FOUR WHEELS AND A PRAYER

1.

The Milky Way stretched in a starry band overhead, cutting the blue night from horizon to horizon. Two soldiers sat, leaning back, one in a cheap camp chair and the other in a folding vinyl lawn chair, the kind you might’ve seen in somebody’s backyard in the 1980’s with a bored tanning housewife stretched out on it. Of course, this wasn’t anybody’s backyard – Afghanistan pretty much didn’t have a ‘yard’ in it – and it certainly wasn’t the 1980’s. The origins of the chair were mysterious, but it was welcome all the same.

The soldier in the vinyl chair pulled a pack of cigarettes from his breast pocket, grabbed a Zippo from his hip pocket, and proceeded to light up a cigarette. The lighter flared briefly, a stark orange contrast in the night-world of blue; then a steady orange glow as he took a long drag.

“Holland, you shouldn’t smoke on the perimeter, you know,” said the other, without looking, absently stroking the rifle in his lap.

“Who gives a shit?,” Holland replied, savoring the smoke. “You know haji ain’t got no night vision. Besides, even if he did, he can’t hit shit from over there.” Gesturing with his cigarette, he asked, “Sjostad, how far is the perimeter line from here?”

“Three hundred thirty-eight meters.”

“Right. So who’s gonna hit a damn thing in the middle of the night with an AK-47 when they can’t hit us fifty meters away in broad daylight?”

“That’s not the point,” Sjostad replied, picking up his rifle and resting in on the low wall of the roof. “You saw the report last week. It’s not just Joe Haji out there anymore. It’s -”

Holland waved his hand. “Right, right. Iranian special forces. Big fuckin’ deal. Look, if those guys are so damn good, why don’t they – ”

His sentence was cut short by the wicked zing of a passing bullet – close, but not too close. Holland dropped his cigarette and burst into hysterical laughter. “Ha ha! Those motherfuckers! Did you see that shit?” Sjostad just grinned and shaking his head before leaning back into his rifle.

“Two dismounts, about eleven o’clock, prone in the ditch just off the road. Distance…four forty-five.”

Holland had rolled off his lawn chair and was next to Sjostad, his binoculars in hand. “You got it. Holy shit, does that guy have a friggin’ starlight scope on his rifle?”

“You mean like Vietnam War – style starlight scope?” He replied between breaths, his breathing slowing and becoming more steady, preparing to make a shot.

“Yeah, I think so. The objective lens is bigger than his fucking head! OK, I’m gonna hit him with the laser. Won’t know what hit him…take the shot after I blind him.”

With that, Sjostad centered the distant enemy in his reticle, just a little green figure in his own (much more advanced) night vision scope, and slowed his breathing even more. In, out, pause…in, out, pause…a steady rhythm, focusing his thoughts until nothing existed except the faintly glowing reticle centered on the green form of the Iranian soldier.

“Ready…laser on.” Holland’s voice was low and smooth as he pressed the “lase” button on his binoculars. The soldier in Sjostad’s scope jumped back like something just bit him on the face – his eye wouldn’t have been damaged by the laser but it would’ve been like shining a 60-lumen flashlight right in your eye on a dark night, enough to startle anyone – and Sjostad pressed the trigger. The rifle spoke a muffled “whup” and the scope-carrying soldier crumpled in a heap.

Sjostad shifted left slightly to center on the other soldier – his spotter, no doubt – and he was, somewhat surprisingly, stock-still. It was a sign of good training; the Iranian knew that he was basically screwed regardless of his actions, and that needless flailing around would only draw attention to his position. He knew that he was facing an enemy with a superior position and superior observation, so all he could hope was that he hadn’t yet been spotted.

But, of course, he had – and Sjostad understood his predicament even as he squeezed the trigger a second time, dropping the spotter where he lay.

“Nice shooting, Karl,” Holland said, confirming the kills and panning the scene for any other infiltrators. “Looks clear for now. I’ll call it in.”

XXX

An hour later, Holland and Sjostad were in their room, in pants and t-shirts, cleaning their rifles. The bare fluorescent tubes overhead were harsh and alien, and Karl wished (as he often did) that he could take them out and somehow cut a skylight in the ceiling and let in the sun and moon and stars. The fluorescents made him cranky – maybe it was the 60-Hz flicker that bothered him, something that he swore he could see but few others even noticed.

