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50 Foot Ant's Fourth Story

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Original story:
All credit goes to 50 Foot Ant of Something Awful.

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My family is old. We're talking "Fall of Rome" old. It's ruled by the matriarchs of the clan. These women say who may marry who, who will do what kind of work when they finish their military service, and other important things. They decided when the family had gotten big enough to break a branch of the family off and send it forth to another place. America was nice for that. Much better than Europe by the 1600's. America is big, there's plenty of room for our family to grow and expand. The Matrons ensured that their power remained unbroken down through the generations.

It's important to understand something about my family. Before it all fell apart in the late-1990's boys were second class at best. When it came to food it went: Pregnant women, children, women, injured, and boys eat last. Until World War II, boys were not ever taught to read. Never. In some family branches the boys weren't allowed to read until the 1950's or 1960's. "Control your man." is not idle talk. Unruly young boys were dosed with hemlock tea, beaten ruthlessly, and suffered deprivation. Not that it mattered, because boys went to war, boys fought, and boys died. The boys owned nothing, even if the deeds or property affidavits said they did, because the boys were wholly, completely owned by the women of the family. There are ways to break boys to your will, and my family Matrons knew them all. Destroying a boys psyche was part of it, as it made them excellent soldiers and more pliant to the wishes of the Matrons. If their military service destroyed their bodies and minds the Matrons knew how to get the most out of that boy for the remainder of his life.

For the good of the family.

After all, he was just a boy. Boys are replaceable.

Girls are the most precious thing of the family. Girls carry on the bloodlines. Girls can read. Girls are responsible for the very civilization that the boys march out to defend or destroy. Girls know the old ways, of the harvest, of the hunt, of the celebrations, of the rituals. Girls can brew tea or spice a stew to enflame a boy to ensnare a boy or to bend them to a girl's will.

A girl's word was worth more than all the boys of her generation put together.

Girl's know things.

Blood is power.

Girls are an irreplaceable treasure.

To say my family had a military tradition would be an understatement. We had fought in every major war throughout history. From Pax Britannica to the Colonization of the Americas to the Civil War to the War on Terror.

The family matrons used the power gained by the steel of the boys to broker into political power, wealth, and influence. While the husband might appear powerful, in reality he is merely a puppet that speaks the word of the girls in his own voice. Judges, Sheriffs, Mayors, they are all merely puppets for the will of his girl and, of course, the family matrons.

Boys were bred. Like you would breed horses. Strength, size, ability to heal, resistance to disease, endurance, canniness, night vision, reflexes, everything that made the boys better to survive on the battlefield. Intelligence wasn't mandatory, but girls are bred for intellect, so of course smarter boys are a side effect. But the family believed that boys take after the father and girls take after the mother, and were bred as such. Besides, if a boy was too smart, tea and spiced cabbage stew could handle that. It wasn't uncommon for a boy to run a fever soon after puberty that made him... different.

Sometime in the mid 1800's the boys of our family no longer had tailbones.

The old ways were important. Wickermen in the spring and autumn. The girls were witches, who spoke of strange things, omens, portents, and visions. The boys merely stood there, violence caged by ritual and psychological programming. Boys were all marked, the family had certain methods of marking the boys so they never forgot what they were.

Boys are property of the girls.

There was another family like us. We descended from the same Roman Legions, just as long of a history, put together the same way. We hated one another. To the point where up until the powers of the Matrons was shattered on both sides, in two weeks of blood, violence, and pain, we would kill one another over the slightest things. It all started centuries ago.

Over a girl.

An Aine was a girl. Red hair, pixie face, waifish body, sharp little baby teeth she never lost, pointy nose, freckles across her nose, green eyes, and a cute bow of a mouth.

They appeared every generation or so in both my family and the family we had a centuries old blood feud with. An Aine that gave birth to a child was immediately elevated to sit with the Matrons. An Aine who gave birth to another Aine wielded more power than all of the other Matrons combined, even had power over the Matrons of the other power.

The first Aine had been a gift, in the forests, to the commander of one of the Legions. My family claimed she had been given to ours, the other family claimed that she had been given to theirs. She gave birth to twin Aine's, revealed that she had slept with the other Legion commander, and laughed at them both.

In the fallout, both men were killed, as was the Aine. The girls were given to others to raise. This caused the two families to swear blood debts, blood feuds. Both families grew as fast as possible, split as often as possible. Where one family went, the other followed.

The fallout after the Revolutionary War showed that one family could not let the other family settle in another area without keeping watch. A dark, violent footnote of history where the two families, unrestrained, nearly destroyed one another and everyone around them after the Matrons of both families fell sick from smallpox and the boys from each side turned on each other in howling savagery.

It was decided that each group of Matrons would also contain one or more Matrons from the other family, to better control the boys.

Which was why an overwhelming majority of boys stayed in the military. After the Civil War it was agreed by the Matrons of both families that boys would be turned over to the United States Federal government. Would become the government and military's property. Would not return until they were too old to fight, too crippled to fight, or returned in a silent casket.

The Matrons knew their power was eroding after World War II. Too many men had learned to read. Federal Law required that boys learn more than just numbers and how to sign their name. Knowledge is power, and boys were being given knowledge whether the Matrons wanted it or not. But the military was vast, and boys could be given to the military until they were used up or dead. The power of the Matrons had survived so many changes, it could adapt to boys learning to read and being exposed to ideas. Rules over boys became harsher, more demanding. Boys were conditioned to behave, to respond to the authority of the girls.

It worked fine, until the end of the Cold War. When everything went to Hell.

Over a woman.

Over an Aine.

And the seeds of the families' destruction were sown by an Aine, by a boy who should have died but lived, by a boy who should have been a hated rival but had shared shed blood with the outcast boy, by a Texan who embodied loyalty and duty, by a betrayer of her own sex who was filled with rage and hatred, up on a mountain that in the days when men wore skins and carried spears was known as Alfenwehr Mountain.

It was what happened on that mountain that changed everything forever.

In the dark, in the cold, drowned in frozen blood, on Alfenwehr Mountain, the unthinkable happened.

A boy was made into a monster.

In the dark his humanity was stripped away.

By blood his compassion was stripped away.

In the cold the ancient chains that bound him like all boys shattered and fell away to ruin.

Aine came to Alfenwehr Mountain.

Trained to rule over boys, to possess them utterly, and consume them, armed with the knowledge of the old ways, she arrived on Alfenwehr Mountain secure in her power to claim her property.

But the mountain was waiting. It was older than Aine. It hated more fiercely than Aine. The Aine thought it was just a mountain, just uncaring rock, unaware that it possessed a malevolence all its own.

The mountain had taught the boy well.

And in the snow, in the dark, in the cold, the unthinkable happened, and the seeds of the destruction of the Matrons power were nourished by hatred and blood.

In a cinderblock building that had been ravaged and shattered, where blood had been shed to whet the appetite of an ever-hungry mountain, the dark and the cold were gathering again.

Everything was going to change. Nothing would be the same.

Aine was coming to 2/19th, to reclaim what she was owed. To take possession of the thing she desired, which would be helpless before her. To take back what was hers.


Chapter 1

108th Military Intelligence HQ Building
Wildflicken, West Germany
July, 1987

The room was mostly dark in front of me as I stepped up to the lectern and set down my note cards. In the shadowed chairs in front of me were a hfew dozen men, all in BDU's, with two men with the bearing of military men in charge standing at parade rest at the back of the room. I picked up the remote to the slide projector and thumbed it to life, putting the ChemCorps logo on the screen to the right of me, on their left.

"Good day." I started. "I am Mr. Fifty-Foot, and I'll be your instructor." I paused, but dead silence greeted me.

No biggee. This wasn't a normal class. I'd been grabbed from my unit and sent to the Top of the Rock to instruct "assets" in the realities of certain chemical weapons and chemical weapon production facilities, something that was kind of my specialty.

Not everyone in NBC Warfare had a specialty, but I'd found a certain skill and talent for chemical weapons and learned everything I could about them, even crossing services. I knew about Navy and Air Force weapons, NATO weapons, Warsaw Pact weapons, and even the individual nation's weapons. I could tell you the difference between French and British VX depending on manufacturing site, and could even recognize where they had been manufactured based on a quick examination of the round.

And now I was passing on my information to a group of head-stompers I wasn't supposed to get a good look at. Months of in-depth and hands on study. In three hours.

In other words: More Cold War Bullshit.

"I will be instructing you on a chemical weapons production facility in Czechoslovakia and its personnel as well as the kind of weaponry they produce at that facility." I told them. "You will want to take notes, as this is a lot of information. If there are any questions, please raise your hands."

More silence.

Fuck 'em.

I launched into my lecture, showing slides of the facility, the rounds, key Soviet personnel, everything anyone would want to know about the site and then some. I was giving them everything they would need to know about the chemicals produced there, what kinds of hazards they could face, and how to identify key components as well as precursor chemicals and the finished product. I hadn't been asked to put together my views on the site itself, or give an analysis on the site itself, and I knew that normally it would be covered by their other briefings.

But nobody had asked me shit, and I'd been spent over a month working with Kill Shop and the MI dwonks doing analysis of the site since we'd spotted it. Hell, I'd seen reports on it that had never left the MI unit or the intel gathering teams.

Not once did any of them ask questions. I paused several times, even prompted for questions, and none of them asked a single question. Not even when I launched into the chemical breakdown of the VX they produced at the site or the fact that the site produced T-2 mycotoxin for use in Yellow Rain biological/chemical agent.

At the end of my lecture I paused again, asking one last time if there were any questions at all regarding anything my three hour lecture had covered.

Not one of them even mumbled.


"No questions involving the currently infra-red scans of the site and what possible production lines may be involved, whether or not there have been any large scale vehicle movements, or if there is any HUMINT on the ground that could assist you?" I asked.

Still silence.

I ground my teeth and gripped the side of the top of the podium with both hands.

"Please raise your hands if you ever worked with live chemical agents outside of a training site." I ordered between gritted teeth.

Not one hand raised.

"And none of you have any questions?" I asked. When silence answered me I shook my head. I felt anger, my constant companion, well up inside of me.

"Look you snake eating morons, this isn't like whatever training you went through at Black Briar Ridge, Redstone, or Lost In the Woods that makes you think you're high speed NBC warriors, this is real shit, nasty shit, and you won't have all the precautions designed to save your retarded asses this time." I snarled. Some of them moved uncomfortably. "You think being part of S.O.G. is going to save you?" I shook my head. "This shit will rip the life right out of you in less than thirty seconds even at one part per ten thousand, and you'll be move into a manufacturing facility where the thickened and concentrated versions are being processed. The people who work in these facilities are suited up in full suits at all times while on the factory floor, and if your dumb asses break the wrong seal you'll kill everyone for miles."

I glared out at them. One of the suits was walking toward me, holding out his hand.

"Since it's obvious that you idiots don't even know what questions to ask, I'm going to add in the 'chemical weapon facilities for assholes' chapter of my briefing." I sneered. "Sit your ass down. You brought me here for a briefing on this site, and so far, every one of your goddamn headstomping apes has either slept through my goddamn briefing or just ignored me. None of the questions that would be painfully obviously to a goddamn toddler were asked."

The guy in the suit stopped and stared at me.

"So all of you probably figured that I wouldn't have shit to say about this site." I snarled. "Yet I've been asked to do a clinical and forensic brief for this very site to the Pentagon, as well as had sections of my work given to the Joint Chiefs and the Secretary of Defense. But do any of you dipshits pay attention? No."

I tensed my hands on the podium, which I knew made my shoulders bunch.

"Whoever has given you a briefing has not tapped my synopsis or intelligence extract about that site. I know, because the whole reason I was available for this briefing is I was writing an addendum on it and checked the distribution of it." I told them. "Which means none of you know jack or shit about who works there, which Soviet scientists are there, or even what it means that less than twenty-four hours two convoys have arrived, one containing five vehicles of troops that had left from a nearby chemical warfare unit." I glared at them. "I'm not a fucking idiot, I know what you are planning to do. If you go in there with the kind of intel you've probably been given, you. will. all. die."

I paused for a moment. "Now, if you think this is just going to waste your fucking time, then there's the goddamn door. As for the rest of you, sit tight, and I'll give you a fucking briefing that you would have if you'd listened to me and asked a single goddamn question."

I waited a second. "I'll give all of you ten minutes to hit the latrine, then I start the briefing. If you're late, tough shit." I dug into my pocket and pulled out a pack of cigarettes. I stared as they got up, lighting the cigarette.

At the ten minute mark most of the seats were filled again. Only one of the suits remained. I nodded at them and launched into the briefing, clicking to the first slide in the reloaded slide carriage. It showed a basic chemical weapon round, a photo of a VX series nerve agent 8" artillery shell I'd taken at Atlas. Without waiting, I launched into my second prepared lecture.

"First of all, a chemical weapon is a type of poison, created through means of mixing multiple chemicals with three different and sometimes overlapping objectives." I started. I saw one or two staring at me angrily and smiled. "Yeah, baby's first briefing time, dumbasses. Sit down, shut up, take notes, and I should test you snake eating idiots on this stuff."

First rule I'd learned about dealing with Special Operations soldiers from living with my father: They assume to know everything and are dumber than a bag of hair. Sometimes they have to be reminded that other people in the military know their shit.

Four hours later caught me walking down the hallway with John Bomber, who had driven me out to give the briefing. He had launched into a story regarding himself, two cow-girls, and a haystack near Austin, and I was only half-paying attention to his story.

Up ahead two men were leaning against the wall by the doors out, neither one of them wearing any rank, insignia, or even nametags. As we approached one of them put his leg out and put his foot against the far wall, stopping Bomber and me from going any further. He didn't move it when I got within an inch of his outstretched leg.

"Yes?" I asked, raising one eyebrow. They had about ten seconds before my bad mood at being woken up from a sound sleep and made to prepare a lecture with a hangover for a bunch of brainless head-stompers manifested.

I'd start with breaking smart-ass's leg.

"Good lecture, Mister Fifty-Foot." He said, dropping his leg after looking around quickly to make sure we were alone. "I'd like to ask a question though."

"Shoot." I told him.

"You said that toxin might be weaponized, and there'd been reports of it being used in Vietnam, but you didn't go into detail on its effects and instead concentrated on how it might be manufactured or stored." He said. "Why?"

"It's unconfirmed. I gave you the best information I could, but right now it looked like just allegations." I told him. "I figured that was your objective was to get samples, not blow the place up." I shrugged.

He nodded. "Can I ask you a question?"

"GA." I said, pulling out my cigarettes. Bomber took them from me and got himself one before handing them back while the snake-eater asked his question.

"You seem a little younger than I thought I you'd be when we were told they bringing in an expert on chemical weapons and Eastern European chemical facilities." He said. "When I saw you, I didn't expect that deep of a briefing."

I nodded, offered them the cigarettes. The speaker took one. "Yeah, life's weird like that." I shrugged. "I'm good at abstracts. I prefer nukes, but they don't move around much beyond the short and intermediate range weapons, and even then the manufacture facilities, storage facilities, and launch facilities don't really move around much or shift much like the chemical weapons, so I've been focusing on the shifts in chemical weapons that's been going on in the last couple of years."

Both nodded.

"He's a fucking genius." Bomber said, grinning. They both looked at him and he thumped me in the shoulder with a closed fist. "My boy here was the golden boy in AIT, a few of the instructors tried to convince him to jump ship from Active Duty to research out at Valley Forge."

Both looked dutifully impressed. The one with the cigarette gave me an odd look.

"What the hell are you doing an enlisted man out here in Europe?" He asked.

"It's just what I do." I shrugged.

He looked at the other guy who nodded slowly then held out his hands.

"Thanks, Corporal Ant." He said.

"How'd you know my name?" I asked him, startled.

He smiled slow, reached into his pocket and pulled out a brass coin, a kind that I'd seen before.

"Three." Was all he said when he showed me the coin.

He didn't need to say anything else, even Bomber understood.

"Be careful out there, gentlemen." I said. They just nodded, staying against the wall as we left the building. We headed to the CUC-V, where I pulled a bottle of Wild Turkey out of the glove box and took a long pull off of it before handing it to Bomber. He put on his seatbelt, then took a pull off of the bottle himself, handing it back before firing up the pickup.

"The Colonel wants you to report back." He told me as he threw it into reverse and backed out. I cracked the window and flicked my ashes.

"Great. Any idea why?" I asked. The Colonel had only gotten to the unit the week before and already we'd all been pulled back from our sites, gone through numerous inspections in Class-A's, had to go over all of the equipment, and rumor had it that he wanted a round of security clearance investigations. We'd already been notified he'd be coming out to all of the sites and inspecting them, have to all requalify with our weapons and PT tests despite the fact we'd just done that the month before he'd showed up. From what I had been told on the phone from Nancy Nagle, one of my work crew, he was pissed off already that I'd been working with 108th MI for the past two days instead of doing the bullshit inspections he was holding.

"The investigation about that incident last month is finished." He told me. I felt my mouth go dry as I waited for him to pull into traffic and continue.

"Well?" I asked, the tension killing me.

"I heard him telling SFC Messington that they've determined that we were acting self defense, but labeled those assholes who hit us as unrelated terrorists and not Soviet troops." He told me.

I let out a breath that I wasn't aware I'd been holding. That could have gotten sticky. We'd spent three hours in a move and fire combat with three times our numbers in armed invaders out at Atlas, killing almost fifty "terrorists" in the time it took our Ranger backup to get off their asses and get out there.

Hell, we'd stacked the bodies after taking pictures, collected up their weapons, and rendered first aid to our wounded before those assholes showed up, bitched about the fact they didn't have anything to do, and more than one of them had made comments about the fact that they'd even had to come out and "save our asses" at all.

I'd put in a request to get a new Ranger team assigned, quoting "unacceptable delays in mobilization", "unacceptable performance", "non-professional attiudes" in the paperwork, and flat out telling our V Corps ChemCorps security liaison if I saw any of that team out at Atlas again my crew and I would beat the ever-loving shit out of them if I didn't flat out murder them.

"What about Ranger Team Saber-Nine?" I asked.

"They're gone. Investigation revealed that they waited almost two hours to even draw weapons after we'd called in a real world event and having wounded, and someone on the Chinook crew heard their team leader saying we'd probably be all dead by that time and they'd clean that shit up. From what the Colonel said 75Th Ranger dropped most of the team back to their non-SOG units."

I nodded. "Good. That's the second time Saber-Nine dropped the goddamn ball on us." I reminded him. He grunted, his left hand moving to his leg where a Russian sniper who'd crawled out into the 1K Zone and started plinking shots at us had shot him. That time Saber-Nine hadn't even bothered showing up, claiming that the reports didn't warrant them heading out to Atlas.

"The Colonel's also flipping his shit about Nancy again." Bomber warned me.

I shook my head. Nancy was openly bisexual, predatory as hell, had a seriously bad attitude, but her work ethic was nothing short of stellar. "What's his problem with her?"

He pulled the vehicle into the parking spot in front of Class VI, the military on-base liquor store, threw the truck in park, and killed the engine. We got out, grabbing our weapons, and headed in.

"She broke Kellman's jaw this morning." He told me. I groaned as we headed in the door, shaking my head. He went on without any prompting. "This morning at chow she was standing in line and when Kellman tried to cut in front of her she told him to get to the back of the line and he called her a stupid spic whore and pimp slapped her."

I shrugged. "Then I've got her back. That all he's spazzing about?" We grabbed a basket and started tossing bottles of tequila, whiskey, and bourbon into the basket, loading up for the week out at Atlas.

"Nope." He said, trying to decide between a half-gallon or a liter of Wild Turkey. He went for the half-gallon. I made a motion for him to continue and grabbed a bottle of Jose Quervo as he continued. "He must have read her Smith File, and told me that he wants S-2 to do a security clearance review of her, digging into the fact she killed four men a few months before she got to the unit."

"Christ. She wasn't even charged and sent here instead. What's his beef with her?"

He shrugged, and we went on buying the liquor we'd need for another week at Atlas. We paid, loaded the booze into the CUC-V, and headed back to the company.

When we got there I found out I didn't need to bother going in to see Colonel Adelson.

He'd been hauled off by the MP's while I was giving my briefing.

Apparently, while he was in Frankfurt after arriving in Germany, before he'd headed up to the unit, he'd raped a 19 year old Airman.

Since I didn't have any meeting with the Group Commander my platoon sergeant, SFC Messington, I was told to get my squad, gear up, and head back to Atlas.

Another day in Special Weapons.

Chapter 2

2/19th Special Weapons Group
Restricted Area, Western Germany
Late Winter, January 1988
Day 9 of Repairs
Day 1 of the Second Incident

I stepped out of the shower and turned to face the sink with the mirror above it. From the mirror a blond guy stared back. Ugly, with a scar at his hairline above his left eye, scars on both lips. On my right shoulder was a thick upraised scar, still forming, with staples still stuck in the flesh. I'd lost a lot of weight and it showed.

I put my hands on the sink and leaned toward my reflection, squinting and glaring at it. "You are a waste of a human being. Nobody likes you. You are worthless beyond the fact that you will die so that someone better than you will survive. You will never be worth anything more than whatever good your death can do. Nobody will ever love you, everyone can barely tolerate you, and you deserve nothing good." I told my reflection. "You will die alone, and nobody will know or care that you are gone."

With a last snarl I turned away, grabbing a towel to wrap around my waist and my glasses from where I'd left them on the sink. The brown towel wasn't too uncomfortable, not that I gave a damn about comfort, but the glasses gave me back my sight.

The bathroom door squeaked when I opened it up so I could step into the small hallway from the room door to the main part of the room. On the right and left on the hallway were wall lockers for us to store our civilian clothing, valuable, military uniforms, and TA-50. Beyond that little hallway was the room I shared with two friends. I room that had been stripped down to nothing by a maniac and had its windows shattered by people pushed beyond the brink of caring about survival.

Plywood covered the window that we had broken, just like we'd put up in every other room in the massive barracks. The heater was pinging softly, heat radiating from it to bring the room up to sweltering 65 degrees Fahrenheit that had all three of us stripped down to mitigate what felt like high temperatures to us. The only thing on the shelves were the AD&D books I'd bought from the PX in Frieburg and a crystal Porsche that Nagle had bought me for Christmas. There were some posters I'd pulled out of a Fangoria magazine and a cloth wall hanging of Eddie from The Trooper hanging over the desk. Above the bunkbeds, in between Jason Vorhees' pictures was a small 11x16 picture of a rose garden torn from a magazine that made up Nancy's contribution to the decorations.

It wasn't Atlas, but it was the almost home. More of a home than where we had been, and as far as we knew the last home we'd know. Any time we wanted to doubt it, all we had to do is look at Nancy's face, Bomber's stomach and thigh, my shoulder and thigh, and the dogtags from my dead troops that I kept in the top right drawer of my desk.

None of us were getting off this mountain alive. If the Russians didn't kill us, if our own leaders didn't kill us...

The mountain would.

I paused at the entry of the main room, wet and dripping from a 10 minute hot shower, my new glasses feeling weird on my nose, wrapped in a towel and steaming despite the warmth of the room. I looked at my two best friends and smiled.

Bomber leaned back in the chair, tilting just to the point where gravity would snatch his ass and drop him flat on his back on the tile and holding it, lifting the bottle and drinking deeply from it. In his other hand, dropped down beside the chair with a lit cigarette in it.

Nancy was laying on the bed, her feet up on the headboard, dressed in PT shorts and a sleeveless T-shirt that showed her breasts when she moved wrong, the reason one breast had sagged to the side far enough we could see her hardened nipple. She was reading a hardcore German porn mag, holding it up with one hand with the other hand tucked into the waistband of her pants, her wrist twisting now and then.

It was a slice of normality in our fucked up lives.

"Christ, Ant, I can't believe we're stuck in here again." Nancy bitched, tilting her head back to look at me and letting the magazine fall on her chest to cover what had held my interest. "Less than two weeks of convalescent leave and they drag us back to this shit-hole."

"The Army pays us to be here, not to hang out on Bomber's farm." I said, moving into the room, leaving wet footprints behind. Both of my friends snorted.

"Amen, brother." Bomber said, holding up the bottle and then taking another long swig out of it.

"Whatever." Nancy grumbled, returning her attention to the magazine. She turned the page then licked her lips, her eyes bright, as the magazine showed her a plump redhead catching semen with her tongue. "This place sucks."

I shrugged and moved over to the dresser. Bomber looked at the plywood covered window as I grabbed a pair of shorts out of the dresser and a T-shirt and started to dress. It was too hot in the room for a full uniform, so I just pulled on my blue with gold trim PT shorts and an Iron Maiden T-shirt.

I could feel Nancy's eyes on me as I changed. It made me feel warm.

Outside the door came the tapping of shoes on tile, followed by a little girl's giggle. The plywood shuddered and groaned as the wind pushed against it, but it held well enough that not even a trace of wind leaked through.

We'd put insulation where the windows had been, layered plastic on both sides of the window, then put plywood on each side of the window, creating a nice little sandwich that kept out the worst of the cold. Most of the first floor windows had been replaced, as had the far side of the second floor, but we were still a day or three away from replacing my window. Twenty people sounded like a lot until you realized the full scope of the repairs we had to do. The window replacements were taking the longest, each room needing the windows fixed and the doors rehung. The windows kept out the weather, so they were first.

I liked the plywood better.

I pulled on the shorts and T-shirt, then tapped Bomber's shoulder. I motioned at the bottle when he looked up and he handed it to me. I took a long pull off the Asbach, feeling the warmth in my stomach, then handed it back.

"The rest of the unit is pissed about all their shit getting destroyed." Bomber said when I leaned against the desk and lit a cigarette. He'd been back to the main body of the unit, where they were camped out at Graphenweor, and apparently had found out everyone's opinions.

"Fuck 'em, they weren't here." I said, dropping the match in the empty beer can we were using for ashes and butts.

"Still, good thing we blamed it on Lewis, Hewitt and Jacobs." Nancy said, then gave a long sigh. "Oh, that's so good."

Bomber laughed and shook his head, and we grinned at each other.

Nancy had pretty much lost her inhibitions around us. She refused to sleep in her own room, preferring to bunk with us most of the time. It caused rumors, but the only time someone had made a snide remark about it she'd knocked out three of the dude's teeth.

Nobody had said shit else about it.

"Hear the news?" Bomber asked me.

"The CO's going to have us sodomized in public?" I asked, hopping up on the top of the dresser and reaching for the AD&D Dungeon Master's Guide and my notebook.

"No. They're sending up Lieutenant James to supervise us."

My hand froze less than in inch from the books.

"Yeah." Bomber said, noting my reaction. "He's promised to have the barracks livable in less than a week so the unit can move back in as soon as the snow clears enough."

Even though I'd never personally met the man, his reputation preceded him. He'd only been in the unit since it had moved to Graf in September, but supposedly he was a total hardass who couldn't give a shit less about his men. He had a nasty reputation as a cruel and cold son of a bitch who put the mission first above everything.

"Oh, shit." I said, turning away from the books. "Why?"

Bomber shrugged and took another drink off his bottle. "The CO's getting tired of the delays. He's worried that it'll look bad if we haven't gotten the barracks back up to speed by spring and Lieutenant James volunteered."

"Which CO is that?" I asked.

We'd gone through three of them since we'd been attacked by an axe-wielding maniac. We hadn't had one during those days, the new one had committed suicide, the one who replaced him had stumbled into the concertina wire surrounding the field site our unit called home, severed his femoral artery struggling, and bled out before anyone found him, and the third one had wrecked his car trying to come up to the barracks at night, in the snow. While his car had been found, he hadn't.

"Some Colonel by the name of Reed." Bomber said, shrugging.

It was an oddity about our unit. Despite being thought of as a company, apparently a 'Group' was led by a Colonel. Weirdly enough the office of 'First Sergeant' was filled by a Sergeant Major. Platoon Sergeants were either Master Sergeants or Sergeant First Class Promotable.

It could have had something to do with the fact that 2/19th had over two hundred people in it.

Or it could have just been more Cold War Bullshit.

"What's he like?" I asked. Bomber had been to the field site where the unit was wintering twice, I'd stayed in the barracks working.

"He's a dick who talks about making Brigadier and how we're going to do things like the Big Red One." Bomber said, handing me the bottle so I could take another slug.

Gunfire sounded in the distance, but I ignored it. Sometimes we could hear the units on main post using the training areas. It sounded like gunfire right outside the barracks but in reality it was miles away on the other side of the mountain.

"He makes it here, and gets his star. Great." I handed the bottle back. Bomber nodded sagely and took another drink as I continued. "He'll probably get us all killed."

Outside tap shoes ran by, and we heard the little girl giggle.

She was probably dancing out in the hallway. She'd been doing that more and more frequently, although she was still keeping out of sight. Two days ago Corporal Shieldings had found blood smears frozen on the walls, but by the time we'd gotten to where he'd sworn he'd seen it there had been nothing but ice on the wall.

Yesterday Specialist Lanks had sworn up and down she'd seen a puddle of frozen blood at the bottom of the middle stairwell. She'd described how it looked like not only had someone been laying in the puddle, but there were boot heel marks where someone had been drug away, up the stairs, and a steady pattern of blood drops up the stairs.

I'd gone up to my room at her description of the bloodstain, the way the back door was open to the outside, and the frozen muddy bootsteps leading into the hallway and to the frozen puddle.

I'd locked the door, grabbed a bottle of Wild Turkey out of the dresser, and curled up on the bed, pressed hard against the corner of the room.

And promptly drank myself into obliteration.

I'd woken up to Nancy cuddled up next to me, gloriously naked beneath the blankets, her arms around me and facing me. I'd lain there for a long time, staring at her sleeping face, memorizing every little part of it. From her long lashes, to the scar down the side of her face, to the tiny little scar on the angle of her jaw, I knew all of those scars.

I loved her.

...My Nancy...

We left at least one light on during the night, Bomber and I. We didn't like the room being completely dark, and it wasn't uncommon for one of us to wake the others up screaming during the night.

We refused to see Mental Health about it. Because fuck those guys.

"When's he supposed to get here?" I asked. I glanced up at the sound of grinding teeth, and saw Nancy's face, her eyes squeezed shut, the muscles of her jaw knotted, her back arched slightly, and her hand busy underneath her shorts. As I watched she dropped the magazine on her chest and brought her fist up to punch herself hard at the point of her jaw.

I turned away.

"Today." Bomber told me, holding out the booze. I took it as Nancy let out a series of sharp gasps and collapsed, writhing slowly on the bed. I took a long drink, then handed the bottle back.

"It's supposed to start snowing hard tonight." I told him. He shook his head as I continued. "Yeah, we're going to be trapped up here for God knows how long with that asshole."

"Let's just hope it doesn't start happening again." Bomber said. "Speaking of fucked up shit, how's your head?"

I grinned at him, pulling my attention away from where Nancy had gone still on the bed, smiling that slight smile she got when she was enjoying the afterglow. "Not too bad. The headaches aren't too bad any more."

"How's the eyes?" He asked, grinning at what he knew had gone on behind him.

"Still pretty bad. The doctors said it's probably permanent." I told him.

"Could be worse, from what Nancy said you're lucky you aren't blind." He smiled. I reached forward and punched him lightly in the shoulder.

"You're lucky you aren't dead." I told him. His smile got wider.

"Your girl saved us both." He said.

"I'm right fucking here, you inbred morons." Nancy said, her soft voice and the warmth in her tone robbing the words of their sting.

"Oh, are you with us again?" Bomber said, turning around.

"Maybe." Nancy answered, lifting up two fingers shining wetly in the light. She put them in her mouth, sucking on them, and staring at us challengingly.

I opened my mouth to answer her, the image of her with her ass raised up in the air appearing in my mind and my crotch reacting to the image and her stare when there was a sudden banging on my door. We all turned to look at it, waiting.

The banging came again, this time finishing up with a voice. "Bomber, Ant, Nagle, LT James wants everyone to form up in the CQ Area." It was Lanks, who was on CQ.

A glance at the clock showed me it was 1900 hours, which meant that either he'd just gotten there and he wanted a headcount to make sure we were all still alive, to change the schedule we'd come up with and hand out shit for us to do, or to prove his authority over us.

I was betting on the latter.

"Full uniforms?" I shouted, motioning at Bomber to hand me bottle. Nancy was getting up with a disgusted look on her face, moving to the bathroom so she could rinse off real quick.

"Yeah. He says for everyone to hurry up and not mess around." Lanks yelled back.

"We'll be there ASAP." I told her, then took a long pull off the bottle before handing it back to Bomber.

Bomber and I got dressed quickly, almost finished by the time Nancy got out of the shower, walking through the room naked and beautiful. The scar on her breast where the psycho in the mask had stabbed her an angry red welt as big as the last joint of my thumb. While she was dressing I grabbed my boot knife off the shelf, putting the retaining loop around the heel and starting to buckle it down.

"Ant, wait." She said, pausing in the middle of buttoning up her BDU pants.

"What?" I asked, looking up from where I was still bent over.

"Hide that." She said. She shivered and looked around. "Bomber, hide the knives, all but the cheap shit."

"Why?" Bomber asked, clipping his mask on.

Standard uniform. BDU's, boots bloused (never tucked in AKA stovepiped), belt, earplugs in case on first right hand loop from buckle, green notebook and pen in left hand breast pocket, chemical weapon test strips on right side belt loop, radiation badge inside right hand breast pocket, cap folded and in back right pocket, gas mask carrier hanging off the left hip with the waist strap under the BDU top and the leg strap loose, and the ever present dogtags. I slid the radiation measuring pen in my pocket next to my little black Skillcraft pen.

"Just... please, humor me." She said and shivered, glancing at the plywood.

"All right." Bomber said. I handed him my knife, and we got to hiding the knives where we could. Some of the cheap-ass ones we hid in the usual places, knowing they'd be easily found, some we left in plain sight, usually the useless decorative ones, others went into the hiding spots that had never been found even when CID tossed our rooms on their quarterly inspections of the barracks. I put a cheap ass knife that was more for show than anything else into my boot, and together we tromped out, leaving the lights on in the room.

The hallway was ice cold, ice glimmering on the walls and ceiling.

"WELCOME TO HELL" was still scratched into the paint above the tiled section of the wall, underneath the emergency light that was torn open. The team replacing all the batteries on the emergency lights had run into trouble when over half of the lights turned out to have battery packs that weren't compatible with the new replacements.

Some shit called lithium. It was supposed to last like five times longer and provide more wattage for the lights. It was also supposed to function better in the extreme cold we lived in. Rumor Control said that it was brand new shit, just out of DARPA, designed for extreme cold weather conditions and high amperage electronics like our POS NVG-7's or the new radio that was rumored to be replacing the Prick-77 early Vietnam War era POS.

Nancy figured it was probably designed for vibrators.

Not that it mattered, we ignored anything that didn't directly rate to increasing our survivability, either for the winter or in combat. Although Bomber thrust a middle finger out at the disemboweled emergency light as we passed and headed down to the frost-covered stairwell door that would let us into the middle stairwell.

Together, drawn up into a little group, we trudged down to the middle stairwell and headed down a floor. I paused for a moment at the middle landing, staring down below us at the darkness where the stairwell ended for the bottom floor.

Tandy had pushed his finger inside the wound in my shoulder and then pulled it free so he could suck the blood from his finger.

My shoulder throbbed and I ignored it.

They'd taken out the staples at Darnell Army Medical Center on Fort Hood. Bomber's dad had driven us there, then driven us back. He'd been a friendly guy, tall, lanky, and balding. He'd liked Nancy and me, and when Bomber had told him about how he'd been dying on the table but Nancy saved him, he'd unashamedly wept and embraced Nancy, thanking her for saving his son.

Nancy had looked like she wanted to cry.

A week ago my shoulder had been dislocated and the scar had split open. I'd lost two pints of blood and had to be stapled back up. Instead of keeping me in the hospital I'd been sent back to the unit as soon as I cleared recovery.

And those assholes had sent me right back to the barracks with thirty-two staples in my shoulder.

"Ant, come on, honey." Nancy said, pulling me into the downstairs hallway of Queer Country. "Don't look, just come away."

I shook off the dark thoughts and followed them as we went through the doorway and tromped down the hallway of Titty Territory after calling out "MALES COMING THROUGH!" in a loud voice. It was just common courtesy, even though they didn't have to call that out coming through our section of the barracks.

It had been explained to us, and despite a lot of other guys grumbling about "special treatment" and "EO bullshit" I understood why. Seeing some dude in his boxers walking to the laundry room wasn't usually something enticing and sexually titillating to a female soldier. It wasn't much different than seeing us just wearing cutoffs or workout shorts to them. But for us to see them in bra and panties automatically put them on the defensive, was sexual to most men, and gave them a vulnerability, real or not, that they didn't deserve to have put on them just because we were walking through their hallway instead of Hammerhead Hall up on the second floor.

It was the same reason the wire-reinforced glass on the doors leading to Titty Territory was painted black and ours wasn't.

Stokes was coming out of her room. She was wearing her BDUs, her mask carrier clearing the doorway with an unconscious hip-swivel. She smiled at us and fell into step with us, and we smiled back. Her brown hair was pulled back into a pony tail and she'd taken the time to put on muted red lipstick. She liked to look nice. Almost as tall as me, thick bodied, with a chubby face and a fading hickey on her neck.

Probably my brother's work. He'd gotten divorced while I was on convalescent leave. His wife, a miserable bitch I'd always hated, divorcing him after draining the bank accounts and getting a restraining order against him, citing "I'm afraid of him" to the judge. He couldn't see his kid, she'd taken his house and car and all of his shit that he'd "abandoned" Stateside, and got half of his military pay.

It was a typical story, nothing surprising in it to anyone who'd ever been overseas.

"How's the head, Ant?" Stokes asked, leaning toward me to bump me with her shoulder as she seamlessly merged with our little group, bringing out trio to a quartet.

"All right today." I told her truthfully. Two days ago I'd had a migraine so bad her and Bomber had had to drag me to my room and put me in bed. I'd been blind and unable to function, the toes of my boots dragging along the floor and my feet kicking spasmodically. After Bomber had left she'd sat with me, silent in the dark room, and replaced the cool cloths without saying a word. I'd woken up from nightmare filled sleep to find her holding my hand. I'd cried out in pain, laying in the darkness, holding her hand. When I asked her for some water, and she'd made a pleased sound before reaching out and squeezing my hand. It was a touch of affection I was unused to, and it almost made me cry.

"Glad to hear it." She said, patting my shoulder. She smiled, brightening the hallway. "How are the two of you?"

"Fine." Bomber said. Stokes made him nervous. He'd walked in on her and my brother when my brother had been in the barracks a few days back, dropping off glass, doors, and furniture. My brother scared the shit out of him for some reason, and he was worried that at any seconds Stokes or William were going to call him out for walking in on them.

Stokes chuckled, almost as if she knew what made him so nervous, and Nancy answered.

"Wondering what the hell is going to happen next." She said, the anger in her voice evident. "I'd just finished rubbing one out and was trying to decide which one of these two morons I was going to take a ride on when this shit happened."

Stokes laughed. "Oh man, I hate that shit."

"How's Cobb doing?" Nancy finished.

"He's... doing OK." Stokes' good humor vanished.

Cobb had been sent to Track-Three to dry out. After last winter he'd seemed to be getting better, but in October the CUC-V he'd been driving had been slammed into by a 5-ton, shattered, and thrown in a ditch. The dashboard had pinned him inside the wreckage, the LT he was driving for had taken three hours to die, the young female private in the back seat had died just before dawn, and Cobb had been trapped in the wreckage till late the next morning when some tankers heading out to the range had seen the wreck.

He'd dove into the bottle hard when he was released from the hospital, worse than after the barracks fire. If he wasn't drunk, he was trying to get drunk, and Stokes had turned him in. My brother William had requested Track-Three for him, pleading with the then-CO to put Cobb in alcohol rehab instead of chaptering him out. So Cobb had been sent to Track-Three.

"You visit him?" Bomber asked.

"Every weekend." Stokes said. "He told me last time he doesn't want me to come and see him because he feels like I dimed him out."

"You did the right thing, Stokes." I reassured her. Two weeks ago Cobb had said some things that had scared Stokes, and she'd told the people running the rehab, and Cobb had been put on suicide watch.

They caught him making a noose out of his sheets. After that he'd broken his window and cut his wrists back enough he needed thirty eight stitches.

"He'll come around, just give him time." Bomber said. "He upset about you and William?"

"No." Her tone changed to defiant. "We were over last summer. It's just that... well... I wish he wasn't mad at me."

"You did the right thing." Nancy told her.

"Doesn't feel that way." She said as we pushed open the door to the CQ area. "To top it off," she sighed, "William and I broke up last night."

I didn't get a chance to ask why.

LT James was standing there in front of four ragged lines of troops in a uniform that looked like he'd just pulled it out of the drier. He was one of the few officers who refused to follow the tradition of starching and ironing his uniform, citing the regulations that expressly warned the starch compromised the infra-red protection and that ironing creases into the uniform defeated the shapeless look that was an additional layer of camouflage.

His uniform was baggy, his black hair cut severely short on top of his head. His face was angular, severe, with his cheekbones and nose like an ax-blade. His blue eyes were cold, emotionless, and appeared empty. He gave off a feeling like he was a machine, some sort of infiltration robot that did a really shitty job of emulating a person.

There were thirty of us on the rebuilding team, but it looked like we weren't the last ones to arrive. About twenty people were all that had arrived, and like our little quartet, all the uniforms were starched, creased, and the boots spitshined.

I took my place at the back, at the far right of the fourth squad, Bomber shouldered in next to me, with Nancy beside him. Stokes moved up the second place in second squad, her Corporal rank putting her as assistant squad leader. Her team was in charge of taking inventories, replacing the war stocks we'd used, and replacing the bloodstained tile. My team was in charge of replacing all the damaged doors and door frames.

We'd kicked the all of out of the frames, sometimes breaking the frame itself, to deny whoever it had been with the axe any safe haven.

As everyone formed up, LT James stood there, dressed in his winter BDU's, with a field jacket on, silently watching us stand at parade rest in front of him. He oozed smug satisfaction as we all waited on him to give the order to come to attention.

There was also the faint feeling of malevolence from him that I could sense.

"Corporal Ant, come here please." He said. His voice was a pleasant tenor, smooth and rolling. We all had guessed that he had been a choir singer in high school or maybe in church.

"Yes, sir." I said, coming to attention. I took a single step backwards, then looped around the right side of the formation and stopped in front of him, coming to attention.

"Your boot knife, Corporal." He stated. I waited silently, a small power game, and he knew it. The corner of his mouth twitched and I could feel his amusement as he waited a moment, savoring our silent exchange. "Give it to me, Corporal." He had given ground in our little game, and the expected flash of anger in his eyes was instead a mixture of approval and amusement, which left me off balance.

"Yes, sir." I said, bending down and pulling it out of my boot. It was a clip-on knife, not the full blown sheathe like my Gerber had. I straightened up, coming to attention, and held out the knife by the sheathe toward him.

"Very good, Corporal." He took the blade from me. "Return to your post."

"Yes, sir." I said, moving quickly back. The squad hadn't moved over, they would have if I'd been sent on an errand. When I got back and entered formation properly, I could see he had set my knife on the CQ counter.

We waited silently as the last of the work crew got there, all of them getting into formation. The whole time I watched LT James, taking into account his body language, who his eyes lingered on, and the slight smile on his face as if he had a secret.

Above us boots crashed and voices shouted in German, or at least it sounded vaguely like German. When Sergeant Butcher came down the stairwell and opened the door the wind screamed like the damned and he had been forced to push the stairwell door shut.

Something flickered through the LT's eyes and I wondered what it was.

"Group, attention." The LT finally said. We silently went to attention. "Squad Leaders, report."

"First Squad, all members present and accounted for." Corporal Lancer said, his eyes staring above the LT.

"Second Squad, all members present and accounted for." Sergeant White stated.

"Third Squad, all members present and accounted for." Sergeant Butcher said.

"Fourth Squad, all members present and accounted for." I stated.

"At ease." The LT said, and we all slid our feet shoulder length apart, putting our hands behind our backs, our palms crossing at the middle of our back with our knuckles against our belts. I left my right arm at my side like I had when we were standing at parade rest, putting my left hand behind my back.

"Corporal Ant, is there a reason your right hand is not in the correct position?" The LT asked gently.

...Asshole. You know good and damn well why….

"Injury, sir." I told him. "I have a profile that puts me on limited duty."

He smiled, a small thing, that did nothing to reassure me as if felt almost fabricated. "Very well, I shall examine your profile after this formation."

"Yes, sir." I said. He turned his attention to the rest of the group.

"Colonel Reed, before his resignation as Group Commander, put me in charge of this repair platoon." The LT started.

The Colonel had resigned? That wasn't right. If he was that worried about getting his star, resigning his post would damage his chances of being chosen for promotion.

"As we are currently without a Group Commander, I saw no reason to shirk performance of my duty and traveled up here after informing the Executive Officer that I had been assigned up here." he continued, not bothering to explain the news that Colonel Reed had quit. "Having reviewed the documentation, I have come to a decision about the performance of this work group."

...Here it comes….

"I am more than satisfied of the progress so far." He said.

...Wait, what...?

"You have been working in an extreme environment, working quickly with the tools and manpower available to you, and those of you acting as squad leaders had been more than adequate at preventing cold weather or work injuries, have managed to keep your squads together and prevent any serious failings." He continued. "Having compared my briefing to the actual conditions of the barracks, the weather, and the supplies, I have come to the conclusion that Colonel Reed was suffering an intelligence failure based on the fact he had never personally viewed these barracks."

I did my best to keep my face blank.

"I believe you should all be commended for your hard work in a difficult situation." he said, smiling. Although it was supposed to put us all at ease, something about it made the hair on the back of my neck stand up. "I have revised everything from caloric intake to authorized rest periods, to estimated time of completion on the project."

...Here it comes, the ass fucking.

"I am hereby authorizing the use of A-Rats instead of MREs, you will all work 10 hours on fourteen off, with a twenty-four hour rest period after every forty-eight hour work period." He paused, his smile growing broader. "That is correct, we shall be doing this two days on one day off."

...Something isn't right...

"Additionally, I do not want any of you working for too long each day, so I have informed our acting commander, the XO, that the time estimates for the work projects were unreasonable and ordered them revised." He looked at everyone, smiling, but to me it looked like he was smiling about a joke that only he knew about, it looked like a mocking smile. "With that in mind, I warned the acting commander that things might not be done until the end of March or the beginning of April."

"Those of you on profile, please see me after formation so that we can discuss whether or not you are fit to work up here. I understand that some of you were pulled from medical leave." He said, then came to attention.

"Group, attention." We all snapped into attention. "Next formation is at zero nine-hundred. Fall out."

Everyone broke up, but about eight of us waited, moving over to the LT and forming a semi-circle around him.

"Profiles, please." He smiled. I handed him the folded over profile sheet I carried in my pocket.

He took them, moving around the CQ desk and standing behind him. He removed his green notebook and a pen, and reviewed the profiles, jotting down notes about each of them.

"Corporal Ant, why are you not in Wurzburg or somewhere that your injuries can be properly treated?" He asked me.

"Mission essential." I quoted. "I'm the only one here with QASI authorization and access in case someone needs records pulled. I'm also the only one who knows how to run the computers, bring the War Fighter Tunnels up to full operation, and am rated as an armorer as well as being the secondary NBC NCO."

He nodded and gave me a sympathetic glance.

Alarm bells started ringing in the back of my head.

"Understandable then." He said. "The Army doesn't care, a sad but true fact, but I do. I hereby place you on light duty. No more construction, I want you to heal up and not risk your career or your health. From here on out your place of duty is your office. Go over the paperwork for your site, and any paperwork I send you, answer the phones, but other than that, I don't want you lifting anything heavy."

I opened my mouth to protest and he stopped me with a wave. "Do not attempt to claim that you are not above breaking your profile, Corporal. I reviewed your Smith File, you refuse to ride a profile and aren't above breaking it if it helps accomplish a mission. That is an admirable trait, soldier." I flushed with the unexpected praise. "But I shall not lose the Army a valuable asset, a man with millions of dollars of training under his belt, and something the taxpayers of the United States have invested a significant amount in, just to accomplish a mission that is not that time critical."

"Specialist Nagle." He said, moving his attention to Nancy.

"Yes, sir?" She asked.

"While your injuries may not place you at risk for further damage, I cannot help but notice that if it was not for your actions both Corporal Ant and Specialist Bomber would be dead. Actions, may I note, that were performed without adequate training or supplies, that saved the lives of both of those soldiers."

"Yes, sir." Nancy looked thrown off by LT James' stilted and formal mode of speech, the same as I felt inside but refused to show.

"With that in mind, your new duty is to make sure people with profiles are healing properly, abiding by their profiles, and one additional duty I have for you if you have a high confidence in your ability to carry out the mission." He smiled again, and I noticed that his smile didn't touch his eyes. It was strange to see, but it was like only the muscles of his mouth made the slight smile. There was no crinkling at the edge of the eyes.

"Sir?" Nancy was obviously thrown off.

"I will be drawing FM's for you to read. I took the liberty of drawing medical correspondence courses from the post library on the way up here, ones that are more advanced than the correspondence courses you previously supplemented your education with, and I noted your exceptionally high scores." The smile was gentle, fatherly, but made my balls try to crawl up into my stomach as it still didn't touch his eyes or any other part of his face. "Your place of duty shall be in the office with Corporal Ant, studying when you are not doing medical examinations. Additionally, at the beginning of every 24 hour rest period, I want you to examine everyone for cold related injuries, stress injuries, or anything else you feel might endanger a member of this work crew."

"Yes, sir." Nancy was obviously confused. Nobody had ever taken her medical interests seriously.

"You may be interested to know that I was able to draw Special Forces medical training manuals for your use on my authority as well as a training dummy normally used by doctors, thanks to a close acquaintance I have at Darmstatd Army Medical Center." How the Nine Hells he'd managed to do that escaped me.

"Umm, thank you, sir." Nancy blushed.

"Finally, I want you to supervise, in the evenings, proper physical rehabilitation for all of these soldiers on profile, if physical therapy is called for. After we are done here, I will give you the keys to the gym areas of the barracks in the Two North section and the fourth floor."

"Thank you, sir." Nancy sounded as confused as I felt.

"Specialist Bomber?" The LT looked at him.

"Sir?" Bomber looked as if he expected the other shoe to drop and crush us all.

"You suffered an extremely dangerous abdominal injury that almost proved fatal, Specialist." LT James said.

"Yes, sir."

"You will assist Corporal Ant, who will train you in his job, additionally you will begin studying for the E-5 board. I intend on putting you in for the E-5 board as soon as this mission is complete." The LT told him. "I want you to stick to your profile."

"Yes, sir." Bomber said.

"Very good. The three of you are dismissed. Private First Class Johnson?" he turned to Johnson, one of the guys who had a profile from a dislocated elbow the month before.

We started walking back to the room, and it wasn't till we were in the stairwell that I stopped.

"Ant, what?" Nancy asked, turning to look at me. She had one hand on the bannister, and was in the middle of taking the steps two at a time.

"I just realized something." I told them.

"What?" Bomber asked. "That the whole fucking thing was surreal?"

"No." I told them. I grimaced. "I didn't even remember to ask him why he took my knife."

"Shit, you're right." Bomber said, continuing up the stairs. I followed. We exited the stairwell into Hammerhead hall and trudged down to the door of the room. A low breeze moaned through the hallway, cold around our ankles but unfelt above the knees. Bomber jammed his key into the door and unlocked the door, putting the key back into his pocket as the door swung open.

The room was dark.

"Hold up." Bomber said, putting his arm out and stopping Nancy from going in.

"What?" She snapped.

"We left the lights on." I said, lifting up on my tiptoes to look over Bomber's shoulder.

"So? The lights in this place are fucked." She said, but Bomber kept his arm in front of her, reaching inside with his other hand to flip on the light switch.

The light in the main room and the other one in the small hallway came on. The polished tile gleamed, not many scuff marks on the floor, but no hint as to whether or not anyone had stepped on the floor aside from us.

"Check the stuff." I said, pushing by them and walking carefully, looking for trip-wires or anything else.

Call it paranoid, but I'd learned my lesson.

We tossed the room quickly, knowing what we were looking for.

All of the knives in the easy to find places, and two of the carefully hidden spots, were gone. So was the pistol I kept taped to the bottom of the top drawer of the dresser, and the pistol John kept hidden in the desk. My boot knife was where it belonged, as was my trusty Gerber and John's K-Bar he'd won in a poker match. Nancy's Soviet fighting knife was missing, a fact that made her kick the chair across the room.

"Someone tossed our fucking room." Nancy snarled. I glanced at Bomber and he grinned.

'Our room?' He mouthed. I just shrugged.

"It's starting again." Nancy said, sitting down on John's bed. She put her face in her hands. "God help us, it's all starting again."

"God, I hope not." I said, hopping up and sitting on the dresser. Bomber sat down on the chair and grabbed the bottle while I grabbed the pack of smokes we'd left on the dresser. I lit one and handed it to him, taking the bottle and taking a long pull off of it before handing it to Nagle, who'd grabbed the only other chair and drug it over next to Bomber. I lit a smoke, handed it to her, then lit myself one before setting the mostly empty pack and the lighter back on the dresser.

"You're forgetting something." She said softly, uncovering her face and leaning forward.

"What are we forgetting?" Bomber asked, blowing a smoke ring.

It clicked right before she said it and I felt a chill crawl up my spine.

"Everyone was accounted for at the formation, right?" She said.

"Then who went through our room?" I asked.

She nodded.

"Oh, shit." Bomber said.

Chapter 3

2/19th Special Weapons Group
Restricted Area, Western Germany
Late Winter- January 1988
Day 9 of Repairs
Day 1 of the Second Incident

I stood there for a moment, thinking, while Nancy picked up the standard issue bayonet and played with it. Bomber was busy clipping the K-Bar to the back of his belt, hiding it under his BDU top, his face serious. Outside the door little feet ran by, heading toward the front end of the barracks, and a little girl's giggle drifted over to us.

"All right, I'm going to go down and ask the LT to give me a list of people in the barracks." I told them. "We'll compare it to the people in the barracks, and see who wasn't in formation."

"I'll go with you, I'll claim I'll need the names to make a chart to keep track of the inspections I do." Nancy told me, standing up and putting the bayonet under her BDU top at her back. I knew she was hiding it the same place I was tucking my Gerber and John had hid his K-Bar.

"I'll go too. I'm not really into staying in here by myself." John told us. As if to punctuate his words and low pain filled moan drifted out of the dark bathroom. He shivered at the sound. "God, I hate this place."

"It hates us too." I reminded him, heading for the door. "The whole damn mountain hates us and wants us dead."

Above us was the sound of boots crashing to the floor and I flinched slightly.

"It's getting worse." Nancy said.

The barracks always made noises like that. The explanations ranged from bad plumbing and heating to the barracks was haunted to the mountain was haunted. Personally, I believed that the mountain in general and the barracks in particular hated everything living and wanted it dead.

Which was why it had brought back Tandy.

Private Tandy had went into the bathroom one evening and never come out. The bathroom had one door in or out and no windows, and the door had been in full view of over a dozen people for the entire time between Tandy entering the bathroom and someone bringing up he'd been in there for over an hour. Only his shaving kit and dogtags had been found. The next spring his dead body had appeared, over five miles from the barracks. The Army had officially listed his cause of death as exposure, and claimed that the melting snowpack had carried him 1200 vertical feet as well as bringing him all the way around the mountain.

Except as soon as the snow had fallen in September, he'd showed back up. Very much alive. Very much malevolent. He'd killed four people that we knew of. Despite the Army's claims that those people died from "misadventure", we sure as hell knew that something had first taken Tandy, then possessed him and sent him to torment us.

We moved into the hallway, Bomber locking the door behind us. Our breath steamed out in front of us as the three of us moved down the hallway, pushing through the double doors that divided the block long hallway into halves.

There was already actual frost on the frosted wire reinforced glass.

The lights dimmed slowly down to nothing more than faint suggestions of light by the time we were halfway down the hallway, then slowly came back to a sullen glow that didn't really illuminate anything too well.

The emergency light, designed to kick on when the power failed, just sat there mournfully, its case open and guts hanging out.

We ignored it.

Another night in 2/19th.

We hit the end of the hallway. In front of us was another set of heavy doubledoors with wire reinforced glass. On the other side of them was the large room that the enlisted hung out in during the normal work day if they weren't sent out to their FSTS sites. Connected to that room were the NCO offices for each of the three platoons and a pair of bathrooms. On our right was a heavy steel door that led to the front stairwell.

That's the one we pulled open, ignoring the loud shriek of the frozen hydraulic pistol that was supposed to pull the door shut, and moved into the cold stairwell. It went two more stories up, and two stories down. The bottom was where the Orderly Room, the Supply Room, and the other company mission areas were. The floor directly below us was where the CQ Area, the Day Room, the Game Room, the Rec Room, Titty Territory, and Queer Country were located.

Our boots thumped on the steps as we made our way down, the whole steel frame that held the stairs together shaking slightly.

Above us, something gave a metallic pinging sound and the lights went out, leaving the entire stairwell dark with the lone exceptions of the lights shining through the small panes of frosted wire reinforced glass on each heavy steel door. It gave us enough light to move down the stairs, but not enough to banish the gloom.

God, I hated that place.

We pushed into the CQ Area, ignoring the shriek of pain that floated down from the darkness of the stairwell above us, stepping into the light and warmth of the CQ Area.

Lanks was standing behind the CQ desk, just finished setting down a basic linen draw on the counter. There were three stacks, 2 OD green wool blankets on the bottom, 2 white linen sheets, a pillow, and a pillow case folded and wrapped in such a way as to make it look like it was bound together.

The ADD was pulling off his field jacket and liner, leaving his LBE and Kevlar vest still over the jacket so it was kind of all one piece. The Duty Driver was holding his weapon, pulling the magazine out of the well, while the ACQ was waiting for him to hand the magazine to her so she could inventory the rounds and account for them in the CQ log.

None of the four had my attention.

There were three new people standing in front of the desk, people I'd never seen before. Soldiers who's uniforms were obviously new and still wore 'cruit boots. One on the left was tall and lanky black man, his hair the brutally short cut of AIT, and he was signing paperwork that Lanks had obviously given him. The one on the right was a Native American, asking Lanks if he could smoke as if he couldn't see the cigarette between her lips. In the middle was a short soldier who was obviously female from the way she filled out her BDU's. Her reddish auburn hair was done up in a bun to reveal a milky white neck.

The first thing I noticed was that both men had put as much distance as possible between themselves and the female.

"Hey, Ant, these two guys have the same last name as you! Weird, huh?" PV2 Davies , the ADD, called out, tossing his field jacket and battle rattle onto the table at the back of the CQ Area. It landed with a crash as both men turned to face me.

"Fifty-Foot!" The Native American called out.

"Fifty!" The black guy smiled.

Both men stepped up, the same as me, and we all three threw our arms around each other into a group hug. We let go after a second and all stepped back so we could look at each other.

James Ant, the Native American guy, was one of my cousins, the same as Cassius Ant, the black guy. Different parents, but we still had the same grandparents. James' father had met his mother in the same place that Cassius' parents had met.

During the Korean War.

Like mine, both of their parents had served in the military in some capacity. In James' case, his father had met his mother in the hospital after the Ho-Chin Reservoir, in Cassius' case it was when both of them had been assigned to the same supply unit.

To say our family was of mixed heritage would be an understatement.

"What happened?" Cassius asked me, referring to the glasses.

"Long story, I'll tell you tonight." I told them both. They both nodded, and I continued. "Wait here for us till we're done seeing the LT, we need to bring you up to speed on where those assholes from 21st Replacement have sent you."

"Oh my." Nancy said, stepping forward and smiling at Cassius and James, holding her hand out. "It's obvious the two of you didn't draw the short straw on looks like Ant. I'm Nancy Nagle, and the big blond hick is John Bomber."

"Is the LT in the CO's office?" I called out, stepping around my cousins. That made five of my family in the unit for some insane reason. My older brother and uncle were in Graf. Privately I suspected the DoA was putting us all in the same unit so they could just kill us all at once.

"Sure is." Lanks told me. "Hey, you guys going to finish signing for this stuff, or are you just going to fucking freeze to death in the hallway?" She asked my two cousins, who were laughing at something Bomber had said. They both excused themselves and returned to the desk, where Lanks was handing out room keys.

The embarrassing stories were going to be thick, I just knew it. Bomber and Nancy were both grinning as I turned to face them in order to head downstairs to the Orderly Room and the CO's office.

"Here's your key, Private McCullen. You're in room 147, right down that hall." Lanks said behind me.

I froze.

My blood ran cold.

"Thank you, Specialist." The woman's voice was soft, like warm honey, and a tingling sensation that was way too pleasant slid down my spine. "What time is formation?"

"Zero nine-hundred hours, Private." Lanks answered.

"Ant? What's wrong?" Nancy asked, staring at me.

My hands were starting to shake as I heard boots squeak on the waxed and polished tile. I could smell the delicate smell of apple blossoms.

"Fifty-Foot Ant, as I live and breathe." Her voice was liquid silk and the scent of apple blossoms wormed its way into my mind and made the little lizard that lived at the back of my brain sit up and take notice.

"Ant?" Bomber asked, stepping forward a single step and stopping.

Bootsteps came up behind me, and she stepped up next to me, her arm looping across my back as she wrapped herself around my hip, pressing against me and resting a hand over the middle of my chest.

"Hello, Fifty-Foot. I wondered what happened to you after you were led away from the courtroom in cuffs." She told me, looking up at me with her wide gorgeous eyes. "I've missed you these last two years."

She was just like I remembered her from high school. Just a hair under five feet tall, weighing maybe a hundred pounds soaking wet. Flawless ivory skin with a smattering of reddish freckles across her nose and dusting her high prominent cheekbones; a tiny red cupid's bow of a mouth below a slightly upturned button nose; bright green eyes that were delicately slanted at the corners and looked too large for her narrow oval face. Her small, firm breasts pressed against my left side, and her tiny hands were warm even through my uniform and long johns.

"Hello, Aine." I managed to choke out.

"I go by Hannah, easier for people to pronounce." She said softly, those too large eyes blinking slowly so that her long lashes touched her cheeks for a heartbeat. Her hips flexed forward, pushing against my hip, a miniscule motion that was probably unnoticeable by others but all too apparent to me. "My my, how you've grown, little Fifty Foot." Her hand squeezed gently on my chest, emphasizing the remnants of the thick muscle I'd put on over the summer.

The little lizard in the back of my brain put his little clawed hand over the button that would fire off the urge to rip off her clothing. At the moment my fight or flight was starting to kick in, the cool wet fire of adrenaline trickling down my spine underneath the warm honey of her voice, but the little lizard was seriously considering turning my reaction to fight, flight, or fuck.

She stared at me for a long moment, then turned slightly, almost as if she was hanging off of my hip, to look at Nancy and Bomber. Nancy had a strange look on her face, her fists were clenched, and she was leaned forward slightly. Bomber had a look on confusion on his face as the girl holding onto me smiled at them, revealing small, perfectly even white teeth that were only marred by her incisors being a tiny bit too narrow and too long.

"Fifty-Foot and I went to High School together." She purred to my two friends. "Did you know that his father and my father were rivals for the same woman in the 1930's? His father cheated, got his cousins together, and kidnapped Fifty-Foot's mother." She giggled, a silver chime in the frozen air. "Turnabout is fair play in love and war, you know. My grandmother stole my grandfather right out of Fifty-Foot's grandmother's bed." She demurely lowered her eyelids slightly, bringing attention to her long lashes as she smiled at Nagle.

She let go of me and stepped forward, stopping right in front of Bomber, her right hand reaching up to press in the middle of his chest. "You must be John Bomber." Her voice had stilled all three of us, rendering us paralyzed and mute. "Fifty-Foot's little sister told me all about you." She looked up and smiled. "Just think, your family survives today because Travis sent your great great grandfather to get supplies from that nearby fort, otherwise your line would have ended at a nineteen year old cavalry private when Santa Anna overran the Alamo."

Bomber visibly jerked, blushing bright red as she drifted to Nagle and reached out, cupping Nancy's scarred cheek in one of her diminutive hands.

I saw Nancy's pupils dilate until they nearly swallowed the brown of her irises.

"I heard you're to thank for keeping Fifty-Foot alive." Aine purred, staring up at Nagle through her eyelashes. Her other hand reached out and took Nancy's hand. "First down the stairs to save the bonny Ant boy. So brave."

Nancy flushed red, lowering her head modestly.

Aine giggled and released her, walking around behind me to pick up her linen.

"I'll see some of you later." She said, "Please, Carlton, come with me, those dufflebags are heavy and I already feel slightly fatigued." She paused at the entrance to Titty Territory as Pv2 Davies moved around my two friends and me, one of her dufflebags in each hand. She waved, turned, and pushed through the doors and into Titty Territory. The doors silently swung shut behind her, and she was gone.

"Christ." Bomber let out a breath in a whoosh. Nancy shivered like someone had just thrown cold water on her or a breeze let into the CQ Area by the open doors had chilled her. Her pupils went back to normal, and her eyes grew hard as she turned her eyes to me.

"You have a lot of explaining to do, Fifty-Foot Ant." Nancy growled.

"Hey, Ant, I need you to sign the log." Lanks called out.

"Later." I told Nancy, turning around to face the CQ. My two cousins stood there, their dufflebags at their feet and linen in their hands. "Why?" I asked Lanks.

"Because she didn't ride up with these two. Apparently someone gave her a ride to the barracks." Lanks shrugged. "Since she didn't sign in with the MI unit like these two, I need you to countersign that she arrived."

"Sure." I told her, stepping up to counter in six quick steps.

"Hey, Bomber, where's room 285?" James asked.

"Up where we're at." Bomber answered.

"And 266?" Cassius added.

"Same place." Bomber told them. "Here, let us help with your gear." I heard him and Nancy step forward as I looked down and signed the log entry where Lanks had written that PVT McCullen had obtained alternate transportation to the barracks.

As I turned back to my family and friends, I caught my first look out the two sets of glass double doors that made up the front entrance to the building. They had been one of the first thing to be replaced. There were two foot wide panes of glass on either side, and I knew that door glass and the side glass was over an inch thick, built to withstand the high winds that came down off the glacier only a hundred fifty vertical feet above us.

The light from the CQ Area made the snow pressing on the glass into a white sheet, blocking sight of even the covered brick patio beyond the second set of doors.

The blizzard had hit.

I felt a chill up my back.

"You coming, Ant?" Bomber asked me from where he stood by the stairwell door.

"Yeah." I answered, hunching my shoulders and moving toward him.

The frosted glass of the doors into Titty Territory hid what I knew was down the hallway, leading PV2 Davies somewhere they could be alone.

We pushed into the stairwell and I paused while the other four turned toward the landing halfway between the first and second floor, where the stairs doubled back.

"What?" Bomber asked.

"I'm gonna go talk to the LT. I'll catch up." I told them.

"Fuck that. Come on." James said. "We got some catching up to do."

"Naw, I gotta handle this. You guys get them up to speed on what kind of shit-hole the Army's sent them too, run them through basic safety, and have them both room up in 266." I told them, walking down the stairs to the ground floor. "I'll be back in a few." I called up to them as they headed upstairs.

What the hell is she doing here? I wondered as I headed down to the landing.

The last time I'd seen her was when I'd been taken in front of the judge, when I was offered the chance to join the military instead of being tried as an adult. It was a sweetheart deal that just meant I'd be joining the military early. The judge had served in Korea and believed that the military could turn a young man's life around. The recruiter, the DA, and the prosecuting attorney had all served in Vietnam and shared that bond with my father, who had actually served with the DA. The fix was in, and the local Sheriff's department wanted to avoid the scandal that would have erupted when it came down why I'd done what I had done.

She'd been sitting at the back of the courtroom, and I could remember her clear as day in her Stevie Nicks T-Shirt, blue jeans, and her hair piled high on her head thanks to hairspray with an apple red bow on the top. She'd been watching me closely, her lower lips held between her sharp little teeth and her huge eyes sparkling. She'd leaned forward as the judge warned me that if I failed to complete three years of service my deferred sentence would be immediately adjudicated.

She'd given me a sad little wave when they led me out in handcuffs in order to go immediately to MEPS processing. Unsurprisingly, I was the only one there in handcuffs and with a police officer to make sure I didn't run for it. Not that I would have, since I was basically getting what I wanted with a small caveat.

Now she was in the barracks, and the glancing look at the orders I'd seen in the logbook, she'd somehow completed NBC Warfare MOS training and basic training. She looked almost childlike, with tiny breasts and slim hips, but I knew she'd been born only a few days before me.

I pushed open the door, the wind that suddenly shrieked down the stairwell sending it crashing against the wall, and walked into the short hallway beyond. On the immediate right were the mail boxes for half the unit, on the left was the opening that led to the room where we usually gathered up to clean our weapons or draw/return them from the armory. The Arms Room, Secure Item Storage, NBC Room, and the Supply Room were all accessed through that little room, although you could get to the Supply Room through the double doors at the back that led out to the loading dock.

I walked past the mailboxes and hung a right, moving down another short hallway. The mailroom door passed by on my right, same with the utility closet, until I could turn left into the Orderly Room, turn right to the tiny hallway to the bathrooms, or walk up the door of the First Sergeant's Office.

The Orderly Room was deserted, only the single light that was left on by SOP grudgingly putting out a dim yellow light. I could see through the windows at the far end of the room that yup, the blizzard was on this side of the building before.

I'd seen one side of the building whiteouted by snow and the other side completely clear.

I knocked on the door to the CO's Office, three sharp knocks, just like military etiquette demanded, and waited at Parade Rest. I'd learned early when a CO had been standing by the door and opened it himself that it was best to be safe rather than being caught standing around like some Lunchmeat Larry.

"Enter." LT James' voice carried through the door, and I opened it to step into the CO's rather large office. Chairs on the wall in front of me and to the side, enough so that a dozen people could sit comfortably. The unit guidon and the V Corps guidon side by side on the stand, the flags hanging limply. Pictures of Ronald Reagan, Dick Cheney, General Rogers, and Lieutenant General Wetzel all stared at me as I walked in, executed a crisp left face, then walked forward to stop three paces from the CO's desk and come to attention with a snappy salute.

"Corporal Ant." Lt James' said, saluting me back with none of the delay that a lot of officers put into to let the enlisted know who was in charge. "Stand at ease, Corporal."

I dropped my salute and moved to At Ease, my left hand behind my back with the knuckles at the belt-line, my right straight down, and my feet shoulder-length apart. "Thank you, sir." He waved it away, and closed the folder he'd been reading.

The unit METL.

"How can I help you, Corporal Ant?" He asked me, leaning back slightly in the chair and folded his hands on his flat stomach.

"Specialist Nagle asked me to come down and get a list of the people on Rear-Dee, so that she can make a table to keep track of the results of her inspections, sir." I said, keeping my eyes above his head. "Additionally, we have three more Privates that just arrived."

He sat forward, pulling a pad of paper from the side of the blotter and picking up the pen on the desk. "Rank and names?"

"Privates Cassius and James Ant and Aine McCullen." I told him. He glanced up and I sighed inwardly. "The two male soldiers are my cousins."

"Spell Private McCullen's name, please." He stated, going back to writing down the names. I told him and he looked at me with a raised eyebrow.

"It's an old family name." I told him.

"You seem familiar with her." He prodded.

I sighed inwardly again and decided to lie. "I knew her in high school, sir."

Actually, her family and mine had been shipped to America in the mid 1600's, but had hated each other for far far longer than that.

About the time of the Fall of the Roman Empire, to be exact.

Both families knew better than to let the other emigrate somewhere without sending a few people to settle in same place. Despite the fact that the rule of law that had replaced the lawlessness of the Old West, paranoia still remained in both families of a repeat of that unfortunate episode following the Civil War, or what happened after the Revolutionary War that had caused the Continental Government to separate us for almost 20 years by over 200 miles.

I'd known her since pre-school, had played with her in kindergarten, had snipped off one of her braids

The LT stared at me for moment, then nodded slowly. He dug in one of the manila folders on the desk and pulled out a copy of current company roster and who was assigned where, and began copying ranks, last names, and first initials over.

"I find it interesting that five members of your family are in this unit." The LT stated, still writing.

"Over six hundred eighty members of my family and extended family are currently in the United States armed forces." I told him, which made him cock an eyebrow in surprise. "We're a large family, I have fifteen brothers and sisters, of which eleven are currently serving, and my immediate family is extensive."

He looked up sharply, opened his mouth to say something, then closed it and looked back down when I continued. "About half of my family are adopted children. My family believes that children should grow up in a home." He grunted non-committaly and I shut the hell up.

"If they have not gone through arctic survival, they shall have to be sent to the main body for training." He told me, still writing. "I refuse risk their lives when there is no urgent need." It didn't need an answer, so I didn't give one, standing silent while he finished copying the names and ranks of those still in the barracks.

"Specialist Nagle's required list, Corporal." He told me, tearing the sheet free and handing it to me. "Is there anything else in need of my attention, Corporal?"

"Just one thing, sir." I gathered my courage.

"GA." The use of the slang surprised me.

"Why did you confiscate my boot knife?" I asked.

He smiled and leaned back again, once again folding his hands over his stomach. "I had noticed that it wasn't the boot knife you normally carry, and by 'disarming' you of what appeared to me to be an obviously inferior quality weapon in front of the rest of Rear Detachment, I knew that it would prevent future problems." His smile changed, becoming almost cold and hard. "And don't pretend that you don't have that Gerber fighting knife I've heard so much about at the small of your back even as you stand in front of me."

Goosebumps raised on my skin and the weight of my knife grew suddenly heavier at the small of my back.

"Is there anything else in need of my attention, Corporal?" He repeated, raising one eyebrow. The smile, if you could call it that, was gone, and his expression was mildly curious.

"No, sir." I answered.

"Then carry on, Corporal." He told me. He returned my salute when I came to attention and saluted him, then went back to perusing one of the manila folders in front of him as I did a quick about face and hustled out of the office, breathing a sigh of relief once the door shut behind me.

The man gave me the willies.

The lights in the hallway that connected the stairwell to the outside door buzzed as I quickly moved to the stairwell door and yanked it open, ignoring the shriek of the hydraulic cylinder and heading up the stairs. I could understand why he took it, and I doubted he had our rooms searched if he let me walk out of that office knowing good and goddamn well I had a knife on me.

A low liquid chuckle sounded up from the darkness below as I put my hand on the door that led into Hammerhead Hall on the second floor.

That I paid attention to. The lizard hissed in terror and slammed its little clawed hand down on the panic button, slapping the run button next as it threw a map of the barracks up with the fastest way back to my room highlighted. Running on fear and blind instinct I took off, slamming myself against the door and barging into the hallway, turning to kick the door shut behind me. I took off down the hallway, almost at a run when I hit the doubledoors leading to the half of Hammerhead Hall I lived in. My hand was already in my pocket, pulling out my keys just in case, when I reached the door to my room.

Finding it unlocked I quickly got inside, slamming the door behind me and throwing the deadbolt by twisting the knob underneath the L-shaped door handle.

My two cousins and my two friends turned and stared at me when I shot through the little hallway and into the main room.

"Umm, Ant, honey, are you all right?" Nagle asked.

"We're in fucking trouble." I told them. I went to run my right hand through my hair and realized only then that sometime during my flat run for about three quarters of a block I'd drawn the knife from behind my back.

"Are you all right?" Nancy repeated, stepping forward and gently grabbing my wrist. "Calm down and give it me." She tugged at the blade of my knife and I let go of it. She let go of my wrist, stepping back and handing the knife to Bomber.

"Tandy's in the fucking barracks." I told them. Bomber dropped my knife on the floor. "There's a blizzard outside and Tandy got inside somehow."

"Are you sure?" Bomber asked, bending down and picking up my knife.

"I heard that weird laugh of his when I was coming up the stairs." I told them.

My two cousins looked at each other and then at me.

"Who the hell is 'Tandy'?" Cassius asked.

"He's not a who, he's a what." Nancy said, moving over to sit on the bed. "Shit. Shit, shit, shit."

"Then what is he?" Cassius demanded.

"We don't know. We just know he comes when it snows, and anyone he grabs, he pulls into the darkness and we never see them again." Bomber said, reaching out and grabbing the Asbach off the top of the dresser. He uncorked it and took a long swig, then continued as he passed it to me. "Tandy is, or rather was, a guy in the unit who vanished out of a windowless room, whose body vanished from the morgue. Earlier this winter he killed at least three people."

"You're shitting me." James said as I took a drink. When I lowered the bottle he held out his hand. "Gimme that." I passed it to him.

"Great, a McCullen girl and some killer ghost?" James shook his head. "I thought you guys were just fucking with us about how bad this place is."

"You guys have no idea." I told them, sitting next to Nancy. She took my hand and squeezed it, and I could feel that her palms were sweaty.

"How do you know it isn't some dude in a rubber mask?" Cass asked.

Bomber let out a harsh laugh. "The last guy who tried to play Scooby Doo didn't fare so well." He took a swig off the bottle and shivered. "Aside from the screaming, all we found of him was his dogtags and some blood."

Cass and James stared at him.

"If it's old man Jenkins in a rubber mask, I'd say the rubber mask is the least of our problems since he apparently eats them." Nancy added.

"At least you guys have to go back to the main unit at Graf as soon as the LT feels the blizzard's died down." I said.

"Why?" Cass asked, taking a turn on the bottle.

"You guys go through arctic training?" Bomber asked, lighting two cigarettes and passing me one. Nancy grabbed it before it got to me and took a drag before handing it to me.

"No, why?" Cass answered.

"Because you can't stay up here between September and March unless you've passed arctic survival training." I told them. "You can freeze to death in a sleeping bag if you don't know what you're doing."

"No way." Cass scoffed.

"A week ago, before LT James took over, some 101st Airborne douche froze to death in the middle of night because he went to bed in his longjohns and piled blankets on top of his sleeping bag." Bomber told them, taking the bottle back. "We lost about twenty people just this year to cold weather injuries severe enough to either kill them or result in the amputation of fingers and toes."

"Jesus." James breathed.

"Doesn't care about this place." I finished, holding out my hand for the bottle. Bomber passed it to me. The Wild Turkey warmed my stomach and calmed my singing nerves as I took two long swallows off of it. The lizard purred, taking his claws fingers off of the button and letting the red plastic lid fall over it. He stretched with the warmth and I could feel my limbs tingle and warm.

"We can't do anything about Tandy, so we'll just stay here, drink, and BS." Nancy said, squeezing my hand before standing up. "But you guys can't sleep in here, this bed's mine." She kicked the right hand drawer at the bottom of the bed.

James and Cass glanced at each other, but had the presence of mind not to comment on Nancy's statement. Instead, Cass started it off with telling Nancy about the time in 6th grade I'd accidentally shot my Father, his uncle, in the crotch with a potato gun and how I'd taken off running and the old man still caught me. Bomber and Nancy both howled with laughter at the stories, most of which ended with me getting a well-deserved whupping with a belt.

The rest of the night went by full of laughter inside our room and the blizzard howling outside the covered window.

But I knew that Tandy was skulking around.

And worse: Aine was here.

Chapter 4

The first part is in a psychosis induced flashback during the Kilo-29 story. Although the parts with Donaldson and Kincaid talking into the flashback have been removed.

This is what happened after the barracks was destroyed, how we survived, and what it cost us.

So yeah, you did read the first part of the 2/19th bit before. Hope that didn't throw too many people off.

2/19th Special Weapons Group
Restricted Area, Alfenwehr Mountain, West Germany
Late Winter-January 1988
Day 10 of Repairs
Day 2 of the Second Incident
Early Morning

Bomber and I had carried my cousins to their rooms, Cass half conscious and James leaning on Bomber while singing Dolly Parton's Jolene softly. We'd poured both of them into bed after helping them strip naked, then tucked them in nice and tight. They'd both feel like hell in the morning after trying to keep up with Bomber, Nagle, and me since the three of us had our 2/19th gifted alcoholic's tolerance.

Afterward we went into the room, each grabbing a chair and picking up our glasses. Bomber's had Jose Quervo and Mountain Dew in it, mine had Wild Turkey and Coke, while Nancy was sipping a vodka and orange juice as she watched for a long moment.

The tension built for a long while, almost palpable in the room, until Nancy opened her mouth and Bomber blurted out the question he'd been holding back.

"What's with the tattoos?" He asked. Nancy closed her mouth and looked at him.

"What tattoos?" She asked.

Bomber waved at me, turning slightly to talk to Nancy. "That tattoo on his left shoulderblade, his cousins have almost the exact same tattoo."

Nancy looked up at him then over at me, taking another long sip off her screwdriver. "Which tattoo?" She asked.

"The one on his shoulderblade. Christ, don't you listen?" Bomber asked. He shook his head. "It's that weird rune-like thing, runes above, and runes below." He shrugged. "Ant here has a black bar on the bottom of the big rune with more little runes below it."

Nancy nodded. "OK, I've seen that. His cousins have it too?"

Bomber grabbed the bottle of Jose and poured a few glugs into his glass before grabbing the Mountain Dew can, opening it with one hand to top off his glass as he spoke. "Yup. Same place, since center rune, except they don't have the black mark."

"Guys, I'm right here." I said.

Nancy glared at me. "Fine. What is it?" she asked.

Nasty boy, stupid boy, should have drowned you at birth, born a faceless monster….

My hand was shaking as I lit a cigarette. "All the boys in the family have that mark." I told them, closing my eyes.   My stomach churned at the thought of telling them, telling them all of it. I could hear my mother's voice, feel her hands on me, pushing me face first into a sink full of water to remind me that boys keep their mouths shut.

"Ant." Nancy said, pulling my attention to her. She'd gotten up and was now standing in front of me. She reached down and grabbed my chin, holding me gently. "I saved you. You owe me. Tell me."

Instinct, ground into me by tradition and my place in the world made the words come tumbling out. She'd saved me, she owned me, by law, by tradition, and by blood.

"The middle is the family sigil, the top part is which branch of the family I was born to as well as the year, and the bottom one is my name, which isn't used till puberty." I told them. Bomber went to say something but Nancy shushed him quick so I could keep talking. "Boys get the tattoos when we're two years old, to make sure we aren't going to die in infancy. Referring to a baby by their real name before they are two is bad luck, and if the baby dies before two and you've named it the baby's soul doesn't go on and haunts the mother and father."

Bomber looked like he was going to laugh at it, but just then the sound of small tap-shoes ran by the door from out in the hallway, a child's giggle floating through the door and to us.

"Yeah." I told them.

"So William has it too?" Nancy asked.

I nodded. "Yeah. So does Marsh." Both of the other men, my brother William and my Uncle Marsh, were out at Graf.

"So what's with the black bar." Bomber asked.

"Wait, so they do this to children?" Nancy asked. She looked horrified. "That's-… that's…"

"Barbaric." I answered, nodding. Nancy stepped back, grabbed one of the chairs, and sat down. "My family prefers 'traditionalist' to be honest."

"So your fucking family tattooed you like you're a steer?" Bomber asked. He shook his head. "Shit, why didn't they just fucking brand you?"

"Brands are for girls, mark their family of origin." I told them both. "Tattoos can be updated or changed, hell, you can even get a tattoo removed now, but a brand? A brand is forever."

"Jesus." Bomber said, shaking his head. "You don't get to tease me about being a backwards hick every again, Ant."

"But why?" Nancy asked, refilling my glass. I nodded gratefully and took a deep drink. The liquor had warmed me, loosened my tongue.

And Aine was here.

I was afraid.

I was afraid and able to process that I was afraid. Even the lizard was afraid.

Of Aine.

"So nobody steals them." Bomber said, interrupting my dark thoughts. He rubbed his face. "Christ, branding and tattooing."

"It's always been that way." I shrugged, taking another drink. "It's no big deal, I don't even remember the tattooing." I looked at Bomber for a long time. "I don't see the big deal."

"Because you're not a fucking animal, you're a human being." Bomber said.

"I'm just a boy." I corrected him. Nancy frowned and the small line above her nose and between her eyebrows made its appearance.

"So what's the deal with that McCullen chick?" Nancy asked.

My mouth went dry. "We knew each other in high school." I said lamely.

"Except your cousins knew her, and I caught that more than a few of those stories had you and William fighting her cousins and brothers." Nancy said, the line deepening. Her scar was moving from pink to bright red.

"We dated for awhile in Junior High." I admitted.

"She pop your cherry?" Bomber asked.

Nancy watched my face closely as I weighed just what to admit. Did I admit how young we were? How she drugged me with her body, used my passions against me, twisted me up, and made me into a thing rather than a person? Did I tell them all of it?

Did I tell them that she felt that she owned me body and soul?

Both of them waited silently for a few seconds, giving me a moment to speak. I saw something pass through Nancy's eyes and became aware of how I was sitting in the chair. My knees pulled up to my chest, my hands underneath my knees, my chin on my thighs. I shivered, but not because of the cold, it was 65 degrees in the room.

"Don't pull away from us, Ant." Nancy said softly, reaching forward to rub my shin. "We're here."

Bomber leaned forward and put his hand on my right shoulderblade, rubbing gently. "Ant, it's OK. Tell us what's wrong."

Compassion. Something that had been missing from my early years, before I had been taken away by the State and given to my Father. Compassion had been a myth, something that only girls got, and something boys were almost incapable of. My Father had taught me compassion through example and had brought back the strange and quiet boy from inside of himself through love and compassion.

"Yeah. We were each other's firsts." I admitted quietly.

'…Ooh, oh, go slowly, fíorghrá.' Aine whispered in my ear, her arms around my body….

…Her arms drew me down to kiss me slow and lingering as I slowly settled my weight on her, feeling myself sliding into her….

'…' 'Oh, fíorghrá.' she gasped as I pushed past the slight resistance, 'you're mine, now and forever, mine' her whisper heated my ear as her touch ignited my blood and her nails scratched my back, her nipples rubbing my chest and her perfectly even white teeth bit into my shoulder….

My body shuddered as I shook off the memory of our thirteenth birthday, the memory shattering and leaving nothing behind but a curl of dark and bitter fear of the diminutive woman.

"All right, what's with the damn tattoo and what's with this McCullen chick?" Bomber asked.

"Family tattoo." I grunted, taking another swig off my drink before digging my cigarettes out of the pocket of my T-shirt.

"Show it to me." Nancy demanded.

"It's nothing." I told her.

"Show it to me." She repeated, her voice hardening. Bomber scooted his chair slightly back and started pouring himself a refill on his drink.

"You've seen it before a thousand times." I told her, looking away from her.

She took two steps forward and grabbed the bottom of my chin, pulling my face up and locking my eyes with her. "I own you, Ant. I saved your life. Me. You're my boy. Show. Me. The tattoo."

I surrendered, pealing out of my T-shirt and turning slightly in the chair so she could see my left shoulderblade.

"So that's it?" Nancy asked.

"Yeah. Except his cousins don't have that black bar under that rune, they just have a rune pattern, like the one under the black bar." Bomber told her.

I went to pull away and Nancy grabbed me by the back of my neck.

"What does the center mean?" She asked, jabbing her fingernail into my skin.

"Family sigil." I admitted.

"The runes?"

"Which branch of the family I belong to." I told her quietly, still hanging my head. "And my birthday, birth order, as well as when I can have a name, when I'm an adult."

"Belongs to?" Bomber asked.

"Shut it, Texas." Nancy growled. "The bottom runes?"

"My name. The nickname I'm called until I hit puberty, since you don't say a boy's name until then and the name I get at puberty." I sighed.

"Why the black line?" Nancy asked, and I could feel her fingernail trail across it.

"I don't know." I lied.

She picked up my shirt and handed it to me, then retrieved her screwdriver before sitting down in the chair Cass had been sitting in only a few minutes before.

"So they tattoo all the boys?" Bomber asked.

I nodded.

"What about the girls?" Nancy asked, a slight sharpness in her tone.

"Branded." I reminded her. "At a year old."

"That's... that's..." Bomber choked.

"Barbaric." Nancy said.

"The way it is." I said at the same time.

"Where are the girls branded by your psychopath family?" Nancy snarled.

"Left breast, over the heart." I told her. "It's about the size of a silver dollar. My sisters all have it, they're branded on their first birthday." I shrugged. "A girl will usually survive if they've lived to a year old, but boys are a little more fragile."

"Like fucking cattle?" Bomber asked. "Jesus, Ant, what the fuck is wrong with your..."

Nancy held up a hand. "John, no." She thought for a second, then turned back to John, who was busy swilling down almost half of his drink. "Listen to the wording. The boy's tattoos mark who they belong to where the girl's brands mark what family they are part of. Do you get it?"

Bomber sat there for a long moment while I lit another cigarette and picked up the Coke can to drop my ashes in. Nancy was thinking hard, as was Bomber. It was easy to think both of them were dumb as hell, to forget they'd passed the MOS testing and had gotten high enough ASVAB scores to drop them in Special Weapons.

The silence went on for a few minutes before Bomber got up, went over to HAL, and hit play on the CD tray. He adjusted the volume to keep it down low and sat back down to the sounds of "Sunglasses at Night".

Except for the sounds of the wind and tapshoes in the hallway the room was silent for a long time. I saw Nancy counting on her fingers several times, and her lips move as she talked to herself. Bomber lit a cigarette and leaned back in his chair.

I would stare at the floor for the most part, silently drinking my drink.

After awhile John yawned, stretched, and got up, telling us he was going to bed. Nancy hit the light switch, plunging the room into darkness. HAL's stereo lights and the dim nightlight were all that tried to beat back the darkness.

They failed.

Finally Nancy got up, turned off HAL in the middle of Master of Puppets, and came over in the darkness to take my hand.

"I love you." I told her.

"I know." She answered in the dark.

"I can't tell you."

"I know."

"Come on, Ant." She said softly. "Come to bed and hold me."

Once under the covers she held me tight.

And wept.

  • * * * * *

My mother woke me up by grabbing me by my hair, ripping me from the bed, and throwing me bodily against the wall. I hit the wall and fell to the floor, stars across my vision, as my mother bellowed in rage and my twin sister shrieked in fear.

"Annie had a nightmare! He just had a nightmare!" she screamed. I was stunned, one foot kicking, seeing double as my mother grabbed her by her hair and yanked her out of bed.

In her off hand was a wide leather belt with a heavy metal buckle that she slapped against my sister's face, the leather instantly creating a wide welt.

"No, momma, please." My sister cried out, falling to her knees.

"Dirty little slut." My mother hissed, grabbing the back of my sister's nightgown and pulling it up, over her head, to expose her skin from the middle of her torso down. With another hiss of "slut" she kicked my sister over onto her back.

My sister landed with her legs open, and before she could to anything our mother brought the belt down on her crotch, dragging a shriek of pain from my sister as the hook in the buckle dug into her skin and tore a bloody furrow in it. My sister tried to close her legs but our mother kicked her in the temple.

I pushed myself up as our mother hit my sister in the crotch again, adding another gouge to the scarred skin. I held one hand against the wall and shook my head to clear it.

Something inside me snapped. Where before there had been nothing but a cold, singing emptiness there was now something hot, sweet, and delicious that tasted of copper and iron, or honeysuckle and over-ripe blackberries. I felt myself straighten up, my back popping, and I realized that I wasn't much smaller than our mother, who had just struck my sister again with the belt, this time on the inside of her right thigh.

My sister held her hand out to me, mouthing my name, then squeezed her eyes shut and cried out as the belt buckle hit her again.


Our mother had wound back for another shot when I hit her at the waist in a flying tackle. Despite the fact she was built like a linebacker, a farmgirl run to fat, we both hit the bed. I started throwing punches frantically, screaming at my twin sister to run. To run away. To run from...


Our mother managed to throw me off, onto the floor, my ten year old frame no match for adult size and pure rageborn strength. She was on her feet before I was and the pointed toes of her shoes hit me again and again in the stomach, until all I could do was curl around the fiery pain.

"Bad boys get punished." My mother snarled, looping the belt around my throat. She yanked it tight and drug me from the bedroom.

"Nasty little boy, defiler of girls. How dare you ruin your sister with your unwholesome lusts. How dare you touch her, cover her in your filth." She was spitting as she drug me into the kitchen. She put me in my chair at the table, slapping me hard against the side of the face, before turning away.

"Nasty disgusting little boys like you get punished." She said, reaching for the heavy cast iron meat tenderizer hanging from her cookware board. My sister came into the kitchen, her nightgown back on, blood on her feet where it had run down her legs. Her eyes were wide as our mother turned away from the board, the belt set on the counter and her eyes bright.

"I think something more drastic is needed." She said, coming forward, slapping the head of the meat tenderizer against her palm. "Something that will teach you to keep your disgusting little boy parts off of your sister before you ruin her forever."

She grabbed my arm, pulling my wrist so my arm went straight, and laid my elbow on the wooden cutting board amid the parsnips and diced tomatoes. Beside me was a plate with the remains of an omlette and hashbrowns on it, the silverware still on the plate.

"First a lesson for you, then I'll make sure you didn't defile your sister." Our mother said.

Heavy bootsteps sounded and I looked up to see our father standing in the doorway. It wasn't even seven o'clock in the morning and he already had a beer in his hand. His hair was rumpled and greasy, his clothing was wrinkled from sleeping in them, and he had a day's worth the grey and brown stubble on his face.

"What's going on, Martha?" He asked. His tone was disinterested at best as he stared at me, not an ounce of compassion in his eyes.

"I caught Annie in bed with Ineda." She said, turning to look at my father. The head of the meat tenderizer was resting against my elbow.

Two steps took our father over to my sister, his gnarled hand reaching out to wrap in her hair. My sister screamed as our father yanked her over to him. "You little slut. How dare you ruin yourself with him, don't you know you've been promised, girl?"

