seven." Was all the voice on the phone said.

"You wouldn't dare." The LT said. He didn't really sound sure. Good, because Bomber would shoot his ass dead.

"Three one seven full active." I answered. "Full access, external unit present."

"I will guard everything within the limits of my post and quit my post only when properly relieved." Bomber recited coldly.

"Verified. Scheduled. Roger. Out." The line went dead with a click. Ah, good ol' V Corps. So talkative, it was like they never shut the fuck up.

"I will obey my special orders and perform all of my duties in a military manner." Bomber was saying as I walked out of the office and headed for where Bomber was standing with his rifle socketed into his shoulder but still pointing at the floor. Bomber was a six-two Texan and stood at least four inches over the LT.

"I'll handle this, Specialist." I said, putting my hand on his shoulder. "Nice work. Get a detail together."

"Roger that, Corporal." Bomber said.

I stepped through, taking a few steps forward as I spoke. "I'm Corporal Stillwater. Not 'that asshole Stillwater', not 'goddamn Stillwater', and certainly not 'fucking Stillwater' from someone I've never met." I stopped and turned to face the LT. "I'm Corporal Stillwater, NCOIC of FSTS 317. That means that I'm in charge of this place and that means I have complete authority." I stepped up a bit close, invading his 'personal space' and looked him straight in the eyes. I'd grown since I'd arrived in the unit, which meant my knees and hips always fucking hurt and I couldn't seem to get enough to eat. Which made me grouchy. "So watch your fucking mouth when you are addressing me or my people, Lieutenant."

"Or what, you little fucking bastard?" he asked. He was puffing up and I saw him rub the back of his hand on his pantsleg. Yup. Bonus points and overtime.

"You can fucking get your fucking trucks the fuck off my fucking site and fucking drive them the fuck up your own fucking ass, you fucking asshole Looey." I told him, staring straight into his eyes. "You do not want to get in a pissing match with me, you pissant little Lieutenant."

He turned red at that and I turned around, walking toward the Master Sergeant. I knew nobody had talked to his precious majesty like that since maybe the first year of West Point, if ever, and it would take a moment for him to get himself under control.

"Master Sergeant Richards?" I called out. He nodded. Good, I thought I'd recognized him. 28th Trans, one of the few rated to come out here. It was that or 22nd or 19th. "What's going down?"

"I've got sixty two trucks, pretty much the whole battalion, full of some kind of ammunition straight off the ship in Bremerhaven." He told me. He waved further up as I stumbled.

Sixty two trucks? Holy shit, what was in them? I mean, I had about a half-dozen empty bunkers, but those had been slotted for...

...Oh no...

"Bomber!" I yelled out.

"Corporal Stillwater!" The LT yelled out. He sounded really pissed. Bad move, LT, my day went from bad to shit covered with a horny gorilla and me with an unlubed ass.

"Yeah?" Bomber answered.

"Get everyone on the stick. Lock down The Fort, leave Johnson up here to run commo and grab a prick!" I yelled to him, starting to head down the trucks.

"The LT promised everyone we'd be out of here by dinner." Master Sergeant Richards told me. "He promised them they'd get to spend the night in the barracks and we'd head out to Bremerhaven tomorrow morning so we'll get there about when 19th finishes loading."

"They're coming here too?" I asked.

...Fuck...

"Corporal Stillwater!" The LT screamed. I ignored him. He was already on my shit list. For acting like that toward everyone here, for promising shit he couldn't deliver, and for being one of those fucking officers.

"Up here, sir." I called back.

"They've got all three Trans battalions tasked to you, Corporal." The Master Sergeant told me. "They've got a Major up at Bremerhaven from V Corps running the show."

"Son of a bitch."

"They've also got some guys guarding one of the cargo ships and a Navy ship guarding just off the dock." He told me.

"Corporal Stillwater!" the LT yelled again. Fuck him. He got off on the wrong foot with me right off the bat. If he kept pushing it I'd just have the German guards throw his ass outside the gate and call the MP's on him. I'd been told very precisely that my authority on the site was absolute. Only my chain of command, and even then within a specific structure, outranked me on the site. We'd had a visit from a 3-star general before, and he understood, but then he'd been in the Army for long time and knew how things worked. Lieutenants never did, and usually needed taught. Preferably with electro-shock.

"He sounds pretty mad." MSG Richards said.

"Fuck him. I'm about to have him ejected from this facility." I said. "Son of a bitch will be lucky if I don't have the Germans sick those dogs on his ass."

"You're in a shitty mood today."

"Chief Henley started off my day like usual."

"God, he's an asshole."

"Corporal Stillwater!" He was getting closer.

"Your LT isn't grabby, is he?" I asked.

"No. He learned that lesson already." Richards told me.

The LT finally came up to us, we were about halfway to the lead truck. I noticed a lot of guys were standing up in the ringmount and about every third truck had an M-60 or a nifty-fifty mounted, locked, and loaded.

"Corporal Stillwater, you need to get your men ready, I want these trucks offloaded before sixteen hundred." He told me.

That made me stop dead. I glanced at my watch and it was thirteen hundred already. Three hours to offload over sixty trucks? I might be able to do it, but we'd be running without ground guides, dropping things on the nearest pads, and basically violating SOP the whole damn way. I didn't mind that, hell, we'd had to run like that before, but did he seriously expect me to do it just on his say-so?

"Not going to happen, sir." I told him flatly. "I don't have the vehicles, manpower, ready bunker space, or any prep work done."

"You're going to make it happen, you little smartass. I promised my men a hot dinner and..."

"Then you better be pulling it out of your ass." I snapped, starting to walk forward. I pulled out my green notebook as I kept talking. "I have about six or seven empty bunkers, four of those are nuclear only bunkers, the other two are chemical only, I've got maybe one conventional bunker I can use. That means..."

"Goddamn it, you'll follow my fucking orders." The LT snapped, grabbing my arm to stop me.

I yanked my arm away, still walking, but stopped explaining shit to him. "It ain't happening, shit-head." I told him.

Fuck him, I'd take any Article-15 dished out. More than likely he'd send up the Article-15, Chief Henley would promise it would happen, Henley would hand it to whoever our acting CO was or whatever poor sucker they'd put in the slot that hadn't killed himself or gone AWOL yet, and it would all vanish as that CO suddenly imploded. I had three summarized and two company grade Article-15's under my belt already. All of them I'd lost no rank, lost no money, had no extra duty time, and no restriction. Basically it was just to tell me I was a terrible person who deserved everything I was getting and to act as ammo in the bunker in case they wanted to actually take away my rank and the site.

Fuck it, let them take the site. I didn't want to do it anyway. He could give Atlas to whoever the fuck he wanted to. I'd be glad to go back to being a normal enlisted, then maybe I could go to PLDC and be normal crunchie.

"Listen, Corporal, I told my men..." He started.

I interrupted him. "You made a promise you couldn't keep. There's over sixty trucks here, with god only knows what on them. I have to figure out what bunkers to put them on, what pads I can set the ammo on, what order to pull the trucks due to lot numbers and ammo type, all of which means that you will be lucky to get out of here before midnight." I said. MSG Richards nodded. He'd danced this waltz before.

"You know, I always thought you guys in Ordnance were squared away, but now I'm starting to think you're fucking worthless." The LT said.

"Whatever. You're just being a typical officer in my experience." I told him. We'd finally reached the front truck and I kept going, pulling out my key-ring to unlock the gate.

"You know, in the Army enlisted usually respect an officer." The LT tried.

"And in the Army an officer knows better then to come into an AO and start shit without knowing what the fuck is going on." I answered, digging out the keycards. "So I guess we're pretty much on the same page, aren't we, jackass?" I thumbed through them looking for the one for the gate. It was marked with some letters I'd scrawled on it when I was drunk that probably had meant something at the time. I swiped the card then unlocked the middle lock before pulling open the gate.

"In my three years as an officer I've never had anyone speak to me like you seem to think you can. I'm going to have you up on..." He started the usual court martial spiel.

"Let's go!" I yelled, waving my arm forward. The semi tractor behind me leaned on the horn and started moving forward. MSG Richards waited until the truck reached him and jumped on the running board. I started jogging forward, the keys on my belt jingling. I left the LT standing there until he managed to come running up to me. I noticed he ran like the retarded kid in 4th grade gym class.

"You aren't going to offload them there?" He asked, pointing at the large asphalt lot that was where outgoing vehicles or incoming vehicles would wait during a loadout and then sweeping his arm past the big metal warehouses that held all kinds of crap. "Why not?"

"That's just a loadout pads and war stocks storage." I yelled to him. We were going up over the crest of the hill, and once we did I could see all the bunkers below me. Over seventy of them in all. Most of them were NBC weaponry, climate controlled and all kinds of hot shit.

"Then where the fuck are you..." The LT did exactly what everyone else did who knew how the world worked as soon as they saw the work area of Atlas: he stopped dead and went speechless. Atlas was over eight square miles of German territory, the eastern side running right along the 1K Zone for several miles. Two helipads complete with refueling and rearming ability, five roads, six rows of earth covered bunkers with green painted concrete pads in front of the bunker doors, and a blast pit. I noticed that two forklifts were still pushed into the blast ditch where they'd broken down and the mechanics had just told us to push them off the road till they could get to them. Instead they just sent two other forklifts out on flatbeds and ignored the broken down ones.

"Like I said, sir, I need to figure out where to consolidate ammunition, figure out which pads had to remain clear and which ones can be offloaded onto, figure out where the ammunition goes, make sure I have a three man guard rotation for live fire, and who will be working where." I reminded him. I tried being a little gentle. This was probably the first time he'd seen a place like this. Nobody talked about them, and a Western Germany Forward Storage & Transportation Site (FSTS) so close to the 1K Zone that it was technically in it that was packing the conventional, nuclear and chemical loadout for two divisions was about as secret and surreal as it got. From where we were standing we could see the wreckage of the Blackhawk that had crashed in May that still hadn't been hauled off. Inspectors had been all over it after we pulled it out of the 1K Zone with several of the large forklifts while we glared at the East Germans.

Speaking of which...

"Wait here, sir. Have your vehicles hold fast. I have to go talk to my counter-parts." I told him.

Bomber had caught up, along with Studemeyer and Gibson. Bomber had a PRC-77 radio on his back and glared at me.

"Let's go talk to the boxheads." I said. "Gibson, wait here with the LT, keep him from doing anything stupid."

"Roger." Gibson said, grinning.

I lifted my M-203 and checked the load. White star flare. Good. I fired it off over the 1K Zone.

"What are you doing?" The LT asked.

"Being polite to the neighbors." I told him.

We hadn't talked to them since we went apeshit on them after they shot Westlin. I'd cut the throat on their fuckup of a sniper out in the 1K Zone while Bomber stood on his hands so he couldn't grab his throat to try to stop the bleeding. Petty, I know, but fuck that asshole.

I walked up to where there was the hole cut in the fence, undid the bread-ties that held it together, and slipped through. Bomber was behind me and got hung up for a second on the wire when it snagged the Prick. I helped him across and noticed that the East Germans were wandering across the field, skirting where the HiND had 'accidentally' been hit by a trio of Red-Eye Missiles and 'emergency landed' in flames in the 1K Zone.

Hey, it was just how the game was played. They pushed, we pushed back, they stepped to the side and pushed again, and we danced around the whole thing while telling everyone else that we were 'just dancing' and putting makeup on our eyes and saying we just walked into the door.

Westlin was our black eye. Their sniper was theirs.

I shook hands with the commander of the East German contingent and he smiled. We both took off our ranks and Bomber handed out the pieces of 50 MPH tape. I covered my US ARMY and Bomber did the same while the Germans took off their rank and insignia.

That just made us four dudes meeting in a field. No big deal, right? I mean, nobody would care and they sure as shit wouldn't shove me in a hole in Leavenworth and cover me with rocks Bomber broke up, right?

Naw, they'd just shoot me in the back of the head, shoot Bomber in the face, and claim we had a fallout over Nagle. Who would, of course, commit suicide.

"Good to see you." I told the East German.

"And you." He nodded. Bomber and the other East German guy were eyeing each other like we were in a bad spaghetti western.

"You get a replacement sniper?" Might as well lay it on the table.

"Yup." He said. Goddamn, his Mid-West accent was better than mine.

"He know the rules? He hits one of us or the ammo, we kill all of you this time." I told him.

"He's a professional, not a conscript with delusions." The East German, eh, fuck it, the Soviet guy smiled.

"See that asshole behind me that walked down here with me?" I asked.

"The officer? What about him?"

"Feel free to put one by his head." I grinned.

"Can we take pictures of Nagle sunbathing?"

"Sure, why not."

The guy raised and eyebrow at Bomber. "And you too? I find you pleasing." He blew John a kiss.

Bomber laughed. "Knock yourself out, baby. I'll even stroke it for you."

That got laughter from all four of us. That game had been going on all summer.

"All right, as long as you explain the rules to your new sniper." I clapped him on the shoulder and he did the same to me. We held it for a second, then turned away from each other and walked away.

"Hell, I could almost like that ol' boy." Bomber mused.

"Yup. I like him better than I like that fucking lieutenant."

"You don't like any officers."

I just shrugged.

We went back through the fence and I left Bomber to handle the bread-ties. The trucks were rumbling by, getting put in early staging areas. That meant putting one or two on each pad and having someone climb up in the trailer to visually ID what was in them.

The LT was standing there, looking shocked.

"Were you just giving information to the enemy?" He asked.

...Crap, a virgin...

"You could be court-martialed for that!" He said.

"I need the shipping manifest." I told him. He jerked, then handed me the camo folder with the dumbass US Army seal on it.

I flipped through it and my heart sunk.

TOW-II missiles and the new APDSFSDU-T's. All slated for 8th Infantry and 3rd Armor. Literally a million of the new 120mm main gun rounds. The old M1's were swapped out for the M1A1 as fast as possible, since the new model had better NBC protection. Hell, they could survive inside the fireball of a nuclear detonation. Of course the crew would be welded into it and slowly die, but that didn't really matter, did it?

They were going to be delivering over 2.5 million rounds of ammunition to me.

Fuck.

Well, could be worse, it could be winter.

Chapter 2

FSTS-317
AKA "ATLAS"
Secure Area, Western Germany
On the 1K Zone
July, 1987

I walked down the line, waving my hands at the site while I talked. Bomber moved over and handed me the headset for the radio.

"It's QASI." He said. I clipped the little headset to my helmet strap and keyed it.

"Corporal Stillwater here." I said.

"Corporal, I'm not kidding, I want these trucks off loaded within three hours." The LT said.

"Hey, this is Mr. Shavers, how's it going Stillwater?" The main guy in charge of QASI, even over Hunley, was a civilian who stopped giving a fuck about World War One as near as we could tell.

"Not good. Looks like we're about to get hammered out here. I need the bunkers rearranged to handle the incoming, think you can get it done? I don't know what has explosive weight waivers and what doesn't, Henley won't tell me." I crossed my fingers.

"Tell that little shit it's Chief Warrant Officer TWO!!!!!!! Henley!" I heard screamed in the background and grinned.

"How much do you have incoming?" Shavers asked. "I got nothing here."

"Ask Henley. (You insubordinate little shit!) why I have two point five million rounds coming in. Is his fat ass (I'll kill you, you little punk!) bucking for another MSN to impress more grade school girls? (Tell that little shit-eating moron I'm going to cave in his fucking skull and have him eaten by wild dogs!)"

Shavers was actually laughing when he spoke. I could here Henley going off in the background, but I'd made up my mind. When I got back to the company area I was going to stab his fat fucking ass and claim shell shock or that he was possessed by the demon of suck or that I didn't do it that it was monkey, or whatever.

But I was going to stab his fat ass.

"All right. Don't offload anything off the trucks until I can verify they're supposed to be going to you, and I'll start moving stuff around. Don't do anything, all right?"

"Roger, over." I said.

"QASI out." I took it off and handed it to Bomber, who clipped it to his chin strap.

MSG Richards was next to me and I waved him over. The LT came stomping over with him. He got about two paces before we heard the spiteful buzz-whip-crack of a bullet going by. Bomber squatted down, same as me and the MSG, but the LT dove in the dirt screaming "SNIPER!" at the top of his lungs.

"Check it out." Bomber said, standing up. I looked over to where he was pointing and saw that the "O" in the sign that said "LOWER ACCESS ROAD" had a hole perfectly in the center of the "O". I whistled as Bomber nodded. "He's fucking good." The sound of the shot leaving the barrel of the sniper rifle rolled over us.

Another whip-crack went by and the "O" in "ROAD" had a hole punched in it dead center.

"Real good." I agreed.

"What the hell is going on?" The LT yelled.

Master Sergeant Richards was running over to the truck. The sound of the gunshot rolled across us. I could see that the Trans guys had popped up in their turrets or unassed their trucks and were looking around wildly. Richards was yelling "No Threat!" at top volume, letting his men know that they didn't have authorization to shoot back. I was confident in his skills, MSG Richards had a combat infantry badge from Vietnam and had been in the Army for almost twenty years, so he knew the difference between a sniper just fucking with us and one out to kill people.

"They've got a sniper, sir, they're just reminding us they're there." I said, walking over and looking at the sign. I whistled again. He had to be a seven hundred to a thousand meters out and he nailed that sign perfectly. To top it off the ground was directly behind the sign as the elevation rose the further west the site went. He not only knocked two holes in the sign but made sure the bullet didn't keep going downrange and kill someone or hit some ammo.

"He's not an East German conscript." Bomber noted, reaching out and touching one of the bullet holes.

"No, he is not." I agreed. "Spetz?"

"Probably." Bomber said.

The LT came running up, his face red and his eyes wild. "Are you going to do something about that?" He yelled at me.

I turned around and waved at the 1K Zone and then made the OK symbol then turned to the LT and grinned. "How's that, sir?"

He just stared and I shook my head. "Sir, I'm not going to cause an international incident by sending out a squad to flush him out of the 1K Zone. I'll just write up that we came under harassing fire, stress that the sniper was showing off, and let someone up at Corps handle the whole problem." I told him. I could see the sniper walking out of the 1K Zone and back to the little blockhouse the East Germans manned. "See, he's done and heading back. It'll be a few hours before he comes out here and reminds us he's here."

"But, but, he can't just get away with that!" The LT said.

"OK, sir, did you see me go over and talk to them?" I asked, speaking nice and slow. Going to West Point had probably damaged his brain, so I needed to speak nice and slow and not use big words.

"Yeah, but..."

"Well, sir, I was letting them that as long as their sniper followed the rules we wouldn't return fire."

"Rules?" Yeah, he was completely off balance. I needed to tell him what was going on, explain it to him, before he made mistakes that might make the East Germans/Soviets roll across us, bring down an air strike on the site, or get someone killed, or worse yet, wake up the Rangers and get them to come out here so they could piss and whine all damn day.

"If he hits one of us or hits the ammunition we'll come out in the 1K Zone and kill him and then mount a full assault on their little base and kill every. Single. One of them." I told him. "See that big burnt mark?"

"Yeah." Good, off balance, he'd finally get it.

"Earlier this summer the Russians brought a HiND out here. For awhile they were just hovering around, annoying the shit out of us, taking pictures, shit like that." I told him. "Which they aren't supposed to do, but I was under orders to ignore. So I drug out some of the old Red Eyes we hadn't shipped out or blown up yet along with some Stingers and we'd paint it for shits and giggles. You with me so far?"

"Umm, Stingers, yeah." He was definitely starting to look shocky.

"So one day we lit them up with the targeting systems and they fired on us. They didn't hit shit but the bunker door to bunker nineteen, but that's a nuclear bunker, so right there the RoE changes." I smiled at him. "So one second he'd being painted by about a half dozen SAM's, the next they've all fired. He blows up and the wreckage falls there. We helped the East German guys put out the fire and let them haul the fucking thing away, and called it in. V Corps told us to shut the hell up, write the report and let them know when it was done so they could have a courier come get it, and then we were told to get the fuck back to work." I explained.

"You fired on Soviet troops?" He asked me.

"Yes, sir." I answered. "We have a modified RoE out here, the same way that the RoE is instantly modified if you see a SMLM vehicle outside their area." I told him.

"Smellum?" He asked.

I sighed. "OK, that's Soviet Military Liaison Mission. That's Soviet military officers running around West Germany trying to gather data while supposedly being a liaison between Warsaw Pact and NATO." I shook my head. "Didn't you pay attention to your incoming briefing? They explain all this shit."

"No." He said. "They really shoot at you? I thought that only happened at the Korean DMZ. We aren't at war with Russia."

"Yet." I told him. "It's not war, it's just pissing matches. The last sniper shot one of my troops so we cut his throat, the Warsaw Pact doesn't make an issue over us killing some idiotic conscript, NATO doesn't make an issue over the dead soldier, and Westlin goes home in a fucking box." I laughed bitterly. "Everything goes back to normal except for Westlin's family, who wonders what happened to their daughter."

Before I could continue Bomber waved at me, holding the headset out to me.

"Be right back." I told him. I clipped the headset on my chinstrap. "Three one seven, go."

"Hey, Stillwater. Got something to write on?" Shavers asked me.

I opened up the little folder and flipped over the printouts. Before I could reach for my Skilcraft Bomber handed me his. I nodded. "OK, ready."

Shavers told me which bunkers to move the ammo around to clear the way to pack a bunch of the bunkers with what was coming in. 120mm rounds for the tanks, TOW-II missiles, MLRS pods, 30mm APDSDU rounds for the Apache guns, as well as new tactical nuclear rounds ranging from 120mm tank rounds to clear out infantry companies that were dug in all the way up to big eight inch division killers for the arty boys. When Shavers finally signed off I had five pages of notes as well as had out my plastic covered map of the site and was drawing on it with grease pencils.

The LT stood next to me, reciting officer mantras, trying not to stare at the sun, concentrating on breathing without choking on his tongue, or whatever the fuck officers did when they weren't yelling at people, while I worked feverishly with my map, inventory balance sheets, Net Explosive Weight sheets, and tried to figure out where the hell I was going to put everything. Bomber was knelt down next to me, looking serious as I handed him back the headset.

"How bad are we boned?" He asked.

I smiled. "Feel that feeling in your gut?" He nodded. "That's Uncle Sam's big green cock deep in your colon. We've got to switch the ammo around in forty-two bunkers before we can even start loading bunkers. We can't offload these trucks onto very many pads since it looks like we'll have about three quarters of the site open, including a half dozen of the hot round bunkers."

"Christ, we're fucked." Bomber swore. He glanced back at the LT, who was standing at attention for some fucking reason known only to God and officers. "What about them?"

"QASI and V Corps say that nothing comes off the trucks until the ammo is reconfigured in the bunkers." I told him. "They're sending out MP's to pull guard and reinforcing the Bundeswehr with another company of infantry as well as a GSG-9 crew and November Six Eight from the Ranger teams that provide QRF for the sites."

"Fuck." Bomber said. "This is turning into something big, isn't it?"

"Wait, did you say we can't offload our trucks?" The LT broke in.

"All of that goddamn conventional shit is to hide all the nuke rounds." I told Bomber. "Get on the horn to Johnson, tell him to have four of the crew break open the war-stocks so these guys have tents, stoves, cots and shit. Get one of the MKT (Mobile Kitchen Trailer) out and drop it on ready pad two. Have two men get one of the site CUC-V's and at least twenty jerry cans and fill them all with Mogas."

Bomber nodded and triggered the headset, turning away from me.

"Did you say we have to stay out here?" The LT asked. All of his lessons he'd learned had dropped away and he was seriously pissed off again. "I promised them a hot meal."

"Select six guys for KP and you can keep your promise." I told him, moving up next to him. "This is turning into a full blown operation."

"What?"

"Sir, how long have you been in Germany and where were you prior?"

"What does that have to do with anything?"

"Just humor me, sir." I said. I was running the numbers in my head. Henley had fucked us, plain and simple. He'd made sure all the ammunition arrived at the same time, hadn't told anyone to get us proper support, and hadn't given a shit about anything but the ammo being on the site so he could claim we were at 100% ahead of schedule so he could brag. He figured he'd probably was going to order us to slap everything in bunkers and lock them. It wouldn't be the first time he'd fucked us over. He'd ordered us to violate on of the fundamental rules of ordnance and mix lot numbers on the ammo in order to claim that the site was fully racked, then yelled at me and had me given a summarized Article-15 for mixing lot numbers. I'd contested it and won, which had made sure Henley hated me, but the Article-15 had still gone on my records.

"I was at Fort Hood, with First Cavalry Division." He told me. "We knew how to get shit done."

"In the World, yeah." I told him, looking over the long line of trucks. Sixty-two trucks, two men each, add about twenty more for extra people tucked in places, leaving me at one hundred forty two soldiers to hook up. That meant, for comfort, I needed to have eight GP Medium tents out, sixteen stoves, one hundred and fifty cots pulled, two hundred trays with silverware, and a GP small for the LT. Since they didn't bring their ready-rucks I'd need to pull out sleeping bags, OD Green blankets, pillows, extra uniforms for them, and break out additional ammunition so that they could have a full combat load.

"Are you paying attention, Stillwater?" The LT asked.

"Yeah." I mumbled, staring at the trucks. They'd need refueled and/or topped off, probably hot refueling, I'd have them drop the trailers on the ready-pads then cover the trailers with camou nets like the GP Mediums, then they'd pull guard on them while one of us acted as Sergeant of the Guard until the MP's got there. I'd need to have Johnson radio the MP company and find out how many of them were coming, as well as coordinate with the Ranger and GSG-9 teams to see what they needed. I'd give the Rangers one helipad and GSG-9 the other, since there was a good chance they'd come in on helicopters, the Rangers probably with a Direct Action Penetrator version of the Blackhawk. Which meant, by SOP, we'd have to have at least two reloads for their helicopters planted nearby, camou'd, and properly placed. Thankfully we'd used the bulldozers to create the berms near the helipads to keep shrapnel and explosive force from killing everything around them. I'd also have to break up my crew when we weren't working to...

"Corporal Stillwater!" The LT yelled, breaking my train of thought.

"WHAT?" I yelled back, turning around.

"I asked you when you thought you might follow your mission orders and unload the..." he was yelling.

"WHEN WE FUCKING GET TO THEM!" I screamed at him. I closed my eyes, counted to ten, tuning him out, and then opened my eyes.

"...make sure they can return to their barracks to get a good night's sleep." The LT said.

"None of us are going anywhere for about a fucking month." I told him. "This just went from a standard..."

"What? No. My men aren't going to camp out here like fucking animals just because your fucking men are too goddamn lazy to..." the LT started.

"Stillwater!" Bomber yelled.

"Lieutenant!" MSG Richards called out.

"WHAT!" Both of us yelled as we turned around.

"We're now operating under Operation Copper Window." Bomber told me. "V Corps just called through. They expect you to handle this end. Henley yelled at us to quit bullshitting around and get to work."

"I just got word from Battalion, we're to dig in here until further notice." MSG Richards told the LT. "We're being retasked right here."

"What? We're what?" The LT said.

Bomber moved up to me. "This just turned into a major cluster fuck, man. They're moving MP's out of about eight posts, we'll be having Air Force overwatch with a strike package on the runway at Rhine-Main Air Force Base, and they're going to be bringing in some infantry guys." He shook his head. "Group told me that they can't spare anyone, well, Henley said they can't spare anyone and told me to tell you to stop being a whiny little bitch."

I started laughing. "You're fucking kidding. They're putting a goddamn E-4 who hasn't even been to PLDC in charge of something like this? Christ on a pogo-stick, what a lashup." I grinned at him. "Oh the plus side, we'll get Henley another nice MSM to keep people from noticing what a fat fuck he is."

Bomber started laughing and I looked over his shoulder to see the LT and Richards talking. I started looking at the trucks and thinking again.

If they sent infantry, then it'd take a little bit for me to explain to their brain dead officers, all of whom had inhaled too much cordite, CLP, and ball sweat to have working brains.

The only thing dumber than an infantry officer was a tanker.

I'd have to make sure they understood that The Fort was abso-fucking-lutely off limits to all of them, the same with our sat-gear, and that everything had be cleared through me. Goddamn Group's officers were too goddamn lazy to come out and help because that meant they had to leave their fucking offices and Chief Henley wouldn't want another officer getting any credit for what happened out here. That meant that I'd be making it up as I went along again, and this dumbass Trans officer probably thought that he'd be in charge of the Operation until a higher ranking officer got there. According to regs and site regs I'd probably have to pull out, during any type of operation within FSTS-317 I outranked any visitor not in my chain of command by three ranks in order to make sure that proper site protocol was followed. The guys out of Perseus hadn't followed that and almost blown up the fucking site by allowing some fucking infantry dwonk of an officer ordered them to pack prop charges, fuses, and blister agent in the same bunker with mixed lots. I'd have to slap down anyone who tried to override me, make sure everyone understood that I was in charge on the site, and make sure everything went according to whatever ops plan my crew and I managed to...

"Corporal Stillwater!" The LT yelled.

...Well, let's get this out of the way...

"Yes, sir?" I asked, not really annoyed or mad, just knowing what was coming.

"In light of the fact that this site has no OIC," He started. Yup, that train's never late. "I will be assuming command as OIC of this site until..."

"Specialist Bomber!" I snapped.

"Yes, Corporal." Bomber said, snapping upright.

The LT just stared as I continued. "What are your orders regarding any attempt to seize control of this site in any manner?"

"Arrest, and should they resist, I am authorized to use applicable force, up to and including lethal force in order to ensure the proper command of the site is maintained." He snapped out perfectly.

The LT was staring with his mouth open.

"Master Sergeant Richards, I think you need to confer with your officer and explain his standing." I said. I rubbed my temples under the edge of my helmet. "I need to find out the operation parameters and figure out what happens, so I'll be heading up The Fort."

"Sir, if you'll come with me, I think you need to understand that things have significantly changed." Richards said, motioning at the LT to follow him over to the truck.

"How bad are we boned?" I asked Bomber, walking up the road.

"Bad. Apparently Henley didn't tell anyone just how much ammunition we're moving, didn't have us prep the bunkers, and is now covering his ass." He looked at me with a grim expression. "He's going to hang you out to dry, dude."

"Fuck 'em. What are they going to do, bend my dogtags, take my birthday away, and make me do stand-to in the shower on a frozen fucking mountain?" I grinned at him. "Henley blames everyone else when shit goes wrong and takes all the credit for what goes right, just like every fucking officer, man, you know that." He nodded, kicking a rock into the blast ditch. "John, I have no fucking idea what I'm doing. This is a job for an E-6 at least. I haven't been to PLDC like you because I'm 'mission essential', all I have is the shit I've read. Hell, man, I've even been reading the officer's manuals." I looked at him. "John, I'm in way over my head."

He bumped my shoulder with his. "You need to relax, man. Officers aren't all out to get us." He jerked a thumb behind us. "You could have handled the LT a lot better, but you go out of your way to antagonize officers and they don't take well to some 18 year old Corporal acting like you do." He held up his hand to stop me from arguing with them. "Look, I know you've been fucked over every time you turn around by officers, shit, that one officer fucking shot at you, but you need to start respecting the rank if you can't respect the man or they're going to put you in Charlie's Chicken Farm."

"I'm not about to have a repeat of Perseus or Medusa just because some fucking officer might get his feelings hurt." I looked at him. "I don't give a shit about some officer's fucking feelings or what he thinks he's due, I'm not about to let some brass packing moron kill you guys because of his precious feelings."

"I'm not saying that, man. I'm saying just start showing a little more respect, use a little more military courtesy, and try to remember it's those assholes," He jerked his thumb at the 1K Zone, "Who are the enemy, not whatever officer starts jacking around out here. You hear what I'm saying, brother?"

I nodded, thinking. He was right. 1LT Kristophsen had come out to Atlas and walked around with his M-16 shooting at anyone he saw until we killed him, well, until I'd killed him, and then got screamed at by the Colonel, the XO, and every other officer like I had brought it on myself and my crew that our platoon leader had started trying to murder us. Ever since then I hadn't trusted a single officer. They'd given me a Company Grade Article-15 because the LT had shot at us, had banded together to make it seem like somehow I had instigated it, and my faith in the officer corps had just vanished.

Bomber was right. In my mind the US Army's own officers were more the enemy than the Soviet troops on the other side of the 1K Zone.

"Try it my way, for the squad, Ant?" Bomber asked. We were passing the gate in the fence that surrounded the bunker section of Atlas. He bumped me with his shoulder again. "Just to make life easier on you, man?"

"All right, I'll do it your way."

"And we'll all have your back, no matter how it turns out." He bumped me again. "Smile, brother, we aren't dead yet."

"Let me run the numbers." I told him as we walked up the road and I checked each of the sections. So far my plan looked like it might be the best one. It would have to be modified once I saw the reinforcements got in, depending on who the GSG-9 guys were and what gear they brought and how they wanted to dig in as well as just how fucking brain dead the Rangers were and what gear they brought with them. The MP's, depending on what they were told, might or might not have their gear for a deployment so I'd have the support gear they needed pulled from war-stocks but not unpackaged so if they didn't need it we could throw it back into war stocks. I'd pull 5K generators out of the war-stocks, two should do it, maybe three so there was always one down for maintenance. I'd have to pull light sets out again so we could work past dark but I'd have to explain to the supporting units that they'd have to operate under light and noise discipline, so I probably wouldn't allow lights in the tents and make them use chemlights instead and...

"November six eight is airborne." Bomber said, pressing on the earpiece of the headset. "GSG-9 just lifted off, two full teams, they're using Blackhawks from 11th ACR as cover. The Bundeswehr, the MP's, and apparently our infantry are still mobilizing." He shook his head. "They're sending a NATO observer team." He stopped dead in the middle of the road. "Say again, over." He listened for a moment. "Goddamn it, they're sending some Special Forces guys out here to supplement the Rangers and a pair of Apaches from 11th ACR."

"Tell Johnson to tell everyone to stop. Tell them I need to look over the site and the operation. Tell them that before they mobilize anyone else I want a list of available manpower assets so that I can figure out what I need and what I don't." I said. "Most of all, tell them to stop the fucking snake eating idiots from deploying. I don't want SF, Delta, the Seals, or fucking Recon anywhere around, and if I had my way November six eight wouldn't even be coming out here because I don't..."

"Ant, remember what I said."

"Because I don't know the full availability of my assets." I finished lamely.

"Better." John smiled. He relayed what I'd said to Johnson.

Over at the fuel point I could see that they'd done what I'd asked and taken one of the CUC-V pickups down and were filing up fuel cans. The MKT had already been out, probably by the same crew who was filling gas cans, and another team of four, led by Nancy, were getting out the war-stocks. Four downrange, four pulling war-stocks, two at the truck, Bomber, me, Johnson, that accounted for my whole thirteen man squad. Setup would take away valuable time, but if we didn't prep it I just knew that the incoming units would show up naked and dropped off outside the gate.

We headed into The Fort and Bomber followed me into the office. Johnson was on the radio, talking to V Corps, getting a list of assets and telling them to hold everyone at the ready point, not to deploy them until we figured out what was going on. The dedicated line back to Group was ringing steadily on my desk and Johnson had put a stickup note on it reading "Henley wants you ASAP" to warn me who was trying to get a hold of me. Bomber sat down on the desk and picked up the phone.

"Three one seven. Go for papa smurf." He said. I could hear Chief Henley start screaming. Bomber lit a smoke and picked up the bottle of Wild Turkey, unscrewing the cap with the same hand he was holding it, and then smoking and taking drinks off the bottle using only one hand, all the while saying "Yes, sir. No, sir. I'll let Corporal Stillwater know, sir. I'll make sure to pass that on, sir. I understand the importance, sir." While he was handling Henley I started putting together data-kits for the arriving commanders. That meant a close-up map of Atlas covered in plastic, a list of what was off-limits to who, a list of gear they'd be required to wear at all times (including radiation badges and chemical detection strips), what units were allowed where, radio call signs, authorization for combat loads, authorization for lethal force, Rules of Engagement and modified RoE depending on circumstance, and a quick written down by hand list of probable operation goals.

"I understand, sir. I'll let Corporal Stillwater know that there's no available reinforcements from Group and that you expect him to ensure that the operation is carried out flawlessly or you will take it personally. Yes, sir. Three one seven clear." He hung up the phone and grinned at me. "See, Ant, that's how you handle an officer. Just blow sunshine up their asses, try to do what they want as quickly as possible in a way that prevents them from feeling like you are disobeying their orders, and let them collect their medals."

"Keep the brass babies happy until the Soviets kill us all." I grinned. Johnson walked in, setting down a piece of paper in front of me, and holding out his hand for the bottle. I looked at the sheet and found out there were about sixteen units listed. "Let me guess, everyone heard there's some kind of hot-shit emergency operation and now they want in?" I asked him.

"Yup. Corps talked to USAREUR who talked to NATO and the Pentagon and they turned around and told Henley to handle what units show up, Henley dropped it in your lap and said I'm supposed to coordinate with V Corps when you make your decisions." He made a face and pitched his voice into a nasally whine. "Stillwater better not fuck this up or I'll have him drug behind a 5-ton and buttfucked by Abe Lincoln and then set on fire and covered in bees." He took a drink off the Wild Turkey. "Every fucking unit in USAREUR wants in on what has been labeled Operation Copper Window, and SF is fighting with the Rangers who are fighting with some goddamn SEALS for some reason over who gets to provide QRF and security on the nukes."

I sat down in my chair and set my helmet on my desk. I rubbed my eyes, held my hand out for the bottle, then took a long drink off of it before handing it back to Bomber. I lit a smoke and leaned back, staring at the ceiling for a moment while I ran the number. "All right, since Henley dumped this on me, let's make it a complete cluster fuck." I looked at the list. "Tell all of them to roll." I gave Johnson an evil grin. "Tell all the snake eaters that they can all come along. We still don't have bunkers up on row five, and we've like a square mile out there. Tell them if they show up this isn't a field exercise, this is a real world situation and they'll need to dig in and prepare for extended operations. Make sure everyone knows that there will be no live fire unless I authorize it and hammer in that there's a modified chain of command and I'm acting as OIC until an officer arrives from Group." Johnson nodded, making notes in his green notebook.

"Hey, if this is such a big deal why aren't officers and NCO's from Group falling all over themselves to come out here and grab some medals?" Bomber asked.

Johnson shrugged his shoulders and tapped his notebook. "Zeus, Valkyrie, and Titan all have NATO inspection crews checking out the NATO bunkers as well as a bunch of Senators and Pentagon brass at them so they can get their medals without taking any risks or getting dirty out here." He sighed. "To top it off Sergeant Major Newton and Colonel Mitchell shot each other last night."

"What?" Bomber and I blurted out together.

"Yeah, they've been butting heads since they got to Group and Major Thermon jokingly suggested to them that they just duel and get it over with." Johnson told me.

"So those two idiots went out with their .45's and killed each other?" Bomber asked. "You're fucking shitting me."

Johnson shook his head. "Nope. Major Thermon and the Mag Sergeant were acting as their seconds and both of them were killed too. The whole goddamn unit is coming apart at the seams. They've got CID, mental health, and the DIA climbing all over the fucking unit." He tapped his notebook. "If I'm right, with as chaotic as it is, Chief Henley is doing this as fast as possible and not telling Group so none of the other officers or NCO's can get in here and steal his glory, same as he did last month with all those MRLS rounds. He's aiming for an MSM or even something better, since Atlas here is listed as an active fire zone after last month and Westlin was awarded a post-posthumous Purple Heart."

"Shit, that means might be able to pull an award out that only gets handed out during war time, and that means more promotion points and he looks better so he can grab his three." I said. I tapped the list. "Find a medical unit, preferably a medical company from a Forward Support Battalion, and make sure you tell Corps that we'll be using CS gas on German soil." I tapped the map. "We'll pack them into the back forty, tell the medical unit we'll be running an Expert Field Medical Badge run, get a hold of Nuremberg and find out who the EFMB trainer is and get them out here." I shrugged. "Tell the medical unit and the EFMB trainers that we'll be funding it out of our exercise funds, so they don't have to pay for this whole thing. Since this has major operation status, tell V Corps we'll be tapping our funds and I'll figure out later who we'll be helping out with fundage."

Johnson nodded, took another pull off the bottle, and left. Bomber followed him, telling Johnson he'd heard the telex going off and was going to see what got sent over the teletype. He came back in minute holding several sheets of printer paper with the dot matrix printing on it while I was looking at the huge photo-realistic map of the site on the wall and painting on the glass cover with my grease pencils. I was marking off areas and hatching them to signify certain units with red, blue, green, and black markers.

"You're going to love this." Bomber said, handing me the papers.

It was the Operation orders, with a ChemCorps header, telling me that I was listed as NCOIC for the whole damn site, Operations NCO for the operation, with OIC and Ops Officer TBD (To Be Determined) with a starting date of today and a starting time of 0001. I knew that this would cause a whole shitload of problems, and the page from V Corps and III COSCOM basically gave me complete authority over the whole damn thing, complete with the line "The Army has complete confidence in the professionalism, skill, dedication, and devotion to duty of Corporal Stillwater and his subordinates in carrying out the preceding operational orders."

"Well, there goes my career." I said. "This is going to fucked up, I'm going to get thrown under the bus, and Chief Henley's fat ass will get another medal and probably a promotion out of this." I looked at the deployment board and all the markings. "Can I be honest with you, John?"

Bomber stepped up next to me, putting his hand on my shoulder. "Yeah, brother, you can."

"I have no clue what I'm doing. I'm going to get someone killed again." I leaned forward and put my head against the board. It felt cool and solid and helped stabilize me. "I can't do this, John. I really can't."

"Then drop on request." John said bluntly. "Fill out your paperwork, I'll have Foster drive you back to Group, and in two weeks you'll be an ammo-rat in some pissant unit moving around bullshit ammo for bullshit reasons."

"I didn't say I wanted to drop." I protested. "I just can't do this. I need an officer or an NCO to tell me what to do. Someone. Anyone."

"Well, there isn't anyone, Ant, there's just you. You've gotten us this far, we've got your back, and it's either you do your best to get us through this or you drop of request and I'll hope I don't kill everyone." John told me.

"At least you have PLDC." I said.

John laughed. "Ant, all PLDC teaches us is leadership under combat, how to write counseling statements, and all the bullshit I've watched you do since they handed you the squad in March." He tapped the board. "They didn't teach shit about this, but you've got everyone set up, you've got at least a hundred meters between each encampment, you've made it so we can reopen the rifle range we built to qualify in May. Hell, you've got this by the ass, Ant." He leaned closer, bumping my shoulder with his. "If you're too far in over your head just take Master Sergeant Richards aside and ask him privately. He'll help you out. NCO's stick together, man, he's got no reason to hang you out to dry and every reason to make sure this goes off smoothly." He tapped the sheets of paper in my hand. "Ask him if you can slot him into the TO&E as a transportation advisor, when the other units get in tell them you need an NCO liaison from each of them and an officer liaison so you can coordinate more effectively."

"I was planning on doing the last part."

"See, you've got this shit." he told me. "Don't let them see you sweat, act your normal asshole self, and remember that you're in charge here."

"I'm worried that the Soviets might decide it's worth the political hassle to knock us out." I told him.

"With all these units here?" He snorted.

I shook my head. "No. After they leave, when we're pulling inventory and separated and vulnerable they'll hit us." I laughed bitterly. "If I have you guys prep for that I sound like a paranoid nutcase."

"No, brother, you won't." I looked at him in surprise. "They killed Westlin. They made a push on the site in May. We won't think you're paranoid, and it'll make us feel better even if they don't attack because at least you gave a shit enough about us to put up with being ridiculed in order to make sure that if we were hit we could fight and win instead of getting slaughtered or having another five hour firefight while we wait for the Rangers to pull their heads out of their ass like last time."

I took a deep breath and let it out. "Thanks, John."

"No problem, Tony. Just push down all those doubts and uncertainty and act like you're in control." He put his hand on my shoulder again. "I know you're only eighteen, I know this has got to be intense pressure, but you can handle this, man. I'll run interference for you so you don't get bogged down and you can use badges to show who's allowed in The Fort to see you and who can't and I'll put some MP's or some eleven bang bangs down to guard the door and keep anyone without a badge from coming in here."

"Just stress to them that I don't care what the person's rank is, without permission, wearing a badge, or escorted by someone from our crew, they don't enter even if they have to use force." I reminded him, reaching up with my red marker and doing dashed lines to represent guard patrols.

"See, Corporal, you got this by the ass. That's why you're a Corporal and I'm your assistant." He grinned. He turned and left me alone with my board and my thoughts.

I had no fucking clue what I was doing.

Chapter 3

FSTS-317
AKA "ATLAS"
Secure Area, Western Germany
On the 1K Zone
19 July, 1987

Foster was sitting in the driver's seat of the Gypsy Wagon, listening to the radio where Johnson was relaying requests from everyone in the entire fucking Army about what was going on. Over the last month I'd managed to get everyone arranged, the ammunition was almost all loaded up, and everyone assigned to where they were supposed to be. The Soviets had moved a shitload of troops over by their little fortress setup for "training" but I'd talked to my counterpart before the reinforcements had arrived and we both agreed that we'd keep the lid on any overly gung-ho idiot who wanted to start World War Three right there. John was keeping me from getting overwhelmed by everyone wanting to bug me about one thing or another, only passing the most important things to me. Nagle was overseeing all the medics as well as taking part in the EFMB training although she bitched about it constantly. Johnson was handling all the incoming commo and had tapped Bradley to act as his assistant so that someone was on the radio 24/7.

A platoon of infantry ran by in full gear with their rifles. Most units ran one lap around the outside road around the bunkers every day or every other day, although they'd learned that they did not have the right away when it came to any vehicle hauling ammunition. I told my crew flat out to go ahead and hit the back rank and knock a few people down, or swerve and knock down some people. I'd warned their CO's that my forklift drivers had limited visibility and the forklifts and ammo took precedence over their units even if they were on fire. They didn't like it, but when I locked down the infantry unit to their encampment for three days and made them eat MRE's with no power their CO had complained to V Corps and was told that either he could follow the orders of the site NCOIC or pack their shit and leave and get black marks.

The infantrymen were counting cadence, which I thought was dumb as hell, with their little unit guidon in the hands of the lead bullet-ape. I watched them as they went by, drinking a bottle of soda mixed with Wild Turkey and smoking a cigarette.

The guidon staff shattered and the top part went into the dirt. The infantry held stock still for a second, some still running, the lead ranks stopping, and the guidon bearer diving to the ground, all in a split second before the sniper's shot retort rolled over us. I started laughing, ignoring the glare of some butterbar who was next to the formation. That fucking sniper was amazing. Two days ago we'd set up some sandbags to act as a bullet stop, put up stakes with playing cards on them, and watched as he shot the pips out of the cards.

As the whole infantry platoon dove into the dirt, some of them jumping into the blast ditch, their butterbar was yelling "HOLD FIRE! HOLD FIRE!" at the top of his lungs. From across the 1K Zone we could hear mocking laughter over a megaphone, which was just insult to injury, but made me laugh harder. The butterbar was glaring at me pretty seriously but my laughter had nothing to do with him, just the situation. He started yelling at his infantry guys about remembering the proper way to disperse under fire, and how to maneuver under sniper fire. He got them back up and started marching them, the guidon bearer carrying the broken staff. For some reason that just made me laugh harder and I was getting a stitch in my side.

Foster got out of the Gypsy Wagon and came up to me, grinning broadly. "The NATO guys just left, they gave us top ratings. There's only two pads of ammunition left to put away, and Nagle figures we'll be done before it gets dark."

"Hell, that just leaves inventory, a last minute check on the nukes, then we can lock this bitch up and kick back while these guys finish their bullshit." I smiled. "We'll have Atlas back to ourselves and we'll all get hammered till we go into blackout drive."

"Bomber said he's got a pocket full of coins for us." Foster grinned. "He says we're up to about two dozen each."

"Hell, we got this by the ass." I told him.

I'd gotten through Operation Copper Window like a goddamn professional. Bomber had been right. I'd been born for this shit.

I could take anything the fucking Army threw at me with a smile.

2/19th Special Weapons Group Barracks
Restricted Area, Alfenwehr West Germany
Late Winter- 12 February, 1988
Day 1 of Repairs
Day 1 of the Third Incident

Morning

The sky was cloudy, but no snow was blowing down on us for a change. I stood in the sanded street, staring at the barracks and feeling just a weird singing emptiness in the pit of my stomach. The building was mostly hidden by the snow that the blizzard and then just winter had dumped on the top of the mountain. It was piled up to about halfway above the second floor windows, but the engineers had dug out a path to the CQ desk airlock. It made it look serene, and I wondered if the bodies were still in the snow or if Tandy had feasted in the darkness. There was smoke damage to the right hand area, where the Mag Offices were, on the front of the building. We'd burned all the documents in the large rooms on the second and third floor in order to deny the Soviets any possibly classified data. I could see the entry they planned on having us use, the 'airlock' that led into the CQ Area, which was two sets of tempered glass double doors with windows on either side. The glass was multiple panes that totalled up to two inches thick, a lot stronger then it seemed glass should be. The glass doors that led inside were intact and I wondered if they'd already replaced the damaged panes. A look at the front of the building showed me that a lot of the windows had been replaced, but mostly up on the third floor, but I couldn't tell the status of Titty Territory and Queer Country's windows thanks to the snow, although it looked like some of the windows on Near Hammerhead Hall had been replaced. That left about 2/3 of the mountainside windows left to do.

Not to mention all the damage our little rampage had caused. If I'd had my druthers I'd have dropped the entire building on top of the War Fighter Tunnels and had done with it, but I doubt Tandy would have given me the time to set enough charges to drop a building designed to handle a nuclear weapon hit. So instead we'd used thermite and good old fashioned fire to destroy all the classified data and the cinderblock and cement construction had proved pretty much impervious to our pathetic efforts. It cared about our efforts about as much as the mountain and I could tell it cared for us about as much.

I shuddered and turned away from the barracks, trying not to think about the blood and lives the building and the mountain had demanded as sacrifice.

To my left was semi-trucks, loaded with furniture, boxed weapons and TA-50, and other crap we needed. A 5-ton was behind me from the company, 5-Ton 35, affectionately known as Growler, was behind me, idling in the cold. In the lead was CUC-V 22, where Sergeant Butcher and Sergeant White were still sitting inside, both of them looking less than thrilled to be sitting there. I wasn't sure if I even cared what happened to the two NCO's who had screwed everything up any more. I'd planned on killing the two of them during the long dark days sealed inside the War Fighter Tunnels, a reason that Lancer had put guards on them, but while I was in the hospital I realized I didn't really give a shit any more.

The crunching of boots on sand let me know someone was behind me right before they spoke. "Aaaand, we're back in the barracks." Bomber said from beside me, his hand going to his new rifle and rubbing the forward handgrip. Another PoS XM-16E1, pretty much the same as his old one with an adjustable stock instead of the solid one like the one I was now carrying. Instead of the iron sights for some reason his had a shitty scope mounted on it that John had complained about, bitching that the lens had condensation inside that ruined the sight picture.

"It's like a nightmare I can't wake up from." Stokes said from behind me, lighting a cigarette. She limped up next to me, her Amazon ass making her rifle seem like a toy in her hands. She'd lost some weight, but she still probably outweighed me, but then I'd lost a lot of weight too. The hospital and our injuries hadn't done any of us any favors.

"Home sweet home." Nancy said, hitching up her new aid bag. A few guys in the hospital had put it together for her so she could handle just about anything that got thrown at her. There were even FM's in there to guide her through anything she had to do, Field Manuals that normally weren't seen outside a hospital and weren't normally listed on the FM list that a unit's training office could order. Her weapon's sling was over her right shoulder while the strap to the aid bag was over her left. She stared at the barracks for a moment and then spit on the ground in disgust.

"Someone wanna help my blind ass out of the truck?" Lancer yelled from the back of the Growler. It surprised me that he was still with us, normally he should have been transferred out of the Army while we were still in the hospital but for some reason the Army, in their infinite wisdom, was keeping him in uniform.

"I'll help you, keep your eyes in." My brother William answered, moving past me to help Lancer out of the truck.

"Har dee fucking har har, ya one-eyed bastard." Lancer answered.

"It's pretty up here." Aine said from where she was standing on the running board of the Growler, holding onto the mirror and swinging back and forth like a little monkey. Her cheeks were pink and it made her look like a little girl outside playing in the snow.

"The building is bigger than my briefing made it sound." Innie told me, moving up next to me. I had no idea what the hell a cadet from West Point was doing with us, but she'd showed her orders to the Group Commanding Officer and had been tagged to go along. It was weird, she was the same age as me, same age as Aine, but compared to us she looked like my little sister was wearing our Father's uniforms playing dressup.

"We really aren't getting off this mountain alive, are we?" Dobbs asked, scratching her ass and then farting. The bruising on her face had gone down so now she just looked like a one-eyed woman with pockmark scars from bad acne.

"Finish the fight." I said, my voice full of sarcasm as I recited our unit motto.

"The barracks isn't going to repair itself, so you might as well quit standing around slacking off." 2LT Wright said from behind us, his tone chipper. "I'm not putting up with any shamming while I'm in charge, so I hope you're all ready to work." He paused for a moment. "And you might as well forget about riding your profiles, you'll do what I decide you'll do." He snorted, his version of a laugh. "There ain't no JAG up here."

Snowflakes started drifting down.

…The ants go marching one by one….

William came over, holding Lancer by the elbow and Dobbs almost shoved him away to take William's place. William didn't look hurt, just chuckled and walked over by me. Dobbs was gentle as she started guiding Lancer toward the airlock. I stood there and watched as everyone, even 2LT Wright, started heading for the airlock. The vehicles were being shut down, the heavy diesel engines going quiet, and everyone wandered by while I stayed put, staring at the barracks. Bomber and Nancy waited a second then headed inside. William stayed for a moment before Ineda gently encouraged him to follow everyone else with a light push against his back.

In a few moments it was just Innie and me standing outside in the wind under the grey skies. The sound of metal cooling from the vehicles was loud in the near silence and a small part of me wondered if those vehicles would move before April when the snow finally melted off. Everyone filed inside the building while I stood by the side of the road just taking it all in. There were craters in the cinderblocks around the second floor mag-office windows from where the Soviet troops had opened up on us, same with the cinderblocks around my room's windows. Silent testimony to complete stupidity that neither side could do anything about because we were caught up in it and couldn't see any other way, hell, there had been no other for it all to pan out.

"Are you going in?" Innie asked me.

"Yeah." I told her, still staring at the window of my room. It had gotten ugly in that room, fighting hand to hand for our lives in the room and in the hallway outside, the Soviets making one last push to get rid of us and eliminate any potential witnesses to what had gone on. Part of the reason I'd taken Actual out is so that if the Soviet's kicked our asses they'd figure we were all that was left and wouldn't try to figure out how to get into the War Fighter Tunnels and kill the rest of the unit. I'd known exactly what I was doing when I'd made that decision but now it sickened me that I'd been willing to throw the lives of my friends and comrades away with such cold ruthlessness just to protect a machine that didn't give a shit about us.

"When?" She asked softly. "I'm starting to get cold."

"Sorry." I mumbled. I'd forgotten she wasn't acclimatized to the cold or the altitude and she had to be hating life. Oxygen levels were shit this high up and it took awhile for someone to get used to it.

I started toward the barracks, the sand on the road crunching under my boots, the wind plucking at my clothing. I'd left my rucksack in the truck, and while I should have been packing it on my back I really couldn't be assed to go and get it out of the back of the truck. The unit had replaced my helmet, which I had no idea where it went, along with my rifle since the last time I'd seen my rifle it was broken in half, so I was back up to fully geared. As if it fucking mattered any more.

"I'm working with the DIA investigative team." Ineda said suddenly. "The Commandant released me after our Father requested me."

"He figured, and the DIA agrees, that I might be more inclined to talk to the DIA investigators with you there." I grunted.

"You will talk to us, won't you?" Ineda asked. "This is a pretty big deal, a pretty major incident, and nobody is quite sure what went down and why. We're on your side, Annie."

"Yeah, sure you are." I told Cadet Ineda Stillwater, lengthening my strides to force her to either hurry to catch up to me or be left behind. After about three steps I quit caring and slowed back down.

"Talk to me, Annie, please." Cadet Stillwater asked me. I just grunted again. If I was right there was a bottle of Wild Turkey in my room, under John's bed toward the back corner. I'd go up and make myself a nice drink and stare at the ceiling as soon as we did whatever stupid shit the LT wanted us to do. Innie was still talking as I practically drooled at the thought of a nice stiff drink. "Talk to me, Annie, tell me what really happened, and I can help you. I promise you that I can help you no matter what happened."

I couldn't feel my sister beside me. I couldn't feel that warmth that made me more than just a machine, just a weird presence of a stranger that didn't give a shit about me beyond what I might be able to accomplish to achieve mission goals before I died somewhere in a ditch spitting blood and trying to hold my guts in. The lizard made a soft sad sound and flipped a switch, and my sister disappeared from my internal radar to be replaced by Cadet Stillwater, West Point Cadet and future officer.

The lizard put his head on the brushed steel surface of his control panel and cried softly.

The barracks were warmer than outside, but that wasn't saying much. Our breath still plumed out in front of us and I could see the glitter of frost on the walls and on the glass of the trophy case. The LT was standing behind the CQ counter, hanging up the phone, and I wondered what kind of sadistic shit he was planning. I had been able to tell from the way he'd spoken, his word choice, and what he'd said that he didn't give a shit about us, only cared about carrying out his orders in the least amount of time possible to make himself look good. In other words, he was pretty much like every other officer in the goddamn military, with the exception of LT James, who was probably going to be put out due to his head injury. He was an officer, so of course the military would take his injuries into account and either slap him on the permanently or temporarily disabled listing, while Lancer was enlisted so of course he was up here in uniform completely blind.

"I'll call out your names and you will come up here and show me your profile. If you have an extra copy you will turn it over to me, that way I know who can perform what duties while we get the barracks back up to acceptable condition." the LT said. "LT James and his men did significant damage to the barracks for reasons yet unknown," ...unknown? How about fucking Spetz in the hallways for... you know what, I just don't care any more... "but we'll fix it all up so after the Group is finished up at Graf they can return to the barracks."

There were murmurs of assent, and I noticed that the group of people had clustered together into four groups. The new Rear-D/Repair Crew, the DIA investigators, the CID investigators, and the MI guys.

Innie, no, Cadet Ineda Stillwater, was standing with the DIA guys.

Still crying softly the little lizard flipped a switch and Ineda went from a non-combatant to a friendly to a possibly hostile on my internal radar. Innie was gone.

I moved away from everyone else, putting my back against the little section of wall between the stairwell door and the door to Titty Territory. The sign and the bra hung up by the female soldiers was against my back and it suddenly struck me as odd that the frozen bra had survived everything that had happened. The sign that read "You must be this big to live here" had been covered in frost and I figured it was probably melting due to my body heat. The cold felt weird, like it was a normal state of affairs and my body heat wasn't a normal state of affairs.

Finally the LT called out my name and I pushed myself off of the wall and moved to in front of the CQ desk.

"Profile, Corporal?" The LT held out his hand. I pulled out one of the copies from my pocket and handed it to him silently. I stood at parade rest, well, as close as I could get to it with my damaged shoulder, while he looked over both pages of my profile. "You suffered extensive wounds, including gunshot and shrapnel wounds and aggravation of injuries you were already suffering from." The LT said, repeating what was painfully obvious to me. "Stand at rest, Corporal, while I think." I relaxed. Relax basically meant I could stand or do whatever I wanted as long as my left foot didn't move. I just stood there, hands at my sides, and stared at the clocks over the LT's head. They were all off by a few minutes from one another except for the one that all three hands pointed downward and the one where all three hands had fallen to the bottom of the glass covering. He kept consulting my profile and looking over a list in his dispatch folder. He had crews listed like "Door Replacement", "Cinderblock replacement", "Tile Replacement", "Plumbing replacement", "Electrical Team", "Escort Team", and "Photography Team" that had people's rank and names listed.

"You're on quarters until further notice." He told me. "Do you have an additional copy?"

"Yes, sir." I said, still staring.

"I'll keep this copy. If your room is habitable then stay there, otherwise I'll figure out somewhere you and the rest of the badly wounded can stay." The LT told me. "Dismissed." He ignored me and went to the next name. "Stillwater, William." I just turned away, deciding to head to my room and see if I could make it habitable. The windows had been replaced, but the last time I saw it there had been bullet holes everywhere, cracked and destroyed tile from a grenade, and blood splashed everywhere that had been slowly freezing.

And Sherry had bled out on the floor. We'd left his body there and I wondered if he was still laying on my floor, his body ravaged by the grenade he'd jumped on.

...Finish the fight...

I passed my brother as I headed into the stairwell. When I opened the door the screams of the damned ripped up past me and swirled around up further. I just walked into the stairs and slowly headed up the stairwell. I was already tired, physically exhausted, and it took effort to keep my limbs moving. I stopped to lean against the wall as soon as I left the stairwell and entered Near Hammerhead Hall, breathing heavily. Ice crystals glittered on the walls, the floor, the ceiling where icicles hung down. I could see where rounds from the M-60 had shattered cinderblocks and in two places the heavy 7.62mm rounds had not only destroyed the cinderblock but penetrated the water-pipe behind it, so there was a huge amount of ice that welled out of the cinderblocks and fell to the floor in a frozen waterfall, to end in a large puddle of ice that stretched nearly across the hall.

...Contacts, multiple hostiles, exterior and interior, we're outnumbered. close quarters only, bravo. will transmit to final...

...The last radio call...

The words echoed in my head and I reached behind my glasses to pinch the bridge of my nose to hopefully drive the sounds away. After a few seconds I realized that I wasn't going to get less tired leaning against the wall and that the cold was seeping into my back, so I pushed off and headed down the hallway, carefully maneuvering to make it around where the two pipes had gotten shattered. The hallway was pretty dim, since only about six of the overhead lights still worked, and one of those hung down from where the frame had been shattered. I started to see frozen blood on the tiles about five doors down from the double doors that separated Near Hammerhead Hall from Far Hammerhead Hall. Some was splashed on the walls, some was on the floor, and there were even blood spatters on the ceiling. I could see the destruction from where I'd launched an M-203 40mm HE grenade into the doors. There was a broken off Soviet bayonet blade frozen in reddish ice in the doorway closest to the broken double doors.

Like the rest of the bullet holes and damage to the hallway of Hammerhead Hall the holes and damage to the double doors was circled with different colors of chalk and numbered. The shattered safety glass crunched under my boots as I walked down the hallway to my room. It was easy to tell where my room was, the hallway was absolutely trashed. A bayonet was still jammed between two cinderblocks and snapped off and I idly wondered who's bayonet it was, because I honestly couldn't remember if it was mine or King's.

...He had us pinned between the still opening door and his axe. If we ran into the tunnel, he'd follow us and kill everyone in the tunnels.

..."GO!" King bellowed, lunging forward, his arms open. "FINISH THE FIGHT!"...

...King crashed into him, the figure in the parka dropping back two steps from the force of King's tackle as his boots slid on the ice...

..."I'm sorry!" Dobbs yelled...

...And kicked the door shut...

The memory almost drove me to my knees and I physically staggered, putting one gloved hand out to steady myself on the wall and realizing that my hand was in a bloody crater that was circled in green chalk and numbered "462". The little lizard added that one to memory, building something at his little work station. He had a copy of the layout of the barracks, a wire frame, and was noting down everything I'd seen.

He was trying to find something to do so he didn't have to think about the fact that Innie was gone and in her place was the stranger who went by Cadet Stillwater.

My key slid into the lock on the unmarked door and the tumblers moved smoothly as I turned the key. I had half expected the key not to work. The doorhandle worked easily when I pressed down on the lever and the door opened silently. My hand hit the light switch as I stepped in and I could see my room for the first time since the desperate fight. Bloodstains were everywhere, my Nakamichi Dragon cassette deck was shattered, electronic components hanging out of the black case. One of my Bose 901's was on the floor, the case broken and the speaker itself crushed. There were blankets on the beds, OD green US Army blankets, and I tried to remember what happened to my quilt.

...Artaine, covered in blood, being carried in my quilt down to the war fighter tunnels, his gut split open by a soviet bayonet...

Oh. Yeah.

I walked over to my little CD stereo. Usually it rode behind the seat of whatever forklift I was driving, playing CD's until the rechargeable batteries ran down, but I'd brought it with me when we abandoned Atlas for the winter. It looked plugged in, it looked undamaged, so I hit the power button and was pleasantly surprised when the CD player powered up. It spun up to speed while I stood there running my finger across the front of the sturdy little machine. The cassette deck cover was cracked but the tape inside wasn't damaged.

Dream Weaver started and I smiled for a moment before moving over to the radiator. I turned the black knob and waited, expecting nothing but pleasantly surprised when the pipes started clanking, shuddering, and groaning. The power to the water heaters was still on at least. I went into the bathroom, hit the light, and stared in the mirror for a long moment.

My eyes were sunken and hollow looking, but otherwise it looked like normal. I made sure that it didn't blink off pattern from me or move when I didn't. I dropped my wool insert leather gloves into the sink and started stripping off my uniform, starting with my field jacket with the cold weather liner. Stripped to the waist I sat down on the toilet and undid my boots. There was a large puddle of frozen blood on the floor, with a trail leading into the bathroom and one leading out. I stared at it for a long time trying to figure out where it had come from, but nothing came to me until the little lizard hit a button and showed me an instant replay.

...Lanks was crawling into the bathroom, hunching forward on her belly, leaving a bloodsmear on the floor...

...Lanks came staggering in, holding onto the side of her face with one hand, supporting herself against the wall lockers with the other. "face. my face." she said softly...

...I looked up and saw nancy pull lanks' hand away. half her scalp peeled down from the top of her head to her right cheek...

Oh.

I finished taking off my boots, then removed my socks and shoved them into the boots. I stood up with bare feet, feeling the chill of the ice beneath my soles, and took off my pants and boxers. I had scars on my legs from my injuries and I stood there for a moment, naked, in the cold, and ran my fingers over them. I couldn't really feel my own touch, and the scars seemed weird, alien, like they were important to someone else and I didn't understand what they meant. My left hip hurt, a throbbing pain that the lizard urged me to ignore, that it was some kind of long term joint damage that I'd just have to live with, and my left leg had this weird numbness to it, like it should tingle but it didn't, and the lizard just compiled it all with the rest of the pain and injuries. The lizard looked at the board where my body was outlined, sighed, and laid his head back on his control panel, one taloned finger idly playing with a switch that no longer did anything.

I turned on the shower and after a second the hot water rushed out. The water pressure increased and I knew it was because the scalding hot water was washing away the ice. I wondered if there was a hole in a pipe that was only plugged by ice and would the hot water eat through it? I realized I didn't really care, adjusted the temperature of the water, and stepped in. The hot water washed over me and I turned around, facing the wall of my shower.

There was a hole in the wall just to the right of my face, where a bullet had gone through the wall, through the cinderblocks, and blew out of the shower tile.

I didn't bother to look behind me.

Before I could stop it I started crying. I didn't even know why. I slowly slid to my knees, my head pressed against the tile wall of the shower as I kept crying. I curled into a ball, rocking back and forth, making wordless noises as I held onto myself in the water and wept like my heart was breaking. The lizard joined me, curled up in the fetal position, holding onto his tail as he shuddered and wept. It hurt, like I was being stabbed in the stomach, the pain more intense even then the way I felt after the firefight in my own room.

I don't know how long I cried, but eventually I dozed off in the shower, curled up like a small child.

I couldn't do this. I was only nineteen years old. It was too much. I wanted to go home. I was all used up. I didn't have anything left to give.

Chapter 4

Nuremburg Army Medical Center
Nuremburg Army Post
West Germany
February 1988

Bomber came into my room in his wheelchair. He'd come down with pneumonia, same as I had, and walking very far fatigued him to the point where he'd go to sleep standing up. He looked pale and wan, his ever-present Texas rancher's tan looking washed out. He rolled up next to my bed and stopped with the squeal of the rubber wheels on his palms.

"How's it going?" He asked.

"Felt better." I admitted, trying to smile and failing.

"Same here." He said. He was quiet for a moment and only the beeping of all the machines I was hooked up to broke the silence. I held tight to the stuffed rabbit that my sister had brought me, drawing more comfort from the soft plush animal than I probably should have. The rabbit, named Floyd because he was pink, listened to me when I admitted things to him in the dark of the night and never judged or condemned me. Kind of like Bomber and Nagle.

"CID finish up with you?" He asked. I nodded and he did too. "They just finished with me. Told me that they'd be in touch if they had any more questions."

"They're going to throw us under the bus." I told him my suspicions. Bomber nodded. "Someone has to take the fall, and we've ripped up too much shit for them to let it slide this time."

"Did you hear what happened to Mellins?" Bomber asked me after a few minutes of silence. I shook my head. "He went to Mental Health over everything that happened."

"Yeah, I was thinking of going myself, man." I closed my eyes and shuddered. When I opened them Bomber was looking at me oddly. "I can't get some things out of my fucking head, brother."

"Then you better keep them to yourself, brother." Bomber said seriously.

"What? Why?" I asked.

"They took his clearance and dropped him from the program." Bomber told me, his voice emotionless and face expressionless. I tensed up, jerked from the pain, and forced myself to relax as he kept speaking. "They claimed he was mentally unfit for duty with Special Weapons and now he's on the way to Fort Lewis and 60th Ord. They took away his Special Weapons status, man. They just took it."

"Christ." I said. "So much for Mental Health, huh?"

"Yeah."

"Guess we can do like our ancestors and drink lots." I suggested.

"Yeah. Our options are pretty much fucked now." Bomber said. He suddenly laughed. "Did you hear about McCullen?"

"No, what happened?"

"She bit a doctor." He said. His expression told me that there was more to it than that.

"OK, spill. What happened?"

"The doctor leaves Aine's room, grabs a nurse, pulls her into a room, and tries to rape her. She screams, people come in, they pull the doctor off of the nurse, and by the time everything got calmed down, Aine was missing from her room." John told me. His grin got even bigger. "Check this out, man, they call Group to report her missing, and Group swears to God that she'd been there for the last four days."

I chuckled and shook my head. "That's Aine for you."

"Bitch isn't human, is she?" Bomber's face was serious.

I shook my head again and then waited for the world to stop swimming. "I don't think so. She might have been before she came to Alfenwehr, but I don't think she is now."

We sat for a long moment, Bomber thinking about whatever Texans think about and me thinking about Aine and what it meant that she was still in the unit. The machines I was hooked up to beeped rhythmically, I could hear people outside the room, and my room-mate was as silent as a guy who was in a coma could be expected to be. Apparently he had been climbing up out of his tank and his officer had kicked the hatch shut on his head and broke his skull. If I knew officers they'd figured out a way to blame the eighteen year old private so that it wouldn't ruin the officer's career. After all, privates were a dime a dozen while officers were the precious metals of the military world, and only a sick and diseased mind would expect these legendary titans of military genius to have to learn from their mistakes or accept the consequences of their actions. If you believed anything else but in the natural divinity of the officer corps you were probably a commie.

Bomber dozed in his wheelchair while I chewed my lower lip and thought.

I'd wanted to go to Mental Health, talk about what I'd seen, what I'd done, and how I couldn't close my eyes without seeing the faces of the dead and injured. That the smell or taste of onions made me want to throw up from the memory of that Soviet guy exhaling into my face.

That was right out the window.

The lizard and I would just have to suck it up, drive on, and hope for the best.

Chapter 5

2/19th Special Weapons Group Barracks
Restricted Area, Alfenwehr West Germany
Late Winter- 12 February, 1988
Day 1 of Repairs
Day 1 of the Third Incident
Afternoon

The room was dark, the lights turned off. My windows had been replaced before the Army Corps of Engineers had decided 'fuck those guys' and rolled off the mountain, and there wasn't any curtains, but the clouds had lowered to completely engulf us. Every once in awhile there would be a slight flare of purplish pink and a long rumble to tell me that Alfenwehr was inviting me outside to get killed if I had the guts to leave the barracks. I was laying on the top bunk, staring at the ceiling and drinking out of the Wild Turkey bottle. I'd mixed it by pouring Coke into the bottle, since I was too lazy to just get up and get a glass. I was calling it lazy, but to be honest, the idea of getting up each time that the glass was drained to fix another drink just seemed like too much effort. Ice crystals hissed against the window, the sound competing with the low pings of the radiator and the soft sound of Seven Spanish Angels from my little stereo. Highwayman by Johnny Cash had finished playing, and I knew that I was crying quietly in the dimness, but I couldn't really get up the energy to care.

There was a creaking noise, a few seconds of silence, then the sound repeated, followed by the click of my door shutting. Someone had come in, and the lizard rotated one ear, trying to get a bearing on whoever it was without lifting his little head up from the console. He couldn't hear anything and shut his eye, which prompted me to open my eyes and look at the room.

Aine had come in. She was wearing her flowerprint dress, her hair loose and fanning around her face as she at me. Her feet were bare and her toenails were painted a bright red, along with her fingernails. She looked perfectly normally, a petite sinful treat wrapped in flower-print that smelled of apple blossoms coming toward me. Nothing out of the ordinary.

Except she was crawling across my ceiling with a Cheshire Cat-esque grin on her face.

"What do you want, Aine?" I asked. My voice sounded dead and lifeless to my own ears. I knew that I should be alarmed at the fact that she was on the ceiling, but I just couldn't muster up the effort to give a damn.

"Aw, is that any way to say hello to me, Annie?" She pouted, crawling over to look straight down at me. Her naturally curly red hair tickled my bare chest as it waved back and forth, caressing my skin.

"Go away." I told her, turning my head to the side to stare at the wall.

"This doesn't become you, Aodán." Her voice was chiding and she was trying to project her authority as a female into it, but there was nothing inside of me for it to anchor to so it fell to the wayside. Her eyes flashed with anger and her face scrunched up.

"Go away, Aine." I told her again. I didn't really care if she was in the room, as long as she didn't bother me.

I felt her drop on the bed and then wiggle up my body until she was straddling me, looking down at me, her hair around my head and hiding us from anyone who happened to see us. "I know how to make you smile, Annie." she tried. She was naked, as if the flowerprint dress had never existed. I looked down at her, not really finding anything I hadn't seen before when we were kids and certainly nothing to really get my interest.

"Whatever, Aine. Do whatever you want and go away." I told her, and then pushed her to the side and took another drink off of the bottle. "I don't care any more."

She looked at me for a long moment, the smell of apple blossoms, that feral smell, and the smell of hot blood thickening as she glared.

..."Tell me how to bring my cousin back to life!" I screamed at him, and drove the blade into his belly button, yanking it out in a spray of blood and driving it into him twice more screaming, "Tell me!" with each stroke. I grabbed his forehead, holding it down, and carved on his face, long stripes, exposing bone and teeth...

I could taste the blood again, feel it running down my face and arms, feel the blade jarring as I hit bone, smell it as it poured from the man's body. Suddenly the scene in my mind shifted and it was Aine on the floor, pinned so she couldn't move, and I was hacking at her with the knife, laughing as the blood sprayed and she cried and begged me to stop. It warped again and this time it was Innie underneath me with Aine's body crumpled and savaged next to where I took the knife to my twin sister with dark glee. Then everything wobbled and there was two of me hacking at both Aine and Innie, I was alternating between laughing and screaming as I sliced away at them.

Aine pulled away from me, her face suddenly afraid. I didn't see why, there wasn't a single knife in the room and the only one I still had was my Gerber, which was locked in my TA-50 locker with my LBE and helmet. The locker was at least six steps away, and I would have to unlock the locker to get at it, I'd have to reach up and grab the knife and pull it free before I could turn and plunge it underneath Aine's sternum as I grabbed her hair and pulled her close to stare down into her eyes as her blood ran over my hand and her pupils widened in shock and her mouth opened in a little 'O' of pain and she began to tremble from the agony of the steel that I'd be twisting inside of her to find her heart and...

"Annie..." She whispered, staring at me. Her voice shattered the images in my mind and I looked at her. Her too-wide eyes were welling with tears. "Oh, Annie..."

"Go away, Aine." I told her, taking another drink and staring at the ceiling. The image in my mind went away as the alcohol hit my stomach. "Or do whatever it is you came to do. I won't fight you."

"Annie..." Her voice was quiet and full of pain. She laid her head down on my chest, on hand up by the hollow of my throat, the other on my thigh, and I could feel her hot tears against my skin as she cried quietly. Her flowerprint dress was back as I put one hand on her back, the other hand holding onto the bottle as I kept swigging out of it.

Scattered images kept shooting through my head. Innie and I playing in a field of wild flowers, picking blackberries, skinny-dipping in the creek. All of it overlaid with images of people screaming, Westlin dying on the pad, Foster gasping in pain as I rode with him in the Medevac, what I did to those men. Soon the images of Innie were replaced with Cadet Ineda Stillwater, the teenage or child version of her replaced with the BDU clad young woman urging me to break the code of silence to her, an outsider. The lizard was crooning in sorrow to itself, tears running out of its eyes and down its slender neck as it watched Cadet Stillwater replace Innie in each image. Sometimes Innie had blood spatters across her face, and more than a few times, in my memories, I reached out to touch her with blood soaked hands and left blood where I touched.

Sonora's Death Row came on as the tape kept rolling and Aine laid on me while I drank. The song brought out tears that I couldn't muster up the effort to wipe away as the singer shot his best friends with his rifle and images of the body bags that Mortuary Affairs carried out of the War-Fighter Tunnels went by my eyes.

...Why did you die and why did I live...

Aine was crying, and I wasn't holding the thing that crawled across ceilings, that had a venomous bite, that drank blood and was impervious to bayonets and bullets, I was holding onto a young girl. We were the same age if you went by years, but by mileage she was still as fresh and shiny as a new penny. I knew she was not only crying for herself but for me too, but I didn't really care beyond not understanding why she'd bother crying for me. I was a waste and now I knew it. My mother, my aunts, and the family matrons had all been right all along and what had happened just proved it.

Aine's crying had slowed until she was quiet, just soft sighing as she began to sleep laying across me. The hand on my thigh came up and she started sucking on her thumb, looking even more like a child.

I heard the door open again and shut, followed by the heavy sound of boots coming into the room. I looked away from Aine and toward the entrance to the main room, waiting for whoever was making the footsteps to appear. The lightbulb dimmed until the room was nearly dark and a shadowy figure loomed in the doorway. Whoever it was was wide, a massive person, and I just stared without any real curiosity as they just stood in the entrance, too shadowed for me to make out their features or figure out who they were. Finally they stepped forward, long after I'd lost interest in who it was.

King stood in the entrance. His BDU's were caked with frozen mud, he had frost rime on his cuffs and down the front of his uniform. His chest had been hacked open, undoubtedly by an axe, and his throat was torn out, exposing his windpipe and the blood pipes to either side of it. His eyes had sunken back into his head, dark pits where malevolence glimmered in the depths. His black crew-cut had mud, blood, and ice in it.

"Hey, King." I said, nodding. I held out the bottle to him. "Want a drink?"

King just stood there, staring at me, and I yawned. "Do what you gotta do, King. I left you and ran, so whatever, man." I told him. The lizard looked King over, shrugged, and went back to watching old films of Innie and me and crying as Innie was either spattered or smeared with blood or was replaced by Cadet Stillwater in the memories. King didn't say anything, just stood there. Aine was sucking on her thumb and somehow drooling on my chest at the same time. The bottle was still half full. I pulled my smokes out from under the pillow, lit one, and held the pack and lighter out to King. "Smoke?" He just stood there. "Your loss, man."

I went back to staring at the ceiling. Whatever King, or what the mountain had using King's body, wanted I didn't really care. He would either take it, or he'd just stand there slowly warming up into rotting meat. Either way, I didn't care.

I knew without him standing there that I'd left him behind, that I'd sacrificed him to save my own ass.

The feral smell and the smell of fresh blood faded, leaving behind just the smell of apple blossoms remaining. Aine looked vulnerable when I looked down at her. Her long lashes rested on her cheeks, her thumb in her mouth, and her bangs falling to the side to reveal her heart shaped face. I blinked and she was splattered with blood, her lips and around her mouth crimson from where she'd ridden the Soviet troop down while she drank blood from his throat, the tiny scar on her cheek suddenly opening and beginning to weep blood.

The ceiling tiles were stable, unmoving and unchanging as I looked away and back up at the tile, taking another drink. I glanced over to see if King was still with me, but he'd withdrawn to wherever the mountain hid its victims. I shrugged and took another drink off of the bottle as I dropped the finished cigarette into the empty soda can I'd wedged between the bunk and the wall. I started petting Aine's head silently, trying to soothe the young girl as she began crying in her sleep, and I suddenly felt sorry for her.

She was an Aine, meaning she wielded vast power and authority in our two families. She had been born a matron, she had rights and privileges women outside of our family could only dream of. Her authority would be absolute when she got older, and even now she wielded more authority then most of the younger matrons put together. She'd passed Basic Training and Special Weapons AIT and then come to Alfenwehr and 2/19th just thinking it was like any other post. Only it wasn't, and Alfenwehr had contaminated her, injured her in a way I couldn't understand.

Alfenwehr would drive Aine mad and then possess her utterly.

There wasn't anything I could do about it, and I didn't see any way I could even try, so I didn't even bother trying to figure out a way to help her.

She'd made her bed, just like the rest of us, so she could lie in it. She'd put on the uniform, she knew the risks.

I thought about Atlas, running the numbers in my head. Once the roads were clear enough or V Corps or Chief Henley figured that Atlas had to be moved to active status we'd roll out there. It would get us away from the barracks, and in between missions we'd either stay out at Atlas or we'd hang out at 144th Ordnance Company. The only way we'd come back is if we were given non-discretionary orders, and even then I'd do my best to get out of them. Out at Atlas we were safe, and I could keep my crew safe, where at the unit we were at the mercy of sadists and psychopaths with no way for me to protect them and...

Aine cried out softly in her sleep, her hands clutching at me, and I shushed her gently and petted her hair to try to soothe her.

...Don't worry, Aine, alfenwehr will strip away your humanity soon enough, and then we'll see what you really are. it'll hurt, but you're an aine, you'll be able to handle it...

We weren't going to get off the mountain alive anyway. If the Soviets didn't kill us, the mountain would, and if neither of them managed it, the Army would do it for them.

It was just the way things were.

Chapter 6

2/19th Special Weapons Group Barracks
Restricted Area, Alfenwehr West Germany
Late Winter- 12 February, 1988
Day 1 of Repairs
Day 1 of the Third Incident
Evening

The door opening woke me up. Aine had left awhile before, giving me a kiss on the lips that was more sisterly then her normal kisses, and I'd drifted off to sleep. The stereo was playing Seven Spanish Angels again but it didn't evoke anything inside me. I stared at the doorway, idly wondering/hoping that one of the DIA goons was coming in to shoot me in my face.

No luck, it was just William holding onto a plate piled with food and smiling. The smile looked weird on his face, since he was normally a grouchy looking bastard. "Brought you some dinner, Tony." He grinned.

"Thanks." I said, accepting the offered tray when he walked up and held it up to me. He was a big guy, way over six foot tall and heavy with muscle. It was lasagne and green beans with some apple cobbler sitting there sadly. I started eating mechanically, one hand shielding my tray.

"You're eating like we're back in J-Max." he observed, frowning. "You all right?"

"Fine." I said around a mouthful of tasteless lasagne. "Why?"

He climbed up onto the bunk and sat at the end before lighting a cigarette. "Just heard you guys had it pretty bad this winter."

"It's fine." I told him, chewing up a mouthful of green beans. They might as well have been wax for all the taste.

William stared at me for a long time. "You need to talk about it." He repeated our Father's mantra. Don't hold things in, real men understood that there was nothing wrong with feelings and that no man was an island.

"Nothing to talk about." I told him, taking another bite. "What happened, happened."

The vein on William's forehead began to throb and once again the lizard wondered for a moment if it was a worm, but then lost interest and went back to laying on the floor of his little room all curled up and holding onto his tail. He offered me the pack of cigarettes and I took one, putting it in the silverware slot on the tray, then went back to eating. He sat there, watching me eat, until I finished with everything, saving the apple cobbler for last. It was all tasteless cardboard, but that was to be expected with A-Rats. I lit the cigarette and stared at him, not really seeing him, but just staring off into space.

"Have you gone to Mental Health yet? Did they clear you?" He asked.

"I passed the written exam and the verbal testing, I'm cleared by Mental Health to go back to work." I told him.

"Have you talked about what happened?"

I shrugged. "Yeah. I answered the questions."

He growled and shook his head. "No, I mean really talked."

"About what?" I asked him. I probably could have actually answered his questions, but his prying into what went down had made the little lizard question exactly who's side he was on.

William pointedly looked around the room, making it obvious he was looking at the blood stains, the dried blood that I hadn't bothered to clean up when it melted, the bullet holes, and the shrapnel scars. "Oh, I don't know, that it apparently got bad enough that less than half of you guys made it till the Rangers got here to save your ass. That makes it like four times this year the Rangers have had to save your ass."

...Saved us...?

"Get out." I suddenly grated, pushing the tray down my legs.

"What? What's..." William started.

"Get. the fuck. out." I snarled.

William looked hurt as he grabbed the tray, pulling it from my grip. "Ant? What the hell's gotten into you?"

"Fuck those snake eating fuckers. Get the fuck out and go hang with your fucking SOG buddies." I yelled at him. "I don't care what the fuck you do, just get the fuck out!"

He jumped off the bed and left without another word, slamming the door behind him. At least he took the tray with him so I didn't have to go down and turn it back in. I didn't really want to see anyone, be reminded of my failures by the accusing eyes of the people who survived last Rear-D or Actual. I could feel their eyes even in my bunk. Sherry. Lewis. Needlemeyer. Cass. Queens. Even King had returned to let me know I'd let everyone down. That my failures had led to over twenty people getting killed because I hadn't been smart enough or alert enough to realize things had gone south on us in a hell of a hurry.

The same as when the guy with the axe had gone on his rampage.

I picked up Floyd, the stuffed pink rabbit that Innie had given me before she'd become Cadet Stillwater, and cuddled him. His fur was soft against my cheek as I started crying again. My own brother had abandoned me, instead deciding to pry into everything so that he could judge me and mock my failures when I needed him.

I was only nineteen. I couldn't take it. I didn't have anything left. I was all used up.

...I'm sorry...

When I opened my eyes the dead Soviet soldiers were standing in my room, grouped together, just silently staring at me. Some of them had missing limbs from where the M-60 or my M-203 had rent away blood and bone. Others had horrific wounds from the fighting and one of them stood in front of the others. His throat had been slashed on side, there were teeth marks on his neck, and thin blackberry vines had slid out of the delicate slash to wrap around his neck, one of the vines climbing up his face to vanish up his nose. His eyes were replaced by a honeycomb and I could see bees crawling over the waxy surface. Like the others he was covered with frost with clots of frozen mud here and there on their bloody uniforms. They just stood there, silently, their eyes accusing. Blackish blood ran from some of their mouths, noses, or eyes, running down their faces, down their necks, to be absorbed by their already bloody uniforms.

"You knew the deal when you put on the uniform." I whispered to them in the dimness. Floyd shifted in my arms and I petted him. "Go bother someone else." I pleaded with them.

They just stood there silently.

"Fine. Do whatever it is you came to do. I don't care." I told them. I pulled out the bottle of Wild Turkey that I'd poured more soda into once I'd drank it down to about a third left. I uncorked it, took a long drink off of it, recorked it, and laid back in my bed.

They just stood there.

I just ignored them.

...The ants go marching one by one...

...And they went marching down, into the ground, to get out, of the rain...

The sound of the ice crystals against the glass and the pink flare of light followed by rolling distant thunder reminded me that the mountain hated us. I heard cloth rustle and knew that the Soviet soldiers were still standing in my room, still staring at me while I held onto Floyd. I missed Atlas, the fun and laughter that we had out there. Sure, it was hard work and half the time I didn't know what I was doing, but at least I knew where we stood and so did my crew. I missed the jokes, the pranks, the bullshit sessions, and the feeling of being safe despite the East Germans, the chemicals, and the nukes. Atlas was starting to fade from my mind. I couldn't remember how the site was laid out any more, I couldn't remember what bunkers held what, and I couldn't even remember how many bunkers there were. Hell, even the faces of most of my crew was fading. I remembered Westlin's with vivid clarity, but it was twisted in pain, tears making clean tracks in the dirt and her cheek scraped from where she'd gone face first into the cement pad. I could see Foster's face from where we'd ridden in the medevac after one of the MRLS rounds had been hit by lightning and exploded. Part of the frame had hit him in the side, shattering most of his ribs and collapsing one of his lungs. He'd pulled through but he'd spent weeks in the hospital and on convalescent leave. He'd been left with numbness and sporadic spasms in his legs and had been dropped to ammo rat, just barely avoiding a medical chapter. But I couldn't really remember what the rest of the crew looked like. Even my images of Bomber and Nancy were messed up. Both were covered in blood and injured as well as having bad frostbite on their noses, cheeks, and ears.

I could barely remember my life before 2/19th.

Maybe if I could bring myself to try to remember I could, but there was really no reason to. Whoever or whatever I'd been before 2/19th didn't really matter any more.

The Army had forged me into a killer, and I'd proven that they'd done their work well. There wasn't anything else left. I couldn't remember what it was like to be a person.

I began crying again, holding onto Floyd. I heard boots squeak on my floor and knew that the Soviet troops were shifting uncomfortably as I cried.

When I wiped my nose the back of my hand and my forearm came away with thick blood smeared across my skin. I stared at it for a long time, trying to figure out where it came from, then began crying harder, holding tight to Floyd and rocking back and forth. I heard first one set of bootsteps, then another, then the rest of them right before my room door opened. The Soviets were leaving, embarrassed by my weakness and not wanting to be in the room in case it might contaminate them. I began crying harder as they left, their absence just more proof that I was all used up, that there wasn't anything left inside me. The door closed and I knew they'd left me alone, in the dark, in my shame.

"Ant?" It was Bomber. I heard his boots thump on the floor as he came toward me. "Ant, brother?" He stopped next to the bed and touched my arm. "Ant?"

I looked up at him in the dimness and his eyes widened. "Holy shit, Ant. Stay right there." He hurried through the dimness and into the hallway. I heard the distinctive squeak of the bathroom door, and then he hurried back with toilet paper in his hand. He climbed up the bunk bed and sat down next to me. "Lean your head back, Ant." I just let my head flop back loosely and he put his hand behind my head. "Holy shit, how long have you been bleeding?" He put the toilet paper over my nose.

"I'm fine." I told him, trying to stop sobbing. "Really, I'm fine, Bomber."

"The fuck you are, man." He said. "Monkey was pissed off when I saw him and he said you were being an asshole and just wanted to be left alone, so I was downstairs playing pinball." He shook his head. "Fuck, I hope this doesn't mean your brain is bleeding or something."

"I'm fine." I tried to tell him, but burst into tears before I could get to the 'fine' part.

"Hold the tissue." Bomber told me, and still crying I put my hand over his and he slid his hand out. I kept crying even as he moved behind me and pulled me close, squeezing tight as he hugged me. "It'll be all right, Ant." He said, and started rocking me as I cried like a small child in his arms. "Shhh, it's OK, Ant, it's OK." I kept checking the tissue, which was full of dark red blood, until my nosebleed stopped. I was still snuffling, and John stopped rocking me. "Get undressed, man."

"Why?" I asked.

"You need sleep, you're way past the red line, man." He told me. He ran his fingers over the figure eight brace I was wearing. It was normally for a broken collar bone but the doctors were using it to stabilize my right shoulder. "Let's leave this on, man." He jumped down out of the bed. "Get in bed, I'll put this shit away."

I nodded, still crying, and wiggled under the covers when he reminded me by telling me to get under the covers for a second time. He folded everything up I'd left on the floor and set it on top of the dresser then came back over to the bunk bed. He stood there for a long moment, looking at me laying in bed and crying quietly.

"Fuck it. You were there when I was dying." He said. He climbed up in and laid on top of the blankets. "Roll over. Face the wall." He told me. I did what he told me and he put one arm over me, hugging me tight. "I got you, man. You'll be OK. Get some sleep, you'll feel better."

"I'm all used up, John. I can't do this any more." I cried. On the wall I could see my breath freezing and in the spreading glittering oval I could see Westlin's face, Dobbs face, Sherry's expression when the lights went out and Bomber's face as he raved in delirium on the mattress after his appendix ruptured from the axe blow. "I'm only nineteen, John, I can't do this."

"I know. Shhh." He said. He let go of me and then handed my rabbit to me before putting his arm back over my torso. "Hold your bunny, Ant. Sleep, you'll feel better when you wake up."

I kept crying, holding tight to the bunny. Every time I closed my eyes I saw the people I'd failed. The people I'd killed. Even the CIA "Colonel" I'd ripped apart with my knife and bare hands on the floor of the same room I was now in. Bomber kept petting my hair and shushing me, trying to keep me calm.

Eventually I went to sleep.

In my dreams everyone who had died since I'd gotten to 2/19th were kneeling in front of me. Tandy stood beside me and handed me my knife. Wordlessly I walked down the line of people, pulling their heads back and slitting their throats before shoving them forward so they went face first into the dirt of Atlas. Even ones I hadn't killed, like Cass and Queens, were there and waiting for my knife like lambs to a slaughter. By the halfway point I was sobbing, screaming, and laughing all at once, but I still moved to the next one. Tandy just walked along behind me, sometimes moving in front of my next victim and grinning at me.

After awhile it wasn't Tandy's body with the too-large grin, sharp jagged teeth, and clawlike fingertips of sharpened bone.

It was me.

Chapter 7

2/19th Special Weapons Group Barracks
Restricted Area, Alfenwehr West Germany
Late Winter- 12 February, 1988
Day 1 of Repairs
Day 1 of the Third Incident
Evening

The door to my room woke me up when it shut and I heard two sets of bootsteps coming into the room. I was curled up under the sheet and the OD Green blanket, holding onto the pink stuffed bunny which was damp and had dried blood on it. I could see Queens' face in the frost that my breath had left on the wall. Just above the iced up spot was a bullet crater I hadn't noticed before. I wondered if it had been there the whole time and had just missed it or if maybe I'd slept through another firefight or maybe someone had come in and shot me. My head hurt bad enough that I could believe that someone had shot me in the back of the head. My whole head throbbed, and pain radiated from the flat spot at the back of my skull that I'd had after the guy with the axe had caved my skull in. Sparks kept shooting across my vision and everything was blurry. I went to push my glasses up and realized I wasn't wearing them.

"How is he?" Nancy asked. "William thinks there's something wrong with him, saying he was really erratic."

"I think he's red-lined." Bomber said somberly.

"He wouldn't be the only one." Nancy said. She gave a sigh. "Dobbs had a screaming breakdown when they told her that she couldn't room with Lancer and take care of him." Bomber whistled low as she kept talking. "Lanks went into hysterics too, claimed she saw King up on the third floor. I've had to sedate six people so far, four of them were screaming and had to be held down."

"You might have to sedate Ant too." Bomber said seriously. "Or do you sedate someone who won't stop crying? He was crying in his sleep."

"He's sleeping, right?"

"Yeah."

"Then there's no reason to sedate him." Nancy said. I heard a wall-locker rattle. "I'm going to tell LT Wright he needs to put someone in here with him since you're being moved to stay with Lancer and Artaine and I'm being moved to help take care of Dobbs and Lanks."

They were going to leave. I needed them, and the Army was going to take them away.

"I don't know how he'll react if he's in here alone when he wakes up." Bomber said, his voice sounding worried. "I really don't think my boy is all right."

I'd have nobody left. I started crying, not really awake, but not really asleep.

"He's crying again." Bomber said.

Nagle sighed and I heard her come closer. "All right." She stopped next to the bed. I heard plastic unwrap and then a plastic cap come off. After a few second I felt something jab into my arm and then my arm started going numb and tingling. My stomach rolled and for a second I had the urge to vomit, but it passed. "That should hold him until tomorrow. I'll tell Lieutenant Wright I sedated him and he needs someone in here with him." She sighed. "Hopefully it's just a nervous breakdown and he'll recover soon." There was silence for a moment. "How are you doing?"

"All right, I guess." He laughed bitterly. "I've been writing a lot of letters to someone, I think it helps, even if they probably won't get anything but a page covered in black lines."

"Your cousin?" Nagle asked.

John laughed again, this time nervously. "Yeah. You aren't going to make a big deal out of it, are you?"

"No, honey." Nancy's voice was full of warmth which wrapped around me as dark warm water started to lap at me. "I'm not going to bust your chops about your cousin. Hell, you're lucky."

"True." Bomber said.

"The closest thing I have to what you've got is you and Ant." Nancy's voice grew strained. "My parents aren't exactly someone I'd talk to, my sister is dead, and Ant is red-lined."

"I'm still here, Nancy." Bomber said. There was the rustle of clothing and I knew that they were hugging. Floyd moved in my arms, rubbing one fuzzy paw against my cheek to wipe away the tears as I kept crying softly.

"Thanks. I need you two. I mean, I can probably talk to Stokes, but I need the two of you." She said. She sighed deeply. "Well, my shit isn't going to move by itself, I better start moving my shit back into Titty Territory."

"I'll help you." John said.