Their room was a decent size for two men, maybe twenty by ten feet, but it still felt cramped because of the piles of gear that lay in each corner. Any attempt to keep the room in a state of order had long since gone out the window; and anyway, the room – and the whole FOB (Forward Operating Base) – was sort of a dump anyway, having been abandoned since the early 2000’s before Task Force Pontiac had moved in. The walls were bare cracked concrete, sloppily painted an off-white color, and the floor was a muddled dirty carpet that was probably quite moldy. Even so, any mold smell was masked by the ever-present burnt aroma of the desert – the weird sandy smell permeated everything and mixed with everything, making some smells more pleasant and many less so. Their body armor smelled like sand (sweaty sand, really); their clothes, dirty sand; their TV smelled like plasticky sand; their boots, sand with leather on it; and even their rifles smelled like sand mixed with weapon lube.

“Hey Karl, throw me your cleaning rod, will you?,” Holland called from across the room.

“Where’s yours?” Karl felt a sudden bristle of irritation at the request. All this crap we’ve got in here, and he doesn’t have a rod? Can’t he keep track of any of his shit?

“Jones borrowed it last week and hasn’t given it back, the ass.”

Karl sighed. “Here.” He walked the rod over and handed it to him. As he did so, there was a knock on the door.

“What?,” they both yelled, in unison. The door swung open and like a scene from some sitcom, a man stuck his head in with a goofy look on his face.

“What’s up, guys?”

Holland laughed. “Speak of the devil…where’s my cleaning rod, fucker?”

“Fuck you. Come and get it if you want it so bad. Anyway, I’m not here to chat. Top wants to see you and the Swede in the TOC, pronto.” His face darkened suddenly, turning serious. “I don’t know what it’s about, but it must be for real. Top told me to ‘please go get Alpha team’ instead of ‘get those stupid assholes over here.’ Don’t know what that means.” With that, he left the room, leaving the door hanging open.

Karl and Holland looked at each other, shrugged in unison, and got up, leaving their rifles on their cots, grabbing their uniform tops as they left.

The TOC – tactical operations center – was in the main room of the FOB’s largest building, what used to be some kind of living room or dining hall or something. Now, it was a darkened warren of map boards, cluttered desks, beeping radios, and high-resolution displays. Above the double-wide entrance doorway was a handmade sign proclaiming the place as “TF Pontiac Headquarters,” which made Karl smile slightly. A couple of the soldiers at the FOB (FOB Rhino, as it was known during the first – or second, if you count the Soviet invasion in the 1980’s – Afghan war) liked to joke that they should be called “Task Force Edsel” instead, since it seemed like everything they did was ad hoc, poorly thought out, or just generally broken. Even their force structure was a jumble – cobbled together from one 5th Special Forces Group A-team, about a platoon’s worth of extra soldiers from various 10th Mountain Division units, and even a handful of exchange soldiers from foreign militaries. These exchange soldiers included one interesting new arrival: a beautiful lieutenant from the Israeli Defense Forces, whose arrival had caused a minor uproar among the FOB’s soldiers, since there were no other women on the base – let alone any attractive ones.

Karl and Holland found the first sergeant standing over a digital map board, his chin in hand. His uniform was filthy and he reeked of cigars – he somehow had the unusual ability to chain smoke cigars, which Karl found disgusting – and his gray hair was a mess. The TOC was in a state of calm, typical for the pre-dawn hour; it seemed like haji didn’t like to come out just before sunup, preferring instead to attack at midnight or dawn.

Holland spoke first. “Hey Top,” using the traditional nickname for a first sergeant, “you called?”

At first, he didn’t respond, staring intently at the map board. The low lights in the TOC and the bright light coming up from the map board gave the first sergeant a kind of carnival-horror look, picking out his pockmarked skin and scraggly mustache and rimming his eye sockets with pale circles. Then: “Sergeant Sjostad, Sergeant Holland, we’ve got a situation and I don’t like it.” He stepped away from the map table, facing them. “You know that we’ve penetrated as far into Iran as Bandar Torkeman on the Caspian Sea, right?” They nodded. “Well, the Iranians – with a little help, of course – just dropped an N-virus warhead on our forward positions there.”

Karl’s brow furrowed at the statement, but Holland was nonchalant. “Big deal, right? Our guys are all vaccinated.”

Top shook his head. “Not these guys. Supplies were short during the last shot series and these guys got missed.”

“How many are we talking about here?” Karl’s voice was low, almost a whisper.