He threw my sister hard against the table and she folded forward against it, crying out in pain. She was on my left, and the glass that had been there shattered as it fell to the floor.

"Dammit, girly, now you need checked." He said before taking a drink of his beer. He wiped his mouth with his sleeve and looked at our mother. "Hold her down, Martha."

A glance showed me our twin brother standing in the doorway of the hallway that led to the bedrooms. He was dressed already and staring at me with a smirk.

That hot and delicious taste squirted into my mouth again.

"This one first." Our mother said.

"Annie, help me." Our sister asked, dropping back into the fake language we'd made up as kids. As she spoke our father pulled her nightgown up, exposing her bare butt.

"She's asking Annie to help her, Momma." Our brother said, smirking, his eyes on Ineda's bare skin.

"This blood better not be from your hymen, dammit." Our father cursed, starting to squat down.

I was busy watching our father and our twin brother and had missed the fact that our mother had raised the meat tenderizer and brought it down on my elbow.

Pain roared up my arm as my arm crunched. My fingers jerked, feeling like a sausage tube stuffed with fire ants, and I screamed, yanking at my arm, trying to get loose from our mother's grasp. I stared at my elbow, noting the way it was deformed, how it was already turning purple and swelling up.

My sister screamed, and when I looked at her, she was trying to claw her way up onto the table. Our father was down behind her, squatting, with the hand that held his beer up above my sister so he could rest the bottom of his Olympia beer bottle on her butt. I looked at our mother, and she was looking at what was happening to my sister.

I looked around quickly and saw the fork. Without thinking I reached out, grabbed the fork and drove it into the hand holding onto my wrist.

Our mother screamed, letting go of my wrist. Our father stood up suddenly, the beer bottle dropping from his hand. I grabbed my sister's hand and stood up, pulling her upright as I stepped back from the table..

Our mother swung the meat tenderizer at my sister, aiming at her tear streaked face.

Without thinking I stepped in front of her, pushing her behind me.

The meat tenderizer hit me just below the left eye with a solid crunch. My mouth filled with blood and blood gushed from my nose. My eye went blurry, but I was too fired up, filled with agony already, and that hot, sweet taste that went with the fire that had blossomed inside the empty space that made up my insides.

Without thinking I charged for the back door. I didn't glance back, and didn't flinch as the meat tenderizer hit the wall next to my head as I yanked open the door to reveal a rainy Tuesday morning.

"Come back right now, Annie, or I swear you'll regret it the rest of your natural born life!" Our mother screamed.

I ignored it, pulling my sister behind me as we ran across the back yard and into the woods. My sister was sobbing as we ran, barefoot, through the wet dead leaves, branches and undergrowth slapping us.

My world had devolved into a haze of pain. I was holding my left arm close to my body, pulling my sister with the other, unable to see out of my left eye, and blood was still running down my face.

"Annie, stop." My sister's pleading finally cut through the haze of pain, fear, and that wonderful delicious fire inside of me. I slowed down and came to a stop at a fallen log, sitting down on it.

"You can't tell anyone what happened." She pleaded, still in the language that her, our brother, and I had made up. I nodded. "Please, promise me, you'll never tell anyone that da put his fingers inside me."

I nodded again. She was still crying as she reached out and touched my face, bringing bright fiery sparks of pain. I gritted my teeth and rode with it, feeling the fire get hotter inside of me.

"Does it hurt, Annie?"

I nodded slowly.

"Oh, Annie." She sobbed, leaning forward to hug me. Her nightgown was soaking wet, as were my pajamas, both of our hair plastered to our heads. After a moment she let me go and leaned back. "Are we running away?"

A moment's thought and I nodded slowly.

"Promise you won't tell anyone what happened to me." She pleaded again. Again I nodded. "We have gym clothes at the school. We can change there and run away." I nodded, it sounded better than my plan, which was just to run and run and run.

A branch crackled in the forest and something odd happened inside my head. Something that had never happened before.

A small lizard yawned, stretched, and woke up in the back of my mind, looking at the forest through my eyes, taking in the smells and sounds through my senses, feeling the rain on my skin. I could see it plainly, in my imagination. It took stock of my injuries, muttered to itself, then replayed the conversation between my sister and I from memory. At the mention of the school it immediately took inventory of my gym locker from memories, examined a map of the forest to the school made up of my memories of summers and walking to school when I missed the bus. It nodded in approval, then reached out and gently pressed a bright red button.

The fire roared up hotter, and the weakness and shakiness went away. My arm and face were still agony, but I found I could ignore it. I was crying from pain and fear, but that didn't matter.

The lizard approved of it.

My sister was looking around wildly, terrified that our mother or our father were trying to catch up. She was frozen like a deer in the headlights, her mouth open and one hand covering it as she whimpered.

"Annie? Innie? Momma says you can come home if you promise to be good." Our brother called out.

The lizard hissed in my brain as he kept speaking, and the delicious taste came back to my mouth hotter and tastier than before.

"Momma says you'll only have to beg Jesus' forgiveness and everything will be all right." Our brother called out.

...Traitor... the lizard hissed.

I put my fingers to my lips and stood up, keeping my left arm to my side. I balled my fist and took a single step forward.

...I'd catch him from the side, knock him to the ground, and stomp on his neck till he went still, till he couldn't tell momma, tell da, until he didn't breathe any more and couldn't spy on Innie when she bathed any more and he went still and his face turned purple and his hands went limp and he pooped himself... the lizard showed me.

God how I wanted to.

My sister grabbed my right arm, and when I looked at her she shook her head and mouthed "please" to me.

I growled at her and she stood up straighter, stamping her foot. I slumped slightly and she pulled me by my wrist through the woods, in the cold and the rain.

The lizard grumbled to itself like a teapot boiling over.

We came out of the woods beside the baseball field, the rain having turned to mist, and we went to the side of the building. There the boy's locker room was open, and together we silently slipped inside.

My sister pulled gym clothes out of my locker. Two sets of sweats and two T-shirts for PE. She pulled me into the shower, turned on the hot water, and pushed my face under the water, letting the stream of hot water pound against my face. The agony made me sag, but she was there to catch me, hold me up, keep my face in the water.

After I was done shivering she took me to the bench and sat me down before picking up the towel from my locker and a pair of sweats. She went into the shower, vanishing into the steam, still in her nightgown. I dressed and I sat there, in the dim lights, and looked at my elbow.

My arm was swollen halfway up my biceps and all the way down to my fingertips. The skin was shiny over the elbow, with heavy bruising winding around my arm. I couldn't move my fingers, my arm was full of fire ants.

"The ants go marching one by one..." I whispered, trying to move my fingers.

My sister came out of the steam, my sweats too small for her, but covering her up. She looked at my face and started crying, leaning down to hug me.

"Oh, Annie, I'm sorry. Are you OK?" she asked.

"Ants." I said, showing her my arm.

Her eyes widened and her mouth opened in shock. My fingers had gotten shiny, under my fingernails purpling.

"Oh God, oh God, oh God." She said, standing up. She grabbed my other hand. "We have to get you to the nurse." I shook my head and she stomped her foot again. I slumped and followed her meekly as we went into the gym.

The hallway was lit up, but it was creepy how the entire school was lit but empty. I was glad, but the lizard didn't like the empty feeling. It wanted to hide in the bathrooms, or in corners behind garbage cans, or in empty classrooms under the teacher's desk.

At the office the shutter was lowered down. My sister hammered on it for a few moments and the door to the office opened. Mrs. Candison looked out, angry, and saw us both.

Dressed in PE sweats, our hair wet, my face swollen, and my arm cradled against my body.

She rushed us into the nurse's office and told us that she was going to call our parents. My sister pleaded with her not to, anything but that. She told us she was going to get me some aspirin and left the nurse's station.

Less than fifteen minutes later a police officer came into the nurse's station. I took one look at him and scampered under the nurse's desk, curling up in the corner. My sister moved in front of the desk, putting herself between the policeman and me.

The policeman moved slowly over to us, taking off his hat and setting it on the bed we'd been put on. It was plastic covered and had rain drops on it. He squatted down in front my sister.

"I'm Officer McCullen, you're Inera Ant, aren't you?" He asked gently.

"Yes." My sister said, starting to sob again.

"Who's that under the desk?" He asked.

"My brother Annie, he's hurt really bad." My sister told him.

The lizard took his hand off a red button and the taste went away, the warmth inside of me went away, leaving me hollowed out with the coppery taste of blood in my mouth.

"Your parents are Martha and Jediah Ant, aren't they?" He asked. My sister nodded. "I'm going to take your brother to the hospital." He told my sister. My sister nodded, still crying. "But you have to move and get him to come out."

"Annie, come out." She said, moving to the side. I slowly scooted out and looked up at the policeman, who had moved back.

He was over six foot tall and must have weighed in at over 200 lbs. He didn't have a gut, his arms were thick, and his face had black pockmarks in it. He looked at me gently and held out his hand. He spoke to my sister and I reassuringly, let us ride in the front of the police car, and took us to the hospital.

He broke it up when my mother arrived, barged into the emergency room, and began punching me in the face. He drug my father away when he tried to keep the policeman from stopping my mother. Once they'd put a bandage on my face, on my sister's privates, and my arm in a cast, the policeman took us for a long ride up I-5, until we reached a house where he stopped.

A man came out that we recognized, having seen him a few times.

Uncle Tiernan.

I was drowsy when he took me from the police car. The policeman took my sister into the kitchen so Aunt Gretchen could give her something to eat. Uncle Tiernan laid me on the couch, pulling the afghan off the back to cover me with, then turned to the police officer.

"So she finally went off the deep end, Jared?" Uncle asked.

"Oh yeah." The policeman said, laughing bitterly.

They both obviously thought I was all the way asleep. Instead I was floating, tingling, the lizard watching carefully, managing the pain, the nausea from the shots, and the exhaustion.

"The ants go marching one by one…" I mumbled.

"What's that about?" Uncle asked.

"That's all he's said since I got there. The doctor says he's got some kind of shell-shock." The policeman said.

"Who beat them? Martha or my worthless fucking brother?" Uncle asked.

"Martha, although Innie isn't saying something."

"Think he finally molested her?" My Uncle snarled. He turned and slammed a fist against the doorframe. "If he did, I swear…."

The policeman reached out and put his hand on my Uncle's arm. "No, you won't. We'll bring it before your family's matrons, and let them decide what happens." He looked at my Uncle for a long moment. "I hate to bring this up, but about little Annie…."

"Yeah. Thirty thousand, wasn't it?" My Uncle asked. The policeman nodded. My Uncle sighed and cursed under his breath. "Take a check?"

The policeman nodded. "Let's break it up. A thousand of month till you pay it back." He smiled. "Aine won't take it well. She already knows. It's like she knew when she woke up the day it happened." He shook his head. "She woke me up at five this morning, begging me to go in as a policeman to the school, said Annie and Innie needed me." He chuckled. "That girl."

My Uncle tore the check free and handed it to the police officer.

"Give Nora and the kids a hug from me, McCullen." He said gently. My Uncle and the cop traded a hug, and the policeman left.

My Uncle came over and sat down next to me.

"The ants go marching one by one…" I whispered. At the lizard's urging I flexed my fingers and just relaxed as the fire ants tore at the inside of my arm, from my elbow to my fingertips, the medicine in the shot having only made them drowsy and not putting them to sleep.

"I know, boy. I know it hurts." My Uncle said. "You're gonna live with me now, you and your sister both." He sighed. "I won't let anyone hurt you like that again as long as you live in my house."

I just stared at him.

"The ants go marching one by one…" I whispered.

"Hurrah, hurrah." My Uncle answered, smoothing my brow. "I know, boy, I know." He passed his hand over my face, closing my eyes. "Rest."

In the darkness I saw a freckled face with overly large eyes, a cupid mouth, and red hair.

  • * * * *

I lurched up from the dream, the blankets falling from me, scrabbling at the wall. The dream I'd been having shattered, just leaving the old break in my elbow throbbing. A hand grabbed my shoulder and I turned in the bed, knocking it away with my forearm before realizing that it was Nancy grabbing at me.

She didn't open her eyes, just reached for me again. "I'm here, Ant, I'm here." She said softly, her eyes not opening. I let her pull me down into her arm, dragging the blankets back over us.

"I'm here, baby. You're my boy. It'll be OK. Go back to sleep." She murmured.

I relaxed into her, snuggling up against her, relishing her body heat and the feel of her smooth skin against mine.

I closed my eyes in the dark, and drifted off back to sleep.

Just before I went to sleep I mumbled something in Nancy's ear.

"Hoorah, hoorah." She mumbled back.

Despite the sudden panic, I couldn't stay awake, the booze and exhaustion pulling me under. Despite my fear I went to sleep.

And dreamed of my mother, chasing me through the barracks, wearing a cold weather mask and wielding a cast iron meat tenderizer.

Chapter 5

2/19th Special Weapons Group
Restricted Area, Alfenwehr West Germany
Late Winter-January 1988
Day 10 of Repairs
Day 2 of the Second Incident
0800 Hours

I woke up when the windup alarm clock on the dresser started banging, opening my eyes to see Nancy's face in front of mine. Her eyelids were just starting to flutter, and I waited until her eyes opened to kiss the tip of her nose. Her body was warm against mine, but my backside was chilled from where I'd ended up pressed against the cinderblock wall while we slept.

"Morning." I smiled.

"Blech, go brush your teeth." She grimaced, then laughed and kissed the tip of my nose.

I grunted and sat up, looking down to admire her body. She twisted around to lay on her back and put her hands behind her head, arcing her back slightly to thrust her heavy breasts at me. I laughed, squeezed one, then let go so I could carefully turn around to face the end of the bed. She pulled the blankets away and snuggled down into them as I climbed down out of the bed.

"Hey, kill that alarm, will you?" She asked.

"I got it, ya lazy bitch." Bomber drawled from the darkness that our little nightlight wasn't having much luck in holding back. I saw him move over by the dresser and heard his hand slap against the top of the alarm clock.

"Shit, it's zero eight already." He bitched. "Damn, it's freezing in here again."

"Yeah, but we've got power." I jerked a thumb toward the stereo, which was still lit up.

"Zero eight? Fuck!" Nancy blurted. The blankets rustled and I heard her bare feet slap the floor. Before I could take two steps forward to cut her off she slid past me, elbowing me in the stomach, and I heard the bathroom door slam.

"Gotta be faster than that." Bomber laughed.

I shook my head, laughing with him. "Yeah, watch this." I went over to the bathroom door, the shower coming on while I was still in the short hallway our wall lockers were in. I slowly opened the bathroom door and slipped inside. Steam was billowing out around the shower curtain and the room was warming up rapidly.

I slipped into the shower, hoping to surprise her, but her arms went around my neck and she stood on her tiptoes to kiss me under the hot water. When we broke apart she nipped at my lower lip before letting go of me and leaning back so her shoulders were braced against the wall.

"Soap me up, Ant." She demanded, holding out a bar of Irish Spring.

Her skin was hot from the water, her permanent tan, courtesy of a Hispanic grandmother, was quickly covered in water and soap suds. She closed her eyes and luxuriated in the way I dug my fingers into the thick muscle covering her body, working at knots. After a while she lifted one leg and wrapped it around my waist, pulling me close as one hand moved down to our waists.

In the end we separated and she washed me down, scrubbing at me. Afterwards she watched me rinse off, running her fingers across the scar across the muscle at the top of my left shoulderblade and humming tunelessly to herself.

"You got lucky, Ant." She told me, kissing the scar.

"How so?" I asked after I pulled my head out from under the showerhead.

"If he'd angled it into you instead of bringing it straight down it would have punctured the top of your lung instead of sliding along the shoulderblade." She told me. She put the soap in the soapdish and pushed me forward so the water slid down my back. I just shrugged.

"Hey, hurry the hell up! It's already half past!" Bomber yelled.

Nancy laughed and pulled us both out, grabbing a towel before opening the door and tugging us both into the short hallway. The hot water on our skin steamed as Bomber gave us both the finger and hurried into the bathroom. We hadn't bothered to turn off the water, the massive tanks in the basement holding literally thousands of gallons.

"Dammit! Why do you leave it so hot?" He yelled at us.

Nancy gave me an impish grin, shoved the towel at me, then vanished into the bathroom as soon as I took it for her. She shut the door as she started to slide past the shower curtain and into the shower with Bomber.

It was just the way we were.

I dried off quickly, opening the door to toss the towel in the sink, then opened my military wall locker so I could put on my uniform. The three drawer chest at the bottom held my boxers, T-shirts, and socks, all properly rolled up and lined up dress right dress according to the layout diagram taped on the door.

By the time the two of them came out, they only had about ten minutes to get dressed, and I sat on the dresser, smoking a cigarette and nursing my liquid breakfast, a bottle of Tucher hefe wiessen, while they frantically got dressed. Nancy stuck her tongue at me while she shifted her bra to get comfortable, and when she got done pulling her T-shirt over her head and started to tuck it in I stuck my tongue out at her.

When we went out into the hallway I told them to hang on and pounded on my cousin's door, grinning when Cass answered looking sleepy in his PT uniform.

"Formation in ten, man." I told him. "Let's go."

"You fucking suck." He groaned. "God, I'm hungover."

"Yeah yeah yeah, hurry up, man." I turned to Nancy and Bomber. "Tell the LT I'm bringing down our two lost lambs."

Bomber gave me the thumbs up, and when they walked away Nancy looped her arm through his.

My cousins came out of their rooms with five minutes to spare, and I hustled them down the hallway, our breath steaming in front of us.

"Christ, is it always this cold in here?" James asked, rubbing his hands together.

"Not in the summer." I told him. "In the winter? It can get a lot colder." The hallway was lit up bright enough I could point at the frost on the walls. "See that? Imagine it a lot thicker, and covering the ceiling and floors too. Earlier this winter there were icicles about six inches long hanging from the ceiling."

"You guys are right, this place is Hell." Cass bitched.

"You ain't seen nothing yet." I warned them. "Just hope that the dying doesn't start again."

"Dying? Who's gonna die?" James asked as we pushed through the doors of the halfway point.

I chuckled grimly, ignoring the twinge of pain in my shoulder. "We are."

"What, how?" James asked at the same time as Cass.

"What makes you think we're getting off this mountain alive? Or even surviving when the Reds roll over the hard sites?" I asked them.

"Hey, Ant, come on, let me out, it's cold in here and I'm locked in. Don't let me miss formation, man." A voice drifted through the door as we passed room 221.

I turned and grabbed Cass' wrist as he reached for the door handle. "Don't."

"What? Why not?" He asked.

"Come on, Ant, let me out." A female's voice this time that I recognized as SPC Westlin, who had taken a sniper round through the stomach out at Atlas and had died during the medevac.

"It's not real." I told them, pulling Cass along behind me.

"But I heard a voice…" Cass said.

"Follow Annie's lead, just ignore it." James told Cass.

Please don't tell anyone what happened to us, Annie, please….

"Don't fucking call me Annie." I snarled. "I'm not Annie any more."

"Man, sensitive." Cass said, nudging me in the ribs.

"You call me Annie in front of my crew, I'll break your fucking jaw, Cass." I told him. We were down to Room 209, about forty feet from the stairwell door. I stopped and turned to face him and James both. "This is not the Army you think it is." I told them. "All that bullshit you think you know, that shit will get you killed out here." I told them. "I've lost three of my crew in the last year, and despite the bullshit the Army told the families and wrote in the paperwork, every fucking death was hard."

They both stared at me. "If anyone else in this unit called me Annie, I'd choke their ass out. You call me Annie, I'll just monkey-stomp your ass."

"Jeez, fine, you didn't have to go all Colonel Kurtz on us." Cass said.

"You ain't seen nothing yet." I told them, turning away and walking for the door to the stairs. "The dying hasn't started yet."

When I opened the door a scream ripped down, swirled around us, and drifted down the hallway. I looked at my two cousins and raised on eyebrow. "Like I was saying. You ain't seen nothing yet."

The stairs thudded, the iron frame shaking, as we headed down to the CQ Area. Above us there was a moaning sob, a woman's voice, that set my teeth on edge.

We made it to formation, exactly a minute early, and I pushed my two cousins into third squad, which had the fewest people in it. Sergeant Butcher gave me a dirty look, which just rolled off me. Screw him, he was only an Acting Jack while he was in Rear-D, and as soon as we got swapped back to the unit they'd make him put on his Spec-5 again since he wasn't a squad leader.

Everyone was present, including Aine, who stood next to Stokes, her uniform making her look more alluring instead of shapeless. Despite her small height, anyone who looked at her would know it wasn't a little girl wearing her mother's uniform.

She gave me the willies.

"Group, attention." The LT snapped. We all came to attention. "Squad leaders, report."

"First Squad, all members present and accounted for." Corporal Lancer said, his eyes staring above the LT.

"Second Squad, all members present and accounted for." Sergeant White stated.

"Third Squad, all members present and accounted for." Sergeant Butcher said.

"Fourth Squad, all members present and accounted for." I stated.

"At ease." We all shifted, our hands going behind our backs and our feet sliding out to shoulder width apart with the mechanical ease of something long practiced. The LT paused for a moment, obviously gathering his thoughts, his narrow angular face serious. "I have put up duty rosters at the CQ Desk as well as on the training schedule board in the Orderly Room hallway."

"Many of you are injured and while I understand the reasoning that led to those of you who are wounded being moved up here I cannot ascribe it to anything but poor planning due to lack of consideration of available intelligence." He was saying, and I slightly tuned him out, listening for anything important while I let my mind drift.

Despite the LT's odd cadence to his speech I was becoming used to the way he talked, it may have been a slightly stilted rhythm, but it was comfortable after a bit. Everyone had their little idiosyncrasies, and neither my friends nor I were an exception. Bomber had his Texas drawl, Nancy had an odd slur to some of her words nobody had been able to pin down, Stokes had her East Coast accent, and I had a muddled accent from growing up all over the US on military bases.

The LT finished his briefing, telling the Duty Driver that he'd be taking my cousins to Graf and my cousins to pack their gear. I was hoping they'd get to stay but the LT didn't want them staying up on the top of the mountain without arctic survival training, not that I could blame him. Having them up there would be the same as just outright shooting them.

After the formation the LT made everyone line up, remove their boots and socks, and let Nancy check them for any cold weather injuries. A few people bitched, mostly ones that weren't used to the way 2/19th dehumanized you, but for the most part we all joked, smoked cigarettes, and considered it a nice way to sham for a little while.

Once she was done she let the LT know that everyone looked good. She'd made checkmarks on the list she'd drawn up with some of my graph paper. I'd caught her looking over the map of the Dungeon of the Mad Hermit before I'd snatched my graph paper back from her, which irritated me more than her use of it.

She spent a little longer and Bomber and my feet, checking our toes to make sure that we hadn't picked up frostbite during the night. When she looked up at me she smiled at me and pushed her tongue against the inside of her mouth twice before standing up with a blank expression. She not only checked feet, toes, fingers, injuries according to profile, but listened to everyone breath through a stethoscope.

"Everyone's passed, sir." She told the LT when she was done. "Richardson's lungs sound bad."

"What would you recommend?" The LT asked. Nagle looked surprised.

"Don't allow him to be exposed to the cold air." Nagle said after a moment.

"PFC Richardson." The LT snapped out.

"Yes, sir?" Richardson asked.

"Take the rest of the day off, stay warm. Do you smoke?" He asked.

"Yes, sir."

"Try not to." He said, then turned to Nagle. "Is everyone that I'd marked for duty cleared for work crews?"

"Yes, sir." She said.

"Excellent." He turned to us. "Check the duty schedule at the CQ Desk, break up into your work crews and or go to your place of duty. Dismissed."

On the list Nancy, Bomber, and myself were stuck up in the Third Magazine Platoon's NCO offices. I moved up to PV2 Davies, who was yawning and stretching.

"You taking my cousins to Graf?" I asked.

He shook his head. "PFC Osterhaus. He's up at the motorpool right now bringing down CUC-V Sixteen." He yawned again. "I'm fucking beat."

"All right. Thanks, man." I told him. I turned to where my cousins were standing there, about ten feet from where Meeks was talking to Aine. She had reached up and had her hand on his cheek, looking at him through her eyelashses.

"Don't worry, man, we'll get them out of here and to Graf." Davies told me, mistaking the aim of my frown.

"Thanks, man. When you wake up, hit me up, we'll have a couple beers." I told him. He yawned again and waved at me as I walked over to where Bomber and Nancy were standing by the door.

Aine smiled at me, her hand having dropped from Meeks' cheek to the middle of his chest. I glared at her and she lowered her head, looking at me through her too long eyelashes with her too wide green eyes.

Bomber thumped me in the chest when I walked up and I playfully thumped him back.

"What are we doing, brother?" He asked me.

"Paperwork. I gotta catch up with the paperwork on Atlas and the crew." I told him.

"What do I do while you handle that bullshit?" He asked me.

"You'll tap-dance and juggle." I said, then laughed. "I don't fucking care, just as long as you do it in the office."

"Cool." He grinned. "Time to sleep off last night's drunk."

"Let me guess, study this medical FM." Nancy said.

"Right in one, baby." I told her. She smiled at me, her brown eyes softening.

"Specialist Lanks, I wasn't sure where to put my stuff, when you're off will you show me?" Aine asked.

I snarled and yanked open the door. "Let's fucking go."

My friends followed me silently to the second floor, where we walked across the Mag Area, where we normally hung out and smoked cigarettes, opened the door to Third Magazine Office, and headed into the office.

Nancy sat down at Sergeant Ski's desk, Bomber just grabbed SGT Hallow's chair and sat down, pulling his hat out of his thigh pocket and putting it on, tugging it down over his eyes as he leaned back.

Within ten minutes I was doing paperwork, something the Army seemed to generate literal tons of, Nancy was making notes based off a training manual, and Bomber was leaned back in a chair, his softcap pulled over his eyes, pretending to sleep so I didn't hand him any of the papwerwork to do.

Lunch was MRE's, but SPC Davis told me that the LT had already made arrangements to heat up some A-Rats, so dinner was going to be lasagna, bread, and green beans with bacon bits in them. I polished off mine and the leftovers from Bomber's and Nagle's. Nagle hated the grape jelly and Bomber hated the cheese, but as far as I was concerned, it was all fuel for the machine.

We'd just finished throwing away the plastic and foil that the meals came in, all three of us chewing on the gum, when Stokes came up. When she went to shut the door the wind grabbed it out of her hands, causing it to slam. Bomber snorted loudly and looked around sleepily. Seeing nothing out of the ordinary he dropped his chin on his chest and began going back to sleep. She was limping heavily as she crossed the room, and sat down in one of the chairs, spinning a key on a little ring around her index finger.

"Guess what I get to do." She gushed with false enthusiasm.

"Masturbate till you pass out?" I guessed, not looking up from my paperwork.

"Finally take off your chastity belt and know the touch of a man?" Nancy asked.

"Gremlins in the hayloft." Bomber suggested helpfully, shifting slightly in the chair.

"No. Get serious." Stokes said. Nancy and I looked at each other, smiled, then looked at her.

"It's the key to your heart?"

"It's the key to Alfenwehr?"

"It's so you can pound sand up your ass?"

"Someone can finally turn you on with it?"

"It unlocks your ass so monkeys can fly out of it?"

"Oh, I know, it'll open up the Temple of Doom and we can all have free heart surgery!"

"Bessie ate my shoe"

"It unlocks a safe deposit box where Hitler's brain is stored?"

"It unlocks a safe deposit where Bomber's brain is stored?"

"It unlocks the chest where you hid your virginity so you wouldn't lose it?"

"Fuck you guys." Stokes grumped, dropping the key on Sergeant Walls' desk. "How the hell do you guys keep from accidentally blowing up Atlas."

"It ain't from a lack of trying." I told her.

"We're just missing a key. Surprise, you have one." Nancy offered.

"Enough about the fucking key." Stokes snapped.

"Stuff your tampon in, Stokes, shit." Nancy snapped back. "No wonder you date humorless dicks like William and Cobb, you don't have a goddamn sense of humor."

Stokes looked hurt, and I glared at Nancy, hoping that she'd suddenly develop telepathy so she could understand how hard I was thinking at her that Stokes had broken up with my brother the day before.

"Since you aren't with a humorless dick any more, how about you put your nipple pads in your bra, quit bitching, and laugh with us for awhile, huh Stokes?" Nancy asked. She smiled and tossed Stokes a small flask of Wild Turkey. "Have a drink and relax."

Stokes looked wary as she opened the flask and took a drink off of it. I shrugged and went back to my paperwork.

"Goddamn it, sis, you left the chicken coop open again." Bomber mumbled. Nancy made soft clucking noises and Stokes smothered giggles as Bomber kept bitching in his sleep. Nancy smiled at Stokes and picked back up her medial FM, lifting it up in front of her face so she could read it. I saw out of the corner of my eye Nancy slowly and deliberately open her legs, then slide one hand down over her BDU clad crotch and start slowly rubbing and squeezing. I glanced up without looking away from my paperwork and saw Stokes blushing.

But she didn't look away.

Life went on like that for about an hour, Stokes pretending to ignore Nancy and Nancy teasing Stokes while Bomber mumbled in his sleep, dreaming of Texas, and I kept working on the paperwork that had piled up.

The phone rang and I snatched it up on the second ring. The first could be crossed wires or just the weather, a second ring meant that there was actually someone on the line. If I waited till the third ring they might hear four rings on their end and then I'd get an ass chewing.

"2/19th Special Weapons Group, Third Magazine Platoon, Corporal Ant speaking. How can I help you, sir or ma'am?" I recited.

"This is Lieutenant James, Corporal. I am just performing a quick headcount. Are your two subordinates accounted for?" The LT asked.

"Yes, sir." Simple answer, I could see them both. Bomber was snoring and Nancy was still engrossed in her textbook.

"Did Specialist Stokes arrive?" He asked.

I looked over at Stokes, who was taking another drink out of the flask and holding onto a folded over Penthouse Letters that Nancy had tossed her. She was obviously reading, tilting the flask so she didn't lose sight of the words.

"Yes, sir. She's right in front of me." I told him.

"Excellent, Corporal. Close of business formation today is at seventeen-thirty. However, your and your squad have been working all day as well as being on heavy profile. I don't want you to overexert yourselves," overexert ourselves? Bomber had slept all day, Nancy had done nothing but rib me and Stokes and read her manuals, and all I'd done is paperwork. Overexert? "so you can release your subordinates from their duties at seventeen thirty hours or before if you feel they have completed their duties for the day. Dinner will be served at eighteen hundred." He told me.

Thank you, Jeeves, that will be all. Went through my mind, but my mouth was smart enough to say: "Roger that, sir." Instead of what I was thinking.

"James, clear." Was all he finished with, hanging up. I shrugged and hung up the phone as Nancy looked at me.

"Well?" She asked, setting aside her FM and standing up with a wicked smile on her face.

"The LT said for me to tell you to quit being a lazy bitch and get back to work." I told her, looking back down at my paperwork.

"Pfft, no blowjob for you." She said, sitting back down and picking up her FM again. "Dammit, I lost my place."

"That's what you get for being cock hungry." I told her, checking off several boxes and initialing the fact I'd checked them off.

"But I'm huuuuuungry." She whined. "How come Stokes gets to read porn and I have to read a boring manual about medical crap?"

"Because God watched you touch yourself last night." I told her. I looked up, not moving my head, just raising my eyes so that Stokes wouldn't catch me looking at her. She was blushing slightly, staring at Nancy.

"Pfft, and I'm the pervert?" She asked. "He watched the whole time."

"I told you to stay off my horse, Becky." Bomber mumbled. Nancy made a soft neighing noise and Bomber mumbled at his sister to leave his horse alone.

"Hey, Stokes, what are you supposed to be actually doing?" Nancy asked, bored with fucking with Bomber.

Stokes jerked like someone had shocked her. She looked flustered for a moment, then blushed and sat up straight. "I was told to inventory the medical stocks up here and give you an inventory sheet." She set down the Penthouse Letters and picked up the key.

"Fuck it. I'll wake up Sleeping Beauty, you unlock the locker, we'll knock that shit out." Nancy said. She spun her chair around and kicked Bomber's chair. "Wake up, pervert, we're tired of hearing about your sheep based kinky fantasies."

"Wuzzat?" Bomber said, jerking awake. "Sheep? We don't have sheep. That's Gunderson Ranch."

Nancy laughed. "Come on, high speed, Stokes needs out help to inventory the medical supplies."

Bomber stood up, stretched and yawned, then nodded. "Sure. Why not?"

"We're off at seventeen thirty, chow at eighteen hundred." I told them. All three nodded. I went back to my paperwork. Months of incident reports, inventory reports, requests for information months old that I'd never seen but had sat in my inbox on my desk the whole time instead of being sent out to Atlas. Most of it had been destroyed, so I had to completely redo the paperwork, reconstructing a lot of the data from the copies that had been in the secure cabinets. That meant making a copy of the secure storage copies and then having Nancy run the packets of them back down to secure storage and getting the documents I needed after the packet I started working on.

The injuries were the hardest, a litany of broken bones, contusions, lacerations, concussions, sickness, and pain. My name appeared more than a few times, and I'd started keeping a checklist of the number of times someone had been injured. Operation Glass Parrot turned out to be the worst, where we'd been running on no sleep, no food, and stumbling with exhaustion the last 72 hours of a 15 day operation. Eighty-six injury write-ups in fifteen days between sixteen people total, each of them requiring me to write up another incident report. The majority of them were repeat injuries, people reinjuring themselves because they hadn't been given any profiles or time off.

In each case I put the blame solely where it belonged. Chief Henly, a sorry excuse for a human being that earned his medals off the backs of his troops, working them like he was in charge of an early industrial age sweatshop full of orphans. He won a lot of awards for 'performance above and beyond the call of duty' but I could see the actual cost in the paperwork I'd worked my way up to.

My crew's blood and pain.

He'd raked in two Meritorious Service Medals on our fucking work. Specifically for "Service above and beyond normal duty in the refitting of FSTS-317, tireless efforts, and a work ethic that gave credit to the entire Battalion."

In other words, he worked us like slaves, belittled us, starved us, denied us medical care, and got fucking medals. As far as I was concerned the red and white ribbon signified the broken bones and spilt blood of Atlas, and he mocked me and my entire crew walking around in his Class-A's all the fucking time showing those medals off.

One of these days, I was gonna stab his fat ass right through his MSMs.

After working my way through most of Glass Parrot I glanced up at the clock, seeing it was almost sixteen hundred. A glance at the window showed me nothing but snow whipping against them and the fact that the sun was starting to go down. I stubbed out my cigarette and leaned back in my chair, looking at my three friends.

"You guys go ahead and take off, I'll see you at dinner." I told them. Their faces lit up. "No reason for you three to hang out here, since you're not really doing anything but keeping me company."

The words weren't all the way out of my mouth before John was out the door, the double doors slowly closing behind him. Stokes looked at the medical equipment they had spread out in front of the locker and then at Nancy. Nancy made a shooing motion at her and Stokes was out the door before Nancy's laugh finished echoing in the room.

"Lemme put this stuff away, Ant." She told me.

"No problem." I told her. "Thanks for not leaving it me to do."

"No problem, baby." She said. I went back to working. The reports for Operation Thursday Brunch were next. Talk about a stupid fucking name for moving nuclear weapons around. But hell, nobody asked me shit.

"Hey, Ant, psst." Nancy's voice made me look up.

She was standing there without her shirt and bra on, the chill in the air making her nipples stand up. I knew my eyes were wide as she blew a kiss to me. She put her hands together below her belt and squeezed her breasts between her arms, making them lift up, and laughed wickedly.

"Come watch me work, Ant." She smiled.

I set aside the paperwork claiming that I'd moved something besides nuclear weapons and stood up. I walked over, picked up the flask Stokes had left on the desk, and unscrewed the cap, watching Nancy squat down and start packing IV tubing away. She messed with her boots, then went back to packing more of the sterile medical equipment back into the boxes.

After a few moments she stood up, and without a word, kicked her boots off, dropped her pants, and stepped out of them, leaving her gloriously naked.

"Just keep watching." She told me, looking back. I nodded, swallowing. She squatted back down and leaned forward. After watching her for a moment I hopped off the desk and started to reach for her.

"Uh-uh. No touchie feelie." She told me without turning around. "Be a good boy and sit back up on the desk."

I nodded, even though she couldn't see me, and hopped back up on the desk, taking a long swallow off the Wild Turkey. I smoked a cigarette as she finished packing, holding it over the garbage can and crushing the cherry out on the side of the liquor bottle before field stripping the butt and putting it in my pocket.

She stood up and shut the wall locker, locking it and threading a thin metal seal into the hasp. Once she was done she turned around and walked over to me, standing in only her OD green socks in front of me, her dogtags visible between her breasts.

"Give me your hand." She told me. I held out my hand and she took it, lifting it up to kiss the scarred knuckles before lowering it to between her legs.

"Gently, Ant, gently." She cautioned me, her grip shifting on my hand so she could guide me into what she wanted. She stood there, legs open, one hand holding tight to my uniform, the other hand eventually coming up to wrap around the back of my neck and pull me against her.

When she was finished she pushed me back, sliding onto my lap. I wrapped my arms around her and held her as we kissed.

"My boy, mine." She said, kissing my face. "I saved you, that makes you mine." She dug in my pocket and pulled out my cigarettes. "Light us ones, will you." I nodded, and silently lit one for her and one for me before putting away my cigarettes and lighters.

"You need to trim your nails." She told me, leaning against me and exhaling smoke into the air. I chuckled and she slapped my leg playfully. "It's not funny." She giggled, ruining it, and we sat silently.

After our cigarettes were done she stood up and I watched as she dressed. She smiled at met the whole time.

"I'm gonna go wander around, see what's up." She told me.

"Good idea." I answered. I sighed, straightened up, and hopped off the desk. I walked back to mine. "I've got like six months worth the paperwork to catch up on." I stirred the paper around with two wet fingers, taking a petty joy in what I was doing.

"Need me to run down and get more copies?" She asked.

"Naw. I've got this." I looked up. "Go, have fun. Love you."

"I know." Nancy grinned at me, blew me a kiss, and left with her medical textbook under her arm and a flirtatious wiggle of her BDU clad butt before the door shut.

The temperature seemed to drop pretty quickly, but I knew it was all in my head, just a product of being alone in a room that usually contained almost a dozen other people. When the small flask of Wild Turkey ran out I got up from behind my desk and went over to my brother's, pulling open the bottom drawer and pulling a bottle of rum out from under the paperwork. Bicardi Light & Dry, what he usually drank. Personally I'd have preferred a good bottle of bourbon, but beggars couldn't be choosers.

The rum still tasted good as I took a deep pull off of the bottle and went back to typing up my paperwork. I hated the carbon paper triplicate forms, since I had to double-check if the paperwork was still aligned properly. More than once I had to pull it out and completely redo it when the pink, yellow, or blue pages got misaligned. I couldn't just photocopy them, the colors actually mattered.

Stupid Cold War Bullshit.

The stack of paperwork slowly went down, same with the level in the Bicardi bottle. The warmth was enough to make the knowledge of the chill outside the windows fade, and the next couple of hours went by pretty quickly.

Satisfied I'd done what I could, I put the bottle in the middle drawer of my desk and stood up, intending on heading downstairs to grab some food. I about jumped out of my skin when the door burst open and Nancy stood there with an OD green tray piled high with food. Nothing special, but it was hot. She brought it to me with a smile, plonking the trays on my desk and sitting on the edge.

Hungry, I pulled the tray forward and began shoveling down the food while Nancy watched with a smile on her face. She pulled open the drawers of my desk till she found the bottle of rum, then took a long swig off of it while I finished up my lasagna, having already garbaged down the side dishes.

"The LT sent me to check on you." She told me when I was done eating the main meal. I raised one eyebrow before going back to tucking in the last of the food. "Marshden's missing, he didn't show up to formation, and the LT has people sweeping the barracks right now."

"Aw shit." I groaned, pushing the tray away. "When was the last time anyone saw him?"

"Last night at formation. The LT thinks he couldn't have gone far, his clothing is still in his room, along with his cold weather gear." Nancy said, holding her out for the bottle. When I handed it to her she took a long drink before continuing. "Ol' Teflon James seems a bit worried about Marshden's stupid ass."

"How do you know his cold weather gear is still there?" I asked, finishing off the 'chocolate' pudding.

"He had me and Sergeant Butcher search the room." She lit two cigarettes and handed me one. "What do you think happened to him?"

A grunt was my only answer and she shook her head. "No, I don't think it was him, there was no blood and the boards over his windows were intact."

"Still could have taken him somewhere else." I argued. "He was in the barracks last night."

She shook her head. "Doesn't feel right, ya know?" I nodded. The barracks felt cold and dark, but it lacked that certain feeling that it had a few months ago. I didn't feel like something was stalking me, just out of my vision, taunting me.

"What does the LT think?"

"He said that more than likely either Marshden went outside for some reason or someone lured him outside." Nancy snorted. "He's ordering that the barracks be locked down." She reached out and picked up the phone on my desk. "Oh, the phones are all down but the internal lines and the V Corps line and the LT already called it in that we've got commo loss."

My blood ran cold at the thought of the lines being down. "So he transferred control over the main company?" I asked and she nodded. "And we're going to be doing commo checks through V Corps instead of the normal checks?" Another nod. "That means we're all alone up here again."

"Yeah." She said soberly.

"We've got someone missing. There's a blizzard again. Bomber and I are wrecked." I added.

"Yeah." She said.

"And Aine is still here."



Chapter 6

2/19th Special Weapons Group
Restricted Area, Western Germany
Winter-January, 1988
Day 10 of Repairs
Day 2 of the Second Incident

Nancy walked beside me as we moved down the stairs to the Ready Room, the large room in between the Arm's Room and the Supply Room. On the same wall as the Arm's Room was the NBC Room and far wall was the Secure Items storage. Set up in the room were the three garbage cans used to wash dishes. Pvt Bellings and Pvt Martins were accepting the trays and I could tell by their expressions that they had hoped that they wouldn't have to do any extra duty, since the last LT had been more interested in getting in Pv2 Allsbury's panties than actually doing anything he was supposed to beyond yelling at us that he was gonna teach us the "right way" to do shit. I didn't hold being on extra-duty against them, hell, I'd gotten an Article-15 and a week or two of extra-duty more than once, I just didn't like Bellings all that much. The first day he was in the unit he'd heard the music in my room, came in, grabbed a beer, and sat down like he'd been in the unit for months. He'd kept that sense of entitlement the whole time, which just made me naturally dislike him.

I handed my tray and silverware to Bellings, who glared at me. Martins checked my name off and I noticed the two names that were missing the checkmark.

Aine and Bomber.


"Come on, hurry." I said, turning away from the two soldiers on extra-duty and heading for the stairwell.

"Where are we going? Ant, slow down." Nancy said in the stairwell.

"Hurry up." I snapped at her, rounding the mid-floor landing between the first and second floor. I had a bad feeling about it. I was pretty sure what I'd find when I got to our room. I about busted my ass exiting the stairwell and trying to make the corner to head to our room, my boots slipping on the thin rime of ice on the wax.

The door was locked, taking a few extra seconds to quietly unlock it and push it open. I made a motion at Nancy to be quiet as the door slowly swung open, and exactly what I was worried about appeared in front of us.

Aine was on her knees in a chair, leaning over the back, her knees on the seat, and her hair falling over her face. A flowerprint short skirt was thrown up over her back, exposing her bare butt. Bomber was behind her, trying to stick it in her while Aine moved her butt around and giggled. She didn't have on shoes or socks, just a light cotton dress that was almost see through.

"You take Bomber." I hissed at Nancy, then took five long steps to get to Aine.

She had time to realize I was there and start to look when I grabbed her by the hair and slung her into the hallway, Nancy hopping to avoid the smaller woman as she crumpled on the floor and slid on the waxed tile to thump against the closed door.

"Get the fuck out, Aine." I snarled. Behind me I heard Bomber protest and Nancy say something as she moved past me.

"Why, Annie, you don't want me in here?" Aine asked, coming to her feet in a smooth rippling motion that seemed more like silk being lifted up than any human had a right to.

"Get out." I said again, reaching past her to open the door.

"Goddammit, get out of my way, Nagle." Bomber yelled behind me.

"Come on, Annie, don't be like that." Aine said, and hearing my childhood name coming from her lips made goosebumps raise on my skin. The little lizard hissed in cold fury at the small, petite woman in front of me.

When she raised a hand to touch my face I pushed her hand away by sweeping her forearm away with my own. A flicker of anger moved through the depths of those too large green eyes. It was quickly replaced by fear when I drove my fist into the cinderblock beside her head hard enough for her to hear my knuckles crunch as a lock of her hair got caught between my knuckles and the painted cinderblock next to her ear.

"Stay. Out." I snarled, leaning forward.

She gave a low moan, licking her lips, and the smell of apple blossoms grew thick. She tried to touch my face again and I swept aside her arm again with the same move, a hand-to-hand move pounded into me during training. Her eyes were glowing like molten jade and she started to give another low moan.

That turned into a squawk of anger when I grabbed her by the front of her dress and physically threw her down the hallway. She bounced off the right hand wall but caught her balance and came to a stop in the middle of the hallway. The front of her dress torn open, revealing her small perfect breasts, topped with fiery red nipples.

"You have grown, little Annie." She smiled, pulling the lock of hair around to in front of her face. She looked at the shining blood on the lock of hair, then locked eyes with me as that pointed little tongue, too long and feline for such a small mouth, extended from her mouth to lap daintily at the blood left behind when my knuckles had torn. With each lap at the hair she took another step forward back toward me.

Before she could say anything I slammed the door in her face and turned around to see how Nancy was handling Bomber, my knuckles throbbing.

She had her hands on either side of his face, staring into his eyes and speaking fast, calling out his name, telling him to calm down, asking him to relax. He looked at me and flushed, his grip changing to push her away.

I was shaking, the close proximity with Aine, hearing my childhood name from her lips again, the smell of her, the sight of her petite body that was both familiar and new again, and adrenaline from the lizard kicking in the 'fight' button.

"Enjoy yourselves, I'm gonna take a shower." I told them, locking the door and turning to go into the bathroom. I needed to clear my head of the smell of apple blossoms, the hot coppery smell of blood that she'd had since she was thirteen, and that wild feral smell that Aine seemed to have when I got close enough to her. I looked at my fingers in the light, noticing that my middle finger seemed twisted slightly. Grabbing it tightly and ignoring the pain I yanked it, feeling it snap back into place more than hearing the pop. Then I rinsed off my knuckles, checking for anything worse than just torn skin. I stared at the ugly guy in the mirror for a moment, then went back to picking the torn skin off my knuckles, keeping my mind blank and trying not to think of Aine.

I'd been more angry than I'd thought, and hit harder than I'd meant to. The little lizard was still muttering to itself, and because of that I had the adrenaline shakes as I turned on the shower, the hot water arriving almost immediately and filling the small bathroom with steam.

It only took a few moments before my uniform was folded up in the sink and I was sitting in the shower with the bottle of Wild Turkey we kept in the bathroom closet. I had managed to get my cousins the fuck off the mountain and now I was stuck up here by myself with Aine.

The cigarette smoke from the Marlboro I'd lit before getting into the shower melded with the steam, and the nicotine helped calm the shakes and the nausea that was twisting my stomach. My head was throbbing, and I was suddenly aware I had about a second to get into the toilet.

Everything came up in a rush. My dinner, the Wild Turkey, and a lot of bile. My head swam and I bit back a moan of agony when the heaves paused for a moment. Before I could stop myself I began dry heaving, my vision tunneling.

Once I was done I tossed the cigarette butt in the toilet, used some damp tissue to pick up the ashes, and flushed both down. A long swig off the Wild Turkey bottle settled my stomach, and another cigarette help calm the shakes. Ignoring the white dancing sparkles in my vision I climbed back into the shower and sat on the floor of the shower shaking, sheltering the precious cigarette with my body as the hot water pounded against my tense back muscles.

Once my head started to clear, after the cigarette, I drank in the steam and hot water and debated how much I could them. How far I could go without breaking one of the codes of silence that seemed to hem in my life? Could I tell them about Aine and risk my own cousins coming after me, or keep them in the dark from the very real danger the little bitch represented?

There wasn't a choice. I couldn't tell them. What if they didn't believe me, or worse yet, if Aine took them from me just because she could.

Curled up in the shower, holding the Wild Turkey bottle, I felt more alone than I had in years.

Promise me, Annie, promise me you'll never tell what happened to us….

The door clicked and I could hear clothing rustle. It wouldn't be Bomber coming in to share a hot shower with me, so I wasn't exactly surprised when Nancy's long and muscular leg preceded the rest of her into the shower. She stood in front of me for a long moment, soaking her hair, and I watched the way the water poured down her body, enjoying the view until she sat down across from me and wordlessly held her hand out for the bottle. I stayed silent, waiting for her to break the silence, watching her drink the bourbon. Finally she wiped her mouth, flexed her jaw a few times, then handed the bottle back.

"OK, what was all that about?" Nancy asked me, leaning forward slightly so the water would hit the back of her head and run down her back.

"Aine." I said.

She shook her head, leaning forward slightly so the water didn't hit her directly in the face. "No shit it was Aine. What's the deal with her?"

"Aine's dangerous." I told her. "Trust me on this, that wasn't sex."

Nancy looked at me oddly for a second then her eyes widened. "You're serious."

Another long drink off the bottle and I stared at her. "Ayup."

She lifted her head and stared at me, that thin line between her eyebrows appearing. "What was it then?"

"She was going to use it to drive a wedge between Bomber and us." I told her, skirting around what it really was.

That Aine was stealing his soul.

The bathroom door opened and I heard the toilet lid drop down before weight settled on it. I knew without looking it was Bomber.

"Ant…" he started as Nagle stuck her arm out of the shower and held the bottle out to him.

"Don't bother." I cut him off. "Humor me for a minute, will you, buddy?"

I could hear the liquid gurgle in the bottle and saw Nagle watching him. She held her hand out and brought back the bottle after he told me to go ahead. I nodded to Nancy and continued.

"Describe how what we saw happened, John, just tell us how you ended up trying to stick your dick in Aine." I told him. I heard Bomber heave a sigh.

"OK, Nancy and me figured we'd inventory our rucks and yours till dinner. When dinner rolled around Nancy said she was gonna eat then take a tray to you. I stayed back and finished then went and got a tray for myself." Bomber said. I took a swig on the bottle and handed it to Nancy as he continued. "McCullen was in the hallway and asked me where the two of you were, I told her you two were probably eating in the office and she left. I headed down to get a tray, and brought it upstairs."

He sighed and Nancy handed back the bottle to him. I heard the bourbon gurgle again before he continued. "I'd finished eating, went over to the dresser and set it down so I could grab my BDU top and head down to hand my tray over. I figured I'd come up to the office and bring you something to drink. When I turned around Aine was standing there smiling at me."

"And then?" Nancy asked when he was silent for a moment. I heard the bourbon gurgle again.

"I went to ask her what she was doing in here, when I opened my mouth she put her hand on my face and…" His voice trailed off, and I could hear his confusion in the silence.

I knew what it was like, her touch. The way it ignited the blood, wiped away all thought, and bent you to her will. I knew that the moment she touched him, he was lost.

"And what, John?" Nancy asked gently. "Then what happened?"

"I… I don't know. All I remember is the smell of apple blossoms. The next thing I knew you were kissing me, Nancy, then I heard the door slam and my head started to clear up." John said slowly.

Nancy looked at me under the water and I nodded. "Yeah, that's kind of her deal."

She took another swig off the bourbon and sat there, tapping her fingers on the bottle as she thought. The two rings she wore on her left ring finger clinked steadily against the bottle, the tone of the sound changing as she took another drink. I leaned against the wall and moved the curtain far enough to see Bomber. He was sitting on the toilet staring at the wall.

"Hey, John." I said. He looked over at me and I pointed at the cigarette he held. "Gimme like two minutes and I'll join you for one of those." I waved at the small bathroom. "I don't think you want my dong flapping in your face while I get some clothing on."

"I'll join you guys in a minute, I need to think about a few things." Nancy said, still pinging her rings on the side of the bottle as John got up and left the bathroom. She stayed silent as I got out, dried off real quick, and pulled on my boxers.

"Kiss me, will you, Ant?" Nancy asked when I reached for the door handle. I nodded, squatted down, and gave her an open mouthed kiss. I suppose it should have bothered me that she'd just finished blowing John, but she was drinking hard alcohol and, well, she was Nancy.

…Ant, I love you…

…I'm coming, baby, hold on….

…I'm dying, aren't I...?

She'd held my hand while I'd done a real good job of dying.

Bomber was sitting in the chair in his PT's, clinking his ring on a bottle of Asbach that he'd probably pulled out of his sock drawer, still looking moody and when he looked at me he gave a slight flush. I just shrugged, grinned at him, and pulled open my civvy wall locker, getting dressed in Levi 501's, a Ratt T-shirt, and a white and red flannel shirt I'd ordered from Sears. I finished dressing, put my laundry in my laundry bag I kept in the locker so the one at the end of the bed was inspection tight, and stood there looking at myself in the mirror.

The man who stared back at me had nothing in common with the kid who had gone to J-Max and spent most of the time in solitaire. Having been given the choice between sitting in solitaire or being bailed out, where Aine was waiting, I'd chosen long hours that crawled into days into weeks by myself.

The kid had a slightly pudgy face, the man's face was lean and harsh. The kid had barely started shaving, the man needed a shave. The kid had been blond, the man was a red-head with grey at the temples. Stress grey. The boy's nose had been straight, the man's slightly crooked. The boy's face only had a few scars, the man's had quite a few. The child had been normal looking, the man was ugly, with a slightly twisted mouth, and shadowed pits with green eyes that stared through things.

The kid was gone. The kid that had 'gone steady' with Aine. Gone. Basic, AIT, the barracks fire, Atlas, the death, had all stripped away the child.

And left the man.

Aine didn't care. Aine wanted the man.

With a snarl I slammed the locker closed to put the reflection away.

"You OK?" Bomber asked.

"Fine." I said, probably harsher than I meant. I tried to smile at him and hopped up on the dresser. I grabbed the pack of Marlboros off the dresser, and lit two, handing one to Bomber while he was collecting his thoughts. Finally he looked up at me through a cloud of cigarette smoke that the trickle of breeze leaking through the cover over our broken windows gently swirled.

"You grew up with her?" Bomber asked, leaning forward with his elbows on his knees. I nodded. "Was she always that creepy?" I nodded again. "And now she's here, on this mountain, with us?" He passed me the bottle and then rubbed his face with his hands. "Shit, can things get any worse?"

The little lizard in the back of my brain hissed at him for saying that.

"Goddamn blizzard has our newbies stuck here, we've got that sociopath LT James here, fucking Tandy lurking around out there, and something doesn't feel… doesn't feel right, brother." Bomber said.

I nodded, and the wind hammered on the plywood over our windows, the slight breeze picking up strength and dissipating the cigarette smoke as I took a long drink of the warm brandy. It was smoother than Wild Turkey, and felt like liquid silk going down as I thought over what he'd said.

"You gonna say anything, Ant?"

I shrugged.

"It's Aine, isn't it?" He took another swig off the bottle. "What the fuck happened to you, brother? What the fuck did she do to you?"

I stayed silent.

…Please don't tell….

"You know your cousins didn't go back to Graf, right?" He tried.

"So my cousins are stuck here with us?" I asked, and John nodded.

"The Duty Driver took one look at the visibility out there and refused to go." He chuckled as I handed the bottle back. "I thought the LT would spin the fuck out, instead he went out, stood on the bricks of the entryway, and came back in and commended the Duty Driver on his willingness to let a superior officers know when their intelligence was out of date and might put people at risk of injury or death." He shrugged while he chuckled again. "He put Aine and your cousins to work inventorying the NBC Room under Chantlier. I checked on them twice, and Chantlier was pretty much just telling them how this shithole runs after making sure that they got their issue, sitting in the NBC Room swilling down cheap beer and bitching to three very confused privates about how much he hates this place."

Chantlier and Cobb were the two NBC Room NCO's, with my older brother Aiden being their assistant. Cobb had been put there to give him a place while he went through alcohol rehabilitation, being pulled off of SGT Wrenlow's crew and being put in the NBC Room so he'd have a place on the TO&E and keep him current. Chantlier had been the NBC Room NCO in his previous unit and when he'd arrived in 2/19th in July the current CO had put him in charge of the NBC Room and demoted my older brother to his assistant.

For the most part Chantlier just handled inventory and maintenance on the unit's rather extensive NBC protective and detection gear, but one of his duties giving out issue to people who'd just shown up. Issue that was supposed to be handed out as soon as someone arrived.

Issue consisted of the gas mask, the atropine and 2-PAM chloride injector sets, the test strips, the detector tape, two chemical protective suits, and issued technical manuals on how to operate detector equipment since we'd gotten new equipment that AIT didn't cover, hell, that had been shipped straight from DARPA and we still had to fill out evaluation reports on. Gas masks had to fitted individually and filters put into them, the chemical protective suits had be issued out according to size and Chantlier always had people try on the training suits. Once the foil seal was broken on the suit packaging the suit became inert and worthless in about 5 days, so he used already inert suits to measure people out since it wasn't uncommon for someone to wear one size BDU's and a different size of chemical gear.

"Hell, you know that he doesn't need to inventory the fucking NBC Room, Chantlier keeps that place dress right fucking dress." Bomber said. His mood was improving, his natural Texas humor overriding even our bad situation. "Chantlier was telling them about the time fucking Sergeant Hill handed in his weapon and the fucker went off."

"How did Aine react to all of it?" I asked, grinning at the memory of Clance about shitting himself when the bullet had ricocheted around the room. The memory of Clance reaching through the bars at the turn-in window, trying to grab Sergeant Hill made me smile. I heard the shower shut off and wondered for a split second was Nancy was doing.

The lizard obliged me by showing me a memory of Nancy naked, drying off slowly, the brown towel against the perma-tanned skin and her brown eyes mischevious.

Bomber just shrugged. "She was just watching everything, biting her lower lip, and the light in her eyes looking like the sun shining through a hole in her head. She had one hand on her chest and was breathing all excited like."

Nancy's image in my mind vanished, replaced by Aine, and the lizard hissed in hate, slapping his hand on the button and shutting off the image in my mind.

He replaced it with PFC Westlin holding her stomach and crying as I bent over her to shield her from the rotorwash as the Blackhawk landed at the lower helipad. Every agonizing detail was there. The way the tears were dirty, how she'd scraped her cheek going face-first onto the pad at Bunker-42, the way her blue eyes were open and staring at the sky as breathed rapidly. The fact her left rank was slightly crooked, and the bottom of her right rank had worn until the brass was peeking through. Every detail of the crew medic I'd failed to save.

The image of the dead woman washed away Aine.

I silently thanked the little guy.

The brandy gurgled as he took another long pull off the bottle. I glanced over as soon as heard bare feet on tile and was greeted with the sight of Nagle, dried off with her hair wrapped up in a towel, walking naked from the bathroom and into the frontroom. Bomber gave a muffled laugh as I just quit talking, knowing full well that I'd completely stopped paying attention to him or anything else the second I'd spotted Nancy.

Her walk was demanding, holding my attention, her hips swaying as she put one long leg in front of the other, the firm muscles built up running by long miles flexing under her permanent tan. She had her breasts thrust out almost aggressively, as if daring someone to mention the stretch marks, the slight sagging gravity always gave larger ones like hers, or the puckered scar on the upper slope of her right breast from where a maniac had rammed a knife through her breast. Her brown eyes were soft as she looked at me, the scar down the side of her face a soft pink line from her hairline to her jawline. Even she'd dried off steam still rose off of her damp skin in the cool air as she crossed the room.

The bedframe creaked as she pulled herself into the bed we both shared, climbing quickly and easily up the end of the bunkbeds, which gave us all kinds of interesting views, one of which she held, looking over her shoulder and giving us a wicked look as she wiggled her butt before she climbed over the edge of the bed and wiggled under the quilt.

"Damn, I hate this place, it's freezing even under the blankets." She said, her teeth chattering. She yawned and burrowed a little deeper. "I'm friggen beat." She rolled onto her stomach and peeked out of the blankets, only her eyes and nose visible. "Get some sleep, you two, tomorrow's a work day."

Bomber held up the bottle and winked at her before passing it to me. I saluted her before taking a long pull off of it.

"Want one of us under those cold blankets with you?" Bomber asked.

She laughed, the warmth in her tone robbing it of any sting. "No thanks. I want to take care of myself." She lifted her head enough so we could see her smile. "Women have been pleasing themselves for thousands of years, it's one of our secrets." The lightbulb dimmed slightly and the room filled with shadows so that only her smile was visible thanks to trick of the light and shadow. "I learned that researching my collection."

Her collection. A nice way to put her collection of fertility idols and other paraphanelia from all over the world regarding sexuality. She had little balls with bells in them that women in China had used to tighten up their vaginal muscles, stone dildos used to deflower virgins from God knew where, fat big breasted idols, and tons more. She had all of them in little boxes with velvet in them, but to hold and cradle the object. All of the boxes had stamped brass labels, and despite the teasing we'd given her, she'd never actually utilized any of the items the way they'd been intended. She had more modern ones, bought off post from German shops. The newer stuff lived in her sock drawer, and two had migrated to Bomber's and my room. The older stuff, from all over the world, were still locked in a drawer in her room.

She did more than collect them. She researched the society that the objects had come from with avid interest. Who they were as a people, why they had designed the objects, what had happened to them, and their political and social traits. Every time she acquired a new one (Twice being investigated by CID after getting a particular piece) Bomber and I would have to put up with her lecturing us about everything involved with the piece.

"Enjoy yourself." I smiled, saluting her with my glass again.

The smile vanished, and I turned back to Bomber.

"To another night in the barracks, brother." I said, saluting him too.

"Let's get drunk." Bomber answered, saluting me back.

Sure, there was work the next day, but right then, there was drinking to be done and things to forget.

The alcohol tasted good.

The barracks were cold.

Voices shouted in German, tap shoes ran by, and boots thudded above us.

Another night in 2/19th.

But not a bad one.

Bomber and I were silent for a moment, listening to the wind outside, the creaking sounds that a cinderblock building shouldn't make, Nancy's quiet private sounds, and the audible proof that the barracks hated us.

"Don't pull away, Ant." Bomber said softly.

I looked at him, took a pull off the bottle, and shook my head.

"I'm serious." He said, holding out his hand. I handed him the bottle. "You're already shutting down, going back to the guy I met in Basic Training." He sighed, took a drink, then shook his head. "Your brother just says you're a quiet guy, but I know you better than that."

He was silent for a moment, then reached over and squeezed my knee. "Is it Aine?"

"Yeah." I admitted.

"You two have history?"


"It's more than just fucking, isn't it?" I nodded, he nodded and passed me the bottle. "Yeah, I figured that." We were silent for a long time. "You're afraid of her, aren't you?"

"More than you'd believe." I admitted. I pinched the bridge of my nose, reaching behind my glasses. "It's all wrapped up in our families, juvie, my father, it's just… it's just… it's just a fucking mess, John."

He squeezed my knee again. "I'm here, brother."

Nancy was snoring softly after a little bit, where we sat in companionable silence. When I went to the fridge I saw we were almost out of soda for our mixed drinks, and I really wanted to mix the Wild Turkey with Coke. My throat and sinuses still burned from heaving up all that bile.

"Grab the sock." I told him. He nodded, knowing which one I meant, and grabbed the sock full of quarters from the desk while I grabbed my fleece lined Levi jacket. I shrugged into it, then sat down on John's bed to pull on my jungle boots. When I was done John had pulled on his jacket, pretty much identical to mine, except the back of his had the Ride the Lightning album cover on the back to my The Trooper.

Both of us put our knives behind our backs before we left and locked the door behind us.

We were silent, moving down the hallway. When we went through the doors and into South Hammerhead Hall we both could see Aine standing below the gutted emergency light in a pool of shadow. The lights above her for ten feet in either direction were out, but her white cotton flowerprint dress was luminous in the shadow, just like her alabaster skin.

She watched us pass, a tiny smirk on that little cupid's bow mouth. She gave a longing sigh after we passed.

"Creepy little bitch." Bomber grumbled when we went into the stairwell. The shrieks from above and below agreed with us. We headed down to the CQ Area.

Relief filled me when I saw that the CQ crew was still there.

The pop machine obediently traded cans of soda for quarters, and 50 cents bought us cans of Bud to nurse on the way back to the room. Between the two of us we'd stuffed almost 2 cases of soda into our jackets, and shivered as we headed back up to the room.

Aine was leaning against the wall, next to the stairwell, and she smiled at us as we went past.

I noticed she had bare feet.

"She fucking mocking me." Bomber growled as we walked up the stairs. "Fucking mocking me for not shoving it in her, I just fucking know it."

"At ease that shit." I snapped, punching his shoulder. "She's fucking with your head and you're letting her."

He paused at the door, turning to look at me. "She does this a lot?"

"Yeah, it's kind of her thing." I admitted. "Let's go, I'm fucking freezing."

Bomber nodded and opened up the door. A woman started screaming above us, and we just ignored it. The lights were out in Near Hammerhead Hall, only the fluorescent light at the double doors in the middle on, the rest of the hallway completely dark.

"God, I hate it when it's like this." Bomber bitched, taking a long swig off his beer can right afterwards. I joined him, trying to get rid of my suddenly dry mouth.

"We ain't getting there standing here." I told him. He grunted and stepped into the hallway.

The fluorescent light above us snapped on with a sharp spiteful buzzing noise.

Both us swore and took two steps.

That's when the next light kicked on, a feeble yellow glow, and the one behind us at the stairwell gave a whining noise and shut off.

"What kind of shit is this?" Bomber asked when the cycle repeated at the third and then the fourth ones.

"I have no clue." I told him honestly. I was starting to sweat, and it had nothing to do with the weather. I was shivering from cold, or, at least, that's what I told myself.

"This place just looooves fucking with us." Bomber said as the lights kept turning on when we were under them and shutting off right when the next one turned on.

When the light over the gutted emergency light kicked on to reveal Aine leaning against the wall, under the light, with a lollipop in her mouth and a smile on her lips, we both jumped. I'll admit to almost screaming and instead just choking on my mouthful of Bud.

"Little Annie, all grown up, and the brave John Bomber." Aine said softly, looking through her eyelashes at us. She pressed her tongue on the lollipop and smiled at us. "Busy, boys?"

"Fuck off, Aine." I snapped.

She just laughed, and disappeared when the light above her shorted out.

"She's creepy, but goddamn does she make my dick hard." Bomber said, finishing off the can of beer and crumpling it in his fist. "This crap's like water."

"Yup to all three." I commented, pushing open the door to the far end of Hammerhead Hall.

There, under the emergency light, was Aine, smiling at us, still dressed in that thin flowerprint dress. I glanced down and noticed that she still wasn't wearing shoes, but at the same time the frost on the floor around her feet was unmarred.

"What the fuck?" Bomber said.

"She went downstairs and ran ahead of us, that's all." I said, heading toward her.

She just smiled and watched us walk up to the door of our room with a faint smirk dancing on her lips. She stayed silent as I unlocked the door and waved Bomber in.

Right before I went in I glared at her. "Enough with the bullshit, Aine."

I slammed the door, and right before it shut I heard: "Sweet dreams, Nancy."

Rage boiled up, the lizard hissed, and I yanked open the door, stepping out in the hallway and raising my voice. "What the fuck did you just say?"

To an empty hallway.

There was no sign on Aine, and the lights were almost all out, just a few still on and two of those flickering. I looked both ways, then slowly backed up and closed the door.

"What?" Nancy grunted. "What the fuck do you want?"

"Nothing, go back to sleep, just checking on you." Bomber was saying as I walked into the main part of the room.

"Why?" Her voice was muzzy, she was drifting off again.

"We went to the soda machine." I offered.

"Soda. Right." Her voice trailed off into mumbling and I smiled at Bomber. We started unloading the soda from our jackets and putting it in the fridge.

"Man, she's a creepy little bitch." Bomber reiterated when we were done, had mixed up drinks, and were sitting back down.

"Yeah." I agreed.

"Any idea what to do about her?" He asked. I opened my mouth. "Besides stabbing her." I closed my mouth and he chuckled.

I looked at my drink and an idea struck me. Looking up I smiled at him.

"Easy. I know what to do." Bomber raised an eyebrow. "Drink till we go blind."

Bomber snickered and took a long pull off his drink.

We proved that with enough alcohol we could forget about Aine, Tandy, everything.

Another night in 2/19th.

And even with Aine around, it wasn't a bad one.

Chapter 7

2/19th Special Weapons Group
Restricted Area, Alfenwehr West Germany
Late Winter- January, 1988
Day 11 of Repairs
Day 3 of the Second Incident

The temperature had definitely dropped in the barracks while we were asleep. Standing in the hallway the proof was obvious to anyone, ice glimmering on the walls, ceiling, and the "frosted" fluorescent light covers. The waxed floor was slick with patches of near-invisible ice. Additionally my cousins were treated to the sight of tiny snowflakes drifting down the near stairwell from the darkness above.

"They make you live here?" Cassius asked, holding out one hand so the flakes drifted into his palm, remained for a second, and then turned into tiny drops of water.

"It isn't that bad." I told them, moving slowly down the stairs, keeping one hand on the bannister for balance in case I hit ice on the steps. "Things could be worse."

"How could things be any… ow!" Cassius started then yelled when Nancy smacked him across the back of the head.

"Don't say that shit, you idiot 'cruit." Nancy snarled. "You'll kill us all."

We were silent as we pushed through the door and into the CQ Area, discovering that we were the first of Rear-D to arrive with the exception of the CQ Crew. Lanks looked like she was going to drop, having pulled CQ Duty, a day off, then CQ Duty again. The LT was looking over the logs and talking quietly with Lanks. I noticed that his normally perfect hair was slightly mussy, he had purplish circles under his eyes, and he was wearing his pistol rig. My eyes immediately went to the pistol holster, and I noted that the pistol was unsnapped, allowing it to be drawn quickly. A little bit that surprised me was that the pistol wasn't in the exact position it was supposed to be according to uniform standards, but he'd rather moved it to a place where he could draw it quickly in a cross draw.

Some things weren't exactly adding up where the LT was concerned, and I suddenly wished he was in the habit of wearing his Class-A's to impress us all, because his medals might let me fit some of the puzzle pieces. Fill in some of the questions, some of the blanks. I hated having incomplete intelligence about a situation, not having data that might make the difference with a decision I might have to make.

Lack of intelligence was dangerous.

In 2/19th dangerous meant deadly.

Now that I thought about it, I don't think he'd ever attended a Class-A inspection.

"Corporal Ant." The LT called out when he saw me. I moved up went to salute, and he made a chopping motion, shaking his head. "No need for that." I nodded, dropping my hand, and he continued. "I am hereby informing you that I'm assigning Private McCullen to your squad, you will be in charge of her and will determine her duties."

…Aw shit….

"While she may be placed in another squad or even another platoon once her assignment with Rear Detachment is finished, for the moment, you are her squad leader and I expect you treat her with the respect and the dignity that her rank and status deserve." I kept my face as neutral as possible, ignoring the hate filled hiss of the little lizard at the idea of her being out at Atlas with us. "I am assigning your cousins to Sergeant Butcher due to the fact that I want to avoid any appearance of favoritism or nepotism. I know that your squad is currently light on members, but I expect you to carry on to the best of your ability."

"Yes, sir." I nodded. Hell, I understood that part. Any promotion I gave out, any award I put them in for, would all be scrutinized closely and in the minds of their peers and supervisors they would be tainted by their relationship with me.

"I am moving Specialist Miranda Stokes to your squad, this will not be a problem, will it, Corporal?" He asked me.

"No, sir." I answered. With the addition of Aine and Stokes that brought my squad's numbers up to five, still the smallest of the squads, but the first three squads were all work crews while I believed that LT James was using my squad to put either unknowns or injured into mine.

"You are correct, Corporal." The LT said, jarring my thoughts. "I am using your squad for personnel that I feel should not be on the work crews due to profile." The shock I felt must have carried through to my face. "Private McCullen is an unknown, Specialist Stokes' knee is permanently damaged which puts her at the risk of taking a fall. This environment does not allow for much of a margin of error. I would prefer if any errors did not result in extensive injuries or death of any my personnel."

I could hear boots coming up behind us and it sounded like the majority of Rear-D had managed to gather up in one of those gaggles you got now and then despite training and doctrine.

"Take your place, Corporal." He said, dismissing me.

When I saw Stokes I motioned to her, letting her know that the LT had moved her to my squad and that I'd figured out what I'd have her doing as soon as formation was over. She nodded, looking a bit relieved for some reason.

Formation had loosely gathered together, with everyone more or less in the lines we were supposed to be formed up in. Aine slid through the doors after PFC Graham and just moved next to Stokes, smiling at everyone with those small sharp little teeth.

Marshden was still missing, something that made me nervous. Sergeant Butcher didn't seem too concerned with his missing man. The one that had made the second of the missing the day before was Fellwreath, who had apparently just been sleeping and had been given the day off. Stokes had told me that they'd found him drinking beer and watching TV in his room when they swept the barracks while I'd been doing paperwork.

The Lieutenant called us to attention and requested our reports. Everyone was present and/or accounted for, and he stood there silent for a long time staring at us, making me nervous. He gazed at each of us, almost as if he was making a show of looking at each person and judging them, weighing them against whatever standard he held people to.

"Form up into your work details. I expect no less than four rooms worth the windows to be replaced today as well as the doors that accompany those windows to bring the room up to standards." His smile was a cold thing. "It appears our good Corporal Ant and his fellow survivors did an exceptional job of ensuring that his plan for the barracks denied the enemy territory. While I wish he would have spared our home his attentions, I must commend his aggressive mindset and his willingness to whatever it took to obtain victory." He paused for a moment, his eyes settling on several people in the formation. "Despite the rumors and grousing that have been coming to my attention, Corporal Ant and everyone else who survived that Rear Detachment shift had no choice but to deny the enemy territory, as they did indeed have an enemy who knew the territory just as well as they did.

"Let me put the rumors to bed once and for all, as Rumor Control, like it usually manages to accomplish, has gotten most of the story right but the majority of the details wrong." His eyes swept back over the formation, but had nothing to do with the goosebumps that covered my skin. "Corporal Ant and the others of Rear Detachment were engaged by person or persons unknown who seemed intent upon murdering the entirety of Rear Detachment. They were ambushed and did not know they were under attack until their situation was extremely perilous. They survived for over a week with no power, no heat, no water, in a barracks that had fallen to subzero temperatures with a blizzard raging outside of the building, and two severely wounded personnel who only survived due to the attentions of Specialist Nagle." His eyes were daring anyone to say anything, merciless and judging everyone they swept over. "Before you complain about his methods, or his participation in destroying the barracks, weigh your own character and abilities and decide if you could have performed half as well as Corporal Ant and what remained of Rear Detachment without destroying the barracks in order to deny the enemy the resources of said barracks. Remember they were all injured, suffering from deprivation and exposure, and men died." He paused for a long moment. "Attend to your duties. Attention. Squad Leaders, take charge. Fall out."

The group scattered into the work groups. Some to replace the doors. Some to replace the windows. Those of us who were responsible for paperwork and other duties. McCullen quietly waited for instructions while my two cousins were put on window repair. I told Nancy to take Aine to her room and inspect it, while I wanted Bomber and Stokes to head up to the Mag Office and take an inventory of the platoon emergency stocks, specifically finishing up the last of the medical equipment.

"A moment of your time, Corporal Ant?" The LT asked as I went up to the CQ desk to see if there were any morning reports I needed to take into account. I turned around, coming to attention.

"Of course, sir." I said. He nodded and motioned me over to the back of the CQ area. I followed him around the large counter that was misnomered as the CQ desk and to the back, by the door to the small room and the table that everyone put their cold weather gear, their weapons, and the vehicle dispatches on.

He waited a moment until nobody was really paying attention to us to speak. Cassius was heading down to the War Stocks Room with the door crew to haul the doors up, and the crew James was a part of was heading down to the supply room to get the tools to replace the windows. The CQ saw he wanted a bit of privacy and went to check the barracks, leaving me alone with the LT and my little quartet of crunchies that had wandered over to the trophy case. I kept from snorting, knowing that it was a little known trick of the barracks acoustics that allowed someone standing by the glass to hear everything said behind the CQ Desk clear as day.

"Corporal Ant, I know without asking that I can trust your discretion." He started, no sign of the exhaustion in his pose or voice despite what I could sense from him. "I don't know you that well, seeing as you are in a different platoon than the one I am in charge of, and nobody outside of your own crew seems to know you that well either beyond paperwork and rumors. While that may make you less of a trustable person in some people's eyes, in my eyes that means that I can trust your discretion and your adherence to military discipline. The lack of credible rumors of you also tells me that your crew is capable of discretion." I waited for him to get to the point since it felt like he was in the middle of exhaustion fueled rambling. "I do not believe that we are alone up here despite our remote location or the weather." He suddenly blurted.

I knew I was staring, the sudden jump startling me. "You mean the little girl? She's…-" He waved his hand to interrupt me.

"No, there is a fairly simple explanation for her, and she is a known factor listed many times in the Commander's files."

"You mean… him?"

"No. I have come to the conclusion that whatever it is that has been documented as Private Tandy is merely part of the mountain, and as malevolent as he is, he is the same as an avalanche. While he may stalk members of this unit, while he may even kill them, he does so because it is his nature, not out of any more esoteric reasonings." The LT's hand went to his pocket then he pulled it away. While I watched his fingers went to his left wrist and I heard the pop of a rubberband against skin. "Last night I found myself accompanying the CQ on checks of the secure areas." He paused, and looked almost embarrassed. "There is something in here with us."

I looked at the LT, waiting for him to continue, and his hand again started toward his pocket, was pulled away, and LT James snapped a rubberband around his wrist.

"I have been stationed in this unit since May of the previous year, have been stationed in both Alaska and Western Germany prior to that in my twelve years in the United States Army, so I am familiar with both cold and the darkness." He reached up and pinched the bridge of his nose for a moment before continuing.

Twelve years? And he was only a first lieutenant? That didn't exactly fit with the strak and precise man in front of me. He looked like he belonged on a recruiting poster, and the sense of… oddness… I felt from him didn't seem to be noticed by the officers above him.

"The barracks feels different than it did the day I arrived to my sweep last night and how it does today." He said, and there was the snap of the rubberband again. "Tell me, Corporal Ant, off of any official records and simply for my own considerations, when did you know that you and the rest of Rear Detachment were in mortal danger?"

I was silent for a long moment, and part of me was surprised that the LT just let me think, not interrupting me, instead just choosing to wait silently. I thought about being silent until he gave some indication he wanted me to continue but I blew that off as petty.

"Not until almost too late." I told him honestly. "I felt like something was wrong, but I didn't know how much trouble we were in until we saw the blood from where one of the CQ was murdered in the stairwell."

He was quiet for a moment and I could see the wheels turning in his head. "If you will humor me for a moment, Corporal, can you tell me what you think may happen?"

Before I could stop myself it popped out of my mouth. "I think a lot of people are going to die."

He didn't scoff, he didn't blow me off, but instead nodded slowly. "What do you recommend to cut down on casualties?"

The weight of the decision dropped on me. The idea that an officer would give a flying fuck what I thought felt alien and I felt my center of balance tilt. Officers didn't ask enlisted scumbags like me what to do any more than God asked some peasant serf what color the sunrise should be.

The silence was thick when he reached out and put his hand on my shoulder, my left shoulder, and squeezed gently. "Corporal, I feel there is a clear and present danger to Rear Detachment, and I will not allow my soldiers to die because of basic pride that is compounded with ignorance."

I gave another slow nod and he waited, watching me closely, watching me think. The little lizard in the back of my head was looking through the option, running the numbers in my brain through every pattern I could conceive against possible threats. The little lizard helped my intellect accept or reject them based on his extensive experience. Millions of years of survival of the fittest that he had came out on top of to end up in the back of the head of an apex predator.

"Four things could increase our chances." I told him, and he nodded, waiting. "First, you need to move people out of single rooms and put them in rooms together." He nodded, something I didn't recognize flickering in the back of his eyes. "Second, nobody does any sweeps of the barracks by themselves, everyone moves in groups of two or more. Third, during security sweeps the CQ needs to check on all rooms and verify that the assigned soldiers are in that room personally. Fourth, and most important, keep your mind open as to what is going here and try to make plans based on the evidence you have."

Lieutenant James nodded, rubbing his eyes. "I am going to use one of the unoccupied rooms to get some rest once I give out assignments. I will be in Room 262, which I do believe in near the room you share with Specialists Bomber and Nagle." He sighed and leaned back, scanning the CQ Area, and I noticed his hand was shaking when he rubbed his face again. "I would commit cold-blooded murder to have what the three of you have." I looked at him in confusion and he smiled tiredly, and expression that looked alien on his face. "Trust, Corporal, trust and complete faith in one another."

With that he pushed himself up, grabbing the set of linen off of table we'd been leaning against while we talked. Without another word he headed to the stairwell entrance, vanishing as the door shuddered closed and cut off the wind.

I stood there for a long moment in the CQ Area, watching Lanks turn over CQ duty to Corporal Lancer. I closed my eyes and the lizard threw my mental map of the barracks up in my mind, pointing at Marshden's room, then highlighting the stairwell at the far end of the building and the door that led outside.

That gut feeling was back, the same cold feeling I'd had and ignored when I'd found the CQ was gone. The little lizard pressed his clawed fingers on the combat button, putting just enough pressure on that button to charge my system up.

Calling out the warning I moved through Titty Territory then into Queer Country, heading for the far stairwell. I was aware of the breezes in the hallway, the thump and crash of boots above me, the shouting in German that echoed through the building. I even noticed and dismissed the sound of tap-shoes in one of the empty rooms as I passed it on my way to far exit, reaching behind me to pull the back of my BDU top up over the hilt of the bayonet I'd tucked behind my belt at the small of my back.

The far exit looked normal, the door covered with frost and the chain glimmering like it had been dusted by a fairy. My breath steamed out in front of me as I stood there, looking at the window that would normally let me see the sidewalk, street, and the stupid white picket fence that extra-duty had built during the summer around the front lawn. Only now it was covered with white, preventing me from seeing anything, meaning that the blizzard was still in full force outside.

Everything looked fine, but it made the little lizard snarl for some reason.

He saw something that I didn't, and I looked over the chain and lock before finally seeing the problem.

The lock was scratched around the U of the hasp, and I wrapped my hand around the cold steel, yanking sharply on the heavy duty lock.

With a sharp snap the lock popped open, the feeling telling me that the insides were stripped, that someone had forced the lock open in such a way that the wedge that normally held the hasp in place had been damaged.

I pulled the chain away then pushed the door open against the wind, dropping the chock and stepping out into the blizzard. I was being stupid, I knew I was, being outside in nothing more than my winter BDU's and a field jacket, liner or not.

Still, I had to know.

The wind kept brushing the snow away from the concrete, I walked along the sidewalk looking closely at the concrete walkway, hoping to find a clue but coming up empty. I went about ten steps before the cold got too much. I couldn't see anything, and the lizard was only mumbling.

When I looked down the side of the building I half expected to see a tether running from the door to vanish into the snow or a large hulking figure with an axe in its hands.

Nothing. No reason for the lizard to hiss.

Shivering I turned around, hurrying back into the barracks and kicking the chock up as I passed. The wind caught the door and slammed it into me, almost knocking me down. The force of it sent me stumbling against the wall as the echo of the door slamming shut rang through the hallway.

Grimacing I turned around and threaded the chain, snapping the busted lock shut to keep the chain in place. More than likely the axe-crazy fucker had popped the lock.

Putting it out of my mind I rubbed my arms as I headed back toward Aine's room, still freezing from my short sojourn outside. The only sound was my boots thudding against the tile as I went back through Queer Country and headed into Titty Territory. I needed to check with Nancy to see if Aine's room was dress right dress or had any gigs.

Normally I'd be running the numbers in my head, figuring how many hours it was going to take for Aine to get up to speed. Walking down the corridor I was busy running the numbers on where Marshden might have gone or what might have happened to him.

The LT was right. Something felt off in the barracks and I couldn't put my finger on it. It didn't fit quite like it had when the masked fuck had ripped us a new asshole, but it definitely felt different than a few days ago. It was almost hushed, waiting, and smug, like it knew what was going to happen.

The doors to Titty Territory opened with a scream of tortured hydraulic cylinders, almost drowning out my call that there was a male on the floor. In the dimness of the hallway, lit by only a third of the lights, I could see PFC Meeks and SP4 Kreutz heading toward me from the CQ Area. Corporal Lancer, PFC Meeks, Spec-4 Kreutz, and Pv2 Halls had taken over CQ from Lanks and it looked like Corporal Lancer had send Meeks and Kreutz off on an errand. I waited for them only a few paces from the double doors, reaching back and flipping the back of my BDU top over the hilt of my bayonet. If they saw it they'd start asking questions I wasn't ready to answer.

"Hey, Ant, what's the deal with the new chick?" Meeks called out to me as he got closer. They stepped in front of me, as if they were keeping me from going any further, and I just stared at them. "She seems to know you, what's up with that?"

"We grew up together." I grunted.

"No shit? What's she like?" Meeks sounded like he was hoping to get some info from me that would give him a chance to get in her pants.

...Yeah, you might want to think about that, hero….

"Smart, stronger than she looks, calculating, and manipulative." I told him honestly. I knew he wouldn't pay attention to what I was trying to tell him but I still wanted to warn him anyway about the petite little woman who was big trouble in a small package.

"Did you tap that ass?" He asked. I just stared at him and he changed the subject after clearing his throat uncomfortably. "Yeah, OK, but what's she like, man?"

"Different.…" I told him.

How the hell did I explain that she scared me worse than Tandy?

"Come on, man, help a brother out." He grinned at me and I couldn't help but grin back for a second.

"I don't know that much about her, she's a McCullen, I'm an Ant." I lied about the first part, I knew her very well. Better than I wanted to admit. "Just stay away from her, man, trust me."

"What the fuck does that mean? Is it because I'm black?" he asked with an edge of anger in voice. I just stared at him, the fact that he had pulled the racist card shocking me.

"Did you see my fucking cousin? You're honestly going to stand there and call me a fucking racist when one of my favorite fucking cousins is black as the ace of spades? When my great grandmother was blacker than you? Fucking please." Despite my harsh tone his body language suddenly relaxed.

"It don't have shit to do with your skin, Meeks." I continued in a softer voice, shivering and rubbing my upper arms. I was still cold from being outside in the snow and wind. "It has to do with that if I would have gone near her without permission, her brothers and cousins would have slit my throat and left me on my front yard. Serious business, man, they would have literally slit my throat and left me for my family as a warning." I told him in cold tone, looking down at him. He was staring at me in disbelief.

"Our family name is McDaur'n, great-grandfather gave his son the last name Ant because a man who my great-grandfather owed a blood debt to died without children of his own."

I stared at Meeks, stepping forward slightly to use my size to emphasize the gravity of the whole thing. "My name doesn't matter. She's a McCullen, and I'm a McDaur'n, which means stay. The fuck. Away."

"So it's some cracker shit." He didn't sound angry but rather amused, and he slugged me in the shoulder. "Well, my name ain't McDarren."


"Whatever, man." He smiled and walked by me, continuing on to do whatever. I didn't really care, I was more annoyed at Meeks pulling the race card. I shook my head and headed down to Aine's room. If Aine hadn't mentioned which room she was staying in by the fact she was roomed with Lanks, I wouldn't have remembered her room number.

Hell, I was trying to forget.

The light above me buzzed and dimmed, coming back up slowly. It could have been the weather, but I took it as more evidence the building was waking up, its hatred for us building. It was hard to look at everything scientifically, to find the logical explanations for things when you'd lain at the bottom of a stairwell with a bayonet in your shoulder, bleeding out in the snow and cold, and had a dead man straddle you.

And push his finger into the bayonet wound so he could suck the blood off his finger.

I'd probably be told it was a hallucination brought on by cold, blood loss, repeated brain trauma, and the little fact I'd been doing a damn good job of dying, but I wasn't the only one who had seen him. We just didn't really mention it.

Room 147 was almost at the center set of doors, on the right, and I stopped in front of it and rapped sharply three. The unlatched door swung open to reveal Aine and Nagle standing in the main room, in full view of the door, kissing each other, their mouths working.

Nagle had a hand up McCullen's top and one of the smaller woman's hands was down the front of Nancy's pants, her other hand clutching between the larger woman's shoulders, cloth bunched up in her fist.

The wall lockers were open, the dresser drawers open, and I could tell that Nancy had either finished or been in the middle of inspecting Aine's equipment before the two women had decided upon a different type of inspection.

I cleared my throat loudly, and I saw Aine's eyes open and could tell she was looking at me. She moaned deep in her throat and sagged against Nancy, still looking at me, molding her body to one of my best friends.

"On your feet!" I bellowed out. Normally you used that for officers entering a room, but it worked all the same, pulling Nancy away from Aine, both of their hands coming free. Nancy's face was flushed when she looked at me, shock and embarrassment on her face. Aine made a little purring noise and tilted her head down slightly so she was looking at me through those long eyelashes.

"Hello, Annie." She purred, gliding forward and reaching out to take my hand.

I stepped back and put my hands behind my back even though it made the front of my right shoulder start screaming as the recently damaged muscles stretched. The fact that the cold had sunk into my shoulder didn't help.

"I thought I told you to give us ten minutes." Nagle snapped at me. I could tell she flustered by the slight flush and her tone.

"I did, it's been about twenty minutes." I told her, stepping forward and looking in the wall lockers. She stood right where Aine had left her, alternating between glaring at me and looking at Aine with warm glowing eyes that were normally reserved for Bomber or me. I ignored the flash of jealousy while I checked the wall lockers before moving to check the rest of the room. I took my time, giving her time to get her breathing under control and her head leveled out.

Everything in the room that had to do with Aine and/or her gear was ironed, hanging or put away according to regulation and the packet we all were required to keep in the middle desk drawer that gave the suggested room layout as well as how to store your equipment. In the wall lockers all of the hangers three fingers apart, her clothing clean, ironed, and smelling faintly of apple blossoms. Nancy had gone from glaring at me to standing there watching as I opened the drawers on the dresser and the three drawer chest, checking McCullen's socks, T-shirts, and underwear. Everything was folded and put away dress right dress. Even her personal effects in the top drawers were perfectly aligned. The corners of the bed were folded perfectly, her TA-50 was prepped and ready to go, right down to having packed her go-kit.

"Very nice, Private." I told her when I stopped in front of the boarded up window, leaning my butt against the radiator, keeping my hands behind my back as best as I could. My whole arm was starting to go numb, but I wasn't about to give her a chance to grab my hand.

"Thank you, Corporal." She smiled, stepping forward and trying putting her hand in the middle of my chest. I shifted and her hand landed on my damaged shoulder.

Her hand was warm through my winter BDU's, but that cold icicle speared into the joint seemed to get colder. Warmth started to spread from her hand, but when the icicle slid into my flesh the warmth ebbed away and the metal implants the surgeons had put into my shoulder as well as the staples in my flesh all turned to chips of ice.

Something flickered in her eyes and I smiled at her.

"Take the rest of the day off to relax and do your paperwork. Let your family know that you arrived safely after you fill out your will. Remember you can't say what unit you are in, and make sure that the return address you write on the envelope matches the instructions in your briefing packet." I told her, looking down at her and keeping my face expressionless. I ignored the painful pins and needles feeling spreading out from where her hand was, and controlling my breathing the same way I did during a marathon. I embraced the pain from my shoulder, letting it flow through me and wash away the warmth of her touch.

The ants go marching one by one….

Something flickered in the depths of those too wide eyes and I smiled coldly in response. The lizard hissed, his clawed fingers pressed on a red button, his tail flicking in reptilian pleasure at whatever was in Aine's eyes. Something he understood, even if I didn't.

"Of course, Corporal." She said, lowering her eyes again. Her meek posture didn't fool me, and I glared at her for moment.

She didn't fool me for a second. Everything she did was carefully planned to gauge the reactions she got from me, to see how I reacted to stimulus. She was observing me like a science experiment, gathering data, all to use against me.

"Specialist Nagle, a word?" It was more an order than a request as I walked past her and out of Aine and Lank's room, almost hitting Lanks with the door.

"Problems, Ant?" Lanks asked, smiling through a yawn.

"Mind your business." I snarled, and Lanks stepped back, surprised by the harshness of my voice. "Follow me, Specialist Nagle."

Nancy was silent as we left Titty Territory via the halfway double doors, as we went into the center stairwell and slowly walked up to the landing between the first and second floors. Below us, in the darkness, was the ground floor landing, with the War Fighter Tunnels access door behind the stairwell, and the hallway where I'd lain in the cold.

"Ant, wait,…" Nancy said when I turned around and saw her holding up her hand. I clenched my jaw and nodded and she continued. "I don't know what the fuck just happened. When I was in her room, after you walked in on us, all I could think of was tearing you a new asshole as soon as I got a chance, but when we walked out of her room it was like my head cleared up." She looked up at me, the plea missing from her tone and expression plainly visible in her eyes. "I've never felt anything like it, when I kissed her all I could think of was tearing her clothing off and burying my face in her muff and never coming up for air. I don't expect you to..."

Holding up my hand to stop her I let out a deep breath and relaxed. "I understand."

"You do?" She sounded shocked.

"I've known her since I was in grade school." I told her. "You think I don't know what she's capable of? I'm ugly, not dumb." She giggled, covering her mouth.

"You're not mad?" She asked me, stepping into me and wrapping one arm around my waist, looking up at my face.

"No. Kiss?"