The warm water was lapping at my face and I was slowly sinking into it. I managed to open my eyes for a moment when the nausea swept through me again and I saw that the frost had formed into Westlin's face weeping with frozen blood on the cheek where'd she'd scraped it going face first into the cement pad in front of the bunker. I closed my eyes, starting to cry a little harder at the woman I'd failed appearing in the frost.

I kept tossing and turning, the sedative never quite able to pull me completely down for long. When it did I relived the attack on Atlas when Westlin was killed, or the attack after Operation Copper Window, or my failures when the maniac with the mask attacked us, or a parade of the dead's faces from when the Soviets attacked the barracks. I heard Bomber and Nancy carry their stuff out of the room, felt Nancy come over and put her hand on my forehead and shush me gently, telling me that everything would be all right and to rest.

After awhile the room was silent except for the pinging of the radiator and the hiss of the snow crystal on the glass of my window. John had turned off the tape-deck of the little stereo so it was quiet in the room. My head swum as I rolled onto my back and sat up. I swallowed thickly several times to keep from throwing up and braced myself with one hand against the frozen wall. The heel of my hand was in the crater that I'd just noticed, and I covered my mouth with the back of my other hand as I burped twice and prayed I didn't spray my dinner all over my blankets. Once my head quit spinning and my stomach settled down I swung my legs off the bed and sat for a moment, waiting for the queasiness to calm down and the bright spots to quit streaking across my vision.

Once it did I jumped down, stumbling and barely catching the single bed across from me to keep myself from going face first into the floor or the bed. I managed to straighten up, my shoulder twinging in pain as something in the socket squished. My legs trembled and I dry heaved once when I went to stand up.

Behind me my windows blew open, cold air and snow-seeds invading the room and the snow that was piled up halfway up the window cascading into the room. The snow hissed when it hit the radiator, steam billowing up and then freezing on the roof or falling to the snow covered floor in a flurry of little flecks of ice. I turned around and stared at the clouds that doubled as thick fog, watching as they lit up with purplish light and the thunder rolled across the mountain. The cold wind blew around me as I turned away from the window and staggered to my wall-locker. I pulled on a uniform, wincing several times as my abused and tingling limbs protested the movement with pain. I grabbed my softcap and put it on, putting two fingers along my nose to make sure my hat was at the right angle. Checking my expression in the mirror I smiled at my reflection and it smiled back without any funny stuff. I kissed my fingertips and pressed them to my fingertips in the mirror.

My reflection winked at me and I laughed a split second before he did.

The snow flew across the floor as I moved up to the refrigerator. Opening it there were still a few beers left so I grabbed one, used my church key on my keyring to open it, and grabbed two more while I took a drink off the open bottle. My stomach tried to rebel but I took another swallow off the bottle to force down the vomit. Waving goodbye to my reflection as I passed it I left, not bothering to close the door behind me when I went into Hammerhead Hall. I stopped once at Symens door to drive heave for a moment and then wait for my vision to come back when the vomiting sent spikes of pain through my head and my vision vanished. Once I could see, in grainy black and white like it was a bad movie, I started moving again, heading to the middle stairwell.

One of the Soviet guys had died right there after taking a burst to the stomach from the pig. He'd dropped on his knees, vomited up blood, and then went face first into the tile, his knees folded under him and his ass in the air. On of his buddies had taken cover behind his corpse and King had fired through the guy's body, mangling him as the bullets passed through him and torn his buddy apart. Sometimes it was easy to forget that concealment did not equal cover and that modern weaponry could rip right through things that would have been cover not too long ago. I stopped to run the toes of my boot over the bloodstain in the tile for a long moment, and my vision came back, but it was like a VCR with the tracking off.

"Sorry, man." I told the guy, who was huddled face down with his ass in the air. He was sobbing in agony, but there wasn't anything I could do for him. "You knew the deal when you put on the uniform." I reminded him as I walked away to the middle stairwell door. The echoes of the M-60 rattled down the hallway as I pushed open the door, but the shriek of agony that washed over me heading down drowned out the heavy chugging of the pig. I retched again for a few moments, holding the door open with the back of the hand I was holding the two unopened beers with. When I finished I straightened up, my hand no longer cold, hell, no longer even there according to the little lizard. He just noted the information and then went back to laying on the floor of his little workspace and weeping.

I stopped at the landing between the second and first floor and dry heaved again for long moments. I straightened up, wiping my mouth clear of the slimy saliva that I'd heaved up in long ropes, and put my forehead against the wall. Where my saliva had hit the ground had frozen by the time I pulled my head back and took a long drink off of the beer in my hand. I wobbled, caught my balance, and headed down further, past the first floor, stopping again to dry heave at the landing between the first floor and the basement level. When my head stopped spinning and my stomach quit trying to climb up my throat I took another drink off of the cold beer and walked down to the bottom of the stairs.

Behind me was the entrance to the War Fighter tunnels, ahead of me was the door that led to the storage areas, the QASI office, the basement where the furnaces, generators, and water heaters were located, as well as mailboxes and the access to the outside. I staggered forward, took another drink off the bottle, and pulled the door open before kicking the chock down to hold it open. I lurched forward, stopping to dry heave again before I managed to reach the outside door. The snow seeds swept over me and the wind took my breath away.

The beer was crisp as I took another drink off of it, standing in the doorway. It felt good going down and settled my stomach.

Liquid bread, baby.

...The wind was buffeting me, trying to knock me over. snow was hitting me, coating me, and the cold was leeching away my body heat. I knew I didn't have long outside, already there was the urge to lay down and take a nap, just to sleep for a few minutes to regain the energy I'd need to keep going. I couldn't feel anything but pins and needles any more...

The memory washed over me and I staggered in the doorway before taking a single stumbling, lurching step forward out onto the loading dock.

...I grabbed the top of his shitty copycat LBE, right where the center strap split into the shoulder staps, and snatched him backwards and down, bending him backwards at the waist over the window. His eyes widened and he opened his mouth to scream as I brought the knife straight down into the right side of his chest. I felt the blade jar off a bone, but it still went in all the way. He gave a grunt as he started to overbalance on the windowframe...

The scene played out in the darkness and I started crying again quietly standing in the darkness. The snow seeds were abrading my cheeks, my nose was throbbing with pain, and my ears were starting to hurt but I ignored it and took another drink. I stood there for a long moment, staring out into the darkness, knowing full well it was snowing down on main post and the ski resort.

"You want me? Come and fucking get me!" I suddenly bellowed out. "Come on! I'm not afraid you! Come on!" I screamed out.

Nothing came back, just the howl of the wind.

"Fucking pussy." I grunted and I took another drink off the beer, finishing it. I looked at the beer bottle in my hand, knowing from the bitter taste I'd hit the debris at the bottom, meaning I'd finished that beer. With a grunt I threw the empty bottle into the darkness, my shoulder twinging in pain at the overhand throw. I didn't hear it land and deliberately turned my back on the darkness. "Fuck you anyway. Can't do me a favor. You sucked when you were alive too."

I pulled the door open, throwing down the chock to keep it open. Satisfied that it would stay open I stagger/lurched down the hallway back to the stairwell. The snow seeds were swirling around me, the wind whipping up the stairwell with a scream, as I stopped at the base of the stairs and stared at the floor. It took a moment but I was able to see the stain on the floor.

...The talon dug into my shoulder, pushing next to the blade, and then withdrew as soon as it dug into my flesh. there was sucking sound, then another low chuckle. it was wet, and cold, and without any humanity...

I was still crying in the dimness, staring at the dark spot on the tile.

I should have died right there. They shouldn't have come for me.

...Ant, I love you...!

I sat on the bottom steps, staring at the door. I set one of the unopened bottles on the floor and hefted the other unopened one in one fist, raising it in a salute to King. He'd seen what had to be done, only feet away from safety, and did what he had to do to make sure the rest of us survived. Unlike me, who had ran to save his own cowardly life. He'd saved me, who had led Echo Five Actual into an ambush at the motorpool, the Mag Office, and again in my own room. The Russians and the CIA had been a step ahead of me the whole time and I had been too stupid and untrained to do anything but walk right into it like an idiot. King, on the other hand, had known what he had to do. And done it.

..."I'm sorry!" Dobbs yelled.

...And kicked the door shut...

King died here. I should have died here.

...Ant, I love you...

I cracked open another beer and flipped the bottle cap through the darkness and out the door. The lights in the hallway between the two doorways went out with a crackling sizzle, one of the bulbs shattering and dropping broken glass onto the tile floor. The darkness grew thicker and I heard a liquid chuckle from outside.

There you are. Come on. I'm not even armed. Come and get me.

I heard one of the doors open above me but ignored it. It was probably someone either heading to their room or to the CQ Area, nobody had any reason to come down where I was. The stairs under my butt shuddered as whoever it was headed down. I could tell they were getting closer the way the shuddering intensified. One of these days the entire stairwell would break free of the bolts and collapse, probably killing a bunch of people when it happened.

It would be listed as a training accident, the dead soldiers blamed for it, and the insurance wouldn't pay out because it was their fault, and all the family would get is a box and a flag.

Pain suddenly spiked through my skull and I leaned forward to retch, bringing up nothing but long strings of thick saliva. Each retch made my head pound worse and brought on the next one. My balance failed and I fell against the railing struts, but at least it was my uninjured left shoulder. I felt someone pass me and I managed to sit up and take a drink of the beer. My vision was completely gone and I felt hot liquid run over my lips. My nose was bleeding again.

"What the hell are you doing down here, Corporal?" Sergeant Butcher asked me, his words slightly slurred from having his jaw broken only a month ago. "Why are the doors open?"

"Go away." I told him, my vision coming back as I took another drink. "You don't want to be here."

He was in full BDU's, his uniform starched and creased, his boots polished to the point that they gleamed in the dimness. His fists were on his hips as he glared at me in the dimness.

"Don't tell me what to do, Corporal." He sneered at me. "As soon as this is all over I'm going to make sure the Group Commander takes away your precious rank, your precious site, and, with any luck, puts you in CCF."

That low chuckle wound out of the darkness and caressed me.

"Go away." I managed to choke. I was still crying and hadn't even been aware of it.

"Are you crying?" Sergeant Butcher's voice was full of disbelief and contempt. "Are you really crying like a little bitch?" He laughed. "Tough guy Stillwater sitting at the bottom of the stairs crying like a woman? What's wrong, that scar-faced whore dump you for that inbred hick?"

His contempt and cruel words weren't what made me sob. I couldn't stop it. I didn't know why I was crying, I just was.

"Look at me like a man when I talk to you, you crybaby little bitch." Butcher sneered. "Boo hoo hoo, my pussy and nipples hurt."

The chuckle sounded again, louder, and something moved in the darkness outside the door.

"No threats, Stillwater?" Butcher laughed. "Not so tough without Lieutenant James or your weapons, are you?" He laughed again. "Figures you aren't nothing but a little bitch, Stillwater." He reached out and pushed against my forehead. "What, no knife, psycho?" He pushed my forehead again and I sprawled back. "Not so tough now, are you? I always knew the rumors about you were bullshit."

Something moved in the darkness of the hallway between the two doors with a weird inhuman slither. The two bottom lights of the stairwell went out in a shadow of sparks and the dimness got thicker. I was sprawled on the stairwell, the beer in my hand and my stomach heaving. Before he could do anything else I folded over myself and threw up. Lasagne, green beans, apple cobbler, Coke, Wild Turkey, beer, and bile splashed on the floor, splattering Sergeant Butcher's boots and pantlegs. He skipped backwards with a disgusted noise as I heaved again and the steaming mess hit the tile floor.

The liquid chuckle came again.

"I ought to make you lick this up, you fucking psycho." Sergeant Butcher said. He walked by me and shoved me hard, driving my head against the railing supports. The world flashed and went black and white, shot through with static. I groaned and sat up, bracing myself, and took another drink of beer. It helped settle my stomach. The edges of the puddle of vomit were already freezing over and it was no longer steaming. I took another swig, looking out at the darkness and seeing the darkness twist weirdly.

Tandy was out there. Or whatever force animated him.

The stairs were trembling again by the time I finished the second beer and set the bottle between my feet.

"What the hell is he doing down here?" Sergeant White asked.

"Who the fuck knows or cares?" Sergeant Butcher laughed. "He's just sitting down there crying like a little bitch."

They both laughed at that and I could tell they were rounding the bottom landing. I slumped against the handrail supports, not really caring about what might happen. I'd come down here for a reason, and they'd work just as well as Tandy would, although I had kind of been ticking around the idea of taking on Tandy one on one finally.

"There he is." Butcher said. "Hell, he might be passed out."

"Then we'll wake his punk ass up." White laughed.

They were two jackals. They never took me on when I was on my feet or armed, but were perfectly willing to come down and take me on two on one.

Fuck it, let them.

One of them kicked me in the kidney. It should have hurt, but didn't. However the impact made the lizard open his eyes and pick himself up from where he had been curled up on the floor of the workstation. He stretched, winced when his arm went up further than a 45 degree angle, and then dashed the tears from the sides of his head and neck. When another kick hit me in the back the lizard blew the dust off of the control panel that controlled my combat systems. Sparks shot out of part of the panel when he pulled the keyring from around his neck and inserted it into the keyslot. Another kick hit me, this time on the opposite side of the back and the little lizard turned the key.

"Get up, punk." White sneered.

"He's probably passed out." Butcher commented.

Lights flashed on, buttons and switches lit up, and sparks shot out of the panel, but the lizard ignored the sparks to flip up a couple of covers that were over buttons.

There was another kick to my lower back, this time it actually left behind a dull ache. He'd finally managed to hit the kidney.

"On your feet, Corporal." Butcher snickered, and there was another kick to my belt line.

"Fuck off." I managed to say between the sobs.

"Aww, is poor little Stillwater sad? Does he need his mommy?" White laughed, coming around to in front of me. He turned in place and stared down at me, his hands on his hips. Just like Butcher his hands were on his hips, his uniform starched and creased, and his boots shined. "What's wrong, punk, can't handle the Army? Do you need to go home? Can't handle Special Weapons?"

"Just leave me alone." I told him, taking a long pull off of the last beer. The stairs were trembling under my butt, someone or something was coming down.

White shoved me back and I felt Butcher put his boot between my shoulderblades right before he shoved me forward. I was looking up when White punched me in the face.

"Boom, bitch! How do you like that?" White laughed as I went backwards. It would have hurt if I hadn't been sitting in the cold, making my exposed skin, and a lot of my covered skin, numb from the freezing wind and temperature. Butcher grabbed the shoulder of my uniform and threw me forward.

Right into another punch from Sergeant White.

"Boom! How you like that, fucker?" White yelled. He looked down at me, rubbing his knuckles, and laughed. "Yeah, you ain't shit, are you, punk?" He looked up. "You want a shot, Butcher?"

"Might as well. Be nice to show him who's boss." Butcher walked past me. Whoever or whatever was coming down the stairs was moving slow and steady, the vibrations were steady, barely noticeable. Butcher turned around and faced me, smiling as he cracked his knuckles.

I sat up, took another drink off of the beer, and smiled at them. "At least hit me like you mean it, princess. You hit like little girls."

Sergeant Butcher hit me hard in the mouth with a good line drive, his fist hitting me hard enough that three of my front teeth broke off. The punch threw me back against the stairs and I ended up looking up at the two NCO's. I leaned forward and spit a wad of blood at their feet, my teeth skipping out of it and bouncing across the tile.

"That it?" I asked, laughing. I took another swig off my beer, finishing it up. "That all you got?" For some reason I'd stopped crying.

"Little bastard." White snarled, punching me in the mouth again. My head went to the left and he swung again, this time hitting me on the right side of the mouth, and followed it with a punch to the right side of my mouth. The last punch broke off two teeth at the gum and splattered blood all over the floor next to the stairs. I grinned again and spit blood and teeth out, this time managing to hit White's boots. He cursed and hit me again but I let my head roll with it to take away a lot of the force. The lizard caressed a big red button, putting a little bit of pressure on it and I felt everything start to warm up.

"Here it comes, punk! Say goodnight!" Butcher laughed, winding back his fist like a cartoon character. I flipped the beer bottle in my hand. I'd shatter it on the railing supports on the way up, stab White in the throat with it, push Butcher against the wall, and slit his throat nice and slowly.

"Hey! What the fuck do you think you're doing?" William's voice sounded out.

"Beat it, Stillwater, this don't concern you." White snarled.

"Since it looks like you're kicking my little brother's ass, I'd say it does." William said, jumping from the landing and landing at the bottom of the stairs. He did the whole 'go down on one knee with one fist pressed against the ground' pose that looked so asinine to me.

"Get lost, Stillwater, your brother and I are having a little talk about his smart mouth and maybe you..." Butcher said. His words dried up as my brother stood all the way up to his full height and Butcher and White had to crane their heads back to stare at him. He was six foot six and built like a tank, a street brawler through and through who loved to fight since he was in grade school. He rolled his head, cracking his neck, and the sound of popping vertebrae echoed through the stairwell. He smiled down at both men as I looked down at the tile.

My brother had to come to my rescue again.

"What if I make it my concern, Sergeants?" William asked, raising one of his fists. "Since it concerns my little brother maybe it concerns me." He stepped forward and one of my busted teeth skittered across the tile. He glanced down and his neck got red. "Is that one of my brother's teeth? Did you fucks knock out one of my brother's teeth?"

"You better step off, Stillwater, or we might put that reputation of yours to the test." White said.

"Yeah, you might have been all tough in Juvenile Hall, but..." Butcher started.

"J-Max." Will interrupted him.

"What?" Butcher asked. "What are you..."

William hit him across the side of the face with an open hand hard enough that it sounded like a gunshot in the stairwell. Butcher spun and went down, his eyes crossed and his body limp. White went to back up and William stepped forward grabbed the front of his BDU blouse.

"Hello, Peaches." William smiled, then began slapping Sergeant White across the face, back and forth, pushing him backwards until he was pressed against the tile wall next to the door.

Sergeant Butcher was at my feet and I leaned forward and spit blood in his face. His eyes blinked and he started coming out of it. William's slap had been enough to stun him and leave him half-conscious at my feet.

"Move, little brother." William said. I looked up and saw him holding a limp Sergeant White in his fist. The other man's mouth and nose were bleeding freely and his eyes were rolled back in his head.

I stood up unsteadily and ended up staggering over to put one hand on the wall and retch. The little lizard had closed the button cover and then turned the panel off. He curled back up on the floor and began crying and I joined him, leaning against the wall and sobbing.

"Goddamn it, little brother, you need to quit getting your ass kicked." William threw Sergeant White onto Sergeant Butcher then walked into the hallway. I knew he was going to kick up the chocks and close the doors.

Why couldn't people just leave me alone?

I turned from the wall and headed up the stairs, taking them two at a time, heading for Queer Country.

Why couldn't William just left well enough alone or let me handle it?

I pushed open the door as William called my name, but I ignored it to head into Queer Country. The hallway was warmer and had none of the damage that Hammerhead Hall had suffered. William's shout at me vanished as the door closed behind me, cutting off his voice as well as the wind. I'd let him handle the two unconscious NCO's, and maybe they'd realize that I'd been about to kill them. It was doubtful, hell, probably the only person that knew what was about to happen in that darkened stairwell was me and the little lizard. Oh, and Tandy. He probably knew perfectly well I'd been on the razor's edge of killing both of them in cold blood and dumping them into the snow.

Only about a dozen steps down Queer Country I stopped against the wall to dry heave again, the bottle falling from nerveless fingers to bounce away on the tile floor. I ended up on my hands and knees, my stomach heaving as I vomited up bile and the blood I'd swallowed when the two NCO's had knocked my teeth out. I was crying while I was throwing up and I realized with some shame that snot was running out of my nose. The lizard opened one eye, saw I was throwing up from his status board,shrugged, and went back to weeping in his curled up little ball. Blood was pouring out of my nose, out of my mouth from the punches, and it mixed in with every heave. The stumps of my teeth burned but there wasn't anything I could do about it.

"Easy, Stillwater, easy." Dobbs said softly, her hand touching between my shoulderblades and rubbing gently. "I've got you." I managed to choke out a thank you and she rubbed again. "Don't try to talk, just take it easy, I've got you." She waited until I was done vomiting before she helped me straighten up. She led me a few paces and then set me down slowly. "Stay here, I'll mop that up." I nodded and she walked down to the utility closet. I heard the water run and started to cry again.

Once again someone had to take care of me like I was a child. I didn't belong in the Army. I was a fucking kid who couldn't do shit right.

I heard the water run and a minute later Dobbs came back with the mop and the mop-bucket full of steaming hot water.

"I hope this is from your nose and mouth, Stillwater, and you aren't puking up blood." Dobbs said, looking up at me from where she was mopping up the mess.

"Got punched out in the middle stairwell. They knocked out some of my teeth." I managed to sob.

"It's OK, Stillwater. I'll have this cleaned up in just a minute." She smiled. It made her whole face light up. I crossed my arms on top of my knees and put my forehead against my arms while I kept crying. After a few minutes I felt Dobbs rub the back of my neck. "Stand up, Stillwater, you're too heavy for me to lift."

I nodded and got up with her help. I wavered for a second, my balance going to shit, but she held my arm.

"Damn, you're all fucked up." She shook her head. "Come on, let's get you back to your room, Bomber and Nagle are probably worried about you."

"They aren't in there. They moved out." I told her, wiping my nose. The sleeve of my uniform came away smeared with snot and blood. "It's fine. I'm fine."

"No, you aren't." Dobbs corrected. She started pulling me further down the hallway. "Let's get you into bed."

"I'm fine." I tried again. She just laughed at me, pulling my left arm up over her shoulders.

"We'll take the far stairs, just in case they're waiting on you." She said. I shook my head, still crying, and she threaded her right arm around my waist, holding onto my left wrist with her left hand. "It's OK, Stillwater."

She half carried me up the stairs and to my room. The bleeding had stopped by the time she got me to my doorway. The door was still open, the windows open, and snow had fanned out from the windows across the tile floor.

"Oh, what the fuck?" She asked. She helped me into the room and had me sit down on the single bed. "Let me close this shit up." She told me. "Sit down and relax, Stillwater." She closed the window, cranked up the radiator, and got the broom and dustpan. I kept crying while she swept the snow and took it into the bathroom to dump it in the shower or the toilet or the sink or wherever. She came back in and shivered. "You aren't cold?"

"No." I said, not looking up.

"Nobody is in here with you? Why not?" She asked, sitting next to me and holding my hand.

"Bomber is staying with Lancer, Nancy is keeping an eye on Lanks." I said. I started crying again. "They left me, Dobbs. Nancy shot me up with something to make me sleep, then they just left me." I curled over and kept crying. "Then I got my ass kicked in the stairwell and my brother had to rescue me."

"Come on, lay down on the bed, let's get you back in bed." She said gently. She helped me out of my uniform, just leaving me in my boxers, and folded up the uniform. She set it on the dresser next to the uniform that Bomber had folded up, putting my socks and T-shirt on top of it. She came back and made me lay down before covering me with the OD green blankets.

"I got everyone killed, Dobbs. Queens, Needlemeyer, Sherry, King, my own cousin, I killed them all." I wept.

"Crap, he's having a nervous breakdown." Dobbs said softly, then raised her voice back to normal. "No, Anthony, you didn't. Are you all alone in here?"

"Yeah. Nobody wants to be in the room with a coward and a failure." I sobbed.

"That isn't going to work." She sighed. "Just remember I'm gay, Stillwater."

"Yeah. I know." I told her. "It's cool." I kept crying. "Can I have my bunny?"

"Yeah, you can." She told me. Her footsteps sounded odd as she walked to my bed and back. I was facing the wall when she tucked the bunny in with me and I cradled it, crying into its soft fur. After a moment or two she put another pair of wool blankets over me, the weight comforting. I felt her slide in next to me, her skin hot against mine.

"Go to sleep, Anthony. I'll stay with you." Dobbs said, her breath tickling my ear. "I won't let anything happen to you. I promise."

"You won't leave me alone?" I cried. "I can't bear to be alone in the dark."

"No, Anthony, I won't. Go to sleep." She said.

I kept crying, Dobbs arms around me while I cradled Floyd the bunny.

I woke up once, when Dobbs rolled over and elbowed me in the neck. Her eyes didn't open, but her lips parted and she said a single word.

"Lancer."

She was crying in her sleep.

In the darkness something chuckled. An inhuman, liquid chuckle that sounded like a drowning kitten.

Faintly, off in the distance, I could hear someone screaming in terror and agony.

I closed my eyes, still crying, held Dobbs close, and ignored the screaming and shouting.

I couldn't do it any more. It was too much to ask.

We couldn't even take care of ourselves.

I held Dobbs and went back to sleep.

In the darkness I tried to keep Nagle from bleeding out on the pad, the blood soaking through the bandages and pouring out of her like water. I tried desperately to save her, frantic to save at least one person who'd come to harm.

I failed.

Just like I always did.

Chapter 8

2/19th Special Weapons Group Barracks
Restricted Area, Alfenwehr West Germany
Late Winter- 12 February, 1988
Day 2 of Repairs
Day 2 of the Third Incident
Morning

I woke up to Dobbs shaking me. It took a second for me to open my eyes and even longer for me to blink them into kind of focus. Her face was blurry but I could tell she was smiling.

"How ya feeling this morning, champ?" She asked me.

"I'm fine." I told her.

"Huh. Yeah." She said. She waved her hand in front of my face then leaned forward to squint at me. When she leaned close her face came into focus. "You can't see shit without your glasses, can you?" She asked me.

"No."

"OK." She jumped off the bunk, a peach-colored blur with just white at the hips. She laughed. "So even though I'm showing off my tits you can't see them?"

"No."

She laughed again. "You and Lancer." She moved to the point where she was really blurry. "Hey, this coffee machine work?"

"It should. Coffee is in the top left desk drawer." I told her.

"Goddamn, coffee sounds great." I heard the drawer open. "Go ahead and relax, Stillwater, I'll make us some coffee."

I rolled onto my back and stared at the ceiling for a long moment. My mouth hurt pretty bad and I explored my teeth with my tongue, finding out that three of my front teeth were gone. The implants were still there, but between that and the two molars missing I was down five teeth. I rolled over and looked at Dobbs' blurry self. "Someone knocked out five of my teeth."

"Yeah, you said someone kicked your ass in the stairwell. You were bleeding pretty bad when I found you." I heard her pour water into the coffee maker. "No offense, Ant, but you were pretty fucked up. That a regular thing with you?"

"Not really." I said. "Well, sometimes. Usually weekends. Usually I don't get my ass kicked that bad, just sometimes." She laughed and I saw her sit down in the chair. "Hey, can I have my glasses?"

"I don't think so, perv." She said, and I could tell by her voice she was smiling. "You straight guys get all creepy about tits."

"Man, poor Lancer." I smiled.

The temperature seemed to drop in the room. "Why do you say that?" Dobbs asked, her voice flat.

..Be very careful here...

"Because even blurry I can tell you have a nice rack, and his poor blind ass can't see it when you walk around in front of him all naked and shit." I kept smiling, realizing I was right on the edge of fucking up what might be a decent friendship. "The Queen of the Blind all strutting around showing off her goodies to her subjects, and poor Lancer can't even see." She laughed at that. "We OK?"

I could tell she was nodding. "Yeah, we're OK." The room was starting to smell of fresh coffee. "You know, I used to think you were an asshole. It's nice to know I was right."

"Wow, thanks." I said. I found Floyd and hugged him. "You really know how to make a guy feel good."

"Yeah, but you were there, you know?" She said. I could tell by the way the blur shifted that she shrugged. "It ain't easy being a female in the military, much less Special Weapons."

"Or a lesbian." I offered up.

"Oh my God! You know I'm a lesbian? Oh crap! I'm doomed!" She mocked, then laughed. "Yeah, that doesn't help. It's bad enough that most of the lifers like Henley and Sergeant Dowell think that women aren't worth anything more than the hole between our legs, but then because I'm a dyke either they offer to fuck me straight or get pissed off that I don't wanna fuck 'em." She sniffed loudly. "Goddamn, that coffee smells good."

"So where does Lancer fit in with being gay?" I asked her, swinging my legs out of bed so I could sit up. I made sure that the blankets were bunched around my waist. I didn't want to come across as a shit-head.

Dobbs sighed. "OK, that's twice you've mentioned him. Just spill it, Stillwater."

"Promise not to punch me in the face?" I asked. I kicked my feet for a moment, getting circulation into my legs.

"Maybe. That's about as good as I'm willing to offer you."

"You were crying in your sleep and saying his name." I tossed out there. I half expected her to run across the room and punch me and flinched when she shifted.

"Yeah. That's, umm, difficult to explain." She said. "I don't think you'd get it." I heard the pot being moved out and then two cups being poured. "How do you like your coffee?"

"Cream and sugar, lots." I told her.

"White and sweet?" She said, and I caught the unsaid joke.

"Well, that knocks you out, 'cause you ain't a sweet girl, patchy." I said. She laughed and I heard a spoon stirring coffee. "So what's the problem? You and Lancer have a connection."

"Is it that obvious?"

"I can fucking see it." I shrugged. "I'm not the most observant guy when it comes to people's relationships. Hell, I didn't even know Nancy was interested in till she came in, stripped naked, and told me that nobody was getting out of the room until someone got fucked."

Dobbs laughed at that. "Yeah, I can see her doing that." She moved up and held up the coffee cup. I took it from her and cradled it in my hands, savoring the warmth and blowing on it. "The problem is I'm gay, that's what the problem is." She said. "Hold my coffee." I held out my hand and she handed me her cup. She climbed up next to me, sitting on the bed, and took the coffee cup. "Thanks. Anyway, lesbians aren't really known for falling in love with guys."

I shrugged. "Why not?"

"Because not fucking guys is kinda what being a lesbian is about, you doof."

"So?" I sipped the coffee. "God, this is good."

"Thanks."

"So what's the problem? You love Lancer." I took another sip and relished the taste. She made a good cup of coffee. John usually somehow burned it and Nancy refused to make coffee. Foster made good coffee though, but he'd been dropped to ammo rat so the point was kind of moot.

"I'm a lesbian, shithead. God, you are thick-headed." She said, elbowing me. I elbowed back and hit something a little too soft. "Watch that elbow, champ."

"Sorry." I said, still looking at my coffee cup. "Who cares if you're a lesbian." I looked at her blurry face. "What, is the Lesbian Conspiracy going to come and take away your lesbian card and make you stand in the corner because you love Lancer?" I took another sip. "Fuck 'em. They on this fucking mountain with us. They don't get to judge any of us."

"Easy to say for you. All my friends are gay too, and if they find out I'm in love with a guy, I'll be a traitor. Then I won't have any friends. You don't know what it's like, not being able to make friends with people because if they find out you're gay they get all weird." She sighed. "With Queens dead, you guys from Actual are all I have. About as close as it comes to having friends anyway." She was silent for a moment. "I miss Queens. I really loved her."

"I miss my cousin." I told her. She put her arm around me and we sat drinking coffee. After a few minutes I looped my arm around her, careful where my hand was, and squeezed her. "You know, not all your friends are gay."

"Yeah? Like who?"

"Me, dumbass." I said and hugged her again. "This Lancer thing will fix itself."

"How?" She hugged back and laid her head on my shoulder and sighed.

"Talk to him. Give it a shot. Either it doesn't work and you go back to being just interested in women, or you end up being a lesbian who likes one guy. Doesn't make you a bad lesbian, it just means that you fell in love. Besides, my Father always told me that you fall in love with the person, not their sex." I told her, sipping away the last of my coffee. I swirled the cup and sighed. "Well, time to get in the shower." I hopped down and moved over to the desk to set my cup down. I spotted my glasses. "Hey, my eyes." I picked them up. "Want me to give you a minute?"

"Why?" She asked. I could hear the mirth in her voice and cocked my head. "Put on your glasses, hero."

The world swam into focus and I blinked a few times to get my eyes to adjust before looking at her. As soon as I saw her I started laughing. Her bra was the same color as her skin.

"You faker." I laughed.

She smiled. "Disappointed?"

"Goddamn right, I got robbed. I was expecting big lesbian titties and all I get is a cheap bra?" I made a mock disgusted sound as I walked up and held my hand out. "Total gyp."

"You're OK, Ant." She said, handing me her cup. "Make momma a cup, will you?" I gave her a two fingered scout salute and moved over to the coffee maker. "Two packets of creamer and a packet of sugar." She said. I nodded and started fixing her coffee, loving the smell of the freshly brewed coffee. I brought it back to her and she sipped it, smiling. "Perfect."

"You shower yet?" I asked her.

"Yeah, while you were sleeping."

"Hold down the fort." I told her. I moved over the dresser and grabbed another brown T-shirt and a pair of boxers. I went into the bathroom, turned on the water, and waited for the water to get right. When I was mostly done with the shower I took care of business, washed off again, and got out. I stared in the mirror, sighed, and got out a razor. I needed to shave. I took care of it quickly, dry shaving, put on my T-shirt and boxers, and went back into the room.

"You mind?" I asked, holding my finger over the play button on the CD player.

"Your room." She told me. I smiled and pressed the button. Track one, Dream Weaver came on and I smiled as I made myself another cup of coffee. I grabbed my pack of smokes off the desk, lit one, and sat down in the chair, sipping my coffee. Dobbs had put her BDU bottoms and her T-shirt on and was sitting on the single bed, her cup of coffee in her hand. I glanced at the clock and noticed it was ten hundred hours.

"I overslept." I said. "Shit, I'm going to be in trouble."

"You're on quarters, doof." Dobbs said. "Nancy came up to check on you while you were sleeping. She told me that she was going to tell Lieutenant Wright that I'm watching you today." Dobbs looked serious. "Nancy put you on suicide watch."

"Suicide's a sin." I blurted out.

"You weren't in good shape last night, Stillwater." She told me. She got up and walked over next to me, picking up a pill bottle and rattling two into her hand. "Nancy said that either you can take these or I'm supposed to give them to you in suppository form."

"What are they?" I asked, looking at them suspiciously.

"They're pills you're going to take, or I'm going to go get Nancy, Bomber, and that thug you call a brother and have them hold you down while I shove them up your ass." She told me.

"Bully." I teased, holding out my hand. She dropped the two pills into my hand and I swallowed them down with a mouthful of coffee. "What were they?"

"Valium." She reached out and ruffled my hair, an affectionate guesture that felt more like siblings then anything else. "Nancy says you need to be sedated for the next couple of days. That you need to sleep, to stay warm, and to talk to someone." She pulled over the other chair. "So I'm here."

"I'm fine." I told her.

"You know, I'm feeling a lot better about Lancer." Dobbs said after a few moments. She looked at me and gave me a grin. "When Bomber comes up to relieve me I think I'll go visit him." She leaned forward and said in a stage whisper: "Just thinking about him makes me all drippy."

I laughed at that. "Pervert."

She smiled. "I know, right?" She laughed. "Wanna hear something really weird?" I nodded, sipping my coffee. "The fact that I know all my friend would think I was being perverted for fucking a guy makes it even worse." She laughed again, her laughter natural sounding, lacking the self-mocking aspect or bitterness I'd heard from other people. "The idea of being all perverted with Lancer and letting him pop my cherry makes me all drippy and throbby..."

"Hey hey hey. Come on, Dobbs, Christ." I said, holding up my hand. She looked startled, then hurt. "I'm still a goddamn guy, for fuck's sake, and you're definitely hot in the 'don't fuck with me' way that I like. You start talking like that I'm going to have to go find Nancy and bang her shut." The hurt vanished from her face and she laughed.

"You know, you're easier to talk to than I thought you'd be." She said after awhile.

"Huh." I said.

"Well, no offense, but you don't exactly look like the kind of guy that I could talk to."

"You mean I should be figuring out a way to get your legs open so I can show you that all you needed was the right dick to make you pledge allegiance to the united states of cock?" She nodded and I grinned. "Naw, I've always thought that was stupid as hell. That'd be like saying all I'd need to love the cock is the right guy to fuck me."

"I don't know, you look like you'd be a pretty good cock-hound." She laughed. "In the whole 'Frankenstien's Monster fuck-buddy' way. Some guys are really into that. We could get you a cute petite guy who shaves and smells nice and looks good in a dress for you and you can lumber around Atlas with bolts in your neck while he stays home and makes the house all pretty. Hell, you're fucking Nagle, it wouldn't be too hard to find a guy more effeminate than that."

"Bite me." I shot back, laughing at the whole thing. I remembered something and went quiet. Dobbs gave me an odd look. "Hey, did anything happen last night?"

"What do you mean?" She asked, looking wary.

"I woke up and there was screaming and yelling. I don't think it was a dream, and whoever it was, they were hurt bad." I told her.

She was silent for a long moment. "Look, Nancy and Stokes didn't want me to tell you." She shrugged. "I like you and all, Ant, but I'm terrified of Stokes."

I grabbed her knee, putting pressure on it for second before I consciously loosened my grip. "My sister is here, Dobbs. If she's hurt, you better tell me right the fuck now."

Dobbs put her hands over mine, squeezing gently. "No, Ant, it wasn't your sister. One of the MI guys got hurt really bad. Nancy and Stokes had to work on him until an ambulance could make it from main post. They say he died enroute." She took my hand off her knee and squeezed it. "Your sister is OK."

"Thank you." I said, and meant it.

"Christ, if my sister was up here I'd be terrified for her." She said. "How old is she, anyway?"

"She's my twin, you wanker." I said. "The same age as me."

She stared at me for a second then laughed. "You're yanking my chain. There's no way you're twins. You're like, what, twenty-five? No offense, but there's no way a cute little thing like her is your twin."

"I'm fucking nineteen." I said, then yawned.

"Getting sleepy?" She asked.

"Yeah." I yawned again.

"Let's get you into bed." Dobbs said, standing up and holding out her hand. "Come on, champ, it's bed-time."

I yawned again as she led me over to the single bunk. She pulled the blankets back and helped me lay down, then got my stuffed rabbit. She gave it to me, covered me up, then got the extra blankets off the top bunk bed and covered me up with those.

"Get some rest, Ant." She said, sitting next to me on the bed. "I'll keep watch over you."

I yawned again and before I could answer I found my eyes closing.

There wasn't any dreams waiting for me.

Still, something odd happened. Floating there, in that nice little pool of sedation, I started waking up. I could feel my heart beating, hear my breathing, hear someone humming along to the CD, feel the blankets against my skin.

...Something is wrong...

Goddamn brother thinks I'm not worth a shit. Nancy and Bomber abandoned me. My own twin sister sold me out to the DIA.

I managed to roll over, half falling out of the bed. I caught myself and looked up. There was a woman was facing away from me, leaned back in the chair and reading something. While I watched she made a huffing sound and blew a lock of hair out of her face then picked up my coffee cup and took a drink before setting it down.

Who the fuck is this, sitting in my room, reading my books, drinking my coffee? Who does she think she is?

...What the fuck is wrong with you...

I got to my feet, feeling the rage flood up. The little lizard looked up suddenly as an entire bank of controls exploded in sparks and flames. He screeched and jumped back, grabbing a fire extinguisher and trying to hose it off.

"Get Nancy right now." I growled. The woman turned around and looked at me and went pale.

"Ant? Are you OK?" She asked, slowly standing up. She dropped the book she was reading, one of my Hammer's Slammers that had survived.

"Get that scar-faced bitch up here right fucking now, you stupid bitch." I snarled at her. I stepped forward and slammed the bottom of my fist on the desk. "Now!"

...What the hell, man? That's your friend. Why are you acting like this? It's Dobbs, you goddamn lunatic...

The woman slowly started to back up. "Easy, Ant. I'll go get her."

"Tell that goddamn hick to get his ass up here too." I told her, stepped forward. I reached out to grab her and the little lizard started hitting the abort button as the plan appeared on his screens. I'd grab her by the front of the uniform and slam her against the wall until she went limp. She backed away, weaving away from my reaching hand.

"Are you OK, Ant?" She asked.

...Calm down, that's your friend. It's Dobbs...

"Get the fuck out of my room, bitch!" I screamed at her. "Who fucking sent you?" I stopped and glared at her. "You're here to fucking kill me, aren't you, bitch?" I clenched my fists and my knuckles popped. "Where's Dobbs. What did you do with my friend?" I stepped forward as the woman yanked open the door. "What did you do with her?" I yelled. "Who the fuck are you?"

...She's right there. Can't you recognize her? something's wrong...

The lizard was trying to fix the panels. They were showing nothing but hash on them. Mixed up memories, scrambled images. Alarms were going off and a strobing red light was going off. He pulled the front off of the dusty combat control panel and started pulling out the wires. He jumped back when there was a loud pop.

The woman scooted out the door, slamming it behind her.

"That's right, fucking run! Come back here and I'll fucking kill you, you síofra!" I shouted at the door, using the old word for changeling from the tales I'd been told as a child. I turned around, looking at the room. "Dobbs! Can you hear me?" There was no answer. I knelt down, grabbed the bottom of the bed, and stood up, flipping it over. "Dobbs! Say something!" She wasn't under the bed and I felt anger well up. I shouldn't have let that woman, that thing pretending to be human escape. I should have held her down and poured salt down her back till she told me what she did with Dobbs.

The little lizard pulled out wires and started cutting them with its teeth. Some of them smoked and melted in his hands and he hissed for a moment before getting back to work.

I grabbed the dresser by the back and threw it on its face. A carton of cigarettes fell to the floor from where it had been hidden behind the dresser. No Dobbs though.

...Something's wrong...

"Dobbs! Sound off! I'm here! Where are you? Sound off!" I bellowed out, scanning the room. Maybe she in the fridge! I moved over to the refrigerator and yanked the door open. I started yanking the bottles out, throwing them behind me, yelling for Dobbs to say something, kick against something, let me know where she was so I could find her. I pulled open the door to the freezer and began yanking out the stuff inside. I pulled the ice cube tray out and dumped the ice cubes on the floor, getting on my hands and knees to look inside each one in case she'd been trapped in one. Unable to find her and getting angrier by the second I grabbed the fridge and dumped it on its face. All that was behind it was empty space and a can of Copenhagen that fell out of the bottom of the refrigerator.

I turned and saw the chair the thing had been sitting in. Lunging forward I grabbed the legs of the chair, raised it up, and slammed it against the floor. It broke apart and I threw the pieces to the side. Worried for my friend I moved over to the windows, turning the handles and yanking them open. The wind blew in, scouring my face and chest with snow seeds, and I raised an arm up against it. I could feel the little chips of ice scouring my skin off, could feel my skin abrading away and blood starting to flow as I was flensed by the micro-crystal.

"Dobbs! Sound off!" I yelled out into the storm.

The door opened up behind me and I turned around, bending down to grab a piece of broken wood from the floor where it was lying surrounded by foam and broken glass. I stepped forward and slammed the piece of wood against the top of the desk making a loud bang.

"I don't know, he was fine when he went to sleep." The changeling was saying.

"Might be a reaction to... what the fuck happened in here?" There was a scar-faced woman standing there. Beside her was the changeling and behind them were three others, all of them large. The woman and the man in the back couldn't be human, they were too big. Their arms were twisted and misshapen with muscle, they had large tusks jutting out from their lower jaws, and hands that ended in long taloned fingers.

"Come on. Bring it on. I'll beat out of you what you did with Dobbs." I said, waving the piece of wood back and forth. "you think little síofra tricks will keep me from beating out of you what you did with her?"

They came in the room slowly, spreading out, all but their heads and hands covered in leaves. The changeling moving by the bunk beds I hadn't gotten a look under to see if Dobbs was tied up underneath them. The scar faced woman held a long glittering needle in her hand, venom dripping from it to hiss on the floor and bubble as it ate into the tile. The smaller of the males moved over in front of where I'd flipped the dresser, his arms bowed and shoulders deformed with muscle. The huge woman was next, leaves covering her body like the others, but I knew she would pull me apart so she could roast me to eat. The larger male, what had to be her mate, stayed between the hallway and me, making grunting noises with long ropes of drool falling from his mouth. Behind them was a fire haired nymph, ivy mingled with her flaming red hair, her body wrapped with vines with flowers over her crotch and the tips of her breasts. Her eyes were a bright glowing green and she stared at me from behind her minions. Her belly was rounded and the vines draped across her swollen belly were heavy with large sweet looking berries.

The aes sídhe had come, just like my mother had always told me they would. Just like grandma had always told me they would for bad little boys.

I reached for my knife, found it wasn't there, and smiled.

"You'll tell me where Dobbs is eventually, síofra." I promised.

"Get ready." The scar-faced one said, raising up the needle.

"No." The nymph said, raising her hand. Her minions fell back as she stepped forward. "Leave Aodán to me."

Hearing my name from those ruby lips stopped me cold. "Ainnir." I whispered in fear. I stared at her as she stepped forward, pushing past the misshapen trolls. She took my wrists in her hands and stepped up in to me, the ends of the vines wrapped around her arms tickled me as she squeezed my wrists.

"Did my servants steal your friend, Aodán?" The nymph asked, smiling up at me and looking at me through her long eyelashes. The leaves and tendrils in her hair rustled and she smelled of apple blossoms.

"Give her back, ainnir." I begged. "She didn't do anything. Let her go. Don't let the mountain have her." I started crying. I had to save Dobbs. I had to.

She turned me slightly, so her back was against the desk. I couldn't look away from those big unworldly eyes. Her hands burned my skin and I could feel the tingling pain traveling up my arms, the little stinging nettle like hairs on her hands poisoning me. She smiled at me, her breath smelling of hot blood, and tilted her head up. "Kiss me, and I'll give her back. Kiss me, dance with me, eat and drink with me, and I'll give her back." She stepped closer, pressing against my bare chest. The leaves and vines covered her skin but I could still feel the heat that came off of her. Her hands had let go of my wrists so that she could slide her arms around me, her hot little hands between my shoulder blades. She looked up at me. "Kiss me, and then we'll dance, Aodán."

Kiss, dance, eat and drink with her meant I'd be her slave until she let me go according to the stories. But they had Dobbs, and I wouldn't leave another person behind. I bent my head down and kissed her. Her mouth tasted of berries and blood, her tongue moved into my mouth, longer than it had any right to be coming from such a small mouth, and the nymph made a pleased sound as she undulated against me. One of her little hands reached down to cup my buttock and she pulled me tight against her.

A sharp pain hit me in my butt cheek and I knew she'd stung me, but it didn't matter, I'd promised to dance with her.

She'd stolen Nancy, Dobbs, Stokes, and my sister. I had to get them back before the mountain claimed them and...

The little lizard's boards started going dark. He leaned back, watching his boards go from lit up to standby. He wiped his brow and stood up, looking at his readouts.

I was getting sleepy.

The nymph broke the kiss and stared at me, letting go of my backside with one hand and cupping my cheek, her blood red thumbnail just below my eye. "I'm sorry, Aodán, but it's for the best."

"Why?" I asked, starting to sag in her arms. She tightened her grip and it felt like she was crushing me as she kept me on my feet. "We had a deal. You were going to give back my friends."

"I'll give them back." She smiled. She kissed me again, and when she broke the kiss she stared into my eyes. "You'll still owe me that dance."

The nymph dragged me over to the bottom bunk and laid me down, covering me up with a mat of soft moss.

"Rest, Aodán, my servants will return your friends and I'll watch over you while you sleep." the nymph said.

I tried to resist it, tried to fight it, but a combination of the nymph's venom and the little lizard slapping the emergency shutdown button put my lights out.

Chapter 9

2/19th Special Weapons Group Barracks
Restricted Area, Alfenwehr West Germany
Late Winter- 12 February, 1988
Day 2 of Repairs
Day 2 of the Third Incident
Afternoon

I woke up. Again. My mouth tasted like shit's ugly cousin, my head throbbed, and my throat felt like I'd been breathing in CS gas all day while smoking Lucky Strikes. I opened my eyes and the light about melted my brain. I groaned and pulled on arm over my eyes to protect my poor brain. I could feel I was under a woolen blanket and the room was warm. I could smell freshly brewed coffee and the smell of spilled beer.

"You with me, or are you going back to sleep?" My older brother asked.

"What..." I asked.

"What do you remember?" Will asked me. His boots came close and I felt his weight on the edge of the bed.

"Drinking coffee with Dobbs." I told him. "She had me take two Valium and..."

He made humphing noise. "Yeah, well, you'll be getting an allergy tag for Valium now." He lit a cigarette. "As soon as you feel up to it, you can have a smoke."

"I think I'd..." I started to tell him, uncovering my eyes and squinting at him.

"Here's your eyes first." He interrupted me. He opened them up and put them on carefully. He looked worried as he stared down at me and I noticed that he needed to shave. He held out the cigarette and I took it. The nicotine felt good and woke up the little lizard who looked mournfully at the wreckage of his control station. He shook his head, got out his toolkit, and sat down in front of the gutted control panels and got to work.

"You tore up your fucking room pretty bad, scared the shit out of Dobbs, and broke all your booze." He told me. He lit one for himself, got up, got an empty Coke can, then sat back down. "Nagle checked, turns out that rage and hallucination are a fairly uncommon side effect of Valium, but you've got a higher chance of getting that side effect if you've shown aggressive tendencies or taken a traumatic brain injury." He laughed bitterly. "Hell, you probably couldn't give it to half the military by now."

"Can you tell Dobbs..." I said, blushing. I didn't remember her at all, I couldn't remember anything my brother was talking about.

"She knows, Ant." He shook his head. "Aine distracted you long enough for Nagle to hand her a hypodermic of sedative so Aine could jab you in the ass. You went out after a minute or two."

I cleared my throat uncomfortably and Will looked at me. "Umm, about last night, when I went off on you..." I started.

Will just waved it away. "Don't worry about it. Nagle said you're having a nervous breakdown." He shook his head. "She said you might not be all the way out of it."

...Will you let me fucking talk...

"Will!" I snapped. He looked at me and raised an eyebrow. He looked like the spitting image of our Father when our Father was younger. "Will you let me..."

"You can't get up, man." He told me, shaking his head.

"Seriously, man, let me..."

"No. You can't get up."

"I swear to God..."

"Dude, I'm bigger and tougher than you, threatening me isn't going to make me let you up." He laughed. He fucking laughed at me.

My own fucking brother didn't give a shit what I had to say. I felt it all crash back down on me. Nagle and Bomber had abandoned me, I'd scared Dobbs away by being a psycho, my sister had betrayed me, and my own brother wouldn't even listen to me.

I dropped my cigarette into the can he was holding and rolled over to face the wall. I was going to apologize for going off on him about the whole Ranger thing, try to make him understand that the only time you could say the Rangers saved us was when Bomber was dying and other than that they had gotten there after everything was all done. But he'd rather figure he knew what I was going to say and just talk over me.

He'd been like that since he started hanging out with his SOG buddies. The guys who were actually SOG and the wannabees like him. When we were younger he used to listen to me when I talked, but the brother I'd spent time with during my childhood had vanished behind the high speed special operations troop he wanted to become. I found Floyd in the covers and cuddled him.

"The light's..."

"I'll shut it off." Will said, getting up and turning off the light.

"Music?" I figured I'd stick with monosyllabic attempts.

"Yeah, I'll turn on the CD player." He said. He fiddled with it for a second and I heard the CD spin up. Dream Weaver started and I hugged Floyd to me close and began silently crying.

Now I knew why.

I was alone.

My brother sat there, completely oblivious to what was going on with me. I rolled over so I could look at him and saw him reading his Special Forces correspondence course, tapping his Skillcraft pen against his front teeth. Every time he looked at me I closed my eyes, and the third time he came over and bent over me, reaching for my glasses and I opened my eyes and stared at him. He straightened up, shrugged, and went back to his stupid ass course.

...Nice to know where I stand, brother, compared to your correspondence courses...

The lizard looked up at that, glanced at his screens, looked at what I was feeling and what I was thinking, and frowned. After a second he shrugged.

When Will wasn't looking I took off my glasses and slid them under my pillow. I wasn't going to depend on anyone else for where my glasses were. I kept crying quietly, holding onto Floyd and wishing I was anywhere but Alfenwehr. Time passed and twice he came over, loomed over me, and when he was satisfied with whatever he was fucking looking for, he fucked back off to his studying.

The door opened and then shut quietly. I could hear someone moving quietly across the tile but didn't roll over to look.

"How is he?" Nagle asked.

"Sleeping." Will said. "His speech was all fucked up earlier. He kept using the wrong words or repeating the same sound over and over." He lied.

"It's called aphasia, you dumb thug." Nagle laughed.

...Oh sure, believe him...

"What's wrong with him? Is he having a nervous breakdown still?" Will asked.

...Like you give a fuck. just go hand out with those snake eating disphits and get a lobotomy so you fit right in...

"It's called a psychotic break, William." Nancy said. She was getting closer.

"He cries in his sleep." Will told her.

"We all do that." Nancy answered softly, leaning down and touching the side of my mouth. "Who busted out his teeth? I want to know."

"White and Butcher. I caught them kicking his ass and taught them not to fuck with my little brother." Will sounded really fucking proud of himself.

...Ten more seconds and they'd have been dead men...

"He needed saving from those two losers?" Nagle asked.

...No...

The lizard replayed it for me. Butcher and White standing in front of me, the bottle tight in my hand about to get slapped against the edge of the step so it shattered and left the jagged edged neck of the bottle in my hand. The doors to outside open, with King standing in the doorway behind them with his arms crossed and his chest hacked open with an axe. I was just tensing up to take them both, shove White into King's arms, when my brother showed up. The M-60 was across King's back and the bayonet from his rifle was in fist. He was staring at the back of their heads with a big grin that showed too many jagged teeth.

"He was just sitting there letting them hit him. He was egging them on and just taking it." Will said quietly.

"They're goddamn lucky you came along when you did." Nagle said, sitting next to me. She reached out and ran her hand across my head.

"Why?" Will asked. "He was getting his ass kicked."

"You just beat on them, Anthony here would have killed them." Nagle said softly, bending down to kiss my temple.

"No he wouldn't have." Will scoffed.

"Will, you haven't been around this winter. Trust me, I know what I'm talking about." Nancy said softly, then kissed my temple again.

"I think I know my little brother better than you." Will sounded offended.

"You fuck him lately?" Nancy asked, and I could feel her sit up. "You put him back together with butterfly stitches, 100 MPH tape, staples, half-assed stitches, and drainage tubes?"

"Well, no." Will said. I felt Nancy get up off the bunk bed.

"You seen him kill anyone, Will? You seen your little brother when it's all on the line instead of some schoolyard tussel?" Nagle's voice was harsh.

"No." Will sounded off. I couldn't identify what was in his voice.

"Ask some of the people from Echo Five Actual, like Lanks, or Dobbs, or Aine, or Bomber, or Stokes." Nancy said. She moved back over by me. "Ask Miranda what it's like to get hit in the gut with a burst from an AK-47, have your Kevlar stop it, and still miscarry a child you didn't even know you were carrying." She laid next to me, putting one arm over me. "Ask what it's like to know you'll never be the same." She said softly.

"Wait. Miranda's pregnant?" Will sounded angry. His anger frightened me. He always was bigger than me, and even though he'd always been nothing but nice to me, I was always scared of him. I started crying a little harder.

"Was, Will, past tense." Nagle said. "Don't worry, she isn't now. You don't have to worry about her now."

"I need to go talk to her." William said. I heard him gather stuff up.

...Don't leave me...

"If she'll talk to you." Nancy said.

"Why wouldn't she?"

"You aren't Actual."

The only sound was Will gathering up his stuff and leaving.

"Ant? Are you awake?" Nancy asked.

"Yeah." I answered her.

"Shhh, don't talk, honey." She said, gently rolling me over. She looked at me for a long time, then leaned forward and kissed the tip of my nose. "Tell me you love me."

"I love you." I told her.

"At least now I know what you mean when you say that." She smiled sadly.

...What? I don't understand...

"Dobbs is worried about you, silly boy." Nancy told me. "All of your screaming scared her." She was quiet for a moment. "I don't think she makes friends easily, and losing Queens really hurt her." She was quiet for a moment and I saw tears well up in her eyes. "You know they'd been going out since they'd gotten here in March? Dobbs talked to me about it."

"I didn't know." I told her.

"Honey, you have aphasia." She said softly, and the tears spilled out. "Do you know what that means?" I shook my head. "That means you're thinking words, but you can't speak them. The wrong word comes out or you just make noises." She kissed my lower lip. "Apparently it's a reaction to the sedative properties of Valium. You should get your speech back by tomorrow."

I yawned and she smiled. She still looked beautiful crying. "Get some sleep, Ant. I'll lay here until someone comes to spell me." She made a face. "Someone will get hurt before too long, the barracks hates us too much to let us go without any injuries for long."

Held tight in her arms I closed my eyes and went back to sleep.

Voices woke me up.

"...and then he'll go to Mental Health, they'll yank his clearance, drop him from Special Weapons and put him in another unit." The LT was saying.

"But, sir..." Nancy protested. From the sounds of their voices they were outside my door and my door wasn't shut all the way.

"That's my final word on the matter, Specialist. This is not open for discussion." LT Wright said. "You have patients to check on. Dismissed."

"Yes, sir." Nancy's voice was tight.

...If he makes me go to Mental Health my career's over...

"Specialist Bomber?" The LT's voice was full of authority, used to being obeyed.

"Go get it."

"Yes, sir." Bomber said.

I opened my eyes and slid my glasses out from under my pillow when I saw it was dark in the room. I slid them on in time to see Bomber pick up my keys from the desk and walk back to my TA-50 locker. He opened it up, pulled down my LBE, and took my Gerber off of my gear. While I watched he put my LBE back into my locker and closed it, putting my keys back, and took my knife out to the LT.

"That's the only one he has." Bomber told him. "He should be unarmed now."

"Good job, Specialist. Carry on." The LT said.

"Yes, sir." Bomber answered.

...Bomber, how could you...?

I started crying. My best friend had just willingly given my knife to the LT. I was defenseless. He'd left me defenseless. He'd taken my knife. How could he?

The sound of boots made me open my eyes. The LT was walking in with Aine. She was easy to spot, her hair undone and spread around her head in a fiery corona. I quickly slipped my glasses off and put them under my pillow and buried my face in my stuffed rabbit. They moved up to my bed and stopped and fear made a cold lump in my stomach.

"He'll just have to survive. I won't send him to the hospital until he gets bad enough that he won't survive without hospitalization." The LT said. "Do you understand, Private McCullen?"

"Yes, sir." Aine sounded stubborn.

"None of you who survived the previous Rear-D are going to be sent to the hospital unless you are in imminent danger of dying on me." The LT's voice was cold. "I'm not about to waste all the training and experience that the Army has invested in those soldiers. They'll just have to buckle down and drive on."

"Yes, sir." Aine said. She reached down and touched my cheek. "He's crying again, sir."

"That happens. He'll get through it or he'll get chaptered out." The LT moved away, no sympathy in his voice. "Stay with him, I'll send Specialist Stokes up with dinner to relieve you."

"Thank you, sir." Aine said quietly. The door closed and I was alone with Aine.

"Oh my poor Aodán." She whispered. I heard cloth rustle. "I need you, Aodán." She slid under the covers with me, her skin hot to the touch. Her fingers slipped under my T-shirt and she pulled at it. "I know you're awake, Aodán, I've known you for too long."

"Go away, Aine." I said, trying to turn away from her.

"Please, Aodán, please?" She begged. I helped her get me out of my shirt and boxers, expecting her to climb onto me or roll me on top of her.

"Just do whatever you want, Aine, I'm not going to fight you." I told her.

"Oh my poor Annie, I can't even understand you." She wrapped around me, her arms around my chest, her legs wrapped in mine. She buried her face against my shoulder. Her skin was hot against mine, feverish. She started shaking and I realized she was crying. I put my arms around her and held her tight, crying with her. She didn't try to kiss me, just held onto me as she cried.

"I made a terrible mistake, Annie." She sobbed. "I did something terrible."

"Shh." I whispered, stroking her long hair. Out of the bun and braid it went all the way down to the gentle curve of her buttocks. "It'll be OK."

She smelled of apple blossoms.

"I did something so stupid." She sobbed. "Please, just hold me like when I was new." She pulled Floyd up and looked at him, then up at me. She looked frightened, like the girl I'd been infatuated with. "Can we hold your bunny?"

"Yes, Aine." I told her. I kissed the top of her head as she bent her head forward and nuzzled between the bunny's ears. We stayed like that for a long moment, her crying into the top of the bunny, my tears finally stopping as I tried to comfort a woman I'd once hated.

"I made a terrible mistake, Annie." She finally said, lifting her head. She still was crying. "I joined the Army." I looked at her with a 'no shit?' expression and she smiled wanly. "Not like your sister, not like all the other women in our families. I joined the military like a boy." She started weeping again and I suddenly understood. "My mother went to matrons of both families and had me listed as a boy." She began crying again, great wracking sobs. "She took away my place with the matrons. I'm a boy."

...Oh, Aine...

"My own mother made me a boy." She cried. "They'll pick a husband for me, tie me down for him to fill my belly, and take away any Aine I give birth to. They'll give any Aine of my belly to my mother." I went cold at that. I knew women's politics in our families were vicious, but Aine's mother had completely erased everything Aine was or could ever be. "If I go home again, they'll make me stupid. They'll cut my hair." Her tears were hot against my skin. "My mother took all my jewelry, Annie. She burnt everything I left behind." Her nails dug into me. "They want my athamé."

..."MINE! MY BOYS! MY KELLYS! MINE!" She was shrieking, she threw the rifle to her side, her right hand darting to her chest and coming out with a knife. The knife had a engraved bone hilt, carved brass pommel, no guard, and a cruelly curved thick iron blade. She was waving her goddamn athame over head and screaming in bloodlust and rage. "I am Aine! I give your blood and spirits to Lugus but your hearts are mine! You shall serve me in death! Me! I will drink your blood and feast upon your flesh!"...

"I've got nothing left, Annie." She sobbed. "I'm undone, less than nothing."

Nancy had abandoned me. William had abandoned me. I'd scared Dobbs away. Bomber had betrayed me, just like my twin sister. The LT was going to turn me over to Mental Health and have me put out.

Neither one of us had anything left.

I lifted her chin and kissed her. She went rigid for a moment and then melted into the kiss. When it broke she looked at me and shook her head. "It won't matter. If you put anything in my belly, they'll demand that I kill it." She cried. She laid her head on my shoulder. "I'm not even Aine anymore."

"Hannah." I said, concentrating on getting the word out. She looked up, her eyes widening. It took a lot of effort, but I tried again. "Hannah."

Her eyes, still full of tears, sparkled in the dimness of the room. "Hi, Anthony, I'm Hannah." She whispered. Her eyes got wide and her tears stopped. "I'm Hannah. Hannah Ó Luain." She giggled at name, which meant 'descendent of warriors'. "Can you imagine anyone trying to say that?" She smiled shyly, her face still streaked with tears. "Hi, Anthony. I'm Hannah Lane."

I kissed her nose and hugged her.

Her arms went around me and she twined around me.

"Hold me like I'm new again."

We went to sleep like that.

...Poor Aine...

Chapter 10

FSTS-317
AKA "ATLAS"
Secure Area, Western Germany
On the 1K Zone
08 July, 1987

"Eight books." I said, looking at my cards. Out of thirteen cards I had almost all spades, including the two of spades and the ace of spades, both jokers, and the king of diamonds. I grinned at my partner. "We got this shit in the bag." The guy, a German officer from GSG-9 who knew how to play spades, smiled back and shrugged. The other two guys, an NCO from the Rangers and the 1SG from the infantry company, looked at their cards sourly.

"I've got two." The GSG-9 officer said.

"Stillwater." Johnson said, looking up from the notebook he had in front of the radio. Everyone set their cards down on the MRE box table/dresser we'd built by taping empty MRE boxes together three high, in a cube of four, with holes punched in the front of the interior box so that I could loop 550 cord chunks into it to act as handles. It made for a good way to keep track of paperwork and stuff without actually pulling a 3 drawer chest out of stocks. I glanced over to where MSG Richards was leaned back in a chair with his softcap pulled down over his eyes.

"What's up, Johnson?" I asked, pulling out my green notebook. It was almost full, I'd have to turn it in to S-2 to have them redact anything bad so I could throw it in with the rest of my old used ones and replace it with a new one that would last me about a week under the current operational tempo.

"Stokes just called from Perseus." He started. I nodded. "Looks like we might have a problem." I motioned for him to go on. "They've got about a dozen leaking rounds. She says it's the new VX eight inch arty rounds. Binary corrosive, glass canister liners, looks like they used tin grooved canisters. Last four of the Lot Number is 6631."

That made me sit up. MSG Richards pulled his hat off.

"Who's on downrange radio?" I asked.

"Bomber." He told me. "Foster's got your vehicle."

"OK, tell Foster I'll be right down..." MSG Richards cleared his throat and I stopped in the middle of what I was saying. I made a chopping motion and Johnson nodded. The other NCOs were watching me and I could feel the pressure. "All right, we'll do it like this. Tell Foster to pick up Nagle, have Nagle go to 61st Medical and pull any doctors and medics she's trained up for NBC operations. Put them on standby and get ready for any decon. Have Foster then go to each unit and warn them to wake everyone up and have them stay in their tents in MOPP 3. Tell Bomber to get Dewly and Bradly to put a 3K forklift inside and have them put a portable seal over the door of bunker nineteen. Have Foster take a 1.5 KW Meep down to inflate it, and have Little Bit and Bomber suit up in J-suits with full oxy. Check the inside of the bunker for contamination levels then start pulling those rounds and setting in them in the ready area inside."

MSG Richards nodded approvingly. He'd been teaching me how to delegate instead of running down and trying to supervise everything myself.

"I better have my men get in protective equipment." The GSG-9 officer said, standing up. He flipped his cards right side up and I saw he had an ace of hearts and an ace of clubs in his hand. We could have done thirteen books and probably taken it all.

"Same here." The Ranger and Infantry guys said, flipping there's over. Bad hands, only one spade between them and that the three of spades. The MP NCO who hung out in The Fort was putting on his helmet.

"How dangerous is this?" SFC Tellington asked me, finishing snapping his helmet chinstrap.

"Right now, not very. It sounds like the manufacturers fucked up. The problem is is if two of the canisters leak vapor into the air because the round isn't properly sealed, the vapor will mix in the air of the bunker and we'll either get full strength VX in the bunker or a slight contamination that we won't notice until we start getting the shakes." I shook my head. "In May Hercules had that problem, they didn't realize what was going on until about half of their crew got put in the hospital."

"I'm going to tell my CO to make sure that everyone is awake and in full MOPP." Tellington said.

"Don't forget to tell the German guard force or the Trans guys." Richards told me. I nodded and waved at Johnson who nodded and jotted something down. He was speaking rapidly into his radio headset.

I sat back down and started cracking my knuckles, twisting my fingers in anxiousness. I wanted Bomber and everyone else to give me minute to minute updates, but Richards had taught me to avoid that kind of micromanagement, reminding me how much I hated it when officers and NCOs did that shit to me. I got up and started pacing around the common room of The Fort, stopping to mess with the German gambling machine, dig a Mt Dew out of the box and drink half of it, and try to avoid looming over Johnson's shoulder.

"Take a deep breath." Richards advised me. "Start writing up the report now, leaving it open for either way it comes out, and figure out what you're going to do tomorrow based on any of the outcomes."

I sighed, sat down, and pulled open one of the boxes to pull out the report forms.

"You're doing just fine, Corporal." Richards told me. "You've been running drills in case this happened so everyone knows it could happen, it isn't the result of your troops mistakes, and you're ensuring it gets handled."

"I'm not cut out to just sit up here." I told him.

"Yeah. That's one of the suck parts." He chuckled and picked up the cards to shuffle them. "There's two types of NCO's, Stillwater. Those who prefer to hang out in their offices so they don't have to do anything and those who want to be there with their troops working right beside them."

"Right." I said. "The guys who sit in the office annoy me."

"Well, the Army needs both. That way the guys like you and me have someone back to handle the office shit we don't want to" Richards told me. "You want to know what you need to learn now?"

I noticed that Johnson was pretending not to listen to our conversation.

"Sure." I said.

"All right. You've got a capable Assistant Squad Leader in Specialist Bomber. You need to start teaching him everything we're all teaching you so he can step up if you get killed or put out of operation." The Master Sergeant told me, leaning back in his chair again. "Start teaching every man the job of those below them and above them, cross train everyone in everything. You've basically got an entire self-contained unit out here. You don't have anyone out here but yourselves for months at a time, so you're going to have to figure everything out and assign people positions." He waved at the desk I'd built. "Write yourself up a TO&E for out here, think up the positions, and assign people to the slots."

"No way Chief Henley will let that fly." I told him.

He made a scornful noise. "You keep saying Atlas is it's own little world. If he won't approve it, put it in the site data and the next time the courier from V Corps comes out just include it in a data-packet. Call it 'FSTS-317 METL Update' and they'll probably lock it in and Chief Henley won't have any choice." He picked up his canteen cup and took a sip of the coffee he'd poured into it. "You need to learn to work with officers but you also need to learn the ways to move around obstructive officers without the aggressive and insubordinate way you do it now."

"That's a good idea." I said. I picked up an empty dispatch folder and got out a black Sharpie. I wrote "FSTS-317 METL" on the cover.

"You're on your own out here, son. Let's face it, in the case of war your unit won't make it here since they'll get caught up in the fighting in the Gap. You'll have to take on the Russians across the way, coordinate with the Air Force to protect this site, and pretty much handle a lot of responsibility." He took another long drink. "Goddamn this is good stuff. See, you bought a coffee maker and installed it in here and it improves your troops morale. You're doing better than men with ten or fifteen years in the Army. You care about your troops, you won't ask them to do anything you wouldn't do and they know it, you're learning to delegate authority to give them training in leadership." He tugged the lip of his soft-cap over his eyes. "You're doing just fine, Corporal."

"Thanks, Master Sergeant." I said. I went back to jotting down notes. I'd hit the typewriter later and type everything up, but sitting down to write up a METL let me see where I had missed things all these months and where things could be improved.

"Corporal?" One of the infantry guys who were assigned as door guards poked his head in.

"Yes, Sergeant?" I asked. I expected the NCO's who were assigned as door guard to act like assholes at having to report to a Corporal but they'd just acted like it was no big thing. I'd expected their company commander to raise hell when he found out the entire operation was being run by an eighteen year old Corporal but he'd just introduced himself, let me know what kind of armament his unit had and that they had just completed a tour of the Fort Ord Urban Warfare Center, then assigned his XO and a SFC as the liaisons and withdrawn. It was really weird to me, but maybe it had something to do with the fact they were just in Europe for some training.

"The East Germans just fired off a white star flare." He told me.

"White and not green?" I asked.

"White." Johnson said, his voice tight.

"Shit." I put away the folder and grabbed my gear. That meant that they had to talk to me right now and were doing so under force. A red one would let us know that something had gone bad and we all needed to mask. Yeah, in a way it was collaborating with the enemy, but if the balloon went up we'd honestly do our best to kill each other and carry out our duty. The white cluster flare meant that it wasn't a hit or anything like that but still the East German guy needed to get a hold of me.

"Let Bomber know I'll handle this." I told Johnson, who nodded. I turned to Richards. "Feel like throwing away your career?"

"Naw. I'm allergic to hard labor in prison." Richards said.

"Johnson, tell the SF guys that I need someone who can follow orders and can speak Russian and German, two if it has to be. If they can't follow my orders they can just stay back and look for snakes to..." I started. MSG Richards made a tutting noise and I cleared my throat. "If they can't follow my orders to the letter then I can't use them."

"Gotcha." Johnson said, flipping the preset switches on his commo gear. I had no idea how all that shit worked, and Johnson was Special Weapons with no background in commo, but he'd dove into the FM's, TM's, and correspondence courses like his life depended on it. I'd encouraged him to see about getting the cross training put in his jacket, since he'd even learned how to use the specialized equipment that Corps had sent us.

"I'll be heading down main drag, have them meet me and tell them to doubletime it." I picked up my rifle, loaded in a white cluster flare into the 40mm and headed out of The Fort. When I got outside I fired off the flare, dropped the empty 40mm into my cargo pocket, and loaded up an HEDP round.

No sense in being careless.

Halfway down the road from The Fort two men joined me. Captain Karcher and SFC Devitt from the SF dwonks. When they'd originally showed up their hair had been out of regs, they'd all needed shaves, but their team leader had made them start making sure they looked just like everyone else.

"What's going down? What's with the flares." CPT Karcher asked.

"We've got a little different way of doing things out here." I warned them. "The East Germans want to talk to us and are risking their GRU officer shooting them in the face." I turned to them. "I've cultivated this relationship with them very very carefully over the last few months, so do not screw this up. Twice they've refused orders to engage us when others have used their base to launch an attack on this site, and warned us several times about actions that might have blown up in everyone faces. They don't want World War III kicking off any more then we do, gentlemen."

"Roger." The both answered.

We got the fence and I undid the bread ties and slipped through.

"Safeties off, gentlemen, these men are still the enemy. Make sure they can see you do, it's all part of the dance." I told them. Both of them obviously switched their fire selectors from safe to semi and racked back the charging handle. I didn't bother, just tapped the side of my M-203.

My counterpart had five others out with him, which was unusual in itself.

"What's going on?" I asked when I walked up. All six men were sweating in the warm evening air. I lifted the 100 MPH tape and he shook his head slightly.

He'd be lying to me at critical points.

"We are being reinforced, some feel that this site may be used to base a first strike from." My counterpoint said with no preamble. He looked really nervous.

"Let me guess, that psycho who runs the 117th Guards Motor Rifle Regiment out at Meiningen." I swore. That idiot had been the one who sent the goddamn sniper, who had sent the dumbasses in the HiND, and had tried to convince my counterpart to try sneak attacking us at night. All six men nodded. "How many?"

"A little more than one of your brigades." The East German said. He glanced at my US Army. "They are all conscripts, no professionals. It is just training, there will be no live ammunition, so you and your men have nothing to fear from any of it."

"Can you keep a lid on any of your more excitable men?" I asked.

He shook his head. "I will be relieved of command when they get here." He looked pained. "There will be GRU with them, comrade." He glanced at my nametag. "They will arrive tomorrow." I nodded slightly.

I swore. "All right."

"We will not be able to meet with you either." He wiped his brow. "The GRU officers have a bad reputation among us, this may be our last meeting."

I held out my hand. "It was good working with you, sir. Stay safe." I thought for a second. "Just remind your men to make sure that your new friends understand that there's no way I'm going to let this site be taken. I'll burn West Germany before I let that happen."

Two of the men gulped loudly.

"And you and your people know exactly what I've got in there. I won't hesitate to use it."

The head honcho smiled and nodded. "I will play up that you are mad, we have pictures of you and your men doing Systema traning, I will select pictures and tell them that it is you physically disciplining your men." He looked uncomfortable. "We have... umm... delicate pictures of you and Nagle. Would you object to me telling the GRU officers that it is of you sexually assaulting her?"

I knew I was blushing. "Yeah, anything to let them think I'm crazy enough. I want us able to go see our families."

They all nodded at that. There was some whispering, but all of them knew I couldn't speak Russian and my German was spotty at best, only good enough to find the subway, the train, a room for the night, the police station, the bar, and order food and drink.

"We better break this up before someone notices." I said. We shook hands again and parted.

"Don't look behind you. None of my men would." I said quietly. "Don't hurry."

"Why not?"

"The GRU guys are watching this." I told them. "I've had Little Bit acting as overwatch for the last week and she ID'd all the new people. GRU are easy to mark out, everyone gets all nervous around them and they throw their weight around like the CIA does." We slipped through the fence. "She's been doing up the fire card for the whole base they have. We've got a laser rangefinder that she's using to range everything out between the fence and targets in their area."

"Why didn't you have us do it?" Captain Karcher asked after I helped them through and was retying the bread ties.

"It would have taken you days to get up to speed and..." I stopped, hearing MSG Richards voice in my head telling me to work at integrating others. "You know what, how many snipers in your groups?"

"That's classified." SFC Devitt said.

"That's why." I told them, slipping through the other fence. "You can play your little snake-eater games, brag to everyone else about how you protected us, and we'll take care of ourselves." I put a lot of scorn into my tone. "That's why I haven't tasked you or the Rangers to do anything because you think you're the top of top secret when you're little more than glorified infantry out here." I closed the fence behind them and started to do the bread ties up. "Besides, we don't need you."

"You're a mouthy little punk, aren't you?" Devitt asked. Yup, I was right, he was the weak link. I just ignored him.

"Just telling you how it is out here at Atlas." I told them, straightening up. "There's going to be classified actions happening, Captain, tell your team leaders to pull everyone back to your encampment and stay put. I'll see about getting you transportation out of here so you don't have to risk your unit's classified status." Bomber was waiting for me with the radio on his back, smoking a cigarette.

"That's all right, Corporal, I'll handle Sergeant Devitt's objections and anyone else's objections." The Captain told me. "I have four sniper teams I can offer you."

"What's the bad news?" Bomber asked me, lighting an extra cigarette and handing it to me.

"I thought you weren't supposed to smoke this close to ammunition?" Devitt asked. I just ignored him.

"Mind your business, Sergeant." Karcher said.

"The GRU is already moved in, probably with some headstomper assholes they pulled from high loyalty units." I told him. He swore. "Tell Johnson to switch encryption right now. Head uprange and then make sure that everyone is on the same encryption page." I inhaled, closed my eyes, and made a hard decision. "Crack last year's war books, use those passwords and encryptions, let Corps know what's going on. Have Johnson tell 7th SOS that we'll need them to make a show of force and see if 11th ACR minds tasking some extra Apache's out here. We'll load them up with anti-armor 30mm and APERS 2.75's."

"I'll let the Colonel know that he needs to confer with you." Karcher told me. "Is this going to get ugly?"

"It might. They tried to roll over us not too long ago, some GRU or KGB idiot or some General might be thinking we're easy to take out." I sighed. "Well, my Father always told me that sooner or later the right thing to do will be the thing that costs you your career." My brain was working in overdrive. I looked at Bomber. "We're going to make this obvious, we're going to make it ugly. Tell Combat Talon that I want them to fly low enough that we'll be able to see the ordnance on their bellies."

"Johnson saying that Corps just called." Bomber's voice got the weird clipped sound he got whenever he was relaying information without thinking about it. "Sat recon shows that there's a major movement of troops from the Soviet base at Meiningen. They estimate we've got at least two Brigades coming at us, looks like mechanized infantry with at least a company of armor. They contacted Group command and let them know that we might an incident brewing up out here."

"Tell them I'll be taking defensive steps only." I took a deep breath. "I need a real officer and real NCO out here to take over."

Bomber relayed everything, and I noticed that the two SF guys stayed next to me. After a moment Bomber looked at me. "Corps is tapping Colonel Pritchard from 1st Special Forces to handle command decisions since he is already on site. You'll be his adviser on the site. We are not supposed to get aggressive but are allowed to defend ourselves if the Soviet Union sends forces into the 1K Zone but only to engage any forces advancing upon the site. Corps has the utmost confidence in your skills, training, and professionalism during this."

"Goddamn it." I grumbled. I turned to the Captain. "Should I head back with you to talk to the Colonel?"

"I'll have him meet with you." Karcher told me. "Sounds like you have your hands full."

"Yeah." I looked at the East German base. All two buildings of it. "We might have a front row seat."

"To what?" Devitt asked.

"The end of the world." Karcher said.

Chapter 11

FSTS-317
AKA "ATLAS"
Secure Area, Western Germany
On the 1K Zone
09 July, 1987

"You sure about this?" Bomber asked. We were both wearing radiation suits, kneeling beside the lead lined box that we'd hauled out that was normally used for inspection.

"Yeah. It'll work." I told him. I lifted up the little spherical core. It weighed about twenty-two pounds, and it was hard to believe just how much Net Explosive Weight I was holding in my hands.

"What if they call your bluff?" Bomber asked.

"Davey Crockett." I told him. "I'm going to issue them to the Rangers and the rest of the SOG guys. We'll train them on it."

"Christ, the Crockett's. Are you sure?"

"If we end up using those, we'll be operating under full warfare." I said. "If we have to bring out the heavy stuff then the Pentagon will know that World War III has started because this whole area is going to vanish in a flash of light."

"Goddamn, man. If anything goes off they'll throw you under the bus to settle things with the Soviet Union, you know that?" Bomber said, starting to put the round back together. It was an ugly little thing, all steel and normally wrapped in an OD green nylon backpack system for the SOG dwonks to carry into position.

"I'll be dead, so it won't matter to anyone but historians." I told him.

"No, you won't, we'll do this right. We'll make it so that they'll have to dig us out of here with shovels." He sighed. "We'll get the CO's and the S-2 of the units we have out here and show them about the War-Fighter tunnels."

"We'll have Bradley go in and warm the whole thing up. Christ, this is going to get ugly." I said. "We'll have to read those guys into the site mission and that means I'll have to answer for that too."

"Why don't we just talk to their S-2 guys, have Bradley man the War-Fighter Tunnels, and we'll read them if it gets ugly?" Bomber asked, bolting the case back together.

"Because they'll have less than ten minutes to get into the tunnels and I don't to leave anyone out here if we start throwing the big guns around." I told him. I sighed and wished I could scratch my nose. "We'll grab some four point two corrosive agent and put it ready. We'll make the infantry guys set up their mortars now and instruct them that this isn't normal shit, this is big gun and anyone who fires one without authorization will get shot in the back of the head."

Bomber nodded, lifting up the case. I held open the nylon sleeve and he carefully slid it into the container. We moved it over and put it with the other nineteen of them.

I closed the case and locked it, then had moved the case to the back of the bunker with the pallet jack.

Enough uranium to destroy New York. Christ.

When I got back to the front of the bunker John was stripping out of his suit, revealing that he had done the same as me and stripped down to his T-shirt and boxers. He grabbed his LBE and pulled his canteen out along with a cravat. He poured the water onto the cravat and started wiping down his leg after stripping off his boxers. I took mine off and he offered me the cravat but I just shook my head. I hadn't had to piss that bad. It wasn't any big deal, when you were suited up you had two choices: Hold it or just go.

We put our uniforms back on, Bomber jamming the cravat wrapped boxers into his cargo pocket and then starting to fold the suits up while I opened up the bunker door.

Bunker nine was the first hot-bunker on the site and faced the 1K Zone. We usually only worked it with the pad covered in camoflauge netting and at night while using NVG's, but I wanted the Soviets to see what we were doing.

Time to see if anyone blinked.

There were a group of Rangers and SF guys standing there. Captain Karcher stood there looking a little nervous at what was sitting just inside the door.

"This is Madam." I said to the SOG dwonks, pointing at the twenty weird looking rucksacks. "She demands respect and you will give her respect." I pointed at the 1K Zone. "Madam wishes to go on vacation, to see the sites, so she is leaving her estate to go hang around out there." Bomber chuckled. "Madam likes to be buried with six inches of earth above her, she likes to be turned on before being placed in a hole." I pointed at the Claymore land mine boxes on the pallet on a different pallet jack. "Madam demands that Mr. Claymore attend to her, so you will put four of them around her in case someone touches her."

"Any questions?" Bomber asked when I lit a cigarette to try to calm my nerves.

Madam was a big girl.

"What are these?" One of the Rangers asked.

"Madam is a Medium Atomic Demolition Munition with a W-47 45 kiloton warhead." I told them. All of them paled. "You will place these at irregular intervals in the 1K Zone," I held up my finger. "But you will be sure that you are seen doing it. I want you to inspect the outside of the round, don't try to shield it, then bury it." I waved at our friends across the way, who mainly hung out on their vehicles and run up and down the 1K Zone including every morning and every night charging the 1K Zone and stopping less then a hundred yards from the edge.

They wanted to play asshole games, I'd play too.

"So, go take Madam to the dance." I smiled, and started walking away.

We headed down toward Bunker Fourteen. There were infantry guys there and it was time to scare the living shit out of them too.

"You think the Soviets are going to buy it?" Bomber asked.

I laughed. "Those snake eaters looked like they wanted to run away screaming, the Soviet guys will see that and know that they're handling something that they are treating like live snakes, so the Ruskies are going to take a good look."

"Except Madam isn't ready to dance." Bomber pointed out.

"Yeah, well, that's the bluff."

"Are you sure about the Crocketts?"

"No. We start hauling out the Crocketts all bets are off." I wiped my brow. Goddamn it was hot at Atlas.

Bomber gave a long sigh. "I wish we'd disassembled and destroyed those things. I hate them."

"You aren't the only one." I shook my head. "Who the hell thought those things up?"

"Same assholes who put us in this position." Bomber offered. "Motherfuckers who never have to worry about firing them."

"I'll hand out the launchers, they're pretty obvious, you can't mistake them for anything else."

"Think they'll push it?"

"If they do, then it'll be the last thing they push. Like I said, the Pentagon will know we're under attack because this place and most of us will vanish in a flash of light." I told him.

Bomber nodded.

"I wanna fire one." He said with a grin. "I'll take the armor buster."

He was talking about a 50 Kiloton shoulder fired nuclear anti-tank rocket. They were designed in the 1950's, and originally they were able to fired from a safe distance but advances in warheads without the complimentary and comparable advances in propellant and delivery systems for the Crockett meant that with the high yield warhead the firer was actually a suicide mission since they'd be inside the insta-kill zone and take the enhanced burst of > 43,000 rem at out to a mile thanks to the M388A4 warhead.

"I wanted to do it." I told him. "I mean, come on, I'd be in history books."

Bomber grinned at me. "Sorry, but you've gotta stay here for command and control. I'm expendable, baby, you're mission essential."

"Dammit." I said, stomping a couple steps.

"Hah, you lose, Mr. Bond." Bomber used his shitty movie villain voice that was ruined by his Texas accent.

The Special Forces Colonel Pritchard was walking up the road toward me. He looked a little wild-eyed around the edges but still veered right toward us. I'd expected him to start throwing his rank around and 'fix' everything I'd done over the last three weeks. Instead he pretty much kicked back, made his men train harder on NBC Warfare, and gave me advice to help me keep from screwing the pooch.

However, defense of Atlas was my responsibility and Chief Henley and Group had made it plain with the 'do whatever you want, you goddamn moron, just pack that ammo before I have you shot in the balls' that I could carry out the plan I'd come up with.

It was a crazy plan.

It was a MAD plan.

But I was insane, so it was all right.

"I'm not to sure about this operations plan." The Colonel said when we got close. "I don't see really any way that this will have long term tactical gains."

"It isn't about that, sir." I said, pausing. There were a bunch of infantry gathered up on the pad to Bunker Fourteen. "This has no long term tactical gain, it has only one goal."

He looked uncertain. "And that goal is?"

"Destroy the enemy, leave no ground for him to go to, poison his men, and destroy his will to make war." I smiled.

He shook his head. "I know that sooner or later my life will be the price for mission success, but this doesn't even seem to have an real objective beyond firing off nuclear weapons."

"That's the objective." I told him.

"If you fire those off everyone is going to know it." Colonel Pritchard said. "It might evoke a panic response and everyone might fire off their own weapons and it might start World War III." He looked faintly sick. "Even if it doesn't there has to about a thousand people you'll irradiate. Are you sure you've thought this through?"

"Fifty-eight thousand nine hundred victims from the initial burst, with another two hundred fifteen thousand exposed to doses of radiation that will prove lethal within the next six months, with fatalities from secondary effects moving up into the half million mark by year two due to the enhanced jacketing on the weapons and the fact that both Davey Crocketts are salted rounds." I told him. "That's only assuming we use the four M388A4 warheads I have in usable condition. If we go full bore at them and their reinforcements and then do our part to gut any type of advance at the Fulda Gap we'll kill over six point two million people within thirty days. The ground will be unusable for up to sixteen years, five years if they plant sunflowers and do other decon." I stared at him. "I've thought this over, sir."

"Then why a plan that risks this much? Why not just a sheer conventional plan?" He asked me.

"Because they think they can take us conventionally." Bomber said. "Those are Mr. Popov's newest babies, the T-80U Main Battle Tank and I was able to spot third generation NBC warfare systems on board which the Soviet Union knows cannot take on a face full of tactical weaponry and is primarily used for extensive operations in post deployment battlefield." Bomber took a deep breath and continued. "The T-80U has the new Kilo-5 explosive reactive armor which will incandese during the thermal pulse, improved gunsight and targeting system, the piece of shit Refleks missile system (which will gangfire when exposed to the emp and thermal pulse), and has a 1,000 hp power train."

The Colonel nodded. He was past being surprised at the shit my crew knew. He'd been allowed in The Fort and seen the posters on the wall and the FM's, TM's and updates we all looked at.

"They have an entire company of tanks and think that we don't have anything conventional to stop them." I finished. "I want their GRU agents to realize that doing anything will up the stakes to unthinkable levels and I want them to think twice about any ideas of having those Spetz eliminating us and thinking they can just roll over us and using fait accompli to claim that it's all over." I grinned at Bomber and then at the Colonel. "Bomber is Texan and his file shows he's more than willing to fight a war like this, but he's methodical and cold blooded about it. My file shows that I've been dying to detonate a nuclear weapon myself since I watched the underground test in 1986. That means that eliminating one of us takes the chain off of the other."

"I hate this MAD shit." Colonel Pritchard said. "I didn't mind working the Mujahedin in Afghanistan, or in Central America, but this shit is just... just..." He tried to find a word for it.

"Mad?" Bomber grinned, then laughed. It was a tight, brittle sound that made Pritchard shudder.

"Yeah." He said.

"Let's go talk to the bullet catchers." I told them. "Time to lie."

We moved up and the Lieutenant with the bullet catchers went to salute before he caught himself.

"Good afternoon, I'm Corporal Stillwater and this is Specialist Bomber, we'll be instructing you today." I said. Bomber walked past and pulled the chain to open up the door while I kept talking. "You have been selected by your Commanding Officer due to your psychological profiles, your dedication to duty, and the fact that you're actually smarter than..." I stopped myself before I said "A severely autistic rock". "Most infantrymen are required to be."

Bomber can out of the bunker with a long tube launcher and dragging a metal box with radiation symbols. Foster pulled up on the road and parked the vehicle on the pad.

"Today you will be learning about the M-29 Davy Crockett nuclear rocket launcher." I smiled. "It will be armed with a M388A4 zero point five kiloton tactical nuclear weapon that is used for anti-armor and anti-personnel with a maximum effective lethality range of eight hundred meters and a lowered radiation output." I waved at the 1K Zone. "We hit them, all we need is sunglasses and suntan lotion."

I lied to them the entire time. I was going to stack 40-75 Kt warheads on the launcher, but bullet catchers were almost expendable as Marines. They didn't know I was basically lying about everything from the yield to the lethal range to the maximum range of the weapon. The weapons were two to three times more powerful as the weapons use in Hiroshima and Nagasaki with enhanced jackets and 'salted warheads' designed to increase the radiation levels for the initial burst and the secondary pulse.

They were ugly weapons.

I was a terrible person.

When we were done we broke up the sixteen men into four four man teams and sent them on their way with the launchers.

One of Combat Talon's F-111's went by overhead, maybe a hundred feet off the deck, close enough we could see the cluster of air to surface missiles on it. It was hauling ass when it went by and the pilot kicked in the afterburners and blew through the sound barrier right after he cleared the site, the sonic boom rolling over us. The first few times they did that everyone dropped to the ground, now nobody even flinched. The jet went fast enough that the jet was already by when we heard the sound. It was kind of cool.

I wanted everyone used to big explosions.

You know, just in case.

We walked down to Bunker Sixteen, where more infantry guys were waiting. This was the mortar section for the company, loaded up with 4.2 mortars and a serious case of boredom most of the time. They looked both curious and bored.

Time to shake up the bullet catchers.

They looked at us when we stepped onto the pad, Foster pulling in right after us and parking the vehicle. The infantry checked me out and then dismissed me, figuring I was just someone that didn't matter. Of course the three NCOs took more notice of me when I stopped and pulled out my green notebook.

"Good afternoon, I'm Corporal Stillwater, this is Specialist Bomber, and we'll be briefing you on the exclusive fire mission you will be tasked to perform as well as the weaponry we will be using." I just started. I pointed at the two men who weren't carrying their masks. "Inform your squad leader and platoon sergeants that you are hereby restricted to your company AoO and you are off this team."

"What, why?" One asked.

"You don't have your masks, dumbasses." The lieutenant with them said. "With everything going on at the site, all the drills, and you two chuckle-fucks left your masks at your cots?" Both men made mumbling noises. "You're confined to your tent until I get back." He turned to me. "Do I need to pull two more men?"

"Not right now, sir, you can OJT them." I said. I turned to the rest. "You need to mask at this time and wear it until further notice." The LT had his one before I was even done, well under fifteen seconds, probably closer to ten seconds. When they had it on I turned to Bomber, pulling out the little packet in my pocket. "You taken your booster today?"

He shook his head and I tore a little square off of the pack and tossed it to him. He and I both popped the little white pill out of the packet and chewed it up carefully before swallowing the paste.

"If you don't mind me asking, what did you two just take?" The LT asked. I noticed his nametag read Wilson.

"Due to MOS requirements and where we work we take Pyridostigmine Bromide which gives us an increased resistance to chemical weaponry." Bomber said.

"Why don't we get it?" One of the infantry guys asked.

"You wouldn't survive it." I told him flat out. The pills were highly experimental, were only issued out a few months ago, and were supposed to give us a higher resistance to on site contamination and allow us to get another fourteen seconds to get into whatever MOPP we needed to and gave us a moderate immunity to Soman, Lewesite, BZ, and phosphene.

It also caused the shakes, vomiting, migraines, nosebleeds, convulsions, and drooling.

Oh, yeah, and if you got an erection that shit was rock hard and could smash diamonds and took two or three orgasms to go down. Oh, and hurt a lot if you didn't yank that shit or find someone to help you out somehow.

Not as much fun as it sounds.

But it beat not getting one.

"Can I have one?" The same guy asked.

Bomber and I both laughed, but I started speaking before it got out of hand. "Initial dose will cause a convulsive episode within thirty minutes that will last up to thirty minutes of intermittent convulsions. You will also suffer a migraine for at least two hours, during which you will need dosed again or your liver will fail."

"Can I give it to him instead?" The same guy asked, pointing at the guy next to him. Everyone laughed and Bomber and I joined in.

"Let's go into Satan's broom closet." I told them, waving them after me as I headed into the bunker. "If you don't have your atropine and 2Pam-Chloride injectors please do not enter, Specialist Bomber will give you new ones." They all followed me and I waited until they were all in before I hit the light switches to turn on the banks of lights.

Bunker Sixteen lit up and I felt a chill run down my spine.

Three hundred feet wide. Thirty-five feet high, with a maximum stack size of thirty-two feet. Twelve hundred feet deep. One main aisle ten feet wide, two aisles on each side six feet wide. Every hundred to hundred and fifty feet were ten foot aisles. Three to five feet gap at the top. Complete climate control. Sensors for motion detection, radiation detection, multiple spectrum chemical detection, and heat detection. Alarm systems, fire suppression system, air filters, negative pressure system when the door was closed.

State of the art and a medium class bunker for the site. It was two thirds the size of the maximum sized bunkers.

The impressive part wasn't the bunker.

It was the thousands of VX rounds stacked in the bunker.

And two months ago I'd seen a news report where it was claimed that there were no chemical weapons in Western Europe.

I had enough to VX the world.

"This is VX. It is an organophosphate based weapon with the texture and consistency of motor oil, this one is a corrosive agent with not only extremely persistent qualities but can be refreshed by light rainfall or improper decontamination. Body shutdown begins at twenty seconds, unconsciousness occurs at roughly thirty seconds, death is total, total brain-death, in less then sixty seconds, for even a minimum dose." I stated. "This is the nastiest, meanest, deadliest chemical weapon known to man. It makes Zyklon-B look like talcum powder, can perform kills at one part per ten thousand. Additionally this is what is known as 'thickened' which means it is even more deadly. It can cross the skin to blood barrier, it can eat through the skin, it can eat through mask seals and anything up to high end ceramic filters." I slapped an eight inch shell as I walked by it. "As an additional 'fuck you' to everyone this particular variant has a propensity to adhere to high density metals and certain paints, meaning all of those pretty tanks are its preferred food."

I slapped a 155mm VX round on my way by. "This is a binary round, which means that there are two separate containers that rupture due to barrel spin and mix the chemicals. These and the newer trinary rounds are the safest way to store nasty shit like this. That is not the type of round you will be handling." I stopped next to a stack of over 6,000 rounds, 4.2" mortar rounds where each one contained enough VX to kill a small town. "These are mono-containment rounds, short range mortar rounds."

I turned to face them. "Your mortar teams will be equipped with four dozen of these, per team, with a fire plan that will coat an eight square mile area with enough of this stuff that it'll gleam on the grass like morning dew." I let my expression get serious. "You will be committing a war crime by the Geneva Convention and firing the first shots in World War III. Additionally once your fire mission is done three kiloton level weapons will be used for airburst so that the thermal pulse will vaporize the VX and ensure it is airborne and increase dispersal. This will cause a secondary lethal effect with an extended downwind range."

The LT held up his hand and I nodded to him.

"If you feel that you cannot perform this duty you may be excused." The LT said.

None of them moved.

I turned around and threw out my arms to encompass the whole bunker.

"Welcome to Atlas."