A sigh. “Two battalions. Figure fifty percent are susceptible, so…about eight hundred men.”

“Fuck.”

“You got that right. Jiffy says that if we don’t get the vaccine to them in five days, ninety percent of those guys are dead, and the rest will be incap.” He used the nickname for the Joint Iranian Expeditionary Force – East headquarters, abbreviated JIEF-E but usually just called ‘Jiffy.’

Karl stared at the glowing map board, thinking hard. This wouldn’t normally be a problem – the vaccine was readily available in the rear bases in Afghanistan, and airlift assets should be available to fly it to the front. But Top was obviously worried – so something was wrong. Something was missing.

“So fly a C-130 up there and drop some shit off. Too easy.” Holland was either in denial or was being willfully dense.

“Dumbass! You think somebody didn’t think of that already?” Top’s voice boomed, shattering the calm in the TOC. The radio operator in the corner nearly jumped out of his seat, having been almost asleep in his chair. “We’d love to just fly a C-130 in there but the Iranians – again with help from our favorite Russians – have the airspace pretty well locked down with SAMs from Tehran as well as some of the new laser platforms floating in the Caspian. Not to mention all the MANPADS they’ve got down there…So, goddamn it, an air insertion is on the table but it’s a last resort.”

“Convoy.” Karl was still intent on the map display as he spoke the word. “But from where? The road from Herat has been cut.”

“Guess who has available manpower and a stock of the vaccine AND is on a viable route into country? Us, you assholes.” Top walked over and slumped into a folding metal chair. It creaked angrily under his bulk but didn’t break.

“What are you saying, Top?” Holland was sounding almost hysterical. “Can’t we just blow the piss out of those lasers and get our birds in there?”

Karl interjected before Top could say a word. “The Caspian Sea is neutral territory. Our rules of engagement prevent us from even flying over it, let alone engaging anything on it.”

“Man, fuck the ROE! Who thought that up? Hell…”

Top coughed. “Anyway, that’s above our pay grade. Point is, we’re going to have to send a mission.” He looked up, suddenly looking very old and very tired. “I need you two to lead this thing. The order specifies only N-free soldiers and you’re the only SF guys here who haven’t had the treatment. The rest I’ll be sending are a hodgepodge, whatever guys I can spare.” He grinned a dirty old man grin. “Including that new IDF lieutenant.”

“At least there’s some good news.” Holland’s expression didn’t seem to brighten any, though.

“That’s all I’ve got for you now. Get some rest – we’ll be briefing at 0800 and you’ll be leaving as soon as you can get the trucks loaded and rolling.” Karl glanced at his watch. Three and a half hours. Just enough time to get his gear together and maybe hit breakfast. No time for sleep – but he was pretty used to that by now.

XXX

2.

She was beautiful, all right – long auburn hair, with just enough of a wave to look natural and yet consciously styled at the same time; slim and a little bit tall, with just enough curves to give a hint of femininity under her digital-patterned uniform. Her eyes were shadowed under the brim of her patrol cap, but if you could see them they’d be chocolate brown, round and glistening – but with a hard stare that belied her pretty-girl looks.

Atara Erez had arrived at FOB Rhino two weeks ago, as part of an Israeli-American officer exchange program. With the IDF fighting side-by-side with Americans on the western front in Syria, the exchange was meant to deepen the already-strong organizational ties between the two longtime allies. She held the equivalent rank of first lieutenant in the US Army, which mostly meant that she tried to stay out of the way and learn before she jumped in and started offering suggestions.

After the first week, she had started to get used to the continual staring and unsubtle leering; for all their eyeballing, though, the soldiers at the FOB were well-mannered enough, and she admired especially the attitudes of the special forces soldiers, who did their best to treat her as just another lieutenant in their conversation, even while their eyes failed miserably.

She had awakened early as was her custom for a jog around the tiny compound, stretching her legs in the crisp spring dawn, enjoying the inrush of dry air that reminded her of her home in the Negev Desert of Israel. She was interrupted during her run, though, by one of the junior soldiers of the post, who awkwardly flagged her down.

“Excuse me, ma’am, but the first sergeant needs to see you as soon as possible. Sorry to interrupt you.”

She obeyed, heading straight for the TOC, still showing a sheen of sweat on her lithe body. There, the first sergeant told her about the situation and the plan to save the battalions on the Caspian Sea.