She kissed me, long and slow, and when she pulled back she bit my lip before pulling her head away.

I kissed her again, holding tight to her. She melted against me for a long moment, and when I went to break the kiss, she bit my lip again.

…My Nancy….

"Is there anything I should know about you two?" Nancy asked as we headed up the stairs, back to our room. I shrugged. "Don't gimme that shit, Ant, there's something going on between you two, and I think I should know."

"She's a fucking menace." I told her, pushing open the door to Hammerhead Hall. Nancy followed me, asking me what I meant, but I ignored her questions as I headed to the Mag Office, opening it to find Stokes and Bomber sitting on the floor with the contents of the emergency medical supply locker spread out around them while they went through the checklist of items that was supposed to be stored in the locker.

"Hey, brother." Bomber said, waving us over.

Despite Nancy's fuming it took almost no time at all for all of us to start laughing as we inspected the locker and swapped out past shelf-life and damaged parts for replacements. One of the things that LT James had brought up to the unit had been replacements for the medical supplies we'd gone through during the repairs or earlier, as well as the stuff that had been destroyed by the nutcase with the axe.

At seventeen thirty hundred we hurriedly packed everything away and marked the boxes to remind us which ones had been gone through and which ones hadn't. We'd kind of bullshitted around the last few hours, getting about half the work done that we should have, but it made us feel better and made us forget that were stuck in Hell.

Not that it mattered, it wasn't like we had anything better to do.

We tromped down to the CQ Area, arriving before almost everyone else. LT James hadn't shown up by the time most of us were gathered together and I noticed that unless more people showed up we were now down three people.

Studson and Barker were missing.

The LT arrived at precisely ten minutes before eighteen hundreds hours, standing off to the side of our little formation and looking everyone over. I noticed that the purple under his eyes had deepened and his eyes were bloodshot as he looked at everyone. I noticed his hands shaking as he called us to attention and asked for our report.

Despite the fact I counted three people missing from our formation their squad leaders called out that everyone was present or accounted for. The LT passed his hand wearily over his eyes and let it go, seemingly unwilling to ask about the missing men.

I would have been paranoid about them missing (Hell, I was paranoid) but I could understand why maybe the LT wasn't worried, after all it wasn't that uncommon to give people the rest of the day off and tell them not to worry about the last formation once work was done. Lord knew that the Magazine Platoons attended close of business formations infrequently at best. Usually by the time we'd returned from the sites it was past eighteen hundred, and if we'd arrived back early usually the crews were too tired to do anything but collapse.

Once he called for attention the LT rubbed his face for a moment before starting to speak. "The military is not in the habit of requiring your approval of orders that you are given." He said, and I could hear the exhaustion in his voice, which made me wonder if he'd even gotten any sleep during the day as he continued. "After this formation all of you who currently have no roommates will be moving into a room with another soldier. Those of you who have space in your rooms for another soldier please line up in front of the trophy case, those of you who are in a room by yourselves at this time but do not have space in your rooms please line up in front of the bathrooms. Those who have two or more in your room and no space go stand next to the stairwell door." He shook his head. "I would prefer that you all remain segregated by sex, however I realize that for some of you that option would be considered sub-optimal." I'll give him credit, he didn't stare and Nancy, Bomber and me.

"I will be staying with Sergeant Butcher in Room 387 if there are any problems." He stared at us for a moment, then shook his head. "Fall out, get something to eat. Morning formation is at zero-nine hundred unless you have worked the last two days straight."

Bomber, Nagle and I went over to stand by the stairwell door. Aine stood next to Nancy, her lower lip held by her sharp little teeth and eyes wide as she watched the rest of Rear-D split into groups. The LT was mixing people together, writing down room numbers in his green notebook and letting people get something to eat when he was done.

Finally he moved up to those of us gathered up at the stairwell, looking down at Aine who barely came up to his sternum. "Private McCullen, how many people are in your room?"

"Specialist Lanks and myself, but she has a room-mate who has personal effects in the room so there's no room to move anyone else in." She said shyly, looking up at the LT through her too-long eyelashes. "I feel safe with Specialist Lanks, the only other people I'd feel safe with would be Corporal Ant and his room-mates." She gave us a slow wicked smile, glancing at us out of the corner of her eyes. "But I'm sure that there's no room."

"We only have three beds in our room." I said, shooting Aine a glare. "And they're all taken." Someone snickered and I saw Nancy give whoever it was a threatening look.

"Very well, Private McCullen. Go have some dinner. Dismissed." The LT told the petite woman. Aine smiled at him and went over to where the A-Rats had been opened up and people were slapping food onto the trays. Aine's walk drew the eyes of most of the Rear-D who were present, and I deliberately looked away, noticing that the LT hadn't even glanced at Aine.

"Corporal Ant, after we eat I would like you to accompany me to the Commander's Office so that I can give you the list of names and room numbers in case of an emergency." He told me. He looked at Bomber and Nagle and made a motion to include them. "I wish to speak to the two of you also at that time."

Bomber and Nancy nodded and he smiled. "Go get some chow, soldiers. Dismissed."

Dinner was a simple affair, one of the A-Rats had been mislabeled as a dinner when it was actually scrambled eggs with ham chunks and hashbrowns. Aine talked to Meeks, snuggled up close to him and giggled at his jokes. Meeks shot me a grin and I just rolled my eyes, going back to talking to my cousins and my friends. Stokes was sitting with us while we ate, putting up with Nancy ribbing her constantly. We all ignored the crashing of boots from above us as well as the shouts in German.

That was just the barracks.

Bomber and I finished shoveling down our food a few minutes before Nancy did, and when Nancy finished she asked Stokes to take our trays down to the War Stocks Room where they'd set up the equipment to wash the trays and silverware. Stokes tried to tell us to take them ourselves, but Bomber pointed out that the LT wanted to talk to us after dinner, so she agreed with a shrug. When Nancy invited her up to our room to have a couple beers she smiled brightly.

When the LT finished eating I kicked the bottom of Bomber's boot and nodded, and he nudged Nancy, who'd just managed to make Stokes blush with a particular rude comment about whether or not Stokes was into a certain sexual act. Nancy laughed and got up, following us Bomber and I moved over to where the LT was standing by the stairwell door.

The LT nodded to me as we headed down to the office, the wind screaming around us when we entered the stairwell. When I pulled the door at the bottom of the stairs open for the LT to go first it became obvious why the wind was so bad. The window next to the exterior door was broken, snow blowing in the window and sweeping across the floor, building up in the edges and corners. Above us, in the dark stairwell there was a long drawn-out shriek and a crashing noise that sounded like one of the doors had come loose. It kept crashing up there and the wind buffeted around us, making the LT reach out and grab the doorway to balance himself.

"Go check that." I told Bomber and Nancy, motioning above us. "If it's the door make sure it's secure. See if we just lost the window." They both nodded, turning around and heading up the stairwell. As soon as I let go of the door the wind slammed it shut with a boom that shook the air and rattled my teeth.

Together we headed into the hallway and to the Orderly Room.

The little lizard in the back of my skull hissed and I paid attention to him. He knew his shit, and he'd kept me alive more than once.

"Sir, you said you don't believe we're alone in in here?" I asked, taking a longer step to put myself in front of him. The little lizard took a count on the knives I was carrying. One at the hip, one in the boot, and one at the small of my back under the shirt. The lizard brought up how the knives looked, how they felt in my hand, how I'd have to move to draw them, and the different ways they'd have to be used. The lizard heated up my muscles, I could feel the way the cold was moving and I was aware of my balance, the tingling in my limbs.

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

"No, Corporal, we aren't." He said as I rounded the corner and could see into the Orderly Room.

Standing in the Orderly Room was almost a dozen people, all of them in BDU's, one I recognized hanging up a phone with a disgusted look on his face while the other one I recognized had seen me and was starting to smile.

I flashed the "stop" signal with my right hand, since the men in the Orderly Room couldn't see it, praying that the LT saw it. I came to a stop and stared at the men in the Orderly Room.

Men who had reached the barracks during a blizzard. Who had somehow gotten past Dead Man's Corner, Indy's Instant Cliff, and up to the barracks.

Men who shouldn't be here.

"Corporal Ant, just the man I need to see." Major Mallory said with a smile. "I need access to the secure records vault, Corporal, and this saves me a lot of time."

The lizard hissed and caressed the combat button with more pressure to bring me even further up. Cool wet fire slicked down my spine, my right arm erupted in pins and needles, and my vision sharpened even further.

And they all go marching down, into the ground, to get out, of the rain….

Chapter 8

2/19th Special Weapons Group
Restricted Area, Alfenwehr West Germany
Late Winter- January, 1988
Day 11 of Repairs
Day 3 of the Second Incident

Major Mallory was from Headquarters Platoon, in charge of S-2, and a known psychopath who had once strangled a Vietnamese prostitute to death just to feel her die while he was inside of her. How did we know? He bragged about it more than once while drunk to 'impress' us lower enlisted scum. His bragging was believed seeing as he had been arrested more than once for strangling German prostitutes before they sent him to 2/19th. I'd caught him eyeballing two of my female crew during REFORGER 87 and had immediately moved everyone out to Atlas without another word.

He was standing in front of me in his BDU's in front of the others and looking smug with himself.

I wondered if he'd strangled a hooker on his way up.

Standing on his left was Sergeant First Class Tashton out of Kill Shop and known to be an amoral douchebag. Another person with unsavory habits, he'd gotten drunk and bragged to some of us about how he used to buy little girls in Vietnam. He'd slurringly told us all about how after he got tired of them, he'd lead them out into the brush and shoot them in the back of the head before buying another one.

I hated that motherfucker ever since and plotted to kill him if I ever got the chance. The urge to flat out murder him had gotten even worse when he'd admired a seventeen year old private in my crew and commented that with a shaved pussy she'd be almost perfect. He'd asked me if I was willing to put her in his squad on loan or maybe even swap her for one of his men. I'd almost had the chance during ARTEP when we were out walking perimeter guard but one of the Privates came up just as I was reaching for my knife. Just seeing him there made my fingers long to wrap around the hilt of my Gerber.

There were three strangers sitting in the chairs that had been pulled in front of the orderly room clerks' desks, who had turned around to look at me. With the hand they couldn't see I flashed the signals for '12', 'armed', 'fall back' and hoped for the best that none of them could see me even though they had turned to look at me. I stared at them, standing straight up, wishing I had my brother's almost six and a half foot height, or my Father's massive build instead of the build I'd inherited from my father. Still, my back ramrod straight, my chest out, I knew that they weren't seeing someone who'd lost a lot of strength from a serious head wound, they were seeing a six foot tall almost two hundred pound Army forged killing machine.

I looked over the men in the Orderly Room, scanning everything as I stared. Their weapons, how close together they were, who was sitting by who, how close they were to their weapons, what equipment they had, and what patches showed on their uniforms. Most people might not know it but people have a tendency to sit near those they like or those that make them feel safe. How close they kept their tools, weapons in a soldier's case, showed how close they felt the need to use them use, and uniforms tell a story.

One was a Colonel wearing a V Corps combat patch who had a face like a sheep killing dog. His eyes were cold and I could feel him sizing me up. I stared back, unimpressed by what I was seeing and letting him know with my body language. He was roughly my height, but even after the head wound I outweighed him by at least 30 pounds and was younger by a decade at least. He had airborne and air assult tabs, a combat infantry badge with a gold star, and while he had US Army he was lacking a name-tag. Three was no fraying on his cuffs, and several strings were hanging down from seams, not from wear, but like you saw on new uniforms all the time. His boots were stovepiped into his boots and while the toes of his jump boots were polished the heels and the rest was flat black. He had a pistol rig with an M-9 9mm Beretta, which surprised me since those were still being phased in.

...How interesting...

The two men on either side of him looked at me and the lizard in the back of my skull hissed a warning at me. One was blond, the other a brunette, and I noticed that their hair was outside of regulations and the blond had a mustache past the corners of his mouth, definitely out of regs. The men's uniforms looked just like the Colonel's except the blond's boots were fully polished to a mirror brightness. Both had on boonie hats, one in OD green, the other in jungle camo. Both of them were packing M-16A1's, one had it on the floor at his feet, the other had it across his lap and was tapping the stock with his fingers. Both of them had magazine's locked in. Neither had any facial scars, straight fingers without swollen knuckles. Both men's hair more than touched their ears and their collars. They didn't have unit patches or their names or their rank on their uniforms, but they wore air assault, airborne, and a combat infantry badge.

Their lack of patches, combined with their patches showing off what they'd gotten for additional training and the combat patches they were wearing were all designed to make the observer believe that they were members of Special Operations.

The others were in uniform, all of them with boonie hats that were either on their heads or let fall behind their head with the retaining band around their throat. They were all kicked back in chairs or sitting on the desks. Those in chairs had their feet up on desks, those on the walls were either leaning against the wall or leaned back against their hands. Their weapons were just thrown on desks or leaning against the desks, except for three weapons that had been set on top of the filing cabinet behind Sams' desk.

Once again, no name tag, no unit patch on the left shoulder. All of them sported combat patches, airborne and air assault, and combat infantry. All of their uniforms sported the faint creases of having been taken off the shelves, or out of storage, and never ironed or washed. The boots I could see only had their toes polished if they had any polish on them at all. All of their hair was out of regs, there were moustaches out of regs, and three of them had goatees.

…One of these things is not like the other, one of these things is not quite the same….

Behind them the windows showed me that a solid curtain of snow was sweeping toward us in a white wave. The break we'd had from the harsh weather was over, the snow turned crimson by the setting sun, a wall of blood heading straight for us.

The lizard in the back of my brain hissed again.

Icy knives stabbing into my chest with each breath, snow seeds sticking to the thick grease we'd applied to our faces, my hands insulated in layers of dirty socks that were now crusted with ice and snow….

Yeah, thanks for the image, little buddy, I get it

"Ah, Corporal Ant, there you are." SFC Tashton stated unnecessarily. Everyone looked at him and then back at me as he kept speaking. "Major Mallory needs your assistance." Several of the men at the desks smirked.

"For what?" I asked, taking a full step forward to put me dead center of the open space that acted as a doorway between the Orderly Room and the short hallway that passed by the mailroom, the copy machine, and the unisex bathroom. On my left was the offices of the XO and the 1SG. Directly behind me was the utility closet and the bathroom door.

My only line of retreat was back the way we'd came and either up the stairs or out the door to the exterior of the building.

No way was I making it.

The lizard was running all the options, operating on that strange fast forward that part of my brain ran in when I was in danger, running over every possibility it could conceive, no matter how unlikely.

In the split second between my question and the brown haired thug beside the Colonel repeating my words in a high pitched mocking tone the little lizard had covered dozens of contingencies.

Including a large carnivore leaping out of the utility closet intent on devouring me. At first an unlikely seeming event, but then all too applicable to one of the hazards.


"These gentlemen need a briefing on the status of all of the nuclear and chemically capable sites that we run." Major Mallory told me, not really looking at me and speaking to me like a man would talk to a particularly dim child. "You'll also be turning over the records of the sites, including yours for them to review while I brief them on our current operational status."

Wait, what? Seriously? The damn sites were so clandestine that a medevac was only given a rough grid coordinate and we had to guide them in with flares. So wrapped in secrecy that for the most part garbage was destroyed on the site, and if we had to have a unit come haul away the garbage there were exactly three units cleared for the job and they had to follow one of us to it. Getting the garbage hauled off was a job that took two or three days just to arrange.

We were in violation of multiple treaties, even the much lauded SALT, and the Major expected me to just hand over the information?

Like hell I would.

I looked at the Colonel and a hot bitter taste filled my mouth. The lizard hissed, low and angry, its tail twitching as fangs folded down from the roof of its mouth like a rattler. Not only did something about him annoy me, put me on edge, my little friend positively hated him, picking up on some cue that I couldn't.

And who do you work for?

"Let me authorize it with V Corps." I said, nodding toward the phones on the desks and standing relaxed. The LT didn't say anything from behind me, and I didn't hear him move, but I could feel his presence withdraw. The little lizard had thrown up a floorplan of the HQ Area and was keeping track of the LT. According to the lizard he had ghosted back around the corner, and he had either slipped into the Ready Room to hide or was carefully opening the door to move into the stairwell.

If Nancy and Bomber didn't burst into the room then he had slipped into the stairwell.

Normally I'd expect an officer to drop back into the Ready Room, hell, normally they would have barged right up to take charge of what was going on. Just the fact that the LT had dropped back and moved silently away told me that he was the type to fall back, get reinforcements, and come back at a better time.

Sacrificing me in order to delay the enemy while the rest of Read-D prepped.

The right thing to do.

I may have been relaxed, but I still slid into Parade Rest as best I could, my right shoulder not allowing me to get into the correct position. However it did put my hand right at the hilt of my Gerber.

When the Major started talking again the urge to draw my knife and go into kill mode filled me.

The lizard cautioned me to wait, to restrain my impulses.

"That won't be necessary, Corporal." The Major said, unaware that I was only a heartbeat from shanking him. "These men have authorization, I've already cleared them and there is no need for you to contact V Corps." That meant he didn't know the phones were down. Or he thought I didn't know and was keeping quiet about it. Either way it wasn't good.

"Stall, Ant, stall." My Father's voice. I needed to give the LT as much time as I could.

"Then I need to examine that authorization. Information on the company's sites is classified Top Secret information and a matter of national security, and the release of information is strictly prohibited." I reminded him. By sticking to protocol and standing orders I could draw this out longer.

I figured I'd stick with the formal speech and tones, stick to SOP, be an anal retentive micro-managing jackass who has issues with anyone trying to impringe on their authority. In other words, act like an officer.

The Major flushed angrily, the flush depending when one of the men sitting on the desks laughed mockingly. He glared at me, then spoke. "No, you don't. I'm telling you they have authorization." He told me, sneering at me for the last part.

Tell me what you want to, asshole, we both know you're full of shit.

"You don't have authorization to grant someone authorization, sir." I told him. The sheep killing dog faced fucker was glaring at me and my fingers itched to wrap them around his throat. One of them mimicked me in a high pitched tone and I instantly wondered if they were a nine year old girl. It had been the same one doing the mocking the entire time, and both the lizard and I tagged him for a good stabbing as I continued. "Authorization for access to the operational status of Group and its compenents, as well as the storage and transfer sites is limited on a Need to Know basis, with a strict…"

"Don't you dare lecture us, you jumped up little bastard." Tashton snapped, interrupting me. "Don't you dare quote regs at me, I've been in the Army since before you were born."

The Major glared at me. "Just open the goddamn vaults or give me your fucking keys, your keycard, and write down your code, Ant, you little punk."

"Just take it from him." The black haired mimic suggested. I didn't look at him, but the lizard tagged him as priority prey, a weak link trying to use words to hide it.

"Sorry, sir, without V Corps authorization I will not relinquish my keys nor will I permit unauthorized access to secure areas." I told them the exact thing that was hammered into all of us every fucking time the unit thought we needed reminded. "I shall not write down nor communicate my authorization codes to any other, no matter what rank or position they hold unless ordered in writing with the written orders verified…"

"Just give me your keys, Ant, you fucking ape." Tashton snapped. "Nobody here needs a lecture on protocol from a fucking hard site hammer head dipshit."

Well now, this could be fun….

"Sir, I object to that kind of language." I said, addressing the Major. Actually, it warmed my bones and the lizard gave a dry hiss of pleasure as he put his little clawed fingers on the combat button, caressing it lovingly. My arm was nothing but pins and needles, I was breathing slowly but deeply to keep my blood oxygenated, and not only were my muscles thrumming but I could feel my heartbeat thudding in my chest.

"Nobody gives a shit. Hand over the keys, you little punk, before I have them taken from you." The Colonel snapped.

"Eat my ass, bitch." I snapped at the Colonel. His two men stood up and I slipped my fingertips under my BDU top, my middle finger grazing the hilt of the knife.

It felt warm. The lizard purred.

"The keys, Corporal, give them over." The Major said, taking a single step toward me, more than likely completely unaware that it put him inside my reach. I could grab him and yank him into me in one smooth movement. He was visibly shorter than me, obviously skinnier than me, and I lifted my chin slightly to make a point of staring down at him.

"Sir, I respectfully refuse." I told him, relishing the way his face got even redder as he realized that I wasn't intimidated by him as a man or by his rank. The Colonel stood up, his face reddening. His fingers sought and found the grip of his shitty Beretta pistol and lingered on it.

"The keys, the keycard, and your code, Corporal, now." Tashton snapped, stepping forward. I glanced at him, curled my lip in my best Billy Idol sneer, and slid my fingers further under my BDU top.

There was almost a yearning from the blade.

"Sir, I need to see his authorization." I stated again. "I need to see the paperwork from V Corps, III Corps, the NBC control…."

"Goddamn it, Ant, you little punk. I told you already, no, you don't." The Major told me. He stepped up till he was in my face. "You'll do what you're told, you fucking hammerhead. The Army doesn't pay you to think, it pays you to fucking do what you're told, and I'm telling you that you don't need to see shit." There were white flecks of spittle at the corner of his mouth and a vein on his forehead was writhing.

The lizard was curious what would happen if we nicked that vein. Would blood shoot across the room? How far would it go? Blood is yummy. Was there an eel or worm living under the skin of his forehead? Eels and worms are yummy, and leave you with a full belly and energy to fight and breed.

Blood. yum. The lizard thought, and my mouth flooded with saliva and the hot coppery taste of fresh blood. My stomach grumbled in hunger as I answered the Major.

"Sir, policy states that I am to never-…" I started, still staring at that pulsing vein.

At a flick of the Colonel's hand that he probably thought I didn't spot the nine men stood up. Behind them the windows suddenly went white as the snow I'd seen sweeping toward the barracks hit the building and turned the windows into mirrors. Most of the men stood up without grabbing their weapons, the asshole that kept mimicking me took the time to crack his knuckles before reaching for his weapon.

The biggest thing the part of my mind that was tracking everyone noticed was that all but three of them grabbed their M-16's by the handle instead of by the pistol grip, the forward handgrip, or the sling. Not only that, they held it by the handle, while one held it by the pistol grip, another by the sling, and the third held it where the upper and lower receiver met.

…How interesting….

"Corporal Ant, you are about two seconds from finding yourself facing a court martial." The Major interrupted me. He poked me in the chest with his index finger as he spoke. "I am giving you a direct order to turn over your keys, your keycard, and your access code."

I kept up my Billy Idol sneer, looking down at him and leaning forward slightly. "The UCMJ instructs me to resist an illegal order to the best of my ability." I told him. I lowered my voice to a growl. "I think I'd like that, sir..."

"Excellent job of following security protocol, Corporal." The Colonel told me, pulling my attention to him. He'd stepped forward, smiling at me, but his eyes didn't match the warm approving tone he was trying to use. "You were right in insisting that my credentials be validated. However, there are extenuating circumstances and concerns."

I looked over the Major's head, apparently dismissing him, which I could tell made him even angrier, but the lizard kept track of him for me.

…Rip, tear, kill, devour, smash, bite, breed, Nancy, blood, meat….

"Such as?"

"There is a distinct possibility that your land-lines could all be down as well as possible communication failures due to a lack of communication as well as a… confused chain of command." The Colonel answered, stressing the chain of command problems. "That's why I brought Major Mallory and SFC Tashton to vouch for me." He waved a hand at the two members of my unit. "Seeing as you currently do not have a commanding officer, I was told by your executive officer that these two men would suffice for authorization."

I shook my head. "It doesn't matter who told you what or who you brought. I'm not turning over my keys, much less my access codes, until I get proper authorization from V Corps."

"Listen, you little fucking bastard." The mimic snarled. "Either follow your orders or I'll beat your code out of your little ass." He took two steps forward, balling one fist and holding it up, still holding his rifle by the handle. The blond and the brown haired guys I'd first noticed stepped forward with him.

…We can do this right now….

The lizard flexed his fangs at what he considered prey.

"Hold." The Colonel said, holding up one hand. All three men stopped. I noticed that he didn't look back, his authority over his men complete. The ones who hadn't stepped forward visibly relaxed.

I gave the three men a nasty grin. "War Stocks Room, any time, little girls." I told them, smiling. "Nobody will interrupt our 'conversation' there."

"Enough, Corporal." The Major snapped at me. I was tempted to tell him to go fornicate with himself, but kept my mouth shut. The red had faded from his face, and I could tell by his gleeful expression he'd come up with an idea. "Do I have authorization to open the site records vault?"

Aw fuck….

"Yes, sir." I told him. I knew what he was about to do, but since he obviously wasn't operating under duress and as long as he informed me that he'd be the only one to access the vault, there wasn't shit I could do about it. He had full authorization to all of the records, everything involved in the inventories of the sites.

I could have made an issue that I knew that he'd allow that Colonel access, but technically it was out of my hands and nobody would give a good goddamn about a Corporal's gut feeling against an officer's wishes. If it came to pressing charges I'd be the one heading to Leavenworth for some good old fashioned man-loving.

"I need you to assist me in opening the S-2 Vault so that I may ensure that security protocols are in effect." The Major smiled. He fucking had me and he fucking knew it.

The little lizard advised me to stab him anyway.

…Go along, boy, for right now. don't be stupid, right now you can't accomplish anything but getting killed…. My Father's voice.

I nodded slowly, lowering my hand out from under my BDU top.

"Come along, Corporal." He told me, walking around me. When he reached out to grab my arm I moved out of his reach, curling my lip at him.

"Don't touch me, sir." I put the emphasis on the 'sir' and stared at him before turning around and walking toward the stairwell. A glance at the window showed heavy snow pouring through the broken glass. The wind was ice cold and sliced right through my BDU's. I paused at the door, next to the mailboxes, standing just to the left of the door in a spot Sams had shown me once.

"…Kill that little punkass bitch." One of the men said, his voice coming to my ears perfectly thanks to a trick of acoustics.

"Just wait, Merryweather, you'll get your chance." The Colonel's voice was low, but he might as well been whispering in my ear.

…That's why you don't whisper, asshole, it carries further than a soft voice….

They all moved into the hallway with me in a gaggle. The Major looked at me, standing by the stairwell door and shook his head. "We're not going to take the stairwell, Corporal, we'll go across the loading dock."

I forced a laugh, harsh and mocking, and pointed at the door and the broken window next to it. Snow had already piled up under it in a fan at least two inches deep.

"The blizzard hit, I'm not exactly anxious to die less than ten feet from that door." I told them.

"A little snow? Big fucking deal." The mimic sneered. "Oh, snow makes my nipples hurt." He said in a sarcastic whine.

…Zero visibility. The pressure of the wind was forcing us offstep. Breathing was like a knife in the chest it was so cold: Tiny ice crystals, snow seeds, stinging the eyelids and eyeballs; Aching cold with each breath that made where my nose had been broken throb with sharp pains...

"None of you have extreme cold weather gear, you'll all be dead before we reach the door." I told them. "We'll need to stay indoors. If you want to go around I'll meet the survivors at the secure records vault." I grinned. "If any of you make it."

"Let's just follow the good Corporal, Captain Duloc." The Colonel said in a chiding tone.

'…"'Captain" Duloc, huh...?

"Let's go." I told them, pulling open the door.

The wind shrieked through the window, tore through the short hallway, roared up the hallway, and made the entire framework for the stairs shudder. It sounded like the screams of damned souls as the wind carried a flurry of snow past me and whipped it up the stairs.

Without saying a word I headed into the stairwell, looking up to see if anyone else was there. I breathed a sigh of relief at the fact that it looked like the stairs were deserted, that nobody was waiting with a half-assed ambush plan that would catch me in the crossfire and chop me to hamburger. I kept moving slow, taking each step slowly and deliberately, noting that already ice had formed on the steps, making footing uncertain.

When I hit the landing there was a crash of metal on metal and the wind cut off, telling me that the door had been shut.

"You see, Captain Duloc, if we'd gone outside the good Corporal would have been right." The Colonel said. "Imagine, if you would, being outside in that rather than indoors."

"Fuck that little punk." Duloc grumbled.

I led them up past the first floor when a shout from below made me pause on the landing between the first and second floor.

"Yes?" I asked calmly, turning at the waist so I could see them. I knew that staying calm would piss these guys off worse than anger, and angry men made mistakes.

"Why aren't we using this door?" The voice was unfamiliar, a heavyset African American guy with an OD green boonie cap on his head.

"Female only hallway. No titties, no entry." I told them, turning away.

"Face me when I talk to you, motherfucker." The guy sounded pissed. "Who gives a shit if it pisses some stupid bitch off, let's go this way."

"Yeah." Someone else said.

"I'm not getting an Article-15 for a shortcut." I told them. "If I get seen walking down that hallway and one of the female troops report me, I'll be on extra duty so fast it'll leave my shadow behind."

I wanted to keep them from getting a good look at the CQ Area or put any of the other soldiers on Rear-D in danger. I had a bad feeling about letting these guys near Rear-D.

"He's right, those ugly bitches will report a man for farting." Tashton agreed. "They go to EO over fucking jokes."

"Whatever, let's go." Another one of them said. I shrugged and kept walking up the steps till we hit Hammerhead Hall on the second floor.

My brain was working in overdrive. The little lizard was still holding his finger on the button that made my thoughts seem to run faster, like some kind of mental shorthand. Images and half-formed thoughts and memories flashed in my mind.

Barracks layout. Rooms of people in the barracks I could trust. My Father. The Rangers that helped protect Atlas, that we trained with, that had rescued us, that I'd drank with. Bomber. Nagle. Stokes. The area around the barracks. The motorpool. The War Fighter Tunnels. Arctic survival training. My brother. Tandy. Aine. The messhall. The dispensary. Distances, elevation changes, pathways, the terrain. Weaponry we had access to. My sister. The hospital.

The little lizard in my head was tossing certain images against the lit wall behind him so that they stuck in a pattern.

The tunnels. The motorpool. The Company Area. The floorplan of the barracks. Images of Bomber and Nagle and Stokes. The meat tenderizer coming at my face. My mother in the midst of screaming at me to beg for Jesus' mercy with her arm upraised to bring the belt down on my face. The feel of the knife as it went into a body.

The Colonel. His men. Major Mallory. Sergeant First Class Tashton. The LT. The rest of Rear Detachment.

They were starting to adhere together into some kind of form but even though it nagged at me I couldn't see the bigger picture.

When I opened the door and stepped out into South/Near Hammerhead Hall, noticing that the lights were all on and the hallway was as bright as noon. Some were only glowing dimly, others were overbright and eye watering, almost half were flickering, and all were buzzing. A few of them shot sparks. There was frost on the walls, making it look like faeries had dusted it. The waxed tile on the floor glittered and sparkled like it was made of diamond. Some of the lights were covered in frost, making it so they threw rainbows, the flickering of those lights making the fluorescent tubes seemed otherworldly. It was a study in how wan winter light could cause a man to go blind.

It was beautiful in a deadly way.

That image was thrown up with the other images.

For reasons known only to God and her Aine was in the hallway, halfway down the Near Hammerhead Hall, standing under the gutted emergency light. She was dressed in a light cotton dress almost see-through, bare feet, and obviously no bra, her bright green eyes watching us as we headed toward her. She looked luminous, her alabaster skin glowing, her auburn hair a deep rich color, and her little bow mouth as bright red as if she'd put on lipstick.

Or had finished drinking blood.

…Aine pulled her head back from my bare chest, her sharp little teeth having broken the skin. Blood welled up in a small oval, matching the blood on her lips, that smeared her chin. She sighed and wiggled against me, grinding her crotch against mine…

…'Now, take me now, deeply.' Aine gasped. My blood was on fire, my mind wiped away by lust, and I had no choice but to do what she said…

The memory vanished when one of the men behind me shoved me to get me moving. I wasn't even aware I had stopped at the sight of Aine, but now I was aware of just how aroused I was. Hatred, rage and lust all surged in my blood and the lizard's plans started to fade.

The little lizard made a suggestion, the urge coming bubbling up out of my subconscious, and I slowed my steps until the Major and Tashton passed me. Next was the Colonel, and then his boys. I put up with elbows to the ribs, and 'Captain Duloc' driving a sharp jab into my kidney that I let leave me leaning against the wall. I put one hand against my back and sagged, gasping in 'pain' from the blow.

Aine laughed, her eyes bright. Her laugh shimmered in the cold air, a perfect match for the frost on the walls. Its echoes seemed to glimmer from the frost and the sound made something inside of me shiver.

Captain Duloc looked at her and visibly straightened, as did everyone else. Their breath steamed out in the front of them as they stared at her and she stared back. Her green eyes, too large for her small heart-shaped face, sparkled with mischief as she let her eyes roam over everyone.

Her eyes were locked on me, although it would be hard to tell for anyone between us, as her long feline tongue slowly moved over first her lower lip then her upper lip, ending by rubbing the tip of her tongue on her two small front teeth.

She had their complete attention, nobody could look away from her with that cherry red tongue in motion, her deep inhalation and the slow exhalation, and the way she hips rocked side to side slightly, making her dress undulate.

Nobody could look away if they didn't know what she was.

I jammed my hand in my pocket, pulling out my D-ring of keys. I kept my fist tight on the keys to keep them from jangling and glanced down to the see the red tag with the blue stripe on the smaller ring that I needed. I looped my pinky through the little ring and looked back up when Aine spoke.

"Oh my." Aine breathed. "Slowly, slowly, it's too nice a job to rush." She quoted, her hand reaching out to brush against Major Mallory's arm and I could see the Major gasp when her fingertips touched the cloth of his BDU sleeve. "Oh my." She breathed. The Major slowed slightly, shifting slightly toward Aine as her hand stroked up his biceps and she lowered her head so she was looking at him through those long eyelashes. Her fingertips grazed up, over the Major's shoulder, and I saw goosebumps appear on the back of his neck.

…Her touch….

She grazed her fingers across SFC Tashton's cheek, still smiling that enigmatic smile. I was still getting the keys aligned so I could just open the D-ring slightly and pull the keys off. The fact that the little gaggle had turned into a line that had slowed down as they all went past Aine wasn't lost on me.

The key came loose and I smiled slightly as I stood up. I quickly blanked my expression before anyone looked back at me. Nobody bothered, everyone paying attention to Aine, her petite little body, and how her hard red nipples were visible through the dress. Even the guys who turned to look behind them wouldn't have noticed me if I suddenly burst into flame. Aine was their sole interest. She touched exposed skin on some, their hands, necks, face, or pressed lightly against the cloth of their sleeves or torso on others.

…her fingertips grazing the swelling under my eye, coming back smeared with crimson from the gash under my eye. The pain vanished, I suddenly felt feverish but didn't care, becoming instantly hard and my body needing, begging for her touch…

"My boy, mine, now and forever, mine," she said softly in a sing-song voice, bringing her fingertips up to lap at the blood on them. My blood from where her cousins had beaten me for breaking up with her….

Her fingers touched Captain Duloc on the lips, just under his nose, and she pressed slightly, her fingertips and nails vanishing into his mouth for a moment. Her fingers left saliva on his face as her fingers trailed across to his ear, where her touch stopped. Captain Duloc's expression went blank as he kept turning his head to face her, and I saw his pupils widen to swallow the blue of his eyes.

One of the last men, who's boonie-hat was behind his head, stopped and turned to face her, licking his lips as her fingers traced along the bottom of his jaw. He reached for her breast and she stopped him by poking the sharp tip of her index fingernail into the middle of his palm.

"Later, when we're alone." Aine purred, pressing slightly with her pointed fingernail. He exhaled a plume of condensation as her hand went from along his jaw to his cheek while she kept murmuring to him. "Oh yes, alone, we'll feast on one another."

…Those sharp babyteeth that never fell out taking little bites out of the raw steak she held in her hands, slicing through the bloody meat like a knife as the blood ran down her chin and dribbled on her bare breasts. She giggled as I strained against the restraints on my wrists that kept me bound to the chair. She kissed me, then wiggled on my lap, her skin hot against mine, before letting me take a bite of the bloody meat….

'…'"Eat, I'm ripening and you'll need your strength, eat'."

I was lagged about ten feet behind everyone as I passed Aine, who smiled at me and blew me a silent kiss with a wink.

She also took the handoff and nodded when I mouthed a single word at her.

"Watch the ice on the steps on the way down to S-2." I called out. I glanced behind me to see Aine walking back toward the near stairwell. Her pert butt held my attention for a second until I saw something that made the lizard whimper in fear as we were both reminded that we were looking at Aine.

The frost on the floor was unmarred by her bare feet.

"Shut the fuck up." Tashton snapped without looking back, but I didn't care, I was more interested in the strange men in front of me.

The strangers held their weapons by the sight rail, by the handgrip, or the sling over their shoulder and the weapon pointing ahead of them. None of them walked in step, and three had their free hands jammed in their pants pocket. All of their hair was out of regs, none of them had the same layout on their LBE's, and the two of them were wearing softcaps inside the building, one backwards the other cocked way up. The ones with the boonie caps had allowed Aine to tug the caps up onto the top of their heads. None of them had taken them off. Most of them scuffed their heels on the floor, and they'd already started to gather back up into the gaggle they'd been in earlier.

…How interesting….

Ahead of me Major Mallory pushed through the mid-point doors and then headed into the stairwell. A shriek welcomed us and sobbing moans followed us down the stairs. I spun the small ring of keys with the red tab with a blue stripe around my index finger as I carefully moved down the steps. The pressure of the men in front of me on the frost had made the stairs slick. One lost his balance as his foot went out from under him because of the ice and he dropped his weapon as he grabbed at the railing to keep from falling down the stairs.

Below us the weapon clattered to the tile and the noise echoed in the stairwell as the sobbing moan suddenly cut off.

"Watch your step." I said, able to keep my amusement out of my voice.

"Fuck you, dick." He snarled. Captain Duloc mimicked me again.

Major Mallory opened the door, exposing the short hallway. On the right side of the hallway right after the door were mailboxes, then the door to QASI and the S-2 area. On the left were the rest of the mailboxes and the access to the War Stocks Room, where the water-heaters were, the oil tanks, and the access to the generator room and another War Stock area. While the guy who dropped his rifle retrieved it Major Mallory unlocked the S-2 area.

"Hey, what's the big fucking door?" The guy who dropped the rifle asked from under the stairs.

"It leads to underground tunnels." Tashton answered.

"Really?" The Colonel asked, and I noticed he was interested.

I needed to distract him before Tashton or Mallory gave up the fact that the War Fighter tunnels contained communications gear, an armory, barracks, and more.

"Major Mallory, sir, I must insist that anyone not on the access list be forced to wait in the hallway while you inspect the records to make sure they're secure." I called out as I stepped off the stairs. "Without the normal security detail present when we open the vault I have grave reservations about opening it, sir." I kept my tone clipped, formal, and military correct.

Captain Duloc made 'nee nee me nee' noises in a high pitched voice while I spoke.

"Shut the fuck up, dickhead." The one from under the stairs said. "Or I'll shut you up."

"My men are here to provide the Major security, Corporal." The Colonel said.

"Security?" I asked, looking at the Colonel's gaggle of men. "Normally the Rangers provide security for the Group." I shook my head. "I'm not convinced about that…."

The Colonel gave an exasperated sigh. "If you must know, Corporal, my men are drawn from SEAL Team Three."

These assholes? I put on a suitably awed look as I looked at them. SEAL Team Three? Aw fuck, I'm a dead man.

"Just open the fucking vault and you can go back to whatever it is you hard site apes do." Mallory sneered, pushing open the heavy steel security door that led into the S-2 office. "Let Ant through, I'll need him to open the vault."

I put up with the sneaky punches, the elbows, and snickers as I moved through the gaggle of 'soldiers' to meet up with the Major. The Major led the way through the S-2 Office door and hit the lights, waving me forward. Three of the fluorescent lights blew out in a shower of sparks that rained down on the desks and the computer monitors on them. Three lights were left, one dark, one flickering, and one a pale sullen yellow glow.

"The Vault, Ant." Tashton snapped, putting his hand between my shoulderblades and pushing hard.

I let it stumble me, 'slamming' me into a desk. I waited for a second before raising up, giving the others time to come into the room. I reached down and rubbed my knee, making a pained noise.

Eleven targets. Enclosed area. Fifty feet deep. Twenty across. Bad lighting. Icy footing. File cabinets on the left. Ten desks and chairs. Two garbage cans. One copy machine. Ten circular waste-bins.

One exit.

"Any day, Corporal." SFC Tashton said, pushing me again. I limped forward to stand next to Major Mallory.

"You gonna be able to do this?" The Major asked me, standing beside the vault door.

The vault door looked like it belonged in a bank, complete with a spoked wheel to pull back the bolts. On either side of the vault door were plastic flip back lids that covered the cardslots. At the base of the red lids were keyholes. Beside the lids, opposite of the vault, a red light burned brightly above a hexidecimal keypad. Above the keypad and next to the bright red light were unlit green and yellow lights. I walked up to the far one, lifting my key-ring, and watched the Major.

"Just banged my knee, sir." I told him.

"My knee and nipples and pussy hurt. Waaaah." Duloc whined from behind me.

I ignored him.

"Get over on that one, Ant." Mallory told me.

"Fuck that, just have him give me the stuff, I'll fucking do it." Tashton said. "We don't need him."

Without speaking I turned around and looked at him. "And how are you going to make me give up my code?" I asked.

"I'll get it out of him." Duloc said, stepping forward.

I motioned him forward with waggle of my fingers. "You gonna suck my cock for it?" I gave him another Billy Idol sneer. "Those dick sucking lips look hungry."

He slammed his rifle onto the top of one of the desks and started to step forward when the Colonel grabbed his arm. "That's enough, Captain." Duloc looked like he was going to argue but closed his mouth. His eyes still burned with hatred as grabbed his rifle and took a step back.

"Ant. Now." Mallory said.

I was silent as I passed him, moving to the far side of the S-2 vault door. I reached into my left breast pocket and pulled out a box for a deck of cards.

"Aw, you gonna do magic tricks for us?" Duloc asked.

"Yeah, I'm gonna pull your head out of your ass." I snapped back. Someone laughed, but I was opening the box to shake the cards out slightly. I thumbed through them until I found the right magnetic swipe card, pulled it out, and held it between my teeth while I put away the deck of cards. Once it was away and my pocket buttoned I held the keycard in the same hand as the key.

"Ready." I told him, holding up my key and the card. Duloc mocked me again, complete with shaking a limp with his ring and middle fingertips pressing against the tip his thumb.

…Rip, tear, shred, pain, blood, meat, crush, smash….

The little lizard was daydreaming of Duloc as a small rodent screeching as it grabbed him by the neck and disemboweled him with a sweep of his powerful back legs.

"Insert key." Mallory said. Without a word I inserted my key.

The LED's went live above the keypad, reading "READY" and the red light went out to be replaced by the amber one burning brightly.

"Turn key clockwise." Mallory said. I rotated it 180 degrees and let go. There was a click and the lid popped up slightly. I flipped up the red plastic shield to expose the card swipe slot. The Major glanced at me to make sure we were both on the same page. The little tag, red with a blue stripe, swung back and forth on the quarter sized ring.

"Swipe card." Mallory said. I followed his instruction and watched the amber light blink three times. We'd done it close enough together and both of the cards had been read.

I'd been tempted to take the one with the bent corner that had been ruined just to frustrate the Major. I'd pushed the Colonel's men pretty hard, and I could sense that Major Mallory was starting to seriously consider Tashton's suggestion to try beating my code out of me.

Not that it would work.

"Input code." Mallory ordered. The entire room filled with anticipation. I could see the Colonel and his men lean forward in eagerness. The lizard left off its daydreaming and my whole body thrummed with readiness. I suspected that as soon as I punched in the code 'bad things' would start to happen.

When it went down I'd make sure that Duloc took a long time die. Screaming in agony the whole time and drowning in his own blood.

I considered for a split second punching in my actual code. I knew that punching in the wrong code twice lock out the keypad for thirty minutes. That would keep the Mallory, Tashton, and their new friends from accessing the vault.

Or I could just punch in one code. It was for Atlas' bunkers, but the military was nothing if not redundant. If I punched in that code it would completely lock out the keypad until it was physically opened up and the ROM flashed. I was supposed to use it if I was ever under duress.

Cold War Bullshit to many, but now I was facing a situation where it was called for, that my duty called for serious consideration.

"Don't bother with the lockout code, Corporal." Major Malloy said as I reached for the keypad. "As the OIC of S-2 I'm able to reset the keypad, so it won't do you any good even if you punch it in."

Goddamn it.

I punched in the eight digit code, reciting the nursery rhyme I used as a mnemonic aid. I had a head full of codes, and it was too easy to forget them without those aids. Unlike ATM's or the movies there was no beeping as I punched in the code in. The LED's didn't show the code I'd punched in, simply put up a # sign for each input.

The amber light above my keypad blinked twice before going out and the green light lit up. I looked over in time to see the Major put in the last two digits of his code. The amber light blinked twice and the green light came on.

Without being told I rotated the key counter-clockwise. With a thump the heavy-duty bolts snap back as the remaining lights dropped down to a barely visible glow. In a couple seconds the lights brightened. The dark one and the flickering one both exploded in sparks while the sullen one just came back with a glow.

The feeling of danger increased and I stepped back. "Permission to be excused?"

"Whatever." He told me, grabbing the spoked wheel and spinning it.

I turned and headed toward the door but the Colonel stepped in front of me, bringing me to a stop. I couldn't go around him with the desks in the way, so I looked at him and cocked my head.

"Do we require anything else of the good Corporal?" The Colonel asked.

"No, we have what we need." Major Mallory grunted, still turning the wheel. I tensed for a blow from behind from Sergeant Tashton. He was standing directly behind me, close enough I could almost feel his breath.

The seconds stretched out almost unbearably, but Colonel stepped aside. "Let the good Corporal go, gentlemen."

I pushed through the Colonel's men, putting up with a punch in my ribs, another attempt to thump me in the balls, and a few other petty blows. I exited the S-2 office and turned toward the stairwell, eager to reach my friends, reach the LT, and let them know what was going on. Two of the men followed me out, closing the door behind them.

Captain Duloc stood by the door, glaring at me, and I tried to move past him, facing him, as he stepped slightly further into the doorway to force me to turn sideways to get by him with only a couple inches separating us. With a grin he suddenly tried to knee me in the balls, but I was ready for that trick again and twisted slightly to take the hit on my thigh. I shoved him, hard, starting to smile, figuring that he was ready to throw down. At the same time he reached up, put the heel of his hand against my forehead, and pushed hard.

Normally that would have been little more than a slightly painful annoyance.

My head hit the edge of the doorframe, the cold steel corner impacting the back of my skull.

The world flashed and vanished as a high pitched whine filled my ears. My limbs disappeared from my awareness and the taste of peaches and engine grease filled my mouth along with the smell of beef jerky and honeysuckle. I was aware of my body falling, of Captain Duloc grabbing my arm with who knew what intention. He wasn't expecting my dead weight and I fell from his grasp. My limbs splaying out as I dropped awkwardly to the floor. I hit on my back, and my limbs began thrashing.

I was laying on the cold tile floor, at the base of the stairs, in the middle stairwell, on my back, blind, and having a seizure. The lizard shrieked as the lines went down, his control station went dark, and the silhouette of my body went blank, only a strobing red circle around my head.

A low, liquid chuckle, more of a cough than a laugh, heralded my being pulled into blackness.

Chapter 9

I was sitting on the back loading dock of the barracks, my legs hanging off the side. My boots thumped against the concrete face of the loading dock as I idly kicked my feet just to hear the thump. There wasn't a cloud in the sky and it was one of those nights where I could see forever. The stars were scattered across the sky like diamonds, the moon huge in the sky and so clear I felt like I could reach out and touch it.

None of that mattered. Not the stars, not the moon, not the warm summer night. All that mattered was the wedding ring I held in the palm of my hand. Gold band, diamond chips taken from the shaping of the diamonds that studded the ring's mate. The wedding ring that was a match for the one on a woman's hand thousands of miles away.

I wondered if she was still wearing it. Did she wear it when she spread her legs for that other man. Did she wear it while he fucked her? Did she see it and feel any shame at all, or was it just a trophy? Did she even remember the other ring, part of a matched set that cost me over three month's pay? Did she even care?

The diamond chips caught the light when I bounced it in my palm. Diamonds. A girl's best friend. Ice some people called them.

The nickname seemed to fit. The diamond chips were not warm, held no warmth even when the light struck them. They were empty. Cold.

Just like what she had left behind.

Beside me, next to the Wild Turkey bottle, were photographs. Color photographs full of painful details.

A petite brunette woman smiling at the camera, her arm around a smiling man. The same woman sitting on the man's lap. The man and the woman sitting on a couch with red Dixie cups in the hands, other people around them. The woman toking on a bong while sitting on the man's lap. The man and woman kissing while they danced. The woman looking down at the hand unbuttoning her blouse with a smile.

A rounded buttock with a butterfly tattoo. A face contorted with ecstasy. A pair of breasts capped with nipples sporting rings that hadn't been there the last time I had seen them, with hands that weren't mine cupping them. A closeup view of a hard cock sliding into a wet pussy that was covered with fine brown hair. Another closeup, the same cock, sliding between a pair of buttocks, the butterfly tattoo visible, the hands that held the breasts in the other photo spreading the buttocks open. The woman lying on her back, her hair fanned out, a faint flush across her breasts, and semen on her stomach above her matted pubic hair.

With one finger I stirred the photos around, expecting some kind of reaction, but feeling nothing but cold singing emptiness and the same song that had been stuck in my head since I'd opened the envelope that afternoon.

The ants go marching one by one, hurrah hurrah….

The envelope had no return address, the post-mark told me it was mailed from Fort Lewis, Washington. The fact that it had been addressed to me, by rank, to 2/19th instead of the cover unit meant that I'd be getting a lecture and investigation from S-2. The empty envelope sat under the pictures, seventy-two in all, clean and blameless with "DO NOT FOLD" typed on the envelope. The only mark aside from the stamps, the address, and the post-mark was a stamp that showed that MI had gone through it.

Not even the thought of some MI dwonks looking at the pictures, knowing what they showed, could alter the cold singing emptiness inside of me.

I looked at the top picture again, showing the young woman smiling around a mouthful of cock, semen dribbling from the corner of her mouth, and tilted my hand so the ring fell from my palm and on top of the picture. It didn't bounce, it just hit and stayed, one pale blue eye inside the gold circle.

The eye sparkled like the diamond chips on the ring, with just as much warmth.

"You know who took the pictures, Ant?" My brother asked. "Any idea?"

I looked up at him, where he was leaning against the wall with a beer in his hand. He was wearing jeans, cowboy boots, and a Seattle Seahawks T-shirt, a baseball cap with the Seahawks logo on it over his blond hair. His eyes were intent as he glared at the pictures.

"I know." I said. My voice sounded odd to me, flat, empty. It reminded me of the speech program on my Amiga.

"How?" He took a drink off his beer. "Whoever took the pictures were careful to keep themselves out of the photos." He knelt down and poked at the glossy photos with one finger, his own wedding ring glinting in the moonlight. Unlike mine, his was a plain gold band, unadorned, except for her name and "Love Always" engraved inside.

"Apple blossoms." Was all I said.

My brother jerked, his face paling. He grabbed one of the photos, and brought it up to his face. He sniffed then threw the picture down like it was a live snake.

"Aine." He said, standing up and putting his back against the wall.

"Yeah." I said, picking up the open bottle and taking a long drink off of it. Monkey held out his hand and I handed the bottle off to him before turning to my left. There was a heavy sledgehammer sitting on the dock, used to drive grounding rods into the ground. The weight felt good in my hands when I stood up. I rolled my shoulders, loosening them up. My stomach burned from acid and hard alcohol, but it didn't matter. Nothing mattered any more. Especially not to the empty boy.

…The littlest one stopped to bang on the drum….

I raised the sledgehammer, bringing it back over my head, and paused for a long second, staring the pictures under my wedding ring.

Pictures of my wife with another man.

No words, no scream, nothing but the cold singing emptiness inside of me as I brought the hammer down on the ring, scoring a direct hit. The shock made my palms sting and concrete powder puffed up from beneath pictures.

When I lifted up the sledgehammer the ring was crushed. The diamond chips were embedded in the photos where the pressure had crushed them from their settings, and part of me wanted some of the chips to have shattered.

Another strike and the ring deformed further. The sledgehammer had caused pressure cuts in the photos, some of them tearing, the rough surface of the concrete having left a pressure pattern on the photos I'd struck. A third strike and the gold was just a misshapen flat blob.

The head of the hammer rang on the concrete when I dropped it beside me. My brother held out the squirt can of Zippo lighter fluid to me and I took it without a word. We both stood there while I soaked down the photos with the contents of the entire can. Once it was empty I dropped it on the photos and dug in my pocket, pulling out my Zippo.

One spark was all it took and the lighter fluid burst into flame with a woof. The pictures curled, blackened, and blistered. I couldn't see the ring, but I didn't need to as I picked up the sledgehammer again. I kept slamming it into the fire, over and over, until the night breeze began pulling sparks away and the flames died down.

The ring was just a smear, whether from the heat of the lighter fluid, which I doubted, or the constant strikes with the heavy sledge. The photos and the envelope were gone, burnt to ashes and carried away on the breeze.

"Feel better?" Monkey asked me, stepping forward and offering me the bottle.

"I feel the same." I told him, taking a swig and handing it back. He waved it away and I took another drink off of it.

"What do you feel?" He asked me, taking the sledgehammer. I was silent as we walked to the door that led to the S-2 office, the War Stocks room, and the middle stairwell. When the door thudded shut behind us he set the sledgehammer against the War Stocks door before turning to face me.

"Talk to me, Ant. What do you feel?" He asked me.

"Nothing." I told him honestly.

"Really?" He asked, digging out his pack of Marlboros and his lighter.

"Yeah, really." I answered. My voice still sounded empty to me. He lit two and handed me one. I took it, taking a drag and motioning at the door to the stairwell with the bottle.

"Not yet, Ant." He said. "You think I'm going to believe that Aine sending you those photos of Tera and Logan don't bother you?"

I just shrugged, looking at him. He stared at me for a long moment, and I looked back at him, neither one of us blinking.

Finally he shook his head, breaking eye contact. "I worry about you, little brother." He told me. He reached out and opened the door. A low sobbing moan drifted down the stairwell. A muscle jumped on my brother's jaw, but he stepped into the stairwell in front of me.

"I'll be fine, William." I told him. I shrugged again, following him. "It doesn't hurt that much."

We walked in silence up to Hammerhead Hall. Monkey kept glancing at me, twice I caught him looking at the knife that rode on the outside of my right boot, the same as him. When he reached for the door handle I finally spoke.

"I've been hurt worse, Will." I told him. He turned and looked at me. "I'm not going to do anything stupid. Suicide is a sin."

The words made that muscle on the side of his jaw twitch again. "You sound like your mother, Ant. You sound like Aunt Martha."

That should have hurt, coming from him, but it didn't. There was just… nothing inside me. I felt hollowed out, empty, except for a prickling and crawling feeling that had started when I was swinging the sledgehammer.

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

"I won't leave you or Innie behind, Will." I told him. "I won't hurt either of you that way."

He grunted non-committally and pulled open the door. There was a faint shriek above us that we both ignored as we stepped into the hallway and headed toward my room. My room-mates were both at Wildflicken supporting a unit, meaning my room would be empty.

"If I call Ineda, will you at least talk to her?" He asked me when we reached my room.

I sighed, slumping.

…Promise me, please….

"You know I will, William. I can't refuse Innie." I answered, opening the door.

"Get some rest, Ant." Monkey told me.

"You too." I answered. I turned and faced him. "I'll be all right, Will, I really will." I reached out and squeezed his shoulder.

He looked doubtful, but he put his hand over mine and squeezed it. "Just don't do anything stupid."

"I won't. Goodnight, Will." I told him.

Monkey looked doubtful as I shut the door.

The curtain was open, moonlight streaming into the room, providing enough light for me to see by as I walked into the main part of the room. I moved over to the desk, setting down the bottle of Wild Turkey. I grabbed a crystal beer glass off a shelf, then my photo album, and set the album on the desk before wandering over to the fridge. I put in some ice, grabbed two cans of Coke, and sat down at the desk. Four fingers of Wild Turkey and the rest Coke fixed the drink up just right, and I took a long drink off it before opening the album.

Inne was the first page. Eight pictures of her, the first two from high school, the others taken when she went to college. She was in her ROTC uniform in the last two pictures. I worked my fingertips under the top picture and slid out the photo I'd hidden from anyone who decided to peruse my pictures.

We were all three in the crib. Me, Innie, and our brother. Me and Ineda were cuddled up close, our brother away from us by a handspan. Our brother and Ineda's eyes were closed, their faces scrunched up in that sleeping disapproving look that only babies get.

I was frowning, my eyes open, staring at the camera. My sister and brother had fine dark hair covering their heads, my head was bald. You could see the 'A' drawn on my forehead with a marker to tell me apart from my traitorous little brother, who was the center of the picture.

We were tiny, less than a month old, and you couldn't tell that Ineda and I had been born with cauls.

It was the only picture I had from before.

I reached down and drew the knife from my boot sheathe. It whispered as it cleared, and the hilt felt heavy in my hand. The grooved steel pattern was strange, but let me keep a tight grip once I shifted it.

The Wild Turkey burned as it went down, but I didn't care, using the point of the knife to move the picture to the middle of the desk. I set down the glass, ignored the smell of apple blossoms and a girl's laughter that was only in my mind, held the picture nice and firmly…

And cut Logan from the photo.

When I was done I used my cigarette to burn away the picture, taking empty pleasure in grazing the red hot coal over the paper and watching it discolour, watching it melt away. Part of me secretly wished that he would feel the heat of the coal, that somewhere he was screaming in agony as flesh bubbled and blistered.

But nothing bad ever happened to him.

What I was doing was barely cathartic.

I put the picture back and flipped the page of the photo album. More pictures of Innie and me, this time at our Father's house. The blank expression on my face, the dark circles under my eyes, the pale skin with a smattering of freckles. That strange and silent boy my Father had loved anyway.

No, not my Father, my Uncle. William's Father. My father was a drunk who beat Innie and me on a daily basis. Who gambled and drank away any income the family had. William's Father wouldn't buy himself a paperback book unless the house had enough food for the month. My father took his paycheck to the bar before ever coming home. My father always had an excuse for why we were poor, how it was everyone's fault but his own, how it was us kids fault.

William's Father was man of accomplishments, who had gave back to the world, who tried to make the world a better place. A man who viewed the future as a shining goal just always out of reach, that could always be improved. A man who loved his children unconditionally, who loved his wife, who's heart was large enough that he adopted the kids that never had a chance.

Kids like me.

I traced William's Father in the photo with the tip of my finger. He was laughing, a massive bear of a man with graying hair and a face seamed with a lifetime of cares and worries and scars. He had a 70's moustache, a flat-top, and a pair of mirrored sunglasses. On his shoulders was a young girl, who was laughing with him, a red popsicle in her hand, the juices dribbling down her wrist. Her blond hair shone in the sun, a red ribbon in her hair, and a pink frilly dress. She looked closer to five than ten, the scale thrown off my the huge man carrying her through the State Fair to ride on the rides. She was laughing, her eyes wide with wonder at the attractions.

Ineda. My twin sister.

Just behind his leg, peeking around to look at the camera, was a pale little boy with dark circles under his eyes. One arm in a cast, rumpled blond hair, thin limbs all elbows and knees like only a little boy. The clown makeup on the little boy's face couldn't hide the dark circles, and the eyes looked empty, looked like they were staring out of the picture at something behind me in the barracks room. His face was chubby, stark contrast to the skinny body that the clothing billowed out around. The Superfriends T-shirt, the shorts, the tennis shoes. In the hand opposite of the cast was cotton candy, almost hidden from the picture.


I took off my shirt and looked at my left shoulder. There, inscribed in ink, was her name. I'd had it done the last night of Basic Training, a jailhouse tattoo like a lot of the other recruits had gotten. The guy who had done them was a skinny black guy who had learned how to do it from his brother.

Tera Louise Ant, in the shape of a cross. Louise vertically, Tera on the left, Ant on the right. The thread wrapped needle had hurt, but I'd just sat there and watched it done, fascinated how it worked.

Tera's name.

I wanted it gone.

I stood up and walked over to my wall locker. I fumbled the keys a bit but got it open, staring in the mirror for a long moment.

The skinny kid in the picture was long gone. I still had some baby fat in my face, but my hair was reddish blond now, my face narrower, my cheekbones more prominent. My green eyes were still surrounded by dark circles but that had more to do with three weeks at Atlas and a bottle of Wild Turkey than anything else. Six foot tall and two hundred pounds. Where the child had been skinny I'd packed on the muscle. More than when I played football in High School, more than I'd had in Basic Training. My neck and shoulders were thick and I tensed them, staring at my reflection.

The boy from the picture didn't really exist any more. Maybe around the eyes, maybe the baby fat in the face. But the boy was gone.

I took out a rag and an AAFES pilot's knife from my dresser and walked back to the desk. I set then down, pulled out my Zippo and lit a cigarette before setting the Zippo down. I had another can of lighter fluid in my desk, that went next to the bottle of Wild Turkey. I grabbed the bottle and put the rag over the top, inverting the bottle to wet the rag before setting it down.

Another long drink off of my mixed drink and I flipped open the lighter with a snap of my fingers, then sparked it off before setting it upright on the desk. I used the rag to wipe off my tattoo and set it down.

The knife's wrapped leather hilt felt odd in my hand. Warm. I put the tip into the flame and watched, lifting it up now and then.

When I felt it was ready, the tip no longer smoking, I put my elbow in front of me on the desk, angled the knife, and ran the heated tip down her name.

It didn't hurt enough to penetrate that emptiness that filled me.

The lighter had to be refilled twice by the time I was done. It was a deep burn, through the layers of skin. It was a physical depression in my flesh shaped like a cross. Ironically over my smallpox vaccination scar.

I set down the knife and lit a cigarette before snapping the lighter closed.

The room was still only lit by the streetlights outside and the moon. It was dim, and dim was good.

Dim, I couldn't see what I'd become.

Photos piled up as I pulled every picture with Tera in it from the album. When I could I'd cut her out of the picture, when she was the focus of the picture I just used my boot knife's razor edge to slice her free.

Right after I'd finished and dropped her into the trash there was a banging on my door.

"Ant, you in there?" Nagle. She of the nasty attitude and large breasts.

I got up and answered the door after she'd hammered and yelled a second time. She stared at me for a long moment before speaking.

"You have a phone call." She told me.

"Who?" I asked. Her eyes kept looking at the weeping burn on my shoulder and then at my face.

"She says she's your sister. Een-ay-dah or something like that." Nancy said.

I just slammed the door in her face and went back to sitting at the desk.

"Fuck you too, asshole!" Nagle yelled through the door.

I had said I'd talk to her if Monkey had called her. If he'd called her, he would have come up here and gotten me himself.

So I wasn't breaking my promise.

I couldn't refuse Innie. I could refuse Nancy.

My little cassette deck/CD player lit up when I hit the power button. I was planning on buying a bigger stereo, hell, I had it on layaway, but right now Spinny would work just fine. The CD player whined as it came up to speed and I tapped the button to select the song I wanted to listen to there in the dark.

The bottle felt fine in my hand as I leaned back in my chair at the desk.

Twisted Sister's "Burn in Hell" played quietly as I nursed the bottle and stared at the cinderblock wall in the darkness.

I could still hear Aine's laughter.

And the lizard's hisses of primal rage.

Biological System Error
Warning System Error
Warning System Damage
Reset reset reset

Rolling over hurt. Hell, breathing hurt. Knives into my chest with every inhale. I opened my eyes and saw nothing but darkness and white. My hands had gone numb, my whole body covered in pins and needles. My knees hit a wall and I groaned. I tried to curl into a ball when I realized I was outside. In the snow. In the dark. I tried to rise and failed.

The memory of Tera telling me that she had fallen in love with the wrong twin, that my mother had explained it to her, and couldn't I be happy for her. Oh, and by the way, no visitation for my son.

Red hot rage flared up, but died just as quickly, leaving nothing behind but emptiness.

System failure.

The voice was mechanical in my head. A dispassionate poorly done copy of a woman's voice.

There was a hiss of anger and fear and my body started moving. I struggled my feet, clumsy and spastic, but made it. I stood there, bent over slightly, panting, with one hand against what I thought had been a wall but had proved to be the loading dock instead.

My mother screaming in court that naughty boys need punished, that she only accepted Jesus' authority. That I should be stoned to death.

Red hot anger that faded away before it could fully bloom, leaving nothing behind.

System failure.

The voice again. Who the hell was speaking?

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.

Logan, my twin brother, smiling as the wet leather belt whistled through the air to slap across my back. My hands were spread apart and I was leaning forward, using my arms to help support me. In between my hands was a picture of Jesus, looking upwards at Logan, with his crown of thorns.

Anger the died before it was even realized.

System failure.

I know! Shut up!

The meat machine that was my body kept staggering forward, I was forcing it to move when it didn't want to. The little lizard was doing everything he could to keep us moving. Disconnected images kept popping up, memories that had nothing to do with anything. Every time the lizard tried something new I got an image. The images and memories were scattered, seemingly unrelated.

Another shuffling step. Then another. I was moving slower, the loading dock on my right barely felt by my numb hand.

A teacher screaming at me that I was faking it, that only retards couldn't speak, as she bent my fingers backwards to get me to talk. The snap of broken bone.

Nothing. Just nothing.

System failure.


This time anger welled up. Would that stupid bitch shut up? I was having a hard enough time fighting the goddamn wind and snow to… to do what?

The anger faded.

System failure.

I heard you the first time, lady.

The ache in my head had become remote, distant, as I moved down the loading dock. The lizard hissed again and more images appeared.

Nancy holding onto me while I seized on the mattress we'd set on the floor. Her face was crudely stitched and tears fell onto me as she cried. "Don't leave me, Ant, please."

My sister, crying in the rain. "Please don't tell."

Bomber laying on the mattress, flushed and feverish. "I'm dying, ain't I, brother?"

Westlin on the tarmac of the lower helipad, crying. "Is the evac coming, Ant? It hurts."

It was an inferno. It was a typhoon. Raw red rage, so much anger it felt like I was going to explode. I was aware I was screaming as I bulled forward through the snow, my left arm thrown up in front of my face, my right hand keeping contact with the loading dock.

System reset.

Those goddamn bastards had dumped me off of the dock, thinking I was dead or dying. They hadn't even taken the time to finish the goddamn job. It was fucking insulting is what it was. Major Mallory and SFC Tashton had to know that their new friends had killed me and dumped the body outside.

And now they planned on killing my friends.

The image of the Colonel appeared in my mind, and the rage got hotter when he said "SEAL Team Three", the words appearing as little pink bubbles that popped and left behind the taste of over-ripe blackberries.

The image of the guy after the briefing, his uniform clean and presentable, his hair in regs, holding out a brass coin slightly bigger than a silver dollar. It was a BUDS coin, carried by people who passed Basic Underwater Demolition School.

"Three." was all he said, showing me that coin. The coin that every SEAL I'd ever met had in his pocket. It was all he needed to tell me who he was with.

I stumbled on the steps, but managed to regain my balance and switch my touch from the loading dock to the railing.

To me it wasn't cold out, my self-image had me fueled by hatred and rage, the snow melted before it could touch me, consumed by the fury that energized me.

I refuse to die on this god-forsaken mountain

The top of the steps. Across the patio. Into the recessed entryway that led into the hallway that connected the near stairwell, the Ready Room, and the Orderly Room. The loss of the wind was remote and distant to me. I moved up to the door, grabbed the handle and thought better of it.

When I pulled my hand away there was a slight stinging pain, but I didn't care.

…Rip, tear, smash, hunt, kill, break, eat, stalk, breed, hurt, food, blood, meat, yum.…

The broken window was still uncovered, the shards of glass still in the frame. I could see into the hallway, which was dim, only wan light from the orderly room and the Ready Room illuminating it.

In the hallway stood one of the fake SEALs. He had his back to me, holding his weapon by the carrying handle. His boonie had was dropped back, exposing the back of his head. He was paying attention to the person in front of him, unaware of me in the window, silently pulling out the pieces of glass.

Aine stood in front of him, facing me, her eyes wide and her lower lip held between her teeth as she breathlessly hung on every word the guy was saying. She ducked her head shyly before she spoke, saying something to the guy. He nodded, and her hands moved. From the looks of it she had one hand on his chest and I could see she was cupping his cheek with the other.

While I watched she walked the guy backwards, stopping to stand on her tiptoes and graze her lips across his. Her eyes were bright, luminous in the dim light. The shadows made her seem exotic. A heart shaped face framed by reddish auburn hair, a dusting of freckles across her pointed little nose, red lips drawn up in a bow, and green eyes too wide for her face that had the longest eyelashes.

"I'm shy, I don't want anyone to see." Aine giggled as she guided him backwards. "I don't want your friends coming out of the Supply Room or the Orderly Room and think I'm a slut."

More steps backwards. Her words were plain as day, his words were lost in the wind and the pounding rage.

"I wanna kiss in the snow. I want to feel the snowflakes on my breasts." She breathed. Her accent gave her voice and exotic lilt to go with her exotic features. She let go of his cheek and started to undo the buttons of her dress, still guiding him backwards.

The knife was an old companion in my hand. The fire ants that crawled over my skin and tore at it with their mandibles were old friends. The cold emptiness inside me was gone, I was nothing but rage wrapped in a sausage skin.

Three buttons and her light cotton dress fell open, exposing her small breasts. Snow swirling in through the window landed on them, dusting them with snow that was somehow less white than her alabaster skin. The guy stopped at the window, his body blocking most of it, the bottom of the windowsill just below his waist. I saw one fat fluffy snowflake land on Aine's bright red nipple and just sit there.

The guy started to reach for her.

Aine began to lick her lips with that bright red tongue as I brought up the knife, her eyes growing impossibly larger, green pools to drown in.

I reached for him.

The lizard licked his chops.

Aine's nipples hardened.

...And we all went marching down, into the ground, to get, of the cold...

Chapter 10

2/19th Special Weapons Group
Restricted Area, Alfenwehr West Germany
Late Winter- January, 1988
Day 11 of Repairs
Day 3 of the Second Incident

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.

Aine reached down, grabbed his feet, and lifted them up, tipping him outside the window when I yanked the knife out in a spray of blood. Her face and breasts were spattered by the backspray when the blade came free, scarlet droplets highlighting just how pale her skin was. She was smiling as she stood up and leaned slightly out the window to watch me as I dropped down on the guy with steel in my fist and murder in my heart.

The guy was starting to raise his hands up as I drove a knee into his stomach. I planned on stabbing him once more to finish him and jumping through the window, but something touched me, light as the snow, at the base of the skull and a warmth spread through my body.

The lizard hissed a warning but I ignored it as a hot and delicious taste flooded my mouth, I could smell apple blossoms, strength flowed into my limbs, and a red haze covered my vision. It took everything I had not to fall on him and start biting and tearing with my teeth. My limbs were thrumming with strength and heat, my heartbeat felt like a massive piston inside my chest, and as the warmth spread through my body I was vaguely aware I had an erection.

Time slowed down as I brought the knife up again. It wasn't enough any longer to just kill him, he needed hurt, punished, and made an example of. A faint moan of lust tickled my ear as everything crystalized.

I needed to brutalize him.

His eyes were wide, but slashed across them, laying open the bridge of his nose to the bone. He made a strangled noise as I stabbed him up by his left collarbone and twice in the stomach. When he reached out at me I grabbed his wrist and stabbed through his hand. I twisted the knife as he started trying to scream and only making a breathless whistling noise, then yanked it out, grabbed his other wrist, and sliced through his palm with that one.

"Oh, yes, my Annie." Aine's voice. My ear heating as her breath tickled it. I could feel her hot tongue dance across the outside of my ear, and her fingertips touching the base of my skull ignited a fire inside of me.

I shifted, stabbed him twice into his stomach, twisting the knife brutally each time, and then stood up, panting. A glance at the guy showed him staring up into the snow, his face ruined, his mouth opening and closing silently. Turning away I wiped my face with my sleeve, staring at Aine, who stood in the window.

"Stay there, my Annie." She said softly. She made sure there was no glass shards in the way, then slid through the broken window like a warm breeze. She stood next to me, snow whirling around us, the front of her dress open and barefoot, and smiled.

"Drag him." She told me. I nodded, bending down and grabbing him by his feet. I drug him down the steps, in the dark and the snow, while he feebly tried to move. His head kept bouncing off the steps, and the wind swept the disturbed snow around and erased all evidence that he'd been pulled to the base of the steps. At the bottom of the steps I dropped his feet and moved back up to where Aine waited.

She kissed me, her lips just grazing mine, moved away from the door. She drifted onto the edge of the loading dock, and motioned at me to follow.

I glared at her, my muscles trembling with the need to lunge at her, carry her down to the floor, tear her dress off, and take her on the snowy tile. Instead I shook my head, growling at her. I kept the hallway in my peripheral vision, a tiny part of me hoping the fake-ass SEALs would come into the hallway because that would push me into combat mode and away from Aine.

Her eyes narrowed as she walked back. "Come in here, boy." She said again, reaching out and touching my cheek. Her fingertips put a little pressure on my skin and I followed her like an obedient puppy, my heart hammering with desire, a need to please her, to make her happy, to prove I was a good boy.

I climbed in the window, and she reached up to touch my cheek, smiling at me. That smile warmed my heart, filled that singing empty core that I had become with warmth. She stood on her tiptoes and whispered in my ear, her hot breath tickling me.

"You will not run, Annie. Unless they attack me or you, you may not act." She said. "Do you understand?" I nodded and she frowned, her hand moving to behind my neck. The warmth spread out, wiping away my own desires. "Do you understand?"

"I understand, my rosog." I answered softly, calling her my rose. She smiled shyly, blushing slightly, and lowered her head so she was looking at me through those long eyelashes.

"That's a good boy." She whispered. "Follow me, you will be just fine, I won't let anyone harm you." She told me. I nodded, even though the lizard was frantically pointing at something on the wall where he put important data.

…Deep, sunken eyes, nothing but black pits full of hatred and dark mirth. Gaping open jaws, full of broken and jagged teeth that were too long for the mouth. White skin, with the edges of the mouth pulled up in a horrific grin.

Grimy, dirty, tattered BDU's, covered with frozen mud and a rind of frost…

Something flickered in Aine's eyes and she reached up to put her hands on my cheeks, drawing my head down and kissing me. Her lips were sweet, like I remembered, her mouth tasted of cherries and apples, and the kiss was long and lingering.

Memories of Tandy fell away to ashes.

"Be a good boy, Annie." She told me, and took my wrist in her tiny hand, leading me toward the stairwell on silent feet.

She led to the stairwell, opening it just enough for me to slide in. For once the stairwell was silent when the door opened, a hushed feeling coming over me.

"Go to my room. Strip naked. Kneel on the end of my bed. Wait for me, do nothing, say nothing, be still and be a good boy." She reached up and wrapped her small hand around the back of my neck. "Do you understand?"

The lizard hissed with hate, but I found myself nodding.

"Good boy. Go on, hurry, I will be up soon." She told me. I shook my head, trying to break through the apple blossoms.

"You are a disobedient boy." Aine murmured, reaching out to take my left wrist in her right hand. "You were hard enough to wake back up out there in the snow, now you don't want to be a good boy and do as your told." She shook her head in the dimly lit hallway. She moved through the door and led me into the dim stairwell, pausing at the bottom of the steps. She turned to face me, smiling, her eyes wide and luminous. Blood was spattered on her face, on her perfectly shaped breasts, where the droplets had run leaving streaks. Snowflakes still clung to her bare breasts, and that single fluffy one still sat astride her nipple. She touched my cheek with her fingers again, the warmth filling me.

"Are you ready to do as you're told?" She asked.

I shook my head and growled again at her. The lizard was hissing, tapping on the 'ABORT' button.

The fake SEAL team was split, divided, if I struck fast and hard I could take them. I could hear them opening and closing file cabinets in the Orderly Room, and I could tell by the way the light fell in the Ready Room that they were in the Supply Room and Sensitive Items Storage. Grab the M-16 that the dying guy had left on the counter, go in hard and fast, exploit the fact it was target rich environment with no friendlies, get in close when the ammunition ran out and…

"No." She said, reaching up and putting her hand around the back of my neck.

The back of my skull throbbed, the pain washing away the burning warmth of her touch.

…Stop touching me, bitch….

"Obey your girl, boy." She said softly. The smell of apple blossoms and hot blood bloomed around me, making my head swim.

I shook my head again, growling at her, shaking with the need to kill the fake SEALs, feeling the need to protect all my friends, with the need to take her down on the floor and ravage her, with the need to brutally cut apart the Major and Tashton while they screamed and bled.

She held up her wrist, making sure I could see what she was wearing on it. A bracelet of reddish auburn hair, some of it stained, tightly woven and knotted, seamless. Her other hand moved to a bare breast, the snowflake brushed away to fall to the floor.

…She looked at the shining blood on the lock of hair, then locked eyes with me as that pointed little tongue, too long and feline for such a small mouth, extended from her mouth to lap daintily at the blood left behind when my knuckles had torn…

"Know your place, boy. Obey your girl." She said. Her green eyes held mine as her fingers caressed the base of my skull, the pupils growing larger, pulling me in, drowning me. Her fingertips came up, the blood on them glimmering in the dim light of the stairwell, catching my attention. I could see her breast that she had touched with that hand, see the thick drop of blood welling up on the nipple suddenly roll down, down the bottom of her breast, and vanish into the dress.

Something inside of me collapsed when her fingers grazed my lips. Unable to stop myself my lips parted and she slipped those bloody fingers into my mouth. My shoulders slumped as programming took effect. She was a girl, and that was all that mattered. Thought was gone. The lizard kept trying to invoke memories, give me something to fight with, something to get my brain moving, but the memories kept shattering into confusing shards before they could fully form.

"That's my good little Annie. Such a good boy" Aine purred, pulling her fingers from my mouth. "Go to my room. Strip down like a good boy. Kneel at the end of my bed. Wait for me right there, boy, and don't move." She told me. "Talk to nobody but me, boy."

I nodded dumbly. All I could taste was sweet, hot blood. All I could smell was apple blossoms and a wild, feral smell that made my head swim and my body react. All I could feel was the warmth of her touch.

I nodded again and moved into the stairwell. She let the door go, smiling at me, and filling me with warmth.

She let go of me with a laugh as I started moving up the stairs mechanically. She pulled open the door and slipped back into the hallway, leaving behind her voice saying: "My boy. Mine."

As I climbed the stairs I heard her scream, the wicked Aine I knew gone, but a terrified and hysterical woman. She'd left the door open just enough for sound to carry as I rounded the landing.

"We were by the window, and… and… he suddenly was pulled out of it!" Aine screamed, barely audible.

There was a confused babble of voices, but their voices weren't Aine's, so they didn't matter as watched. She screamed again, a completely panicked sound, as men flooded over by her. My head swam, and all I could think of was her voice, her touch.

Thought swept away and I found myself going up the stairs without remembering telling my body to. I was floating in the middle of warmth. It radiated from the base of my skull, flowed through my veins, slid along my muscles, and lit my skin on fire.

I could see her in my mind, dancing as she moved through a summer field, her hips swaying, her hands coming up above her head and then sweeping down, her feet moving in intricate little steps, dancing through the grass. The memory was so strong I could hear her.

I crossed the landing and slowly opened the door to Titty Territory. A quick glance showed me that the hallway was empty. Nobody could see me from the CQ Area, not with the windows painted black, so nobody saw me slowly move down the hallway.

…Her touch…, her smell….

The door to her room opened at a touch, warmth enveloping me, and I shut the door quietly behind me before heading into the main part of the room.

Her bed was obvious, a hand-sewn quilt covered in runes on the bed. I stripped off my clothing, folding it neatly and setting it on top of the three drawer chest at the end of her bed, and then knelt at the end of her bed, my head bowed, my arms at my sides.

The lizard snarled, prodding at me, but nothing happened.

The fire was receding, the rage was dying down, replaced by a mindless, drifting euphoria as I knelt on the end of her bed, the smell of apple blossoms and blood filling my mind.

Images of her flickered through my mind. Her naked and laughing as she ate a peach we'd picked from the tree we'd just finished making love underneath. Her in a bikini arcing off the diving board and slicing into the pool, swimming from the diving end to the shallow end without coming up for air. Her using a fingertip covered in blood from her period to paint designs on my face and chest, her little tongue held between her sharp teeth as she concentrated. Her laying in the grass masturbating and watching me through half closed eyes. Her using her sharp little pointed fingernails and cutting on my chest just deep enough to draw blood then licking the blood with that bright red tongue, looking up at me through her long eyelashes. Her wearing a sundress and dancing in a field of flowers. Her climbing a tree in a dress, giving me tantalizing flashes as she climbed higher and higher.

…Nancy laying next to me in the darkness, breathing slowly and deeply, her eyes closed but moving as she dreamed…

"My boy. Mine." Aine's voice.

Aine's cousins holding a girl upright by her arms while Aine drove her little fists into the girl's abdomen, snarling 'my boy. mine' with every punch. Aine pulled a girl's head to the side by her head before raking her pointed nails down the side of her face. "He's my boy. Mine." Aine red faced and shaking with rage as the words 'we're breaking up' left my mouth and she spit at me 'no. you're my boy. You'll always be my boy. Now and forever, mine.' Her cousins holding me while she walked back and forth in front of me, wrapping stinging nettles around her small fists, my shirt torn off and laying at my feet. "You're boy. Mine." The feel of her small fists hitting me, the stinging nettles burning, her snarling 'You're my boy. Mine." With every punch.

…Nancy straddling the face of the woman we'd picked up at the NCO Club, leaning forward to watch eagerly as I thrust into the other woman, her eyes bright and her smile wicked. 'Do her good, Ant, god, she's good with her tongue, do her good.' Her voice urged me on, sharp gasps punctuating her words…

"My boy. Mine." Aine's voice, sounding angry.

Aine making a chain of daisies to wrap around my neck, a lead of woven grass to lead me through the field with to the swimming pond. The wind picking up as she stripped naked in the middle of the forest clearing and began to dance while the clouds gathered. Aine vaulting naked onto the back of her horse in one smooth motion, her alabaster skin in sharp contrast to the brown horse. Aine standing on the back of the horse, balancing perfectly as the horse galloped through the field.

…My Father holding Nancy's hand at the airport. 'Take care of my boy. I'm giving him to you to take care of, I'm trusting you. He needs a woman to watch out for him, all the boys in our family do, and you're up to it." Nancy's blush at his words as she answered 'I will, Sergeant Major.'…

"No! My boy! Mine!" Aine's voice.

The back of my head started throbbing, and an icicle began sliding into my shoulder joint, the staples still embedded in the skin freezing the skin beneath them.

I faintly heard the door open and close, and a few seconds later the smell of apple blossoms and blood came back full force. I looked up, my head heavier than it should be, the pounding pain in the back of my head giving me the strength I needed.

Aine had just finished dropping her dress on the floor and was gloriously naked in the dim light of the room. She was still speckled with blood, all of it dried, but the smell of hot blood grew stronger despite that fact. She walked over to the desk, her hips swaying as she moved, a wild feral smell teasing my senses. She picked up a book of matches and lit three candles, sticking out her tongue and putting the match out on it. She put the smaller candle into the clay rest, a small ceramic pot over the candle, and poured water into the cup.

Nancy appeared in my memories, laughingly pulling me and John onstage at a festival, the three of us dancing and laughing to the music.

She spun around, her eyes narrowed and a frown on her face. She took two steps forward and slapped me, hard, across the face. It barely moved my head as I stared at her, locking eyes with her. I could feel the sting of a split lip and knew that the recently healed scar had broken open.

"No. You're my boy, Annie McDaur'n, mine." She snapped. She grabbed my chin and squeezed, her sharp pointed nails digging into my jaw. She let go and used her index finger to touch the stinging spot on my lip. She brought the finger up to her mouth and sucked on it, her eyes widening. She grabbed my jaw and tilted my head back and forth as she looked in my eyes.

The feral smell grew stronger. Her mouth opened in a little 'O' and she let go suddenly.

"You're not Annie any more." She said softly, then giggled. "No wonder you're so hard to control." Her fingers traced the bracelet of woven hair on the opposite wrist. She stared at me for a long moment, then turned away. My eyes were drawn to her pert little dimpled butt but I stared at the back of her head instead.

One hand on the back of the head the other under the chin put your shoulders and hips into it as you twist violently to the left….

She jerked, turned around and stared at me for moment. She licked her lips and tilted her head slightly, then smiled.

"Don't worry, Ant, I know how to handle unruly boys like you." She purred before turning back around. She'd used the name the family had given me. My grownup name that the family would call me by once I had a wife, a child, and became a real boy.

"Not. My. Name." I managed to growl. She turned around and smiled at me, leaning back against the desk and opening her legs slightly. She looked otherworldly in the dim light, her body petite and perfectly formed. Her red pubic hair shined in the light, a patch the size of a 1 Duetchmark piece at the top of the slit. Her blood red nipples stood out, and her flat belly was flawless except for the innie belly button.

"It doesn't matter what your Uncle named you, Ant." She purred, using that name again. "The name he gave you is crude and ill fitting." She smiled gently at me. "You're not a child anymore. Relish your adult name, boy." She turned back to her little lidded teapot.

The water in the ceramic was steaming as she opened up the drawer and pulled out small felt bags. She used her fingers to crumble pinches of herbs into the tea, putting each bag back when she was finished. The smell of tea mixed with the wild feral scent, the smell of hot blood, and the thick cloying smell of apple blossoms.

"They tried to marry me off to Logan, told him to divorce his wife, that whore who stole you from me, tried to tell me the two of you were the same." She said softly, stirring the tea with a cream colored stick that had small carvings on the handle. "I'm an Aine, and I refuse to settle for the weak blood that runs in your brother's veins." She pulled the stirring stick out of the tea, the wet bronze tip gleaming in the light of the candles. As she kept speaking she pushing the point into the skin on the inside of her wrist until blood welled up. "Your father sold you to mine. You're mine. It doesn't matter how far you run, you're still mine." She rubbed the end of the stick back and forth in the blood before going back to stirring the tea while sucking on the inside of her wrist. She'd used that name again, and it made my stomach churn to hear it from her lips.

…Ant, I love you!' screamed down a stairwell…

The icicle pushed further into my shoulder.

…'Stay down.' The guy in the mask said as he walked by…

The pain in my head came back in a rush, the throbbing pain that normally made me want to puke but this time pushed away the smell of apple blossoms.

Aine had opened her legs slightly, rubbing the brass tip between her lips, singing softly to herself as she did so. She withdrew it and went back to stirring the tea, still singing softly.

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

Hatred welled up inside of me. At my mother. At my father. At the Army. At my chain of command. At myself. At the universe. It began burning away the smell of apple blossoms. My shoulders tensed, the muscle bunching, my right shoulder burning with the effort.

The lizard was hissing, his claws opening and closing, his toe-claws peeling curling slivers of metal from the brushed steel floor of his work-station.

Aine opened the drawer again and removed a small cup, delicate china, and set it down on the desk.

I clenched my fists, staring at her back.

…Between the third and fourth ribs, a quarter twist, and pull it out before slamming it in again….

I tore my gaze away from her and looked at my clothing. My pants were folded beneath my BDU top, so the knife clipped the back of my belt was hidden. I clenched my fists again.

Aine stepped into my line of vision, the cup held in both hands, her lips pursed as she blew on the steaming liquid inside. She smiled at me when I looked at her. She let go of the cup with her left hand and reached out to wrap her hand around the side of my neck so her fingertips touched the base of my skull. Fire coursed through my at her touch, her smell got stronger, and my clenched fists relaxed. The pain in my head receded, the icicle withdrew, and the lizard hissed in hate.

Aine chuckled.

"You're a fighter." She said softly, using that goddamn name again. "That's going to make things so much better." She lowered the tea-cup, reaching out with one hand to grab my jaw again. "They told me to pick someone else, that you were beyond my reach, my own mother told me to settle for Logan." She sneered, squeezing my jaw and forcing my lips apart. "The thought of his touch makes my flesh crawl. The thought of him inside me makes me want to puke." She pushed the cup against my lower lip. "I'd kill anything that flowered in my belly from his seed." She tilted my head up so I was looking at her face instead of the spot just underneath her left breast where I was visualizing cold steel sliding into her flesh.

"Drink." She told me, tipping the cup. The authority in her tone, combined with that name, robbed me of my ability to spit it in her face.

The hot tea, bitter and burning, filled my mouth and I swallowed despite what I wanted. She kept tipping the cup up, her hand holding my jaw, forcing me to swallow or drown, but I wasn't in control of what I was doing and swallowed eagerly, yearning to please her, needing her to smile at me.

"Just sit there a moment." She held my chin until my stomach clenched, threatened to rebel, and I broke out in a sweat. Aine chuckled and let go, letting me curl forward around the pain in my stomach. She rubbed two fingers on the base of my skull and moved away.

As she picked out more felt bags, each of them with a stitched rune on them, I could feel my muscles starting to tremble as the nausea twisted my belly. She pulled out a small mortar and pedstle and set it on the desk. I groaned, sharp tearing painful cramps wracking my belly, and I tried to curl forward slightly and failed, feeling muscles in my legs and arms start the spasm. But I still knelt, head bowed, almost unmoving except for muscles spasming visibly.

My mother had my head wrapped in one arm, using her fingers to hold my mouth open, as she poured hot tea down my throat. Hot enough to hurt but not hot enough to blister, hot enough to leave my throat aching and reminding me that I'd been punished. 'Nasty boys needs to learn to keep their hands and eyes to themselves,' she told me as I choked and sputtered….

Hatred flooded up again and I tensed up, willing the muscle tremors to stop.

Aine was humming to herself, singing an idle word here and there as she ground things up. The grinding of stone on stone was like thunder. The smell of apple blossoms was still teasing my senses, her wild, feral smell still causing a fire in my brain, the smell of hot blood making my mouth fill with saliva.

…Laying in bed, sweating, as stomach cramps kept me doubled over. My limbs shook uncontrollably as I wept. I'd been bad again, and the soup we'd had for dinner was my punishment….

I ground my teeth together and clenched my fists hard enough to feel my fingernails press painfully into my skin. I managed to raise my head and stare at Aine's back.

…Bitch, you poisoned me…rang in my head.

A rabbit sat on the desk, next to where Aine was working. While I watched it scratched behind its ear and then looked at me. Its little nose twitched, its ears were floppy, and its sleek fur was brown and white. I wanted to pick it up, to hold it, to rub my face on its fur and cuddle it.

Aine dribbled some kind of liquid from her little kettle and into another little cup. She poured in the powder from the pestle, then picked up a small twig that the end had been shredded. She stirred it as she lifted up the cup, turning to see me.

She chuckled as I glared at her, hating her, wanting to wrap my hands around her throat and squeeze until her face turned purple. The lizard approved, and added in a disemboweling kick with his back legs for good measure.

"You are strong." She purred, moving forward. She put one hand on her stomach, over her belly button, her fingers spread wide. "That's good." She gave another low, throaty chuckle as she stopped in front of me. "Now my mother isn't here forcing those stupid pills down my throat. Now there's nothing stopping me from quickening."

She took her hand from her stomach, put her palm against my forehead, and pushed me backwards. I flopped back, landing sprawled on the bed, my stomach cramping and muscle tremors hitting me again.

On the ceiling clouds moved stately across the room. I could see a Blackhawk slowly tracking across the sky that had replaced her ceiling. The lizard shrieked in rage at the sight of the sky.

I didn't remember hallucinations when my mother had fed me the tea. Was it something new about Aine's tea? Was it the head-wound? Or was it something else?

Aine straightened out my legs, sitting on the bed, her legs crossed demurely. She let her fingers linger over my body, tracing scars, pushing gently into the muscle.

"You McDaur'n boys are all so exotic." She purred. "All that mixed blood in you." She kept trailing her fingers over my skin as I watched shapes and colors appear and disappear on the ceiling. "The matrons told me if I could catch you, I could have you." She snickered. "Your uncle tried to say that I had no claim, that he had paid back the money my father had paid to buy you, but the matrons overruled him." Her fingertips reached the cross I'd burnt into my skin to eradicate Tera's name and she laughed.

"Do you think that will protect you?" She asked me, dipping a finger into the cup she held. "Did you do that just for me? Were you afraid of me? Did you know I was coming and cut the sigil of that god into your skin in hopes of keeping me away?" She giggled, painting a stripe over her breast that curled over the top, arced around, and dipped below. "I'm an Aine. I get what I want. You're a boy, what you want doesn't matter." With her other hand she grabbed me, squeezing tightly. "Just this should show you that it won't protect you from me." She stroked gently up and down as she kept drawing lines on her skin.

I'd seen the pattern before. When I'd gone home on leave the old women had painted Tera's body like that before sending her, wrapped in gauzy strips, to the bedroom where I was waiting.

Nine months later our son was born.

The lizard snarled, and an image of blood exploding from Bomber's thigh welled up in my mind. My muscles clenched as I relived putting his field dressing on the wound while he popped off shots from his XM-16E1 to keep the guys who'd snuck into the 1K Zone honest.

By the time the image cleared Aine was standing up, swirling patterns that all focused on her belly drawn with blue colored paste. She'd let go of me, had her eyes closed with her hands raised up, her hands cocked at the wrists to expose her palms to the sky. Her lips were moving silently, and I watched the muscles in her smooth belly ripple. She gasped sharply and opened her eyes, looking down at me.

"My boy. Mine. All mine." She growled, climbing up on the bed. She threw one leg over me, straddling me, and leaned forward. "Mine. Body and soul. My boy." When her legs had opened the feral smell got stronger, her breath as she growled smelled of hot blood, and the smell of apple blossoms rolled off her flushed and painted skin.