Chapter 12

FSTS-317
AKA "ATLAS"
Secure Area, Western Germany
On the 1K Zone
11 July, 1987

I looked across the 1K Zone, standing out in the open by myself, and smiled at the Soviet troops across from me. I knew I was being watched but I wasn't worried.

It was to make a point.

The mines, none of which had their warhead cores installed, had been buried. Twice the Soviet troops had tried to crawl out to one and both times Little Bit had shot them in the arm with the XM-21 sniper rifle and then in the leg and 'allowed' them to be dragged back by their friends. Little Bit used up two sniper spots and moved to a third. She ate, slept, pissed, and shit in those nests and would go for hours without moving.

Hell, I'd accidentally stepped on her one day while she was taking three hours to crawl less than a hundred meters to the next spot.

I'd had the infantry guys out there with those weapons. I'd made sure that the Soviet troops had gotten a good eyeful of what I was handing out.

They knew I'd strapped on my dynamite vest and now they held the detonator. I'd strapped one on them, whether they wanted it or not, and the detonator was in my hand.

I knew that I was being watched. Bomber had been missing so they couldn't knock out both of us. He hated it, but understood it. They were watching me. I knew it, because I was having their guys watched.

I pointed my index finger at them, thumb up in a pistol, pointed at them and did the 'fire' motion with a big grin that I actually felt.

Time to see who blinked.

God, I loved being Special Weapons.

Come on, pussies, jump.

FSTS-317
AKA "ATLAS"
Secure Area, Western Germany
On the 1K Zone
22 July, 1987

The bunker door thudded when it hit the opposite side, now embedded into a foot of concrete a foot in. A fifty ton door that we could only move with the chain pulley system. The Davy Crocketts and the warheads had been inspected and were now put away. The Soviet Union had decided that I was serious, that I'd vanish the whole site up its own ass via nuclear explosions, and that NATO and V Corps were backing my play all the way. The mines had worked great, the GRU guy couldn't resist sending people out there for Little Bit to shoot at, and even if they stole one it didn't have any firing mechanism, no core, so they basically would have made off with a big steel milk can without the milk. Way to go, super-troop! The Davy Crocketts were probably the scarier part. I made sure to have the infantry guys sit around with the warheads, practicing locking them in place and removing them. Those weren't the bluff. Those were to have an exciting time. The VX wasn't a bluff either, so with the Davy Crocketts and the VX the guy in charge of the operation on the other side couldn't take the risk that the nuclear mines weren't real.

Basically I had pulled out a massive nuclear cock and invited them to a dick sucking contest.

They'd declined, we'd managed to move all the ammunition just like we'd planned. The medics got their EFMB (Expert Field Medical Badge). Nancy got some cross training. We trained the Rangers and SF on NBC Warfare offense systems. The MP's had got to practice live security, so I guess they got ripped off. The infantry guys got to practice chemical warfare protocols.

And Little Bit got to shoot people.

It had been win/win for us.

Not so much for the Soviet Union guys.

But now everything was put away. Everyone but my crew had left, the pads were clear, and there were no munitions exposed.

Everyone would act like nothing happened, Chief Henley would tell me just how incompetent and stupid I was, and we'd spend a month out here at Atlas playing football, drinking whiskey, and masturbating.

The door shut, Operation Copper Window was over, and Bomber leaned back and wiped his forehead. Closing a door was hard work.

"I can't believe that shit worked." He told me. He waved at the East German fort, where all the additional people were gone and it looked like business as usual. The 117th Guards had packed up and left two days before, taking their shitty tanks and idiots with them. I knew the GRU guy would have a lot to answer for to the Kremlin for getting in my face and in NATO's face by proxy, but the bullet he'd be eating was his problem, not mine. They'd fucked off back to Meiningen, I'd waited a day then called in Little Bit and began putting everything back where it belonged.

Little Bit stood next to me. I could smell her. She hadn't had a shower in almost a month. Her face was camo and dirt all over it. Her uniform was just plain nasty. Her hair was thick and greasy. Her fingernails were blackened and had dirt deeply under the nails. She needed a goddamn shower. We were thinking about throwing her in the high pressure decon shower in The Fort and setting the timer to twenty minutes and locking her in.

She fucking stunk.

The XM-21 rifle over her shoulder was spotless, it had a 20 round magazine with fifteen rounds loaded to preserve spring tension, and the sight was covered properly.

Dirty and stinky she might be, but I sure as shit wouldn't make fun of her.

"Of course it worked, it was Stillwater's plan." Little Bit said with all the confidence of stating that the sun was going to rise in the east.

"I think that Special Forces Colonel is going to have a nervous breakdown now that he's gone." Bomber laughed.

"Eh, he'll be fine." I said. "He can get drunk like the rest of us."

"What's up, Ant, you seem kind of depressed?" Little Bit asked.

"Nuttin'." I answered, blushing a little.

Bomber laughed. "He's just disappointed they didn't go for it."

I nodded.

"It's going to happen sooner or later. There's no other way for this to pan out. Sooner or later we're going to duke it out with the Soviet Union, there's no other option." I said, heading toward the CUC-V where Foster was waiting. I opened the door and tossed the keys to the entire site onto the floor on the passenger side. "But it looks like civilization gets to live another day."

"Stupid civilians." Bomber grunted. That was one thing that rarely showed. Bomber hated civilians.

I turned to answer.

And found myself laying on the pad staring up at the sun. My neck was full of burning pain, there were blood and tooth flecks in my mouth, my ears were ringing, and there were two suns in the sky.

Bomber was dragging me around the front of the CUC-V with one hand holding onto the back of my LBE. I could see his face, he was keying his mike.

"Contact. Multiple hostiles. Get November six eight back here. It's a push." Bomber was saying.

...Oh, yeah, now you jump...

Chapter 13

2/19th Special Weapons Group Barracks
Restricted Area, Alfenwehr West Germany
Late Winter- 12 February, 1988
Day 2 of Repairs
Day 2 of the Third Incident
Evening

The smell of food woke me up. My stomach growled and I reached under my pillow for my glasses as I opened my eyes and looked into Aine, no, Hannah's face. She was peacefully asleep and I could see her eyes flicking back and forth under her eyelids and knew she was in REM sleep, dreaming Hannah dreams with any luck. I put on my glasses and sat up slightly. Stokes was setting a tray of food on the dresser that someone had put back upright. She turned and saw me and blushed.

"You might want to cover her." She said. I looked down and saw that I exposing the fact that Hannah/Aine was naked.

I cleared my throat. "Can you open my top drawer and toss me a pair of boxers?" I asked.

Stokes nodded as I laid back and waited for her toss me the boxers. I put them on under the covers and carefully got out of bed, making sure not to disturb Hannah. I sat there for a long moment, my head swimming for a few moments, and once it passed I slowly got to my feet. Stokes stepped forward when I wobbled and put her arm around my waist. It was odd to have a woman who was that much taller then me holding on to me, but one thing about being an Amazon is it made Stokes as strong as an ox. She did her best to minimize her limp to keep it from jarring my head and I smiled at her in appreciation.

"I didn't interrupt anything, did I?" She asked, nodding toward Aine.

"No. That ship sailed." I told her.

Stokes gave a big grin. "Not according to what Nagle told me. She apparently thinks you're her property or something like that." She looked at the sleeping woman again as she brought over a chair for me to sit down in. "Doesn't she have some kind of claim on you or something?" Stokes set a can of coke on my dresser that was already open. "I brought you a soda." She smiled.

"She did." I told her. I picked up the fork and started eating to keep from having to answer questions. It started out tasting delicious. Salisbury steak, mashed potatoes with gravy, corn, and peach cobbler.

By the time I was halfway through it didn't seem to have a taste and I'd lost interest in eating. I mainly kept eating in order to put fuel in the machine. I didn't really care about food, I just making sure that the meat machine had a full tank.

The little lizard was still asleep.

When I was done I leaned back and lit a cigarette, more out of habit then any actual desire for it. I took a long drink off the coke, noticing it had an odd taste but then I figured it was the lack of alcohol, then looked over at Stokes, who was perched on the dresser like some kind of grinning gargoyle.

"Soooo, McCullen, huh?" She smiled.

I shook my head. "It's not like that."

"So how long have you known each other?" She asked me.

"Since we were kids. They used to put us in each other's cribs to play together." I told her. "She was pretty much the last civilian I saw."

"She was pretty upset last night." Stokes put in. She held out an empty can for my ashes. "I don't think she's slept since we got back here."

"She got bad news from home." I said. She nodded. "Don't call her Aine or McCullen any more." Stokes raised an eyebrow. "Call her Hannah Lane."

"Seriously? She's changing her name? That seems pretty drastic."

"Yeah, well, desperate times require drastic answers." I told her. "Got any beer?"

"Uh-uh, no alcohol for you." She said. "Nancy wants you to go back to drying out. Alcohol is a depressant and she doesn't want you to have anything that thins your blood, depresses you, or puts any additional strain on your system." She leaned back against the wall. "You're not in good shape, man."

"I feel all right." I told her. I flexed my right arm, tightening the muscles from the shoulder down and looked at my arm. It suddenly dawned on me that I'd lost a lot of weight.

"You might. Nancy says you'll have periods where you look and feel just fine, but you still have to be monitored." Stokes told me. She held up her class ring. "Don't forget, I'm a medic too."

"What's wrong with me?" I asked, relaxing my arm. It was kind of depressing.

Stokes rubbed her face then shrugged. "You're having a psychotic break."

"Will I get better?" I asked, feeling the urge to cry well up in me.

She nodded, smiling and reaching out to squeeze my left shoulder affectionately. "Yeah. It would be faster if you could go to Mental Health, but that's not going to happen. Nobody up here, including the LT, are going to go to Mental Health now." I knew there was a reason, but I couldn't remember why, and looked at her in confusion. She squeezed my shoulder again. "If any of us go to Mental Health they'll pull our clearance, which means we'll be dropped from Special Weapons for psych reasons, and once that happens you'll be lucky if you ever get cleared to come back."

"Oh. That makes sense, I guess." I told her, smiling. "What can I do to get better?"

She nodded. "Sleep will help you get past your psychotic break, and so will talking to someone." She ruffled my hair. "You need to talk to someone who wasn't there, honey. Someone you can trust. How about your sister or your older brother?"

I shook my head. "What do I tell them, that their little brother led Echo Five Actual into two ambushes and got us chopped the fuck up?" I pushed my tray aside and laid my forehead on the dresser. "I don't know what the fuck I'm doing, Miranda."

She slid off the dresser, standing up next to me and rubbing my back. "None of us do, Ant, honey." She lifted me up by the elbow, being gentle. "This isn't what I signed up for when I joined Special Weapons. I signed up for Meesau, Blackbriar Ridge, Bluegrass, Raven Rock, Johnston Atoll, you know, places that are normal." She had me hold onto the bed and gently scooted Hannah over. "I certainly didn't think I'd be sent to some frozen hellhole where I'd get shot by the Soviets." She pulled the blanket back. "I'm almost ten years older then you and I've got no idea what I'm doing half the time." She laid me in bed and kissed the top of my head after she covered me up. "Honey, not even Lieutenant James knew what he was doing and he was an experienced combat soldier." She tucked me in gently, putting the rabbit in my arms and kissing the top of the rabbit. "I talked to a friend in another unit when he came and visited me in the hospital."

I was falling asleep, even though I was trying to fight it.

"I don't want to go to bed." I whined.

"I know, baby, but you need to sleep." She told me, "It's normal to be tired a lot right now. You're injured, and you still haven't healed up from your head wound." I was having a hard time keeping my eyes open.

I yawned. "You can have the rest of my Coke." I told her muzzily.

She chuckled. "Naw. I'll pass. I'll just pour it in the sink."

"Oh, OK." I told her. I yawned again, and Hannah snuggled up close to me, wrapping her arms around my neck and putting one of her legs in between mine. She mumbled something in her sleep and I smiled at her sleepily. I looked up at Stokes, still smiling. "I love you, Miranda."

She bent down again and kissed me gently on the lips. "I love you too, Anthony. Go ahead and sleep and Momma Stokes will make sure you stay safe." She walked over and turned off the light. The little nightlight provided dim illumination as she brought the chair over next to the bed. She put her hand on my back. "Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, bless the bed that I lay on." She said softly. I sleepily repeated it after her, sinking faster. Hannah was mumbling with her. "Four corners to my bed, four angels around my head. One to watch, one to pray, two to keep me safe till day. Amen."

"Amen." I yawned.

I fell asleep, warm and safe in Hannah's arms and under Mamma Stokes' watchful gaze.

Chapter 14

2/19th Special Weapons Group Barracks
Restricted Area, Alfenwehr West Germany
Late Winter- 12 February, 1988
Day 2 of Repairs
Day 2 of the Third Incident
Night

The room was dark and empty when I woke up. I was little confused at where I was at first, but the little nightlight let me figure it out. I swung out of bed and stood up, feeling my balance stay stable. There was a clicking noise and I looked over to see Sherry sitting on my desk, tapping his high school class ring on the edge of the desk. He looked fine, just too pale, with blue lips and sunken eyes.

"Hey, Stillwater." He said, nodding at me.

"Hey, Sherry." I nodded, moving up to him. "I need my keys, man."

"Sorry." He said, leaning to the side so I could reach around him and grab my keys.

"It's OK." I told him, walking by him and going over to my civilian wall locker. I opened it up with my keys and stared at the clothing on my hangars.

"How ya doing, Ant?" Sherry asked me. He chuckled. "You're doing better than I am, but how ya doing?"

I grabbed a hangar off the rack. "I'm fine."

Sherry snorted. "Really?"

Under the black and blue flannel shirt was a T-shirt, under that was a pair of Levi's. I got the shirt off and pulled on my Van Halen T-shirt. "Yeah, I'm fine." I told the dead man.

"So why can you see me?" He asked me when my head popped out of the shirt.

I shrugged into the rest of the shirt. "No clue."

He jumped off the desk. "It's nice someone can see me." He said. He walked over to part of the stained tile. "I died here, you know."

"I know." I told him, pulling on my jeans. I buttoned them up. "I was there, remember?"

"Not very well." He told me. "Nancy jacked me up with a well-beyond lethal dose of morphine, I was in shock, suffering from blood loss and a lot of trauma." He shrugged. "I do remember you giving me a cigarette."

"Yeah, one of the last ones in my pack. The rest were crushed." I told him, putting on my leather belt.

"Thanks for that." He smiled. He lifted his chin and slowly exhaled and I saw smoke. It smelled of blood and tobacco. "Being dead and suffering a nic-fit would have sucked." He exhaled again, more cigarette smoke. "Don't forget your flannel, it's cold out there."

"Thanks. Power out?" I asked him.

He chuckled at that. "No. That's already been done, remember?"

The back of my head twinged. "Yeah, I might recall a little something about that." I answered, and Sherry laughed, blood suddenly running down his chin. I started buttoning my flannel shirt. "So why are you here, man?"

Sherry shrugged. "How should I know? You're the one seeing me." He inhaled slowly and then exhaled more cigarette smoke, blood bubbles running out of the corners of his mouth and from his left nostril. I clipped the d-ring with my keys to my belt loop. Sherry raised an eyebrow and I noticed he had blood spattered all over his face. Smoke rose up out of his bloody shirt from where I knew he had a massive hole through his lung. "You know, you shouldn't head out into the barracks on your own." I shrugged. "Where you going?"

"I don't know." I answered honestly. I stuck my feet in my jungle boots and yanked up the laces.

"The barracks is ugly tonight. Might want to stay in here." He warned me. I finished tying my boots and pulled my jean legs down over the boots.

I laughed at that. "Yeah, like I've never seen it ugly."

Sherry got up and followed me to the door. "I warned you, Ant."

"So you did." I told him, opening the door. "You coming?"

He shook his head. "Naw, I think I'll hang out here."

"Suit yourself." I told him, closing the door. I used my keys to lock the door and looked around.

All but two of the overhead lights were out. One at the far end and one about five paces from the doorway to the middle stairwell and the double doors. The double-doors, which were damaged beyond repair, were set against the wall. The hallway of Near Hammerhead Hall was almost completely dark, only a single light toward the far end. There was, unsurprisingly, icicles on the ceiling, glittering frost on the walls and floor, and frozen water welling out of the walls where bullets had punctured the pipes in the wall. There was a low moaning in the hallway that I couldn't pin down and I saw something glittering move from one wall to the other on the other side of the ruined double doors.

I took a single step and a piece of 7.62mm brass skittered off my boot toe and spun down the hallway, disappearing in the dark.

The hallway echoed with my boot steps as I headed to the Middle Stairwell. Ice crunched under my feet, and once I looked down to see that blood was welling up in the crack of the ice. I looked behind me and there were bloody bootprints from my door to where I was standing. One of the lights was flickering until I turned around and it dimmed out on me. I snorted and turned away, hearing lights buzz behind me as they came on. I was tempted to whip around and catch them but then it occurred to me that someone I might not want to see could be standing in the light.

Like King. Or Cass.

The door squealed as it opened and a scream ripped up the stairwell. I expected it to stop but it only paused for a second before the scream sounded out again, echoing up and down as I headed down. When I turned the corner at the mid-point landing I saw someone in BDU's laying next to the door. He had a mustache that was barely in regs, brown hair in a high and tight, green eyes, and was missing his front teeth as he screamed again. He was holding only his leg, which was bent backwards at the mid-point of the thigh. He let go of his leg and held his hands out to me, throwing back his head and screaming again. His hands were bloody and I could see that his uniform was dark. There was frozen blood pooling around him.

"Looks painful." I told him, stepping over him.

"Please, help, my leg, it's broken." He sobbed.

I looked at it, my hand on the door to Queer Country. "Yup. That's definitely broken." I shrugged. "Don't sweat it, you probably bled out. You'll pass out and die again." I reached down and patted his head. He tried to grab my arm but I pulled it away. "Dude, I'm not gonna go with you. Don't worry, you didn't last long, I'm sure. It's cold enough that with your blood loss you probably passed out from hypothermia pretty quick."

"Please, it hurts, please get me some help." He pleaded.

"Sorry," I looked at his rank. "Sergeant First Class, but it's been too late to get you help." I opened the door and walked out. "See you next time I come through, if you want."

The door shut on his sobbing.

The contractors had built what I was looking for down in Queer Country. I used my keys to open it and hit the lights. I was surprised that the lights came on smoothly. The weight room felt comfortable as I crossed over to the weight bench. It smelled of old sweat, leather, metal, and dust. Someone had left a towel on the rack where the weight bar and I picked it up to sniff it. I couldn't smell a hint of anything, not sweat or laundry detergent or anything else.

"Who left you here?" I asked. I didn't expect an answer and I didn't get one. "Well, how about me and you hang out for awhile." I smiled and set it aside, stripping out of my flannel shirt and belt, which I hung from a bar someone had put about 400 lbs. on. Some of the motorpool guys were built like gorillas, and it wasn't too uncommon to see them in one of the weight rooms doing squats with enough weight it would break my spine.

I walked over to the bench press and looked at the bar. Someone had left about a hundred and eighty pounds on it. A good warmup, but it had been awhile since I'd pumped any iron so I pulled the weight down to a hundred and fifty pounds. Pulling the two fives and two tens off the bar left me winded. I needed to cut back on the cigarettes. That should be safe to start out with even though I didn't have a spotter. I grabbed the towel, laid it out on the bench, and then laid down. I wrapped my hands around the grooved part of the bar, stared at it, focused, and pushed up to lift the bar off of the cradle.

The bar clanked, but didn't move.

Frowning I tried again and got the same results. I let my eyes unfocused, concentrating on my breathing as I moved my arms to warm them up. When I felt ready I wrapped my hands around the bar, inhaled sharply, and pushed up as I exhaled.

The bar might as well been welded to the cradle.

I got up, walking around to the top of the bench, and I wrapped my hands around the bar and lifted my shoulders.

The bar came up a smidgen, but something weird happened to my right shoulder. I felt a weird sliding feeling, fiery pain lancing through the joint, and my hand flew open. The bar dropped as I let go of it and staggered back, holding onto my shoulder and gasping in pain. The pain subsided after a moment, turning into a fierce dull ache. I pulled up my sleeve and looked at it. There was a slight divot on the outside of the curve. I turned and looked in the mirror I had been leaning against, my reflection tsking and shaking his head before pointing a finger at my shoulder.

"Man, you might want to have Stokes or Nagle look at that." He told me.

My fingertip went into the divot and found there was a slight gap at the top of the arm bone and the end of my collarbone. I looked at my reflection and nodded. "Yeah, I think something's wrong with our arm."

"You can't feel that?" My reflection asked me. "It doesn't hurt?"

"Not really. I mean, it aches, but other than that, it doesn't really hurt." I told myself. I poked it again and my reflection winced.

"Don't do that, that shit hurts." He said. I looked up and his expression was pained. "Man, you seriously can't feel that?" I shook my head. "What does the lizard say?"

The lizard was asleep, tears rolling from his eyes to drip on the brushed steel floor. His ears were folded protectively against his skull, he was holding his tail tightly, and I felt bad for him as I looked at myself in the mirror. "Nothing, he's asleep."

My reflection shook his head. "He should be awake. I don't think we're OK."

"We're fine. Stop acting like a girl." I told him.

He shook his head. "Look, talk to our sister or our brother, but talk to someone. We aren't doing good."

"William would rather hang out with his snake eater buddies and Ineda joined the DIA, and you know we don't trust anyone from the alphabet boys." I reminded him.

"Fine. Whatever. Look, I'll come back when you're ready to listen to someone else." My reflection said. He turned and walked away, disappearing from the mirror.

"Hey, come back!" I yelled, but he ignored me and stayed gone. I grunted, went and got my flannel, and put it on. Walking out I glared at the mirror. "Fine. I don't need you anyway. Jerkass." I locked the door behind me.

...Now what, jerkass...

Ignoring the darkness, the cold, and the sound of faint sobbing from the Middle Stairwell I headed down the hallway of Queer Country toward the Far Stairwell and the external access door. I half expected Dobbs to appear, but nobody stopped me as I reached the door. Curious, I reached out, grabbed the steel padlock, and pulled down, ignoring the pain in my shoulder. The lock popped open, showing me that nobody had replaced it since it had been stripped. I undid the chain, turned around to open the Far Stairwell door, and threw the chain and lock under the stairs.

"You know what, fuck all of you." I said to the barracks. I pushed open the door and stepped out into the darkness. On either side of me were walls of snow that some poor bastard had shoveled out so anyone leaving the far egress could reach the street. Looking up I could see the starry night. I'd give one thing to Alfenwehr, the sky was beautiful, the Milky Way plain as day and needle sharp. The wind was up and it was slightly hard to breathe. The cold was like a knife in my chest as I inhaled deeply to try to get rid of the dizziness. I didn't get it often, but the wind sometimes made it hard to breathe, well, harder to get a chest full of air. Once the dizziness passed I walked to the street and stood there for a moment, looking at the trucks and CUC-V's we'd brought up to the barracks and the snow on the other side.

Standing out in the cold it suddenly dawned on me that I couldn't get to my car, it was buried under fifteen feet of snow that had been dropped in layers I could see in the moonlight.

I'd wanted my Power Slave tape out of my car's tape deck.

Well, at least I had a 5.56mm ammo box in the Gypsy Wagon with some tapes in it. I shrugged and walked down the dark street to where the Gypsy Wagon was sitting, pulling my d-ring off my belt so I could use the copy of the keys I'd stolen months before and wrote off as a field loss. I unlocked the driver's side door and climbed in, shutting the door and cutting off the wind.

I wondered if the LT from when William and I arrived at the barracks last winter was out here. Was he sitting in one of the cars, smoking cigarettes with Tandy and King and listening to Abba? I stuck my keys in the ignition and hit the starter.

The Gypsy Wagon just clicked.

"Where you going, Ant?" Queens asked me from the passenger side of the cab.

I shrugged. "Home. I want to go home." I said.

"It's a diesel, you've got to let the glow plugs warm up first, silly." Queens told me. She leaned down and pulled the ammo box out from under the seat.

"Thanks." I said, turning the keys to warm it up. Queens opened the ammo can and pulled out one of my tapes, then pulled Bomber's shitty little dual cassette deck stereo out from under the seat.

"Mind if I put on some music?" she asked.

"Not at all." I told her. The light for ready came on and I hit the ignition. The Gypsy Wagon fired right up. The blower turned on and the cold air washed over us. I hit the lights so I could make sure that nobody was coming out.

I figured I'd drive off the mountain, grab Autobahn-5, and then head to I-5. I'd be home in a few hours.

"Well, that's a plan." Queens told me, dropping a tape into the tape deck and hitting play. Bonnie Tyler's voice filled the cab with Holding Out for a Hero, telling me that she'd dropped in the soundtrack for Footloose.

"Yeah, I've got three quarters of a tank." I told her. I pulled out my wallet and checked it. I had a few 50 Mark bills and some 20's. "I figure I'll top it off in Fulda, then we'll grab some gas at the AM/PM in Centralia after we hit I-5."

Queens nodded, and some blood ran from the corner of her mouth. "Can I go? I'd rather not stay."

I smiled at her. "Sure. Want a minute to go get Dobbs?"

She shook her head. "No. I don't think she can go where we might be going." Her voice sounded sad.

I yawned. "It's a long trip. Lemme take a quick nap." I laid my head on the top of the steering wheel. "Wake me up in like 15 minutes and we'll leave."

Queens nodded. "Yeah. Stokes mickey'd you with that Coke. Might not want to drive."

I closed my eyes. "As soon as I wake up, we'll go. Give me 15 minutes."

"That should do it." Queens said softly.

I drifted off, head against the steering wheel, the vibration of the heavy diesel engine easing my sore muscles, and Bonnie Tyler's voice putting my brain in neutral.

...Just fifteen minutes...

Chapter 15

Possible Site of FSTS-317
Attempt #8
Western Germany
On the 1K Zone
11 March, 1987

Bomber was sitting on the tailgate with me in the spring sunshine. The warmth was nice after having spent two weeks up on Alfenwehr getting the vehicles running and watching the Army Corps of Engineers work on the site that our barracks would be rebuilt on. Bomber and I had been hiding out in the back of 5-ton 35 reading and telling bad jokes when our squad leader, SGT Mahdi, had popped up to tell us that we had a mission. Foster was pulling the CUC-V that we'd been assigned, which was in pretty bad shape with the front bench seat ripped and tattered, missing a tachometer, and a rusted hole in the bed. We had been slated to get new vehicles but all that showed up at the railhead were old pieces of shit, most of which didn't even run. We'd driven out to various places while Sgt Mahdi had checked some list of grid coordinates that the LT Colonel had handed him. Sergeant Mahdi and the rest of the squad had walked out to check the grid coordinate and made us stay behind. Foster to listen to the radio, Bomber and I to guard the weapons and gear everyone had thrown in the back of the truck. We'd been drinking warm pop and listening to the stereo I'd bought at the Darmstahdt PX a week or so ago. The batteries had died on the stereo so now we were bored as shit. Maybe I shouldn't have been playing it at top volume if I wanted it to last longer.

I was PFC and Bomber was Pv2, so we didn't really care about what was going on beyond how much work it was going to be for us. He was reading a copy of I, the Jury he'd bought in AIT and probably read a thousand times. The cover had fallen off a long time ago, but he didn't care. I was just staring up at the sky and chewing on a piece of grass I'd picked. I heard John tapping the Copenhagen can he carried in his pocket so it didn't surprise me when he held it out.

"Dip?" He asked me, not looking up.

"Sure." I took the can and put some tobacco behind my front lip. When I handed the can back John was sitting up with a big shit eating grin on his face.

"Hey, you know what the date is?" He asked me. I just shrugged. I'd quit paying attention to the date. He dug in his cargo pocket and pulled out a little package wrapped in the pages of a Hustler I'd seen in his rucksack. "It's your birthday, you feeb." I smiled widely and the lizard danced with joy in his little chamber.

"No shit?" I asked, taking the offered package. "Thanks, John."

"Happy eighteenth birthday, Tony."

I was careful with the 'wrapping' paper, since it looked like the centerfold and she was pretty good looking in a skinny way. I liked my women thick-bodied, meaty, and muscular. Inside was a box with the Zippo label on the lower right. I opened the box and found a $20 bill and a lighter with the ChemCorps seal on one side and the V Corps insignia on the other. I put the $20 in my pocket and snapped the lighter open to light it. It lit right up and I smiled before shutting it. Under the Zippo was one of the pull/snap det-cord igniter and a small d-ring.

"Thanks, John." I smiled. I put everything in my pocket with a smile.

"I figured you could buy me a drink at the Wildflecken NCO Club when we get back." He said. He jumped off the tailgate, put the book in his back pocket and looked around. "Man, this is a load of shit. What the hell are we even doing out here?"

I leaned back against the duffel bags everyone had thrown in the truck. "Watching the squad's weapons, duh."

"Man, this sucks. Almost a year of training and they send us to this bullshit." Bomber bitched. "We're supposed to be doing cool shit, not wandering around Germany staying with other units and searching the woods for some crap nobody gave a shit about in like twenty years." He walked over to a tree and stood there pissing for awhile. "I hate this place."

"Eh, it's not too bad." I said. "I mean, it's not as good as Fort Leanordwood or Red Stone, but it could be a lot worse." Bomber was humming and swinging his hips left and right. "They're getting our shit together and I heard that construction's going to start on the barracks soon so we'll have somewhere to live."

"I hope so, I mean the guys at 54th Engineers are cool and all, but I'd kind of like my own room." Bomber bitched. "You know they shipped all our shit from the World and it's sitting in some fucking storage area somewhere." He scoffed. "I'll bet some fucking civilian's stole all our shit by now. Bunch of fucking thieves." When we'd been at the Nevada Test Site we'd gone out to see a live underground test firing and while we were gone the civilian workers had pretty much robbed us blind. He'd had a solid gold bullriding buckle that had meant the world to him that the MP's had never recovered and was bitter as hell about it.

"Probably." I agreed. "I've got a bunch of computer stuff that my Father made sure they shipped." I dug in the back for a Coke and cracked it open. "Plus I'll be getting all my D&D stuff."

"Cool. Give us something to do while the rest of the Army does cool shit." He turned around, pulling on the bottom of the BDU blouse to straighten it up. He tapped his Airborne badge on his pocket above the Air Assault the whole unit got to wear and sneered at it. "I thought if I went Airborne I'd get to do cool shit. Hell, we even did Air Assault training and we're still just leeching off of everyone else and living out of our rucks."

"Jeez, John, chill." I waved around us. "The unit's still being reactivated, of course we're all screwed up. We don't have our heavy vehicles or weapons, we don't have our barracks so we don't have our operations centers, we don't even have our ammo sites." I waved in the direction the rest of the squad had gone. "That's why we've been checking out these grid coordinates the last three days."

Pulling out his book Bomber sat on the tailgate and made a disgusted noise. "It's still all bullshit."

"Come on, the unit was wiped out in '68, these fucking sites have been missing for like twenty years." I slapped his leg and threw the empty Coke can into the woods.

"Keep America beautiful, litter Germany." Bomber said. He dug out two more of the warm Cokes and handed me one. "How long have they been gone?"

I checked my watch. "Four hours. Think we ought to go check on them?"

"Naw, they're good." He grinned. "Besides, you know Sergeant Mahdi, he gets his panties in a wad if we do anything he didn't give us step by step instructions to do. Besides, he already told us to stay here with Foster."

"Foster!" I yelled, leaning my head back.

"What the fuck do you want?" Foster yelled back from the cab. He had the driver's side door open and was laying on the torn up front seat napping.

"Think the others are fine?"

"Who gives a shit?" Foster asked. "It's Germany, not fucking Iraq or Syria."

"Anything come in over the radio?" I asked.

"Monkey found his site, so did Sgt Nalls." He said.

"You said that." I told him. "Anything new?"

"Yeah, V Corps radioed me and told me to tell you to shut the fuck up." Foster said. We all laughed. "Hey, pass me a Coke." I grabbed him one, jumped off the tailgate, and walked around to the cab. He was laying with his head up by the passenger side door, holding up his hands. I tossed the Coke and it bounced off his hands and hit him in the crotch. He whuffed and bent forward.

"That's what you get." I said, walking back to jump back up on the tailgate.

Which promptly gave out a screech, fell off, and dumped me on my ass in the mud.

"Nicely done, goober." Bomber said from next to me. "Dammit, I was trying to keep from getting my uniform dirty."

"Stop acting like a girl." I told him. I stood up, dusting off my ass. "Goddamn this thing is a piece of shit." Bomber helped me lift up the tailgate and put it back on. We sat back down. Foster came around the and sat down next to us.

The tailgate promptly fell off and dumped all three of us on our asses.

"Nice job, jackass, you broke it." Bomber said. Foster socked him in the shoulder with a grin and we got back up and just sat in the bed of the truck.

"You know I found the old dispatch for this piece of shit." He said. He lifted up a battered OD green folder. "This thing was deadlined and put in a depot yard in fucking Fort Hood two years ago. Some assholes stole our vehicle and gave us this piece of shit."

I shrugged. "Eh, whatcha gonna do? The whole Army's fucked up."

"Hey, is it true your dad's like some kind of SF legend?" Foster asked.

"My adopted Father is, yeah. My dad's a worthless fucking drunk who drank himself to death already if I'm fucking lucky." I growled.

"How about a change of subject?" Bomber suggested. Foster nodded.

The radio crackled something and Foster went up to listen. He leaned back out of the cab. "Jump off or lift your feet." He warned us. The grounding was fucked up on the truck and every time he hit the transmit button on the old assed PRC-77 radio it shocked the shit out of anyone touching the truck and the ground.

"Dare you to stand up and touch the bed." Bomber grinned.

"Deal." I jumped off, slapped one hand on the truck.

Foster keyed the mic to answer whoever was on the radio and the current knocked me on my ass. The lizard hissed and chattered at me for doing something so stupid. Bomber laughed as I pulled myself up with a grin. After a second Foster came back around to where Bomber had his feet on the back bumper and I was sitting on the ground drinking out of my fizzed over can of Coke.

"We've got some new officer in charge of us and he wants to know what's taking so long." Foster said. He looked pissed off. "He called me a brain damaged camel cum drinking moron." Bomber and I laughed. "That shit's not funny. I oughta knock his fucking teeth in."

"Isn't that how you lost your E-5?" Bomber reminded him. Foster made a face, the fact he'd gotten drunk and punched an Air Force officer out thrown in his face.

"Let's go check on them." I said, climbing in the back of the truck. "We'll take the truck. Bomber, you ride in back, I'll ground guide us." I grabbed my piece of shit rifle out of the pile from where we'd just tossed them. I looked at the box of 5.56mm up by the cab. Since we didn't have an arms room or anywhere to store our weapons and ammo we just carried it with us. "You know, we're really close to the 1K Zone." I opened the closer metal box and pulled out the 30 round magazines that Sergeant Mahdi had made us load up. I loaded up my LBE and then locked one in my weapon.

"Toss the can and my weapon to me." Bomber said. I nodded, tossing his weapon to him. Foster held out his hands and I tossed his to him. I tossed them magazines till they each had seven and then closed the ammo box and jumped out. Bomber climbed in the back, moved up to the cab, and leaned over the roof, resting his elbows on the top of the cab and looking down the barrel of his rifle. "Bang!" He muttered. Foster got in the cab and fired up the truck, the engine rattling for a moment before it caught. Smoke poured out from under the front of the truck for a second, stinking of diesel, before the light German spring breeze washed it away. It had been humid as hell when we'd first rolled in, but the breeze had started after about an hour of Bomber, Foster and I sitting around, cooling us off.

"Let's go find them." I muttered. They were probably wandering around in the woods while Sergeant Mahdi insisted they mark down every tree on the map and give them all names.

I cursed at all the mud. It had rained that morning, getting everyone who was riding in the back like me all wet, and now I had to walk through the damn mud. The reddish German mud clung to my boots and made my feet weight like a hundred pounds within ten steps. I felt dumb as hell hefting my rifle like I was walking patrol in a combat zone, but I didn't really have a choice with the way my back hurt. I'd grown from five foot six to five foot ten since I'd gotten to the unit and my back hurt like a sonofabitch. The doctors just gave me Motrin, told me to quit drinking and smoking, and sent me back to my unit. The Motrin helped, but my joints and back always hurt. Lately the hinge of my jaw had started hurting and was swollen some days. The doctor had looked in my mouth, told me it was just growing pains, and sent me back to my unit with a profile to take plenty of Motrin, drink plenty of water, and permission for double or triple helpings of food. Sergeant Mahdi had told me to have a nice MRE of Shut the Fuck Up and get in the truck. I'd told Bomber about my joints aching and he'd told me it was the first sign of homosexuality and when I'd told him how my jaw hurt he suggested I quit sucking so much cock.

Smartass.

When I tossed my Coke can into the woods Foster bumped me with bumper of the CUC-V and I lifted my hand over my shoulder and gave him the finger. He honked twice at me and I laughed.

"Tony, catch!" Bomber called out. I turned around in time to catch the full can of Coke right before it hit me in the face. I juggled my rifle and the soda till I got the soda open and took a long drink out of it. I'd had drymouth all fucking morning since about an hour after we got here. I scratched the back of my hand with the bottom lip of the can and frowned at the slight sunburn I was getting.

That was weird. I glanced back at Bomber and noticed his face looked sunburned. Foster didn't, but then he'd been sleeping in the cab all morning.

We were following the footsteps of Sergeant Mahdi and the rest of the squad. I didn't know them that well, since the squad had been put together only a week before. Before that the few of us where were in the unit had just milled about in a disorganized gaggle. We'd gotten a new CO and he'd divided everyone up into platoons and squads based on rank and MOS. It turned out that less than thirty of us had actually gone through Special Weapons MOS training. A lot of the guys in the unit who had been in the Army for awhile complained about the fact that the unit was massive and what had been labeled as a Group when the platoons were bigger than companies Stateside.

I didn't worry about it. I was just a private, so who gave a shit what I thought. I figured that if there were problems that was for people with rank to worry about. Besides, I was just here for 3 years, standard time for an unmarried troops in Germany, then I'd fuck off to my next duty station. Maybe then I'd be in a real Army, but from what I'd seen of Special Weapons I'd probably end up in some other fucked up unit so I didn't care one way or another.

The bootprints arced to the left and I started to get a headache. Well, that's what you get for sitting out in the sun all day swilling down soda and sweating. Still, dry mouth was a bitch.

...Where the fuck are they...

I moved to the side of the muddy track that might have been a road a quarter century ago and kept walking through the dead ferns and sticks that made up the floor of the forest. My mask kept rubbing against my leg and I stopped to adjust it. Looking down I saw a rusted sign laying on the ground.

Restricted Area Warning:
THIS AREA/ACTIVITY HAS BEEN DECLARED A RESTRICTED AREA BY AUTHORITY OF THE INSTALLATION COMMANDER IN ACCORDANCE WITH THE PROVISIONS OF THE DIRECTIVE OF THE SECRETARY OF DEFENSE AND NATO ON 17 JULY 1948 PURSUANT TO THE PROVISIONS OF SECTION 21, INTERNAL SECURITY ACT OF 1950.

UNAUTHORIZED ENTRY IS PROHIBITED. ALL PERSONS HEREIN ARE LIABLE TO SEARCH. PHOTOGRAPHY OF THE FACILITIES OR PERSONNEL IS PROHIBITED WITHOUT SPECIFIC AUTHORIZATION OF THE FACILITY COMMANDER. LETHAL FORCE IS AUTHORIZED!

Beneath that was another three signs:

WARNING! DANGER!
THIS AREA PROTECTED BY LETHAL FORCE! NO ENTRY OR ACCESS WITHOUT PERMISSION OF FACILITY COMMANDER. PAST THIS LINE/SIGN ALL PERSONNEL ARE SUBJECT TO ARREST AND/OR DETAINMENT ACCORDING TO THE UCMJ AND NATO GUIDELINES WITHOUT WARNING.

DANGER! LIVE MINES!
THIS AREA PROTECTED BY ACTIVE LIVE ANTIPERSONNEL MINES. DEUTCHLAND, THE US ARMY, AND NATO ARE NOT RESPONSIBLE FOR ANY INJURY INCURRED BEYOND THIS POINT.

The last sign had nuclear and chemical warnings on them.

...Oh shit...

I held up my fist and heard the brakes of the shitty CUC-V squeal. The pads were worn down and the vehicle was just grinding metal every time the brakes were stepped on. The e-brake was totally shot and resulted in nothing but a whining noise when it was turned on. I stopped and headed back to the vehicle. Foster rolled down the window and looked at me with a raised eyebrown.

"What?" He asked.

"I think the others might be dead." I told him flat out.

"What?" Bomber yelled? "What do you mean, dead?"

I moved back over and showed them both the sign. Foster jumped back in the truck, threw it in reverse, and backed up about 10 feet before getting stuck in the mud. He hit the gas a few times but only succeeded in burying the truck even further in the mud and splattering me and Bomber with the red German soil.

"Nice job, poque." I laughed at him. I hefted my rifle and looked at Bomber. "Gonna come with me?" Bomber nodded. I looked at Foster. "You staying with the truck?" Foster nodded and told me to go fuck myself. I turned to Bomber and he tapped the barrel of his rifle against the lip of his helmet and grinned. "Let's do this shit, Rambo."

"Eat me, John Wayne." Bomber snickered back. We headed along, following the trail. I took another swig of the warm Coke, finishing it and throwing it in the woods.

Bomber offered me the chew can and I pulled out the old one, slinging it against a tree, and put in a new one. Goddamn, maybe it would help with my dry mouth.

"Soooo, you think they're dead?" John asked. He stopped and pointed at what was once a road. There were some chunks of asphalt in the mud. "Check it out, this actually was a road." He coughed. "Goddamn, my chest aches." He rubbed his chest, spit against a tree, and we kept walking.

John stopped and held up his hand. "Hey, check it out, I think I see something." He pointed off to the side and spit again. I did the same, looking where he was pointing. Yup, something that didn't look like forest was about a 100 yards away. "Wanna go take a look?"

I shrugged. "Sure, why not?" I crossed over, wiping my mouth after spitting again. Weird, my mouth was full of spit from the Copenhagen but I had dry mouth. We headed into the underbrush, branches crackling under our feet. John stumbled over something and cursed. I laughed at him. When we got closer we could tell it was an old rusted out US Army jeep that had been sitting there since God knew when. When we got up to it John started moving the branches in the back and I walked around it, staring at it.

The big white star was still obvious, there was some OD green paint on it, and I wondered how long the piece of shit had been sitting there. Jeeps flipped if you so much as looked at them from an angle. Hell, General Patton had flipped one on Fort Hood after World War II, which left that dipshit MacArthur in charge of Korea at first, and he'd almost dropped atomic bombs on China before he got replaced. I'd always thought he'd been one of the better generals in US history but after having to read a couple of books and getting lectures on use or almost use of NBC weaponry I'd changed my mind.

"Hey, check it out, old weapons!" Bomber said, sounding excited.

"No fucking way." I told him, turning to see him sweeping the leaves away.

"Yeah, way, man. Holy shit, there's old rucksacks and shit back here." He lifted something out. "Check it out, an old chemical alarm." He shook the nylon case and a bunch of rust poured out. "Man, that woulda been cool if it works."

"You know, there's four M-16's back here." I told him. I lifted one up and looked it. It was in bad condition, but I could tell it was an honest to God M-16. "What the hell do think they're doing back here?"

"Beats me." Bomber said, pulling open an old rucksack. He lifted up a can of beer with a faded label. "Check it out, Budweiser. Think it's still good?"

"Fuck if I know." I spit again and cursed at the fact my mouth was dry. The little lizard was looking at his gauges with some concern. "Hand me one, I'm thirsty enough to drink that horse-piss."

"Lemme find a horse and you can drink it straight from the spigot." Bomber laughed, tossing it to me and pulling out another one. He cracked and it fizzed.

"Don't you have a sheep to fuck?" I cracked mine, drank from it, and made a face. "Ugh, warm and old." I rubbed my eyes, which felt dry and itchy.

"Weird. These rucks have the old green bean uniforms in them. One has a combat patch, the others don't, all of them have a 3rd CosCom patch on the left shoulder." He said, thinking. "I mean, they've got boots, socks, everything."

"I don't think this shit was left here accidentally." I said. My brain was working overtime. I wiped my mouth and noticed my hand was shaking.

The lizard suddenly hit the alarm button, raising the hair on the back of my neck. Reflex hammered in during Basic Training and NBC Warfare training kicked in and my left hand pulled open my mask carrier while my right hand darted across my body to grab the wrapped front of my mask. I spread it open while raising it, put it over my face, and pulled the straps over my head all in one smooth motion before tugging on the tabs on the elastic straps to tighten it to my skull and slapping my hands over the vents and blowing out the last of my breath. I pulled my hood over my head and saw Bomber pulling his on. The lizard had his weird looking mask on, covering his reptilian head, with the hood pulled up. He was looking at the gauges and hissing to himself.

"What?" Bomber asked, coughing.

I dug into my mask carrier and pulled out my roll of M9 detector tape to strap some around my arms. It was uncolored, so no liquid. My stomach suddenly heaved and I pulled my mask away so I could explosively vomit on the ground, keeping my eyes closed and not inhaling. When I was done I pulled my mask back on and exhaled what little I had in my lungs to reseal my mask.

"Oh shit!" Bomber said, stumbling back. He pulled out his atropine and 2Pam-Chloride injectors from his mask carrier and held them up.

"No. Wait on that." I said, then coughed. The tightness in my chest was easing up. I put my hand on the rusty hood of the jeep and kept coughing. The lizard kept hitting the cough button every time I took in a breath.

"Fuck, I got a lip FULL of chew." Bomber swore. "Well, here goes nothing." He inhaled deeply, closed his eyes, then pulled up his mask, pulled the chew out of his lip, and snapped his hand to get rid of the chew. Then he pulled back down the mask and cleared it again.

"How bad do you think it is?" He asked as I repeated his actions.

"We've been here for like five or six hours. We're still alive and we're just showing the minor symptoms." I told him. I cleared my mask again by putting my hands over the outgas filters and blowing hard. The itching all over my face was probably psychosomatic, but why take chances.

"My M8 paper is showing we're hot." Bomber said. He stripped the first layer to reveal that the paper was clear, just a little pink razor thin strip at the edges. He tossed away the paper and I did the same. "Full MOPP?" he asked. He looked nervous as hell.

I nodded, taking my tape and putting an X on the tree toward the trail. "Let's get back to Foster to tell him and radio Group." I stopped every few paces and made another X on the part of the tree facing the trail. When we hit the trail I put another X and we hustled back to Foster.

Foster was leaning out of the truck and puking, straightening up when he saw us and wiping his mouth. "I think my MRE was bad." He said, then leaned forward and retched.

"Grab him." I said. Bomber nodded, grabbing his shoulders to hold him. I pulled his mask off and waited until he inhaled before putting his mask over his face. Bomber grabbed the webbing and pulled it over his head, pulling the little tabs on the elastic to tighten it down. "Don't puke again." I warned him, slapping my hands over the filters. "Exhale." He blew air, making the mask vibrate, and I pulled the hood over his head and pulled the drawstring.

"Get on the horn to Group, tell them we have a problem." I told him. He nodded. "I think we've got a chemical leak out here."

"Gee, ya fucking think?" Bomber said, then coughed again. "My chest burns."

"It's in your head." I told him. "Get it together, soldier." I snapped. "We've got men, our men out there. They might be unconscious, they might be dying, we need to go get them."

"Fuck that." Foster coughed.

I closed my eyes for a second. Did I finish that letter to Innie? Would my Father ever find out what happened? Would they send my older brother to collect my body?

"Bomber, let's go to MOPP 4 and let's go get them." I said. I walked around to the back of the truck and grabbed my ruck. I pulled out and ripped open the foil, pulling out my chemical suit and putting it on. Rather than put on the complicated boots I just grabbed my wet weather boots on pulled those on. Bomber was pulling on his chemical suit and finished while I was putting M8 detector tape on my arms and calves.

"Hey, how come the alarm didn't go off?" Bomber asked.

"Because. It is. A piece of shit." I told him. I coughed again and felt something loosen in my chest.

"Group says they need more than just a bad feeling. Does the alarm show anything?" Foster said from the cab. I checked the alarm and shook my head and he went back to talking.

"What do you think happened?" John asked.

"I think this is the second time it happened." I told him. "The weapons in the jeep? The fact everyone else has been gone for hours? There's something out there that killed both groups, so we'll go in using protection like we're banging a Fleet Week whore the day after the carrier leaves."

Foster got out of the truck, coming back to grab his MOPP suit. "Chief Henley says you're over-reacting and for us to go downrange to see what's going on." He said. He sounded pissed off and I didn't blame him. "He called me a fucking coward. It's some guy name Chief Henley. The fuck called me a coward." He ripped open the foil, almost dropping the MOPP suit. "Who does that fuck think he is, calling me a coward?"

"Calm down. Breathe." I told him. "We don't want to fuck up here." I waved my hand behind me. "Can you get a hold of Group for me once you're dressed?"

He nodded and I waited till he was done. We walked over to the front of the truck and Foster reached in for the mic. He got a hold of Group and handed me the mic so I could talk to Chief Henley. I could smell hot insulation and burning plastic even through my mask.

"Chief, I think..." I started.

"It's Chief Warrant Officer TWO, you ignorant fucking ape! GET IT RIGHT!" The Chief screamed at me, making the speakers crackle.

"I think we have a real world situation out here, over." I told him, ignoring his outburst. This was a little too important for me to lose my temper. I didn't have a squad leader right now and didn't know what I should do.

"If there was any serious leak the German government would have found it. It's probably just fumes from the truck, you little turd -ating dipshit." Henley snapped. "If you weren't so goddamn stupid you might know that. Just go find your squad leader and bother him, some of us are doing important stuff, you retarded fucking gibbon."

I waited for him to say something but he didn't, so I just keyed the radio again, hearing Bomber yell in pain. Before I could say anything there was a crackling sound and the burning smell got worse. Smoke started pouring from underneath the dash and the PRC-77 exploded in a shower of sparks. Foster yelled and I jumped back, letting go of the mic. Foster grabbed the fire extinguisher and hit it, spraying powdered CO2 all over the inside of the cab. After he hosed it all down and we waited, but there wasn't any more smoke, he got in and hit the keys.

Nothing happened.

"You have to fucking kidding me!" Bomber yelled, kicking the tire.

"I was a mechanic before I reclassified as Special Weapons." Foster said. He rubbed his gloved hands together. "If the damage isn't too bad I might be able to get it running again." He told us. "Well, it would help if I had some wire."

"You're shit out of luck." Bomber told him.

The little lizard reminded me of something, throwing an image of it up on my internal viewers. "Wait. Hey, can you just use any wire?" I asked.

"Yeah. Hell, this one time at NTC I fixed the wiring harness of my CO's vehicle with Claymore land mine wire." He bragged.

"How about the wiring of an old Jeep? It's been out in the weather, but it should still have wire." I told him.

He nodded, slowly at first and then faster. "Yeah, I can probably handle it with that."

"All right. Follow us. We'll show you where it is and then go look for the rest of the squad." I told him.

"Who put you in charge?" Foster asked. Not nastily, just sounding curious. "If this goes sideways I have a feeling this Henley guy is going to screw whoever takes charge right in the ass with the big green dick."

I shrugged. "Fuck it, I'm highest ranking out the three of us." I told him. "But hell, at least you were an E-5, how about you do it?"

He shook his head. "Fuck that. You do it. They busted my ass for punching out an asshole pilot who held down one of my troops and fingered her." He snarled, his voice muffled by his mask. "So fuck 'em."

"All right. I'll show you where the Jeep is." I started walking. I knew Bomber would have my back. He'd had it since Reception anyway. We walked in silence, stopping at the taped X and pointing at the next one. "Right back there."

"Good thinking." He told me, heading off into the underbrush.

"Ready to earn our big bucks?" I asked Bomber, who snorted. I looked ahead and shook my head. "Goddamn I could use a chew."

"Me too." He said. He tugged free the drinking tube for the mask. "You know you can smoke a cigarette with one of these?"

I nodded. "Yeah, DI Jameson did it during our qualification."

We kept following the signs, and I reminded Bomber not to get too far from the road and to remember the mine sign.

"No birds. We should have figured." Bomber said. "See?" I looked down where he was pointing and saw a dead swallow in the mud.

"That confirms it." I said. "Goddamn that Chief Henley bastard."

"When we get back let's beat the shit out of him." He suggested.

"We'll catch his ass behind the POL shack and beat the fuck out of him." I added.

We passed a cinderblock building with a caved in roof, two warehouses that had collapsed, and a long collapsed roof that had bulges here and there where there were things underneath it and kept following the footsteps. It looked like people had gone to check the collapsed buildings and then come back to the rest of the little group. The stillness was getting eerie. I checked my tape and there was still nothing. The lizard really didn't like any of it, hissing inside of his mask. I could see several spots where the long roof had rotted through enough to expose forks on rough terrain forklifts and a couple of windshields for trucks.

"Wish we had the M256." I said.

"Yeah. Sgt Mahdi took it with him." Bomber reminded me.

"Wonder if he got it off?"

"It's getting hotter." Bomber said. He looked down at the front of his MOPP suit where he'd clipped a radiation badge. "We're taking some light radiation too."

"Sure it isn't anything from Chernobyl? Corps said background count is going to be up from that for a few more months." I asked.

"No, it was at two green squares and now we're up to four." He told me.

There was a collapsed rusting fence at the top of a short hill we were climbing. I stopped to catch my breath, my chest still aching. "I think we found the site." I told him.

"Gee, ya think?" He asked.

"Let's see what we find." I told him, heading up the hill. The MOPP suit was heavy, hot, and bulky, but we'd had to wear it for three days during training. Still, it could be worse, we could be wearing that damn armored J-Suit or the heavy tank job or even worse be wearing the radiation layer like we'd had to during training. Hell, we'd had to wear the armored J-Suit for five days, going off tank or external air off and on. Hell, we'd had to run two miles in MOPP-4 during training twice, as well as do a five mile road march. They'd run the shit out of us in full NBC gear to get us used to operating in it.

Now it looked like it was paying off.

We got to the top of the hill and both of us stopped and stared.

We'd been taken out to ammunition sites and NBC storage sites during training so we knew what we were looking at. Dozens of buried bunkers, maybe bigger than Umatilla, Hawthorne Army Depot or the site out at Red Stone Arsenal. There were wrecks of vehicles down there, what looked like a couple of the huge 10K forklifts, maybe a 50K one judging by the size, and at least two of the huge bulldozers. The paint was peeled and they were all rusted.

"Holy shit, this place is massive." Bomber said. He was jabbing his finger in the air. "I count four and a half, maybe five and half rows of bunkers, looks at fifteen to twenty each." I whistled and he nodded. "Maybe more."

I was staring down at the nearer roads we could just barely make out through the overgrowth. One of them had a bulldozer about halfway down. "Let's try that one. That bulldozer makes a good land mark."

"Maybe." Bomber said. He pointed. "I think I see someone."

It looked like someone had fallen spread eagled in the mud, or it was just the way the mud was, it was hard to tell.

When we reached them it was obvious they'd went down in the mud, crawled a ways, then rolled onto their back. They had greenish foam dried around their mouths, their eyes were bloodshot behind a milky white film and staring at the sun.

"It's Greerson." Bomber said. He closed the other man's eyes and they opened back up. "Goddamn it."

"He won't care. Just put mud on them." I said. His eyes were giving me the creeps. I looked at the tracks. They were weaving, with about four feet between each deep imprint. "He was running when he went down."

"Don't kneel in the mud, don't compromise the suit." Bomber was reminding himself, checking for a pulse after slapping some mud on Greerson's eyes. "His mask is gone, don't know where it went." He stood up, dusting off his gloved hands.

"Delirium." I said, shading my eyes and looking down the road. "He must have masked, so they must have realized they were in trouble." I started walking. "Wonder what happened?"

"The Ether Bunny?" Bomber asked. I laughed.

We found Summers a little ways down the road. He had his mask on but had died on his hands and knees, his masked face buried in the mud.

"They got a massive dose." I said, rolling Summers onto his back. He'd vomited in his mask and it had probably choked him to death. It looked like he'd tried to clear his mask but vomited again down his front. The mask wasn't seated right. "I think he didn't manage to reset his mask and went down."

"That's two. We're missing five and Sgt Mahdi." I said. Bomber stood up and shook his head.

"You know, we're probably already dead." Bomber said.

"Remember your training, John. Our kidneys don't hurt, I know I've stopped drooling and my eyes don't hurt as bad as they did." I told him. "We'll probably get put on dialysis if we took too much, but we should be OK. If not, it's our duty to gather as much data as possible and, if possible, contain the problem."

Bomber nodded. "Keep a clear head and get the problem under control in order to minimize casualties." He recited. "Goddamn it, I should have known this fucking country would kill me, it killed my grandfather on my mother's side."

"Yeah, but he had Nazis shoot his plane down." I added. "Shit, there's someone else."

It was Haddon, on his side in the grass at the side of the 'road' curled up in the partial fetal position. He'd clawed at his neck at the end, tearing the skin and leaving behind blood gouge marks. He'd vomited too and had vomit filling his nose. In his hand was the open case for the M-256 but there wasn't anything inside of it. The weeds around him had been flattened.

"He went into convulsions at the end." Bomber said. He tapped the empty box. "We could use this."

"I'm calling nerve agent." I said.

"What about the blisters on his skin?" Bomber asked.

I looked closer. He had nasty blisters under the mask. I looked at his hands and he had blisters there too. I was careful handling him, although doctrine said that the fluid of the blisters didn't contain blister agent we'd seen more than one film where a volunteer had popped the blister and another had raised. That was without counting the fact that they'd put blister agent on the inside of our non-firing forearm and required us to treat it. Quite a few weren't careful when draining the blister and where the fluid had leaked more blister had raised. Bomber and I both had scars the size of quarters.

"Multi-agent?" Bomber asked.

"Compromised bunker?" I countered.

"Sounds right." Bomber said, standing up. We moved back over to the road and kept walking toward the big ass bulldozer.

Someone else was on their side, clawing forward before they went still. They didn't have their mask on and we could tell by the mud they'd gone into convulsions. "Four missing." Bomber said.

Howser had died on his knees, some trick of muscle tension keeping him upright with his mask in one hand. He'd put his dogtags into his mouth.

"This is getting spooky." Bomber said.

"Yeah, though I walk through the Valley of the Shadow of Death," I started softly. John joined me as we got closer to the bulldozer. "I fear no evil, for You are with me, Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies, You have anointed my head with oil; My cup overflows. Surely goodness and lovingkindness will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever." We recited together as we came closer. Bomber was Catholic and I was agnostic, but the silence except for the breeze, the dead, and knowing that the air would kill me if it wasn't for my mask, was enough to wake a primitive fear inside of me that I sure as hell hadn't felt during training.

Someone had died getting into the bulldozer, one leg outside, and I wondered if they'd been trying to start it up.

"The toolbox is open." Bomber pointed.

"The idiots cracked open a bunker." I said, looking at the front of the bunker. The door was closed, and I could see the three missing men at the back of the door.

They'd died getting the door shut.

Like my Father would say: Duty. Honor. Courage.

All three men were badly blistered, had vomited, and died still against the massive steel door. The contents of the M-256A1 detector kit were scattered around. I could see that it had detected blister, nerve, and blood agents. The holy trinity. Bomber checked his radiation badge. I checked my M-9 detector tape. The lizard checked the gauges.

"Up to the bottom yellow, Tony." He said. "We can stay here another hour, maybe two."

"We can't recover the bodies." I said. "They'll have to be cremated, maybe in place." I knelt down next to Sgt Mahdi and tore off a strip of the M-8 paper. Mahdi had his eyes closed, hidden beneath large puffy blisters. His hands were covered and I noticed that he, Johnson, and Cartwright hadn't bothered to try to mask.

They'd known they were fucked. They'd closed the door.

I wondered if I would have that kind of courage when, not if, it came down to it.

"Leave 'em?" Bomber asked.

"Corps incident team will want to photo them." I told him. "But I don't want to leave them, not like this." I said. I hadn't known Sgt Mahdi that well, but he didn't seem like a bad guy for an E-5. Hell, I hadn't known anyone beyond Bomber, keeping my mouth shut around strange people.

Now I regretted it.

"We have to." John reminded me. "We need to get going." He tapped the badge. "Umm, we've moved up the third yellow and I think the bottom amber is tarting to fill in."

"Where do you think we're pulling radiation?" I asked, turning around. I stopped dead. "Umm, I think I know."

The little lizard screamed and hit the panic button.

"What?" John asked, turning around. He went still. "Oh. Shit."

There was a small forklift on the front of the bulldozer. That was weird enough, but on the forks was a pallet of artillery shells. XM422A6 250 kiloton nuclear artillery shells, complete with neutron reflector, enhanced jacketing, gallium spacing, and 'salted' warhead with a linear implosion trigger. They'd rusted through and I could actually see the internal components. Hell, I could see the fucking core. They were serious weapons, maximum security, and we'd only seen two during training, neither one loaded with the enriched core.

There's no fucking way they should have been sitting on the forks of a 6K rough terrain forklift at an abandoned ammunition dump in Western Germany.

"Oh, shit, Tony." Bomber said.

...Looks like it's my turn to see if I got the guts...

"John, go uprange, one of us has to make the report." I said, walking toward the rounds. They must have seen the rounds and decided to open the bunker to stash them in. It made sense and followed regs.

"I'm not fucking leaving you." He said. "We can do it faster if we work together." We got within five paces and he looked down. "We're into amber. These fuckers must be hot loads."

"The salting cage and the jacketing have collapsed and are touching the plutonium." I said. My skin was starting to itch. "See the faint glow?"

"Hurry." Bomber said. "I'll get the shovel." He grabbed the shovel off the rack on the side of the bulldozer. It was going to be rotted and rusted but it was better than nothing.

We moved quickly. Pulling the rounds off the rotting pallet and laying them on the ground, the breached section down. When there was more than one section we poured water from our canteen out on the core and then packing mud on top. One of the rounds the casing was touching the core and when I grabbed the piece of metal it burned my fingers had enough that it smeared my rubber glove.

"Shit." I showed Bomber.

"Keep working." he told me. "You have your atropine." He blew out air. "My fucking skin itches."

"Psychosomatic. We're still green." I lied to us both. The lizard had me glance at Bomber's radiation detection badge. Second amber square. We'd need to see a hospital and would be shitting out our intestinal linings in the next forty-eight hours. My stomach gurgled and the lizard slapped the button to tighten my ass up before I shit my drawers.

"Hey, Tony." Bomber said, helping me cover them with mud. It wasn't much, and might contaminate the ground water, but we had to do something.

"Yeah, John?"

"You're a good guy, man. I'm glad we're friends." He said.

"Same here. Thanks for the birthday present." I said, dumping another double handful of mud on the round.

"Happy birthday, Tony."

"Thanks." I dumped one more handful and stood up. "Let's try to make it back."

Bomber stood up and we headed back, stopping at the corpses to pull the dogtags. It wasn't much, but it was the best we could do. We made it over the hill and kept slogging up the road.

"Hang on, I have to..." Bomber started, then bent forward, pulling his mask up so he could throw up. I'd been nauseous but had a handle on it till Bomber puked, and that did it for me. I ended up joining him. It took a minute for us to straighten back up and I looked at my mask in my hand.

"Fuck it. If I'm still alive when we get back, you guys can unmask." My stomach gurgled. "John, I don't feel so good."

"Neither do I." He admitted. "Hey, Tony?"

"Yeah?" I asked, heading past where the collapsed fence we'd missed seeing the first time was. I realized we'd gone off the road and turned to head toward it.

"If I don't make it..."

"You will. We'll be OK." I lied.

"If I don't, I need you to give a message to someone."

"OK. No problem, John."

"You know my father? You met him the last weekend of AIT when we had that time off to meet our families?"

"Yeah?"

"Yeah. There's a letter to him in the bottom of my ruck." He stopped and coughed. "Fuck, think that's the gas or the radiation?"

"In your head. Yeah, I'll give it to him." I coughed too. "Anything you need me to tell him?"

"Naw. It's just my will. I don't want my father to know how I went down." He stopped. "You hear that?"

I could hear the sound of an engine idling now that he mentioned it. "Goddamn it, someone's here. We're saved."

We hurried up, moving faster. When we came around the corner we saw Foster slamming the hood of the CUC-V down. When he turned he saw us.

"Stillwater! Bomber!" He yelled. "I got her unstuck!"

"You did it, you beautiful bastard!" I yelled out.

"We gotta evac, NOW!" Bomber yelled. He stopped, pulled off his mask, and puked again.

"Put back on your fucking mask!" Foster said, hurrying over to us. "Stillwater, you too."

"Sick." I mumbled, throwing up again.

"That's the delirium." He said. He pulled my mask out of the carrier. I didn't remember putting it there. Thank God for muscle memory. He pulled it over my head, told me to blow, and pulled the hood over my head. He moved to Bomber and helped him put it back on. I managed to get to the truck and climb in the back. Bomber got in under how own power.

Foster stood next to the bed of the truck. "It's not going to make it far. Where to?"

"Nearest Army post, Bomber and I need a hospital." I told him. "So do you."

"All right." He got in the front and turned the truck around. We bumped down the over-grown ruts until we hit blacktop and Foster hit the gas hard, peeling the tires as he headed out. I stripped off my mask and Bomber followed suit. We didn't bother to wrap them completely, we'd both gotten vomit in the masks.

"Think we'll make it?" Bomber asked.

"We should." I told him. My stomach rumbled again and the lizard slapped the button again to keep my asshole squeezed shut.

"I can't believe the Army left all that shit out there for so long." John said. He grabbed his stomach. "I think I'm going to shit myself."

"The reports say the sites were cleared." I said. I dug out the Coke and tossed him one. It about went over the side as Foster turned a corner, merged with traffic, and hit the gas. A German laid on his horn and Bomber gave him the finger. The Coke tasted crisp and clear going down. "Those sites are supposed to be empty, that National Guard unit cleared them back in '69."

"They're full of shit." Bomber said. "Who the fuck do you think the dead dudes with the Jeep were?"

"Probably an inspection team from V Corps or 3rd CosCom." I told him.

We kept bitching the whole ride. When we got the gate of a post the guards tried to hold us up but Bomber puked over the side as he showed his radiation badge and I showed the chemical detection kits results.

"Fucking idiot MP's." Bomber snarled. "Only thing dumber than an MP is a tanker."

We rolled up to the hospital and Foster helped us out of the back. The inside of the cab of the truck was smoking and smoke was coming out from under the hood. We ignored it and went into the ER to move up to the desk. There were about 40 people in the waiting room, some of which had field dressings on wounds. The female soldier behind the desk was filing her nails and I chuckled slightly at the cliche. Her uniform had ironed creases and she had Specialist rank on her collar.

"Sick call is in the morning." She said without looking up.

"We're not here for sick call." Bomber said.

"We've been exposed to chemical weapons. There's been an an accident, there's fatalities." I said.

That got attention.

During our six day stay in the hospital we finally got to meet Chief Henley.

Who showed up to scream at us until a nurse got a doctor who made him leave.

Chapter 16

2/19th Special Weapons Group Barracks
Restricted Area, Alfenwehr West Germany
Late Winter- 12 February, 1988
Day 2 of Repairs
Day 2 of the Third Incident
Night

I woke up to people grabbing on me.

"Watch his right shoulder." Nancy was saying. "Watch his head. Get him out." I felt someone pull at me and I started screaming, trying to fight and get whoever it was off of me.

"Easy, Ant, easy, it's your brother." William said, grabbing my chin and turning my head to face him.

"William?"

"What the hell are you doing out here? It's gotta be goddamn twenty below out here and you're in a CUC-V." He said. He pulled me out by my arm. "Can you stand?"

"I think so." I said, pulling free. The world wobbled but then steadied out. "I was dreaming of Atlas." I shivered. "It's cold."

"Yeah. Let's get you inside." William said.

"I'll shut off the vehicle." Hannah said. I heard the Gypsy Wagon shut down with that wheezing rattle it had picked up after it had been rebuilt. Good ol' Gypsy Wagon, about the only thing original on it from when we picked it up at the rail-head was the radiator cap and the frame. She'd never let us down, not when we needed her.

"What were you thinking coming out here?" Nancy asked me, grabbing my elbow. "What possibly possessed you to walk outside?"

"I think I followed Queens." I admitted. "I was talking to Queens."

Queens smiled and waved at me from the back of 5-ton 35. She had on her helmet and gear and had blue tape around her helmet to mark her as part of blue team for WinTex. I waved back at her and smiled. Nancy looked at the 5-ton then at me.

"Let's get you inside, dumbass." My brother said, moving up next to me. "Jesus, Anthony."

"I'm fine." I said. Queens was climbing down out of the truck. I went to pull away to go hold hands with Queens but Nancy grabbed my arm tighter, steering me toward the building.

The wind was up and it sliced right through my clothing. The darkness was crisp and clear for a change, felt more like darkness rather than a thick cloying thing that hid things that we really didn't want to see. The wind smelled clean and of the glacier above us. The crisp smell of the ice was nice for a change. It smelled better then the hospital, a lot better then the strange, slightly bitter and sharp odor, that Atlas had all the time, and a fuck of a lot better than the barracks smelled.

"How did you know he was out there?" Donovan asked.

"She's Aine." William said.

"It's Hannah now, Will." Aine/Hannah said. "We have a connection, Donovan."

Queens was sitting on the fence, kicking her feet like a little girl, her helmet and weapon in her lap. She was sitting next to Sherry, who had his rifle popped open by the back peg so he could run the barrel cleaning rod through the barrel to clean it. Both of them were spotless, their uniforms clean and pressed, their boots shining. Levins was messing around with a Walkman, popping it open, pulling the tape, twirling the tape by putting his finger in one of the holes, replacing the tape, closing the Walkman, then starting over. They waved at me, Sherry almost dropping his rifle and Levins holding up the tape with Dio on it. Queens giggled.

I couldn't help but laugh.

"What's wrong with him?" Donovan asked.

"He's having a melt-down." Will told him.

"He's hurt inside." Hannah said softly. "He's spirit is bleeding from his wounds."

"I'm fine." I said.

"Shut up. All of you." Nancy said. We went up the walk and stairs and through the double doors of the airlock. About half of Rear-D was in there, including the LT, who was leaning against the counter watching us come in.

"So the reason for the CUC-V was lit up was the good Corporal went to make sure the vehicle would still start in case we have to evac?" The LT asked.

"What?" Donovan asked.

William nodded, same with Nancy and Hannah.

"Yeah, he went to check the vehicles." Nancy said. She let go of my arm. "He was just warming up in CUC-V 15 since it's so cold out there."

"Excellent." The LT nodded, annotating something in the CQ log book. "What you've done should suffice, Corporal. Carry on."

I nodded and took two steps toward the Game Room, feeling the quarters jingle in my pocket. I'd play a few video games, see if I could forget things for a bit. The LT headed into the stairwell, going wherever officers fucked off to when they weren't telling people what to do. After all, about the only thing he gave a damn about was getting the barracks up and running and seeing who he could put out by sending to Mental Health or getting to violate their profiles.

I moved into the Game Room, looking at the Tempest, Rampage, or Punchout games and pulling quarters out of my pocket. I liked Tempest better, not sure why, but it was one of those line-art games that were a lot of fun. Lord knows that I'd dropped ten or twenty bucks in quarters into it on paydays. I slowly tapped each quarter against the plastic at the base of the screen and carefully laid each one down until there were seven in all across the bottom of the screen. The last one I went to put in when a voice interrupted me.

"What were you doing outside, Tony?" My brother asked me. I immediately tensed up and the lizard gave a low hiss as he slowly uncurled.

"You wouldn't get it." I told him. Hell, I wasn't even sure why I had gone out there.

"Then explain it to me." He said, leaning against the wall.

"I left my box of tapes in the Gypsy Wagon." I said, dropping in the quarter in the hopes he'd take the hint and fuck off.

He made the snorting sound that he always made when he was frustrated. I ignored him and started playing, flipping the dial around to stay in the game.

"You know he won't leave you alone till you talk to him." Westlin told me. She was wearing her uniform, no BDU blouse, just her brown T-shirt under her Kevlar vest. Her vest and LBE were undone and I almost warned her to shut it but then remembered that it wouldn't matter any more.

"Yeah, I know, that's the way he is." I told her, holding down the fire button to destroy the spike on the section I was heading down toward the center on.

"Who are you talking to?" William asked me.

"One of my crew." I told him. I glanced at Westlin who smiled at me.

"Remember that time Bomber dislocated his shoulder playing football and I set it right there?" Westlin asked me.

"Yeah, we had to hold his Texas ass down." I grinned as the next level started. "You wrapped that cravat around his wrist and yanked that shit right back in and he about wet himself, then you popped him all full of morphine so he'd get a chance to sleep.

"Anthony?" William said gently.

"Remember what happened that night?" She asked.

"Yeah. He was asleep and started screaming about marmosets attacking him." I snickered. That had been funnier than hell. We'd found out that John had some weird subconscious fear about something he thought was marmosets and sometimes had nightmares about them attacking. Nancy had once showed him a picture of a marmoset in National Geographic and asked him what he thought of those. He just shrugged and told us he wasn't that interested in weasels and went back to reading his book. Which meant we had no goddamn idea what he was actually dreaming of.

"Anthony, there's nobody there." William said quietly.

"He's right. I'm not here." Westlin said. I glanced over and she was in her Class-A's, her hands folded on her chest. Her eyes were closed but she peeked at me from her left eye and a smile tickled around the corners of her mouth. "I left the only way you're getting out of here, Ant. At least we look sharp in our Class-A's." A small comfort, but strangely comforting all the same.

"Anthony, talk to me." William tried again. "What's going on with you?"

"Nothing, the Rangers saved us, so I guess there's nothing wrong." I told him, his words moving bitterly through my mind.

"Tony, you've had a rough winter, man. Something's eating you up." He kept saying. Why wouldn't he go away? "I haven't seen you this bad since you came to live with us."

I turned from the video game to face my brother. "It's none of your business, William. I can handle it." My voice was raising.

"You don't seem to be handling it too well." His face was getting red, along with his ears. "You atttacked Dobbs, you wander out in the goddamn middle of winter at night, you won't talk to anyone, and if I hadn't come along when I did you would have gotten your ass kicked in the stairwell."

"I didn't need you to rescue me, Will." I told him, turning to face him. People were coming in to see what all the yelling was about. "I seem to do just fine without you saving me. You didn't come to my rescue any of the times at Atlas, you didn't come to save me when that guy with the axe was having a good ol' time, and you sure as shit didn't save me last month." I yelled.

"Every one of those times the Rangers had to come rescue you." he countered. "You keep getting in over your head. I'm able to hold down my site and you can't seem to get a handle on yours."

"You have no idea what you are talking about." I snarled at him. "None. You don't get to talk about what went on here or at Atlas. So just keep your goddamn mouth shut."

"Or what?" Will asked. His blood was up and part of me was urging myself to back down, that he was my brother, that this didn't have to happen, but just like him my blood was heated up and I was angry.

Suddenly my anger vanished, turning to nothing but ash. "Or nothing." I said, turning away from my brother and the video game.

"Don't you turn your back on me." Will said. "That's right, walk away." He sneered. "You're turning out just like your mother always said you were, just like your dad."

That got me to swing around, raw red rage boiling up from inside of me. "What the fuck did you just say?"

"Just walk off, crawl in a bottle like your old man, like father like son." William said.

I lunged forward and people grabbed onto me, pulling me back.

"Come on, Tony, you think you're so fucking tough. Maybe you need a reminder of where you stand." William said. "I'll bust you up."

"Come on, Ant, he's not fucking worth it." Bomber yelled in my ear. He was pulling me backwards.

"Let's go, Ant. Come on." Nancy was saying.

"Let him go, maybe it's time we sorted this out." William yelled.

Dobbs was up in William's face, yelling at him. "You have no clue what's going on, you big fucking thug. Go fuck off with the SOG assholes." Sonderhaus grabbed her and pulled her back. Nancy and Bomber pulled me out of the Game Room and into the CQ Area where the LT was standing.

"Let go of me." I told Bomber, trying to pull my arm away.

"No. Come on." He said, pulling me along. Nancy held my other arm and someone was pushing me from behind. Westlin was leaning on the counter, shaking her head.

"Let go of me, I don't want your help, Bomber. Not after you gave up my knife to the LT, you fucking traitor." I told him, trying to yank free again.

"Actually, Corporal, I ordered him to retrieve your weapon and give it to me, despite his objections." The LT said. "If he had not done it, I would have had to confiscate it and put it on the record, as it was, I was able to accept the weapon as concern of a soldier about another soldier's possible depression in confidence and I am merely retaining possession of it until you ask for it back."

My brother had come into the room, still angry, and Aine stepped forward and put her hand on his cheek. "Don't give into madness, William." She said gently. "Those aren't your feelings, it's the mountain, don't let it take you."

William jerked back from her as if her hand was covered in hissing spiders. He cursed, turned around, and stomped into the Day Room. Bomber, Dobbs, and Nancy were pulling me toward the double doors leading to Titty Territory, John and Nancy holding my arms and Dobbs with her hand wrapped around the back of my belt.

"Come on, Ant." Bomber said. "Let's get you out of here."

They pulled me into Titty Territory and Nancy let go of my arm. I shook it, feeling pins and needles flood down my arm.

"Why are you picking fights with your brother, Ant?" Nancy asked me. "Why are you so mad at us?" Her voice sounded hurt and I suddenly felt really bad, really guilty.

"I don't know." I admitted. I slowed down. "I don't know what I'm doing. I think there's something wrong with me, Nancy. I thought John dimed me out."

"I wouldn't turn on you, Tony." Bomber said, sounding hurt. "But right now I don't think weapons are going to help us. If you'd had your knife on you when you lost it you might have gutted Dobbs."

"I'd kind of like to avoid that, Ant." Dobbs smiled, patting my back. "You scared the hell out of me though."

"Sorry. I'm so sorry." I said. John just squeezed my arm and we headed into the Middle Stariwell to head up to Hammerhead Hall.

The dying guy was there, well, the dead guy was there, covered in frost with his eyes staring up the stairs. There was frozen blood around his leg, on his hands, and reddish frost on his pantleg.

"Who the fuck?" Bomber asked, coming to a sudden stop. "Who's this guy?"

"Oh, shit." Nancy bent down and pressed her fingers to the guy's neck. "It's one of the CID guys. What the hell is he doing here?"

"He's real?" I asked. "I thought I was... that he was... that..." My voice trailed off as I stared at the man whom I'd ignored because a part of me had thought he was just another trick the barracks was playing on me.

"I'll get the LT." Dobbs said, vanishing through the hallway door.

"What killed him?" I asked, still staring at the guy.

"The cold and blood loss." Nancy said, straightening up. "Looks like he went down the stairs, suffered a compound fracture in his thigh, probably got a concussion, then bled out while it got colder." She touched my jaw to get my attention. When I looked at her she kept speaking. "You thought he was a hallucination?"

"I don't know what I thought." I admitted. "He's real?"

"Yeah, honey, he's real." Nancy told me. She looked at John. "Take him up to his room, make sure he's warmed up. I'll be along shortly."

"All right. Be careful, the barracks feel off." John told her, then tugged on my arm. "Let's go, Ant, let's get you up to your room."

I nodded slowly as we started heading up the stairs. The walls and the bannister glittered with a fairy-dusting of frost which I kept losing myself in as we moved up the stairs. There were bloody streaks still on the stairwell wall, some ending or starting in handprints, all of them circled with chalk and numbered.

A piece of brass caught the toe of my boot and chimed as it spun away and bounced down the stairs. In the split second I saw it I could tell it was a 7.62mm shell from the M-60.

We pushed through the door and into Far Hammerhead Hall. There was frost on the walls and I could see where people were cutting the mortar to get the damaged cinderblocks out and replace them, which made the walls look weird with gaps here and there. There was still circled bullet holes, blood streaks, and scars from shrapnel, all of them circled with chalk. The jigsaw or whatever the hell kind of saw it was that they were using was lying on the floor next to a cinderblock that had been sawed free and put in a plastic bag. The extension cord that was connected to the saw ran under Symens' door.

"We did a job on the barracks this time, Ant." Bomber said with humor in his voice. "That CID team is having a hell of a time gathering all the evidence." We stopped long enough for him to unlock my room door and help me inside.

"Sick." I managed to tell him. He helped me into the bathroom so I could throw up, turning on the shower so that steam billowed out and filled the room.

"Let's get you into the shower, warm you up." Bomber said, "I'm going to turn up the radiator and throw your blanket on it." He shook his head as I unbuttoned my flannel and hung it up. He left the room as I stripped down. When I turned and looked at the mirror I noticed my reflection was staring at me.

"So you're back?" I asked him.

"Yeah." He answered. He shrugged, then winced and touched his shoulder.

"Plan on hanging around?" I asked him. I glanced at my shoulder and noticed that slight divot was still there.

He shrugged and winced again. "Might as well. The barracks is pretty ugly on this side tonight. Might get ugly on your side too."

"It's already ugly. Got a fatality in the stairwell." I told him. I picked up my toothpaste and toothbrush.

"No shit? Tandy?" He asked. I shook my head as I started brushing my teeth. "You gotta pull it together, man. If any shit goes down you're going to need to be razor sharp, not breaking apart at the seams." I nodded, spit in the sink, and washed the toothpaste down at the same time as I cleaned off my toothbrush. He kept talking and for a split second I wondered if he was ever going to shut the fuck up. "You can't fall apart like this, man. People are depending on you so you need to grab the bootstraps on your jungle boots and pull yourself up. Otherwise other people are going to pay for it."

"All right, all right, I'm stubborn not stupid." I told him.

"Then when Nagle comes up have her check out your shoulder and try to tell her the truth." My reflection said, now smiling. The missing teeth, puffed up lip at the corner of his mouth, and bruise on his cheek made his face look weird. "Tell her about the lack of pain, loss of appetite, and fatigue."

"I will." I told him. "Shower time."

My reflection grinned. "Yeah, you need a shower, man."

I turned away from the mirror and reached for the shower curtain to get into the shower. The massive hot water tanks could handle everyone coming home from the field and wanting to stand in the shower for an hour or longer so I wasn't worried about running out of hot water any time soon. Still smiling and feeling better than I had for awhile I pulled open the shower curtain.

Westlin stood in the shower naked, a bar of Irish Spring in her hand as she soaped up her chest. She had the brownish-red must from Atlas all over her and in her hair, streaks down her back from where sweat had made it run down her skin, bruises on her arms and legs from all the work we'd done to rack and pack the 120mm APDSFSDU-T rounds. She was showering in the first rain we'd had, the first opportunity we'd had to bathe. Her eyes were closed and she had that peculiar expression of ecstasy on her face some women got when they showered. She turned toward me and suddenly she had a hole in her stomach that began to steadily leak blood down her body. She didn't seem to notice and kept washing off, clean skin appearing as the grime was washed away.

I closed my eyes and made fists tight enough that I could feel my nails cutting into my hands.

When I opened them my ex-wife was standing in the shower, slowly soaping up and smiling at me. Her brown hair was wet and falling down her back. Her blue eyes were open and staring at me, a mischievous smile on her face. She was petite with a little bit of baby-fat on her frame and when she turned around slowly I could see the butterfly tattoo on her butt and at the completion of her turn her nipples went from bare to sporting little rings that hadn't been there the last time I'd seen her in the flesh.

"Don't pay attention to her, she's not really there." My reflection warned me. "Close your eyes and count to ten."

I followed his advice, counting to ten slowly. By four the lizard had opened his eyes. By seven he was standing up, wiping away the tears. By ten he was checking over his boards, flipping switches and pressing buttons to try to get the control panels and wall monitors to light up. The damage monitor was just shot through with static, even the outline of my body with the internal systems visible kept warping like a VCR with the tracking way off.

When I opened my eyes the shower was empty with the exception of the two bullet craters in the tile wall. I turned around and looked behind me to see craters in the wall, circled with chalk and numbered. A movement caught my attention, well, the lizard's attention, and I turned to look in the mirror.

"What?" I asked my reflection, who lowered the hand he had been waving at me with.

"Hallucinations are dangerous." He told me. "Just hold onto the fact that unless they're like Tandy the dead can't really hurt you, OK?" My reflection looked concerned as I nodded. "Just hang on tight, man."

"I will." I told him, starting to turn away.

"Wait!" My reflection snapped.

"What?" I turned my head to look at him. I shivered for a second. Not from the cold, but just from muscle tremors.

"Keep an eye on Bomber and Nagle, they're both getting close to where we were a few days ago and they'll need us just like we needed them." He told me.

"I will." I promised my reflection before stepping into the hot water and letting it wash over me.

I could still smell Tera's perfume.

When I quit shivering I got out, dried, and got dressed. Shaving carefully and then putting on Stetson aftershave. I grabbed the mousse and ran it through my hair to spike it up. I didn't look good, but like my Father had always said: "We're boys. If God wanted us to be pretty we'd have been girls." The swelling had gone down in my lip thanks to the hot water, so I wasn't too bad off, but pulling up my lip with my fingers I could see that the knocked out teeth really messed with my smile.

At the rate I was going my two year old niece would have more teeth than I did. And if I kept taking serious head wounds then her babbling would make more sense then my speech.

I grinned at myself in the mirror, my reflection gave me a wink, and I left the bathroom and went into the main room. Bomber was sitting in the chair in front of the desk smoking a cigarette while staring at the floor. I could see the wool blanket off my bed draped over the radiator. Bomber had dropped some potpourri into the little fired clay pot we used and lit the candle, filling the room with the smell of strawberries and cream. It was welcome to the smell of cold, rock, and the faint smell of rotting blood. I looked at the floor where the blood had stained the tile, then at the walls where there was still blood spatter on the walls that had frozen and then dried.

"I'm going to have to re-GI the whole damn room." I bitched, pulling a chair up to sit next to him. I nudged him with an elbow and he looked up at me. His face looked worn and tired, a hell of a lot older then he was.

"Can't until CID and the DIA get done photographing everything and documenting everything in sight." Bomber said. He sighed and stretched. "Is there any booze left in the room?"

I blushed at the memory of tearing everything apart in the room looking for Dobbs. "No, I think I broke everything that wasn't broken in the fighting." I told him. He nodded, looking more depressed.

"Hey, we could check the hallway. Thin there's anything still hidden there?" I asked.

Bomber gave me an odd look. "Think anything survived?" He asked.

I nodded. "Unless you want to stay sober."

Bomber stood up, dusting off his pants. "Let's go looking." He pulled open the top desk drawer and grabbed a little 2 AA battery penlight out of it.

We took the chair with us as we headed into the hallway. We walked down to the far end of the hallway with it and paused to look out the window. It was dark outside with the street lights still on but not providing much illumination outside. We could see the corridor that led from the exit door on the floor below us to the street and I could vaguely remember following the carved out passage out to the street.

"Lot of snow." Bomber said quietly.

"Yeah. Probably snowing on main post." I said, tapping the window. Outside there were snow crystals whispering against the glass. It wasn't thick enough to really inhibit visibility but it left rainbows in the light of the streetlights, a cold serene beauty that was still breathtaking even after seeing it dozens of times.

I left John standing there looking out the window while I stood up on the chair and lifted up the suspended ceiling panel after lifting it gently with my fingertips to make sure that there wasn't any additional weight. For a split second, when I poked my head up past the suspended ceiling, I half expected to see the sleek black forms of aliens coming at me. Worse yet my brain supplied the image for a split second and I almost dropped down except the lizard huffed his laughter at me.

...Really fucking funny...

"Got the flashlight?" I asked him, holding my hand out. He slapped it into my hand and I clicked the button on the bottom to turn it on before shining it into the narrow area.

"Bingo." I said, climbing down. I counted the panels and then climbed back up, lifting up the panel and looking in the space.

Two half gallons of tequila, a half gallon of bourbon, and another two half gallons of whiskey. Someone had hidden them up there during the last full room inspection that we'd had to put up with right before the entire unit had fucked off to Graf.

"Whatcha got?" Bomber asked me. He didn't sound too interested.

"The full package, baby." I grinned, handing him down the first half gallon of cheap ass tequila. Whoever's it was was gonna be pissed off that we'd drank it, but fuck 'em if they didn't understand. They were Mag, and I was good for it. I left one of the cheap ass plastic bottles of tequila up there, because who in their right fucking mind drank white tequila anyway, and had Bomber hand me a rubber band so I could put two twenties from my wallet onto the bottle. That would cover most of it. Half gallon or not cheap ass white tequila at the Class-VI only ran about $8.50 for the whole bottle. The whiskey and bourbon were cheap ass shit too, but we weren't after taste and culture, we were after the effect.

"This ought to be enough booze for all of us for a week or so." Bomber said as I climbed down. We set the bottles on the chair and drug the chair back to the room. We didn't have to worry about the wax on the floor since it would have to be completely stripped and a bunch of the tiles replaced.

Christ, we had a lot of work ahead of us.

I'd learned a lot since I'd joined the Army. Accounting, shipping and receiving, effects of NBC weapons, interpretation of weather data, reading sat-scan data, how to use ARPANET, radio operation, how to replace tile, how to fix doors, how to do a blueprint, all kinds of amazing stuff that would probably land me a nice job if I lasted long enough to get out the military in one piece.

...Too late... my own voice whispered from the depths of my mind.

...Shut up...

We went back into the room, locked the door behind us, and found two glasses that had managed to survive everything that had happened after having been bought to replace all my shit that had been destroyed by the crazy fuck with the axe. Bomber dropped ice into the glasses and slammed the Coke onto the desk. I handed him the bottle of bourbon and cracked open the first bottle of whiskey, pouring myself a drink.

...Nancy doesn't want you to drink...

...Shut up...

I took a long hit off the bottle and sighed in relief. The taste and the feel of it going down was soothing to me, and the lizard jumped back with a surprised hiss as half his boards lit up, one of them shooting sparks as a headache spiked through my brain from just over my left ear to behind my right eye in a flash, leaving behind nothing but the memory of the pain.

"God, that's good." I sighed.

"I guess." Bomber said, sipping his. After a few moments of silence, by which time my glass was only half full, Bomber looked over at me. "Remember how I'm short?"

I nodded. Bomber had done some weird signup deal where he was only signed up for Active for two years. With AIT and everything else he was past his re-enlistment date by a couple of months.

"Doesn't matter, apparently." He said softly, taking another drink.

"What do you mean?"

"Have you seen our force levels and promotion points?" He asked.

The Army times carried them at the beginning of the month, but I'd spotted them while I was in the hospital. "Yeah. We're supposed to be at a minimum total force level of thirty-two hundred, but we're only at six hundred. Points to E-5 are only 215, E-5 to E-6 are sitting at 260 as of this month. Outside the zone is pretty close to zone points." Some MOS's you could be promoted without going to the board or the training, and our MOS had been one of them.

Bomber nodded, kicking the bottom drawer of the desk in frustration. "I just got notification. They hit me with something called 'stop-loss' so I'm stuck until further notice."

"What the fuck is 'stop-loss' and what makes them think they can keep you on Active once you finish the Active portion of your initial enlistment?" I asked. "That's breach of contract."

Bomber snorted. "Yeah, well, two-nineteenth."

"Seriously, what the fuck, man?" I asked.

"OK, you know how we signed up for an eight year commitment, and any part below eight years you have to do with the Guard or Reserves when you quit Active." He told me.

"Yeah. I wanted the bonus money, I signed up for a twelve year commitment." I told him. "So what?"

"Well, apparently our MOS is so far below the numbers, we're talking below 'super-critical' levels, that we can be, and I quoted: 'indefinitely retained in service of the US military and confined to the service member's critical MOS until demands of the service or national security attain such a state that the service member can be released.'" Bomber told me.

"You have to be fucking kidding me." I said. I had a four year commitment to Active, but I was pretty sure I'd keep going. I was a lifer. John was toying with the idea but wanted to go home to Texas and the huge ranch he'd grown up on.

"Nope. Looks like it doesn't matter what we want, we don't get to ETS." He filled his drink up, his hands shaking. "Even worse, looks like we can't even PCS, they hit me something with PDA."

"What the fuck is that?" I poured myself a drink.

"It means Present Duty Assignment. Basically, we don't get to PCS." That meant we were stuck in 2/19th, since PCS stood for Permanent Change of Station and except for ETS (Expiration of Time of Service) the only other way to get assigned somewhere was TDY, which was basically Temporary DutY. Most of the time my crew was on TDY to 144th Ordnance Company in Wildflecken or to 11th ACR in Fulda, but Atlas was our assigned place of duty. Hell, the barracks was closer to TDY for us then Atlas, since I'd once figured with the exception of this Rear-D shit we spent 17 days at Atlas for every day we spent off of Atlas, and forty-one days at Atlas for every day actually at the barracks.

From what Bomber was saying the Army could dick us even further then we thought they could. We'd all depended on our PCS date, two to three years after getting to the unit, so that we could escape the frozen hell and slave labor of 2/19th, but if they could just slap this PDA bullshit on us then that went out the window. Even ETS was looked at as some kind of holy touch-stone that the Army couldn't do anything about, but apparently they could even fuck us on that.

"Can they extend us past our end of contract?" I asked. There were more than a few guys I knew who were almost at the end of their enlistment and would have gotten past their eight year contract.

"Apparently. Sergeant Jackson just found out that he's been smoked too." Bomber suddenly slammed his fist on top of the desk, making the ice in our drinks clink against the crystal sides of the glasses. "He's got fifteen years in, doesn't have his promotable status, which means they would throw his ass out, but he's been quote 'involuntarily extended' unquote."

"Jesus. You think this has anything to do with the shit going on with our sites?" I asked.

"The Soviets have been getting a little full of themselves lately." Bomber agreed. "Could be they're worried about war."

"So they're going to keep us hanging around till they're fucking tired of us?" I asked.

"No, Ant, till we're fucking dead." Bomber sighed. "We're used until destruction, man. They're just going to use us and use us and use us until we're gone." He looked like he wanted to cry. "I signed up for the Army, I get it, I really do, but we're worth less than our fucking equipment, man. They'll put the Gypsy Wagon in for repairs but they won't even give us convalescent leave, man."

I felt the urge to start sobbing well up but the lizard slapped a button and the urge crumbled to ash and was gone.

"We've known we're expendable since Basic, man." I shrugged.

"This is beyond expendable." Bomber said. "They put LT James on TDRL to recover but we don't even get twenty-four hours out of the hospital to get drunk and buy hookers." Shit, TDRL was the Temporary Disability Retirement Listing, which meant that he'd just be on half-pay until he healed up enough to come back or the military determined he wasn't going to get healed up enough to come back.

"He'll pop back. He did before." I said. "Vietnam couldn't stop him, he's been shot in the head before, he'll come back before long."

Bomber slammed his fist again. "Yeah, he gets to go on TDRL, but enlisted scum like us can just be pushed right back out into the field until we physically fall apart. Butcher and White get convalescent leave once CID is done asking questions, but us enlisted scum? We get to be all we can be, fucking casualties." He slammed his fist again. "I've got three fucking bullet holes in me, a shitload of goddamn shrapnel, I've had pneumonia twice and a collapsed fucking lung, and they've got me on this fucking mountain in fucking BDU's." He slammed his fist against the top of the desk again. "What more do they want from us, Ant? They've fucking gassed us, irradiated us, hell, I'm surprised they didn't hit us with fucking anthrax at Dietrich when we were there."

I put my hand on his leg. "John, it's tough all over." I told him.

"The fuck it is." He snarled. He took another drink. "You think those meat heads down at 144th or 168th or 11th ACR go through shit like this? You think they work in bunkers that are so full of fucking contamination that you'd be dead in under a minute if you weren't suited up? You think that any of those guys from 108th or 54th take enough radiation on a daily basis that their balls ache? Fuck no. You think anyone else from our AIT class was given a fucking assignment like this? Fuck no. I write to Cho all the goddamn time, you know what she's doing? She's fucking handling bunkers out at Pueblo counting fucking GB-2 and other bullshit. She's a fucking inventory clerk."

I shook my head. "So what? She's in the World. John, you know this shit." I told him. "If we don't do this shit, who does?" I waved my hand at the barracks, USAREUR, the whole world. "Who do you trust with Atlas, John? They've sent out four E-5's and even an E-6 and none of them have lasted longer then a week. What if the Soviets try to take it again, with the strategic importance it has? Who's going to defend it? Who would you trust to defend it?" I asked. I took another drink off the glass. "Look, John, do you want out that bad?"

He stared at me for a long moment. "What do you mean?"

"Look, my old man is The Sergeant Major of SOG. He's been in the Army since World War Two, you think he doesn't have some pull? I can talk to him, see if I can you pulled off whatever this stop-loss bullshit is." I offered. John sat there silent, clinking his class ring against the side of the glass. "You can go home, back to the ranch, back to Texas, and forget about all this." I told him. "I'll just stress to the Sergeant Major how you've saved my ass more than once and he'll help you out."

We sat there silently while John mulled it over.

I knew the answer before he slammed his fist against the table and spoke.

