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With a general murmur, the team moved off into the dark warren of steel and plastic walled buildings in search of the dining facility (or DFAC), weapons and gear in tow, shuffling slowly with fatigue. Washington, almost be-bopping as he walked despite his load of gear and the late hour, spotted Jensmore and hailed him with a wave.”Hey man, how was the drive?” His white teeth fairly gleamed under the night lighting. “You’re the commo guy from first platoon, aren’t you?”
Jensmore laughed a little. “Yeah, I am. I didn’t know I was so famous.” He recognized Washington – he was pretty hard to miss, being so tall and loud and black, but he was with another platoon and Jensmore wasn’t exactly the most social guy at FOB Rhino.
“Well bro, word kinda got around after that MacGuyver shit you pulled last month with the PMR or the PMS or the multi-monkey-fuck or whatever the hell.”
Jensmore shrugged. “You mean the PRM? The packet radio multiplexer? That was pretty easy – it’s just running a contracted version of Red Hat, and the J1 port for COMSEC fills is actually just an RS232 serial interface, so I was able to splice together a fill cable and a length of CAT5 and then run a login script I wrote…”
Washington interrupted with a burst of laughter that reverberated from the plastic buildings alongside. “See what I mean, brother? Everything they said about you is true!”
They had reached the DFAC and had fallen in line, though there were only a few dining at this late hour. Jensmore grabbed a paper plate and a plastic fork and knife. “What do you mean, ‘everything’?”
Washington stepped up to the buffet line, which consisted mostly of warmed-over hamburgers, heaping trays of stiff-cheesed lasagna, and some limp pizza. Typical crap for midnight chow, Washington thought. Leftovers from dinner. “Well, you know, they just say you’re a super-geek and you’re the smartest guy in the First Battalion.” Shoveling a pile of steaming lasagna onto his plate, Washington also opted for some green beans, then moved to the beverage cooler.
“Huh.” Jensmore didn’t really know what to say – he wasn’t sure if he should be flattered or insulted that he was known as a “super-geek” in other platoons, let alone the rest of the battalion. But the talk about the PRM got him thinking – it really was a pretty straightforward operation, when you thought about it, and he was surprised no one else had figured it out. It was too bad that the thing was designed by the lowest bidder, as all government equipment seemed to be, because it had a lot of potential. Hell, he figured, just optimizing the encryption stack – easy to do, since the code was so sloppy – would probably net ten percent faster multiplexing, or ten percent more traffic, or both…
“…never really my thing. But music, man, that’s where it’s at!” Jensmore, woolgathering as he often did, had missed the beginning of Washington’s next discussion.
Sitting down, he saw that Washington had a tremendous pile of food and drink; the paper plate had basically disappeared under the heap of lasagna and green beans, and he had a veritable tower of the cute little Middle-Eastern Coke cans (300 mL each). Jensmore’s meal looked puny by comparison.
“Music? How so?”
Washington replied between noisy mouthfuls. “Saxophone, man. Sax, trumpet, bass, I play ’em all. Especially sax, though.”
For some reason, Jensmore had to stifle a laugh; the image of the huge black man, his biceps rippling, big hands delicately clutching a shiny saxophone, was almost hilarious.
“What’s so funny?”
Jensmore smiled. “Nothing.”
Atara stirred, her neck and back aching from the stiff bunk. Her watch said 4:45; she had had about three hours of sleep, most of it spent tossing and turning and punctuated by nightmares of dead faces and rotting flesh. She hated these early-morning wake-ups; she never slept well when wake-up was such a short time away, as if her brain figured it wasn’t worth the effort to sleep so little. The fatigue, the nightmares, the soreness – it all made her feel weak and vulnerable and lonely, feelings she couldn’t admit during daylight but that often reached their peak just before dawn.
The lights in the bunkhouse were still dimmed, but others were stirring as well; she could hear the rustle of sleeping bags and backpacks, the sounds of soldiers moving in sleepy slow motion, the languor borne of both care for a neighbor’s continued sleep and predawn fatigue.