She lowered down and the fire swept up, igniting my brain and washing away all thought. The lizard kept slapping the 'ABORT' button, trying to stop it, but the tea was in system, the fire was in my blood, and Aine possessed me utterly.

Almost utterly.

A small part of me was screaming in rage. I had almost a physical sensation of slamming my fists against a stone wall. The more it screamed, the more it pounded on the walls, the stronger it got, the more I could feel a scream of rage building up inside of me.

I managed to reach up and grab her breasts, my fingers digging deep into the firm flesh, my forearms bunching as I started to twist them. Aine gasped, grasped my wrists, and pulled my hands from her with ease. She held my wrists against my chest as she rode me, her sharp fingernails biting into the inside of my wrists as she moved.

Her eyes opened and she threw her head back, staring sightlessly at the ceiling. She was making guttural noises in her throat, her eyes rolled back in her head. She began with a whisper but soon moved to crying out with every downward thrust of her body.

"My boy. Mine. Mine, mine, mine. Forever and ever and ever. Mine forever and ever." She was chanting, using that fucking name she kept throwing in my face. She was covered in sweat, her hips flexing back and forth as she rode me. I was covered in sweat, my muscles trembling and unresponsive, weak and helpless as she held my wrists and pinned them to my chest. I was glaring at her, baring my teeth in a snarl, as she took what she wanted from me. She let go of my wrists, sinking her fingernails into my pectorals hard enough to draw blood as the sharpened points of her nails punctured the skin. My hands jerked as the muscle tremors shuddered through my body. Aine didn't care, she was taking what she wanted, what I'd broken up with her over in High School.

A scarred hand, with chipped and ragged nails came into my vision as I tried to light Aine on fire with just sheer hatred. When Aine lifted up the hand grabbed her by the hair on the back of her head.

"Oh, yes, pull my hair, Annie, pull my…" Aine gasped, and I could feel her tighten and spasm around me.

"Like this, bitch?" Nancy snarled, ripping her off me, putting her back and hips into it.

Aine weighed around a hundred pounds, despite her freakish strength, and hadn't even seen it coming. Nagle hadn't been cripplingly injured like Bomber and I, hadn't lost all the muscle that life at Atlas and the long days of physical labor had covered her body with. She was over the weight for her height, but made the tape easily, with a thickly muscled waist, broad shoulders, and softball sized biceps.

Aine flew across the room in an arc with a shriek of rage and pain, a shriek that stopped when she hit the far cinderblock wall. She hit Lanks' bed and bounced up, her expression twisted with animalistic fury. Her eyes were burning with anger and her teeth were bared.

"My boy." She snarled. "Mine."

"Grab him, John. I don't think he can walk." Nancy ordered, turning to face Aine. Nancy was still wearing BDU's, and it was easy to mistake her for a fat woman thanks to the purposeful shapelessness of the uniform. John appeared in my vision, shaking his head.

"Dude, I'm not carrying you around with a bare boner rubbing on my shoulder." He grabbed my boxers off the top of my folded pile of closed.

The lizard was dancing with joy.

Aine flew off the bed at Nancy, hands outstretched into claws, those pointed fingernails gleaming in the candlelight. She was hissing like a scalded cat, her hands leading the way, her arms bent slightly at the elbow.

Nancy stepped into it and threw a straight arm punch into the Aine's face, stopping the smaller woman in mid-air with a crack. Aine dropped straight to the floor with a cry of pain. Bomber was skinning my boxers over my feet when Nancy stepped forward and drove a boot into the side of the smaller woman.

"These are my boys, bitch!" Nancy snarled, kicking her again. "I saved them. Mine." She kicked Aine again, and the smaller naked woman slid across the floor and hit Lanks' bed hard enough to shake it. "They're mine!"

Aine popped up, twin worms of blood oozing from her nose. Nancy dropped into the standard Basic Training Judo pose.

…My Nancy….

Aine smiled at Nancy, shimmying her body as she cupped her breasts and then slid her hands down her body until her spread fingers formed a diamond around her obviously wet and puffy crotch with the matted little patch of hair. John got my boxers on and grabbed my arms, pulling me into a sitting position. I shuddered and my stomach clenched again with rolling agony as the tea continued its work. My balls were starting to hurt so bad it felt like a pit of hot lead in my cramping stomach.

"You don't have to do this, Nancy." She purred. The scent of apple blossoms and that feral smell increased. "I can take all three of you. Separately, two at a time or all together, and leave you pleasured and sated like…."

Whatever it would have been like vanished as Nancy stepped forward and delivered a brutal snap-kick directly into Aine's crotch. Bomber was throwing me over his shoulders when it happened, and I saw it plainly, how the toe of her boot went between her thighs, spreading them apart, the sides of the sole of her boot abrading that alabaster skin. I saw the toe of her boot hit Aine in the crotch square, the lips spread open and then deform as the force of the kick lifted the smaller woman up.

Bomber took a step forward as Aine lifted up and fell back onto Lanks' bed. Nancy's foot went with her until Aine flew off, the larger woman following through with the kick like she was going for a field goal. Blood spattered from the force of the kick as Aine fell back, her legs thrown open, welts already appearing on the inside of her thighs.

Aine screamed then, a high pitched howl of agony. It speared into my head and I saw several of Lanks' crystal beer glasses shatter.

Nancy stepped forward, grabbed Aine's left knee, wrenched her leg open, and drove a fist into the smaller woman's crotch. The scream stopped and Aine convulsed as Bomber grabbed my uniform and boots off the three drawer chest. Thrown across Bomber's shoulders I saw Nancy drive two more punches into Aine's crotch. Her knuckles were bloody after the first punch, and when she stood up and shook out her hand her hand was covered in blood.

"Stay away from my boys, you creepy little bitch." Nancy growled.

Aine moaned, her eyelids fluttering, passed out from the pain.

Nancy grabbed the edge of Lanks' OD green wool blanket and pulled, dumping Aine onto the waxed and polished tile floor. She hit with a smack, sprawled out, her face against the tile like her chest, her ass in the air from landing on her knees and folding over them.

Nancy threw the blanket over me and slapped John on the lower back. "Don't look at her, John. Let's go."

"Yeah. Goddamn." John said, shaking his head. He started to leave, and I could see Nancy turn around and face Aine.

Nancy was looking at Aine's upraised little butt, with the dimples, and her bleeding crotch that was already turning reddish-purple. She grinned, a savage thing with too many teeth and no mercy, and appraised the body of the other woman for a moment.

She drove the tip of her boot into Aine's crotch again hard enough to pitch the smaller woman onto her side and throw her against her own bed.

Right before we entered the hallway I saw Nancy grab Aine's quilt and yank it over Aine's motionless body.


Nancy slammed the door when we left, then led the way as we headed toward Queer Country. Her shoulders were bunched and her fists were clenched, and when she shoved open the doors at the midway point they both crashed against the wall.

"Hurry up, John, we need to get him to the room. I want to find out what he was doing in Aine's room when those SEAL Team Three assholes said he went back to his room almost an hour ago." Nancy said, stomping up the stairs.

"He's fucking heavy, bitch." Bomber grunted, shifting me as he started climbing the steps.

"Try having him on top of you." She snapped back, more out of habit than anything.

Bomber chuckled, breathing heavy from the stairs. "I swear to God, Ant, if you fucking puke on me..."

"We're gonna need him to puke anyway." Nancy said, pausing at the door. "I think that bitched poisoned him." She opened the door slightly and looked out into the hallway. "The lights are out to our room and the hallways are empty. Give me to the count of ten. Gimme his clothes."

"Roger that." Bomber said, shifting me again. My legs and arms were shaking and I kept shifting on his shoulders. "I think he's having another seizure, hurry up."

Nancy disappeared into the hallway and John shifted me on his shoulders.

"What the fuck is going on? First LT James tells us in the stairwell to fall back to our rooms, then your cousins come up and tell us that Major Mallory's here and told the LT you went back to your room, then we find you in Aine's room." Bomber mused.

I gagged and Bomber shifted me so my head was down further and if I puked it would be on the floor. It didn't help that the angle drove Bomber's shoulder into my balls.

"What the fuck is with that bitch and apple blossoms?" He wondered. He shrugged, lifting me up and down, making me retch. "Let's go."

He pulled open the door and hustled into the hallway. Nancy wasn't kidding, the whole hallway was dark and cold. I retched again, bringing up a thin stream of something bitter that made my scalded mouth burn. We reached the door, to find Nancy holding it open, looking worried and tapping her foot. I could hear the shower was on and smell the steam.

"Get him into the shower. I'm gonna head to the Mag Office and grab an aid bag." She slapped Bomber on the side. "Keep an eye on him, see if you can get him to puke, don't let his ass drown."

"Tell your mother how to suck eggs." Bomber said, moving into the bathroom. He carefully set me on the floor then cracked his neck and rolled his shoulders. "All right, let's do this." He pulled my boxers off, ignoring my erection, then got undressed and pulled me into the shower with him, my left arm over his shoulder while he help me stand.

"What the fuck did she do to you?" Bomber asked. He suddenly shivered. "Never mind, I just remembered what happened to me." He looked at me for a moment then grinned. "Don't get mad, dude, but there's only three ways to make you puke. One is stick my fingers down your throat, and the last time I tried that my sister bit the shit out of my fingers, another is to sock you in the balls really hard, and I don't think you want me to do that, so that leaves…"

He drove his fist into my abdomen. I didn't see it coming, and I couldn't do anything about it anyway. He kept me from falling face first into the water when I doubled over and puked. Black shit spewing out of my mouth and nose. It burned coming up. I kept throwing up, the water from the shower washing it down the drain.

"Christ, that shit reeks." Bomber bitched, squatting down and rubbing my back. "What the fuck did she give you?"

"Tea." I managed to choke out, then heaved again. My limbs were trembling so bad I couldn't have stayed upright if it wasn't for Bomber.

"Hey, you can talk." He said. "This isn't a seizure, is it? What kind of tea?"

"Poisoned. Hemlock." I gagged and threw up again.

He growled, low in the his throat, and stood up. "I know what'll help." He stepped out while I kept retching and gagging, coming back right after I threw up black clotted shit that was probably my dinner mixed with whatever Aine had put in the tea.

"Drink." He told me, putting the bottle in my hand. I took the bottle and swigged deep, and almost choked. I'd expected Wild Turkey, he'd handed me the bottle of Everclear we kept for emergencies. Between the hemlock, the hard punch to the gut, and the Everclear, I couldn't keep it down and ended up throwing up again.

The door opened and closed, Nancy coming in a moment later. "Stood outside the CQ Area, Aine's in there." I braced and waited to hear she was pressing charges. "She's claiming she didn't see you, and she's standing there smiling in a dress like nothing happened."

"She's Aine." I gagged.

I spent about five more minutes alternating between dry heaving and throwing up Everclear and glasses of water. My throat burned, my sinuses burned, and the back of my head throbbed, leaving me with white sparks across my vision. The watery vision and the colors at the edge of my vision had faded, meaning they'd got the tea out of my system before the real bad effects had kicked in.

When it was over Nancy helped me get dressed, then Bomber and Nancy guided me to a chair to sit down.

"All right, I want straight answers out you, Ant." Nancy said, putting in an IV. I looked up at her and she looked pretty grim. "I want to know what all the 'my boy' shit she was freaking out about was." She shook her head. "It sounds a bit more serious than when I say it. Why does she seem to think she owns you?"

I thought about lying for a split second, then changed my mind. They'd come to get me, they'd rescued me more than once. Lying to my two best friends wasn't an option.

"My father sold me to her father when I was three." I admitted.

Chapter 11

2/19th Special Weapons Group
Restricted Area, Alfenwehr West Germany
Late Winter- January, 1988
Day 11 of Repairs
Day 3 of the Second Incident

They both stared at me for a long second. A flicker of shame came and went, but the sight of my uniform covered legs reminded me that I wasn't that silent boy that stood there and let others do what they wanted to him any longer. The lizard hissed and rage filled me, warming me, pushing back the stomach ache, the buzzy feeling in my head, and the strange longing feeling I had toward Aine.

"Keep going, honey." Nancy told me, taping off the IV line to make sure it was secure. She'd hung the bag from the shelf's support. My whole arm was getting chilled, but she was worried about the vomiting I'd done dehydrating me.

Plus, the hemlock tea would give me the shits very soon if I hadn't thrown it up fast enough, which would just make it worse.

"My father was a drunk. A bad one. He was a drunk before he was drafted for Vietnam and came back worse. He worked for Warehouser, on the logging crews, which was probably the only reason he could hold a job." I closed my eyes, remembering how more than once the sap on his hands had stuck to the skin of my cheek when he slapped me.

"That doesn't sound like the father you and William described." Bomber said, handing me a cold beer from the fridge. It wasn't Gatorade, and a doctor would probably frown on me swilling beer after hemlock tea, but fuck him, I was here and he wasn't. Let's see him survive.

"Yeah, well, I'll get to that." I told him, unable to keep the bitterness from my voice. Bomber just nodded and moved over to the stereo, queuing up the CD player before sitting back down.

"He liked to play cards, and he liked to drink. He'd go to the tavern before coming home after he got his paycheck." I shook my head. "He'd been wounded in Vietnam, if it wasn't for his pension and the house he got when he came home from war from the family, we'd have been out of the streets in no time flat." I took a long drink off the beer, stifling the sudden urge to smash the bottle against the edge of the desk and then go down and slit Aine's throat.

"I guess my father got in trouble gambling, or he just wanted money, or maybe he just wanted to get rid of me, but when I was three he sold me to Aine's father." I shrugged. "Aine knew it by the time we went to kindergarten. She'd demand to sit by me, when we got older she had me carry her books. She told me why when we were in first grade, that her daddy bought me from my daddy which made me her boy." Something small hurt in my chest for a second as I continued, but I crushed it beneath rage. "When I went home crying my father beat me for crying and my mother beat me for talking to a girl."

"Jesus." Nancy said. She'd taken my hand sometime during it and now squeezed it.

"Aine would delight in kissing me on the bus. My mother would see it, and I'd get a beating. I quickly figured out that if I didn't do what Aine wanted at school, she'd kiss me on the bus, and I'd get beaten for 'defiling' her." Another long swig and suddenly my beer was almost empty. "I figured that shit out in the first grade. The first grade was the first time my twin sister..."

"Woah, woah, you have a twin?" Bomber asked.

"Triplets, actually. You met her after REFORGER." I told him. I smiled, it felt good. "She's in officer's training. She'll be good officer, make a difference, do some good."

"She's the dominant one." Nancy broke in. I nodded. "Figures. Even if she wasn't from birth she's a girl, and you learn fast."

"Yeah. Anyway, it was in the first grade that my sister stood up for me." I winced. "My mother beat her bloody, then beat me until my father got angry at me for screaming and choked me out." I shrugged. "I tried not giving them the satisfaction of screaming, but she'd hurt Innie until I screamed, telling me if I screamed she'd stop."

Bomber stood up and got another beer. The back of his neck and ears were deep red and he was shaking when he handed it to me.

"Please tell me the cops shot your parents one day." Bomber half-begged.

My hand rubbed my left elbow. "No. My mother went too far one day when I was ten. I'd had a nightmare and climbed in bed with Innie. My mother caught us sleeping. She broke my elbow and my cheekbone, beat Innie's crotch bloody, and..." I took a deep breath.

...Please don't tell anyone...

...I'm sorry, Innie...

"Our da checked to make sure Innie was still a virgin."

Nancy's grip on my hand suddenly tightened and her face went white.

"I stabbed my mother in the hand with a fork and we ran to the school." I told them. Bomber looked stunned, repulsed, and for a second the fear was there that he believed the same our mother had believed. "They called the police."

"And then they shot your father in the face?" Nancy asked hopefully. Her grip on my hand was almost painful.

"No. The cop was Aine's father."

"Oh shit." Bomber said. "I swear to God, Ant, if this story has you chained in a basement I'm going to get on the next flight to Washington and shoot everyone in this story in the dick."

I shook my head. "No. He took me to my Uncle Tiernan's."

"William's dad." Bomber guessed.

"Yup." I shrugged. "He adopted Innie and me, paid back Aine's father, and did everything he could for Innie and me. I call him my Father instead of Jed. Now you know."

Nancy was silent a long time, staring at me. The look in her eyes made me nervous. Part sorrow, part fury, and part disbelief. Not in what I'd told her, but that it was the whole truth. She knew I was keeping things back.

...My Nancy...

"What's with what she called you? And what the hell is with the name Annie?" Bomber asked. "I mean, it sounds like a shortened version of that other name, but I thought your name was Fifty-Foot, that's what you always told me."

"My Father gave me that name." I said.

"Damn, you can hear the difference in the way he says it." Nancy broke in. I kept speaking.

"The other name is the name on my birth certificate. Before puberty everyone called me Annie, after puberty there was a different name." I sighed. "When I got married and my wife had children or I came home from war my family would have called me by the name she keeps calling me."

"Then why did your father change your name?" Bomber asked.

"My Father was told by the family matrons to return me to my father or Aine's family, and my Father laughed at him and told them to make him." I grinned. "My Father had it out with the Matrons about certain things after the Korean War. They'd tell him to do something, and unlike most of the men in my family, if he didn't to do it he'd tell them to pound sand."

"Why?" Nancy asked. "Wouldn't the rest of the family back up the Matrons?"

I shook my head. "No. He followed some, but apparently six of the cousins, following the orders of their girls, came for my Father one night." I grinned. "Apparently he sent them back beaten almost to death, and let the Matrons know that if they ever tried anything like that again he'd kill the next ones and maybe worse."

Bomber chuckled. "Yeah, that sounds more like the man we met in the hospital."

"Yeah, my Father defied the Matrons and didn't pull his boys out of school around the third grade." I told them.

"Why the hell were they pulled boys out in the third grade?" Nancy asked.

I looked at her and blushed. "Until after World War 2 boys weren't allowed to read or do math. Most of the males in our family were functionally illiterate up to World War Two."

Nancy shook her head. "That means you guys are basically unskilled laborers, except for what you learned in the military."

With a wave of my hand I indicated the FM's and correspondence courses that several shelves were lined with. "Except for after World War 2 you need to be able to read, which meant that the women had to let us go to school enough to read so we could pass initial testing and Basic."

"That's fucked up." Bomber summed it up.

I just laughed. "Property, except for weapons, were owned by the women, despite what legal documents said. Our wills all give our property to our wives or our nearest male relatives."

"What happened to the widows?" Nancy asked.

"Unmarried cousins or brothers courted them. If the man had married into the family, and she had children already, she usually just carried the title 'widow' and lived alone unless she met someone, but they rarely remarried." I answered.

She opened her mouth, probably to ask more questions, when someone hammered on the door. We all turned to look, hands reaching for knives, when Stokes' voice came through the door.

"Psst, Nancy, open up."

Nancy gave a slight frown as she hurried over to the door. Bomber grabbed his knife and followed her after hitting the room light, stepping slightly into the bathroom. When Nancy opened the door nobody in the hallway could see him standing there.

"Jesus, there you are." Stokes said. "Let me in."

Nancy grabbed her by the arm and yanked her in. "What the fuck is going on?"

Stokes glanced at Bomber, who was leaning against the doorway of the bathroom, his hand behind his leg so she couldn't see the knife. "Hey, Bomber." She turned back to Nancy. "The LT told me to come up here, told me to tell you that he's having the barracks searched for Ant."

"Why? I thought the story was Ant came back up here?" Nancy asked. Stokes came in and she shut the door. "Does the LT want us down there?"

"The SEALs are claiming that Ant killed one of their men, even though Aine's claiming that it wasn't him." Stokes saw me in the room and looked at me for a long moment before turning and looking at Nancy. "What the hell? I thought he was missing."

"Long story, Miranda." Nancy told her, coming over and standing behind me, one hand on my left shoulder. "Why aren't you helping?"

Stokes shook her head. "I don't trust those guys." She shivered. "Something about them, you know?"

"They aren't SEAL Team Three." Bomber said, sitting back down in his chair.

Stokes frowned at him. "What? How do you know?"

Bomber grinned at her. "My uncle is a bonafide SEAL, didn't get out of the Navy until last year. I can't picture him acting like those dicks. All of those guys are way out of regs, but close enough to be spotted as military." He grazed his hair over his ear with a forefinger. "Unless they're in the zone most SOG keep their shit dress right dress." He shook his head. "Plus they don't move like active military. The way they hold their weapons, the way their LBE's are fucked up, and their fucking uniforms."

"They're not SEAL Team Three." I told them. They all three looked at me. "I gave a briefing to Three this summer, and not one of those guys was at the briefing. SEAL Team Three is like thirty or forty guys and I'm pretty sure they were all at that briefing."

Nancy looked at me. "All right, tell us what went down. You went downstairs talking to the LT and the next thing we know the LT is telling us to head back to our room, then Lanks tells us that Aine tried to tell her not to come back to her room for a few hours and she had a weird feeling, now we find out one of the fucking SEALs is missing?"

I explained the entire thing to them.

"So what do you think Major Chokeaho is up to?" Stokes asked. I could tell by Nancy and Bomber's expressions they'd forgotten she was there. Stokes look at everyone and realized what she was seeing. Both of them with their little green notebooks out, were sketching maps or jotting down notes, and weren't just ignoring it.

"He's cashing out." Bomber said. Stokes looked at him in disbelief and he shook his head. "No, the 'Colonel' and his men aren't Russian, more than likely he's selling out to someone else."

"No, Major Mallory isn't selling out, the 'Colonel' is running some kind of game on all of us." I said. I tapped the IV. "Take this shit out, will you, Nagle?"

"No." Nancy answered, then turned to Stokes. "We need to come up with a plan." She turned back to Bomber. "What do you we know? Let's run it down."

"We've got three men missing, all of them vanished. Reasons unknown." Bomber said. We all nodded. I started peeling the tape back on the IV needle and Nagle slapped my hand. "We've got twelve men of unknown origin accessing secure records despite Group policy against anyone without authorization from Group and V Corps even knowing those records exist."

"They're making copies of the records, which is a clear violation of policy." Nagle added. Bomber nodded. "Rather than get Ant medical help they dumped him outside." Nagle growled slightly before continuing. "Then they told everyone he returned to his room, meaning they doubted they would get caught. Ant managed to get up and kill one of them."

"The LT told us to fall back to our rooms. Lanks told us that Aine had tried to get Lanks to stay out of their room because Aine somehow managed to get Ant to her room and poisoned him." Bomber finished. "Anything we're missing?"

Stokes looked at us, then took a deep breath. "Major Mallory told the LT that he was going to assume command of Rear-D until the snow lifts enough for them to leave. He's told everyone to return to their rooms until further notice. Breakfast will be MRE's, and he's told the LT that right now there is no need for a CQ."

"All right, that means that the fake SEALs and the Major have the run of the barracks, and we've got no security patrols." Nagle said.

"And blood has been spilled, we've got broken windows, and there's a blizzard." Bomber finished.

We sat for a few long seconds thinking. There was the sound of tap shoes running by and a blood curdling scream echoed down the hallway.

"Threat list and estimation?" Bomber asked.

"Twelve supposed SEALs. Unknown skill level." Nancy said.

"Easy to take one on one." I said. Nancy snorted and Bomber shook his head. "What?"

"Nothing, man. All right, Major Mallory and SFC Tashton, neither one of them are as badass as they act." Nancy said. She smiled, a ruthless thing. "Personally, I hope either one of them put up resistance, I'd love to slit their throats."

"At ease that shit." I told her, glancing at Stokes. "How dependable is Rear-D?"

Stokes snorted. "Maybe a handful I'd trust at my back. Most of them are college 'cruits."

"All right, how are our resources?" I asked.

"We've got our weapons here in the room, access to the armories is iffy. There are four vehicles in the motorpool that aren't winterized and secured. There's no access to the War Fighter Tunnels, we've lost commo, and have limited access to supplies." Bomber said.

"All right." I managed to get the IV loose and stood up, sucking on the hole in my arm. I moved over to the desk, pulling out a spiral notebook and paging past the AD&D campaign notes. I found a couple pages between the Battle of Wolf Run Pass hand-sketch maps and the treasure list from when they'd ambushed a caravan. I sat back down and when Nancy went to grab my arm I pulled it away. "Enough."

"You've been poisoned and had your head cracked. I want..." She started, I cut her off.

"I want a twelve inch dick. What's your point?"

"That sounds good. I wouldn't mind getting twelve inches and have it hurt without getting fucked twice and slapped." She grinned. She wrapped up the plastic IV line and the half-empty IV bag and tossed the wad in the wastebasket. Stokes blushed, and Bomber cracked open beers and passed them out.

I sketched out the area, then started listing accessible resources, probable problems, and regular ways Tandy could access the barracks as well as places that were dark and cold that nothing could be done about. I listed down numbers and keycodes, which made Bomber raise an eyebrown.

"How'd you get those?" He asked.

I laughed. "When we did up the CO's Office and the Orderly Room I found a brick of the Red Cards with all the codes. I listed them as missing, presumed destroyed, and memorized them." They all shook their heads and I looked at them. "Last time we got fucked because we couldn't access the War Fighter Tunnels, couldn't use the blast doors, and couldn't access shit that might have made a difference. I ain't letting. that. happen. again."

They all nodded.

"You think it's going to come to fighting?" Stokes asked. "Paranoid much, Ant?"

I opened my mouth but Bomber was the one who spoke. "The evidence is right in front of us, Miranda. They never planned on letting Ant leave, and if they're stealing the data with the intent of selling it to foreign powers they sure as shit aren't going to leave any witnesses behind." She opened her mouth and he cut her off. "Last time we weren't paranoid enough and a bunch of us died or were badly wounded."

"You think it'll get that bad this time?" Stokes asked.

"It's already starting." I told them. Bomber and Nancy nodded and Stokes started to say something but went silent. "We're down three men, right now the only answer is that the 'Colonel' and his men eliminated them for some reason. Tandy might have taken them, but it lacks the fear element. He feeds off of fear, gets of on it, or maybe just needs it for some reason, so I doubt it was Tandy."

"And the barracks doesn't feel right." Bomber added.

Nancy and I nodded at that.

"It feels like it did the day before the CQ got ganked." Nancy said. "That weird feeling."

There was a cracking rumble as part of the glacier above us broke free. The barracks shuddered as there was a crashing noise in the distance.

"And the helipad is fucked." Bomber added.

"Which means that it just caused avalanches just now between the noise and the compression." I added. "That means we've completely lost the roads. Main post won't even try to bulldoze the roads now."

"We're stuck here for at least a week, maybe longer." Nancy said. "That's what took the Rangers so long to get here. The avalanches shut down the roads, increased the possibility of more avalanches like the one that smashed the MP's vehicle."

"All right. We need to know what's going on. Bomber, Nagle, if you or I go down there it's gonna cause a lot of problems." I looked at Stokes. "That leaves you. Go down, find the LT, find out what he wants us to do, if you can't do that, find out what's going on." She nodded.

"Watch out for Aine." Bomber added.

Nancy nodded. "If she asks, tell her that Ant's really sick, feverish and delirious, and drop it at that."

"What if the SEALs ask me questions?" Stokes asked, standing up.

"Plead ignorance. Tell them that the LT moved you in here with us because you're dating Bomber now and he wanted to consolidate rooms." Nancy suggested.

"All right." She said, getting up.

"Shave and a haircut, then knock three times at the end instead of two." Bomber said, walking with her. She nodded again and left the room, Bomber locking the door behind her. He came back and sat down after grabbing another beer.

"What do you think they're going to do when they find out you're alive?" Bomber asked.

I shrugged. "Probably kill me anyway."

Nancy smiled. "Except everyone knows you took a serious head-wound." She stood up, tossing John her notebook. "I'm going to tell the LT that we found you in the stairwell and you're having a seizure. You don't remember anything after dinner, and I need a medical kit to take care of you."

"I don't like that plan. It leaves you exposed and alone." Bomber said.

"Go with her." I told him.

"No. Absolutely not." Nancy said. "That leaves you alone. You're injured, you're poisoned, and Aine is after you."

"I can handle it." I told her. "I can handle her. I'm not all fucked up from getting dumped off the loading dock."

She stared at me for a long moment, then nodded. "All right. We'll try it your way."

They left, and I sat there in the room, thinking hard. The light dimmed, came back, then sunk to a sullen glow, plunging the room in darkness broken only by the feeble attempts of the nightlight. I just sat in the dark and thought.

Aine acting like nothing was wrong, but that didn't surprise me. She was a lot tougher than she looked. I'd seen her carry a deer out on her shoulders, and she bounced back from injuries just as fast as anyone in my family would. Her crotch probably ached from what Nancy had done, but I doubted it would slow her down at all.

Still, the memory of Nancy taking the boots to Aine warmed me.

My head was still pounding so I took another swig off the beer and finished it. I set it down and killed the light, which wasn't doing much good anyway. I went into the bathroom to wet a washcloth with cold water, and laid down on Bomber's bed with the cold cloth over my eyes. Even the dim light from the nightlight was making my head pound, but the washcloth made things a lot better. I had to keep my muscles tense or the muscle tremors for the tea came back. The big muscles in my thighs were the worst, rapid tremors making them vibrate and twitch. I concentrated on keeping them relaxed.

The door unlocked and I listened to bootsteps slowly enter the room. At first I figured Nancy and Bomber, but they felt wrong. I bent my knee so I could draw my boot knife, then slipped it under my right buttock as I straightened my leg out and braced myself for whatever was coming.

There was the sound of rifles being set down on the desk, and I heard the light switch flip on and off and someone curse as the light didn't do shit. The boots moved closer to me and stopped.

"There he is."

"This the guy we dumped in the snow?" The black guy who'd dropped his weapon.

"Yup, that's him." SFC Tashton's voice.

"Figured the punk was dead." One of the Colonel's men. "How the fuck did he survive outside?"

"He's arctic survival qualified." Tashton grumbled. "He's supposed to be some kind of tough guy." He snorted. "His dad's supposedly some kind of Special Forces hardass or something. Him and his brother have been scouted by SF a couple of times. His brother does OJT with them, this little punk thinks he's too good to join SF."

Not really. While Will wanted to be an operator I really didn't feel I had what it took to do it. I just wanted to do my MOS and survive as long as possible before the Soviet Union killed all of us and I took as many of them with us as possible. Our family had a long long lineage of military service, and my brother wanted to follow in our Father's footsteps and join Special Forces, and between his test scores, his reviews, and his abilities, the Rangers had started sniffing around him last summer, encouraging him to sign up. I didn't want that. I was happy with Atlas and my crew.

"Didn't seem that tough down by the vault." The black guy said.

"Yeah. He got his skull broken or some shit last month. That's probably what put his lights out." Tashton said.


Someone poked me and I didn't move, just laid there. I let my breathing get ragged and just let go, which caused me to lose control of the muscle tremors from the tea and the injuries.

"Nice job, he's having a seizure." The first voice said. "Damn, he's all fucked up."

"So what do you want to do with him, Chuck?" The black guy asked. "It's not like he knows anything."

Tashton grunted, leaning down and poking me again. "The little bastard knows we copied the records. He could blow the whistle on all of this."

"Do you think he could cause problems?" The first guy, "Chuck" asked.

"No. He's pretty fucked up." Sergeant First Class Tashton said. "He'll probably die on his own."

You fucking wish.

"So what do you want to do about him?" The black guy asked.

"If he's not dead by then, we'll take care of him when we take care of the rest of Rear Detachment." Chuck said. "As soon as 'the Colonel' gives the word, we'll handle them and destroy any evidence." He chuckled. "We'll blame it on Corporal Ant and his two friends going crazy."

"You sure they'll buy it that these guys tore up the barracks and killed everyone?" The black guy asked, poking me. "Right now this one doesn't like in shape to make it through the night, much less do what we're planning."

SFC Tashton chuckled. "Believe me, everyone in Group will believe it. Half of Group believes him and his two little friends were the ones who killed all those people. Nobody believes that a bitch killed the guy. Everyone knows that chicks aren't dangerous." He sneered.

"Then lets kill him, and then kill his two friends when they come back." Chuck said. "Grab him, Ted, I'll just smother his ass, and we'll wait for the hick and the scar faced bitch." Someone pulled the pillow out from under my head. My hand was under my ass.

"We don't have to kill her fast." Ted, the black guy, laughed. "She got some big ol' titties."

"She's a fucking nasty whore." Tashton grunted.

The door opened quietly and closed.

"Best kind." Ted chuckled. "You gonna do it?"

"What are you three doing in here?"

My blood ran cold at the sound of the new voice.


"None of your business, bitch, leave." SFC Tashton snarled at her. I could hear her bare feet coming closer. The smell of apple blossoms filled my nose.

"I'm supposed to be taking care of Corporal Ant." Aine said. Her voice sounded tight, and I knew she was angry or frustrated. "The LT said he might die from his headwound if someone doesn't take care of him." I felt her weight on the bed and her hand touch my chest. The warmth spread through my T-shirt and into my body, making my heart pound and the lizard hiss with hate.

"Go back to your room, bitch, Ant isn't your problem." Tashton said.

"I've known him since he was a little boy." Aine said, reaching up to stroke my face. The warmth spread through my face, eased my headache. "If he dies our families will never forgive me." Her hand adjusted the washcloth on my eyes then came to rest on my brow. The warmth pushed back the headache completely, filling my body with a buzzing feeling.

...Her touch...

"Go back to your room, bitch." Ted snapped.

"As soon as I give him his medicine like Lieutenant James ordered." Aine said. Aine's hand disappeared and I heard something unscrewing.

"What the fuck is that?" Tashton asked.

"Anti-seizure medication. He needs a lot of it." Aine purred. An eyedropper pushed past my lips and squirted liquid into my mouth. Milk, honey, blood, and something else. I swallowed reflexively and she did it again. My mouth was full of fire, the feeling spreading into my sinuses and making my teeth feel weird. The third time it no longer burned my throat. The fourth made my mouth go instantly numb, only the taste of iron left behind. I heard the eyedropper being returned, and fire started filling my veins, spreading out from my mouth.

"Without the medicine he'll keep going into seizures until he dies." Aine lied smoothly. Her weight vanished from the bed. "We wouldn't want him to die, would we?"

I knew she'd be standing there with her hands held in front of her, her eyes cast down, looking through her eyelashes with those big deep green eyes. If her hair was still undone it would be cascading to either side of her face, covering her breasts. I could almost see her, I could smell her.

Images of carnage swept through my mind. The two attacks on Atlas. The fights in the stairwells. Spring rituals. The Wickerman. The trembling in my arms and legs went away and I felt strength return to my limbs. Better than before Aine had poisoned me. Better than before Captain Duloc had slammed my head into the doorframe.

Better than before the killer had stomped a mud-hole in my ass.

"I'm going to report to Lieutenant James I took care of Corporal Ant." Aine purred. Her voice was going further away.

Images of violence rocketed through my brain. The lizard gnashed his teeth and tore strips of metal out of the floor with the claws on his hind legs. The taste of bloody raw meat filled my mouth.

"Oh, and gentlemen?" She asked.

"What, bitch?" Tashton asked.

"Goodbye." Aine purred.

"Get out." Tashton had raised his voice and sounded angry, but Aine just laughed.

Aine chuckled, a low throat and wicked sound. I could hear her bare feet on the floor as she moved away. Her footsteps stopped and I heard her snap her fingers. "Oh! I almost forgot." I knew she was by the entryway to the main room, between the sets of lockers, without opening my eyes.

"Forgot what? Goddamn it, get out of here, you stupid little bitch." SFC Tashton half-yelled.

"Give me the gift of blood." She breathed. "Kill."

"What did she..." Chuck started to ask. I hadn't even realized she hadn't been exactly speaking English.

I opened my eyes, which were already adapted to the dimness of the room, reaching out with my left hand and grabbing 'Chuck' by the LBE. My hand came out from under with the knife, which went in smoothly as I plunged it into Chuck's stomach, pulling myself up with the motion. I pulled the knife out as Chuck dropped the pillow onto my head and stabbed again, twisting the blade hard.

The lizard hissed with pleasure.

Chuck fell back when I let go of his LBE and came to my feet, pulling out the knife and stabbing again. I shouldered him off the blade and turned to face SFC Tashton and the other guy.

Aine gave a whimper of pleasure. I could hear her panting.

Both of them were stepping back as Chuck hit the ground, holding onto his stomach and trying to stop the bleeding from where I'd stabbed him three times. I knew I was smiling as I stepped over Chuck.

"Corporal Ant, I am..." SFC Tashton started. Whatever he was going to saw vanished in a squawk of panic as I grabbed the front of his BDU top and yanked him into me.

And onto the blade.

His body went rigid as the long steel blade went smoothly into his skin, a slightly crackling feeling as it tore through the abdominal muscle wall and into his internal organs.

The smell of apple blossoms increased, and I could smell a wild, feral smell again that my brain translated into something else.

...Her pale petite body writhing on a bed of moss, the shafts of sunlight falling through the trees to turn her body into a glowing white as her hands stroked her own skin...

Not that I cared what movie was playing in my head, or the smells, or the sound of Aine whimpering. I was paying attention to Ted, who was staring at me with wide eyes and backpedalling toward the weapons that had been left on the desk.

SFC Tashton was hammering on my chest with his fists, but stopped when I stabbed him again, kneed him off of me and stepped forward. He folded forward around the stab wounds and went face first into the floor.

"Hey, pumpkin." I smiled at him. There was a sharp pain in my upper lip and I knew the scar had torn.

"Boy, you do not know who you're fucking with." Ted told me, but I didn't care. I could see he was sweating in the dim light as I took another slow deliberate step toward him. "I'm a fucking Navy SEAL, and I'll fuck your ass..."

"...Don't talk, do it..." My Father's voice warned me.

I closed the distance in two quick steps, coming in fast. A sweep of the arm knocked his hand away and I saw resignation in his eyes when our bodies crashed together. I tightened my grip as I powered into him.

I could see Aine's green eyes staring at me. Smell that unique smell that surrounded her. Almost taste her on my tongue.

Ted bent backwards over the desk as the cartilage in my fingers crackled. A knee to the balls made him gag and try to bend forward but I tightened my grip and kept bending him backwards over the desk as I kneed him again. He clawed at the arm of the hand that I was using to crush his trachea with, completely ignoring the knife.

Until I slammed it into his left shoulder and yanked it out in a spray of blood.

He screamed and I headbutted him while his mouth was open. Sparks went through my vision, but I was beyond caring. He choked, gagged, and I kneed him again before throwing him to the floor, standing there and panting from the exertion, shaking with the need to finish it.

Aine gave another whimper and the smell of apple blossoms got thicker.

"You don't know who you're fucking with." Ted choked from the ground. Chuck was trying to scream through a ruptured diaphram, not accomplishing much beyond a whistling noise. SFC Tashton was curled around his stomach, shivering, and making gagging noises. I walked over to Ted and looked down, flicking my knife to get some of the blood off of it and deliberately spattering him.

I just stared at him. His nose and mouth were bleeding freely, but I knew I'd missed the lung. His throat was already purpling up, fingerprints around his trachea and Adam's apple. He was holding onto the stab wound in his shoulder.

"Parstone's gonna kill you for this, you little punk." Ted said.

I knelt down next to him, looking him in the eyes for a long moment. He stared at me then shuddered. "You think you're going to get away with stabbing Navy SEALs?" He tried for a tough tone but it sounded more like whining to me.

"You're not SEALs, pumpkin." I told him, angling the blade and pushing it inside the front of his uniform. The buttons fell to the side as I brought the blade up, severing the thread.

"We're SEAL Team Three, motherfucker." Ted tried.

"No. You're not." I told him, digging my knife point into his brown shift and slowly bringing it up. The cloth parted with a whisper.

"We're SEAL Team Three, goddamn it." Ted's voice sounded a little more desperate as the knife came up and sliced the collar of his shirt.

"No. You're not." I repeated, then smiled at him. "I worked with Three this summer, and none of you are from Three."

"Oh shit." Ted breathed.

"Oh shit indeed." I told him, holding the knife up where he could see it.

Chuck coughed and I grabbed Ted by the front of his throat, digging my fingers into it, before looking at Chuck when he coughed again. Red sprayed onto the waxed tile, almost black in the light. Shit, I must have nicked the lungs. He'd be useless. I turned back to Ted, smiling, and held up the knife.

"You, me, and Ms. Pointy Thing are going to talk, Ted." I told him, still hyperventilating.

The smell of apple blossoms was almost cloying. The lizard yawned and curled up.

"You might not tell me, but you'll tell Ms. Pointy Thing." I told him, squeezing his throat for a moment, cutting off the blood supply to his head. I could feel his heart hammering through the thick blood pipes on either side of his throat.

I felt fingers touch the back of my neck, at the base of my skull, and fire swept through my body. I realized I'd stopped speaking and begun to growl low in my throat, my face twisting, and the knife was coming up.

"I want blood. Give me their blood." Aine purred from behind me. The heat at the base of my skull spread, wiping out thought. I turned and looked at her.

She was naked. Her dress, all she wore, was puddled in the opening of the room. She was beautifully, gloriously naked. Her body illuminated by the dim light of the nightlight and the room, making her into an otherworldly creature.

I looked back at Ted, Aine touched the base of my skull, and suddenly Ted wasn't human any more. Wasn't anything that mattered. All that mattered was what Aine was whispering in my ear. What she was telling me to do.

"Hamstring them. I'll gag them." Aine said, bending down to rub her fingers in the blood that was seeping through Ted's uniform at the shoulder. "I'll sacrifice them, use their blood to make you whole." She looked over her shoulder and smiled at me. "Then I'll allow you to have me, to take me, and flower my belly."

Rage burned in my chest, filling me, pushing back the warmth of Aine's touch.

Looking back at Ted Aine touched the blood again and put her finger in her mouth, closing her eyes. An almost orgasmic look came over her face and her eyes rolled back in her head. Her skin was glowing in the soft dim light of the room, the blood was almost black, and her reddish auburn hair was gleaming like fire.

My hands curled into fist, the knuckles popping as I clenched them tightly.

Aine didn't notice as she turned to Chuck and pressed her fingers into his stomach wound. He gave a breathless scream as she smiled with those too sharp teeth.

I growled.

She looked back at me and smiled as she raised her fingers up to her mouth and sucked at the blood on the tips. A thin strand of bloody saliva connected her fingertips to her mouth for a second when she withdrew them. I could hear boots thundering down the hallway, moving fast, coming closer.

"That's right, my boy, together we'll..." She started. The boots stopped at the door.

The door opened with a squeal. The lizard woke up with a jerk and a snarl.

I stepped forward and punched her in the middle of her upraised face.

Chapter 12

2/19th Special Weapons Group
Restricted Area, Alfenwehr West Germany
Late Winter- January, 1988
Day 11 of Repairs
Day 3 of the Second Incident

"Ant! Ant!" Nancy was already speaking when she came through the middle hallway and spotted us.

Just as I punched Aine in the face, throwing her onto her back. She sprawled out, looking at me in confusion, blood running from her nose and mouth. Her legs were open, her back arched slightly, but lust wasn't what was running through my veins.

Pure raw murder was.

"What the fuck is she doing in here?" Nancy asked, sliding to a stop.

I stepped forward, reaching down and grabbing Aine's long hair and yanking her up. "She's fucking leaving." I growled. Aine shrieked as I started dragging her, her bare skin squealing on the tile as she slid across the floor. When she looked up her eyes were full of fury, molten jade, and her face was ugly with anger. I held a clenched fist, covered in blood and with the knife held tightly in it, in front of her face.

"Give me an excuse and I'll tear you apart." I growled.

"Help me, Nagle, please." SFC Tashton whimpered from the floor.

"Shut up, baby raper." Nancy snarled, kicking his hand away and then stomping on it.

Aine was shrieking at me to let her go as I scooped up her dress, drug her to the door, opened it, and threw her bodily outside. She bounced off the door across from mine and threw her dress on top of her.

"Bad boy!" she shrieked at me, sitting up. "Bad boys get punished! Bad boys get..."

"I AM NOT YOUR BOY!" I roared at her, "YOU HAVE NO CLAIM!" I slammed the door hard enough concrete dust puffed out around the frame. I stomped back into the room to see Nagle crouching down. She looked up at me frowning.

"These two are almost gone, that one is already dead." Nagle told me. She stood up, dusting her hands off, and turning to look at me. "Goddamn it, Ant, did you at least question them?"

She looked at me for a moment when I moved up to them and looked down at the three men. Chuck was already dead, his eyes open and staring at the ceiling. His hands had been clutching his belly but were now limp at his sides. Tashton was crying, holding his stomach, and mumbling to himself. Ted was laying limp, blood spreading around his shoulder.

"Ant?" She asked, reaching for me as I knelt down next to Ted. I knocked her hand around and grabbed Ted up by his BDU top. "What the fuck?"

"Shut up." I snarled at her. I grabbed his left shoulder, digging my thumb into the stab wound and squeezing it as hard as I could.

Ted went from limp in my hands to screaming and trying to grab on me. I grabbed him by the throat and squeezed, the scream choking off as I squeezed hard and made his face turn purple.

"Get out." I told Nagle, digging my thumb into the stab wound. "Ted and I are going to have a talk." I felt something ugly surge up in me as I let go of Ted's throat and reached for my knife.

"Ant, those guys are gathering up everyone, I had to cut through the Lobotomy Ward to..."

"Ted, if you lie to me, Ms. Pointy Thing is going to join the conversation." I said, ignoring Nancy, who was still speaking.

"...they've already got Miranda and the LT, I had Bomber go and..."

"Nagle." I snapped, turning to look at her. My blood was pounding, my mouth tasted of iron, and I was breathing hard. She turned and looked at me for a long moment before her eyes grew wide.

"Goddamn that Aine." She said, and slapped me. My arm came up and blocked her arm at the wrist. She pulled back and slapped at me again, but we just repeated the same motions. "Ant!"

"What?" I yelled back, squeezing my hand tight. I heard something crackle and felt something give under my hand.

"Rear-D's in trouble." she said. "They've got your cousins, they've got Miranda, we don't have time for you to fuck around with this bullshit." She looked at the end of my arm. "Besides, he's fucked."

I looked back, seeing Ted clawing at my forearm, trying to rip at the skin under my BDU sleeve, his face purple and bloody froth coming from his mouth and running down his chin and the sides of his face. His throat was deformed in my fist, my fingers dug deeply into his skin, my thumb into his skin past the first knuckle. His eyes were bulging out and becoming bloodshot. I could feel his pulse hammering under my fingers and thumb.

"Come on, Ant, I need you." Nancy told me, standing up and grabbing my uniform to pull on me. Tashton grabbed at her and she kicked him the face. "Let go, baby raper."

I looked at Ted, still feeling the lizard snarl with the need to rip and tear, still hearing the echo of Aine's instructions to kill them, to brutalize them, to let her bathe in their blood.

"Finish off the baby raper so we can go help Bomber." Nancy told me, kicking Tashton again. When I let go of Ted she let go of me and stepped back. "Goddamn it, Aine's fucked your head up again."

SFC Tashton was on his right side, his hands on his face. I put my hand on his side, feeling his ribs. He tried to push my hand away and I ignored him. I angled the blade in and pushed it deep into him, feeling a heartbeat that suddenly stopped when the blackened steel was 2/3rds of the way in. I still gave it a twist once it was sunk all the way in.

"Bomber and I got separated when some of those assholes came into the middle stairwell. I cut up through the Lobotomy Ward," She explained that she had to go up to the third floor and cut through the lower NCO section. I waited for a few moments before pulling the knife out, giving time for the pressure that the last heartbeat had put on the blood around the knife. I slid it out, wiped it on his sleeve, and stood up.

"The only way he could go was down, past the CQ Area, and if they went down to the Ready Room he's got nowhere to go." Nancy said as I turned and looked at her. She stared into my eyes for moment. "What?"

I reached out at her, grabbing the front of her BDU's and going to yank her forward.

...Smash, rip, tear, shred, breed, crush, kill, meat, yum...

"No." Nancy said, putting her hand on my chest. "Ant, Bomber needs us." She told me. I growled at her. "No. Not now. Bomber needs us." She grabbed me by the upper arms and shook me. "Rear-D needs us, Miranda needs us. Now."

The lizard backed off, letting his claws off the red button, and the rage faded slightly. The warmth that Aine's touch had left in me was gone. The smell of apple blossoms was gone, there was just the hot and delicious taste in my mouth.

"Change into your civvies, these are covered with blood." Nancy told me. I nodded and moved over to the locker, standing there and staring at the locked door to my civvie locker dumbly. Nancy moved up next to me and glared for a moment. "Oh, goddammit, did she totally shut your brain down?" She spun my lock, opening it, and turned to me. "Jesus Christ, strip."

I nodded, stripping down while she picked out some clothing. Long johns, a heavy t-shirt, a lined flannel, heavy jeans, and winter insulated socks. When she turned around she glanced down, shook her head, and flapped the T-shirt at me. "Has that gone down since we pulled you from Aine's room?" I shook my head and she cursed when she snapped my shirt at me again.

I dressed silently, the T-shirt thicker than a summer one and just dark blue without anything on it. The fire still filled me, a trembling need to hurt something. My cheek hurt, I could hear the voices of my mother, my aunts, the matrons, their voices running over one another and blending in my brain. Telling me I was a failure, I was a terrible person, but one word kept repeating over and over...


They'd treated me like an animal, branded me like one, denied me the basic things that others took for granted without even realizing it, all in the name of power and control.

The lizard bared his fangs.

Nancy was standing up as I pulled on my Levi jacket over the insulated and lined flannel shirt she'd helped me dress in. She pulled my Kevlar vest out of my locker and handed it to me. "Come on, hurry up, Ant, they need us." She turned and grabbed one of the M-16's on the desk, tossing it to me as she grabbed the other, checked the chamber, and moved the fire selector to semi.

She pulled the LBE's off of Ted and Chuck, tossing me one. "Put it on." She told me. I pulled it over my Kevlar vest, which was over my Levi jacket, and watched her move past me.

Red tinged my vision as I followed her out into the hallway, aware of the weight of my knife on my combat boot. I didn't own tennis shoes, not even for PT. I hadn't owned tennis shoes since I was 12. I ran Cross Country in High School in combat boots and did good enough to make Varsity my freshman year.

The M-16 was different than the one I had stored in the Arms Room. It had a forward assist, the bolt wasn't chrome coated, the buttstock was slightly longer, and it lacked the M-203 underneath. It felt weird in my hands. A quick check showed the chamber was empty so I racked a round into it, hit the forward assist with the thumb pad of my palm, and held it tight as I followed her.

"We'll go up, cut through the Lobotomy Ward, head down." she told me. I just followed her to the middle stairwell. She paused just inside and we listened for a moment. There was the moaning of wind from below us and a faint screaming noise from above us. We headed upwards, to the next floor, and Nancy checked outside quickly. "Hallway's clear, but the temp is dropping fast and the lights are starting fail." She cursed for a moment. "These stupid lights are supposed to be rated for extreme cold weather and they're already failing. Let's go."

I followed her down the hallway, my mind running what I'd done in my room over and over. Stabbing the two fake SEALs, taking down Tashton.

Punching Aine in the face.

The feeling of the shock running up my arm, my damaged shoulder flaring with pain, kept replaying.

It felt good.

Nancy stopped us at the door, turning to look at me for a long moment. "Are you with me, Ant?" I nodded. "I'm serious, do you have your shit together?" I nodded again. "Goddamn it, Ant, you need to be sharp, this might be ugly."

I just nodded again, she swore under her breath at Aine, and we kept moving down the hallway. My mind kept replaying everything. Over and over. My brain added what happened out at Atlas, both incidents, the taste, smell, and feel of the entire thing. I could taste the cordite, smell it, remember the feel of the weapon in my hand, remember working with my Leatherman in the tall grass trying to clear a jam that had bent the brass cartridge in the chamber.

The lizard purred and showed its fangs.

There was a scream down the stairs when the door opened. Snowflakes were drifting down from the floor below, a steady breeze went from above and down the stairs past us, making the snow dance in the dim lights of stairwell. I could see the black of the windows and knew that the sun had set. I could vaguely remember that the clock had read twenty-hundred hours.

That meant it was dark and cold now.

When we moved down I glanced up between the stairwells and could see that the window on the fourth floor was broken, snow blowing in to dance in the stairwell. We moved down the steps, watching for ice.

"At least six entered the stairwell and went down. I heard the CQ Area door open from where I was up on the third floor, I know that Bomber went straight down, trying to get ahead of them. That means there's between one and five of them that following." Nancy said, pausing on the landing between the bottom of the steps and the first floor. "You ready?"

I just nodded again, tightening my grip on the pistol grip of the M-16. She looked at me and shook her head. "What the fuck is with that goddamn smile?" I just stared at her and she shook her head again. "Whatever. Just remember. Don't shoot me or Bomber or anyone else on Rear-D. Got it?" I nodded and she made a disgusted noise. She thought for a second. "You go first, go left at the Ready Room, I'll sweep the Orderly Room."

She pulled open the door. "Go."

I went.

The snow had blown into the hallway, leaving at least an inch in a fan shape from the window, the rest of the hallway coated in snow. The flakes were thick and large, and the wind screamed for a second as I took two steps forward and went right into the Ready Room, moving into the darkness to the right of the entryway.

The room was large. Big enough for most of Group to fit in the room if we had to, easily holding a platoon. On the left wall was the Arms Room, NBC Room, and Secure Items Storage. On the far wall was the Ready Stocks, which were new bolts and parts for the weapons and NBC gear that we could use to make sure our weapons were working well. On the right was the double doors to the Supply Room, which led to the loading dock on the far side and to the secondary War Stocks Room. The room was barely lit, only two of the lights on and those two just giving a sullen glow.

The double doors were open, which they shouldn't have been. The area around the lock of the Supply Room was broken out on the door, and I knew that Bomber had probably opened the door with a solid kick. Snow had blown in from the Supply Room, the wind blowing it past me. The whole Ready Room was filled with dancing snow, and was dark and cold.

I moved into the Supply Room, listening closely, and looked around. The lights were out, when I hit them I got nothing. I could see dim flashing red light from the far side of the Supply Room.

There was someone in BDU's laying on a tipped over desk. I moved over to check them, lifting up the head. I prayed it wasn't Bomber. One of the Colonel's men. Blood down his face and the jaw obviously broken. Nancy had clipped a knife to my side, and I slung my weapon while I drew it. I cut the guy's throat, just to be sure, and nodded to myself in approval when blood just oozed out of the wound. I wiped the blade of and resheathed it.

The far wall was easy to reach when I'd skirted two desks. One tipped over and everything that PVT Smith had on her desk scattered on the floor in the dark. At the far wall I found the door was pushed into the room, the lock shattered, and a bootprint next to the locking mechanism. Snow was blowing in, and I couldn't tell if there were any footprints out there. The sirens had cut out, even though the red lights had all kicked on. That meant that the wind was over 30MPH, the temp had dropped dramatically, and the doors had failed.

I felt it an instant before the hands would have touched me. The lizard hissed and slapped the GO button. I whipped around, slapping the reaching hand aside, and moved inside the reach. A hand smacked the M-16 to the side and I let go of it, grabbing at the other person and pulling them close.

I went to headbutt and collided with the other person's forehead as they went to do the same thing. A fist hit me in the ribs as I slammed my left fist into theirs. Both of us broke the grip and fell back.

"Motherfucker." Both of us said it at the same time?

"Ant?" Bomber's voice.

"Bomber?" I asked.

Bomber laughed in the darkness. "Yeah, man. Shit, I thought you were the guy who went out the door after me." The red haze fell away, and my brain kicked in. I could think, instead of just react. I shook my head, trying to clear away the cobwebs and the residual effects of Aine's touch.

"How many were in here?" I asked, squinting in the dark. My glasses had come off.

"Three." I felt him come closer. "Here." His hand bumped me in the chest and I took the handoff. My glasses. He kept talking. "I took out two of them hand to hand, but the other took off and I don't know if he went to get help."

"If he went out there without cold weather gear, he's fucking dead." I said, flipping up the plastic cover on the switch. "I'm gonna close the blast doors."

"Yeah. Both of the idiots hosed off their mags, and I haven't had a chance to get their ammo." Bomber told me as he moved away. The klaxon cut on, and I knew that the panel in the CO's office would show that the blast doors in the Supply Room were being shut. The klaxon at the second door cut in as my door began to slide shut. Three inches of solid steel, wedge front edges, sunk into the floor and ceiling, designed to take a nuclear blast long enough to absorb some of the force before it exploded into the supply room.

Cold War Bullshit designed to supposedly enable us to survive the opening salvos.

The klaxons cut off when the doors met each other with a deep thud. The wind was cut off and it felt suddenly warm in the room. A false warmth, but it beat the wind cutting at me. Two of the emergency lights in the supply room cut on, and I covered my eyes and turned away from the bright seeming lights.

I could hear another klaxon cut on, which told me that Nancy had dropped the blast shields on the windows in the Orderly Room, or maybe the CO room.

"Help me strip the LBE off this asshole." Bomber said. I looked over, he was bent over a guy that was lying next to the locker that held field dressings and other smaller supplies that were field expedient and that we went through like water. When I walked up and looked down I noticed that the guy was bent backwards too far.

Bomber stripped off the LBE and put it on while I patted the guy down, finding a wallet in his back pocket. I shoved it in my pocket.

"Psst. Atlas." Nancy's voice.

"Over here." I called out softly, waving my hand. I could hear Nancy's boots coming up as I stood up and looked at the lock on the wall-locker. It had a padlock on it, but a brass one, not a steel one. "Anyone know where Schmidt keeps the keys?" Neither did. "Dammit. Stand back." I popped out the magazine and racked the round out of the weapon. Bomber handed it back and I took it from him, snapping it into the magazine and dropping the magazine in my pocket. Two sharp hits with the butt of the M-16 popped the lock off and I locked the magazine in my weapon before unlocking the locker.

Batteries were on the third shelf, the packages wrapped in tinfoil and paper, and when I shook the D-sized batteries out they were wrapped two. Nancy had grabbed flashlights and handed them to me. While I loaded the flashlights she drug the guy with the cut throat over to where we were.

"Here." I handed the flashlights to them. She was stripping the LBE off of the dead guy and fixing where the pouches went. They were set up more Hollywood or old web-gear than actual LBE, and it made a difference. Bomber was checking the load.

"Asshole only has four spares." Bomber bitched, shrugging into the LBE. I closed the wall locker after grabbing out three compasses and handing two of them over.

"Lemme check something." I knelt down next to the one with the cut throat and patted him down.

Cigarettes. A lighter that worked. A working Zippo in his shirt pocket, which meant his brown T-Shirt was a fake, not military issue. A wallet in his back pocket. An ID folder under the insole of his boot, matching the one I found on the other guy when I checked. Dogtags that didn't match up to ours. They were close, but they felt 'off' to me. One had a folding knife, the other had a knife in his boot in a leather sheathe. It was a cheap one, looked tough, but useless for anything but show.

I flipped open the wallets, and began spreading them out. Bomber and Nancy kept playing their flashlights over the contents.

Military ID cards. Driver's Licenses. Photos of women and children. Nancy snorted, picking up one photo.

"This woman's in like half the picture frames at the PX." She said. "Either this guy married a model or he's trying to pass off these pictures as his family." She flipped it over. "Five bucks says her name isn't Tammy."

They both had just under a hundred dollars, in small bills. Bomber waved at the money. "Show me a single soldier that has a hundred bucks this long after payday."

I flipped open the hidden billfold and dropped it down. The second one matched the first.

"Well, they aren't military." Nancy said.

"And now we know." Bomber sighed. "Son of a bitch."

"Yeah. Now we know." I answered. I took a deep breath and scrubbed my cheeks with my hands. They smelled of blood. "Gimme a second to process."

I leaned back, shining the flashlight on the ID's that had been hidden.

"OK, so how does this change what we know?" Nancy asked.

We were silent for a second. The Supply Room was dead silent.

"We've killed four of them as well as Sergeant Tashton." I started.

"Who killed Tashton?" Bomber asked, looking eager. "Plese, please tell me a five year old girl shanked him."

Nancy laughed and shook her head. "Nope, Ant here shanked him."

"Good. Fucker was eyeballing Harkenson's daughter at the Halloween party and tried to get me to let him play Frankenstien in the haunted house." Bomber said. "You just know that sick fuck was going to molest her."

I pulled apart the ID billfolds as he kept speaking. "I hated that motherfucker so much, but hopefully he's burning in Hell."

"Ant gutted him." Nancy told him.

Aside from the ID's were two credit cards, a driver's license that matched the ID card, and a magnetic keycard.

"Think it's real?" Nancy asked.

"Yeah." I answered.

"So, how does this change everything?" Nancy asked, reaching out and stirring the ID's with one finger.

"That's four of them. That's a third. This means the Colonel is the Case Officer, and that's how they got to Tashton and Major Mallory." I said. "That means if we do this, it's gonna get ugly."

Bomber picked up on of the ID's and glared at it. "Doesn't matter, we've got our duty. We're supposed to protect all of the data or destroy it in place. We're nt the rogues here, they are."

I looked at Nancy. "You said they're rounding up Rear-D, and already have the LT and Stokes prisoner. Can you amplify a bit?"

Nancy closed her eyes. "All right. They were dividing everyone up. Stokes and the LT and PFC King were over by the trophy case. Some of the enlisted were over by the doors, the upper enlisted and some of the NCO's were over by the CQ desk. They've been divided up, and Lanks and Meeks are with two of the SEALs getting everyone out of the rooms."

"We'll hit them first." I said. "We'll check through the window and see if the CQ is OK. If they are, we'll go after the two with Lanks and Meeks, arm those two, and take out the rest of them."

I looked at both of them before speaking, the pause to stress the importance. "We need either that asshole with the Captain's bars, or the Colonel alive." I smiled. "I have some questions for them."

"Ant." Nancy said, reaching out and taking my hand. "Are you OK?"

"Why wouldn't he be?" Bomber asked.

"Aine fucked with him again."

"I'm fine."

Nancy squeezed my hand. "All right. We need you back. We need you high speed."

I smiled and squeezed back. "All right, we've dropped the blast shields. If we hit the CO or First Sergeant's office we can drop all the blast doors, which will seal us up in here with them." I looked at them both. "If we do this, there's no way we can go back."

"That means it's bloodbath time?" Bomber grinned.


Nancy held up her fingers. "If we lock it down, what about the War Fighter tunnels?"

I thought for a second. "We pull back to the War Fighter tunnels all bets are off."

"Can we open them?" Bomber asked.

I nodded. "Yeah."

"How do you know?" Nancy asked.

"The system hasn't been redone yet, the old codes will still work." I told them. "If we hit the War Fighter tunnels it'll lock down all the buildings until we get the control stations in the tunnels up to speed and unlock them from there."

Nancy nodded. "All right, we'll keep that if it all goes to hell. There's a med-bay in there if shit goes downhill."

"Can you use it?" I asked. Nancy nodded. "All right, so if everything goes to hell we pull back to the War Fighter tunnels and take the fight to them."

"Are we going to try to defuse this shit?" Bomber asked, patting the rifle in his lap.

"Fuck that. We go in full bore, extreme prejudice and all that shit." Nancy said.

"If we do this, we run the real chance of getting thrown under the bus when all this falls apart." I warned.

Bomber shook his head. "Doesn't matter. Group General Orders is that secure data can not be allowed to fall into unsecure hands. Shit, those vaults is why CQ is fucking armed. We're supposed to use lethal force to protect that shit."

Nancy rubbed the scar on the side of her face. "So we agree, these guys are after the secure data." We both nodded. "Then our duty is clear."

"It's clear." Bomber agreed.

"Enough words, let's go kill these assholes."

Two gunshots echoed down the stairs and into the Ready Room, echoing in the Supply Room. All three of us came to our feet, holding the weapons. I snapped the charging handle back and tapped the forward assist with the heel of my hand. The noise was loud in the red tinged darkness of the Supply Room.

"Check CQ, if that's under control, we go after the two." I reminded them.

We jogged out, checking right and left as we came out of the Ready Room and into the hallway. I pulled open the door to the stairwell and we went in ready to go. Nancy looking up the gap through all the floors. Bomber taking underneath the stairs as I went two steps up. All us had the weapons socked against our shoulders, looking through the sights.

"Clear." Both of them said softly but sharply.

We moved up the stairs, staying to the sides, Nancy pulling drag. Around the corner on the landing, then kept going up to the first floor landing. We could hear raised voices coming from the CQ area. I knelt down, staring up the stairs. Bomber backed up and down two of the steps and aimed his weapon at the doorway the led to Titty Territory. Nancy moved up and looked through the little window in the heavy steel door that led to the CQ Area.

"...turn over all access to the barracks area or it happens again, Lieutenant." Someone was saying.

"I will not relinquish my codes, keys, or any other method of gaining access to secure items and areas under my command." LT James stated, his voice flat.

"Shit, we've gotta get in there." Nancy said. "I can see four of them, Major Mallory, but no Colonel."

"Who's down?" Bomber asked.

"Gunderson and Franklin. Headshots." Nancy said.

"Coming up. I need a look." I said. Nancy took my place and I looked through the window.

The LT was against the CQ desk, held by two men. I recognized both. Symens and Hollingsworth were being led into the center of the CQ Area by another one of the fake SEALs. Major Mallory was by the glass double doors holding an M-16, and slightly ahead and beyond that one was another fake SEAL covering the gathered up members of Rear-D with his rifle.

"Falling back. Bomber, take a look." I said, thinking hard.

The lizard threw up the blueprints of the CQ Area, marking down where everyone was, their fields of fire, where the people of Rear-D I could see were located, and the two dead men.

"Goddamn it, they're gonna kill Syms and Holly." Bomber said.

"All right, I go in first. I'll take Major..." I started.

"You go in there shooting that fucking rifle, you'll kill everyone but the SEALs." Nancy said.

"OK, Bomber, you go in first, take the Major and the guy with him. Nancy, you come in next, cover our left flank. I'll take the guy in the middle and move on the guy on the LT's left our right. Nancy, if the flank is clear, take the guy on our left holding onto the LT." I said. They nodded as I moved over to the door to Titty Territory. "The glass to Titty Territory is painted over, they won't see us. Nancy and I will go in through there. Bomber, you go in from here. Anyone you can take alive, take them, otherwise extreme prejudice."

"Roger that." Bomber said, moving up to the door as Nancy opened the door to Titty Territory and dropped the chock to keep the door open. I slung my rifle and drew my knife from my boot.

It felt comfortable and the lizard hissed in approval. He was more comfortable with claw and fang, spear and sword. Firearms were recent to him. A knife, now that was comfortable.

"He's making Syms and Holly kneel." Bomber said urgently.

"Now! Go!" Nancy snapped, leaning back and kicking the door open. I went straight in, knowing she had my back.

Everything dropped into slow motion as I went through the door. Targeting changed as I realized what we couldn't see from inside the stairwell.

They'd put a Claymore in front of the door to the Game Room and another in front of the group of soldier's gathered up in front of the trophy case. The guy on my left of the LT had the clacker in his hand.

Taking him alive was no longer and option.

Before the guy aiming his weapon at the kneeling soldiers in front of him could even start to turn I jammed the knife into his left side, into the rib cage, angled up. I let go of the knife as I kicked his feet out from under him. He'd gone stiff as the blade slid in and just dropped as I did a modified Ranger takedown on him.

The knife at my side slid into my hand as I continued the motion from the stab and release, the blade was pointed down in my fist as I kept coming. The guy who was holding the Claymore clacker was opening his mouth, whether to scream, deny that I was coming at him, or try to get me to stop, I didn't know or care.

There were options, I guess, but the lizard pointed out one that worked as I heard a gunshot go off from behind me and to my right. In my peripheral vision I saw the fake SEAL at the airlock doors go down, chunks of brain and blood spattering the two inch thick glass as Bomber's shot went through his face. The bullet starred the glass, but didn't shatter it.

I deliberately stepped on the wire to the clacker, saw it come loose from the clacker, but I was mainly focused on what I was doing.

My left hand slapped on the guy's forehead, pushing his head back. He knew what was coming, but couldn't do anything about it as I brought the upraised knife down and into the hollow of his throat, went to pull it out and found it was hung up, and let it go.

Bomber shot Major Mallory once in the stomach and moved up close as the Major screamed and grabbed his stomach.

The LT hadn't stayed still, grabbing the barrel of the rifle shoved against his side with his left hand and pushing it behind him as he twisted and brought the heel of his hand up to hit the fake SEAL's chin, sending the man staggering back.

Nancy fired twice into the chest of the guy I'd kicked the feet out from under, rotated smoothly, shot the guy Bomber had headshot twice in the chest, and shot the guy staggering back from the LT twice in the chest. All six shots happening so fast that it was one long rolling thunderous gunshot.

The one Nancy had shot in the chest had managed to grab the counter and hadn't gone down, even though he'd dropped his weapon. His eyes were wide and he was shaking his head as the knife behind my back came out. I moved past the LT, grabbed the front of the guy's uniform, and pulled him up and into the knife.

Three stabs, the blade got caught on his ribs and I threw him to the side, turning and facing the room. I was breathing heavy, panting, and staring at the room.

The one I'd stabbed in the throat had sunk to his knees, holding his throat. The one on his back was still, blood spreading out from under him. The headshot one was sitting in front of the glass, one foot twitching even though the lines were down. The Major was staring in shock, putting his hands behind his head at Bomber's barked command.

I moved forward, putting one hand on the shoulder of the guy on his knees, grabbing my knife with the other. His eyes rolled up as he stared at me, his mouth opening and closing. I grabbed the knife, twisted it till it loosened, and pulled it free. Blood gushed out, running down his chest and spraying me. I just threw him to the side before turning around with the knife in my hand.

People were talking, shouting, yelling, but I didn't care, moving in on the Majory, who was staring at the muzzle of Bomber's M-16. I stepped between Bomber and the Major, putting one hand on his forehead and pushing his head against the thick glass.

"Surprised to see me, pumpkin?" I asked, holding up my knife.

"Ant, no." Nancy said, grabbing my arm. I shook her off.

"Things are about to get ugly, Major." I warned him, setting the edge of the blade against his cheek, the point touching his lower eyelid.

"Corporal Ant, stand down!" LT James snapped.

Growling I moved back and to the side, staring at the Major.

"What's going on?" SGT Butcher said. "Who the hell are those guys?"

"What the fuck took you so long, Specialist Bomber?" Corporal Lancer asked.

"Who the fuck gave you permission to come in shooting, Specialist Nagle?" Sergeant White asked. "You could have gotten us all..."

I turned around, growling, and moved toward him. He saw me coming, knife in my hand, and backed up.

"Corporal Ant, you better not..." He started as I tensed.

"Corporal Ant, stand down. Sheath your weapon." The LT snapped. I jerked to attention, wiping off the knife blade and slamming it into my hip sheath. I turned to face him and he was staring at me, standing at parade rest and smiling slightly.

"Retrieve your weapons, Corporal." He told me. I nodded.

The voices of my aunt, my mother, Aine, the Matrons, all were howling in my head, telling me if I'd moved faster two of Rear-D wouldn't be dead, that I'd failed them, but one word kept being repeated in their chorus.


The one I'd stabbed in the chest required me to wrench at the blade and twist it before it would come loose. I rolled over the first one I'd taken and he was relaxed in death so the blade slid out easily.

The LT was behind me, calming those of Rear-D who were gathered up. He was telling them that he'd instructed Bomber, Nagle and I to ensure that if anyone moved against Rear-D or there was an emergency we'd be acting as QRF.

That calmed a lot of people. Still, Butcher and White seemed pissed off that we'd come in shooting. Claiming that they might have gotten killed in the crossfire, that the LT hadn't listed us as the QRF, and and that we'd committed fratricide.

When I stood up the LT motioned for me to move over to where Nagle and Bomber were standing beside him, holding onto the Major's arms and keeping his hands behind his back and forcing him to lean forward slightly.

"Privates Shouford, Temmerson, Vaundoc and Bartleson, move the bodies into the Game Room. Everyone below the rank of Corporal move to the Rec-Room. The rest of you, gather around. Corporal Ant, Specialists Bomber and Nagle, stand fast." The LT said.

The others weren't happy about it, but I didn't give a shit. It wasn't my problem. We had a solid chain of command, had only lost two people so far, and the enemy was down to a third of their forces.

"Nagle and Bomber, secure the prisoner to one of the chairs behind the CQ desk. There's zip-ties in the middle drawer under the phones." The LT said. Bomber and Nancy moved to follow his instructions when he turned to me.

"Corporal Ant, there's three more men not including their leader." The LT started with. I nodded. "That means four unfriendlies in this barracks. They have Specialist Lanks and Private Meeks in their possession." I kept nodding. "Do you have a plan of operation?"

I thought for a second. "Bomber, Nagle, and I were going to do a sweep of the barracks, take those out first, then move in on the CQ Area. We were going to start at the first floor, make our way up, then come back down." I looked at the bloodsmears on the tile floor. "Things changed when we saw what they were doing in here."

"I'm grateful for that." The LT nodded. He looked at the gathered NCO's and moved in close. "Pick more members for the QRF team, sweep and clear the barracks, eliminate any opposition with extreme prejudice."

I nodded again, turning away when he snapped out "Carry out your orders, Corporal." Stokes was standing in the open doorway to the Rec-Room, with PFC King beside her.

King was a big dude, over six foot, with a combat jump tab from Grenada on his uniform, black hair in a high and tight, and large scarred fists. He'd almost beaten a guy to death in his last unit over a woman so they'd busted him from E-5 to E-3 and sent him here. He'd been busted twice for fighting. He was an experienced rigger, combat engineer who'd pushed that back to his secondary MOS to take NBC Warfare, and was pretty solid according to his squad leader.

"King, get Levins, Needlemeyer, and Johnson. Stokes, get a head count." I said. I pulled the M-16 over my head and tossed it at King, who caught it. "You take that." I turned around to see Nagle and Bomber coming back from around the CQ desk, Major Mallory tied up in the chair with wadded up paper jammed in his mouth.

"Sir, I must protest. Giving Corporal Ant the keys to the armory strikes me as a bad idea." SGT White was saying.

"And just how do you expect him to arm the QRF and take back the barracks, Sergeant? Should he just instruct the unarmed members of the QRF and the rest of Rear Detachment to use harsh language and shame to subdue the men who are out to capture and execute the member of Rear Detachment?" The LT asked, his voice mild. "Perhaps I should instruct him to break apart the furniture to use as clubs?" He shook his head as I moved over next to him, standing next to Bomber and Nancy. "No, Sergeant, I've reviewed their records and Corporal Ant's squad has repelled multiple incursions against their site, suffering only one killed in action."

"Pfft, the Ranger's handled that." SGT White said.

The LT shook his head. "No, Sergeant, as a matter of fact, Ranger Team Saber Niner was replaced due to lack of performance after twice refusing to mobilize." The LT corrected. He turned to look at me, I just stared back. After a moment he handed me his keyring. "When your Quick Reaction Force has gathered up I want you to go downstairs. Use my keys to open the armory. Retrieve your team's weapons so that you are using weapons that are zeroed correctly. Load up with a full basic load or whatever you deem necessary for QRF to accomplish its job. Take your team and clear the barracks." He told me, holding out his keyring.

I nodded, taking the keys then tossing them to Bomber. Stokes moved up next to me. "Everyone's accounted for except for the three missing from earlier, Lanks, Meeks, and Aine."

King walked up behind Stokes, smiling grimly.

"Sir, I don't..." Sergeant Butcher was saying.

"Sergeant Butcher." The LT snapped. Sergeant Butcher snapped to attention. "Is your problem with Corporal Ant or my decisions?"

Sergeant Butcher looked trapped. I knew he didn't like me, and frankly, since he was in a different platoon I couldn't give a shit less about his opinion. There wasn't really any reason for our dislike of one another, we just didn't like each other.

Or that's what I thought.

"Corporal Ant is disrespectful, violent, frequently insubordinate, and runs his site like his own little kingdom." Sergeant Butcher said, glaring at me. "He's too young, too inexperienced, and too frankly I have serious doubts about his leadership ability." He pointed at my knife. "You know he was thrown in jail for assaulting a police officer."

I felt the rage coming back as my mother laughed at me in my head.

The LT nodded at each point. "Sergeant Butcher, are you aware of the circumstances of his assault upon a police officer?" SGT Butcher shook his head. "That police officer was caught by Corporal's Ant and Monkey sexually assaulting Corporal Ant's twin sister." Sergeant Butcher looked shocked. "To be perfectly honest, in his position, I would have been charged with murder. As to your other accusations, Corporal Ant runs the largest site that the Group controls, and do not believe for one minute that the officers in charge of the warfare platoons are not aware of the habit of the other NCO's of giving Corporal Ant and Corporal Monkey the discipline problems." The LT smiled faintly. "You make of point of his violent tendencies, but I believe that in this situation violence is exactly what is called for."

He gave me a faint smile. "Corporal Ant, if QRF is assembled, follow my instructions." He turned and gave the assembled NCO's making their complaints a level stare. "I will handle any dissension."

"Give the LT your weapons in case those assholes come back." I instructed. Bomber opened his mouth then shut it before handing the LT his weapon. The LT kept the one King handed him and put the other two on the CQ desk behind him.

"Nancy, King, you two are pulling drag. I'll pull point. Bomber, King, after me." I threw over my shoulder, heading for the stairwell door. "Knives out." I could hear Nancy's knife being drawn from its self-sharpening sheathe and the whisper of steel on leather from Bomber's.

My muscles were thrumming with anticipation when we moved into the stairs, but there wasn't anyone waiting for us. Moving down the stairs we headed into the Ready Room where we could access the Arms Room.

I moved up to the steel cage door, jingling the LT's keys. "I'll crack the Arms Room, then, King, I want you to pull everyone's NVG's and make sure they're loaded with new batteries and everyone has spares."

I slid the keys into the first of the three locks on the cage door and twisted the key.

"Ant! Freeze!" King barked. I froze. "The door's wired."

I glanced down, seeing greyish clay-like substance at the lock, not NATO standard. My brain dredged up exactly what it was and where it came from. PVV-5A Plastic Explosive, standard issue for the Soviet Union. The coloration and surface consistency was different than C-4. I glanced at the edges of the cage, seeing three more charges in my vision range. One at each hinge I could see, on at the upper lock. There were blasting caps and wire running from each of the charges and down out of my vision, the charges wired sequentially. My vision of the bottom hinge and the bottom lock were blocked by my arms. I couldn't see them without moving, and if I moved, if they were set for pressure or proximity, I was so much hamburger.

"Fuck." Bomber said.

The lizard hissed.

Chapter 13

2/19th Special Weapons Group
Restricted Area, Alfenwehr West Germany
Late Winter- January, 1988
Day 11 of Repairs
Day 3 of the Second Incident

"What do you see, Ant?" King asked me. I could hear everyone else moving back as he came up near me.

"I can see four charges total." I told him, "Middle and upper hinge, center and upper locks. Blasting caps, one per charge, looks like they're wired together in sequence, I don't see which charge is the primary ignition."

"Any sign of a pressure or prox detonator?" He asked. A flashlight beam hit the door by my head and moved over to the hinges.

"No. I don't see one." I told him.

"Hold still." He told me, moving up to me. "Don't shift, don't let go, don't turn the key, don't press on the cage."

"Roger that." I told him. I regulated my breathing. Nice and slow. Relaxed my muscles so I wouldn't cramp up or start shaking.

King kept up a running commentary. "Standard multi-charge breaching setup, straight out of the Soviet handbook. NATO wires different, these guys wired at the base charge, except for the bottom charge isn't completed. I don't see any pressure triggers, the charges aren't placed right for antipersonnel booby trap or area denial, they aren't heavy enough to blow in the inner door, and barely heavy enough to crack the cage door. Lower hinge and bottom door charge to lift the door don't have caps in them." He paused for a second. "Ant, I want you to open your hands and take one step back. Don't let go, just open your hands."

I opened my hands and took a step back, my hands cramping suddenly. I rubbed them together as King traced the wiring with the flashlight.

"No apparent detonators, the rigs isn't finished." King was still talking, standing up and shining the flashlight on the locks.

"We're in trouble." I told Bomber, waving him over to the door of the Secure Items Locker and looking at the door.

"Yeah." Bomber agreed. "I noticed."

"I think I know what's going down." I told him. I unlocked Secure Items storage and turned to the others. "Grab your NVG's out of there, leave your card on the hook, grab fresh batteries and at least two spares." I handed the keys off to Nancy as she moved past. "Nagle will open the locker. If your NVG's are deadlined grab a spare. They'll be any numbered over 250."

The others moved past me.

"I'll grab yours and Bombers, fill me in." Nancy said, moving past me.

We moved to the side, into the shadows. "This is looking nasty." Bomber said.

I nodded. "Fuck yeah." I told him, looking around. "We've got a lot more to take on than we thought."

"You think so?" Bomber asked. "What do you think we're facing?"

I reached behind my glasses to pinch the bridge of my nose. "It could be those assholes using Warsaw Pact doctrine to throw off investigation, which could be why they didn't finish the door."

He nodded, but looked doubtful. "I checked the Arms Room when I was stuck down here. Those charges weren't there." He chuckled. "I couldn't believe it, the weapons were right fucking there and I couldn't get to them. When I tried to get upstairs I heard voices the first time and boots the second time."

I frowned. "Who did you hear the first time?"

"That Colonel, talking to someone else." Bomber said. He frowned. "They had a southern accent." I nodded. "The boots were you and Nancy coming down the steps, which is when I almost murdered your ass."

That made me chuckle.

King came walking up to us, handing Bomber back the flashlight.

"Well?" I asked.

"Looks good, but they didn't finish." King said, rubbing his hands together and blowing on them. "Christ, it's cold down here."

"Can you recover it?" I asked. He grinned.

"Sure, no problem." He said. He dug in his pocket and pulled out a little box the size of a pack of dental floss and cracked it open. "I've only got two in here, so I got plenty of room for the ones in the plastique."

"Retrieve it, we need the weapons." I told him.

King moved away and Bomber waited till he was aways away.

"You thinking what I'm thinking?" He asked.

"Yeah. We're in a shitload of trouble." I answered.

"How bad do you think it is?" Bomber asked. Nancy came out with our NVG's, handing them to us with a batteries. I put the batteries in my jacket pocket and hung the NVG's around my neck.

"They're nervous, but they'll feel better when they get their weapons." Nancy said. "What's bad?"

"We're in trouble. Maybe more than we think." I told her. She nodded. "Relations between the Soviet Union and NATO must be near collapse. Which means we're in a shitload of trouble."

She frowned, the line appearing between her eyebrows. "Are you saying..." She started. I saw Levins come out of the Secure Items Locker and made a cutting motion with one hand.

"Bring me the keys." King said. Nancy held them out to Levins, but before she could ask me anything Needlemeyer came out with his NVG's, shrugging into a PRC-77 that had been mounted to a carrying frame.

"Johnson's getting another radio and making sure it works. The battery was dead in the first one." Needlemeyer said, looking at Nagle. "Am I leaving this one with the LT or are we taking it?"

"Taking that one. That's ours, I know it works." Nancy said. "Turn around." When he did she pulled the antenna off the rack and started screwing it in.

"Door's open." King called out.

"All right." I called out. "Grab your weapon and get out here. Cover everyone until we get armed up." I shrugged out of the LBE I'd grabbed.

"The racks are locked." King called out.


"I need the keys." Nancy said.

"Why?" I asked her, stopping just outside the Arms Room.

"Gonna open the door in the Supply Room so we can get through the War Stocks room there, cross the hallway, and get to the platoon level War Stocks." She grinned at me, looking me up and down. "We're not in our battle rattle and we don't have time for everyone to hit their rooms. The platoon War Stocks are already divided up per squad and element."

"Come get your weapon first, and take Needlemeyer with you." I told her. Johnson came out of the Secure Items Locker and Bomber stepped up to close it. Nancy nodded and followed me into the Arms Room. I flipped the lights, almost laughing at King's "I tried that" and laughing when the lights lit up.

"Fucking figures. The weapon racks are locked." King said. I stopped at Clance's desk and pulled open the bottom drawer. In an ammo can I found the keys, and next to the ammo can a bottle of Old Crow. I took a pull off the bottle and handed it to King.

"Hold that." I said, unlocking the fourth rifle rack. "Get everyones weapon card."

"Roger that." King said, unscrewing the bottle and taking a drink.

I pulled open the rack and grabbed 93, 95, and 98, handing Nancy hers and Bombers and slinging mine. King brought me the weapon's cards while I unlocked the pistol rack and grabbed my .45. I unlocked and handed each weapon to King, putting the card in each empty slot.

Once the weapons were handed out I opened one of the six metal lockers that were 2 sets of three stood back to back and were bolted to the floor. Inside the first one were metal ammo cans. I grabbed the ones on the top shelf with the letters QRF/CQ stenciled on them and pulled them open.

"Nancy, arm up, give Needlemeyer a mag, and head over." I told her. I turned to King. "Grab a pig." King raised an eyebrow but still grabbed the keys out of the air when I tossed them to him. "I'll send everyone over when they're geared, send Needlemeyer back with stuff for me."

"Roger that." She said. She shoved three magazines into the two ammunition pouches and grabbed an extra to shove in her back pocket before grabbing Needlemeyer one and leaving.

Clance and his two assistants were able to clear the entire Group through the Arms Room in less than an hour. That was for a Real World loadout, so I broke open another locker, didn't see what I want, stuff I did want but not right then, and opened the next one, my eyes lighting up when I saw what I was after.

The bandoleer had my weapon number on it, and pulling it out it was heavy across my chest. Twelve 40mm grenades in my preferred loadout. I grabbed Bombers, #95, and slammed the locker shut. I shut that locker and opened the second one. I knew that the other side was maintenance tools, spare parts, and auxilary equipment for a lot of the crew served weapons. Each platoon had three M2 .50 cals, which meant there was a LOT of tripods locked up, spare barrels for both the M-60's and the Mah-Deuces, and parts for all the M-16's.

I grabbed some Claymore bags out of the locker, and pulled out a box of 7.62mm NATO rounds. Ball and tracer. "King, two belts, do a Sergeant Rock with them, lock in at least a hundred rounds into the pig. Levins is gonna act as your assistant. Levins! Post!" I slid the box over to King as Levins came up. "Levins, grab magazines, lock one in your weapon, pull a Sergeant Rock with ammo, and here." I handed him the assistant gunner's bag.

I pulled down loaded .45 magazines and started shoving them into my pockets.

"Ant, here." I turned around and found King handing me another .45. I raised an eyebrow and he chuckled. "Yeah, you suck with your M-16, I'd rather you were packing two pistols." I put it in my back pocket, barrel first, and he shook his head. "Gimme the keys, I'm gonna see if I can find two holsters."

I handed him the keys and turned to watch everyone gear up.

CQ's weapons were missing, and I was willing to bet the first order of business had been securing them somewhere.

Which mean the 'Colonel' and his men had a cache somewhere.

"Ready." King said, coming around the corner. The M-60 was held up and back so the barrel was on his shoulder, the bipod already deployed. His M-16 was on his back and he was grinning. "Goddamn, you think it's gonna come to this?"

I nodded. "Yeah. We're in serious trouble."

"Grenada bad or Atlas bad?" He asked. He'd been to Grenada, knew about Atlas.

"Worse, but not Vietnam bad." I told him.

He frowned. "Wait, this isn't for four motherfuckers, is it?"

"No." I told him. "Go get your War Stock."

He nodded, grabbing Needlemeyer, and headed out.

Nancy came in right after, carrying a bunch of gear in her arms. "I grabbed you a uniform." She told me.

"Thanks. I'd look pretty stupid in my civvies." I told her. She shot me a smile. I pulled off my clothes and changed, gratefully strapping on the Kevlar vest and LBE. I put my NVG's onto the helmet and flipped them up after I adjusted the helmet band.

"Bomber told me what he thinks, he tell you?" She asked.

I shook my head. "He didn't have to. I agree with him."

She pulled her sleeve across her forehead. "That's gonna be tough. If you're right, we're matched in numbers, but holy fuck."

I grinned at her, making a fist so my knuckles crunched loudly. "They're men, and like my Father said, if they're men, they can die."

She smiled wanly, but shook her head. "I know, but..."

"Yeah, I know." I dropped the bandoleer of 40mm on my shoulder and then shoved a couple of spare magazines into pockets and one 20 round magazine into the band of the helmet.

"Thank God we have to pack these." I told her, grabbing my ruck. "Either way."

"Yeah. You're sure we can do this?" She asked. I nodded. "All right, I'm trusting you."

"We should have questioned Mallory." I told her. She nodded. "He's going to bleed to death, Bomber put one in his stomach."

She shook her head. "He was wearing his vest. Unless the round penetrated or ruptured something he'll be fine." I looked doubtful and she grinned. "I think you should just go up there and slit his throat, which is why I didn't volunteer to take care of him. I'm not a fucking medic, I didn't make any promises to care for someone I don't wanna." Her laugh was harsh.

"Two coming back." Needlemeyer called out. I waved at the door, turning to load up extra magazines, and cracking another box. I slid it over to Nancy and pulled out another, cracking it and sliding that one over to her before I repeated it.

"We're using grenades?" Needlemeyer asked.

I snorted. "You aren't. Fire control, gentlemen, fire control." Nancy pulled out a can that looked like a premade muffin can, tore the paper off and then twisted, popping the can open. She shook the fragmentation grenade into her hand and tossed it to me.

"You, me, Bomber, King, and Stokes." I told her. "Two frag, one willy-pete, and a CS." She nodded, tossing me another. I put each of them on either side of my magazine carrier, making sure the button was snapped on the strap and the ring for the pin was turned in toward the magazine pouch. We'd all heard stories about guys who had the rings outward and had brush snag the ring out while running or fighting and had their grenade blow them in half.

Clance had a padded bag in the locker, a purse-like bag that was commonly called a 'fag bag' for some damn reason. I grabbed it and tossed it to Nancy. "Put the grenades in there. Needlemeyer can load up on spares." I turned and looked at him. "I swear to God, you throw one, I'll shove the barrel of my '203 up your ass." I cracked it open. "Speaking of which..." I grabbed one of the 40mm's off my bandoleer and slid it in, slapping the M-203 shut.

"What are you packing?" Nancy asked, cracking open the tubes and tossing the grenades in the bag.

"APERS." I answered, referring to the 40mm shotgun cartridge.

"Christ, Ant, why don't you just wade in with a fucking axe?" She mocked me, pulling an HE out of her bandoleer and sliding it in.

"Do I look like I'm doing fucking surgery, bitch?" I smiled.

"Well, at least you'll have the unique experience of hitting something with the M-16 in your hands." She smiled.

"Eat me, bitch." I told her. She made an O with her mouth and pushed her tongue against the side of her mouth a few times. I laughed and Needlemeyer stared.

"Coming in, Ant." Bomber called out. He jogged in, wearing his battle rattle. "Clance got tape in here?"

"I dunno, why?" I asked. Nancy started tossing him grenades. He put his frag grenades on his right.

"Everyone sounds like someone throwing change down the hall." He bitched. "We need to tape our shit down."

"Probably in the desk. Where's everyone else?" I pointed at a pack of rubberbands in the drawer that Bomber had pulled open. He tossed them to me.

"King's having them load up and then he's gonna sweep the Platoon War Stocks, the generator room, and then the Secure Records Vault." Bomber told me, holding up the quarter inch dark green tape. "Aha!" He started stripping off lengths a tape while I was using the rubber bands to secure my buckles.

"Gimme some." Nancy said, reaching up and grabbing one of the strips. Bomber grunted while I worked on mine, thinking.

We still hadn't gotten any information about what was going on. All we had was a handful of evidence and a lot of conjecture. I was working overtime trying to figure out not just who, but why.

...Get inside the enemy's head, think like he does, you can predict him and analyze his movements...

My Father's voice.

The Colonel had lost a lot of men. Not that I figured he gave a shit. Those bullshit SEALs were probably expendables, set up for the fall when this shit went down. Captain Duloc might know what was going on, but I didn't care one way or another.

I planned on slitting his throat anyway.

King came back in with the pig still thrown over his shoulder, a belt of ammo hanging out of it. You could see where Clance had modded it so that the feed tray didn't bind up easily. You just took the lid of a can of peaches or dog food and welded it to the tray.

Hey, if it's stupid and works, it isn't stupid.

"The rest of the lost lambs are on their way back." King told me. He shrugged. "Barracks feel weird. Don't know how to explain it."

Nancy looked at me, and then we both looked at Bomber, who shrugged. "Don't ask me." He said.

"All right, King, grab some tether and round 'em up. We're gonna sweep the barracks, see if we can find the Colonel, Meeks, Lanks, and Aine." I told him. He nodded, turned, and left, humming something to himself and bouncing the pig on his shoulder.

Nancy noticed we were alone and leaned forward slightly. "Where do you think they're hiding out?" She asked.

I thought for a moment, then a memory came back to me.

Scratches on the lock. Fairy dust frost on the chain. Clean swept pavement.


"The motor pool." I told her. "Goddamn it. That cuts us off from our vehicles, the secondary armory up there, and any chance of rescue. If they put a man in the guard towers they can watch the windows, see who's windows light up, see who exits the building."

Bomber shook his head. "No. Not now, not with the blizzard."

"So we kill the Colonel and his men and then we go handle…" Nancy started, but was interrupted by Johnson calling out that three were coming back. A few seconds later Levins, him, and Stokes came into the room. Stokes looked annoyed, rubbing her hands together and blowing on them. Her M-16 was body-slung and she was carrying a bundle of flares in her hand.

"King said to grab these. He said something about grabbing a spool of rope, said we might need it." She was limping, but it didn't look like it was slowing her down. "What are we hitting first?"

I thought for a moment, examining my mental map of the barracks. Without the War Fighter tunnels to worry about that cut down on a lot of it, but the goddamn barracks were so big that it made it a daunting proposition.