"No. I'm not gonna leave you behind. You'd be dead without me." He told me. "I couldn't live with hearing you'd been killed in some fucking 'training accident' when those Soviet cock-suckers made another push on Atlas." He took a long drink and sighed. "We made a pact to stick together in Basic. You wouldn't leave me, I ain't gonna leave you."

"'preciate it, John." I told him, saluting him with the glass. "I'll be honest with you, brother, I wouldn't have gotten this far without you or Nancy."

"No charge." He told me. His smile was a faint thing, hardly any of his irrepressible Texas humor in it, but he was bouncing back.

The door opened behind us and John got a weird look on his face. I frowned at him and his hand, hanging down by his side, flashed me the 'wait. contact. silence.' signals real quick. The Rangers with 108th had taught us the hand signals while John and I were staying with them in their barracks after our first barracks had burned down.

"You all right, Annie?" Ineda's voice came from behind me. I tightened up immediately and the lizard slapped the 'on guard' button. It put a filter between my brain and my mouth, let a cold slick trickle of adrenaline down my spine, and sharpened my senses up. The lizard watched through my eyes carefully, his talon capped fingers tapping over buttons and switches while he watched through the screens as I slowly turned around to face my sister.

She was in her cadet uniform, strawberry blond hair done up in a tight bun, her face unblemished except for a light spray of freckles across her cheeks and the bridge of her nose in contrast to the freckles I had covering almost every inch of me. Her cadet uniform was spotless and had her cadet rank on the collar, instantly making the base of my back tighten with distrust.

...Officers don't give a shit about you, your men, or anything beyond how many lives it will take to accomplish the mission...

I stood up, setting my glass down and snapping to attention. Bomber did the same as I called it out. "On your FEET!"

My sister looked startled as we were at attention, hands at our sides, feet together, shoulders back, chest out, chins up.

Dick move, but she came into my room without knocking.

"What're you doing, Annie?" She asked. I ignored her, since she was in uniform, heard more boots coming in. Three sets. The lizard snarled, throwing up the map of my room and tracking the footsteps, where Ineda was, where the chairs and furniture was located, how slick the floor would be, how much movement I had, where Bomber was.

...The DIA is here to save us...

"At ease, gentlemen." One of the voices said from behind me. Bomber and I both slid our right leg out and brought our hands up behind our backs, mine slightly lopsided since I couldn't get my elbow to maneuver properly. My shoulder whined slightly but the pain vanished after a second, prompting the lizard to pull open one of the panels and start looking inside to see what was wrong with my pain reception.

"How are you, Annie?" My twin sister asked, coming around in front of me and smiling. "Are you OK?"

"I'm fine, ma'am." I answered, looking over her head.

"Annie?" Ineda asked me.

"Answer the question, Corporal? You're sister wants to know how you are." The same guy said.

"Ready and cleared for duty, ma'am." I answered again.

"Why the hostility toward your sister?" The same voice. I looked at Bomber's face and slightly raised an eyebrow.

Bomber blinked three times in rapid succession then glanced to three different points, holding the view for a moment each time.

The lizard updated the map.

"No hostility, sir. Answering her questions, sir." I said, keeping my tone formal and my speech the measured formal cadence.

The voice moved around me as he spoke again, coming into my view. "She just wanted to see her brother, see if he was OK." It was a man in BDU's with Major on his collar, black hair in a high and tight, and a mustache. He had the eyes of a sheep killing dog and a nametag that read Johnson. "Aren't you happy to see her?"

"Yes, sir." I said, still staring over Ineda's head.

"Then why the hostility?" He asked, moving slightly behind Bomber. The other footsteps moved to right behind me and the third set moved to my left but was still out of my peripheral vision.

...You boys need better situational awareness...

Still staring over Ineda's head I answered him as I stared at the curtianless windows. It was dark outside and light from inside, turning the glass into warped and dim but serviceable mirrors. "No hostility, sir, just military courtesy, as this is an official visit." The guy on my left was blond and thick bodied, the guy behind me had brown hair almost out of regs and was the skinniest of the three with one hand kept behind his back. The windows wouldn't let me see their rank or nametags, but it did let the lizard ensure that the tactical screen was fully updated, with the one behind me highlighted red instead of yellow.

"Why, what makes you think this is any kind of official visit?" Johnson asked.

"You're all in uniform, Corporal Stillwater's sister didn't come alone, and you all entered our room without knocking." Bomber answered.

"Nobody was talking to you, Texas." Johnson answered without looking at Bomber. The light dimmed slightly, casting more shadows in the room and dimming the reflection.

...Oh come on...

"Yes, sir." Bomber answered.

Something moved in the darkness on the other side of the reflection.

...Oh come ON...

"We had to come with your sister, your Lieutenant doesn't want anyone going anywhere alone." Johnson said, smiling. "So, since she's working with us, we felt that it was our responsibility to accompany her."

"Yes, sir." I said.

The room dimmed further. I saw Bomber's nostrils flare and it struck me suddenly, innocuously, that he had shaved off his mustache after losing half of it fighting with the Spetz. The others in the room didn't notice that it was getting darker around us. Behind Bomber the shadow behind the refrigerator slid away slightly and seemed to swell, covering more of the wall then it should have. I glanced at the floor and saw that there were shadows sliding out from under the bunk beds and swelling from under the chairs.

...You have to be kidding me...

Bomber's face paled slightly and I noticed that where the hallway was in the reflection was nothing more than a hole where the darkness in the hallway had deepened to the point where the glass was no longer acting as a mirror. The lizard caressed a few dials and I felt the anger drain away, replaced with the tickle of fear for Ineda, Bomber, and myself.

...Fuck these other guys...

"Relax, Corporal, it's just a friendly visit." Johnson smiled. "No need for military courtesy right now."

Feeling nothing but numbness I smiled at Ineda, reaching out to her and pulling her into a hug.

Behind Bomber the windows cracked silently and I saw frost appear around the cracks.

"I missed you, Innie." I said to her, hugging her tight and staring at Bomber.

"Aw, aren't they sweet. The Stillwater twins reunited at last." The one behind me said. He snickered. "Should we leave them alone so they can get back to fucking?"

...If this goes sideways I'm going to slit your throat slow...

The windows cracked further and the light dimmed even further. I could hear the bulb buzzing and in the window I could see that the bathroom light was flickering.

"Stay with me. Don't go, Innie. Danger. Pain." I whispered in Innie's ear in the language we shared with each other and Logan. Bomber may not have understood the words but we'd been together so long he knew what I was saying by what was going on, my body language, and my facial expression.

"What did you just say, Corporal?" Johnson asked.

The windows blew in, showering us with glass. The lights exploded in the bathroom and the main room, plunging the room into darkness for a second before the nightlight struggled to push back the darkness, only making a dim glow under the desk where it was plugged in. Innie screamed, other voices swore, and I tightened my grip on Innie as I turned in place to shield her from the incoming glass. The snow seeds blew in, the wind that carried them cutting into me like a knife through my civilian clothing. The temperature in the room dropped instantly to below freezing and I heard the glasses our drinks had been in crack due to the sudden temperature change.

Something slithered in the darkness.

A wet phlegmy cough-like liquid chuckle wound around my spine as it slithered from the open window.

An icicle slid into my right shoulder.

Tandy was here.

Chapter 17

2/19th Special Weapons Group Barracks
Restricted Area, Alfenwehr West Germany
Late Winter- 12 February, 1988
Day 2 of Repairs
Day 2 of the Third Incident
Night

"Move!" I yelled, reaching behind me, still shielding Ineda's body with mine. My fingers locked around a familiar wrist and I pulled. A kick sent the chair across the floor and I grabbed the back of Ineda's belt with my hand to push her in front of me. I couldn't see shit very well, visibility was shot, but the glow of the nightlight was enough for me to have a good sense of where I was going. The guy who had been behind us, the smartass with the incest joke, got knocked onto Bomber's bed by Ineda's body as we moved into the hallway. The lizard was running my reflexes, using his map to keep me from hitting anything. Someone started screaming in the darkness and it felt like my whole arm was freezing and was going to crack and fall from my body.

"Get out of the room!" Bomber yelled.

"Take Innie!" I called out, pulling Bomber forward so he could grab the back of her uniform. I moved forward and pulled open the door.

The hallway outside was lit in crimson, the emergency light having kicked on and bathed the hallway in blood. The frost and ice sparkled in the light, a piece of brass bounced off the toe of my boot and skittered into the hallway. More M-60 brass. I turned in place, almost losing it on the slick floor, and bounced off the far wall on my back. I caught Ineda when Bomber pushed her into me and Bomber hit the wall next to me, hands first, then turned around. Ineda turned around in my arms, looking into the room and screamed again as the lights dimly came on in the room.

Tandy stood in the middle of the visible part of my room, his wide grin full of too many jagged teeth making him look even more deranged. He was holding up one hand, making it obvious his fingers were too long and that they terminated in sharpened bone where the blackish frostbitten flesh had disappeared. His other hand was wrapped around the neck of one of the DIA guys, who was on his knees choking and staring up at Tandy.

The other two DIA guys were crawling out of the room, one leaving a thin trail of blood as he did so.

But Tandy had our attention.

He was staring right at the three of us when he did it and even then the sheer absurdity made everything suddenly unreal.

Tandy reached out with his upraised hand, extended one of those bone talons slowly toward HAL and slowly, deliberately pressed the power button on the stereo, his grin unchanging and his eyes holding ours.

The CD spun up almost instantly and Let's Hear it for the Boy from the Footloose soundtrack blared from my speakers.

That low liquid chuckle sounded again.

Tandy didn't bother looking down at the man he was holding in one hand and slowly brought down the finger he'd turned on the stereo with. He held it above the guy's wild staring eyes, Tandy still staring at us, and as we watched he slowly pushed his fingertip into the guy's eye. Something gave and blood squirted as Tandy forced his finger into the guy's eye socket and crazily I realized it was the guy's left eye, the same eye as almost everyone I knew had a tendency to lose.

The DIA agent was screaming as Tandy twisted his finger in the eye socket.

One of the other DIA agents had managed to get in the hallway and rolled over, his hand going down to his belt under his BDU top and coming up with the Army's M1911 work-horse. He fired three times wildly, one of the shots hitting Tandy in the chest with all the effect the other two bullets had when they missed him. The lights dimmed further, throwing everything in deep shadow, but the green and red LED's on HAL painted Tandy's skin weird colors and made him look even worse.

The DIA agent leaking blood rolled onto his back just outside the door and I could see four thin sliced on his cheek that had blackish frostbite around the thing narrow slices that dripped blood.

"What is it?" Innie screamed as Tandy slowly pulled his finger from the guy's eye socket and brought it up to his mouth. I could see Tandy in the dimness clearly, but everything else was vanishing. Out in the hallway, where we were, the emergency light was still keeping everything lit with a nice reddish color.

...How the fuck should I know...?

As we watched Tandy dropped his victim to the floor, his blackened tongue coming out to lap at the blood and fluid on his finger as the DIA agent started screaming now that Tandy wasn't squeezing his throat. The screams sounded hoarse, warped, almost inhuman. The lights were dimming again, and we could barely see Tandy in the room.

The idiot on the floor fired twice more, both bullets hitting Tandy in the chest with no effect other than to put little holes in his uniform. Two more shots and one rang off the door frame, bouncing and howling around the hallway as it ricocheted around. It buzzed by my ear spitefully and missed Bomber by less then an inch when it slammed into the wall next to his head.

"Quit that shit!" Bomber yelled, stepping forward and kicking the guy's hand. The pistol came free, bounced off the wall, and spun down the hallway. "You're going to shoot the wrong person." The lizard tracked the pistol, ignoring the guy in the room screaming in agony. I knew he'd be bent down on his knees, holding onto the side of his face. I wondered if the pain overrode the sheer horror of having something like Tandy stick his finger inside his fucking head just to amuse himself.

The lights in the room went out completely, even the little night-light, and I reflexively checked my hip and then the small of my back, both times coming up empty for any knives. The lizard checked the inventory lists and found out that not only was I unarmed, there were no knives or other weapons in my room since the LT had confiscated my knife earlier that day. I was defenseless.

...Fucking figures...

The chuckle sounded again in the darkness. My sister quit screaming with a little hiccup.

"Run or stay?" Bomber asked. I was silent for a moment, listening to the sounds the barracks were making. "Run or stay?" He asked again, his voice more urgent. In the room the nightlight came on, slowly filling the room with a soft glow.

"Stay." I finally got out. My balls ached with the cold already and there were sharp pains in my earlobes and nose. "We gotta get these three..."

"What the fuck was that?" The DIA guy who liked to make incest jokes screamed.

"Shut the fuck up." I snapped back. "Innie, stay here with John."

"What..." She started, but I was already moving. I could see the guy in the room finally, holding his face in both hands and rocking back and forth on his knees as he sobbed. I moved around the two on the floor quickly, kicking away the funny guy's hand when he tried to grab my pantleg. The one with the slices on his face was getting to his feet. I didn't bother trying to get the guy onto his feet, just grabbed him by the back of the collar and started dragging him from the room. He screamed again and started clawing at my flannel shit covered arm but I ignored him beyond bitching to myself how heavy he was. Either he was a fat fuck under his uniform or I was getting weaker than I thought.

Both of the other agents were on their feet, staring at me when I managed to pull the wounded agent out of my room. I dropped him on the floor and shut the door, puffing with exertion. There was no damn way the guy weighed that much and I had only drug him twenty feet or so to dubious safety.

...I'm nineteen and too old for this shit...

"What the hell was that?" The one with the slashed on his face, Mr. Funny Guy, asked. His nametag read Thomas and I had the urge to kick him right in his mouth and see how many teeth popped out of his mouth.

"It's a Tandy." Bomber said, moving up to me. He held out a sheathed bowie knife and I took it with a nod of thanks, shoving the sheathed knife into my back pocket behind my wallet.

I felt a lot better with a knife.

"What the fuck is a Tandy?" The unmarked one, with the nametag Smith, asked with a hint of panic in his voice. He saw Bomber bend down and pick up the Colt. "Hey, give that back."

"No. Because you're fucking stupid." Bomber said.

The guy with the missing eye was still screaming. I knelt down next to him, trying and failing to pull his hands away from his face. There wasn't too much blood but there was liquid running down his face and I figured that Tandy had deliberately popped the eyeball.

He was kind of a dick that way.

"Stop fucking screaming." I told him. From inside my room I could still hear the same song.

What an asshole.

"Give me back my sidearm, Specialist, or you're gonna be in a world of hurt." Smith threatened.

"Threaten me again and you'll eat it." Bomber told him. He turned to the guy who was now part of the damaged eye club. "Stop fucking screaming!" He yelled.

"What was that, Annie?" Ineda asked me, her voice tight with barely restrained panic.

"It's Tandy." I repeated. I turned my head to look at the two uninjured agents in time to see Agent Thomas reach under his BDU top. I pulled up Agent Johnson's top, seeing the butt of the M1911A1 sticking out from the waistband of his BDU pants on the right side, the holster clipped inside the pants, and yanked it out, pointing it at Agent Thomas as Agent Thomas finished drawing his pistol and pointing it at Bomber.

"Return Agent Smith's weapon, Specialist." Thomas said. His hand was shaking badly enough that he'd probably miss Bomber even at such close range.

"Drop it." I snapped, holding the pistol steady on Thomas' head.

Thomas looked at me and sneered. "You don't have the guts to shoot, you little punk."

...Why do people always say that...?

When I dropped the barrel down Agent Thomas sneered at me. "Knew you were a bitch." He held out his off hand toward me, reaching for the pistol. "Give me the weapon."

I grabbed his hand, pressed the barrel into his palm, made sure the weapon was pointing down the empty stretch of Hammerhead Hall toward the Far Stairwell. He looked at me in confusion and I smiled at him, a smile that the lizard created by jerking up the corners of my mouth that didn't have any feeling beyond a dark sadistic glee at what was about to happen. His eyes started to widen as he realized what was about to happen. I kept smiling.

And pulled the trigger.

Thomas screamed, dropping his pistol, and fell to his knees holding his suddenly perforated hand. I lunged forward, slapping my hand on his chest to push him onto his back on the floor and to hold him down so I could press the hot barrel of the pistol against his cheek. There was a slight sizzle and the smell of scorched flesh, but I really didn't care if I was hurting him. My ears were ringing from the gunshot in an enclosed area, but I hammered down the dizziness and kept the focus on the dumbass I had pinned to the floor.

I was sick of it.

I was sick of the games, the lies, the Cold War Bullshit, the Alphabet Boys, Tandy, the barracks, the DoD, I was sick to fucking death of everything.

"If you so much as move funny I'll shoot you in the balls and leave you in the dark and cold to die." I warned him. "I might just throw you out in the snow anyway, you cock-gobbling moron. You assholes from the Alphabet Agencies think you're such hot shit and nobody is as tough or mean as you." I snarled in his face, twisting the pistol to tear the skin on the burn the hot barrel had left. "Then someone is and you whine and cry and say we can't do that." I leaned back, staring down at him as he gritted his teeth and stared at me with eyes slitted with hate. "You think you're untouchable." I lifted up the pistol from his face and brought the bottom of the pistol grip onto his hands as hard as I could, hitting his knuckles with a crunch. "Fucking touch."

"Stillwater." Bomber snapped. I glanced back and he shook his head as he stood up from where he'd picked up Thomas' pistol. "We don't have time for this. Kill his ass or whatever, but we gotta figure out our next move." He told me.

Ineda was staring at me in horror but I didn't care any more about her opinion. She'd thrown her lot in with this bunch of fuckups. She'd made her bed, she could lie in it. She knew the risks when she put on the uniform.

I was done coddling people who wouldn't put out the effort to learn the first fucking thing about the situation.

The little lizard hit a couple of switches and the growing feeling affection for her that had been returning collapsed into ash. From here on out I wouldn't trust people unless I'd worked with them or they were part of my crew. They'd get jack and shit from me as far as trust went. Military courtesy, fine. Respect for their rank? Fine. Obedience to orders? Absolutely. Trust? Go fuck yourself.

Nobody could be trusted.

No. Body.

"I need a hospital." Thomas gasped.

I smacked him across the mouth with the back of my hand. "Nobody wants to hear it, smart ass. Shut your cock-sucking device."

"Annie, what are you doing? You shot him!" Ineda cried out.

"Hey, Ant, notice the emergency light is on?" John asked. He had the pistol pressed against Smith's chest while Smith pulled out two more magazines for the .45 and glared at Bomber with a combination of fear and hate.

"Yeah? So what?" I said, frisking Thomas and then the still screaming Johnson and gathering up four more magazines.

"Take a look at it." He told me, dropping the magazine out of the pistol and reloading it. He didn't bother to pull back the slide, since he knew it was already packing one in the chamber. He tucked the mostly spend magazine in his thigh pocket.

Frowning I looked up at the light and felt a cold shiver.

"The light? What about the light?" Ineda asked.

The emergency light was illuminating the hallway with cold red light, washing everything in blood and making it so that the wounds on the DIA agents looked weird, the four lights per side glowing brightly. It was a standard thing when power failed in the hallway or we went to emergency lighting for whatever reason. It had kicked on due to the lights being out in the hallway.

Except for the case was torn open and its guts were ripped out, wires hanging mournfully from the case.

"What. the. fuck?" Smith said slowly, staring at the light. "How is it working? It can't work like that."

"Yeah, well, the barracks." John said.

"You're in a world of hurt, you little..." Thomas started.

I smacked him again.

"Shut up, Thomas." Smith said.

He shut the fuck up.

"Can I get up?" Smith asked. I motioned to him to go ahead and he was very careful getting up. "Can I have my weapon back?" He asked.

"Can you not act like a retard this time?" Bomber asked. "You know, pretend you're a trained soldier instead of a fucking Waldo?" Smith nodded and Bomber held out his pistol to him. Smith took it carefully, obviously trying to watch Bomber and I at the same time.

"I need a..." Thomas started whining about his hand again.

I just smacked him again.

"Well, this went to shit." Smith said, cracking his neck before looking around. He looked down at Johnson, who had stopped screaming and was merely sobbing. "My men need medical attention."

"So do we." Bomber growled, jabbing a finger at the bruising that still hadn't faded from his face.

Smith was staring at the door to my room and chewing on his lip. Bomber was leaned against the wall nonchalantly as if it fooled anyone. Ineda was pale in the red light and her eyes were wide. Johnson was sobbing on the floor and Thomas was sitting up glaring at me with a fat lip that was bleeding as well as holding his hand as it dripped blood on the floor.

"Aren't you going to do something about that..." Thomas started.

I raised my hand to slap him again.

"Enough, Corporal." Smith said. I dropped my hand. "Thomas, shut the fuck up. There's more going on then what our briefing talked about."

"Gee, you fucking think?" Bomber asked.

"How come nobody is coming even though there was shooting?" Ineda asked.

"That's a good question, Cadet." Smith answered. He looked at me. "Well?"

I shrugged. "Who knows?"

Johnson was still sobbing. Most of it was probably shock and horror since Dobbs and Lancer had both told me that losing the eye didn't hurt that much, it hurt for a moment, then it was just a weird ache feeling and a kind of emotional loss.

Of course, neither of them had Tandy take it.

I looked at Smith and noticed he had frostbite around the slashes in his face, which had already quit bleeding.

"What do you two suggest?" Smith asked. He looked both ways down the hallway. "I really don't want to move, I don't like the way that darkness looks but staying here doesn't seem like a really good option." It had rapidly become apparent who was the senior agent in our little group.

"We need to rejoin the others." Bomber said. "Get where there is heat, warmth, and other people."

"We need to stick together. If we leave anyone behind Tandy will eat them." I added.

Thomas scoffed and I raised my hand. He jerked back and the lizard huffed laughter at the other man's fear.

"Thomas, get to your feet, help Johnson." Smith said.

Over in Near Hammerhead Hall, where there was still light, something moved in the shadows.

"We need to move now." Bomber said. He pointed at the Far Stairwell. "Take the stairwell down to Queer Country and head straight back to the CQ Area through Titty Territory." He snapped his fingers at Smith, who turned to look. "Do not go to the assistance of any voices you hear, do not engage any hostiles but run for it, and if you have to move through a dark area move as quickly as possible."

"You make it sound like Vietnam or something." Smith said, pulling Thomas to his feet.

"Or something." Bomber said.

"You know, the barracks." I added. "Ineda, stay with us."

Smith pulled Johnson up on his feet, throwing one of the injured man's arms over his shoulders. "Let's move." He said to Thomas.

"I'm gonna have you arrested, you little..." Thomas started.

I ignored him as Smith yanked on him, staring down at Near Hammerhead Hall and trying to make out the movement. Bomber watched them leave and I could hear Thomas talking about having me arrested and Smith telling him to just wait and it would be handled.

"Why are we staying here?" Ineda asked. "Isn't it dangerous?"

I nodded, still trying to make out the movement. It seemed to skip the lighted areas, as if it was vanishing at one side of the small puddles of dim light to reappear in the shadows on the other side.

The door to the stairwell boomed shut, making the ice shiver.

"Why didn't we go with them?" Ineda asked.

"Know anything about sharks?" Bomber asked.

"Yeah. What does that have to do with..." Ineda started.

"They're bleeding. They'll never make it and we wouldn't make it if we went with them." Bomber said. "So I sent them in the other direction to give us a chance."

"That's... that's..." Ineda started, her voice full of horror. From the stairwell screams started sounding. Terrible screams of agony.

"Maximizing the chances for mission success." I stated. "I need to get dressed. Bomber, cover me. Ineda, don't touch anything or go wandering off like a goddamn idiot."

"Roger that." Bomber said. "Looks like they aren't going to make it."

When the door opened the cold wind blew over us. I got my wall lockers open as fast as possible, grabbing a coat hanger with my uniforms, my field jacket and softcap, my jungle boots, and a belt. I went back into the hallway and slammed the door shut.

"I thought you were going to change?" Ineda asked.

"I am." I headed to the laundry room. The door opened easily and the laundry room was warm and dry and well lit. The washers and dryers, eight of each, were lined against the wall, with the heavy duty sinks we used to wash our field gear at the far end. I started stripping down right in the first part of the room. I didn't even think about it until Ineda spoke.

"Annie, I'm right here." She chided me as I slid down my jeans and stepped out of them, revealing that I was running commando.

"Then don't fucking look." I snapped, tossing my civilian clothing in the nearest dryer before walking down to the sinks washing my face and hands to get rid of any blood. I started getting dressed. Weirdly enough putting on my uniform made it feel like strength was returning to my body. The nagging aches and minor pains vanished, and the fatigue dropped away. Several of the lizard's boards cleared up, but the damage monitor was still on the fritz, the lizard's attempts at fixing it so far unsuccessful. I looped the belt and made sure the Bowie knife was secured, tightened it, then laced up my boots before blousing my pantslegs.

"I can't believe you shot Agent Thomas." Innie said when I straightened up. She was facing away and flushed.

"Neither could he." Bomber chuckled. "They always underestimate my boy."

"Then he was an idiot." I said. "I'm a fucking soldier, trained to kill, injure, and maim. Did he really think that me pointing a weapon at him meant I was just messing around?" I snorted. "He's goddamn lucky I didn't shoot him in the face halfway through his sentence." I looked at Bomber. "I'm done fucking around, man. I've had it with putting up with stupid people and stupid shit."

"We still friends?" Bomber asked.

"Yeah."

"Then I'm fine with that."

"I got blood on me anywhere still?" I asked.

"Nope." Bomber said.

"Good." I checked the action of the pistol and dropped it into my hip pocket along with the magazines then tucked my wallet into my back pocket.

"It's starting." Bomber said.

"You fucking think?" I asked him.

"What's starting?" Ineda asked.

"Bad shit, cadet." Bomber answered. He looked at me. "Christ, did you see that shit Tandy pulled? What the hell was that boocoo dinky dow shit he pulled with the stereo?"

I grinned. "Maybe he ate someone with a sense of humor?"

Bomber laughed but Ineda looked annoyed.

"Ready to make a run for it?" Bomber asked.

When I opened my mouth to answer the door to the laundry room opened quietly. Bomber brought up his .45 in a textbook perfect form while I swept Innie behind me and watched.

Aine entered the laundryroom, in a blue gingham dress and bare feet. She closed the door quietly behind her and then smiled at us.

"There you are." she came up to Bomber, holding her hands behind her back, and suddenly stood on her tiptoes to kiss the point of his chin. "I was worried."

"What's going on, Hannah?" I asked her. Ineda gave me a weird look that I ignored. I couldn't trust Aine, but I could trust Hannah.

"One of the CID guys electrocuted himself and Nagle is trying to keep him alive." Hannah said, moving over to the dryer where I'd put all my civvies. She turned the dial to 90 minutes and hit start as she kept speaking. "The road is out between here and Main Post and they're getting snow dumped on them on Main Post. Nagle's his only chance and he's hurt pretty badly."

"Did you see anyone on the way here?" Bomber asked.

"Nope." She answered cheerily.

"All right. Hannah, you take point. We'll go through Near Hammerhead, down the stairs, and to the CQ Area, easy peasy." I said. Hannah through me a mock salute and went and stood by the door. "Bomber, you're next, then you, Cadet Stillwater, and I'll pull drag."

"Ready, Corporal." Hannah said cheerfully. Her hand was on the lever to open the door and I could tell she was pumped to head out.

..."Actual, let's go!" I called out. The wind whipped around us, carrying heavy snowflakes. Aine, Stokes, and King came in, Aine panting, her face flushed across the cheeks and her nose.

"I know why you boys do this now." She panted as we headed down the stairs...

"Go!" Bomber said. Aine whipped open the door.

Tandy stood in the doorway. It surreally looked like he was examining those sharpened tips of bone at the ends of the fingers of his right hand.

Aine slammed the door.

"Well fuck." I said.

"Maybe we should go later?" Hannah asked sweetly.

"When did he start acting like this?" Bomber asked.

"What the hell is he?" Ineda screeched.

"A dead man." I told her. "It's not a 'he' any more, it's an 'it' who hunts us for sport and kills us." I stared at her for a long moment. "You have no idea what you and your DIA friends have walked into here, cadet. You're going to be lucky to make it a week."

"Stop calling me cadet, I'm still your sister." Ineda told me, putting her hands on her hips. I could feel the authority she used to wield over me. The fact she was the dominant twin, the fact I'd been raised to give in to a woman's authority, and the bonds of sibling love all normally gave her complete control over me.

Not any more.

"Not right now you aren't." I told her, jabbing a finger at her rank on her collar. "You're Cadet Stillwater and whatever else that goofy looking rank gives you."

"Except she's in hell and you're acting like an ass." Bomber threw in.

"Right." I answered automatically, then turned to him when Hannah laughed. "Hey!"

"Sorry, man, but you are. Cut her some slack." Bomber said, leaning against the running dryer. "Man, this warmth feels good on my butt."

"Think he's still out there?" Hannah asked.

"Open the door and find out." I suggested sarcastically.

Hannah opened the door. Tandy stood there, still grinning, with his hands spread out like he was going to grab her.

Hannah slammed the door. "Yup. Still there."

"What the hell is he doing?" I asked.

"Being a grinning freak?" Bomber suggested helpfully.

"Thanks, man." I said, rolling my eyes. "He's acting really weird."

"Maybe he isn't hungry?" Hannah suggested.

"Wait, you've seen him before?" Ineda asked.

"Yes to both?" I said lamely. "We've seen him before, he's killed before right in front of us, and he pushed his finger into my shoulder a couple months ago."

I ended up telling an abbreviated version of what had happened in the stairwell to Ineda. Hannah leaned against the wall by the door smiling as she listened to the whole thing. Bomber lit a smoke and tossed the pack to me so I could light one and toss it back. Hannah made a face when the cloud of smoke drifted by her. Ineda showed the appropriate shock when I talked about what happened when the guy with the axe put me down for what would have probably been the last time if it hadn't been for Nagle and the others.

"Think he's still out there?" Ineda asked.

"One way to find out." Hannah said, and pulled open the door.

Tandy was crouched down slightly, his hands spread out with the sharpened ends of bone pointing at Hannah's face. He mock lunged at Hannah, who slammed the door with a squeal of surprise.

"What the FUCK?" Bomber asked, jumping off the dryer and stepping forward to kick the wall. "What is his problem tonight?"

A low chuckle drifted through the heavy steel door.

"You have to be kidding me." I said, moving up next to Hannah. "Is he getting off on this somehow?"

"You two have pistols, why don't you shoot him?" Ineda asked.

Bomber and I looked at each other and then her. "Umm... because it doesn't, I don't know, fucking work?" I said. "You can put bullets in him all fucking day and he couldn't care less. He's fucking dead, Ineda, bullets don't bother him."

"But then how do we get out?" My sister asked.

Bomber jumped back up on the dryer. "We don't."

"This sucks." I said, turning on the faucet to put out my cigarette so I could drop it in the garbage can. Bomber flicked his in the sink while the water was running and I glared at him.

"OK, maybe he's gone now." Hannah said hopefully.

"Sure, why not. I'm sure he's got plenty of things on his schedule he just can't put off till later, that lousy motherfucker." Bomber said. He jumped off the dryer. "All right, let's go for it again."

When Hannah whipped open the door the hallway was empty. Without pausing she darted into the hallway, Bomber following her. Ineda hesitated for a second and I shoved her hard to get her ass moving. She stumbled but caught her balance before she left the laundry room. I was last out and the door swung shut on the automatic piston behind me.

The hallway was dark and cold, only a single light at the far end by the Near Stairwell giving any light at all. We moved quickly, Ineda screaming when the sound of boots hitting the floor crashed above us and a voice yelled in German right afterwards.

"Oh, loving Christ." Bomber said softly before we were halfway down the hallway.

I could see what he was talking about. There was mist gathering on the floor, only ankle deep, but I knew as well as Bomber that the mist would get thicker and rise in the hallway. Normally when that happened we just retreated to our rooms and drank ourselves blind, but we really didn't have that option this time.

"Just hurry." I called out from the back of our line.

One of the dark lights blew out in a shower of sparks and the crackle of thin glass shattering as the fluorescent light gave up the ghost. Ineda gave another squeak of fear but the rest of us just powered through it and kept moving. Hannah reached the Near Stairwell and yanked the door open. The sound of someone screaming in agony washed over us along with bone deep cold.

I half expected to see Tandy on the other side of the door sharpening or painting his nails.

Instead we hurried down the stairs. Hannah hit the lock bar at the bottom of the stairs and we all half tumbled into the CQ Area.

"Goddamn it, hold him down, you stupid bitches!" Nagle yelled. "I need a fucking vein, hold him."

The guy on the table's uniform had been blasted to scorched rags, the flesh that was exposed was blackened or dark red, cracked with blood seeping out. Half his hair was missing and both his eye sockets were empty. He was screaming through a mouthful of broken teeth, the sight of which made my broken teeth twinge in pain for a second. The guy Nagle was working on had full blown third degree electrical burns across all his body that I could see.

What the hell had electrocuted him?

She looked up and saw the four of us coming in and didn't comment on the fact that John shoved the .45 into his thigh pocket, just going back to trying to find a vein to put the IV in.

The LT saw us and waved us over and I was pretty sure that he'd seen John drop the pistol into his pocket but he didn't say anything. We moved over quickly, skirting the table that Nancy was working on.

"Cadet Stillwater, where are the DIA agents that accompanied you to see your brother?" The LT asked.

"They haven't returned?" Ineda asked. I glanced at John and he gave me a savage grin.

"No, cadet, they have not. When was the last time you saw them?" The LT asked.

"They were heading for the stairwell at the end of the building to try to get back here." She answered honestly.

"They had wounded." I added.

The LT nodded slowly. I saw his eyes flick down to where the sheathe of the Bowie knife extended below my BDU top, but instead of ordering me to take it off he merely turned, grabbed his nylon bag, and pulled my Gerber out of it. He handed it to me without a word and I clipped the knife to the back of my belt.

It felt better to have it there.

"Sir, are you sure we can't get medical help up here?" Nagle asked. "Goddamn it, hold him still, I need to cut his clothes away."

"I'm sorry, Specialist, but the roads to main post are blocked, the winds are too high to risk a helicopter, and the helipad we have access is still buried under ice from where the glacier shed that ice sheet." The LT said.

The CID guy on the table gave a strangled scream, managed to pull away from the two people trying to hold him, and arced his back up. The scream suddenly died and the guy went limp, collapsing back on the table with a thud that shook the table. Nancy put two fingers on his neck to feel his pulse and then pulled away.

"He's gone, sir." She said. She glanced at the clock. "Time of death: twenty-three forty-two." She dug in her aid bag and pulled out a toe-tag, quickly scrawling on it. People were staring as she went from devoting every second to the dying man to ignoring him.

"Can't you do CPR or something?" One of the other CID guys asked. Man, I bet he was starting to feel lonely. That was, what, three of them down already?

"He got hit with a massive sustained four hundred forty volt shock that went on for at least thirty seconds, it blew off most his clothing, left burns over most of his body, and melted his goddamn dog-tags into his skin." Nancy snapped, taking the tag and tying it to the guy's boot. I noticed that his nylon laces were melted and the sole was melted on both of them. "He was dying the whole time. The juice probably cooked his fucking heart. He needed a goddamn trauma ward and a fucking burn unit, not a half-trained bitch praying for a miracle and a former medic." She turned and faced him. "So, no, to answer the dumbest fucking question I've ever heard, I can't 'do CPR or something' to help him. He's fucking dead." She ripped off the rubber gloves and threw them on the floor. "Get fucking used to it."

She looked at the LT, blowing a stray lock of hair out of her face. "Can I be dismissed, sir?"

The LT looked around for moment, made a show of checking his log book he had been carrying around. "I'll see you tomorrow at thirteen hundred, Specialist, unless there's another medical emergency."

"Can I go to?" Stokes asked.

"Of course, Specialist." The LT said, waving. "Get some rest."

Nagle grabbed my arm as she passed me, pulling me after her into the stairs. As soon as we were up to the mid-way landing in between the second and third floor she suddenly pulled me close and fell against me, great whooping sobs wracking her body. Bomber, Hannah, Miranda, and Ineda came up afterwards, spreading around us in a tight circle. Ineda looked uncomfortable and Hannah watched Nancy with great big luminous eyes, but nobody said anything for a few minutes while Nancy cried herself out. I glared at Ineda until she looked away.

Finally she let go and pushed me away, wiping off her face before looking around.

"Where have you idiots been? Stokes and I needed you." She snapped.

I shrugged. "The usual, you know. Shooting people, getting taunted by Tandy, being locked in a room." That made her chuckle.

"So we're still boned, eh?" She asked. I nodded. "Let's go up to Lancer's room. He's up on the Lobotomy Ward since he's an NCO. I want to check on him and Dobbs."

"We might wanna knock." I suggested delicately.

"Yeah, yeah, yeah, bitch already got condoms from me." Nancy said.

"Hey, Ant." Stokes said, hugging me real quick. "Glad to have you back."

"Glad to be back." I told her.

"You sound a little off, you OK?" She asked me. Nancy was hugging John and he was holding her close and petting her hair, speaking softly to her.

I looked Miranda in the eyes, still feeling that sense of oddness that I had to look up at her. "Yeah. My head just hurts." She ruffled my hair and hugged me again.

"Let's get going." Bomber said, letting go of Nancy. I noticed the jealousy that flickered across Ineda's expression at the closeness that Stokes, Hannah, and Nancy had with John and I, but I just shoved it aside into the little compartment labeled 'how I used to feel about my sister' and ignored it.

We headed up the stairs, stopping at the mid-point landing between the second and third floor so I could catch my breath. I was winding and fatiguing easy, which was never a good sign. When we went into the Lobotomy Ward, the third floor where the majority of the NCO's were roomed, we saw that it was lit by about a half-dozen lights, making it one of the better lit hallways in the barracks, with the notable exception of Titty Territory.

Bomber banged on Lancer's door a few times, drawing the pistol before hammering on it again.

The door pulled open to reveal Dobbs standing there with a blanket wrapped around her. She took one look at Nancy, with blood on her face and the sleeves of her uniform, Bomber with a pistol in his hand, and the rest of us all gathered up and moved to the side, waving at us to come in. I was the last one in and she closed and locked the door behind us.

"What's going on?" Lancer called out. "Who's there, Debra?"

"Tony Stillwater and his band of thugs." Dobbs answered, pushing through our little group. "Wait here." We waited for a few moments before she called out to us to go ahead and come on into the room.

When we went in I could see her sitting next to Lancer under the blanket that had been wrapped around her, Lancer's arm over her shoulders half protectively, with Dobbs reaching up to hold his hand.

"What's going on?" Lancer asked, looking toward us but not at us. He had an eyepatch over his empty eye socket, just like Dobbs, but the other eye was milky white from scar tissue.

"Things are starting to come apart." Bomber said while I moved over and sat down on the empty bottom bunk of the bunk beds. I felt exhausted, everything catching up to me. "Tandy is in the barracks and people are already dying."

"I heard some dude bled to death in the stairwell." Lancer said, looking toward Bomber. "Who smells like cordite?"

"That would be Ant." Bomber said, waving toward me and then lamely realizing that Lancer couldn't see it. "He shot one of the DIA guys when they pointed their sidearm at me." Bomber chuckled. "Dumbass told Ant that he wasn't man enough to do it."

Lancer and Dobbs both laughed, Nancy, Stokes, and Hannah joining them.

"Why the hell do people say that?" Miranda asked. "It practically goads them into doing it."

"Too many movies." Dobbs guessed. "So is everyone staying in here?"

Bomber nodded. "We need to fort up again. There's too many unknown variables, Tandy is on the loose, and I got a bad feeling."

I closed my eyes, leaning against the wall. Fuck it, let them keep babbling at each other. I was exhausted.

"Miranda, go with Aine," Nancy started.

"It's Hannah, now, Nancy." Hannah said.

"Go with Hannah and get Lanks. I want as much of Actual as is in the barracks up here." Nancy finished. I heard the door open and shut a moment later.

Nancy sat on one side of me, Ineda on the other. Nancy reached out and took my hand and after a second Ineda did the same with the other hand.

...Oh, grow up, Innie...

Bomber caught Dobbs and Lancer up on the situation in the barracks. At the description of what Tandy had been doing outside the laundryroom everyone laughed and I smiled even though I was starting to feel a bit drifty and warm. Toward the end of the description of our little laundryroom adventure Hannah, Miranda, and Lanks came back.

"Lotta people in my room. Sure we're all going to fit?" Lancer said.

"Ant, gimme your keys so I can pull a couple of bunk beds in here." Bomber asked. I pulled my keys off my belt and held them out, not bothering to open my eyes. He took them and I heard almost everyone leave. Nancy told Ineda to stay with me and keep an eye on me.

After a few moments Dobbs broke the silence.

"You two don't look much like twins." Her voice was soft and breathy, unlike any other time I'd heard Dobbs speak.

"We're triplets, actually. We have a brother, Logan, that looks a lot like Annie." Ineda said, squeezing my hand and laying her head on my shoulder.

"Huh. Poor guy." Lancer laughed. "Is he a dick like our Ant here?"

Ineda's voice was unsteady when she started to answer. "He did a few bad things and Annie and I don't speak to him any..."

"Drop it." I growled, not bothering to open my eyes.

"Bad blood, got it." Lancer said. There was an uncomfortable silence for a moment. "You know, Annie doesn't really fit ol' Corporal Stillwater, you know that?"

"He's still my Annie." Ineda insisted. Dobbs snorted and then made a soft gasp.

"Stop that." Dobbs whispered loud enough for me to hear. Lancer chuckled and I knew Ineda would be blushing. My mind conjured up Dobbs blurry bra covered tits and wondered if Lancer was playing with them or running his fingers through her bush. I couldn't be bothered to open my eyes to look, feeling a warmth come over me. The lizard yawned and stretched and I followed his example.

"You all right, Stillwater? I heard you gave Debra quiet a scare." Lancer asked.

I stretched again and then went kind of boneless where I was sitting. "Just exhausted, man. I don't seem to have the energy I used to."

"Getting shot will do that, dumbass." Lancer chuckled. "Hey, twin sister, Ant there ever tell you how I lost my eyes?"

"Umm, no." Ineda said.

"Dobbs here put them out because she swore no man would ever see her naked." He said. He gave a grunt and I knew Dobbs had elbowed him. Both he and Dobbs laughed. "Naw, a grenade went off in my face, took both my eyes and gave me this handsome face."

"I like it." Dobbs said warmly. Holy shit, what did Lancer do to her?

"Of course you like it, you only have one eye." Lancer laughed then made an oof noise and I knew he'd been elbowed again.

"A grenade? Was it a training accident?" Ineda asked.

"Nope. Soviet guy threw it at me and I didn't see it because it was on the other side of the ballistic shield. Fought the rest of the firefight blind, thought the lights were out." Lancer laughed. "I'm all blind, pinned down behind a ballistic shield, and my baby here follows a complete psycho into a headlong charge into the Soviet forces and gets her eye shot out." he laughed again and I smiled. "It was all my baby could do to keep up with her short little legs while this total fucking psycho goes wading into the Soviet guys like a killer whale into a pack of baby seals."

He gave an oof again and Dobbs spoke up. "It wasn't quite like that, don't believe Jeff. The psycho part is real, but it wasn't that bad. We just had to push them out into the snow and then fight them at close quarters in the barracks." Her voice started to get distant. "First guy I killed, he was getting ready to shoot at us. He screamed when he went down. It didn't sound Russian, you know, it sounded like just some guy. Then they got hit with willie-pete and they all started screaming, so we charged into them. I killed one close and the blood got in my mouth, it was hot, tasted like pennies, and gagged me. I kept spitting trying to get the taste out of my mouth but I couldn't, then we were fighting in the barracks and..." She suddenly gave a squeal and I could hear her thrashing around. She was shrieking and giggling and it was a hell of a lot better than that tight, flat, dead voice she had slowly drifted into. "Jeff, stop it!" More laughing. "Jeff! Stop! We aren't alone!"

"Party pooper." Lancer said, his smile obvious in his voice. "I love you, Debra."

There was silence for a moment before Dobbs said softly: "I love you too, Jeff."

"You're the worst lesbian in the world." I chuckled.

"Shut up, asshole." Dobbs laughed.

"She just likes my huge tits." Lancer laughed.

The others came back, pulling beds they'd grabbed from empty rooms of the Lobotomy Ward. Once the squealing had stopped of the beds being dragged across the tile there was silence for a moment.

"Miranda, hit the lights, will you?" Dobbs asked in a shy voice. "That way everyone can get undressed and go to bed?"

"Yeah, no problem, Dobbs." Nancy answered.

"You saved my life, Nancy. Call me Debra."

"All right, Debs." Nancy tried. Dobbs laughed.

"Can I call you snack cakes?" Bomber tried.

"I'll punch you in the fucking prostate." Dobbs threatened.

"She's my snack cake." Lancer said.

"Jeff!" Dobbs squealed. "Stop that!"

There was laughter from everyone and it made it all right. We were seeing a part of Dobbs that she didn't share with many people and part of me wanted to walk my sister to the door and lock her out in the hallway. Unlike everyone else in the room she hadn't spilled blood and had her blood spilled with the rest of us.

"Ant, come on." Nancy said, taking my left hand. I opened my hand as she pulled me to my feet and I saw that the light was off. Surprisingly, or maybe not, Lancer had a nightlight too. Nancy touched the center of my chest with her fingertips. "Lets get you undressed, honey." She leaned forward to whisper in my ear. "We'll move nice and slow and nobody will know." My mouth went dry as she slowly undressed me, kissing the partially healed scars and the upraised older scars. I helped her out of her uniform, kissing where she'd been injured, where she was scarred, and once we were down to our underwear, Nancy forgoing a bra, we climbed up into the top bunk.

Once under the wool blankets her arms slid around my neck and she drew me close to kiss me gently. "I need you, Ant. I've missed you."

"I missed you too." I told her quietly. Her hand went down the front of my boxers and gently stroked what she found there. I cupped one breast and kissed her when the bunk started to shake.

"Annie?" Ineda's voice was soft as she climbed up on the bunk.

I had to restrain the urge to shout at my sister to go fuck Bomber or Stokes or something, anything, but to leave Nancy and I alone.

"I'm scared, Annie. I keep hearing noises." She said, crawling up under the blankets behind me. "I keep hearing a little girl singing."

Nancy made a frustrated noise and let go of me, pulling my hands off of her breast and crotch.

"Come on, fresh meat, cuddle up." Nancy said, her voice as gentle as she could make it past the frustration.

It felt weird, uncomfortable, and downright creepy to be laying in the bunk bed, facing Nancy and watching her slowly go to sleep in my arms, with my cock hard as a rock, and knowing that my twin sister was the one cuddling up behind me.

It took a long time for me to go to sleep. Dobbs and Lancer made love slow and gentle with private sounds and words that I was embarrassed to hear, and still I couldn't go to sleep. One by one the others drifted off, their snores intermingling in the dimness, until I could tell that I was the only one still awake.

Finally I managed to go to sleep.

And went back to Atlas.

Chapter 18

FSTS-317
NATO Site-63
AKA "ATLAS"
Secure Area, Western Germany
On the 1K Zone
26 August, 1987

I stood at the gate and watched the last of the trucks roll out onto the newly paved road that had replaced the dirt track. Foster and I had taken turns running the Tarrasque to grade the road level. Four times I'd run over old mines with the massive bulldozer while Foster had managed to find almost a dozen, but I privately believed that he was doing it on purpose. The mines were old, all of the APERS design, so they'd just go off with a crack like a couple M-80's, blow up dirt around the tread, and nothing else. Bomber had found one on foot that had knocked him down but the big Texas lug had thought it was more funny than anything else.

As juvenile as it sounds, he was my very best friend in the whole wide world.

It was good to see the back of 21st Trans. Not that I had anything personal against them but having them out of the way would allow us to not only put away the last of the ammunition but to relax, inventory and check the site, and relax. The last truck turned the corner and I watched for a moment, expecting for a second to see the truck explode. That had happened awhile ago, when we were shipping out the unstable ammunition. I'd protested moving TNT manufactured in 1952 via truck but had been overruled by Chief Henley and it had cost two guys from 18th Trans their lives, which, of course, Chief Henley tried to blame on me and would have gotten away with it if my protests in writing hadn't been forwarded to V Corps without his knowledge.

The NATO inspectors had left the day before, officially letting me know that we'd managed to get our NATO Site designation. Even though Atlas was twice the size of the next largest site in Group and five times the size of the smallest 'cold site' in Group we were fully operational before all of the hot sites and ahead of all but the two smallest of the cold-sites. I knew of a couple of other sites, had visited them to get an idea of what I would be facing in the future, but none of them were the size we were outside of Meesau and a couple of other places. Even the few of them that were larger then we were ammunition-wise didn't have the massive war-stocks we'd loaded into buildings on the site. Everything from cots to uniforms to battle rattle to radios to GP Large tents to even weapons. We had a small, hell, tiny bunker with arms racks bolted to the walls with all the weapons we'd need to reload every single unit we had to support as well as a 15% over-stock 'just in case' that I'd requested through paperwork and skipped Chief Henley to submit. He'd found out, of course, which led to what happened.

Six days ago he'd sent an E-5 and an E-6 to take over the site from me.

"Stillwater, are you done standing around with your thumb in your ass or what?" Came the abrasive shout from behind me. I hated the owner of the voice with a passion and fantasized about stabbing his ass.

Staff Sergeant Woodard walked up and reached out to grab my arm and yank me toward him. The lizard urged me to break his arm as he grabbed me.

"Are you planning on getting to work or not?" Woodard asked me nastily, yanking me along with him to The Fort. "Fucking good thing I came here when I did, your pack of retards barely had this place halfway operational." I just went along with it, too tired after offloading all the Hotel-104 rounds and stacking them in the bunkers to even bother resisting or protesting that it was fully operational. "Now that everyone's out of the way it's time to explain to your little pack of retards just how things are going to run around here."

...Whatever...

The little lizard urged me to grab his wrist, twist his arm, break his elbow, then really go to work on him, but I ignored it to just meekly follow along.

When we went into The Fort the difference between when I was in charge and now that we had two NCO's out at Atlas struck me immediately. The cots had all been put back in storage, we were moved to the GP Medium further toward the bunker area, all the gear had been moved with us. The posters that had been hung on the wall were replaced by the typical "Ivan is Listening" and the steps for doing maintenance on the various vehicles, the MOPP standards, and all the other 'official' eyesore posters. The room that we'd assigned to the female members of the squad was now for SSG Woodard and SGT Jared and had mattresses and real beds inside, along with dressers and lamps pulled from Group. They'd even had Johnson run a line from the German's building as well as from the 'office' and into their little bedroom so they didn't have to get up to answer the phone. The office had posters and duty rosters and all the other bullshit I was becoming accustomed to when dealing with piece of shit lifers who'd missed out on Vietnam so they treated everyone like crap to show how tough they were. It was kind of a serious problem, guys who came in after Vietnam and felt that other people's experiences made them lesser people so they tried to compensate for it.

The whole crew, well, we weren't allowed to refer to ourselves as a 'crew' any more since 'this isn't Vietnam, goddamn it!', the squad was drawn up at attention waiting for us, obviously. Sergeant Jared was standing in front of everyone, sneering at the men and women in front of him.

"Everyone gone?" Jared asked.

"Yeah." Woodard answered, yanking me off balance and then shoving me toward the squad. "Figured we'd make sure Corporal Stillwater was here."

Foster caught me, steadying me, and I moved to the front of the squad, going to attention.

"Squad, attention." Woodard said, which instantly irritated me. We didn't move of course, but the flicker of pleasure across both of the NCO's faces was undeniable. "There are five pads full of Hotel-104's and we expect them to be properly placed in the bunkers before you return uprange. Once Sergeant Jared and I have inspected the bunkers and double checked your inventory sheets then you will return immediately to your quarters and remain there until either Sergeant Jared or I give you your next assignment. Dinner tonight will be MRE's." He smiled at all of us coldly. "Dismissed."

We all walked off silently, filing single file out of The Fort and into the balmy German evening. The sun would go down in about an hour to two hours, which meant we didn't have long to work before we'd be running on the headlights of the forklifts only. Our two fantastic NCOs had forbidden the use of light sets or pulling one of the big vehicles down like the Tarrasque or Kong to use their light systems, citing 'waste of fuel' and 'unacceptable wear on parts' when they told us to shut the fuck and do it their way. When we'd tried using the NVG-7's we'd been told that those were secure items and the two NCOs had locked them in the office.

We'd been eating MRE's for almost a week, and to top it off the two NCO's were insisting on using the old 'a soldier only needs four hours of sleep or rest time to be capable of operations' on us while they usually slept about ten hours. They were fully rested, eating A-Rats, sleeping on beds, and basically kicking back. They'd even stolen our pogey bait. We were running of exactly four hours of rest time, usually only getting three hours of sleep, eating 2 MRE's a day because that's all we 'required', sleeping on our sleeping mats on the ground in the GP Medium, and only allowed to refill out canteens at lunchtime and 'dinner' even if we sucked down all the water from our canteens.

Since then the number of injuries per week had almost doubled. Work had dropped by a small fraction of what my crew had been capable of before the two jackasses had shown up. Of course, none of our injuries were bad enough to keep us from working, just 'little stuff' like dislocated or broken fingers, cuts, broken toes, you know: "Nothing compared to what people had to live with during Vietnam!" So of course we hadn't seen any medical treatment.

Which is why half the crew was limping as we headed out into the heat of the German summer.

"This is such fucking bullshit." Foster said as we walked down the dirt road. "Notice how they don't come downrange."

"They're fucking cowards." Johnson spat. "One fucking sniper round by their heads and they run uprange to hide in the fort like little girls."

"At ease that shit. Let's just knock this out and get it done." I told everyone. There was some grumbling but I ignored it for the most part, joined in on some of it, and made a few points of my own.

We stopped at the enclosed vehicle shed, unlocking it with one of the few keys I had left. I still had my deck of cards with the keycards slid ink but that was only because neither of our super-troop high speed NCOs knew that there were multiple sets of keycards originally in the lockboxes. I waited until almost half the crew had chosen their favorite little diesel forklifts, all only rated at a max of 6,000 pounds.

"Bomber, mind being my ground-guide?" I asked. John nodded and jumped off the 4,000 pound forklift he'd been sitting on.

"All right, everyone grab a bunker, stack that shit fast and let's get it done so we can go home." I told them, hitting the switch to raise the door. Everyone started their forklifts and I turned around and walked to the shed where we kept the big vehicles. The forklifts kept in the enclosed shed were designed to be barely wider than a pallet of 8" artillery rounds, and smaller than a standard pallet. They were still little diesel hogs and had a flaw that I'd reported more than once. If you had a load on the forks, cranked the wheel to the left, and tried to back up the engine died, which for some god awful reason meant the master cylinder lost pressure and whatever load you were carrying came crashing down on the floor. Foster had figured out that the hydraulic system ran the rear wheel steering, the power steering, and the forks so if the system was stressed it put too much of a load on the engine below 2,500 rpms and the whole damn thing died.

That flaw was going to kill someone and maybe take the entire site with it.

Little-Bit flipped me off as she drove by, grinning as she did. She'd been miffed that our too wunderbar NCO's had taken away her sniper rifle but she'd been more angry over the fact they'd taken it with the phrase "women can't shoot with shit and don't belong in the Army" and flat out called her a liar when she'd stated that she'd trained with the Rangers because 'no Ranger would train a fucking snail trail' so of course the Rangers that had been at the site for months couldn't have trained her. After she got done yelling and screaming at me down at the lower helipad where the super-troops couldn't hear she'd gone back to her normal smiling self.

We got to Kong and I stepped at the ladder up the side of it to dig my MRE bonus packs out of my cargo pocket. I opened up the dehydrated Folger's coffee and put it on the foil package that had once held fruit cocktail, then put in some sugar, some creamer, and some chocolate from the cocoa then ground it all up with the pommel of my knife. Once it was ground up nice and fine I looked at Bomber and grinned.

"Want in on this?" I asked. He held out a rolled up twenty Mark bill with a grin and I took it. Pressing it to one nostril I pushed the other nostril closed and took a deep sniff of the concoction, then switched nostrils and did the same thing before pinching my nose and handing off the rolled up bill to Bomber. It made my eyes feel like they were going to bug out and the shakes started while Bomber repeated what I'd done. He sneezed as I let go of my nose and wrapped up the remainder of the 'Ranger Speed' and put it in my pocket. I could feel the shakes starting to subside as I climbed up the ladder and got into the driver's seat of Kong. I started hitting switches, pausing to wipe my nose and ignoring the fact that there was a thin trail of blood mixed in with the Ranger speed and snot on my sleeve.

We'd been snorting it for three days and it was tearing up my sinuses.

Kong woke up with a roar that shook the world and I slammed closed the door, cutting off the sound slightly. Kong's cab was armored and sound proofed, the glass supposedly bulletproof, so the three massive diesel engines that ran Kong weren't too loud. Kong had a counter-weight on his ass end that must have weighed 50,000 pounds since ol' Kong was rated at fifteen tons lift and had balloon tires higher than I was tall. I reached behind me and hit play on my CD player, bringing up Quiet Riot to fill the cab and cut down on the white noise from the damn engines. Before our two wonderful NCOs had taken charge my XM-16 would have locked into place next to the door. As it was my LBE and mask were quickly pulled off and hung from the hooks.

Bomber made a circle with his hand and then waved me forward. I loved driving Kong. I lifted the forks slightly and tilted them back a little ways. Gotta follow safety procedures when you're driving a vehicle that weighs about as much as an M1 tank. I kept it in Low-3 as I just idled along after Bomber as we headed downrange. We passed the fence that cut uprange off from downrange and the white crosses we'd taken to putting up even though there weren't any actual bodies buried there. We figured whoever replaced us deserved to know that Atlas would kill you if she got the chance. Bomber stopped me while Little Bit raced by on her little forklift, honking and waving, and I took the chance to reach under the seat and pull out the bottle of Wild Turkey that I'd left in there before the two wonderkids took over. I took a long pull, honked the horn, and waved to Bomber. bomber climbed up and I opened the window, handed it to him, then took it back and hid it after he took a long drink.

"This is going to suck the big green one!" Bomber shouted. I nodded, he slapped the window closed, climbed down, and started to guide me to the first pad. The forks were long enough to grab 3 Hotel-104's on them, Kong being the best vehicle to move around a lot of large ammunition like the stupid MLRS rounds. They were eleven inch rockets, six to a pod, designed to be loaded into the new hot-shit MLRS wagons which would fire off one or two pods depending on who you listened to. I hadn't actually seen one but the officers that came in to check on the pods were all anal retentive jackasses who kept whining about their priority and how I should move their ammo to the front of the bunkers.

That was on of the big annoyances. Every fucking unit thought they should be priority in the stacking order and all of them tried to bully and push to get me to move their rounds to the front, but I had my orders from V Corps and no matter how much they whined I wasn't going to change the loadout of the bunkers. The Soviets had shown me that the bunkers had the loadout they did for a reason. The site had to be protected, which meant good old fashioned ground pounders holding it and the Air Force supporting us with danger-close air strikes. If we got overrun then nobody got their fucking ammunition.

So fuck you, small arms and crew served weaponry got priority.

While Bomber ground guided me so I could put three pods together then stack another set of three on top of those I thought over just how bad SSG Woodard was going to fuck the site up. When I grabbed all six pods the amber light on the dash flashed and I hit the switch to kick in the auxiliary hydraulic pump. I wasn't over weight, but Kong could be a bit a temperamental at times. Amber went back to green as I ran the numbers in my head. Each pod weighed around 2,500 pounds, so that was 15,000 pounds, meaning I should have been all right without the aux-pump 2, but I really needed to take Kong offline and have the mechanics crawl all over him before he fell down. Aux-pump 1 had gone out about a month ago and the automatic switching system had never worked since we'd gotten Kong refurbished.

On the pads of the bunkers where we were stacking I had to watch out for the smaller forklifts since I could run them over pretty goddamn easy. A month or so ago I'd been running one of the little 4K's and Foster had backed into me and pushed me into the ditch without Kong even noticing. We'd used the crane to get the little forklift out of the blast ditch, Nancy had relocated my wrist, and life had gone on.

With the exception of people like Woodard, Army life wasn't that bad. And you could ignore people like Woodard and just get on with the work.

I just followed along behind Bomber, smiling to myself. I didn't like Woodard at all but it was nice not being in charge. Sure, everyone had had faith in me and all that good stuff but I couldn't really handle the stress all that well. I just wanted to be an average soldier and eventually be E-5 or given a leadership position after I'd learned from example. Right now I was learning the things not to do but that was OK. Things just had a way of working out, whether you wanted them to or not.

My Father had always said that the future will take care of itself, it always does, and I was learning pretty well how to just relax and go with the flow.

Bomber had me set down the MRLS pods and we went back for more.

I was single, in Europe, had a couple grand in my bank account, and the work was almost done.

Life. Was. Good.

I'd been able to call my Father after Woodard took over. I'd been pissed that I'd been replaced without a word despite all the work I'd done and just how well I'd managed to do to get Atlas up and running and talked to him. He'd told me that there hadn't been anything really personal in what the Army had done. Sure, Henley probably did it to punish me for going over his head, but as far as the Army was concerned it was nothing personal, just putting someone with the right rank in charge of Atlas. It had helped to hear. My brother William had a big site, but his E-5 had killed himself so he'd inherited the site and he was better at getting along with people than I was, so he was doing just fine.

At the memory of my brother my grin got bigger. We'd gone to the Green Goose in Fulda together and had a good time. He'd treated me to drinks all night and told me I'd done good even with the big shit sandwich that the Army had handed me when I'd been given Atlas. It had been nice to hear my brother tell me that he was proud of how well I was doing.

His praise was pretty important to me. He was my brother, but he was also my friend. Sure, he was a knuckle dragging thug who liked to fight too much, but he was my brother, you know?

I moved the Hotel-140's in almost no time, although it was cheating that I was moving six at a time. Little Bit was slapping them into the bunker as fast as she could, Foster ground guiding her even though we'd all had enough practice at moving things with the forklifts we didn't really need ground guides any more, but regs said ground guides so we did the ground guide thing so that Woodard wouldn't have a stroke or something.

Yeah, Woodard was an asshole, but living with my birth parents had taught me that anything could be endured and that nothing lasts forever.

I'd gotten a letter from my mother a couple days before. She'd ranted and raved about how I'd go to hell, how I'd disobeyed the ten Commandments, specifically 'honor thy mother and father' and she'd be glad to watch me from Heaven as I burned in torment. It had been four hand-written pages, front and back, that had basically been nothing more than screaming at me.

I'd laughed over it, thrown it away, and fucked Nagle on top of the MRLS rocket pods.

And life went on.

Once I'd moved the ammo I moved up to Illithid Road on the backside of the site and kicked off the ignition. Kong grumbled and growled then finally went quiet while I fumbled around to turn off my stereo. You weren't supposed to run electronics downrange, some of the triggers were sensitive, but wheat were they going to do, bend my dogtags and make me do stand-to in the shower? I climbed down, broke about 10,000 regs by lighting a cigarette while I leaned against one of the big tires, and waited for Bomber to come back. He'd be checking on Nagle and whoever she'd grabbed to help her

Woodard ran the squad uprange. Downrage? Where it mattered? It was all me.

The first day he and Jared had come downrange the Soviet sniper had put a round whizzing by their head to say hello and no hard feelings and the two had ran back uprange like little girls and not come back down. They had no clue what it looked like down here, what was being done down here. Hell, they had no idea if there was anything down here. For all they knew we were selling the ammo to the Red Army Faction and nothing else was out here.

Bomber came back with a bottle of Jack Daniels and a grin. We'd buried a half-dozen mermite cans full of alcohol a couple months back, packed with ice to keep them cold. It'd been a while and there was still ice in the cans. Fucking mermites, baby, God's gift to wankers like us.

"Whatcha think?" John asked me, leaning against the tire next to me and cracking the bottle.

"Try not to." I admitted.

"You don't care?" He asked.

I took a long drink off the bottle and passed it back. "About what?"

"That those two assholes came swooping in at the tail end of Copper Window, scooped all the medals and glory, and you got jack and shit, that's what." John said, taking a drink himself then digging out his smokes.

"Nope. Don't care one fucking bit. I know who did the work, I know what we did. Let them have their dumbass ARCOM's, I'm just a dumbass enlisted man." I told him without any bitterness. "It's no big deal, John, just the way life goes."

John shook his head, made a disgusted noise, and passed me back the bottle. We stood together for a long while, sipping on the Jack Daniels, in quiet closeness, next to Kong and listening to it ping at it slowly cooled off.

"I don't know, man. It just pisses me off that we did all that shit and then Henley's fat ass just shoves us to the side to give the awards and credit to his buddies." John finally admitted. "Dammit, I was your right hand man, I helped with this shit, and now nobody will ever know." He kicked a rock across the dirt road. Illithid Lane wasn't paved, the paving had quit halfway through Umber Hulk Road when the operation had gotten too busy for them to be around since they'd be in the way. John kicked another rock. "It just pisses me off."

"My Father was at the Chosin Reservoir." I told him. He looked up at me, frowning, but let me continue. "He and about twenty others got cut off, surrounded, and by the second day were out of food, low on ammo, and had no clue where they were. It was frozen, snow everywhere, like he was up at Alfenwehr. He led those men out, John. He got a Purple Heart because he'd been shot twice, but getting a Purple Heart was pretty much the award for surviving Chosin." I exhaled slowly. "He was one of the Chosin Few, but nobody beyond himself and the sixteen men that he got out will ever know or give a fuck."

"Yeah, now suddenly I'm the asshole. Thanks, Ant." John said, sighing out a cloud of smoke.

I laughed and slugged him in the shoulder. "No charge, brother." Nagle and Bradley were heading toward us, Nagle walking in front of the forklift and Bradley hanging half out of the cab like he couldn't see out of the windshield.

"We're finished." Nagle told me when they pulled up and Bradley shut off the engine to the little 4K forklift.

"But I thought you loved me." I whined at Nancy. She laughed, knowing that I was acting like she'd just broken up with me. "How come we're finished, don't you love me?"

"No." She said, laughing. "Just after you for your massive wealth and riches." She held out her hand to John who slapped the bottle into it. She took a drink and relaxed. "We finished it, took inventory on what we tucked into the bunker and copied down the inventory listings for the inventory we took last week." I nodded, taking the bottle when she handed it to me. "We're turning into alcoholics."

"Might as well make something out of our lives." Bradley said, taking a turn on the bottle. "Being an alcoholic is being something."

We all nodded, me smiling.

I went to make fun of Nancy and a low booming noise rolled over us. We all looked at each other.

"What the fuck was that?" Bradley asked.

"I don't know. Sounded like it came from the rearming point." I said, looking uprange. A puff of black smoke was rising up. "Um, oh shit." The others looked up as I grabbed Kong's ladder and began climbing up. "Bomber, you're on the running boards. Nagle, get all the doors closed in case we have a fire sweep over the site. Bradley, head to the upper helipad."

Kong fired right up and I honked at Bradley and Nagle so they'd pull off the side at bunker 92 and let me get by. I hit the gas and Kong kept bouncing every time we hit a pothole. I had to watch it or Kong would bounce until he flipped over on his back and killed us both. Bomber was holding on to the bar next to the cab, one hand on his helmet to keep it from flying off.

Those two idiots must have went to gas something up at the rearming point. It had three sets of pumps, running off of massive fuel tanks buried in the German soil, at the side of the asphalt pad that tanks and other vehicles were suppose to sit on while they were refueled and we slapped them with gear and whatever small arms ammunition they hadn't been loaded up with. The thing was is that the engineers hadn't completely finished with two of the sets of pumps. I knew to only use pump three and pump six, three for mogas, six for diesel, and I'd told Sergeant Woodard, but that didn't mean he'd listened to shit I'd said.

Bomber slid open the little side window and when I slowed down to take the corner to hit Kobold Road he ylled into the cab at me. "If there's a fire we've got to get control of it before we lose the whole fucking site. We've got bunker doors open."

"Nagle will get them closed." I yelled back, keeping it under 5mph on the bumpy and uneven road. "If it's fire take Kong and grab the pallet of extinguishers I've got up at War Fighter Warehouse Two." He nodded as I cranked the wheel and the big articulated forklift bent in the middle to make the corner. I hit the gas and head up the main drag, which we'd named after more D&D stuff because we were all giant nerds with no lives. Bastardsword Road might sound all kickass and military, but it was named after Little Bit's character's favorite weapon. I'd voted for Smaug Road, Bomber had voted for Cormyr Lane, but Bastardsword Road had won with five votes. It was bribery, I tell you. She'd probably promised not to shoot everyone in the dick, or promised them her MRE gum.

Stupid crooked politics.

There was smoke rising up from the rearming point and I swung the forklift around to head over to it. CUC-V Fifteen was sitting there blameless but pump one was on fire. I hit the brakes, the big forklift leaning forward for a second while I slapped it into neutral and hit the ebrake. Bomber had already jumped down by the time I'd grabbed the heavy fire extinguisher so I tossed it to him and jumped down myself.

"Looks like they blew up pump one." Bomber said as we jogged forward.

"Looks like it." I said. "Put it out, I'll move the Gypsy Wagon."

"Roger that." Bomber said, jogging forward. I headed over to the Gypsy Wagon, pulling open the driver's side door and sliding in. The passenger window was shattered and smoke and the cloying smell of fuel was filling the cab through the broken window. The keys were still in it so I hit the keys, waited for the glowplugs to warm up, then fired it up.

She started just like always. She never let us down.

I moved the vehicle away then hopped out. John had hosed down pump one, pulling his black leather gloves out of his pocket and putting one on so he could reach forward and yank open the front and spray down the inside with the white powder. When I came back he was spraying down two huddled lumps, looking grim with all the soot on his face.

"That them?" I asked as he stepped back and dropped the extinguisher on the asphalt. It made a clanking noise and bounced away, obviously empty.

"Yeah, they're deader then Henley's cock." Bomber said, toeing the CO2 powder covered body. He lit a cigarette and waved his hand in front of his face, mock coughing at the smoke. "Like, I totally didn't sign up for this, ma-yan." He whined.

I grinned. It was a running joke between us, from all the movies where some guy who joined the fucking Army yelled the same thing when they started fighting the enemy. You know, the thing they signed up to do?

"I signed up for the beaches and condos, dude." I told him.

"I signed up for the bitches and condoms." He finished. He kicked the other body, getting no reaction. "Well, at least Atlas is well fed for a few weeks." I nodded and started walking over to Kong. I pulled open the toolbox and pulled out one of the body bags we'd stuffed into all of the vehicle toolboxes, then grabbed the bundle of toetags.

"Go uprange, let the Germans know we aren't being aggressed." A green flare kicked off on the other side of the 1K Zone. "Shit, hurry up."

"Dude, don't go over there yourself." He told me.

"Why not? They aren't going to grab me, not any more. Maybe a month ago, but now? Fuck no." I told him. "Since you're acting like an old woman I'll go with you, we'll get shit back in shape. We'll grab Little Bit's rifle and make sure she gets it, I want her covering me while we go reassure our nervous friends. Looks like we're back to the old way."

"Works for me." Bomber shrugged. "Liked it better when you were in charge."

I sighed and walked back uprange.

Another day, another dollar ninety-five.

Chapter 19

2/19th Special Weapons Group Barracks
Restricted Area, Alfenwehr West Germany
Late Summer- 2 September, 1987
1600 hours

"Stillwater? Holy shit, I'd heard you were dead." SFC Newman said.

"Out at Atlas all year, same thing." I told him, sitting down behind my desk. Hell, I'd never seen this desk before, the only reason I knew it was mine was because it had my nameplate on it that someone had been nice enough to put down. I kicked my feet up on the desk.

"Get your fucking boots off the desk." MSG Crows snapped, not looking up from the paperwork she was doing.

"Yes, Sergeant." I dropped my boots down.

"I've got your leave request signed right here. You, Specialist Bomber, Specialist Nagle." She tapped some paper on the corner of her desk, still not looking up. "Go ahead and hand it out to them. Your leave starts tomorrow, go ahead and take the rest of the day off."

"Thanks, Sergeant." I said, jumping up and grabbing the papers. I hurried off before she could change her mind.

I had over sixty days of leave, I needed to take some before the Army took the excess away. Rumor said they grabbed it at seventy-two, other rumors said they rolled you back to thirty days, still other rumors said that 2/19th had a waiver and they wouldn't snatch up any of your leave. Still, I hadn't had leave since I'd joined the Army, and it would be nice to go home.

Well, almost home. I think I'd pass on seeing Jed.

But Father was out at Lewis, and that meant Jed and Martha weren't far off. If I went to see my Father, family obligations would insist I went and saw Jed and Martha.

The last thing I wanted to do was piss off the family matrons.

Nancy was in her room, and she hugged me when I gave her the leave orders. John was in his room and he gave me a grin and a high five.

I went back, packed my shit, and was ready to go by dinner.

At 0001 hours I signed out on leave and headed home.

Shady Oaks Trailer Park
Chehalis, Washington
Continental United States of America
9 September, 1987
1120 hours

"You don't have to do this, Ant." Nancy told me.

My parents had sold the house I'd grown up in, obviously. Now there were in trailer #18, as if I couldn't tell from the two cars that had their hoods off, their engines missing, and never put back together. There were bags of trash in the parking enclosure, piled up almost to the roof, just like most of the trailers in the park. The place had owned the lovely nickname of "Pit of Despair" when I was growing up and it hadn't gotten any better in the time I was gone. My father had probably sold the house to cover gambling debts or for more booze money and from what a friend had told me Logan was working up at the Waerhauser camps just like dear old daddy was.

Part of me was happy they'd fallen so low.

"Yeah, I think I do." I told her, squeezing back when she squeezed my hand. "I've been trailing this around behind me since I was a kid."

"Your sister here?" She asked.

"No. She's with my Father, I think. Maybe at West Point if she took that option. Girls in our family who join the military go in as officers, it's only boys who are enlisted." I sighed. "I haven't seen them since court back in seventy-nine."

"I don't think this is any better of an idea then going to see my parents was." Nancy said softly. "We both know how well that turned out."

I nodded, then dug a pack of Camels out of my jacket pocket, lighting one and offering the pack to her so she could have one. We sat in the September rain and watched my parent's mobile home in silence.

Even the goddamn porch off of the sliding glass door had garbage on it.

...You'll never be more than white trash...

"Might as well get this ever with." I said, putting out the cigarette. "Stay here."

"I'd rather come with you." Nancy said.

"No, that might not be a good idea. My parents don't like strangers." I said lamely. Nancy's dark skin, a gift from her Mexican heritage, would instantly start a fight between my racist parents and me. I knew that much would remain the same even if everything else changed.

One of Jed's favorite stories was about how this 'uppity nigger' had arrived at his unit in Vietnam. He 'thought he was as good as a white man just because he won himself a Silver Star', which probably meant he didn't put up with Jed's shit. Jed liked to laugh about how he and a bunch of his redneck buddies had grabbed the guy one day on his way back from the showers and beat him with a rubber hose like 'niggers used to get reminded of their place' until the guy had blood running down his back and had lost consciousness. Jed also used to like to brag about how they'd gotten a black officer and the first time out on patrol he'd shot him in the back of the head. He blamed blacks as the reason he was put out of the Army, not the fact he was a racist alcoholic shitbag.

My dad Jed, ladies and gentlemen.

The car door sounded muffled when I shut it, and my hands trembled as I lit myself another cigarette walking toward the trailer. My boots thudded against the leaf strewn asphalt until I moved up the steps to the porch. The smell of rotting garbage filled my nose and my boots whispered on the astroturf on the porch. I stepped up, ignored the butterflies in my stomach, and rapped on the glass. I could feel the sweat run down my spine as footsteps came up to the glass doors and the curtain moved aside.

She'd gotten older and fatter. Where before she'd just suffered a bit of the farmgirl spread now she was heavily run to fat in a way that not even her thick dress couldn't hide. Her hair was greying, she had lines on her face, and the years had not been kind to her. I could see Jed sitting on a Lay-Z Boy chair behind her, with a can of Olympia beer in his fist. He was obviously watching TV and of course couldn't be bothered to get the door himself. Her face, which had a grim unfriendly expression when she pulled back the curtain hardened into a cold mask of fury.

...The more things change...

The sliding glass door came open. My mother took a swing and her fist, covered in heavy rings, hit me on the side of the head. "You little shit." she snarled at me. I'd let my neck go loose, robbing her first blow of any power, so the second blow, this time a slap on the return of her arm, didn't hurt nearly as much as anything else I'd suffered over the years. "How dare you come back here? How dare you show..."

...The more...

"Is that Anthony?" Jed asked from his chair, heaving himself up. He'd gone from wiry to thicker, age and heavy boozing taking its toll on him even though he was a lumberjack. He looked past my mother, that gleam in his eyes the same as I remembered it from when I was a child. "The prodigal son returns."

Jed stomped up, shoving my mother out of the way before shoving me hard so I stumbled back slightly and gave him the room to step out on the porch. I went to tell him I'd come home, that I wanted to make things up with him, that I wanted to set things right.

And he punched me right in the face.

...They stay the same...

I grabbed him by the front of his flannel shirt, spinning around in place to throw him off the porch. He hit the engineless car face first, folding over the fender and the empty engine compartment. Before he could turn around I was on him, throwing shots into his kidneys as hard as I could. When he lifted up, trying the old trick of throwing an elbow backwards to hit me in the face, I grabbed his elbow, kneed him in the balls, and twisted his arm around behind his back.

I screamed at him, wrenching hard on his arm and lifting his elbow. His shoulder went with a pop and his arm snapped like a green branch. While he screamed I spun him around, striking his other collarbone with the ridge of my hand before burying my fist in his pus-gut right below his sternum. Before he could do much more that gag I brought the bottom of my fist down on his nose and then punched him twice at the point of his chin.

His eyes rolled back in his head and he dropped to the ground.

When I turned around my mother was drawing the shotgun from behind the door, fear evident on her face and I felt a sick sense of pleasure at the sight. Nancy was getting out of the car, yelling my name, and I saw Logan behind my mother coming into the frontroom.

Before she could get it into play I was on the porch, the shotgun leaving her hands and into my grasp. She went to slap me again and I drove the stock into her stomach, not looking at her, but at Logan.

The Army had taught me well.

"I'm leaving. I don't think I'll be back." I told any of them willing to listen. I lifted the shotgun so the barrel fell against my shoulder, doing a crisp right face and starting to walk toward the car.

Behind me I heard Logan step out on the porch.

"Don't try it, Logan. I will kill you." Was all I said. I didn't bother looking back. He'd maybe grabbed a kitchen knife, but working in the woods hadn't done to him what the Army and Atlas had done to me.

I pulled the car door open, tossing the shotgun in the back seat, and looking at the porch. Logan was down on one knee by our dad, and when he looked at me his eyes were narrowed in hate.

I gave him the finger and got behind the wheel.

"Told you it wasn't a good idea, Anthony." Nagle said softly beside me, buckling up.

"I think it was." I told her, smiling.

She reached out and took my hand, squeezing it gently.

"I love you, you know."

"I love you too, Nancy." I threw the car in reverse, backing up and turning around.

"We shouldn't have come here." She said. "We should have just gone to Fort Lewis to see the Sergeant Major."

"I don't know, I feel better then I have in years." I smiled. "Light me a cigarette, honey."

...You can't go home again...

Chapter 20

Officer Housing
Fort Lewis, Washington
9 September, 1987
1930 hours

The lawn was clipped and even, the bushes well tended, and the porch had Halloween decorations already. The Sergeant Major's favorite holiday, and one he slowly added to the lawn for over two months until there was a virtual haunted house leading up to his door.

The door that he stood in front of, a smile on his face.

"Welcome home, Anthony." He told me, enveloping me in a hug.

"Thanks, Father." I said, hugging back.

...Sometimes, you can go home...

"You can stay for dinner, but your unit called." He told me, holding me out at arm's length. "You've grown, boy."

"What did they want?" I asked.

"They're cutting your leave off. You and everyone else in the unit." He told me. He hugged Nancy, who blushed. "But you have time for dinner before I make arrangements to get you a MAC flight."

I could smell roast beef, potatoes, and thick gravy.

It was good to be home.

Officer Housing
Fort Lewis, Washington
10 September, 1987
1800 hours

John had tucked into dinner like a starving wolf, the fork flashing in his hand as he ripped through the roast beef cooked with sauteed mushrooms, the potatoes, and everything else and now was working on his second slice of Mom's blueberry pie with ice cream on top. On his lap was a small child, about two, that my Father had been given by the Washington Foster Care system, who kept grabbing handfuls of the potatoes that John had left at the side of his plate for little Michael to keep stuffing in his mouth. He was one of over a half dozen foster kids, all around the table, all wolfing down food, filling my Father's dining room with the sound of children and a feeling of life that I'd nearly forgotten existed.

My Father had fostered children since the 1960's, taking in problem cases, children that needed a bit more attention, who needed a stable household with scheduling and gentle discipline that didn't come from a raised hand, a belt, or an angry voice. My Father was a large man who often scared tiny children, but children quickly found that his heart was large enough to hold a place for them and those long arms and heavy scarred hands held, comforted, gave hugs, and shielded. Which lead to two biological children at a table filled with kids. In the middle of the table, opposite of me, John and Michael, and Nancy who was holding a sleeping little girl named Hope who had arrived that morning, were two of my Father's men, one a Ranger and the other with Special Forces tags. Both had sleeping children on their laps and a bemused expression on their face. That was a scene that had never changed in the household. My Father brought home his snake eaters to sit at the table and eat, hold children, and remember exactly the reasons they carried a rifle in shitholes and what the American Dream was all about. Mom said that it reminded the snake eaters that they were people, not just weapons, and that there was a slow, gentle, quiet place that they were allowed to touch and even work to obtain themselves.

It was something that Alfenwehr and Atlas had ground away until I could barely remember it. That Jed and Martha had denied me and tried to keep from me. Something that I realized, sitting at the table, that I missed, craved, and needed.

After dessert it was past dinner and My Father was at the head of the table, sitting next to Mom, holding her hand as she held a sleeping toddler that Washington State Social Services had dropped off earlier that day with Hope, two little children from two different homes, two little lives in need of care. Mom was a matronly woman with a gentle demeanor, a loving embrace, and a heart where children grew. Mom's touch could make a child's hurt go away, who could hold a child who's parents had hurt them and let them feel love pouring from her that soothed the hurt. She didn't hit, she didn't scream in anger, she loved, and to some of us love was something strange, foreign, and alien, but she made it so it wasn't scary and it was all right to feel love.

There's no way to explain it to someone else.

The call between my Father and Military Airlift Command had arranged for a flight to take the three of us to Germany on a C-5 Galaxy in two days, the unit hadn't been thrilled but since we'd signed in at 60th Ordnance there wasn't really jack they could actually do. We'd spoken to their CO, who's name escaped me before I even hung up the phone, and he'd told us not to come in, but not to leave Fort Lewis for any extended amount of time. Bomber had arrived via MAC in the morning, having skipped from Fort Hood to McChord AFB on a C-141 during the night with my Father's string pulling, and I'd picked him up in my Father's old pickup truck, which made John smile.

It was odd. It was strange. Nancy had been slightly defensive when we'd arrived, but the shrieking of happy children, the sight of my Father, still in uniform, helping the children with homework while being climbed on by the babies, and helping Mom in the kitchen seemed to thaw something out in her that I'd never seen. She'd come out back with me and chopped wood while I stood there smoking cigarettes, her breath steaming in the crisp pre-dawn air, and smiled while she carried in the wood. She'd kneaded dough and helped make pies, had made gravy, dusted the house, and all the domestic things that I couldn't imagine Nancy doing, and did it with a smile and chatting with Mom.

Bomber and I had gone into the garage where my Father had a '57 Cadillac El Dorado up on block and taken apart. He and I had pulled dents while the Sergeant Major was at work, for the most part not talking while we worked on the car, slowly drank Olympia beer from brown stubby bottles, and smoked cigarettes. We'd scraped rust from places on the frame, put Bondo where it was needed, and used the tap and die set to repair damaged bolt holes or pull broken bolts from where they'd gotten stuck. Nancy came out often to putter around and help, stand with us quietly and smoke a cigarette (Smoking in the house was only allowed when the Sergeant Major was home) or drink a beer. When my older siblings got home from school they'd wanted to see me. Tabitha, who had been five and fostered with my Father for two months when I'd arrived, was fourteen and the young woman was far cry from the small child who screamed and wet herself when a closet door was opened. (The Sergeant Major had come into her room one night while she screamed because the closet door was open, grabbed the door in his hands, and tore it completely out of the frame, telling Tabitha that now she was safe, before carrying the door outside. The next day Tabitha had sat and watched with wide eyes as the Sergeant Major destroyed the door with the wood axe and then hugged her. They'd roasted marshmallows as the wreckage of the door burned in the fireplace and made smores together)

Nancy and the girls had chased us boys out when we'd gone to help make dinner, and seeing Nancy join the girls in their singing as they cooked made John and I smile. While dinner was being cooked John and I helped the Sergeant Major help the children with homework and then we helped with the chores. John seemed to take a quiet joy in those chores and I wondered if he felt the sense of normalcy that I did as worked. The days would be cooling soon and in the evening there was already a chill in the air, so John and I cleaned the fireplace.

Dinner had been served as my Father and Mom sat holding the small children who were eager to pull food off of plates to jam in their mouths with little fists.

Raccoon, the kid's big grey and black cat, wound around the chair and my legs and vanished under the table to search for scraps with a pitiful meow of an animal claiming to have gone unfed since the Big Bang. Michael, on John's lap, happily cried out 'kitty' and dropped a handful of potatoes onto John's leg, most of which slid onto the floor. John smiled and kissed the top of the child's hair before taking another big bite of pie.

Raccoon took the potatoes as his due.

After dinner I helped collect the dishes, kicked a teenage girl named Tabitha out of the kitchen, and started filling the sinks to wash dishes. Tabitha vanished at the idea of not having to wash the mountain of dinner dishes and I smiled. In front of me was a window, with avocado plants growing in little jars on the sill, that showed me the back yard where Nancy had cut wood and my Nova sat next to William's 240-Z and Ineda's Dodge Dart. I poured some Dawn into the left hand sink, watching the bubbles foam up, and started scraping the plates into the compost bucket.

Nancy came in about halfway through the dishes, standing there for a long moment and looking at me. My Father, Bomber, the two snake-eaters, and two of my adopted sisters (adopted, a word that you did not say when referring to those who came to live in the house, be it for two weeks or until they were old and stable enough to move out) had moved into the front-room to talk about things. I could hear my Father laughing at something and a glance showed me that Tabitha was waving her hands and talking.

"You smile while you wash dishes." Nancy said suddenly. I set aside the platter that the roast beef had been sitting on, the now clean china sparkling, and turned to Nancy with a smile while I grabbed the empty crystal boat to wash it. "I've never seen you do dishes."

"I like to do dishes." I told her honestly.

"And clear the table, and put away the left-overs." Nancy added. She was smiling, her face gentle. "It just seems odd that you'd chase off those little girls so you could wash dishes."

I shrugged. "I don't mind." We were silent while I grabbed a towel and started drying off dishes to put them away in the cabinets. The soft sounds of the towel, the gentle clink of the china being put away, and the chime of silverware being put away after being dried and a quick polish all soothed my nerves. The sinks drained while I worked.

"It's not some kind of control issue like we're out at Atlas or something, is it?" She asked suddenly, watching me clean and then refill the sinks again.

I laughed at that. "I've liked doing dishes since I was a kid." I started washing the pans. Mom used cast iron, pans that were probably from the turn of the century knowing her. Steel wool and elbow grease stripped away the food residue and I started setting the pans on the stove, turning the burners on to dry and recure the pans.

"You look weird. It's kind of creepy." Nancy said. I turned to look at her and she held out her cigarette. "Drag." I nodded, leaned forward slightly, took a drag, and blew the smoke out the slightly opened window. "Seriously, you're creeping me out."

"Why?" I started scrubbing the roast pan, the black enamel speckled with white a part of childhood.

"I don't know." She looked down at the source of a sudden tugging on her pantleg. I glanced over and saw little Hope holding up one arm to be picked up, the other making sure her thumb stayed firmly planted in her mouth. Nancy picked the little girl up, and odd twinge of pain appeared on her face for a second, then looked back at me. "Look, Hope, a dish washing monkey."

"Mon-key." Hope mumbled around her thumb.

"That's right. Monkey." Nancy laughed.

"Miss Nagle, would you be so kind as to read to the children?" Mom's voice floated into the kitchen. "They've asked for you to read Curious George." Nancy's face lit up and she turned.

"Come on, Hope, let's go read about another monkey." Nancy said, smiling.

"Mon-key."

I went back to washing, staring out the window at times while I scrubbed. Birds were in the back yard and two crows sat on the hockey-mask clad scarecrow. Ol' Jason was holding an axe with a wooden replica axe-head but the crows weren't impressed at all, instead eyeing Mom's little garden patch. Window boxes grew small spices, Mom's garden was a little patch of the farm she'd grown up on, and the well kept back yard was mostly for the children with Mom's carefully planted and tended roses along the white picket fence that separated the Sergeant Major's house from its neighbors.

It was weird. Father was 'only' a Command Sergeant Major, one of the highest ranks of NCO's, but lived in senior officer's quarters in the big houses by way of the US Army showing its silent approval for the fact that he helped take care of children who were societies most vulnerable members. Cliches, stereotypes and media would make someone believe that all the Colonels and Generals would be disapproving of a 'mere enlisted man' living in the lofty heights of officer country but instead Mom's Sunday dinners often saw two or three families at the table and two or three tables full of children. General's grandchildren played in yards

I could see the jungle gym, built of 4x4's and 4x6's and 4x8's, held together by big steel bolts, with tire swings, a slide, climbing bars, and held to the ground by steel embedded in concrete. While it hadn't been there originally it would remain behind when my family moved. My Father built those with his men when he arrived at a new unit as a 'teamwork building exercise' within the first month he lived there. There were those play areas scattered across military bases all over the US, my Father's way of leaving the world a little bit better.

I could feel my Father's presence move into the kitchen before he did, his boots quiet on the wood floor, and he stopped by the stove two paces from me. He was quiet while I held up the crystal dish that the steamed broccoli with cheese had only managed to survive for a few passes on. I had to scrub the cheese out of all the little nooks and crannies. When I set the dish to the side he finally spoke.

"Dishes. They never change, do they, boy? Like cutting wood." My Father said. "Even if we have a dishwasher, dishes don't change."

"No." I answered quietly. The Ranger went by with the table-cloth and the rest of the dinner linen, taking it to the laundryroom to put it in the washer. Tabitha was with him, going along to make sure that the snake-eater didn't screw up and shred the linens. I was just glad he wasn't trying to eat them.

"Heard you had it rough, boy." He said.

"Yeah." The crystal chimed as I set the asparagus dish down.

"I read the reports, synopsis, and precis. You did good, boy." He told me. I heard the dial spin on the washer and click, then the lid go down in the quiet of the kitchen. A second later I heard the button on the dryer click and the dryer start tumbling clothes.

"I lost good men." I told him. I closed my eyes for a second then grabbed the towel again to dry the dishes and put them away.

My Father was silent for a long time. The snake eater went by with Tabitha trailing in his wake until she got me. Tabitha stopped to hug me, grabbed a glass, and poured herself some orange juice from the fridge before heading out to the front-room. My Father remained silent while I put the crystal into the engraved glass front china cabinet, making sure that the crystal shined and was on display.

Mom treated every meal as if it was a special event.

"I lost a nineteen year old girl." I admitted, putting my hands in the warm soapy water and closing my eyes.

"Civilian?" Father asked. I shook my head. "You lost a nineteen year old female soldier?" I nodded. "Let me guess, they tried to comfort you with enemy versus friendly kill ratio, that you succeeded in some damned objective, and tried to wrap it in jingoism and all of that other stuff they haul out on the Fourth of July to make her death seem like some kind of glory?" I nodded again, bowing my head. My Father gave a low growl that I knew wasn't aimed at me. "I hate that. I've always hated it."

He leaned back against the fridge, crossing his arms over his chest. "Do you want to talk about her and it?" I shook my head. "Do you need to be alone?" I shook my head again. "Sucks, doesn't it boy? You need to talk, you feel off, but you can't talk about it, you want to be alone but can't stand to be alone, and it all just sucks." I nodded and he moved up next to me, picking up the towel to dry and polish the glasses I carefully set down. Set them down too hard they could crack. Mom hated how cheap and thin the glass was on the Disney glasses but Father bought them for the children anyway and one of the older girls always painted a child's initials on the bottom in fingernail polish. If they left the house, they took a glass, a plate, a spoon, a fork, a knife, a cup, and a bowl with them, along with a hand made blanket and a stuffed animal.

Sometimes you came to the house with nothing more than your clothing and whatever the police, Social Workers, and hospital gave you. It was a weird nakedness that left you exposed and vulnerable. Mom and Father believed that having those basics they made sure any child leaving possessed help cover up that child's nakedness in a slight way.

And you took their love with you, something that nobody could take away from you.

Father put away the glasses silently while I drained the sink an washed them out. He handed me the towel and watched as I dried my hands.

"Might want to check the woodpile for chipmunks." He said. "Care to come along?" I nodded and together we went out to the side yard where the wood was stacked. We stood there, me in my flannel shirt and jeans, Father in his BDU's, and stared at the woodpile. The back door of the neighboring house opened and a tall man, still solidly built despite his grey hair, walked out and leaned against the fence.

"Good evening, Sergeant Major." He said.

"Good evening, General." My Father said. The courtesy didn't feel forced or fake, but normal and comfortable.

"That one of your boys?" The man asked. I wondered what his name was, reaching forward with my boot and toeing one of the logs. The houses had central air and heating, but they had fireplaces too and a fireplace had an odd comfort to it. Washington got rainy and chilly in September, and I could remember coming home from school to warm up by the fire in the fireplace that warmed me faster than the warmth of the central heating.

"Yup. My boy Anthony." My father said, waving me toward the older man. "General Alistair, you remember my son Corporal Stillwater? Anthony, General Alistair."

"Good to meet you, General Alistair." I said, holding out my hand. The General took it and shook it firmly.

"Pleasure to meet you again, Anthony." He said. "Last time I saw you was, oh, back in '81." He dug in the pocket of his flannel shirt and pulled out a pack of Lucky Strikes. "Smoke, son?" He held out the pack.

"Thank you, sir." I answered, taking the offered cigarette. I used my own Zippo to light it, the moisture heavy wind whipping at the flame.

"How's your evening going, Jeffery?" My Father asked, snapping his own Zippo closed.

"Despite Mamma's attempt to wreck it with her infamous chicken pot pie her blueberry tarts made up for it." The General laughed. "Came out to see if you'd mind spotting me a few logs, the grand-kids are in town and Mamma wants me to sit with the babies and read to them by the fire."

I wondered if I'd live long enough and find someone who could stand me enough that eventually I'd be comfortable enough to call them Mama.

My Father and the General chatted while we smoked, the Lucky Strike harsher than I was used to, but you didn't turn down a cigarette offered by a three star general even if you didn't smoke. It was kind of funny eavesdropping, they complained about the same things that us lower enlisted did only on a higher scale. Where'd I'd complain about Group or CosCom they complained about Corps or Army, and it was kind of funny to hear that both of them still judged a man for always hiding in the radio bunker every time the Vietnamese forces attacked despite the years having gone by and the other man rising to the rank of Colonel and working at Corps. They complained about out of touch officers at the higher levels and stupid/imcompentant subordinates at the lower levels. Without the ranks it sounded like bitching in the Mag Office.

I wondered if people would judge me almost twenty years later for losing Westlin out at Atlas.

When the cigarettes were over my Father had cut some firewood and left it next to the stump. "You mind carrying some logs for the General, boy?" My Father asked me. I shook my head and held out my arms so my Father could load an armful for me. I walked down the driveway, the wind blowing around me. I could smell the rain coming and the clouds felt heavy. I did an end around the fence and walked along the General's side yard to meet up with him.

"I can always tell one of the Sergeant Major's boys, son. Leaves his stamp on young men. He left his stamp on me." The General laughed as we walked around to his back porch. "Met him back in '52, I was just a shave-tail lieutenant, just off the bus, and the Sergeant Major's driver came to get me at the airport in Seoul." He opened up the back porch screen door and held it for me to clomp up onto his back porch. "There I was, all mad that I was having to wait, complaining to some Corporal about how I was too important to be waiting around in a jeep." He opened the back door and when I walked into the kitchen I could smell chicken and bread-dough.

"Found out that the Sergeant Major had come to Seoul to make sure his men got food instead of C-Rats for the first time in two months. Felt about four inches tall." The laugh was self-mocking. "Been over thirty years, and the man still makes me feel like a young fool." We stopped in the comfortably decorated front-room. Three small children ran up to hug the General's legs, one waving a Dr. Seuss book, and he broke off talking to me with a laugh, scooping up the littlest one. I knelt down and at the General's suggestion the oldest, a little boy about seven with a serious face, unloaded the wood from my arms to set it in a black wrought iron cradle in front of the fireplace. I heard the General tell his wife who I was as the little boy set each log precisely, holding his tongue in his teeth. When we were done I stood up, brushed off my arms and hands over the tinder basket, and smiled at the little boy while he copied me.

