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With a big stride he crossed the threshold and almost shot Jensmore in the face at contact distance. The young man was crouched in the corner of the shack and he looked up when Sjostad walked in, a sad look on his face. He didn’t seem fazed by the rifle barrel that nearly poked his eye out.

“Look at this, sergeant,” he said, gesturing to a pitiful-looking dog, brown as the blowing sand, its ribs showing clearly and its eyes hazed and rheumy. The creature barely seemed aware of its surroundings; it certainly didn’t acknowledge Karl’s presence, preferring instead to look around plaintively. “This little guy must’ve been their dog.”

Karl followed Jensmore’s glance and saw the pair of bodies in the corner of the shack. Their flesh was mostly gone, though some still clung like old jerky to their two faces; so no telling what they looked like, but it was clearly a woman and child, since one body was larger and still bore tattered rags of the traditional black chadri. “Christ.” The sight was disturbing, but Karl had seen worse in this war. “Jensmore, let’s get out of here. No time for fucking around.”

“But sergeant, we can just leave him here,” he protested, standing up, his helmet in hand. Karl noticed he didn’t even have his rifle, and cursed under his breath.

“The hell we can’t. We’re burning daylight here. Let’s go.”

“But this dog, he deserves better -”

“God damn it, Jensmore!” Karl’s anger flared, his blue eyes narrowing, stabbing a gaze into Jensmore. Of all the things to be worried about here, a fucking dog! All the women and children, dead from the Z-virus and the shelling and the famine; all of the fellow soldiers, fallen in battle; all of the men who are dying right now. Instead, let’s worry about a damn dog! “Get back to the truck,” Karl seethed, through gritted teeth.

“But – ”

“I will take care of the dog.”

Reluctantly, Jensmore left the shack, looking over his shoulder once as he did so, his black hair fluttering in the wind. Karl watched him leave, then looked down at the dog. Jensmore was right – he couldn’t in good conscience just leave the dog to die out here. It had led a miserable enough existence already. Kneeling, Karl patted the creature on the head, but it didn’t seem to notice much. He reached into his cargo pocket and pulled out a fig bar from an MRE, ripped the packet open, and dropped it on the ground. “There you go, boy,” he said, standing. The dog sniffed at it suspiciously, then began to devour it hungrily in a noisy mashing of its parched jaws. As the dog ate, Karl stepped back to the doorway, leveled his rifle at the dog’s head, and pulled the trigger.

The shot was deafening in the little steel-roofed shack. Karl walked slowly back to the Humvee, his ears ringing and his stomach cold and knotted.

5.

Jensmore yawned, looking at his watch, glowing dim green in the noisy dark of the Humvee’s cabin. It read 23:45, a little more than five hours after the forced stop to change the tire. They had barely made twenty miles per hour, since the replacement tire flapped and creaked, supported only by the stiff run-flat ring on the inside. The slow pace also lost them their helicopter escort – not long after the stop, the pair of Apaches had to fly ahead to the border checkpoint, since they were running low on fuel. They didn’t radio back any signs of trouble, but it still made Jensmore uneasy without the comforting roar of the rotors overhead.

Now his ass and knees hurt from being curled up in the back seat of the Humvee, and his ears roared after the constant assault of the truck’s diesel rattle. His eyes were dry and yet watery at the same time, abused in succession by the sandy wind that migrated through the rotten door seals and the overbright false-color display of the CROWS terminal in front of him.

The CROWS – yet another acronym, this one standing for Common Remotely Operated Weapon System – was, in Jensmore’s opinion, one of the Army’s better inventions. It was an obvious idea, really: instead of having a gunner standing up in the turret of a Humvee, vulnerable both to enemy fire and to fatigue, CROWS put a camera and a remote control on the vehicle’s heavy weapon, allowing an operator to aim and fire it with a screen and a joystick. The camera had both infrared and night-vision capabilities, and so was useful almost all of the time. Jensmore liked it much better than the crude method of squatting behind a tripod-mounted machinegun and firing it with iron sights – he was terrible when it came time for weapons qualification, except for the electronically sighted weapons, at which he excelled. Everyone attributed this to his status as the “computer guy,” and it bolstered his reputation at least a little, which was important considering he was the lone signal soldier among a platoon of infantrymen.

Sjostad’s voice boomed from the driver’s seat. “We’re almost to Checkpoint Delta. Everybody check your weapons and make sure they’re on safe. We’re going to get waved through the gate without clearing – no way in hell we’re walking around with empty weapons on this trip.” Jensmore glanced down at his M4 and felt the safety at the familiar old position: safe. Three years of war, and yet he’d never yet even taken his rifle off safe – except when pointed into a clearing barrel.

The two vehicles approached Checkpoint Delta, an island of blazing white-blue artificial light in the desert darkness. Massive six-packs of metal halide lamps stared down at the entrance road, while other lights bathed the other buildings and vast parking lots – now empty – designed to buffer the flow of traffic before making the final five mile trip to the actual Iranian border crossing. Concrete T-barriers ringed the checkpoint, and every few hundred meters a squat guard tower poked over the walls, their viewing slits dark but undoubtedly containing soldiers staring out with night-vision eyes.

The entrance road continued through the checkpoint perimeter, but did so in sinuous fashion, broken up by jutting concrete barriers, forcing traffic to slowly weave along the hard-packed road, all the while under the watchful eyes of soldiers. At a few points along the way, side roads broke away (controlled by gates, of course), leading to several parking lots, some for civilian vehicles, others for military ones, and a couple of smaller ones enclosed by steep sand berms, designed as holding areas for suspected explosives. The Humvee and the ASV, alone on the checkpoint road at this late hour, pulled into one of the lots and parked, away from the other military vehicles.

Sjostad cut the Humvee’s engine and it quit with a death rattle. The sudden silence struck Jensmore as merciful and he sighed, savoring the brief moment of quiet. The moment was ruined, though, by the clatter of equipment and the steely creak of the truck’s doors as the other three piled out, grabbing their weapons and helmets and assault packs and radios and bandoliers of ammo and logbooks and aid bags and…Jensmore shook his head and got out of the truck himself, towing his own overstuffed assault pack behind him, his knees crackling as he stepped out (I’m too young for that!, he lamented) and his thighs and buttocks protesting after long confinement.

The packed-gravel parking lot was bathed in cold light and had the familiar motor pool smell of diesel fuel, diesel exhaust, rubber, and canvas. Dartagnan popped the trunk of the Humvee and delicately lifted the green case containing the N-virus counterserum from within, handling it like a crate of nitroglycerin eggs. Sjostad motioned for everyone to gather around; the eight soldiers clustered around the rear of the dusty tan truck, all stretching sore arms and legs and rubbing their tired eyes and clattering with various gear and weapons. The harsh lighting gave everyone, even the dark-skinned Washington, a pallid hue.

“OK,” Sjostad began, scratching at his blonde hair. “Holland, go find us someplace to rack out. I’m going to find some mechanics who can get us a good tire. We’ll take shifts standing watch on the serum case – no need to do any kind of crazy honor guard shit on it, but I want somebody awake and in control of it at all times.”

Atara spoke up. “I’ll take the first watch, sergeant.” Even after sitting in the Humvee for hours and under the glaring lights, she still looked good, like a rare flower that always turned to follow the sun.

“Good deal. You and Dartagnan stay here with the case until Holland finds us some bunks. The rest of you, take your gear and go get some dinner. The DFAC should be open for midnight chow about now.”