The army’s the wrong job for you if you don’t like waking up early, she wryly told herself. She smacked herself in the face a couple of times – one of her early-morning rituals she developed during officer school – and began to gather up her gear. She had slept in her boots and pants and undershirt, only bothering to take off her body armor and her uniform top.
Atara had just buttoned up her uniform and was reaching for the rest of her kit when a klaxon began to howl outside. The piercing moan echoed through the plastic-walled building, sending the soldiers in the bunkhouse to their feet in a wave. Atara’s heart skipped a beat – the klaxons were so familiar yet she was gripped with a sense of terror, the terror of the unknown.
Already, soldiers were dashing for the door, some half-dressed, all carrying their weapons. She grabbed one by the arm as he ran past. “What’s going on?,” she asked, almost yelling.
“That siren signals the stand-to. Fugees are making a push again.”
“Iranian refugees. Better get a move on, ma’am.” He turned away and made for the exit.
Atara cursed and grabbed her pack, body armor, and rifle. Heading outside, she shrugged on her body armor, then broke into a run, heading for the trucks in the parking lot. The klaxons were still wailing, and she heard a few pops of rifle fire – warning shots, most likely. By the time she reached the vehicles, the place was just as empty as it had been a few hours before, everyone having headed for the guard towers.
Sjostad was already at the open driver’s side door of the Humvee, talking into the radio. His face looked drawn and the dark circles under his eyes said that he probably hadn’t slept at all. Jensmore an Washington were there too, having taken the last guard shift on the precious serum case. They stood by silently, shifting anxiously. The others all showed up within the next few minutes and Atara took the opportunity to throw her pack into the truck and check her rifle and magazines to make sure everything was ready to go. She had a feeling that they would have to fight their way out of the checkpoint – if refugees were really storming the gates, the last thing the guards (or the checkpoint commander) would want to do is throw the gates open. They’d be going against what might be a tide of humanity out there, and all they had was the two trucks and their small arms.
There were only three land routes into Afghanistan from Iran, and they were naturally quite tightly controlled. Most of the terrain along the border was rugged enough that infiltration was a minor concern, especially for large groups of already-suffering refugees; the border regions of Afghanistan were largely unpopulated, so anyone foolish enough to cross anywhere but the checkpoints would likely die in the wilderness. Of course, the recent incursions of Iranian SF had shown that the remoteness of the border alone was not a perfect defense, but there were other factors at work there than simple lack of border security. It was highly unlikely that they had walked the border towards FOB Rhino.
With the Iranian military fully engaged in the west, facing attacks from American and allied forces in Iraq, and in the north, with coalition forces striking from northern Afghanistan, the threat of Iranian attacks in the south border region was small. The main concern came with the flood of refugees, as the cities of southeastern Iran emptied ahead of the Z-virus infection that was scything through the population.
“Son of a bitch.” Sjostad set down the handset next to the radio and rubbed his eyes. “BDOC says they won’t open the gates for us – too risky. We don’t have a choice, though – we’re going out that damn gate if we have to plow our way out.” He donned his helmet, snapping it tight under his chin. “Everybody mount up!,” he boomed, hopping into the driver’s seat. Once in, he twisted to face Jensmore, who was strapping himself in behind the CROWS2 terminal. “Don’t get itchy on that trigger boy, but when I give you the word, don’t be frugal with it either. Our whole mission is fucked if we don’t get out of this base, so I’m counting on you to do what needs to be done.” His ice-blue eyes stared for a moment, driving the point home. Jensmore swallowed hard and nodded in acknowledgement.
The Humvee’s engine coughed to life and the four passengers slammed the heavy armored doors shut. Dartagnan’s, though, refused to lock.
“Fuck! This door won’t close!” Dartagnan’s voice already had the edge of near-panic as he fiddled with the handle, trying to close the door.
“Calm down. Just slam it hard – it should close.” Sjostad’s voice was steady and even, like he was giving a routine radio transmission. Jensmore had a strange thought that he could’ve read the news for National Public Radio or something with that voice.