The best I could hope for was that we ran into them.

Everyone had gathered up and I stared at them for a long minute before speaking. Stokes was helping Needlemeyer secure the last of his LBE. Both Levins and King looked like something out of a movie, 7.62mm ammo belts criss-crossed across their chest like Pancho Villa or Sergeant Rock.

But it gave us about 500 rounds extra.

Bomber caught my attention, sliding a CS grenade into his M-203. I nodded to him as he locked the tube in place and then turned to my kludged together QRF.

"All right, here's the deal: We have four men of unknown abilities and allegiances in the barracks. We know they have Specialist Lanks and Private Meeks in their possession, Private Aine is missing, and to top it off we have reasonable intelligence that they may have a second force of combat trained personnel at their disposal." I told them. I grinned, feeling warmth fill me and a prickling on my skin like ants were scurrying on me. "We have permission to use lethal force, and with extreme prejudice. That means you shoot to kill, don't worry about wounding. We take them down hard and fast, don't fuck around." I looked at Bomber and King. "I'd like the Colonel alive, but feel free to grease his ass if he even looks like he's going for a weapon." Both men nodded. I looked at Nancy. "You got your aid bag?" She patted the heavy bag on a sling that had a medical caduceus on it as well as '1SFG" on it, meaning it was the one she'd stolen from First Special Forces about a week ago. I looked at King and Levins. "King, if I yell for it, put down as much fire as you can downrange. Levins, you give him cover fire when he's reloading." I looked at everyone. "Any questions?"

Bomber raised his hand and I looked at him. He grinned at me. "Who invented liquid soap and why?"

That got chuckles. "Your mom so she could clean off after a Fleet Week gangbang." I shot back. That made everyone laugh.

"OK, we're gonna move out. I'm on point, King and Levins up front, Needlemeyer, you pull drag. Bomber, stick close to Nancy, Stokes you're right behind her. Johnson, you're with Stokes." I waved at the door. "Let's get going."

"Sign and counter-sign?" King asked.

"Pepsi and crackers." I tossed back.

"Fall back sign?" King pushed.

"Red dog."


"Jesus, King, we're not invading fucking Iran." Needlemeyer said.

"Shut up." King snapped back.

"Fine. Go with Echo-Five Actual for all of us, we'll use Echo-Five Alpha for the LT and his group, and let's use Echo-Five Lima for the captured." I told him. I thought real quick. "Alpha One for the Colonel, Alpha Two for Captain Duloc, Alpha three and four for the other two douches, and Charlie-Six for the other group, if they exist."

"What other…" Johnson started.

"Shut up. Noise discipline." Nancy snapped.

They shut up. Nancy pulled the Arms Room door shut, then closed the cage and locked it. She tugged on the bars, smiled at me, and dropped into the formation as I headed out.

A glance left showed me that the window was still blowing snow into the hallway and the entire area was more or less dark, just feeble light from somewhere toward the Orderly Room providing any illumination.

"Needlemeyer, you remember the call-signs?" King asked.

"Wrote them down." He answered.

"You and… umm… Stokes take it up to the LT, give him the codes we're running under, come back." He said, looking at me. I nodded and he kept talking. "We're going to be clearing down here."

Johnson nodded, shifting the heavy radio on his back, and headed into the stairwell, Stokes limping behind him.

"King, you and Levins stay here. Johnson, you stick with them. Nancy, you and Bomber with me." I told them. "Let's sweep the Orderly Room."

When we moved into the hallway between the two Nancy looked at me. "We going Kurt Russel?"

I shook my head. "No. Wouldn't matter. I don't think they're using the barracks."

"I hate this shit." Bomber grumbled as he used my keyring to open the 1SG's office and then the XO's to check inside. I checked the Orderly Room, looking at the seals on the lockers, while Bomber and Nancy checked the CO's office, the bathrooms, and the utility closet.

Two of the file cabinet drawer's seals were broken. Unit copies of the 201 File and orderly copies of each soldier's training file. They were filed by the last four, so I looked for mine. Gone. Bomber's. Gone. Nagle's. Gone.

"Anything?" Bomber asked.

"No." Nagle said, closing the bathroom door. "Sinks are full of ice, same with the toilets."

"Rear-D's 201's and training files are missing." I threw in.

Bomber chuckled. "Oh no, they know you suck with a rifle." His face got serious. "That means they know more about us than I really would like."

"Come on." I led them back to where King was leaning against the open door, alternating between looking up the stairwell and looking down the small hallway. Johnson and Stokes were back, Stokes smoking a cigarette.

"All right, here's how we're going to do it." I told them. It took a bit of explaining, but made sure that the whole area was covered, including the stairwells.

It took about fifteen minutes before we were all gathering up at the base of the far stairwell, we were puting on our cold weather gear, the masks hanging down and our boots hanging from our rucksacks or whatever else we carried on our backs. We all heard the doors to Titty Territory open into Queer Country and the sound of boots heading toward us. One pair, small, moving fast. We covered the stairwell up, the door to outside, and down the hallway, waiting until whoever it was paused a little ways away.

"One coming in, Corporal Ant." The person said.

Fucking Aine. Great.

"Come forward. You got any Pepsi? We're dying of thirst." I tossed out the sign, even through I knew Aine's voice.

"Nope, sorry, drank mine with my MRE crackers." She said softly as she moved up. Johnson turned on his flashlight and shined it on her.

She was wearing her parka, had on her Mickey Mouse boots and trigger mittens, and had an XM-16E1 like mine in her hands. Her mask and goggles were hanging under her chin.

"What the fuck are you doing here, Private?" I asked as she moved up, pulling a D-ring out of her parka pocket.

"The LT sent me, told me to tell you that Lanks and Meeks are back. Said he's going to send them with you." She giggled.

"Where the fuck have you been?" I asked.

"I was locked in that little office behind the CQ Area." She looked sad, and I wanted to punch her in the face again for lying.

"What about Lanks and Meeks?" I asked. Behind me I heard King struggling into the belts of 7.62.

"The Colonel locked them in the mailroom at the bottom of the middle stairwell." She smiled. "Lanks managed to work the tape loose they'd been tied with, and they just got back. They're gearing up to go with us."

Goddamn it. Mailrooms were about the only things we didn't have keys for.

"Fine. Fall in between Nagle and Stokes, make sure your tether is clear, and stay focused." I looked at the rifle.

"Qualified expert." She smiled. "I remember my zero from Basic. Eight up, Five right."

I growled and turned away as more bootsteps came up.

"Psst. Echo Five Actual, two coming in." Lanks.

"Did you at least bring Pepsi?" I snapped, irritated that Aine was coming along.

"Why the fuck would I be bringing you soda, mother… oof." Meeks said. It sounded like Lanks elbowed him.

"No, but I still got some animal crackers in my pocket if you're hungry." Lanks said.

"Come on in." Johnson flashed his flashlight, and the white light reminded me.

"Everyone move to blue lights. Lanks, Meeks, you're after King and Levins. Those your weapons?" I asked.

"Yes, Corporal, LT James opened up the Arms Room and passed out weapons and ammunition." Lanks to me.

"Good. Tether up, get ready." I turned. "Needlemeyer, come here." The other man jogged up, the radio on his back bouncing and the antenna that was looped from one side to be attached to the radio carrying frame on the other side waving back and forth. I tapped him and he knelt down so I could hit the power on the radio and grab the mic. I next to the stairwell door while I broke squelch twice on the radio.

"Echo-Five Alpha, this is Echo-Five Actual, over?" I tried. Goddamn there was a lot of interference. Most of it was probably from the barracks shielding, but still, it felt off. It sounded like someone was breathing heavy on the channel behind all the static.

"This is Echo-Five Alpha, go ahead Echo-Five Actual. Over." The LT's voice. Thank God.

"Any contact with outside elements, Alpha? Over." I asked.

"Negative, Echo-Five Actual, no commo, repeat, no commo. Over." The LT.

"Negative contact on our end. Repeat, negative contact on our end. We're heading up to site two, Echo Five Alpha. Over."

"Three elements were on their way, Echo-Five Actual, did they rendezvous? Over."

"Roger that, Echo-Five Alpha. Geared up and good to go. Over."

"Roger that. Echo Five Alpha out."

"Echo-Five Actual out." I answered, and stuck the mic into the frame.

"Same formation. Stay close. King, make sure everyone's rigging is set right." I said, moving into the hallway and up to the doors. I had to step around Levins to make sure I didn't loop him with the line running from the D-Ring on my LBE belt to King. I paused at the door. "If you haven't been outside up here on the barracks at night, in the snow, be warned, it's going to be ugly." I tapped the NVG's. "Don't even bother with these, it's too cold." I tapped the cold weather mask that was hanging from my neck, along with the goggles. "Go like this. Stokes, drop flares every ten paces. When you run out, tap Nagle for more."

"And if she runs out?" Levins asked.

"Then we're fucked, because we went the wrong goddamn way and are lost." King said.

"What he said." I added. I pulled off my glasses, put on the mask, then my glasses, then the goggles. It looked stupid, but it let me see. I glanced back at everyone else, seeing bulky figures in parkas with cold weather masks on.

It made my blood run cold.

Without another word I pushed outside, the door squealing. I had to lean into it to get the door to open, two feet of snow drift piled up against it. When I broke the surface tension of the snow drift the wind grabbed it and swirled it away.

The wind hit me like a hammer, trying to knock me off balance. The whole world turned red when Stokes lit up a flare and dropped it outside the door. It looked like fog, but I knew what it really meant.

We were up in the clouds that were dropping the blizzard on main post and everything around the mountain.

I headed straight forward, keeping the compass close to my face so I could see the illuminated glow in the dark pieces and make sure I was going somewhat straight. Ten paces took me onto the tarmac and I heard another flare light up.

King tapped me and I stopped. He grabbed my LBE back, pulled me close and yelled in my ear. Even so, I barely heard him over the wind. "The fog is messing up seeing the flares! Zero visibility!"

"Count flares! We'll try five paces!" I shouted back. King let go and I knew he was passing it back the line to Stokes.

Five paces and gravel crunched under my feet. The world went faintly red as the flare hissed to life.

There was bright flash that blinded and dazzled me, with a thunderous detonation that went on and on and on. I dove forward, hitting the gravel, opening my mouth and covering the back of my neck. I stayed like that for a moment until the echoes of the explosion ended, then got up on one knee. The fog glowed purple again, the detonation happened, and I noticed that right before it happened the hairs on my arm stood up.


Fucking great.

Kneeling in the gravel and bitching wasn't going to accomplish anything, so I got to my feet and struggled up the short incline. There was another strobe, this time the detonation was faster, happening while the fog was still glowing purple.

Christ, the lightning was coming toward us.

I reached the fence and waited until everyone grabbed onto the fence with me. Stokes fired off another flare and dropped it, the sputtering red turning the fog around us bloody. There was another bright flash that flooded the whole world and another detonation that almost knocked us down. Bomber moved forward with the wire cutters he'd grabbed from the supply room and cut through the fence. He peeled it back and used a zip-tie to attach it to the rest of the fence, then repeated with the other side.

Even without snow the wind was punishing, hammering at us and trying to push us over, and the cold sapped strength and endurance. Still, we moved through the fence, Stokes dropping another flare, and moved across the lower motorpool. It didn't seem that wide during the day, fifty yards at the most, but I could have sworn I counted fifty paces at least three times, twice the world turned purple, the second crash of thunder knocking me down and into the foot deep snow. We reached the rough terrain forklifts that were at the 'top' of the lower motorpool and I paused so I could dig into the emergency road kit that hung behind the seat. I pulled out the flares, passed them to King so he could pass them down the line, and moved over to the next one so I could pull those ones out and pass them back too.

The bumper number was 2/19 – 138, which meant we needed to go three over so that we were beside the building. Not too bad. We'd cross the road, the parking spaces, and the lower motorpool.

Instead of heading straight toward the side of the building I moved to the left, down the line of rough terrain forklifts, pausing to pull the flares and hand them down the line. I stuffed three behind my LBE 'just in case' at one point, making sure King saw what I was doing and motioning for him to do the same and to pass the instruction down the line. He nodded, and once again the cold weather mask made me shiver with something that had nothing to do with the cold.

We reached the POL shack, where the heavy drums of oil, hydraulic fluid, and other fun things to do with POL were stored. Two hard hits with the butt of my XM-16E1 shattered the lock and I threw it to the side before opening the door and moving inside.

The loss of the wind gave an instant false warmth.

When the door shut I hit my flashlight and panned it around.

So far, so good, we hadn't lost anyone.

"Can you all hear me?" I asked, raising my voice slightly. I knew I had a whining noise in my left ear, between the rifle fire and the thunder. Everyone nodded or told me they could.

"All right, I need a volunteer to go scout the main building." I told them. "Don't engage, if you make contract, break it and head back here. Who wants to volunteer."

Aine waved her hand from the back and I ignored her.

"Anyone?" I asked.

"I'm going." Aine said, and slipped out the door.

"Goddamn her." I snarled.

"What? Why can't she do it?" Meeks asked.

"Has the bitch even been up to the motorpool?" Nagle asked. "Fuck."

"Well, no use crying over it. Smoke 'em if you got 'em." I told everyone.

Sure, the sign said 'no smoking within 50 feet', but what was the worst that could happen? If we burst into flames at least we'd be warm for a few seconds.

Still, nobody lit up.

Thunder crashed twice before Aine knocked on the door and came in.

"There's lights inside, I saw them on the window." Aine said, her voice soft, musical, but filled with an intensity I'd never heard from her. "I looked in the window, but kept back far enough that they couldn't see me because their light would make the window impossible to see through." She was right, light made the window pretty much a mirror, and add in the mist and Aine would have been invisible even if she was two feet from the window. "There's six of them and they're searching the dispatch office. I think that's it."

"Give me a SALUTE, Private McCullen." I told her.

"Six enemy soldiers; four are in the main office, the other two alternate between in the room and standing in the hallway; they're dressed in non-NATO uniforms, what I believe to be Soviet Union extreme cold weather; I watched them for five minutes and left five minutes ago; they're dressed in Soviet Union cold weather white and greys, standards LBE's, all of them are armed with AK-47's, one had two bandoleers of 7.62 across his chest while there is an RPK light machinegun sitting on Sergeant Velmost's desk. I think they had climbing gear, and I could not see their extreme cold weather gear. None of them had bayonets locked, but I only saw two with bayonets on their LBE's. They also seem to be lacking their chemical protective gear, which I see as a serious oversight." She rattled through all of it quickly, clearly, and in the speech cadence we'd all learned in Basic Training.

"Good job, Private." I told her. "We'll talk later about you taking off without clearance."

"I consider myself awaiting a reprimand." Aine said, the breathless tone returning. I growled as I turned away. Something about that SALUTE bothered me.

"Wait, Russian uniforms?" Meeks said.

"Shut it, Private." King snapped.

"Motherfucker, don't tell me…" Meeks started.

King turned around and grabbed the smaller man by the parka, lifting him off the ground. "I said 'shut it', got it?"

Meeks nodded and King set him down, brushing off the smaller man's shoulders.

"Plan?" King asked.

"Break contact?" Lanks suggested.

"No, we need to take them." Bomber said. "Now, while they're separated."

I nodded.

McCullen, you know how to set Claymores?" I asked the petite woman.

"Yes, Corporal." She smiled.

"You'll have to do it without gloves, maybe even without the liners." I warned her.

"It's not that cold out." She told me.

…Fuck you, bitch….

Lightning flashed as the thunder boomed, turning her sharp little teeth bluish purple for a second and lighting up her eyes as the purple light bled through the windows. I looked over everyone for a long moment and made my decision.

"King, you're with Aine. Show her where the access points are for the bays. She'll wire up Claymores to cover all of them but the bay side entrance, you check her work." I said, looking at them. King glanced at Aine, then nodded. Aine smiled at him, the exposed mouth area all teeth. I pulled the Claymore's I'd hung from my shoulder and handed them to him. "Needlemeyer, hand the grenades out from the fag-bag, everyone take three frag and one WP."

Nancy nodded, pulling off the two Claymores she'd been carrying and handing them to King while I kept talking. "Do not use a grenade unless they're in one of the grease pits or I give the word."

Everyone nodded as they clumsily put the grenades into the straps on the sides of the ammunition pouches and snapped them in place.

"Meet us at the bayside entrance." I said. Both soldiers nodded.

"Let's go, PFC King." Aine smiled, having pulled the Claymore bag straps over her head so the bags containing the mines were in front of her. She slid out the door of the POL shack, King following her and shutting the door.

"All right, let's move out. Safeties on unless we get aggressed." I said. I pointed at Bomber, Nagle, and Stokes then made a chopping motion. They all nodded, telling me that they understood that they were exempt from that.

We went along the back of the vehicles along the hill until we came to one of the graded paths that let us climb the steep hill, reaching the top right at the corner of the motorpool building. We followed the wall until we came to the door that would give us access to the large open bay where the mechanics could work on up to six vehicles at the same time with plenty of room to pull everything apart and spread it out.

Another immense Cold War boondoggle in the minds of most people, but we needed a building that large. We couldn't take our vehicles to Third Shop, could have maintenance done anywhere else, and our mechanics were responsible for over two hundred vehicles, all decades old, all made by the lowest bidder.

"Plan?" Bomber asked, moving up next to me and putting his head near mine. Lightning and thunder crashed and flashed while we waited at the door. I turned off my flashlight and watched as everyone did the same. Stokes had to nudge Lanks, who nudged Needlemeyer.

"Try to take them alive, if they put up the slightest resistance or look like they're going to put up a fight, we kill them all." I told everyone, but pointed at Bomber. "You'll check them out, either way, see what you can figure out. Then we'll secure the building and head back."

"Who's going to guard the gear?" Nagle asked. "I don't want a repeat of the last time we did this, it almost killed us."

"Aine." I said, and Nancy nodded.

Snowflakes were starting to drift down through the mist and I shuddered. "Visibility is going to go to hell while we're in there. We might be coming back in the teeth of a blizzard again."

"Then shouldn't we fort up here?" Needlemeyer asked.

I shook my head. "No. We don't know what's going on back at the barracks, we don't know if we'll lose power, and I don't want to leave the LT and the rest of Rear-D cut off from us."

"What, you don't think they can handle it?" Johnson asked.

If he kept sneering at me, I was going to cut his throat.

"No." Nagle said simply. "He doesn't."

"What, he's going to take the SEALs on by himself?" Johnson sneered. "He can barely qualify with a rifle. He may strut around with that knife all Billy Badass, but he ain't shit. I don't believe that bullshit story everyone's telling about what happened to the last Rear-D."

"Except he killed at least three men with that fucking knife." Stokes said. "I was in the CQ Area when he, Bomber and Nagle came in, and he shanked three guys in as many seconds." She turned to Meeks. "Think about that, he killed trained men, armed with fucking rifles, with a goddamn knife. How many people have you killed, smartass?" Johnson was silent and Lanks snorted. "Then shut the fuck up." Stokes finished.

There was silence for a long time.

Aine materialized out of the snow, her facemask off so we could see her flushed face, her wide eyes, and how she was holding her lower lip in her teeth. Her trigger mittens were stuffed between her LBE and her parka. The nail polish she wore looked like fresh blood when the lightning and thunder hit again. King appeared as the mist glowed, covered up and nodded to me.

When everyone was gathered up I looked at them. "All right, McCullen, you're staying back with our cold weather gear. Once we get inside, strip out of your cold weather gear and put on your boots. King, Johnson and Needlemeyer, Levins, Lanks, you'll take the back of the bays, make sure that there's nobody in between the vehicles. Nagle, Stokes, Bomber, and me will sweep the front of the bays. Go for silent takedowns if you can. I'd rather we avoided any weapons fire, but don't risk yourself or your team mates. When we hit the far wall, King, you lead your team up the stairs and sweep the second story, we'll take the first floor and the secure items sub-level." I looked at everyone. "Don't give these guys a chance or they'll fuck us up. Go in hard, hit them hard, put them down."

Snow started drifting down, sticking to the ground despite the wind, and I cursed.

"Corporal?" Johnson asked as I was reaching for the door. I paused and looked at him. "There should have only been like four of the SEALs left, right?" I nodded. "Then who are these assholes?"

I thought about it for a second, but Aine pulled the decision right out of my hands.

"They're Vympel. Soviet Union Spetznas, tasked with eliminating us if relations between the US and the Soviet Union ever break down." She giggled.

I glared at her.

"They're fucking Spetz? Are you fucking crazy?" Meeks said. "We gotta get out of here."

A low liquid chuckle wound between us, and everyone looked around into the fog.

"No, we gotta get out of the snow." King said, almost inaudible.

Another chuckle, even closer.

"Fuck that, I ain't taking on any Spetsnaz! We gotta…" Meeks started.

Hands reached out of the fog, reaching past the radio and grabbing Needlemeyer by the shoulders. The fingers sunk deep into the parka, and without a word the other man was snatched backwards into the fog. He started screaming as his boots disappeared from my sight.

"Go, go, go!" I yelled, pulling open the door.

I'd rather take on the Russians than what I knew was lurking just out of sight in the fog.

Lightning flashed and thunder roared like God's artillery as we scrambled through the door and into the dark motorpool bay.

Needlemeyer's screams cut off.

We were safe in the motorpool. Nowhere for Tandy to lunge out of, it was all open bays till we got to the far side. I doubted even Tandy would pop out of a grease pit.

Problem was, we still had to get back. We had to warn the LT that our suspicions were confirmed.

And Tandy had the radio.

Chapter 14

2/19th Special Weapons Group Motorpool
Restricted Area, Alfenwehr West Germany
Late Winter- January, 1988
Day 11 of Repairs
Day 3 of the Second Incident

We'd managed to get into the motorpool. Across the street, across the gravel strip big enough to pull a five-ton into and have people jump out of the back without ending up in the road, up the ten foot incline then two paces to the fence, through the fence, and then across the lower motorpool where the trailers, cranes, forklifts, and dozers were kept, into the POL shack, and then to the side of the building in order to enter.

We'd lost one to the mountain already.

To Tandy.

But at least we'd made it into the dubious shelter of the motorpool bays.

He'd stopped screaming at least as we quickly slid in through the door.

King and his team moved into the bay first, then my team followed, Aine pulling up the rear and slowly closing the door. While we all started stripping out of our cold weather gear she opened the last Claymore bag that hung from her neck and pulled the land mine out. Right next to the door on both sides were wooden benches with empty tool rack cork boards above the benches. Usually the mechanics used it to take apart smaller parts from the vehicles, like alternators, water pumps, or even repairing wire harnesses. She set the mine underneath the bench to the left of the door, then used the extra, non-standard parts Clance shoved into any of the Claymore bags he crew prepped to create a 9 volt battery charged trigger for the mine. If someone opened the door, it would pull the thin piece of cardboard out of the clip, completing the circuit and firing off the mine.

By the time she was done with the work, using two blasting caps instead of one for redundancy, we'd all stripped down to winter BDU's and lined field jackets, black gloves instead of trigger mittens, our extreme cold weather gear folded neatly and set on the left hand bench. Aine did the same as I looked around at the dim bay.

There were a couple of lights on in the bays, providing dim lights. Some of the lights were on a separate circuit and couldn't be turned off, even at the fuse box, since it came off the junction down at the corner. A trick of the light made it look like the shadows were deepening while I was watching, the lights dimming.

A glance at Bomber got me a nod, telling me he was seeing it too.


I could see six vehicles up on lifts, two five tons and four CUC-V's. They all had extension cords running to the grills, and I knew that was to the heater/recirculators that kept the engine from freezing up. The tires were off, laying below the hubs, with the lug-nuts beside the tire. The doors were open to prevent cold damage to the seals, and I could see one of the radios in the CUC-V from where I was standing just inside the door.

Perfect. Clear up here, call it in to the LT, and get orders instead of pulling ideas out my ass.

I cursed the fact that my entrance into PLDC had been delayed. Every time we had a slot for our unit I got the 'mission essential' excuse. I knew a lot of guys who felt they didn't need the school, but my older brother had attended, and told me what was taught. The training I would have gotten there might make the difference between those Soviet guys tearing us apart and us winning.

All I had to go off of was leadership correspondence courses, the times I'd been tasked to support an infantry unit and managed to get classes alongside of them, and the advice from the Rangers I hung out with now and then.

I was terrified that I was about to lead all of my men into a massacre.

Most people didn't know that half of the modern Army was training. You trained to take orders, improvise, and do your job, that's what the enlisted ranks were for, then they trained you to lead those men and make plans to carry out your orders, which was the lower NCO ranks, and then they trained you to lead the NCO's to make sure that you could carry out the more expansive orders given to you by the higher ranking officers. If we weren't working we were training, training on vehicles, training on weapons, training on equipment, training on doctrine.

Unfortunately I hadn't had training on engaging hostile forces in a dark motorpool in the middle of a fucking blizzard with a killer who fed on fear lurking around in the darkness.

"How come it's warm in here?" Johnson asked, breaking into my gloomy train of thought that my inexperience and lack of training was going to get everyone killed. He started speaking a split second before the blowers suspended from the ceiling kicked on, making Aine giggle at how he'd just gotten embarrassed.

"Extreme cold weather can damage some of the parts, it's cheaper to keep the heaters running than it is to replace all those rubber gaskets and anything else that might get damaged, Private Johnson." Aine said sweetly, turning to look behind her at us. She was bent over lacing her boots, giving everyone a view of her BDU clad buttocks.

"What she said." King chuckled, checking out Aine's butt with an appreciative smile.

"Let's go. Noise discipline, light discipline." I said, tapping my flashlight.

The bays were very dim, and while the blowers kept the bay warmer than outside it was still only a little above freezing. I was warming up fast, and I made a mental note that if we didn't withdraw because the Spetz were forcing us into a retreat, I'd make everyone eat before we started to move again. We'd need the carbohydrates, fats, and sugars if we were going to make it back to the barracks and arrive in any kind of decent shape. The body is a furnace, a meat machine, it needs fuel, and it cold temperatures the body turned up the furnace to keep the meat machine warm, and heat means more fuel. That last thing I'd need if we lived through the next 20 minutes is everyone dropping on the way back.

If everything went according to plan, we'd catch the Spetz in the main office, where they were probably looking for the keycode to open the War Fighter tunnels, or maybe they were hoping to find the keys to the Motorpool Armory, or maybe they were just trying to find something else for some reason or maybe meet up with the Colonel and what was left of his men. If we caught them there we'd be able to take them quickly and cleanly and figure out what the hell was actually going on.

I had suspicions, but nothing concrete. Enough for me to craft a plan of action but not enough to keep the DoD and State Department from throwing me under the bus when all of this hit the goddamn fan.

Yeah, but they're here, meaning that this might not matter in 72 to 120 hours….

I'd managed to get a look at the unit METL, which was the Mission Essential Task List, which had a LOT of data on what the DoD expected out of our unit. There was the standard 'arm fighting units to repel… blah blah blah' but the worst part was in the appendixes. That's where I'd found out that in the event of hostilities our life expenctancy was measured in negative time units. Because of our function we were a 'legitimate pre-hostility target' which meant that it was in the Soviet Union's best interest to take us out prior to moving on the Fulda Gap.

Take out 2/19th, you take out a large amount of 8th Infantry and 3rd Armor's nuclear and chemical arsenal as well as vital ammunition, fuel, and equipment stocks.

The fact that Vympel was here meant that there was a goddamn good chance that relations between the Soviet Union and the US or NATO were looking ugly. Or that the Soviet Union was planning a surprise push.

Which fit with the data I'd gathered by paying attention to Rumor Control, AFN broadcasts, the Army Times, and morning briefings. Add in the assaults on Atlas, the killings, and the fact that we were cut off again, and a surgical strike could screw us. Sure the rest of Group was at Graf, but with our war fighting equipment destroyed, the records destroyed, and the disruption the loss of the barracks would cause, all the rest of the Group would be is just troops with field gear.

Which meant that the appendix came into play, Group would be dissolved and attached to the nearest units, those that could would push toward their sites, and the upper ranks would attach to the units they were supposed to provide NBC operations tactical advice to.

In my brain I was seeing blooming mushroom clouds, Soviet tanks rolling through the German towns I visited frequently, and my brain added color and modernization to the World War 2 pictures I'd studied in school.

"Ant." King said, nudging me. I glanced at him. "I'm going to take my team, head to the back, and sweep forward. If we need reinforcement we'll shout out red-six." I grinned at the Star Wars reference. He squeezed my forearm. "We've got this, man."

"Move out. I'll take point, Bomber, you and Nagle behind me, Stokes, you'll pull drag." I looked at Aine. "Aine, don't fuck around, protect our retreat and withdraw as well as our equipment. Shoot to kill." Aine nodded, her lip held between her teeth and looking like a small child.

Moving like in the movies, crouched over, made my fucking kidneys hurt, and living pretty much in the field constantly made my movements sure and my back straight. My weapon was ready, the butt socketed against my shoulder, over the metal staples, my weapon pointed down at a 45 degree angle, left hand wrapped around the M-203 handgrip, right hand on the pistol grip, safety off, trigger finger along the side of the trigger assembly.

The fans kicked off. There was a clink in the dimness of the bay. There was another lightning flash that filled the bay with purple light as the thunder rocked the entire building. The heaters kicked back on and I thought I heard something that didn't fit.

I checked the back of the CUC-V with a glance to make sure that nobody was waiting to leap out in a spinning backflip and part my hair with a hatchet, checked down between the vehicle, able to see King moving forward with me against the back wall, the pig held at the ready.

That weird feeling filled me. The stomach ache went away, the fear became a small and tiny thing that did little more than fill my bloodstream with combat chemicals, and my awareness expanded again. My muscles felt like they were thrumming, I could feel the air currents.

Once again I noticed that XM-16E1 felt alien and wrong in my hands.

The little lizard in the back of my brain gave a venomous hiss a split second before it became evident that my plan had gone to shit.

"Oh, shit!" Johnson shouted.

Somebody cut loose with a long tearing burst from an M-16. The popping noise was distinct, familiar. The sound of a short, sharp return burst from an AK-47 was just as distinctive, which let me know that someone wasn't just shooting at shadows.

The lizard hissed again and I glanced to the side, already turning on my heel and toe as I dropped down onto one knee, just like training had pounded into me. My rifle barrel was coming up as I dropped and turned, the butt of the weapon tucking into the hollow of my shoulder, and by the time my right knee hit the concrete I already had someone in my sight picture.

He was down on one knee, just like me, and taking aim on someone in woodland camouflage with his AK-47, his white and light gray uniform and his gear visibly different from ours. The front aiming post, the rear aiming circle, and the other man's torso all fluidly merged together and my training kicked in without even thinking about it.

"Contact!" I called out, the same time as Stokes and King called out the same single word.

The trigger went back smoothly three times as he fired, our weapon's fire merging into one big noise that shook the air. Fiery pain blossomed inside my shoulder and each shot felt like someone pounding nails into my joint. I could see dimples appear in the metal wall behind him as my shots missed.

The lizard snarled and I fired without bothering to use the sight as the other guy pulled the trigger. The guy gave a strangled scream that suddenly turned bubbly and weak. His weapon flew out of his hands as he pitched to the side, his body trying to save itself from the bullets that impacted him. My sight picture swept over someone in woodland camouflage and the lizard hissed again, nudging me back toward the way we were going.

"Ant, down!" someone, Bomber, shouted out, and without thinking I threw myself prone and an M-16 banged away, the whip-crack of bullets going over my head a close buzzing snarl that made my try to press my belly through the floor. There was the heavier crack of an AK-47 firing at the same time. Sparks howled off the concrete in front of my face as the steel jacketed round hit and slammed into my shoulder, speckles of pain in my face as tiny chips of concrete hit me. Something hit the top of my helmet like a sledgehammer and body went numb at the same time as my body gave a full spasm and my vision went out.

Pitch black, not even sparkles.

"Man down!" Stokes called out. I was vaguely aware of my foot kicking, just tapping in a steady rhythm, but I couldn't stop it.

There was another fusillade of weapon's fire and I was aware that my finger was pulling the trigger, recoil making my weapon bounce in my limp hand. Bomber yelled 'moving' and right after Stokes and Nagle yelled 'cover' and I heard someone throw themselves down next to me as the fire kicked up. Stokes yelled out reloading at the same time as Lanks and King.

When my weapon ran dry I could hear Bomber calling out that he was reloading.

More than one voice was screaming, two of them high, thready, and bubbling, one just raw primal agony, the last voice more angry than anything else and obviously female. I could tell I wasn't one of them, my breathing was steady and deep. I heard an empty magazine clatter to the concrete next to me then the slide, slap, and snap of a weapon getting locked and loaded. Right afterwards I felt firm pressure on the side of my neck for a second.

"Moving!" Nagle called out, and Bomber and Stokes called out 'cover' and the popping of the M-16's mingled with the tearing sound of the AK's. Someone else started screaming and King yelled that he was reloading.

"No contact! No contact!" King yelled. "They're breaking contact!"

"Keep up the pressure!" Bomber yelled. "Ant's down, I'm stepping up!"

Bomber was telling them that he was taking over. As my Assistant Squad Leader, he was trained in everything he needed to know to take over my squad, my site, my crew. He knew my job inside and out, and took part in every bit of leadership training I could scavenge for the two of us.

"Ant's down? We need to fall back!" Levins called out.

"At ease that, keep on the pressure!" Stokes shouted back. There was another burst of AK fire and I heard an M-16 cook off next to me.

My finger was still pulling the trigger on an empty weapon. I could tell my weapon was empty by the faint feeling of an immobile trigger on a finger I could only vaguely feel.

"How is he?" Bomber asked right after two warm fingers pressed on my neck again.

"Alive." Nagle snapped. I felt a hand on my cheek and a thumb move my eyelid. "Shit, his pupil is fixed." A finger pushed up on my other eyelid. "This one reacts. Cover me while I evac him back to where McCullen is." Her voice was stable, steady, clinically detached.

"Don't let my boy die." Bomber growled. "Cover me, Stokes."

I heard him scrabble away, the sound overlayed by the snarl of fire from Stokes' M-16. I could hear who I assumed was Nagle move backwards. Something else hit the top of my helmet and something else howled off the pavement next to me and clanked into the front of the five-ton I was laying in front of. My neck was on fire, it felt like the time I'd wrenched my neck and gotten whiplash.

Hands grabbed my ankles, dragging me backwards as the rifle fire picked up for a second and Bomber repeated "They're trying to break contact, keep up the pressure!" The concrete was rough against my cheek, but I could barely feel it. My hearing was going out, being smothered by a high pitched whining that seemed to be gaining volume.

"They've got backup! King, fire up the pig!" Bomber yelled.

"Roger that!" King yelled, and a second later there was the heavy thudding of the M-60 firing. The sound of weaponsfire, even the pig, vanished as the entire bay lit up purple and thunder shook the building. When the thunder quit I could hear that King wasn't hosing off his entire belt but rather putting out short sharp bursts. The man was rated Expert on the pig and I knew that he represented Group during the Battalion and Brigade competitions.

"2/19th, finish the fight!" Bomber bellowed, King and Stokes' voice joining his after our unit number. My rifle was still dragging along the pavement, my arms moving so they were extended over my head. Something in my shoulder snapped and the pain blocked out the pain in my neck as it spread into my chest and down my back.

"Knock the first aid box off the wall, McCullen." Nancy snapped as I was being drug around a corner. "Just use the butt of your… is that a prisoner?"

"Yes, Specialist. He realized I had the drop on him and surrendered to me." Aine's voice was full of dark mirth. "Isn't he a good boy?" I could dimly hear boots thud onto the floor as I came to a stop. "He just knelt down and put his hands behind his neck." I heard metal snap and something crash while I was being rolled onto my back. "It wasn't secured very tight, Specialist Nagle, I could do it with my hands."

Watch her, Nancy, she's stronger and tougher than she looks….

My boots were unlaced and Nagle asked for my cold weather gear, which she put under my boots right before she unsnapped my LBE and then my belt.

"Keep him stable, Aine, watch your prisoner, guard our gear, and treat him for shock." Nagle snapped. "Don't let him die."

"No. That won't happen." Aine said, her voice bleak and cold. "I'm not letting Annie die."

"Man down!" Levins called out.

"Shit, I gotta get back out there." Nancy said. I heard something hit the ground. "I'll be back."

I felt more than saw Nancy move away as Bomber called out something in Russian. He was probably mangling it, but he'd been trying to learn Russian since he got to 2/19th, and was fluent in German within two months. I idly wondered if he was calling on them to surrender. King yelled out reloading when Bomber yelled. Another voice yelled back, and Bomber yelled something else. There was AK-47 fire in reply and Bomber answered with 'frag out!' Three thudding heartbeats that hammered on my eardrums later there was a sharp loud crack, the sound of a grenade going off, and screaming followed it. The firing picked back up.

"On our right, they're trying to flank." Lanks yelled. Her voice sounded tight.

There was the loud crack of a Claymore going off, and screaming started. The lizard was trying to get my lines connected, but he still updated my mental map. From the sound they'd tried the back door and the Claymore King and Aine had set up on it had gone off and caught at least one person. Ball bearings propelled by C-4 would tear a man to hamburger.

Someone yelled in Russian and Bomber yelled: "They're going to try to push through."

"Bitch, you shot me!" Levins yelled. "Fuck you, fuck you!"

The lizard hissed, trying to get me back up, back on my feet. On the silloutte of my body the only thing that showed was a strobing circle around my head and a blot of red on my right shoulder that had a strobing carat around it.

"Finish the fight!" Bomber bellowed, and King answered him. There were two more short sharp bursts of M-16 fire, a long burst from the pig that lasted almost two full seconds, and then silence.

The only sound was the blowers and Aine's breathing as her boots creaked and her hand rested on my chest. The smell of apple blossoms enveloped me and I could smell Scope on her breath as it warmed my face.

"You aren't allowed to die, fíorghrá." Aine breathed, using the old word for 'beloved' like she always did when she was talking to me about something that was important to her. "It's just pain, it's just injuries, and you're a McDaur'n, those things don't matter." The warmth from her hand was spreading through my chest, pushing back the pain from my shoulder. "I own you, no matter what anyone else says, and you aren't allowed to die unless I give permission."

When I tried to talk, tried to answer her, tried to tell her I wasn't hers, she didn't own me, and to stop touching me, all that came out was a low groan. She giggled slightly and her other hand cupped my cheek.

"Should I cut his throat and wash you down with his blood?" She asked. "That works, you know that as well as I do. I should I perform a blood eagle on him to give you his strength?" She chuckled, low in her throat, and I realized she wasn't speaking English, but rather what the grandparents of our families spoke.


As a boy I wasn't supposed to ever speak it, I barely had a worked knowledge of it, but more than a few of the Matrons refused to speak in anything but Gaelic, not matter what their ethnicity, which made it odd at times.

"That thick-bodied kelly of yours can save you." Aine breathed, using the old word for warrior woman. "Your soul is intertwined with hers, so she can save you, but if I save you than I'll own her too." Aine's voice was full of dark mirth, the language making her words lyrical, musical, and almost otherworldly. Each exhalation pushed the scent of apple blossoms and blood into my face. The apple blossoms was what everyone smelled near her, a scent she seemed to exude as naturally as other people smelled of sweat.

The hot coppery smell of blood hadn't started until after she'd lost her virginity.

"I think I'd like that. Owning both of your souls." She gave a nasty, wicked chuckle from low in her throat. "I knew from the moment I saw you in kneeling on my bed that you'd have the richest blood in generations." Her lips brushed mine and I could feel electric sparks where our lips touched. Her tongue grazed my cheek where it had been scraping across the concrete. "I can taste my baby in your blood, taste the Aine your blood is waiting to put in my belly."

Her hand vanished and the cold started seeping into me again, the warmth from her hand on my chest fading inward to where her hand had been. The pain from my shoulder and neck came back in a flood and the sounds of the blowers came flooding back, along with the voices of my crew yelling 'clear' as they finished sweeping rooms.

Aine was speaking in Russian and I heard slow, dragging footsteps of someone wearing boots coming closer. There was another thump, and I could sense someone next to me, leaning over me. Aine's voice came again, the harsh sounds of Russian made musical somehow as she spoke them. I heard bone snap and the sound of 550 cord snapping. Then I could feel my LBE being swept out of the way, hear the Velcro of my Kevlar vest being opened and my field jacked being unzipped and opened. Aine gave a wicked little laugh and ran her hand across my BDU top right before she unbuttoned it and moved it out of the way. My brown T-shirt was pulled up and her hand ran over my exposed skin.

"You McDaur'ns all are so exotic looking." Aine said softly in Gaelic, her breath in my face. "Your Navajo grand matron may have taken all that body hair but she left all of you boys so exotic, and I've always been jealous of those lovely eyes your girls have." Her fingertips ran through the sparse red hair over my sternum and her lips grazed mine again before her tongue caressed the abrasion on my cheek. I knew she was lapping up the blood that was trickling down my cheek from the scrape that had been caused when Nancy had drug me down by my legs.

There was more Russian and I faintly felt her pull the knife out of my boot as two hands grabbed onto me at my collar. Aine was speaking Gaelic, words I didn't know the meaning of but knew of, words I'd heard the Matrons sing after harvest and before planting. Aine's voice rose slightly, the cadence moving faster before she went silent. There was a crackling sound and blood spattered all over my chest right before it sluiced onto my skin. As the blood ran down my sides, soaking into my uniform, the hot coppery stink filling my nostrils but not wiping away the thick cloying smell of apple blossoms.

When her voice stopped a heavy weight fell on me, driving the breath from my body. My heart beat twice, thudding heavily, and I felt the weight being pulled off of me. Aine's lips touched mine, both of our lips parted, and she exhaled softly into my mouth as I inhaled. Fingers touched my chest and then my forehead, my chest and then my cheeks, and finally my chest and then the underside of my jaw. Her hands were rubbing the blood into my skin, her fingers were stronger than her petite little fingers should have been, and she had started whispering in that singsong tone.

She finished singing and placed three fingers over my heart for a moment before pressing firmly for the space of three heartbeats. The fingers withdrew and my sight came back with an audible snap that sounded to my ears like a branch breaking followed by an echoing thunderclap. I could hear clearly again, the blowers, the creak of the metal walls of the building, the echo of the thunder, and the sound of my crew calling out to one another. Aine was looking at me, her too wide green eyes bright and glittering, a flush at her cheeks that brought out how pale she was, and the freckles across her cheekbones and the bridge of her nose plain as day. Her helmet was off and I could see her naturally curly red hair pulled into a tight bun that wouldn't get in the way of her mask or helmet, and I noticed again how her ears looked slightly pointed. She had blood on her lips that glinted in the dim light, and as I watched she stuck out her tongue, sharply pointed and too long for such a small mouth, and licked my forehead with two swipes, followed by three swipes on each cheek, and one under my jaw. She moaned, almost as if she was in pain, and sweat appeared on her brow.

"Oh, my beloved, your pain is so sweet, such a deep well-spring of agony hidden behind your will." She smiled, her sharp little teeth, as if she'd never lost her baby teeth, glittered in the light as lightning struck and thunder rumbled at the same time. She was pulling my brown T-shirt down covering my skin. "I can taste your kelly in your pain, her love, her devotion, her need for you." She licked the abrasion on my cheek again. "I can taste the Texan in your blood. Is he your lover too? Have you feasted on one another's flesh like the ancient blood that courses through your veins desires or do you both slake what you want upon your kelly as a substitute for one another? You're intertwined, and I can taste three souls on my tongue, your intermixed blood."

"That's what made you so hard to control, I hadn't realized that I needed to take control of all three of you." Her face came closer, the tip of her pointy little nose touching mine. "I will have all three of you. I will take your souls, your hearts, and your blood, and give birth to an Aine like neither family has seen since Cassius Marcus Lattro and Marcius Cassianus Lattro were gifted my mother." Her laugh was other worldly, cruel, and it brought out the sharp planes of her face and made her too large slightly slanted eyes look inhuman.

From upstairs came a fusillade of weaponsfire, a scream, and then a short sharp burst of M-16 fire. I faintly heard Levins shout out 'clear' right before another bolt of lightning turned the inside of the motorpool purple and thunder made the entire building shake.

"The baby will let me leave this place and take my place on the council." She smiled, her teeth glimmering in a lightning strike that was drowned out by her words. "I'll cast out my mother and everyone who tried to force me to settle for Logan." Her voice dropped to a whisper. "For your gift to me, that Aine that I can hear singing in your blood, I will Wickerman your mother for all the pain she brought you, and I will give your father to the Wild Hunt that her sacrifice will call up."

"McCullen!" Stokes' voice was loud. "What the hell?" She moved up next to the smaller woman and looked down at me. She was sweating and a lock of hair had escaped her helmet band and had fallen across her face. I could hear boots approaching and Meek's voice, but couldn't make out what he was saying.

Aine jerked back from Stokes and I could see her clearly in the dim light as she looked to my left, her smile gone and her lower lip trembling. "I was trying to give Corporal Ant first aid, he'd had a seizure, when the prisoner broke free and knocked me down. He was trying to strangle Corporal Ant when I managed to get Ant's boot knife and cut his throat before he could strangle Corporal Ant." Aine's voice was shaking, her words fast and tumbling over one another. Her lower lip trembled and two tears spilled from her eyes. "Silent takedown, Specialist."

"Get out of the way." Nancy snapped, coming into my vision. Aine nodded shyly and got up. She moved to the side, burying her face against Stokes' shoulder and starting to softly cry. Nagle squatted down next to me, filling my vision. "Can you speak, Ant?"

"Get me on my fucking feet." I snarled, reaching up and grabbing my shoulder.

She put her hand on my chest, pressing me against the floor. "Not until I check you out. Your pupil was blown."

The memory of Aine breathing into my mouth made my stomach roil. The bitch had contaminated me, used something that should have been in the dustbin of history. I told myself it wasn't what she had done that had strength returning to my limbs, that made the pain recede, that had lit a fire inside of me. That what she had done was old ritual that didn't actually do anything, that was just myth and superstition.

Except my skull felt better than it had since the back of my head had cracked against the edge of the CQ desk.

"Fuck that, get me up, we gotta see if we can call for extraction." I brushed her hand away and sat up.

"Do you feel dizzy? Sick to your stomach?" She asked.

I did, but my stomach churning had nothing to do with my head injury and everything with the memory of Aine exhaling into my mouth. "No. My shoulder hurts, and I've got a headache, but other than that I'm fine."

She showed me my helmet, raising one eyebrow at me. The cover was torn, and I could see where there was a pockmark in the top. I'd taken a round directly to the top of the damn thing, but the webbing and pad inside the helmet had done its job and kept the helmet from breaking my skull when the kinetic energy slammed it into the top of my head.

"Give me a sitrep." I ordered, struggling to my feet. I put out one hand and steadied myself on the bench. Nancy frowned, but didn't tell me to sit down.

"We ended up engaging a total of fifteen of them. The additional soldiers were in the secure items area and searching upstairs. We found a gear cache containing climbing equipment and other equipment, and Bomber is checking them out." Nancy told me. I nodded. Bomber had been talking about reclassifying when his reenlistment date came up, switching to Military Intelligence, and had been doing correspondence courses.

When his reup date came the DoD gave him the choice of sticking with NBC Warfare or getting the fuck out, citing the ever popular "understrength MOS" and the standard "mission essential" phrase they gave us when they were lubing up our ass cracks for the typical Uncle Sam deep dicking that seemed to define our lives.

"Wounded?" I asked as Lanks was carried around the corner. Her hand was pressed to her stomach and her face was pale.

"Two. Lanks took two to the gut, but her vest stopped them." Nancy said. "Johnson's down, took one in the throat, one in the face, and one in the shoulder." She shook her head. "He was bled out before I could do anything."

She didn't show it, but I know it hurt her to lose Johnson. Sure, I didn't know him, and I doubted that she did either, since he was in a different mag than us and worked out at Cerebus, but he was still one of us.

Echoes of last month.

Meeks was rubbing his chest as he came up to Nagle. "I took a hit, hurts to breathe." He said.

"Sit down." Nagle said.

"I'm going to see what Bomber's figured out." I said, walking away. Not from Nagle, not from our wounded, but from Aine.

Fucking bitch. you contaminated me.

I lit a cigarette to get the coppery taste out of my mouth and maybe push the burning feeling out of lungs. It had to be all in my head, had to be psychosomatic, but the tingling burning feeling in my lungs had started when Aine had exhaled into my mouth.

Bomber was kneeling down next to one of the dead, going through their pockets and stacking the contents in neat piles. Cigarettes, a lighter, folded papers, money, wallets, junk that people collected in their pockets without meaning to. He lifted up the guy's arm and sniffed at the dead man's cuff, leaning back, inhaling deeply a few time, and then repeated it.

"What do we know?" I asked him, squatting down next to him. The dead man was blond, fair skinned, his open staring eyes were brown, and he had acne. His jaw was strong, he was clean-shaven except for a moustache that was within US Army regs.

Sorry, dude, but you knew the risks same as I did when you put on the uniform.

"We got them all, brother. McCullen was right, there were only six in the main room. There were three more down in the secure area under the motorpool who came out to back them up, two who stayed down there that we flushed out with a grenade, and five upstairs that came down to act as backup. Those ones tried to exit out the back door and the Claymore King and Aine took out three of them, one got out uninjured but it looks like he ran into the pig, the other bled out before we could pause long enough to make sure he got first aid." He shook his head. "We lost Johnson when the second wave tried to flank us. Lanks caught two in the abdomen but her vest stopped them." Bomber told me. He had a notch missing from his right ear that was dribbling blood down his cheek and onto the shoulder of his Kevlar vest. "Stokes and King are recovering the Claymores, I'm going to bring them back with us so we can add them to our assets." He shook his head. "It's a team of at least thirty, brother. A full Vympel strike team based on the fact that they sent a Soviet Colonel out with them." He waved toward where Levins was dragging bodies over and lining them up. "This group has a Colonel and a Major with it, which means the Major we killed was a subgroup leader."

He put his hand on my left shoulder and squeezed. "We've taken down around a third of them." He shook his head. "I'm pretty sure we still have their heavy weapons specialist and assassination teams, since I'm pretty sure we took a good part of their command and intelligence sections."

Bomber rocked back on his heels, and held out his hand for the cigarette I had in my mouth. I dug out my pack and Zippo as he took the last two drags off the cigarette and rolled the cherry and tobacco out of it. While I lit them he crushed out the cherry that had dropped to the concrete and put the field-stripped butt in his pocket. He took the one I handed him.

"Thanks, man." He nodded at the body in front of him. "You don't see them shitting themselves in the movies, huh?"

"Nope." I told him. "You sure they're Vympel?"

He nodded. "Yeah. I thought they might be Alpha, but Vympel does more mountaineering training and where Alpha is more their general purpose Vympel is usually assigned targets." He took a deep drag. "Alpha's more like Special Forces, Vympel strike teams are more like the Rangers or the SEALs."

Meeks came up behind us. "Nagle says we need to evac ASAP." He coughed. "Goddamn my chest hurts."

"Yeah, probably popped a rib. Hurts like a bitch, don't it?" Bomber grinned, reading a piece of paper. "Goddamn it, just a note from someone full of love and shit like that." He shook his head. "It's easier when you don't think of them as having lives like you."

"You can read that?" Meeks asked.

"Yeah. Was going to MI." Bomber looked up. "Plus, I'm a fucking genius."

Hearing him say that with his Texas accent made me grin.

Stokes came limping up with King, who was still packing the pig. The belt was pretty short, maybe thirty rounds hanging from it. Both of them had Claymore bags around their neck. Both had snow all over them.

"What's the plan, Corporal?" King asked me, stopping about two paces away. He wet a finger and touched the barrel, rubbing the barrel and smiling. "Cold enough outside that it cooled this bitch right down."

"We'll evac back through the tunnels. We've got wounded, outside temp is dropping, wind's probably picking up, and it's snowing." I told him. "Lanks took two to the gut, which compromised her diaphragm, and Meeks there took one to the chest, compromising his breathing." I shook my head. "Air up here is thin enough, they're going to have trouble breathing, and exertion is going to make it worse."

I stood up, slapping Bomber on the top of the helmet. "See what intel you can gather. King, you're with me, we'll crack the tunnels, Stokes, help Levins stack the bodies." Stokes gave me a middle finger salute with a smile. "After that, get a stretcher, I don't want to leave Johnson's body behind."

King and I headed to the main office so we could access the stairs down to the secure area. The motorpool had its own armory, its own NBC locker, everything they'd need in case the guys who worked in the motorpool got cut off from the barracks. Why the whole thing had been built that way was weird as hell.

I'd talked to more than a few people in other units, wrote letters to guys and gals I'd been in AIT with, and the only one who had a unit put together as weird as mine was Vencilla, who was working out at a place nicknamed Red Rocket out in Ohio that was a repurposed ICBM first strike facility.

While we were heading down the stairs I wondered, not for the first time, if 2/19th and Red Rocket represented an experiment or a paradigm shift in how NBC Warfare was being approached. It didn't matter, nobody asked an E-4 about shit.

When we hit the small room at the bottom of the stairs I ignored the two dead men and moved over to the door to the War Fighter tunnels. One glance at the access panel and I cursed, punching the wall.

"What?" King asked from where he'd just lifted up the legs of one of the men and started to drag him toward the stairs.

"They tried to bypass the fucking access panel and now it's fucked." I told him, pointing at the access panel. Someone had pulled the keypad and magnetic strip reader off, exposing the wires. "I swear to God, Hollywood's turned everyone into goddamn morons."

"How so?" He asked while I looked at what remained. I wasn't sure if the damage to the circuit board was from what the Spetz did or the grenade blast, but I was pretty sure that I couldn't repair it. I knew basic electronic repair, hell, it was part of my job and two weeks of training in AIT, so we could do field repairs on certain weaponry, but the damaged access panel was beyond anything I could do.

"Everything thinks that the power to the door routes through this door." I said, moving over to the other guy and squatting down to grab his boots. "They think you just have to figure out which wires to twist together and the juice goes straight to the door and opens it." I shook my head, dragging the guy away from where he'd been thrown against the motorpool Arms Room cage door. "The controls send the signal to the mechanism inside. If you hotwire it, you just fry out the controls inside and lock the fucker."

"So no War Fighter tunnels?" King asked as we drug the bodies up the stairs. "Goddamn it. Ant, we've got a major problem if we're going outside."

The guy's helmet fell off and bounced down the steps. I heaved him up a few more steps and glared at the body when the rifle that he'd been holding in his hands bounced back down the steps.

"What's that?" I said, irritated at the dead guy. He kept dropping shit, he stank because of the load of shit in his drawers, and he was heavy.

"That weird noise?" King said. "The one right before Tandy took Needlemeyer?"

"You mean him laughing at us?"


"What about it?" I asked, managing to pull the guy off the stairs and starting to drag him out of the room into the main bay.

"Yeah, me and Stokes heard it when we were recovering the Claymores." He told me.

"Goddamn it." One of the blowers above us kicked on with the scream of a bad bearing, there was a grinding noise and a loud 'pop' before sparks rained down from it and it went silent. Another one exploded, flames shooting out and the case falling to the concrete floor.

Bomber was scooping up the stuff he'd taken off the dead bodies and stuffing it into the fag-bag that held grenades. He looked up at me. "We gotta get the hell out of here, right now." He pointed up at one of the windows above the bay doors. I glanced up and could see snow blowing through the shattered window. "The grenade blew it out."

"Hurry up, I'll get everything together." I told him. He nodded, moving to the two bodies King and I had pulled upstairs. "King, cover him. Levins, swap out the pig's barrel, discard the used one here."

"Why?" Levins asked.

"It was already really hot, then exposed to sub-zero temperatures right after, it might be warped now." King said. "We've got plenty of spare barrels back at Group, let's not take the chance."

I headed back to Nancy. She was loading up Johnson's body on the stretcher. Someone had put his cold weather mask over his face and a cravat over his throat. I could tell by the blood down the side of his face that the cold weather mask was hiding whatever damage the bullet had done, the save way the cravat was hiding his throat.

Aine was telling Lanks to breathe slowly, holding the other woman's hand and patting it. Lanks' LBE belt was loosened up, her Kevlar vest was gaped open, and she was sagging against the bench. Meeks was panting, holding onto his chest.

"You get the War Fighter tunnels open?" Nancy asked, glancing up at me.

I shook my head. "No, the access panel's shot. Looked like they tried to hotwire it."

"That shit doesn't work. Did the security charge go off?" She asked. I shook my head. "So we have to go overland?"

"Yeah." I told her. I glanced at Johnson's body. "We'll take him with us." I moved over to the CUC-V. "I'm gonna see if I can raise the LT."

She nodded, going back to piling Johnson's gear on top of him. I pulled the door all the way open and climbed up inside. The keys weren't in the ignition, but that didn't matter. I hit the power to the radio and watched as the lights went on. I changed the frequency setting and picked up the mic.

"Echo-Five Alpha, this is Echo-Five Actual, do you read? Over." I said. There was another flare of lightning and an explosion of thunder. I could hear the screech of static even over the thunder and had a sudden mental image of lighting arcing out of the radio and frying me in the seat of a fucking Chevy Blazer. I tried again and got nothing but static. Frustrated I started dialing through the post frequencies, hoping to find something, anything.

The only thing I got was a woman repeating numbers through static, a country music station full of static, and an evangelist screaming about sin with a Mid-West accent clear as day.

Fucking ionosphere bullshit.

I grabbed the power lead and pulled it out, tossing it under the seat before climbing out. I glanced at Nancy, who was telling Meeks and Lanks to go slow, that they'd be in the middle of the tether, and moved to the other CUC-V's. At each of them I pulled the power lead out and threw it under the seat before coming back. Bomber joined me at the one of the middle trucks, pulling his helmet back on and snapping the chin-strap.

"Should we use a vehicle?" Bomber asked, waving at one of the 5-tons.

I shook my head. "We'll never make it." I told him. "We'll have to go on foot."

He nodded.

"We're heading out on foot. The War Fighter tunnels are a no-go." I told them. Aine smiled sunnily, looking at me out from under the brim of her helmet. "Get dressed." We were silent as we pulled on our parkas, took off our boots and hung them from our rucks so we could put on our Mickey Mouse boots, then put back on our facial protection and trigger mittens.

"Let's go. King, you're on drag, make sure we don't lose anyone." I told him. He nodded, dropping back and clipping his D-ring to the tether. "Blue lens." I clicked on my flashlight, the blue circle shining on the door. There were more clicks and other circle joined mine.

Outside the temperature had dropped noticeably, the wind had picked up, and between the fog, the darkness, and the snow visibility had dropped to nothing. Luckily I could see the flare Stokes had dropped at the top of the steps that led down to the lower motorpool.

The idea had been a good one, and I was going to definitely tell the LT that Stokes' idea had probably saved our ass.

We went slow, twice the purple bloom of lightning and crash of thunder happening simultaneously. Both times the hair on my body raised up a split second before the lightning flared and the thunder almost knocked me down.

Through the fence and we waited until Levins and Stokes set down the stretcher and caught their breath, while Bomber cut the zip-ties, let the fencing fall into place, and used three zipties to close it back up.

There was no sense in trying to tell the others to be careful when we moved down the incline. The wind was screaming, and if I'd tried to speak the wind would whip away my words like I'd never tried to speak.

We were crossing the street, only a couple dozen paces from the barracks when it happened.

The hair on my body stood up. I could taste sharp ozone on my back teeth where my fillings were, and the snap of my helmet grew hot.

The world turned purple and the following detonation of thunder was more than a sound, it was earth shattering, it was all consuming, it was beyond anything else. I was thrown to the ground, convulsing as I lost control of my body. A weapon cooked off, the gunfire almost drowned out by the thunder.

With a groan I rolled over, pushing myself to my feet. My ears were ringing as I fumbled for the tether and began crawling back. Bomber clonked his helmet against mine, his eyes wild behind his goggles and cold weather mask. I pointed behind him and he nodded, turning to crawl back to check on the next person in line.

My muscles hurts and my right shoulder was burning in pain. I started moving forward, hoping the tether wasn't hung up and that King was alive, conscious, and paying attention. When I hit the end he was supposed to feed me more line, but if he was alive or unconscious I'd hit the end pretty quickly.

When I hit the end I jerked twice. I counted to two and tugged again, getting slack. My head still buzzing I check for the red of Stokes' flare. I was glad I did, I was about to head in the wrong direction, moving parallel to the barracks instead of toward it.

Five more steps and my body hair stood up again. I dove to the ground as the world turned purple again and the thunder pounded on me. It wasn't sound, it was physical thing that hit me like a hammer. Burning pain filled me as I hit the ground and I convulsed again. I managed to roll over and got to my feet. It took a moment to spot Stokes' flare, but I found it, and started staggering toward the barracks.

A few more steps and the tingling hit again. The world became purple light the hammering of pressure as I dove forward, my head slamming into a solid surface that made sparks appear in my vision. I fell next to the flare, convulsing, then rolling away from it as the burning feeling faded. I pawed at the wall, finding the door handle, and pressed the thumb release, pulling hard against the wind.

It was locked.

The goddamn door was locked.

And we were stuck outside.

Chapter 15

2/19th Special Weapons Group
Restricted Area, Alfenwehr West Germany
Late Winter- January, 1988
Day 11 of Repairs
Day 3 of the Second Incident

Bomber hit the wall next to me, dragging Levins. Lanks crawled up next, followed by Nancy and Stokes carrying Johnson's stretcher. Meeks came up next, supported by Aine, and King came last.

I hammered on the door, trying to get it to open, yelling at the barracks for someone to open up.

"We'll never make it to the CQ, not with the mountain trying to kill us!" Bomber yelled. The barracks was cutting down on the wind, so we could hear one another, but it was still brutal. "That last hit almost killed me!"

"King!" I bellowed out. King moved over to me, a gust of wind staggering him.

"What?" Another lightning strike blotted out whatever else King said and threw us bodily against the barracks. I groaned, rolled over, and slapped the door. Nancy and Stokes had dropped to their knees and the stretcher tilted dangerously. If they hadn't had used cargo straps to secure Johnson's body to it he'd have fallen off.

"Use the C-4, blow open the door!" I yelled at him, pulling myself to my feet.

"Negative, I open my blasting cap pack, strip the foil, and-…" Thunder and lightning, throwing King against me at the air boomed.

We weren't being hit by lightning strikes. We were inside the cloud anchor of the bolt. It surrounded us, making the lightning all consuming.

Aine lunged against the wall. I could see her eyes through her goggles, wide and staring, and I realized I was seeing something I'd never seen before. She was terrified.

"Why aren't we going inside?" She screeched.

"Door's locked." I yelled back.

"We'll never make it to the CQ door!" Bomber yelled back.

Aine stood there for a moment, then squirmed out of her LBE, rucksack, and parka.

"What are you doing?" I yelled.

"I can make it! I'm uninjured!" She yelled back, pulling off her helmet, mask, goggles, and Kevlar. She stood there in her winter BDU's only for a moment, then whirled and vanished into the snow.

"What's she doing?" Stokes yelled.

"She's running for another entrance!" King shouted back.

"Spread out, along the building, five meter inter…-" I started.

Purple bloomed, I was airborne for a second, and I hit the ground in convulsions, my chest burning and heart hammering. I rolled onto my stomach and managed to get on my knees before the purple hammer of Thor slammed into us again, crushing me against the ground, sending me convulsing again.

I was losing feeling in my legs and arms. My shoulder was on fire, and my left arm in the middle of the forearm. Weirdly enough my gums and teeth hurt.

"The mountain's going to slaughter us, we gotta get inside!" Nancy yelled.

I turned and began slamming the butt of my weapon against the door in a steady rhythm.

"What about a window? Climb into someone else's window?" Meeks asked.

"None of the floor windows have been fixed. We'd have to get through the plywood and-…" The hair stood up on my body, giving me a split second warning before the lightning bloomed around us. The convulsions racked me and my helmet fell off, hitting the pavement and rolling into the fog the surrounded us. Blood ran down my throat and I swallowed, knowing that my nose was bleeding behind my cold weather mask.

Bomber beat me to standing up, hammering on the door with his weapon. Meeks and Lanks were still on the ground. Nancy and Stokes managed to get to their feet before King, who almost fell but managed to keep his feet. Levins managed to get up, stumbling back a step or two till he was just silhouetted in the fog.

"We're going to have to go for the middle stairwell!" Bomber yelled, turning from the door.

The door chose right then to slam open. Aine was still in the motion of kicking the door open, her boot extended out. She stumbled out and Bomber caught her, sweeping her inside.

"Get in, get in, get in!" I yelled, reaching down and grabbing Lanks, who was crawling forward, and throwing her into the building. Stokes and Nancy moved past, each holding one handle on an end of the stretcher, the other end grinding on the pavement as they staggered forward. Meeks staggered, half falling over Lanks.

I turned, waved at King, and looked. Who else was left?

Levins stumbled out of the fog, his helmet missing as well as his cold weather mask, blood covering his face. I grabbed him, pulling him with me into the building. As soon as I grabbed him he turned to dead weight.

Aine was screaming as the door slammed right before outside turned purple again. She was backed up against the far stairwell door, her eyes wide, screaming in terror, her hands pulling at her hair.

"What was that? What in the name of Ankou was that?" she screamed.

"Nancy, Levins is hurt!" I yelled. I was still half-deaf. I was still holding onto him and he was convulsing, one hand slapping against my chest and his foot kicking my leg.

Nancy moved over to him, rolling him onto his back and pushing me away in the same motion. I got to my feet, using one hand against the wall to steady myself. My shoulder burned, my back teeth throbbed, and my left forearm ached.

"Can you move him?" I asked Nancy, looking down the darkness of Queer Country. Maybe three lights were on, and the darkness was pushing in. "We need to get moving right now."

"I'll carry him." Aine said, her voice still shaking with fear.

"Are you… oh." Nancy said. I looked back and saw that Aine had slung Levins across her shoulder. Blood was dripping onto the tile from his head.

"Let's go, doubletime it." I said. I managed to break into a shambling jog. I could hear the others following, their boots echoing in the hallway. There was another peal of thunder, outside at least, and the heavy cinderblock walls muted it to dull rumble instead of the world consuming crash that almost knocked us out from the sheer force of it.

The middle doors screeched when I went through and something broke in the hydraulic cylinder on the right door, a chunk of metal pinging off of the frost covered floor in front of us.

Ahead of us the double doors leading into Titty Territory were open, one of the pool tables tipped over on its side to block it. I could see craters in the felt of the table, exposing the heavy slate underneath. Someone popped up underneath.

"Halt! Who goes there?" Corporal Lancer called out. I could see that he had his weapon over the top of the table.

"Echo Five Actual, coming in with wounded!" I called out.

"Lieutenant James, Ant and the others are coming back." Lancer yelled. Four more steps and Lancer called out to us. "Use the stairwell doors, sending some out."

Six more steps and I saw the door to the stairwell open. PV2 Davies led the way, in full battle rattle and his assault rifle held at port arms. Cassius and James followed him, both in full gear with rifles.

"What the fuck happened?" Davies asked. "Christ, Ant, are you OK?"

"Get the wounded. Bomber, you're with me. Stokes, you're with Nagle, try to keep them alive." I snapped, pushing past the other three men. Tables had been put against the stairs leading up, braced with two four drawer filing cabinets that had obviously been taken out of the small office behind the CQ Area. PFC Osterhaus and PFC Richardson were standing on the landing, both in full gear with their rifles. They stared as we staggered past them. My ruck, the claymore bags, and my cold weather gear felt like they weighed a ton, were bogging me down, but there was nothing that could be done about it.

The CQ Area was dimly lit. What was left of Rear-D was gathered up in the Day Room, although the LT was standing up from behind the CQ Desk, motioned at me to move over by him.

"Corporal Ant, come here please." He said calmly.

I staggered up to the CQ Desk, half falling against it. I pulled my cold weather mask off with the goggles in one smooth movement. I pulled my rifle over my head and dropped it on the CQ desk. The LT's eyes opened wide. I noticed that he had a bloody cut across his temple, the blood clotted, the skin on either side of the cut was swollen and upraised, with bruising around it.

"I think I'm going to need a full report, Corporal." He said. He turned to SPC Davis. "Report to Specialist Nagle, see what kind of aid you can give her."

Major Mallory was sitting against the far wall, the wadded up paper in his mouth replaced by a cravat. He glared at me as I staggered around the pillar and grabbed a chair, half falling into it and sitting down heavily.

LT James reached out, pulled open the CQ drawer, and plucked a bottle of vodka out of the drawer. Without saying a word he uncapped it and handed it to me. I took a deep pull off of it, noticing that the LT reached over to his wrist and plucked something, the snap of a rubber band against skin popping.

"We're in trouble." I told him. "We took heavy casualties, shit, we got hammered." I took another drink and shook my head. "Something's not right."

The LT pulled a chair around and sat down in front of me, waiting.

"We hammered the Vympel, but then everything went to shit. " I took another long drink. "The mountain started bouncing us around with goddamn lightning. The rear door was locked." I was silent for a long moment. "My men trusted me, and I fucking blew it."

Stokes came up, putting her hand on me. I looked up after taking another drink. She shook her head. "Johnson's dead, so's Levins. Everyone else has electrical burns and Nancy is worried about internal bleeding and burns from the lightning. Nancy says that Lanks and Meeks aren't critical." She turned at Nancy's call and moved away, staggering slightly as she did so, her limp much more pronounced.

The LT put his elbows on his knees and steepled his fingers, leaning forward slightly. "Corporal, I need a report. Get out of your cold weather gear and start at the beginning."

My fingers were clumsy when I stripped off my battle rattle and extreme cold weather gear. When I went to switch my boots one of the bootlaces snapped, looking melted somehow. I cursed and just resigned myself to my left boot being loose.

When I'd folded up my parka and dropped it on top of my ruck, my cold weather mask and goggles landing on top of them. I collapsed back into the chair and rubbed my face, the left side of my face burning.

I told the LT what had happened, starting at arming everyone up and finishing up with grabbing Levins when he came out of the fog and snow.

The LT didn't interrupt, didn't scoff at the part where Tandy drug Needlemeyer into the fog, didn't change expression or make any disgusted noises when I admitted to taking a round at the top of my helmet that shut me down. I noticed that several times he glanced at the bottle of vodka in my hand that I kept drinking off of, and a few times he reached to his wrist and snapped a rubber band he had there.

When I lit a smoke and leaned back he nodded slowly.

"Corporal Ant, you've led men in combat before, correct?" He asked.

"Yes, sir." I answered.

"Then you know that victory is not merely ours to command. The enemy has a vested interest in obtaining victory, in surviving the combat." He told me. He wasn't looking at me, with a chill I realized he was paying attention to something only he could see. "One of the responsibilities of military command is to attempt to minimize your casualties, but you will take casualties, that is part of combat. Men, and now, women will die under your command." There was the snap of the rubberband again. "You will give orders that will result in fatalities, but you will make sure that those lives were not wasted, that any blood or lives spent were to accomplish an objective of strategic or tactical advantage." He reached out and patted my knee. "Go to Specialist Nagle, I want her to check you out and make sure that your injuries aren't life-threatening."

"Yes, sir." I said, pushing myself up. I offered him the bottle of vodka.

"Share it with your fire team, Corporal." He told me. "Draw replacements from Rear Detachment, bring your fire team back up to strength." He motioned at the pool tables in front of the entrance to Titty Territory. The one against the entrance had its legs removed and a second one braced against it.

Unlike movies a couch or a chair wouldn't stop an assault rifle round, but one of the reasons that pool tables were so heavy was they usually had a half inch to an inch of slate under the felt. That meant that there was two layers of slate, separated by thick wood and plastic, with another layer of wood and plastic on our side. It would work to stop AK-47 rounds for awhile, until constant fire shattered the slate too much for it to stop the bullets.

Davies and Lancer were crouched down behind it, looking over it and down the hallway. The stairwell door was open and I could see Oberhaust and Richardson were standing in the hallway keeping watch on the stairwell. PFC Littles and Pvt Spaklin were keeping an eye on the glass entryway.

Nancy, Stokes, and everyone else were in the Rec Room, where the pool tables had been pulled from. The ping pong table was laying out, and Meeks was laying on it, stripped to the waist. His brown skin looked ashy, and he was shivering. The Donkey Kong JR video game had been pulled over next to the ping pong table so that Nancy could hang IV bags from it.

Bomber was standing next to the pool table, an FM in front of him, and he was flipping through the pages. The side of Bomber's face was blistered, half his mustache burned away, and one eye swollen closed. Where the snap to his helmet had been there was a blister the size of a quarter on his jaw.

Lanks was sitting against the wall. Her hair looked crisped, a blister like Bomber's on her jaw, and she'd suffered a nose bleed and there was dried blood under her ear. She was drinking from her canteen and I noticed that her rucksack and parka both looked scorched, the nylon of both of them shiny in patches.

Aine was standing next to King. King was still holding the M-60 but had shed his cold weather gear. Like everyone else he had a blister on the side of his jaw, around his rank on his collar his BDU cloth was scorched and the rank below the blister was missing the black paint/enamel. Aine had suffered a nose bleed, her hair was singed and she was missing an eyebrow as well as the eyelashes beneath that eyebrow. She was rubbing her hands, still shivering, and she looked frightened.

Part of me took a lot of joy in the fact that she was scared.

Levins and Johnson were both moved to the side. Both of them had their cold weather masks over their faces and their necks covered.

I'd lost them both on the fucking mountain. Neither one of them were even 20 years old, and I'd led them straight into the goddamn morgue. The fucking Soviets had killed one, and Tandy had killed Levins in the fog less than three paces from the door to the barracks.

Rage roared up inside of me, pushing away the pain.

Meeks cried out in pain as Nagle wrapped a cravat around his left wrist. I noticed his right arm was already wrapped in gauze.

"Davis, hold him down." Nancy ordered. She bent over Meeks and smiled. "This is going to hurt, honey, but your shoulder is dislocated. The longer I wait to set it, the worse it'll be."

"Just do it." Meeks grunted, sweating. He squirmed slightly as Stokes laid half on the ping pong table and grabbed him around the torso. Stokes nodded at Nancy who set her feet.

"On three." Nancy told him. "One. Two." She yanked the cravat, pulling Meeks arm straight out with a loud crunch. Meeks screamed through gritted teeth, and Aine licked her lips, staring at the suffering man. The fear left her face, and I saw a flicker of obscene hunger in her eyes before her smile appeared. Shy, demure, a little thing, but I knew that Meeks' pain made her feel better.

"You said three, bitch." Meeks groaned.

"I know, baby, I know." Nagle said, pushing against his pectoral. Meeks hissed in pain. "Describe the pain when you inhale."


"Any tightness?" Nagle asked, her fingers pressing along his rib.

"No. Just hurts to breathe." Meeks answered.

"Cracked rib, deep tissue bruising, but I don't think you're in any danger." Nancy told him, slapping his stomach. "Sit up, troop, get dressed." She turned to King. "Get on the table, King."

King nodded, moving over to me and handing me the pig. I cradled it in my arms, passing the time while Nancy checked over King with running a function check on the pig. The right hand bipod strut was damaged, the paint missing, and the metal scarred. It was jammed up, and when I pulled on the charging handle it barely moved. Six rounds were expended but were still in the belt. The lightning or the ambient charge in the air from the strikes must have cooked them off somehow. We were lucky nobody was hit by the 7.62mm NATO rounds.

When she was done checking King she checked Bomber. Bomber had a burn on his back the size of my palm, and another burn on the back of his right hand, not counting the burn on the side of his face that looked like a bad sunburn and the quarter sized blister on his jaw.

"Ant, strip to the waist and get up on the table, I need to check you out." She told me. I handed the pig back to King, who took it and set it down on the other ping pong table and began pulling it apart. His hands were shaking slightly as he worked.

When I took off my BDU top her eyes narrowed. "Did you take a hit?" She asked.

"No. It's not mine." I told her. She nodded, watching as I took off my T-shirt. I had a little trouble, since it hurt a lot to try to raise my arm above my head. She looked at Stokes while I climbed onto the ping pong table. "Davis, get that manual out of my SF bag, open it up to the electrical burn section." She turned her attention back to me. "Lay on your stomach first."

She touched a spot on my back, to the right of my spine and just above my floating ribs. I winced and she turned to Bomber. "Hand me the silvadene." I felt her rubbing something into my skin that cooled the hot and burning patch on my back that I hadn't noticed until she had touched it.

"All of us so far have burns and we all have burns from where our dogtags were on our chest." Nagle said. "So far I'm pretty none of us took direct hits from the lightning. Damndest thing."

"We were in the ion haze." King said, looking up from where he was using his Leatherman to tear apart the feeding mechanism. "I was initially in 10th Mountain, I remember someone mentioning that at high altitude the lightning strike expands into an ion haze when it jumps to the ground or from cloud to cloud." He twisted his Leatherman and a melted spring popped out of the weapon. "Lightning isn't a single bolt, but about a half dozen that happens in less than a second, but because we were up in the ion haze it was one long stroke.

"How come it kept hitting us?" Meeks asked, rubbing his chest and shoulder.

"It just felt like it was hitting us. The ion haze is pretty damn big, and it doesn't help that the barracks has an electrical charge." King slid his blade into something in the top tray and twisted. "We were just surrounded by juice."

"Roll over, Ant." Nagle told me. I grunted and managed to roll onto my back. She grimaced. "Goddamn it. Davis, in the bag there's an instrument pack, open the damn thing up and set it next to me." I closed my eyes and tried to relax as she began prodding at my shoulder. It hurt like a motherfucker.

"Corporal Ant, why are you not on convalescent leave if you still have staples in your shoulder?" The LT asked suddenly. I opened my eyes to see him looking down at me. Behind him Sergeant Butcher and Sergeant White were standing there staring at us.

I noticed neither one of the E-5's were carrying their weapons.

"They cut out convalescent leave short due to mission essential status, and he had to have the staples replaced last week when the doctors had to go back in." Nagle told him, rooting through the instruments until she pulled up a thing that looked like a three pronged needlenose pliers.

"Why does he have blisters and small burns seemingly at random upon his shoulder?" The LT asked. I noticed he had moved a step back.

"The electrical discharge went through our bodies, and those burns pretty much match up with the impants the surgeons put in him." Nagle said, taking the needlenose and opening them. There was two prongs that slid underneath, the middle one went over the top of the staple. She squeezed the handle and the middle prong pressed down on the staple, lifting the metal prongs out of my skin.

"Should you be removing those staples, Specialist?" The LT asked. His voice was disinterested, almost aloof. "I am concerned that removing the staples will put Corporal Ant at risk of tearing open that wound."

"The skin around the staples is burned, if I don't remove the staples he runs the risk of having holes in his shoulder like a pierced ear, infection, and further tissue damage." Nagle said, removing two more.

Davis was examining my left arm. She looked up. "He's got a burn on his forearm, Specialist Nagle, around a scar."

"He's got an implant in his forearm. They had to put a chunk of steel in his arm to fix where the ulna was broken in May." Nagle said. "Smear silvadene on it, hopefully the muscle and bone aren't too damaged." She dropped two more staples next to me.

"I apologize for this inquiry while you are giving Corporal Ant medical care, Speciaist, but seeing as his injuries do no appear life threatening I would prefer to have you brief me so that I may quickly write up a report while you finish tending to the wounded." The LT's voice was still dispassionate, remote, aloof. "What was the cause of death for Private Johnson?" The LT asked.

Nancy's shoulders slumped slightly and I saw the pain in her eyes. The LT surprised me by putting his hand on her shoulder and squeezing gently. "I have the utmost confidence that the deaths of those soldiers who were slain was not due to any negligence on your behalf, Specialist Nagle, nor any negligence on the behalf of Corporal Ant. I am not seeking to place the blame upon anyone, that will be for a formal inquiry, if and when one is held, Specialist Nagle, but my duty requires me to gather this information as soon as possible."

Nagle popped another staple out of my shoulder before speaking. Her posture straightened and her voice firmed up.

I also noticed, with a slight twinge of jealousy, that she didn't tell the LT to remove his hand.

"Private Johnson was hit by multiple bullets from an AK-47. One struck him in the left shoulder, exiting just to the right of his spine at the fourth rib. Another bullet struck him the throat, to the left of his laranyx, exiting from the back of the neck at his spine. The last hit him under the nose, exiting from the back of his head and lodging in his helmet." She shook her head. "At first I thought he had bled to death from the throat injury, but when I checked him out after our return I'm pretty sure that death was instantaneous." A single tear fell from her eye and tracked down her cheek. She'd removed six more staples while she had been speaking. "It was during our clash with the Vympel team, and while he was killed, he was able to kill the man who killed him." Another tear, from the other eye, rolled down her cheek. She dropped two more staples into the gauze.

Davis finished putting a layer of silvadene on my arm, the paste turning the burning pain to a cool feeling with a slight throbbing.

The LT gave Nagle a minute, during which she pulled out the last of the staples, and held her hand out for the small tub of silvadene, which Davis handed her. She began applying it to the half-healed scar across my shoulder, and dabbing it on the dime sized burns that were starting to appear.

"Specialist Needlemeyer was taken by the entity referred to as 'Tandy', am I correct?" The LT asked. Nagle nodded. "Thank you, Specialist Nagle." He glanced over at where the two bodies were laid out. "Have you determined the cause of death for Private First Class Levins?"

Nancy bowed her head slightly, the tongue depressor she was using to apply the silvadene to the burn on my collarbone from where a clip was put into it.

"I don't know what caused the wounds." Nancy admitted. "He suffered a loss of most of the epidermis on the left side of his face, the loss of his left eye, most of the soft tissue of his throat." She closed her eyes, her hands going still. "He suffered eight deep puncture wounds, four above each collarbone."

There was silence, just breathing, broken only by King grunting as he kept working on the pig and the snap of metal breaking free.

"In your estimation, Specialist Nagle, what caused Private First Class Levins' fatal injuries?" The LT asked. I heard the snap of the rubberband.

"Tandy killed him and pushed him to us to let us know he could have taken us at any time if he wanted." Nagle said. "He did it on purpose, he wants us to know what he can do in only a few seconds. He grabbed Levins, just like he always does, at the shoulders, pulled him into the fog, and ripped his face and throat apart just because he can."

Sergeant Butcher scoffed at that. "You seriously expect us to believe that this Tandy bullshit is real? Come on, Nagle, we're all a little old for scary stories." Nagle's scar went from a light pink to a deep purple and her eyes glowed with fury.

The LT went rigid, and I saw his right eyelid twitch before his calm mask hid his anger. He turned around slowly, a slow motion parade ground perfect about face.

"Sergeant Butcher." His tone was cold, clinical, but I could feel the animosity and malevolence rolling off of him. "The entity known commonly as 'Tandy' is a well documented event. It has killed or injured over a dozen soldiers since it began snowing in September. That entity has been the subject of investigations by Criminal Investigations Division, one visitation by an aide of a senior member of the United States Senate Committee on Armed Services, and other investigative bodies. It is not rumor, he is not an urban legend, nor is it the product of mass hysteria or delusion."

Sergeant Butcher had stepped back from the LT, but I lost sight of the two men when Nancy put two fingers on the side of my jaw and moved my head so I was staring straight up and then removed my glasses.

"You have a burn where your glasses were touching your skin, honey." Nancy told me. "And I want to check your head, you took a pretty bad hit to your skull and I want to make sure that nothing is wrong. I don't want you dying on me, honey."

She began applying the burn cream at the top of my cheeks, between my eyebrows, and at my temples, while the LT kept speaking.

"Our situation is extremely tenuous, Sergeant. We are cut off from any support or reinforcement. We have no options for withdrawl and cannot obtain extraction at this time. We have no communication with anyone else due to weather conditions and what I believe to be deliberate sabotage. We have enemy elements with an unknown agenda who have killed one soldier under my command, aggressed us less than an hour ago with the intent of killing or capturing us, as well as what I believe to be infiltrators in our command structure." His voice grew hard. "If you have any objections to keeping an open mind, following my orders, or supporting our operations at this time you are free to remove yourself from the chain of command, act under protest, or whatever you feel the UCMJ requires of you." He paused for a second. "However, any objection you have, will be dutifully recorded and you shall be required to sign off on the paperwork in order to ensure its accuracy."

There was silence as Nancy began pressing on my skull, starting a few fingerwidths from where they'd put stitches in my scalp.

"Sergeant White, Sergeant Butcher, are you ready to carry out my orders?" The LT asked. The malevolence was practically a physical thing, and I heard Aine sigh with desire a little ways away. There was a snap as King managed to break free another part in the feed mechanism of the M-60 from where the electrical current had spotwelded it.

"Yes, sir." Sergeant White said, but I could hear the petulance in his voice.

"Yes, sir." Sergeant Butcher said. He sounded reluctant to me.

Nancy pressed on the spot that should have made me start to throw up after the hit I'd taken to the top of the helmet, but other than a little discomfort and a faint twinge it didn't hurt at all.

"Sergeant White, wake up the next shift of guard duty and make the rounds. You were assigned Sergeant of the Guard and have duties to perform. Dismissed." The LT's voice brooked no argument. "Sergeant Butcher, I advise you to get some rest as I have assigned you the next shift as Sergeant of the Guard and Sergeant White will need you to relieve him in the next few hours. Dismissed."

I heard Sergeant Butcher leave, his bootsteps thumping on the tile. "Close the door, Sergeant Butcher." The doors closed and there was silence, broken only by King working and the gurgle of a canteen as someone took a drink.

"Have you checked the female soldiers yet, Specialist Nagle?" the LT asked after Nagle slapped my bare chest and told me to get dressed.

"No, sir." She answered.

"The male soldiers and myself will leave the room. Ensure that the female soldiers are suffering from no crippling or potentially fatal injuries." He told her. Nagle nodded, and the LT turned toward the door. "Gentlemen, let us withdraw and give the female soldiers their privacy that is their right under the UCMJ and their due out of respect for them as people."

Bomber, Davis and Meeks started to follow, King picking up the pig and shoving the pieces he'd pulled off of it into his thigh pockets, and I turned away from Nancy.

"Ant, I need you to stay." Nagle said. The LT turned at the same time I did.

"I do not believe it is appropriate for a male soldier to be in the room at this time." The LT said.

"He can have his back to us, but I need him in here to act as a guard." Nagle said.

"Do any female soldiers have any objections to Corporal Ant remaining to act as guard?" The LT asked.

None were raised, and I watched everyone else leave. Behind me Nagle told Aine she was first and to strip down to her panties. From what I could overhear Aine was fine, no frostbite, no bruises, just a burn on her fingers around and under her rings and a burn between her breasts where her dogtags had rested. Nancy told her to get dressed, and had Lanks get up on the ping pong table next. Lanks had bruising on her stomach, but Nancy was sure she didn't have anything ruptured inside of her, checking her appendix three times just to be sure. When Nagle mentioned that she'd prefer to check her appendix with a rectal exam Lanks told her in no uncertain terms that it wasn't going to happen. Lanks was excused and Stokes was next. Stokes had the same burn on the chest we all did from our dogtags.

"You've got mild frostbite on your pinky and ring finger on your left hand, Miranda. Soak your hand in cool water, then warm water, hopefully that will take care of it." Nancy told her. "Get dressed. Ant, I need you to check me out."

"Wait a minute before you turn around, all right, Ant?" Stokes asked.

"No problem." I told her. A vision of her large breasts popped into my head but I shoved it and the temptation to sneak a peek away. I heard Stokes gasp and Nancy tell her to be quiet.

"All right, Ant." I heard Nancy say. I turned around and she was laying on the ping pong table, shivering slightly. She'd stripped down to nothing and was laying on her stomach. She was bleeding from her butt cheek, a slow trickle of blood from a hole in the meat of the left cheek.

"Some of the rounds in the 20-round magazine I keep in my back pocket cooked off." She said softly. "It really hurts. How bad is it?"

I moved up and touched the swollen and puffy skin. She hissed in pain, but I kept examining it. ""No exit wound, I can't feel the round so it's gotta be in pretty deep."

"In the instrument box there's something called a probe. Get a thin one, and slide it into the wound, that'll tell you how far in it is." She told me. She looked over at Stokes. "Miranda, open up that manual to gunshot wounds." She shivered. "This is really going to hurt."

I found the probe pretty quick, and following Miranda's instructions I found out it was embedded about two and a half inches into Nancy's bubble butt. She ground her teeth and whimpered once, but other than that she didn't make any noise as I probed at the wound.

"Tell me what to do, Stokes." I said.

"You're going to have to widen the wound enough to get a pair of forceps in there and remove the bullet." Stokes answered. "Umm, there's a sidebar here."

"What does it say?" Nancy asked, her body covered in sweat.

"It says that bullets heat up enough that they are sterile when they lodge into the body. It remarks that we should leave it unless it is life threatening." Stokes read off.

"Well, Nagle, do I remove it?" I asked.

"No. No offense, Ant, but I'd prefer to avoid you performing surgery on me." She said. I chuckled. "What does it recommend?"

"Clean and bandage the wound, stitch it closed if necessary." Stokes said.

"Do it." Nancy said, breathing deep.

It took three stitches to close the wound, my stitches weren't very neat. Nancy didn't say anything, just laid there relaxed like she was on the beach. She had a few burns on her back, but I applied silvadene and bandages like what all of us had gotten. When she rolled over I took a look at her. She had a burn on top of her right breast, probably from her dogtags, a burn on her finger where her two rings were, bruising over her right floating rib (she admitted that when she dove to the ground it had driven her ammo pouch into her) but the rib was fine, and the blister on her jaw from the button of her helmet strap.

She got dressed and stood next to me, leaning against me. I put an arm around her and hugged her tight.

"I love you, babe." I told her. I saw anger flash across Aine's face as Nagle purred low in the throat and rubbed the top of her head against my shoulder.

"I know." She answered. A victorious expression showed on Aine's face for a split second, and I knew what the tiny woman was thinking.

…She loves me, bitch, we both know it, so don't think it means you can take me….

"We need to get some rest." Nagle said.

"I'm fucking wiped out." Stokes admitted.

"I'm all right." Aine tossed in.


"Get some sleep, keep your gear and weapon within reach." I told them. "We'll go through everyone's gear in the morning and see what was damaged in the lightning strikes." I looked around the Rec Room. "I would say we'd bunk in here, but I think…" I waved at Levins and Johnson's bodies.

"I know." Nancy said, hugging me and letting go.

"Go bed down in the Day Room. I need to talk to the LT." I told them. When I left the Rec-Room I saw the LT behind the CQ Desk, looking at some paperwork. I went around the pillar at the end of the desk, taking a look at Major Mallory to make sure he wasn't getting loose, and went to stand next to the LT.

He was looking at the maps of the barracks that were always in the back of the CQ Log. The LT had drawn on the map. Crosshatching the Orderly Room, Ready Room, and those areas, the CQ Area and the rooms attached to it. On the margins of the map he'd written everyone's name and ranks, putting marks in front of the name to denote something. I figured the ampersand in front of the names of myself and the other soldiers that had gone with me meant we were on QRF. Seeing Needlemeyer, Johnson, and Levins' names all meticulously lined out hurt inside, but I shoved that feeling down. There were additional symbols in front of the survivors of QRF, as well as a couple others, and I assumed those marks meant we were injured.

When I stopped next to him he turned his head to look at me. Once again I noticed the dried blood on the side of his head and the injury from what I was assuming was a graze from a bullet.

"You and your, what is the vernacular you use, crew?" He asked. I nodded. "You and your 'crew' are all in need of a shower and clean uniforms." I nodded. "However, at this time, because I am unsure of where the enemy commander may have stationed elements, that is not an option at this time." His hands moved and I heard the snap of the rubberband again. "Right now our morale is shaky. When elements of the enemy attacked this position, thankfully after we had already fortified, a few soldiers forgot their training." I opened my mouth to protest and he held up his hand. "I do not look down upon a soldier who displays normal human reactions to sudden violence. It merely highlights that their chain of command has been remiss in their duties and the training of that soldier."

I retrieved the vodka bottle from my thigh pocket and opened it, taking a drink off of it as he continued. "In the morning I want the Quick Reaction Force to do maintenance checks of their weaponry and replace any damaged components or replace any weapons that have suffered any damage that cannot be easily repaired."

"Yes, sir." I answered. "PFC King is trying to repair the M-60, but I would feel better if he simply swapped it out for another one. I don't want it failing when we need it."

The LT nodded. "Since you are armorer trained I will be advised by your expertise." He tapped the map on Titty Territory. "Last time they aggressed from this direction." His finger moved to the stairwell. "This is a likely point of aggression, the same with here." He pointed at the front doors. "Tomorrow we will come up with a plan to repulse the aggressors, regain control of the Group Area, and ensure that we can hold out until an extraction team arrives." He shuffled the maps together and put them into a vinyl covered folder normally used for vehicle dispatches. I saw a lot of paperwork in there and caught the phrase: 'recommend posthumous promotions as well as Army Commendation Medals for the deceased' before it snapped shut. He turned back to me. "Get some rest, Corporal, that's an order."

"I'm a little wound up, sir." I told him, digging out my pack of cigarettes and lighting one. "I'll go to sleep once I calm down a bit."

He nodded and began moving toward the Rec Room. "I, myself, will be bedding down with the others. Tell Sergeant White, when he returns, that you are not his relief, and I assigned you to guard the prisoner for a set period of time."

"Yes, sir." I answered, turning to face Major Mallory and smiling at him. The other man's eyes widened in fear. "Rest well, sir."

"I shall, Corporal. I hope that you are able to do the same." The Rec Room door closed after him.

His stilted way of talking, formal, correct, was off putting, but now that I was used to it it didn't bother me that badly. While I didn't like him, and he still gave me the heebie jeebies, I found myself trusting the man.

Besides, he was willing to back me up against Sergeant Butcher and Sergeant White, both men who seemed to have a serious problem with me.