"Thank you, Anthony." The General's wife said, walking me to the back porch. She pressed a little blueberry tart into my hand. "You always were a good boy. Quiet, but any mother could tell you were a good boy."

I blushed, mumbled an approximation of a thanks, and walked back out into the slowly dimming blustery evening.

My father was slowly picking up a piece of wood to place on the stump. He'd brought that stump from duty station to duty station with him, its South Carolina red maple surface scarred from years of cutting firewood. I jumped the white picket fence and moved over to stand next to him.

Nancy was standing on the steps off the back porch of my Father's home, her long brown hair blowing in the wind that fluttered her blouse. Little Hope held onto her like a monkey, Nancy's hip cocked to make it easier to hold the child. Hope's head was resting against the Nancy's shoulder and her little eyes were closed, one hand clutching tightly to Nancy's blouse. The little girl's sleeve had slid down to her elbow and I could see the deep bruise shaped like a handprint nearly covering her forearm. The little girl's rose and fell in a gentle rhythm that hid the fact the doctors had taped her little ribs, and Hope's face showed trust in the strange woman that Hope had not let go since seeing for the first time.

I wondered if the weird pang of pain I felt inside was reflected in my eyes the same way it was in Nancy's.

"You were a good boy, Anthony." My Father said, reaching out and squeezing my shoulder. "You're a good man, boy."

Nancy walked down to wood pile, protectively holding onto Hope. Hope had started screaming when Mom had tried to bathe her, but Hope had allowed Nancy to bathe her, the bubble bath quickly turning into laughter and giggles. Mom had tasked me with cleaning up the bathroom, wiping the bubbles that had somehow managed to find their way up onto the walls. She nodded at Hope, and we gently passed the sleeping Hope from herself to me. Hope looked up at me with sleepy eyes, mumbled 'mon-key' and put her thumb into her mouth before closing her eyes.

"Hold the baby." Nancy said. "I need a smoke."

My Father held out his pack of Winstons and Nancy gratefully took one. She turned to me after blowing the smoke into the wind and smiled. "Is it always like this here?"

I nodded.

"Sometimes more kids, sometimes less, depending on how cruel the world is feeling." My Father said.

"Thank you for letting me stay here with you." Nancy said. "I know this house is full of people, but thank you for making room for me."

My Father nodded. "There's always room for my son's friends. Houses are meant to be full of children, Miss Nagle, so squeezing a few of them into the same bed won't hurt them." He laughed. "I grew up on a farm, shared a bed with six brothers till I was too big, then I slept in one of the stalls in the barn with an older brother till the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. After that, I slept where the Army told me. Didn't hurt me none." He waved his cigarette at the house. "Won't hurt the children none to sleep two to a bed so that you and the boy have a room and some privacy, Miss Nagle."

Nancy blushed and changed the topic. "Ant told me once you teach knife fighting to the little girls, is that true, Sergeant Major?"

My Father nodded. "Wasn't always like that. Used to just teach the boys till the 60's, when Mother made issue of it. She'd learned about feminism, taught me about it, and convinced me to teach the girls fight with knives to protect themselves just like the boys. She told me once that a woman in the kitchen is never more than three steps from a knife and ten times more likely to be attacked in her home. Well, that last part didn't sit right with me, and she was right, women shouldn't have to depend on no man to defend them and sometimes you ain't got nobody but yourself to fall back on." He smiled through a cloud of smoke that the wind whipped away. "So I teach the young girls to fight with knives, some judo, and how to stand up for themselves." He sighed, his face serious. "Some of these little girls, Miss Nagle, come to me hurt in ways no child should be hurt, life and sometimes even their own parents already trying to make a victim out of them." He shrugged. "So I try to help them so they can grow up to be modern women instead of victims."

Nancy dropped her cigarette, toed it out, and stepped forward to hug my Father. My Father looked surprised for a moment but still automatically hugged her, holding her like a small child as she clutched to my Father like he was a rope and she was drowning. When the hug broke Nancy looked embarrassed but my Father looked like normal.

"Mother says it's time for the babies to be put to bed, which means it's story time." Nagle said, trying to forestall any conversation that might make her uncomfortable and holding out her arms for Hope. We switched and Hope patted Nancy's cheek before shutting her eyes. Before we were all the way in the house I could tell Hope was asleep again.

"Army life ain't easy, boy. Years go by with nothing happening then everything changes in a heartbeat." He paused in the doorway to give him time to finish by keeping me from moving by him. Not that I'd be rude to him. "That's why us old men talk so much, boy. We didn't talk when we were young men, so we talk when we're older, when we shoulda talked when we were younger. You got good friends, boy, talk to them, it'll help."

He stepped out of the way, putting his hand on the kitchen door as if to hold it open, and swept his arm at the kitchen. "There's babies that need reading to, boy, and after that we'll put up some more decorations in the front yard."


It was dark and quiet in the room. The window was cracked to let in the night air which carried the smell of the rain that the evening had promised and the night had delivered. Nancy was cuddled up to me, both of us laying on our sides in the dark. We'd made love slowly and quietly, and Nancy had told me to get up and put my boxers on. I hadn't bothered to argue, quickly putting them on and sliding back into bed behind her.

"I think I understand you better, Ant." Nancy said softly.

"What do you mean?"

"I just didn't understand what made you like you are, but now I think I do." She said, grabbing the hand I had cupping her breast and squeezing it gently. "So much about you now makes sense that didn't before." She sighed. "I wish I'd been one of the Sergeant Major's daughters."

"Really?"

She sighed softly. "Really. You don't understand what it's like seeing a man give three little girls a bath and not wondering if he's touching them. Seeing him carry a book upstairs to read to those little girls and not wondering if he's hurting them. You don't know what it's like, Ant. It makes me hate you for what you have." She shuddered. "You don't know what it's like to trust someone not to hurt little girls when you aren't looking."

"Do you trust me?"

She hugged my arms. "Yeah. I wondered why, I've trusted you since I've met you and I was confused as why." She was quiet for a moment. "Now I know why."

The door creaked open. "Na-na?" a little voice asked. She was old enough that her vocabulary should have been better but she spoke like a toddler. She still wet herself at times, screamed at raised adult voices, and cried if someone bent over her. You had to pick her up by squatting down in front of her, holding out your hands or scooping her up, and then standing up. She talked to Nancy, she talked to Mom, but not very many words.

At least she wasn't silent.

"I'm in here, sweety." Nancy said.

"Na-na." Hope said, and I could see her move across the floor to us. She wiggled under the blankets and I let go of Nancy while Hope squirmed over my arm and held tight to Nancy. I held them both while Hope help onto Nancy.

"You can sleep with me, sweety." Nancy said gently. "See, Ant, this is why I wanted you to wear your boxers."

"Always wear something if you have kids in the house." I said. She squeezed my hand.

"Do you love me?" She asked. I knew that she was worried for some weird reason that by letting Hope get in bed with us I'd stop loving her.

"Yes." I told her. "I love you."

"I wish my Father had taught me knife fighting." She said softly. "It would have been nice to have been taught that instead."

"What did he teach you?" I asked.

"That I wasn't as good as my older sister." She said, and bitterness filled her voice. "That I wasn't even worth molesting after she died, even though he molested her."

I went very very still.

"I'd give anything to have been raised by the Sergeant Major, Tony." She said. She hugged Hope again. "I just wish that Hope hadn't been hurt so she could be raised by someone decent so I could have been a decent person."

"You're a wonderful person, Nancy." I told her, ignoring her slip of the tongue.

"Shh, you'll wake the baby." She whispered.

I was quiet.

She went to sleep before me and I laid there for a long time listening to the rain outside, Hope's quiet murmuring, the sounds of my Father's house, and Nancy's soft snoring. After a little while Nancy rolled over, holding tight to Hope, so that the little girl was between us.

Right when I was about to go to sleep Hope wet the bed.

Nancy didn't bother to wake up, so I went to sleep.

Hope was just a baby. Babies wet the bed.

Life goes on.

Chapter 21

2/19th Special Weapons Group Barracks
Restricted Area, Alfenwehr West Germany
Late Winter- 12 February, 1988
Day 3 of Repairs
Day 3 of the Third Incident
Early Morning
02:45

I woke up in the darkness crying, my arms expecting to feel Hope between Nancy and I and instead were empty. I'd been crying in my sleep again. For what I'd lost. For what I'd had. For who I'd been. For what I could have been before Jed and Martha had warped me. Before Alfenwehr had warped me. I could see by the dim light of Lancer's nightlight and I could tell I wasn't in bed alone despite how narrow the barracks bed was. Nancy was laying on her back, her skin warm against my cheek from where I was laying against her breasts. I could feel someone kind of against me, their arm thrown over my side. That would be Ineda. The room was dark, but I recognized Nancy's smell, a comfortable scent of sweat and woman.

I loved her with all my heart.

...My Nancy...

I thought about going back to sleep, thought about closing my eyes and letting everything just wash away as the bone deep weariness I could feel washed me out to sea. Screams sounded from the hallway, pushing through Lancer's door and drifting into the room. Dobbs gave a low cry and I heard Lancer soothe her with a gentle voice. I'd known Lancer for months and he was an asshole, I'd never, in all that time, heard him use such a soft and gentle tone.

What had Dobbs done to him?

The screams sounded out again and this time it was Nancy who shifted uncomfortably and Bomber who made a distressed noise in his sleep and mumbled 'marmosets, help, marmosets' from his dreams. Lanks shushed him and Stokes mumbled something in her sleep.

I'd led Echo Five Actual into ambush after ambush, cost people their lives and I could tell, now, I'd cost them their sanity. I had to face it, be honest with myself. It was my fault that none of them could sleep soundly. I cost Lancer his eyes, cost Dobbs her eye, cost all of Echo Five Actual everything they'd lost.

Because I was an nineteen year old fuckup with no clue of what he was doing.

I wiggled out from between Innie and Nancy, gently pulling Nancy's hand away when she grabbed my shin out of some kind of reflex. I went into the bathroom, shut the door, and turned on the light.

"You all right?" My reflection asked me. He had blood on his face along with cuts held together with butterfly stitches. He put his hands on the bottom of the mirror and I noticed his hands were bloody.

"I'm fine." I told him. It was reflex to say that.

"It's me, man, you. Don't lie." My reflection grinned. "You gotta talk to someone."

"Who? There's nobody to talk to." I waved at the room. "You're me, you know how it felt in there. I'm all alone. I fucked everyone up and now I'm all alone."

My reflection shook his head. "You did your best. You think Father knew what he was doing when they sent him to fight in the Pacifc back in '41? Hell no. He was a country farmboy with a 4th grade education, but he got through it." My reflection sighed. "You know you did your best. That's all your friends ask of you, that's all the Army asks of you, is to do your best." He glanced to the side, looking at the shower on his side of the mirror. "You don't want to know what's over here, man." He turned back to me, reaching up to pinch the bridge of his nose. "Trust me man, you never want to know what's over here."

"Is it as bad as it is over here?" I asked, honestly curious.

"In some ways. In some ways it's better, in some ways it's worse." He tapped the mirror between us and I watched the glass ripple like water. "That's the creepy thing, man. How thin it is here. Sometimes I wonder if I could push through and hang out with you." His grin became sharp and predatory. "I'd take out Logan, take over his life, hang with you and your Bomber."

"I thought you'd try to take me out." I said, frowning.

"You?" He laughed. "Hell no, man. I actually like you. What, you think it's all Star Trek evil universe over here?" He laughed again. "Naw. It's just... different."

"Wanna trade?" I asked.

He shook his head. "Fuck no. That place is a shithole."

I laughed, then sneezed, coming up with blood all over my hand and running out of my nose. "Dammit."

"Yeah. It's just a nosebleed." My reflection said.

His nose wasn't bloody.

"Hannah is coming to check on you." He told me. "I'll give the two of you some privacy." He walked out of my view and I tried to peer around the corner of the mirror but couldn't see him.

"Anthony?" Hannah's voice was small, hesitant, a far cry from the confident and self-assured woman that Aine/Hannah had been so far.

"Yeah?" I asked, without turning around.

"Can I come in?"

"Go ahead."

The door opened but there was no reflection of her. I could smell apple blossoms and relaxed slightly at her familiar smell. I felt her more than anything step up behind me and it startled me slightly to feel her arms go around my waist to clasp her hands over my bellybutton. She laid her head between my shoulder-blades and I felt something warm run down my back from where her cheek made contact with my skin.

"Are you scared too, Anthony?" She asked me.

"Of what? You kinda gotta be more specific, we're on Alfenwehr." I said.

"Of what might happen in the future. I'm terrified. I'm terrified that my cousins will come up here and hold me down and shave my head. I'm afraid my mother will slit my throat. I'm terrified that I'll go home and the matrons will tie me down or feed me stew to make me stupid or any of the thousand things our families could do to me." She said. I felt more tears run down my back. "I'm frightened to go out in the hallway, I'm terrified that there are things in the dark that hate me, and I'm frightened for the people in this room."

I turned around carefully and hugged her, pulling her close and rocking her gently side to side. "I'll be OK, Hannah. I'm fine."

She shook her head. "No, you aren't. You're hurt, Ant." She was crying against my chest. "I want to go home, take you home to Uncle Tiernan, but I can't go home or they'll hurt me, and I don't want to be here without you."

"I'm here, Hannah." I told her, rocking her side to side. "The only time I'm not here is when I'm at Atlas."

"I've never been afraid before, Anthony." She admitted. "Not even when I saw that thing last month. All I could see was... was... I don't know, but I didn't see what I remember." She looked up. "I can feel who I am slip away, Anthony. I can feel my mother's hand around my heart."

I shook my head, then locked eyes with her. "Stop it. They're just a bunch of old women. They don't have any real power beyond what we give them."

"Tiernan's words." She said, two more tears spilling from her eyes. "The first male to stand up to the matrons and survive in our two families' history." I nodded and she kept speaking. "Do you wish things were different?"

I squeezed her tight. "Not for me. For Sherry, for Lancer, for Westlin, for Nancy and John, but not for me." I shrugged. "I deserve everything that's happened to me."

"Don't say that, Anthony." She said and yawned.

I turned her around gently, walking her back to bed. I put her back in bed, tucking her in gently next to John and kissing her on the forehead. I sat next to her in a chair while she drifted off, holding her hand until she was firmly asleep. At one point John rolled over slightly and put his arm around her and Hannah smiled.

I disentangled my hand and left them asleep. My keys jingled as I locked the door to Lancer's room behind me. The third floor hallway was dark and cold, with a chill breeze floating through it that made my missing earlobes ache. I wanted the coffee maker, coffee, cream, and sugar out of my room so I could make everyone coffee for the morning. The thought of coffee was actually making me drool as I walked toward the middle stairwell.

Sergeant Butcher's door opened and the stocky NCO stepped out, facing away from me as he locked his door behind him. He was bent forward slightly and I could see he had his issue knife, with the big hex-nut pommel, on his belt. I stopped two steps behind him, feeling a vicious glee bubble up inside of me. The lizard smiled and caressed the big red button. A light trickle of adrenaline slid down my spine like Aine's touch, the pain of my injuries receded, and my muscles felt like they were warming up.

When Butcher turned around he jumped slightly then swore. "Get the fuck out of here, Stillwater, you're not a real NCO."

"Hey there, Butcher." I smiled.

"You got a fucking problem, Stillwater?"

"I believe we were having a conversation in the stairwell before my brother interrupted us." I smiled.

Butcher glanced behind me and I stepped back slightly. "You want another ass whupping, Stillwater?" He smiled and raised his hands in a Judo pose. "I'll kick your ass. Come on, you little..."

I moved forward, grabbing his face and driving the back of his head against the corner of the metal doorjam with a loud thump. I let go and Butcher slid down.

I left and headed to the middle stairwell, the door shrieking when I opened it and a scream racing down the stairs. The tile of stairwell reflected flashing from below and I could hear people talking and camera's whirring.

The MP's and CID were here to save us all, photographing the SFC's death scene for posterity and voyeurs.

I headed down one full flight, hearing them talk about outlining the blood pool, bitching it was cold, and talking about how dusting for prints would be useless and it looked like natural causes.

...No it wasn't, the barracks and Alfenwehr killed him...

I got the coffee pot and all the coffee fixings, then went back to Lancer's room. I noticed that Butcher had pissed himself in front of his door but it had frozen.

When I got back to Lancer's room I made a pot of coffee, sat down in the chair, and went to sleep.

Chapter 22

2/19th Special Weapons Group Barracks
Restricted Area, Alfenwehr West Germany
Late Winter- 12 February, 1988
Day 3 of Repairs
Day 3 of the Third Incident
Early Morning
0630

We were all dressed and drinking coffee, the pot burbling as it made the fifth pot. I was on my third cup, enjoying the sweet taste, leaning back in one of the chairs in Lancer's over-cluttered room and watching everyone mingle around and chat. Lancer's little stereo was playing a tape he'd gotten by sending in Marlboro UPC's, filling the room with the sound of CCountry Boy Can Survive that was barely audible under the conversation. Dobbs was sitting on the bed next to Lancer, and none of us had said anything about the one-eyed woman helping him dress, make sure his rank was pinned on right, and that his boots were tied and pantlegs bloused properly.

I'd polished his boots.

He may be an asshole but he'd been part of everything, he'd been a good man under fire, he treated Dobbs right, and I'd be damned if I'd have some asshole humiliate him because his boots weren't shined.

Stokes was holding Hannah on her lap, rocking her back and forth. Lanks was on one side and Nancy on the other. Hannah'd had a crying fit in the bathroom and the three women had brought her out and soothed her until she had fallen asleep, emotionally exhausted. Stokes had still held her, the diminutive woman looking like a child in the big Amazon's arms, and nobody would say a word about the fact that Hannah was naked and sucking her thumb, her long eyelashes resting on her cheeks.

She'd been with us in the dark and cold.

Formation would be at 0700, and it would take five minutes to walk down to the CQ Area, and you wanted to be at formation five to ten minutes early. All of which meant that we needed to finish our coffee, our cigarettes, and walk down to the CQ Area so we could be accounted for and grab breakfast. We'd straggled to our rooms in twos and threes, Lanks getting Hannah's uniforms herself and Nancy grabbing Stokes' uniforms so that Stokes didn't have to set Hannah down and wake her up, then wandered back up to Lancer's room. It felt weird being away from each other, an almost physical pain to go with the longing feeling.

"We need to go." Lanks said, standing up. We all drained our coffee, put out our cigarettes, and stood up with her. Stokes turned and laid Hannah down, standing up and pulling the woolen blanket up over the smaller woman before bending down to kiss her cheek. I stood up and Nancy walked up and put her hand on my shoulder.

"Sit, Stillwater." She said. She didn't even bother walking over to Lancer, just told him to sit too. "Neither one of you or Lane are going down to formation. I want the three of you up here, warm, and I want Stillwater up here because he can see and I doubt Lane's going to wake up any time soon." We'd all drawn up ranks around Aine to support her name change decision.

Alfenwehr changed everyone.

I made a disgusted sound and moved over to the coffee pot to make myself another cup of coffee. "Make sure we get breakfast."

"Yeah, don't let the blind guy, the psycho, and the faerie die of starvation while you masturbate yourself into oblivion." Lancer said.

"Pfft, you're not the boss of me." Nancy said, then left the room.

I sat down and sipped on the coffee while the tape deck switched over and started playing more country music. I was more of a metal-head like my Father, but growing up in the country, with Jed, and living with Bomber made it so that country music was at least familiar and tolerable. Hey, if Bomber put up with my opera, I could put with Lancer's and Bomber's country music. I stared out the window, looking at the darkness and the snow that whispered against the glass. I sipped the coffee and wandered around the memories the dream had brought up. The flight out of McChord AFB had been delayed and we'd taken nearly a week to get back to Europe, showing up once a day at 60th Ordnance to sign in with their CQ before heading back to the Sergeant Major's house to be surrounded by children and comforting domesticality.

"Hey, Ant, you awake?" Lancer suddenly asked from where he was sitting on the bed and leaning against the cinderblock wall.

"No. I'm asleep on a big pile of money surrounded by hookers."

Lancer snorted, smiling. "You better get them out of here or Dobbs will kill us both. What do you think is for breakfast?" He didn't really sound interested in breakfast, but where he was it was dark and he probably didn't want to be alone in there.

"Probably Korean War Era eggs and ham and some crap they'll try to say is hashbrowns." I told him. "Hell, we're lucky they don't feed us horseshit and tell us it's ham."

"Goddamn right." He said.

We were quiet again for awhile and I stared at him, looking at the scars on his face and forehead from where the grenade had taken his eyes.

"Hey, Lancer, can I ask you a question?" I asked quietly.

"Sure. I don't have much else I can do, maybe answering questions will make me useful somehow."

"Has Dobbs talked to you about what happened? How it all went to shit on us?" I asked.

Lancer frowned. "Went to shit?"

"Yeah. I led us into two back to back ambushes, once in the Mag Area the next in my room." I said.

Lancer shook his head. "Dude, I know we aren't friends or anything, but Dobbs doesn't see it that way and from what she's told me I don't see it that way either." He sighed. "You had to destroy the classified data, you had to destroy the sensitive items. If I hadn't been blinded I'd have followed you through the whole thing no matter what the cost." He was looking just to my right and I clicked my tongue twice to help him focus on me while he continued just like Dobbs had told us to do the night before. "We got through some nasty stuff, man. Those Russians came in loaded for bear, they came in ready to kick some ass. They knew we had the War Fighter Tunnels, they knew the layout, and they had inside help."

"The CIA guys." I agreed.

Lancer shook his head. "No. They had someone on the inside. More than just the CIA guys, I think we're missing someone." He held out his empty cup. "Coffee?"

"Sure, man." I made him some. "Cream and sugar?"

"Please."

I handed him the cup and he sipped some before smiling. "Nice." He took another sip. "I think we missed someone. I've been going over everyone in my head, marking people off, and I'm pretty sure that they had someone on the inside." He held up his hand even though I wasn't going to argue with him. "It wasn't Lieutenant James, he's one of those men who kills the hostages himself. It wasn't you or anyone else of Echo Five Actual, it was too tight and brutal for that. I don't think it was you, you'd spit in their eye. I've been going through everything and I've only got a handful of suspects."

"Who?" I asked.

"I want your promise you aren't going to go off half-cocked on a stabbing spree. It might just be the paranoia of a blind guy, all right?"

"Fine. I promise."

"There's three choices. Sergeant White and/or Sergeant Butcher, but the third one makes a lot more sense to me."

"Who?" I asked. Butcher and White were obvious.

"This is going to sound completely off the wall." He paused for a second. "All right, don't laugh, OK? The guy who attacked you with the axe. He did it to eliminate Rear Detachment and planned on just calling it in." Lancer shook his head. "Don't take this wrong, Ant, but if I was going to pull some shit I'd kill you first. I'd poison your booze with arsenic or something like that."

"Gee, thanks."

"No charge. Like I said, to me it explains what the axe murderer was all about. He was going to eliminate Rear-D while it was weak."

I grabbed one of the empty cans, lit a smoke, and made myself another cup of coffee. "That's not a bad appraisal." I said. "Except the guy was a complete nut. That's all it was, he was crazy."

"No. There's something that's bothered me about the whole thing." Lancer said, sipping his coffee.

"What? The whole thing was surreal." I told him.

"Follow my train of logic here, Stillwater." Lancer held up one finger. "Number one, you're about as tough as I am so you can soak up a metric fuck-ton of damage, same as me. Number two, you can dish out just about the same amount damage as you can take. Number three, when you add the first two together and you go full bore at someone it isn't going to be easy to take you out before you do enough damage to finish off the other person too, so that means either you didn't hurt the guy with the axe as badly as you thought or there was another reason he kept coming at you."

"He was a fucking nut, he didn't care how bad he was hurt." I said. "You didn't know how bad you were hurt."

"But I knew I was hurt." He said. "The adrenaline would have worn off and I would have been where I'd been, holding Dobbs' hand and trying not to scream from the pain that was leaking through the morphine." He pointed at his face. "Trust me, man, once the adrenaline wears off it doesn't matter how crazy you are the pain comes back. You stabbed him, you beat him, you hammered on him but he kept coming back. That leads to only one conclusion."

"What's that?" It was starting to get my curiosity up, breaking through the wall of numbness.

"There's a reason we never found the CQ team." He smiled suddenly. "You weren't facing one guy, you were facing off against the whole CQ group and the LT. You killed four of them in the stairwells and Nancy did for the LT."

It hung together until it got to one point, maybe two. "That's all well and good, but I fucked up his eye and knocked out one of his teeth. Every time we fought his eye was screwed up and he was missing a tooth. Plus, he cussed me out for being 'enlisted scum' one of the times he thought I was down."

"Oh." Lancer was silent for moment. "Thought I'd figured it out. Thought maybe I'd put together some things that people had missed." He sipped some more coffee. "I don't really have anything else to do but think when Debra isn't up here or one of your guys aren't visiting. So I try to figure things out and the whole axe murdered thing bugs me. That shit doesn't happen outside of movies."

I laughed. "Yeah, that's what I was thinking right up to the point he fucked up Bomber." I shrugged, then felt foolish when I remembered that he couldn't see me. "He was just a lunatic."

Lancer frowned. "That just bugs me, man. I mean, my eyes were random enough, but the thought that some guy just snapped and decided to massacre a bunch of other people with an axe just seems really random and makes me feel really uncomfortable."

"Same here, man. The fact that life can just go 'because fuck you, that's why' and kill me bugs the..." There was a knock at the door, interrupted me.

"Get that, will you?" Lancer asked.

"Sure." I walked over to the door, opening it to see Franklin, Estevez, and Laramore standing there with trays of food. Ice glimmered on the wall behind them in the dim hallway.

"Specialist Nagle told us to bring these up to you guys." Franklin said, nodding at the tray of scrambled eggs, sausage, and peaches in his hands.

"Come on in." I said, turning around. They followed me in till I pointed at the desk. "Set them there."

They all three set the trays on the desk while I bent over Hannah. "Hey, Lane, breakfast, wake up."

"I thought her name was McCullen." Laramore said. His voice annoyed the shit out of me.

"Mind your fucking business, Laramore." Lancer growled. They were in the same platoon and even though Lancer was an asshole it felt like there was something more. "Get out of my room, Laramore, and don't come back."

"Fuck you, Lancer, what's your blind ass going to do about it?" Laramore asked. "Bet you ain't so tough..."

Franklin slammed an elbow into Laramore's gut hard, driving the breath out of the other man and forcing him to bend over. "Shut your fucking mouth, Larry." Franklin looked at Lancer. "Sorry about that, Lancer, I'll handle it." He grabbed Laramore's arm. "You got a problem, Larry, let's go out in the hall and talk about it." Franklin pulled Laramore out of the room.

Hannah sat up, showing that she was naked beneath the blanket and stretched. Estevez's eyes were pulled to Hannah's chest and I couldn't help but grin. "Do I smell sausage?"

"Yup. Tray's on the desk." I told her. I felt a little impish. "Estevez brought it up for you."

Hannah stood up, stretching quickly, then gave two little hops to hug Estevez who blushed deeply at having a naked Hannah in his arms. She stood on her tiptoes to kiss the bottom of his chin. "Thank you, Julio, I'm feeling a bit peckish." When Estevez let go of her she went over and got a tray, moving over to sit on the bed next to Lancer. "May I feed you while Miss Dobbs is performing her duties?" Her voice was grave and formal.

"I can do it." Lancer said, his voice somewhat defensive. I waved Estevez out, who was staring at the naked Hannah sitting on Lancer's bed.

"I know you can, Jeffery, but it's my honor to feed you." Her tone was still very formal and her expression grave.

Lancer went to push her away or maybe just touch her to try to get her to understand his point and instead ended up with his hand on her small breast.

"I appreciate your interest, Jeffery, but I do believe Miss Dobbs would cut my hair and strangle me with it." Hannah laughed, grabbing Lancer's hand with two fingers and removing his hand from her breast.

"You're naked." Lancer blurted out.

"Yes, Jeffery, but it doesn't matter. You can not see me unless you touch me and Anthony has seen me naked since we were children." She scooped up a fork full of eggs. "Open, Jeffery."

"You might as well, man. She's used to getting her way and all arguing will do is delay the inevitable." I told him, pouring myself another cup of coffee. The coffee pot was almost empty and I sighed, taking the pot into the bathroom and filling it in the sink. I replaced the coffee grounds in the wire mesh filter and started a new pot before getting my own tray. Hannah was gently feeding Lancer, making sure he could feel the way the tray was situated on his lap and letting him hold the fork with her little hand wrapped around his to guide him while she fed him.

We'd been raised to care for those who were injured during war. Soldiering was a family business for the McCullens and the Stillwaters, and that meant one of the main byproducts was men who came home with their bodies and minds ruined. Our two families fought, bickered, and hell, sometimes killed each other over old feuds, but we still cared for men who came home like Lancer. Hannah wasn't causing trouble, and even is she had still been Aine feeding Lancer would be something solemn that she would compete with the other women for.

I sat and ate, not watching the intimate moment between Lancer and Hannah.

I loved peaches, especially canned ones with thick syrup, but I saved them for last. Chewing through the eggs, then the sausages, then cutting each peach slice into thirds and eating them slowly. I was about halfway through the peaches when I saw the door open and Dobbs step in. I set down my fork and moved over to her while she was locking the door.

"Dobbs, talk to me for a moment." I told her.

"What's up, Stillwater?" She asked, noticing my serious expression.

"Hannah's feeding Lancer," I started. Dobbs face got hard but she still nodded. "It's important to Hannah. She was raised like I was and..."

Dobbs held up her hand. "I get it. She's as weird as you are."

"Just tell her that it's your job, your duty." I told her. She nodded and put her hand against my chest to move me aside.

I followed them nervously, as Dobbs looked serious as she came into the room.

"Miss Dobbs." Hannah said, smiling.

"The fork, Hannah, if you will." Dobbs said, holding out her hand. Hannah bent her head for a moment then handed over the fork. "Thank you for taking my place while I was unavailable, Hannah." Hannah smiled as Dobbs motioned at Hannah who stood up, nodded respectfully, and moved away. Dobbs sat down, smiling at me, and began feeding Lancer.

I'd expected Dobbs to get violent or at least aggressive with Hannah, but she'd handled it smoothly. I realized that I'd under-estimated Dobbs and projected on her a little. I felt stupid as Hannah moved next to me and sat down on the desk, picking up her tray of food and starting to eat. I went back to eating the peaches, relishing them bit by bit as Hannah worked through her food before I'd finished my peaches. She got up, still stark naked, and went to pour herself some coffee and sit on the bed.

She may have been Hannah but she had all of Aine's body modesty.

"Hey, Debra?" Lancer asked as Dobbs got up to set the tray on the desk.

"Yeah?"

"I need you to answer something for me."

"Go ahead, Jeff."

"You were with Actual pretty much the whole time, right?"

"Dude, just drop it." I told him.

"Yeah, why, Jeff?" Dobbs said. She took Hannah's tray and set it down.

I made a cut-off motion then realized stupidly that he couldn't see me as he kept speaking. "You regret it?"

"Nope." Dobbs said. "I'll admit it, I didn't think we were going to make it at the end, it got pretty ugly, but I don't regret any part of it." She sighed, and I got up and walked away while she kept talking about it.

When I walked off Hannah was curling up on the blanket, going back to sleep. She didn't respond to me opening the door to leave. Dobbs and Lancer were talking as I walked out into the hallway. I didn't need Dobbs viewpoint on my failures and how I'd fucked up.

The hallway was cold, the freezing temperatures outside and the clouds and the snow probably mocking the sun's attempts at heating up Alfenwehr. I walked down the hallway, heading for the middle stairwell and planning on swinging by my room. The hallway was well lit compared to Hammerhead Hall, over half of the fluorescent lights on steadily and about half of the remaining just flickering rapidly or doing the 'faint glow and buzz' bit that failing fluorescent lights did.

I watched as without the door opening I walked out of SGT Delilah Carpenters' room, stopping to tug on the bottom of my BDU blouse to straighten it. I turned, grinned at myself, and walked down the hallway, vanishing between the double doors at the middle of the hallway. I shook my head, trying to clear it, and winced at a headache shot through my brain like a hot spike.

Depression, madness, suicide, hallucinations, nightmares, all were weapons that Alfenwehr used on us in the dark and cold.

It wasn't me. It wasn't me. It wasn't me.

The lizard got up to its feet, looking a little woozy, and checked the boards. The self-diagnostic panel was still out, shot through with static and showing contradictory images when it showed anything at all. Half of his panels were dark and most of the monitors. With a snarl it sat down, pulled open a panel, and got to work.

Another spike of pain blossomed in the back of my brain.

Hammerhead Hall was empty when I entered and walked down to my room. There was a light dusting of snow just under the jam of my door and I knew that meant that my entire floor would be nothing but ice and varying depths of snow that had blown in through the empty window frame. It took a couple of tries to get the lock to work right, it finally turning with the grinding sound of metal on ice. I had to put my shoulder to it to get it open and ice chunks rained down.

The door swung open, pushing snow in front of it, and I saw that the entire room only had a light dusting of snow. My room was filled with the steel grey of a false dawn. Our altitude meant that we got light a lot sooner then the ground surrounding the mountain. Around the radiator the floor was wet, the little heater doing its best to hold back the cold like a trooper. I sighed and walked in, checking to see if the stereo still worked. HAL whined a little as the CD tray got up to speed and Ozzy Osbourne's voice didn't skip too badly as Diary of a Madman spun up with Flying High. I walked over to the bunk beds, grabbing the wool blanket off of the bottom bunk. Opening the window by turning the handle to the halfway point and pulling it so it swung open on the side hinges into the room I threw the blanket over the outside of it. I closed the window, but before latching it I tugged on the sides and pulled the blanket as tight as possible before twisting the handle down to lock the window in place. The temperature seemed to rise instantly and I sighed with relief. I grabbed the other blanket then pulled the sheets down. I grabbed the 100 MPH tape out of the desk, taped the sheets, folded twice, to the inside of the window frame, then taped the OD green wool blanket to my side. It wasn't perfect but it would work.

I cranked the radiator all the way up then turned to look at the room.

There were bloodstains still on the floor, dried blood that we'd ground into the tile and wax remnants with our boots, dried blood and chalk marks on the walls along with bullet holes in the cinderblocks. There were holes in the desk, both dressers, and the back of one of the chairs. I sighed, looked around again, and then walked out of the room to the supply closet. I filled a mop bucket with hot soapy water, dropped the stripper/cleaner down the mop handle by sliding the handle through the handle on the jug, then followed it with the wax. I pushed the mop bucket and carried the mop back to my room, moving it into the center of the room.

Smiling I took off my BDU top and started in on cleaning the room. I started with the walls, scrubbing the chalk lines and blood off of them. The holes I covered with pages cut out of Heavy Metal or Fangoria and a couple above the lower bunk with pictures I cut out of a hard-core German version of Playgirl that was in the desk drawer that Nancy read a lot. I went down to the supply closet several times to refill the water, twice because it was red colored, once because it was black with grime. I removed the green blanket I taped up and taped two trashbags over the sheets, running a strip of 100 MPH tape down the seam, then replaced the blanket. The temperature got to the point I was dripping with sweat and had to turn down the radiator. I replaced the cover on the light with one I pulled from the supply closet, stuffed the holes in the furniture with brown paper towels, putting 100 MPH tape on the inside and taping up a magazine panel out of Heavy Metal on the outside to completely conceal and field repair the furniture.

The room slowly transformed from wreckage to something livable as time went on. I wiped down the chairs and bedframes, then got out the Mr. Clean furniture polish and started doing the wood surfaces and the rest of it, filling the room with the smell of lemons and astringent cleaner. The smell of rotting blood was replaced, or maybe just supressed, by the work of my bald headed friend as I worked. The CD player swapped through Ozzy, Metallica, Judas Priest, Johnny Cash, and back to Ozzy while I worked. Once the main room, the furniture, the hallway, and the outside of the wall-lockers was finished I moved to the bathroom. I knew Lanks had been injured badly, killed one man with her rifle and another with her bayonet by herself in the tiny space. I scrubbed off the blood and chalk marks, picking up a piece of 7.62mm brass from behind the toilet, then began scrubbing the sink, toilet, and shower. When I was done I removed the shower curtain and scrubbed the curtain to keep mold off of it.

The mirror was empty when I cleaned it. I had been positive that the mirror had been broken, shattered into a thousand pieces, but it was completely intact even if it was empty of my reflection. I polished the chrome around the mirror, the chrome on the toilet, shower, and sink, the towel racks, the hooks, until I could see myself in it.

When I was finished with the room I stripped off my clothing, put it in my laundry bag, and took a hot shower before shaving. I left the two knives that I'd been carrying on the chrome ledge below the mirror. Once that was done I grabbed one of my pressed uniforms and put it on, relishing the crisp feel of starch. I sat down and used the liquid black enamel replacement on my rank, belt buckle, and the grommet of my jump boots. When I was done I looked at myself in the mirror on the inside of my wall locker and was slightly disappointed that the mirror was empty.

After that I went into the laundry room and made sure to separate my laundry, using three of the eight washers. I decided to spoil myself and use John's fabric softener on my clothing for a change. He used the scentless stuff but I was pretty sure it would at least feel nice against my skin.

When I went back into my room I got my AD&D books out of the bottom of my civilian wall-locker and sat down at the desk. I pulled out my graph paper, notebook, pens and pencils so I could start working on something for Bomber, Nancy, and...

Shit.

I'd need a couple more for the gaming group.

I went to try to figure out who to use to replace...

Circuits fried and my train of thought snapped. The lizard jumped back from the panel as sparks shot everywhere from the space under the panel, snarling and kicking his clawed feet at it. I shook my head to clear the spike of pain through my brain, flipping open the DMG and scanning the back section where the cheat sheet for monsters out of the Monster Manual, checking out the HD and the powers to try to come up with a good plan for a bad guy since Nancy's paladin had split the anti-paladin and his necromancer henchman right up the middle.

Stupid holy avenger blades.

The alarm clock went off and I went back to the laundry room, switching my laundry to the driers. I stood there for a moment, smiling at nothing, before heading back to my room to keep working. I'd come up with a good plan, a good solid foe for the entire group and John's wizard in particular. There'd been a demi-lich in House of Gryphon Hill, which meant that ol' Akerack from Tomb of Horrors wasn't the only one. I went back to my wall locker, pulled out both modules, and went back to work making something nasty to head a group I'd call The Cult of the Jeweled Skull.

Another hour went by, the alarm clock blared, and I got my laundry from the laundry room, enjoying the fresh smell of just finished warm laundry. I got the ironing board out from behind the fridge, pressed my brown T-shirts, BDU's (starching two sets), and boxers, then hung everything up. I'd developed a habit of putting everything I'd need on one hanger, with the exception of the socks, which were rolled in military fashion and put in a neat orderly grouping in the three drawer chest I kept in my military locker.

Smiling to myself I went back to work designing the outline for the adventure.

I'd lost track of time and surprised to see it was 1600 hours when a knock on my door finally pulled my attention away from the fun I was having. Frowning, I went up, unlocked the door, and opened it.

Ineda was standing there in her uniform and cadet rank. Behind her were two of the guys from CID and one of the DIA guys, who was probably starting to feel really lonely.

"Corporal Stillwater?" The CID man on the left with a nametag that read Charleston asked, his captain's bars sitting silently on his collar.

"Yes, sir." I stood at modified attention, holding the handle of my door with my right hand.

"We're here to make a supplemental interview regarding the events last month." The CID agent asked, stepping a half-step forward to try to push me backwards.

"I invoke my right to counsel as per my Article 31 rights and refuse to answer any further questions." I said, not budging. "I wish to be informed of any possible charges that the military is considering pursuing against me."

The CID guy looked startled as I refused to budge, almost stumbling into me as he had to come to a sudden stop. The officer on the other side, another Captain with a nametag that read Mitchell, frowned at me, his ears reddening.

"Corporal, this is an informal interview regarding certain events, to provide a comprehensive after action report on the events that occurred." CPT Mitchell said.

Behind them my own reflection stepped through the wall, leaning against it and folding his arms, looking snappy in his pressed and starched uniform. "Watch it, they've taken your statement three times, they're looking for someone to throw under the bus." My reflection told me.

"I invoke my Article 31 rights." I repeated.

"This isn't a fucking interrogation and you've got what rights we fucking tell you you have." The DIA goon sneered. "So you can let us in or we can do this the hard way."

"Is that a threat of physical coercion?" I asked.

Two of the banks of monitors and controls lit up. The buttons were cracked, switches damaged, and the dials were missing with clips put on them to allow them to be used without the dials. The monitors were showing my respiration, heartbeat, adrenaline level, oxygen levels, and combat effectiveness. The last read less then forty percent and dropped slightly as another headache rattled through my brain then bounced back up as I felt adrenaline spike through my system and my breathing steadied.

"If that's how you want to play it." The DIA guy told me. I heard one of the fluorescent tubes in the hallway explode and CPT Charleston jumped. I could see the sparks showering down reflected in his glasses.

My sister was looking at the DIA guy in shock as her world view took another hard beating.

"You'll be answering these questions, Corporal, your Group Commander has assured us your cooperation." CPT Mitchell said.

"Let's find out who digs." I mis-quoted, smiling. Blondie from Good, Bad & the Ugly would be proud. My sister's face grew angry as I refused

"Anthony." My sister snapped. "Do as you're told."

The lizard hissed at me to ignore her command, to show her that the chains that Jed and Martha and the family had put around my neck had snapped in the cold and violence I'd been through, but I pushed that away.

"As you say, Matron Stillwater." I told her, the lizard hissing in pleasure at the shock on Ineda's face. She wanted to use that authority on me, then she could pick up the rest and deal with it. I stepped back, holding open the door. "Please, come in."

The three men looked confused but Ineda had a satisfied expression on her face at the way the tension suddenly vanished from my body and the tension in the area lowered palpably. I led the three men and my sister into my room, grabbing the three chairs and sitting them in a half-circle facing John's bed.

"My apologies, gentlemen, I lent out my coffee pot and have no alcohol so I can not offer any refreshments to you." I stated, sitting down. "How may I help Criminal Investigations and Defense Intelligence?"

They looked shocked, and the lizard smiled as they took their seats. The two CID agents looked around my room, obviously surprised.

"Did you switch rooms, Corporal?" Mitchell asked.

I stared at Ineda, not speaking.

...You want to act like a matron then be one...

There was silence for a long moment.

"Corporal?" CPT Charleston asked.

"I have not been given leave to speak." I said, keeping my voice clipped and emotionless, still staring at Ineda.

"Annie, quit it. I didn't mean it like that." Ineda said.

I looked at Charleston, standing up. "Article 31."

"Anthony, answer the questions." Ineda snapped.

"Yes, Matron Stillwater." I said to Ineda, sitting back down. I turned and faced CPT Mitchell. "No, I did not change rooms. I have spent the day engaged in repairs and cleaning my assigned living area."

Screw it, I'd just go full jackass on everyone. My good mood had vanished and my willingness to cooperate had never resurfaced at all.

"According to our information you were tasked with leading something called 'Echo Five Actual' during the event of last month. What led to the decision of placing a Corporal in charge of what should have been a senior NCO or officer's job?" CPT Charleston asked.

I looked at Ineda, who gave an exasperated sigh and waved her hand. "Answer, Anthony."

"Yes, Matron Stillwater. There were no available NCO's with combat experience. We had a single soldier of officer rank by the name of Lieutenant James who's duty was to conduct Rear Detachments operations an oversee his personnel. I have combat experience against Soviet Union military forces, including close combat. Due to operational realities and those circumstances I have just named Lieutenant chose me to lead Actual." I said, staring over their heads. I was silent for a long time until Mitchell cleared his throat.

"It was stated that the initial encounter with Soviet forces took place at your motorpool. Tell me what led to that." The DIA agent said.

I looked at Ineda. She scowled and waved her hand. "Answer him, Anthony."

"Yes, Matron Stillwater." I said. "It was deduced that the closest area for the Soviet Union forces to mount attacks against the 2/19th Rear Operations Area was the company motorpool. Lieutenant James put me in charge of a quick reaction force and ordered me to scout the motorpool." I knew my voice was cold and distant. "During our reconnaissance of the motorpool we came under direct fire of Soviet Union military personnel and as Lieutenant James had authorized us lethal force to protect members of the Quick Reaction Force or Rear Detachment, as well as protect all sensitive items and classified data, we immediately engaged the Soviet Union military forces in combat, eliminating them with only the loss of two men." I went silent again.

It went like that the entire time. Them asking questions they'd asked a thousand times, often returning to the questions they'd asked earlier. Me staring at Ineda and waiting for permisssion to speak and answer the questions before answering it coldly, clinically, and precisely, giving no more information than the bare minimum and no details unless pressed for specific data. I could tell Ineda was getting more and more annoyed, and my refusal to answer anything unless Ineda told me to unsettled the DIA and CIA guys.

The lizard kept laughing.

There had been a knock on my door at 1820 but the DIA agent had sent whoever it was away. I was disappointed when he didn't return with the tray of food I'd been able to smell but it wasn't anything I didn't expect. Officers always forgot that enlisted men needed food except in the abstract and to expect politeness was far too much. At 1900 the three men were still questioning me when another knock came, and while I expected whoever it was to get sent away the DIA goon escorted LT Wright into the room, followed by Staff Sergeant Leemore and another CID dwonk.

"We're in the middle of an investigation, Lieutenant, whatever you want with Corporal Stillwater will have to wait." CPT Mitchell said.

"I'm afraid that isn't possible, gentlemen, and this is important enough that questions about an event a month ago must wait." LT Wright said coldly. "I am revoking my permission to question Corporal Stillwater at this time until further notice."

"You don't have the authority to do that, Lieutenant Wright." Captain Charleston said.

"I have whatever authority I decide I have, gentlemen." LT Wright said. "In case you didn't notice, I am the OIC of 2/19th Special Weapons Group Rear Detachment, which places me in a position of absolute authority. I was instructed to cooperate within reasonable limits and at this time reasonable limits including removing any access you have to Corporal Stillwater."

"By what authority? You can't just decide that we can't speak to him." Captain Mitchell tried. "In case you haven't noticed, we outrank you and DIA investigations take precedence."

Captain Charleston turned back to me. "Corporal, please describe exactly circumstances surrounded the fact that you somehow managed to contact Fort Hood via radio."

"Don't answer that, Corporal." LT Wright said. "There is no JAG up here, you have no legal protections, nor does anyone else."

I stared off into space.

"Answer me, Corporal." Charleston said.

I just stared.

"Answer me." Was repeated.

Ineda stared back and forth between LT Wright and Captain Mitchell, not instructing me to answer the question.

"I reinvoke my right to counsel and my Article 31 rights." I stated slowly and clearly.

"Corporal Stillwater invoked his right to counsel and Article 31 rights and you still questioned him?" LT Wright asked, raising one eyebrow. He looked at me. "Is this true, Corporal?"

"Yes, sir. I was instructed to answer their questions and given no choice." I stated.

"You three back off, I need to talk to Corporal Stillwater." The CID agent who followed LT Wright stated. He had on Colonel rank and was looking annoyed. "I told you step carefully, that this was a delicate situation, and you chose to ignore me. Now we've got something more important and you three want to play pissing match."

"Now just what is this about, Colonel?" The DIA agent asked.

"Preliminary investigation into several homicides." Wright stated.

"What? Who was killed?" Mitchell blurted.

"Agents Smith, Johnson, and Thomas." The Colonel said. The three men who had been questioning me went silent, moving away at the Colonel's wave. "It looks like all three men were attacked on the back loading dock by the back door in the center of the building." He looked at me. "Do you have any knowledge of who might have killed them?"

"I invoke my Article 31 rights and request counsel." I stated, looking ahead.

"The three of them are dead? What happened to them?" Ineda asked, her face paling and making her freckles stand out.

"It appears they were attacked by someone wielding an axe." The Colonel said. "Whoever it was attacked them with a lot of rage, dismembering and severely damaging their bodies."

I looked at the Colonel. "It wasn't me, sir."

"Can you account for your whereabouts last night?" The Colonel asked me.

Ineda smiled. "You don't have to worry, Annie. Tell him."

"Yes, Matron Stillwater." I looked at the wall above the Colonel's head. "I was with the majority of the remainder of Echo Five Actual and my sister, Officer Cadet Ineda Stillwater, the entire night."

I decided to omit almost killing Butcher in the hallway. I'd deal with that when I came to it.

"We have a witness who states they saw you walking the hallways after midnight by yourself." The Colonel said.

I said nothing.

"Care to clarify that, Corporal?" The Colonel tried again.

Ineda gave a frustrated sigh. "Answer, Annie."

"Yes, Matron Stillwater. May I know the identity of my accuser, as is my right under the UCMJ?" I tried. I knew who it was, but I wanted to hear it.

"Sergeant Butcher." LT Wright said.

"I found Sergeant Butcher unconscious in a puddle of his own urine in the hallway when I heard a crash when I went to the bathroom. I used his keys to put him in his room and returned to the room I was sharing with the rest of Actual as my head injury was paining me particularly badly."

"This head injury, does it cause blackouts?"

They went through the whole thing, and when it was over the Colonel made the three idiots who'd been questioning me leave with him. LT Wright informed me that I was under restriction to the barracks until further notice, a rather useless command since it was snowing hard, and left with the Colonel and SSG Leemore.

Ineda had stayed behind and as soon as they left she rounded on me.

"What the hell was that all about, Annie?" She asked, putting her hands on her hips.

"I do not understand, Matron Stillwater." I said, staring off into space.

"That crap. I'm not one of the matrons, how dare you call me that? I'm the same age as you, not an old woman, and I sure as fuck haven't been voted a seat with the matrons." She snapped.

"Then stop fucking acting like you are." I yelled back, coming to my feet. She was only a couple of inches shorter than me. "You want to use that authority you better be ready to accept all the responsibilities, Matron Stillwater." She stepped back, her face shocked. "You use your authority over me to get what you and your new little friends want out of me, you bet I'm going to treat you like you have all that authority." I spun around, walking over to the desk, yanking open the top drawer, and sweeping the paper and pencils into it. Still talking I yanked open the first side drawer and swept the AD&D books into the drawer. "You're the only female besides Hannah here from either family and Hannah has been stripped of her status as a female, so, yeah, you're effectively a Sitting Matron in Residence when you get down to family law and custom." I turned around to face her.

"You come up here, you throw around orders to me, you expect to get some kind of privileges around my friends and battle buddies, call me fucking Annie of all things like we're fucking kids playing behind the Sergeant Major's house, and you have the unmitigated gall to act all offended when I call you Matron?" I yelled. I stopped and stared at her.

"Go to hell, Ineda." I told her slowly. "Take your fucking Defense Intelligence Agency friends with you." I turned away from her. "Get the fuck out of my room, Ineda."

"How dare you speak to me like that." Ineda snarled, using the language that only her, me, and Logan knew in the whole world.

I spun around, taking a step forward. "How dare you speak that to me, you fucking traitor." I yelled in English. "You don't get it all three ways, Ineda. You don't get to be my twin sister and a Matron and an officer cadet all at once. How dare you speak that like we're still close."

She slapped me, hard, across the face. "I'll speak to you how I want, Annie." She said in triplet-speak. "I'm the boss, me."

Rage overcame me and two of the panels exploded, throwing the lizard against the wall. Before he could recover I took two steps forward, grabbed Ineda by the back of her hair, and yanked hard, pulling her off balance. She shrieked in pain, shock, and anger as I dragged her across the room to my door. The lizard started to slap the big red ABORT button but stopped, instead watching what was going on.

"I said, get the fuck out, bitch." I snarled, pulling open the door. Aine stood there holding a tray, with John and Nancy next to her. Aine pushed John aside and Nancy skipped to the other side as I slung Ineda out of the room by her hair. "Don't fucking come back until you decide just where your fucking loyalties are and who you want to be. Stay the fuck away from me and my friends, traitor." I moved out of the doorway as Ineda slumped to the floor, crying and holding onto the back of her hair. "Come on in."

"Trouble in paradise?" John asked when he went by.

"How would you like a punch in the mouth?" I asked him. He grinned, and things were OK between us.

"You get above yourself, Ineda Stillwater. Aodán is no longer your boy." Aine said coldly, rage glittering in her too large eyes and the inhuman look of her face highlighted by the shadows in the hallway. "You have no shed blood here nor any authority over any who dwell in this dark place including Aodán." She turned her back on Ineda and followed Nancy into the room, her smile instantly making her Hannah, with her pretty little heart shaped face, expressive eyes, and cute spray of freckles across her nose and cheeks. "Thank you for inviting me in, Anthony."

"Of course, Hannah." I said, closing the door and kissing her cheek as I took the tray with turkey slices and gravy, stuffing, peas, and peach cobbler. She pressed one hand to the cheek I'd kissed and blushed, making Nancy laugh.

"Wow, Tony. What the hell did you do in here?" John asked, looking around the room. I'd waxed the floor until it gleamed and the fact that everyone but my three friends had scuffed their boots across my floor had pissed me off, but Bomber's appreciation of it made me happy.

"I cleaned." I said.

"I didn't even know you knew how to run a buffer." Nancy teased. When I stopped by the desk she pushed a chair over to me. We'd put felt on the bottoms of the chair legs to keep them from scraping up the floor.

"The Army could train a monkey to run a buffer." I smiled back, sitting down with the tray. "It wasn't much harder then that to teach me." John pulled a Coke out of his cargo pocket and set it in front of me.

They waited until I was done eating before Bomber tossed me a cigarette.

"We sleeping in here?" I asked.

Nancy shook her head. "I'd rather sleep up in Lancer's room." She told me.

"So the DIA agents got murdered, huh?" I asked, standing up and grabbing the tray. Hannah took it from me with a smile.

"Yeah, someone hacked the shit out of them with an axe, left it there too." John said. "The LT had me help the crime team guys out there so we could follow blizzard safety. Whoever it was left behind an motorpool axe but I don't think the crime scene guys are going to get any usable fingerprints off of it."

"The dead don't leave prints." Hannah said, shivering.

"Hell, let's go up to Lancer's." Nancy said, looking around again. "Goddamn, this room looks nice."

"Thanks." I said. I was feeling pretty pleased with myself.

"I'll take the tray down." Hannah smiled. I liked Hannah. I really did. Aine wasn't that bad, but I liked Hannah better.

"Thanks." I said. She blushed demurely, one of her 'blush on demand' tricks, and left ahead of us. I changed out of my BDU's and put on civilian clothing, making sure I had on a pair of Superman boxers. I made sure I had my boots with socks stuffed in them and a hat in one hand and a hanger with a full uniform on it in the other. Bomber had just a set of civilian clothing and Nancy had a flannel nightgown as we left.

As we were heading toward Lancer's room we heard Hannah call out and stopped.

"Wait up!" Hannah called out again. She was hurrying toward us, her hair loose and eyes sparkling with mischief.

She was crawling across the ceiling again.

"Holy shit!" Bomber said, stepping back. "What the fuck?"

Hannah stopped above Nagle, looking down and smiling. "Catch me, Nancy!"

Nancy held out her arms and Hannah fell into them, laughing like a little girl with a puppy.

"How the hell did you do that?" John asked, looking a little wild eyed.

"Magic!" Hannah laughed.

"She used to be an Aine." I shrugged.

"Spoilsport." Hannah stuck her tongue out at me.

"Are you even fucking human?" John asked, still looking shocky. Nancy just set her on the floor, shaking her head at Hannah's antics. I noticed that Nancy had a numb expression.

"Of course, Johnny." Hannah laughed. "Don't be silly."

"She's becoming more human. Just go with it, John." I told him.

"Fucking creepy." John shuddered, and we resumed walking down to Lancer's room.

Inside Lancer's room it was warm, our friends were in there, and we were able to relax. Lancer was happy to have visitors, although Dobbs looked like she wanted to throw us all out into the snow at first. Hannah had pulled a book on learning braille out, probably from her ass when nobody was looking, and gave it to Dobbs, who's mood immediately cheered up. Lanks asked Bomber about AD&D and immediately ended up with a face full of lecture, which included John running back to the room to get the books, dice, and some paper. That led to most of gathered around and Lancer figuring that it might be something fun to do as long as people read the rules to him.

They ended up drawing up characters while I pulled an introductory adventure out of my ass. Even Hannah decided to play even though Aine used to mock me for it. Unsurprisingly she wanted to play a druid.

It may have been storming outside, but Lancer's room was full of warmth, laughter, companionship, and friends.

Best of all, it smelled of coffee.

Chapter 23

2/19th Special Weapons Group Barracks
Restricted Area, Alfenwehr West Germany
Late Winter- 12 February, 1988
Day 4 of Repairs
Day 4 of the Third Incident
Early Morning
0530

I woke up crying again, Nancy thrashing in my arms. I managed to get her back to sleep without too much trouble but then I couldn't go back to sleep myself. I wiggled out of bed, noticing everyone was still crashed out. I put on my glasses, poured myself a cup of coffee in the dimness, and sat down to sip at it. My own reflection came through the door, taking the time to shut and lock a door that I couldn't see, dressed in my typical flannel shirt and Levi's with boots, then went into the bathroom. Curious, I followed him, catching him looking in the mirror and combing his hair.

"What's up, dude?" I asked. He looked at me and grinned.

"Hey, man, good to see you." He said. "Damn, we're really off synch, aren't we?" He peered closely at me, reaching up to touch the strip of butterfly stitches across his forehead. "Dammit, I can't tell. These looks ready to come off?"

"Sure." Looked good to me. What the fuck did I know, I wasn't a medic.

"Thanks." He began to carefully pick them off.

"What happened?"

"Got hit with a truck sideboard. Hit me right in the forehead, split it open." He said, wincing as his thumbnail caught in the gash. He peeled another back and the wound stayed close. "Fucking Atlas, man."

I remembered something. "Soooo, SGT Carpenter? Really?"

"What?" He said, pausing to look at me.

"She's like a thousand years old, ugly as hell, looks like Olive Oyle, and smells weird." I said.

He grinned at me. "I told you, man, things are different over here." With a grin he held out his hands in front of his chest like he was cupping a pair of breasts. "Kaboom, baby!" He paused for a second, looking real serious. "Look, you might want to be really careful over there tonight."

"Why? Is it bad over there?" I asked.

He shook his head. "Heat's good, we got hot food, it stopped snowing, and the LT opened up the front of the video games so we could hold a tournament. We've got the day off if we were on duty last night." He stared at me gravely. "That might not be good for you, man. The differences between us are weird, but that might not be good for you."

I nodded. "Thanks for the warning." I thought about showering, then decided I really didn't give a shit. It wasn't like I'd been doing anything lately so I didn't smell or anything, I guess.

I left the bathroom and then Lancer's room, stepping out in the Lobotomy Ward hallway. I turned and saw SGT Butcher turning in place to lock his door and had a nasty idea.

I got a running start and right when Sergeant Butcher turned around I grabbed him by the face, smashing the back of his head as hard as I could against the doorjam. He saw me coming, his eyes opening wide. He had enough time to hold his hands out to defend himself but it didn't work. It was one smooth move that left him laying on the floor. I stopped and looked, seeing that he pissed himself.

How about them apples, bitch?

I was figuring my day couldn't get any better when I saw Sergeant White step out of his room. The son of a bitch had his back to me as he backed out of his room and closed his door. By the time he was done locking it I was standing right behind him with a big grin on my face. When he turned around and saw me he jumped back, bumping into the door.

"Boo." I grinned.

"Fuck you want, Stillwater?" He asked, shoving me.

I shoved back.

Hard.

"Fuck off." He said, shoving me again. "I'll kick your ass like in the stairwell."

I shoved him harder and when he bounced off of his door I grabbed his face and drove his head against the door. He tried to do something so I did it again, then it again because I wanted to, and again because it was funny.

I let go and dropped him on the floor, staring at him for a long time.

It would be so easy. I wouldn't even need my knife. Hell, the Army trained us to kill with our bare hands, my Father taught hand to hand combat to all his children, and I'd picked up a lot brawling over the course of my life. It'd be easy to kill him.

Part of me wanted to kill him to teach him a lesson about fucking with people. To make sure he understood to leave me the fuck alone.

Kneeling down I grabbed his wrist, slowly straightening up and putting my boot against the side of his neck. It wouldn't require much like this. Pull steadily on the arm while pushing against his neck with my boot. Cut off the bloodflow, suffocate the brain, the body dies.

The lizard was asleep, so he didn't have any opinion on it.

I tense up, getting a good grip.

"Don't do it." I heard Westlin say. I turned to look at her, she was standing in the hallway wearing her favorite T-shirt and jeans along with tennis shoes. "Killing someone is a shitty way of changing their mind." She touched my cheek and I could feel it. "There's too many people like them in the world to kill them all and you can't just kill anyone who gets on your nerves, Tony."

"You're right." I dropped his arm and stepped back. Behind me Sergeant Butcher was starting to stir. I started walking down the hallway. "I'd hoped that you weren't trapped here since you died out at Atlas."

She shrugged, her civilian clothes replaced by her Class-A's in an instant. "That's not how it works, Tony."

"Sorry." I said. I pulled open the door and headed into the stairwell. "You doing OK?"

She shrugged. "I guess. Dying was scary and hard and hurt a lot. Now I'm not in pain, but it's still scary quite often." She followed me down the stairs, still speaking. "You've got shell-shock, you know?"

"Like on MASH?"

"Kind of. Only you're in the middle of the psychotic break portion." She told me. "If I was there I'd dope you up with Thorazine till you couldn't move and assign someone to watch over you till we could send you to Fifth Floor Wurzburg."

"So you aren't real?" I pulled open the door to Hammerhead Hall.

She tilted her hand back and forth. "I'm probably not real to anyone else, but I'm very real to you. Your brain fills in all my details, that's part of the psychosis. The way I look, smell, feel, taste, sound, all of it is right, but it's the fact you're suffering from shell shock makes the hallucination clear as day."

A sudden worry struck me and I felt tears well up. "Am I dangerous to my friends?"

She tilted her hand again. "No more than if you were seriously drunk and angry. They have a calming effect on you, so you should be all right and so should they." When I opened my door she stepped through me and into the room, waving her hand at it. "This is another symptom, right here. You're having on again off again fugue states, and all of the head damage isn't helping any."

"What, I just cleaned the room?" I said, walking in after her and shutting the door. It was cozy and warm in the room and I took off my BDU top, carefully hanging it on the back of the chair.

"It's another symptom." She told me, hopping up on the desk. "I miss sitting here or on the table at Atlas while you gave the briefings." She laughed. "It was comforting, watching you give the mission briefings. I miss you guys."

"We'll probably be joining you soon." I told her. I looked at HAL for a long moment, then slowly turned the stereo rack around so I could get at the wiring. I quickly cut the Nakamichi Dragon and the left hand 901 out of the loop and arranged the wires real quick while I kept speaking. "Can't keep cheating death like this, I'm going to start losing more people again. I can't keep pushing everyone into situations where there's I'm not following the principles of war. I need to plan better, define the operation better."

"No plan survives longer then three seconds of contact with the enemy, that's why they're called the enemy." Westlin quoted the old maxim. "You learned that right in this room."

"Still should have had a plan." I told her. "Done." I swiveled HAL around and hit the button, slowly adjusting the levels on the EQ to get Ozzy to sound right.

"I gotta go, Tony." Westlin said. "Try to take care of yourself, honey. Don't make it a habit of ignoring yourself out of penance for something you couldn't have changed and an odd way of punishing yourself."

"I will." I half-promised her. It all sounded stupid.

I heard her boot steps fade away and left off fucking with HAL.

I was alone in the room.

Wandering around I dusted here and there, straightened things out, and made sure the room was inspection ready. My half-assed repairs to the windows were still there and working pretty well and I pulled out my green notebook and jotted down a note to have the repair crew fix my window. I dusted behind the radiator shield and everyplace hard to reach or easily forgettable that officers always liked to check. I always left the underside of the bottom bunk's lowest rail dusty on one corner since most officers wouldn't leave until they found at least one gig. They weren't actually interested in the cleanliness of our room, they were interested in reminding us that no matter how hard we worked we would never actually live up to expectations.

"ACHTUNG!" Rolled across the room. The authority in the tone made me jump to in front of the bunkbeds and go to attention.

The officer walked out of the little hallway, clipboard in hand and pen at the ready to write down all the mistakes.

He moved to each section, checking for dust, tsking his tongue at the slight layer of dust he found between the amp and pre-amp on HAL, counting each wrap of the cord on the laundry bags to make sure that t here were the same amount of wraps on each side of the laundry bag. He checked the lamp, the light, even the top of the bulb in the nightlight. I followed him into the bathroom so he could inspect the shower, and the rest of the bathroom. I got a gig about the dust at the back of the underside of the sink and because my soap had left a small chalky spot on the shelf under the rubber pad it sat on. Each gig was annotated, pointed out, and I hurried to correct each one.

The entire time the balding man with the spectacles watched silently, his clipboard held at the ready, his black uniform with the silver highlights perfect and his medals glittering beneath the lights. He watched over my corrections of any gigs he found in silence, neither approving or disapproving of my actions or how he had found the room, just discipline and authority all wrapped up in a black uniform with shined leather shoes. He stood formally and moved with clockwork precision, not a single wasted movement, the perfect example of his officer corps.

At the end the SS officer nodded once and walked out of the room, leaving me alone with the knowledge I'd passed room inspection.

I sat down, another set of cluster headaches erupted in fading. Looking down at the floor, sitting in the chair with my hands pressing against the sides of my head, I saw a single drop of blood hit the floor, then another. I pinched my nose, moved to the bathroom, and looked in the mirror. My reflection was doing the same, cursing under his breath as we both leaned forward pinching the bridge of our nose. After a few minutes letting go didn't get more blood. We both washed our faces and then looked at ourselves.

"Huh. I got hit in the face by the windowframe when we were putting it in. What happened to you?" My reflection asked.

"You happened." I told my reflection.

"Well, that's good. That means we're starting to synch up." My reflection smiled. He leaned back slightly. "It's real nice over here today, man." He glanced at his wrist and I did the same. "Don't miss formation, man, it's in ten minutes."

I nodded and left the bathroom, heading downstairs and making it to formation at 0655, just enough to get in while everyone was milling around.

"Where have you been?" Nancy asked. "You scared the shit out of me when I woke up all horny and you were gone."

"Sorry." I mumbled. She looked mollified. Bomber socked me in the shoulder and called me a jackass, then formation was on.

LT Wright was satisfied with the progress so far. CID was here to ask more questions. The Defense Intelligence Agency was still gathering information and would be joined by two CIA officers later today who were investigating the disappearance of 'people of interest' and we were to give them all polite courtesy. The LT stressed that the CIA and DIA guys had no actual authority and were only authorized to ask questions. He reminded us of our Article-31 rights and stressed that we did not have to answer questions if we chose not to.

I glanced at the three DIA agents left who were standing with Ineda and noticed that they looked a little angry at the LT's reminder that they had only what authority the LT allowed them.

Apparently he wasn't interested in giving them any.

After formation we broke up, those of us on heavy profiles being excused from work and told to return to our rooms.

"Whatcha gonna do?" Lancer told me when I leaned against the wall and muttered to myself about having to go back to my room.

"I don't know." I admitted.

"Come on up to my room, we can bullshit. I mean, you're an asshole and all, but you're not that bad of a guy."

"You too." I smiled, then felt stupid when I remembered he couldn't see me.

I took his elbow and started walking him up to the Lobotomy Ward.

"Hey, that was pretty cool last night." He said as we were walking up the stairs. The wind was whipping around us as we headed up.

"It passes the time." I blew it off.

"Yeah." He said softly. We both went silent until we got to his room, where I opened the door. When I opened it he stopped me. "I locked the door."

"I unlocked it." I told him.

He frowned. "How?"

"My key works on most locks in the building." I told him.

"Huh. Might want to hold onto that." He said, startling me. I had expected him to freak the hell out, but instead he just nodded.

"Yeah, saved my ass and everyone's asses a few times." I admitted. I guided him in and sat him down on the bed. "Saved us a couple times with the axe guy, let us destroy all the classified data and get into a lot of places really fast instead of having to go through keys till we got to the right one."

He nodded. "Quick access saves lives." He grinned. "Taught us that in BNCOC." Dammit, he'd got to the Basic NCO Course, I'd stab someone for that.

"Must be nice." I told him.

"Woah, woah, woah, what's with the bitterness, soldier?" He grinned. I could tell he was in one of his moods that annoyed the shit out of everyone.

"Haven't been to PLDC yet, myself." I told him. "Fuckers always have a reason that I can't go."

He nodded. "Yeah, that's typical. I was lucky, I was back in the World, and it's a lot easier to get classes in the World than it is out here in Boxhead Land." He leaned back, smiling. "Can I have some coffee?"

"Sure, man." I went over to make it, and he kept talking.

"Well, since I don't have anything better to do why don't you go through a few things, maybe I can give you pointers." He sighed. "I've always wanted to be a drill sergeant for Basic or AIT. I enjoy teaching."

"Hey, being blind won't stop that. I had a blind teacher in high school." I said, trying to avoid talking about anything that had happened at Atlas or the last couple of months.

"Fuck that. You can't smoke those little assholes when they start acting up like you can if your teaching soldiers." I guided his hand toward the coffee cup. "Dude, that better not be your dick you're about to put my hand on." I chuckled at that and put the cup in his hand. He leaned back and sipped on it for a second, obviously gathering his thoughts. "Have a seat, man, let me think this through."

"It's cool, I don't..." He said.

Lancer waved away my excuses. "Look, I'm sure you've gone over all the bullshit with the CID and the rest, but I wanted to ask a few questions that they might not have."

"Like what?" I frowned.

"OK, here's one. Before heading out on the operation did you do up a Principles of Warfare outline?" He asked.

"Not on paper, just put it together in my head on the fly."

Lancer shook his head. "That works for something as fluid as what you had going on, but for longer range planning you want to adhere as much as possible." He grinned. "Stay on target, Gold Leader." He took another drink. "If it isn't a split second decision you should always take the time to sit down, clear your head, and make a list of objectives." He waved toward his desk. "Mind helping me feel useful?"

I nodded then answered. "Sure. What do you need me to do?"

"Just play along and humor the blind guy, OK?"

"Sure."

Lancer started walking me through everything. How to build a pre-operations plan, how to make the PoW outline, how to make multiple contingency plans, how to recognize weak spots in the planning, how to include human error and bureaucratic mistake, how to estimate enemy response and guess probable enemy logic chains.

At first I was slightly resentful that he thought I couldn't handle that shit. I'd handled it during Copper Window, Iron Box, Dancing Leopard, REFORGER, ARTEP, Pre-ARTEP, WINTEX, and Reconstitution. But I soon found myself eagerly following his instructions, listening to him speak, and waiting for him to give me his opinion on my answers to his questions and the scenarios he went through with me.

Yeah, he pointed out mistakes I made on all of those operations, but not in the 'if you hadn't done this this person would have survived/gone uninjured' bullshit I'd gotten from command and everyone else who'd gone through the after action reports. Instead he pointed out ways that I could have made sure everyone wasn't standing around, how to make them more confident in my leadership, and to have clear concise objectives for the whole thing.

Nancy came in with Dobbs to drop off our food. They hung out for about a half hour, Nancy bitching about how her and Stokes kept having to examine everyone at the LT's orders. Anyone who had a profile was being checked in the morning and afternoon. The slightest injury the LT wants Stokes and Nagle to sign off on the most heavy duty profile she could justify. Dobbs complained about having to replace the window in my room as well as having to escort the CID crime scene guys around the barracks.

After they left Lancer sat quietly for a long time and I doodled on the pad. Finally he broke the silence.

"All right, let's go over something." He said. "We've gone over Copper Window, but I want you to walk me through what happened at the end of it."

I went stiff, my pen jumping across the paper, then relaxed. Lancer had been non-judgmental about all of my screwups that we'd walked through.

I took a deep breath, then started. "The GRU guy had done an end-around. He moved north, past Atlas, to where the woods cross the 1K Zone. He moved his men through the woods and then infiltrated the site across the lower helipad then used the blast ditch to get close. One of his men shot me in the helmet, and that was where everything went to shit on the GRU guy." I closed my eyes, remembering how my head had been ringing and I couldn't get my limbs under control. "Little Bit immediately went into sniper mode. She was firing and moving until she hit the brush between the bunkers. She stopped them dead. Christ, it sounded like a single gunshot and she was running that bolt action. That GRU idiot popped up shooting his pistol and Little Bit managed to shoot him in both legs before he went down."

Lancer chuckled. "I heard she was a hell of shot on the AMR course back in April."

"Yeah."

The radiator ticked for a little while and we sat in silence, drinking coffee. I wondered what was going on in Lancer's head, if he was thinking about something, going over his memories, or just letting his mind run in neutral for a while. When I got up to make myself another cup Lancer held out his cup and waved it back and forth and said in a really crappy British accent "Please, sir, help a poor blind man" so I really had no choice but get him another cup. I mean, come on, with a line like that how I could not make him some coffee.

"Hell, Stillwater, as near as I can see you could have done shit to make things more effective, but as far as everything that went down went, there isn't anything I can see that bad." Lancer said after awhile. "There's always going to be people who'll second-guess you who weren't there, and the loud ones will be the ones who don't know shit about what they are talking about, but your biggest critic will be yourself." he shrugged. "It's the nature of the beast, man."

"It just seems like, you know..." I finished lamely.

He nodded. "Yeah. It'll always seem like that, man." He blew out his breath, staring up at the ceiling with his white eye. "Goddamn it, I really wish I could go to Mental Health."

"You? Why? You've got your shit together." I said.

He shook his head. "Hell no. I have dreams where I can see again. I have nightmares where I'm trying to save Dobbs or you guys and I'm blind, or I have nightmares where the grenade goes off and kills me." He laughed bitterly. "Dude, I'm all fucked up, and if I didn't think Mental Health would have my clearance pulled I'd go in a fucking heartbeat."

I nodded. "Yeah, we're kind of screwed, aren't we?" I scrubbed my face with my hands. "I was going to go." I paused for a long second, then admitted it. "Dude, I think I'm seeing things."

He frowned. "Like what?"

"Like Queens, you know, dead guys, like the Russians and Westlin and King." I told him.

He shrugged. "Nancy and Stokes say you're in the middle of a psychotic break and hallucinations are normal. Don't sweat it unless it goes on for too long."

There was a knock at the door and Lancer made a disgusted noise. "Just a minute!"

"I'll get it, man."

"Thanks." He flopped back on the bed.

I walked up to the door and opened it and had to resist the lizard's urge to slam it.

Ineda stood there in her uniform, her cadet rank mocking me. Her hair was done up in a bun, her uniform was pristine, she had on light touch makeup, and her nails were done a pale blue, with her boots spitshined.

I suddenly hated her.

"May I help you, Officer Cadet Stillwater?" I asked her, staring above her head and going to parade rest. I heard Lancer make a disgusted noise in the room.

Ineda frowned. "Don't be like that, Annie." She tried.

I went to shut the door, and she stopped me. "Don't make me go to William." She said flatly.

"Lance, I'll be back, I think I'm about to have a family discussion." I called over my shoulder, stepping forward.

"No stabbing or punching." Lancer called back. The door shut and the lizard hissed at my sister.

I stared down at her. "What do you want, Ineda." I asked, growling more than anything.

"To talk." She said, glaring up at me. "Not where everyone can hear our business either."

"My room work?" I asked her. I didn't want to inflict her on Lancer.

"Whatever. You live in this hell hole." She said. I turned and she shoved me. "Hurry up."

I spun around, stepping into her. "You may have been able to push me when we were kids, Ineda, but I suggest you keep your clit rubbers to yourself." She looked shocked and I turned around and kept walking. "Things have changed, Ineda, you need to wrap your fucking skull around that."

"You're still my brother."

I growled, low, at her possessive tone. It was less about being her twin brother and more about being her possession. I could hear it in her voice that she considered me her trained dog now. "No, that's passed."

When I pushed through the double doors the wind shrieked around us, pulling at my body heat, but I ignored it to turn and yank open the stairwell door. That made snow flutter down from the floor above us and whip around us.

"We've got a lot of things to talk about, Annie." Ineda said.

"Like calling me Annie." I shot back. "That's not my name."

I could tell she was angry, without even looking at her, but I was past giving a shit. For all of her talk when we were younger about how she'd never treat me like the women in our family treated their 'boys' she had dropped right into the pattern the minute she'd been given any kind of authority over boys. We hit Hammerhead Hall and I checked around to see if there was anyone around. There wasn't. Innie followed me to my room, standing quietly while I unlocked the door and let her into the room. The room smelled of lemon Pledge, which made me smile, but the sounds of Innie's footsteps behind me quickly banished my smile and left me feeling angry again. I closed and locked the door after her then went in and grabbed one of the chairs in the room. I turned it around, sat down, and put my hands and chin on the back of the chair and just stared at her.

"What did you want, Ineda?" I asked her as she walked around my room staring at stuff.

"Why do you have all this gross horror movie stuff put up on the wall?" She asked me.

Fair enough...

"Those are to cover up the bullet holes. It got down to hand to hand fighting, a grenade went off, breaking those tiles over there where they're new, and a lot of bullet holes in the room." I waved my hand. "A good man jumped on a grenade to keep it from killing everyone." I pointed over the beds. "Aine killed a man right there, tore out his throat with her teeth while she stabbed him." I pointed at the bathroom. "Another member of Actual killed two men in hand to hand in the bathroom." I stared at her. "So those posters cover up severe damage to my room, Officer Cadet." I pointed at the bathroom again. "There are four unrepaired bullet holes in the shower wall and the bathroom closet, feel free to go and look at them."

Ineda sighed. "Dammit, what is with you and the Cadet stuff?"

"You start whipping around your authority and I'll treat you like a jumped up Cadet who thinks they have authority here." I told her plainly. "You wanna know the difference between you and me?"

"What?" She glared.

"I've been promoted three times and finished my training almost a year ago." I told her. "The Army trusts me with billions of dollars of material and a thirteen man crew and a clandestine NATO site." I stared into her eyes, feeling her glare shatter off of my armor of apathy and dislike for officers. "I'm a soldier, you're playing dress up right now."

"I've only got a year left." She said. "Then I'll be an officer, a West Point graduate, and I deserve some respect."

"Not here." I told her. "Not with me." I pulled open my desk drawer, rooted inside, and found one of the bottles me and Bomber had stashed. I took a long pull.

"Does this unit allow soldiers to drink on duty?" Ineda snapped.

"Don't really fucking care." I told her, taking another pull off of the bottle. "I've decided to stay drunk as much as possible till I'm out of this shit-hole and back at Atlas. You got a problem with that, Cadet or are you going to run downstairs and tattle on me?" I jabbed one finger at here. "See, here's the problem, Ineda, you come in here talking about being my sister, then you want to throw around your Cadet rank, and then you try to throw around your status as a girl. You don't get all of them, Ineda. You can't be my little sister when at any second you're going to become Cadet Stillwater on me."

"I was taught that I am an officer at all times." She shook her head. "You can't expect to break the rules and not have me say anything."

I took a long pull, feeling suddenly exhausted. "Inne, this isn't like your training, this isn't even like the rest of the Army, this is Alfenwehr, this is 2/19th. This is fucking hell, and we just do our best to survive." I screwed the cap on and set the bottle on the desk. "I can either give you advice, Innie, or you could go back down with your DIA buddies and try to survive however long you are here."

Tap shoes ran by with a giggle floating through the door and I jabbed a finger at the door. "That, that right there, Innie, is a normal part of our lives. And it gets worse." I opened the bottle and took another pull off of it as boots crashed to the floor above us and someone yelled an order. "This unit has suffered more causalities during one year of peace-time operations than some units to for an entire year in a combat zone. We've lost soldiers to accidents, murder, insanity, chemical weapons spills, radiation leaks, bad weather, and 'causes unknown' over the last year." I glared at her and she shifted uncomfortably. "This is not an easy posting, this is not easy work, and my MOS is not an easy MOS. We're a combination of a support unit with combat arms training and expectations, and we're expected to fight and win on the nuclear battlefield."

Innie looked shocked as I kept going. "We have no leadership at times, we operate under our own authority for weeks or months at a time, I'm filling an senior NCO slot because my site kills anyone that it doesn't like and we don't have the senior NCO's to spare. Officers kill each other, kill enlisted, and kill themselves. I have met exactly two officers worth the powder to blow them to hell in the last year, one of which will be put out due to a head wound."

I reached out and tapped her arm. "So I don't need a lecture on how the military works from a goddamn Officer Cadet that just arrived from West Point." I took another swig and put it up. My insides were warming up, the alcohol mixing with lunch and moving into my bloodstream. "So what did you want to talk about?"

"You, Annie."

"Don't fucking call me that." I told her. A low moan drifted through the bathroom and I told myself it was air moving through the holes left in the walls from the fighting.

"I want to talk about you. You're acting really strange." She told me.

I laughed bitterly. "Yeah, I'm in the middle of a psychotic break." The lizard huffed its laughter and I started chuckling along with it.

She shook her head. "Annie, if you were having a psychotic break you'd be in the hospital, they wouldn't have you up here."

I laughed at her, unable to stop. "Wow, do you have a lot to learn."

"Stop laughing at me."

That just made me laugh harder. Queens joined me from where she was sitting on the desk, Westlin laughing at the whole thing from where she was sitting on my bunk, the top bunk of the bunkbeds.

"What is so funny?" She yelled. She was losing her temper and the lizard laughed harder.

"You." I managed to get out.

"Stop laughing at me." She yelled.

I laughed harder.

"Stop mocking me." She yelled, coming up and going to slap me.

My laughter stopped immediately, my arm coming up to block her slap. The lizard urged me to grab her wrist, twist her arm, and dislocate her elbow but I ignored it.

"Don't fucking hit me, Officer Cadet, or I'll tune you up like any other officer stupid enough to physically assault me." I warned her, slowly standing up. "I won't stand there and let someone hit me. Not. Any. More."

She stepped back and Queens giggled. "She's afraid of you all of a sudden, Corporal." Queens said. "It's getting through her thick skull that you aren't the person she thought you were."

"Thanks, Queens, I figured that out, honey." I told her, still staring at my sister. "Ineda, you need to decide right now who you are while you are in my room. Are you Officer Cadet Stillwater, Matron Stillwater, or Ineda my sister?"

"I'm all three, Anthony" She started.

"Corporal Stillwater." I corrected her.

"What?"

"You want the respect due to your eventual rank, you will address me as Corporal Stillwater during all future interactions." I pointed at the door. "In the meantime, you may leave."

"I'm not leaving." She glared at me. "Very well, Corporal, I want to know why you won't talk to me."

I shrugged. That was easy to answer. "Simple. You came in here as an officer, I don't speak to officers unless I have to. You threw around your Matron authority, I reject the authority of the Matrons over my life. You sided with the DIA guys, and I don't talk to the boys from the Alphabet Gang. You refuse to be just my twin sister, you refuse to be the Innie who visited me in the hospital and held my hand after surgery when it hurt so bad I wanted to scream. So I'll treat you how you present yourself to me. Right now, you're Officer Cadet Stillwater on loan to the DIA, which I won't talk to."

"What if I ordered you to talk to me?" She asked, her eyes flashing.

"I invoke my right to counsel and my Article 31 rights, ma'am." I told her, going to attention and staring up at the wall above her head.

"Talk to me, goddamn it." Ineda snarled.

"I refuse to speak without counsel and hereby invoke my Article 31 rights." I told her. "Additionally, I request a clearance review to ensure you are cleared to question me about any subject and request a representative of V Corps ChemCorps S-2." I went silent.

"Answer me."

I ignored her.

"Goddamn it, soldier, answer me." She moved right in front of me. I refused to answer her. "Answer me, boy." She raised her hand to slap me and the lizard hit the combat button. As soon as she swung I'd grab her wrist, twist her arm around, grab her by the hair at the back of her head, drag her to the door, and throw her out into the hallway.

"Step away from him, Stillwater." I heard.

Both of us turned to look at the dresser. Aine/Hannah sat there in a gingham dress, no bra, no shoes, with her hair unbound and surrounding her head like a fiery corona.

"Get out of here, Aine." Ineda said.

"You have no authority here, Besom Stillwater." Aine said, "Not in this cold dark place."

"This isn't any problem of yours, Aine McCullen." Inea tried again.

Aine hopped off the dresser, coming over to stand next to me. "Actually, it is." She smiled and rubbed my arm with her hand while the other hand came to rest in the middle of my chest. "You see, the rule of blood is older than the rules you are trying to invoke. He has shed blood with me, I have shed blood with him, our blood has intermingled and we have faced foes in mortal combat." Aine's smile grew cruel. "I am one of the kellys of this mountain, you have no claim, you have no authority here."

Ineda looked like she wanted to argue, but Aine's next words deflated her. "You family has one of my blood sitting on the matron council of your clan, shall we call her and get her opinion of who has authority on this mountain? Who has authority by the rules of blood and combat?"

Ineda nodded respectfully to Aine. "Very well, you have matron authority here as a girl." Her eyes brightened. "But you didn't enter as an officer, that makes you a boy, which puts you under..."

She squawked as I grabbed her by the bun.

"This fucking conversation is over." I snarled, dragging her by her hair again. I whipped open the door and threw her out into the hallway. "Get the fuck out, Innie. Don't come back."

She glared at me and started to step forward, her face turning red.

I slammed the door in her face, locked it, and went back to where Aine was sitting on the dresser, swinging her bare feet and humming to herself. I could tell she was upset, Ineda's words having sliced her to the bone.

"You all right, Hannah?" I asked, stepping up and taking her hand.

Tears began slipping down her face. "No. That was cruel of her."

I hugged her close, feeling how hot her skin was through the thin dress. "I don't know who she is. I'm sorry, Innie never acted like that."

Aine hugged me back. "She's a woman now, your sister is gone." She started sobbing. "She is what they are taking from me." She sagged against me. "Part of me wants to be what she is becoming, but I would not trade what I was with Actual for what I could have been."

I moved her over to the bed, pulling her into my lap and rocking her gently. "I like you, Hannah. I really do."

She started sobbing harder, clutching at my uniform. "I want to be Hannah but I don't want to not be an Aine." I rocked her while she cried. "I was an Aine, I was special."

I smoothed her hair, then hugged her tight. "You are special, Hannah. We're Special Weapons, we were Actual, and you'll be put on a site crew and be part of that, like me, Nancy, and John are part of Atlas."

She nodded, her eyes puffy and half-closed. "Watch out for your sister, Annie." She said softly, kissing the point of my chin. "She hasn't figure out that we were all sent here to die. She thinks that this is West Point and she has authority over boys still."

I shrugged. "Let her think what she wants, Hannah." I rolled my shoulders at the lizard's instruction, feeling aggressive. "She's not one of us."

Hannah nodded. Aine was gone from her eyes. "Nancy sent me up, she was worried when she didn't see your sister with the other DIA guys, so she told me to find you and make sure you were all right."

"I'm all right. I just..." I felt tears well up. "She's my sister. She's supposed to be my sister." I started crying. "Now she's something else this fucking place has cost me."

Hannah wiggled on my lap so she was sitting up and facing me. She pulled my head against her chest. "No, our families took her away." She didn't try to get me to stop crying, instead holding me close and letting me get it out. "Our family pits sisters against brothers, aunts against uncles, it's always been boys serve the family while the Matrons rule it, since Pax Britannica." She leaned me back so I was laying on the bed. "Only things are changing, and the rule of power is about to take effect." She took my blanket from the top bunk and put it over me, sitting next to me on the bed while I curled around the hurt in my chest. "The more someone tries to hold onto power the faster it slips through their fingers."

"Sleep, Anthony. Get some sleep, things will be better." She said softly, rubbing my back. "I'll stay here and guard your sleep."

I went back to Atlas.

Chapter 24

FSTS-317
NATO Site-63
AKA "ATLAS"
Secure Area, Western Germany
On the 1K Zone
29 August, 1987

Bomber jumped up into the air, catching the wooden block wrapped in 100 MPH tape at the height to his jump. He hit the ground running, getting three steps before Little Bit hit him around the waist in a full tackle, putting her legs into it and heaving him up off his feet, over her shoulder, to crash down on his back less then ten steps from the end zone. Bomber hit with a woof and rolled onto his feet, planting the 'ball' on the ground.

"Goddamn it, Little Bit, you hit like a fucking train." Bomber laughed. The short stocky woman laughed as she picked herself up off the ground from where her tackle had dumped her. The rest of us slowed to a stop while Foster walked out to us.

"Good catch, good tackle, first down." Foster said, stopping to rub his chest. He'd caught a Spetznas bullet in the Kevlar but it had collapsed his lung. He was only a day back at Atlas and was still on profile to be careful. His convalescent leave had been denied and Henley had sent him right back out to the point. So he was our referee and manning the PRC-77 we had at the sidelines to monitor any radio traffic.

"Lucky I didn't catch you." Nancy grinned. She was wearing her brown T-shirt without the sleeves, like most of the defensive team. I had on my BDU top, marking me as offense, but Cartwright was our QB since he had an arm like a shotgun and played football in high school.

"Meh, I'm Texan. Football's like our religion, I've taken harder hits." Bomber blew it off. He winced when he got up, putting his hand on his back. "Still 49 to 49, first to 50." We all gathered up in our respective teams of six.

"All right, Bomber, go out for a pass, sweep right. Stillwater, go behind me, I'll hand it off to you. Everyone else, keep them off me, Nagle's out for blood." Cartwright said. "Ready?" We all nodded. "Break."

Johnson was across from me and he grinned. "Gonna plow you under, Stillwater." He threatened.

"Bring yer mamma." I shot back.

"Hut one, red thirty two, who's got a shoe, HIKE!" Cartwright called out.

Johnson lunged at me but I spun around him, tripping him and shoving at his back to send him face first into the dirt. I turned, sweeping behind Cartwright and taking the handoff smoothly. Cartwright faded back and left, cocking his arm back like he was going to throw. Nagle went at him, leaving open a hole, and I shot through it. I saw Nagle hit him out of the corner of my eye and watched them both go down, Nagle tumbling free with her shirt torn.

I'd just hit the line, just hit twelve steps, when I took a crushing impact from the side, lifting me up, flipping me in midair, and dumping me down on my back. My hand went out to the side and I kept it on the ground even though I was seeing stars.

"TOUCHDOWN!" Foster called out. The decision was greeted with a chorus off boos, catcalls, and victory shouts.

Little Bit loomed up above me, reaching down to me. "You all right?"

"Fine." I laughed, letting her heave me to my feet. "Bomber's right, you hit like a damn truck."

Little Bit had joined the squad back in March and had been a short thin girl, weighing in about 100 pounds. Now she weighed about 150 of solid packed muscle. She failed weigh-ins but made the tape tests every time. I'd seen the woman throw a box of 120mm tank rounds up on one shoulder to carry them and knew how she'd packed on so much muscle.

"Not so little any more, am I?" She smiled. I threw my arm over her, laughing.

"OK, OK, you guys won. What's next?" Nancy asked, one arm over Cartwright, completely oblivious to the fact that her left boob was hanging out of the tear in her shirt.

"We're still stuck out here till Henley lets us come back or Friday, whichever is first." I called out as everyone gathered up around me. The radio chattered something and Foster listened close while I kept speaking. "Since we're done with inventory, the site's locked down, and we did PMCS on everything, and inspected the war stocks."

"So what do we do?" Johnson asked, putting his finger on the scrape on his jaw to stop the bleeding. Everyone was either putting pressure on scrapes or licking their fingers and rubbing spit into them.

"We dig up Mermite Three." I said. "Let's build a bonfire and get drunk."

"Hell yeah!" Johnson said, pumping his fist.

"You guys haul down the old busted pallets to the lower helipad, Nagle and me will grab the mermite." I said.

"FORKLIFT!" Little Bit yelled, running toward the forklift shed.

"No fair, bitch!" Bellings yelled, running after the other woman.

"Woot, booze!" Bomber said, heading over to the stack of pallets that were broken, rotted, or otherwise unservicable. We had hundreds of them stacked up in piles.

Nagle grabbed a shovel off the side of Kong and we headed downrange.

"That was a lot of fun." She told me.

"Your tit is hanging out."

She looked down and shrugged. "Eh, I have nice tits." She said.

I laughed as we walked down the dark road. All that was providing any light was the stars and moon but we'd been outside since before dusk so our eyes were used to it.

"Been a long summer." I said as we crested the hill. Below us was just darkness and what looked like gentle hills. A little too regular, spaced a little too regularly, but not easily spotted as what it was. I could see the three deadlined forklifts pushed into the ditch, waiting for the mechanics to come out and fix them.

We walked out to between Bunker Two and Bunker Three, counting my steps and only having to backtrack twice and try again until we found the wooden stake with the little bit of cloth engineer's tape wrapped around it. I put in the shovel and started digging, finding the mermite can only a few inches below the ground. I put my shoulders into the work and pretty soon was able to pull the mermite out of the ground by its handle. When I straightened up with the can I dropped it on the ground next to the shovel and stretched.

"Anthony." Nancy's voice was breathless and soft.

I looked over and she had her shirt off, kneeling down in the grass. "Come over here." She smiled. I moved over, she pulled open my pants and went down on me, sometimes rubbing me with those wonderful big breasts, but mostly using mouth and hands. When I was done she laughed, sitting down on her heels.

"I needed that, Ant. Thanks." She smiled.

"Never will understand that." I told her, buttoning up. I handed her her shirt from where she'd left it on a bush. "Seems like I oughta be thanking you."

She chuckled gently. "You wouldn't understand, Ant. Told you before, I like that." She smiled wickedly. "Besides, I'll cash that chip in later, get some head from you."

I laughed, picking up the Mermite while she put on her shirt. She grabbed the other handle and we started walking down to the other helipad. It wasn't that far, maybe a mile and a half, two miles, from where we were standing.

"How drunk you gonna let them get?" Nancy asked me.

"Till they fucking pass out." I told her. "I talked to the German guards, they're putting double shifts out."

"Nice." She smiled. "We need the stress break."

"Think they're wondering where we are?" I asked.

"Hell no, Little Bit probably got Bellings to give her head in the forklift shed, Bomber couldn't care less, and even if they are down there, they know both of us came down here and if they haven't figured out what we done when we're alone yet, they're dumber than shit."

I laughed at that as we walked down the road.

"I love you, Nancy."

"I know."

The others were waiting, a pan of oil from the 50 gallon drum we'd drained the old oil in the vehicles into sitting next to all the pallets stacked up in two stacks. One was obviously a fire stack, the other more fuel.

"Let's do this!" I called out, dropping the mermite and opening it. Inside was packed ice and bottles of booze. Bomber threw the oil on the pallets, came over, got his bottle of Old Crow, and then lit a flare to throw into the pile. The oil caught immediately and the whole helipad was full of light and heat.

I didn't bother with too much alcohol, just sipping off the bottle of Wild Turkey and making sure I was never too far away from where our weapons and gear was stacked up. Within the hour Nagle had her shirt off and was painted with camou stick. Little Bit copied her hero, and Bomber stripped down to his boxers and let himself be painted with chemlight and camou stick.

The sight of the German Army jeep pulled me away from the light, heat, and companionship of the fire. I walked over to see a guy dressed in BDU's sitting in the back.

"What's with him?" I asked the German officer that had jumped out of the jeep.

"Someone to see you. He has papers, we called it up and checked, he has limited permissions to be here." He told me. "He is here to see you by name."

"All right, I'll talk to him." I said. "Wait for a few minutes."

The guy got out, coming over to me and holding out his hand. "I'm out here to meet one of your men." He told me while we shook hands. "Colonel Pritchard told me about your group of people, said I might want to check you guys out."

"And you are?" I asked, keeping my body between him and the bonfire.

"Colonel Daniels, Special Operations Group." He tried to look by me. "I looked over the after action reports of this last summer, and I'd like to meet your sniper. I heard they're incredible."

"Yup. They can put out six rounds, hit center mass six targets, within 20 seconds." I said. "With a bolt action rifle. She can fire on the run and score kills as she moves."

"Wait, she?" He asked, suddenly stopping.

I turned and looked at my group, half of them dancing around the fire, the other half either clapping or just drinking. "See the short girl with no shirt next to the one with big tits?"

"Yeah."

"That's our sniper." I told him. "Deadeye herself."

"Oh." Was all he said. He held out his hand. "It was nice meeting you, but we can't use her services as she's female."

"Yeah." I said, not bothering to shake his hand. "God forbid the holy order of snake eating morons has to deal with a woman."

His face flushed, but I turned my back on him and walked away.

"Go away, sir. Go back to your snake eaters." I told him, heading for the fire. "We'll be fine out here."

I didn't tell Little Bit.

Fuck 'em.

Chapter 25

2/19th Special Weapons Group Barracks
Restricted Area, Alfenwehr West Germany
Late Winter- 12 February, 1988
Day 5 of Repairs
Day 5 of the Third Incident
Early Morning
0930

We were all in Lancer's room again. It was crowded with the two extra bunk beds added, almost to the point where we couldn't move around easier, but we found we slept better if we were all together. I'd woken up the night before to find Hannah naked in bed with me. No sex, just holding one another and me comforting her when she started crying that she was losing herself and would I still love Hannah if Aine was gone. Of course I would, she'd been there in the dark and cold, how could I do anything but love her with all my heart. When we'd gotten up we'd gone downstairs to formation, the LT had lectured me that I did not have to attend formation if I was dizzy or needed someone to help me stand since he saw Hannah and then Nancy helping me stay on my feet during formation.