The plan! She grimaced under her patrol cap as she thought of it. If you could call it a plan – eight people piled into two clunky old vehicles, driving over eight hundred miles through hostile territory to deliver the N-virus counter serum. The most powerful military force in the history of the earth, and this is what they could come up with! Of course, it was gutsy, and there were plenty of seemingly impossible (and equally harebrained) military events in Israel’s history, so she could empathize with the American’s desperate bravado…

She squinted into the rising sun, waiting in the FOB’s tiny parking lot that served as its motor pool, waiting for the others to arrive. Her gear was in a neat pile at her feet, her rifle slung across her chest. In front of her sat the two vehicles assigned for the team’s use – one of them an old uparmored Humvee (from HMMWV, High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle), and the other, one of the slightly newer (but still venerable) M1117 Armored Security Vehicles (ASV). Both looked questionable to Atara, but she didn’t have any choice in the matter – if her orders were to ride those trucks, ride them she would.

Sergeant Sjostad and his partner Holland were the first to arrive, their rucksacks and weapons in hand. The dark circles under their eyes betrayed their lack of sleep but they looked alert, if not entirely enthusiastic. Atara found Sjostad (she had trouble with the name, which she found wasn’t uncommon even with the American soldiers) attractive and slightly exotic – she didn’t know many blonde men, and his carefully maintained flattop haircut seemed like a masculine touch from another, earlier time. His eyes, too, were interesting – piercing indigo and he swung them around with the slow, methodical movement of twin searchlights. She normally didn’t like shorter men, but nobody was perfect.

Holland, on the other hand, she immediately disliked – he seemed like the stereotypical American “cowboy,” with crude language and a craggy, weathered face, always ready with a colorful swear word or a thick spit of chewing tobacco. She was certainly no stranger to harsh language – foul mouths were standard issue with the military since time immemorial – but Holland’s seemed uninspired and vulgar, somehow.

They greeted her and dropped their gear next to hers. “Ready to roll, LT?,” Holland asked, grinning. Atara could see the bulge of a big chaw in his lower lip and she scowled. Holland just shrugged. “Guess so.”

Karl gestured to the vehicles, his face stone-serious, intoning like a surveying general. “Which one do you want, Bob? The go-cart, or the tin can?” His deadpan delivery was perfect and Holland erupted into laughter; Atara even cracked a smile.

“Tin can all the way, baby. I like to sit a little higher off the ground.”

“That’s what I figured.” Karl picked his gear back up. “Let’s get loaded up. The others should be here soon. Ma’am, I’d recommend you ride with Sergeant Holland here. That 1117 is a little safer truck than this little Humvee.”

Atara reached down and grabbed her pack. “I want to ride up front.”  She strode off towards the Humvee, leaving the two men looking at each other, smiling.

Within an hour they were ready to go, with four soldiers loaded into each vehicle. Sjostad and Atara were in the Humvee, along with a cranky medic named Dartagnan and a quiet, sullen specialist named Jensmore, who sat in the right rear seat at the CROWS-2 (Common Remotely Operated Weapon Station, version 2) station. The interior of the vehicle was cramped and, unsurprisingly, was covered in a thin layer of sand. The tan painted cabin seemed a little claustrophobic to Atara, and the engine sounded positively bronchitic – the truck was probably twenty years old and who knows where it’d been during that time.

In the trunk of the Humvee was a hardened green plastic case, three feet by three feet and about twelve inches thick, that contained the precious N-virus counterserum – enough doses to stem the tide of the infection and to ensure the survival of the American soldiers at the front. Such a small thing, and yet so vital…so many lives were in their hands. It was better not to think about it.

But think about it she did – because there wasn’t anything else to do for the first part of their journey. Despite the Iranian incursion the previous night, there wasn’t expected to be any resistance until after they crossed the border. A pair of Apache Longbow helicopters from Kandahar would accompany them as far as the border crossing near Zabol to make sure they at least made it that far – but after that, they were on their own. Their dark angular forms, weaving back and forth across their path, were a comfort to Atara but they also made her lonely – a reminder that their companionship was only temporary and fleeting.