If either of them posed a risk to Bomber, Stokes, or Nancy's safety, I'd shank them myself and throw them out into the snow.

Another long pull on the bottle left less than a third of it left, and when I was recapping it the doors to the Rec Room opened up, Bomber closing them after Nancy and Miranda came through.

"Plan, Ant?" Bomber asked. He looked at Major Mallory. "Don't think I've forgotten about you, traitor."

"At ease that shit." I told him. I stretched, winced when my shoulder popped, and ignored Nancy's glare when it did so. "Get some sleep. If there's food…"

"There's MRE's in the Day Room." Stokes said. "Catch." I turned in time to catch the brown plastic bag. Chicken ala King, AKA Catshit ala Crap. I tore open the bag.

"Did you guys already eat." They nodded. "Good. Get some sleep, we need it. Any of your sleeping bags get ruined out there?" They all shook their heads. Bomber picked up the vodka off the counter, unscrewed it, and took a drink before replacing the cap and putting the bottle back. "I think the LT is planning something for tomorrow and we're probably going to be the head of the spear. We need to be sharp."

They nodded, standing up. Bomber reached forward and squeezed my shoulder. Nagle gave me a kiss and a hug, and Stokes just smiled and patted my shoulder before they all went back into the Day Room.

My helmet had gotten left behind, but my ruck was behind the CQ Desk. In the top flap pocket I found a softcap where I always put them. I tugged it on, took another pull off the vodka, and put my feet up on the desk. The lights were dim, which was nice, and I could see where more than a few of the light sockets were empty. The bulbs were in an empty MRE box under the long counter that served as the CQ Desk.

I lit another cigarette, tilting back in the chair with the bottle in my lap. Hell, I couldn't remember where I'd left my XM-16E1, but the bandoleers of 40mm grenades were under my flak vest and LBE, which were under my ruck.

Bomber's gear was over by one of the other chairs and I spotted the fag-bag he'd stuffed full of everything he'd taken off the enemy soldiers. I got up and grabbed it and the flashlight off his LBE, sitting back down. My flashlight was shot, the plastic casing slightly warped and the blue lens cracked.

They had the Soviet version of the Geneva Convention Card, identifying them as military personnel rather than spies. Bomber had grabbed all the dogtags and I looked at them. I knew the big Texan, and knew that he hadn't grabbed the dogtags as souvenirs or more intel, but rather so when it was all over their families could be notified.

Even if Tandy had dragged away the bodies and eaten them.

I recorded all the letters and numbers on the dogtags in my green notebook, which I'd transferred from the back pocket of my Levi jeans to the pocket of my BDU's. Unlike most troops I didn't leave my green notebook behind, even in civvies, I always kept it on me.

After recording the numbers I made rubbings of the tags, managing to fit three tags per page. I took the time to outline the upraised parts in case the pencil lead smeared too much.

Bomber had the stuff we'd pulled from the fake SEALs, and I grabbed the billfolds and opened them up, copying them to the best of my ability into my green notebook. The letters across the ID's pissed me off to no end.

Despite the rage inside of me directed at the Spetz I didn't hate them. I was angry that they'd come to kill me, angry that they'd almost killed me personally, had killed one of my men, but it was part of the deal. We all knew the risks when we put on the uniform and took the money.

No, the hatred was for the fake SEALs, the 'Colonel' and 'Captain Duloc', just as much as it was for the dead SFC Tashton and fucking Major Mallory sitting tied to the chair.

The Russians were doing their duty. Following the lawful orders of their superiors. What they were doing was legitimate, as we were a legitimate pre-hostilities military target. There was nothing underhanded, really, definitely nothing to hate about what they were doing, and no reason to hate them.

My hatred was reserved for the men who were betraying their country.

Major Mallory started making noises, rocking the chair, and it pulled my attention to him. I scooped everything, including the billfolds, back into the fag-bag and clipped it onto my LBE, apparently ignoring Major Mallory's struggles.

When I stood up and walked toward him I drew my knife between my first and second step. Major Mallory's eyes widened and he stopped struggling in the chair, drawing back from me.

I pulled the gag from his mouth, kneeling down in front of him. "You wanted my attention, pumpkin?" I asked. I knew I was smiling again.

"I gotta piss." Mallory said.

"Then piss." I told him.

"I'm not pissing myself, you little punk." The Major said. "Untie me so I can use the latrine."

I laughed at him and went to put the gag back in. When he tried to turn his head I put the point of my knife against his lower eyelid. "Go ahead, pumpkin." I told him. "I'll just shank your fat ass." He let me put the gag in and I went back over to my chair after checking the zip-ties. One zip-tie around the arm or leg of the chair, another zip-tie on the Major's wrist or ankle, a third and fourth used to connect the two together, both of them looped together rather than in a chain. Safe, secure, and hard to break.

The vodka was warm when I took another swig. I set it down on the CQ Desk and headed over to the soda machines, pulling out my wallet and getting a dollar bill out. I bought two Mountain Dews and wandered back to the CQ Desk, cracking one open and starting in on the MRE Stokes gave me.

When I was finished I swept the wreckage into the waste-basket and dropped the empty Mountain Dew can after it. I sat for a long time in the semi-darkness sipping on the second can of Mountain Dew. I was dozing off and on, my stomach full of food, the alcohol doing its work, and exhaustion and injuries all combining into a seductive lullaby.

Sergeant White came in, ignored me, and wrote in the log that everything he'd checked was secure and everyone was accounted for. He went into the Rec-Room, waking up Sergeant Butcher, who woke up the next guard shift.

Both NCO's ignored me. I ignored them. It worked.

Butcher and White probably figured I was asleep. I heard them talking about how they figured that it wasn't Russians who had attacked the CQ Area earlier, but probably me and the rest of the QRF, or maybe those SEALs since we'd already pissed them off. Butcher told most of the guards to go back to bed, that there didn't need to be more than one by the pool tables to watch the hallway and the stairwell landing, and instead of one in the Ready Room, one at the bottom of the stairs, and one in the Orderly Room, one at the bottom of the stairs should be able to cover for them.

I didn't say anything, but the lizard updated his map and hissed with displeasure.

The lights dimmed further and when I checked on the clocks I figured it was around two in the morning by guessing between the clock that was ahead the most and the one that was behind the most on the minute hand.

About five minutes after the guard shift changed Cassius came out of the Rec-Room, holding an XM-16E1 and looking nervous. He'd dropped his battle-rattle in the Rec-Room, but it did make me happy to see he was carrying his weapon. My feet were up on the desk, my chair tilted back, my hat pulled down, and the soda cold in my hands.

"Hey, Ant." He said. He leaned against the pillar at the end of the desk. "You awake?"

"Hey, Cass. How you liking 2/19th so far?" I asked him without looking at him, lighting a cigarette.

"Since when do you smoke?" He asked.

I laughed then yawned. "Dude, you saw me smoking last night, did AIT damage your brain?"

"Didn't remember. All that booze we drank probably gave me brain damage. Still, when did you start smoking?" He asked me.

I shrugged. "Sometime after they handed Atlas to me." I took a deep drag, that nagging burning and tingling feeling fading every time I took a drag.

…Goddamn you for contaminating me, Aine….

"Some of those others don't seem to like you." Cass said. I stared at him but didn't say anything. "I tried to tell them you're a nice guy, kind of shy, but still a good guy. They don't believe me." He laughed nervously. "What's their beef with you?"

I shrugged. "I don't spend much time with the unit, so I don't know." I waved at the Day-Room doors. "Don't much care, either." I yawned again, stretching and feeling my shoulder burn slightly. My chest still hurt, but Nancy had assured all of us that it would fade. A good night's sleep would give our body a chance to heal the burns inside of us from the lightning.

The Day Room door opened quietly, but when I looked to the side, around Cass, I didn't see anyone. They'd probably went to use the latrine.

Still, the lizard hissed, and I paid attention. Something was bugging him, and he had millions of years of experience on me.

Right now he was grumbling angrily to himself.

"Christ, I knew you'd written that the Army was different than you thought it would be, but fake SEALs executing people? The Russian trying to kill us? You guys getting hit by lightning? Is it always like this?" Cass asked.

I dropped my boots off the desk. "No, sometimes it's worse."

"How the fuck can it get worse?" Cass asked me.

I turned around and glared at him, snarling at him. "Don't say that shit, you'll fucking kill us all."

His mouth was open and his eyes wide in shock. I didn't talk that much when I was younger, and I sure as shit didn't talk to my favorite cousins like that.

"You say that shit and God shows you how it can be worse." I told him.

I noticed his mouth was opening and closing in the dimness. He coughed and blood sprayed from his mouth and dribbled down his chin.

"Cass?" I asked, standing up. Cass jerked and reached out toward me, his hand shaking.

A worm of blood oozed out of his nose and his eyes rolled back in his head.

"Cass?" I took a step toward him, drawing my knife.

My cousin fell limply to the floor, exposing the man behind him.


Chapter 16

2/19th Special Weapons Group
Restricted Area, Alfenwehr West Germany
Late Winter- January, 1988
Day 12 of Repairs
Day 4 of the Second Incident
Early Morning

The guy stepped over my cousin, still silent, a large man, taller than me but leaner. He was dressed in Soviet camouflage, his face blackened and his hair hidden by a cold weather cap. He wore gloves, and his country's version of the LBE was taped down for silence. He broke into a smile when I yelled my cousin's name, taking another step forward, halving the distance between us.

Never fight fair in combat, son. …My Father's voice.

My left hand shot out, grabbing the vodka bottle, and I shattered it against the corner of the counter. His smile grew larger and I knew he hadn't seen the knife in my hand. Thought I was unarmed except for the broken vodka bottle.

A track of thought tried to emulate his thought process. He was taller than me, might not realize that I probably outweighed him by at least ten pounds or figured that because I was American I was probably fat. He knew he was Soviet Special Forces, where NBC Warfare wasn't a line MOS and didn't train extensively for combat operations in most cases. It didn't matter if he'd read my file, even if he'd seen the picture that was clipped inside my 201 file according to unit SOP, the picture inside my file was from spring, before the growth spurt that left me 6' tall, before Atlas had put heavy muscle on me. He had a knife that he'd undoubtedly had extensive training in using, specializing in silent takedowns and close quarters combat.

He was Vympel. I was just some Army scrub.

He figured he had me.

I jabbed the broken bottle at his face, the last of the vodka in it splashing at his face. He turned his head and I finished the movement by letting go of the broken bottle. He raised his left arm up to block the bottle, twisting at the waist, and brought back the knife.

…First rule of a knife fight, son, is you're gonna get cut….

Before he even finished keeping the broken bottle top from hitting him in the face I came in fast, using my bandage wrapped left forearm to push his arm out at the wrist, and stabbed him hard just under the sternum.

"Up! Get up! Get up! Ambush!" I bellowed out as I started moving, using my best battlefield voice. "Two Nineteenth, alert, alert, alert!"

I drove my forehead into his face as I yanked out the knife. He started to scream and I stabbed him again in the same spot. Something crunched under my skull, blood spattering my face, and I twisted the knife as I brought up my knee and slammed it into his crotch.

His scream went high pitched and he fell back, off the knife, his knife falling from his hand and bouncing across the tile floor. I grabbed Cass' weapon as I moved forward. I kicked the enemy soldier in the underside of his jaw as I moved forward, still bellowing.

"Two-Nineteenth, contact! I have enemy contact!" My voice was echoing, the sound coming back to me from the stairwell and the dark and cold hallway of Titty Territory, mocking me with the echoes.

Somebody screamed, there was a burst of M-16 fire, someone else screamed, and there was more gunfire. My thumb automatically switched the fire selector from safe to semi as I looked around the CQ Area. PFC Jessup was missing, not at his post where Sergeant Butcher had told him to stand near the pool tables so that he could see down the hallway and into the stairwell.

…God damn that slacking bastard….

Even I knew that you doubled up guards in a high threat environment, that you made sure that there was at least one set of eyes on every access point, and that stupid arrogant son of a bitch had reduced the guard duty that the LT had set up from eight men to two and then gone back to bed. He should have been behind the CQ desk with me, or wandering between the guard posts, instead he'd acted like we were on a fucking camping trip and went to bed.

My brain slid him halfway into the same category as I was keeping Major Mallory and the late SFC Tashton, the other half of him in the 'incompetent fuckhead' category.

"CEASE FIRE!" The LT's voice was impossible to deny and the sounds of weaponsfire from the Day-Room stopped.

My hand dropped to my waist, looking for my LBE and a grenade, but came up empty. I remembered that my LBE and Kevlar were behind the CQ Desk and I was coming around in front of it, Cass's weapon at high ready. I was standing all alone in the middle of the CQ Area with an assault rifle and no clue where the fuck the enemy were attacking from.

The Day Room door opened up and I glanced over to see Bomber, King, Nagle, and Stokes coming out, their gear slung on and not completely. Bomber went by me and ducked down behind the pool table, looking at me, King hitting the floor and sliding on the slick tile until he came to a stop in front of the open doorway to the stairwell.

Goddamn King, he looked and moved like he belonged on a fucking recruiting video. I couldn't have done with a dozen retries and a coach.

"Cass is down, check him out, Nagle." I snapped as Stokes moved up next to Bomber, putting her back against the underside of the pool table. The LT moved up and past me, his .45 in his fist, and he used the barrel to hit two of the light switches that were down. Several of the bulbs blew out, but the lights went on in the CQ Area.

"Lanks! Lanks!" Nancy yelled. "Grab my aid-bag and hurry up!"

People in the Day Room were shouting when the LT turned to me. "Corporal Ant, take some men and make sure the Orderly Room area is secure." Lanks came running into the room, almost tripping on the dead guy in Russian camo.

"King, Bomber, Stokes, with me." I snapped. "Lanks, throw me my battle rattle and my '16."

"We need six men in CQ Area, make it snappy." The LT called out.

Lanks popped up, putting my XM-16E1/M-203 on the counter and then hefting my Kevlar and LBE. I caught it with one hand and shrugged into it. I grabbed my rifle without bothering to buckle my LBE, then motioned at her.


She tossed that over and I moved over toward the stairwell. Aine came running in with her rifle and slid to a stop next to me, her LBE and Kevlar vest. I dragged the bandoleer over my head as I headed for the stairwell. The LT was snapping out people's names to cover the hallway and stairwell.

"Same callsigns!" The LT yelled as I turned the corner.

"Let's go, Actual!" I called out. I took the steps in one long jump, bouncing off the far wall, turning, and jumping down to the bottom. My boots slipped and I windmilled for a moment before getting my balance.

PFC Warrant was down, on his back. His eyes were open, staring up into the stairwell, with a puddle of blood around his head and upper chest. Someone had slit his throat and lowered him to the ground. Next to him was Pv2 Queens, someone had slit her throat after pulling her down the stairs and laid her next to Warrant.

Silent takedowns while I dozed behind the CQ desk.

"Stokes, secure their weapons." I said, ducking down and looking around the corner. It was clear, the window still broken, still blowing snow into the hallway. Only two lights were on, and the darkness was pressing on them, trying to extinguish them. I pointed at Bomber and then pointed at the Ready Room. He nodded and dropped his NVG's down, turning them on. I pointed at Stokes and pointed at the split off to the Orderly Room. She nodded and moved out, having opened the weapons up and slid the bolt out so she could drop it in her pocket before tossing the weapons sling over head to body-sling them.

I pointed at King, pointed at the far door, and moved out, knowing he'd follow me without bothering to check. The most we'd done is hang out and drink together, but one night when I got jumped by six box-heads he'd been right there swinging fists and helping me out. That's all I needed to know someone would have my back.

We moved up to the window and I glanced out the window, hitting the light switch for the back alcove and getting nothing. I reached up out of habit for my NVG's and only found my softcap.

That's right, my helmet had fallen off during the lightning strikes and now Tandy was probably wearing it or some dead Nazi was putting on my NVG's, or the Abominable Snowman was pawning it for Jello pops.

"Whaddya see?" I asked, watching the stairwell entrance.

"Jack and shit except snow. It's really blowing out there." He told me.

Bomber came out of the Ready Room, shaking his head. I pointed at the Orderly Room and he nodded, going after Stokes. I heard him say "One coming in, Actual" as he came up to the corner that would lead him into the Orderly Room.

"You see the Day Room?" King asked me, still keeping eyes on the outside.

"No." I told him. "I was a little busy with one of the Spetz."

He shook his head. "One of them got in with us, we've got people down. Two of them just did more damage then we took up in the motorpool." He took a step back from the window, frowning. "Bomber mentioned their assassination section, I think we just met two of them."

"Yeah." I looked around and moved close. "Sergeant Butcher cut the guard force from eight men to two and then went in and went to bed." I told him.

"You thinking he's in on it?" King asked, looking at me. "You do, don't you." He rubbed his cheek, the rasp of bristles audible suddenly as the wind died for moment. "Dammit, I hope we're just moving into paranoia." The wind picked back up and thunder boomed off in the distance, making us both wince.

"It's 2/19th." I told him. He nodded, I rubbed my scalp through my softcap. "I just wanted to be a normal soldier, you know?"

King laughed bitterly. "Yeah. So what did you do to end up here, man?"

"Beat up a cop." I admitted. It didn't bother me as bad as it would have when I first got there. The LT outing it to the entire Rear-D had seemed to take the sting out of it, making it just a fact, with no emotional ties. I could still hear him telling everyone that if it had been him it wouldn't have been assault charges, it would have been murder charges.

"No, what did you do after you came in that got you sent here? You were part of the initial draw." King asked. He laughed, a self-mocking sound, "I know what I did. I mean, I'd do it again, but I know what I did."

"Nothing." I told him.

He shook his head. "Bad luck, man. Getting sent here." He sighed. "This place is a goddamn nightmare. I've been with 10th Mountain and First Infantry, and nothing prepared me for this." He looked at me. "Nalge ever tell you why she landed here on her ass?"

"No." I answered.

"Want to know?" He asked. I looked at him and he grinned. "Believe me, everyone knew about it."

"Sure." I told him. "Won't change how I feel about her."

He shook his head. "No. It wouldn't. She walked into a barracks room with a loaded M-16 and put a whole magazine into the guys in the room. I knew a guy in the unit who was in the room next to that one, said that she didn't hose them with full auto, said she used single shot all the way. Think about it, Ant, she put thirty fucking bullets into four motherfuckers, one bullet at a time, and took like ten minutes to do it after the first few shots."

…Fuck you and your snowmen….

"I can believe it." I told him. "She's hard, but that's what it takes out at Atlas and to survive here."

He nodded. "I did a tour in Alaska, arctic survival trainer, this place is worse."

"Actual, coming back." I heard Bomber's voice.

"Anything?" I asked, turning to look at him.

He shook his head. "Nope." Stokes answered. "Checked the blast shields, they're still down. They didn't come through here."

I slapped the wall between the door and the broken window. "No, they came through here."

"Drop the blast shield?" Bomber asked. I nodded. King flipped up the red case cover, turned the key, held down the button until the display lit up, and then threw what looked like a breaker. Sirens went off and we watched the steel shutters drop down over the window and the door. The hit with a pretty heavy thunk. The wind vanished and it seemed to warm up.

"Let's head back, let the LT know that it's clear down here." I said.

We stopped at the two dead soldiers. I didn't know either of them, they were both in a different platoon than me. King looked stricken while he stared at Queens and I suddenly remembered they were in the same squad.

Bomber knelt down, patting the two dead soldiers until he found their softcaps. He put them over the dead soldier's faces, then we carried them up the stairs. Bomber and I carrying Warrant, King carrying Queens in his arms. Stokes led the way, her M-16 held up in high ready.

"Echo-Five Actual, coming up!" We shouted up the stairs.

SPC Marchant and PFC Wimmels were kneeling in the stairwell. Both of them were sweating, looking nervous, but Wimmel's face grew pained when he saw us carrying Queens. It reminded me that she was a sunny girl who often sang while she worked putting up tents, running electrical or commo lines, or hell, even while she loaded up vehicles. It suddenly struck me that she wouldn't be singing any more, and suddenly field exercises seemed a lot darker.

The lizard snarled and helped me push away the sudden grief that she was gone.

When we went into the CQ Area the LT moved over and walked beside me as we took the two dead soldiers into the Rec-Room. Someone had put down ponchos on the floor, so we set Queens and Warrant down on the ponchos.

…Warrant's wife was at Graf with the rest of Group, which meant my brother would have to tell her as the Red Cross Rep…

…She was pregnant, they already had one kid….

I turned away from them and the LT grabbed my elbow, gently guiding me into the CQ Area with a murmured: "A moment, Corporal."

Aine was standing in the CQ Area, a small smile on her face. Bomber, King, and Stokes following my out. Stokes was asking King if he was OK, but he just grunted and reminded her to put the weapons she'd recovered in the Day Room.

"Corporal, I need to know if you can your personal tragedy behind you." The LT said.

I closed my eyes, reaching behind my glasses to pinch the bridge of my nose.

…Swimming at the river with Cass….

…Cass and me swinging on the tire swing discussing Star Wars with the seriousness only kids can muster….

…Going Trick or Treating with Cass….

"On line on time." I said, pushing away the memories.

…Grieve for the dead after the battle, son, or join them….

Yes, Father.

"It is my unfortunate duty to inform you that your cousin, Private Cassius Ant, was killed in action during a surgical strike by enemy forces. Despite the best care available to him at the time of his injury, the wounds proved fatal and he was dead within minutes." The LT said, his voice cadenced and remote. There was the snap of a rubber band again. "I have already informed the other member of the family present and will inform both the Red Cross and other family members within the unit as soon as I am able."

"Nothing you could do, sir." I told him, turning away from and facing the windows. "I know stab wounds. He was dying when he hit the floor."

The snow was pressed against the window, despite the alcove, the window nothing but white, blameless, a curtain hiding everything.

A shadow moved and I watched it, the LT's continuing words just flowing past me, meaningless, just random sounds that didn't make sense.

…We all know the risks….

"You all right, brother?" Bomber asked me, putting his hand on my shoulder. The LT took a step back, giving us some distance.

"I'll be fine." I told him.

"Ant, I… I tried." Nancy said, coming up next to me.

"He was gone before he hit the ground." I told them. "He knew the risks when he put on the uniform, just like we do."

"Ant…." Nancy tried.

The shape outside split into two, I tightened my grip on my XM-16E1. The need to hurt something, to smash something, had grown into a consuming need. I wanted to run into the Rec-Room and take my boots to the guy I'd shanked. Just brutalize him, hammer on him, take my knife to him.

I wouldn't. He wasn't to blame. Yeah, he'd killed my cousin, but I'd have done the same thing to his cousin if situations had been reversed, hell, I had killed him, so I didn't hold it against him personally.

Fucking Cold War Bullshit had cost me my cousin.

I just wanted to break something.

The two shapes moved up, getting larger, and they materialized into two men, dressed in Soviet cold weather gear, both holding weapons. The one on my right was holding an AK-47, the other a RPK light machinegun. They didn't raised their weapons at the glass, but rather both reached for the doors.

"HOLD YOUR FIRE!" The LT bellowed out as my weapon came up at the same time as Bomber's, Stokes', and King's. Aine stepped to the side, unslinging her weapon.

I could see one of the men look behind him, then suddenly turn around, the RPK falling from his hands as he flattened himself against the glass.

Another shape materialized out of the snow and I went cold all over.

"No." Bomber whimpered.

"Nononono." Nancy whispered.

I made a small noise of fear as I took in every detail of the newcomer.

The new figure was wearing a parka, heavyset, tall, a cold weather over his face. The mouthflap was unsnapped, revealing that he was missing in a tooth. One eye was bloodshot, red and glaring in the harsh lights of the outside alcove.

In his hands was an axe with 2/19th Motorpool burnt into the handle.

The axe was moving, coming from the side into the guy in Soviet cold weather gear, hitting the guy center mass, and the man hit the glass with a thunk. Even through the double set of inches thick glass I could hear him scream, could hear the sound as the axe hit the guy. The guy lifted up, his arms falling. I heard Bomber make a pained sound and knew he was reliving when that axe had hit him in the stomach.

Stokes and King were yelling. The LT was yelling for everyone to hold fire.

The guy folded over the axe and the figure in the cold weather mask grabbed him by the head and drug him into the snow.

The other man was pulling at the doors frantically.

"Get him inside now!" The LT barked.

Aine lunged through the inner door, King and Stokes behind her. Bomber, Nancy and I were stepping backwards, and I was shaking my head in denial of what I saw.

"I killed him. I killed him." Nancy was saying just loud enough to be heard.

Right as Aine reached for the door a single hand shot out of the snow. A familiar hand that I knew a split second before it appeared that it was too late for the Russian.

The hand grabbed the top of his parka hood, the sharpened fingerbones punching through the cloth. The guy let go of his AK-47, grabbing at the arm, and suddenly vanished, yanked into the snow. I knew he was screaming as he was pulled away from the glass and into the snow, knew that he had probably been screaming when he reached the alcove and glass.

God knows I would have been screaming if I wasn't already frozen up.

"What the fuck was that?" Was the majority of what was being screamed, yelled, hollered, and swore.

Aine stopped dead, her hands on the pushbar to the door. Stokes had slid to a stop and scrambled backwards, screaming "Tandy!" at the top of her lungs. King had just froze, staring, his weapon dropping.

"Everyone in the CQ Area now!" The LT barked. "Fall in, 2/19th! Private McCullen, get back from the windows!"

Aine stood stock still as Stokes and King backed out of the inside of the 'airlock', staring off into the snow. I was backed up against the trophy case, my inside frozen ice and my head feeling like it was going to split down the back.

Before I could say anything, while people were piling out of the Day Room, Tandy slammed against the glass to the left of the double doors.

His hands were open and pressed against the glass. We could see how the ends of his fingerbones were devoid of flesh, looked razor sharp. How the skin was white on the hands, blackened on the fingers, how the fingers were too long for anything human. His BDU cuffs were only halfway down his forearms, the cuffs frayed and smeared with frozen mud. His BDU top was rimed with frozen mud and ice, torn across the left shoulder, the buttons on the bottom torn away so the bottom of his BDU top was open, exposing the dirty brown T-shirt underneath. His pants were unbloused, his boots scuffed, muddy, and dirty. His short hair was wild, chunks of frost and frozen mud in his hair.

His face was the worst.

His jaw seemed elongated, his mouth was full of black and broken teeth, the corners of his mouth torn so that his smile extended into his cheeks. His eyes were glittering malice, in the middle of deep sunken black pits.

Above where his heart would be was the tag "US ARMY" and above his right pocket was a simple nametag: "TANDY"

Everyone screamed.

Out of the snow, on the right of the doors, loomed the figure in the parka and the cold weather mask. He held the axe tight, raising it over his head and smashing it against the glass.

The glass was multiple layers, thick tempered glass, easily two or three inches thick. Where Bomber's bullet had hit it had only put a shallow cratered hole and a small web of cracks you could cover with a palm.

The axe hit and instead of rebounding, the outer pane shattered and falling around the axe in tiny squares, cracks extending out from the unshattered panes as the axe bit deep.

Everyone screamed again.

Everyone but Aine.

Aine stepped forward, in front of Tandy, her tiny hand coming up to linger across the glass and stopped in front of Tandy's hand.

"Oh, you're beautiful." She said, loud enough to be heard.

The figure on the right had bunched his shoulders to tear the axe free and possibly shatter the glass but at Aine's words he stopped, his head slowly turning toward Aine.

Tandy pushed his nose against the glass, blackish blood oozing from it.

Aine leaned forward, closing her eyes, and kissed the glass in front of Tandy's face.

"Oh, my beloved." She said softly.

Tandy vanished, whirling around and diving into the snow. The figure with the axe stepped backwards, disappearing into the whiteness.

The remaining bulbs in the CQ Area exploded, showering sparks and broken glass down onto the tile, plunging the area into darkness.

"Go to NVG's, Private McCullen, get the fuck away from the windows!" the LT shouted.

I couldn't see anything, my eyes dazzled by the exploding bulbs.

"McCullen, what the fuck are you doing?" The LT shouted. "King, Stokes, cover that little idiot. Goddammit, everyone fall in, get it together. Ant!"

"Sir!" I called out.

"Get over here, get Actual formed up!" He shouted.

"Lost my NVG's in the storm, sir, I can't see." I told him, moving toward his voice. I bumped into someone in the darkness and they grabbed my arm, steadying me.

"Corporal Lancer, retrieve a pair of NVG's from the deceased's gear." The LT snapped. "Corporal Ant, stand fast next to me. What the hell is she doing?"

"Bomber, what's she doing?" I asked. The purple spots in my vision from where the bulbs blew out were fading.

Bomber was silent for a moment then leaned into me. "She just used her knife to cut some of her hair and is using that hair to wipe up the black shit Tandy left on the window."

"Sir, I need to rearm Actual, some of our weapons are damaged, we've expended ammunition, and I don't think I'm going to replace anyone. Six should do it." I told him.

"If you are sure." The LT said, watching everyone form up. "Get with the rest of Actual and then wait behind the CQ desk for me so I can plan out our next steps."

"Yes, sir." I told him in the darkness.

Someone bumped into me, and pushed a helmet into my hands. I plonked it onto my head and found it fit, a little loose, but my softcap helped. I snapped the chinstrap and reached up to drop down the NVG's. My fingers found the little dime sized button and I flipped it to ambient IR.

The CQ Area came into focus, all dark greens, with highlights where other soldier's IR lamps added to the light. Aine was outside the doors, scooping up the two Russian weapons and sling them. She grabbed the axe with one hand and tugged on it. I saw frustration and anger appear on her face as she tugged on it again. She grabbed it with both hands and pulled on the double-bitted axe, but it didn't budge. She let go and came inside, pulling the outside doors shut behind her.

"Actual, over here." I called out, moving over by the desk. I checked my XM-16E1, noting that the chrome coated bolt needed cleaned off. The buttstock crack hadn't gotten bigger, and the battered square front handgrip wasn't in any worse shape than it had been. I'd lost the sight for my M-203 somewhere, but it didn't really matter since I didn't use it even when I was at the range.

Bomber tromped up, and in the green light he looked almost surreal. He had a pair of butterfly stitches under his eye and I knew Nancy had cut the eyelid to relieve the pressure, an old boxer's trick. Missing half of his mustache made him look weird as hell, and the side of his face was covered in silvadene. Stokes, King, and Nagle all looked weird, bruised faces and a spot of silvadene on their jaw under their helmet straps. Aine looked perfectly calm and was playing with something in her fingers after she dropped the weapons in front of the LT and came over.

"King, go down and replace that M-60 with a new one. Get another gunner's bag and bring up two or three boxes of seven point six two. Bomber, grab .45's for everyone." I shook my head. "Stick together, don't fuck around, anyone even looks at you funny, any shadows clump up really weird, any noises sound wrong, hose the whole area down full auto and blow it all in place." I looked at them all. "Grab extra NVG's from the extras, double basic loads, any extra 40mm's you can find, and bayonets all around. Stokes, secure us a radio and an extra battery."

"Roger that. Let's move, Actual." Bomber said, taking the keys I was holding out to him. I moved over around the CQ Desk and stood there, staring at Major Mallory, who was asleep.

I had to restrain an urge to go over there and take the knife to him. Just cut on him, not to get any information, but to bring pain.

He was the reason my cousin was dead. He was the reason Queen was laying in the dead. He was the reason Warrant's wife was a widow and his kid had to grow up without a father.

I took one slow step forward when I heard James say my name. I turned and looked at him. He was standing in the opening.

"What?" I asked, my hand still on my knife.

"About Cass…" He started. I held up my hand.

"Just stop." I told him. He looked startled. "We don't have time, James. We're still in a shitload of trouble." I felt that singing emptiness inside, the rage inside of me the only thing filling it. "We'll talk about it if we survive."

"Will we, Ant?" He asked. He looked worried. Not afraid, just worried.

"I will do everything in my power to ensure that as many as possible from Rear Detachment survive, Private Ant." The LT said, coming up behind him. "However, we have engaged the enemy in combat and that means that chaos and uncertainty reign." James looked at him, startled, and I saw goosebumps raise on James' arms. "Move to the Rec-Room, that is where Rear Detachment is forming up."

James looked at me and I nodded, the LT didn't say anything. James headed for the Rec-Room and the LT came in and sat down, motioning at me to take the other chair. When I did so he was silent for a long time.

"Corporal Ant, I am in need of your advice." The LT started. I almost said 'me?' but then closed my mouth. The LT nodded and continued. "Indeed, you. You survived over a week in conditions worse than this, without weapons, without leadership. There are too many access points to this area, and we've taken serious casualties already." I nodded. "What would you suggest?" He noticed my doubtful look, smiling under his NVG's. "Suggestions from you will give me a better tactical and strategic picture, allow me to formulate a plan of action that will increase our chances of surviving this challenge that faces us."

I sighed and rubbed my cheek under the helmet strap, jerking my hand away from my cheek when the edge of my palm caught the spot under the snap. Nancy had cut away the skin before dabbing on the silvadene in order to prevent infection.

"We're going to have to pull back to the War Fighter tunnels, sir." I told him. "They're highly defensible, secondary armories, communications equipment that might enable you contact someone to come to our rescue, and a morgue as well as a medbay." I shrugged. "Just one problem…"

"That gives the enemy the run of the barracks as well as access to whatever equipment and-or data they might have been assigned to capture and/or destroy." He nodded. He sat silent for a second, holding up his hand for silence. "That is our best option, sadly. We'll have to pull back to the War Fighter tunnels and hope that the security mechanisms work."

I nodded, thinking. The lizard was tossing up plans, and one seemed like a good one.

The LT stood up, looking at Major Mallory. "We will take the prisoner with us. Perhaps some questioning can shed some light on our situation."

"I can do that." I growled, drawing my knife. I expected him to stop me, but instead he just stood up and followed me.

I slapped Major Mallory across the face. He jerked awake and said something that was muffled.

"What are those assholes here for and where's the Colonel?" I asked, grabbing the gag and pulling it free.

"Fuck you, you little punk." Was all he said.

"Major Mallory, I regret to inform you that it is my responsibility to ensure that the men and women under my command are led to safety, and at this time circumstances had made it impossible to post a guard upon you, nor am I able to relocate you to a place of safety." The LT said, standing at parade rest. "At this time, sir, I believe that leaving you with Corporal Ant during the withdrawl of Rear Detachment is your best chance at safety."

"What? You can leave me with him.…" Mallory said.

"Major, you are currently a prisoner suspected of collaborating with enemy forces, and I did not give you leave to speak." The LT said, that cool and detached tone coming back to his voice.

I just punched Major Mallory in the face. He screamed and sagged forward when I buried my fist into his gut and stepped back.

"That is acceptable at this time." The LT stated, waving me back. I moved back. "Now, as to my first question: Who are you working with?"

"Fuck you too, James, you think I'm going to…-"

"Corporal Ant?" The LT waved at me.

I stepped forward and slapped him hard enough to almost knock him and the chair over, quickly slapping him from the other direction, and then punching him in the thigh.

"You fucking dick…." Mallory said.

"Who are you working with?" James asked.

"What the hell, sir?" Sergeant Butcher asked. He moved quickly up to us and grabbed me. "What the hell is going on?"

"Major Mallory has given aid to enemy forces that have since killed multiple members of my command, and has proven himself to be a traitor to the United States of America's government, citizens, military services, and comrades in arms." The LT said. There was the snap of the rubberband. "He has information that is time sensitive and vital to our survival." I started to get an uneasy feeling and sheathed my knife.

"You can't beat it out of him." Sergeant Butcher said.

I turned and looked at him. "Let go of me, Sergeant." I growled.

He looked at me, his unreadable behind the NVG's. "Shut up, Ant."

I grabbed his thumb and bent it backwards, staring at him as he grabbed my hand with his other one even as I kept bending his thumb back. "Don't fucking touch me." I snarled at him.

"Release the Sergeant, Corporal." LT James said, still staring at Major Mallory. "Sergeant Butcher, gather up Rear Detachment, assign personnel to transport the deceased of our detachment. We're falling back to the War Fighter tunnels."

I let go of Sergeant Butcher who balled his fists.

"Stand down, Sergeant!" The LT snapped, not even turning around, and I heard the snap of the rubberband again. "Carry out my orders, or I will find someone who can."

"Sir, I protest your using physical force against a superior officer of the United States Army." Sergeant Butcher said. He was shaking slightly, and I knew he was angry as hell, but I was willing him to try to jump me. Behind me the rubberband snapped.

The rubberband snapped. "Carry out my orders, Sergeant." The LT repeated, his voice becoming heated.

"Not unless you guarantee Major Mallory's safety, sir." Sergeant Butcher said, still breathing heavy. There was a pop of the rubberband on flesh again. I turned to look at the LT, the lizard hissing at something.

A muscle was twitching on the side of the LT's jaw. "You have your own problems, Sergeant." He grated. The rubberband snapped twice as he spoke.

"Like what, sir." The last part was said almost with a sneer.

There was the snap of a rubberband again. "Like you should consider (snap) what answers you will (snap) have for me when I formally (snap) question your decisions (snap) regarding the (snap) guard force (snap) that was on (snap) duty when (snap) two (snap) Soviet (snap) covert (pop, I saw the rubber band break and fall to the floor) action specialists killed my goddamn men you fucking incompetent shitheel!" The last part was shouted, and the LT spun in place. His face was furious and I could tell it was darkening even though it was just shades of green. "Those are my goddamn men laying dead in there, you puffed up shit gobbling moron! Mine!" He took a step forward, reaching toward Sergeant Butcher. "It was your fucking decision to alter my goddamn guard roster, yours! And now MY FUCKING MEN ARE DEAD!" The last part came out in an enraged bellow.

Without understanding why I stepped between LT James and Sergeant Butcher, putting my rifle against the LT's chest to stop him as the LT reached for Butcher, the tendons standing out on the back of his hands. "Sir! Sir! We don't have time for this!" I yelled. "They're regrouping right now, if they aren't launching an attack. Sir, we need you."

I didn't want him to throw away his career. Officers didn't need to dirty their hands like that. When the LT stepped back I turned to Sergeant Butcher, who was standing there with a shocked look on his face.

"You want him, fine, go get him." I growled, waving at Major Mallory. I turned back to LT James. "Sir, I'll get Actual together, we'll go ahead of you, secure the entrance to the War Fighter tunnels." I told him.

Sergeant Butcher moved past me, pulling his pilot's knife off his LBE. I secretly hoped he tried to turn on us, but instead he just cut Major Mallory's bonds.

"Thank you, Sergeant." Major Mallory said, standing up and rubbing his wrists. He glared at me. "I'll remember your actions, you little shit."

The LT started to turn and I grabbed his arms. "Sir, please, sir."

1LT James straightened, acting as if I wasn't holding onto his biceps. "You are right, Corporal. Please, pardon my outburst, I was not thinking clearly. Let my actions and words serve to instruct you that combat fatigue can strike anyone." He shrugged slightly and I let go, moving to the side as he went past me and stopped in the CQ Area.

"Sergeant Butcher, please escort the prisoner to the Rec Room." He said calmly. I saw his hand move to his wrist, and that muscle rippled along the side of his jaw when his fingers found nothing but bare skin. He wiped his mouth with the sleeve of his winter BDU's and rolled his shoulders as if he was shifting his Kevlar vest and LBE to a more comfortable position. Sergeant Butcher and Major Mallory moved past me and I put one hand on my .45 as they did so, smiling at them. Sergeant Butcher sneered, but Mallory couldn't see me in the darkness.

The doors to the Rec-Room closed behind the three of them and I stood by myself in the cold dark of the CQ Area. I'd left my XM-16E1 on the table, and I picked it up again, noting again how it felt weirdly wrong in my hands. The lizard hated it, I could tell. He hated the feel of it, the weight, the shape.

Someone had tried to mop up the blood from where Cass had been killed and I'd stabbed the Spetz to death, leaving dark streaks on the cream of the tile. It was weird, the tile was a pale green, the dark streaks from the mop a dark green.

The door to the stairwell banged open and I whipped my weapon up, aiming at the stairwell.

Bomber ignored my aimed weapon, M-60 ammo across his chest from right to left, the bandoleer of 40mm grenades going from left to right. Aine came next, the M-60 gunner bag bouncing on her right hip, opposite of her mask, two belts of 7.62mm crisscrossing her chest, Stokes' ruck in her right hand and an ammo can in the other. Stokes has three Claymore bags hanging from her neck, tucked into her LBE, a radio on her back, and two boxes of M-60 ammo in her hands. Nancy had her aid bag, two padded fag-bags around her neck, and two ammo cans used to hold grenades in her hands. King came last, a new pig in his arms, climbing cord with multiple D-rings hanging off of them around his neck, his thigh cargo pockets bulging out, belts of M-60 ammo across his chest, and like everyone else, two .45's jammed into his LBE.

"Actual, over here." I told them. They gathered up and I looked at Stokes. "That radio already set?" I asked.

"Did a commo check downstairs, Corporal Lancer answered." Stokes said.

"Good. We're going to go first and secure the War Fighter tunnels. Let's move out." I told them, heading for the door. We went through the stairwell, cutting back into Titty Territory and heading toward the mid-way stairwell.

We were silent till the mid-way point, where I slowed down. "The LT and the others are going to fort up in the War Fighter tunnels…" I started, then told them my plans.

I went first, making sure the way was clear, since I was the only one who had their hands free. The stairwell was dark, with wind sweeping down around us and carrying snowflakes. At the bottom of the stairwell we checked under the stairs, found nobody, and I waved Stokes over.

She knelt down next to me and I grabbed the mic, keying it.

"Echo-Five Alpha, this is Echo-Five Actual, do you read?"

The radio hissed, crackled, then Lancer's voice came. "We read you, Echo-Five Actual, what's your status, over?"

"At rendezvous point. Holding position until further notice. Over." The static echoed through the stairwell.

"Roger that, Actual. We're enroute. Over." Lancer said.

"Roger. Actual clear." I said, then dropped the mic into the frame.

"We'll hold here. Stokes, King, go up and hold the landing, I don't want them walking into an ambush." I said. Both of them set down what they were carrying in their hands, hefting their M-16's and heading up the stairs.

When the echoes faded Nancy moved over next to me. She touched my arm lightly. "You all right, Ant?" She asked. "I'm sorry about Cass. He seemed like a good guy."

"He was." I said. Nancy nodded, kissed my chin, our helmets clonking together and our NVG's clicking, then stepped back.

Bomber socked my shoulder, and things were all right.

Time seem to drag by. The cold seeped into my skin and bone, the darkness seemed to get closer. Bomber tried the light switch three times and got nothing. Finally the door to the stairwell opened above us and I heard: "Echo Five Alpha coming in."

"How many?" King asked.

"Twenty-two." PFC Metzger said. "We've got a lot of dead."

Nancy bowed her head and I saw Bomber flinch. There had been thirty-eight of us counting my cousins and Aine. I'd lost three men at the motorpool, four had vanished, Cass had been stabbed in front of me, the two men of guard had been killed. That was ten right there. Which meant six people had been killed in the Day Room, or seven if they were counting Major Mallory in the twenty-two.

We were getting nickel and dimed to death.

Metzger was first down, and he was helping Lancer carry a body. I knew by the size it was Queens even though the head and torso were wrapped in a poncho. They set down her body and at Bomber's hand signal went through the door to secure the hallway. Under the stairwell wasn't that big. Big enough for the door to swing open and maybe a half dozen people, but not much more. Nancy caught the door before it could close and dropped the chock, moving back over by me afterwards. She leaned slightly against me, her arm warming mine. Major Mallory's hands were zip-tied behind his back and Pv1 Crespin had a .45 pointed at the back of the Major's head.

The LT came down last. He looked around for a moment and then waved at the heavy vault door at the back of the stairwell. "Corporal Ant, I could not find any of the keycards behind the CQ Area. Do you have a suggestion on how to open the door." The angry, bellowing man was gone, as if he had never existed, and the cool, remote officer had returned.

I pulled out my green notebook and flipped through the pages until I found the list of codes I'd written down. I showed it to him. "Emergency codes." He nodded.

"Those are secure codes, Corporal, how did you get them?" Major Mallory asked.

"I don't know. Maybe the same way some dipshit handed off all the secure site data to a bunch of…" I started. The LT put his hand on my forearm.

"This does no good, Corporal. The door, if you would." He said.

I nodded, moving over to the control panel. I flipped up the black plastic cover and stared at the revealed controls. I flipped up the switch, then held my thumb on the button until the shitty LED readout lit up. I held the codebook against the wall with one hand and punched in the code with the other.

Backwards and lowered by one.

Not much of a code, but the best I could do.

There was a snap as the bolts retracted and a siren cut loose in the distance. The one under the stairs gave a squawk and blew out in a shower of sparks that had the speakers drop onto the tile.

The LT stepped forward, grabbed the wheel, and spun it until it clanked. Once he finished he pulled on the door, obviously expecting it to extremely heavy. Nobody snickered when the counter-balanced door swung easily open and he almost busted his ass. The cylindrical hallway, flattened on the bottom, lit up as the lights came on with an audible clack. I wondered briefly is there was some device that made that noise, since lights shouldn't make that sound.

"Everyone inside, doubletime it." The LT said. Everyone went by, and my little group, Echo-Five Actual, stood there and watched.

Finally only we were outside the door. The LT stepped inside and then turned to look at me.

"Come on, Corporal, we have a lot of work to do." He said.

"Sorry, sir, but you have your duty, we have ours." I told him.

"What?" He asked, frowning.

"Good luck, sir." I said.

Bomber pushed off from the far wall with his legs against the heavy steel door, the door quickly slamming shut with an echoing boom. Nagle grabbed the wheel and spun it, locking it in place with a clack that echoed through the steps. I stepped forward and pulled down the little breaker, the snap it made echoing loudly in the stairwell. That cut the power to the panel, and the penny I jammed into it would prevent it from snapping up if the breaker on the panel on the inside of the tunnel was snapped up. If both of them didn't pop up the only way to unlock the tunnel was to use the control panels in the master control stations.

And it would take awhile for someone to figure out how to do that.

Long enough to do what needed to be done.

There was three feet of case hardened steel vault door between the rest of Rear-D and us. They were safe inside the War Fighter tunnels. It would take a nuke to dig them out of there.

We were in the dark and cold, in a barracks that had the winter let in.

"Well, this was a good idea." Bomber said in the dark.

"2/19th, Finish the fight." Nancy said softly.

"Finish the fight." The rest of us joined in.

"Kurt Russel time." I said.

"Hooah." they answered.

Somewhere above us the sound of tap-shoes on tile sounded, and a little girl's giggle floated down to us.

We moved out.

We had our duty: "I will not allow secure data or items to fall into enemy hands. I will destroy or remove all secure items and data to the best of my ability, and resist with force any attempt by the enemy to acquire that data or items."

Chapter 17

2/19th Special Weapons Group
Restricted Area, Alfenwehr West Germany
Late Winter- January, 1988
Day 12 of Repairs
Day 4 of the Second Incident
Early Morning

The door to the War Fighter tunnels crashed shut, the LT vanishing from sight. Nagle spun the wheel, and I jacked the breaker up. They were linked, the power breaker on either side. You could open the door in the command center, or take a steel panel off the wall and throw the lever, but either one would take time.

Time enough for us to do our duty.

We stood in the darkness of the bottom of the middle stairwell in silence for a long moment, just the sound of our breathing and a clicking sound coming from somewhere far above us. Our breath steamed out in front of us, and everything was painted in shades of green from my NVGs, turning the breath into bright whitish-green plumes. Aine held her lip between her teeth, her empty headed look gone, instead an intentness around her eyes. King was looking down at the pig in his hands, toying with the charging lever. Bomber was looking at me with a grin below his NVG's, one arm thrown over Nagle.

The sight of Aine caused a twinge inside of me as a memory of her, Cass, and I playing together with my brother and James, building a fort out of cardboard boxes, jumping off the roof and into Aunt Jolie's swimming pool, Cass and me tying a great big Irish Setter to the wagon and riding around behind him while laughing.

I crushed the memories and the pain under boiling red hot rage.

"The LT's gonna be pissed." Bomber said.

I made a non-commital grunt.

"He'll live." Bomber said. "We need a place to store our extra gear, and we need to gear up properly."

"How about our room?" Nagle asked, bending down and picking up the two ammo cans.

"No way, they've got to figure we'll head back there." King said. "They had to have stationed men there to take us out."

"It's what I'd do." Bomber nodded.

"Yeah, we walk into your room and they'll be waiting to kill us." Stokes said.

"Like they did to Cass." Aine said, and sniffled a little. "Poor Cassie."

"So they'll be waiting." I growled, clenching my hands around my M-16. The square forward grip crackled. "I think I'd like that."

Aine sighed with pleasure.

"Actual, let's move out." I said.

We started up the stairs, staying to the side of the stairwell. I led the way, slinging my rifle, drawing my .45 and loading a round in chamber. We were silent, only heavy breathing and light footsteps, up to the access for Hammerhead Hall. I held up my fist and everyone came to a stop. I crouched down and they joined me.

"I'll go in first, Bomber, Nagle, you follow. Nagle, take the bathroom, Bomber make sure anyone I put down stays down." I said softly, using the frost on the floor to draw a sketch of the room. At least two people were using the IR lamp, despite the battery drain, which made the map plain as day. "Aine, you stick out here with King and Stokes, you'll be King's assistant. King, you watch toward near Hammerhead, Stokes, you watch toward the far stairwell. This is a friendly free zone, so use the pig if you get targets of opportunity." The sketch wasn't good, but it worked. They all nodded. I looked up at Aine. "I'd advise you to do solely what I tell you, McCullen."

She nodded. "I'll be good." She promised.

"You're always good. Just behave." I said. She smiled, and something lightened between us as we all chuckled at the old joke.

"I want either Captain Duloc or the Colonel alive." I growled. "I want to discuss a few things with them. If they're both there, kill Duloc." I looked at everyone. "No matter what, they are mine, you understand?"

Murmured assent answered me and I stood up. The door whined as the cold took its toll on the metal insides. We moved down the hallways, keeping to either side, with me in the middle.

"King, Aine, Stokes, word of advice?" Nagle said softly.

"Always." King said.

"It's about Ant, isn't it?" Stokes said.

"Stay out of his way." Nagle said. "He feels off."

"His blood burns for revenge." Aine breathed. "He must his avenge his cousin in blood or die trying."

"Maintain noise discipline." Bomber snapped.

When we got to my door King moved a step past, Stokes stayed a step behind, and Aine pressed herself into the door that I'd threw her against an eternity ago. I put my hand on the door, checking it and finding it unlocked when the door opened slightly, and nodded to Bomber, then to Nagle. We could hear voices on the other side.

"On three." I said. They nodded again. "One." Cassius' face appeared in my mind, his mouth open in a shocked 'O', blood dribbling down his chin. "Two." His mother's tear streaked face. "Three!" The lizard snarled, thrashing his tail, and put up the plan superimposed over the room diagram. Snarling, rage making my limbs tremble, I whipped open the door.

Two men were leaning against the desk holding their weapons, looking further into the room, and I recognized them as two of the Colonel's men in the split second as my vision kept going through the room. Two men in Soviet camouflage by the refrigerator and window, their AK-47's against the radiator as they talked to themselves in Russian. None of them had seen us coming in, our appearance and the door opening hadn't registered to them. Coming in fast I brought up the pistol and started pulling trigger, following the lizard's plan.

Doubletap, change sight picture, moving moving, doubletap, both men falling as the blood explodes from their chests, still moving, doubletap, in the chest, switch sight picture, moving, single shot into the chest, drop the empty pistol. Keep moving forward, five steps and pivot, right leg extended slightly as I slid into the room like I was showing off for my friends. I pivoted at the waist, angling my boots with a squeal of combat boot sole on tile. Captain Duloc and the Colonel standing there with a guy in Russian camouflage. Get my balance, knife in hand, come in fast and hard.

My brain was replaying Cass's 12th birthday over and over, his death over and over, drinking beer out back of the 8th grade prom with him and my other cousins and our dates, going out back of his house to find him huddled in our fort after his dad was killed, and the way he collapsed after the second stab.

I was bellowing, roaring, pure audible violence as I came in with the knife in my hand. The lizard was snarling, expanding, no longer thinking but reacting, pure driven instinct, muscle memory, and raw primal rage.

Behind me there was a short burst from an M-16 right after there was the crash of the door being kicked open. "Clear!" Nancy called out from the bathroom. I was moving into the room fast as Bomber started banging shots from his '16. The bayonet on my LBE cleared the scabbard smoothly into my left hand without thought, without even planning on it, just doing it at the subconscious urging of the lizard.

Duloc was trying to bring his rifle into play, the Colonel was stepping forward, and the Russian was grabbing for his pistol on his LBE. I ducked under a roundhouse kick from the Colonel, slashing along his thigh as I did so, the spray of blood hot against my cheek, the lizard licked his chops. The Russian's mouth opened in an 'O' when I slammed the bayonet into his chest, just left of the center, releasing my hold on the bayonet, knowing without understanding how that it was hung up on the ribs. I roared again and spun to face Captain Duloc. More shots from behind me. The Colonel was holding his thigh with one hand and trying to grab a pistol off the dresser behind him.

I didn't care. I had blood in my eyes and steel in my fist. The lizard was flexing his claws with his fangs bared. Cass's face appeared, the shocked look on his face, with his mother's tearful face.

"Miss me, pumpkin?" I asked, not taking my eyes from Duloc as I moved in on the Colonel. I didn't need to pay attention to the Colonel, the lizard had already started my body moving. The lizard hissed at Duloc, opening and closing his claws, tearing at the stainless steel floor of his control room with his rear claws. I was clenching my toes inside my boots in unconscious reflexive imitation. I grabbed the front of the Colonel's LBE belt and snatched him against me, stabbing him in the stomach, twisting and yanking it out, stabbing him in the side, and repeated it again. He was finished, he'd live for days or hours, but he was out of the fight and the lizard let me know when I yanked the blade free after the third stab.

Duloc squawked when I kneed the Colonel in the balls and threw him straight away from me with the hand that was holding his LBE belt, tangling him with the Duloc. Duloc's pistol went flying when the Colonel hit him and he hit the bunk beds, and he pushed the Colonel away angrily and got to his feet.

"Mine!" I bellowed out as Bomber put a pair of short bursts into the two men in front of the windows.

"SEALs like me eat-…" Duloc started, dropping into a karate pose like he was in a cheap movie.

The lizard laughed in his own way.

When he started speaking I just stepped into him, grinding my teeth. He jerked back, startled by the fact I wasn't talking, and screamed when I drove my knife into the left side of his chest at the collarbone. The lizard wanted urged me to bite his face off, as I felt the blade grate along the bone, yanked it out, and stabbed him high in the right side of the chest, holding him up by his LBE.

"You ain't a SEAL." I told him. His screams got a bubbling sound to them. "Didn't work out how you thought it would, did it, pumpkin?" I asked, smiling.

"If it was, it was a really shitty plan." Nancy said from behind me in the dimness.

Bomber hit the lights and the world brightened. Duloc has pounding on me, but it wasn't having any effect on me, the two deep stab wounds having robbed him of his strength. I threw him to the side, stripped off the helmet and NVG's, and stood there, breathing heavy and staring at the three men.

"Goddamn it, you wasted the fucking Spetz Colonel." Bomber bitched. "He might have told us something."

"Wasn't gonna say shit." I shot back, kneeling down. "Combatant."

Nancy broke in. "Besides, we couldn't keep him alive, we can't take him to the War Fighter Tunnels, and Ant was in a fucking hurry." Captain Duloc was on his side and I rolled him onto his back. He tried to lift his arms and failed, just groaning.

"You and Ms. Pointy Thing are going to talk, pumpkin, then I'm gonna talk to the good Colonel here." I smiled at him. "Bomber, help the good Colonel take a seat, I want him to see this." I looked over, seeing Aine, King, and Stokes coming in the room. Nancy was checking the pulse on the four men I'd shot coming in and Bomber had made sure would stay down on his way in.

"Anyone who doesn't want to answer questions at trial might want to leave." I smiled down at Captain Duloc. "This is going to get ugly."

"Gotta handle the gear." King said, dropping the M-60 on the desk. He started pulling stuff from around his neck and dropping it on the other side of the pig. "You do what you gotta do, I'll do what needs to be done on my end."

"I wanna watch." Was all Aine said.

Stokes tossed the ammo cans on Bomber's bed. "Fuck it. We aren't getting off this mountain alive."

"In for a pfennig in for a court martial." Bomber said, dragging up the Colonel. King swung a chair around and Bomber half threw him into the chair, eliciting a scream and the Colonel folded around his belly.

"I'm with you, Ant." Nancy said.

"Thank you." I said, staring down at Duloc. "Hold him down."

Bomber and Nancy moved over to me, Bomber grabbing Duloc's wrists and pulling them straight over his head, Nancy grabbing his ankles and holding his legs down with all her weight. He screamed at being pulled around, blood seeping out of his uniform and onto the floor. Blood sprayed out of his mouth when he coughed at the end. I'd nicked both lungs at the top.

The lizard and I couldn't give a shit less. Cass didn't give a shit less. Cass' mother would only stop crying if I gave her blood.

Tradition, the clan, the Matrons, they all demanded nothing less.

Grinding my teeth I stomped over to him, staring down at him, a red haze tinging my vision. With a snarl I straddled him, sitting down and holding up the knife. I looked down and smiled at him.

"Time for you and Ms. Pointy Thing to have a talk." I told him. I grabbed the bottom of his BDU shirt and slid the knife up the front seam, the buttons popping free and bouncing across the floor.

"I'm a fucking SEAL, you little shit, you can't-…" Whatever I couldn't do was broken by him coughing.

"Except I trained SEAL Team Three this summer, and you. Weren't. There." I said, leaning forward so our noses were touching. The lizard hissed in hatred. I slid the knife through his brown shirt with a quiet whisper of parting cloth.

"You can't touch me, bastard, you'll be in for a world of hurt." He coughed again as I sat up.

I drove the knife low into his right side, twisting it twice. I waited until he was done screaming before I leaned back and looked at him. "Touch."

"I think he can touch you, scumbag." Bomber grinned, leaning down so he was looking at his face.

"Just stab his ass and get done with it, Ant, I'm bored and horny." Nancy said from by his feet.

"I like the blood and screams." Aine said softly. A glance showed me she'd taken off her top and was standing there in her T-shirt, boots, an BDU bottoms, licking her lips as she stared at Captain Duloc.

The blade made a sucking sound when I pulled it free. I didn't say anything, just slammed it back into the other man's abdomen right at the point I'd just stabbed him, twisting the blade and just letting him scream till he was done.

"Touch." The lizard purred.

Aine sighed.

"Goddamn that's getting on my nerves." King grumbled.

I twisted the blade again and let him scream. "Touch." I pulled the knife out and sliced down the long muscles on his side, not caring about his screams. I switched to the other side, slicing through muscle. I held his head down with my left hand on his forehead and pushed the tip of my knife into the bridge of his nose, twisting the blade. The lizard seemed to grow inside my mind. My thoughts started to fade, consumed by the need to hurt someone, break something.

"What do you want to know?" Duloc gasped when I leaned back and moved my arm in a circle to loosen up the muscle.

Bomber leaned back down. "I don't think he cares about anything you have to say."

I slid the blade in the meat of his upper arm and scraped it along the bone, not caring about the screams. I leaned back, lifting up the knife and staring at it. The lizard was gnashing his teeth, demanding I avenge Cass, avenge the pack, repay blood with blood.

"Wait! Wait! I'll tell you anything, just… don't, please, don't!" Duloc yelled, staring at the knife. The smell of apple blossoms and the dinosaur worthy hiss of rage from the no so little any more lizard burned away any bit of reason I had left as I saw Cassius' face in my mind. A pain stabbed me in the middle of the chest and I ruthlessly destroyed it with red hot rage. "Anything… I'll tell you anything…"

"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.

Aine was behind me, whispering 'blood, blood, blood' with each slice of the blade, the smell of apple blossoms and blood was overwhelming as I kept carving into him. He was babbling things, trying to tell me something to make me stop what I was doing to him, but I didn't care what he had to say, all I cared about was that my cousin was dead and this sorry motherfucker was to blame. I listened to the lizard when he whispered where to cut to hurt him, how to tear at him but keep him alive so the blood flowed and the screaming continued. When I took his eyes he was screaming that he'd been a soldier like us, in Vietnam, before he'd been recruited, and to please stop, but it didn't matter what he was in the past, right then he was nothing but a thing for me to vent my rage and pain upon.

When he shit himself I didn't stop, slicing under the ribcage and sliding my hand up inside. I clenched my fist around the first thing I felt and pulled it free, stabbing my blade into Duloc's throat to brace myself as I repeated it, yanking things out of him and throwing them to the side after tearing them free. I was beyond caring about whether or not I should do it, the lizard was in control and it felt good to let go of the rage that had building inside of me all my life.

I was tearing at him for Cass. For the little boy that had been Annie. For the little girl who had been Innie. For Nancy. For Bomber. For what was done to us at Atlas. For Westlin. For the men who had died the month before. For my hatred at the whole fucking world.

"For me? How traditional of you, Annie. You're such a good boy." Aine said softly after I pulled a handful of stuff from inside Duloc and threw it to the side.

I was growling like an animal, and I didn't care. Tearing at one of the men I blamed for the death of my cousin. I finally leaned back, knowing I was covered in blood. The Colonel coughed and groaned, reminding me he was alive when the lizard hissed in hatred and pointed at his picture on the blood spattered wall behind it. My head whipped around and I stared at him for a long moment, my hand still jammed inside Captain Duloc. The Colonel was pale with the lack of blood, tied to the chair with 550 cords, including a loop around his neck. With a growl I stood up and turned around, staring at the 'Colonel' who I knew had arranged all of it.

"Colonel's turn." I growled from between grinding teeth, stepping forward.

The light had dimmed in the room, and it was full of something, a thing that had weight, had a pressure of its own, for all that it was invisible. It pressed at me, driving at me, feeding off of my rage and pain and hatred. Its invisible tentacles wrapped around the other, reaching inside of them.

Aine had a hunk of meat in her blood covered hands, her small sharp teeth tearing large chunks out of it, her eyes rolled back in her head as she shuddered with each bite, blood running down her chin.

"Ever heard the term 'world of pain', Colonel? I think Ant here is about to give you a ticket there." King said with false sympathy, lighting a cigarette with one hand and patting the Colonel's head with the other. "Which is all right with me. See, one of your boys killed a girl name Queens. She was part of my crew, and we bled together more than once."

Stokes glared at the Colonel when he turned to look pleadingly at her. "Cassius was the cousin of two people who I love very very much, and he's dead because of you. Your friends killed mine. I can live with whatever happens here." She lit a cigarette of her own. "Nobody on this mountain cares about what happens to outsiders when it gets dark and cold, Colonel. Your men let the winter in."

"Oh God, don't, please, don't…." The Colonel said, his eyes flicking from Aine to me and back again.

"Blood." I snarled, stepping over the dead man. My rage still burned hot, my hands still ached to tear into him, my teeth ground, the side of one of my repaired molars sheering off almost unnoticed.

"I want more." Aine whispered, licking her empty palm. He nipples were obviously hard beneath her brown T-shirt and she shivered as her long tongue licked across her palm and up her bloody thumb.

"Please, stop him." The Colonel begged, looking at Nancy.

"You hurt my boy. I should let him do what he wants. God knows a scumbag like you deserves it." Nancy stood up, grabbing my arm at the biceps and stopping me. "But, we should at least ask him why." She said.

"Don't care. Blood for blood." I growled at her, but didn't shake her free. I could see Cassius' expression of shock and fear in my mind. See his still body laying in the Rec-Room with the other casualties. See the black streaks that the mop left behind.

Bomber stood up, wiping off his face, and moving in front of the Colonel. When he spoke his Texas accent was thicker than I'd hear it since Basic Training. "Weeell now, it ah'pears ta me that ya might be inna spot o' trubble, Cull-nul." He squatted down, looking in the Colonel's face. "Ya see, all Ant thair cares 'bout is if'n are nawt ya know how to bring his purr ol' cous'n back ta life." I growled and took a step forward. Nancy tightened her grip on my bicep, grabbing with her other hand, and pulled me toward her. I stopped as Bomber kept speaking. "Now me, Ah wan' ta know cert'n thangs." He smiled and patted his .45. "Tell me, and Ah'll make it fast." He pointed at me. "Other-wise, Ant's cous'n was wonna tha men that done got killed. You c'n try beggin', but as you saw…." He chuckled and his accent instantly cleared up when his face hardened. "He doesn't seem to care."

"Blood demands blood, it's the McDaur'n way." Aine said, giggling. The Colonel looked at her as she stepped forward and pressed her bloody middle finger just under my right eye, her fingernail clicking against the rim of my glasses. "He has to face Cassius' sisters and mother after this." Her giggle was like ground glass against thoughts, but fire spread from her finger along my nerves. "They'll need to hear about every slice, every stab, every drop of blood," she leaned forward and smiled, her finger still on my cheek. "And every scream." She breathed as she wrapped her little hands around my biceps.

The Colonel looked at me, the two female soldiers holding onto my biceps, my face, arms, and the front of my body covered in blood, the way I leaned toward him, breathing heavy between gritted teeth, my shoulders bunched and my body shaking with the need to hurt him, mangle him. The lizard was hissing, raking his feet across the steel floor. He was staring at six feet of out of control killing machine aimed at him.

He broke right there. He blurted it all it out, his words tumbling over themselves, in his haste to tell us anything that would keep Nancy and Aine's hands on my biceps.

"That all?" Bomber asked, tapping the drawn .45 against his thigh.

"I swear. That's everything. I'll tell you anything else you want, just… please." The 'Colonel' pleaded. He was breathing fast, licking his lips as the dry mouth that accompanied blood loss dug its claws in deep.

"Naw, I got what I need." Bomber said, standing back.

The 'Colonel' stared at him for a second, then whipped his head around to look at me, fear blossoming on his face as Bomber kept talking.

"Special Agent Taylor of the CIA is all yours, Ant." Bomber had a big shit eating grin on his face. The girls let go of my arms. "I promised a US Army Colonel, not some nun raping CIA scumbag."

Taylor screamed, struggling against the 550 cord with terror lent strength.

"Blood." Aine whispered.

I tackled him, taking him to the floor, chair and all, my knife already flashing in the dim light as I started stabbing as soon as I hit him like a blood covered avalanche of rage and hatred. The rage, which had been simmering the entire time he spoke and had only been reigned in due to the touch of Aine and Nancy, roared up inside me. I didn't care where the blade hit, as long as it was buried in the traitor's flesh.

He'd agreed to sell the site data and the tactical/strategic plans of 2/19th to the Russians, had sold out Rear-D and had intended to kill them all to cover it up. The Vympel were supposed to help him make it look like we'd all gone crazy again and destroyed the barracks. Major Mallory and SFC Thurston had each sold out to keep their disgusting secrets hidden. Taylor had sold out his country for a few hundred thousand dollars and a new identity in a Soviet satellite state. The "SEALs" were all Vietnam Era CIA deniable assets turned CIA funded mercenaries that Taylor had bought out with promises of money and the easy life in some Warsaw Pact nation.

I didn't blame the Vympel. I didn't blame the Soviet Union. I blamed Special Agent Taylor. I blamed his traitorous men.

Even after he quit screaming I kept stabbing at him, tearing at him with my free hand, roaring in rage and hatred. I threw my knife aside and went at him with bare hands, smashing and tearing with fists and fingers. My right shoulder was burning with pain, my arms trembling with exhaustion, so I stood up and began kicking at him, smashing at his face with my combat boots. Stomping at him, trying to obliterate him from the face of the earth as if it would bring back my cousin.

"Ant." Nancy said softly, stepping up and touching my right shoulder. I stopped at looked at her, still feeling the rage boiling inside of me. "It's over."

"Aw." Aine sounded disappointed. I turned and looked at her, and she pouted. When I growled she smiled, stepping forward and reaching for my face.

Nancy yanked me to the side, out of Aine's reach. "Get up, Ant needs a shower and a clean uniform." She said. Aine's eyes flashed hatred. "Get the dead bodies out of the bathroom and hurry." She turned and stood in front of me, staring in my eyes. I stared back, still shaking with the need to destroy. "I'll keep him calm."

"Help me throw these dead assholes out the window." Bomber said, moving past Aine and heading for the bathroom. "Try to keep Ant's head on straight. Let's go, Aine."

I was still panting when Nancy drew me back over by the mess that had been Captain Duloc. She reached up and started undoing the buttons of my BDU top one button at a time, speaking softly and slowly to me as she worked.

"I love you, Ant." She said gently, helping me out of my top. My shoulder made a loud popping noise, and she caressed the blood soaked T-shirt over that shoulder with one hand. "Nothing that happened or happens will ever change that, Ant." She rolled the soaked T-shirt up over my chest, still staring into my eyes. "I won't turn away from you, John still cares abut you, your brother will still love you, and your Father will understand and approve and love you." The T-shirt came off over my head and she ran her fingers over the upraised welt of the shoulder surgery. "You're not an animal." Her fingers traced my collarbone. "You're not just a boy." She put her fingers on the right side of my jaw, then put her thumb and forefinger on either side of my jaw and held my face still. "You're my Ant." She whispered, her eyes unguarded and soft. "I love you." She kissed me, slowly and tenderly.

I watched as she slowly knelt down, looking up at me, her fingers seeking out the top of my boots and pulling the laces out from where I'd tucked them inside the top of the combat boot. She stared at me, a shy smile appearing, pulling the bows out of each and then loosening the laces.

"Lift, love." She said softly. I lifted one foot and then the other. She rolled my socks off, and then kissed my belt buckle, still looking up at me. She undid my belt buckle and slowly moved my pants down, still staring into my eyes. There was the screech of nails being pulled free and a cold wind began to blow around me, but I didn't care. I was mesmerized by Nancy's eyes.

I could see old and new pain in them, and fear, but most of all, love. She wasn't afraid of me, she was afraid for me, for what had just happened to me.

She left my boxers on, standing up and kissing me gently again. I closed my eyes, taking her face in my hands.

"Enjoy your snacks, Tandy!" Bomber yelled from behind me. I knew he was throwing the bodies out the window and into the snow. "King, Aine, go the utility closet next to the laundry room by the doubledoors, get a mop and a mop bucket, fill the mop bucket full of hot water, bring the bleach." He sighed. "We just GI'd the room and stripped the floor, goddammit."

"You'll be all right, Ant." Nancy was saying, her hands on my face, "It'll be all right. It will all be all right. I love you. John loves you. We're here. Together." She kissed me again, soft and lingering, and broke the kiss a second before a warm hand touched my back.

"Bathroom's clear, Nancy. Clean my boy off." Bomber said. His hand was making small circles on my skin. "Jesus, he feels like he's burning up. Take care of him."

Aine giggled. "Now you see what he is. What a McDaur'n boy is."

"Shut up, bitch!" Stokes rounded on her. "You don't know what you're talking about, goddamn it!"

Nancy led me past the two women, Bomber's hand still on my left shoulder, holding skin to skin contact.

"I know a McDaur'n, Miranda Elizabeth Stokes, do you?" Aine asked. She sniffed at the other woman as we passed. "Oh, you do. You've lain under one, moaning, mingling sweat. But you don't know what they are, what they're bred to be."

We moved into the hallway, Bomber's hand disappearing from my back.

"You said you'd behave, Aine." Bomber growled, his accent back. "I will cut your skinny throat and throw you into the snow. Step off Miranda now."

"Follow me, Ant, follow me." Nancy was saying softly, leading me into the bathroom. She reached into the shower while I stared in the mirror, the sounds from the main part of our room coming to me clearly.

"I'll behave, John." Aine purred.

"What's the plan now?" King asked.

I was only half hearing them, instead starting at the man in the mirror. The face covered in blood, the mad staring eyes, the curled back lip twisting the side of his face as a muscle tremor below the eye jerked it upwards.

…Nobody likes you. You are worthless beyond the fact that you will die so that someone better than you will survive….

…You should have died, not Cass….

…You will never be worth anything more than whatever good your death can do….

You have your duty, we have ours….

…Nobody will ever love you….

…I love you, Ant….

…Everyone can barely tolerate you….

…I'm here, brother….

…You deserve nothing good….

…I love you, Ant….

…You will die alone….

…We aren't getting off this mountain alive….

…Nobody will know or care that you are gone….

…When it's dark and cold, nobody cares what happens to outsiders….

The words rang in my head like the tolling of a bell. My Mother's voice. Bomber's. Stokes. Nancy. My own voice.

In the main room Aine and King had moved into the hallway, and Stokes and John were talking.

"Did you see his face?" Stokes.

"What about it?" Bomber asked.

Nancy lit me a cigarette and put it between my lips, standing behind me, sliding down my boxers after she let go of the cigarette. The smoke didn't obscure my reflection, and I still hated the man who looked back at me.

"Did he get like this last month?" Stokes asked. I heard a lighter snap.

"No. If he'd gone at that guy like that, it would have been over." Bomber paused for a moment and I heard a Zippo crack open then snap closed. "No, he wasn't like that."

"I've heard Monkey talk about Cassius before. Cassius was the first non-adult outside of the family that Ant would talk to." Stokes said.

"If'n they'd killed my cousin, I probably would have done the same." Bomber said.

"Ant, come here, get in the water." Nancy said, gently steering me toward the water.

"Yeah, but-…" Miranda said.

"He's my brother, Stokes, you didn't have to be here. You could have stayed with the LT." Bomber said.

I stepped into the water, missing Stokes' answer. Nancy turned me around, facing her, keeping the shower curtain open so I could watch her take off her bloodstained BDU's and get naked.

She took her top and T-shirt off first, then stood there for a moment in her sports bra. She smiled at me, then took off the sports bra, letting her heavy breasts sag against her torso. Her dark nipples shivered and hardened in the cool air of the room, the areoles crinkling up. The puncture scar was purple and puckered, a silent reminder of her ambush by the guy in the cold weather mask.

The same guy she'd taken an axe to.

The same guy who had stood in front of the tempered glass and driven that cruel axe against the glass.

Her belt buckle rattled and her pants fell to the floor, revealing she didn't wear any panties. She'd taken off her boots, and when she stepped out of the puddle of her BDU bottoms she was gloriously, lushly naked. Her perma-tanned skin soft looking, She stood in front of me for a moment, then opened the cabinet and removed the half-empty bottle of Wild Turkey from inside of it before stepping into the shower with me.

She took the cigarette out of my mouth, turned, and flipped it into the toilet before uncapping the bottle and handing it to me.

"Drink, Ant." She said, pressing against me. Her head nestled against my left shoulder, her arm around my back so she held onto the opposite hip, her right hand pressed against my chest. I glanced down and saw that the water was red-tinged as it poured down my body.

"No." She said softly, taking her hand from my chest and putting two fingers under my chin to lift my head. "Just drink, Ant."

The whiskey burned as I drank, and the lizard shivered in pleasure. Whether it was the residual adrenaline, Nancy's touch, or the whiskey, I didn't know.

Blood lust. That's what I'd been caught up in. My Father had warned me about it, when I got in a fight in High School and had seriously injured the two guys who had jumped me. He'd told me about when he'd got caught up in it, during the Chosin Reservoir, how injury, fear, and rage at his brother dying in his arms had turned him into an animal, a predator who hunted the Chinese soldiers, rather than the soldier he had been trained to be. I'd never understood what he had talked about, never really got it.

I did now.

Nancy leaned me back, into the water, and I closed my eyes as she worked the shampoo into my hair, murmuring to me the entire time. She finally pushed me forward and began working on my back with the soap and a washcloth.

I could still see Cass' face as he was stabbed, and felt a surge of guilt over the fact that I hadn't understood what was happening. I should have. I shouldn't have just stood there. I should have grabbed him and pulled him off the knife. I should have smelled him, heard him, something, anything other than sit in the fucking chair while some Vympel hardass cut the life from my cousin.

Nancy's arms went around me as I began sobbing, sagging against her, the sobs moving to open crying. She guided me down onto the three inch deep tub's floor, holding me as I rocked back and forth and cried.

Cass had never cared that I didn't talk. He'd talked enough for both of us. We'd explored the woods behind his house, behind the house the Army gave my Father in upper officer housing. The Army had understood he took in kids, and shown its approval by making sure he had a large house to care for all of them. When I had first gone to live with my Father he was in between a one-star, Brigadier, general and a full bird Colonel. Neither officer had ever shown any displeasure at my Father being in officer country when he was an NCO, both men had come to a few Sunday dinners, their children played with us.

Still, Cass had been with me the whole time. I'd understood how a lot of people hated him just because his skin was dark, and he told me about when his father was stationed in South Carolina he'd been called names, spit on, and beaten up.

When I'd finally spoken he'd acted like I had spoken the entire time, just still telling stories. We were 10, our stories were full of pirates, robots, space adventures, and all the children make-believe that fills summer afternoons.

Now I was crying because he was gone. And the stress of being on the mountain had made it so I wasn't that friendly to him in our last exchange. He had been trying to adjust to what I'd become, and I'd been too focused on figuring out how to make sure as many people as possible survived.

Guilt. Grief. Loneliness. All of it wrapped up so that I was being held in Nancy's arms while I cried.

I cried for Cass, dead on a Vympel knife. Queens, never going to sing again. Warrant, his wife a widow and child unable to understand why daddy won't come home. Lewis, dead on a table. Westlin, dying on a helicopter. So many lost. For what?

When I was clean, and cried out, Nancy slowly turned me around, kissing under my eyes and then my lips, her eyes still soft, missing the hardness that was so often in them. When the kiss broke she looked at me, one hand over my heart.

"If I tell you something, will you promise to still love me?" She asked me.

"Always." I told her, kissing her.

"Do you know how I ended up in 2/19th?" She asked. There was pain in her eyes, and a need for me to understand.

"You killed some guys. Shot them in their barracks room with your M-16." I told her.

She nodded slowly. "That's not all of it." She sighed, bringing her knees up to her chest and wrapping her arms around them so she could hug herself. "Our MOS was male only until a little over two years ago." I nodded, I knew that. My class was the first co-ed class. The class before that had been segregated, and the class before that was like the others had been since 1958, male only.

"I was in the first class. Thirty females, all of them reclassifying to a new MOS. I was proud, I'd been in the military for two years, and jumped at the chance to be one of the first women in the MOS." She squeezed herself again and I reached out and squeezed her knee. She let go of her legs with her right arm and put her hand over mine. "I've always hated that as a female I can't be sniper, can't be a Ranger, can't be a tanker or infantry." She smiled, a shy thing that matched the hurt in her eyes.

"Only six of us graduated, I was an E-4 at the time, made it due to time in grade, not like you." Her eyes squeezed shut, her brow furrowing, and I knew she was crying in the water. "I went back to my original, told that they would move us into existing units as soon as it was possible." She grimaced. "But nothing was different. The NBC NCO treated me like shit, so did his assistants. Half the time I wasn't even allowed to be in the NBC locker. I got called names, told I was uppity, and worse. Told that women didn't belong in the Army, much less Special Weapons. It was insane."

I reached out with my other hand and began gently stroking her calf as she kept speaking.

"We were out in the field, I was responsible for the tear gas, when four guys from my unit: Krevlin, Barker, Tollson, and Michaels, caught me alone." She shuddered, and her eyes were full of a pain I couldn't make go away. "They took turns on me." She squeezed my hand. "I wasn't a virgin, it didn't make me into girls or anything like that. I've always liked to fuck. But they beat me. They raped me the entire afternoon, left me laying on the ground, naked, and took the time to tear up my uniform before pissing all over me."

She rested her head against her knees, but I could still make out her voice. "I reported it, told my chain of command. That night all four of them came into my room, pushed my roommate out of the room, and raped me again. On my own bed. In my own room. And told me that 'stupid bitches need to keep their mouths shut.' while they did it. Then they told me that they'd rape me every night, whenever they wanted, until I dropped the charges."

She raised her head. "So I killed them." She shook her head. "No. I did more than kill them. The next day I drew my weapon to 'clean it' although I think the armorer knew what I was going to do. I went in their room. I disabled them. I shot them in the crotch. I pulled down their pants and shoved the barrel of my rifle in their ass and pulled the trigger. I mutilated them with my weapon." Her face hardened. "Then I put down the weapon, sat on their bed, smoked their cigarettes, and waited for the MP's to arrest me. When I gave my side of it they put me in a cell. Then I was told if I accepted a PCS to a unit being put together and never did anything about what had happened, I wouldn't be charged. And like a chickenshit, I took the PCS instead of taking it court martial."

We were silent for a moment, it was probably shorter than it felt, but I could feel the tension in her, the surrounded her, and see the fear in her eyes.

"So what happened that might make me stop loving you?" I asked. "I would have taken my knife to them."

She laughed. "I love you, Ant." She said.

"I love you, Nancy." I answered back.

"I know." She told me before kissing me again. "Stay here, I'm going to get us uniforms, we can get dressed so Bomber can clean off."

I nodded silently, watching as she left, appreciating the way she looked.

After a few moments she came back with my uniform, dressing while I sat in the shower and watched. Once she started brushing her hair I got out, dried off, and got dressed silently. She leaned forward and kissed me gently.

"Say you love me." She whispered.

"I love you, Nancy."

"I know." She said, kissing me again. When the kiss broke her eyes were hard again, her shield back up, the wall she kept up between her and the world back. She put two fingers against me chest. "Stay in here a moment. Bomber will need to talk to you."

I nodded handing her the bottle so she could take a drink, then taking one of my own when she left the bathroom. Capping the bottle of Wild Turkey I set it on the small shelf below the mirror. I sat the toilet after putting my stuff in my pockets. My lighter, my cigarettes, my little green friend the notebook, my Skillcraft ballpoint black pen, the whetstone, my wallet, the sewing kit, and the other stuff. I lit a cigarette when John came in.

"You doing all right, brother?" He asked me. He was spattered with blood. He grabbed the bottle, opened it, and took a long pull off of it.

"A little." I admitted. He handed me the bottle and I held onto it.

He skinned out of his clothing, throwing them in the pile of bloody clothing, and stepped into the shower we'd left running. He washed off, shampooed, then shut off the water, grabbing a towel and wrapping it around his waist. He took the offered bottle and took a long drink off it.

"You're still my brother." Bomber said, motioning at my cigarette. I lit him one and handed it to him. "I don't care what Aine says. You aren't a fucking animal, you're my friend." He took a long drag off the cigarette as I scooted to the side to drop mine in the toilet. "Everyone else is still with us. King doesn't seem to care, Miranda was shook up, and Aine, well, Aine is Aine."

I chuckled and stood up. He scooted to the side to let me get by him. "Yeah."

He put his hand on my arm, stopping me when I went to leave. When I looked at him he gave me his Texas grin. "When this is over we'll go back out to Atlas and drink till we end up in blackout drive." He held out the hand. "Last of the bottle is mine."

I laughed as I left the bathroom, walking into the main room.

Aine's uniform was somehow spotless, not a spot of blood anywhere on her. Stokes and King were spattered, but didn't seem to care. The bodies were gone, the room smelled of bleach, and the tile was dusty looking and bone white. The plywood was back over the window, the light dim but bright enough to see easily, and the stereo, HAL, was playing Dreamweaver quietly.

King handed me a cigarette, lighting himself one, and held out a bottle of Asbach to me. The bottle smacked into my hand and I took a long drink off of it before handing it back to King. When I turned around, Stokes tossed me an MRE. Dehydrated Beef Patty, one of my favorites. I grabbed the chair the unfortunate Special Agent had been tied to, which had obviously been cleaned, and sat down in it. The wood was gouged here and there, where the blade of my knife had struck it.

Bomber came out, dressed, and caught a tossed MRE, groaning when he noticed it was Chicken and cat shit, but still leaned against the radiator and tore into it.

We were mostly silent eating. Only the sound of us tearing into the foil packages or chewing and the music filling the room. When we were down to the gum King turned to me.

"What's the plan now?" He asked.

"We take the fight to the Vympel." I told him. "No way they'll pull back, not when they're here. They'll go after the secure data, and then get out. That means they leave with what they wanted and don't have to pay." I rubbed the side of my face, the burn stinging. "I wasn't paying attention, Bomber, fill me in on what the good Colonel had to say."

Bomber chuckled, reminding me that it was a full Vympel team with backup, a political officer and his two aides, and the KGB officer and his GRU agents. We'd taken 15 of them so far, including the Vympel leader, but that meant we still had ¾ of them left to go. Special Agent Taylor didn't know where the Vympel were holed up, but he did know it was close by. While he spoke, and the others filled in gaps and we all made guesses, we loaded up the gear we figured we would need. We left what we couldn't carry, as well as reloads, carefully set on the desk and dressers.

"Think they're in the barracks?" King asked. "It isn't the motorpool, or we would have seen more of them."

"Chow hall?" Stokes asked.

"No." Aine said, looking up from the braid she making out of hair. It was her own hair, stained with blackish stuff. We all looked at her and she smiled, flashing those tiny sharp teeth. "They're at the dispensary. They seized our medical right off, to deny us that. The vehicles are disabled, so there's no help there. They don't need the chowhall, it has no tactical or strategic value, which leaves the dispensary."

We all looked at each other and slowly nodded.

She had a point.

The dispensary was a good distance away, shielded by an outcropping of the mountain from any blast outside of an airburst that might take out the barracks area.

The problem was, it was a half mile away. Through the dark, the cold, and the blizzard outside.

"Can we get there without Tandy tearing us apart?" King asked.

"We could take the War Fighter tunnels." Bomber suggested.

Nancy shook her head. "The LT might not let us back out."

"We'll never make it to the dispensary." I said. "The mountain almost killed us between the motorpool and here. What do you think it'll do to us in the time it'll take us to reach the dispensary?"

"Massacre us." Stokes said. "Tandy, lightning, an avalanche, hell, fucking wolves for all we know."

"So?" Nancy asked. "What's the plan?"

I stood up, grabbing my rifle. It still felt wrong in my hands.

"We take the War Fighter tunnels." I told them. "The LT isn't a coward, he'll agree with me." I headed for the door. "Let's move out, Actual."

We headed down, and I noted that the hallway was icy, frost floating in the air, the air dead and still. Cold as hell, with our breath pluming out in front of us. Two of the vents up by the ceiling were covered in ice as we passed them.

We hit the stairwell and headed down, still keeping a close eye out for anyone moving in on the attack.

The klaxon didn't sound, and the none of the other one's kicked in as far as we could hear. King checked the short hallway but didn't find anyone in there.

When we cracked the door I knew that the plans we made didn't matter. Everything we had planned to do had just fallen through.

We could automatic weaponsfire echoing through the War Fighter tunnels.

"This isn't good." Bomber said.

…No shit….

Chapter 18

Warfighter Tunnels
2/19th Special Weapons Group
Restricted Area, Alfenwehr West Germany
Late Winter- January, 1988
Day 12 of Repairs
Day 4 of the Second Incident
Early Morning

The sound of automatic weaponry echoed in the tunnels and without thinking I broke into a run, heading down the hallway. "Let's go, Actual!" Bomber called out behind me and I knew they were behind me. I swapped out the APERS in my 203 for a Willy Pete round, figuring it was better than the meat-axe I had loaded.

The tunnel was curved for blast deflection, but still led further into the mountain. The lights were still on, and our boots hammered on the steel grate and then the brushed steel plates that made up the floor. The gear I was carrying was heavy, but months of training made it so I barely even noticed it. I could hear the rattling of the gear that we hadn't or couldn't be secured as we hoofed it down the hallway. The hallway widened and narrowed around us, we passed the choke points and four sets of blast shields. Twice the hallway curved.

The Nazis had built the tunnels originally, the Army Corps of Engineers had expanded on them and fortified them, modernized them.

When we rounded the corner we could see the control center up ahead. The lights were on, I saw what looked like Corporal Lancer pop up from behind one of the ballistic shields, fire off a burst, and duck back down.

"Down!" King snapped, and we all dove to the floor a split second before bullets howled over our heads. I pushed myself up on my elbows and started crawling as fast as I could.

"Echo-Five Actual coming in!" I bellowed out, wishing I could get better traction on the steel with my boots. More bullets howled over us, and King swore, but we kept moving. I saw the LT come around the edge of one of the ballistic shields, on his stomach, waving us forward.

A grenade went off and several of the drop ceiling panels fell down on us, one shattering on my helmet. Someone started screaming up there, and I pushed it harder, scrambling as fast as I could.

Corporal Lancer popped up again, the side of his face I could see bleeding and his helmet missing. He fired another quick burst and ducked down again. Weaponsfire came from the direction he was facing, my right, as well as on his left, across from me. The bullets whipped overhead and one of the lights shattered. My brain automatically ran the angle and I knew that whoever was in the tunnel across from us was laying prone.

I managed to get up to the LT and he nodded. "We're under attack from two directions. Not sure how they got in." I nodded, waving King forward. "We've got three down, one in that grenade blast, six wounded."

"Roger that. What do you want us to do?" I asked. King came forward, dragging the pig beside him.

"What happened out there?" The LT asked.

"We encountered and killed four of the fake SEAL team, three Vympel, and found out just what the shit is going on." I told him. More bullets howled overhead and Lancer popped back up, firing his weapon, and barely dropped back down before the return fire took his head off. He bobbed slightly, the top of his head barely coming up over the edge of the ballistic shield, and he dropped back down as bullets went by.

"Fuck you! I ain't no bitch!" Lancer yelled. "Thomson, gimme another mag! Goddamn it, Thomson, gimme another mag!"

"King, give LT James your bag of grenades." I tossed over my shoulder. "Where do you need us?"

"Take Bravo, we'll cover Delta." The LT yelled loud enough to be heard over the roar of the weapons. The fag-bag of grenades thumped next to him and he grabbed the strap and dropped the loop over his helmet.

"Roger that. Actual, follow me to Bravo tunnel!" I yelled out. I started crawling forward, and trying to ignore the bullets flying around. We crawled around the control panels, and when I spotted Lanks tying a field dressing on Clemins' leg I waved at them. "Nancy, help out Lanks."

I saw Nancy alter course to help the other woman, pulling that SF aid bag around where she could get at. Lanks had blood all over her face and arms, the only clean skin where tears were tracking down her face.

Lancer popped around the side, fired quickly, then ducked back, stuck his M-16 over the top of the ballistic barrier, and held down the trigger, doing the old infantry spray and pray. "Eat it, bitches!" he bellowed out, pulling the weapon down and grabbing a magazine off the floor to reload. "Take Rummels ammo pouch and toss it to me, goddamn it, Thomson! He's fucking dead, he doesn't need the goddamn ammo!" A grenade landed next to him and without pausing he grabbed it and flipped it over his shoulder onto the other side of the ballistic barrier in a high looping arc. "No thanks, you keep it!" The grenade went off and he popped back off, firing a few times and dropping back down. "Goddamn it, Thomson, I'm shot too but you don't hear me crying about it! Hand me that fucking ammo!"

Lancer may have been a dick, but apparently that didn't mean he wasn't a good man in fight. He'd always said he'd kick ass in combat, funny that for once the big shit talker turned out to be a bad motherfucker.

I was glad to have him with us.

SPC Melkin and PFC Dobbs were behind the near combat shield. Melkin was pounding on the side of his weapon, trying to get the brass cartridge out of the chamber. It had only partially ejected when the bolt slammed forward and crushed it, jamming the weapon. Dobbs was reloading her weapon, her face pale but determined. Her face was puffed up around her right eye and it looked like she was bleeding from a dozen or so spots on her face. Shrapnel, either from a grenade or a bullet that shattered. Across at the middle shield was Pvt Sherry and PFC Artain, both of them ducked down and flinching as bullets hit the heavy steel plate that had a concrete core. I couldn't blame them, someone was hammering the hell out of it pretty steadily. If either showed an inch of skin around the plate they'd get it blown off in a hot heartbeat. On the other side one person were ducked down, the other sprawled face down in a pool of blood and I couldn't tell who either was.

"They've got at least six, they're at the first bend." Melkin yelled at me. I gave him the thumbs up and crawled forward. Dobbs leaned around the ballistic shield and pounded a half dozen rounds downrange, ducking back right before bullets hit the shield and the armored back of the console behind her.

"Melkin!" Aine yelled out. He looked over as Aine slid him one of the extra M-16's she had on her back. "It's loaded!" Melkins nodded in appreciation, grabbing out at it, yanking his hand back when bullets hit the steel flooring around it, then reaching out and grabbing it, yanking it back despite the bullets. I pressed myself against the wall next to the corridor. I pointed at King, then at the corridor. He nodded and moved up next to me.

"I'll give 'em something to worry about, you hammer them." I told him. "Actual, fix bayonets." I called out, pulling the bayonet out of the sheathe on my LBE belt and following my own command.

"Roger that." King answered. He laid down in front of me, the M-60 held up slightly. I reached down to my ammo pouch and pulled one of the frags off of it. A glance showed me everyone had fixed bayonets, same as I had. Aine bent down to slide King's bayonet on his M-16, leaving the sheathe on. I nodded, held out the grenade, held it to my chest, pulled the pin, and milked it.

"FRAG OUT!" I yelled, whipping it around the corner. It went off two seconds later and King rolled out in the hallway, socketing the M-60 against his shoulder and pulling the trigger as soon as it was settled. The LMG roared and the brass and links of the frangible belt bounced all of the steel. Aine scurried up behind him, grabbing his legs and dragging him back toward in the between two of the ballistic shields. He let it run through the short belt he had on it, not bothering with aiming, just throwing a shitload of lead downrange.

"Let's go, Actual! Give us cover fire!" I shouted when the LMG cut out. King rolled next to Dobbs as I came around the corner and into the tunnel, belly flopping onto the steel and getting a good look at the hallway. There was two down, one squirming, and the lights were out over them with the drop ceiling tiles broken and fallen to the floor. The six soldiers behind us started banging over our heads as we crawled forward. Someone popped around the curve and blood spattered from him as someone behind us caught him square.