Now Dobbs was sitting with Lancer on his bed in civilian clothing, holding the book on Braille and teaching Lancer to read. Nancy was sitting on the dresser drinking coffee, holding her coffee cup in one hand and a medical FM in the other in a pair of pajamas. Bomber was sitting up on top of one of the bunks reading the Unearthed Arcana book and glaring at his character sheet as if it was to blame for what had happened last time we had played. Lanks was kicked back on one of the beds, hands behind her head, her eyes closed and breathing nice and slow as she slept. Stokes was sitting there playing cat's cradle with a pair of boot laces tied together. Artaine was sleeping, still recovering from the bad belly wound he'd suffered during that last desperate fight. We'd moved him up to the room with the rest of us this morning after Nancy had found out that he'd retreated to his room and had slept there two nights in a row by himself. Hannah was sitting in a chair, humming along with the song on AFN radio, and gently rocking back and forth as she just stared off into space dressed in her gingham dress, barefoot with a sky blue ribbon wound in the braid Nancy had done her hair into.

We were all that was left of Actual. I closed my eyes to push the thoughts of that away.

"Hey, Ant?" Bomber asked.

"What?" I answered, looking up from the DMG.

"What's the ruling on that ritual we did the other week? Do I still get to fire off any mix of spells up to fifteen levels in a single round and all that good shit or did it wear off after we took on that death knight?" He asked me.

I checked my notes. "Looks like the ritual is holding steady. You're still good."

"What about arcane burn risks when casting?" He was scribbling on his sheet.

"Still got that ability to shunt it off in a circle around you. Five feet for each spell level you're dumping."

He scribbled some more. "Thanks, man. Got it."

Lancer shook his head at one point and made a disgusted noise. Dobbs slapped his arm and told him that unless he just wanted to sit there and stare at nothing for the rest of his life. Lancer had already bitched that outside of TM's, FM's, and correspondence courses he hadn't really read much since he left high school. Dobbs pushed the book into his hand and he did the blind thing of just lift his hands up and fold them on his chest.

Someone knocked on the door and Hannah jumped up to answer it, still humming. When she came back she was still humming and holding William's hand. William looked like he was holding onto a live snake. She let go of him without a word and sat back down in her chair, changing tunes with the radio and still sitting in the chair smiling softly.

My brother walked up in front of me and stopped, waiting for me to look up. When I didn't he finally spoke. "Tony, are you all right?"

I looked up at Will. "I'm fine." I looked back at the section I was reading regarding government types and the Governments of Ancient Civilizations reference book I'd checked out from the library in Wildflecken.

"Tony, I want to talk privately to you." He told me.

I sighed melodramatically and tucked the notes I was making in between the pages to hold my place and stood up.

"Ten minutes and we'll come after you, man." Bomber said with a grin. William grinned back and then we walked out into the hallway, Hannah following us to shut the door.

"Our dad called, Tony." William just came right out and said it.

"What did Father have to say?" I asked.

"Innie called him, said you were acting really erratic and wanted him to talk to you." William said. "Nobody knew where you were and LT Wright said you were off duty until he said otherwise." William made a face. "I don't like that guy, he really sets my nerves on edge."

I shrugged. "He's just an officer, he doesn't really matter." I waved at the cold hallway. "Innie seems to think she can be an officer cadet, a family matron, and my twin sister all at the same time." I knew I was starting to snarl and stopped myself. "It doesn't work that way here and the faster she figures out I'm not her little brother and she doesn't get to be three people at once the higher her survival rate will be here." I found myself growing angry. "She comes in here with those DIA assholes, tries to push me around, and thinks she knows everything there is to know about living here? Fuck her. She can carry her ass back to West Point and have a nice cup of shut the fuck up along the way."

William looked a little angry as he snapped back at me. "She's still our sister."

"I don't give a shit. She came in my room, William, my room acting as Officer Cadet Stillwater, lecturing me about drinking, tell me that I have to respect her as an officer already, act like she's on of the matrons, and tell me that I don't know what the fuck I'm talking about when I talk about this unit, and then have the unmitigated gall to tell me that I don't really know what I'm thinking or what I'm going through and she knows better."

William's face got red and I expected him to explode at me but his words surprised me. "She did what? Who the fuck does she think she is? This isn't the Regular Army, this is fucking Special Weapons, fucking 2/19th, goddamn Alfenwehr." He looked behind me. "We got trouble."

Someone shoved me from behind and I turned around.

Sergeant Butcher.

"You little..." He got out before his words turned into a surprised squawk as I grabbed him by his face and drove the back of his head against the cinderblock wall, twisting at the waist to put my hips into it. He hit with a crunch and I yanked him back by his BDU top to slam him against when William grabbed my arm.

"Don't do it, you might kill him." He said. I nodded and let go of the other man so that he fell to the floor.

"Fuck it, let's go down to your room to talk, OK, Tony?"

I nodded, stepping over Sergeant Butcher, who had pissed himself again. One of his feet was kicking spasmodically but I couldn't have given a shit less. For all cared he could freeze to death in the hallway. We headed down to the Middle Stairwell and then down to Hammerhead Hall before heading to my room. When we got in the room William looked through the desk and found the bottle of whiskey that Bomber had stashed. I sat down on my bed, rubbing my temples to try to get the thumping headache I'd developed on the walk down to ease up. Will grabbed a pair of glasses, dumped a few ice cubes into the glass, then poured half a glass of whiskey for each of us.

"Thanks." I said when he handed it to me. I waved at the fridge. "Can you grab me a Coke?" Will nodded and grabbed one for me, handing it to me so I could mix the Coke with the shitty whiskey we'd snagged out of suspended ceiling. Once I took a long drink I rolled the glass against my forehead. "Christ, what a lashup."

"Right now or earlier this winter or what?" William asked.

I leaned back on the bed, rubbing my eyes before taking another drink. "Just... everything, Will." I sighed. "I'm deep in the woods, Will, no compass, no map, no grid coordinate." I took another drink. "They're gonna throw me out or throw me in jail."

William just nodded, looking around the room. "You did a good job, doesn't really look like anything even happened in here."

"Shit happened in here, Will." I said. He nodded. I pointed at the spot in front of the desk. "Sherry died there, Will. A grenade pretty much blew him in half, Nancy jacked him up with morphine and Bomber held his hand while he died." I waved at the windows that someone had replaced. "They kept coming in the window. Stokes did a hell of a job holding it with that eskrima shit she knows but there were just a shitload of them." I sighed again, rubbing my face. "Remember that shit in Africa?" He nodded. "Worse than that. More of the enemy. They just kept coming." I took another deep drink. "I was in the hallway with King, we were running the pig to keep them honest and they just kept fucking coming." I pointed at my head. "I had a brain bleed by that time and Nancy thinks I was probably hallucinating but I swear to you, William, I swear to fucking God, that some of them were already dead, covered in fucking ice, and they wouldn't go down until we blew off limbs, and even then they pulled themselves forward by their arms or kept walking forward with arms blown off."

He didn't discount it, didn't tell me that I had been seeing things, just nodded and let me talk. "I didn't have any choice, Will, we had to destroy the classified data, we had to destroy the secure items, and the men I led paid for it." I curled up slightly and began crying again. "Dobbs lost her eye, Lancer's career is over, Stokes has an ass and titties full of shrapnel, Lanks got half her face torn off, King and Sherry and Needlemeyer and Levins were all killed."

William didn't move, just sat there while I kept talking about the whole thing. The drive to the motorpool, the assault in the War Fighter Tunnels, the maniac with the axe. He refilled my drink when it ran low, handed me Floyd when I choked up to the point where I couldn't talk for a few moments.

"Then fucking Dobbs kicked shut the door on King. Fucking left him behind, fucking closed the door on him." I sobbed. "They pulled me through the door to the War Fighter Tunnels and shut the fucking the door." I finished off a second glass and William refilled it silently. "Christ, this last year has been nothing but failure on my end. I almost lost Atlas more than once, I got people killed, and fucked it all up." I sighed and took another drink. "Maybe my mother was right about me, Will." I said, looking up at him.

William slapped me.

"Don't you ever fucking say that again." He growled. "I'm sorry for saying it earlier when I was pissed off, but don't you ever say that again." He picked up the glass from where I'd dropped it and refilled it with ice, Coke, and cheap whiskey before walking toward the bathroom. "I'll wipe that up."

I sat there, feeling my cheek burn and sting from where he'd hit me. He came out of the bathroom with one of the brown towels and then cleaned up where I'd dropped my glass when he slapped me.

"You can't keep letting Martha bring you down, Tony." Will said, unlacing the laundry bag to stuff the towel in there and lacing it back up on the footboard. "I thought you put that shit behind you last fall."

I shook my head. "You wouldn't get it, William. It isn't something that I can just put behind me. She fucking scarred me, man."

"Still, you showed her that you aren't a ten year old boy she can kick the ass off of." He said, then mimed a buttstroke. "BAM! That's what you get for being a bitch!" That made me laugh. "Goddamn, she's had it coming for years. She's treated you like shit all your life and even with the restraining order dad took out on her she still fucked with you constantly." He sighed, looking suddenly old. "Those fucking Christmas cards she'd send you should have landed her ass in jail."

I shrugged and a knock rattled from the door. We looked at each other in confusion. I shrugged and the knock repeated. That made both of us burst out laughing as William got to his feet and headed toward the door. Out of curiosity I shrugged again and sure as shit someone knocked on my door again, making me laugh harder.

"Oh. It's you." William's voice was flat and unwelcoming. "Hello, Ineda."

"Is Annie here?" She asked.

I rolled my eyes as William answered. "Yeah, why?"

"I just want to talk to him, I'm worried about him." Ineda said.

"Hey! Rude and pushy much?" William yelled as I heard Ineda walk into my room. I knew she'd just pushed past him. When she walked in she was wearing BDUs with her rank on and stopped in front of me.

She looked at her watch and stared at me. "Not even noon and I find you with a drink in your hands, Anthony." She chided.

"Fuck off." I told her.

"I'm starting to wonder if you have an alcohol problem, Anthony." She said, her hands on her waist.

"What part of 'Fuck. Off.' do you not understand, Cadet?" I told her, taking a long drink.

She slapped my drink out of my hand, the crystal glass, marked with the German crest, shattered against the dresser. William stopped stock still where he was walking back into the room, his face shocked. She straightened up and glared at me, her eyes narrowing in anger.

"STOP DRINKING!" she shrieked at me. "Can't you go twenty seconds without acting like Jed?"

I jumped to my feet, stepping into her. "How fucking dare you?" I yelled.

"How dare I? You're the one crawling into a bottle at every chance you get just like him. You're the one who grabbed me by my hair just like Jed used to." She thrust her finger against my chest. "It's like I'm trying to talk to a younger version of our dad."

"Except I'm not jamming my fingers into your cunt to check to see if you're still a virgin while Martha goes to break my arm with a fucking meat tenderizer." I yelled back.

William looked like someone hit him in the face with a rock.

"I'm not coming into your room at night to make sure that you aren't touching yourself." I pointed at her hand. "Remember that? Remember how she'd hold our hands under scalding fucking water for touching ourselves while Jed held us down? Remember how I didn't take out the dog fast enough so he rubbed my face in the dogshit and beat me because I refused to eat it off the floor? Remember how he'd fucking kick my goddamn ribs in if the beer I got him was warm or his baseball team was losing or it was a day ending in fucking Y?"

Now her face had gone white and Will's had gone red.

"No, you don't. Because you didn't get most of that shit. You got fucking toys, and dresses, and as much food as you wanted and allowed to sleep with blankets." I yelled at her. "Meanwhile Jed and Martha were beating me, kicking me, threatening to cut my fucking dick off, and giving my food to either Logan or the goddamn dog!" I was holding down the overwhelming urge to start punching something, anything, preferably something that bled and screamed and cried. "Oh, wait, or they gave my fucking food to YOU because you wanted seconds." She staggered back, her hand going to her mouth. "But you didn't know that, did you? You didn't know they'd take my plate into the kitchen, give my food to you, then beat the shit out of me for crying because I was hungry."

I grabbed the whiskey bottle, took a long pull off of it, and sat down. "So don't start talking to me about Jed, Ineda, because you were daddy's precious little girl even when Martha was claiming you were a whore and I was the kid that Jed knocked out a bunch of his baby teeth for running in the house and kicking over his beer."

"Come on, Anthony, all of that didn't happen." Ineda said, but her voice was shaking.

"The fuck it didn't!" I yelled, coming back up on my feet. "You just don't remember, because you were daddy's special little girl, Logan was Martha's special little boy, and if they could have figured out a way to get away with it they would have drowned me and buried me in the back yard."

"It wasn't that bad." She tried. I felt my anger and rage turn to ashes and leave me empty inside.

"It was bad enough that the State took you away in the nineteen seventies and the Matrons backed my father on it." William added. "I remember when you guys first moved in. You were all excited, Tony here hid under his bed with a cast on his arm for three days."

"This isn't any of your business, William." Ineda said, rounding on him.

"Piss off, Innie." William said. "Believe it or not, me and Ant here have gotten along perfectly fine without you for two years. While you were in a classroom we were actually in the Army." He shrugged. "We don't need you."

I held up my hand, recognizing when William's temper was starting to get the better of him.

"I'll tell you what, Officer Cadet Stillwater, I'll give you a chance." I said. William obviously reigned himself in, his grin looking forced and unnatural.

"How?" Ineda looked suspicious.

"Take off your rank or your top and sit down and drink with us." I offered. She went to open her mouth and I held up my hand. "After you have the goddamn common human courtesy to clean up the fucking mess you made before someone cuts themselves on that glass."

"Only chance, Ineda, you better take it." William managed to get out between gritted teeth. He undid the laundry bag and got out the towel. "I'll get the broom and dustpan while you wipe off the dresser."

"And if I refuse?" My sister asked.

"Then we're finished." I warned her. "I won't consider you my sister, I'll take you off my SGLI and give it to Hannah, and I'll never willingly speak to you again."

She snatched the towel from me, glaring, and began wiping the front of the dresser. William went over to the fridge to get the broom and dustpan.

"Soooooo... when was the last time you talked to Jed and Martha?" I threw out conversationally.

"When I called for Christmas this year." She said, her voice sharp. "Logan told me all about how you showed up, drunk, beat up dad..."

"He's not my fucking dad. He's Jed." I told her. She nodded and continued.

"You beat up Jed and slapped around Martha and Logan had to stop you." She said.

William laughed at that. "Logan couldn't stop beating off much less stop someone from delivering an ass kicking."

"He's full of shit." I said. "Logan didn't do anything but run and help Jed after I broke Jed's arm." I handed the whiskey to William, who poured Ineda a drink. "I went back to try to make amends and Martha slapped me as soon as she opened the door, then Jed punched me in the face, and it all went downhill from there." I shrugged. "Ask Nancy."

"So now you just crawl into a bottle every chance you get just like dad to prove you can outdrink him as well as beat him up?" Ineda took the broom and dustpan and swept up the glass. "Am I done now?"

"Christ, Innie, I'm not a total dick, but you messed up my room, broke a glass I went to great lengths to steal from the Green Goose in Wildflecken. You make the mess, you clean it up." I told her.

"You know, maybe she doesn't get it, what this place is about." William suggested. "Maybe she needs to see what changed us."

"I read the reports before we even came up here." She said, glaring at Will, who just took back the broom and dustpan and put them back behind the fridge with a shrug.

"Reports are one thing, Innie, reality is another." I told her. I clinked her glass with mine. "Drink or get out."

I felt kind of bad using a little bit of peer pressure on her as I smiled at her and spoke to her so only she could understand. "Walk with me, Innie."

She made a face and took a drink then looked startled as she swallowed it. "This doesn't taste bad."

"You got used to woods parties where nobody knows how to mix a drink." William laughed, taking a drink off of his. "Yeah, we drink to get drunk and forget but we also remember to enjoy it."

"And this is cheap shit." I told her. "Usually I drink Ausbach but I've been out of that since... hell, since the reason you're here."

"Did you really break Jed's arm?" Innie asked.

I grinned. "Yeah. I kind of lost my head."

She smiled shyly at me and took another sip. "Thank you."

William wisely didn't say anything, knowing exactly why she was thanking me.

"When did Aine come up here?"

"Hannah." I said.

"What?" Both William and Innie asked.

"She changed her name. She's Hannah Lane now." I said, shrugging. William looked at the window and nodded slowly, understanding in some weird way why she'd change her name. Innie looked confused.

"Why would she do that?" She asked, taking another sip, this one a lot longer.

"Because Aine is splattered in blood and she wants to be someone else." William said softly. He was staring out the window. "She doesn't want to be what this place turned her into. I understand it. Sometimes I don't want to be William or part of the First Twenty, I can't imagine what it is like for Actual." He shook his head, his smile coming back to his battered face. He pulled out his pack of smokes and tossed them to me so I could light one and toss it back.

"You smoke too?" She asked.

"My hands wouldn't stop shaking." I told her. I pointed at William. "He started smoking after the barracks burned down and almost killed us all, I started smoking after Bomber, Foster and I almost got killed by a chemical weapon cocktail and radiation exposure last spring when we found Atlas."

She looked surprised at that.

"It's hell here, Innie." William said softly. "When our own chain of command isn't trying to kill us our sites are or the Soviets are doing their damndest." He shook his head. "They tried three times to take Tony's site and tried twice to take mine. Hell, they almost rolled over Krietz this summer, killed most of his crew and his Ranger QRF got wiped out in the fighting." He lit a cigarette and I noticed his hands were shaking. He'd been out at Krietz's site. "That almost kicked off World War III except the Soviet Union didn't follow it up and claimed it was a rogue commander."

Innie stared at us both for a long time, taking full drinks off her glass. "This doesn't sound at all like what I was given to read about this unit."

William and I busted up laughing at that but I managed to say something before she got mad. "Innie, what happens here and what you'd be allowed to read are two different things."

"The Defense Intelligence guys were the ones who gave it to me." Innie said.

"Yeah, well, they aren't ChemCorps." William said. "I don't think any of us, or anyone in the DoD or DOA or anyone else really knows what goes down in this unit." He waved at me. "Probably not many people know that Tony here got targeted at the Green Goose in Wildflecken this summer. Two guys followed him out to the alley and went to jump him but by the time the Polizie and the MPs got there the bodies were gone."

I shrugged. "Probably KGB games. It happened right after someone kicked in Sergeant Breaker's door and shot him. Two in the chest, one in the head, standard hit."

Innie nodded and gulped down the rest of her drink. William had only poured her about one and a half fingers of whiskey.

"Hey, you know what might help her understand?" William popped up with, smiling.

"What?" I asked. Innie just tipped the glass up to get the last dribble out of it. It went through my mind that alcoholism ran in our family, but the lizard crushed that thought down with the reminder that being in the Army in our family meant you were going to be an alcoholic anyway.

"Let's give her a tour of the barracks." He grinned.

A cold breezed crawled up my spine.

"Will you?" She asked. She relaxed, the stick that had been up her ass since she had gotten there dissolved by the alcohol.

William and I looked at each other, shrugged, and smiled at our sister.

"Sure, why not?" He said.

"We'll ask the LT if we can show you the War Fighter Tunnels." I said.

"They're locked down till the EPROMS get replaced so there's new codes." William said. "The codes got destroyed during your little rampage, remember?"

I smiled and unbuttoned my top pocket, sliding out my green notebook. I thumbed through it and handed it to him, holding it open. He looked at the page, shook his head, and smiled.

"You know you aren't supposed to have that, right?" He asked.

"Better to have it and not need it then need it and not have it like when that fucker with the axe was having himself a good old time." I told him. Innie gently took the glass from my hand and gulped the rest down. William nodded and stood up, brushing his hands along his pantlegs. He always did that when he got drunk, like his hands were sweaty or maybe sticky or wet from the glass.

"Let's go see the LT." He said, setting the glass down on the desk.

We headed downstairs to where the LT was sitting behind the CQ Counter. He didn't use the CO's office, preferring to stay where it was easy to find him. The DIA agents and two new skeezy looking motherfuckers were sitting next to him.

"Gentlemen." Was all he said when we walked up. He saw Innie behind me and nodded. "Ma'am." That made Innie blush. "Can I help you, soldiers?"

"Is it all right if we give my sister a tour of the barracks?" I asked.

The LT steepled his fingers for a moment then slowly nodded. "That might help." He tapped the sheet of paper he'd been reading I could see it was a written request from someone. "I have no problem with it, but perhaps you would be willing to do me a favor?"

"Sure." William said. It made my want to elbow him. He volunteered for everything like a brain dead moron.

"The DIA and CIA agents want a walkthrough of how some things went down in certain locations. Perhaps you wouldn't mind taking them with you." He smiled. "They should be escorted, of course, as the barracks can be very dangerous to those who are unused to them." I could hear his inflection and knew what he meant. The five agents nodded and I had an instinctive urge to just start stabbing.

...Shit...

William nodded as the LT continued. "Would you mind getting together the rest of the team that destroyed the sensitive items and classified information so that they can add in their observations?"

I shook my head then kind of shrugged. "What about Lancer, sir? He was there for some of it, but was blinded halfway through the fight at the command center."

"Take him along, of course, he has his own perceptions of the fighting." The LT said. "Although it might be difficult to enter the War Fighter Tunnels, as the chipset hasn't been replaced yet."

"I'm a squad leader, I have my access code memorized and it should still work." William lied smoothly. "It's only a one use code, but it should still work." The LT nodded along as if it was the most natural thing in the world, despite the fact that he had to know it was bullshit.

"Wait here, Innie, I'll go round up Actual and we'll give you a tour of the barracks." I smiled. She smiled back and squeezed my arm for a moment affectionately.

I tromped upstairs while William entertained Innie talking about the time we got drunk and SGT Quintlen fucked a drag queen.

I just walked into Lancer's room where everyone was sitting around drinking coffee or booze or sleeping or whatever.

"Hate to say this, but we got a mission." That brought out a chorus of groans. "The Alphabet Boys want us to accompany them through the barracks, show them what we did, how it went down."

"If any of you comment that I pissed myself I'll beat you to death with my tits." Lanks growled.

"Little tits like those? That'll be a savage beating that takes like twelve hours." Bomber laughed.

"How about I kick your ass?" Lanks asked.

"Make him wear a dress, he likes that." Dobbs shot in. "But make sure you Nair his ass before you deep dick him."

"Hey, you promised you'd never tell!" Bomber protested, then mocked sobbed.

That improved everyone's mood while everyone got dressed, we woke up Hannah, who just got dressed in front of everyone. Our Hannah, no body modesty because in some ways she wasn't quite a person yet, but we loved her anyway because she was Hannah and needed love.

She stretched, yawned, and took off her dress as she wandered over to where she'd folded her uniform and left it on Lancer's dresser. Nobody paid any attention to her nudity now. It was part of Hannah, just part of the weird little mix that made her up. The way that her hair went from braided to loose and back again in the time it took someone to turn around twice. The way she walked barefoot through the frost without leaving footprints or could walk across snow that the rest of us would sink into, her almost aggressive nudity and complete lack of personal space or modesty, all wrapped into Hannah.

Who was I to throw stones? I was a drunken paranoid hyper-aggressive slut with a taste for thick bodied women and Wild Turkey who suffered from hallucinations.

She'd just finished getting dressed when I stepped up behind her and hugged her. She melted into me, purring slightly and rubbing her head against my arm before looking up at me and speaking. "I like this better, you're warm and loving."

I kissed the top of her head and let go, going over to stand next to Nancy and hold her hand. Nancy smiled at me and kissed my cheek, then winked at Hannah, who blushed and looked down.

"You're an odd one, Hannah, but I like you." Dobbs said, taking her hand. "Hey, if something goes sideways on us..."

"I'll take care of Lancer." She promised. She looked at me. "Promise not to tell, Annie?" I nodded. She reached behind her back and pulled out her athame, the black polished hilt gleaming while the iron blade was dull and evil looking.

There was still bloodstains on the iron and the leather wrap.

"I won't if you won't." I told her, taking the Gerber that Bomber was offering and tucking it behind my back. She smiled at me, put back her cruel looking knife, and nobody asked where she had gotten it from.

She was Hannah, but she was on Alfenwehr, and part of her was still Aine.

"Let's head down." I said. "We'll give my sister the five dollar tour, mumble at the Alphabet Boys till they leave us alone, then come back up here."

"And have an orgy?" Lanks said.

"I have a headache." Bomber said.

"I'll rub aspirin on my pussy for you." Lanks said, bumping him with her shoulder. We laughed and left the room, Stokes closing and locking the door before handing the keys back to Lancer.

Our good mood immediately vanished at the sight of the CIA and DIA goons. Some of us remembered that we'd been betrayed by the CIA too rawly, that it had cost us friends and people we loved.

We were Special Weapons, we did not forget, we did not forgive. An eye for an eye, a tooth for tooth, a life for a life, and a nuke for a nuke.

"No killing." Stokes said, grabbing my arm right before we left the stairwell.

"What?" I said.

She shook her head. "Don't give me that shit. I was there when it happened, I helped clean up the mess, and I watched Nancy bring you back. Don't lie to Momma Stokes."

I nodded slowly "All right."

She squeezed my arm, staring into my eyes. "I want your promise that as soon as we get away from everyone you're not going to go all blood crazy on their asses." Her eyes narrowed and she glanced at them. "Just remember I'm not saying that if they try anything you'll just stand there. They try some bullshit I want them dead before they can hurt anyone."

"Yes, Mamma Stokes." I said. She chuckled and ruffled my hair, letting me leave the stairwell.

The remains of Actual had gathered up by the LT, who was handing off his ring of keys as well as a packet stamped with CONFIDENTIAL on it that probably contained the record of my complete failure. Just seeing the folder made me burn with shame, but nobody really seemed to care all that much about that folder. That stupid folder. That folder that people would use to judge me and my actions. The folder that...

I snapped myself out of spiralling around the damn folder, putting it out of my mind when I saw it handed to John.

"Got a copy in Braille?" Lancer asked, holding out his fingers and tapping them on mid-air.

"Sorry, another blind soldier came in before you and took it." The LT said, turning away.

"I hate that other guy." Lancer mumbled with a smile.

"If you're finished there is a lot we need to cover." One of the CIA goons said. He probably had a name, hell, he'd probably told everyone his name, but I didn't care. I wanted to keep him firmly in the non-human category so it wouldn't be a big deal when I had to kill him when the inevitable betrayal came.

"This here is on our terms, if'n ya don't like it, get ta steppin'." Bomber said, pointing at the door where the snow had turned everything white. The tops of Bomber's ears were red as he kept speaking. "We dohn' lahke yer kind 'round he-ah." He stopped for a second, getting control of himself. "So keep your opinions ta yerself."

"At Ease that shit, let's go." I said.

"Wait. The report says the initial combat against enemy forces too place right here." The other CIA dipshit said. He pointed at the doors to Titty Territory. "That this doorway was held against an incursion."

"Sure, what do you want to know about it?" Lancer asked cheerily. He pointed at the Day Room. "OK, they came down this hallway right here." Dobbs didn't bother to correct where he was pointing. "They moved there and there first, and we'd put the pool table right there." He was pointing all over the place.

"You know what, we'll read the report." The first one said, sounding disgusted.

"What, you got a problem with me being blind?" Lancer's voice was tight. "Figure I'm a fucking loser because a grenade took my eyes?" Now he was getting red. Dobbs put her hand on his arm and the color started to fade.

"They don't mean that, Jeff. It's just where things were are a little hard for you point out right now." Dobbs said gently. She stood on her tiptoes and kissed his cheek. "It's all right."

We all surrounded Lancer, glaring at the CIA and DIA agents. They looked away.

"I'm giving my sister a tour. I'll answer questions about what went down where, but this isn't for your sake." I told them, stepping forward. Stokes put her hand on my lower back for a second and I knew she was warning me again. "Don't fucking push us."

Thankfully the five agents stayed quiet for the most part as I showed the barracks off to Innie. She was surprised by the scope of the undertaking that had gone into planning for the unit. Redundancy, emergency supplies, heavy vaults, a blast proofed building, things of that nature. I kept trying to talk to Innie, but the fucking Alphabet Boys kept interrupting me, not letting anyone else talk, and asking for what went on. If we hadn't had any fighting or destroyed anything in the room they hurried us out to the next spot.

It annoyed the shit out of me that they were taking the tour I was trying to give Innie and turning it all about them because they were typical Agency attention whores.

She stared at the canvas tarp pallets of equipment that we were supposed to grab in case of war instead of using our currently issued TA-50 to make sure everyone had everything and that it was up to speed. She couldn't believe that all of Group had a second set of gear just sitting down there. When I showed her that each stack of gear also had a body bag she reached out and took my hand. We showed her the massive generators that were supposed to provide power that had been replaced as well as the massive fuel tanks, the vault in QASI where you could still tell we'd gone apeshit with thermite, the supply room, the orderly room, all of it. She smiled when she saw my name on the desk, tracing the engraved letters with a finger and I could feel she was proud of me.

She took the bottle I handed her from my desk drawer and took a long drink before handing it back. I guess it was starting to sink in.

We showed her Kill Shop, where we'd destroyed the computers and they'd been replaced, and looked suitably horrified when we explained the mission of the sadists and psychopaths who worked down there. We would have pointed out the motorpool but it was invisible behind all the snow. She listened as we walked down the stairwell and Nancy talked about how I'd fought the psychopath and she'd ran back down the stairs with backup to find me, terrified that she'd find nothing but a cold body. Lanks reached out and held her hand while Nancy talked. The Alphabet boys made disparaging remarks when Nancy talked about how my eyes wouldn't close and I kept having seizures. Hannah and Stokes took my hands as I fought against the memories of that desperate fight.

When I cracked the War Fighter Tunnels her eyes widened. The lights came on with a clack, illuminating the wide tunnel, the steel floor and walls, and the way it curved to make any invasion of them harder. It was freezing cold in the War Fighter tunnels and as we tromped through the steel hallways it felt like there was a cold breeze winding around me, sapping away my body strength. I could almost hear the blood crazed shouts, battlecries, and screams of rage, feel the punishing hammer of the weapon's retort against my ears, and my shoulder started to ache.

Now the five agents looked alert even though they kept quiet as I walked everyone through. None of the damage to the area had been cleaned, none of the supplies restocked, and the bed where Nancy had worked on John, me, and the rest of Actual in the medical bay was still stained with blood. When I saw it I closed my eyes and turned away, Stokes putting her arm around me and Hannah turning John away. I looked back and saw Nancy staring at the med-bay, her eyes open wide but unseeing, her chest heaving as she started to hyperventilate. Lanks grabbed her and gently turned her to walk her back into the command center.

The government agents kept silent as we showed the damage to the hallways until we got to one spot in particular.

"Wait, we want some clarification on this." Agent #1 said.

"What about?" Dobbs asked. "I was further back at this time in the control room, I think."

"I think I was handling wounded." Nancy said.

"I was helping." Stokes said.

"I was here." I said, stepping forward.

He opened up the folder, flipping through the pages, until he read a passage. "Which one of you is McCullen?"

None of us answered. He began looking more and more irritated until I pointed at Lane and said: "That used to be her name."

"Her?" Agent One looked amazed, then looked at Stokes, who tapped her nametag.

"Yeah. Her." I said. I looked around. "What's the problem?"

"It states here that she lifted up a two hundred pound man, carried him several steps, and threw him on a grenade in less than 5 seconds." He snorted in amusement. "So what really happened?"

"Are you saying we're lying?" I asked.

"You callin' me a liar, boy?" Bomber snarled.

He snorted again. "No way she did that. I want to know what really happened, not some made up story designed to get her a medal." He said. "We want the truth, not you guys trying to validate women being in combat or whatever bullshit you're trying to pull."

I noticed that everyone looking behind the agent was paling. I looked around the agent at Hannah and my heart almost stopped.

Her hair had come undone from her tight braid, the ribbon of silk nowhere to be seen, her hair spread out and sparks snapping in it. Her too wide eyes were focused on the agent, the color deepening until it was a vivid forest green. Her cheekbones were rising out of the softness of Hannah's face and her jaw was lengthening slightly, making her face appear heartshaped and not quite human. Even her ears looked different and her freckles were changing color from brown to bright red, as if there were spots on blood on her face.

Hannah was gone. Aine was in the tunnels with us.

I tried to tell myself that it was a trick of the light and how she was starting to tilt her head. I tried to tell myself that everything was OK, that she wasn't doing what I thought she was doing.

Setting Hannah aside and going back to the Aine that had fought with us.

I managed to open my mouth, Stokes went to grab her but Aine spun away from her grip, weaving in between us and moving in on the agent fast like a shark heading for a seal. The agent was still laughing, his brain not quite processed Aine coming at him. All five of the agent's eyes widened as Aine grabbed the agent by the front of his suit, lifted him up, took six running steps, and slammed him to the ground, somehow having turned him around so he slammed face first onto the floor with Aine riding him down.

She stood up slowly, sweeping her hair behind her while she was still looking down, and when her head raised she was smiling gently, her hair back behind her head and her face heart shaped face soft and pretty again.

"Are there any more questions about what I did down here?" She asked sweetly. She stepped up into the other CIA agent's face. "Shall I demonstrate on you what I did when it was desperate so that I could break their will to fight?"

I bent down and grabbed the folder, exhaling explosively as the tension mounted. I flipped open the folder until I read the words "bite marks upon the deceased's throat" and handed it to the CIA agent, tapping that section.

"He outweighed her by a hundred pounds, he was at least eight inches taller than her, and she needed to use the shock of her assault to get them to pause in their firing." I said coldly and clearly.

...She clamped her mouth over the wound, her jaws working as she rode him to the ground, the knife held up over her head in the air with blood running off the blade...

...He fell on his back and ended up with Aine straddling him with her ass in the air, her right hand waving the blade over her head, swallowing as his blood poured from his neck...

"Ya really don't wanna do that." Bomber said, staring at him as I stepped back to shield Hannah from him.

He looked at all of us, gathered up around Hannah-Aine, and sneered, then looked at the report in his hands and looked back up, his face changing.

"You bit his throat?" He asked.

"He was bigger than me." Hannah said softly. Her hair was tightly wound into a bun at the back of her head, that blue silk ribbon woven into it and used to keep it in the bun. "So I bit him." The lie hung in the cold air with us but the agent didn't say anything else.

"Moving on." DIA Agent Two said, clearing his throat. He waved further into the tunnel. "You then fought your way through to the exit in order to, and I quote, 'push the motherfuckers out into the snow' unquote."

I nodded. "That was the plan. Let the storm kill them off to thin their numbers." We started walking down the hallway.

One of the fluorescent lights exploded and all of Actual stopped dead in their tracks.

"What?" DIA Three asked.

Another light blew out behind us and I closed my eyes tightly, making fists and feeling my chest ache.

Someone was saying nonononono softly, just audible,

"Nothing, let's keep going, we'll show you the blast door." I said, trying to keep the stress out of my voice.

"You should leave now." Queens told me when we rounded the final corner. She was leaning against the door, a precise cut under her jaw, from one corner of her jaw, neatly across the throat to expose the windpipe, then to the other corner of her jaw. There was a bloody handprint on her neck from where her killer had grabbed the wound to force the blood to pour down her throat. It was an ugly and brutal tactic but one that some people used. It made it so that the person performing the move had to hold their opponent up, where most people preferred to just lay them down.

I preferred to just shove them aside and move on.

"You really don't want to be here." Queens smiled and a droplet of blood ran out of the corner of her mouth.

"Oh, shit." Bomber said.

The blast door was slightly cracked, the breeze moaning as it made its way into the dark and cold of the War Fighter Tunnels.

The rest of the lights flickered and went out.

"God help us." Stokes whispered.

There was a low liquid chuckle from beyond the door, followed by heavy footsteps. Deliberate, slow, steady, heavy footsteps.

An icicle slid into my shoulder and my whole arm went numb.

"You really wanna run." Queens smiled, her teeth bloody.

"Blood." Aine whispered quietly.

...Shit...

Chapter 26

2/19th Special Weapons Group Barracks
Restricted Area, Alfenwehr West Germany
Late Winter- 12 February, 1988
Day 5 of Repairs
Day 5 of the Third Incident
Early Afternoon
1530

"Actual, form up!" I yelled. First thing I needed to do, get everyone together. Normally I'd have yelled for everyone to break and get the fuck out, but I'd listened to Lancer and was following the old maxim of 'don't let them split you up' rather than just having everyone sprint.

"I got a chemlight." Stokes said, and I heard the package rip open.

Footsteps were coming down the Command Center. Heavy, plodding, deliberate steps. But that goddamn laugh of Tandy's had come through the door.

Could I take the guy with the axe even now?

...Fuck no, you can't even press 150 pounds...

Can I take Tandy.

...Are you stupid...?

Can we get by Tandy?

...Aine can...

The lizard was watching as I ran through the numbers, keeping his eyes on the monitors and showing me probably outcomes. Like the guy with the axe just ripping my arms off and beating me to death with them, Tandy just stepping up on me and ripping out my throat, but at the mention of Aine a small problem came up. She was Hannah now. Sure, Aine was inside of her, but she had been actively trying to become Hannah while her mother was doing only Lugus knew what to her power.

...Yeah, that might be a problem...

"Stay close, don't bunch up, don't panic." Bomber said, just from my left.

"I take it that nobody else can see either." Lancer said sarcastically.

"Not helping, Jeff." Dobbs said.

The lizard threw up the map. Back almost through a half mile of tunnels to the command center of the War Fighter Tunnels or through the door into the Dispensary? Back sounded like the big guy with the axe, and there was a lot of dark areas to watch and we had no weapons. Into the Dispensary meant no shelter since the joint had been wrecked the fuck up and not been repaired. Still, from there we were screwed, with almost a mile by road, uphill for a lot of it, to the barracks, or four miles (that we'd never make) to main post.

I was about to yell to go back to the command center when the lizard threw up the sight of the lockers that were in the changing room of the Dispensary, near the ambulance bay. Lockers that the medics that were on the ambulance crews used for changing.

SOP said that all ambulance crews had to keep extreme cold weather cold in their lockers at all times in case of sudden storm or SAR operations.

"Through the door! Hannah, lead the way!" I called out.

I could barely see the small redhead dart through the opening. Bomber put his shoulder against it, using his legs to push to try to give us additional space to get through. Ice snapped and crackled off the massive hinge and his boots squealed on the tile, but the door budged despite my expectations, not far, but still far enough to let Dobbs pull Lancer through the opening.

"Move, you fucking idiots." I snarled, shoving at one of the Alphabet boys, who looked ghoulish in the green light of the chemstick. He went to push back but I was already past him, following Stokes' gargantuan ass through the space. "Will, drag."

"Roger." There was a snap and light lit up. William carried a chemlight with him, just like most of us did. With power failures common it was just common sense. I just hadn't had a chance to go for mine yet.

The snow crunched under my boots as I went into the empty space of the Dispensary Ready Room. The door to the stairs was open, snow having blown through the all the damage we'd caused and filling the room to the depth of about four inches. My toes started to ache, along with the old breaks in my hands.

The chuckle came from above us.

"Is he up there?" Stokes asked Aine.

"No." Was all Aine said. Her hair was undone, and she looked like the same woman who'd been with us in the dark and cold. I noticed that Actual and Will had moved against the walls. Ineda stood by the Alphabet Boys until Bomber reached out and yanked her over by him.

I glanced around the corner and up the stairs. They looked clear.

...Yeah, looks...

"They haven't repaired the power up there." Lanks pointed out. "We're cut off." She glanced behind her at the tunnel, where the footsteps were drawing closer.

Will and Bomber and Stokes moved over to put their backs against the door, pushing hard. The blast door should have had a counter-weight working so you could push it with one finger, should have been able to be closed with just one finger, but instead it took all three of them to even get it to budge. The footsteps were coming closer but the three of them managed to get the door slammed shut before anything bad came through and massacred us all.

"What is going on?" CIA #2 asked.

"We're in trouble." Lanks said.

"Stokes, you know how to get to the ambulance bay ready room from here?" I asked.

Stokes nodded.

"What the hell is going on, why aren't we going back?" CIA #1 asked.

"We're under attack." Lancer said. I could see him cocking his head, listening to the hallway. He turned and looked over to where I'd been when I was talking. "Sounds clear, can't give you my Cal Worthington guarantee though." He grinned at an empty spot on the wall. "You guys are almost deaf from all the jerking off, so I figure maybe my blind super..."

"Stokes, lead the way, Hannah, stay on her ass like a monkey, Will, take drag, Bomber, Innie's the package, everyone else, let's go." I snapped. Before I even reached Hannah's name Stokes and Hannah were running up the stairs.

"I'm the wha-" Innie started to ask and shrieked as Bomber grabbed her by her arm and pulled her along with him.

"Package in hand." Bomber called out.

"Lanks, DIA One go!" I called out, slapping one of the DIA guys on the shoulder. Lanks headed up and the DIA guy didn't hold a second before following.

"DIA two, CIA 1, go." I slapped both in turn. The CIA guy didn't budge.

"DIA three, CIA 2, go." Once again the CIA guy didn't move.

"Dobbs, Lancer, go." Dobbs was moving, taking Lancer with her. Lancer stuck close, his eyes not longer working but nothing wrong with his military reflexes just fine.

"Let's go Actual!" I yelled, heading up the stairs myself. I trusted Will to be with me. The chemlight was in his hand as we charged up the stairs. At the top the snow had coated the floor to the depth about six inches in the middle and over a foot on the sides. The green chemlight lit up the snow, the light reflecting. Will and I followed the tracks of everyone in front of us.

I could hear the two CIA agents finally coming up behind us.

"Eyes adjusted?" Will asked me.

"Yeah."

He tucked the chemlight into his belt at the front, dropping the light down to almost nothing. There was a shout behind us and William grinned in the dimness. We followed the churned up snow, and I was hoping that Stokes wouldn't take too long to get us there. The dispensary wasn't a big building, but running through the darkened hallways, high stepping it, made the hallways seem endless.

"Ant aaaaand Will. Two missing." Hannah called out. She slammed the door behind me and I sat down on one of the benches, huffing. The air was thin as hell and I was feeling oxygen deprivation pretty hard.

"Who's missing?" Lancer asked.

"The two CIA guys." Hannah smiled. No, her eyes and cheekbones were wrong, that wasn't Hannah. "I'll do SAR." She slipped out the door.

"Come back, you... fuck it." I tried, just waving at the door. Lanks kicked it shut.

Stokes was ripping open the locker doors. She had a screwdriver from somewhere in her hand, slapping the point into the locker door next to the catch and just tearing it open. She was a big girl, strong as an ox too, and it showed as she'd pry open the edge far enough to get her fingers into the gap and then tear off the door to reveal everything inside.

Once again we were fucking up someone else's shit.

Nancy was going through the lockers, pulling out extreme cold weather gear, extra socks, and whatever else she thought might help.

"Boot size, Will, Ant." She snapped.

"Thirteen and a half wide." My brother said, kicking the toe of his boot into the ground to knock the snow off of it.

"Eleven and a half extra-wide." I said.

"Two fuckers with big ass clown feet." Lancer grinned.

"Just because you have little girl feet." Lanks grinned.

"You think Hannah will find them?" Dobbs asked, rubbing her hands together to get circulation up. It was cold was hell in the room.

"They better hope so, that was Aine who went after them." Will said, sitting down next to me. "And God only knows what she'll do to them."

"What, you think she's going to eat them or something?" Dobbs asked.

He shrugged. "Or something."

"She's fucking weird as hell, but at least she's our weirdo." Lanks tossed in.

"Ant, how ya feeling? Catch." Nancy tossed me a pair of cold weather boots.

"Chest hurts, can't seem to get my breath." I told her.

"Back straight, breathe from your gut, hold your breath for a second." She repeated the standard way we tried to get our breath back. Living up on Alfenwehr it was easy to forget just how thing the air was at our altitude. My head was swimming and I kept seeing white speckles in front my eyes. My shoulder felt like someone was pushing ice into my chest from my armpit, making it harder to breathe.

"Goddamn it, half of the equipment we need isn't here. If we head out with what we have here we'll be dead." Nancy moved up next to me. "You, me, Bomber, we could make it, but the others, I don't know."

"I don't know if I can make it, Nancy." I told her honestly.

"No. You can't." King said from where he was leaning on the door, the M-60 held in his hands. He had a cigarette in his mouth and frostbite on his face. "You're not as strong as you were. Injuries take their toll, man." He shook his head. "You know, I could have taken a man, but that wasn't a man."

"Ant?" Nancy asked. I looked at her in confusion. "Ant, we can't have you zoning out on us, man."

There was a knock at the door. Lanks looked at the door, then us, then opened it as there was a second polite knock. King stepped to the side and vanished.

Aine stood there in the darkness, painted by the glow of the chemlights. She was smiling with those sharp little teeth, her cruel iron knife in her hands, and two frightened looking men behind her. She took two steps into the room, then turned to make a hooking motion with her fingers. The two agents stumbled into the room.

"The door, Miss Lanks." Hannah smiled. Lanks shivered but shut the door.

I heaved myself to my feet, swaying slightly. Both CIA agents' eyes were wild, the whites of their eyes huge.

"They were being stalked, Corporal." Aine said, then giggled that sharp broken glass giggle. "I led them in circles until we lost what was stalking them." Another giggle.

"She was on the ceiling." One of the CIA guys said, digging at an empty holster.

"It's faster, Corporal." She smiled at me. "He can't track me like that."

I just shrugged, stepping forward and slapping the CIA agent. He looked at me and when he partner reached Bomber lunged up and grabbed his arm. My brother loomed up behind me, a massive gorilla with a stick.

"You panicked, you froze." I said, staring into his eyes. "I sent someone on SAR this time, last time I'll do it, understand?"

The CIA agent jerkily nodded, his eyes wide.

I pointed at Aine, gritting my teeth. "She's our advantage. She's the only thing evening the odds against what is out there stalking us, but do not think she is on our side. She's whimsical and deadly and do not think you can mess with her." I turned to Aine. "I need an exit. I need a way out for everyone. Find me an exit Aine."

Aine nodded, smiling, and slipped out the door like a shadow.

She left her boots and socks behind.

"Christ, so much for Hannah." Dobbs said, shuddering.

"What is she?" One of the DIA guys asked.

"She's an Aine." Innie said at the same time as William.

"We don't know what she is." Innie continued. "She's just Aine."

"She's about the only chance we have." William said, moving over to stand next to me. He lowered his voice. "How bad are we?"

I took his arm and moved to the side, away from everyone else. Nancy followed us, shaking her head.

"Run it down for us, Tony." William said softly.

"We're four miles by road from main post, with hazardous weather and terrain, a half mile from the top of the ski resort but with the blizzard it'd be shut down, and a quarter mile from the chowhall and a half mile beyond that to the barracks." I told him. "We have a signifigant percentage of personnel wounded or recovering from serious injury. We have little in the way of armament or ammunition and the arms room here was locked down by order of LT James so we fucked it up. We can't use the War Fighter Tunnels, we'll get massacred down there. We are in a building with no heat, no power." I rattled off. "Our only chance is to make it to the barracks. Every minute we're here we're losing body heat and calories. We have five personnel with no experience in weather conditions like this." I looked at Innie. "And Innie."

"Yeah. And Innie." William said.

Nancy closed her eyes, then stared at Innie for a long moment. "You run the numbers on your sister yet?" She asked.

I nodded slowly as the lizard pointed out her chances. "If I treat her like a normal soldier then her chances of making it through this are at about forty percent." I sighed. "If I treat her like my sister and protect her like family demands her chances go up to about seventy percent. If William does the same her chances rise to about ninety percent give or take five percent."

"But ours drop to?" William asked.

"About fifteen percent." I admitted honestly.

"No." Nancy said.

"What?" William turned toward her.

"No. I'm not sacrificing Ant for her." Nancy stated, putting her hands on her hips.

"That's our sister." William said.

"She put on the fucking uniform, she knows the risks." Nancy shot back. She pointed at the two of us, jabbing her finger. "You two are worth a dozen of her. Aine is worth five of her. Absolutely not." She snarled at me. "Run the numbers for the entire Rear Detachment without you. And don't forget to include the fact that we've got fucking DIA and CIA here for god knows what reason. Run the numbers for total casualty count without you and William."

The lizard dutifully threw up the numbers up, running variables, estimations, and everything else he could figure. He added in Tandy, the mountain, and they're hatred for everything, including factoring in Tandy's unusual behavior and Aine's seeming connection between Aine, the mountain, and Tandy.

Their life expectancy dropped rapidly without us.

William nodded slowly, staring at Innie, and he seemed to age right before my eyes.

I glared at Nancy, who just nodded slowly. "I'm sorry, Tony, but you know I'm right."

"Doesn't mean I have to like it." I told her.

Innie moved over. "What's going on?"

"We're trying to figure out our next step." I told her.

"Can't we just go back through those tunnels?" She asked. She shivered and rubbed her upper arms.

"No. We'll get slaughtered." William said.

"Aine's finding us an exit." I told her. "She's our best recon in this situation."

Innie made a face. "I don't like her. I don't like how she used to treat us. She's not even a girl any more."

The lizard snarled at that. "You have no right to judge anyone up here, Ineda." I told her. "You have no idea the lengths we might have to go to survive."

Innie opened her mouth and William grabbed her arm. "Leave him alone, he's gotta figure out what to do next."

I could hear Ineda arguing with William but tuned it out to wave Bomber over.

"What's up, Ant?" He asked. He shivered. "Temps dropping. It's already below freezing, nobody has anything heavier than an unlined field jacket, and it looks like the ambulance crews took their extreme cold weather gear with them." He looked serious. "If it isn't dark already it'll be dark soon, and we'll be in trouble then."

I sighed explosively. "We have to move, and move soon."

"Think too wrong, you're wrong." Bomber quoted.

"We'll wait for Aine to get back, I want recon." I said.

"What's to make sure she'll come back?" William asked.

Lanks laughed. "Dude, you didn't see her last time. She wouldn't leave Actual behind. She'll come back."

"Found flashlights, they work." Stokes said. She clicked one on and I blinked, my eyes watering, as the harsh yellow light reflected off the snow that had blown into the room and the ice off the walls.

"Dress in what we can find, layer it on." Nancy said, turning around. "If it fits, put it on. If you find socks, save them for your hands. You can lose toes, you don't wanna lose fingers." Nagle told them.

"Listen up, Actual." I said, stepping forward. Everyone turned to look. "We're going to do this in two phases. We're going to make it to the chowhall first. We'll pause there to regroup, if you fell behind and come off your tether, you'll get five minutes, then we'll keep heading toward the barracks." I reached down and picked up a T-shirt off the floor. "You'll put on what we find and we'll hope for the best." I pointed in the rough direction of the barracks. "It's a mile to the barracks. Night will fall soon and the temperature will plummet. There's been a storm outside for the last three days, which means high wind, no visibility, and a nasty wind chill factor."

"Any good news?" Lancer asked.

"We have Aine." Dobbs said. I grimaced but she was right. She was an advantage right now.

Innie and the Alphabet Boys looked shocked at the way we just stripped down to put on the additional layers. Bomber had managed to find a couple sets of Army woolen longjohns and he handed Nancy and I a pair each. Mine smelled like old ball sweat but it beat nothing. I'd take the chance of crotch rot over the chance of frostbite on my balls. Nancy managed to find a couple of chemsticks in the lockers and we painted up our faces to keep the wind and cold from ripping at our skin. Innie shook her head until William threatened to hold her down and paint her face, but nobody cared that the two CIA agents didn't bother with it. The DIA guys, on the other hand, silently put on the camo without any argument. Both of them did their faces opposite of standard military camo the same as us. Normal camo would flatten the look of our faces, we wanted to highlight it in case we got separated.

"All right, when Hannah comes back she'll either have an exit for us or we'll make one." I said, holding up the braids of 550 cord I'd collected from everyone. Actual had them, which didn't surprise me, so we had enough rope to tether everyone together. "Stay tethered, don't yank on the people ahead of you. It's two pulls for an emergency, but we probably won't stop anyway." I tapped the wall. "If you come across someone succumbing to altitude sickness or hypothermia grab them and drag them along with you."

Lanks nodded, rubbing the scar on the side of her head. The cold was starting to sink into injuries. My head was starting to ache, my chest hurt, my shoulder felt like it was made of ice and pain, and my ribs hurt. Bomber was rubbing his leg where the bullet had taken a chunk of his thigh muscle that hadn't healed up all the way. Nancy was rubbing the side of her face, but the slow movement and the far away look in her eyes told me that she was running the numbers the same as I had.

There was a tap at the door and Stokes reached out to open it, letting Aine slip in. She came immediately over to me, where I was leaning against the corner and watching everyone move around, seeing if they had a limp slowing them down or if previously fractured ribs hadn't healed up all the way.

"It's ugly out there, Aodán, real ugly." Aine said. I didn't bother correcting her on the name. This wasn't Hannah, and Aine wouldn't pay any attention to my protests. "It's snowing, wind is up, and it'll be dark inside of an hour and there's clouds up there gathering at the peak." She shuddered and I saw her hair rustle slightly in a way that wasn't quite like hair should be. "The chow hall is open to the weather, you did a good job on it with your M-203."

"We'll head there anyway." I told her, then turned. "Nancy, come here."

She nodded, tromping through the snow to stand next to me. "What's up? We need to get moving, the suits aren't acclimatized like we are."

"Yeah. OK, anything you can think of that Aine could do to improve our chances?" I said, putting my hand on Aine's shoulder. I could feel her body heat through the heavy cloth of her BDU's.

Nancy thought for a second. "OK, I need you to figure out how to get the big ovens in the back of the chow hall fired up, close the doors to that room if possible."

Aine nodded, her bottom lip held between her teeth and looking at Nancy through her eyelashes.

"Stop that." Nancy snapped, slapping Aine upside the head. "Pay attention." Aine nodded, looking startled. "If the doors have been knocked down, find folding tables to put over the doors and windows. Put snow in a pot and heat it up. How long will it take you to get to the chow hall."

Aine smiled. "It wouldn't make sense to you." Stokes' flashlight chose that time to swipe across her face, highlighting the oddness of her features.

Nancy clapped her on the shoulder. "Got it?"

Aine nodded. "Got it." She turned to me. "Anything else?"

I stepped up to her, grabbing her hip and digging my thumb into her stomach just above and in of her hipbone. She winced and tried to pull away but I grabbed her arm. "Listen close, Aine McCullen." I snarled, pushing my face into her till our noses touch. "I don't like you, and I don't trust you. It's your nature that I can't depend on." Her eyes flashed with anger. "You screw me on this and I survive you better start running." The anger turned to fear. "We're really close to where my family found you, Aine. What would happen if I bent you backwards over and old rock and used that knife of yours to slit your throat? I'm betting you wouldn't show up in our bloodlines any more."

All the fight went out of her right there. "No tricks, Anthony, I promise."

"Good. Take a chemlight, smear chemlight on the walls to give us our exit route. Get to the chow hall, do what Nancy told you, and you can choose anyone out of Rear Detachment you want, with the exception of the LT and Actual." I told her using formal tones and pacing. It sounded weird, telling her she could go ahead and fuck someone, but it was more than that. I knew that Aine would possess them utterly, enslave them, and bend them to her will. "When you're done, I want Hannah back, understand?"

"I understand, Aodán." She said. She shuddered. I raised and eyebrow at her and she looked at me sadly. "My mother." I squeezed her shoulder affectionately and she smiled shyly.

"Move out, Private." She took two steps before I called out to her. "And Aine?" She turned at the door and looked at me. "Be careful, OK?"

"Actual all the way." She smiled, then opened the door far enough to slip out of.

"I'll take point." I said, walking back over to where Bomber was handing out the tethers.

Bomber nodded. "I got your back."

"I'll pull drag." William said. He held up a fist full of chemlights that had been popped. "Everyone take one." He handed them out and I shoved most of mine into the gap at the top of my pocket that I normally kept a Skillcraft pen in, putting then in another pocket.

"Everyone hook up." I told them, and Bomber threaded the main line through everyone's loops then tied the end to the back of my belt.

"Stand up, hook up, stumble to the door." Stokes mumbled. Will shot her a grin. "Lanks and I will take the flashlights. When we hit outside we'll kill them, they won't do any good anyway."

"All right. It's a half mile to the chow hall." I said, moving up to the door and putting my sock covered hand on the handle. I could feel the chill of the metal. "That would be no problem in normal conditions, a three minute run at the most." Dobbs snorted and Lancer laughed. I noticed that they'd tied their forearms together like they were going to knife fight. "In this weather, we'll be lucky to make it. We'll be out there for between eight and fifteen minutes. The entire time we'll be at the mercy of wind chill, poor visibility, a storm, and night falling."

"Whatever." CIA #2 shrugged.

"If you go down, hopefully the next man in line can pick you up. If you break your tether or undo it, you're on your own." I continued.

"I think if that little whore can make it, I can." CIA #1 said. Bomber, standing behind him, lifted up his fist to punch the guy in the back of the head but Lanks grabbed his arm, shaking her head.

"You're welcome to undo your tether and try." I said.

"Why don't we just call back to the barracks? They could bring us cold weather gear or a vehicle." CIA #2 said.

Lanks laughed at that. "Yeah, except the Spetz cut the phone lines. We ain't calling nobody."

"I vote we stay put and wait for rescue." CIA #1 said.

"This is the Army, not a fucking democracy." I told him. "Stay here or go with us, you have until we go out that door to decide. And we won't send a rescue crew back to save you, I doubt the LT will throw away men to save someone who committed suicide."

"Fuck you, you little punk." CIA #2 told me.

I ignored him. He didn't matter and the lizard already had him tagged as a probable casualty. I snapped the tether to my hip by the d-ring I kept on my belt. "Let's go, Actual." I said, pulling open the door.

The hallway was dark and I could see that Aine had dotted chemlight on the hallway to our right rather than the straight shot out the dispensary. The blast shutters were closed on the ambulance exit so I wasn't even going to bother with trying to raise the blast shield without power. It could be done, you'd just have to open the panel and start working the manual lift system, but fuck that. The hallways was dark and cold with ice on the ceiling and walls and snow on the floor.

We'd trashed the place good.

Instead of taking a right and heading to the side exit the path took a left and led us deeper into the building. I was surprised to see an X smeared on the door with my initials on it.

"Hold here." I told them, opening the door. I unsnapped my d-ring and stepped inside, letting the dim light from the chemlight fill the room.

There were two Soviet troops on the floor. One's face was caught in mid-scream but at least his face was intact. The other had most of his face torn away, both had their throats ripped apart, the wounds filled with frozen blood and rimed with frost. Something had torn open their chests, ripping through their cold weather gear. Three of the four desks were flipped over, and when I turned and looked the steel door and cinderblock wall looked like someone had been shooting at the door.

Aine had taken the time to pull their gear off of them and stack it on the only right side up desk in the room. There were two AK-47's, two pair of trigger mittens, and a pair of cold weather hats on the desk.

I opened the door. "Bomber." He looked over, detached himself, and came into the room.

"Fucking Aine." He chuckled.

"Grab one, I'll take the other." I told him, grabbing the Soviet gear and pulling it on. I lifted up the trigger mittens. "I'll give this set to Nancy, give Stokes the other set." He nodded, grabbing the weapon, swapping out the expended magazine, and locking and loading another one. I followed his actions and we went back into the hallway.

"Nancy, I want you wearing these." I told her, moving up to her. She nodded and held out her hands. I pulled off the socks and started working the gloves onto her hands.

"Hey, why does she get them?" CIA #2 asked, holding up his hands.

"Because Stokes and Nagle are our medics and I don't like CIA cumstains." I told him, pulling the cloth tabs to secure them.

"You got a real smart mouth." CIA #1 said.

I turned around, charging the AK. "And I got an AK too." I smiled at him. I hooked back up. "Let's move out."

"Give me the weapon, soldier." CIA #2 told Bomber.

"Suck my dick." Bomber shot back.

"I'm ordering you to give me the weapon." CIA #2 tried again.

"Then start sucking." Bomber told him.

I chuckled as I led us through the winding path that Aine had set for us. The CIA guy kept trying to intimidate Bomber into giving him the weapon, obviously having never encountered a Texas boy. Bomber had no backup, no give in him, and he sure as shit wouldn't relenquish a weapon to someone he didn't trust. The path led us up to the third floor, back down to the second, up to the third again, then back down to the first.

"Why aren't we just going straight out?" CIA #2 asked. I'd almost forgotten they were there.

"We're following the path our recon set for us." I told him.

"Oh." Was all he said.

"We should just head straight out." CIA #1 said.

"Have fun with that." I told him, taking a right into a room after I opened the door. The window was open, the blast shield manually raised. I could see where Aine dripped the last of her chemlight on the snow outside of the window and dropped the empty plastic tube on the floor in the snow.

Snow was blowing into the room, the chemlight tube almost covered, and I could tell that the light was already failing. The temperature was dropped already and I shivered for a moment before I could relax my muscles and stop it. I sighed, climbed out the window, and dug out my compass. I closed my eyes, looked at the map that the lizard threw up for me, and shot an azimuth. The snow was bloody, the setting sun painting the whole world in crimson.

Half a mile. That was all we had to do.

No problem, right?

I started out, headfirst into the wind, feeling it cut through my BDU's and the layers I'd put on and rip at my skin. The camo protected my face from the snow seeds but I lost feeling in my nose and ears almost immediately. The ice crystals borne by the wind savaged my exposed ears and my neck, and I suddenly wished I'd taken one of the pant legs that Nancy had been offering and used it as a scarf.

Ten steps and between the darkness and the snow I couldn't see shit, struggling through waist deep snow. That was part of the killer. My whole body from the waist down was submerged in frozen water, and I was struggling through it, losing body heat rapidly. My fingers already hurt and where they'd put the pin in my hand to put the pinky's supporting bone back together was nothing but sharp pain. The pins and the plate in my forearm burned and my left arm was going numb below the old break.

Was Tandy out here in the snow, or was he back in barracks fucking with people? Was the guy with the axe following us? Had he already killed Bomber and now he was working his way up the line with either a bayonet or a motopool axe.

I was counting steps. Normally my steps were a meter, but factor in the snow and I was probably only getting about a half meter per stride, so that meant I'd need to count out about two thousand steps to make it.

I kept glancing back to make sure that I was staying straight, able to faintly see Nancy following me by the glow of the chemlight. It made her face look harsh, a corpselike pallor made worse by the freezing wind and temperatures. Once when I glanced back she smiled, and the cold and wind that had chapped her lips made one of the crack, the blood running down her lip.

I kept seeing things in the snow. Shadows at first, formless shapes, things lunging at me that dissolved into snow flurries. The sun was setting further. The bloody look to the snow was fading, replaced by darkness.

Nineteen hundred fifteen. Nineteen hundred sixteen. Nineteen hundred... shouldn't I be getting close?

Aine popped out of the snow, the white spray around her like she was popping out of the water like she used to do when we were kids. She was laughing, the sound whipped away by the howling wind. I reached out to her and she grabbed my hand, pulling me. I was pretty much on target, amazingly enough, since it was a straight shot into the doorway.

...Bomber kicking down the back door of the messhall...

...The thump of my M-203 against my shoulder as I aimed at the far end of the chow hall roof...

...The roof exploded out, the snow swirling in through the door joined by the wind and snow from the dark sky...

Aine was pulling me along, my legs getting weaker as I trudged through the snow. My chest burned, shooting pains like I was being stabbed by broken glass every time I took a breath. The teeth Butcher and White had punched out were nothing but pain and the dental work the Army had done on the teeth that had gotten broken over winter hurt bad.

"Just a bit further, Aodán." Aine said, throwing my arm over her shoulders. It was easy to forget just how strong she was, too easy to go by how little she was and forget that she used to pack her own deer out of the woods during hunting season.

We moved u[ onto the loading dock, the sheer bulk of the building cutting off the wind-chill and making me feel a lot warmer. It was a false warmth, and dangerous, but it still felt good. Right before I staggered through the door I could see William pulling himself up on the loading dock by grabbing one of the metal poles that held up the half-roof and heaving himself out of the snow and onto the concrete slab.

Aine had managed to get the windows and broken doors blocked off in the back room where the cooks made the bread and roasted stuff for us to eat and the warmth was a living thing that curled around me and caressed my skin. I pulled the socks off my hands with my teeth and dropped them on the table as the others stumbled into the room. By the time William came in and wrestled the door in place over the broken down door I had my top open and had stripped down to my T-shirt. It probably wasn't that warm as far as most people would consider it, but the ovens were putting out a lot of heat and it felt good.

"Everyone strip down, get warm, your core temps have dropped while we were out there." Nancy snapped, moving up to William. "Let me see your hands." William silently held out his hands and Nancy checked the circulation. "Armpits or crotch, either one, but warm those up. Your little fingers look bad."She moved on, critiquing everyone's extremities.

"You might lose this earlobe." Nancy told Ineda, who clapped her hands over her ear. "We'll see when we get back to the barracks."

'OK, we're halfway." I told them, standing in front of the open stove and holding my hands to the heat.

"Quit that. You'll burn your palms." Nancy snapped, knocking my hands away. "You can't feel how hot it is right now and you'll damage the tissue."

"Yes, dear." I smiled. She growled and slugged my shoulder.

"What about staying here?" CIA #2 asked.

"We can't hold out here. We need to get back." I said, moving away from the stove to make room for someone else. I moved over next to Aine, who smiled at me.

"Yes, Aodán?"

"Find me an extraction route. Come back, then guide us in." I told her. She nodded. "When we get to the building, if the rear door isn't open, I want you to go ahead of us and open the door, got it?"

She nodded again, smiling. "Roger, Corporal." She stood on her tiptoes and kissed the tip of my nose. "And I get anyone I want to amuse myself with?"

I nodded, selling someone out, maybe even trading their soul to her.

Fuck 'em, they weren't me or the rest of Actual or my family.

"I'll go ahead and unlock the rear door. Don't leave till I get back." Aine said.

"Roger that." I said.

Aine slipped out the room, the cold slamming in through the small crack she made to get out of and the wind whipping through the room. Snow swirled in.

"They make you live here?" Innie asked, grimacing.

"This is the chow hall." Bomber said dryly.

Ineda glared at him but it didn't bother him in the slightest.

"What do you think?" I asked William.

He shook his head. "I'm surprised that we got this far without losing anyone." He glanced at where the window was covered with a table. "With Tandy out there, I'm worried that we won't make it."

"Same here. I got a bad feeling about all this." I told him.

William nodded slowly. "My gut tells me that something's going to go down, real soon."

I paid attention. William's gut feelings had got us into trouble and out of it more than once.

...'Innie's been gone too long, I got a bad feeling' William dropped his beer into the trashcan and waved me forward...

...Innie shoved against the brick wall of the alley by a cop, one hand over her mouth the other hauling out her breast...

"How bad?" I asked.

"Just a feeling, nothing concrete or too bad yet." He told me. I nodded, running the numbers again. If something bad was going down we needed to get to the barracks as soon as possible. I didn't like the idea of everyone back there. I knew I was mother-henning, but I couldn't help it.

"Then let's get the hell out of here as soon as Aine gets back." I said.

"Why don't we wait here?" The suit repeated.

"We'll be dead before dawn." I told him.

"Dead by dawn. Dead by dawn." Bomber said in a high pitched screech. Nancy elbowed him.

"There's no phone, temperature will start dropping, wind will pick up, and for all we know it's going to drop ten feet of snow and strand us in here." I told the idiot. "They'll find our bodies in the spring."

The CIA idiot made a scoffing noise but I blew it off, clearing the AK-47 and setting on the stove door. Bomber nodded and did the same thing. For all we knew the recoil spring was full of ice and if we fired the damn thing it would blow up in our hands or jam. AK's were good for being able to tolerate harsh conditions but stupidity was a big killer in any Army.

"Your little redheaded bitch took our pistols." One of the CIA guys whined.

"Tough shit." I snapped. I glanced at Bomber and he nodded, moving over by the weapons.

"Give us one of the rifles." He said.

"I told you, suck my dick for it and I'll think about it." Bomber said.

"No. I don't know how good of a shot you are, I don't know how you move in a firefight, and you don't know what it's like up here, so no fucking way are you getting anything more dangerous than a snowball." I told him. "Nancy, when we move out, take one of the rifles. Bomber, you take the other, I want you behind me in case anything goes down."

Bomber nodded.

"Corporal, I'm ordering you to turn over that weapon." CIA #1 told me, stepping up and trying to intimidate me.

I stepped up in his face, making him suddenly remember that I was at least an inch taller than him, and looked down at him. "It ain't Vietnam no more, buddy, and I ain't doing shit you say." I snarled at him. "So take your ass back to Langley and go fuck yourself."

"Listen, punk, CIA has command of anything they fucking choose to have command over. You might want to remember that." CIA #2 said, coming in on my side.

William grabbed him by the hair at the back of his head, pulling him backwards, and put the blade of his knife against the guy's throat, putting enough pressure and pulling the blade slightly so that a drop of blood ran down his neck.

"I believe you might have a bit of a problem." I told the one I was staring at when he glanced over at the other guy's gasp of pain. By the time he looked back I was holding my knife in between us. "Trust me, princess, you want to step the fuck off right now."

He stepped back and looked at the three DIA guys, who looked away. He looked at the other members of Actual, who all grinned viciously. Only Innie looked shocked.

"You don't have the guts." He told me flat out.

I grabbed his shoulder, going to lunge forward, but Stokes snatched me back a second before I would have spilled his guts out around his boots and left him to stumble around wondering why he had to be a stupid asshole.

"Ant, no!" Nancy snapped. She slapped the CIA agent across the back of the head. "You fucking idiot, you almost got flat out shanked. Stillwater will kill you in a fucking heartbeat."

Stokes pulled me back till I was across the room from the CIA goon, keeping her hand on my arm, pinching a nerve by the elbow that left me unable to control my arm, let go of the knife, or anything else.

"Easy now, Stillwater. Don't do anything yet." Stokes told me.

"I'm fine, Miranda, let me go." I told her.

Innie came up and tried to take the knife from my grip and Stokes shifted her grip, letting me hold tight to the knife as Stokes pulled me back a step.

"Don't." I told Innie.

"Give me the knife, boy." Innie said, grabbing my wrist and putting pressure on the nerves.

"No." I told her. Stokes let go of my arm and I yanked it back, tilting the blade so it didn't cut Innie's arm. I kept it razor sharp, using ceramic sharpeners to finalize the edge.

"Give it to me." She ordered. "Right now, Corporal."

I just tucked it back in the sheathe and smiled at her. "Sorry, Ma'am, but you have no authority here or over me."

She glared at me and opened her mouth when the table shifted and Aine slid into the room.

"Got our extraction route." She said cheerily.

"Mount up, Actual." I ordered, grabbing the extra T-shirts and starting to layer them on. William moved his knife and shoved the guy away. He hit the wall hard but turned around to glare at William.

"Got a fucking problem?" William asked, staring at the guy. The guy suddenly realized that William was almost six and a half feet tall and built like a tank with a face you only get from fighting too much. He shook his head and William smiled at him, making a big production of putting his knife away. "That's what I thought."

"I'm not kidding, I want one of those rifles." The one I'd drawn my knife on said.

"I'm not kidding, the only way you have a chance at getting some is start sucking a lot of dick." Bomber told him.

"I could use some head." Lanks said. "But I'd rather that tongue was in my gash before you started scraping it across dicks."

The guy glared at her and Lanks just laughed.

I finished putting on Greers BDU top over mine and looked at everyone else. They were all dressed and pulling socks over their hands, same as I was. I grabbed up the AK-47 and hooked up to my tether.

"Let's do this." I said. Aine laughed and moved the door while Nancy cranked all the dials down and shut off the ovens.

The flashlight Stokes panned around revealed the hole I'd blown in the roof had long icicles hanging from it and the snow was deep underneath it, but we used the side door, following the trail that Aine had blazed to hit the road where the snow was only about two feet deep. The sand on the road crunched under my boots. as I kept moving through the darkness.

Aine kept just ahead of me, her bright red hair a beacon in the gloom, and while I expected Aine to keep appearing to my left or right or disappear she stayed only a few paces in front of me. She didn't look back, just heading toward the barracks.

I about started sobbing when the barracks materialized out of the dark and snow. Aine led us right to the back door. I reached out and grabbed the handle, pulling on it. It was locked and I turned and looked at Aine, shaking my head and then jabbing my sock covered fingers at the barracks. She nodded and vanished into the gloom, running across the snow.

Creepy little brat didn't even leave footprints.

"What are we waiting for?" One of the DIA guys asked.

"Doors locked. I sent McCullen to open it." I yelled over the wind.

"How long will it take?" He asked, shivering and rubbing his arms. He had to be cold wearing only a suit to protect him from nasty wind chill and shitty weather.

"Not long. She runs a thirteen minute two mile." I yelled back.

"What makes you think she's going to come back?" The CIA guy asked.

"Because she's not CIA." I shot back.

...Come on, Hannah, come on...

The lizard watched his monitors as the lights went out on my feet and hands and my core temperature dropped a little bit more. I knew I didn't have too much longer, probably not long enough to make it to the front door, which was two city blocks from where I was standing. My muscles were already stiffening up in the cold, the injuries going from painful to a dull ache.

That wasn't good.

I'd been expecting to see Aine push open the door and almost let out a cheer when her face appeared. She stayed there for a second, looking sad or angry, it was hard to tell. Suddenly her face was pressed hard against the wire-reinforced window for a few seconds, then was yanked away.

I was half expecting Tandy to appear in the window.

Instead Sergeant Butcher's face appeared in the little glass window at the side of the door.

...Son of a bitch...

Chapter 27

2/19th Special Weapons Group Barracks
Restricted Area, Alfenwehr West Germany
Late Winter- 12 February, 1988
Day 5 of Repairs
Day 5 of the Third Incident
Evening
1900 Hours

Sergeant Butcher waved at me, making sure that I saw him, and grinning widely. I guess I had it coming in a way, I'd probably given him brain damage knocking him out every time I saw him, but really, Sergeant Butcher was the kind of guy who pissed off the Pope just by existing. I slammed my palm against the window and he laughed at me. I could see him bend forward and lift up Aine, who was limp in his hands, and raise up her face for me to see by pulling on her hair. She was bleeding from a scalp wound that had dripped onto her face, but rather than looking dazed her eyes were slitted in hate. Butcher probably thought that she was more or less helpless, but I'd seen that grim look on her face and those slitted eyes before. She looked at me and I shook my head slightly before kicking against the door. Sergeant Butcher laughed, the sound inaudible, and Bomber flattened against the door where Butcher couldn't see him. Bomber held up two fingers, pointed to the side, held up two fingers, then clenched his fist and tapped it forward twice.

Taking two, second entrance, double-time.

I bumped his fist with my sock covered one and he pulled the sock over his hand as he pointed at Stokes and undid his tether. I handed him the AK-47 and he and Stokes vanished into the dark and snow as one of the CIA guys came forward.

"Why aren't we going in?" He shouted.

"Problem on the inside." I called out, pointing at the window.

The suit looked in the window, saw Sergeant Butcher, and dug in his pocket, pulling out his ID folder and slapping the ID against the window.

Sergeant Butcher paled, looked at Aine in his hands, then out the window.

I just gave him a smile. He held up the lock on the chain and shrugged. I made a pulling motion, which the CIA guy saw, who pointed at the lock and made a jerking motion. Butcher frowned, pulled on the lock, and the ruined guts of the steel lock didn't hold it back as it snapped open. The agent pointed at the door, obviously pissed off.

From behind us there was a low chuckle.

"We need to get out of the dark right. fucking. now." I told the CIA agent.

The chain was pulled through and the door opened. The CIA guys went first, and I counted everyone going through the door before going through myself. We hadn't lost anyone, but I still heard that chuckle again from the darkness and I saw something moving out of the corner of my eye.

Aine was standing up from where Butcher had dropped her, her eyes still full of anger and hate, and I stepped forward to grab her arm.

"Not here. Too many witnesses." I told her.

"Hannah, what happened?" Innie asked, stepping forward and pushing back Aine's hair.

"She tripped. She was running in the hall and..." Butcher got out before I turned around and grabbed him.

I'd lost a lot of my strength thanks to the injuries and the lack of exercise, but I still had enough strength and more than enough rage for what I wanted. I grabbed his throat, thumb on one side of the trachea and my fingers digging into the other side, squeezing hard and twisting. Not enough to tear it free of its mountings but hard enough to panic Butcher as my other hand grabbed his crotch and lifted, cupping his crotch right before my hand filled up and I squeezed.

"You cowardly son of a bitch." I snarled at him, forcing him backwards. "I should cut your goddamn head off and mail it to your mother in a fucking sack."

Butcher turned purple, his fingernails catching on my uniform as he clawed at my arm trying to break my grip on his throat. I slammed him hard against the wall, yanking him back to slam him again against the cold tile.

"Enough, Tony." Will said, grabbing my shoulder.

"Fuck you, you aren't worth it." I told Butcher, pivoting at the waist to throw him in the cubby underneath the stairs. He slid on his knees, his hands going to his throat. His crotch was probably on fire, but you cut off a man's air and blood to brain and he stop caring about his balls.

Everyone was staring at me as I turned and looked at them. I knew I was hyperventilating, the adrenaline from hearing Tandy's chuckle, being stuck out in the snow, and facing off against Sergeant Butcher had left my system charged up.

I wanted to follow Butcher under the stairs, grab him, and beat him to death with my fists. Grab the CIA agents and go to work on them with my knife to find out what they were really doing in my barracks in the middle of winter. Beat out of the DIA agents what the fuck they wanted. VX fucking Langley and burn it to the ground with a 125kt airburst.

"Breath, little brother, breath." William said, his hand resting on my back, pushing the cold cloth of my uniform against my skin. Part of me wanted to lash out at him, but I got a hold of myself.

"I think it's time Corporal Stillwater answered a few questions we have for him." CIA #2 said, staring at everyone. "I think he's shown he's recovered from his injuries enough to at least answer some rather pressing questions."

Before I could answer Bomber kicked open the doors from Titty Territory and was heading down the hallway at a sprint, three guys from Rear-D following him. He had the AK-47 at high port, snow still on his uniform as he charged about halfway and then slid to a walk. The other three stopped, slowing down to a walk as Bomber lowered the AK-47. Stokes came hurtling down the stairs from above, hitting the middle landing and turning to go down on one knee with the AK at high ready.

I grinned at the CIA agent. "Actually, I think we'll be going to talk to the LT." I waved at Bomber, who waved back, before walking toward him.

"Watch your back, little brother." William said quietly as we walked toward where Bomber was waiting. "Those guys hate you."

"Fuck 'em. We can go somewhere dark and talk about it."

"Just don't get your ass kicked." He said.

Goddamn it, I hated him pulling that out constantly. When I was younger I'd just stand there and let bullies punch me, not bothering to fight back or react in any way if I could help it. Usually they got embarrassed and stopped, but more than a few times they'd bring along friends for encore presentations and kick the every loving shit out of me. William and/or his friends would step in at that point, and William kept telling me I needed to fight back. I finally fought back when I was fourteen and three Texas good old boys had been kicking the fuck out of me. It had cost me three weeks in Juvenile Hall, and put them in the hospital, but it had been worth it. Still, William never let me forget that I'd been on the receiving end of a lot of ass kickings over the years. More than once he or his girlfriend had wiped the blood off my face or put butterfly stitches from Father's medikit if the asskicking had been bad enough.

"Comes with the territory." I told him, then reached out and grabbed Bomber's offered hand in a tight grip. "Good to see you, brother."

"Glad you don't need the cavalry." He grinned. He looked over my shoulder and his expression soured. "Shit, couldn't you just leave them in the snow?"

"Don't pay any attention to them, they don't matter as much as they think they do." I told him. Stokes moved up next to me, bumping me with her shoulder. "Hey, Amazon."

She smiled at me and it occurred to me again that she had one of those smiles that lit up the room. "Got me all hot and ready and not even any bang bang to make up for it."

"We've still got questions for you, Stillwater." CIA #1 called out from behind me.

"You can still go fuck yourself." I called back without turning around. "I don't take orders from or talk to CIA nun raping scumbags."

"What did you just say?" CIA #2 asked, anger in his voice.

"I called you a nun raping dog fucking cock sucking amoral scumbag that the world would be better off without." I told him. "Should I use shorter words so you understand, you Langley fuck?"

"Tony, what the hell are you doing?" Ineda asked from behind me.

"And if we want to ask you questions, Corporal?" DIA #2 asked.

"Suck a dick and ask me questions and see which one gets anything for you." I said, still not bothering to turn around as we pushed through the doors to Titty Territory. Two female soldiers I didn't recognize outside of being on Rear-D were standing in the doors to their rooms trying to look nonchalant and failing pretty badly. One was trying, unsuccessfully, to hide an axe handle from supply behind her back, the other was hiding a crowbar behind her leg just as well.

"Ladies." I said, nodding to them. They both nodded, the one on the left looking grimmer than someone as young looking as her should have. There was a tightness around her eyes and mouth that her youth hid but I could still see that made her look oddly older. The other one smiled but the smile never touched her eyes as she glared at the suits behind us. She was a mag rat, I could tell by her hands, the way she stood, that she was one of the hot site crews. She was maybe twenty but looked a lot older. Both of them were not to be fucked with, despite their ages.

Special Weapons, ladies and gentlemen.

"What are you looking at, bitch?" Butcher snarled.

"Shit someone talk to walk." The one on the left answered. "Isn't there a battle you can run away from, Butcher?"

"You'd know if there was going to be fighting, Butcher would already be hiding in your room and putting on your dresses to pretend to be a dependent." Lancer said. I could hear the grin in his voice. "Either that or hiding under your bed crying."

"You got a smart mouth, Lancer, maybe I oughta..." Butcher started.

"I'll slit your fucking throat and throw you into the snow, bitch." Dobbs said. Her tone was colder than the Alfenwehr night. "Say one more word, Butcher. One. More. Word."

"At ease that shit." I snapped, more out of habit than anything, as we pushed through the doors into the CQ Area.

LT Wright stood in front of the desk, looking calm and smiling gently. "How did your recon go, Corporal?"

"Unsecure bodies and weapons in the dispensary, the chow hall is unsecured but still has food stocks, and the War Fighter Tunnels are still in need of restocking and..." I started to give my report.

"Lieutenant, Corporal Stillwater needs to debrief us as well as answer questions." CIA #2 interrupted me.

LT Wright's face went still, an excellent poker face that I'd hate to be across the table from. His voice was perfectly neutral when he spoke. "I have given Corporal Stillwater instructions to do a sweep of external accesses to this secure area and am receiving his report. Do not interrupt military business again."

"The CIA has authority over whatever military..." CIA #1 tried.

"The CIA has whatever authority I give you." LT Wright stated. He held up his hand. "Gentlemen of the DIA and CIA, I believe it is time for you to understand some basic facts. You are here on my good graces, and those graces are about to give way." His voice still sounded like my Amiga's speech program. "I was tasked with a specific mission and I will not allow the nebulous goals of an agency known for its willingness to sacrifice American soldier's lives for merely a show of power to make themselves feel important to interfere with that mission." He stared at the DIA agents. "Despite the fact you are from the Defense Intelligence Agency I do not believe for one moment that you have our best interests at heart, care one way or another about American interests in Western Europe, much less care about Corporal Stillwater's rights under the UCMJ. I am not about to just hand over a highly trained soldier of the US Army to either of you, so may as well come to grips with that fact and the fact that you have no authority up here beyond what I give you." He put his hands on his hips and stared at them for a moment. "And I give you none."

"Now just you wait a minute, you jumped up little pissant Lieutenant..." CIA #2 started.

"Lieutenant, you will stand down and relinquish authority to the Defense..." DIA #1 started at the same time.

"Charge of Quarters." The LT snapped, interrupting the agents.

"Sir!" The doors to the game room came over and four male soldiers and two female soldiers stood in the double doorway, all six of them with their M-16's. Only PFC Krenowsky had his slightly lowered and was the one who had spoken.

"Place these five men under arrest. Secure them in the Game Room." LT Wright snapped.

"Sir." Ski answered, waving at the five agent with a handful of zipties. He gestured with his weapon that he held in one hand. "Turn around, hands behind your backs, or we will disable you."

Ski was not a man to be fucked with. He had been an E-6 with the Big Red One back before he'd gotten busted a month after he completed his Special Weapons training. There were all kinds of rumors of what he had done, and I knew for a fact that SFC from First Magazine Platoon had arranged for Ski to be transferred to 2/19th rather than head off to Leavenworth to do hard time. All we knew about that was Ski was the First Mag Platoon Sergeant's subordinate, a Section Sergeant under him, and all he said was that Ski was a man who could take orders. He was one of those guys who scared the shit out of me just looking at him. Covered in shitty tattoos, scarred all across his face and upper arms, voice like he ate those Lucky Strikes rather than smoked them, and cold eyes.

The five agents looked at him for a long moment, saw whatever it was that scared the shit out of me, then turned away from Ski, putting their hands behind their backs.

"Stanton, Jackson, Smith, and Levant, follow my lead please. You five, move away from one another." Ski said, and the agents did as they were told. Ski moved up and placed his weapon against the outer thigh of DIA #2. The other soldiers copied him. "Specialist Arnold, secure the prisoners." Arnold took the zipties from Ski and began securing their hands behind their backs.

"You'll regret this." DIA #1 stated.

"I doubt it." Lt Wright said. "If I think you're going to be any trouble, I'll simply have you killed." He turned to the rest of us, still shivering from our exposure to the snow and too much adrenaline. "Hand in the enemy weapons and return to your rooms. I will have you debrief me tomorrow, but right now I want you to get a hot meal and some rest."

"Yes, sir." I said. LT Wright was starting to creep me the fuck out.

"Mermites are behind the CQ Desk. No formation for any of you tomorrow, I don't want to risk your health." LT Wright said. He pulled a soft white cloth out of his pocket, took off his rimless glasses, and began cleaning them. Seeing him without them made his face go from soft to something else. I had never noticed how shadowed his eyes were before, how cold they were now that the glasses weren't making it.

Eyes of a serial killer.

"Thank you, sir." I said, trying to get a hold on the butterflies in my stomach at having to walk by the LT. The agents being placed under arrest didn't bother me, but having to walk between Ski and the LT and then having my back to them made the flesh between my shoulder blades clench up.

Food was beef stroganoff, green beans, and something that could generously be called fruit salad if you ignored the fact that it was pretty much deviod of anything but peach slices, which was all right with me. To drink was the shitty military red Kool-Aid and I swilled down a paper cup of it before even dishing any food up. My body would need the sugar, the liquid was warm and would help stabilize my core body temperature. I drank two more, knowing that I'd have to piss really quick. William took his tray and headed off to wherever he hung out when he wasn't drinking, fucking, or fighting. I almost went with him but Nancy's hand in mine convinced me to stay. I grabbed an extra tray just in case Artaine hadn't had anything to eat.

We bunched up on the stairs, still remaining quiet, and without discussing it headed up to Lancer's room. We let him open the door and didn't make an issue over Innie coming inside with us. We ate mostly in silence, Dobbs feeding Lancer quietly and me sitting next to Nancy, Bomber on her other side, cuddling up to her. She started shaking at one point leaned against me. I held her while Bomber rubbed her back. She may have been crying, she may have just been exhausted, we didn't ask and neither did anyone else. Artaine moved gingerly over next to Lanks, holding his stomach, and ate in silence. Lanks moved next to Stokes when Stokes' hand began to shake, rubbing the larger woman's lower back gently and whispering to her.

Aine got up and turned off the light, only dim light from outside and the nightlight providing any illumination as we ate. We stacked the trays when we were done, putting our silverware in the top tray, then sat back down. I made coffee, the smell of it filling the room and making it seem more comforting despite the dimness. Nancy had grabbed the painpills from some of our rooms and we all took some before we went in and took turns taking showers. I went last, accepting the damp towel from Stokes. It felt good to stand under the hot water, closing my eyes and resting my head against the cool tile wall. The painpill took the edge off of the throbbing in my shoulder and leg, made the ants biting at the muscle of my right arm go to sleep, and eased my headache slightly. It was weird, the painpills actually made my head clearer without the constant throbbing pain in my head. When I came out I tossed the towel to Dobbs, who put it in the laundry bag at the end of Lancer's bed.

"I'll take the trays down." Aine said softly. Her hair was loose, the hot shower having brought out the soft curls in her crimson hair and made her pale skin pink. She came up and hugged me. "You promised me a sacrifice, I will collect." She whispered. "I quiver with need."

"Go, have fun. No killing or blood sacrifices." I told her, hugging her back.

Yeah, I'd sold out someone on Rear-D. I was hoping that it was just sex she was after, but I had a feeling she wanted something a bit more Aine-ish.

But it was either someone from Rear-D or all of Actual.

Aine left the room quietly, carrying the trays, and it was silent for awhile. People were getting undressed, getting into bed, all without a word. Dobbs and Lancer to one bed, the rest of us silently getting into bed alone.

"It's not over, is it?" Lanks asked quietly after a long while.

Nobody answered her, and from the breathing I wasn't sure if anyone else was awake.

"No. It isn't over." I told her.

"The laughter, it was Tandy, wasn't it? Just like at the motorpool."

"Yes."

"The footsteps, that was the guy with the axe that hit Dobbs in the stomach, wasn't it?"

"Yes."

"Why is this happening, Ant?"

"I don't know, Lanks."

"I'm afraid, Ant."

"So am I."

We went silent on that. There wasn't anything else to say. The mountain was going to kill us eventually. Not quickly, it rarely worked that way. It would try to break us first.

I went to sleep.

Chapter 28

Rochester, Washington
April, 1978

It was raining, but it was spring in Washington State so that was to be expected. I was wearing my favorite shirt, a hand me down, but my favorite all the same. It was alternating stripes, red, white, and blue, each stripe across me and as wide as my palm. It was bought for my brother Logan during the Bicentennial Celebration at the Fair Grounds in Centralia, across from Black Bird Shopping Mall, but Logan didn't like it so momma had given it to me and bought him some new shirts at K-Mart. It was stained on the collar where dad had busted my mouth for smarting back when I asked him if I could get his beer at the commercial because I was watching Superfriends on Saturday morning, but it was almost faded away so it didn't bother me. Sometimes I wished that I had a Superfriends like Logan, or maybe even that cool shirt dad had bought him after he had taken Logan and Ineda to see Star Wars, but I was happy with my red, white, and blue shirt.

I had been cutting wood all morning, as best as I could. I was getting bigger, so it was getting easier. Long practice helped, dad had been sending me out to cut wood since I had been six, and now that I was nine I was able to more before I tired. So I had cut armload after armload with the hatchet, carrying it in and piling it next to the wood stove in the frontroom. I knew better than to ask mamma if it was enough, knowing that I was to carry it in until she told me otherwise.

Chores didn't bother me. Work was clean, no emotion attached to it, no anger or yelling or drunken smacks or screams with kicking.

Two of my fingers were held to one another by what momma always told Logan and Ineda were 'bunny bandages', where the cloth was wrapped around then tied twice with a bow on top and another knot. It looked like a bunny, and momma usually drew smiling whiskered bunny faces on the bandage for sissy and Logan.

The bunny on my bandage I'd drawn on myself.

My fingers had swollen up when momma had stomped on them because I wasn't washing the floor fast enough. It was OK, though, because pain went away if you were quiet enough and waited long enough. I could tell by the itching under the dirty bandage that the pain was almost done and soon I'd be able to use the fingers better. I would try to make a fist under the blankets at night, and it was doing better the last week, but I was able to make a fist good enough to hold the hatchet.

Eight chunks, enough to take back in. I stuck the hatchet into the top of the stump and loaded up my arms with the wood. Dry cottonwood that dad had gotten from one of his friends, two cords worth, enough to last the year. Now there was only a small pile, not much bigger than me, but momma liked it warm, so we still cut wood even though it was getting close to summer. I could see Mount Rainer over the tops of the trees, the snowpack still covering a lot of the top, and smiled.

I liked the commercial with the guy driving the motorcycle toward that mountain. It sounded like he was making the motorcycle say 'Rainer Beer' and it made me laugh. I stopped laughing after the second time dad had smacked me across the back of the head hard enough to throw me face first into the carpet. I liked the mountain too, and when I got bigger I was going to climb all the way to top and play in the snow. I liked snow, liked making snowmen and snowforts and having snowball fights with Ineda. Logan liked to put rocks or ice in his, so I didn't like having snowball fights with him. He had cut Ineda's forehead and laughed about it, then laughed harder when dad pushed me face down in the snow and beat my butt after Logan told him I had done it. I still liked snow, though. There had been snow that winter and I liked walking in the woods with the quiet snow on the ground.

I opened the door, moved into the kitchen, and quietly bumped it closed with my shoulder. Momma hated it when doors were slammed because it was disrespectful to her house, so I always made sure that I closed it quietly so I didn't disrespect her house.

Momma was sitting at the table, reading the Bible with her shawl tight around her shoulders. She was big, wore dresses, and kept her hair in a tight bun at the back of her head. There wasn't any grey in it, and I had seen her once with her hair let down and knew it was long enough to reach the floor, although she never let it down when us kids were around.

I walked past her, moving quietly, since little boys were not supposed to be loud. She glanced up at me and the rat who lived in my tummy started chewing at it again, but when she looked back the rat went back to sleep. She didn't get up, didn't set down her Bible, didn't do much more than glare at me before going back to reading her Bible, so since she was silent I went in and put the wood next to the stove. The pile was almost as high as I was, stacked six rows back, taking up the whole sidewall next to the stove. I set the wood down quietly on the bricks that made up the floor under the stove, careful not to make too much noise, then began stacking it piece by piece on the pile.

Gravel crunched out side and I knew that dad had returned with Ineda and Logan. He had taken them to the movies again. Logan had been a good boy and Ineda was daddy's little girl, but I hadn't finished my chores and had been a smart mouth, so I didn't get to go. It was all right, the movies made me nervous. Too many people around, the loud noise scared me, and Logan always took the chance the darkness provided to hurt me where dad couldn't see.

The last piece of wood went on the pile at the same time as the front door opened, letting in dad first, then Ineda, who was holding his hand and talking excitedly, and then Logan, who was eating an ice cream cone. As soon as Logan saw me he made a production of taking a big bite off the cone. Ineda let go of dad's hand and ran up to hug me.

"The movie was great, Annie!" Ineda said. I just stood there, letting her hug me, staring at the wall.

"I think that's enough wood, Anthony." Dad said, tromping by me and into the kitchen. He grabbed a beer out of fridge and cracked it open, pushing down the push-tabs on the Coors. He swigged out of it a few times, staring at ma, then suddenly walked up and grabbed her. "Come on, Martha, into the bedroom."

I turned away, the rat starting to chew again. Mom would be angry when she came out from the bedroom and that meant she would hurt me. She would apologize to Logan and Ineda that they had seen that, that they had to witness her punishing me for being bad.

Usually while I wiped any blood or clean up anything that she had broken.

Ineda turned away as dad dragged momma into the hallway that led to the bedrooms, and when the door slammed she turned on the TV, turning it up so that we wouldn't hear the noises too loudly. Sometimes momma screamed and cried loud enough you could hear her even outside, but from what I could hear over the sounds of the TV she was calling on Jesus to save her in between the screams. Logan sat on the couch and watched TV with a big smile, once in awhile snickering when momma let out a loud enough scream. Ineda flinched at every scream, but I just sat down next to her to quietly watch TV.

The rat kept chewing.

The screaming and the calls to Jesus were over before the first commercial break and we could hear dad's heavy boots thudding on the floor as he went into the kitchen. The fridge door opened, making Ineda flinch slightly, then it closed and I heard the spish of the tab being pressed down on the beer. He came in, drinking his beer, with his belt held in his fist from where it had been removed from the waist of his jeans. He smacked it against the arm of his Lay-Z Boy chair once, making Ineda flinch and I knew Logan would be smiling.

I didn't bother moving. Either he would hit me or he wouldn't. There was nothing I could do about, nothing I could do or say to change it if he was going to punish me.

That was just life.

The can bounced off my back and I started getting up before he started speaking. "Boy, get me a beer." He told me. "And hurry up."

The whole bottom of the fridge was full of Coors cans, with almost six cases beside the fridge. There was some food on the second shelf, with a half gallon of milk left in the gallon jug on the top shelf. Momma and dad hadn't gone shopping yet, although dad had made sure that he had beer until his next paycheck. I was careful carrying it into the frontroom after I threw the empty one into the garbage can. I'd learned early not to shake them up, early enough that I didn't remember how, but there was no way in hell I'd shake it up.

When I came in I held it out and he snatched it from my hand. I paused a minute, knowing good and well what was about to happen, better to pause then to be accused to trying to run away. The belt hit the side of my face with a crack.

"Don't take so fucking long next time, shit head." Dad said. He nodded approvingly at the fact I didn't cry. "Good, you're toughening up. It's about time, I thought you were gonna grow up to be some faggot hippy for awhile."

Toughening up. That was what he told me if I cried from the beating. I needed to toughen up. Boys don't cry. Take it like a man. Don't be a pussy. Stop being a little girl.