Kandahar…Atara had stayed there, briefly, before her assignment to FOB Rhino and TF Pontiac; the city had come a long way since the Second Afghan War, and now looked like many other booming Third World metropolises, with cars and smoke and people everywhere. The city was beautifully positioned, at the tail end of the Hindu Kush, the majestic range swimming in the haze just beyond the city and the Arghanadab valley stretching away to the south. Spring was just arriving when she came to the city, with the mornings still cold and the afternoons pleasantly warm and plants beginning to grow and bloom down in the valley. But there was tension there, too – just a month before, the city of Herat in the north had been struck by one of the new Iranian SRBMs (short-ranged ballistic missile) with a bioweapon payload (a variant of the Z-virus, it was assumed). Luckily, the weapon was relatively ineffective, but it showed a frightening new capability and aggressiveness on the part of Iran. Kandahar, too, was well within range of the new missiles, and the people there knew it.

Sadly, it was a feeling all too familiar to Atara – it reminded her of Tel Aviv, the fragile normality shattered so often by the piercing wail of the air raid sirens. The constant tension, the sliver of attention always directed skyward, the sick empty feeling in the pit of her stomach when the sirens howled…That tension, among other reasons, drove her parents to move the family to the Negev when she was a girl. They said they did it for all the girls – three of them in all – but it was too late for Atara, who was already thirteen when they moved. The nightmares, waking up in a cold sweat, the razor-thin temper – those things had already set and had never left her since.

The rugged, snow-capped peaks of the Hindu Kush were now distant to the north and to the east lay Kandahar, nestled in the green valley, miles away from this rocky, sandy, flat waste that basically no one called home.

The smooth voice of one of the Apache pilots broke Atara’s thoughts. “This is Remington Zero-One Alpha, checking in on channel six. What’s your callsign down there, over?”

Sjostad replied since he was already wearing the radio headset. “Remington 01A, we’re Balto Zero-Niner down here, over.”

“Roger that, Balto 09 it is. How’s the ride down there?”

Without hesitation, he replied, “Shitty as always, Remmy 01.” And he was right – the Humvee’s suspension was probably clapped out, since it was transmitting every dip and pebble directly to the passengers. Atara was starting to wish she’d brought a mouthguard to keep her teeth from slamming together on the rougher patches.

“We’ll try to make sure the ride doesn’t get any worse, then. Remmy 01A out.”

3.

Back in the 1117, the ride was slightly smoother – that vehicle was designed to bear the weight of armor, unlike the rickety Humvee up ahead – but Holland was regretting his decision to drive the vehicle nonetheless. The driver’s seat was hard and had been jammed at a weird upright angle, forcing him to sit almost hunched forward. The windshield was tiny and its surface was liberally sprinkled with scratches (probably left facing into the wind during a sandstorm), making Holland feel like he was in some kind of mini-submarine, plowing across the sandy bottom of some imaginary ocean.

The 1117 – or more properly, M1117 Armored Security Vehicle (ASV) – sat higher off the ground than the Humvee and looked more like a real armored vehicle, with a sloped underside, angular sides, and narrow slits for viewing. A sleek turret sat on top, with a 40mm automatic grenade launcher and a hole where a .50 caliber machinegun used to be (having long since been cannibalized for some other vehicle). The whole vehicle was a sand-brown color where rust wasn’t showing through.

Holland glanced over at the soldier in the passenger seat, a tall black guy named Washington that seemed ridiculously large for the cramped seat, with his knees almost to his chin and his broad shoulders dwarfing the narrow steel seat. He was a mortarman from the 10th Mountain Division’s X-YYth infantry – though of course he left his mortar back at FOB Rhino, replacing it with an FN SCAR-L rifle. The man seemed stereotypically loud – having arrived last at the motor pool, he swaggered in, announcing that the “party could start up in he-ah” with a flash of his white-toothed grin. Holland found him amusing enough, but he hoped that he didn’t prove too annoying.

As if to test his hope, Washington spoke. “Where you from, big sarge?” His voice was loud, even in the roaring cabin of the vehicle.

“Virginia.”

“Oh yeah? Where at in Virginia?”

“Around Langley. You?”

“Baltimore, man.” Washington fell silent, looking away.

Holland sighed. “Sorry, man.” Baltimore, where the first Z-virus case hit the United States – now, mostly a smoking ruin.

“Nah, ain’t nothin’ you can do about it now.”

The ASV rolled on, and the men stayed silent, staring ahead at the tan Humvee bouncing along the sandy road and leaving a rooster tail of brown dust. The mountains rolled away to the east yielding to the sandy flats that stretched as far as they could see.

4.

“Sonofabitch.”