The tunnels were designed to hold, with choke points and barriers, a curve in it to keep any enemy coming down from having a straight shot at the control room. It widened and narrowed to allow defenders to have cover while keeping the aggressor from having any cover.

They must have hit with surprise, having already pushed all the way into the tunnels, otherwise you could hold the tunnel with six people. If they'd been trained to. The unit was supposed to train to hold the tunnels, use them, but from what I'd heard the goddamn things were never opened, nobody ever trained to hold them.

Someone held their weapon around the curve and pulled the trigger. The barrel looked as wide as a truck, the flame looked as if it was going to reach out and burn my face off. My weapon came up without thinking and I pulled the trigger on the M-203, the round flying out and I heard it clank off the wall, my brain computing the trajectory automatically, knowing that it bounced off the wall and further down the corridor.

It went off and the AK-47 vanished. There were shouts and someone started screaming. I knew that sound, someone was in agony and I knew that more than likely they just took a face full of burning white phosphorous.

…You knew the risks when you put on the uniform….

No animosity, not hatred like I felt for the CIA goons, but I did feel sympathy for whoever was screaming. I had little white specks on my left arm around the scar where they'd put in the plate. Only we'd had mud to slap on the wound, but it still hurt like hell. My left arm throbbed in sympathy as he kept screaming.

Bomber wiggled ahead of me, having rolled to the other side of the corridor. He tossed a grenade ahead of him, yelling "FRAG OUT!" as it wobbled through the air and vanished around the corner. We kept crawling forward even when it went off with a loud crack. Shrapnel whined around us, not many fragments, but I hated shrapnel. Bullets had names on them, shrapnel read "occupant" and didn't give a shit. The screaming stopped, but the hallway was filling with smoke.

"Move up, Actual!" I yelled, scrambling for the corner. "Keep up the pressure."

"Cover!" Bomber yelled. Stokes echoed him.

"Moving!" I yelled back out of reflex, hearing Aine answer from behind me. We reached the first chokepoint and I cracked open my 203, pulled free the expended shell casing, held it up for the others to see it, yelled "FRAG OUT!" and threw it around the corner. I followed it, rolling into the middle of the hallway.

I heard boots pounding behind me and King slammed down the floor next to me into the chokepoint cover, the M-60 bouncing as he grunted. He had about a foot of ammo hanging off of it. The smoke was stinging my eyes, but no worse than the cordite from the weapons.

Up ahead the tunnel banked the other way and the lizard hissed as I saw someone roll out into the middle of the corridor through the gathering haze of the WP smoke grenade. I pulled the trigger on my rifle and knew I'd missed him. Bomber had hit the chokepoint cover on my right and banged out three shots. The Russian didn't stop when he rolled onto his stomach, instead rolling half again, his arms out loose and legs kicked out.

We had a long way to push them back, I had no idea how many were left. There were five dead in the corridor already, counting the one Bomber had just killed, and I knew there was a guard point up ahead, which opened up into an arrowhead that pointed toward us. This one led to the chowhall, which meant it ran a quarter-mile under the ground before arcing sharply outward to terminate beneath the chow-hall. I could see the smoke swirling in the top of the passage, where the broken ceiling tiles revealed the vents and cursed.

What little cover the smoke had given us was going to be sucked away by the goddamn ventilation system, and we'd be charging back into superior numbers. The lizard was tracking my progress through the tunnels, constantly updating the status of Actual, the probable status of the enemy, and distance we'd managed to retake.

We'd gone less than a hundred yards according to the lizard's map.

Four of the Russians were down, that meant there were supposedly two left. The smoke curled around us and when I pushed myself to my feet my hand stung, burning, but I ignored it. The lizard made another mark on my silloutte.

Sometimes you got no choice but to charge, boy….

"Let's go, Actual!" I yelled, running up to the next curve. I didn't stop at the cover position but instead came around the corner, clamping down the trigger and just spraying as I moved, the lizard adding his hissing to my howls of blood lust. Both of the Russians were running for the far end, but my fire missed them completely. Bullets went by me from someone crouched at the arc of the next curve but I ignored them, bulling forward.

"Come on, you apes, do you wanna live forever?" King bellowed, and I knew he and Stokes had my back.

One of the bullets howling down the corridor hit me in the side, feeling like a horse had kicked me, but I gritted my teeth and powered through it, still moving. The lizard added that to the outline of my body too, but according to the lizard it wasn't that big of a deal so I ignored it.

Bomber howled something in Russian, but all three men vanished around the corner as we pounded after them.

"TWO NINETEENTH!" Dobbs yelled out, he voice hoarse from the cordite.

"FINISH THE FIGHT!" We all called out after it, the lizard screeching for blood. I could hear the LT's voice joining us and the sound of boots hammered behind us.

We came around the corner and it was a straight shot with a multiple chokes where the hallway opened up and tightened in inverted arrowheads. I heard Bomber grunt and King yell "Takes more than that, motherfucker!" as we kept hammering down the hallway.

"PUSH 'EM INTO THE SNOW!" My voice was loud in the tunnel, my best 'be heard over everything' voice I'd learned in Basic Training.

They were ten paces away, trying to close the door, when the one pushing went down with blood spraying from his neck. Bomber put on a burst of speed and hit the door with his shoulder, bracing his boots. I hit it next, putting my back into it, then Stokes hit, then King was there. We strained, the lizard slapping a button on his panel and a sudden surge of strength filling me as we all pushed back against the Russians. The door began moving the other way and I dropped back, darting through the gap and whirling.

Two men were pushing on the door and the lizard snarled at the sight of them. I shoved my bayonet into the side of the first one and pulled the trigger to blow him clear. The other one was pulling his weapon around but I lunged forward again in another perfect form hit, pulling the trigger out reflex hammered into me during Basic Training. I guided him down with the rifle, putting my foot on his torso and yanking the bayonet free.

"Let's go, Actual!" I howled, spinning and heading for the stairs. On my left was the tiny room where the kept the cook's extra rifles, masks, NVG's, and whatever else they might need.

…Get thar firstest with the mostest….

The stairs took us up to the storeroom, the door to the storeroom wrenched open with a crowbar on the floor. The crowbar clanged on the floor when I caught it with the toe of my boot and it skipped across the concrete and bounced off the wall.

"Going right!" I called out, pivoting and heading out past the cooking line, and into the main part of the dining facility. The chairs were upside down on the tables, the plastic covers on the juice machines and soda machines. The buffet was covered in plastic and plywood covered the windows to protect them from the pounding wind and the storms that wracked the top of the mountain. Three tables had the chairs pulled down, scattered Russian ration containers in the trash can next to it and the ashtrays neatly circled in the middle table. On one table was cold weather gear, climbing gear, a radio, and maps held down by salt, pepper, and Mrs. Dash containers. The lizard scanned the room, watching through my eyes, searching the dark shadows that were barely lit by the four or five lights that were lit up.

The room was clear.

…Kurt Russel time…

The double doors at the far end were chained, I had no idea where the keys to the locks were, but that didn't matter. I cracked open my 203, dug out the shell and dropped it into a thigh pocket, and slid a new one in.

"203 out!" Accompanied the 'bloop' from the underslung grenade launcher. It hit the doors and they burst open in an explosion, the heavy steel deformed and the windows shattered. I loaded up another HE round, aimed it at the ceiling at the far end, and pulled the trigger. The roof exploded out, the snow swirling in through the door joined by the wind and snow from the dark sky. The lizard danced around, delighting in the destruction, in the sheer joy of breaking shit.

Crashing came from behind me and I knew that Bomber, King, and Stokes were kicking open doors, making sure that the dining facility was useless for shelter. That means kick in the doors, break the windows, ensure that the wind and snow can get in, that it can't hold heat.

Dobbs came up the stairs, panting, the side of her face still bleeding everywhere.

"Stand fast, Dobbs." I snapped. She pulled up short, pulling her weapon up at port arms. I grabbed her field dressing off her LBE and torn it open with my teeth. "Your eye, still work?"

"No, Corporal." She said. The eyelid was closed and I could see two cuts in it oozing blood as well as blood seeping from between her eyelids. That whole side of her face was bleeding and swollen. She was grinding her teeth. "I'm fit to fight, Corporal."

"Just hold still, soldier." I told her, pushing her Kevlar off. Melkin picked it up, moving to the side, as I put the pad against her eye and started winding the cloth around her head. "Best I can do, get checked by Nagle when we get back."

"Roger, Corporal." She said. Her back was ramrod straight, she was reloading her weapon without looking at it. I tied a knot with the end of the cloth strips on either side of the bandage, right over the pad, to put some pressure on her wound. The lizard wanted to throw her on the floor so we could tear each other's clothing off and breed right on the floor. I ignored him and slapped her shoulder when I was done. "Get back down to the Ready Room down there, wait for us. Hold that position."

"Yes, Corporal." She said, grabbing her helmet from Melkin. Melkin followed her without any prompting. They stopped Sherry from coming up.

Bomber came back, grinning under his helmet. He had a hand pressed to his side and was panting heavy. "This place is fucked, let's clear the Dispensary tunnel." He slid the crowbar he'd picked up into his LBE. The lizard updated the map, showing me how it would go. He tossed up options, but we didn't have many. I chose the most basic one.

Charge into them again.

"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. The lizard snarled in hatred at her voice, but I ignored his urging to tear her throat out and leave her in a pool of her own blood.

"Freak." Stokes said, but laughed. So did Aine, so I didn't bother turning around. My side hurt, but I blew it off, the lizard said it wasn't that big of a deal and I believed him. I couldn't feel heat around or below the impact point so I knew that the bullet hadn't penetrated my Kevlar, but goddamn did it hurt. Dobbs and Melkin were in the Ready Room downstairs and I pointed at the stairwell hallway we'd just came down.

"Smash that panel, pull back into the corridor, close the door." I told them. Dobbs nodded, turning and driving the butt of her weapon against the heavy plastic lid, shattering it. The lizard admired her BDU clad butt as I went by. Melkin followed us into the tunnel as I heard Dobbs drive her the butt of her weapon into the panel twice.

We jogged down the hallway, through the smoke, past the bodies. The command center was lit up, the 'egg' that formed it up to speed. Lanks was crouched over someone laying on their stomach, her hands moving quickly as she slapped gauze down and then grabbed the roll of medical tape out of her mouth. The LT was helping her, holding down whoever it was she was working on.

Lancer was still bobbing, weaving, and shooting, using the ballistic shield for cover and never coming up in the same place twice. Nancy was crouched down next to him, and when he dropped down after firing a handful of spaced shots she reached for him but he slapped her hands away and reloaded his weapon. "Quit fucking grabbing on me, Thomson, and find me some NVG's." Lancer snapped, popping up and snapping off a few shots before ducking back down before the return fire could tear him apart.

His helmet was off, blood running down the side of his face and neck from what was left of his ear. He had a field dressing sloppily tied around his neck, the pad on the opposite side of the neck already bright red from blood. Blood was sheeting off his brow and down his face, turning his face into a mask of blood. He was dripping blood from the elbows of both arms, even as he leaned around the ballistic barrier and fired a quick burst with his M16 and pulled back.

"Goddamn it, Thomson, give me another mag, you fucking crybaby!" He yelled, popping up over the top of the barrier and shooting. Sitting next to him Linderman was bent over, one arm around his stomach where I could see bandages wrapped, but he held out a magazine to Lancer in one shaking hand. Lancer grabbed it out of his hand after a few fumbling tries. "Find me a set of NVG's, goddamn it, Thomson, I can't see shit."

The lizard pointed out that Thomson was on his back, his eyes open and staring at the ceiling. His LBE were open, his T-shirt and BDU shirt ripped open to expose his bloody chest. He hadn't been wearing his body armor and had paid for it.

…How long has Lancer been like that...?

I hit the side of the tunnel entrance, looking at Lancer's ballistic shield. He was holding the corridor on his own. "Lancer, how many?"

"At least fifteen or twenty more, I'm pretty sure some are down! They keep on fucking coming." Lancer yelled back. "Let me know when you need cover fire, I'm reloading. Goddamn it, Thomson, find me some fucking NVG's!"

He's blind….

"Coming with!" Nancy called out, crawling around the ballistic barrier and moving up next to me. I nodded.

"Cover! Cover!" I yelled out. Lancer leaned around the ballistic shield and hosed a long burst out of his M-16, letting the whole magazine rattle downrange till the bolt locked back.

"Move!" He shouted. "Thomson, where's that mag?" The LT vaulted over the compute console behind him, firing his pistol one handed, rolling forward and ending up against the back of the ballistic shield. The lizard clapped at the sight. He handed Lancer another magazine, but that was all peripheral as I came around the corner, firing from a weapon I didn't remember reloading.

One of the Russians was leaning around the first curve, his weapon in his hands and getting ready to shoot. Bullets hit the steel around him, clanking off the metal walls, and he ducked back before he was hit. There were three dead men in the corridor, one in the middle with an RPK that had a drum under it. He'd obviously tried to roll out in the corridor to put down suppression fire and Lancer had tagged him. Two were only a dozen running paces down the hallway, and I passed them at a dead run.

I swapped the magazine at a run, dropping the depleted mag into my magazine pouch. The lizard informed me I had two left in the left hand pouch but all four in the right, then one in my helmet band, and a twenty round backup magazine in my back pocket. I was still good on ammunition. It seemed like I'd fired off a lot more, but the lizard was always right.

When we rounded the sharp edge of the curve there were two Russian's crouched down in the corridor by the far curve. I threw myself forward and down, intending on getting prone before they could hit me. Something hit my helmet, ringing my bell, something else hit me in the right side of the chest, but I still hit the ground alive. The sharp pain tried to take my breath away, wanted to force my body to curl up around the injuries, but I ignored it and started banging back as King and Bomber landed on either side of me. The lizard painted the entire right side of my torso a strobing amber, but I still ignored the feeling of a steel band around my chest.

Both of the Russians had gone prone, my fire missing them. Bomber popped off a few shots then King cut loose with the pig, the roaring of it punishingly loud in the corridor. Links flew into my face, the burning metal stinging as it bounced off my skin. Both men went limp as King hosed a burst into them both, blood spraying off of them.

The hallway ahead was long, a hundred meters at least.

My fingers pulled the empty 203 shell out of the weapon and I slid in my second to last WP smoke after tucking the empty into my thigh pocket. "203 out!" I yelled, slamming the weapon shut and shifting my hand so I could yank back the trigger. The lizard ran the parabolic arc, aiming at the far wall so it would ricochet and keep going. I dropped my hand from the magazine and the 203 trigger and back to the pistol group. The WP went off with a crack and someone screamed.

"Let's go, Actual!" I shouted, pushing myself back up. My ribs complained but I pushed it away. The hot coppery taste was back, wrapped in with that singing emptiness that I'd spent my childhood with.

We hustled after the round, smoke starting to bloom from around the corner. I could hear someone coughing as we rounded the corner. There was a shadow in front of me and I stepped forward, driving my bayonet in front of me. The lizard was running my reflexes, my movements, and I acted on hammered in training and pure driven reflexes. It went in smoothly, the shock of the muzzle hitting making my already sore arm scream. I pulled the trigger and the screaming stopped. Bomber materialized out of the smoke at the same time as someone else and his bayonet thrust went high, hitting the guy high, and Bomber did the same thing I did, pull the trigger to blow them off the bayonet.

It got hot and furious, almost blind from the smoke. Weaponsfire brightened the smoke in strobing flashes, shapes loomed, people screamed. A blade hit my upper left arm and the trigger pull didn't blow my arm off, the weapon twisted, and instead just burnt the fuck out of me with the muzzleflash. I thrust the bayonet forward and the weapon pulled out of my arm. The lizard put a red circle around my upper arm.

Someone yelled something in Russian and Bomber yelled, "They're pulling back!"

"Keep up the pressure!" I bellowed out, pushing forward. Someone fired off a burst of weapon's fire and something hit my stomach hard enough to almost fold me over around it. Something else hit my leg, again with the horse-hoof, but I threw myself through the smoke. I reloaded my M-203, the lizard guiding my fingers so I threw in a 40mm APERS round into my weapon. Nothing like a 40mm shotgun.

"Two nineteenth!" I yelled.

"FINISH THE FIGHT!" We all bellowed together.

The smoke was thinning, the air recirculation pulling the smoke out of the air, and it wasn't far before we came out the smoke, Bomber, Nancy, and me in the lead, all firing our weapons as we advanced. I dropped out a magazine and replaced it, leaving me with one left in the left hand pouch according to small and scaly from the back of my skull.

The corridor was empty and I reloaded as we kept moving, picking up the pace. As we reached the bent in the corridor Bomber pulled a grenade off his harness, lobbing it ahead of him with "FRAG OUT!" right before he threw himself across the hallway and pressed himself against the flat cover of the arrowhead section we'd just ran through. I hit my side and King and Stokes piled against me. Nancy and Aine slammed next to Bomber only a second before the grenade went off.

I came around the corner without a word, firing my weapon. More to provide suppression than anything else.

Two dead men were sprawled only a little ways down, facing away from us, obviously having tried to make it to the corner before the grenade went off. I went by them at a run, suddenly aware I was started to get exhausted. The band was tightening around my chest, robbing me of the ability to take a good deep breath, and getting harder to ignore.

Running 5-10 miles in full gear out at Atlas every day for the last year had given me good endurance, but my injuries and a month to heal had obviously left me weaker than I thought. Even with Aine contaminating me like she had, I was starting to flag. The injuries taking their toll on me, along with fear and just plain human exhaustion.

…Twisted steel and sex appeal, all the ladies love a killer. A meat machine programmed for killing….

We rounded the corner and I saw three men kneeling down.

I dove to the left as they fired, another crushing blow to the right side of my chest and a smashing blow to my right leg. Bomber crashed to the floor, his weapon flying free of his hands. King hit the ground, his helmet askew, and I saw two tears in the front of it. Stokes slammed, twisting as she went down, landing on her side with a grunt. Nancy landed on the floor, her breath exploding out of her in a grunt.

King pulled the trigger on the pig, expended brass and links of the belt flying out. All three men went down, blood spattering across the steel wall behind them.

"Two nineteenth!" I yelled. Was it just me, or did my voice sound weaker?

"Finish the fight!" King sounded dazed when his voice joined.

"Push forward, Actual." I called out, staggering forward. We headed for the corner, hustling as best as we could. I was panting, short shallow breaths, desperately trying to pull in as much oxygen as possible. I couldn't seem to catch my breath.

The lizard screeched when a Russian soldier rolled around the corner, bringing up his rifle less than twenty feet from us. I dove forward and saw Bomber and King do the same. He wasn't fast enough and someone from Actual put a burst in him. He went limp, his arms spasming and throwing his weapon away from him.

Another Russian leaned around the curve, his arm cocked back, and Bomber and I both banged shots at him, King working the charging lever on the M-60 and cursing. We both missed, he threw the grenade, shouting something in Russian, and dropped back before we could tag him. The tearing from the smoke didn't help, but I knew that my shitty marksmanship with the fucking piece of shit rifle wasn't helping. It was goddamn aggravating. I could hit a running rabbit back home with my .30-.30, my brother's .308, or even my Father's .410; I could shoot goddamn gold with Bundeswehr weapons during Schutzenschnur but give me a fucking M-16 and I couldn't shoot my own fucking foot off. I couldn't hit a Russian soldier at twenty feet when my life literally depended on it.

The lizard watched in horror as the grenade arced through the air, hitting the brushed steel and rolling toward me. I could see the Cyrillic markings on it, see that the spoon was gone, and knew it would come to a stop about three feet from in front of my face.

And then blow it off.

I groaned and reached for it, noticing that my hand was covered in blood, but it was too far away. I heard King curse, same with Stokes.

"Goddammit it." Bomber coughed.

I wasn't going to close my eyes, I'd look it right in eye when it went off. I couldn't do shit but take it. The shrapnel and concussive force would kill me even if I ducked my head.

With a banshee scream Aine hurtled over me, her hands holding onto a dead Russian's belt and the back of his shirt. He was a minimum six inches taller than her, and outweighed her by at least seventy-five pounds, but she held him up off the ground like he weighed about as much as a feather. Still screaming she slammed the dead body on top of the grenade, rolling off the dead body, still screaming that banshee scream. The grenade went off in a fountain of blood and gore, the detonation ringing my ears and throwing Aine against the wall. She bounced off and came to her feet, her rifle raised over her head.

"MINE! MY BOYS! MY KELLYS! MINE!" She was shrieking, shaking the rifle over her head. Her helmet had come off, her bun was undone, and her red hair was a corona around her head. I realized she was screaming in Gaelic, the word 'kelly' meaning 'warrior woman', and that something inside of her had snapped.

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. With a chill I realized that she'd stolen it, or been given it early, and she sure as shit shouldn't have been waving it over her head and screaming in Gaelic.

She was waving her goddamn athame over head and screaming in bloodlust and rage.

I scrambled up yelling "LET'S GO, ACTUAL!" at the top of my lungs, bellowing to be heard over the ringing in my ears that I knew everyone else had to be suffering from.

"I am Aine! I give your blood and spirits to Lugus but your hearts are mine!" Aine howled in English, breaking into a dead run with that cruel knife held over her head. "You shall serve me in death! Me! I will drink your blood and feast upon your flesh!" The lizard screamed in fear but I was already moving, following her as she kept screaming.

We pounded after her, Stokes yelling: "Stop, you little idiot!" as we followed her through the bend she'd just disappeared around. Her screams had risen in pitch, a ear splitting shriek that promised nothing blood and pain and made my balls crawl up into my belly.

Around the bend just in time to see Aine duck under a bayonet thrust, her blade opening the inside of a wrist, weaving away from a buttstroke, the blade bringing a spurt of blood from the inside of a thigh, her slim legs propelling her into the air with her legs open to squeeze tight to the hips of the biggest of the Russians, her hand shoving his helmet back, digging into his hair, pulling his head back…

And that cruelly curved blade opening the side of his throat, blood spraying into her face.

Right before 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.

The Russians had turned to stare, one grabbing his wrist, another grabbing the inside of his thigh as he sunk to the floor. The other three were just staring, the muzzles of their weapons dropping as they stared at Aine in shock or horror.

God knew I was stopped, staring.

"WASTE 'EM!" Bomber shouted, breaking the paralysis. His weapon was up in high ready and squeezed the trigger. I didn't bother, knowing I more likely to blow Aine's ass off than hit anything I was aiming at.

It sounded like one long burst, but I knew that Bomber would be squeezing off bursts, and I trusted Stokes to do the same. The three that were still on their feet spun and went down, one clamping down on the trigger, the burst taking the guy on the ground in the legs. The one holding his wrist was hit, blood flying from his head as his helmet came off. The one slumping down holding his leg was hit last in the chest, pitching over backwards as his reflexes tried to save him.

I ran forward, up to Aine, who was still affixed to the Russian's throat like some kind of red headed leech. His hands were slapping at her, but she wasn't letting go, her butt wiggling back and forth as she hunched against his neck, looking like she was giving him a hickey.

Without a word I grabbed her loose hair, hauling her up into the air with one hand, pulling her off the other man. She kicked and screamed, reaching out of him, swiping her knife back and forth in the air, not at me, but rather at him.

"MINE! MINE, MINE, MINE!" she shrieked.

Still holding onto her hair I yanked her around and slapped her across the face, hard, and pushed my face into hers.

"We don't have time for this bullshit. Retrieve your goddamn weapon, you little fucking psycho." I snarled at her. Her face was smeared with blood, her teeth bloody, and her mouth nothing but crimson. Her eyes were wild, and she was panting as she stared at me, uncomprehending.

"Your weapon, Private, now!" I snapped, twisting at the waist and throwing her back down the hallway behind us.

"Get up, Actual, get up!" I yelled. "ON YOUR FEET!"

King got up, swaying, his helmet scarred in three separate places from where bullets had hit his helmet. Bomber pushed himself up with his weapon, groaning. Nancy staggered forward, blood running from her mouth and nose. Stokes was limping heavily, one hand holding up her weapon by the pistol grip the other around her upper thigh.

"Push 'em out into the snow." I told them, turning and heading for the next curve. According to the lizard's map this was the last curve, after this was the dispensary. We didn't have any choice but what we were doing. Holding them off wouldn't be good enough, we had to take them all out, then get back to the barracks before the remainder of them accomplished their mission.

"Into the dark and cold." Bomber coughed.

"We gotta clear it." Nancy said, moving up next to me. The sleeve over her left forearm was cut away, exposing a bandage. She coughed.

"Fuck that, we close the door, disable the controls, fall back." I told her. I was still panting, unable to catch my breath.

"There's stuff I need." She said, grabbing my sleeve. "I'm out of painkillers, out of gauze, almost out of tape. I need stuff from in there."

"What about the War Fighter tunnel's med-bay?" I asked, coughing myself. The band was tightening. My chest went from amber to dark red on my mental outline of my body.

"Shit, forgot about that." She admitted. "But we still can't leave them with a base of operation." She said. "You can't just blow a hole in the roof and call it good. There's medical bays, offices, break rooms, stuff like that. We gotta clear it."

I nodded, seeing the door come up. It was wide open, with the hanging light inside the Dispensary Ready Room showing me that the small room was empty. The door was open to the stairs, and my brain focused on the stairs.

The little lizard didn't like going upstairs into the Dispensary, he didn't have a map, the only areas I'd been in was the waiting area, the entry hallway, and the examination rooms. I hadn't been up to the second floor, hadn't explored the other areas of the building.

"King, go with Bomber, secure the ground floor. Nancy, stick with me, we'll clear the second floor. Aine, head back to the LT, get some reenforcements up here. Bring Lanks if nothing else, Nancy will need her to pack-mule." I said, heading up the stairs. I was leaning heavily on the railing, my breath coming in hitching gasps. I heard Aine's boots thud on the steel plating as she ran back the other way.

Nancy glanced at me. "Dammit." She turned around at. "I want everyone upstairs, against the wall." She said.

"We gotta clear it." I gasped, stumbling out into the room.

"At ease that shit. I need to make sure you dipshits don't bleed out." She said. She pulled me over to the wall and made me sit down. The room we'd come out in was concrete cinderblocks, like all the Group's buildings, and I had no idea what the hell it was used for. There were two tables in the room, cabinets full of God knew what, and two stand-alone wall lockers against the wall. Bomber sat on my left and King on my right, with Stokes on the other side of Bomber.

Nancy moved in front of King, unsnapping his helmet and pulling it off. She held his head back and shined a small penlight into first one eye and then the other. "You're concussed." She felt down his chest and then arms. She used her knife to slice up his sleeve, pulling it out of her way. She quickly used his field dressing to wrap his arm, then checked his legs before moving to me.

"Ant, open your vest." She told me, crouching down and bringing her aid bag around. I fumbled at the belt and managed to get my LBE buckle open. She pushed my hands away. "Nevermind, I'll get it." She snapped.

She pulled open my vest, pushing it off my shoulders, then opened my BDU top and pulling up my T-shirt.

"Oh goddamn it." She said, patting me down. She cut open my BDU top on both arms, using my field dressing on the deep cut on my upper left biceps, putting the inside of the package over the blackened and blistered skin next to it. She felt down my leg, cutting open my pant-leg and looking at the bleeding hole in my leg. "Son of a bitch." She pulled what looked like a roofing staplegun out of her bag. "Hold still, meat head." She pressed it to the wound, pinching it, and snapped it twice.

"Ow, bitch, that hurt!" I yelled.

"Shut up." She pushed me over, then cut the back of my pantleg. She pinched my thigh again and there were three snaps this time.

"Ow, goddamn it!" I swatted at her, but she pushed my arm away, pulling me up. "Sit up, idiot." She told me, moving to Bomber.

Behind her the LT and members of Rear-D came out of the stairwell and stopped when the LT raised his hand. Dobbs, Aiken, Foster, Lanks, Aine, Marchant, and Mitchell stopped, spreading out. Lanks had an open aid bag on her side and she moved over next to Nancy.

"Specialists Marchant and Mitchell, take Dobbs, Aiken, Foster, and Melkin, secure the Dispensary." He tossed Marchant a small keyring. "Marchant, you take the first floor, drop the blast shields. Mitchell, take the second floor. Kick the doors in, hit the shutter switches. Once this area is secure, fall back, shut the access door, then come back." He ordered. He turned to Nancy. "How are they?"

Nancy looked up from where she was slicing up Stokes' pantleg to expose a blood pulsing wound in her upper thigh. "They all need medical attention immediately. I need them back in the War Fighter tunnel's medical bay." She used the stapler real quick, then rolled the woman onto her side and sliced up the back of her pantleg, revealing another hole. She snapped it twice.

"Thank God for correspondence courses." She grumbled, slapping Stokes' hip. "Get up, ya lazy cow."

"Who's ambulatory?" The LT asked.

"King, maybe Bomber." She said.

The LT reached down to me. "Take my hand, Corporal." I looked at his hand for a moment, slightly confused, then reached up and took his hand. He heaved me to my feet, grabbed my right arm, and slung it over his shoulder. "Private McCullen, can you carry Specialist Bomber?"

"Yes, sir." Aine said, dragging Bomber up by one arm, ignoring his howls of pain. She slung him arm over her small shoulders. "Let's go, Specialist." She smiled.

Lanks pulled King to his feet, who kept hold on his M-60, while Nancy pulled Stokes up. They helped us back along the corridor, and even through I tried to pull off the LT twice he held onto me. My leg was throbbing, but it was nothing like when I broke my thigh. It didn't feel like a balloon full of pain, just a throbbing spot on my thigh that I couldn't ignore.

"We'll need plasma at least, sir, might have to figure out how to do a blood transfusion for some of the wounded." Nancy said. "We've got wounded that have lost a lot of blood."

"What's your diagnosis of Corporal Lancer?" The LT asked.

"He's blind." Nancy snapped. "Linderman's in trouble, he didn't have on his vest and took three in the stomach." She pulled Stokes along. "Come on, ya lazy cow."

"Do you have the knowledge of what steps must be taken to preserve his life?" The LT asked. He was puffing pretty well, but my chest felt like that iron band was clamping down harder and harder.

"Sir, I have no goddamn clue." Nancy admitted. "I'm not even sure I can do what the manual says I need to do to Ant to relieve the pressure in his chest."

"We shall see, Specialist, we shall see." The LT said, dragging us into the command center.

Lancer was sitting there, holding onto Linderman's hand.

"Dude, don't sweat it. We'll be fine." Lancer was saying. He had gauze wrapped around his head and covering his eyes.

"Hold onto the panel, stay on you feet, Stokes." Nancy said. She moved over to the door and opened it, hitting the lights. I could see multiple tables that were usually in the Dispensary inside the the room. The LT set me in the chair behind one of the panels. He reached inside my shirt and pulled out my dogtags. He glanced at them, then pulled out his notebook and a pen, jotting something down.

He checked all the wounded, as well as the handful of people who were unwounded, writing down their names and blood type. When he came back around to me I was struggling to get my breath, sitting up straight, ignoring the pain to give me lungs the most room to inflate.

"Specialist Nagle!" The LT snapped "Corporal Ant's face is a really bad color." He called out.

Nancy came up, took one look at me, and swore. "Christ, get him up, get him on one of the tables." She turned to Lanks. "Go in, tear open a box of gloves, scrub your hands with a chemical scrub, and put on gloves."

The LT pulled me up. I was getting spots in my vision, and the band was tightening.

"What's wrong with him, Specialist?" The LT asked. "Did a bullet penetrate his Kevlar vest?"

"No. That's what's doing it." She said, hurrying to the sink and joining Lanks. She stepped on the foot pedal and shoved her hands under the water. "Multiple blunt force trauma to the chest, probably collapsed the lung."

The LT helped me up on the bed. I couldn't breathe and my heart was hammering, the band tightening even further.

"Get his gear, top, and T-shirt off of him." Nancy snapped.

"Stay up, Corporal." The LT snapped. He pushed my LBE, ruckstraps, BDU top, and vest back. When they dropped on the bed he reached back and shoved them off before helping me pull my shirt up. "He's got heavy bruising on his chest."

"Yeah, I bet he does." Nancy chuckled. "He's a goddamn idiot. Most people would know enough to stay the fuck down after taking a hit to the chest." She moved in front of me. "Lay down, champ."

I laid back, still heaving, trying to get my breath. She moved past my head and then came back with a plastic oxygen mask, attaching the line to it. She looked down and smiled.

"You need oxygen." She told me, lifting my head slightly to put the strap around my head. She looked up. "Lanks, check that cabinet right there, it should have morphine in it." She looked back down on me. Breathing was a little easier. "I'm gonna have to knock you out, champ."

"Don't put me under." I told her.

"Strap him down, I don't want him trying to get up on us." Nancy said.

"Found the morphine." Lanks said. I felt the cuff on one side go over my wrist.

"Gimme the data-card in the back." Nancy said. I tried to pull my leg up after the wrist cuff was tied down, but shit pressed her fingers on my bare chest. "Ant. Stop."

I laid there, feeling the waist, ankle and wrist restraints, leather straps, be put on. Nancy ran an IV line to my wrist.

"OK, Ant, this is gonna burn like hell." Nancy told me.

"I'll be fine." I told her through the mask.

She was right, it burned like hell.

It also pulled me down into the darkness.

At least it wasn't cold.

And Monkey and Innie were there.

Chapter 19

Warfighter Tunnels
2/19th Special Weapons Group
Restricted Area, Alfenwehr West Germany
Late Winter- January, 1988
Day 12 of Repairs
Day 4 of the Second Incident
Early Morning

The dream shattered and I clawed awake, my hands crossing in front of my face to stop the meat tenderizer from hitting me the face at the bottom of the middle stairwell, pinned in place by a bayonet through my shoulder. Everything was blurry, but I could see a bunk above me. My leg, left biceps, chest, and stomach hurt, but the steel band around my chest was gone. My left and right arms were bound to my stomach, both of them in slings.

"Nagle! Ant's awake!" Lanks called out. I looked to my left and right, but everything past about 3 inches was a blur. Goddamn it.

"Welcome back, Ant." Lancer said from beside me. I looked to the right and saw the blur across from me waving.

"How's it going, Lancer?" I asked.

"I'm blind." Lancer said, then sighed. "Guess my career's over."

"Is it permanent?" I asked.

He laughed bitterly. "Nagle says one eye's missing and the other probably has steel embedded in it." He laughed again, this time with real humor. "I fought most of that goddamn fight thinking the lights were out and yelling at a dead guy to bring me NVG's."

"How many casualties did we take?" I asked.

"Out of twenty-two of us, counting you guys, we're down to five effectives, not counting Sergeant Butcher, Sergeant White, and Major Mallory." Nagle said. She put her hand on my forehead and smiled. "No fever."

"How long was I out?" I asked. "And help me up."

She shook her head. "You've been down for about two hours. You might not be hurting that bad, but I put a narrow gauge chest tube into you so your goddamn lung will inflate, stitched up two bullet wounds in your stupid ass, and fixed whatever it was you did to your left arm." She knelt down and laid her head on my stomach. "Dobbs may or may not lose her eye."

"Yeah. Thanks for reminding me." Dobbs said from down past my feet.

"Hey, don't bitch, that makes you my queen." Lancer laughed. "I can be like that dude in the movies, that blind guy that what's his face, Dolph Lundgren played!"

Dobbs laughed. "Be grateful, huh? Don't make me laugh, the whole side of my face hurts."

"I can get a sword and be all vwoosh, clang clang." Lancer was over there waving his hands and making sound effects. Dobbs and Lanks were laughed while I petted Nancy's hair.

"Lemme up." I said again. Nancy sighed and sat up.

"You're gonna be a pain in the ass about this, aren't you?" She asked. She took my glasses out of her top pocket and settled them on my face.

"Goddamn right. Get me on my fucking feet." I told her.

"Fine, but I jacked you up with more morphine about… um… a half an hour ago." She checked a tag on a string around my neck and then checked her watch. I noticed that the glass facing on her watch was cracked. "Goddamn your metabolism."

She helped me up and sat in a sitting position for a minute, the blankets puddled around my waist.

Almost everyone was laying down. Dobbs' face was covered in bandages and my memory brought back how she'd looked charging up into the dispensary. I realized, to my surprise, that the heaters had kicked in and the open bay barracks was actually warm.

It felt good.

There was a set of BDU's, no patches, sitting at the foot of my bed and I pulled them on. Dobbs whistled at me and I gave her the finger. Lancer asked Dobbs how big my tits were and Dobbs reminded him that I was guy, that she was female, so Lancer asked her how big her tits were, which Dobbs told him that couldn't he tell, she was walking around naked. That's when Lancer started bemoaning his blindness and fake sobbing that she was just mocking his blindness with her royal bosoms, leading to both of them laughing while Dobbs sat on the edge of Lancer's bunk, holding his hand.

Dobbs and Lancer had hated each other less than 24 hours ago.

Nancy waited for me to get done dressing, watching with a critical eye. The morphine made me woozy, and the lizard was sleeping soundly. The mad dash through the War Fighter tunnels was only flashes, bits and pieces that I didn't really have any context for. When I asked for my gear she drug it out from under my bunk, handing me my Kevlar, with the LBE attached, and tossed my rifle on the bunk. I counted how many magazines I had left. Four. Total.

"I don't like you wearing that, I don't want you pulling on the chest tube." She told me.

"I'd rather have it and not get shot." I told her. She made a face at me. My arms hurt like hell, but I pushed that down. The lizard didn't even bother twitching at the pain.

"Where's Lieutenant James?" I asked her, pulling myself to my feet by the top bunk.

"Command center. He's been bringing everything online." Nancy told me, holding my elbow to guide me. The stupid room kept tilting, and my balance was for shit. I hated the shimmering that morphine did to my vision, as well as the anger it seemed to bring up. I crushed the anger under discipline and went with her into the hallway that attached to the command center and about half the important areas of the War Fighter tunnels. "No commo, but the generators work great, we've got full tanks, the water is hot, and he has three men working in the kitchen to make A-rats and porridge." Nancy was telling me. I just nodded.

Five fucking effectives. Jesus. We still had Vympel outside, probably moving to the barracks or the motorpool. We'd pushed it so they only had those two places if they'd locked down the Dispensary.

Melkin was sitting in a chair inside the commo room, idly playing with the knobs and switches and dials, an FM or a TM open in front of him, the headset on, looking a strange combination of bored and frustrated. He had his left arm in a sling and was stripped down to his T-shirt. He saw us, waved, then shook his head, pointing at the headset.

"Have we had any luck?" I asked.

"The LT let me raid the Dispensary before we pulled back in here." Nancy said. She giggled. "Medical is going to pissed at the mess I left, but I was in a hell of a hurry. Not to mention the LT had all the doors kicked in, except for the pharmacy, and I kind of wrecked that up." She dug in her pocket. "Speaking of which." She pressed a big ass pill bottle into my hand. "Vicodens. You'll need them."

"Fuck that." I told her, but I jammed them into my pocket anyway.

"Ah, Corporal Ant. I see you are feeling much better. Are you cleared for duty, or is this a social visit?" The LT asked me from where he was sitting behind one of the consoles. He had a taped up gauze pad on the side of his neck and a field dressing around his head.

"Well?" I asked, looking at Nancy.

"I shouldn't clear your stupid ass. You've got a drainage tube taped to your chest and goddamn bullet holes in you." She snapped.

"We're all wounded, Nancy." I told her. "Am I in worse or better shape than last month?"

"Better." She grunted. "Fine. It isn't like any of us are getting off this mountain alive anyway." She guided me over to chair and then down into it, stepping back. "At least your skull isn't popped."

The LT just watched silently, his arms folded over his stomach, a Skillcraft pen in one hand and his green notebook in the other. The looked mildly amused with the whole situation, but didn't break in until Nancy snorted and turned around.

"The idiot will be fine, sir." She snapped. "I have more patients." She glanced back at me. "Some of them at least listen to me."

I stuck my tongue out at her and the LT chuckled. When I turned back to look at him he had his notebook on his knee.

"Are you ready to take command of Echo-Five Actual again?" The LT asked me.

"Yes, sir." I told him. I caught my hand coming up to rub my chest and pulled it back down. The LT raised an eyebrow but didn't say anything.

"I'm reinforcing you. Actual will consist of yourself, Specialists King, Bomber, Lanks, Stokes, Nagle, Privates Dobbs, McCullen, Artain and Sherry." He was writing in his notebook, but mostly looking at me. "You represent all of our effectives, as well as walking wounded that I believe can be spared."

"What about Meeks, sir?" I asked.

"Killed in Action." He answered.

"My cousin, James?" I asked.

He shook his head slowly. "Specialist Nagle has him stabilized, Corporal, but whether or not he survives depends on his own willingness to survive, the medical care Specialist Nagle can provide, and if we are extracted in time."

I was aware my teeth were grinding and my hands had grabbed onto the arms of the chair, pulling at them.

"What happened?" I asked.

"One of the Vympel got into the Day Room where everyone was sleeping. Private James Ant jumped forward to engage him before he could kill another member and in the brief struggle had his neck broken. He was extracted with the dead soldiers, but found to be alive." He stared at me, his eyes dark. "If it had not been for him, that member of the Soviet Special Forces would have been able to bring his weapon to bear and slaughter the still sleeping or just awakening members of Rear Detachment." He tapped his notebook. "I've noted down his bravery and selflessness." He waved back the way I'd came. "Specialist Nagle is keeping him sedated as well as immobilized. He reacts when a paperclip or thumbtack is pressed against his fingertips or the soles of his feet, and Specialist Nagle believes he will not be paralyzed."

Red rage, always in the background of my head, started pounding. Goddamn the CIA and their bullshit Cold War games. Goddamn those traitors.


Major Mallory.

I knew I was smiling when I asked: "Sir, is Major Mallory still alive?" My hand had moved to the knife on my gear and my fingers were toying over the haft.

"Yes, Corporal, he is." The LT said. He glanced at my fingers. "Under the UCMJ I will have to restrict you from meeting with him at all. I believe you represent a clear and present danger to his continual ongoing health." I smiled at that. "I need a full briefing on what happened with you and the soldiers under your command after you locked yourself outside."

I pinched the bridge of my nose for a long moment before starting. I glossed over how I went completely blood crazy, how I'd completely lost control, but I had the weirdest feeling that the LT knew that I'd lost my head. He didn't say anything, nothing showed on his face, but I just had the damndest feeling.

Once it was over he leaned back, tapping his little green notebook with his Skillcraft pen. He flipped back and forth over the pages, jotting little notes, underlining things, but basically silent. Finally he wrote for a page or so, then looked up at me.

"You stated that Private McCullen first used the body of one of the Russian soldiers to absorb the blast and shrapnel of a grenade and followed up with charging into the enemy with her knife, is that correct?" He asked. It surprised me that of all the things I'd told him, he'd focus on that.

"Yes, sir. They had us pinned down." I admitted.

"Where did Private McCullen and yourself receive knife fighting training?" He asked, raising one eyebrow. "Knife fighting is no longer taught in Basic Training, and while examining the bodies I have seen I have noticed that you yourself have ingrained habits. It appears you received extensive knife fighting training that imbued certain reflexive actions into your muscles." I looked confused. "Muscle memory, Corporal. You have done it so many times you no longer have to think about each individual step, your nervous system and musculature automatically follow certain patterns. In your case it is to get in close, stab into the abdomen, follow with a blow of your forehead into their face, then possible followup thrusts to the side of the enemy and following through with a knee to their genitals." He smiled, a cold thing. "So where exactly did you receive your knife fighting training?"

"Sir, I respectfully refuse to answer that question." I told him.

The faint smile appeared upon his face again. "The good Sergeant Major trained his children well." He murmured. He looked down at his notebook. "Very well, I withdraw the question at this time." He flipped back a page. "Upon examining the bodies of the men killed during the sweep and clear of the War Fighter operational and access areas it was pointed out to me that there were bite marks upon the throat of one of the aggressors. Can you elaborate on that point?"

…Aine clamping her mouth over the wound, her jaws working as she rides him to the ground….

…Aine straddling him with her ass in the air, gulping down his blood….

…"Blood! Blood for Lugus...!"

"He was taller than her, stronger than her, she did whatever it took to destroy the enemy's ability to fight." I told him. "It shocked the other Vympel so badly that they paused long enough for the rest of Actual to recover and kill them, sir."

He nodded, making an annotation. He snapped the green notebook shut and dropped it into his top pocket, buttoning it up and then leaning back with his arms crossed over his stomach.

After moment he shuddered and his fingers went to his wrist andfound nothing, then he scrubbed his face with his hands. When his face was uncovered he had an urgency, a hot driving need in his expression that made me want to suddenly recoil away from him. The lizard jerked awake with a hiss, scrambling against the wall away from what he could see through my eyes.

"Actual will need to clear the LZ, ensure that the Viet-Cong and the North Vietnamese Army don't get access to the secure and sensitive items that November Six Eight possessed." The LT told me. He was looking past me, not at me, one pupil wide open despite the bright light. "I am fully aware of the conditions I am asking you to engage the enemy under, Sergeant, but I feel that you are as keenly aware of our duty as I am. We can't allow the North Vietnamese Army to secure those vital records and equipment as it'd be disastrous to our ongoing military efforts in this region."

…Wait, WHAT...?

He leaned forward, putting his index and middle fingertips on my knee. They were shaking slightly as he leaned forward. "I am fully aware of what I'm asking your men to do, Sergeant, and I don't expect you to follow my orders, but I'm the ranking member right now even if I am an NCO. I know you and the rest of Alpha still alive are all wounded so bad you wouldn't be allowed to go to sick call, but you're all we have left, goddamn it." He had a Brooklyn accent that I'd never heard him speak with before. "You'll need to exfiltrate the firebase under the cover of darkness, I can't risk calling air support, but we'll lay down some cover fire on the northern perimeter to pull the surrounding enemy away from you. Even if we get overrun, you're to stay on mission. We'll hold them as long as we can, make those goddamn slants pay for every fucking inch. You've got to get to there and destroy all the…" his voice trailed off and he stared off into the distance.

I could see napalm and jungle in his eyes.

…Oh. My. GOD….

Suddenly a lot of things clicked. Twelve years and only a First Lieutenant. His precisely cadenced speech and his avoidance of contractions that reminded me of speech therapy, the West Point ring on his hand. The 'bald' patch on the side of his head over his left ear. His age compared to other Lieutenants. How we never saw him in his Class-A's and so many people were scared to death of him. The fact he never wore a combat patch despite being old enough to serve in Vietnam.

…Holy shit. Holy shit. Oh, holy shit….

I just stared at him, not flinching, not moving, not speaking, not even breathing hard, while he stared at something only he could see for several long minutes.

He shook himself like he'd been doused in cold water and smiled at me. It didn't have any humor in it, unless you counted gallows humor.

"Sorry, Corporal, my thoughts wandered for a moment. Where was I?" He asked me.

I swallowed thickly. "Uhh, you were telling me that you needed me and the rest of Actual to clear the barracks, then you kind of trailed off."

He nodded. "My apologies, Corporal, my head wound is paining me at this time, but I need a clear head to coordinate operations. Let that my pain be a lesson to you to always wear your protective helmet as well as to avoid any bravado while seeking to support any other soldier." I slowly let out my pent-up breath as he continued. "With Specialist Nagle's permission I want you to gather up Actual and return to me for a mission briefing." He smiled, an ugly thing. "They won't know what hit them. Never give an inch, lay waste to the ground you give so it gives no aid or comfort to the enemy."

"I'll go check in with her right away, sir." I told him, standing up. The lizard hissed at him as I rose to my feet, the room tilting slightly. The shimmering in my vision had regressed a bit, but I was feeling better.

I wanted to get away from the LT.

I headed back to the barracks where Nancy had everyone she'd finished up on. Lanks was checking Linderman's pulse where he was laying on the bed, scribbing something on the tag on a string around his neck. Nancy saw me coming, moving over to where I stood a little ways away from everyone at my hand signal.

"What?" She snapped. She blew a stray lock of hair out of her face.

"The LT is fucked." I told her flat out.

She nodded. "He wouldn't let me treat him at first. Told me to treat his men, kept calling me 'corpsman' when I tried to help. I had to yell at him to sit down and let me treat the gash on his neck before he bled out." She shook her head. "I don't think he is who he says he is."

I shrugged. "Might be like Captain Grace, got all busted up, spent a few years on the Temporary Disability Retirement Listing before coming back in." I offered. She nodded. "Or maybe got his Master's after Vietnam before going to West Point."

She shook her head. "Doesn't matter. His brain is fucking ganked right now. What's going on?"

"Get Actual together, we're adding a few." I told her who the LT had listed and she shook her head.

"Dobbs has half a face full of shrapnel, she lost use of her fucking right eye. Sherry is missing a fucking finger and has four fractured ribs." She told me.

"You tell the LT they can't come." I told her.

She nodded. "Yeah. Probably wouldn't go over well." She shrugged. "Who gives a fuck is he's having flashbacks, none of us are in better shape."

I grinned. "Get everyone, we'll meet back where the LT is." She nodded, and I headed back as she woke over and shook Bomber.

"Get up, hillbilly." She said.

The LT was sitting in his chair, tapping the pen against his thigh.

"Sir." I nodded, sitting down.

"Corporal Ant, just the man I wanted to see." He said, giving me that slight smile.

"Right here, sir, online on-time." I told him. He nodded, digging out his green notebook and flipping through it to an empty page. He wrote for a second.

"Are you ready to take command of Echo-Five Actual again?" The LT asked me.

…Aw fuck….

"Yes, sir." I told him. The lizard watched him carefully through my eyes.

"I'm reinforcing you. Actual will consist of yourself, Specialists King, Bomber, Lanks, Stokes, Nagle, Privates Dobbs, McCullen, Artain and Sherry." He was writing in his notebook, but mostly looking at me. "You represent all of our effectives, as well as walking wounded that I believe can be spared."

…This isn't good….

"Roger that, sir. What's our instructions?" I asked him.

"Normally I would demand a full briefing from you and your team, as per SOP, but at this time I believe that time is of the essence. We've already given those aggressing us three hours of complete access to secure areas, and that cannot be allowed to continue." He told me. "I need Actual to ensure the safety of those secure items and data, destroy in place what you cannot secure, and seek to sweep and clear enemy forces from our area of operations."

He put the green notebook in his pocket, his hand shaking slightly. His hand reached for his wrist, found nothing, and he rubbed the inside of his wrist for a long moment, totally silent, his eyes staring at nothing.


"Sir?" I asked sharply.

He jerked and looked at me. He rubbed his face again, but this time his eyes were empty rather than full of Vietnam.

"I have seen the damage you and your soldiers did to the barracks just out of survival, so I have full faith that by the time any enemy forces gain access to what cannot be secured they will have nothing but ash and wreckage as their reward." The LT told me. I listened to his speech patterns carefully.

Consonants were carefully spoken, the speech had a flowing, formal cadence to it, but he slurred slightly, but you had to be really paying attention to catch it.

Yup. He'd had speech therapy, and a lot of it.

"Go over your operations plan with your soldiers, run whatever you come up with by me, and if I approve, that's what you'll use." He told me. I sat very still when he blinked and his eyes were staring past me again. "We'll sweep North, here, around the VC, and hook up with November Six Eight." The Brooklyn accent was back. "We should be able to avoid the NVA if we stick to this area and…" His voice got lower and lower, trailing off, until his mouth was working, he was mumbling to himself, but I couldn't hear any of the words.

A drop of pinkish fluid ran out of his nose.

"NANCY!" I bellowed out, leaping to my feet and almost falling as vertigo swept over me.

The LT pitched forward and went into a grand-mal seizure as I caught him, my right shoulder protesting at the abuse. I guided him to the floor, putting my hand under his head to support it was the thrashed.

"NANCY! LANKS!" I shouted again. The LT's eyes were rolled back.

Nancy came around the console and saw me cradling the LT as he thrashed and kicked, making gobbling noises in his throat.

"What the fuck did you do to him?" Nancy snapped.

"Nothing. He got all weird again and started having a fit." I snapped back. The LT's struggles were getting weaker. Nancy moved around me, wiping the pink shit running out of the LT's ear and tasting it. "Fuck, it isn't blood." She glared down at the unconscious officer.

"Carry him into medical." She sounded worried. Lanks moved up and stopped staring down to where I was holding onto the LT.

"Umm. What's going on?" She asked.

"The LT's head wound is worse than we thought." She snapped. "Go in, dig out that field surgery FM, look up head wounds." She closed her eyes for second. "Delirium, seizures, loss of consciousness, cerebral fluid from the nose and ear."

Lanks nodded, turning and hustling into the medical bay. I stood up barely able to get the LT up by one arm. He sagged next to me, his eyes open, but kicking one foot and his arm flapping.

"What the fuck is wrong with him?" I asked, dragging him toward the medical bay.

"His brain is swelling." Nancy snapped, grabbing his flailing arm and pulling it over her shoulder so we were dragging him. "Happens to boxers. They take a bad hit, it jostles their brain around in their skull, and it swells up afterwards." She told me, biting off each word with a snarl. "Hopefully his brain isn't bleeding or he's just fucked."

Lanks had the FM out and was flipping pages. Nancy and me managed to wrestle him onto the table.

"Strap him down." She ordered me. I nodded, grabbing the heavy leather restraints that had held me and putting them into place.

"Got it." Lanks said, waving the FM with her thumb stuck in it.

"Well what's it say, bitch?" Nancy asked, sticking her hands in the sink and pressing the foot pedal.

"Oh. Um." She read real quick. "Oh, um. This isn't good."

"What?" Nancy snapped. I attached the leg restraint.

"You need to cut open a flap of the skull, pull it back, and drill a hole in his head to relieve pressure." Lanks said. She gagged. "Insert a drainage tube, then put the flap back."

"Ant, get out there, keep everyone calm." She sighed, pulling on the gloves. "Tell them, shit, tell them that I'm fixing the wound in his neck and knocked him out. Lanks, get on your gloves. You'll have to walk me through what I need."

I finished putting the restraints on the LT as he went into another seizure, jerking against the heavy leather.

"Can we put him under?" Nancy asked.

"It said we can." Lanks answered, sticking her hands under the water.

"Get the ether. We'll knock him out, do this, and hopefully he'll be OK." Nancy said. She looked at me. "Get control of everyone."

I headed out into the control room again, sitting down and looking around. Everyone who could walk had come into the control center, and more than a few saw the LT saying on the table before Lanks shut the door at Nancy's snapped order. Bomber was coming in with the people I'd rattled off to Nancy. Private Brestlin was holding onto Lancer's arm and guiding him into the room.

"What happened to Lieutenant James, Corporal?" Sergeant Butcher asked, a sudden evil look coming across his face. He glanced at Sergeant White.

"He suffered a seizure." I told him.

"He suffered a seizure, what?" He said.

My mouth filled with that hot coppery taste again and the pain and everything else suddenly vanished as that singing emptiness came back.

"He suffered a seizure…" I paused for a second, and Sergeant Butcher got a happy look on his face, which made me smile before I finished. "You stupid asshole."

He stepped forward, his fists clenching. "You little goddamn punk." He snarled at me. I shot to my feet, looking down at him.

"What, you chickenshit shamming cheese eating coward?" I asked him.

"The LT isn't here to protect your ass, punk." White said, stepping forward.

Bomber stepped into White, grabbing his arm, and White went pale, leaning into Bomber and I knew that the big Texas was putting pressure on the elbow. "Stay out of it, sweetheart." Bomber said gently.

I stared at Butcher, who was glaring at me.

"I don't need the LT to protect me from the coward who got my cousin killed, you little bitch." I told him.

I was shaking with the need to hurt him, to punish him. The lizard was snarling, his hand on the button that would launch me at the other man with my knife in my hand to cut away his life.

"That's strange, you were right there, why didn't you save him, tough guy?" Butcher sneered.

"THAT'S IT!" I yelled, stepping forward. Lancer's hand grabbed my arm, tightening when he realized what I had, and pulling me toward the blind guy.

"Cool, I caught him." Lancer said, laughing.

"You're lucky he's here, or I'd have fucked you up." Butcher said, raising his fists.

"Who's got seniority, Sergeant Butcher, you or me?" White asked.

"Date of rank is August 87." Butcher said.

"Mine's May of that year." White said, sounding smug. "With the LT down, that leaves me in charge."

"The hell it does." Lancer said, still holding my arm. Dobbs was holding the other. Both men turned to look at Lancer, who had his eyes covered with gauze and a bandage winding around his head. "Both of you ran and hid when I was trying to hold off those assholes in the tunnel. I ain't following either of you."

There was murmured assent from the people gathered up.

"You ran off and hid in the barrack section." Pvt Sherry said, his voice hard. "The two of you didn't come out until the LT had us collecting up the bodies to put in the morgue."

"Not to mention your shitty guard schedule got Queens killed." King growled, stepping forward, those massive fists of his clenched and the scarred knuckles white. "She was my troop, mine, and your fucking around got her killed."

"We're the highest ranking." White said, looking at everyone. I shook off Dobbs and Lancer's hands.

"Fuck that, as far as I'm concerned, Corporal Ant is in charge till the LT wakes up." Lancer said. "He's a fucking dick, but he didn't run and hide like a bitch."

"You assholes will get court martialed, I'll see that you get hanged." White said.

"Fuck you. We ain't getting off this mountain alive." Sherry said.

Dobbs stepped forward, getting in White's face. "Queens was my room-mate, asshole." I suddenly remembered that Queens and Dobbs both lived down in Queer Country.

"Shut up, you dyke bitch." White told the small woman. "Go cook us something to eat, make yourself useful or something, you stupid little whore."

Lancer growled, and it was my turn to grab his arm. "Don't do anything stupid."

Dobbs slapped him, hard. White drew himself up, looked at her, and slapped her back.

Across the wounded side of her face. Dobbs staggered back, one hand going to her face, where red was starting to spread across the white gauze that covered that side of her face.

I let go of Lancer, lunging at White as everyone cried out in protest. I got ahold of the front of his BDU's and started throwing punches into his gut before grabbing him in a headlock and tightening down.

Someone punched me in the side of the head and I let go of White, spinning around and facing the new threat.

Butcher had settled down into a kung-fu pose, grinning at me. "That's right, bitch, I'm a black…-"

Why do they always want to talk...?

I caught him with his mouth open, moving in fast and throwing a right cross into the side of his jaw. I felt the jaw snap under my knuckles and turned around as he went down, several of his teeth bouncing across the steel floor.

White's face was purple, and he was obviously furious as he tried to bring his weapon, which was body slung with the barrel up, into play against me.

Before I could move into him, Dobbs grabbed him, doing a Basic perfect Judo throw so he landed on his back, the impact driving the breath from him.

"Whore? Whore? You're the bitch!" Dobbs screamed, starting to stomp on the downed man. "Get me lunch, bitch! Shine my boots, bitch!" She punctuated every word with a stomp. Her third stomp to his face broke something and his jaw suddenly looked misshapen. "Suck my dick, bitch!"

I grabbed the back of her uniform, yanking her backwards. She whirled on me, her hands coming up, and I slapped them to the side quickly.

"That's enough!" Lancer roared out. There was nothing wrong with his voice, that was for sure. We all froze. Lancer had been a SSG with 101st before he'd gotten busted to E-3 and sent to 2/19th, and he still remembered how to use his voice.

"Corporal Ant, I've got more time in service than you since we were promoted at the same time, and I'm out of it." Lancer said, leaning against the console and pointing at his eyes. "Nobody here is going to follow the orders of two chickenshits who ran away when it hit the fan." He shrugged. "Even though that's not supposed to fucking matter, and the US Army isn't a democracy, I'd say that the UCMJ makes a good precedent that these two are unfit for command."

Nobody said anything. Butcher was groaning, his eyes fluttering, but White was still, only his breathing betraying that he was alive.

"Since I outrank you, Ant, I can still give orders here." Lancer said, reaching out and finding the chair. He sat down carefully. "It's clear that Sergeants White and Butcher have violated the NCO Creed as well as the Army Creed. We can argue that their actions are prejudicial to discipline and morale, as well as displaying cowardice." He was choosing his words carefully, and I didn't blame him. They'd probably be read back at our court martials. "We suffered casualties due to obvious negligence and incompetence on Sergeant's White's part, and Sergeant Butcher abandoned me and Thomson when the firing starting."

He looked over in my general direction. "Did the LT give you any orders, Corporal?" He asked. His voice was firm, calm, and in command.

"He told me to gather up Actual and take back the barracks, secure or destroy all sensitive items and data, and engage and destroy the enemy forces." I told him. Well, that's what he kept trying to tell me when he wasn't enjoying a guided tour of Vietnam courtesy of his head wound.

"Then carry out his orders." Lancer said evenly. He looked around. "Who has zipties?"

"I do." Bomber answered.

"Give them to… oh… Mellins." Lancer said.

Bomber handed them to Mellins as Lancer continued. "Take Sergeant White and Sergeant Butcher to the barracks bay we aren't using, secure them to a bunk each, separated from one another, and we'll post guards on them." He held up his hands. "I don't know the correct wording, but place them under arrest, guard, and confinement until the MP's eventually show up to take pictures of our bodies."

There was chuckling at that. I took a quick headcount. Not counting Nancy and Lanks, we were down to fifteen people, including the people that were badly wounded.

"King, Bomber, Stokes, Dobbs, Aine, Artain and Sherry, you're all with me." I called out, sitting down. Lancer grimaced but didn't say anything. The six soldiers moved up, Bomber grinning that shit-eating Texas grin, looking stupid as hell missing half his moustache. I waited till they gathered around. "All right, Nancy and Lanks are supposed to be assigned to me, but right now they're a little busy."

They all nodded.

"We make up Echo-Five Actual, Jesus what a dumb name, who thought of that?" I asked.

"You did." Bomber chuckled.

I grimaced. "Fucking figures. Anyway, the LT told me that we need to go out, secure certain things or destroy them, and kill any Vympel we find." Dobbs looked doubtful but nodded. "We'll do it like this…"

My plan was simple and easy, and their input helped flesh it out. We'd use the motorpool access, since the board was shot, having Mellins override it from the controls, close it ourselves, which would let him lock it down. We'd sweep and clear the motorpool, use our cold weather gear to cross the street to the barracks, go into the barracks, and secure the vault first, destroy the Orderly Room records, then lock everything down and go Kurt Russel again on the barracks.

The upper floors weren't really designed to protect anything or handle the blast. I knew that the roof of the Orderly Room area, the layer between the first floor and that under floor where supplies and coordination areas were, was eight feet of layered hardened reinforced concrete. A massive goddamn slab designed to handle the entire barracks collapsing on it when the front of the blast of an airburst hit.

Aine would lead us between the motorpool and the barracks, provide recon, and in general be point. She seemed somehow resistant to the cold and wind, and when she was asked if she was worried about Tandy she laughed and rubbed the little bracelet made of her hair and said that she had no fear of him.

With any luck Tandy would eat her creepy little ass.

Nancy came out and told us that there hadn't been any blood in what had gushed out of the LT's skull, that she's inserted a tube for it to drain, and was keeping sitting upright on the surgical bed. He'd regained consciousness briefly to ask if I had left and was following his orders.

Then, at my request and coaching, she lied and said that the LT had told her to have Sergeant Butcher and Sergeant White arrested and charged with cowardice in the face of the enemy, and to put Corporal Lancer in charge. Lancer looked doubtful, but didn't say anything.

The LT wouldn't remember one way or the other anyway.

And it wasn't like we were getting off the mountain alive.

Nancy had replenished her aid bag, and now Lanks was carrying one too. I saw Lanks stuff a medical FM into her bag and caught the title. "FM 8-10-14: Emergency Battlefield Treatment" and some other shit I didn't catch. I knew that it wasn't one of the FM's sitting in the Training NCO's office, and I also saw Nagle's name on it, meaning it was probably one of the FM's she'd gotten in her correspondence course packets.

I scribbled down the operational plan on some paper, and led everyone to the tunnel. Stokes had the radio on her back again, and I radioed back that we were at the entrance. Melkin radioed back he was going to tell Mellins to crack it.

The door opened up with loud clacking noise, and Bomber and I pushed it open, Aine shimmying through the opening as soon as it was wide enough for her to get through. She had her NVG's on, her tongue between her teeth, and a bayonet in her fist. We waited for a minute and she hissed that we could go ahead.

Once we were all on the other side of the tunnel Bomber and I pushed it closed, spinning the heavy wheel and shutting it.

The dark pushed in on us. It was barely lit, and my NVG's seemed to show me more shadows that light, even with the IR lamp lit up. I motioned at the locks on the armory and King moved over to them, pulling out the tube of superglue and squirting it into the locks. It wasn't much, but it was the best we could do.

We'd rearmed at the War Fighter armory, the lizard purring at the fact I was fully loaded again.

Once upstairs, Bomber and King began using the chains to raise the bay doors, letting the wind and snow into the motorpool bay.

The snow was piled almost to the top of the doors and poured into the bays. The door was heavily dented where the Claymore had gone off and fucked it up, but a couple of good kicks on the hinge side fucked it up even if I couldn't open it with all the snow piled up on the other side of it. Artain and Sherry moved through the building with axes, knocking the doors down, while I leaned against the back work bench at the corner of the bay and smoked a cigarette.

The snowy night was black, and according to my watch it was 0600, which explained the fatigue. I needed a good night's sleep, or a bottle of whiskey, a blowjob, and a hot shower.

Once the motorpool was pretty much fucked for shelter, the breaker box gutted by having the main switch thrown and the breakers ripped out, we stood at the back door on the second story, staring at it. It might have seemed stupid that there was a door on the second floor that led out to nothing, but at times like this, I was glad it was there.

King moved to each of us, attaching us to the tether. It went around Aine's waist, to my D-ring, then to Bomber's. King was pulling drag, the rest of the climbing cord hanging off his neck.

"We get to the barracks, wreck the joint up, then head into the War Fighter tunnels." I told them. The wind whipped around us, but they still all nodded.

"You won't be able to see anything, so hold your fire until you can confirm a target." Nancy added.

"And don't detach your D-ring for any reason." Stokes said. "Last winter we fucking lost idiots that went outside."

"Do I have to be tethered?" Aine pouted when I opened the door. My NVG's showed that the snow piled up against the door, sloping downward, but still piled up.

The fucking blizzard had dumped around ten feet of snow on us. It must have been pounding main post.

We were fucking stuck up here.

"Yes." Bomber, Stokes, Nancy, King and I all said at once. She pouted again, the only one of us not wearing a face mask and goggles.

"It isn't that cold out." She smiled. She held her hand out, catching snowflakes on her palm, then pulled her hand back to show us the fluffy flakes.

"Just lead the way, Aine." I said.

She blew me a kiss and stepped onto the snow, walking a few paces out and waving.

I took a deep breath and stepped out after her.

Sinking up to my knees before the snow was packed enough to carry my weight.

"Oh, that's right, boys are heavier." She giggled.

"Bitch." I snarled. Bomber and King helped pull me inside.

"I'll get the snowshoes." King said, dropping the tether off from around his neck and unclipping himself.

Aine was dancing around in the snow, her head forward and her tongue out, catching snowflakes and pulling them into her mouth.

I noticed her boots barely left marks.

Creepy little bitch.

King came back with the snowshoes and we put them on. The snow was falling heavy, but not driven by 40 MPH winds this time. Still, Aine kept dancing in front of us, a good twenty feet of tether between her and me. She kept vanishing and reappearing in front of me. Sometimes on my right, sometimes on my left, other times right in front of me.

More than once I spotted her with her hands over her head and her face raised to the dark sky. Once I grabbed the tether in my fist and yanked hard, dumping her on her ass in the snow. She made a snow angel, jumped up, and ran off to my right.

I checked my compass, just in case she was leading us off to our deaths.

Finally the barracks loomed out of the dark, towering above us, dark and menacing.

We were at the second story. The snow was only a few inches below the windowsill. It dawned on me that somewhere in the snow below us were the men we'd killed in my room.

It took Bomber's crowbar that he'd kept with him since the chowhall to pry the plywood off one of the windows. I'd thought about my room, but figured that might not be a good idea. He pulled the insulation free and let it go, the wind grabbing it and pulling it off into the night. A few hits with the crowbar's curved section dropped the plywood into the room.

I pointed at King and pointed at the window. He nodded, ducking down to climb through. We went in inverse order into the room, Aine dancing around outside till I yanked on the tether and sent her face first into the snow. She was laughing when she climbed in through the window, snow all over her face.

…One fat unmelted snowflake on her nipple….

"Artain, King, hammer the plywood back up." I ordered. King nodded, pulling two hammers from where he'd tucked them into his LBE up at the motorpool and handing one to the other man. "Aine, Dobbs, hold the plywood up."

Dobbs ducked down in front of the window to grab the plywood.

Aine's head whipped around, her face a mixture of lust and fear.

Tandy's long arms came out of the darkness and the snow, grabbing the back of Dobbs' parka, dragging her backwards. The smaller woman screamed as the cruel hands dug into the padding, kicking and trying to get traction on the waxed floor.

Bomber lunged forward, grabbing Dobbs by the legs as she was pulled backwards. King reached down and struck the plastic buckle of her LBE sharply with the hammer, shattering it. Artain, screaming at the sight of Tandy's grinning face, started hitting one of the arms with the hammer. Stokes grabbed Dobbs' tether, bunching it up in her hands and leaning back, her boots squealing on the tile as she tried and failed to get traction.

Aine put her fingers to her mouth, whispering to herself, her other hand caressing the bracelet made out of hair on her upraised wrist.

Dobbs was kicking, grabbing the windowsill to keep herself from being pulled out the window. Bomber was leaned back, trying to get traction and finding none. Artain had quit swinging the hammer, not able to get at Tandy without hitting Dobbs.

King ripped open the front of Dobbs' parka, grabbing the zipper and pulling down.

It bound up.

King snarled, shoving his hands into the parka, and ripping the parka open.

She was still sliding backwards, her head out the window. Bomber fell partially backwards, then slid toward the window as Tandy's hands suddenly appeared on either side of Dobbs' head. The woman screamed, grabbing Tandy's wrists in her own.

Dobbs' parka fell open, and King grabbed her crotch and the top of her Kevlar vest, yanking at her.

Dobbs slid out of the Parka, leaving it behind, and the parka and LBE vanished into the snow.

"OUT, OUT, OUT!" Nancy yelled from the door.

I pushed King and Dobbs at the door, turning and facing the window. I had a clear shot so I put half a magazine out the window, doubting I hit anything, but hoping I'd at least slow Tandy down.

"Ant! Let's go!" Nancy yelled.

I spun in place, running for the door. Aine made it through right before me, and as soon I was in the hallway, bouncing off the door across from me, Nancy stepped into the hallway, pulling the door shut. Bomber slammed his M-16 on the door handle, breaking it off, and we all stood in the hallway.

"What the fuck was that?" Dobbs yelled.

"Was that guy dead?" Artain shouted.

"That was Tandy." Bomber panted.

"At ease that shit, Actual." I said, looking around the hallway. "We got a job to do."

The hallway was pitch black, my NVG's only letting me see about five to ten feet. Snowflakes were falling from the ceiling, where ice was thickly layered. Some of the icicles were long enough that when King stepped back from Dobbs it broke on his helmet.

"Keep your eyes open." I told them, moving toward the middle of the hallway, where the stairs would take us down to the secure vault. I glanced back, glad to see they were all spread out. I unclipped from the tether. "Everyone unclip. King, secure our tether." He nodded, rolling it up on his arm and then dropping it around his neck.

"I thought Tandy was a fucking rumor." Dobbs shuddered. They'd been talking while we unclipped.

"You ain't seen nothing yet." I told them.

Voices shouted in German and boots crashed to the floor above us.

"I hate this place." Stokes said.

Deep, rich, evil laughter rolled over us, coming from the far stairwell.

"Move, Actual!" I ordered, pushing past Aine and running for the middle stairwell.

I knew that laugh.

Chapter 20

2/19th Special Weapons Group
Restricted Area, Alfenwehr West Germany
Late Winter- January, 1988
Day 12 of Repairs
Day 4 of the Second Incident

Our feet hammered down the hallway as we headed to the stairwell, Nancy getting there first and kicking the door open. I glanced behind us, but I didn't see anything in the darkness. Behind us the rich laughter kept sounding out, and I could picture him in my head. Over six foot, covered head to toe in extreme cold weather gera, a mask over his face, one eye bloodshot and swollen, a tooth knocked out.

And that fucking axe in his hands.

We hammered down the stairs, the whole thing shaking, ignoring the scream of agony from above us. Nancy pulled open the door to the short section and from the back I saw her stop dead, stepping backwards. Dobbs swore, Aine stared in shock, and Bomber shoved at Nancy.

"Get in there, goddamn it." He snarled at her.

Once I got the bottom of stairs I could see what they were scooting around. There was a dead man down there, dressed in Russian camo, sprawled out dead. His chest was hacked open, exposing broken ribs and frozen frost-rimed organs.

"What happened to him?" Dobbs asked, toeing the body with her boot.

"Last month happened." Nancy snapped as I pulled the door to the stairwell shut. When I turned around Bomber and King had peeled the guy's legs out of the frozen blood and were working on pulling him out of the frozen blood to unblock the QASI office so we could get at the secure data vault.

"I thought you guys killed him." King said.

"Yeah, well, the mountain." Bomber offered. King just nodded, and everyone looked a little nervous as they broke the ice's grip on the dead body and pulled the body down to the door. I unlocked the door and pushed it open.

We moved into the office and I unzipped my parka.

"Take it off, back to combat boots. Ruck the gear." I ordered. Everyone pulled off their parkas and their Mickey Mouse boots. Rucksacks dropped onto the floor, and were pulled open. I stripped off the parka, tossed it on a desk, then pulled off the heavy boots, dumped out the sweat, and packed the boots and parka into the almost empty ruck. It was missing most of the gear I usually carried: Spare uniforms; shelter half with rope and pegs; extra wool blanket; MRE's; chemical gear; climbing gear; toolkit; socks and underwear; wet weather gear; flares; whatever other crap the unit decided I needed to pack according to whatever new CO or Platoon Leader we had. All that was in this one was the cold weather gear. I changed socks, after throwing foot powder on my feet, then put on my combat boots, and stood up, stomping twice to set the boots. I grabbed the Kevlar with the LBE and pulled it on over my field jacket, buckling it up, and grabbing the helmet that Nancy had handed me.

When everyone was done changing I waved at the computers. "Throw them against the wall, not the TV part, but the big part beside the desk. King, Bomber, burn the records, I'll handle the vault." I told them, reaching into my thigh pocket and pulling out a thermite grenade. Bomber and King moved to each of the lockers, putting a grenade on top of each of them. I heard the heavy computers shatter as they were thrown hard against the wall, breaking open the cases.

"These are the hard drives, right, Ant?" Nancy asked me. I turned from where I was setting the thermite grenade on the locking mechanism. She was pointing at the large hard drive, state of the art 200+MB hard drive that I'd love to pull out and throw in my IBM clone.

"Yeah." I told her, turning back to the vault door. I had to be careful to disable it, freeze it up, but not make it easier to get into. Behind me I heard a gunshot and knew that Nancy had just put a bullet into it.

"Ouch, watch it, goddamn it." Sherry bitched.

"Sorry." Nancy said. "Grab those things, we'll throw them out a window and into the snow."

"Got 'em wired." King said, moving back over to me.

"Done." Bomber said a second later.

"Throw the hard drives into the top drawer of the file cabinet." Stokes suggested.

"Which one's unlocked?" Nancy asked. Stokes pulled open one of the drawers on a file cabinet with a thermite grenade sitting on top of it. "Throw them in here. How's it coming, boys?"

"Almost done." I told her. I'd finally decided on just setting the thermite grenade on the top of the wheel's casing, behind the spokes.

There was a booming sound outside, and Artain looked into the QASI Office. "Someone's banging on the stairwell door." He said.

Laughter sounded from the stairwell, followed by another crashing of metal on metal that vibrated the air.

"It's not him." Bomber said, glancing at me.

"No, he wouldn't be coming in like this, not into so many weapons." I agreed.

Outside Artain fired off three spaced shots, and I could visualize the dimples appearing in the heavy steel door. Sounded like a great idea, except the doors weren't hollow, they were concrete and lime cored. The bullet would hit the quarter-inch thick steel, the full metal jacket round might get through the door, but would definitely stop on the concrete. Rumor had it that there was a quarter inch lead shield inside the door, but Bomber and I had torn one apart during the summer for the hell of it and didn't find the lead shielding.

"Quit that shit, it'd take a fifty-cal to get through that door." Stokes snapped, tapping just over her ear with the heel of her hand.

There was another ring of steel on steel, and I heard rock crunch.

The son of a bitch was trying to hack through the door.

"Extract route?" Bomber asked. He was in the middle of dumping the contents of the desk drawers onto the floor.

"Through the storage area, into the supply room, destroy the records in the supply room, figure out what to do in the ready room." I told him, yanking out a door full of files and dumping them on the pile before slinging the drawer on top of the broken computer case.

"How the fuck do we seal them off from the Arms Room?" Dobbs asked, spitting on the pile of paper. Her spit was red.

"Superglue again." King said.

"C-4?" I offered.

"Satchel charge." Sherry offered.

"You got one?" Artain asked.

"No." Sherry admitted.

"Then shut up." Stokes said, slinging the dumped drawer on the computer consoles.

There was another axe strike, metal on stone. The air shivered and ice flakes showered down on us.

"We don't have to worry about the weapons, or the gas masks. Most of them are with unit at Graf, only the spares and unassigned ones are left. Put thermite on the ammo lockers, leave the two that are just part, pull the pins, slam the doors, superglue the goddamn locks." I said, leaning back and panting. I felt something give in my chest right before the pressure eased up in my chest. I inhaled deeply and relaxed. Nancy saw me and came over, pulling open my LBE and Kevlar, unzipping my field jacket and opening it, then unbuttoning my BDU blouse. I went to push her hands away and slapped my hands. "Ow. What are you doing."

"I need to check your chest tube, dumbass." She told me. She yanked up my T-shirt and pulled back the patch of gauze, exposing a small plastic bubble looking thing with a thin plastic hose. There was blood with bubbles in it. She shook her head, pulled the bubble thing off, and dumped it on the floor, squeezing it twice to clear what looked to me like only a little bit of blood.

"Not bad. Not as bad as the book warned." She said, retaping the plastic bubble thing and then the gauze. She pulled a pill bottle out of her pocket and rattled three gel pills into her hand. "Open."

"What are they?" I asked, I opened my mouth to ask more and she pushed them into my mouth, grabbing my nose, making me swallow.

"Vitamin C, some B's, and some E." She said. "Along with a prenatal."

"Prenatal, what the fuck for? Do I look fucking pregnant?" I asked. She was turning away from me.

"God knows what kind of vitamins we've all lost, and some iron and vitamin D won't hurt us. Open." She said to Dobbs, who just opened her mouth and let Nancy toss the pills in.

There was the ring of steel on steel with the crunch of rock under it.

"Bomber, the fire sensor, break it." I said, pointing at the at the sensor that was on the pipes on the ceiling. He climbed up on the desk and smashed it against the sensor twice before the case cracked and the internals fell down.

"One over there." King said, pointing up. Bomber jumped from one desk to the next and repeated it.

"We ready?" I asked, turning back to the thermite grenade I'd placed. A chorus of 'ready' came back to me. "All right. On three. One. Two. Three." I pulled the ring, let the grenade go, and watched the spoon fly away. "Out, out, out."

We hustled into the hallway and I pulled the door shut. I could hear them start to hiss, the ignition fuses starting to burn, heating up the thermite to the point where it would catch fire. Burn through steel like butter, turn the records to ashes, leave nothing behind but molten metal and ash. It might even catch the lime in the concrete on fire, hell, I'd heard that enough heat would do that, but I wasn't going to hang around and watch.

I used my keys to unlock the storage area. It held some of the War Stocks, not the platoon or element level, but stuff like the light sets, the cabling, the stoves, chemical showers, the stuff that individual soldier's wouldn't be packing. There were also large boxes of personal stuff. The rooms we'd taken the doors off of the first work crews had removed the personal stuff from the rooms, boxed it up, and put it down here. When the unit came back from Graf everyone would get their stuff back, in boxes, then take inventory with someone from Supply or a ranking NCO in order to figure out what had been destroyed.

The Army was probably going to bill me for all of it.

Nancy shut the door and hit one of the light switches, which turned on a single row of hanging lights, the conical shields over the naked bulbs throwing the roof into weird shadows. I glanced at the far wall, where two blinking red lights told me that someone had dropped the blast shields.

The heavy door was locked, and my key didn't want to work. I went to slam my shoulder against the door, but Nancy grabbed me.

"No. It'll fuck up your shoulder more." She said. "King, Bomber, knock it open."

On three they both threw their shoulders against the double doors, right next to the seam down the middle, and the doors blew inward, exposing the Supply Room. Nancy hit the switches but no lights came on.

Stokes lit a flare, tossing it into the room, painting it shades of scarlet.

"Hit Sergeant First Class Roberts' desk. He'd have site records, nobody else would." I said.

"Can't take the chance. Dump all the paperwork in the desks into a pile." Stokes said, grabbing the edge of the desk that Bomber had flipped over.

There wasn't a body laying over it, and while I vaguely remembered someone mentioning dragging bodies out to the loading dock, I couldn't remember if that had happened, or if Tandy had drug them outside to feast upon.

We dumped the contents of the drawers on the ground, creating a pretty good sized pile of paperwork, FM's, TM's, and whatever other crap they had in their desks. Roberts had a bottle of Old Granddad in his desk drawer that we passed around, barely making it twice around the group of us. We threw the empty bottle on top of the paperwork, and I dug another thermite grenade out of my thigh pocket. I waved everyone over to the door Bomber had kicked open, and yanked the pin on the cylindrical grenade before tossing it onto the paperwork. It was hissing when I turned around and walked by the flare.

Bomber had the LT's keys and was pulling open the secure items door, ice crackling and falling to the floor as the cage door swung open. He tossed the keys to King, who started unlocking the Arms Room.

"Artian, Sherry, watch the exits, give your thermites to Stokes." I said, following Lanks into the locker. It wasn't really anything impressive, just a ten by thirty room where radios, NVG's, codebooks in safes, and other things that the Army didn't want left laying around were stored. Lanks and Bomber were pulling the down the radios, stacking them, and I joined Nancy and Dobbs in pulling the remaining NVG's off the hooks and dropping them into a pile. Stokes came in, and added her part, so we went through the NVG's that the unit had left behind. They'd taken the majority of the gear to Graf, which meant there wasn't much left around. Normally there would be about sixty radios on the shelves, but there were only about a half dozen left. There would have been nearly 300 NVG's hanging on the hooks, instead of less than fifty. It didn't take us long to stack the radios, the code modules, and all the other fun shit that went with high security radio systems in two stacks as well as pile the NVG's into a small mound in the middle of the floor. The PRC-77s weren't that big of deal, a couple hundred had probably dropped into the hands of the Soviet Union since Vietnam, but a lot of those codeboxes were less than a year old. We'd had to get a dedicated commo guy and two assistants once that shit got in. Stokes set the thermite grenades on top of the safes that held codebooks and other shit that I didn't really get that were against the wall. On the count of three we pulled the pins. I waited at the door until I saw all the grenades were smoking, then moved into the Ready Room and slammed the door shut. King was standing up from where he'd finished squirting superglue into the last of the locks.

"Almost done." I panted. There was a popping feeling in my chest and the pressure lightened again, making it easier to breathe.

"CO, XO, Top." King said. "Goddamn, this is surreal." He shook his head. "You think it was like this in like Beirut or during the fall of Saigon?"

"More people, more frantic, not so cold, from what I heard." Stokes said, leaning against one of the chest high tables and lighting a cigarette. "Back in my previous unit one of the guys I was fucking had been there for the fall of Beirut, he said it was crazy." I took it from her, she glared at me and lit another one, which Nancy took and had Dobbs take it from her. Stokes sighed in frustration, took another one out and tossed the pack of Camels on the table before lighting her own and stepping back. "Dude had a big steel plate in his forehead. When the car bomb went off he was getting sodas out of the machine, had the machine fall on him, but they evac'd him out, put in a plate." She giggled. "Looked like Frankenstein, fucked like a monster too."

"Lucky." Nancy said, a smile and mock jealousy in her voice. Stokes smiled, winked, and nodded.

"Christ, at least we're almost done." Artain said, shaking his head.

"It ain't done till we're in the NCO club with three fingers in a blonde." King said, tapping his ash on the floor and scraping at it with his boot.

"Or you've got eight inches of blonde meat in your hand." Stokes added.

"No shit." Dobbs said, lighting a cigarette and coughing at the first drag. "It's all fun and games until someone loses an eye." Her bandage was brownish, no bright red left on the gauze that covered the plethora of little punctures that covered the side of her face.

We all chuckled at that.

One by one the cigarettes were field stripped and the cherries crushed out, butts put in pockets, and everyone looked around.

"Let's knock this shit out." Bomber said, rocking his head from one side to the other to crack his neck. "Finish the fight, baby."

"Finish the fight." We all echoed.

We tromped out into the short hallway, and a glance showed me that the red light was lit for the blast doors having been dropped. Nancy hit the light switch and two lights blew out, leaving only a solitary fluorescent light feebly trying to push back the darkness.

"Goddamn this place sucks so much." Dobbs bitched as we walked into the small hallway leading to the CO's office, the Executive Officer's office, and the First Sergeant's office.

"That's why we can't escape." Stokes shot back. We all chuckled. And old joke but a good one.

"Who's got thermite left?" I asked, slapping my thigh pocket. "Down to one."

"One." Dobbs said, patting her pocket. "Well, one thermite to go with my eye, anyway."

"I got one." Artain said.

"Same here." Sherry added.

"I've got two." Stokes told us, tapping her left cargo pocket.

"I have three, Corporal." Aine said, looking at me through her eyelashes.

"McCullen, put them on top of the file cabinets in the Orderly Room, same with you, Stokes. Sherry, take the 1SG office, Dobbs, take the XO's office, Artain, take the CO's office. You three put them on the safes, pull the pin, get the fuck out." I said.

"What about the paperwork in their desks?" Stokes asked.

"Throw it on the floor. How many flare you got left, Stokes?" I asked.

"Five or six." She answered.

"Dump out their desks, we'll use the flares." I said. "Bomber, King, help me dump the desks in the Orderly Room, Nancy, go help dump the desks in the offices." I said, moving into the Orderly room.

It only took a few minutes to drop everything out of the desk drawers and into a pile on the floor. Nancy carried the drawers to the CO's office and added them to the stack. When we were done, those of us that had placed the grenades or been dumping Orderly Room desks helped drag all the drawers from the other offices in and dump them. Stokes watched as we piled it all up, making a pretty good sized pile of paperwork. The Smith file, the XO's file, the 1SG's file on all of us. I was tempted to look in the pile and pull out LT James' file, see what I could learn about the man.

There was a folder with Cass' name on it, along with one for James, and rage flared up inside me, warming that singing emptiness that had filled me. The lizard raked its claws on the floor in anger, and I agreed with him. When we were done with it I'd go back into the tunnels and before anyone could stop me I would pull Major Mallory's head back and slowly and deliberately slit his throat. Go slow, let him enjoy every second of it, sever the ceratoid and jugular, lay open the windpipe, clamp my hand over the wound so the blood would run down his throat and drown him. Stare in his eyes as he struggled against me, and smile into his face while I…-

I could feel the weight of someone staring at me, turning to see Aine looking at me. Not through her eyelashes, but staring at me with slightly wider than normal eyes. Her face was pale, and she took a step back when I curled my lip.

"Man, everyone's gonna be pissed at us." Dobbs said, pulling my attention to her and off of Aine. "Good thing V Corps and III CosCom has copies of all it."

"Except the Smith files." Stokes pointed out. "Be nice not to have all the shit we've done hanging over our heads."

"Which is what's gonna really piss off the brass." Dobbs said. She chuckled.

"Fuck it, we ain't getting off this mountain." Sherry said.

"You think they're gonna be mad now, wait till you hear what I just remembered we forgot to take into account." Bomber said, waving his hand at the rest of the barracks.

"What?" Nancy and Stokes asked at the same time. It suddenly dawned on me right when Bomber opened his mouth.

"The Mag Offices. There's paperwork on all the sites, all kinds of secure data, just sitting in the in-boxes and shit." Bomber said.

"Fuck, we already fucked the Arms Rooms, we're out of thermite." I said.

Bomber shrugged. "Well, what are the chances that they'll luck into grabbing something important?"

"Site inventories, unit strength, who works where." I grinned. "Not like it matters, MI already rolled up that fucking KGB ring, and our names are all on strike lists anyway." I waved at the building. "Say, the Platoon Leader's offices, the files, our inboxes and outboxes?" I looked at Stokes. "Got enough flares?"

She counted, sticking them in between her stomach and LBE. "If we pile it all in the Mag Areas, I'll have like four left after this."

I reached up and scrubbed the side of my face. "All right, we'll do it like that. Go pull the pins, we'll light this pile up, and head upstairs."

Bomber glanced up. "We split up and do it quick, or do we just go ahead and move all together?"

Nancy smacked him across the back of the helmet. "Are you fucking kidding me? You watch the same movies I do, you fucking idiot."

"Yeah, we split up, and BLAM! We're fucked." Dobbs said, smacking her fist into her palm.

"OK, OK, dumbass idea." Bomber admitted, holding his hands up in surrender. "Shit, you didn't have to smack me."

"You're a Texan." Nancy told him as Stokes cracked off the flare and tossed it on the mound of paperwork. It all went up with a woof, the dry paper crackling as the magnesium flare hit it.

"This is nice." Aine said conversationally, holding her bare hands to the burning paperwork. "At least it's warm."

"Let's go, creepy." Stokes said. Aine smiled cheerfully, ducked her head, and followed as we headed out of the Orderly and to the stairwell. We moved past the mailboxes and stopped at the door to the stairwell. Nancy put her hand on the door and kept anyone from opening it, turning to look at us.

"Look, trust me on this." She said. "Right now the barracks is cold as all Hell, there's ice everywhere, and worst of all, Tandy and that fuck with the axe are stalking the barracks."

Nobody scoffed. They'd all seen the same things we had.

"The winter's been let in." Stokes said softly.

Nancy nodded. "That means a lot in here. You can't trust your eyes, the barracks itself will try to kill you. If we get separated, we meet back at the War Fighter tunnels entrance." She looked at Aine. "I don't know what kind of weird love triangle thing you've got going with Tandy, you creepy little bitch, but if you think he's coming, you tell me, do you understand?"

Aine just gave her a little smile.

Nancy stepped forward and grabbed her by the front of her LBE and shoving her so her back was against the mailboxes. "I'm not kidding, McCullen, you think he's coming, you tell us."

Aine just kept smiling.

I drew my knife, stepping forward, and unsnapping Aine's helmet before pulling it off by the chinstrap. I grabbed her hair and yanked her out of Nancy's grasp, ignoring Aine's shriek of pain as I pulled her up on her tiptoes.

When I held the knife in front of her eyes she went silent.

"I swear to God, Aine, if you don't warn us, and he takes just one of us, I'll shave your goddamn hair." I told her. "I'll shave your hair, cut off your clothing, carve your face, and throw you in the snow."

I let go of her, and she raised her hands, snarling at me, to rub her head. I grabbed her arm, yanking it toward me. She had a band of hair on her wrist, one with a splotch of black on it, the other one, I knew without looking, was liberally smeared with black. I slid the point of my knife under the braided hair and sawed slightly, seeing that I was cutting into her skin, but not caring really even as her blood beaded up.

"Hey, you're…" Artian started. I knew he was bitching that I was cutting her skin, but I didn't care.

"Leave it." Stokes said. "This ain't got nothin' to do with you."

The hair parted, falling from her wrist, and I stepped back, slapping the knife in the sheathe, then stepping back into Aine's face. "Look into my eyes, Aine, and tell me I won't do it."

She lowered her head, and her shoulders slumped. "I'll behave, Ant." She said quietly.

"Say it, Aine." I growled at her.

"If I think he's coming, I'll tell you." She said softly.

"You finished, Ant?" Nancy asked. She pushed me to the side, but I saw her expression. While she looked angry, her scar was pale and I'd learned that it was an accurate barometer of her temper over the last month. "Stop treating her like shit, Ant, she's one of us."

"Yeah, I'm finished, let's do this." I told her, moving over to the door. "I'll go first. The rest of the come up behind me." I went to pull open the door.

"Ant, one problem." John said, holding up his hand. I turned and looked at him quizzically. "See, if we drag it into the Mag Areas and burn it, we just run a small risk. We start a fire on one floor, by the time we finish the next one, the whole barracks might be on fire." He pointed at the smoke gathering at the ceiling. "We need to move, but you pull open that door, and the fire's going to go apeshit."

"All right, let's move, talk in the stairwell. Move in fast, King, shut the door." I said. "Ready? Steady. Go." I pulled the door open and we ducked through fast, me leading the way up the stairs. I heard King yell "Clear!" as I went around the stairwell landing. I stopped at the first floor landing, looking down.

"The ammo we hauled into my room, we had thermite, right?" I asked.

"I grabbed a can, yeah." Stokes called up.

"Stokes, you and Bomber and Aine go get the can, the rest of us will hit the Platoon Leader offices." I said. "Aine can be your early warning system."

"We shouldn't split up." Nancy repeated.

"Something's coming, I can feel it." Aine whispered. "Something angry."

"Go, move out, Actual!" I called out, running up the stairs. I pushed through the doors and into near Hammerhead Hall, pausing long enough to drop my NVG's down and turn them on. I heard the clicks behind me of everyone putting theirs on. It didn't help much as started moving again, leading the way to my room. The NVG's IR lamp made everything sparkle. The ice was thick on the walls, snowflakes falling from the icy ceiling, and a thin crust of snow on the tile. When I hit the doors ice shattered off of them, bouncing off my helmet and the shoulders of my Kevlar vest.