"Go sit down." He told me, taking a drink. "Don't think I won't know if you start crying either."

I sat down next to Ineda but when she reached for me I pulled away. Momma would be out soon, and if she saw Ineda trying to comfort me or even touching me the beatings would be worse. I had learned that lesson quickly. I wasn't sure what had changed, Innie used to be allowed to touch me, hold my hand, or hug me, but since my birthday any time Ineda showed me any affection a beating usually followed at momma's hands.

The shower went on and after a few moments I heard momma start singing one of the church hymns she loved. Both her and Ineda were in the choir and sung every Sunday and every Wednesday, but lately I had noticed that Ineda's voice was nicer than momma's, and I thought that maybe momma might have noticed it too since usually she was mad at Ineda after every choir practice and after church. Still, momma sung in the shower, which made the rat chew harder, since me and the rat knew what was coming when she left the shower.

All too soon I could hear her footsteps coming down the hall. Like usual her hair was dry and still up in the bun even I could smell the hot water from the shower.

"Get in here right now, boy." She said from the kitchen. I knew it wasn't Logan, she called him by name and never with such meanness in her voice. It wasn't Ineda, she was a girl.

"Yes, momma." I answered, getting up and going to the kitchen. My heart sunk when I saw her standing next to the clean dishes holding the towel I used to dry them.

"Did you use a clean towel to do the dishes?" She asked.

"Yes, momma." I answered honestly. I'd learned not to lie, lying just got a worse beating because she always found out the truth.

"You dirtied a towel drying the dishes?" She asked. I just held still. She wasn't looking for an answer. "Do you think the laundry just cleans itself? Do you like making work for me? Do you think it's funny to make more work for me?"

The more things change the more they stay the same.

If I used a clean towel I was making more laundry. If I used a dirty towel I was yelled at for using the same towel to dry the dishes that someone 'had used on their ass' so I got punished for that too. Either way was a trap and I knew that momma didn't want answers.

When she smacked me across the mouth, her heavy rings that she wore on all of her fingers cutting my mouth and face, I knew she was getting what she wanted.

Blood.

The blow knocked me to the floor. I was shorter than her and she outweighed me by quite a bit. The blow was from behind her head, a backhanded blow, and it sent my head spinning as I sprawled out on the old linoleum of the kitchen floor. I picked myself up, ignoring the way the world tilted, and stood in front of her. I knew if I laid down there too long she would grab me by my hair and pull me up to my feet. Then she usually held me in place to hit me repeatedly. She was ignoring me for the most part, in the middle of a rage fueled tirade that had more to do with her rage at whatever made her scream so loud and call out for Jesus to save her than anything I had to do with. I had realized that early, and in a small way it actually helped.

It made it hurt less when she slapped me again, asking if I thought that she only existed to do housework and wait on me hand and foot.

"...suppose you think that I'm just here to service you too, like your father?" she screamed, knocking me to the floor before I could get all the way to my feet. "Get up. Get up, goddamn it, get up, you little shit."

Drops of blood fell from my mouth as I pushed myself up by my arms and I knew I'd be wiping them up when she was done with me. My mouth was full of blood but I knew better than to spit it out. Besides, the hot coppery taste, like a mouth full of hot pennies, was comforting and familiar. The same with the pain in my mouth, that was nothing new either. I got to my feet and stared at her for only a second before that hand went across and next to her face before swinging out and backhanding me again across the face.

"The boy giving you trouble, Martha?" dad asked from the frontroom as I pushed myself up again. Blood drooled out of my mouth even though I swallowed it as fast as I could.

"Little shit doesn't listen." Momma said, kicking me hard enough to flip me onto my back. At least the kick hit me in the ribs instead of my tummy.

The rat was trying to chew its way out.

"He needs to take out the garbage." dad told her. "Get to it, boy, and don't spill any of it."

"Yes, daddy." I answered, sitting up so I could climb to my feet. My mouth hurt and I kept sucking on my lower lip so it didn't bleed down my face.

"You're lucky your dad is taking your side, you little sinner." momma told me. I got lucky, she didn't put her foot in the middle of my chest and shove me back down as I got to my feet. "Get out of my kitchen, you disgusting little creature."

"Yes, momma." I said, moving quickly over to grab the garbage can. She sent me on my way with a kick to the butt, but that was normal.

It was still raining outside when I took the can outside to the curb. I tilted my face back and let the rain wash the blood off. I liked Washington, liked the cold and the rain. The cold made the pain go away and the rain washed away the blood. I dumped the trash in the garbage can and then closed the lid on the metal can. It was dented on the side from where momma had blamed me for the raccoons getting in the garbage and slammed me headfirst into the can. My vision had been blurry for almost the whole day and I'd even thrown up once when momma had slapped me for not cleaning up the dinner dishes quickly enough, but I had ignored it all and it went away by morning. The headache had lasted for a few days, but I ignored it just like I'd learned to ignore most of it and eventually it too went away.

Never take the garbage through the front door, always use the back door. Taking it through the front door meant dad would see me and momma hated to see the garbage being taken through the frontroom where it might leak on the floor. I saw the hatchet stuck in the stump and stopped for a moment. Something dormant inside of the back of my head seemed to roll over sleepily and images appeared in my brain.

...Taking the hatchet in my hand...

...Hitting momma above the butt so that it broke her spine and left her screaming for Jesus on the floor...

...Coming up behind dad while he sat in his Lay-Z-Boy chair and burying the hatchet in the middle of the bald spot at the top of his head...

...Holding Logan down and taking the hatchet to his face until there was nothing left but raw red ruin...

Whatever it was in the back of my head opened an eager eye, but I shoved down the images, pushed them away. I hated those thoughts, those dreams. It was the Devil putting those images in my brain, trying to get me to sin, to rebel against my parents, who were just...

...Beating the shit out you...

...Disciplining me, like the Bible said to, like everyone disciplined their children to keep them in line, to keep them from acting like animals.

Momma was waiting with a cuff to the back of my head when I came in the door. I staggered over and put the garbage can down, turning around in time to have her push the dish towel in my face.

"Clean your mess on the floor, you disgusting little boy." She ordered, turning away from me. I could see the blood on the floor from where it dripped from my mouth.

The Gerber slid into my hand, the lizard in the back of my head wide awake, and I stepped forward. One hand went over her mouth, pulling her backwards, and the knife went in smoothly under her ribs on the right side, angled up to slice at the lung. She stiffened and coughed, a reflex action, and blood splashed against the hand over her open mouth. I pulled her sideways, stabbing just to the left of her spine, upwards, between the ribs, hitting the other lung and slicing her heart when I gave it a half twist before pulling it out. I lowered Martha to the floor, blood already running out of her mouth. I rolled her on her side before standing up slowly and rolling my shoulders.

My arms were thick, scars on my forearms, and my hands were heavy with prominent knuckles and scarring. I was taller now, half again as tall as I had been when I was taking out the garbage, and my steps were quiet but sure, a far cry from the small silent footsteps I had left the house with.

Logan stepped into the kitchen and somehow I was in front of him, waiting for him. He was the same height as me but easily thirty pounds lighter, the muscle put on by working in the logging fields not what it could have been thanks to his inherent laziness. He opened his mouth to say something, maybe to warn Jed, maybe to scream at the sight of Martha, his mom, on her side and staring at eternity. I grabbed him by the front of his flannel shirt and spun him to the side, pushing him against the side of the fridge as the knife came up. The blade disappeared under his sternum, angled upward and to my right, twist and pull then thrust it back under. The light went out of his eyes and I let him go to slide down the fridge. He sat down, looking up at me but not seeing me, and I spit in his upturned face.

Jed was sitting in his chair, facing away from me, watching the baseball game in the kitchen. He had always bragged he was a stone cold killer that everyone was afraid of during Vietnam, that he was hardcore infantry better than Special Forces, that he'd killed with a knife, bare hands, and his M-16.

...Time to put it to the test, father, and see who's the killer in this family...

My hand went across his face, my fingers grabbing his chin, and his head was yanked back, closing his mouth around his squawk of surprise. My knife came down, the edge under his left ear until I began to pull it to the right, following the training that had been ground into me and slitting his throat from ear to ear. Blood sprayed out across his lap, splattering on the beer can in his hand, thick spurts hitting his lap and the leather of his chair.

The lines were down.

There was a thump behind me and the victorious feeling I had growing inside of me vanished as I turned around.

He was standing in the kitchen, over Martha's corpse. Dressed in an extreme cold weather parka, the fur edged hood pulled up over his head, the collar of the parka slit and puffing goose down and the top brass button scored deeply. He had on Mickey Mouse boots and cold weather pants with cold weather gloves. Covering his face was an extreme cold weather mask, the mouth tab open to show that he was missing one of his teeth. His bloodshot eye glared at me from the eyeslit of cold weather mask as he stepped forward, raising the axe.

The axe came down and my brain fixated on the '2/19th Motor Pool' burned into the handle. I didn't even try to stop it as it came down and hit me in the right shoulder, burying deep in my skin and throwing me on my back.

I hit the floor hard, the cold immediately seeping through my shirts. I stared at the stairwell above me, where the others had fled. My eyes wouldn't close as the footsteps came closer and the guy with the cold weather mask stopped above me, staring down. He reached down, grabbing the bayonet stuck in my shoulder, and pulled on the hilt. His strength was irresistible and I lifted up off the floor, pain radiating from my shoulder of such intensity that I screamed long and loud, the sound echoing through the stairwell.

"Get up, boy." He said in Jed's voice.

Chapter 29

2/19th Special Weapons Group Barracks
Restricted Area, Alfenwehr West Germany
Late Winter- 13 February, 1988
Day 6 of Repairs
Day 6 of the Third Incident
Early Morning
0300 Hours

I came up swinging, yelling as I came up punching for something that only existed in Vicoden fueled nightmares. I cut the shout off and fell back onto the bunk, shuddering from the adrenaline flooding my system. My hands were clean, empty, and the Gerber was where it belonged on my belt on the pants laid over the back of one of Lancer's chairs. It had just been a dream, one of the bad ones where I went from the helpless victim to the victimizer, only this time it had taken a turn for the worse. I reached under my pillow and pulled out my glasses, putting them brought out the definition of the shadows that the nightlight was casting.

The floor was cold under my bare feet when I rolled out of the bunk and hit the tile. Everyone was asleep, making soft sounds as they dreamed, and I hoped that their dreams were better than mine. I saw that The blanket covering Lancer and Dobbs had pulled down enough to expose her breasts, her left one covered by Lancer's hand from where his arm was under her. It made me ashamed to see, like I was violating them both, so I pulled the blanket over them and tucked them in. Dobbs opened one eye, saw me, smiled, and went back to sleep.

"She trusts you." Westlin said when I straightened up and turned around. She was sitting on the bunk bed below the one I had been sleeping in, next to where Aine was curled up, naked and sucking her thumb. It wasn't Aine, I could tell because she was covered up with a blanket and her face was soft, not hard and cruel.

"Yeah." I said, moving up to where I had folded my uniform and put it over Lancer's chair. I started dressing and Westlin sighed.

"I always liked that about Atlas." She said. I looked at her once my head was through the hole of my t-shirt and she blushed when I raised an eyebrow. "Watching you guys get dressed. You guys were beefed up by the time Atlas was ready to roll, and I got to watch your bodies change while mine changed. I loved the way you guys moved when you got dressed, the way you'd wander around in your underwear, half dressed, or just plain naked."

"We were too tired to care." I told her honestly as I pulled on my BDU bottoms.

Westlin nodded. "I was too, but it was nice to look at you guys." She shrugged.

"I'm sorry." I told her, sitting down to put on my boots.

"I know, honey." She said, standing up and walking over to stand behind me and put her hand on my shoulder. "I'm sorry too."

"Why?" She asked plainly as I pulled on the laces to tighten up the boot. "You didn't do anything." I wrapped the laces around my calf, tied them off and tucked them into my boot, then moved to the next boot as she kept talking. "Hell, I saw what you did to the guy who shot me."

"Yeah?" I tucked in the other laces then wrapped the elastic blousers around each shin so I could blouse my boots properly.

"Yeah. Slit his throat and then kept him from even grabbing the wound so he'd feel completely helpless." She rubbed my shoulder. "That was cruel."

"So is what he did." I told her, standing up. Her hand slid down my back to rub on my lower back, and I could feel the warmth of her hand through the cloth of my t-shirt. That was one thing I remembered about her, her hands were always warm, no matter how cold it was outside. She had tended to our wounds, half the time laying on the ground with her working over us with those warm hands.

The hand vanished as I put on my BDU top and she kept talking. "It was his job, he had orders." She sighed. "Just like we all have them."

"What do you want, Ellie?" I asked her, tugging on the bottom of my BDU blouse to set it.

"I just wanted to say hi." Westlin told me. I turned to face her to see her smiling at me.

"Hi." I told her, going to walk around her.

"Where ya goin?" She asked.

"Bathroom, I gotta piss." I told her.

"Want me to hold it?" She asked, and I knew that she was smirking at me. She didn't follow me into the bathroom and didn't talk as I stood there and took a long piss, the room cold enough that the bowl steamed for a moment before I flushed it down.

From the mirror my reflection stared at me. He shook his head and said something but I couldn't make it out. He tapped on the mirror, a faint clinking sound, then tried mouthing something slower. Not that it helped, I wasn't a lip reader. he shrugged, held up the Gerber, and tapped it on the glass. I nodded, reaching back and drawing it so I could show it to him. He nodded, smiled, and put his away right before I put mine away. When I left the bathroom Westlin was standing over the bed where Bomber was sleeping, smiling down at him.

"I miss him, you know?" Westlin said.

"Bomber?" I asked. "I thought you didn't like him."

She turned and smiled at me. I noticed that her BDU top was open and there was a hole in the middle of large wet looking bloodstain in the middle of her stomach. "I liked him, I liked him a lot, but he never really noticed me." She turned away from me, going back to staring at the sleeping Texan.

"Hey, I'm going to... um... go." I said lamely.

"Marmosets... marmosets everywhere... get to the LZ, marmosets inside the wire..." Bomber mumbled, thrashing in his sleep. Westlin reached down and ran her fingers over his furrowed brow gently, shushing him. As I turned away he stilled, rolling onto his side and curling up.

"Shh, Bomber, it's OK." Westlin said as I headed toward the door. I unlocked it, stepped out, and turned to look in the room as I went to quietly close the door. Right before the door closed Westlin spoke to me. "Be careful, Stillwater, it's ugly out there."

"It's always ugly out here." I told her. "Take care of him, he has nightmares."

"I know." she said softly.

The door shut, leaving me in the hallway.

The path to my room was cold and simple. To the middle stairwell, one floor down from the Lobotomy War to Hammerhead Hall, then down to my room. The key worked, although for some reason I half expected it not too, and my door opened easily. The warmth from my room wafted out into the hallway and cradled me in soft hands so I stood there for a moment savoring it, caught on the edge of bitter freezing cold and comforting life sustaining warmth.

My boots left bloody prints on my tile as I walked into the room, but when I turned around to close and lock the door behind me there were no marks on the floor. I hit the lights, walking into the room to the stereo. I hit the CD player and it queued up Dream Weaver just like it always did.

The glasses and the bottle of booze were right where William, Ineda, and I had left them, so I poured myself three fingers of booze, filled the glass the rest of the way with Coke, and sipped the warm drink.

It dawned on me during my third glass. Why I kept returning to my room.

It wasn't safe for the others for me to sleep in Lancer's room.

The CIA knew what I had done to their agent. Knew what had happened to their direct action team and their control. I had blown a sanctioned op and now they were there to see just how far it had blown open. I went through a fourth glass thinking it over, running the numbers while the lizard checked my results.

If I let them, they'd cut the truth, or at least what I'd say to make them stop, from my flesh with razors, drugs, and electrified wires. They'd pick up the pieces by killing Bomber and Nancy, probably arranging some kind of suicide.

Or they'd just kill all of Rear-D and blame it on Actual, while Actual would just disappear, never to be seen again and listed in records as having defected to the Soviet Union.

The glass clinked when I set it down on the desk after finishing my fifth drink inside of an hour, I closed my eyes for a long moment, the alcohol pulling me down even though I tried to struggle.

I meant to get up. I meant to go to bed in my bunk and get some sleep instead of passing out drunk in a chair.

Instead, my eyes closed and I went to sleep.

At least I didn't dream.

Chapter 30

2/19th Special Weapons Group Barracks
Restricted Area, Alfenwehr West Germany
Late Winter- 13 February, 1988
Day 6 of Repairs
Day 6 of the Third Incident
Early Morning
0845 Hours

"Ant, wake up, honey." Nancy's voice pulled me from black sleep. She kissed me, a familiar taste to go with a familiar kiss, and I opened my eyes to see her face, her brown eyes closed as she pushed her tongue into my mouth and cradled the back of my head with her hand. When she broke the kiss she smiled at me. "Wake up, sleepy head."

"What time is it?" I asked her.

"Zero eight forty-five." Bomber said from behind me.

"Shit, we got formation." I said, trying to stand up.

Nancy stepped back, shaking her head. "No, we don't. LT said for us to take it easy today." She smiled. "Goddamn, you smell like a Jack Daniels distillery." She leaned forward and licked my neck. "Tastes good, but you need a damn shower." She grabbed my left forearm and heaved me up. "Come on, drunky, get up."

I nodded, still unsteady from all the booze, and followed her over to my wall lockers. Bomber tossed her my keys and she unlocked the door, picking out some clothes to me. I took them and let her pull me into the bathroom.

"I'm going to change into my civvies." Bomber said.

She pulled me into the bathroom, letting me hang the hangar with my civvies on the towel hangar before stripping me out of my uniform and getting wicked in the hot shower with me. Afterwards she soaped me off gently, rubbing at the sore muscles before checking the rotation I was capable with my right shoulder without pain. She tsked over the bruising in my armpit, on my chest and back, across the thick upraised scar that was still healing. She kissed my injured shoulder gently, holding my around the waist as I rested my head on the wall behind me.

"You need to be careful." She told me, resting her head on my chest. I took the soap from the tray and began soaping up her back. "You've taken a lot of damage to that shoulder, and there's a major artery in there. You blow that artery you'll be dead in minutes and there won't be shit I can do to save you." I turned her around so she was against the wall and I was shielding her from the spray. When I started soaping up her breasts, pausing to press firmly into the muscles of her chest and rub, she sighed. "That feels nice. I'm sore all over." I kept soaping her up, rubbing her shoulders and then her back when I turned her around. Her muscles were all tense, from her shoulders to the top of her butt, and I did my best to work out the knots.

"I've got a bad feeling." She told me. "Bomber's dreaming of marmosets."

"I heard him. Last night and the night before."

"He doesn't even know what a fucking marmoset is. What do you think he's dreaming of?"

I shrugged, knowing she couldn't see me, and started rubbing the base of her neck. "Some kind of creature. I don't know. Maybe a chupacabra? I heard they have those in Texas."

"Think this will go sideways on us?" Nancy asked. She sighed as I worked the muscles at the base of her skull. "That feels sooo nice. You don't have to do this, I know your arm hurts."

"You take care of me." I told her. "You always have, as long as I've known you."

"You love me. You keep my secrets. You don't get angry about the other guys. You don't get weird about the women." She said. "You don't talk about the things between us." She shivered as one of the knots in her neck suddenly loosened. "You don't hold it against me that I need you to hurt me to make me cum."

"You don't make an issue over the fact I cry in my sleep." I told her, moving down to where her shoulders met her neck.

"How long have you done that?" She asked. She went to turn around but I pressed my thumbs against her spine and she relaxed, letting her forehead rest against the shower wall.

"Since I was about ten." I told her honestly.

"That's about when you were adopted, wasn't it?" Nancy asked.

"Yeah."

"It was those two white trash, wasn't it?"

"Jed and Martha? I guess." I kept working the muscles. "I never thought about it."

"And you don't talk about it." She said. "I love you, Anthony, I really do, but you just don't talk about anything." She sighed as I moved down her shoulders. "Hell, I would have had no clue that the shit that went down in that trailer park when we went on leave involved your real parents if you hadn't had told me that we were driving out to visit them, the Sergeant Major told us they were your aunt and uncle. I told everyone the Sergeant Major was your real father until you told Bomber otherwise last month when we were asking about Aine." She kissed my nose again. "I lied to everyone, even Bomber, even myself, about them."

"Yeah." I said quietly.

"Talk to me, Tony." She said. "Please?" There was a pleading tone I rarely heard from her.

I froze for a second. The thought of breaking that code of silence. Not just the family code, which had the weight of centuries behind it, but the code that surrounded me, Innie, and Logan. That and a weird code of silence that I'd found existed among kids who had been treated the way I had been treated. You don't talk. You say anything. You just endure. Part of you thinks that behind the smiles and the loving facade the other families are just like yours. That the kids wear long sleeves to hide the bruises just like you do. That the limp isn't from wrecking your bicycle like you said but from a hard kick.

You did not talk about it.

"Talk to me, Ant, honey." Nancy said softly, pleading with me.

I sighed, relaxing. It was Nancy. "I told you some of it when I was telling you about Aine." I told her. I started rubbing her back, in between her shoulder blades. "The people we visited after the shit in Atlas, before we went to see the Sergeant Major, those were my parents."

"You just said you had a falling out with." She snorted. "Looked like a hell of a falling out from the passenger seat of the rental car. You feel better afterwards?"

"No, not really. Weird, huh? In movies and shit they always feel better when something like that happens, but I just felt like shit." I sighed. "Part of me wanted to run back in there and apologize, to do something to get them to love me, to fix whatever it was I did wrong that made them hate me so much."

"Yeah, it was kind of the same for me." Nancy said.

"I don't know what went wrong. I'm not even sure when it really started. Hell, maybe it had always been that way. For as long as I could remember Jed and Martha, my birth parents, kicked the shit out of me. Martha mixed it with the Bible, Jed just went ahead and did it. It was everything from petty shit like taking away any stuffed animal I showed affection toward all the way to cruel shit."

"Like what?" Nancy asked, turning around. When I looked away from her she turned back around, like she knew I couldn't keep talking if she was looking at me. "I know that Jed fingered your sister and that's pretty damn bad. What kind of cruel things are you talking about?"

I grabbed the muscles at the back, digging my fingers into her armpits. She giggled and wiggled for a second then relaxed. I waited until she asked me the question again.

Brown and white fur appeared in my memory but the little lizard shut the memory's visuals down almost in time. "I found hurt bunny one day on the way home from school. I brought him home, hid him in the garage for almost a week while I nursed him back to health. He was just a little thing, no bigger than a can of soda. I'd sneak out to cuddle him, pet him, and stuff. He'd cuddle me, nuzzle me, and hop around. It was the first time I'd been loved by someone besides Ineda for as long as I could remember." I closed my eyes and saw again the scene.

"I'm not going to like this story, am I?" Nancy said, and I could feel the pain in her voice.

"No." I told her plainly. "Jed caught me feeding him, holding him close and petting him." The memory wouldn't stop, even though I wanted it to. "He grabbed Fluffy out of my arm by his ears, yelled at me, threw Fluffy on the ground..." I choked up for a second. "Then stomped on his head with his boots."

"Jesus." Nancy said.

"Then he beat me for crying. Martha beat me for being sneaky. Ineda tried to stop them so Martha knocked her cold with a punch and they both went at me." I shrugged at the memory. "They beat me till I passed out. It was summer time, so they didn't have to worry about me going to school. I kept throwing up during my chores for about two days." I shuddered. "The worst part was the way Fluffy screamed when Jed grabbed him from me, and the horrible sounds he made while he died right in front of me."

"How old were you?" Nancy asked.

"Six." I shivered again. "At least Jed had the common decency to just shoot the dog I found and brought home. Although I still remember the way the blood gushed out of Shadow's mouth when Jed fired the pistol."

"How old that time?"

"Nine. I learned about there to stop loving things for a long time. Jed told me I didn't deserve a dog, Martha told me that a disgusting little boy like me didn't deserve the love of Jesus or a puppy." I told her. "Martha told me several times after each beating that it was because I'd sinned and tried to steal Shadow's love from people who deserved it was why it had to be put down. After while I believed what they told me."

Nancy turned around, stepping into me and kissing me softly. "Do you still believe that? That you don't deserve love?"

"The Sergeant Major did his best. But. Sometimes." I nodded. "Most of the time."

"I'm sorry. I wish I could help." She said, kissing me.

"That helps. Around you, and, don't laugh, around Bomber, and out with the crew at Atlas, I feel like it's OK to have people who care about me, who love me." I told her when the kiss broke.

She smiled, pecked a kiss at the tip of my nose. "Bomber's been with you through all kinds of shit, in some ways he's closer than Will is. Hell, if you asked him he'd be the first to tell you that he loves you. You're his brother."

"Thanks." I told her.

"I love you." She told me.

I jerked and pushed her away, my back hitting the faucets. "Don't say that."

Nancy grabbed me by the dong and pulled me forward, putting her hand at the back of my neck. "Don't. Don't pull away from me." She stared into my eyes and I felt like I was drowning in those warm brown pools. "You haven't said that since we first got together, please don't start saying it again when I tell you I love you." Her hand went from the back of my neck to the side of my face. "Jed isn't going to do anything to me. It's OK that we love each other."

I kissed her, needing to hold her in my arms as I swept her up in a hug.

"Besides, I saved you, that makes you mine. The Sergeant Major said so, he gave you to me to take care of, told me that you're my boy, and I'll love you if I want." She said into my ear after we broke the kiss. She wiggled one hand between us and smiled. "Want to do it again?" I nodded. "Then stand right there, and I'll get you ready."

Afterwards we cleaned up, again, and I dried her off slowly. I went to dress her and she shook her head. "Come on." She took my hand and led me from the bathroom.

Bomber was sitting in one of the chairs, dressed up. He was wearing one of his cowboy hats, jeans, a t-shirt under a button up western shirt, his boots, and a bolero of hammered silver with a turquoise center around his neck snugged up. He was sipping a drink, with two sitting on the desk next to him, both of them with ice in them and beads of condensation on sides slowly dripping down.

"You all right, brother?" John asked when he saw my face.

"Fine." I told him. "What's with the getup?"

"Feeling a bit homesick." He told me, smiling, but the smile was a faded thing compared to his usual Texas cheer.

"You look good, sweety." Nancy told him, letting go of my hand so she could step forward and kneel down in front of him. "You look nice, John." She kissed him, then stood up and grabbed one of the drinks. "Danke."

"Bitte." John answered, lifting his glass in salute when I grabbed mine. "You guys took awhile, everything all right?"

"I was horny." Nancy smiled, pulling up one of the chairs and sitting down. John chuckled and took another drink. "Girl's got needs, man."

"Amen to that." John said. His hand was shaking when he lit a cigarette and handed it to me. Nancy took it from me, so John lit another one and handed it to me before shutting his Zippo and then reopening it to light another one. You never ever ever lit three cigarettes at once. It was bad luck, plain and simple.

"John?" Nancy asked, looking at me.

"Yeah?" John's hand was trembling so hard that he was barely able to hold his glass. The little lizard hissed in alarm.

"Are you OK?" Nancy asked, standing up and moving next to him.

"Yeah, I'm just not sleeping well, you know?" John said.

I pulled a chair over next to him, reaching out and putting my hand on his shoulder. "Nightmares?" I asked him. He nodded and took another drink. "Same here, man." he looked at me, startled, and I nodded. "Hell, yeah. Bad ones. Everything from Atlas to Westlin's death."

"Really? You dream about me? How sweet." Westlin said from where she was sitting on the dresser. I looked over at her and shook my head.

"She's sitting on the dresser, isn't she, Tony?" Bomber said, looking at her. I nodded and he reached up and squeezed the bridge of his nose. "She's not really there, man."

"I know. But what about you, man?" I asked him, squeezing his shoulder.

He sighed and rolled his shoulders. "I come from a loving family, you know?"

"No. We don't." Nancy said. The bitterness in her voice made John look up and she reached out and put her hand on his knee. "Shit, I'm sorry, John, that's not aimed at you."

He nodded and continued. "I mean, my father loves my mother, they love me and my sister, and I love all of them. But lately I keep having dreams, where I pull the mask off of the guy with the axe and it's my dad, or I see my sister laying dead in the snow when the Russian's attack." He stubbed out his cigarette and rubbed his face. "Or I can either drop my weapon or that fucking CIA colonel will shoot my sister in the back of her head, and when I do, he shoots her anyway." He shivered, despite the warmth in the room. "I keep dreaming about marmosets, or that the people we're fighting are my parents, or I'm trying to save my parents and I can't." He looked at me. "Hell, I even had a dream where you told all of us that if we didn't get Atlas up and running in time you would execute one of our parents a week until it was up to speed, and then shot my sister just to prove that you would."

"I wouldn't do any shit like that." I told him.

He reached up and grabbed my hand, squeezing it. "I know, brother, I know." He let go, rubbing his eyes. "I'm just not getting much sleep." He jerked and dropped his hand, digging out his smokes and lighting one. "What about you guys."

"We're just talking." I tried.

"Ant was telling me about what life was like before the Sergeant Major adopted him." Nancy dimed me out.

John went to open his mouth and there was a knock at the door. He got a weird look and looked down, trying to see his own mouth, which was still open. The knock came again and Nancy gave an exasperated sigh, getting theatrically and heading over the to door, still stark naked. She swung open the door then squawked as Stokes pushed her in and Hannah followed close behind, closing the door and locking it. Stokes was huge in her jeans, t-shirt, and flannel shirt, same as I was wearing, except she had new Nike running shoes she'd probably never run PT in. Hannah, of course, was wearing a flowerprint light cotton dress and was barefoot. Stokes' face looked grim and even Hannah had a serious expression that looked odd on her normally smiling face.

"Stillwater, where have you been all morning?" Stokes asked, moving into the middle of the room.

"In here. I came down here last night. I couldn't sleep." I told her.

"He needed a drink." Westlin said, kicking her feet against the front of the dresser.

"What's going on, Miranda?" Nancy asked. Hannah had moved over to the window, looking out at the snow outside.

"The LT's missing." She said. She grabbed the bottle and took a long drink off of it. "Same with SSG Leemore." She looked at me seriously. "The DIA guy put Butcher in charge."

"Shit, we're screwed." Bomber said. He looked over at me. "They're not going to ask the next set of questions nicely, Ant."

"It gets worse, Anthony." Hannah said, pacing the floor. She stopped and looked at me. "They brought in more strangers, more people who aren't from two nineteenth. They smell like lies and old blood and bad meat."

"They're DIA and CIA." Stokes expanded. "About two dozen total."

"We can take them." Bomber said. "We took on a hell of a lot more than that of stem winding motherfuckers from Vympel Group." He smiled, his bad mood vanishing at the prospect of mayhem. My dark mood was lightening and the lizard was flicking his tail eagerly. "We took on the best the Soviet Union could throw at us, we can handle some DIA and CIA cocksuckers who think they're hot shit because they raped a few nuns in Central America."

"Don't underestimate them, guys." Miranda said.

"How many DIA?" I asked, pulling out my green notebook and pen.

"Seven total. I'm not sure how many CIA." Miranda told me.

"Nineteen." Hannah said. She put her palms against the wall. "Nineteen who deserve to be Wickerman'd. Nineteen who should be taken to the fields and their throats slit with a bronze sickle to sweeten the crops."

Stokes looked at her oddly at that.

"Hannah!" I snapped as she put one hand on the wall over her head. Hannah jerked, moving away from the wall, staring at her hands. She looked up at me, her eyes wide and vulnerable.

"Anthony?" She asked, her voice sounding like it did when we were little.

"Come here, honey." Stokes said, holding out her hands. Hannah half stumbled to her and Stokes scooped her up onto her lap and held her head against her chest. "Easy, Hannah, easy. Mamma Stokes has you, sweety." Hannah started crying and Stokes started rocking her gently back and forth. Stokes looked at me, her face serious. "She's cracking up, Ant."

"We all are." Bomber said. "We can't take much more."

"I'm gonna warn Dobbs and Lancer." Nancy said, standing up. "Lancer's vulnerable, a weak point, just like Artaine, and I don't want those scumbags using them against any of us."

"Hurry." Bomber said. Nancy waved one hand, vanishing out the door.

"What do you think happened to the LT?" Stokes asked.

"They fucking killed him because he wouldn't play ball." I growled. "Probably the CIA goons, the DIA guys usually throw their rank around. They usually don't kill us like fucking cattle."

"He's under four feet of snow or a Tandy snack." Bomber said. He slammed his fist down on the desk, making the glasses and the bottle dance. "This is the same shit they pulled last time, and last time Butcher and White just fucking went along with it."

"Yeah, well, it won't really..." I started.

The door to my room opened up and four guys in BDU's came in. None of them had rank, nametags, or even the US ARMY over their hearts. They moved in quickly, one checking the bathroom and I heard the shower curtain rattle before he came back out. They scanned the obvious points, corners and behind furniture, one watching the windows as they spread out to keep their lanes of fire clear. CIA #1 came in after them, Sergeant Butcher trailing after him like a bad fart, moving through the other men like a self-perceived shark through subordinates they viewed as minnows. He stopped in front of me with a victorious expression.

The boys from Langley were here to save America.

"On your feet, Corporal Stillwater." Butcher smirked. CIA #1 opened his jacket slightly to show me the pistol in the shoulder rig.

"What's this about?" Stokes asked.

One of the new guys stepped forward and slapped her across the face. "Shut up, whore. The only time you better open your mouth is for me to put a cock in it." He sneered.

Stokes stood up. And up. And up.

I'd known her for so long I'd forgotten just how big she was. Six foot four inches of corn fed Mid-West Amazon who could carry a tank round on each shoulder and bench press more than most guys. Her biceps were larger than the thighs of agent who just slapped her. She had have special order BDU's and was past the weight limit by twenty pounds but anyone who had seen her knew that it was all muscle and bone. Hannah looked like a small child in her arms as she stared down at the CIA agent she was at least six inches taller than.

"You say something, shrimp dick?" She asked.

The lizard showed me where it was all going in a flash, the mayhem, the gunfire, the blood and the death.

There had been enough killing. Enough the blood and of the dead on the floor of my room.

I stood up, holding my hands out to my side. "Stand down, Actual!" I snapped. Stokes stepped back, still holding Hannah in her arms. CIA #1 waved his hand and the two men who had drawn pistols slowly holstered them.

"Glad to see you understand the situation, Corporal." CIA #1 said, unable to completely hide the glee he was feeling. "Let's go."

"Don't be too long, brother." Bomber said as I moved into the group of CIA agents.

"Make me a drink, will you?" I asked, staring straight ahead.

"Ridley, Emmert, stay here with these soldiers and make sure they don't go anywhere. I'll want to speak to them after a little while." CIA #1 grinned as the others marched me toward the door.

"I'll be waiting, baby. Bring your dick sucking lips." Bomber said. CIA #1 didn't rise to the bait and instead followed the little group around me and Sergeant Butcher, who was trailing just behind me.

We went out the door and they didn't bother closing it behind us. Three steps down the hallway and Sergeant Butcher suddenly drove a snapkick into the small of my back, the heel of his combat boot missing my kidney and instead hitting too high. I went down, sprawled out on the floor.

"How you like that, bitch?" Butcher asked, reaching down to grab the back of my flannel shirt. He pulled me partway up and punched me at the base of the skull. "How about that, huh? Get up, bitch."

...Get up...

My lip had split when I hit the floor and two drops of blood landed on the tile as I pushed myself into the pushup position, the drops bright red on the cream colored tile.

"Get up, punk." Butcher said. "Get up so I can beat you to death." He punched me in the back of the head again and I hit the floor face first, tasting blood from my split lip.

...Get up...

The lizard started flipping switches and my muscles started thrumming. The pain receded, the numbness and tingling vanished, and my senses seemed to expand outward as the lizard put his clawed hand on the big red button and applied a tiny bit of pressure, almost caressing it.

"Enough." CIA #1 said. "He suffered a near fatal headwound recently, I don't want you scrambling his brains before I get a chance to question him." Two of the CIA guys drug me up by my arms and my shoulder on the little lizard's monitors went from yellow to amber. I relaxed and went limp, letting my head hang down.

"And afterwards?" Butcher asked.

"We'll hold the little bastard for you if we're right." One of the other CIA guys said.

CIA #1 scoffed as they dragged me through the Middle Stairwell door. "If you want him to feel it you might want to wait till he sobers up."

...They aren't going to let you live either, Butcher...

They dragged me upstairs to the fourth floor. I could have walked under my own power, but letting them carry me depleted their strength and let them think I was nearly helpless. They pulled me down to 432 and knocked twice. The door opened up to reveal another agent in a suit. CIA Goon #2.

"If it isn't Corporal Stillwater." Goon Two said, leading the way into the room.

There was a chair in the middle of the room, covered by plastic trashbags and sitting on a canvas tarp that I knew had been taken from the supply room. There were straps on the arms of the chair, across the back, and on the front legs. I could see something that was either an EKG or an EEG sitting on an end table to the left side of the chair, with a polygraph to the right and an IV bag setup next to that. The room smelled like urine and feces and blood. The plywood across the windows felt more like a way to keep whatever happened inside of it from the outside world than it felt like damage from our rampage through the barracks.

My blood ran cold as I was dragged into the room and in front of the chair. I knew what was going to happen next. So did the little lizard, who hit a couple of buttons on a panel and all the monitors went completely dark. He moved to the next panel, turning his key and removing it and all of a sudden I couldn't feel that warm spot from Bomber and Nancy. The two holding me dropped me on the floor, letting me just crumple to the tile where I just laid there, staring at the ceiling.

It started basic. They undressed me while I stayed limp. The little lizard was shutting off the panels one at at time, stripping away the person that my Father, Nancy, Bomber, and Ineda had worked so hard to turn me into. I was stripped to my boxers while I laid on the floor and acted helpless, staring off into the distance. Once they had me down to my boxers they picked me up, turned me around and set me in the chair. I stayed limp as they strapped my arms down, put the straps around my ankles, the strap across my bare chest, then lifted up a pole they probably stole from supply to strap my head up to.

I noticed they made sure to put plastic underneath me.

Next came the leads. Rubber tubing across the chest, pads on the chest next. A blood pressure cuff was put around my biceps, then pads on my fingertips, and more tubes around my arms and legs.

Polygraph and EKG.

Next came the IV tube into the big vein on the inside of right forearm. A tape recorder was loaded with a blank tape and CIA #1 and CIA #2 sat down in front of me on chairs. One of the new goons sat down to look at the polygraph and turned it on. The little lizard shut down another panel and my ability to care about anything just vanished. I could hear the needles click as it started measuring my heartbeat, my respiration, my arm and leg movements, my leg and arm movements, and the perspiration on my fingertips.

They had me all nice and hooked up, completely unaware of what was going on in my skull.

"They'll make you talk eventually, you know that, right?" Queens said from where she was leaning against the wall. Blood had run from her mouth and from the gash in her throat and bloody foam bubbled up in her mouth when she spoke. "Nobody holds out forever. Eventually you'll tell them anything you think they want to hear to make the pain stop."

I knew she was right. The question was, did the CIA goons know that or did they still believe that torture was effective?

"I need a baseline." The one at the polygraph said.

The lizard turned the last key, different monitors came to life, and panels lit up that had normally been dark.

All my defenses from living with Jed and Martha were back and I was ten years old again.

"State your name." CIA dwonk number one said. I was silent and he sighed. "Great, one of these tough guys." He smiled and leaned forward. "They're all tough guys at first, but they leave little girls." He slammed his fist into my thigh to make me cramp up and give me a charlie horse.

My body was a meat machine. It did as my brain told it to do. Machines exist to do what they are told.

There was pain, of a sort, but my muscle relaxed when I told it to. Charlie horses were one of Logan and Jed's favorites, something I had dealt with since I could remember, and something I had learned to deal with before first grade.

"Is he conscious?" CIA #1 asked. "His eyes are open."

"His breathing and heartrate show relaxation, so he might be only semiconscious, Forsmythe." Polygraph said.

Forsmythe/CIA #1 stood up and turned around, walking over to Sergeant Butcher, who was staring at me with a grin. When Forsmythe stopped in front of him Butcher looked up in confusion.

"What?" He asked.

...You're going to find out why you never trust the Langley boys...

Forsmythe grabbed him by jaw, pushing him back until he hit the wall. "Did you fuck up his fucking brain fucking punching him in his fucking head like a fucking moron?" Forsmythe's face had turned red and somewhere down inside of me, in that place that Jed and Martha had never touched, I smiled with the little lizard.

"I... I don't think so." Butcher managed to grate out.

Forsmythe let go of him, turning around to walk toward me. "You better hope you didn't fuck up his brain, you stupid nigger."

Butcher flushed at that, and part of me felt sympathy toward him, but a larger part of me, hidden down there with the lizard, felt satisfaction that he was getting the classy Langley treatment that most of us could expect at an agent's hands.

"Don't call me a nigger, cracker." Butcher tried.

Forsmythe didn't even turn around, just reached forward and pulled down one of my lower eyelids. I let my eyes cross as he kept talking. "If you fucked up his brain you'll have bigger problems then me calling a spade a fucking spade." He turned around and looked at Sergeant Butcher who was finally having it seep into his thick fucking head that he'd stepped into something different than he expected. "There's things I need to know that Stillwater knows, and I swear to God if you fucked up his brain you'll be in for a world of hurt." He held his hand out. "Gimme a penlight." Someone slapped a penlight into his hand and he clicked it on, shining it into my eyes. I stared into the light, not caring. "Well, his pupils react, so he's not concussed."

"Then lets get a baseline on him." Polygraph said.

"Or we can just move to the next part, fuck the baseline." CIA #2 said.

"I need a baseline, Warner." Polygraph said. "Without a baseline the polygraph is useless."

"Fuck that, just jack his ass up." Warner/#2 said. "That little asshole was making fun of us the whole time in those fucking tunnels and making us walk through the fucking snow. I want to know what he thought he was doing."

"What's that red dogtag?" Polygraph asked.

"It's an allergy tag. Tough guy there has got allergies." Butcher said, obviously trying to salvage something of the situation.

Forsmythe reached forward and grabbed it, flipping it over. He read it and snorted. "Psychotic reaction to morphine? What the fuck is that?"

"That means that someone shot him up with morphine while he had a headwound and instead of it killing him he had a psychotic episode." Polygraph said. "It's not uncommon, I learned about it during drug interaction instruction. That means he might have a psychotic episode from any number of morphine based drugs."

"And the sodium thiopenta like Warner wants to jack him up with?" Forsmythe asked.

"No problem. He's a drunk, so it should have increased effectiveness." Polygraph told him. "I'll still need a baseline."

Forsmythe sighed, putting his elbows on his knees, interlacing his fingers, and resting his chin on the fingers. "OK, Stillwater, let me put it this way. You can either start answering questions or I will go down to that hovel you call a room, I will have my men kill John Bomber, then we will kill Nancy Nagle, Aine McCullen, Debra Dobbs, Miranda Stokes, Ellen Lanks, Michael Artaine, and Jeffery Lancer." He smiled at me. "There will be nothing you can do from stopping my men. So you might want to stop with this silence bullshit, understand?"

I let my eyes focus on him and smiled. "Hello, Peaches." The lizard had everything shut down so the smile was just because that's what I'd seen people do on television. I knew that it meant something, but I didn't really know what any more. I knew I had known at one time, but now it didn't make sense.

"Your name?"

"Anthony Stillwater." I told him, staring at him.

"Well?" Forsmythe asked.

"Need more than that."

"Place of birth?"

"Centralia, Washington." I told him, still smiling.

Forsmythe nodded. "Where did you do Basic Training?"

"Fort Leanordwood, Missouri."

"Favorite color?"

"Orange." I fucking hated orange.

"Favorite sports team?"

"Raiders." Fuck the Raiders. Raider Hater for life!

"I need you to answer falsely." Polygraph said.

"Hair color?" Forsmythe asked.

Uh oh. The little lizard was ready and let some of my anxiety over what was going on with my friends leak through.

"Blue." I stated.

"First president of the United States?"

"Miguel Sanchez."

Forsmythe looked over at Polygraph, who must have nodded.

"We got his baseline now." Polygraph told him.

Forsmythe smiled at me. "All right. Every time you don't answer truthfully I'll know."

The little lizard hissed in amusement as he shut down the leak of anxiety. When it vanished I felt calm, empty, a still puddle on a moonless night, just like I had when I was a child and cradled in Martha and Jed's loving hands.

"Colonel Taylor and Captain Duloc, did you see them?"

...If they have you and you cannot resist interrogation, there is one final way you can avoid giving up critical secrets...

...You need to make them lose their tempers, to knock you out to delay further interrogations...

...With the KGB, you might be forced to resort to the hardest thing you will ever have to do...

...You will have to force them to kill you...

My head couldn't take much more. I already had dark spots on a CAT scan that I hadn't had when I had my yearly CAT in June. The doctor had told me that contrary to popular myth brain cells did regenerate, that the dead cells didn't stay in the brain. What might not heal, what might not regenerate, was the links between axons, dendrites, neurons, and synapses. Each hit to the head damaged that until I head up, until all the microbleeds and bruised tissues healed up. Each hit broke the connections, killed cells that held tiny pieces of memories, that enabled me to use my brain functions, and the new ones that replaced them might not have the connections the old ones had or be able to create them.

So I had one more option.

Let them kill me and leave them with nothing but a shell.

...Will you still love me, Nancy?...

"Do you meet a Colonel Taylor and/or a Captain Duloc." Forsmythe asked again.

"Only when we were gangbanging your wife." I told him with a smile. His smile froze and a vein in his forehead started throbbing. "We busted that pussy out till all she'd be good for is fucking horses, which meant your pencil dick wasn't going to do shit for her."

"Laugh all you want, funny man." Forsmythe said, reaching out and slapping his hand gently against my cheek. "I'm leaving here alive."

"Keep thinking that, pumpkin." I told him. "You're going to die here."

Forsmythe laughed then turned to Polygraph. "Well, Stanton, is he telling the truth?"

"He thinks he is." Stanton/Polygraph answered, then laughed. The other agents joined them. All of them were looking at me, not at the door. Not that it opened or anything else that made sense for Aine's face to peek around the corner of the short hallway that connected the bathroom to the main room.

She was only a foot or so below the ceiling.

Aine blew me a kiss, then her head pulled back.

"Taylor and Duloc, where are they?"

"You don't know, do you?" I said sarcastically. "I shoved them into a Wickerman and sacrifice them to Lugus."

"There's no change in his vitals, Forsmythe." Polygraph/Stanton said, and I heard him tapping the machine.

"Goddamn polygraph bullshit." Warner said. "Let's try the thiopenta and if that doesn't work we can just do it the old fashioned way."

I looked at him and smiled. "What's wrong, nun raper, getting impatient? Is there an underage boy in Thailand you're in a hurry to get back to?" I laughed at him when he flushed. "Don't worry, I'm sure he can jam a pencil in his ass and pretend you're there with a bigger cock."

"You little fuck, we'll see how like it when we jack your ass up." Warner said, standing up with one of the little zip-sided black nylon cases I'd seen people with now and then. He unzipped it, exposing several vials of whatever shit they thought was going to work on me, a couple of plastic cases of steel needles, and some reusable steel syringes. "One pop of this shit and you'll be singing like a bird."

"Go ahead, Warner. Get out your little bag." Forsmythe said, standing up. He walked behind me and I heard the fridge door open. "Why isn't the polygraph working?"

"I'm not sure. It won't matter, I'll monitor his heartbeat and make sure he doesn't arrest or go into failure." Polygraph paused for a moment. "Although he's got a pretty stable, strong, and slow heartbeat."

"Nice and slow, just like you like it in the ass, eh, Stanton?" I asked, still unable to turn my head because of the strap. "These guys let you fuck the altar boys while they're raping the nuns?"

"Let's see how funny you are in a minute." Warner smiled, setting down his kit. He'd already pulled a dose and moved up with the hypodermic. "This shit makes anyone talk."

"So does the smell of your mom's ass, but I don't see the CIA using it to interrogate anyone." I told him.

I'd gone through the drugs before. Anti-interrogation classes at Blackbriar. Hard faced assholes on loan from SERE or the School of Americas teaching almost graduates of Special Weapons how to hold on as long as possible to make their information a little more out of date. I'd been jacked up with whatever Warner had in his little bag before, so I knew exactly what to expect and how I would react to it.

It burned going into my vein, then my whole arm erupted in pins and needles, but that was an old familiar feeling. Pain swept through me, something I had first experienced strapped to a hospital bed with doctors watching over me so I could experience the drug. It crawled up neck, up the side of my jaw, and into my head.

The lizard hissed, his jaws opening wide and the venom filled fangs unfolding from the soft spots at the roof of his mouth. His claws extended and he raked the brushed steel floor of his workstation. Gone was the little lizard who had held his tail and wept, gone was the coldly logical methodical killer from the primordial parts of my brain. This was a predator, plain and simple.

Sorry, little buddy, maybe later. I whispered to him, and shut down his station. He was still hissing angrily at the back of my skull, but I was able to push him down just like I had been able to when I was a child and didn't understand that he was my friend. My only friend then.

"...be taking effect now." Whatever the fuck his name was said. He probably had a name, but maybe the cows at the slaughterhouse I'd worked at when I was thirteen did too. Either way, it didn't matter. Whether or not they had names the bolt gun still took away their lives and I cleaned up the offal and sprayed down the blood for eight to ten hours a night. I opened my eyes and stared at the CIA agents in front of me. Aine was peeking around the corner and when she saw me she smiled widely showing those too small teeth off.

"His heartbeat and blood pressure spiked for a moment but it's back to normal now." A future victim said. I looked to the right, as far as my immobile head would let me, and saw Queens sitting on the bed, dressed in her Class-A's. I could see the slight scar-like mark on her throat from where the morticians had used some kind of gum to close the wound. She had makeup on, something I'd never seen her wear, and it struck me suddenly that she was very pretty. I'd never really seen her as a woman, just a female soldier, and the contrast to the feminine face on top of her Class-A's made me realize that I'd never really known her at all as a person. I'd just made it so she went home in a box listed as a training accident for her parent's benefit. When I looked left I saw Sherry leaning against the wall, smoking a cigarette and watching silently. He was in his BDU's, mud and grime on them from working out at his site.

"He'll be fine, let's ask him some questions." More meat said, sitting down in front of me. I stared at the pulsing artery in his neck, thinking of how good it would feel to rip that apart and feel and see the blood spray. He smiled at me. "How are you feeling, Corporal?"

"Like your ass, loose." Part of me told him as my reflection walked around the corner.

His face was fucked up, bruises all over it, both lips cut and swollen, both eyes almost closed from the swelling. He was limping heavily, dripping blood on the floor and I could see that his fingers were twisted and broken, missing fingernails, attached to palms that were swollen and bent wrong. Blood run down his forehead from the single star shaped hole in his forehead. He looked at me and shrugged.

"I didn't talk. I made them kill me, but I didn't talk." He told me, then faded from view. "Hopefully things are different enough here." was the last thing I heard him say before he completely faded away.

"I'd punch your little lights out but you probably wouldn't even feel it." The still warm meat told me.

"Like nobody can feel that pencil dick of yours, grape smuggler?" I grinned. I saw Aine's naked butt vanish as she crawled over the door jamb and back into the hallway before the door shut silently. I knew nobody would see her if she didn't want them too. She was an Aine, she didn't live in the same world as most people, but I lived on Alfenwehr, which was different from everyone elses world and Aine's too. I wasn't sure what she had been doing in the room, but the sight of her pert bottom brought to mind when I was younger and clean.

"Duloc and Taylor, where are they?" Meat asked me. King walked into the room, the M-60 thrown over his shoulder and a cigarette in his mouth.

"Never heard of them. They the guys who popped your cherry at Langley, homo?" That vein pulsed on his forehead again and I drove in on what might be a weakness. "So did they pitch or catch for you? You look like a catcher to me, bet you like spunk all over your ass and back, don't you?" An image of Nancy on her hands and knees in front of me with exactly that popped in my head and I smiled at him. "Like having your ass all gaped open for whoever comes into the men's room next?" Someone laughed and the vein on the meat's head throbbed more as there was a sharp spike of pain through my head that made my thoughts wiggle and squirm like that thing in the meat's face. What was it? Was it a worm? If I pulled it out would it wiggle and squirm? Would it squish between my teeth and taste yummy?

I was willing to bet that it would. Food. Food was good. Not many things were good, but food was good. Warm food was better. Still squirming and fighting food was best.

"Why do you hate my wife so much, Corporal?" The meat asked. Needlemeyer came out of the bathroom and into the hallway, the radio shattered on his back, half his face torn away, and the wounds covered in frost that had blackened the flesh.

...He's trying to get you to talk so you get used to it...

...Fine, let's talk...

"Because she married a goat fucking nun raping dog cock sucking shit eating CIA scumbag who tries to compensate for his microdick by bullying people." I told him, smiling. Warrant entered the room, his throat slit and blood all over his chest. He nodded to me and went to stand next to some meat. "I question her judgement and her worth as a human being."

"If you could feel it I'd smack you right in your smart mouth." The meat said, and I wondered briefly if it was Jed and that made my mouth water with the desire to rip and tear and bite and chew and...

"Taylor and Duloc, where are they?" The meat asked again.

"Straight up your ass, right where you like men, lady boy." I said. A Russian soldier sat down on the bed, holding his weapon in his hands. His throat was slashed and his fingers twisted, a sniper rifle held in his hands. He nodded at me like we were old friends.

Everyone was staring at me and the meat in front of me. Some were laughing. I recognized one as a target I'd been hunting for a long time. I planned on holding it down and chewing its throat out.

"Tell me what makes you think you aren't going to tell us what we want to know." Meat asked.

"My red tag, you blithering retard. Obviously your brains are all in your microcock, since you're the dumbest motherfucker I've ever met." I told him. "I have long term trace chemical weapon exposure, dumbass, and take doses of shit to keep that shit from ripping my goddamn guts out, so your shitty 007 cocktails aren't going to do a fucking thing you think they are."

He stared at me, then grabbed my dogtag, looking at it again. He growled, low in his throat, and snatched my dogtags off my neck.

Now I was naked. They'd pulled my dogtags off of me. They'd stripped me of everything it meant to me to be human. I was as naked as the lizard that lived in the back of my head.

"It doesn't matter. You're tied to a chair. Nobody is going to come looking for you. You might as well tell me what I want to know." Meat said.

The door crashed open, kicked clear off of its hinges by the force of a combat boot.

"IT'S FUCKING TIME!" Nancy's voice rang out and gunshots roared.

...My Nancy...

Chapter 31

2/19th Special Weapons Group Barracks
Restricted Area, Alfenwehr West Germany
Late Winter- 13 February, 1988
Day 6 of Repairs
Day 6 of the Third Incident
Early Morning
1025 Hours

"IT'S FUCKING TIME!" Nancy's voice rang out in the room. There were several gunshots, the roar of the weapon's fire mingling into one huge noise. Underneath the sound of weapon's fire I heard things bouncing across the tile. The two creature I could see, Warner and the other sack of warm meat, as well as Target Three, who I was going to hold down and chew open with my sharp teeth while I tore at him with my claws, all dove to the grass on the ground. The meat to the left of me, barely in my vision, exploded with blood and went down and my mouth watered at all the delicious delicious blood.

"EYES RIGHT!" Nagle yelled out. Something clattered across the floor. Two somethings. One hissing like a snake. I closed my eyes and turned my head right to face the right side of the room. There was a loud explosion and a flare of light like I was caught inside a thunderstorm that echoed in the cave I was being held in. I pulled against the ropes holding me to the stone that the creatures had tied me to, but they were too secure. I wondered if one of the fey of the forest I was trapped in had thrown lightning into the creatures holding me. I owed a fey-queen a dance and a meal, she would not allow others to rob her of a debt. Footsteps thundered and a blade sliced through the bonds, nicking my arm at one point.

"Grab him." One of the fey queen's servant said. One of her handmaidens. I felt someone grab me and haul me up. I tried to get my legs under me but my knees were weak and rubbery from whatever the creatures had done to me and I sagged between them.

"FINISH THE FIGHT!" one of the fey-queen's other handmaidens, who had come to snatch me from the creatures, shouted. My vision was full of distortion, colors that didn't belong, and warped shapes as I was dragged through the cavern, probably into the crude tunnels that the creatures had marched me through to the cavern and...

...Wait...

"Sick." I managed to choke out. I was held still when I suddenly vomited up everything in my stomach. It made my head pound. I retched while they kept dragging me down the hallway, ignoring my pleas for them to stop or slow down so I could vomit normally.

"Where to?" One of the fey creatures, no, wait, Stokes asked from my left.

"The CIA and the DIA guys are tearing at each other and they're taking Read-D prisoner. We need to hole up somewhere and get our shit together." Nancy snapped.

I tried to say something and instead just retched and gagged.

"The War Fighter Tunnels?" Stokes asked.

"We gave them a fucking tour." Dobbs griped, shifting her grip on my arm, making me cry out from the pain when she stirred up the ants chewing on my arm.

I tried to babble out again, but again, no luck.

"We need somewhere soon." Lanks added. "They've already rounded up the CID and DIA guys and have started on Rear-D."

"What's the end game?" Stokes asked. "Dobbs, let go."

"He'll puke down the back of your uniform." Dobbs warned as Stokes grabbed me and slung me over her shoulders.

"Then he pukes." Stokes said. "Momma Stokes' got you, baby."

I retched again as they hit the far stairwell. They opened the door and went down to the third floor and stopped.

"Aine, check to see if we're clear all the way to Lancer's room." Nancy snapped.

"Yes, matron." Aine said softly, the door opening quietly.

"Goddamn she's a weird one." Lanks said. "Good though."

"Ayup." Stokes said, shifting me quietly. "Goddamn he's heavy."

"Try having him on top of you." Nancy answered. She came around and peeled my eyelid back, flashing a penlight into it. "Dammit, they drugged him up. Let's hope he doesn't have a complete psychotic reaction like he did at Lahndstuhl last month."

"What's the plan?" Stokes asked again, shifting me.

"Right now we need to fall back and regroup. Thanks to Corporal Catastrophe here we don't have many places to go to ground." Nancy said, ruffling my hair. "OK, follow my logic chain here."

"Roger." Lanks said. I rolled my head and looked at her. She was staring down the stairwell with a pistol in her hands. It had the 82nd logo on it and I knew that someone's shadow box was sporting broken glass on it. More than likely the females around me had hit up someone's room, smashed open the decorative box, grabbed the pistols and the fully loaded magazine everyone always kept with it, and set off on their plan.

I was glad they had.

"OK. The CIA moved in a bunch of guys. From the looks of it there aren't all that many actual agents. They've rounded up the DIA guys and secured them in the Day Room. They put the CID guys in the Game Room. They're rounding up Rear-D right now and will have to put like forty people in a single room." Nancy growled. "What the fuck do they want? They're asking questions about those CIA agents from last month, but it doesn't feel like their end game."

"Pulling the same thing that the other guys did?" Lanks tossed in.

"No, doesn't feel right." Nancy said. She was pacing. "They keep focusing on our Ant, which means that whatever it is, Ant is the key."

I retched and all that came up was bile and strings of saliva. I raised my head and tried to tell her something important but just ended up explosively vomiting again.

"Aaaand there goes the back of my uniform." Stokes laughed. She patted me on the butt like a child. "Get it all out, baby." I heaved again. It left the aftertaste of plastic in my mouth and made me heave again.

"We can try waiting this out, or we can go on offense and save the others, or we can try going for help." Nancy said, still pacing. "If we wait it out, we're on the defensive, which means they get to pick the time and place of attack, and I hate defensive shit. If we go full offense we'll be killed more of them, and who knows how they're going to react to the ones we killed already." She walked by me and I saw her check the action on the pistol. I recognized it as being taken from the shadowbox on the wall of Symens' room from his time with 10th Mountain. For awhile it had been really popular to hand out M1911A1's in shadowboxes if you did more than three years in a unit or sucked someone off real well or whatever, so like half of us had them. Shit, I had one in storage from 101st Airborne that I got after I got a bunch of the dirt darts through their Advanced NBC course.

"All right, we've got to get together Actual, arm up, and have a safe base of operations." Nancy said. "Any ideas?"

"We send Hannah to get the rest of Actual?" Dobbs asked. "I trust Lancer with her."

"Yeah. Hannah will pull recon if she comes back." She paused for a second. "I'll give her another five minutes. She's probably coming back with whoever was in Lancer's room."

"Put me down." I managed to choke out.

"Don't pay any attention to him." Stokes said, shifting me on her shoulder. The world blurred again and the stairwell was the inside of a tree, with carved wooden steps spiraling down, moss hanging from the ceiling, and a radiantly beautiful nymph sitting on a stump playing with a short sword, leaves in her hair and her skin bronzed by being outside all of the time.

"How are we going to arm up? They haven't fixed the armory doors yet." Lanks threw in.

"War Fighter Tunnels." Dobbs suggested. "Or the dispensary armory or the motorpool armory."

"They've had tours, plus, until we sober Ant up enough to tell us how to decode his notebook we don't have any way to get in." Nancy said.

My vision went liquid again and I heaved up more bile and saliva. The nymph resolved into Nancy sitting on the steps leading up.

"Fuck, I don't know." Dobbs said.

"I do." I managed to grate out.

"He's still delirious." Stokes said, patting my butt.

"Let me down you big amazon." I managed to choke out. "And stop spanking me." Stokes chuckled and set me on my feet, then steadied me when everything went liquid. I looked at Nancy. "The hallucinations haven't kicked back in yet, so I'm kind of clear headed."

"Then stop bullshitting around and tell me." She snapped.

My head swam and I reached out for something solid to lean again, finding Stokes' amazon chest. "The old Nazi tunnels. By those old bunkers." I retched and would have gone face first into the puddle I was making if Stokes hadn't grabbed me. "There's five old bunkers, above the first three there's two more, in between those two is the entrance to the old Nazi system." Everything went sideways and Nancy changed from herself to something more akin to a primordial forest. A woman with bronze skin, hair of leaves and bark, and eyes of fire. "We'll have to go slow, they haven't been fully explored and cleared."

"What's in there?" The nymph asked and I flinched back from her. "What's in those old tunnels?" She asked again, and I cried out and tried to pull away. The great ogress that had a hold on me grabbed me by my arms so I faced her and I started screaming in terror as insects rushed down the tree trunks in the clearing we were standing in. I looked to the right and a small female cyclops stared at me intently, a long evil looking blade in her hands.

"What do we have to worry about?" The nymph asked again, and I screamed again. "Goddamn it, he's having a psychotic reaction to the fucking drugs." She slapped me and I jerked, the clearing disintegrated back into the stairwell and Nancy was in front of me. "What's with those tunnels?"

"They didn't get found until the late 70's, they sent in some teams to check them out but none came back." I retched, bending forward, spattering the stairwell floor more. "They gave up. The War Fighter Tunnels were dug into a section of them, the storage areas they found when they dug up the motorpool were part of them." I coughed, straightened up, and the world swam. We were all standing in a pond-size clearing and I could hear birds chirping. "There's a War Fighter Tunnel access to them too, but the door's secured."

"Can you open it?" Nancy asked, leaves covering her skin and vines wrapping around her body. I inhaled to scream and she slapped me again. "Can you open it?"

I shook my head. "No." She turned away from me and shook her head, the leaves rustling in her long hair that cascaded down her naked back. "We're screwed, again."

"But what the hell do they want?" Lanks asked. "Think this is about the other CIA team?"

"Money." Stokes said. I jerked at her voice. "The money. There had to have been money involved. They're in here looking for the money and trying to find out why the other guys went rogue."

"Who said they went rogue?" Lanks asked. "We assumed they were cashing out, maybe there was something else going on."

"Shit. I don't..." Nancy started.

"Psst. Actual." It was Aine's voice, full of dark joy and mirth, floating down the stairwell. "Four coming in."

"Come on ahead." Nancy said, turning to watch downstairs. Dobbs and Lanks switched their viewpoint to up the stairs, both of them holding their pistols in the standard training grip and dropping down to one knee.

Stokes grabbed me, wrapping her arms around me to hold me steady as I went to lunge and run down the stairs. "Shh, Mamma Stokes has got you." I went to scream as the fey-queen came down the stairs, clad in radiance and reeds, her fiery hair spread out around her, with diminutive fairies swirling around her. The big ogress that had her arms wrapped around me put one of her massive hands over my mouth, muffling my scream. The fey queen had a large troll with her and was holding hands with an eyeless oracle. They were followed by a wounded troll, holding his hands on his stomach as he moved down the cascading stones, careful of the moss and the little stream.

"I brought back your love, Debra, along with poor Artaine and the last of the warrior trio. I even grabbed your bag, Nancy." Aine smiled. She looked at me. "Oh, poor poor Aodán." She looked at the warrior princess fey, shaking her head. "I need to go back to my room. There are things I need. I will need to retrieve Aodán's sister so that we can keep him under our control."

"Go. Be careful." The warrior princess told her, sparks snapping between her teeth.

The world tilted again as I tried to vomit past the hand covering my mouth. The hand was pulled back and I managed to retch and spit onto the tile floor.

"What happened to him?" Bomber asked, his face going liquid and turning from the twisted troll-like visage to his comfortable and familiar face.

"The CIA assholes jacked him up with something, probably pentothol. He needs time to get it out of his system." Nancy said.

"Where are we going?" Artaine asked, sitting down.

"We'll hold here right now." Nancy said. "We'll give Aine fifteen minutes, then we'll move out." She sighed and scrubbed her face with the hand not holding her pistol. "I think I might be in trouble."

"Why?" Bomber asked.

"I just shot and killed at least two, maybe three or even four, of the CIA agents that were interrogating Anthony." She admitted. "Langley's gonna insist the DoD give them my head."

"Fuck that." Bomber spat, moving over next to me to rub my back while I hacked and retched again. I would have gone down on my knees if it wasn't for Stokes holding my naked ass up. "He needs clothing, we need cold weather gear."

"Go. Fast." Nancy snapped. Bomber nodded and darted out the door.

"Going with." Lanks snapped, turning and following him out the door before it could shut.

Nancy knelt down in front of me. "I need you to sober up. I need that brain of yours to run the numbers." She sighed and rubbed my hair. "You and your brother. People underestimate you because the two of you look like red neck brawlers." She looked up at Stokes. "The CIA will crack the War Fighter Tunnels on us, but these Nazi tunnels sound good."

"Except that the tunnels in Nuremberg and Damstahdt still aren't cleared and were wired with old booby traps." Dobbs threw in. "Whose to say our tunnels aren't wired up?"

"You know, the guys who were up here had to go somewhere." Stokes mused. "They might have used those tunnels to exfiltrate and blend in with the civilian population."

"The tunnels might be collapsed, full of ice, or under water." Dobbs added.

"Anyone know what those bunkers are used for?" Nancy asked.

"Emergency storage." I managed to choke out, straightening up and wiping my mouth. "Colonel Jenkins, during his psychotic break, had us load it up with survival gear. Stoves, diesel, tents, NBC equipment, all shit off the books." I coughed, managed to keep down my stomach, and straightened back up. When things went liquid I bit the ball of muscle at the base of my thumb. The pain lanced up my arm, waking up the ants below the skin of my right arm so they began to chew and bite, but the world steadied. "He had me and a couple others help him built a fort out there."

"For the love of God, why did he do that?" Dobbs asked.

"Because. He was. A nut." Nancy said, smiling. "Jenkins totally lost his shit, was convinced that pod people were taking over the unit. Finally came to a head when he put a Claymore land mine on his desk and interrogated the XO."

"Christ." Dobbs chuckled. "This unit's hard on officers."

"How far away are those bunkers?" Nancy asked me. I closed my eyes, ignored the feeling that there were insects crawling up my legs from the moss on the floor and kept repeating to myself that it was the drugs and the psychotic break.

Building the image in my brain, with the help of the little lizard, I retraced the steps, concentrating on the sound of the Colonel's voice instead of the surroundings, counting the steps even as I listened to him ramble on and on about how we had to be careful because anyone could be one of the pod people. "Sixty seven steps through the grass. We have to be careful at the end because of the overhang. We lose our balance we'll tumble down the side of the mountain." I gagged again. "Goddamn, my mouth tastes like shit."

"Can we get into those bunkers?" Stokes asked.

I kept my eyes closed, visualizing the bunker doors. "Yeah, but we'll want to turn off Jenkin's booby traps. He built a steel plated wall inside three of those bunkers with shit he stole from the motorpool, two of them are wired up with Claymores."

"Do the bunkers connect?" Nancy asked.

"Yeah. Short tunnels. Looks like after construction work." I told her. The world swam again. "If we crack open the top right bunker, we can still get into the tunnels, but I don't know if that rusted steel door will open."

"All right, we..." Nancy started.

Bomber and Lanks moved into the stairwell.

"Here, brother, brought you your clothes." Bomber said. Lanks had a bunch of cold weather parkas in her hands. Bomber waved at Lanks. "Gave your keys to Lanks so she could grab parkas from Symens' room and ours."

I listened as Nancy, Stokes, and the others went over their options. Nancy knew that by killing the CIA agents she'd basically restarted the war that we'd been engaged in a month ago. The CIA couldn't let us get away with it, they'd have to make an example out of us or they'd worry that the military wouldn't let them get away with acting like the military was just disposable assets for the CIA. I put on long-johns, a t-shirt, my BDU's, a pair of heavy woolen socks, and finally my Cochran II's, good leather combat boots. The shakes I was barely aware of eased off as I started to warm up. Weird thing about wool was that when you were freezing cold they felt nice and warm and soft but once you warmed up, if you were still, they got itchy as hell.

They couldn't figure out what to do next. Lancer was silent, touching each person until he was standing next to me. He put his hand on my shoulder, leaned up, and spoke softly into my ear. "You need to take charge as soon as you can."

Nancy wanted to pull back and regroup in the War Fighter Tunnels. Stokes wanted to use the tunnels to get out of the company AO and back down to main post. Dobbs wanted to pull back to the War Fighter Tunnels, make sure everyone was stable, and send a small group to summon a rescue party. Lanks didn't really have an opinion, not really offering anything up. Bomber stayed silent the whole time, same with Lancer.

The door cracked open. "Psst, Annie?"

Stokes reached through the crack in the door and pulled Ineda through, William following her and closing the door carefully.

"The little fruit bat told us to where you are." William said, looking around. I noticed he had the pistol from his room in his hand. "Heard that the shit had hit the fan."

"Annie, Aine's crawling on the walls outside." Ineda said, moving closer to me.

"Shh." I turned away from her. "Butcher had the CIA jerkoffs take me in and interrogate me."

"Didn't give 'em shit, did ya, little brother." William said, it was a statement, not a question. He knew me good and damn well. "How bad we looking at?"

"We killed a few, I pistol whipped Butcher, we pulled Ant out." Dobbs said, smiling.

"Fuck 'em. They're goddamn trash." William said, looking up and down the stairwell. "Fruit bat said she's gonna try to pull a few others. Something about getting Actual together and some reinforcements."

Nancy nodded while I leaned against Bomber's shoulder. I was dizzy as hell and my stomach was starting to cramp again. My body was dumping all the chemicals the CIA assholes had shot me up with into my stomach and bladder and it was making me sicker than hell.

"Isn't this all of us?" Bomber asked. I counted it up. We had Lancer, Dobbs, Lanks, Artaine, Nancy, Stokes, me, Bomber. Who the hell else was she going after?

"It's all of Actual, but we're down like four men." Lanks said.

"Psst, coming down, Actual." It was Aine again, from up above us.

"Come on." Nancy said.

Aine crawled down on the ceiling, the underside of the stairs, until she stopped over Nancy, who held out her arms so that Aine dropped into them with a laugh. She giggled as Nancy tickled her a second before setting her on her feet. Aine was naked again, standing there completely unembarrassed about the fact that she was showing everything off to anyone who cared.

"The DIA and the CIA and CID are all arguing in the Day Room." Aine said, moving over to rub against Lanks sensously. "Mmmm, you're warm." Lanks just put an arm around her.

She was a weird one, but she was our weird one.

"You said Colonel Jenkins built a fort?" Nancy asked.

"Yeah. Said he could hold out after the aliens came and wiped everyone out." I told him. I gagged for a moment and the world swam, but I was able to hold on.

Nancy chewed on her lower lip for a moment, "We go for his fort."

Everyone nodded. Aine moved away from Lanks to kiss my lower lip, then darted away. "I'll get there first."

"You don't even know where it is." Nancy said.

"I can smell his madness, smell his fear, I can find it as easily as you can find a lover." Aine said, scooting down the stairs.

"Goddamn it." Nancy turned to all of us. "You heard the fruit bat, let's start moving. We'll go out the back door, down the side of the building, then head toward the treeline. Bomber, you got tether?"

"Always, baby." John said as we started tromping down the steps. He pulled a braid of 550 cord out of his pocket, handed it to Dobbs, pulled out a d-ring with a good dozen d-rings attached to it and handed it to William, and finally pulled out two more. "Figured we might be going outside, I grabbed a couple braids out of the drawer when I went for Ant's clothes." He handed one to Lanks and then pulled out his Bowie Knife, reeling of lengths of cord and cutting them loose, handing off the lengths to William who tied them off and clipped a d-ring to it.

"OK, if you lose your balance and fall when we're heading down the side of the building, don't move. We'll pull you back up." Nancy said. "That's a steep drop, and you'll end up on the lower road, and once that happens, you're screwed." She stopped at the doorway that led to the outside door that not too long ago Sergeant Butcher had stood on the other side of and mocked us after knocking Aine senseless. "Ant knows where it is, how far it is, but he's drugged out thanks to our friends from the CIA. Anyone else know where the bunkers are?"

William raised his hand. "I know. I helped check them when we came back up here after the barracks burned down. Why are we going there, it's empty."

"Are we sure Aine left? The door's still chained." Ineda said.

Dobbs and Lancer both chuckled, but it was Stokes who spoke. "Fruit bats have their own ways."

"Why do you keep calling her that?" Ineda asked, watching as everyone put on the parkas Lanks had been carrying.

"It's an Actual thing." Stokes blew it off, even though, as far as I knew, the females had just started referring to her that way.

"Oh." Was all Ineda said. She was handed a parka and William helped her put it on.

"Look, Innie, this isn't going to be like anything else. It'll be kind of like when we came back from the chowhall, but worse." William said, shrugging into his own parka. Well, not his, it was too short at the arms and just looked like a goosedown hooded jacket. "There won't be a road, so we'll be going across country. The wind is coming from up mountain, meaning it'll try to push us down the mountain where you'll be dead in fifteen minutes." He zipped up the parka and started snapping it. "Footing will be uncertain, you'll be running the risk of altitude sickness, we'll be snowblind, and we're moving into uncertain territory that we've only reconned about twice." He turned to Stokes. "You grab one arm, I'll grab the other, there's no way my little brother is going to make it through the snow to those bunkers."

When Stokes went to grab me I shoved her back. "Fuck off. I can make it."

Nancy grabbed my chin, tilted my head, and looked into my eyes. "No. You can't." She said when I sagged, dizziness from my vision focus being shifted so quickly almost making me fall down.

"Then leave me behind." I told them, pulling away from Nancy and putting one hand on the wall of the stairwell.

"You're being stupid, Corporal." Lancer said, his voice stern. "You represent a valuable asset to Actual that our mission success might hinge upon." His blind eye was staring at me. "You don't get to be stupid."

I sighed letting Stokes and William each grab an arm while John hooked everyone up to the tether.

He turned to everyone and held up his hand. "OK, I'll be going first." He looked at everyone steadily. "William, once we're outside the doors, you'll move ahead of me and lead the way to the bunkers. Do not move to the left or right, follow the trail of whoever went in front of you. William will be trailbreaking." William dropped my arm and Lanks moved up to grab me, slinging my right arm over her shoulder, which made me groan in pain as the tendons and ligaments that the doctors had put back together stretched. Bomber was still talking. "There is at least three feet of snow, probably a lot more, on that ridge, so you shouldn't have a problem following the trail." He inhaled slowly and let it out in a rush. "Let's hope the fruit bat remembers what we're doing and is still on our side." He put his hands on the bar that would let him push open the heavy steel door. "Ready?"

"Steady." Most of us, with the exception of Ineda, answered.

"Go!" Bomber pushed out the door, moving quickly across the hall. There was a shout from the far side as Dobbs pulled Lancer through. Bomber grabbed the lock, yanked it hard, and pulled the chain free all in one motion. There were more shouts as Lanks and Stokes pulled me through. A gunshot rang out and Lanks stumbled but I managed to grab her as she slipped out from under my arm.

The snow enveloped me as Stokes pulled me and I dragged Lanks outside. The wind cut directly through the cloth of my winter BDU's and through the wool of my longjohns. The whole world was nothing more than bright white, the wind shrieking around us, and I grabbed Stokes, passing Lanks to her. Lanks was trying to walk but was unable to get her feet under her, one hand pressed to her side. She stumbled and screamed as Stokes and I pulled her around the corner of the building, her outcry whipped away by the wind. The snow the day before was nothing comparing to what we were moving into, the storm having fully broke around us. It was snow seeds mixed with full fat wet flakes and smaller dry flakes that cut at the skin. It was only seconds before all I could do was follow the tether and the trail broken into the waist deep snow. Lanks was bending further and further over her side, her pace slowing as me carefully negotiated the steep downgrade.

Behind us someone fired a couple shots out the open door.

If I'd been thinking I'd have left someone beside the door to execute anyone who stepped into the doorway.

My nose went numb and the pain spread across my cheeks. The cold air being dragged over my missing teeth made my gums ache. It felt like a knife blade in my chest with every breath and my eyes were starting to hurt bad as I followed the trail. Lanks stumbled and her hand left behind a bloody handprint as we yanked her back up. The trail turned and I knew we were headed for the woodline. The snow got deeper, almost chest deep, as I carefully picked my way along the trail. The snow on the left was piled up to my chest, but only mid thigh level on the right, and I knew that one wrong step and I'd fall down the hill. Stokes pulled Lanks up on her shoulder, any noise she made whipped away by the howling wind. My legs had gone numb, snow sticking to my BDU pantlegs and my boots thickly coated with it to the point that I could barely lift my feet. I dropped back behind Stokes, lifting up Lanks' face. Her eyes were closed and snow was already covering her face. Steam was still pluming out of her nose and from between her parted lips, but I could tell already she wasn't doing too good.

The wind almost knocked me down as it shrieked down the mountain, slicing through my pants and longjohns, numbing my hands completely, and making my whole face nothing but red hot pins and needles.

Was Tandy out there? Was the guy with the axe behind us? Was Lanks dead? Were the CIA guys, dressed better than us, following us intending on killing us all? Were we going the wrong direction? Did William get turned around? How long had we been out here.

I checked on Lanks again, raising up her head. I couldn't tell if she was breathing so I moved in on her and put my mouth over hers and pinched her nose. She inhaled and I backed off.

Still alive.

How much further did we have to go?

A fairy swooped out of the snow, lighting on the back of Lanks' head and preening. She had delicate little insect wings, a dress made of snowflakes, and alabaster skin with pink spots on her cheeks. She giggled, a sound like a tinkling bell, and swooped off, leaving a spray of frost behind her. The lizard hit a button and I fell to my knees, vomiting up more bile and saliva. Someone grabbed the back of my parka and drug me along as I kept retching. I wasn't sure who had me by the back of the parka but I didn't care. If I got left behind I was as good as dead. I'd be left behind to freeze to death. I'd get confused first, and think I was too hot, and strip naked. Then I'd start wandering around before I ended up sleepy and in burning pain. I'd probably curl up in the fetal position, the lizard trying to conserve body heat as a last ditch effort.

I might be found in spring.

Stokes stopped and I bumped into her, almost knocking her down. Aine had my back, dressed in her BDU's with snow all over her face. She grinned at me, lifting up on her tiptoes to kiss my lips, a kiss I couldn't even feel.

I heard the crack of ice, then the rattling of metal on metal. There was a crunch and after a few heartbeats we started moving forward again.

Out of the wind.

I stumbled into the bunker, where the wind was gone and we were out of the snow, through the small entryway that Colonel Jenkins had left in the armored plating he'd built at the front of the bunker. Everyone was standing inside, stomping their feet to bring back circulation and get the numbness to go away, rubbing their hands together to try to warm them up.

"Lanks got shot." I said as Stokes stomped forward.

"Then you better break open those Nazi tunnels." Nancy snapped, pulling off her parka and waving at Stokes to lay Lanks down on it. "Because I'm not going to be able to save her life in here."

I nodded, stepping forward as everything wavered in front of me. The bunker only went about fifty feet back and was barely ten feet tall. There were cans of gas stacked up toward the back along with stoves. William was already pulling out a stove and putting it together while John dug through the boxes stacked on the other wall. I grabbed a stack of boxes and yanked them down, making a guess.

An old door, covered with grey paint and german words on it, greeted me. Basically telling me that only authorized people were allowed. In other words, the Nazi version of "Get the fuck out" governmentese. I staggered over to where Jenkins had stacked the tools, grabbing a tanker bar and moving back over to the door.

"You sure an APERS charge isn't going to take off your face?" Bomber asked me as I raised the bar, ignoring the scream of abused and damaged muscles in my shoulder and chest.

"Time to find out." I shrugged, driving the wedge of the bar instead of the blunt point at the edge of the door. It shuddered but didn't give up, so I tried again.

"It hit her just in front of her hip bone, I don't see an exit wound. Her lower intestine, maybe her uterus or vaginal canal is probably shredded." Nancy said. "Aine, hand me my bag. Stokes, I really need your help, you were a medic, and this is some bad damage."

I drove the tanker bar into the edge again, chipping away rotted concrete. When I cranked on the bar the edge of the door popped off, the seal ripping away from the rusted bolt heads.

"Not a good one." Stokes protested, "Or I'd be a medical with the Special Weapons identifier instead of Special Weapons with a ninety-one bravo secondary MOS."

I drove the wedge in again, this time it smashing deep, and I wiggled it back and forth.

"Don't give me that shit, you Amazon bitch, you know I need you." Nancy snarled.

"Get back." I warned everyone when I realized that I had tension on the bar and the door flexed at the point I'd driven the bar into concrete and managed to get the wedge behind the backside of the door. "I don't know if this was cleared."

"Nazi booby traps are just old wive's tales." Ineda said, still shivering.

"Let's hope." I answered. I wrenched on the door, hard, and the door screamed as it flew open, the rust covered hinges exploding.

Someone had placed a fucking antipersonnel mine on the ground on the other side of the door. I got a quick look at it, noticing it looked like a large can of pork and beans that had rusted badly, with three prongs that were held by wire.

...Fuck...

Some fucking Nazi had put a bouncing betty in the doorway.

One chance and one chance only to... went through my head.

Right before the goddamn explosive charge went off. The canister vanished in an explosion of rust, propelling something straight up.

Which went off pretty much at chest level.

...Goddamn it...

Chapter 32

Reception Area
Fort Leanord Wood, Missouri
14 March 1986

I stepped off the bus, still wearing handcuffs. Sitting beside me was a Washington State trooper, who'd been more than thrilled at escorting me to Missouri, and the two layovers we'd had he had just left me in the hotel room and come back smelling of whiskey. Once with a bar skank I was just glad didn't give me herpes by just looking at her. I mean, I didn't mind 'friendly' girls, shit, most of the girls I had hung out with in High School and Junior High were called some pretty bad names, but you could see the track marks on her arms. The State Trooper didn't care, he just told me to go sit in the bathroom and knocked that shit out in ten minutes before letting me out to eat some cold pizza he'd brought back. My brother had probably arrived a day earlier, since I doubted his escort was thinking this was all a vacation.

"Who wants to sign for him?" The State Trooper asked.

A big guy in OD greens, which my Father had stopped wearing about two years ago, walked forward with a big grin. "I'll sign for him, officer." His Texas accent was thick as hell. "Name's Bomber. Where do I sign?" He held out his hand for the clip board.

"Here." The State Trooper tapped the bottom of the clip board when the Texan took it.

"No problem, officer." The Texan grinned, taking the offered pen.

"Private Bomber!" Came a yell. The Texan jumped, his grin vanishing. "What the fuck do you think you're doing over there?"

"Nothing, Sergeant!" The Texan said, backing up.

A huge black guy in camouflage BDU's walked up, his nametag reading Johnson, snatching the clipboard from the Texan before smacking him across the back of the head with the clipboard. "Drop and beat your face, scumbag." The Texan dropped down, squatting first and kicking his legs out before starting to do pushups. The big black NCO, with Staff Sergeant rank on his collar, stepped in front of the State Trooper with a serious look on his face, scanning the clipboard. "What have we got here, sir?"

"I need you to sign the clipboard so I can turn him over to you and get out of here." The State Trooper said, glaring at the Texan doing pushups, yelling out the numbers followed by "Sergeant!" after each number.

"Shut up, Recruit, just knock them out." The Staff Sergeant said, scanning it. "Huh, assault and battery. So we got a tough guy, huh? Sure, sir, no problem." He scrawled his name and the date at the bottom. He handed the clipboard back to the State Trooper, who checked the signature and nodded.

"The other one get here?" He asked.

"Other one?" The Staff Sergeant looked at the Trooper oddly.

"Yeah. His brother. Both chose the Army over jail." The trooper said, pulling off one of the carbon copies and handing it to the Staff Sergeant. "Coupla real tough guys." He grinned at me. "Like to beat up cops. They think they're tough, but a tour in the Army will change their attitudes."

"You Army?" The Staff Sergeant asked.

"Drafted in 69, Special Forces." The Cop said, puffing out his chest.

The Staff Sergeant nodded, then pointed at my cuffs. "You gonna take them off, or is he supposed to do Basic in cuffs?"

The State Trooper flushed, then dug out the keys. I stood there, staring off into space, as he pulled the cuffs off, leaving behind the deep red lines in my wrists. My fingers were puffed up from the loss of circulation when the bastard cranked down the cuffs so tight.

"Later, punk." He said, slapping me across the back of the head.

I hadn't planned on doing anything but the Staff Sergeant grabbed the sleeve of my flannel shirt before I could even move, and stood there watching the cop leave.

"Fucking cracker cops. I hope you kicked the fucker's teeth out." The Staff Sergeant bitched, then he looked down and kicked the Texan lightly in the ribs. "Get up, Texas. Find Jailbird here a locker and a bunk." He looked at me. "Get out of line, we'll beat you half to death, run your ass till you drop, then smoke you on pushups till you cry for your momma." He smacked the back of the Texan's head. "Quit doing stupid shit, Texas."

We walked toward one of the big white buildings. They were only about twenty feet wide and probably a hundred feet deep, with a low peaked roof. There were two black guys sitting on the steps in OD green uniforms smoking cigarettes.

"Hey, Bomber." One said, looking up. "Who's the new guy?"

"Dunno, Smith." Bomber answered. He looked at me. "What's your name, champ?"

I waited a minute before I answered, trying to figure out if I could get away without answering. They waited patiently, staring at me, and I figured that they wouldn't let me get by with being silent "Stillwater. Washington State." I held out my hand. All three men shook it.

"Soooo..." Bomber said. "Beat up a cop?"

I nodded.

"No shit?" Both black guys grinned. "Join the Army or go to jail?" the one on the right asked.

I nodded again.

"Hard time?" The one of the left asked. I just nodded again. "Damn, the joint or the Green Machine." He held out his hand and I shook it. "Name's Talbot."

"Come on, let's get you a bunk." Bomber said, leading me in. There were about thirty bunk beds on each side of the open bay building, mostly empty. We headed over to one of the bunk bed sets, the bottom bunk made out perfectly. "Want the top bunk?"

I nodded again, and the big Texan grinned. He was about six inches taller than me, with a mustache, and reminded me of a young Sam Elliot with the weathered look.

"Don't talk much, eh?" He asked. I shook my head. "It's all right, Stillwater, I probably talk enough for both of us." He pulled open the locker, where there four sets of OD green uniforms on hangars, with a field jacket to the left of them. There were a set of blankets with sheets and a pillow on top.

The Texan watched me pull the linen out and make the bed quickly, yanking the edges before stuffing them under the mattress, then reaching underneath the frame to pull on the blankets to pull the blanket tight. The big Texan whistled, pulled a quarter out of his pocket, and tossed it on the top, where it bounced.

"Nicely done. Learn that in juvie?" He asked. I shook my head. "Dad teach you?" I nodded. "Fucking nice. I'll have to remember the trick of pulling on it from underneath." I just nodded. "We're not supposed to wear our civvies, so go ahead and change. I'll go get one of the sergeants."

I stripped down, changing into the OD's. They were too tall, and I ended up wearing my combat boots that I'd been wearing since I was 10 years old. Nobody really said anything, and I didn't care. Bomber came back with a sergeant, who had packing tape and a cardboard box.

"Put your civilian stuff in here." He told me.

I just dropped my clothing in it, held up my wallet and dropped it inside, then dug out my driver's license and held it out. The Sergeant nodded, and I stuffed it in my back pocket. Other than that, I just had what I had been wearing.

"That's it, recruit?" The Sergeant asked.

I just nodded.

He frowned. "OK, recruit, you need to answer verbally, and end your statements with 'sergeant' when you answer any drill instructor."

"Yes, sergeant." I answered. He stared at me for a long time.

"Any jewelry?" He asked.

"No, sergeant, just my dog tags." I said, pulling them out.

"Let me see those." I took them off and he examined them. "These look real. Did you get them at MEPS?"

"No, sergeant." I told him, staring over his head and standing at parade rest.

"You look a little young to be prior service. Who taught you to stand like that and where did you get dog tags?" He asked.

"My Father, Sergeant." I answered.

He nodded, taped shut the box, and had me sign the tape. He stood up with the box. "Want this shipped back to your home of record, or do you want it back when you finish Basic?"

"Just burn it, Sergeant." I answered.

He gave me a weird look, then shook his head. "You can have it back after Basic."

"Dip?" Bomber said after the Sergeant left. I shook my head, and the big Texan pulled out a can of Copenhagen, shaking it and tapping one finger against the metal lid to pack it. He put in a dip and waved me after him. "Let's go outside."

I followed him out to the slightly chilly Missouri morning.

"What MOS did you take, Stillwater?" He asked.

"Ammunition Specialist, fifty-five bravo." I told him.

Another bus was pulling up, and we stood there, with the big Texan constantly talking and me just nodding along or grunting. I felt a little better when I saw my big brother come down off the bus. He was only a year older than me, but nearly a foot taller and fifty pounds heavier than me. The cop looked worried as he followed my brother down.

"Huh, two of you?" The Texan mused. "That must be your brother." I nodded. "Damn, big ol' hoss." I nodded again.

I watched as the drill instructors or just reception sergeants, whichever they were, signed for my brother, who just stared at the cop, who didn't look like he wanted to uncuff my brother. Bomber showed my brother the empty lockers, and he chose one near the door. I knew it was so he could get out of the building quickly when the sergeants yelled for us.

They filed us off to lunch, which was good. I hadn't eaten anything except three slices of cold pizza the day before, and the food was hot and plentiful. I noticed that the sergeants stayed grouped up together, talking amongst themselves and staring over at my brother, the Texan, and me the whole time. When they filed us out I nudged William.

"Trouble." I said quietly. He just nodded.

When we got back six of the instructors had gathered up. They stopped William and me from filing into the building.

"Let's go, jailbirds." One of them said. I noticed he had the same rifle with a wreath around it that a lot of my Father's men had, although it was lacking the stars that my Father's had.

William and I followed them behind the building. A lot of the other recruits had followed.

"You, Frankenstein, step in." One of the Sergeants told William.

William stepped in. "You guys might want to bring friends if you plan on beating my ass." He smiled, lifting up one hand in a knife-fist. "This should be fun."

It took all six of them to beat him down, only two conscious at the end of it. They both took the boots to my brother, who eventually just stayed laying in the dirt. He was bleeding from his nose and mouth, but still grinning up.

"Learn anything, 'cruit?" One asked.

"There's more of you than me?" William grinned. "I know I can't beat you guys." He held up his hand.

One of the instructors helped him up. "Then why the fuck did you do this?"

"I like to fight. It was fun." He laughed, letting the instructor heave him to his feet. He knelt down and slapped one of them on the cheek. "Sergeant, wake up." The guy moaned and rolled over.

"Think you're next, Stillwater." Bomber said quietly as the four instructors on the ground got up, rubbing their jaws or face.

I just nodded.

"All right, you're next, shorty." The one who William hadn't been able to drop said.

I just walked in, hands down at my sides.

"Tony, don't do this. Fight back." William said.

The first punch caught me on the side of the jaw, but didn't stagger me. Jed had hit me harder to say good morning.

"Sergeant, stop!" William yelled.

Three more punches and another to my kidney, but I still just stood there, staring off into the distance. I guess it hurt, but I'd learned a long time ago that if you were quiet and ignored it, the hurt went away.

"Sergeant, stop, don't do this!" William yelled. Two guys were holding him back, although he was dragging them forward.

I got knocked down by a spinning back kick.

"Get up." one of them told me and I pushed myself back up, just standing there and staring at them, my hands at my side.

Another back kick, same guy, that William had dropped with a straight punch to the middle of the face. I hit the ground again.

"Get up." He told me.

...Get up...

I pushed myself up.

"He won't fight back!" William yelled. "Stop it!"

The instructors stepped back, staring at me.

"You guys get the fuck out of here." One of them snapped.

"I'll take care of him." William growled, stepping forward to put his hand on my arm. "You know good and well you aren't supposed to kick the shit out of recruits." William said. "Beating the shit out of him doesn't teach him anything." He grinned. "Doesn't teach me anything either, but we look at different."

...Get up...

"I got him, man, go clean up your face." Bomber said, grabbing my arm.

As went in through the back door, Bomber leading me to the bathroom, he shook his head. "My name's John."

"Anthony." I said quietly.

"Let's clean off your face, Ant." John said, taking a paper towel and dabbing my lip.

"The drill instructors are going to do this again when we get to real Basic." I said softly, looking at my reflection in the mirror. My eye and the left side of my lower lip were already swelling up and I had dirt on my face from where I'd hit the ground.

...Get up...

"The fuck they will." The big Texan said.

They did. First William. Then me.

I got up four times before they quit.

...GET UP...!

It didn't matter. It was just pain.

GET UP!

I rolled over, pushing myself up, groaning from the pain all across my front, my jaw throbbing.

I got up to my feet, pushing the hands on me away.

"Oh, God, Annie, I thought you were dead." Ineda said, moving toward me.

I pushed right by her, moving to find Nancy, who was bent over Lanks, rubbing iodine on her stomach.

"He didn't have permission to die from his kellys." Aine said softly.

"Don't let him sit down." Nancy snapped. "Stokes, check him out, he had a fucking mine go off in his face."

Stokes took my arm and I looked at her dumbly.

She opened her mouth, and I dropped again, blackness sweeping over me.

Chapter 33

Ammunition Specialist Training
Week Six - End of Training
Red Stone Arsenal
Secure Military Post
Alabama, United States of America
1986

The sun was nice and warm, and Bomber and I were sitting out at one of the picnic tables on the sides of the quad. Behind us was the big asphalt area where we played basketball and went to formation, the long white bay buildings were on either side of us, and in front of us was the 'swimming pool'. It was a big sandpit edged with sandbags, that when we were punished we'd dive into it and high crawl across it, or worse yet, look for the silver dollar one of the drill instructors had dropped, which meant we'd be out there for hours.

At the moment a bunch of drill instructors, both Army and Marine, and some of the Air Force and Navy guys were clustered around the swimming pool, cheering. I knew my brother William was fighting with the Marines again, or whoever else was dumb enough to get into the sand pit with him. He'd been pumping iron every night on top of fighting with people, and had managed to rope me and John into hitting the weight room with him. It was kind of odd at times. Me, William, and Bomber were the only white guys who bothered hitting the weight room, all the rest were the brothers and one Asian guy who was built like a Greek god and had apparently done competitions. While everyone else in my class was screwing off the three of us were at the weight room, hitting the iron, and reading the course manuals.

Which was what Bomber and I were doing while my brother was busy getting punched in the face for fun.

We'd shown a major interest in NBC weaponry, asking the instructors about it and bugging everyone we could for more information until the instructors had finally relented and given us more information, which we relentlessly devoured and asked for more. That had led to one of the instructors asking us if we wanted to reclassify rather than just graduate ammunition specialist training.

Which brought me back around to why my brother was bleeding off stress by fighting and Bomber and I were trying to find something to keep our brains from frying out.

"You think it's true?" Bomber suddenly asked.

He was referring to the whole mission of the MOS we'd been told about. The idea of handling that much NBC weaponry was exciting, but the thought of actually being able to use it was taking it from 'might be cool' levels to 'holy shit this is awesome' levels. The instructor had told us all about it, told us it was hard as hell, and mostly you couldn't transfer into the MOS unless you already in service. Some shit called 54D, which we'd looked up and found out was just regular NBC Operations, not anything like what the instructors were telling us.

"What?" I asked him. It could have been one of a hundred things we was talking about. From the fact that Chase was giving out blowjobs in the guy's bathroom at the pool room after dinner for an hour or so to the rumors that shit was heating up in Central America and we might get deployed.

"That this Special Weapons shit is real."