“OK, OK…piece of shit door…fucking lowest bidder bullshit…” Dartagnan gave the door a firm heave, almost hurling himself backwards into the vehicle. The door clanged shut, then with a deafening clatter like a thousand-pound plate dropping on a tile floor, the armored door broke the hinges and fell to the ground. “Fuck!”
“What happened?,” Sjostad asked, without turning around. The two vehicles were already rolling, pulling out of the erstwhile parking lot, heading for the front gate.
“The goddamn door fell off! Stop the truck! Stop the goddamn truck!” Dartagnan was approaching hysteria, his voice cracking. Meanwhile, Jensmore was trying to keep his focus on starting the CROWS, cycling through the startup checks, repeating them in his head like a mantra. OCU on, FOV set wide, safety on, fire rate cyclic…
Sjostad kept driving. Even with his voice low, he cut through Dartagnan’s incoherent noises. “What are we supposed to do with it? Are you going to weld it back on? Unbuckle your seat belt. Turn to face out the door. Keep your weapon ready, and sit up straight so your chest plate is straight outwards. And for Christ’s sake, keep your mouth shut and don’t get dragged out of the truck.”
Dartagnan wiped his face, nodding. “Great. Got it. This is so fucked. Four wheels and a prayer, man. That’s all we’ve got. Four wheels and a prayer! ‘Cause we don’t have no fucking door, that’s for sure.”
The radio beeped and crackled. “Balto 01, looks like you lost something, over.” It was Holland, and his barely-contained mirth was audible even over the FM radio.
Sjostad grinned, looking back at Dartagnan, who was staring straight out the door opening with laser-like focus. “Roger that, we had a minor crew protection system malfunction, but we are still fully mission capable. Charlie mike, Balto 02.”
“Rog’.” A pause. “Say, old buddy, how are we going to get out of here?”
“No idea. We’ll figure it out, like we always do. You lead, though. Your bumper’s bigger.”
“Good call. Here comes the gate. Game time. 02 out.”
Game time. Two simple words that Sjostad had heard so many times. Holland always said that just before a mission, even if it was training, and he always injected it with just a hint of southern drawl, giving it both extra emphasis and extra cowboy machismo. But Sjostad had used the phrase many times himself, in another life, long before this desert and this war. Sometimes, he wondered if Afghanistan was the only world he knew, that he had sprung forth fully formed from the blasted rocks of this forsaken country and had been given the stolen memories of another man. That other life – that of a professional hockey player in Minnesota – was so alien and yet some of its rigors were reminiscent of those of Army life. The life of constant competition, training, physical exertion, the company of like-minded men at the pinnacle of their careers – these things were familiar and he found himself as comfortable in the barracks as he was in the locker room. But still, sometimes he wondered if any of those things really happened…
There was no more time for woolgathering, though, as they approached the gate and were met with a scene of barely-controlled bedlam. The gate was one lane wide, flanked on either side by tall guard towers, which were in turn connected to the mixed wall of concrete and plowed sand that ringed the compound. The gate itself was a tube-steel frame, about eight feet tall, and backed by chain-link fencing. Octagonal silhouettes of stop signs faced the Iranian border, as if a half-mile long wall and concrete guard shacks bristling with machine guns weren’t clues enough to would-be border crossers.
On the inside of the compound, soldiers were milling about, some seemingly confused about what to do. These were probably replacements, new arrivals to the theater, sent here for acclimation before being sent to the front, who were expecting a quiet time at a remote border crossing. A pair of Bradley Fighting Vehicles were staged about a hundred meters back from the gate, chainguns trained on the gate, with their vehicle commanders’ heads poking up out of the hatches. Up in the guard towers, soldiers were firing warning shots sporadically, trying to dissuade the building crowd outside.
Beyond the gate, a huge crowd was gathering, though they were still a hundred or more meters beyond the gate, a shambling mass of humanity, shuffling along and kicking up a dust cloud as they moved. The wind shifted and brought some of the dust and a fetid odor into the compound, a foul stench of not just unwashed bodies but also of rotting meat. The smell was familiar to all the soldiers; it was a telltale sign of the advanced stages of Z-virus infection, where the virus’ terrible necrosis reached the outer layers of the skin and the victim’s flesh would begin to rot.