By the time we hit the room door I had my keys out of my pocket. I managed to get the door open, and everyone scooted inside. "Sherry, out here with me." Sherry nodded, coming to a stop. "You watch the far end."

"Roger that." Sherry answered, and I heard his rifle click from safe to semi, or maybe he was putting it on or off full auto. I dropped down, kneeling, one leg up, the other planted, perfect form. I couldn't use the sight, not wearing NVG's, but hell, maybe I'd do better shooting by feel.

The XM-16E1 still felt wrong in my hands.

"Got it, divide it up." King said, coming out in the hallway. Bomber shut the door and locked it behind him.

We jogged back, and I had the weirdest feeling. Like something was gathering around me, an almost greasy feeling to the darkness, and the visualization was more from the lizard than from me. I kind of visualized it in my head as a nebulous cloud around us, tendrils worming into us. The lizard viewed it as being watched by the eye of predators, their hot breath wafting against our skin, and hissed softly to itself, sounding like a teapot beginning to steep. We went into the stairwell and headed up another flight to where the officers plotted and schemed. No repairs had really taken place up there, just plywood put over the windows.

"You guys hit the offices, Bomber and I will start yanking drawers. King, hand out the thermite." I said.

King nodded, setting down the ammo can. He ripped it open and pulled out the cardboard tubes the grenades were stored in. Once the grenades were free they were passed out. The can only had eight of them, but it was better than nothing. There weren't enough to set them on top of all the file cabinets, so we had to settle with yanking out the drawers.

We started dumping everything into the large room the all the offices were connected to, building a big pile of paperwork in the middle of the floor. The pile was pretty large, and would probably take awhile to burn. There wasn't much airflow from non-existent windows, but hopefully everything would burn before too much O2 was lost. Just to be sure, I had Bomber help me break the double doors down. The same double doors we'd rehung a little over a week ago.

"Light it now?" Sherry asked.

"No. We'll light both piles at the same time and pull back to the War Fighter tunnels, that way if it cracks the concrete between floors and collapses it won't take us out or cut us off." Bomber said.

"Mag Area." I said.

We headed down a flight of stairs, feeling a chill at what we were doing like I hadn't felt when we were wrecking the place up. This felt… different somehow, and a feeling of hopelessness was slowly filling me.

The tentacles tightened. The carrion breath of the predators got closer.

The stairs were cold, and we moved carefully due to all the ice on them. If I didn't know better I'd swear someone had dumped water off the top steps, with the way it had spilled over like a ledge.

The NVG's lit it up, all of our IR lamps combining, turning the walls and the railings into a glittering fairy land. The ice on the steps was dark, cold, and seemed to pull in the IR.

Was it just me, or were the IR lamps not as bright?

The Mag Area was cold and dark, the plywood on the windows, the wooden schooldesks, carved up and covered in graffiti, were against the wall. The posters were on the wall, glittering with frost. Ivan is Watching. OPSEC Saves Lives. Report Cold Weather Injuries. Identification of Radiation/Chemical Exposure.

"Let's knock this shit out." Bomber said.

"First Mag, Training Offices, then Second Mag." I said. "Nancy, Lanks, Stokes, hit the lockers, grab what supplies we might need, destroy the rest."

"No shit." Stokes said, heading into the First Mag Office.

"Bomber, rip that open, I want plenty of air." I waved at the plywood covered windows that we hadn't gotten around to replacing. They were high up on the wall, only about a foot high, and only about six inches below the suspended ceiling. Bomber nodded, pulling that crowbar off his LBE. King moved to help him, waiting until Bomber pulled it away from the wall and tearing the plywood free with his hands. Then he'd pull the insulation free, and Sherry and Aine knocked the plywood out and into the snow.

It let grey light into the Mag Area, sunlight, something that initially it took me a second to figure out what it was. While wind pushed in, it wasn't howling in, and it wasn't full of snowflakes or snow seeds.

The storm was passing.

We hit First Mag and the Training Office first, dumping everything out into piles. Nancy grabbed a handful of FM's, making Lanks turn around so she could pack them in the other woman's rucksack.

When I opened the doors to the Mag Area I worked in I felt an ominous chill. My desk would be stripped out, dumped in a pile in the middle of the Mag Area where Actual was breaking up the wooden desks to ensure that the fire burned well.

Light filled the offices, and looking out the windows I noticed that the sun was rising. My NVG's flare compensation kicked in, dimming everything, and I turned off the IR lamp before flipping them back up on my helmet. That let me see the colors of the sunrise. The sun was turning the snow bloody as the crimson light bathed the snow. The office windows faced the motorpool and I could see the guard towers, the smooth snow all the way to the building, and the mountain itself. I could see the glacier clear as day. Looking out the window I could see the damndest thing.

All around us was a grey wall. I could see how it looped around the back of the mountain, then covered to either side of us, from what I could see out the window.

The eye of the storm.

Everyone else had tromped into the office, Bomber moving over to my desk and pulling out the bottle of Bicardi Light & Dry I'd snagged and left in the drawer. He opened it, took a drink, and passed it to me.

"Beautiful." He said.

"Ayup." I answered.

It was beautiful. The sun sparkling on the snow, the snow blameless and smooth, the glacier painted shades of white and crimson, the trees heavy with ice and snow, and the rising sun on the other side of the barracks from me bringing cold light to the day. The snow was even with the windows, blown slightly up about six inches, maybe a foot.

The radio crackled on Stokes back. "Commo check, do you read?" The voice said. Unfamiliar, full of static, but a voice all the same. "Come on, Wiess, you're like twenty feet away, I wanna finish this shit and get out of here."

"Stokes." I snapped, but she was already moving over to me. I grabbed the mic.

"This is Echo-Five Actual, please identify, over." I said. There was a second or two before I got a reply.

"Who the fuck is this? Weiss?" The voice said.

"This is Echo-Five Actual, we're involved in a real world situation, over." I snapped.

"A what? Switch channels, asshole. Range control gave us this band and I'm trying to check the radios so I can go back to the fucking barracks." The voice crabbed back at me.

"Unidentified transmitter, please respond. This is Echo-Five Actual, please identify, over." I repeated. I waved at Bomber who came up, digging the codebook out from under his Kevlar.

"Listen, dumbass, get off the damn channel." The same voice snapped. "Don't make me get my fucking NCO."

"This is Echo-Five Actual, we have suffered real-world casualties, we've got dead and wounded, we're under attack by elements of the Soviet armed forces. We have destroyed all sensitive items and data, but have no extraction, do you copy? Over." I tried that.

"Wait, you're what? You're not fucking around?" The voice asked.

"No. This is a real world situation. Are you set to record? Are you set to validate codes? Over." I asked.

"Hang on, I need to get the Sergeant of the Guard or somebody." The voice said.

"Hurry up, we'll hold our position. Over." I said.

I slumped down on the floor, leaning against the side of Sergeant Nails' desk, lighting a cigarette.

"Hot damn. We can call for evac." Stokes smiled at me.

"Hell yeah!" Sherry yelled, punching a fist in the air, then grabbing his ribs. "Aw goddamn it, that hurts." He groaned.

"This is Echo-Five Actual, do you ready? Come in, unknown transmitter. This is Echo-Five Actual, come in. We are not receiving you at this time. We have a real world situation. This is Echo-Five Actual, please come in." I kept repeating, letting off the transmit button in between each plea.

"Oh, goddamn it, don't tell me we lost them." Bomber said, looking out the window. "Still clear as day, but I can see flashing in the clouds."

"I still have you, Echo Five Actual, this is Staff Sergeant Meyers. Private Lorenze has told me you are in imminent danger. Can you confirm? Over." A new voice asked.

"I confirm imminent danger, Sergeant. Over." I assured him. "We've taken heavy casualties, and have engaged Soviet Vympel on numerous occasions."

"Engaged what?" Meyers interrupted.

"Vympel, Sergeant. Victor Yankee Mike Papa Echo Lima. Soviet Special Forces. It appears that they are after classified data, over." I told him.

"Who did you say you were again? Over." Meyers asked.

"Corporal Ant, ranking member of Echo-Five Actual, 2/19th Rear Detachment Quick Reaction Force, over." I answered.

God that sounded ridiculous.

"Anyone higher ranking I can confirm with, Corporal? Over."

"Negative, Sergeant. Everyone else is either dead or completely incapacitated, Over." I told him. "We've taken heavy casualties, literally one hundred percent." I pressed my forehead against Stokes' shoulder, breathing heavy. "Actual possesses all ten effectives, and we're all walking wounded, Sergeant. Over." I coughed and something in my chest released, letting me take a deep breath.

There was silence on the radio for a long moment.

"When you put it that way, it sounds pretty bad." Artainn said.

"It is pretty bad." Sherry said, coughing and groaning.

"Artain, take these. They're Vicoden." Nancy said, rattling a pill bottle.

"Thanks, my ribs are killing me." Artain said.

"Echo Five Actual, do you read? Over." Came the Sergeant's voice.

"I read you. Over." I told him.

"Did you receive my last? Over."

"Negative. Please repeat your last, over." I took an offered cigarette from Stokes.

"I'm bumping you up my chain of command, but it might take up to two zero minutes for him to arrive. Can you hold that long? Over."

"Roger that. Will hold." I coughed again. "Will continue destruction of secure documents." I waved at everyone, letting off the mic. "Who's got smoke?"

King, Bomber, Nancy, and Aine all had red smoke, otherwise all we was white smoke, HC and thermal masking.

"Can mark with red smoke, over." I said.

"Goddamn, think they can get a helicopter to us from main post?" Artain asked, leaning against the desk. He pulled the tape free on the bandage on his forearm. "Goddamn this is itching like hell."

"Leave it alone." Nancy told him.

"Roger that, can mark with red smoke. Can you give me the names of your QRF? Over." Meyers asked.

"Negative on the last, Sergeant." I told him, closing my eyes again. Who knew who the hell was listening in. There was a Soviet listening post/artillery unit right across the pass from us. "This is an unsecure channel. Our secure commo gear is destroyed. Over."

"Roger that, Actual." I could almost hear the frustration in his voice and I suddenly became paranoid that it was the Vympel, not somebody that could actually help us.

"You heard the man, let's finish up so we can light this up and fall back." King said.

"We'll have to pull the LT and the others to an evac point." Stokes said. "Christ, can you think of a good evac point?"

"We can use kerosene, diesel, and mogas to burn off the snow on the upper motorpool, it's the only place big enough to land a Blackhawk or a shit-hook." Nancy said, moving out with everyone else into the main room, carrying drawers from the desks with them. Lanks was pulling open the locker where the aid bags were stored, her rucksack at her feet and open.

"Christ, a fucking evac." Artain was saying.

"You don't believe they're going to evac us, do you, Ant?" Stokes asked softly.

"No. I don't." I told her, shaking my head. I exhaled and looked at her through the smoke. "I've just got this feeling."

"Echo Five Actual, do you read? Over." The radio crackled. It was full of static.

"This is Echo-Five Actual, we read you, over." I answered.

"Just checking, Actual. Over." Meyer said.

"Cocktease." Stokes grumbled.

Bomber found a bottle of Jack Daniels in a desk drawer and uncapped it, taking a swig before passing it Stokes, who took a hit off of it and handed it to me. It tasted good going down, and warmed me up.

For some weird reason it made it easier to breathe too.

Sergeant Meyer did a commo check four more times, during that time everyone finished piling everything up in a pretty good sized pile in the Mag Area. Bomber wasn't sure it would burn easily, but Nancy had pointed out that she'd found a half-gallon of Everclear in the First Mag Office. We figured we'd dump it on the stuff and then light it up with a couple flares.

"This is Lieutenant Colonel Archer to Echo-Five Actual, do your read? Over." A voice said.

"Thank God." Sherry said softly. I silently agreed as I keyed the mic.

"We read you, sir. Over." I answered. It had taken almost a half hour for him to get on the line, and the beautiful sunrise had started to clear up.

"Echo-Five Actual, I need you to confirm. I need a confirmation from you." Colonel Archer said. He sounded kind of pissed off. I waved at Bomber, who came over and dug the code book out from under his field jacket. I flipped it open, find the Julian date, and picked a third of the way across.

"This is Echo-Five Actual, please identify." I read off the code at the top of the page, then put my finger on the little box. "Code is: November Six Alpha Seven Seven Niner Six. Request verification, over." I said.

There was static, and Stokes fucked with the radio a little bit. The voice was stronger, but still was a shitty connection when it comes back.

"Verification is: Alpha Niner Niner Seven Echo Two." I heard. The voice sounded incredulous. Bomber looked up and nodded. "This is Bravo Company, 3/67 Armor, out of Fort Hood, who the hell is this? Over."

"This is Echo-Five Actual, 2/19th Special Weapons, Rear Detachment, Corporal Ant currently in command of Quebec Romeo Foxtrot." I told him. "We've got a real world situation here, sir. We've got wounded and killed in action. We need reinforcement and extraction, it looks like a pre-hostilities surgical strike. Over."

"A what? Son, are you fucking with me?" Archer asked.

"Bravo, are you set up to record? Over." I crossed my fingers.

"Negative, Echo-Five Alpha." There was silence for a second. "Are taking notes. Give me a sitrep. Over." The Colonel said.

"We've gone from over forty elements to eight effective. Secure items and data have been destroyed according to SOP." I started.

"You've taken how many casualties? Have you identified your hostiles? Over." The Colonel sounded disbelieving.

"We've taken one hundred percent casualties, Bravo." I chuckled. "I'm sitting here with a chest tube in, sir. We're all wounded, sir, and…"

"This is not an exercise, is it, son? Over." The Colonel broke in. He sounded suddenly serious, and I heard him address someone else. "Find out who the hell 2/19th is. Get ahold of III Corps Staff Duty."

"Negative, Bravo. We are currently at the barracks area, and I believe that we are being aggressed as part of a pre-conflict surgical strike, over." Not exactly true. This was a CIA op gone to total shit, but we needed help. Nobody would fault me with my interpretation of what kind of shit we were in.

"Echo-Five Actual, you are currently engaging hostile forces in your barracks? Over."

"Roger that, Bravo. What is your current position? Are you at the field exercise areas here on post?" I asked.

"Please, please, please say yes." Dobbs said, turning away and folding her hands under her chin.

"Echo-Five Actual, we are currently at our motorpool on main post of Fort Hood. It's 0330 here, we were prepping to leave for the field here when you broke in channel. Where are you, over?" He asked.

We all groaned.

"Goddamn ionosphere bullshit!" Bomber swore, grabbing one of the desks and flipping it onto its face. "They might as well be on the moon."

It wasn't uncommon for radio signals to bounce off the ionosphere, and I knew that we could pick up a radio station from LA when we were out at Atlas during the summer, which was a hell of a lot better than AFN radio or ¾ of the German stations we could grab.

Now that bullshit might cost us our lives.

I thought fast. I was hoping 3/67 could come riding to our rescue. Looks like they were doing field duty at Fort Hood. Which meant we were screwed.


"Echo-Five Actual, do you read? Over." The Colonel said.

"We read you, sir. Do you have outside commo? Over." I asked, digging out my green notebook.

"Roger that, Actual." The Colonel answered.

"Who the fuck cares?" Artain asked.

"Shut it." Stokes snapped. "I get it."

"I need you to call V Corps NBC Section, tell them that 2/19th Special Weapons is under attack." I told him. "Prepare to Copy, over."

"Ready to copy, Actual, over." The Colonel told me right back.

I have him the phone number, my authorization number, and had him repeat it back to me twice. Once static blotted him out, and it took Stokes a minute of screwing with the PRC-77 to get him back.

"Bravo, tell V Corps that we're going to finish destroying the secure data and fall back to the War Fighter tunnels." I told him. "We'll try to hold out until…-"

"DOWN!" Dobbs shouted.

I reacted, hitting the floor with Stokes next to me. Everyone else reacted out of spinal reflex, hitting the tile. Sherry gave a sharp outcry of pain as he landed on his broken ribs.

Bullets shattered the window and blew deep craters in the cinderblock wall opposite of the window. More than just the sounds of AK-47's firing at us, I could hear two RPK's going off, their distinctive noise making me try to push my belly button through the tile floor.

The Russians had found us.

"Taking heavy fire!" I yelled into the mic. I thrust it at Stokes. "Let him know what's going on. We've gotta burn the data."

Bomber had crawled into the Mag Area, standing up and splashing Everclear out of the bottle and onto the stacked paperwork. Aine was shooting back, flat against the wall and firing without looking over the top. King had flipped over a desk, the same with Nancy, crouching down behind the heavy metal furniture. Artain was crawling after Sherry, both men heading for the Mag Area. Dobbs and Lanks were both hiding behind a third desk, and while I watched Dobbs rolled onto her back, put her feet against the edge of the desk, and pushed upward so that it fell on its back.

"Anyone see where they are?" I shouted, the outer face of the wall severely damaged. If they kept it up they'd blow through the wall and start shooting up the bathroom on the other side.

"They're keeping us pinned down!" Nancy yelled. "Bomber, the stairs!"

"Artain, Sherry, with me! We gotta hit the upstairs!" Bomber yelled. "Stokes, flares!"

"Sir, we've been engaged! Destroying classified data and pulling out!" Stokes said. She lifted the flares one by one and threw Bomber a total of four of them. More automatic fire came in, this time hitting the wall to my left and hammering the doors that led into the Mag Area.

They were shifting position, flanking us. That meant that the ones in the middle were moving forward while the flanks kept us pinned.

It sounded like straight AK-47's from either side, which meant that coming up the middle was their RPK's. I wasn't sure if that meant that the heavier concentration of troops was coming straight at us, or just four men, the RPK gunners and their assistants.

Bomber caught the flares, tossing one to Artain, then another, and tossing the other two to Sherry.

"What's going on, Actual?" The radio crackled.

"We're being flanked, multiple hostiles." Stokes said.

"Multitiple crew served weaponry." I shouted, glancing up. Nothing but white, the snow sparkling. I couldn't see shit out there.

"Hostiles have crew served weaponry, appear to be advancing on our position." Stokes reported.

"Fall back, middle stairwell!" I bellowed out, crawling toward the Mag Area.

"We're falling back to the War Fighter tunnels." Stokes yelled into the mic. She let it fall, grabbing her weapon and low crawling along the line desks, heading toward the door.

Bullets were still slamming into the walls, whipping over our heads. Constant fire, the initial flurry had died down, and it felt like they'd probably put only a magazine at us in two waves, one group cutting loose then reloading while other one did the same, before settling down to single shots as they moved forward. Enough to keep us down, but not like it was.

Bomber burst through the doorway, soot on his face, and ducked reflexively as a burst of tracers whipped across the Mag Area from the Mag Office door.

"Got it lit!" He called out.

"Lighting!" Artain called out. He cracked the flare, flipping the cap in his hand and striking it. It lit up and he tossed it into the damp paperwork and manuals where Bomber had splashed the Everclear. It went up with a whoosh, heat blossoming over us, the flames blue at first.

Dobbs got through the doors first, waving us after her. She'd dropped her NVG's down and turned them on. "Hallway's clear!"

"Let's go!" I yelled, getting to my feet and following through.

"Actual, report!" The Colonel was yelling. "Actual, give me a sit-rep!"

He'd have to read about it if anyone ever wrote it up.

Besides, if we lived or died, someone would be getting a visit from the DIA to officially disavow our little radio talk.

We ran down the hallway, our boots crunching on the ice, Dobbs leading the way. Nancy was pulling second, Lanks behind her. Aine was only a few steps behind me, and from the sounds of it King was pulling drag, the belts around his torso chiming as he hustled.

Dobbs hit the middle doors. Ice had reformed on the doors and it cascaded off of Dobbs, bouncing off her helmet.

Nancy grabbed one door, Lanks the other, as I put on speed. Even pumping my arms wasn't helping much, my chest starting to tighten, but I didn't want to get left behind.

That oppressive feeling was getting thicker. The lizard was starting to mutter again.

"Actual…. can you… read… sit… Actual…" crackled from the radio.

"Something angry's coming!" Aine yelled.

Dobbs opened the door to the stairwell with a hard yank on the handle, ice shattering from around the door.

The blade of the axe, covered in frost that made the handle of the axe glitter in the light of my IR lamp, but not obscuring 2/19th Motor Pool on the handle, came out of the darkness

And hit Dobbs in the stomach with a loud crunching sound, the sheer force of the strike throwing her against the laundry room door, her helmet smashing against the door. She slid down in slow motion, coughing, blood and saliva spraying out of her mouth.

He stepped into the doorway.

Chapter 21

2/19th Special Weapons Group
Restricted Area, Alfenwehr West Germany
Late Winter- January, 1988
Day 12 of Repairs
Day 4 of the Second Incident

Taller than me. Bulkier than me. Mickey Mouse boots, cold weather pants, and insulated leather gloves. Wrapped in an extreme cold weather parka, the hood up. An extreme cold weather mask hiding his face, the mouth strap unsnapped to reveal his mouth.

One eye was bloodshot, both were glaring, and the snarl behind the mask was missing a tooth.

When Dobbs had been thrown against the wall she'd glanced Stokes, who was already off balance because of the ice and the radio, and Stokes had landed flat on her ass. While Bomber, Nancy and I raised our weapons she lifted her feet, planted her hands to either side of her, and slammed both boots against the door.

As the figure's axe came up the heavy steel door slammed in his face and all three of us fired a couple shots into the heavy steel door.

"Grab Dobbs! Bomber, unlock the room." I shouted, reaching down and grabbing up Dobbs by the back of her LBE. She gave out a cry of pain as I pulled her up, and King threw one of her arms over his shoulder.

"Jesus, that hurt." She coughed.

"Don't talk." King said. "Save your strength."

"Who the fuck was that?" Artain asked.

"A dead man." Nancy snapped. "He shouldn't be here."

"He looked plenty alive to me." Artain shot back.

Bomber was unlocking the door, pushing it open and hurrying us into the room.

"Get her on the bed, hurry, hurry." Nancy was saying, darting into the bathroom. I heard the sink go on as we drug a cursing Dobbs into the room and set her on the bed. She cried out when he back hit the mattress, her arm still around her stomach.

"Lemme see." I said, pulling her arm away.

"Fucking hurts." She groaned, suddenly coughing and bringing up blood.

I stripped open her LBE, tore open her Kevlar vest, and unzipped her field jacket.

"How bad is she, Ant?" Nancy called out. I heard something gurgle when the water was shut off.

"I can't tell." I yelled back. I pulled up her BDU top and T-shirt, exposing her belly.

Bomber was telling everyone where to go. Flipping up the desk to block the hallway, flipping the bunkbeds and dropping the mattress in front of the other one, tearing it down as quick as possible to provide some cover.

Pulling up Dobbs T-shirt and BDU let me get a good look at where that axe had hit her.

Her skin was unmarred.

"How bad?" Dobbs asked. "Goddamn it, I bit my tongue."

Nancy pushed me out of the way then drew back. "What the hell?" She pulled Dobbs gear together, finding the Claymore bag she'd hung around her neck. She dumped the bag out and the shattered landmine fell from inside the bag. The hard plastic casing, the cast resin, all shattered by the blow.

"Holy shit, you're a lucky bitch." Nancy said. Dobbs coughed again and blood spattered. "Stick out your tongue." Dobbs stuck out her tongue and we could see the deep bite mark at the end of it. "You almost bit off the end of your tongue."

"…Five Actual, come in! Do you read, Echo-Five Actual, this is Bravo 3/67, do you read?" Suddenly came in over the radio from where Stokes had dropped it on floor.

"Artain, get that." I snapped over my shoulder. I helped Dobbs up. "Goddamn, you're fucking lucky."

"He hits like a goddamn freight train. I thought my ovaries were going to shoot out my ass. Who was that?" Dobbs asked, coughing.

"Somebody dead." I answered.

"Bravo 3/67, this is Echo-Five Actual, we read you, over." Artain said. He was ducked down by the dresser.

"Like Tandy?" She asked, spitting red on the floor.

"Like Tandy." I agreed.

"Status report, over." It was a different voice, but it was a lot weaker than it had been in the mag area. It had to be one of those weird localized effects, and God only knew how long it would last.

"King, I gotta an idea." I said, looking around. I pulled open my TA-50 locker and pulled down the two wool blankets that were supposed to be on my bed instead of the civilian down comforter and the quilt.

"Oh lord, he's got an idea." Bomber groaned.

"We've fallen back to a regroup position, are unsure of next steps. Cannot evac to safety at this time. Over." Artain said.

"Throw me the wool blankets, fill up that mop bucket with hot water." I told him, heading back to the door. "King, bring the '60."

"What are you thinking?" Bomber asked me, scooping up all the green blankets out of his locker and Nancy's locker.

"They'll be coming after us." I said. "It's gone too far. We already saw the mountain take two of them, they're going to be out for blood, or figuring the only way the can survive is by killing us and waiting out the storm." I opened the door and looked out both ways at the dark hallway. Empty.

"Yeah, figured that out already." Bomber grouched, following me into the hallway.

"So they'll come straight down this hall." I dumped a blanket on the hallway, crossing it, and shifted the blanket with my hands to make it humped up. Sherry came out with the mop bucket steaming in the cold air. "Pour it on the blanket nice and slow."

"It'll freeze." Sherry told me.

I grinned at him. "Exactly." I turned to King. "I'm halfway down the hall, figure 12 rooms between me and the double doors, fifteen feet per room, that's about 180 feet, so about sixty meters."

King nodded, checking the belt on the M-60. He eyed the ice on the floor. "I'll get real cold real fast."

"We'll throw down our sleeping pads. That'll give you some insulation. Best we can do." Bomber offered.

"Have to work." King grunted, adjusting the sight on the M-60.

The blanket was already frosting up, so I threw another blanket on it and had Sherry pour more water. Inside Artain was still telling them that we were fortifying our position and expected another attack at any moment.

Nancy was checking everyone, and yelled at Sherry for lugging the water, telling him that his ribs might not be hurting, but that was the Vicoden and the alcohol. She started packing the water, helping me pile the blankets into a large hump that was rapidly freezing. I figured without sandbags, the hallway was a slaughterhouse waiting to happen. The blankets and ice should at least slow down the rounds that hit, maybe even stop them, since the wool blankets would provide structural integrity so that bullets wouldn't shatter it all.

Or I was wrong and King would get chopped into hamburger.

Artain was telling the Colonel that we'd destroyed what we could, and to pass it on that there we multiple injured still in the War Fighter tunnels, and that they needed evac no matter what happened to us.

I grabbed the three foam pads and threw them on the floor. King bellied down on them, dropping the 60 down and sighting through it.

"NVG's make the sight useless." He bitched.

"It's a fucking hallway." I told him, shaking my hands. The hot water had quickly turned cold and my hands ached. I scratched the burn over where they'd put an implant in my hand to fix the little bone on the outside.

"That'll have to work." Bomber said, looking at the sodden pile of blankets. Frost was already forming on them.

"Range to the doors sixty meters, visibility poor at doors, no assistant gunner, weapon in good condition." King was muttering to himself.

"Bomber, get me something to lay on." I snapped. He rushed in the room and I heard wood break. When I looked back he was bringing me the back and seat of the chair. I tossed them on the ground, laying on them, and brought up my XM-16. I cracked the bloop tube and loaded an HE into it.

"Think they'll really go for us?" King asked.

"They've got no choice now." I told him. "Dead, we can't tell anyone what happened here. Alive, this will blow up into a major international incident."

We laid in the cold and snow, twice Nancy bringing us canteen cups of hot instant coffee. It tasted like shit, but King and I gulped it down anyway to keep our core temperatures up.

The door on the right eased open, a glove coming around the door and pulling it barely open. I kicked King's foot with mine and he kicked back.

He'd seen them.

I adjusted the tilt on my weapon. Forty meter minimum range, so it'd arm. The doors wouldn't stand up to it. The door eased open further, and was able to make a solid ID.


I pulled the trigger on the M-203 and the underslung 40mm grenade launcher made a "thwoomp" sound. I switched my hand back to the pistol grip as the grenade hit the left hand middle door and exploded. The shockwave rolled over us, not enough to do anything but pop our ears and make them ring, but ice shivered off the walls and icicles fell from the ceiling.

King pulled back the trigger on the pig and the world was filled with thunder. I could see the Russians trying to squeeze into the door jams, and one smartass took the risk to jump up and kick the door in. King missed him, the tracers seeming to whip right through him, but he ducked back a second later and started firing.

There was at least a dozen of them in the hallway.

"Returning fire, under attack." I heard Artain yell into the mic.

One of the Russians leaned out of the doorway, firing something, and a grenade hit the wall about ten feet from us, shattered tile smacking at us. King held down the trigger and they guy's arm came clean off just above the elbow. My face felt like someone had just used it for a punching bag but I kept on going, firing my weapon till the mag went dry and swapping out as fast as my frozen hands could manage.

There was an explosion from in the room and someone started screaming. I looked into the room and saw daylight through where the plywood had been. Two figures hurtled in the room, kicking snow into the room from where it was over the windowsill. Both went down immediately and I saw something drop into the room, between the matresses and windowsill. I looked back forward, bringing back up my M-16 and reloading it with the top 40mm.

The M-60 cut off and King started swearing, flipping up the feed tray and digging at it with his bayonet. A glanced down the hallway showed me that the Russians had realized that the heavy firepower was down, and I was trying to reload my M-16, my numb and tingling hand hands not wanting to do what I wanted to. The stupid magazine twisted in my hand and fell away.

They were rushing forward and I glanced down. It was my APERS round I'd been slapping in off and on for the whole goddamn time. I pulled the trigger on the M-16, shattering suspended ceiling panels and teaching a fire sensor to never fuck with me again, but missing the Russian's entirely. King exclaimed with joy, and he slapped the feed tray down.

It was almost too late.

The trigger on the 40mm snapped back and the 40mm APERS went off, kicking hard against my shoulder and the first two ranks went down, the guy on the left in the third rank dropping and screaming. I scrambled to my feet, lunging up with the bayonet and slamming into the stomach of the guy being held up by the guy behind him, pulling the trigger to blow him off. Something burned across my waist and I tasted hot copper in my mouth as I followed through with a buttstroke and stepped in with them.

"Contacts, multiple hostiles, exterior and interior, we're outnumbered." Artain was calling out. "Close quarters only, Bravo. Will transmit to final."

…The last radio call….

Someone parried my M-16, the bayonet hitting the wall and snapping, something burned across the small of my back, and I drew my pistol with my left hand, my right holding tight to the barrel of an AK-47 as it went off into the ceiling. King was yelling something, but I wasn't paying attention, concentrating on the men in front of me.

…They might take me, but that one won't, and that one won't, and that one won't….

Something took my helmet off as I ducked and when I came up I jammed the barrel of my .45 into someone's gut and pulled the trigger. Something slung me against the wall and I bounced off, my hand pulled up over the guy's head and my right hand locked on their wrist to keep them from bringing a knife down.

There was still gunfire in the room, I could hear Bomber, Stokes, and Nancy yelling the 2/19th warcry and Aine picking it up in a banshee wail of defiance.

The Russian's eyes were brown, bloodshot, and his teeth were bared. His breath smelled of onions as I drove my forehead into his face, letting go of the pistol as I did it again. I spun him around and slammed him into the tile wall, he let go of my wrist, and I pulled my knife off my LBE and brought it up into his stomach. His knife grazed my cheek as I headbutted him again, yanking the knife out of him and slamming it into his side. His eyes went wide and his knife arm went weak. I stabbed him again and kneed him in the crotch.

"They're all over us, Bravo, we can't…-" Artain screamed and I heard a gunshot. Artain was half-sobbing as he gave the warcry his best, his voice high. "FINISH THE FIGHT!"

Something hit me in the back of the head, slamming me face first into the wall, and I crumpled onto the floor, my knife falling from my hand. I heard Aine cry out in pain and Nancy swear. Their yells drove me to my feet, holding onto the wall. Someone grabbed the back of my head, palming it, to slam me face first against the tile wall, but I managed to duck around it. A pistol went off over my head and I popped back up with my knife, slamming it deep. Something hit me in the left cheek, and I dropped again. King fell backwards over my legs, firing the M-60.

I'd dropped my M-16 somehow, and I wasn't sure where it had gone. The side of my face was on fire. My fingers found the .45 as I rolled on my side. The M-60 had gone silent but I couldn't think of that now. The hallway was clear, and I pushed myself up, looking into the room.

"No!" Artain screamed as one of the figures raised his rifle. I could see the bayonet on it, unfortunately there was two of them, both wavering. Behind the figure the sky was darkened and thunder pealed.

…Shoot in the middle, boy….

I pulled the trigger twice, swiveling my aiming point to the other one, but an M-16 burst took him from his feet. The figure I'd shot was crumpling, but Artain screamed long and loud as the man went down on the floor. I fired twice more at shadows in the window, my head ringing and my vision blurring.

"More incoming!" King yelled.

"I'm hurt bad, Bravo." Artain choked.

"Jesus, how many are there?" I yelled back.

Turning back to King I saw him raise his head. Blood was streaming down his face and the front of his helmet was torn up, but he lifting the M-60 back up to his shoulder and started hosing the hallway again.

I took the end of the belt he'd shrugged out of and put the empty link against the last round of the rapidly disappearing belt and slammed the heel of my hand against them, locking them together.

"Grenade!" came from in the room and I curled up, hoping for the best.

The grenade went off, but muffled, almost wet sounding.

Something hit me in the ass. Something else hit me on the top of the helmet and I saw stars. King held onto the trigger, the '60 roaring, but I don't think he even knew what he was shooting at anymore. He was face down, still holding onto the LMG, but not looking anywhere as blood ran off his face and onto the ice.

I rolled back around so I could see in the room. The light was somehow still on, the sun coming in through the shattered window, and men were dropping inside. I raised my hand to discover I'd lost the .45 and my index finger was torn and bleeding, the glove finger completely missing.

My vision was doubled, Artain and someone else was screaming. King was gasping, the M-60 roaring, and there were a few shots from inside the room. Everyone I could see was sprawled out, covered in blood, blood that splashed the walls of my room, the ceiling, steaming in the cold winter air. Snowflakes were dancing on wind, following the men dropping into the room from the window. I could see the motorpool, see the wave of white coming at us from the mountain, and a long rolling boom shook the hallway.

"They aren't fucking dropping!" King yelled.

…We're losing….

The coppery taste of blood filled my mouth, and the lizard hissed in rage, slapping on the big red button as it urged me to get up, up, get the fuck to my feet.

A scream started, at first sounding like a low whine, but quickly gaining in intensity and volume. Aine stood up, her helmet missing, blood covering her face, her weapon broken in two pieces and the forward receiver held tight in her hands.

"FINISH THE FIGHT!" She screamed, lunging forward. "Blood! Blood and glory!" Her voice wasn't even human, a screech that fired my nerves. "Blood for Lugus! Blood for McDaur'n! Blood for McClel'n!"

The M-60 stopped firing, but I couldn't tear my eyes from Aine as she started moving. She moved smoothly, cleanly, and to my blurry vision she looked like she had frost trailing her as she howled in bloodlust.

Holding onto the forward handgrip and nothing else she slammed the bayonet under the chin of the Vympel nearest her, pulling it out in a spray of blood. The one behind her shot, but she was already moving, spinning in place, still shrieking, the bayonet coming around to take the guy in the side.

I looked at King. He was facedown, a good two feet of ammo still left. I pushed him and he rolled over, his eyes closed, and I squirmed behind the M-60, looking down the hallway. The dark shapes, the Russian troops were silently and steadily marching through the dark and icy hallway toward me.

…Wrong answer….

I held back the trigger and fired at their waist level, pulling the barrel from right to left and back again. Inside the room there was still screaming, and now there was male voices joining Aine's soprano wail. I burned through the remainder of the belt in seconds, unable to see because of the flashes. I blinked against the blue flashes in my vision before I peered over the top of the 60, saw the dark figures were still coming and looked around. My M-16 was against the wall, the barrel sunk into the ice, and my .45 was right next to me. King groaned and twitched and I grabbed my M-16, wrenching it out of where the heat of the barrel had sunk it into the ice and then the ice had refroze. Ice sprayed and something went snap, but I ignored it, ripping into my M-203 and loading up another 40mm. Bottom one, a white flare, and it thumped out, cracking to light as I reloaded from the top, another HE.

The figures moving down the hallway were all covered in frost, the white light illuminating the fact that their bodies were bloody, red frost on them, one of them with a bullet wound in their face that had blown away their lower jaw.

Screaming I pulled the trigger on the M-203, firing the 40mm HE. It hit the wall and exploded, and I was busy loading another one up, looking up and pulling the trigger. Two were still up, and I hit the wall next to them again. Seeing the hallway was clear I turned and looked in the room.

"They're still coming, Bravo, we've got casualties, still transmitting." Artain said.

Inside the room Aine was still fighting, still screaming. She dodged a shot, cut the shooter across the eyes, came around behind him and sliced the back of his thigh before ducking underneath a bayonet thrust and laying open the guy's entire forearm. She was still shrieking that banshee yell when a bullet hit her, spraying blood from her back, and she lunged forward, her knife in her hand and blood spraying as she kept working, kept yelling, kept screaming. A bayonet hit her in the stomach and blood sprayed when they pulled the trigger, but she spit blood in the Russian guy's face and started stabbing his arms, still driving forward with her little legs, still shrieking that banshee wail.

She wasn't the only one screaming.

Antain was yelling into the mic, holding onto his stomach, trying to lift up his rifle and failing. Sherry was face first on the floor and looked wrong somehow. Nancy was getting up groggily, grabbing her chest and doubling over when someone came through the window and fired their weapon. Stokes tried to push herself up, got stepped on by a Soviet troop who just jumped in through the window, who prepared to bayonet her. Bomber had rolled over and shot from the floor, putting a short sharp burst into the guy, dropping him on top of Stokes. Something hit me in the leg and it went weak, dumping me face first on the floor. Lanks was crawling into the bathroom, hunching forward on her belly, leaving a bloodsmear on the floor. Dobbs rolled over, her M-16 in her hands, and hosed off the rest of her mag at the window, three guys falling to side.

…How fucking many are there…?

I scrambled to my feet, lunging into the room, smashing into the first one, buttstroking him in the back of the head and stepping around the body. Someone made a stroke at me and I blocked, the wooden stock of the AK-47 shattering my XM-16E1 at the middle, sending me stumbling back.

"We did our best!" Artain yelled, into the mic, his voice raw and ragged as he lifted his M-16, only his elbow moving, and put burst into the cinderblock next to the window. "We're being overrun, Bravo!"

Aine's knife burst from his throat and she was still screaming as she slung him to the side, the knife tearing free.

"Finish the Fight! Blood for Lugus! To arms, boys! Blood and steel!" She shrieked, grabbing me by my LBE and pulling me up to my feet. I lunged past her, shoulder blocking someone who had dropped into the room from the window, knocking him back. Bomber shot him from the floor, trying to pull himself up from the floor with one hand that was smearing blood all over the top of the desk.

"STAND AND DELIVER!" I bellowed out, throwing one of them out of my way. One lunged at me and I put a forearm into his face, knocking him down. Artain pulled his weapon around, still calling out to the Colonel that we were trying to hold and holding his other arm across his stomach, half-sitting up, and pulled the trigger, half of the guy's head blowing off as the burst hit him. Another one punched me in the face, trying to get Dobbs off of him as she jumped on his back, and I returned the favor, feeling teeth break under my knuckles. Dobbs' pilot's knife looped over and plunged into his chest, Dobbs stabbing again and again as she rode him down. Her helmet exploded and I heard her neck crackle as her head went to the side, but she rolled over and stabbed the guy I was wrestling with in the leg, giving me the change to stab him in the stomach. Stokes had the guy bent backwards, her hands locked with his like they were playing mercy. His tendons were standing out and she bore down, one of his wrists breaking as the stocky woman put all her power into it. She let go of that hand and lifted one closed fist, driving it into the guy's sternum, then smashed him in the Adam's Apple twice. I turned away to grab the guy grappling with Bomber off of him, giving Bomber time to stab him under the sternum. Stokes threw the guy to the side and Nancy shot him in the chest.

Aine had just slit someone's throat, throwing the body to the side as his hands went to his throat. She saw me and lunged forward, planting her lips on mine, smearing blood on my face as her tongue pushed into her mouth and she undulated against me. She moaned, a needful, guttural thing, as her hands pulled open my LBE and tore open my flack vest. I kicked her feet out of from under her, taking her to the floor, on top of at least two bodies, tearing open her LBE and Kevlar. She was pulling mine off as I ripped open her BDU top and shredded her T-shirt with my fingers, exposing her breasts. She was groping at my belt buckle I suddenly came to my senses, no longer filled with the need to tear her clothes off. I pushed her away and rolled off of her. She scrambled up and let off another one of her banshee cries, raising the knife over her head, her top open and her breasts exposed. Her eyes were still locked onto mind, but I shook my head, trying to clear the red haze, and turned around, seeing the room was empty.

"Frag out!" Dobbs called out, weakly throwing the grenade. It wobbled out the window and vanished into the snow. Nobody said anything and the explosion threw slush and snow into the room. She pushed herself to her feet and looked out the window.

"Clear." She coughed.

Aine stood in the room, panting, as the weapon's fire quit. My ears were ringing and my head hurt, my hands were numb and tingling and I was having trouble getting my leg to follow orders and my vision was blurry even though my glasses were still on.

"Actual, sound off." I called out.

"Artain." He coughed.


"Nagle." She coughed. "Oh, goddammit."


"King." Came the groan from the hallway.


Lanks groaned from the bathroom.

"Actual, come in Echo-Five Actual, do you read?" came over the radio. Oh, good, the Colonel was with us. Thank God he survived the fight.

McCullen was still panting, staring around with wild eyes. Nancy staggered over and slapped her. "McCullen!"

"Here, Drill Sergeant!" She sounded off. Her eyes cleared and she looked around, confused. "What happened?"

"I saved you, it was great." Stokes grunted from underneath a dead body. "Someone get this asshole off of me."

"Echo-Five Actual, do you read?"

Nancy knelt down by Artain, looking at him, then looking at me and shrugging. She moved to Sherry, looking down, and I staggered up, dragging my leg behind me. She rolled the other man over and turned her head, gagging.

Most of his guts were missing out of the hole torn in his side. His right arm had been under him, and he was missing his arm from halfway down the forearm. When Nancy rolled him loops of intestine stayed behind. Bloody foam was coming from his mouth and nose.

Sherry's eyelids fluttered and his eyes opened.

"Ant?" He asked, looking up at me.

"Oh God!" Nancy cried out, kneeling down. "Lanks, Lanks, I need you now!"

"Yeah?" I asked, squatting down. Nancy was trying to scoop his intestines back into the hole in his side.

"Am I fucked?" He asked me, licking his pale lips. His voice was weak and blood was spreading out into a freezing puddle. Nancy looked at me and shook her head.

"Yeah." I told him, honestly. Nancy glared at me.

I lit a cigarette and motioned to him. "Want it?"

He coughed, more bloody foam coming from his mouth and nose. His remaining hand flopped on the ground. "Sure, why not?"

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.

"Ant, do what you can." Nancy snapped, moving to Lanks. I looked up and saw Nancy pull Lanks hand away.

And half her scalp peeled down from the top of her head to her right cheek.

"Hey, drag?" Sherry coughed.

"Sorry." I put it to his lips and watched as he took a drag.

"Echo Five Actual, do you read?"

"Fucking hurts." Sherry moaned. "How bad?"

"Let of the mic, Artain." Stokes said.

"I can hear voices, but I'm not sure what's going on." The Colonel said. "Jesus, did you hear all that?"

"You're dicked." I told him honestly. I took a drag off the cigarette. The butt was damp with blood, but fuck it.

"Figured. Jumped on the grenade." He said. His breath was starting to hitch.

"Stay here, keep pressure." Nancy said. She came back next to me. She had a bottle in her hand and was pulling out liquid with the syringe.

"Echo Five Actual, is there anyone left?" The Colonel asked.

"I'm gonna give you a shot, take away some of the pain till we can evac you." Nancy told him, pulling the needle free.

"We're here, Bravo." Stokes coughed. "We're here." Outside the snow was sweeping toward us, advancing steadily. My mind threw up an image of the Russians, covered in ice, still coming at me.

Victory through superior firepower.

"Liar." Sherry coughed. Nancy froze and Sherry looked at her. "Please. Hurts. Get it."

She nodded, and felt at his neck. She stuck the needle in and pressed the plunger down. Three quarters of a syringe flowed in Sherry's neck. Snow began blowing in through the window.

"You'll just get a little sleepy, honey. Ant will stay with you." She said, moving to Artain, who was holding his stomach and crying. I slumped down, laying on my side, pressing the cigarette to Sherry's mouth and letting him pull a drag.

"What happened, over?" the Colonel asked. Stokes chuckles, putting her chin on her chest and sighing.

Aine was standing in front of the window, still gasping. She was wiping her knife off on her pant-leg.

…Shouldn't she be face down…?

"Liar." Sherry smiled. His teeth were red with blood. His lips were turning blue under the blood, same with the edges of his nostrils.

"The Soviets made a push." Stokes gasped. "I think we got them all." Stokes laughed harshly. "But I think they got us too."

I grabbed Sherry's hand, holding tight to it, and pulled open the desk drawer next to me with my other hand. My pinky was bent backwards, the whole side of my hand swollen and painful looking as I yanked on the drawer twice before getting it open.

All I could feel in my legs and arms was a weird balloon feeling and tingling.

The bottle came out and I stuck the corktop of the Asbach in my mouth before pulling the cork out. I spit it across the room, noticing that my room was completely wrecked.


Nancy grabbed the mic. "Sir, we need medical advice." She coughed and groaned. "We've got multiple injuries and I'm working out of a manual." Her voice was clipped and emotionless, but I could hear it in her voice.

"We'll try to patch you in." The Colonel told us. The line was getting clearer, not more static, as the wind began to pick up in the room, blowing snow in. The light dimmed, and I shivered.

"I'm cold too." Sherry said. "Drink?" His voice was muzzy, his eyes only half open. The morphine was affecting him. Well, that and catastrophic damage.

"Sure." I told him, inhaling deep and feeling something pop in my chest. It got easier to breathe. I heard the door slam behind me, and look to my left showed me King limping into the room, dragging the M-60 by the bipod. He looked like hell.

"Sir, I've got an open belly wound, not sure how deep." Nancy said.

"Fucker bayoneted me." Artaine gasped. "Oh God, that shot's working."

"Hold still, Lanks, I'll put a field dressing on it." Dobbs said, moving up. She pulled on the snap on the upside down pouch and caught the field dressing. She had blood still running down her chin when she pulled the plastic apart with her teeth.

I noticed that one of her front teeth were missing. Her was in her T-shirt and her T-shirt was soaked in blood. Who knew if it was hers.

I glanced back down, putting the bottle to his open mouth, and spilling some between his lips. He gulped, sputtered as I withdrew the bottle, and gagged.

"Thanks." He said quietly.

"Something's out there. It's getting angry." Aine said from the window. Her voice was sing-song, ethereal, and seemed to twine with the wind. She stiffened suddenly. "I see two people trying to get to the motorpool." The wind swept down and the snow went from little flurries to a wall of it roaring into the room. Her head lolled back and her body started to tremble. "Blood…" she whispered. She gave a snap convulsion and she went rigid. I saw Aine jump out the window and scramble up to her feet in the snow.

"Actual, how bad are your injuries?" the Colonel asked. Nancy bent over coughing.

"Nancy, we've gotta evac!" I yelled.

I wasn't sure if I was worried about the cold or Aine coming back.

"We can't!" Nancy yelled back. "We can't move Sherry."

"Ant." Sherry whispered. I looked down. "Give me my weapon."

I shook my head. "No, you're coming with us." I told him.

He coughed and sprayed bloody foam. He shook his head. "No. I don't feel cold."

I didn't even know how the hell he was alive, but I reached out, picked up a weapon, and put a new magazine in it from my ammo pouch.

The lizard dutifully reported I had five magazines left.

Sherry smiled at me, teeth bloody with tiny bubbles on them, slapped the bottom of the magazine, racked back the bolt, and thumped the forward assist with the hell of his hand.

"Ready to die…" He wheezed.

"But never will." Bomber said with me as he squatted down to put one bloody hand on Sherry's head.

"Lanks, help me slide him onto that quilt. Ant can just deal with it." Nancy snapped.

Bomber looked at me. "His choice, brother." He looked down at Sherry. "Your boots are on."

Sherry smiled again and coughed. "Good."

King went by, still dragging the M-60 by the barrel. Lanks and Nancy staggered by next, my quilt in their hands, Artain in the quilt, holding onto his weapon.

"Actual, do you read?" The Colonel was asking.

Stokes came up and looked down at where Bomber, Sherry, and I were. "We gotta evac." She said. Dobbs was leaning against the thicker woman, one arm thrown over her shoulders, breathing heavily.

"I'll hold." Sherry said softly. His eyes were staring at the ceiling. "Go."

"We're going." I told him, waving at Dobbs and Stokes. They headed out.

"Two nineteenth." Sherry whispered. I looked at Bomber, who nodded. Sherry was looking at the ceiling, staring at it, but not seeing it. "Born to fight." I could barely hear him. "Trained to kill." He was just mouthing the words. "Willing to die." His lips were moving, but I don't think he knew it.

He stopped.

"But never will." Bomber said. I reached down and closed his eyes. Bomber gently eased the M-16 from his hands, and I stripped the ammo out of his ammo pouches. Bomber stood up with a groan, while I put Sherry's dogtags in his mouth and pushed his mouth closed. Bomber staggered back with one of his softcaps, and set it on Sherry's face.

"Let's go." Bomber said, reaching down and helping me to my feet with a hard yank. My leg throbbed, and I couldn't feel his grip on my hand.

"I don't know how much I got left, brother." I told him, stumbling toward the door. "I'm a little light-headed."

"Walk it off, pussy." He told me. He bent over, coughing. "Walk it off."

Stokes was pulling on the door to the middle stairwell. Nancy and Lanks were holding the blanket with Artain on it. Dobbs was slumped against the wall, sitting on a dead body, her hand on her chest and her face grey. King was staring into the darkness of near Hammerhead Hall.

"What the fuck did you do the door, it's jammed?" Nancy bitched.

"We were getting overrun." I told her.

"You were in a hurry and got sloppy." She snarled. She looked at everyone. "Where's Aine?"

"She ran out into the snow screaming, 'blood' at the top of her lungs." Dobbs coughed. "Goddamn, I need a stiff drink and two fingers in a blonde."

"You and me both." Bomber said, stumbling and catching himself with his hand against the wall.

Dobbs smiled at him, her bandage spotted with fresh blood. "You know, you're a blond. Willing to wear a dress?"

Bomber grinned at her. "Maybe." They both laughed.

"Fuck it, near stairwell, cut through Titty Territory." Stokes offered, letting go of the door.

Nancy shook her head. "I'm almost out of gas."

"Me too." Lanks said.

"I can make it. I'll grab the fireaxe off the stairwell and break open the door." I said, moving forward.

"I'll go too." King said, stepping up to Bomber and handing him the M-60. "Here, I can't pack this and keep up." He shrugged out of the belt of ammunition and handed it to Bomber, who had just bodyslung his weapon.

"Let's go." I said, jogging forward, past the blown apart doors. There were bodies down in the hallway. King kept pace, and we headed down near Hammerhead Hall. The tiles were pocked, shattered, and a lot of the cinderblocks were crated. King stumbled twice over bodies and I about busted my ass in a pool of frozen blood, skidding for a good couple of feet on the heel of my boot before I finally got traction and took a couple of stumbling steps.

The fire had gone out in the Mag Area, and we had to cut through it since the stairwell access door in Hammerhead Hall was frozen shut with a good inch or two of ice that had run down from the suspended ceiling. One good kick opened the door in the Mag Area, and the stairs echoed as we thundered down the stairs to Titty Territory. I kicked the door open, and one of the hinges gave, the door screaming to a stop half open. Two more kicks got it open, the bottom further open than the top and a good three inches from the doorjam.

"Hi!" Aine said, smiling. She was wearing her T-shirt, BDU bottoms, and had bare feet. She was spattered with blood, her hair loose, and her green eyes sparkling. "Miss me?"

…Goddamn it, Tandy, can't you do me one fucking favor…?

"Let's go, McCullen." I told her. She blew me a kiss.

We started hustling through Titty Territory, the darkness pressing in on us, ice glittering on the walls, icicles hanging from the suspended ceiling, ice and frost on the floor. Our boots made the air shimmer as they hit the floor, ice crackling as we ran.

"Hurry." King said. I was gasping, my chest feeling like I had a steel band around it, and spots were in front of my eyes. Titty Territory was tunneling down. The door was still stuck half open, and heading up the stairs I looked at the box with the fireaxe in it, and grunted in irritation that it was empty. Still, as I headed up the stairs to Hammerhead Hall an idea started to germinate, the lizard examining it and checking it for flaws that might kill me. I stopped at the door and looked at it. A good hard kick at the knocked it open, revealing the others standing there.

"Let's go." Nancy said. Her and Lanks picked up Artain, who was holding his stomach and breathing heavy.

"Echo-Five Actual, do you read?" The radio crackled.

As we headed down the stairs I moved next to Stokes, grabbing the mic.

"Bravo, this is Echo-Five Actual, we're pulling back." I told him. The radio was full of static, getting heavier.

"You still with us, Actual? I have Darnell Army Hospital." The Colonel said.

"Corporal Ant, this is Captain Cardigan, Darnell Army Medical Center, I was told you have severely injured soldiers." A new voice came in.

We rounded the first bend, heading down, and the lizard popped up the plan. He'd ran it, examined all the options, and slapped approved all over it, hopping up and down and waving his hands over his head.

"Doesn't matter now, sir." I told him. "We're falling back to the War-Fighter tunnels, we'll probably lose commo in another set of stairs."

"Corporal, I'm ready to give you…" The voice started to rez out in static as we went below the first floor, that massive concrete slab starting to interfere with the radio signal that we had for God knows what reason.

"This is Actual, signing off. We did our best." I overrode the doctor's signal, pushing the antenna looped from the radio from the other side of the metal frame so that it hit the metal bar of the stairwell to use the stairs as an antenna. "We aren't getting off this mountain alive." I let off the antenna when I let off the mic key.

Nothing but the hiss of static answered me.

"Code! Ant, I need the code!" Bomber yelled from the bottom of the stairwell. I fumbled out my book, my pinkie finger still bent wrong. Now it was folded across my palm. Fingernail in. I thumbed through it, and started calling out the hexadecimal alpha-numeric code.

"Cracking it!" Bomber yelled. I swung around the railing, cutting the landing as short as possible, and headed down to the bottom floor. I reached it when Bomber started slamming the butt of the M-60 against the handle of the door, trying to break the ice. I moved over to the critical part of my plan and waited. On the fourth hit the ice shattered and the wheel moved a few inches. Dobbs put her hands on one of the spokes and jumped up in the air, putting her body weight on it. Bomber grabbed one of the other spokes with both hands, curling his arms, his neck swelling and shoulders bunching. The wheel started to move, creaking, then suddenly cracked and the wheel started moving.

"Get through ASAP!" I yelled out.

"Echo-Five Actual, do you read?" The radio crackled.

Stokes reached back and fumbled for the mic as it repeated.

"This is Echo-Five Actual, we read you." She snapped.

There was a hiss of static.

Then came a chuckle.

Low, liquid, bubbling, full of nothing but pain and cruelty, a dark and ugly wheezing chuckle that raised goosebumps on my skin and made the lizard hunch his shoulders.

"Hurry, hurry, hurry." Nancy chanted under her breath.

Bomber was still spinning the wheel when the door to the short hallway crashed open.

The guy with the axe stood in the doorway, the axe at high ready across his body, his eyes glaring from behind the cold weather mask. He loomed large in the doorway, his presence filling the space under the stairs where we were gathered.

"OH COME ON!" I yelled out, grabbing for my weapon and realizing with a sinking feeling in my stomach that it had been broken in half and I'd lost my pistol. The lizard remembered the knife and it came sliding out of the sheath while he stared at us.

He took a step forward as the bolts in the door cracked and Bomber started to pull it open, raising the axe. Nancy and Lanks started to move toward it, and he swung the axe, almost hitting Dobbs. The axe smashed into the cinderblock wall, shattering the tile that covered it. With one negligent yank of his arm he ripped the axe from the wall, the ice glittering on the haft.

I could see the burnt in letters on the axe-handle.

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! NO!" Nancy yelled as King crashed into him, the figure in the parka dropping back two steps as his boot slid on the ice from the force of King's tackle.

I hit the fire alarm, ripping it down hard enough the handle tore free.

The same water that flowed through the radiators flowed through the water system, making sure the pipes didn't freeze up by keeping a steady flow of hot water through the pipes.

Dobbs took two steps forward as King leaned into the tackle, pushing hard with his legs, pushing the figure two more steps back.

Water started pattering above us, and around King and the figure in the parka.

"I'm sorry!" Dobbs yelled.

And kicked the door shut.

"No, goddammit!" I yelled. Stokes and Dobbs grabbed me, Stokes kicking my feet out from under me. Aine grabbed me in a headlock, helping them drag me backwards.

"No, boy, no! Bad boy!" She yelled.

They dragged me in the tunnel as the water started pattering down in the stairwell.

The radio gave the same liquid chuckle it had before.

Bomber pulled the door closed.

It closed on King with a solid boom.

Chapter 22

2/19th Special Weapons Group
Restricted Area, Alfenwehr West Germany
Late Winter- January, 1988
Day 12 of Repairs
Day 4 of the Second Incident

"Let me go, goddammit!" I shouted as the echo rolled through the tunnel.

"Not until you calm down." Stokes said.

"Behave, boy." Aine said. She put her hand on my forehead and petted it. "Breathe, boy, breathe. Let the blood cool."

"I'm fine, let go. Goddammit, Aine, stop touching me." I got my feet under me and pulled to my feet. I braced my feet, pulling against the two women. Aine let go from around my throat as I stood up straight and rolled my shoulders. Stokes and Dobbs both let me go and I turned around.

Bomber was leaning against the wall, the M-60 at his feet, breathing heavy with his head hanging down. Lanks and Nancy were staggering forward, down the tunnel, but Lanks went to her knees, almost spilling Artain out of the blanket. I was on my feet, but barely. Dobbs leaned against me, her hand grabbing the back of my LBE belt. Stokes took two stumbling steps forward and leaned against the wall, gasping. Aine skipped forward and did a pirouette, humming to herself and smiling.

Bitch didn't even have her boots on. Her toenails were bright red as she spun in place, that knife still in her hands.

"That was so much fun!" She crowed, throwing back her head and spreading out her arms. The sound echoed down the tunnel and back, and she laughed.

She turned around and faced us, frowning. "What's wrong?"

"We're wounded, bitch." Dobbs snarled, pulling my right arm around her shoulders and then moving forward. I stumbled along next to the smaller woman.

"Why aren't you dead?" Bomber asked, raising his head. His face was bruised looking and puffy. "I saw you get shot. Hell, I saw that Vympel guy bayonet you."

"He missed me, silly." Aine said, skipping forward and kissing him. "It was confusing, Johnny." John straightened up, shaking his head.

"I saw it too, Aine." I said.

She turned and looked at me, her eyes narrowing. "It was confusing, Annie, you must be mistaken."

I shook my head. "No, Aine, I saw it. You should be gutted."

She stepped forward, raising her hand. "Annie, you're covered in blood, you must not have…"

I brushed her arm to the side, glaring at her. "I didn't see shit wrong, Aine."

Something ugly flashed in her eyes, and she licked her rosy red lips.

"Touch me again, lose your hair." I told her.

…the feel of her lips pressed against mine, her tongue squirming as she pushed it into my mouth…

She glared at me, but stepped aside as Dobbs and I moved further in.

"I'll be back, Artain, I need a stretcher." Nancy said, petting Artain's head. I glanced down, and saw he had bandages around his stomach that were red in the center.

"I'll be waiting." He smiled. "God, that morphine is good."

"I'm still with you." Stokes said, pushing off the wall. She smacked Bomber as she passed. "Let's go, Bomber. Grab Artain, we can carry him." Bomber groaned, but bent down and grabbed the edges of the quilt, lifting it up.

"Walk it off, pussy." I told him. He gave me the finger, but still started coming with us.

Nancy threw her arm over my shoulders, leaning on me. Stokes and Bomber staggered down the hallway behind us, Bomber softly calling a marching cadence to himself and Stokes copying him. I started doing the same thing, then Dobbs, then Nancy. The volume slowly grew, Artain joining us, until we were calling it out like we were marching to the chow hall in Basic Training.

The tune of "They say that in the Army…" floated through the corridor as we slowly straightened up, letting go of one another, our strides stretching out, our footsteps moving in synch. Nancy and Dobbs gave the little stutter-step you did when you were out of synch, and the volume picked up.

"…Look like Phyllis Diller and walk like Frankenstien!" We called out, and for some reason I was feeling better. My chest still felt tight, but when we started a new line there was a popping feeling and it eased up.

We came around the last corner, still singing cadence, and the command center came into sight. The LT was sitting behind one of the consoles, staring at us. Mellins and Melkin were at another set of chairs, but what floored me was my cousin running toward us, calling my name.

I came to a dead stop, staring at him.

…One of the Vympel got into the Day Room where everyone was sleeping. Private James Ant jumped forward to engage him before he could kill another member and in the brief struggle had his neck broken….

He slid to stop. "Holy shit, what happened to you guys?"

"Attacked by wolves." Dobbs said, waving at where Bomber and Stokes carrying Artain on the quilt.

"How are you fucking alive? The LT told me you were dead." I told James.

"No clue. I think he mistook me for someone else, it got a little confused." James admitted, shrugging. "I was taking a dump when Cass got stabbed, I guess I missed the whole thing."

I shook my head. "Fuck, that's a piece of good news I wasn't expecting."

The LT jumped up, waving at the others, and everyone moved forward. Lancer stood up, took two steps, and ran into the console. "Goddammit!" he carefully moved around it as James went to grab my arm and I pushed him off.

"Don't touch me." I told him.

"Dude, what the fuck, man?" James asked.

I shrugged. "Too much adrenaline, I'm not used to you being here."

"He doesn't like touched." Dobbs said. "I fucking understand it."

The LT moved up, keeping a step away. James backed off, looking a little hurt.

"Are you capable of giving me a casualty report, Corporal?" The LT asked me.

"We're busted up pretty bad." I told him. I could see the medical bay and headed for it. "We lost Sherry, Artain's got a bad belly wound, and we lost King."

"Did you destroy the secure items?" He asked me.

"Wrecked that shit up." Bomber said.

"Destroyed, along with all the records." I told him. "How's it going back here?"

"We still have no communications with any outside elements, Specialist Nagle's patients are still stable, and we have hot food available if that is what required." The LT told me.

"I need a goddamn shower and a ten inch dick, that's what's required." Nagle said.

"You're gonna look funny swinging around a ten inch dick between your legs at your next medical checkup." I snickered.

"Eat me." She shot back, then coughed. The LT glanced at her, raising an eyebrow.

"Ten minutes of privacy, baby." I told her, weaving around the consoles. The LT just shook his head.

"Short stroker." Dobbs got in her shot.

"Like you'd know, virgin." I grinned at her. She gave me the finger.

The LT had dropped back to Artain. "How are you feeling soldier?"

"Like someone split my stomach open." He said. "Thank God for morphine."

The LT chuckled. "Indeed, soldier, indeed. I have had the occasion to agree with you during my military career." He gently patted Artain's shoulder. "You're in excellent hands with Specialist Nagle, I have nothing but the utmost confidence in her medical skills, however untrained and rough they may be."

Nancy made us all lie on the beds, staggering from one of us to the next, putting in an IV before checking the data card and giving us injections. The LT hovered next to her, checking our dogtags against his notebook.

Even though I fought against it, I got pulled under as Nancy started cutting my uniform off, cutting around the cloth that was stuck to me.

Innie and Monkey were waiting for me in the darkness.

2/19th Special Weapons Group
Restricted Area, Alfenwehr West Germany
Late Winter- January, 1988
Day 15 of Repairs
Day 7 of the Second Incident
Afternoon, 1400 Zulu

Bomber was standing next to me, both of us carrying M-16's we'd pulled out of the armory of the War Fighter Tunnels, dressed in uniforms pulled from stocks. We looked good, but we were both exhausted, chewing on Vicoden like candy, and still in pain. My pinky was taped to my ring finger, Nancy was pretty sure they were going to have to pin the bone, making it so both palms had metal in them.

Melkin and Lancer were opening the door. Lancer had insisted on being part of the door team, quoting the "most expendable" rule that guided our lives. He made constant jokes about being blind, but twice I'd walked into the bathroom and found him sitting in a stall crying softly.

One of the times Dobbs had been sitting with him, holding his hand.

I'd kept silent about that.

Dobbs was behind us, an eyepatch from the medical clinic over the empty socket, her face speckled with scabs. I'd seen her chest too, it was the same way, along with her left shoulder. Nancy had put in a lot of stitches, and told me privately that Dobbs had won the shrapnel game, with 128 separate holes. Bomber had come in second, his legs torn up with 78 little holes in them. Stokes was third, most of it in that big ass of hers. Sherry had beaten everyone at stitches or staples, clocking in at almost 200 of them. Dobbs had come in a close second with 145. None of the rest of us were even close.

Sherry had taken what he called "the most painful shit of his life" yesterday, and I'd stood over Nagle while she'd used a metal rod to stir through it, looking at. I have no clear what she was looking for, since it was shit, but hey, she knew shit I didn't. His color was good, he could wiggle his fingers and toes, his drainage tubes were clear of infection, his breathing was good, hit heartrate and pulse strong. He was doped up on morphine all the time, but he was in good spirits.

I still had a chest tube in, the LT still had a drainage tube in his skull and was often light sensitive or suffered from migraines. But he refused to rest during them, working even while his hands shook.

Twice Nagle sedated him, four times he'd suffered seizures, and when he slept he often mumbled about Vietnam, and often became dazed and returned to Vietnam, mumbling to himself or outright talking to people who weren't there or that he was mistaking us for.

He was dying in front of us.

And there wasn't a goddamn thing we could do about it.

Nagle had spent all her time sleeping, reading a manual, or following the manuals instructions working on us. Lanks and Stokes had gotten a lot of practice too, mainly working on Nagle. They'd had to put a chest tube in her at one point, which apparently went in differently on a woman. She had to sleep sitting up, pneumonia having set in. She told me that if a female had large breasts, and injured her ribs, it put her at risk of pneumonia and bronchitis. The other females bitched, but she pretty laid it down that they had sleep sitting up, the LT backed her up, and they got used to it.

Aine had been her annoying self. Exploring the complex, shadowing me, following Stokes or Nagle around like a puppy, and in general, being a weirdo. We knew she slept, but never actually caught her doing it.

Me? I slept. A lot. And tried to find a nice quiet place with dim lights to grope Nagle, but she was usually too busy. I quit after about the third time when I found Aine waiting in the back of a supply area, or in the rear shower.

Dobbs offered to beat the hell out of her, but I waved it off.

Which brought us back to why we were standing in front of the lower access point, all armed (except for Lancer), and all on edge.

Someone had started trying codes about a half hour before, but the LT had ordered Mellins to override them, keeping the door shut, until we got down there, eventually locking out the panel. We'd geared up, Dobbs insisting on coming along as soon as she heard Lancer had insisted on going, and headed down to the door that we'd locked out.

The far access.

Lancer waved Melkin back, the other man dropping into the small alcove that would give him a little cover, and when Melkin whispered 'clear' Lancer flashed us a grin under the bandages that covered his eyes, and pushed on the door. He put his shoulder into it, the door slowly opening, sunlight on snow pouring into the tunnel with us.

"DON'T MOVE!" Came from both us and from outside.



"Stand down." Came from outside.

"Send one forward." I shouted. Lancer had moved to his right, away from the door, and pressed against the wall.

"Strickland, go forward." Someone ordered.

Outside the pad in front of the door had been cleared of snow, but I could see a massive amount of snow on the ground. Fifteen to twenty feet. They must have worked for hours to clear the pad. I couldn't see the Rangers, but one stood up, out of the snow, dressed in extreme cold weather gear, and moved forward. He had his rifle raised over his head with both hands.

"Are you going to ask them any questions?" Melkins whispered.

"Like what? Who won the Superbowl?" Lancer whispered back.

"I'm Staff Sergeant Strickland, 108th MI, Delta Company." He called out.

"Yeah? What's your post nickname?" I called out.

"Top of the Rock." He answered. "Hey, weren't you blind last time?"

"I recovered." I called back. "Go ahead, come on in, one at a time."

Eleven more shapes resolved themselves, standing up out of the snow and brushing themselves off. Two were carrying M-60's, but all of them kept their weapons pointed away from everyone. One of them turned and waved, four more people coming out of the snow.

"We brought medical. The message said you had badly wounded." The one who ordered Strickland forward.

Strickland had reached us and Lancer held out his hands. "Your weapons." He said.

Strickland looked back. "They want us to turn over our weapons."

"Unless you want to stay out in the fucking snow, you turn in your weapons and be subjected to a search." I called out. "Otherwise you can stay out there, or we'll kill you where you stand."

We couldn't tell his expression under the cold weather mask, but I could tell by their body language that they weren't happy.

"Off with the mask and goggles." I told Strickland, leveling the M-16 at him. "Now."

He gave a sigh, then handed Lancer his rifle before he pulled off his helmet, revealing he was wearing an extreme cold weather mask and cap. He pulled the mask and goggles off his head. He was a redhead, his hair barely in regs.

"Go stand over by Dobbs." I ordered, pointing at where Dobbs was. "Stay at least three meters away. Dobbs, if he gets to close, shoot to kill."

"Yes, Corporal." Dobbs said, staring at Strickland with a flat eye.

Strickland nodded, moving slowly to where Dobbs was pointing.

"Take off the cold weather gear, leave your LBE and Kevlar vest behind, with your helmet." Dobbs ordered.

"No fucking…" Strickland started to say.

Dobbs raised her rifle, aiming it right at Strickland's face. "Do I look like I'm fucking around?" She grated. The scabs all over the side of her face, the bruising, and the black eyepatch all gave her an evil look that Strickland decided not to fuck with.

Strickland glanced at her the fire selector and the trigger of her weapon, able to see that it was on Semi, the whitening of her knuckle showing she had pressure on the trigger. He gulped, and undid his LBE.

We let them in one at a time. Making them give Lancer their weapons, where he stacked them in the little cone we'd all been taught, resting each weapon's forward sight on each other; then moving to where Dobbs watched them strip off their cold weather gear; then moving ten paces down the tunnel where my cousin James and Mellins had them covered from the firing spots. Mellins yelled twice for them to keep at least a single arm interval from one another.

Four of them were carrying medical bags, told us stretchers had been left on top of the lower egress shack, but we made them follow the same rules.

We weren't getting ganked again.

Once they were all down to their winter BDU's and boots, we made them walk in front of us all the way to the control panel. The Captain in charge of the Rangers told them to all comply, to take it easy.

"How did you get up here?" I asked the captain.

"Snowplow and two Bradleys." He answered.

I just grunted.

When we got to the command center the LT was standing in the middle of the room at parade rest, and I saw the Rangers react to that sheer presence that rolled off of LT James.

"While I realize you are expecting an apology for the treatment you have received at the hands of my subordinates," The LT states, that flowing formal cadence hiding the slur and Brooklyn accent I'd heard from him several times. "You will not be receiving one." His smile was a small cold thing that didn't touch his eyes. "Two nineteenth Special Weapons has learned not to trust appearances or apparent credentials, as well in harsh lessons of survival."

His smile showed a little teeth, which made the smile worse somehow. "Specialist Nagle, you will oversee the supposed medical personnel as they examine your patients. Those of you who are medical personnel please raise your hands."

Six hands came up, and Nagle motioned them over to herself. "One weird move, and I'll kill you." She threatened, showing them the .45 she'd taken to carrying by putting her fingers on the butt.

"The rest of you will stand over there, and I will personally verify your credentials." The LT stated. He glanced at me. "Corporal Ant, at the slightest hostile move, at any signal from me, you will immediately execute that man."

"Roger that, sir." I said, setting the rifle on the console and slowly drawing my knife before moving over to stand next to the LT.

"Let us begin, gentlemen." The LT stated. "You will hold your wallets out toward me with your left hands, you will withdraw your dogtags from inside your uniform and hold the chain with your right fist, letting the dogtags hang from beneath. Any deviation will be punished."

I grinned.

"Sir, are you going to let him get away with this?" One of the men asked, looking at one of the Rangers who had Captain rank on his lapels.

"Just relax, Lieutenant, they're just being prudent if our briefing was accurate." The Captain said. "Right, James?" He grinned.

"Absolutely, Captain Parker." The LT answered.

The LT checked the Captain's ID first, and the Captain moved over by me.

"You look better than last month." The Captain said quietly.

"Feel like hell." I told him. "Nagle doesn't like it that I'm on my feet." I scratched my chest. "Stupid chest tube."

"Get that bad?" He asked me as Strickland moved over to us.

"There's seventeen of us alive." I told the Captain.

"Out of how many this time? Twenty?" The Captain asked. "Not bad."

"Forty-eight." I told him.

"Fucking Hell." Strickland said.

"Yeah. Welcome to Hell." I told him.

"At least you're rescued." Strickland offered.

"Yeah. You saved us, congrats." I answered.

He didn't get the sarcasm.

Nuremburg Army Medical Center
Nuremburg Army Post
West Germany
February 1988

I sat in the smoking section, my arm in a sling. I had a new drainage tube to replace the one they'd taken out two days ago from my chest, this one sunk into the meat of my shoulder. Surgery had removed a few pieces of steel, some bone chips, and fixed where I'd torn it up inside. It ached constantly, but I ignored it and savored the Marlboro from the pack my brother had smuggled me.

He'd visited me twice. He was attached to some unit out of the States, a National Guard unit, and their CO thought he was the greatest thing in the world. Each time he snuck me milkshakes and a pack a cigarettes. He'd flipped through my charts, scanning them. It was easy to look at him and dismiss him as a bruiser without a brain, not realize that he was a genius, and that he probably understood every fucking thing on the charts. Him telling me that I'd be OK carried more weight than the doctors, as weird as that was. Yesterday he'd brought me something special.


SOG had let her go, her CO arranging for a jet to take her to visit her twin brother. She was valuable, important in her field. Already on the fast track to promotion, she'd be Captain inside of a year. She'd told me what she could, it wasn't much, but I could tell she loved her work.

She didn't ask me about 2/19th.

It might seem weird, but she demanded to see every scar, questioned the doctors about every wound, and stayed in my room till I went to sleep. She'd brought me a stuffed pink bunny, and I went to sleep with it in my arms.

She let me be something besides a machine, and with her holding my hand, that singing emptiness faded into warmth. Not like when Aine touched me, not a burning, slick, sick feeling warmth, but gentle caring warmth that let me cry for Cass.

Something had come up, and she'd left just after breakfast, telling me she'd see me later.

The bunny was sitting inside the sling that held my right arm tight to my body.

Sherry was out of ICU, and the doctor had come in to see Nagle and tell her she'd done a pretty good job for no training. When she came to me and Bomber's room to have dinner with us she was packing another manual, with "PROPERTY OF NAMC" stamped on it. She'd pretty much grunted at us, reading the manual.

Lancer, on the other hand, had pretty much finished his military career. They were going to hold him over till the eye socket wasn't so raw, and his other eye healed up, so they could give him a prosthetic eye, but he was blind. He'd be getting 100% disability, but I imagined that was a small comfort for the loss of his vision and his career. Like me, he was career Army, planned on staying the whole twenty years.

We'd both figured we'd die in uniform, and now, once his paperwork was finished, he'd be going home. In his words: "To smell a dog's ass for the rest of his life."

Aine had been checked out, found to be perfectly healthy, not a mark on her, and was sent to Graf.

Fucking bitch.

She'd stopped by my room, given me a kiss on the forehead (ignoring my glare), then skipped off with a wave. She was probably out dancing in the snow at Graf and annoying my platoon sergeant with her chipper attitude.

The waiting room was warm, and it was much nicer without the MI dwonks who kept asking about the CIA fuckheads, but we'd already agreed to deny we'd ever seen them. Not like they could prove those guys had even made it to the barracks.

I knew Sergeant White and Sergeant Butcher were going to cause trouble down the line. Both of them were in the hospital with us, both of them with their jaws wired shut. Apparently they'd written statements that I'd assaulted them, so more than likely I'd lose what little rank I still had, or it would just be more evidence in my court martial.

Personally, I'd stopped caring about the time I'd gotten confirmation that my family knew that Cass had died on that frozen fucking mountain.

I took another long drag off the cigarette and blew it at the ceiling. The wheelchair was uncomfortable as hell, but they wouldn't let me walk around. They'd rebroken Stokes' leg the day before, much to her complaints, and put in new pins and rods, claiming that it would fix her limp.

Nancy had gotten in a screaming match over the scar on her face. Apparently Nuremburg had a new plastic surgeon who told her that he could completely get rid of it, and Nagle didn't want that. The scar was a mark of survival to her, part of who she was now.

I'd seen the LT earlier in the morning, sitting in his room with his family. He'd had to have surgery, twice, and was blind the day before. He was taking everything calmly, in that infuriating manner of his. I'd met his wife, a quiet woman who's eyes glowed with warmth when she looked at LT James' stern face. His ten year old daughter was a quiet child who smiled a lot and told jokes when we visited her father.

It felt weird, like the LT James in the hospital wasn't the same man who was with us on the mountain.

Dobbs was having breast surgery. She had a lot of steel embedded in her chest, but they were only removing some of it. Her face? Well, they weren't going to do anything about her face.

Like mine, it kept the front of her skull covered, so it was good enough for government work.

We were all banged up. We'd all carry scars from it. Nothing new

We weren't getting off the mountain alive anyway.

Bomber was getting X-rayed again, like me he'd gotten pneumonia, and they were worried about his lungs. I'd bounced back pretty fast but Bomber was having trouble with it.

Which is why I was smoking cigarettes and he was getting X-rayed.

I probably shouldn't have been smoking on the tail end of walking pneumonia, but I really didn't care. I was sick of jello. I was sick of smiling nurses. I was sick of people asking me questions.

I wanted my crew. I wanted to go back to Atlas.

I just wanted to get away from everything.

But, at least the doctor had told me we'd pretty much be guaranteed to get at least 30 days of convalescent leave. Some of us planned on taking the cash we'd saved up, getting a flight back to the States, renting a car, and just driving.

Nancy wanted to see the Grand Canyon. Bomber wanted to race me to the top of the Empire State Building. I just wanted to get behind the wheel of a car and just drive.

The door to the smoking room opened and one of my doctors came in, looking serious. No, closer to angry, and he practically flung himself into the chair across from me, crossing his arms over his chest and glaring.

I just sat there silently and waited. Silence was fine by me. Being separated from my crew meant I'd lapsed into barely speaking again.

"I've got news for you, Corporal Ant." He broke the silence. I just waited for him, and after a few seconds he went on. "You and the others weren't going to be released for several days yet, and then you were supposed to go on convalescent leave."

"It ain't happening." I grunted, the lizard marking up that I'd won my private bet with him. The doctor stared at me and I laughed. "Mission essential, baby."

He shook his head. "I hate this kind of bullshit, but it was overridden by the hospital commander."

"How long?" I asked. I didn't really care, but it would be a little nice to go take a hot shower before the ass fucking.

"Eighteen hundred hours for you. Your unit will be picking you up." He told me. He looked embarrassed as he got to his feet, but I just put out my cigarette and lit another. "You shouldn't smoke, those will kill you."

"Ain't getting out of Germany alive." I answered.

It was fifteen hundred hours. Time enough for a shower.

It wasn't anything I didn't deserve.

Grafenwehr Army Post
2/19th Field Exercise AO
West Germany
11 February 1988

The wind was pretty heavy as I limped from the GP Medium where I'd been laying on my cot for the last two days. Every time someone wanted me to do something I just waved my profile, where the doctor had written "Try not to die" in the 'additional instructions' section. My hip had been hurting since the War Fighter tunnels, and I was still having shooting pains through that leg, along with periodic numbness and tingling in the rest of my limbs. Stokes had urged me to go to sick-call, then told Nancy she'd seen me limping, and the two of them had tried bullying me, but I just stared at the roof of the tent and ignored them.

I'd been doing that a lot. Just keeping my big fucking mouth shut and laying on the cot. My section sergeant had heard I'd skipped my meals the day before and had sat and watched me eat my hot breakfast. It had tasted like cardboard.

Not much really held interest to me.

Pushing past the overlapping canvas that made up the door I walked into the tent, the warmth enveloping me, and stopped just inside. Our new Group CO, LT COL Gonzalez, was waiting for me with the XO, First Sergeant, my Platoon Leader, and my Platoon Sergeant.

"Corporal Ant." The new CO greeted me. He didn't invite me to have a seat, didn't invite me to do anything but stand in front of him at parade rest.

"Corporal Ant, reporting as ordered." I stated. My voice sounded flat, even to my ears, but if anyone noticed they obviously didn't give a shit, same as me.

I should have been on convalescent leave, not on light duty out at Graf, running errands and having to constantly remind people I was on a profile. Not one of us had gotten leave, they even had fucking Lancer sitting on his cot with a bandage over his eyes. He'd lost one, the other was permanently damaged. Dobbs was always hovering around him, the black eyepatch that covered where her eye had been giving her an evil look. We had thought shrapnel had taken the eye, but the missing chunk of bone on the outside of the orbit had led the doctors to tell her that a bullet had done the damage.

Rumors were all over the unit, but everyone involved just stared at whoever was dumb enough to ask questions. We'd put up with several rounds of questioning, telling them what happened, but having already agreed when we were sitting around the War Fighter Tunnels to gloss over certain things or just plain omit them.

We'd found out yesterday that at this time JAG was not going to press charges, but was leaving the option open if they deemed it necessary.

"The engineers have finished their survey of the barracks." The CO said.

…So? Who fucking cares…?

"The structure is stable and undamaged, and they have given me a list of repairs that have to be done on the barracks." The CO smiled. "They have determined that the majority of the barracks in habitable."

…Aw fuck….

"Military intelligence and CID are sending a team up to photograph everything while you work, so you will also be responsible for the safety of those personnel as well as making any accommodations necessary for them to do their job." The XO added.

…They won't last a week….

"With that assurance, I've decided to send a repair crew up to the barracks. As of this morning the roads are clear all the way to the barracks. You'll be escorting two flatbed semi-trailers full of furniture and equipment to replace what you damaged." He smiled.

…Hooray, it's the big green Army dick….

"I expect you to have the barracks up to standards within the next two weeks." He smiled. "I'm sending Lieutenant Wright with you to oversee the repairs to ensure the timetable I've constructed," he patted a camo folder next to him, "is followed."

"In order to speed the construction, we'll be sending those of you who were with the last crew up to assist." The CO smiled.

…Fucking figures….

He handed me a list of names, and I noticed that all the names of the surviving members of the last repair crew were on it. Even Sergeant Butcher and Sergeant White were on there. That part made the lizard purr in pleasure.

"Do you have anything you wish to add, Corporal Ant?" The CO asked, still smiling.

"No, sir." I answered.

"Inform the personnel on that list, Corporal. Dismissed." He said. I saluted, the CO gave me a few seconds to reinforce that he was in charge before returning it, and I did an about face.

I left the warmth of the tent for the cold of outside.

None of us were getting out of here alive.

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

The sky was cloudy, but no snow was blowing down on us. I stood in the sanded street, staring at the barracks. There was smoke damage to the right hand area, where the Mag Offices were, on the front of the building. The glass doors that led inside were intact. A lot of the windows had been replaced, but mostly up on the third floor, plenty of Titty Territory, and Near Hammerhead Hall. That left about 2/3 of the mountainside windows left to do.

Not to mention all the damage our little rampage had caused.

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 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.

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.

"Aaaand, we're back in the barracks." Bomber said from beside me, his hand going to his new rifle and rubbing the forward handgrip.

"It's like a nightmare I can't wake up from." Stokes said from behind me, lighting a cigarette.

"Home sweet home." Nancy said, hitching up her new aid bag.

"Someone wanna help my blind ass out of the truck?" Lancer yelled from the back of the Growler.

"I'll help you, keep your eyes in." Monkey answered, moving past me.

"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.

"The building is bigger than my briefing made it sound." Innie told me, moving up next to me.

"We really aren't getting off this mountain alive, are we?" Dobbs asked, scratching her ass and then farting.

"Finish the fight." I said, my voice full of sarcasm.

"The barracks isn't going to repair itself, so you might as well quit standing around slacking off." 2LT Wright said from behind us. "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…


I ran into Aine not long ago, when I went to visit my mother. She came to the home to visit her too, as they'd been kinda friends after Aine was let out of the Army. She was wearing a cream colored sundress with little flowers on it and cherries embroidered on the bottom hem. She had her youngest, who's six years old with her. She looks the same as I remember her. Tiny, long red hair in a braid, freckles across her nose, the two scars across her right cheek with the stitching scars on either side, pert little breasts, and sandals. She still has those freaky little teeth that creep me out. She's still in the habit of clenching her hands at her waist and looking at people through those long eyelashes at her. She smelled of apple blossoms and something else.

She was still hot hell and moved like liquid sex. I didn't let her touch my bare skin, I knew better than that. She's still not married, has five kids, all girls.

That's not the creepy part of the story though.

Aine's youngest daughter Aine looks just like she did at that age.

But that's still not the worst.

We talked over coffee, waiting for my mother to wake back up, my wife holding my hand while she spoke. It was kind of funny, her first question when my wife asked her if she'd like to have coffee with us was whether or not I was carrying a knife. When I nodded she made sure to keep the table between the two of us.

We'd had that out years ago. She still remembers what happened after my Father died, and what happened on that mountain. And I let her see the knife at my hip under my flannel shirt. That same Gerber from the cold and the snow. She recognized it immediately.

An ugly part of me felt satisfaction when she flinched and stepped back at the sight of it.

But I set aside my feelings and talked to her. We caught up on all those years that had passed since that fateful night in 1998. I got to hear the fallout from her side, I just stared at her as we talked.

I still felt rage and hatred over that night.

But that wasn't creepy, that was just old blood in the wheat.

She went to Alfenwehr a few years back. She climbed the mountain, up through the little bit of snow. Apparently the snow isn't as bad there as it was 25 years ago, according to her "just a little bit" but she's an Aine, she doesn't see the world like we do. She found the old trail that takes you from the town and up the side of the mountain on a winding trail that only a few of us knew about. She didn't need a GPS or a map, she remembered it 'in [her] blood' and found it with no trouble.

She danced in the snow where our barracks had been. Dug in the snow to see the ground, and told me that the stains of what went on there was still in the ground. There's an abandoned building there that she explored, smaller, but obviously intended to be another barracks. She found little things left behind by other people, and took some of them so 'they'd always be with [her].' She smiled when she told me that the seal of 2/19th was on one wall, and someone had painted "We Will All Die Here" over it with red paint.

She told me how she could feel the fear in the darkness of the building, smell their desperation in the dust, and taste the blood that had been spilled in the still air.

The windows were all broken, the doors knocked off the hinges, she found bulletholes in the walls, and a half-finished sat-uplink slab where someone had taken an axe to the hardware that was still there.

Where the motorpool was there was only snow, and a low hill where we bulldozed the rubble into a pile and left. Where the chow hall was just stood an empty gutted building. There she found what she wanted to find.

The entrance to the War Fighter Tunnels. She said it was dark and cold and still down there. The Cold War equipment was gone, and she wandered through the tunnels in the darkness. I can picture her, without a flashlight, her pale form slipping through the darkness, her green eyes glowing like molten jade. She told us she could still feel Actual in the tunnels, still feel Nancy's fear, Bomber's anger, and my 'dark glee at the carnage and blood.' Two of the tunnels had collapsed, but the charges hadn't gone off correctly and imploded the place like it was supposed to. The tunnel back to the barracks was intact, and she found the exit.

And the place that twice I'd laid on the tile in the cold bleeding out.

She could taste me down there, and she licked her lips as she talked about how it tasted.

My wife's hand was warm as she squeezed my hand.

She stayed the night, up there in the dark and cold. Personally I don't think she took a tent like one of us would have. She's not one of us, she's an Aine. I can see her in my mind, sitting in the snow naked, smiling, her knife in her hands, and her long hair fanning out around her in the wind. She said it snowed in the darkness, just little flakes that danced around her on the wind.

According to her she could hear the sounds of gunfire, still hear our voices on the wind. She told me that she could hear my voice roaring in rage on the howling wind. She could hear Nancy whispering on the wind, and Bomber laughing in the sound of the snow.

She's Aine, she doesn't see the world the way we do.

She told us how the mountain was still angry, but almost asleep, people had been gone for a long time. Trespasser like hikers or skiers didn't matter to the mountain, but interlopers did.

We'd been interlopers.

She waited in the cold, the dark, in the snow, bathed by the moonlight. She knew it was coming, she could feel it wake, feel its rage and hatred and dark humor as well as its hunger. Her 'belly was ripe and [she] was ready' while she sat there, and I can picture her chanting, painted as if it was before the Romans came, sitting in the snow.

It came, and she saw it clearly lurking at the edge of the trees beyond where the building was.

He was different. Taller, broader, mud and ice and frost crusting his BDU's, flat-top blond hair crusted with ice, but he was the same. The same grin, the same broken teeth, the same dark pits for eyes, the same fingerbones sticking out of the waxy skin of too long fingers. His nametag read "Garter", but it was still him.

But he knew that she wasn't like everyone else, he knew that she was Aine.

He never came close, even though she called to him.

When dawn came she packed up and climbed back down the trail to her car, and drove to Atlas. She parked her car by the road, and walked through the trees. The "danger: mines" and "danger: unexploded munitions" signs were rusted and sagging, relics of an age gone by.

The buildings were gone, the years and nature had erased them. She paced off from where the remainder of the foundation was, and found the entrance to the Atlas tunnels, but there the implosion charges had done their work. It was cold, and windy, but she talked about how she danced through the dead grass. She walked up the hill to where the upper helipad was and found the rock where we'd all carved our names. She kissed each name lovingly, and smeared blood on the names of the fallen to honor them properly so they could rest.

She's Aine, she sees the world differently.

She spent the night, and I can picture her walking through the grass in the nude, her skin glowing in the moonlight. She could hear me shouting orders on the wind, hear Nancy cajoling the wounded to stay alive and hear her voice, and hear Bomber calling out that he hits what he aims at. She could smell our pain, our blood, and our sweat on the wind. The grass whispered our names, she could see our faces in the gathered clouds.

She's Aine, you know as well as I do that she saw, heard, and felt those things, although we'd only hear wind and grass.

The bunkers were long gone, but she knew them in her heart, pacing each one off and standing in them to listen to the echoes of Atlas at each bunker. Something called to her and she listened, seeking and finding what was calling to her.

She showed my wife and I the broken blade from her pilot's combat knife from the last push at Atlas. The last gasp of a dying red beast.

She found my old boots from Desert Storm where I'd thrown them into the grass. I could have them back, they were in her trunk. She wore them on her bare feet as she walked around, closing her eyes and remembering the way I walked around the site making sure that everyone was all right. She laughed when she told me that she knew that I was checking on everyone like a mother hen even though I acted like all I cared about was how fast they were working. She'd brought the boots back with them, and she gave them to me. When I got home and put them on the boots fit like I'd taken them off the night before.

My wife took them away. Never trust a gift from an Aine.

When dawn came, she went back to her car. Back to the airport. Back to the US.

From there she went to where it had all happened when the boys were finally pushed too far. She giggled as she told me she could feel the fear of the matrons. The repressed rage of generations of boys made to kneel at the women's feet. How a handful of boys destroyed everything, and Aine had gotten her revenge after all those long long years.

At her car, Aine kissed my cheek, and thanked me for freeing her daughter.

My wife put her hand on my lower back, staring down at Aine. When she said three words irritation showed on Aine's face, but she bowed her head to my wife when she repeated those words I'd heard from others.

"My boy. Mine"

Tonight, I woke from dreams of darkness, pain, death, snow, and blood. When I reached out and touched my wife her eyes opened sleepily and she put her hand on my neck so her fingers cupped the back of my neck. Her eyes closed as she murmured three words.

I got up, to smoke a cigarette. I checked my email, and found an email from Aine timestamped 10 minutes before I opened it. In it she told me that my dreams couldn't hurt me, that 2/19th was gone as if it had never existed. That she'd walked the path of forgotten nightmares, and there was nothing but echoes and stillness left. She told me I'd left things out of the story and the fact that without Heather I was and always would what she'd seen me become in the dark and cold. That she missed the dark and cold of 2/19th at times, and she woke up from dreams of those barracks slick and warm between her thighs.

She's Aine. She doesn't feel the same way we do about darkness and blood.

She told me to go upstairs, back to Heather. To be glad that John and I had found love, when she and Nancy had not, and to go back to the woman who bore my children and made me into a man instead of a boy.

Heather is upstairs, sleeping, and in a few minutes I'll go upstairs and stare at her in the dimness. Like me, she likes a nightlight, and the soft light will let me stand there and look at the woman who's brought joy and light into my darkness, who taught me I was more than just a boy.

I'll cuddle up to Heather, and she'll snuggle close. Her eyes may or may not open, but she'll still wake up enough to let me know that she knows I'm there. Her red lips will open and she'll whisper three words to remind me that I'm safe, that all that's left of 2/19th is echoes and stillness.

"My boy. Mine."

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