Karl was crouched next to the Humvee, which had heeled into a rocky ditch alongside the road, its left front tire reduced to shredded strips of black rubber. Atara was kneeling on the other side of the truck, scanning the far side of the road for threats. The wind was howling over the flats, whirling in little vortices, rattling the tin roof of a lone shack squatting just off the road, looking strangely out of place in an otherwise abandoned world. Karl wondered what it had been – a roadside hot dog stand, perhaps? Then again, he thought, probably not.

“This tire’s shot and our spare is flat. What the hell are we gonna do now?” The voice was the medic’s – Dartagnan was his name and Karl couldn’t help but think of the Three Musketeers which then led to imagining the whiny medic wearing a giant hat decorated with a white feather. Dartagnan was perched on the rear passenger seat, legs dangling out of the grounded Humvee, Kevlar helmet cockeyed on his head.

Karl looked up. “Let’s get this truck jacked up and put the spare on. It’s got a run-flat on there so it’ll get us to the border, at least. We’ll just have to drive slow.” Dartagnan rolled his eyes and hopped down, mumbling some kind of complaint. He tossed the portable jack casually under the truck and started working on it, while Karl stood up, looking around.

Holland and the ASV was stopped behind them, about a hundred meters back; three of the four passengers from that vehicle were dismounted, looking for threats. Not much chance of getting sneaked up on around here, anyway, he thought.

“Where’s Jensmore?,” he asked, spinning around.

“Went to take a piss.” Dartagnan was making good progress on the jack – he seemed pretty handy, despite his bad attitude.

“Yeah, I know. That was ten minutes ago.” Karl grabbed his rifle from the driver’s seat and started off toward the lonely roadside shack. “I’m going to check this shack. Hey LT! Give Dartagnan a hand with the tire – I’ll be right back.”

Christ, he thought, just what I needed. Some troop wandering off in the middle of a mission. Am I here to babysit or what? It’s going to be a slow enough drive to the border with a flat tire – maybe three more hours. The sun was already turning from the piercing white point of day to the melty orange blob of dusk on the horizon – night wouldn’t be far behind.

Karl approached the shack carefully, his rifle low but still ready. The shack was clattering in the wind, its rusted steel roof flapping against the crumbling red stone walls. It was small – maybe ten feet by twelve feet – and a pile of garbage was nestled up against one wall, a cluster of rusty tools, a rotten mattress, discarded clothes, and other detritus of civilization. Some Arabic writing was sloppily spraypainted on one of the walls, but Karl couldn’t make it out (his written Arabic was terrible).

“Jensmore!” He called out, stepping towards the door. The wind shifted and it was like icy fingers crawling up the back of his neck, a feeling of wicked foreboding. He tightened his grip on his rifle, flicking the safety off.

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.”

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.”

6.

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.”

“Foo-jees?”

“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 and 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 acknowledgment.

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.

The two vehicles stopped at the gate and a fully-covered MP approached Holland’s 1117, waving him down. One could barely tell if he was human or some sort of futuristic battle cyborg, since he was covered from head to toe in digital-pattern uniform, gloves, and body armor, with dark ballistic goggles covering his eyes and a slitted plastic shield covering his face.

“Gate’s closed,” he shouted, barely audible now over the growing din of warning shots, growling diesel engines, and the seething mass of humanity outside. “No traffic ’til this shit dies down!”

Holland put on his best friendly smile and barked back. “Bullshit. We’re leaving out this gate, sarge, so you better get your ass in gear and get us up out there, before those fugees get here.”

The MP shook his head. “No can do. BDOC’s orders. You’ll have to wait.”

Holland’s face, normally a calm, lined map of a life spent outdoors, now exploded into a contorted mask of rage. “Listen here, you shitheel cop wannabe! You’re going to open this goddamned gate right now, or I’m going to drive this fucking crate right through it! Which do you want?” He gunned the engine, punctuating his point.

Of course, the MP seemed as impassive as ever, hidden as he was behind layers of Kevlar and Nomex and plastic and nylon. His voice, though, betrayed his incredulity. “You…you can’t do that! The colonel said…”

Holland’s curse was lost in the rattling roar of the ASV’s engine as he slammed it into gear and put the pedal to the floor. A jet of black smoke spewed from the exhaust as the boxy armored vehicle streaked forward, looking for all the world like a post-apocalyptic drag racer that would only be stopped by a billowing drag chute (or self-immolation). With an ear-splitting crash, the ASV hit the gate, almost lifting the rear tires off the ground as it did so as the gate shivered but refused to give way. Holland was cackling like a madman now, and he craned his neck out the tiny window as he threw the gun-truck-cum-dragster into reverse. The impact had loosened some of the chain-link fencing and it was hanging loose, reminiscent of the rotting strips of flesh dangling from the Z-virus victims slowly approaching outside. The steel frame of the gate, too, had been damaged, bent slightly from the M1117’s angled prow.