I shrugged. I still didn't talk much, but Bomber was one of those people who seemed to draw other people out. His constant talking, the fact he paid attention to other people's body language, and the fact he really cared about other people. Bomber didn't mind my silence, filling those normally uncomfortable lulls in conversations with tales about growing up on a ranch in Texas, chasing after farm girls and rodeo girls, playing football on a team that had a mediocre record, and shit like that. He didn't care that Jed and Martha had almost turned me into an animal, or that I was adopted, a foster child raised by his uncle and aunt. He didn't care that I didn't speak, he didn't care that I had a tendency to just stand and stare. None of that bothered him. Maybe it was because he was from Texas or maybe he was just that type of person that cared more about who his friends are than who they were.

"It just seems so incredible, man." John said, flipping the page on his manual. It involved nuclear explosion propagation rates, explosive weight estimations, and damage computation, complete with hardness ratings of modern battle armor as well as how fast the blast wave damage metrics fell off the farther the explosion point was from the targeting point. He tapped the concentric circles that we used for blast wave computations and grinned, showing off his big Texas farmboy front teeth. "I mean, they'd let us work with this stuff? I always figured I have to be like an air force officer, man, or some big shot college grad to work with shit so awesome, but instead they'll just hand all this stuff off to us?"

"Not the ICBM's." I reminded him.

He shook his head. "I've been checking out some of the shit toward the back of the book." He nudged me with his shoulder. "I know that you don't like to look at the back of the book so you don't ruin the ending, but I can't help it. They've got information on inspecting ICBM's, fucking Minutemen, man. Take the fight right to the Reds, you know? Being in control of nuclear artillery and shit? Hell yeah, I'm totally willing to be down with some shit like that. I'm Private John fucking Bomber, baby, they tell me to launch it won't be like all those fucking movies where the guy snivels and whines, I'll launch that shit straight up their Russian asses." He was grinning. "Fucking nukes, chemicals, and Captain Tripps, baby!"

I just smiled, picking up my half finished can of warm Orange Crush and taking another drink off of it. There was cheering and groans from the sand pit and I saw the crowd move in to drag four Marines out of the sand, only two of them getting to their feet. I could see my brother standing in the sand, his T-shirt torn, blood on his face, with the Senior Drill Instructor pounding him on the back and offering him a bottle of something. My brother took a swig out of it, swished it around, and spit it in the sand before taking a longer drink. Surprisingly he'd put on even more muscle since we'd hit the military, which made him into a six foot four goddamn monster. Unlike the other guy in our class who was his size, he wasn't an asshole about any of it. He helped people with their PT, asked people to come work out with him, loved playing team sports, and spent a lot of time laughing at himself. He just liked to fight. Speaking of which, there was some arguing over at the pit and I watched more intently.

"What's Tiny doing?" John asked, referring to the nickname William had picked up.

"Not sure. Looks like there's some argument over who's going to get in the pit with him." I said. As I watched my brother laughed good naturedly and made a 'come on' motion.

"Oh, yeah, I see what the problem was." John said.

Four Marines were standing up and taking off their BDU tops. Instead of it being who I had figured it would be it was four female Marines, all four of them spreading out. I could see the nervousness from the Drills as far away as I was sitting. The silence was broken by a few cheers from some of the female soldiers in the crowd, then everyone began whooping and encouraging whoever they were rooting for.

"He really going to fight girls?" John asked.

"Ain't girls, they're Marines." I shrugged. "He'll take 'em on."

One dove at him and he kneed her in the face as he moved out of the way, and the fight was on. Another one moved in to do a Judo throw and he stepped into it and drove an elbow into the back of her head, slamming her into the dirt, but she scrambled up to her feet while two others were distracting him. The only rule of the Pit was no nut shots, and it was looking to be a full blown brawl between my brother and the female Marines.

"He's kind of weird, ain't he?" John mentioned for the umpteenth thousand time.

"Ayup." I answered for the umpteenth thousand time. I turned the page in my chemical weapons manual, staring at the Warsaw Pact weapons listed on the page. There was a chart on one page that showed me the onset times, symptoms, dispersal vectors, and all the other related data that espionage had gotten us on the weapons from the other side. We sat there for a second while John rambled on about two girls and a haystack outside of Austin, but he knew I wasn't really listening to the story since I'd heard it about a thousand times. There was a cheer from the Pit and I looked up in time to see my brother physically lift one of the female Marines over his head and slam her down onto the sand.

Looks like it was a bad day for the Marine Corps.

"He shoulda been born in Ancient Rome, huh?" Bomber said, shaking his head. "He woulda been a gladiator and they woulda been throwing pussy at him."

"Ayup." I watched the one he'd slam down on the ground try to get up. He didn't give her a chance, grabbing her and physically throwing her into the ground of Marines at the side. The last Marine in the pit took that chance to try to tackle him but he barely moved.

"She's in trouble." John said as William reached back, grabbed the back of her uniform, and yanked her around, not bothering to break her grip.

"Ayup." I went back to reading my manual. It was pretty much over when they didn't get him out of the pit or force him to tap out in the first sixty seconds. Both of us had extensive stores of endurance, built up over a lifetime of hard exercise and work, and William was one of those annoying people that the more physical effort he did the more charged up and energized he was. He was grinning, obviously having the time of his life. I wondered, again, if that was the secret to him winning stuff like that. To him it was no different than a football game, or hell, maybe even a game of Pac-Man, and losing didn't bother him, because we were raised to know that no matter how good you were there was always somebody better and sooner or later you ran into the person who was better than you.

The book was detailing how wind currents can be crossed with a current in one direction up where the busting and dispersal charge deployed the chemical munition and different near ground level, which will warp and shift the dispersal pattern. How to take advantage of it, how to watch for it, and what it meant. Part of it was as simple as looking up at the sky. I glanced up and saw that, sure as shit, the few puffed clouds in the Alabama sky were moving south by southwest but the breeze washing over the quad was moving east southeast. My brain automatically filled in the information, wind speed, directions, probable air pocket elevation. The clouds had the flat anvil bottoms, which meant that there was a high pressure moving over the low pressure bubble that RSA was sitting in. My brain figured it at 15,000 feet, meaning that if I was calling in the artillery I'd make sure it detonated at about 2,000 feet up. I'd probably paste the area with low explosive and APERS first, then high explosive targeted on structures to destroy the glass and damage the walls. After that I'd call in a 2K feet detonation, preferably long streak weapons that would deploy the chemical over an area instead of a single burst. My brain kept working, figuring it all up. Triple blanket, start with lewisite, then move to VX-2, corrosive agents mixed in, make sure I continued the bombardment of low explosive, more than likely 6 to 1 ratio. I'd finish it off with a double pattern of FASCAM APERS to kill and maim those who went in to do mascal on the site, and probably stack on a few FASCAM Anti-Armor across the primary access roads once the first wave came in to keep vehicles from moving in or out.

Probably casualty ratings? 60-72%, depending on whether or not the buildings over to the west were hardened and if the Marines and Navy guys had masks in their room.

Bomber nudged me, breaking me out of the loop where I had just started over again, running the numbers on swapping out low explosive for high explosive or doing high burst rounds of thickened agent with the intent of getting a surprise hit in.

"Sergeant Tapers is coming over." Bomber said when I looked up. Sure as hell, he was walking over from the Orderly Room and had Mr. Westbrook with him. Mr. Westbrook was the instructor who had given us the information we wanted to know and had let us explore further and further down the rabbit hole that NBC weaponry represented.

Both Bomber and I covered up the manuals as soon as they drew close. That had been stressed to us, that we could have the manuals but weren't allowed to show them to our fellow recruits. Not that I minded, I really didn't talk to them even though I had made some friends.

There was more cheering from the Pit and I looked over to see my brother fighting with at least six guys, mixed Marines and Army, and I was pretty sure one of them was that crazy Navy guy who had been arrested by the MP's for streaking through the PX last week. There was even MPs watching the big brawl, cheering it on, and someone was checking the four female Marines out. One was standing up, flexing her arms to show off her muscles, even though her torn shirt exposed her bra, the white cloth contrasted against her dark skin. I pulled my eyes away, despite the fact she was very attractive, reminding myself I was going to marry Tera during the break between AIT and my first posting.

"Privates." Sergeant Tapers said, taking a seat across from us. Mr. Westbrook sat down also, and I noticed that both of them had folders full of paper. Tapers looked back behind him at the next cheer, catching my brother surging out from underneath the pile of people that were on him, roaring like some kind of monster and laughing. "That boy's gonna be wearing a fucking beret inside a year."

I just nodded, but neither one of them took offense at my lack of answers.

"Anyway we talked to some people, and we want to know if you guys are serious about going Special Weapons." Tapers said. He waved at Mr. Westbrook. "You'll go from here to Fort Leanord Wood For the next round of training. All in all, you'll be there about six months to complete your training."

"Sounds fun." Bomber smiled.

"There's a thirty-five thousand dollar sign up bonus." Mr. Westbrook told us. "Plus a guarantee of a Special Weapons posting."

I nodded.

Sergeant Tapes looked seriously at us, glanced over his shoulder to where Monkey had managed to throw two of the guys out of the Pit, but had been tackled by the Navy guy, who was like 40 and made up of scars, muscle, and just plain insanity.

"Look, Privates, I'm not going to lie to you, this will be hard to go through." He grimaced. "Most of the Special Weapons instructors make it point of pride that there's a larger drop on request percentage for Special Weapons training then there is for even SERE or BUDS. People die during this training, Privates. There are a hundred ways to die, all of them more horrible than the last." He ran his hand through his high and tight. "There's everything from instant death due to chemical exposure to dying over the course of a couple of week from radiation exposure to slow death by some fucking bioweapon."

"Do you regret going, Sergeant?" Bomber asked.

Sergeant Tapers laughed. "Every goddamn day. Not that I went for it, but that I lost my nerve and Dee Oh Are'd. I just couldn't walk into that room and decon the goddamn CUC-V, just knowing that those little drops of liquid they were putting on the hood with an eyedropper was goddamn VX." Tapers looked at Bomber. "So, Private Bomber, are you going to sign up?" He looked at me at the same time as he jerked his thumb back at the sand pit where a bunch of the Air Force guys were taking off their BDU tops and stepping into the Pit. My brother didn't look worried that there were at least eight of them, but instead just smiled, slapped the Senior Drill on the back, and handed back the flask he'd been taking a drink from. I looked from my brother to Sergeant Tapers as he kept speaking. "I know you're going to sign up." I just nodded. "All three of you passed your security clearances, so if you want in, just sign up and when everyone else graduates you'll be shipped to the next phase."

Bomber grinned, holding out his hand. "Shit, I'm in." He looked at me. "How about you, Ant?"

I just held out my hand.

"He's in."

It went without saying that William would be right there with us.

Chapter 34

Nuclear/Biological/Chemical Warfare Field Specialist Training
Phase Two - Week One
Classified Area, Nevada Test Site
Nevada, United States of America
1986

It wasn't easy to climb into the back of the 5-ton, even though William had been first and, living up to his long-time nickname of Monkey-Boy, had made it look easy to limb into the truck in the heavy radiation suit. It wasn't like the ones you saw in the movies, where they were paper thing plastic with a thin layer of mylar or whatever the fuck they used to shield from radiation. This was serious protection, three inches thick, padded, four different types of radiation shielding, thin lining of Kevlar, metal strips along the longs to protect from shrapnel, and a case on the back to hold O2 tanks or other things.

John reached down and I took his hand, letting him help heave me into the back. I turned and took my weapon from Vencilla, who was sweating behind the face shield of her suit, her face already flushed.

"This is your last chance to back up during this phase of your training." Master Sergeant Cordswain yelled from inside his suit. "You were all present yesterday at Test Tajo, you all bore witness to the fact that a 135 kiloton nuclear device was detonated. You have a unique training opportunity, but you will be working and training in a live radiation environment." He waved at to where two guys in BDU's were leaving against the front of a CUC-V. "If you cannot or will not engage in this part of training, in a live nuclear area, you may go over to the vehicle, whereupon you will be dropped on request from this program."

I helped heaved Vencilla up into the truck and she helped up SGT Morris, who was sweating from more than just his suit. He'd signed up for Special Weapons due to the low promotion points, which he'd taught us meant that he'd get promoted faster. but he was getting shakier and shakier. Once Morris was in the truck he was supposed to help up the next person but instead he sat down and left Vencilla to help up Gunnery Sergeant Cartwright. Vencilla glared at Morris as she sat down next to me.

"Don't do it!" Rang out. "You can do this!" and "Don't be a coward!" was being shouted. I glanced at the group still waiting to get into trucks and saw Senior Airman Grossen walking toward the CUC-V.

"AIR FORCE PUSSY!" I yelled out. Vencilla yelled out "PUSSY!" and we all picked up the chant, shouting the same word over and over, trying to shame him into rejoining us. We'd started out with nearly seventy of us and we were down to only forty-six.

He didn't even slow down, just stopped in front of the CUC-V so the two guys in BDU's could help him out of his armored suit.

When the suit dropped off of him we stopped. It was over. He was gone. Dropped on Request.

We all turned away from him. As far as we were concerned he had ceased to exist the minute that suit had come off of him.

Once our truck was full, twelve of us sitting on the wooden benches in the hot Nevada sun, one of the silent guys in BDU's with no patches on their uniforms came up and called out weapon numbers. When they called my number I held out my hand, calling out "Here!" and they handed my weapon, then held up a cloth bandoleer.

"Once you receive your weapon and your ammunition, lock and load one thirty round magazine, keep your weapon on safe, and put the remaining six magazines in your magazine pouches on your LBE's." MSG Cordswain called out, holding up his own weapon. "The Nevada Proving Grounds is six hundred eighty miles of rocky desert terrain, some of the most hazardous on Earth, that has been used to test nuclear and atomic weaponry for over thirty years." I could see him smile inside his suit. "There is radiation, chemicals, nuclear waste, mutants, cannibals, and other hazards out in that desert. If you are aggressed by anything, from radioactive mutants to killer inbred cannibal miners, you will defend yourself and your fellow soldiers."

"The Hills Have Eyes, baby." Vencilla grinned, nudging me.

"I heard that, Pencil, and yes, exactly. You morons need to remember that The Hills Have Eyes was based on a true story, and that we lose at least a dozen of you retards every year and never find your bodies."

"Pfft, that's bullshit." Petty Officer Second Class Kowlings scoffed from one of the other trucks.

"Oh fuck, there goes Know It All Kowlings." Vencilla said.

"Shut the fuck up, you Jersey fuck!" Bomber yelled. "Nobody cares what your low rent Navy ass thinks."

"Hey!" Petty Officer Nakamara yelled.

"You ain't low rent, baby!" Bomber yelled back.

"At ease, you fucking retards." MSG Cordswain yelled. "Get in the goddamn trucks, you idiots." He looked over at Grossen, who was pouring water from his canteen on his head. "If anyone else is overcome by a serious case of the vapors, go the fuck over there, otherwise we move out in five."

"I can't believe they're making us go out to where they just detonated a nuclear weapon." SPC Linderhold said from across from me.

"It was just a peewee shot." Bomber said, shrugging. "Hell, that wasn't even a city cracker. AND it was an underground shot. You'd get more radiation from jerking off in front of a microwave then you will from walking around naked in the crater."

"Shut the fuck up, nobody wants to hear from the inbreeding crowd." SGT Morris snarled.

"Better be nice to me, or I'll sick my cousins who live in the caves out here on your fat ass, Morris." Bomber shot back.

"That's Sergeant Morris to you." He said.

"You're a punk." Bomber told him.

"Point chaser." Vencilla laughed.

"You guys need to respect my rank." Morris half-whined. The truck started up when Vencilla opened her mouth.

She'd never forgotten that he'd panicked on her during the 'dust test' and then tried to cover it up by blaming it all on her. It had nearly cost her team a passing grade from all the radioactive powdered metal he'd stirred up, and it had knocked Vencilla from the #4 slot to the #6 slot. It was pretty much a foregone conclusion that Bomber, William, and I would graduate in the top three slots, and there was a fifty point gap between William and Harlen. Only ten points separated Bomber and I, and twenty points between Bomber and William. We were scrapping really hard over who graduated in what place. Monkey had gotten promoted from Pvt to Pv2 and gotten an Army Achievement Medal due to placing first in the entire cycle on Basic. I'd only gotten Pv2 and a Certificate of Achievement and a brass coin from 3/10th Infantry, while Bomber had just gotten a coin and a Certificate. Our platoon sergeants had been thrilled as fuck that the three of us had taken the top three slots, which meant they got to lord it over the other platoons and companies in 3/10. Vencilla was a competitive female soldier, one of the few people who joined Bomber, Monkey, and me in the weight room every night.

She hated Morris, who had been acting like a total cock since Chemical Training at Leonard Wood. He'd only been E-5 for about three months, and we'd heard that he'd gotten promoted because he'd signed up for Special Weapons, not that he made the point spread. The Air Force, Navy, and Marine, hell, even the fucking Coast Guard NCO's in the program didn't act like him, throwing their rank in everyone's faces. SGT Morris pushed in front of anyone he outranked in the chow hall line or wherever else he felt like it.

Well, except for William, who'd grabbed him by the front of his BDU's, lifted him up, carried him to the back of the line, set him down, then brushed off the older man's shoulders before retuning to his place at the front of the line.

The trucks rolled out under the hot sun, bouncing along the dirt road. I kept sipping from the tube inside the helmet of the suit, the water quickly becoming flat and tepid. Vencilla was rocking back and forth, and I knew she was humming to herself. It was how she handled anxiety when she was suiting up. William, across from me, was mouthing words and I knew he was reciting off the types of Warsaw Pact biological weapons that he knew of. Bomber was probably just talking away like people were able to hear him, telling another one of his stories.

Me? I wasn't worried. I just took a deep drink, swished it around, and closed my eyes. I dropped my chin and started to breathe slowly and deeply, centering myself, listening to the way my heartbeat and breathing sounded inside of my suit, paying attention to the slight burn of the catheter I'd had to put in place, and seeing if I could feel any air currents that didn't belong. I wasn't that worried, it had been a sub-surface shot, so the topside radiation wouldn't be too bad. It wasn't like the 1970 Baneberry shot where the lid had cracked and it had irradiated the fuck out of everything.

When we got there the job was fairly simple. Secure the site for the civilian analysts as well as take our own readings, since we were geared to go deeper into the radiation zone than the civilians would ever bother going in. We had a higher radiation over lifetime level then the civilians working for the Nuclear Regulatory Agency or the Department of Energy, I was fascinated by the entire thing, visualizing in my head the destruction of matter by conversion into energy in the depths of the earth followed by the compression of the earth. Additionally the shot had lifted the ground slightly for a few split seconds before it dropped down leaving an irregular crater. I didn't even bother checking my wrist monitor to check my levels, I knew the suit could stand up to whatever radiation had leaked through for hours, maybe even days.

The little lizard threw up the suit resistance versus the radiation and automatically computed my time. Eleven point six hours, providing I stayed in the highest radiation areas, until I started taking significant radiation, and then I could stay another three point eight hours until I started risking radiation poisoning.

He was my edge. The little lizard. He could do the computations faster than my classmates could write them out, allowing me to skip pages and pages of math and protractor and slide rule work and get straight to the answer while they were still plotting curves.

Once we were done we headed back, most of us exhausted from walking around in the suit all day. William stood up at the front of the bed, right behind the cab, holding onto the empty ring mount and looking around like a dog sticking his head out the window on the freeway. He was obviously still jacked up, still excited, and having a great time. When we got to the deployment area he was first to the tailgate but took the time to help everyone down. He had the flushed look he got when he was excited and having fun, with his typical crazy eyes that he got.

Taking off the suit made me feel a thousand pounds lighter, like I'd peeled off another me.

There were areas for males and females to strip out of the suits separately, but a lot of us just stripped down right in the safety area, not caring that other people could see us naked. Guys like Morris hid out, the rest of us changed in front of each other. The back of my shoulder itched so I had Vencilla check it. She took a look, then scratched it before rubbing it. The itching went away and she slapped the spot, laughing that it was all in my head.

We went back to our barracks, a rather odd place. It was an old 1950's bunker complex, a mostly underground site that was claimed to be an old Titan Missile Base, where we lived. Completely climate controlled, only a few exits, with a few 'abandoned' buildings on the surface. Some of the guys who had been in the military for awhile had a hard time believing that the place existed, but for most of us we just took it in stride. We had to decon the 5-tons once they were parked, pretty much practice for the most part, but they did have light radiation that needed cleaned up. Mostly it was just high pressure washing to get the irradiated dirt and debris off of them. We made sure our tanks were charged, checked out our suits, and racked them after replacing the catheter lines and the drinking tube line.

It was still an hour before dinner, so I went back to my room to make notes on what I had done, the thing I had seen, and the observations of both the lizard and me. I'd been in there for less than five minutes before there was a knock on the wood painted metal door that made up the door to my room. When I answered it Vencilla stood there, flushing slightly as soon as she saw me.

"I need some help." Vencilla told me.

"Cootchie check?" I asked her. When she nodded I waved her into my room. She got to my desk by the time I shut the door, and pulled down her BDU pants, then her panties, and hopped up on the desk. She spread her legs as I got my green flashlight out and knelt down.

"It really hurt when I pissed, and I felt something catch and sting when I was seating the cath." She said. I noticed that like a lot of the girls in our training she kept the hair down there trimmed but not shaved. You didn't want to risk a cut down there, infection might be too easy. She blushed again when I spread her open and shined the light inside of her. "When I peed there was a little pink, I need to know if I sliced my urethra."

I checked closely, putting a fingertip in there to pull downward just below her urethra, then repeating it above. "Looks swollen, but I don't see any cut." I took a look between the inner lips and didn't see anything too out of the ordinary.

"Umm, can you check something?" She asked. I nodded, spreading her open at the bottom of the slit and shining the light at the opening to her vaginal canal. I tapped it and came back with a little bit of pink on my fingertip. She looked down at me. "Go ahead." She took a deep breath and looked up at the ceiling. I knew what she was referring to and wet my finger before gently pushing it inside to about the first knuckle, then pulling it out and taking a look with my light. Yup, a little bit of red.

"It's your period, silly." I told her, standing up.

"Can't be, I just finished last week." She said.

"Go to the medics."

"No fucking way."

"Some of the girls on the cross country team had it happen. Might be normal." I told her, turning off the flashlight and digging out the baby wipes from my desk drawer. I wiped my fingers off then tossed her the baby wipes.

"Thanks, Ant." She said, pulling one out and wiping herself off. "Goddamn, that's embarrassing." She tossed the baby wipe in the garbage and pulled up her panties and BDU bottoms before sitting back down on my desk. "Hey, doesn't any of this bother you?" I shook my head, sitting down in the chair at Bomber's desk. "How does it not bother you? We have no privacy, if you refuse to suit up or strip down in front of the opposite sex then you got dropped, it's fucking dehumanizing."

I just shrugged, reaching out and tapping the manual I was reading, which was tactical submunition deployment in major metropolis area theory. "And this isn't?"

She shook her head. "Christ, I wonder if we're really going to have to do this."

"Eventually. It's getting uglier, the world's getting too small." I told her.

Vencilla suddenly laughed and I gave her an odd look before she shrugged and spoke. "Your checking out my twat is just what I'm talking about, Tony." I frowned at her and she sighed. "I'd have never just walked into someone's room and asked me to stick their face into my twat before this. Tell me that you would have just done what you did without trying to get your dick wet." I shook my head. When I pointed at the picture of Tera on my desk she smiled at me. "I take that last part back, Tony. Still, look at how far they've broken us down already. I've got you sticking your fingers up me to check a trace of bleeding and it doesn't bother me."

Bomber chose that moment to come in the door, smiling at Vencilla. "Pencil, baby, good to see you."

"Hey, Texas." Vencilla said. "Got any plans?"

"Gonna hit the weights." Bomber said, shrugging. He was already stripping down to put on his PT's. "How about you?"

"Gonna hit the weight room with Ant and Monkey, just like you." Vencilla said, jumping off the desk. "Gonna go change."

"Later, Pencil." Bomber said.

"See ya in a little bit, Vencilla." I said.

Bomber and I started changing after she left, then tromped down to the weight room to work out for a while. Monkey pushed Bomber and me hard, and I was shaking with fatigue by the time we staggered back to our room to shower and change. We hit the chow line, ate, then went back to our room.

"You hear about tomorrow?" Bomber asked me in the middle of studying.

"No. What about it?" I jotted down some notes on secondary infusion effects in series detonations and MIRV shots.

"We're heading to Citadel Ridge." He said.

That got my attention. "No shit? I thought the jacks said that place was a rumor." I said, referring to the NCO's that were reclassifying.

"It's real. We're heading there tomorrow." Bomber said.

"I'll be goddamned."

"Yup. When we signed up for this shit."

Chapter 35

Nuclear/Biological/Chemical Warfare Field Specialist Training
Area 15
Citadel Ridge
Nevada Testing Range
1986

"Welcome to Citadel Ridge." MSG Cordswain said, leaning against the truck. He was wearing one of the lightweight disposable radiation suits like most of the instructors did when we were in light background count areas. While it wouldn't hurt us or push us over our lifetime exposure limits MSG Cordswain probably came out here twenty times a year, and that would rapidly pile up. He faced us. "You'll notice that two more of your fellow recruits have dropped on request, unable to handle the stress that they believe this exercise will cause."

We all stood at the back of the 5-tons we'd ridden in on, four teams of eleven with a senior NCO in each group. We were all wearing only our BDU's and packing a few of our detector tools. Bomber was grinning, so eager you could almost taste it, Monkey had the same damn grin, and I was just calm, staring at the ridge in front of us. I could see where sections of the ridge looked like it had bites taken out of it and had collapsed. In two places I could see where the damage to the ridge had exposed concrete and steel, which showed me that the rumors had been true. Citadel Ridge had underground facilities buried in it that they had done structural tests on to make sure that the bunker systems built by the CoG and FEMA could withstand a direct hit.

"You'll be broken into four teams, each team accompanied by two instructors, to inspect the bunker system as well as learn how to estimate damage and livability of such a facility." He told us. "You will not need to be suited up at this time, however you will carry your rucksacks with your radiation suit in it." He smiled. "If you cannot handle entering a facility that had taken a direct hit by a nuclear weapon and being exposed to the radiation then you can go over to the CUC-V and Dee Oh Are."

None of us moved this time, the first time since live chemical weapons training back at Leonard Wood.

There was no way I was going to drop.

"These bunkers were built for the Pile Driver tests as well as a few others. Once we examine the bunker systems we will then move to Site Stallworth, which is a former EPA run farm experimenting with decontamination procedures and crop/herd acclimation methods. You will be at Site Stallworth for the next ninety-six hours, using it as a base of operations to examine the Pile Driver sites as well as the rest of Citadel Ridge." He paused. "You will operate unprotected during this time. Does any of you wish to Dee Oh Are?"

Fucking underground bunker systems were real. Not missile silos, but honest to God bunker systems.

Holy. Shit.

Nuclear/Biological/Chemical Warfare Field Specialist Training
Phase Three - Week Two
Fort Mead Maryland
Site Fat Mouse
Facility 113R3e
AKA Madhouse
Secure Area
1986

I finished my run through the environmental tunnels early, managing to slice off a few minutes on my five mile time. I was in a pair of beaten and ragged BDU's that I'd worn to too many contaminated areas out at White Sands and the Nevada Test Site. I ran in full uniform to get used to it, my combat boots pounding on the cement floor as I ran laps through the tunnel that the massive piping that provided climate and environmental control used. The tunnel completely encircled the main area of the underground facility and made a perfect place to run laps.

Usually I headed into the chow hall to see what was left, since a lot of us kept weird hours, but my stomach was upset from the day's practical exercise. Most of my fellow trainees were asleep or had already racked out, but when I passed the gym I heard a steady rhythm on one of the punching bags. I cracked the door and glanced in, seeing my brother working the bag. His ever-present grin was gone, he was covered in sweat and stripped down to a pair of Army PT shorts, blue with gold edging, and his hands were taped to protect his knuckles as he slammed into the bag over and over.

He was upset and I knew why.

Six people had dropped on request today, dropping our number to thirty-five. SGT Morris had dropped before we even left the Nevada Test Range, unwilling to live at the EPA Farm we'd all sarcastically called Site Stillbirth. we hadn't taken much radiation, but he'd been terrified of the fact that we were living unprotected in an area where there had been shitloads of nuclear detonations. The six that dropped, I'd almost been one of them.

Which is why I had been crying while I ran my five miles.

I couldn't talk to Tera, shit, I hadn't been allowed any outside phonecalls that didn't stick to a strict script for over two months. Talking to each other didn't help, and the mental health techs that we saw once a week were not there to hear us whine but instead ask us a specific list of questions and have us take a test. So far none of us had been dropped due to psych reasons, but I realized, running those laps, that everything up to this point was nothing more then establishing a base line for our later responses.

We still had three months of training to go.

The sounds of someone working the bag heavily were left behind me as I headed back toward the room I shared with Bomber. I walked down the hallways, stepping over the yellow and black crosshatched lines on the floor, walls, and ceilings that warned us of the armored doors that would drop if there was any kind of biological contamination of Madhouse.

For our first week here we had all been taking care of sheep and pigs and cows. Feeding them, petting them, cleaning their stalls. We had an hour each morning we cared for them, two hours at night. Bomber, William, Vencilla, and I had all taken to it easily, having lived on farms and taken care of animals during our lives. Vencilla had loved one of the little pigs, and it would race back and forth when Vencilla arrived in the 'barn' to feed and care for it.

We thought it was like Stillbirth Farm, where we just cared for the animals to continue with the ongoing operation of the site.

We thought wrong.

We had been woken up at 0400 to the sound of the contamination alarms. We had suited up in armored J-Suits, and then been given flamethrowers. It had been nervous, we figured something might have gotten loose from one of the bioweapons labs that rumor control said was on the lower levels of Madhouse. When we were at the door Lieutenant Colonel Redmond had told us that there had been an outbreak of weaponized Anthrax, a hybrid strain capable of easy movement between species that had an avian infectious carrier vector.

When the door was opened we saw the animals we had all been taking care of.

Six people dropped on request. Either when the saw the animals we'd been taking care of; when they started screaming as we moved through them shooting them in the head, when we'd taken the blood samples and then used the flame throwers on the still bodies of the animals we had fed, cared for, and petted; when it was all over and some of us had given primal screams to get rid of the horror and feelings. Six people had dropped on request.

God help me, I had not. It had cost me a small piece of me, a little piece of my soul, but I had not dropped.

I opened the door to the room, closing it quietly when I saw the scene in front of me.

Bomber was laying on his back, his hands on the female's hips, holding onto her as she leaned forward, her hands on his chest, riding him as he thrust up into her. She had raw spots on her back from where her J-Suit had rubbed her, long brown hair that was plastered to her sweaty skin across her back, and a firm bubble butt that flexed as she rode him.

"Hey, Vencilla." I said, walking over to my dresser.

"Fucking." She growled.

"Hey, John."

"Hey, Ant."

I grabbed a pair of BDU's and went into the bathroom, changing and showering quickly, then coming back into the room. Vencilla was laying on John's bed next to him, twirling her fingers in his chest hair with her eyes closed and tears on her face.

I'd shot her piglet and burned it.

"Hitting the gym." Was all I said.

"Wait, I'll go with you." Vencilla said.

"Me too." John added.

I kicked back in the chair while they both showered, and Vencilla borrowed one of John's PT uniforms. She had thick thighs so the shorts were a little tight on her, but she still looked nice anyway. We headed out to the gym, passing one of the instructors, who we let pass by moving to the side of the hallway and going to parade rest. On the way to the gym I ended up behind Vencilla, not for the first time admiring her from behind. She was built how I liked women, thick bodied, but I had Tera, who had slimmed down our last year of High School together when she'd joined the track team. Not that it mattered, the Matrons of the family had pretty much looked over Tera, approved of her, and she spent time hanging out with my female cousins and the matrons learning what it meant to be the wife of a Stillwater boy.

She loved it. The power. The responsibility. The complete authority.

The smell of the gym helped me push all of that out of my mind. Helped me push down the desire to rebel against the Matrons, the family, and Tera by seeing if Vencilla had any interest in me. Reminding myself that I was ugly, even for a boy, helped push it down along with the reality that if I did anything and the family found out I'd be punished severely.

"You all right, Monkey?" John asked William when we walked in. He was working the bag hard, still, and the tape was coming loose from his hands.

William looked at John, stopping in the middle of his workout, and stepping back. "Yeah. It was just harder than I thought it would be, you know?"

Vencilla walked over to the where boxing tape was hanging on a hook on the wall, picking it up off the wall. "Your coming loose, William, let me fix it."

Bomber nodded at William's question. "Yeah. I'm a ranch boy, we slaughter animals all the time, but I'll admit that was hard."

"I'm from fucking Santa Clara California." Vencilla said, lifting up one of William's hands and unwrapping the tape from his hands.

"Anyone want to spar?" William asked hopefully.

That got all three of us to laugh.

"With you? Fuck no. I prefer to fight with, you know, humans." Bomber said.

"I like my internal organs intact, thank you. I don't want to be coughing up my ovaries." Vencilla said, staring to reapply the tape.

Monkey didn't ask me.

We hit the weights and hit them hard, pushing ourselves farther then we probably should have. I could see the flamethrower burning in their eyes and wondered a couple of times if they saw the same thing in my eyes, but didn't ask. All that kept running in my head was what Vencilla had said the day before Citadel Ridge, how we were all being dehumanized, and the fact we had taken care of the animals for weeks before having to move through them and kill them before burning their bodies. I'd wondered if the animals we were caring for were from someplace like Stillbirth Farm or if they were bought on the open market and marked for slaughter.

Once we were done with the weights we went back to the living quarters area. Vencilla followed Bomber and I into our room.

"You don't mind, do you, Ant?" Vencilla asked, sitting on the edge of Bomber's bed and bouncing up and down slightly.

I shook my head, yawning. Running five miles and then hitting the gym for two hours had really taken it out of me. I was exhausted. Emotionally, mentally, physically.

Vencilla looked at John, who just smiled and shrugged, raising his eyebrows. Vencilla turned back to me. "Hey, um, you, um, don't have to be alone tonight." She said, smiling nervously.

I shook my head again. "Naw. I'm good. I'm engaged, remember?" I was tempted. Sorely tempted. Vencilla had nice little A, maybe B-cups, thick body, and was cute as hell as well as nicely muscled.

Sooo tempting.

The lizard was urging me to take her and John up on it, but I'd made promises to Tera, promises I meant to keep.

Sooo tempting.

I hit the lights, plunging our room into darkness.

Vencilla and Bomber made love in the darkness, desperately trying to reclaim a small part of themselves that had died, trying to regain a small bit of their humanity that the grueling training had ground away from them.

If either of them knew I laid there and jerked off, thinking of Tera and silently cursing myself whenever Vencilla replaced Tera, they never brought it up.

Chapter 36

Nuclear/Biological/Chemical Warfare Field Specialist Training
End of Phase Four
Blackbriar Ridge
Secure Military Facility
North Dakota, United States of America
1986

We got off the C-141 single file, silent, our uniforms covered with dirt and grime, our hair greasy and our skin unwashed. We had spent a week in Hell. Cordoning off a 'town' and searching it. Establishing control zones. Hunting down 'civilians' with flamethrowers and then burning the mannequins with flamethrowers while recordings played that cried, begged, and screamed. Sweeping the buildings one by one, killing any 'animals' found in the zone, and eventually, once we were sure that we had contained the initial infection of the 'unknown infectious disease' in the area, we had detonated an atomic simulator before boarding the C-141 for a long flight. The Air Force guys back in the cabin wore their masks and were silent, just checking our buckles to make sure we were strapped in.

We were down to thirty-two of us. Less than half.

Two months to go.

Vencilla and Bomber gravitated together, his hand seeking hers to hold it tight.

There were two instructors on the flight line waiting for us. Unlike previous changes of training area these two didn't look all grim and hard assed. They were smiling gently and waved us over.

"All right, ladies and gentlemen, let's get some hot food into you, get you some showers, and some clean clothing." The one of the right said. Like most of our instructors the last few months they didn't wear nametags, unit patches, or anything else, not even rank, just the US ARMY over their hearts.

"You are now entering Phase Five of your training." The one on the left told us, waving at us to follow them. A group of people in BDU's were throwing our rucksacks and dufflebags into the back of a deuce and half truck, working under the spotlights of the runway. "Now is when we teach you to take everything you have learned in the separate phases and combine them together. Unlike the other phases this part will be intellectually demanding."

"But enough of that, let's get you guys cleaned up and fed." The one on the right said, leading us toward a bus. It looked more like a modified Greyhound than the converted school buses that the Army usually moved us around in.

"Welcome to Blackbriar Ridge." The one on the right said as we boarded the bus.

Only two more months to go.

Nuclear/Biological/Chemical Warfare Field Specialist Training
Phase Six
Blackbriar Ridge
Secure Military Facility
North Dakota, United States of America
1986

I stared at the table in front of us, scanning the contour map quickly then glancing at the weather report before checking the list of available assets. The Soviets 6th and 9th Armored Guards were moving in on the Fulda Gap, backed up by the equivalent of three infantry divisions. 8th Armor Division was mostly tattered, caught by the initial blast front of the Soviet nuclear surgical strikes, with most of V and VII Corps either gone or engaged in fighting with Soviet airborne forces that managed to get deep into Germany. There was much I could do, my assets were limited, so it wasn't like my plans would win the war, but I could make it too costly for them to prosecute the war or follow up on any advances they made.

I wrote down my answers, what I would do, the orders I would give out, and the estimated effects of the weaponry, then started planning for the second set of strikes that had less to do with the war and more to do with punishing the enemy for daring to attack those under my protection.

"Time." Came the word as I was halfway through secondary punitive strikes. I set down my pencil and compass, then grabbed the paper and got up, walking to the front and handing in my answer sheet to the instructor sheet.

When we filed out I bumped Bomber with my shoulder. "What scenario were you doing?"

"Fulda Gap." He said, shaking his head. We caught up to Vencilla and he took her hand. "What scenario, Pencil?"

"Afghanistan armor gambit." She said, shaking her head. "You guys?"

"Fulda Gap." We both said.

"Ugh, Juggernaut Scenario. You just can't win with that one." Vencilla said as we pushed out the doors and into the chill of the evening.

"The. Only Way. To Win. Is. Not." Bomber started with a bad imitation. Venicilla elbowed him in the stomach and he laughed.

William caught up with us, humming to himself, and smiling when he punched me playfully in the shoulder. "I got the Pacific Onramp again. You guys?"

"Fulda Gap." Me and John said.

"Afghanistan Armor Gambit." Vencilla said.

The class placement was me, Bomber, William, Vencilla, but not very many points separated us. Thirty-three between me and Vencilla, that was it. It was getting tight, but we couldn't resist wondering how many of us were going to make it. Only two had dropped, one would probably recycle since he'd been hit by a car crossing the street, the other just couldn't take the massive casualty rate we were supposed to rack up. For example, the estimations of the one I had done today were up in the tens of millions. Almost all of them enemy civilians, but there had been two cities that I'd hit that were on our side but occupied by major armor forces using the heavy industry in the cities as well as the extensive gasoline stores. I had just done it, not really caring. The one I had been handed had been a total war option.

"Any plans?" William asked.

"Gonna play pool. My chest still hurts from the PT test." I told him. He nodded.

"Gonna go study." Bomber said.

"Me too." Vencilla said.

We broke up, going to enjoy ourselves with our little escapes. I liked playing pool, even though I didn't really do very well. The last small group of us were pretty close, not as in knowing everything about each other, and I knew more about them then they knew about me because of my habit of silence, but we still knew quite a bit about one another. I knew Petty Officer Nakamara had served twelve years and liked him some brown sugar. I knew that Senior Airman Balwick was deep in the closet but had poked his head out long enough to admit it to the instructors to have it included in his psych profile, PRP writeup, and security clearance, and still managed to find someone to enjoy one of the few things there was to enjoy in Special Weapons Training.

It was nice to play pool. Balwick was with Sternmeyer, and the fact that once in awhile they'd kiss didn't bother me at all.

You took love where you found it.

Besides, why should I look down on them, I'd spent three years the property of a strange dominating girl who had intoxicated me to the point where I wasn't even my own person. My Father had always said that hating someone for loving another person was against what Jesus taught. That gay people were just that, people. People with wants, desires, loves, fears, everything that made me up, so who was I to judge?

At 2000 hours Balwick looked up and set down his pool cue. "It's time." was all that needed to be said.

We went back to our rooms. I was in a room alone, they'd separated us up, one man rooms, and only out of our rooms for a few hours of PT, some mingling in the common areas, and classes. I understood why, it was to keep us isolated and make us learn to deal with the isolation of job. We had all heard about how in most units we would be ostracized, unwelcome around most soldiers, and we would be working with stuff that people feared and didn't understand.

I still missed Bomber, even if half the time I saw him he and Vencilla were joined at the hip.

The time was going by slowly, and I kept getting up and pacing before getting myself under control and sitting back down. This was serious.

Finally there was the three knocks at the door. I got up, opened it, and Instructor Tammerly stood there. Without a word he handed me a small sheath of papers, did a left face, and moved on to the next door.

"STILLWATER, A. 6224" was on the edge of the folder.

My fingers were shaking as I opened the manilla folder.

First up was a list of class rankings.

99.9% - Stillwater, A.
99.7% - Bomber, J
99.7% - Stillwater, W.
99.7% - Vencilla, T
96.8% - Nakamara, P
92.3% - Johnson, R

The breath I didn't realize I was holding whooshed out. I'd managed to do it, graduated top of the class. We'd already been telling us that we didn't get any ceremony, we weren't going to have our parents there to watch us, and this sheet of paper was all we might have to celebrate. Bomber, William, and Vencilla had tied, and I'd managed to eek it out just barely. There was a huge gap between Vencilla and Johnson, but Johnson had done his best, nobody could fault him, but he'd usually only scored 98-99% on the tests while the four of us, nicknamed the Four Horsemen by the Instructors, usually got 100% on the tests. I'd gotten exactly two 99% scores.

I'd done it. I'd passed Special Weapons school.

Chapter 37

Enroute to Target
Operation Loose Powder
Atlantic Ocean
30,000 feet
October, 1986

The C-141A was just humming along. My ears had gotten used to the noises of a military cargo plane in flight, and I was sitting calmly in the mostly empty cargo bay of the prop driven cargo plane. Bomber and Vencilla were sitting together, talking to one another, William was sitting on the other side of the package in an armored J-Suit with a flamethrower next to him just like Vencilla was, and the rest of the people were all from some fucking snake-eater unit. They were doing the usual looking menacing and grunting at each other in whatever language it was that the snake eaters spoke.

There was a pallet in the middle of the cargo area, wrapped in plastic, then padding, and strapped down nine ways to Sunday with cargo straps. On the pallet were four boxes, three feet tall, two feet thick and five feet long. The containers had condensation on the side, the built in cooling mechanism working so far. Every once in awhile me, Vencilla, William, or Bomber got up to check the internal temperature of the containers. Each box contained three canisters, each canister contained four samples.

The snake eaters had asked a few times what were in the containers that required them to be in full battle rattle with some serious hardware. We knew at least two were SEALS, which I guess meant we were saved, and they'd made a big deal over the fact that if we made a water landing they would secure us after they secured the cargo.

There was a beep and I got up to check the first crate. The numbers stenciled next to the temperature readout were clear. The temperature on the first one was different from the others, the contents capable of withstanding different temperatures. West Nile Virus, plain and simple. I tapped the readout twice, habit more than anything, but once during training I'd encountered a digital temperature readout that was loose in the soldering sockets and tapping it had caused the readout to seat properly so that two of the little LED panels had lit up and showed me that it was an 8 rather then a 3. I got lucky.

Temperature stayed stable so I moved to the next one. Another set of taps and the temp was stable still on the canisters of Botulinum toxin. I could see the CDC markers on this one through the black paint and reminded myself for the 10th time to either scrape that off or get some paint and fix it. Nobody was supposed to know that the CDC was the one providing this stuff.

Onto the next on, tapping the readout and checking the secondary temp readout. They were still different from one another by two degrees, but both temps were still in tolerance for Dengue Fever virus. I sighed heavily and checked the seals. This one wasn't too bad, all things considered, and it wasn't like any of these were weaponized versions.

One of the snake eaters shifted, they were obviously still uncomfortable that we had ordered them to put on MOPP 4 and remain in it. One of them had complained and I'd told him that he was relieved of duty and reminded the others that if he refused to leave and attempted to board the plane they were to use lethal force. When he complained to the Colonel the Colonel had relieved him and sent him packing. I was amazed that the snake eater hadn't thrown himself to the ground and kicked his feet and pummeled the ground while screaming it wasn't fair.

I checked the last one. Three canisters of yersinia pestis, pneumonic, septicemic, and bubonic versions. I wasn't really worried about it, I had my shots.

All one hundred and thirty-eight of them. The final Special Weapons test. If you survived the massive amounts of vaccinations and immunizations, congrats, you were officially a member of Special Weapons.

The plane dipped slightly and I put the cover back on the boxes, then checked the strap that connected the pallet's parachute to the frame of the plane. In case of a mid-air explosion it was supposed to deploy a chute, but I thought it was kind of stupid. The same as my parachute. Hell, I had no training in parachuting, I didn't plan on being Airborne like Bomber, and my chute was just sitting with my other gear. The tilt of the plane didn't scream "OH GOD WE'RE FUCKED!" to me but rather that we were getting close to our place of deployment.

We'd done mid-air refueling twice, and had been in the air for over sixteen hours. As near as I could figure we were not flying a normal straight line pattern, but instead were overflying certain regions. Based on the directions I knew we could only be heading to one place and one place only.

I shoved the thought out of my head. That wasn't my concern, and my briefing had already covered it. Covered a lot of things that made perfect sense why I was escorting a handful of bioweapons.

The buckle twisted in my hands but I eventually managed to get it put in place. The plane slowly landed, taxiing in, and the snake-eaters jumped to their feet, clustering around the opening, while I moved over to sit down on the pallet. The snake eaters were all acting like at any second a thousand cannibals were going to rush the plane, waving weapons made of old road-signs over their heads. I snorted to myself.

The sun was pounding, even though it was outside the plane, and the hot air flooded into the interior of the plane.

Outside the plane were men in OD Green uniforms, their faces swarthy, fierce mustaches, and AK-47's in their hands. One came forward and the snake eaters raised their weapons.

The suit, who I had been trying to ignore and had been pretty successful at it, stepped forward so he was behind the snake eaters and began talking in Arabic to the men outside. That wasn't any of my concern, I was just here to ensure that the cargo arrived safely.

What a government chose to do with it was none of my concern unless I was ordered to deploy it.

The four Special Weapons Troops, me, Bomber, William, and Vencilla, just stood by the pallet.

"May we see it?" One of the OD Green clad guys asked in heavily accented English.

I simply pulled off the cover, exposing the plastic wrapped climate control boxes. He stared at them for a long moment.

"May we see it to ensure that the promised cargo is indeed there?" He asked again.

When I shook my head he flushed slightly. I sighed and tapped one of the boxes. "These are climate control containers, they keep the biologicals cold enough that they do not breed and are dormant. The biologicals themselves are microscopic in size, and if you were able to inspect the viruses and bacteria themselves then you would be exposed." I waved at William. "In which case, you would want us to decontaminate the area with extreme prejudice."

He nodded slowly, finally realizing what he was seeing what Vencilla lifted the ejector unit of the flamethrower and snapped the igniter twice.

The suit came forward and slapped his hand on the yersinia pestis container, which made me flinch. "Gentlemen, let's get this stuff off the plain and into your facility. I'm sure the nation of Iraq is eager to begin their research." He smiled and I had to restrain an urge to pull my pistol out and start shooting. The Iraqi officer was almost obscenely eager for us to not only offload the package and take it to their warehouse, but to get the fuck out of his country. I managed to get a good look at parts of their facility and knew that I'd be debriefed on what I was able to see. Sure, we were the ally of Iraq, but we didn't exactly trust them since allegiances were fluid in this part of the world.

The Cold War made for strange allies.

Charleston Field AFB
South Carolina, United States of America
Halloween

Bomber saw me coming into the room and held out his hand. Vencilla was standing next to him smiling and holding his hand.

"Let me see it." Vencilla said. I held out my hand and she looked at the ring that was a stranger to my finger. She tilted it, the light catching the diamond chips on the gold band, and smiled. She let go of my hand and Bomber's and hugged me. "Congratulations, Tony." As soon as she let go Bomber hugged me tight, lifting me up off the ground.

"I'm a little offended you didn't ask me to be there, Ant." Bomber said.

"We were rushed. She flew in yesterday, we got married in the afternoon, stayed in the hotel, she flew out this morning." I explained.

"Good honeymoon?" Bomber asked. Vencilla elbowed him and we all laughed. "Hey, did you hear?"

"Hear what?" I asked.

"Your brother's in the hospital." He said. He grabbed my arm before I could move. "He's OK, he's just got a concussion, they're going to keep him a couple of days for observation."

"Fighting?" I asked.

"Actually, no." Vencilla said. She shook her head. "It was the goddamndest thing I've seen, and I've seen some shit since I signed up for Special Weapons."

"What happened?" I asked, heading for the soda machine. I had drymouth again, something I kept getting, but it was a known issue with some people. I grabbed an Orange Crush and popped it open, slugging down half of it while Vencilla spoke.

"He was walking back from the club, got hit in the head with a chunk of ice that they figure fell off the wing or landing gear of one of the planes landing." Vencilla told me.

I almost spit out my soda choking back the laughter. Orange Crush ran out of my nose before I could get my laughter under control.

"Oh, it gets better." Vencilla said. "To top it off, it didn't knock him out, just knocked him goofy, and when someone stopped to help him he attacked the car. I'm not kidding, he tried to kick the ass off of a car. The EMT's had to get the MP's and they had to TASER him down before they could get him in the ambulance." I had tears running out of my eyes, trying to stop laughing and stop the Orange Crush from ending up all over everything. "So he's going to be late to his first duty station." She finished.

"Got your orders yet?" Vencilla asked, holding up the stapled together sheets of paper.

I nodded, holding mine up. Bomber did too.

"Whatcha got?" She asked.

"Airborne training." Bomber said. "Germany after that."

"Germany." I told her.

"Site Red Rocket." Vencilla told us.

"What's that?" I asked.

"Beats the shit out of me, but all I know is I'll be taking a plane to Ohio and have to be escorted the rest of the way in." She said. "Goddamn, wish I was going to Germany with you and William. Red Rocket is probably going to suck ass."

I nodded. "Probably the worst place in the goddamn Army."

"Hell, we'll send you post cards of hot German women, the beer, and the food." Bomber laughed, punching her shoulder playfully.

"Enjoy your suck tour." I laughed.

Chapter 38

2/19th Special Weapons Group Area
Restricted Area, Alfenwehr West Germany
Late Winter- 13 February, 1988
Day 6 of Repairs
Day 6 of the Third Incident

I woke up to someone kissing me, their thumb and first two fingers holding my jaws open as they exhaled into my mouth. I opened my eyes as Aine pulled away and lifted up one finger, blue paint on the end. She swiped it across my eyes, over the top of my eyebrows, dipping in at my nose, with a slight uplift on both ends. Before I could say anything she rubbed the tip of her other index finger across my lips, making them tingle and burn. Behind her head was the chrome lampshade of an old style hospital lamp and I could tell I was laying on a padded bed. I could hear a heart monitor, the steady whoosh-psssht of a respirator, and the sounds of meat being squelched around.

"Get off me, Aine." I growled, trying to reach up to push at her. Instead I discovered that my arms and legs were strapped down, a wide band across my chest to keep me from sitting up.

"Is that Stillwater?" Nancy asked. I couldn't see her.

"Not yet." Aine said, shifting from where she was straddling me. She was stark naked except for blue paint swirling on her body, covering her nipples and breasts in a spiral pattern that terminated at her nipples but plunged down between her breasts to create further patterns on her belly, her groin, down her thighs. She looked over her shoulder and I could see a butterfly made by putting two handprints close together on the back of her neck. "He will be soon."

"He's goddamn lucky that mine didn't blow his fucking head off." William said.

"It was rusted, been there in those damp fucking tunnels for forty-five years." Dobbs said. "When the popup charge went off it just blew most of the mine into rust so that all that went off in his face was what was left of the explosive charge. Enough to knock him out and cover him in rust, but that was it."

"Then why didn't Jenkins move it?" William asked.

"Because. He was. A nut." Lancer said quietly. "He probably didn't care, hell, it probably didn't even care about it, might not have even known it was there. Hell, it might not even been there for him."

Aine leaned back down, painting on my chest.

"You shouldn't use that, Aine." Ineda said. "Only Matrons are allowed to..."

"Shut up, Cadet Stillwater!" Dobbs shouted.

"I am Aine. I do as I please." Aine said, giggling as she painted down my neck.

"You seriously think she can use some kind of bullshit magic to get Stillwater back on his feet?" Artaine asked.

"Him, yes." Aine said, and giggled again. She wiggled her bottom and I could tell that we were both stripped naked. She looked off to her left while I glared at her in hate. "You? No. Your blood isn't McCullen or Stillwater blood." She wiggled again, then looked over at Nancy again. "He's feeling better." She giggled. "Any woman could tell."

"Just get him on his feet, Kelly." Nancy snapped. "Goddamn it, Dobbs, pull that back a little further. Use your fucking hands. Feel along it, tell me if there's a tear or a hole, I stitch her up with holes in her intestines she'll go septic and die on me."

...My Nancy...

With a scream I tried to lunge up, break the ties holding me down, struggling side to side to break free and get loose. Aine rode me as easily as she'd ride a well behaved horse, just moving with me, and I could feel my erection slide back and forth against her skin. I tried lunging up again, but she put one hand on chest and pushed me back. I could feel the tackiness of some kind of paint.

...No, not paint, it might look like paint, but it isn't paint...

Her other hand rested over my heart and I felt a surge of rage and strength, struggling again against the bonds, trying to throw her off of me. The feel of her skin against mine inflamed my lust and my rage and I couldn't decide whether I wanted to rip her limb from limb with my bare hands or hold her down and fill her belly and make it swell. Maybe both. Hurt her, break her, make her beg, take her roughly and brutally on the floor and force her belly to swell.

"Get off of me." I screamed, trying to throw her off again.

"Is he going to get his speech back?" Bomber asked.

"He doesn't need to know how to speak any more than he knows how to read." Aine said, smiling down at me. "His body is waking up, it'll will know everything he needs to know." She leaned forward, kissing the point of my chin. "He is what our families make boys into, he had no need of words, written or spoken, those are the possessions of the women."

"Bullshit, Aine." Bomber said. His hands came into my vision, one wrapping around Aine's chin, the other cupping the back of her head. "Give me back my friend or I'll break your skinny little fruit bat neck and see if feeding him your heart raw fixes him."

Aine slumped slightly, her posture becoming submissive. "As you say, blood brother of Aodán."

"What the fuck is what you keep calling him?" Bomber asked, letting go of Aine's head and putting one hand on the back of her neck. "No goddamn fruit bat tricks."

"It's his name." William said. "What Jed and Martha were told by the Matrons to name him. It used to be tattooed on his back."

"Wait, I thought his name was Anthony." Dobbs said.

I knew William was shaking his head. "No, his name was Aodán McDourn. My father renamed him Anthony Stillwater when he named Tony his son."

"Christ." Dobbs said.

"Fucking white people." Artain laughed. "You guys are all fucking weird."

I screamed and tried to get away again, struggling hard, trying to get at Aine and either hurt her or fuck her.

"So what happens if I let him go now, Aine?" Bomber asked, and I could hear the humor in his voice.

Aine drew back in fear. "Don't do that, Johnathon, please. It would be very bad."

"Then bring my friend back. I don't give a shit if you don't think boys should read or speak, I want my friend." Bomber said, grabbing Aine's hair and winding it in his hand. "Give me back my friend or I'll feed him your heart raw."

"Then let go of me, Johnathon." Aine said softly, reaching down and lifting up a small fired clay jar painted with leaves and butterflies. She dipped a finger into it and rubbed it on my temple, then repeated it with the other fingertip.

I went limp, the rage suddenly under control. The lizard opened his eyes and hissed at the bank of lights fully lit up. He started hitting switches, pressing buttons, and I felt parts of my brain waking up. A headache spiked through, but I was able to suppress it. "Get off me, bitch." I managed to grate out.

"Welcome back, brother." John said, looking down at me head. "We thought we were going to lose you." He shook his head. "We need you on your feet, we got major problems."

"Like what? Aine, get off me."

Aine laughed, wiggled her butt, then got off me.

"Congrats, Nancy." Dobbs laughed.

"It does the job." Nancy said. "Stokes, turn the page, I need to see how to close her up. I think we found all the holes and tears." She sighed. "Hopefully the stitching job I did on her uterus means she won't lose it when we finally get her to hospital."

"You did what you could." Stokes said. Bomber was undoing the straps holding me down and I sat up.

We were in the War Fighter Tunnels medical bay. Nancy was working over a naked Lanks, blood all over the front of Nancy. I turned away, not willing to look at Lanks exposed in such a way. She was my friend, she was vulnerable, she didn't need me taking away her dignity.

"How bad are things?" I asked, swinging my legs off the side. "And where the fuck are my clothes?"

"Here." John said handing me a stack of my clothing, nicely folded. "Bad."

"Tell me." I said, putting on my underwear first.

"Aww." Aine said.

"We had fruit bat do a recon." William said.

"I have a name." Aine said.

"Yeah, fruit bat." Dobbs said.

"At ease that shit, what's going on?" I asked, sliding into my BDU pants.

"The CIA guys rounded up Rear D and are sending them down the mountain. They're claiming that we killed the LT and Leemore. The CID guys are up here, along with the DIA guys. They have the run of the barracks and are searching for someone." William said.

"You want to take charge?" I asked after pulling on my T-shirt. We were the same ranks, but he had an earlier date of rank than I did, meaning he outranked me.

"No." He shook his head. "This is pretty much Actual, and I'm not about to try to take charge of something you've been running just fine." He looked around and grinned. "Plus, I don't think these guys would listen to me."

The mark of a good leader. He'd be a hell of an NCO, far better than I would. He knew when to take charge and when to stand to the side. He instinctively knew shit that I was just guessing at.

He was born to lead.

I was born to die in a ditch on some forgotten battlefield in some shit hole country.

"Are you sure? I have no idea..." I tried to convince him to take the reins of Actual from me, give these guys a chance at survival.

A rabbit scratched his ears on top of box behind William as I looked at him when he suddenly interrupted me by slamming his hand on the metal counter beside him, sending the bottles in the shelves attached to the counter jingling.

"Enough, Tony!" He snapped. "Do you think anyone here doesn't think you can't lead this crew?" He paused, waving at everyone.

"You mean like Lanks or Artaine?" I shot back.

"Hey, cracker, don't be putting words in my mouth." Artaine shot back. "You got us through that Spetsnaz shit." He shrugged. "They only ripped open my guts, I'm still here."

"Don't use Lanks as an excuse either, Stillwater." Lancer said. "Or me. This is a war for some reason, and casualties happen during war."

I straightened up, setting my shoulders. "Fine."

"Better." William nodded. "We've got sixteen CIA assets, four DIA assets, eight CID assets, all with unknown loyalties, but we do know that at this time the CIA assets are to be considered hostile. They're searching for something, we don't know what, but they think you know." He pointed at John. "They want you, Bomber, or Nancy alive. Everyone else from Actual, they want killed."

"No survivors." Aine said.

"What the hell are they after?" John asked.

"It doesn't matter." I said, walking out of the medical bay and into the Command Center. There was still the debris laying around for our desperate fight for survival. "All right, Actual, time to get ugly." I grabbed one of the rolls of wire that belonged with a Claymore land mine that we'd attached to the front of the ballistic shields after the fighting in the barracks, just in case. When I wrapped my hand around the roll of wire I jerked, hearing gunfire and howls of bloodlust. My hand shook as I brought the wire back.

"How many of you have had garotte training?" I asked, turning around.

William, Ineda, and Aine raised their hands. Nobody else.

"Time to learn." I smiled. I unwrapped some of the wire and tossed the roll to William. "Make at least two garottes for each of them." I looked at everyone. "Raise your hand if you've had knife fighting training." The same group raised their hands, but Nancy and Bomber lifted their hands too. "All right, we're going to do crash courses. Nancy, when will you be done?"

"Fifteen, maybe twenty minutes." Nancy answered, her hands still busy.

I looked at them, smiling. "We've got only a few hours, then we're going to take the fight to them. Once Nancy is finished and rests for a moment we'll start a crash course."

William was handing out quick and dirty garottes, just a chunk of wire with a thick knot in the middle and a loop on either side, to each person, skipping Artaine and Lancer. Ineda looked at and sneered when it was handed to her and I had to resist smacking her across the mouth.

"This ain't West Point, Cadet, this is the real Army, meaning you take what you can get." I told her. "That's field expedient garottes rather than some snake eater bullshit."

"God knows I'd rather have a locking garotte." William said. "There just isn't the shit to make one." He made a knot in the middle of a length of wire and began making the loops on either side.

"Aine, if you would?" I asked. Aine smiled at me, moving up to get behind me and taking the garotte in her hands. "Since we don't have a thin, strong wire these garottes aren't designed to cut through the throat, they're designed to cut off the air. There are two vulnerable points you want, and that knot will help you. The knot cracks the trachea or provides additional pressure on the vulnerable points." I tapped the top of my throat right under the jaw and then the bottom of my throat right above the join point of my collarbones. "Those are the two soft points, the trachea provides armor across the center, but a hard pull will collapse the windpipe."

The lecture went on, with Aine using me to demonstrate taking down a taller target and Stokes using me to demonstrate taking down a shorter target, while Stokes used William to show how to take down a target of roughly equal size. From there we moved to knives, doing quick and dirty ambush techniques, warning them that if they gave any target a chance the target would take away the knife and feed it to them. William gave a quick and dirty hand to hand combat refresher, followed by Stokes who showed us some ugly advanced techniques.

Everyone caught on quick as they were going to. William was better at the hand to hand stuff than I was, with Dobbs proving to be a quick study at the knife. Lancer surprised everyone by standing there, staring off into the blackness that had replaced his sight, and suddenly turning, looping a garotte over Dobbs' head and pulling back hard enough to choke her. He let go after a two count, sliding the garotte back up his sleeve and standing there perfectly relaxed.

"Just in case, you know?" He said softly. I expected Dobbs to get up and punch him in his face, instead she smiled, stood on her tiptoes and kissed him, cradling the side of his face with one hand gently.

After about an hour William, Stokes, and I figured that we had taught everything we could as best we could and sat down.

"All right, now for the hard part." I said, tapping the planning table in front of me. Thanks to Jenkins had maps of the entire barracks, with notations, that he'd left in his lair. Luckily enough he had a half dozen codes for the War Fighter Tunnel doors scrawled down on the maps.

He may have been a paranoid maniac who almost blew our XO apart with a Claymore land mine, but right now all of his preparations and the War Fighter Tunnels were all we had on our side. Unfortunately we didn't have any keys to open up any of the armories or anything else we needed in the War Fighter Tunnels to give us any kind of edge, so our assets were extremely limited.

Which meant we had to take the assets we needed.

"All right, we can't just go running into the barracks, screaming at the top of our lungs like we're the Picts charging the Roman legions." I said, leaning back and taking a drink off of the coffee Dobbs had made on the stove in the kitchen area. There was a fine layer of grit at the bottom of the canteen, but who really gave a shit? "We need to have a plan beyond 'kill all the CIA assholes' and we're all too smart to use a fucking jar head plan."

That got chuckles.

It was easy to forget, and civilian would never believe, that every single person in the room were geniuses. All of us scored 96 or above on the ASVAB, had 120 or higher GT scores, as well as high math, logic, and reasoning scores.

Not to mention everyone here had survived the Hell on Earth called Special Weapons Training, AKA Nuclear/Biological/Chemical Warfare Field Specialist, AKA 54D10Z School.

"The easy way to do this would just mix up some fucking gas and flood the barracks with it, but right now the CID and DIA guys are unknown allegiance, and I'm not down with killing innocent people right now." I said. That got nods from everyone. "If we didn't have to worry about them, I'd just chem the living shit out of everything and we could just sweep up the pieces once all the crying and screaming was over." I sighed and rubbed my face. "Shit's easier when we can just kill everyone who isn't us."

"Besides the CIA guys, we've got several major hazards." I said.

"The storm." Ineda put forward.

Bomber snickered. "How about Tandy?"

That got nods from all of us.

"The guy with the axe." Nancy said from where she was checking Lanks' vitals.

"The mountain." William said. We all nodded.

"Come on, how bad can the mountain be? You guys live here." Ineda said.

William smacked her across the back of the head. "Don't say that shit. Not now, not ever. The mountain actually consciously hates us and wants us to die, and they will kill us if they get the chance." He stuck his finger in her face. "Do. Not. Badmouth. The Mountain."

She got a stubborn look on her face, but sat back and shut her mouth.

"OK, the CIA guys outnumber us. Any ideas?" I said, taking another drink.

"We take them a few at a time, use our knowledge of the terrain to our advantage, free the DIA and CID guys as fast as possible." Lanks said.

"Wait, Aine, you said you did a sweep, and the CIA had sent the rest of Rear-D down the mountain?" I asked, something suddenly dawning on me.

Aine nodded. "I overheard them telling that to the DIA guys."

The sinking feeling went right along with the lizard hissing. "Either the rest of Rear-D is as dead as the LT or they're being held prisoner somewhere by the CIA. We're going to have to kill them." I told them.

"Why?" Ineda asked. "They're on our side."

"WRONG!" Bomber bellowed, slapping one of the boxes of MRE's next to him that had been left in the Command Center. "For fuck's sake, Cadet, wake the fuck up! The CIA is on the CIA's side, nobody else's. To them we're nothing but disposable assets, tools to be used and thrown away or just plain killed for their fucking amusement. I literally stood there and watched them execute a guy a knew, Franklin, I see it in my dreams every fucking night." He put his clenched fist in her face. "They murdered my friends, your two brother's friends, all of our friends." He pulled his hand back, obviously struggling to get his temper under control. "Don't tell us that the CIA are our friends.

"I want one alive." I said slowly, placing the Gerber fighting knife on the table.

"Nagle said that they wouldn't get anything from you because torture doesn't work." Ineda said.

"I'm willing to take that risk and try to cut what I want to know out of them." I said, holding up my knife.

"But you can't torture people, that's illegal." Ineda said again.

"For fuck's sake, Ineda, shut the fuck up!" William yelled. Ineda looked shocked. "I love you, Ineda, but you're a fucking cadet, you're not even a soldier." He tapped his rank. "We're soldiers. We've been in combat with the enemy, and don't tell me there isn't a fucking war on, and you can either shut the hell up and listen and learn or you can go stand in the goddamn corner."

"How dare you speak to me that way, William." Ineda said, drawing up. "You forget your place, boy, and it falls to me to..."

William just laughed at her. "Do I look like I was raised by Jed and Martha, Ineda? I was raised by Command Sergeant Major Tiernan Stillwater himself, you have no authority over me." She looked shocked. "So save that shit for the Matrons and the other relics of the family. Either you can shut the fuck up and listen and maybe learn something or you can go somewhere else."

"Because the CIA are planning to kill you." Aine said softly. "I heard them laughing about the fact they told the DIA guys they'd let you survive." Her face grew serious. "They were commenting about your tits, Ineda, so I doubt you'll die quick or easy."

"We done?" I asked. I tapped the map of the barracks, a set of blueprints that Jenkins had got from God knows where. Everyone shut up. "Good. Ineda, keep your opinions to yourself. You are not a member of Echo Five Actual. You are not an Active Duty soldier. You will stay here with Lancer and carry out his instructions." I stared at her. "Do you understand." She got a stubborn look on her face and I wondered what had gone on after I had left. I switched to the language that only her, Logan, and I understood. "You can either do as I say or I will have you strapped down to a bed or otherwise secured." She opened her mouth to protest but I kept right on talking. "You are a girl, you are not even a Matron, you are not an officer. This is war, this is battle, and as a boy I have authority here, not you."

"What the fuck are they saying?" Lancer asked, cocking his head.

"They're triplets, they made up their own language when they were little." William said. "He's chewing her ass out."

"Good." Dobbs said.

"Do you understand, Ineda?" I asked. She glared at me and nodded sharply. "Say it, Ineda."

"Fine. I'll do as you say." She said.

I turned back to everyone. "All right, everyone, we'll eliminate the CIA, they're the priority. If we can save the others, we'll do so." I smiled. "OK, here's the deal. We'll look for what they did with Rear-D, but once again our priority is the barracks and to eliminate the enemy. We'll try to help the others, but right now, once again, our priority is the classified data and secure items. If possible take the CIA guys alive, but I want one alive for sure, OK?" I smiled. "Everyone got it?"

Everyone nodded. Ineda smiled.

"Ineda, I want you to go in and keep an eye on Lanks, all right? The rest of us are going to just finalize a few things." I told her.

Ineda smiled and left, heading toward the medical bay.

"Now that she's gone, how about you tell us the real plan?" Lancer grinned.

I smiled, knowing that it was a cruel and vicious smile.

I told them.

Their smiles quickly matched my own.

Alfenwehr demanded blood, demanded pain. Who said that it had to be ours?

Chapter 39

Access Point Alpha
War Fighter Tunnels
2/19th Special Weapons Group Area
Restricted Area, Alfenwehr West Germany
Late Winter- 13 February, 1988
Day 6 of Repairs
Day 6 of the Third Incident
2000 hours

We were careful closing the door of the War Fighter Tunnels, making sure it only made a dull whisper and a slight thump before we spun the wheel far enough to lock the massive bolts into the holes. There wasn't very many of us. Just William, Bomber, Nancy, Dobbs, Stokes, Aine, and myself. We had left everyone else in the War Fighter Tunnels. Lancer was blind, Lanks was being kept unconscious by her IV, Artaine was still recovering, Ineda wasn't a soldier. Ineda had argued, trying to convince me that she was just as capable as any of us, maybe even more since she was at West Point while we were just enlisted.

That right there showed me that she was a goddamn moron.

"This is going to be really dangerous." William said slowly. "Part of me wants to stay in the War Fighter Tunnels with everyone else." He shuddered as I moved up far enough to look out up the stairwell. "I try to avoid the kind of environment you're talking about."

The entryway to the loading dock was clear, the doorways to the supply room and the QASI Office still taped shut with crime scene tape. I stuck my tongue in the hole in the my teeth, rubbing the tongue across the exposed nerve. It just tingled. I had gone to wash off the crap that Aine had painted me with but she had stopped me, quietly whispering that it was all that was keeping me going.

Wickermen, fall harvest rituals, blood in the fields, branding children, casting runes to determine a child's destiny, brews, potions, all of the 'magic' the Matrons tried to use to control us through the centuries. I didn't really believe it.

Did I?

I clenched my fist, staring at the way my muscles bunched under my BDU sleeve. I felt better than I had in months. More sharp, more focused, stronger, faster, with more endurance. I sure as shit didn't want to tell Aine, or William, or Ineda that I felt so good. I was practically humming with the need to smash, destroy, shatter, rend. The lizard was wide awake, humming to itself. The damage monitor was working again, showing me that everything was operating at peak efficiency. Once in awhile the board would shimmer and be replaced with an damage image of my shoulder, head, neck, and leg showing damage, but it only lasted a split second.

My heart beat steadily. I could breathe deeply and easy. I wasn't getting the swimming across my vision if I moved too fast. My thoughts were clear and focused.

How much of it was just me ignoring everything?

"Clear." I said softly. I pulled open the door to the War Stocks slowly, mindful that this door had a tendency to screech loudly if you just yanked it. I felt the hinges grind and lifted up slightly at the door. There was a twinge of pain that instantly vanished in my shoulder. There were only a half dozen lights in the basement trying to light up almost an entire city block, which meant that the majority of the room was dark. At the far end one of the lights was shining down on our targets.

The generators.

When I made a motion we moved into the room quickly. We'd already discussed it and Dobbs stayed back after hitting the lights, staying put with one foot in the door, keeping it from closing behind us. We all figured if we were careful, thought about each step, and acted proactively against any threats that the barracks or Alfenwehr might bring against us, we would increase our survival chances. The lights came on, each bank making a loud clacking noise, and while each bank had one or two that would either explode in a shower of sparks or just glow softly and flicker, each bank of twelve made sure that the light filled most of the room.

Winter had been let into the barracks, and if we were going to survive, we had to follow some basic rules.

The rules were simple: Stay in the darkness, darkness was a weapon on Alfenwehr, so use it. Any appearance by someone or something that should be dead would be an automatic retreat, during which you should try to lead them into the opposition. Do not be afraid to separate but regroup as soon as possible. Stay mobile, move fast between targets but slow when moving in for the kill. Bandage any cut quickly and take care of injuries as soon as possible. Never attack head on, always use surprise if possible, and that means no cool one-liners, just do it and lie later. Do not attempt to take away kills from the mountain, that would just leave you alive and the mountain angry. And finally: Let the mountain do the killing when possible, it had eons more experience than we did.

We knew that the opposition would plan for us to pull a Kurt Russel Plan on the barracks again. Twice was a pattern, and they figured we were stupid enough not to be able to come up with our own plan.

We moved up next to the generators, which sat there silently. In between generator three and generator four was the massive switchbox that controlled the power into the barracks.

"Ready for this?" William asked.

"Ready to die." Dobbs said, her voice sounding rough and animalistic. She'd kissed Lancer deeply right in front of us, holding tight for a moment, before telling him she'd be right back.

We pulled open the sides of the generators, pulling the solenoid wire on each of them. Bomber pulled open the main power box and stared at it for a long time.

"Finish the fight." He said, throwing the main switch.

The barracks plunged into darkness.

This time the chuckle was harsh, hungry, and eager.

And came from us.

Chapter 40

2/19th Special Weapons Group Area
Restricted Area, Alfenwehr West Germany
Late Winter- 13 February, 1988
Day 6 of Repairs
Day 6 of the Third Incident
2020 hours

"NVG's on." I said softly, reaching up and clicking the them on. The world lit up, shades of green, and there was a split second of vertigo. "Remember, IR lamps off."

"Shit." Stokes said, and I could see her pop off the IR lamp. I could see Bomber pull the lever out of the power box. He handed it to Aine, who was holding all the wires from the generators. She moved over to the stack of war stocks, quickly moving through them. She pulled up a tarp, exposing someone from First Magazine Platoon's war stocks. She pulled open a pocket on the rucksack in the middle and stuffed the wires inside and then shoved the switch box that Bomber had removed in between the two sides of boards on the pallet. She scampered back over, smiling widely as we kept speaking.

"We don't know what attracts Tandy, we don't know if the targets have access to NVG's or other ways to spot our IR lamps, and we don't want to drain the batteries quickly with the cold." I said, moving to the doorway. Dobbs was standing in the doorway, keeping watch through the crack that having her boot stuck in the doorway left open.

"I hid them in Needlemeyer's rucksack." Aine told me, smiling. I nodded, knowing I'd remember that. I didn't bother asking her how she knew which rucksack was his.

When I passed the steel access door to the sub-basement I saw for a second William falling down through the access point. I shook my head to clear it away, but that just made static shoot through my vision for a moment.

...Was this a drug induced hallucination and I was tied to the chair being interrogated...?

...Was I laying on the floor dying from being blasted by an old Nazi land mine...?

The temperature had noticeably dropped in the time it took me to get to Dobbs. We gathered together, staring at one another.

"I'd rather you were staying back with Lanks to make sure she pulled through." I told Nancy softly.

"You aren't sidelining me, I'm not your sister, and Lanks will either live or die depending on what we do." She answered, leaning forward to kiss the point of my chin. "You look stupid with those markings on you."

I just nodded, smiling. "Yeah, well, our fruit-bat." She nodded at that. "It clear, Dobbs?"

She nodded.

"All right, they'll head down here quick, probably send one or two, thinking they can just fire up the generators." I stared at everyone, their faces ghoulish looking in the green light. "We'll take the first of them then."

"Remember, we want them alive." Bomber said in a shitty German accent. That brought chuckles.

From outside the door there was screaming, long agonized shrieks of torment, as well as brittle laughter. From behind us, deep in the war stock room, I heard the sounds of boot steps, rushing closer then slowly walking away.

The mountain had seen its share of blood. The Gauls and the Picts had fought each other and the Roman Legions on this mountain. Human sacrifice to the Gods had taken place here. The Templars made a last stand against the Catholic Church here, but when the church soldiers had climbed the peak they found that the Templars had killed one another in an orgy of mutual destruction. Werewolves and witches were burned on this mountain. It was a displaced persons camp during World War One, and officially cholera had torn through the camp, killing almost everyone, but we who lived there had our doubts. During World War Two it was not only a displaced persons camp but a Nazi SS training facility. The mountain was riddled with tunnels, some dug by hand by fur wearing savages, other dug by dynamite and jackhammers by Nazis, other dug by the US military.

The mountain was soaked in blood, had acquired a taste for it, and now it desired it.

People had tried to tell me that a mountain is just a mountain, it has no feelings, no desires, no appetites, and I was just ascribing malevolence to the inanimate.

None of those who said things like that had ever even set foot on the mountain.

Our barracks were a dark place. The Nazi's had done dark things there and it had stained an already bloody mountain. It had burnt down and then been rebuilt, and when it was being excavated they had found nearly a hundred and fifty human remains. When they had dug out our motorpool to relevel it they had found crates of bayonets and rifles. When they had built the chow hall it had collapsed at one point and killed eleven people. When the dispensary was built and the unit had moved in eleven people had died due to electrocution when the medical equipment had malfunctioned.

The mountain hated all human life and wanted it to die.

That was OK, I had hit the point where I wanted everyone who was not part of my clique, part of my little tribe, or part of my unit, to die screaming for their God and spitting blood.

Something growled in the darkness of the stairwell and I heard the patter of paws and the click of nails on the fake stone coating of the cement steps. The metal frame popped and groaned from the cold and having weight put on it. Someone near me made a whimpering noise but managed to shush it.

"All but Dobbs, NVG's off." I said softly. I followed my own order and clicked mine off. The clicks from the others were loud in the silence of the war stocks room. Metal was pinging behind us and I knew it was from the massive water heaters. "Garottes and knives only." I said unnecessarily. We'd left the two pistols with Ineda, Artaine, and to his surprise, Lancer. While Nancy, Stokes, and Dobbs still had pistols they had consolidated their ammunition into a grand total of three magazines and left them with the soldiers guarding Lanks.

Long minutes stretched by in the dark, the hot water heaters pinging loudly in the silence.

"Breathe slow and deep, in through the nose, out through the nose, put your tongue against the roof of your mouth so you don't make noise." William said. Someone started making a light whistle sound. "Dobbs, slow and easy through the mouth, press your tongue against your upper front teeth."

The door crashed open in the stairwell and a shriek floated up the five story space.

"Move." Someone said. "We need the generators on, but if you try anything I'll kill you and we'll see if someone else is willing to turn on the generators."

"I'll turn them on." PFC Orlay said, her voice steady. "I won't cause trouble."

"That's right." a third voice said.

"NVG's." I said softly, turning mine back on. "Nancy, take Orlay, Dobbs, be alert for runners, Aine, no killing. Stokes, take anyone with a weapon who might be dangerous." I knew my voice was covered by the thunder of the three people on the stairwell.

The world was green lit and I noticed the walls were a darker green, almost black now. NVG's used thermal with computer chips to take the confusing scatter of thermal imaging and infrared bounce and make it into a coherent image. With the walls getting colder they reflected less and emitted less, making them almost black. Dobbs grabbed the handle and slid her foot out of the door, letting it slowly and quietly close as the footsteps came closer.

Without a word we all flattened against the wall. William and I were closest to the door on opposite sides of the door, Bomber next to me, Nancy next to William, Dobbs next to Bomber and Aine next to Nancy, with Stokes beside Aine.

The door opened, a flashlight spearing into the darkness, but the beam just swallowed without any noticeable effect.

"How far are they?" The second unknown guy asked. "How big is this fucking room?"

"Almost a city block away." Orlay said softly.

The guy with the flashlight walked right past us, Orlay next, and another guy behind her with a pistol held at her back.

Shit, that meant that we'd have take him first. I pointed at him, then at Stokes, who nodded, her face tight and grim, flattened out by the way she had applied her camo.

"I hate this place. Who thought it would be a good idea to make this building that big?" The first one said.

We were already moving while he was speaking, his voice covering any incidental noise we might make.

One of the water heaters gurgled as Stokes moved. She was a massive girl, and it was too easy to fall into the sloppy thinking of big equals slow, and with Stokes it was not the case. Her two steps were fluid, almost as if she was dancing across the cold concrete of the floor, her hand shooting out, giving a twist on the pistol, and ending up with the pistol in her hand. She was still moving, all one fluid action as she slid in between Orlay and the armed guy in the cheap suit. His mouth was opening to make some kind of noise and Stokes brought the edge of her palm down on the side of the guy's neck, grabbing the front of his suit as he went down. His head lolled back as Stokes lowered him to the ground.

Orlay and the other guy kept right on moving into the room as Aine moved forward and helped Stokes move the body behind the rolls of concertina wire.

"Fuck, this place is dumb as hell." He bitched as we moved forward, leaving the suit to Stokes and Aine, our feet soundless on the grooved concrete. The light of his flashlight had gone from white to yellowish tinted. "Like anything you idiots do matter. We fight the real war, not people like you."

Great, a would be patriot.

"Scarborough?" The guy asked. The flashlight swung and Nancy and my brother went low, blending into the stacks of tarpaulins and sideboards for CUC-V's to replace the shitty ones on our vehicles. "Scarborough?" The light landed on Orlay, her face shadowed and inhuman in the light. She stopped and the guy looked behind her. "Scarborough! What the fuck are you doing?" He shined the flashlight behind her, the light yellow and fading.

A harsh chuckle came from behind the stacks of CUC-V stuff.

"Who's there?" He asked, his flashlight swinging to point at the stacks, taking two steps toward the stacks. "Scarborough, is that you?" He reached in and dug for his pistol as Bomber moved quickly, putting his hand over Orlay's mouth, one arm wrapping around her torso, lifting her up and quickly dragging her back to the stacks of camo nets and GP Mediums. I put my face next to her ear as Bomber pulled her down onto the ground.

"It's Stillwater." Was all I said softly. Her eyes went from terrified to just scared, but her body language went from frightened out of her mind to relaxed.

Bomber made a low hawking noise, bringing up phlegm into his throat, and then chuckled around it, making it sound disgusting. His flashlight, already weakening, took that chance to go out completely without even a warning flicker. Someone else chuckled again.

"Who's there?" The guy asked. "Bitch, you better not have run off!" He fired three times into the darkness when someone else made a mocking chuckle.

"Fuck this!" He yelled, turning and running.

Toward the side wall.

I watched him run, getting to my feet and ghosting after him. He hit the wall at a dead run, bouncing off it and landing on his back spread eagled, his pistol bouncing off into the darkness. I changed direction, grabbed the pistol, and kept running till I was behind the camo nets. I didn't bother running quietly, but instead let my boots thud against the concrete. I crouched down, watching, as he rolled over, his eyes wide and terrified. He started scrabbling for his flashlight and pistol, and I saw Aine moving in on him, crouched down so she was moving on her toes and fingertips like some kind of weird inhuman creature. Her eyes were too far apart, the eyes themselves too big, her eyes slightly tilted and exotic, her mouth wide, exposing sharp little teeth as she moved straight in on him.

She naked and wasn't wearing her NVG's.

He just managed to grab the flashlight and started to bang on it when she lunged at him, her teeth catching him on the exposed wrist that had moved past his suit cuff. Her jaw flexed and she let go, coming up to her feet and jumping over him, running silently on bare feet to crouch next to me. She was stark naked, the uniform she had been wearing only seconds before nowhere to be seen, and blood had stained her teeth and run down her chin.

The suit screamed, scrabbling to his feet, holding to his wrist. He stood up, spinning in circles, and Aine darted out of my vision, moving to the wall and putting her hands over her head on the wall. Her left foot came up, her toes pressing against the wall, then she repeated it with her other foot. While I watched she scampered up the wall and onto the ceiling.

I shuddered.

Someone chuckled deep in the room.

"Goddamn it, who's there?" The suit screamed. "I'm fucking CIA! You can't do this!"

That got a raw rough chuckle from me that drifted across the empty cold air to the suit. He whirled toward me, his flashlight beam sweeping over me, but I'd ducked down and quickly and quietly moved by the time he swept it back.

"If you don't come out with your hands up it will go badly for your friends!" The suit yelled.

I looked just as Aine dropped off the ceiling onto him. Her legs wrapped around his waist, one hand twined into his hair, pushing his head forward, and the other hand went around his chest. She bit him, hard, three times, on the back of the neck and head, before dropping to the ground. He whirled, crying out, his empty hand going to the back of his neck, but Aine moved around him, staying behind him the entire time while he screamed.

"Oh, God, oh, god. SOMEONE HELP ME!" He screamed.

That made several of us chuckle.

"WHAT ARE YOU!" He shrieked, taking off at a run. This time he ran toward the door.

Aine giggled from the darkness, invisible to my NVG's.

"GET AWAY FROM ME!" He screamed. He hit the door, managed to keep his balance, and grabbed the door to rip it open, looking behind him. The red light from the emergency light bathed him as the light flowed into the room and covered him in blood. He turned back and screamed.

Standing in the door was a figure dressed in extreme cold weather gear, the parka making him appear massive, and the cold weather mask hiding his identity.

The suit screamed as the bayonet held tightly in the guy's fist came down, burying the blade into the upper right side of the CIA guy's chest. His scream turned liquid and bubbly as he fell to the ground, his hands going to his chest. The flashlight bounced twice and rolled to the side, ending up pointing at the unlucky suit. His screams echoed in the war stocks room as the huge figure bent down, grabbed the suit's ankle, and straightened up. The suit was still screaming as he was dragged out the door by his leg, the door booming shut.

He screamed for a long time, the screams trailing off and fading at the count of fifty.

"Actual, form up." I said once the screaming stopped. I moved toward the door, everyone catching up to me. Orlay was last, accompanied by Bomber, who held tight to her arm. The CIA guy glared at me in hate but I just smiled at him.

"Bomber, take Orlay over the by the camo nets." I said, reaching behind me to pull my knife out. I leaned forward into the CIA agent's face, staring into his eyes. "Keep your hand over his mouth, Stokes, I don't need any words yet." I tapped the tip of my blade on the tip of his nose. "Blink if you understand, butcher. I can see you even though you can't see me." He blinked slowly. "Good, good. I'm trying to decide if I should just cut you apart or actually give a shit about you." I looked at Stokes. "Let off his mouth."

When Stokes removed her hand he started exactly where I thought he would. "You little shit, you can't do this, I'm CIA."

The point of my Gerber drew blood as I pushed it into the soft flesh at the underside of his jaw as I kept speaking. "Stokes, break his arm if he says I can't do this again."

"You wouldn't dare, you fuck-" he started.

Stokes let go of around his waist, grabbed his arm, and broke it over her knee in one smooth motion before yanking him back up.

His screams echoed through the room. I knew they'd be floating through the vents.

"Do it again." I said.

Stokes grabbed his arm over the break and broke it at the elbow. He screamed again, louder.

I crouched down in front of him, slapping him twice before he stopped screaming.

"I trust you understand your predicament?" I asked.

"Bastard. Fucking bastard." He gasped.

"Break it in another place, Amazon." I said. Stokes shifted her grip.

"Wait! Wait! Please!" The guy screamed.

"Not yet, Amazon." I said. I slapped him. "I'm going to ask you one question, and one question only. If you don't answer, I'll have your arm broken again."

"Goddamn it, you can't-"

"Break it." I said.

Stokes broke one of the bones in his forearm by grabbing his arm and twisting, the sound like a green branch going. He screamed again, long and loud, and I heard Aine giggle from the darkness.

"Did you send Rear-D down the mountain?" I asked after slapping him twice till he was only whimpering and trying to cradle his arm.

"Yes." He said.

"No." Orlay said right after.

"Break his wrist, Miranda." I said. Miranda shifted her grip, twisting his hand and pulling it back, and his wrist went with a crackle.

"Don't lie to me." I said while he screamed. I waited till he was done and went back to whimpering. "Bring him." I said, standing up and sliding my knife back into the sheathe. Stokes held his broken arm, using it to control him.

"Aine, open the door." I said. Aine smiled, dressed only in a flower print dress. She pulled open the door, revealing the short hallway. There was a bloody streak that went underneath the heavy steel door that separated the stairwell area from the area for the loading dock. Aine opened it at a motion, her skin green in my NVG's even though the red emergency light lit the area up brightly. The CIA guy screamed as we pulled him out to the loading dock and Aine opened the door.

Snow swept over us, wind pushing it into the small hallway. It was dark outside, bitterly cold, with a wind that knifed into you.

I grabbed the guy by the neck. "Let him go, Miranda." Stokes let go of the guy's arm and he immediately tried to cradle it, crying out as the action shifted the broken ends of the bone in his upper arm.

"Last chance." I told him, dragging him to just outside of the door and into the wind. "Answer and you live, lie, and you suffer."

"I'm not telling you shit." He said. I knew he could see me in the backwash of the red light from the emergency light, which had the cover on and its guts spilled out.

I nodded. "I can respect that." I lifted on leg and drove the heel of my boot against the side of his knee, feeling it snap under the force of the blow. I shoved him hard as he screamed again, watching him fold down since his leg couldn't hold his weight. He went face first into the loading dock and I put my boot against his ass and shoved, rolling him off the dock. He screamed again as he fell out of sight, but I ignored it, turning away from him and going back into the short hallway. Aine let the door shut behind me.

"You're not going to leave him out there, are you?" Orlay asked, her face pale from either shock or the cold.

"Yup." I said.

"Good." She said. "They're... doing things... to some of us."

We knew without her saying what was happening.

"How many of them that you know of?" William asked Orlay.

"Twelve. Probably more." She said, rubbing her arms. "It's cold."

"Where are they holding Rear-D?" Miranda asked.

"They had me and the other females in the Day Room on the first floor." Orlay said.

"The males?" Bomber asked.

"Don't know." She admitted. "They said you guys went crazy, killed the LT."

"Aine, check the stairs and the first floor hallway through Titty Territory." The diminutive girl nodded. "If we get separated we'll regroup in the First Mag Platoon Leader's Office." A chorus of soft "Roger that" answered me. Aine climbed up the middle of the stairs, using the open area and the bannisters to climb straight up. At one point she gave us a straight view up her dress, at her crotch, and to the inside of the top of her head. The way she wiggled her butt before vanishing onto the first floor landing let us know it was intentional.

"Fucking fruit bat." Dobbs said softly.

"Did you guys kill LT Wright?" Orlay asked, her voice sounding solid, unafraid, like she was ready for anything.

"We didn't." Bomber told her. "They did and are framing us for it." We started moving slowly up the stairs. "Did they ask you anything, give you any clue to what they want."

There was a skittering noise above us and I held up a closed fist, signalling everyone to stop. The skittering noise headed up and I heard the door creak then thud shut.

Something was moving.

"Straight offense?" Bomber asked as we moved around the mid-point landing.

"No. We're going up to the third floor, we need to let Aine meet up with us." I said.

Bomber grabbed my arm and I stopped as we started to turn the corner of the bannister to head up to the third floor. "Is she going to be able to go back to Hannah?" He asked.

I shook my head. "I don't know." I told him honestly.

His constant Texas humor vanished. "More blood on our hands if she can't." He sighed as we moved quietly up to the landing between the first floor and the second floor. "I liked Hannah."

"Maintain noise discipline." William reminded us as we saw a flashlight beam play over the frosted wired glass of the door into Hammerhead Hall.

Bomber and I went silent as we moved up the stairs to the door to Hammerhead Hall. I pressed myself against the wall while he put his hand on the door. I waved the others past me and they moved quickly. Once everyone was past, waiting on the landing between the second and third floor, Bomber eased the door open after two shapes went by us.

"...obably in Stillwater's room again. Fucking Army idiots so stupid they think that'll work twice." One was saying. I slowly drew my knife and nodded at Bomber, who nodded back.

"Not like they got guns." The one trailing said as he stepped in front of the door. I raised up in my crouch, nodding at Bomber, who pulled the door quietly open. I lunged out, grabbed the guy at the back by his hair, and jammed my knife through the side of his neck, sawing it back and forth once before yanking it free and ducking back. Bomber almost shut the door on my arm, stopping it a fraction of an inch before it would have thudded against the door jam. I saw the guy I stabbed grab at his neck with both hands as black looking blood sprayed out from both sides. Blood sprayed between his fingers and poured out of his mouth as he took two shock wobbling steps forward. The door closed and Bomber and I spun in place, hurrying up the stairs as fast as we could without making the stairs shake or much noise. The others moved up in front of us, already almost to the third floor door before we rounded the midpoint.

There was a scream from below us, a shout of surprise and fear, and William opened the door slightly so that Bomber could look through. Dobbs was staring down the stairwell, her pistol raised, ready to shoot anyone who showed themselves in her field of view. The hallway that we'd nicknamed Lobotomy Ward, referring to the old joke that in order to be an NCO you had to have a lobotomy. Everyone moved through it, pressing themselves against the walls until I moved through, William following me and Dobbs putting her hands on the door so it slowly shut. Bomber eased open the double doors that would lead us toward Lancer's room, William staying low as he looked through the crack.

"Clear." Was all he said. He waved us forward and I went first, moving nice and slow and staying quiet.

We were halfway down the hallway when I heard it from behind us.

The sound of a little girl singing and tap shoes. I turned and looked behind us out of reflex, not figuring that I'd see anything.

She was dressed in an old style dress, pale yellow with lace on the edges, with ribbons hanging down. Her collar was raised up so that the lace brushed her cheeks. She had on little black tap shoes with a little circle of rhinestones the size of a nickle in the middle of a pale cream colored ribbon. Her brown hair was bound up in a pair of braids, falling behind her, and her face was almost angelic except for the deep dark pits that made up her eyes and the sharp jagged teeth in her mouth.

"Psst." I said, flattening against the wall, still staring at the little girl who was tap dancing as she moved down the hallway. Everyone followed my lead, pressing themselves against the cold tile of the wall.

She danced past us as we held still. I noticed William had his eyes shut and was mouthing 'Marion, don't look at it. Shut your eyes, Marion. Don't look at it, no matter what happens.' and it made me grin despite the grim looking little specter moving between us. Bomber was trying to see her and I frowned.

Was I the only one who could see her? Did it have to do with the two short lines beneath my eyes that Aine had painted?

Finally she was past us, still tap dancing her way down the hallway as she sang to herself and I briefly wondered if she had filled the same role for the Nazi SS that Tandy filled for us.

"Jesus, she was right there, wasn't she?" William said softly, pointing at the trail of frost the little girl had left behind her.

"Yeah." I breathed, a plume of vapor in front of my mouth and nose.

"We need to get moving again." Stokes said. I nodded and started down the hallway again, blinking rapidly to clear my vision when it went staticy on me again. We moved up to the door to the third floor offices and I pushed them open slightly, letting William look instead.

"Looks clear." He said.

The room was just starting to chill, and Aine was waiting inside the room for us, her back against the office that held particular meaning to me.

...The fifth door is where we found his lair...

...He had a nice little setup in an office with no windows. A kerosene heater, a stack of MRE boxes, and a couple cans of potable water. His sleeping bag was canoed on top of a sleeping pad and a shelter half. A stack of bayonets sat on a desk, next to a half dozen NVG's, and a trio of fire axes...

..."What are you doing?" Hernandez asked me when I set the axe on the desk and straddled the sleeping bag...

..."Returning a favor." I replied, unbuttoning my pants...

...While Nagle kicked open the next door I stood there, with the cold wind pulling at me, and pissed all over his sleeping bag...

"Get away from that door, Aine." I growled at her. She smiled, wiggled her hips under her flowerprint dress, and moved up to us. She had her athame stuck in the ribbon around her waist, the scabbard decorated with patterns she had drawn the first time she had menstruated, and family legends said that the Aine's mixed their first 'moon blood' into the paint that they decorated the scabbard and blades with in order to make their athame that much closer to them.

When a woman is capable of crawling across the ceiling I wasn't willing to discount any of the old rumors and legends.

"There's nothing in there any more but the echo of your hate and rage." Aine smiled as she moved by me.

"Don't care." I told her, moving over to the Kill Shop Office and opening the door. The maps were missing, we'd made sure to destroy those, and the room was still a shambles. We all trod in and Bomber closed the door, helping William lift up a desk and carry it over to set it down in front of the door. I turned and looked at Aine, who was sitting on a desk swinging her feet and humming, smiling at me. "What did you find out?" I asked her.

"They have two guards on the Day Room, two guards on the Game Room, two men behind the CQ Desk, and I heard voices from the ground floor, probably the..." She started.

"Salute, private." I reminded her, referring to SALUTE: Size, Activity, Location, Unit, Time, Equipment.

"I've ID'd six hostiles, heard the voices of three more. They are pulling guard and are extremely alert. There are two guarding each door for the Game Room and the Day Room, with two more b