The MP was yelling incoherently, windmilling his arms in a vain attempt to get the crazed idiot behind the wheel to stop ramming the gate from the inside. The warning shots had stopped as everyone at the gate seemed to have turned their attention to the smoke-spewing tan beast trying to escape the compound.

“Stop! Stop!,” the MP screamed, still waving his arms. “We’ll open the gate! Just enough to let you out! Christ…”

Holland grinned, seeming to instantly regain his sanity. “That’s good. That’s real good.” Moving more slowly now, he nudged the ASV right up to the gate, with Sjostad’s Humvee right behind. With a gesture from the MP, the gate began to creak open, while the guards in the towers resumed their warning shots, obviously unsure of what was happening but sensing that they needed to do something to try to hold the crowd away from the entrance.

As soon as the ASV could squeeze through, Holland gunned the engine and Sjostad did the same, following almost bumper to bumper. Straight ahead loomed the shambling crowd, unfazed by the pair of tan behemoths arrowing out of the gate. Keying the radio, Holland yelled through gritted teeth. “Karl, we’re gonna fucking hit ’em!”

“I know, Mike – no choice. Keep that thing straight and don’t stop.” Sjostad knew the lead vehicle’s Mark 19 was no good against the crowd; they were too close for the 40mm grenades to arm, so all they could do was plow through and hope the refugees got out of the way.

Meanwhile, Dartagnan started screaming in back. “This is bullshit! We can’t hit those people! I don’t have a door! What if they get on me? I –” Atara silenced him with a stabbing glance from her brown eyes. “Shut your mouth and face outwards, specialist,” she barked.

He turned none too soon, as the first body flashed past, sent flying by the ASV’s bumper. Up front, Holland’s foot was heavy on the accelerator, as some of the ragged crowd tried to dive out of the way, but some – the oldest, youngest, and sickest, all least able to move and most affected by the horrific virus – could do nothing but cower as the armored car plowed into them with a series of sickening thuds. In the passenger seat, Washington clutched his rifle and muttered obscenities, bouncing slightly after each impact, his eyes wide and dark face slick with sweat.

“Mike, are we almost through?” Sjostad was keeping his humvee a mere couple of feet from the rear of the ASV, to make sure nothing separated their vehicles, which meant he could see almost nothing, and was entirely trusting his teammate’s driving skill to avoid any crippling obstacles.

“Almost there – a hundred meters – ”

His sentence was cut off by an ear-splitting explosion as a plume of dirt geysered up from the right shoulder of the road. Every pair of eyes in both trucks scanned the roadside, but Washington saw it first, calling it out over the vehicle net. “RPG! Four o’clock! Behind that berm over there!”

Sjostad spoke in clipped tones, without turning. “Jensmore. Gun!”

Jensmore had already trained the gun to the right and saw a group of armed men, clustered behind a berm. He twisted the joystick until the crosshairs were centered on one of them and pulled the trigger. The .50-caliber machine gun on the roof began its staccato roar, the cacophony interspersed with the almost-delicate clatter of shells and links pouring off the humvee’s trunk lid. Tracers streaked across the desert, just over the heads of the last refugees, and found their mark among the men there, kicking up clouds of sand and sparks from the incendiary rounds. The burst only lasted a couple of seconds but to Jensmore it was an eternity, his heartbeat and breathing slowed, eyes locked to the glowing screen, willing each screaming bullet to hit its mark, to hit those men who had dared – dared! – to shoot at him and his team.

Holland’s voice on the vehicle net broke his trance. “We’re clear.” Sjostad backed off the larger vehicle, opening to a more regular interval of about fifty meters. He chanced a look back at Jensmore, who had started shaking. “You OK back there? Nice shooting. Safe that weapon so you don’t touch it off accidentally. We might need the ammo later.” Jensmore complied and leaned back, sighing.

Sjostad continued. “Alright, everyone stay alert. We’re not in Indian country yet, but we’ve got a few hours of driving ahead of us. Dartagnan, put your seat belt back on. I don’t want you falling out next time I hit a bump.”